It started with one muttering pebble rolling down a slope.
“I knew it. I knew he wasn’t eating right.”
The slope grew a bit steeper and a few opinionated stones joined the pebble in its cascading journey.
“Time to be stickin’ close and keepin’ an eye on the old man, Scott.”
“Brother, I agree, but let’s not -”
“We should’ve been there.”
Continuing down the incline, the pebble and few stones gathered up a combative rock or two.
“Brain hiccup. Bullocks!”
“Watch yer mouth, Half-Pint. How many times do you need to be told?”
“You're not the boss of me, John!”
The pebble, the few stones and a couple of rocks caromed down the bluff, inviting several belligerent boulders along for the ride.
“I’m taking the key to the liquor cabinet!”
“Teresa, hold up.”
“I should inquire about a room in Stockton. The Fitzwater Boarding House, perhaps.”
“Whoa. Kinsey -”
“No more travelin’ to the mission. Sister Rosa can build her own damn oven.”
“Jesus, Johnny! She’s a nun!”
As Doc Jenkins and his hankering for a slice of Widow Patterson’s apple pie serenely buggy-bounced its way home, a landside of verbal accusations and proclamations caterwauled over the Great Room.
Determined strides carried Teresa to the carved oak desk. Pulling out the top right-hand drawer, a small brass key was retrieved and held high with authority. “This is now mine.” From behind, the last rays of sun streaming through the room’s arched window created a stunning backdrop for Lancer’s newly appointed Archangel of Temperance.
Scott assumed his mountain goat stance while a finger pointed out the current item of distillery disagreement. “Put it back.”
“You put it back.” Smugness raised an eyebrow as the key neatly dropped into the bodice of a dress.
“Honestly, Teresa.” The little cousin's tone reflected a pious, front-pew, church-goer. “Don’t be fatuous?”
“It means -”
Scott pinched the bridge of his nose. “Kinsey, now is not the time to -”
“I know what it means.” The shotgun crack of a forcefully shut desk drawer ricocheted off the walls. “Johnny thinks making a nun build a horno will improve his father’s health and you’re calling me fatuous?”
“I would never call Johnny fatuous. I’d use a simpler term... such as jackaaa-”
“Kinsey Rose, that’s enough.” The last of Scott’s patience fizzled out like a damp matchstick.
Johnny zeroed in. “Seems to me, kid, we’re all jackasses for not payin’ attention to what Jelly’s been sayin’ from the beginnin’.”
“Right.” Scott poured himself two fingers of the good stuff before Teresa sentenced the amber liquid to solitary confinement. “Jelly Hoskins. Voice of Reason and Sensibility. The very last name I need to hear right now.”
Heated sentiments gained momentum as they avalanched into a pile of rubble.
“Jelly meant well…”
“He’s a pot-stirring…”
“Go to Stockton. Dodge responsibilities…”
“Bloody hell if I’m…”
“No one’s thinkin’ of the old man…”
“Goddamitt! That’s all I’ve been doing…”
“I’m surprised the key didn’t freefall to your bloomers...”
“How dare you…”
“This is getting us nowhere!”
The single word from Lancer’s patriarch standing in the doorway carried the same weight as Moses parting the Red Sea. The Great Room was magically transformed into Madame Tussauds Wax Museum - life-like statues showing no signs of breathing.
The tune caller landed britches into seats faster than children playing Musical Chairs. A hard lean on the cane reduced the appearance of Murdoch’s limp, which brought him to settle behind his desk.
Johnny played the unfavorable odds of a stacked deck and spoke. “Old man -”
“Bad timing for that term of endearment, son.”
“Sir.” Scott cleared his voice and began to stand. A father’s lightning-bolt stare shot across the bow stopped him mid-rise. “Right.” A seat was retaken with an amusing thought tugging at the corners of Scott’s mouth. Zeus has returned to Mt. Olympus.
Murdoch’s hand selected a random paper from the many scattered on his desk. After a brief study, the document gained approval and was set aside. The hand then drifted to the top desk drawer, pulling it open for inspection. Silence indicated the sum of the calculated inventory fell short.
Scrutiny of his audience commenced with a finger-point and wag requesting one member to present herself front and center. Teresa obliged, donning a confident smirk.
“According to the contents of this drawer, there is a thief among us and the canary feather stuck in the corner of your satisfied smile, young lady, tells me it’s you.” Murdoch’s finger tapped the top of the desk. “Pleading ignorance will be frowned upon.”
Teresa’s surrendering tsk assisted her in retrieving the missing item, disproving Kinsey’s earlier prediction of a lack-of-cleavage freefall. “Murdoch, I was simply trying to…” Her sentence faded under the watchful eye of her guardian as he plucked the key from her hand.
“After a lengthy discussion, Sam and I established what foods will and will not be finding their way to my supper plate. And tomorrow, you and I will have the same discussion… followed by my wholehearted endorsement.”
“Yes, Murdoch.” Sweet victory ruled.
“However, this -” The key bid a final farewell as it returned to its proper place. “Remains under my jurisdiction.”
Sweet victory could be fleeting. “Yes, Murdoch.”
“Now, much to the chickens’ relief, that is if we have any left, I’m sending you to your room and there you will retire for the evening. Get some rest and stay out of the kitchen. Have I made myself clear?”
Walking around the desk, the nursemaid gave her recovering patient’s neck a gentle hug and kiss on the cheek. “Yes, Murdoch.”
Scott grinned. His father wasn’t planning on nailing backsides to the barn door. Instead, he’d brought a shovel to dig them out of a rockslide.
The patriarch’s finger-point and wag informed the next person he wished to speak with. Watching Kinsey's hesitant approach, Murdoch laced his hands across the midsection and leaned back. “Little girl, I’ve given my blessing to an upstanding young man who wishes to be your husband. Seth possesses many fine attributes - bravery being at the top of the list.”
Murdoch paused, giving a response the opportunity to be voiced. Seeing the young lady’s common sense currently ruled and there would be none, the tune caller happily continued. “I’ve also read somewhere guidance can be an asset when maneuvering through the Labyrinth of Love. Considering there are still aspects of your personality that may benefit from the palm of my guiding hand before you become Mrs. Westcott, I’d be fatuous in allowing your time left here at the ranch to be reduced by even a day. I’m certain Seth would concur. Therefore, you will not be packing a bag for Stockton… or Sacramento… or Omaha… or for the Good Sisters of Mercy in San Francisco. Instead, you will pack up your petticoats and go to bed. Understood? And, think wisely before answering.”
“Understood.” The young lady’s chin dipped in a soft smile. “Good night, Da.”
“Good night, my bairn.”
Watching Kinsey leave, Scott’s attention focused on Johnny who, still betting on the odds, was digging deep into his pocket for a silver.
“Son, a flipped coin is not needed to determine who I wish to converse with next. That decision has already been made.” A finger point and wag delivered a lop-sided grin to the desk.
“John.” The patriarch snagged the cane resting on the floor beside him and laid it across his lap. “During the hundred years I’ve been walking this earth” - Johnny’s grin widened at his father's jest - “I’ve learned much, so let me offer you some advice. Never disappoint someone who has the ear of the Good Lord. It’s bad business, son.”
The younger brother poked a tongue in cheek to stifle his laugh and acknowledged the prudent counseling with a nod. “It is a fact, I’d like to stay on the right side of that fella.”
“Wise choice. You’ll leave for the mission in the morning and fulfill your commitment to Sister Rosa. However, before doing so, I want that two-headed silver dollar of yours to seek out the bunkhouse poker game. Win back the investment you and your brother felt it necessary to make in order to have an evening of calm, civilized discussions. My ears told me you didn’t get your money’s worth.”
Scott’s raised eyebrow pulled the trigger on his heavy sigh reaction to the possible topic of conversation he’d be having with Zeus… Jellifer Hoskins.