By mid morning, Sheriff Mort Corey had made his rounds. It was a typical morning for the lawman. He had arrested three cowboys for shooting up the saloon and filled out five pages of paperwork about the incident. He figured by ten a.m.; it was time for a well deserved break.
Mort leaned back in his chair, propped his feet on his desk, and sipped his steaming coffee. But just as soon as he had taken one swallow, a stranger entered the lawman’s office. And from the saw off shotgun the stranger carried, Mort Corey knew his break was over.
“Morning,” the man greeted.
Mort sized the stranger up quickly. This was no ordinary dollar a day cowboy. This was man to be reckon with. “Morning. What can I do for you?”
The visitor pushed back his hat, revealing light, dusty hair.
Mort realized that this man had been in the saddle for awhile to get to Laramie.
“Name’s Josh Randall. I’m looking for someone.”
“You a bounty hunter?” Mort didn’t try to hide the disgust from his voice.
But Josh showed no anger. Instead he grinned. “You know a man named of Jess Harper?”
Mort didn’t answer right away. Josh lost his grin as he waited patiently. But his patience soon disappeared. “Well Sheriff?”
Mort gave a quick nod.
From his jacket, Josh pulled out a faded wanted poster. He handed it to Mort. “He look like this man?”
It was Jess all right. And the reward was a high one.
Someone was singing off key; but to Jess Harper it was the sweetest sound he had ever heard.
Jess Harper drew in his breath and then blew as hard as he could.
“Happy Birthday to you!”
All of the candles but one went out on the birthday cake.
“Goin’ to be bad luck,” Jonesy mumbled.
“Aw Jonesy, that’s just what old folks say if you don’t blow all the candles out,” Andy complained.
“And old folks know ‘cause they’ve lived a long time. Seen a lot of things. You’d do good to listen to old folks. I know what I’m talking about,” Jonesy countered.
“Jonesy, you saying you’re old?” Slim asked with a smile tugging at his lips.
“‘Course I ain’t!” the old man bristled. “But that don’t mean that I don’t know what old folks are saying. That’s ‘cause I respect my elders. I listen to them. To be wise to do the same.”
“To be your elder, Jonesy, that person must be awful aged.” Jess’s eyes twinkled with amusement.
“You make all the fun you want, Jess. But we’ll see who’s laughing when you start having bad luck. Now I can relight those candles and you can try again; and you can turn that bad luck around,” Jonesy suggested.
“Jonesy, I don’t think there’s anyone having better luck than I got right now,” Jess disagreed. “Let’s eat that cake!”
“I’m for that!” Andy cried out with glee. “My mouth’s just a watering. Looks awful good, Jonesy.”
“All right, Jess, it’s your birthday. But if it was me, I’d try again to blow them candles all out. You know what the old folks say.”
“Well I don’t care what they say,” Jess stated, his finger hooking some of the icing off the cake. “This is the best birthday I’ve ever had.”
Andy grinned at Slim.
Jonesy started cutting the cake. He gave the biggest piece to Jess “on account it’s your birthday. And you ought to have some fun before the bad luck begins.”
Chewing a large mouthful of cake, Jess complemented, “Jonesy, this sure is good. Thank you for baking it for me.”
“My pleasure, Jess. Have another piece.”
“I think I will.”
“Jess, where were you last year on your birthday?” Andy asked between bites.
Jess thought for a long minute. “Dodge City. Went to the Dodge House and had me a steak.”
“Dodge City!” Andy’s eyes lit with interest. “Boy oh boy, what I’d give to see that place! Maybe you and me-”
“Maybe...some day,” Slim cut in. “But for right now, Andy, wasn’t there something you needed to tend to in the kitchen?”
“Oh yeah!” Andy grab another bite of cake, then took off running to the kitchen.
Jess paid no attention as he started eating a second piece of cake. “Mighty fine,” he mumbled. “Mighty fine.”
Andy came back in the room, carrying a small box that was covered with flour.
“We wanted to be sure you wouldn’t find it, just in case you got a hankering to go looking,” Jonesy explained.
“Find what?” Jess asked.
“Just remember good things come in small packages.” Andy handed Jess the small box wrapped in brown paper.
“Happy Birthday, Jess. It’s from all of us,” Slim said.
Jess stared down at the present as if he had never seen one. “I never expected-” Jess quickly wiped his arm across his eyes. “Must have got flour in my eyes. Or dust.”
“Dust! I keep this place-” Jonesy stopped in mid sentence as Slim gave his a quick shake of his head. Jonesy said quickly, “I guess it can get a might dusty in here. All them stages coming in. Andy, remind me to sweep up the place after lunch.”
Like a close brother, Slim touched Jess’ arm. “Aren’t you going to open it?”
Jess smiled. “Sure. Sure!” He unwrapped the brown paper as if the wrapping was precious to him. He opened the box then gasped.
“You like it?” Slim asked.
Jess just stared at the present.
“Jess,” Slim began, “we were all each going to get you something. But then we saw this. We knew you needed one. So we all went in together to get it. Hope you don’t mind.”
“Mind?” Jess repeated. “I don’t remember the last time I got a present on my birthday. A saloon gal bought me a beer once but...” Jess picked up the pocket watch, holding it as if it was gold. “You got a mortgage due and this must have cost-”
“Now don’t you fret,” Slim cut in. “You’ve worked hard here these last few months. ‘Sides you’re part of this outfit now.”
“Well do you like it?” Andy demanded, his face crinkled with worry.
“Andy, I think it’s the best present a fellow could ever get. Thank you. Thanks to all of you.”
Slim couldn’t help thinking that Jess who usually looked like a tough guy, didn’t look so tough right now.
Jess’ thumb slid over the case, which had an engraving of a log cabin with smoke blowing out the chimney. “Prettiest watch I ever seen.”
“Well open it up,” Jonesy instructed. “So far all you’ve done is stare at the case.”
Jess pushed against the side clasp and the watch case snapped open. The tune played softly. He looked up in wonder.
“They just had one to pick from,” Jonesy explained. “You know what that song is?”
Jonesy sang out, “Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam, be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.”
Suddenly there were four voices singing, “home, home, sweet, sweet home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.” Laughter followed.
“I don’t know how to thank you.” Jess looked happier than they had ever seen him.
“Look on the back,” Slim urged.
Jess turned the pocket watch over. He read the words out loud, “Jess, Laramie.”
Jonesy said. “It was Slim’s idea. I wanted to put Sherman Relay Station. But it was too long.”
“And,” Andy added quickly, “we couldn’t fit all our names and your name on the back.”
“We figured no matter where you were, you’d always know you had a home in Laramie,” Slim stated. He waited but Jess only stared down at the watch. Slim added worriedly, “Maybe we should have put something different.”
“No,” Jess said with a shake of his head. “No, this is perfect.” He looked up, his eyes catching each face, “Just perfect.”