Don't you love how the lovely Sarah Cawkwell spins a yarn?
Welcome to the newest instalment, all 'bout the Marshal...
Eight of Clubs, Eight of Spades.
In fairness, it wasn’t a bad start. He’d certainly played games where he’d been in far less appealing situations.
Smoke curled around Nuttal & Mann’s saloon in sweet-smelling clouds that enveloped the clientele in its heady aroma and partially masked the figures seated around the poker table. One of them, wearing the flash of gold that marked him as a Marshal of the law, shifted position slightly, the chair creaking ominously beneath him. He was a big man; broad of shoulder and his powerful build loaned him the ability to loom over the rest of the players at the table. He knew that his was an intimidating presence and it was just possible that he basked in it.
When he’d first taken his seat, he had ceremonially removed his hat. When “Wild Bill” Hickok did that, people knew that he meant business. All Lawmen needed a release from the daily grind, a release from the stresses that went with enforcing the laws of the country on those most desperate to break them. For Hickok, it was poker. He was not invested enough to become a frequent gambler, but he still relished the adrenaline thrill and spike of danger that the game brought.
Not to mention the relief that the occasional win brought in terms of monetary gain that kept the wolves from his door.
The lawman ran nicotine-stained fingers through his unruly mane of dark hair, drawing admiring glances from more than one pair of eyes in the room. Hickok was a favourite among the ladies of Nuttal & Mann’s. He ran his hand down his jawline, smoothing his well-tended moustache, before taking up the glass of whisky in front of him. He knocked the fiery amber liquid back in a single, practised move and studied the cards in his hand.
He was no professional player, but Hickok had mastered the art of the ‘poker face’ early on. That, coupled with the fact his mind was sharp as a tack and well trained to understand statistic and probability made him a danger at the table. It was a latent skill that many so-called ‘sporting gentlemen’ unconsciously utilised. Had Hickok taken to poker seriously, he’d
have been a real threat.
The dealer made the call and Hickok considered his cards again, giving them the same sort of due care and attention a new mother gave her infant. He retained the pair of eights and, on a wild whim, the ace of clubs. He accepted the replacement pair of cards and took them into his hand.
Ace of Spades. Queen of Diamonds.
“I’m out.” One of his opponents threw down his hand in obvious disgust and pushed his chair back with a cringeworthy scrape along the sawdust-covered floor. Hickok glanced over at the abandoned hand. It took every muscle in his face to keep the grin at bay. The discarded hand was a mishmash of cards and suits and even a player in possession of no tells whatsoever would have been hard pressed to bluff their way through to the end of the game.
Hickok chewed on the end of his cigar and took a long draw from it. He inhaled the smoke deeply and blew it out again. Other than that, he made no further move. His remaining opponent reached up to rub at the side of his nose. It was the smallest gesture, but the story behind it was important. He grunted, nodded and threw his money into the ante pot.
“Fifty dollars. Charlie’s still in. How ‘bout it, Marshal?” The dealer turned to Hickok who considered only briefly before matching the ante and adding more. Another fifty dollars more. Opposite him, Charlie Rich could not help but quirk an eyebrow.
“You’re on, Marshal,” he said, eventually matching the bet.
Hickok simply shrugged one shoulder, an eloquent gesture; a sort of indifferent, uni-shrug that gave away precisely nothing.
Hickok disposed of the queen and glanced once more at the four cards remaining in his hand. There was a strange feeling; a kind of tingling that urged him forward. Hickok had never been the kind of man to endorse the concept of Fate or Destiny, but still he moved
forward as though something, some unseen, cosmic force was making him. He looked down once more. As a two-pair, the eights and aces were a good call.
His hand reached for the last card and as his fingers closed over it, there was a bone shuddering crack of a gunshot which reverberated through the saloon. Hickok was one of only two men present who did not jump instantly to his feet. He was so used to sudden gunfire that he barely twitched an eyebrow and remained seated right where he was.
Behind him, a man swayed unsteadily for a heartbeat or two and then toppled unceremoniously into the dust and dirt of the saloon floor. An unemptied revolver clattered from his lifeless fingers and it was that noise, rather than the gunshot, which finally
encouraged the Marshal to turn his head.
He studied the dead man who had already been kicked over by an enterprising deputy. He vaguely recalled the visage of Jack McCall, with whom he’d had a run-in a day or two before. Then he lifted his gaze to meet the defiant stare of the barmaid, who stood several feet away, a still-smoking shotgun in her hand. Hickok’s head tipped to one side as he looked from her to the corpse and then he simply nodded, once. The woman turned and disappeared into the back room.
“Well now,” said the Marshal, reaching for his hat and setting it carefully on his head.
“Apologies, Charlie. Guess I need to get to clearin’ up this mess. But… let’s get this finished seein’ as we got this far, eh?” He put the new card into his hand and looked at it.
The Ace of Diamonds.
“Call,” he said and for the first time in his life, gave away his fortune with a wicked grin.