He knew a pissing contest when he walked into one.
Didn’t matter if it was at a card table with a pair of deuces or in a street with the sun in your eyes. Or in the Lancer great room with a dead tree somebody had dragged inside to piss on. The big dog got the high mark.
He’d been set up enough times to see what was happening. Caught like a dog come in off the desert and not a puddle in sight. Dumb dog tucked its tail when that happened. Smart dog still cocked its leg, no matter nothing came out.
Thing was, next to shooting, leg cocking was Johnny’s specialty. Dry or not.
The pissing started pretty much as soon as he got in from delivering that bull down south. He’d taken his time, figured he deserved to have some fun with a friendly lady on his birthday, figured Murdoch could yell all he wanted but that was the thing, Johnny never was one for following orders, and Murdoch needed to be reminded of that regular. It was just part of their everyday pissing contest.
But this was a new level, high on the tree, up there with all this crap snagged all over it. And the part that really hurt was that Scott and Teresa were pissing right alongside. He almost grinned despite himself at the image of Teresa lifting her skirt, but hell, he’d known some bitches in his time that could piss higher than any fellow. They was the ones that caught you dry most often.
So that was why he’d held himself back from saying a word about the tree with junk hanging all over it looking about as right as a cow wearing jewelry. No way he would have let on this wasn’t the most normal thing in the world. He had a feeling they liked it when he didn’t know what the hell was going on, and he’d learned years ago how to look like he expected whatever was coming. Tree in the house, pig in the kitchen, horse in the bed, whatever, it took more than that to piss higher than him.
That’s when they did it. Pissed right over his head, so to speak. With one little sentence: “Let’s exchange gifts now that Johnny’s here!”
Bushwhackers, the bunch of them. Started handing out wrapped packages to one another. To him, too. That’s when he realized he’d been set up, just standing there empty handed like a beggar kid, and wasn’t that just what he’d thought he’d left behind years ago, only it looked like some things you never leave behind, no matter.
So yeah, he’d stood there, done a job at hiding how shitty he felt, did his best to cock his leg with some comments surefire to get the old man going, anything so he didn’t have to stand there and feel like that hungry kid with his hand out. Sure, he could have come clean, fessed up that they’d beat him with their secret ritual, but he’d come too close to that before. The look of sympathy that had started over Scott’s face was worse than any beating. He’d gotten that look a couple of times as a kid, figured out real fast some things were worse than going hungry. He sure as hell wasn’t about to have the three of them looking at him like that. Might as well just chop his balls off right here and now.
Even though they hadn’t really looked at him like they expected him to give them something, that just made it worse, like they’d known all along they were catching him flat. Truth was, they really had managed to get him running his mind through what he had he could fork over, and he’d half thought maybe he could fake it with some of his stuff.
That was before he’d seen what they had in their arsenal. An embroidered shirt from Teresa. A rifle like the sort he’d always lusted after from Scott. And pissing way up on the ceiling, a saddle from Murdoch. Fancy stuff, the kind only folks who didn’t plan to maybe leave them behind in a rush one day could have. He was just thankful they’d showed their hand first, a royal flush next to his Jack high. He could just imagine the looks on their faces if he’d gone ahead and handed over his bunch of crap in exchange, his mama’s cheap bracelet for Teresa, his overused pistol for Scott, and what, the stolen saddle with the open seams for Murdoch? Or maybe he could just hand out what was left of his listening money. Problem there was that damn Scott had talked him into putting it in the bank. Probably part of the plan.
So he’d done the only thing he could do. Pissed high and dry. Waited until Teresa wasn’t quite out of the room then announced he was going to town to get his present from the girls. Told Scott and Murdoch they should come along, his treat. In fact, they could both have a bunch of free visits, on him. He said it half in hopes they’d go for it, half in hopes that if they didn’t, Murdoch would be mad enough to get him off the hook. It worked. Had Murdoch sputtering and had him getting the hell out of there before anyone knew how shitty he felt.
The thing about pissing contests, sometimes the higher you pissed the lower you felt.
“I thought he’d love them,” Teresa said, indicating the presents Johnny had left where they’d been opened.
Murdoch shook his head before slumping into a chair. “I don’t know what that boy loves, except his gun and his trips to town.”
Scott had started after his brother, but turned back at the door. “He was cockier than usual, did you notice?”
“What’s new? What I wouldn’t give to see, just once, a real smile I didn’t feel like wiping off his face.”
Scott continued to look out the door into the darkness. “Have you ever noticed that he’s the worst when he’s wrong? Or, what I mean is, when he doesn’t seem to quite catch on to what’s going on?”
Murdoch’s eyes slowly rose to meet his. “Oh damn,” he said, pushing himself to his feet. “Do you think it’s possible?”
“What?” Teresa demanded.
“Do they exchange gifts in Mexico?” asked Scott.
“Not like we. . .” Teresa’s hand went to her mouth.
“Even if they did, it’s not as though he’s exactly been in a position,” Murdoch added, striding toward the door just as they heard the sound of a horse galloping from the barn. “Damn!”
Town had that depressing feel towns always got on Christmas, deserted, but like you knew somewhere else, closed off from people like him, folks were doing good stuff they didn’t want you a part of. The bank was closed, dark. He thought briefly of breaking into it and getting his money, but bank robbing had never been his talent or interest and he suspected if things went wrong that Murdoch would not understand. He nudged his horse along toward the saloon, a single beacon shining in the distance like the baby Jesus star. He knew what he’d find before he walked in, fellows trying to drink enough to feel happy and women trying to drink enough to feel pretty. He ordered tequila.
Nobody had hauled a tree in here. Nobody had draped any tree with stuff that looked like it’d been stolen out of a crow’s nest. Nobody was trading fancy packages. Nobody was trying to make him feel like shit. He poured another drink and headed through the smoke to a table where some strangers were playing cards. It was the sort of Christmas he was used to.
The men at the table looked like it was the sort they were used to, too. They were perfectly happy just to be wrapped in smoke from their tobacco and filled with warmth from their drinks. They did their share of pissing, Johnny too, but it was the sort of pissing contest where you knew the rules before you got in. He hadn’t played many hands when the betting came down to just him and one of the strangers, a funny old codger with a scraggly white beard. Johnny didn’t have a hand worth betting on. So he raised.
The old man stared at the pile of money, then looked at Johnny long enough he was starting to wonder if he was going to call him out. But he had some other look in his eye Johnny couldn’t quite place.
“I’ll call,” the codger said, plopping a small sack on the table. He opened it, pulling a cloth-wrapped item out. “And I have a proposition. That’s the last of my cash, but I’ll raise you this little beauty. Worth more than the limit here, for sure, but that’s all you’ll have to put up to call.”
It was a brooch, as sparkly as he’d ever set eyes on. The sort of thing that would look just right on Teresa. Only problem was, his hand was the losing sort. Pissing was one thing, pissing in the wind was another. He went to fold and ended up nodding, like his neck started bobbling no matter what his brain said. Damn tequila.
The problem with cards is that, unless you can piss high enough that the other fellow tucks tail, eventually you got to show your hand. He fanned his cards open face up, nothing but Jack high. The old man stared at them, then placed his cards face down as he shoved the pot toward Johnny. “Thank you gents for the game, and good night,” he said. He walked out the door, leaving Johnny to admire his—no, Teresa’s—new brooch.
It was only then that one of the other men peeked at the old man’s cards. “What the heck? The crazy old coot had a full house!”
He didn’t know what to think of it, except that the old fellow had been hitting the bottle pretty hard, and it wasn’t Johnny’s problem to read his cards for him. What Johnny did know was that he had to piss for real. He pushed himself to his feet, stumbling over his chair as he aimed for the door. He didn’t remember drinking that much tequila, but then, that was sort of the whole point of drinking that much tequila.
The last thing he expected was for the crazy old coot to ambush him in the alley.
They hadn’t expected to spend Christmas Eve in a saloon. But they’d wanted to give Johnny some time to himself because, as Scott pointed out, the only thing worse than the way they’d made Johnny feel already was the way they’d make him feel if he figured out they knew what had happened. So Scott had waited a while before heading after him, alone. Murdoch had tried to wait at home, but that hadn’t lasted long. He saddled his horse and followed along.
And it was a good thing he did. When he met Scott coming out of the saloon Scott looked bewildered. “He left over an hour ago, but his horse is still here. I checked with, um, well, I checked with the ladies and they said he’s not with any of them. Some men playing cards said the last they saw of him he went out to relieve himself.”
One of the problems of getting older was that when you had to go, you had to go. And just the suggestion of relieving himself meant Murdoch had to go, no matter how worried he was about Johnny. He excused himself and headed for the outhouse in the alley.
He didn’t get far before he heard the moaning.
Johnny felt hands lift him from the mud and lean him against a wall. He started to fight them off but calmed when he recognized Scott and Murdoch’s voices. Opening his eyes, he remembered what happened: He’d been robbed! By an old coot! He felt for his money, the brooch. Both gone. “Damn, damn, damn, I lost it!”
“Teresa’s gift,” he said without thinking. He could have bit his tongue off. After all, it just showed even more how caught off guard he’d been, on account of he still didn’t have anything for Scott or Murdoch. For that matter, he could just say he lost theirs too, for all they’d believe him either way. A lame excuse was worse than nothing. Then again, how could he confess that he, Johnny Madrid, had been robbed by an old drunk? Some things were better forgotten. “What are you doing here?”
“Came for my first free visit,” Scott said, smiling. “You didn’t think I’d put that off, did you?”
He couldn’t help it, it made him laugh until his head hurt. “Ouch, I don’t think I can join you.”
“I wasn’t exactly planning on sharing,” Scott said, and that made him laugh again. Of course, he could imagine Murdoch’s reaction. He risked a glance at him and saw he was holding something in his hand, brushing the mud from it.
“Teresa’s present!” he shouted, trying to jump to his feet to grab it, his hurting head forgotten. “You found it, Murdoch, yes, thank you!” He realized he was smiling like an idiot. And he didn’t care.
Murdoch was turning the brooch over in his hands. “This reminds me of a brooch Teresa’s mother used to wear when Teresa was just a baby. She promised it to Teresa when she was older. But of course, she left first.” He smiled at Johnny, the type of smile he usually saved for Teresa herself. “Teresa is going to love this.”
“Not as much as I’m going to love mine. Exactly how many visits do I get, Johnny?” Scott had that impish look on his face he was so good at, the one that he could always manage to get away with. And it worked; Murdoch looked like he was trying to scowl, but it just wasn’t working.
Maybe it was the drink. Maybe it was the hit on the head. But Johnny found himself doing what he’d learned way back you didn’t do. He confessed. “I’m sorry, Murdoch, unless you want those free visits, I don’t have anything for you.”
He waited for the bellow, but Murdoch smiled even broader and said, “Johnny, seeing your smile, your real smile, hearing you talk like this---this is the best Christmas present you could ever have gotten me.” He almost looked liked he was going to hug him or something, but luckily he stood up and said, “But right now, I have to attend to what I came back here for.” Murdoch stepped a few paces away, unbuttoned his pants and pissed, high on the wall. High for an old man, that is.
Johnny remembered that was why he came back here. He struggled to push himself up, starting to feel woozy and wobbly when he got to his knees. Scott tried to help, but quit when Johnny told him he could make it.
And he could have, too, but all of a sudden it just didn’t seem that important. “Hell,” he said, unbuttoning his pants. “Help me balance.” He pissed, kneeling, hitting low on the wall, his brother and father steadying him.
And that was when that crazy old codger staggered by the alley, yelling “Merry Christmas!” like a drunken old fool.
His money! The coot had his money! Nobody stole Johnny Madrid’s money! Johnny started to rush, started to get up even though he wasn’t finished---felt the steadying hands on his shoulders and relaxed. Maybe Johnny Lancer let a few things slide. “Yeah, merry Christmas!” he called back.
“Who on earth are you yelling at?”
“That crazy old codger, the one who just…” But when Johnny looked, the alley was empty.
“To you,” he said, smiling sheepishly. No need to let them know he was seeing things. “Merry Christmas to you.”