The Birthday Present
The Birthday Present
‘So what are we going to get Johnny for his birthday?’ Scott persisted. ‘It’s rather special isn’t it—it’s his 21st—we can’t just give him a pair of socks or a new pocket knife now can we’
‘It’s so difficult’ Theresa agreed. ‘He never seems to want anything.’
She had produced a pitcher of fresh lemonade to help lubricate the brain cells—but it didn’t seem to be helping much.
Johnny seemed to have little use for ‘possessions’. He had his horse, his saddle, his guns his gun-belt and the gold pocket-watch his father had given him so many months ago now and seemed to think that that was everything a man needed.
He never bought himself much from any of the stores in any of the local towns.
The occasional pair of socks, a new hat and some candy seemed to be the length of his shopping list and when gently prodded for information on anything else he may want he would just laugh and wave his hand over the view—any view—of his now home and say something like
‘What more can a man want than all this?’
Which was no help whatsoever.
‘We shouldn’t have given him that new rifle for Christmas.’ Murdoch grumbled –but he didn’t mean it. He had enjoyed every moment of his younger son’s bright eyed excitement and joy over his Christmas gift from his family. Murdoch had bought the rifle, Scott had paid the extra for the beautifully crafted walnut and silver stock and Theresa had contributed the inlaid silver Lancer L in its distinctive circle, as the only decoration to the purely functional weapon...
Johnny had been so thrilled with his gift. His eyes had shone like stars as the final, protective silken inner wrapper had fallen away, he had had tears in his eyes as he had tried to stutter his thanks and he had spent a lot of the holiday just sitting there, with the gun on his lap, stroking it and polishing it with the silk then holding it up to admire it, with a huge happy grin lighting up his face every time he did so. Scott had teased him, the next morning, that he had probably taken the Winchester to bed with him and Johnny had threatened to shoot him with it, once he had had enough time to get the ‘feel’ for his new treasure.
But now, it was Johnny’s 21st birthday, looming alarmingly close, and no-one had the faintest idea what to give the young man as a suitable celebratory gift.
There was no gain-saying that, from this spot, at the height of the ridge, Lancer, spread out below, from horizon to horizon, was a sight to set a mans pulses racing and his heart singing. Johnny still felt that indefinable thrill, every time he rode or drove over it. Every time he would stop and look—and look, scarcely believing, even now, that this wonderful place was his to call home.
He stood there now, with his horses reins pulled loosely over his shoulder, drinking in the sights and the smells and the sounds of this heaven on earth and wondering, a little uneasily if, after all, it still might prove to be just too good to be true.
Something was ‘up’ at Lancer—something that he was being excluded from and he was growing more and more uneasy over it.
Scott and Murdoch seemed to be planning something and Theresa was in a state of suppressed excitement—almost in the same way that she had been about Christmas—but whatever it was didn’t seem to have anything to do with him and he most certainly wasn’t going to ask what it was all about.
If his ‘family’ chose to exclude him from whatever it was—then he would gladly stay out of it: which was one reason why he was out here, atop the ridge, surveying his homeland with just a little less satisfaction than usual.
Fast approaching hoof-beats jolted him out of his reverie. His right hand dropped instinctively toward his hip—but it was a familiar horseman that came careering up the slope and slid his somewhat lathered horse to a stop, almost exactly alongside Johnny’s patient palomino.
‘Holá, little brother.’ Scott greeted him, bringing his horse to a standstill and swinging himself down easily from the saddle. ‘What are you up to, all the way up here, all on your own?’
‘I ain’t ‘up to’ anything’ Johnny said, rather sharply. ‘Can’t a man just admire the view of his own place now?
Scott, slightly taken aback at this tart rejoinder to what he had thought was a friendly greeting, paused in his tracks, pushing his hat back from his face, and surveyed his unusually truculent brother rather worriedly.
‘Just a remark Johnny—just a remark. I didn’t mean anything by it.’ he placated, soothingly. ‘It’s certainly a view worth admiring isn’t it? Scott stood alongside his brother and he too took in the majestic scenery.
‘Yeah—I’m sorry.’ Johnny’s shoulders slumped a little ‘so what are you doing all the way out here, on your own. You come to admire the view as well?’
‘I saw you ride out. You—er—seem to be spending a lot of time on your own lately. Is something worrying you?’
‘A man sometimes needs some thinkin’ space Scott’
Scott nodded, understandingly.
‘Do you suppose---‘Johnny sighed a little and allowed his gaze to take in the glory of the horizon ‘that this was his first sight o’ this place?’
‘His? You mean Murdoch’s? Yes—it might well have been, mightn’t it. And then later—he may have come up here with our---------‘He broke off, not sure whether his brother was in the mood for such ponderings.
‘Mothers?’ Johnny finished for him. ‘It’s hard to imagine him as the romantic type ain’t it—but this sure would be a place to bring your chosen woman’
‘With all my worldly goods I thee endow.’ Scott murmured.
‘What?’ Johnny lifted his gaze from the valley beneath to his brother beside him so quickly that his hat fell down his shoulders.
‘It’s a line from the Protestant marriage service.’ Scott explained. ‘He would have said it to my mother. Maybe yours, too’.
‘Don’t you think it’s a mite strange?’ Johnny began to fidget with something, as he often did when he was ill-at-ease, this time with his storm strap. ‘that there is nothing of them, here.’
Scott gave him a gentle nudge and then dropped a hand onto Johnny’s shoulder.
‘I wouldn’t say that brother.’
Johnny smiled at him affectionately.
‘I didn’t mean us.’ He said, rather sadly ‘I meant –well—I suppose I meant Mama. I know she left an’ all—but –it’s kinda like—well, like she was never really here. Sometimes I wish----------’.
Scott stiffened and his arm dropped abruptly.
‘What?’ Johnny asked him, again, but it seemed that Scott’s communicative mood was now broken.
‘Oh—nothing really’ the older brother said rather shortly. ‘Well—I’m heading back in—are you coming with me?
‘You think that’s really what he would like?’ Murdoch sounded rather doubtful as he sat as his desk, looking up at his elder son, who had just come up with at least something of an idea for celebrating Johnny’s ‘coming of age’ birthday.
‘Yes—I think he would really appreciate it.’ Scott said eagerly. ‘Thing is—I don’t see how it could be kept a secret’
‘Hmm!’ Murdoch still looked uncertain.
‘You don’t like the idea that much, do you?’
‘Well—I never—well. Yes—it’s certainly an idea, if that’s—I just never ---but it’s fair enough isn’t it? He doesn’t ask for much, after all, does he?
Scott smiled appreciatively at his father. Just sometimes he felt very fond of Murdoch Lancer and this was one of them. He knew that his suggestion had thrown his father somewhat off balance—but he had made a good recovery.
‘No—he doesn’t.’ He acknowledged. ‘I suppose there’s not some trip you could send him on is there or something—to keep him out of the way?’
‘Good lord no!’ Murdoch exclaimed, in horror ‘you know perfectly well that he’d get himself into some sort of trouble and miss the Grand Party—and then Theresa would shoot all of us’.
‘Good point.’ Scott acknowledged, with a grin. ‘Well—we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.’
Johnny was getting beyond just puzzled now.
His family were behaving (or so it seemed to him) very oddly lately, almost as if he had done something wrong—although he couldn’t think what it could be..
Murdoch kept looking at him out of the corner of his eye every time he opened his mouth to say anything. Theresa kept him at arms length and Scott seemed to be tailing him like an Indian Scout on a good trail—almost spying on him. Even Jelly seemed affected and to be sidestepping his approaches. It was all beginning to make him feel uneasy.
It would make life much easier if they would just come out and tell him, straight, what it was that was worrying them but he didn’t like to ask them as they all seemed to think that they were being so very subtle.
He had also overheard a somewhat disturbing snippet of conversation, between Murdoch and Theresa. His actual name had not been mentioned – but his instincts had prickled warningly and he was fairly sure that a remark of
‘It would be easier if he wasn’t around the place so much’ certainly did NOT apply to Scott—or to Jelly.
And then there had been the time when, riding back from Morro Coyo, he had caught up with his father and brother, driving back to the ranch, in the wagon. They had been talking earnestly together, until they had noticed him, whereupon they had instantly broken off their talk and greeted him with a false bonhomie that had made his blood curdle.
Misliking the atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust Johnny began to find reasons to avoid his family and to wonder whether the joyous family feelings that he had so enjoyed over the Christmas holiday, had in fact, simply been wishful thinking.
Of course he still had the rifle—but he was beginning to wonder if, after all, the gift that he had been so thrilled with had just been some sort of ‘sop’ and that his family were, actually, in truth, beginning to get a mite fed up with him.
Too bad, he thought, grimly. He had put his name to that piece of paper, which stated that he belonged here—and here he was going to stay.
He sat now, on the ground, rather forlornly, with his back against one of Lancers sturdy oak-trees, once more drawn to that magical spot, up on the ridge that offered that heart-lurchingly wonderful view of Lancer. The still gleaming Christmas Winchester lay across his knees. And he was wracking his brains, trying to think of what he might have done to upset his family so much.
‘You’ll have to have a word with Theresa.’ Scott told his father firmly. ‘She’s planning this thing like a New York public Fourth of July celebration—right down to the fireworks. She’s aiming to invite half the Valley to this shindig—she’s even trying to hire a bunch of musicians, like the last time—and Johnny will just HATE it. You know he will.’
‘But she’s put in so much work----------.’ Murdoch began.
‘This is supposed to be Johnny’s day, remember.’ Scott insisted ‘Although I am beginning to wonder if he even knows it IS his birthday’. The thought struck him like a bolt of lightning. ‘Does he know? ’ He went on, as Murdoch’s eyes widened in astonishment on this extraordinary idea. Could it be that Johnny really didn’t know his own birth date—or even how old he really was? Or even that he may not have any idea of the significance of this occasion that they were all getting so excited about.
‘He’s very twitchy at the moment.’ Scott went on. ‘I don’t think he has the slightest idea what’s really going on. He’s skulking around on his own like he did when he first got here. We are going to have to be very careful Sir, or we are going to end up worrying him badly-and you know what happens when he gets to worrying’.
‘It never occurred to me that he might not know----I mean everyone knows when their birthday is—don’t they? Murdoch sank down slowly into a chair, his mind whirling at this new notion. ‘Do you mean you think we ought to tell him what’s going on?’
‘It would be a shame to spoil the surprise.’ Scott mused. ‘What we need is a diversion—something to keep him too busy to worry. Are you sure you haven’t got some fairly harmless chore he can do for you—away from home, just for ten days?’
‘If he’s worrying NOW—what’s he going to be thinking if I send him off somewhere? Murdoch objected, reasonably enough and Scott had to admit that he had a good point.
‘Val.’ Scott said suddenly. ‘We’ll get Val to divert him. Leave it with me Sir. I’ll fix it—and YOU.’ He added sternly. ‘Must have a word or two with Theresa’
‘You want him out of the way for nine days’ Val ruminated, eyeing the older Lancer brother shrewdly ‘and he must be back for the 19th huh? What’s it all about Scott?’
‘It’s his birthday.’ Scott admitted ‘and we’re planning some—surprises for him’
‘Surprises huh?’ The sheriff looked dubious. ‘I dunno Scott. Johnny don’t care much for surprises’
‘Maybe he’s never had any real nice ones.’ Scott responded.
‘That’s true enough’ Val scratched his head under his tatty old hat. ‘So you want me to do what? Throw him in a cell for the week? Could be tricky. He’s about the most law-abiding citizen ever comes into Green River these days’.
‘Noooo.’ Scott shook his head. ‘I was thinking more on the lines of—oh—I don’t know.’ His eye fell on an untidy stack of ‘Wanted’ posters ‘—don’t you have any bandits to track or something. Johnny’s a grand tracker’ he looked hopeful.
‘Much too good to be fooled into following non-existent bandits.’ Val agreed with a grin. ‘Johnny’s birthday huh? So how old is he?’
‘He’s twenty-one.’ Scott was a little surprised at the query ‘Didn’t you know? He rode with you for some time didn’t he?’
‘It never came up.’ Val shrugged. ‘Knew he weren’t very old, is all. Twenty one huh! Sometimes used ta wonder if he’d ever get to see it.’ He fell to musing on this thought and Scott waited patiently for his brother’s friend to finish his ponderings. ‘That’s a mighty important birthday now, ain’t it’ Val spoke again at last, giving Scott a knowing sort of grin. ‘Alright—I’ll think of somethin’.’ He finally acquiesced. ‘I guess you can square it with Mr Lancer huh?
‘Leave that to me.’ Scott assured him, thinking that he was saying that a lot lately. ‘Thanks Val’.
And Scott rode back to Lancer wondering when it was that he had become so very devious.
‘You mustn’t be to keen to agree with whatever it is Val’s going to suggest’. He advised his father, later that evening, thinking, even as he spoke, that he getting more devious by the minute.
‘THAT shouldn’t be too difficult.’ Murdoch rejoined curtly. ‘He and Crawford together are just as likely to get themselves into trouble as he is on his own if you ask me. I don’t want Johnny riding off with a posse or anything like that Scott. You know what happened the last time. HE nearly got his head blown off and WE ended up with a barn full of children’
‘And Jelly.’ Scott reminded him, with a chuckle.
‘And Jelly.’ Murdoch admitted, relaxing into a rumble of mirth of his own. ‘And Jelly’.
Scott and Theresa stepped down from the stage-coach, in Morro Coyo with a feeling of relief that the journey was over---travel by stage-coach, whilst sometimes expedient, was never particularly comfortable—and of accomplishment. Their trip to Sacramento had been a great success.
Scott had procured what he considered an ideal (and practical) personal gift for his brother and Theresa, as well as getting HER present for the younger of her two ‘brothers’ had also fetched home what looked like, to Scott’s mere male eyes, enough bolts of assorted cloth to open her own store, along with two hats and some very uncomfortable looking shoes that she seemed to be inordinately pleased with.
They had also carried out some instructions given to them by Murdoch, the results of which they hoped to find waiting for them, when they got back to the hacienda.
He lifted down their two large trunks from the top of the stage and pulled out the assortment of smaller bags from the rear carrier. It was, he thought, a good thing that none of the other passengers on this trip had had much baggage of their own.
Leaving his ‘sister’ on the sidewalk to guard what he privately stigmatised as ‘all the clutter’ he crossed to the livery stable to collect the Lancer wagon and their horses, wondering, as he went, how his father was getting on with his side of the celebratory arrangements.
Johnny had not seemed in the least bit suspicious when Val had come by and, with a winsome smile, explained that as he now had him a properly appointed deputy in Green River, he was at last, able to take a long awaited and overdue vacation. He wanted to head up into the mountains for some hunting and he wondered if his long-time friend might care to join him.
Plainly the idea of getting away from Lancer had (rather sadly) appealed to Johnny—as well, (as Scott had cunningly pointed out) as offering him a chance to really try out the new Winchester. Murdoch had grumbled and rumbled convincingly, over the supper table, before finally ‘giving in’ to the ‘leave of absence’ and Val and Johnny had ridden out together, after an early breakfast the following morning, fully equipped for a weeks hunting and plainly bent on having a good time together.
Scott had found time to take Val aside to re-iterate firmly that they must be back by noon, on the 19th and that although Val was, of course, invited to attend Johnny’s party, he was NOT to mention birthdays at all: neither was he to allow Johnny to take any unreasonable risks and that he was to bring him back in one healthy piece.
Val, beginning to think that his original idea of throwing his friend into a nice safe, peaceful, comfortable jail cell for a week would have been the easier option, rolled his eyes and assured his buddy’s elder brother that all they would be after would be a nice harmless deer or two and that he would care for his valuable charge as if he was the most dangerous of criminals ever entrusted to a lawman’s care.
‘I wonder how they are getting on with it all.’ Theresa chattered excitedly, as the wagon rattled its way towards home. ‘It will be much easier to get on with things now Johnny’s gone. I shall have so much to do. It’s probably a good thing really that it’s just going to be small affair or I wouldn’t have been able to have come to Sacramento with you—and we did have a lovely time, didn’t we’.
‘A small affair!’ Scott grinned at her. ‘Is that what you call thirty people, in their ‘Sunday best’, eating us out of hearth and home all evening, in the back yard?
‘Oh I could have thought of dozens more people to invite.’ Theresa assured him ‘but Murdoch thought that maybe Johnny wouldn’t really like that’.
‘I’m sure he’s absolutely right.’ Scott acknowledged gravely, and then he smiled. ‘And yes—we did have a lovely time didn’t we. I’m glad you enjoyed it’.
‘I wonder if she has arrived yet’. Theresa mused, after they had driven in a satisfying, friendly silence for a while ‘oh I do hope Johnny will like her’
‘Oh I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.’ Scott was reassuring. ‘She’s very beautiful isn’t she? Very classy. I quite fancy her myself.’
It had been a successful hunting trip. The weather had played along nicely, Johnny’s new rifle had exceeded expectations and two dead deer (neatly gutted) were slung over the withers of the phlegmatic pack horse as the two ‘hunters’ made their way back from the wilderness to civilisation.
Val was feeling pretty pleased with himself.
He had carried out all Scott’s instruction to the letter. Johnny had had a good time, he was un-damaged (not so much as a hang-nail) and in good health and, although he was still somewhat wary about springing surprises on the youngest of the Lancer family, absolutely NO mention had been made of birthdays—and although they were running just a leetle bit behind schedule, if they used the shortcut trail that he knew of, it would take half a day of their return journey and they would get safely home to Lancer by Scott’s deadline.
So, there they were, picking their way down the narrow track—which was narrower and slightly less inviting than Val had remembered it.
‘Are you sure about this path Val?’ Johnny, up ahead on Barranca and with the reins of the pack horse in his left hand, half turned his head, to call back, as little bits of the path began to roll away under the horses hooves. There wasn’t much room to manoeuvre. On one side of them arose a steep escarpment—and on the other was a steep drop away. Not exactly a sheer drop—but sharp enough to keep the little stones a-rolling, as they slid over the edge.
‘Rid it lotsa times.’ Val reassured him ‘Its just fine Johnny. As long as it ain’t raining that is’
‘No—it sure ain’t rain----‘. He was retorting, cheerily, when the phlegmatic pack horse suddenly decided to take exception to the rocks rattling under its feet.
‘WHOA there—steady now.’ Johnny reined in, edging Barranca as far away from the edge as he could—but the pack-horse was well spooked now and was fiddle-footing nervously. With a resigned sigh Johnny slid from the saddle and made his way to the animals head uttering a string of Spanish curses, in soothing tones, as he went.
The horse skittered foolishly away from him and a hind-leg slipped from the pathway. With a snort of alarm the animal leapt forward and one of the strapped on carcasses began to slip.
‘Dammit!’ Johnny switched to good old Anglo-Saxon and darted around to the very edge of the track in an attempt to shove it back.
Several large chunks of the path began to fall away. Barranca, becoming alarmed him-self now, shot off, away from the danger zone. Johnny, seeing his precious horse stampeding off on his own lost his concentration for a vital second and took his attention away from the task in hand. The spooked packhorse, now unbalanced by its lopsided load, jumped forward again, as if to follow the other equine—and this time two of its legs missed their footing. Johnny should have let go—but instead, he made one last valiant attempt to shove the creature back onto solid ground.
‘Johnny! NO!’ Val yelped—but he was either too late or just ignored.
There was an ominous rumbling sound, and as the edge of the crumbling path gave way under the combined weight, the pack horse, the two dead deer strapped to its back and the young man who was clinging to the horse’s head, all disappeared, under the horrified lawman’s startled nose and crashed away down the sharp slope. Johnny’s yell of alarm floated back up, to be cut off short by a resounding thud and the noise of falling rock.
Val’s horse reared in protest as unaccustomed hard hands clamped down on it’s mouth, but the sheriff was already leaping down from the saddle.
‘Johnny—Johnny—speak to me.’ Val dropped to his belly and peered frantically over the fifty foot drop. ‘JOHNNY!’ his voice rose desperately. ‘Are you dead?’
‘V-val?’ Johnny’s voice, faint but pursuing. ‘Are you alright?
‘A course I’m alright!’ Val was red-faced and furious in his relief that his friend was still alive and talking. ‘I ain’t the one that just fell down the god-darn mountain am I?’ He scrambled to his feet, swearing profusely, jammed his hat back on his head and then became practical, looking about him for a way to rescue his fallen comrade.
‘G—get this damned deer off me? Johnny called up. ‘I’m kinda jammed up some here’
‘Are you hurt?’ The lawman was looking for a way down, even as he asked the questions. It looked as if he was going to have to leave this spot and make his way down further along the trail where it was not so broken up.
‘I’m—n-not sure.’ Came the somewhat shaky response.
‘God darn it Johnny!’ Val snatched his hat from his head and flung it petulantly to the ground ‘Scott’s gonna MURDER me for this’.
Val hadn’t moved so swiftly in a long while. Panting heavily, he ran down the trail, his eyes casting about for a way down to his fallen friend that wouldn’t end up with him breaking his own neck, on the way down. The two saddle horses had not gone far. True to his training Barranca had come to a stop, a short distance away and Val’s horse, had, as horses do, trotted off to join his mate.
Val seized the canteens from both saddles and Johnny’s lariat. If necessary he could use the horse itself as an anchor point to get down the scree-slope if only he could find a safe point to make the venture but he preferred a solid attachment if possible. He had had enough of unreliable horses for one day.
And then he saw just what he needed. On the high side of the trail—one single, hopeful but reasonably sturdy little tree, growing haphazardly from the scant soil. Probably from some mere seed dropped by a passing bird. Val had no time to consider the history of the little tree though. Eagerly, but carefully he tied one end of the rope around the base of the trunk, tossed the rest of the rope over the edge of the trail and began to swarm down it.
He found his friend and the horse easily enough. The horse, with one deer still fastened to its shoulder, was calmly nibbling at the scrubby bushes and, as far as a cursory glance could tell, seemed relatively unharmed for its tumble.
Johnny had not been so lucky. He lay pinned down under the combined weight of one dead deer and some sizeable boulders.
With a strength he barely knew he possessed, Val tussled the rock aside and hauled the carcass away from his friend. He then heaved a huge sigh of relief as Johnny, with a long relieved gasp, struggled groggily into a sitting position. Luckily the deer had borne the brunt of the rock fall, somewhat protecting the fallen young Lancer from more serious injury.
Nonetheless—he was pretty well battered about. His shirt was in tatters from his slide down the rocks and there were several painful looking and dirty lacerations over his ribs and chest and face. A substantial trickle of blood streaked his left cheek and into his collar from a nasty looking and deep gash just above his ear. His upper-lip was cut open and bleeding and it was appallingly obvious from the way he was ‘favouring’ it, that his left arm was causing him considerable discomfort.
He looked in fact, like man who had tumbled down a mountain and then been clobbered by a falling deer and half a ton of rock.
There was no way that anyone (and most certainly not Scott Lancer) was going to accept that THIS was an uninjured and undamaged Johnny Lancer.
Val groaned in spirit as he began to tend to his injured buddy.
The painful arm turned out to be a dislocated collar-bone. Val knew all about resetting dislocated bones and knew what had to be done.
They both knew what had to be done.
Johnny set his teeth grimly—but the sheer torture involved in putting the bone back in place turned his already pale face grey and sent him into unconsciousness with a shout of anguish and a series of agonised muscular contortions that made Val feel quite ill himself.
However, having satisfied himself that there were no more broken bones, the sheriff bound the injured arm closely to Johnny’s battered torso with the wrecked shirt and left him to rest and recover some from his ministrations whilst he went off to fetch the horses. It took a while, because he had to scramble back up the scree-slope for them and find a way to get back down again with two horses, but at last he managed to find a path down from the trial that was safe enough for the animals to tackle and, cursing the fact that Johnny, who was not a large man, was much heavier than anyone would have guessed, managed to haul him into Barranca’s saddle and wrap him tenderly in a blanket.
Vaguely conscious again by now, Johnny clutched at his saddle horn with his good right arm and in a helpful spirit assured his anxious friend, somewhat mendaciously that he was ‘fine’.
Val then hauled himself somewhat wearily back into his saddle, collected the reins of the packhorse and Barranca into one hand and headed the somewhat battered entourage towards the south and to Lancer.
‘I don’t believe it.’ Scott gritted, exasperatedly. ‘I just don’t believe it!’ It was difficult to be furious quietly and he didn’t want to awaken the now cleaned up, bandaged and sleeping Johnny, so he had left his battered brother in Sam’s care up stairs and was now fuming and storming around the Great Room before rounding on the still apologetic Val who was calming his own agitation with Murdoch’s best Bourbon.
‘I TOLD you to get him back here in one piece—so what do you do—you drop him down a mountain’ his normally quiet, well-modulated voice rose agitatedly on the accusation as he took out his worry and frustration on the long-suffering Val.
He had watched in wide-eyed speechless disbelief when Val had ridden in through the arch with the drooping Johnny in tow. It had been Jelly, on the lookout for them, who first spied the trio of horses and the two returning hunters and it didn’t need a sharp eyed genius to figure out that something was not quite right about their homecoming. So that by the time the unfortunate sheriff had arrived at the barn, the entire household, supplemented by Sam Jenkins, who had been invited over for the day, was waiting, in various degrees of exasperation, frustration and resignation, grim faced and stony-eyed, to meet them.
‘Aw—cummon Scott—I didn’t know the path was all undercut like that now, did I’ Val tried again to protest. He had been quite right in his surmise that Scott was not going to be happy with the state of his younger brother and this was not much mitigated by the fact that they had actually arrived at the hacienda almost an hour before noon, Johnny’s somewhat unauthorised shortcut having cut off several miles of trail.But he was beginning now to feel rather put upon as the blond headed Lancer kept going on and on about it. ‘Sam says he’s gonna be just fine. He even said he could come down for the party when he wakes up’.
‘You didn’t ought to have been ON that damned path.’ Scott’s usually impeccable grammar was suffering somewhat in his annoyance. ‘You should have left the damn forest earlier and come home the proper way. ‘
‘Well—that’s past praying for now Scott’ Murdoch’s voice, still taut with his own annoyance, followed by Murdoch himself, with Theresa at his side, made Val stand up a little straighter and caused Scott to close his lips firmly on what he was saying.
Val had never imagined that he would be pleased to see Murdoch Lancer, under such circumstances, but he was quite relieved when the rancher came striding into the room and silenced his angry son.
He wasn’t so pleased that Murdoch also side-swiped the bottle of Bourbon from his grasp and set it aside firmly.
Agitated or not—he was not going to allow Val Crawford to drink the entire bottle at one sitting. Besides he needed it himself, having had a somewhat nerve-shattering time of it with his ward, who was very nearly as angry with poor Val as Scott had been, but who, unlike Scott, had burst into floods of furious tears. This had flummoxed the embattled lawman, who had had, mercifully enough perhaps, little experience with over-wrought females.
Murdoch, beginning to wish that, after all, he had had NO sons at all, had soothed her down, at length but it had been a wearing task—and the last thing he wanted to have to do now was go through a similar sort of procedure with an irate Scott, so he said, rather curtly.
‘There’s no point going over and over it. It’s done now—and Sam says that Val re-set that bone perfectly.’ He added hopefully, as a mitigating circumstance.
‘There shouldn’t have been a bone that need---’. Scott began, then, as his father and the sheriff exchanged somewhat exasperated glances he let his indignation fade out. ‘Oh—alright—alright. I am sure a nice black sling was just bound to be on Johnny’s birthday gift list if he had made one. Ah—Sam’. He swung around onto to the man as the good doctor stepped off the last of the stairs. ‘How is he?
‘He’ll be a mite stiff and sore for a day or two—but there’s nothing that won’t heal up alright. He was very lucky really’
‘Lucky!’ Scott expostulated, but in a resigned sort of fashion. ‘I suppose we ought to have just told him about the damn party in the first place—and then none of this would have happened’.
‘You worry too much Scott.’ Val finished the last delicious sip of Bourbon in his glass and glanced longingly at the bottle. ‘Well—iffen we are still gonna have this shindig, I could use a wash-up’
‘There’s hot water in the room you used last time you were here.’ Theresa said rather shortly. She still hadn’t completely forgiven the sheriff for his obvious dereliction of duty towards Johnny but he had apologised very abjectly to her and everyone else too and Johnny WAS going to make the party—so she was trying very hard to get everyone and everything back on track ‘and Scott—I need you to help me to move that table’. And smoothly she moved everyone back into ‘preparation’ mode.
Val slithered gratefully out of the room, into the guest room, glad to get away from recriminations at last. Even old Jelly had had things to say to him on the subject. In fact the only member of the house-hold, who had NOT had a go at him, was Johnny himself. HE, hanging rather wearily around his brother’s neck, on the way into the house, had, in fact, shakily insisted to his over-protective family, that it was not Val’s fault at all—but naturally no-one had taken the slightest notice of that. He was now, getting no further involved in any more plans for any surprises for his friend. He had, after all, only done as he had been asked.
On the other hand, he had no intention of missing his friends ‘party’. Not now he hadn’t. If there was any Lancer hospitality going—then he reckoned that he had damn well earned it.
Which was how it was that when Johnny, with his left arm in a tight and supportive sling and accompanied by an unusually quiescent Sam Jenkins, wobbled his way down the stairs, about three hours later, he was greeted by the un-nerving sight of his family, Jelly and his best friend, Val, who was now rather startlingly washed and shaved, all standing in a row before the fireplace, grinning at him.
‘What the hell IS all this?’ Johnny rapped out, utterly taken aback by the gathered family and the air of expectancy that surrounded them. ‘What are you all waitin’ around like this for? He rounded on Val with an angry, enquiring glance ‘You are in on this too ain’t ya?’
‘Now, come and sit down Johnny.’ Sam urged, guiding him neatly around the re-arranged furniture but his irritated patient shook him off rather rudely.
‘I don’t wanna sit down—‘Johnny was beginning, in fiery tones when Val interrupted.
‘Now take it easy Johnny.’ the lawman said soothingly, giving Scott an ‘I told you so’ sort of look ‘its – erm –it’s a birthday surprise for you, is all.’
‘It’s a what?’ Johnny took an unwary pace backwards and nearly fell over the table that Scott and Theresa had pulled out of its customary place, to hold the numerous small and not so small parcels, and the glasses and the drinks that were placed on it.
‘M-my—b-birthday?’ He clutched at his injured arm as it gave him a painful jolt and then threw his father a rather wild glance. ‘t-today?’
Murdoch, rather alarmed at his son’s reactions, could only nod soundlessly and there was an uneasy little silence during which no-one seemed to know WHAT to say.
It was Theresa who did the right thing. She stepped across to the bookshelves and pulled down the big family bible. Ruthlessly pushing aside the neatly stacked packages thereupon, she placed the old heavy book on the table and opened it at the page where all the family births, marriages and deaths were neatly inscribed.
‘Look here Johnny.’ She distracted him adroitly, pointing ‘see—its here, in the Bible’ and then they were all of them gathered around the big old book, gazing at the inked words, reading them aloud, individually and collectively, until eventually Murdoch gathered his wits about him and found enough voice to explain the significance of the occasion to his slightly bewildered younger son.
The explanation that he was now ‘legally a man’ brought forth a bark of rather sardonic laughter from Johnny—who had, after all, been a ‘man’ for far too many years already. However he was rapidly recovering his mental balance (he was after all well accustomed to ‘thinking on his feet’) and his sense of humour---and he realised, something far more important—his sense of belonging: and his heart warmed with the relief of it.
‘Is this what all the whisperin’ in corners was all about?’ He asked, huskily, at last, finding his voice, and then as the chorus of reassuring affirmatives burst forth, his eyes lit up and he gave a mischievous somewhat lop-sided smile (his lip was, after all, nearly as sore as his arm) and his gaze swept the room eagerly.
‘Is it like Christmas? Does it mean I get presents?’
‘Oh it does brother Johnny—it certainly does.’ Scott burst forth in relieved tones, meeting the smile with one of his own. ‘Lots of ‘em’. He added rather smugly, waving his hand over the packages on the table.
Opening surprise packages with only one good arm was not easy—but Johnny was not going to allow anyone at all to help him. Ensconced in a suitable chair, close to the pile of presents, his hands were shaking a little as he pulled the first gift out of its wrappings.
‘That’s from me Johnny.’ Theresa bubbled eagerly, as his blue eyes widened at the sight of the very beautiful (and expensive) real Stetson hat she had chosen for him. There was too, folded into the crown a new, hand stitched and embroidered bright red shirt. Almost speechless with admiration for both items, it took Johnny two or three good gulps before he could stammer his thanks and kiss his ‘sister’ lovingly on the cheek.
And from there, it only got better.
Wearing the new hat, Johnny eagerly opened his presents: There was a bottle of very good Tequila from Val, wrapped in a hand-woven Indian blanket, into the pattern of which had been woven a very un-Indian Lancer L, The package had been delivered to the ranch that very morning by a self-important Little Wolf, who’s mother and grandmother made such things and who had worked day and night to make this one in time and Val was rather smug over it. Johnny was delighted with it. Along with Theresa’s hat, he insisted on wearing his blanket whilst he took further delights out of further packaging. There was a beautifully and lovingly hand crafted leather belt from Jelly, with the initials JL worked into the patterning. Having duly admired it and handed it round for everyone else to admire as well, he insisted that Jelly help him to remove the belt that was already looped through his waist band and replace it with the new one. It was hard to tell who was the most pleased really, Johnny with his gift or Jelly with the way it had been received.
Scott, thoroughly enjoying his brother’s pleasure, had to acknowledge that Johnny was a wonderful person to give presents too. His brother was savouring every one of them to the full and his softly offered words of thanks and grateful smiles were so obviously sincere.
He was looking forward to seeing how his own would be received—although he was slightly less satisfied with it than he was, seeing how thrilled Johnny was with the things that had been made so especially for him. Even the new lariat, a gift from the ranch crew, had his initials neatly burned into the tally.
Sam’s gift, the choice of which surprised Scott a little, was received with enthusiasm too. It was a beautifully bound and heavily illustrated edition of El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha in the original Spanish. Murdoch had whistled appreciatively at it. One day it might prove to be a true collector’s item and a very valuable object.
Johnny however was far more interested in Sam’s inscription and the truly lovely illustrations. And it was satisfying to know that at last, he too, had the right kind of book to place on the family bookshelves.
But Scott found he need not have worried. There was nothing false or forced about the delighted grin that thanked him for the solid silver pocket-sized match-striker that he had decided on as Johnny’s present.
It was a cleverly designed little piece. It not only kept the matches nice and dry, but it was made in such a way that a neat-handed man (and Johnny was a very neat handed man indeed) could seem to pull a lighted match from his pocket. A ‘trick’ that Scott had thought his brother would definitely appreciate.
Scott had nearly had to hold the jeweller in Sacramento at gun point to get it suitably inscribed and embossed in such a short time—but he had been pleased with the results: The Lancer brand, in perfect miniature, raised, on the lid, and on the inside, the inscription that he had thought so long and hard over. In the end he had kept it very simple.
‘From Scott Lancer.
To my brother Johnny
on his 21st birthday’
And, under that, the date.
It worked too. Knowing that Johnny would certainly want to test it out, Scott had thoughtfully filled the striker with matches.
Slipping the little gadget into his pocket, Johnny nearly set his Indian blanket alight, several times, playing with his new ‘toy’.
Finally there were no more packages left to open: but there had been nothing on the table from one certain person.
Johnny sat back in his chair with a happy sigh and turned his head towards his father, an enquiring look in his eyes. He didn’t think, now, for one moment, that his father did not have a birthday gift for him.
‘I’m sorry Johnny but’ Murdoch said, shaking his head and nearly laughed as the young man’s face fell at the pause ‘----your sister just would not let me bring it inside’ and he waved one hand, like a conjuror, toward the glass doors.
Everyone’s heads swivelled—and Johnny’s mouth dropped open. There was a surge towards the window, only the kindly doctor pausing to help his wide-eyed, open-mouthed patient to his feet in order to join in.
Theresa began to laugh quietly.
It struck her that the golden coated filly on the rope that Jelly was holding her on, goggle-eyed at the sight of so many unexpected humans staring at her, bore a fairly close resemblance, in stance and astonishment, to Johnny, when he had come face to face with his assembled family at the foot of the stairs.
With her front feet braced and her head high, the filly was as wide-eyed and taken aback as he had been, just a while earlier.
Johnny, suddenly conscious that he was standing there with his mouth open, closed it with a snap and turned wondering eyes to where Murdoch and Scott stood, now just outside the open glass doors. Scott smiled at him knowingly but Murdoch was just standing there, looking at him, with an odd questioning expression on his face which Johnny didn’t quite understand.
The palomino filly, picking up on the intensity of the situation, began to dance uneasily on her halter. Johnny slipped his injured arm from the sling, and, the dull ache of it completely forgotten, he took the rope from Jelly’s hands and began to croon softly at the agitated little mare. It didn’t take long. Within a very few moments the tautly pricked golden ears relaxed, the frightened eyes quieted, the restless feet stilled and the braced neck softened and stretched as the soft questing muzzle was thrust enquiringly forward.
‘Oh! Eres tan hermoso’ (‘Oh! you are so beautiful.’) Johnny breathed. And she was. Her coat was of burnished gold and her mane and tail were of silver. Her shoulder was long and sloping, her neck was smoothly arched, her back was short and strong and her feet were hard and black and round. Her elegant head carried a small even star, scarcely visible beneath the waterfall of forelock that almost reached her wide soft nostrils and she exuded that indefinable air of quality that stamps a horse as exceptional. Johnny just stood and stared and stared at her, entranced— and she, now limpid-eyed and calm under his hands, seemingly equally rapt, gazed back out of huge dark eyes, at him.
‘Of course if you don’t like her--------’ at last Murdoch’s words broke the spell and both Johnny and the horse seemed to come out of their mutual trance and back into the real world. ‘I’m sure we can find a buyer. But I thought that, if you approve of the idea, that she might make the perfect foundation brood mare for those horses you want to breed for us. Her bloodlines are perfectly compatible to any colt we have on the place but she is of a completely different stock, so there’s no fear of in-breeding.’
Johnny blinked several times, for once in a way utterly unable to think of a word to say. Except that.
‘I d-don’t know what to say’. He managed, at last, tearing his gaze from the filly and turning his eyes to his father instead.
‘You say Thank You—nicely.’ Scott suggested, rather mischievously. He took the end of the halter rope from his brother and handed it back to Jelly with a murmured instruction to put the filly into a paddock and as the elegant creature stepped daintily away, behind the elderly handy-man, Johnny came to his senses.
‘Thank you nicely’ he said obediently, in solemn tones, but his eyes sparkled and suddenly everyone was talking and laughing together as if a spell had indeed been broken.
‘There’s one thing more I’d like to show you.’ Murdoch skilfully cut his younger son neatly out of the crowd; gently replacing the arm that he guessed must be throbbing uncomfortably, into its sling in passing. ‘If you feel up to it?’
‘Yes—of course you are.’ Murdoch chuckled softly at the inevitable reply. Johnny would say he was ‘fine’ if he was dangling over a cliff, clinging on with his fingernails, with a grizzly bear chewing his leg off. ‘Come on then’ and he led the way outside again.
His head still full of the mare and the implications of those words ‘foundation brood mare’ Johnny was not paying that much attention to where they were going—until his father stopped walking. Then he glanced around and saw where they were and once again that afternoon, his jaw dropped.
He had of course noticed, in passing, the grubby little tumble down adobe chapel that stood some forty yards away from the house. He and Scott had explored every inch of Lancer, been into every building, every line shack, every shed—but the gloomy, dirty little chapel had not particularly interested either of them, with its grimy windows and grubby, subsiding walls and lopsided roof.
But now it was completely changed. The drab adobe was now gleaming white, the walls were straight, the roof had been restored and the windows sparkled. And the door was invitingly open. Uncertain of what was expected of him, Johnny stood and gazed at the little building and realised that this was at least a part of the reason for his being taken off on the ill-fated hunting trip with Val. It would have been impossible to have done all this work without him being aware of it, had he been on the ranch.
His heart began to thud as an idea formed in his brain. Had this little chapel been used, all that time ago, by his mother?
He remembered the brief talk he had had with Scott, up on the ridge. Had Scott shared that half-spoken wish with their father? Had Murdoch arranged this restoration in her memory—for HIM? Too astonished by his own tumbling thoughts he offered no resistance at all as Murdoch gently guided him through the open door.
The inside had been as thoroughly refurbished as the outside. Johnny remembered the dirty cobwebs and the layers of dust, the filthy floor and the dull, long-abandoned pews. But now the place sparkled. The cobwebs were swept away, the dust was gone, the tiled floor was spotless and the wooden pews had been polished to a soft gleam, glinting gently in the sunlight that shone through the now shining windows.
There was a pristine white linen cloth over the tiny altar and Johnny was sure that beneath it the wood there too had been lovingly restored. Two small statuettes stood on the snowy cloth—and between them stood a beautiful marquetry and rosewood box.
‘It was your mother’s. She left it behind.’ The older mans voice caught as Murdoch followed his son’s wide-eyed enquiring gaze at the beautiful object. He stepped toward it and opened the small doors, revealing several devotional items. One of them was a simple but elegant rosary, which the rancher removed from the box and proffered to his son, who accepted it almost gingerly and let the beads run through his fingers. ‘I—believed it was important to her. For a time I took it to mean that she intended to come back—would be bringing you back. That she had left to—to –oh I don’t know—to frighten me, to just make some sort of point. But, s-she—you, were simply gone. It was as if the earth had swallowed you both up—and I’m afraid, in my hurt and anger, I left all this to fall to ruin’.
Y—you did all this for me?’ Johnny asked, in a small voice, dropping the rosary into the palm of his hand and staring around him in wide-eyed awe at the sparklingly spruced up little chapel.
Murdoch wanted to catch him up in his arms and hug him. Two things stopped him. Firstly he wasn’t at all sure that Johnny would appreciate such a gesture and secondly he was aware too of his son’s painful bodily lacerations and the still very sore arm.
‘For you.’ He said quietly at length. ‘For your mother—and, if you don’t mind, just a little bit for me too. I’m so sorry Johnny. I had no right to keep your mother’s reliquary from you. You should have had it from the very beginning but I—I’
‘You d-don’t hate her?’ Johnny asked uncertainly.
‘I hate what she did.’ Murdoch said, in more robust tones. ‘To both of us—but I never hated her—or my memories of her. How can I hate her, son? She gave me one of my most precious gifts.’ He did reach out then and caught Johnny’s chin gently in one large hand and lifted the young mans face so that they were eye to eye.
‘M—me?’ Johnny gulped and felt his face flush with pleasure as his father nodded.
‘She used to bring you here.’ Murdoch went on quietly.
He let go Johnny’s chin but reluctant to completely relinquish the physical contact, he dropped his hand to the younger mans good shoulder and held him, gently, in place.
‘I used to come with her—mainly to hang on to you, whilst she made her devotions. Once you were mobile you were into everything. Grabbing at the altar cloth to give it a good tug was one of your favourite games. If something fell down then you-------’
‘I d-don’t remember.’ Johnny agonised, interrupting him. ‘I don’t remember any of it. You’d think I would, wouldn’t you? He fingered the rosary again, as if it might trigger some memories—but there were none.
‘You were just a baby Johnny. It’s not that surprising that you don’t.’
‘Have to make do with it, that you do then, I guess.’ Johnny very gently shifted himself out of his fathers clasp and edged himself to one of the little pews to sit him-self down. This was all getting a bit too much. Even if he had not been in considerable physical discomfort, his fathers totally unexpected gift and even more unexpected behaviour would have had his head spinning.
Suddenly he knew that had to be alone because he had the dreadful feeling that at any moment now, he was going to cry and not even now could he allow Murdoch Lancer to see him cry.
Avoiding any further contact with the man, he slipped out of the far end of the little pew and took the few steps necessary to reach the tiny altar.
He replaced the rosary back into newly polished little shrine and spoke with his back to his father.
‘I think maybe you might need to go and organise all them wagons and stuff that’s been arriving whilst we been here.’ He said, with a reasonable assumption of insouciance. He had been hearing the faint rumble of wheels for a little while now but had said nothing. Another part of this ‘birthday surprise’ he supposed.
‘I’m sure that Jelly has it all well under control Son.’ Murdoch said gently ‘and you are just too smart for your own good some times’.
‘I may be bashed about some.’ Johnny had managed to blink away the tell-tale tears for now and so could turn and face his father ‘but I ain’t deaf yet’.
‘And you’d like to stay here on your on for a time?’ Murdoch took the risk of moving in closer again, on the pretext of closing the twin doors of his dead wife’s reliquary, and to his joy, Johnny stepped over towards him so that they stood, side by side before it, for a moment, remembering, in their own ways, the beautiful, wayward woman it represented, who had had such a devastating effect on their separate lives.
‘Yeah—if you don’t mind. I would. ’ Johnny finally answered the man’s tentative question. He was a little stunned at the understanding that he was receiving from this man that he had, to date, thought to be so cold and uncaring. He had had it all so very wrong, it seemed. Which should have been worrying to a man who had, until a very short time ago, depended solely on his instincts for his very survival.
But he was not going to worry about it today. Today his father and his family and his friends would take care of him—and he was going to indulge himself to the full in the satisfaction that the thought gave him.
He glanced sideways up at his father. There was a very knowing expression on the strong square face and Johnny had the oddest idea that his father knew exactly what he was thinking.
‘And talking of being –er—bashed about some’ the rancher gestured over his sons somewhat eccentric, bandaged appearance ‘ would you like me to explain to our—your guests some of what happened here’. He ran a gentle hand down Johnny’s bruised cheek and just touched a finger to the bandaged shoulder. ‘Otherwise you may find yourself repeating the same story a few times over.’
He didn’t cry. Not quite—but it was a damned close run thing. Still slowly nodding his reply to the last question, Johnny simply stood for a while, blinking furiously, and then he retreated cautiously backwards to sit himself carefully on one of the little seats and allowed his tumultuous thoughts free rein.
There had not been much time or space in his hectic young life for the formal trappings of his religion. The occasional desperate prayer had been all he had ever seemed to have had time for, at least one of which, he acknowledged, seemed to have been answered.
So it wasn’t the thought of little chapel itself, or even of his mother’s devotional reliquary which was filling his heart with an overflow of gratitude and—he scarcely dared to even recognise the word—love, but the fact that his father and family (he could see Theresa’s hand here, in all the cleaning and polishing that must have gone on, whilst Val kept him occupied in the forest), had thought so much of him—of HIM, that they had made this overwhelming gesture. It must have cost his father some, both emotionally and otherwise, to have done all this for him and too, to have shared those all too brief precious memories,—and he truly was grateful. Quite how he was going to make that gratitude known was, at this moment, quite beyond him.
He supposed a fair start would be to get himself back to the rest of his family and friends and make what he could of whatever it was all those rumbling wheels were building up to.
Dashing away the tears that simply WOULD sting his eyes, he pushed himself to his feet.
It had been quite a day of surprises, one way or another. Starting with Val’s damned ‘short-cut’ and that somewhat alarming tumble down the mountain-side.
VAL! Val had known all about this—and not given him so much as hint. He would deal with Val—at a later date.
In the meantime though, he had much to be thankful for and not just for the actual presents that he had received. The beautiful filly, the inscribed match-box, the Stetson hat, Sam’s book and Jelly’s lovingly crafted belt—they all left a warm feeling inside
But the best present of all was the one which they probably didn’t even realise that they had given him. It was the feeling of acceptance and of ‘belonging’ that had enwrapped his heart, totally banishing all the doubts and confusion that had bothered him so, over the past few months.
He was Johnny Lancer—and this was his family, his birthright and his home.
Smiling happily he ran his thumb appreciatively once more over the embossed L on the casing of Scott’s silver match-striker box, in his pocket. Then he adjusted the angle of Theresa’s excellent choice of hat on his head, gave Jelly’s lovingly made belt a gentle tug into place and with a last, grateful glance at the memorial that his father had set up for his mother, he left the little chapel and made his way back towards the house, pausing only to give the beautiful palomino mare in the corral an appreciative pat on the way.
He had a funny feeling that there were going to be a lot of people waiting for him, back at the house and that there was going to be one hell of a party and—to his own great astonishment—he was looking forward to it.
He must remember to be ‘surprised’.
A drabbled epilogue for The Birthday Present.
Fly on the Wall.
‘You knew.’ Quietly. Accusingly.
‘Yeah, but Scott said …‘
‘Val, you knew. ’ Louder. Angrier.
‘Now Johnny—you know how Scott is—he’
‘You damn well knew—and you didn’t tell me’. Very annoyed.
‘Scott said it was surprise’
‘Sure was.’ Icily.
‘Aw, common Johnny—you loved every minute of it’
‘Yeah? Well, I might have enjoyed it more if you hadn’t nearly pulled my arm off earlier.’
‘Darn it Johnny. That’s not fair. Tell ya what--next time you have a 21st birthday—I’ll stay right out of it. OK?
‘That suits me just fine’