by Kieran Judge
For as long as there have been card tables, there’s been the question. Who is the better cheater, the magician or the gambler?
The argument goes something like this. The magician claims that he is better because, by the very nature of being a magician, all eyes are on him and watching for deception. Therefore he must be perfect to deceive an alert audience, therefore he is the best. The gambler notes that whilst this is all true, should the magician get caught, the least he could suffer is public embarrassment. If the gambler gets caught with a card up his sleeve, he finds himself on the receiving end of a smoking gun and a bullet through the head. Therefore, he must strive for utter perfection. With the magician, you know he’s done something but don’t know how. At the poker table, you’d never know there was anything amiss.
And so the argument rages back and forth in every saloon backroom in every dusty street of every backwater town in the west, never to be settled. After all, who would put themselves on the line for such a contest? Certainly not the gambler, because with eyes waiting for him to cheat, he is out of his element, which grants the sleight-of-hand artist an unfair advantage, so the competition would never take to the stage.
However, there is one instance I know of where it was put to the test.
It happened in a little outpost known as Fort Worthing, known to the townsfolk as Fort Worthless. It’s the kind of place where one could make a living off collecting the tumbleweed and selling it as firewood. Someone back in the day claimed he’d struck a rich vein of gold, and the people flocked there for fortune and glory, as happens most places. When they discovered he’d said it to lure them away from an actual hit, he’d grabbed it all and disappeared to the land of the rich and famous. The place became nothing more than a saloon, whorehouse, couple of jail cells, and that most tireless of trades, the coffin maker’s. Trains arrived at a town about twenty miles south on an infrequent basis, and we got more traffic from hard-asses stumbling across it, weary and dazed from the heat, than those actively seeking us out. Population wasn’t much above a couple hundred, and that was if you cast your net a few miles around. Fort Worthless weren’t much, but us that lived there kinda liked the quiet. The grit tasted different, somehow, and when you got used to it, going elsewhere tasted wrong.
I ran the only store in the town, and made one of the only stable livings there. Made me respected as well, because I treat people that buy from me well. Charge just enough to make the cut, and folks help you out when you need it. Rip them off, and they’ll not blink twice when the few dollars saved under the floorboards disappear.
The incident in question happened after I’d closed up for the day, and I went on over the street to get a drink. It was a fairly quiet evening in the scratched and splintered shack that was The Mule, not as quiet as I’d seen it sometimes, but it hadn’t descended into the drunken choruses that occasionally overtook it.
“They already in the back?” I called to Tom, the bartender. He nodded, got a bottle of whiskey and poured me a glass. My usual to end the week. “Thanks.”
“You going in for a hand or two?” Tom asked.
I raised an eyebrow that said ‘are you insane?’ and he smiled, telling me to forget he’d ever mentioned it.
I sat for an hour or two, talking to Tom and the few friends that wandered in and out. I watched a man enter, sit down with a drink, and leave half an hour later with Ruby, who’d gotten her claws into him early while he still had money to lose. The sun was setting; darkness almost upon us in that quiet part of the west.
Then the door opened and he came in.
He had eyes like the devil, and for a brief moment with the sun at his back, I thought he was. He had on him a black cloak, and stood like a figure chizzled out of a mountain. He had a scar running down the right side of his face, from his ear to his neck, eventually slipping behind scraggly dark hair. At his waist was a pair of pistols, one on each hip.
The saloon hushed. Weapons were cocked audibly under the tables.
“Anyone know where I can get a game?”
Tom had his hands underneath the bar, where a shotgun was ready and waiting for him. “Ain’t a game round here, sir. I suggest you look elsewhere.”
The man turned his head and I heard his neck creak, cachink! cachink! cachink! like a train going slowly over the tracks. “Sure about that?”
The two stared off. I shifted my leg to rub against the gun tucked into my boot. This man didn’t seem like the type that was going to be scared off easily.
Tom slowly nodded to a curtain at the back of the room. “Through there,” he said. “But I ain’t having no trouble from you. Fort Worthing’s a quiet town, and I won’t be having that spoiled by some drifter.”
The man nodded; moved into the room like a wisp of smoke. As he swept past me I smelled something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, like burning. Sometimes the smell of gunpowder on your fingers can linger a while, but nobody’d heard a shot for hours. I shuddered on my stool. Wasn’t right, I tell you.
“Doyle!” Tom called ahead of the drifter. “You got company.”
I picked up my glass and followed the man, anxious to be the voice of reason should any fireworks erupt. All eyes watched us. I glanced back to Tom, who gave me a quick nod of approval. His hands were still under the bar. I nodded back.
The back room was dark and dingy, and it stank of sweat, smoke, and alcohol. Hunched around a rickety wooden table were three figures with furrowed brows and fingers close to guns that lay next to them. They watched the man. A hand had just finished, and the starting bets for the next were in the pot.
The stranger held up a hand in peace. “Jus’ wanting a game, is all.”
“You got cash?”
The stranger cast his eyes over the men. Their cheeks were sharper than knives, and the stranger’s presence had clenched each and every jaw. He reached slowly inside his cloak and pulled out a crumpled pair of bills. He tossed them onto the table. “Deal me in.”
Doyle riffled the edge of the deck, each fffffrwip! fffffrwip! like the tick of a clock, a heartbeat, as he looked from the man to the notes to his gun and back to the man. Then he motioned for him to pull up a seat opposite, and he tossed cards to the four places. “Five card draw,” Doyle said. “Keep it clean. And guns by the door.”
“That don’t seem fair, seeing as how you’ve got yours on the table.”
Doyle watched him. “Fine. Just remember; I can get to mine faster.”
The floorboards creaked with the stranger’s every step. He dragged the chair across the wood and sat down. Looked at his cards. Called the raised bet. Eyeballed everyone up as they eyeballed him back.
He folded after trading in two extra cards. The tension in the room deflated a little.
“Better hope your luck improves,” said Clay, the man on his right. “Doyle’s been known to clean house before.”
The stranger looked Doyle in the eye, and spoke without a hint of amusement or sarcasm. “Good job for him that mine wasn’t full.”
Clay and Scraggy folded upon more careful consideration of the table, and Doyle leaned over to rake in his winnings. “You got a name, stranger?”
“Roland,” said the dark man. He looked across at me. “You there. Get me a ginger ale.” He tossed a coin over to me. I thought for a second, then obliged.
“Nobody shot yet,” Tom remarked as he slid me a bottle across the bar.
“Stranger seems calm enough, if a little intimidating,” I replied. “Don’t worry; I’ll keep order if needs be.”
I returned to the back and gave Roland his drink. The next round hadn’t started yet, apparently waiting on the beverage being delivered.
I perched myself on a stool in the shadows and watched on. The deck went to Scraggy, and the cards went out around the table again. Eventually the game settled into a steady rhythm, cards being dealt and thrown back in disgust, money going in and being claimed once more by the only guy crazy enough to bluff his way through. The stranger, Roland, even seemed to get in on a few jokes here and there, and the uncomfortable tension eased little by little, though it never truly vanished.
Before long Scraggy pushed his chair back and sighed. “Ain’t my luck tonight. I’ll be seeing you around.” He gave a nod of his hat and pushed out into the bar, leaving behind a smoky shadow in the doorway.
With Scraggy gone I reappraised the situation at the table. Doyle, as predicted, was staking his claim to the largest amount of winnings, but the stranger was holding his own. Clay was having the worst luck, and was folding more often than he was putting money in to play. He’d be out within a round or two, and everyone in the room knew it. It was just a matter of time, his money burning away like his tobacco.
After limping victoriously onwards, Clay was forced all in. His hand was dire, but he was out of options. Doyle watched him slide his final stakes into the pot. “Going down fighting?”
Clay grunted. “Ain’t going out of here a coward.”
I tipped my hat to him as, a few moments later, Roland got his hands on the pot. Clay got up and came to stand next to me. He eyed the table. Nudged my arm. “Who you takin’?”
I desperately wanted to cast my lot in with Doyle, not just because he was the only one of us left, but because he was a decent player. I’d seen him win more often than lose, and he’d emptied me dry on more than one occasion. The drifter was holding his own, and it was disturbing to watch. He pushed in when he needed to, and folded when Doyle got the better hands.
I think it was around then that the nagging suspicion returned that something wasn’t right about him. The way he had played all night supposed some kind of intuition that was more than gut instinct. You don’t watch as many hands as I do and fail to learn how to read a man cold. It weren’t much, mind, but there was something hiding behind his eyes.
Doyle must have sensed it to, because suddenly the table was deadly serious. The sympathetic smile he’d worn as Clay had gone out had dropped. There were darkened rings under his eyes. He glanced down at the pistol on the table to check it was still there. “Just us two left, Stranger Roland.”
The dark man nodded. “Seems to be.” He shuffled the cards thoroughly, and Doyle watched him like a hawk. I saw little images in my head of Doyle trying to track a card or two through the shuffle. Roland finished mixing and slid the deck over to his opponent to cut. He slid it slowly and deliberately. Pure intimidation. Judging by the twitch at the corner of Doyle’s eye, it had gotten to him.
My palms started to sweat. I knew what that twitch meant. We all did, because that was the twitch Doyle got when some punk from nowhere pissed him off. That was when he started getting fumbly with his fingers, shooting below the belt and, occasionally, from the bottom of the deck.
Doyle cut one handed and dealt.
I watched him extra close now, expecting him to try something clever. It wasn’t like he could have a hidden on him somewhere to bring in, as he hadn’t the chance beforehand to cop a pair of kings or the like and hold them out. So he’d have to try something else. Sure enough, Doyle casually tossed the cards over to Roland, one, two, three, four, and five. Set the deck down. “What’s your call?”
Most people who weren’t looking wouldn’t have caught it, but me and Clay knew where to look. Doyle had a range of techniques in his arsenal, and in this case he’d used his pistol. As he’d taken the cards off the top of the deck to toss across the table, all nice and neat with a little spin to them, he’d held them just over the gun lying at his side. In the reflection off the side of the barrel, with enough training, you could tell exactly what card it was you were throwing. I’d seen him do this with knives, razors; anything sharp he could use as a ‘shiner’, as they call it. He’d learned not to do it with the locals, but old habits die hard.
Clay gripped the edge of my stool. This Roland character didn’t seem like the kind of guy to take being cheated out of his money lying down. There was that sense of dark intimidation that he had walked into the bar with, that simmering rage that could snap at a moment’s notice. And just before this stranger collected up his cards, I saw his eyes flick over to Doyle.
Alarm bells rang. I felt for the pistol in my boot. If Doyle had been caught, he’d be dead in seconds. This man was dangerous.
The drifter collected the grubby cards and gave them a passing glance. He pushed half his winnings into the centre. Sat back. Stared deep into Doyle’s eyes. He didn’t make a sound, just sat there with his mouth closed stock still, and for a moment he looked like one of those statues at the big city graveyards.
I was close enough to Doyle to see over his shoulder. He kept his hands cupped when he looked at his cards, but I saw enough to know that he was in good standing, even without a draw. Pair of aces, and what looked to be another pair, eights or nines I couldn’t make out. The final card was in shadow, but I didn’t need to see the kicker to know he’d got him good. And seeing those cards sent over the table in the gun gave him all the information he needed.
Doyle put down his cards. He put iron hands on his stash and slid it in front of him. Went back for a stray dollar. “All in.”
Clay breathing in through his teeth drew the last remaining air out of the room. The two players looked into each other’s eyes. Doyle bit down hard to stop his cheek twitching. It was a silent battle of wits, feints inside bluffs, truths inside lies.
Doyle glanced down at his cards lying on the table. It was quick, but the stranger caught it. The corner of his mouth peeled up. He thought Doyle had bluffed him, and looked at his cards out of nerves. The idea that even that had been a bluff didn’t seem to pass his mind. He took another glance at his own cards. Raised an eyebrow. “You quite sure?”
Doyle kept quiet, with his eyes locked onto the pitch black depths of the stranger’s gaze as if his life depended on it. A single twitch and the room would smell of gun smoke for days.
Just before his opponent pushed the rest of his money into the pot, I wondered how Doyle’s wife was doing at home, and how she’d react to finding herself widowed. It’d never crossed my mind before; Doyle had never been caught. Even if he had, there was always enough of us to make sure nothing came to blows. But at that moment I saw in my mind the look in her eyes as I stood on the porch, hat in front of me, and she felt the full, thunderous weight of understanding drop onto her shoulders.
I looked to Roland. He removed his hands from the pot. “All in.”
Clay disappeared into the bar. Give them a heads up. Smart man. I brought my pistol into my lap and prayed for silence.
Doyle’s neck pulsated with nerves. In his vibrating flesh I felt his heartbeat. Had he seen the cards correctly? He had been sure enough of both players hands to go for the big one, but now, with the drifter staring him down, head titled to the table so that the whites of his eyes showed, Doyle wasn’t so confident.
I held my breath.
“So there we are,” Roland said. “It’s time we settled this evening at last.”
“Are you sure about this?” Doyle asked.
“Are you not?”
Doyle smirked. “No drifter from out of town’s going to run me out of my winnings.”
Roland put a delicate finger on a card. “Mind if I start?”
Doyle waved for him to go ahead.
Clay reappeared at the door. The other room was silent.
Roland turned over his first card. Five of spades.
Doyle sighed. He turned over one of his face down five to reveal a black eight.
Roland came back with a second five, this time of diamonds. Doyle returned fire with his second black eight.
“You should have folded when you had the chance,” Doyle said. “You’d still have another round left to play.”
“We’ll see,” said the stranger. “Got to turn all the cards first.”
I had an uneasy feeling. I didn’t like the tone he’d spoken with, as if he knew more than he was letting on. Right then I was dead certain that he’d seen Doyle cheating. And he knew, somehow, with only half the information against Doyle’s complete set, that he was going to win.
He turned over a third card. King of spades.
Doyle was still confident. Everything as he’d seen. He revealed an ace.
Back to Roland. He lingered on this fourth card a while. He let his shoulders relax, creaked his neck as if preparing to chase a stagecoach. Took his skeletal fingers and deftly revealed a second king. Two pairs so far. That final card was going to be crucial.
Doyle wasn’t worried. He played the waiting game along with the stranger. Without looking down he turned over his fourth card. “Still think you got this?”
Roland kept his gaze. “If my final card’s a king, I win.”
“Not if I’ve got a third ace,” was Doyle’s reply.
I snuck my gun into my hand. The suspense was like a thick fog that was getting harder and harder to see through.
Roland slowly looked down to his final card. Exhaled. Turned it over with a flourish.
Doyle threw back the chair in delight. It wasn’t a king. He had the higher two pair, and the pot was his. But as he rose through the air to his feet, his expression underwent an incredible change. By the time he was fully standing, his face was full of confusion.
The card Roland had turned over was Doyle’s own ace of spades.
Looking down, he saw his fourth card to be not an ace, but a three. He stared at it in utter disbelief, and I stared with him.
I was sure I had seen an ace. Could have put my whole livelihood on it. With my own two eyes I had watched him fan them across and in between the ace and eight of clubs, was that big black spade.
“You fucking cheat,” Doyle growled. “You cheating, drifting son-of-a-bitch.”
“Coming from a man who uses his gun as a shiner.”
Doyle had no words. His jaw had locked solid. His fingers twitched for his gun, but his arm seemed to have seized, his whole body in a kind of living rigor mortis.
“Still got one card left,” Roland said. “I think you’ll find it quite fitting.”
Doyle didn’t get the chance. Clay cocked his gun and it sounded in the cramped room like thunder. “Time to leave, friend.”
Roland smiled. “Thank you for the game.”
The stranger stood up and clutched the hem of his cloak. He swept it up and around him in a single motion that hid him from view. Me and Clay started shooting the instant he was moving; we’d seen the steel at his waist and weren’t taking chances. Gun smoke filled the room, the dense fog broken by muzzle flashes. We shot until we were empty and still kept clicking. Wood splintered, glass shattered, cards drifted through the air in tatters. Someone screamed. We didn’t know who and we didn’t care; we just kept pulling those triggers.
When the shooting stopped, the smoke began to clear. There was no Roland, no cloak, and no guns. Just as if he’d never been there.
I ran to the door on instinct, and got halfway there before I realised Clay had been blocking the way out the whole time.
“Where’s he gone?” I called.
Clay shook his head. Then clicked onto it before I did. “Doyle!”
We rushed over to the big man, who was splayed out on the floor. Three bullet holes ran along his chest, one right through his heart. He was drenched red, and by the time we got on the floor to him, it was obvious that there was going to be no way to save him.
“Bastard,” he croaked. Looked me dead in the eye with blood trickling out the corner of his mouth. He looked to the gun on the table still lying there; the weapon which had betrayed him.
“Stay still,” Clay said as he clamped his hands over as many holes as he could. “We’re going to get you help.”
Tom appeared in the doorway. I turned to him. “Call Hatchet! Doyle’s down.”
He nodded and ran for all he was worth. Didn’t do much good. As I turned back to Doyle I watched his eyes mist over. A few seconds later, his head lolled to one side, and he’d gone.
Clay kicked the table. “Fuck! Fucking drifter son-of-a-bitch!”
I closed Doyle’s eyes. “He weren’t just some drifter,” I said quietly. “He vanished into thin air. Like the devil himself.”
That was when I noticed that final card smoking on the table. Thick tendrils made their way out from underneath like fronds of weeds squirming in the settling dust. With a tentative hand I reached out and turned it over.
It wasn’t a playing card there, no sir, not one of your standard fifty two. It wasn’t even a joker. What stared back at me was a bleached skeleton. Death rode a pale horse cloaked in darkness, scythe held high, and a flag attached to the blade that fluttered white in the wind. The horse stepped over a body with blood spilling from its chest.
Some nights I wake up and remember standing on that porch and having to explain to Doyle’s wife what happened. I remember lying, saying that we tried to chase the stranger down, but he disappeared off into the desert, never to be seen again. And when I wake up on those nights when my head is filled with screaming, and I look out my window at a moonlight desert street, I sometimes see a solitary shadow standing there, looking up at me.
I wonder if it ever forgave me for shooting at it. I think it did.
I think that makes it worse.