Summary: Set in Season 13. No longer the youngest brother, it’s Joe’s turn to be the giver of advice rather than the recipient. Written for an under 500-word challenge where the prompt was to use a book title as inspiration. “The Redhead by the Side of the Road” by Anne Tyler.
Word Count: 499
Oblivious to the fact that his red hair glowed in the afternoon sun like Hop Sing’s copper pots under a kitchen lamp, Jamie hunkered down in a grove of saplings that dotted the road along the lake. He held his breath, hoping first that the rider was a stranger and second that whoever it was hadn’t seen him. When the black and white pinto cantered by and kept going, Jamie exhaled. One out of two. As soon as the coast was clear and his breathing under control, Jamie slid down the slight embankment and continued walking away from the Ponderosa.
Joe rode past Jamie without acknowledging his presence. He continued another mile before dismounting and tethering Cochise to a tree. Removing his canteen, he sat cross legged on the side of the road.
It was another half hour before Jamie rounded the bend, viciously kicking the rocks in front of him as he moved.
“Any one I know?”
Jamie gulped and looked furtively from side to side. No escape. “I-I didn’t think you saw.”
“Saw what? I’m just giving Cooch a rest.” Joe took in the boy’s torn clothes, cut lip and bloody knuckles, not to mention the glorious shiner blooming around his eye. “Hope you gave as good as you got.”
“I—” Jamie’s shoulders rounded as he collapsed in a heap on the ground next to Joe. “Pa’s gonna kill me.”
Joe opened the canteen and handed it over. “You’re not the first Cartwright son to come home bloodied and bruised and none of us are dead yet.”
Jamie brightened momentarily, then soured. “Ah, shucks. I’m dead meat and you know it.”
“The only thing I know is that you’re headed away from home.”
“So are you.”
“I have a pretty lady and sunset picnic waiting for me. What’s waiting for you?”
“Nobody and nothing.” Jamie’s watery blue eyes reflected the anguish in his voice. “Joe, what am I gonna do?”
“The only thing you can. Whatever this is about, tell Pa the truth. Straight out. Don’t sugarcoat it. Don’t hold anything back.”
“—going to do what?”
“Send me away,” Jamie croaked.
Joe gathered the boy into his arms and held him tight until the silent sobs quieted.
“The only unforgivable sin in Pa’s book is lying.”
“Did you ever? Lie, I mean.”
“Never. The consequences were too great.”
“What do you mean?”
“If you lie even once, no one—not just Pa—will trust you’re telling the truth ever again.”
“Like the boy who cried wolf?”
Joe nodded. “Listen, the louder Pa yells, the less angry he is. The quieter his voice, the more trouble you’re in. Getting in trouble is a part of growing up, so get used to it. Fess up. Don’t lie. Ever.”
Joe pulled a kerchief from his inside jacket pocket and pointed to the lake. “Clean up and then we’ll go home.”
“I’ll go alone. You got a lady waiting, remember?”
“I won’t lie.”