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The Birthday Gift

by Johanna Klykken

     I was sweet sixteen and I had never been kissed. There were many other things that I hadn't had that were terribly important for most girls my age.

     I had never had a party dress or high-heeled slippers. But then I had never been to a party either. These were some of the thoughts that passed through my mind on my sixteenth birthday. My first birthday away from home, and there were no presents or cards. Not even a cake! It was quite obvious that I was the loneliest, most forsaken person in the whole world, and also the most self-pitying.

     My first job took me away from home. Seventy miles across the mountains, and to me it might just as well been a thousand. I was a baby sitter, and mother's helper in a home that had four children, all under six years of age. My employers lived in a huge old house on an abandoned dude ranch. He was an engineer on a new highway and had rented the building because it was all that was available. His wife was a sweet careworn person who was completely dominated by her husband. She was overjoyed when he suggested they go to Denver for the weekend, and that is how it came about that I was left alone and responsible for the four small children on my sixteenth birthday.

     I was well qualified for this task as I was the middle child in a family of seven. But as the day were on I became increasingly apprehensive when I thought about the night time. The nearest neighbors were four miles away, and I had no transportation, not even a horse. I remember thinking it was strange that there wasn't at least one horse on such a large ranch, so when the children were taking their naps I strolled out to further study this problem.

     A long raised board walk led down to the barns and corrals. This was the only way to leave the house now that the spring thaws had caused the river to overflow and make a small lake around one end of the building. I guess a deserted ranch is about the quietest place on earth. Not so many years ago this had been a busy place full of vacationing, jolly people. Now there is just me, the cobwebs, and ghosts! I thought as a shiver ran down my spine.

     There wasn't a sign of life anyplace. It would have pleased me to see even a snake or a rat. The quietness stirred my loneliness and I hurried back to the house in hopes that the children would be awake and ready to dispel the depressing silence.

Then came something worse than loneliness--fear! As I was approaching the house I looked across the river and saw the sheep-herder. It was a peaceful, lovely picture--him standing there on the green slope surrounded by his flock, but in a flash I recalled a neighbor telling about a maniac who had been hired to tend sheep. He was on parole and although he wasn't entirely free of his manias it was hoped by the authorities that another chance, and a kind employer would hasten his recovery.

     Just as I reached the door he looked my way and waved his staff. Was this the same maniac? Did he know that I was alone? Probably everyone in the valley knew that the couple had gone to the big city to celebrate.

     Now I really dreaded the night, and began to make preparations to ward off an attack. To my horror I discovered that there were no locks on the doors. The children sensed my distress and became unruly. To add to the ever mounting problems was the discovery that the baby had a fever, and just wanted to lie in his crib and study the walls with his shining eyes. Another worry!

By now I had forgotten about my birthday and how lonely I was. It seemed like a good idea to start praying as well as barricade the doors, and a busy person is never a lonely person. The dreaded darkness finally came. I lit all the lamps I could find, and got the children ready for bed. As I rocked the sick baby I thought about what a sad story it would be if we were found murdered. Four babies and a young girl, blood spattered and cruelly slaughtered! I could already see the headlines. And the worst thought of all was my dying on my birthday, without a party or new dress, or a lover to grieve for my death and write a sad poem or two.

     It was a perfect night for tragedy. Just like in the movies, the storm came. Flashes of lightning lighted up the dimly lit room, and the thunder cracked a million whips and seemed to want to tear the house to bits. I was rather enjoying imagining all the gruesome events that might occur, because deep down inside my common sense told me that there was a very slight possibility that a maniac would come to call. I also knew it was sheer gossip and rumor that such a person was in the area. What lengths a person will go to in an effort to drive away boredom and loneliness, I thought.

     Suddenly the storm ceased, and a cold, glassy Spring moon broke through the clouds. The baby was asleep, and appeared cooler; the fire in the pot-bellied stove cast its warm red shadow upon the floor, and the scene was changed. I no longer dreaded the shadowy darkness outside the windows. There was like it says in the Bible," A peace that passeth all understanding," and it did make my heart glad.

     I became increasingly brave and pushed the heavy buffet away from the front door. It seemed as though I would rather be murdered than have the Johnsons come home unexpectedly while I was asleep and find furniture piled high around the entrance way.

     I loaded the stove and settled down on the couch. The house was warm and I was just beginning to doze off when I heard the clicking sound. I listened attentively, holding my breath at the same time. It came again, and there was no doubt about it. Something was hesitantly approaching the house on the board walk. It's the maniac sheep herder, and the clicking sound is his staff tapping on the wooden walk as he moves along, I thought. I was alert now, and scheming and planning how to outwit the killer. This was to be a great contest, and the rewards, if I won, would be the lives of four innocent children, as well as my own.

     I grabbed the shotgun, and raced wildly about looking for the shells. Then I remembered they were on the top shelf of the bookcase. My hands were shaking like those of a person struck with the palsy, but I managed somehow to load both barrels. Thank God I know about guns, I thought. I remembered how my brother had taunted me about my interest in guns and horses. He said, "You're the only girl in the county who looks at saddles, bridles, and guns, in the Montgomery Ward catalogue." It was true. I had no need for silk dresses, and fancy hats. There was no money for them anyway. But I enjoyed looking and wishing for a fine saddle, because I did have a horse. My brothers had taught me to shoot, and although I wasn't an expert marksman I felt confident I could hit anything that would come through the door. Especially with a shotgun!

     That is precisely what I intended to do. I planted myself firmly about twelve feet from the door and waited for whoever it was, that would this night make me a murderess!

     The tapping sound continued and became louder. It would stop momentarily as though in hesitation, and then bravely continue.

     When it reached the door and stopped, it seemed as though a lifetime has passed before me. All was quiet except for my pounding heart. Then I heard the labored breathing, and waited for the door to open. But all was still. My legs felt as though they were encased in cement as I waited.

     The suspense was too great. I couldn't wait any longer, and I suddenly started myself by calling out, "Who is there?"

     Only the distant rumble of the thunder answered my desperate plea. I waited for what seemed like a long time, and then crept forward on my heavy laden legs and stood listening with a thousand ears at the door. here was a moan as though some one were in pain, and I impulsively swung the door ajar. Instead of a killer my eyes beheld a very wet and lonely sheep. She was round like a barrel from the life she carried within her, and her eyes showed that the pain of delivery was on her. She had come down the long board wall seeking the light in the darkness. Somehow she knew that here she would find warmth and comfort. Her sharp little hoofs made the clicking sound that had so terrified me when I thought it was the staff of the maniac sheep herder.

     She needed no invitation to enter, and struggled forward on weak legs to seek the place where she would give birth. I covered her with a warm blanket and patted her head when the convulsive birth pangs cut through her sides. It wasn't long before the miracle happened. There were two lambs. They didn't burst forth like I had supposed, but required my assistance. Instinctively I seemed to know what needed to be done, and after I had pulled the strange little bundle of life out into the world, I wasn't overly excited when I saw that there was going to be another one very shortly.

     Then the proud mother had to take over. I suddenly became weak and dizzy and had to lie down on the floor beside them. What a picture we must have made. One wet and bedraggled mother, two small and very damp and startled lambs, and one thoroughly disheveled sixteen year old girl, all heaped together in wild confusion.

     The exhausted mother gazed happily at her babies, and they in turn slipped and struggled on their shaky little legs trying to find that well known eating place.

     Soon they were sleeping beside their mother, and I had cleaned the floor and myself. All was well. I looked at the clock and it was midnight. Exactly the hour of my birth sixteen years ago. It suddenly occurred to me that I had received the greatest gift of all, and one that few girls if any my age would ever have the joy of possessing. I had seen the gift of life and had a part in this miracle. I was no longer afraid, or unhappy. Now I could sleep peacefully. Tomorrow the mother and babies would move to the barn until we could find their owner, but tonight the little bundles of wool and their courageous mother would be my guests. After all hadn't they been kind enough to help me celebrate an otherwise lonely sixteenth birthday?

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