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The Smiling Cobra


Smiling Cobra.


Phillip Westcott had uttered the nickname for his daughter-in-law the exact moment a sip of vino hit the back of Scott’s throat. The result was what Winnie would call down the wrong pipe.


“Ah, ScottyGarrett, how many times do ye need ta be told not ta gulp yer milk? See now? It goes down the wrong pipe.”


Between the sputtering coughs and gasps of air, red-faced Scott managed to eke out a few words. “Sir. I. Apologize.”


“No apology necessary, son.” Westcott rose and briefly peppered his guest’s shoulder blades with open palmed thumps. “Roberta has that effect on people.”


Phillip’s nonchalant comment only added laughter to the ill-fated swallow. Pinching the bridge of his nose assisted Scott in ignoring the urge to cough. One or two additional wheezes and steadier breaths mixed with chuckles returned. “Murdoch refers to my grandfather as the Beacon Hill Rattler.”


“By God.” The crinkles in the corners of Westcott’s mouth betrayed his solemn persona. “Best take a lesson from St. Patrick before you venture to Boston.”


Phillip’s reference to driving the snakes from Ireland brought on another bout of guffaws from both men. Wiping tears of laughter on his sleeve, the patriarch shook his head. “I shouldn’t be so hard on Roberta. My son saw the good in her and together they brought into the world a wonderful boy who has stood by this old man’s side through some hard times.” Westcott’s eyes roamed over the gentle sloping vineyards Scott had admired earlier. “But oh, how the woman hated California. Boston born and bred she was and nothing could change that.”


Boston born and bred. Scott certainly identified with the statement as a more successful sip of wine began to usher in the past: Union Club afternoons, evening social galas, the food, the drinks, the privileges...the young ladies. He wouldn’t deny it was an addicting lifestyle.


Don’t worry, sir. I’ll come back. I promise.


Scott had spoken those words to his grandfather while fastening the final brass button on his blue uniform. And he’d kept his promise, but the Boston lifestyle addiction had lessened considerably after his experiences of war.


The promise was repeated as Scott boarded a train to California.


Don’t worry, sir. I’ll come back.


Scott had every intention to have those words ring true again, but fate saw it differently. Boston born and bred and nothing would change that. Except something did change for Murdoch Lancer’s oldest son as he stood up on a halted buckboard and viewed the most beautiful place on earth. The commitment to a grandfather could no longer be kept while the last remnants of the addicting Boston lifestyle faded away.


“When my son Paul died there was nothing left here for Roberta.”


Phillip's statement brought Scott back to the present. “What about her son, Seth?”


“Roberta’s maternal instincts couldn’t hold a candle to her personal needs. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed but admiring your name in a newspaper’s social column is not an everyday occurrence in these parts.”

A reluctant smile crossed Scott’s face. Unless you’re kicking up your heels in Omaha.


“Early on Seth understood his mother’s shortcomings but never held it against her. However, knowing where he stood made it pretty damn easy for the boy not to follow Roberta back to Boston.”


Realizing where she stood with her mother had made it pretty damn easy for my little cousin to leave Melbourne. Scott’s thoughtful nod of agreement covered more than just Phillip’s grandson. “Seth made a good decision.”


As if waiting for an appropriate introduction, the engaged couple emerged from the far edge of the vineyard. Kinsey’s hands waved and fluttered, no doubt emphasizing an extraordinary tale. Seth’s warm laughter echoed up to their observers.


“My grandson has made many good decisions.” Phillip raised his glass in a subtle toast. “Here’s to wild pups and business partners. Welcome to the family, Scott Lancer.”


“The honor lies with me, sir.” Scott paused to gather casual words to address a new brain itch knocking at his door. “Chances are I won’t have time to learn much from St. Patrick before our journey to Boston. Perhaps a few pointers from you would be beneficial regarding The Smiling Cobra.”


“Ah.” Westcott’s chin dipped with a grin. “I can’t take credit for the name. My wife, God rest her soul, was an insightful woman and pegged our daughter-in-law rather quickly and accurately.” The patriarch fell silent, appearing to also gather words. “Never judge Roberta by her smile but by her eyes, windows to the soul.”


It seemed a cobra and a rattler had more in common than just being snakes. The brain itch pulled up a chair.


********


The evening meal was splendidly prepared by Isabella, a Spanish woman who had commanded the Westcott kitchen for many years. As she served each course and returned to the kitchen to ready the next, Seth relayed in whispered comments his boyhood skirmishes with the cook.


“Isabella keeps a count of apples in the barrel. A fella takes his life into his own hands trying to snag one. Let me tell you, that woman can run.”


“Pace yourself, Kinsey Rose. Don’t think you’re leaving this table until that plate is clean. She guards the backdoor with the biggest damn wooden spoon you’ve ever seen.”


“I pilfered a piece of chocolate cake once. Once.”


At the end of the dinner, while the elder Westcott and his two guests were enjoying bowls of rich custard with fruit, the younger Westcott stared at his bowl containing only a handwritten note.


Tus susurros continúan su viaje hasta mis oídos.


Scott grinned. Seth had his own Winnie to deal with.


After admitting the temptation of overeating had defeated common sense, Kinsey excused herself for a breath of fresh air. The men, on the other hand, eventually drifted to the study where Phillip Westcott raised the lid to a cedar-lined humidor housing his cigars. “I find that a fine smoke promotes healthy digestion.”

“Unless Grandmother caught you with said cigar,” Seth struck a match. “The result was neither fine nor healthy.”


“Don’t be fooled. Your grandmother’s fingers reached into this box more than once then asked for the Good Lord’s forgiveness on Sunday.” The old man glanced around the room. “Hold up. Where’s that gal who claims she can match me puff for puff?”


“I’ll tell you where she won’t be. Earlier, the little lady spotted a garter snake near the old spring.”


“Kinsey fears very little, but a snake is my cousin’s Achilles’ Heel.”


“Well, she started at my heel.” Seth blew a smoke ring to rise above his head. “And then climbed up my back and onto my shoulders. We both damn near landed in the billabong.”


Smiling with the anticipation of future teasing, Scott formed a search party of one. “Stay put. I think I might know where to find her.”


The courtyard table at Lancer provided a place to drink lemonade, play checkers, or simply sit and talk. The Westcott’s outdoor table held the same status. Thus, it had been a good guess when spying Kinsey there sketching.


“I hear you had a run-in with the enemy and sought the high ground on Seth’s shoulders.”


“Bloody vermin. It was coiled to strike.”


“It was a garter snake.”


“It had fangs.” Kinsey closed her journal with a grin. “I’m surprised my encounter with the scaly devil wasn’t featured as light-hearted dinner conversation.”


If I'd only heard the story sooner, little one. Scott jabbed his thumb over his shoulder. “Phillip Westcott is challenging you to a smoke ring contest. Go in there and make me proud. The Garrett lineage demands it.”


Kinsey rose, stepped forward and turned. “Aren’t you coming?”


“I’ll be along.”


The little cousin did her own thumb jab towards her journal. “No peeking, you sneak.”


“Noted.”


Kinsey’s footsteps faded around a stucco wall to Scott’s raised eyebrow of indignation. Let the record show he wasn’t sneaky, just...curious.


The finger of curiosity reached down and flipped open the journal to a page displaying Kinsey’s rendition of a snake, coiled to strike and smiling.


The brain itch unpacked its bag for an extended stay.


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