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a western short story

He taps the bottom of the cards with his pinky, telling me exactly what I wanted to know—as of right now, he has a crap hand. Yet, his eyes tell a different story, like a rancher staring into the setting sun, they narrowed ever so slightly. He didn’t have anything now, but with the right draw, he might could beat me. I decided there was only one thing I could do with my pair of eights.

“All in,” I say, pushing my stack of chips to the center of the table. The small crowd gathered around us rumbled quietly at my boldness.

Jack Gallant, resident poker player, had made a name for himself in Deadwood—he was more than happy to take the prospectors gold and cash. In fact, from what I’d heard, he was beginning to get such a name for himself here that those that would play, did so as long as he was not at the table. His welcome in Deadwood was running short and I hoped I would be the final nail in the coffin and drive him out. He also had a temper which he was proud to display when he lost. While he wasn’t the fasted gun in these parts, he was known for gunning down opponents accusing him of cheating. He’d even shoot down anyone he suspected of cheating. Which was his right, but from what I’d heard, those had been completely unjustified—it was his word against theirs, and since he put a bullet in their head, they had no way to protest his accusations.

By all accounts, Jack Gallant is a dangerous man. But so am I.

Placing his cards on the table, he grinned and sized me up, looking for some tell to get a read on my cards. The problem was, unlike him, I gave no tells to give away my hand’s strength.

I met his gaze and never let my eyes waiver.

He turns his head slightly and spits a stream of tobacco juice onto the floor. “Ballsy, ain’t ya?” he says, picking his cards back up and examining them once more, another sure sign that his current hand is weak

I lead the game in cash, but only slightly. If he were to call, he’d be all in.

He calls.

I kept the pair of eights and the single ace and ask for two cards. Jack slides them over but I leave them untouched on the table. He takes a single card and by the subtle intake of breath, I know he’s gotten the card he needed. If I had to guess, he’s either drawn a flush or a straight.

Based on his reaction, I’m thinking the flush.

And I was right. Straightening his shoulders, a crooked grin stretched across his sun-beaten face as he slowly, methodically, places each card onto the felt tabletop, making them snapped loudly—as if the added emphasis would make his hand that much stronger.

“Read ‘em and weep,” he says and I almost burst out laughing at the overused cliché. All were diamonds but the only one I cared about was the ace in the group. Seeing it reduced my odds winning. There were only four cards left in the deck that could do it for me.

A nervous chuckle ran through the crowd. It was time to reveal my cards. However, two of them still remained face-down in front of me. The crowd behind me didn’t know what they were, and neither did I for that matter. There were only a few combinations of cards that could beat his flush, and as of right now, the odds were in Jack’s favor.

I laid the three cards in my hand on the table.

Jack’s grin grew. He could taste the money. The tournament had started with twenty players, each of us paying a thousand dollars for a seat. Jack and I were the last two and this, by far, would be the biggest hand of the game. If I won, the twenty thousand was mine. If Jack won, I’d still have a few chips left, but not enough to make a dent. He'd be so far ahead, he could take me all in for several hands and even if I won a few of them, odds were he’d be able to ante me to death until I had nothing left. No, this was the penultimate hand of the tournament.

I let the moments pass, watching my opponent as his grin slowly began to fade. “Well ain’t ya goin’ to look at ‘em?” he asks, pointing a dirt-stained finger toward the two cards lying face down before me.

“Be my guest,” I say, giving my permission with a nod of the head.

“What’s this? You trying to get one over on me or somethin’?”

I spread my hands, palms up, “Now how would I do that? I’m just giving you the honor of showing my hand.”

Still, he hesitates. But I’m a patient man—I place my hands on my knees and wait him out.

“Let’s see ‘em,” says someone in the crowd and another agrees. A few moments later, the room is full of chatter as everyone encourages Jack to turn over the cards.

He reaches forward but his eyes remain on me. I smile to encourage him but inside, my own heart is about to burst from my chest. If there was ever a time for the Poker Gods to look down and shine their favor on me, this was that time.

He grabs the first card and turns it over. An ace, which gives me two pair. Aces and eights—the irony of those cards is not lost on me. As the seconds tick by, I half-expect a bullet in the back. It doesn't come.

“Two pair,” says Jack, shaking his head in disbelief. I’m only one card away from winning, but he and I both know that the odds are not in my favor. There are two eights left in the deck along with the last ace—my chances are slim. “Still no match to my flush.”

“No, it’s not,” I agree, then boldly declare, “But your flush is no match to my full boat.”

“Full house?” He spits again. “I don’t see no full house.”

“Turn over the last card,” I say, smiling all the wider.

Fingers slightly trembling, he does just that but then snatches his hand away as if he’d just been bit. And he had—the last card was another eight, giving me the full house.

Everyone around gasps, then begins the applause. I feel several hands clap me on the back and several voices congratulating me at the same time.

Jack Gallant is not one of them. He sits quietly on the other side of the table, gaze locked on the winning hand. His eyes are ablaze with fury and a rush of red rises from his neck and into his face. His mouth moves as if to speak, but the noise around me is so loud I can’t hear.

“Speak up, man…I can’t hear you.”

He slams his fist down on the table. Poker chips fly everywhere and the crowd, knowing his reputation for violence, begins to scatter.

“Son of a bitch!” His hand slams down a second time.

“Now don’t start that, Jack. We don’t want to let our emotions get the better of us now, do we?”

He leans toward me. Face flushed an angry red, the vein in his forehead threatens to burst from the skin. His shakes a finger in my direction. “I don’t know how you did it, but I know you had to be cheating.”

“Now, now, Jack,” I say. My voice is calm, fluid. “Let’s not start saying things we might regret. I’ll let you have that one for free but if you call me a cheat again, it’ll be the last time.”

He bolts upward, flipping the table in my direction. I stand as if to avoid being hit as he shouts, “You lying, cheating, son-of-a…”

The last word fades as his ability to speak is now a thing of the past. Between us, a blue haze of smoke fills the air. My ears ring from discharging my pistol in such close confines. But the ringing is the least of my worries—it’ll go away in time. The hole in Jack Gallant’s throat however—that's another story. He won’t be getting over that any time soon.

He’d tried to flip the table as a distraction so he could draw his firearm before I knew what was going on. I’d been expecting it though, and had my pistol unholstered before he was able to clear leather. The result was the bloody hole through his neck.

His mouth worked, trying to form words—but without a supply of air, the action was futile. He tried to raise his gun again, but to no avail. His fingers loosens their grip and the heavy piece of metal clangs to the floorboards. A couple of seconds later, Jack follows it down.

An authoritative voice behind me asks, “What the hell is going on here?”

I slowly lower my gun hand and place the pistol on my chair before turning. Sheriff Dawson threads his way through the bystanders and points a shotgun in my direction.

Before he can speak, I tell him, “It was a fair fight.” I’m glad to hear others around me speaking up in agreement.

He relaxes and lets the barrel drop toward the floor. “Fair or not, I’ll need to investigate. In the meantime, I'll need your guns.”

I retrieve my pistol from the chair, holster it, and then proceed to unbuckle both weapons from my hips.

“Happy to oblige, Sheriff,” I say, handing the guns over.

He eyes me up and down.

“You’re not from around here.”

It’s a statement, not a question, but I answer him anyway. “No, sir. Heard about the poker tournament and decided to try my hand.”

His gaze falls on the upended table, the scattered poker chips, and then on the bloody ruin of Jack Gallant’s neck. “Looks like you came out on top, huh?” He shakes his head, then, calling out to anyone that would hear, he shouts, “Would somebody get that body out of here before it starts stinking up the place?” He shuffles my loaded holsters and his shotgun to his left arm and extends his right hand. “Welcome to Deadwood, son.”

Taking his hand in mine, we shake. “Thank you, sir. I’m Seth Dawson…but all my friends call me, Ace.”


June 12, 2019

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