I'd been at the ranch must be oh, a coupla months. Yeah, seven or eight weeks. I reckon started to settle down after a few setbacks. The wild horse was one of them set backs, almost left for good that time, but in the end, I couldn't give them up. Couldn't give up the ranch, Teresa, my new brother, Murdoch. Once I discovered that I had a family that was it for me, the end of my life as a gunhawk. I finally had a home and folks to care for, folks to love. Don't get me wrong, now. I didn't love them straight off, no, that took time. Teresa - she was cute, I never met a girl like her before. The girls I was used to were - well not the sort of girl that Murdoch would approve of. I can't deny I have had my share of women of all kinds, all ages; they seem to like me. But I saw Teresa as a little sister and I cared about her like a brother should. One thing about Teresa from the day she set me right about my mother and Murdoch, she never judged me. Not like him. He was always riding me; well that's how it felt at the time. With hindsight I know now he had to find out if I could be trusted, if I was up to ranching. He wasn't to know whether I would just up and light out, back on the trail, back to my old life. Yeah, I know that now; know why he seemed so hard on me - was so hard on me. Ranching ain't a job for someone with wanderlust. It takes dedication and hard work and he had to find out if I was up to the task. If I was Lancer or Madrid. And I had to find that out for myself.
I can't look at those early weeks and say exactly when things changed - no, it was a gradual process. Started though, when we went after that herd of wild horses. He seemed to mellow. Had a setback when Warburton came causing trouble. Then there was that day that I want to tell you about. The day I found out something important about myself.
I never was much of a one for holding on to stuff; all I ever owned would fit in two saddlebags, a holster and my pockets. Never was given many gifts either. Ma sometimes gave me a book or a wooden toy at Christmas and on my special day, my step-pa gave me my first gun. So when I got up that grey morning ready to clear fallen tree stumps from a gully out by the west perimeter, I wasn't prepared for what happened at breakfast.
I walked down to the kitchen; sleep still clogging my eyes, not really awake and just thinking about that first cup of strong coffee that'd set me up for the day. Getting up early has never been easy for me; old habits take a long time to break. Never had much call for the dawn chorus or seeing the sun rise - not in my line of business. Noon tended to be my busy time. So there I was making my way to my usual seat, back to the range, taking a deep breath to savor the scent of fresh roasted coffee when I noticed they were all there at the table looking at me with big smiles on their faces. Scott opposite me sitting relaxed, stirring sugar into his cup, Murdoch upright in his regular chair chewing on some bread.
"What?" I asked, feeling guilty immediately. I must have done something that didn't set right with them all, but for the life of me, I couldn't think what it could be. It was a familiar feeling in those early days. I was always waiting to be hauled over the coals for something I had done in ignorance, or not done. I flinched involuntarily; it was instinctive, I guess a legacy from my step-pa. Always waiting for the belt to hit, never quite knowing when it would happen or why. Old habits sure die hard.
I smiled back through sticky eyes, and licked my lips in anticipation of that first sip of steaming coffee. Maria placed it before me and as my eyes met hers in thanks, I saw she was smiling too and before she turned away, she clasped my shoulder in a warm firm grip and whispered something in Spanish so quietly I could not make out the meaning.
"What?" I repeated, taking a mouthful of coffee to steel myself for the inevitable bad news. I still don't really understand why I expected it to be bad, after all, they were all smiling - Teresa, Murdoch and Scott; they were all looking at me.
I looked down at my clothes in case I was wearing something out of place. Had I forgotten to put a shirt on? Had I spilt something down my pants? Had I cut myself shaving? Were my pants split or something?
"Quit staring at me, you're making me feel strange."
I was starting to feel irritated. I chewed down my anger. Seemed I was always angry about something, a burning in my chest that I never could put out. Why couldn't they let me get my food in peace? I don't hold with fussing and crowding a man. I picked up a fork and stabbed at a flapjack with more force than was necessary. They sat there, still staring at me with those strange smiles. I stayed cool though, I was used to being scrutinized, came with the job. My old job I mean. My former trade. Wherever I went folk would fix a curious gaze on me - there he goes, the gunslinger, who's he here to kill, does he drink the blood of virgins and eat raw dog? Does he sleep in a bed at night? Yeah, I saw it in their eyes - judging me and finding me less than human. Didn't stop them hiring me, paying me to do what they wouldn't. What they were too proud or too upright and moral to do themselves. So, I tried to ignore my new family and concentrate on my growling stomach.
Then I noticed the package. It was behind the coffee pot on a willow pattern plate. Teresa told me that was what it was called, it was a Chinese story she said and was always blue and white. I liked those plates and the cups and bowls that matched. We never had such pretty things to eat off when I was a kid. My ma had so little that was beautiful. I always thought she had left stuff like that with my father when he threw us out. I know I was wrong about that, Teresa told me how it really happened, but still the resentment was so ingrained I couldn't help it when those beautiful plates reminded me of what Maria had lost. I loved to study the willow picture and wonder at the story it told - was it a happy ending? Or a tragic one like my ma's?
The package was red paper with a yellow ribbon. I stared at it. Then Teresa's happy voice urged, "Go on Johnny, open it. It's yours."
Slowly I pulled it along the table, my heart pounding and my lips drying. I took a gulp of coffee before asking, "What is it? Why a present, for me?"
"Happy birthday!" she replied and clapped her hands. "Open it, it's from Scott and me."
"But it's not my birthday," I replied flatly.
"Sure it is, the 3rd, your birthday." She was looking questioningly at Murdoch.
"No, you're wrong." I didn't want to spoil her surprise but I didn't want to take a present from her when it wasn't my birthday.
Then Murdoch stood up, scraping his chair along the stone floor. He walked round the table and pulled out the chair next to me.
"Happy birthday son. Open it. Teresa spent a lot of time finding the right gift for you."
"But Murdoch, it isn't my birthday."
I looked up and saw in Teresa's eyes such intense disappointment it was almost unbearable.
She turned her head to look at Murdoch and lifted her arms towards him like she was begging.
"Murdoch, please show him."
Murdoch was looking at me intently, exploring my face, and trying to work out what I was feeling. He was wrong. It wasn't my birthday.
"Son, I should know. Your birthday is fixed in my memory with a branding iron. I was there, I watched the doc ease you from your mother, watched him slap you till you took your first breath of air and yelled a welcome to life. I was the first to hold you warm in my arms; I gave you your name. Believe me son, today is the anniversary of that event."
I shook my head. It was hard to make sense of what he said. I had never celebrated my birthday. In fact, I wasn't really sure how old I was. It was like finding something I never knew I had lost.
Teresa fell into the chair at the other side of me and sighed loudly. "How could your mama be so cruel as to not celebrate your birthday? Oh Johnny, never knowing a birthday. Never having presents on your special day." I heard a break in her voice, so bent closer and saw the tears in her eyes. She was crying for me, for the little boy who never had a birthday. Dropping my fork, I lifted up my hand and gently touched her soft cheek.
"Why Teresa, don't you know we celebrate our Saint's day on the border? Birthdays just aren't as important as our saints."
I brushed the tears away with my thumb and added, "My Saint's day, San Juan Bautista, is June 24. That was the day Mama gave me a present. Usually it was something she had made - a shirt, pants, a blanket. So don't feel sorry for me."
It had been a while since I'd thought about Saints' days; since I'd thought about my ma too. Staring at the package, I remembered her laugh as she offered me a gift. Her long wavy black hair, chocolate eyes that twinkled, white lacy shirt and the full brocaded skirts she favored. I recalled her scent - lavender, cinnamon, sage, and in summer, roses. I closed my eyes to better remember her features but found it too difficult. She was too elusive, my dear mama, gone so many years that I could no longer see her face except in my dreams. I recalled my small hand nested in hers as we walked in the sun, along the dusty path to church for the Mass of San Juan at the mission. The low drone of the padre, the scent of the incense and the guttering candles, all came clearly back to assault my senses, the whispered litanies from the old widows whose lips were hidden by black mantillas, the gentle clack of rosary beads. I remembered how there was a huge cross suspended from the ceiling on chains as thick as my thighs, and how from this cross Jesus hung head bowed in pain, bleeding from feet, hands and side. I would gaze at his suffering face wide eyed, mesmerized and pray for an easier death and for forgiveness from my sins.
I considered the man I had become, the path I had chosen and thought again of San Juan Bautista and his healing water.
Opening my eyes and erasing the memories, I stroked the paper package with my thumb.
"Open it, Johnny"
Teresa's voice was so full of hope and energy; I couldn't deny her pleasure.
"Sure, even though it is too early, Teresa, and thank you, both of you."
Scott hadn't said a word. He just sat elbows on the table and watched me as I pulled away the ribbon and tore into the paper.
I held the book in my hand tightly and smelt the leather binding, rubbed my fingers along the scrollwork and flicked through the pages. There was an inscription on the inside but my eyes wouldn't focus enough to see the words.
"Do you like it? I took some lessons from Jake, he showed me how to work the leather to make it hard wearing." Scott was obviously pleased with what he had learnt and had done a good job. I found it hard to find the right words to show how much it meant to me. He had done all that for me.
"Scott this must have taken a long time and a lot of work." I told him, choked and almost speechless. "It is good. I never had such a gift."
"And I got the paper from the store and wrote the year in it and painted the edges gold, see. So you can write whatever you want in it - it's a journal." Teresa, too, was proud of what she had done. I kissed her on the cheek, and she blushed in response.
Then she stepped away to reveal Murdoch holding an even thicker book, which he placed on the table before me. I pushed my plate out of the way, as he opened it up. His family Bible, brought over from Scotland. In it were the dates of birth and death and marriage of the Lancer family. His marriage to Scott's Ma was there, then the date of her death. Below her, Scott's birth was recorded then below that, my mother's name and her wedding date. My name and my birth date were beneath. Murdoch jabbed a thick forefinger at the writing.
"Today is your birthday, Johnny, see. Now you won't ever forget it and I promise you neither will we."
He moved the Bible away and in its place set a tissue wrapped bundle.
"My present for you." Then he picked up the Bible reverently, turned his back to me and strode out of the kitchen. I stared at the package, afraid to open it.
"Go on Johnny." Teresa was sitting in the chair next to me; I hadn't noticed her move. I was missing a lot of things that morning.
My hands were trembling as I pulled apart the edges of tissue paper. The way it rustled reminded me of my mother's stiff skirts. When I had finally pulled open the wrapping, there exposed was a mound of white Spanish lace. Teresa gasped as I lifted it up to examine its spider web delicacy. Then I clasped it to my lips and inhaled in the desperate hope that a trace of her scent might remain upon it.
As I rubbed it against my cheek I became a two-year-old nino once more, and tears welled in my eyes threatening to un-man me. I couldn't break down in front of them so mumbling a "thank you" I fled to the refuge of the corral and Barranca.
Still clutching the journal and mantilla against my chest, I grabbed his leading rein and pulled him close. I leant my cheek against his neck, feeling the rhythm of his deep breaths against my skin and let the tears flow. I didn't hear Scott approach me, just felt his hand warm my shoulder then his voice close to my ear.
"We didn't mean to offend you, or upset you, brother."
There was an emphasis on the word brother that cut deep into my heart.
I mumbled a response, "I'm sorry. I bet you think I`m being rude. Ungrateful. Just that, Scott, I never had any folks to remember special days for me. No one has given me a gift in so long except you. I ain't-I'm not used to having folk care about me."
"It's all right, Johnny. All right. We just want you to be happy on your birthday. We wanted to please you. We are a family, you know. It's what families do."
I could hear the frustration in his voice, the desperation. He was nowhere near understanding my life and who I was. But still, he was a good brother to me; he was doing his best and I knew, still know now, that I am not the easiest of people.
So I let go of Barranca, patted him on his sleek neck, turned to my only brother, and smiled.
"Just thinking of my mother, Scott. Some good memories."
"Don't you think you should come in now and thank Murdoch for his present?" He held out his hand to me and clutched my sleeve.
So, I followed my brother and walked back to where the rest of my family waited by the door and thanked my father for both his presents. Thanked him for letting me have one possession of my mother's and for giving me a birthday to celebrate.
storm woke me up this mornin' howling and screeching, slamming shutters
and blowing washing from the
line. I struggled out of bed and into a wall of cold and made my way to the window to look out at the damage.
We've worked hard on this place, me and Andy. It's been hard since you died, pa, but we get through. It
looked like it was goin' to be one of those days when it never gets light.
A gray day - all day long.
quickly and rushed to the kitchen. I wanted to get up before Andy
so as I could make him a special
breakfast, because it is his birthday after all. I made him some socks; it took me weeks to knit them just
right. He is growin' so fast now. Wish you could see him, Pa. He's almost as tall as you were and his feet
are so big. I can't keep up with all the clothes he needs and most stuff is past mendin'.
the time Andy was up and dressed, I had his breakfast all set out on the
best tableware on ma's tablecloth
from back east, the embroidered one. I set out his favorite eggs and ham, a hunk of bread and a glass of
fresh milk. Next to it I placed his present. Of course, I knew that my present was inadequate compared to the
one he was really waiting for.
He sat down, unable to contain his excitement.
d'you think he'll get here, Dorrie? I can't wait to show him how
we fixed the place up since he was last
his hair, and as he pushed away my hand in annoyance, I realised that he
truly wasn't a little boy any
more. He wasn't even the kid that brought back the gunfighter to avenge his pa's death; your death.
Somewhere along the line my baby brother had turned into a young farm-owning man. You'd be proud of
him, the way he's turned out, so responsible, so sensible. And here I am still waiting, a spinster getting older,
still wondering if there will be a special someone for me. Like you had ma. Remember I told you how I put on
my Sunday dress and did my hair all smart that time he came back, that time when he was sitting in that
rocking chair most the day, planning? He came for his meals all the way out here and as I watched him eat. I
hardly heard the meaning of his words. My heart just seemed to jump all over the place, and I'd get to
looking at his eyes so blue that my mouth would just forget how to move. I remember I was so mean to him;
not cause I hated him, I told you that back then, Pa. It was cause I thought he would think I was too plain for
the likes of him. He would never like me.
then he was gone. He did the job, stayed an extra day then said he
was needed at home and rode
away. All that when I was just starting to think that maybe he could be the one for me. Not because he was
a glamorous gunfighter, cause he wasn't that any more. He told us he was a rancher with his Pa and brother
out near Spanish Wells. Too far away for us to go visit. But he said he'd come back on the kid's birthday
with a gift. And he kept his promise last time so I knew he would come this time, if he could. I thought there
might be a chance for us cause he was so kind to me and Andy, he gave us a chance. And he really tried to
teach Andy a lesson about killing, in the way a Pa would. He had all the makings of a wonderful Pa, and a
wonderful husband too. He was kind; he wasn't mean at all, not to me, not to Andy. And you could tell that
underneath that gunfighter pose, he was a gentle man, a man a woman could trust. And a hardworker too.
He fixed the barn roof while he was here, helped restore your headstone, chopped wood. He wasn't a
la-di-da rancher, he was happy to get his hands dirty.
Pa, I sent Andy out to milk the goat since he couldn't keep from fussing
and making me nervous. Gave
him something to keep his mind off Johnny. But I couldn't keep my mind still, even though I baked a cake,
made some bread - kneaded it real hard too, and prepared a real nice pie. I scrubbed every particle of wood
in the place but still couldn't get him off my mind. I had this picture of him, sitting in your old chair, facing the
ladderback, talking away in that soft voice. He could have been reciting the Books of the Old Testament for
all I could tell.
Andy flew in, tousled and panting from the storm, a pail of warm sour-smelling
milk in his hand, which
he set on the table. A cloud of dust blew in behind him and I had to lean on the door to shut it. As I swept up
the mess, he ran on,
hope he ain't caught in the storm. You think I should ride out a
ways down the trail to see? He could have
him that Johnny would have travelled in worse weather than this and not
to worry he would get
here - but maybe after noon.
think he'll have a present? What d'ya think it will be? I sure
hope it's a gun, a pistol like his. Or maybe
some of those Spanish style pants he wears, or a fancy shirt with patterns and bone buttonsâ€¦or a hat like
at him, Pa, ya should have heard him. He used to hero worship you
like that. I 'm not sayin' he don't
still worship you, or that Johnny has taken your place, cause that would be a lie. He still loves and misses
you, like I do. But Johnny came to us when we really needed help, and he helped us lay you to rest. Poor
Andy, he just needed to be able to say goodbye to you properly and let the past go. Johnny helped him do
that. He was so clever, so cunning and so calm.
Andy to clean himself up whilst I changed out of my work clothes.
I wanted to look my best for our
visitor. I put on my good dress, it's getting worn a little now but some of ma's jewelry and lace hide the worst
patches. I did my hair like those rich ladies at Church and put some fancy clips over my ears. I sprayed on
some scent I made from lavender plants. Then I fell to sitting on my bed and hid my face in my hands. He
would never love a homely and poor girl like me, would he? I was just kidding myself. Andy came into my
bedroom, he startled me. He maybe turning into a man, but he still isn't able to understand the moods of a
woman. He put his arms round my shoulders and tried to comfort me. Pa, I couldn't make him miserable on
his birthday, could I? So, I washed my face, patted on some powder, and followed him out to the kitchen just
in time to hear a forceful knock on the door. My heart was in my mouth, I knew I would make a fool of myself
as soon as I saw him, so I let Andy open the door.
was there, looking unchanged by the years, smiling a welcome, buffeted
in towards us by the wind. He
took off his hat and bashed it against his thigh before placing it on the table.
remember what he said, just that his blue eyes twinkled as he handed me
a package before turning to
Andy and pulling him outside to look at the gelding he had brought for him. Andy was over the moon with
excitement, he whooped and hollered loud enough to be heard in the next valley. Then they were both gone,
chasing into the wind, Johnny on his palomino, Andy on his treasured present.
here I am Pa, alone, at your grave waiting for them to return holding the
unwrapped present tight against
me, protecting it from the storm. Over in the distance, behind the tree line, there's a break in the clouds and a
sliver of sunlight peeking through. Maybe the sun will shine today, after all.