Western Short Story
The Game
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

The black trey fell on the table with the crack of a gunshot, directly across from young Hal Kirkness. His jaw dropped open. As suddenly, the door to the saloon creaked as a young cowpoke rushed to spread the word and night shadows as well as silence fell with velvet touch into the room. Unseen dust rose from the road that cut through the heart of Ben’s Retreat, a fast-growing cow town only a mile from the Snake River. On one bare horizon the moon, breaking the far mountain’s hold, leaped up swift as a candle in a back room. Coal smell crawled into the air from a train engine on a spur rail puffing little more than idleness. A few “railhead cowboys,” not prairie huggers, not real trail drivers, temporary hires from the same dusty road cutting the town in halves, had about finished the loading of cattle into slatted boxcars looking half a mile long. The wind, with the rise of the moon, shifted to the northwest, pulling the dust and the scent of the engine in tandem.

It was always this way when cows came to town, to fill the loading pens positioned by split rail fences, and Ben’s Retreat began to lose sleep as the big card games started at the Cattlemen’s Final Chance Saloon where dreams came around to one side of the table or the other.

This day had started in dusty heat and beat-down grass of the stubble-pocketed, flatlands approaching the pens strung along a quarter mile of the railroad.

A few miles from that railhead at Ben’s Retreat, the long cattle drive almost complete, thirst building its own complaint, hungers waiting to tear loose like bears out of winter holes, chatter about poker began its inevitable move. Hal Kirkness, saddled on his favored black out of the remuda, dreaming as ever about his own ranch with his own trail drives, how he’d do things a little different each time, felt the itch, mixed the stew, fed the pot.

He was handsome as a new dollar, “The Kid,” as the trail boss called him, and favorably so. Blue-eyed, a bit stern looking when intent, Kirkness had command presence while carrying youthful airs; the smile, the head wagging at talk times, hands at excessive movement, the glint in his eyes at good prospects. Trail clothes, everything imaginable caught up in them, did not harm one bit his general appearance, as his good looks and mannerisms set all other first impressions aside.

Fairness spoke from his person as though it was born there, and might have come first in a sunny place on the plains all of twenty years earlier. He had no idea where, on his own since he was thirteen. Perhaps he had arrived in an adobe hut, in a strange hotel room in a random town, or in the back room of a lone doctor’s office. In those days, it could well have been in the back of a wagon aimed west, the call constant, promising. All beginnings, as well as endings, were often harsh and crude. Sitting the black with cavalry ease, his life a story in itself, he sidled up to another rider, an older man, over-grown gray at the ears, his shirt and Stetson as new as dawn, right from the chuck wagon, showing he too was anxious to get to town. A hot bath and a clean, hot shave had drawn the older man for the past week.

“When we coming this way again, Jug? Those games we had here on the last drive were top dog right to the end.” Kirkness spoke to the man riding beside him wearing the unsoiled hat and the spanking new pale green shirt like a store window show. Kirkness knew they had been set aside for town arrival, as the boss’s daughter Molly, a special girl, had come ahead on a visit with friends and would meet her father later. And him too, he hoped.

The older man sat a red stallion as proud as breeding could bring, or money could buy, and Jug Witham had both; a pile in the bank and breeding stock worth their weight in offspring as far as one imagined. Buyers came from other parts of the country, far past the skyline and out of the territory. A few months earlier he had shipped half a dozen offspring to Illinois and Ohio, at solid profit, young stallions that buyers needed a ladder to see over, or a handy fence, or sitting one’s self on a tall saddle. The lineage made a huge difference, as did the grass, the feed, the clarity of water. And Jug Witham also had a few prize bulls setting barns on fire elsewhere with their offspring siring new herds, the new bulls seen as progenitors of equal breeding. Of him it was always said, “He’s a bit showy, but a working fool.”

Kirkness, ever studying the man at odd times, seeing where he himself wanted to go, to become, acknowledging status the older man owned in the young towns he knew. Witham’s wife and daughter Molly had also made memorable splashes in the past. He had seen them twice in shimmering red dresses, shining and shaking in a shivaree firelight. To another young wrangler he had said, “I swear the shiver and shake of their dresses calls for company, as if stars ought to come down and join their celebrating.” The daughter Molly had now become, “Molly in the shiny, shimmy dress.” In the back of his mind she continued to sit, like a distant wild card ready to be drawn into play.

Otherwise, he let observation govern much of what he held out as hopeful. Money, with the surety of life and death, got a man some range, cows, women, in one order or another. It wasn’t hard to figure out. Only luck, or hard work, stood in the way. Even as he bent to his work as a drover, he favored chance in all of it, aware of the odds against him being as high as the ponderosa or pinon. Life was a windmill anyway, he had decided, blowing this way and that, chance making choices for you.

Witham, both herd owner and trail boss for the moment, looking alert, wanting to spread a bit of wisdom when he had a chance, especially to the young man who rode for him, said, “You still praying and playing that big game, Hal? I’m lucky it don’t pull you from your riding way out there on the drive. If anyone’s got a hobby to pass the rest of their time, I’d say you have.”

“It’s all about someday coming, Jug. I’m aware of all that, like it’s in the cards, as they say.” A slight laugh interrupted his thoughts. “One good hand and you can be good forever. It’s happened before; it’ll happen again, and I hope I’m the lucky dog in the pile.”

“All I’ll tell you, Hal, is if you’re going to make it out here, make a good life with cattle, you better know your grass and your breeds before the cards. Other than that, you run a stage or fright line, sit behind a bar, or wear a badge. There’s smithy work for stubborn muscle. You don’t have many choices to grow.”

“Hell, Jug, grass is grass and cows is cows. They eat. They get fat. They get sold, and you get your pockets lined with silver stuff. That’s easy from where I sit. It’s damned plain hard work and I know all that. Half my life has been beating down the grass and it’s still there. It’ll be here longer than me. You have to admit cards are different. Cards can do it for you in one draw, fill one straight, top a full house with your own. Draw down a lousy third deuce and you might get all the way home. Sometime it can be as exciting as a stampede. But knowing who you’re playing is the biggest clue of all. A few old men showed me that’s the real thing in poker playing.”

“The way I see it, Hal, no cow is making believe where he’s at or what he needs. A cow doesn’t play games with you. Water and feed, rivers and good grass, like alfalfa and timothy mix being a royal straight flush for your herd, and the more grass you have like that the better the cows get, and the fatter they get.”

There were times that Witham knew if he penetrated any mind of his young wranglers, it would be “The Kid’s.” He had told his wife and his daughter on a few occasions, that Hal Kirkness had a hidden streak in him that spoke good things. “The Kid’s a survivor, and that’s important. It’s more important than dreams, if can realize it. He’s got a long way down the trail, on his own. It’s the same way I came along here, west of the river and the Nations.”

That streak, hidden as it was, brought Kirkness to the game at the far end of the Cattlemen’s Last Chance Saloon, the lights dim and calling for players of all sorts. There were wranglers itching to win a big pot, town regulars who seemed to make a living at the games because they were there at the end of every cattle drive coming to the railhead, as if a space had been reserved for them at “the big table.” Once in a while there would be an occasional stranger who moved his fingers on a deck of cards like the man at the piano keys in the other end of the saloon.

Nothing at the “big table” ever seemed significant until silence shifted like a ghost between two players sitting across from each other with a huge pot in the middle of them. It had happened many times and so had the name come to the “big table.”

Witham, sitting near the piano, savoring yet his first drink, enjoying conversation with a few old cronies, kept his eye on the other end of the room. A sixth sense was working in him, like timing making its way, ready to make a pronouncement. Molly was visiting a friend in Ben’s Retreat and he knew she was near. Trail-wise knowledge worked itself loose in his thoughts, a sense of possible events coming to the fore as he watched Kirkness nodding his head, like a signal of sorts, an internal acknowledgment of space or time or thing. His daughter, he freely admitted, had a shine for “The Kid,” though she had her own reserve, except at a party when she “thought” she ought to show her joy. People did not bother her. She was much like her mother. She’d be a gallant wife, a good mother, a companion for ever. The two women were of the same cloth, right to the weave, right to the trimming and Witham knew his luck at that draw.

He saw “The Kid” stand up at the table and people around the table, the on-lookers, shifted places, moved toward the walls. Two older townies, older than the years, eyes not missing a trick, sat down at one wall, as if out of the firing line.

Kirkness, as calm as a true marksman, said to his lone opponent, “Mister, if you throw down a trey of spades to make a full house, there’s going to be a little bit of hell to play here. I’m claiming the pot right now.”

“Don’t be so brash, kid,” the other man said, a man with piano player’s hands spelled from the first shuffle of the deck. His Stetson was as new as Witham’s, his green string tie was tied with an impeccable knot, the sleeves of his jacket sleek as a steam iron could make them, a dude of dudes as they might have said in the other corner of the room. But not the two old men sitting against the wall, smiles on their knowing faces. “If I get lucky enough to have a trey of spades, don’t go cry-babying about it. Lose it like a man.”

With a careless flair, teasing the very air about him, the dressy dude threw down a trey of spades. “What do you say about that, son? You going to cry about the pot going another way?”

The door to the dusty road going through the center of Ben’s Retreat squeaked as a lad scrambled to spread the word, the threat of “The Kid’s” words still, hanging in the air.

“Only this, mister,” said Kirkness, his hand on his belted Colt, “the deck was changed after the last game and I know you missed it. The old gents there know it.” He pointed to the two old townies who forever studied games as if they were counting ballots in an election. “You sleeved the trey from the last deck. I saw you, and we are going to show down the balance of the deck. If another spade trey comes up, you are dead or gone. I give you the chance you weren’t going to give me.”

He threw two cards down on the table, face up. “Eight of hearts. Six of clubs.”

Each card fell like another gunshot, though silence reigned in the room.

His voice was modulated, even, not an ounce of hysteria in it, though delay was evident, counted.

“Ace of hearts.”

He wet his fingers to grip the deck anew, smiled at the old timers still sitting against the wall, their toothless grins filling night with appreciation, excitement.

“Two of diamonds,” he said. “Nine of spades.” He wet his fingers again, tasting tobacco, sweat, a sense of energy, the true remnants of the game that carried beyond the pot.

Balls of sweat rolled down the face of the dude. His feet slid in place as if he was getting set for a short race.

“Ace of diamonds,” Kirkness continued, looking around the room, finding Witham’s eyes locked on him, hoping he could tell Molly all about his big win. His opponent edged toward the doorway, his eyes wide open as if he’d been stung by a hornet.

From the back of the room came a threat heavy as the evening, “You better run fast, mister, because we’ll be right behind you.” A chair slammed against a wall or the floor. Feet shuffled with pace.

Outside, in the night shadows, minor light spilling from saloon windows, Molly Witham, seeing and hearing everything, feeling the sun shining on her heart, heard her mother’s words ringing in her ears as the card shark raced off into the darkness; “Pick your man as I did, Molly, and make it work for all you’re worth. It’s your best chance.”

She too believed in luck.