Teresa’s Birthday Presents by Desert Sun

Word Count 30,408

Please note: the characters of the Lancer television series do not belong to me and were used without permission. This was written for fun, not profit.)

Major Characters: Johnny Lancer, Scott Lancer, Murdoch Lancer, Jelly Hoskins, and Teresa O’Brien

Summary: Johnny, Scott, and Jelly run into trouble getting home with Teresa’s birthday presents in time for her party.

Timing: A little over a year after the series began and a few weeks before the “Warburton’s Edge” episode.

This story is dedicated to my great-uncles, William and Willard Hall, who where my maternal grandmother’s elder set of twin brothers. The incident in chapter one was inspired by a real-life experience of theirs, which my mom suggested would make a good Lancer story.  She said, maybe I could make it funny.  I thought there was no way I could do that, but the story took some unexpected twists.  I trust you will get a chuckle here and there. 

PS….If you haven’t read the companion story, titled “The Snake”,  I suggest you either read it first or right after finishing the first chapter of this story.

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Chapter 1 – Uninvited Visitor

“Scott!  Get him off me, will ya?”

“What’s the matter, Little Brother?  Surely you’re not afraid.”  Scott Lancer let out a wicked laugh.   “You, the famous Johnny Madrid, frightened of a little, old snake.  What would people say?”

Johnny Lancer gritted his teeth.  As much as he would like to throttle his brother, he knew he didn’t dare move.  He had seen what the venom of a rattlesnake could do.  It wasn’t pretty.  Agonizing pain, vomiting, raging thirst, and paralysis that started within minutes.  The worst part, though, had been the helplessness he had felt as he watched the swelling creep from the man’s jaw to his throat and the violent spasms that had wracked his body shortly before the last breath was taken.  It had been a horrible way to die–far worse than hanging, in Johnny’s opinion.  The only blessing had been that the man hadn’t lived long enough to choke to death, but still the ordeal had lasted several hours.

“Come on, Brother.  This ain’t funny,” Johnny pleaded.  He shuddered at the thought of what a bite to his neck would mean, especially if the snake’s long fangs were to sink into his jugular vein.  There would be no hope.  Even if he could hold out for a couple hours, they would never make it to a doctor in time.

Scott’s smoky-blue eyes glinted with amusement and a devilish grin played with the corners of his mouth.   “You’re tough.  Isn’t that what you’re always telling me?  If that’s true, then you have nothing to worry about.  His fangs couldn’t begin to penetrate that thick skin of yours.”

Johnny glared back, but his Boston raised half-brother appeared to be in no hurry to take pity on him.  It seemed Scott was having way too much fun.

Fat coils of greenish-brown snakeskin with uniform black diamonds along most of its length tickled the hair on Johnny’s chest.  Red bulging eyes, no more than a hand spread away from his face, watched him.

Shivers ran up Johnny’s back and his mind screamed, “Run!”  He forced himself not to move.  The risk was too great.  If his brother wouldn’t take pity on him, he’d have to wait for the snake to leave.

A twig appeared in Scott’s outstretched hand.  The end of the rattlesnake’s tail waved like a flag flapping in a windstorm and sounded like the gourds that Johnny had shaken as a child in a Mexican border town.

Tingling chills crawled up and down Johnny’s spine and raced all the way to the tips of his fingers and toes.  “Scott!  Whatcha doin’?”

Scott smiled.  A wicked gleam in his eyes belied the innocent tone of his voice.   “You said you wanted the snake off of you.  I thought perhaps a little encouragement would do the trick.”

“Well, stop poking at it.  You’re making him mad.”  Johnny scowled.  How could his college educated brother be so dumb?

“All right.”  Scott’s shoulders rose and fell.  “You’re the expert.  Only you do realize that if you lay there much longer, we’re not going to make it home by dinner tonight.  Murdoch gave us strict orders not to be late for Teresa’s party . . . or have you forgotten about that?”

“I ain’t forgotten nothin’, but I would like to get back to Lancer alive . . . if ya don’t mind.  My body draped over the saddle wouldn’t be much of a present for Teresa’s seventeenth birthday, now, would it?”

“Oh, I don’t know.”  Scott chuckled.  “She might like it . . . provided I had you skinned and stuffed like that elk head we saw over the bar at Cutter’s Crossing.  You’d be a lot easier to keep track of, and she would only have to do half the cooking.  That would give her considerably more free time. “

Johnny’s temper flared.  “Ya saying I eat too much?”

“If the shoe fits, wear it, my great-grandfather always said.”

“Well, just ’cause you don’t eat more’n enough to keep a bird alive, ain’t no reason for ya to be calling me a pig!”

The snake’s head moved closer to Johnny’s face.  Its mouth opened, exposing two sharp curved needles, and its tongue wagged as it hissed softly.

Water dripped from the strands of Johnny’s dark hair that lay against his forehead and ran down his tanned cheeks.  Fear gripped his throat.  A tremor ran through his legs and he gulped painfully.  Johnny Lancer, formerly known as Johnny Madrid, a gunfighter who had calmly stared death in the face on more than one occasion, found he had finally met his match.  Never in his life had he been so terrified.  “S-Scott,” he whispered.  “D-do s-something.”

“What?”

“Sha-shoot it.”

“Shoot it?  And just how am I supposed to do that?”

Johnny took in a shallow breath and fought to keep his voice steady.   Despite his efforts, he stuttered as he told his brother to point his gun at the snake’s head and draw little circles.  “When his head follows the end of the barrel, stop, and pull the trigger.”

Scott frowned.  “But what if I miss?”

Johnny’s teeth chattered with each word he spoke.   “Ya can’t.  The rattler won’t let ya.  Just do like I told ya.  He’ll line his head up and give ya a perfect shot.”

“Well.”  Scott’s shoulders drew up to the bottoms of his ears and dropped down again.  “If that’s what you want me to do, far be it from me to argue with you.  I’m sure you’ve had more experience killing snakes than I have.”  He stood and pulled a long-barreled revolver from the holster that was strapped around his waist.  Leaning forward with arm outstretched to hold the gun closer to the rattlesnake’s head, he slowly twisted his wrist.

Johnny watched as the snake’s eyes traveled the same path as the end of the gun-barrel.  Just a little more, Scott, he silently instructed.  That’s it.  Ya got his attention.  There ya go. All ya gotta do is stop and shoot.

Scott’s hand stopped.  The hammer of the pistol clicked as he cocked it.

Suddenly, Johnny realized his own eyes were looking down the barrel of the gun. “No!”  His scream blended with the explosion from the gun.

Scott Lancer leisurely stretched and yawned.  Running long fingers through his dark-blond hair, he supposed he should be getting up since he had heard the clatter of pans.  It wasn’t fair to let Jelly do all of the work.  Still he continued to lie wrapped in his bedroll on the hard ground.   A few more minutes wouldn’t hurt.

Something made a strange buzzing sound next Scott.  He rolled to his left side and focused his eyes on the angelic face of his brother less than an arm’s length away.

Johnny looked so peaceful sleeping on his back with his head tipped to one side, lips slightly parted with the corners curving upward into a gentle smile, and eyes closed in slumber.  Scott couldn’t help thinking that from the look of his brother one would never believe that he had once been the notorious gunfighter, Johnny Madrid.

Something moved on top of Johnny’s bare chest.

Scott’s eyes widened and his heart took a wild jump before pounding fiercely against his ribcage.  His mind cried out for Johnny not to move.

Fearfully Scott wondered what to do about the rattlesnake that had apparently decided to take advantage of a warm place to sleep.  Having lived in California for little more than a year, Scott’s experience with snakes was limited.  He didn’t have the slightest clue of how to protect his brother from this unexpected threat.

Dark eyelashes fluttered.  A gasp came from parted lips as deep-blue eyes widened in horror.

“Don’t move, Johnny.”  Scott raised a hand, palm flat and thumb out.

“Don’t intend to.”

Scott chewed at his upper lip and contemplated his wisest course of action.

Jelly Hoskins, a short, gray-bearded man with a bucket in one hand, approached the camp from the direction of a nearby stream.  Scott considered calling to him but quickly rejected the idea.   The sound of his voice might frighten the snake into biting Johnny.

While glancing around for some alternative way to save his brother, Scott noticed a small dry limb lying within reach near their heads.  A new plan formed in his mind.  He’d prod the snake until it became irritated enough to leave.  If it should decide to strike, it would go after the stick instead of Johnny.

Scott took hold of the stick and brought it down in front of him.

Johnny gasped.  “Whatcha gunna do with that?”

“Sh!  I have a plan.  Now just lie very still.”  Scott rose onto one elbow and extended the end of the twig toward the rattlesnake’s tail. 

The snake loudly rattled its tail and struck at the piece of dry branch–missing Scott’s fingers by little more than an inch.

Johnny glared at Scott.  “Hey!  Quit that.  Your gunna make him mad.”

Scott jerked his trembling hand out of reach and scooted backwards, the stick falling to the ground between him and his brother.  He sank onto his side and drew in a ragged breath–lungs screaming at the invisible rope that seemed to be tied snugly around his upper body.  That had been close.  Too close.

The snake rattled its displeasure.  Its hinged jaws spread wide to expose sharp fangs.  Its long tongue fluttered as its head bobbed as though searching for the source of its torment.  Then its eyes focused once more on Johnny’s face.

Desperation settled over Scott.  He had to do something, but what?  He had no idea what that something should be.

“Sh-shoot it,” Johnny whispered.

Scott gazed at his brother.  “What?”

“Shoot it!”

“How?”

“Like Jelly was telling us last night.  Remember?”

Scott remembered all right.  How could he not?  The hired man, who was more like a member of the family than an employee, had been very insistent in his claims that a snake could be mesmerized into looking down the barrel of a gun–any gun.  The question was would it work?

“Hurry, will ya?”

Johnny’s plaintive voice prodded Scott into action.  He reached for the holstered gun that he had lain next to his saddle before retiring the night before, pulled it free, and cautiously rose to his knees.  Gripping the curved handle with both hands, he stretched his arms out in front of him in order to get the end of the barrel closer to the rattlesnake’s head.  Jelly, this had better work.

Slowly, Scott scribed small circles with his trembling hands.  Moisture dripped from his palms as the revolver moved through the cool morning air in a jagged path.  What if he missed?  A second attempt might prove too late to save his brother from the deadly poison of the snake’s venom.

“Stop worring and just do it,” Johnny said.

Just like Jelly had insisted they would, the eyes of the rattlesnake’s flat head aligned with the bore of the pistol and rotated along the same path.

Scott silently talked to himself as he executed each step.   You can do it.  You have his attention.  Now, just another circle or two.  Take a deep breath.  Stop and . . . fire.

The blast of the pistol rang in Scott’s ears.   Realization hit him at the same time.   “No!”  His cry echoed over and over as he sank to the ground in anguish, but it was too late to halt or change the flight of the bullet.

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Jelly Hoskins tossed his blanket aside and shivered as he sat up.  For late June, the morning air was unusually cool.  He wasted no time getting his feet shoved into his boots or slipping on his jacket while he hurried over to the campfire that had nearly died out during the night.

“Don’t know why I always gotta do the cookin’,” Jelly muttered as he stirred the flickering coals.  “Those two could at least got up an’ stoked the fire . . . but no.  They’d rather let an old man do all the work so’s they can catch another couple winks of shut-eye.”

Still grumbling under his breath, Jelly picked up some of the dry sticks from the nearby pile.  He carefully arranged them on the faintly glowing embers and fanned them with his hat until they burst into flames.   When the fire was going well, he filled a pot with water, threw in a heaping handful of coffee grounds, and set it to heat on a rock that was inside one edge of the fire ring.

While the coffee brewed, Jelly went to see about the horses that appeared to have wandered off during the night even though hobbled.  He walked close to half a mile up the creek that meandered through the meadow before finding them grazing in a patch of lush grass.

 Jelly caught his bay mare and the pack-mule, removed their braided rope hobbles, and led them back to camp where he tethered them to a tree.  He left the other two horses loose–telling himself that as far as he was concerned, their lazy owners could tend to them.  Also, he knew that Johnny’s palomino, Barranca, would come to a whistle and Chico, Scott’s sorrel, would follow.

Breakfast was the next order of business.  Jelly took a chunk of salt pork from the grub sack. He cut it into several thick slices and drooped them over a stick that had been set up above the fire to roast a rabbit the night before.  While the meat was cooking, he retrieved biscuits, butter, plates, cups, and utensils from his pack.

Every once in a while as he worked, Jelly would glance up and crane his neck to peak over at the two sleeping men.  Side by side, their heads were cradled against the sheepskin linings of their saddles, which were leaning against a log a short distance away from the far side of the campfire.  Jelly supposed he ought to be waking them up, but they looked so peaceful, lying there like angelic little children.  Even though he knew that was an illusion, he still hated to disturb them.  The sons of Murdoch Lancer were chips off the old block.

“Stubborn, hotheaded mules, the whole lot,” Jelly groused under his breath.  Yet, despite their fiery tempers, which smoldered beneath the surface ready to erupt with little provocation at times, he did have a fondness for all three of the Lancer men.  In the eight months that he had worked for them, he had come to look on them as his family.  He wasn’t about to admit that to any of them, of course.  They might start taking him for granted.

Grease dripped from the sizzling pork slices.  The fire crackled and popped, and the flames leaped higher.  When the strips of meat looked brown and slightly wrinkled, Jelly lifted them off the spit with a fork and distributed them equally onto three plates.   He talked the whole time.   “I suppose it’s a good thing I’m doing the cooking.  Johnny ain’t happy ‘less he sets your mouth a fire.  Bet he smothers his in pepper first thing.  It’s a wonder that boy can even taste anything after burning up his mouth the way he does.”

Jelly picked up the steaming coffee pot, poured a little into a cup, and took a sip that would have blistered a more sensitive tongue.  He let out a deep sigh and spoke to the drink in his hand.  “Just right, if I do say so myself.”  His smile quickly faded into a scowl.  “More’n likely, Scott’ll complain that it’s too strong . . . and scalding hot.  Beats me how he can stand that watered down stuff he makes.  The way he scrimps on them beans, it’s like they had to last the rest of his life.  Well, he can just thin his down with all the water he wants.  It’ll make that much more for Johnny an’ me.”

With breakfast ready to eat, it was time to wake the brothers.  Jelly set his cup beside one of the plates and walked over to the sleeping men.  He smiled down on his young friends–eyes focused on Scott.  “Hate to bother your beauty sleep, but Murdoch’ll have somebody’s hide if we’re late fer Teresa’s party tonight.  I sure don’t want it to be mine for letting you two dawdle.”

Jelly leaned forward to place a hand on Scott’s shoulder.  He shifted his gaze to Johnny and froze.  “Don’t nobody move,” he whispered while easing back a step.

Carefully, Jelly reached for the rifle that was propped against the end of the log where his own bedroll lay in disarray.  He wrapped his trembling fingers around the smooth barrel and slowly brought the gun to his side.  All the while, his heart beat rapidly and seemed to thunder in his ears.

Scott let out a soft moan and rolled over onto his side so that he was facing his brother.

Jelly’s heart beat faster.  He drew in a quiet breath as he stepped closer and crouched.   Don’tcha dare wake up now, he silently begged as he leaned forward as far as he dared without risking losing his balance.  Then he stretched his arms out until the tip of the rifle barrel was almost touching the nose of the coiled rattlesnake lying on Johnny’s exposed chest.

The snake’s tail buzzed a warning.

Fear gripped Jelly while he moved the gun in a small circle.  His heart raced faster and his palms became wet with sweat as he waited for just the right moment to pull the trigger.  One chance was all he would get.  If he missed, Johnny stood a good chance of being bitten in the face or throat, either of which would likely prove fatal.  The nearest doctor was in Spanish Wells, more than four hours away.

Jelly eyed the snake and spoke in a hoarse voice.  “You jest poke that head up a little higher.  That’s it, just a little more.  Now set your sights on the end of this here gun and don’t ya dare take your eyes off it.  I got a little present forr ya.”

Without blinking, tiny black eyes stared at the tip of the barrel as the rattlesnake’s head followed the rifle’s motion.  Jelly took in a deep breath and held it until his lungs began to protest.  Then he fired–ears ringing from the loud blast.

Too late Jelly realized there was more in the path of the bullet than the head of the snake.   He groaned.  Nothing could be done about it, now.  The damage was done.

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Chapter 2 – Dangerous Encounters

Scott Lancer awoke with a start, his ears ringing from the loud bark of a gun fired in close proximity to his head.  He bolted upright into a sitting position–upper body colliding with something firm that crumpled and fell away from him.  His eyes opened and he saw his brother’s terror-stricken face less than two feet in front of him.  “Johnny!  What happened?”

“I’m hit!”  Johnny lay with his hands pressed against his throat–voice permeated with fear.

Scott tossed his blanket aside and lunged forward to kneel beside Johnny.  “Where?”

“My neck.”  Johnny’s eyes were large with fright.

“Let me look.”   Scott leaned closer but couldn’t see anything.

Johnny refused to move his hands out of the way.   “Shoulda done that before ya pulled the trigger,” he said.

Scott gasped at the accusation and stammered.  “I . . . I’m sorry.  I . . . I was so intent on killing the snake.”   He glanced at his hands.  Why wasn’t he still holding a smoking revolver?    Had he dropped it when he woke up?

Johnny’s voice quivered.   “Is it . . . bleeding bad?”

Scott’s brows puckered.  “No . . . I don’t see any blood.”

“It get him?”  A hand touched Scott’s shoulder as this new voice spoke near his ear.

Scott jolted and gasped.  “Jelly!”  He drew in a deep breath, willing his heart to slow its desperate pounding, and glared at the grey-haired man.  “What’s the idea of sneaking up on me like that?”

Jelly’s bearded chin jutted upward.  “I wasn’t sneaking.  You just weren’t looking.  Ain’t no never mind anyhow.”  He moved around to Scott’s left, knelt near Johnny’s head, and pried at his finger.  “Let me have a look.”

“How bad is it?” Johnny asked.

Jelly snorted.  “Ain’t nothing there but a little red mark where that rattler’s tail must a swatted ya.  Looks like you’ll live . . . which, by the way, ya got me to thank for.”

“Rattler?”  Scott stared over at Jelly while struggling to separate dream from reality in his mind.

“That’s what I said.  It was sitting perty as ya please . . . right there.”  Jelly tapped the fingertips of one hand against Johnny’s breastbone.  “Biggest ol’ diamond back ya ever saw in your life.”

Johnny’s head turned one way then the other.  “Did Scott kill him?” 

“Scott!  Pft.  Now whatever gave ya that idea?  He ain’t been awake no longer’n you have.”  Jelly puffed out his chest and thumped it with his thumb.  “I’m the one that shot it, I’ll have ya know.”

“You shot it?”  Johnny and Scott spoke in unison.

“Yes, me . . . and it was a lucky thing I come over here to drag you two out a bed, too.  That rattler was fixing to have Johnny for breakfast.”

“How did you do it without hitting Johnny?” Scott asked.  After the dream he had just had, he found it hard to believe the old man’s story.

“I’d like to hear how ya done it too, Jelly,” Johnny said, his voice a little steadier than before.

Still on his knees, Jelly hooked his thumb under his suspenders.  “Done it jest like I told ya last night.  I put the end of my rifle right smack in front of his face, moved it around till he was looking down the barrel, and pulled the trigger.  ‘Course I was squatted down some, so’s the bullet wouldn’t hit ya . . . only . . ..”

Scott felt a sense of uneasiness in the pit of his stomach.  “Only what?”

Jelly stood and avoided looking at either of the brothers.

“What, Jelly?” Johnny beat Scott to the question. “Ya just said ya shot it, so ya can’t be worring about telling us ya missed.”

“Yes,” Scott said.  “What don’t you want to say?”

Jelly pointed at the package lying on the ground a short distance beyond Johnny.  “I . . . I think I hit Teresa’s presents.”

With head down, Jelly scuffed the toe of his boot in the dirt.  “I didn’t mean to.  I just forgot about ’em being there.  I was so worried that rattler was gunna strike that all I could think about was getting it before it had a chance.  Those presents didn’t enter my mind ’til I pulled the trigger.”

Johnny sat up and scowled at Jelly.  “All right, Jelly, that’s carryin’ things a bit too far.  Now you’ve had your fun, why don’t ya tell us the truth.  There wasn’t any rattlesnake, and ya just fired off that rifle to wake us up.  This whole thing’s been a joke, ain’t that right?”

Jelly shook his head.  “Ain’t no joke, Johnny.”

Johnny glanced around.  “Yeah?  Well, I don’t see no snake.”

“That’s ’cause it went flying’ to who knows where when I shot it.”

Scott reached for one of his boots and tugged it on.  “Surely, it couldn’t have gone too far.  If there really was a snake, we should be able to find it.”

Johnny started putting on his own boots.  “Yeah, and if ya ruined Teresa’s gifts just to play some dumb trick, you’ll be the one who tells her.”

A loud huff came from Jelly.  Scott stifled a laugh and added a rebuke of his own.  “That’s right, Jelly, and I do hope you can come up with a better explanation than the one you just gave us.  Teresa would never buy it and you know it.”

Jelly’s face reddened.  “No more gratitude’n I’m getting for saving a certain somebody’s life, I should’ve let that rattler bite him . . . then the two a ya wouldn’t think it was so funny.  Well, just to prove how wrong ya both are, I’m gunna find that snake and feed it to ya for breakfast.”  He glared at each of the brothers and turned to step over the log behind him.

Scott watched Jelly stride away and begin searching the area on the other side of Johnny.  “You don’t suppose he really was telling the truth?”  He looked questioningly at his brother. Although it didn’t seem possible that his dream and reality could have been so similar, he couldn’t help wondering why Jelly had been so adamant about having told the truth.  He also found it difficult to believe that the man would go to all the trouble of looking around for a snake that didn’t exist just to prolong a hoax.

Johnny frowned.  “I don’t know.  I . . . I dreamed there was a rattlesnake on me.  It was so real that . . . when I first woke up, I actually believed you’d shot me.”

Scott paused in the middle of putting on his other boot and stared unbelievingly at his brother “You dreamed that, too?”

Johnny smirked.  “Don’t tell me you had the same dream.”

“Yes, I did.  I woke up just as I shot it . . . only . . ..”

“I know . . . ya shot me, right?”  Johnny’s eyes reflected the absurdity of the idea.

With raised eyebrow, Scott scrutinized his brother.  “How did you know that?”

“Just a lucky guess.”

“No it wasn’t.  You had the same dream, didn’t you?  That’s why you said that I shot you.”

“You don’t suppose . . ..”  Johnny twisted and looked toward the bearded man, who was walking bent at the waist and head down while gradually making a larger arc a short distance away.

“Could be.  It doesn’t seem reasonable that we’d both have the same kind of dream at the same time unless something triggered it.”  Scott tugged his boot the rest of the way on and stood stooped over with his hands still holding the top edge of the boot.  He stamped his foot to get his heel to settle all the way in, let out a deep sigh, and straightened the rest of the way up.  “Well, I guess there’s only one way to know for sure–“

“Find that snake!”  Johnny’s voice blended with Scott’s.

“Then let’s get at it,” Scott said.  “We have a birthday party to get home to.”

Johnny grabbed his other boot and tugged it on.  “Be right with ya,” 

When the brothers joined the search for the elusive snake, Jelly gave them each a scowl.  “So ya finally decided to believe me, did ya?”

“No, Jelly,” Johnny said.  “We’re just looking for a snake to kill.  Wouldn’t want Teresa mad at ya for making us late to her party on account o’ ya not wanting to tell us why ya shot up her presents.”  He let out a soft snort and grinned broadly.

Scott let out a burst of laughter.

Jelly glared at the brothers.   “You just laugh all ya want.  Ain’t neither one a ya gunna think it’s funny once I find that snake.”

Still chuckling softly, Scott moved a short distance away and set about a systematic search for the body of the dead snake that he wasn’t quite sure existed.  The longer he looked the more he doubted that Jelly was telling the truth.  He was just about to demand that they quit wasting their precious time when he saw it: the tail of a rattlesnake poking out from under a rock overhang.

With his left hand resting on the top of the low ledge, Scott reached out with the other and started to lean over.  “I found it!”

Something buzzed near Scott’s head, and he froze–heart throbbing loudly.  Not again.

Upon hearing his brother’s announcement that the dead snake had been located, Johnny walked toward Scott to have a look.  He caught up with Jelly, who was also headed the same way, and fell into step with him.

“See . . . I told ya I shot that rattler.”   Jelly spoke in a crowing tone as he shuffled his short legs to keep up with Johnny’s longer strides.  “But no, ya just had to see it to believe it.  Well, I hope you’re satisfied I wasn’t foolin’.  Maybe now I’ll get the thanks I deserve for saving your sorry hide.”

“All right.  I’m sorry I doubted ya.  Tell ya what.  I’ll see ya get the whole day off tomorrow . . . just to show ya how much I appreciate what ya done for me.  How about that?”  Johnny playfully backhanded Jelly’s arm.

“That’s mighty nice of ya . . . only what am I–.”  Jelly stopped walking as suddenly as he quit talking and grabbed Johnny by the wrist.

Johnny took a staggering step backwards to keep from falling and glared at Jelly.  “Whatcha do that for?”

“Sh!”  While sounding like a snake hissing, Jelly pointed at the rock beside Scott, who was leaning forward with his hand resting on the ledge.

The horror of his dream came rushing back as Johnny stared at the snake coiled within easy striking distance of his brother’s face.  Instinctively, his right hand sought the pistol that should have been strapped to his hip.

Johnny felt a rush of panic.  His gun belt was still tucked under the edge of his saddle where he’d put it the night before so it would be within easy reach.  “Where’s your rifle?” he asked without taking his eyes off his brother.

Jelly’s fingers remained locked around Johnny’s’ wrist.  “Left it lying over there where we bedded down.”

“Scott.”   Johnny spoke in a hushed voice.  “Don’t move, okay?  I’ll be right back with a gun.”

Without waiting for the answer that he knew his brother couldn’t give him anyway, Johnny shook free of Jelly’s grip and slowly backed up a few feet.  He then turned and raced back to their bedrolls.

Johnny covered the hundred yards or so in a matter of seconds.  He snatched the pistol from his gun belt and gave the cylinder a spin.  Satisfied that it was loaded, he started to turn to leave when he saw the rifle lying on the ground next to Scott’s blanket.  They might need it, too, so he took the time to stoop down and grab the weapon before hurrying back to Jelly’s side.

Jelly spoke in a trembling voice as Johnny approached.  “There’s three of ’em.  There’s two more coiled up under the edge of that rock.  Can ya see ’em?”

Fear took a tighter grip on Johnny.  “Yeah, I see ’em,” he said.  In his mind, he wondered what they did now.  Even if he and Jelly each killed one of the snakes, it left a third one within reach of his brother.

“What’re we gunna do?” Jelly hoarsely whispered.

Johnny moistened his lips.  He could only think of one thing to do, so he handed Jelly the rifle.  “Ya think ya can get the one on the rock?”

“Course.”

“Good.  Go to the other side of Scott to climb up on the ledge.   When you get in position, just nod.  I’m gunna go for the other two.  Oh, and make sure ya don’t spook that snake.”

Jelly let out a huff.  “I ain’t gunna spook him.  You just make sure you get them other two and quit worrying about me holding up my end.  I ain’t about to let ya down.”

While waiting for Jelly to get into position, Johnny instructed Scott to not move a muscle until the shooting began and then to get away from the rock ledge as quickly as he could.  “Whatever you do, Brother, don’t stop once you start moving,” Johnny said. “There’s no telling how many more are in that den . . . or what they’ll do.”

Johnny waited for Jelly to find a low spot, climb up onto the ledge, and work his way slowly toward the snake that was still eyeing Scott’s face.  His heart beat faster as the whiskered man came close to his quarry and slowly waved the end of the rifle barrel in front of the rattlesnake’s head. One little mistake could mean bad trouble for Scott.

While Jelly teased the snake, Johnny crouched to get a clear shot at the ones that were coiled up in the open space beneath the rock near Scott’s feet. Time seemed to drag as he held his breath in anticipation of what was about to happen, his sites set on the snake nearest his brother.

Jelly’s head bobbed.  The “crack” of rifle and pistol fire blended together.   Johnny shifted and sent a second bullet flying that ripped the head from the second snake in less than a heartbeat after the first bullet had struck home as Scott leapt backward away from the rock.

Johnny looked into the pale face of his brother, who now stood beside him.  “You all right?”

Scott nodded.  “I am now . . . thanks to you and Jelly.”

Johnny let out a noisy breath.  “That was close.”

“Yes, it was. Almost too close,” Scott said, placing a trembling hand on Johnny shoulder.

Jelly, still standing on the rock ledge, called down to the brothers.  “Ya want the rattles for a souvenir?”

“Yeah, if you can find it. Just don’t go locating any more live ones, okay?” Johnny replied.  He had no sooner finished speaking when he heard an all too familiar sound.

“Over there!”  Scott pointed to a snake that was coiled up on a mound of dirt about thirty feet to Johnny’s right.

Johnny shifted his gaze back to his brother.  “Must’ve been sunning himself.  You wanna shoot him, or shall I?”

“What if I miss?”

“Keep shooting.”

“And if I run out of bullets?”

“Then we’ll run, too.”

Scott let out a soft snort.  “What!  Johnny Madrid, run from a snake. Aren’t you afraid that might damage your reputation?”

Johnny flashed a mischievous grin.  “If you’re worried about hitting it, you could walk over there and wobble the gun in his face. Jelly swears ya can’t miss doing it that way.”

Scott’s back stiffened.  “I think I’ll try it from here, if you don’t mind. I’ve been close to all the snakes that I care to be for one day.”

Johnny laughed lightly, his mirth ending abruptly when he notice Jelly had climbed down and was walking toward them.  “Better hurry before Jelly gets here if you don’t want him spoiling your fun.”

“Oh, I don’t know.”  Scott cocked his head to one side.  “Maybe, he’ll just add to the fun. Care to hand me your revolver?”

While handing over the pistol, Johnny noticed a roguish glint in Scott’s eyes.  “Whatcha got in mind?”

“You’ll see. Just don’t tell Jelly about that snake, or you’ll spoil it.”

Johnny laid a hand on Scott’s shoulder. “You know, Brother, I’m beginning to think you have a mean streak hidden under all those proper Boston manners of yours. What would your grandpappy say if he knew what you was thinking?”

Pushing his hat to the back of his head, Scott laughed.  His expression sobered and he answered in a serious tone. “He would probably say that the combination of this untamed land . . . and my wild brother have corrupted me.  Then he would insist that I pack up my belongings and return with him to civilization so he could reform me.”

“Yeah.”  Johnny chuckled. “Well, I think it’s me that’s getting corrupted. I’d a never thought of such a ornery trick to play on old Jelly.”  He ended with a light punch to Scott’s arm.

Scott put a finger to his lips.  “Shush.  He might hear you. This won’t work if he suspects we are up to something.”

“We?  Since when is this any of my doing?”

“You, Little Brother, became a co-conspirator the moment you handed me your revolver.”

Johnny eyed Scott.  “Co- what?”

“Accomplice. Partner in crime.”

Johnny faked a frown.  “Why didn’t ya say so in the first place instead of using that big fancy college word?  Ya know, everybody ain’t had as much book learning as you have.”

Scott nudged Johnny with his elbow. “Exactly the reason I use them, Little Brother. I’m just trying to expand your vocabulary.”

“Yeah, well I could expand yours too, if I had a mind to . . . only I’m too much of a gentleman.”

“You’re too much of a gentleman for what?”  Jelly spoke as he strode closer, the limp body of a rattlesnake dangling from his hand.

Scott called out in a sharp tone.  “Jelly! Don’t move.”

Jelly halted with one foot well in front of the other and wobbled as he shifted his gaze to his right.  “What?”

“Rattlesnake . . . to your left,” Scott replied.

Jelly turned his head to face the two younger men.  “You’re putting me on, aren’t ya? Thinking you’ll have a little fun at my expense. Well it ain’t gunna work.”

“He ain’t fooling ya,” Johnny said.  “‘Course if you wanna take a chance on getting bit, that’s up to you.”

Jelly’s feet shuffled as he looked one way and then the other.

“If I were you, I wouldn’t be twisting around like that,” Johnny said.

Jelly’s chin lifted.  “Where is it?”

The snake’s tail rattled, and Jelly froze.

The corners of Scott’s mouth twitched.  “Not far from your left foot.”

Johnny stifled the laugh that was itching to be turned loose.  “Don’t even think about it.  You go trying to get a bead on him with that rifle barrel, you’re gunna make him strike for sure. He’s already mad from all the noise we just got done making.”

“Johnny’s right,” Scott said. “There’s nothing you can do except remain just as still as you possibly can while I ease my way over there close enough to get a decent shot at him.”

Jelly’s trembling voice blended with the buzzing of the snake’s tail.  “Hadn’t Johnny ought to do the shooting?” 

“You need to keep quiet,” Scott said.  He took short, stealthy steps toward Jelly, who was looking more and more concerned.

Johnny nearly choked at the sight of Jelly standing with bulging eyes while Scott stalked toward him like a cat ready to pounce on a mouse. With arms wrapped across his stomach and forcing himself to stand upright, he watched as his brother reached his destination, leaned forward a little with the revolver pointed at a spot near Jelly’s left foot, and then slowly rotated the end of the barrel in front of an imaginary serpent.

When the pistol cracked sharply and bucked in his hand, Scott whirled a little to the right and fired three rapid shots into the serpent that was still a good fifteen feet away. When the gun clicked on an empty chamber, he raised the end of the barrel to his lips and blew.

Jelly didn’t so much as blink until the shooting ended.  Then his knees buckled.  Scott grabbed him by the arm and kept him from seeking all the way to the ground.

Laughter erupted from Johnny and was joined by sounds of mirth coming from Scott. When Jelly glared at them, they merely laughed harder until they were both holding their sides as they gasped for breath.

Jelly glared at one brother and then the other.  “Oh . . . you two. Think your mighty funny don’t ya?”

“Jelly, ya should o’ seen yourself.”  Another sputter slipped out of Johnny, and he coughed.   “I thought you was gunna pass out on us.”

“I wasn’t gunna do no such thing.”  Jelly’s chin rose and his chest pushed out.  “Besides, I knew all along that rattler wasn’t even close to me. I was just playing along with ya, ’cause I didn’t wanna spoil your fun.”  He let out a snort and stalked back toward camp. When he was almost there, he glanced back over his shoulder and called, “If you two hyenas wanna eat before we leave, ya best get yourselves over here; otherwise, I’m throwing it away an’ you can just go without.”

Johnny figured they’d pushed Jelly far enough.  He turned to his brother and announced that he was hungry and that it might not be a bad idea to humor the ‘old codger’.

Scott readily agreed and collected the body of the rattlesnake that he had killed.  Then the brothers walked back to camp.

 .

Chapter 3 – Assessing the Damages

Upon reaching the camp, Scott Lancer went directly up to Jelly Hoskins and held out a dead snake by the rattles at the end of its tail.  “What would you like me to do with this?”

“Eat it for all I care.”  The whiskered man picked up a plate of bacon and biscuits, strode over to their bedrolls, and sat on a nearby log.

While hiding his amusement behind a straight face and draping the body of the snake over a rock, Scott called over to Jelly.  “Are you sure you don’t want it for a souvenir?”

Jelly scowled back.  “No, I don’t want it for a souvenir. It ain’t good for nothing’ with holes in it. Least ya could o’ done was shoot it in the head.”

Before Scott could think of an appropriate response, he heard his brother holler.  “Hey, Scott. Maybe ya better come have a look.” Johnny was squatting beside the package that was a short distance beyond where Jelly was sitting.

Scott suddenly remembered what Jelly had said earlier.  He hurried over to his brother’s side and leaned over his shoulder.  “Don’t tell me, Jelly really did shoot the gifts we picked up for Teresa.”

“Sure looks like it. See?” Johnny pointed at a hole in the brown paper that enclosed the precious items.

Scott sighed.  “I don’t suppose it would do any good now to hope that the bullet passed through without causing any damage, would it?”

Johnny shrugged. “Doubt it.” He lifted the package, felt of the bottom, and held out his hand while wrinkling his nose. “Take a whiff of that. It tell ya anything?”

Scott sniffed in a strong flowery scent and his heart plummeted. That vial of expensive French perfume had been ordered months ago so that he would be assured that it would arrive at the shop in Sacramento in plenty of time for Teresa’s birthday. He had no doubts concerning the present condition of the bottle. It had to have been shattered.

“Guess we might as well see how bad the rest of the damage is, huh?”  Without waiting for an answer, Johnny pulled the loose ends of the string that surrounded the package and untied it. He spread wide the edges of the paper to reveal the contents and groaned as he lifted the folds of pale-blue silk. “It’s ruined.”

Scott stared down at the material that his brother had selected after spending nearly an hour agonizing over the dozens of choices available at Miss Abigail’s Emporium for Ladies. Even though the perfume might have washed out, the myriad of holes caused by the shards of broken glass were beyond repair. The cloth appeared worthless. “I’m sorry, Johnny,” he said, knowing that mere words were inadequate consolation.

By now Jelly had set his plate aside and was standing next to Scott. “I’m real sorry, Johnny,” he choked out huskily. “It’s all my fault. I should o” paid more attention to where I was shooting.” He kicked at a stone and sent it flying. “Now what are we gunna do? There ain’t time to ride over to Green River and see what we can find there.”

Scott felt a little sick in his stomach.  “I don’t know.”

“How about the rest o’ the stuff?”

At Jelly’s question, Johnny slowly shook his head.

“Ya mean everything’s ruined?”  Jelly sank to one knee, rummaged through the contents of the package, and moaned as his shoulders slumped. His chin dipped and his head wagged.   “Murdoch ain’t never gunna forgive me.”

With fingers wrapped around a delicate gold chain, Jelly held up a scarred and dented piece of metal. “He had that jeweler friend of his make this locket special for Teresa. I remember how proud he was when he was telling me about it. Said he had a fancy silver ‘O’ surrounding a gold Lancer ‘L’ custom made for the front. Sort of stood for O’Brien and Lancer. Inside, he was gunna put a picture of her daddy on one side and, on the other, that picture of the three of you that was taken by that photographer fella, who stopped by the ranch a couple months ago. On the back, he was gunna have her name and age engraved. Now look at it. Ain’t fit for nothin’.”

Scott reached out, laid a hand on Jelly’s shoulder, and gave it a squeeze. “Murdoch’ll understand.  After all, you just may have saved Johnny’s life.”

“But what are we gunna give Teresa for her birthday?”

Johnny lifted several colorful ribbons up for the other men to see.  “These look all right.”

“Sure ain’t much for a girl celebrating’ her only seventeenth birthday,” Jelly said.

“No it isn’t,” Scott replied.  A plan began to formulate in his mind. “However, you did give her something far more valuable, and I’m sure that Murdoch will agree.”

Johnny rocked back on his heels.  “Hey, I’ve got an idea.  We could skin one of those snakes and take it back to make her a hat band. Maybe we could even find a way to attach an extra set of rattles to it.”

Scott slapped his brother’s arm.  “You know, Brother. Sometimes you amaze me. I was going to suggest the very same thing.”

“What did ya do with that snake you had, Jelly?”  Johnny slipped his knife out of his boot while speaking.

Jelly’s chin lifted and he spoke in an indignant tone.  “Anybody gonna skin my snake, it’ll be me.  You’re liable to cut a hole in it.”

“Better let him, Johnny,” Scott said, “or all the way back to the ranch, we’ll be listening to him tell us how much better he could have done it. We’ll never hear the end of it, and you know it.”

“You sayin’–“

Johnny cut Jelly’s words short.  “Scott’s right. You better do the skinning. My ears can’t take listening to your complain all day.”

“Think you’re smart, don’t ya?  Well I’ll have you know–“

Scott interrupted this time.  “If you plan to have that rattlesnake skinned by the time Johnny and I are ready to go, hadn’t you best be getting at it?”

“Hmph.”  Jelly turned his back on the brothers and groused as he returned to the log where he had been eating his breakfast.   “Looks like a fella ain’t even allowed to talk when he’s around the two of you.”

“Guess we better eat before he beats us to it and tosses it out, huh?”  Johnny finished louder than he began so that Jelly would be sure to hear.

“You go ahead, Johnny,” said Scott as his brother rose to his feet. “I think I’ll see what else can be salvaged out of all this. It’ll take Jelly a little while to get the skin off of his snake.” He reached for the fabric that was still in Johnny’s hands.  “You mind if I take a look at that?”

“Why? It ain’t any good.”

“Perhaps not all of it is ruined.”

“Ain’t enough to make anything,”

“That may be, but it can’t hurt to take a look, can it?”  Scott continued to hold out his hand.

“Have at it . . . but I think you’re wasting your time.”

Scott caught the soft fabric as it slipped from between his brother’s fingers and inspected its full length while Johnny looked on. “Just what I thought,” he said after a moment. “The pieces of glass only went through the top folds. See?” He held up the lower portion of the fabric. “There’s more than a yard here that they never touched.”

“Yeah, well what about the bullet holes?” Johnny asked, a hint of disgust to his voice.

“I think that can be worked around,” Scott replied.  A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth as he folded the cloth into a small bundle.  “Tell you what. You stick with Jelly. I’m going to ride on ahead to Maria’s son’s place and see what his wife can do with this. You can meet me there. The pack mule should slow the two of you down enough to give Lucinda sufficient time for what I have in mind.”

Johnny made a grab for the fabric.  “Hey, that’s my present. Why don’t ya just tell me what your thinking, and I’ll have her make it?”

Scott tucked his arm behind his back and evaded Johnny’s moves.  “Because, Brother, I don’t have it all planned out in my mind, yet. Besides, I’m older than you.”

Johnny stopped with head down and toed the dirt at his feet. “Don’t see what age’s got to do with it.”

“Humor me, all right. Just think of it as your gift to Teresa. Is that too much to ask?” Scott pleaded.

Johnny’s head came up. “Okay . . . but you’ll owe me. I ain’t having my ears talked off for nothing.”

“I’ll see that you are adequately rewarded.”  Scott paused and studied his brother. “So . . . do we have a deal, or not?”

Johnny didn’t look happy but he nodded.  “Yeah. We got a deal.  Only just remember, I was one that picked that cloth out, so don’t you go takin’ all the credit for whatever ya end up having done with it.”

“Don’t worry, Johnny. I’ll make sure that Teresa knows exactly who contributed what to her gift.”

As his brother walked away, Scott retrieved the dented locket, the glass stopper to the perfume bottle, and the ribbons from the package on the ground.  He placed them within the folds of the fabric, deposited them in one of the compartments of his saddlebags, and joined Johnny at the campfire.

Scott downed his coffee in a few gulps, the hot liquid burning his throat all the way to his stomach.  He ignored the pain. Time was short.   He didn’t even take time to eat but stowed his bacon and four biscuits in the other side of his saddlebag and went to catch his horse.  Within a short while, he was mounted and urging Chico into an easy trot toward home.

.

Chapter 4 – Contending with Stubborn Mules

The camp of the night before had been left behind hours ago when Johnny, with Jelly right behind him, reached the bank of the river, which flowed from the mountains on the eastern boundary of the Lancer ranch. Once they were across it, they would have to cut south from the road to meet up with Scott at Pedro’s place, which was near the base of a cliff on one side of a narrow canyon that the river flowed through on its way westward. If they could have followed the course of the river from there, home would have been little more than an hour away. That however would not be possible. The sheer rock walls at the water’s edge along with the large boulders and deep holes that were scattered throughout that stretch of riverbed made it impassable. Their only choice, therefore, would be to take the longer route and backtrack to the road that would lead them up over a series of hills to where it crossed a high ridge that overlooked the ranch headquarters.

With at least two hours of travel time to go, Johnny was in a hurry. He urged Barranca into the shallow water at the edge of the river and twisted in the saddle so he could look behind him and see how Jelly was doing. He frowned. The mule had its front legs braced stiffly in a forward angle while its haunches were lowered to where it was nearly sitting on the riverbank.

“Come on you lop-eared piece a crow bait. Now ain’t no time to be sulling up,” Jelly groused as he tugged at the mule’s lead line.

Johnny couldn’t keep from grinning a little as he turned Barranca around and rode back to Jelly. The pack mule had been on the receiving end of that man’s verbal abuse ever since they had started out that morning. Crowding close to the whiskered man’s mount–both of their horses facing the river crossing–Johnny reached for the mule’s lead rope. “Let me take him a while,” he said.

Jelly glared over his shoulder at his young companion and retorted, “He ain’t gunna go no better for you than he’ll go for me. If ya wanna help, try prodding him from behind.”

With a shrug, Johnny guided his horse backward until Barranca’s chest was even with the mule’s rump. “Get up there, Brambles,” he coaxed while poking the pack animal with the toe of his boot.

The mule refused to move. When Johnny jabbed him a little harder, he brayed and sank his hindquarters even closer to the ground.

“Come on, you ornery critter. It’s just a little water. Ain’t even gunna reach your knees,” Jelly scolded, giving the lead rope a hard jerk. When the pack animal still refused to go anywhere, he hollered for Johnny to give Brambles a good walloping.

Johnny untied the leather strings that held his lariat to the side of his saddle and began slapping the coiled rope against the rump of the mule while Jelly continued to pull on the lead line. Brambles merely brayed louder and sat all the way down.

“You cantankerous, heap of bones,” Jelly muttered. “Ain’t no critter dumber . . . or more stubborn than a mule. Don’t know why the boss keeps ya. Ya ain’t good for nothing.”

The corners of Johnny’s mouth twitched upward. “What’re ya mumbling about?”

“Go ahead an’ laugh,” huffed Jelly. “Once one o’ these worthless critters ever puts his tail-end in the ground, a stick a dynamite won’t even move him. Unless we can find a way to change his mind, we’ll be lucky to make it back to the ranch by midnight. Maybe you oughta go on ahead. Ain’t no reason for us all to be late to T’resa’s party.”

“I’m not leaving’ you behind, Jelly, so forget that idea. If you’ll just hang on a minute, I’ll make him move.”

“Yeah . . . and just how ya plan on doing that?” Jelly retorted.

There was a touch of devilment in Johnny’s eyes as he swung a leg over Barranca’s neck and dropped lightly to the ground. “You just keep a tight hold on that rope.  Let me worry about getting him going.”

“Watch them heels. Brambles came awful close to busting Walt’s leg a couple weeks ago.”

Johnny ignored the concern written on the older man’s face.  “Jelly, I can handle my end. You just worry about yours . . . all right?”

“Well don’t say ya wasn’t warned,” Jelly snapped with an indignant upward tilt to his chin.

Paying no heed to the other man, Johnny separated the noose at the end of his lariat from the rest of the coils and stepped closer to the mule. Taking hold of its tail and lifting it slightly, he threaded it through the rope loop.

“Johnny . . . you plumb loco, or what? That mule’s liable to kick your head off.”

“You just get a good hold on that lead rope and be ready to head across the river soon as I give this a tug.” Johnny gave the brim of his hat a flip with his thumb so that the hat hung down his back from the string that was under his chin. With his head down, he leaned closer to the rump of the mule and began to work the lariat up under the animal’s tail.

Jelly let out an exasperated grunt. “You’re as stubborn as that there mule . . . and ya ain’t got no more sense, neither,” he said disgustedly as he took a couple wraps around the horn of his saddle with the pack animal’s lead rope.

Johnny continued to ignore the older man’s words. There was a job that needed doing, and he was going to get it done no matter what it took to do it. Besides that, as far as he was concerned, Jelly was a worrywart. Johnny figured that if he listened to every warning the man voiced, they would never catch up with Scott in time to make it home for Teresa’s birthday party.

Once the rope was satisfactorily in place, Johnny vaulted onto Barranca.  He gathered his reins and once more advised Jelly to hang on and be ready. Touching his spurs to his mount’s sides, Johnny gave a yank on the lariat and hollered, “Go.”

The rope bit into the base of Brambles’ tail.  He grunted, lunged to his feet, and lurched forward–bumping into Jelly’s horse and nearly unseated the man. Upon hitting the end of the lead rope, the mule lowered his head until his nose was nearly touching the ground and viciously lashed out with both hind legs–one iron clad hoof brushing against Johnny’s right leg just below the knee. Bucking and kicking, and his pack swaying wildly from side to side, he then charged into the river.

Johnny let the lariat slip through his fingers and sucked in his breath as he watched the mule jerk Jelly’s bay horse sideways and off balance, toppling horse and rider into the river just before the lead rope slipped from the saddle horn. Brambles, water splashing onto the pack on his back, then waded toward the far side of the crossing.

“I catch that mule, I’m gunna put a bullet between his ears,” sputtered Jelly, struggling to his feet and wiping the dripping water from his eyes just as Johnny arrived at his side to give him a helping hand.

“You do that and you’ll be walking . . . unless ya plan on riding on top of the pack,” Johnny said with a hint of a chuckle as he pulled the other man up behind him. Once they were across the river, he waited for Jelly to slide to the ground and then went to retrieve the older man’s horse that had stopped at the edge of the embankment to crop on a tuft of grass.

“Whoever named that mule, Brambles, sure knew what they were doing. He’s as prickly as a briar patch,” groused Jelly as he accepted the reins that Johnny held out to him a few moments later. Climbing into the saddle, he added, “We better get after him. If we don’t, he’ll have them supplies strewed from here to Texas.”

“I’ll get him,” Johnny said and urged Barranca into a lope after the mule that was just disappearing from sight in a bend in the road.

Catching up to Brambles was the easy part. Getting the lariat out from under his clamped tail was another story. Johnny quickly gave up the idea of accomplishing that task on his own after his hair came within a fraction of an inch of being permanently parted by one of the mule’s hooves. Instead, he tried leading the pack animal back to where Jelly was. This wasn’t exactly simple either since Brambles would stop every few strides to hump his back and kick out at the rope that kept snagging on rocks or bushes as it dragged along behind him. Johnny did finally get there after having his leg scraped against and almost crushed by the supply pack when the mule lunged into Barranca’s side a couple of times.

Once the mule was securely tied to a tree next to a rock that was large enough to keep the animal from sidestepping, the two men proceeded to put hobbles on his front and rear legs. With the animal restrained and Jelly on horseback to block Brambles’ one remaining avenue of escape, Johnny was able to get his hands on the rope at last. It still was no speedy chore to loosen the noose. The mule did not readily relax the grip it had with its tail, and it was a good thirty minutes before Johnny and Jelly were on their way again.

Shooed from the house after explaining to Lucinda what he had in mind for the salvageable pieces of Teresa’s birthday presents, Scott led his sorrel horse over to the water trough by the barn where the woman’s husband, Pedro, was repairing a broken wagon tongue. He loosened the cinch to his saddle just a little and let the sorrel have a drink. Then, allowing insufficient slack for the horse to get its head down to roll, he looped the reins over the saddle horn and turned the animal loose in the corral before going to see what help he could be to Pedro.

The next hour and a half passed quickly as the two men carried on a companionable conversation while they worked. Prior to his death during an early raid by Day Pardee just shortly after Murdoch Lancer and his foreman, Paul O’Brien, had been ambushed, Pedro’s father had been a vaquero at the Lancer ranch for close to fifteen years. Consequently, Pedro had learned much of the history of the ranch and the surrounding area, and Scott was quite fascinated by the young man’s stories.

When Scott put the pin that held the tongue of the wagon to the wagon box in its hole, he thought of his brother and Jelly, and wondered what was taking them so long to catch up with him. There was still no sign of them thirty minutes later. Beginning to be concerned that they might have met with some kind of trouble, Scott collected the gifts Lucinda had just finished making for him and carefully stowed them in his saddlebags. Once mounted, he said his good-byes to the young Mexican couple and promised to give their best wishes to Teresa. Although Pedro and Lucinda had been invited to the party, they hadn’t planned to attend because she was expecting their first child in less than a month and wasn’t able to travel horseback. The wagon couldn’t be fixed until the new wheel that had been ordered for it arrived in Spanish Wells in a couple of days.

Scott had nearly reached the road when he reined his mount to a halt in front of the two men he was looking for. “What took you so long?” he asked in a tone that was slightly demanding.

Jelly shot Johnny a challenging glance.  Then looking at Scott, he replied, “Mules.”

Scott’s eyebrows raised a little as did the pitch of his voice. “Mules?”

“That’s what I said. One with four legs and the other with two . . . if ya catch my meaning,” Jelly said with another sideways glance in Johnny’s direction.

Scott eyed Jelly’s wet clothes. “It appears to me that you went for swim.”

“Weren’t ’cause I wanted to. I’ll have you know, I had help.”

“I see.” Scott feigned interest in something on the ground by his horse’s front hoof while fighting to keep from smiling. Gaining a measure of control, he looked up at Jelly. “Those mules ganged up and dunked you in the river, is that it?”

“It ain’t no laughing matter,” Jelly retorted. “I could’ve drowned.”

“Jelly, you wasn’t any closer to drowning than . . . than I was to being bit by a rattlesnake,” Johnny replied.

“Yeah. Well maybe I should’ve just let ya wake up with that rattler looking ya in the eye. I bet you’d be singing a whole different tune.”

Before Johnny had a chance to form a rebuttal that would surely lead to a long discussion of the events of earlier that day, Scott insisted they be on their way since they were already going to be late for the party. He also suspected there was quite a story behind what had happened to the older man at the river, but he was in no mood to waste time hearing it. As far as he was concerned, Jelly could tell him about it on the way, if the man wanted to talk about it.

Urging his horse into a fast walk and passing by the other two riders, Scott called over his shoulder, “Jelly, do you think you can get those mules of yours to move a little faster.” Laughing at the mix of English and a few well-chosen Spanish words that came from his brother’s mouth, Scott faced forward once more and led the way up the hill.

Chapter 5 – Gambling on Luck or a Sure Thing

The three riders crested the top of the ridge and started down the long winding road that would lead them to the valley floor and the Lancer hacienda, which was nestled in a grove of trees along one edge of a large field. Tugging on the lead rope in his left hand, Jelly Hoskins spoke in an indignant tone. “You two don’t have to wait on me, ya know. It ain’t like I’m some greenhorn kid that don’t know what he’s doing. I’m quite capable of leading one ornery mule down this hill and getting’ our gear home in one piece.”

Johnny Lancer let out a snort that was followed by a soft chuckle from his brother.

 “Now, Jelly,” Scott said, “you know that we agreed that if one of us was late, we would all be late.”

“But there ain’t no need of it.”  The pitch of Jelly’s voice rose a little. “If you’d listened to me, the two a ya could’ve been home nearly an hour ago. There just ain’t no need us all keeping Teresa waiting. ‘Sides, you’re family.”

“We ain’t no more family than you are, Jelly . . . I mean as far as blood goes,” replied Johnny, holding his palomino to the slower pace set by the mule so he could stay even with the older man.

“I know she looks on me like I’m an uncle or something, but she is Murdoch’s ward. Legally that practically makes her his daughter . . . and your sister. Far as the law goes, I ain’t nothing to her.”

“That may be, Jelly, but Teresa considers you part of her family . . . as do we, so . . . end of discussion,” said Scott, who was riding on the other side of Jelly.

The finality in his brother’s tone brought an instant grin to Johnny’s face. Leaning forward so he could make eye contact, he said, “Ya know, Scott . . . you’re getting to sound more an’ more like our old man every day.” The scowl on Scott’s face made Johnny laugh.  He then straightened and spoke to the man between them. “Come on, Jelly. Smile. Ya don’t wanna be looking all sour when T’resa sees ya, do ya?”

“Oh,” Jelly said with a shake of his head. “I don’t know how Murdoch puts up with you two smart mouths. If ya was mine, I’d whomp the daylights out o’ ya both. Ain’t neither one o’ ya got any respect for your elders.”

“Now that is something I would like to see,” Scott challenged with a chuckle.

“You wouldn’t be laughing if I was ten years younger. I was considerable stronger than I looked. Could’ve whipped ya both with one arm tied behind my back.”

The corners of Johnny’s lips twitched upward when Scott smiled and said, “I bet you could have at that.”

“You can bet your life, I could’ve. Fact is I’d be willing to wager that Murdoch still can.” Jelly ended with a definitive nod and a sharp tug on the lead rope in his hand.

Scott let his mount lengthen its stride a little as Jelly’s horse and the mule stepped out into a little faster walk. “How much?”

“How much, what?” Jelly asked.

“How much are you willing to wager that Murdoch could take on both Johnny and me with one hand?”

“You’re serious.” Jelly’s eyes opened wider.

“Just taking you up on your offer. As they say: put up or–“

“All right,” interrupted Jelly. “How about a month’s pay? Only don’t say I didn’t warn ya.”

“You’re on.”

“Hold it, Brother,” Johnny cut in. “You ain’t roping me in on this. Our old man’s tougher’n he looks.”

“Johnny, now just how can Murdoch possibly beat the two of us if he only has the use of one hand?”

“I don’t know, but I have a feeling he’d find a way,” Johnny drawled softly more to himself than to the other men.

“What’s a matter? Scared? Ain’t the odds enough in your favor?” Jelly taunted.

“Come on, Johnny. We can’t lose . . . and just think of what you could do with an extra half a month’s salary.”

“Okay.” Johnny heaved a sigh as he let his brother’s confidence sway him. “I’ll probably regret this . . . but I’m in.”

“Good. I can feel that extra change jingling in my pocket already.” Scott lifted his hat, wiped the sweat from his brow, and settled the hat firmly on the top of his head once again.

“Jelly, think you could get that mule to move a little faster?” Johnny asked. Tipping his head back, he sniffed the air. “I swear I can smell that beef roasting on the spit. Just the thought of them juicy steaks is making’ me weak with hunger.”

“Johnny, nothing short o’ putting a rope under this ol’ mule’s tail is gunna make him move any faster tha he already is. Ya might as well just relax and enjoy the ride, ‘less ya wanna go on ahead like I been a telling ya to all along.”

“I got a better idea,” Johnny said as they came to where the road made a sweeping corner to the left at the brow of a knob on the hill before it began its mile-long zigzagging descent to the bottom. He slowed Barranca and crowded closer to Jelly.  “I’ll take that bag of bones from here.”

“He ain’t gunna go no faster for you,” retorted Jelly as the rope slid through his fingers.

Johnny gave the mule’s lead line a couple of turns around his saddle horn. “If you’ll just give him a good smack on the rump to get him going once I get him pointed off the road, I’ll be to the bottom long before you . . . unless you wanna take the same short cut I’m takin’,”

“Johnny, you ain’t gunna try going straight down, are ya? You’ll never make it. Ol’ Brambles here’ll sull up on ya first thing. You’re just asking to take a tumble, you know that don’t ya?” Jelly’s voice matched the fear in his eyes.

“Let me worry about that,” Johnny answered with a touch of arrogance. “You just swat him good and hard with your reins once I get him headed in the right direction.”

“You’ll never make it,” Scott said in a reproving tone. “It’d be risky enough just with Barranca. Trying to lead that mule off of here is just asking for a disaster. Murdoch won’t be any too happy if you get yourself hurt and spoil Teresa’s party.”

Johnny, ignoring the concern written on his brother’s face and the words of admonition, faced Barranca toward the downhill side of the road.  “I can handle it, Scott. I’ve taken Barranca off of here lots of times. All I need is a little help getting Brambles started. Once he’s moving, there’s no way he’s gunna stop before he hits the bottom.”

“Well, Little Brother, it’s that hit at the bottom that worries me. I just hope you arrive there in one piece.”

Paying no heed to Scott, Johnny nudged Barranca forward and called, “Now, Jelly, whallop him hard.”

“All right, but don’t expect me to cry at your funeral,” Jelly retorted as he brought the leather ends of the horsehair reins down hard on the mule’s rump.

Brambles let out a loud bray of rage and leapt forward, bumping into Barranca. “Again,” ordered Johnny, leaning back slightly. As he urged his mount to keep moving, he held tightly onto the saddle horn with one hand while gripping the end of the mule’s lead rope with the other to keep the rope from slipping.

The next smack of Jelly’s reins sent the mule furiously charging down over the edge of the hill. Later, Johnny would wonder what had ever possessed him to try such a fool stunt, but at that moment there wasn’t time to think. He was too busy trying to stay aboard Barranca, who was scrambling to keep from being jerked off his feet.

Barranca practically slid on his rump down the steep incline, his head up and front legs bouncing stiffly with each stride. Instinctively, Johnny leaned back as the mule practically dragged them along. Placing his weight over his mount’s hindquarters helped the horse keeps its balance, but Johnny was still thankful for a slightly level spot fifty feet or so from the road, which afforded the palomino a chance to regain a measure of control.

Slipping and sliding with nearly every step, Barranca and Brambles continued the wild race to the bottom. There was no stopping the headlong rush or guiding his mount so Johnny did the only thing he could do. He kept his legs tightly wrapped around Barranca’s girth, the balls of his feet pressed hard against the stirrups, his head up, and his right hand gripping the horn of the saddle while somehow holding onto the mule’s lead line.

The floor of the valley loomed closer with each passing second. Trees that had been splashes of green took shape and formed branches that soon were adorned with leaves. Pebbles turned into boulders and the ribbon of dirt widened into a road. Yet, there was no slowing of the pace or smoothing out of the ride. Occasionally a stab of pain shot through Johnny’s leg as the swaying and flopping pack on the back of the mule battered against him. Gritting his teeth with determination, he ignored it for he had no choice but to stick with Barranca to the end.

At last, Johnny reached the spot overlooking the final turn in the road that skirted the base of the hill before parting a row of trees and heading for the gateway with ‘Lancer’ carved into the stone arch. The next thing he knew Barranca was plunging over the tall dirt embankment that was nearly dropped straight down. His mouth flew open and a scream stuck in his throat. He closed his eyes and held his breath while waiting for the inevitable crash.

The next seconds seemed to pass in slow motion. Barranca’s center of balance, shifting from hindquarters to forehand, threw Johnny forward, tearing his hand from its grip on the horn. An increased rush of wind then tugged at his hat that was hanging against his back by the cord, which was pressing against his throat–choking him. Next, he simultaneously heard the impact of front hooves hitting the hard dirt, and felt something hard grinding into his belly while his nose exploded with pain as his face smashed against the solid crest of his horse’s neck. Gasping for air, Johnny grabbed a fistful of mane while Barranca scrambled to get his legs under him.  Somehow, Johnny clung to the end of the mule’s lead rope, which was miraculously still in his left hand.

As quickly as the nightmare had begun, it was over. Barranca was standing at the far edge of the road, his sides heaving. Brambles, nose touching the ground, was also breathing heavily, and both animals were covered with froth. For several minutes, Johnny continued to lie with his face buried in Barranca’s silky mane–blood slowly discoloring the strands of flaxen hair–while bidding his heart to cease its desperate attempt to escape the confines of his chest and his head to stop spinning. He wasn’t even aware that his brother and Jelly had arrived at a gallop until he heard Scott say in a panic stricken tone, “Johnny, are you all right?”

Johnny raised his head, tears still spilling from his eyes and leaving trails on his dust covered cheeks before mingling with droplets of blood coming from his nose as they ran across his lips and off the end of his chin. Weakly he nodded and tried to sit upright while taking a few deep breaths.

“That has to be the most loco, hair-brained, idiotic, fool stunt you’ve ever pulled in your life. It’s a wonder ya didn’t break your neck,” Jelly sputtered as he reigned his mount to a halt in front of Barranca. “Sometimes, I swear ya ain’t got the brains God gave a goose. Why Dewdrop’s got more smarts than you do. The good Lord must a sent a whole host a angels to get ya down here in one piece, else you’d a never made it, is all I can say.  Sure glad Scott’s the one carrying Teresa’s presents.”

For several minutes, the tongue-lashing went on as Jelly expounded upon Johnny’s total lack of good sense and the wonders of the pack on the mule’s back surviving the descent–among other things. Finally, Scott cut in. “Hadn’t we better be going before we waste all of the time we’ve gained?”

“I’m ready if Jelly’ll stop talking and get out o’ my way,” Johnny replied.  He raised a no-longer-trembling hand to stem the flow of blood from his nose as his vision cleared and the beating of his heart slowed.

“Well, excuse me,” Jelly retorted. As he hauled his mount around and kicked it into motion, he loudly tossed the rest of his complaint over his shoulder. “Seems a man can’t even show a little concern around here without being accused o’ being’ a hindrance.”

Johnny squeezed Barranca into a walk only to be brought to an abrupt stop when the mule balked and refused to move until Scott gave it several hard whacks on the rump. By the time they caught up with Jelly, the older man had already passed under the stone archway that bore the Lancer name.

The balance of the ride home was spent in relative silence except when Johnny, who was worried that word of his latest escapade might reach his father’s ears and that he would find himself on the receiving end of another lecture, tried smoothing Jelly’s ruffled feathers. He even begged forgiveness and promised to use better judgement in the future. Finally, satisfied that his hair-raising ride would remain between himself, his brother, and Jelly, he let the matter drop and concentrated on the forthcoming explanation Murdoch and Teresa were bound to require of them for being late to her party.

A short time later as the three weary travelers rode past the block stockade and into the corral, they were greeted with sounds of laughter mingled with the soft strains of guitars and fiddles. The yard area between the house and them was filled with tethered saddle horses, buggies, and wagons of all sizes and types. It looked to Johnny as though the entire county had put in an appearance.

Johnny knew there would be no sneaking into the house without be seen.  After the horses and mule were attended to, he splashed a little water from the horse trough onto his face, wiped away the remaining blood with the sleeve of his shirt, and boldly led the way toward the courtyard.  He had a feeling that by the next day he wouldn’t be able to hide the results of his wild ride.  By then, his nose and one eye, or both, were sure to have changed color.

Chapter 6 – Paying the Price

A scowl crossed the face of the tall gray-haired rancher who was standing on the stone, tiled front porch of his Spanish style mansion where he was only halfway listening to a couple of his neighbors discussing the sudden drop in the price of beef. Despite the reassurances he had voiced to Teresa a short time earlier, he was beginning to worry that she may have been right. His sons and Jelly were going to miss her party.

“Ain’t that right, Murdoch? Murdoch.”

The sound of his name being spoken more sharply the second time caught Murdoch Lancer’s attention, and he realized that he was being spoken to. “Huh?” he replied, having no idea what had just been said.

“Dave heard rumors that Warburton’s planning on selling his whole herd. That’s just gunna flood the market and drive the prices lower. Don’t you think we need to do something to stop him?”

“Yes, I suppose so,” Murdoch said distractedly. At that same moment, he spotted the three riders he had been waiting for. “Look . . . why don’t you see what you can do about setting up a special meeting of the Association so we can discuss this and come to some consensus. Right now, I need to talk to my boys.” He gave one of the men a pat on the arm and hurried toward the corral.

Murdoch had barely reached the hitching rail, which was just a few feet away, when several more ranchers from the area waylaid him. They also wanted to talk about the impending problem with Warburton, an inexperienced easterner, who ran a sizeable herd on government land in the mountains east of Morro Coyo. By the time Murdoch could pull himself free of them, his sons and Jelly were only a few feet away.

“It’s about time you three got here,” Murdoch said. “I expected you home an hour or more ago. What held you up?” He looked from one son to the other and then at the hired man, who had become like one of the family.

“Well, we would’ve, Boss, if it hadn’t been for that mule slowing us down, and Johnny camping us practically on top a rattlesnake den last night.”

“Me?” Johnny frowned at Jelly. “You’re the one that said we’d better grab the first likely place to bed down.”

Jelly stiffened.  “Well I never told ya to invite one to sleep with ya.”

“Hey, I didn’t invite him. He invited himself.”

Concern furrowed Murdoch’s brow as he addressed his younger son.  “A rattlesnake crawled into your bedroll with you?”

“Just curled up on his chest, is all,” Jelly replied.

When Murdoch’s questioning gaze passed over the three, Scott spoke up. “Johnny’s fine. Jelly shot the snake.”

“With it on him?” Murdoch looked away from his elder son and fastened his gaze on the hired man. “Jelly, don’t you think that was a little risky?”

“I squatted down, Boss, so there weren’t no danger a me hitting Johnny,” Jelly replied indignantly.

“But what if you’d missed? Johnny could have been bitten.” A slight tremor ran down Murdoch’s spine at the thought.

“Weren’t no chance a that.” Jelly proudly lifted his chin and stretched a little taller. “I had my rifle barrel right in that rattler’s face. Ain’t ya never seen the way a snake’ll follow whatever’s in front of his nose. They’ll line themselves right up with the end of any gun. All ya gotta do is pull the trigger. There ain’t no way ya can miss doing it that way.”

“That still doesn’t explain why it took so long for you to get home.” Murdoch studied the three. He was certain there was something that wasn’t being told.

“Jelly thought Teresa might like to have the rattles,” spoke up Scott.

Murdoch shook his head in disbelief. “You mean to tell me that it took you better than an hour to take the rattles off of a snake?”

“No. It didn’t take all that long. ‘Course we had to find it first. That took, oh, ten minutes or so . . . wouldn’t ya say, Scott?” Johnny shifted his gaze from his father to his brother.

“That’s right, Boss, only . . ..”

Murdoch looked at Jelly. “Only what?”

“Well, uh, Scott sort’ve found more’n the snake I shot,”

“Oh?”

“Johnny an’ me took care of ’em, though. I got the one by his hand, and Johnny got the two under the edge of the rock by his feet,” Jelly quickly explained.

“Uh, huh . . . and how long did all of this take?” Murdoch responded skeptically. Studying the three men in front of him, he wondered just how much truth there was in the tall tale they were telling him.

“Not long,” said Jelly.  As he continued, his tone became accusing and he waved a hand at Johnny and Scott. “‘Course those two had to do some smarting around trying to get the best a me. Thought they could scare me into thinking there was a rattler by my feet. I let ’em have their fun, but they weren’t fooling me none. I knew all along it wasn’t anywhere near close enough to get me.”

“Were you able to get all of Teresa’s gifts?” Murdoch asked with a hint of agitation, having decided that the reason for their delay was not the critical issue at the moment.

“We got ’em, all right, Murdoch, but uh . . ..” Jelly paused and eyed the man towering above him.

Murdoch felt a sinking sensation in his stomach. “But what?” he demanded, crossing his arms and sternly looking at his hired man.

Scott moved slightly in front of Jelly and spoke in a defensive tone. “Jelly didn’t do it on purpose, Sir. It was an accident.”

A stronger sense of dread came over Murdoch.  He turned accusing eyes on the smaller man while visualizing what might have happened. “Jelly, you didn’t,”

Jelly squirmed. “Whatcha looking at me like that for? Like Scott told ya. It was an accident. Ya oughta just be grateful I saved Johnny’s life instead a making such a fuss over some trinket T’resa’d only wear once in a while.”

“He’s right, Murdoch,” Scott said. “That snake could easily have struck Johnny in the face or throat. You know as well as I do that a bite like that would have been fatal.”

“See . . . and not only that, I saved Scott from getting bit in the hand or face, too. Way I see it, I more’n paid for . . . well for what I ruined.”

“I’ll see that you’re amply rewarded,” Murdoch let out a heavy sigh. Although he was grateful that neither one of his sons had been bitten, he couldn’t help being disappointed that Teresa might not have any presents to open from her family.

“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that, Murdoch,” spoke up Johnny with the beginning of a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Jelly’s already figured out how ya can pay him,”

Certain that he wasn’t going to like the answer, Murdoch asked, “And just how might that be?”

“By helping him win a little bet he made with Scott and me.”

Murdoch scowled at Jelly. “What kind of a bet, and how much is it going to cost me?”.

“Oh, it won’t cost ya a thing. Jelly’s putting up the money . . . one whole month’s pay. Ain’t that right?” Johnny grinned over at Jelly, who was glowering back at him.

“I see. And just what is it that I have to do?” Murdoch impatiently asked.

“Whip the two of us,” Johnny softly said, indicating with a wave of his hand that he was speaking of himself and Scott.

Murdoch stroked his chin with his thumb as he studied Johnny and Scott for a moment.  He cast a speculative glance in Jelly’s direction and returned his focus on his sons. “One at a time, or both at once?”

“Both at once . . . but you don’t have to go through with it, if you don’t want to,” Scott hurriedly replied. “Johnny and I would understand, wouldn’t we, Brother?”

Noticing that an audience was beginning to form, Murdoch gave the situation a brief moment of serious thought before looking Scott in the eye.  “Let me get this straight. Jelly bet that I could take on Johnny and you at the same time and win, is that it?”

“Pretty much,” Scott. slowly replied.

“I take it that means there’s more to it.”

“You have to have one hand tied behind your back, but like I said, you don’t have to agree to it. It was a ridiculous bet anyway. It’s hardly fair to expect a man of your, . . ..”

When Scott paused for a moment, Murdoch frowned and inquired in an indignant tone, “You think I’m too old, is that it?”

“I didn’t say that exactly,” Scott replied, looking down at the ground.

“That’s what it sounded like it to me . . . or are you just getting cold feet?”

Scott lifted his chin and his eyes, showing how inconceivable the idea was to him, slowly met those of his father. “You’re not seriously thinking of taking the both of us on at once, are you, Sir?”

Spurred on by his son’s lack of faith in him, Murdoch began to devise a plan. “Yes, I am,” he announced, stroking his chin before adding, “and there’s no time like the present.”

“You don’t mean ya wanna fight us right now, do ya? What about your clothes?  Won’t ya get ’em all mussed up?” Johnny reached out and touched the collar of Murdoch’s suit jacket.

“I think I can manage without doing too much damage to what I’m wearing,” Murdoch replied confidently. “However, before we start, I do want to make sure I understand this correctly. The only rule is that I have one arm tied behind my back . . . is that right?”

“That’s all, but–“

“Good,” Murdoch said in a commanding tone.  He turned to address the men who had gathered around. “If you men will form a circle, I’ll show my sons that I’m not nearly as old and helpless as they seem to think I am . . . and then we’ll go see if that beef is ready to eat.”

“Murdoch, ya really don’t have to go through with this,  You know Teresa ain’t gunna like it if we get bloodied up.”

With an air of unconcern and a slight smile on his lips, Murdoch ignored Johnny’s pleading. “If you boys want to call it quits, that’s fine with me, but it’ll cost you each a month’s pay. That was the amount of the bet, was it not?”

“That’s right,” butted in Jelly before either of Murdoch’s sons could respond. “Ya both agreed so ya can’t back out now without paying up.”

“You heard the man, Johnny. Forfeiture is the same as losing . . . so we might as well go through with this. We have nothing more to lose.”

“But our hide,” Johnny added sarcastically.

“There’s two of us and only one of him. There’s no way that he can beat us with just one hand,” Scott said scornfully. “Now we had an agreement, and I expect you to keep it. I don’t plan to throw away an entire month’s pay because you’re afraid–“

“All right, all right,” Johnny interrupted. “Let’s get it over with. I’m starving . . . and I’d still like to clean some of this trail dust off me before I eat.”

Fighting to hold back a show of pleasure that might cause his sons to become suspicious, Murdoch said in a matter of fact tone, “I’m ready when you are, Boys. Just step inside the ring, and I’ll be with you as soon as Jelly ties my hand to the back of my belt. Scott, Jelly’ll need your bandanna. Oh, one more thing. Once in the ring, nobody leaves. If you do, you’re out to stay–no coming back in. The last one standing inside the circle wins. Agreed?” Murdoch glanced from one son to the other.

“Agreed,” responded Scott and Johnny. They quickly removed their gun belts and hats, dropped them on the seat of a nearby wagon, and stepped inside the circle of onlookers that was gradually growing in number.

Once his left hand was secured, Murdoch retrieved a whip from the holder at the front corner of one of the buggies. As he joined Scott and Johnny within the confines of their audience, he flexed his wrist a couple of times to get the feel of his weapon. The expressions of astonishment that he saw on the faces of his sons as the end of the lash cracked sharply brought a triumphant smile to his lips. There was only one possible outcome to this contest.  The only question was how much punishment were his boys prepared to take before they sought the nearest avenue of escape.

Chapter 7 – Entertaining the Guests

Curious as to why her guests were leaving the courtyard and migrating toward where the buggies and wagons were parked, Teresa went to see what the attraction might be. As she approached the ring of people, she saw a small bearded man who appeared to be trying to push his way between two larger men in order to get inside the circle. “Jelly, you’re back. Where’re Scott and Johnny?” she called, startling the man to a stop.

“Oh, uh, T’resa. Happy birthday. Nice party, isn’t it?” Jelly shifted his eyes from her to the path he was trying to make and back to her once more.

Before she could inquire as to what was going on, she heard a loud snap followed by someone, who sounded to her just like Johnny, saying, “Hey, whatcha doing with that? Nothing was said about you having a whip.”

“Nothing was said about my not having one either,” came a deep voice that Teresa was certain belonged to her guardian, Murdoch Lancer.

“What is going on, Jelly?” Teresa demanded, placing her hands on her hips.

Jelly’s eyes shifted nervously. “Nothing. Nothing at all for you to worry your pretty head about, anyhow.”

“But that’s Murdoch and Johnny I heard. What’s Murdoch doing with a whip?”

“Now I told ya. It ain’t nothing. Murdoch and the boys . . . well they’re just having a little contest, is all.”

“Well, I’m going to see for myself,” she said, a determined set to her jaw. She brushed by Jelly and began to work her way through the crowd that was rapidly growing as word spread that a fight was about to take place.

Tapping on shoulders and asking this person and that to allow her to pass, Teresa tried to push through the wall of people. After being jostled and bumped, and even having her toes stepped on once, she finally found herself lodged behind a tall skinny boy of her age and a heavy-set elderly man, whose shoulder she could easily peer over to view the goings on inside the arena lined with people. Her eyes widened in surprise and then clouded into a storm of anger. Her guardian and his sons were having some sort of brawl in front of her guests.

Anxiously Teresa watched as Scott sidled toward his father’s right while Johnny began to inch around the opposite way. Murdoch, back toward Teresa, was standing near the edge of the circle of spectators–whip pointing straight up. Suddenly, he took a quick sidestep toward his elder son and, with the flick of his wrist while extending his arm, popped Scott’s thigh with the end of the lash. As Scott jumped backward, Johnny rushed in only to be met with the same.

The brothers moved to the far side of the ring and had a short conference while the crowd shouted encouragement and made wagers on the outcome. Next, Johnny ducked and made a wild dash straight for his father at the same instant that Scott circled to the left. Again the whip snaked out, this time catching Johnny in the right forearm. With a yelp, he clasped his arm with his other hand and scrambled back out of reach. Meanwhile, Scott dodged to the right as his shoulder met with the end of the lash.

For several minutes the dance continued. Murdoch remained fairly stationary except for the movement of his free arm as he cracked the whip to ward off the continued efforts his sons made to get behind him. No matter what tactics were used, the two young men failed to get the best of their father; his accurately placed lash was always there to meet them.

At first, Teresa silently fumed at the very idea of her family fighting, especially at her birthday party. She made up her mind to give all three of the Lancer men a tongue-lashing that they would never forget. As she watched the contest of wills between father and sons, however, she gradually began to notice that the lash of the whip never once came into contact with the face or neck of either of brothers. Little by little, she relaxed. Obviously Murdoch had no intention of inflicting any more pain than was necessary to keep the two younger men at bay while they gradually tired themselves out with their constant ducking and dodging.

Soon, Teresa could see beads of moisture glistening on Johnny’s and Scott’s foreheads and their chests heaving as their breaths came in short puffs. Murdoch, on the other hand, appeared to be nearly as fresh as when the contest began. Having slowly maneuvered his way across the center of the arena while wielding the whip with controlled precision to drive his sons to the far side, he had expended far less energy than they had.

The noise of the crowd increased as Murdoch boxed his sons into an ever-diminishing area–the distance between the younger men slowly decreasing. The spectators, whooping and hollering encouragement to their chosen contestant, cheered the men on. Soon Teresa found herself being drawn into the excitement, as well. Certain that Murdoch had no intention of doing any serious damage to the younger men, she couldn’t help hoping that he would be the victor. After all, he was outnumbered along with being handicapped by only having the use of one arm.

“Look out, Murdoch!” Teresa suddenly cried when Scott made a dash to get behind Murdoch while Johnny made a dive for the big man’s legs. Holding her breath, she watched as her guardian quickly sidestepped the attack of his younger son then twisted toward the other son and deftly snapped the whip against that young man’s legs to force him to keep his distance.

The cheering of the crowd all but drowned out the grunt that burst from Johnny as he lit on his chest in the dirt and skidded toward the side of the circle where Teresa stood. Before he could push himself up on hands and knees, the whip was cracking in his direction.

The lash popped loudly as it rapidly slapped against the seat of Johnny’s pants. With an indignant howl–his hands grasping at the dirt and legs flailing wildly in an attempt to get his knees under him–Johnny scrambled to get his body out of reach of the punishing whip. There was no escape; only a few brief reprieves when his father took a moment to ward off Scott’s advancements. Finally, in an act of desperation that brought a cheer from Teresa and those who were rooting for Murdoch, Johnny crawled into the forest of legs.

Seeing Scott make a dash around the edge of the circle and rush his father from behind when the man had momentarily turned his back to drive Johnny from the ring, Teresa let out a frantic scream. Her warning, however, was drowned out by the noise around her and her heart began to race as she watched Scott wrap his left arm around Murdoch’s right and grab for the whip with his other hand.

What happened then, Teresa would never be sure of. In a blur of motion, Murdoch spun violently away from his son just as it appeared that the young man’s fingers had closed around the slender rod of the whip. Pulled off balance, the momentum of Scott’s forward rush carried his feet from under him–legs swinging outward in a wide counter-clockwise arc. His hand and arm then apparently lost their grip and the elder Lancer son went flying toward Jelly who had finally managed to push his way to the front of the line of onlookers.

The cheering of the crowd was deafening, and Teresa clapped her hands over her ears as she anxiously watched Scott and Jelly tumble to the ground in a heap, taking a couple of other men down with them. Murdoch stood blowing quick, panting breaths a short distance away.

“You had enough, Son?” Murdoch asked a moment later while still waving the end of the whip.

Teresa drew in a sharp breath and held it as Scott slowly regained his feet and faced his father. She dreaded the conflict continuing. Someone was bound to be hurt; a thought that made her shudder.

Several people shouted encouragement for Scott to not give up. Upon starting to step toward his father, he stopped and glanced toward Teresa, whose face had paled as she fixed pleading eyes on him. She let out a deep sigh, when with a shake of his head, he threw up his hands and said, “You win, Murdoch.” He then dropped his hands to his side and, with a hint of a smile, added, “I think I’ll go clean up and change into something a little more appropriate.”

As Scott turned to make his way past the noisy people who were crowding forward to congratulate the winner, Teresa pushed her way to his side. “Are you all right?” she asked, her eyes filled with concern as her small hand touched his arm.

“Nothing’s hurt but my pride,” he answered ruefully. “At least that should heal without leaving any scars.” He patted her hand and gave her a reassuring smile.  “Don’t worry. I’ll be good as new once I’ve had a bath and changed into some clean clothes. Now why don’t you go see what you can do about the victor’s swelled head before it explodes? I want to get my tub filled before Johnny takes all of the hot water.”

Quickly looking around for her guardian’s younger son, Teresa spotted him, limping slightly and holding onto one elbow as he disappeared from sight behind the solid wood of the front door when he closed it. Despite her concern, she couldn’t help but chuckle. Johnny and Scott were going to have a hard time living down the fact that Murdoch had beaten them with the use of only one hand. It would be weeks, even months, before they could show their faces anywhere in the county without having someone snickering behind their backs.

I’m not sorry a bit for them, two grown men ganging up on their father that way. They deserve a little humiliation, thought Teresa as she watched Scott walk away before she went to congratulate Murdoch.

Getting through the line of people gathered around her guardian soon proved impossible, so Teresa collected his jacket from the buggy, where it had been draped over the seat, and waited on the sidelines for her guests to return to the courtyard.

Once the well-wishers were finally gone, Teresa moved to Murdoch’s side and held out his coat for him to slip his arms into the sleeves. Silently she straightened his collar and threaded the middle two buttons through the appropriate buttonholes. Finally satisfied with Murdoch’s appearance, she took a step backward and, with arms crossed, surveyed her guardian. “I should be furious, you know,” she scolded. “Three grown men acting like children. What if one of you had been hurt? And what must our guests think? Father and sons fighting.”

“I’m sorry, Teresa,” Murdoch replied contritely, placing an arm around her shoulders. “I should have let it go until another time. Only . . ..”

“They pushed you into it,” she finished for him, wrapping an arm around his waist. With a softly lilting laugh, she gave him a squeeze and pulled away enough to look up into his face once more. “Have you ever see Johnny move so fast? And the look on Scott’s face when he was trying to untangle himself from Jelly was priceless. It’s going to be a long time before those two ever think about tackling you again. I am curious though. What was it all about? I mean why . . ..”

“They made a bet with Jelly that I couldn’t whip them with one hand. I suppose if they hadn’t been so smug about it, I would have let it pass.”

“But they were too sure of themselves, right, so you just had to prove them wrong.”

Murdoch chuckled softly. “Well . . . they have been getting a little too big for their britches lately. I figured I might as well take them down a notch while I had the opportunity.” In a more serious tone, he added, “I didn’t mean to spoil your party, though.”

“You didn’t,” Teresa replied with a reassuring smile. “In fact, I think it was a wonderful present. I’m sure everyone loved the entertainment and understood there wasn’t any hostility between your sons and you. Besides, the next time those two try teasing me in front of company, all I’ll have to do is remind them of how weak they are.”

“Now, Honey, you wouldn’t really try to embarrass them that way, would you?” Murdoch gently chided.

“Oh, wouldn’t I?” At this declaration of hers, they both laughed.

“Well,” Murdoch said, holding out his arm for Teresa to take hold of. “Shall we join your guests and see if that beef is ready to eat?”

Teresa smiled as she linked her arm with his, her small hand resting lightly just above his wrist. With a cheerful laugh, she let him lead her back to the stone-walled courtyard where Murdoch’s crafty handling of his sons was the main topic of discussion. She had been right; Johnny and Scott would be a long time living down their failure to get the best of their father in a contest where they no doubt had anticipated the odds being in their favor. It was a lesson she was sure that neither would soon forget.

Chapter 8 – Consequences of Battles Won and Lost

The throbbing of his nose was by far the worst of his pains–overriding the ache in his leg where the mule’s pack had hit him and the tingling of his elbow that had gotten bumped when he had skidded across the ground on his belly just minutes before. His cheek was also stinging, which he assumed was from his face rubbing in the dirt. In addition, numerous other places on his arms, body, and legs smarted from having come in contact with the end of the whip his father had handled so expertly.

“So much for Scott and his sure things,” Johnny Lancer muttered, upon arriving at his bedroom. Vowing he would never again agree to take part in one of his older brother’s crazy schemes, he reached out to grasp the doorknob only to have his hand came up empty as the door swung open.

“Ai-yi-yi!” exclaimed Maria, the Mexican woman who often helped with the housework and cooking. She burst into a rattle of Spanish–speaking so rapidly that Johnny almost couldn’t keep up with what she was saying.

When Maria finally paused for a breath, Johnny assured her that his nose was not broken, that he only hurt a little, and that a soak in a tub of warm water along with a change of clothes was all that was needed to make him good as new. She fussed over him a while longer before finally, to his relief, leaving to see to Scott’s bath. Johnny’s was ready and waiting for him just inside his room.

A few minutes later as Johnny was climbing into the wooden tub that had been set up in the middle of the floor, he grimaced at the spot he saw on his left thigh. An area the size of his hand was already turning a deep bluish-purple. The mule’s pack had evidently hit him much harder than he had realized. At least nobody’ll see that one, he thought, easing into the hot water.

Once he was submersed to his shoulders, the heat from the water soaked into his skin and Johnny began to feel drowsy. He scrunched down a little farther and rested the back of his neck against the lip of the tub. It would have been so easy to fall asleep, but he knew that wasn’t an option. There was a party to go to, and Teresa would be terribly disappointed if he didn’t show up.

After Johnny treated himself to a few more minutes of quiet relaxation, he cautiously washed the dirt and grime of two days on the trail from his body. More than once, he winced at the tenderness of his skin. Although his father hadn’t inflicted any lasting damage on him, the man hadn’t been exactly gentle either. Johnny couldn’t help wondering just how far Murdoch had been prepared to go in order to win.

Twenty minutes later, Johnny was dressed in his newest pair of black pants, which were buttoned down the outside of each leg, and a gold-trimmed matching short jacket that was open to show off the embroidered front of his best white shirt. As he stood surveying his already swollen nose and purpling cheek, there was a light knock on the door. “Yeah?” he called, glancing over his shoulder.

The door opened and his brother, Scott, stepped part way through. “You ready to go down?”

“Yeah. Just gotta comb my hair,” Johnny replied, turning back toward his dresser and picking up the comb that was lying next to the water pitcher. He ran it through his thick, dark hair as Scott entered and walked over to stand next to him.

In the mirror, Johnny saw his brother reach toward him. Long fingers brushed the discolored scrape on his cheek as a drawling voice that sounded very much like his own reached his ears.

“That’s, uh . . . quite a bruise ya got there. A memento of your daring ride . . . or was it compliments of our old man?”

Pulling away, Johnny scowled at his brother. “Think you’re funny, don’t ya,” he retorted.

“Little testy aren’t we, Brother?”

“No, Scott . . . I just don’t like being reminded of what a fool I was for letting ya talk me into taking on Murdoch . . . that’s all.”

“If you hadn’t given up so easily, we would’ve had him.”

Johnny shook his head and spoke with more intensity. “No way. You saw how he was. He was set on winning and would’ve taken the hide off of us if need be.”

“I don’t think he would have gone that far,” scoffed Scott. “He was being pretty careful how he used that whip.”

“Careful! I’ve got welts all over me.”

“Oh, come on. You’re exaggerating and you know it. He didn’t hit you any harder than he did me. Besides, you’ve had worse and didn’t give up. Just last month, you were dusted good and hard by that bay filly you brought in with the last bunch of wild horses. You couldn’t even walk straight, but it sure didn’t keep you from climbing back on her. Murdoch didn’t punish you anywhere near as much as she did.”

“Is that so? Well . . . I noticed you quit soon enough once he tossed ya into Jelly. What was the matter?  Landing wasn’t soft enough for ya?” Johnny’s tone by now was filled with sarcasm.

“I would have kept after him if I hadn’t seen that Teresa was watching. She was looking a little pale, and I didn’t want to ruin her party,” Scott replied defensively.

“Think ya could still whip our old man, is that it?”

“Anytime you boys care for another go at it, you just let me know. I’d be glad to accommodate you,” said a deep voice that startled the brothers into looking toward the now open doorway into the hall.

“Not me, Murdoch. I don’t need to be told when the deck’s stacked against me,” Johnny quickly answered, his eyes meeting his father’s before nodding his head toward his brother. “It’s Scott here that don’t know when to throw in his cards when he’s holding a losing hand.”

Murdoch Lancer eyed the elder of his sons. “Scott?”

“I think I’ll pass for now, Murdoch. That beef smells too delicious at the moment, so I think I’ll go on down and join the party.” Scott moved toward the door, hesitated, and looked over his shoulder. “Coming, Brother?”

“You go on ahead. I’ll be along shortly,” Johnny said, almost chuckling at his brother’s hurried excuse to leave. Turning back toward the mirror, he saw his father’s reflection behind his own, took a nervous breath, and waited for the other man to speak his mind.

“You all right, Son? That nose looks a little swollen. Maybe, Sam should take a look at it. It could be broken,” Murdoch said after a moment of silence.

“It’s fine, Murdoch . . . just sore is all.”

“I guess you lit a little hard. I uh . . ..”

Johnny cut in before his father could finish.  “Stop fretting about it. It wasn’t your fault. Besides, I’m fine, I told ya. Now why don’t ya go on back to the party. You don’t want all them people thinking you’ve cut out on ’em, do ya? I said I’d be along in a minute or two, and I will.”

From the concern he saw in Murdoch’s face, Johnny was certain the man had started to make an apology of some sort, and he felt a twinge of guilt over allowing his father to continue thinking that his injuries were all a result of their confrontation.

Murdoch still hesitated to go; however, when his son assured him one more time that he was all right, the man turned and walked out of the room–one backward glance before closing the door behind him.

Shortly thereafter, when Johnny headed downstairs, a slight limp accompanied each step because his leg was hurting a little more than it had been before he had taken his bath. Thinking back on it, he was certain that the discolored area had been larger when he had gotten out of the tub than before getting in, and he wondered if soaking in hot water might have done more harm than good. There was nothing he could do for it, however, so he resigned himself to hiding his discomfort as best he could. The last thing he wanted was for his father to insist on having Sam Jenkins look at it. The Doctor was too smart to be fooled into believing that injury had happened during the contest between Murdoch and his sons. Johnny had landed belly down, not on his side, and Sam had been watching at the time.

Forcing himself to put his weight evenly on each leg, Johnny entered the courtyard a few minutes later. He grinned and waved to Teresa, nodded acknowledgements to a couple of girls her age who shyly smiled at him, and greeted a few of the other guests as he made his way to the tables of food. Once his plate was loaded, he found a place on the sidelines to sit down and relax while eating.

Chapter 9 – One Less Birthday Present

Consisting of savory barbecued beef, roasted potatoes, baked beans, a salad of leafy lettuce, chopped carrots, onions, and freshly shelled peas, along with butter and strawberry preserves to smother enormous yeast rolls, the barbecue proved to be a huge success. Johnny Lancer, feeling a bit stuffed, stood for a while with his shoulder leaning against one of the stone pillars that supported the porch roof and watched as Teresa coerced first Murdoch and then Scott and Jelly to dance with her. That she was having the time of her life was plain to see, and he couldn’t help smiling.

If Johnny thought that he would be spared his turn at whirling Teresa around in his arms, he was mistaken. Upon the conclusion of a fast reel, she appeared at his side and insisted that he join her for the next waltz. Reluctantly, he gave in. Although his leg was still aching and he didn’t like being the center of attention when it came to dancing, it was her birthday so he felt he couldn’t refuse her request.

The tune was slow, fortunately for Johnny. If it hadn’t been, he was sure he would never have managed without Teresa noticing how much his leg was bothering him. When he did falter or make an occasional hurried step, he just grinned and begged her pardon–claiming that being tired must be what was making him a bit clumsy. Hearing the music come to a stop, as far as he was concerned, was the best thing that had happened to him all day. He thanked Teresa for the dance, quickly excused himself, and headed into the shadows before one of the other girls, who had been ogling him all evening, could try nabbing him.

When it came time for Teresa to open her gifts close to an hour later, Johnny was glad the party was winding down. His head was beginning to ache and his leg was hurting worse. There was nothing he wanted more than to crawl into bed and sleep until morning.

Since the presents they had brought home were in his bedroom, Johnny lead the way as his brother and Jelly went with him to retrieve them. Shortly thereafter, standing near the end of his bed with arms crossed and eyes glaring at his brother, Johnny shook his head and firmly declared, “No, I’m not!”

“Yes, you are!” Scott replied in an equally determined manner.

“Nope,” Johnny adamantly stated. “No way are you talking me into that.”

Jelly stood nearby with a long strip of light-blue silk fabric draped over one arm.  “Come on Johnny. You’re acting like a two-year old. Now this ain’t that big a deal.”

Shifting his eyes, Johnny looked coldly at Jelly and retorted, “Then you do it. After all, you’re the one that shot up Teresa’s presents.”

With a huff, Jelly wagged a finger in Johnny’s face. “It was your life I was saving. . . in case ya already forgot. ‘Sides that, you’re the one that got her this . . . so you oughta be the one wearing it.”

“Jelly is right, Johnny. If he hadn’t shot that rattlesnake, you’d be dead by now . . . so it’s only logical that you be the one who does this,” Scott said.

“Yeah? Well what about Jelly and me saving your skin?” Johnny moved back a step while fixing his eyes on his brother again. “Way I figure it, you owe me. Remember, it was me that shot two of those snakes that were fixing to poke holes in your hide. The one you got wasn’t even close to me.”

“You forget, Brother,” Scott said, his voice rising in pitch as well as volume. “If I hadn’t been trying to find the first one Jelly shot, I wouldn’t have been in any danger.”

“See, Johnny? There just ain’t no way around it. It was your pet rattler that started the whole thing, so it’s only fitting you be the one to–.”

“Wasn’t my pet,” Johnny snapped. “I didn’t ask him to crawl into bed with me.”

“Don’t you have those presents wrapped yet?” boomed a deep voice as the door to Johnny’s bedroom swung open. Murdoch stepped into view and cast a quick glance at each of the three men. “The guests are all waiting for Teresa to open her gifts so the cake can be served. It’s getting late and some people have quite a ways to travel.”

“We’re working on it, Murdoch,” Scott quickly assured him. “It’ll only be a few minutes, if Johnny will just cooperate a little.”

“I’ll tell Teresa you’ll be down in five minutes,” Murdoch said as he began to withdraw.

“Five minutes!” chorused the three.

“Yes, five minutes,” Murdoch sternly replied before disappearing from sight.

“We’ll be there,” Scott called as his father pulled the door closed. Turning to his brother, he said, “You heard the man. We don’t have any more time to waste. Now will you just hold still while Jelly and I wrap this around you. If Murdoch has to come looking for us again, he’s liable to bring that buggy whip with him. You don’t want that, do you?”

“Yeah, Johnny. I’d think you’d had the seat o’ your britches warmed enough for one day. It’s liable to be a week before ya can sit down as it is.”

Johnny backed away as Jelly stepped toward him. “I’d rather take a whomping any day than be seen in that get-up the two of you got in mind.”

Scott moved to cut off his brother’s one avenue of escape–the open window. “Johnny, it’s not going to hurt you in the least.”

“That’s what you said about our taking on our old man . . . and look how that came out,” Johnny said as he glowered at his brother.

“How was I to know that he’d have the forethought to acquire a weapon?” Scott defensively demanded.

“That’s my point. You didn’t think. Well you’re not getting me to cooperate with any more your crazy ideas.”

“Now hold on, Brother. Whose idea was it to go see Lucinda? Just remember if it wasn’t for me, a package with a few ribbons in it would be all that Teresa would be opening.”

“In case ya don’t know it, ya already done used up half that five minutes, so ya best be making up youy mind which o’ ya’s gunna put this on.”

Johnny scowled at Jelly and let out a noisy breath. As a way out came to mind, he looked speculatively at Scott. “How about we toss for it? Jelly gets the loser. Okay?”

Scott hesitated before slowly replying, “I’ll go along with that on one condition.”

“What?” Johnny asked, his eyes narrowing.

“I’ll be the winner if it’s heads; you’ll be the loser if it’s tails. Agreed?”

“What if I want heads?” Johnny warily searched his brother’s face for some sign of trickery.

“No problem. I don’t mind being the winner if it’s tails and allowing you to be the loser if it’s heads. Now are you happy?”

Wearily letting out a soft sigh, Johnny reluctantly nodded and reached into his pocket for a coin. Something was telling him that Scott was not to be trusted, but with the pounding in his head, he couldn’t seem to grasp just what sort of trick his brother was up to.

“I’ll do the tossing . . . just to keep you boys honest,” Jelly said, with his hand extended toward Johnny.

With a shrug, Johnny handed over the twenty-dollar gold piece.

Jelly quickly examined both sides of the coin. “Looks fine to me,” he said before flipping it into the air. As all three men watched, the golden orb rose almost to the ceiling and then tumbled down to land in Jelly’s open palm. “Tails,” he announced.

“Whoopy! Scott, you sure are gunna look pretty wearing that big blue bow,” Johnny proclaimed, starting to dance a little jig, which ended immediately as pain shot through his leg, so he gave his brother a light punch in the gut instead.

Scott just smiled and tapped a finger against Johnny’s chest. “Not me, Brother. You.”

“Whatcha mean, me?” Johnny folded his arms across his chest once more. “It wasn’t heads so you aren’t the winner.”

“Yes, he is Johnny,” Jelly cut in. “Ya agreed to be the loser if it was tails.”

“Now wait a minute, that’s cheating. I’m the loser either way.” Johnny tried to move away from the other men only to find that he had already backed up as far as he could go.

“Ya shoulda thought o’ that before ya agreed. It’s too late now to be crying over spilt milk.” Jelly handed one end of the strip of cloth to Scott, who lifted it up over Johnny’s shoulder. “Now stand still so’s we can get this done before Murdoch shows up again. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to be able to eat a piece o’ that cake. Teresa said it was gunna be decorated with whole strawberries.”

“Oh, all right. Get it done,” Johnny grumbled to Jelly and then turned his head and fixed cold eyes on his brother. “Just remember, Brother . . . you’re gunna pay for tricking me into this. I don’t know how and I don’t when, but I will get even. That’s a promise.”

A couple minutes later, as he was being ushered from his room by the other two men, Johnny caught a glimpse of himself in his dresser mirror. The sashes of blue silk, wrapped around his waist and crisscrossing his chest, looked rather dashing despite the tiny holes caused by the shattering of Scott’s bottle of perfume, but the big bow at his throat made him look ridiculous. Right then he decided that Teresa was going to be minus one present. Dying from a rattlesnake bite would have been better than going through with the scheme his brother and Jelly had cooked up.

Pretending to go along willingly with Scott and Jelly, Johnny started down the hall. He was almost to the staircase that would take them down to the main entryway, when he heard voices coming from the vicinity of the foot of the stairs. Without a second of hesitation, he twisted free of the hands that cupped his elbows, whirled, and dashed for the far end of the hallway. In his haste, he didn’t even notice the pain in his leg.

With Scott and Jelly in rapid pursuit, Johnny turned the corner and raced to the back stairway. He grabbed the handrail and swung his body forward to land several steps down. Repeating the process a couple more times, he reached the bottom far ahead of the other two men. Here he hesitated for a fraction of a second, his eyes darting this way and that for the best possible escape.

Footsteps coming from the direction of the kitchen, which was straight ahead, immediately eliminated the closest exit to the outside. With no other option, Johnny turned and ran past the stairwell and down a short hallway in hopes of reaching the door at the other end before his brother and the hired man could see where he had gone. Part way there, he noticed the door to the wine cellar on his left.

A quick glance behind him assured him that his brother and Jelly weren’t in sight yet, so Johnny jerked the door open.  He slipped through, shut it partway, and peeked out the crack to see if he was being followed. When he saw Scott and Jelly hurry on past without slowing down, he quietly closed the door and leaned his head against it while letting a long breath whistle softly between parted lips.

Knowing his pursuers would soon return to search for him, Johnny didn’t bask in his relief for long. He shoved himself away from the cellar door and made a quick pivot as he stepped toward the stairs that would take him down to the room where the wine and brandy bottles were stored along with various other food-supplies that needed to be kept cool. Suddenly, in mid-stride, he found himself looking into the eyes of his father, who was standing one step below him.

Johnny sharply sucked in his breath while grabbing for Murdoch’s arm to keep from losing his balance.  He backed up a step–throat feeling as though he had swallowed his heart.  While closing his eyes, he let out a soft groan.

Chapter 10 – Tracking Down the Gifts

One of the bottles of wine under Murdoch’s arm slipped from his unfeeling grasp and fell to the cellar floor. Murdoch didn’t even hear the crash. His full attention was on his startled son as the young man took a backward step and said, “Sorry, Murdoch. I didn’t know anyone was in here.”

The laugh threatening to burst forth at the spectacle before him was almost too much to contain, but somehow Murdoch choked it back. His eyes, however, refused to relinquish their glint of amusement as he raised one of the bottles he was holding. “I thought we might need some more wine,” he hastily explained.

Johnny’s only response was a nervous glance at the door.

Murdoch thoughtfully rubbed a thumb along the side of his nose and moved up beside his son on the landing. “I think I’ll see if I can track down Teresa’s presents.” He reached for the doorknob with one hand and waved the other toward the room below. “When you’re finished down there, would you mind bringing up another bottle of wine with you? Might save making another trip later.”

“I don’t mind,” replied Johnny, stiffening at the sound of footsteps outside the cellar door.

“Good.” Murdoch gave his son’s arm a quick squeeze while gripping the doorknob more tightly to keep it from being turned from the outside. “Oh . . . if Teresa asks, I’ll tell her you’ll be along shortly.”

Johnny opened his mouth to speak but quickly closed it when the door rattled and a voice on the other side demanded entrance. Murdoch, seeing the apprehension in his son’s eyes, motioned for the young man to get on down the stairs. He then waited just long enough for Johnny to get out of sight before releasing the doorknob and moving out of the way as the door swung inward.

Scott stumbled into his father. “Oh . . . Murdoch, it’s you,” he said as he recovered his balance and stepped back–his cheeks much redder than normal.

“We were running a little low on wine, so I thought I’d get some while I had the chance.” Murdoch stepped forward to block the open doorway and shifted his gaze from his son to the hired man at Scott’s side and back again. “Where’s Johnny?” he abruptly asked.

“I . . . uh . . . then you haven’t seen him?” Scott stammered.

“If I had, would I be asking?” Murdoch countered impatiently in an attempt to cover his amusement at his son’s uneasiness and the guilt that was written on Jelly’s face despite the man’s effort to appear unconcerned.

“No . . . it’s just that . . . well, Jelly and I saw him come this way. He didn’t go outside, so we thought he might be in the wine cellar.” Scott shrugged before continuing. “I guess if he was, though, you’d have seen him.”

Jelly tugged at his chin whiskers.  “He could o’ hid under the stairs ’til we was past him and then went out the other way.”

“Never mind Johnny,” Murdoch said in a dismissive tone that quickly became demanding. “Do you have Teresa’s gifts ready?”

Scott moved back to allow his father room enough to step through the doorway and hesitantly replied, “Yes, but . . . uh . . .. “

“Good,” Murdoch interrupted while closing the cellar door behind him. Gesturing for the other two men to lead the way, he commandingly said, “Let’s go get them. The guests are waiting.”

“What about Johnny?” Jelly asked.

“Johnny’s a big boy. I’m sure he can take care of himself,” Murdoch curtly replied, looking down on the hired man. “Right now we have more important things to attend to. Teresa is waiting to open her gifts. Besides . . . I’m sure Johnny will be along shortly.”

Jelly incoherently muttered something under his breath and followed Scott’s lead. Murdoch, tagging along behind, found it hard not to laugh. From their obvious disappointment, he was certain that Scott and Jelly were the reason for Johnny’s strange attire. Murdoch shook his head. Although there was no evidence that either of the men in front of him had been in a fight, he found it surprising that his younger son had agreed to their scheme without one. It was no wonder to him, however, that Johnny had ducked out on them. The boy would have been the laughing stock of the ranch hands and most of the people in the county if he had put in an appearance tied up like a birthday package. Not only that, Teresa might have been embarrassed.

Upon reaching the staircase that led up the back way to the upper level of the house, Scott stopped and twisted around to face his father. “There’s no need for you go up with us, Sir. Jelly and I can get the presents out of Johnny’s room and meet you in the courtyard. It’ll only take us a couple minutes.”

Murdoch smiled and shook his head. “I think I’ll go along . . . just to make sure you don’t get sidetracked.”

“Boss, we don’t need no babysitter. There ain’t no way we’re gunna get lost,” Jelly indignantly replied.

“Jelly, you’re wasting time.” Murdoch scowled impatiently at the smaller man.

“Well, if you’re going, there ain’t no need o’ my tired legs having to go back up there. I’ll just go on outside an’ wait for ya.”

Murdoch raised a hand to his mouth and coughed to hide the twitching of his mouth.  He forced his voice to remain steady. “Isn’t your gift up there, too?”

“Yeah . . . but Scott can get it for me. Can’t ya, Scott?” Jelly’s nervous eyes shifted from Murdoch to plead with the young man ahead of them.

“Yes, I–“

“We’ll all go.” Murdoch motioned toward the top of stairs as his stern voice effectively cut off the rest of whatever his son had intended to say.

Once again Scott led the way with Jelly second and Murdoch following behind to see that no more detours were taken. The presents were soon collected, and the three men headed down the front stairs. As they went out the main entry door, they found Johnny waiting on the porch–a broad grin brightening his face.

Murdoch smiled at his younger son, who looked even more like a Mexican cabellero now that the long strip of pale blue, silk fabric was wrapped around the waist of his Spanish style pants.

“About time you got here with the presents. Teresa’s talking about sending out a search party.” Johnny’s eyes twinkled merrily as he regarded his brother.

“Very funny,” Scott shot back with a warning glare.

Although he was enjoying the interaction between his sons, Murdoch gave each a stern glance. “Boys, Teresa is waiting.”

“Well . . . ya heard the man. Let’s go. It ain’t nice to keep the little lady waiting. . . ‘specially on her birthday,” Johnny said, looking at first Jelly and then Scott before bowing while sweeping one hand out to the side.

Jelly grumbled under his breath but stepped into the lead with Johnny and Scott right behind him. Murdoch, a smile softening his face, once more brought up the rear.

As Murdoch followed his sons around the corner and into the courtyard, he couldn’t help admiring them. In his opinion, they made a dashing twosome. Scott with his lighter hair, refined facial features, and stylish brown suit was a pleasing contrast to the equally handsome, darker brother who was dressed in the manner of his Spanish ancestry.

Murdoch recalled the story Jelly had told him of how close he had come to losing one or both of his sons that day.  A shiver ran up his spine. He was certain Teresa would feel as he did.  The intended gifts were a small sacrifice in light of what could have been.

Chapter 11 – Unwrapping the Presents

Tapping her foot as she stood with her back to the long table that held her birthday cake and an array of gifts–paper wrappings folded in a pile at one end of the table, Teresa O’Brien glanced around the courtyard. Her gaze passed over the heads of the clusters of people surrounding her and delved into each shadowy corner. Still there was no sign of the man who had treated her like a daughter since her father’s death over a year and a half ago. He wasn’t there. If he were, she would have seen him. At six foot five inches, Murdoch Lancer was the tallest man there.

Her brow puckered a little. She couldn’t imagine why Murdoch hadn’t returned. He had told her that he would be back in a few minutes and that she should go ahead and start opening her presents. That had been well over a quarter of an hour ago, and still there was no sign of him or the three men he’d gone to find.

Surely it can’t be taking this long for Jelly and the boys to wrap their gifts, unless . . .. Teresa, her mind whirling with possibilities, forced a smile when a woman near her commented on the lovely assortment of embroidered handkerchiefs, dresser scarves, and other items that would be a welcome addition to any girl’s hope-chest. Barely listening, Teresa nodded in agreement while continuing to watch for the four men who were now her family.

When Teresa was about to the point of setting out in search of her men folk, she saw them enter the courtyard. Jelly, in front, was wearing his best suit and a striped shirt, and she thought he looked quite nice for a man of his age. A smile then tugged at her lips. Close on Jelly’s heels were her guardian’s sons, different as night and day in so many ways, yet equally handsome as far as she was concerned. Behind them was Murdoch, tall, neatly dressed, and looking every bit the patriarch that he was. She almost laughed at the way he seemed to be herding the other three in front of him.

Jelly reached her first and made his apology for keeping her waiting–the accusing glance he gave Johnny making her wonder what had really delayed them. The fleeting thought, however, was gone the instant the bearded man placed the brown paper wrapped package, tied with a couple of colorful ribbons, in her hand.

“Happy Birthday, Miss Teresa. It ain’t exactly what I had in mind, but I hope ya like it.” As he stepped back to stand next to Scott, Jelly again frowned in Johnny’s direction.

“I’m sure I’ll love it,” Teresa said.  Carefully, she untied the ribbons, laid them on the table, and removed the layer of paper. “Oh!” she exclaimed with a sharp intake of air.

“If ya don’t like it, I can get ya somethin’ else.”

Teresa quickly laid a hand lightly on Jelly’s arm. “Oh, no. I’ve always wanted a snakeskin hatband.” Her gaze shifted to the open package resting on the palm of her other hand, and her mind replayed the story she’d overheard earlier. “Is this the snake that . . .?” She paused and shuddered–the thought too horrifying to finish.

“Look Teresa. If ya don’t want it, just say so, and I can get ya something the next time I’m in town.”

“No, Jelly. I love it. Really I do. I’ve always wanted one of these for my hat, and this one will be extra special because it’ll remind me of what you did for Johnny.” Throwing her arms around Jelly’s neck, Teresa hugged him tight in an attempt to convince him that she meant every word.

When Teresa released him, Jelly offered to stretch the skin out on a board to dry. Readily agreeing, she handed it to him with her fingertips and silently scolded herself for acting as though the thing would bite her. She knew that the problem was not that she had an aversion to snakes. What made her weak at the sight of this particular one was the knowledge that it could so easily have caused the death of someone she loved. Still, it was a gift of love from a man she thought of as a member of her family, and as such she would cherish it forever.

As Jelly moved away, Scott stepped forward and handed Teresa a tissue wrapped package. “This is from Murdoch, Johnny, and I. It isn’t much, I know, but it’s all that could be salvaged,” he said apologetically. “It’s part of the reason we were so late getting here. I rode on ahead to Maria’s son’s place, but it took a little longer for Lucinda to make this than I had anticipated.”

“Thank you. I know I’ll love it.” Teresa flashed him a reassuring smile and proceeded to carefully open up the thin sheets of paper. As she laid back the edges, a sparkle appeared in eyes. “Oh,” she softly breathed as she lifted up a light-blue, silk scarf and matching rosette hair bow–its long streamers dangling from between her fingers. “They’re lovely.”

“The fabric was Johnny’s gift. Unfortunately, most of the cloth was ruined when the bottle of perfume that I bought for you shattered.” Scott pointed out each item as he talked. “The faceted piece of glass, hanging from that dark-blue ribbon that came from Jelly, was the stopper. Murdoch’s contribution is the locket that Lucinda attached in the center of the rosette. I realize that you can see the dent caused by the bullet, but she did tuck it into the folds enough that it’s not noticeable unless you look at it closely.”

“It’s absolutely beautiful.” Teresa fingered one of the loops made from the delicate gold chain that she assumed was part of the locket. Upon closer inspection, she cried out, “Oh, look! It has the Lancer ‘L’ on the front.”

“Actually, it’s an ‘L’ inside of an O’Brien ‘O’,” Murdoch stated, moving a little closer to her. “I had it specially designed by Ed Burgess in Sacramento. The locket opens, too. You might want to see what’s inside.”

Teresa, her fingers trembling a little from the excitement, opened the locket and stared in awe at the pictures. A moment later, her arms were tightly clasped around Murdoch’s waist and tears of joy were trickling down her cheeks. When she was finally able to talk, she released him and stepped back while wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “I love it,” she said with a sniff. “This is the picture of Daddy and me that was taken on my fifteenth birthday . . . and I’ve wanted one of you and your sons ever since that photographer was here earlier this year.”

Murdoch cleared his throat. “I had your name engraved on the back . . . but I don’t suppose you’ll be able to see it.”

“Yes, you can,” Scott said.  He reached out and raised the lower edge of the locket as he continued to talk. “The locket is only attached by the loop the chain goes through. Lucinda fixed it that way so you could lift it up and see the back.”

After seeing for herself, Teresa smiled at each of the Lancer men. “It’s a wonderful present. Thank you,” she said in a quiet voice filled with emotion.  She then gave them each a hug, ending with the youngest.

“Scott’s the one that thought it up,” Johnny told her as she pulled away from him. “Just goes to show ya he did learn something useful back there in Boston.”

Scott’s chin tilted upward as he looked scathingly at his brother. “I’ll have you know that I learned a lot of worthwhile things in Boston.”

“Yeah, well one of ’em wasn’t how to bet on a sure thing,” Johnny softly drawled, cautiously running a finger over the scraped spot on his cheek that was already blue.

When a murmur of chuckles and giggles spread through the guests, Scott made a move toward Johnny. Murdoch, quickly stepping between his sons.  Placing a hand on a shoulder of each of the young men, he said, “Speaking of bets, you each owe Teresa a month’s salary.”

Johnny tipped his head up to meet his father’s eyes. “Why, Teresa?”

“Jelly agreed that I should get half of the winnings . . . although, I must admit that victory was ample reward.” Murdoch chuckled before dropping his hands back to his sides and continuing. “I’m giving my share of the money to Teresa, and Jelly’s offered to do the same. The way I look at it, it’s a gift from the four of us.”

“That’s very generous of the both of you.” Scott smiled up at Murdoch.

“Well, it is Teresa’s birthday. Any money earned from our, uh . . . entertainment of her guests rightly should go to her, don’t you agree?”

“I couldn’t agree more, Sir,” Scott replied with a nod.

“So . . . Teresa, what’re ya gunna do with all that money?” Johnny asked, taking a sauntering step to her side and draping an arm over her shoulder.

“I . . . I don’t know,” Teresa replied. Still dazed by the generosity of her guardian and Jelly, she lifted her brown eyes to gaze into pools of deep blue. She skewed her mouth and smiled as an idea formed in her mind. “Oh, I know. You can take me with you when you take those horses to that sale in Sacramento the week after next. Emily Martin told me about this wonderful emporium for ladies. I’m sure I could find something very nice there.” Her pleading eyes focused more intently on Johnny. “You will take me, won’t you.”

“Uh, well, I would . . . but uh . . . Sacramento’s a big town. It wouldn’t be safe for you to be wandering around by yourself, and I’m gunna be tied to that sale ’til dark both days.” Johnny paused to chew at his lip then glanced over at his brother before flashing the girl a reassuring smile. “But . . . Scott could go along and take ya around.”

As Teresa brought her eyes to bear on the older of the brothers, Scott shot Johnny a dark scowl. He then looked hopefully at their father.  “Murdoch, you wouldn’t want both of us gone. We’ll be starting to cut hay, and it’s my job to see that it gets hauled and properly stored for the winter. Also, the cattle have to be moved on up into the mountains . . . and–“

“We wouldn’t even be gone a week,” Johnny said. “You could be spared that long . . . couldn’t he, Murdoch?” As he finished, he turned his pleading eyes on their father.

Murdoch rubbed his chin and drew in a long slow breath before replying.  “Yes . . . I think the ranch could get by without you both for a few days. Cipriano can handle the crew moving the cattle, and Jelly and I can supervise the cutting and hauling of the hay.

“Why don’t you go instead of me, Sir?” Scott said.  “It’d give you a chance to relax . . . show Teresa around. I’m sure she’d enjoy going to the capital and several other sites besides the emporium. You know the history so much better than I do, so you’d be a much better guide.”

“You’ll do just fine,” Murdoch replied with a light slap to Scott’s shoulder. “Besides, I have to be here that week. The ranchers in the area are calling a special meeting of the Association to discuss what can be done to keep the price of cattle from dropping further. It’s important that I be there.”

“But–“

“Scott, this can all be worked out later. Everyone is waiting for Teresa to cut the cake.”

Teresa smiled and slowly shook her head at the smug grin on Johnny’s face. Obviously he assumed that his brother would not get out of being her chaperone for the trip to Sacramento. The arrangement was fine with her. She enjoyed Scott’s company and, not only that, he wouldn’t be fidgeting and hurrying her along.

After thanking everyone for attending her party and expressing her gratitude for all of the wonderful gifts, Teresa moved to the other end of the table and picked up the knife by the cake. She cut five slices, placed them on plates, and handed the four larger pieces out to Murdoch, his sons, and Jelly while keeping the smaller one for herself.

Teresa handed the knife over to Juanita who would finish cutting and dishing up the cake for the guests. After picking up her own plate, she joined her family at one of the other tables.

Chapter 12 – The Best Birthday Gift

The party wound down shortly after the cake was served and soon the birthday guests began to leave. A few lingered–the men talking to Murdoch about the impending meeting of the California Cattle Growers Association while the women and older girls admired Teresa’s gifts. Finally, about nine o’clock, the last buggy pulled away from the hacienda. Teresa, with the help of Scott and Jelly, collected her presents and took them inside where they placed them at one end of the dining table.

Having carefully laid down the rosette hair-ribbon and spread the long streamers out so they wouldn’t become wrinkled, Teresa smiled at the two men. “Thank you,” she said and glanced around the room as her brow puckered. “Where’s Johnny? I haven’t seen him since we had our cake.”

“Oh, he’s around here someplace. Probably just made his-self scarce so’s not to have to do any the picking up,” Jelly replied in a grumpy tone.

“No, Jelly,” Scott said, a speculative expression on his face. “I don’t think that’s it at all. Teresa’s right. I haven’t seen him for well over an hour.”

“Maybe, he’s gone to bed,” Teresa suggested. “He didn’t look like he was feeling very well.” She studied the two men a little more closely. “Are you sure something didn’t happen to him on the way home? I don’t see how he could have hit his nose hard enough to make it swell up the way it is. I was watching, and his face was toward me when he skidded across the ground.”

“Now, Miss Teresa. If Johnny’d been hurt on the way home, don’t ya think we’d a knowed it?” Jelly said.

“Oh, I suppose, but . . ..”

Jelly moved to the girl’s side and gave her a hug. “Now, don’t go getting yourself all fussed up and ruining your birthday. Johnny’ll be just fine. It’s been a long day an’ he’s probably just tuckered out. Fact is I’m about dead on my feet, myself. Think I’ll call it a night and hit the sack, too.”

“Goodnight, Jelly . . . and thank you for snakeskin. I really do like it.” Teresa smiled and gave the bearded man a tight squeeze. “And thanks for watching out for Scott and Johnny. Saving them from those snakes was the best present you could have given me.” She pulled away and wrinkled her nose at Scott. “Although, I don’t know why I should feel that way. Life would be much quieter around here without them.”

“Now, Teresa. Wouldn’t all of that quiet get a little dull?”

Teresa smiled at the teasing glint in Scott’s eyes. He was more right than he’d ever know, but she wasn’t about to let him see that. “Oh, I suppose it might . . . in time.”

“Well, you two can go on with your palavering all night if ya want. I’m headed to bed,” Jelly said, making a move toward the door.

Scott and Teresa wished Jelly a good night’s sleep and stood slightly apart while watching the older man leave the room.

“It was a lovely party,” Scott said once Jelly was out of sight.

“Yes . . . it was.” Teresa’s tone was wistful as her eyes reached beyond the walls of room.

“I guess it’s a good thing Murdoch gave you a hope chest last Christmas. From the looks of things . . . you’ll be needing it.” Scott waved a hand toward the piles of gifts on the table.

“Yes,” Teresa replied distractedly while lowering her eyes to gaze unseeingly at her presents. She shifted her eyes to her guardian’s elder son and held her lip between her teeth for a moment before speaking. “Scott, I was only teasing . . . about not missing you and Johnny. You know that, don’t you? I would miss you both terribly if anything . . ..” Her voice broke and she swallowed–the tightness in her throat making her wince.

“I know.” Scott gently laid an arm around her shoulder and pulled her against his side.

For a moment, head resting against his chest, she leaned into him and savored the protective strength of his embrace. Murdoch’s sons had become like brothers to her. The thought of losing either of them was unbearable. She was sure she couldn’t love them more if they were her own brothers, and at times, she needed to touch them just to assure herself that they were real.

“Scott,” she said as she pulled away and ran her fingers down one streamer of the hair ribbon. “Did you pick this cloth out for Johnny to give to me?”

The young man shook his head. “No. I’ll have you know, Johnny picked that out all on his own.”

“Where?” she inquired, surprise showing in her eyes.

“At the lady’s emporium in Sacramento.”

Her eyes widened even further and her mouth dropped open. “Johnny actually went into a place like that? All by himself?”

“Well.” Scott chuckled. “I did accompany him . . . but I left it entirely up to him to select his gift. He didn’t do too badly, either.”

“No, he didn’t,” she agreed with a slight shake of her head. “It’s beautiful. I love the color. Blue always has been my favorite.”

“It’s just too bad . . ..” Scott paused and briefly glanced away. He softly sighed then went on. “He bought enough for a dress. He thought the pale blue would look nice with your brown hair.”

Teresa ignored the fact that Scott hadn’t finished what he had started to say. “Johnny said that?”

“Yes. Hard to believe, I know . . . but as surprising as it may seem, he does notice that sort of thing.” Scott smiled and let out a soft laugh that lightly jiggled his shoulders. “You should have seen him . . . picking up each bolt of cloth and holding it up to himself in front of the mirror so he could see how it might look on you. He didn’t like the yellow one. Said it reminded him of runny egg yolks. The pink and the red were too much like something a dance hall girl would wear; white was too much like something you would make a wedding dress out, and he didn’t want anyone getting the wrong idea; and the green was much too dark. He considered a few of the calicos, but, for various reasons, one by one, he eliminated them, also.”

Scott stopped to take a deep breath and continued with a gleam of amusement sparkling in his steel-blue eyes. “You would have been amazed at how particular he was. It took him more than an hour. I was beginning to think he’d never find something he liked. Then the proprietor’s daughter brought out that blue silk. She said that her mother had been holding it back for a customer down near Stockton to look at, but since she herself thought it would go much nicer with dark hair than blond, she was letting Johnny see it anyway. Personally, I think she was smitten with Johnny and was trying to impress him.”

“Was he?”

“With the girl?” Scott chuckled again. “No. As for the fabric, he barely saw it, said it was perfect, and started digging out his money.”

Teresa smiled at the picture Scott had painted of Johnny. No wonder Johnny had been so quick to excuse himself from taking her shopping and had so readily volunteered his brother. “Is that why he doesn’t want to go back there? I mean because of the girl.”

Scott shrugged. “Could be.”

Teresa bit her lip again and rested her hand lightly on Scott’s arm. “You don’t really mind accompanying us to Sacramento, do you? I could wait and go another time when Murdoch isn’t so busy.”

Scott’s eyes shifted just a little and there was a slight hesitation before he spoke. “No need for that. I’d be honored to show you around Sacramento . . on one condition.” Tiny wrinkles then appeared at the corners of his eyes.

“And what would that be?”

“That you allow me to escort you to dinner at the best restaurant in town.”

“I would be delighted to dine with you,” she replied with a hint of mischief twinkling in her brown eyes. “On one condition, of course.”

“Yes?” Scott’s his eyebrows arched.

“That you wear what you have on tonight.”

“Instead of what, might I ask?” He spoke with an indignant ring to his voice.

“That suit in your closet. You know . . . the one you say you’re saving for just the right occasion?”

“And what is wrong with it?” he demanded with mock indignation. “It was the latest style in Boston.”

“We’re not in Boston, and I won’t have everyone staring at me . . . us,” she replied, her statement ending in a flustered stammer. She then tilted her chin upward and added, “Besides, I don’t have anything nearly that nice to wear.”

He just cocked an eyebrow as his blue eyes innocently shined down on her. “You look just fine to me as you are.”

“And you, Scott Lancer, are a flatterer,” Teresa scoffed–one shoulder rising and tucking toward her ear. She shifted her eyes to the gifts and gently touched the satiny smoothness of the rosette’s silk streamer. “Where did you get the idea for this?” she dreamily asked. “Is it like something you’ve seen before?”

“Not exactly. I’ve seen rosettes with long ribbons before, but actually, it was Lucinda who figured out the best way to attach the other items.”

“It really is beautiful. Perhaps, you and Lucinda should go into business. You should have heard all of the girls raving about this.” Teresa proceeded to mimic the voices of several of her female guests. “Mary Sue said she’d ‘just die’ to have one like it; Emily thought is was ‘simply divine’; and Sally Brown wanted to know if I thought ‘dear Scott’ would design one for her.”

“Well, you can tell your friends that this was a Scott Lancer exclusive–a one-time venture. ‘Dear Scott’ has no intention of going into the business of designing lady’s hair ribbons.” Scott spoke with a finality that left Teresa laughing and with no doubts about what he had thought of her suggestion.

After the two talked for a while longer, Scott declared that he’d had a long day and that he really ought also to be retiring for the night. Teresa thanked him one last time for his part in salvaging her birthday gifts, kissed him lightly on the cheek, and wished him ‘peaceful dreams’. As he passed from sight through the arched doorway into the entrance hall, she smiled and let out a soft sigh.

A moment later Murdoch’s distinct footsteps, coming from somewhere behind her, alerted Teresa to her guardian’s presence, and she turned to watch him pass in front of the fireplace and stride toward her. She tilted her head back and smiled into his eyes as he reached her side and laid a hand on her shoulder. “It was a lovely party,” she said.

“Yes, it was.” He spoke with an affectionate twinkle in his eyes. Glancing toward the table, he added. “It looks like you faired very well. From the looks of things, it’s a good thing I didn’t have that cedar chest made any smaller.”

“I did receive some very nice things, but the gift from you and your sons is my favorite.” She paused to give the hair ribbon a loving glance then, when he started to speak, she reached up and put a finger to his lips. “Don’t say it. I know it wasn’t what you planned, but I love it all the more because it’s a reminder of how fortunate we are that Johnny wasn’t bitten.”

“Yes, we are . . . very fortunate,” he softly agreed.

Her brow puckered a little as she tilted her head slightly to one side. “Speaking of Johnny . . . have you seen him since we had the cake? I’m worried that he might not be feeling well. His nose was looking quite swollen, and when he got up from the table, he acted like his leg was bothering him. Do you suppose Sam should have taken a look at him?”

“Juanita told me she saw Johnny head up stairs about an hour ago. He was probably worn out from the trip and went on to bed.”

Her frown deepened. “But he didn’t even tell any of us he was going.”

Murdoch drew her closer.  She slipped an arm behind his back and snuggled against his side while listening to the comforting sound of his voice. “Now don’t worry, Honey. I’m sure he’ll be just fine. Sam will be back out here around noon tomorrow to see how that burn on Walt’s hand is doing. He can take a look at Johnny then.”

“But what if Johnny isn’t around then?” she asked, her mind not quite ready to let go of the concern she felt gnawing at the pit of her stomach.

He squeezed her a little tighter. “He’ll be here. I’ll see to that.”

“How?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll find a way.”

“But you know how he is about seeing the doctor. Won’t he get suspicious if he knows Sam’ll be here?”

“As far as I know, no one, other than Walt and the two of us, knows Sam is coming out tomorrow. Now . . ..” With his other hand, Murdoch gently lifted Teresa’s chin so that their eyes met. “Why don’t you go on to bed. You’ve had a busy day, and I’m sure you must be tired. Your gifts will be fine where they are until morning. You can tend to them after breakfast.”

Teresa let out a soft sigh of resignation as she stepped out of the confines of his fatherly arm. Saying she wasn’t sleepy would do no good. She had learned a long time ago that there were only certain times when it paid to argue with Murdoch Lancer. This was not one of them. Despite the gentleness of his voice, he had that look in his eyes that said he wasn’t budging.

“I am tired,” she said, stifling a fake yawn. It didn’t do to always let him think she was merely complying with his orders. Rising to the tips of her toes, she placed a hand on his arm and kissed his cheek. “Good-night, Murdoch. Thank you for a wonderful birthday.”

Teresa stepped back and smiled as Murdoch said, “Good-night, Honey.” She cast one more loving glance at her gifts–eyes lingering a little longer on the rosette hair ribbon, turned, and walked out the same arched doorway that had swallowed Scott a few minutes earlier. It truly had been a wonderful day, and one that she would not soon forget.

Moments later, Teresa paused outside Johnny’s door. The temptation to peek in and make sure that he was all right was nearly more than she could resist, but she managed to do just that. If he were awake, he wouldn’t appreciate her checking up on him. Johnny wasn’t a child, and most of the time, he didn’t like to be treated like one. This would most definitely be one of those times, too. He would rightly assume that she was worried about his injuries, and then he would get defensive, which would no doubt lead to something being said that might ruin what had been one of the best birthdays she could remember.

With a whispered, “Sweet dreams, Johnny,” Teresa proceeded on down the hallway to her own room. She quietly entered, turned up the wick on the wall lamp, and readied herself for bed. In a matter of minutes, the lamp had been turned down to a faint glow once more, and she was curled up on her side in bed, the blankets tucked snugly up over her shoulder.

Smiling into the darkness, she thought about the varied gifts–some not even wrapped–that she had received that day. The assortment of articles that she had been given for her hope chest were all very nice, and she appreciated the good wishes behind each one. However, they would not invoke the memories that would last long into the future. Not even the snakeskin from Jelly or the beautiful hair adornment from Murdoch and the boys would be considered her best present in the days to come, nor would the pending shopping trip. That honor was reserved for the one thing that hadn’t come packaged up in tissue paper and tied with a tiny ribbon, or surrounded by brown paper and a piece of string. Her best gift was her family. Johnny and Scott safely home, and Murdoch and Jelly, too. That was what she would cherish most about her seventeenth birthday.

Epilogue: The Day After

Just outside the main entry door of the Lancer hacienda, Johnny Lancer stood slightly apart from his father and Sam Jenkins. He would have rather been anywhere else at that moment, but he hadn’t had a choice. Murdoch, with nothing more than a tip of his head and a familiar roll of his eyes, had made it quite clear once the examination was over that his younger son was expected to help see the doctor on his way.

“His nose isn’t broken, but it is going to be swollen and quite sore for a few days. Cold compresses with a little tincture or infusion of arnica should help reduce the bruising and swelling. That headache’s going to linger for a while, too. A few days of bed rest would be best . . ..” Doc Jenkins paused to glance at Johnny, whose mouth was already forming a word of protest.  He shifted his attention back to Murdoch and quickly continued before that man could say anything either. “I know,” Sam said, raising one hand in surrender–his other holding the black leather bag that contained his medical supplies. “So I’ll just prescribe that he take it easy. No work the rest of today and tomorrow, then only light activity for at least two days after that.”

Sam turned and scowled while shaking a finger at Johnny. “And you, Young Man, need to stay off that leg as much as possible, especially through tomorrow. That is a very nasty bruise you’ve got there. Packing it with ice right away would have helped, but it’s too late to do anything about that now.” Upon shifting back toward Murdoch, the doctor added, “Heat will help the swelling to go down, so I recommend either applying hot towels or soaking in a tub of hot water once or twice a day. Oh, and make sure Epsom salt is added to the water. It’ll help draw out the bruising . . . and I meant it when I said for him to stay off his feet. If you have to . . . hog tie him!”

Johnny hunched his shoulders and ducked his head to avoid meeting the warning in his father’s eyes as Murdoch said, “I’ll see that he follows your instructions . . . to . . . the . . . letter.” By the inflection in his father’s voice and the way the last three words were drawn out, Johnny had no doubts about Murdoch enforcing the doctor’s orders.

“Well, see that you do.” Sam Jenkins bid the two men farewell, stepped off the porch, and climbed into his buggy.

As Murdoch watched the doctor drive away, Johnny backed toward the front door. He figured that now would be a good time to head for his room since he was expected to laze around anyway.

“Johnny!”

There was no use thinking he could escape the owner of that commanding voice, so Johnny halted and leaned one shoulder against the doorjamb while appearing to closely examine the floor at his feet.

“Want to tell me why you didn’t say something about that bruise last night?”

His father’s words may have been a question, but they sounded considerably more like a demand. Johnny shrugged. “It didn’t look all that bad,” he said, hoping to appease the other man.

“Don’t give me that! Sam said it was dark purple and as big as my hand. You had to have landed pretty hard to get a bruise that size.” Murdoch’s tone then softened a little. “But . . . from the looks of your face, I guess you did.”

“It ain’t all that bad,” Johnny replied, hesitantly meeting his father’s eyes.

“What do you mean, it isn’t that bad? You can’t work for two days, and then you still have to take it easy for a few more after that,” Murdoch snapped, frustration mixed with guilt written on his face.

Johnny dipped his head again and nervously swiped a hand in front of his eyes. “Look, uh . . . it really ain’t your fault,” he softly drawled.

“I shouldn’t have let you boys goad me into–“

“It ain’t your fault, Murdoch,” Johnny said louder than before. He took a breath, licked his lips, and quietly added, “I didn’t hurt my leg or my nose in that fall.”

“Then how did it happen?” Murdoch asked a bit impatiently.

Not wanting to own up to his foolhardy ride of the day before, Johnny wrapped his arms across his chest and considered what sort of a tale to tell his father.

“Johnny, I asked–“

“I heard ya,” Johnny replied, still trying to think of what to say.

“Well?”

Feeling a large hand on his shoulder, Johnny glanced up at his father. The look in Murdoch’s eye ended any further thought of stalling or of making up a story. “Brambles kept banging into me,” Johnny finally explained, hoping to get by with a small part of the truth.

“The mule?” With brows knitted together, Murdoch scrutinized his son. “But how’d he get you in the face?”

Johnny squirmed inside but didn’t so much as flinch. “He didn’t . . . uh . . . I did that on Baranca’s neck.”

“How in the world–“

“Look, Murdoch, yah ain’t gunna like hearing about it. Besides . . . Jelly already blistered my ears. Called me every kind of fool he could think–“

“That bad, huh?” Murdoch said, lifting the hand that was resting on his son’s shoulder and raising it to his own mouth–one finger sliding along the side of his nose as he looked away.

“Yeah,” Johnny softly answered.

“Perhaps it is best I don’t know the details,” Murdoch agreed before his eyes again sought those of his son. “So . . . did you learn anything?”

“Uh, huh . . . next time I go fetching birthday presents, I’ll listen to Jelly and leave that prickly mule at home!”

When Murdoch let out a hearty laugh, Johnny’s smile broadened as a sense of relief washed over him. Guess my old man’s more understanding than I give him credit for. This being a thought he wouldn’t voice aloud to his father, he teasingly said, “Think I’ll go lie down for awhile. After all, I wouldn’t wanna get into trouble for not obeying the doctor’s orders. I’m not overly fond of being hog-tied.”

As Johnny made a move toward the stairway that led to the upper level of the house, Murdoch stopped him. “Maybe you’d better lie on the couch. You probably shouldn’t be climbing those stairs any more than you have to. In fact, if you want to sleep for a while, you can go in my room. It might be a little quieter there.”

“Thanks. I think I’ll do that . . . if you’re sure ya don’t mind. My head is hurting worse again.”

“I don’t mind . . . as long I don’t have to tuck you in.” Clearing his throat, Murdoch glanced toward the arched doorway into the living room. “I’ll find Maria and have her fix a cold compress for your nose and a hot towel for your leg. The sooner you get some heat on that bruise the better.”

Murdoch’s tone was light but his hurried departure suggested he might actually have liked playing the role of a father–perhaps was even remembering a time in the past when he had performed that very act for his son. This thought gave Johnny a warm feeling that started at his heart and spread outward. Yet, somewhere in the back of his mind, he regretted not sharing those memories. This he pushed it aside as he settled himself onto Murdoch’s oversize bed and waited for Maria to arrive with the towels.


Teresa O’Brien took the plate from the young man lounging on the sofa in front of the fireplace alcove. “Can I get you anything else?” she cheerfully offered.

“I’d like a piece of that leftover cake . . . if it ain’t too much trouble,” Johnny replied, flashing her a smile of gratitude.

“Sure is amazing what some folks ’round here’ll do to get waited on hand and foot,” remarked the whiskered man, a short distance behind Teresa, as he passed the end of the couch where Johnny’s stocking feet rested against the arm.

Teresa’s hands went to her hips and her face clouded. “Johnny’s not to be walking any more than he has to. Besides, he didn’t get hurt on purpose . . . and you know it,” she retorted, her eyes fixed on the bearded man.

“Well he should’ve thought o’ that before he–.” Interrupted by a bump on the arm, Jelly turned and let his eyes move from the buttons on the shirt of the tall man behind him to the man’s face. “Whatcha–“

A shake of Murdoch Lancer’s head as it tipped slightly toward Teresa swiftly put an end to Jelly’s question.

This bit of by-play, however, did not go unnoticed by Teresa, and she shifted her eyes from one man to the other. “Johnny should have thought of what before he what?”

“I think Jelly was just saying that Johnny should have been more careful how he tackled me.” ed Murdoch rested a hand on the smaller man’s shoulder as their eyes met. “Isn’t that so, Jelly?”

“Yeah, . . . uh, that’s what I was getting at, all right.”

Teresa continued to study the two men. She was sure they were hiding something from her. From what she had seen of the contest between Murdoch and his sons, there didn’t seem to be any way that Johnny could have sustained more than minor injuries from his fall. Yet, the usual contour of his nose was considerably broader and rounder, his eyes appeared farther apart–lids puffy from the swelling–and his face had developed purplish shadows that spread from the bridge of his nose outward across each cheekbone. There was also the leg that Sam Jenkins had left strict orders for Johnny to stay off of. That didn’t make much sense, either . . . unless–.

Shaking free of her thoughts, Teresa turned her attention back to the young man on the sofa. Her men weren’t about to tell her anything; of that she was sure. They were protecting her, she supposed as her brows furrowed and her mouth skewed a little to one side.

“Somethin’ wrong?”

The soft, lazy voice penetrated the clouds of Teresa’s mind as her eyes focused on the speaker. “No, Johnny . . . nothing’s wrong,” she replied while thinking that she was just as capable of keeping secrets as her men folk were.

Deep pools of blue reached toward her. “Ya sure?” Johnny asked in the quiet, gentle tone that always made her heart swell.

“I’m sure,” she said and quickly claimed that she needed to get the table cleared and the dishes into the kitchen.

A moment later, one arm heavily laden with stacked plates, an empty serving bowl gripped between thumb and finger of that hand and silverware in the other, Teresa stopped just out of sight in the hallway that led to the kitchen. She heard Jelly challenge Johnny to a checker game and the adamant reply that Scott had better do the honors. This started an argument of some sort and she couldn’t help smiling. Life at Lancer certainly was never dull, not since her best birthday gifts had arrived the spring before.

With a whisper of a chuckle, Teresa continued on to the sink where she deposited the dirty dishes in the dishpan. She covered them with hot water from the large kettle on the stove, added soap, and left them to soak. Then pretending not to notice what her family was up to, she finished clearing the table.  Once that chore was finished, she lifted the domed lid from the plate that held the remainder of her birthday cake and cut five pieces.

As she entered the living room, three dessert-plates precariously lining her left arm and each hand holding one of the other two, she saw Johnny glance up and grin broadly at her. His delight brought a warm flush to her cheeks, and she smiled in return as she cautiously made her way toward him.

Scott quickly got up from his place opposite Jelly in front of the fireplace. “Here . . . let me help you.”

“Thank you, Scott.” Teresa allowed him to take the two plates from her hands. As he passed one on to Jelly and kept one for himself, she gave Murdoch and Johnny theirs and sat down by Johnny’s feet.

Glancing around at the four men, Teresa let out a long, soft breath of satisfaction and gently smiled. Her family was safe and sound, three members anyway. The youngest Lancer was hurting and looked like he had taken a terrible beating, which she was certain had not been administered by his father. However, since no one wanted to fill her in on the truth of the matter, she decided that she might as well be content with the knowledge that Johnny was alive and would be fine in a few days. In the meantime, she didn’t mind pampering him a little as a way of showing her appreciation for the effort that he had put into buying a gift for her.

“You look happy,” commented Murdoch from the dark leather chair beside the fireplace.

Meeting her guardian’s eyes, Teresa dreamily replied, “I am. I had a wonderful birthday, and today I’m thoroughly enjoying my presents.”

When a gray eyebrow lifted questioningly, Teresa shifted her eyes to lovingly gaze at each member of her family.  She ended with a smile at Murdoch. His slightly parted lips and the pleased look on his face told her that he understood what she meant. Her family was, and always would be, the best birthday present of all.

The end

Originally posted to
Lancer groups on Yahoo
 October of 2003

To The Snake

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2 thoughts on “Teresa’s Birthday Presents by Desert Sun

  1. Really threw me with “The Snake” story. I’m glad I read it first. I think Teresa is right. Family is the best present.

    Thanks,
    Margaret

    Like

  2. Certainly you found the way to give humour to the snake incident (poor thing)
    and continue it throughout the story. Very enjoyable, Murdoch’s role was wonderful.

    Like

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