The dealer placed a single card in front of Hannibal Heyes and eyed the only other gambler still playing the hand.
No one could read either man's countenance as they considered their next move. Finally, Heyes, who had opened, threw a chip in the pot. "Five."
His opponent met the bet with the last chip in front of him. "Call."
Heyes laid down two pair. The other man sighed and lightly tossed his cards to the dealer. "I'm done."
"Nice doing business with you," Heyes replied. Recalling the man was a drifter, Heyes tossed him a five-dollar chip. "Take care of yourself and your horse."
The former gambler put it back on the table. "I don't need no charity."
"It's not charity, friend," a voice behind the man said. "Let's just say my partner is in a rare mood of Christmas cheer."
The man looked behind him to see Jed "Kid" Curry tip his hat. "But it's not Christmas yet."
Heyes answered. "Let's call it the spirit of the season."
The man looked dumbfounded. Curry picked up the chip and handed it to him. "Ride safe."
The man cashed in as the dealer called a break in the game.
The partners moved to a far corner of the bar and spoke sotto voce.
"That was right nice of ya, Joshua. Guess I'm rubbin' off on ya a little bit."
Heyes rolled his eyes. "No one'll ever be as good at seeking out the needy as you, Thaddeus. He was talking about how he was playing to stock up on supplies, and maybe I saw us in him and thought it wouldn't be right to leave him high and dry."
Curry chuckled. "No matter. Ya did the right thing."
As the gamblers returned to the table, the sheriff entered the saloon. Keeping his gun hand at the ready, Curry exchanged a glance with Heyes. They had done their usual ride by the sheriff's office when they arrived to make sure they did not know him, but with the town so small figured it was just a matter of time before they ran into him anyway. He had no reason to suspect them of anything, but still ...
The lawman announced, "Okay, gents, drink up quick. It's sarsaparilla until the game's over."
While this surprised the partners, the staff and customers took it in stride. As soon as the bartender displayed a "Sasparilly, 5 cents" sign, the sheriff looked out the batwing doors and spoke to someone outside. "Okay, ladies, it's safe for you to come in."
Several respectable looking women entered the establishment, followed by a nun in full habit. Applause greeted her, and she took her place beside the sheriff, who announced, "Okay, let's get the proceedings under way." He led the nun to the lone poker table. "Gents, most of you know Sister Mary Joseph." Turning to her, he indicated Heyes and continued, "Sister, this is ... Thaddeus Jones, I believe."
Heyes stood and bowed slightly, his gentlemanly coolness belying his discomfort under the scrutiny. "I'm Joshua Smith." He nodded toward Curry. "I'm afraid the sheriff here has me mixed up with my partner."
Curry smiled and tipped his hat. "Sister."
The lawman uttered a quick apology and moved on, introducing one other gambler to the nun before she took the vacated seat at the table. "Okay, gents, you know how this works, and for those that don't, I'll explain. Sister here and the other sisters run the orphanage, and everything she wins goes toward the care and feeding of the kids." He indicated the bartender. "And Harry there is donating the profits of the sarsaparilla, so drink up! And the hat for extra donations is on the bar." He eyed the gamblers. "I'm sure you'll all be generous."
Heyes shared a look with Curry. The dark-haired ex-outlaw was there for his usual reasons - relaxation and increasing their stake. He had already had his generous moment of the year just a half hour before. What was this - enforced generosity? Seemed more like highway robbery. But, this was obviously endorsed by the town and the sheriff himself, so ...
With the lawman watching, Heyes backed off from winning, observing the other players and assessing the nun's skill. He wagered conservatively so his stake was not diminished too much and discarded several potential good hands before he felt comfortable winning one. There was no doubt the good sister knew the game, but Heyes considered her only a fair player. From conversation, he learned she played formally only once or twice a year with the town's backing to raise money for the orphanage. That they wagered with chips and no actual money changed hands during the game made it all right for her to participate, with the sheriff cashing her out afterwards and giving the proceeds to the bank president for deposit in the orphanage's account. Thus, she did not technically gamble, just played a game. It skirted the obvious, perhaps, but was permissible.
At the next break, Heyes took stock of his winnings. Still ahead some from his original stake, he had won only two hands since the nun started playing, not for lack of skill but instincts of survival.
Having "donated" a good two bits between them to wet their whistles with the sarsaparilla, the partners reconvened at a far corner of the bar. With respectable women present and the lack of demon rum - or the rot gut that stood in for it - it seemed more like a church social than an afternoon at the local saloon. And even if there were another watering hole in town, leaving now might draw unwanted attention from the thus far benign lawman.
"I don't know, Thaddeus. It's gonna be hard to get ahead while the good sister is playing, and we can't afford to leave now. We'll just have to wait for later when we can play a regular game again."
Curry agreed. "We have no choice, but at least it's for a good cause."
Heyes rolled his eyes. "Maybe, but I think our own cause is just as good."
When the game resumed, Heyes was happy to hear they would be playing with Sister Mary Joseph only another hour, and when the ladies dispersed, the men could recommence a normal game.
Until then, though, Heyes made the most of it. By silent agreement, the men had fallen into a rhythm of winning one game out of three, taking turns going around the table, while Sister Mary Joseph won all the rest. She seemed genuinely surprised at her presumed luck, calling it a blessing, and as the piles of chips increased in front of her, expressed gratitude at how well she and the other sisters could provide for the orphans' needs.
With time drawing near to conclude the game, Heyes found himself the only gambler left playing the sister, all the others having discarded their cards as it was his turn to win. He held two sides of a possible inside straight. Although it went against his instincts to draw to one, with all the cards being of the same suit, he told himself it was the flush he sought and called for one card from the dealer.
Sister Mary Joseph, meanwhile, smiled as she held her cards close - no poker face she. Calling for one card as well, she picked it up gingerly, seeming confident. Instead, a brief look of disappointment overtook her only to be replaced by the calm smile.
Heyes picked up his card - yes, the one he needed! Blank expression in check, he inwardly danced with the straight flush, inside or not - a nice hand for what would surely be his last win of the game. His elation lasted the few seconds it took the sheriff to announce it would be the last hand.
"Joshua, eat up. You'll need your strength for poker tonight."
Heyes eyed Curry. While on a winning streak this afternoon before the good sister had joined, Heyes had expressed an interest in a steak dinner, but now could only take an odd bite. Taciturn, he reached yet again for his wine glass.
Curry frowned. "Drown your sorrows if you want, but you did what you had to do." He speared a piece of Heyes's steak. "Besides, it's not like you lost anything. Breaking even isn't so bad under the circumstances."
"Under the circumstances" was an understatement. More like, under the sheriff's nose. Heyes sighed. "You know how much I was up. I just don't lose like that."
"It wasn't losin', really." The blond partner grinned. "More like donatin', and it went to a good cause."
"There you go again standing up for the needy." Heyes gulped his wine. "You know how hard it is to draw to an inside straight. And I got it."
Curry shrugged. "You'll do it again sometime."
"Maybe." Heyes was astonished. "Good cause or not, that's the only time two pair will beat a straight flush!"