Johnny paced his bedroom nervously. The sounds of laugher and music floated up from the Great Room below. It was December 31st, New Years Eve - his second New Years Eve celebrated here at Lancer. But this one would be by far the happier one, except for one thing: He looked over at the bed where his best clothes were carefully laid out, lovingly washed and pressed by Maria. His white ruffled shirt with the black string tie he hated so much…his bolero jacket and dress pants…Only the most important of occasions found him in those clothes.
Midnight was quickly approaching, and he wondered for the hundredth time why he had let Scott talk him into doing this.
He knew it was partly to do with Teresa’s anticipation of the event. But this was really for Murdoch. He and his father were still butting heads, but not as often, and not as stubbornly. It would still take time…and this was his peace offering…if he could bring himself to do it.
The door opened and Scott quickly darted in wearing his best dark suit and closed the door behind him. Seeing the clothes still lying on the bed he sighed in exasperation.
“Come on, Johnny, it’s getting late.”
“I don’t know if I can do this, Scott.”
“Of course you can. Now get dressed.”
Johnny shook his head, grabbing for his buck-skin jacket slung haphazardly over the chair beneath the window. “You do it, Scott. You know you’re much better at things like this.”
“You know I can’t.” Scott pulled the jacket out of his brother’s hand and in the same motion picked up a book lying on the dresser already opened to a dog-eared page. “If we are going to do this, we are going to do it right. It will mean a lot to Murdoch if we celebrate the Scottish tradition of Hogmanay this year.”
“Look, it’ll be easy,” Scott began, overriding Johnny’s objections, as he began to read the book once again. “New Years Eve is launched with a party…either at home with family and friends or a gathering in the local pubs. Merrymaking begins on New Year’s Eve and builds up to midnight. The stroke of midnight is the cue for much cheering, hooting, whistling, kissing and the drinking of toasts.”
“Sounds like every cantina I’ve been in on New Years Eve,” Johnny broke in. “So why can’t we just do that part?”
“Tradition has it,” Scott continued, totally ignoring his brother’s interruption, “that the first person over the threshold on New Year’s Eve will dictate the luck brought to the household in the coming year. This is known as ‘First Footing’, that is, the ‘first foot’ in the house after midnight. To ensure good luck for the house, the first foot should be male, traditionally a tall, dark, good-looking man, believed to be a throwback to the Viking days when blond strangers arriving on your doorstep meant trouble, and should bring symbolic coal, shortbread, salt, black bun and whisky.”
Johnny couldn’t keep the grin off his face. “They were right smart people, them Vikings.”
Scott arched an eyebrow but continued. “On entering he must place the fuel on the fire, put the loaf on the table and pour a glass for the head of the house, all normally without speaking or being spoken to until he wishes everyone ‘A Happy New Year’. He must, of course, enter by the front door and leave by the back.”
“Everyone starts singing Auld Lang Syne. You can come back in then and join us.”
“I ain’t much of a singer.”
“It’s not the voice that counts, Johnny, it’s the love and companionship of everyone singing together. I’m sure Murdoch will drown everyone out anyway.”
“I still don’t think…”
The bedroom door suddenly burst open and Teresa rushed in. She had taken his breath away when he first saw her this evening in her elegant green gown, the neckline cut low and swept off her shoulders…her long brown hair held in place with a soft green tiara. She was eighteen now, and every bit a beautiful woman.
“Why aren’t you dressed?” She panted, looking at the clothes on the bed.
“You ever gonna to learn to knock?” Johnny sighed.
“There’s no time,” she chided him. “Scott, Murdoch was asking where you were. Jelly told him you were outside taking care of personal business.”
Scott couldn’t help but blush. Johnny’s snicker didn’t help.
“Everything’s prepared for you downstairs, Johnny. Cipriano is waiting to help. Murdoch is going to be surprised when he tastes the black bun cake, it took Maria forever to find the recipe.”
“All right.” Scott patted Johnny on the shoulder. “You’ll do just fine, little brother. Remember, as soon as you hear the house go quiet that will be your cue to come in.”
Threading Teresa’s arm through his, Scott escorted her out the door before Johnny had a chance to object again.
Johnny looked at the clothes, and listened to the music and laugher below and sighed. He didn’t have a choice, really.
Murdoch saw Scott and Teresa winding their way through the crowd of revelers. When Scott had first proposed they have a New Years Eve party he had balked. While he enjoyed an occasional barbeque, usually after the yearly roundup, or a small birthday party for Teresa or one of the hands, this was the kind of gala Scott was used to in Boston, not Morro Coyo. But Teresa had been so excited, and even Johnny seemed interested. But Johnny was Johnny and he had already taken off, probably to return sometime tomorrow afternoon having spent the night by himself under the stars.
“Isn’t this wonderful?” Teresa laughed, her face flushed with excitement. “This is the most wonderful party.” The sounds of the trio Scott had hired from San Francisco playing the newest songs and old favorites on a violin, harp and guitar, filled the room with the gift of music. Everywhere people were dancing and laughing. Murdoch had insisted that Maria join them and had hired several people to serve their guests, and suddenly a fresh glass of champagne was shoved into Murdoch’s hand.
“Yes, it is very nice sweetheart. I just wish Johnny had stayed to enjoy it.”
“You know Johnny, Sir, he just can’t handle these kinds of crowds.” Scott motioned toward all their guests in their finest clothes, the women running the color of the rainbow in their fine dresses and the men in their basic black suits. But Murdoch had not invited only the well to do ranchers and their families…he had guests who merely eked out an existence on their farms. For those families Teresa and Maria had fashioned fancy garlands of flowers and ribbons for the women to wear in their hair. There was no one there who did not feel welcome and comfortable - except for Johnny. “Maybe someday,” Scott sighed. “I do wish he could be here though, this is so much like the New Years Eve parties I remember in Boston.”
“What was your New Years Eve like in Scotland, Murdoch?” Teresa asked, winking at the opening Scott had given her.
“Ah…” Murdoch’s eyes shined with the memories. “We called it Hogmanay.”
“Hogmanay? I believe I have heard of it.” Scott said thoughtfully. “One of Grandfather’s acquaintances was from Scotland. He said it was a great tradition.”
“Yes. Yes it was. But this is fine too. Next year we will have to do this again…but we will hog tie your brother to one of these chairs if we have to.”
Teresa had to turn her head so Murdoch would not see the smile that refused to leave her face. Everything was working out just the way she had dreamed it would. All the work to get the great room ready for this evening had been worth it. She could still hear Scott and Johnny grumbling about moving the furniture to line the walls to open the center of the room for dancing. Even Murdoch’s mammoth desk was moved next to the huge Christmas tree in the corner by the kitchen wall. They had cleaned the fireplace thoroughly and she remembered the smile in Murdoch’s eyes as he watched them scrub the hearth clean. He didn’t know that they knew it was another custom of Hogmanay…to clean the hearth for a fresh start for the New Year.
The evening was fast approaching midnight. The musicians played a fast paced tune that had everyone dancing. Then suddenly the music stopped and the room became silent. Everyone quietly moved away from the center of the room and waited.
Murdoch looked around, confused. Scott stood near the front door and Teresa stood by his side. The sound of someone knocking on the door vibrated through the quiet room.
Scott opened the door and Murdoch could only gasp.
Johnny stood at the threshold resplendent in his black bolero jacket with the fine gold stitched embroidery and ruffled white shirt and black string tie. But it was the items he held in his arms as he stood there that took Murdoch’s breath away.
“First Footer…” Murdoch whispered and watched Johnny step into the room. He didn’t say a word, just walked slowly across the great room. He placed a log on the crackling fire in the hearth and waited until he was sure it had caught well. He set a cloth on the stones next to the fire and opened it up to reveal a piece of coal. Then he turned to the table and placed a plate of shortbread, a small sack of salt and a tin of black bun cake in the center.
Murdoch stood motionless. Nothing else in the world existed at that moment but his son, Johnny, portraying the First Footer. He felt the tears begin to roll down his cheeks but he didn’t care.
Johnny silently filled a glass with whiskey and handed it to Murdoch. “A Happy New Year,” he said to Murdoch and to everyone, and then silently walked away, disappearing into the kitchen, the sound of the back door closing behind him.
The musicians began to play Old Lang Syne and Murdoch’s powerful voice, trembling with emotion, filled the room as everyone joined in.
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne!
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne.
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.
And surely ye'll be your pint stowp!
And surely I'll be mine!
And we'll tak a cup o'kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.
For auld, lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne.
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.
The last stanza was almost over when the front door opened again and Johnny walked in, his head bent in embarrassment. The men slapped him on the back, the women kissed his cheek as he made his way over to his family.
The song ended and a great cheer went up throughout the house and the musicians began playing a fast tempoed waltz.
But Murdoch could only reach out for Johnny and pull him into a warm embrace.
“Thank you,” he whispered, his tears running freely.
Johnny pulled back, his eyes misty. “It was Scott and Teresa’s idea,” he said. “And I was the only tall, dark, handsome man around here.”
Scott slapped his arm, “One out of three isn’t bad, brother.” Teresa kissed his cheek, her face shining with tears.
“I don’t know what to say,” Murdoch stammered.
“Don’t say anything, Sir,” Scott said, his voice heavy with emotion. “Just enjoy the evening. It is yours.”
“All these people,” Murdoch motioned to all the faces aglow with excitement as they danced and sang. “They all knew?”
Scott nodded. “Every last one of them.”
Johnny looked around at all the guests drinking champagne and sidled up next to Murdoch. “Ah, does tradition say that you can share that there bottle of whiskey? I’m not a champagne kind a drinker.”
A loud roar of laughter filled the room as Murdoch snagged two clean glasses and poured two healthy servings of the whiskey. “I’m not sure what the tradition was, but from now on, here in Morro Coyo in the house of Lancer, it is the owner of the house and his sons who will drink the special bottle.”
As the party carried on into the early morning, Murdoch made his way out the front door and spotted a still figure out by the corral looking up at the stars. He carried with him a warm coat and the last glass of whiskey from the special bottle.
Johnny didn’t turn around as Murdoch approached. “Beautiful night,” he said as he stared into the heavens.
“You have no idea,” Murdoch said huskily, slipping the jacket over Johnny’s shoulders.
There was silence between father and son for a long time…each lost in their own thoughts. Finally Murdoch pressed the glass of whiskey into Johnny’s hand. “Here, this might warm your insides. It’s cold out here tonight.”
Johnny sipped at the fine whiskey feeling it flow all the way to his stomach.
“Johnny.” Murdoch turned his son around to look at him and Johnny’s blue eyes glistened in the moonlight. “What you did for me tonight…there are no words that can tell you how much this means to me.”
Johnny took another sip of the whiskey and smiled. “Sometimes words get in the way…like with your First Footer. I think that Scott would say that silence speaks volumes.”
Murdoch chuckled. “Yes, I’m sure that’s exactly what he would say.”
The two men returned to looking up at the stars seemingly close enough to reach up and grab.
Murdoch took a deep contented breath and whispered to Johnny, “Prospero Ano Nuevo Hijo. Te quiero.”*
Happy New Year Everyone.
Linda Borchers 2004
*Happy New Year son. I love you.