Summary: Young Joe is drawn into a fight at school because of feelings for a girl. A prequel Bonanza Trail Riders challenge piece inspired by the song “Me and Bobby McGee” by Kris Kristofferson.
Rating: K+ WC: 940
Lessons in Freedom
Dust filled the air as the bodies of two boys in their mid teens rolled around on the ground. Fists flew in all directions trying to land a good punch.
“Stop it this instant! I will not tolerate such behavior Joseph Cartwright and Robert McGee!” Miss Gibbs stood with her hands on her hips glaring down at the miscreants. She attempted to shout over the din of other children who were circled around the melee.
“Stop it, I say, or you will both be expelled from school!” Her threat appeared to have no effect as Joe and Bobby, now covered in dirt, continued to throw punches at each other.
Off to the side, a dark-haired girl of fourteen stood silently with her arms wrapped around her middle, her face beaming with satisfaction. Her conversation with Joe just moments earlier had produced the desired result. Having the two boys fighting for her affections made her heart soar. Mary Ann could not wait to comfort the victor and possibly place a tender kiss on his injured face.
When Joe was momentarily distracted by his teacher’s persistent shouting, Bobby McGee landed a full blow to his chin. The larger boy was then able to extract himself from young Cartwright. Bobby jumped up and began brushing off his clothes while Miss Gibbs tended to his defeated opponent. McGee quickly located ‘his’ girl and sauntered toward her. Joe, now sitting up, was forced to watch with dismay as Mary Ann slipped her arm through Bobby’s. She kissed her fingertip and gently touched the cut on his cheek that was beginning to swell. Joe looked away and wriggled loose from his teacher’s helping hand as he got up on his feet.
The two boys heard little of the lecture Miss Gibbs gave them after sending the rest of her students into the schoolhouse. Stiff with anger and fists clenched, it was all Joe could do not to tear into Bobby again. He desperately wanted to knock the smug smirk off McGee’s dirty face. Miss Gibbs gave each boy a job to perform as penance when the school day was over and a note to take home explaining what had transpired.
Later that evening, Joe sat fuming on his bed. His father had sent him to his room after supper with a reprimand that any further fighting at school would result in serious and protracted limits to his freedom and social life. But it was the words Mary Ann had spoken to him prior to the fight that bothered him even more than the cuts and bruises on his body. He had received a note from her just before lunch recess asking him to meet her behind the schoolhouse.
“You’re real cute, Little Joe, and I like you a lot, but Bobby sings me songs and tells me he loves me. He’s promised to take me away from here and give me a good life. I’ll be free. I won’t have to live under my pa’s thumb anymore. It’ll just be me and Bobby. Why don’t you say those kind of things to me, Little Joe? If you loved me, you’d want to be with me, you know, WITH me. You do want me, don’t you, Joe?”
Then Mary Ann had slowly run the tip of her tongue around her full lips and offered him an irresistible invitation to prove his earnestness. Joe remembered leaning in ready to devour the girl’s mouth when he was hit from the side by Bobby McGee. A light knock on his bedroom door interrupted Joe’s frustrating thoughts.
“Can I come in?” Adam called softly from the hallway.
“Not in the mood to talk.” Joe crossed his arms tightly across his chest.
“I’ve got pie.”
Joe frowned, but then snorted a little laugh. “Yeah, sure, come on in.”
Adam held out a piece of pie to his youngest brother and set a glass of milk on the nightstand when he reached the side of the bed.
“Your welcome. Pa did dismiss you a bit abruptly.”
“Yeah, he’s probably still steamed.”
The look on Adam’s face confirmed Joe was correct in his assumption. Adam watched as his brother savored his first bite of cherry pie. He grabbed the side chair and turned it to straddle it backwards. Resting in his arms on the back of the chair, he cleared his throat and ventured into the subject that had disrupted everyone’s dinner.
“So is she worth all this?”
Joe paused to put down the fork and place the plate in his lap. He reached for the glass on his nightstand and took a big gulp and then set it aside. Swiping his left hand across his mouth, he looked over at his brother and shrugged.
“You know, Joe, there are lots of pretty girls in the world. Most of them want something. If MaryAnn is only concerned about what’s in it for her, I would suggest letting her find that elsewhere.”
“What makes you an expert on girls?”
“I’m not claiming to be one. All I know is that when the time comes that I give up my freedom, I’m going to be darn sure that the woman is worth it.”
Joe looked down at his pie. He picked up his fork again and poked around at the crust before letting out a deep sigh. Adam could see the tension easing in Joe’s body; so he got up and headed for the door.
“Hey, Adam.” Joe lifted his plate toward his brother had turned to face him in the doorway. “Thanks — for everything.”
Adam nodded and winked before closing the door behind him.