Word Count 3,833
February 11, 1873:
It all started with what seemed a harmless request when the Lancer men had returned from a day out on the range. Scott readily agreed to wear his best white shirt to dinner that night. Dressing up for the evening meal was a habit he had found difficult to break during the early weeks, even months, after his arrival in California nearly three years ago. He thought it would be nice to take a step back into some semblance of his life before coming west, so he did his part to convince his father and brother to comply with the wishes of Teresa O’Brien, the lady of the house.
Scott entered the oversized parlor that also served as office and dining area. He recalled the first time he’d walked through that same arched doorway. He had been surprised to find one room serving so many purposes. It had appeared that his father was a frugal man who could see no reason for paying for the services of more staff that was absolutely necessary. Despite living in a house that would dwarf any of the mansions on Knob Hill in Boston, Murdoch Lancer hadn’t even had a butler.
At Scott’s approach, Murdoch looked up from the comfort of the padded, leather chair to the left of the fireplace. Johnny Lancer had his back to hearth and also watched as Scott walked over and joined him.
Scott turned and faced away from the dancing, crackling flames. He rubbed his hands together behind him and savored the heat. The warmth felt good after being out in the chill of winter since daylight that morning. Even though mid-twenties would have been mild compared to the frigid temperatures he had endured in Boston, it was unusually cold for the area where he now lived. He supposed his body had become used to the climate. No doubt the friends he’d left behind would say he was getting soft.
Teresa entered when the long hand of the grandfather clock was nearly facing the opposite direction as the short hand, which was on the Roman numeral for six. Murdoch rose at her approach and stood silently waiting as she looked him and his sons over.
“Wanna tell us what all this hoopla is about?” Johnny waved a hand at the dining table that was in front of the long row of bookcases. “I see you’re usin’ the best dishes and those fancy napkins with the lace edges. You picked a big bouquet of poppies, too, I see.”
Scott frowned at his brother and spoke in a scolding tone. “Johnny. Teresa doesn’t need a reason for wanting things nice. Where I grew up, the table always looked like that. “
“Yeah . . . well, this ain’t Boston.” Johnny tugged at his string tie. “The only time we’ve had to be this gussied up was when we’ve had company . . . or a wedding. In case you didn’t notice, there’s an extra plate on my side of the table.”
Murdoch cleared his throat. “Well, I can assure you there’s no wedding planned or company expected that I know of.”
Scott noticed that Teresa’s eyes shifted to one side. Did she know something the rest of them didn’t?
A rap sounded at the door in the entry hall.
“That must be Jelly!” Teresa spoke as she turned and hurried toward the far side of the room.
“Jelly?” Johnny let out a huff. “He never knocks. Why now?”
Scott wondered the same thing as he watched Teresa pass from sight. “I haven’t a clue, Brother. You’ll have to ask him.”
Footsteps sounded on the tile floor. Teresa came through the arched doorway near the far end of the row of bookcase. Her arm was linked in the arm of a young man who didn’t look familiar to Scott. Jelly followed a step or two behind.
Scott judged the stranger to be about his own height or slightly taller. The man was heavier, too, but there was nothing soft about his appearance. Scott had a feeling that the tightness of his shirt sleeve was from a bulge of muscle rather than fat.
Teresa spoke as she passed between the end of the dining table and the sofa. “Murdoch, Scott, Johnny . . . I’d like you to meet Mr. Lane.” She stopped in front of Murdoch. “Mr. Lane, this is Murdoch Lancer and his sons Scott and Johnny.”
Lane reached out a hand toward Murdoch. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Lancer.”
Murdoch shook hands. “Mr. Lane.” He shifted his questioning gaze to Teresa.
Seeing his father start to speak, Scott quickly stepped forward with his hand outstretched. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Lane. You’re welcome to call me Scott . . . to save on confusion.”
Lane’s grip was firm, his expression friendly. “Thank you, Scott. And you can call me–“
“Bronco!” Johnny elbowed past Scott and stopped directly in front of their visitor.
Lane stiffed. He cocked his head to one side and eyed Johnny up and down.
Scott tensed. Keeping his eyes focused on the stranger, he moved forward and touched his brother’s arm. “You know this man.”
“Yeah. I know ‘im.”
Lane tipped his head up a little, revealing eyes as blue as Johnny’s. “True. Only your name wasn’t Lancer. It was Madrid.” His lips parted into a hint of a smile. “The night we met, you’d just turned seventeen and were well on your way to paintin’ Tucson red, if I remember right.”
Johnny let out a chuckle. “You got a good memory.”
Lane’s expression turned thoughtful. “I heard you built yourself quite a reputation as a fast gun and then got yourself killed somewhere down in Mexico.”
“Almost did.” Johnny looked down and then back up at Lane. “Speakin’ of reputations, I’ve heard a few tales about you. Your hand ain’t exactly slow.”
Scott edged between his brother and Lane. “If you two have some score to settle, this isn’t the time or the place.”
Johnny grinned at Scott. “Now do we look like we’re fixin’ to have a gunfight? He ain’t even packin’ an iron.” He held out his arms. “And I ain’t either. In case you forgot, I hung mine over there on the coat tree.”
Jelly moved up beside Lane. “Don’t guess you two could’ve had much of a run in. One o’ you wouldn’t be standin’ here, otherwise.”
Lane smiled again. “No. Nothing too serious anyway, Jelly. Johnny keeled over before it came to that. I tucked him up real nice in a bunk at the jail an’ let him sleep off all those shots of whisky and tequila he’d guzzled down. We got along just fine after that.”
“What brings you all the way up here?” Johnny swung one arm, brushing his hand back and forth against his leg.
“I had to make a trip up to Sacramento. I’d heard an old friend of mine was in the area, so I thought I’d stop in and see him.”
Scott arched his brows. “Then you knew Johnny was here all along.”
Lane laughed. “No. That was a complete surprise.”
“But you do know someone here at Lancer,” Murdoch said.
Jelly puffed out his chest. “I hope you don’t mind me invitin’ him to stay a couple days. And before ya go complainin’ about all the fuss . . . that was Teresa’s idea. She was with me in town this mornin’ when I run across Lane askin’ how to get to the Lancer spread.”
Teresa braced the backs of her hands on her hips. “Well it just wasn’t right not to do something special, with him being a good friend of Jelly’s. I figured it wouldn’t hurt for us to put out a little extra effort to make him feel welcome. Besides, it never hurts to make a new friend.”
“You did the right thing, Teresa.” Scott eyed his father. “Isn’t that correct, Murdoch? And . . . as it turned out, Johnny knows him as well. I see no reason we can’t all be friends.”
“Glad we got that settled. Think we can eat, now?” Jelly looked from one Lancer to the other.
Jelly received no arguments and soon they were all seated at the table. Throughout the meal, they talked and laughed. Scott found he liked Lane. The man had proven to be pleasant company. Murdoch appeared to be of the same opinion, although he cast an occasional concerned glance at Teresa.
After dinner, they all gathered around the fireplace. Murdoch settled once again into his chair in the corner. Scott sat near him on one side of the hearth. Johnny stood at the other end of the fireplace with one hand resting upon the mantle. Lane was between Teresa and Jelly on the sofa that faced them.
A short time later, Jelly broke a lull in the conversation. “Anyone else think a little music would be nice?” He eyed Johnny. “You wouldn’t mind getting’ out your guitar, would you?”
Johnny slid his arm off of the mantle. He scowled as he flexed his fingers and ran his thumb across their tips. “Jelly, I’ve been fightin’ barbed wire all day. I’m not sure I’m up to playin’ anything tonight.”
Jelly jutted out his chin. “Wasn’t wantin’ it for you. I thought Bronco here could give us a tune or two.”
Teresa gazed up at Lane and spoke in a pleading tone. “Oh, please do. We don’t get to have music very often.” She glared over at Johnny. “A certain somebody always seems to have sore fingers unless he thinks nobody’s listening to him.”
Lane stroked his clean-shaven chin. “Well, I suppose it’s only fair. It wouldn’t be the first time I played for my supper.”
Teresa let out a little gasp. “Oh, I didn’t mean it as a way of paying for anything. I . . . I . . .”
“And I wasn’t meaning that you did.” Lane smiled at Teresa and she smiled back.
Scott looked on in silence. Teresa seemed to be quite taken with their guest. What was really going through her mind? He sighed. Undoubtedly she had noticed that Lane was considerably better looking than most of the young men in the area. He was neatly dressed–his white shirt unspotted. His hair was well kept, and he had a polite way about him, too. Could she be smitten? Was that why she had put so much effort into making something special of the evening meal?
Jelly’s voice broke through Scott’s thoughts. “Well, Johnny. You gonna get it or not?”
“All right. No need to keep naggin’ me.” Johnny stepped away from the fireplace and headed for the far side of the room.
Lane chuckled. “I guess Johnny hasn’t grown up as much as I thought he had.” His expression sobered. “It is good to see he has a family . . . only I wonder why he told me his folks were dead. Even said it was his pa’s death that got him into his first gun battle. I got the impression they were quite close.”
Scott glanced over at Murdoch. What was he thinking? From the pinch of his brows, he couldn’t be happy with the turn of the conversation.
Teresa spoke up while Scott was trying to decide what to say. “That would have to be his step-father. He’s mentioned him a few times, but mostly he keeps his past to himself.”
“I see.” Lane lowered his gaze. “Hope I didn’t bring up something I shouldn’t have.”
Murdoch drew in a deep breath. “It’s a long story. I suppose you’ve gathered that Johnny didn’t grow up here, although not from my choice.”
Teresa laid a hand on Lane’s arm. “If the Pinkerton agent hadn’t found Johnny when he did, that story you heard about him would have been true.”
Scott felt the conversation was getting a bit personal. “Well, he’s here now. Maybe he does act like a kid at times, but he has changed considerably over the past three years. I couldn’t ask for a better brother.”
Lane patted Teresa’s hand while looking at Scott. “I always thought Johnny had the makings to be somebody, someday. Oh, he was wild. Had a bit of chip on his shoulder, too. Got himself hooked up with the wrong crowd, most likely and they filled his head full of ideas about making a name for himself. When you’ve been kicked around and had folks look down on you, it’s only natural to hunt a way to make ’em look up for a change . . . even if it is out of fear.” He glanced around the room. “I’m glad he had this to come to, and that’s he’s been able to leave that old life behind. Not everyone gets that chance.”
Scott felt his appreciation for Bronco Lane grow even more. He opened his mouth to speak, heard Johnny’s footsteps, and closed it again.
Johnny came in the way he’d gone out. Holding his guitar by the neck, he sauntered over to Lane and stopped. “Here you go. Don’t expect to get by with one or two tunes, though.” He pointed at Jelly and Teresa as he continued to speak. “Those two won’t be satisfied ’til they have your fingers wore out.”
“That’s not true.” Teresa lifted her chin. “Besides, we still have pie to eat.”
“Pie? What kind?” Johnny handed the guitar over to Lane. “Don’t tell me you made one o’ those Boston Cream Pies.”
“It’s apple, from what’s left of the ones I dried last fall . . . not that it’s any of your business. If you don’t like what I made, you don’t have to eat it.”
Johnny grinned over at Scott. “A bit snippety, ain’t she? If I didn’t know better, I’d say she–“
Bronco interrupted. “Like I was saying, Johnny, you haven’t changed. Haven’t you learned it’s not wise to give a lady a bad time . . . especially the one who cooks your meals?” He settled the guitar into position and plucked his thumb over each string one at a time while looking up at Johnny. “Now, if you’ll find a place to take the load off your feet, I’ll see if I can smooth those feathers you’re so set on ruffling.”
Scott patted the empty space beside him on the stone hearth. “Come on, Johnny. Act your age before someone decides to make you.”
Johnny turned and crossed his arms. “And who would that be? You?”
“Nope. I planned to leave that up to our father. He has a much bigger advantage.”
Jelly shook a fist at Johnny. “I’ll whip ya myself if ya don’t sit down and be quiet . . . and don’t think I can’t. I’ve taken on bigger men in my day.”
Lane laughed and gave the guitar strings a couple of quick strums. “That he can. I’ve seen him do it a time or two.”
Johnny grumbled under his breath as he took a seat beside Scott. Teresa mentioned a song title and Bronco began to play.
The tune was a brisk one. Scott stood, bowed to Teresa, and held out a hand. She accepted the offer, and he led her through a series of lively dance steps.
Lane played another song. Jelly claimed Teresa’s hand part way through it, and Scott sat on the hearth again.
Murdoch danced with Teresa for the next song. Lane then stood and handed the guitar to Johnny. “Here, you play one. I figure I’ve earned one dance.”
Johnny frowned. Scott gave him a jab with his elbow and told him to be a sport.
Teresa’s face was flushed by the time Johnny finished playing.
Lane bowed. “Thank you for the dance, Miss Teresa.”
“You’re welcome.” Teresa shyly glanced up at him as the grandfather clock struck the eight o’clock hour and started to chime.
Teresa smoothed her skirt. “I . . . I better go get the pie.” Her words were barely spoken before she hurried out of the room.
Scott rose. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll see if Teresa would like some help.”
The kitchen smelled of fresh baked apples. Scott breathed in the pleasing aroma as he watched Teresa pull the pie from the oven. “Smells delicious.”
She stood and rewarded Scott with a smile. Then she carried the pie to breakfast table and set it near a stack of dessert plates that matched the china used earlier.
Scott picked up the knife lying beside the plates. “Do you want to do the honors, or shall I?”
“Go ahead, if you don’t mind. I’ll get the whipped cream out of the ice box.”
“Best get a pitcher of milk, as well. Johnny will want some.”
Teresa crossed to the far side of the stove, opened the door in the corner, and went out. By the time Scott had the pie cut, she was back with a bowl in one hand and a pitcher in the other.
Scott motioned toward the pie. “Shall we dish it up in here and carry the plates out a couple at a time, or take everything out there first?”
“Let’s take it out there.” She nodded at the items in her hands. “I can carry these if you’ll bring the pie and the plates. There are glasses on the table, and the box with the good silverware is already out there on the bookcase.”
“Lead the way.” Scott balanced the pie on one palm, laid his other thumb on the edge of the top dessert dish and slid his fingers beneath the bottom one. He caught up with Teresa at the door into the small hallway that joined the kitchen with the parlor. Using an elbow and his back, he pushed the door open.
Teresa muttered her appreciation and eased by Scott. She continued on, stopping only when she reached the dining table. Scott followed her lead. Once they had the pie dished up, he called the other men to join them.
Everyone settled into their places. Bronco Lane pulled out Teresa’s chair and motioned for her to sit. Then he sat in the chair beside her. Scott, seated on the opposite side of the table, thought he detected a hint of embarrassment, or perhaps excitement in her eyes.
Teresa had put a healthy spoonful of whipped cream on all of the pieces of pie except for Bronco’s. She moved the bowl closer to his plate. “Would you like a scoop of this? I didn’t want to put it on without asking . . . in case you didn’t care for it.”
“Thank you. I’d love some.”
Johnny poured himself and Teresa a glass of milk. “Anybody else want some?”
“I think I’ll have some brandy. Anyone care to join me?” Murdoch started to rise as he finished speaking.
Scott quickly stood. “I’ll get it, Sir.” He went to the small table between the pair of matching, blue arm-chairs, picked up the decanter of brandy and four small glasses, and returned to the table. After pouring a shot for his father, he looked over at Lane. “Would you care for some?”
Lane shook his head. “I think I’ll pass on the brandy and have a glass of that milk.”
Jelly announced that he wanted brandy. While Scott was pouring it, Johnny handed a glass of milk to Teresa to give to Lane.
Teresa’s wrist caught the rim of her own glass. As it tipped, she grabbed for it with her other hand and knocked Lane’s glass from her grip. It clattered against the table, milk sloshing over all in its path.
Lane dodged to one side while managing somehow to keep the glass from ending up on the floor. He set it upright and looked at the dripping sleeve of his shirt.
Teresa gasped. “Oh! I’m so sorry.” Her jaw quivered and she let out a sob.
Bronco Lane wiped his wet hand on his other sleeve and then patted Teresa’s shoulder. “It’s just a little spilt milk. No need to cry over it. It’ll wash out and be dry by morning.”
“But it got all over your pie.” Teresa sniffled. She tried to give Lane her plate but he refused to take it.
“Don’t worry about it.” Lane moved his hand away from Teresa’s shoulder and pushed her plate back toward her. “Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had milk on my apple pie. In fact, I kind of like it that way.”
Teresa protested once more and finally gave in.
Scott rose and offered to get a towel from the kitchen. He wasn’t sure whether Lane was telling the truth or just trying to be noble. Either way, he seemed to have set Teresa’s mind at ease. That was all that mattered.
The rest of the evening passed pleasantly enough. When it was time to call it a night, Lane thanked Teresa and the Lancers for their hospitality.
Jelly voiced his appreciation, too. “It’s been almost like a holiday.”
“What kind of a holiday would that be?” Johnny asked.
“I don’t know.” Jelly scratched at his neatly, trimmed beard. “Guess you’d call it a White Shirt, Get Out Your Guitar, Make a Friend, and Don’t Cry Over Spilled Milk Day.”
Lane clapped Jelly on the shoulder. “I think you’re onto something. That sounds like as good a name for a holiday as any.”
Teresa spent a good deal of time in Lane’s company over the following two days. Her eyes shined brighter and her face had a glow that hadn’t been there before his arrival. Scott began to worry that she would be heartsick when the man left for Sacramento.
To everyone’s surprise, Teresa never spoke of Lane after the day he rode out. Scott wondered at how quickly she seemed to have forgotten him. Yet every once in awhile, he noticed a far away look in her eye, and he couldn’t help wondering what she was thinking. This was especially true when the Lancer men and Jelly all wore white shirts on the eleventh day of February the following year.
The Bronco Lane character is borrowed from the western TV series of that name. Thanks to a good friend having given me the first season on DVD for Christmas in 2014, I had been watching the episodes. When I needed a reason for Teresa wanting the Lancer men to wear white shirts, Bronco insisted on being that reason. *grin*
This story was inspired by the February 2015 list of holidays and observances. The names listed for 11th day of the month were;
Don’t Cry Over Spilled Milk Day
Get Out Your Guitar Day
Make A Friend’s Day
White Shirt Day or White T-shirt Day
All looked interesting to me. I couldn’t make up my mind which one to use, so I combined them all into one story.
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