The town of Spanish Wells, tiny as it was, was crowded. Students of all ages were visiting Eulalia Hargis’ store and any other General Store in the town that carried art supplies of any kind. The storeowners were doing a booming business in the sales of paper, pencils, pen and ink. Watercolor paints and oil paints were also selling like the proverbial hotcakes. As he made his rounds Sheriff Gabe came very close on several occasions to being run into, or inadvertently hit, by someone carrying an easel or overloaded with supplies and unable to see where they were going.
It was into this flurry of activity that Johnny and Scott Lancer drove their big wagon into town and pulled up in front of the General Store. They were in town to pick up supplies that they couldn’t get in Green River or Morro Coyo but, as much as they liked Gabe, they wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible. The Widow Hargis was a bit overbearing in her piety – she’d once believed a female “outlaw” that Scott was making advances on her when all the while it was Zee making advances and causing trouble for Scott.
All of that aside, they had supplies to get and a cool beer to down before heading home. As they headed toward the widow’s store they stopped to talk to Gabe for a minute.
“Hey Gabe,” Johnny said as he and Scott looked around at all the bustle, “What’s going on around here?”
“The school board decided to sponsor an art contest,” the sheriff, a man of indeterminate age with hair and moustache that were somewhat salt and pepper, replied. “All the kids that attend the Spanish Wells School are buying up all the paper and such that Mrs. Hargis has in stock.”
“Is Mrs. Talbot involved in this by any chance?” Scott queried.
“I imagine so,” Gabe grinned. “She is a member of the school board and she’s always promoting some sort of project that benefits the children in the area.”
“Yeah, that’s Miz Talbot all right,” Johnny grinned in return. “She just loves to have her hand in a half dozen different projects at once – most of ‘em involving kids.”
The three men parted way and the Lancers turned to enter Mrs. Hargis’ store. As they reached for the doorknob in order to open the door, the door burst open and a small Mexican boy ran right smack into Scott knocking the wind out of him.
“Oof!” the wind went out of Scott’s lungs.
“Hey, slow down there young’un,” Johnny said as he caught the pint-sized tornado.
“Lo siento, Scott,” the boy apologized. “I did not see you.”
The speaker was eight-year-old Tomás Portillo. Tomás was the younger brother of Johnny’s pal Rico Portillo. The boy was the youngest of eight children who were all born two years, give or take, after the one before them. Rico, at twenty-two was the oldest. In between the oldest and the youngest were Victoria, Maria, Mariano, Felipe, Pedro – known as Petey, and Elena. All of the younger children, from Mariano – who was sixteen – on down to Tomás attended the school in Spanish Wells.
In his hands the youngster was holding a large parcel – almost too large for him to handle – which was why he had not seen Scott. The package he held was as tall as he was and he couldn’t see over it.
“I must get these home to Mariano,” the little boy told his brother’s friends. “He’s busy painting and couldn’t come himself so he sent me to get more paper and canvas. And paints, too!”
“What’s he painting?” Scott asked now that he had recovered his wind.
“He’s painting a picture of mama. It is a very good one, too. It looks just like her!” The boy’s black eyes shone with pride in his brother’s talent.
“Really? Where is this taking place?”
“At our house outside the village,” the little boy told them.
“We’ll have to come over and see as soon as we get our supplies loaded, won’t we Johnny?”
“Yeah, I’m curious to see just how good Mariano is.” Johnny looked at his brother out of the corner of his eye with a mischievous gleam, “How about if I help Tomás get these supplies home to Mariano while you load the wagon?”
“Nothing doing, little brother,” Scott said with a glare. “You are not leaving me with the loading of all that flour and oats and such.” Turning to the youngster who was anxious to be on his way he said, “You run along and bring your brother his art supplies. We’ll be over as soon as we pick up our order.”
“Sí, Señor Scott. I will see you at my house – soon no?”
“Yes, soon. Now scoot before Mariano wonders what happened to you – and try not to run into anyone else while you’re running.”
The little Mexican boy took off like a shot. He was quite anxious to see how his mother’s picture was progressing. It had been very hard to stay and talk to the Lancers knowing he might be missing something important.
“That’s very good, Mariano,” Scott said.
An hour had passed since Scott and Johnny had encountered the little Portillo boy coming out of the Widow Hargis’ store. In that time they’d endured a lecture from the Widow, loaded their supplies and heard her scolding half a dozen children for their impatience as they waited to pay for their supplies. Now they were at the Portillo’s small, crowded house observing as the teenager worked on a painting of his father now. The portrait of his mother had been in the works for several days and he had finished it shortly before Scott and Johnny arrived.
Juan Portillo stood, relatively patiently, wearing his best suit of clothes as his son started painting. When he saw the Lancers he immediately called a halt to the sitting.
“Welcome to our home Señor Scott, Johnny! Please have a seat here in the shade of the house.” Turning to his wife he said, “Margarita! Get the young gentlemen some lemonade!”
“That’s not necessary Señor Portillo,” Scott said before his brother could say anything.
“Oh, but it is! You are an honored guest in our home – as well as a good customer!”
Juan was a master woodcarver who was responsible for many of the finer pieces of furniture in the area as well as a beautiful wooden crèche that his family displayed in their home every Christmas. Many of the children in the surrounding area had wooden toys that he had made. It was no wonder that at least one of his children had an artistic nature.
“Scott,” Johnny whispered, “don’t insult him by turning him down. It means a lot to him that we – you especially – would come to his home and praise his son’s work. A lot of people – those who don’t like Mexicans – wouldn’t have any dealings with him. Back in Mexico the patron would praise the work but pay as little as possible.”
“But I’m not his patron,” Scott protested.
“Makes no difference. Our old man’s an important person around here. Lancer’s business means a lot to Señor Portillo – almost as much as it means to Gus.”
“We’d be happy to accept your hospitality Señor,” Scott said when his brother was through.
“Bueno, bueno,” the older man said. “This way please.”
A moment later, after the boys were seated in the best seats close to the wall of the house, Rico’s mother came out of the house with a pitcher of lemonade and some glasses.
“What brings you to our humble home?” the head of the house asked.
“We ran into Tomás at the Widow Hargis’ store,” Johnny explained. “When we heard what was going on out here we decided to see for ourselves this wonderful picture that Mariano was doing of your wife.”
“I’ve seen a lot of art in my lifetime,” Scott told the proud father, “but I have to say that Mariano is better than a lot of the so-called artists whose works hang in the museums back in Boston and New York. Your son has a lot of talent.”
“Gracias, Señor, gracias!”
“He means it Señor Portillo,” Johnny told the other man. “My big brother, here, wouldn’t say it if he didn’t mean it.”
Mariano left off with his painting and joined them after telling his younger siblings, in Spanish, what would happen to them if they touched his painting and got anything on it or knocked it over. Johnny, of course, understood everything he said and had to fight to keep from laughing.
“Mariano, Scott here, was just saying how much he likes your painting,” Johnny told the teenager.
“Yes, Mariano, truly,” Scott told him. “You do very good work. Are you planning on entering something in the contest at school?”
“Oh, sí,” Mariano replied. “I am entering the portrait I made of Rico.”
“Really?” Johnny asked. “Rico actually posed for a picture for you?”
“Last week. I will get it and show it to you.”
The teenager went into the bedroom that he shared with his two older brothers to retrieve the painting. When he returned he handed it to Scott.
“That’s some likeness,” Johnny whistled.
The painting showed Rico in his best suit standing with his beloved black gelding by the name of Eagle. Rico’s suit consisted of tan pants with red trim, a ruffled white shirt, black string tie and a tan bolero jacket also trimmed with red. It was quite a stunning portrait and very realistic.
“This is excellent work, Mariano,” Scott praised the sixteen-year-old. “If I were one of the judges you’d certainly win something for this.
“How’d you get Rico to agree to stand still for that?” Johnny wanted to know. “Your hermano doesn’t have a lot of patience and he don’t exactly like to stand – or sit – still.”
“It wasn’t so hard, Johnny,” the boy said with a grin. “Rico is very – how do you say it?”
“Vain?” Johnny suggested.
“Sí! He likes very much to have his picture taken and even more so to have somebody pay so much attention to Eagle.”
His father laughed, “Mariano speaks the truth no? Rico is very proud of that horse and he is a pork?”
“Ham,” Scott supplied with a grin.
“Sí! A ham.”
The Lancer brothers visited for a few more minutes before taking their leave of the Portillos. They had a father and a foster sister anxiously waiting at home for the supplies they were carrying.
At the dinner table that evening they were joined by Jim and Maura Talbot, their neighbors from the Bar T Ranch. Maura was a surrogate mother to the boys and Teresa and the boys were generally very careful to mind their manners and their step around her for she would, as Scott put it “starch and iron our heads if we don’t”.
“So who are the judges for this art contest, Mrs. Talbot?” Scott asked.
“I’ve asked your father to be one of them but he hasn’t said yes or no yet,” the spirited little redheaded woman said. “And Reverend Hawk and Padre Felipe from the mission; Susan Delaney and Karen Anderson as well. The judging will take place a week from Friday at the school. Miss Bowley will teach class until noon. During the noon recess the children will set up the displays of the art. At one o’clock the judges will make their way through the display and at two o’clock their decision will be made public and everybody who’s interested will be permitted to view the children’s work while it’s still on display. By three thirty the children will be free to take their works of art and go home.”
“Sounds like quite a day,” Johnny commented. “How do you plan to keep the kids from getting overly excited?”
“Miss Bowley will manage,” Maura said. “She’s been teaching for many years now and she has no trouble keeping a class under control.”
“I think Lancer will definitely make an appearance,” Murdoch said. “The boys have talked about Mariano Portillo’s portrait of Rico so much I want to see it for myself.”
“Mariano is a wonderfully talented boy,” Maura said. “He works with paint as well as his father does with wood and that’s saying something because the crèche that Juan has made is absolutely beautiful. I had Alex commission Juan to carve one for us as well.”
“I agree with my loving wife,” Jim said. “Juan does some very nice work and I’ll be proud to display a crèche come Christmastime that he made. I don’t know why I didn’t notice before what fine work he does. I’d like to have him make some more bookshelves for me as well.”
“The Sandersons have an anniversary coming up, dear,” Maura said. “I think a pair of Juan’s beautifully carved candlesticks would make a lovely gift.”
From then until the Talbots left for home the conversation at the dinner table, and in the Great Room afterward, revolved around the talented artists and artisans they knew to be living among them. Most especially it revolved around the art exhibit that was coming up so quickly at the school in Spanish Wells.
The day of the art exhibit arrived faster than anyone could believe – especially the young artists who were struggling to perfect their entries.
The panel of judges included Reverend Hawk, Father Felipe and Johnny’s friend Val Crawford who was the sheriff of Green River. Val swore he knew nothing about art but the panel insisted that he join them for just that very reason. He would judge solely on what he liked – not on a so-called expert’s opinion of how a certain thing should be done.
Johnny nearly fell on the floor laughing when he heard about Val being chosen. It took the most severe glare that Val could give him and repeated warnings from his father, brother and Jim Talbot – not to mention Maura threatening to take him over her knee – to get him to stop.
“So, where do we start?” Val asked Reverend Hawk as they entered the schoolhouse now converted to an art gallery.
“Well, I’d say we start with the entries by the youngest children. We’re going to judge the Best Painting, drawing and sculpture by each grade. And if we need another category – say for homemade toy or something – we’ll create one.” With a smile at the nervous lawman he added, “It’s not so hard, Val. Just look things over and take some notes.” He handed Val a small pad of paper and a pencil. “When we’re through looking everything over we’ll compare notes and see who we want to choose as winners.”
The first graders had entered such items as cornhusk dolls, needlework samplers and pencil drawings. The second graders had some bead necklaces and pieces of wood with drawings burned into them.
The third graders were a little more creative and there were some halfway decent sewing projects and carved soap animals. They were not quite old enough, in their parents’ eyes, to use a knife to whittle wood but soap didn’t require such a sharp instrument.
The higher the grade the more advanced the artwork. There were woodcarvings, sculptures, birdhouses, landscape paintings, pictures of pets and all sorts of other projects. It took the judges the better part of the hour they had been allotted to look everything over carefully even though there weren’t that many students in the school.
When they had each looked over the exhibit and jotted down their ideas, the three men withdrew to a quiet corner to compare notes and write out the prize-winning certificates. There would be a certificate for every participant though some would simply say “honorable mention”. The school board didn’t want to discourage the young artists from trying again.
“If I might have your attention,” Reverend Hawk said, “we’re ready to announce our decision as to the winners.”
He turned toward Padre Felipe, who was the one with the best handwriting and therefore the one who had compiled the list of winners, and took a sheet of paper from him. The crowd that had gathered in the school, including the Lancers and Teresa, grew quiet as they waited in anticipation of the announcement.
“First place for the first graders’ drawings goes to Jamie Russell for her drawing of her cat.”
Everyone applauded as Jamie came forward to receive her certificate and a pair of green plaid hair ribbons. The delighted little girl then ran back to her parents to show them her prizes.
"Best sculpture by a first grader is the cow by Dan Pittman. Come on up Danny.”
The Lancers and Talbots applauded especially hard for Dan as he was the brother of Tim who worked part time for the Talbots and had been the recipient of one of the first two scholarships issued in memory of the Talbot’s sons. Dan received a certificate and a voucher for $5.00 at Mayor Higgs’ store – Scott’s doing as he threatened to take all of Lancer’s business elsewhere when the man balked at such extravagance after he’d already donated ribbons and dress material.
There were no other outstanding projects among the first graders so the rest of the children received “honorable mention” certificates. The announcement of the prizes for the rest of the school included Jimmy Mays receiving a prize for his painting of Aggie Conway Addison’s house. It was an excellent likeness for a twelve-year-old that included all the trees, shrubs and flowers that surrounded it. All in attendance agreed that the boy showed great promise.
Finally the time came to announce the winners for the oldest students – those in seventh and eighth grade. Mariano Portillo had, indeed, entered the painting of his brother and Eagle. The judges all agreed that a professional couldn’t have done any better. In fact, they had a special prize in mind for the teenager, but first they would have to announce the other winners.
“First prize in the sculpture and pottery department goes to Will Chisum for his painted vase,” Reverend Hawk announced.
The young man in question came forward to receive his certificate and a credit voucher for the Widow Hargis’ store which would likely be used to purchase more modeling clay that she stocked from a store back east.
Finally the judges had one last announcement to make – one that took many by surprise. They were all so impressed by Mariano’s painting that they had joined forces to present one last award – one that had not been previously approved by the members of the school board.
“Mariano Portillo, would you come up here?” Reverend Hawk looked for the boy standing in the back with his family.
Mariano made his way to the front of the room to stand by the Reverend and Val, who gave the boy what was supposed to be an encouraging look. The teenager looked confused and apprehensive as to why he had been singled out.
“My fellow judges and I have decided to award one extra prize that wasn’t previously agreed upon,” the Reverend said and then paused for a moment to confirm this with the other two. “We’ve decided that we need a prize for Best Overall Artist. The decision wasn’t hard at all. That prize goes to Mariano Portillo for his painting of his brother Rico and Rico’s horse Eagle.”
The school house erupted in applause as Padre Felipe joined the others at this point to personally hand Mariano his certificate and the fifteen dollars that they had managed to come up with between the three of them – Val and the reverend supplying most of it as Padre Felipe didn’t have a lot of money and never did.
gentlemen,” the reverend said. “It is my pleasure to introduce to you Mariano
Portillo, Youth Artist of the Year.”