Word Count 2,339
This story was written March 31, 2005 and posted to the Yahoo Lancer groups. It was inspired by the list of April holiday and observances for that year. In March of 2014, I did a little tweaking prior to adding it to the files for the Lancer FanFiction group on Facebook.
April 1, 1872:
The brown paper wrapped package felt light as a feather. Jelly Hoskins scowled at it. His birthday was still months away so what could the gift be for?
Johnny Lancer edged closer. “Go on, Jelly. Open it.”
Jelly glanced at one and then another of the four people who were standing beside the dining table in the main room of the Lancer hacienda. He gave the box a gentle shake. Nothing rattled or made even a whisper of noise. “What’s in it?”
“Open it and see,” Scott Lancer replied.
Murdoch Lancer and his ward Teresa O’Brien also encouraged Jelly to open the package.
Jelly set the package on the edge of the table. As he dug into his pocket for a knife, he noticed four pairs of eyes staring at him. He suspected that an equal set of fingers were itching to help him tear into the package. But why? What were they all so on edge for him to see? And what did they expect him to do once he did? Were they waiting to see him grinning with surprised joy, or were they holding back the laughter that would soon erupt at his expense?
Never had Jelly been so suspicious of people he considered to be his friends. In fact, he considered Teresa and the three Lancer men to be family. He would never admit it them, of course. They might take him for granted and not appreciate all of his hard work and loyalty. Could he be wrong in believing that their feelings were akin to his own?
There was a glint in Johnny Lancer’s eyes that spoke of mischief. The other three acted like they could be up to something, too. Jelly frowned. Today was the first of April. This had to be a joke of some kind.
Jelly felt an elbow prod his ribs–Johnny’s elbow. He drew in a deep breath, opened the pocket knife, and slit the string that held the paper. His hand trembled and he hesitated.
“Will ya quit stallin’, Jelly. It ain’t gunna bite ya,” Johnny said.
“Never said it was, did I?” To prove he wasn’t scared, Jelly turned the package over and pulled back the paper. His eyes widened and his jaw sagged as he stared at the contents of the package.
Scott moved to Jelly’s side. “It’s a hat,” he said, with a wave of his hand.
Jelly’s chin lifted. “I know it’s a hat. You think I’m blind?”
“Put it on, Jelly,” Teresa said. “We want to see how it looks. We weren’t sure what size to get, but Senor Baldamero said we could bring it back if it doesn’t fit.”
Any hope of getting out of wearing the thing was dashed. Jelly nearly groaned out loud. He had been set up. He was sure of it. As soon as he put the hat on, they were going to start in on him. Johnny, no doubt, would be the first to make some wisecrack. Then the rest would join in.
Jelly’s brows puckered. By nightfall the whole ranch would be in on the joke.
A hand reached toward the hat. If it had belonged to anyone other than Teresa, Jelly would have slapped it away. He had a perfectly good hat. Even if it wasn’t a Stetson, it was a sight better than the one she wanted him to wear.
Teresa settled the hat onto Jelly’s head. She stepped back, studied it a moment, and then moved in close again to change the angle. Apparently satisfied, she nodded her head and smiled.
Jelly frowned. It would have to be the right size. He looked from one face to the other and squirmed, his fingers jiggling the paper on the table. “Well, go on. Get it over with?”
“Get what over with?” Murdoch asked.
His boss’s puzzled expression didn’t fool Jelly in the least. “Don’t go playin’ games with me, Mr. Murdoch Lancer. You know good and well what I’m talking about, so go on. Have your fun. I got work to do.”
“You think we’re making fun of you?” Scott asked.
Scott seemed genuinely surprised, but Jelly wasn’t buying it. “Aren’t you? Ain’t that what this is all about?”
Johnny slung an arm over Jelly’s shoulder. “Do you hear anyone laughing? Do ya?”
“Now would Teresa fuss for an hour to get just the right hat if it wasn’t important? Would she?” Johnny crooked his elbow a little tighter against Jelly’s neck. “Now . . . why not say a nice thank you, so we can get to work. You know that salt ain’t gunna sprout legs and spread itself around.”
Jelly had to admit that Johnny had a good argument there. Teresa had never been one to indulge in practical jokes that he knew of. Still there was a first time for everything. She might have been roped into the charade without her knowing what the rest of the family was up to.
Grudgingly, Jelly thanked Teresa and the Lancers for the hat. “There wasn’t no need for you to go to all that trouble, though. There ain’t nothing wrong with the hat I got.
Murdoch cleared his throat. “We know that, but we wanted you to feel you’re a part of this family.”
Jelly continued to fidget with the wrapping paper. “That’s real nice of ya, Boss. Uh . . . thanks. Now if yuh don’t mind, there’s a wagon load of salt needin’ tended to.”
Teresa reached for the wrapping paper as Jelly turned to leave. “I’ll take care of that for you. You might want it to keep the hat in.”
“Good idea.” Jelly pushed Johnny’s arm away from around his neck, doffed the hat, and held it out to Teresa. “Here, while you’re at it, why don’t you put this away for me? I wouldn’t want it to get messed up.”
She shoved the hat back toward him. “Oh, no. You have to wear it until the end of the month. Then you can put it away for next year.”
Jelly swallowed. A whole month. He was expected to go around looking like a hillbilly from the Ozarks for the whole month.
Johnny tugged on Jelly’s arm. “Come on, Jelly. Let’s get started. When we get back, I’ll let you beat me at a game of checkers.”
“Let me win?” Jelly let out a huff. “You ain’t never had to let me win, and you know it. I could whip you with both my eyes shut.”
The argument continued until Murdoch reminded them that there was work to be done.
Jelly headed for the nearest set of French doors. “I’ll be waiting in the wagon,”
As he pulled the glass door closed behind him, Jelly thought sure he heard a deep throated chuckle mixed with other noises that sounded like laughter. He squared his shoulders and lifted his chin. Let them have their fun. He could pull an April Fools joke or two himself. Then let them see who’d be laughing.
Birds sang merrily amongst the branches of the tall oak trees along that side of the house. Jelly muttered at them to shut up, and strode to the corral where Frank was hitching the team to the supply wagon.
Frank gave a two-fingered salute, tapping the brim of his own straw hat. “Morning, Jelly.”
Jelly stared at the black man’s hat. “Where’d yuh get that?”
“Mr. Lancer gave it to me this morning. He gave one to all of the men.”
Anger surged through Jelly. “Oh, he did, did he? And did he say why?”
Before Frank had a chance to answer, Johnny walked up with Scott trailing close behind him. “Ready to go?” Johnny asked.
Again Jelly stared in disbelief. The Lancer boys were also wearing hats made of straw.
Jelly hitched his thumbs around his suspenders. “All right. Ya had your fun. Tell me the joke, so we can get some work done.”
“Joke?” Johnny looked over at Scott. “You know anything about a joke?”
“No. I can’t say as I do.”
Jelly continued to glare at them. “If it ain’t a joke, then you mind tellin’ me what you’re wearing those hats for?”
Johnny pointed at his hat, which was canted a little more over one ear than the other. “These?”
Jelly let out a loud huff. “Well, I ain’t talkin’ about the one you ain’t wearin’, that’s for sure.”
“These are the beginning of a new tradition that will be carried down for generations to come,” Scott said. “Everyone at Lancer will wear one for the entire month.”
Scott’s words were too ridiculous to be true, and Jelly wasn’t about to be suckered in by them. He smiled. “You’re pullin’ my leg, right?”
“I’m telling you, Jelly, even a hundred and fifty years or more from now, people all over the country will be wearing hats like these during the month of April.”
Jelly wasn’t about to trust anyone on this day. The first of April had long been known as a day for fools. Scott would have to come up with something a lot more believable for him to fall for it.
Johnny laid a hand on Jelly’s shoulder. “He’s right, Jelly. We’re callin’ it Straw Hat Month.”
Jelly ducked away from Johnny’s hand. “Uh, huh. And just who came up with that name?”
“Fits don’t it? I mean, what else would ya call it?”
“Straw Hat Month, huh?” Jelly let out a snort. “Well, I’ll just make you a little bet. The first time you show your face in town, someone’s gunna try to make you eat that hat. And that will be the end of that!”
For the rest of the day, Jelly groused and waited to be made a fool of. No trick came. Instead he was invited to have supper with the Lancer family in celebration of Johnny’s birthday.
Jelly stuffed himself on tamales, enchiladas, and cake, and then stayed to play checkers. After winning several games, he called it a night. He’d had a long day, and he was tired.
At the door, Jelly retrieved his new hat from the rack. “Good night,” he said, holding the hat by its broad brim and waving.
“Happy Straw Hat Month,” Teresa called. The Lancer men echoed her words.
“Same to you,” Jelly said as he quickly made his escape.
Upon arriving at the door to his room, Jelly was greeted by his pet goose, Dewdrop. The great white bird stretched its wings and cut loose with an ear blasting honk.
“You tell ’em. Straw Hat Month, indeed. Did you ever hear anything so silly in your life?” Jelly removed the offending hat and shook it at the goose. “I wouldn’t even make a mule wear one of these for a day, much less a whole month . . . much as I hate the dumb beasts.”
Dewdrop squawked again.
Jelly gave the bird an appreciative nod. “Got that right. Ain’t no way these’ll ever become a tradition. It’s plumb foolish.”
That year and for years to come, Jelly conveniently lost his straw hat on the last day of April. If his hope was that he would have no further use for it, he was sadly mistaken. Teresa faithfully provided him with a new one at breakfast on the next April Fool’s Day. Then for the remainder of the month, he would wear it with the pride of a king.
Old age set in and on the thirty-first day of March 1900, Jelly Hoskins felt he wouldn’t make it through the night. On his night stand, he left a note, which stated any new hat bought for him would have to be returned as he wouldn’t be taking part in the family tradition that year. He then drifted off to sleep and before the light of morning passed on to his eternal reward.
When Murdoch Lancer heard the news shortly after Jelly’s lifeless body had been discovered, he wasn’t about to allow his good friend to be left out of the annual tradition. Although he was barely able to get around with the aid of a cane, he personally opened the box that Teresa had wrapped the previous day and placed the new straw hat on Jelly’s head. Then while waiting for the undertaker to arrive, the entire family, which had grown considerably in number over the years, gathered around to wish the whiskered man a Happy Straw Hat Month.
Dewdrop III stood outside the door and raised his voice to the sky. Jelly would have said the bird was merely airing his lungs. Three-year-old Nathan Murdoch Lancer and his five-year-old cousin, Scott Jonathan Lancer, however, had a far different interpretation. They were convinced that Dewey, as they called the goose, was telling the world that Jelly was playing an April Fools joke on them all. Sadly they were disappointed to find that they were wrong.
Jelly’s hat was placed on his gravestone and remained there until the end of the month. From that time on, no matter where they were, every member of the Lancer family and their employees wore a straw hat during the full month of April. The family would gather at the ranch on April Fools day, go up on the hill overlooking the hacienda, and place a new straw hat on the headstone of each of their departed loved ones so that no one would be left out of taking part in the family tradition.
And that, to the best of my knowledge, is how April came to be known as Straw Hat Month.
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