June 2008 Volume Two Issue Four
The Birthday Gift - Bruce Golden
Everyone was there--Aunt Gertie, Uncle Roy, the cousins from Chicago whose names I could never remember, the triplets, Pat, Pam, and Priscilla, whose names I could remember but never knew which was which, even great-uncle Bob--they were all there. Them and more that I had never even heard of.
It was 1969. The country was still recovering from a pair of shocking assassinations, young men were being torn from their loved ones and sent to Southeast Asia to die, and man had just set foot on the moon.
I knew about Neil Armstrong's one small step, but I was too young to think about much else but myself--especially on that day my entire family gathered at Grandpa and Grandma Easterly's ranch outside of Winslow, Arizona. I didn't recognize half the faces, but my mom said they were all relatives in one way or another.
I thought of them all as ducks congregating to quack at the same pond. The idea made me laugh--especially when I pictured Aunt Gertie waddling like one. Of course I was just a little kid at the time--one with a notoriously wild imagination.
The big family reunion had been called to celebrate two birthdays--both of which fell on November 1st. The truth was, the big to-do was really only for one special birthday. Great Grandpa Easterly, Gramp Jack I liked to call him, was celebrating his 100th birthday. That was the real reason why my mom and dad had driven all the way from San Diego, and why the rest had flown in from all over the country, including Hawaii where second (or was it third?) cousin Bill lived. And even though it was also my birthday, eight years wasn't much when compared to a hundred.
I didn't care that everyone was fussing over Gramp Jack instead of me. That just meant I had more time to play. Not that I had anyone to play with. I was the only kid--if you didn't count cousins Amy and Erin, who were just babies and no fun to play with. Everybody else was a teenager or grownup, and I didn't see that there was much difference.
So, as soon as lunch was eaten and all the gifts were unwrapped, I wandered off into the neat trees that grew all around the ranch. I grew bored listening to old family stories, and besides, my mom kept telling me to "stop making all that racket." The racket being caused by my favorite birthday present, the one Gramp Jack gave me.
It was the kind of battery-powered toy machine gun they had back then that shot sparks, and fired off half a dozen caps every time I pulled the trigger. It was shiny black, plastic smooth, and fit right in my hands. It was rad--just what I had wanted. That, and the skateboard my mom and dad had got me. But a skateboard wasn't much good on a ranch.
Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat! Another evil alien invader appeared from around a tree and met his doom. I moved deeper into the off-world jungle of my imagination, stalking creatures with one eye and four arms. Each time I wheeled and aimed the toy weapon there was another one--rat-tat-tat-tat!
I felt a little guilty that I hadn't gotten Gramp Jack anything for his birthday. But nobody had told me to, and besides, Mom and Dad had put my name on their present, so that was from me too.
I sprang from my hiding place, hit the dirt sliding on my belly, rolled across the ground, and came up firing. Rat-tat-tat-- It jammed! I unlocked the clip and pulled it out. Nope, it wasn't jammed, I was just out of ammo. I pulled a spare roll of caps from my pocket and sat down--calling for a temporary truce with the enemy.
Now how had Gramp Jack put that in? I fiddled unsuccessfully with the roll, trying to feed it into the tiny slot so it could get started. Darn! Why hadn't I paid attention when Gramp Jack had showed me? Stupid thing!
My fiddling led to frustration and I kicked at the ground. The kick sent a stone flying into one of the many small ravines lacing the woods, and the echo of its fall came back to me. But the echo seemed to go on and on, as if coming from farther away. It was then I realized that I was hearing something else. Something that sounded like distant screams. Not like calls for help, but wild, threatening kinds of screams like . . . like a bunch of Indians. I listened some more until I was sure. I'd seen enough old movies to know the cries of an Indian war party when I heard them.
I closed the machine gun, still in disrepair, and stood up. The sounds were getting louder, coming closer. Then I heard the sounds of horses and gun shots, and that was all I needed to hear. I started running. I ran as fast as my size three Pumas would carry me. I ran straight for the ranch house. But where was it?
The rush of adrenaline had left me confused. I was no longer sure in which direction it stood. I had gone so far into the forest I couldn't see it anymore. Panic fueled the pumping of my little legs. The war cries were right behind me, so close I could hear the pounding of hooves. I didn't dare look back. I just ran, clutching my birthday present tightly, unwilling, even in that moment of terror to abandon it.
When it seemed as if I was so scared I'd swallow my own tongue, I broke through the tree cover and saw the ranch house. I didn't stop, even though the sounds of pursuit had faded. I didn't stop until I burst through a throng of relatives most impolitely and was corralled by my mother.
"Matthew! What are you doing?" she said angrily. "Quit running around like a wild--"
"Indians!" I had caught my breath and didn't hesitate to interrupt. "Indians . . . they're out there!"
Most of the family members standing nearby smiled and laughed, and remarked on little Matthew's Hollywood potential.
"Matthew, I don't want you running around people like that. You're going to knock someone over. Now, if you can't play nice--"
"But really, Mom, there were Indians! I heard them and they chased me and--"
"All right, that's enough, Matthew Easterly. I don't care if it is your birthday. If you can't behave, you'll have to go sit in the house."
I started to say something else, but I looked at my mother and knew it was useless. Then I looked back the way I had run. There was nothing there. I listened, but didn't hear anything.
"That boy has such a vivid imagination, sometimes I don't know what I'm going to do with him," said my mother to whomever. Then she turned to my dad. "I don't know why your grandfather had to buy him the noisiest toy in the store."
My dad just shrugged his shoulders and turned to me.
"It was probably just the wind you heard, Matt," he said, putting his arm around me. "The wind can make some awfully strange noises blowing through those trees. I know, I played in those woods when I was a boy."
"But, Dad, there were gunshots and war cries and horses and--"
"Matthew." It was the stern voice of Gramp Jack that stopped me. The old man was sitting in his favorite rocker, on the porch of what used to be the hired help's bunkhouse. It was his little cottage now. "Come here, boy."
My dad smiled and gave me a gentle boost in Gramp Jack's direction. He motioned for me to sit on the porch.
"Boy, did I ever tell you the story 'bout how my folks, your great, great grandparents, was killed by injuns?"
I shook my head.
"Didn't think so," said Gramp Jack, tapping his new birthday pipe against the railing to free the ashes. "Well listen up.
"My folks was headed for Californee in a small wagon train out of Texas. I was 'bout four at the time, and dumb as a three-legged jackass. Well, the wagons had stopped to rest and water the horses, so I'm wanderin' off playin'. It was just over that way not too far." Gramp Jack pointed beyond the woods where I'd been playing. "That's when the injuns hit. I guess they figured we was trespassin'. They came screamin' out of them woods with warpaint streaked 'cross their faces, firin' arrows from horseback like there was no tomorrah. Apaches they was, the coldest, bloodiest killers that ever lived."
By then my eyes were as wide as they could get. From the first mention of Indians, my attention was locked on my great grandfather's every word.
"My pa and ma, and the others, never had a chance. Every one of them was slaughtered by those red devils. So I never got to Californee. When I was old enough though, I came right back to this spot and decided this was where I was gonna build my own spread. No injuns was gonna scare me off the land, no sir. Why I--"
"But how'd you get away from the Indians?"
Gramp Jack leaned back in his rocker and slowly refilled his pipe with tobacco. I waited patiently as he lit the pipe, inhaled, then exhaled a cloud of smoke.
"That's the strange part of the story. As soon as I saw them injuns, I knew I was in trouble--even bein' as dumb as I was. I lit out for the cover of them trees just as fast as I could. But one of them braves saw me and whooped and hollered like he'd found a prize pig. He turned his pony so hard it nearly broke a leg."
"What did you do, Gramp Jack?"
"What did I do? What did I do? Damn, boy, I did what any little brat, dumb or 'telligent would do. I ran like hell. But you can't outrun a horse. I made it into them trees and turned around. That injun bearin' down on me was so fierce lookin' I froze, starin' at death thunderin' towards me. Then, from I-don't-know-where, this boy--not from the wagon train mind you, cause I'd never laid eyes on him before--this boy who was a little older than me pops up on the ridge. If it weren't for that boy in them woods, I wouldn't be here now, tellin' you this story." Gramp Jack laughed at some private joke and added, "I guess you wouldn't be here neither."
"What happened then, how did the boy save you?" asked Matthew.
"Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you . . . "
Gramp Jack stopped his story as the whole Easterly clan moved in around him singing. My mom was carrying the cake, ablaze with what looked liked all one hundred candles, and Uncle Roy was taking aim with his Bell & Howell 8mm camera, filming the event for posterity. I eased back as the relatives all crowded in around their senior member, then was pushed back by sheer force of numbers.
I blocked out the singing and wondered about Gramp Jack's story--wondered if he'd just made it up--wondered if he'd remember to tell me how he got away. I walked off, sat down, and, after a while, figured out how to get the fresh roll of caps into my gun.
"Want some cake, Matt?" my dad asked between mouthfuls.
"Not now, Dad. I want to go play."
"No cake, I can't believe it."
"Dad, when you played in those woods when you were a boy, did you ever hear any Indians?"
"Sure, hundreds of times. I must have killed off a thousand Apache warriors and at least a dozen chiefs in my day. Of course, I had a good imagination--like you do."
"Oh," I said, disappointed.
I got up, locked my fully loaded clip into the gun, and started back in the direction I had run from earlier. After just a short distance, I slowed, hesitated, and started to turn around. One of my teenage cousins saw me and called out.
"Watch out for those Indians. Just whistle if you need the cavalry."
I turned back towards the trees and ignored the chuckles I heard.
Part of me, a big part of me, was afraid to go back into those woods. But another part was fueled by curiosity, and the thought of discovering something beyond belief. The further I walked--the harder I listened and the less I heard--the more convinced I was that it was just another one of Gramp Jack's tall tales, and that it was only the wind like my dad had said. Even if the story was true, that had been almost a hundred years ago.
I tried to remember the sounds I'd heard. They had been so real. I'd even felt the beat of the horse's hooves on the ground beneath me. I wished I hadn't been too afraid to turn and look. Then I would have known for sure.
I tried to picture the Indian warrior Gramp Jack had described. Embellished by my own imagination, I saw a trio of eagle feathers perched above a terrifying red face streaked with black and yellow warpaint. I envisioned a necklace of human bones and bear claws draped over a buckskin vest. I even imagined a savage scream and a stone tomahawk slicing through the air.
I could almost see the--"Ah!"
My daydreaming and a hazardous tree root sent me sprawling, and a shower of dirt and rocks flying over the ridge in front of me. I lay there a moment as the echo of falling rocks faded. I got up, dusted myself off, and heard it again. Not the echo, but the screams, the war cries, the gunshots. They were very close and very real.
I jumped up, ready to run, thinking in the same instant no one would believe me again. I stopped in mid-stride and thought about Gramp Jack's story. I thought of the people in the wagon train and the little boy who was Gramp Jack. At the same time, fear tugged at me, pulling me toward the ranch house. But I didn't budge. Something inside of me wouldn't let me. Instead, I clutched my plastic machine gun and made sure it was ready to fire. Then I eased my way over the ridge as the sounds drew closer. All the while there was a knot in my throat the size of a baseball.
It wasn't until I saw him that the knot dissolved. Him--my Indian, complete with warpaint and tomahawk, astride a horse that was galloping towards me. No, not at me, but towards a little boy standing there just below me.
It happened so fast, I didn't know what I was doing. I just reacted. I raised my gun and fired.
Sparks flew and twenty caps burst in rapid succession. The horse reared up so hard, the Apache brave was thrown to the ground. The younger boy recovered from his shock, took a look at me, then turned and ran like a scared rabbit.
I watched the horse run off and looked to where its rider had landed. Only slightly shaken, the warrior staggered to his feet and looked up at me. Our eyes met for only a moment, but the savage fury I saw in that moment hit me like a thunderclap.
I ran. I ran for real--no game, no imaginary enemy. The brave whooped a victory cry upon seeing me flee, and gave chase.
I practically flew over the ground, leaping every obstacle, knowing one misstep would be the end of me. All the while the howls of rage from behind screamed that death was gaining on me.
I wanted to believe that if I reached the edge of the treeline, and broke into the open field of the ranch, I would be safe. It wasn't a belief fashioned by reason--it wasn't a moment of reason. I could only hope. But hope couldn't make me run any faster, and I realized my pursuer would be on me before I could reach that sanctuary.
What I did next was pure reflex. I didn't think it out. I couldn't have if I'd wanted to. I stopped, wheeled around, and with my eyes closed as tight as they would go, fired my toy machine gun.
I squeezed that trigger for all I was worth and tried to imagine pretend bullets tearing into my savage attacker. Though my finger never let up, the frenzied cracking of the caps was eventually replaced by a tranquil silence. I waited with eyes closed--waited for the end to come. When it didn't, I peeked out from under my eyelids and saw only trees . . . trees and more trees.
When I got back to the ranch house I could hear the family party winding down. Feeling shaken, and somewhat older than a mere eight years, I passed through a dispersing flock of relatives towards my great-grandfather. He was still in his rocker on the bunkhouse porch, puffing away on his pipe.
I stopped in front of the porch, but didn't speak. Gramp Jack just stared at me for a moment, real serious like.
"You've been there, haven't you?" he asked.
I nodded my head.
"Then you know the rest of the story, don't you?"
"Yes, Gramp Jack."
"Well, boy," said Gramp Jack, still very serious, "the way I figure it, you gave me the best goldarn gift of the day." The old man smiled as big a smile as someone with that many wrinkles could manage. "Happy birthday, boy, to the both of us."
- END -