Summary: Just for a change, no warnings re: adult themes, strong language or violence!
Word Count: 2358
(For Effie with love and thanks)
Slim Sherman, the tall blond rancher and owner of the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station, wandered across the bedroom he shared with his friend and business partner Jess Harper and looked down at his sleeping buddy. Jess’ black hair was mussed up and falling across his forehead, and his slender face looked decidedly young and innocent in repose.
Slim chuckled to himself and thought how appearances could be deceptive. Young — well, maybe — but innocent?
Slim reached down and shook his buddy firmly by the shoulders, before attempting to pull the bedding off when he got no response. “Come on, Jess, roll out. It’s late and we’ve got a lot to get through today.”
“Gerroff,” came the angry, if sleepy, retort as the young cowboy made a grab for the sheet, his eyes still tightly closed. He rolled onto his side away, from the harsh intrusion into his sweet dreams.
“Jess, will you get your ornery hide out of your pit or do I have to shoot that bed from under you?”
“Aw, Slim, will you leave a body alone? I was just dreamin’ about Millie — and it was gettin’ real interesting.”
“Well, tough. Get up, pard. Breakfast’s on the table, and you know it’s the day Miss Daisy’s cronies from the women’s group are visiting. She’s fussing and fretting already.”
Jess muttered something very rude under his breath before he finally sat up, his deep blue eyes gazing around the room in confusion, before scratching his head and dragging himself up towards the washstand.
“I still don’t get it,” Jess said, turning to Daisy Cooper, their elderly and long-suffering housekeeper, come surrogate Ma to them all. “I mean, your friends are welcome here, Daisy, sure they are. It’s your home too. I just don’t see as how me and Slim have to be there as well.”
“And today of all days!” added Mike, the cowboy’s young, blond ward, casting Jess an anxious look.
“Er, don’t you worry about that, Tiger,” said Slim quickly. “And if you’ve finished your breakfast, go get to your chores, huh? “
“OK,” said the youngster, getting down from the table and now shooting Jess a puzzled look. “I was just saying was all…”
Daisy disappeared into the kitchen to fetch the coffee pot, and Slim turned to his friend and whispered, “What it is, Jess, the women’s group go visiting each other’s homes in the summer, instead of meeting in the Church Hall as usual, and it’s kinda traditional for the whole family to meet them, make ‘em welcome, you know. And I guess that’s the way Daisy thinks of us all now — as kin — and we can’t let her down.”
Jess suddenly looked contrite. “No, sure, we can’t, I guess. It won’t be too bad. Have you seen that huge cake she’s baked them, out in the kitchen?” he said, his face suddenly coming alight with pleasure.
When Daisy returned, she topped up their cups, and Jess threw her an apologetic grin. “Sure we’ll be there, Daisy, but please tell me that Miss Davies from the dress shop ain’t coming?”
“Well, of course, she is, dear, and she’s a perfectly pleasant young lady. I really don’t know what you have against her.”
Jess sighed deeply. “Well, nuthin’, Daisy, ‘cept you’re always tryin’ to matchmake. Me and Millie are real happy together, you know that.”
“Yes, dear, of course, and it was ages ago all that business. I just want you to be friendly towards the poor girl; you can just be friends with ladies, you know, Jess.”
“Yeah, I know that.”
“Umm…” said Slim darkly.
Jess ignored him. “So who else is comin’?”
“Oh just my usual friends from the group — plus Carrie and Millie of course. They both joined last fall.”
Jess’s face lit up at that. Millie was his best girl and Carrie, Doc Sam Baker’s daughter, a real good friend. Yup, things were looking up some.
Then Daisy dropped another bomb shell. “The ladies are due at two o’clock, so if you are riding fence this morning, you’ll need to be back by twelve at the latest so you can shower and get your best clothes on.”
“Aw, Daisy, must we?” started Jess, but Slim cut him short.
“Come on, Hotshot, work to do. Quit your moaning and just think about that cake out the back,” Slim whispered as the two made their way out of the ranch house.
As promised, they returned in good time, showered changed and then they were shooed out of the house by a somewhat agitated Daisy.
“Off you go, boys. Just wander down the home pasture and find me some nice wild flowers for the table, will you? I need some space in here to get everything ready.”
Jess looked scandalized. “Wild flowers!” he spat in horror.
Slim dragged him off protesting long and loud, and as they disappeared across the home pasture at the back of the ranch, Daisy fixed Mike with a determined glint in her eye. “Come on, Mike, we’ve got a lot to do before everyone arrives.”
It was an hour or so later when the cowboys finally arrived back at the ranch, Slim holding a rather sad-looking, wilting bunch of wild flowers that Jess had steadfastly refused to have anything to do with.
“First thing you know, the darn house is gonna be full of a bunch of women, and the next, you’re sent off pickin’ wildflowers, for goodness sake,” Jess said, turning his indignant gaze on his buddy. He sighed deeply. “I told you, Slim, when we was pushed into paintin’ the barn that time, let a woman get her own way, then a man can’t hardly think for himself no more.”
“Quit your moaning, Jess, and come on in, afore those women eat up all the cake,” said Slim, grinning at his buddy.
Jess pushed the front door open and entered, but then stood stock still in amazement at the scene that greeted him.
The room was all done out in paper streamers and a huge banner hanging from the ceiling beam said, in wobbly hand painted letters, Happy Birthday Jess!
He stared up at it and then at the sea of happy expectant faces all beaming at him — all his friends and neighbors. Then someone shouted Happy Birthday, everyone clapped and young Mike ran forwards and threw himself at his hero, hugging him.
“It’s a surprise party,” Mike said joyfully, “and I made the banner. Do you like it, Jess… huh?”
Jess just looked around him, a variety of emotions flitting across his handsome features, from shock to disbelief and finally delights; his deep blue eyes sparkled with pleasure. “Sure I do, Tiger. It’s the best!”
Mike looked up at his hero. “Say, did you really forget your own birthday, Jess? Didn’t you know it was today? How could you do that?”
Jess glanced down at the youngster, suddenly feeling quite emotional. “Well, you see, Tiger, when I was a kid, Pa didn’t set much store by birthdays. There were a lot of us Harpers and not too much money to pay for the likes of this,” he said, tipping his hat around the beautifully decorated room. “Then once I went on the drift, well, I guess nobody knew, and I kinda tended to forget about it,” he finished quietly.
“Well, we haven’t,” said the youngster happily, and then Jess was surrounded by his friends, all laughing and slapping him on the back. He didn’t think it could get any better than this.
But then suddenly it did, as folk started giving him presents.
A bottle of the finest Scottish whiskey from Mort Corey, which was gratefully received; Slim winked at him, knowing they would doubtless share a glass or two before the day was out.
Then a wonderfully made dress shirt from Daisy “for when you go out dancing, dear.”
Jess gave her a warm hug and kiss. “Gee thanks, Daisy.”
After that, his good buddy Doc Sam Baker presented him with a state of the art new fishing rod. The two men shared a passion for fishing, and Jess was overwhelmed, turning it over in his hands with something akin to awe in his eyes.
“Well it’s kind of a thank you too, for letting me share your lake and river,” the kindly doctor said, grinning at his good friend. “Not to mention keeping me in business, the number of fights and shoot outs you manage to get yourself into. If I’m not patching you up, it’s one of the poor fools who have been crazy enough to take you on!” he chuckled.
There was a new hunting rifle from Slim, and Jess was absolutely speechless when he took it out of its leather scabbard.
“You do like it?” asked Slim looking anxious. “It’s the one you’ve been lusting after in the general store for nigh on the last twelve months.”
Jess was silent and then when he looked up his eyes were suspiciously bright. “Thanks, pard,” he whispered, “it’s just great.” He reached over and gave Slim a little punch on the arm.
Slim smiled and looked down. “Knew you’d like it,” he said softly.
Then Mike came over with a small package wrapped in pretty paper. “I hope you like it,” he said apprehensively.
Jess hunkered down beside the child and opened it carefully, his eyes alight with pleasure when he saw the neatly stitched, blue-patterned bandana. “Gee thanks, Tiger; it’s swell,” he said, giving the boy a warm hug.
“Aunt Daisy chose the material and then showed me how to do the stitchin’. That’s called hemming,” Mike said, proudly displaying his handy work. “ I thought it was kinda sissified doin’ sewing’ and all, but then Slim said before Aunt Daisy arrived, you both used to sew on buttons and mend your own shirts. Said as how it was somethin’ bachelors had to learn to do, and as I ain’t thinking of getting married for a while yet, I thought I’d better learn.” he said seriously.
That brought the house down, and during the general laughter, Millie sidled over, and under the cover of giving him a birthday kiss on the cheek, said seductively, “I’ll give you your present after the dance tonight, cowboy.” The couple exchanged an intimate look as he squeezed her hand.
And then Daisy entered the room bearing the huge cake that Jess has spied earlier in the day, but now it was adorned with frosting and brightly burning little candles.
Jess looked astonished. “Heck, Daisy, you already cooked it, didn’t you? What are you playin’ at? You’ll have it afire! “
The good housekeeper chuckled as she laid her burden down carefully on the table. “Don’t fret, dear. It’s an old European custom. You see, when I lived back East, our neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt from Germany always had a cake like this for their son’s birthday and I adopted the tradition for my boy — and now for you dear,” she said with a loving smile.
Jess gave her a fond look. “Thanks, Daisy.”
“You see the candles represent each year of your life, and as you blow them out, you make a wish.”
Jess nodded and went to do as he was bid.
“But keep it a secret dear, or it won’t come true.”
Jess glanced over at Millie, and then taking a deep breath, blew out all the candles in one go amidst much cheering and clapping.
Later that evening, the men were in their room getting ready for the dance in town, having waved off their guests amidst many cries of ‘thank you’ and’ see you later’ and much cheer and bonhomie.
Jess was sitting on his bed polishing the new hunting rifle yet again, and Slim turned from where he was shaving and grinned at his pard.
“You’ll wear the darn thing out before you’ve fired a single shot,” Slim said laughing.
Jess threw him a sheepish look. “You shouldn’t have, Slim; it was powerful expensive.”
“Hell, I wanted to, Jess. And anyway, we’ve had a good year. Guess I can afford it.” Then Slim threw his buddy a quizzical look. “So did you really not figure what was going on? You had genuinely forgotten?”
“Sure I knew my birthday was sometime around high summer, but I didn’t know what the date was today. I never bother much with the date, you know that.”
Slim grinned at him. Well, you’ve got that right. Only time you know the date is once a week when you read the Laramie Sentinel. Written at the top of the page, isn’t it?” he said chuckling.
“Well heck, Slim, the mustangs and beeves never ask what the darned date is, so I guess I don’t need to know it. And I figure if it’s something important, you’ll remind me.
“Like Mike’s birthday coming up, for example?”
“Heck yeah. When’s that?”
“Third of the month, the beginning of October, not yet a while.”
“So do you think Daisy will bake another cake with all those candles and everything?”
“I imagine so.”
“Umm. These birthdays are kinda fun, aren’t they, pard?”
Slim grinned across at him. “Well, I guess you’ve got a few to make up for over the years, having missed out the way you have.”
Jess just nodded. “I guess.”
“So…what did you wish for, anyway? “
“I ain’t tellin’ you that. Daisy said it wouldn’t come true if I told anyone.”
Slim chuckled. “Well, if it concerns Miss Millie, going by that long, lingering birthday kiss she gave you when she left, I have a feeling your wish will definitely come true.”
“Aw, Slim get out of here,” Jess said, laughing and chucking his pillow over at his best buddy. Then he looked worried. “It don’t count if you just guessed does it, Slim? I mean it wasn’t like I told you…huh, Slim…huh?”
Thank you for reading!
And……Happy Birthday Bob!