Huddled together on a hot summer night the Lancer brothers were plotting how they were going to get at Jelly Hoskins’ watermelons. The old handyman had a nice crop growing, but he wasn’t inclined to share them with Scott and Johnny, or anyone else, it would seem. The boys were determined to change that but it wasn’t going to be easy. There was more than just Jelly’s loaded shotgun to take into consideration – there was also Dewdrop and that gander made an awfully good watchdog just as Jelly had maintained he would the day he brought him home to Lancer. “Come on Scott,” Johnny Lancer wheedled. “It’s tradition.”
“It’s stealing is what it is,” Scott retorted, “and I won’t have any part of it.”
The two brothers, dark-haired Johnny and blond Scott, a couple of years older, were sitting under a tree in the south pasture watching their horses graze. They’d been working hard these last two weeks chasing stray cattle under the hot summer sun. The horses had earned a rest in the pasture they weren’t normally turned out in and Johnny had decided that he and Scott not only deserved a break they deserved a treat. The watermelons that Jelly Hoskins had planted in a small patch of sandy, loamy ground near his quarters were the treat the younger brother had his eye on. Scott, however much he might have appreciated the treat, was not about to go along with Johnny’s idea of a raid on Jelly’s melon patch. It went against the grain to take what didn’t belong to him.
“It’s tradition,” Johnny insisted with flashing blue eyes. “Every summer kids all over the country raid their families or neighbors melon patches! We don’t even have to go far – we’ve got a patch right here. How can you say it’s stealing?”
“Because the watermelons belong to Jelly and he hasn’t given us permission to take one.”
“But they’re on our land,” Johnny was determined to justify his proposed raid on Jelly’s watermelons.
“Murdoch told him he could plant them in that little patch of ground and neither one of them told us we could just help ourselves. Suppose he has plans for them?”
“Yeah, but this is Jelly we’re talkin’ about. He don’t have plans for them – he just doesn’t want to share them with us. He wants them all to himself. We can sneak one or two out of the patch easy one of these nights.”
“But Jelly is armed with a shotgun. And that shotgun is loaded – what with, I don’t know and I don’t want to find out the hard way.”
“You afraid of Jelly now, brother?” Johnny jibed.
“I have a very healthy respect for that shotgun he’s got,” Scott retorted. “And you should too.”
Johnny stood and brushed off his leather pants before he extended a hand to his brother to help him up. Both brothers headed for the house still arguing about whether or not they should raid Jelly’s watermelon patch. To Johnny it was definitely a time-honored tradition but to Scott it was still stealing. It seemed that they had reached an impasse but Johnny was determined to talk his brother into it – if for no other reason than it was an opportunity to torment the older man who worked as handyman and wrangler.
The younger Lancer son wheeled and cajoled and teased until finally his brother gave in.
“All right! I’ll help you!” Scott said. “It might be fun at that. You’ve convinced me – this is Jelly we’re talking about. He’s got no right to be so greedy and deny us a chance to enjoy those sweet melons.”
Three days earlier…
As the Lancer boys walked toward the house they passed the loamy garden plot that Jelly Hoskins had appropriated for his watermelon patch. The grizzled old handyman could be seen diligently watering and hoeing his patch – or rather he was directing the young son of one of the vaqueros on how to properly hoe and water the patch. He, himself, was sitting back in the shade giving orders.
“Hey Jelly,” Johnny said as they approached the fence Jelly had put up around his garden. “How’re the melons coming?”
“Just fine, Johnny,” Jelly Hoskins replied. “Just fine. And don’t you wish you could have one. Hot day like this,” Jelly paused to wipe his brow with a dark blue neckerchief, “a nice cold melon would taste really good now wouldn’t it?”
“Yes, it would Jelly,” Scott agreed. “When do you plan on letting us have one?”
“When they’re ready and not a minute before,” was the reply. “So you needn’t try to wheedle one out of me now ‘cause they ain’t ready and anyone that tries to steal one is gonna get a seat full o’ birdshot. And that’s only iffen they’s able to get past Dewdrop. He makes a mighty fine watchbird, now don’t he?”
The boys just rolled their eyes. Jelly was passionately fond of two things – younguns and critters. Dewdrop, he had tried to claim, was just another critter but when Scott took out after the gander with an axe in his hands intent on “inviting” the bird to Sunday dinner it took Johnny’s interference to keep the old man from getting close enough to rescue him. The boys had had a great laugh over that. Jelly was such an easy target.
Pointing to a particularly large melon Johnny enquired, “What about that one Jelly? It sure looks ready for pickin’ to me.”
“Now you just never mind about my melons and which ones look ready to be picked,” the old man said. “I’ll tell you when they’re ready and they ain’t ready yet.”
“I agree with Johnny,” Scott said moving as if to step over the ankle high fence and snatch the melon right out from under Jelly’s nose. “That one, or that one over there,” he said pointing toward one nearby that was every bit as large, “look very much like they’re ready to eat now.”
“Well it ain’t, so don’t you go getting’ any ideas about stealin’ it or any other melon!” Jelly scowled as ferociously as he could. “You keep houndin’ me and I’m just gonna have to talk to your dad about you. We’ll see what Murdoch has to say!”
“Has to say about what?” came the deep voice belonging to Murdoch Lancer.
“These boys of yourn are tryin’ to steal my melons!” Jelly exclaimed indignantly.
“We are not!” Johnny exclaimed. “But it wouldn’t hurt you to share ‘em with us!”
“Boys,” Murdoch said trying not to laugh at the boyish argument his son was putting up. “Let’s leave Jelly alone. I’m sure he’ll share the watermelons with us when he thinks they’re ready to be picked.”
“Sure I will,” Jelly said. “I’ll share with you and Teresa and Maria and everybody else but these two rapscallions who keep trying to steal ‘em from me.”
“Now Jelly…,” Scott started to speak.
“Scott, never mind,” Johnny said. “Murdoch’s right. Jelly will share them with us when he thinks they’re ready.” With a wink at his brother he added, “That’s because he won’t be able to resist braggin’ on how good they are after all his hard work.”
“You know something, brother,” Scott said. “I believe you’re right about that. Jelly is definitely not going to be able to resist that temptation at all.”
“So who else is in on this caper with us?” Scott asked his brother as they prepared to make good their raid on Jelly’s melons.
“Manny and Jose will try and distract him while Miguel keeps a lookout.”
“Manny, Jose and Miguel?”
“Yeah,” was the reply.
“I hope you – and they - know what you’re doing. There’s still that little matter of a loaded shotgun in Jelly’s hands.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that brother,” Johnny said with a grin. “I got Frank to con Jelly out of the use of it for a few minutes this afternoon. He unloaded the live shells and put some spent ones in it. We’re perfectly safe.”
Just at that moment a shrill whistle was heard from the vicinity of Jelly’s quarters. The old wrangler and handyman had a room in the house that was located off the courtyard/patio. It was a good place from which to keep watch on his melons and he did so diligently as he supervised the tending of his patch by young Jorge Tejada who was charged with the watering and weeding – under Jelly’s watchful eye of course.
“That’s Miguel,” Johnny said. “Jose and Manny have gotten Jelly away from his melons. We can go ahead and get one now.”
The two brothers went swiftly and quietly through the dark toward their destination. Upon arrival they found that Miguel had taken up a post about midway between the barn and Jelly’s quarters. The other two boys could be heard “explaining” to Señor Jelly how they had heard a noise in the barn like a sick horse.
“Gotta hand it to those two,” Johnny said with a chuckle. “They sure do know how to get Jelly’s attention.”
“Yes, well, if we’re going to pull this ‘raid’ off, little brother,” Scott said, “we’d better do it now. Once Jelly realizes that there is no sick horse he’ll be back here in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Maybe even sooner!”
“All right, all right,” Johnny said. “Keep your shirt on! The melons are right here.”
The boys had reached Jelly’s little garden, which he had enclosed with a fence that was about shin high on any man of average height. Scott, however, was not average. While not as tall as his father he was three inches taller than his brother and negotiating that little fence was not easy to do in the dark. Jelly had taken pains to plant the posts deep and made sure that the fence was solid. In short, he had made a miniature corral out of it and anyone who made a misstep in trying to get over it was bound to wind up on his face or his backside in the dirt. And, as the boys were about to find out, he had set up an alarm system as well.
The brothers had no sooner located the melon they wanted when there was another shrill whistle from Miguel. This time from farther away as the boy, a small for his age fourteen-year-old who idolized the patron’s sons, ran for his family’s cabin located down the road about a quarter of a mile. He wasn’t slow about it either.
No sooner was the boy out of sight, than Jelly could be heard sputtering at the other two, both young men, who proclaimed their innocence in leading him on a wild goose chase. They were swearing up and down that one of the horses had been sick or they wouldn’t have bothered him. Especially when he was guarding his watermelons so closely.
“Consarn you Jose! Get outta my way!” Jelly scolded. “And you, Jorge, stop pullin’ on my arm. There ain’t no sick horse in that barn! Now let me get back to my melon patch afore somebody decides to help themselves!”
Jelly’s voice disturbed the dozing Dewdrop who started honking and hissing. Johnny managed to jump over the garden fence before the gander could get to him. Not so Scott who got too close before he knew where he was, banged into it and fell over it landing on his back just outside the melon patch. Dewdrop, moving faster than either Lancer son would have thought possible for the gander, came around the corner while Scott was still trying to untangle himself from the barbed wire Jelly had put on top of the small fence and got nipped on the back of the leg.
“Ow!” Scott exclaimed in pain. Whereas Johnny wore leather pants that would protect him somewhat from sharp objects Scott did not and his legs were more vulnerable unless he were wearing chaps.
“What’s the matter?” Johnny asked as he came running back as soon as he realized his brother wasn’t right behind him as he’d thought.
“That blasted gander just bit me! Help me get untangled before Jelly gets back!”
Johnny shooed the still hissing and honking gander away and knelt down to help Scott free his pant leg from the wire. All the while Jelly was getting closer to finding them there. After a moment Scott was finally free and the boys made a run for the house. A few yards from their goal they heard a shotgun blast and both nearly jumped out of their skins.
“I thought you said Frank was going to replace Jelly’s ammunition with empty shells,” Scott said somewhat breathlessly.
“He was supposed to. I don’t know what could have happened.”
“Well, obviously he didn’t replace the shells. Let’s get inside before he figures out who it was that was in his melon patch.”
The next morning at breakfast…..
“I heard shooting out by Jelly’s garden last night,” Teresa said to her guardian.
“Yes, somebody tried to steal some of Jelly’s watermelons. He says he and Dewdrop scared them off. Dewdrop with his hissing and honking and Jelly with his shotgun.”
"Oh dear! Was anybody hurt? Jelly’s not exactly a good shot.”
“No, nobody was hurt – that we know of,” Murdoch replied. Turning to his sons he said, “Did you two hear anything?”
“No, sir,” Scott said. “You say somebody tried to steal some of Jelly’s melons?”
“Yes,” Murdoch said. “And Jelly swears that Dewdrop must have bitten one of them because he could see one of them limping as they ran away.”
Scott busied himself with the ham and eggs that were on the plate in front of him. Johnny hastily took a big swallow out of his glass of milk as his father and Teresa eyed them suspiciously.
“We went to bed early last night you see…” Scott explained.
“You mean to tell me that neither one of you heard a shotgun blast? You were that sound asleep? Jelly’s room is right below yours.” This was directed at his younger son. “And you still say you didn’t hear anything?”
“Nope. Like Scott said we went to bed early last night. I didn’t hear anything until that darned rooster crowed this morning.”
“Then why is Scott limping and why are the backs of his pants and the shirt he was wearing yesterday covered with dirt as if he fell on his back?” Teresa asked. “Maria says there’s some tears in the pant leg as well, where they might have gotten caught on some wire.”
“Well…” Scott tried to think of a logical explanation that would keep them out of trouble.
Quick witted Johnny chimed in with, “He got hung up on some rolls of wire when we were fixing fences yesterday.”
“Fixing fences?” his father asked. “When and where did this happen?”
“Out by Black Mesa,” Johnny replied without stopping to think.
“That’s strange,” Murdoch said. “Cipriano was out by Black Mesa all day. When he came back for dinner he didn’t say anything about seeing you two out there. In fact, he said he didn’t see a sole except for Antonio and Jack who were working with him.”
“Oh, well, we were in a patch of trees where we could see them but they couldn’t see us.” Scott finished his breakfast by downing the last of his coffee. “Come on Johnny, we have work to do.”
The boys rose from the table and beat a hasty retreat outside to get their horses. Not fast enough however. Their father was close behind them – presumably to see them off to where they would be working and to give orders for the other men to Cipriano.
As the boys crossed the patio to the hitching rail where their horses were tied there was the sound of an angry gander hissing. Scott, still jumpy from the encounter with Dewdrop the night before, nearly jumped a foot in the air.
“Darn you Dewdrop! Do you have to be so noisy?” he yelled.
“What are you so all fired jumpy about Scott?” Jelly asked. “You never yelled at Dewdrop before.”
“He’s never hissed at me like that before!” Scott exclaimed.
“He wouldn’t hurt you,” the old man said. “Unless he thought you meant to hurt him – or you did something that upset him.”
“Me? Upset him?” Scott was indignant. “He practically attacked me!”
“Scott?” Johnny tried to cool his brother off before he gave them away. “Come on let’s go.”
“What’s your hurry?” Jelly asked. “I was about to offer you one of my melons to take with you. You do want some watermelon don’t you? You could keep it cool in the crick while you’re workin’ and have it at lunch. I bet Barranca and Ranger would like some too.”
“Right now Jelly,” Scott said, “I could not care less about your watermelons.”
“And why would that be?” the grizzled one asked.
“I just don’t care to have any is all.”
“Wouldn’t be because Dewdrop caught you raiding my melon patch, last night would it? I found this after I calmed him down.”
Jelly held up one of Scott’s work gloves. In all the excitement of the aborted raid it had fallen out of his belt and he hadn’t noticed.
Scott’s face went pale and then red as his father, Jelly, Teresa and Maria all started laughing. The culprits behind the Lancer watermelon caper were well and truly exposed. For, besides Scott’s glove one of the conchos off of Johnny’s pant legs had been loose and fallen off, unnoticed, as he had helped his brother untangle himself from the wire.
That night everyone enjoyed watermelon that had been cooled in ice water all day until they were ready to serve it. And the boys never again tried to raid Jelly’s garden the rest of the summer – not that the youngsters on the place didn’t consider trying it themselves. The story of Johnny and Scott’s raid and subsequent exposure as the raiders would be repeated for weeks until the end of the summer came and with it the last of the melons.