“You sayin’ I’m cheatin’ at cards, boy?”
Billy sat with his back to the wall, his Mexican sombrero pulled down low over his eyes, hiding his face. His right hand rested loosely upon the butt of his double-action .41-caliber Colt, completely concealed by the small dirty table. Even though he was fast, he saw no sense in giving the edge to the other fella. In this world, there were the cautious and the dead. Billy preferred to be cautious, always studying the situation, and looking for any advantage he could find.
Drunk cowboys were no problem, unless they accidentally shot a hole in you while celebrating a bit too much. They’d come into town after a three month long cattle drive, gamble away what money they had earned on the trail, and then leave with the next herd moving West.
Billy wasn’t one of those. He had bigger plans.
From where he sat, he could see everything going on in the room: the seven men at the bar; the table full of poker players; and the fat Mexican woman with a front tooth missing shuffling across the wood-planked floor serving drinks. The place reeked of cheap whiskey and cigar smoke, dust and sweat, the sound of flies in the air. As he finished his drink, he motioned to the girl for another.
Billy watched Jack, the bartender, pour a whiskey to a tall cowboy with a strapped-down holster. Jack was a good friend of Billy’s, and the Kid knew that Jack kept a scatter gun behind the bar. He was quick to use it too, because at this time of night, Jack was the only law in town, and the one thing he couldn’t stand was cowboys busting up his place.
The toothless barmaid sauntered over toward Billy, her body temporarily blocking his view of the men at the bar. Billy knew at that moment he was most vulnerable to attack by anyone moving directly behind the woman.
“Another drink, senor?” she asked while taking his glass.
As she reached for his glass, he quickly gripped her hand and forced her to leave it where it was. He lifted up the brim of his hat, showing his young face, shocking blue eyes.
“Just leave the bottle on the table,” he said. “I can serve myself.”
“Sure, sure, senor,” she said, “no sense in getting all riled up about it.”
As she turned and walked away, Billy noticed the man at the bar had been watching him. The fella wore his gun low and didn’t look like the rest of the cowpokes. Billy caught him looking at one of the poker players sitting at the table. They gave each other an almost indiscernable nod. That told Billy all he needed to know. “Watch him close, Kid,” he thought.
Two of the men in the poker game started arguing. Evidently, one of the fellas kept winning every hand. All heads turned in that direction to see what the commotion was about. Billy, with his sombrero pulled down over his eyes again, kept watching the man at the bar.
“You're a’cheatin’ somehow,” said one, “and when I figgar-it-out, I’m a gonna drop you where you sit.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t be playing a man’s game, sonny,” said the accused fella angrily, “especially if you can’t afford to lose your money.”
“I can’t stand to be cheated fer sure,” said the cowpoke, “ and I’ve played enough poker to know when someone is stacking the deck.”
“You sayin’ I’m cheatin’ at cards, boy?” asked the accused man, standing up and pushing back his wooden chair noisily.
“You’ve won the last seven hands,” said the young cowboy, “and I know the odds against that. Lucky is one thing, and cheatin’ is another.” The cowboy looked at the other players for some kind of support to what he was saying, but no one else spoke.
“You gonna back up them words?” asked the card sharp, pulling back his coat and showing his short barreled double-action .38 caliber. “Or you just gonna take what little money you got left, and git.”
The cowpoke looked around again for some backing from his fellow players, but seeing none, he began to get frightened. It was just him calling the man a cheat. He got up and angrily scraped his remaining coins into his hat and stormed out of the saloon. The card shark watched the young man until he left, then there was that exchange of glances again with the fella at the bar.
“Try your luck, mister?” he asked, his eyes finally coming to rest on Billy. “We seem to have an empty chair here.”
Through his sombrero, Billy didn’t look at the man talking to him, he was still looking at the tall fella standing by the bar, and the stranger was definitely looking hard in Billy’s direction, watching what would unfold.
Billy slowly pushed up his hat brim. “Don’t mind if I do,” he said, as he stood and grabbed his glass and bottle, then moved over to the card table.
He sat down in the empty chair that faced the man at the bar.
“My name is Harley,” said the card shark, “and this here is Mitch, Tom, and Bert. What’s yer name, stranger?”
Billy didn’t answer. He poured himself a shot from his bottle and offered a round to all the others. In the silence, he finally pulled his coin pouch from his pocket and dropped it on the table. That was all the card player needed to know. Harley sat down and began shuffling the deck.
“A friendly game of ‘draw-poker’, gentlemen,” said Harley.
Billy watched Harley work the cards. They came shooting out of his hand as each player received five. Billy picked up his cards one at a time and pretended to study them, but his real focus was on Harley and the deck of cards. When he finally looked at his hand, he held three queens, with a four and three as kicker.
“Guts to open,” stated Harley.
Mitch threw a dollar into the pot. The others did the same, but Harley raised five more dollars. Billy looked at him and smiled, then dropped ten dollars into the pot.
“I raise ya,” he said flatly to Harley.
“Ya got a good hand already, huh, stranger?” asked Harley, smiling and showing his gold tooth.
The rest of the men threw in their hands.
The card-shark called.
“It looks like just me and you, mister,” Harley said. “How many cards you want?”
“I’ll play these,” said Billy, indifferently.
Harley dealt himself three to the draw and Billy watched him palm one from the bottom of the deck.
“Your bet, mister,” said Harley.
Billy dropped another ten dollars into the pot and reached down towards his boot. At that moment, Harley switched the cards in his hand; then, still holding the palmed card, he counted out twenty dollars from his pile of winnings and scooted it across the table toward the pot.
Billy quickly pulled his boot knife, and in one fluid motion stuck it into Harley’s hand as he reached toward the pot. Harley screamed as the knife pinned him to the table. Billy held the knife handle tight so that Harley was unable to remove it.
“My hand! My hand!” yelled Harley. “You dirty . . . let me go! My hand!”
The stranger at the bar, thinking Billy was distracted, made his play. But his gun never cleared its holster. Billy drew and shot first. The stranger caught the bullet in his left eye and dropped dead on the spot. The sound of the explosion silenced everyone in the saloon.
Billy looked around, slowly put his smoking gun away, then turned back toward Harley.
“I thought this was five-card-draw,” Billy said to him with a sneer, “not six like you’re holding.” He pulled the knife from the table and bent the handle down forcing Harley to turn his bloody palm toward the other players. The ace of diamonds was stuck to the inside of his hand with Billy’s boot knife piercing through it. He grabbed Harley’s belly-gun and threw it on the floor.
While still holding Harley’s stabbed hand captive, Billy took what money was in the pot, then slid the gambler’s winnings to the center of the table.
“Divide this between you,” he said to the other three men, “and make sure that young cowpoke that left earlier gets a twenty dollar gold piece.” They gathered the money and started to leave. “I’ll be checking to see if he gets it too, so don’t cross me.”
Billy pulled the knife out of Harley’s hand and wiped it on the card shark’s shirt. He reached down and pulled him out of the chair, stood him up, and kicked him hard toward the front door.
“Get out of here,” he said between his teeth, “and take your dead friend with you. You can consider yourself lucky in this hand.”
Harley staggered over to the bar and grabbed his partner by the back of the shirt and dragged him toward the street.
“I’ll get you for this,” he said, holding his crippled hand to his side. “You just wait. I’ll get you for this!”
“Just ask around if you can’t find me,” said Billy, sarcastically. “Everyone knows ‘The Kid’ around here.”
Harley’s face turned white. He dropped his gaze, unable to look Billy in the eyes, then quickly left without saying another word.
“How’d you know they were working together, Kid?” asked Jack, putting away his shotgun.
“No cowboy wears his iron that low,” said Billy, “or sports pearl handles neither.” He poured himself another drink and walked over to the bar. “I saw ‘em give the nod to each other more than once. My guess is that they’re bounty hunters,” he said. “Trying to catch me when I wasn’t looking.” He chuckled at the thought. “They ain’t never gonna catch the ‘Kid’ asleep, that’s for sure.”