What Do You Think The Odds Are…

By Dana Wagner

After Plummer disappeared with his gang’s money, Heyes drifted along with Preacher and Lobo, even taking up honest work here and there when they ran out of money completely. He wished Kid were still around; he missed him in more ways than he thought possible. If he had had any idea where to start looking, he’d have done it by now.

Coming up on a steep ridge outside Central City, Colorado, they laughed to see a train robbery in progress below them. “Well, boys,” Preacher declared, “we seem to have come a mite late to the party. Heyes, let’s make this an educational moment for you, since you’re the newest to the business. How many fellers you think are working this job?”

Heyes hated being the newest. “I see the two with the engineer and fireman up front. I see two outside the express car, but there’s bound to be one or two inside there. I don’t see them from here, but I’m betting there are a couple on the other side of the train, too, probably keeping an eye on the passengers. If there are any.”

“Good, son, you remembered there’s always more than meets the eye.” Preacher knew Heyes had a head for the business, young though he was. It wouldn’t surprise him to see Heyes ramrodding his own gang one of these days. He had the brains and the gumption, just needed some experience.

Squinting, Lobo suddenly asked, “Preacher, ain’t that ol’ Wheat down there – the big fellow with the engineer?”

“Why, so it is! Then Kyle oughta be…yep, down at the express car with that skinny yahoo. Why, this is plumb a family reunion.”

Kyle rode up once the train had been cleaned out and sent on its way. “Preacher! Lobo! Ain’t seen you boys in donkeys’ years!” Preacher did the honors. “Kyle, this young’un is Hannibal Heyes. Heyes, Kyle Murtree. We used to ride together some.” With a side glance to Preacher for the young’un comment, Heyes shook hands and exchanged howdies.

“You boys oughta be ridin’ with us again – fellow named Jim Santana has taken over things and we’re doing fine now. That feller’s smart.”

“Is that an invitation, Kyle?” Lobo wanted to know. “The hombre you were jawing with didn’t look too welcoming to me.”

Kyle hesitated briefly. “Not exactly. See, Big Jim likes to pick his own men, so I had to talk him into meeting you. And no offense, Heyes, but I don’t know you from Adam’s off ox right now, so I couldn’t vouch for you personal like. But come and meet everybody, anyway, and Jim can look you over, think about it. You got to remember, though, he’s the boss, no arguments about that. He even makes Wheat stand around, and you know how bossy Wheat is.”

It did not take long for Jim Santana to appreciate potential in Heyes. To the displeasure of Wheat and a few others, Santana made him second in command in just a few months. It took a couple of fistfights, and a few quiet words from Santana that Heyes didn’t know about, before the bunkhouse pecking order was straightened out. Seven months, nearly to the day, after the robbery Heyes and his companions had witnessed from the ridge, he was part of the crew robbing the same train near Central City.

The smooth-as-glass holdup and the munificent haul made Santana’s rule about the waiting period harder than ever to endure. No one argued about the good sense of not flashing fresh “earnings” around; it wasn’t a good idea to argue with Santana even if you didn’t agree. Finally the leader picked a day when a good many mine workers and cowboys would be blowing their pay, too, and the Devil’s Hole gang took their loot to town.

Heyes and Santana made the rounds of the various activities, until they found the Horn of Plenty Gambling Emporium. “That’s one of the best things about Denver, Heyes,” the leader explained, watching Heyes scanning the large and relatively quiet room of gamblers. “There’s something for everyone. We’ll probably find Kyle at the faro table in that saloon until he runs out of money. But what’s the problem with faro, Heyes?”

Heyes turned his thoughtful dark eyes on his leader. “There’s a problem?”

“For you, and for me, yes. What’s the difference between us, Heyes, and most men?”

Heyes knew Santana was getting at something but didn’t see the point. “We’re pretty smart. We’re the leaders of the gang, is that what you’re saying?”

“And why are we leaders, Heyes? Because we are smart, and because we like to be in control. Control, Heyes. Games like faro and the roulette table, they’re just luck. But blackjack, and even more, poker, that’s where having brains makes a difference. You, amigo, could be a great poker player.” Santana looked over the Horn of Plenty; a man could almost smell money in the air. “And this is a fine place to practice.”

Heyes asked, “You’re not talking about cheating, are you, Jim? I’ve heard your opinion on that subject before.” It had amused Heyes at the time – it was fine to steal for a living, but not to cheat at cards.

Santana answered by cuffing Heyes lightly on the back of his head. “Don’t act stupid, Heyes, it’s unbecoming to you. Let’s find a poker table in need of players.”

Heyes slicked back his hair (biting back his comments—he hated being the youngest). They joined a table of four men: two ordinary cowboys, a substantial-looking businessman of about forty, and a slender, dark man in the finest suit of clothes Heyes had ever seen. Black frock coat, cream-colored trousers, ruffled shirt front, black string tie… Heyes quickly decided, if he had any money left after Santana’s “schooling,” he was going looking for a tailor the next day.

The businessman, Mr. Byers, began to deal. “We’re playing five card stud, gentlemen, and we have agreed that straights and flushes are played at this table.” Heyes and Santana exchanged a look (what else would you do in poker?) and nodded agreeably.

Players came in; players left, including the cowboys. The four men stayed. Maverick was the steady winner overall, seeming to know just when to bet and when to let be. Heyes tried to figure out what he saw that not everyone did. And suddenly, he realized something. Taking the two exchange cards he’d requested from Santana, who was currently dealing, he looked around the table at the cards showing. His own hand was worthless now, had been to start with; but looking at it, he could see he had the cards to prevent Santana from getting the straight he had been building. Not only that, he had a queen and Maverick had a queen showing. That meant Byers couldn’t have the full house one might suspect from the cards in front of him. Heyes caught Maverick smiling at him and dropped his gaze to his cards.

“Mr. Heyes, either you need to work on your poker face,” Maverick drawled with some amusement, “or you’re working on one of the best bluffs I’ve seen lately.” The bet was to him, and he put up ten dollars.

Heyes hated the feel of color rushing to his cheeks; it made him feel boyish. “Actually, I’m folding.” He tossed in his cards. “I just suddenly realized something that made me understand the game better.”

Santana made his bet and said, “My young friend is trying to learn the intricacies of real poker, gentlemen, what separates a true player from the average card pusher. I’m sure you understand.”

“Of course.” Byers called the bet. Sure enough, Maverick won. Heyes felt vindicated, and also like a candle had suddenly been lit in the darkness. He could do this. He could really play, not just push cards. Santana decided to call it a night and asked Heyes if he was coming. Heyes looked to Maverick.

“I got no urgent plans, Mr. Heyes. I’ll play a little longer if you want.”

A little longer turned into the rest of the night. And plenty of Heyes’ money, but he didn’t care. Maverick told him to think of it as paying tuition to a college; he was investing in an education that would pay off later.

It became an obsession. It was a good thing Maverick understood. Of course, it helped that Heyes was still paying tuition to “Maverick College”; but he lost less to Maverick the next night, and he began to win some, too. Santana gave up on getting him away from the poker table and sought other amusements. Late into the gang’s third night in Denver, Santana came back to the Horn of Plenty to find Heyes and Maverick having a quiet drink. “Heyes, we’re leaving tomorrow, going back up north.” He knew Heyes would recognize the euphemism for Devil’s Hole. “We need to get Wheat and Lobo and, I think, Hartman, out of jail.”

“Anything serious?” Heyes’ question also meant Do we need to pay their fines, or do we need to break them out? He was relieved at Santana’s negative head shake.

“No, nothing very troublesome. I’d like to be riding before noon, though, so I’ll say good night.”

The two poker players wished him good night and watched him leave. “Well, Mr. Heyes, to commemorate your graduation from Maverick College, I’m going to bestow on you a family secret.”

“Mr. Maverick, I’d be honored. Honored and touched.” While his formality may have been partly from the whiskey, Heyes spoke the truth. He’d come to respect Maverick, and to be taken into the family circle had meaning for Heyes.

Maverick shuffled the deck of cards before him and began dealing out twenty-five cards.

“This is a game my ol’ pappy invented, which might also mean stole from someone, called Maverick Solitaire. See if you can make five pat hands out of those cards. Arrange them any way you want, and yes, straights and flushes are allowed.”

Thinking Why do people keep saying that?, Heyes studied the cards. There were a handful of pairs and triples, and he arranged two full houses from them. He switched out the pair of tens for the pair of threes, so he could put together a hearts flush. Three hands down. Maverick watched, sipping his drink. Heyes re-arranged. He put everything back out and started over. Twice. Finally he looked up, defeated.

“Well, I guess that answer is no, I can’t. Can you?”

Maverick began arranging cards. Heyes’ hearts flush was right, and so was one of his full houses. But within seconds, Maverick had arranged a different full house, a spades flush, and a straight. Five pat hands. “Vision, Heyes, vision. You have to learn to see all the possibilities. Takes practice, of course.”

Heyes was already shuffling and dealing out another set of twenty-five cards. “Does it always work?”

“Very nearly. My brother Bart claims to have played two hundred hands in a row one time. He says it worked a hundred and ninety-two times.”

“Ninety-six percent.” Heyes, arranging cards, automatically did the math. “But most people wouldn’t expect it to work, is that the trick?”

“Exactly. But remember: it’s not a cheap parlor trick to be done willy-nilly. Plus, it’s dishonorable to lie about it. You can say, What do you think the odds would be, but you can’t tell people it’s hard when it’s not. And above all,” Maverick paused and waited for Heyes to meet his eyes, “it’s not to be abused as a source of income.” Heyes nodded and the two men shook hands solemnly. Then Maverick drained the last of his drink and added, “Unless you really need the money.”

Chuckling, Heyes turned his attention back to the cards. He looked up in surprise when Maverick got up to leave, holding out his hand. Heyes shook it and said, “I’m most grateful for everything you’ve taught me, Mr. Maverick. I hope we cross paths again.”

“If we do,” Maverick advised him, “I might not want to play poker with you. It’s one thing to play with ordinary players. But with another man who really knows how to play, why, that’s gambling. Adios, Mr. Heyes.” He left Heyes arranging cards.

Mid-morning, the young outlaw met Jim Santana at the sheriff’s office and bailed out the three gang members. Wheat was very vocal about having spent two of his three hoorah days in jail, not getting to gamble like he wanted to, just because of a little fight at the whorehouse. “Not that I mind still having my money,” he admitted, “but I sure didn’t have much fun.”

Heyes edged closer to Wheat. “That’s too bad. I know how much you like to bet on stuff, Wheat.” Wheat grunted something in agreement. “Fellow I was playing cards with told me about an interesting proposition, but I didn’t take the bet. You’re more experienced with these things than I am, Wheat. What do you think the odds are that I could deal out twenty-five cards…”