“Kings bet twenty.”
Thompson studied the dealer’s hand. On the table were an eight, a king, a ten and a king. He figured it for two pair, probably kings and eights. Homer Watts, the dealer, was a tombstone peddler who fancied himself a poker player. The other men in the game had dropped out of the hand.
Watts stared across the table with an eager smile. The game was five-card stud, and Thompson’s hand revealed a jack, a three, a jack and a king. In the hole he had another jack, but it was the king that impressed him most. With three on the board, the dealer would have to hold the case king to win. The odds dictated otherwise.
“Your twenty—” Thompson shoved chips into the center of the table—“and raise fifty.”
“You’re bluffin’, Ben.”
“One way to find out.”
“Call your raise,” Watts cackled, “and bump it another fifty.”
All afternoon the two men had butted heads. The other players were largely spectators, seldom winning a hand. Ben Thompson was the owner of the establishment, the Iron Front Gaming Parlor & Saloon. A gambler of some repute, he invariably drew players to his game. Today was no exception.
“Let’s make it interesting,” Thompson said casually. “How much in front of you?”
Watts quickly counted his chips. “Hundred and thirty.”
“I’ll tap you, then. The raise is a hundred and thirty.”
“You’re tryin’ to buy yourself a pot. No way you’ve got three jacks.”
“You’ll have to pay to see, Homer.”
The other players watched with amused looks. Watts fidgeted a moment, then pushed his chips into the pot. “You’re called,” he said. “What’s your hole card?”
Thompson turned over the third jack. Watts glowered at the cards with an expression of dumb disbelief. “Gawddamn the luck!” he howled. “I would’ve sworn you was bluffin’.”
“Another day, another time, Homer. Your luck’s bound to change.”
“Hold my chair” Watts announced, jumping to his feet. “I ain’t outta the game yet.”
The deal passed with each hand. One of the men began collecting the cards. “We’re fixin’ to play poker here, Homer. You gonna be gone long?”
“Won’t take a minute,” Watts called, rushing toward the door. “Just gotta go to my wagon.”
Thompson shook his head, chuckling to himself, and raked in the pot. He was a blocky man, not quite six feet tall, with square, broad shoulders and rugged features. His gray eyes were alert and penetrating, and even with a full mustache, he looked younger than his thirty-nine years. Over his vest, he wore a spring-clip shoulder holster, the leather molded to the frame of a Colt pistol. The lustrous blue of steel was set off by yellowed ivory grips.
The Iron Front was located just off the corner of Mulberry and Colorado. The establishment got its name from a heavy metal sign that extended the width of the building. A lifelong resident of Austin, the capital of Texas, Thompson had bought the gaming parlor two years ago. In that time, he had transformed it into one of the premier gambling clubs of the city, frequented by lawmakers and influential businessmen. The state capitol building was only two blocks away.
Homer Watts rushed back through the door. A granite tombstone, weighing at least a hundred pounds, was cradled in his arms. In the afternoon lull, there were few men at the long mahogany bar, and fewer still at the faro and twenty-one layouts along the opposite wall. Yet they paused, bemused by the sight, as he staggered toward the poker tables at the rear of the room. He lowered the tombstone to the floor with a thump.
“There you are,” he said, grinning at Thompson. “Solid granite and smooth as a baby’s butt. Carve anything you want on it.”
Thompson nodded appreciatively. “That’s a fine looking headstone, Homer. What does it have to do with poker?”
“Well, it’s worth a couple of hundred, easy. You credit me with a hundred and I’m back in the game. You got yourself a bargain.”
“What the devil would I do with a headstone?”
Watts gave him a crafty look. “Everybody needs one sooner or later. C’mon, Ben, be a sport. What’s a hundred?”
Thompson glanced at the men seated around the table. “How about it, gents? Think it’s worth a hundred?”
None of them thought Ben Thompson had any immediate need of a headstone. He was the most renowned shootist of the day, reported to have killed eight men in gunfights. The Police Gazette, ever in search of a sensational headline, ranked him more deadly than Doc Holliday, or the infamous John Wesley Hardin, now confined to the state penitentiary. His name on a headstone seemed as remote as the stars.
“All right, Homer,” Thompson said amiably, tossing chips across the table. “Have a seat and let’s get on with the game. You just made a sale.”
“Five-card draw,” the dealer said, shuffling the cards. “Everybody ante up.”
Homer Watts found luck to be as elusive as ever. He opened with a pair of queens and failed to improve his hand on the draw. Yet he rode it to the end, confident he couldn’t be beat.
A pair of aces left him poorer, if not wiser.
The game ended shortly before six o’clock. The players cashed in their chips and drifted to the bar. There, over whiskey, they commiserated with one another on the turn of the cards. Few of them had won more than the price of a drink.
Thompson walked to his office at the rear of the room. He was a family man, and unlike most gamblers, he made it a point to have supper with his wife and son. Then, around eight in the evening, he would return to the Iron Front for a night of poker. He usually played until two or three o’clock in the morning.
A dandy of sorts, Thompson was an impeccable dresser. His normal attire was a Prince Albert suit, with a somber vest and striped trousers, and a diamond stickpin in his tie. He topped it off with a silk stovepipe hat, and the result was a man who looked the very picture of sartorial fashion. As he slipped into his coat, tugging the lapel snug over his shoulder holster, the door opened. Joe Richter, who managed the club, stepped into the office.
“You’re a corker, boss,” he said with a toothy grin. “Everybody in town will have a good laugh over that game.”
Thompson shrugged. “Homer had his mind set on playing. How could I turn him down?”
“Damn fool ought to stick to sellin’ headstones. Poker’s not his game.”
“Joe, the same might be said about most of our customers. Sometimes it gets discouraging.”
Thompson was known and respected on the Western gamblers’ circuit. Over the past decade he had played poker from the Mexican border to the Dakotas. In the Kansas cowtowns, during trailing season, he’d never failed to find a high stakes game with wealthy Texas cattlemen. His name alone brought high rollers to the table.
Austin was a different kettle of fish. On occasion he would host a high stakes game with legislators from the state capitol and local ranchers. But for the most part, the Iron Front catered to a clientele who viewed gambling as a pastime. Faro and roulette, and other games of chance, made the enterprise immensely profitable, even for low stakes. Still, it was a world apart from the action he’d known on the gamblers’ circuit. Some days were more boring than others.
Joe Richter saved him from the drudgery of daily operations. A slender stalk of a man, Richter was a veteran of the gaming life and a highly competent manager. His responsibility included everything from hiring and firing dealers to overseeing the bartenders. He was trustworthy and capable, and his expertise with gaming tables was reflected in the monthly balance sheet. His attention to detail relieved Thompson of the tedium associated with running a business, albeit one of a sporting nature. He was, for all practical purposes, the backbone of the Iron Front.
“Before you go,” he said now. “What should I do with the tombstone? We have to get it off the floor.”
“Donate it to one of the churches,” Thompson replied. “Preachers are always burying somebody.”
“And if they ask how we got it?”
“Tell them Homer Watts took it out in trade.”
Thompson moved to the door, his stovepipe hat tilted at a rakish angle. He went through the club and emerged onto the street, struck by the cloying warmth of day’s end. Austin was sometimes brutally hot in the summer, and July had proved to be a scorcher. He turned toward Congress Avenue, where the streetcar line bisected the city.
A short distance ahead, three cowhands were congregated at the corner of Mulberry and Colorado. Thompson saw that they were reasonably sober, and wondered why they had strayed into the uptown area. The cattle trade usually kept to the red light district, which was some blocks south, nearer the river. As he approached, the men inspected his fashionable attire with wiseacre grins. One of them stepped into his path.
“Well, looky here,” the cowhand gibed. “We got ourselves a regular swell. Where you from, pilgrim?”
Thompson realized he’d been mistaken for an Easterner. The idea amused him, and he decided to play along. “Why, I came West for my health. I have a lung condition.”
“Ain’t too healthy for Yankees around these parts.”
“On the contrary, I’ve found it quite pleasant.”
“Yeah?” The cowhand reached out and swatted his top hat into the gutter. “What d’you think now?”
Thompson retrieved his hat. “I think your ma never taught you any manners. You give cattlemen a bad name.”
“Listen to the sorry shit-heel talk! Maybe I’ll just teach you some manners.”
“Fun’s fun and you’ve had yours, cowboy. Let it drop.”
“Hell I will!”
The cowhand drew back a doubled fist. Thompson had survived a lifetime of random violence on sharp reflexes and flawless instincts. The odds were three to one, and he wasn’t about to engage in a street brawl. He popped the Colt out of his shoulder holster.
“Holy shit!” one of the men yelled. “He’s got a gun!”
The cowhands took off running in different directions. All along the street, passersby scattered and ducked for cover. Then, in an act of bravado, the cowboy who had started the trouble skidded to a halt and pulled his pistol. He darted behind the awning post of a barbershop and winged a shot at Thompson. The slug exploded through the window of a store across the street.
Thompson extended his Colt to arm’s length. The cowhand was concealed by the awning post, but the right side of his head and his wide-brimmed hat were partially visible. Drawing a fine bead, Thomson sighted carefully and feathered the trigger. The man’s ear lobe vanished in a spray of blood.
A wild, gibbering screech followed upon the Colt’s report. The cowhand dodged past the opposite awning post, momentarily obscured from view, and broke into a headlong sprint. Thompson kept him fixed in the sights, silently urging him not to turn and fight. He disappeared around the far corner at the end of the block.
Some thirty minutes later City Marshal Ed Creary appeared at the scene of the shooting. Thompson was waiting with a policeman who had responded to the sound of gunfire. A crowd stood watching, spilling out into the intersection, buzzing excitedly about the latest escapade of Austin’s resident gunman. Creary elbowed his way through the onlookers.
“What’s the trouble here?” he demanded. “Who’d you shoot now, Thompson?”
“I didn’t take the time to get his name.”
“Did you kill him?”
“Not likely,” Thompson said in a wry tone. “Last time I saw him, he was still going hell-for-leather.”
Creary was a beefy man with pugnacious features and a dark scowl that gave him a satanic look. He considered Thompson a smudge on the reputation of Austin, and the sense of dislike was mutual. For his part, Thompson thought the town’s chief law enforcement officer was a politician hiding behind a badge. He’d never known Creary to take hand in a shooting involving the police. The marshal invariably appeared after the fact.
“Who started it, anyway?” Creary persisted. “Did you fire the first shot?”
“I defended myself,” Thompson said. “He let loose and I returned fire. You won’t have any problem recognizing him.”
“Look for a cowhand missing his right ear lobe.”
“And you’re gonna tell me you shot off his ear on purpose?”
“I generally hit just exactly what I aim at.”
Creary grunted. “I’ll have to charge you with the discharge of firearms. You know the law.”
“Do whatever you’ve got to do. I’ll pay the fine in the morning.”
“I ought to arrest you.”
“Don’t even think about it, Ed.” Thompson smiled at him with a level stare. “I wouldn’t take kindly to being rousted for no reason.”
There was a moment of leaden silence. Creary was aware of the crowd watching him, and his face flushed with anger. But he was even more aware of Thompson’s stare, pinning him in place like a butterfly on a board. He knew better than to push too far.
“I’m late for supper,” Thompson said when the silence held. “Send somebody around if you find that cowhand. The goofy bastard tried to murder me.”
Creary ground his teeth. “You just make sure you’re in court tomorrow.”
“I always obey the law, Marshal. It’s one of my finer virtues.”
Thompson walked off toward the center of town. He thought it unlikely the cowhand would be found, and curiously unjust that he was the one who would be fined. Yet there was a bright side to any fracas.
He wasn’t the one who’d lost an ear lobe.
Copyright © 2000 by Winchester Productions, Ltd.