“You gonna call or fold?” Johnny leaned back in his chair and ghosted the other three players a sly smile. “We don’t really have all night.”
The men chuckled as Scott tore his gaze off his cards to glare at him. He considered himself a good poker player, but his brother’s method of play this evening made him overly cautious. Johnny had been doing an extraordinary amount of bluffing, but still Scott lost hand after hand – by either folding like a coward or ignoring the poor nature of his own hand and calling the bluff.
Forcing himself to analyze the matter objectively, Scott found that what irritated him the most was that Johnny’s relentless line of attack had rendered his powers of deduction utterly useless. He began to think that his brother was purposely remaining in every hand, just to see how long he could get away with it before a personal tell could be detected. The trouble was, Johnny Lancer didn’t have any give-a-way tells that anyone had ever figured out. He’d lived too long as renowned gunfighter Johnny Madrid to reveal any kind of weakness to an opponent – even something minor, like if he had a losing poker hand or not.
Adding to Scott’s frustration, the other players were putting forth just as much effort into trying to guess Johnny’s game, except that, like Johnny, they didn’t seem to mind one bit whether they lost or not. The men actually appeared entertained, like they were watching a magic show and didn’t really want to know how the illusionist worked his tricks, even as they labored to figure them out.
Most of the locals had gotten used to having an ex-gun hawk with Madrid’s storied reputation living among them. For the most part Johnny was treated just like any other man. That’s the way he wanted it, and the citizens of Morro Coyo were usually more than willing to oblige. But they sure did enjoy it when Johnny Lancer loosened the reins on the ever intriguing Johnny Madrid.
“I call.” Scott threw coins into the pot and revealed his cards, absolutely certain that, this time, there was no way Johnny could beat his full house loaded with queens and nines.
Johnny’s unreadable expression didn’t alter as he flipped his cards over – to reveal four of a kind of lowly twos with a mere three for a side card.
Raucous laughter erupted around the table as losing hands were tossed onto a pile. Scott could only shake his head from a mixture of consternation and wonder, drawing louder guffaws from the other players and a few spectators enjoying the game from a neighboring table.
The saloon doors opened as a pair of strangers pushed their way through the batwings. The travelers beat clouds of dust off their sleeves as they laughed their way over to the bar. One of the men wore his holster low on his hips and tied down – just like Johnny.
It was at moments like this when watching Johnny grew really interesting. Scott knew better than to draw undue attention to his brother. He threw down his cards and turned only enough to see Johnny’s face. “Another well-played hand,” he said.
Johnny’s expression was still indecipherable, but his eyes were now eagle-focused on the strangers. “Thanks,” he said.
Despite his brother’s outward indifference, Scott felt a perceptible change in the climate of the room, like when a heavy breeze calms right before a huge storm hits. The feeling spread over the men at the table and traversed through the saloon like a low rumble of thunder. Conversations didn’t stop, but grew considerably quieter.
“Wanna keep playin’?” Charlie said with the deck of cards in his hands poised to shuffle. His eyes kept shifting, on the move trying to watch Johnny and the men at the bar at the same time.
“Don’t see why not,” Johnny said, his own attention back on the table like there’d been no interruption.
Men who met Johnny but knew of his former reputation as Madrid reacted in three distinct manners: They accepted Johnny Lancer and made no big deal about his past; they rejected Johnny Lancer and deplored Johnny Madrid; they treated Johnny Madrid Lancer like a legend – for better or for worse.
Virgil Webster, a never-be-nothing-but-a cowboy who lived payday to payday and had never traveled farther than Stockton, fell into that last group – and he had, unfortunately, been standing at the bar downing his third drink when the strangers joined him. It took them about a half an hour, but somehow their idle chatter led to a discussion about gunfighters – more than likely steered that direction by Virgil himself. Good natured banter built to an outrageous contest of one-upmanship, and the next thing anyone knew Virgil had done the unspeakable.
“Well, I know Johnny Madrid, and he’s the fastest man on the draw I ever saw!”
The proclamation echoed through the saloon, extinguishing conversations in its mighty wake until there was absolute silence.
Scott could have groaned out loud. Instead, he donned his own semblance of a poker face and glanced sideways to gauge Johnny’s reaction.
There wasn’t one. Johnny studied his cards, picked out two and tossed them onto the table. “Give me two, Frank. Two good ones that’ll keep my brother guessin'."
The men at the table followed Johnny’s lead. A smattering of conversations resumed, but there wasn’t a person in the packed room who wasn’t eavesdropping on Virgil and them strangers.
“You know Madrid, huhn?” the stranger with the gun hand’s rig asked, each word a crisp slap of mockery. “Well, how can that be, as I heard he were killed by Rurales down in Mexico!” He poked a bony finger at Virgil’s chest for emphasis.
For Johnny’s sake, he shouldn’t have done that. Drunk on cheap whiskey and misguided conceit, Virgil swatted the hand away and pompously announced, “Ain’t true! An’ I can prove it ‘cause he’s sittin’ right there!” Virgil’s own finger extended out and aimed straight at Johnny.
If the residents of Morro Coyo gathered in that saloon hadn’t been so stunned, there’d have been a collective groan and an immediate tar and feathering of one Mister Virgil Webster.
Enough liquor had flowed across the stranger’s lips to fortify his own backbone. He tracked the target of Virgil’s digit and sauntered in Johnny’s direction. He reached the poker table and posed with his thumbs looped into his belt, putting on a bravado performance of self-confidence.
“That right? You Madrid?” he asked.
Johnny laid his cards face down on the table, and crossed his hands on top of them. “Who wants to know?” he drawled.
Not an anticipated answer, the stranger pushed his hat back a notch then re-looped his thumbs. “Cal McCoy, that’s who.” He plastered a scornful smile on his face and waggled his head with bloated arrogance. “Heard of me?”
Johnny gave the question time for due consideration, his expression neutral. “No,” he said.
“Well, I heard of you,” McCoy said, his eyes narrowed to menacing slits.
“Who?” Johnny said.
Cal’s brow wrinkled in confusion. “Madrid . . . You!”
The succession of puzzling questions in response to his straightforward assertions had McCoy visibly befuddled. “You deaf? That man . . . over there,” he pointed at Virgil. “He says you’re Madrid.”
“So?” Johnny said.
Half the saloon wanted to, but Charlie actually let fly an uncontrolled snicker.
Cal glowered at him. “What’s so funny?”
“Not a thing.” Charlie focused on his cards like they’d been fresh dealt. “Not a thing.”
“What about you, cowboy?” McCoy sidestepped toward Scott. “You know Madrid?”
Caught up in Johnny’s amazing performance, Scott reset his – he very much hoped – best poker face and answered, “Yes. Actually . . . he’s my brother.” Unable to retract the unbelievably bold and foolishly daring admission, he clenched his teeth and didn’t blink.
Probable gunfighter and Harvard graduate traded intense stares. McCoy finally looked around the hushed room and declared, “Town full a’ funny people, is that it?” He faced Scott and sneered, “I hope you don’t bluff much at this here game, ‘cause yer a terrible liar.”
Scott could not believe that he’d been able to deceive the stranger by telling the truth! He began to ponder if that was how Johnny had managed to win all night – but then he remembered that his brother was still in danger of getting goaded into a gunfight.
McCoy barked out a laugh spiked with derision and flicked a dismissive hand toward Johnny. “If you was Madrid you’d tell me,” he scoffed.
“Maybe,” Johnny said, his expression unchanged.
McCoy scrubbed a hand over his chin. “Mister. You may not be Madrid, but I should call you out just for annoyin’ me.”
“Then I’m him.”
“Madrid. I’m Johnny Madrid.”
“So you are Madrid!”
Poor Cal appeared far from certain. He was also starting to sound desperate. “Really?”
“Probably.” It was both a cruel and fascinating response. Chortles, sniggers and outright laughs cut loose around the room.
McCoy lifted his hat and reseated it with a hearty tug. He scowled at Johnny for a full minute. “I need another drink.” He turned and stomped back to the bar.
Whether the gunman had recognized the poor nature of his own skills, or folded like a coward, without even revealing his weapon Johnny had bluffed Cal McCoy out of a showdown. The men around the table wore huge smiles of admiration. “My compliments,” Scott said.
“For what?” Johnny said, completely straight-faced – just as he had remained throughout the entire confrontation.
Scott sighed deeply and threw his hands up in defeat. “I have absolutely no idea.” He beamed his own smile as the other men laughed. “Can we get back to the game now?”
“Not just yet,” Johnny said.
Scott followed Johnny’s line of vision and saw Virgil making his way over from the bar. He stopped beside the table with his hat crumpled in his hands and clutched to his chest.
“I’m real sorry about that, Johnny,” Virgil said.
There was no anger in Johnny’s voice, but the intensity of his stare left no question as to the depth of his rage. “Virgil, knowin’ me and sayin’ you know me are two different things. Understand?”
Virgil looked appropriately humiliated. “Yes, sir, Johnny. I sure do. I didn’t mean you no harm. I won’t never be stupid like that again.” He executed a suitable amount of groveling motions, and then hightailed it out of the bar.
Everyone present would long tell the tale of the infamous gunfight in Morro Coyo that never happened, between Cal McCoy and the man who may or may not have been Johnny Madrid.
THE END ~ ~ MP, April 2010