To Teach an Old Dog
by Kate Pitts
The first time I saw him was the day that I hired on at the Ponderosa. I didn’t know then that that skinny, green-eyed kid was going to change my life for ever.
He was sitting beside his father, watching as the new hands signed on. Obviously an observant youngster, he saw me hesitate when it came to sign my name, and realised straight off that I couldn’t.
I guess he must have come across plenty of guys like me before, heck half the older cowhands I know can’t read or write. I thought I saw pity in his eyes though as he held out the pen and showed me where to make my mark.
Inscribing an ‘X’ at the bottom of the paper I gave him what I hoped was a proud and defiant look, so that he could see I wasn’t ashamed of not being able to write. I kind of hoped he’d see how irked I was at his pitying look, but he just grinned as he shook my hand and welcomed me to the Ponderosa.
It was a pretty good job I got with the Cartwrights. Work was hard but the pay was fair and the grub was real good, best I ever had. I got along well with the men I worked with and, truth be told, I enjoyed working there.
I didn’t see the kid again for a while but I heard all about him. Heard about all the Cartwrights, come to that. Good employers the other hands said, and a fine family. The kid was the youngest of Ben Cartwright’s three sons. His name was Joseph, Little Joe they called him. Fourteen years old and cocky as all get out. Thought he knew everything. But he was a good hearted youngster, everyone agreed, friendly and good natured. Never lording it over anyone ‘cause of who his Pa was.
The next time I ran in to him was down by the corral. His eldest brother, Adam, was breaking some horses and the kid was sitting up on top of the fence, watching. I’d been helping out and was on my way back to the bunkhouse to wash up before supper.
“Hey!” he called, catching sight of me as I walked past. “How are you liking the Ponderosa?”
It would have been rude not to answer, and besides, he was the boss’s son, so I ambled over to join him. “I like it fine,”
“Good,” he grinned down at me. “Your name’s Ned ain’t it?”
“Yep, that’s me. Ned Clark.”
That was it for a while as we both turned to watch Adam Cartwright ride a spirited mare around the corral. The kid yelled his appreciation as his brother brought the animal under control and I couldn’t help smiling. He was obviously real proud of Adam.
As the horse was led away, Joe looked down at me again. “Mind if I ask you something?” he said, sort of shy like.
“What’s it like? I mean not being able to read and write. Don’t you wish you could?”
I didn’t answer right away and the kid shifted uncomfortably on the fence. Guess he felt a bit bad about asking such a personal question.
“Reckon you don’t miss what you never had,” I told him eventually.
“But how do you manage?” he asked, and though I’d expected to hear pity, or even contempt, in his voice, I didn’t. Just curiosity. Mayhaps I’d been wrong about him pitying me back when his Pa took me on.
I shrugged my shoulders, dismissing the question. “Don’t have no need of reading.”
“Wouldn’t you like to read a book or a newspaper? And what about letters?”
“Ain’t got no one to write a letter to.”
“I’m sorry,” he looked it too, his shoulders slumping and his eyes sad. “I didn’t mean to pry.”
“I don’t mind,” I reassured him. He was only a kid after all, he didn’t mean to cause offence. “You really want to know what it’s like?”
“Well then, sometimes it’s real hard, like when I’m with a group of fellers that can all read and they poke fun ‘cause I can’t. Or they laugh and joke about something they’ve read and I feel kind of left out. I try not to feel ashamed, ain’t my fault after all, but sometimes I just can’t help but feel that folks think they’re better than me ‘cause of it.”
“I didn’t mean to make you feel that way,”
“Don’t fret, son, you didn’t.”
“How come you didn’t learn when you were young?”
“No schools around where I grew up,” I told him, thinking back to the farm where I’d been raised. No school within a hundred miles or more and my Ma and Pa couldn’t read either, so they couldn’t teach me. Oh, my Pa could do some figuring and he taught me that. I could cope with numbers all right. Just letters I never learned. “I guess sometimes it might be good to know what things say. But I ain’t likely to learn reading now. Can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
“Bet I could teach you,” he offered confidently, “I don’t much like school but I can read and write okay.” He leaned forward and snapped his fingers as another idea struck him. “Or my brother, Adam, could do it. He’s real good at being a teacher. He used to help me with my lessons when I was a kid.”
I hid a smile at that, to me he still was a kid. “I don’t think so, but thanks for the offer.”
“Suit yourself,” he jumped down from the fence and walked away, leaving me alone with my thoughts.
Funny thing, till this kid had started in with his questions I’d have said reading and writing didn’t really matter to me. That I was happy enough going through life without it. But he’d made me think. It would be good to join in when the fellers talked about things they’d read. And how often had I watched one of the hands pull out a letter and read it, treasuring the news from back home. I’d told young Joe that I had nobody to write to, but that weren’t altogether truthful. I did have some family. My sister and her family were still living on my Pa’s farm, as far as I knew anyhow. It might be nice to send them a letter, and I knew there were neighbours that could help them read it. I’d like to know how everyone was doing, how the farm was coming along.
“Hey, Joe,” I called after him, coming to a decision. “Those lessons you offered. Mind if I take you up on them? Just between you and me though, I don’t want the other hands getting to know about it.”
He smiled widely and sauntered back to shake my hand. “It’s a deal.”
You know what? He may have been young but Joe Cartwright made a darn good teacher. Couldn’t have written this otherwise, could I?
Kathleen Pitts January 2005