"Queens bet a dollar."
Tom Pryor studied the other man's hand. On the table was a queen-eight-queen-deuce. He figured it for two pair, probably queens and deuces. All afternoon he'd had miserable luck, pulling decent cards only to have them topped by better cards. He pondered a moment longer.
The other players had dropped out, and Newt Bascom was watching him with a blank expression. Pryor's own hand revealed a four-queen-ace-four. In the hole he had another ace, but it was the queen that gave him confidence. With three on the board, his opponent would have to hold the case queen in order to win. The odds dictated otherwise, and that prompted a sudden decision. He smiled.
"You bluffin' again, Newt?"
Bascom worked his chaw. He leaned sideways and centered a perfect hit on a nearby spittoon. "One way to find out," he said, with a delicate swipe at his mustache. "Call me and see."
"Hell with callin'!" Pryor peeled greenbacks off his dwindling stack. "Your dollar and raise a dollar."
Bascom considered briefly, then shrugged. "Up another dollar."
"Suppose I just take the last one...a dollar more."
Without hesitation, Bascom matched the raise and nodded. "You're called."
"Read ‘em and weep." Pryor grinned, flipped his hole card. "Two pair, aces and fours."
"Not quite good enough."
Bascom slowly turned his hole card, and Pryor found himself staring at three queens. His grin dissolved into a look of disbelief, then anger. He whacked the table with the flat of his hand. "Judas Priest! You caught the gawddamned case."
Bascom leaned forward to rake in the pot. His mustache lifted in a jocular smile. "Guess a little luck goes a long ways."
"Little luck, hell! I ain't never seen nothin' like it."
Sam Jordan, Bascom's partner, watched the exchange with an amused look. He creased a cigarette paper and sprinkled tobacco into it from a muslin bag of Bull Durham. After returning the bag to his shirt pocket, he deftly rolled the paper tight, licked the loose flap, and sealed the cigarette. He popped a match on his thumbnail, lit up in a haze of smoke, and inhaled deeply. Exhaling, he idly wondered why Pryor didn't call it a day, and cut his losses.
The game had started early that afternoon. For almost four hours, Bascom had been a consistent winner. The other men never knew whether he was bluffing, or actually held good cards. He seemed unbeatable.
Outside, the sun had heeled over to the west. Fading light from the front window of the saloon left the interior bathed in shadow. A cider glow spilled down on the table from an overhead lamp. One of the other players collected the cards and began shuffling.
The saloon was the second largest building in Tascosa. An isolated trading post, the town was situated on the Canadian River, little more than a way station in the vast emptiness of the Texas Panhandle. Apart from a few adobes, there was a general store and the saloon. Tascosa had no streets, only a handful of permanent residents, and no law. The nearest community of any size was a two-day ride south.
Joe Tate, who owned the saloon, stood behind the bar polishing glasses. His only customers were the five men seated around the poker table. The saloon was a crude affair, with a rough plank bar and tables along one wall. Still, it was the single saloon in the immense stretch of land separating Indian Territory from the eastern border of New Mexico. He had a corner on the liquor trade.
Scarcely two years ago there had been no trade of any nature. In the fall of 1874, General Ranald Mackenzie and his cavalry units had delivered a series of punishing defeats to the Southern Plains Tribes. The Comanche, who had ruled the Staked Plains from horseback, were ultimately driven onto the reservation. Since then, large cattle outfits had formed throughout the region, and now occupied the whole of the Texas Panhandle.
The five men at the poker table were, in one fashion or another, involved in the cattle business. Tom Pryor and his two friends were cowhands for the Slash O, a large spread along the western reaches of the Canadian. The other two men, Newt Bascom and Sam Jordan, were range detectives, sometimes known as regulators. Former cowhands themselves, they now worked for the Panhandle Cattlemen's Association. In a land where there was no law, their job was to put the damper on cattle rustlers and horse thieves. They were empowered to capture or kill anyone who stole live-stock.
To their friends, Jordan and Bascom were joshingly known as "The Durham Brothers." Jordan smoked Bull Durham roll-your-owns, and Bascom chewed plug tobacco of the same brand. One was seldom seen without a cigarette and the other always had a chaw working. Partners for many years, they had ridden for large cattle spreads throughout Texas. Then, not quite two years ago, they had been hired on as range detectives. There was no actual training for the job, but such men had to know cattle and not be averse to tangling with outlaws. They qualified on both counts.
Jordan was tall and solidly built, with piercing blue eyes and a thatch of chestnut hair. A cowhand since he was fifteen, and now barely thirty-two, he'd educated himself by reading everything from the Bible to the history of Rome. Though quiet and unassuming, he was nonetheless respected as a tough man, chain-lightning with his fists. He was also quick with a gun, and a deadly shot.
By contrast, Bascom was whipcord-lean with weathered features, dark hair, and an unruly mustache. His education was that of the land and of creatures; he was a superb tracker and a master of the wilderness. A man of ribald humor, his tastes ran to dance hall girls and any known form of gambling. Though no slouch with a gun or his fists, he preferred to outwit the other fellow whenever possible.
As range detectives, Jordan and Bascom had no other duties than to chase thieves. Often they were gone for weeks at a time, tracking outlaws wherever the trail led. Theirs was a hazardous profession, and they were reputed to have killed eleven hard cases who refused to surrender. But when they weren't on the trail, their time was their own, and they were at liberty to spend it however they saw fit. During their off-time, they could generally be found at Joe Tate's saloon.
Watching them now, Tate thought there might be trouble. Jordan was holding his own in the game, dragging down an occasional pot. Newt Bascom, on the other hand, was working on a winning streak that defied all odds. The problem was not that Bascom won too often, but rather that he'd won too much. Tom Pryor and the other cowhands earned thirty a month and found roughly a dollar a day. All three had close to a month's wages in the game, and most of it on Bascom's side of the table. Big losers, Tate knew from experience, were often sore losers.
One of the cowhands was dealing now, and the game was five-card draw. Bascom took a peek at his hand and discovered two pairs, kings and tens. Across the table, Pryor grunted to himself, holding three sevens. Pryor opened for a dollar, which was the limit they'd set at the start of the game. Bascom raised, and Pryor returned the favor. When Bascom took the last raise, Jordan and the other cowhand tossed in their cards.
On the draw, Bascom took one card and Pryor took two. The dealer took three cards, hoping to better a pair of jacks. Pryor bet, Bascom raised, and the dealer folded. A barrel-gutted man, with muddy eyes and a face pebbled with deep pockmarks, Pryor wouldn't back off. He hadn't improved his three of a kind, but he figured Bascom for two pair. He raised another dollar, and Bascom finished it with a third raise. His expression almost apologetic, Bascom spread his cards on the table. He'd caught a full house, tens over kings.
Pryor's face mottled with rage. He threw his cards down, glaring across the table. "You're one lucky sonovabitch, ain't you?"
"Don't take it personal," Bascom said, pulling in the pot. "Win some, lose some."
"Yeah, ‘cept you don't never seem to lose."
"You got any complaints, talk to your pardner. He was dealin'."
"Mebbe so," Pryor growled. "‘Course, you might've had that third ten up your sleeve."
Bascom started out of his chair. Jordan stopped him with a sudden motion, and fixed Pryor with a hard look. "You're liable to start something you can't finish. Everybody knows Newt's not a cheat."
Pryor barked a hollow laugh. He figured Jordan wouldn't pull a gun unless someone else pulled first. He figured as well that his bunkmates would back his play. Which made it good odds, three to two.
"Hold on there!" Joe Tate yelled from the bar. "Anybody spoilin' for a fight, take it outside."
The others were momentarily distracted. Pryor suddenly kicked back his chair and upended the table onto Bascom and Jordan. Bascom went over backwards, but Jordan shoved the table aside and stepped clear. One of the cowhands launched a looping haymaker, and he bobbed under the punch. Quick as a cat, he delivered a splintering combination, left hook followed by a murderous right. The cowhand went down as though he'd been poleaxed.
Pryor leaped over the table and jumped Bascom just as he stumbled to his feet. Jordan started to intervene, then caught a roundhouse to the jaw from the other cowhand. Knocked sideways, he regained his balance and shifted into a fighting stance. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Vern Hungate, one of the hands on the Bar B spread, step through the door. He dodged and weaved a flurry of punches, waiting for an opening.
Bascom managed to squirm from underneath Pryor, and finally climbed to his feet. His nose was dripping blood and a welt had already formed over his left eye. As Pryor rose from the floor, Bascom waded in, hammering hard blows to the gut. Pryor's mouth ovaled in a woofing sound, and he doubled at the waist. Setting himself, Bascom put his weight into a sharp straight right to the chin. Pryor crashed backwards into the bar and Tate hit him over the head with a bung starter. He dropped to his knees, then pitched forward onto his face.
Still slipping punches, Jordan at last got an opening. He snapped a left, doubled with a hook, and followed with a clobbering overhand right cross. The cowhand shivered under the impact of the blow, then his eyes went blank and he toppled forward like a felled tree. Jordan stepped out of the way as the cowhand slammed into the floor. Breathing heavily, he turned to look at Bascom.
"You awright, Newt?"
"I'll live," Bascom said, wiping blood from his nose. "Just remind me not to play cards with that peckerhead no more."
Jordan's gaze shifted to the door. "Vern, why didn't you pitch in and lend a hand?"
Vern Hungate offered an elaborate shrug. "Wasn't my fight, Sam. Besides, didn't look like you needed no help, nohow."
"Well, something must have brought you here. What the hell you want?"
"Don't want nothin'," Hungate said. "The boss sent me to fetch you and Newt."
"Blalock sent you?" Bascom looked interested. "That mean we got a new assignment?"
"Beats me, Newt. He just told me to find you."
Jordan started toward the door. "Let's get a move on then."
Bascom rapidly collected a stack of greenbacks from the litter on the floor. On his way past the bar, he nodded to Joe Tate. "Much obliged for the assist."
"Anytime a'tall, Newt. Always did hate a sore loser."
Copyright © 1991 by Matt Braun