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The Bad Penny


The stillness carried the scent of an impending thunderstorm, stale and fresh gathered as one. Scott breathed in deeply. If asked, he’d describe it as an old rusty bucket filled with newly cut clover.


“By God, Lancer, don’t you have a way with the King’s English.”


It’s a gift, George. I hate to brag.


The thunderstorm was rolling in from the west, corralling and driving ahead of its arrival oppressive air, hot and steamy.


“Tillie the Tassel. Now there’s a woman who could corral steam in a man’s britches.”


I'm not speaking of that kind of steam, George.


With respect to the thunderstorm’s potential power, God’s creatures had grown silent and sought shelter. The quietude showcased the crunching gravel under Scott’s boots as his purposeful strides delivered him to his destination.


“Jelly Hoskins! We need to have a talk.”


The storm spoke for the first time. Even at a distance, its rumble rattled the milky window panes of the curmudgeon’s hole-in-the-wall abode.


“I know you’re in there, Hoskins. I’m calling you out, you yellow-belly meddler.”


“Ho-HO! Lancer! Yellow-belly? Old Harlan warned you about that uncivilized influence of the western heathen dialect.”


I’ve always wanted the opportunity to use the term, George. Now seemed like a good time.


Scott’s eyes narrowed at the movement of a faded, tattered curtain. “Show yourself, Hoskins. Your day of reckoning awaits.”


The storm inserted itself into the conversation with a clap of thunder and knocked on the dwelling’s door with the hand of God.


Muffled words from inside acknowledged the accuser’s presence. “My ears ain’t likin’ what they’re hearin’ comin’ out a yer mouth, Scott.”


“With all that dirt in your ears, Hoskins, I’m surprised you can hear anything.”


“That’s damn low, Lancer. Bad-mouthing a man’s hygiene. Damn low, indeed.”


Pocket your opinion, George. You don’t have to smell him on occasion like I do.


A streak of lightning, courtesy of the devil, flashed close enough to stand the hairs up on a man’s arm. “Show your dreadful countenance, you bad penny. My time is precious and tightly wound. I don’t feel like wasting it on a coward.”


The door opened. Its hinges complained as they were called upon to do their job... much like the owner of the bristle-brush chin stepping out into the storm’s bluish-gray light. “Well, I’m a busy man too. I ain’t got time to be jawin’.”


“Then I’ll make this quick. Your jaw has been flapping and your finger has been pointing plenty in my absence. You’ve spread a thick layer of guilt around this ranch and good people are choking on it.” Scott’s hand tickled the gun’s ivory grip resting low on his hip. “I’m here to put an end to the chaos you’ve created with your sniveling, snide remarks. Best choose your next words wisely, Hoskins.”


The curmudgeon’s beady eyes squinted as his chest puffed up and his unshaven chin jutted out in defiance. The mouth, which had rained down havoc on the Lancer townfolk, twitched and then slowly opened.


“No! Wait. “Destiny galloped in on a horse called Premonition. Scott’s hand raised to stop the unstoppable. “Not those words, Jelly! I swear to God! Don’t do it. Say anything except -”


“‘Bout time ya stopped kickin’ up yer heels in Sacramento and got yerself home.”


From the fist of Zeus a tune was called and downward crashed a bolt of lightning, striking a massive Valley Oak tree, splitting it in half clear to the roots.


“Dammit, Jelly.” Scott rolled his eyes. “When are you going to start taking me seriously?” A reply from the whiskered meddler wasn’t required. The revolver, slung low on the hip, would do the answering.


“Scotty-Garrett! What did I tell ye about readin’ those worthless penny dreadfuls?”


They’re not worthless, Winnie. They cost a Liberty copper!


“Cheeky boy!”


A knuckle delivered a sharp rap to the top of Scott’s head.


“Ow!”


Jolted awake, Scott sat up, causing a cockeyed sway of the porch swing. Familiar surroundings appeared blurred and askew. Another knuckle rap from a falling acorn cleared the last remnants of his dream. “By God, Winifred, it’s finally happened. The damn penny dreadfuls have rotted my brain.”


Truth be told, Scott wasn’t looking forward to confronting Jelly. Scott had honestly tried to befriend the man. He offered support when Hoskins’ business ventures failed or love interests left. He turned a deaf ear to Jelly’s unwarranted complaints and uninvited opinions. As the little man’s nose started sticking where it shouldn’t be stuck, Scott did his best to hold his tongue and focus on the good Jelly had to offer. Hell, he even threw a few checker games to put a smile on the hired hand’s face.


And just when Scott decided he could learn to enjoy Hoskins’ company, the man opened his mouth when it needed to stay shut and annoyance once again crawled up Scott’s neck.


Kinsey’s arrival had fueled Jelly’s self-proclaimed status as the ranch's finger-pointing judge. According to that finger, Scott’s cousin was spoiled, Scott’s cousin was sassy-mouthed, Scott’s cousin was brazen and… Scott’s cousin broke Johnny Lancer’s heart. An unforgivable sin in Jellifer Hoskins’ world.


On the other hand, upon realizing how easily she could get Jelly’s dander up, Kinsey made it a moral imperative to do so. Yes, Scott couldn’t completely disagree with Jelly’s assessment of Miss Furlong - he simply didn’t want to be reminded of her charming attributes at every turn.


But now, the current situation with Hoskins hit a different nerve with Scott, one of zero tolerance. Jelly, possibly unaware but no less lethal, had pushed gratuitous guilt into the minds of the people Scott cared most about. An ear would no longer be turned to deafness. A tongue would no longer be held in silence.


Nearing the stables, Scott picked up on a conversation between Jelly and Johnny he couldn’t quite decipher. Stepping inside, the discussion came to a suspicious halt.


“Hello, Jelly.” Scott approached the two silent conversationalists.


“I see ya stopped kickin’ yer heels up in Sacramento and got yerself back on the ranch.”


“Jesus, Jelly.” Johnny swiped a hand across his mouth followed by a headshake of disbelief. “What did I just tell you?”


Scott smiled. The discussion topic was no longer a mystery. “You’re right. I got myself back on the ranch and I believe some catching up needs to be done. Brother, can you give me a few minutes with Jelly here?"


A chin struck a pose. “Anything ya got ta say at me you can say in front of Johnny.”


“Oh, now, Jellifer.” Johnny’s drawl pulled at the little man’s name. “I don’t see any hammer and nails in Scott’s hands. Speakin’ of, think I’ll go look in on the old man.” A teasing grin danced across the little brother’s face. “Time I fessed up to sendin’ that telegram.”


Scott let his stare hang at the hired hand’s back a few moments after Johnny’s departure with hopes of a turn in making eye contact for the discussion. It wasn’t to be. Unstacked hay bales offered a suggestion. “Let’s sit down.”


“I’d rather stand if it’s all the same ta you.”


“Suits me just fine, Jelly.” Scott crossed his arms and leaned against a stable gate. “I understand you were with my father when he took a fall.” Simplifying Murdoch’s incident as a fall seemed prudent. The last thing Scott needed right now was Dr. Hoskins’ thoughts on brain hiccups.


“Well, it’s a good thing somebody was. The man might still be layin’ out there.”


“Agreed. And I’m grateful.” Scott sighed. “Murdoch poorly timed the sending off of his sons on working trips.”


Jelly glanced over his shoulder. “Boss didn’t mention no working trips.


Scott shrugged. “Guess he forgot to run it past you.” A finger waggled in the air as an eyebrow raised. “And I bet you were thinking his boys were off chasing pretty girls… not to say we wouldn’t if one happened to pass by and we had the time.”


The hired hand stuck his hands deep into trouser pockets and gazed out the open stable door toward the hacienda.


Bending down, Scott snagged a loose piece of hay from the floor and pointed in the direction of Jelly’s focus. “I recommend steering clear of the kitchen or you might end up in one of Teresa’s boiling pots of chicken broth.” The pointer tapped Scott’s temple. “It just occurred to me… Teresa’s known Murdoch longer than the combined time you, me and Johnny have walked this ranch.”


“Yeah.” A throat cleared. “I guess that’s so.”


“We’re damn lucky she takes good care of us.” Scott rubbed his chin and pondered. “I think I’ll treat the young lady to a day in Green River. I can’t remember the last time she’s visited the dress shop to gather up some female gossip.”


The off-handed comment hit its mark. Lancer’s finger-pointer slowly turned his head and made the eye contact Scott had hoped for earlier. “Yeah. That would be right nice.”


Silence.


“Well,” A casual stance of hands on hips was assumed. “I told Kinsey to rest a spell. I better check on her. She has a tendency not to listen.” Before Hoskins could add his two cents, Scott continued. “She looks exhausted, Jelly. Do you happen to know why she hasn’t been sleeping? Damned if she’ll tell me.”


“I reckon…” A throat cleared for a second time. “I reckon she’s worried about the boss like the rest of us.”


“Yes. Just like Murdoch worries about her, at times.” Scott stepped forward and firmly placed his hand on the little man’s shoulder with a tightening squeeze. “Like I said, I’m grateful you were there to help my father. It must have given you a scare.”


Hoskins gifted a quick nod of agreement. “I best get some chores done afore the sun sets.”


Scott watched the hired hand turn and waited for him to walk a few steps before calling out his name.


“Jelly.”


Causing a pause in the man’s travel, the ultimatum was given. “The next time you decide to unpack your unnecessary opinions in my absence, you’ll be packing your bags and I will personally escort you off this good Lancer land. Set foot back on it and our next conversation will be remarkably different from the rather amicable one we just had. Have I made myself clear?”


Another quick nod and Jelly Hoskins disappeared past the stable’s open door.


Satisfied for now, Scott holstered his mental revolver with the ivory grip.


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