Birthdays Left Behind… (Johnny's Story)

By Cadillac Red

Disclaimer: I don't own the characters, I just borrow them once in a while.

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Sheriff Val Crawford poured tequila into three shot glasses in the middle of the table at which he sat with Scott and Johnny Lancer. He sloshed a little over the rim of one and used his sleeve to wipe it off the table, then handed a glass to each of the other men.

Scott's eyes lit with good-natured amusement. "Thanks, Val," he said, then he locked eyes with Johnny. "Only as auspicious an occasion as your twenty-first birthday would tempt me to drink this, brother."

Johnny smiled as both Val and Scott clinked their glasses with his, and then all three men threw back the full contents. Val and Johnny both smacked their lips but Scott's reaction was more circumspect. He bit back the cough that threatened, covering it with something that sounded like clearing his throat. Johnny laughed out loud.

"Yeah, happy birthday, compadre," Val said as he began pouring again. "There was times I never thought to see this day."

Scott covered his glass to avoid getting more and raised a hand to signal the bartender. "Three beers over here please, Fred."

"I know, Val," Johnny responded, looking down into his refilled glass, a half-smile on his face. "I know. I'm not sure I 'spected to see it either." He swallowed his shot and put the glass down, turning it upside down.

"Murdoch gave us the morning off, Johnny," Scott reminded him. "Feel free to imbibe of this… excellent tequila as much as you like in honor of the occasion."

Johnny chuckled. "I'm plannin' to pace myself, big brother. I got… plans for later tonight." He glanced around the room and spied the saloon's newest girl, Rosalita.

"I tole her you was comin' to celebrate," Val said. "She's lookin' forward to gettin' to know ya better, boy. My treat."

Johnny glanced at the sheriff. "Ya did? Why, Val, I think that may the best birthday present ya ever gave me….. Come to think of it, ya never gave me a birthday present before."

Val slapped him on the shoulder. "Turnin' twenty-one's a big milestone. 'Specially for someone like… well, like ya used ta be."

Johnny nodded thoughtfully, then got up from his seat and headed to the bar when he saw Rosalita stop to speak with the bartender. "I'll go pick up them beers, brother…, " he called over his shoulder.

Val and Scott watched him go in silence, then they looked back at each other and burst out laughing. Finally Scott said, "I suspect he's going to be very grateful in the morning, Sheriff."

"I'll be grateful if he manages to get them beers over here 'fore they're piss-warm," Val complained good-naturedly. He started to get up to go retrieve them himself but his attention was captured by the arrival of another man calling his name. "What in tarnation is wrong with ya, Grant?" he grumbled to the other man as he resettled in his seat.

"Sheriff, it's the Danson boys agin," the older man said. He looked decidedly down on his luck and wrung his hat between his hands. "They's out at old Widow Johnson's place. They both wanna court her niece that's visitin', even though the Widow says she'll shoot 'em both 'fore she'd let 'em talk to Miss Melanie…"

"Hold on, Grant," Val broke in. "What's any o' this got to do with me?"

"They're drunk as skunks and ain't gonna back down. She's gonna shoot 'em, sure as I'm standin' here," the man said. "I'm just tellin' ya there's gonna be trouble, that's all."

Val poured two more shots of tequila and before Scott had the chance to protest that he'd had enough, the Sheriff handed one to Grant who immediately downed it. The sheriff did the same, then he ran his hand over his mouth, sighed loudly and stood up. "Well, let's get out there and keep that crazy ole woman from doin' something I'll regret," he drawled. "And dammit, why the hell she gotta go crazy on my first night off in a month?"

"Have you seen her niece," Scott asked with a smile. "I think the Widow might have a good reason for trying to protect the girl from the Dansons."

Val was watching Johnny at the bar where he was leaning down and whispering in Rosalita's ear. She laughed prettily and Johnny gave her his most winning smile, and then took a sip of his beer. The sheriff smiled, then turned to Scott. "I think the Widow Johnson's keepin' Miss Melanie on a shelf until she can find a way to introduce her to one of the Lancer boys… if you get my point," he said, wagging his eyebrows

Scott smiled. "Oh, I see…. Maybe I'll send Johnny that way on the way home tomorrow."

Val laughed wickedly as he made his way out of the saloon, followed by Grant. In a moment, Johnny was standing next to his brother's chair, holding out a beer. "Where'd Val go?"

"Some trouble apparently. I'm not sure he'll be back tonight."

Johnny reseated himself and took a deep swallow from his beer. "I'll just have ta drink his then."

"Rosalita's looking quite lovely tonight," Scott said as he took a sip of his own beer.

"Umm, yeah. Did you remember to tell Murdoch about the rockslide blockin' the creek in the south pasture?"

Scott shook his head. "I thought you were going to tell him."

"That could be trouble…."

"Don't worry about it, Johnny. Someone will likely see it tomorrow and get it cleared up. If not, we'll get to it the day after."

"That's Christmas Day!"

"Oh, right. Sorry. Then the day after that—"

"By then, a little problem could be a big problem. You know what Murdoch always says. Do it today, 'cause tomorrow there'll be some other problem comin' up."

Scott bit back a smile. "Since when did you start quoting our esteemed father?"

Johnny chuckled. "Well… when he's right, he's right. And tomorrow's gonna be a short day so it's possible none of the men'll be down that way and see the creek backin' up. You know water's the life-blood of a workin' ranch…."

"Yes," Scott said as he calmly took another sip of his beer. "Seems to me I've heard that somewhere….."

"Ya heard it from Murdoch," Johnny broke in before realizing Scott was pulling his leg. "Well…. Anyway, it just seems like a problem that might grow if someone don't get the information to the ole man."

Scott's eyes had drifted toward Mona, one of the more experienced girls in the saloon. He'd planned to spend some time with her tonight. She hailed from back East, something they shared, and she had a warm, calm way about her that he particularly liked. The fiery Rosalita was a beauty but the older brother found Mona's pretty face and sweet style more appealing. He sighed. "All right. I'll head back to the ranch—"

"I didn't mean for you to go!"

Now Scott leaned back in his chair and narrowed his eyes. "Then what exactly are you saying, brother? It's your birthday. And you've been looking forward to this all week…"

Johnny looked out the window as though he was thinking about what to say. Finally he turned back, took the third beer that was sitting on the table and lifted it to his lips. He took a sip, then dropped his hands to his lap and stared into the beer.

"Johnny, just get it said," Scott said quietly.

Johnny shook his head as though he was arguing with himself, then he started to speak but kept his eyes on the beer as though it might answer him. "Well…. It's just that…" he started, then stopped and took another sip before putting the beer down on the table. Then he began to worry the beads around his wrist. "This is how I spent most of my birthdays. In a saloon. My mama worked in a bunch of cantinas when I was a kid. When she remembered it was my birthday, she'd ask the cook to gimme somethin' for dinner, or get some of the girls to keep me comp'ny. After she was gone, I'd almost always find a saloon on my birthday, and a girl to spend it with when I was old enough….."

Scott listened and began to understand. "Maria and Theresa made a nice dinner tonight, and the family gave you presents. Was this the first birthday … like that for you?"

Johnny didn't look up, he just nodded.

"I understand, little brother. I… felt the same the other night. It was my first real family birthday. Back in Boston, my grandfather always threw big parties on my birthday but they were really his annual Christmas gathering. My birthday was just… an afterthought. "

Johnny looked up, surprise evident in his eyes. "Is that why ya wanted to stay home the other night?"

Scott nodded. "Yes. I was happy those kind of birthdays had been left behind…."

"Me too," Johnny said quietly.

There was a moment of silence between them, and then Scott spoke as he rose and headed for the door. "I'll get the horses."

"I'll tell Rosie I'll see her next weekend and meet ya outside the livery….."

Almost an hour later the two young men quietly entered the hacienda they had called home for almost a year now. Speaking in whispers, they entered the great room and started when Murdoch Lancer boomed "Boys! What brings you home so early?"

"Whoa, Murdoch," Johnny said, putting a hand to his chest. "We thought sure you'd be in bed by now. It's almost ten…. And mornin' comes—

"..early on a working ranch," he and Scott finished in unison. They looked at each other and grinned.

"Yes, my sons," Murdoch responded. "I believe I've said that one or two times…"

"Or one or two hundred times," Scott said.

"Or maybe one or two thousand times," Johnny echoed.

"As I've already told your brother, I don't care how old you get, I still reserve the right to tell you not to get too big for your britches… either of you," Murdoch said, smiling.

"You drinkin' alone?" Johnny asked. "Scott and me'll join ya. We were gonna have one 'fore headin' up." He went to the sideboard where the liquor was kept as Scott walked silently over to their father. Murdoch pulled the ten dollar gold piece Scott had given him to settle a bet earlier in the evening and handed it over without comment. Scott pocketed it again then settled onto the arm of the couch across from Murdoch, a satisfied grin on his face.

"There's good tequila there, son," Murdoch called to Johnny.

"Nah. I'm gonna try some of that French stuff you and Scott like so much. He turned two glasses over and began to fix the drinks.

"Brandy," Scott said.

"Yeah. Up ta now, I always thought it was just a name saloon girls liked…."

Both father and older brother smiled and shook their heads as Johnny returned with two glasses. He handed one to Scott and sat down beside his brother on the couch. They both took a sip.

"So… why ya sitting here drinkin' alone?" Johnny asked again, still curious about what would keep "early to bed and early to rise" Murdoch Lancer up on a weeknight.

Murdoch smiled and took a sip of his own brandy. He glanced over at the large clock on the mantle. "I was just… waiting," he said.

"Waitin' for…. us?" Johnny pressed.

"No," Murdoch said looking down into the golden liquid in his glass. "In about five minutes, it'll be twenty-one years since my youngest child made his way into the world…"

A look of understanding crossed Scott's face but Johnny's reflected his surprise at the statement, and a lifetime supply of unsatisfied curiosity. "I… was born at night?"

"Yes. We thought you'd be born earlier in the month but you were late—"

"There's a surprise," Scott murmured as he started to sip his drink. Johnny instantly kicked him in the leg and Scott had to fight to keep from spilling any of his brandy, all the while chuckling.

"Well… least I come by it naturally," Johnny finally said. Then he looked back at his father. "Was I…well, was I a good baby?"

Murdoch glanced at Scott and realized he was silently encouraging the conversation, and even seemed to want to hear the story also. Once again, the rancher thanked God for his older boy's generous spirit and unconditional love for his brother. The Scotsman found he didn't even mind losing that ten dollar bet about whether Johnny might prefer to spend his birthday at home. Obviously he did, and Murdoch's heart swelled with pride and affection for both his boys.

"Well… you came into the world screaming like a banshee," Murdoch admitted settling back to tell the tale he'd never shared with his sons before. "I swear I'd never heard anything so small make so much noise before in my life. But when the women had cleaned you up, they wrapped you in a blanket, still exercising your lungs. And one of them put you in my arms. And then… you stopped screaming. And locked eyes with me for a minute. Then you yawned and fell asleep, just like that…."

A few minutes later, the clock struck ten and Murdoch Lancer raised his glass to his youngest son. Scott did the same. "Happy birthday, Johnny," they both said.

Johnny Lancer blinked back tears and took a sip from his glass. "This is pretty good," he said. "I think this stuff might actually catch on…."

THE END