Package from St. Louis by Desert Sun

Word Count 5,046

Note:
Although I have used the names of real people, they may or may not have actually been in California at the time this story takes place.

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On a sunny spring day in the year of 1871, Johnny Lancer stood at the counter of the Wells Fargo office in Spanish Wells.  He picked up the small bundle of mail for the ranch with his left hand and draped his other arm over the wooden crate that was addressed to his brother.  More books, no doubt, as if Scott didn’t have enough to read with all the books that were on the rows of shelves behind the dining table at home.

Johnny dragged the crate off the counter and balanced it against his hip.  He was wrong.  It couldn’t be books.  The box was way too light.

Curiosity set in.  Johnny twisted part way around and slouched against the counter that divided the office area from the rest of the room.  Still holding the mail in his left hand, he shifted the box from the crook of his elbow to the palm of his right hand. He eyed the package and gave it a gentle shake–careful to keep from dropping the rest of the mail in the process.

Johnny tucked his lower lip between his teeth. He couldn’t hear a thing, not even a whisper of movement inside the box.  What could it be?  Clothes?  Surely not.  Scott had plenty to wear.

Sensing he was being watched, Johnny glanced over his shoulder and scowled.  Not two feet away stood the clerk, chin in hands, elbows resting on the counter, and chest leaning against the other side of the divider.

The bald-headed man always made Johnny think of a hawk spying on a field mouse.  Nosey old coot.  Why couldn’t he mind his own business?

Johnny pushed away from the counter and crossed the floor to the open door in a few quick strides.  He blinked at the bright sunlight and walked out onto the porch.

A wagon rattled to a halt in front of the hitching rail.  “Anything for me?” the driver called.  While he scooted to the far side of the seat, he thumbed his hat farther back on his head.

Johnny squinted upward as he stepped off the porch.  “Yeah . . . a package from St. Louis.”  He lifted the box and gave it another shake.  “Can’t be books, though.  It ain’t heavy enough.”

Scott Lancer’s brows pinched together.  “Mind handing it up to me?” He sounded impatient.

“Sure . . . catch.”  Johnny tossed the box to his older brother and watched as Scott dropped the reins that controlled the team of horses and reached for the crate as it sailed through the air.

The box bumped Scott’s fingertips and bounced on the wagon seat, but he managed to grab it before it tumbled off onto the ground.  He scowled at Johnny.  “I said hand it, not throw it.”

The corners of the Johnny’s mouth twitched upward as he hauled himself up to the wagon seat.  “Sorry.  Didn’t expect ya to be so clumsy.”

Scott clutched the box in both hands.  “Very cute.”

Before Johnny could respond, he heard the creak of a wheel. The team bolted and the wagon lurched.

Johnny’s upper body tipped backward, and he grabbed for anything he could get his hands on.  For a moment, he was sure he would land in the bed of the wagon.  His fingers, however, latched onto the smooth edge of the seat.  He pulled himself forward and managed to retrieve the reins that were draped over the foot board.

The team responded to Johnny’s firm hand and slowed to a walk.  Once the horses were safely headed down the main street of town, Johnny looked over at his brother and chuckled.  Scott, hat precariously perched over one eye and hands gripping the crate he had somehow managed hold on to, was struggling to sit upright.

Finally regaining his balance, Scott cradled the box in his lap and realigned his hat.  He poked an elbow into Johnny’s ribs.  “Watch where you’re going.”

“I am.”  Johnny quickly faced the road ahead and tugged the reins in his right hand to keep the team from crowding an oncoming surrey.  He then promptly reminded his brother of whose fault it was the horses had taken off in the first place.

Scott’s chin lifted.  “If you hadn’t thrown my package at me, I wouldn’t have had to drop the reins.”

Johnny let out a snort.  “What’s the matter, Brother?  Didn’t they teach you to do more’n one thing at a time in them fancy schools back East?”

For a while, the package was forgotten as the brothers engaged in a discussion that would have appeared heated to anyone who did not know the two young men.  It wasn’t until they were well out of Spanish Wells and had lapsed into silence that Johnny eyed the box and again wondered what was inside.  “So . . . Scott . . . aren’t ya gunna open it?”

“Open what?”

“Your package.”  Johnny clucked to the team as they started up a short incline and tried not to let his interest in the contents of the box show too much.  “I mean . . . ain’t ya the least bit curious about what’s in it?”

“No.”  There was a long pause.  When Johnny was sure that was the end of the conversation, Scott smugly added, “I already know.”

Johnny pretended not to care and focused on his driving.  The horses slowed part way to the top of the hill, and he cracked the whip to speed them up.

Once the team was putting their all into pulling the wagon, Johnny’s curiosity got the better of him and again he asked his brother what was in the box.

Scott waited a moment before saying it was gloves.

Johnny snorted.  “Gloves!  Why would anyone send you more gloves?  Ya already have a drawer full.”  Of course, this was an exaggeration, but Scott did have more gloves than anyone Johnny knew.

With a shrug, Scott tapped the top of the package.  “Not like these.”

Unable to imagine what kind of gloves could possibly exist that his brother didn’t already have, Johnny forgot about the team of horses and stared at Scott.  “And just what’s so special about those?”

“You’ll see.”

“And just when will that be?”

Scott’s eyes narrowed and his brows puckered.  “Sometime.”

Johnny barely noticed when a wheel dropped into a rut at the top of the rise and the wagon jostled.  “Come on, Scott, you’re puttin’ me on.  There has to be more than gloves in that box.”

“I’m not putting you on.  There is nothing else in here.”

“Then show me.  Those have to be pretty special gloves to come all wrapped up in a box that size.”

The wagon jolted again and the box slid from Scott’s grasp.  He made a quick grab and caught it.  “Watch the road,” he said.

Johnny halted the team and declared that he wasn’t driving any farther until he saw the gloves.  After a brief argument, Scott gave in and Johnny wondered if his brother wasn’t as reluctant to open the package as he seemed.

Finally, one of the gloves was lifted out of the box.  Johnny let out a strangled laugh–one hand pressed against his lips.

Scott glared at Johnny.  “Something funny?”

Leaning away from his brother, Johnny gazed at the overstuffed glove, which brought to mind a snake-bitten hand.  “What’re they good for?”   

“They’re for boxing.”

“Boxing?  Boxing what?”  Johnny stifled a chuckle and pointed at the ridiculous looking glove.   “You couldn’t even pick up anything with those.  How would ya ever use ’em to put somethin’ in a box?”

Scott laughed, and Johnny scowled.  He had a feeling his brother had been stringing him along, playing him for a sucker.

Johnny’s suspicion ended quickly enough once Scott explained that boxing was a form of competitive fighting that had originated centuries ago and that the odd-looking gloves made the sport more humane.  Intrigued by the possibility that his brother might have taken part in something akin to brawling, Johnny encouraged Scott to tell him more.

Scott’s admission that he had indeed been engaged in several boxing matches was hard for Johnny to believe.  It didn’t matter that the fights had been on an amateur level during the other man’s college years or that strict rules had governed each fight.  Scott had still been out to prove he was a better fighter than his opponent.  To Johnny, this was very much like meeting another man in a gunfight to find out who was faster.  The only difference he could see was that one contest was over in an instant while the other was not.  Both could result in death or being crippled for life.

Johnny slid a hand into one of the thickly-padded gloves.  “So . . . who sent you these?”

“My cousin, George, in St. Louis.”

Bumping the gloved fist against the palm of his other hand, Johnny gazed at his brother’s face.  “Why?  You plannin’ to take up boxin’ again?”

Scott shook his head.  “No.  While in college, I became acquainted with John Heenan, a retired boxer and former holder of the American championship title.   My cousin wrote me about Heenan being on an exhibition tour of the West with Jem Mace, who currently holds both the American and World titles.  When I learned they were in Denver, I sent them a wire and suggested they put on a show in Green River if they had some time to spare.”

“So . . ..”

“Mr. Heenan wired back that they did indeed have the extra time and, as long as I agreed to spar with him, he would be glad to come.  It turns out that Jem Mace sprained his wrist, which will need to heal before they have to be in Sacramento at the end of next month.”

Johnny stared at his brother. “Spar?  You mean you’re gunna fight him?”

“Not exactly.  It’ll be nothing that intense . . . more like practice rounds.  Any real competition would be with anyone brave enough to challenge him.”  Scott looked thoughtfully at Johnny.

“Don’t look at me.”  Johnny raised his hands and lowered them again.  “I ain’t gettin’ my head busted.”

“I wasn’t thinking of you fighting him.  I was . . ..”  Scott’s voice trailed off as his eyes shifted downward.

“What?”

“It’s just that I haven’t boxed since I did some sparring with Mike McCoole in St. Louis almost three years ago.  I thought . . . I thought if I taught you the basics, you could help me practice so I won’t make a fool of myself.”

“And just when and where’re ya plannin’ on doin’ this?  I can’t see Murdoch givin’ us time off . . . an’ Teresa’s not gunna like the idea of us punchin’ each other, either.”

Scott’s chin came up as his back stiffened, and he spoke in the tone that through experience Johnny had learned always accompanied a lecture of some sort or the imparting of wisdom by the other man.  “In case you’ve forgotten, Little Brother, Murdoch is checking out that new breeding stock he heard about at the Cattlemen’s Convention in Sacramento last month.  He’s leaving for Stockton in the morning and taking Teresa with him.  They won’t be back for a week.”

“That’s right.”  Johnny nodded and tapped a finger against the wagon seat.  “He’s stayin’ with those Barkley’s he met.  They’re supposed to have some of the best beef in the state.  Don’t they have a girl a little younger than Teresa?”

Scott nodded and the two talked a little longer before Johnny handed the glove over to his brother and picked up the reins.  Making a kissing sound, he slapped the long lines against the horses’ rumps.  When the wagon jerked into motion, wheels rattling and harness jingling, he eased the team into a steady, ground-covering walk.

As the wagon bumped and rumbled along, Johnny urged his brother to tell him more about boxing.  He was amazed at the long history the bloody sport had.  Pugilism, as Scott called it, had been around for thousands of years.  For the most part, it was a terribly brutal form of competition, sometimes not ending until one or both contestants were battered beyond recognition.   However, with the development of the Marquis of Queensbury rules in eighteen sixty-seven, strict guidelines now governed amateur boxing and would eventually be adopted by the professional divisions, as well.  The bare-knuckle fighting of the past was rapidly becoming more civilized with the outlawing of wrestling, hugging, and boots having springs or spikes.  Also, the presence of referees inside the ring meant cheating could more easily be observed and stopped.   Eventually, the mandatory wearing of padded gloves would apply to all boxers, not just those competing in the amateur division.

Once they reached the river and had crossed to the other side, Johnny halted the team to give them a breather before they had to climb the winding steep grade that led to the top of the ridge, which overlooked the long valley where the Lancer hacienda lay nestled in a grove of trees.  Scott climbed down from the seat, reached for his package, and suggested the time of waiting for the horses to rest might be put to use by his teaching his younger brother a little about boxing.

Johnny would have preferred to take a nap, but his brother persisted.  Soon two pair of gloves had been dug out of the box, and Scott was holding one out to him.  There seemed no choice but to go along with his plans.

Once he had accepted the offered gloves, Johnny wasted no time jamming his big hands into them.  Then he stood with legs slightly apart, hips cocked to one side, and hands dangling at his sides while watching his brother.

Scott, after putting on the other pair of gloves, appeared to be quite particular about the way they fit, and Johnny couldn’t help being amused.  The grin on his face spread even wider when his brother, elbows and knees bent, lifted gloved fists to chin level and stepped back with his left leg–weight shifting onto the bottom of his foot while his right leg remained forward with the toe of his boot almost touching Johnny’s.

Johnny stood in a relaxed slouch.

“You sure you’re ready?” Scott asked.  

“Yeah, I’m ready.”

“All right . . . go ahead and try to hit me.”

Johnny bristled at Scott’s arrogant tone and played dumb.  “Where?”

“Wherever you think you can.”

“Anywhere?”  Johnny swiped a padded fist at a fly that was buzzing his ear. 

Not even a ghost of a smile touched Scott’s lips.  “Waist or above, yes.” 

Johnny stalled again.  “How hard ya want me to hit you.  I wouldn’t wanna hurt ya.”

“Don’t worry . . . you won’t even touch me.  Now hit me.”  Scott lifted his chin and turned his head slightly to one side as though offering that cheek as a target.

Johnny softly drawled.  “Okay.”  Continuing to grin, he drew back his arm and took a swing at Scott’s left ear.  He missed, his momentum spinning him part way around as his gloved fist passed through empty air.

A stinging clip to Johnny’s jawbone drove the smile from his face, and he staggered sideways into the wagon.

“You all right?”

Shoulder pressed against sideboard of the wagon box, Johnny rubbed his jaw with the back of one glove and nodded.  He could still feel the needles of pain, but the concern in his brother’s eyes kept him from admitting it.

Scott reached out a steadying hand but withdrew it when Johnny shook his head.  “That, Little Brother, was your first lesson,” he said.

“Yeah?”  Johnny squinted at his brother.  “And just what did I learn?”

“First of all . . . never let down your guard.  That’s the number one rule.  Second . . . jab, don’t swing.”

Johnny didn’t particularly appreciate Scott’s superior tone or his smile.  “Ya mind showin’ me just how I’m supposed to do that?”

“Not at all.”  Scott reached out, took hold of his brother’s wrists, and held them up.  “These are your guards.  Try to keep one hand in front of your face at all times.  Use your arms to protect your body . . . like this.”

Scott let lose of Johnny, moved back a step, and showed him how to shield his chest and abdomen by moving his bent arms from side to side and up and down.  He then explained the proper way to jab.  “Don’t swing your arm out to the side.  Keep your elbows close to your body.  Bring your fist back to your ear and make a quick jab.  For an underhand punch, just draw your elbow back and then bring your fist forward and up.   You don’t need to put all of your effort into every hit, either.  There’s an art to boxing.  It takes patience.  You need to wear your opponent down so he’ll make a mistake.”

With a little help, Johnny took up the same stance as his brother.  He felt awkward, but Scott insisted the position provided for better balance and maneuverability.  Since his brother was supposed to be the expert, Johnny obeyed without an argument.

Scott demonstrated his instructions by sparring with an imaginary opponent and then had Johnny do the same.  Once he seemed satisfied that this was going well, he took up the offensive and had Johnny fend off a few punches.

“You’re doing fine,” Scott said, after several minutes had passed.

Next, Johnny was instructed to take up the offensive.  His first series of jabs were forced.

Scott stopped him.  “Take it easy.  Give short, quick punches and don’t always use the same hand.  As you extend your arm, bring your foot forward and then shift your weight back to the other foot as you draw your hand back into the defensive position.  Remember . . . you want to get in fast and out just as quick.  Otherwise you leave yourself open.  You don’t have to hit hard.  Just keep your opponent on the defensive.”

Getting his arms and legs to work together was more difficult that Johnny had anticipated.  If he concentrated on jabbing his fist at Scott, he got off balance and wasn’t able to get back out of reach quickly enough.  When he worked on his footwork, he had trouble making quick, snappy jabs.  However, he eventually got the hang of it well enough that Scott said it was time to step up the pace before they quite.

This time Scott circled around Johnny, who had to keep pivoting to face his brother.  When Scott finally threw a few punches, Johnny kept his fists up and easily dodged most of the jabs.  One blow did catch him along side the head, and he could feel the heat as blood rushed to his ear.  Ignoring the discomfort, he went on sparring, occasionally getting a punch in, too.

Both brothers were breathing hard when Scott began badgering Johnny.  “Come on, Brother, you can do better than that.  Put some effort into those jabs.”

“I don’t wanna hit you too hard.”

“You can’t.  I won’t let you get that close.”  Scott ducked his brother’s fist and sidestepped to the left.

Having learned at an early age that overconfidence was a man’s worst enemy, Johnny bided his time.  His brother was acting too sure of himself and would eventually make a slip.   When that happened, Johnny planned to be ready.  All he had to do was watch and take advantage of the opening when it came.  

The taunting continued, but Johnny focused on his brother’s mannerisms.  Slowly, he began to see a pattern.  Before making a short jab with one hand that would be followed by a much harder punch with the other fist, Scott’s face and body gave away his intentions in the same way each time.

Letting his brother take the offensive most of the time, Johnny waited for the right moment to strike.  He was taking a pounding but that didn’t matter.  The gloves softened the blows, and Scott wasn’t really trying to hurt him.

Johnny could feel his heart betting faster and his breath was coming in huffs.  He was about to call it quits despite his brother’s remarks.  Then he saw it: a faint tip of Scott’s head to the left and a slight rise in that shoulder before his fist moved.  The punch would be short with the right hand making a much stronger thrust.

With a dodge of his upper body, Johnny avoided the short jab.  He took a quick step that brought him in close as his brother’s right hand drew back in preparation for a hard forward thrust.  He then sent his own right fist flying toward Scott’s cheek.

Seeing his brother’s hand change direction, Johnny fully expected Scott to intercept the punch so he thrust harder.

One of the horses squalled in rage, and Scott turned his head toward the noise.  A jolt of pain shot through Johnny’s shoulder as his fist collided with Scott’s face.

As his brother toppled backward, Johnny wobbled and took a staggering step.  By the time he had caught his balance, Scott was lying on the ground with his arms and legs sprawled in all directions.

Johnny dropped onto his knees beside his brother. “Scott?  Scott, are you okay?”

Scott remained motionless and silent–a thin stream of blood running out of his nose, crossing one corner of his upper lip, and dribbling down his cheek.

Johnny slumped forward with eyes closed and softly groaned.

A moment later when one of the horses snorted, Johnny rocked back on his heels and drew in a deep breath.  There was no time for wallowing in guilt.  He needed to stop Scott’s nose from bleeding and make sure no serious harm had been done.

Quickly, Johnny retrieved the canteen from off the wagon seat, dug into his brother’s pocket, and pulled out a neatly folded handkerchief that had Scott’s initials monogrammed in one corner.  He soaked the white cloth with water, squeezed out the excess, and carefully wiped away some of the blood from Scott’s face.

Johnny repeated the process a few more times.  Then he wet the rag again and held it against the end of the Scott’s nose.

When finally satisfied that the bleeding had stopped, Johnny rinsed the cloth as best he could.  He folded it, soaked it once more with water, and laid it on his brother’s forehead.  “Come on, Brother, wake up.”

Several minutes went by without any response from Scott.  However, having found no evidence of injury other than the gradual discoloration of his brother’s cheek and the growing swelling below his eye and along the side of his nose, Johnny felt there was no need to be overly concerned.  Scott had merely been knocked out and was bound to come around before long.

A short while later questioning, steel-blue eyes fluttered open and gazed up at Johnny.  Scott stirred and moaned while raising one hand to his brow.  “What happened?”

The tension eating at Johnny’s insides dissolved into relief.  He leaned back with a sigh.  “How do ya feel?”

“Like someone clubbed me in the face with a baseball bat.” Scott let out a grunt as he sat up, his hand still against his forehead.  He slowly lifted his chin, met Johnny’s gaze, and again inquired about what had happened.

“We were boxing, remember?”

Scott still appeared dazed, but his eyes lit up with understanding when he looked down at his gloved hands after Johnny pointed to them.

“You knocked me out.”  Scott’s words ended with a upward pitch and his eyes showed his surprise.

Johnny shrugged, a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth.  “Ya forgot that number one rule ya told me about.  You know . . . the one about never letting your guard down.”

“I did?”

“Yeah.”  Johnny’s grin grew wider.  “And that ain’t all.”

While Scott’s mouth formed an “O”, his eyes silently asked what else he had forgotten.

“Ya took your eyes off the enemy.  In a gunfight, that could get ya killed.”

A frown puckered Scott’s brow.  Then a fleeting smile warmed his eyes.  “In that case, it’s a good thing I didn’t have a set of dueling pistols sent to me.  I might not have survived our little practice session.”  His chuckle was joined by a laugh from Johnny.

The sound of one horse pawing the ground and the other blowing loudly though its nose, reminded Johnny it was time to be going.  He helped Scott to his feet.  Then, releasing his hold on the other man’s wrist, he pointed at the bulging cheekbone that diminished the slope of Scott’s nose, which was much rounder and broader than when they had started their sparring match.  “You’re gunna have quite a bruise there.”

Scott swayed but waved off his brother’s hand.  His brows knitted together. “I don’t suppose there’s a chance Murdoch and Teresa won’t notice it then, is there?”

“Not a chance.”  Clasping his hands behind his back, Johnny scuffed the ground with the toe of one boot.  He looked up at his brother.  “So . . . what’re ya gunna tell ’em?”

“I could tell them the truth . . . that my little brother knocked me out.”  While speaking, Scott rolled his hooded eyes upward and removed one glove by tucking it beneath his elbow on the other side of his body and drawing his hand out.

“Yeah.”  Johnny nodded. “You could, but they’d wanna know why.”      

“I know.”  Scott sighed and took off his other glove in the same manner that he had the first one.  Once both hands were free and the bulging leather fists were peeking out from behind his arms, he grasped the cuffs of the gloves and lowered his hands.  “So, I guess I’ll have to put the blame where it really belongs . . . on the horses.”

Having followed every move of his brother’s hands, Johnny shifted his eyes from the dangling gloves to fix a puzzled gaze on Scott’s face.  “The horses?” 

“That’s right . . . the horses.”

“Think the old man’ll buy it?” Johnny asked.

“Why not?  Just before we left, Jelly warned us about Pete being out of sorts lately.  Murdoch was standing right there.  Surely he would believe me if I said I was checking the harness before starting up the last grade, and that Pete struck out at Maudie and got me instead while I was leaning over in front of them.”

With a whisper of a snort, Johnny shook his head.  “You know, Scott, you amaze me sometimes.  That is so sneaky.  Murdoch won’t suspect a thing with Jelly backin’ ya up, until . . ..”  He voice faded and so did the smile.

Scott glanced over his shoulder as he reached for the open box that was perched on one end of the wagon seat. “Until what?” 

“Someone over in Green River blabs about you an’ your boxer friend puttin’ on a show.”  Johnny picked the canteen up off the ground and swung it while walking to the wagon.

Scott turned his back on his brother and carefully packed the gloves into the box.  “By then it won’t matter,” he said.  “The demonstration will be over, and it’ll be too late for either Murdoch or Teresa to object.”

Johnny moved up beside his brother and leaned against the sideboard of the wagon bed.  “Then you’re still goin’ through with it?”

“Of course, I’m going through with it.  By a week from Saturday, I’ll be fine.”  Scott slid the lid of the box into place, gave it a smart tap with the palm of his hand, and looked up.  As he spoke, he pointed a finger at Johnny.  “Just one thing, from now on we practice where there are no horses or anything else to distract us.  Agreed?”

“Whatever, you say.  You’re the expert.”  The snide remark earned Johnny a glare, and he laughed and slapped Scott on the shoulder.  “Come on, Brother.  We better get home before Teresa gets worried and has the whole ranch out looking for us”

Soon the brothers were on their way again.  As the wagon rolled beneath the Lancer arch, a while later, Scott placed a hand on Johnny’s arm.  “Remember.  Let me do the talking . . . and we don’t say one word about the gloves.”

The team broke into a trot and Johnny tugged firmly on the reins.   “What if someone wants to know what’s in that box?”

Scott tightened his grip on Johnny’s arm and then released his hold as the horses slowed to a walk. “I’ll think of something.  Just remember . . . don’t let anyone know I received a package from St. Louis.  Got that?”

“Yeah, Scott . . . I got it.”  Johnny pressed his thumb against his first finger and slid them over his mouth.  “Stop worryin’.  My lips are sealed.  Wild horses couldn’t drag it out of me.  You could even threaten to cut out my tongue and stake me over an ant hill, and I still wouldn’t talk.  Satisfied?”

Scott nodded.  “Satisfied.”

Johnny turned his attention back to the road ahead and to the task of holding the anxious horses to a walk.  He sneaked a peak at his brother.  Scott’s face was more swollen and the purple bruise was a shade darker.  The thick padding of the gloves may have cushioned the blow, but they certainly hadn’t eliminated all of the effects.

Like Scott had said, it was a good thing his cousin hadn’t sent him dueling pistols.  Johnny looked heavenward and said a silent “thank you.”  Then he solemnly vowed to never again ask about the contents of any future packages his brother received, especially if they came from St. Louis.

~~~The End~~~

July 1, 2004
(Written for 2004 Lancer Convention Zene)
Re-edited January 2014

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