“This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
San Joaquin Valley
My calculation had been approximate: two days from the time of handing Ben the letters to Seth’s arrival.
As high noon hunger guided the brothers from stable to kitchen, Johnny’s trigger finger, aimed at a courtyard target seated in a ruffled muslin dressing gown, rerouted their path. “Well, look who flew the coop.”
Kinsey’s focus remained on her open novel. “First I’m a dog with a bone. Now it appears I’ve become a fugitive fowl. Thank you, Johnny, for your never-ending cornucopia of compliments.”
“You forgot sassy-mouthed magpie.” Narrowed eyes judged the distance the limping chicken had traveled. “Mind sayin’ how you hobbled out here on your own?”
“Murdoch kindly lent me his cane.”
“Hold up.” Scott’s hand signaled a halt in the questionable response. “A lent cane? Why do I think borrowed might be more accurate?”
“Honestly. I fail to see the difference between the two words.”
“Oh?” The English professor crossed his arms. “With his permission, Murdoch kindly lent Kinsey the cane. Without his permission, Kinsey kindly borrowed Murdoch’s cane. See the difference now, young lady?”
“Well, if you insist on splitting hairs.”
“Gentlemen.” A patient schoolmarm tone countered. “Is it inconceivable for you to accept your congenial and gentle father as a gallant paladin, assisting with the misfortune of a helpless damsel?”
Scott observed his brother’s turn of the head as a hand swiped away a determined laugh. Johnny’s rib-tickling immunity to Kinsey’s perspectives remained fleeting. “Right. So, who did you convince to pilfer his cane?”
An eye roll silently commented on female alliances running deep at the Lancer ranch. “Look. I understand convalescing becomes tedious and boredom fuels impatience.”
“So tell me, what allows men to stumble around this hacienda with cracked ribs and bandaged heads? Would it be their intelligence or forbearance?”
“I don’t remember ever stumbling around, Half-pint.”
“No doubt because you suffer amnesia from multiple concussions, John.”
With a dipped chin, it was Scott’s turn to stifle a chuckle. “Little One, our situations in the past were different.” As soon as the words left his mouth, regret set in while watching his cousin’s hand close a book and pull out her imaginary soapbox. “Whoa. Kinsey Rose, don’t start. That’s not what I meant.”
“Oh, that’s precisely what you meant.” Pity provided forgiveness. “However, I can no longer find fault with your continued skewed views regarding the independent woman considering your father is a closed-minded mule.”
“Wait.” Johnny’s poking of the bee’s nest commenced. “I thought you said the ol’ man was a gallopin’ palomino.”
“Galant paladin. Oh, sweet fancy Moses, never mind!” Acquiring her older cousin’s habitual mien of frustration, Kinsey briefly pinched the bridge of her nose before resuming her quest to enlighten. “It would benefit you both to learn from Seth.”
“Oh?” Scott shifted his stance and leaned in. “And what lesson would that be?”
“The gentleman never challenges my decisions. And even though… at times” - Kinsey’s recovered wrist sent her hand fluttering - “my judgment could be a tad bit more sound and less… shall we say… reckless -”
“By all means, Freckles. Let’s say that.”
“- he’s come to realize and accept my need to grow.”
“Brother, sounds like your little cousin’s got the Grape Crusher wrapped around her little finger.”
A tsk’d tongue ushered in knowledge. “You make it sound so devious and deceitful when the meaning to the phrase is simply derived from the innocent act of sewing where women would wrap the excess thread around their finger to store it until it needed to be used a short time later for the purpose they intended it to be used.” Widen brown eyes emphasized the innocent act of being used.
Squinting at the dusty approach of a hacienda visitor, Scott palmed the crown of his hat and gestured toward the lane. “Maybe my little cousin should start unwinding some of her thread in case she’s confusing the need to grow with the need to grow-up.”
Ah, ScottyGarrett. Ye’ve always been good with numbers.
Indeed I have Winnie.
Dismounting, Seth Westcott’s determined strides toward the courtyard were those belonging to a man walking the last remaining steps of his path of patience. Scott returned his hat low on brow, placed his hands on hips and waited for what his little cousin, according to her bright smile, had yet to figure out.
Mirroring his one business partner’s posture, Westcott stood and silently stared down at his other partner who would soon be his wife.
“Seth!” A female smile dimmed from its lack of returned acceptance. Concern knocked at Kinsey’s door as she rose from her chair. “Didn’t my letter assure you I was well on the mend?”
“It did.” Pulling a familiar pink envelope from his coat pocket, Seth laid it on the table.
A nervous laugh struggled to lighten the mood. “Then I’m uncertain of the reason you felt it necessary for the long ride to Lancer.”
“Reasons-s-s.” A correspondence displaying Scott’s chicken scratch materialized to join the first. “The additional more accurately written assurance and to necessitate an official counting of ten.” Westcott encircled his fiancé’s waist from behind and tucked her neatly under his arm before settling his backside on the edge of the courtyard’s wooden table, landing Kinsey over his knee. Applying a few half-hearted swats to a muslin-covered derrière, he then righted the flustered girl while still holding her for counter balance. “One… ten.”
“Mr. Westcott! How dare you!”
“Miss Furlong. I do dare. And, until we are married, at which time I can keep a better eye on you, I firmly request your more sensible behavior. Starting now.” Sweeping her up into his arms, a proclaimed destination ended the discussion. “Back to bed.”
Watching the engaged couple enter the hacienda, Johnny’s low whistle sounded a note of disbelief while Scott’s amused pouted-lip pondering reached a foregone conclusion. “I believe Mr. Westcott reached the end of his rope well ahead of Miss Furlong’s unwound thread.”
Bunkhouse scuttlebutt proclaiming an evening poker game in town fortified Johnny’s commitment to finish his work load early, demanding a quickly devoured lunch and a rushed gracias Maria departure as Scott bit into the second half of a sandwich. Chewing in solitude lasted only a moment with Seth‘s arrival. A nod of Scott’s head in the direction of his brother’s vacated chair offered Westcott a seat.
Like magic, the Lancer’s cooking sorceress waved her wooden spoon and quickly produced nourishment for her latest visitor. Resuming the soaping of her pots and pans, a directive was given. “Eat.”
Scott lowered his voice. “Best do it. Trust me. She thinks you're too skinny.”
“And señor Scott thinks I am too deaf.”
Seth’s sheepish grin matched that of the one Scott had bounced across the table. “Thank you, ma’am. Greatly appreciated.” Instead of taking a bite, Westcott’s mouth tossed aside any amusement. “I didn’t enjoy doing what I did earlier.”
“Understood. I experienced a similar encounter with Kinsey when I caught her in a lie and there was no pleasure in delivering my response.”
Seth’s gaze drifted to a window-framed horizon. “Is it possible to love a woman too much?”
Lobster canapés being offered by a teasing smile replaced the view of a half eaten sandwich on Scott’s plate. “No. Never.”
Maria’s soft chuckle pushed mumbled Spanish across the room. Even though translation only allowed two words to stand out - silly boys - it was enough to return smiles and the retrieval of a third letter from Seth’s pocket. “For your grandfather.”
Accepting the envelope, Scott examined the looping feminine handwriting of Roberta Westcott. “I’ll assume you didn’t read it.”
“Correct.” Seth pointed to himself. “A boyhood face incapable of hiding guilt that I never outgrew.”
“No help here.” A sigh confirmed the struggle. “I suffer from the same affliction.”
“My grandfather suggested Mr. Garrett join me on the ride back home tomorrow.” Phillip Westcott’s gravelly voice stepped into the conversation courtesy of his grandson. “I’d like a few days catching up with an old childhood friend while the wild pup gets back on her feet.” A subtle grin returned Seth to the table. “He presented it as a favor by not subjecting us all to the boring stories of their misspent youth.”
“Can’t deny a change of scenery wouldn’t be welcomed by Grandfather.” Maria’s clearing throat raised an eyebrow in her direction. “And others.” A bite of sandwich provided a pause to word the next query. “And that’s it then? Two older gentlemen, over fine bottles of wine, embellishing their past.”
“And finalizing the future.” Seth let his statement hang between them momentarily before continuing. “Mr. Garrett is investing in Westcott Winery.”
His friend’s unexpected statement caught a sip of lemonade at the back of the throat, forcing Scott’s fist a hasty travel to his mouth in controlling a cough.
Seth studied his own glass of lemonade with the impression of needing something stronger. “My understanding is the two men have been corresponding for months. Considering Grandfather has always been forthright with any dealings or decisions, I find it rather disappointing that he hadn’t spoken of it until now.”
Disappointment also washed over Scott, but not due to the fact Phillip Westcott hadn’t shared thoughts about the future of the family vineyards. He had - inspired by a correspondence containing premeditated seeds of doubt from an old boyhood friend living in Boston.
Kinsey had insisted Scott accompany them on the trip. Yes, to celebrate her and Seth’s engagement with Boston socialites, but more important, to mend fences with the Garrett patriarch. Spending the night before the journey at the Westcott vineyards provided the travelers relaxation needed before the days of close quarters in a train.
As the latter part of the sun’s afternoon journey to twilight cast golden rays on the rolling hills of the vineyard, hidden from Scott’s view at an outdoor table where he sat with Phillip Westcott, Seth and Kinsey strolled among the rows of grapevines. Tomorrow the three business partners would journey to Boston on the Transcontinental, pulled by a massive engine christened The Jupiter. Scott had smiled when reading the details of their trip. Jupiter: God of heaven and earth in Roman mythology. A good omen indeed.
However, neither smiles nor good omens currently blessed Scott as he unfolded a letter Phillip had presented during cigar puffs and sips of wine.
As I put pen to paper, my deepest wish is for this letter to find you in good health and spirits. Although I’m quite certain the fruits of your vineyard happily provide the good spirits.
Our delightful Parker House dinner after the holidays did not give us enough time to thoroughly reminisce about our misspent youth. May we soon share a bottle of your superb wine while sitting in the shade of a California oak tree - celebrating a joyous occasion, perhaps? The news of my brother Fletcher’s granddaughter and your grandson’s engagement made my heart beat young again.
I commend your grandson for seeing what I have known since the beginning. Kinsey, being a refined, well-bred young woman, will seamlessly step into the role of a loyal, dutiful wife and loving mother to his offspring. Of course, her substantial inheritance will certainly be an asset to the Westcott dynasty.
I must confess, sleep did not come easy some nights with my concerns over the future of Kinsey’s finances. Who can fault us old men for worrying their experienced advice will no longer be needed? However, knowing I did my best to firmly establish my values during Scott’s upbringing has lessened the anxiety. I predict your confidence in Seth will lessen yours. Yet, reckless choices made by the young due to immaturity remain rather unsettling during these times in the world of change.
I look forward to meeting your grandson. I had the pleasure of being in the company of your lovely daughter-in-law as preparations here in Boston for the engagement celebrations are finalized. She sends her regards.
Be well, Phillip. I fondly anticipate when our paths can cross again.
Surrendered with a heavy sigh, the correspondence returned to its envelope and slid back across the table. “My grandfather certainly has a way with words.”
The elder Westcott’s index finger tapped the letter. “So put yourself in my shoes - an old man living in this world of change - what are you thinking right now?”
Scott stared at his grandfather’s handwriting. “I’m thinking perhaps it’s not my competitor, George West, who wants to swallow up my vineyard. Maybe it’s Harlan Garrett’s grandson.”
“And why should I think otherwise?”
Eyes locked in on the host. “Because he’s Murdoch Lancer’s son.”
The answer had been short, direct and truthful - putting an end to any doubts Phillip Westcott had expressed that day.
The disappointment Scott now felt did not stem from the elder Westcott’s lack of forthrightness, but instead rested solely on Scott himself and his lack of foresight. Past experiences should have spoken when a road of want proved too cumbersome, Harlan Garrett simply and quietly chose a different avenue to reach his desired destination.
Scott pushed aside what was left of his lunch and considered Roberta’s letter taunting his curiosity. “My grandfather informed me he’s purchasing a second residence in Sacramento.” Although the statement sounded out of place it somehow fit snugly into the discussion. “Has your mother mentioned moving back to California?”
Seth’s belly laugh ricocheted off the stucco walls. “Hell no! All she wants is to confirm and secure her financial status and, if time allows, witness her son getting married to an unrefined Aussie before hightailing it back to Boston.” Westcott’s hand scooped up the envelope. “I spotted your grandfather in the Great Room. Shall I fill the role of the Pony Express?”
“By all means.” Scott’s smirk cocked an eyebrow. “Although don’t expect two gold pieces for your trouble.”
Johnny’s selected forgetfulness on a few tasks to make the first deal of cards in town stretched Scott’s completed chore list to the evening meal hour. Cutting through the kitchen revealed Seth, cornered by Teresa and Maria, nodding attentively. Not wanting to be lassoed into conversation, Scott tugged on his hat brim and prayed long strides would carry him to an undetected escape.
“¡Huelo a turón!"
Scott’s wave in the direction of the accuser acknowledged her keen sense of smell and he headed to his bedroom wash basin. Estimating enough time had passed to dodge a thrown book or shoe from a furious female, Scott stopped, rapped knuckles on a bedroom door and stepped in.
“Why do you insist on being so bloody truthful?” A letter waved like a white flag of truce.
Scott snagged the piece of stationery from the young lady’s hand and glanced over what he’d written. “Can’t be helped. Besides… ” The accurately written assurance traveled back to the convalescent. “I’m guessing your embarrassment carried more of a sting than Seth’s spanking.”
“No comment. It may sound like I agree with you.” Kinsey slowly folded the letter. “Scott, do you think a woman can love a man too much?”
A tap on the ajar door was not delivered with rapping knuckles but that of a toe boot suggesting the visitor had his hands full. The same boot pushed the door further open. Seth stood holding a tray displaying two plated meals and a bottle of wine. A lighted candle completed the dinner for two. It became obvious he’d been the one seeking out Teresa and Maria for assistance.
Scott leaned down and whispered his opinion to Kinsey’s question. “No, Freckles. Never.”