Pursing his lips in concentration Hannibal Heyes carefully counted out five dollars and a twenty dollar gold piece and tossed them onto the pile in the centre of the table.
Three out of the other four players folded with grumbles of "too rich" and "by me".
Wes Chapman considered his cards. He was confident that three jacks, his best hand of the night by far, would win him the pot. The likeable fellow in the black hat was bluffing, he was sure of it. He would call.
There was, however, one small problem — Wes only had twenty-four dollars left in front of him. He had another silver dollar securely tucked away on his person, but did he really want to risk it on one hand of poker?
Glancing at his opponent, who irritatingly had no tells and a poker face that gave absolutely nothing away, Wes made his decision.
"Call," he said, pushing his remaining funds forward. Then, reaching into his vest pocket he pulled out the coin and held it up between finger and thumb. "Friend, this here's my last dollar. It may have a few differences, but it is a dollar."
Heyes had lost count of the number of times he had heard someone say he was taking their 'last dollar' but, poker face intact, he played along.
"Mind if I take a look?"
"Sure." Wes passed it over. He would get it back any moment now, of that he was certain.
Heyes studied the coin front and back. It looked like US currency to him and if anyone was an expert on both the look and feel of hard cash, it was the leader of the Devil's Hole Gang. What the heck! The cards had run in his favour tonight and what was one dollar compared to the whole pot? Heyes shrugged and tossed it onto the pile.
"Hope your hand was worth your 'last dollar', 'cause I gotta straight," he announced, laying his cards on the green baize one by one.
A straight! Wes threw down his cards in disgust. This fella was lucky — maybe a little too lucky — but he quickly put aside any thought of questioning the man's honesty. He and his blond friend, who had leaned against the bar all night with a saloon girl's arms around his neck, both wore their guns slung low with the holsters tied down, so he assumed they were not averse to using them.
"I'm done." Wes stood and politely tipped his hat. "Goodnight gentlemen."
"Think I'll call it a night too," said Heyes, amused by the look of disappointment on the other players' faces. He quickly pulled his hat from where it perched on the back of his head and scooped his own money, together with the substantial pot, straight into it.
Wes Chapman was about to push his way through the saloon doors when Heyes tapped him on the shoulder. "Let me buy you a drink," he offered, genially. "I sure hate to see a fella leave thirsty." Experience had shown him that poker players, even bad ones, were more likely to accept their losses without getting proddy if you bought them a drink or two with what they still thought of as their money.
Somewhat surprised at the unusual offer Wes hesitated, then he smiled. "Well now, that's right civil of you."
Heyes caught the bartender's eye and pointed to the half empty bottle of red eye on the bar. "Two." Tipping all the money from his hat onto the polished wood he asked, "Could you change this up into bills, Ted? I don't wanna wear holes in my pockets carrying these coins around."
Ted nodded as he poured the drinks. "Sure, Heyes." He cast an appraising eye over the new brown corduroy. "Nice jacket, by the way."
Wes raised the glass that was pushed toward him and took a mouthful of the fiery liquor. "You'd better take that special coin outta that pile before you spend it, mister," he advised, reluctantly.
"What makes you think it was in my hat?" Heyes produced the coin from his pocket with a flourish. It had been a simple move to palm it as he raked in the pot. "Anyhow, I can't see anything special about it — 'cept for it being your 'last dollar', of course."
"Oh, really!" A smile played about Heyes' lips. "Came up a might short tonight, I'd say."
"It's not that kind of lucky, but it has come in useful. Y' see, when you flip it, it will always fall the way you want it to."
"Always." Wes confirmed.
"Mister, I already know the odds of a coin finishing up the way it's called." The self-proclaimed genius could easily work out the math.
"But, this one defies all probability," insisted Wes. "I've never lost when I've used that coin."
Heyes' quick mind assessed the untold benefits of this concept, but he was still sceptical. "If it's that special, how come you parted with it so easy?"
"I was certain that pot was mine. I was holding three jacks, y' know."
"Alright then, let's give it a whirl." Heyes balanced the coin on his index finger. "Call it!"
With a flick of his thumb the coin spun in the air and landed back in the centre of his palm. He slapped it onto the back of his hand and peered curiously under his fingers. Heyes showed Wes it was tails. "Never fails, huh?"
"You have to tilt it a little."
"Aaww now, mister," chuckled Heyes. "You didn't say anything about tilting it!"
Wes held out his hand. "How's about I show you?"
Heyes surrendered the coin.
"See this mark here by the eagle's tail?" said Wes. "If you want it to fall tails up, you tilt that downwards — only a little, mind." He turned the coin over. "And if you want it to fall heads up you tilt it down, right there by the lady's nose. That way you'll never lose." He handed it back. "Try again."
With an indulgent grin Heyes asked, "Heads again?"
"Heads again," confirmed Wes.
This time Heyes placed the coin exactly as instructed and flipped it into the air. As he peered under his fingers his eyes widened with interest. "Okay, it's heads but the odds...." he shrugged.
"It works. You'll see," confirmed Wes, downing the remainder of his whiskey and tipping his hat. "Thanks for the drink, mister. I'll be gettin' along now."
Pensively, Heyes watched him go then turned back to the bar to see Ted waving a thin wad of dollar bills at him. "This is all I can change up for ya, Heyes," he said, placing the paper money along with a small stack of gold coins in front of the outlaw. "I sure wish you would stop using my saloon like it was a bank!"
"Ted, if I treated this saloon like a bank, how much do you figure you'd have left in that little ol' safe you think you've got hidden in the back room?" queried Heyes with a cheeky smile. He picked up the money and, leaving a few dollars on the bar, nodded toward a table in the far corner. "Bring over a couple of bottles, will you. The boys are looking a might dry."
On his way past his blond partner Heyes gave him a sharp nudge and a scowl. He and Kid Curry had an arrangement — while Heyes played poker the gunman watched his back. Tonight, however, it hadn't escaped Heyes' notice that the Kid had been somewhat preoccupied and there hadn't been much evidence of the agreed 'back watching'. Even though he hadn't been threatened or called out, the outlaw leader still felt a little getting-even was called for.
Kid grabbed the saloon girl's hand and followed Heyes to where the rest of the Devil's Hole Gang were gathered around a table playing poker.
A small, scruffy individual looked up from his cards. "You want in, Heyes?" he asked through a wad of chewing tobacco.
"No thanks, Kyle. I'm done gambling for tonight."
The other men around the table silently breathed a sigh of relief. Heyes had a habit of cleaning them out.
Seating himself at an adjacent table, the outlaw leader pushed a chair toward his partner.
"How 'bout you, Kid?" asked Kyle.
"I'm kinda busy." Kid Curry sat down, his blue eyes never leaving the redhead who wantonly plonked herself in his lap. He whispered something in her ear and she giggled. Heyes rolled his eyes.
The arrival of Ted with the whiskey was greeted with raucous approval and Heyes lounged back in his chair in order to leisurely sip a few glasses and watch the boys play cards. Soon his thoughts drifted back to the coin and he began flipping it, over and over, testing Wes Chapman's theory.
After a while Kid flung an irritated glare in his direction. "I sure hope you're not gonna flip that doggone coin all night, 'cause it's kinda gettin' on my nerves."
Heyes caught the offending item. "I'm checking out a theory."
"Never mind. Look, it's getting late. Are you figurin' on staying here tonight, or riding out with the rest of us? We should be getting started back to the Hole."
Kid quickly mulled it over. As much as he wanted to spend time with Mimi he certainly didn't relish the thought of riding the long trail back to Devil's Hole tomorrow morning, alone, bleary-eyed through lack of sleep, and with the mother of all headaches from too much cheap whiskey.
"Maybe I'll just leave it up to Mimi." Curry smiled charmingly and gave the girl a playful squeeze.
Still a little irked with the Kid for welching on their arrangement, Heyes leaned forward and said good-naturedly, "You could always flip a coin. Say! Why don't I do it for you? I've got one right here."
Kid Curry frowned. Heyes sure could be a little weird sometimes. Flip a coin? Over a girl?
"Come on Kid, where's your sense of adventure! Call it."
Curry sighed. "Okay. Heads I stay here with Mimi, tails I go with you."
Hannibal Heyes launched the coin skyward.
"Tails. Hard luck, Kid."
"Flip it again."
Heyes shrugged innocently. "Okay."
Silver sailed into the air once more and came back down — tails.
Kid was stunned. "Aaww, I don't believe it!"
"You wanna try best of five?" Heyes barely suppressed a smirk.
"You bet I do! And I wanna change my call," Kid added quickly, an element of doubt creeping into his mind. Heyes was a crook, after all. "Tails I stay."
More coin flips and the Kid had still not won a single one.
"Heyes, if you're cheatin'...." Steely blue eyes flashed as he wrenched the coin from his partner's hand. While he examined it, Heyes took the opportunity to consult his pocket watch.
"Time to go, boys," he announced. "Or we'll miss the moonlight."
Finally admitting defeat Kid tossed the silver dollar onto the table. Easing Mimi off his lap he got to his feet and planted a kiss on her pouting lips. "Next time, honey," he promised with a wink, before striding across the saloon to push through the batwing doors.
Hannibal Heyes remained seated, sipping his whiskey. He had noted the unmistakeable warning in the gunman's eyes and thought it prudent to give the night air a minute or so to cool him down. Knocking back a final mouthful he took one last look at the coin before sliding it safely into his pocket. Then he grinned — one of his wide, dimple-deepening grins — and followed the gang out into the night.