This was written in answer to a Lancer Writers Challenge, where you had to incorporate ‘Rule Four’ from George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.’
Only one day to go…only one day to go…
Teresa had been telling herself that all day. It was what the three of them had been telling themselves all day – and probably Murdoch as well if he admitted it.
Scott’s great aunt had been with them for nine days now and thankfully Scott was taking her into Morro Coyo and putting her on the stage tomorrow.
If they could all only get through today, they’d be free.
Nine days – had it only been nine days since Mrs Van Pelt and that snappy little dog of hers had arrived?
It had looked like the cutest little thing.
“Oh, aren’t you a dear,” Teresa had said when she first laid eyes on it. But when she put out her hand to pat the little head and all that long hair with the blue bow sitting so perkily on top, it had bared its teeth and bitten her. And for the rest of the week, anyone else who came near it – except Johnny. He was the only one who managed to avoid its teeth.
“Oh, poor Isabella,” Mrs Van Pelt had cried out as Teresa had sprung back, nursing a stinging hand. Mrs Van Pelt tried to pick up the dog but it was now running round and round Teresa’s legs as if it was looking for an ankle under her skirts to take another bite. With a bosom the size of Mrs Van Pelt’s, it was a wonder she didn’t topple over – or pass out from asphyxiation from all the cologne that she smothered her person with – as she tried to bend down and snag her ‘precious Isabella.’
Scott was gamely trying to support his Aunt’s arm, whose face was getting redder by the minute every time the dog avoided her, and Murdoch was making soothing sounds to the dog in his attempts to grab at the yapping terror, when in walked Johnny from the range, covered in dust and sweat after having worked all morning. In one movement, he’d scooped the dog up and held it aloft with one hand and in such a way that those sharp teeth couldn’t attach themselves to any part of him.
“Whoo-eee. Well, what do we have here?”
Teresa supposed that for someone from Boston it could have been a terrifying sight; what with the way the sun was at Johnny’s back, and he still wore his gun and hat and his clothes weren’t a style that Mrs Van Pelt was familiar with and his spurs always chinked a little when he walked.
But it was Jelly who caused all the trouble. He’d come in right after Johnny.
“You ain’t gonna tell me that thing’s a dog? Why yer lucky that Johnny didn’t up and shoot it.”
“Jelly,” Johnny growled at him, under his breath but it was too late. It was clear to all that Mrs Van Pelt was about to suffer a fit of apoplexy.
“Oh, my goodness…oh, my goodness…I never heard such a dreadful thing…oh my goodness…” and on and on it went.
“Ma’am, Johnny’s not harming the animal in any way.” Murdoch was beginning to look harassed and Mrs Van Pelt had only been with them for five minutes. He gave Johnny one of his looks. “Johnny, give Scott’s aunt her dog.”
Johnny was immediately all apologies as he handed the thing over. “I’m sorry about that, ma’am.”
Well, the visit pretty much went downhill after that. It took a good half hour to calm Mrs Van Pelt down. Finally, Scott managed to make her comfortable half reclining on the sofa, with a glass of sherry and Isabella firmly clasped in her other arm.
Johnny had disappeared outside and they didn’t see him until dinner time. She’d hoped that was just his way. In the five months Johnny had been with them, he was mostly quiet around visitors. Teresa was never sure if that was because he was wary of them or because he thought they’d be wary of him.
And Jelly had been banished from the house entirely until Mrs Van Pelt left Lancer. Murdoch didn’t trust that mouth of his – especially if he took it upon himself to defend Johnny in any way for the gaffe that he, Jelly, had made.
Scott had had to explain to his Aunt, in rather a tight voice, that he in fact, wasn’t living with savages or heathens and that Mexicans, for that matter, were a very religious people and he’d allow it this time because of the shock she’d suffered but that he’d thank her not to refer to Johnny that way again.
In spite of her outrage that Mrs Van Pelt had spoken of Johnny that way, Teresa had had to try hard not to smile at the thought of Johnny being religious. He did wear that St Christopher medallion around his neck and he was certainly one for praying – when he hit his thumb with a hammer or got thrown when he was breaking a horse. But somehow Teresa thought that wasn’t exactly the type of ‘praying’ that Mrs Van Pelt would consider acceptable.
To Teresa’s surprise, Mrs Van Pelt took her little ‘talking to’ from Scott remarkably well.
If only they’d known…
Johnny came down to dinner in his best white shirt that evening, bathed and shaved and hair combed and not a gun in sight and Teresa’s heart swelled a little at the sight of him. There, that would show Mrs Van Pelt that he was no savage. Not that Johnny ever seemed to care about what people said – but Teresa certainly cared. It was more than likely he’d only dressed like this for Scott and Murdoch’s sake, not Mrs Van Pelt’s, but he looked very handsome all the same.
Teresa gave him her warmest smile when he came in and didn’t even frown at him when he forgot to pull her chair out as Scott had done for his aunt.
As Teresa sat down, she could see Mrs Van Pelt eyeing Johnny with approbation.
“Good evening, Mrs Van Pelt,” he said in that soft voice of his. He sounded particularly polite but it was just as well that Mrs Van Pelt didn’t realise he could use that same soft voice to have the toughest of men quaking in their boots.
“John dear,” Mrs Van Pelt said in her most gracious voice, taking a small, slim, blue book from her lap, “I’m so pleased that you’ve presented yourself in a becoming manner. Rule fifty-one in ‘George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation’ clearly states…” And she took her time turning to the page she required. “Wear not your Cloths, foul, unripped or Dusty but See they be Brushed once every day at least and take heed that you approach not to any Uncleaness.”
Well, Teresa nearly choked on her wine and Scott was staring across the table at Johnny with a half pleading, half ‘Johnny-I’m-so-sorry’ look on his face and Murdoch had a polite, frozen kind of expression as if he’d just eaten something that was off but didn’t want to mention it to anyone.
The room went silent. Everyone was looking at Johnny.
Teresa could see that hint of devilment in his eyes that flickered for a moment and her heart sank. She really didn’t want to have an all out war between Johnny and Scott’s aunt.
She watched him slowly pick up his glass of milk and then he looked up and smiled at Mrs Van Pelt. “Well, thank you kindly, ma’am. I’ll try to keep that in mind.”
Everyone, other than Mrs Van Pelt, breathed a big sigh of relief.
“Of course, you need to remember that this is a working ranch, Mrs Van Pelt,” Murdoch put in, after throwing Johnny a warm look.
“Mr Lancer, let’s not stand on ceremony with each other. Please call me Darla…and if I may, I shall call you ‘Murdoch’…?”
Murdoch hesitated just the briefest instance, his eyes on the little book as if he thought it was about to jump up and bite him, but then he gave her one of his big smiles. “To Darla,” he said, holding his wine aloft, “And may your stay here be a pleasant one.”
Teresa watched the candlelight twinkling so prettily on the crystal.
As it turned out, they should have prayed instead of toasted.
In the end, Murdoch sent Johnny off to Sacramento for a few days, just to give him a break but it was Scott who looked more likely to crack; dear Mrs Van Pelt had decided that it was her duty to train Johnny in the ‘ways of gentility’ as she told Teresa, “Because of his severe lack of social decorum due to his unfortunate upbringing.”
Teresa poured the tea for Mrs Van Pelt as they both sat in the blue velvet chairs, and eyed the dog sitting at Mrs Van Pelt’s feet. It was a pity she hadn’t taught Isabella something about social decorum – the wretched little thing bared its teeth at Teresa every time she went near it. And considering that it was always either on Mrs Van Pelt’s lap or curled up at her feet on her special lamb’s wool rug, ‘Isabella’ bared her teeth at Teresa quite often.
The animal was treated like a queen. Mrs Van Pelt had a special bowl for it and Scott, because he’d always been her favourite grand-nephew, was given the job of taking it for walks outside so that it could do its business. Johnny loved that.
Teresa and Johnny were in the barn one afternoon when Scott trudged in looking for a spade. Apparently Isabella was too delicate to get her own paws dirty.
Johnny couldn’t hold back a laugh when he saw Scott’s face.
“Hey, Scott, I’d rather listen to every single one of old George’s Rules, than have to take that mutt out to pee and then report back to the old hag exactly what the dog did.”
And they all had strict rules to be quiet around Isabella – and were never to startle her.
“Then why the hell did she even bring the dog out West in the first place,” Scott growled the morning after this edict had been delivered, as Teresa put his plate down in front of him. Thankfully Mrs Van Pelt always breakfasted in her room.
“Scott…language,” Murdoch cautioned. But he was looking as glum as the both of them.
A couple of times Teresa nearly laughed out loud when Johnny stood before Mrs Van Pelt patiently listening to whatever rule she was reading to him because Scott was behind her, making a strangling motion with his hands.
Johnny was a marvel. He never cracked once.
But clearly Murdoch had had enough of it.
“Murdoch, she’ll be gone in a few days,” Johnny had shrugged, when Murdoch approached him one morning as he was about to head out the door.
He’d put his gunbelt on and Teresa had just handed him his hat.
But Murdoch made him turn back around with a hand on his shoulder and he searched Johnny’s face – hard. “Johnny, I won’t have her being rude to you.”
Johnny had simply smiled. “Boy, people have said a lot worse to me than what Mrs Van Pelt has come out with.” He patted the hand Murdoch had resting on his shoulder. “And you never know, Old Man – I might even learn something.”
“Perhaps she’ll teach you how to show some respect to your father.”
Johnny grinned some more as he walked away, backwards now so that Murdoch could see the look on his face. “Maybe. You never know. I’ll be seein’ yah.”
The day had been hot. Like it always was this time of year.
For Mrs Van Pelt’s final dinner, Murdoch had decided to have a barbecue, to give her a real taste of the West before she left.
“Maybe we could roast that mutt of hers,” Scott muttered to Johnny while his aunt spoke to Murdoch.
“Nah, not enough meat on it – and it’d be tough as old leather.”
Johnny had only just got back from town but Teresa had quickly dusted him off before he’d put in an appearance. To her critical eye he looked more or less clean – but he really should have removed his gun. She decided to say nothing. Mrs Van Pelt didn’t seem to have noticed, and Teresa would only draw attention to the fact if Johnny suddenly removed it and she just couldn’t bear it if the book came out again. Not tonight.
“It’d probably poison us all,” she told them, giving the thing a glare as it ran out from Mrs Van Pelt’s legs.
The darn thing then jumped off the patio and began running around in circles barking and yapping at who knew what – some fly or moth probably.
“Let’s sit down, shall we,” Murdoch told them all. He’d had a table brought outside and Maria had set it with all the grandeur of a proper dinner inside – which wasn’t their usual relaxed way of eating when they barbecued but none of them wanted to hear another rule from the little blue book.
It was just on sundown and the glow of the lanterns in the trees was becoming more noticeable as the light dimmed.
Their last evening with Mrs Van Pelt; what a relief.
“John, dear. What are you doing? Come and sit down.” Mrs Van Pelt had to raise her voice to speak over Isabella’s annoying yapping but that never seemed to faze her.
Teresa cringed at the imperious tone and Scott looked like thunder but Johnny just stood there by the railing, his fingers drumming a tattoo on his leg while he looked out into the evening. He could have been miles away.
And out came the book.
The rest of them fairly groaned but Johnny didn’t even seem to have noticed.
And if only that darned dog would stop that yapping.
“John, dear, Rule Four states, ‘In the presence of others sing not to yourself with a humming noise, nor drum with your fingers or feet.’”
Well, everything happened all at once. Scott jumped up and shouted, “Isabella, will you shut up!” And just at that very same moment, Johnny came to life and drew his gun and aimed it at Isabella and shot not once but twice…thrice…four times in all.
Everyone stared at the dog, lying so still on the ground.
Only Johnny moved forward, holstering his gun as he moved off the patio.
Teresa almost didn’t dare look at Mrs Van Pelt. The woman seemed to be in a state of total shock; her face was parchment white, her eyes were round as wagon wheels and her mouth hung open. No doubt she was breaking at least two of George’s rules then and there.
Then without warning Mrs Van Pelt found her voice.
Teresa cringed. She even felt sorry for the woman. But she was in shock herself. Whatever was Johnny thinking? There had to be some reason…he’d never do a thing like that…not in the time he’d been here…sure he’d shot that Stryker boy but Stryker had been trying to shoot Johnny and Isabella was just a dog…and surely Johnny wouldn’t shoot a dog? But there it was – just a crumpled heap on the ground and now Johnny was…was kicking at it…
Mrs Van Pelt was sobbing now. Murdoch and Scott were on their feet but neither seemed able to move.
“Johnny…” Murdoch finally got it out.
Teresa looked across at Scott. He was looking horribly guilty – like this was all his fault.
And right then Mrs Van Pelt stopped sobbing. They’d all heard it…a bark.
Then not just one bark – but lots of them.
“Oh, my baby…my baby.”
Johnny was walking up to them now with the yapping thing in his hands. “Sorry to scare you all. I only got it just in time.”
It took a moment for his words to sink in – and then they all turned and looked where Isabella had been. Sure enough, there was the biggest rattler Teresa had ever seen. Only now its body was riddled with four bullets – the tail blown clear off.
“Johnny. That’s the best shooting I’ve ever seen.” Murdoch sounded like he was in awe.
Johnny handed the dog over to Mrs Van Pelt then turned back and looked at the snake with a critical eye. “It wasn’t too bad. Isabella got in my way for a bit.” He looked embarrassed of a sudden. “For a minute there I thought I’d hit her when she fell down like that.”
Teresa looked at Murdoch. She’d been sure that Murdoch thought Johnny had shot the dog as well…and Scott. But neither of them said anything. She imagined they felt just like she did right now – sort of woozy with relief. Relief that Johnny was still the man she’d thought she’d come to know these past few months. Even in those first few seconds when she thought he’d shot Isabella, she hadn’t really believed it. She’d known there had to be a reason.
“That’s because of her condition,” Mrs Van Pelt said, her voice still trembling a little.
They all looked at her.
“It’s the reason I try to keep Isabella away from loud noises. If she hears a loud clap or you startle her in some way, she falls down asleep, as if she’s fainted. Don’t you, Isabella.” She held the dog up to her face and hugged it like she was never letting go. How the thing managed to breathe was a mystery but Isabella seemed to actually enjoy it.
“Whew. Well, I’m sure glad to hear that, ma’am.”
Mrs Van Pelt’s eyes filled with tears as she looked up at him. Only this time she didn’t comment on the dust on his knees or the gun on his hip or the way his fingers were twitching ever so slightly at his side.
“Oh Johnny – how can I ever thank you? You wonderful, wonderful boy.”
Johnny put his head down at first, but then he looked at Mrs Van Pelt, like he was considering her question quite seriously.
“Well, ma’am, I’d appreciate it if you packed that little book of George’s Rules away in your bag. At least until you leave Lancer,” he added with a grin.
Mrs Van Pelt put Isabella down, stood up and actually smiled at him. Well, she’d smiled before of course, but this time she looked like she actually meant it.
“I’ll do better than that, young man…”
And she picked up the slim, blue book and threw it into the flames of the barbecue, where it went up with a whoosh.
“…Now that’s the end of that.”
And Isabella barked and did a little dance on her hind legs like she was glad to see the end of it as well.
And it turned out to be the best evening they’d had with Mrs Van Pelt the entire visit. She even laughed when Johnny told her he was going to roast some rattle snake later for her as a special treat. Then Scott told her he’d make a pair of shoes out of the skin – and Murdoch suggested a handbag.
Teresa was tempted to offer to make a muzzle for Isabella out of it but she decided to tell Scott and Johnny that one in private.
Mrs Van Pelt shuddered at each suggestion, but took it all in good grace.
And they never heard her mention that rule book ever again.
** Author’s note:
Pets with a neurological disorder called narcolepsy may suddenly fall over and fall asleep without warning due to a loud noise like the clap of a hand or because something has startled them. Narcolepsy usually isn't dangerous, although a pet may fall asleep in a dangerous place, like on a stairway or in the street.