Chapter One—Playing the Odds

     I wasn’t that good of a poker player, but I was better than these guys.
     My Pa actually taught me a little bit about the game. Apparently he played some before he and Ma got married, but she wouldn’t let him after that. But he knew a few tricks, and on cold winter nights, when there wasn’t anything else to do, he and I would play for matches and he’d give me a pointer or two. Ma wouldn’t let me go to saloons, but I didn’t always do what my ma said. And I was usually the worse for it.
     Anyway, it was just after noon and I was drifting. My horse, Raven—called that because he was pitch black from head to hoof to rump—had thrown a shoe, so he was limping pretty badly. Fortunately, we came upon a town, a place appropriately named Grungy. Which was sort of how I felt, so I thought I’d stay the night and share a hotel room with the bed bugs I expected to be there.
     I had been riding in some low rolling, grassy hills, so I saw the town when I topped a knoll. I took a moment to look over Grungy, which was about half a mile below. Pretty typical for the area—mostly ranching. One main street, maybe a mile long, a couple of cross streets, with some minor lanes intersecting them—the residential area for the good folks of Grungy, those who weren’t ranchers. The merchants, etc. always flocked to where they could make a buck and that was true here as well.
     Anyway, Raven limped on down into the town and the first building we came to was the blacksmith’s shop. I stopped, told him my problem, he looked at Raven, and said he could have a new shoe by the next morning. Sounded good to me.
     “Can you take him to the livery for the night when you finish?” It was right across the street. “I’ll settle up with both of you in the morning.”
     He eyed me narrowly. “How do I know you’ll be in town in the morning?”
     I gave him a “get real” look, as in “where in the world would I go on foot?” But what I said was, “Would you leave a horse like that behind?”
     Raven was a good horse. Better than good. One of the best I’d ever seen and I knew horse flesh. Smitty did, too—I guess that was the blacksmith’s name, that’s what they are all called. He acquiesced. “Yeah. See what you mean. This is one fine horse.” Then he grinned at me. “How much you want for him?”
     “More than you got,” I said to him. I pulled my saddle bags, rifle, and blanket roll off the horse and made ready to leave. “Hotel in town?” I asked him.
     He nodded. “Such as it is. Other side of the street, first cross street, first building. Can’t miss it, though you might want to.”
     I grunted. I’d been in places like that before. “Who’s got the best grub?”
     He scratched his chin, as if in thought. “You a religious fellow?”
     I sort of shrugged. Ma had tried to instill some of that into me, with varying degrees of success, usually depending on how much trouble I was in with her or Pa. “Why?”
     “You might want to fast.” I grunted again. He continued. “But there’s a place about two doors down from the hotel—Donna’s—that might not kill you.” He smiled ruefully. “But if you tell me you’re going to eat there, I might want payment in advance.”
     I just shook my head. “Well, keep the horse if I don’t come back.”
     “That’d be fair,” he said. “Charley over to the livery can have the saddle. Awful good one.” And it was.
     Anyway, I headed down to the hotel, got a room for the night, and was thirsty. Not hungry yet, I’d munched on some jerky on the way into town. The hotel didn’t have a restaurant, and I thought I’d wait to try Donna’s for dinner. That meant the saloon for now, which was the only place I could get a bottle of sarsaparilla.
     Like I mentioned, Ma told me not to go into saloons, and I usually did listen to her about that. I had never been in one where somebody didn’t start some trouble, and sometimes it was me who started it. But it was barely 1 PM in the afternoon. How could I get into trouble that time of day?
     I should have known better. I did know better. But I went anyway.
     I guess I need to return to the first sentence of this story—about me being a better gambler than the fellows I was playing with. But I had to tell why I ended up in that saloon in the first place. I went in, and sure enough, the place was largely empty. There was one fellow standing at the bar and he appeared to be in inebriation heaven, so I didn’t expect any hassle from him. There were only four other patrons and they were sitting at a table—playing poker.
     I ordered my drink and paid for it. I turned and leaned on the bar, and just about that time, one of the men at the poker table made a disgusted sound, threw his cards down, and said, “Well, that finishes me, boys. I’ll get it back next time.” He stood up, obviously intending to leave. Which he did. Which, of course, left only three men at the table. Nobody likes to play three-handed poker. So, one of the fellows spied me and hollered, “Hey, would you like to join us?”
     Well, Ma was sitting on my right shoulder telling me not to, and the devil was sitting on my left shoulder encouraging me to do the opposite of what Ma on my right shoulder was advising. I don’t have to tell you to whom I listened. I didn’t have anything else to do that afternoon anyway.
     But I wasn’t totally stupid. I walked over to the table and said, “Yeah, ok. But on one condition.”
     The three men scrutinized me. Two of them looked like obvious cowboys in town wasting their money, the other fellow looked like a thug. Well, actually he was a pretty good looking thug, but his ice blue eyes held no warmth. No pun intended.
     One of the cowboys responded. “What’s that?”
     I pulled out my pocket watch and held it up. “I’m leaving at 5 PM. Period. Win or lose. If I’m ahead, I don’t want to hear any whining about you wanting a chance to win your money back. I’m outta here regardless or no deal.”
     Ice Eyes sort of sneered at me. “What makes you think you’re going to be ahead?”
     I shrugged. “Not saying I am. Just telling you how this cow is going to eat his cabbage.” I glanced around the table. “Deal or no?”
     The three men looked at each other. Nobody seemed to have any objections. “We may all be gone by then anyway.”
     “Fair enough.”
     I sat down and was told the game was five-card draw. My favorite. We all got introduced—first names only. Ice Eyes was Davey, and the other two were Chuck and Buck. Wasn’t too hard to remember that.
     “I’m Andrew,” I said, and they acted like they didn’t care much. And they probably didn’t. I was just a pile of money they hoped to end up with. Come to think of it, that’s all they were to me, too.
     Well, the afternoon passed pleasantly enough. At least for me. As I mentioned—back to sentence one—these fellows weren’t very good, though I got the impression that Ice Eyes was getting a little irritated. He was the best of the three and he was losing. And he didn’t like it. But I was getting good cards, too, and that helps. It doesn’t matter how good a poker player you are, if you never get a hand better than a pair of deuces, you aren’t going to win much. One can only bluff so far.
     I had some better hands than that, and the two cowboys were pretty good at tipping off when they were holding something they liked, so I avoided those pots. And by 5 PM, I was a good $150 ahead—about $50 from each of them. I held up my pocket watch again for all of them to see.
     “Five o’clock, boys. Your word is your word, I hope.”
     They didn’t like it, but they didn’t do anything but grumble. Except Ice Eyes. His look would have frozen the basement of Hades. Unfortunately for him, I wasn’t the basement of Hades.
    So I scooped up my winnings, thanked them kindly for a nice afternoon, and headed off to Donna’s, feeling pretty good about myself. I hadn’t been broke by any stretch of the imagination, but hey, 150 bucks is 150 bucks, which is almost half a year’s salary for a cowboy.
     Which made me wonder where those cowboys got all that money to gamble with. Well, no big deal. They didn’t have it any more.

     Actually, there wasn’t any trouble until the next morning. Donna’s meal wasn’t the best, but it was edible and I didn’t die during the night. I had the hotel draw me up a bath, took a long one, got all my clothes laundered, and then went up to my room for the evening. It was barely 7 PM when I got there, but I was tired and had no desire to have another bottle of sarsaparilla. I read the Bible for a couple of hours to clear my conscience from having gambled—a conscience that would have bothered me a whole lot more had I lost $150 instead of won it—then went to sleep.
     Anyway, in the morning, I went down to the blacksmith shop and paid Smitty, then across the street to get Raven, and settled up with Charley, the hostler. Everything was going well. I inspected Smitty’s work, and it was good. Raven seemed comfortable with it, too, and that was what counted.
     All was well till I hit the General Store to pick up a few supplies. I ordered and received what I wanted, and as I was tying my new goodies onto the back of my saddle in preparation for departing the fair city of Grungy, I heard a voice from the street.
     “You aren’t planning on leaving town without giving me a chance to win back that money you cheated me out of yesterday, are you, mister?”
     I glanced over and saw Davey—Ice Eyes—with his hands locked to his gun belt and standing with—ice in his eyes. I just glanced at him up and down and then went back to what I was doing. “I didn’t take you for a sore loser, Davey. You seem more of a man than that.”
     He didn’t particular like the implication that I was insulting his manhood. “I don’t mind losing, but I don’t like to be cheated. And it was obvious that you were cheating. Big time.”
     By this time, we had started to draw a little bit of a crowd. Or maybe, more accurately, what crowd there was, was beginning to scatter. But I leaned on Raven and looked at Davey. “Mister, I don’t know how to cheat at poker, and I don’t appreciate, in the least, the suggestion that I was dishonest. I won your money fair and square. Now, get over losing, or go cry on somebody else’s shoulder.”
     I heard a gasp or two when I said that. Davey’s eyes blazed, which was sort of hard to do since they were made out of ice. But now they had fire in them. “I’ll forget you said that, saddle tramp, if you’ll just return the money you stole from me yesterday. With a little bit of interest for the aggravation I had of putting up with a cheater.”
     I was getting disgusted now. I don’t mind being called a saddle tramp. I guess I was one at the moment, and I’d been called worse. But I did object to being called a cheater. “Buddy, why don’t you just go crawl back into whatever hole you slithered out of, and I’ll get on out of town and we’ll both be happy.”
     More gasps and then finally somebody spoke up. “Mister, don’t you know who you are talking to? That’s Davey Gordon.”
     Hmm. Well, that did turn over a rock with a rattlesnake beneath it. Davey Gordon had the reputation of being just about the fastest draw this side of the Mississippi, and the other side, too, if he had been there. Scuttlebutt had it that some of the west’s fastest—Hardin, Thompson, both Mastersons, and even Wild Bill had backed down in front of this fellow, but scuttlebutt has a way of getting bigger with the telling. Yet Gordon’s reputation wasn’t undeserved by any stretch of the imagination. He was fast, and probably had two dozen notches in his gun. But I didn’t feel like backing down. I sneered at Gordon. “A snake is a snake, regardless of what his handle is.”
     Gordon was livid now. “Mister, you just paid your ticket to Boot Hill.” His hands dropped to his side, his right one curled just above his gun handle. “Get ready to draw.” I love how eloquent these fellows are.
     “And if I don’t?” I asked. “Are you going to shoot me down in cold blood in front of the whole town?”
     He returned my sneer. “It wouldn’t be the first time. You think any town sheriff is going to arrest me?”
     No, probably not, unless he wanted to be pushing up daisies. And Grungy was obviously a town full of gutless men who wouldn’t stand up to a gunslinger, so Gordon doubtless had everything his own way. Including getting his money back when he lost at poker.
     I was going to say something intelligent like, “I’m not looking for trouble,” but I guess it was too late for that. I could have given him his money back, but I don’t like thieves. Besides, if he killed me, I wouldn’t be around very long to know about it, would I. And this will be an awfully short story.
     Why hadn’t I listened to Ma yesterday when she was sitting on my right shoulder?
     I didn’t have much choice, I guess. Gordon was about 40 feet away, standing in the middle of the street. I moved away from Raven—I didn’t want him to get hit by any stray bullets, though any bullet from me would have to be awfully stray to nick him. Wasn’t too worried about my bullets, though.
     “All right, Gordon. You want your money back, come get it.”
     “I’ll take it off your dead body. Count of three.” Another sneer; he was good at it. “I’ll even wait till three-and-a-half to give you a sporting chance.”
     Did I mention I was wearing a gun? No, I hadn’t mentioned that, but I was. Most men in the west did, though not very many knew how to use them all that well.
     Gordon started counting. He didn’t get to be where he was—a living gunman—by telling the truth. He did what I expected. Right after he said, “Two,” he went for his gun…