A Promise Kept
Disclaimer: This is where I claim the Lancer characters are not mine, you may choose to believe me or not…this message will self-destruct in 30 seconds.
Author’s note 1: This ficlet is in celebration of the birth of one of the most charismatic cowboys to ever ride the range and draw a six gun, James Stacy/Johnny Madrid Lancer. James has aged with style and grace and still sets our hearts to flutter. Johnny is forever young, galloping through life astride Barranca, the wind kissing his face…ride cowboy ride!
Author’s note 2: This is a PWP. It’s filled with marshmallow fluff and happy Lancer moments…because birthdays are supposed to be happy!
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
“Have you decided yet what you’re going to do for Johnny’s birthday?” Scott inquired of his father.
Murdoch scowled, and then grimaced as he shifted in his chair by the fireplace, so that he could face his son sitting on the sofa. “I have his main gift. I had Tyler Wade make him a replica of that old saddle he had when the two of you came home. For some reason he’s very attached to it, but it’s falling apart and really not safe to use, that’s why I had the new one made for him.”
Swirling his brandy in the snifter, and then taking a sip that he let bathe his tongue before swallowing, Scott replied, “I think he will be very pleased with the saddle.” Pursing his lips as he considered his words, Scott’s eyes met his father’s. “You want to spend the day with him, don’t you? I certainly enjoyed my day with you.”
Bringing his hands up under his chin, placing the palms together and drumming the finger tips of one hand against the other, Murdoch voiced his thoughts. “Yes, I’d like to make a tradition of spending your birthday with you, doing some activity you enjoy. I know we combined your day with a business trip, but then there are so many things in San Francisco you enjoy. Do you really see your brother enjoying a night at the opera, like you did?”
Scott snorted and very nearly dropped his brandy snifter. “No, I don’t see little brother sitting still long enough to watch a show.” Laughter lit Scott’s eyes as he envisioned Johnny at the opera, trussed up, as Johnny would say, in a tux and tie, his constantly fidgeting fingers pulling and tugging at the itchy wool. He chuckled out loud, and then retorted, ”Eventually he would fall asleep from boredom, and then when you had to wake him, after it was over, you would have to drag a cranky, sleepy Johnny through the throngs of people, chancing him offending someone or threatening to shoot them. You know how he is when he first wakes up.”
Murdoch chuckled as he pictured the scene Scott described, in his head. “My problem is your brother is spontaneous, wild and free. I’m afraid his idea of fun is not to spend it with his old man. That’s the biggest obstacle…I’m old, I don’t know how in the world I’ll keep up with him for a day and still do something he would enjoy.”
Scott shook his head at his clueless father. “You’re wrong about one thing. I think Johnny would very much like to spend the day with you. Whether you realize it or not, you have become an important part of his sense of belonging. I’ve heard him introduce himself several times to people in town as Murdoch’s kid. I think the important part is for you to just be there.”
A melancholy smile inched across Murdoch’s stern features, a clear indication some happy memory had surfaced in his mind. “You just might be right about that, son. When Johnny was a child, he was happy to be with me, even if I was just sitting. “ Murdoch chuckled and his eyes twinkled as he continued, “I can’t begin to count the number of times he almost tripped me because he was right under my feet, or the numerous times I heard him call out, ‘Watch me, Papa, watch me.’ He was always happy as long as I was within his sight.”
Toeing his boots off, Scott lifted his sock clad feet to rest on the coffee table, cupping his hands around the brandy snifter and staring into the amber liquid within, he softly asked, “What did you do on his birthdays when he was still here?”
Murdoch sighed as precious memories flooded his mind. “Johnny’s first birthday, I spent the majority of the day rocking him and changing his diaper!” At Scott’s quizzical look, he explained, “Even as a child he had an insatiable sweet tooth. Johnny found an open jar of blueberry preserves on the kitchen table and ate the whole thing before he was caught. His hands and face were stained blue. It didn’t take long for the belly ache to start, and then the diarrhea. When he was sick he wanted nothing to do with his mother, he always clung to me.”
Snickering, Scott drained the last of his brandy, barely taking the time to enjoy the smooth flavor before swallowing it down. “And what did you do on his second birthday?” Scott questioned and was sorry he asked when he saw the reaction it caused.
Inhaling deeply and exhaling slowly to control his emotions, Murdoch turned his face towards the fire, the bright flames reflecting in the moisture pooled in his eyes. “I had promised him that I would take him to fly a kite. He was always fascinated by birds in flight. Two days before his birthday we were in town and he saw some boys flying a kite in a field where the new school sits now. He wanted to go right then and watch but I didn’t have time so I promised him we would go on his birthday. I never got to keep that promise. The day of his birthday I woke up and found them gone.”
Dropping his feet to the floor, Scott leaned forward and lightly squeezed his father’s arm. “Don’t you think it’s time you kept that promise? Johnny would love to spend the day flying a kite with you. There’s still a good measure of that spontaneous little boy in him that craves his father’s attention.”
Turning to stare at Scott, Murdoch’s face showed his uncertainty. “Do you really think he would enjoy something so simplistic?”
“I do. Many times when we are out working and stop for lunch, he eats his while lying on his back, watching birds in flight or pointing out clouds that look like objects or animals. He takes pleasure in things like that. He’s very observant and has an extremely intelligent and creative mind.” Scott sat back and put his feet up again, pleased to see the excitement growing on his father’s face as he considered his suggestion.
Murdoch’s hands dropped to his legs and he patted his knees. “I’ll need your help. I want to keep it a surprise. Would you be willing to get up early that morning and ready a wagon for us to take up to the north pasture loaded with things we might need for the day like a picnic lunch, a kite, blankets…because these old bones can’t take lying on the cold ground for long, and anything else I think of between now and then?”
“I’d be happy too! I only ask that you come back in time for his birthday supper so the rest of us can celebrate with him and give his gifts to him.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The morning of his twenty-first birthday, Johnny Lancer stumbled into the kitchen, rubbing at his sleepy eyes. He stared in confusion at the empty room. He could smell bacon and coffee yet there wasn’t any on the table, and then he remembered whenever there was a birthday they had breakfast at the large table in the dining room so the gifts could be placed on the table to tease the birthday person until that night when they had the official family birthday meal. Strolling through the doors into the dining room, he grinned in embarrassment and pleasure when his father, brother and Teresa called out birthday greetings to him. He quickly covered his mouth as he yawned widely after plopping down in his chair, and then reached for the coffee pot.
Johnny was pouring his first cup of coffee when the teasing started. Of course it was Scott who began it; he was one of the very few who could not be intimidated by the Madrid glare.
“So little brother, how does it feel to finally be legal?” Scott grinned as he anticipated his brother’s surly response.
Johnny slurped his coffee noisily, knowing it was one of the things that got on Scott’s nerves, and grinned cheekily at him as he replied, “I don’t see what the big deal is about being twenty-one and legal…legal don’t always get the job done.”
Not totally satisfied with Johnny’s rather calm retort, Scott decided to taunt his brother a little more, hoping to get a more churlish reaction. “Yes, indeed now that you are of a legal age, you can take on more responsibilities. Who knows if you were to start behaving maturely you just might catch some nice girl. How’d you like to be married?”
Coughing and sputtering as his coffee went down the wrong pipe; Johnny glared at his brother and inquired, “How’d you like to be dead?”
“Boys,” Murdoch interceded, “Scott, would you please stop picking on your brother? Johnny, would you please not threaten yours?”
Johnny snickered as he set his coffee cup down and picked up his milk, making a rude gesture at Scott as he did. Scott retaliated by kicking his brother’s shin, which caused Johnny to jerk and spill his milk in Teresa’s lap.
“Arrrgghhhh,” Teresa squealed as she jumped up, “Look what you two did. Neither one of you will ever catch a decent wife acting like that!” Turning on her heel, she stomped off muttering about childish older brothers that act more like toddlers.
Murdoch clearing his throat attracted their attention. “Boys…and I mean that literally; let’s get done with breakfast so we can get our day started. I want us finished early today so we all have time to clean up and enjoy Johnny’s birthday supper and give him his presents. On that note, Scott I want you to review those contracts for selling beef to the army and balance the books. Johnny, you and I will be going to work in the north pasture.”
“It’s awful windy out there Murdoch. Are you sure you hadn’t rather do the contracts and books and send Scott to work with me.”
“No, I have a special project planned for us. I prefer that Scott reviews those contracts before we sign them. If you don’t mind, I’d like to spend the day in the company of my son on his birthday. I have a promise to keep,” Murdoch added, with a secretive smile forming on his lips.
Breakfast was quickly consumed and Murdoch and Johnny donned their gun belts, coats and hats and exited the front door, Scott followed behind them. Johnny eyed the wagon bed and wondered what he and his father would be doing as the wagon was not loaded with a lot of supplies. There was just a small pile covered by a tarp up near the bench seat.
“We’ll be back in time for supper,” Murdoch vowed as he snapped the reins and set the horses in motion.
Scott waved them off calling out, “Have a good time.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Hearing the jingle of tack and laughing, Scott walked out to greet his father and brother on their return just five minutes before the six o’clock supper time. The wagon had barely stopped when Johnny jumped lithely from the seat, with a kite held securely in his hands. Scott grinned at the utter contentment and happiness present on both wind chapped and lightly sunburned faces.
“I take it you had a good day,” Scott asked his father as Johnny rushed in to the house.
Slowly departing the wagon, dropping with a heavy and tired thud to the ground, Murdoch turned to his eldest and stated, “You were right, Scott. Johnny was thrilled just to be with me. We had the best day. We’ll tell you all about it after supper. We didn’t mean to be late but the wind picked back up when we should have been leaving for home and Johnny asked to fly his kite again just for a few minutes before we had to go.”
After a quick wash up by Murdoch and Johnny, the family sat down to a birthday meal of Johnny’s favorite spicy foods. Johnny had to excuse himself several times as he covered his mouth to yawn during the meal. He blushed in embarrassment when Teresa got up and went in to the kitchen and then returned carrying a big chocolate cake and the family started singing Happy Birthday to him. The cake was cut and the servings passed around. Johnny enjoyed the largest slice with a tall glass of milk.
“Let’s take these gifts in to the Great room and have an after dinner drink while Johnny opens them.”
“Open mine first, Johnny,” Teresa begged as Johnny settled on the rug in front of the hearth and the wrapped packages were placed around him.
“All right, hold on to your panties, give Scott and Murdoch a chance to get their drinks and sit down,” Johnny instructed.
Murdoch sat down in his chair while Scott poured their drinks, and then sat on the sofa and passed Murdoch his glass. Johnny took that as his cue to begin. Picking up the box from Teresa he noted it was fairly heavy. In slow exaggerated movements he untied the blue ribbon that held the white paper in place, snickering to himself over Teresa’s impatient huffs. Finally he decided to put her out of her misery. He opened the pasteboard box and extracted a new pitcher and washbasin for his room. It was white porcelain with a herd of horses painted galloping around the circumference of the pitcher. In the bottom of the basin was a picture of a palomino.
“Do you like it, Johnny? You were complaining about the one in your room looking too girly with the red roses on it. I thought you might like this one better.”
“It’s real nice, Teresa. This will make the room seem more like it’s mine. Thank you.”
Picking up the gift from Scott, that was as small as a bullet box, Johnny shook it and noted it was lighter than air almost. Scott grinned at the quizzical look that crossed his little brother’s face. Johnny untied the red ribbon and lifted the lid. He pulled back in surprise when all he saw in the box was a piece of paper. He lifted it and unfolded it and read it out loud.
“Look behind the drapes at the picture window for your gift, “Johnny read. Standing he crossed the room and retrieved a large, flat rectangular item wrapped in brown paper. Lugging it back to his spot in front of the hearth, he ripped the paper off with a flourish. Johnny gasped, swallowing the lump in his throat and blinking rapidly against the wet warmth collecting in his eyes when a beautiful ornate oil portrait of his mother was revealed. It was a head and shoulders view, but the features were so life like and animated, it made a person think the painting just might start talking. Johnny looked nervously towards his father to gauge his reaction.
“It’s wonderful,” enthused Murdoch as he sat forward for a closer look. “Scott, you were right when you said Selena Baldamero was a very talented artist. Where do you plan to hang it, Johnny?”
Chewing his bottom lip as he pondered a moment, Johnny softly asked, “Would you mind if we hung it in here? If you don’t want me to, I understand…could be you don’t want have to see her every day after what she did.”
“It’s fine if you want to hang it in here, Johnny. A part of me will always love her; after all she gave me you,” Murdoch confessed in an uncharacteristic moment of sharing his feelings about the past.
“I bet I know what this is,” Johnny bragged as he open the decorative round box his father’s gift was in. Shock removed the bodacious knowing smirk from his face, when instead of the hat he assumed he would find; he found instead a new pair of brown harness boots. He lifted them up for the others to see and realized there was a rolled piece of paper sticking up out of the right one. He removed it and read it.
“Look behind the leather chair in the corner,” Johnny read. Casting a ‘you sure got me look’ at his father, Johnny stood and walked to the chair. He pulled it away from the corner and revealed a large item covered by a new, Mexican style horse blanket. As soon as he picked it up to carry it back to his spot he knew what it was. Laying it down, Johnny pulled the blanket off and gasped in delight at the saddle which was a replica of his favorite one.
“WOW! This has been the best birthday ever!” Johnny exclaimed as he dropped down gracelessly, loose limbs flopping as he rested his head on his new saddle and yawned.
“Well, little brother, what your favorite thing you received?” inquired Scott as Teresa departed to clear the table.
“A kite and a promise kept,” Johnny muttered softly as the adrenaline rush of the day’s excitement wore off and his eyes fluttered closed as sleep overtook him.
Scott looked at his father and noted the affection and happiness beaming on his face as he watched his youngest succumb to sleep. “Well sir, could I entice you to fill me in on the day’s activities with the offer of another drink. It must have been a busy one if Johnny’s present condition is any indication,” Scott stated as he poured his father another glass of sipping scotch and handed it to him.
Taking the glass from Scott, Murdoch gestured at the supine form of his youngest son, stretched out before the hearth sleeping with his new saddle acting as his pillow. “He was the same way as a child, just fall asleep wherever he was when he finally got still. I actually found him sound asleep one time draped over the bottom rail of the corral fence, where he had been standing watching the horses.”
Scott chuckled at the image that made in his mind, and then cleared his throat. “Not to halt your trip down memory lane, but I’d like to know about the new memories you made today.”
Utter contentment relaxed the stalwart posture of Murdoch as he seemed to melt into the cushions of his chair. Joy and pride lit his eyes as he began to relate the events of the day. “Well, to begin with, we didn’t even make it to the pasture until three hours after we left. First, we came upon a young family whose wagon had lost a wheel. The lady was pregnant, they had three small children and the father had a broken right leg and was trying to hobble around on crutches to unload the wagon so he could get the wheel back on. So of course we stopped to help. Apparently Johnny knows the family, he’s been riding over to their place to help them ever since the man broke his leg. The family’s name was Harrelson. I got to know the George and Martha while Johnny did the repairs, and then took part in a game of tag with their three boys. According to them, Johnny has a heart of gold.”
“I don’t think you needed them to tell you that did you?”
“No, but it sure is nice to hear others recognize the good in him. It took me a while but I’m finally learning to look past the attitude and see the truth about him in his actions and deeds.”
Stretching his arms and yawning, Scott battled the fatigue that Johnny’s deep even breathing seemed to be inducing in him, as though Johnny’s current condition was contagious. “So then you went to the north pasture?”
“Nooooo,” Murdoch drew out his reply, “Then we stopped to untangle a doe from the fence, and then we repaired the fence.”
“Okay…can I assume the next stop was the pasture?”
“You could, but you’d be wrong. Our next stop was to investigate the smoke we saw rising from the woods near the river. That turned out to be the Lawson boys. They were camped out from an overnight hunting trip hoping to get a turkey for Christmas dinner. We shared our picnic lunch with them as all they had was jerky and biscuits. Before we left Johnny showed them how to read animal tracks and do an impressive turkey call. In fact, both Lawson’s and Johnny bagged turkeys. Johnny let them keep the one he shot telling them we had plenty in the smoke house. Those turkeys will keep the Widow Lawson and her four kids with meat for a while. Johnny also gave the boys some rifle rounds so they could do a little more hunting after Christmas.”
The two older Lancers turned to study the youngest as he mumbled and shifted in his sleep. Johnny curled up and tucked his hands under his chin, prompting Scott to get up and lay one of the Indian blankets, scattered about the room, over him.
“It sounds like a good chunk of the day was over and you hadn’t even reached the pasture yet!” Scott commented as he shuffled back to the sofa and dropped down.
“We finally arrived around one o’clock. I wish you could have seen Johnny’s face when he removed the tarp and found out we were there to fly kites. I explained to him I was keeping a promise I had made nineteen years ago.” Murdoch fell silent as he fought to contain his emotions, swallowing with an audible gulp he continued with a shade of awe in his voice. “You know what your brother said to that? He nodded in that matter of fact way of his and said he had noticed I was a man of my word and that it was one of the things he admired about me. I have to say, it certainly made me feel ten feet tall and bullet proof to hear that.”
Scott’s heart thudded with elation at the bliss etched in his father’s normally stern visage. He was sure great strides had been made in the strengthening of the father and son bond this day. “Please tell me he finally got to fly his kite.”
“Yes, he did. As soon as we got the kite’s tail untangled your brother ran up and down that pasture until he got it air borne. Between the running to get it aloft and the walking as he controlled the string letting it soar, he must have walked ten miles. It was really high up there; he kept it up so long he figured out how to maneuver the kite to do stunts. That’s when ‘it’ happened,’ Murdoch whispered the last statement.
Concerned at the change in his father’s mood, Scott sat up and gently touched the older man’s hand. “When what happened, sir?”
Murdoch blinked as though coming out of a trance and one lone tear trickled down his weathered cheek, the moisture glittering in the glow of the firelight. “When I heard the words I feared I’d never hear again. I’m not sure he even realized he said them, but I will hold them in my heart and treasure them always. He was laughing, the sound dancing across the meadow with the breeze and he called out, watch me, Papa, watch me.”
Scott patted Murdoch’s hand, and then his own watery bright eyes stared into his father’s. “I think you both made some great memories today.”
“Yes, we did. The wind died down right after that so we spread a blanket out on the ground and watched clouds for a while. Johnny asked all kinds of questions about his life here as a child and so I regaled him with stories of his childish escapades. Right as we were folding the blanket up to return home the wind picked up and he begged to fly the kite again…and at that moment I couldn’t deny him anything…besides all he was asking for was my time.”
“It sounds like he had a wonderful time,” Scott replied.
“Oh, I know he did. He made me promise we’d go again on his next birthday… and it’s a promise that will be kept,” Murdoch vowed around a yawn.
The next morning Maria entered the Great room to start the fire and was shocked to find the three Lancers slumbering in peace, never having made it to their rooms the night before.
December 23, 2008