Just Another One of the Boys
Maura Talbot hummed as she kneaded the bread on her kitchen table. The tea kettle, full of water, hummed behind her on the kitchen stove. Glancing out the window she was the bright sunlight that indicated, to her, that it would be a perfect day to bake bread. Bright, sunny and dry. Back in Massachusetts, where she’d grown up and lived until she and her husband, Jim, had emigrated to California, summer days could be muggy and muggy weather was not conducive to making good bread.
Once this dough was set aside, in greased pans, to rise she would start on cakes and cookies. It was round up time – well sort of. Jim was convinced that he’d overlooked some pockets of cattle and had sent for some extra help. That extra help would come from Lancer, the Rocking M, Spanish Wells and Green River. It would take the form of Murdoch Lancer’s two sons – Johnny and Scott – as well as Johnny’s pals, Kevin Millar, Rico Portillo and Willie Mays. Thus Maura was ensuring that she had plenty of goodies for all five of the young men had a sweet tooth. For that matter so did her husband only he was slightly more careful about how much he overindulged. Either that or he didn’t want to risk an arm or a hand reaching for the same cookies that Johnny and the other three youngest ones were after.
It was a running joke between the Lancers and the Talbots that Johnny and the Prankster Posse ate more cookies than all the school children and orphans at the mission combined and that had led to a cookie eating contest a year ago. Said contest had cost Scott Lancer a fair amount of money for he’d been caught betting on his little brother after depriving Johnny of sweets for about two weeks. Maura had coerced him into donating the money to the orphanage along with the money he’d already pledged.
“Those boys are just full of it this morning,” she laughed to herself as she heard the teasing tones of Johnny Lancer giving his brother a hard time about getting dirty. “Especially Johnny it seems. Poor Scott doesn’t stand a chance if the other boys join in. I really must find someone for Scott to be best friends with as well. It doesn’t seem right that Johnny’s got those three and Scott doesn’t really have anybody.”
As she continued kneading her bread dough she mulled over the possibilities of a friend for Scott but, at the moment, was unable to think of anyone in particular that she felt worthy of Scott’s friendship.
“Maura, my love,” Jim called to his wife as he walked in the kitchen door, “Are our lunches ready?”
“Yes, Alex, dear,” she replied. “There are sacks there for each of you with two sandwiches, an apple, an orange and some carrots. Don’t forget to fill your canteens, or some of those small bottles, with cold water from the well.”
Jim Talbot smiled as he kissed his wife on the cheek. She never tired of “mother henning” all of them and this was no exception.
“What? No cookies?” Johnny was stunned. He’d come in right behind Jim.
“No, dear,” his surrogate mother told him. “You boys cleaned me out yesterday and the next batch won’t be ready for a while. I have to make bread, too. You can have some when you get back this afternoon.”
“Gee, Mrs. T.,” Kevin opined. “You expect us to work hard and not have something in our bags to look forward to?”
Maura gave him a look that squelched his “complaints” in a hurry. Offering her a sheepish grin Kevin and the other young men – Scott included – left the house. Each one of them carried a sack lunch put up for them by Maura, which they promptly put into their saddlebags prior to mounting. They each also carried some first aid supplies. One never knew whether a cowboy, cow or a horse might need some attention and they were always prepared to handle minor calamities.
“That’ll teach you,” Johnny said to his friend. “We’ll be lucky to get any cookies after you stumbling all over yourself complaining about it.”
“Don’t worry about it, Johnny,” Jim Talbot reassured his young friend. “Maura will have more than enough cookies for all of us by the time we get back. She just wants to teach Kevin, here,” poking the young man in the ribs, “a lesson about ‘complaining’.”
“I was only kidding,” Kevin said in his own defense.
“And I’m sure Maura knows that,” Jim told him. “However she does like to see that we eat something other than cookies and pie and the like so she gave us the fruit and the carrots.”
“Barranca will end up with Johnny’s carrots,” Scott laughed. “Little brother is not very fond of vegetables.”
“It’s true, Mr. Talbot,” Willie chimed in. “I’ve watched him at the dinner table. He hides them in his napkin or he manages to slip them to Lady or he smuggles the carrots out in his pocket or inside his shirt. Barranca is spoiled rotten.”
“Sí,” Rico agreed. “Barranca is definitely spoiled.”
“I suppose Moe, Eagle and Coco aren’t?” Johnny asked.
“We weren’t talking about Moe, Eagle and Coco,” Willie shot back. “We were talking about Barranca and Barranca is definitely spoiled.”
“Well we oughta be!”
“Enough, boys,” Jim Talbot finally put a stop to the argument. “Truth be told all of our horses are somewhat spoiled and you know it. I spoil Pintauro, here, as much as Johnny spoils Barranca and Johnny spoils Pintauro as well.”
The others all laughed heartily and the group turned north toward the mountains that bordered part of Lancer land and part of the Bar T. Jim was positive that there were some cattle hiding in those hills – his crew had searched but he knew that these young men he had with him had explored every inch of those mountains since they were children, teens or arrived in the valley. If anyone could find where the cattle were hiding it was these boys whom he considered to almost be replacements for the three he and Maura had lost in the war.
In the kitchen Maura set her bread dough aside and began to mix cookie dough. She was planning on sugar cookies, ginger cookies and probably chocolate – they always seemed to be the most popular.
As she was putting her first batch of cookies in the oven she heard someone knock at the front door. Wiping her hands on the big white apron she wore over her dress she proceeded out to the front hall to see who was knocking.
“Why, Estelle!” Maura exclaimed. “What brings you out here?”
Estelle Dalton was a newcomer to Green River. Her husband had recently started a newspaper that carried all the news he could find in the area of the three towns closest to the Bar T and Lancer. While Peter Dalton loved everything about living in the west his wife was eastern born and bred and despised the lack of amenities such as fancy dress shops, milliners and expensive restaurants.
“I just had to get away from that dreary little cottage of ours and talk to a woman who understands the things of the east. So many of the women around here are simpletons or they’re completely lacking in taste.” The tall, regal blonde walked into the house at Maura’s invitation and made herself comfortable in the living room.
“I’m in the middle of baking cookies and bread right now, dear,” Maura told the woman. “Why don’t you come out into the kitchen with me so we can talk. I can’t sit around today – I have too much to do.”
Reluctantly, for the elegantly dressed woman would have preferred to stay in the living room, Estelle followed Maura out to the kitchen as the petite Irishwoman bustled her way to the oven to retrieve the cookies that were just done enough – another minute and they would have burned. Maura was not about to serve her boys burned cookies though she doubted Johnny, who was often thought of as a bottomless pit, would even notice.
“Just in time,” Maura said as she removed them from the pan. Quickly, and efficiently, she got the next pan of cookies ready for the oven and put water on to boil. While the cookies baked she got two of her best china cups and saucers, some lemon wedges, the sugar bowl and a creamer. The china teapot, imported from Ireland, was the last to go on the tray.
By the time these items were ready the cookies in the oven were ready to come out. Nicely browned they gave off a wonderfully sweet chocolate aroma. The smell of bread dough rising also filled the air though it would be a while before it was ready to bake.
Johnny held his hands up to his face and let out a loud sneeze. After the sneeze he started coughing. Kevin was working nearby and heard him. Concerned he rode Coco over to where Johnny sat on Barranca trying to catch his breath after the coughing spell.
“Johnny? Are you ok?” the sun streaked blond asked his friend.
“Yeah,” Johnny croaked, “I’m fine. I just got one of them tickles Scott’s always talking about in my throat.”
Kevin looked closely at his friend. He didn’t like what he saw. Johnny’s face appeared flushed to him. The young rancher reached out his hand to check Johnny’s temperature.
“Fine my foot!” Kevin exclaimed. “You’re running a fever. You’ve got no business being out here – especially with that cold wind coming down off the tops of these hills!”
“I’m fine I tell ya,” Johnny responded. “I just had a little coughing spell from a tickle in my throat is all.”
Kevin wasn’t buying it. He looked around until he spotted Scott about a half mile to the east of them. He turned Coco and headed over to talk to Scott about his concern. Scott quickly made tracks to get to his brother’s side after asking Kevin to find Jim Talbot. He knew he was in for a fight if he was going to get his little brother to go home – or at least back to the Bar T ranch house where Maura could look after him.
“Kevin tells me you’re not feeling too well, Johnny,” Scott said as he approached. “Why don’t you go back to the house and rest until we’re through? We won’t be long.”
“I’m fine!” Johnny exclaimed before another coughing spell overtook him.
“What’s going on?” Jim Talbot rode up on his black and white pinto, Pintauro as Scott removed his right glove and reached out to feel Johnny’s forehead for himself. Kevin was right behind him.
“Johnny’s sick,” Scott told their neighbor. “He’s definitely running a bit of a fever and he’s had at least two coughing spells since we came out here. I tried to convince him,” Scott added with a scowl at his younger brother, “to go back to the house and let your wife take care of him but he refuses to go.”
“Johnny? Is this true?” Jim asked his friend’s younger son. “Are you sick?”
“I’m fine! Why does everyone act like a little cough is such a big deal!”
That tirade from the young man started him coughing again.
“Fine, huh?” Jim shook his head. “You’re as pigheaded as your father! Well I’m not going to have Murdoch Lancer angry with me because I kept his son out here working when he was sick!” Nodding to Scott he leaned forward and took Barranca’s reins from Johnny’s hand. “You’re going back to the house right now, young man,” he said sternly. “Scott’s going to take you and he’ll pick you up when we get through here. I’ll lend you my buckboard if need be.”
He turned to Kevin, “Kevin you go work with Willie and Rico. Scott and I will take this section when he comes back. We’ve already cleared out the strays from the section we were in.” To Scott he said, “Take him to the house and tell Maura what’s wrong with him. She’ll put him to bed and send for Sam if necessary. Now both of you get!”
Scott took Barranca’s reins from Jim and set off toward the house completely ignoring his brother’s protests. He winced every time he heard Johnny cough and worried about the way the younger man’s face was flushed. Whatever it was Johnny had it had come on him awfully fast.
The sound of hoof beats approaching the house caught Maura’s attention just as she withdrew the last batch of cookies from the oven. Most visitors would have come to the front door but these sounds were coming from the back. She set the cookies down on the counter and went to the door. She was surprised to see Scott and Johnny riding up – especially since Scott was leading Barranca. That surprise turned to concern when she saw the younger man’s flushed and perspiring face. She reached the brothers as Scott was helping Johnny down from Barranca’s back.
“Scott! What’s wrong with your brother?” she asked anxiously. She loved the Lancer boys as though they were her own and it distressed her to see them sick, or hurt.
“I have no idea, Mrs. Talbot,” the blond Lancer replied. “He’s running a bit of a fever and he’s coughing and sneezing. I’d guess he’s caught himself a little bit of a cold somewhere.”
“Johnny, love,” Maura said as she placed her right hand on his forehead, “are you not feeling well?”
“I feel fine,” the ex-gunfighter replied. “Scott’s just a worrywart is all.”
“It’s not just me, Johnny,” Scott reminded his brother. “Kevin’s the one who told me and Mr. Talbot is the one who told you to get yourself back to the house. I didn’t have to say a word.”
“That settles it,” Maura said with a frown. “If Alex sent you back here then it’s definitely not ‘nothing’ and you’re going straight to bed. I’ll fix you some hot tea. If that doesn’t help then I’ll send Tim for Sam.” Though Maura’s husband’s name was James she called him Alex to distinguish him from her brother Jamie. Jim’s middle name was Alexander.
“I’m fine,” Johnny protested. “I’m only coughing a little.”
“And you’re running a fever as well,” Maura retorted as Estelle came to the door to see what was going on.
“I’m fine.” Johnny tried again.
“John Luis Lancer you get yourself in that house, up to Kenny’s old room and into that bed – now!”
Johnny ceased his protests and headed toward the house with slumping shoulders. He wanted to keep on helping with the search for strays but he knew better than to argue with Maura Talbot when the woman used that tone of voice with him. He gave his brother one of his best Madrid glares, however, which really only made Scott grin in triumph.
“Scott, you run along back to wherever it is your men were working,” Maura said to him. “I’ll look after your brother. If it appears to be anything serious I’ll send for Sam.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Talbot,” the blond said. “I’ll be back in a couple of hours or so. We’re only up in the northeast section bordering the San Benitos. There seems to be quite a collection of strays up there.”
“Run along,” Maura nodded. “If I have to send for Sam I’ll send someone to get you.”
Somewhat reluctantly the blond Lancer brother turned away from the house and mounted again. Turning his horse he headed back to the place where he’d left their friends while he brought Johnny to the house. Maura called to one of the men who was working around the barn to take Barranca and turn him loose in the small pasture near the barn after removing his saddle and bridle. The Palomino would have a day of rest and play with the few horses that were turned out in that pasture while his human friend was tended to in the house.
The petite redhead turned to go back to the house. As she got close to the door she noticed that her visitor was standing, paralyzed, just outside the door. She had a glazed and terrified look on her face, which confused Maura for she saw nothing that should cause such a reaction. There were no snakes, spiders or other terrifying creatures in sight.
“Why, Estelle, whatever is the matter?” Maura asked the woman.
“That young man – the one that just went into your house – he’s Johnny Madrid!”
“He was Johnny Madrid,” Maura corrected her. “He goes by his real name now – Johnny Lancer.”
“You…you allow a notorious gunfighter to go into your house without your husband or any of the ranch hands to protect you?”
“Protect me from what?” Maura didn’t understand the woman’s attitude. To her Johnny was just the younger of her friend, and neighbor’s, two sons.
“Johnny Madrid! He’s a gunfighter. He’s killed hundreds of men! He might hurt us! I’ve seen him in town and heard the stories! He’s dangerous!”
“Oh fiddlesticks!” Maura exclaimed. “Johnny is no more dangerous than any other man around this place – around Green River, Morro Coyo or Spanish Wells either. He’s just another one of the boys that helps out when we need it.” She frowned at Estelle Dalton. “I wouldn’t let his father, brother or friends hear you talk like that – they wouldn’t be very happy. For that matter neither am I. Johnny is like a part of our family – I helped bring him into this world and all three of my boys adored him. They spoiled him rotten!”
“But Johnny Madrid is notorious for being a cold blooded killer!” Estelle didn’t understand Maura’s attitude any more than Maura understood hers.
Maura lost her temper at that point.
“Estelle Dalton you haven’t listened to a word I’ve said! Johnny Madrid may have done some bad things but bad things were done to him as well. He was born John Luis Lancer. His mother took him away from his home when he was a very small child. When she died he had to find a way to protect himself – some people don’t take kindly to orphans, some don’t take kindly to Mexicans and still others don’t take kindly to people – even children - who are neither white, Mexican nor Indian but half and half! An attitude I find abhorrent! Now I’m going in to see about my patient and make sure he’s in bed like I told him. If you wish to remain a guest in this house you will refrain from any further comments maligning Johnny Lancer’s character!”
With that Maura swept regally into the house to go upstairs and check on her young friend turned patient. She found him just getting settled on the bed. He’d removed his boots and his gunbelt but that was it.
Finding him slightly warm but not too hot she sat on the side of the bed and checked his eyes, breathing and cough. The cough wasn’t quite as bad as she’d feared but it was evident that Johnny was coming down with either a cold or a mild case of influenza. She took a light blanket from the chest at the foot of the bed and covered him with it.
“It’s a good thing for you, young man,” she said with a stern look on her face, “that your friends and brother are more vigilant about your health than you are. You’re coming down with something that’s for certain. I’m going to fix you up some ginger tea and you’re going to drink every bit of it! It’ll help you feel better enough to go home tonight anyway.”
So saying she left him and returned to the kitchen. Her petticoats swished as she moved. The sunlight through the windows made her hair look like burnished copper.
In the kitchen she found that her guest was sitting at the table apparently deep in thought. Maura paid her no attention as she went about preparing the ginger tea for her patient. She hummed to herself as she did so and included a couple of ginger cookies to appease the little boy in him. Johnny so hated the herbal teas he was always being given when he was sick. So far, though, he’d managed to avoid Jelly’s “cure” of hot water, lemon juice, blackstrap molasses and cayenne pepper. Scott hadn’t been so lucky. A lingering cold, complete with laryngitis, had caused his father to be desperate enough to allow the old timer to try it. Scott had definitely not enjoyed it when it was given to him but Teresa had been right there with a pitcher of lemonade to help kill the taste.
“I’m going upstairs to give Johnny his tea and cookies,” Maura told her visitor. “If you’d like to hear more about him then you’re welcome to stay – but only if you’re willing to hear about the Johnny Lancer that I’ve known and loved since he was a baby. I’ll not be talking about Madrid, the gunfighter.”
So saying she took the tray with the tea and cookies in her hands and headed back upstairs to what had been her oldest son’s bedroom, which was now, temporarily, the sick room for Johnny Lancer. She smiled as she walked into the room for Johnny had his “lost little boy” look on his face. He hated to be sick and he hated staying in bed. Right now he was lonely because Scott and the Prankster Posse were out working the range with Jim Talbot and he was stuck in the house with Maura fussing over him and a woman he’d not yet met giving him looks like he was poison ivy or a rattlesnake or some other such thing to be avoided.
“What’s the matter, Johnny?” she asked. “You look upset about something.”
“That lady downstairs,” he said. “She looks at me like I’m something to be avoided – or wiped off her shoe. Who is she? What’s she got against me?”
“That’s Estelle Dalton,” Maura answered him as she set the tray down on the bedside table. “She and her husband are new here. She’s laboring under the false impression that you’re a cold blooded killer who’s murdered hundreds of men.” She handed Johnny the mug with the ginger tea in it. “I set her straight on that let me tell you!”
Johnny grinned at the tone and attitude in his surrogate mother’s voice. He’d heard it before and it was nice that it wasn’t aimed at him for a change. It usually meant trouble. When she did use that tone with him he knew that no amount of sweet talking and charm and shy – or sly according to Scott – smiles were going to get him out of whatever trouble he was in with her.
His grin turned upside down after a moment. He had a feeling he knew what the woman had heard. Even after a couple of years back at Lancer, now well settled in with his father, brother, foster sister and friends like Kevin, Rico and Willie, stories about Madrid still made their way to his ears. Most of said stories were grossly exaggerated but that didn’t mean that they didn’t hurt all the same.
“Johnny,” Maura’s voice called him back from his reverie, “don’t give it another thought. If she knew you like I know you – and your family knows you – she’d love you just the same as we do. Now drink your tea and try to go to sleep. I’ll wake you up when Scott gets back.”
“No buts, young man,” she told him. “Now finish that tea. I have work to do in the kitchen and a guest to see to. You get some rest and we’ll see how you are when Scott and the others get back with Alex.”
Johnny obeyed her – reluctantly. At least she’d brought him some ginger cookies too – that made the tea go down easier. When he was finished she took the mug from him and placed it on the tray with the now empty plate. When she was sure he was comfortable and dozing off she quietly left the room and returned to the kitchen ,which was now empty. Seeing this Maura hoped, and prayed, that Estelle Dalton would think about what she had been told about Johnny. To Maura he truly was just one of the boys – a harum-scarum scamp at times that loved to play tricks on his brother and friends. It seemed sometimes that Scott, and Green River Sheriff Val Crawford, were the ones targeted the most frequently. Those who had been “victimized” over the last couple of Halloweens and Jelly Hoskins, whose watermelon patch had been unsuccessfully raised the last two summers, would disagree.
All afternoon long Johnny slept in the room that had been Kendall’s and was now a guest room. Maura looked in on him several times and was satisfied that whatever it was he was coming down with they seemingly had caught it in time to prevent it from getting any worse. She would send him home with his brother but with instructions to have Maria and Teresa keep an eye on him and send for Sam Jenkins if it seemed to take a turn for the worse.
It was late afternoon when Jim Talbot, Scott and the remaining pranksters returned to the main ranch and to the house. A snack of ginger cookies and milk awaited them. There was coffee too but all the men opted for the cold drink.
“How’s Johnny doing, Maura?” Jim asked his wife.
“He’s all right,” she replied. “He’s just got a mild case of the influenza, I think. I gave him some ginger tea and some cookies to go with it and he’s been sleeping most of the afternoon.”
“Is he well enough to ride home?” Scott asked.
“I think so,” Maura said. “However, I think I would feel better if you took him home in the buggy – or the buckboard. He’s got just enough of a fever to make him miserable and the cough isn’t helping. I’d rather you didn’t spend all your time making sure he doesn’t fall out of the saddle. It’s a little bit of a ride from this house to Lancer’s border not to mention the house itself.”
“I’ll hitch up Barnabas and Josiah,” her husband said as he wiped his mouth and rose from the table, “and I’ll send someone to get them, and the buckboard, in the morning.”
Scott left the table very shortly thereafter and went up to the room Maura directed him to. He found his younger brother just starting to wake up from his latest nap.
“How do you feel, Johnny?” Scott queried.
“I’m just fine!” Johnny exclaimed. “I’m just tired of being in bed. Can we go home now?”
Scott chuckled. “Yes, we can go home now but you’re riding in the back of the Talbots’ buckboard – Mrs. Talbot’s insistence. She doesn’t want me to spend all my time holding you up in the saddle on the way home.”
“No arguments, John,” Maura admonished him as she came into the room. “You’ll ride home in the back of the buckboard and you’re going straight to bed. No visits to Green River, Morro Coyo or Spanish Wells. No whiskey, Scotch or tequila when you get home either. Straight to bed after some soup and some more ginger tea.” She smiled at the petulant look on Johnny’s face. “I’ve already sent Kevin on his way with orders to stop by Lancer and relay the message to your father. Rico and Willie are gone as well – they’re going to find Sam Jenkins and send him out to Lancer to make sure that my diagnosis is correct – you have a mild case of influenza which – thanks to your vigilant brother and friends – we have caught in time to keep it from getting as bad as the first time I treated you for it.”
Scott hid a smile. Maura Talbot was one of the few people in their lives that could make Johnny behave himself without garnering a lot of argument. He handed Johnny his boots and the brothers made their way downstairs and outside where Jim had just pulled up outside the kitchen with the buckboard. He made no move to get down, though, for he’d decided he’d just drive Johnny home himself and spare Murdoch, or himself, having to take care of the issue of the buckboard.
Maura followed them with a couple of pillows and an old quilt for Johnny to use. “In you go, Johnny,” she said pointing to the back of the buckboard.
Johnny looked plaintively at his brother and Jim Talbot but neither one of them was inclined to argue with Maura when she was in full mother hen mode. Reluctantly he climbed into the back of the buckboard and lay down. Maura covered him with the old quilt and gently kissed his cheek before they left. Before Scott mounted Ranger for the trip home she pulled his head down and gave him a kiss as well which he gladly reciprocated.
Once Scott was mounted Jim clucked to his team and they drove off down the road that led to the main road that would eventually lead to the fork that turned toward Lancer. Barranca was tied to the back of the buckboard and didn’t look very happy about it. Johnny, however, had dozed off again. His slight fever was sapping his energy, which, in turn, was making him very sleepy. The fact that it was warm and the bees were buzzing and the crickets singing helped lull him. That - and the quiet voices of Jim Talbot and Scott as they went down the road.
An hour later they pulled into the yard at Lancer. Murdoch was waiting, as were Teresa and Maria, for them when they arrived. Johnny was promptly hustled up the stairs to his room and Sam Jenkins arrived ten minutes later to check him over.
“Maura’s right – as usual,” he told the anxious family. “It’s a mild case of influenza. Good thing for Johnny that Kevin caught on the way he did.” Looking at Jim Talbot he added, “I’m not going to have much practice left if Maura keeps diagnosing, and treating, my patients!”
They all laughed because it was well known that Maura was Sam’s right hand man – or woman – when it came to the practice of medicine in their part of the San Joaquin Valley. Sam depended on her to look out for many of his patients – especially the recalcitrant Lancer clan.
Jim shook hands with Murdoch and Scott, tweaked Teresa’s nose and made his way out to his buckboard. His loving wife would be anxiously waiting for him to return with news of Sam’s diagnosis.
A couple of weeks later the Bar T hosted a big barbecue for their neighbors. It wasn’t to celebrate any special occasion – just a time to get together and enjoy each other’s company.
The Lancers, Millars, Portillos, Mays’, Malcoms, Beemises and all the other neighbors were there. Val Crawford and Gabe, the sheriff of Green River, were able to get the night off and attend much to Maura’s delight. Gabe was a little older than most of the young men but he was a good friend of the Lancers. Val was one of Johnny’s best friends – often to Val’s detriment as it made him a target for the Prankster Posse at times. No amount of threats ever did him any good and he was finally learning to just laugh them off.
Also among the guests were Estelle Dalton and her husband, Peter. The former was dressed to the nines in dark blue silk with white lace trim. Peter was more sensible. While not a cowboy he had learned that wearing a suit all the time made him stick out like a sore thumb. He was wearing tan pants and a light blue shirt with a black string tie. It made him feel slightly dressed up while not overdoing it and allowing him to blend in a little.
“We’re so glad you could come,” Maura welcomed each guest warmly. “Johnny, how wonderful to see you looking well again!”
Johnny bent down to give her a kiss on the cheek and she reciprocated gladly. Johnny was, in the minds of many, her pet. She’d deny it to all who said it but even her husband knew it was the truth.
“I feel fine, Mrs. Talbot,” he told her. “Sam said the same thing you did – it was caught in time to keep me from getting real sick again. I sure am glad to be out of bed!”
“Go on and join your friends over there by the garden,” she told him. “Kevin and the rest have been waiting anxiously for you arrive.” Giving him a severe look she added, “However you four had better not be planning some devilment tonight or I’ll take a switch to you!”
“Mrs. Talbot! I’m crushed!” Johnny laughed. “You know we’d never cause trouble at one of your parties!”
“Not deliberately, no,” she agreed, “but when you get high spirited and into mischief anything could happen. Just remember what I said about that switch, Johnny.”
Johnny gave a jaunty wave as he wandered off to join his buddies who had also been warned about their behavior. The four of them soon had their heads together and sat on a bench catching up on what had happened in the three towns while Johnny had been sick
Willie reported that he was doing a lot of work for the neighboring ranches – mostly the Bar T. Jim Talbot was having him enlarge a storage shed and reshingle several buildings. His father was very busy at the blacksmith shop as several of the local ranchers had suddenly found themselves lacking anyone in their employ capable of doing that kind of work. Plus he had orders from Mayor Higgs and a couple of other merchants for nails. John Mays was quite busy.
“And Jimmy and Cece want you to come by and see Ivanhoe. They’ve taught him some new trick or other and they insist that you be the first one to see it since you gave him to them,” he laughed.
Rico had been quite busy at the livery stable. He’d had to take several of the horses to Mr. Mays to be shod, some gamblers had been thrown out of the saloon and run out of town by Gabe. Gabe wouldn’t be likely to brag about it but, according to Rico, these guys had been a lot bigger and thought they were tougher. Gabe had proved them wrong and they’d left town in a big hurry.
Kevin’s news was that his father’s favorite mare was about to throw her fourth foal. They were hoping it was a colt but even a mare was fine as long as it was healthy and inherited its sire’s stamina and its dam’s sweet disposition. Kevin was hoping he’d be allowed to train it when it was old enough. He was pretty sure his father would let him halter break it. The rest would remain to be seen – in a year or so.
The best news, or at least the funniest, was that the Widow Hargis had chased some rowdies out of her store with a broom. No broken window this time but the men had turned tail and run quick enough when she started swinging with the broom handle rather than the business end. All four young men shared a laugh over that. Johnny, in particular, remembered the time Scott had been made acting sheriff and wound up guarding a female prisoner who’d given him a very rough time.
Soon after the boys got caught up it was time to eat. There was beef roasted over an open fire accompanied by mountains of mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, green beans, salad greens, fresh bread and butter and gallons of coffee and milk. It still surprised his friends somewhat to see that Johnny preferred milk with his meals over coffee. When they were on the trail, or a campout, it was a different matter but normally he drank milk.
Half an hour after dinner, when the dishes were all washed, Maura and Jim brought out the makings for vanilla ice cream. Johnny and Rico were put to work chopping ice. Willie and Kevin were put in charge of getting the salt they needed. Jim put the ice cream freezer together and showed the boys how to place the ice and salt around the canister and started them off with the churning process. Scott took a turn as well and within half an hour, after a lot of steady cranking and occasional adding of ice and salt, the ice cream was ready.
Jim brought the freezer over to the table after disposing of the ice and salt. Maura then commenced to serve up dishes of the cold, creamy, sweet treat to all of their guests. Johnny, followed by his fellow pranksters, was first in line. He took his dish and headed for the steps of the Talbot’s bunkhouse. Not a sound was heard from the four of them save the scraping of their spoons as they got every bit of the creamy treat out of their respective dishes.
One dish was not enough for Johnny Lancer, otherwise known – at times by his brother – as the bottomless pit. He went back to the freezer and got a second dish only this time he served himself and took twice as much.
By the time his father noticed it was too late to stop him.
“Johnny!” Murdoch roared. “Don’t be so greedy! Somebody else might like some more.”
Maura heard him, saw the guilty little boy look on Johnny’s face and said, “Oh, Murdoch, that’s one of the reasons we love him – he’s just another one of the boys!”