Word Count: 1500
The party was bright, crowded, and loud. It had been a long time since the great hacienda was filled with such euphoria. Murdoch Lancer was at his best tonight. He had his handsome sons, beautiful “daughter,” and the company of friends. Cigar in one hand, a glass of Talisker’s in the other. He felt like a king.
It was nearing the midnight hour and the champagne was starting to flow. Exchanging the empty glass of Talisker’s for a champagne flute, he suddenly had a moment to realize he had not seen his younger son Johnny for some time now.
Stepping back to where he could observe the party for a moment without interruption, he surveyed the room and failed to see his dark-haired boy. It wasn’t the first gathering that Johnny had slipped quietly away from.
Looking over at his older son Scott, who was engaged in animated conversation with several of Murdoch’s oldest ranching friends with a lovely young thing by his side, he felt a pang of guilt. Was it his fault, he questioned?
While his head told him that it wasn’t his fault that Maria had taken Johnny all those years ago and left, he still couldn’t help but feel guilty. If Johnny had been raised here at Lancer, he would have the confidence that Scott had in such a social gathering. Instead, Johnny, the fearless and feared gunfighter, became boyishly shy and sometimes visibly uncomfortable in such social situations.
Quietly, Murdoch stepped back, trying to be unobtrusive as he grabbed a second glass of champagne and made his way around the great room to the French doors. Grasping and turning the knob to open one, holding the two champagne flutes in his other large hand, he saw his youngest — his lost boy, his prodigal son, his handsome boy — leaning against the wall, head down, playing with something in his hands, and rubbing the toe of his boot in ground.
“Johnny?” Murdoch questioned softly, while stepping out onto the porch.
As expected, Johnny, startled out of deep thought, turned quietly and with deadly speed to face his father, drawing his gun. Recognizing his father, he immediately holstered the weapon, and looked away, chastising himself silently, and then softly drawled, “Sorry.”
Catching Johnny’s look that told him that he knew his son was already punishing himself for his reaction to the surprise, Murdoch simply stated, “My fault, son.”
There was a silent pause between them before Murdoch removed one of the glasses of champagne from one hand with the other one, and extended it towards his son. “Champagne?”
“Sure. You know, though, I never really acquired a taste for this stuff, but the ladies sure do like it.” Johnny grinned and leaned forward to accept the glass.
“Yes, well, I still prefer a good brandy or scotch myself.”
Another pause fell between them before Murdoch broke the silence. “It’s almost midnight.”
“I know,” Johnny replied flatly.
“You seemed to be miles away when I walked out here. Something wrong or just tired of ‘organized fun’?”
“No, nothing wrong,” Johnny sighed, “but you know how I am about these fandangos.”
Another pause. Murdoch remained silent. Turning to look out over the yard, he hoped that Johnny would eventually continue. He had learned rushing Johnny only made matters worse. Speed kills in more than one way, he thought ironically.
“I was just clearing my head, getting some fresh air, and then, like I do every year, I just started thinking about this time last year.”
“Yeah. You do realize where I was last New Year’s Eve, don’t you?”
Murdoch reflected for a moment and it came to him. “The prison? In Mexico?”
“Yep.” Johnny replied, looking out at the yard and away from his father. “This time, one year ago, I was staring out of a barred window, looking up at the moon and the stars for what I thought was the last time… You understand they planned to start the new year by killin’ me, right?”
Shocked by this revelation and the no holds barred way of his son’s putting it into words, Murdoch could only choke out, “No, John, I didn’t. I’m sorry.”
“Nothin’ to be sorry about, Ol’ Man. I was gettin’ what I had been givin’. They wanted to make some kind of statement to the people by making sure they never forgot what happened when they tried to go against them. Doin’ it on a day like that, well, it would be likely few would forget.”
A silent pause and then he continued, “Seein’ how people treat me now, it might have worked against them. I could have been ‘Johnny Madrid’, a martyr for the Mexican people. Wouldn’t that have been a hoot?” Neither of them laughed.
“Well, son, maybe we should look ahead to the New Year and not reflect too much on last year.” Was that as feeble as it sounded?Murdoch wondered after he had spoken.
“No, Murdoch, that’s not the way I see it. I think a person ought to take stock every year. This time is as good as any I guess. I just remember looking out at that moon and stars and tried to get a breath of fresh air out of that window so I could take it with me, you know, when it… when it was my time.” He looked off into the distance.
Murdoch silently wished he had another glass of that Talisker’s at the moment. He knew he was always pushing and demanding that Johnny talk to him about his past, and here he was, talking of his own accord, and it was almost too much to bear. Coward, he thought. If Johnny had lived it, surely he could listen to it, knowing how it all ended, or started, however one viewed the matter.
“You know, I wasn’t really scared. Not really. I was so tired of it all… had been for a long time. I was kind of glad that it was gonna finally be over…”
Murdoch suddenly felt ill. Maybe another glass of Talisker’s was not the answer after all.
“… all the killing, the blood, living like some kind of wild animal. Nobody to trust. Unless you’ve lived like that, you can’t really understand what it’s all about.”
Murdoch reached back and gripped the knob of the door. It was the closest thing to hang on to in order to keep him from falling down at his son’s revelation. His beautiful baby boy was ready to die at the age of nineteen. What had he and Maria done? In many ways, his ‘boy’ was older than he was. But to be ready to die?
Bearing the weight of his son’s candor, Murdoch felt someone attempting to turn the knob of the door from the other side. He held his grip firmly, not about to let anyone disturb this moment, as wonderful and horrible as it was.
Scott, looking through the glass and seeing his father staring at his brother, who looked sad, decided it best not to press the issue of coming out to join them. Especially since the old bear had a death grip on the knob that wouldn’t even budge at his best attempt to turn it.
Murdoch and Johnny could hear the crowd inside counting down the time until the old grandfather clock would strike midnight and the new year would begin. “Ten, nine, eight…”
Johnny suddenly pushed away from the wall and stepped towards his father, looking him directly in the eye. “I owe you, Old Man, for dragging me out of the dark and into the sunshine. That’s what Lancer is to me — sunshine. I never would have believed this would have happened last year. All this…” His voice faltered a little as he shook his head and made a slight movement of his hand holding the champagne.
The count was getting close. Johnny held his glass up to toast towards his father. “Thank you.” He tipped the glass towards his father.
As the moment was getting close, Murdoch knew he had to respond. “You know, Johnny, it’s traditional to kiss…” They heard everyone screaming, “Happy New Year” and the little band began playing and the singing was starting.
Murdoch reached over, grabbed his son in both his arms in a bone-crushing hug, kissed the top of his head, and said, “Happy New Year, Johnny. Happy New Life. I’ve always loved you, son, and I always will.”
Johnny, rendered speechless, returned the hug with a fierce one of his own. They both stepped back, and with wet eyes, raised and touched their glasses together with a slight clink, then looked away, and downed their champagne as if it were a shot of tequila.
Taking a moment to sniff and to wipe their eyes with the back of their hands, both took a deep breath. Murdoch looked at Johnny and simply breathed out, “Drink?”