Introduction: As most of you will know I write for the Black Horse Western brand as Terry James. However, today’s short story is a hybrid, a collaboration between Joanne Walpole and Terry James containing elements from both those personas. So sit back with a cup of tea and a biscuit and be prepared for a classic western scene with a twist you hopefully won’t see coming.
The Double Cross
Terry James/Joanne Walpole ©2010
“Raise you,” said the player in the hand-made suit, the smile on his lips failing to hide the contempt in his narrowed eyes. “It’s gonna cost you everything you’ve got to see Randall Rockwell’s cards.”
Rick Bodine glanced at the two aces in his hand, then scrutinised the two queens and an extra ace in the middle of the table. His luck had been off until now and his pile of money, if that’s what you could call twenty dollars and a few cents, was a shadow of what it had been less than an hour before. He considered the odds. The pot on the table, at over a hundred bucks, was worth everything he had, but his confidence had taken a battering and he continued to ponder despite the excitement fizzing in his belly. Finally, under the weight of the stares boring into him from the other two players, he glanced again at his cards and reached for his money.
“Hold it right there, Bodine.”
As instructed, he let his hand hover in midair as his gaze swung towards the batwing doors where the order had originated. Around him, the low rumble of voices, the high tinkle of laughter and the tinny clank of the piano faded as all attention switched between him and the figure silhouetted against the midday sun. Rick’s heart started beating faster, his senses sharpened, his muscles tensed. Every nerve and sinew tightened as the tick-tock of the clock behind the bar seemed to mark the arrival of trouble. Uneasily, Rick swallowed against the feeling of trepidation that left his mouth dry as cotton despite the bottle of whiskey he’d drunk.
“Don’t touch that money, Bodine, or it’ll be the last thing you ever do,” the speaker promised, walking slowly and steadily into the saloon.
As the steady thud of boot heels on the sawdust-covered floor halted, a ripple of surprise hissed around the half empty barroom, but no-one dared take their eyes off the unfolding scene.
“Dru, I told you not to come looking for me,” Rick said, easing his hand down to his leg where an old six-shooter rested comfortably against his thigh. “You’re making a fool of yourself.”
Dru, a pretty little blonde with big blue eyes, smiled and even Rick didn’t believe what he’d just said. Any man with eyes could see the only fool in the room was him. Already he had noted a bummer and a wet-behind-the-ears cowpoke smartening up to step in. And he couldn’t blame them. She looked especially fetching today in a bright yellow dress that skimmed her figure in all the right places but left enough to the imagination to keep a man interested. He clenched his jaw and steeled himself against her charms, which had already nearly cost him his freedom, reminding himself that his future was at stake. Maybe even his life. Drusilla Pringle might well be the most single-minded, ornery female he’d ever met but she was no match for him. No, sir. He was a gambler. A man used to having the odds stacked against him and coming out on top.
“I’m not the one about to lose my stage fare out of town,” she said, trying for the last word as usual.
Well, this time...
“Go home, Dru. Nothing you can say or do will change my mind about leaving. I already told you, I’m not the marrying kind.” He glanced around the room, seeing a mixture of surprise, sympathy and downright disbelief on the faces of the other patrons. “The rest of you, go about your business.” Like one of those new player piano contraptions he’d seen in San Francisco, the scene picked up where it had left off, and turning back to the game, Rick pushed his money into the centre of the table, throwing his cards down face up as he called the bet.
The dark-eyed gambler, Randall Rockwell did likewise, showing a king and a queen. Rick’s heart surged, the dealer seeming to stall as he slid the next card off the deck and tossed it down. The queen of clubs. Rick struggled not to smile. After a series of bad hands he was about to clean up and win the biggest pot of the day, buy the supplies he needed and ride away from this crazy ass town and a woman who even now was setting his senses on fire as she sidled up beside him and rested her soft hip against his arm as she leaned in to see the game unfold.
The last card floated softly to the scarred table top. The last queen. Damn it!
Rockwell smiled as he added the winnings to his already considerable pile. “Hard luck. Never underestimate a lady, that’s what I always say.”
“Seems like you’ll be here for a while yet,” Dru said, patting Rick’s shoulder.
He laughed off-handedly, although he felt far from confident. “I’ll get another stake and then I’ll be gone.”
“You’re that determined?” she asked, a hint of disappointment edging her tone. “Am I that unattractive to you?”
“It’s nothing personal, darlin’,” he said, laying on the swagger. “You and I are just too different. It’d never work.”
She considered for a moment, her mouth pursed into a not unattractive pout as her gaze flashed to Rockwell.
“Miss...Pringle isn’t it?” he said. “May I have a word?” With a flick of his fingers, he motioned her to him.
She hesitated for only a moment, then circling the players as they waited for the next hand to be dealt, she leaned over to allow him to speak confidentially against her ear. Rick tensed, his eyes narrowing at his antagonist as the man’s slender fingers wrapped around Dru’s waist, keeping her close while he concluded his whispering. When Rockwell was finished, he took her hand in his and guided it below the table and out of sight.
Rick’s temper simmered close to boiling. What the hell were they doing? Was she so desperate to find a husband that she was prepared to act the part of a saloon girl to get one? Or was it a ploy to make him jealous?
“Dru!” he said, more sharply than he intended.
Straightening up, she shared a final smile with Rockwell and returned to Rick’s side. “I have a proposition for you, Rick. You want money and I want a husband. How about a bet? You take the cards, shuffle, cut, whatever else you do and I’ll guarantee to cut the ace of hearts on the first try. If I don’t, I’ll give you five hundred dollars and never bother you again. If I do...you’ll marry me tomorrow and I’ll be the best wife a man ever had.”
Rick hesitated. He knew she was good for the money. Her father owned the bank and half the town and he doted on her. She could ask him for any amount and he would give it to her. Hell, the old man would probably give it to her just to get rid of Rick. As for the likelihood of her cutting an ace, let alone the ace of hearts, even a card sharp could fumble it and Dru was all fingers and thumbs at the best of times, struggling to hold a deck let alone cut it. So why would she make a bet like that?
“Sounds to me like you win either way, Bodine,” Rockwell said, interrupting his thoughts. “Hell, if you won’t take the bet, I’ll be happy to.”
“I’ll take the bet,” he said, more quickly than he’d intended. “You gentleman understood the terms, right?” He waited for a nod from the other players at the table, gaining additional confirmation from the crowd gathering as word of the wager between the banker’s daughter and the no-account drifter spread quickly around the room. “Then let’s get this over with so I can get out of this town.”
Taking up the deck that had already cost him the best part of two hundred dollars, he settled for a simple shuffle, a single-handed cut and another shuffle, then satisfied with his handiwork, he placed the deck on the table and leaned back in his chair, the feeling of impending victory warming him to the core and bringing a smile to his lips that almost shamed him with its smugness.
“You’re happy that you’ve shuffled them enough?” Dru asked, sounding a little uncertain, and looking slightly more flushed than usual.
“All right then. May the best man win.”
“Or woman,” Rockwell added, smirking.
Dru glanced towards him, all nervous blushes and shy smiles. In return, he gave a decisive nod. Rick could almost see the greasy card shark getting ready to step in and claim the girl for himself when she failed to win. Beneath the table, Rick’s hand shifted unnoticed to the six-gun, his fingers undoing the thong that held it in place. He told himself he should be watching the cards, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the gambler. He thought he saw him shift his shoulder ever so slightly, the way a man might if he was priming himself to use a concealed Derringer.
And then Dru stepped back, clearing a space between them.
Something flashed at the corner of Rick’s eye, a thud rocked the table. In the same instant, he came into a half crouch, the six gun appearing in his hand as his chair crashed into a whore who stood behind him. He almost squeezed the trigger, but to his surprise Rockwell hadn’t moved and the assembled onlookers seemed not to be concerned with his actions. As he gained perspective, he realised all eyes were on the cards, shocked silence holding everyone in place, disbelieving, unmoving. Only Rockwell seemed unsurprised as he reached across and, with some difficulty, extracted the stiletto blade from the deck. Shuffling his leg to the side, he slid the deadly knife back into its sheath inside his right boot, then seemingly unconcerned proceeded to collect the cards and deal them into a pile until he reached the ace of hearts.
“She did it, Bodine. She cut the ace of hearts.” He sent it sailing across the table to land squarely in front of Rick, its centre clearly pierced for all to see. “Maybe you should have listened to what I told you before.”
Rick laughed despite the shock that still held him in awe of the trick that had been played on him. “Never underestimate a lady,” he mumbled, handing himself willingly to the woman he would gladly spend the rest of his life with.