Western Short Story
High Stakes Teacher
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

The six-foot tall man stepped down from the Brazos Stage and stood in the dust of the road that cut right through the town of Molten Meadows, a town barely five years old. Dust clung to his boots and pants legs, and continued to swirl about him. Not more than 30 feet away, at the door of his small jail, a rather small wooden structure with one side of it formed by the livery in a mark of economics and labor shortcomings, Sheriff Carl Oberlin noted the tall, athletic-looking arrival. Despite the collection of dust working about the man, he did look like a teacher. Oberlin was pleased at the arrival and thought about the search that had brought the new teacher to town, the word having been sent up and down the line by whichever way was available, rider or driver or stagecoach passenger.

A teacher was a long time coming to Molten Meadows, with at least 20 kids being taught by a few ladies of the town in a haphazard fashion that depended on their whims, their wishes, their husbands, and the tenor of the town. The efforts of the temporary teachers, though well intended, did not seem to reveal any improvement in learning.

Oberlin studied the tall, dusty stranger and wondered what his make-up would be, how such a rugged looking man did not wear boots and spurs, chaps, any range clothing at all. The sheriff saw the man turn to look at two buildings, the saloon at one side of the street and the little schoolhouse down the street but on the other side. He saw the hesitation in his step, the first one leading toward the school, the second toward the saloon. The saloon won out and the sheriff nodded and thought about the dusty, bumpy ride the coach passengers must have had. Any man would want a drink to cover the trail, move the dust in his throat, and find someone to talk to besides a constantly irritable passenger. It was a logical move for any man.

It was late afternoon when tall stranger walked into the Molten Meadows Museum and Saloon, the sign over the door telling the name and bringing a broad smile to his face. Five men were at the bar and two tables were filled with men playing poker, and two girls of the parlor, as they were called, walking about serving drinks but no early evening favors.

Everybody in the room looked up as the new arrival walked in, approached the bar and asked for a whiskey.

“Just get off the stage, mister?” the barkeep said. “Ready to move the dust and get rid of the small talk in a tight little compartment?” He threw his hand out over the bar. “I’m the owner of this Museum. Name’s Barnaby Ruskin.” He smiled as he pointed to an iron spike set onto a piece of red wood and mounted over the back of the bar, atop the top shelf stuff. Then he poured a shot of whiskey.

“That’s it, Mister Ruskin of a famous name?” the tall, well-dressed man said. “That’s the total of the collection. All the objects d’art. The sole souvenir. The one relic. The only piece of antiquity? That one artifact?” He smiled a broad, gleaming smile and said, “Sir, I admire your grand sense of humor. To you,” and he raised his glass and drank off the shot of whiskey.

“By gosh,” thundered Ruskin, “you must to be the new teacher, Morgan Rigsby. You must be the one we’ve been waiting on.” He clapped his hands. “The next drink’s on me.”

He didn’t wait for a reply, but shouted to all in the room, “This here gentleman is our new teacher. Make him welcome, folks. Every damned one of you.” There was a whole lot of demand in his voice, and some accusation.

A mixture of hurrahs and hellos ensued, and the new man appeared to be swallowed up in the reception and the ovation. It all made Ruskin continue smiling; his son Jonathon, a son of promise, would now have a real teacher. This man carried education on his sleeves, at his mouth, on his tongue, and his smile was as sincere as Ruskin could imagine a smile to be.

Ruskin was overjoyed. He turned to him and said, “That, sir, is the first spike ever driven in the town of Molten Meadows, so named because of the sun’s sweet broadcast of rainbow lights at the end of the day, the final reach of day for the goodness in the soul. It was driven into our first livery and went down with the first fire that touched our beginning. I pulled it out of the ashes by myself, out of the beam it was first driven into, and saved it for this museum.”

“Ah, sir, so it is not humor, but a respect for good beginnings, for the past. I admire your stance on things worldly.”

“Have another,” Ruskin said, and poured another drink, which was sipped slowly.

“Of modest means and modest measures, sir,” came back as a reply. “The world may run ahead of us as we crawl, but we will catch up somehow.”

Ruskin, thinking always about his son and what he might amount to if given the right chances, was aglow when a loud voice from across the room said, “You interested in the cards, teach? You play a mean game of poker? You think an educated man is good at this game? You want to try us on? All you need is a few dollars. You able to make that move?”

The speaker was a drover from the first look. A worn Stetson, burned by the sun and sand, sat askew on his head and was accompanied by a leering smile, a daunting smile. The cards in his calloused hands looked like lilies on a broken board, like new coins on old currency. Perhaps 21 or 22, he wore his age sharp as a banner. His voice carried the whole west with it … stampedes, rustlers, lynchings on the spot, judgments at the snap of a pistol, days dry as sand, watching how a woman smiled.

He said, sending his voice clear across the room, “We don’t hold much with learnin’ that don’t come with the cows. This is cow country, teach. You gotta know your cows and the hands of the dealer. There’s two lives for you, teach. Cows and cards. They follow all of us from day one to the last day of breathin’ the Plains air.”

“So,” said his target, “you disregard anybody outside of cow culture. Your disregard includes the educated, the native Americans, the men who run the trains across the country, women, the law, the detritus of two armies who fought to a fantastic end that saved this nation and whose comrades now wander the country not knowing if they are going or coming in this lifetime. You disregard me who sits here with enough money to sit down at your table, if such was my endeavor, who could learn your game in a matter of one afternoon, who would depend on native intelligence and exposed tendencies of my opposition during that interim. That, sir, one could consider as a challenge.”

“Dammit all, man, stop talkin’ and sit down and play cards, if you’re that willin’ to get skunked of your money. Ain’t no questions about me and what I do and where I do it. I’m a plain cowpoke who likes the cards as much as the women, so I leave it for you. Do and dare or shut up.”

All the occupants in the saloon, including Ruskin behind the bar, watched as the new man, all six feet of him, pulled back a chair at the cowpoke’s table and sat down. Onto the tabletop he placed a wad of bills.

“I’m in, son, to your last regret.” He threw opener money onto the middle of the table.

The cowboy grabbed the deck of cards. “Low man deals,” he said. He cut a trey. The next man cut a jack, another cut a seven, and then another showed a queen. The new man cut a deuce.

Ruskin started to wonder as he looked on the play at the table, as he saw the learning curve.

In a matter of one hour and fifteen minutes, the new man had won all the money that hit the table. He was ahead by more than $120 when the cowpoke said, “I ain’t won a single hand since you sat down, mister.”

‘You invited me, son. I didn’t ask in.”

”How much of our money have you taken?”

“I’d estimate that I have all of it, or almost all of it. You want another hand dealt?” He held the deck of cards in his hands.

“Hell, no. I had my fill of you and your big mouth.”

“Son,” his elegant opponent said, “you have the big mouth. I just use bigger words.”

Ruskin, now caught up in his own quandary, said, “Well, Rigsby, you certainly know your cards.”

“Oh, Mr. Ruskin, that’s the second or third time you’ve called me Rigsby, but he’s the follow that was thrown in jail back down the line. They caught him with is hand in a lady’s purse, and she shot him.”

“Who the hell are you?”

“Name’s Justin Duvall. Been the same name since I drew my first breath. My mother will swear to that.”

Ruskin shook his head in disbelief, thought again about his son and unfulfilled promises, and his own rush at stupidity. He could see his son chasing cows, playing cards, following women. He looked around the room at his customers, shrugged his shoulders and went back to work behind the bar.