Summary: Inspired by a bad first line
Word Count: 2850
The arrows, missiles of death launched from wooden bows wielded by the horde of angry Indians swarming the little shack as if they were a cloud of enraged bees repelling a honey thief, embedded themselves deep within the wooden structure with loud thunks as the defenders trapped inside conserved their ammunition by firing sparingly, since their attention was far more focused on whose turn it was to raise or fold as the money in the pot that would go to the winner was a sum greater than six months’ wages, presuming that the man with the best hand lived to claim it. Willy, a hand for the Bar V ranch near Placerville, placed five dollars in the pot as he shifted his hand-rolled cigarette to the other side of his mouth. He casually drew his pistol and fired a shot through the broken window just to let the Indians know that he could concentrate on two tasks at the same time.
Bertie, a mild-mannered miner from Cornwall who’d decided to give up sweating in miserable heat underground for perspiring buckets in the hot sun aboveground as a cowpuncher, looked over his hand, a mix of number and face cards. He didn’t stand a chance at winning anything but his life, provided the Indians kept missing and no one accused him of cheating. Perhaps if he didn’t look at his fellow players in a shifty-eyed manner, they’d never realize that he was bluffing, as that was his only chance for winning the pot. After adding his money to the pile, he reached deep into his pocket and pulled out a wad of well-worn dollars, counting out an additional seven to add to the mound of paper in the middle of the table.
Newt, a bronc buster turned wrangler, spit a long stream of brown tobacco juice at a plucky Indian who’d been courageous enough to attempt a sneak attack on the men in the shack, convinced that their lack of steady gunfire meant they were cowards. The brave, screaming in agony and clawing at his eye, stumbled into the path of an oncoming arrow that surely would’ve struck down the white man if it hadn’t had an obstacle in its way. Shifting his cards from lowest to highest, Newt matched the amount the previous player had added to the heap and then shifted the wad of tobacco from left to right before spitting directly onto the floor.
Joe Cartwright beat at the dust that covered the arms of his jacket and looked over his cards again. He squinted in what he hoped his opponents would think was contemplation as he pondered how he’d ended up with five of a kind, just the sort of hand that could get a man killed.
How had these four men ended up playing poker in a little shack surrounded by howling Indians?
Joe, who’d been minding his own business until he came across the irresistible sight of five Indian maidens splashing in a lake, their long black locks braided and pinned on top of their heads to avoid the water, couldn’t resist the siren song of their laughter and suddenly found himself standing at the edge of the lake, admiring the beautiful nymphs. He reached into his saddlebag, pulled forth several strings of blue beads, and held them up as a token of his appreciation for the opportunity to admire so much magnificence in its natural state. Seeing they were being spied upon, the maidens’ screeching alerted the sentries to the invasion of their commune with nature. One of the sentries sent a smoke signal to the village, alerting the warriors of the presence of a trespasser. Within minutes of leaping upon his own painted pony, Joe was being chased by a pack of howling Indians intent on seeking revenge because he’d broken a tribal taboo by offering the beads to the maidens (how was he to know that blue was an unlucky color for the tribe’s chief, who’d lost six wives in succession all because of a blue dress stolen from the trunk of a slain member of a passing wagon train?). He’d ridden low over his horse’s neck until what he thought was a mirage turned out to actually be a shack standing in the middle of nowhere. When he burst into the building, intent on finding a place to take cover, he’d been surprised to see three men on the floor playing a game of marbles. After introductions had been made over the noise of the shrieking Indians, the men overturned the furniture, drew their guns, and shot a noisy fusillade from pistols and rifles, which only caused the warriors to kick their mounts into a faster speed in order to avoid colliding with bullets.
As they waved their hands to thin out the smoke, as dense as the San Francisco fog yet smellier than a herd of cattle fresh out of a sulfur dip, Bertie said, “I sure wish we had some cards. Nothin’ passes the time like a good game of poker.”
Joe pulled his green jacket aside, reached his fingers into a hidden pocket that would’ve been perfect for squirreling away large sums of money, and withdrew a fresh deck of cards. Turned out he never left the Ponderosa without one.
The table and chairs were set upright and each man chose his spot, making sure he had a good view out a window at the blur created by the circling Indians. Willy finished rolling a cigarette and placed it to his lips seconds before the lethal tip of a passing arrow lit it; he was grateful for not having to waste a match, which they might need later in case they required a signal fire to attract would-be rescuers.
When the men initially sat down to the business of a serious game of poker, they agreed that deuces would be wild, wilder than the Indians racing around the shack. All four concurred that the ante would be two dollars as there was no point in being extravagant without alcohol to drink or pretty saloon gals to offer encouragement. Newt offered up a coin to flip to determine who had the first turn at dealing but an arrow flew through the window and out the other, taking the coin along with it. Each man agreed to think of a number between one and ten, scratch it onto the seat of his chair, and then line them up to see who had the lowest figure. Turns out Joe won the first deal, which he thought was fair since the cards belonged to him.
Money changed hands back and forth as the men played hand after hand. The Indians took a short break to give their ponies a breather and to eat a snack of deer jerky while they discussed their strategy for wreaking vengeance on the white man who’d invaded their territory. Afterwards, they resumed their circling, but in the opposite direction.
An arrow soared through the window, removing Newt’s hat without disturbing his hair. “Never liked that hat anyway,” the wrangler grumbled as he picked up his cards.
They’d been playing steadily for two hours, money changing hands without any of them becoming richer. “How about playing for real money?” Willy asked, slapping at an arrow meant for him, bouncing it harmlessly against the stone fireplace, which rendered it useless by separating the stone point from the wooden shaft.
“This is real money,” Bertie said, pointing to the bills in front of him.
“I mean playing for everything we got,” Willy said.
The four men gave the suggestion a brief thought and then agreed that it sounded like a good idea. Chances were pretty good that one of them would make it out of the shack alive, presuming the Indians didn’t give up any time soon. Whether or not that man held the winning hand was another matter entirely. In the meantime, their focus was on the game itself, working a strategy to outlast the other players.
Joe reached into his jacket pocket and pulled forth his last thirteen dollars. Thirteen might be an unlucky number but it had to be better than holding five of a kind. He wished they’d declared some other card to be wild instead of deuces as four of a kind, while a winner was much safer, especially since he didn’t know if five aces trumped a royal flush. Well, there wasn’t a chance that one of the other players could have a royal since he held all of the aces. His Adam’s apple suddenly bobbed as if he was trying to swallow a large lump of congealed oatmeal as he realized his opponents would assume he’d marked the cards, accuse him of cheating, toss him to the Indians, and keep his money. Maybe he could find a way to sneak an ace out of his hand and draw another card from the deck without the others noticing. All he needed was a distraction.
Newt felt a crawling itch on the back of his head and picked up his pistol to scratch at it with the barrel. Just for good measure, he fired a shot over his shoulder, which knocked a brave from his speeding horse. The Indian bounced like a sack of potatoes into the path of several other ponies, resulting in a collision that downed man and horse alike. One of the braves staggered to his feet and then belly-crawled to the shack so the white men wouldn’t be aware of his presence. He hopped up onto a barrel and pulled himself onto the roof of the structure. Knowing patience was on his side, he drew a monocle taken during a wagon train raid from a pouch at his waist and adjusted the thick glass until the sun’s rays were focused on one wooden shingle.
The men continued to raise and bluff as they waited until every last dollar was in the middle of the table. None of them were in a hurry to place all of their money in the growing stack since the Indians were still on the warpath.
“Is that smoke?” asked Bertie as he wrinkled up his nose to get another sniff as he leaned to the left to avoid an oncoming arrow.
Willy pulled his cigarette from between his teeth, took in a deep whiff, and then smelled his cigarette for comparison. “It ain’t me,” he finally said.
Joe looked at the ceiling, realizing he finally had the much-needed distraction. He hoped a windstorm would suddenly rush across the open land, sparking what might be a few flames into a conflagration.
An unexpected animal-like yowling got the men’s attention and they saw a flaming Indian fall from the roof and run for his fellow tribesmen. Two braves came to a sudden stop and doused their companion from their shiny metal canteens, stolen from an Army detachment. The smoldering Indian slowly rolled to his knees, accepted a helping hand, and then climbed aboard one of the horses to begin circling the shack again. With the spectacle over, the men again concentrated on the game.
“Well, boys, this is the last of it,” announced Willy as he counted his coins before adding them to the pot.
“I’m all in,” said Bertie, adding his final wrinkled dollars to the pile on the table.
“That’s all I got,” declared Newt.
“Same here,” said Joe as he placed his final thirteen dollars with the rest of the money.
“Time to show ‘em,” declared Bertie.
A flaming arrow flew into the room and lodged itself in the window frame on the opposite side. Before it could even singe the wood, Newt spat tobacco juice on it, putting the fire out.
Joe said a small prayer for deliverance and waited his turn to show his cards. Willy laid down a hand of tens over fours — a full house. Turned out Bertie had absolutely nothing that could even be confused for a good hand and was now flat broke.
Newt chuckled as he laid down a hand consisting of three sevens and two deuces. “Five of a kind,” he said smugly.
“There ain’t no such thing as five of a kind,” Willy said in protest.
“Whaddya call that?” asked Newt, pointing to his cards.
“A full house?” suggested Joe.
“Two pair?” asked Bertie.
“I say it’s five of a kind,” said Newt, picking up his pistol from the table to make his point.
Before Newt could reach for the pot, Joe laid his cards down and said, “This is what five of a kind looks like.” Three sets of eyes looked at the cards, narrowed in suspicion, and then looked into a pair of green eyes.
“This here’s your deck,” said Newt menacingly as he waved his pistol through the air.
“You were the dealer this hand,” reminded Joe as his fingers connected with the barrel of his gun.”
“Why you…” was all Newt got out before smoke began pouring from the fireplace, filling the room and making the men cough. The whoops and hollers of the Indians seemed to die away.
Joe heard a rather distant bang and assumed he’d been shot even though he didn’t feel any pain. It was hard to breathe, though, so he was sure the bullet had hit his chest. A sudden pressure confirmed his suspicion as he gasped for one final breath.
A hand slapped his cheek and a voice called his name, but he figured it was just one of the fellas, hoping he had a few extra dollars on his person; maybe it was Bertie needing a match to light a cigarette. Either way, they could have had the decency to wait until his body was cold rather than scavenging while he was losing his grip on his mortal coil.
He suddenly felt cold and very wet. Opening his eyes, he saw that he was in a water trough. His jacket had been removed, so no wonder he felt chilled.
“Glad to see you’re back with us,” said Ben, concern reflected in his dark eyes.
Joe looked around and saw both of his brothers standing nearby; Hoss held a green jacket that had seen better days in one hand and Adam held the remains of what might have been a book. “What happened?” Joe finally asked.
“Near as we can tell, you fell asleep with an almost empty pot of stew over the fire. I suppose it finally got hot enough to start smoking but ended up filling the line shack because of a big ol’ squirrel nest in the chimney,” said Hoss. “A few sparks must’ve gotten loose and landed on the blanket that was on the bed. Good thing we were coming out here anyway to drop off some coffee and flour.”
Joe looked around in confusion and asked, “What about the Indians?”
“What Indians?” asked Ben.
“There were Indians. They chased me, shot arrows at me and the fellas, and then set the place on fire.”
“What ‘fellas’?” asked Ben.
“The ones who were here. We were playing poker. I had five of a kind.”
“There’s no such thing as five of a kind,” said Adam.
Ben shook his head and extended a hand to help his youngest from the water trough. “Better climb out of there before you catch pneumonia. It’s too busy a time of year for any of you boys to be laid up sick.” He looked Joe over and, other than the smudges of soot on his cheeks and forehead, he looked to be fine. Placing a hand on the back of his son’s neck, he gently massaged the tension away. Feeling a shiver, he told Adam, “Give your coat to Joe.”
Adam complied with his father’s request, even though he wasn’t pleased with the idea of having a soggy coat once Joe was through with it. He did have to agree that the warmth would help his brother dry out a bit quicker.
“Well, let’s get this place cleaned up,” said Ben with a squeeze to Joe’s shoulder before heading inside the shack, followed closely by Hoss.
Heading for the doorway, Adam handed a book cover to Joe with a drawing that, though burned, showed four men holding cards at a table piled high with money and an Indian climbing through a window. In bold lettering was: Jake Wheelwright Bet Everything, Even His Life, In A Game Of Poker.
Confusion flickered on Joe’s face — the game and the whooping Indians had all seemed so real, not a dream. “I never even got to finish this one,” he finally said wistfully.
Adam said, “Dead Man’s Hand, quite a tale. Shame about the money, though.” He gave Joe a wink before going inside.
“Whaddya mean? Adam? What happened to the money?”