The First Birthday by Wendy P

Word Count 2,185

Johnny awoke at 6am to the sound of gentle rain. He shivered when the chill of the morn greeted his well-muscled body as he stripped and began to dress. Johnny had always been fit; in order to stay alive a gunman needed not only quick reflexes but well toned muscles as well. But as he stretched and began to pull on his shirt, Johnny realised that the strenuous work that he had encountered in his new life on the ranch had wrought a change in his body. He shivered again but as he was by now dressed he had to wonder as to the cause.

Johnny was well aware of the date, but for as long as he could remember this had been a time for sadness not celebration. Even when his mother had been alive she had barely acknowledged the date of his birth – never wishing him a happy birthday and certainly never giving him a gift. Every birthday that he could remember up to her death had been the same: “This is the day of your birth, Juanito.” And that was it – no other mention or celebration.

As a child he had envied other children as they celebrated birthdays: the parties and the glee with which they opened their presents. He was usually on the outer, rarely being invited to participate in their celebrations, the consequence of his mixed heritage. He thought sorrowfully of the fights that he had instigated when children had taunted him about his birthday. He had a quick temper even as a child, he thought ruefully.

He was still musing on the past as he entered the Great Room. He would normally go to the kitchen through the back of the house but for some unknown reason had this morning chosen go via the front. He stopped short when he spied the dining table. Set for breakfast, there were already stacks of sweet smelling biscuits on the table. From the kitchen came the sounds of happy voices and laughter along with the aroma of bacon and eggs cooking. But the sight that really astounded him was the pile of brightly coloured gifts that were sitting on the table at his customary place.

Johnny was still standing there, gazing at the sight, when the owners of the voices in the kitchen appeared, bearing plates of sizzling food and steaming cups of coffee.

“Happy birthday, son.” Murdoch greeted Johnny, as he placed the plates he was bearing on the table.

“Another year older, another year … wiser?” queried Scott with a gleam in his eye.

Teresa simply gave him a peck on the cheek and murmured “Happy birthday, Johnny.”

Maria hugged him briefly and whispered “Cumpleanos Feliz, Juanito.” And then hurried back to the kitchen.

“Come on, don’t just stand there gaping. I’m starved … and I want to see what you got for your birthday.” teased Scott. “You might have received better presents than I did.” he finished with a wonderful imitation of a sulky expression on his face.

Johnny roused himself and moved to the table and sat down. He didn’t know what to say, he was so dumbfounded.

Amidst much urging from his brother and ‘sister’ he began to unwrap his gifts, under the satisfied watchful eye of his father.

Murdoch’s satisfaction came from the fact that this was the second birthday that they had celebrated in the past 4 days: his sons’ birthdays. Lancer had not celebrated these particular birthdays for 20 years. In fact neither of his sons’ birthdays had ever been celebrated at Lancer.

Scott, of course, had been in Boston for his. And for Johnny’s first Maria, Johnny and he had been stranded in Green River. Whilst they had been visiting friends there, the day before his son’s birthday, a fierce storm had blown up and dumped inches of rain in the area. Roads were flooded and the Lancers had been unable to return home for three days – thereby missing the opportunity to celebrate their son’s first birthday at Lancer. By the time his second came around both Maria and his son were gone. So there was more to celebrate now than just the dates of his sons’ births.

Scott’s gift was the first to be revealed. A silver backed hairbrush set, intricately engraved with the initials JL, accompanied by a card that simply read ‘To my dearest brother on his 22nd birthday. Scott’. Johnny looked at Scott without knowing what to say.

“You’re welcome.” said his brother, seeing the look in his younger sibling’s eyes. He couldn’t resist adding “Now we might see you with a neater head of hair!”

“I….. I didn’t know what to get you, but I thought it would be useful.” stammered Teresa after Johnny had held up a new white shirt, with black embroidery running down beside the buttons.

“It’s great, thank you, Teresa. Did you make it?” said Johnny as he lightly kissed her cheek.

“Oh, I made the shirt but I got that new seamstress in town to do the embroidery. You know I’m no good at that!”

Johnny smiled as he recalled Teresa’s efforts at embroidering table napkins. By the time she had finished with them they were more suited for the ragbag than gracing a table!

There were other smaller gifts from neighbours and friends. Long standing friends of Murdoch’s, people who had witnessed both his elation at the birth of Johnny twenty two years previously, and his despair at the loss of his toddler a short time later.

There was even a book, on the area’s history, from Sam Jenkins, the local doctor. He had not long arrived in the area when Maria’s time was due. Johnny had been the first baby he had delivered in his new medical practice. It was a difficult delivery and he had feared for both mother and child. His friendship with Murdoch had grown from then on, and the doctor had felt the pain of Maria and Johnny’s departure as well. He was also the one Murdoch had confided in when the sad facts of Johnny’s life had come in the form of the Pinkerton reports. Although he had not seen Johnny from the time he was a toddler until he tended to his bullet wound during the land dispute, he felt a special bond with the boy.

The last gift to be opened was from his father. Inside the wrapping paper was a small polished oak box, with a brass clasp. When it was opened, there lay, nestled in cream silk, a small silver mug. Johnny cast a perplexed look at his father as he removed the mug from its box. As he picked it up he saw the engraving –

Andrew John Lancer
Feb. 10th 1850

Johnny’s confusion was evident; he didn’t understand the date or the significance of the mug. Also a revelation was the name Andrew John Lancer.

Upon seeing the confused look his son gave him, Murdoch explained. “It’s a Christening Mug, Johnny. The date on it is the date you were christened.”

Up until two days before Murdoch had still been at a loss to know what to give his son. Then the solution had presented itself. Teresa had asked Scott to get a box of linen that had been in storage in the attic. Scott had not been up there before so took the opportunity to investigate what treasures the attic contained. There were many neatly labelled boxes, but none so interesting as the one marked ‘Johnny’. Inside Scott found baby clothes, toys, pieces of paper covered in scribbles that Johnny as a toddler must have done, and various other items which had been carefully packed away. A sad reminder of a lost child, he thought. But what took his eye was a small wooden box. When opened it revealed a small mug, originally silver but now black with tarnish.

Scott had replaced all the items in the storage box bar the wooden box. After he had descended from the attic and had given Teresa her box of linen, he had sought out his father, wooden box in hand.

Murdoch’s surprise was obvious when he spied the box. To Scott’s astonishment his father stated, “You’ve found Johnny’s Christening Mug.” He further explained to Scott that Maria and he had had Johnny christened when he was not quite two months old. The mug was a gift from both of them. When Maria had left, with very few belongings, Murdoch had boxed all the items that had reminded him of Johnny, but not until he had exhausted his search for them both. The reminders of his absent son were too painful and he had felt they were best out of sight.

Scott had then said, “Sir, I know you are unsure of what to get Johnny for his birthday. May I suggest that this is the perfect gift?”

Murdoch had at first been unsure. Not just about how Johnny would receive such a gift, but also how it would affect Scott. Scott’s own birthday had been 2 days before and Scott had been overwhelmed by the generosity of some of Murdoch’s friends and neighbours. These people had been friends of Scott’s mother and had looked forward to his birth those many years ago. They had been devastated by Catherine’s untimely death, and took the opportunity twenty-four years later to honour both her son and her memory.

He thought about what Scott had said all day, and late in the afternoon had sought out Scott and sounded out his feelings – how would he feel about Johnny receiving a part of his past, when Scott himself had no mementoes from his? He was not surprised when Scott had said “I would not have suggested it, Sir, if I was not happy with the idea.” His son had a sense of honour and unselfishness that was refreshing. Having decided that he had his gift Murdoch handed it over to Maria who had spent hours lovingly restoring it to its original gleaming self.

Having opened all the gifts and thanked his family, Johnny and the rest of the household then returned to the important task of devouring the breakfast laid in front of them. They were just finishing their coffee when Murdoch cleared his throat. “There is one more thing, Johnny.”

When his son looked over to him Murdoch picked up a leather bound book that no one had seen him place on the table.

“This is my diary, and the entry I am about to read is my final gift for your birthday.”

He opened the book and went straight to a page marked by a gold silk cord attached to the book.

“Sunday, December 23rd, 1849.” he began. “What a joyous day. The melancholy, under which we have been suffering for the last two weeks due to the incessant rain, has been lifted. The rain eased this morning to a gentle fall, and at 6am, after a number of distressing and painful hours, my dearest Maria gave birth to our new son. Andrew John Lancer, a younger brother for Scott. Although I feel great joy at the birth of my son, I cannot help but regret that his brother is not here to welcome him. But that will be soon remedied. Maria and I have many plans for our two boys….”

The last line was read in a voice choking with emotion, and here Murdoch stopped to try to compose himself. Seeing his father’s distress Scott removed the diary from his father’s hand and continued reading the entry, in an obviously emotional voice.  

“I can only trust in the Lord that both John and Maria recover quickly from their ordeal – it was not an easy birth and the doctor does hold some grave concern for their safety. But with his careful ministrations and the inherent strength that Maria possesses, I know that all will be well. I am grateful and honoured that Maria, like Catherine, suggested that our newborn be named in the family tradition. Andrew John, named after my mother’s brother, continues the legacy of an Andrew John in every generation.”

Scott paused and looked at Murdoch. His younger brother beat him to voicing the question that was on his lips.

“Murdoch, where did Scott’s name come from?”

Murdoch, having recovered some of his composure, smiled at his first-born. “Your name son, Scott William, has been given to the first-born son in the Lancer family for generations. Your mother wanted to continue that tradition, and had written to her father that she would name her child, if it be a boy, Scott William. Your grandfather  …”

As Murdoch talked to Scott, Johnny lowered his head. He was used to holding his emotions in check and was well aware of the uncharacteristic and unwelcome moisture in his eyes. He was not about to put his emotions on show. But this was the best birthday anybody could ever wish for – his first birthday celebration at Lancer. It was ironic, Johnny further thought, that it was actually the first birthday celebration that he could remember.



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