There was nothing particularly special about the First Chance saloon. The piano in the corner banged out the usual tunes that could be heard in any establishment of this variety. Ladies decked out in bright colored satins, rhinestones, and feathers, milled among the patrons encouraging them to buy liquor with promises of more amorous activities later. Squeals of laughter mixed with more boisterous exchanges filled the room. It was almost as thick as the smoke that flowed from the hand rolled cigarettes and sweet smelling cheroots.
It was a typical Saturday night in Green River. The one night that cowboys from all the neighboring ranches came into town and happily allowed themselves to be relieved of part of their weekly wages. After sweating from sun up to sun down for six days rounding up stray cattle, mending fences, and clearing out creek beds, these rowdy men needed to “Cut the Wolf Loose,” for a few hours. Most of the ranch hands were happy to merely drink vast amounts of whiskey and flirt with the decked out saloon girls. A few had more financial ambitions. These cowboys would be found sitting around a table playing poker in the hopes of adding a few extra dollars to their weekly pay.
Poker was serious business among these cowboys. The ability to play well was an art that many men strove to perfect. Your talents at the table could mean the difference between having a few dollars for a beer or two during the week, if you made it to town, or having to suffer through broke and penniless until payday finally rolled around again.
A good poker player could take the cards he was dealt and play them without anyone else suspecting if he had a winning hand or if he was just bluffing. An excellent poker player was not only able to keep his “poker face” intact, but had also learnt to read the other players at the table.
Johnny Lancer was an excellent player. After the second or third hand, not only could he pretty much tell what type of hand each player had but also how he would play it. Years of being a gunfighter had taught him to watch for the tiniest details from his opponent. It was these little signs that had kept him alive all the years that he had hired out his gun. This training was now proving to be a profitable skill when he found himself in a showdown match.
An hour or so had passed and Johnny had sat through several hands, winning a few and folding a few. Not one to let his money just slip through his fingers, Johnny would fold when he wasn’t certain his hand could best any of the other players. He was doing quite well and had managed to almost double the money he had started out with that evening.
Normally the games were friendly, consisting of neighboring ranch hands, Sheriff, Val Crawford, Johnny Lancer and his brother Scott. No one seemed to mind when one of the other men had a lucky streak. There always seemed to be plenty of good natured ribbing. It was the decision of each player to decide when he had lost enough of his money and there were never any hard feelings when a player chose to bow out of the game.
This Saturday night was no different except for one slight change. A drifter who was passing through had requested a place at the table the Lancer brothers were playing at. The stranger had introduced himself as Mills Haskell. It was just a friendly game and no one minded the extra player. It didn’t take Johnny long however to figure out the new man was no poker player. He played wild and bid big. Johnny tried to back off not wanting to take advantage of the stranger, after Haskell had lost four pots in a row. The new player had lost nearly fifty dollars and those were high stakes for this Saturday night crowd. Johnny had won most of the fifty dollars himself.
Every time the drifter lost a hand he seemed to get more agitated and would make his next bet bigger in the hopes of regaining his losses.
“Well boys, I think I’m gonna’ call it a night. Me and Scott have an early day tomorrow.” Johnny hoped none of the other hands would call his bluff, especially his brother. He could feel trouble brewing and he just didn’t feel much like being a part of it.
Just as he started to gather his winnings a large hand clamped down over his. Johnny could feel the tension go up as the others at the table started shuffling to make a quick exit. Obviously the stranger knew nothing about Johnny Lancer or Johnny Madrid.
Scott placed a hand on his brother’s knee hoping to have some kind of affect on the boy’s quick temper. Val, who was sitting on the other side of Johnny stayed still but readied himself in case trouble erupted from the two men.
Johnny took a slow breath and then let it out just as slowly. Only when he was sure he had gained control of his anger, did he look at the man who had dared to put his hands on him.
His voice held no malice but his eyes held the contempt he felt for the man standing over him. “Mister you better take your hands off of me. I told you I gotta’ get started early tomorrow. I don’t have time to smooth over your feelings just because you’re a bad poker player.”
The man stepped back and once again Johnny began to pocket his money. He couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
“Look Boy! You got a big chunk of my money filling your pockets. Least you could do is give me a chance to get some of it back.” The stranger wheedled.
“I told you twice Mister, I gotta’ get home. My old man don’t like it when my brother and me don’t get home on time.” Johnny hoped that by mentioning his father the drifter would back off. He didn’t.
“Tell you what Kid. I’ll bet you everything I got left on one cut of the cards. Won’t even take five minutes.” Haskell was determined to get one last shot at Johnny and the boy knew the persistent stranger wasn’t going to let up until he had lost one more hand.
Johnny sat quietly and watched the man for a couple of seconds. He had already put his hat on, wanting only to get out of there and put as many miles between him and Haskell as he could. However; it was clear that there was only one thing he could do. Let Haskell make his final play with the cards.
“So what’s the bet?” Johnny asked pulling his hat low, covering his eyes.
“You agree to match what I got in front of me first.” Haskell told the younger man.
Johnny reached in his pocket and pulled a 20 dollar gold piece from his pocket and tossed it on top of the two ten dollar bills sitting in front of the insistent stranger.
“Ok. What’s the bet?” Johnny once again asked.
“I bet I can cut the Ace of Spades on the first try. I’ll even let you shuffle the cards. You can shuffle them as many times as you want. Whata’ ya’ say Kid?” Haskell smiled at Johnny with a renewed confidence.
Everyone at the table sat waiting to see what the younger Lancer would do. A crowd was forming around the table as other patrons noticed the dramatic play unfolding between the two men.
Without saying a word, Johnny reached for the cards. With the skill of a seasoned poker player, he shuffled the cards several times, laying them carefully in the center of the table when he had finished. It seemed that everyone in the saloon had by now crowded around the table to watch the showdown between Haskell and Johnny. A hush had settled over the group of on lookers as they waited for Haskell to make his move. It was as if everyone were holding their breath at the same time. The music had stopped playing and the silence was almost deafening.
Johnny sat with an air of indifference, showing no concern over what the possible outcome might be. He had been here before many times with one stranger or another.
Haskell on the other hand smiled wickedly at the young man sitting across from him, with the confidence of a man who didn’t think he could possibly lose.
Time seemed to stand still while both men simply stared at one another.
Suddenly, as if lightning had struck, Haskell stabbed the deck of cards with a huge Bowie knife pinning the entire deck to the top of the table. Gasps circulated around from the onlookers clearly indicating they had not expected this turn of events. Some had once again taken a step back as they waited to see what Johnny would do.
Scott had never seen anything like this before. He was startled by the sudden action from Haskell and was ready to jump in if needed. He was however surprised at his brother’s reaction.
Johnny sat through it all without flinching or batting an eye. As the seconds ticked by, Haskell started to become nervous. He had expected Young Lancer to verbally dispute the fairness of his actions. Instead what he got was nothing but a cold stare and the feeling that maybe he had misjudged his opponent. This wasn’t the first time he had pulled this little trick on an unsuspecting victim and they always gave him a lot of guff over the fact that he had tricked them. The fact that Johnny was just sitting there watching quietly was making him more than just a little nervous. The boy’s quiet reserve wasn’t something he was use to.
Johnny never said a word or looked away as he reached out to pick up the money. Haskell quickly spoke up with irritation.
“Boy, they ain’t no use in you tryin’ to welsh on the bet. I told you I could cut that ace with the first try and I done it.”
Haskell just wanted to collect his money and get out. There was something about the way Johnny just kept staring at him that made him feel restless for the road.
“Sheriff, you seen it. He agreed to play and now he needs to pay up.” The drifter pleaded with Val.
“Well I reckon you are right about that. He did agree to play. How about it Johnny Boy?” Val looked over at his young friend grinning.
Without saying a word Johnny flipped the ace of spades from where he had palmed it while shuffling the cards and held it so that everyone could see.
A faint smile crossed Scott’s lips. His little brother never ceased to amaze him. How Johnny knew the drifter was up to something was beyond him but he was impressed at how efficiently his little brother had accessed the situation.
“That ain’t fair. Sheriff, you better do something.” Haskell complained to Val trying to gain some justice for himself even if it was a bit one sided.
“And just what would you like for me to do about it? Appears to me anything goes in a play like this.” Val barked at Haskell.
Mills Haskell continued to spout off about how he had been cheated while the spectators laughed at the fact that the stranger had been beaten at his own game. Some were even patting Johnny on the back while congratulating him on his latest win at the table.
All this time Johnny had sat quietly while Haskell barked on and on about how he was being cheated. Having his fill of the whole mess, Johnny once again began to pick up his winnings when suddenly that same large hand from before clamped down on his left arm.
Where there had been laughter one second a sudden hush once again fell over the crowd. For the second time that evening Haskell had made the same mistake. Johnny stared at the hand on his arm. “Mister, that’s twice you’ve put your hands on me. If I were you I’d let go of me and never touch me again.”
“And if I don’t?” Haskell asked with malice in his question.
Before anyone could blink Johnny had his gun pointed right at the drifter’s nose. Haskell stepped back so suddenly he almost fell over the chair he had been sitting in just moments earlier. He put his hands up to show he didn’t want any more trouble.
Scott sat perfectly still. He had learned quickly that when it came to Johnny and guns it was best to stay out of the way and do nothing that would distract the boy. He had come to appreciate Johnny’s skill and intuition in these kinds of predicaments.
Johnny kept his gun leveled at Haskell for a couple more seconds before holstering it. Picking up the ace he flipped at Haskell saying. “Don’t ever mistake young for being stupid. Now I’m leaving and I don’t want to play anymore games with you.” With that Johnny picked up his money and walked towards the door, calling after his brother as he went.
“Let’s go Scott. Murdoch’s gonna’ be waitin’ up for us.” Both boys walked out the door without even looking back.
Haskell found that his legs were quivering and no longer trusted them to support him so he sat down heavily in his chair. “I ain’t ever seen anything like that before in my life.
Val reached over and picked Haskell’s hat up off the floor. While standing, he slapped it down on the unlucky gamblers head saying, “If you’re lucky you won’t ever see it again. Next time you might not live to tell about it.”
With that Val walked to the door. Just as he stepped out into the night he called back to the others. “See you boys later.”
Haskell just continued to sit still for a moment trying to gather his wits.
“How does a kid of a rancher learn to handle a gun like that?”
“Well Mister, you see, that ain’t no ordinary kid. That boy is Johnny Madrid.” Supplied one of the old timers who spent most of his days watching the dust settle and swapping lies with the other old men of Green River.
Haskell starred at the man who had just spoken letting what he had been told sink in. He had heard of Madrid and the stories that went with the legendary gunslinger. With a shaky hand the drifter grabbed his coat and decided he had out stayed his welcome by one last hand. The more miles he could put between him and Green River the better he would feel.
~*~*~*~*~ L ~*~*~*~*~
The Lancer brothers rode home in silence for several miles. The moon was full and the night was pleasantly warm. The usual night sounds were soothing and calming after several hours spent in the noisy saloon.
The boys had ridden home in companionable silence. It was not until they reached the Lancer Arch that Scott finally broke the silence.
Scott had wanted to ask his brother about what had happened in town but he also knew that Johnny was waiting for the question. He knew this was a perfect opportunity to play the same game as his brother. He wondered if Johnny was tempted to confide in Scott how he knew Haskell’s plan but doubted it. Johnny Lancer was exasperatingly closed lip and Scott was just as exasperatingly curious. This thought made the older brother laugh to himself. His relationship with the man riding next to him was anything but tedious and he found that his little brother was having a vast influence on the way he himself responded to certain situations.
Knowing in his heart that he was the one who would have to concede to their test of wills Scott finally asked the question that he had so diligently held to himself until now.
“How did you know?” Scott asked.
Johnny smiled to himself. He was surprised it had taken his brother this long to finally ask him about what had happened back at the saloon. He decided to play it out a little longer and make Scott squirm a bit more.
“How did I know what?” Johnny asked back.
Scott suspected his little brother knew perfectly well what he was asking but wanting an answer without too much hassle he decided to play Johnny’s game.
“How did you know what Haskell was going to do?” He clarified his question.
“It takes a gutsy card player or a pure fool to pull a stunt like that. I suspect Haskell is the last one though. You play the game long enough out here and you’re bound to find one or the other eventually. I’ve seen that play made before.” Johnny told his brother.
“Have you ever seen it work on some unsuspecting soul Little Brother?” Asked Scott who suspected Johnny might have known about the play from experience but was somewhat loath to ask him directly.
Johnny knew exactly what Scott was getting at and didn’t mind confessing to his older brother. He had shared a great deal with him over the last year since he and Scott had come home. This would just be one more chapter to add to their little journals that they were mentally keeping on each other.
“I’ll tell you Scott, I learn my lessons hard and this was just one of many.”
Scott felt a twinge of regret for that last statement. If things had been different he could have been the kind of brother he would like to have been for Johnny while growing up together. One who could have sheltered his younger sibling and protected him from lessons that had to be learned the hard way. Without realizing it Scott mumbled out loud, “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry for what Brother?” Johnny was surprised at the apology.
Not sure if Johnny would appreciate his thoughts of protecting him Scott didn’t answer right away. Sudden clarity hit Johnny like a bolt of lightning. He was sure if he could see Scott’s face he would see guilt there that didn’t belong. Not wanting his brother to feel sad a minute longer Johnny tried to ease Scott’s mind.
“You know sometimes the best lessons learned are the ones that hurt you the most. I learned that from you Scott. I learn from you all the time Boston. I suppose you will always be teaching me stuff bein’ as you are the oldest and all.”
“I doubt I could teach you anything of value Johnny. You never cease to amaze me at how you are able to survive in any situation. Your knowledge is much more valuable and it doesn’t come from books Little Brother.”
Suddenly Johnny pulled up his horse and reached out to stop Scott’s mount too. He waited until he was sure his brother was looking directly at him. It was important to him that Scott understood what he felt in his heart.
“Scott don’t you ever doubt your worth to me. I never had anybody to watch my back the way you do. I trust you with my life and I ain’t never done that with anyone before.”
Wanting to regain the air of camaraderie they had been enjoying earlier Johnny laughed out and said. “Besides, if weren’t for you I’d still be trying to figure out which fork to use when the Preacher and that snotty sister of his come to dinner once a month. I never seen anyone so particular about manners the way that shrew is.”
Something inside of Scott swelled up and he couldn’t quite put a label on it. He had always wanted a sibling and Johnny had proven to be the kind of brother that far exceeded his expectations. He was proud of the declaration that Johnny had just made. He vowed he would never let the boy down if he could help it. He wanted so much to teach and share things with his little brother and Johnny had proven to be a willing pupil, showing a child like interest in the stories that Scott often regaled the family with in the evenings, when they gathered together before bed. The boy had shown endless amounts of interest with his questions and desire to learn from his older brother.
Laughing at the image Johnny’s last statement brought to his mind, Scott realized that both brothers had a lot to offer each other. Since arriving at Lancer the former Bostonian had been subjected to one of the most challenging classrooms he had ever encountered and his brother had been the teacher. Johnny had been so patient when Scott was trying to learn how to cope with ranch life and all the responsibilities that went with being part owner.
As the boys got closer to the hacienda they noticed the soft glow of a single lamp shone from the French doors of the Great Room.
“Looks like our pa is waiting on us after all.” Johnny said as a good feeling spread through him.
“So I see.” Scott replied.
It wasn’t the first time the Lancer Patriarch had waited up for the boys. Neither one were use to such a show of parental concern or love. It had been something they found foreign in some ways but also very comforting.
“I gotta’ a confession.” Johnny said rather quietly.
“What’s that Little Brother?” Scott asked just as quietly.
“I like it when he does.” Johnny informed his brother.
Scott looked ahead and smiled pondering over what Johnny had just told him. He knew exactly what Johnny was feeling. He felt it too. A feeling of warmth that only comes from family caring for each other.
“I do too.” Scott admitted to his brother.
The two Young Lancers rode contentedly on towards the welcoming glow of home.