|SEA CHANGE or Socrates Was Right
Author: NokuMarieDeux PM
An insidious intruder cries havoc and lets slip the dogs of adolescence. Will anyone survive?Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Humor/Family - Words: 15,017 - Reviews: 3 - Favs: 1 - Published: 07-31-12 - Status: Complete - id: 8379951
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Socrates Was Right
Some 2,400 years ago a bunch of astute observations about troublesome children was made by Socrates and passed along by his protégé Plato. Boy howdy if them old farts wasn't dead on target. I reckon it don't matter if you're a Greek philosopher, a cowboy or a history teacher... if you got a teenager, you got trouble. Any of you who've ever had the dubious pleasure of owning one know what I'm talking about. For the uninitiated, let me elucidate in a nutshell: this is when your adorable sweet-faced offspring transmogrify into diabolical alien spawn from another planet, complete with pimples, body hair, sass and attitude. If you're the daddy, you begin to ponder if you mightn't a done better to have took up a less nerve-wrackin' occupation like space shuttle test pilot or snakehandler. And if you're the momma, you begin to wish you'da drownded the baby and sold the milk.
Howdy. It's me again, Gracie Sherman (nèe Harper Grace Sherman) (aka Nonie) with a word of caution before you start reading: If the topic of adolescent physiology—however euphemistically portrayed—makes you all squirmish or offends any dainty sensibilities, then you'd best go away now. Likewise, if your taste runs more to action/adventure (blood 'n gore, guts 'n glory shoot-em-ups) or your basic bodice-ripper, then this ain't the place for you.
Today's story leads up to the time Jess Harper undertook to illuminate his young friend Andy Sherman on the birds and the bees and 'the way of a man with a maiden' (Proverbs 30:19). Well, maybe not maidens per se 'cause Jess (to his knowledge) hadn't ever dealt with any in the Biblical sense, his experience bein' limited to females of the sadder-but-wiser persuasion. This subject came to mind on account a my ole man Harp remindin' me that next week starts my tour a duty with the Young Riders for Jesus Sunday School class—the twelve- to fifteen-year-olds—which I musta volunteered for in a FTA (that's a Fit of Mental Aberration). What was I thinkin'?
Before we get there, though, there's a lotta scenic backdrops to be painted, props to be assembled, scripts to be rehearsed an' characters' histories an' personalities an' mindsets to be established. I know I got a tendency toward longwindedness, so be patient an' bear with me. We'll get around to the POVs of the protagonists in good time. Right now Harp suggests maybe I should ease up on the vernacular and use the opportunity to brush up on proper classroomspeak (for next week). I suppose he's right.
A STRANGER ARRIVES
No, this isn't about Jess. This was a different kind of stranger and he didn't ride in on horseback. Some months earlier—just about the time Andy turned fourteen—this other stranger had snuck in unobserved 'on little cat feet' (Fog, Carl Sandburg), took up residence in the pristine recesses of the boy's pituitary gland, and set out to turn it into a toxic waste dump. This insidious desperado's name was Puberty and he was a chemist who moved in mysterious ways, his chaos to create (clumsily paraphrased from Mr. William Cowpers lovely hymn and I apologize for that!).
Now, hormonal stew simmers over a very long period of time before eventually boiling over, but putrid whiffs of sulphur start wafting into the atmosphere early on. Weeks before Jess came into the picture, Slim Sherman started noticing a certain passive opposition on the part of his younger brother in response to one or two of Slim's directives. He let that go at first but when the faint but unmistakable essence of belligerence crept in he dispensed a few cautionary statements. And when those didn't produce the satisfactory results, he ratcheted up to more sternly-worded admonitions coupled with the advisory of 'or else', although he hadn't quite got as far as determining what the 'or else' might entail. (More on that later.) The problem was that Andy's behavioral misdemeanors weren't occurring with any kind of consistency… he'd go along pleasantly for a few days or a week or two before suddenly and without forewarning getting in Slim's face and up his nose. Inbetween these instances and with other more pressing matters to see to, Slim would forget about the need to formulate any more specific threats.
The first time Andy dropped the 'no' bomb (which he hadn't done since his Terrible Twos) and displayed open defiance, he had the misjudgment to do it in front of Jonesy and a wayfaring stranger he himself had invited in for a piece of pie. Slim almost lost it then and would've taken corrective measures to a higher level had not Jonesy interceded. Instead, Slim turned around and blamed the visitor for this revolting development, which he was in part responsible for although it would have happened sooner or later. (I mean, what dumbass walks into a stranger's home and five minutes later starts teaching a child of the house how to play poker and deal off the bottom of the deck? Jess Harper could be such an idiot sometimes!)
Well, had not things gone the way they did later on that day, Slim would've popped Andy a good one, Jess would've jumped in Slim's doodoo (we'll find out why later on), and an as-yet unformed friendship would've been flushed straight down the commode (had there been such an item on the premises). But as it happened everyone got distracted at the crucial moment and that fight didn't come about. We needn't go into details as it's got nothing to do with this story and I'm getting a little ahead of myself anyway.
The salient point here is that, whether or not Jess triggered it, the day he arrived was the day Andy's 'passive' switch toggled over to 'active'.
SOCIALIZATION AND THE SINGLE CHILD
In the area of socialization with peers and learning to play well with others (having no siblings nearer his own age), poor Andy was under a double whammy, one might say… although he was blissfully unaware of that. This might have proved problematic in the future, when he ventured out into the wider world to discover he was somewhat behind on advanced interpersonal skills. You could compare this imagined future situation to that of a colt raised in isolation from other horses, thrown into his maiden race and having to break from an outside position at the starting gate, which meant he had a long way to go just to catch up. (Fortunately for Andy's future, Slim's later decision to send him off to boarding school in St. Louis would give him the catch-up time he needed to get socialized and all before being flung out into that cold, cruel world.)
I personally don't hold with homeschooling although I recognize that sometimes it's the only feasible alternative in certain circumstances. Back in the early pioneer days and even into the middle- to late-1800s, parents didn't have the luxury of choice. The first official tax-funded public school with certified teachers in Laramie didn't get underway until February 1869 and only went up through sixth grade. Prior to that townfolk, farmers and ranchers from time to time pooled their financial resources to hire a hall and engage a teacher, with the contributing families rotating room and board for the incumbent.
Anyone could present himself (or herself) as a qualified educator (with or without credentials) and applicants were almost always single young ladies in impoverished circumstances on quests for husbands—as soon they snagged one, they were outta there and the school folded. Slim tried sending Andy to subscription schools every once in a while, whenever one was revived under a promising pedagogue, but invariably found these to be exercises in futility. When he'd question his little brother about what was learnt at school on any given day, the feedback was appalling. Many of these self-proclaimed educators didn't know arithmatic from argyle, grammar from grits, history from halitosis, geography from goobers...
Some background is needed here… Slim and Andy's momma Mary Grace Johnson Sherman had been an educator back in Ohio prior to marriage and had already amassed a considerable library which traveled westward with the young family. She was a bibliophile of the first magnitude who read every piece of literature that entered her orbit. At first new books were rare and hard to come by. The few traders who straggled through mainly peddled necessities—tools and implements for the men... for the ladies, packets of pins and needles, pots and pans, and bolts of cloth. If there was a book on offer, Mary Grace absolutely had to have it, no matter the subject matter. She was beside herself with joy when the establishment of a rudimentary postal service afforded mail-order access to a larger selection on which to spend her butter-and-egg money. A bookcase was one of the first pieces of furniture Matthew Sr. carpentered for their one-room soddy. As the replacement wood-frame dwelling expanded so did their cache of books, requiring regular upgrades to library shelving.
By 1870 (long after the senior Shermans had been gathered to the bosom of the Lord) the Sherman establishment boasted the finest private collection of print media in the area—an invaluable resource to Slim as he endeavored to carry on his momma's dying wish that he continue with Andy's education.
A voracious reader himself, Slim added new volumes whenever he could afford it. His own youthful nebulous dreams of achieving higher education had remained just that... dreams. As the only son (at that time), his hands were needed to help keep the farm going (a ranch by any other name is still a farm). Then came his call to arms in the War of the Rebellion. Lastly, the untimely demise of the parental units necessitated his remaining on the farm to maintain a home for and finish raising Andy, fourteen years his junior and the last other surviving sibling.
Slim had been entirely homeschooled by his momma and he'd turned out just fine with better general knowledge than most. Andy had been homeschooled up until Mary Grace was collected by the angels, whereupon Slim took over, which he didn't mind and was certainly intelligent and educated enough to handle. So, whenever subscription school(s) didn't work out, after-dinner lessons by lamplight at the parlor table would resume, thus relieving Slim of at least one major annoyance—that of transporting Andy to and from school in the town twelve miles distant.
Although a competent horseman, the boy was too young to travel that far unaccompanied by an armed adult. The threat of Indian attack was greatly reduced from the time Slim was Andy's age, but the area still festered with outlaws and other vermin. Daylight hours—working hours—are a precious commodity on a ranch and Slim could ill afford to lose any of them to the twice-daily round trips (a problem common to every other ranch and farm family situated in the back of beyond).
There was no way for Andy to continue with whatever incipient friendships he formed during his intermittent attendance at these primitive schools. The nearest family with children even close to his age lived a good five miles away… far outside his allowed roaming radius as decreed by Slim. The only time he ever got to be with other children was the occasional community fête—which could be anything from a barn dance or wedding to a funeral or church social (not that the Shermans attended church with any degree of regularity)—and that was only for a few hours.
Still, if anyone had thought to ask Andy if he was lonely, he would have said no. He didn't mind too much that neither Slim nor Jonesy had much spare time to indulge in idle jawboning and frankly they just weren't all that interesting. Jonesy was older than dirt and Slim was exasperatingly closed-mouthed about his war or any other 'outside' experiences. Andy's daily dance card was maxed out with chores, lessons, reading, eating, sleeping and looking after his ménage of injured and disabled critters. He had his own pony (which he was about to outgrow) and loved to ride whenever he could (within that proscribed area). He took pleasure in solitary boy pursuits—fishing, swimming, hunting for arrowheads and fossils, etc. Life was good and he was happy.
Of course, that was all before his body started going haywire and his brain started sending him conflicting messages. He started thinking about things he hadn't thought too much about before… like girls, and what lay beyond the horizon. That world outside the ranch… which so far he'd only experienced vicariously through the pages of textbooks, newspapers and periodicals—tantalizing glimpses of exotic places and the amazing variety of people who populated them, animals too bizarre to be real. Andy would've loved to talk with some of the more interesting passengers who sometimes got off the stage to stretch their legs or obtain refreshment, but Slim had forbidden him to do so unless they addressed him first, which rarely happened. He was just a kid and beneath notice except now and then some fancy-dressed lady would pat him on the head and tell him what a nice little boy he was. Those fancy ladies were especially the ones Slim didn't want him talking to any more than some of the rough customers who looked like they ate children for breakfast.
One day while taking a break between chores, having scrambled up to the top of the knoll overlooking the corrals and parking his rump on a convenient flattopped boulder with a soothing view toward the Medicine Bow range, Andy lost himself in contemplation of the meaning of life in general and his in particular. It was then he had himself an MDI (that being a Moment of Divine Illumination). Just like when Eve et that apple, a veil fluttered from his young eyes and he realized two things: one, that he was desperately lonesome and two, that he desperately wanted a friend.
Call it karma, call it fate, call it destiny or sheer coincidence, but less than an hour later Jess Harper rode into Andy's life.
WHEN NATURE AND NURTURE COLLIDE
Before moving on, let's compare the diametrically opposed upbringings of Slim Sherman and Jess Harper. (Yes, it's germane to what followed so quitcherbitchin.)
Every parent since Og the Unsteady (and probably Socrates and Plato as well) has understood that sometimes it's necessary to employ strategic measures to command a child's attention. Matthew Sr. worked his son hard from the time he was old enough to tote a bucket of water right up the last furrow Slim plowed before parking his ox to join the Union Army, but he never asked Slim to do anything he wasn't willing or capable of doing himself. Slim was a normal boy who got into normal boy mischief as he grew. As a pacifist, Matthew Sr. was opposed to violence of any sort and abhorred corporal punishment, although he was obliged to mete it out more than once via the razor strop. Slim loved and respected his stern but kind father.
Mary Grace placed great store by the Good Book and its recommendations on child management ('spare the rod and spoil the child'—Proverbs 13:24) so had no compunction about doling out punishment when bad behavior necessitated (happily not all that often). Slim adored and admired his momma even though in his childhood she'd denuded entire willow bushes in her pursuit of filial obedience and he'd consumed at least one or two pints of lye soap due to lapses in attention or judgment. Slim had never, ever been beaten by either of his parents so it would never have occurred to him to beat Andy (although thoughts of willow switches and bars of soap had been crossing his mind of late).
Through lean times and good, the Sherman family remained a loving, supportive family. The only major disagreement between father and son was over the latter's decision to contribute to the war effort, and the last words they ever exchanged were not blessed ones. Slim forever after regretted that and this absence of closure hung heavy on his soul.
In Slim's adult worldview, things were either wrong or right, black or white, separated by an exceeding thin margin of gray to allow for errors and uncertainties. Had he not continued in the ranch business he would have made a splendid career staff officer in the peacetime army (or a command sergeant major of basic training). An orderly person by nature, Slim preferred his personal environment to remain structured as well and resented disturbances in his routine, whether man-made or visited by the vagaries of nature. He abided by the same rules of conduct as the majority of law-abiding citizens and did his best to follow the Golden Rule. He didn't need the Bible to advise him that a child requires guidance on that obstacle-strewn path to adulthood. He knew from his own upbringing that a fair bit of coercion was necessary to keep a child to the straight and narrow. And he understood full well that he would soon be required to exert some of that coercion. A parent was responsible for a child's conduct and that was that, no excuses. Slim wasn't relishing the idea of having to punish Andy in the future, but he was prepared to do so if it came to that, because it was his duty and Slim wasn't a shirker.
The Harper family was what you might call 'culturally challenged' and their middle son was 'born to trouble as the sparks fly upward' (Job 5:7). Jess' daddy claimed to be a God-fearing Christian but he was a drunk and a bully, meaner than a razorback sow, who pounded his wife and five surviving children regularly whether in his cups or stone cold sober. He was, however, careful to not beat them so severely they were unable to work. His interpretation of 'train up a child in the way he should go' (Proverbs 22:6) leaned toward 'go get my jug' or 'go fetch my tobacco'. Jess' spiritless momma was too busy dodging his fists and trying to keep her brood from starvation to give much thought to teaching them morals, scruples, ethics, manners or etiquette. The Harper children were uneducated, unwashed, underfed, ill-clothed, suppurating with sores, teeming with parasites and always sick with disease-of-the-month.
Jess was the scrawniest, scrappiest and stubbornest of the bunch. When his daddy could catch him, he'd beat that boy like a rented mule and Jess fought back like one—bucking, kicking and biting for all he was worth (which, according to his momma, was how he came out of the chute). Knowing resistance was futile and anticipating that most likely some day his daddy was going to end up killing him, accidently or otherwise, he nevertheless never gave up until smacked into oblivion. He probably suffered from some form of ADD or even ADHD (still did, evidently). He was unaware that his acute stress response instinct included a 'flight' option as well as 'fight.' Consequently, it took a very long time for him to learn that 'he who fights and runs away will live to fight another day' (Demosthenes, 338BC in case you're interested).
When Jess finally got around to figuring that out, he fled… right into the clutches of a Confederate recruiter who refused to yield him back to Harper père's tender mercies. After an abbreviated sojourn on the field of battle in the War of Northern Aggression, though, he found himself in a prisoner-of-war camp right back in pretty much the same physical state as pre-flight so not much was gained there.
As an unencumbered adolescent in the post-war period, Jess' next few years were spent fashioning his own set of rules to live by (and remain alive by). His black and white absolutes were separated by a gaping chasm of shadowy gray in which he operated flexibly according to his own interpretation of what needed doing and how it should be done, rather than what other people said. His idea of the Golden Rule was do it the other guy before he does it to you. Jess Harper was a force of nature all by his lonesome self, creating disturbances and disrupting order wherever he lit. He didn't always mean to, but it happened anyway.
For all his faults and lack of social graces, Jess instinctively possessed a measure of common sense in the area of self-expression. He tried really hard to exercise restraint in his vocabulary choices, commensurate with whatever company he found himself in (women, children and members of the clergy, for instance), but often found his communicative efforts hampered by his lack of education. You would think a boy with his background would grow up to be a hard-hearted, cold-blooded man devoid of human compassion, and many perceived him as such. But that was untrue, particularly in one area… Anytime Jess witnessed an act of verbal or physical abuse being perpetrated against a helpless, defenseless victim he simply could not refrain from interfering—especially… ESPECIALLY… if this involved an adult and a child. If words didn't stop it, fists would. He wasn't above using a gun if convinced the battering was headed in the direction of certain death or lifelong disability. Even a prim mother admonishing a wayward daughter in the most genteel fashion caused Jess to wince if he happened to overhear.
So there you have it… one man determined to uphold discipline and the other dedicated to avoidance thereof, on a collision course over a fourteen-year-old boy. It was bound to cause trouble and it did. And thereby hangs the rest of the story (several months later)…
POOR PITIFUL ME
Andrew Patrick Sherman was not a happy camper. His day was gonna get a lot more interesting later on, only he didn't know that yet. If he had his druthers, he'd druther be fishing than chained by the ankle (figuratively speaking) to the seemingly endless list of chores he'd been saddled with—calculated with malice and aforethought by his older brother to keep him gainfully employed all the livelong day and then some. It just wasn't fair. He was fourteen years old now, almost growed up. He oughta have some say, but noooooooooo... it was 'Andy do this' and 'Andy do that' and 'Andy it's time for homework' and 'Andy it's time for bed.' With all the responsibilities heaped on him he oughta get more respect around here!
Recently he'd been assigned feeding, care and maintenance of the new Jersey cow Slim had purchased to replace their ancient Betsy, who'd gone dry. Andy did not care for cows. At. All. And Deecy (short for D.C. which was short for Damned Cow) was particularly (and atypically) ill-tempered. When she wasn't aiming to clobber him upside the ear with a manure-encrusted tail, she was hunching up to kick over the pail (with deadly accuracy) or trying to hook him with one of those needle-tipped incurved horns. And at least once a week she managed to escape from her pasture and lead her keeper on a not so merry chase, no matter that he'd checked the fence line over and over again and still hadn't figgered out how she was doing it. What else could Slim possibly find to offload on him?
Before breakfast he managed to extract, after a battle of wills, a pail of milk from Deecy and turned her out to pasture. Then he let the chickens out, scattering their grain away from the coop to fool them into leaving their eggs unprotected on the nest so that he could collect them. Directly after breakfast he helped his brother and Jess, his bestest friend in the whole wide world, hitch up the team to the buckboard for Slim to drive to town. Then he made about a million trips between the well pump and three different troughs, carrying buckets of water until his arms liked to have fell off. Jonesy's barrel holding their in-the-house water needed topping off, too.
Next, Andy assisted Jess in prepping the four replacements for the east-bound morning stage, unhitching the spent team when it arrived and rehitching the fresh ones, unharnessing the lathered, ennervated horses and turning them out to rest in their paddock until the west-bound afternoon run. This part of the work he didn't mind at all—partly because he just plumb loved horses and anything to do with them, but mainly on account of he often got to work with Jess alone.
Jess treated Andy like a equal, not just a botheracious kid. Jess didn't cut him any slack, but neither did he get all pissy like Slim did when Andy didn't get something exactly right. Jess was always patient and took time to explain things. If Jess wanted him to do something, he asked nicely, didn't just snap out orders like Slim did. He was a good listener, too, and most times knew exactly the right thing to say when Andy was feeling low and put-upon.
Since he'd arrived some months ago, Jess had been kind and understanding and considerate... well, except for the couple of times he'd lit out without warning, leaving Andy bereft and broken-hearted that his friend could do him thataway. But whenever he returned, days or weeks later and usually worse for the wear, Andy was quick to forgive and happy to have him back.
Andy was aware of his friend's bad reputation and more than a little in awe of it, although Jess consistently refused to discuss his past and his more unsavory exploits. (Slim had forbidden it, for one thing.) Andy also knew about the pistol—Jess' special quick-draw one—hidden in the niche in the fireplace. Though terribly tempted to sneak it out for a peek when no one was looking, he never had... out of respect for Jess' private property but more out of fear of what his brother might do if he caught him.
One of Andy's ongoing responsibilities was cleaning harness—washing off crap and dirt, soaping, oiling and so on. Sometimes Jonesy helped him if he wasn't busy elsewhere. After assembling all his supplies and gathering together the harness leathers, Andy plunked his butt down on an overturned keg in a shady spot by the barn and commenced to clean. Cleaning harness had to be the boringest job in the world. Boring, boring, boring. But it gave him plenty of time to think, which he'd been doing a whole lot of here lately.
Andy would've preferred to be doing this somewhere in Jess' vicinity so he'd at least have someone to talk to and ask questions of, but Jess had drawn blacksmith duty today while Slim was off to town on business. Of course, with all the clanging and banging going on under the lean-to on the other side of the barn where the forge was, they wouldn't have been able to talk much. Anyway, Jess hated smithing and tended to get kinda cranky and not much fun when he was stuck doing something he didn't want to do. Difference was, being a grown-up, Jess was allowed to complain out loud and use bad language (only when Slim wasn't around). Andy wasn't. Shut up and get on with it, Slim would say. Of course, he said the same thing to Jess who just sniggered and ignored him. At the moment Jess was smoking and cussing up a storm, as he wasn't real good at blacksmithing and seemed to be doing more damage to himself than to horseshoes and hitchpins.
Another thing Jess did when Slim wasn't around was smoke cigarets, because Slim was a non-smoker and had asked him not to do it around 'the boy'. Andy had followed Jess one day to see what he was up to behind the outhouse instead of in it and caught him in the middle of rolling a quirlie. He'd boldly asked to try one and Jess had obliged, managing not to guffaw when Andy turned green, choking and gasping after a few puffs. Andy decided that activity wasn't for him so it wasn't repeated, but at least he could now boast that he'd tried it—just not to Slim. (And it coulda been worse… what if Jess was a seegar-smoker or a dipper or a chawer? Slim orter be grateful it was just one little bitty cigaret!).
Shaking neatsfoot oil onto a rag which he recognized as a piece of his last-year's longjohns, now outgrown, Andy sighed deeply and applied his thoughts to the puzzling matter of his and his brother's deteriorating relationship. He'd idolized Slim from the time Ma went to Heaven right up until the time Jess came along. Then, somehow, Jess had become his new hero, the one he wanted to be with. Seemed like the closer he and Jess got, the meaner and madder Slim got about everything. Slim and Jess got along right fine... except when they was arguing, which they seemed to do an awful lot of. Whenever Jess took off, Slim would get madder than ever and yell at Andy and Jonesy both, like it was their fault. But when Jess came back, Slim was all relieved and glad to see him. It made no sense.
The other thing that didn't make sense to Andy was why Slim was being so rotten and even Jonesy had snapped at him a couple of times, which of course was why he, Andy, was so et up with bad thoughts and why he couldn't control his mouth or his actions. He was aware his behavior was bad and getting worse. He'd got to where he sassed Slim and was rude to Jonesy and even smartmouthed Jess once in a while. He'd been whiny, sulky, aggressive and generally disagreeable to the point where Slim threatened to take a switch to him. He was impolite to stage passengers. He 'forgot' things, threw things and deliberately broke other things. He'd even been mean to some of the horses (though instantly contrite) and even they were exhibiting signs of wariness when he was around. This was all most certainly Slim's and Jonesy's fault—if they treated him nicer he wouldn't be acting this way. Why couldn't they be more like Jess and just let a fella slide when he was havin' a bad day?
Let's take a few minutes to examine Jonesy and then we'll get into his views on Andy's approaching sea change (see 'The Tempest', Shakespeare, or look up the definition). This unprepossessing individual had a far more complex backstory than anyone might have guessed (and I know what it is, too, from reading his journals— which I might get around to telling about one of these days but not today.) Few people could recall his actual first name or when he'd first shown up around these parts, although everyone accepted he was attached to the Sherman household in some fashion—a shirttail relative perhaps—functioning as general factotum and dogsbody, cook and housekeeper, handyman and babysitter, shade tree psychologist and first response medtech to man and beast. Jonesy was also a walking compendium of esoterica. Everyone wondered where that knowledge came from. Jonesy suffered from chronic lower back pain, which he referred to simply as 'sacroiliac' (because too many jaws would drop and too many suspicions would be aroused if he took the time to explain the condition as trauma-induced rupture of the iliolumbar and posterior sacroiliac ligaments). Jonesy also played the piano with some skill. All of which is beside the point but goes toward explaining his part in all this.
Jonesy had been Matthew Sr.'s right hand man while Slim was away helping subdue Johnny Reb. He was there for Mary Grace when her husband went to glory, and he was there for Slim when his momma crossed the River Jordan. And now he was here for Andy, poised to do whatever he could to help navigate the boy through the stormy seas of adolescence. From the vantage point of his sixty-plus decades and having been around the block once or twice, Jonesy'd not only noticed what was going on but understood the source, which had very little to do with hero-worship of Jess Harper (which didn't help matters any) but everything to do with the boy having just turned fourteen. Only Father Time would calm that ocean of unrest.
Slim took after his daddy and would have consistently topped the charts on any pediatric development scale (had such existed). Jonesy had watched him go from boy to man almost overnight, with no intermission for adolescent rebellion—the tenor of the times had demanded that. And of course he'd been around when Andy was hatched. Andy didn't know it but he'd had a much easier early childhood than his big brother. There'd been other children between Slim and Andy, as attested to by eight miniature headstones in the family graveyard—some stillborn and others that didn't make it past the first month.
Andy'd been a puny baby, coddled and cosseted by his momma (especially after his daddy'd gone to join his ancestors) up until the time she herself went to dwell in that great celestial library in the sky. He didn't remember his daddy hardly at all and his brother was a stranger to him, having been away at the War of the Secession. He was twelve when Mary Grace gave up the spirit and interrupted Slim's delayed sowing of wild oats, so it'd been only two years since the brothers had been reunited. Slim didn't have the first clue about raising a young un and that first year was trial and error, but with Jonesy's subtle guidance they muddled through it and the following year.
Andy took after his momma and even after he got his full growth would never be as tall and brawny as his older brother, was Jonesy's prediction. And because he was also somewhat of a late bloomer puberty-wise (compared to Slim), he'd looked and acted like a little boy for so long that Slim hadn't yet realized that he wasn't one anymore. That was problem number one.
In Slim's two-year (so far) tenure as guardian in loco parentis, his success at child-wrangling wasn't too far off standard and he was doing a mighty fine job of educating his little brother, considering the circumstances… BUT… Jonesy had identified one or two other areas of deficiency. Slim never had playtime or playmates and look how well he turned out, so he didn't take into account that for healthy socialization a boy needs other boys to play with and talk to about boy stuff. That was problem number two. Problem number three in Jonesy's book was that in Slim's role as guardian in the absence of Matthew Sr. (may he rest in peace), he should've had That Talk with the boy some time back.
(If you'll forgive the intrusion here, you know what talk I mean. We mothers know exactly when it's time for That Talk with daughters. It ain't so easy with sons but we can usually tell when it's gettin' about time for it 'cause we're the ones doin' the laundry. Traditionally this is the father's duty—havin' That Talk, not doin' the laundry—and in most cultures age thirteen is the traditional age for it to happen.
Now maybe it just never crossed Slim's mind 'cause he was always too damn busy with other matters, or maybe it did but he was puttin' it off for when he had time to get round to it—it's an embarrassin' subject, after all. You woulda thunk he'd a noticed that Andy'd shot up six inches in just a few month's time, or that his voice was getting uneven, or that his face was getting' a mite spotty here an' there. But he hadn't.)
Jonesy knew full well what was going on in Andy's brain and why he was so unsettled in his skin as his body adapted itself to this new and frightening condition known as adolescence. He'd dipped into his mental inventory of handy advice for all occasions and set aside a few suitably ambiguous responses just in case the boy did approach him with questions. And as quartermaster of this outfit he'd invented reasons for Andy to accompany him into town so he could get the kid clothes and boots that fit out of the household money which Slim never questioned.
Jonesy seriously considered bringing the subject to Slim's attention but elected to keep his own counsel, deciding this was Slim's affair even if he was a bit tardy getting to it. On the other hand, if Slim didn't get around to it before too long, Jonesy feared he might be called upon to take up the slack. (Sure, he was old but he wasn't that old and he reckoned he could explain the Facts of Life as well as Slim. Not that he wanted to, but someone had to.)
Problem number four—and Jonesy sure was in a quandary over this—was the mutual admiration society going on between the gunfighter and the boy, with Andy unconsciously emulating many of his older buddy's less than desirable traits. Finally Jonesy determined it wouldn't hurt or step on anyone's toes to have a private confab with Andy in the near future about this and the problems it was causing.
WHAT ABOUT JESS?
Some of you might be wondering right about now, what about Jess? Since he was so close to Andy, why didn't Jess see what was happening and say or do something about it? After all, he was never shy about butting in! For this we need to back up a little…
The first time Jess overheard Slim giving Andy a hard time, he'd later sidled up to Slim with the opinion that maybe he was being a bit too hard on the boy. Slim told him to back off, it wasn't his business. That stung and he kept his peace for a while… until the next time it happened and Jess forgot to keep his mouth shut. Then came the day Andy let drop one swear word too many and Slim had washed his mouth out with soap. Jess had something to say about that, too, and was advised what would happen if he interfered again. They didn't speak for a few days. One day Andy had made Slim really angry (Jess didn't know about what) and Slim had snatched a quirt off a nearby saddle and lit into him with it. Jess jumped in and tried to take the weapon (as he saw it) away from Slim and a fistfight ensued. Jess saddled up and stayed away for a week. Andy wouldn't speak to Slim the whole time, coming out of his room only to do chores. And those were just a few of the many disagreements between Slim and Jess over transgression and punishment.
Keep in mind these incidents, though ongoing, took place over a considerable spread of months inbetween routine ranch operations and not-so-routine other goings-on which started happening not too long after Jess took up residence. (Face it, the man was a trouble magnet of the first order… but we already knew that, right?) For the sake of brevity we'll divide this into the BEFORE time (before Jess got there) and the AFTER time (after Jess moved in)…
BEFORE… If 'variety's the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavour' (thanks again to Mr. Cowper for his poem, The Task) then the diet of daily life at the Sherman ranch was bland indeed. Although they lived in a era and in a region of the emerging nation destined to go down in history as rife with lawlessness and adventure, hardly any of that darkened the doorstep of a little ranch in a tiny valley in a remote corner of a thinly populated territory. News of the outside world came to them after the fact, by way of the mail or the newspaper (obtained in town on Jonesy's weekly shopping expeditions) or through word of mouth from the occasional visiting neighbor or stage passenger, and sometimes from some itinerant just passing through.
Slim had a pistol and gunbelt which he rarely wore, trusting instead to a rifle in a scabbard strapped to the saddle or within easy reach under the seat of the buckboard. Slim was a good shot and mostly used the rifle for hunting game. (A side note here… Andy refused to take part in the killing of anything with fur and four legs although he was happy enough to partake of fried rabbit or venison steak after the donor had been dressed and was no longer recognizable as such. And although he could tuck into fried chicken like no tomorrow, its conversion from yard to plate had to be accomplished out of his sight and mind.)
AFTER… Well, we can't blame Jess for everything, can we? But he did have a colorful past loaded with spicy associations that insisted on following him right into his new home and tracking in excitement every which way. Soon it seemed like in every saloon frequented by criminals and yahoos of questionable character someone had scrawled on an outhouse wall, 'For a good time, see Sherman Relay Station'.
Now Jess had been on station approximately four months at the time of this story—the longest he'd ever been rootbound in his entire life—and he wasn't near housebroke yet. When he woke up and slipped on his trousers and boots, the first thing he did after his morning constitutional was strap on that gunbelt and tie down the holster (sometimes even before heading for the outhouse although why waste the effort when it had to come right back off again anyway?). Slim and Jonesy had been encouraging him to try walking around without it, just to get used to the idea, but that made him all jittery with his right hand twitching around looking for a reassuring pistolbutt that wasn't there. (Compare this to a long-time driver of stick-shift vehicles converting to automatic drive… for weeks afterward you've got an appendage flopping around down there on the floorboards searching for a non-existent clutch pedal.) They finally did manage to train him to leave his rig on the rack by the front door instead of draped over the bedpost or under his pillow and that was a major concession on his part.
Of course, with all the previously-unexperienced troubles and bad guys they seemed to be encountering every week, one wonders where they found the spare time to actually tend to the ranch and relay station. Slim had taken to wearing his sidearm on a daily basis. Jonesy now kept a loaded double-barreled shotgun on that same rack by the door and another single-barrel in the kitchen (presumably in case he needed to shoot the stove for some reason).
(Whoopsie… I appear to have strayed a ways from my thread, which was supposed to be about Jess—bad Nonie!—and also to give you a good peek into everyone's mindset at the time…) The situation was, as they say, volatile…
Andy remained convinced that his backtalk and actions were justifiable responses to Slim's having unaccountably turned mean on him. He felt proud that Jess took up for him and guilty that Jess got himself in trouble over it. He was also feeling a little guilty about avoiding Jonesy, who'd never been anything but kind to him and had always been his go-to guy for problem resolution.
Slim strongly believed he was doing what was right and necessary, in Andy's best interest, by nipping in the bud any unfavorable tendencies in the boy. He simply did not understand why Jess did not understand this, and didn't appreciate having his authority continually challenged or undermined by the newbie in the household. Slim usually let common sense dictate his actions and only rarely relied on intuition, but it had been intuition in charge that day he'd asked Jess to stay on. Whatever else he felt for Jess personally, Slim was now harboring misgivings about the wisdom of that decision and was seriously contemplating that he might be pushed into a corner where he'd have no alternative but to ask Jess to move on. He was feeling guilt and a sense of loss over that even though it hadn't happened yet. He was also a bit put out with Jonesy because he'd expected more support from that corner and none was forthcoming.
Jess was irritated that Slim didn't understand why he was so opposed to a grown man mistreating a child (as he perceived it). It never once occurred to him that if he'd simply explained about his own abused childhood then Slim might have understood his compulsion to prevent abuse at any cost. Furthermore, Jess had absolutely no concept of the metabolic forces currently in control of his young friend, as he himself had gone directly from abused child to abused prisoner of war. He really couldn't see what was so wrong with Andy's behavior. He was a boy and that's how boys were supposed to act.
Now Jonesy, he did understand why Jess didn't understand, but couldn't think of a diplomatic way of opening a dialogue with the man on the subject of how his sorry childhood influenced his current thinking. For one thing, Jess was an intensely private person who rarely and sparingly shared any history of that sort and would have been mortified to learn that he talked in his sleep, especially during one of his frequent nightmares which he thought no one knew about. Not only that, he talked while in the delirium of pain or fever, which Jonesy had already nursed him through on several occasions. So Jonesy knew a lot about Jess that Jess didn't know he knew.
Jonesy was desperately trying to maintain a position of neutrality while keeping the ship of household sailing on an even keel. Every day he woke up wondering if this was the day Slim would lose his cool and Jess would forget not to shoot him. Or Andy would run away (again). Or Jess would pack up and leave for good. Or Andy would succeed in talking Jess into let him tag along when they vamoosed, in which case Slim would hunt Jess down to the ends of the earth and blow him away to kingdom dome, friend or no friend. Life's a bitch and that's a fact.
A SAGEBRUSH SAGE EXPOUNDS
Jonesy had been around as long as Andy could remember, a benevolent uncle who could be relied on to give sage advice, who was always available to render aid and comfort where needed, and who could explain away a little boy's worries. There were some things Andy recognized, even in his childish naïveté, that Jess couldn't help him with—things like family problems, on account of Jess didn't have a family.
After he'd caught up on his chores that fateful afternoon, Andy carried his frustrations and aggravations indoors to Jonesy, who was peeling potatoes at the kitchen table. He was always peeling potatoes. Without preamble Andy launched into his primary concern: "Why does Slim hate me?"
Jonesy had been preparing for this, or something like it. Looking up into the boy's woeful countenance, Jonesy calmly got up, put the spuds in a basin of cold water so they wouldn't go brown, and untied his apron. Pouring two glasses of buttermilk, he beckoned to Andy to follow him out to the front porch, where he settled in his rocking chair and pointed to Andy to sit on the nearby bench outside the door. Andy recognized the onset of one of his elder's infamously lengthy articulations on Life, the Universe, and Everything. He sighed and sat, resigning himself to having to listen to a lecture when all he'd asked was a simple question. He shoulda knowed better. Really.
Jonesy proceeded to explain, as he saw it, why things wasn't the way they used to be and why Andy and Slim were at odds:
"Now see here, son... your brother doesn't hate you… he loves you... you're all the kin he's got and he's all the kin you got. But you should know, he made your momma a promise on her deathbed that he'd raise you up to be a fine young man and so far he's kept to that promise. Raising a child is the hardest job there is, especially when you don't have a missus to do the momma's part—and here he is taking on the part of three people... momma, pappy and brother. Another promise he made—to himself and to you—was to keep this ranch going and make it amount to something... something he could be proud to hand over to you when the time comes.
I know you think you got it rough, and maybe you don't have as much time to play as other boys with big families and more hands to share in the work, but think about how hard Slim works. When do you ever see him taking time to have fun? Never, that's when. It's work, work, work... all day, every day... just we can have a home to live in and clothes on our backs and food on the table. Didn't you ever stop to think that maybe he'd like some freedom, too? That maybe he'd like to kick over the traces and run away for a while... let someone else worry about getting things done? Kinda like Jess does when his innards gets the urgins and he runs off on us...
And don't gimme that look, boy... I know how you feel about Jess. It's all fine and good to have a friend and someone to look up to... but a man has to have his priorities. Oh, you don't know what that means? Well, I'll tell ya... it means you have to always keep a list in your head of the most important things in your life, the things you value most and what you have to do to keep 'em. As much as you like Jess, your brother is more important. As much as you'd like to run away and see the world, this ranch is more important. But the most important of all is accepting that you'll always have to answer to someone. Someone bigger than you will always call the shots. If nothing else, you'll have to answer to God for the way you chose to live your life.
Now... as far as Slim bein as crotchety as an ole hound dog with a sore tail... the fact is, Andy, he's jealous. I know you know what that means... it's when someone else has something you want, especially something you loved and lost and now you want it back. You're his pride and joy and you used to love him better'n anybody. Now you don't and that makes him sad, like he's failed in his duty to you. You see what I'm sayin'? He wants to be your hero again, not Jess.
Now I'm not saying you have to be less of a friend to Jess—he needs you, too, make no mistake—but Slim needs you more. You need to be his friend again and make him think he's the most important person in your whole life, because he is... and always will be until the day you find some lady to love and want to marry and make your own family with. Then she'll be the most important one... but by then Slim won't mind coming in second.
I don't expect you to understand all this right away, but I want you to think about it and maybe give it a try. Try to be nicer to your brother and don't go around with your bottom lip poked out all the time. He's doing the best he can, son."
This was the longest, most impassioned speech Jonesy had ever uttered in Andy's presence. Not rendered in a continuous diatribe, but delivered in more of a free-associative style in measured, stately cadences affording periodic spaces that invited question or comment. Andy had a few and they discussed his concerns. While it didn't overshadow everything else in Andy's hormonally-muddled mind, it lingered in the corners and later popped out whenever Andy had some quiet time to mull it over.
It was getting on toward late afternoon when Jonesy finally ran out of steam and Jess came up on the side porch to wash up after finishing his blacksmithing jobs for the day. Presently Jess came around the corner and gave him and Jonesy a put-on disgusted look.
"Ain't you two got better things to do than sit around lollygaggin'?"
"Everyone's entitled to a break every now and then," Jonesy said. "And we've just concluded a philosophical discussion somewhat outside your area of expertise."
Jess' eyebrows drew together. He suspected, but wasn't sure, that he'd just been insulted. "When's Slim gettin back?"
Jonesy shrugged. "He said probably not before nightfall and don't hold supper on his account. Which reminds me… it's Saturday so I'd best be gettin' back inside and start hottin' up some water."
"Rats!" Andy griped. Not because he was opposed to taking a bath but because he was gonna have to ferry yet more pails of water.
"Sh… uh, shoot!" Jess exclaimed. Not that he was opposed to bathing either, but had he remembered it was Saturday he wouldn't have bothered scrubbing up quite so thoroughly earlier.
THE SWIMMING HOLE, THE SATURDAY NIGHT BATH, AND MARES IN HEAT
What do these three things have in common? The answer, nothing… except each contributed to our drama in progress.
THE MARES… Andy knew where foals and calves, puppies and kittens came from and how they got made—you couldn't hardly grow up on farm without being confronted almost daily with reproductive processes—but he was pretty much in the dark as to how that translated into babies. He was completely mystified on the issue of human babies, having never seen an unclothed female of his own specie, although a comparison of his own equipment to that of all the other male mammalians led to much speculation.
About three months ago one of the Sherman brood mares had come in season so Slim took her down the road for a visit with Garland Bartlett's prize Morgan stallion. Andy rode along, not for the instructional value, but for a rare chance at a gabfest with Tommy Bartlett, the only boy in a houseful of girls (which admittedly had begun to take on a certain attraction) and always a source of both scatological humor and semi-reliable intel on females in general. Andy didn't especially like Tommy, but as he was the only other boy around he was better than no entertainment at all.
As they sat side by side on the top rail of the paddock fence in which the equine pas de deux was taking place, Tommy made some scurrilous claims regarding the antics of an older sister and her beau which Andy refused to believe. Tommy insisted, however, that his information was factual and obtained by first-hand observation through a knothole—said activity taking place in the barn after the old folks had bedded down for the night. In Tommy's words: "He was a-goin at 'er like a ole billy goat and her just a-grinnin the whole time. Course, I couldn't see everything cause she kept her dress on, doggone it. I can't wait til I'm old enough to have me a gal like Emmy Lou, only not my sister!" The whole idea was mind-boggling and a little nauseating, but the question remained: Was it true? Andy somehow sensed (rightly so) that a recitation of this anecdote wouldn't go over too well with his brother so he kept it to himself.
The day before yesterday another mare turned up ready for love (causing Slim to lament 'Why can't they get their schedules coordinated, dammit!') This time Jess was designated procreative overseer and again Andy rode along. Resuming their front-row perch, Tommy came through with an update: "Guess what? Emmy Lou's gonna have a baby and Maw and Paw are real mad about it! He went lookin' for Billy Sol Baumgartner with a shotgun!" Obviously there had to be a connection.
Logic dictated that Jess was his best possible avenue to enlightenment, as Andy'd overheard on several occasions Slim commenting to Jonesy on Jess' popularity among the ladies back in town. So, on the way home Andy decided that by sharing these two conversations with his sidekick he might be able to gauge if the latter was amenable to answering questions of a delicate nature and possibly to sharing back any useful knowledge. Andy concluded his spiel with, "And so I was wonderin', Jess, how can you tell when a lady comes in heat and what do you do about it?"
Now Jess had a real mobile face with funny eyebrows that turned up on the insides. You always could tell from his expression what he was thinking about or feeling, except when he was playing poker. When he was in a good mood he got laugh dimples in his checks and those eyebrows would be ridin' high. When he was in a bad mood, those eyebrows would be ridin' low and jammed together in the middle. Inbetween they just looked like he was either thinking hard or about to ask a question. Plus he had a number of facial tics—muscles that twitched at his jawbones and at the corners of his mouth. After you got to know him a while you could tell what was going on inside according to which and how many of those muscles were twitching. Jess' eyes were another fairly reliable barometer—twinkling (happy), soft (relaxed or sedated), dull and hard (contemplating giving someone who richly deserved it a severe case of lead poisoning). (Andy didn't like that last one at all—it gave him the willies and made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.)
When Andy dropped that question on him, Jess pulled up and busted out in a big ole coughing fit. Andy reined in his own horse and turned him around to see what was up. His friend was all turkey-wattle red in the face and every muscle in it was twitching furiously. Andy was alarmed.
"Jess… are you alright? Are you having a fit?"
Jess was shaking his head negatively, pounding on his chest with one hand while fanning his face with his hat in the other.
"Road dust," he managed to choke out. "Gimme a minute."
When the coughing spell had subsided and Jess honked his nose on his bandanna, indicating they could move forward, he did turn to Andy and say, "About that question… let me get back to you after I've given it some thought, okay pard?"
THE SATURDAY NIGHT BATH… is an institution that persisted for hundreds of years in the Western world (meaning generally Europe and later America), from the time people first took the notion that once a year/quarter/month wasn't quite enough until the time indoor bathing facilities with running water became the norm rather than the exception. The customary Saturday night ablutions were usually accomplished in a wooden or galvanized tin hipbath with hot water conveyed from kettles and pots on the kitchen stove. Next to that was a pail of water with a dipper for sluicing off soap suds at the conclusion of the actual scrubbing phase. In warm to moderate months, this was undertaken en plein air on the front porch, where disposal of gray water was easy. In cold months the tub was brought into the parlor, where emptying it was laborious and messy. Order of usage varied from household to household but the usual pecking order was oldest in first, youngest in last. Sometimes blankets were strung up around the tub to aid gender privacy.
Earlier in the summer Jonesy and Slim had constructed at the back of the house near the chicken coop an elevated two-stall outdoor shower with hinged half-doors and an overhead reservoir that dispensed cold water with a pull-chain—quite an innovation for its time but of course only usable in warm-weather months and they still clung to the Saturday tradition regardless. In the Sherman frat house there was no undue consideration for modesty as each stripped for his turn in the tub. Not that they habitually walked around unclothed for any length of time, just that nudity was no big deal... except that secretly Andy had been wondering when he was going to grow hair elsewhere than on his head. In the last couple of months he'd finally gotten his answer to that but had been entirely too embarrassed to call attention to the fact. There were other matters on which Andy could have used some advice and assurance, only he didn't have the courage to bring up that subject, either.
Andy was always the last one to bathe and the three grown-ups otherwise engrossed by the time he got out of the tub, wrapped a towel around himself, and retreated to the bedroom he shared with Jonesy to slip on his nightshirt. Therefore, his recently accelerated transition into adolescence had gone unnoticed... until yesterday at the swimming hole.
THE SWIMMING HOLE… When Jess said 'let's go swimming' he didn't mean riding the half-mile over to the big lake on the property, the very same lake beside which he and Slim had first met. And he didn't mean employing arms and legs in a synchronized fashion designed to propel one's body through water from point A to point B. Jess had never learned to swim, as Slim had discovered when he'd had to rescue the half-drowned rat from a raging torrent. Slim had mentioned afterward that he and Andy could swim like otters and further suggested that Andy take Jess to the big lake and start teaching him how. Andy of course had been pleased as punch... imagine him, just a kid... tasked with instructing a grown-up—and a notorious gunfighter to boot—how to swim! If only he had someone to brag to...
Right off they ran into difficulties. Jess' aquaphobia was so deep-seated that he couldn't bring himself to venture out above waist-deep much less hold his breath and keep his head underwater for any length of time. Andy figured they'd better start off with something a little less daunting and got Jess to help him partially dam a good-sized creek not too far from the house. The tree-shaded pool they created was maybe thirty feet in diameter and no more than four feet deep at the most, with no appreciable current. Jess could deal with that and teaching got underway, first by his learning to float. (It's not like he was training for the Olympics or anything! And eventually he did learn... in case you're wondering.)
But swimming's not a major feature of this story so we won't dwell on it. It's what Jess observed yesterday while he was splashing around in that pool with Andy, both of 'em nekkid as jaybirds. (Swimsuits hadn't been invented yet and it would be a few more years before Jess hit on the idea of cutting the legs off trousers.) Slim had gone off on business for a few hours, Jonesy was having his usual restorative afternoon nap, and the two were playing hooky from chores.
Anyway, Andy noticed Jess glancing at his privates with a surprised, speculative look... like he'd maybe just sprouted an extra pecker. Nothing was said then, but after they'd dressed and were walking back up to the house, Jess cleared his throat noisily. With his face gone kinda pink and twitchy (again), he casually inquired of Andy if he'd had the birds-and-bees talk with his brother yet. Andy allowed as he had no idea what Jess was talking about.
"You know... the facts of life... men and women... that kinda thing..."
"No. That is, I don't think so, Jess."
"Well you'd remember if you had."
No more was said until later that evening, after supper was over and they'd had their baths.
BIRDS AND BEES
Jess and Andy were sitting at the parlor table, Jess fidgeting with a newspaper and Andy about to crack open a book and get to his lessons. Jonesy was puttering around the kitchen putting things away. Jess got that look on his face like when he was fixing to do something guaranteed to set Slim's tail on fire.
"You're fourteen years old, right?" His voice had dropped about two octaves. That alone was enough to alert the initiated that he was up to something. Jonesy's internal homeland security advisory system kicked in from code blue (guarded) to code yellow (elevated).
Andy looked up, puzzled. "Yeah." Behind his back, Jonesy froze. Oh noes!
"And you don't know nothing about women, right?" Please Lord, let this be just a rhetorical question! Jonesy went from code yellow to code orange (high) in a flash.
"I guess not…"
"Hmnnnnn..." Don't do it, Jess… just… don't! Code red (severe)… warning lights were flashing… silent alarms were going off!
Jonesy was whiplashing his head negatively and making throat-slashing motions that Andy couldn't see. That was all it took and there was Jonesy without an ICBM to his name with which to launch a counteroffensive.
"Andy, there's some things you should know…" At that point Jonesy concluded that Jess might as well stick his head up his butt and kiss it goodbye because when Slim heard about this…
With paper and pencil at the kitchen table, Jess undertook to instruct his protégé on the finer points of procreation and recreation vis-à-vis human physiology and biological imperatives. Lacking the vocabulary (not to mention the refinement) to impart such knowledge in a more scientific and dispassionate manner and relying entirely on empirical data, Jess was employing rather crude graphics and vulgar colloquialisms to illustrate the mechanics of interaction with those of the fairer sex, embellishing elaborately on the pleasures thereof. Andy's eyeballs were popping out of his skull, his invisible antennae flapping in the breeze and his mouth transfixed in a rapt 'O'.
Jonesy was gesticulating wildly, making hanged-man faces, desperate to get Jess' attention. But Jess was too caught up in his narrative to acknowledge the older man's arms flailing like semaphores.
As it happened, neither Jess nor Andy had heard Slim arrive. A noisy wind had sprung up and a light rain was pinging on the roof and windows, masking the usual heralds—the clippety-clops, the harness jingles, the wheel squeaks—of an approaching vehicle. Jonesy had happened to look out the window just as Slim was leading the team into the barn along with the buckboard to keep whatever cargo was on it dry until the rain stopped. Jonesy stayed glued to the window, praying that Jess would wind down before Slim got through putting those horses up and came on to the house. Well, Jess didn't and here came Slim bounding across the yard dodging raindrops. When Jonesy didn't hear the sound of boots clomping on the porch, he knew Slim had paused to remove them to avoid treading mud or worse onto the recently swept porch boards. He was thoughtful that way. Jonesy also knew that as the window next to the front door was still halfway open, Slim could hear pretty much everything being said in the parlor and Slim stayed out on that porch an awfully long time, getting an earful.
Suddenly the door burst open and Slim steamed through in a towering volcanic rage. Uh oh.
Professor and scholar had no idea he'd just spent a couple of mortified minutes outside listening to the Jess Harper version of sex education for young gentlemen.
Having accurately foreseen Slim's reaction, Jonesy prudently absented himself from the blast zone, slipping out the door behind Slim and settling himself in his rocker to await the fallout. It was too bad Slim had to walk in at the wrong moment but he would have found out anyway. Three seconds later Jonesy was joined by Andy, who'd been summarily ejected from the room, presumably to protect his now not so innocent sensibilities from acquiring even more undesirable information.
Andy himself was of two minds at this point. On the one hand, gratified for the eye-opening introduction to the subject that was always of paramount interest to a boy his age. On the other hand, frankly overwhelmed by too much information. Thus, Andy sitting on the wooden bench next to Jonesy's rocking chair, was very much titillated and a whole lot worried.
A fat lot of good that does, sending the boy outside, Jonesy was thinking. Through the open window above their heads, superheated words—some familiar and some not—flung themselves into the night's darkness like a flock of exotic angry birds. Words like prostitute, fornication and bordello and a whole lot of known cusswords plus some potentially useful new ones, raw as turpentine. Andy sure hoped he could remember them all so he could ask Jess about them later, if he was still alive. There sure was a lot of hollering going on and what initially was just a verbal thrust-and-parry rampage was giving way to sounds of breaking furniture and shattering crockery accompanied by shouts, thumps, grunts and yelps.
It wasn't unknown for Jess and Slim to engage in fisticuffs from time to time, sometimes in horseplay and occasionally during a serious disagreement. Andy hated when they were well and truly mad enough at each other to fight. Although Jess was super-fast on his feet and had loads more experience at brawling, especially dirty fighting, he wasn't always in tip-top condition due some kind of injury or other which put him at a slight disadvantage against the taller, heavier Slim who enjoyed a hearty constitution and had a much higher regard for self-preservation. Slim didn't go around letting himself be knocked senseless every other week like Jess did. Jess never gave up but he quite often lost anyway when Slim was at the other end of a fist.
The altercation seemed to center on Jess' unwholesome influence on Andy. Jess' counterpoint was that as Slim had been derelict in this aspect of Andy's education, someone had to bring the kid up to speed. Sounded reasonable to Andy, so what was all the boondoggle about? He asked Jonesy.
Jonesy cogitated in silence for several seconds, trying to formulate a succint response that would be simple enough to satisfy the boy's confusion. "Well, there's some things a young fella needs to know right about the time he starts turning into a man, but before he's old enough to start doing... well... man things, if you know what I mean."
"The stuff Jess was telling me about?"
"Yep... those kind of things."
"But why's Slim so mad? I woulda had to learn it sometime, wouldn't I? What difference does it make if Jess told it or Slim did?"
A perfectly reasonable but loaded question. The difference, Jonesy decided, lay in privilege and presentation. "Usually it's the father's job to explain these things to a son, like your granddaddy explained it to Slim when he was about your age, as I recall... no wait... he was younger than you... eleven or twelve, I believe, but then he grew up faster."
"But Slim's never told me nothin," Andy interjected gloomily. "I asked him but he said I was too young. Jess doesn't think I'm too young or he wouldn't a said nothin. Which one's wrong?"
Oh boy. "Neither one's wrong... but neither one's right, either. Being kin and having to be daddy to you, Slim should've had this talk with you already, but I expect he was putting it off until he could get it just right. Believe me, he would've been a lot more proper about the subject than what you just learned tonight, because he's got the book learning. Bottom line though, he had the right to be the one to tell you, not Jess.
Now, Jess... he comes from a different kind of family, where nobody went to school—he didn't even learn how to read until after he left home. If his daddy ever did bother to have that talk with him, which I doubt, he probably got the salty version just like he gave you, because that's the only one he knows. Jess had to grow up all by himself, nobody to show him how to do things or point him in the right direction. To his way of thinking, you learn whatever you need to know as it comes your way—there isn't a right time, there's just a right now. He didn't think it was wrong to tell you... but he didn't stop to think that it wasn't his business to do it. And maybe some of the details could've waited until after you... well... until a little later."
"But Jonesy, when do you reckon I'm gonna...?"
Jonesy put his hand up. "Whoa! Stop! End of conversation. You got any more questions, take 'em to your brother... not Jess," he added hastily.
"What if he won't answer, though?"
"Oh... I reckon he might now... he's got sense enough to know there ain't no stuffin' that genie back in the bottle."
What bottle? And what's a jee-nee? Andy wondered, noting that the rain had slacked off.
Just then the door was yanked open and Jess came stomping out, staunching the blood flowing from his nose with his bandanna. He stalked across the yard with battered dignity and disappeared into the barn. A few minutes they could hear muffled laughter—Jess was laughing his guts out. Slim stuck his head out the door and ordered Andy to bed. About to object on the grounds that he hadn't done anything to merit punishment, Andy thought better of it and went meekly.
Jonesy arose stiffly and hobbled out to the barn. A few minutes later, tugging his nightshirt over his head, Andy thought he heard what sounded like a girl's scream from that direction. Nah, must've just imagined that, he thought, climbing into bed. (Actually it was Jonesy out there realigning Jess' nose for him.) And a few minutes after that, he heard Jonesy return to the house. Easing back out of bed, Andy tiptoed to the bedroom and cracked it open just a hair…
Jonesy was helping a silently fuming Slim right upturned furniture and sweep domestic shrapnel from the floor. He coaxed Slim into sitting at the kitchen table and accepting a cup of coffee. Getting himself a cup, he seated himself directly opposite so that Slim had no alternative but to look him in the face.
"Let's talk about this," the old man requested quietly. In his day he'd been to Slim what Jess now was to Andy, and he knew he could, by working at it with his usual calm persistence, smooth Slim's ruffled feathers and get him to see the other rooster's side.
They were talking in such low tones Andy was unable to make out the words, so he went back to bed. Lying there, listening to the rise and fall of their voices on the other side of the now closed door, Andy contemplated the events of the evening. What he'd learned was a sight more interesting than stupid arithmetic and grammar, which Andy couldn't see any use for if he was gonna spend the rest of his life on this here ranch, herding chickens and whatnot. Not that he intended to, no way! The next time Jess took off—and Andy knew there'd be a next time—he was going along whether Jess wanted him to or not. And if he couldn't ride with him, why, he'd just follow his tracks. He was gettin pretty good at that.
Hours later Andy was awakened by a scrabbling at the window, which he somehow got open without disturbing (so he thought) his rhythmically snoring roommate. Jess was outside, shivering but grinning although his nose didn't look quite right and one eye was swollen shut.
"Hey parder... cud jou had me oud a blaget? Sure code out inna bard."
Jess mimicked hugging his arms and shivering. "Code! Need blaget."
"Ain't you comin in?"
"Nah tonide. Led Slib coo off firs…"
"I can't understand what you're saying, Jess…"
Andy jumped when suddenly Jonesy appeared at his side, jabbing his forefinger at Jess through the open window. "Jess Harper, you get in the house right now! You're not sleeping in the barn tonight or any other night! I'll go unbar the door." Jonesy left the room and didn't come back. Andy slid down the sash and slid back under the covers as Jess came in, stripped down to his longhandles and crawled into the warm space recently vacated by Jonesy who apparently had moved next door to take over Jess' bed for the rest of the night. Jess immediately fell asleep, followed shortly by Andy, relieved that Jess was safe, comfortable and… best of all… still alive.
AFTERMATH AND EPILOGUE
When he woke up alone the next morning, Andy hurriedly dressed and rushed out to the kitchen, half-expecting to find that Jess had finally gone for good. Jonesy was already busy at the stove frying up eggs and bacon, looking jaunty and quite pleased with himself. Slim and Jess were sitting at the table drinking coffee and serenely discussing their plans for the day, nice as you please… as if the row had never happened. They both looked awful—worse than being rode hard and put up wet, worse than being drug through a hedge backwards. In fact, they both looked like they'd been run over several times with one of those new-fangled disc harrows. Both had black eyes and Jess' left one was swelled shut. Slim had a big goose egg on top of his head head and a patch of hair missing. Jess' nose looked like a ripe strawberry. Both of them sported swollen scab-encrusted knuckles and seemed to have a little difficulty chewing. Neither one had buttoned up his shirt yet and the pair of them could have passed for green and purple grapes on the vine. Other than that…
Grown-ups sure were unpredictable.
Sometime after breakfast, Slim apologized to Jess for overreacting and losing his temper. Jess apologized to Slim for horning in on his territory, he hadn't meant no harm. Then they sauntered off to the ever-present chores. Later that afternoon Slim interrupted Andy in the midst of harness-soaping and announced they were going fishing. Andy nearly fell off his perch in total astonishment. This was unprecedented... Slim leaving chores undone to take him fishing? What's up with that?
After they got settled on a grassy bank under a shade tree and prepared to drown some worms, Slim apologized to Andy for having neglected him emotionally and not being more aware of his needs. He then proceeded to explain why Andy was feeling the way he was, and that what he was feeling was normal and would pass in due time along with those unsightly spots on his face.
Relieved of that worry, Andy apologized for his recent bad behavior even if he couldn't help it and promised to try to do better. Slim said he couldn't ask for more than that. He admitted to being jealous of Jess' position in Andy's esteem and promised he'd try to get over it even if he couldn't help feeling that way. Being a dethroned hero wasn't easy for him.
Slim informed him that what he'd heard from Jess the night before was true after a fashion but represented only a very small percentage of what actually constituted a committed relationship between a man and a woman who loved each other. He drew upon the words of the traditional wedding vow to illustrate how hearts and minds, rather than gonads, occupied the larger percentage. He told Andy he was gonna skip over the ins and outs of congress, as Jess had pretty much took care of that subject. (Yo! Reader... don't even think about going there!)
He told Andy about his plans for Andy's future and what they represented for a boy who was desperate to get away from the ranch but didn't want to leave it either. Andy kinda got the idea about how you couldn't have your cake and eat it, too. And the more Slim talked, the more Andy realized what a wonderful opportunity he was being given. He could practically visualize that great glowing portal opening to the world outside. Best of all, he could come back and run his veterinary practice from the ranch, if he ever got to be a veterinarian, which was now his greatest ambition. (Naturally, by the next year he'd got over some of this idealism and was dreading the prospect of leaving home.)
The brothers caught a mess of trout that day, which they cleaned and took back to Jonesy to fry up for supper in cornmeal and bacon grease. Jess had obligingly and uncomplainingly finished all the chores before they got back and his sapphire eyes shone with contentment. He was home.
And, of course, everybody apologized to Jonesy... just because.
There was peace in the valley and all was well at the Sherman ranch—for a while, anyways.
NONIE'S ADDENDUM ON CUSSIN AND CONSEQUENCES… I've come to find that writin' a story is like surfing' the Internet—you start hunting' for reference material in one place an' before you know it you find yourself adrift in a ocean of semi-related subjects or completely off course.
Slim wasn't given to indecent language unless under severe stress. Most likely he was familiar with all the expletives and descriptive phrases common to his gender and the times, but he rarely forgot hisself. And I can just about guarantee that for every one word he knew, Jess knew two or three more.
My ole man Harper an' me an' all our brothers and sisters an' cousins grew up on workin' ranches so collectively we'd acquired us a pungent vocabulary at a young age. Plus, when the boys enlisted (or was drafted), the ones what made it back from Vietnam enriched our data base considerably, diversity-wise, 'cause we learnt to cuss not only in English an' Spanish but in a variety of Far Eastern tongues not to mention our non-Asian allies. We boomers wasn't the first nor the last generation to employ unseemly language but (an' I'm sure shamed to admit this) we was the first in which girls was just as apt to let fly in public. A sorry sign a the times but there you go.
Nowadays our young soldiers are comin' home with even more new words an' phrases of the Middle Eastern varieties. An' there's no doubt in my mind that someday in the far off future when we get round to 'peacekeepin' in outer space, we'll then have access to an interplanetary lexicon of truly foul expressions.
Mommas throughout the ages has labored to discourage this sort of unbecomin' behavior through a variety of deterrents, from makin' the miscreant stand in a corner (for mild infractions) to application of a wooden spoon or willow switch (for exceptionally bad instances or recidivists).
Far and away the most popular remedy for potty mouth has historically been introduction of a bar a soap into the offending orifice, which practice has pretty much fell off since the government decided to start tellin' people how to raise their young uns. Nowadays that's held to be child abuse and you'd have the welfare nazis on your tail in a New York minute. Which brings us to surrenderin' your precious allowance money to the Swear Jar, as it was known in our family... you know the drill: a nickle or a dime or a quarter every time your momma overheard a forbidden word escape your lips. And mommas, as we've all learned, not only got eyes in the backs of their heads but ears like owls what can hear a mouse fart a mile away an' catch a swear word whispered over in the next county.
Back in Great-Grandma Mary Grace's day children was unacquainted with the concept of a monetary gift just for existin' (or for doin' chores for that matter), there bein' no money nor any place to spend it. But if she'd had a Swear Jar, it most likely woulda been a stoneware crock. When young Matthew Jr. needed on-the-spot correction (as he did from time to time, bein' a boisterous lad), out would come that wooden spoon 'cause the nearest willow was some ways off down by the creek. And when he was really, really naughty, what was called for was a razor strop with Matthew Sr. attached to the other end of it.
At some point the weekly allowance came into fashion, usually as a reward for chores accomplished. Grandma Anel kept a quart Mason jar (usually almost full) in the pie safe and God help anyone who thought they could sneak a few coins outten it. As for corporal punishment, girls got their behinds smacked with a hairbrush and boys were trotted out to the woodshed by Grandpa Jess.
Momma had a gallon pickle jar which she guarded as zealously as Cerebus at the gates of the underworld. Whenever it was full, she'd make us all sit at the kitchen table an' roll up all them coins in their little paper tubes. Then she'd count it all up an' announce the total so we'd get the full import of just how much our ill-considered utterances had cost us. (We didn't get that money back, neither.) The reward for bad behavior was the paddle (an old one what the dog done chewed the red rubber ball off of) or Daddy's belt if you were tee-totally out of control.
Of course, Momma's and my generation had other modes of punishment not available to earlier ones—chiefly, withholding keys to cars and the dreaded Television Restriction: My generation: You don't get to watch Laramie, Wanted Dead or Alive or Wagon Train for two weeks! (Talk about deprivation!) Twenty years later: No MTV for two weeks! Twenty more years: Removing and withholding digital devices for one week. You wanna see a non-drug-using kid go into serious withdrawal? Just take away his smartphone or iPad or iPod!
And that's what I have to say about it.