St. Valentine's Day Dance
The festivities were just getting started as the various members of the Lancer party made their way down the main street. The whole family—including Jelly—was in attendance, although making it so had been a near thing……
A few days ago, Johnny had trotted out his usual ‘not liking his fun organized’ excuse, but this time nobody had been buying it.
Teresa had blessed him out for not caring that the town was raising money to put a new roof on the orphanage, and the old man got that “I’m calling the tune and this is final” expression on his face, insisting that it was their duty as substantial landowners in the area to support this kind of community project.
It had been Scott who clinched the deal, though. “Aren’t you the one who’s so full of good advice about getting back on the horse after you’ve been thrown?” he’d demanded, with a hint of challenge in his voice.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Johnny had responded—all puzzled innocence. But his brother had simply speared him with a disbelieving glance and walked off.
Johnny had been left to reflect bitterly that it could be a pain in the ass when someone knew you well enough to figure out all those secrets you wanted to keep hidden and wasn’t afraid to call you on them.
Months had passed since that cattle drive—since Laura turned down his marriage proposal, choosing instead to carry on her father’s missionary work among the Indians—and his heart was on the mend….sort of.
But the truth was, he’d been running scared. In all that time, he hadn’t given himself the chance to as much as flirt with another female. And he didn’t count the local saloon girls whose arms were sweet and welcoming—as long as he had money in his pocket—purely a business transaction there.
Finally he’d decided that Scott was right. It was time to climb back into the saddle, and this damn Valentine’s Day fandango was as good a place to start as any.
A sturdy platform, decorated with red and white bunting, had been erected at one end of the street. All the ladies with their fancied up baskets of food chattered excitedly as they waited for the auction to begin, and the men used this time to determine which boxed supper—and dining companion—they were planning to bid on.
The Lancer brothers were no exception, trading comments on the tempting choices available—edible and otherwise.
“Well now, there’s Emily Grayson. A man could do worse than to spend a few hours getting lost in those lovely green eyes.”
Johnny grimaced, “Scott, have you ever tasted one of her buttermilk biscuits? If you shot’em out of a cannon, you could probably kill somebody. Now, Jenny Brooks has the lightest touch with pastries of any girl in these parts.”
“Granted……a gourmet meal is important,” Scott agreed smoothly, “but I’m not prepared to sacrifice everything for the sake of my stomach. I think my choice still stands.”
“Sure, if you manage to beat out all the other hombres who are gonna be trying to snag Emily as their partner tonight,” Johnny reminded him.
“The victory wouldn’t be nearly as sweet without a bit of competition, little brother. Haven’t you watched our father at his horse auctions? He doesn’t enjoy winning half as much if he isn’t able to beat Aggie in the process.”
“Speaking of Aggie, it looks like she’s up next.” Johnny stared over at the stage where an attractive older woman stood, smiling confidently, while the auctioneer went through his rapid spiel.
Both boys watched the spirited bidding with interest. Murdoch’s savvy ability—honed at all those stock auctions—served him well in this case; he walked off with the lady on one arm and her neatly packed basket on the other.
“Hey, Scott…..do you ever wonder about Murdoch and Aggie….maybe getting together? We’ve both heard the talk around town about the two of them.”
It was true that the pair made a likely-looking couple. They were obviously comfortable with each other, Scott noted. He watched as his father leaned down to catch something the female rancher had said, and heard Murdoch’s laugh boom out over the rest of the crowd.
“I think we’d be doing both our father and the lady a disservice if we paid undue attention to gossip and rumors. Murdoch’s a big boy. Whatever his intentions are regarding Aggie, that’s his business.”
“Guess you’re right,” Johnny nodded. “It’s just that I’d like to know about it if we’re gonna get ourselves a step-mother and…….”
Whatever he was about to say was forgotten, though, as he pointed, nearly busting a gut with laughter.
Jelly appeared to be under siege. He was sandwiched between two women—one tall and thin, the other shorter and more rotund—each of whom were throwing out lures calculated to garner his favor. In the midst of the simpering smiles, fluttering eyelashes and giggled compliments, the poor handyman bore the harried look of a ground squirrel being stalked by two equally dangerous predators.
Scott surveyed the little scene with amusement. “I’d say the two of us weren’t that far off the mark when we suspected Miss Delaney or the Widow Lacey of being Jelly’s secret ‘you-know-who’ a few months back. We might have been wrong at the time, but they certainly seem to have realized just what an eligible bachelor they have on their hands.”
“If Jelly ain’t careful, he’s gonna find himself all broke to bridle, with a bit between his teeth and a brand slapped on his rump!” Johnny snickered.
But Jellifer B. Hoskins hadn’t remained single all these years without developing some excellent survival skills. He managed to slip through the clutches of his admirers by shouting out his bid for the supper basket currently being offered up on the stage.
Even that ornate purple dress couldn’t do much to disguise the muscles Gus Guthrie had developed during her years of blacksmithing, but she had done a good job of scraping off the layers of soot and grime that were a normal part of her workday appearance. And everyone in town knew she was a good cook.
None of this mattered to Jelly, however. He saw his old friend, poker buddy and only hope of salvation from the two females that were circling around him. After the auctioneer declared “SOLD”, he claimed his prize and thankfully followed in her wake as she led him away.
Slapping his brother lightly on the back, Scott grinned. “Now that Jelly has made his escape, I have a few matters to attend to myself. Advance preparation is the key to any successful campaign, and I intend to prevail.”
Johnny snorted, “If that’s a fancy way of saying you’re gonna do something sneaky to make sure you walk away with Emily Grayson in today’s auction, you go ahead……make me proud!”
After his brother left, Johnny commandeered a nice, cold beer and settled in to watch as one female after another offered their wares to the highest bidder. Nothing that he saw enticed him to join in the haggling though.
Then Teresa climbed onto the podium lugging the wicker basket she’d decked out with ribbons and bows. It was a wonder she could even carry the thing, because Johnny knew for a fact it was packed with enough fried chicken, biscuits, preserves, chocolate cake and other goodies to feed an army.
The girl probably figured she was playing her cards close to the vest, but she didn’t have a poker face worth a damn. Everybody at Lancer knew exactly who she was hoping would buy that supper she’d spent so much time preparing.
Peter Brennan had grown up around these parts. His family’s ranch wasn’t quite as big as Lancer, but they were solid folks. Teresa and Peter had known each other as children—squabbled, made up and got into scrapes together as kids. Then Peter had gone off to school in St. Louis for a couple of years. He’d come home again a few months ago, and it was pretty clear that he and Teresa had started thinking of each other as more than old playmates.
Still—old playmate or not—Scott and Johnny had figured it was their job to make sure he wasn’t some kind of bad apple. Of course, Teresa would have cut out their livers if she’d caught wind of what they were up to, but it mostly came down to acting friendly and spending some time with the kid. And—as it turned out—he was OK. Couldn’t hold his liquor past the first bottle, but that wasn’t really a bad thing. The boy had sand….and he treated women with respect, so the Lancer brothers were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt….for now.
Most of the boxed meals had been going for a couple of bucks or so each, but Johnny noted that the bidding on Teresa’s basket was already up to five dollars. Peter had outlasted several other suitors, and he was sporting a smug grin, thinking he’d won the day.
Just as the auctioneer was about to pronounce his final ‘GOING…GOING…GONE’, a new voice was heard.
A few shocked gasps were heard, and then the crowd fell silent, gawking at the stranger who’d made such an outlandish bid.
He stood in their midst, relaxed and apparently unconcerned about the sudden scrutiny he was under. His appealing good looks and friendly demeanor were belied by two things—eyes that held a certain cold menace and the well-used rig that he wore with the colt strapped down low on his leg.
Peter went through his pockets and tried feverishly to borrow money from anybody standing nearby, but it was clear that he was coming up short.
Thrown off balance by this unexpected turn of events, the auctioneer scanned the audience hoping that someone would make another bid and get him out of this predicament. But it seemed he had no choice.
Onlookers cleared a path as the stranger crossed over to the stage. Flipping a gold piece at the official in charge of collecting donations, he hefted the basket and offered Teresa his arm. Too flustered to say anything, the girl accompanied him down the street, casting sidelong glances at the newcomer as they walked.
“Well, this sure seems to be my lucky day, Miss…..?”
“O’Brian….Teresa O’Brian,” she supplied cautiously.
“Very pleased to meet you, Miss Teresa.” Teeth glinted in a brief smile as he added, “My name is Jackson Taylor. I’m real pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“And do you always go around spending twenty dollars on a simple picnic lunch, Mr. Taylor?” Teresa asked with a flash of spirit.
“If it means enjoying the company of a pretty girl like yourself, I consider it money well spent.” He winked and tucked her arm more closely to his side, causing her to squeak in alarm. “Maybe we can find someplace private to…..”
“Hold it right there…!”
Blocking their path, Peter squared his shoulders and glared fiercely at the other man.
“You got a problem, kid?” Taylor’s tone was deceptively mild, as he casually placed the basket on the ground near his feet.
“That’s right…!” There was no bluster in the younger man’s voice, just quiet determination. “You may have paid twenty dollars for a whole mess of fried chicken, but she’s not going anywhere with you alone. The auction committee set up a bunch of tables out in the street and you can damn well eat your supper back there…in front of God and everybody. I pretty much hope you choke on it, but I won’t do anything to interfere as long as you keep your hands to yourself!”
“Looks like you’re real good at giving orders, kid. How are you at backing them up?” Taylor asked softly, brushing his jacket aside so his holster was clear and unobstructed.
“I’ll do what I have to,” Peter replied stiffly. He’d been born in the west and was well accustomed to wearing a pistol. Gunfights were another matter, but he wasn’t going to back down when somebody he cared about was at risk. “Teresa, you better go back and wait at the auctioneer’s stand.”
One look at her terrified, but stubborn face and Peter knew she wasn’t going to budge without an argument. Before he could start laying down the law, however, Taylor interrupted, “I sure don’t want ta be the cause of no lover’s spat here. Didn’t mean ta go poaching in another man’s territory. You two go ahead and share this dinner……my treat.”
Peter was more than a little confused by this sudden change in attitude, but Teresa had thrust the basket into his arms and was dragging him away, willy-nilly, before he could protest.
Once the couple had disappeared, the street and boardwalk lay empty and deserted.
“Been a long time, J.T.”
Stepping from the shelter of a nearby doorway, Johnny aimed a lop-sided grin at his old acquaintance.
“Johnny Madrid….! I thought my eyes was playing tricks on me when I spotted you lurking back there.”
For a moment, a genuinely welcoming smile lit J.T.’s face, and then his expression hardened. “Your signals were sure clear enough. Now…do ya mind telling me why you made me let that punk walk away AND give up my chances with the prettiest little filly I’ve seen in a month of Sundays?”
“Yeah….well, she’s family.”
“Family….?” J.T. echoed. “I’d heard rumors, but Madrid….walking away from the life……settling down…...? I never really believed it.”
“It’s true all right.” Johnny raised a hand as if pledging an oath. “I’ve got a home…people to care about……a place to belong…..and a hard-headed old man who keeps me on the straight and narrow…”
“Do tell….!” A sly note crept into the gunman’s voice as he went on, “You may have quit the business, but I reckon you’re still just as fast as ever…huh?”
“I suppose there’s only one way to find that out,” Johnny answered without batting an eye.
The sudden tense silence was broken when J.T. exclaimed, “Hell….! If we never killed each other when we was on opposite sides during some of those range wars, ain’t likely we’re gonna do it now over some damn pissing contest!”
“Want me ta buy ya a drink?” Johnny offered. Nothing good usually came of it when the past snuck up and nudged at him like this, but he and J.T. had been true amigos……when they weren’t shooting at each other.
“Nah, that purely ain’t what I had in mind. Just once I figured…..” J.T. shook his head and a moody scowl descended. “Aw, you know how it is. When the god-fearing, self-righteous muckity-mucks in a town like this need your gun….there ain’t nothing too good for ya. But let’em get a hint that you’re sniffing around any of their womenfolk…..they’ll get out the tar and feathers before you can blink.”
“Pretty girls and gunfighters don’t mix,” Johnny murmured under his breath.
“I wasn’t aiming to hurt her none, Johnny. Just wanted to set for a while with a gal who hadn’t already been pawed at by every yahoo with six-bits to his name.”
Nobody who’d led the life Johnny Madrid had could fail to understand the man’s dilemma, but that still didn’t make him willing to let J.T. within a mile of Teresa.
“My offer of a drink still stands,” was Johnny’s only comment.
J.T. seemed to be reconsidering the idea when he stiffened. “Madrid,” he growled, “maybe you ain’t changed as much as you claim. I got an itching between my shoulder blades like someone’s drawing a bead on me. You taken ta running with back-shooters?”
Johnny froze, wondering how his instincts could have betrayed him. The answer—when it came—was simple. He’d felt a presence….picked up on a subtle, familiar scent….but it was associated in his mind with safety, rather than a warning of danger.
“Come on out, Scott!” he called, a bit relieved to find he wasn’t losing his edge.
Both men heard the faint, but unmistakable, sound of a revolver being shoved into a leather holster, and the tall blonde emerged from the shadows.
“Don’t get your britches in a twist, J.T………this is my brother, Scott. He was just watching my back.”
“Your brother…!” J.T. scoffed. “You weren’t lying about finding yourself a family, were ya? It appears ya can’t swing a dead cat in these parts without hitting some of your kin.”
“J.T. and I used to ride together back in the day, Scott,” Johnny murmured.
“So I gathered from your conversation.”
His brother wasn’t being openly hostile, just guarded and suspicious. Johnny couldn’t blame him much for that. Madrid’s past had come up and nudged Scott more than once…….and if he’d overheard J.T.’s veiled attempt to call him out……..”
It was possible that the minds of all three men were running along the same lines, because these introductions were followed by an awkward pause.
Finally J.T. cleared his throat and muttered, “I probably ought ta make tracks. There’s a real important job waiting on me down near Tucson. Man’s paying top dollar, and he’s only hiring the fastest guns around.” There was the merest hint of softening around his eyes when he added, “Guess I’ll let him know that Johnny Madrid ain’t on the market no more.”
“Yeah, you do that.” Johnny extended a hand, “and keep your head down when the lead starts flying.”
J.T. hesitated one last time. “Ya know, I was just wondering……about that twenty-dollar gold piece I dished out back there…seeing as how I didn’t get the girl or the grub…..do ya think…..”
“I think the orphans are gonna be real grateful for your generous charity….they might even put up a bronze plaque in your honor,” Johnny grinned.
“Huh…! They might at that,” T.J. mused. Climbing into the saddle, he dug his spurs into the animal and hollered over his shoulder, “Make sure they spell my name right…!”
The two brothers watched as the gunhawk raced down the street, leaving nothing behind but a cloud of dust.
“Another one that’ll be dead before he’s thirty.”
Johnny’s words held a bittersweet tinge of—“there but for the grace of God go I”—and Scott threw an arm around his brother’s shoulder.
“Perhaps…..but then again……they say the good Lord looks after fools, drunks and little children. So your friend might just have a chance after all.”
“Now, however…”Scott began backing away, heading down the boardwalk, “…I have an extremely urgent errand to run. The hotel has prepared a very delectable repast, and I need to go collect it.”
“Wait a minute…! I thought you were gonna bid on Emily Grayson’s home-made banquet.”
“Oh, I did…..and I won! There was a tiny little problem though.” With a ‘butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-his-mouth’ look of innocence, Scott explained, “A few members of the rougher element got in a shoving match, and unfortunately, Emily’s basket was thoughtlessly trampled underfoot. I assured her that I was bitterly disappointed not to be able to sample her delicacies, but I would make due with whatever the hotel chefs had available.”
With a brisk little salute, the tall blond hurried to complete his mission, and Johnny was left to shake his head at his brother’s brazen audacity. Trust Scott to have his cake and eat it too…..or at least to eat the hotel’s cake—which had to be tastier than Emily’s two-layer, sawdust-flavored specialty.
It could be that he was inspired by J.T.’s forlorn hope of having just one date with a nice, pretty girl, but Johnny found himself back at the auction. Although things would be winding down soon, there were still several young ladies who hadn’t offered up their contributions yet.
One of the girls looked kind of familiar. She had a sweet smile and honey-blonde hair that fell almost down to her waist. Johnny knew he’d seen her somewhere before. After a few moments thought, he remembered waiting at the dry goods store for Teresa, who’d been hemming and hawing about fabric for a new dress. This girl had been behind the counter. Lucy…..her name was Lucy.
He didn’t know much about her, other than that Teresa said her daddy had been a cattleman, but he sure liked what he was seeing. Maybe it just didn’t do to look to far down the road when it came to something like this. Maybe you just rolled the dice and took your chances. Maybe whatever he started here today would have a good ending….maybe not. The only way to know for sure was to take that first step and let the chips fall where they may.
Raising one arm over his head, he yelled out, “TWO DOLLARS……!”