"Technic'ly," said Nat, "she's adult."
The old cowboy raised his hand in a halting gesture. "But you know an' I know she's about as un-adult as can be, right?"
Charlotte Carolina nodded and blew her runny nose. Her face was puffed up with tears over her daughter Jennifer's latest antics and plight. The girl had been released after a few hours from the Hardyville jail and was presently moaning in hung-over agony in her old bedroom. But the hangover wasn't the worst of Jen's troubles.
"She's only 15!" Charlotte wailed.
"Right," Nat nodded. "Old 'nuff to know better, but not old 'nuff to have figured it out. An' that's why I come to you. Here's what I pr'pose."
Nat explained his plan for Jennifer to make restitution for the destruction she'd wrought on the office of Lyons and Yale Good Foods and the theft of the still-missing cash box.
"But ..." Charlotte objected again.
"Thing is, Mrs. Carolina, your daughter's adult. I c'n take her to arbitration without askin' ya. But I am askin' you. Askin' you to help me out here -- and help your daughter out, too. 'Cause this is a better deal than what she's gonna end up with if we have t' go through 'proceedin's.'"
Charlotte dabbed at her runny eyes. "It doesn't make any sense!" She protested.
"It does, I promise. Mebbe ya just don't see it yet. But it does. Will ya go along with me? Or at least not get in the way?"
When Charlotte still hesitated, Nat added, "I promise if it doesn't work out, we'll stop and go back to the c'nventional way. All right?"
Wearily, Charlotte sniffed. And nodded.
* * *
"Technic'ly, she's adult," Nat began, sitting in another, grander room, across a wide desk from an elegant, silken-haired man. "I could take her t' arbitration without askin' ya. But ..."
"Will your proposal save my family from drawn-out public exposure and disgrace?" Gael Carolina demanded. He hadn't asked to hear the details.
"Oh yeah. That it will. No public proceedin's at all. It'll just be between Jennifer and me, officially representin' Lyons and Yale Good Foods."
"And you will not expect me to pay for the girl's wrongdoings?"
"Nope. That'd be the last thing I'd want."
"By all means, then," nodded Señor Carolina, turning back to his computer screen, discreetly signaling the end of the very brief meeting. "The girl is incorrigible. I wash my hands of her. If you can obtain her agreement to your plan, good luck to you."
* * *
Jennifer, still pale and shaky, stared at the piece of paper in her lap, which spelled out Nat's proposed terms of restitution. She seemed to have trouble focusing her eyes on it.
"This is stupid!" she finally sneered, looking first at her mother, then Nat. "I don't have to do it. I'd rather go back to jail."
"Can't," said Nat. "No point in jus' puttin' ya in a cage, costin' everybody money when you could be makin' some use of y'rself."
"Well then I want to go to ... what do you call it? Like those federal agents did. Arbation. Whatever."
"Oh? So you got the money t' do that? Where'd ya get it -- from our cash box?"
"Sweetie," Charlotte said, "I already told you, being new here, we don't have an arbitration policy in force. We'd have to pay by the hour and ..."
"Oh yeah. And I'm not worth it. I know."
Before the conversation had a chance to degenerate into the sort only a mother and teenage daughter could endure, Nat spoke up.
"Girl," he said, casting a silencing glance at Charlotte, "It's like this. 'We' wouldn't have to pay anythin'. You'd have to pay the whole cost of 'arbation.' Y'rself. 'Cause you made yourself a grown-up when you left home and took a job. And that would be f'r starters. Lesseee ..." He took a much-folded scrap of adding-machine tape from his pocket. "The 'nsurance company says it'll be $55 to fix the walls an' $97 for new carpet an' ... this is all Hardyville money, too, ya know. Not fed'ral money. So you c'n multiply it all by 20 or so to get figures that might sound more realistic where you come from. An' gotta replace the whole desk, which is ..."
Jen sat there and listened until he got to the still-missing cash box.
"... which had, far as we c'n recall, about six months worth o' your pay in it. And how 'zactly do you plan to pay all that back when nobody in their right mind's gonna hire you for anything until -- and unless -- you make good?"
"All right!" Jennifer finally shrieked, "I'll do it! I'll do it! Give me a pen and I'll sign this stupid thing!"
Charlotte winced as she watched her 15-year-old daughter sign away the next full year of her life. As a mother, she still couldn't accept the wisdom of Nat's plan. Some of it made sense. Yes, the part about Jennifer working and living on Nat's horse ranch for a year without pay ... that made a certain tough-love kind of logic. The girl would be away from temptations. And who knows? Jennifer might even learn some responsibility, caring for horses. But ...
"C'mon," Nat ordered, unfolding his old bones from the armchair and reaching out to Jennifer for the signed piece of paper. "I'm gonna deliver you to the shootin' range right now. Got an instructor, one o' Carty's men, already on standby. Then I'll run your stuff up to the old trailer on my place. Carty's man'll bring you up after your lesson and I'll show you your job."
Charlotte bit her lip. She couldn't imagine what was to be gained ... in fact to a mother it seemed hopelessly illogical ... for Nat to make the other part of the proposal. And it certainly didn't help him or his store to recoup their losses. Far from it. It was merely strange. Perhaps dangerously so.
As Jennifer slouched after Nat without a backward glance at her mother, Charlotte looked down at her copy of the agreement and re-read the part that troubled her.
I, Jennifer Carolina, further agree to take four hours of shooting lessons per week for the next year with an instructor or instructors of Nat Lyons' choice, and at Mr. Lyons' expense.
Furthermore, I agree to obey all firearms safety rules at all times and to practice regularly until I become fully proficient (according to the standards of the Hardyville Gun Club) at the defensive use of pistol, rifle, and shotgun.
Should I fail to keep any portion of this agreement, I will reimburse Mr. Lyons for the full cost of all training, as well as my room and board while at his ranch. Furthermore, if I fail to keep any portion of this agreement, I will repay Lyons and Yale Good Foods, in lawful money, all losses I caused while vandalizing and burglarizing their office.
If I complete this agreement, at the end of one year, I will be considered to have paid my debt in full. Further, I will be allowed to keep the cash box I stole from Lyons and Yale and all its contents.
Charlotte blew her nose again. Why in the world would anybody take an out-of-control, hell-bent for trouble girl like Jennifer and arm her, on top of everything else? As if the girl didn't already have enough ways to cause problems to herself and everybody around her.
Charlotte shuddered. But she was at the end of her emotional and financial rope. And so was Jennifer. With Nat offering to pay for all this, rather than demanding to be paid ... well, what else was there to do?
* * *
Meanwhile, as Jennifer Carolina glumly trudged into exile at one ranch 30 long, isolated miles west of town, several interesting developments were taking place at another ranch, much closer in.
Out at the Harbibi hog operation, John Davis Melvin (formerly Herr Kommandante of the federal raid on the Emma Goldman Arts Co-Op and Biodiverse Living Center, now hog-feeder in chief among the Federal Five) and the grieving Widow Harbibi showed signs of becoming An Item. Or so said the rumor from those who'd seen them out-and-about in the big crew-cab pickup truck. Without seatbelt laws to separate them, the two had been frequently spotted snuggled together as cozy as a pair of puppies as they rumbled down the highways and back roads. One gossip even reported seeing them (and I'm sorry, this is a truly unappetizing thought) snogging in a corner booth at the Hog Trough Grill and Feed. Mrs. Harbibi was heard to giggle girlishly as Melvin whispered sweet nothings over plates of fried chicken.
Yet another rumor said that Mrs. Harbibi might be in the process of selling out.
"Selling out" in what sense?, some of us wondered.
Thank you to proofreaders Darrell Anderson and EB -- saving writers from themselves one typo at a time. And to Oliver Del Signore, faithful font of ideas for stuck writers.
Read More by Claire Wolfe
Comments regarding Claire Wolfe's articles may be addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments may appear online in "Feedback" or in the "Letters" section of Backwoods Home Magazine. Although every email is read, her busy schedule does not permit a personal response to each one.