A Day for Checkers by Desert Sun

Word Count 1,932

Note:  This was written September 22, 2005 and posted to the Lancer groups on Yahoo.  Considering the name of this story and the fact that I gave it a specific date, I’m guessing that this was inspired by the September 2005 list of holidays and observances.   In September of 2014, I gave it a thorough editing but the basic story is the same as the original.

*****

September 23, 1872:

Rain!  Would it ever stop?  How much more water could the swollen river take before it ran into the fields?  The new shoots of alfalfa were already in danger of being washed away without any further help.  If only the clouds would part long enough for the sun to dry things out a bit, the damage would be tolerable.  If not and the heavens continued to dribble, nothing would be left except perhaps the hacienda.  According to the boss man, those white stone walls had withstood floods before– the worst being a decade or so ago when everything on the main floor had been moved upstairs and everyone had fled to higher ground for the better part of a month.

Jelly Hoskins sighed and turned away from the glass-paned French doors.  He spoke to no one in particular as he strolled between the pair of wingback chairs, clad in the blue of a summer sky.  “Still leakin’ like a sieve.  Don’t look like it’ll ever quit.”

A chair squeaked to Jelly’s right.  He turned and looked at the grey-haired man sitting behind the oak desk that was polished to a shine despite years of use.  A mere arms length beyond him an arched window rose to within inches of the ceiling and provided a grand view of the valley–or would have if it wasn’t for the streaks of water on the glass and the heavy drizzle falling on the land beyond for as far as the eye could see.

In one hand, Murdoch Lancer cupped the bowl of the pipe that hung from the corner of his mouth.  His lips parted on the other side, releasing a stream of smoke that carried the pungent smell of tobacco.  “Worrying won’t change anything.”

Jelly knew good and well that Murdoch had been silently stewing over the weather ever since breakfast.  Generally rain this time of year was a blessing, but the torrent of the past four days was neither welcome nor expected.

Looking toward the fireplace on the other side of the room, Jelly muttered between lips that barely moved.  “No?  Then why you lookin’ out that window ever little bit?”

“You say something?”  Murdoch’s voice thundered over all other sounds inside or outside of the room. 

Jelly shook his head as he took a step in the direction he had been headed.  “No, Boss,” he said as he continued on.  It’d do no good to point out Murdoch Lancer’s constant fretting.  The man would either deny or make an excuse for any such actions.

After walking around the end of the sofa, Jelly settled his attention on the three young people sitting in front of the fireplace.  Like children, they were wrapped up in the here-and-now of a battle between Murdoch’s grown sons.  They all seemed heedless of the threat of doom outside the doors of their safe haven.

A checkered board lay on a small table between one end of the sofa and the overstuffed, leather chair that had been scooted forward from its place beside the fireplace.  Scott Lancer scooped from the board the one remaining black checker and dropped it on the pile in front of him–his peal of laughter along with Teresa O’Brien’s squeal ringing through the room.

Teresa, who was seated next to Scott on the sofa, hugged his arm.  “You beat him!”

Johnny shook his head.  “No, I let him.”  Mischief shined in his eyes and the corners of his mouth hitched upward.

A scowl pushed the smile from Scott’s face, dulling his cheery eyes and filling his reply with indignation.  “You most certainly did not.”

“Did so.”

“Did not.”

“Did so!”

“Did not!”

The swelling argument echoed from the adobe walls.  When Murdoch did nothing to stop it, Jelly decided it was up to him to step in.  “If you two can’t agree, maybe you oughta go stand in the rain an’ cool off before you start throwin’ them checkers at each other.”

Teresa slid away from Scott.  She smiled over at Jelly, tucked a wayward stand of long, brown hair behind one ear, and patted the empty span of the flowered sofa cushion between her and Scott.  “Come and sit down.  You promised to play the winner.”

“Yeah.”  Johnny waved for Jelly to come closer. “Let’s see ya put ol’ Boston, here, in his place.  He’s been gettin’ mighty uppity of late.”

Another clash of words erupted from the brothers.  Jelly shook his head.  Those two were worse than a couple of kids.

In hopes of putting an end to the argument, Jelly wedged himself between Scott and Teresa.  “What color am I?”

Scott continued sorting the pile checkers.  “Red.”

Jelly’s bones ached.  Not from age, of course.  Should anyone care to ask, he would blame the weather. Still, it made him feel belligerent.  “Why red?”

Scott shoved the pile of red checkers to Jelly’s side of the board.  “Because . . . black always goes to the winner.  You know that.”

Jelly filled the black squares on his side of the board with red checkers.  No one had ever said why they never swapped and used the white ones.  He thought about asking, but decided against it.  Scott’d probably tell him it was because that was the way checkers were played.

Once his pieces were in place, Jelly looked over at Scott.  “I s’pose you get to move first, too.”  He didn’t care that he sounded grumpy.  The whole day had been taken up with one checker game after another–not that he disliked the game.   A round or two in the evening was relaxing.  It was the hours of sitting that grated on his nerves.

Scott won with ease, and Jelly grumbled some more.  “If my knee weren’t givin’ me fits on account of all this rain, I wouldn’t have fallen for your sneaky tricks.”

“Sure, Jelly.  We all know you could’ve whipped Scott with your eyes closed.”  Johnny stood and slapped Jelly on the arm.  “What say you give it another go, after a shot of brandy to take your mind off your leg?”

Without waiting for an answer, Johnny went to the long dining table and poured three drinks.  When he returned, he kept one for himself and offered the others to Jelly and Scott.

Teresa got up and announced that she needed to go check on the stew.  Scott accused her of using that as an excuse to get out of taking him on in the next round of checkers, but she refused to be provoked into playing.  Her light steps beat a rhythmic retreat across the tile floor and out the doorway into the hall where they slowly faded from hearing.

When Teresa was out of sight, Scott pushed the pile of red checkers to the far side of the board and looked at his brother.  “Come on, Johnny.  Here’s your chance to get even while Jelly finishes his glass of courage.”

Jelly ignored the goad and glanced over his shoulder at the double set of French doors.  Although dusk was slipping in like a veil over what dreary light the day had provided, he could still see a fog of moisture beyond the raindrops dribbling off of the porch roof.  A few more hours remained until bedtime.  How many more games would he have to play?

After taking another sip of his brandy, Jelly rested the glass on his thigh and tipped his head back against the soft edge of the back of the sofa.  Tomorrow would be another day.  Maybe the rain would stop, and he could hunt the rabbit that had been raiding Teresa’s garden.  For now, he might as well relax while Murdoch’s sons waged war.

As Jelly finished his drink, he supposed a body needed a checker day once in awhile.  Lord knew they all worked hard.  They could use a chance to play without worrying that the boss man would complain about them shirking their duties.  Besides, it was too wet to do anything else.

A short while later, Johnny let out a whoop of victory that was nigh loud enough to raise the roof.

Jelly slapped his thigh.  “I knew ya could beat him!”

Unbecoming lines stretched from Scott’s puckered mouth to his nose as he herded the checkers to the center of the board.  He nudged the table leg with his foot and spoke rather sharply.  “Here, Jelly.  Your turn.”

The table bucked, and the mountain of checkers crumbled and spread outward.   Jelly and Johnny both snatched up game pieces that slide over the edge of the checkerboard.

Scott’s “sorry” held little remorse.

Johnny scowled at his brother.  “What’s the matter?  Losin’ don’t set well with you?”

“Speakin’ of losing . . . let’s see how well you take it,” Jelly said.

Johnny gathered the black checkers into a pile on his side of the board.  “Think ya can beat me, do ya?” 

Jelly gave one sharp nod.  “Yep.”

For a while the only sound was the whispered tap of the checkers being set into place.  When all was ready, Johnny made his first move and waved a hand at Jelly.  “Okay.  Let’er buck.”

Jelly pushed away all thought of the rain.  With his left thumb hooked beneath his suspender, he puffed out his chest and slid a red checker forward one square to the right.  “You, Johnny Lancer, are about to be dumped.”

And so the war continued, except for a lull when supper was ready.  Commanders of the black checkers rose and fell until the clock chimed the ninth hour, at which time the moon peeked through a break in the clouds to reveal that the rain had stopped.  All of the lights were turned out, and the players trooped off to bed.  The battlefield lay deserted on the table by the sofa–waiting for another day for checkers to arrive.

~The End~

References to Historical Facts:

The reference to a severe flood of a decade earlier that Jelly makes in the opening paragraph of this story was based on information I found on the Internet.  The following excerpt was taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Floods_in_California.

December 1861 – January 1862: California’s Great Flood

Main article: Great Flood of 1862

Beginning on December 24, 1861, and lasting for 45 days, the largest flood in California’s recorded history was created, reaching full flood stage in different areas between January 9–12, 1862. The entire Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys were inundated for an extent of 300 miles (480 km), averaging 20 miles (32 km) in breadth. State government was forced to relocate from the capital in Sacramento for 18 months in San Francisco. The rain created an inland sea in Orange County, lasting about three weeks with water standing 4 feet (1.2 m) deep up to 4 miles (6 km) from the river.[1] The Los Angeles basin was flooded from the San Gabriel Mountains to the Palos Verdes Peninsula, at variable depths, excluding the higher lands which became islands until the waters receded. The Los Angeles basin lost 200,000 cattle by way of drowning, as well as homes, ranches, farm crops & vineyards being swept-away.

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