”I’m telling ya, there ain’t nothing that Johnny cain’t ride.” Val Crawford leaned forward over the poker table and pulled in the rewards of his last hand. “Why, I once saw him rope a buffalo and ride him ‘til he was as gentle as a lamb.” Val grinned.
Jelly rolled his eyes. “Yer a couple cards short of a full deck, sheriff. Ain’t nothin’ that’ll get Johnny up on that gol durn contraption.”
Scott grabbed his nearly empty mug of beer and sat back in his chair, his eyes dancing with merriment. This was too good to be true. The gol durn contraption, as Jelly called it, had arrived yesterday afternoon in the back of Ruben Taylor’s buckboard – first prize in a cow pie tossing contest. Ruben Taylor had yanked it out of his buckboard with a string of colorful epithets and left it sitting in the dirt in front of the saloon.
“I bet I kin have him up on that thing before the sun sets ta night,” Val boasted.
“An I say yer full a sawdust,” Jelly retorted.
“Ya want ta make a wager on it, Jelly?” Val shot back.
“What kind a wager?” Jelly was suddenly suspicious.
“A bottle of Eddie’s best rotgut.”
The raised voices had drawn everyone’s attention in the saloon and someone smacked Jelly on the shoulder. “Take him up on it, Jelly.” A dollar bill floated onto the table. “I’ll even take a piece of that bet myself.”
Soon the frenzy was on and the bets flowed freely.
“Hold it!” Scott jumped to his feet. “If you’re going to go through with this, you might as well make some stipulations.”
“Stipu…” Val looked to Jelly for help but the only thing the old man could do was shrug.
“Some rules, some guidelines,” Scott explained further.
“Alrighty…” Val stood up as Scott sat down. “I wager Johnny kin ride that thing from here to the horse trough in front of the livery.”
Jelly nodded. “That seems fair. Kin he fall off and get back on?”
Val shook his head. “Nope, the boy’s gotta ride it all the way.”
“Everybody quiet!” Eddie cried from the front doors. “Johnny’s here.”
Johnny was hot and tired and wanted nothing more than a cold beer and a place to sit his rear that didn’t sway beneath him.
He spotted Scott’s horse tied in front of the saloon and pulled up beside Charlemagne.
“What’s Scott doing here this time of day?” he asked the horse. He got a bored look from and horse who simply turned away. “Yer Scott’s horse alright.”
Inside the saloon he ambled over to Scott’s table. Val and Jelly were eyeing him strangely. He looked down quickly to make sure he hadn’t forgotten to re-button his pants earlier.
Scott kicked a chair out for him and he collapsed into it calling over to Eddie for a cold beer.
“Well you look like you’ve come a long ways brother. I thought you were coming back through Cutter’s Crossing.”
“I was,” Johnny said, taking time to gulp down half the beer before continuing. “But the rains last week washed out the bridge. Decided to go through the gap.”
“That’s a long hot ride,” Val agreed. “I guess you must be mighty tired.”
Johnny nodded, then realized all talk had ceased. He looked around to see everyone looking toward their table…no, not just their table, at him.
“What’s going on around here?” he demanded.
“Nothing, Johnny,” Jelly looked nervously towards Scott.
“OK, spit it out. All of you. What’s going on here?”
Scott raised his hands. “I have nothing to do with it. I didn’t even make a bet.”
“A bet?” Johnny put his best Madrid face on and looked right through Jelly and Val. “Out with it,” he growled.
“Welllll…it’s like this Johnny,” Val began, looking to Jelly for help.
“Ya see…Val was makin’ all this noise about you being able to ride that contraption…and I…well, I don’t think ya kin…so….”
“So…?” Johnny’s anger was heating up.
“So…”Val turned to Scott for help…pleading with his eyes.
“I’m waiting….” Johnny’s long tan fingers began tapping on the table.
“Johnny…it weren’t my fault…Jelly…”
“You was the one who said you saw him rope a buffalo once a long time ago.”
“Johnny…” Scott hurriedly stepped in before the two came to fist-a-cuffs. “They wagered a bottle of Eddie’s best rotgut that you couldn’t ride Ruben Taylor’s prize that he won last month in the cow pie throwing contest.”
“What kinda prize?” Johnny instantly regretted asking the question.
Every man in the saloon stood as one, pouring through the bat wing doors and around back where the ‘contraption’ waited.
“It’s out back,” Scott grinned.
“Too bad you boys wasted your money,” Johnny sighed, and walked behind the empty bar to pour himself another mug of beer. He tossed a quarter on the bar top and returned to his seat.
“But Johnny…The whole town’s waiting ta see ya ride…” Val began.
“I ain’t riding nothing today, except Barranca. I’m sore, and I’m tired, and I just wanna get home.”
“See…I told ya,” Jelly said triumphantly. “I told ya he couldn’t ride it.”
Johnny set the mug on the table and scowled toward Jelly. “I said I was too tired to ride anything,” Johnny corrected. “Not that I couldn’t.”
“Well, I guess we’ll never know.” Scott shrugged his shoulders. “You about ready to go Johnny?”
Johnny nodded and downed the last of the beer. But as he stepped out onto the street he could hear the sound of voices from behind the saloon. Curiosity could be a pain, if not down right deadly…but Johnny succumbed and he followed the sound of voices.
Johnny wasn’t sure what he would find behind the barn…but what he saw Jelly and Val balancing between them looked like something from a nightmare.
Scott slapped Johnny on the back. “It’s called a bicycle, Johnny. They’re all the fad back east now.”
Johnny slowly circled what Jelly called a contraption. And it was. With a wheel in front, almost as tall as him, and a tiny wheel behind, it had a small seat on an iron bar that curved from just above the tall front wheel to the small one in back. A bar in front of the seat attached to the wheel.
“There are specially made tracks in Europe where men race these bicycles. I’ve heard then can go as fast as a train.”
Johnny studied the thin tires. Nothing was holding the ‘bicycle’ up but Jelly and Val.
“How you supposed to ride it?” Johnny asked.
“You sit up in the seat, and you push these pedals…” Scott pointed out the pedals in the center of each side of the front wheel. “The faster you pump the pedals, the faster the wheels turn.”
Johnny pushed his hat back on his head, intrigued, but confused. “How you supposed to stay straight up? Ya gotta have someone running along side ya?”
“It’s called balance. There’s a lot of reasons why it works, but we don’t have all day for me to explain it. Just trust me. When you start moving, the bicycle stays up on those two wheels. Think of it like you’re riding a horse. You know how the saddle feels beneath you, how you feel centered when you are in perfect balance. It’s something like that.”
Johnny looked toward Val’s grinning face. “And you expect me to ride this thing?” he shouted.
Val nodded. “I figure if anyone kin…its Johnny Lancer.”
A shout went up from the men who had wagered on Johnny.
“Ya only have ta stay up on it and make it from here to the livery.”
“I don’t know about this, Val. It looks like a man could get himself killed on one of these.”
“Na…You talk to ‘im Scott. Tell ‘im how all those men ride these here bicycles all over Boston. Tell him.” Val pushed Scott in the shoulder, nodding toward Johnny who was still looking at the bicycle in fascination. “Go on…afore he changes his mind.”
“I ain’t changing my mind, Val. I ain’t doing it. No…I think I’ll stick to horses.”
Someone from the crowed snorted. “I told ya he wouldn’t do it. Them Lancer boys is all show…”
Johnny turned toward the voice. “Who’s that talking…Clay Burton?”
Someone pushed Clay Burton toward Johnny.
“Alright,” Johnny said. “I’ll give it a try. Only if Clay agrees to go next.”
Clay tried to step back but he was just pushed forward again. “We got a lot of money riding on this. You better say yes, Clay.”
Clay looked around and saw he was clearly outnumbered. Finally he nodded. A whoop sounded and more money began to change hands.
“Alright, Johnny.” Scott grinned. “Let’s get you riding. Now remember, its all balance. When we start pushing you, you can feel the way the wheels want to stay up. Don’t move the handlebars much, you won’t need to steer much, just to keep your balance. When you’re going fast enough, we’ll let go, and you’ll be on your own.”
“You sure this works?” Johnny unbuckled his holster and handed it to Eddie. “Alright, let’s get this over with.”
It took four men to hold the bicycle steady as Johnny climbed on. He felt like he was sitting on top of the world. He felt dizzy at first. It sure didn’t feel like any saddle he’d ever been on.
“OK, Johnny,” Scott had to keep pushing the bicycle up to keep it from falling on top of him. “You’ve got to get some speed up or you’ll never get your balance.”
Johnny nodded, pushing on the pedals to get their feel, turning the handlebars a little and seeing the front wheel follow.
“You ready?” Scott asked.
Johnny took a deep breath and nodded. “Let ‘er buck.”
The four men began pushing as Johnny began pumping the pedals. The huge wheel wiggled wildly in front of him and the bicycle began to tilt to the left.
“Faster!” Scott yelled.
The wheels turned faster and Johnny began to feel the bicycle balance itself beneath him. He pumped the pedals harder, feeling the wind rush past his face. He heard a roar of laughter rise behind him and didn’t realize until he looked down that he had left Scott and the others behind.
He continued pumping and going faster. The exhilaration of the ride and the triumph of mastering the contraption filled him with a joy he had never felt before.
The livery was coming up…fast. That’s how far Jelly had said he had to go. As he passed the livery he realized he forgot to ask Scott a very important question.
“How do I stop this dang thing?!” he yelled into the wind, leaving the streets of Morro Coyo behind.
“Sorry about that brother,” Scott grinned, helping to untangle Johnny from the overturned bicycle.
Johnny was still laughing, rubbing his right hip where he had landed hardest. He was going to be sore tomorrow…probably too sore to work.
“Don’t worry about it, Boston.” He grinned. “You can explain to Murdoch why I can’t do my fair share tomorrow, since I’ll be soaking in a hot tub all day.”
“Now wait just a minute…” Scott yelled, beginning to run to catch up with his limping brother. “You were the one who rode that…that…”
“But…” Johnny pointed out, “you were the one who finagled me into it. By the way, how much did you win?”
“Hey Lancer, pay up.” Eddie the bartender was holding out his hand for payment.
“You bet against me?” Johnny asked incredulously. “You bet against your own brother?”
Scott shrugged his shoulders. “I’m sorry, Johnny. I just didn’t think you could do it.”
Johnny snatched his hat off and began beating Scott over the head. “You didn’t think I could do it? You put me on that dang thing thinking I would fall off and break my neck?”
“Johnny…it wasn’t like that. Not exactly…” Scott began, but the next minute he was sputtering water from the inside of the horse trough in front of the livery.
Jelly and Val stood side by side, laughing so hard they needed to lean against each other to stand up. Behind them an equally tickled Murdoch Lancer stepped out of the livery stable.
“Fine work gentlemen,” he grinned.
“See boss, I told ya we could git ‘em both.”
Murdoch nodded. “Yes you did. I didn’t think you could do it.” He paid off his wager then patted them both on the shoulders. “Enjoy it while you can. Once those two boys of mine find out who was behind this little prank...”
Jelly and Val paled at the thought. Maybe the last laugh was on them.