Patchwork Family of Friends
(or The Prankster Posse Celebrates Maura’s Birthday)
St. Patrick’s Day was coming up and with it Maura Talbot’s birthday. Johnny Lancer and his buddies Kevin Millar, Rico Portillo and Willie Mays – otherwise known as the Prankster Posse – were ready to celebrate but they were having a hard time deciding on a gift.
“You gave her a cookbook a couple of years ago,” Kevin scoffed at Johnny’s suggestion. “She’ll start to think we only love her for her cooking!”
“You got any better ideas?” Johnny wanted to know.
“Not yet,” Kevin conceded, “but we should at least look around the stores and see what they’ve got.”
“Maybe we should talk to Señor Talbot,” Rico said. “He would know what we could get her wouldn’t he?”
“Yeah, but it’s more fun to surprise him as well,” Willie chimed in.
“Do you know what Scott got her?” Kevin asked. “He’s always good at picking out gifts for the ladies.”
“I think he got her a book of poetry,” Johnny said. “Several of them. He’s always buying people books and stuff.”
“Mrs. Talbot likes to read, though,” Willie reminded his pal with a nudge. “So doesn’t Mr. Talbot. Neither of them would ever object to a book but I don’t think we could pick out the right kind except for cookbooks and that would seem like we were hinting.”
“Sí, Willie is right,” Rico said. “We already spend a lot of time in her kitchen.”
“Yeah, but she invites in all the time,” Johnny pointed out.
“That’s true,” Kevin said, “but we still don’t want to give her a cookbook. It’d be like hinting for an invitation.”
The four young men sat under the giant oak tree in Lancer’s north pasture deep in thought for a few minutes.
“Maybe we should check the stores in Green River,” Kevin suggested.
“No,” Johnny said. “You know as well as I do that they don’t have much. Neither does Señor Baldomero or Widow Hargis. There just ain’t nothin’ in any store around here.”
“Yeah,” Kevin sighed dejectedly. “Do we have time to go to Sacramento or Stockton? They’ve got lots of good stores there.”
“True,” Rico agreed, “but Señora Talbot’s birthday is less than a month away. That’s not much time.”
“We’re right back where we started from,” Willie sighed in frustration. “Doesn’t any of us have an idea about what to get her?”
“Ma said she and the girls and Teresa are getting Mrs. Talbot some real nice silk and some lace and some ribbon for a new dress. She’s always sewing stuff for other people so they thought she should have something for herself.”
“Sí,” Rico said. “Even now Mama tells me that Mrs. Talbot is mending and remaking clothes for the niños at the orphanage as well as for the Pittmans.”
“That’s it!” Johnny exclaimed in excitement.
He jumped to his feet and ran for Barranca who was grazing nearby. In the process he startled Eagle, Mo and Coco. In a flash he was in the saddle and headed for Green River and Mayor Josiah Higgs’ store. The other young men caught their mounts and followed close behind yelling at him to wait for them and asking what he was doing.
“Darn you anyway, Johnny Lancer!” Kevin yelled. “Wait for us!”
Within forty-five minutes – a record setting time from Lancer to Green River – the four young men were pulling up in front of the mayor’s store. The mayor himself, a somewhat portly man with an exaggerated sense of self importance who tended to do as he pleased as opposed to what he was encouraged to do, greeted them as they came in the door tumbling all over each other like a bunch of puppies.
“What can I do for you boys?” he inquired.
“We’d like to see your mail order catalogue,” Johnny said. “We’re looking for something for Mrs. Talbot’s birthday and I think I know what we’re going to get her.”
The storekeeper reached below the counter and handed a thick book to Johnny. The ex-gunfighter took it and flipped through it rapidly to find what he was looking for. He was overjoyed to find the very thing he’d been looking for near the middle of the catalogue.
“See this? This is what we’ll get Miz Talbot,” he told his pals.
Kevin took the catalogue from him, “It’s perfect. Only look here – it’s kind of expensive. Do we have that much money between us?”
The other young men took a lot at the item in the catalogue and started digging through their pockets. One by one each of the young men put the money they had with them into a bandana that Willie spread out on the counter.
“How much will this be with the shipping costs?” Kevin anxiously asked as Johnny counted up their money.
Mayor Higgs took the catalogue and looked at the item the boys had chosen. Doing some figuring in his head he gave them a price.
“Do we have enough Johnny?” Rico asked anxiously.
“No,” Johnny sighed in disappointment. “We’re about twenty dollars short.”
“Where are we going to get another twenty dollars?” Kevin wanted to know. “None of us gets paid for another month. Gee, I wish I hadn’t spent all my money on that new blanket for Coco. I could have gotten along with the old one for a while.”
“Be quiet and let me think for minute,” Johnny said. After a moment he said, “I could get it from Scott – he’d loan it to me.”
“No!” was the cry in unison from his friends.
“Scott’s already got her something,” Willie said. “Besides we want this to be from us.”
“Hey, wait a minute!” Johnny exclaimed in delight. “Who do we all know that likes to do ‘charitable works’ as Miz Talbot puts it and just got paid the other day?”
The other boys looked at him, puzzled, for a minute. Then the light dawned and they all ran out the door telling Mayor Higgs that they would be back with the rest of the money in a little while.
The sound of the door to his office being flung open and banging against the wall startled Sheriff Val Crawford out of a doze at his desk and nearly sent him to the floor when he jumped at the sound. Looking up he saw his pal, Johnny Lancer, and Johnny’s other pals whom Scott had nicknamed The Prankster Posse.
“Oh, no,” he groaned. “One of you is bad enough but did it have to be all four of you at once?”
Johnny grinned, “Sorry, Val. We didn’t mean to startle you. Some sheriff you are – sleeping on the job.”
The other boys grinned and snickered but wisely held their tongues for Johnny was the only one who could get away with making such comments to their lawman.
“Never mind that – I was just resting my eyes,” Val defended himself. “Besides I was up half the night breaking up fights at the saloon and making my rounds. My deputy’s been sick with some sort of stomach ailment for the last three days. You give me any more grief and I’ll be swearing one or more of you in as his replacement until he gets back.”
The younger men quickly stifled their laughter for they knew that if they didn’t they wouldn’t get any help from Val. They also knew that if Maura Talbot heard – or their parents heard – that they’d been giving Val a hard time again they’d get their ears blistered.
“We need your help, Val,” Johnny told him.
“Why? Somebody cheat you at the poker table? Rob you at gunpoint on the way into town? Lure you into an alley and rob you? Why do you need my help?”
To say that Val was suspicious would have been putting it mildly but he’d been on the receiving end of too many wise remarks and even a few practical jokes from this bunch and he wasn’t taking any chances.
“We want to buy Mrs. Talbot a nice birthday present,” Kevin started to explain.
“What’s that got to do with me?” Val wanted to know.
“We don’t have enough money,” Willie told him.
“I still don’t see what that has to do with me,” Val said.
“Ain’t you plannin’ on getting’ her something?” Johnny asked.
“I’m thinkin’ on it,” the sheriff said.
“Well we got a great idea but we need help.”
Quickly Johnny explained the situation. “Don’t you see? It’s perfect but we need about twenty dollars more to pay for it and to get it shipped here on time.”
“Johnny, boy,” Val said, “I hate to admit it but you fellas actually have a good idea. Count me in.”
The scruffy sheriff dug around in his pocket and rifled his desk drawer while the others watched anxiously. Johnny grabbed the money as Val placed it on the desk and counted it anxiously while his friends watched. Finally he heaved a sigh of relief.
“Got it! We’ve got just enough money to order it, get it shipped here and buy a big ribbon to wrap around the crate when we give it to her at the party.”
With that Johnny, Kevin, Willie and Rico left Val’s office with their thanks ringing in his ears and went back to Mayor Higgs store. Once there they buttonholed the mayor to make sure that he filled out their order, took their money and wired the order to the store in Sacramento. They were determined that nothing would delay their gift arriving in time for the birthday party. St. Patrick’s Day was only three weeks away.
“It should be here in a week or ten days,” the storekeeper told them when he returned from the telegraph office where he’d sent an urgent message requesting the desired item.
“You make sure you let us know when it gets here,” Johnny said. “It’s very important that we have it before St. Patrick’s Day.”
“And don’t you go shooting your mouth off to the Talbots,” Kevin said, “it’s a birthday present for Mrs. Talbot and we want it to be a surprise to her and Mr. Talbot.”
“Now see here,” Higgs blustered. “What do you boys take me for?”
“You don’t want us to answer that,” Rico told the man.
Two weeks went by and the boys’ and Val’s gift didn’t arrive. Hardly a day went by that one of them wasn’t in Green River to see if it had been delivered yet. Mayor Higgs was fast losing whatever patience he had – which wasn’t much – with their constant queries.
Finally, two days before Maura’s party, the gift arrived. Kevin was in town on an errand for his father when it came into the store. As soon as he could conduct the business for the Rocking M the sun-streaked blond headed for the sheriff’s office to let Val know that he had it and he was taking it home with him. As soon as he got it home he put it in his bedroom where his little sister, Kelly, was forbidden to go. Kelly, at nine, was a very inquisitive child who did not always get along with her brother. She was apt, at times, to be nosy and a tattletale. However, for all that, Kevin would not allow anyone to give his little sister a hard time but him. He was actually quite protective of her and had been especially so since she had been taken hostage by bank robbers when she was seven. He’d been wounded in that same robbery but had blamed himself for his little sister being in danger although in truth there was nothing he could have done. It was Johnny’s rescue of Kelly, ahead of the posse, including Val Crawford and the other two pranksters, which had cemented the friendship between the younger sons of the Lancer and Millar families.
The next thing Kevin did was to ride over to Lancer to let Johnny know that it had arrived. It was Scott who answered Kevin’s knock on the door.
“Hello Kevin,” the older Lancer brother said. “What brings you out here?”
“I was hoping to see Johnny,” Kevin told Scott.
“Johnny’s not here right now,” the blond Lancer told him. “I think he’s out near that pass that runs through the San Benitos. He’s helping move a small herd to better grazing.”
“Thanks!” Kevin turned and remounted Coco turning his horse toward the road to the mountains hoping to meet up with his pal. He’d already left word for Willie and Rico with Val. Willie worked at the Bar T part time so he couldn’t go there and Rico lived in Spanish Wells. One way or another the other members of the group would get the word that their gift had arrived.
“Who was that at the door, Scott?” Murdoch asked his son as Scott returned to the Great Room.
“Kevin Millar. He was looking for Johnny,” Scott explained. “When I told him Johnny was out by the pass through the San Benitos he mounted Coco and rode out of here in a hurry. I can’t help wondering what’s so important.”
“Knowing those boys,” Murdoch said with a chuckle, “Kevin’s lined up a very important poker game for Saturday night.”
“No, it can’t be that,” Scott said. “That’s the night of Mrs. Talbot’s birthday party, remember?”
“Oh, yes,” his father responded. “You’re right. They wouldn’t dare miss Maura’s party – she’d be broken hearted if they did. Maybe they found out that she expects them to dance a jig with them and they’re plotting a way to get out of it.”
Scott laughed. “That’s entirely possible, sir. I remember how reluctant Johnny was to dance with her at her party the year we had that accident just before then. I couldn’t dance very well because of my leg and Johnny was trying to avoid it. Something about not liking his fun organized if I recall correctly.”
“Hey Johnny!” Kevin called as he approached the small herd of Lancer cattle being driven by Johnny and a couple of other men. “It’s here!”
“Miz Talbot’s present?” Johnny asked.
“Yeah! It came late yesterday. I was in town doing some errands for Pa and Mayor Higgs told me it had come. I took it home and Ma and the girls are making a big green bow for it – or maybe it’s green and white. Well, anyway, they’re making a bow for it for us. We just have to write a card or something for it to put our names on it.”
“Do the others know?”
“Sheriff Crawford does. I saw him while I was in Green River. I left word for Willie and Rico. They’ll know soon enough.”
“Rico said that Mariano would draw, and paint, a leprechaun on a card for us. All we have to do is tell him what it looks like.”
“I gotta get going,” Kevin said. “Pa’s gonna have a fit if I’m gone too long ‘cause I’ve still got chores to do at home. He said I could use the buckboard to bring the gift out to the party Saturday night. Why don’t you meet us at the Talbot’s around six? The five of us can carry it into the house and hide it from her sight until it’s time for her to open her gifts.”
“Okay,” Johnny agreed. “You gonna make sure the other fellas know?”
“Sure,” Kevin agreed. “I can make a quick trip into Spanish Wells tonight to tell Rico and he’ll see Willie tomorrow anyway – they’re both working at the livery stable right now.”
Kevin turned Coco back toward the Rocking M while Johnny turned Barranca back to the dust cloud created by the cattle as they moved along toward the greener pasture. The two young men waved as they went their separate ways.
St. Patrick’s Day dawned cloudy and cool but that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the party goers that went through their daily routine as quickly as they could in order to be cleaned up and ready to leave for the Talbots Bar T ranch in order to arrive in time for the buffet supper they knew was going to be served.
By noontime the sun was shining brightly and by the time the Lancers, Millars, Mays, Portillos, Val Crawford and all the other party goers arrived at the Bar T so were the faces of the guests and the guest of honor.
Maura was, as always, resplendent in a gown that complemented her coloring. Due to it’s being St. Patrick’s Day she was wearing emerald green brocade with gold trim, the bejeweled gold necklace which the Lancer boys and Teresa had given her when she’d won a Woman of the Year contest they’d entered her in and gold combs in her red hair. Her brown eyes sparkled with delight as she greeted all of her visitors.
Jim Talbot wore dark brown trousers with an emerald green shirt and a black string tie. The gentlemen guests were similarly attired in semi-formal trousers and shirts – except Johnny. Johnny wore his best black pants and a white shirt with blue, green and red embroidery on it.
Kevin arrived from the Rocking M in the buckboard. The crate containing the gift that he, his friends and Val Crawford had chipped in to buy was in the back. True to their word Kevin’s mother and older sisters had tied a bright green and white ribbon around the crate and had formed a bow on one of the longer sides. A neatly drawn card, with a leprechaun on it – drawn by Rico’s artistically inclined younger brother, Mariano, was tucked inside the ribbon.
Willie, Rico and their families arrived at the same time that Val did. Johnny saw them and excused himself from the Talbots and joined his friends. Within minutes everyone was inside having something to eat and drink before the dancing started.
The dining room table groaned from the weight of beef roasts, ham, platters of fried chicken, baskets of bread, bowls of salad and condiments. A large crystal punch bowl with cut glass cups took up one end of the table. Plates were stacked on the other end along with silverware and napkins. The guests helped themselves and found places to sit while they ate. Neighbors who hadn’t seen each other in weeks caught up on news of their families. Men discussed stock prices, crops and politics. The ladies exchanged fashion notes and recipes. In short it was normal activities on a larger scale.
“If I could have your attention, friends,” Jim Talbot eventually called out, “it’s time to start the dancing. I get first dance with my wife – the rest of you fellas are going to have to stand in line.”
Everyone chuckled at that. Nobody would have dreamed of interfering with him having the first dance with his wife but he always joked about it and they always laughed at the look Maura gave him when he made that announcement.
The band that had been hired for the occasion struck up a waltz and they were soon gliding around the dance floor. Murdoch had the first dance with Teresa and was followed by Jelly, Scott and Johnny in that order. Then the Lancer men found other ladies to dance with, while half a dozen young swains including Tim O’Connor who worked for the Talbots claimed Teresa. At eight o’clock Jim called for everyone’s attention again.
“It’s time for the birthday girl to open her presents,” he said as he led her to a chair which was placed in the center of the dance floor so that she could be seen by everybody as she was presented with the gifts her friends and neighbors had purchased, or made, for her.
“I made this myself,” Kevin’s little sister, Kelly, told Maura as she unwrapped a royal blue shawl made of satin.
“It’s lovely, Kelly,” Maura told the little girl as she gave her a kiss.
Next was Kelly’s parents and sisters. As Kevin had said his sisters had bought some lace and ribbon for her to decorate a dress or a blouse with. Their parents had purchased a bolt of light blue satin brocade material for her. Maura thanked each of them graciously but eyed Kevin suspiciously as he hung back with his buddies. She didn’t know why she didn’t have a gift from him at the same time as the rest of his family but she knew something was up from the way his eyes were dancing and those of his friends and Val Crawford as well.
Scott’s gift of several books was treated the same as the others. He’d purchased a book of Anne Bradstreet’s poetry. Bradstreet was the first woman – poet or author – published in the United States. Scott thought that Maura would appreciate her work even though it was two hundred years old. He’d also bought a book of poetry by Irish poets and a history of Massachusetts that he thought she’d like. He was rewarded with a kiss for his efforts and a promise that she would find the time to read all of them.
Murdoch presented her with some expensive stationary, a hand carved box he’d commissioned from Manuel Portillo and some ink. Teresa had embroidered some table linens for her. When Johnny didn’t present her with anything, but hung back with Kevin and the others, she was doubly suspicious but didn’t say anything. She figured she’d find out what they were up to soon enough.
Other gifts included a small bottle of perfume, a neatly printed book of recipes from Felicia Portillo and more lace and ribbon as well as combs for her hair. All the gifts were received in the same manner. As she was opening the last gift Johnny and the other four conspirators snuck outside to get the crate with their gift. Just as she was thanking the gift giver they made their way through the crowd with the ribbon-bedecked crate. Rico was carrying a hammer and Willie a crowbar. They weren’t sure which would be needed to open the crate. Johnny, Kevin and Val set the crate down on the floor in front of the birthday girl who looked at them curiously.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“A little something from the five of us,” Johnny told her. “We all kicked in – me, Kev, Willie, Rico and Val. Hope you like it,” he finished a little shyly. “I mean we know you’ll like but we don’t want you to get the wrong idea or nothing.”
Kevin nudged Johnny with his elbow. “Why don’t you shut up and let her read the card?”
Maura exclaimed with delight over Mariano’s artwork as she opened the envelope with the card in it. He’d done a splendid job of drawing, and coloring, a leprechaun, a shamrock and a few other symbols of Ireland including a golden harp.
The card read: “For Mrs. Talbot on her special day. You’re always doing for others so we thought we’d help. With love from your ‘boys’ – Johnny Lancer, Kevin Millar, Willie Mays, Rico Portillo and Val Crawford.”
Maura untied the bow and draped the ribbon around her neck. Jim helped her to open the crate and caught her as she stepped back in shock and awe at what she found inside. The four pranksters and Val had chipped in to buy her a brand new Singer treadle sewing machine. Tears came to her eyes as her husband lifted it out of the crate. Johnny and Kevin flipped the wooden crate upside down so that Jim could place the sewing machine on top.
“What’s the matter – don’t you like it?” Johnny asked anxiously.
Maura couldn’t speak past the lump in her throat but the hugs, and kisses, that she bestowed upon them spoke for her. The boys, and Val, tried their best to look nonchalant but they were all thrilled that they’d made her so happy. Looking around she saw a patchwork family of friends with shining faces of white, black, brown and everything in between.
“I think this has been my best birthday yet,” she told them. “Thank you all.”