“Hey Johnny, do you know that the twenty-fourth of this month is national bat day?”
Scott and his brother were lounging on the patio with a glass of Teresa’s delicious lemonade. They were done with work for the day and it was an hour until supper.
Johnny dropped a leg on either side of the chase and sat forward resting his forearms on his thighs. He gave his older brother a look of amazement. “Gee no Scott. You are certainly a fountain of knowledge.” Johnny spread a Cheshire cat grin across his lips for a moment.
Scott returned the smile with a tightlipped grin and, raising his left arm bending it at the elbow, put his hand behind his head. “I am that, little brother.” He crooned.
“Now how the he—heck would I know it’s goin’ to be national bat day?”
Scott sighed and swallowed a sip of his lemonade. “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny. One must make it a habit to keep abreast of the world beyond Lancer. You read the San Francisco paper. I’ve seen you with it spread out in front of you when you lay in front of the fireplace after supper. It publishes a list every month of what holidays are forthcoming. When Murdoch’s done with it I clip it out and stick it between my mirror and frame so that every morning while I shave, I am reminded to ensure myself just what is going on in other places. For instance, today is national kiss a cat day. Bet you didn’t know that either.”
At that very moment Jelly came strolling out of the barn with a tabby cat cradled in his right arm. He was speaking softly to it and petting it with his free hand. The cat stared into the man’s eyes as though he understood every word. Half way between the barn and the house, he paused, bent down and gave the cat a kiss on its nose. Johnny was dumbfounded but when he looked at Scott, his brother simply waved his open hand as if to say ‘see there, Jelly knows’.
“Hey Jelly,” Johnny called. “Special friend of yours?”
The old man continued petting the feline. “No, not particularly but it is kiss a cat day and this is one of the nicest of the bunch!” Kissing the cat on the top of the head, he gently set it on the ground and watched as it sauntered away after rubbing up against the man’s leg. Continuing on his way, he walked around the corner of the house. Scott was chuckling.
“You put him up to that!” Johnny groused. “But I must congratulate you on your perfect timing. Geez!” Johnny finished his lemonade and sat the glass on the small round table between them. “And for your information, I do not read the San Francisco newspaper or any other paper for that matter. I like to look at the pictures and, if the picture is interesting enough, I might read the caption but I don’t memorize every word like you do.” Johnny put his legs back up on the chase and crossed his ankles. Raising both arms, he crossed them on top of his head which was now relaxed back against the chair’s cushion. He closed his eyes and let out a sigh. Minutes passed. Scott knew his brother well enough to know that he wasn’t asleep like he wanted everybody to think. He was playing possum and he was very good at it.
Scott suddenly exclaimed, “I have an idea!” He slapped his knee for emphasis. Johnny startled and nearly toppled over chair and all.
“What the he—heck is the matter with you? Scaring a man out of a deep sleep like that. I could have had a heart attack! Besides,” Johnny continued gripping the arms of the chair to steady himself. “You are not known for your successful ideas. In fact, as I recall . . .”
Scott pursed his lips and drew his eyebrows together. “All right already. I must admit – reluctantly – that a few ideas I thought would work out well didn’t. But that was months ago and I’ve learned from the experiences. I now stop to think and plan, weighing the pros and cons before voicing my suggestions. I haven’t had an erroneous idea in quite some time.”
“What does eroneious mean? Is it like that other word you explained to me?”
Scott tilted his head and tried to think of what word – there were so many – that Johnny hadn’t understood recently. “What other word?”
Johnny sighed. “I can’t remember how to say it but it meant somthin’ about feeling . . .” Johnny blushed slightly and lowered both his head and his voice. Looking around to make sure no one was within earshot he continued after clearing his throat. “rarin’ to go just because a woman touches your . . . you know!”
Scott rolled his eyes. Turning his head sharply to his left he stared directly into his younger brother’s sapphire blue eyes. “I think the word you’re looking for is ‘erogenous’ which has nothing whatsoever to do with the word ‘erroneous’. Scott raised his hand to rub his forehead. “Erroneous means something that is incorrect or mistaken. Do you see the difference?”
Johnny smiled and his eyes twinkled mischievously. “Oh yah! There ain’t no mistake about what happens when Hilda at the saloon in Spanish Wells touches me . . . you know, down there!” Johnny winked.
Scott closed his eyes for a moment and hung his head. He knew that Johnny was anxious to learn new things and he was proud of him for trying so hard, but there were times . . . “Do you want to hear my idea or not?” He muttered squeezing the bridge of his nose with two fingers.
“Let ‘er buck, Boston.”
Scott leaned back in the chair and took a deep swallow of lemonade before setting his glass down next to Johnny’s. “I think we should have a competition. . . a contest . . . to see who can produce the finest bat by national bat day. We haven’t challenged each other in a long time.”
“What’s the prize?” Johnny asked.
Scott thought a minute. It would have to be something that Johnny would want to strive to win. Something he couldn’t live without. Suddenly Scott’s face brightened and he snapped his fingers. “I’ve got it! The loser has to pay all the expenses associated with a Saturday night in Green River for the winner for a month. Drinks, tips,” Scott cleared his throat. “Entertainment . . .”
“Poker?” Excitement danced in Johnny’s eyes.
“No, no poker. I could probably afford to stake you but if I win . . .”
“Not a chance, brother dear, not a chance.” Johnny rubbed his hands together. “When do we start this here comptision?”
“Competition.” Scott corrected. “Tomorrow is Friday and we get paid. I say we begin our competition on Saturday morning. We’ll have more time with fewer chores on the weekend. That will give us almost three weeks, but we have to keep our bat a secret until the twenty-forth and no snooping.” Scott waved his index finger in his little brother’s face.
“Who? Me? Snoop?” Johnny put on his best puppy dog face and touched his chest with one hand.
“Yes you! Remember last Christmas?”
“Oh . . yah. Okay, I agree.” Johnny shook Scott’s hand. “Wouldn’t it be more fun to have more people in this comptision?”
“Well it would make it more challenging but Johnny, we could hardly aware the ‘prize’ to Murdoch or Teresa or Jelly.”
“What if . . .” Scott could see the wheels turning in Johnny head. “If one of them wins, we could have a different prize – say a new dress for Teresa or a jack knife for Jelly. You know he’s been hintin’ for months. Murdoch, Murdoch – we could order him some of that fancy pipe tobacco he likes. Seems to me it would all cost about the same. Come on, Scott, it would be a lot more fun.”
Scott relented. “Sure. That’s a really good idea brother. Why don’t you tell them after supper. Better tell them each individually though so you can let them know what their prize would be.”
“And just what are you goin’ to be doin’ while I’m flittin’ around talkin’ to everybody?”
“I promised to audit the payroll ledger but if you’d rather trade . . .”
Johnny vehemently shook his head. He hated bookwork. “No way! I’d rather talk than write and do sums and stuff.”
“It’s agreed then. A dress for Teresa, a knife for Jelly, tobacco for Murdoch and . . .” Scott glanced around to make sure no one was within earshot. “A hot time in the old town for one of us.”
After Scott went up to his bedroom that night, he took out some blank paper and a pencil. He had played a little baseball in the past and knew – if he had his choice – just what kind of a bat he’d prefer. He cleared the books off the top of the desk and sat down to sketch. Scott had to estimate some of the measurements but knew he was close enough. There was an older Mexican gentleman who lived just outside of Spanish Wells that he had heard good things about. He had been a carpenter in his younger days and now spent a lot of time carving and making things like wooden bowls, wooden salad forks and spoons, and small toys to be sold at the local market. Scott thought about his chore list for the next day and, if he skipped breakfast and really put his shoulder to the grindstone he could finish by mid-afternoon. He wasn’t sure if the mill outside Spanish Wells would have the kind of wood needed but he planned to ride in and find out. If not, he would have to scout around for an appropriate maple or hickory tree and fell it himself. But he was getting ahead of himself. First he would have to ascertain whether Mr. Hernandez could make the bat and if the man would make the bat. Knowing in his mind that he would undoubtedly win the contest, cost was no object . . . within reason!
Johnny laid in his bed that night, his head rested on the interlaced fingers between it and the pillow and grinned. He knew just where to find the perfect bat. Tomorrow after his work was done, he planned to ride into Green River and talk to Val. If Val would help him, he was willing to share his prize fifty-fifty. Or at least seventy-five/twenty-five, after all it was Johnny’s idea and that should count for something. Rolling over on his side and pulling the blanket over his shoulder, he closed his eyes. Yes, he would definitely produce the best bat. “Hang on Hilda. Johnny boy’s on his way!” He whispered just before falling asleep.
Jelly stayed up late, working as quietly as he could. He had found some scrap lumber in the barn and was busy marking it. He knew he wouldn’t be able to cut it until tomorrow but at least preparing it tonight would give him an edge up. Grinning broadly, he began to hum a nameless tune. ‘Yes sir’e’ he thought to himself, holding a pencil between his lips. ‘Mr. Jellifer Hoskins is goin’ to win me that prize – a nice shiny new jack knife, maybe even with a carved bone handle. Yup, I’ll be all set long before the deadline and I don’t even have to leave the ranch.’ He nodded his head firmly just once. He’d show them youn’ uns with their fancy la-ti-da attitudes that – even bein’ more than twice their age – he could still come out a winner. Marking his final piece of wood, he tossed the pencil on the table, blew out the lamp and climbed in bed with a smile on his whiskered face.
Teresa had almost cried when Johnny asked her to be in the competition. Being the only woman in a ranch full of men, she was always left out of things unless it was cooking, cleaning, laundry, gardening or mending. It would be a nice change to compete and would certainly do her utmost to produce the clear winner. There was not a lot she could do until after church services on Sunday. She would need to ask one of her friends for help and advice but was confident that her entry would be ready in plenty of time. She already knew which dress she wanted for her prize. Teresa had seen it at the mercantile in Green River and even asked the clerk if she could put it away and let Teresa make payments but because it had just come into the store the proprietor – although empathetic – said no; that she might consider it if the garment hadn’t sold in a few months. It was such a beautiful dress and such a handsome color that Teresa doubted it would remain in the store for any time. She searched for it every time she got to town. So far, so good. Less than three weeks from now it would be hers.
Murdoch smiled as he sat up in his bed reading a book. He wasn’t even going to fret over his entry because he knew exactly what he needed and knew exactly where to find it. He would, of course, talk to Aggie Conway when he saw her at their weekly Thursday night supper. He couldn’t think of any reason she would be unwilling to lend him his entry. Closing the book and extinguishing the lamp, he slid down beneath the quilt. His favorite tobacco didn’t come cheap. In fact, it came from San Francisco. He made due when he ran out with the local variety because – frankly – he was too cheap to pay shipping. He could almost taste and smell the cherry vanilla tobacco now. He had been out for some time but if the boys ordered it a day or so after he won the contest, it would arrive within ten days. ‘Ah, bliss!’ He thought. ‘A glass of the best scotch, a good book, a crackling fire and his cherished tobacco in his hand carved pipe. Could a man’s life get any better?’ He slept peacefully knowing the prize was as good as won. After all, who could beat him? He had the cat in the bag.
Murdoch was astonished at how quickly the boys could get their chores done when there was something they wanted to do elsewhere. Scott and Johnny had just ridden out a little while ago, separating just on the other side of the arch to go in different directions. Scott found the adobe casa of Alphonzo Hernandez easily and greeted the old man sitting on the porch surrounded by wood shavings. He showed him the sketch and explained to the man what he wanted and waited.
“This is a simple thing, Senor Lancer. You do not want carving or some type of decoration?
“No sir. This part here,” Scott said pointing to his drawing. “needs to be very plain. No decoration of any kind but it must be sanded smooth. This is the part that makes contact with the ball.” Scott had briefly explained to the man how the game of baseball was played and Alphonzo had looked at him as if he were crazy. Grown men swinging this bat thing at a ball and then running around the man in the middle of the field to touch bags of sand and score points. He thought these men should find something of more value to do with their time but who was he to say. He knew the game would never catch on.
“I want it just like the picture and it should be made out of either hickory or maple. Will that be a problem?”
“No, you are in luck Senor. I man, he ordered a table and paid for the wood but then moved away. He said I should keep the lumber; that he would order another table as it would be too expense to ship this one. He brought me some beautiful hickory trunks. I can take them to the mill and have the bark ripped off and the wood cut to length. From there it will be simple.”
“Well, Senor Hernandez, the thing is I need it by the twenty-fourth of this month. Does that give you enough time?”
“It will depend on the mill. I can take a trunk in tomorrow but they may be busy.”
“I will stop there on my way back to Lancer and talk to them; tell them how very important it is to meet the deadline. I will pay them upfront for the work so don’t let them charge you again.” Scott shook hands with the man, swung up in the saddle and headed toward the mill. He was excited! ‘So far, so good!’ He thought. He managed to talk the mill operator into putting his project ahead of his others but also paid the price to do so. His idea of this contest might end up costing him more than the prize was worth but, hey, it was good clean fun and it would be interesting to see what the other entrants would come up with. He doubted any better. The prize was as good as his and the expression on his little brother’s face would, in itself, be priceless!
“Ah, come on Val!” Johnny pleaded. “I’d do it for you!”
Sheriff Crawford sniggered before refilling his coffee cup. “No you wouldn’t.”
Johnny studied the toe of his boot. “You’re right old friend, no I wouldn’t. But I need to win the prize just to bring my brother down a notch. He always thinks he’s the only one that can do something like this. I want to see the expression on that Harvard graduate’s face when I win. It will be priceless. Please?” Johnny brought the palms of his hands together and held them in front of his chest as though in prayer. He squinted his eyes just enough so that it would look like he was about to cry.
Val moved his head in a resigned fashion, rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and set down his coffee cup. ‘Oh all right, but I’m only giving you two hours of my time. I’m a busy man you know.” Johnny looked around at the empty cells and the layer of dust on the barrels of the rifles chained against one wall. They look like they hadn’t been used in months.
“Thank you buddy!” Johnny walked over to slap his friend lightly on the back. “Next Wednesday, noon, I’ll meet you at Coyote Bluff – west side. I’ll bring everything we’ll need. I’ll even have Teresa pack us a lunch. How does fried chicken sound?”
Val immediately perked up. “You’re on but . . . no fried chicken, no help. Now get out of here. I have a whole desk full of work to do.” Johnny noted the single wanted poster lying off to the far right hand side of Val’s desk. The man was clearly overworked!
“I’ll be there with a song in my heart and fried chicken in my saddlebag. Noon. Wednesday. West side.” Johnny winked at the man and turned to leave. As he reached back to close the door, he saw Val settle himself in his chair, feet on the desk and hat pulled down over his eyes. Johnny chuckled to himself. ‘Yep, that Val is a busy, busy man!’ He thought swinging up in the saddle. Johnny just knew with Val’s help he would win the prize. ‘Hang on Hilda. Johnny’s hasn’t forgotten you!’
When Val arrived Johnny was waiting. He had found a nice, flat rock, spread a cloth down and had fried chicken, biscuits and blueberry pie all laid out. He handed Val one of two canteens filled with lemonade, a knife and a fork. Johnny even remembered to bring napkins. As the men ate, they talked over their plan. Val thought Johnny was loco but then he, himself, couldn’t come up with a better idea so . . .
“Now look Val, it’s real simple. I’m going in one of those caves up there and fire my gun to scare the bats. All you have to do is stand just inside the opening and hold up the net. When they come flying at you and get caught in the net, drop the net on the ground and I’ll come pick one. We’ll let the rest go.”
“Why can’t I go in and shoot and you stand here and catch them?”
“Because I want you to be the one with the net. I trust you Val. I know you can do this. Besides, I’ll be the one takin’ the risk. That bullet could ricochet and who knows where it might end up. You’re the sheriff around these parts. I can’t let you take a bullet for me and chance getting laid up. Who would do the sheriffin’?”
Val cast a suspicious eye on his friend. Johnny always did have a way of pointin’ stuff out that he would never think of. “Okay, but remember. Two hours and then I’m outta here.” Johnny chose a cave where the opening was just high enough that Val could reach the ceiling easily. Walking deeper into the cavern Johnny pulled out his gun. Crouching down behind a boulder, he pulled up the collar of his jacket and ensured his hat was tightly on his head. He aimed the gun deeper into the cave reasoning the bullet would be less likely to bounce back toward him. Johnny pulled the trigger. His ears rung from the explosion of the gun powder and he now reached up and stuck a finger into each one to block out some of the squealing. Although tempted to run for his life, Val stood with feet shoulder width apart and the net held high and – spreading his arms up and out – nearly covered the entire entrance. Suddenly he heard Johnny’s shot and a second later saw the beady eyes of hundreds of bats coming directly toward him. Val closed his eyes and turned his head to the far right. He could feel the creatures hitting the net and, as the net was getting heavier by the moment, reasoned he had caught enough of them and so tossed the next slightly forward and down. Opening his eyes, he smiled. There must have been fifty squirming, shrieking bats battling each other in hopes of getting free. Johnny ran toward him and, seeing their catch, smiled and put his hand on Val’s shoulder.
“Great job! I knew you could do it!”
“Yah well Mr. John Lancer, now what do we do? You gonna reach in there and grab one cause I sure ain’t. I saw a dog with the rabies once and I’ll never forget it.”
“Not to worry, old friend. I’ve thought of everything.” Grabbing up his second saddlebag he reached in and pulled out a small wire cage surrounded by a couple layers of cheesecloth. Shoving his hand in further, he pulled out a pair of the extra heavy work gloves Murdoch wore when working the forge. Nothing was going to bite through them. Johnny pulled on the gloves and opened the door to the cage, asking Val to hold it for him. He stood looking down at their catch for a couple minutes before squatting down and carefully lifting the edge of the net just enough to slide his hand inside. Grabbing the bat he wanted, he folded his other hand around it to compress its wings closer to its body and shoved it into the cage. Val quickly shut the door. When he looked into Johnny’s face, he found a bright smile. “Just one more teensy weensy thing.”
“I knew it couldn’t be this simple. With you nothing is ever simple. Now what do you want?”
“Could you keep Herbert at the jail and bring him with you when you come out to the ranch for the judging?”
“Herbert. You named this . . . this thing Herbert. How do you know it’s a boy?” Johnny shrugged.
“Does it really matter? It’s not like Herbert is going to come when I call him like Barranca. Besides we’re going to let him go as soon as the contest is over.”
“Matters to Herbert,” Val groused looking closely at the encaged critter.
“What matters to Herbert?”
“Whether he’s a boy or a girl.” Val stated giving Johnny a smug tight lipped grin. Johnny whipped off his hat and hit Val a couple times on the shoulder. “What am I supposed to feed Herbert?”
“I don’t know, bat food I guess.”
“Oh, Mr. I Have Everything Under Control, do they stock that at the feed and grain?”
“I mean like bugs and stuff. Give Herbert some of your supper. See if Herbert will eat people food.”
“Share my supper with a bat. “ Val grumbled. “Next thing you’ll ask me is to share my bed with Herbert too. Come on Herbert. Time to move into your new home.” Val walked past Johnny towards his horse. “Oh Johnny?” Val called. “Can you hold Herbert until I get in the saddle?” Johnny crossed the short distance to where he and Val had ground tied their mounts to graze. He took the cage in his hand and then handed Herbert carefully up to Val once he was settled. “Give me those gloves.”
“I can’t give you those! Murdoch doesn’t know I took them and he’ll have my hide.”
“I’d rather see you with a tanned ‘hide’ then me foaming at the mouth because Herbert decided to give me a little love nip. Hand ‘em over.” Reluctantly Johnny stuffed the gloves into one of Val’s saddlebags. “Come Herbert. I’ll give you cell number two. It has a better bed and a view of the street.” Val nodded at Johnny and slowly trotted back to the main road.
Johnny stood there a moment, shaking his head, his hands on his hips. “Cell number two. I never got to stay in cell number two. Some friend.” Johnny walked back over to the cave entrance and tugged at one edge of the net until all the bats were free. He then whistled for Barranca, swung up in the saddle and turned toward home. Herbert was one fine looking bat! Johnny knew he had a winner.
Murdock was right on time at the Conway spread the following Thursday night. He had brought along a bottle of the Barkley wine – the finest burgundy, in his opinion – and hoped that Aggie would like it. Supper, of course, was delicious as always and the wine made a perfect compliment. Afterward, sitting beside Aggie on the sofa, Murdoch sipped at his coffee and tried to figure out just how to ask the lady for a favor. He was always telling the boys honesty was the best policy so . . . “Aggie, I must compliment you again on the fine meal. One of my favorites.”
“Murdoch, I make the exact same thing every Thursday because it’s one of your favorites. What’s on your mind?”
Aggie could always read him like a book. “The boys – my sons – have come up with a contest and the winner gets a really fine prize. I would like to be that winner.”
“A contest? Sounds exciting. What kind of a contest?”
Murdoch chuckled lightly and put his cup down on the tray. “I don’t quite understand why they chose the entry they have but – you know my boys! Probably Johnny’s idea. That boy does love animals.” Aggie followed Murdoch’s gaze to the rocking chair where her award winning Persian lay sleeping.
“A cat?” Murdoch nodded. “A cat. I can’t imagine . . . “
“I know. Seems off to me too but that’s what Johnny said and I know if I enter . . . what’s your cat’s name again?”
Aggie sat up a little straighter and folded her hands in her lap. With her chin tilted slightly upward, she announced, “Princess Bridgett Hanford Peabody. I call her Gigi for short. She is a pure bred and has won at least a dozen first place ribbons. You won’t find a finer feline in the whole territory.”
“Yes, well . . .”
“You want to ‘borrow her’ I would guess.” Murdoch nodded, his cheeks growing slightly red in embarrassment. “Am I invited too or just my Gigi?”
“Of course you’re invited. Teresa is planning a picnic lunch to celebrate after the winner is chosen. It will be a small party, just myself, the boys, Teresa, Jelly, Sam and Val. It sounds to be a fun and casual afternoon.”
“Well,” Aggie drawled. “I suppose I could get Gigi to agree.” Breaking into a smile and placing her hand on top of Murdoch’s she crinkled her nose before speaking. “It does sound like fun and I think my precious baby and I would be delighted to attend. I have a traveling case for her if you would be so kind as to bring it down from the attic.” Murdoch began to stand but sat back down feeling the tug on his hand. “Later will do just fine.” Aggie cuddled in closer as Murdoch put his arm around her shoulders.
The day finally arrived. A long table had been moved out onto the patio so all the entrants would have a place to set their entry. Sam had arrived first with Val only a few minutes behind him. Murdoch had taken the surrey over to pick up Aggie and was just now coming under the arch. Sam had agreed to be the judge and announced that the competition would begin in five minutes so all the parties should bring their entries to the table. The four entrants scattered off in four different directions returning moments later with their treasure. Each entry was draped with fabric so no one could get a glimpse of the others’ until Sam counted to three at which time they were to whip off the covering. Murdoch reached into the back of the surrey and picked up his own covered entry from the surrey floor. His smile could not have gotten any wider as he offered his arm to Aggie and walked toward the table.
Sam scanned the table. All the parcels were of such different sizes and configurations he began to wonder what he had gotten himself into. He told the entrants to get ready and each one pinched up a bit of fabric. Counting to three, they each whipped away the covering. Although each face had been radiant and all their eyes shown with certainty that they would be the winner, as they looked around the table their smiles were replaced with frowns and their eyes now expressed confusion. All of them except for Scott and Johnny who were staring at each other with open mouths.
“What do you call that?” Johnny exclaimed, pointing at the absolutely perfectly made baseball bat lying in front of his brother.
“That, little brother, is called a bat. It’s used to play baseball; a game growing by leaps and bounds in popularity in the east. I had it custom made.” Scott bend forward and down to stare into the small cage sitting in front of Johnny.
“And what, pray tell, are you doing with that?” Scott asked, straightening and lifting his nose slightly up into the air.
“Well, Boston, this is my entry. The finest bat in the county. I’ve named it Herbert.” Everyone stifled a laugh at Johnny’s revelation of the bat’s name.
“We were supposed to enter a bat, not a . . .a . . .bat!” Scott barked.
“I did enter a bat and a handsome one at that.” Johnny spat right back. Both boys stood with hands on hips glaring through narrowed eyes at the other.
“A bat?” Teresa said. “I thought you said a hat. I designed it myself from bits and pieces I found in the attic. I worked so hard on it.”
“And I thought we were vying for a prize on the most beautiful cat!” Murdoch explained as Aggie gently squeezed his arm.
“I suspected as much,” Jelly griped. “Who would hold a contest for the best rat?” All eyes focused on the brothers, or rather on the youngest brother who – after all – was the one who told them about the contest. Not knowing quite what to do, Johnny morphed into Madrid. Staring in his brother’s eyes, he stated firmly, “I think I should win.”
Scott advanced a step and declared, “And I think I should win.” The men argued back and forth repeating ‘I should win’ over and over until Val finally drew his gun and shot into the air. A deafening quiet suddenly engulfed the group and they all turned to look at the sheriff.
“Enough. Johnny. Scott. You’re acting like two-year olds. Doc’s the judge, let him decide.” All eyes shifted from Val to Sam.
“That’s right. I am the judge and, as such, will need a little time to make my decision. There was obviously a misunderstanding somewhere along the line. Whose idea was this contest anyhow?”
Johnny poked his index finger into his brother’s chest. “It was all Boston’s idea. I told you your ideas never work out!”
Murdoch felt bad for all those involved. He knew each one had their heart set on the prize they would have won.
Teresa was the first to voice her disappointment, thinking of nothing else but the butter yellow dress with its matching short cape all trimmed in tiny white lace. “Well,” she muttered, fighting to hold back tears. “I guess my dream came apart at the seams.” She picked up her entry and tossed it on the chair next to the one where she plopped down heavily, pouting and resting her chin on her hand.
Jelly shoved his hands in his pocket and scraped the toe of one boot back and forth in the dirt. He rubbed his left thumb over his old knife. Maybe with a good polishing with steel wool and a good sharpening it would last him a while yet. “Miss Teresa, I knows just how you’re feelin’. It seems my dream has been cut to shreds.” Remaining in place he looked up at Murdoch.
“Sons, there isn’t much I can say. I misunderstood when Johnny explained so I can’t blame you. My pipe dream just went up in smoke.”
Val and Sam had been standing off to the side. Exchanging looks, they made their utmost attempts not to burst out laughing. Scott and Johnny were the only two to enter a bat, even though each man’s definition of “bat” was about as diverse as it ccould get.
“Well doc, “ Johnny said. “You’re the judge. Who wins – me or my brother.” All eyes focused on the gray haired man with the neat mustache. Sam raised his right hand to rub his chin. Just as he was about to voice his decision, a great commotion broke out.
Spying the cat, Jelly’s rat panicked and scratched frantically at one of the slats of the cage. It broke away easily and the rodent ran across the table, leapt onto the chair where Teresa’s hat was sitting, jumped to the ground and ran inside through the open French doors.
The cat, watching the rat closely, hissed and then began a guttural growl. Murdoch tried to hold her back but Princess Bridgett Hanford Peabody’s claws dug into his forearm and, when he screeched and pulled it away, used it to propel herself onto the same chair, jump down and take off in a flash to catch the rat. “Don’t let that cat get away!” Murdoch yelled as Aggie clasped her palms to her cheeks and began screaming.
“Gigi! Oh good heavens. Gigi, come to mama this instant!” The boys exchanged a look and mouthed a silent ‘mama?’. “Murdoch, do something! Don’t just stand there! Close the doors so she can’t run away. I’ll never forgive you, Murdoch Lancer, if something happens to my precious baby and you can forget about any more Thursday night suppers.” Aggie and Teresa were both standing up on chairs, terrified that the rat might run up their skirts or, worse, under their skirts.
“Boys!” Murdoch yelled, waving his hand. “Help me catch that da—darn cat!” All three men ran inside with Val and Jelly following close behind while Sam stepped forward to immediately close the doors. Assuring each other that the rat could no longer threaten them, Aggie and Teresa allowed Sam to take their hands and help them down. With Sam in the middle, the trio leaned forward to watch the commotion clearly unfolding inside.
The rat ran out of the kitchen door, under the table, around the sofa and up the front stairs. Within seconds, the cat followed slipping and sliding as it hit the slippery tile at full speed. Recovering, she bound up the steps as well.
Only a step behind, Scott ran into the room. Dropping to his knees, he quickly crawled around looking under the chairs, under the sofa, under Murdoch’s desk. Raising on his knees, he gazed at the trio outside and – raising both hands on bent elbows – shrugged his shoulders. Although he could see their mouths moving, he couldn’t hear them clearly and couldn’t understand why they were pointing toward the hall. Suddenly his blonde head whipped around then turned back. Holding up one index finger, he pointed to the ceiling. All the onlookers nodded. Springing to his feet, he ran toward the stairs taking two at a time.
Murdoch appeared while Scott had been crawling around on the floor. Clearly out of breath, he had paused to rest his hands on the back of one of the dining room chairs. He obviously had asked his oldest son if he saw anything because Scott had earlier shaken his head no.
Johnny was standing in the middle of the room with both arms spread wide as he turned around a couple of times. Scott had apparently yelled for them to come upstairs as suddenly both men took off toward the steps, colliding with each other and tussling to see who would go first. Johnny finally sprinted ahead with Murdoch doing his best to catch up. Jelly, who had simply been trying to stay out of the way until now, positioned himself in the archway between the great room and the hallway spreading his left arm to point up the stairs and waving his right arm directing the men toward the stairs.
“Oh dear!” Aggie exclaimed, wringing her hands. “Oh dear! What if Gigi catches that despicable creature and decides . . .and decides . . .” Sam looked over to see the color drain from Mrs. Conway’s face. Fearing she would faint, he took her arm and lead her to chair only turning away once she was sitting down. Teresa immediately went to kneel in front of the woman and took Aggie’s hands in hers.
“Gigi will be fine. The men will catch her. Don’t you personally prepare all her meals? I doubt she would even think to eat . . .” At the word eat, Aggie moaned and bent her head forward almost touching her knees.
“Not to worry Mrs. Conway.” Sam said, chuckling. “The rat is still winning this race.” He watched, laughing so hard that he needed to rest his hands on his knees and bend over to catch his breath. Tears rolled down the man’s face and he grabbed the handkerchief out of his breast pocket to dab at them.
Meanwhile, inside, the chase continued. Apparently ascending the front stairs, they descended the back stairs and so made a gigantic loop throughout the house. First the rat would run out the kitchen door, under the sofa, to the front hall and right up the stairs. A couple seconds behind, Gigi followed taking the same course obviously trailing the rat’s scent. Then the men appeared with Scott in the front, Johnny in the center and Murdoch barely bringing up the rear. His face was flushed and sweat beaded off his forehead. They made two more laps in the same exact order until, at the end of the second one, Murdoch – huffing heavily – waved both hands in defeat and collapsed into one of the wing chairs.
At their next pass through, Scott – panting heavily and with sweat soaking his beige shirt – held out one hand to stop Johnny almost causing him to collide with his older brother and knock them both over backwards. Scott pointed toward the kitchen and then Sam could see Johnny ask something, his brows drawn together. After a moment, the young man must have understood and – spinning on his heel – ran back into the kitchen. Scott swung himself around the newel post and up the stairs again. His legs looked shaky and he used his hands on the next step to crawl his way to the top. Shortly after Scott disappeared, Johnny came walking out the kitchen with Princess Bridgett Hanford Peabody in his arms. Johnny walked over to the French doors and, pointing at Aggie first, lifted the cat’s front paw and waved it at her.
“Oh my precious baby,” Aggie drawled, holding a lace handkerchief in her fingers. Pushing past Sam, she opened the door just enough to slide through. As she did so, the rat ran out and towards the barn. Teresa screamed and jumped back up on the chair. Closing the door behind her, Mrs. Conway took the cat from Johnny’s arms, held Gigi’s face up against her own and kissed one of her ears.
Murdoch, who had caught his breath, came toward her and put one hand lightly against the back of Aggie’s waist. Smiling, he reached up to pet Gigi only to be swiped at with claws extended. Murdoch quickly pulled his hand away then ushered Mrs. Conway over to the sofa where she sat down, spreading her skirt and making a nice cozy fold in her lap where Gigi immediately curled up and went to sleep. She thanked Johnny profusely which caused him to blush and hang his head a little. His shirt clung to his back and chest and sweat slid down his face from forehead to jawline.
Murdoch stood next to his son and both men simply watched the prize-winning cat who now contently stretch out one front leg to rest its paw on Aggie’s knee. Sam convinced Teresa that the rat wouldn’t be coming anywhere near any of them and so helped her down again.
Shielding her eyes with one hand, she leaned into the glass. “I wonder where Scott is.” She murmured. Within seconds, the tall blonde came walking out the kitchen door. Scott’s hands were on his hips and his chest heaved with every breath. His hair was totally disheveled, the bangs clinging to his sweaty forehead. As soon as he was breathing more easily, the three men apparently excused themselves and, in order, marched slowly up the front staircase. Ten minutes went by until they descended, in order, faces washed and clean shirts donned.
Teresa and Sam walked inside through the now-dreaded French doors. After making polite conversation for a minute, Teresa’s forehead furrowed. “Johnny, where is Val? Wasn’t he with you?”
“He’s sitting in the kitchen munching on that caramel corn you made.”
“I thought he was supposed to be helping you catch Gigi? I didn’t see him run through here once!”
“Val thinks he is helpin’.” Johnny drawled. “He swung the chair at the end of the kitchen table around and elected himself our cheering coach. Every time one of us came sprinting down the back stairs and passed him he would clap – if his mouth was full – or say things like “hurry Scott, she’s getting’ away” or “sorry you didn’t win Murdoch, better luck next time”. I’m sure, knowing Val, he thought he was an invaluable asset to the chase and capture of Gigi.”
Teresa’s eyes narrowed and she curled her fingers into fists, resting them on her hips. With a scowl across her lips, she spat.” And for that he thinks he can help himself to my caramel corn? We’ll see about that!” She spun on her heal and entered the kitchen where all the others could hear was “Sheriff Crawford” in a loud, scolding tone before Val sheepishly walked in the great room looking back over his shoulder, his hand holding a portion of the special popped corn.
“Geez!” He said. “I knowd Teresa had a temper but golly . . . I am a guest!”
Aggie laid Gigi down on the sofa as she stood. She made her way down the hallway and into the kitchen to help Teresa prepare and serve the food. Scott followed a few moment later offering his help as well. Teresa told him he could carry in the large tray on which sat two big pitchers of lemonade, a smaller pitcher of milk and a bowl of chipped ice.
“The glasses are already on the table, Scott.” Scott grinned and turned to leave. Aggie and Teresa put the food on the plates and in bowls and made several trips back and forth before the table was laden with barbeque ribs, potato salad, steaming corn on the cob, and a large relish tray with carrot sticks, celery sticks, several flavors of pickles, olives, radishes, green onions, spiced beets and cherry tomatoes. After everyone had eaten their fill – well, everyone except Johnny who was never full – the table was cleared and clean dessert plates and forks where passed out. Aggie entered carrying a large plate on which sat a lemon chiffon cake. Teresa had earlier carried in a small bowl of fresh raspberry puree to spoon over it. Teresa now carried in a four-layer chocolate cake wearing a thick swirly layer of chocolate frosting. Johnny’s eyes lit up immediately and, rubbing his hands together, smiled brightly.
When Teresa walked over to stand next to his chair and hand him the cake to
be placed on the table, she suddenly froze. “Wait a minute!” She murmured,
her eyes narrowing. She quickly turned her shoulder toward the young Lancer
and held the cake at bay. “Weren’t you eating a piece of chocolate cake when
you came and told me about the contest?”
All eyes upon him, he blushed and looked from one diner to the other with his best puppy dog eyes. “Gee, Teresa. That was weeks ago. Maybe.” Teresa walked to the other end of the table and sat the cake plate down near Sam.
“I seem to recall that you were because I got upset with you getting crumbs all over the floor. You were trying to talk and eat at the same time. That’s why it sounded like “hat” instead of “bat”. You cost me my new dress!”
Johnny clasped his hands together in front of himself and rested them on the table. A sheepish expression took its place on his face.
“Ya knowd somethin’?” Jelly said. “He was eatin’ an apple when he came out in the barn and told me about it. I remember because Barranca started actin’ up wantin’ some. That’s why it sounded like “rat” to me. I thought a prize winning rat sounded suspicious but with this young wipper snapper who knows? You lost me my shiny new knife with the carved bone handle.”
“Come to think of it, he was chewing gum when he came and talked to me. I remember he had a whole mouthful and wondered if Scott knew he had raided the candy that Harlan had sent him again. . .”
“So it was you helping yourself to MY candy! I should have known.” Scott groused. “You ate all my favorites.” Johnny’s head sunk further and further down towards his chest.
“As I was saying,” Murdoch continued.
“Sorry for interrupting, Sir. Twice.” Scott muttered.
“Johnny was smacking that gum pretty good and leaning over my ledgers. I recall I got nervous just waiting for that wad of pink gum to fall out of his mouth and get stuck on the pages. That’s why it sounded like “cat” to me. Son, you cost me my favorite tobacco.”
“How many pieces of that gum did you take?” Scott scowled.
Johnny chewed on his bottom lip. Trying not to flinch, he answered “Three.”
“Three! At one time? You’re only supposed to chew one piece at a time. Johnny that was bubble gum. You could have choked!”
“I’m sorry,” Johnny said, barely above a whisper. “I didn’t do it on purpose. You all know I’m always hungry – well maybe not you Mrs. Conway – but the rest of you do. A hard working man like myself doesn’t get enough to eat at mealtime so I have to compen . . . Scott’s what that word you use when you want to make up the difference?”
“I believe, dear brother, the word you are looking for is ‘compensate’.”
“Yah, that’s the one. A hard working man like me needs to compensate. It’s all Teresa’s fault.” The guests exchanged glances around the table. As if rehearsed they all said in unison “Johnny!”
“Hey doc,” he suddenly uttered. “You never did tell us who won – me or Scott.”
Now all eyes were on Sam. Wiping the corners of his mouth with the linen napkin, he looked both men directly in the eyes. Clearing his throat, he took a sip of water before answering. “Well, since you both entered a bat – albeit the two couldn’t be more different from each other – I would have to declare it a tie.”
“A tie?” Johnny shrieked, throwing his napkin on the table. Pushing his chair back, he stood and put his hands on his hips. Staring the good doctor down with his best ‘Johnny Madrid” stare, he repeated, “A tie?”
Sam placed his hands flat on the table and leaned forward. Glaring right back he growled “Yes, a tie. You both win. You’ll just have to split the prize.”
Johnny glanced at his brother. Both boys blushed; Scott picked up his water glass and took several large swallows while Johnny slowly sunk back into his chair. Picking up his fork he began to nibble at his serving of cake. “We can’t.” He finally mumbled, head down.
“Johnny!” Scott scolded, hoping his brother didn’t go on to describe their bet.
Murdoch suspected as much and now, as their father, put in his two cents worth. “Sons, mind telling us what exactly was the prize you were competing for?” When he got no answer, he turned to his youngest first. “Johnny? Care to tell me?”
It took a moment for Johnny to answer. “No . . . sir.” He said barely above a whisper.
“Scott?” Murdoch’s gaze shifted to the opposite end of the table where his eldest son sat. “Can you enlighten me?”
Scott’s eyes shifted back and forth a couple times as if looking for an escape. Clearing his throat, he finally looked his father in the eye. “No, sir.” An awkward silence hung over the table finally broken by Murdoch.
“Well boys, since you seemed to have caused Teresa, Jelly and me our prizes, I think it’s only fair that you make up for what we lost.” Johnny opened his mouth as though to speak but quickly snapped it shut when Murdoch arched both eyebrows. “Scott, you can wash and Johnny you can dry. You can both work together to clean up the kitchen, the dining room and put the dishes away. That should make up for what Teresa lost. Understand?”
In unison his sons muttered “Yes sir.”
“Tomorrow morning you will clean out the chicken coop and the pig sty and grease the wheels of all the wagons. That should make up for what Jelly lost. Jelly raised his chin so high he near fell over backward. His thumbs were looped in his suspenders and he looked proud as a peacock.
“As for myself, well, I believe that John will be doing the book work for the next month . . .” Scott snickered. He knew how much Johnny hated doing the books.
“The books? A whole month? Why am I getting’ punished anyhow. It was all his idea.” He groused, pointing at his older brother.
“Yes, you explained that earlier. I have a special assignment for you Scott. I believe cleaning out the outhouses – all the outhouses both around the hacienda and at each of the line shacks will give you time to think about what lesson you learned from all this.”
Johnny cupped his mouth with one hand but his laughter still spewed forth. “The outhouses. That’s funny. At least I won’t stink at the end of the day.”
“John!” Murdoch barked. “Are you trying for two months?” His youngest son immediately sobered.
“No sir,” he muttered hanging his head.
“And I think you owe all these fine folks an apology.”
In unison the boys mumbled “I’m sorry.”
“Well, I had hoped for something a little more heartfelt but I suppose I’ll let it slide – this time. You two better get busy clearing this table and doing the dishes. Go on.”
“Yes sir.” “Yes sir,” They chorused. As their father and the guests went to relax in the great room, the brothers - lightly punching each other in the arm and mouthing words with no voice behind them - started to gather dirty dishes and used napkins and carried both into the kitchen. Setting the dishes near the sink and tossing the napkins in the laundry room hamper, Johnny pumped water into a large kettle to heat on the stove. Neither one wanted to be the first to admit they had messed up – royally! Finally Scott broke the silence.
“If I ever get another idea, will you just kill me and get it over with?”
Johnny smirked. “I’d be glad to, Boston, I’d be glad to!”