A Western Writers Group Challenge Story: Give a character an unexpected hobby . . .
Dedicated to Barb Dudley, December 10, 1957-July 13, 2007
. . . a friend.
Scott finished tethering his horse and pulled his hat off to wipe at the sweat beaded on his forehead. He headed for the washbasin just outside the kitchen door, tossed his hat onto a bench, then rolled up his sleeves. He filled the basin from a bucket kept nearby and gave sincere consideration to simply dunking his head into the inviting water.
Eight months in California and the weather continued to surprise him. Boston had a distinct change in seasons with predictable patterns of temperature variations. He was finding western weather as unpredictable as the people who lived there – one day hot, next day cold . . . one minute friend, next moment glad for the gun on your side.
‘Definitely keeping me on my toes . . . and in need of a bath.’ Again, Scott gazed longingly at that pool of tempting water, but the gentleman in him demanded he follow the rules of decorum. ‘You are not a horse at the trough. Remember that.’
‘Johnny would dunk his head.’
‘You are not your brother Johnny. You were raised a gentleman, and gentlemen do not wallow about like swine at a mud hole.’
Scott scratched at his forehead and considered that he was having the most idiotic conversation he’d ever had with himself. ’Better have Maria check you for heatstroke, boy,’ he thought. Even still, his peculiar musings continued. ‘The cattle after lunch are not going to care one bit if you are clean, dirty, hot or sweaty.’
He now felt totally ridiculous. ‘Just get on with it!’ He dipped his hands into the water before he could waste another moment on the childish reflections. He splashed water quickly over his face, washed his hands, then dried off and ran the damp towel over the back of his neck and across his hair. He hung the towel back on its hook and emptied the basin.
‘You’d think you’ve never been hot before, Scott Lancer,’ he chastised as he marched up the back steps and entered the kitchen.
“You were out there a long time,” Teresa said over her shoulder as she set a heaping plate of sandwiches onto the table. “Looked serious. Something on our mind?”
Scott rolled his eyes at her innocent question. “Not a thing. Absolutely not a thing.” He sat down at his established place at the table and Teresa handed him an empty plate.
“Help yourself. Would you like some coffee or water?” she asked.
Scott smiled wryly at the irony. “Water. Please.” He flipped a napkin onto his lap and was reaching for a sandwich when Johnny entered the kitchen from the great room.
“You’re late,” he said with an impish grin.
Scott picked up the brotherly challenge and parried, “No, I’ve just been busy. If you’ve already eaten then you have obviously just been lazy.”
“Not at all, brother . . . I’m just a whole lot faster than you.”
“Faster isn’t necessarily better . . . brother.” Scott stared at Johnny, his eyebrows raised to further accentuate the double-entendre.
Johnny’s grin spread in unequivocal understanding and he opened his mouth to send back what would no doubt prove a witty rejoinder. But his eyes glanced toward Teresa and stayed there, drawing Scott’s attention.
The young woman stood with Scott’s glass of water in hand, her gaze shifting from brother to brother, her own eyebrows raised in curious anticipation of enlightenment regarding the intriguing conversation.
The Lancer’s prudish housekeeper, Maria, stood just off to the side behind Teresa, her arms crossed over her chest, her expression decidedly colored with hostile warning.
The brothers faced each other again, eyes twinkling, the tempting continuation of their roguish behavior barely contained.
Johnny cleared his throat. “You have a point there, Scott. You most definitely have a point. But I’ll still break more horses today than you’ll chase down strays.”
“We’ll see,” Scott said with a shrug. He accepted the enforced truce by salute with his upheld sandwich, then took a sizeable bite.
Teresa set Scott’s glass before him. “Did you want something else to eat, Johnny?”
“No, I’m full, Teresa. Thanks. I was lookin’ for some thread and scrap pieces of cloth if you got any.”
“If you need something repaired, I’d be happy to sew it for you,” she said.
“No, I just need the scraps if you got ‘em.”
“Come with me.” She wiped her hands on her apron as she walked. “My sewing basket is in the great room. You can pick out what you want.”
Scott finished his lunch and thanked the ladies. He headed back out the kitchen door to retrieve his hat and his horse. He led the animal toward the corrals by the barn, hoping to catch Johnny breaking that stunning bay he had his eyes on. That horse definitely had promise, and his brother sure provided a good show on the back of a bucking bronc. There were horses milling about in the pen, and a couple of hands taking siesta in the shade beneath a nearby tree, but no Johnny. Scott was ready to mount up and head back out to the range when what some might call singing could be heard drifting softly out the barn door.
“A dollar’s too much for your kisses, sweet pea . . . but how ‘bout I give you some of mine for free!” Johnny warbled lightly in a staccato rhythm, obviously enjoying the lyrics, but the tune left him wildly fumbling for a key.
Scott cringed at a particularly discordant note as he entered the barn. He stood in the doorway, letting his eyes adjust to the diffused sunlight filtering in through myriad cracks in the seasoned wood. Shards of light slashed in chaotic patterns across the building.
“Hola, brother,” Johnny called from his hay bale bench next to his own horse’s stall. Barranca picked up the greeting and sent a nicker Scott’s way, the palomino’s golden coat a bright patch amongst the shadows.
“What are you doing in here, Johnny?” Scott said as he walked closer. “I thought you were all fired eager to break a record number of horses today.”
“Too hot just now,” Johnny answered, his fingers working at some small object in his hands. “A smart man out here knows when to work and when to take it easy. This here is easy time.”
“I’ll be sure to make Murdoch aware of your philosophy, brother. He’ll certainly have his own opinion on the subject.”
“What he don’t know can’t hurt the ol’ man, now can it?” Johnny looked up from his task and flashed that impish grin. “Best you remember that, Scott.”
Scott smiled back and took his hat off. “I’ll do my best.”
Johnny again focused on the little something in his hand. He was looping a strand of thin yarn round and round what looked like a thick piece of straw. Scott saw the scraps of cloth Johnny had sought from Teresa spread out beside him on his improvised workbench, an assortment of colorful quilting squares. Scott took a seat directly across from Johnny. “Can I ask what you’re doing?”
“Just makin’ a kid’s fancy is all,” Johnny said, not looking up.
Scott spied three colorful little figures lying next to Johnny. He reached forward, his hand hovering over the objects. “May I?”
“Sure.” Johnny kept winding with that yarn.
Scott put the three little figures into the palm of his hand and examined them closely. Johnny had cleverly fashioned two little women and a man out of some woven straw, yarn, and scraps of Teresa’s fabric. The “ladies” had long skirts made from strips of the cloth, wrapped around their “legs” and kept in place by blouses made from wound yarn. The man’s clothing was made opposite, a piece of cloth draped to form a shirt, the yarn wound up one straw leg and down the other to form pants.
“These are cute. I had no idea you still like to play with toys.”
Johnny gave a slight scoffing laugh. “Never did have much use for toys, brother. But that’s not what these are for. These are worry dolls.”
“What are you worried about?”
Johnny glanced up. “What makes you think I ain’t makin’ ‘em for you?”
“Why would I need ‘worry’ dolls?”
“Well . . . you got a letter from your grandfather yesterday. Opened it yet?”
‘How in the world did he know?’ Scott forced himself to maintain eye contact with his annoyingly perceptive brother. “No. I haven’t. But that doesn’t mean I’m worried about it.”
“Worried . . . afraid . . . just a might anxious – these little folk don’t mind. You just tell ‘em about it and let them take care of it.”
Scott looked down at the innocuous looking dolls, still in his hand. “And just how do they do that? Magic?”
Johnny shrugged. “Maybe. You just pick one and tell it a worry or fright, then put it under your pillow at night. When you wake up in the morning, they’ve settled whatever was troublin’ you. Gives you a fresh start with a lighter heart.”
Scott smiled. “And do you have personal knowledge that this actually works?”
Johnny smiled back shyly. “It don’t hurt to have ‘em around when things get a little tough. I learned to make ‘em from an old Indian woman in a small village down in Mexico. Couldn’t understand a word she said, but she could tell when a mind was workin’ too hard at somethin’. Just about every kid in that town had a set . . . a few of the grownups, too.”
“So who are you making these for if not for yourself?”
“Maria’s nephew, Santos.”
Scott nodded. “He still worried about what killed his goat?”
“Yep. Can’t get it out of his mind that whatever critter it was ain’t gonna be back for him or his little sister. Thought maybe a set of these might settle him down a bit. Maria said it was worth a try. Sometimes all a body needs is a friend and a little faith to get ‘em past a problem. These folk can pack some strong medicine.”
Scott gave the figures one more appraisal, and then carefully set them down next to Johnny and stood. “Well, I hope they work. Everyone on the ranch has noticed the boy’s brooding. You know though, if they do work and people find out what helped, you may end up with a new reputation.”
Johnny laughed brightly and shook his head. “I better tell Santos to keep it between us, then. Could lose all my respectability as a gunfighter!”
“Can’t see as there’d be any downside to that.” Scott laughed too. “See you at dinner, brother,” he said and headed out of the barn.
Dinner was long past when Scott headed up to his bedroom, later than intended, but satisfied with a good days work and a pleasant evening spent in easy company.
He struck a match and lit the lantern atop his dresser. The lamp flared too brightly and he turned the wick down a notch. The contented smile slowly slid from his face as he considered his grandfather’s latest letter, propped there against a stack of books, begging for attention. Scott loved his grandfather, but the last letter from the man had left him upset and not a little angry. The missive had been full of entreaties for Scott to come “home where he belonged,” ominous warnings about how the west could kill a man before his time and, worst of all, how “living with a notorious gunman, ‘retired’ or not,” would forever damage his reputation as a gentleman within “polite society.”
‘He doesn’t even know my brother, yet he’s already passed judgment.’
Scott reached out but he bypassed the letter and instead picked up the top book from the stack. He turned and tossed the hefty tome onto his bed.
Something colorful bounced off his pillow.
He stepped forward and picked up the little bag. It was a simple sack made from fabric Scott recognized as one of Teresa’s quilting squares. A drawstring of yarn protected the contents from spilling out.
A smile slowly crept back onto Scott’s face as he loosened the string and tilted the bag’s treasure into his palm. Six little worry dolls, three women and three men, greeted him warmly – his own little personal trouble-tackling tribe.
‘Sometimes all a body needs is a friend and a little faith to get ‘em past a problem,’ Johnny had said.
‘My brother,’ Scott contemplated, ‘. . . an unpredictable man, indeed.’
THE END – MP, July 2007