"To you, Sir," the gambler drawled, clearing his throat as he smiled around a curl of smoke from his long thin cheroot.
"I will take three," Heyes answered.
The cards were smoothly sliced across the green felt top. Leaning forward, the rail-thin gambler laid the deck down. His movement further revealing the ornate nickel-plated, pearl-handled Remington Rider Magazine resting heavily in his vest pocket.
Hannibal Heyes grinned, his left dimple popping deep, briefly as he thought, 'Might be pretty, but it does warn all this is a man at work, who puts up with no bull.' He retrieved his cards and leaned back, enjoying a tingle of thrill as he eyed the high-stakes poker pot. From beneath the shadow of his hat brim, he further scrutinized the man opposite. He wore a dark suit and looked like he rarely spent time in the sun. A gold watching chain stretched from one pocket to the other, across his shockingly bright, blue brocade vest. While his thin, delicate fingers of his left hand kept his cards close to his breast, a heavy gold diamond ring winking in the lamplight. 'Wonder what his name is?' Hannibal questioned himself. Then with an inward shrug, he answered, 'Man's name is his own business, I for one know that,' and concentrated back on playing.
As evening played into night, Heyes let Dixon, although he did not believe that was his name, know he did not care how he made his living, as long as the gambler didn't make it off him. Instead, he focused on the other two players, learning their traits and taking bites from their money piles. Furthermore, he left Dixon be when he made a run on a hand.
Soon enough, Hannibal Heyes in his threadbare, trail worn clothing and Joseph Dixon in his unwrinkled, high-end suit were playing off each other as if a matched set of bookends. However, they were not intentionally doing so and, also, not to dupe the other players. It was more one accomplished cardsmith showing respect to the other.
"Raise two-thousand," Heyes said, sliding a portion of his gaudy-colored house chips and greenbacks into the already sizable pot.
To his left, Des Marston, his silver-gray suit tailored to his broad shoulders, tapped a finger against his string tie, deliberating over his cards.
'And…he will be bluffing for the rest of this hand,' Heyes thought. Pushing his hat back, so it sat more on the crown of his head, then without a care, he scrolled his eyes over to read Dixon.
The man's left hand, holding his cards, relaxed ever so slightly.
'He telling me, he will fold when I make my move,' Heyes thought, then mistrust crawled along his shoulders, causing them to feel tight and cold. 'Don't start doubting your instincts now,' he scolded himself. 'These past few hands, Dixon has been letting these well-heeled ranchers win. Must have decided he has won enough tonight and is preparing his exit from the game.'
Marston having, at last, gruffly shoved in two thousand. However, the sweat clinging to his brow did not match his tone as he boldly, no not boldly but pompously said, "And I'll raise seven thousand." Reaching back with both hands, he pushed all in front of him to the center.
Next to him, the older Rancher with a tea strainer mustache tossed in his cards. He shook his head, tugging on the brim of his spanking clean John B. Stetson. "Missus will tack my hide to the barn side if'n I lose that much again." Scooting his chair back, he stretched his legs, crossing his hands on his chest to enjoy the unfurling show.
Under his palm, Heyes believed he could feel the warmth of the full house—aces over kings laying there, and without further consideration, told himself, 'I'm going to match him.' Only, he had to wait as the play was Dixon, and it was time to see if he had read him correctly earlier.
Dixon cards dipped toward the tabletop, a smile expanding on his pale lips. "My, my, if'n the pair of you are not just paramount—"
"If you're out, get the hell out and shut the hell up," Marston snarled, nervously fingering his necktie.
Setting the cards near the pot face down, Dixon intoned, "My apologies, Sir," the words flowing out as a whisper, made softer by his deep south accent. He flicked ashes from his vest with a casual air and set to fingering the watch chain hanging no more than an inch from the pearl-handled Remington.
Heyes recalled observing Des Marston play the night before when he and Kid were enjoying cold beers after riding into Red Rock. It had not taken long for them to decide; Marston was the type who used his money like a battering ram to elbow others from his path. Tonight, the man had drunk enough to loosen his constraints. His cultured manners dropping away as his more authentic nature emerged. While thinking this, Heyes shuttled his gaze across Clancy's Saloon.
Smoke hung like a winter fog blanket over the large room, though getting late, the place was still packed with drovers, grifters, soiled doves, and well-dressed Ranchers who had come to town for the stock auction. His inspection paused on his partner, Kid Curry, playing slap and giggle with a woman showing more skin than clothing who had introduced herself as Melody Knight. Still, despite the buxom blonde toying with his shirt buttons, Kid seemed to feel Heyes' gaze, and his blue eyes shifted to his partner. In that brief connection, Heyes let him know, 'This is going to be my last hand tonight.' Kid nodded, and with a laugh, he bent to nuzzle Ms. Knight's neck, further revealing his intentions for her.
His gaze moving one, Heyes took in Clancy's barmaids weaving through the tables, slinging ribald jokes, steaks, and drinks while deftly avoiding being handled by lude, inebriated men. More than an hour ago, there had been a disturbance; someone knocking the piano player cold for refusing to play, 'I'm a good ol' Rebel.' Other than that, it had been a friendly crowd. Except for Marston, who was now gearing himself up for a fight.
A raw irritation ran through Heyes as he told himself, 'Only defense an outlaw has, especially one working for amnesty, is anonymity. I can't afford…we can't afford the fight Marston will want when he loses.' Uncoiling his index finger, he edged his facedown cards to the center. Rolling forth a forced smile, he said as politely as he could muster, especially after Des Marston's strongarm play. "Looks like you are the winner." He finished by peeking at the prodigious winnings before him, even after having bet the two thousand, imagining how high on the hog he and Kid could live off of this and what was still on the table.
"Yeah," Marston muttered, more to himself, slapping his cards face down on the table to rake in the pot. "Now, deal them cards, Smith, and y'all cease fiddle-footing around."
"Wife wants me at church tomorrow; I'm calling it a night." The older Rancher stood. "See you another time, Des."
Marston barely noticed the man's exit.
"Gentlemen," Joseph Dixon purred, "I regret this weary lad must bid y'all good evenin'." Lifting his tall glass from the table, he drained the bourbon in one large swallow, stifled a cough with the back of his hand, and set it gracefully down.
"Me too," Heyes added, "it's been good, but a bed with some companionship sounds like a nice change of venue." Pulling his hat, he swiped his winnings into its dark interior.
"WHAT!?" Marston shouted, bashing a fist against the green felt, rattling the table. Those nearest shifted curious eyes to the disturbance. "What about me? What about my money?" His eyes locked on Hannibal Heyes, who had won the last three hands. "You can't quit while you're a winner!"
"Actually, you won that last hand," Heyes quipped, setting his hat on the table, gripping the chair's armrests, fixing to rise. "Also, I'm not in the mood to play anymore."
"That is bullshit!" busted from Marston, rolling across the boisterous room.
Kid Curry untwined from the blonde with a scowl and drifted over, sipping his beer to stand amidst a cluster of staring drovers.
"I came here to win. We all did; that is the object of the game," Heyes replied, respectfully but firm, his eyes darkening and catching the movement of Kid switching his beer to his left hand, he added, "you just happened to lose, more than you wanted…" he shrugged, "that's poker."
Des Marston's eyes skimmed across the watching crowd, perhaps looking for backup, before returning to Heyes. Whether his drink-addled mind heard the wisdom in Heyes' blunt words or read the seriousness in his eyes, Marston's jaw twitched, and he eased back in his chair. "Still, the sporting thing to do would be to give a man a chance to get even."
"Perhaps tomorrow I'm through tonight," Heyes replied.
Anger flashed across Marston's face. He snatched up the deck and discards, shuffling them together. Then pugnaciously, thumped the deck down between him and Heyes.
Heyes' eyes dropped to it like a dog that wished to be petted after rolling in a pigpen. "As I said, I'm done."
"Come on, one cut," Marston coaxed, nodding to the pile of cash and chips before him, "one cut…double or nothing. What do you say, Smith?"
Heyes' face remained flat, even as he thought, 'He isn't going to let me walk away.' Swallowing tightly, he stoically answered, "Look, we're both tired—"
"Just once," Marston barked, cutting him off. "Winner takes all. Hell, your luck has been almighty fine and smooth tonight. Can't imagine you would be afraid to honestly turn one over?"
There was unmitigated belief shining in Marston's brown eyes to back his suggestion of Heyes being a cheat. The cordial smile and dimples disappeared as Heyes sucked in his cheeks, his nose wrinkling. In a deep, quiet baritone, he hissed, "All right." He pocketed his stake money earlier in the night, so he figured he could afford to lose what was in the hat to avoid drawing unwanted attention. "I'll cut one time, double or nothing…" his nostrils flared, "win or lose, that's it one time." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Kid nod approval and felt better for his ruling.
Having remained at the table, Dixon drew indolently on his cheroot, his eyes animate with curiosity. However, his fingers had returned to trifling with his watch chain.
Marston drew a breath so large, Heyes could have sworn he sucked in all the smoke over their table. Rubbing his hands briskly together, his right emerged, trembling. With another breath, he hastily took up a section of the deck. As he turned it, a smug smile formed on his face to match the one wore by the Jack of Spades.
About them, the crowd muttered, shifting.
Heyes lifted the top card without any theatrics, flipping it, and a Queen of Hearts fell on the felt top.
"Damn it!" Marston squalled, smashing his hand across the deck; cards spun and cartwheeled from the table.
As a whole, the crowd pulled back with a gasping, sucking sound.
However, a high, pleasant chuckle erupted from Dixon. "My goodness, Marston, if'n that doesn't make you want to spit."
"Shut the hell up, you consumptive bastard!" Marston slammed his open palm on the table, the boom reverberating across the room. "New deck! Clancy, get a damn new deck over here!"
"I said one time only, and I meant it." Without taking his eyes from Marston, Heyes moved the man's pile to join the rest inside the black hat.
Marston's eyes bugged like he had been kicked straight in the acorns. He gulped, "I'll draft a check for any amount—"
"No," Heyes bluntly cut him off. "House rules state cash or chips, but it doesn't matter because I'm calling it a night."
Marston was on his feet, his chair flipping backward. "That's my money!" He clenched his fists so tight, the knuckles turned white.
"Used to be yours," Heyes responded with a lilt to his voice and smile that set off a warning bell in Kid's head.
Once more, the pleasant chuckle floated forth, "Used to be. Oh, but that is good."
"Enough out of you!" Marston jabbed a finger at Dixon. "Another peep or chuckle or anything, and I'm shoving your pointed nose into the back of your head."
"You make one move for anything other than the door," Dixon replied, his voice brittle, his right hand holding casually of the Rider Magazine.
Heyes looked just as startled at it as Marston, for neither had seen Dixon move.
"You, my good Sir, will discover what five .32s delivered fast from the fine makers of Remington feel like. If you were to live, I suppose they would turn you into a consumptive bastard."
His nose and ears red as June rose, Marston snagged his empty wallet and stomped through the crowd, his long coattail flapping behind him like crow wings.
Releasing a breath, Heyes nodded to Dixon, "Appreciate that."
No sooner had Dec Marston left than the crowd returned to their own pleasures, the noise level once more straining the ceiling joists. With a relieved smile, Kid Curry returned the proper attention to the supple blonde who had followed him over and been tickling the curls along the back of his neck.
"Only reasonable action with an overweening, undomesticated brute such as that," Dixon replied, refilling his glass with bourbon.
Heyes' eyes dropped questioningly to the Remington, which was once more in Dixon's vest pocket and he had, again, not seen the man move.
"Gamblers have quick hands. I would suspect you are cognizant of that, Mr. Smith," Dixon said, tipping his pricy bottle to Heyes' glass filling it to the brim.
Just as the silky golden fluid filled Heyes' mouth, a woman screamed, and someone shouted, "Look out! He's got a gun!"
The crowd jostled each other, spilling drinks and stumbling over chairs.
Spinning from the table, Heyes jerked his Schofield free even as a bullet whistled past his head.
Yet, there was no reason for him to fire or move further as Kid Curry was between him and Des Marston. Smoke drifting in a soft cloud from his Colt Peacemaker, a bullet burying itself in Marston's right forearm.
The man squealed, clinging tighter to the weapon.
"Drop it," Kid ordered, his tone holding no room for other options.
Still, Marston forced the barrel toward Curry, his teeth gritted in a tight enough to crack his molars.
Once again, Kids' Colt barked, lead ripping through the back of Marston's hand, this time the six-shooter clattered to the floor, the big man wailing in anguish.
A light chuckle caught Heyes' attention.
"Fast hands with pasteboards, Hannibal, although apparently not with a pistol. Must be why you are known to ride with a gunslinger in your pocket."
Heyes indignantly barked, "I'm not that slow on the draw." Then it dawned on him what Dixon had indeed said, and his eyes slid to the smiling gambler.
"Perceived who you were when I saw the pair of you relishing supper earlier this evening, Mr. Heyes."
"You are mistaken there, Mr. Dixon."
A brow rose sharply. "I am no more mistaken on your identity than you are my own."
Heyes' eyes scrolled over the thin, wane face with purple shadows clinging to its angles and back to the illness bright eyes. "As you say, Mr. Holiday. Where do we go from here?"
"I would suggest you gather your sizable take, your gunslinger, and vamoose as they like to say in these parts. For most certainly, the law will be arriving to investigate."
"What about us?"
"Oh, worry not, my dear chum, as you did not step on my game, I have no intentions of stepping on your tail." He took a sip from his glass. "Besides us, reprobates must watch out for one another; would you not say?"
Again, Heyes nodded.
Kid Curry's eyes blazed with anger as he strode over, slamming two cartridges into his Colt, his mind on what his plans had been for Ms. Knight this night. "You just had to push 'em, Joshua. Just couldn't let it be. You can never let it be, always got to get that last remark in."
Heyes' face shifted into a tight, flat smile, his eyes narrowing.
"Come now, Mr. Curry, it is his nature, is it not?" Holliday answered for him with a wink.
Kid Curry's head turned slowly to the man, his eyes sliding even slower from his partner.
"Might I make a suggestion afore the pair of you ride out?"
Curry's face tightened, becoming unreadable.
"Really, do suspect such a notorious pair as y'all could arrive at better monikers than Smith and Jones." Having said this, Doc Holliday toasted them with his glass, once more, swallowing it in one gulp.