Murdoch ran his hand along the mare's flank. She was beautifully proportioned, strong boned, a true buckskin with a gleaming tan coat and black points. But none of that was the reason this horse was so special.
Jelly had been sniffing around the corral for the last ten minutes, nose to the ground, angling for answers. Murdoch smiled to himself and waited for the barrage of questions that were bound to come sooner or later.
Jelly walked around the mare, head to one side, bottom lip stuck out. "Well she sure is a pretty thing, ain't she. Not that I've ever seen Murdoch Lancer buy a pig in a poke, no sirree. I bet you had to pay through the nose for a beauty like that."
"She's sound all right. Only I didn't buy her."
"You didn't buy her? Well in tarnation's name, why not? You don't have to be a genius to see she's about as perfect as a mare can get." He ran his hand down her nose. "See that -- not a single quiver. She's sweet as molasses and strong with it too, I bet. Never saw a buckskin yet that wasn't tough as nails."
"That's just what I was thinking."
"Well are you gonna make an offer for her?"
"Why would I do that?"
Jelly just about choked on his own spit. "Cause she's exactly what you've been looking for these past three months. That's how come."
"Jelly, I never said she wasn't mine. I just said I didn't buy her."
"Well if you didn't buy her, then who did?"
"Go get me some oats, Jelly. I mean to look after this lady myself."
Jelly stuck both thumbs through his braces. "You think I don't know how to feed a horse?"
"Oh, I'm sure you do, Jelly. You know everything there is to know about feeding horses. For instance, I know you'd never use some of those newfangled mixes I heard Tom's been selling in town."
Jelly looked surprised. "I ain't heard Tom's been selling anything like that. There ain't a horse born that needs anything but oats and chaff and some good pasture and . . ."
"Exactly. None of this cracked corn and barley and wheat and oats nonsense."
Jelly froze, then his Adam's apple bobbed up and down. He started backing away. "I'll just go get that feed you want, Boss. Won't take a minute."
Murdoch turned back to the mare and looked her in the eye. "And that, my Sweet, is how you handle Jellifer Hoskins."
The mare seemed to give him a knowing look; she was a woman after all. But after a few seconds his conscience pricked him. He was getting to be as bad as those two boys of his when it came to teasing Jelly. In time he'd tell Jelly who bought the mare, but for now, he wanted that information to be all his.
Sometimes a memory is all the sweeter because it's a secret and he hadn't had enough time to savour this one yet.
Just a short while ago, he'd been sitting at his desk after the midday meal...
The hacienda was silent. The boys were out working, Teresa was visiting friends and no-one else was around to bother him. He eyed the cigar box. It had been niggling for his attention the last three days but with the smell and warmth of spring in the air, he'd resisted the call -- which was unlike him. He liked the books to be up to date. Even Johnny had noticed his lapse in discipline. Before he left this morning he picked up the cigar box that sat on the corner of Murdoch's desk and shook it until the rustle of paper could be heard. "Looks like you've got some catching up to do while Scott and me have the crew finishing off that new fence line. Course, if you'd rather dig post holes..."
"Johnny, tempting as that offer is, I'll have to decline. The head of the household should never shirk his responsibilities."
Of course that remark set him up for a string of cheeky gibes at his expense from both Johnny and Scott but eventually he got the pair of them out the door for a full day's work.
Murdoch opened the lid, placed his account book close by, picked up his pencil then put a hand into the box. At least it wasn't quite as full as he thought it would be. He cleared his throat, put the point of his pencil to the tip of his tongue -- and started tallying the receipts in his ledger book.
Cipriano's receipts from Baldemero's were always a breeze to notate. As usual, his foreman had checked everything off as he unloaded the wagon. Each item was listed by length or weight or number of sacks and Baldemero's tally concurred with Murdoch's own. Not surprising really, as Cipriano could always be counted on. He would have stood over the clerk while the Lancer list was being tended to. Nothing would be overlooked while Cipriano was around.
Teresa had clearly had a fine time in Green River picking out material and sewing notions by the amount she'd spent. Well, every young girl should have a new dress for spring. Even two or three. She was probably talking patterns and styles right this moment with Meg Bolton. She'd jumped into the buggy after breakfast clutching the latest Godey's. Teresa was turning into a fine young lady. Paul would certainly be proud of his little tomboy.
For the next half hour he continued to work through the pile. There'd been quite a few purchases with spring almost upon them.
One particular pile of receipts that had been stacked in chronological order made him smile. Scott had a liking for order, like himself. That Harvard learning hadn't been wasted; Scott rarely made a mistake with the books. In fact, he was as meticulous with figures as Murdoch was.
Murdoch's lips twitched when he picked up the next receipt. It was from the feed and grain store for a 'specified mix' of cracked corn, barley, wheat and oats. Murdoch rolled his eyes. He had an inkling this receipt was not meant to have been left in his box. That duck of Jelly's ate better than the hands. And what was Jelly doing charging the ranch for his fancy duck food anyway? Not as if there weren't plenty of scraps and feed around. He wondered if Johnny or Scott knew about the gourmet cuisine that duck ate. Probably not or they would have teased jelly about it already. Perhaps he'd keep it to himself. He grinned. Information like this could come in handy when Jelly needed taking down a peg or two.
At the bottom of the box were some dog-eared receipts that looked like they'd lived in someone's pocket or saddlebag for an extended period. Murdoch picked one up and sniffed at it. Or perhaps the bearer had visited the saloon.
Murdoch couldn't stop his smile. Two sons, both so unalike.
Johnny had returned just yesterday from a buying trip in Sacramento. Some of the receipts had had to be hand-written by Johnny as not everyone gave them out. Murdoch's brows went up. The writing was neat and clear to read. Johnny had surprised him yet again.
Murdoch leaned back in his chair. On a fine spring day like this he had a lot to be thankful for; two sons who were a constant source of pride and Teresa who lit up a room with her smile. Yes, he was certainly a blessed man -- although how that came to be after all that had happened over the last twenty-five years was still something of a mystery. He closed his eyes and was a little surprised to find a prayer of thanks deep in his heart.
It was tempting to just let himself drift off but it was too pretty a day for an afternoon doze, so Murdoch opened his eyes again, closed the books and was about to put the cigar box back where it belonged when he saw a receipt caught in the bottom corner. He'd missed that one.
It wasn't the usual receipt. This one was written on fine writing paper. He opened it up and began to read....
This receipt is for you Murdoch
I bought a new brood mare
I didn't tell you when I got home from the trip
Guess I didn't know how to tell you
Not after everything went wrong the last time I got you a horse
Anyway she's real special
I thought of you as soon as I laid eyes on her
Now don't get mad Murdoch
I didn't waste our money
Except for the penny
For this here piece of paper
Paid for her myself
She's a gift for you
I left her in the back corral
She's sweet as they come
That's what I named her
I never did make up for buying that crow-bait
So this is it
A real present
P.S. -- happy birthday
He'd stared at the receipt for a long time
Never had a penny of his been so well spent - this piece of writing paper was worth more to him than the horse itself.
He felt a warm breath on the back of his neck, then Sweet nuzzled his shoulder, as if to remind him of her value. "All right." He ran a hand down her sleek neck. "Yes, you're a beautiful lass. And worth every dollar Johnny spent on you."
One day he'd tell Jelly. Soon probably.
But not yet.