The Second Great Lancer Watermelon Caper
Another long, hot California summer day was well underway. At the Lancer ranch Jelly Hoskins’ watermelon patch was thriving under the care of the young boys that he had tending to it under his explicit directions. At the Rocking M, home of Johnny Lancer’s pal Kevin Millar, five young men were sitting around in a hayloft making plans for a raid.
Only the summer before Johnny and Scott had attempted a raid on Jelly’s watermelon patch only to be found out. Johnny had lost a loose concho off his pant leg, Scott had tell tale barbed wire tears in his pant leg, Scott had lost a glove and, to add insult to injury, Dewdrop had “attacked” Scott. The morning after the raid Dewdrop had honked, hissed and lashed out at the older Lancer son. It was the crowning humiliation when everyone realized that the raiders were the two brothers and started laughing at them.
“What makes you so sure, little brother, that we can pull off a raid on Jelly’s melons this year when we failed so miserably last year?” Scott asked Johnny.
The dark haired younger Lancer brother grinned, “’Cause we’ve got Kev, Rico and Willie to help us plan this year’s raid! We made a mistake, last year, trusting those kids to distract Jelly. They’re too afraid of him and Dewdrop. This year we’ve got three extras who aren’t afraid of them.” Johnny turned his best “adoring little brother” look on Scott and added, “With your military training, my brains and these guys besides we’re sure to pull the raid off this time!”
“I’m not so sure,” Scott said. “I mean you guys really got caught with your hand in the proverbial cookie jar back at Halloween. What makes you so positive?”
“Scott! I’m shocked!” Kevin Millar, a twenty-three year old with blue eyes and hair that was sun-streaked blond in the summer and light brown in the winter, said to his friend’s brother. “Of course we can pull this off! You and Johnny make the plans and tell us what to do.”
“An even better idea,” said Willie Mays who was the lone Negro in the bunch, “would be to tell us what went wrong last summer and how you got caught.”
“Sí!” Rico Portillo, a young Mexican the same age as the other two younger men, said. “And make sure that no gloves or conchos can be left behind as evidence this time.”
Scott and Johnny both glared at the other two. They were still slightly embarrassed about the whole fiasco, as Scott had called it. Still, they had to admit that it was the torn pant leg, the concho and the glove, as much as Scott and Dewdrop’s reactions to each other, that had given them away.
“I think maybe Scott should get a pair of leather pants like Johnny’s,” Kevin said. “Even a pair of buckskin ones.”
“With fringe,” Rico added. “That way nobody would suspect any of us since the only leather fringe around here is on Johnny’s jacket and nobody would expect him to be crawling under the barbed wire Jelly has up around those watermelons.”
“Rico’s right,” Willie chimed in. “Kevin’s idea is a good one but Rico has taken it a little farther.”
“Where am I supposed to get these buckskin pants and how am I supposed to keep them a secret from everyone?” Scott wanted to know as he shifted in his seat on one of the hay bales in the loft.
“I know someone who has some that will fit,” Rico said with a grin. “My cousin, Miguel, has some. You two are much the same size. I could get them for you.”
“Wouldn’t that make it look like Miguel was the thief?” Scott asked with concern. “I don’t want anyone we know taking the blame for it.”
“Nah,” Johnny said with a chuckle. “Miguel is not the kind to raid an old man’s watermelon patch. Besides a lot of the drifters who go through the area wear leather pants or jackets. Some wear buckskin shirts with fringe. Wouldn’t take much to mislead Jelly, or anybody else, into thinking it was one of them.”
Scott still wasn’t sure. As much as he wanted to be in on the raid – just to give Jelly a hard time – he didn’t want an innocent party taking the blame.
The barn door squeaked as it was opened from the outside. For a brief moment bright sunshine poured in through the opening and then the door closed. A small figure - Kevin’s little sister Kelly, nine - walked into the barn.
“Ssh!” Kevin hissed to his companions when he saw who it was. “If she knows we’re up here she’ll come up and she’ll squeal to Pa that we’re up to something.”
All five men hushed instantly, half holding their breath as they waited for Kelly to finish her business, which was to milk the two Guernsey cows the Millars owned. The thump of the milking stool was heard as she set it down in Daisy’s stall. Soon they could hear the meowing of the barn cats, as they gathered around looking for their share, and the ping as the milk went into the bucket. The young men in the loft could get a slight whiff, now and then, of warm milk as the child went about her job.
Ten minutes later she was finished. As she passed by the loft she looked up and said, “Kevin? Pa says you better not be late to dinner and Ma says it’s going to be ready in half an hour. You’d better finish whatever chores you have left or you’re gonna get it good this time!”
Kevin just rolled his eyes. It was bad enough that his father sometimes got on him about his chores but to have the message delivered by his little sister was embarrassing – especially with his friends right there.
“I know you’re in the barn Kev. And I know who’s with you. Their horses are still tied to the corral – they’re not going anywhere without them and there’s no place around here that you can hide except in the loft.” The men in the hayloft heard the barn door squeak as she opened it. “I’m going to the house with the milk now. You’d better be right behind me.”
Kevin blushed a bright red as his friends grinned at him. They knew Kelly could be a pain – in Kevin’s opinion – but they also knew that his parents meant business. As soon as Kelly was out the door they all scrambled down the ladder and set about feeding the horses and the two milk cows as well as ensuring that they had fresh water and the stalls were mucked out with fresh bedding laid down. Then the Lancer brothers, Rico and Willie headed for their own homes. Willie lived in Green River but worked for Jim Talbot of the Bar T as a handyman much as Jelly Hoskins did the same at Lancer. Only Willie lived at home with his parents and younger siblings. Rico’s father, Manuel, was a master woodcarver and carpenter. It was he who had built the bookshelves for Jim Talbot’s new study and had carved the giant chicken that had been used to spook the prank playing young men of the “Prankster Posse” as Scott referred to them. Willie’s father, John, was a blacksmith. Rico, himself, worked at the livery stable in Spanish Wells taking excellent care of the horses.
“See you tomorrow Kev,” Johnny said. “Only let’s meet up by Wolf Creek where prying eyes and smart alecky little sisters can’t disturb us.”
“I can get there around four – I think,” Kevin said as his friends mounted and rode off toward their respective homes.
Murdoch Lancer was nobody’s fool. Neither were John Mays, Manuel Portillo or Andrew Miller. They knew something was up and Murdoch, in particular, suspected he knew what. When Johnny got together with Rico, Kevin and Willie there was bound to be some kind of mischief afoot. When Scott got involved too it most likely involved pulling a trick either on Jelly or one of their intrepid local lawmen.
While Val Crawford and Gabe could take care of whatever those boys dreamed up – with minimal damage to themselves - Sam Jayson was another matter. Oh Sam was a good enough guy, and he was honest as the day is long, but he was no match for the quartet of mischief makers as had been seen last Halloween. He was even less than a match for them when Scott got involved – which he was apt to do on occasion. Scott liked a good joke as much as anyone – especially if it involved teasing one Jellifer B. Hoskins. In Murdoch’s mind, whatever was being cooked up with the five young men most likely had to do with Jelly’s watermelon patch.
The previous summer Murdoch had allotted Jelly a patch of ground, in the vicinity of Teresa’s herb garden, in which to plant a crop of watermelons. The old handyman had directed every move that his young helpers made in regard to the tilling and planting of his garden plot. He’d installed a small, ankle high barbed wire fence around it in order to protect it. It had been this wire that had literally tripped Scott up the night he and Johnny made their raid on the melon patch. He’d gotten his pant leg caught and was lying there trying to get loose when Jelly’s pet gander, Dewdrop, had come along.
Dewdrop had nipped Scott the next morning, and had hissed at him, which only confirmed Jelly’s suspicions that the Lancer brothers had been the ones who tried to raid his melon patch the previous night. All was eventually forgiven but this year Jelly was more determined than ever to keep unwanted people and critters out of his melons, and had installed a higher fence and strung bells along the wire so that he’d hear if anybody tried to get in. The Prankster Posse was not going to be deterred though. They figured that between the four of them and Scott’s military background they were definitely going to come up with a way to get those melons – if only to uphold the time honored tradition of stealing the neighbors’ melons.
“Where were you two this afternoon?” Murdoch asked his boys at the dinner table. “I thought you were going into Green River to play some poker with Val when you finished that little fencing job you were doing. I saw Val myself a couple of hours ago and he said he hadn’t seen hide nor hair of either of you. He was a little disappointed. Said something about winning back his week’s wages from you this time.”
‘Oh, ah, we were helping Kevin out over at the Rocking M,” Johnny said. “He had a real big bunch of steers he needed to move and nobody to help him.”
“Yes, that’s right,” Scott confirmed. “He said that his father and the rest of their hands were with the main herd and he was struggling to get this bunch to join up with them. So, being the good neighbors that you always tell us to be, we took it upon ourselves to pitch in and help him out.”
“Really? That was very kind of you boys,” their father said. “Funny how Rico and Willie were also missing from their jobs at the same time. Jim Talbot said that Willie asked for a couple of hours off and headed in the general direction of the Rocking M when he left. And I ran into Gabe who told me that Rico had headed that way too. He was supposedly doing an errand for Dave Granlund at the Spanish Wells livery stable.” Murdoch fixed his sons with a fierce look. “Whatever it is you five are up to – yes, Scott, I believe you’re in on it too – it better not be anything like last year’s melon patch raid or the nonsense that went on around here at Halloween.”
“Murdoch! I’m hurt!” his older son said. “You don’t trust me?”
“Not when it comes to Jelly’s watermelons I don’t,” the oldest Lancer replied. “Jelly’s put a lot of work into those melons and he doesn’t need you overgrown children giving him a lot of trouble about them.”
With that warning the family went back to eating. In the meantime, as it was getting dark at this point in the day, Jelly was putting the finishing touches on his alarm system. The constant ringing of bells as he tested it grated on the nerves of everyone within hearing distance. More than one of the other, younger hands had threatened to take every single one of “those blasted bells” and throw them down a deep well where Jelly wouldn’t be able to retrieve them.
Between the bells and Dewdrop’s constant honking there were more than a few threats made toward gander and owner. However, Murdoch had gotten wind of them, as well as Cipriano, and nobody, but nobody, would dare to give the old handyman much of a hard time.
At precisely four o’clock the next afternoon the five conspirators met in a small grove of pine trees near Wolf Creek. Once their horses were securely tethered, or turned loose to graze, they sat down and continued the discussion they’d been having before Kelly had interrupted them the day before.
“Are your folks suspicious of anything yet?” Johnny asked his pals.
“No, I don’t think so,” Willie answered. “They know that Mr. Talbot lets me work whatever hours I want as long as I get the job done that he’s given me.”
“My papa, I think maybe is a little suspicious,” Rico said, “but he hasn’t said anything to me yet. I think maybe he saw Mr. Lancer or Sheriff Gabe and they mentioned seeing me leave the livery stable early but nothing else has been said.”
“Is your father suspicious already?” Kevin asked. “My pa was giving me some funny looks at dinner last night. I don’t think he knows anything but he dropped a few not so subtle hints about what would happen if he found out I was up to no good.”
“I think he suspects something,” Scott told them, “but he knows he can’t prove anything. However, our raid last summer and all those pranks you four pulled last Halloween have got him wondering why all five of us are meeting together so often. We’d better wrap up this plan quickly before he does figure out what we’re up to. I think the first order of business, now that I’ve thought about it for a while, is for all of us to find some leather pants to wear. No conchos on them though. Plain - or with fringe - so that no finger of blame can be pointed at any one person. Most especially at one of us. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” four other voices spoke simultaneously.
“I have an old pair I haven’t worn for a couple of years,” Kevin said. “I think they still fit. If they don’t I know where I can borrow a pair and not make anyone suspicious. I’ll just tell Lance that I’m planning a costume for a party and he’ll never think otherwise. I used to always go to him for advice on costumes.”
Lance Hutchinson was a friend from Spanish Wells who had spent some time on the theater circuit before deciding that he was ready to retire to a steadier income. He’d opened a general store in Spanish Wells and promptly endeared himself to the children of the area with his costumes and his willingness to loan them to them for school plays and such.
“You think he might have more than one pair?” Johnny asked. “Enough for all of us?”
“That’s not a good idea, Johnny,” said Scott the strategist of the group. “If somebody hears that one of us has borrowed four pairs of leather pants our goose, as they say, will be cooked before we can pull off this raid.”
“What do you suggest then, brother?”
“I think we should borrow Miguel’s and a pair from Lance. Johnny already has a pair. There must be a vaquero, or two, who works for some one of our neighbors, who would be willing to lend one of us a pair without asking any questions. Or we could rent them from him. Buy them if we have to.”
“Scott is right,” Rico agreed. “We have to be careful if we’re going to get away with this. I’ll get Miguel’s. Kevin can go to Lance and borrow a pair of his ‘Jim Bridger’ pants as he calls them. I think Manny Escobar has a pair that he has hardly worn. He says they’re too hot.”
“Yeah,” Kevin said. “Manny does have a pair and he was just complaining the other day about how he didn’t like them. He’d rather wear a pair of those waist overalls as they’re calling them – the ones that Levi Strauss invented back around ’49.”
“So that’s three of us,” Johnny said. “Scott’s that much taller and slimmer than I am that he’d better wear Lance’s. I think they’ll fit him just about right. Manny’s will fit Rico. Now where can we get a pair for Kevin and Willie?”
The five young men sat around thinking about it. All that could be heard was the singing of birds and the gurgle of the water as Wolf Creek made its way past the spot where the group was sitting. With all their brainstorming though, for the life of them none of them could think of another soul that had a pair of leather pants they could beg, borrow or steal. Finally they decided that the other two members of their group would have to get by with leather chaps. That was something Kevin already had and it wouldn’t arouse much suspicion if he wore them the day of their raid. Nobody thought his parents would take much note of it if he “forgot” to take them off before going out again that night. After all, Kevin was notorious for riding through rough country on his way to one town or the other by taking short cuts through the brushy areas.
As the five men walked toward their horses to make their way to their respective homes Scott noticed that Willie had something new on his hat.
“Hey Willie is that a new hat band you’re wearing?”
“Yeah. I killed this sucker while I was out mending fences at the Bar T the other day. He almost got me.” Willie was referring to the large rattlesnake that he had encountered several days previously. He’d skinned it out and made the skin into a band for his hat.
“It looks kinda loose don’t you think?” Johnny asked. “You’d better get that fixed before you lose it if you went to all that work.” Grinning at his buddy he added, “Ain’t no snake gonna bite you and live to tell the tale.”
A mock wrestling match broke out between the two, which unsettled the horses momentarily before the other three got them under control again.
“Looks like Rico’s got a new feather in his hat,” Kevin commented noting the large eagle feather sticking up over the crown of the Mexican boy’s hat. “Where’d you get it – out of your mama’s feather duster?”
“No. I found it yesterday on my way home. A grande bald eagle lost it chasing after a rabbit that ran in front of my horse. I thought it would dress up my old hat so I picked it up and put it in my hatband,” Rico explained calmly but watching his buddy carefully to see that he didn’t try something.
“It’s very nice Rico,” Scott said diplomatically. “It makes your hat look good.”
“Gracias, Scott,” Rico replied. With a pointed look at his other friends he said, “You are a man of good taste. These others – they have not such good taste as you.”
Another mock wrestling match broke out – with Scott staying out of it – before they finally mounted and rode off toward home. They planned to meet again in three days to make sure everyone had the leather pants, or chaps, they were supposed to have and knew what their part in the raid was to be. Most of all they assured each other that no younger siblings, or parents, would find out what they were up to. The success of their plan depended on total secrecy.
At supper that night all five of the young men were under rather intense scrutiny from their families. At Lancer Jelly spent extra time with his alarm system making sure that all the wire was taut and that none of the bells were sagging. He was bound and determined to defeat the watermelon thieves this year. He knew exactly who they were even if he couldn’t prove it. Dewdrop was fed, watered and locked into the fenced in area. Jelly’s watchbird was expected to warn him of any intruders. Dewdrop wasn’t exactly happy about that – he’d rather have had free run of the yard to harass anyone who came along and to have “disagreements” with the other livestock.
Jelly needn’t have worried. The raiders weren’t quite ready to make their run at the melons yet. They had to finalize their plans and make sure they had everything they needed. They were determined that nothing should go wrong this time.
The next afternoon, around two o’clock, the Prankster Posse, Johnny and Scott met out by Needle Rock. The area was rough, rocky and forbidden to the Posse’s younger siblings to enter unless accompanied by an adult. It would be their last meeting before the actual raid as they were all expecting to be tied up with regular work until then. By planning the raid for a Saturday night they hoped that most of the Lancer hands would be in town enjoying their one night off a week.
“So everybody knows their part, right?” Scott asked as he mentally checked off who was responsible for what.
“Of course,” Johnny said indignantly. “What do you think we are – a bunch of little kids who can’t remember from one minute to the next what we were told?”
“Not at all little brother,” Scott said. “But it never hurts to double check.”
“Scott’s right,” Willie agreed. “It’s like when the slaves were escaping on the Underground Railroad. They had to know the signal and where to meet and who they were meeting. I’ve got myself a pair of chaps like Kevin’s.”
“Not like mine,” Kevin retorted. “They are mine. My extra pair and you’d better not let anything happen to them!”
“Enough!” Scott exclaimed. “No nonsense. If we’re going to pull off this raid we’ve got to be careful. Rico – did you get Manny’s pants?”
“Sí. He won’t even know they’re missing. He never wears them,” Rico said.
“I’m going to leave my chaps on when I finish my chores Saturday,” the ringleader of the bunch said. “Ma and Pa won’t question me because they know I wear them all the time – even when I go into town. Pa figures I need them because of what he calls my propensity for taking shortcuts through the brush when I’m in a hurry.”
“Good. Johnny will wear his like always. And Johnny,” Scott looked at his brother, “make sure those noisy spurs of yours don’t give us away.”
“They won’t,” the younger Lancer said confidently.
“All right. I’ll pick up the pants from Lance tomorrow afternoon. I’m not sure yet what I’ll tell him but I know he’s got a pair that will fit me. He wore them in a play about Daniel Boone so he tells me.” Mentally going over the plan in his head Scott was satisfied that all was in place as far as clothing was concerned.
“All right the clothing issue is taken care of. Now as far as the time is concerned I’d say about eleven o’clock Saturday night. The hands should all be in town – with a few exceptions – and it will be plenty dark.”
“Eleven makes sense to me,” Kevin said. “There’s a new moon Saturday night so it should be good and dark. Maybe some of us should smear something on our faces so we won’t be so visible?”
“Excellent idea, Kevin,” Scott agreed. “You and I are very fair so we should find some axle grease to put on our faces so we don’t show up in the dark. As a matter of fact Jelly was just saying that he picked some up in town the other day because one of our wagons and the buckboard both needed the wheels greased. I’ll make sure it’s available. As a matter of fact why don’t we plan on meeting in the barn? Leave your horses in the south pasture and walk up. Johnny and I will be waiting for you.”
“I think that’s it,” Johnny said. “Remember what Scott said. Leave your horses in the south pasture. We’ll ride as far as the south pasture and leave our horses there. Then we’ll walk back and wait in the barn for you. Be on time!”
“We will,” the other three chorused.
With that the conspirators broke up their meeting and headed for home. They were anxious for this raid to be over and done with so that they could enjoy the “fruits of their labors” – the pilfered melons. The next couple of day would prove to be very busy and, they hoped, rewarding – for them.
As Kevin had said there was a new moon that Saturday night. It was pitch dark except for the light of a few twinkling stars. Three conspirators left home around ten o’clock and quietly made their way to Lancer where they found Barranca and Ranger peacefully grazing. Upon arriving at the barn they found the brothers waiting for them. Scott had located the pail of axle grease and was smearing it all over his face and neck. He passed the pail to Kevin who did likewise. When they were through they wiped their hands on an old rag and prepared to make their way to the melon patch.
Opening the barn door very quietly they checked to make sure that there were no lights on in the house, bunkhouse or Jelly’s quarters at the back of the house. As they approached the fence they checked to see where Dewdrop was. It was Willie’s job to keep Dewdrop happy and quiet because everyone knew that he just had a way with critters of all kinds.
Four of them were to silence Jelly’s alarm system. They would do this by stuffing rags in the bells so that they couldn’t ring and by then removing them from the wire they were strung on. They couldn’t enter by way of the gate because Jelly had put the gate directly across from his window and would have no trouble seeing them if they went in that way. Johnny and Scott would use wire cutters to gain access to the garden while Willie gave Dewdrop all the attention he could possibly want – including some freshly ground corn.
Quickly, Willie made his way around to where Dewdrop lay dozing and let himself in. Seating himself on the ground he removed his hat and placed it on the ground next to him unaware that his new hatband was loose. As soon as the gander seemed occupied with his friend the others started taking care of the alarm and the fence. Occasionally a bell could be heard faintly then, all of a sudden five minutes later, one bell rang particularly loudly as Kevin bumped into the wire as he struggled to carry a good sized melon to where Scott was waiting for him. In his haste he had kicked one of the bells lying on the ground, which knocked the rag muffling it loose causing it to clang quite loudly.
“Ssssh!” Scott hissed at Kevin who was struggling to remove the bell he was working with. “You’ll wake Jelly up!”
“Sorry,” Kevin said in a barely audible whisper. “It won’t happen again.”
A few seconds later it was Rico who was being hushed by Johnny.
“Quiet! Jelly’ll hear for sure.”
A light came on in Jelly’s room and the old handyman could be heard grumbling as he fumbled for his pants and pulled them on. The would-be melon thieves scrambled to get away from the garden before Jelly, or anybody else for that matter, could arrive to investigate. In their haste they inadvertently triggered what was left of the alarm system and left evidence behind that would point the finger at them as being the prowlers. To make matters worse Scott tripped over a partially buried piece of lumber that Jelly had used in last year’s garden and fell heavily twisting his ankle in the process.
“You all right?” Rico asked as he leaned down to help Scott up.
“Yes – ouch!” Scott tried to stand but his ankle gave out on him. Only the grip Rico had on him kept him from falling to the ground again.
“What’s going on?” Kevin asked as he, Johnny and Willie arrived. Kevin had been on the far side of the fence nearest the part that had the gate in it while Johnny had been across from him.
“Scott hurt his ankle,” Rico leaned down again – this time losing his hat in the process.
“We’d better get him – and ourselves – out of here,” Willie said as Dewdrop started honking up a storm and Jelly could be heard yelling about getting his shotgun.
Johnny and Rico got on either side of Scott and supported him as they all hurried toward the barn from where they would go to the south pasture and get their horses. Johnny and Scott would head for the house while the others headed for home.
It took some doing, for Scott was limping heavily, but they managed to get to the horses and execute their combination return and escape. Jelly was trying to calm Dewdrop- waving his shotgun around all the while - and Murdoch, who had been aroused by the noise, was trying to calm Jelly by telling him that there was no way the boys could be the raiders this time – they were in town.
“They’re just getting home now, Jelly,” the rancher said as he saw the boys ride up.
“Well, I still say they’re involved in this. They coulda gone to town and snuck back again!” Scowling at the brothers he added, “they ain’t as innocent as they look, boss. You know that!”
“Jelly, without proof you can’t accuse them of anything.”
“I’ll find it. Don’t you worry none,” the old handyman declared. “Come daylight I’m going to search until I find it!”
“On that note,” Murdoch said as Jelly stomped off to his quarters again, “I think I’ll go back to bed.” Turning to his ward, who also had been aroused by the noise he said, “you go on back to bed too, Teresa. Everything’s just fine.”
Murdoch and Teresa went back into the house together. Each went to their respective bedrooms and turned in. Scott and Johnny went to the barn to stable their horses. Since nobody was around to see Johnny took care of both horses while Scott sat on some nearby hay bales waiting for him to finish. Little did they know that, for all their careful planning, they would be found out the next morning.
Kevin Millar, Willie Mays and Rico Portillo rode into the yard at Lancer late the next morning. Johnny, Scott and Murdoch were there to greet them. Teresa was in Jelly’s garden making sure that the melons had been well watered. Jelly himself was poking around among the plants looking for evidence.
“Hey Mr. Lancer! Johnny! Scott!” Kevin called as the three friends rode into the yard. “We hear you had a little excitement here last night.”
“Yes, we did,” the rancher said. “How did you know?”
Scott and Johnny glared at the trio as they dismounted. They didn’t like the way this conversation was headed. The other young men just ignored them and went on to chat with Murdoch.
“Some of your vaqueros came to mass this morning,” Rico explained. “They told me and I told Kevin and Willie.”
“That’s interesting,” Murdoch said. “I don’t recall any of the vaqueros being at the scene of the disturbance last night.”
“I guess they heard about it from one of the others,” Kevin tried to cover up for Rico’s error. It didn’t help as the next sound they heard was Jelly calling.
“Hey boss, come take a look at this, will you?”
Everyone walked over to Jelly’s melon patch. Scott tried not to limp but, in truth, his ankle was quite swollen and throbbing. Johnny tried to support him without attracting any attention to it. The other three gathered close around trying to hide it.
“What is it Jelly?” Murdoch asked as he got to the older man’s side.
“This here snakeskin was lying on the ground right inside the gate.”
“That’s no so unusual Jelly,” the oldest Lancer said. “Snakes use rocks and boards or, sometimes, stairs to shed their old skins.”
“This ain’t no ordinary snakeskin,” the grizzled one said. “It’s a pretty new skin that’s been turned into a band like someone might wear around their hat.”
Murdoch took a closer look as Teresa came over to join them from the other side of the garden.
“You’re right, Jelly. It does look like somebody was using it for a hat band.” He looked at his sons and their friends suspiciously. “I don’t suppose any of you know anything about this? It seems to me, Willie, that you were wearing a new snakeskin hatband the other day. I don’t see it now.”
Reflexively Willie reached up to find that his hatband was, indeed, missing. He shot a panicky look at his friends. They just glared at him to keep his mouth shut and stop looking so guilty.
“That’s not all boss,” Jelly continued. “I found this here eagle feather too. No self-respecting eagle’s gonna try and steal a watermelon. Ever’body knows that they’re meat eaters.”
This time it was Rico’s turn to look guilty. He had no idea that his feather had fallen out the night before. When he’d put his hat on that morning he’d noticed it was missing but had come to the conclusion that one of his younger siblings had taken it.
Something shining in the sunlight caught Teresa’s eye and she bent down to pick it up. It was a shiny piece of metal, about an inch in circumference with a jagged edge – in other words it was the rowel off of somebody’s spur.
“Look at this Murdoch,” she said with a glare at Johnny. “This looks like a rowel off of one of Johnny’s spurs.”
Now it was Johnny’s turn to be caught looking guilty. It didn’t take long to realize that he’d completely lost one of the rowels off the spurs he wore. If looks could kill Johnny would have been dead on the spot for he was drilled with the glares of his three friends and his brother.
“Well, I guess we know who tried to raid your garden last night, Jelly,” Murdoch said. “Don’t we boys?”
“I guess we’re caught,” Johnny mumbled as he helped his brother sit down on a nearby bench.
“The evidence is pretty clear,” his father said. “You’re missing the rowel off of one of your spurs. Rico is missing his new eagle feather that he was so proud of the other day when I saw him. Willie’s missing his hat band. Where you three are Kevin has to be and Scott’s been trying to hide a limp all day. What’s the matter son – trip over the fence again?”
“No sir,” a red-faced Scott answered. “I tripped over a half hidden piece of lumber from last year’s melon patch.”
“Well, I think there’s only one way you boys can make up for this,” Murdoch said. “That’s to repair the damage you did to Jelly’s fence and take over the watering and weeding until those melons are ripe. And you don’t get any melon this time.”
Thus the second, and equally unsuccessful, raid on Jelly’s watermelon patch ended. The five culprits, once Scott’s ankle was healed, undertook the repairs to the fence and took over the care and nurturing of the plants and fruit. Jelly however, being as softhearted as he was, did let them have one small melon among them. He might have felt sorry for them or, as Johnny said, he wanted to rub it in. Either way the Prankster Posse and their associates were a long time living down the fact that even with five of them the raid was a failure.