Word count: 5,920
#3 in the The First Annual Green River… series
“I mean, the stuff tastes like somebody mixed up a bunch of spoiled tomatoes with rancid oil…..”
“….and poured them into an old boot…..”
“…and then buried it……”
“…..for about six months….”
“…under a chicken coop….”
The stern gaze Murdoch leveled at his sons—calculated to put them firmly in their place and bring to a halt any further smart remarks—was only partially successful.
“Aw, Murdoch,” Johnny was unrepentant. “You know it’s the truth.”
Before answering, his father glanced left and right, but nobody else was within hearing distance. At one end of the dusty street, a group of children were engaged in a three-legged race, with an assortment of spectators cheering them on. Outside the saloon, a heated debate was taking place about the odds of the local favorite winning the upcoming match race.
The first annual Green River community picnic and Harvest Dance had something for everyone—horse racing, games for the children, refreshments and a special competition for the ladies. Prizes were being awarded for everything from apple pies to home-made pickles.
“I hope you haven’t forgotten the main reason we came here today,” Murdoch admonished firmly. “Teresa needs our support.”
“I still don’t understand,” Scott sounded genuinely bewildered. “Why did she choose to enter that category? Teresa is an excellent cook—under most circumstances.”
“Yeah,” Johnny put in, “I’d back her chocolate cake against anyone else in the whole territory—but that stuff. Ugh!”
Murdoch seemed a bit at a loss himself, but he tried to explain. “That chutney recipe has been handed down in Paul’s family for generations. Teresa recently found a copy among her father’s belongings, and she’s very excited about the possibility of it winning the prize for canned goods.”
The two brothers exchanged glances. “I’d hate to see Teresa disappointed,” Scott really did look concerned, “but I can’t say I think much of her chances. I had some of the Widow Jenkins’s corn relish at the last church social, and it was delicious.”
Nodding his agreement, Johnny added, “Jelly says Miz Hooper’s been bragging about how she took her watermelon pickles all the way to the state fair in Sacramento and came back with a blue ribbon.”
It was obvious from his expression that Murdoch was in complete agreement about his ward’s chances of success, but he stood his ground. “If we’re right and Teresa loses today, we all need to do our part to cheer her up.”
Johnny brightened. “Hey, if she does lose, she sure won’t feel like going to the dance tonight.” He tried belatedly to assume a sympathetic demeanor. “I mean, we shouldn’t be thinking of going out and having a good time with Teresa feeling so poorly.”
But Scott wasn’t fooled. “Johnny, we all know you don’t like your fun organized, but if Teresa wants to go to that dance, the least we can do is escort her.”
Whatever argument his brother might have been planning to make was cut short when Murdoch pointed toward the makeshift tables set up in front of the hotel.
“It looks like the judge is getting ready to award the ribbons.”
A gaggle of excited ladies clustered around a solitary male figure holding a clipboard in a rather self-important manner. Alan Foster was one of the town’s newest citizens. His father owned the Green River Gazette, and he had just arrived to help run the newspaper. Although outwardly disdainful of what he considered a backward, frontier community, he was secretly enjoying the benefits of being a *big fish in a small pond*, and the opportunity to judge this little contest really revealed his pompous nature.
The awards ceremony began with the baked goods. Each announcement was made with great fanfare and the ribbons were presented with a flourish. Slowly Alan worked his way down towards the colorful array of mason jars at the end of the table.
“Finally,” he announced officiously, “we come to the category of canned goods. I’m pleased to award first prize to a very unique condiment.”
There was an instant of shocked disbelief as the Lancer men watched the blue ribbon being affixed to Teresa’s jar of chutney, but they recovered quickly. Their enthusiastic applause and broad grins were quite genuine, if a bit befuddled.
When Murdoch strode over and enveloped his ward in a bear-hug, his two sons remained behind, observing the whole scene from a distance.
“So what do ya think just happened here?” Johnny posed his questions in a low voice. “Ya think maybe that judge has a cold or something? Ya know how ya can’t taste anything when your nose is all stuffed up?”
“I’m starting to think it doesn’t have anything to do with how any of the exhibits tasted,” Scott was watching the crowd intently. “Take a look at Teresa, standing next to her competition.”
The Widow Jenkins—her wizened features resembling a dried prune—and Miz Hooper—a ponderous woman with stringy hair—were both offering their congratulations to the winner. Actually almost all of the other entrants in the cook-off had been older ladies: wives, mothers, widows and spinsters. Teresa—in her ruffled gingham frock—had never looked more fetching.
“OK,” Johnny shrugged, “even I can see that nobody in that crew can hold a candle to Teresa. Are you saying that……”
“Now, look at the judge,” Scott interrupted.
Amid the throng of people milling around, it seemed that it was Alan Foster who could be found most often at Teresa’s side. All of his actions seemed quite innocent: taking her hand in both of his—merely a congratulatory handshake, the arm around her shoulders—simply showing pride in her accomplishment, even that kiss on her cheek was only a chaste salute to express his best wishes.
Blue eyes widened in sudden realization. “So that’s why she won,” Johnny muttered. “Pretty sneaky.”
“Now, you and I have been known to be fairly sneaky on occasion, brother,” Scott mused, “but only with the purest of motives.”
“I ain’t got no problem figuring out his motives, and they ain’t pure,” Johnny ground out. His brow had darkened, his eyes narrowed to mere slits, but he forced a welcoming smile on his face when he saw Teresa approaching.
“Johnny, Scott!!” she called, fairly beaming with pleasure. “Did you see? Grandmother’s chutney won first prize!”
“We certainly did, Teresa,” Scott scooped her into his arms for a brief embrace. “That’s wonderful!”
“Whooee!” Johnny put his hands around the girl’s waist, lifting her off the ground and grinning. “Didn’t I tell ya you’d do Lancer proud?”
“I just couldn’t believe it when I saw that blue ribbon,” Teresa bubbled. “I was so sure Widow Jenkins was going to……” She broke off at the sound of an imperious cough. “Oh, Mr. Foster—please let me introduce you. This is Scott Lancer and Johnny Lancer. Scott and Johnny, this is Mr. Alan Foster—the judge for our contest.”
Clad in an immaculate suit, Foster bowed formally and shook each man’s hand.
“Glad to meet you, gentlemen,” he intoned. But he quickly turned his attention to Teresa once again. “My dear, we are no longer involved in a professional capacity, so I’d be most pleased if you would call me Alan.”
Teresa blushed slightly, but agreed with a smile.
“And now, I’m afraid I must be going. I do have some other obligations to fulfill at this function,” he said, tipping his hat, “but I hope I will have the privilege of seeing you tonight at the dance.”
“Oh, I think we’re all going to the dance,” Teresa replied, with an inquiring glance at the two men standing by her side.
“Absolutely,” Scott interjected smoothly.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” While Johnny’s words were innocuous enough, if Alan Foster had seen the predatory gleam in those blue eyes, he might have had second thoughts about his plans for the evening. Unfortunately for him, he had already turned to leave, totally unaware of just what fate had in store.
Not everyone was pleased when the committee-in-charge announced the location for the Harvest Dance, but the corral outside the livery stable turned out to have been a very good choice. The ground had been swept and covered with fresh straw in preparation for the festivities. People who needed a seat had their pick of rustic benches or bales of hay. The ladies of the town had festooned the split rail fences with garlands of fragrant lilacs, and a wooden platform had been erected for the banjo player and two fiddlers.
Even the weather—something totally outside of the committee’s control—had cooperated. It was a warm, clear autumn evening. The full moon and bright swath of stars provided almost as much light as the lanterns scattered around the corral, and neither of them were bright enough to spoil the romantic ambiance afforded by a number of dark, secluded corners.
Naturally, Scott and Johnny knew exactly where each of those corners could be found, but tonight they were more concerned with patrolling them than putting them to use.
The dance had been in full swing for over an hour, when Murdoch sought out his two sons. He found them standing near the refreshment table where the ladies had provided punch and cookies for the party-goers.
“A night like this always reminds me I’m not as young as I used to be,” he admitted, pouring a large glass of punch for himself.
“Aw, come on, Murdoch,” Johnny grinned. “I saw you out there dancing up a storm with Teresa earlier. Sure didn’t look like you was having any trouble keeping up with the young bucks.”
The older man suppressed a bit of a groan. “Well, I’ve fulfilled all my obligatory dances, but if I stay here Teresa’s going to try to get me out there again. So I’ve decided to go on back to the hotel.”
Scott nodded, “It was a good idea—taking rooms for the night so we don’t have to return to the ranch at this late hour.”
Peering out at the dancers, Murdoch chuckled, “This seems like a good time to make my escape—Teresa has just managed to dragoon Val into a dance.” He hesitated, “I can count on you boys to look after Teresa, right?”
“Don’t worry, sir,” Scott reassured him, “we’ll see her safely home.”
Tossing back the last of his rather watered-down punch, Murdoch sighed in relief and left—drawn by the irresistible lure of a comfortable chair, a good book and a stiff whiskey.
“Think we shoulda told’em?” Johnny asked laconically.
“No use in having him worried, too,” Scott said dismissively. “All we really have to go on is our instincts about this Foster, and we haven’t seen any problems so far.”
Johnny couldn’t refute the truth of his brother’s words. Teresa was obviously having a wonderful time at the party, and there was no sign that she was being endangered or even annoyed by Alan Foster. Her dance partners had been many and varied, including Foster, all the Lancer men, Jelly, and a number of obviously smitten young gallants.
“I guess you’re right.” The sight of a reluctant Val Crawford holding Teresa stiffly in his arms, stumbling through the steps of a lively two-step gave the dark-haired cowboy his first genuine laugh of the evening, and he relaxed slightly. “Just a few more hours to go. Could be the only one that’s gonna be in real trouble tonight is Jelly.”
“That’s not our fault. Jelly always insists that if we were true friends, we’d keep him off that dance floor, but the only way to do that would be to hogtie him.” Scott shrugged, “If his feet give him trouble for the next week, he’s got only himself to blame.”
The next hour or so passed in a similar manner, with both Lancer men managing to enjoy their share of feminine companionship during the evening. There was certainly no shortage of ladies eager to spend a bit of time in the arms of either the tall blonde—handsome in his tan corduroy jacket and string tie—or his dark-haired brother—just a touch more flamboyant in pink and black. Still, the object of their attention was never out of their collective sight for long.
But then—at the end of a particularly lengthy and energetic session on the dance floor—Teresa collapsed onto a nearby wooden bench. She was attempting to catch her breath, when Alan Foster made a formal bow.
“You look quite thirsty, my dear,” he said solicitously. “I would consider it an honor if you’d allow me to bring you a glass of punch.”
Teresa accepted happily. “Oh, thank you, Alan. That’s very kind of you.”
Foster disappeared briefly and returned bearing two tall glasses of sarsaparilla punch. While he claimed seat next to her on the bench, no one could find fault with the respectful distance he allowed between himself and the lovely brunette.
They sat for some time, drinking their beverages and engaging in idle small-talk. When Alan noticed that his companion had drained her glass, he immediately offered to obtain a refill. The giggle that accompanied Teresa’s consent was uncharacteristically loud and high-pitched, but nobody except Foster was close enough to notice.
By the time she was half-way through with the second round, the giggles were even more frequent. Alan patted the small metal flask in his breast pocket and smiled complacently.
“You look quite flushed, I’m afraid.” His voice revealed only tender concern. “It’s so crowded here. Perhaps a gentle stroll in the night air would do you good.”
“I am feeling rather over-heated,” Teresa gave a tiny hiccup.
Foster extended his arm and assisted the girl as she rose—just a trifle unsteadily—to her feet. “Let’s go ahead and bring our drinks. We can finish them as we walk.”
Their sedate departure drew little attention, and soon they had left the lights, music and people behind. Teresa was now stumbling in earnest, and Foster guided her steps carefully until they reached the back door of the livery stable.
“Maybe we should go back,” the giggles just couldn’t be suppressed. “It’s awfully dark.”
“Certainly, my dear, certainly,” Foster agreed soothingly. “Why don’t we step inside here? You can rest for a moment and finish your drink. Then we can rejoin the others.”
With the door ajar, there was just enough moonlight make out the murky interior of the barn. Foster found a suitable bale of hay for them to sit on while Teresa continued to sip her punch, but this time there was no respectful distance between them.
“Now, isn’t this more comfortable, my love?” One arm groped her waist eagerly, while the other hand made an even more intimate foray. “I’m sure we can find some much more enjoyable activities……now that we have some privacy.”
“Why, Alan,” her gaze was a bit bleary and she seemed to have trouble focusing on him, “what do you mean?”
“We’d be very interested in hearing the answer to that question ourselves, Mr. Foster. Exactly what DO you mean?”
For a moment, it seemed the words had just materialized out of the darkness. The two men standing in the open doorway appeared as mere silhouettes by moonlight. In the near silence that followed, the only sounds to be heard were Alan Foster’s convulsive gulp and the sharp scritch of a wooden match being dragged over a rough surface.
The lantern sprang to life, illuminating the tawdry scene with its flickering light. But still the young man sat—paralyzed—in the same way a rabbit sometimes is under the glare of a predator.
The spell was broken when Teresa called out in a befuddled tone, “Johnny, Scott! Did you come in here to rest, too?”
Foster realized—with horror—that he was still embracing the girl in an extremely suggestive manner, and flung himself away so violently that Teresa would have tumbled over if Scott hadn’t caught her.
“I……um…..I……This isn’t what it seems,” he stammered fearfully. But he and his explanations were totally ignored as the two men concentrated on the stricken girl. Ignored but not forgotten—he discovered when he tried to make an unobtrusive escape.
Johnny never took his eyes off Teresa and his brother, but he shifted his body subtly in such a way that Foster’s exit was completely blocked.
“It doesn’t look as though she’s been hurt,” Scott looked up from his brief but thorough examination. “As far as I can tell she……..”
Teresa interrupted with another bemused giggle, “I’d offer you some punch, but I drank all of mine.”
Plucking the glass from her unresisting hand, Scott sniffed it suspiciously, and met his brother’s eyes in silent confirmation.
Now Foster’s excuses resumed with a vengeance. “See here, I didn’t have anything to do with that! If someone spiked the punch, I’m not to blame. We were just taking a little walk, and the young lady didn’t feel well. I simply brought her inside to……” His voice trailed off weakly in the face of both men’s blatant disbelief.
“Widow Jenkins has been standing guard over that punchbowl all evening,” Scott countered icily. “You’d have a better chance of robbing the Denver mint in broad daylight than slipping any alcohol past her. But,”—there was steel in his grim accusation—“It would be an easy matter to take advantage of an innocent girl by doctoring her drink.”
In one swift motion, Johnny grabbed Foster by the lapels of his fancy coat and began searching his pockets. Coming up with the empty flask, he dropped it on the ground at the man’s feet.
Teresa momentarily interrupted this tense confrontation by complaining in a querulous voice, “I think I’m going to be sick.” She tried unsuccessfully to stand. “And I’m awfully dizzy.”
“Don’t worry, honey,” Scott patted her shoulder protectively, “I’m going to take you back to the hotel. A good night’s sleep will put you right.” When she staggered again, he simply swept her effortlessly into his arms. He strode towards the door, pausing briefly to address his brother. “I assume you will stay here and see to this little matter.”
Johnny had remained silent during this entire encounter, and he didn’t speak now—he simply smiled. But it was a smile that chilled Foster to the depths of his cowardly, depraved soul.
“But….but wait…..you can’t leave me here….with him!!!” Unfortunately, he was addressing thin air. The tall blonde had left, closing the door securely behind him.
“Well……..Mr. Foster?” The drawl was slow, lazy, and almost friendly—if you discounted the dangerous glint in those sapphire eyes and the indefinable air of menace in that reckless grin. Alan Foster—suffering no illusions as to the perilous nature of his predicament—was sweating like a pig.
In a valiant attempt to bluster his way out of the situation, he blurted, “Consider yourself warned—I won’t be intimidated. Sheriff Crawford is right outside at the dance—I won’t hesitate to call on him for protection!” But he was taken aback by his tormentor’s reaction to this show of bravado.
“I’ve got a mind ta let ya do just that.” Johnny admitted with a deep-throated chuckle. “I’d be real curious to see what Val would decide ta do—lock ya up and throw away the key or just string ya up and get it over with.”
Foster seemed to recognize the ring of truth in this statement, and reverted once again to almost tearful denials. “Please understand—I have nothing but the deepest respect for Miss Teresa.”
“Yeah, right,” Johnny snorted. “Ya picked her recipe ta win—just so she’d like you and trust you…….cuz that way you could get close enough to trick her into getting drunk so’s you could……..”
“No! No!” Foster couldn’t get the words out fast enough. “That’s not true…I didn’t…. truly, I thought her chutney was the best entry, and I wasn’t trying….I never meant…..”
“Ya really liked that stuff Teresa made?”
“Oh, absolutely! It was an excellent example of gourmet cooking! Such a unique combination of exotic seasonings! The finest of………..” Johnny silenced his babbling with a fierce glare.
“So ya weren’t lying about how great you thought it was, huh?”
Foster wasn’t sure how to interpret the meditative look in his captor’s eyes, but he was quick to respond. “No! No, I wasn’t!.”
“I guess if I knew ya was telling the truth about that, maybe I’d be willing ta believe the rest of your story.” Johnny nodded slowly. “But you’d hafta prove it to me.”
“But…..”Foster protested, “…..but I’ve told you and told you.”
“Yep, but talk is cheap, and a man’s actions speak a lot louder than his words.”
Johnny glanced over at a buckboard sitting in a corner of the barn. It was marked with the Lancer brand, and contained an assortment of boxes and bundles. “Maybe we can fix it so’s ya can use your mouth for more than just talk’n.”
Some time later, Scott was finally able to return to the livery. After accompanying Teresa to the hotel, he’d gone in search of the housekeeper—a discreet, motherly woman who’d helped the afflicted girl prepare for bed. Unfortunately, they had created enough of a disturbance so that Murdoch came to investigate. Scott spent more than a few minutes convincing his outraged father that everything was under control. The older Lancer finally agreed that someone needed to stay with Teresa, and acknowledged that his sons were quite able to administer any needed retribution.
Pausing in front of the barn, Scott listened for any sounds of a struggle. He’d experienced a few qualms about leaving his volatile brother in charge of Foster—knowing what the scoundrel had tried to do to Teresa—but everything seemed quiet.
“Well,” he murmured to himself—pushing the door open—“I’d probably better go see if he needs help burying the body.”
The scene that met his eyes—as he would be heard to say on more than one occasion—was one that would remain in his memory for as long as he lived.
Foster was sitting on the ground. His once pristine suit was now filthy and disheveled, and his face was the most vivid shade of bilious green imaginable. Several empty quart mason jars lay at his feet, but the one he clutched in his hands was still half-full. Scott—staring goggle-eyed—recognized the pungent aroma of Teresa’s tomato chutney.
Johnny—sprawled on a nearby bale of hay—appeared intent on polishing his gun with a soft rag. Glancing over to where Foster sat in abject misery, he casually spun the chamber on the revolver. Immediately the wretched man brought the jar to his lips and choked down a large portion of its contents. He gagged, but managed to chew and swallow doggedly.
“That’s real good, Mr. Foster. You’re almost done now.”
Scott suppressed a grin. The tone of kind encouragement in his brother’s voice was belied by the unrelenting set of his jaw and his air of fierce determination.
Then—in a final, resolute effort—Foster downed the last of the vile concoction and shut his mouth tightly. Both Lancers watched with some fascination, as his face worked grotesquely, and he forced the whole mess past his gullet. All energy spent, he slumped to the ground.
“Boy, you sure showed me.” Johnny acknowledged cheerfully, reaching down to forcefully assist the hapless man to his feet. “You really do have an appetite for this *gor-may* cooking, don’cha. But, ya know,” he wrinkled his nose and grimaced, “if I was you, I’d head back home and get cleaned up. It wouldn’t do for a big, important man like you ta go around smelling like a garbage dump.”
Foster swayed slightly, and for a moment it appeared he might attempt some retort. Instead, he grabbed at his belly and—writhing in agony—walked slowly towards the door. After just a few steps, however, it was obvious that his stomach had decided to rebel. He clamped a hand over his mouth, and dashed outside as if chased by the devil himself.
“I have to hand it to you, brother; you’ve got a real talent for making the punishment fit the crime.”
“Seemed like a good idea. Course, it woulda felt awful good to bruise my knuckles on his lying mouth,” Johnny admitted with a tinge of regret. “But our Mr. Foster ain’t the kind ta make a habit of getting in brawls. If he’d of showed up tomorrow looking like someone stomped on his face, folks would’ve asked questions. I figured it’d be easier on Teresa if this whole story didn’t hafta come out.” He paused before asking, “How is she doing?”
“She was sick a couple of times on the way to the hotel,” Scott winced in sympathy,” And I’m sure tomorrow will be decidedly unpleasant, but”—he clapped his brother on the back—“compared to how Foster is feeling right now, she’s in the bloom of health.”
As the two men left the stable and headed down the street, Scott couldn’t help asking, “So what did you think of Green River’s first annual picnic and dance?”
“Well, I tell ya, it wasn’t too bad, but what they needed was just a little more excitement.” Johnny flung an arm around his brother’s shoulder. “Now I got an idea that’d really liven things up…….fireworks!! Think about it—firecrackers……sparklers…….all those lights and colors. Boy, we oughta talk ta the mayor……………..”
The sun was high overhead before the Lancer contingent was ready to leave town. As expected, Teresa had awakened to a raging headache, intermittent nausea and a persistent air of malaise. Since her memories of the evening before were vague and fuzzy—at best—she assumed that she was suffering from a mild form of influenza. Her family chose not to disabuse her of this notion, simply encouraging her to spend the morning resting in her darkened room.
At noontime, she emerged—pale and drawn—but eager to begin the journey back to Lancer. So Scott and Johnny hitched up the rig and drove it over from the livery. They had just finished loading all the luggage, when Jelly hobbled down the sidewalk. Not deigning to speak to either of his young friends, he clambered painfully into the back of the wagon. The boys couldn’t help breaking into broad grins when the doleful handyman pulled of his boots and began massaging his aching feet. They were only saved from a blistering tongue-lashing because Murdoch came out of the hotel at that moment.
He took in Jelly’s plight with one sympathetic but amused glance. Climbing onto the seat of the buckboard, he spoke to his sons. “Teresa is right behind me. I’d like to get her settled in, so we can leave immediately.”
Soon Teresa appeared, obviously not completely recovered from her ordeal. She thanked Scott when he took the small basket she was carrying, but hesitated as he tried to help her up into the wagon.
“I was really hoping……” she began—then broke off suddenly. “Oh Alan, I’m glad you happened by.”
Foster was just about to enter the café next to the hotel, and when he saw the entire Lancer family standing there, his face whitened. Teresa clearly wanted to speak with him, though, so he approached carefully—all too conscious of the glares of all three Lancer men.
“Miss Teresa?” He doffed his hat and stood with his eyes downcast.
Teresa seemed unaware of his terrified demeanor. With a subdued but friendly smile, she explained, “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to thank you for your kind attentions at the dance last night. I’m afraid I’ve been very unwell. But I was hoping you’d accept a gift, along with my gratitude, for helping make our first community picnic such a success.”
Reaching into the basket that Scott still held, she pulled out a jar of tomato chutney. “I brought a half-dozen jars to town, but somehow most of them disappeared. This is the last of my batch. I do hope you enjoy it.”
The stunned man must have managed to utter some word of thanks, because Teresa seemed satisfied, and let Scott lift her up into the wagon with no further protest. Murdoch immediately slapped the reins, and the buckboard clattered down the street, leaving Scott and Johnny to catch up on horseback.
For several moments Alan Foster stood—rooted to the spot—staring at the homely jar of preserves as if it was a poisonous snake. Suddenly, turning on his heel, he fled down the nearest alleyway. Loud retching noises followed his precipitous departure, and neither Scott nor Johnny could resist the luxury of a self-satisfied smirk as they mounted their horses.
As they disappeared from sight, a large banner which had held a place of honor—spanning the town’s main street—was released from its moorings. Lying in the dusty road, its festive message was still clearly visible; WELCOME TO THE FIRST ANNUAL GREEN RIVER COMMUNITY PICNIC AND HARVEST DANCE!
“You mean he……………!!!”
“In my punch……….!!!!!”
“And he was going to ……………..!!!!!!”
Forcefully pacing the length and breadth of the great room, Teresa muttered disjointed exclamations—as if the extent of her outrage prevented her from voicing coherent thought. Watching from a safe distance, Scott and Johnny thought this was probably the case. They had both seen the girl work up a head of steam before, but this display of fury was truly awe-inspiring.
After a good deal of serious discussion, the Lancers had decided to tell Teresa the truth about what happened at the Harvest Dance. They all admired the girl’s generous, open-hearted, trusting nature, but as a maturing young woman, there were certain hard facts of life that she should be warned against. While Scott and Johnny had assumed that their father would take responsibility for this little chat, he had surprisingly delegated the task to them.
“You’ve done a fine job up to now,” he’d insisted, “I think you’ll handle this just as well.”
It was not without trepidation that the two brothers arranged to meet with Teresa before starting their chores for the day. They were both familiar with the scenario where the recipient of bad news blames the messenger. Fortunately, in this case, the entire weight of the victim’s considerable wrath fell squarely on the shoulders of one Alan P. Foster, Esquire.
Teresa’s ranting had become a bit more comprehensible, but no less violent.
“He’s a skunk……a snake……..a toad!!!!!” she ground out between clenched teeth.
“That’s a rather unfair comparison.” Scott replied to his brother’s raised eyebrows with a straight-faced, “Unfair to all the innocent skunks, snakes and toads.”
Johnny was observing Teresa closely. She’d stopped pacing, but her bosom heaved alarmingly. Two small, delicate hands had been transformed into a pair of very business-like fists.
“If you’re thinking on hitting something, you’d best make it something soft,” he advised mildly. “Otherwise, you’ll still end up being mad, but you’ll have a busted-up hand to boot.”
“The only thing I’m planning on hitting is Mr. Alan Foster,” she declared vehemently. “The next time I see him, I’m slapping his disgusting, drooling face!”
“That’s a very understandable plan, but there are a couple of things you should consider.” Scott didn’t flinch in the face of her displeasure—nobody ever said it would be easy being the voice of cool reason. “First, I want you to know that Foster has already been dealt with quite harshly. Johnny and I would never let a man get away with doing that to you without making him pay…..dearly…..for it.”
There was something about those calm, cool words—Teresa knew with absolute certainty that he spoke the truth. Something about the two men’s expressions also told her, however, that they would never reveal just what that punishment had been.
“And there’s another drawback to your plan.” Reassured by some slight lessening of her anger, Scott pressed home his next point. “Slapping Foster’s face might help relieve your feelings, but it’s also bound to cause a lot of talk. While Foster may get the worst of it, I don’t think you’d enjoy being the object of gossip and speculation for every scandalmonger in the territory.”
Confident now that he was reaching her, he finished up, “The wiser tactic would be to treat him with distant civility—no more than a common nod in passing—just letting people know you don’t feel he’s someone worth associating with. Good manners and the rules of polite society can actually be useful for putting a cad like Foster firmly in his place.”
“Ya ought ta listen ta him, Teresa.” Johnny smiled encouragingly, “When it comes ta tactics and good manners, Scott’s a real expert.”
In spite of herself, Teresa found some of her pent-up emotion draining away. A vestige of justifiable anger remained—cold and remorseless—but the overwhelming rage had abated.
“There’s something else we want ta talk about, querida,” Johnny’s voice was gentle but serious. “We might not always be around to watch over you if something like this happens again, so there’s a few things ya can do ta take care of yourself.”
“I think you’ve already learned to be a bit more cautious when someone you don’t know well offers you a drink,” Scott put in.
“Yeah, maybe just take a little taste first, make sure it’s safe,” Johnny nodded. “And another thing, a slap in the face is all well and good, but a lot of hombres ain’t gonna get discouraged by a little thing like that. Now I can teach ya some nasty tricks that will really change a man’s mind about doing……..whatever he was intending ta to.”
“Now that’s an area where Johnny is a real expert,” Scott added slyly.
Johnny immediately retaliated by backhanding his brother across the stomach, and they were both pleased when their ensuing bit of horseplay drew a genuine giggle from Teresa.
“Well, we better get started on moving those cows.” Scott reached for his hat and gloves.
“Yep, but don’t forget—tonight we start your lessons,” Johnny called over his shoulder as they headed out.
They stopped, and Teresa threw her arms around both of them, giving each a light kiss on the cheek. “Thank you for being there…..for taking such good care of me.”
“Honey, we’re just glad we were there to help.” Scott assured her, as he and Johnny returned her affectionate embrace.
Only a few feet from the door—they halted once again when Teresa gave an audible sigh of annoyance. In answer to their questioning looks, she explained, “I just realized I gave that awful Mr. Foster my last jar of chutney. I’m all out of some of those ingredients, and it will take months to special order them from San Francisco.”
“Well, that’s a shame, Teresa.” Scott managed to control the tremor in his voice, but Johnny—who didn’t trust himself to respond—simply nodded sympathetically.
Once outside, however, they gave themselves over to helpless laughter.
“Guess Mr. Foster kinda did us a good turn after all,” Johnny guffawed.
Scott shook his head. “After the last few days, I’m rather looking forward to a nice relaxing day of dealing with a simple herd of cattle—a relatively easy undertaking. It should present us with very few problems.”
“…..and eating trail dust…..”
“….or flooded creeks….”
“…..maybe a rabid wolf or two….”
“It oughta be a real picnic!!”
~ end ~
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