Word Count 4,785
It was early morning and Johnny was seated, coffee cup in hand, at the table in the Lancer kitchen when Scott walked in. “Hey, Scott, how ‘bout this one? It sounds real good.” It was the morning of Teresa O’Brien’s birthday, and Johnny and Scott had plans to bake a cake for their surrogate “sister”. Deciding that it would be impossible to keep the project a secret, they had simply informed Teresa at dinner the previous evening that the kitchen would be “off limits” to her the next day. Not that they were going to undertake to prepare the entire meal– Maria and Juanita would handle that. But, feeling less than confident about the brothers’ ability to achieve complete success on their first attempt, Scott had deemed it necessary to emphasize that her banishment would be for the entire day.
Having poured his own cup of hot coffee, Scott savored the first sip before coming to look over Johnny’s shoulder at the indicated recipe. “Johnny, I really think that we should stay with the basic one that we picked out yesterday.”
“You picked . . . An’ ya said it’s a yellow one.” Johnny gestured at the recipe on the table before him. “But how’s about this one? Or there’s this other one over here—ya wanna make Teresa a good cake, don’t cha?”
“‘Good’ may be aiming rather high, I’m afraid, ” Scott said lightly. “I’ll be pleased with ‘edible’.” Then regarding his brother with a serious expression, he asked: “Johnny, have you ever baked a cake before?”
“No, can’t say as I have.”
“Well, neither have I. So, I think that we should stick with the one called the traditional birthday cake‘.”
At that moment, Juanita bustled in, smiling and greeting el patron’s sons. She set about preparing breakfast for the two young men with an amused expression. It seemed that news of the brothers’ plan had spread throughout the ranks of the female inhabitants of the Lancer Ranch; even Miss Dewdrop had honked a caustic comment. Maria had evidently decided to join Teresa in her exile; the two of them were now talking and laughing over breakfast at the dining room table. Fortunately for Scott and Johnny, Murdoch Lancer was away from the ranch, and Jelly Hoskins was with him. They were not expected to return until later in the day and would therefore miss the opportunity to witness and comment upon the proceedings.
The brothers made conversation about other topics while they ate breakfast. By unspoken mutual agreement, they did not commence preparations for the cake baking until Juanita had finished cleaning up and vacated the kitchen. Once they were alone, Scott began to read the list of materials required while Johnny assembled them–or tried to. When the younger man was not immediately able to locate a particular ingredient or utensil, Scott attempted to assist in the search. There was much opening and closing of drawers and cupboard doors as it soon became evident that they were equally inept when it came to locating anything which was not in plain sight in the Lancer kitchen.
Consequently things were already in somewhat of a disarray when Maria came in carrying the breakfast items which she and Teresa had used. She quickly surveyed the room and recognized that the novice bakers had not yet even begun to handle the sugar, flour, eggs and other ingredients with which they could be expected to create more of a mess.
Catching her expression, Johnny quickly addressed her: “Now, don’t you worry none, Maria, we’ll be sure to clean everything up when we’re done.” Then, with a grin, he assured her in Spanish that “Scott would take care of it.” Scott looked up at that, hearing the Spanish version of his own name and immediately suspicious as to what his brother had just said. But before Scott had had time to try to process Johnny’s words, Maria shook her finger at his younger brother and addressed him sternly and rapidly in the same tongue.
” Juanito, si esta cocina no está limpia, usted nunca comerá otra vez “.
On his side, Scott made a questioning gesture with his hands. “Len-ta-men-tay, pour fah-vehr,” he said.
“You don’t wanna know, Boston”, Johnny told him. “And its por favor.” He shook his head; Scott was picking up the words pretty quick, but it seemed like his brother just had too many languages floating around in his head to be able to get the Spanish accent anywhere near right most of the time.
” Por favor,” Scott repeated, getting it pretty near perfect this time.
“What she said to me was: ‘If this kitchen isn’t clean, you will never eat again .'” Maria nodded emphatically, hands on hips.
Scott’s annoyance that the younger man had simply translated rather than allowing him the opportunity to try to figure out what had been said, was quickly displaced by an elvin grin directed at Maria. “That won‘t do Johnny here any harm,” he laughed, as he gave his brother a quick backhanded slap to the midriff. Then placing his hands on his own hips and regarding Maria with mock dismay, Scott added: “But surely you don’t mean to inflict the same punishment upon me!?”
Maria shook her head, relenting as she regarded the young blond man whom she was constantly scolding for both being far too thin and for not doing enough about it. In addition to helping Scott with his effort to learn the basics of the Spanish language, Maria had also taken it upon herself to introduce him to a variety of Mexican foods. ” Non, non “, she replied. “For you, there is another punition.” She began to list several of her specialties which she knew that Senor Scott, despite his polite reassurances to the contrary, had not considered to be at all palatable.
Recognizing that he had been found out, Scott shook his head sheepishly, but could make no other reply . For his part, Johnny looked over at Scott and considered that perhaps he’d been eating a bit too well lately and might limit himself to only one helping of birthday cake. << Shouldn’t be too hard, since it ain’t chocolate .>>
Despite an occasional complaint from Johnny about the lack of chocolate flavoring in the cake that they were assembling, the brothers worked easily together, as usual. They painstakingly following the directions in the recipe, and finally the cake was deposited in the oven. The Lancers then turned their attention to the essential question of frosting. Although Scott felt that pink and white frosting would be most suitable, he acquiesced in Johnny’s insistence that the frosting, at least, be chocolate. “That is”, he commented dryly, “If we actually end up with something that is . . frostable”—although he was now feeling cautiously optimistic. At least their creation was giving off a cake-like aroma, now that it had reached the baking stage. Scott began tidying up the work area in a desultory manner while his younger brother went off on a mission to locate some female, other than Teresa who might be willing to explain to him what a “double-boiler” looked like.
In Johnny’s absence, Scott reflected upon the other birthdays which had been observed since the brothers had arrived at the ranch. Evidently, Johnny had had a birthday about a month or so prior to their arrival. During his recuperation from the gunshot wound he had received in the battle with Pardee, Teresa had learned about the recent birthday and had insisted upon having a belated celebration. As soon as Johnny was well enough to be up and about, she had prepared a special dinner of his favorite foods. Teresa had also baked him a birthday cake, a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, giving rise to his brother’s endlessly reiterated fondness for that particular dessert. Scott had a suspicion that perhaps Johnny has never actually eaten chocolate cake prior to that birthday dinner; given what he knew of his brother’s childhood, it was entirely possible.
The day before the dinner, Scott had accompanied Teresa to town to pick up some of the necessary items. The two of them had also visited Senor Valdemerro’s store and purchased a few articles of clothing as gifts for Johnny, whose wardrobe had appeared to be rather limited. When Teresa had hesitated over the selection, Scott had told her to go ahead and take all three of the shirts that she’d liked, and he had paid for them. Teresa had been very happy about that, but had assured Scott that he need only ask Murdoch for the money–which of course he hadn‘t done. Scott himself had picked out a set of brushes for Johnny to use when grooming Barranca.
The birthday dinner had been quite relaxed and pleasant. Johnny had seemed very pleased with his gifts. Murdoch had even made a toast, observing that it had been twenty years since Johnny had celebrated a birthday at the ranch and wishing him twenty more . . .
Then, a few months later, there had been the fiasco surrounding Scott’s own birthday. He had thought once or twice of mentioning it to Teresa as the day approached, but then, with everything else going on at the ranch, and with so much that was new and different to contend with, it would invariably slip his mind. Whenever Scott did remember, usually late at night, he’d tell himself that it most likely wasn’t really necessary for him to say anything.
Finally, the day had dawned. When it became evident that no notice was to be taken, he resolved not to say anything rather than cause embarrassment. When evening came, Scott had been apprehensive, noting that Murdoch was recording receipts and dates in the account ledgers; he‘d been concerned that his father would recognize the date and that belated notice would be made. As it turned out, he need not have worried. When he had retired to his room, Scott had written a long letter to his grandfather, in which he had reflected upon previous birthdays, as well as the past eventful year.
It had been a few days later that a couple of the hands returned from town with some supplies and a large wooden crate addressed to Scott, shipped all the way from Boston. They’d deposited the container in the Great Room and it was sitting there waiting for him when he came in from his day’s work. Teresa and Johnny were sitting and waiting as well, studying the box with avid interest. It certainly was not the first package to arrive for Scott from Boston, but it was by far the largest. Immediately suspecting what it might be, Scott tried to proceed directly to his room.
“Ain’t you gonna open it?”, his brother demanded.
“I’ll have it brought upstairs later, ” Scott replied mildly. Seeing that Teresa looked terribly disappointed and Johnny slightly crestfallen, Scott tried to placate them. “I’m sure that it’s mostly books and some everyday necessities. You see, Grandfather sends me things because he doesn’t believe that we actually have any shops out here.”
When he came back downstairs, cleaned up and dressed for the evening meal, the two of them were still sitting there, looking at the box. “C’mon, just open it,” Johnny ordered him. “Please, Scott,” Teresa chimed in. Although he still hoped to delay the moment of revelation, Scott was beginning to realize that it was probably inevitable that Johnny and Teresa would eventually find out, if, as Scott suspected, there were in fact birthday gifts inside. At that moment, Murdoch came in and saw the three of them standing around the large box. He walked over, looked at the top of the crate, said “From Boston”, and then left the room. There was something about Murdoch’s tone and abrupt departure which prompted Scott to change his mind and agree to open it up after all. To his amusement, all of the tools necessary to remove the crate lid were readily at hand.
Once the cover had been pried opened, there were revealed a number of brightly wrapped gifts of assorted sizes, packed in amongst the straw. Most had notes attached. Johnny was in fact less interested in the packages when it turned out that many of them were books and personal items as Scott had suggested: pens, ink, writing papers in the first one–a none too subtle hint from his grandfather. Teresa was delighted with the wrappings and wanted to try to save some of the larger pieces, so Scott was very careful in removing them. Both she and Johnny were very curious about each of the people who had sent gifts. As he unwrapped each in turn, Scott patiently answered their questions. They wanted to hear all about Scott‘s family back East, which, in addition to his grandfather, included Harlan Garrett’s younger sister, Scott’s Aunt Cecelia. There were also several people who worked for his grandfather, many of them much more like family members than employees.
Teresa asked Scott what Christmases were like in Boston, but before he could answer, Johnny had commented that it “seems like Christmas right now.”
Then, from the doorway, where he’d been standing unnoticed, Murdoch gravely intoned: “I suspect Johnny, that all this is in acknowledgement of your brother’s 25 th birthday.” Johnny and Teresa had both turned towards Murdoch when he first spoke, but as he completed this sentence, they turned as one to look back at Scott. There was a stricken look on Teresa’s face, but Scott couldn’t read Johnny’s expression.
“That’s right,” Scott said mildly.
Teresa turned back to Murdoch–“Murdoch Lancer, you should have told us that it was Scott’s birthday,” she scolded the older man. “Now, when is it exactly—is it today?” Murdoch did not respond. During the short, but very uncomfortable silence which followed, all three of the young people in the room realized that Murdoch did not know the precise answer to Teresa’s question.
Scott softly supplied the date, “It’s the nineteenth.”
“That was three days ago,” Teresa murmured in dismay
Scott began to reassure her that it didn’t matter; he even started to say that at home, birthdays really were not . . . then glancing around at the pile of presents and paper which surrounded him, he thought better of it.
At supper, the neglected birthday cast a shadow over the meal. Murdoch had little to say. Johnny was silently wondering about Murdoch’s history—or lack of it— with Scott. Teresa was dismayed that Scott’s birthday had been overlooked, especially since she had made such a point of celebrating Johnny’s. Scott recognized that and was feeling guilty that he hadn’t made it a point to tell Teresa the date beforehand. Since no one else was saying anything, Scott finally initiated some conversation about the work that he had been doing that day, having to ask direct questions in order to elicit remarks from Murdoch and Johnny. Things were just starting to feel more comfortable around the table when Teresa announced: “Well, I think that we are just going to celebrate Scott’s birthday tomorrow!”
Johnny replied that they’d “better do somethin‘, since twenty-five was pretty old”, and shot his elder brother a friendly grin. Murdoch had refrained from comment. Scott had tried in vain to convince Teresa that they didn’t need to make a fuss, told her that he’d really rather that she didn’t go to any trouble, but she insisted, demanding to know what kind of cake he would like. Still trying to avoid a birthday scenario, Scott smiled and said that if he got to choose the dessert, then he’d really prefer pie, thank you. “Any kind will do”.
The next evening, Teresa had used the company china and silver and prepared one of Scott’s favorite meals. When Murdoch made no immediate move to do so, Johnny had offered a good-humored toast. His younger brother had lifted his glass, then turned to Scott with a mournful expression and commented on how sad it was to see “all that grey that was messin’ up that pretty blonde hair.”
“Well, that’s what comes of having you for a brother,” Scott shot back.
Johnny grinned at that, then turned unexpectedly serious. “Havin’ you for a brother sure is one of the best things ever happened ta me.”
Scott felt his throat tighten. He managed to nod at his brother, touch his glass to Johnny’s and then drained his own in one swallow.
For dessert, Teresa brought out a pie, and she’d even managed to put a candle in it. A cherry pie, he recalled now, it had been very good, but what he wouldn’t give for a Maine blueberry pie like Aunt Cecelia used to make. Well, if the cake turned out well, perhaps he and Johnny might try baking a pie next. . . .
After Scott’s “birthday dinner” was concluded, Teresa and Johnny had each produced small presents wrapped in remnants of the paper from Boston. The gifts were clearly items that they had had on hand, since there hadn‘t been time for a shopping trip: a little hand-embroidered pillow from Teresa and a box of bullets from Johnny. “I can certainly use these,” he’d said as he opened his brother‘s gift. Then, since he had been wearing one of Murdoch’s weapons, he‘d added, “It’s probably also time I had my own gun. Perhaps you might help me choose one the next time we’re in town.”
“I could do that”, Johnny said agreeably.
An uncomfortable silence had followed–at first Scott had feared that perhaps it had sounded as if he was suggesting that someone should have given him a gun as a gift— and he was unhappy with his breech of etiquette. Then he belatedly recognized that his assumption that Johnny would be particularly helpful in this regard was seen as a reference to his brother’s past as a gunfighter, a topic which both Teresa and Murdoch always seemed quite eager to avoid. <<Well, he certainly does know something about sidearms>> he thought defensively to himself. Knowing that he’d already drunk much more than usual, Scott poured himself yet another glass of wine and wished fervently that the “birthday dinner” could be over. He did thank Teresa again for her preparations, complimenting her on the food, and praising the pie. “You should have told us that it was your birthday” the girl informed him for the fifth time that day. <<I just didn’t realize that I had to>> he thought to himself in exasperation. <<It did seem that one of you here might possibly have known.>> Fortunately, Murdoch had given Scott his gift in private: a piece of jewelry, a bracelet, that he said had belonged to Scott’s mother, adding that perhaps Scott might like to give it to a young lady someday. Scott had accepted it, said, “Thank you, sir,” and when his father failed to make any additional comments, Scott had made his escape. Although the Bostonian had a number of as yet unasked and unanswered questions that he wished one day to pose to his father, at that moment Scott hadn’t been eager to engage Murdoch in discussion about the events surrounding his birth.
Young Scott had been very much aware that his birthday was a bittersweet occasion for his maternal grandfather. Catherine Garrett Lancer had not died on the same day that Scott was born; she had survived long enough to hold her infant son in her arms and to choose his name. Nonetheless, the proximity of the two events clearly evoked painful memories for the elderly man.
The date became painful for Scott for other reasons as well. As a small boy he had somehow conceived the notion that if he ever were to receive a communication from his unknown father, it would coincide with his birthday. Consequently, the immediate aftermath of each annual birthday celebration would inevitably be an evocation of a sense of disappointment for the child, and later, angry resentment in the adolescent Scott. These emotions had eventually been transformed into a studied disregard on the part of Scott, the young man. He had never once received a letter, a package or a visit. Even Scott’s twenty-first birthday had passed, as had each of the others, without any notice from California.
Pulling himself back into the present, Scott carefully, somewhat awkwardly, removed Teresa’s cake from the oven. To his surprise, it actually seemed to have turned out rather well. As he stood there looking at it, Scott recalled that there had been one particular birthday when he had been too –pleasantly distracted– to feel sorrow at being deprived of his mother or disappointed in his father. The year that Scott had turned sixteen, he had been traveling through Europe with his grandfather and the elderly man had provided his grandson with a very special present. Scott still recalled every essential detail about his initiation with the young French mamselle. He didn’t realize that he was smiling at the memory until Johnny re-entered the kitchen.
“What’re you grinnin’ about?”
Scott looked up, “Oh, the cake seems to be done and I think it may have turned out just fine. I was just about to administer the broom test”, he added holding up a piece of straw. “But . . . well, remind me to tell you some day about my sixteenth birthday and how my grandfather arranged for me to begin a very interesting ‘Tour of Europe’.”
Johnny proclaimed the frosting to be quite tasty, but it was sticky and getting it on the cake had been quite difficult–neither of the Lancer brothers had been up to the challenge and the end result was singularly unattractive. Scott was dismayed; he felt that the cake had looked much better before they’d attempted to “dress it up” with frosting. It most certainly did not resemble any birthday cake that he had ever seen. Johnny wasn’t too impressed with it either, but he knew that there was no way that they were going to start over. “It’ll taste good, that‘s what counts,” he assured his older brother, who was just standing there, staring glumly at the cake.
“So what didja get Teresa for a present?” he asked Scott.
“Oh, I sent for some things from Boston.” Scott replied, still gazing at the cake.
“A set of combs and brushes for her dresser, embossed, silvered. .. quite elegant in comparison to what she has now”, he said with a satisfied smile. “And bottle of eau de parfum– imported from France.” It was actually a scent that Scott particularly liked– Julie had worn it once or twice. Not that he intended to ever tell Teresa that—he’d learned early on that no woman wanted a gentleman to tell her that she smelled, looked, or tasted like anyone else. . .
Turning towards Johnny, Scott returned the question: “So what did you get her?”
“Well, we were in town and she was sayin’ how she didn’t have a fry pan big enough now that she’s cookin’ for two more–so I went an’ got the biggest . . ” Johnny’s voice trailed off as he noticed that Scott was looking at him, open mouthed, with an expression which could only be described as horrified. “What?”
“Johnny . . .”Scott said slowly, “you got Teresa a frying pan for her birthday?”
“That’s what she said she needed.”
“Yes, but . . . well . . . I, um, I’m sure she’ll be very pleased with anything that you give her.”
Johnny narrowed his eyes. <<Ol’ Boston’s turned real polite on me all of a sudden, that ain’t a good sign.>> And before that, well, it just wasn’t like Scott to betray a negative emotion. Hell, even when Johnny had tried to shock his brother by revealing how young he’d been when he’d been in his first gunfight, even given a few of the details, well, the man hadn’t so much as blinked . . . Aloud, Johnny continued: “Like I was sayin’, it’s the biggest, blackest one they had. Real heavy too.”
Watching Scott’s face carefully, he added: “Figure she might want to cook somethin’ up right away tonight. . . I’m gonna ask her anyway.”
Scott squinted at Johnny appraisingly. <<He can’t be serious . . .then again, he usually doesn’t lay it on this thick.>> Scott took a long moment to respond. His admittedly smug tone in describing the gifts he had imported from ‘back East’ certainly could have been enough to prompt his razor-sharp brother to assume the ‘dumb cowboy’ persona by way of retaliation. It had happened more than once before. On the other hand, Scott usually tried hard to keep in mind that his younger brother’s upbringing meant that Johnny often was not familiar with some of the social amenities that Scott simply took for granted. And, if he was in fact planning to present Teresa with a large iron skillet, Johnny certainly wouldn’t be the first man in history to make the grievous error of getting a woman something that she needed as a gift for a special occasion. Scott himself had made that mistake— once.
“Johnny,” Scott responded, his voice filled with concern, “you will remember that it is her birthday?”
“Yeah, it is, ain’t it. . . So Scott, you think that mebbe I should just give her them other things I bought and save the fry pan for another day?”
Whether or not Johnny was pulling his leg about the skillet, Scott hoped that his brother had, in fact, “bought other things.” He started to say that that might be a very good idea, when Murdoch walked into the kitchen, closely followed by Jelly.
“Sure smells good in here,” Jelly announced. “Now you boys didn’t go and let Teresa do any bakin’ on her birthday, didja?”
Each of the Lancer brothers took a step towards the other, bringing them almost shoulder to shoulder and effectively blocking the cake from view. “No, Jelly, we didn’t do that, ” Scott replied.
“Well, hello boys,” growled Murdoch Lancer, with a baleful eye taking in the smear of frosting and the spot of flour decorating his two sons. He began firing questions at the two young men regarding the day’s activities at the ranch, questions which, since they had spent the entire day in the kitchen, neither of them could answer. Murdoch soon shook his head in exasperation, and went off to locate Cipriano.
Johnny gave Jelly a look: “Don’t say a thing.”
“Don’t you worry none, Johnny,” the older man replied. “I sure weren’t gonna say a thing ‘bout that sorry excuse for a cake you boys are standin’ in front of.”
“No, sir,” he continued, “I weren’t gonna say a thing, ‘ceptin’ that I’ve gone and found out when Murdoch’s birthday is.”
“Well, when is it?”, Scott demanded.
Jelly backed away. “Well, now he did say specifically that there wasn’t no fuss to be made.”
“Jelly . . ” Scott said in a frustrated tone to the departing man’s back.
“Don’t worry, Boston, we know Murdoch’s birthday is sometime pretty soon. ‘Sides, you know by now that Jelly can’t keep a secret. He’ll be back in here inside of two minutes just beggin’ to tell us.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“Course I’m right.” “So now Scott,” Johnny added in a conspiratorial tone, “you given any thought to what to get Murdoch?”
“I do have something in mind.”
“Well, don’t waste ya time,” Johnny advised with a grin. “Cause I already ordered the perfect present.”
“And you aren’t going to tell me what it is.”
“Well, Brother,” Scott said evenly, “It seems as if we each have a plan. And now we should probably go try and make ourselves presentable for dinner.”
Johnny shook his head. “I may not be in your class when it comes to prettyin’ up, but it sure ain’t gonna be too hard to look better ‘n’ that cake. . .”
Scott had to laugh at that. “In any event,” he said, shaking his head ruefully, “Perhaps we will at least have made Miss Teresa’s birthday a more memorable one.”
“So you ever have any ‘memorable’ birthdays, Boston?”
Scott threw his arm around his brother‘s shoulders as they headed out of the kitchen. “I’m so glad that you asked, Little Brother. . . . Do you remember when you were telling me about your . . . “education”? Well, let me tell you about my Tour of Europe . . It started in France, in Paris, actually, and it was my sixteenth birthday . . .. “
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