Gambler's Last Hand

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Westerns  |  House: Booksie Classic

A gun-slinging gambler comes to Silver Rock and challenges Sheriff Duggan to a gun duel. How long can he resist when his friends are cheated in a crooked card game and one is wounded confronting the gambler?

With the heat of summer past and the torrential rains a fading memory, Sheriff William Duggan and the townspeople of Silver Rock were looking forward to snow for Christmas. The spirit of the holiday season had put a damper on most carousing, and the saloons were unusually quiet. That suited Duggan just fine. He had had enough excitement for a while with Charlie McCarty and Henry O’Shannassy dying in the act of killing Oliver Wong, Homer White killing Ralph Murphy and then committing suicide, and Leaf Morgan and Gavin McBride killing each other. He wanted a few months of boredom, a few good cigars, and, of course, an occasional beer with Sally.

It was Tuesday evening when Duggan entered the Lavender Rose for a beer. Rusty was playing a familiar tune on the upright--then again, Rusty knew so few songs, after a while everything he played, had a familiar ring to it. A dozen or so men bellied up to the bar, some sat at tables drinking, and three tables had card games going. Sally spied him and waved him toward her table.

Sally was dressed in her best barroom attire: frilly red dress, tight corset, and low-cut so the tops of her ample bosoms--pushed up by her corset--rose and fell with each breath. Duggan once asked her why she dressed that way and she explained that’s what the customers expected. He never asked again but wished she’d be more modest, since it was a powerful distraction whenever he sat talking with her.

“Hi, Bill, have a beer?”

“Don’t mind if I do.” Duggan slid into the chair next to Sally and put his hat on the table. “Looks busy tonight... And quiet. Shorty’s got Betsy, his sawed-off, behind the bar?” He looked toward the crowded bar.

Sally nodded. “So far, she’s keeping the peace...” She caught the barkeep’s attention with a wave of her hand. “Shorty! Bring Bill a fresh brew...”

Shorty jerked his head back, acknowledging her request. “Comin’ right up.”

Turning her attention to Duggan, she said, “Good night so far. Everyone’s buyin’ and behavin’. The two B’s, that’s what I like to see any day of the week.”

“Makes my job easier as long as they keep behavin’.”

Shorty brought the beer for Duggan, and while he tipped the glass to his lips for a sip, he put his other hand on the table. Sally laid her hand on his.

“I get tired watching them... alone, Bill.”

Duggan nearly choked on the beer.

“Y-You see Sam?”

Sally withdrew her hand and looked around the crowded room.

“He was in here a while ago... There he is at the poker table with that fancy-dressed man.”

“What’s Sam doing playing poker? He hardly ever has two nickels to rub together.”

Sam Peterson had been working at Wilson’s livery stable, but when he put a prize, in-heat mare awaiting servicing by a champion stallion in a corral with two over-the-hill stallions, Pete Wilson fired him. Sam said nobody could believe those two old boys still had it in them, but they serviced that young mare before anyone could stop them. Since then, Sam had been picking up odd jobs around town to make ends meet.

“Don’t know, but there he is, just the same,” said Sally.

Duggan lit a cigar and sipped his beer. He and Sally were small talking when Sam came over to their table. His face was sad and angry all wrapped up in one package.

“I were robbed.”

“What you mean?” Duggan asked.

Sam pointed toward the poker table. “That fancy-pant fella plays crooked, and he done robbed me out of my last two dollars. Ain’t ya gonna do nuthin’, Sheriff?”

“Just ‘cause you didn’t win at poker doesn’t mean he cheated, Sam. Maybe he just out played you.”

“He’s a good player alright, but on top of that, he cheats.”

“I can’t go over and accuse a man of cheating without proof. Anybody else get cheated?”

“Not as I can figure.”

“So you’re the only one, and for two dollars... That doesn’t make sense, Sam. How much did the other players have in the game?”

“Fifty, maybe more.”

“Don’t you see your accusation just doesn’t make sense?”

“I guess so,” muttered Sam. “I still think I were robbed.”


Sam was in the mercantile buying food when Duggan stopped in for cigars. “Howdy, Sam, stocking up, I see.”

“Yep. Figured I’d better buy food ‘stead of bein’ robbed by that there poker player.”

“You still on that? Maybe you shouldn’t play poker.”

“Well... I went back on Wednesday and watched him play for the longest time. He seemed to be on the up and up. Won some, lost some. Couldn’t see anythin’ funny, so I sit in. A soon as I sit down, he started cheatin’ me, and ‘twas broke in three hands.”

“I tell ya, Sheriff, he’s got it in fer me. Believe it or not.”

“And he cheats no one else?”

“Nope. Just me.”

“Sam, that makes no sense at all. You couldn’t keep him whiskey during a good game. He got a name?”

“Yeah, he do. Something like Thomas... Thomason... No, Thompson. That be it, Thompson.”

“Wesley Thompson?”

“He called himself, Wes. Why?”

“For one thing, gamblers don’t usually give their names, and second, you’re very fortunate you didn’t call him on cheating.”


“Wesley Thompson has killed at least fifteen men in Arizona, fair fights all. He’s fast, mighty fast.”

“What do ya suppose he’s doin’ in these parts?”

“Don’t know, but I’ll have to have a talk with our new town poker player and try ‘n find out.”


Duggan found Thompson in the Rose, sitting alone at a table, playing solitaire. He approached the table, tipped his hat, and stopped.

“Howdy, Sheriff, care to play a round?” Thompson kept playing the cards--looking at Duggan and then at the cards spread on the table.

“I don’t gamble.” Duggan focused his eyes on Thompson.

“Should try it sometime. It can make the blood tingle with excitement.” Thompson looked up and their stares locked.

“I get enough excitement on my own, which leads me to you. What are you doing in the parts? I thought Arizona was your stomping grounds.”

“Boredom.” Thompson looked away and yawned.

Duggan’s lips contorted into a small grin. “How’s that?”

Thompson looked around the room as he spoke and waved his arms. “Been everywhere, done everything that Arizona has to offer, and then, I heard about you and your town.”

Duggan’s face was puzzled. “You heard about us?”

Thompson smiled. “Yes. You’d be surprised how far your reputation goes.” He stretched his arms wide open.

Duggan’s brow furled. “I don’t put much stock in ‘reputation’ unless it’s a good one.”

Thompson chuckled. “Oh, don’t worry, Sheriff, it’s a good one.” He stared directly into Duggan’s eyes and fixed on them. “But I heard you’re fast with a gun too.”

“As fast as I’ve needed to be.” Duggan’s face was tense.

“We’ll need a contest someday soon,” said Thompson with a casual air.

“I don’t go in for exhibitions.” The muscles in Duggan’s face were tight.

“You will, Sheriff. You will,” said Thompson in an off-handed way. “Oh, by the way, I cheated your friend, Sam, at cards... Twice. Here’s five dollars to help make up for the inconvenience I may have caused him. Would you see he gets it?”

“Why did you do that? Cheat him, that is?” Duggan was aghast.

“To meet you, of course.” Then Thompson’s face contorted when flare of pain shot through his innards. Rising from the table, he said, “Now if you’d excuse me, the food here doesn’t always agree with me.”


“Here’s five dollars, Sam. Seems Mr. Thompson was cheating you after all, and he paid back your losses and then some.”

“Well, thank ya, Sheriff. Maybe next time ya’ll believe me.”

“I’m sorry, Sam, but why he cheated you out of four dollars and nobody else still doesn’t make any sense.”

“Don’t think too hard on it; it’ll be givin’ ya headaches.”

“It already has, Sam. Already has.”

“I’ll buy ya beer fer a change at the Rose and celebrate my good fortune.”

“Sure, Sam. That’s right kindly of you.”


“Shorty, set up two beers for Sheriff and me. And when we’s drink these, bring two more.”

“Who’s a-payin’?” Shorty asked.

“Why... I is, and don’t get so uppity; I come inta some money.”

“Two beers coming up.”

“Sam... You realize four dollars of that money was yours to begin with, don’t you?”

“How’s that?”

“You lost four dollars in the poker game, which you got back plus one, so you’re spending four of you own money.”

“Dang, if ya ain’t right, Sheriff... Hey, Shorty!”

“Whatja want, Sam.”

“Cancel those extra beers. These’ll be enough.”

“Suit yourself.”

“I still can’t git over being cheated like that when nobody else were.”

“Yeah. I wonder why he singled you out.”


Duggan went to the Rose to check on the action and get a beer. Sam was nursing a beer and talking to a couple of wranglers.

“What’ll be, Sheriff?”

“A beer.”

“Comin’ right up.”

“Howdy, Sheriff,” said Sam, turning to greet him.

“Hi, Sam. The place looks quiet.”

“Sure is. Nothing goin’ on much.”

Shorty brought him the brew.

“Thanks. Bring another for Sam.”

“Why, thank ya, Sheriff. That’s right kindly of ya.”

While Duggan and Sam were drinking, Pete Wilson stumbled up to the bar and ordered a beer. His eyes were droopy and sadness was dragging his jowls to the top of the bar.

“What’s the matter, Pete? Business at the livery got you down?”

“No. Just lost a bundle in the poker game. Didn’t know how it was possible, but I lost all the same.”

“What happened,” Duggan asked.

“Well. I was playing... wining some, losing some, when I was dealt three kings. I bet and asked for two cards. Lo and behold, I got the fourth king. I couldn’t believe it. So I kept on betting. Before I knew it, I’d put near seven hundred in the pot.”

“Four kings is a powerful hand to beat. Who beat you? The dealer, Thompson’s his name, had four aces, and he beat me fair and square. I sure thought I’d won that hand.”

“Sorry for your loss, Pete. My advice is don’t play poker while Thompson’s at the table. Sam, sounds as if Thompson is one lucky poker playert, doesn’t it?”

“It sure do. You suspect anything funny?”

“After he admitted cheating you, I don’t know what to think. Can you hang around and observe the game for a while?”

“Sure, Sheriff. I figure I’ll get thirsty standing and watching.”

“Okay, Sam, here’s two dollars. That’ll keep you in beer for a couple of hours.”


“What did you see?”

“Well, that there Thompson is the luckiest poker player I did see.”

“How’s that.”

“Well, sir, he were a-playin’ cards with a bunch of store owners, and Frank...”

“Frank Harris from the mercantile?”

“One in the same--Gladys musta let him out for one night... Anyhows, he gots some good cards and started a-bettin’. When he put down his four queens and started to rake in the pot, Mr. Thompson said, ‘Not so fast,’ and put down a strait diamond flush. Frank was gonna be in real trouble when he got home... He lost what he brung and what he borrowed... ‘Twas onta five hundred dollars, near as I could figger.”

“Who was dealing?”

“Why, ‘twas Mr. Thompson.”

“See anything else?”

“Yes. Two others lost a lot: Roy Young and Andrew Taylor.”

“Who was dealing at the time?”

“Mr. Thompson.”

“I’m seeing a pattern.”

“How’s that, Sheriff.”

“Seems that my friends loose big when Thompson is dealing, just my friends. I think he’s trying to provoke me by cheating them.”


“Howdy, Sheriff. What’s on your mind?” Thompson asked.

“It’s come to my attention that every time you’re the dealer, one of my friends loses a lot of money. Some might call that a coincidence; I don’t.”

“Why’s that?”

“I think you’re trying to provoke me into that contest of shooting ability you spoke of.”

“Excuse me, Sheriff, I need a drink.” Thompson took a flask from his coat pocket and chugged three gulps. “Sorry, but I needed that. You were saying?”

“No one else seems to lose but my friends. Just my friends.”

“Maybe, they can’t play poker worth a damn.”

“Maybe... But only they are unlucky? That’s a stretch. I think you’re cheating them.”

“Got any proof, Sheriff?”

“No. Not yet.”

“Then... Don’t let me keep you. Besides, I’ll have to excuse myself. Your local cuisine doesn’t seem to agree with me.”


“My name’s Henry Barnes. Heard of me, Mr. Thompson?”

“Yeah, I heard of you. Your friends say you’re a pretty mean poker player. That right?”

“Usually win when I play them.”

“That don’t say much, since they’ve all lost to me. Think you can do any better?”


“Cut, first?”

“No, just shuffle and deal.”

“Ante up.”

Thompson dealt two hole cards, face down to Barnes and himself.

“Your bet, Mr. Barnes.”

Barnes studied his cards--a pair of nines--gathered up several bills, and tossed them in the pot.

“I bet fifty.”

Thompson glanced at his cards and tossed several bills into the pot.

“I call.”

Thompson dealt the flop: three cards face up. Barnes suppressed the excitement of seeing a third nine and paid no attention to the two spades.

“I bet a hundred,” said Barnes as he put several more bills in the pot.

Without hesitation, Thompson said, “I call.”

Thompson dealt another card, the turn, face up; it was a four of spades.

“Check,” said Barnes.

“Check,” said Thompson.

Thompson dealt the final card, the river, face up; it was the fourth nine.

Barnes’ heart was beating so rapidly, he was dizzy with excitement. But he suppressed it as best he could. He studied his hand for several moments trying to decide how much to bet. His lips were so dry he could barely speak.

“I-I bet two fifty.”

Thompson looked at his cards for a few moments.

“I’ll see your two fifty, and I’ll raise you another two fifty.”

By now, several bystanders crowded around to watch the action. Barnes’ hands were sweating, as was his upper lip. He licked his lips.

“I-I see your two fifty and raise you five hundred!”

The collective gasp of those watching brought more rubberneckers to see the battle of the poker players.

“Come now, Mr. Barnes. Do you really want to bet that much?” Thompson asked with a smile curling at the corner of his mouth.

“Damn straight, I do. Play or fold!”

“As you wish, I call.”

Henry Barnes grinned from ear to ear as he lay down his two cards.

“Four nines. Beat that, Mr. Thompson,” said Barnes as he reached to scoop the pot of bills.

“Not so fast, Mr. Barnes,” said Thompson as he lay down the five and seven of spades. “I believe my straight flush--three through seven of spades--beats your four nines.”

“You cheated me,” yelled Barnes.

“Be careful of your accusations, Mr. Barnes. I’ll forgive you once but only once.”

“You’re too lucky to be playing fair. You have to be cheating.”

“You’ve done crossed the line, mister. Get ready to draw.”

Thompson stood and pushed his chair back. The crowd of onlookers scattered. Barnes struggled to stand.

“Wait a minute, mister.”

“You ain’t got no choice now but to draw.”

Barnes went for his gun, but Thompson out drew him and fired before Barnes’ gun left its holster. A bullet pierced his hand, shattering several bones as it passed through. Barnes screamed and dropped to the floor on his knees, holding his mangled hand.

Someone yelled, “Get Doc.”

Someone else yelled, “Take him to Doc. It’ll be faster.”

Several men rushed to Barnes’ aid and helped him out of the saloon.


“Welcome back, Bill, you missed all of last week’s excitement,” said Sally.

“What happened?”

“Henry Barnes came in and challenged Thompson to a high-stakes game and lost. Then Henry called him a cheat. Thompson cautioned him to back off. Well... Henry wouldn’t let it go, and Thompson told him to shut up or fight. Henry ended up with his right hand all mangled where Thompson shot him.”

“He’s lucky he didn’t get killed. Thompson’s killed for less. How’s Henry?”

“Doc says he won’t get full strength back in his hand for several months, and then, he’ll be somewhat crippled.”

“How’s he gonna run his wainwright business?”

“He’s already hired a couple of young apprentices and will oversee them while they learn and keep the shop running.”

“Another friend suffers at the hand of our Mr. Thompson.”

“How’s that?”

“Never mind. Just thinking aloud.”


“Well, Wes, me and you are gonna have that contest you’ve been wanting.”

“What changed your mind, Sheriff?”

“Losing money is one thing. Soon, everyone’d get on to you, and you’d have no one left to cheat. But you’ve taken this to a new level: shootouts. Now you’ve crossed the line. How long will it be before you kill somebody? I’m here to make sure you don’t.”

“That sounds like you’re throwing down the gauntlet. Are you?”

“Call it what you want. When the next train or stage leaves town, you’ll be on one of them. I don’t care which one, and I don’t much care where you go, but you will leave town. Is that understood?”

“I understand what you’ve said, Sheriff, but I’m not going. I like it here.”

Thompson grimaced.

“Excuse me, Sheriff, I need a drink.”

Thompson took a flask from his coat pocket and chugged four swallows.

“Unless you’re ready to settle this right here and now, I’ve some pressing business I must attend to.”

Thompson turned and left. Once outside the room, he leaned against the wall and pressed on his belly. Beads of sweat appeared on his brow. He bit his lip. Tears welled up. As the concoction took effect, the pain eased, and he stood upright. He looked around to see if anyone had been watching. No one. He headed up stairs to his room and plopped on the bed.


Early next morning, the stagecoach driver was loading luggage and passengers. Sheriff Duggan was there to greet the passengers.

“Howdy, Roy. Mr. Thompson one of your passengers?”

Roy Young, the driver, got down to greet Duggan.

“Hi’ya, Sheriff. Don’t remember seein’ him on the passenger list.”

“What time you leaving?”

“In ‘bout thirty minutes or so. I’mma tryin’ to get on the trail by eight.”

“Thanks, Roy.”

“Any time, Sheriff.”

Duggan walked over to the Rose and asked the desk clerk if he’d seen Wesley Thompson this morning.

“No. He ain’t come down yet, Sheriff. He usually don’t get breakfast ‘til nine or so.”


Duggan looked at his pocket watch: seven thirty-eight.

Trouble. What a heck of a way to start the day, thought Duggan.


Duggan returned to the Rose at nine-fifteen and went straight to the dining room. Wes Thompson was drinking coffee as Duggan approached him. Thompson slid his hand beneath the table.

“I thought I told you to be on the next stage or train leaving town.”

“You did, Sheriff. Yes, you did, and I heard you plain.”

“Then why weren’t you on the stage that left at eight?”

“Because I have no intensions of leaving town on my own, Sheriff, you’ll have to run me out of town if you can.”

The conversation between Duggan and Thompson caused everyone to stop eating and drinking. They just stared to see what was going to happen next. Except for them, one could have heard a pin drop.


“You heard me right. If you want me to leave town, you’ll have to face me on the street and run me out.”

“I have the drop on you right now.”

A couple behind Thompson got up and left the dining room. Others were watching with eyes wide open. A waiter entered from the kitchen with a pot of fresh coffee, took one look, and exited backed into the kitchen as fast as he could.

“Not quite, Sheriff. You don’t know what I’ve got under the table, and besides, you don’t shoot first, not in your code of ethics and will be your downfall. Heaven forbid you’d shoot an unarmed man or get innocent bystanders killed needlessly; that, you couldn’t live with. So you see, Sheriff, you don’t have the drop on me after all. We’ll have to meet on the street to settle this.”

Three other customers left their food and coffees and made a hasty exodus.

“Is that what it’ll take?”

“Plain and simple.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Then who knows who’ll get cheated or hurt next. You want that on your conscience?”

“No, I don’t. When?”

“Gotta let my breakfast settle. Say... Eleven? In front of the Rose? On the last gong of the clock’s bell, we draw.”



Thompson pushed the door of his room open and rushed to the washbasin just in time. The vomitus was mostly coffee and... Blood. He held his belly and grimaced. The pain contorted his face. After several gulps of the concoction in his breast flask, he lay on the bed. He drew up into a fetal position and rolled from side to side, biting his lower lip. Soon his pain eased and he fell asleep.

He awoke with a start and checked his pocket watch: ten twenty. After changing clothes, Thompson took his bone-handled Colt .45, checked its rounds, and slid it into its cradle. He refilled his flask and crossed the street for a haircut and shave.

He glanced at the clock tower: ten fifty-three. Thompson took another swig of concoction and leaned against the building to wait. The streets were deserted. A stray dog yelped and ran across in front of the Rose. He smiled a nervous smile that turned to a grimace when a bolt of pain shot through his belly but quickly passed.

Sheriff Duggan stepped into the street at ten fifty-five and walked toward the Rose. Thompson stood in the middle the street waiting for him. Duggan halted when the bell struck once; his eyes focused on Thompson. Thompson flexed his shooting hand. The bell sounded twice. All sights and sounds left Duggan’s mind as he concentrated on his opponent. The bell rang again. Thompson gritted his teeth to ward off the pain in his gut.

As each bell tolled, the men’s concentration intensified. Eight. Nine. Ten. On the eleventh ring, both men went for their guns. Thompson brought his Colt level with Duggan’s chest but did not squeeze the trigger. A split-second later, the cartridge in Duggan’s gun exploded, sending a lead slug down the barrel toward its target: Thompson’s chest.

Thompson gasped and dropped to his knees, discharging his weapon into the dirt. Then he fell backward onto the street. Duggan was the first to reach him.

“Somebody, get Doc,” shouted Duggan.

“No... Don’t bother,” said Thompson.

“Wes, you had me dead to rights but didn’t shoot. Why?”

“I’ve got the cancer... It’s eating me alive, and the pain’s unbearable, getting worse by the day.”

“So you’ve been guzzling pain-killer, not whiskey from that flask?”

“Yep, laudium... Drink it like water, but it don’t help much anymore.”

“But why pick a gunfight?”

“Tried to end it myself a couple times but didn’t have the courage.”

“So you picked me to kill you.”

“I wanted to die at the gun of the most honorable man I could find... You. Sheriff?”

“Yes, Wes.”

“I’m wearing a money belt. See that everyone I cheated gets their money back, will you?”

“Sure, Wes, I will.”

“And I’m real sorry about that Barnes fella... Meant to hit his gun, but a pain gripped my gut at the wrong moment, and I shot too high. Make sure he gets something extra.”

“Sure you don’t want Doc to try and get the bullet out?”

“No, Sheriff, let nature take its course. It’s better this way than the cancer way.”


No one attended the graveside services for Wesley Thompson except Sheriff Duggan, Pastor Tom, and the gravediggers. A simple headstone marked his final resting place: W. T. Born June 6, 1845. Died December 15, 1892.

Duggan returned the losses to each who’d played poker with Wesley Thompson and was cheated. Before long, most townspeople put this episode behind them, and the story of the W. T. headstone became a distant memory.


Submitted: March 17, 2019

© Copyright 2021 DRayVan. All rights reserved.

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