Teresa awoke with a smile on her face. She stretched her arms above her head then tossed back the covers and swung her legs over the side of the bed. Pushing herself to her feet, she walked over and braced her hands on the windowsill. It was a glorious late summer day. The sky was absent any clouds and the sun - just peaking over the horizon – promised hours of its warm, glowing light. Teresa saw Maria just coming up the path. It was laundry day and soon the clothes lines would be filled with sheets and towels and clothing dancing and dipping in the gentle breeze blowing from the south promising quick drying time. It brought a whiff of lavender with it and Teresa inhaled deeply. It was one of her favorite scents.
Dressing quickly, she fastened the buckle of her belt as she bounced down the back stairs. “Buenos Dias Maria.” Teresa took a few steps to the woman’s side and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. “I think it is going to be a beautiful day. Just perfect for hanging the laundry outside.” Maria greeted Teresa and nodded in agreement. The woman had already pumped water into the large coffee pot and, adding the grounds, was just about to set it on the stove. “I’m going to go out and get the eggs. I noticed we only had a couple left in the cold box. As soon as I get back I’ll start breakfast so you can get started on washing.”
Teresa picked up a wicker basket sitting on the counter near the back door and hurried down the steps. She returned a few minutes later and placed the basket near the sink. “Do you want me to help you with the laundry?” She called over her shoulder into the back room.
“No querida, gracias. Don’t you have to get ready for the orphanage bake sale today?”
Teresa sighed. She did indeed and would be stuck in the house – in a hot kitchen, no less – until sundown. “Yes. Yes I do.” Lancer was always one of the largest contributors when it came to the orphanage or the church. Teresa tried her hardest to remain humble but – although a good cook – she was an excellent baker and her contributions usually sold out quickly and at a higher price than most others. She had gone into town just yesterday and bought supplies. Teresa glanced in the far corner of the room where the boys had piled the crates and sacks of flour, sugar, the pail of lard, spices, fruit, extracts, nuts and everything else she couldn’t do without. Always on the lookout for new recipes, she had found several she wanted to try in addition to some of the more popular of past favorites.
Bacon was already sizzling in the large cast iron pan on the back burner and, hearing footsteps upstairs, she began cracking eggs into a stoneware bowl. She had made extra muffins yesterday so she didn’t have to worry about mixing and baking biscuits. She would have enough extra dishes to wash as it was. After breakfast, Teresa shooed the men out of the kitchen. She wanted to start mixing and baking as soon as possible so she could finish at least some of it before the late afternoon when temperatures would rise as the sun came around to the west side of the house.
Quickly washing and putting away the plates and cups from the morning meal, she dragged the crates over to the table one at a time and unpacked them, organizing the contents carefully over the table’s surface. She had been relieved when Murdoch announced all three of them would be way out in Section 33 all day and wouldn’t be back for the noon meal. Heaving a bag of flour onto one chair and a bag of sugar onto another, Teresa dug out bowls, measuring cups and wooden spoons in addition to every size and shape baking pan Lancer owned.
Having jotted down a list of items a couple days past, she took it out of the cupboard drawer along with the stack of recipes that lay near it. Teresa planned on baking six cakes for the cake walk and three more to be auctioned off. Pumpkin bread, zucchini bread, cranberry bread and date nut bread – three of each – would fulfill that need. Brownies, caramel bars, cherry filled oatmeal bars and chocolate zucchini bars – two large pans of each – should sell well. Teresa had had a bumper crop of zucchini this year and was trying to use it up but no matter how many she peeled, cut, diced and shredded the supply never seemed to diminish! Now as for cookies.
Teresa closed her eyes for a moment and sighed. She hated baking cookies. They were in the oven such a short time you couldn’t leave them to go do something else and made such large batches it seemed to take forever to finish them all, but – alas – they were a favorite not only with the children but with the older folks and the single folks who lived alone. It was just too much work to make them themselves and she knew the children saved their pennies all year in order to purchase just one of their favorites. She laid the recipes for oatmeal raisin, snicker doodle, honey walnut, chocolate with chopped roasted peanuts, cinnamon almond, ginger and apple pecan cookies on the side. Perhaps should would make the cookies first and get it over with.
The few recipes still in her hand she could whip together after supper if necessary. Homemade candy was a new addition she wanted to try this year. She had bought some small bags and planned to put a number of pieces in each and tie them closed with ribbon. If necessary, she would use her powers of persuasion to talk Murdoch and his sons into helping. Teresa would just have to make sure to keep a close eye on Johnny as he would undoubtedly eat more than he would package. Perhaps she could assign this task to Scott.
Teresa had chosen caramel corn, mint patties, penuche, cherry vanilla and chocolate fudge, peanut brittle, popcorn balls and divinity. Maria had graciously brought a whole basketful of confections such as cinnamon pralines, dulce de luche bites and spiced truffles. All Teresa would have to do is package them. She had to admit this was an ambitious project but she had done it for the last two years and it was worth it to see the children’s faces. Of course the administrator of the orphanage – Padre de Marco – was always extremely grateful for the funds raised but it was the gap-tooth grins and the tugs on her skirts with kisses, hugs and thank yous that Teresa cherished the most. She was afraid that when she had children of her own someday, they would be spoiled rotten!
Teresa did decide to bake the cookies first and get it over with. They would use the most dishes and pans and she could wash them up while the cakes were baking. That way the cakes could cool before frosting was applied and she could put in a couple pans of breads. She felt more confident now that she had a plan. While the first pan of oatmeal raisin cookies was in the oven, she began to measure and mixing the dough for the snicker doodles (her personal favorite). The cookie baking went smoothly with no burned edges or bottoms to Teresa’s relief. She allowed herself to taste one cookie from each batch just to ensure they were perfect.
Having wiped down the insides of both pie safes last night, she carefully stacked the cookies in layers with a sheet of waxed paper between each. Walking away Teresa froze. She had completely forgotten about baking any pies! Well, too late now. Hopefully someone else would bring some. Mrs. Michner baked wonderful pies and usually donated two or three. That would just have to do.
After Maria had finished hanging out the laundry, she mixed up a hearty stew. She reasoned it could simmer on the back burner and be out of Teresa’s way. She also made up a pan of biscuits and quickly baked them after Teresa had removed her chocolate cake from the oven and while she mixed up her lemon one. Maria placed them in the warming oven and then bid Teresa a good evening. “May God bless you for all you do for the poor orphans. You will be richly rewarded in Heaven.” With a kiss on the young woman’s forehead she disappeared out the back door.
By the time the men got home, she had finished all the cookies and all the breads. Her last cake was in the oven and the others on plates in the pantry, iced and ready to go. The bars were ready except for cutting them into squares. She had finished mixing a huge batch of caramel corn and made the popcorn balls. The two batches of fudge and the penuche were in the cold box firming up enough to slice. The divinity was set and ready to package and the large oversize pan of caramels could be cut and wrapped after supper. While the Lancer men cut, wrapped and packaged the candies, she would make the peanut brittle so it would be set in the morning and could quickly be broken into pieces and bagged then frost the final cake.
Teresa was exhausted and her feet were begging for mercy. She struggled with a way to thank Maria for making the evening meal and finally decided to place a few pieces of each batch of cookies, bars and candies on a plate for her and Cip to enjoy at home. After Scott washed up and put on a clean shirt, he came down the back stairs.
“Teresa,” he said, taking a deep breath. “It smells like Boston at Christmas time.”
The girl smiled and wiped her hands on her less than pristine apron. “Thank you. Every year I swear I will never do this again but I always relent. I just can’t say no where kids are involved.”
“Is there anything I can help you with?” Teresa looked around.
“Well, could you get the big tureen out of the pantry. It’s on the top shelf on your right. If you wouldn’t mine ladling the stew into it and carrying it into the dining room I’ll put the biscuits in the bread basket and be right behind you.”
Scott clicked his heels together and bent slightly at the waist, his arms straight and rigid at his sides. “Your every wish is but my command, my lady.” Teresa giggled. Leave it to the eldest Lancer son to always be the perfect gentleman. She took her cake out of the oven and sat it in the middle of the table to cool. Thankfully there wasn’t much to put away as she had used up almost all the supplies.
During supper, Teresa informed the men they each would need to help out so everything would be ready to go the next day. Scott and Johnny were to take down the laundry and carry the basket into the back room. They were then to go up in the attic and bring down the boxes of empty tins so she could start packing the bars and cookies. She explained in detail how she wanted the candy packaged.
“Oh and Scott. I am putting YOU in charge of HIM.” She said catching Johnny’s gaze. Scott glanced over at his baby brother and grinned.
“In charge of me? I AIN’T gonna mess up. I think I can manage counting to six and putting stuff in a bag. Might need a little help with the ribbon but. . .”
“That’s NOT what I meant.” Teresa interrupted.
“I think what she meant, brother, is I am to ensure that the candy does indeed go in the bags and NOT in your mouth. Am I right?” He glanced at Teresa out the corner of his eye.
“I think I’m quite capable of controlling my sweet tooth . . . as long as chocolate cake isn’t involved. I make no promises when it comes to chocolate cake.”
“Oh I did bake a chocolate cake.” Teresa regretted her outburst as soon as the words left her mouth. “But it’s for the auction not for you. I promise I’ll make you another one next week.”
Johnny gave Teresa an exaggerated pout then hung his head. “Okay,” he muttered. “As long as I’m sacrificing for the orphans. It’s just that I think if we have to help out we should get some kind of reward.”
“Your reward will be waiting for you in heaven, John. I’ll say a special prayer to St. Peter to give you some extra points in his book. You never know! One point may make the difference between paradise and . . .” Murdoch glanced at Teresa then gestured downward with the tines of his fork. “Well you know.”
Everything went surprising well that evening. Scott – ever the precise one – cut the bars and the candies into exacting pieces. Johnny counted out six of each of the single candies and put them in a bag. He then wrapped each popcorn ball in waxed paper and twisted the edges shut. He was about to grab a handful of caramel corn to bag it when Teresa saw him out of the corner of her eye.
“John Lancer!” She barked. “NOT with your hand. Go get the soup ladle out of the drawer and put two ladles full in each bag.” With no argument he did what he was told. Everyone pretended not to notice that the last of the corn was quickly scooped into Johnny’s mouth. When he looked up, every eye was upon him.
“What?” He asked, his mouth full. “There wasn’t enough for another bag. Don’t want to waste it!” The others just smiled.
Scott had neatly printed on the front of the bags what each contained and he and Murdoch had done a wonderful job tying the ribbon and carefully placing the filled bags into small wooden crates. Teresa carried her last cake into the pantry and set it on the shelf with the others. Scott followed her with a crate in his hands and she showed him where to set it.
Returning to the kitchen, she found all three men cleaning up after themselves, much to her relief. Murdoch held a crate full of tins and asked Teresa where he should put them.
“Golly,” Teresa said, turning around to look into the pantry. “I think we’re out of room!” Murdoch stood behind her and looked over her shoulder.
“I can find a place. Why don’t the three of you head up to bed. It’s almost midnight and we have to get up early to load the wagons so we’ll get to town on time.” His comment received no resistance as three weary young people dragged themselves up the back stairs. Rearranging a couple things, Murdoch put the crate in the panty. The door wouldn’t quite shut but he reasoned that didn’t matter. No one would bother the items during the night. He turned the kitchen lamp down low and climbed up the back stairs himself. He had observed his “children” as they worked tonight and was mighty proud of all of them. They made a good team when they put their minds to it. He was sure the auction and sale would be a great success.
Scott was the first one up the next morning. Shaving then dressing, he crept down the back stairs quietly in order not to wake the others. He would get the coffee going and he was sure the aroma wafting upward would bring down Murdoch and Johnny. Squeezing his eyes tightly shut and stretching his arms above his head as a big yawn overtook him just as he stepped off the bottom stair, he forced his eyes open and ambled the short distance to the table. The sun was just rising so he turned up the lamp. Grabbing the coffee pot, he pumped water into it then grabbed the canister that held the grounds and measured them carefully. He threw more wood into the stove and put the pot on the back burner. Turning around he froze in place, his eyes growing big as saucers. Taking tentative steps forward, he looked around as panic gripped his stomach. Flying up the stairs, he knocked on his father’s bedroom door but burst in before the man had a chance to answer.
“I’m sorry to wake you sir,” Scott panted. “But we’ve got a big problem.”
Murdoch struggled to keep his eyes open. “What? What’s the matter? Has there been an earthquake or something? He kicked at the covers to gain release and swung his legs over the side of the bed, sitting up.
“No. Not yet but there WILL be soon. With due respect I think you should get dressed and come downstairs as quickly as you can.” With those words meandering their way through Murdoch’s groggy mind, his forehead furrowed and a frown drew his lips down toward his chin.
Without even knocking, Scott burst into Johnny’s room only to find his brother – naked – lying on his stomach with both arms hanging off opposite sides of the mattress and both the pillow and the covers on the floor. Rolling his eyes, he grabbed the sheet and tossed it across his little brother’s backside. “Johnny! Johnny! Come on wake up.” Scott shook his brother’s shoulders as he spoke.
“Doesn’t anybody ever knock around here?” Johnny mumbled.
“I am your older brother and there is NO time for this nonsense. Get up. NOW!” Johnny didn’t move. Scott looked around for a way in which to get his brother’s attention. He considered throwing the wash pitcher full of water over him but that would make too big a mess. Focusing on Johnny’s rig hanging from the bedpost, he released the safety and grabbed the gun. Instantly Johnny rolled over and vaulted off the bed.
“Geez Boston!” He exclaimed grabbing the Colt roughly out of Scott’s hand. “What the hell are you trying to do? Give me a heart attack?”
Scott gave his brother a slight smile before he scowled and leaned his face so close to Johnny’s that their noses almost touched. “Now that you’re up,” Scott hissed. “Get dressed and get downstairs. And I mean RIGHT NOW.” Scott turned on his heel and strode to the door. With one hand on the knob he heard a muttered “Yes sir, Lieutenant Lancer, sir,” behind him. Not even bothering to reply, he opened the door and ran down the hall to the front stairs. Murdoch was just coming out of his room and Johnny had managed to tug on his pants and a shirt but the shirt hung open and he was barefoot. They followed Scott down the stairs and into the kitchen. Scott stepped aside after entering and waved his hand as though he were presenting something.
Murdoch looked into the kitchen and froze. Johnny was jumping up and down trying to see over his father’s shoulder.
“What’s all the fuss about? Pa, move! I can’t see.” Murdoch took a couple steps to his side. “Holy sh—“
“I mean . . . holy smoke!.” Johnny put his hands in his back pockets and walked further into the room. Both pie cupboards stood wide open. Other than a few crumbs in the very back corner, the shelves were empty. The pantry door stood about halfway open. Johnny took the knob in his hand and pulled the door back for a better view. The crates were empty, the shelves on which Teresa had placed her cakes were empty. Even some of the bushel baskets of potatoes, beets and yams were empty. Johnny smirked. The zucchini hadn’t been touched! Hearing the top step creak, Johnny quickly closed the door and struck what he thought looked a casual pose in front of it. He put his best smile across his lips. Murdoch had taken a seat at the table, his head down in his hands. Scott, standing ramrod straight, stood near the stove. All eyes were on Teresa.
Still in robe and slippers, attention focused on the stairs so as not to trip, she hadn’t looked up yet. Scott muttered under his breath, “The earthquake has arrived!” As Teresa stepped off the last stair, she looked up and smiled.
“Good morning. My everyone is up early. Must be the excitement of the fund drive today.” Teresa’s view of the pie cupboards was blocked by Johnny’s body and, of course, she wasn’t able to see into the pantry.
Johnny and Scott bid her a good morning almost in unison. Murdoch just moaned. Concern shadowing her face, she crossed to stand next to his chair and put one hand gently on his shoulder. “Are you alright? You’re not sick are you? Can I get you something? I smell coffee I can get you . . .”
Murdoch shook his head. Reaching out his arm, he put it around Teresa’s waist. Forcing a slight smile across his mouth he looked up into her eyes. “I’m fine. Just the start of a headache is all.” Teresa bent forward and kissed his brow. “Thank you dear that should be of great help. Ah Teresa . . . we need to talk about the orphanage.”
Teresa’s face immediately brightened and she clasped her hands together before sliding into the chair opposite. “Oh we’re going to have so much fun! I’ve been looking forward to it since last year. I understand they are going to have a band and more games for the children and even a dance later in the afternoon.”
“Yes, well . . .”
“I think we should have a quick breakfast and then I’ll go up and get dressed while you three load the wagons.” Teresa didn’t miss the look that passed between the brothers. “What’s wrong? Murdoch?”
Murdoch sighed and took both Teresa’s hands in his. “Darling I’m afraid there’s been a little . . . well, mishap.” Scott walked over to stand at his brother’s side.
“What kind of . . .” Teresa whispered. Suddenly fire flashed in her eyes and she pressed her lips together in a thin line. Standing she glared directly at the youngest Lancer, who actually had looked guilty since she first saw him this morning. “John Lancer!” She barked. “If you so much as cut into one of those cakes or stole any of those cookies, I’ll . . .”
“I didn’t do nothin’!” Johnny retorted moving away from the pantry door. “Why is it every time something bad happens around here I’m the first one you blame. Geez!”
“Something bad?” Teresa echoed searching Scott’s eyes. Scott hung his head and stepped aside giving her the full view of the pie cupboards.
Teresa gasped and the color drained from her face. “What in he-- . . . I mean, what in heaven’s name happened?” She murmured inching forward to get a closer look. “My cookies! My bars! Everything . . . gone. How could that be?” Suddenly her eyes grew wide. Swinging around she flung open the pantry door. Teresa swayed slightly and Scott rushed up behind her, thinking she was going to faint. He led her back to her chair. Tears rimmed the young woman’s eyes and shock veiled her face. Teresa searched Murdoch’s eyes.
“I don’t know what happened sweetheart. I honestly don’t know what happened.” Teresa folded her arms on the table and dropped her forehead down on them, crying freely now. As Murdoch’s back was to the back door and Teresa’s view was of the floor they didn’t see the goat standing calmly, front feet over the kitchen threshold and back feet on the porch. Scott and Johnny looked at each other in panic. Suddenly Jelly appeared and, with a guilt-filled look on his face, grabbed the rope around the goat’s neck. He was whispering in the goat’s ear and almost had her outside when a loud bleat echoed into the room.
Jelly took off running toward the barn with the goat in tow. Murdoch’s head spun around. Was that a goat he heard? Teresa lifted her tear stained face and looked toward the door. Scott and Johnny exchanged a quick glance. They were standing side-by-side with their fingers tucked into their back pockets. Murdoch’s gaze shifted to them.
“I could swear I just heard a goat!” He uttered watching his son’s faces. Each boy grinned and he saw a blush color their cheeks.
“A goat sir? Are you sure? We don’t own any goats, do we Johnny?” Scott glared at his brother.
“I don’t own no goat. Scott do you own a goat?” Scott pursed his lips and shook his head. “Teresa do you know anything about a . . .” Teresa slowly rose to her feet, her mouth hanging open and her eyes focused out the back door. When the boys turned to see what she was looking at, they saw the goat running past with Jelly in hot pursuit. Glancing at their father out of the corner of their eyes, hoping beyond hope that he hadn’t seen the chase too, they watched as Murdoch’s face turned nearly purple. The veins in his neck started pulsing. His brows drew together and a scowl appeared on his lips. Exchanging another look, knowing the jig was up, the boys started backing away very slowly.
“Well, we better get to work. I’ve got that fence way out in Section 47 to check and Scott, didn’t you say something about inspecting Marble Creek for debris?” Johnny drawled, a wide smile on his lips. Scott nodded.
“Yep, Marble Creek. Way over on the other side of the west mesa. Won’t be back 'til supper. What about you Johnny? Think you’ll get back before supper?”
“I don’t know Scott. Depends how much fence I gotta ride and with Section 47 pretty near in the next county, I might be gone for – oh, I don’t know – two, three days.” Just as Johnny finished speaking, the goat ran past again going the opposite direction with Jelly still trying to catch up.
Murdoch took giant steps forward until he stood just inches away from his boys who couldn’t help but flinch. “Teresa I think you may have been right all along about Johnny and your baked goods.”
Both sons swallowed hard. “Now just wait one minute,” Johnny began, his eyes narrowing and growing hard. “That ain’t MY goat, old man. I ain’t responsible for NOTHIN’ that animal did.” Murdoch raised his arm pointing to the great room.
“GO!” He growled.
“We ain’t had breakfast yet. I’m kinda hungry, how ‘bout you Boston?” Scott looked directly into his father’s eyes and shook his head.
“GO!” Murdoch repeated, quickly loosing what little patience he had left. Scott motioned with his head that Johnny should just do as told and not make matters any worse – as if that were possible. “Teresa, would you please join them. I think we all are going to have a nice, calm, l-o-n-g talk – so help me God!” Teresa crept silently down the hall and took a seat on the sofa between Johnny and Scott. Murdoch strode to the back door and, spying Jelly now holding the goat’s rope, called out. “Jellifer Hoskins, you’ve got five minutes to secure that animal and get your as- and get in this house. And make sure the goat is secured properly this time.”
Murdoch had never used Jelly’s proper first name before unless he was introducing him to someone important or unless legal matters were involved. He didn’t think there was anyone visiting the ranch and prayed that he wasn’t in trouble with the law. He knew he was in trouble, but could they arrest an old man for not making a good enough goat pen? Naw!
Jelly entered through the front door, cap clutched in both hands. Murdoch was pacing in front of the sofa and when he saw the old man he asked Teresa if she would kindly move to the chair and let Jelly have her place. Once everyone was settled, Murdoch clasped his hands behind his back but continued pacing back and forth in front of the three men.
“Who wants to start?” He asked quietly. The men exchanged looks for a few moments. “Jelly?” Murdoch stopped in front of his old friend to see Jelly look at Johnny. “John?” Murdoch stepped sideways until he stood in front of his youngest. Johnny looked past Jelly at Scott so Murdoch paced to the opposite end of the couch and stood in front of his oldest son. “Looks like you’ve been elected. Start explaining.”
Thinking it nearly impossible, Scott’s fair complexion became even lighter as he paled considerably. Scott swallowed hard. “Well, sir,” he stammered, realizing that all eyes were upon him. “You had sent me out to run the west pasture line fence last week. On my way back to the ranch, I spotted something in that little valley. You know the one; Spencer’s valley?” Scott looked to find Murdoch’s eyes boring into him. Clearing his throat he continued. “I didn’t want to ride clear down into it but was curious to discover just what I had seen. As I rode closer I saw what appeared to be a goat, sir. An adult if I’m not mistaken. It looked like it might be lost. Although I felt sorry for the poor animal, I didn’t attempt to rescue it. I would have had no way to bring the goat back to the ranch.”
“That’s it? Surely there’s more.”
Scott glanced at Johnny. “Well, I did tell Johnny about it when we were grooming our horses out in the barn but I swear that’s where MY involvement ended.”
“Ah ha.” Murdoch moved down to stand in front of his youngest son. “John, did your brother tell you about the goat?”
Johnny wouldn’t look up at his father instead focusing on his fingers which fidgeted with a button on his shirt. “Yah.”
“And did you go out and bring the goat back to the ranch?” The calmness in Murdoch’s voice put Johnny on edge. It was new and he much preferred yelling. It was more familiar.
Physically not shifting an inch, Johnny muttered, “Yah.”
Murdoch inhaled sharply. “And what have I told you about bringing home strays?”
“Not to.” Johnny suddenly looked up with pleading eyes. “But I didn’t KNOW you meant a goat!”
“What DID you think I meant?”
“I thought you meant like dogs, and cats, and squirrels, and mountain lion cubs. Stuff like that but I never imagined . . .”
“Well, start imagining. NO STRAYS means NO STRAYS: canine, feline, bovine, equine, amphibian . . . we have enough trouble taking care of what’s already ours. We don’t need to tend to EVERY animal that happens to wonder by.”
“But Pa! Thea would have DIED out there. She doesn’t know how to find her way around or to find shelter or how to hunt for food. She was already almost skin and bones!”
Johnny glanced at Scott. “Her name is Amalthea but I call her Thea. She’ll even answer to it – sometimes. We’re workin’ on that. Anyway, SCOTT named her. He said it was after some Greek God or somethin’. I thought it fit her personality.” Murdoch cast his gaze to Scott and kept it there until his son hung his head. It didn’t take long.
“Well, son, it’s very important to find a name that fits ones personality. I haven’t seen Thea close up but if you seem to think it fits her . . .” Johnny knew sarcasm when he heard it but far be it from him to respond. Murdoch sidestepped to stand in front of Jelly.
Jelly twisted his cap in his hands and looked from side to side hoping one of the boys would bail him out of the situation. “All I did boss was build Thea's a pen. A nice pen it was too . . . until she chewed her way out of it.”
“And what, pray tell, did you use to construct this enclosure?
“Just some old left over sheets of tin from when the boys repaired those two line shack roofs. Wasn’t hardly big enough for anything else. I guess I should have known a goat would chew through it. Easy as eatin’ a stick of butter, too.”
“A goat can eat tin?” Teresa interjected.
“Oh sure Miss Teresa. Tin, paper, wood, cloth . . .”
“MY LAUNDRY!” Teresa exclaimed. “That da—darn goat ate my laundry!” Murdoch tried hard to suppress a smile.
“Okay let me get this straight. Scott initially found the goat. Johnny went to rescue the goat . . .”
“She DOES have a name you know.” Johnny muttered.
Murdoch took a deep breath and counted to ten. In English and Spanish. “Johnny went to rescue Thea and bring her back to Lancer. Jelly then got involved when, I assume, Johnny asked him to build Thea a pen. Have I got it down so far?” All three men nodded.
“But how does that explain what happened in the kitchen?” Each man looked from one to another, including Murdoch.
“Teresa, let’s run through the day and see if we can figure it out.”
“Okay. Let me see. After breakfast you all left for the range. I washed the dishes and put them away then got out my recipes and supplies. I put as much baking in the pie cupboards as would fit and then began putting the rest in the pantry after I cleared off a couple shelves. You were all there after supper. You know what happened from then on.”
Murdoch took over the conversation. “We cut the bars and the candy. Johnny put the candy in the bags. Scott wrote a label and he and I tied the ribbons. Then we packed everything up in the crates and put it in the pantry. Then we all went to bed.”
Everyone seemed to be thinking of what could have possibly happened. Finally Scott, always the analytical one, spoke up.
“Johnny and I took down the laundry right after supper. If the bottom edges of the items were already gnawed upon, that would mean Thea was already out of her pen.” Looking around he waited until everyone nodded. Jelly, always one to go with the majority, nodded too even though he hadn’t been there. “We came in and put the basket in the laundry room then went up to the attic to get the tins.” Everyone nodded again. “Teresa made the peanut brittle and set the pan on the counter to cool and then mixed up the icing and frosted her final cake.” Everyone agreed. “We prepared the candies, bagged them, labeled them, tied them with ribbon and put the bags in the crates.” No one disagreed. “We put the crates in the pantry then Murdoch sent us all up to bed. Murdoch, did anything happen after we left?”
“No . . . I rearranged a couple things in the pantry to put in that other crate. Turned the lamp down and went up to bed myself. The next thing I knew Scott was trying frantically to wake me then all three of us came down to discover the . . . mishap.” All those sitting had their chins resting on one hand.
“Well, obviously we are missing something.” Scott offered. “Teresa. Did you latch the pie cupboards shut after you filled them?”
“No, I left them open just a crack because some of the cookies were still a little warm. I meant to latch them later but I guess I forgot.”
“Johnny, you were behind me when we came in with the laundry. Did you make sure the back door was shut tight?”
“Yah. I think so. I had all them sheets draped over my arms so I kicked it with my foot but I’m pretty sure it caught.”
“Murdoch, after you put that last crate in the pantry, did you close the door?”
“No, I couldn’t. The crate wouldn’t go all the way in so the door was open maybe an inch or so. I thought that would be good enough overnight.”
Scott stood and indicated his father should sit down in the vacated seat. “Okay, in summary. The back door didn’t close tight. That’s how the goat got into the house.”
“So now it’s all MY fault!” Johnny snapped.
“Be quiet and listen.” Scott scolded. “The goat . . .”
“Thea,” Johnny spat folding his arms across his chest in disgust.
“Thea got in the house through the back door. Because the pie cupboards were not latched shut, she probably smelled the items inside and helped herself. From there she most likely wondered over to the pantry and nosed the door open. Thea must have thought she’d gone to goat heaven with the variety in there.”
“Smart goat. She didn’t eat NONE of the green vegetables.” Johnny smirked. Scott glared at his brother who sunk as far back as he could into the cushions.
“So it’s all JELLY’S fault,” Teresa stood and pointed at the man.
“Oh no.” He shoved Scott to the side and stood. “All I did was build the pen.”
Johnny jumped up and braced his hands on his hips. “Yah, and if YOU would have built a BETTER pen, then Thea wouldn’t have chewed her way out!”
Murdoch pushed himself up. “Now wait one minute, John. I’ve told you AT LEAST a dozen times not to bring home strays. If YOU wouldn’t have brought Thea back to the ranch, NONE of this would have happened. So it’s YOUR fault.”
Everyone present was amazed at how fast Johnny’s features could morph into those of Madrid. “It weren’t my fault, it was HIS!” Johnny stated, pointing at his brother. “HE’S the one that told me about the goat in the FIRST place. It’s BOSTON’S fault.”
“Now see hear, little brother, I didn’t hold a gun to your head and MAKE you go get her so the way I see it . . .”
Johnny stepped up until the tip of his nose almost touched that of his brother. “And just how DO you see it, Mr. Harvard graduate?” He hissed. “And YOU old man.” He continued, turning to glare at his father. “If YOU would have taken the time and made a little more effort to rearrange the pantry so the crate would fit and the door would close, we AT LEAST would have had SOMETHING to take to the orphanage.”
“YAH!” Said Teresa, Scott and Jelly in unison.
“Oh no, you’re NOT putting the blame on ME!” Murdoch grumbled. Suddenly a din reverberated throughout the room. Everybody was blaming everyone else, pointing fingers and getting right up into each other’s faces. The fracas continued for quite some time until Murdoch raised one hand. “QUIET! All of you!” He bellowed. The room fell still and they all turned to follow Murdoch’s gaze at the front hallway.
In the doorway to the great room stood an old man. Dressed in a plaid shirt and overalls that had both seen better days, he held his tattered felt hat in both hands. Not quite totally bald, his grayish white beard fell almost to his waist. “Excuse me folks. I knocked a couple times but I don’t think you heard me. My name is Josiah Harper. I just built me a cabin up in the woods of Grover’s Bluff.”
Murdoch stepped forward and offered his hand. “I’m Murdoch Lancer.” He said. Turning, although somewhat embarrassed, he continued. “I APOLOGIZE Mr. Harper. Our DISAGREEMENT became a little rowdier than we had intended. “ The others had circled around the couch and stood in a line between the wing chairs. “These are my sons, Scott and Johnny, my ward Teresa, and our jack-of-all-trades Jellifer Hoskins.” As each person was introduced they nodded. “Welcome to the valley. Folks are real friendly and helpful around here. You just let us know if you need anything.”
“Well, thank you Mr. Lancer. Right nice of you. I’m getting up there and I just might have to take you up on your more than generous offer one of these days.”
“Don’t be shy. My boys have done work for almost every ranch around here. They do fine work.”
“I’m sure of it.”
“What can we do for you?”
Josiah fidgeted with his hat and glanced around nervously before speaking. “I lost one of my flock. Not familiar enough I guess to find her way home. I thought I had latched the pen but maybe I forgot. I followed her tracks onto Lancer land – oh, by the way I’m sorry about that.” Murdoch shrugged and smiled. “Anyways, she was about the best gall darn milk producer I ever had. Sure would like to get her back.” Josiah hung his head and looked like he was about to cry. Wiping his nose with a crumpled bandana he pulled out of his back pocket, he sniffed before continuing.
“Can you tell us what she looks like in case we do come across a stray?” Upon saying the word “stray” Murdock turned his head and looked directly into Johnny’s eyes. Johnny quickly hung his head and toed the rug with his boot. “If we find her what do you want us to do with her? Should we bring her back or keep her here until you get this way again? I can assure you we take excellent care of ALL our animals. She would be in good hands.”
“Mighty kind of you Mr. Lancer, offering I mean, but I earn my keep by selling her milk. I can’t afford to go too long without her. I’d be much obliged if you could bring her back to my place. Maybe I can trade you some goods or somethin’ . . .”
Murdoch raised his hand. “That won’t be necessary. Grover’s Bluff isn’t that far. We have men going out that direction almost every day. We’ll be more than happy to deliver her back to you. That is, if we come across her. We graze over twenty thousand head. She might blend right in and not be spotted right away.
Mr. Harper gave Murdoch a strange look. “You raise cattle, don’t you Mr. Lancer?” Murdoch nodded. “Hmp, don’t think my Josephine would blend in that well.”
“It might be helpful to tell us what she looks like so we can have the hands watch out for her.”
Josiah shook his head. “You asked me that before. I’m sorry. I’m of the age where I forget things way too soon. Anyway, her name is Josephine and she’ll come right to you if you call her by it. She’s mostly white with a couple brown patches on either side. I should have known better than to tie her with a rope. Fool animal chewed right through it! Might still have part of it tied around her neck. That’s about all I can tell you. Nothin’ outstandin’. Just your normal everyday run-of-the-mill goat.”
Murdoch turned toward the others, his mouth hanging open. Scott, Johnny, Jelly and Teresa all held a look of utter astonishment on their faces as they exchanged looks. As though rehearsed, they look at Josiah, raised their right arms and pointed. “It’s all HIS fault!”
Mr. Harper looked totally bewildered. He searched Murdoch’s face and found the big man chuckling. He put one gigantic hand on Josiah’s shoulder. “Mr. Harper, we are about to make you one happy man. Jelly, show him where Thea is, would you please.”
Pulling on his cap and lifting his chin, Jelly’s chest swelled with pride at having been chosen. Johnny thought the man’s shirt buttons would surely pop right off. “Follow me, Mr. Harper.” Josiah fell in step with Jelly as the others followed. Rounding the barn and tromping a short distance across the pasture to a large oak tree, Jelly stepped aside and waved his hand.
Tears silently slid down Josiah’s cheeks. “Josephine!” He called. The goat, which had been grazing, immediately lifted her head to look right at him. He hurried forward and unwrapped the chain from around the trunk. Kneeling down, he hugged the animal for all he was worth. “Do you want to go home?” He asked. Josephine bleated in reply and fell into step right behind Josiah. “Oh thank you, all of you. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t of found my dear Josephine. How can I ever thank you?”
Watching such a touching reunion and seeing how much the goat meant to Mr. Harper brought smiles to all their faces; the ‘mishap’ all but forgotten. “You can join us for supper Tuesday next. Seven o’clock. I’ll have one of the boys come get you and take you back. Be ready about six.” Josiah smiled and nodded.
The group stood and watched as Josephine trotted contentedly after her master. Each felt rewarded in their own way. Murdoch made a generous donation to the orphanage. Josiah became a regular dinner guest and always came plenty early so as to play checkers with Jelly. The two became fast friends. And Josephine? She still ate everything she could get. Mr. Harper never did figure out why suddenly she had taken a liking to snicker doodle cookies but he was happy to give them to her after keeping a couple for himself. Teresa did, after all, make darn good cookies!