Happy Friday, everyone!
The cake pictured above is a bit too fancy for the one in the story, but it was so adorable I couldn't resist. I'm a big fan of lemon cake myself, but carrots not bad.
This is short story number 2 of 3 -- Cal's birthday! If you haven't read the first short story, The Hunt, make sure you do that before diving into this one.
Also, if you haven't read Suspects & Scales, this short does contain some spoilers. Read at your own risk!
“Did Scarlet say what kind of trouble?” Cal asked as Jesse lead him towards the saloon.
“Didn’t say.” Jesse was glad he was leading so Cal couldn’t see the wicked grin on his face. It had taken some careful planning to get everything set up just right. Since each deputy, their partners and most of the town folk wanted to join in the celebration, the saloon was the only place that could comfortably hold everyone. Because there was going to be children present, the workers of the establishment took the afternoon off to join the festivities in a wholesome manner.
Once he pushed through the doors, the group inside cheered and yelled their practiced “surprise” to a gobsmacked Sheriff. Jesse spun on his heels, revealing his grin and gave his stunned Centaur a kiss beside the mouth.
“Happy birthday, darlin’.”
“You cheeky bastard,” Cal said around a laugh. “You put this together?”
Jesse gave a wink and moved aside to let the rest of the party goers swarm him for handshakes, hugs.
Scarlet had done an amazing job getting the saloon prettied up for their gathering. Vases with flowers were on the tables, no empty bottles or glasses around, and the place looked swept and tidy. Some food was set out for people to snack on, beer was available but Gibson, the one-eyed bartender, wasn’t letting anyone have more than a fun amount.
Sitting as the jewel of the food spread was a delicious smelling carrot cake with sugary glaze on top, made lovingly for Cal’s birthday by Mrs. Thompson.
Cal accepted the greetings and well wishes of the guests, slowly migrating to a table to sit and partake in some good food. Even though it was the man’s birthday, he still seemed a little uneasy about accepting gifts for the occasion. The generous folk of Stallion Ridge handed over all manner of things, from fresh preserves, baked goods, some fine new boots and even new linen for the house. The poor, honor bound Centaur didn’t know what to do with so much hospitality and gratefulness of the citizens, but he handled it well.
Jesse had to admit, watching his handsome Sheriff smile so much was a warmth he would treasure well beyond this day. The sunlight filtering in from the open saloon windows made his brown hair shine. His brown eyes were framed in smile lines he adored. Each time Cal laughed, it made Jesse’s heart flutter like a swarm of butterflies.
The townsfolk came and went and slowly the party became a more intimate affair. When the cake was finally cut, it was only close friends and family there to eat and force more gifts on the birthday boy.
“Uncle Cal, open mine!” Marybell had been vibrating with excitement for days about giving Cal the present her and Gunner wrangled. She placed a cloth wrapped jar onto the table, bouncing beside him as Cal pulled the knot loose and let the fabric fall away.
“Holy shit that’s a big bug!” Mack nearly choked on his bite of cake. The giant, multi-horned death beetle was lazily scraping at the side of the glass as Cal picked up the jar and looked it over. His eyes were wide with amazement, which made Marybell beam with pride.
“Do you like it?!”
“This is a Amethyst King Elk Beetle. Normally the males are blue, not purple...this color is so rare. Ah, look at the horns! They’re perfect. Where did you find this?” Cal moved his arm out of the way so Marybell could climb into his lap.
“It was near the river, south of town,” Gunner explained, sipping some beer. “That’s from both of us, by the way.”
“Papa helped me catch him!” Marybell grinned up at Cal from his lap.
“Thank you, Marybell. This is going to be my favorite beetle in my collection.”
Jesse had never seen his niece look so proud. And she once chased all the monsters out from under her bed all by herself with grit and a wooden gun. So this was a pretty big deal.
“I’m just glad that damn thing is out of the house,” Cooper grumbled, the slow scrape of the beetle making him visibly shiver. “I was convinced I was going to come home and it would have busted through the glass.”
Cal gave a chuckle and hugged Marybell one more time before she crawled down to go eat more cake.
“I didn’t wrap your present, Cal. It just came in.” Cooper pushed his glasses up his nose slightly, the smile he was trying to suppress failing as he handed Cal the small, green book with slightly frayed tips to the binding.
“The Wayward Entomologist.” Cal grinned. “This is one of my favorites.”
“I know. Open it.”
Cal did as he was asked and his brows rose slightly. “Holy shit. Is this a first edition...is...is it signed?”
Jesse laughed as Cal looked at his brother like his head was made of snakes.
“Cooper,” Cal nearly choked. “Where did you get this?”
“I have my ways.” Cooper gave Cal’s thick shoulder a pat. “Happy birthday, Cal.”
“Wow, Coop. How the hell are we supposed to top that?” Mack said around a cheek full of cake.
“My turn!” Scarlet sang, sweeping over to the group in a lovely, purple dress with white accents. He sat in Cal’s lap where Marybell had been and set a pretty, twine wrapped box in front of him.
“Should I be afraid?” Cal peered up at him, only getting a wink in return. Scarlet was looking rather proud of himself, which meant whatever was inside was going to be good, and probably something Cal could use on Jesse later. Or vice-versa.
Cal carefully pulled the twine away, opening the hat box style container and immediately put the lid back on.
“Don’t be a prude! The babies are eating cake, they’re not even watching.” Scarlet flapped his gloved hand in the vague direction of where Marybell and Pearl were eating and playing. Begrudgingly, Cal opened the box again with a sigh and Scarlet grinned.
When Cal pulled out the long, leather riding crop, the room erupted into laughter, even though Cal didn’t join merriment. His cheeks were red and he was glaring at Jesse.
“This is not my fault!” Jesse managed around his laughing.
“I can show you how to use that if you two want to invite me over for a lesson,” Scarlet offered, his eyebrows wiggling.
Cal put the crop back into the box and scanned over the remaining items inside, his cheeks burning but he no longer looked miserable.
“I labeled each oil for what they’re best for, which ones are warming and cooling and which ones do not taste good so beware on where they go. Oh, and there’s a silk rope in there for when you want to play sheriff and bandit without using cuffs.” Scarlet tossed Jesse a wink. “You’re welcome.”
“Thanks, Scarlet.” Jesse returned the wink.
Scarlet hugged Cal around the neck and pressed a kiss to his temple, leaving behind a red kiss mark. “Happy birthday, Cal.”
“Thank you, Scarlet,” Cal smirked as Scarlet removed himself from his lap and swished over to the bar for a drink.
“Cody has a gift for you, Cal,” Quellin announced, placing his hand at the small of Cody’s back and edging him forward. The young man’s cheeks were fire red and he was fidgeting as his Iara better half eased him over to Cal.
“I researched traditional Centaur gifts from that culture book I got, and it said in there that one of the most important gifts were weapons passed down the family line. Well, I ain’t got nothing real impressive like that, but I did have knife my Mama gave me. Only thing was that the blade broke off some time back, but I kept the handle cause it was made from deer antler.” Cody pulled out a sheathed knife with a worn, bone white handle carved from antler.
The sheath looked new, sturdy and soft, with an embossed sheriff’s badge on the side. Cody handed it over and Cal took it gently.
“Since it didn’t have a blade, Quellin helped me get it replaced,” Cody explained as Cal slowly pulled the blade loose. The blade attached to the handle was gorgeous and viciously sharp, shining almost sapphire in the light. Mack gave a whistle and Gunner leaned over to take a better look.
“It’s Iara steel,” Quellin explained. “So don’t worry about rust or anything silly like that.”
“It’s from both of us,” Cody was quick to add. “Since we both put it together. It ain’t a sword but...it’s ours and now it’s yours.”
Cal smiled, a sweet mixture of pride and being touched by Cody’s efforts. He pushed to his feet and gave Cody a hug, clapping his back.
“Thank you, Cody. This means a lot.”
Cody nodded quickly, squeezing Cal tight before stepping back beside Quellin. The former assassin was smirking, the same mixture of pride in his dark eyes as he kissed Cody’s temple.
“Alright, enough feelings,” Mack interrupted, finishing his cake and pulling his chair over beside Cal’s. From his pocket, Mack pulled out what looked like a long, vertical, wooden comb. At the top was something Jesse recognized right away as the Klelbor family crest, the same one on Cal’s shield back home. Under the crest was four long teeth that seemed to taper at the ends.
“It’s to keep that beautiful mane back while you’re running around.” Mack stood, pulling Cal’s hat off and tossing it onto the table. “What are you even doing wearing that inside like a heathen.”
Cal snickered, not seeming bothered by Mack gathering his hair back. He twisted it into a sloppy knot behind Cal’s skull and stabbed the pick through the meat of it. It slipped into place and held Cal’s thick hair back, even when he moved his head from side to side.
“That’s handy.” Cal reached back to feel it.
“Yep. I used Sky as a test model while I was carving it, since you both have pretty, long locks.”
“It should hold up fine,” Sky chimed in. “I flew around with it in my hair and it didn’t come loose.”
“Thanks, Mack.” Cal pulled his hair down and traced his thumb over the crest. “It’s beautiful.”
“You’re welcome!” Mack edged his seat back to the table to take a swig of beer. Sky stepped over as Mack returned to his beer.
“Gifts aren’t traditionally given in my culture unless someone is born or dies. Birthdays aren’t something I’m used to.” Sky pulled a chair over and took a seat beside Cal, his voice low and calm as ever. “When someone is born, they are given a blessing by an elder in the tribe to live a long life and find their path. But that’s hard to wrap.”
Cal chuckled and Sky cracked a small smile that was rarely seen.
Sky took Cal’s right hand gently, rotating it so the palm was up. Closing his eyes, Sky began whispering in his melodic language, the cadence steady and rhythmic in his smooth voice. In the pouch hanging from his side, Sky pulled out some loose, dry leaves and one long, black raven feather. Cal sat still, watching as Sky placed the items into his big palm and pressed Cal’s fingers closed around it.
As Sky uttered the last of his words, the feather that was sticking out of Cal’s fist melted away into light, disappearing as it drifted up like ash. Cal blinked, opening his hand to find nothing there.
“May you live long days with those you love and walk a noble path, my friend.” Sky pulled a small bag from the pouch and put it in Cal’s hand. “And here’s some tea. Happy birthday.”
As the party went on into the evening, the group shared their favorite stories about Cal, provoking laughter and a couple of sappy moments as well. Eventually, the saloon emptied and the party was over, leaving Cal and Jesse with presents to take home and some delicious leftovers.
“You have a good birthday?” Jesse glanced over as Cal helped Scarlet gather up dishes.
“I did.” Cal smiled. “Thank you, Jesse.”
“Leave all this, you two. Go have fun. Take my gift with you!” Scarlet called after them as Jesse helped corral Cal out of the saloon, snagging Scarlet’s box as he went.
“We’re not using that crop.” Cal pointed at the box. “It’s a matter of pride.”
“Didn’t you hear him? He’ll give us lessons!”
“That’s going away before we get home.”
“We’re not going home just yet.” Jesse grinned at his Centaur as they left the building. “I still need to give you your present.”
To be continued