Summary: Most people thought Adam wasn’t a gambler. They thought wrong.
Word Count: 1800
He would be the only passenger on the stage coach to Morris Flats, he’d been told, and the coach would start in five minutes—which left him just enough time to finish his coffee.
Not that the coffee itself was something that he had great desire to drink at all, Adam thought as he stared into the almost black brew. Perhaps he shouldn’t have rejected the dash of milk the stage coach manager’s wife had offered—note to self: listen to the staff, they know their supplies—but then he didn’t really like coffee with milk. Never drank it that way. Come to think of it, no one, well, no man he knew drank his coffee other than black.
He took a sip, grimaced at the stale, bitter taste. Dang it, nasty stuff. He had had better coffee on a cattle drive! ‘course, he had. You can’t survive a cattle drive without coffee. Men subsisted on coffee on a cattle drive, on coffee and beans, which both were easy to transport and easy to conserve—other than milk, which was the reason no one took it along on a cattle drive: it wasted too quickly.
Adam stirred the dark brown liquid in his mug, wondering how much stronger and staler it had to be to make the spoon actually stand in it.
No milk on a cattle drive. It sounded insane, with all those cattle in easy reach. But those were beef cattle, not milk cows, and they would be nervous from the being pushed forward, from the lack of rest and normality, and no cow hand worth a dime would risk getting close enough to one to milk it. No one would take up that gamble.
Most certainly not Adam. Of course not. He wasn’t stupid, was he? He was also not… well.
Most people thought Adam wasn’t a gambler. They thought wrong. He might not appear a gambler because he stayed clear off the gambling tables in saloons and he never bet on the outcome of fights, races, or other things he couldn’t control. His brothers, however, knew better. Joe would readily tell you that Adam, indeed, was a gambling man—only one who rarely lost.
Joe had called it a gamble when Adam had not let Farmer Perkins go in exchange for the safety of his father, had accused him of gambling with his father’s life.
For Adam, it hadn’t been a game of hazard but a rational calculation. Sam Bryant had been predictable. Too smart to commit a crime after he’d realized that crimes didn’t go unpunished anymore in Virginia City.
Joe still said it had been a gamble. Adam said it had been a safe reckoning: he had counted on Sam Bryant’s intelligence, on his cowardice, and on his calculating personality. He’d been right in the end, but Joe hadn’t forgiven him for a very long time all the same—and Adam himself still woke up in the middle of the night sometimes, sweating and shaking, and utterly disturbed from a nightmare in which he’d not been right, had miscalculated. But that was only at night. In the light of the day, Adam knew this “gamble” had been Pa’s only chance to survive, that there had been only one possible outcome considering everything he’d known of Sam Bryant.
And that was the point: Adam gambled only when he knew the outcome, when he was in control, when he had all the facts, when he knew he would win.
The only time that hadn’t worked out was as he’d raced his new thoroughbred against Enos Milford’s inconspicuous hack, freshly broken and ridden by Joe. Back then he’d thought he had all the information he needed, but Joe had withheld certain important details from him—like that pathetically puny and lightweight English saddle he would use or the fact that the black plain was the fastest horse Joe’d ever seen—and consequently, he’d lost.
He’d not only lost the race then—and a beautiful new hunting rifle—but also the taste for gambling. He hadn’t taken part in any games after that—until he’d been forced into a gamble by a man in a desert. No, not really forced. Tricked, as much as it hurt to admit it. He’d been tricked. Had thought he could easily withstand whatever mad idea Kane would come up with next.
It had been a gamble, yes, a bet: if he could be broken or not, if he could be driven to do something against his convictions or not. It had seemed like an easy win. Nothing and no one could make Adam break—he’d thought. What he hadn’t realized was that he hadn’t had all facts, all information, all details. What he hadn’t realized was that he had no control over the game whatsoever. While he’d tried to play after the rules—those of society, of common sense, and of Kane’s own invention—his opponent had changed those rules randomly, just as he liked.
Joe in his place, quicker in acting than in thinking anyway, would probably have killed his torturer days before Adam had even toyed with the thought. He would have declared it self-defense, and every court in the world would have followed that plea.
But Adam…Adam had tried to prove something. He wasn’t sure anymore as to what it was that he’d tried to prove—the superiority of rationality, perhaps? Because that it had been: a fight between madness and reason, nothing else. And he’d almost lost.
It hadn’t bothered him to be forced to eat with his fingers while Kane had made a show of using cutlery and a napkin. Heck, he’d eaten with his fingers before: when you were hungry and had food but no spoon, as it would happen occasionally when you worked on the pastures, you didn’t think twice. It hadn’t bothered him either to be forced to work hard, hour by hour, day by day, without rest, without proper nourishment or even proper water rations. He was used to hard work, and he did know how it was to go without food or enough water.
It hadn’t even bothered him to be treated like…livestock. It had disgusted him, yes, and he would have preferred to have it differently, but it hadn’t actually rattled him. Kane had just been a madman, an idiot, a manipulator—and not even a very good one—he hadn’t been able to get into him, to scratch at his core, to really disturb him.
What had bothered him was that he had had no control. That he had had no means of doing what he’d usually do in a situation like that: simply walk away. He had got to endure Kane because he couldn’t rationalize with him. Too late, Adam had realized that everything he’d thought to know—about Kane, about fairness, about the way people interacted with another—had been turned on its head.
Adam’s most prominent strength, his rationality, had been made powerless by the simple fact that Kane was far beyond sanity. By trying to make reason of what happened between him and Kane, Adam had debilitated himself. His greatest strength had turned out to be also his greatest weakness.
In the end, Adam suspected, he’d nearly lost not against Kane but against himself. He’d lunged at Kane and tried to throttle him, frustrated by his own limitations, by the fact that what had guided him safely through his life had woefully failed him in the madman’s realm. What had saved him had been the madman himself. “I win,” Kane had said, and that had been the most rational thing he’d uttered ever since Adam had met him.
“I win,” he had said, and he’d been right. He had been about to win. Madness had been about to win.
He couldn’t have let that happen. Not when it would have cost him his integrity. And so he’d fought fire with fire, and let madness take over. Another kind of madness, but madness nonetheless: after he had released Kane he’d destroyed the weapon they’d fought for, had shared with him what little water there had been left, and had finally constructed a travois for his tormentor when Kane had collapsed. He’d tried to rescue the man who’d wanted to destroy him.
And he’d won.
Even though in the end he had not been able to save Kane, he had won. Had won and come out of it stronger than ever in some kind of Darwinian evidence. Physically, he’d been at his limit when his family had eventually found him stumbling through the desert pulling the travois with Kane, who’d succumbed to the heat long ago. Adam had been malnourished and dehydrated almost to the point of causing lasting damage in his organs, and it had taken him weeks to get a clean bill of health from Dr. Martin.
Mentally, he’d healed much faster. Oh, there were side effects: bad dreams, a certain uneasiness in mines, the special precaution he took in always having enough filled canteens with him. The fact that he had to wash any grime from his hands as soon as he entered the house. Twice.
But he’d won. Had won against Kane and against himself, and had won a new awareness: that reason would always be his strongest weapon, but never again the only. And that sometimes he wouldn’t be able to get anywhere if he relied on reason—and that he would have to let go of reason then and find other ways.
Hearing the driver cry out for his only passenger, Adam downed the rest of the too bitter, too stale coffee, shuddered, and left the station house to enter the waiting carriage. He made himself as comfortable as possible on the hard seat, pulled his hat down over his face and was lulled into sleep by the monotonous joggling of the coach within minutes.
And while the coach was making mile after mile towards its destination, in the hills at the outskirts of Morris Flats, some Mexican highwaymen prepared to rob the stage, unaware that close by, a man in a tin armor was watching them, ready to defend the helpless passengers of whatever coach those blackguards planned to assault.
When the raid happened, Adam was rescued by the armored knight who called himself “King Arthur” and to whom Adam readily referred as “Sire.”
It was a game. It took Adam a moment to accept it, but it was a game, from beginning to end. A game, insanity—and Adam enjoyed every second of it.
And the coffee in Sheriff Munsey’s jail was just excellent.
Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t. ~Shakespeare, Hamlet