Summary: Respect–young men want it but have to earn it.
Rating: K+ Word Count: 1,518
Roy Coffee ushered his guest into the cell and hesitated before swinging the heavy door to a close. One corner of his mouth tugged down as he studied the key in his hand. Figure he’ll abide by the honor system, the sheriff thought. Roy dropped the ring of keys onto the corner of the desk then poured two cups of coffee into tin cups that had seen better days. Holding one cup through the bars, he cleared his throat. There was no acknowledgement from the young man in the cell so Roy set the spare cup down on his desk. Then he pulled over the chair and took a seat.
Leaning back, he studied Adam over a cup of coffee. His friend’s eldest son stood at the cell window, the fingers of one hand curled around the bars, the thumb of his other hand hooked through a belt loop, fingers hanging loosely against his hip. All except one. The sheriff noted the tap of Adam’s forefinger as if the young man were sending a message via Morse Code. As Adam shifted his weight, the sole of one boot scuffed against the floor, but the young man’s back remained as tense as a bow string.
“Wanna talk about it, son?” asked Roy. The chair squeaked as the sheriff settled in for a long, sad story. He sipped his coffee, squinting against the rising steam.
“Sooner or later you’ll have to tell me what’s eatin’ at your craw. I figure sooner is the better option as I ain’t gettin’ any younger.”
Adam heaved a sigh of magnificent proportion and bumped a fist against the wall a couple of times.
“Pa’s right—I let my education interfere with my thinking,” said Adam.
Roy leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “Education ain’t a bad thing. You learned a lot of things at that college back East but law wasn’t one of ‘em. You should’ve let Hiram take a look at the contract before you signed it.”
Adam shook his head and then turned to lean his back against the wall.
“Tearin’ up a contract and threatenin’ to make Barney Fuller eat it won’t change a thing.”
“That clause was practically hidden in the contract.”
“Never let your pride interfere with your thinkin’, son.” Roy tapped a fingernail against the cup for a few seconds. “I ain’t sayin’ you’re right or wrong because I haven’t read it and I ain’t a lawyer, just a simple man who keeps this town neat and tidy by not lettin’ folks get out of hand. I do know this—losin’ your temper and bustin’ up the saloon ain’t no way to earn a reputation that’ll make men respect you. If you act like a wet-behind-the-ears boy, they’ll treat you like a child, not a man.”
A flush crept up Adam’s neck and his cheeks turned bright red. He snorted and winced after rolling his eyes.
The sheriff let out a soft grunt as he got to his feet, the chair squeaking as if it, too, were feeling its age. Setting the cup on the desk, he headed for a small table with a pitcher and basin on it. After wringing the lukewarm water out of a small cloth, he wiped one hand on his trousers and took the cloth over to the cell. Offering it through the bars, he said, “You’ll have a mighty impressive shiner come mornin’.”
Adam took the cloth and sucked air through his teeth as he pressed the damp fabric against his eye. He paced from one side of the cell to the other before sitting down on the cot, the redness slowly draining from his face. “I shouldn’t have bothered with college. I should’ve learned the tricks of the business end of ranching from Pa.” He picked at some lint on his trousers. “Pa wouldn’t have made that kind of mistake.”
“Your pa ain’t perfect; he’s made his share of mistakes. But he’s always owned up to ‘em and kept his word. That’s what’s made him one of the most respected men in these parts.”
“Pa probably won’t let me represent the Ponderosa again,” muttered Adam.
“You said the clause in question was about acts of God,” said Roy. “A lawyer would’ve come up with anything God might have a hand in causin’ and put it in the contract to protect himself. You figured that clause spoke for itself. Ain’t no way to prove the landslide that created that impasse was caused by Barney’s crew so ol’ Barney could keep money owed you for deliverin’ Ponderosa steers to his timber camp on time. Barney’s a sly fox when it comes to business, but I’ve always known him to act within the bounds of the law. You high-tailin’ it back to town, leavin’ your own men behind, won’t earn you a cent of respect from any man in this territory, especially because you’re Ben Cartwright’s son.”
Adam snorted and shook his head. “I don’t want to live under Pa’s shadow my whole life.”
“Then make your own way. You’ve got a good eye for horseflesh and there’s plenty of mustangs roaming between here and California.” Roy returned to the chair, sat down, and supported a boot on the opposite knee. “You’ve also got a good mind for figures and could find work in a bank, balancing ledgers, but I don’t think you’re the kind of man who wants to be stuck behind a desk, dreamin’ of cattle drives and breakin’ horses.” The sheriff crossed his arms and cocked his head, studying Adam for a moment. “I stood at the same crossroad when I was about your age—I could make a hardscrabble livin’ on a piece of land that barely supported a few head of cattle, let alone a family, or I could become a lawman like my pa and keep a small corner of the world a civilized place for decent folks. Either way, it was up to me to earn folks’ respect through my own words and actions and not expect them to just give it to me because of who my pa was. You think on that, son.”
Roy turned his chair as the door opened and he nodded curtly at Barney Fuller as the other man stepped into the office. The sheriff straightened some loose papers on his desk and asked, “You gonna press charges after all?”
Barney pulled a cigar from his vest pocket. His eyes briefly narrowed as smoke wafted in the air and he sniffed against the acrid odor of burning tobacco. Tucking his thumbs into his pockets, he studied the defiant young man sitting in the cell. Finally, Barney shook his head as he took the cigar from his lips.
“I figure showing his face in town for the next few weeks will be harder than spending a night or two in your jail.” Barney took a drag on the cigar then tapped it, letting ash gently drift to the unswept floor.
Barney reached into his pocket and withdrew a money clip. “Let him out of the cell, sheriff.”
Adam took a few tentative steps beyond the cell door and stood, eyes downcast, as if he were a schoolboy called to the front of the class for a paddling. The whispering sound of bills rubbing together caught Adam’s ear and he raised his head, unsure whether to take the offered money.
“Go on,” said Barney, arm extended. “It’s a quarter of what you would have earned if you’d delivered the cattle on time, per our contract. I figure you did do your best, given the circumstances, and your men deserve to be paid.”
Adam looked to Roy, then took the money at the sheriff’s nod.
“Respect is earned, not given, Adam,” said Barney. “Remember that. I have a great deal of respect and affection for your pa. You’ve still got to prove yourself.”
Barney extended his hand and Adam took it, giving the older man a firm handshake.
On his way out, Barney paused in the doorway and looked back, saying, “Until next time, Adam.” Pointing at the younger man with his cigar, he said, “In the meantime, you might want to put a steak on that.”
Roy noted how Adam fidgeted with the money between his fingers. “Put it away and let’s go over to the International House. I could use a good cup of coffee and I’m sure the kitchen will be more than happy to let your supper sit on your eye for ten or fifteen minutes.”
One corner of Adam’s mouth quirked up in a smile as he followed the sheriff to the door. “I suppose Pa will tan my hide when he hears the gossip.”
The sheriff draped a fatherly arm around Adam’s shoulders and said, “Show him you’re a man, son—a man folks hereabout respect.”
Written for the 2017 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament.
The words/phrases dealt to me were:
Over a cup of coffee