Disclaimer: They don't belong to me, but I
like to dream that they do (especially one dark-haired character with sapphire
blue eyes). I am just borrowing them (do I have to return them?).
This is dedicated to Andrew Duggan, whose birthday (as you guys know) is December 28.
Note: As always, I appreciate feedback. I don't have a beta reader, so any mistakes are my own.
The great room at Lancer, late evening, December 28
Murdoch sat in the red armchair by the fireplace, drink in hand. It was late and he should be in bed. His ward, Teresa, and his sons, Scott and Johnny, had gone to bed earlier. 'They had to be tired,' Murdoch thought, 'after working on the ranch and then giving me that surprise birthday party. I almost ruined it for them when I argued about going to talk to Johnson. I'm glad Scott convinced me that I was the only one Johnson would listen to about the breeding program he was supposed to be considering.'
When Scott and Johnny had returned to the ranch at noon, Murdoch had wondered if something was wrong.
"Yeah," Johnny said, "We were checking the fence near Johnson's side. He came over tah tell us about the breedin' program he wants tah start. Someone needs tah talk some sense inta that old man."
"What's wrong with it?" Murdoch asked.
"It's what he wants to breed, something about llamas," Scott replied. "I think it's a waste of time and money, and it's going to go over about as well as sheep."
"I can't see Johnson wanting to breed llamas if they're anything like sheep," Murdoch replied.
"Llamas are more like camels, but I imagine that they would be as unpopular as sheep. They can't be as profitable as cattle here, so I wonder why Johnson would want to throw money away in breeding them?"
"'Cides," Johnny added, "he wants tah try tah talk his neighbors inta joining him in this foolish plan. He told us he thought that he had a coupla the Cattlemen's Association members considering backing him if he got a few of them things and got started. You're gonna have tah talk tah him, Murdoch, he wouldn't listen tah Boston or me. He might listen tah you since you're such a big man in the valley."
Murdoch wasn't sure when he saw the look on Johnny's face if he meant that last part as reference to ranching or to his physical size. He knew if his fellow Cattlemen's Association members were willing to back the breeding program, either someone had them conned or it would be something to consider. After all, those men did not take new projects lightly, especially when it involved bringing in a different type of animal that could impact pasture-lands or the market.
"I'll go talk to him tomorrow," Murdoch assured his sons.
"Tomorrow will be too late," Scott replied. "He's leaving today, on the 4:00 stage out of Morro Coyo. He said he had to meet the seller before mid-January."
"Maybe you oughtta meet him in Morro Coyo this afternoon," Johnny suggested, "keep him from gettin' on that stage or at least get him tah wait another day so you can convince him not tah do this."
After lunch, Murdoch had taken his sons' advice and rode to Morro Coyo. He planned what he would say in his head on the ride into town. Johnny told him that Johnson had been on his way to Morro Coyo when they'd talked earlier. Johnson told the young men that he had some business to handle at the bank and other places in town while waiting for the stage. When Murdoch finally found him, Raymond Johnson was having a beer in the saloon.
"Murdoch, what brings you inta town?"
"Well, Raymond, my boys told me they had a discussion with you earlier about a new breeding program you're wanting to try."
"Yeah, Murdoch. I read about some rancher in Montana havin' a try at it and I decided it might work here."
"Do you really think there's going to be a market here? Our weather conditions are different than those in Montana. How would our warmer climate affect the breeding? Would they do well if we have another drought like some of those in the past? Did the Montana rancher have an answer for those questions?"
"Well, I guess I didn't think tah ask that. I just read that he'd had a good line and was interested in introducin' 'em elsewhere. I got excited to learn of the price he was acceptin' just to start 'em in other areas."
"Do you think it would hurt to wait another day or two before you go? Give me and Scott time to help you look into it and answer some of the questions. Then if it still looks good to you, you can make the trip."
"All right, Murdoch. I know you and your boys are lookin' out for the future of your ranch and you figure my project could affect you. I can wait a day or two."
"Good! Now let's head back to Lancer and talk with Scott."
Raymond Johnson wondered if Murdoch was looking to join in his venture. If Murdoch would throw some of his cash and rangeland into this project, then it might be successful. He would be grateful for the support of Lancer.
When they rode back to Lancer, Murdoch hoped Scott had remained near the house so they could talk with Raymond. 'Llamas!' Murdoch thought to himself, 'how can a man think of breeding such things.'
When he walked into the great room, Murdoch was surprised to see Scott and Johnny sitting on the couch...and most of their friends sitting or standing nearby.
"Surprise! Happy birthday!" were the shouts that greeted him.
"What...?" Wait...," Murdoch started, flustered. "Thank you all! I have a feeling two certain young men are behind all this."
"Happy birthday, Murdoch," Scott said, leading his father further into the room and pushing a drink into his hand.
It had been a wonderful surprise and a wonderful party. Sometime during the festivities, Murdoch had collared Scott and Johnny to ask them if the llama-breeding program had just been a ruse to get him away from the ranch to give them time to have the guests arrive and get everything done.
"Llamas? Did I say llamas? I'm sorry Murdoch, I meant Brahmas."
The grin on Johnny and Scott’s faces told their father he'd been had.
Now it was nearly midnight, and he was alone in the great room when he heard quiet footsteps approach.
"Is there something wrong?" Teresa asked. "Why are you still sitting here and not in your bed sleeping?"
"Oh..., I was just thinking."
"This was a year for firsts at Lancer. The first time Scott ever saw the ranch. The first time Scott and Johnny ever met, though I never thought it would be on the stage into Morro Coyo! How I felt the first time I'd seen my sons together! December 19 Scott's first birthday here at Lancer. December 23 being Johnny's first birthday with his brother. Our first Christmas as a family. And today, my first birthday with my family together." Murdoch was surprised at the lump that formed in his throat as he spoke. He was not surprised at the warmth he felt as he thought of his family planning the surprise party for him.
"It has been a good year, and we will soon have another first...the first New Year's Eve as a family!" Teresa pronounced. "But did you have a good birthday, Murdoch?"
"Yes, honey, I had a great birthday. The only wish that mattered came true, but it was answered before today."
"What wish would that be?"
"That my sons came home and we could be a family. Now my wish for a future with my sons at Lancer may come true as well."
He stood, kissed Teresa on the forehead, and sent her off to bed. Then he climbed the stairs and went to his own room. As he lay in his bed, he allowed memories of his sons at the party and visions of the young men's future to lull him into blissful sleep.