Joseph Vinson, had become Josh's cousin, when the adoption had been finalized in May. He turned and waved one last time as he rode out with Dave Schmidt, who was the foreman of the ranch he had inherited from his grandfather. Joseph would be spending a month there and it certainly wasn't going to be a vacation. He would be acting as the cook's boy for the entire month and he wouldn't even be sleeping in his own house, but in the bunkhouse with the cowboys.
It was very likely Joseph would get boxed ears, swats on the bottom which wouldn't be playful swats but punishment and very likely a couple of belt whippings and he was in heaven. Josh sighed a little, then grinned. He didn't envy Joseph one bit, but he would miss him.
He swung around on the pole supporting the overhanging roof and grinned at Clay Addison, who had pushed his hat back and was watching him. Clay asked, “What's the hardest working boy in Rowley doing just idling?”
Josh giggled, telling him, “Gene has to go to Santa Fe today, so the only thing I have to do is my chores, though since Joseph's going out to his ranch, I have his chores as well as mine to do.” He rolled his eyes, “He's going to be working much harder than I am. Even when Gene gets back, I'll only be working from eight until two. It's not a vacation for Joseph. He's going to be the cook's boy for a whole month. He's going on the books as that and he's going to be paid as that. It's his idea of fun. He'll be getting up at four and he'll probably fall into bed about seven or eight o'clock after he cleans up after supper. No thank you. I have plenty of time for swimming and stuff.”
Clay said, with a smile, “I must admit having grown up on a ranch and knowing exactly what he's in for, I don't envy Joseph either. However, most of the kids in this town would trade places with him in a minute and would enjoy it so much they'd go back next year. Gluttons for punishment.”
Josh's wide brown eyes glinted with mischief, as he said, “Have you heard the big news?”
“What big news is that Josh, my boy.” Clay asked.
Josh told him, “Tanny and Sam got married last night by Judge Howard. Tanny said she was too old for a wedding and Sam said he didn't care how they got married, he just wanted to get married. Marnie's leaving this afternoon on the stagecoach and she plans to break the news gently to her father and mother. Gene says she's being silly, they've been trying to get him married off since he became a lawyer. I'm going to be staying at home and Judge Howard is gonna be coming in and making sure everything's all right. Marnie taught Joseph and me how to cook and we can sew well enough to sew up rips and put on buttons. Part of our chores include helping to clean the house. So I'll be taking care of myself mostly.
“It's funny,” Josh said, “when I had to take care of myself, I always wanted to be part of a family, now that I'm part of a family, I'm looking forward to taking care of myself for a couple of weeks.”
Josh told him, “It was after ten o'clock before they came and told Gene and Marnie. That was long after Joseph and I were in bed. We had to get dressed and everything.”
Clay asked, a little puzzled, “Wouldn't your nightshirts have been enough, I've seen them. They cover more of you than your clothes do.”
Josh went red with embarrassment and scuffed his bare toe in the dirt street. Clay grinned as he realized why. He said with amusement, “You don't wear nightshirts anymore do you?”
Josh blushed an even deeper red, then shook his head, saying, “No. Both Marnie and Gene see us bare every night anyway, because Marnie insists that we have at least a quick bath every day before we go to bed. A coupla months ago during that real hot spell we had Joseph and I stopped wearing 'em and she hasn't made us since then. In fact she packed 'em away.”
“But anyway Joseph and I got up and we kissed the bride and shook hands with the groom.” Josh said solemnly, “It's the first time I ever had an aunt who actually liked me. That's nice.” he sighed, “Even though I'm looking forward to taking care of myself for a little while, it's still gonna be lonely for the next couple of weeks, no Joseph, no Marnie or Gene, no Sam or Tanny.”
He said, “Marnie asked why they chose the 4th of July weekend, but Sam said they had intended to do it two weeks ago, but when he sprained his ankle and couldn't walk for a couple of days, they postponed it to this weekend. They're sorry they'll miss the picnic.”
Josh had a puzzled look on his small face, as he said, “It's funny but I don't feel like going to the picnic either.”
Clay said gently, “That's because you'd be going by yourself and even though you don't mind being alone for a couple of weeks, still you know what being alone is like and it's not all it's cracked up to be.”
Josh giggled, saying, “That's why you're sparking the new dressmaker, huh?”
With the speed that made him so fast with a gun, Clay's hand snaked out and grabbing Josh by the arm, pulled him toward him. He gave Josh half a dozen swats on the seat of his trousers, Josh giggling the whole time.
Clay marveled at the change from the silent, very shy boy who had first shown up last summer in Rowley. Josh was still shy with those he didn't know. He was a self-confident little boy now, who enjoyed joshing with those he considered his friends and didn't even mind staying alone for a couple of weeks.
Clay let go of Josh and the boy turned a couple of cartwheels in sheer joy at being alive. He shouted, “See ya later, Clay, I'm going down to the swimming hole to see if there's anyone there. I'm not ‘lowed to go swimming alone.”
“Enjoy yourself, Josh.” Clay yelled after him and the boy turned and gave a quick wave.
Josh watched Marnie get ready to get on the stagecoach and suddenly he felt forlorn and sad. He wondered why, he hadn't felt this way this morning when Gene had left. Marnie, looking down at her adopted son, had easily learned how to read his face.
She told him firmly, “Don't worry Josh. It's just that you've just realized that you'll really be alone for two weeks. You knew it in your mind, but now your emotions know it too. They're not quite as confident that you don't mind being alone as your mind is. You'll get over it and if you don't, well that's all right too. It just tells you how much you've become part of our family.”
She gave him a kiss on his forehead and that restored his good humor. He loved being kissed. Josh couldn't understand why some of the other kids were so embarrassed by it. It made him feel warm and tingly inside.
Josh waved until the stagecoach was out of sight and then wondered what he should do. He was already bored. He had gotten used to school and then working with Gene after school. He giggled, remembering when Marnie had come to get him so he could say goodbye to Gene.
Marnie, unlike some mothers, had come all the way to the pool rather than calling out from inside the trees. That had naked boys dashing for cover either in the trees or in the deeper spots of the pool. It hadn't bothered Josh, as he had told Clay she saw him naked every night anyway. He had gotten out of the pool and dried himself on the towel she had brought and then pulled on his clothes.
Josh looked at the cowboys lounging in front of the saloon. He wished they would just leave. Their leader was the nephew of one of the ranchers who wasn't particularly happy that they were staying around either. But they had stayed out of trouble, somehow and while they all drank, none of them was ever really drunk, but then again none of them was ever really sober either. Cletus Potter, their leader, liked showing off his speed with a gun and Josh admitted he was very fast, but when shooting at a target he usually put his first bullet into the ground. Josh figured he was lucky he had never gone up against anyone with a gun, or he'd be dead.
Josh heard Conch ask from behind him. “Do you dislike them as much as you do me? I see you've been glaring at them.”
For some reason his usual dislike of Conch wasn't there. Josh said, scornfully, “Worse. We don't like each other none, but as least we can respect each other. With them, I ain't seen nothing to respect.” he said with disdain. “They say they trailed a small herd of cattle from his father's ranch to another rancher and just decided to stop in Rowley to see his uncle on the way back. But where'd they get all the money? Maybe they collected a few steers on the way that didn't belong to Potter's father.”
Conch said with amusement but also with some concern, “Kid, make sure you don't say that where none of them can hear you. You're only a kid so they can't kill you, but they could whip the hide off you for that type of accusation.”
Josh said hotly, “I'm not dumb, I wouldn't say it where no one could hear it.” Then he said in a puzzled voice, “I don't like you none, but as I said I respect you and for some reason I trust you too.”
Conch said, “Maybe we don't like each other because we're too much alike. Neither of us will ever quit. You fought to stay alive when nobody cared whether you lived or died. Then when the bank robbers took you, you stayed alive in spite of them. Me, I might stop fighting when they bury me, though they might have a hard time keeping me in the ground.”
Josh giggled and he heard Conch moving away. He wondered why the instant animosity was no longer there. He decided he'd ask Clay about it.
Clay said thoughtfully, “I think Conch is right. The reason you two rub each other the wrong way is that you're so much alike. He's probably the most dangerous man in this town. He fought Bubba Biggers a few months before you came to town. Bubba weighs about two forty and Conch about one eighty. Bubba knocked him down about twenty times and Conch kept getting back up. Conch ended up winning that fight because there's no quit in him. Go after him with a gun and you better kill him with the first bullet, or he'll get off at least one shot and he won't miss.”
He said, “He's not afraid of any man. That time you first met him when you were testing out the .36 caliber conversion that Gene did for me. He wasn't afraid of me, even though he knows he can't equal my speed with a gun. He's fast but not that fast, but he won't back down. If you have an off day and miss that first shot, you're dead because he won't.”
He pointed at Josh, saying, “You're the same. A lot of kids would have curled up and died when you got thrown out by your aunt and uncle. But you stayed alive because you won't quit. You knew you didn't have a chance against those bank robbers, yet you're still alive and they're not, because you won't quit.”
Clay nsaid soberly, “People who are too much alike tend to butt heads for a while. If you were both adults you'd probably get into a fight and come out of it as friends. Since you're only eleven and he's an adult, you have no way of resolving the problem. Do you understand?”
Josh nodded, saying, “I think so. It's like Benny Mallory. I had to fight him my first day of school and I won't let him bully kids smaller than he is. Now he respects me and we're sorta friends, though we're too different to ever be close friends. Thanks Clay.”
Josh paused for a moment, then asked, “Do you want to come to supper tonight? Judge Howard is going to be there. Marnie killed a chicken before she left. She made some bread before she left too, so we'll be having chicken with stuffing and gravy and mashed potatoes.” He giggled “I may even make you drink a glass of milk. The Judge's not too enthusiastic about the milk, but I told him no hard liquor in the house while Gene and Marnie are away. He's not even allowed to use his hip flask.”
“How good a cook are you?” Clay asked with interest, knowing that Josh would tell the truth.
Josh said, not bragging, “Not as good as Marnie with some things, but with what we'll be having tonight I'm just as good and I often make the gravy because Marnie says it's better than hers.”
“I'd be delighted.” Clay said. “and I don't mind milk, though I usually drink coffee with my meals. I'd rather you have the milk, just to see what the Judge will do.”
Josh giggled at that.
Clay leaned back in his chair, saying with a sigh, “You're as good a cook as you said you were, Josh. Right Judge?”
Judge Howard said, “The food was good, but milk…” Holding the glass of milk up and looking at it sourly.
Josh giggled, telling him, “Marnie said that you had to have the milk, but you could add a little from your hip flask to improve the taste.”
Judge Howard looked relieved and taking out his hip flask he topped off the glass of milk. Putting his hip flask away he took a drink of milk and he no longer looked sour. On the second swallow he grimaced and put the glass down holding his jaw.
“Bones in the milk, Judge?” asked Clay with amusement.
Judge Howard said with annoyance, “No, it's this damned tooth of mine, been bothering me all week, off and on. Haven't got up enough nerve to see Charlie yet.” Charlie was the town's barber and dentist. He was a qualified dentist but he made more money off of cutting hair and that suited him just fine. He always said he liked Rowley and he was too lazy to be a full time dentist anyway.
Clay told him, “Paul Mannion had a tooth out a couple of weeks ago. Charlie's been experimenting with chloroform. Puts you to sleep. He has problems getting the dosage quite right and Paul was out for ten hours, but Paul said he didn't mind. Rather that than the pain of feeling the tooth pulled.”
“Hmmm.” murmured the Judge, then said, “Maybe I'll see Charlie tomorrow morning early. He said he was going to be open till ten when the picnic starts. Should be held on the fourth, I don't care what the new minister has to say. Got those women so worked up about having fun on a Sunday, that they moved it to Saturday. Ridiculous. Never read anywhere that God didn't want you to have fun even on a Sunday.”
Clay nodded, saying, “I agree with you. I don't think the minister's going to stay long. I hear he has an offer from a bigger town and he's seriously considering it.”
Judge Howard had left to join his poker playing buddies at Telman's Saloon, but Clay had stayed to help with the dishes, though Josh had protested that he was a guest. Clay had just ruffled his hair and Josh had given up, knowing that Clay was just as stubborn as he was.
Once they were finished they headed for downtown, Clay to go back to his office and Josh to spend the two pennies he had on some candy at the General Store. They were walking on the street when they heard a click behind them. They both recognized it at once as a shotgun being cocked. Clay shoved Josh so hard that when he hit the hitching rail he bounced, spinning around, drawing his gun. But he wasn't fast enough as the shotgun roared, the blast catching Clay in the chest.
If he'd been taller Josh would have flipped right over the rail, but he was small enough that he hit it with his right shoulder. He went to his knees from the pain and then heard a thunk as he scrambled towards Clay. He heard Conch ask, “How is he?”
Josh looked at Clay with some disbelief. He'd taken a shotgun blast to the chest and he should have been dead. While his chest was bloody and he was unconscious, he was breathing easily. Something clicked in Josh's mind and he laughed in relief. He said, “He's not hurt badly. The shotgun musta been loaded with birdshot. He's gonna be in bed for a few days but he should be fine. Who did it?” he asked, looking up and not able to see the man's face because he was behind Conch.
“Bubba Biggers. Who was he shooting at, you or the sheriff?” Conch asked.
Josh said, “I don't know, but he has more reason to dislike me than he does Clay.” answering honestly.
Josh looked around and seeing Sammy Watson staring with wide eyes, he told him, “Sammy you go get the doctor. I don't think Clay's hurt bad, but we shouldn't move him until the Doc sees him.” Sammy nodded and skirting Clay and Josh he took off at a run to fetch the doctor.
Conch had picked up the Greener sawed off shotgun that Biggers had used and he came over and he had a look at Clay and he said, “His color is good. I think you're right.”
Josh reached for the shotgun, wincing when he lifted his right arm. It hurt, though not that bad right now, but he knew it was going to be stiff in the morning. Conch let him have the shotgun and Josh broke it open and pulled out the shotgun shells. He went white when he saw the unfired shell was filled with buckshot.
Josh put it back in the gun and closed the shotgun. He heard Cletus Potter say, “What do we have here?” his words slurred from liquor.
Conch got to his feet and turned around slowly. He moved over so that Josh and Clay wouldn't be in the line of fire. He said, “Bubba shot the sheriff. Luckily the shotgun was loaded with birdshot, so he's not badly hurt.”
“Well we should do something about that.” said Cletus drunkenly. “Right boys.” and he got murmurs of agreement from his men. “There's a nice tree just outside of town. Somebody go get a rope.” he ordered and one of his men headed to the livery stable to fetch his rope.
Conch's voice went cold, “I don't think so. I made a citizen's arrest so Bubba is my prisoner and you can't have him.”
Cletus went into a crouch, hand close to his gun. “Who's gonna stop me.” He demanded.
Conch said dangerously, with a chill in his voice, “I've seen you shoot Cletus, you're fast, but I've never seen you put your first bullet in the target. I'm mean Cletus. You don't put a bullet between my eyes and I'll get off two or three shots.”
There was silence and they all clearly heard the click of a shotgun being cocked and Josh's clear treble voice. It was trembling a little but it was firm, “The first barrel may have been filled with birdshot but this one has buckshot in it. Conch will take care of you Cletus and I'll aim at your men.”
Neither Cletus nor his men liked the situation. They knew Conch was dangerous, but they might have tried him anyway, but that shotgun the kid was holding. Was he telling the truth or lying? If he was lying they weren't in much danger, but if he was telling the truth he could kill two or three of them. They heard the double click as both barrels of a shotgun were cocked from behind them. Judge Howard said with an edge in his voice, “Now I don't know if that shotgun is loaded with buckshot or not, though I'm inclined to believe it. But I know this one is and I've got two barrels. I think you want to leave, perhaps back to your camp outside of town. I think you've had enough liquor for the day.”
Cletus without looking at the Judge slunk away and his men followed him. The Judge let down the hammers of the shotgun and Josh did as well sighing with relief. Conch asked quietly, “Birdshot or buckshot?”
Josh said clearly, voice still trembling, “If Bubba had shot Clay with the other barrel he'd be dead, because it's loaded with buckshot.”
Doctor Adams arrived then and he brought along the stretcher he used when he knew they'd have to carry someone. He gave Clay a quick examination and he sighed with relief. He and Clay were close friends. He addressed the anxious crowd. “The birdshot hit him hard, so he'll be out for a while and then in bed for a few days but other than that he's fine. Jim,” he addressed one of the men in the crowd, “you and Ed get him on the stretcher and then if you'll carry him down to the office, I'll get things ready to take out the birdshot.”
The two men designated carefully put Clay on the stretcher and picking it up followed the doctor.
Judge Howard addressed Conch. “Since you made a citizen's arrest Conch, we'll make it official. With Clay's deputy being off this week I hereby swear you in as deputy sheriff.”
Conch started to protest and Judge Howard tapped the shotgun and Conch just grinned, deciding not to say anything. The Judge was quite capable of carrying out his silent threat.
The Judge said to Josh. “Give me that shotgun, Josh.” and the boy silently handed it to him. The man broke it at the breech and pulled out the two shotgun shells. He looked at them bleakly and held them up, saying, “Josh was telling the truth, which is what I expected, but as you can see the unfired shell is filled with buckshot, that means the charge will be attempted murder.”
He looked with concern at Josh, who was rubbing his right arm grimacing a little with pain, “Are you all right boy?” he asked.
Josh nodded, saying, “I'm fine Judge. Clay pushed me out of the way when we heard the shotgun being cocked and I bounced off the hitching rail. It's a little sore and it'll pro'bly be stiff in the mornin' but that's all.”
Josh looked in back of the Judge and his eyes widened and the man turned around to see Conch fastening a rope around Bubba under his arms. The Judge demanded, “What the hell are you doing?”
Conch grinned, saying with amusement, “You don't expect me to try and carry him do you, Judge? He outweighs me by sixty pounds. Here, a couple of you men give me a hand.” Willing hands joined his on the rope and they began to drag Bubba down to the jail, the Judge covering his smile with his hand.
He felt Josh slip his hand into his and the small fingers were trembling. He looked down at the little boy kindly, “Afraid, Josh?” he asked,
Josh looked up at him his eyes wide, tears in the corner of his big brown eyes, He said, anxiously, “Conch asked whether Bubba was shooting at Clay or me. Well he has more reason to hate me than he does Clay. I hope he didn't get shot because of me.”
Judge Howard cradled the shotguns in the crook of his arm. He put his hand on the boy's head, saying, compassionately, “Josh, it really doesn't matter if Bubba was after you or not. It's Clay's job to get in between innocent people like you and dangerous people with guns. It's his job and his privilege. He's talked to me on several occasions. He knows it's a dangerous job and knows he might get killed doing it but he wouldn't want to be doing anything else. All right?”
Josh nodded tears no longer threatening to fall and his fingers were no longer trembling. He could understand a sense of duty and a sense of honor since he had both himself. He said, more cheerfully, “Thanks, Judge I feel better. I better get home now. I've got to do something.”
The Judge looked at the much cheered boy and yelled after him, “What do you have to do?”
Josh yelled over his shoulder, “Make a pot of tea.” which set the Judge to shaking his head.
Conch heard a knock on the back door. It was firm but it wasn't very loud. He drew his gun and approached the door, carefully keeping to the side. “Who is it?” he asked.
“It's Josh.” said the voice from the other side of the door. He opened it and Josh stood there holding a pot in his cloth covered hands. He said, “I brought you some tea and some biscuits,” he indicated the bag he had over his shoulder.
Angrily, Conch said, “Did Sam...”
Josh interrupted, “You don't think Sam makes the tea you drink, do you? Marnie used to make a pot for him every morning, but when she was sick for a couple of days, I made it. She liked mine better and so did Sam, so he provides the tea and I make a dime every morning making a pot.”
His eyes got wide, as he said with wonder, “Imagine I make a whole seventy cents a week just to make a pot of tea every morning. Before I came to Rowley I only ever had one whole dime before, now I get seven of them a week.”
Josh said dryly, “Don't you think you better close the door one way or the other? With me in, or with me out.”
Conch realized he had been woolgathering and that Josh was right. He jerked his thumb inside and Josh scurried in and he closed the door and locked it again.
Josh put the pot on the wood burning stove. It didn't get much use but occasionally it got cold enough that it was needed. He took out a couple of tin cups and a small pewter sugar bowl and a silver spoon, then the biscuits.
Josh poured out two cups and then put the pot back on the stove. He put one spoonful of sugar in his cup and then handed the spoon to Conch who put four in his tea. Conch picked up one of the biscuits and bit into it and his eyes went wide with astonishment. Since they were still warm they had obviously just been made and that meant Josh had made them.
Josh said matter-of-factly, “Maude said that if I wasn't apprenticed to a gunsmith she'd hire me as a cook in a second. If you want to reach into the bag there's one more thing that I didn't take out.”
Conch reached into the bag wondering what other miracles Josh could produce. He pulled out the cloth covered object and flipped back the cover and gasped as three doughnuts showed up, golden brown and coated with sugar.
“Bear sign.” he said with awe. He picked up one of the cowboy delicacies and took a bite eyes closing with delight at the glorious familiar taste. There was no talking as he ate the three doughnuts savoring every bite and feeling regret as the last mouthful went down his throat.
Josh explained, “I make a batch every Saturday night, half for us and half for Maude. Maude sells them for ten cents apiece and I get half. If you tell anybody about it I'll tell everyone you drink tea instead of liquor.”
Conch grinned, knowing that Josh would be swamped if anybody knew he was the one making the doughnuts that Maude sold. He said, “Okay, kid it's a deal. Clay doesn't drink either, you know.”
Josh said, resting his arms on the table and his head on his arms, “I know but he drinks coffee and he doesn't care if people know about it. People think coffee or tea is a sissy drink, if you only drink them instead of liquor. Marnie said her great-grandfather lost his leg when Wellington fought Napoleon at Waterloo. He was a Colonel and one of Wellington's aides. He drank tea till the day he died and he never touched hard liquor that she knows of, though he occasionally drank a glass of wine. Marnie says she can remember bringing it to him when she was nine and when he died an hour later he had his teacup in his hand and he'd just finished it.”
Josh grinned, saying, “I wouldn't really tell anyone, I know you wouldn't care either.” He hesitated, “I know you aren't supposed to ask people about their lives before they came west, but I just wondered if I could ask you why you drink tea?”
Conch hesitated for a moment, but then he decided to tell the boy. Despite the fact that he was a boy, he was a 'Man of Honor' and a person to ‘Ride The River With’. He explained, “It's not really a secret but I don't want people to know about it, so don't tell anyone.”
Josh nodded solemnly. “All right,” Conch said, “You got kicked out by your aunt and uncle and you never really had a family, but sometimes being a member of a family isn't as good as you might think. You don't always have parents like Gene and Marnie and an almost brother like Joseph. You're stuck with what you get. And I got a mean old bastard for a father and an even worse older brother. My Ma is fine and I write to her every now and then through a friend. She was British and I got my liking for tea from her.”
Hr touched his chest, saying, “To look at me you'd never think I was born in Boston and my father was a very wealthy doctor. It wasn't money he made, it got passed down to him from his father, but my family were important members in society. All in all they, my father and brother, treated me badly. Not like you, they simply used words, but coming from close kin, words meant to hurt can wound deeply. And they were always worrying on me, like they were dogs and I was a bone. Finally when I was old enough to go to college, instead of going to Harvard which is a famous school in Boston, I decided to go overseas, to Oxford where my mother's father had gone. She still has family in England.”
Conch told him, “I ended up staying with them during the summer. I attended Oxford with one of her cousins, who was somewhat older than I was, but he hadn't known what he wanted to do when he was first of college age. His father got him a commission in the Army and he was sent out to India, that's the country not a place where our Indians come from.”
Josh giggled, saying, “I know, Tanny has a big map of the world and when she first told us about India we were really confused. She said that people were looking for a faster way to get to India. It has spices, like black pepper and things like that which were very valuable. When they found us they didn't know at the time that India was much further away than they thought. When they found our country, they thought they found India, so they called the people Indians. She said she doesn't know what they will eventually be called, but they have so many different names, that calling them all Indians is convenient.”
Conch nodded, saying, “Well they tend to have as much trouble with their Indians as we do here in America and he was involved in several small battles. Ironically, that made him want to be a doctor like my father, so he was just going to Oxford to study medicine. I was also supposed to be there to study medicine, but it didn't interest me at all. I didn't last three weeks. However the one thing my cousin did during my stay with his family over the summer, was teach me how to shoot a handgun. He had the right type of body to become a gunfighter and he could move very fast. The fast draw was pretty well unknown there, but once it was out of the holster, he was very fast and accurate.'
“I cut down a holster and practiced the fast draw on my own. As you know, I simply don't have the type of body that Clay has, that would allow me to be really fast.”
Josh giggled, again, saying, “I know. You're mean and if you ever get involved in a fight you'll go down hard.” he said more solemnly. “I asked Clay about what you said this afternoon and he agreed with you. We're the same type of people. He said if we were adults we'd probably have a fight and end up being friends.”
Josh was silent for several minutes, then said solemnly, “Let's pretend we had a fight and try to be friends.”
Conch looked at the blond haired little boy, his large brown eyes and firm chin, thin lips and a few freckles on his snub nose, an earnest look on his small face. He nodded, saying, “We can try, but it might not work.”
“I know,” Josh said, soberly, “but Gene and Marnie tell me and Joseph that we should always try. They say it's always better to try and fail, than to not try at all. Marnie said that when she and Gene first met, her father and mother didn't like him at all and she wasn't sure about him either. But Gene kept trying and eventually won her over and now her father and mother are good friends of Gene. They're a little unhappy they can't have kids of their own and they told Joseph and me that one of these times when they go off on the stage they might end up coming back with a kid or two, so we shouldn't be surprised.”
Josh giggled again, saying, “They told Joseph and me that they'd try to keep us the oldest, but they couldn't guarantee it. Now,” he said with deliberate pomposity he ordered, “on with your story.” waving his arm in the air grandly.
Conch laughed, he just couldn't help it, he had a hunch that their friendship would do just fine. He said, “All right. I still had about two hundred pounds in English money. I don't know exactly what it would be in our money but I got a thousand dollars in exchange for it. I took a ship to Panama and crossed the narrow distance of the country by mule and then took another ship to San Francisco. I had a fair stake left so I took a stage down to Los Angeles. There I inquired around until I found an old cowpuncher who wanted to make some money. I hired him to teach me how to rope and how to ride western style. I was already a pretty good rider and I had a way with horses and it didn't take me as long as I expected. He also taught me a little about working with cattle and he got me my first job as a cowpuncher.”
He said, “After about six months, I was no longer a greenhorn and since I don't drink, I was able to save some money and I began drifting from place to place. I was never satisfied with California for some reason. When I rode into Rowley three years ago, I knew I was home. I work for two or three months as a cowboy or breaking horses and then I loaf until my money is gone. People think I'm lazy, but that's not really true. Ranch work doesn't really suit me. Like my cousin, I simply haven't found what I want to do yet.”
Josh with his chin on his hand and his bare feet kicking in the air, said, “Maybe you have.” and he pointed at the badge on Conch's chest. “I know that Clay's deputy Al Allanson is thinking about taking a job in his girlfriend's home town. That's why he took this time off, the old sheriff Ford Winter is quitting for health reasons at the end of July. There's almost four months to go on his term and the county council has the authority to appoint a sheriff to fill the post, until the next election occurs, in November. Unless he screws things up really bad I imagine he'll get elected. He's a good lawman.”
Conch looked at him in amazement, asking, “Do you know everything that goes on in this town?”
Josh thought about that for a moment. He nodded, saying, “Just about. People trust me. They know I won't tell secrets. The kids trust me because they know I'll fight anybody who bullies them, because I hate bullies. My cousins were all bullies and cowards. The youngest was thirteen and the oldest was seventeen, but they learned not to tangle with me. They might hurt me but I could hurt even the oldest a lot more than they wanted. Bullies aren't always cowards, Benny Mallory isn't. He lost the first time we fought, but he came back three times before he was convinced I could beat him every time. Now we're sorta friends.”
Josh grinned again and the grin was fierce. He said fiercely, “Now me, I never would have stopped. I fought one bully, he weighed over a hundred pounds and I only weighed sixty. He beat me up casually the first time. He was starting to get scared of me by the fifteenth time. By the twenty-fifth day there was nothing left to him. I beat him up and I broke his nose and his arm. The arm was an accident.” Josh explained. “but that's why my aunt and uncle kicked me out. The boy's father was an important man in that town and they figured they'd get into trouble if they kept me.”
Josh didn't notice Conch looking at him with respect. He'd known this little boy was tough, but he realized that Josh was even tougher than he realized.
Josh said thoughtfully, “Funny thing, the only person I met on my way out of town that day, was the kid's mother. She thanked me. She said his father had always encouraged him to be the way he was. Being beat up might not change the way he was, but she was hoping it would. That it was good for him to learn that just because you were bigger than someone didn't mean you'd always win. She gave me the canteen that I have at home and gave me bread and a whole chicken.”
He said soberl, “She said she was sorry that she couldn't do anything for me with my aunt and uncle, she had tried and they were too afraid of her husband.” Josh shook his head, “But I wouldn't have gone back anyway. I was shocked at first, but by the time I met her, I knew that it was something that was bound to happen sooner or later anyway.”
Suddenly he looked alarmed, “What time is it?” he asked urgently.
Conch pulled out his pocket watch, telling him, “Fifteen to nine. Why?”
Josh's breath wooshed out in relief. He explained, “Marnie said I was to be in bed by nine-thirty every night, or she'd whup me. That's an hour after my usual bedtime. She doesn't use the strap very often, but she doesn't make idle threats either. She'll ask me and I can't lie. I've never even tried. My aunt and uncle used the strap a lot. They didn't have no favorites, they whipped my cousins just as much as me. When I tried to lie to them, I just got red and I stopped trying. But Marnie said, a bath every night, so that means I have to carry it in from the rain barrel. It's been in the sun most of the day so it's as warm as the pool so normally we don't have to heat water. I gotta go. I'll pick up the pot and other stuff in the morning.”
Conch amused, opened the door to let a slightly spooked Josh out into the darkening light. From the way Josh talked, he figured the boy was more scared of disappointing Marnie than of being whipped.
Josh carried the washtub in from the outside and after putting it next to the table, he made half a dozen trips to fill it up. On the seventh he only filled the bucket half full and put it next to the tub. He put a towel and washcloth and the soap on the table and stripping off his clothes he got into the tub. It was quite large, so even with six buckets the water only came up to his ankles. Taking the washcloth he sat down in the tub and got himself wet all over including his hair. Standing up he took the soap and washed his hair first carefully keeping his eyes closed, then taking the towel he sat down again in the tub. Feeling for the bucket, he cautiously lifted it over his head and rinsed off the soap. Only after the bucket was empty and back on the floor did he open his eyes. He began soaping himself all over.
Josh wondered why a lot of kids didn't like baths, even after most of a year of bathing every night he still found it a delightful experience. He loved getting out of the tub and knowing he was clean before he went to bed. Rinsing himself off he began using the big towel to dry himself off.
Using the brush Josh brushed and then combed his hair, then set about putting the kitchen to rights. Neither Joseph or he could lift the tub, with water in it, not even together, but Gene could manage it quite easily. Josh had to use the bucket to carry water to the window and dump it outside. When the tub was empty, he dragged it into the shed and put the bucket with it. He'd take it outside in the morning to clean it out.
Josh was yawning sleepily, when he blew out the lantern and made his way to bed. About ten minutes after he was in bed the clock in the living room chimed the half-hour. He opened his eyes briefly, smiling and then they closed and stayed closed for the rest of the night.
Josh woke up in the morning, yawned and stretched, flipping off the covers, he got up with his usual good humor. Remembering he had left his trousers in the kitchen, he went to get them and slipped into them buckling the belt. He remembered he hadn't spent the pennies at the General Store on Friday, so he took one out to decide whether he should wear a shirt or not. Shirt, heads, no shirt, tails. He flipped it into the air, caught it and slapped it on his wrist. Tails. No shirt today.
Josh was modest as well as shy. He didn't mind the other boys or Marnie, Gene and Joseph seeing him naked. He didn't like anybody else even to see him bare above the waist, but it was really too hot for a shirt. The men couldn't get away with it in town, but the boys could.
Most people would be out at the picnic which would be officially starting at 10:00 AM, though a lot of people would be starting to leave as early as eight o'clock. Most of the businesses would be staying open till nine and then closing until Monday morning.
The owner of the saloon had agreed to close the bar at ten and wouldn't open until Monday either. Everybody knew however that you could buy bottles out the backdoor, even on holidays when the saloon was supposed to be closed.
The Town Council had decided that if they didn't allow Telman to sell liquor then some bootlegger would come along and brew up who knew what kind of poison. At least Telman sold good booze. So, they turned a blind eye to the practice. It had caused some problems but had seemed to prevent even more and both Clay and Judge Howard agreed with the Council.
It was only six and Josh had gotten accustomed to eating at seven, so he decided to make a batch of biscuits before it got too hot. First he had to feed the chickens and collect the eggs and he ended up with a round dozen. Getting kindling Josh piled it on top of the wood in the wood stove and striking a lucifer match he lit it. In a few minutes the fire was burning nicely. By the time it was ready to put the biscuits in, he had finished making them. Putting the tray in the oven, he went about making his breakfast, frying some eggs and the last of the bacon.
He had five dollars, but he wouldn't spend any of that unless he had to; there was plenty of flour and two of the chickens had stopped laying. That signaled they were about to end up on the table. Josh didn't like killing chickens, but he had to eat, so it was him or them and he was determined it wouldn't be him.
With potatoes or biscuits and gravy, one of them would last Josh most of a week. Then he would make chicken soup and that would last for another couple of days. He would try to keep the other chicken until Gene and Marnie got home. He had traded the doughnuts he had made last night to Maude for four days worth of meals since he had given her twenty, eaten one himself and given Conch three. He would be able to do the same thing next week. He had already asked her.
Sam Higgins, the bartender at Telman's Saloon, had told him not to bother with the tea this morning, or Sunday either, so he didn't have to worry about that. He would have to get the tea pot back from the jail and Conch might want some tea, today or tomorrow.
After breakfast he decided to read for an hour. No silly children's books for him. He was reading Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. Not by himself admittedly. What he did was read for an hour one day and then the next day he and Marnie would go over it again and she could help him with the big words. But he wasn't bad, he had reached his own grade level in school and he'd be going into the sixth grade with Joseph in the fall.
He was still a little behind the kids in some things, but Tanny had said that he had done so well in the short time he had, that she had no doubt he'd be just as good as the rest within a couple of months after school started. Josh knew that she wouldn't make it easier on him now, just because he and Joseph were now her nephews. She was honorable, just like the rest of his family and friends. Clay, Judge Howard, Conch.
Josh was surprised that thinking about Conch as a friend had come so easily. He pondered on that, but he was a kid and after a couple of minutes he shrugged his shoulders and went back to his reading. Despite the fact that he had to skip a lot of words he was absorbed by the story, so much so in fact that he didn't even hear the clock strike 8, 8:30, 9, 9:30, 10:00, 10:30.
It wasn't until almost 11:00 when Josh came out of the dream world of Ivanhoe, to realize that he was holding himself between the legs hard, so badly did he have to pee. He'd been partially aware of it for the last hour or so. He had been so absorbed by the tale that the physical need to urinate hadn't broken into his train of thoughts until it was almost too late. He realized that he'd never make it to the outhouse, so he slipped out the back door holding it in with all his might. He unbuttoned his fly and peed in the pool of water still left from where he had dumped the water from his bath. Right at the moment Josh didn't even care if anyone saw him, though he'd be very embarrassed afterward.
Much relieved, in more ways than one, Josh buttoned his fly and went back into the house and after washing his hands and drying them carefully, he closed Ivanhoe, putting a piece of paper to mark his place.
Ten minutes later Sammy Watson was knocking on the door. Josh let the seven year old in. He asked, “What are you doing here? I thought you'd be at the picnic.”
Sammy looked unhappy. Saying, seriously, “Daddy's gonna whip me good. I went out to spy on those cowboys early this morning and then I got trapped and couldn't get away. By the time I got home they was gone.”
Sammy watched wide-eyed as he saw Josh go red with anger. The older boy whipped off his belt and before the little boy knew it, he was over Josh's knee, being whipped good. Josh figured twenty was just about right, since it was through Sammy's trousers. He knew the whipping that Sammy would get from his father would be on his bare bottom.
When he was finished he pushed the little boy to his feet. Sammy saw Josh's face was just as red but there were tears in the corner of his eyes and he realized that it hadn't been anger on Josh's face but worry.
Josh said sternly, “I know you're going to get whipped again by your father,” to the little boy, who was rubbing his sore bottom through the seat of his trousers, tears flowing down his cheeks, “and it'll be on your bare bottom. Well next time I hear of you doing a stupid thing like that, I'll take your trousers down too before I start whipping you, understand?”
Sammy nodded vigorously. Josh always told the truth and he knew the older boy meant it. He hurriedly said, “I'm sorry Josh but I came to warn you. Those cowboys they rode all the way to Morrison and back and they all bought shotguns. They say they're going to take Bubba and hang him and they don't care who gets in their way.”
Josh looked a little mollified. He said, “All right, you may end up as a hero out of this, but you got whipped by me and I doubt if you'll get out of being whipped by your father. Knowing him and the way he worries about you sometimes, you might be able to sit down by the time school starts. If you're real lucky.” Sammy looked mournful at the very thought.
Josh asked “Why did you come to me and not Judge Howard? I know he wasn't planning to go to the picnic.”.
Sammy said, with tears in his voice, “The Judge got a tooth pulled by Charlie and he used chol'form to put him to sleep. Charlie left a printed note saying that the Judge would be asleep for at least five or six hours. I don't know what chol'form is. I couldn't find anybody at all. I didn't want to go to the jail to warn Conch, in case they was watching it.”
Josh thought for a minute, then stared at the little boy. He told him, “The doc's probably still here, but I don't think he's ever fired a gun. I've seen you riding Judge Howard's mule. Can you ride it on your own?”
Sammy nodded, looking more confident than he felt. “Okay,” said Josh, “take Rupert and go out to the picnic and get some help. Be careful, you know he can be mean at times. It's too bad you can't take Viking, you'd get there faster, but Clay's about the only one who can manage him.”
Josh grinned, with amusement, as he said, “After riding ten miles on Rupert's bony back, your backside is going to be so sore that your father may let you off.”
Sammy said glumly, “No chance. He'll just delay it a couple of weeks.”
Conch heard a knock on the door, exactly like last nights knock, so he figured it was Josh. However, he wasn't stupid enough to just open the door without checking, “Is that you Josh?” he asked.
“Yeah, open the door.” Josh said, somewhat breathlessly.
Conch did so and Josh breathing hard, pulled what looked like a small wheeled cart, which was covered. When Conch pushed the door shut and turned to look at Josh, he had flipped off the cover and taken off the basket that had covered the top.
Conch looked at it wide eyed, asking, “What is that?” said.
“What does it look like!” snapped Josh a little testily.
“A toy cannon.” Conch said, scratching his head.
Josh shook his head, telling him gravely, “Oh no, it's not a toy, it's a min-i-a-ture cannon. A fully working model. Breech loading and everything. It's fired by pulling the lanyard and the hammer strikes a percussion cap and sets off the gunpowder in these.” and he held up what looked like a giant shotgun shell. “It was given to Grant while he was President and he gave it to Colonel Meadows who was a good friend during the war. The Colonel was going to demonstrate it at the 4th of July picnic, but then he broke his leg. Gene made twenty-four of these. All but four were solid shot. Gene made up four of these. He thought the Colonel might like to demonstrate what grapeshot was like. There's two hundred .36 caliber balls in one of these, so in effect it's a giant shotgun.”
“I gather we're going to need it?” Conch said quietly, going to the gun rack, he started to take down a shotgun. Then looking over his shoulder he grinned and got down a Winchester instead.
Josh explained, “Sammy Watson did a real dumb thing. I took off my belt and gave him twenty on the seat of his trousers for doing it, which is only the start of his troubles once his father gets a hold of him. He went out to Cletus Potter's camp early this morning and found out they rode all the way to Morrison and bought shotguns. They intend to take Bubba anyway they have to. This cannon has a 15 inch barrel, the shells are five inches long, so what we have here is a very big sawed off shotgun. The shot will start to spread as soon as it leaves the barrel. The recoil of course is wicked so we only get one shot if we have to use it.” Josh looked somewhat sick, as he continued, “Of course in that case unless they're really spread out, one shot is all we'll need.”
Conch nodded, not feeling much better about it than Josh. But he was older and had been around a lot longer. If they were stupid enough to continue after they saw the cannon, then they weren't going to live much longer anyway, so they'd just be putting them out of their misery.
Josh explained, “Judge Howard got a tooth out this morning and the dentist put him to sleep and he won't wake up for a while. I sent Sammy out to the picnic site to get some help on Judge Howard's mule, I don't know how long it'll take him to get there. Rupert isn't very fast. However once he gets there and I gave him a note, if he can convince them without his father killing him first, they've got the best horses in the county there for the races.”
Conch said briskly, “Well there's no sense in waiting in here, not with your min-i-a-ture cannon. We'll take it out and cover it and you can just flip the cover off.”
Which is what they did. Josh was somewhat more worried than Conch. The man began to talk about baseball, which he had played in Boston and cricket, which he had played in England. He was a good storyteller and he soon had Josh spellbound. Josh knew they planned to play a game of baseball at the picnic and now he would like to see it, though he probably wouldn't get an opportunity this year.
Josh didn't remember what they were there for until they saw Cletus and his men riding along the street. They hitched their horses to the rail in front of the saloon, well out of the line of fire. They got their new shotguns out and opened the breeches to check them and then the eleven men headed for the Sheriff's Office. They stopped about ten yards away, right in the line of fire for the cannon.
None of them were completely sober, while they had sobered up going to Morrison and back, they'd gotten back into their normal condition before coming into town. Cletus asked belligerently, “Well, Conch, what are you going to do now? We're the ones with the shotguns now.”
Conch stood up and said calmly. “Yes, we heard about that. Well we decided to go out and do you one better. Josh.”
Josh flipped off the cover of the cannon and stood up as well, holding the lanyard which would fire it. Cletus looked at the little cannon for a moment and then he broke into a laugh. “What are you going to do with a toy cannon?” he asked with amusement,
“Cletus, it ain't no toy.” said one of his men seriously and very nervously. He had been working for Cletus's uncle and had decided to throw in his lot with Cletus. “It's a real cannon. Colonel Meadows showed it to your uncle after he got it last year and he fired it, half a dozen times. Put fist sized holes through boards made into a target at twenty-five yards. That's all the ammo he had, but that kid is the son of the gunsmith. The only reason the cannon would be in town was if the gunsmith was making up some more ammo for it.”
Josh said, “My father made up twenty-four cartridges. Twenty were solid shot and four are sorta giant shotgun shells, filled with two hundred .36 caliber balls. That's what it's loaded with right now. One of these cartridges.” and he threw one of them towards the men. Cletus grabbed it and almost dropped it. Holding it up to his ear he shook it and went dead white at the sound it made.
Conch said coolly, “Now I want you one at a time starting with Cletus to come as far as the hitching rail and put all of your weapons on the ground. And Cletus, don't forget that Arkansas toothpick that you have down the back of your neck.”
Very carefully one at a time, the men did as they had been told and then backed up to where they had been standing. Conch said, “Now we'll all sit down and we'll wait.”
Once of the men protested, “That street is hot as hell.”
Conch worked the lever action of the Winchester, then said reasonably, “Well you can have a hot butt, or a six foot grave. Make your choice.” and they all sat down hurriedly while Conch and Josh sat down in their chairs, a little more comfortable in the shade.
Sixteen horses rode down the street. Conch and Josh recognized twelve of them, with Paul Mannion the banker in the lead. Mannion looked down at the men sitting uncomfortably on the street, continually moving trying to get away from the hot ground which was impossible.
He grinned, saying, “It looks like you don't need our help after all.”
Conch said, with a grin, “Well it was really Josh bringing over Colonel Meadow's little toy here,” and he patted the top of the little cannon. “We showed them what it was loaded with and they decided to act nice and peaceful.”
“What is it loaded with?” asked one of the men and Josh and Conch turned their attention to him. He probably was only a little older than Conch, but he had the same dangerous look about him and he also had an air of command that fitted naturally around his shoulders.
Conch said, knowing that Josh would be too shy to say anything. “Two hundred .36 caliber buckshot balls.”
The man grinned and he looked even younger, as he said, “That's quite a persuader. I'm US Marshall Baker Hawk and if that's Cletus Potter, I can take him and his bunch off your hands for you. He and his men are wanted for rustling,” and his face went grim, “and murder.”
Conch said sternly, “Ringley, get in the jail and thank your lucky stars you only joined up with him here, or you could be looking at getting your neck stretched.”
The man hurriedly got to his feet and stumbled towards the jail, mighty glad to get away from Cletus Potter. Hawk raised his eyebrows and Conch told him, “He hasn't been out of the county in the last two years, so he's not someone you want. Not at the moment anyway. The Judge will probably fine him for disturbing the peace and tell him to get out of the county. Nobody will hire him around here, not any longer.”
Josh in the meantime was opening the breech of the cannon and removing the shell and putting it with the other three in a small bag. Josh tugged on Conch's arm and when he bent down he whispered in his ear.
Conch straightened. He said with a grin, “Josh is a little shy with strangers.” and Josh blushed and rubbed his bare toe on the wooden sidewalk. “But he wants to know what you want to do with the weapons that Potter and his bunch had.”
Hawk grinned, saying, “They're unarmed as far as I can see and that's what I'll say in my report. I doubt if they'll be back to complain about anything you decided to do with them.”
Conch said thoughtfully, “Well there isn't anything special Josh says. He's the gunsmith's kid and his apprentice, but they can probably make two hundred dollars.”
And Paul Mannion grinning, finished for him, “And the school can always use more books.”
Conch nodded, waving his hand saying, “Their horses are in front of the saloon. The one with the Lazy B is Ringley's horse, the rest belong to Potter and his bunch, unless they've been stolen as well.” (A Lazy B, would be a B lying on it's side)
Hawk shook his head, telling him, “Not as far as we know, not at the moment anyway. We'll have to wait until we get to Sandoval where the rustling and the murder were committed. I can telegraph Santa Fe from there and ask.”
The foreman of the jury stood up and gave the verdict. He stated firmly, “We find the defendant, Robert Bubba Biggers guilty of attempted murder. We know he was drunk but we don't think that excuses any of his actions. The fact that he would never admit whether he was after Clay or Josh. Well Clay was bad enough, if he was after Josh who's just a little boy, well that's inexcusable. We recommend that you come down hard on him Judge.”
“Thank you jury members, you are dismissed.” Judge Howard said and they moved from the jury seats into the audience.
He ordered, “Stand up, Bubba Biggers.” The man sullenly got to his feet. “I agree with the jury. I won't make any personal statements about this matter though I have my own thoughts, but I sentence you to ten years at hard labor in the state prison. Deputy take the prisoner back to jail. This trial is over. The court is dismissed.” And he banged his gavel down to end the trial.
Conch hit the ball with the baseball bat and it went over Josh's head and he chased after it. When he picked it up he saw that Sam and Tanny Fields were on the road in their buckboard. He turned and threw the ball back yelling, “I'll be right back.”
Josh headed for the road, staying to one side and Sam stopped the buckboard. Josh came over and said cheerfully, “Hi Uncle Sam, Aunt Tanny.”
Sam said a little plaintively, “I'd gotten you to call me Sam, what happened.”
Josh said logically, “You got married. To my teacher. I can hardly call my teacher by her first name now, can I? When I get out of school I promise I'll call you by your first name again.”
“What are you doing?” asked Tanny.
Josh said cheerfully, “Conch is teaching us how to play baseball. We're lousy, but that's all right, it's fun anyway.”
Sam said, “I thought you and Conch didn't get along.”
Josh said seriously, “Both Conch and Clay said the reason we got along so badly is that we were too much alike. Clay said if we were adults we'd probably have a fight and then get to be friends. So after Clay got shot, Conch and I decided to say we'd had a fight and go from there. It seems to be working. Clay's all right, he only got shot with birdshot, but Bubba Biggers was sentenced to ten years at hard labor in prison for it. Conch is taking over Allanson's spot at the end of the month when he goes to replace Sheriff Ford Winter. See ya later!” he yelled over his shoulder, running back toward the others.
Tanny looked at Sam who had a bewildered look on his face. She patted him on the arm, saying with amusement, “Don't worry, Sam. We'll find out the rest when we get to town. It's only another hundred yards. If you asked Josh right now, he would tell you that he told you everything important.” she reflected, “and maybe in a kid's view he did.”