Summary: Sometimes, the best advice comes from the business end of a gun
Rated: K+ WC 4000
You, boy. That’s right – you. Cartwright kid. You’re coming here to see me, ain’t you? I’ve been expecting you for some time. Come to tell me you’re fixing on courting my daughter. You’re braced for a fight, but I can tell you think it won’t take more than a smile to change my mind. Well, son, you don’t know me real well. But I know you, and I’ve got some things to say to you. So you keep your boots in those stirrups and your mouth shut tight, because I reckon this shotgun makes it my turn to talk all I want to.
I’ve been watching you for a long time. Everyone knows you, but my knowing goes way back, longer than you can remember. A man with daughters keeps his eyes out for boys who might be a prospect or a problem. I’ve been keeping track of you since you were born. Could have predicted you’d be a problem. Not a month after you were born, a traveling gypsy told your ma you were born under a wild-hearted star. Your ma went and told my Betsy, who took that as a warning and gathered our own little girl up tight. Now, I don’t cotton much to that sort of foolish talk, but you can’t blame a father for toting a loaded shotgun, all the same. There are only so many boys in the territory to choose from.
I reckon I’ve got me an advantage over you, boy, and it ain’t just this gun. I know things about you, all sorts of things, and the only thing you know about me is I got me a downright pretty daughter. Sorry to say that ain’t gonna be enough. My porch swing is creaking in the wind, but you ain’t gonna be sitting on it any time soon. I already know what you’re going to ask me, and the answer is no. Don’t even try to tell it to me different. Like it or not, there ain’t any new stories. There’s just the same old tale told so many times that everyone forgets they already know the ending.
Let’s start with the basics. What you come to tell me. It’s simple, ain’t it? You love my little girl. For better or worse, she loves you too. I reckon that gives you an advantage over me. I’ve been watching, and I don’t like what I see. The two of you are like flint and steel, and you’ve been setting off sparks. Playing with fire, you are, but she’s just a girl, and you’re a boy. You might not be children, but you ain’t grown neither. Neither of you understand the kind of mistakes you could be making. You think someone like me couldn’t understand what it’s like to be held back, but I understand more than you’d think. If you climb in the saddle, you’d better be ready for the ride. It ain’t an easy thing to hear at your age, but it’s the best advice I can give you.
I ain’t a fool. I know what’s been going on between the two of you. My girl’s been sneaking off by day and by night. I’ve already caught her, coming back into the house twice before daybreak. That’s right, you should be looking worried. Never mind what your pa would say about it. If you had any sense at all, you’d ride like the devil, from a riled father who is pointing a shotgun at you. You got no business playing with fire that belongs to me. Only one thing’s gonna come of it, you ain’t ready for that, and neither is she. You’re seventeen years old. She’s sixteen. You’re both between hay and grass – half grown. You two are as full as a tick with love right now. But let me tell you, boy – love is only the first step on a long road. And neither of you are ready for where that road can take you.
I see you’re not ready to back down, even though I got you in my sights. Nothing like a loaded shotgun to slow a man down, but not you. A real man doesn’t flinch, and even though you ain’t a man yet, at least you’re heading in the right direction. You want to speak your piece. Tell me what’s on your mind. But I already know what’s on your mind, and that’s why my gun’s aimed between your eyes. You love my girl. Want to do right by her. Maybe give her your name. This might surprise you, but I believe you. Your pa’s kept you on a tight rein, and he raised you right, although without your brothers, Lord knows if he’d have made a go at it. The whole territory knows, it ain’t been easy for him, or for any of us, neither.
Like I said before, I’ve been watching you for a long time. I reckon I ain’t the only father of a pretty daughter who’s been keeping his eye on you, but they might have less charitable reasons. Cartwrights are worth a lot in these parts, and I’d imagine I’m not the only one who’s wanted to aim a shotgun in your direction. But, son, I ain’t looking to corral you into a marriage that you ain’t ready for. And trust me – you ain’t ready for it, no matter how much you want to be. I’d prefer not to have to shoot you to prove it.
Don’t take it personally, son. It ain’t like I don’t like you. Hell, everyone likes you! That’s part of the problem. My little girl ain’t seen anything she likes better. You’re always in trouble, but you make danger look like fun. She starts tapping her feet, all restless-like, at the very sight of you. And she’s got plenty of company. I’ve seen just about everyone in this town get pulled into your shenanigans from time to time. Everyone said that Ben Cartwright’s older boys made him look like he knew what he was doing, but you made up for it. So help me Lord, you gave your pa every one of those gray hairs atop his head. Made me grateful I raised daughters. I reckon you’re glad that I raised those daughters too, but don’t get ahead of yourself. You want to know why I feel the way I do, and I’m still getting to that. You see, young man, I have a long memory. You’re full of life, but a pa with any sense at all wants his daughter to be a little bit bored, and I’m pretty sure that you ain’t done having some adventures. Like a bear cub with his paw stuck in a honeycomb, you’re the picture of trouble. To be perfectly honest, nobody really thought you’d live this long. You’ve almost gone and got yourself killed more often than most folks catch a common cold.
The first time I remember was the day you got lost and had the whole territory out looking for you. You couldn’t have been much older than five. Folks from miles around searched all day and spent the night out in the cold, searching high and low for you. Your ma had died the month before, and nobody could cotton to the idea that poor Ben might bury a wife and a boy before summer. That was when my own Betsy was still alive, and she was at home with our own little girls, setting up baskets of cold chicken and biscuits for the search party.
There were about fifty of us, out there looking, and we weren’t doing much good riding together in a big group like that. I’ll never forget the look on your pa’s face that day. I knew it well. He was calm from head to toe, handing out orders, I don’t think I ever saw me a more desperate man. Your pa wanted to go with the sheriff and a few hired men up to the high ridge. I remember thinking that there was no way a little fellow could get so far, and that we should stick to combing the riverbeds and ravines, but he couldn’t be talked into anything different. Your pa’s a stubborn man, but I reckon you know that. He rode off, and I ended with a couple other men and your brothers. Now, that was an experience I won’t forget.
Hoss couldn’t have been much older than eleven, but he was already as big as some of the men. He looked like he could hardly keep from crying; that’s what gave it away. Everyone wanted him to go back home, but he wouldn’t budge until you were found. I remember being worried about what we might find and how he would take it, but I reckoned your pa knew best for his own family. Adam was handing out orders, like he was a grown man. He couldn’t have been much older than you are now, but he couldn’t have been any more different than you. That boy had the world on his shoulders, while you’ve got the world at your feet. He already looked like we lost you, but we all tried joshing him out of it. Some of the men were ready to go home for the night, but then we heard three gunshots, one fired after the other.
Eagle’s Nest. Lord Almighty, you were at the top of Eagle’s Nest. When we got to your pa and the sheriff, they were standing at the base of that mountain, staring up. But somehow, your pa was sure that you were up there, he did, even though the rest of us swore that a little kid could never get up so high. I remember it like it was yesterday though, the way Adam squinted into the moonlight and owned up with your pa.
“He’s up there,” Adam said. “I feel it too.”
Your pa climbed up there himself and carried you down from that mountain. We was tired and cold, but every rancher and cowhand, for miles around, was whooping it up like it was a sunny afternoon on the Fourth of July. It wasn’t the last time you made a whole lot of folks happy by not getting yourself killed.
Don’t you go telling me you’ve changed. I’m sure you’d be mighty convincing, but I don’t want to hear it. You’re a fancy talker, and I reckon you mean half of what you say. You’ve been using that talking-gift for a long time. Folks still talk about the time you snuck into a horse thief’s hole-up to try to get your big brother’s horse back. It was a few years after Eagle’s Nest, but you couldn’t have been much older than eight years old. I didn’t have much to do with your family back then, but it was after your brother, Adam, had gone to some fancy school back East. Seems a drifter stole Adam’s cutting horse right from out of your family’s pasture. Your pa went off looking but came back empty-handed. The way I heard it, you were downright riled at him for giving up too easy. The story goes that you tracked that horse thief down all by your lonesome and talked the man into giving the horse back. Nobody ever figured out how you did it, without getting yourself killed or held for ransom. It ain’t like you can trust a horse thief further than you can see him. The sheriff wanted you to take a posse to where you’d found him. I was in town that day, and they’d asked me to come along. But you told the sheriff you and the thief shook hands on it, and you weren’t about to lead a posse back to his camp. Wouldn’t even say which direction he was heading. With my own ears, I heard you tell the sheriff that the thief wasn’t such a bad fellow at all. Down on his luck, you said. Anyone could fall on hard times. Besides, you shook hands and made a deal, and that’s the way it was. You were mighty glad to get the horse back. You weren’t sure your brother would want to come home without his horse waiting for him. I expect your pa would have tanned the truth out of you, if it’d done any good. Your word meant something to you way back then. There ain’t that many boys who’d have done the same.
I reckon you’ll grow into a good enough man. Your pa and brothers will see to it. But good Lord, you’ve been more than a handful. Don’t look away, boy. I ain’t finished yet. It ain’t like you made things easy for anyone around you. Just think about what you did to your teachers! I was still on the school board when poor Miss Hudgens left Virginia City after just four days at the job. Nobody blamed you for the crickets, mind you, but the buckets of frogs you brought in from the creek were too much. We were still finding frogs in the rafters, weeks later. Don’t shrug me off, boy. I’m sure you got yourself a fancy explanation, but I’m still getting started.
Then, there was also the time you and your little hooligan friends tipped over Old Henry’s outhouse. Now, that was only a few years ago. You were probably fourteen, but you looked younger. Good thing you hung out with over-sized friends. Now, unlike the old biddies who mill around the mercantile, I know tipping an outhouse ain’t no hanging offense. The tomfoolery of a boy ain’t nothing to get worked up about, especially if he already got caught and tanned for it. Shows some gumption, and you sure as the devil never gave up, even after Old Henry came chasing after you in his Long Johns, waving his sawed off shotgun at the moon. I hear he ran you half way to Virginia City, but he didn’t get a good look at you that time. Didn’t stop you and your friends from trying it again on the next full moon. Only problem was that Old Henry was in that old weathered outhouse at the time, waiting, and he caught you and dragged you back home to your pa by the scruff of your neck. Old Henry’s a lot stronger than he looks, now ain’t he? From what I heard, you spent your summer helping Old Henry harvest his wheat field to make it up to him. Made for fine grist around the mill, and after he got to know you better, old Henry finally stopped spitting every time he heard your name. Said you were a tolerable worker, even if you were a damn scamp. Besides that, you and your brothers built him a fancy new outhouse, the finest around. I can tell you’re surprised that I know about all that. This is a big territory with a short memory, and you’re a Cartwright. But folks have a way of forgiving a boy like you…
Old Henry might have forgiven you, and the story goes that he was glad he didn’t hit you, even after he got off some good shots in your direction. But here you are wantin’ to spark my daughter, and me and my shotgun have our own problems with that.
Don’t take it personally, boy. I know you ain’t all bad. You’re a fine one on a horse, no doubt about it. I saw you gentle that paint last summer, the one the Sunday cowboys were all wagering would stay wild forever. You just stood next to that Indian pony and talked to him all calm like, even though the other cowhands were hooting and hollering and jeering at you to hurry up and ride the blasted horse. I know a good horse when I see it, and I’m glad you do too. When you finally rode that horse, it was a thing of beauty, it was. You gentled that paint without breaking her. It takes a man to do that, and that’s to your credit, boy.
It ain’t just about horses. Folks know what kind of boy you are. All your life, you been standing up when no one else wanted to. My little girl told me stories about schoolyard ruckuses – how you got beat within an inch of your life, fighting for the half-injun that lived behind the livery… the gypsy boy who didn’t know how to read… or the daughter of a saloon girl that you defended against anyone who called her names. There were others, but I don’t remember all the particulars. I’m telling you, boy, you done right by your name. There’s a reason folks look up to Cartwrights. Your pa and brothers tried to raise you up right, and I do believe they got a good part of it right. But, boy, it’s the other part I’m worried about. And I’m talking from experience. You’ve got some growing up to do boy, before you’re ready to be looking at my daughter that way.
You see, son, I just turned seventeen when I married my Betsy, God rest her soul. Our oldest daughter came awfully soon after. I ain’t going into the particulars, but let’s just say that I’ve seen the smokin’ end of a shotgun myself. We had three girls together, but Betsy died before our youngest turned four. There’s a world of heartbreak there. I reckon your pa could tell you all about that. I raised my little girls by myself, I did, and for a damn fool, I don’t think I did all that bad. But I didn’t have any idea what I was in for. Don’t tell this to my girls, but I almost wish someone held a gun on me and let me know. You think you’re ready. Seventeen. A man. You love her. Little Joe Cartwright, you may think you’re ready, but you’re not. I can see it in you. Boy, I’ve been there.
That’s not all. I see the way my little girl looks at you. Sizing you up as you ride by. She ain’t no innocent in this, and to be honest, I trust her less than I trust you. For sixteen years, I’ve been trying to rein her in, but she’s turning out just as wild as you. As wild as me. Can you see why I’m worried? There’s only so much a father can keep control of on his own, and that’s why I’m beholden to my gun. My little girl says that you love her. Says she loves you too, but that ain’t much of a surprise.
This may be a losing battle, but it’s one I’m willing to fight. She’s sixteen years old. She’s all that I have. And I’m losing her, every day, to you. Even as a little fellow, the world was yours for the taking, and now you want to take her too. You’re standing in front of me, sporting a black eye like a banner, your hands held high, without any sign of surrender. Please sir, you keep pleading with me,just give me a chance. Give us a chance…
You can give me as many sad looks as you want, but you ain’t gonna move me. Don’t get me wrong. I know you’ve never got yourself into more trouble than a couple big brothers couldn’t get you out of, but you ain’t ready for this. You say my little girl is the first and the last and the only one you’ll ever want to be with, for every day and night of your life. Let me tell you this, son. You haven’t seen enough days and nights to know what loving is all about. I know what happens to love when it comes too soon. I know all about sorrow. You might not think I’m doing you any favors, but I’d spare you that too.
Give growing up some time. Like I said before, you’re a decent boy; you’ll grow into a better man. Spend some more years riding alongside your pa and brothers. They’ll do right by you – teach you what you need to know. Lessons come hard when you got little mouths to feed. You’re better off making your mistakes now, when you’re the only one who has to pay the price for them. Work hard all day long, and then ride that fancy pinto right through the center of town. Folks will turn their heads and watch you ride by. You can play poker with the hands, lose everything you have, and drink enough that you don’t remember in the morning. Your pa will see to it that you don’t stray too far.
Come back and see me, when you’ve got all your sundowns under your saddle and a quiet place in your heart. My little girl may not be waiting for you. I can’t make you any fool promises. I’ll tell you this though. If she still wants you, this shotgun will be as useless to me as a four-card flush, and I’ll step aside. But you ain’t ready for her yet, and she sure ain’t ready for you. Taming you now would be like trying to meet up with a horse thief in heaven. And that is pretty damn near impossible, something you’d know, if you’d ever bothered listening to the preacher, instead of eying my daughter across the aisle.
So it’s time for you to turn around and ride on home. This ain’t gonna be your day. Sometimes you get, and sometimes you get got. Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that experience comes from bad judgment. I’d just as soon have you get that experience from someone other than my daughter. I reckon you won’t give up easy. After all, you’re a Cartwright. There’s a lot of good in this life you can do with that for a name. Go on, now. Ride back home to your pa and your brothers. Ride that pretty horse faster than I ever dared to. I couldn’t ride heedless like that, not with so many others depending on me. I’m noticing that there black eye. It’s a beauty. Here’s some good advice for the next time. Hold up your fists up high when the other guy’s bigger than you. Keep fighting for what’s right. I’ll take note of it, when you do. So will she.
You’re reining away now, and I’m almost sorry to see you go. I wager it won’t be the last time you ride up to my front porch. When you’ve sowed your oats and you’re good and grown, my little girl may be ready for you. If that’s so, I’ll put my gun down. We’ll sit down. And you and I will have ourselves another talk.
Until then, I’ll be keeping an eye on you, Little Joe Cartwright.
Other Stories by this Author
- Dividing Line Series – Prelude (by DBird)
- Love Again (by DBird)
- Slack Reins (by DBird)
- Waiting on the Wolf (by DBird)
- The Last Time I was Dying (by DBird)