The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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BarbA

 

 

All Others Pay Cash
(formerly posted under Barb's 'Mags' penname)

The widow Leticia Flowers glanced up at them from behind the mercantile counter, her eyes narrowing.

“Scott, tell me you didn't forget the money pouch. What about the wagon?”

“I'd sincerely like to do that very thing. And I checked the wagon…twice.”

“How'd you get the list, but not the money? Look again.”

“I am looking.” Scott patted down the front of his coat one more time. “Weren't you supposed to get it off Murdoch's desk?”

“Not gonna happen. You're not pinning this on me.” He pulled open Scott's coat to get at the inside pocket. “Did you look in here?”

“Johnny, stop groping me. If I said I don't have it, I don't have it.”

“Dios.”

“What are we going to do?”

“We could ride back and explain to Murdoch why we didn't pay the bill. Or we could try and  buy us some time.” Home seemed a long way off without the receipt in hand. “You're the oldest. Go ahead.”

“You do it.”

“No, you do it.”

Scott took his best shot. Spread his smile real wide like he was over at The Gem, sidlin' up to Elizabeth. He frowned. Or was it Holly? The sun wasn't as bright as those teeth once Scott got to workin' them. He chanced a look to Mrs. Flowers.

She wasn't buying Scott's smooth. If anything she tightened up her mouth and something dangerous shadowed her eyes. Scott might as well been shooting blanks into the wind, he had about as much chance of hittin' something. She straightened to her full five feet. A storm was comin'. He took a few steps to the side. The fewer targets she had in her sites, the better.

He was just admiring the glossy black lines of a new carriage light on the shelf, when Scott grabbed his arm and pulled him around to face the counter.

“As I was saying, Mrs. Flowers…Johnny forgot to bring the money.” Scott shrugged, his fingers still bruising Johnny's elbow. “You know how these things happen.”

Well, shit, his own brother just sold him down the river.

Mrs. Flowers' black eyes flicked to him. The vein in her forehead pulsated, trying to keep up with her mad. He blinked and braced himself.

“Your father is well known in this community. An upstanding citizen.” She turned and marched the length of the counter, her hands folded behind her back like one of Scott's generals. Maybe she was gonna let them off the hook.

“Nevertheless, we have our own expenses. And the Lancer bill has come due.” Nope.

Scott, still attached like some damn anchor, sagged back. Murdoch was gonna have a fit if they didn't come home with the paid receipt for this month's grain bill. The old man liked things nice and orderly, this was bound to put a crimp in his ledgers. 

“However, I can reasonably let it go until tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Scott's strangled voice said it all. Runnin' the cows from the east pastures to the north, then the branding--they'd barely made town today, and the list of ranch chores wasn't getting any shorter. Town wasn't happening tomorrow.

“Do you know how long a ride...”

Scott hissed in his ear. “Let it go, Johnny.”

He measured Scott's grip on his arm against Murdoch's face when they told him the news. “It's not like we don't have anything else to do except come into town.”

Mrs. Flowers stared at him. “Are you rolling your eyes at me, boy?”

Old biddy. “No, ma'am.”

“Well don't. It's impolite.”

His hand strayed towards his holster. Scott glared and he let it fall back to his side.

Mrs. Flowers reached under the counter to draw out the store's ledger book, her hand caressing the green felt when she set it down on the counter.  “This will be the second time Murdoch hasn't paid on time.” She eyed them up and down. “It's never been a problem…until lately.”

This time Scott bristled, straightening until he pulled his shoulders nice and square then tipped his head to the side. It was a bad sign.

“Madam, what do you mean by lately?”

Yep, Scott was pissed. He grabbed a handful of his brother's sleeve. “Drop it. Leastways, she gave us until tomorrow. Remember last time?” Three months ago, they'd stood outside looking at the ‘closed' sign hanging in the window. Late by ten minutes. Murdoch had to sweet talk Mrs. Flowers into opening again. He shivered. Never again.

It looked like he remembered all right--Scott's mouth snapped shut.

He peeked over Scott's shoulder at the crumpled list. “Hey, what about the old man's salve?”

“What?”

“Murdoch's salve…check the list, it's on there.”

Scott ticked off each item. “How much for the Dr. Cure-All salve?”

“One dollar.”

Scott felt his coat again then crammed a hand into his front pants pocket. Sixty-five cents. Big spender, his brother. He dug deep in his own coat, more for show than anything. There hadn't been anything in his pockets since last payday. His fingers touched something round and he pulled it out. Huh, a ten cent piece. Grinning, he added it to the money in Scott's palm.

Scott dipped his head. “Seventy-five cents.”

“The salve is a dollar. I can hold it until tomorrow when you pay the rest of the bill.”

Murdoch needed that medicine. He'd been hunched over for the last two days. “What would we have to do to earn another twenty-five cents?”

Mrs. Flowers' face brightened and lengthened out to a dagger-sharp smile. “You two look to be strapping boys. There's a wagon out back that needs unloading to the barn. It shouldn't take an hour.”

Scott closed his eyes, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Johnny…”

The woman had a curb bit in and was pullin' tight on the reins. “Gettin' the salve would probably smooth out more than Murdoch's stiff back muscles. Maybe that money pouch you left on the table?”

“Where did you say this wagon was located?”

~#~#~#~

One hour later, pushing and pulling the damn thing was looking less and less like a good idea. Swearing, he threw his shoulder into the side of the upright piano. “C'mon, Scott! Pull!”

Scott's face was red. Sweat peaked on his forehead and ran into his shirt collar as he got those long legs under him and heaved. Johnny felt the piano give and it started to roll on the loose straw.

“Pssst…Johnny.”

Distracted by the gravel-tinged voice behind him, he straightened. The piano came to an abrupt stop and Scott fishtailed forward into a waiting stall.

“You okay, Scott?” A hand pushed up and out of the straw, waving.

Eyes narrowed against the sun, he studied the pink-cheeked man. He looked like someone's kindly abuelo, after one too many benders.

“You lost, Harlow?”

The old man in front of him laughed hard, patting his pot-belly. “Looks like you could use some help, son.” He peered into the barn. “Is that Scott in there?”

Scott had made it up to one knee, shirt hanging off one shoulder, tail flapping out. The red had left his face, but the testiness was still real plentiful. 

Resigned to the wait, he leaned back against the piano and took off his hat, wiping the sweat from his eyes. Scott thumped up beside him.

“I see Letty's put you two to work.” Harlow's thick eyebrows waggled, making all the white look like so many drifting clouds.

“Letty?”

Harlow cocked his head to the mercantile across the alley. “Mrs. Flowers. Handsome woman, isn't she?” He winked. “Cooks, too.”

Now this was gettin' interesting. He shot a look to Scott and could see his brother thinking the same thing. “She's inside.”

“Of course she is. Letty has a real head for business.”

Scott slapped the dust from his trousers. “She has a definite way of getting her twenty-five cents worth.”

Harlow let out a booming laugh. “Why don't I give you boys a hand?”

Johnny studied the bulging belly and the white flowing beard. “Don't you have a jug to find somewhere?”

 Harlow leaned in, one finger to his lips, the hundred proof wafting in the air. “I need help with a certain…matter.”

Scott sighed. “Why not? We seem to be in a beneficial mood this afternoon. You wouldn't have any spare change would you?”

Surveying the piano, Harlow scratched an ear. “Beneficial…change…?”

Johnny waved the old man off. “Once Scott and I get this thing loaded into the barn, you can help us cover it.”

Smiling, Harlow settled himself on the tailgate of the wagon. He pulled out a silver flask and took a quick nip. Then another. Johnny grinned and turned back to the chore at hand.

Forty-five minutes later, with the piano situated in its hidey-hole, Harlow poured off the wagon gate and lurched towards them. He tapped the ivory keys, pounding out a loud tune that sounded half familiar. A flash of color from the window of the mercantile caught Johnny's eye. It was Mrs. Flowers, listening in beside the potted geraniums in the window sill. 

Clementine ?”

He gave Johnny a friendly slap on the back. “That's right, my boy. Clementine .” A strange look came into the old man's eye. “Never a sadder song graced the stage.”

“Watch it.” Scott came up with a big piece of burlap and flung it across the top of the piano.

Harlow fingered the rough material. “How does one secure it in place?”

“Take a hold and bring your end up.” 

“This is fascinating.”

Johnny looked at Scott, who was trying hard not to laugh as he unrolled the twine.

Ten minutes later, they stood back to survey their work.

Harlow nodded. “Well done, boys. It was a pleasure to watch you work. Now I feel we deserve a little reward for our efforts and maybe you could help me with my…ah, delicate situation.” He pulled out the flask again, unscrewed its cap and handed it to Scott.

Scott sniffed at the top and took a healthy drink. His eyebrows shot to the top of his head and he pushed the flask in Johnny's direction.

Since he couldn't think of any reason not to, he tossed back a drink and managed to choke out a gasp. It was fire and nitro combined.

Harlow grinned wide and long. “By God, that's the stuff boys! I like seeing men who can hold their liquor!” He slapped Scott's back on his way to the barn's tack room. Sputtering once, Scott grabbed on to the burlap-covered piano.

Harlow came back with a package under one arm and a second bottle. “Have another! There's plenty.” He waved the liquor in the air, looking happy for the company.

They arranged hay bales in a semi-circle around the piano and when liquor was poured into his flask cap, Johnny tipped it upwards. Scott was doing his level best with what was in the second bottle. He turned to the old man.  “So what's your problem?”

“Wait a minute.” Harlow peeled off the lid of the tin he brought back from the tack room. “Try one of these. Manna from heaven.”

Cookies. There were a dozen or so plump, sugary cookies looking back at him. He reached in and snagged one. The cinnamon hit his taste buds the minute he bit into it. Delicioso . He took another bite just as the first was sliding down his throat. “What kind are these?”

Scott mumbled around his own cookie. A few crumbs spit out to his shirt. “Snickerdoodles.”

“What?” He reached over to tap Scott's knee. “Come on, you made that up.”

“No, we call them snickerdoodles back east. And these are wonderful.” Scott's smile was outlined by flecks of sugar as he chased it down with a swig from his bottle.

“They taste a little like biscochitos.” At Scott and Harlow's looks, he shrugged. “Um…Mexican snickerdoodles. Gimme another.”

He swallowed and swiped the crumbs off his lap. “So this problem wouldn't have anythin' to do with Mrs. Flowers, would it?”

“Quite astute, my boy.” Harlow leaned in and whispered. “It's indeed a matter of the heart.”

“Any man who has a woman making these kind of cookies for him, doesn't need any help in gettin' her to the alter.”

“I just need something to…tip the scales, so to speak. Look at me. I have nothing to offer her.”

He stared at Harlow. The old man didn't seem the type for long rides under a full moon. Or maybe Mrs. Flowers didn't seem the type. The trouble was he was having a devil of a time deciding exactly what the biddy would like--besides her accounts paid in full. It was a sad day when the wants of a woman couldn't be figured out.

Scott spoke up, sounding far away. “What about flowers?”

“Letty's allergic to everything except geraniums. And she has those in her window box already.”

Hiccupping, Scott rubbed his hand across his face. “Dancing?”

“I never learned.”

“Well, what about…you play the piano, how about a song?” Scott swung his head around. “Johnny, do you have anything?”

“Hell, Harlow, just ask her.”

Scott nodded and held up his bottle in salute. “Love is blind.”

Harlow squinted up at the ceiling of the barn. “Ah yes, Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice …act two, scene four. “ But love is blind, and lovers cannot see…”

Scott joined in. “The pretty follies that themselves commit…”

It must have been the whiskey. It didn't seem odd at all sitting in the barn talking about snickerdoodles and listening to the old man and Scott quote Shakespeare. A laugh worked its way up--he clamped his lips--but it bubbled out anyway. As he downed another capful, he heard the half-door behind him slide open and a shy voice peal out. 

“…For if they could, Cupid himself would blush…”

“Letty!” Harlow stood.

The widow stood just outside the door, clutching the side of it in one hand, a blush of her own working up.

“My dear. Shakespeare? I never knew.” The old man hot-footed it over and planted a kiss on her cheek. The biddy turned into a school girl and colored even more.

Scott looked at him and motioned towards the door.

Outside the barn, they bumped each other and sat down on the boardwalk--a snickerdoodle crumb-filled tin and one-quarter of a bottle left between them.

Scott ran a hand through his hair. “I can't feel my head.”

“We should've eaten somethin' other than cookies.”

There were giggles, both male and female, coming from the livery.

“Dios. You think they'll stay in there all night?”

“I hope not. It's a long ride back to Lancer and we still haven't got Murdoch's medicine.”

“Yeah. It was a real good idea to pay her up front without getting the salve.”

Scott looked at him with bleary eyes. “Just like it was a good idea to offer unloading the sight unseen wagon in the first place. A piano! Good God.”

“You gotta admit Harlow has a good thing goin' here. Mrs. Flowers…who would've thought?” He lifted the bottle to the waning sun and watched the light catch and sparkle on the back door of the mercantile. “Maybe we can work this out in our favor.”

Scott's eyes narrowed. “How so?”

“Well, she might be grateful that we got her hooked up with old Harlow.”

“I'm not following.”

“The grain receipt, remember?”

“And…?”

“And maybe she'll let it ride until next month. You know, grateful and all.”

The door to the barn opened, Harlow and Letty walked out, fingers touching.

Scott shook his head. “It's a stretch, Johnny.”

~#~#~#~

The mercantile counter bobbed and weaved in a dangerous way. He caught and held onto the edge of it while Mrs. Flowers wrapped up Murdoch's medicine, packaging it with a smile this time and nestling it against a smaller bag of cookies. 

Carrying the bags out to the wagon, she waited until Scott got situated with the reins before handing the medicine and cookies up.    

“For the ride home.” Harlow smiled wide and handed over the silver flask. “It's been refilled.”

It was now or never. He leaned across Scott, and looked her straight in the eye. “About tomorrow, Ma'am…the receipt…”

“Oh yes!” She nodded at him then sent a knowing look to Harlow. “Come early, I think the store may be closed in the afternoon.”

Scott huffed out a laugh and pushed him back in his seat. The alcohol and sugar clouded his vision a little, making Harlow and Letty fuse together in a funny shape of color and smiles. Johnny let out a sigh as the wagon lurched forward. Love may sure enough be blind, like Scott said, but that Leticia Flowers was still a real good businesswoman.

 

~ end ~

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