Word Count: 2271
“People tend to underestimate you, Joe. That’s why you frequently end up beating them in fights.”
Adam had said that to him once. It had sounded a little like a compliment at the time, and Joe had eagerly accepted it as one. Adam wasn’t one for overt praise, after all. The best you could hope for from older brother were sideways little comments like that one, and never to question them. Joe had learned that lesson well over the years. Had he pressed Adam to explain his remark, Adam would have likely followed it up with some other comment starting with but, or, however or nevertheless.
This time, Joe didn’t need Adam to finish the sentence. Joe could pretty much do that himself.
“But you tend to overestimate yourself. That’s why you end up losing.”
Overestimation sure was easy to do when you’d had a few drinks in your belly.
Joe closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall. He was cold and sore and cramped all over from sitting in the same position for hours, but he dared not move. Most of the other men were asleep as far as he could tell, and the ones that weren’t didn’t seem to be paying him any mind, but he didn’t want to take any more chances. God knew he was in enough trouble already.
He’d been drunk before, and he’d been in fights before. Both were offenses grievous enough to earn him a sound tongue-lashing and a sentence of hard labor from Pa.
But in addition to his other sins, he now could add the crowning touch of getting himself thrown in jail. And any punishment that the law would bring to bear paled in comparison to what he could expect once Pa got wind of it.
He should have listened to Hoss. Why hadn’t he listened?
“Come on, Hoss!” he had pleaded. “It’s just one beer! Shoot, it won’t take more’n ten minutes!”
Hoss stared at him with that disapproving scowl of his. Hoss sure was getting good at that scowling thing, Joe had to admit. His older brother must have been taking lessons from Pa.
“Joe, Pa said to come straight back,” he said. “We’re still up to our necks in chores back at the house.”
Joe gave his brother’s arm a reassuring pat. “And we will, Hoss. We will. Pa won’t even need to know.”
Hoss looked dubious, but he reluctantly agreed, as Joe knew he would.
But despite Joe’s best attempts to persuade him, Hoss wouldn’t agree to two beers and a raucous poker game in the back room, and eventually his older brother threw up his hands in disgust and left without him. Joe knew there’d be hell to pay when he made it back to the Ponderosa, so he forced the gloomy thought from his mind as he enjoyed cold beer and winning hands.
He couldn’t remember exactly when the fight started. The details seemed to all run together in a liquor-infused haze in his head. He remembered switching from beer to whiskey at some point, probably shortly after meeting his new lady friend. What was her name again? Oh yeah. Miss Corinna. What a little beauty she was! Miss Jenny must have had the night off, but Joe hadn’t cared. Miss Corinna had a few very charming assets of her own. Joe also hadn’t cared that some of his winnings were disappearing into the blonde’s impressive décolletage, because she always thanked him with a kiss. She had settled her shapely little bottom onto his lap and Joe had lifted his glass and had appreciatively declared her his good luck charm.
But it had been his bad luck that Corinna’s old beau Jay decided to show up – along with some of his rough-looking friends. There had been words exchanged and then a shouting match and then fists started flying.
The worst of his bad luck had come when Joe flattened Jay Robertson with a potent left hook. Seeing the bigger man go down with a loud groan had filled Joe with an ill-conceived bravado that had emboldened him to take on all of Jay’s friends. Within minutes, the saloon had erupted into chaos, and that was about the time Sheriff Coffee charged through the swinging doors.
Still, the sheriff knew him, knew his family. He’d understand, right? He’d been in fights before, and usually the sheriff just patted him on the back and said, “You just get on home now, Little Joe.”
But Sheriff Coffee hadn’t looked all that understanding this time. In fact, he looked downright angry. And when Joe tried to argue, to explain that he had only been defending himself, the sheriff had simply grunted in response and promptly handcuffed him. Handcuffed him!
The sheriff had paraded the lot of them at gunpoint to the jail, and then shoved them all randomly into his empty cells, saying he’d sort out the charges in the morning. That Joe was now locked in with some of the very dudes who had been previously trying to pound him into a bloody pulp didn’t seem to make much difference. He listened to the cacophony of snoring around him and wondered how they could all sleep so comfortably in such a cold, dreadful place. They’d likely endured such grim accommodations before. Maybe several times.
He glanced through the barred window and saw that the sky was growing lighter. Maybe another hour or so before sunrise, and not much longer than that before all hell broke loose with the arrival of Ben Cartwright. Joe gathered his jacket around him, and settled in for what he knew would be an excruciating wait….
Joe could hear his father’s deep voice from the sheriff’s office. Oh boy, he bet Pa was mad. He straightened, trying to hear what was being said.
But Pa didn’t sound mad. He sounded…
Joe dejectedly dropped his head into his hands. Great. Just great. Now he could add scaring his pa to death to his growing list of crimes. He could hear snatches of what his pa was saying. “…didn’t come home last night….no sign of him….maybe bushwhacked…”
Then he heard the sheriff’s terse “Ben! Ben! Now calm down!” and he heard other voices, too. Adam and Hoss. Oh goody. Now his brothers were here to witness their little brother’s humiliation firsthand. Boy, oh boy, won’t they get a giggle out of that.
The voices decreased in volume then, and Joe couldn’t hear everything being said, but there was no doubt in his mind that they were discussing his activities from the night before. Then it was quiet, and there was a distant jingling of keys and the approach of footsteps. It was time. Joe faced away from the door and squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for the imminent explosion.
The door to the jail creaked open, and Joe waited. He knew his father was standing there; he could hear him breathing.
Joe opened his eyes and painfully rose to his feet before he turned to face his father. Pa’s expression was unreadable, and Joe didn’t waste any time trying to gauge his mood. He was having a hard time even meeting his eyes. “Hi, Pa,” he mumbled cautiously.
“You ready to go home now, boy?”
Joe nodded miserably.
Ben gave a quick nod to the sheriff and turned away as the cell door was unlocked and opened. Joe took his time retrieving his hat and jacket before following his father into the office. Hoss and Adam regarded him with a combination of amusement and sympathy, but thankfully didn’t say anything. Joe didn’t feel as if he was in any mood for conversation.
The long ride home was uncomfortably tense, and Joe’s already queasy stomach began to protest the journey early on, so Pa had sent Adam and Hoss on ahead while he and Joe continued at a more sedate pace. Though Joe suspected the real reason was that his pa had a good scolding in mind.
But Pa wasn’t saying anything, wasn’t even looking at him, and as time stretched on, Joe found himself becoming increasingly uneasy as he kept sliding sidelong glances at his pa. Pa was stone-faced, staring straight ahead. Why wouldn’t he just get it over with?
Joe bit his lip and broke the silence himself. “I…uh…well, I guess I know what you’re thinking, Pa.”
“Do you?” Pa snapped.
Joe sighed. Maybe he should have kept his mouth shut. “Listen, I’m sorry, Pa,” he said. “It’s just…well, I just don’t understand the sheriff! I tried to explain to him that it wasn’t even my fault!” he complained, though his voice sounded petulant even to his own ears. “It was that Jay Robertson, Pa! He was… I mean, I don’t understand why Sheriff Coffee was being so…”
“…unreasonable all of a sudden, when all I was…”
“Son, if it had been up to Sheriff Coffee, you would have seen the inside of your first jail cell when you were twelve.”
Joe frowned. “What do you mean?”
“It was right after that fight with the Matthews boy at the Founders Day picnic. From what I remember, you two boys upended the dessert table and sent the preacher’s wife into a fit of the vapors.”
“But Pa, I saw Jimmy Matthews picking on some little kids! I had to…”
“That didn’t make any difference to Roy, son,” Ben continued. “He had already pulled out his handcuffs. He was going to haul the both of you off to jail and make you spend the rest of the day there,” Pa explained. “But I stopped him, son. I’ve stopped him since then, too. It was only out of respect for our friendship—and his liking for you, Joe—that he’s indulged me all these years.”
“It was a mistake, boy. Maybe a bad mistake. I see that now.”
“Pa, I don’t…”
“…but you’re eighteen now. A man full-grown, with grown-up responsibilities. You’ve learned a lot, son. But there are some things you haven’t learned yet.”
Pa stared in concentration at the road ahead, seeming to consider his words. “That’s why I had a long talk with Sheriff Coffee last month.”
“Right after you got into the fight over that card game in the Silver Dollar.”
“At the Silver Dollar? You mean the one with Bruce Davidson? But Davidson was cheating, and he…”
“Joseph,” Pa warned quietly.
Joe hung his head. He almost wished Pa would stop sounding so calm and just start yelling at him. “Sorry.” he said. “What did you talk to the sheriff about?”
“About the need for you to learn a lesson.”
“What lesson did I need to learn? I wasn’t the one who was cheating, Pa.”
“No, Joseph, you weren’t.” Pa continued patiently. “And you were in the right to call Davidson on it.”
Pa abruptly jerked back on his reins and stopped his horse. Bewildered, Joe did the same and stared in surprise at his father.
Pa considered him soberly. “Because being right isn’t always the same as doing right, Joseph.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I know you don’t, son,” Pa replied, urging his horse back to a walk. “That’s why I had that talk with the sheriff last month. It’s about time you learned that, as justified as you feel in throwing a few punches, there are consequences. Being right sometimes comes with a cost, boy. And sometimes it’s a cost that’s just not worth paying.”
Joe reflected on his pa’s words. Sometimes things were so much easier to understand when his pa explained them. He thought back to the crowded cell still filled with the other brawlers and wondered if any of them had a pa like that. He wondered if Jay Robertson had a pa like that.
He frowned as he thought back on the events of the night before. Much of it was a blur, but some of it was clear as day. The things Jay said. The way he manhandled and hurt Miss Corinna. The way Miss Corinna had cried.
Then he remembered a long, painful night locked in a jail cell, how cold and humiliated and afraid he’d been.
“I’m sorry, Pa, but I’d pay it again,” Joe said quietly.
“I know, son,” Pa replied. “Sheriff Coffee told me what happened last night. What Jay Robertson did. If I were in your shoes, boy, I’d probably do the same thing.”
Joe brightened. “Does this mean that…”
“Not on your life,” Pa chuckled. “I plan to spend the rest of my day making a list of chores you’re going to do to help pay for the damage you caused in the Bucket of Blood.”
Joe blew out his breath. “Guess I’m gonna be too busy to get into any more fights for a while, huh?”
“Probably a good thing,” Joe admitted. It’d probably be a month or more before he was allowed to return to Virginia City, and he had no desire to run into the likes of Jay Robertson again.
Now Miss Corinna, on the other hand…
Pa stared at him, bemused. “What are you grinning about all of a sudden?”
“Nothing, Pa,” Joe replied. “Guess we better hurry on back, huh? I think I got some chores waiting.”
With that, he kicked his horse into a run, and grinned again when he looked back and saw his father do the same.
Thanks, Corinna, for your help and encouragement, girlfriend.
(Oh, and tell Jay thanks, too!)