by Gilbert M. Stack
Art by Linda Weatherly
“Is there any word yet?” the young woman asked.
To Corey Callaghan, she looked to be about eighteen years old, dressed in her Sunday best, and the only person in the rail station who looked even more nervous and uncomfortable than she was the equally young man standing beside her.
The clerk sitting behind the grilled ticket window adopted a placid mask, which failed to conceal his irritation at the oft-repeated question. “No word yet, miss,” he confirmed. “The train is only forty-five minutes late.”
A trail-worn man threw his cowboy hat to the floor. He had an Army Colt in a cross-draw holster—hilt facing out away from him—on his left hip and an angry expression on his windburned face. He’d come rushing into the station with his brother barely ten minutes before the train was scheduled to depart and he wasn’t dealing well with the delay. “Gawd damn it! How much longer do we have to wait?”
The young woman by the ticket window shuddered at his cursing, and the young man standing next to her looked as if he thought he ought to do something about the profanity. But it was a tall, almost skeletally thin figure in a black broadcloth suit who actually stepped into the conversation.
“Ah, the contradiction at the heart of the modern railroad,” he mused. “It can get you from one coast to the other in under twenty days, but no matter how hard the conductors try, it simply cannot arrive or depart at the scheduled times.”
The first man scowled, scooped his hat from the floor, and crammed it back on his head without responding.
Corey watched all of this unfold in silence. He’d been on a lot of trains and stagecoaches since he began his bare-knuckle boxing career and he knew the thin gentlemen to be correct. Trains and coaches never seemed to run on time. That meant that he had spent a lot of time in rail stations over the years and as a result had had plenty of opportunities to learn to deal with the boredom and frustration which accompanied waiting for late trains.
There were several different strategies for passing the time, all of which were in evidence in the station around him: quiet conversations, passenger-watching, uncomfortable naps propped against the station’s walls, reading, and even games of—
“You know what might make the time pass a little faster?” the skeletally thin man interrupted Corey’s reverie with a question directed at everyone in the room. “We could start a game of cards.”
Corey glanced at the companion to his left and found Miss Pandora Parson choosing that very moment to look up at him. She raised her eyebrows slightly, and Corey put his finger to his mouth, then jerked his head to indicate the drowsing form of his boxing manager, Patrick Sullivan, who was sleeping fitfully on his right.
Miss Parson smiled and looked away.
The thin man opened his bag and began to search among an unusually large assortment of hairbrushes for a deck of cards.
“I know I have one,” the man assured them. “What do you say? Is anyone up for a game of chance?”
The man who’d just abused his hat smiled. “I reckon I could play a hand or two,” he said, “if you think you’ve got the sand for a real man’s game.” He picked up his heavy saddlebags and dropped them over in front of his brother with a metallic clink. “Here, Chuck,” the man said. “You watch these while I make us some more money.”
“Are you sure this is a good idea, Bert?” Chuck asked. His words spilled out of his mouth as if he were trying to speak the last one before the first had finished forming on his lips. “I think we’ve got enough money.”
“Nonsense!” Bert spat the word. “Nobody ever has enough money.”
“Ah, here it is,” the man with the brushes said, holding up a worn pack of playing cards. “I knew I had one somewhere.”
Corey leaned a little bit closer to Miss Parson. “You playing?” he whispered.
She shook her red hair back over the bench behind her. “We’ll see. I suppose it ultimately depends on who’s going to join the game. The man with the brushes there is a professional gambler.”
“How can you tell that?” Corey whispered, as the man in question began to place his collection of brushes back in his bag, then stopped and held one up so it was clearly visible to all of the other people in the station. There were about twenty people all told, each one watching Bert and the thin man’s actions as the only available diversion from their boredom.
“Since I have the brushes out,” the thin man announced, “I suppose I should ask if anyone would like to purchase one. They’re very fine quality—far better than anything you can find in a Sears Roebuck catalogue. And they’re absolutely perfect for teasing tangles out of hair.”
Bert stamped his foot with impatience. “Let’s get on with the card game. Do I look like I need some girly hairbrush?”
Corey suppressed a grin. As a matter of fact, the man did look as if he’d benefit from a little grooming. He wondered how long he and Chuck had ridden to reach the train today.
The thin man tried to placate Bert, displaying the greasy manners of a snake oil salesman. “I wasn’t thinking you’d purchase it for yourself, sir, but surely there is a special woman in your life who might appreciate one of my products as a gift?”
“He’s got that right, Bert,” Chuck said. “I bet Miss Lou Ann would just light up something perdy if you brought her one of those brushes when we visit her in Portland.”
Bert did not appreciate his brother’s comment. “Chuck, aren’t you ever going to learn to keep that big trap of yours shut?”
“Well, I didn’t mean no harm, Bert!” Chuck whined.
“So what do you say?” the salesman continued, pressing for a sale. “Would you like one of my wares for your Miss Lou Ann?”
“Not likely,” Bert retorted, “but I’m willing to take your money in the game.”
Chuck evidently didn’t like that idea. “You really think that’s a good idea, Bert? We’ve got to stay—”
“I told you to shut your trap and stop bothering me!” Bert snapped at him.
Chuck frowned but said nothing else as Bert pulled a small table away from a wall, knocking several thin pamphlets to the floor as he did so.
“Watch what you’re doing over there!” the clerk shouted at him.
Bert stopped repositioning the table and turned to stare at him. “The next time you speak,” he told the clerk, “you’d better be telling us the train is pulling into the station.”
“I think we’ll hear the train coming, Bert,” Chuck told him. “They have a whistle they blow when they get close to a stop.”
Bert just glared at him.
The brush salesman hadn’t given up on the idea of making a sale. He turned his attention to Corey, bringing the brush closer to him and Miss Parson so they could examine it. “What about you, sir? Perhaps your missus here would appreciate a fine gift like this. She has such lovely red hair. With a good brushing every night it would shine like bronze in the afternoon sun.”
Miss Parson glanced up at Corey, her thin teasing smile quirking up the corners of her mouth when the salesman referred to her as missus. She and Corey weren’t married and didn’t even have an understanding between them, although they’d been traveling together for half a year now. As a lady professional gambler, she’d found it useful to travel with a bare-knuckle boxer and his manager/trainer. And Corey, well, he just genuinely enjoyed having Miss Parson as a friend.
“What do you say, Miss Parson?” he asked. “Would you like a brush?”
Her smile sweetened ever so slightly. “That’s quite nice of you to offer, Mr. Callaghan, but I already have one.”
“But not one like this,” the salesman assured her. He moved the little brush closer for Miss Parson’s inspection. “Just feel those bristles,” he said. “That’s superior workmanship.”
When Miss Parson did not change her mind, he turned his attention back to Corey. “What do you say, sir? If money is a little tight right now, why not join our card game? Perhaps you’ll win enough to buy the brush for this lovely young woman.”
Corey shook his head. “I don’t play cards,” he said.
Bert stalked over in front of him, towering over Corey where he sat on the bench. “Why not?”
Corey looked up at him without rising. The man’s cross-draw holster had his gun, hilt first, directly in front of Corey’s chest so that Corey was briefly tempted to use his boxer’s speed to reach out and draw the weapon—except then he’d have to do something with the stupid thing.
“Poker sounds easy, but it’s actually a pretty complicated game. I don’t have much of a head for figures, so I never learned it properly.”
Bert glowered down at him. “Well I say it’s time you learned!”
Corey had had enough of trying to be peaceable with a bully. He stood up. At his full height, he was a clean two inches taller than the other man. He was physically intimidating and he knew it. “Do you think you’re the man to teach me?” Corey asked.
Bert evidently hadn’t expected Corey to be bigger than him. He tried to keep glowering, but it wasn’t that effective when directed toward a taller man. Not that that stopped Bert from trying.
The cowboy’s right hand clenched at his side. “It seems to me you need a lesson!”
“We don’t need no trouble, Bert!” his brother whined. “Remember what you told me when we got off our horses. Chuck, you keep your head down and stay out of trouble while we wait for the train.”
“Would you shut your trap?” Bert said to him without looking away from Corey.
“Gentlemen,” the salesman cut in. “There’s no need for fighting. If this fine man doesn’t wish to play, I’m sure we can find someone else to join our game.”
As if on cue, Patrick sputtered and started to his feet. “What? What’s going on? Corey, me lad, are we—”
“There’s no trouble at all,” the salesman interrupted Patrick. “We’re just trying to put together a friendly game of cards.”
A light Corey was all too familiar with gleamed to life in Patrick’s eyes. “Cards, you say?”
“I’ve been known to play a game or two,” Patrick confided.
“Excellent!” the salesman said, rubbing his hands together. “Now, if we could just find one or two more . . .”
Across the room from Corey and Pandora, the young man from the ticket window started to get to his feet, but the woman sitting on the bench beside him pulled him back down again and whispered furiously in his ear.
“How about you, Miss Parson?” Patrick asked. “You’re always good for a quick game of cards.”
Patrick’s question broke whatever tension still existed between Bert and Corey. The cowboy guffawed and clapped Patrick hard upon the back. “That’s a good one, old-timer. You do know we’re talking about playing poker here—not Old Maid?”
Patrick sputtered to Miss Parson’s defense. “I’ll have you know she’s quite a good—”
“Thank you anyway, Mr. Sullivan,” Miss Parson interrupted, “but I’m feeling quite fatigued just now. I don’t think I’d like to join your game today.”
Corey stepped up to Miss Parson’s assistance to fend him off. “You’ll just have to make do without her,” he said. “Besides, the train will probably arrive about the time you get your first interesting pot on the table.”
“Well, if she doesn’t want to play,” Patrick conceded.
“That means we still need at least one more player,” the salesman said. He increased the volume of his voice, but looked directly at the nervous young man sitting with the equally young woman across the room. “Would anyone else be interested in joining our game of cards?”
The invitation was too much for the man. He shrugged off the restraining arm of the woman sitting beside him and surged to his feet. “I’ll play a few hands!” he announced.
The woman sadly shook her head. “Oh, Dave, you know we don’t have enough money for this. What if you lose?”
“But what if we win, Emma?” he argued. “This could really help us get our start!”
“That’s the spirit, young fellow!” the salesman encouraged him.
Corey frowned and leaned closer to Miss Parson. “You think he has any chance at all?” he whispered.
She sighed. “I suppose he can’t be a worse player than Mr. Sullivan.”
“And what about the cowboy?” Corey asked.
“He’s the reason I’m not playing,” Miss Parson confided. “I don’t think he’s going to handle losing very well.”
Bert proved adept at liberating seats for the card game. He simply went over to a pair of chairs where two boys were sitting next to their folks and dumped the youngsters out on the floor. Their father started to protest, but one good look at Bert’s eyes convinced him otherwise. He didn’t have either Corey’s size or his training and he told his sons to find a seat on the floor.
When Bert returned for the father’s own chair a few moments later, the man surrendered it without argument. His wife went to claim the seat that Dave had vacated on the bench next to Emma.
With the seating arrangements taken care of, all four players sat down. The salesman then took the cards in his hand and roughly shuffled them together, having far more trouble than Corey would have expected for a professional.
He nudged Miss Parson lightly with his elbow. “Are you sure he’s a sharp?”
“Oh, yes,” she answered.
Corey didn’t doubt her. She could do amazing things with a deck of cards and usually made a better living at the table than he and Patrick made in the ring. “How can you tell?” he asked.
Miss Parson gave the slightest shrug of her shoulders. “There are a lot of signs, actually. I suppose the biggest is the way he picks up the deck and initially divides the cards.”
Corey watched the man do that but saw nothing unusual in what he was doing except, perhaps, that he had to painstakingly reposition his fingers on the cards each time before blending the two half decks back together.
Miss Parson noticed his confusion. “He picks the deck up like he’s about to shuffle the cards faro style, but then switches his fingers around to do an awkward overhand shuffle. It’s all designed to make him look clumsy and amateurish. I’d be very surprised if he wasn’t a dealer in the past.”
Corey shook his head as the salesman began to deal. “All the games of poker I’ve watched Patrick and you play and I didn’t even realize that there was more than one way to shuffle the cards.”
“That’s because cards are not important to you, Mr. Callaghan,” Miss Parson noted. “In fact, seeing as Mr. Sullivan loses so much of your earnings at the tables, I would go so far as to say that you find the game of poker quite distasteful. But I’d wager you could tell me how close Mr. Bert there came to brawling with you, and if he would have reached for the weapon in his fancy cross-draw rig if the salesman hadn’t distracted him.”
“Well, sure,” Corey said, “that kind of thing is easy. He’d have tried to sucker punch me with his right hand.”
“Even though the hilt of his weapon was right there?” Miss Parson asked.
“He’d already clenched a fist. You can’t draw quickly when you’ve already formed a fist. And besides, he’d have never gotten the pistol out of his holster with me standing right in front of him like that.”
Miss Parson’s eyes twinkled up at him. “I wonder if he knew that.”
“He better,” Corey whispered back. “Or one day he’s going to get shot with his own gun.”
Dave, the young man whose sweetheart didn’t want him to gamble, won the first hand and sent a beaming smile back toward the woman. “You see that, Emma? I know what I’m doing.”
The woman’s eyes brightened hopefully, but she still looked scared.
“Hmm,” Miss Parson mused. Her voice was very quiet, pitched just for Corey’s ear. “I wonder.”
“Wonder what?” Corey asked.
“If he really knows what he’s doing. The salesman dealt him both of those kings off the bottom of the deck.”
Corey felt his eyes grow wide with surprise, which made Miss Parson smile.
The salesman gathered up the deck and began painstakingly shuffling the cards again. No one seemed to notice when he didn’t pass the deal to the young man.
Bert won the second hand, and the third. Neither had a particularly large pot, but he swelled up with pride just the same. “You see that, Chuck?” he called out. “That’s how a real man handles his cards.”
“You’re doing great, Bert,” Chuck agreed. He stood up and started to cross the room toward the game. “You mind if I join you fellows for a hand or two?”
A scowl replaced Bert’s grin with amazing speed. “You git your butt back over on that bench and watch our saddlebags.”
“But that’s not fair, Bert!” Chuck complained. “I want to play too! Maw says—”
“We’re here to win, you dang idiot,” Bert snapped. “Not lose all our money to these other dang fools.”
Both Dave and Patrick looked as if they wanted to take exception to that comment, but the salesman watched the proceedings with cool interest. His eyes occasionally flickered to the floor and the saddlebags. None of the three said anything to the cowhand.
Chuck did not quit arguing. “But we’ve got plenty—”
“I said git!” Bert shouted.
Chuck took a step back, clearly unhappy with what was happening. “I just want—”
“Don’t make me go over there and teach you a lesson!” Bert threatened him.
Chuck swallowed and returned to his seat on the bench.
Bert turned back to the card game. “What are you all looking at?” he spat. “Deal the gawd-dang cards!”
“Is there any word yet?” Emma asked the clerk for what must have been the tenth or twelfth time.
The clerk sighed behind his window and shook his head.
Corey wasn’t certain how late the train was now, but the gamblers had had time to play at least a dozen hands. Everyone had won something except Patrick, although the only one very far ahead was the young man, Dave.
Beside Corey, Miss Parson cringed.
“What is it?” he asked.
She actually looked embarrassed that he had noticed her reaction. “I suppose it doesn’t really matter,” she whispered, “but Mr. Sullivan has done it again.”
Corey had no idea what she was talking about. “Done what?”
“He’s discarded the bottom card that the salesman just dealt him. That’s twice now he’s been set up to win and tossed the hand away.”
Corey had to restrain himself from turning to stare at her. “Why would anyone set up Patrick to win?” he asked. “Do you think he feels sorry for him?”
“Oh, I quite doubt it,” Miss Parson assured him. “I’d say the gentleman is just trying to keep Mr. Sullivan in the game while he sets Mr. Bert up there for a big loss at the end of the game.”
Corey shook his head, trying to make sense of what Miss Parson was saying. “He’s doing what?”
“Why, he’s controlling the game, of course.” Miss Parson could be patience personified when she wanted to be. Her lips barely moving, her voice so low that Corey had to slouch on the bench to hear her properly, she went on to explain what she thought was happening. “The salesman has controlled just about every hand of the game thus far. He’s trying to spread out the winnings to keep Mr. Sullivan and the young man in the game, but his real target is Mr. Bert there and those noisy saddlebags his brother is watching over.”
This time Corey did sit up straight and stare at her, wondering what on earth she was talking about.
“Discretion, Mr. Callaghan,” she reminded him.
Embarrassed, Corey slouched again, but Miss Parson waited until Patrick lost the hand and a new round was dealt before picking up her story. “Did you wonder why I didn’t join this game, Mr. Callaghan?”
Corey shrugged. “I guess it was because you’ve got a professional gambler running the cards,” he said. He avoided using the word cheating because terms like that tended to carry in a crowd.
“Oh, no,” Miss Parson corrected him. “I could have come out ahead. The problem with his strategy is that it only works if people stay in until the last hand.”
Corey instantly saw what Miss Parson was talking about. Men like Patrick, and probably Bert and Dave, didn’t have the sense to quit while they were ahead. Miss Parson didn’t have that weakness.
“So why aren’t you playing cards today?” Corey asked.
“Because good title can’t come from bad,” Miss Parson said.
Corey had no idea what Miss Parson was talking about.
“If the marshal gets here before the train comes, I think he’ll try to confiscate all the winnings.”
Now Corey had even less an idea of what she was talking about. He started to say as much to her, but a whistle sounded in the distance, announcing the much-delayed train had come around the bend and was finally pulling into the station. . . .
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"SPandora's Station" by Gilbert M. Stack. Copyright © 2013 with permission of the author. All rights reserved.
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