Western Short Story
"What's that song you're always singing, Chet? How's it go, 'I'm riding a roan and all alone?'"
Push Babcock, 23 and 6 years in a saddle, astride a horse as gray as dawn, asked his ride partner at the edge of a herd nearing town and the first new railhead on Texas' northern edge. Excitement, apparent, uncountable, damned well sure, was in the air, excitement at the end of the ride, excitement of a bath, a clean-up, a whiskey a few times over, perhaps a lady in red to talk to for the first time in months on top of months; Life, he sometimes thought, was like a found slug, with a bare chance of being a live round.
He remembered a girl once in fiery orange and that bright glow seemed to do for the end of another drive, that one was all of hundreds of miles longer, dreamier, like it never really happened. He shook his head at a pack of images running loose like a herd on a break-out with water smell coming on a wide wind across a big chunk of dry grass.
"Oh," Chet Tomkins said, coughing once as though he was getting his throat ready for delivery, "'I'm ridin' a roan and all alone," and went into a hum, not another clear word coming. The few additional words, if there were any. were hidden in a monotone but almost heard. Only a few words, but the same words, seeming remnants of a kind.
"That ain't no song, Chet. You just made that up." He slapped his thigh as though he already had an answer to his query.
"Yep, you're right on the fence rail there, Push. Made the whole thing up all by myself, ridin' out here all alone sometimes, and just waitin' to get to town, any old town in the whole chunk of Texas or thereabouts. I heard it's paradise we're comin' to but that ain't it's name. It's new-like, has a saloon, with all the dressin's, called The Palace." A wide smile creased his face worn to a savage brown-red-pink stain that went soft at his eyes like a puppy in a cage.
"I can't remember the name of the town," Push volunteered, at a loss for words, a snicker in his voice, suddenly upright in the saddle and his eyes jumping to the horizon, his actions noted by his pard, the messages in them understood; it was akin to deliverance of a kind, an almost tasted freedom in the air each of them understood in the same manner.
Chet, following his gaze, said the name of the town with slight disdain, and added, "I think it's called Tinkletown, but the saloon's called The Palace. There ain't no doubt about that. Heard Mose Wizell sing its charms at the last good fire and meal we had a couple of days ago, seems a week of Sundays." He shook his head and added, "Said it was unnatural all by itself."
In a day and a half they were at the bar in The Palace, whiskey in place, eyes roaming the room, the colors of red and orange, an occasional pink or pea green catching the eyes with lady-like moves atop long legs that never stopped moving, the way legs can move between caprice and catch-all..
Chet hummed his some old song as his eyes wandered around The Palace's great room, color to color, table to table, an oddly familiar face to another oddly familiar face, until he was drawn to a full table of card players, the table top busy as a beehive, girls of every color in a constant mix to and fro, drinks set down, money passed off, replies and reports deposited at the bar.
"Ain't this worth the ride, Chet? Look at that one in make-believe blue. I can almost see right through it," and he laughed as he added, ''an' there ain't nothin' on the other side."
The two riding pards each nodded at some mysterious imagery they hadn't shared and never would, but was part of them, lock, stock and barrel. Some secrets, they say, are more precious than gold.
Chet tapped on the bar top again and the vigilant barkeep poured again, withdrew coin from their pile, went his slow round down the bar, in concert with noise, tinkles, swishes, soft laughter from dark corners as though promises were being made, kept, arranged: trailhead is often not much more than payoff and dreamland.
Chet's interest went back to the busy card table he had noted earlier, one man in particular catching his eye and his further interest, the way he fondled his cards, with delicate yet deliberate moves making Chet reach for another song he could not find. The man, in an odd sort of finery, wore a tall and splendid hat, the kind magicians wear or actors in road shows that appear from nowhere and go back wherever after a hasty show marked by loud and stale but enjoyable words.
He wore a black coat
with unbuttoned buttons allowing a view of ruffled white shirt and
black tie. His face had been around a corner or two, or down the line
aways, worn by worry, wear, and the weather, of course. Even then, it
said he carried interest and past in it.
But on top of all the stick-out duds, there came with them a sense of mystery, finery, and repetition that caught Chet's eye on a second or third bounce, like a hidden signal open for display, part of a code, one part open, one part hidden. The repetition was persistent, kept coming to Chet as he studied the man who won another pot, a good-sized one that brought hoo-hah's and grunts of dissatisfaction with it, all of it coming from the rest of the players at the table and a few other on-lookers Chet recognized early in his own game.
The man flashed his hands of cards in the same exacting manner each time, a repetition that was identical, practiced, smooth as cured leather. His hands didn't limp or stutter, in a manner of speaking, but carried ease and appointment to an exceptional degree, to Chet carrying endless hours of practice in deployment, sly moves, quick-attention grabbers as though they carried notes.
He was, to Chet, and him alone he believed, an actor or precision specialist at that table, in that game of cards, in front of that audience. He owned them, each man, each player, each donor of funds; no less than putty in the hands of a master.
From across the room, Push waved at him, and Chet ignored the signal, and the message it carried: next stop imminent, as he forced his eyes on the table king raking in another pot, accompanied by the hum of an unknown song.
Chet suddenly found that attraction much like his own 'Ridin' a roan and all alone." There were no words to the song, Chet believed. The song, or a pretense to a song, was merely a tool, so he ordered another whiskey, deferred a girl's approach, paid the barkeep, and set to work, his curiosity rising to a steep pitch.
His eyes went back to work, passing on some artifices, ignoring the false sense of humming, studied the musical and flexible hands of the card maestro at work.
The deep thought of a cheat at his game had nudged him more than once in his observations, but beliefs in the human spirit resisted the acceptance of the elegant man being a mere cheat at poker; he appeared above that, by dress, by deeds, by elegance of motion and manner, by an unknown song with unknown words, and by a twist of hypnotism, he was positive ... so positive that he figured he might be nothing more than a rapt viewer in a wide audience.
Push, across the room, waved at him and went out of the room with a flash of orange at his side. "The kid'll be broke more ways than one on this night, so I better save some money for him." It was almost vocal with an almost smile.
It that exact moment, the way he'd tell Push about the whole experience at the bar. he saw the flash of a card in a slight opening of the elegant player's
right hand sleeve, between the jacket sleeve and the shirt sleeve, the elegant white sleeve. The edge of a card with a visible smudge of red ink showed for the merest moment, a fuzzy blur, a hazy or darkened obscurity, a secret of secrets, a secret hidden in folds, in suddenness, by sleight, by music, by swift manipulations.
For half an hour he watched, his gaze intent, straight on, holding back if and when he could the sudden needs to blink his eyes. The canter of his horse returned to his rump and thighs, the vast grasses flew past him in a scurry of images that were more real than the elegant card player. He had a hard time realizing the disparity of the two elements; one real and one gone down the trail like other sights shifting with the swing of the saddle, the gait of his horse.
With a swift kick in the pants he wondered where all this would and should take him. He was not in the game. He had no stake in it. He knew none of the players. Was not responsible for their good will or good luck or bad luck.
But luck, which hung around often enough to be known, was not part of this game, this table, this maestro of sorts winning again. Cowpokes like himself were at a loss and headed for more; some of them on drives like he had been on, endless for days on end as if they'd never come to anyplace like this, an elegant room in an elegant palace, only to lose their wages in a stupid game rigged against each and every one of them.
One player, a big and brawny man with clumsy hands, thick arms, and a voice deep as a canyon at the table gathered himself for a sneeze or a cough; all players looked at him like a rotary at play, and then it was Chet saw the switch, the move, the positioning of a card, almost an extra card in the deck, saw it disappear into the sleeve of the elegant player. None of the players saw the move. The barkeep did not see it.
He was the lone viewer.
A thought hurried into Chet's mind; he'd let them be; something'd come to light, a wrong would be righted.
Finally the maestro in elegant duds looked up at Chet as he moved off his seat and stepped beside the table on his way out of The Palace. A silver tongue said directly to him, "Want to join us, son?"
Chet, caught short by the man, touched his holstered gun with a deliberate move, and said, "I don't play trail cards with a cheater and I sure wouldn't play with one here in this grand Palace of Palaces, not even a single draw of a card from a deck of cards with a seal broken by the barkeep back there, honest as the day is long."
The regal one was smooth. "You calling me a cheat, son, or one of the other players at this table?"
"None of them do what you do. I've seen it all, the way you win big pots and not the small ones, and leave them little ones for the others to grovel over. No, siree, I wouldn't play cards with you if my life depended on it."
The elegant one looked around the table, as casual as any actor could be, his lines down pat, his facial expression set perfectly, his voice tempered to cool reflection, as he said, with the barest threat in the words, "Perhaps it is, son. Perhaps it is."
Chet looked directly at the man's partner at the table, noted his big, thick hands, and said, "You go for that gun of yours with those stubby little fingers and I'll put a hole where you don't want it. That's a promise."
The elegant maestro of moves said, "Let's talk about this later." He laid his cards down on the table and said, "Gentlemen, I think we should close up this game for now."
Chet stepped closer. looked at the others, and said, "Ask his nibs here to shake loose the card he has up his right sleeve. I don't know what it is, but it's a heart or a diamond, a red card."
The barkeep, leaning on the bar, had a shotgun on the table. His voice carried all the authority needed. "Check him out, boys, and make sure Chubby there don't move one way or another.
Chet, at another drink, wondered how long Push would be gone.