“Morning, boys,” Teresa said as they both came in.
She took the plate of hot biscuits from Maria and set them down on the table.
They were inclined to look a bit sluggish on a Monday but perhaps it was the sunny morning with that first hint of warmth in the air that had them both looking so cocky. She’d left the kitchen door open on purpose; you could almost smell summer coming. Of course the climbing roses flowering on the trellis under the back porch helped.
Murdoch looked up from his coffee and the last page of the San Francisco Chronicle. Although how he managed to read it with a grease spot the size of a saucer right in the middle of the page like that she couldn’t imagine.
Scott nodded at Murdoch. “Morning Murdoch. I see the new copy of The Chronicle still hasn’t arrived.”
“Murdoch.” Johnny was already helping himself to a platter. “Whooee, that bacon sure smells good.” He forked a pile of it onto his plate.
Murdoch lowered the newspaper. “No, The Chronicle should have come in on Friday’s stage. I don’t know what the hold-up is.”
Johnny pointed his fork at it. “Well they’d better bring a new one soon or you’ll have read the print clear off the page.”
“Either that or Jelly will drop another buttery biscuit on it. Teresa, shall I pour you a cup?” Scott held up the coffee pot.
She nodded, seeing as her mouth was full.
“Either way, no one’ll be able to read it. An’ who wants to read old news anyway? You might as well head into town and sit in the saloon for a couple of hours, Murdoch. You’ll hear plenty of news there.”
“Ah yes, but Murdoch wants to read news that’s ‘printable’, Johnny.”
“Just because it’s printable don’t make it interesting.” Johnny was cocky this morning all right - in that quiet way of his. She wouldn’t try to get a rise out of Murdoch at the breakfast table. But then, Murdoch enjoyed this sort of banter with the boys. You only had to look at his face to see the way he was pressing down on his smile.
“Well Johnny, it might not be as interesting as the news you have in mind but I’m sure it’s more informative about world matters and infinitely more appropriate should a young lady happen to read it.”
She let her gaze meet Johnny’s across the table and gave him her most demure smile. Johnny sized her up. Maybe he was figuring how far he ought to go with his tease.
But right then Scott held out her coffee. “Teresa.” And Johnny went back to his breakfast.
“Thank you, Scott.”
She gave him an especially big smile as she took her cup. Sometimes a morning could be just perfect; talk at the table had been fun, the weather was fine and she had something to look forward to later on in the day.
Murdoch folded the paper in half. “What have you two got planned for today?”
Johnny and Scott looked at each other.
“Well, there’s that creek to be cleared,” Johnny said, through a mouthful of bacon.
Scott dabbed at his mouth with his napkin. “And there’s those couple of strays to be rounded up that broke through the south fence.”
“An’ then we gotta fix the south fence.”
Murdoch frowned. “I thought you’d fixed it already.”
Johnny grabbed for a biscuit. “Not properly. Just enough so’s we don’t lose any more stock.”
What a nuisance. These were the type of jobs that could take more than a day. “Well, just make sure you’re both back in plenty of time for dinner. Remember we’ve got a guest coming tonight.”
“We have?” They both looked at each other then grinned.
“That’s right, boys. Teresa’s friend Delia is coming over.”
Scott simply nodded but Johnny stopped chewing of a sudden then looked down at his plate. She tapped her foot under the table. Whatever Johnny had planned, it would just have to wait. “And Johnny…” She waited until he’d looked up and she had all of his attention. “I promised Delia that you’d both be here for dinner this time.”
“Well, we’ve gotta eat, don’t we.” He shrugged then stabbed another piece of bacon with his fork.
Scott was looking puzzled. “Wasn’t she here just last week when I was in San Francisco?”
“That’s right. She’s coming over this time to look at the catalogues you brought back for me.”
“And then she was here the week before that as well?”
“Yes, she was helping me make out my list to give to you before you went to San Francisco. I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget anything. Oh, Murdoch, can I go to San Francisco next time? You promised that…”
“I promised that the next time I went, you could come with me.”
“Oh, all right.” She said it with as much grace as she could muster. She hadn’t pinned him down to an actual date but at least she’d reminded him of his promise. And she had Johnny and Scott as her witnesses. Speaking of Johnny…
“Is there something wrong with your breakfast, Johnny?” He’d been pushing the same piece of bacon around on his plate for some time now. Hopefully he hadn’t found a hair in his breakfast again – once had been mortifying enough.
But he looked up with one of his half smiles so it didn’t appear as if that was the problem.
“Nope, food’s just fine, T’resa.”
Murdoch put the paper down. Always a signal that it was time to talk business. “So, boys, which will it be – the creek or the strays? Scott?”
“That creek will…”
But Johnny leaned forward and looked down the table at Murdoch. “You know, I’ve been thinking Murdoch; I oughtta have another go at breaking that jughead.”
“Oh, no, Murdoch,” she jumped in. “Why the last time Johnny got up on that horse he ended up in bed for the day.”
Murdoch took a slow sip of his coffee then stuck his bottom lip out. He looked at Johnny. “She does have a point. How many times did it throw you?”
“Johnny will tell you there isn’t a horse around that can’t be broke,” Scott said.
“Oh, there’s plenty a horses around that can’t be broke – just not by me, brother.”
It always made her uneasy when they did this kind of talk. Sure they were joking and laughing but somehow someone always ended up getting hurt. And that black was a mean, nasty thing. It wouldn’t let anyone get near it. And Delia was coming tonight and she wanted everything to be perfect – not having to tend to Johnny because he’d got himself bruised up and all because he was too proud to accept defeat.
“Now there’s a man riding for a fall. I think we should make a little wager on this.”
“You’re on, brother. How much? A week’s wage…or maybe your turn to…”
“Boys, boys.” Murdoch tapped his fork against his glass. “Johnny, do you have to work that horse today?”
“Well, the rest of the strings been done for more’n a week, now. That jughead’s the last one.”
“It’s been pretty quiet around here, Murdoch. We could do with some good entertainment – like seeing Johnny go sailing threw the air half a dozen times.” And even she giggled when Scott made an arc through the air with his hand.
Johnny whacked him in the stomach. “I was only dumped four times. This time I aim to better that.”
“What, five…maybe six?”
She grinned again at the look on Johnny’s face until she remembered Delia was coming. “Oh, Murdoch, can’t Johnny do this tomorrow? I want a nice quiet evening.”
Scott caught her eye. “Your evening will be fine, Teresa. Johnny here never moans loudly.”
Murdoch held up his hand. “Teresa, I’m sure your evening won’t be spoiled because Johnny breaks a horse.” He looked at Scott and frowned. “I suppose you’ll be wanting to spectate?”
Scott nodded. And both boys were looking serious now but they had hope written all over their faces.
Teresa knew she’d lost when Murdoch started to grin at Scott. “So what odds are you offering?”
Scott looked surprised for a split second and then he was all business. “Which way are you betting, sir?”
Murdoch looked at Johnny. “Oh, I think this son of mine can go a few rounds with that jughead and stay on.”
She stood up and started collecting their plates. Breakfast was most definitely finished – for Scott and Johnny at any rate.
“Hey, T’resa.” Johnny grabbed at another piece of bacon as she whisked his plate away from him.
She turned on him, shaking her fork. “You just make sure you keep yourself in one piece and that you’re ready to sit down to dinner when Delia comes.”
He said the words as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, but she wasn’t fooled for one single minute.
She just knew that her evening with Delia was going to be ruined.
Teresa stood back and surveyed the room.
The new white cloth with her border of cornflowers looked perfect on the small round table, especially against the blue chairs.
Oh bother. Johnny hadn’t put that book of Murdoch’s about ships away last night. He’d left it on the floor near the hearth. She picked it up then tucked it under her arm so that she could pick up the tray of wine glasses from the sideboard. It was a little early but if she finished setting the dining table she’d be able to help Maria with dinner before Delia arrived.
The next moment she was juggling to save Murdoch’s best wine glasses from falling off the tray.
Oh dear. One was teetering.
She held her breath while it wobbled.
Once…twice…and…thank goodness, the glass settled back on its stand.
It was the commotion she could hear outside through the French doors that had startled her. And they were still cheering and whooping and whistling. She stomped her foot, not too wildly or the glasses would start clinking again. Did they have to be so darned loud?
She’d better put the book and tray down before she dropped the whole lot. It was strange; she wasn’t usually this jumpy when Johnny was breaking a horse.
Anyway, it was best not to think about it. She wanted to concentrate on getting everything ready for Delia’s visit. She put the tray down on one end of the table then put the book back on the shelf. Now, where was she? She’d already covered the table with the best lace cloth and laid out the crockery. A small bowl of flowers might look pretty?
“Yeehaw! Ride’im Johnny!”
That did it.
She went across and closed the French doors. Goodness, that was the third bout of cheering in as many minutes. Did Johnny have every worker on the ranch watching him ride that black? And Murdoch was no better – they’d all be out there, egging him on.
She lingered at the windows. Just for a moment. Not that she could see the corral from here.
Why did she have that sinking feeling that she was missing out on something? Any other day, she’d have pulled on her jeans and been out there as well.
It was so tempting…
Today she had more important things to think about.
She went back to the table and started placing the wine glasses near each setting. After all, Delia was her new best friend and she wanted everything to be just perfect and if…it was quiet out there now.
She stood stock still, last wine glass in hand and poised mid air. This is how it always happened; cheering one minute and the next minute one of the hands would be running inside and asking for Murdoch.
Only this time, Murdoch was out there with them.
And there was still no sound from outside…
She stared at the front door – not sure whether she wanted it to open or not.
Oh gosh, she could feel the first spikes of worry digging into her. Not to mention the guilt. What was it she’d said to him this morning? “You just make sure you keep yourself in one piece so that you’re ready to sit down to dinner when Delia comes.”
Oh, how could she have said that to Johnny? Of all the…
She cupped her hand to her mouth. She’d never forgive herself if…
At that very moment, the front door opened – and Scott walked in.
Her heart dropped to her boots at the look on his face.
“Scott? How bad is it?” Did she need to find bandages, salve?
He shook his head – and this time she went cold all over. Oh, God. No.
Scott met her look as he stripped off his gloves.
“It’s bad, Teresa. ‘Twenty’ so far.”
He shook his head. “Dollars, Teresa, dollars.”
“That’s right, brother, and you can pay up now.”
And right now she didn’t know whether to hug Johnny or kick him for giving her such a scare. Here she was, convinced he’d been badly hurt and he walks in the door without even a patch of dust on his clothes. And that was a miracle in itself.
“You broke him?” And why she asked that she didn’t know because it was clearly a pointless question.
“Course I broke him.” He sounded almost mad about it as he hung his hat on the hatstand.
Murdoch came in the door just then, with a big smile on his face. He clapped a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Break him? Not only did he break him, Teresa, but he didn’t get thrown even once. And I’ll be taking that ten dollars you owe me, Scott.” He held out his other hand to Scott, the grin on his face even wider.
Teresa took a look at Johnny. It must have been something to watch because that black was as mean as they come. She wished she’d been out there, now.
“Wow, Johnny. I wish Delia had been here to see it. So the black didn’t throw you even once?”
Johnny put his hands on his hips and shook his head. “Nope.” He looked at her. “Not once. Well, I guess I’d better get washed up for lunch.”
“It’s nothing fancy; just sandwiches seeing as we’re having company tonight. Don’t forget that Delia will be here.”
Johnny’s face dropped – not a lot – but enough for her to see he’d been wanting more than sandwiches. Men and their stomachs.
Murdoch clapped him on the back. “Well, I think you’ve earned yourself a shot of Tequila after a ride like that. That might pep you up a bit.”
He raised a bit of a smile at that.
“Sure Murdoch, and then Scott can start paying up.”
Well, Johnny breaking that jughead was all anyone could talk about over lunch. Murdoch was especially pleased because the black was easily the pick of the bunch and would fetch a good price now that they could sell it green broke.
Scott was still mourning his loss of money.
“Are you sure you weren’t setting me up, Johnny? Last time you came off half a dozen times…”
“Make that four brother.”
“…and this time, not a one.”
“Just my lucky day, I guess, Scott.”
But he didn’t look like it was his lucky day – not to Teresa at any rate. Not the way he only ate half a sandwich then just picked at the ham in his second half.
She looked at Murdoch but he and Scott were still laughing over Scott’s losing streak.
“Well, I’d better be getting back out there.” Johnny pushed his chair back, then stood up.
Murdoch and Scott only stopped to acknowledge him leaving then went back to their talk.
Johnny was almost at the back door when she called to him. “Don’t forget to be on time for supper.”
“Oh, I won’t forget that,” he said over his shoulder, then closed the door behind him.
Teresa waited until Murdoch had left the kitchen. Scott was draining the last of his coffee. There’d been nothing wrong with his appetite.
“Scott?” She came around and sat opposite him but it was hard to say the words now that he was staring at her like that. Johnny and Scott were close – she didn’t want to make it sound like she was being a sticky beak.
“Teresa, I’d better get out there or I’ll have Johnny telling Murdoch he did all the work.”
“That’s what I want to talk to you about. Johnny, I mean.”
He put his head down and stared at his cup. And that was exactly what she’d been afraid of. Those two could clam up about each other. But she ploughed on nonetheless. She figured she had nothing to lose. “Did Johnny seem - I don’t know - out of sorts to you?”
“Johnny?” It was possible he was pretending but he certainly looked caught out by her question.
“Well, he won the bet. I thought he’d be happy about not being thrown.”
Scott’s gaze went to the kitchen window as he rubbed a finger along the side of his jaw. They could hear Johnny’s voice outside as he talked to Jelly.
“I wouldn’t worry about him, Teresa.” He got up from his chair. “You just go ahead and organise your dinner. I’m sure everything will be fine.”
Delia had arrived a few hours before dinner – just like she said she would – and there’d been so many things to look at in the catalogues that the time had simply flown by. And Delia was amazing; she knew all the gossip in the valley even though she’d only been here three months.
But now here they were - sitting by the fireplace and waiting.
Delia was as bad as her in keeping an ear out for the boys; they were both looking forward to dinner. Teresa took a sip of her sherry and crossed her fingers that Johnny and Scott wouldn’t be long while Delia talked to Murdoch about growing up in the South. Any other time she’d be interested to listen but all she could think of now was the meat drying out if it wasn’t served soon. Maria had already come in a few moments ago and told her that all was ready and that she and Pablo were waiting to serve.
She was being especially careful that the dinner didn’t spoil – if you’ve grown up in Georgia on a cotton plantation then you’re used to the very best. It must be hard for Delia – having to give all that up and come and live here with her sister and her husband on a small ranch.
“Johnny and Scott shouldn’t be too long now,” she smiled at Delia, when the conversation waned a little.
Delia smiled back at her then went to put her glass down on the table by her chair – only somehow the glass tipped over and the small amount of sherry left in it spilled.
Teresa jumped up. “That’s all right, Delia.” She mopped up the spill with her clean handkerchief.
On her way back to her chair she caught Murdoch’s eye and showed him how annoyed she was with Scott and Johnny. Scott was usually so dependable. Johnny not quite so much. But it was just too bad of them to spoil things for her when she’d wanted tonight to go especially well. Delia had only met each of them the one time – and never both together. And, well, she had to admit, she liked to show the two of them off to her friends. And with Scott being fair and Johnny being dark, they looked particularly handsome when they stood side by side.
Everyone said that Scott and Johnny were the two best catches in the valley. But how was anyone going to catch either of them if they never showed up?
“Perhaps they came in the back stairs,” Murdoch suggested with a glance out the large window. It was beginning to get dark outside.
“Oh yes, that could be it.” She looked at Delia. “Do you mind if I leave you for a moment, Delia? I’ll just go upstairs and check.”
“She’ll be fine with me, for a moment. Won’t you, my dear.”
Delia pushed her glasses up that little bit further along the bridge of her nose. “That would be fine, Mithter Lanther.”
Teresa smiled at her. She was such a dear.
When she got to the top of the stairs, she saw Scott - all dressed and shaved and looking very handsome - just going in the door of Johnny’s room.
Well, at least one of them was ready.
“Scott, Johnny, are you both…” Scott had left Johnny’s door a little ajar but she gave a small knock just in case. The boys were fussy about things like that. “…ready?”
She stopped in the doorway. The room was almost in total darkness.
“Careful, Teresa.” Scott’s hand gripped her arm. “It might be catching.” His voice was low and very close to her ear.
She stared into the room - and could just make out Johnny lying in bed with the covers pulled up to his neck.
“Johnny. Dinner is ready! What are you doing?”
Scott walked all the way in and lit the lamp beside the bed. “I’d say he’s not feeling too well, Teresa.”
It all made sense to her now – he must have been feeling poorly when he came in at midday.
Johnny was eyeing Scott but he closed his eyes when she came up to him and put a hand on his forehead. “Well, you don’t seem to be running a fever.”
Scott came up close too and peered down at him. “I don’t know, Teresa. He’s not looking too good. Do you think I should call Murdoch up here?”
Johnny frowned up at him. “Hush up, Scott. I don’t need nothin’, Teresa. Just let me lie here for a bit. I’ll probably just go off to sleep.”
He was probably right - he didn’t look all that bad. “It doesn’t seem to be too serious, Scott.”
“I don’t know, Teresa. I think you’d better give him a dose of Dr Stuart’s Botanical Syrup. Or maybe one of his Vegetable Pills. Maybe both?”
“Scott, I’ll…” Johnny went to sit up then he fell back again, clutching at his bedclothes.
“You’ll what, brother?”
Johnny took a deep breath. “Maybe you oughtta keep in mind what Mrs Van P. said about people playing at being doctors.”
Scott smiled. “That would be: In visiting the sick, do not presently play the physician if you be not knowing therein.”
“And you sure ain’t knowin’,” Johnny growled at him.
“Oh, but I am, Johnny.”
“Scott, you’re not helping any.” She turned to Johnny. “Johnny, you just lie there and maybe in a little while…”
“He’ll feel like…taking a ride?”
Johnny was throwing daggers at Scott with his eyes by this time and she really couldn’t blame him. “Scott, how can you be so unsympathetic.”
Scott didn’t answer. They’d all heard the footsteps trudging up the stairs.
“Johnny, you intending to leave Barranca out there saddled all night long ‘cause he’s starting to…” Jelly’s voice dried up as he walked into the room. As usual, Jelly smelled of hay and horse and moth balls but it was a fish she smelled strongest of all.
She turned to Johnny and put her hands on her hips.
“Johnny Lancer, are you even sick?”
He definitely squirmed. “T’resa, I never said I was sick, exactly.”
Scott put his hand on Johnny’s forehead. “He might have Thcarlet Fever, or Chicken Poxth or…”
In one move she pulled the blankets down – and there was Johnny, fully clothed, down to his boots and all.
Johnny batted Scott’s hand away and sat up. “T’resa, I never said I was sick.”
“It’s true, Teresa. He never actually said that he was sick.”
“Oh, you’re a big help, aren’t you, Scott.”
Scott grinned down at him. “I try.”
“What’s this about Johnny bein’ sick?” Jelly asked. “There was nothin’ wrong with him jest a minute…”
Johnny stood up and glared at him. “Aw, Jelly, just go down and unsaddle Barranca for me, huh.”
Well, that put Jelly in a huff. “No need to snap at me. I ain’t some lackey around here. You want your horse unsaddled…”
“Okay, I’m goin’, I’m goin’.”
There was silence in the room for a moment after Jelly left. Johnny was finding the tip of his boots very interesting and Scott was trying, not too successfully she might add, to keep the smile from his face.
“Johnny, I can’t believe you’d do this.” It all made sense to her now. Ooh, she could slap him. “You only rode that jughead because you were hoping you’d get out of dinner. Johnny, if you wanted to go and see Amelia Watkins, why all you had to say was…”
“Amelia Watkins?” They both said the name at the same time with the same look of surprise on their faces.
“Oh.” She saw at once that she’d make a mistake. “Well, Delia said…”
Johnny groaned – and for a moment she thought he really was unwell – until she saw Scott’s face.
“Oh, you two. This is all about Delia, isn’t it.”
Johnny looked at her like he was weighing up what to say, then he came forward and put his hands on her shoulders. “Teresa, she’s a nice kid…”
“Johnny, she’s only two years younger than you.”
“Like I said, she’s a nice kid.”
“What he’s trying to say, Teresa, is that any time she catches sight of Johnny in town she bails him up and talks his ear off and tries to…” He stopped and eyed Johnny with one eye brow raised.
If Scott had been anyone else it wouldn’t have been at all prudent for him to continue after Johnny spoke like that. Of course, it was water off a duck’s back to Scott.
Teresa could feel herself going red. She knew Delia was a bit wilful but then, life had been hard for her since the end of the war. But gracious me, this was Delia they were talking about. “She tries to what, Scott?”
“Scott, will you stop your funning,” Johnny finally snapped. “T’resa, honey, she hasn’t said anything, it’s just that, well, every time she sees me in town she walks into posts or trips on a step or drops her bag or - ” He stood there looking at her, like he was hoping she’d understand.
Scott cleared his throat, just like old Doc Jenkins did when he had something to tell. “In short – she’s got a bad case of ‘Johnny-itis,’ Teresa.”
All she could do was stand there. She didn’t know what to say. And Delia would be waiting for them downstairs…
Scott folded his arms and Johnny plonked back down on the bed.
“Well, what are we going to do?” She looked at each one of them in turn.
Johnny looked up. “Well, unless you want to see Murdoch’s best crockery smashed, I think it would be a good idea if I didn’t go down to dinner.”
She pressed her lips together. Poor Delia. Now that she came to think about it, she could be a bit clumsy. Oh gosh. And then she started to giggle. The thought of poor Delia walking into a post because she’d caught sight of Johnny was just too much.
And then the sight of Johnny looking at her like she’d gone mad was too much as well.
She had to get her handkerchief out to wipe her eyes she was laughing so much but when she saw the sherry stain on it - that started her off again.
“T’resa, we’re gonna have to do something,” she heard Johnny say.
“He’s right, Teresa.” Scott looked to be having a hard time wiping the smile from his face as well. “Murdoch will be up here in a minute wondering where we are.”
Johnny was the only one not laughing. He’s stood up and was pacing the floor with a scowl on his face – and that quickly sobered her.
She just couldn’t put him through a miserable evening.
The next morning, Teresa saw Delia to the buggy. The hand who’d driven Delia over yesterday didn’t look too worse for wear after a night in the bunkhouse with the hands. She just hoped he could keep his mouth shut about Johnny having been out there playing poker with the boys half the night. But he was an older man and he reminded her a bit of daddy and he looked like he had good sense.
She tucked her hand through Delia’s arm as they walked. “It was so lovely having you here.”
And that was the truth.
They’d got through the evening with out breaking a single glass or piece of crockery or spilling any food. She’d made Johnny’s excuses to Murdoch and Delia on the grounds that he wasn’t feeling too well. Delia’s smile drooped and Murdoch was all for going upstairs to check on him until she’d assured him it was probably nothing worse than a headache from all that jolting this morning.
But Scott soon had Delia smiling and talking again. Murdoch and Scott usually spoke more than Johnny did at the dinner table anyway, and Scott was really good at any number of card games. He even taught them one they didn’t know.
Johnny had been up and out the door to mend that south fence before anyone else was even up. The coward. Murdoch had raised his eyebrows when she’d told him where Johnny was so Scott explained that Johnny was worried about that temporary mend on the fence giving way. Murdoch seemed quite happy with that explanation; so much so that he and Scott had both lingered that little longer over breakfast to make Delia feel at home.
“Thank you, Teresa. I had a wonderful time.” She gave Teresa a big hug then turned to Scott who was waiting to hand her into the buggy. “Thank you, Thcott.”
“My pleasure, Delia. I look forward to you visiting with us again.”
And really, he should never have said that last part. And she was sure he only said it for Johnny’s sake. But she had a feeling Johnny was going to have the last laugh this time; because Delia blushed almost as red as her hair and then somehow managed to miss her footing as Scott handed her in and she ended up thumping down on her bottom in the dirt.
“Oh, Delia.” She rushed forward to help her up. Delia’s new dress, the one that had come all the way from St Louis, was covered in dust.
But she needn’t have bothered.
Delia just sat there on the ground, covered in dust. She didn’t even seem to notice the hand that Teresa held out to her.
The only one Delia had eyes for was - Thcott.