Aces and Eights — A Work of Short Fiction
The coin whirled over his rolling knuckles unceasingly, stumbling through every torturous reprise only to be sent back to the start by his flicking thumb. If the saloon had been even just a bit quieter, you might have heard the coin wailing, locked in its endless cycle, falling heads over tails in eternal repetition.
But even a moment of silence would have meant Hell itself had frozen over, the bar an ever shifting panoply of color and sound. In the morning, in the evening, at high noon, at midnight — it never mattered; every oil lamp blazed bright, every glass momentarily filled before plummeting down a thirsty throat. The whores seduced and plied their ancient trade among the endless stream of new faces drifting through the town, every customer starving for a woman’s touch after crossing the brutal desert to the small oasis hosted in the middle of Hell. The piano player pounded out songs in a pathetic attempt to overpower the raucous laughter, his perpetual battle with the discordant, harsh mirth fought across days at a time.
But even the whores tired eventually, the drunks having their fill before making way for a more parched payer. For though every facet of the saloon seemed never-ending, there was only one true constant — a poker game with players that busted one after the other, each empty seat making way for the next challenger.
And each challenger was sent packing in turn, every hand of poker sending a new stack of coins and bills into the pockets of the well dressed man, vanishing as if by magic into an endless treasure trove that appeared for a brief instant only, before being secreted away into a waistcoat.
If the saloon had vanished, he would still be playing poker, and that coin, that infernal metallic disc, would still be swirling endlessly around his well manicured fingers.
“Ah, horse shit!” bellowed one of the most recent pretenders, a grizzled prospector who had boasted long and often of his card skills. Like so many others, the well dressed man merely flicked down a straight, murdering the miner’s three of a kind. It was, perhaps, the worst hand the well dressed man had won with all evening. Then again, considering how many times he kept his cards hidden and still managed to win, no one knew if poorer hands had flitted through his fingers that evening.
All anyone knew for sure was that he had yet to find his equal, the bored expression on his face a more telling boast than the most eloquent words. But every regular knew better than to pick up the silent dare.
The gravedigger had done more than enough business because of the well dressed man.
Unfortunately, the prospector had never been warned. “Git up, you damn cheat!” The man’s beard struggled to hide the smouldering anger on the miner’s face, sunburned skin turning redder still as he flung a chair to the side with a crash. The other players hurled themselves from the table, leaving the well dressed man behind to be hidden by the giant prospector’s shadow, his huge bulk eclipsing the gleaming white suit that stubbornly resisted the sudden gloom.
The man at the piano faltered for a moment, his fingers freezing before he thawed them with a slow shake of his head. “Damn fool,” he muttered. The barman looked towards the rear of the saloon, his mind already calculating the cost of a new chair, the time his runner would have to spend scrubbing blood from the floorboards.
One of the other patrons moved in in a vain attempt to restrain the latest loser, but he threw his savior aside, aiming a thunderous kick at the table, staggering drunkenly to the side when it missed. Recovering his balance, he growled, “I said git up, you lousy cheat! You been cheatin’ all night, and jus’ ’cause I’m the only one man enough to stand up to you don’t make you less a thief!”
His face the very image of apathy, the well dressed man stood up, his right hand tugging the creases smooth from where his clothes had bunched up, his left still twirling the coin maddeningly around his rising and falling fingers. Perfectly calm, he nodded politely to the furious miner. “Go upstairs and sleep this off,” he suggested, the words coming smoothly, deferential but edged in an iciness that caused all but the miner to shiver. “You’re drunk, and trust me, you do not want to take this any further.”
But the shaking giant refused to be cowed, spit flying from his mouth to arc towards the tailored suit, the shot falling barely short but its intent clear. “Draw,” he snarled, his hands falling to his sides to hover over the well worn Colts at his waist. For as long as his money had lasted, bragging had come endlessly in every slurred story, every other player forced to listen to stories of the miner’s years spent in the Yankee cavalry during the War of Northern Aggression. The other players had pitied him, offering polite sounds.
The well dressed man had merely snorted in derision. The same sound came from him now. “If you insist,” he commented with a small shrug, “but you make the first move. I’ll have no one say I cheated you on the manner of your death.”
His words had a calming effect on the huge prospector, the big man’s eyes slightly glazed but for a moment losing some of their murderous intent. He grinned smugly, the expression not carrying to any other man present. “You asked fer it,” he claimed, both of his hands twitching madly as if he were looking to goad his opponent into making the first move.
But the well dressed man’s face had fallen back into its blank mask, though a strange peace fell across it now, his eyes unfocusing, his right hand stroking his chin, his left still rising and falling in time with the coin’s passing.
The miner waited an eternal moment before both hands flew to the pistols at his side, the startlingly fast movement drawing a gasp from the onlookers. The Colts hissed from their holsters, giant thumbs pulling back hammers even as fingers curled around triggers.
A thunderous salvo erupted from the other side of the table, the well dressed man’s pistol appearing in his hands like magic to hurl the miner lifelessly to the ground, the gun vanishing as magically as his winnings back into a holster impossibly hidden inside his tailored jacket. Without a single word or even a glance at the newly dead miner, the well dressed man resumed his former position, his mind already calculating the losses suffered because of the foolish challenge. The confrontation may only have lasted scant seconds, but time was money.
And he had precious little of both. He had already pressed his luck staying here for so long, but he had yet to earn enough for passage, his final trip a true escape from one life and into another carefully prepared, safely across the Pacific. And every dead body added up here.
It certainly had in his old life.
Looking about at stunned faces, he grimaced. “I don’t suppose anyone wants to continue our game?”
No one moved an inch, the regulars not wanting to lose their money in rash misjudgement, the transients not wanting to lose their lives in rash anger, the latest exemple of both being dragged out by the barman’s assistant.
For the first time in days, the well-dressed man found himself without an opponent, the minor miracle enough to make the coin stumble slightly in its coursing. With a frustrated sigh, the well dressed man reached out to the table to pick up his hat, his hand stopping short as a weary voice whispered from the crowd. “Mister, I’ll draw with you if no one else will.”
The onlookers parted, revealing an old man, stooped and bent under the weight of decades of hard living. His clothes were barely patchwork, more held together with spit and grit than any attempt at tailoring. An abused hat sat atop the lined face, a belt of cord holding up his holed trousers. Everything about him was disheveled, the codger a dirty mess in a town that had barely survived the dust devil last week.
The well dressed man chuckled politely, waving the old man forward. “I do not want to take your money, friend, nor do I want to steal the last moments of time you have left on this earth.”
The old man smiled toothlessly, his lips splitting his face into an ugly gash that managed to chill the well dressed man, though he buried his unease at the prospect of easy cash. “Son, I have won and lost more than any other man in this saloon, maybe than even this town. I know how I’m spending my coin and life, and I’m choosing for them to be spent here.”
Both sat in creaking chairs, the well dressed man motioning for the old man to shuffle the cards still strewn about the table. “I’ve never seen you before, though I admit I’ve not been here long. You from around here?” asked the well dressed man.
“No, just passing through,” said the old gaffer, his clawing hands clumsily pawing the cards through a weak shuffle, the action drawing an amused smile from the well-dressed man.
“Oh, I hope you aren’t traveling alone. It’s not safe around these parts. I should know. I used to ride all over this country. Who are you coming with? Wife? Sons?” Truth be told, the well dressed man didn’t care one way or the other. Money was money, but the old man would be a weak opponent and something about him drew a desperate kind of pity from somewhere deep within.
A flicker of sadness touched grey eyes. “No, jus’ me. No one else to look after and no one to look after me. Not anymore, anyway.” Shaking hands dealt five cards to each man. “Draw ok?”
“It is now,” came the amused response, grasping his hand and flicking each card from side to side, front to back, each motion elegantly carried out by his twitching thumb. Dropping his cards to the table, he slid a few coins out into the pot, testing the waters.
The old man’s hands dropped into his shirt pocket, drawing forth a small pile of pennies and small coins, counting them carefully, rationing a few back for later, sliding the remainder into the pot. “Raise.”
Again, the coin faltered in its endless path. Odd, decided the well dressed man. Every other opponent had been cautious, fearful after seeing what he could do to their life’s savings. Each had jealously guarded their savings, and he had just as jealously stolen them from each man.
By contrast, the old man’s play was bold, foolhardy even. Especially on the opening deal. Coughing lightly to cover his surprise, he asked. “I don’t believe I caught your name, friend.” The question was phrased politely, almost disarmingly in its charming tone, though no one listening was fooled even for a moment by the misleading tone. The well dressed man was merely looking to understand his newest quarry.
But if the old man had heard the veiled threat, he didn’t let any notice of it cross his face. Instead, he smiled a sad, small smile, his eyes flicking up to fix his opponent’s grey eyes in place. “I don’t believe I gave it. But you can call me Charlie.”
“Charlie?” An eyebrow arched in reply. “No last name to go with that?”
A twinkle flickered in Charlie’s eye. “Not until I get your name, friend.”
The well dressed man felt his head cock to the side unconsciously. There was bitterness in the old man’s voice, a venom that hid either great loss or great hatred. He had heard that tone often in his previous life, the soft snarl of the families that he had left light of one member. It had been one of the reasons he had tried to leave that life, one of the reasons that had brought him to this tiny saloon in the middle of Hell.
For the span of a few heartbeats, the well dressed man said nothing, the rotating coin the only sound coming from his side of the table. It had stopped its silent wailing, the coin falling silent as it realized something different in this newest round of cards. It barely breathed now, only gasps coming from it as it tried and failed to hold its breath in the midst of the quiet tension.
“Lothario.” said the well dressed man.
Charlie mirrored him now, his head tilting in the opposite direction. “No last name?”
“Lothario McCall.” The well dressed man felt his eyes narrow. Why had he used his true name? The last one who had heard his true name had died years ago messily, after a kangaroo court had pinned a murder on him. He had spent years running from his true name, hiding under a different identity, a different mask… only to reveal himself now.
A flicker of recognition flitted over the old man’s face. His mouth twitched, the corners fighting to rise while the middle forced an expressionless front back into place.
Neither one said much during that first hand, nor the one after that, nor the next, their only exchanges in brief utterances for cards and for bluffs called and passed. More was said by the onlookers as the well dressed man did something they had never seen happen more than a handful of times — he lost.
He lost, over and over.
It happened slowly, the tiny piles of pennies in front of Charlie first gaining nickels and dimes as company. Copper and nickel added silver to their ranks, then paper and cotton. Each passage of play added more and more, the old man’s skillful play adding a growing pile of currency that mounded in front of him.
Anyone watching would afterwards swear that time stood still, that both sun and moon came out together to watch the two men play cards. No one inside the saloon could possibly have known the truth of the matter, every eye for once drawn to the same sight. The lonely men lost interest in the whores, the drunks going thirsty only for another round of betting, the piano player’s pounding fingers no longer caring what the other hand did, only that they could watch one more hand between the two.
For the first time in living memory, the saloon deep in the heart of Hell froze in time, silence reigning but for the passing of paper and the occasional clink of coins.
“Where in God’s name did you learn to play like this?” asked Lothario, genuine surprise flowing freely across his face. “You could have made a fortune!” His eyes flickered over Charlie’s face, trying and failing still to find the secret behind the old man’s unending luck. Every seeming bluff ended in a bad beat, every strong hand folded in the face of fierce betting.
There was something familiar about the way the old man played, his reckless abandon dredged up a half remembered game years ago. But the man who had played that game was dead, his chips cashed in a long time ago.
“I had a friend tell me that a long time ago,” replied Charlie, “but then he lost his life to cards and I lost the man I had learned to call my brother. Shot in the back while playing poker in a place just like this. Suppose I lost my passion for them then, after the end he got hisself sent to.”
“He sounds like a great man.”
“He was the best of us. A lawman, a gambler, a true man of the West. No one had anything on Bill.” Eyes unfocused as Charlie gazed back into his hidden past, his cards carelessly dropping to the table, forgotten.
The falling coin stopped, tumbling from suddenly nerveless hands to plummet to the floor. Its impact was thunderous in the quiet saloon, its plunge ending in a clattering explosion that saw everyone jump in shock.
Lothario felt a drop of sweat bead on the back of his neck. “Bill… Hickok?” he asked quietly, each syllable pulled from him painfully, the whispered name unlocking the floodgates of time, the repressed recollections drowning him in a sudden deluge. “You’re Charlie Utter,” he said, the soft accusation drawing a slow nod from his threadbare opponent.
“Yup,” admitted Charlie. “August 1, 1876. Bill had just beaten your brother the night before, taken every last red cent from him. Fairly, too. Given him money for breakfast and told him to sleep it off. An honest man, a good man, treating your brother with dignity even as he beat him.
“And you killed him.”
Lothario snorted quietly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I never drew on Bill Hickok. That would have been a death sentence. Besides, you were there when the judge had my brother strung up.” But the words were hollow, devoid of true conviction, the well dressed exterior hiding a growing fear that found purchase deep in Lothario’s gut.
Again the slow nod. “Yup, I was there. And I know you didn’t draw on Bill. Least, not in a fair fight. Fast as you are, he was faster still. Like lightning flashing, but deadlier. No, you would have been dead if you drew on Bill when he was paying attention.”
Charlie’s eyes hardened, pain crystallizing in harsh, angular pain. “I sat next to Bill when it happened that morning. Had a real good view of the whole thing. And it weren’t your brother that came in with murder in his heart. He may have taken the smoking gun from your hand, may have taken the last fall because of you, but Jack McCall didn’t kill my friend. You did.”
Shifting in his seat, Lothario McCall, murderer of one of the West’s greatest legends, tried to free his gun for a quick draw, waiting for the telltale flicker in Charlie’s eyes that portended an attack. But the old man did nothing, both men locked in a strange, silent standoff.
One looked back at what used to be, the other fearfully at what might yet occur.
“What do you want from me? You’re already taking all my money. Is that enough revenge for you? Leave me penniless in Hell? You want blood?”
Charlie shrugged, lips pursed in thoughtful contemplation, his gaze refocusing on the face of his friend’s killer. “Haven’t decided yet. I’ve lost everything chasing you. Diphtheria took my sons, my wife left me when I wouldn’t stop looking for you. Called it a fool’s errand, to look for a man out here.”
“I’ll tell you now, mister. If you want money, I’ll give you whatever you want. You want blood, you better be ready to take it by force, because I’m not gonna go quietly.”
“I’ll tell you what… “ allowed Charlie. “We’ll let Bill’s ghost decide. Five cards, no new draws. You win, I leave now, take exactly what’s in front of me, and you get to crawl wherever cowards go. I win, I take my pound of flesh. Deal?”
Lothario nodded. “Fine. My deal or yours?”
“I’ll let you have it.”
The well dressed man picked up the fifty-two painted cards, deftly shuffling and reshuffling them, both hands involving themselves in this last showdown between two dead men. He dealt two piles in front of him, five cards in each, looking up at Charlie when the deed was done. “Take your pick. I’ll have no one say that I cheated you on the manner of this deal.”
The old man flicked one claw at the hand on the right, Lothario reaching out to grasp the hand opposite. In unison, both hands rose, Lothario flicking cards back and forth, his eyes filling with fear as he recognized the cards in hand. He had seen this very hand before, the same day Bill Hickok had died, shot at point-blank range.
Charlie’s expression betrayed nothing, except perhaps resignation, his shoulders slumping as if the old man was finally relaxing after a long life’s work. “What do you show?” he asked.
Lothario dealt his hand one card at a time. “Two pair, aces and eights, queen kicker.” His cards, flush only with darkness stared at him, face-up on the table, the queen of clubs in the middle of the hand judging him silently with her dark gaze.
Charlie’s face split into a grim smile, an ugly gash appearing over his worn, exhausted face. “Ironic…” he whispered, flipping his own hand over, showing a red mirror of Lothario’s hand, the queen of hearts blazing with fiery passion between red aces and red eights.
Confusion sparked within Lothario. “What’s this mean? Blood or money?”
“It means Bill is lookin’ down on me and made this my call.”
Lothario shifted again in his chair, his gun in easy reach as he searched for an answer in Charlie Utter’s eyes. But though he scoured every crevice, he found no understanding, only more confusion.
Then the old man’s eyes flicked from their expressionless mask to something ugly, a brutal primal mixture that reeked of anguish and savage killing. In the space between heartbeats, Lothario felt shame at the murder committed by a younger, more foolish man, felt the weight of his crime slowing his reaction even as they old man pulled a gleaming revolver from his corded belt.
Part of him wanted to let go, to resign himself to his fate and fall into the darkness. But unwilling to go alone into the night, his muscles reacted, snapping through the unconscious stupor to flick his own pistol into his waiting hand, thumb and finger working in splendid concert to defend his frozen mind.
Simultaneous roars sounded day in the saloon, the twin crashes heralding the death of two men. One died in calm quietude, earning the peace that is granted only by God and silenced spectres from the past. That one fell backward in his chair, a smile on his face in and his heart as he finally appeased the demons that plagued him.
The other one died in abject fear, blown from his chair to fall into the darkness shivering and cold, his body expiring with one final gasping breath.
If you listened carefully, if you allowed your ears to hear anything through the silence that reigned supreme over the saloon deep in the desert, you would have heard only one sound, one last smattering from laughter coming from the coin that had fallen to the floor long minutes before, the metal disc knowing peace in turn as the blood of two men, one righteous and one not, smothered it into noiselessness.