Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/2316069-Know-When-to-Fold-em
by Rodryn
Rated: 18+ · Fiction · Western · #2316069
Can't lose if you don't play

          "It ain't worth it, Tags," George said, head shaking.
Taggart snorted, faced a mirror and adjusted the tie, then began combing the thick caterpillar mustache perched above thin lips. Appearing respectable enough for the dusty frontier town, he pulled out a wad of silver dollar notes, counted them out, and passed half to George.
          "Quit bellyachin'," Taggart said, "it's an easy fleece. Kid's got too much of his papa's money, and it would be a shame if someone else got to it first."
"He's bad news," George reached into Taggart's sleeve and pulled out an ace of hearts, "didn't like the boy's looks."
Taggart stuffed the ace back.
"What rich kid isn't bad news?" Taggart grumbled, "besides, it won't take long. Give it, oh, twenty or thirty hands, and a nice chuck of daddy's fortune is ours."
"Assuming you walk away."
"Been hearing things about Will Fleming. More ornery than this papa's bulls and always surrounded by half a dozen thugs. Rumor going around that he shot someone over a dice game. Bit of a sore loser."
          Taggart appreciated the concern. Such instincts saved both their hides more than once, but it made George blind towards opportunities when they arise.
          "I don't put stock in scuttlebutt," Taggard said, "once the chips are down, I'll see the kind of man Will really is."
"Be careful what you wish for," George said, "remember, it's a private game. Invite only, so I won't be around to save yer sorry ass if things go tits up."
Taggart donned a bowler hat. "Just sit tight and don't do nothin' stupid."
"That's my line," George's grin caused freckles to melt into a thin brown line upon pale cheeks.
          Chuckling, Taggart departed the room and descended into the saloon. He pushed through the throngs of patrons, piano hammering out a rapid tune over the clamor of passionate conversation and clinking glasses, and stepped outside. Across the street sat a building with 'Fleming Cattle & Co' in big letters over the awning. All windows were dark, curtains drawn, and a 'closed' sign sat on the front door. Taggart moseyed around the side, and saw flickering light from a single lantern illuminating a side door. He knocked twice. A peep hole hatch shot open, and a pair of eyes leered from under thick, bushy eyebrows.
          "What?" a gruff voice said.
"Bunkhouse," Taggart said.
Locks clicked and deadbolts slid. The door opened, and a ranch hand greeted Taggart in a sweat stained long sleeve and tattered overalls cradling a double-barrel shotgun. He held up a box containing several knives and revolvers.
          "No weapons," the doorman said.
Taggart's stomach fluttered, but he obeyed. A single pistol dropped into the box, and the doorman gave him a pat down for good measure.
"Follow," grunted the doorman.
          A few paces down the dim hall sat a storeroom. Crates and barrels were shoved against the wall, and a single table occupied by three men was at the center. Several armed goons lurked along the periphery. Tobacco clogged the air, and every slight movement produced a squeak from the floorboards. Taggart took a seat, lit a cigar, and eyed the competition.
          On the left was a spindly fellow with a thin comb-over and octagonal spectacles. Banker based upon the gold chained pocket-watch and stripped short-sleeve shirt. To the right was a haggard man with hands like oven mitts, and a thick beard and mustache concealing his mouth. Tattered long johns were stained with orange splotches and there was a faint whiff of blasting powder.
          Miner. Probably from the copper mines down south.
The last man, right of the miner, was dressed in Sunday finery, and Taggart's first impression was shop keep or trader. However, his skin was sunbaked and leathery. Had to be a farmer or some sort of landowner. A door creaked open. Will Fleming strode in, dressed better than anyone, with a shit-eating grin on his spot marked face. Taggart spotted the ivory handle of a .45 caliber pistol tucked into Will's belt, and his chest tightened.
          "Howdy all," Will said, "ready for some cards?"
All heads bobbed, and Will's fingers snapped twice. An elderly man with a bald head and glorious white mutton chop beard entered and sat in the last seat. He took out a deck of cards and began shuffling.
"We'll start simple," Will tossed a silver half-dollar onto the table, "five-card draw, nothin' wild."
"We playing ante or blinds?" the landowner said.
Will glanced around, eyebrow raised.
You gotta be shittin' me. I'm gonna enjoy taking this toddler's candy.
          The dealer leaned over and whispered to Will.
"Ante, of course," Will beamed.
          Quarters clinked into the center, and cards flew to each man. Taggart fanned out the hand, suppressing a grin. Ladies to start, very nice. Around the table, each man threw away unwanted cards and the dealer replaced them. Will shot venomous glances at the dealer and slapped six, one-dollar notes onto the table. Landowner and Banker folded, leaving Taggart, Will, and Miner for a showdown.
          "Lucky you," Will mumbled.
"Night's still young," Taggart winked.
          Cards fluttered, coins tumbled, and money changed hands. Will turned out to be an easy read. Whenever he had nothing, the dealer was beaten and insulted, and Taggart knew lame pack mules who were treated better. He played cautiously and let the others win a few rounds.
"All in," Will said, shoving a pile of cash forward.
Taggart joined Landowner and Miner in folding, but Banker nodded, and a hefty pile of cash sat in the center of the table. Will's eyes narrowed, revealing two pairs.
          "Trips," laughed Banker, reaching for the winnings.
Taggart was not a gunslinger. He could outdraw most average folk, and was fairly accurate, but Will was a special kind of sloppy. In the space of time it took him to draw iron and put hot lead into Banker's right shoulder, Taggart could have made breakfast. Banker screamed, tumbled from the chair, and moaned in a curled mass while bright crimson spilled onto the floor. Two thugs hauled him out, and Will collected the winnings, glancing around the table.
          "I don't appreciate cheatin' fellas," he said, "keep it clean, ya hear?"
Nobody was cheating. Taggart didn't suspect anyone else of pocketing cards, and Will made winning easy, no need for such tomfoolery.
First time I ever wanted to lose a game.
          Miner went to stand, mumbling about having to get home, but Will's thugs peeled themselves off the wall, and he sat back down. Five hands later, the miner was out of cash.
          "What kind of town is this?" Will spat, "If y'all ain't cheatin' yer playing all pathetic like. What's with the kiddie gloves, huh? You think I'm some little boy?"
          Will motioned at his men when Miner failed to respond. Three goons swarmed him. Shotgun stocks cracked into flesh and bone, and he was knocked prone, helpless against a flurry of boot tips and heels. Pained yelps accompanied every blow, but Will grew bored. Miner was torn from the room, face swollen with red streaks pouring from mouth and nose.
A beating is better than a bullet, but not by much.
"No more funny business," Will said, "ante up and play like ya mean it."
There was an art to poker, but its application was for winning, not losing. Despite his best efforts, Taggart outlasted the landowner.
What a rotten night for a string of excellent hands. Where the hell was this luck back in Denver?
In either winning or losing, Will's temper flared. Taggart's mind fumbled for a solution, and an idea tore through his skull.
          "Dammit dealer," Tagger said, folding, "what shit pit did Mr. Fleming find you in?"
"Some piss hole out east," Will slapped the dealer, "and please, call me Will. Mr. Fleming is my father."
          Will continued yapping and smacked the dealer, and Taggart feigned interest in the story. He locked eyes with whichever guards had an obvious line of sight on the table, and after a moment they averted their gaze. Timing it perfectly, the ace was swapped for a trash card. Rotating top cards for low ones created a believable losing streak, and he joined the abuse against the dealer, ignoring writhing bowls. None were the wiser about the scheme. It was working great until...
          God Almighty has forsaken me!
The seven of clubs stashed last hand was his undoing. Cruel fate dealt a club flush after tossing two cards. If the King was swapped for the seven, it became a straight flush, five through nine. Will had a pair, maybe two pairs, at best. Taggart's heart echoed in his ears, palms growing slick, and a lump of sand settled in his throat.
Just play it off and fold. Bet I look mighty upset and I can -
"All in and last hand," Will yawned, "What you got?"
An appointment with the undertaker.
          Commotion erupted in the hall, and the doorman strode in, eyeing Taggart.
"Boss. Problem." The doorman said.
Into the room waltzed a man wearing a long trench coat and shiny lawman's badge on his chest. He broke into a wide grin, freckles forming a thin brown line across pale cheeks.
"Taggart Shaw," George said, "Been looking for you."
"I dare say you've found me," Taggart said.
"What's the meaning of this?" Ned leapt up, "deputy this is private property, and unless you have a warrant, I demand you leave at once."
"Don't need a warrant if I'm let in. Your doorman is a model citizen for helping a man-o-the-law. And it's ranger, not deputy."
          George tapped the golden star, and his gaze turned downwards, frowning.
"What's this?" he said, "Any of you boys hurt?"
Color drained from Will's face, and Taggart suppressed the urge to laugh.
Will gathered up the money and shoved it into a satchel. "I don't suppose you came alone, ranger?"
"Sherriff is gathering a posse and will be along soon. Figured I'd come first and see if Mr. Shaw would go quiet like."
Will offered the satchel to George.
"I would think a donation to the Ranger's Christmas Ball would, uh... prevent any misunderstandings."
George took a few steps towards Will, and the satchel changed hands.
"Don't waste good wine, Mr. Fleming," George said, turning to Taggart and drawing a pistol, "and you come along now."
          Taggart stood, placing hands on head, and George motioned for him to lead. They departed the room and a scramble erupted from behind, tearing through the other door Will used. Once several buildings sat between them and the Fleming Cattle & Co trading post, Taggart sighed.
          "Dammit George, you're one slick sum bitch," Taggart said, "thought I was a goner."
"Sorry it took so long; had to improvise. Besides, I needed to find that poor sod a doctor first."
George removed the cheap replica star and bent it. A whistle flew from his lips, peeking into the satchel.
"You were right, Tags. The boy was an easy fleece."

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