The Spanish Wells Cookie Eating Fund Raiser
It all started as a joke. The Lancer brothers, Scott and Johnny had been visiting their friends Jim and Maura Talbot. Also in attendance had been Johnny’s pals, Rico Portillo, Kevin Millar and Willie Mays. As a reward for taking the time to fill her wood box, put some evergreen branches she would use for decorating in the living room along with the ribbon to decorate/tie them with and bringing supplies in from the buckboard in the yard Maura had given the boys a plate of her homemade cookies and a pot of coffee to share.
As they went to leave – Scott having insisted that they not only thank her for the treat but return the tray with the empty cups and such to the kitchen – Maura had imparted the knowledge that she had called Johnny her cookie monster when he was a little boy. He’d spent much time at the Bar T when he was an infant and a toddler and had been a source of embarrassment to his mother over the number of cookies he would eat.
This led to a lot of teasing back and forth as they were told, by Jim, that Maura had called the members of the Prankster Posse cookie monsters as well and that Scott was well on his way to earning that nickname himself. The four young men could be heard discussing which one of them most deserved the nickname – the consensus being that it was Johnny due to the fact that he hadn’t said a word as they were leaving. He’d just stood there in the kitchen, staring at all those cookies longingly, until Maura told them that they could have three more cookies apiece.
The teasing had continued all the way home and didn’t stop even when they got into the house because when Murdoch and Teresa heard about it they decided to give Johnny a hard time about it too. Even their mamacita - Maria, the housekeeper who bore the same name as Johnny’s mother, teased him about it.
“You know,” Scott said. “I bet I could make a lot of money pitting you against those three pals of yours in a cookie eating contest.”
Johnny just glared at his brother much to Scott’s amusement. Their father tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to hide a grin. Teresa wasn’t so circumspect – she giggled despite the glare that her “brother” directed at her.
Over the next few days Scott kept mulling over the thought of making money off of his brother’s appetite. It wasn’t that he wanted to make money for himself but there were so many good causes he could think of that the money could go to. There was the orphanage, the mission, the library and others. Another problem was how to go about it. Should he make bets with friends? If so, who?
Finally, a week later Scott had a solution and co-conspirators – Aggie Conway Addison and Teresa among them. The inspiration came from pledge drives he had participated in back in Boston. At the time Scott had thought little of promising to donate a certain amount of money for a cause but it occurred to him that getting something for their money – a gift of some sort – would prompt a lot of people to donate to a good cause.
“You what!” Johnny was astounded to hear Scott make his announcement.
“You heard me right,” Scott said amid the guffaws of his father and the giggles of Teresa.
“You entered me in a cookie eating contest?”
“You, Kevin, Rico, Willie, Jamie Patterson and a dozen or so others are entered. I’ve even signed up sponsors for you who will pay ten cents a cookie for each cookie you eat. The money goes into a pool and will be divided between the library, the orphanage and the mission.” Scott had a big smile on his face as he imparted this news to his brother. “I, myself, have pledged twenty cents a cookie. Mrs. Talbot is pledging three dozen cookies a week for a year to the winner and the winner gets to choose which cookies she makes.”
“Mrs. Talbot said that?” Johnny gave his brother a suspicious look.
“Yes,” Scott acknowledged that Johnny had heard correctly. “You know how she is about causes. She thought that offering some of her cookies, for the contest and for the winner, would be a good motivator.”
“I don’t know what motivator means,” Johnny said, “unless it means you’ve lost your mind.”
“Not at all, little brother,” Scott replied. “It simply means that the thought of winning cookies from Mrs. Talbot – made just for you so you don’t have to share them – will make you work harder at winning that contest.”
“I still say you’re crazy,” Johnny complained. “What makes you think I want to enter such a stupid contest?”
“It’s for a good cause, Johnny,” Murdoch pointed out, “and you do love Maura’s cookies. You always have.”
“There, you see? It’s a great idea – admit it.” Scott was sure he’d won his brother over.
Johnny wasn’t quite convinced. It was all well and good for his brother to tell him that Maura Talbot had pledged three dozen cookies a week for a year but it was quite another to hear her say it herself.
“I’m not sayin’ ‘til I talk to Mrs. Talbot,” Johnny said. “I wouldn’t put it past you to tell me that she’s donating cookies just to get my hopes up.”
“Why would I want to do that?” Scott asked.
“It’s called payback, brother. You’re always telling me you’re gonna pay me back for the jokes I’ve played on you. And you tell Kevin, Rico and Willie the same thing.”
That was the end of that conversation. There was no way Johnny was going to be suckered by his brother. First thing after his morning chores were done he headed for the Bar T to see what Maura Talbot had to say about this cookie eating contest Scott had told him about.
He found the petite, redheaded Irishwoman in her kitchen kneading bread dough. She looked up with a smile when she heard Johnny’s spurs jingling. It was one sure way to identify who her caller might be as nobody else in the vicinity wore such noisy spurs.
“Good morning, Johnny dear,” she said. “What brings you to my kitchen today?”
“I needed to talk to ya,” he replied. “Scott says you agreed to something silly so I had to come and find out for myself.”
“And what might that be, dear?” she inquired.
“Well, he says that he signed me up for a cookie eating contest – well me and my pals – and that you’re donating three dozen cookies a week for a year to whoever wins. I told him it was nutty.”
“What’s so ‘nutty’ about it?” Maura asked him.
“Whoever heard of a contest to see how many cookies someone could eat?”
“I have,” she told him. “In fact I suggested it knowing how much you, Kevin, Rico and Willie enjoy eating – especially my cookies. Some of us were talking and we thought it would be a fun way to raise some money for the orphanage.”
“Ya mean it’s true?” Johnny was incredulous.
“Yes, it’s true,” Maura laughed at the look on Johnny’s face. “In fact, Willie was the first one to sign up after his father mentioned it to him. John Mays is pledging twenty-five cents for every cookie that Willie eats. Willie’s sure he’ll eat more than anybody – including his best friends.”
“Scott said he’s pledged twenty cents a cookie,” Johnny told her. “If I’m going to do this then he’d better promise at least as much as Mr. Mays has. I’m gonna have to talk to him when I get home.”
“Well don’t go away hungry,” Maura said. “It’s a long ride back to Lancer so take this with you.”
She handed him two thick slices of homemade bread that was warm from the oven that he promptly slathered with fresh churned butter and the grape jelly she had in a jar on the table. Munching happily Johnny left for home and a confrontation with his brother.
“So you’re going to do it?” Scott asked.
“Yeah, I’ll do it,” Johnny answered. “Mrs. Talbot talked me into it. But you gotta pledge at least twenty-five cents a cookie.”
“’Cause that’s what Willie’s father has pledged and I can eat at least as many cookies as Willie can.”
“You’re on,” Scott extended his hand to his brother. “As of right now, little brother, you’re on a strict diet and exercise program that I am personally overseeing.”
“What? No way!”
“Forget it Scott or I won’t be in the contest – I’ll just donate some money.”
“Ok, ok!” Scott exclaimed. “You have to promise me, though, that you’ll stay away from sweets until the day of the fund raiser. We can’t have you getting sick of cookies before you’ve won all that money for the orphanage.”
For the next two weeks Scott did his best to see that his little brother stayed active and, more importantly, stayed away from the sweets. He hadn’t told Johnny but he’d made wagers with John Mays, Andrew Millar and Manuel Portillo that Johnny would eat more cookies than the other three. He had a lot riding on his brother’s capacity for cookies. If Murdoch found out about it he’d warn him to keep it from his brother at all costs. If Maura Talbot found out about it Scott would be cut off from her baking for at least a month. If Johnny himself found out about it – well Scott didn’t want to think about the consequences.
Finally the big day arrived. Johnny had not had a single cookie, or piece of cake or anything else that resembled sweets in two weeks. Scott had refused to give in on that point – he wouldn’t force his brother into a full fledged diet but he insisted that he stay away from cookies lest he lose his appetite for them.
Sheriff Gabe was enjoying himself immensely. For all he had to do crowd control he knew that this particular contest would be unlikely to cause any major problems. It was all in good fun and for a good cause. He had a little wager going with Val Crawford as to the outcome. He wasn’t so sure that Johnny would be able to outlast Willie while Val was absolutely positive that Johnny would prevail. Val had gotten a deputy to cover for him so that he could come over to Spanish Wells and watch the contest. Of course he had been “coerced” into pledging twenty cents a cookie for each one that Johnny ate. He really couldn’t afford any more since he was still buying blankets from Lone Crow’s widow and sending them to the orphanage in San Francisco.
The sun shone brightly, but not too hot, on the crowd that gathered by the grandstand that had been specially built for this day. Each contestant, and there were twelve of them including Johnny and his pals, had a seat at a long table. A plate containing a dozen chocolate cookies was by Johnny’s plate while Rico had oatmeal raisin, Willie had sugar cookies and Kevin had ginger snaps. A glass in which cold milk would be poured was beside each plate. The judges, whose main job was to keep track of how many cookies each contestant ate, were ready and waiting when the contestants took their seats. One man would watch the time and let everyone know when the fifteen minutes they had allotted was up. The judges would then compare notes to see which one had eaten the most.
Amid the cheers and catcalls the contest started. There was much laughter as members of the contestants families, or groups of their friends, called out to their favorite.
“Come on Johnny, don’t let me down,” Scott shouted.
“You can do it, Willie,” Willie’s little sister Cece said.
“Rico, hurry, por favor!” pleaded Rico’s little brother Tomás who was seven.
Murdoch and Teresa laughed as they called out encouragement.
“Murdoch, do you think Johnny can really eat more cookies than the others?”
“Scott’s kept him away from sweets for two weeks, Teresa,” her guardian said. “I’m sure he’s so hungry for them that he’ll manage to eat more than the others without any difficulty.”
“I hope he doesn’t make himself sick,” Teresa said worriedly. “That’s a long time for Johnny not to have any cookies or anything.”
“If he does I’m sure you and Maria will have the cure for what ails him.”
"You mean something like a dose of castor oil?” Teresa asked with a giggle.
“Something like that,” Murdoch grinned.
Fifteen minutes later the contest was over. The judges put their heads together and tallied the results of each contestant. Finally they handed the results over to Gabe to make the announcement.
“It’s a close one, folks,” the sheriff said. The sunlight shone on his brown hair as he looked out at the crowd with a grin. “The winner is…” he couldn’t resist pausing for dramatic effect even though he had lost his bet with Val, “Johnny Lancer!”
Teresa squealed as the crowd roared its approval. Johnny, for all his reputation as the notorious gunfighter Johnny Madrid, had made a name for himself in the area for his capacity for sweets. Scott quickly found John Mays and collected his money while speaking highly of Willie who had come in second. Then he found Manuel Portillo and Andrew Millar and collected from them as well. When he was finished he joined the crowd around his brother and pounded him on the back in jubilation.
“You did it, Johnny! I knew you could! And look – I made fifteen dollars because you won.”
“You did what, Scott Lancer?”
“Mrs. Talbot!” Scott was suddenly embarrassed.
“What did you just say?”
“I won fifteen dollars,” he mumbled.
“And just how did you win fifteen dollars when your brother was the one in the contest?”
“I made a bet with Mr. Mays, Mr. Portillo and Mr. Millar,” he told her sheepishly.
“I’m ashamed of you!” Maura was, too. She had never held with gambling but understood that the occasional small stakes poker game was just a part of the men’s Saturday nights in town or a diversion after a long day in the saddle while the men relaxed in the bunkhouse having had supper. “Imagine making money at an event meant to raise money for the orphanage. You ought to be ashamed.” Glaring at him and the other three men she added, “There will be no cookies from my kitchen for you for at least a month!”
The other men’s wives overheard her and declared the same thing in various forms. No sweets, no treats and no favorites at the dinner table. Furthermore all of them were to donate double what they had pledged and Scott was to donate the money he’d won from them or it would be even longer before they were back in their good graces.
As for Gabe and Val – well they made sure that Maura never found out about their bet. They sure didn’t want the same fate to befall them that had befallen the other four men. Not only would she not bring them treats (they were sure those treats would find their way to Sam Jayson at Morro Coyo instead) but she wouldn’t do any of the other things – such as mending their clothes – that she was noted for doing.
The crowd broke up, the money was gathered up and given to the padre in charge of the orphanage and everyone went home. It had been a pleasant diversion but there were chores to be done, shopping to be completed and dinner to be gotten.
The next morning Scott discovered his brother’s bedroom door was still closed at a time when Johnny would normally be up and about and ready for breakfast. Pushing it open Scott discovered his brother still in bed, pale and moaning.
“Johnny? What’s the matter?” Scott asked his brother.
“I don’t feel so good, Scott. I got a stomachache,” was the weak reply.
“Just lie there and relax,” Scott told him. “I’ll go get Maria.”
Johnny just nodded as his brother left the room. Five minutes later the blond was back with the little Mexican woman in tow. A brief conversation in Spanish took place before Maria left the room with a glare at Scott. She was back momentarily with a bottle, a spoon and Murdoch on her heels.
“What’s that?” Scott asked.
“That is castor oil,” his father told him. “It seems your brother has a stomach ache from eating too many cookies in too short a space of time.” At the look from Scott he added, “It’s not just the contest – he also ate what Willie, Kevin and Rico couldn’t finish.”
“Muy mal,” Maria said with a clucking of her tongue as she dispensed the castor oil much to Johnny’s dismay.
“Yes, I agree, Maria,” Murdoch said. Looking at his elder son he said, “Your brother’s not going to be able to do any of his chores today. I think it’s only fitting that you should take over and do them for him until he’s feeling better.”
“Now wait a minute,” Scott protested.
“No arguments,” Murdoch said firmly. “You talked him into entering the contest, you kept him away from sweets for two weeks and you made money off of John, Manuel and Andy. I think it’s the least you can do.”
And so it was that Scott Lancer found himself doing double the work for the next few days while Johnny recovered from his stomach ache and regained his appetite and his strength and found himself cut off from the goodies that his surrogate mother was noted for giving him. It would be a long time before Scott did anything so foolish again.