A sketch of the scene could have been placed in one of the illustrated periodicals of the day and titled simply—“A Cozy Evening at Home.” In the hearth, a crackling fire served to keep any chill at bay and cast a welcome glow of contentment over the occupants of the great room.
Murdoch—seated at his desk—made a few corrections in the open ledger lying before him, occasionally sipping from his tumbler of scotch. Scott and Teresa were each perched on separate ends of the loveseat—one captivated by the intricacies of a very complicated needlework pattern and the other absorbed by an equally intricate Latin translation of the works of Plato.
A chess board had been set out on the large tooled-leather ottoman. Jelly sat before it on a small hassock, brow wrinkled as he contemplated his next move. His opponent didn’t appear to be exerting the same kind of concentration, however—unless snoring was a sign of deep mental application.
“Johnny….!! Hey, Johnny…..!!
The younger man—who was sprawled, face down, across a matching hassock—lifted his head and asked blearily, “Hmmm….? What……? Is it my move?”
“No, it ain’t,” Jelly replied testily. “But you’re sawing wood so loud……they can prol’ly hear you clear out Stockton way?”
“Did you wake me up just to tell me that?” Johnny demanded in disbelief, scrubbing a hand over his face.
“Nah, I woke ya up so’s I could think………without all that racket echoing in my brain.”
“That figures…..ya only hear echoes in big, empty spaces,” Johnny muttered under his breath.
“What….??!!” The rotund, little handy-man looked about ready to explode.
“Nothing......nothing! Listen, I promise……no more snoring. Now go ahead and finish your turn, OK?”
Jelly stroked his beard and huffed, “Well, you know, chess is real complicated. Ain’t no use even trying ta play it if ya ain’t got a nice quiet spot. Any fool ought ta be able to figure out that ya can’t plan strategy if someone’s blathering in your face all the time……….”
The game ended shortly after their little argument and—while it was a very close contest—Jelly came out the winner. Crowing about his victory, he was only a shade less obnoxious than he’d been when he was harping about the noise from Johnny’s snoring…….and if he’d paid more attention, he might have been alarmed by the ominous spark of mischief that shone in those guileless blue eyes.
This evening Murdock abandoned his account books for an overstuffed armchair and the most recent copy of the Stockton Gazette. Johnny and Jelly took over a corner of his desk to set up their game.
Once again, Jelly’s efforts to study the board were conspicuous while his rival appeared ready to drop off to sleep.
“Johnny, would you cut that out!!!”
“Huh…?” Johnny glanced down at his booted foot, swinging gently to-and-fro, hitting the side of the desk. “Sorry, Jelly, guess I didn’t realize I was doing that.”
“Well, try ta have a little consideration, will ya? Can’t believe the way you always gotta be fidgeting around like a two-year old!”
But after a few moments of silence, the rapping would start up again, followed by Jelly’s voracious objections and Johnny’s apologies……over and over again.
This time around, Jelly was soundly defeated and bent everyone’s ears back with a litany of complaints and excuses.
Johnny finally interrupted with a smile that was as magnanimous as it was false, “Things are pretty much even right now, Jelly. We’ve won a game apiece. Nobody would fault you if ya decided to quit.”
“Quit…..?” Jelly eyed him suspiciously.
“Sure…..! You throw in the towel, and we declare it a draw. No shame in that….”
“Why…..! You…..!” Stretching up to his full height, Jelly stuck out his bearded chin and let loose, “You ain’t seen the day that Jellifer B. Hoskins can’t stand up to any challenge offered by man nor beast! I’ll see you here tomorrow night…..!”
And he followed through on his promise the next night…..and the night after that…..and the night after that.
The only thing different about any of those rematches was that Johnny widened his repertoire to include humming (off-key) under his breath and thumping his fingers against his leg—which made a satisfying ‘thud-thud’ on the surface of his leather pants—or drumming them on any handy table-top. And Jelly’s answering diatribes seemed to increase in both length and volume.
The rest of the family had been mildly amused by these performances at first, but the entertainment value quickly waned as the nights dragged on. Johnny’s little bits of quiet hubbub were carefully pitched to reach mainly the ears of his adversary and didn’t really disturb anyone else……..Jelly’s bellyaching was another story. But pointing that fact out to their temperamental friend would result in a bout of sulking that would make life miserable for a month.
So every evening—as long as both men were available—the tournament continued. There was no clear winner as far as the chess competition was concerned—wins and losses were evenly distributed—but no one really thought that was the issue in this battle of wills.
One night, though, Jelly seemed unusually restive and barely waited for everyone to settle in before announcing with complacent self-importance, “I finally got me something that’s gonna teach this boy a lesson about all this jumpy, twitchy, squirmy nonsense!”
He held up a slim, leather-bound book and said smugly, “I found this in Murdoch’s library……and it’s written by none other than George Washington! You know who he is, don’t ya?”
“Sure, Jelly,” Johnny answered with a puzzled grin.
“He calls it “George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.”
At Johnny’s blank look he added impatiently, “He made up rules for folks ta follow when they wanna be polite and genteel-like.”
“Hmmmm…..I would of thought just being president would take up all the man’s time. Can’t see why he’d wanna mess with stuff that’s pretty much just plain common sense.”
“Well, he did…….!! And this here is what he wrote for rule number four: In the presence of others, sing not to yourself with a humming noise, nor drum with your fingers or feet.”
Closing the book with a snap, Jelly gazed at the other man with a patently superior expression, but the reaction he got wasn’t what he’d expected.
“Boy, did you hear how clear and fine he read that out….? All them ten-dollar words and fancy lingo—and Jelly just recites them to the manner born. Ya know, Jelly, you ought ta sell tickets. I bet people would stand in line to hear you handing out advice from George Washington……”
“Hey, I was TRYING to get YOU ta pay attention to what the man said about…….”
“Yeah, I know……but did you really think I’d be one of them people standing in line to get advice from some dead president?”
Jelly slammed the book down on the table with enough force to rattle the ivory chess pieces. “Fine…..! If you know better than the ‘Father of our Country’—let’s just get tonight’s little showdown started.”
“We have to do something!” Teresa whispered, glancing surreptitiously around the kitchen.
“That’s what we need to decide on,” Scott reminded her. “And you can stop worrying….Johnny rode out with the work crew this morning and Jelly’s busy in the tack room.”
“Teresa’s right,” Murdoch put in with a touch of asperity. “It’s pretty intolerable when a man can’t enjoy an evening’s peace in his own home.”
“Can’t you explain to Johnny that he’s acting like a child?” Teresa demanded, looking up at Scott with obvious frustration.
“Oh, he’s acting like a child all right…..a very stubborn child. I’ve already tried my best to convince him to give up his part in this little brangle……with no luck.”
“Well then, can’t we convince Jelly to just ignore Johnny’s ridiculous behavior? You know Johnny would stop if Jelly didn’t rise to the bait every time!”
Murdoch sighed. “I’ve talked myself blue in the face. I don’t think Jelly could ignore it even if he tried. To him, Johnny’s antics are like a red flag to a bull.”
Teresa shook her head despondently. “So what does that leave us with?”
“I suppose we could try hog-tying Johnny to his chair,” Murdoch suggested with a rueful flash of humor.
“Or stuff a gag in Jelly’s mouth,” Teresa giggled in spite of herself.
“Now wait a minute.....!”
The room went silent as the others waited for Scott to finish his thought.
“I just might have an idea,” he finally conceded, “but it would mean giving me the afternoon off, Murdoch. There’s something I’d need to purchase in Morro Coyo.”
He was steadfast in his refusal to reveal any more of his scheme, but his father was desperate enough to agree to his terms without any debate. After wishing him luck, the group dispersed to deal with less onerous tasks—like breaking wild horses or washing a mountain-high pile of dirty laundry—while clinging to the hope that tonight might bring an end to their misery.
The chess board lay ready—kings, queens, bishops, rooks and pawns stood in orderly rows prepared once again to serve as weapons in this fierce, but bloodless, battle.
Murdoch and Teresa exchanged anxious glances. Scott had slipped off to his room directly after supper without giving either of them any clue as to whether his errand had been successful, and the two ‘chess combatants’ had already taken their seats.
As if on cue, Scott made his appearance—walking into the great room carrying a medium-sized box. Wrapped in elegant foil paper and tied with velvet ribbon, it could have been a gift intended for royalty, but he slid the game board out of the way and placed it directly in front of Jelly Hoskins.
“What’s this…..? It ain’t my birthday!”
“Well, I’d actually like to consider this a gift for all of us…….the gift of a truce between you two,” Scott said dryly.
“Go ahead, Jelly…….open it!” Johnny seemed to have overcome any misgivings he might have felt.
Jelly still eyed the box with a bit of suspicion, but the lure of the elaborate trimmings was too much to resist. He carefully untied the ribbon and removed the extravagant paper. Lifting the top off, he reached inside and pulled out……..a pair of showy, custom-made, fur-lined earmuffs.
Johnny took one look and burst out laughing.
The rest of the spectators held their breath and waited. Slowly, that beard-covered mouth twitched and squirmed, working itself into a wide grin.
“Well, dog-gone…..! I don’t know what ta say…….!”
Scott clapped him on the shoulder, “Wear it in good health, Jelly.”
That seemed to be the signal allowing everyone to relax. Johnny snatched up the muffs and placed them over his own ears, flitting over to the mirror to admire his reflection. Jelly followed, tugging at his sleeve and bleating, “Come on, Johnny……Scott gave’em to me……!”
Quick as a thought, Johnny spun, fitted the muffs over the older man’s ears and began humming loudly. “They work like a charm, don’t they?” he asked loudly.
“Aw, quit it, Johnny…!” Jelly tried to sound grumpy and offended, but he was enjoying this horseplay as much as his young friend.
That’s when they turned—wary and a little reluctant—and regarded the beckoning chess set.
“I been thinking, Jelly…..” Johnny began.
“There’s a first time for everything,” Jelly interjected once—tartly—but made no further interruption.
“Tonight we’re neck-and-neck again……same number of wins and losses. If we BOTH throw in the towel, we can call it a draw.”
“So we’d BOTH call it quits?”
“Yep, it would be a tie…….fair and square!”
“Well, I do have a whole passel of dime novels stashed under my bed…..I ain’t had the time ta catch up on’em since……..!”
“Yeah, I been missing out on a lot of shut-eye…….not being able to get a decent nap in the evenings lately.”
For a moment they faced each other—the dark-haired, impetuous ex-gunfighter and the scruffy, rag-tag former vagabond/wanderer—and then both reached out, together, to clasp hands.
Murdoch—seated at his desk—caught up on some over-due correspondence and enjoyed a goblet of brandy. Teresa examined her completed sampler for any missed stitches, while Scott embarked on the second volume of Plato’s works.
Johnny had commandeered most of the sofa by the simple expedient of stretching out, full-length and falling fast asleep, but Jelly—sitting at his feet—claimed a spot near the reading lamp, a pile of cheap paperbacks at his elbow.
His lips moved only slightly as he followed the lurid exploits of Rattlesnake Sam and the Tucson Kid. Just as the most exciting chapter was drawing to a close, he was distracted by a familiar sound.
The snoring was soft, almost gentle, but still noticeable. After only a moment’s hesitation, Jelly donned the pleasantly luxurious fur muffs and continued his enjoyment of the Tucson Kid’s adventures.
A sketch of the scene could have been placed in one of the illustrated periodicals of the day and titled simply—“A Cozy Evening at Home.”