Sunset Stories : No. 18 - High Cards

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Westerns  |  House: Booksie Classic
A professional gambler cheats townspeople out of money. They retaliate in an unexpected way.

Submitted: April 09, 2016

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Submitted: April 09, 2016

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HIGH CARDS

The Tinhorn had been in the little Texas town for less than a month, in which time he had come close to cornering the market in money. He’d cleaned out most of the cowpunchers and the few loafers and had made a considerable dent in the funds of the retail business ranks. That wasn’t too surprising. Being a professional card player he was, like others of his kind, likely to come out on top over a protracted spell of play. But this place had been extraordinarily good to him and his winnings were well beyond what he had guessed as a possible maximum.

He had been thinking that it was about time to move on. After all, there couldn’t be inexhaustible supplies of cash here. If he had been obliged to rely on the town alone, he would by now be playing for matchsticks. His decision to leave had been delayed only because the place was a popular riverboat stop. Owing to that, he had been able to augment his gains by entertaining such travellers as cared to exchange the diversions of waterborne gambling for their land-based counterparts. The boats stopped for only three or four hours, but that was enough for some players to lose heavily.

Around seven each evening, the Tinhorn would enter the Waterside Tavern and take his place at the table he had effectively commandeered. He was about thirty, of average height, slim, black-haired, clean-shaven, pale-faced and always fashionably – some said foppishly – dressed. His routine was unvarying.  He would always sit in the same chair, facing the batwing doors, check his wallet, deposit his silver cigar case on the table top, light a panatella and start juggling with the cards.

It was an education to watch him. He could cut and shuffle with rare dexterity, making the cards do everything but sing and dance. After giving a brief example of his legerdemain, he would settle down to play patience until the gamblers appeared, then it would always be five-card draw poker. His dealing was something to behold. Where less skilled players would lean halfway across the table to hand out the cards, he always dealt from a spot right under his nose, flicking the pasteboards to land with unerring accuracy in front of the intended recipient. Aside from playing his part in the rounds of bidding and passing, he spoke little and then, oddly enough, almost always while he was dealing.

Naturally, the Tinhorn failed now and then, as the law of averages suggested he must, but in the course of an evening, he always won plenty. He seemed to have a sixth sense where the cards were concerned. When he lost, his reverses were usually modest. Sometimes he also won only small amounts, but on other occasions it was quite uncanny how he seemed to know when a major killing was to be made. Then he would up the stakes quickly, carrying others along in a gaming fever, then crushing them. Several times he beat what seemed like obviously winning hands and once he astounded a gaggle of onlookers by producing a jack-high straight flush against an opponent’s nine-high one – an amazing outcome.

One evening, a couple of the younger cowboys asked him, without suggesting any impropriety, how he managed to win so often and how he almost always knew when the big coup was to be made. “Well, boys,” he replied, “I guess it’s like any other field in this life. You’d expect a full-time player to beat an amateur over a distance. It’s because I know what to look for. Maybe I’m giving away too many secrets here, but I concentrate on a number of little things. Sometimes it’s the widening of a man’s eyes when he picks up a good hand. Occasionally, it’s just the twitch of a finger. Then there’s often a little something in a man’s voice when he’s stating his play. A man with a lot of experience just gets to be on the alert for reflexes that a casual player doesn’t notice. That’s all there is to it, but everything adds up over a matter of hours.”

There were people who were convinced that something more was involved, and several of them got to wondering whether anything could be done about it. Town Marshal Dave Barton, who had lost substantially to the Tinhorn over the first two weeks, hit upon an idea. Why not form a group of the biggest losers, to see how the situation should be handled? Barton soon recruited his committee. Including himself, there were five members, the others being the town’s physician, Doctor Timothy Donovan, the leading storeowner, Saul Holdsworth, the undertaker, Andrew Roper and the saddler, Otto Schnabel. The group met and within five minutes, agreed that the first step would be to invite Jonas Hathaway to help.

Hathaway was the most prominent member of the local ranching community. He ran a large spread, with headquarters twelve miles west of the town. In his younger days, he had been known as a very handy man at a card table. However, he was now seventy-three years of age and reckoned himself so arthritic that he could start up his own chalk factory by just rubbing his hands together. He seldom came into town any more, but was happy to receive the members of the action group at his ranch and agreed to help if he could. He was a rich man and didn’t mind the possibility of a limited loss, for old time’s sake. It was agreed that he would ride in the same evening and see what he could make of the situation.

Play started around seven-thirty and within two hours, the Tinhorn and Jonas Hathaway were the only players left, the others having excused themselves because of either shortage of funds or the departing boat. By midnight, Hathaway also gave up, claiming that his advanced years entitled him to a little sleep from time to time. Before going to his hotel room for the night, he conferred with the full action group. Marshal Barton asked him how he had made out.

Jonas shook his head. “I’m down four hundred dollars, boys,” he said. “I don’t know how he does it. He isn’t using marked cards, that’s for sure, but I’ll bet my bottom dollar he’s cheating somehow. I thought at one point I’d have to put the deed to my spread in the pot.” This brought a roar of laughter from the others, for everyone knew that Jonas no more had a deed to his ranch than he had title to the Louisiana Purchase. In fact he had acquired his land by shooting dead the previous occupier in a range war and thereafter defying all comers.

After Hathaway’s departure, the group started to puzzle out the next move. Marshal Barton shrugged his shoulders. “Well, I’m at the end of my tether,” he said. “Has anybody any ideas?”

Holdsworth paused in the act of lighting a cigar. “There’s a big gambler downriver a piece,” he said. “Doc . . . now what was it . . . Doc . . .?”

“Oh, it would be,” put in Roper, the tall, lugubrious mortician, his sarcasm palpable. “They’re always called Doc something or other. I suppose he’s consumptive as well – they usually are?”

“No, he isn’t,” snapped Holdsworth, piqued by this ridicule, “and I recall his name now. It’s Doc Robinson. Anyway, I just remembered that he’s no use to us at present.”

“Why not?” asked Roper.

“Because he’s in hospital. A case of poisoning, I heard.”

“Poisoning?”

“Yes. Lead poisoning. He caught it from something that came out of a six-gun when he was holding cards that somebody thought he shouldn’t have had.” Marshal Barton rubbed his jaw. “Well, that rules him out,” he said. “Any other suggestions?”

Saddler Schnabel then made his single contribution, which turned out to be the vital one. “I think maybe we should send for Precious Pete,” he said.

“Precious Pete?” said Doctor Donovan, a relative newcomer to the town. “I seem to be at a disadvantage here.”

“Oh, right. I guess you wouldn’t know,” answered Marshal Barton. “It’s an old story. He used to be called ‘Precious Metal Pete’ and then the ‘Metal’ got dropped somewhere along the way. He’s a funny old buzzard, but a sort of institution here. He made a heap of gold in the California rush of forty-nine, then lost it all playing cards. After that he somehow got a piece of the Comstock business and made himself rich again with silver. Lost that pile in the same way as before. I guess he must have been skinned by pretty near every cardsharp in the West. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s met them all, from Canada to Mexico. He just fools around now, pretending to do a little prospecting. Lives in an old shack a few miles north of here.”

“You think he might be able to help?” asked the doctor.

“It’s worth a try. I’ll send my deputy to bring him into town tomorrow.”

At noon the following day, the group met again. The deputy marshal had brought in Precious Pete, a scruffy-looking old character who did not seem in the least downcast by having won and lost fortunes over the years.

Marshal Barton asked the old-timer if he could recommend a good card cheat who could be recruited, stressing that the action group was willing to look hard – far afield if necessary and if time permitted – for a reliable man.

“Oh, you don’t need to do that,” said Precious Pete. “You only have to go over into the next county. There’s a young fellow there by the name of Clarence Moon. He’ll fit your needs perfectly. Why, Clarence will cheat your eyeballs out with pleasure. Only you’ll pardon my askin’ gentlemen, but I’m just wonderin’ why you want somebody to swindle you, seein’ as how it’s so easy to lose money at cards anyway?”

Marshal Barton put a meaty arm around the old man’s shoulders. “No, Pete,” he said, “we don’t want to hire the man to cheat us. We want him to get the better of a gambler who we think has been taking advantage of  us here in town.”

“Oh, I see,” said Pete. “Well, maybe I know the man. Who is he?”

That was a good question. The Tinhorn had never once mentioned his name and, in keeping with local etiquette, no one had asked him to do so. This necessitated a short adjournment, so that Marshal Barton could take Precious Pete to the saloon, where the ace gambler usually had an afternoon drink at around this time. It took only one glance for Pete to confirm that he didn’t recognise the man, whereupon he and the marshal returned and the meeting reconvened, Barton asking how the much-needed Clarence Moon was to be contacted.

“Don’t worry about that,” said Precious Pete, eager to take the opportunity of being useful for once. “I’ll bring him over myself. I know him well an’ I’ve nothin’ special on right now. In fact, I haven’t had anythin’ special on since I lost the pile I made in Nevada a good few years back. ’Course, you’ll excuse me for raisin’ the point, but Clarence is sure to want to know what’s in it for him?”

This was a knotty one. If Clarence Moon were to beat the Tinhorn, why should he not just pocket his winnings and depart, leaving the townspeople no better off than before his arrival? The question gave rise to a babble of cross-talk, sometimes with everyone speaking at once. Marshal Barton finally restored order and various proposals were discussed.

It was decided that a collection be arranged and that the marshal would ask all interested parties to contribute. It was felt that with a little persuasion and the prospect of the return of some or all of the money they had lost, the parties concerned should be able to amass a total of five hundred dollars. This would be handed to Clarence Moon as a stake for one evening’s play. Marshal Barton, who had formidable coercive powers, undertook to discourage unwanted would-be players, thus leaving the field to Clarence and the Tinhorn.

The proposition to be put to Moon was that he should not initially put in any of his own money. If he were to lose the stake supplied to him, he would cease representing the townspeople and decide for himself whether or not to continue playing on his own account. In the event of his winning substantially by use of the five hundred dollars, he would return that sum to the committee and any further gains would be shared equally between him on one side and the earlier losers on the other. Should he win only marginally, a gentlemen’s agreement would be negotiated.

No-one could think through every detail, but to the action group it seemed a good idea. Any additional losses to the townspeople would be limited to the stake they provided for Moon, whereas there was a reasonable chance of their recovering some or all of what they had so far lost, and possibly more. As for Clarence Moon, if he failed, he would not be out of pocket. If he succeeded, he would make himself richer by using, at least initially, other people’s money.

Precious Pete was not so sure. “You have to understand, gentlemen,” he said, “that Clarence Moon is a high-class fellow. Why, I’ve known him win or lose five hundred dollars or more on the turn of one card. ’Course, he may be havin’ a lean time right now. Anyway, I’ll go see him an’ do my best.”

The old man’s best was clearly good enough, for he returned three days later, accompanied by the expert card player. Clarence Moon was a handsome man in his late thirties, middle-sized, with a smooth bland face, a fine head of straight sandy hair and clear frank-looking blue eyes. He immediately met the action group and the proposal, already outlined by Old Pete, was put to him. He was an amiable well-spoken fellow and expressed himself willing to help. “As it happens, gentlemen,” he said, “I was thinking of taking a little vacation anyway and I’d heard good reports about your town. I’m glad to see that there’s some action here. I’ll try to recover your money, or maybe some of it, but naturally, I can’t give any guarantees. How much are you out of pocket?”

Marshal Barton had anticipated that question and amassed the details. “I’ve drawn up a list,” he said. “There are twenty-one of us involved and as of last night, the total is four thousand, nine hundred and sixty dollars. I’m out two hundred and ninety, and I sure as hell can’t afford that on my pay.”

It was fortuitous that Clarence Moon had arrived on that day, for only the evening before, the Tinhorn had confided to the marshal that restlessness had set in and that he was considering a change of scene. However, when he was told that a fellow professional player was on his way and hoped to meet him, the man had agreed to stay on for another day, saying that that was a matter of courtesy. The truth was that he would far rather have vanished at once, but had an uneasy – and fully justified – feeling that he wouldn’t be allowed to. Had he tried, Marshal Barton would have found some way of detaining him.

It was arranged that after spending the afternoon relaxing, Clarence Moon would look in at the saloon in the evening, watch the play for a while and report his observations to the marshal, who was serving as spokesman for the action group. Then Moon would sit in on the game, the marshal ensuring the gradual dropping out of other players, leaving only the two titans in action. Anyone else trying to get involved would be excluded by a word of advice – or if necessary something stronger – by the redoubtable Barton.

Clarence Moon strolled into the saloon at eight o’clock, downed a couple of drinks, took a third and wandered around casually for about half an hour, mingling with the Saturday evening throng and casting the odd, seemingly desultory glance at the card table. Then he strolled over to the bar, where he lounged, watching the play from a distance, for another half-hour. Finally, he drew the marshal aside. “All right,” he said breezily. “I’ve got it.”

Barton was amazed. “That’s mighty quick work,” he said. “I was afraid when you went off to the bar, you’d given up hope. How’s he doing it?”

Moon grinned. “Oh, it’s very simple. An old trick but it still works on just about anybody except another cardsharp. There are various names for it in the trade but I won’t bother you with such details. You just have to spot one or two little points.”

“Such as?”

“Well, you must have noticed that our man’s nearly always smoking those panatellas?”

“Right.”

“Now, have you also observed where he gets them from?”

“Can’t say I have.”

“Watch him. He takes them loose, from his left inside coat pocket.”

“So?”

“Well, doesn’t it strike you as funny that right under his nose he has a cigar case big enough to hold them?”

“Say, that’s true. He never uses it, does he?”

“No,” said Clarence Moon, “and for a very good reason. Maybe you’ve also noticed that he always deals with the cards held pretty close to him and never moves his hands more than absolutely necessary? Also, for a professional player, he deals slowly, and covers that by talking, which is interesting, since he never says more absolutely necessary at other times.”

The marshal nodded. “What does it all amount to?” he asked.

“It’s straightforward enough,” Moon replied.  Every time he deals, he uses the top of the cigar case as a mirror, so he knows what cards the other players are getting before they know themselves. All he needs is a very good memory, and a man who gambles for a living is sure to have that.”

The marshal raised his hat and scratched his head. “I see what you mean,” he said, “but that’s only when he’s dealing.”

“True,” said Clarence Moon, “but you’ll have noticed that there are often only three or four men at the table. If he can be sure of winning, or of not losing, every time he deals, he’s sure to come out well on top in any lengthy period of play. When there are only two players, it’s sheer murder.”

“Damn the man,” said Marshal Barton. “Can you do anything about it?”

“Yes I can,” Moon replied. “I have a few different tricks. A bit more elaborate than the one this fellow’s using. I just need to be sure of one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“As you know, it’s quite normal for any player to call for fresh cards from time to time. When I judge it right, I’ll do that at the same time as I light a cigar, which will be my first because up to then I’ll have been smoking cigarettes. That will signal the showdown’s coming. All you have to do is make sure that the packs are all of identical pattern. Can you do that?”

“Sure. There’s only one type in this saloon anyway. The owner gets them from Saul Holdsworth’s store and insists that they always have to be the same style.”

“Good,” said Moon. “Who are those two fellows playing with our man?”

“They came in off the boat. It leaves in twenty minutes, so they’ll be going shortly.”

“Right,” said Moon. “I’ll join the game now and you just see that you keep your local boys out of it. I think I can promise you an interesting evening.” With that, he sauntered over to the card table, introduced himself and began to play. Within ten minutes, the riverboat whistle sounded and the two travellers made their excuses and left. Meanwhile, Marshal Barton moved around the busy barroom, unobtrusively making sure that no one else sat in to complicate proceedings at the card table.

The supposedly clandestine activities of the action group had not had quite the intended result. For one thing, the members had been obliged to collect the money for Clarence Moon’s opening stake. They had of course adjured the contributors to silence, but when nearly two dozen people are thus entreated, there is sure to be a risk that some will be found wanting. The upshot was that with the exception of the Tinhorn, every man in town knew what was afoot.

The Waterside Tavern was busier that evening than it ever had been before. There were townspeople present who hadn’t been in the place for years. Indeed, it was established later that the crowd included at least five men who neither drank alcohol nor gambled. There were also several women, most of whom were paying their first visit to the saloon. By the time the Tinhorn and Clarence Moon got to grips, the barroom was full.

The tension rose steadily as the two professionals manoeuvred, each probing the other’s style, looking for weaknesses. For a short time, the play was slow and cautious, but it soon became clear that Clarence Moon was struggling. The Tinhorn made things look respectable by losing occasionally on his own deals, but overall he was making serious inroads into Moon’s stake. Of course, there was nothing to prevent Clarence from playing on his own account if he lost all of the townspeople’s money, and that was exactly what happened.

By eleven o’clock, Clarence had lost the five hundred, but he went on without batting an eyelid. H was waiting for one special moment and at around midnight, he seemed to have got it. Lighting a cigar, he requested fresh cards. Marshal Barton obliged. Immediately afterwards, Moon upped the ante relentlessly. He was matched by the Tinhorn, who seemed quite unperturbed by the increasing size of the pot.

The spectators were enthralled. This was the first time the saloon had seen gambling of this order. High-denomination bills had been thrown into the pot with what seemed like abandon. Scattered among them were seven twenty-dollar gold coins. In the early stages of what seemed destined to be the final round of the clash, both men seemed confident, but as the bidding increased, the Tinhorn began to show the strain. His forehead glistened with sweat and his normally relaxed attitude gave way to continuous fidgeting. Clarence Moon was still cool. Undertaker Andrew Roper, scenting danger in the air, began to stare speculatively at the players, his mind part-occupied with the thought of possible business. Marshal Barton also prowled around, keeping the onlookers from getting too close.

Finally, Clarence Moon brought matters to a head. After tossing in a couple of big bills, he felt in a pocket and drew out a gold double-eagle. “The last of the Mohicans,” he said with a sigh. “I’ll put it in just for luck.”

The crowd was becoming noisy, so Marshal Barton turned from the table to signal for silence. He swung back as Clarence Moon said: “I guess it’s time to spread them, friend.”

The Tinhorn gave a slight nod. “Yes,” he said, his voice quavering a little, “I suspect you’ll find these good enough.” He laid his cards on the table, face up, poking them apart with a damp finger. It was a wonderful hand –  nine, ten, jack, queen and king of diamonds.

Clarence Moon pursed his lips. “King-high straight flush,” he said. “It’s a beauty all right, but just short of requirements.” He exposed his own cards, fanning them casually – ten, jack, queen, king and ace of spades – a royal straight flush. The Tinhorn knew that of over two and a half million possible hands, only four outranked his array. Miraculously, Clarence Moon had produced one of them, beating the virtually unbeatable. The spectators close enough to get a clear view gasped in concert.

The Tinhorn, ashen-faced, gripped the edge of the table between thumbs and forefingers, the veins at his temples throbbing furiously as he struggled for self-control. Then his hot, dark eyes fixed the innocent blue ones of Clarence Moon. For a long nerve-wracking moment, there was complete quiet, then the Tinhorn took his hands from the table and flexed his fingers. “I believe, sir,” he said, “you have been cheating.”

Clarence Moon responded with a thin smile. “Do you, sir?” he replied.  “Well, I think I could say the same of you.”

Moon’s words were no sooner out than the two men’s right hands flashed into their jackets, each emerging with a .41 single-round Derringer. Both shots sounded simultaneously, the two bullets crossing, each hitting its mark, the two hearts stopping as one. For an instant, both upper bodies straightened in their chairs, threatening to slump back, then they flopped across the table, the two heads thumping onto the baize in unison, only the heap of money separating them.

After a moment of stunned silence, pandemonium threatened, but Marshal Barton was equal to the occasion. “Quiet everybody,” he bellowed, holding up both arms to take command. “You can talk all you like in a minute. First we deal with this situation.” He moved to the card table and looked briefly at the two corpses. “I reckon we can leave these boys for now,” he said. “They seem to be as dead as doornails anyway. Now what have we got here?” His hands swept between the two inert heads, shovelling up the heap of money. He riffled through the notes, then stacked them, weighing down the pile with the eight gold coins. “Well, would you believe it?” he said to the crowd. “Five thousand, four hundred and sixty dollars. Including what we’d lost before and what we gave Clarence today, we got our money back right to the penny.”

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