“Get your coat. He’ll be waiting for us.” That’s all Dad said. I’d seen him mad and sad and disappointed and a whole bunch of other things, but not all at the same time.
“I’ll take it back to Brother Gordon’s store,” I said, pushing the shaving cream across the table. “I’ll pay for it too. It only costs a dollar and thirty-nine cents.” I swallowed hard. “I’ve got that much in my drawer.”
Dad didn’t say anything more. He just looked at me. He looked at me so hard that I felt real funny inside, and finally I had to stare at the floor or start bawling.
“I can pay for it,” I said again. “You can have the money right now.”
“Get your coat.” He almost whispered it. “And while you’re at it, bring the dollar and thirty-nine cents.”
There was nothing more to say. I guess no kid can win in a fight against his dad. There’s something about being a dad that gives him a head start. When your dad says that David killed Goliath or that Joseph was sold into Egypt, then that’s what happened. When he says that you need to go to church every Sunday, then a guy knows where he’d better be on Sunday. And when a dad says, “Get your coat and bring your dollar and thirty-nine cents with you,” then there isn’t much a person can do but get his coat and money.
I went to my room and counted out three dollars. I figured that paying more than double would make things easier on me when I got to the sheriff’s.
On the way over to Brother Gordon’s store, I got to thinking about Harry and Carl. This was all their fault, not mine. I hadn’t even wanted to take the shaving cream, but they’d said I wouldn’t be stealing. All I was supposed to do was talk to Brother Gordon while they did the stealing.
I explained all that to Dad, but he said that helping someone else to steal is still stealing and that this was even more my fault because I’d taken advantage of Brother Gordon’s trust in me. I guess he was right, but I sure didn’t think it was fair that I was getting blamed for everything. I only brought the shaving cream home with me because Harry and Carl didn’t want it after they got out of the store.
The more I thought about Harry and Carl, the madder I got. Before I knew it, I could feel tears in my eyes, and I started to sniffle. By then we were in front of Brother Gordon’s store, so I hurried and dried my eyes with my coat sleeve and got out of the car.
As soon as we walked into the store, Brother Gordon saw Dad and came over. Dad had called the sheriff already, but Brother Gordon still didn’t know anything about my stealing. Dad said I would have to tell him.
“Hello, Dick,” Dad said. “Robert has some business with you to take care of.”
“What can I do for you, Bobby?” Brother Gordon asked.
I looked at his belt buckle and held out the shaving cream. “I stole it.” That was all I could say. Brother Gordon didn’t say anything, and Dad wouldn’t help me either.
“I stole it,” I said louder. “I stole it and I’m sorry. You always said you could trust me, but I guess you couldn’t, because I’m just an old robber. But I won’t ever do it again.”
I was bawling real good by then, and I just wished I had never seen that shaving cream. I set it on the counter and dug into my pocket for my money. “The shaving cream only costs a dollar and thirty-nine cents, but I’ll pay three dollars.”
Brother Gordon didn’t know what to do. He told me to keep the money, but Dad said no. I didn’t care because I didn’t want the money, and most of all I didn’t want that old shaving cream.
I figured that since I’d bawled good and paid the money and told Brother Gordon I was sorry that Dad wouldn’t take me to the sheriff, but I was wrong.
When we walked into the sheriff’s office, the first thing I saw was his gun. He wore it down on his leg like cowboys in the movies do. Dad had told me once that the sheriff could shoot a gun better than anyone around and that he had ribbons and trophies to prove it.
The sheriff showed me into another room and told me to wait for him while he talked to Dad. I wasn’t too scared until I noticed four rifles chained to a rack on one of the walls. There was a desk in one corner with two chairs in front of it. I sat down on one of the chairs and looked at the guns on the wall and wondered if those rifles were still used to shoot robbers.
The sheriff came into the room without Dad and shut the door. Then he walked over to the desk and straightened some papers. After a second he sat down and leaned back in his chair.
“I hear you got into a little trouble. Is that so?”
I just nodded.
“I guess you know that stealing’s wrong?”
“Yeah,” I whispered.
“I guess you know that it doesn’t matter how many people do it. It’s still wrong.”
“A person can get thrown into jail for stealing.” He didn’t smile. He just stared at me. Now when Dad’s upset, his eyes can make you feel funny and kind of twitchy inside, but when the sheriff looked at me, it hurt. I looked at the floor a couple of times and dusted off my pants, even though they didn’t need it.
All of a sudden the sheriff stood up and took off his gun holster. “There’s no sense in my telling you that you’ve done something wrong,” he growled. “You know that. You broke the law, and your dad wants me to do something about it.”
He stopped talking while he slowly pulled his gun out of the holster. I had thought he might throw me in jail, but I hadn’t figured he’d shoot me, not for a stolen tube of shaving cream. My spit dried up, and I grabbed the chair real tight, then held my breath, closed my eyes, and waited for the BANG! There was just a quiet thud, though, when the sheriff put his gun into his desk drawer.
Well, my spit came back, and I started to breathe again. It was pretty jumpy breathing for a while, but it was real good to know I could still do it.
The sheriff coughed and sat down. “Most dads don’t bring their boys to the sheriff. But your dad isn’t like most dads.” He leaned forward. “You’re going to grow up to be a good man, Bobby, but you won’t grow up that way because you came in here and talked to me. You’ll be a good man because you have a good dad. Right now it might seem that you’re getting all the blame for what Harry and Carl did. But some day you’ll realize that your dad isn’t being hard on you. It’s Carl’s and Harry’s dads who are being hard on them.”
The sheriff leaned back in his chair and just stared at me for a while. Finally he opened his desk drawer and pulled out five paper cups. He carried the other chair across the room and set the cups on it. Then he pulled a long black horsewhip from his desk.
All of a sudden he jerked the fat end of that whip, and the skinny end shot out of his hand with a loud bang and hit one of those paper cups and tore it to pieces. It happened so fast that I jumped out of my chair. My eyes bulged, and I felt my heart beating so hard up in my throat that I thought I’d choke. He snapped that whip three more times, and then there was just one cup left on the chair.
The sheriff started talking again. “It used to be that when someone stole something, he was given a good thrashing with a whip like this.” He looked straight at me. He didn’t smile, and I knew he wasn’t playing a game. Before I could blink my eyes, that horsewhip shot out and ripped the last cup off the chair.
“I don’t whip people for stealing.” He cleared his throat and added, “But there is one thing I might whip a boy for.”
The sheriff began to roll up his whip while he talked. “You know, Bobby, dads are pretty good fellows. They take you on camp-outs, teach you how to play ball, fix your bike tires when they’re flat, tell you stories, and somehow are always around when you need a friend. Most of all, they’re there to set you straight when you get off the right track. If the world’s a good place to live in, it’s because there are lots of good dads.”
The sheriff stopped talking, and I figured he was done. But he wasn’t. He took a deep breath and started tapping his fingers on the desk. “Do you know why your dad and I are such good friends?”
I shook my head.
“My dad died before I was even born. When I was growing up, your dad was the one who fixed my bike, showed me how to play ball, and was around when I needed a friend. He was a dad to me.”
I looked up at the sheriff, and I could see that his eyes were moist and shining. He wasn’t bawling or anything, but shoot, the sheriff’s about the toughest guy around!
He was real quiet for a long time. Then he looked at me, picked up his coiled whip, pointed it at me, and said quietly, “Now, I’m going to tell you how you can get a horsewhipping. I won’t give it to you for stealing things from Mr. Gordon’s store or for fighting or breaking windows or anything like that. Those things are bad, but they won’t get you a horsewhipping. There’s something worse than doing those things. If you hurt your dad … if you ever do anything that makes him feel real bad, or if I hear you calling him ‘old man’ like some of the other boys call their dads, I’ll come looking for you. And believe you me, I’ll horsewhip you, because you have the best dad in the world, and any boy who would do those things to a dad like yours needs a good horsewhipping. Do you understand me?”
I nodded my head. I sure did understand.
Finally he smiled. I was glad to see that he remembered how.
When he told me I could go, Dad was waiting for me. I was sure glad to see him. When we walked out to the car, he put his arm around me like he does lots of times. He told me he loved me and just wanted me to be a good boy. I knew he meant what he said, and I remembered what the sheriff had said about him.
It’s been a while since I went with Dad to see the sheriff. I haven’t stolen anything else from Brother Gordon, and he still trusts me and says I’m a good boy.
The sheriff always waves to me when he passes in his truck, and whenever he talks to me, he asks me about my dad. I haven’t ever asked him if he still has his whip. He probably does, but I’m not afraid of it—or him—because there’s no reason for him to come looking for me. You see, I’ve got the best dad in the whole world, and I know it.