Pa! Always telling me what to do. Always ordering me around. As if I had no sense at all. He must think I'm stupid! Doesn't he think I can think for myself? Just because those cows got away and got stuck in that mud hole wasn't my fault. Cows have no sense anyway. I was away for only a couple of hours. How was I to know that they would wander that far away.
Well I wasn't going to take anymore of this. I'm seventeen now and lots of boys are men at that age, doing a man's work. I'll show him. I can do what I want. I don't need him telling me anything anymore.
Like my friends, the Dugen boys. He keeps telling me that they're no good, that they're trouble. But we have fun together. Go camping, raise a little hell now and then. No one gets hurt. And their father is really nice. He understands that we need to kick up our heels now and then. Even gives us a little hooch for our camping trips.
Pa says I should stay away from them, that they are nothing but trouble. If it was up to him, I would be home every night, studying for some way to get ahead. For what? I want to have some fun now. Later will take care of itself.
Like tonight. We're going into town and have some fun. Have a few drinks, maybe play some cards. That sounds a lot better than going home and studying some boring subject by lamplight.
When I got to town, the Dugens were already there. Their nags were tied in front of the Dry Throat saloon. I pushed through the doors, feeling important to be in a man's world. The three boys were leaning on the bar, looking real satisfied with themselves. I walked up to them, feeling like a real man to be here in a man's world. The bar keep came over and said "What you want son?" I just looked at him. "Son?" Who is he calling "son?" Will people never learn that I am growed up, a man? Well I'll just let that one slide. No need to fight over it. He is kind of big anyway. I"ll let it go for now. I ordered a whiskey. When it came, I slide a coin onto the bar and tossed it down in one gulp. And just about died. It burned my throat raw, brought tears to my eyes, left me breathless and I couldn't talk.
"You OK son?" He looked at me with what looked like a little smirk, but I couldn't be sure. I couldn't see well enough to tell, my eyes were all teared up. I just looked away, like it was no concern, but I could see smirks on the Dugen boys' faces too. We stood there for a while talking, telling stories about all the crazy and fun things we had done. Well, they did most of the talking. It took me a while to get my voice back. Most of what they were saying were lies and exaggerations that I had heard before and I didn't need to get involved trying to match them. Most of what I had done had been a lot of nothing and boring anyway.
After a while a man in a black broadcloth suit came up to us and said " Would you men like to sit in on a friendly game of cards? There's only two of us and we need a few more to get a game going."
Men? He called us "men!" Now that was more like it. About time that people were recognizing us as men. After all we were seventeen. Or some of us were. Now I didn't know too much about cards, but me and the Dugens had us a deck and often played for acorns. Didn't seem too hard. You just played whatever you were dealt. So we all straightened up real tall, hitched up our belts and ambled over. We sat down like we were used to playing cards all our lives.
That man in the black suit looked like a real gentleman. Had a white shirt and a black string tie. Clean hands, nails all trimmed nice. And a real friendly smile on his face. Made us feel real welcome. He shuffled the cards kind of clumsy, cut them and dealt five to each of us. I drew a pair of twos and a pair of fours. Wow. Two pair right off the start. This looked like it might be a good night. I didn't have much money, so I asked Rob Dugen if he could loan me some. He pulled out a wad of bills and pealed some off and handed them to me. Where did he get that much money? I didn't know that he even had a job, except for doing some chores for the widow Mahoney once in a while. Well, I'll ask him later. The dealer had an odd look on his face when he saw that roll of bills that Rob had, but I had two pair and wasn't really thinking about that.
I drew one card and it was a four. A full house! This game is easy! I won a modest size pot and felt real good. The other boys were looking real eager when they saw all that money stacked in front of me. I returned Rob's loan to him and we settled down to really play.
At first, we all won some hands, small pots, but we could see that this fellow in the black suit wasn't much of a player. He was kind of clumsy and shuffled a lot. As time went on, a big pot built up. I was dealt four hearts and one spade. Should I draw to a flush? The way my night was going, I took a chance and called and drew one card. A club. I lost almost all I had. The night started going bad for all of us. Finally, we were all cleaned out. And the Dugens were mad. Rob accused that man in the black suit of cheating. He got a real sly smile on his face and said "Boys shouldn't sit in on a man's game." He pushed back his chair and his hand went inside his coat. Instantly Rob pulled his hand out from under the table. He had an old revolver and fired it once, point blank into that man in the black suit. He got a real surprised look on his face, and looked down at his chest at the little hole in his suit. His mouth worked as he tried to say something, then slumped forward onto the table and died right there in front of us.
We sat there stunned. No one moved. The bar keep came over and said "What did you do that for?"
Rob dropped the gun on the table and sat there shaking and white faced. "He was cheating and went for his gun."
The bar keep pulled the body upright and opened his coat. No gun. "I don't see a gun. You shot an unarmed man. And how do you know he was cheating? Can you prove it?" We all just sat there, no one knowing what to do.
The bar keep reached over and took Rob's gun and pointed it at us and said "We're going down to the sheriff's office and see what he says about this." We all walked out of that saloon and down the old walk toward the sheriff's office. Folks had heard the shot and had come out to see what had happened. We all shuffled along, heads hanging down, in a daze over what had happened. Seeing that man dying in front of us was a shock we weren't prepared for. I felt all sick inside and thought I might throw up right there.
When we got to the sheriff's office, he was sitting behind his desk, looking stern. "I heard a shot, then I saw you boys coming down here with Sam holding a gun on you. What is this all about?"
Sam described what had happened. Then the sheriff turned to us and said "What do you boys say about this?" Rob explained that he felt that we had been suckered into a game with a gambler that was pretending not to know much about cards, and had then cleaned us out by cheating. And when he put his hand into his coat, he thought he had a gun.
"But he didn't, did he? And can you prove that he was cheating? You boys are going to jail until we can sort this thing out. You'll be lucky if you don't hang." Hang! I didn't do anything, I didn't shoot him, why should I hang? I was so scared I felt like I was in a trance. The sheriff marched us all into the back and locked us up behind bars.
I just sat there looking at the Dugens sitting on the bunk across from me. I started to really see them for the first time. The youngest one was hunched forward with his elbows on his knees crying, his nose running down his chin. Big ears, wide flat face, usually had a dumb expressionless grin, over nothing. Rob was sitting there with that strange kind of wheeze when he breathed, probably from that strange sunken in chest that he had. And that other one. He was the biggest. And a bully. I saw him pick up a smaller kid once when he had been drinking and throw him over a wagon just for fun. What was I doing with this bunch anyway?
That night was the longest night of my life. None of us could sleep. The Dugens argued among themselves, blaming each other for what had happened. As I thought it over I began to wonder why we had been so stupid not to have seen the signs of what was happening. We should have recognized that man for the gambler that he was. If we hadn't been drinking we would have been thinking more clearly as we played cards. We should have seen how he was setting us up. I should have been thinking for myself, not letting myself get roped into doing things that someone else had dreamed up. Right about now I would have been happy to be off by myself somewhere where I could do my own thinking. I wouldn't even mind being out there in the middle of nowhere pulling those cows out of the mud. Be a whole lot better then sitting here with this bunch of idiots waiting to hang.
The more that I thought it over, the more I blamed myself for where I was.
When morning came, we heard voices in the office. After a short while, they stopped and it was quiet again. An hour later, the door suddenly opened, and when I looked up, it was Pa. He just stood there looking at me, not saying a thing. Looking more through me than at me. For several long minutes he just stood there looking at me. Then he slowly turned around and walked out. I heard more talking, then the sheriff came in.
He opened the cell door and told us to come out. Here it is, I thought, they're going to hang us. Well, we probably deserve it, we must look like a sorry bunch of no goods.
"Lucky for you boys that this boy's Pa came. He went and talked to others in that saloon and then went and had a look at the gamblers body. He found a hide out gun hidden in an inside pocket. And he was a known card shark, had a warrant out for his arrest. And there was a reward on him too. Since none of you would admit to pulling the trigger on that gun, I am going to give the reward to your Pa. He was the one who figured this out and saved you boys from getting your necks stretched. He can do with it as he sees fit."
I walked into the sheriff's office and there was Pa waiting for me. Still didn't say a thing. He turned around and went outside and I followed. His horse was there and he had mine waiting for me. We mounted and began the long ride home. Neither of us said a thing. When we got there he dismounted and walked into the house. I put away the horses and got busy doing whatever chores I could find. When midday came, I didn't go in for something to eat, I saddled up and went to check on the cows and stayed out there until dark.
When I did go in, it was late. Ma had left some food on the table for me so I ate. No one was saying anything. Laying on the table was one of those books that Pa was always hoping I would study, so I picked it up and started looking though it. It was by someone by the name of Blackstone, one of Pa's favorites. It was about the rights of man and principles of justice. I started to read and after a couple of hours I realized that the others had gone to bed. I hadn't noticed, I was so engrossed in what was being said in this book. It was making a lot of sense. Men needed to live by principles. Principles needed to be developed in men for civilization to advance. Justice needed to be administered for civilization to exist. This was really interesting when you stopped to really think about it and digest it.
Maybe Pa was right. I would do some more reading at night after I finished my day's work. The next day I thought about what I had read and realized something. Mr. Blackstone was a lot better companion to be with than the Dugen boys.