By Karen F.
“Marriage is like a violin. After the music is over, you still have the strings.”
Author's Note: This story is the result of a challenge from a small writing list I belong to. We were given a choice of four pictures and asked to write a story based on one of them. You'll see which picture I chose at the end of the story. kmf.
The sun rode high overhead, scorching the grass. Not a cloud marred the blue of the sky. They hadn’t had so much as a drop of rain in three weeks, and Johnny could almost hear the desperate earth gasp. He stopped by the pump in the kitchen yard to sluice tepid water over his head and used his hat to beat some of the dust from his boots and trousers. Last thing he needed was to have both Teresa and Maria after him for tracking dirt on the floor.
Blinking to adjust his eyes to the change in light, he gaped at the scene before him. Teresa was vigorously chopping a mound of potatoes, while Maria scolded a bevy of young nieces. Some were on hands and knees scrubbing the floor, while others were gathering enough supplies to clean the hacienda from top to bottom three times over.
His arrival caused all eyes to swing in his direction, and Johnny took advantage of the momentary lull. “Don’t mean to pry, but are we expectin’ a visit from the governor, maybe?”
Teresa glanced up, knife poised. “Scott didn’t tell you? I was upset that he hadn’t let me in on the secret, but I was pretty sure you’d know all about it.”
Johnny strolled across the kitchen, skirting one of Maria’s nieces and a large puddle with a graceful sidestep. He plucked one of the raw potato slices from the pile, and just as neatly dodged Teresa’s attempt to slap his hand.
“Scott’s got a secret? Something that’s got the whole house actin’ loco. Does this mean I don’t get lunch?”
Teresa’s sigh conveyed her exasperation. She dropped her knife with a clatter and thrust a covered plate into Johnny’s hands. “Do me a favor and take this out to the barn. You’ll just be in the way in here.” She’d already turned back to her frenzied chopping. “Scott’s going to be back before we know it, and we’re not going to be ready. I’m never going to forgive him for keeping this a secret.”
Johnny found himself outside and heading for the barn before he knew what was happening. He shook his head, trying to clear the confusion away. Scott’s secret appeared to be a big one. He had to admit to feeling hurt that his brother hadn’t confided in him.
The barn was cool and shadowed. Johnny heard a bark of laughter, and grinned at the sight of Jelly and Murdoch seated side by side on a bale of hay, each clutching a plate. They moved over to give him room, and Johnny dropped down.
“I sure do hope one of you knows what’s goin’ on, ’cause I don’t,” he said. He lifted the linen napkin to stare in dismay at a slice of bread and a slab of cheese. “That brother of mine has a lot to answer for. ’M starving and this sure ain’t the lunch I was expecting.”
Jelly and Murdoch displayed their own lunches, their plates a perfect match for Johnny’s.
“Even age doesn’t bring privilege,” Murdoch said. “I’m starving too. Tonight’s feast should be early. The stage gets in at one today, and Scott will head home as soon as he’s picked up his visitor.”
Jelly grimaced as he tore off a chunk of his bread and crammed it into his mouth. “Didn’ even know he was engaged. When’d all this happen anyways? Thought we was friends, Johnny. You coulda said somethin.”
Murdoch nodded solemn agreement. “While I can’t blame you for keeping Scott’s confidence, John, it would have been nice to have had some warning. Where did Scott meet her? What’s her name?”
“Her? Scott’s gone to get a girl?” Johnny’s hurt intensified. “I don’t know nothing about Scott and no girl. Who said he was getting a girl anyway?”
He saw Murdoch’s eyebrows rise and Jelly’s eyes widen. The older men exchanged questioning glances. “You really didn’t know? That’s not like Scott. I thought he told you everything.”
Murdoch’s stress on ‘you’ didn’t go unnoticed. Johnny experienced one of those sudden flashes of enlightenment. His father was more than a little jealous of the closeness between his sons.
“Honest, Murdoch. Scott didn’t say nothin’ to me. If he’s got a girl coming in on the stage, I swear I didn’ know it. Do you s’pose she’s from Boston? Or maybe Frisco? Boston’s been doing a lot of travellin’ there on Lancer business these past six months.”
Murdoch and Jelly shrugged in unison. Johnny laughed. Leave it to quiet Scott to put the whole ranch in an uproar. And who was the mysterious girl he’d gone to get? A sudden thought occurred to him. “Wait a minute. If Scott didn’t tell any of us about this girl, who’d he tell? What’d he say to T’resa that made her think he’d be bringing home someone special?”
Murdoch’s eyes brightened. He seemed pleased to have information Johnny didn’t. “Scott asked if Cip’s crew could take over the fencing in the north pasture because he needed to meet the stage in Green River today. Remember that telegram he received yesterday afternoon. I think that’s what prompted today’s rush.”
Johnny did remember the telegram. He also remembered the satisfied smile that had curved across Scott’s face as he read it. His brother hadn’t shared the telegram with him. He’d simply folded it and slipped it into his shirt pocket. When Johnny had pressed for information, Scott had grinned.
“Tomorrow, brother. You’ll see tomorrow.”
“Guess it’s tomorrow,” Johnny murmured. “But Murdoch, just sayin’ he had t’meet the stage doesn’t mean he’s bringing home a bride. Why’s T’resa so sure that’s it?”
This time, Jelly piped up. “T’resa tole me Scott was picking up someone named Amanda. Y’ask me, she’s from Boston. Scott’s always talkin’ bout those women in Boston.”
“I guess there’s not much we can do about it until Scott gets home. Meanwhile, there’s still a ranch to run.” Murdoch’s voice held a definite note of command. “Jelly, that tack room’s a mess, and Johnny, you need to get that creek flowing in the south pasture. We’re down to a trickle of water in the lower fields.”
Johnny shoved a last bite of cheese in his mouth and rose. “Amanda. Nice name. Guess T’resa has it right then. I sure do wish Scott’d said something. Seems like he’s being pretty close-mouthed to surprise us with this girl tonight. He’s got T’resa smelling wedding cake already and we haven’t even met her.”
They scattered to their chores, but Johnny would have been the first to admit he wasn’t at his best that afternoon. His thoughts whirled, and his sense of betrayal grew. Why hadn’t Scott confided in him? Why hadn’t he told him about Amanda? Maybe he hadn’t trusted his brother to hold his tongue. With stubborn determination, Johnny pushed his dark thoughts away, determined to give Scott a chance to explain himself. Most of all he wanted to meet Amanda. She must be some woman to have Scott in such a state.
The minutes crawled, but inexorably turned into hours. Johnny finished clearing the creek and headed for home. He stopped by the horse trough for a quick wash before entering the house. If Scott and his Amanda were inside, he wanted to make a good impression.
The hacienda sparkled in the late afternoon sunlight. Delightful smells wafted in from the kitchen, and Johnny’s mouth watered. Teresa had outdone herself. The place was beautiful. It was also silent. No sign of Scott or his girl. No sign of Murdoch either. He hadn’t taken more than a step into the room when he was stopped by a piercing shriek.
“Johnny Lancer. Get yourself upstairs and into clean clothes right now. Scott and Amanda should be back any time now, and just look at you. If you’ve tracked dirt on my floors. . . “
Teresa advanced, shaking her finger, and Johnny beat a hasty retreat up the stairs. A quick glance over his shoulder showed him Teresa on her knees buffing the floor with the corner of her apron. Johnny chuckled and shook his head. Scott better get home soon or Teresa was going to lose her mind.
The sound of a horse and carriage pulling up in front of the house started a frenzy of activity. Murdoch burst from his room and pelted down the stairs, knotting a black string tie as he went. Jelly popped in from the kitchen, followed closely by Maria, who’d changed into a clean dress for the occasion. Teresa followed Murdoch down the stairs without a single pretense of decorum. Johnny had changed into his favorite shirt and clean pants, but he refused to rush headlong down the stairs. As he slowly measured each step, the door opened. There was an expectant hush as Scott stood framed in the doorway.
Johnny reached the bottom of the stairs and stood with his arms folded across his chest. He met his brother’s eyes and nodded. “Have a nice ride to town, Scott?”
“It was a bit hot, but nice all the same,” Scott replied. He surveyed the waiting crowd with questioning eyes. “Now would someone like to explain to me what exactly is going on here? It looks like we’re having a party, but someone forgot to invite me.”
Teresa pushed forward, hands on hips. “Where is she? Don’t be mean, Scott, introduce us.”
Scott’s eyebrows climbed his forehead. “What are you talking about? What 'she' would you like me to introduce?”
Murdoch cleared his throat. “It isn’t polite to keep a lady waiting in the hot sun, Scott. Especially after a long trip on the stagecoach. Why don’t you bring her in. I believe Teresa has prepared some fresh lemonade, and quite a fine feast. We’ll be eating as soon as Amanda freshens up.”
“Amanda?” Scott’s voice quivered strangely, and his mouth twitched.
“Tha’s right. A-man-da.” Jelly pushed forward and thumped his finger on Scott’s chest. “We been waitin’ all dern day long. Teresa made us eat bread n’cheese fer lunch. All ‘cause of yer A-man-da. So bring her on in so’s we can eat. I’m jest about wasted away t’nothing.”
Scott’s face cleared. “Amanda.” He smiled at them. “You’re right. It’s terribly rude of me to leave her outside in this heat. I’ll bring her in so you can meet her.”
No one moved as Scott left on his errand. A moment passed, and he was back, a large leather case in his hand.
“Lady, and gentlemen,” he said, bowing formally. “I’d like to present Amanda, who’s come all the way from Boston.”
Johnny peered over Scott’s shoulder, but could see nothing in the glare of sunlight from the open door. “Well, bring the lady’s luggage on in, brother, so she can get into the house. You’re blocking her way.”
Scott laughed as he gestured to the case. “Johnny, this is Amanda.”
Johnny stared at him, feeling as he had once when he climbed into a two-wheeled cart and some older boys whirled it around in circles. He’d fallen off and staggered dizzily for several minutes while they laughed and slapped each other’s shoulders. His mind felt sluggish and slow, and he knew he was gaping at Scott with an open mouth. With a determined effort, he snapped his jaw shut.
Teresa finally spoke. “Scott, this isn’t funny. Stop playing games and introduce us to your fiancée. You’ve already told us that you were going to bring Amanda Lynn home today. It’s not a surprise anymore. Dinner’s about ready and I’m sure she’d like to eat.”
Scott flipped open the latches of the case. With gentle reverence, he pulled a gleaming instrument from the velvet lining. “And pick up a mandolin, I did. Here she is. Isn’t she a beauty? I ordered her six months ago from a shop in Boston that specializes in making string instruments. I didn’t think she’d ever get here.”
He held the mandolin in both hands, running loving fingers over the wood. Realization dawned on Johnny at the same time it hit the others. Indignant shouts gave way to rueful laughter as they crowded close to admire Scott’s prize.
Johnny’s stomach rumbled, and he held up a hand to stop the babble. “I don’t know ‘bout anyone else, but I can’t wait much longer for that feast Teresa’s been working on all day. What d’ya say we eat?”
He led the way to the table, and proceeded to plant himself in a chair. Teresa walked slowly toward the kitchen, talking softly to herself and shaking her head. The last thing Johnny heard as she passed through the doorway was the word ‘mandolin’.