Jesse swept the grains of gathered dirt and manure off the saloon’s front porch. When a rare gust died and the swinging doors behind him quieted, he leaned on his broom and peered at the parched road leading out of town. The setting sun tinged the beige and tan of buildings and placards with pinks and oranges and silhouetted the cloud of approaching dust.
Raising a hand to shade his eyes, Jesse squinted at the nearing sight. He made out a carriage through the haze, one drawn by a pair of sweaty bays. Entering the outskirts, they slowed from their steady gallop and halted at the steps to the Madison Hotel across the street.
His sweeping forgotten, Jesse drifted to the porch’s railing and snuck behind a squared post.
After applying the brake, the carriage’s driver wiped a bandana across the receding hairline of his smeared forehead. Like his, the horses’ heads drooped, but the driver eventually looped their reins, and hopped off his platform. He disappeared behind the faded spokes and Jesse heard the squeak of hinges.
But by then, the nearside door had opened.
Jesse clutched his broom to his chest while a towering, reedy man unfolded from the carriage’s interior. The new arrival set a broad brimmed hat over tawny locks and adjusted the belt at his waist, one weighted by two pistols gleaming like the piano keys being thumped upon by Billy inside the saloon.
Through the opened door, Jesse spied the flutter of skirts, pale purples and greens more vibrant than a summer field. The lady opened up a paper-thin parasol and swirled to face the carriage. Dusk softened her round features and the blonde ringlets falling to her shoulders.
“Thank you for your company Mr. Wallis.”
While the name reached down Jesse’s throat and squeezed his bowels, Wallis touched the brim of his hat.
“A pleasure Mrs. Benedict. Do give my regards to your husband.”
Mrs. Benedict laughed, like chimes caressed by the wind. “I will, although I fear you might see him before I do.” She twirled the parasol, giving sudden shade to her fervent stare and then put her back to the carriage.
While she glided up the Hotel’s stairs, Wallis shut the door and turned on a booted heel.
Jesse gulped when the man’s nail hard eyes leapt across the porch and spotted him hiding. Staggering back, he slammed into the wooden slats by the saloon’s entrance and held his broom in so tight a grip a part of him wondered if the handle might snap.
Unconcerned, the gun-toting Wallis strode toward him, crossing the guttered street and mounting the stairs with a languid stride. His boots thumped on the hollow planks and his knee length duster flapped. He jangled from his bolo tie through the chain dangling at his vest pocket to the buckles cinched at his ankles.
“Eve…Evening,” stuttered Jesse.
Wallis paused, and dug a leather pouch from an inside pocket. He fetched a rolling paper and splayed the sheet on his broad palm. Three pinches and a twist later he had the cigarette rolled and at his lips. The strike of a match along the porch rail caused Jesse to flinch, but Wallis took a long drag then exhaled a cloudy ribbon. He stepped to the swinging door and craned his neck to peer inside.
“This a good place for a game?”
“Yes…yes sir,” said Jesse. He found some courage and tried puffing out his chest even though his voice continued to waver. “B…best place in town.”
Wallis straightened. Glancing up and down the street he took another drag. “I’m not sure that’s saying much, kid.”
Jesse followed his perusal of the closed storefronts. Candlelight gleamed from the upper stories where everyone not either in Perkins’ Saloon or dining at the Madison Hotel had retreated for the night.
“How’d you like to do me a favor?”
Jesse swiveled back to the tall man and frowned. “A favor? Me?”
“Sure,” said Wallis. He gestured with his cigarette, the ember end sparking. “You seem like a quick kid.”
“I am sir. Mr. Perkins calls me quick all the time.”
He didn’t mention Perkins usually bellowed it after a blurted comment or when he missed a clump of dirt or a bit of tobacco stain by the spittoons.
“Well then,” said Wallis, “I’m sure you’re just the man I need.” He dug into his coat again and withdrew a metal cigarette case. The lanterns’ light glittered on the filigree and vines etched onto the surface. “This is very important to me,” said Wallis, “and I don’t want to lose it at the table. Would you hold on to it for me?”
Jesse stared at the offered case. Guessing at the weight, he calculated the price if the silver turned out to be as genuine as it appeared. A meal at the Madison paled in comparison, but the pistols at Wallis’ waist gleamed and cut off his speculations. Still, he suspected Wallis would make the favor worth his while, especially if the gambler’s reputation was even a sliver of the truth.
“Of…of course sir.” Jesse reached out, but his nerves faltered, and he stopped short of claiming the case. “What exactly is it?”
“Salvation,” said Wallis. His mouth curved into a sour grin around the cigarette he held in his teeth. “I want to you hide it for now, but give it back to me when I do this.” He pinched the bridge of his nose with two gangly fingers. “You’re going to come over and put this,” he waggled the case, “into my other hand.” His tone turned grave, his eyes like tombstones. “Can you do that for me?”
Wide-eyed, Jesse stared at the case. “What’s it going to do?”
Wallis’ smile stretched. “Ease my pain.”
Jesse frowned but took the case. The cool metal felt like snow against his fingers. “All right sir.”
“I’ll be counting on you to keep it safe.”
“I will sir, I will.” Jesse tucked the case securely into his pant’s waist and beneath his smudged apron.
Wallis tipped his hat and with another drag making his cigarette crackle, he strode into the saloon.
Pressing one hand against his belly to keep the case secure, Jesse dragged his broom along and snuck in after him.
Inside, Billy’s dance on the keys blended with the low-slung chatter, the clink of glasses, and the swooshing of cards being dealt onto the wooden table. Customers rose, their chair legs scraping against the floorboards before they stumbled toward the bar to plead for another drink from Perkins who manned the bar like a watchful bulldog in a button-strained vest and starched collar.
Under the saloon keeper’s warning glare, Jesse started a half-hearted sweep along the perimeter, but his downcast gaze drifted back toward Wallis.
Upon his entrance, the reedy man gathered everyone’s attention, whether drinker or player. Conversations died and sips halted. Perkins slowed his wipe of a shot glass and then flung his dishtowel over a thickset shoulder and laid both hands onto the counter, above where Jesse knew his shotgun had been lashed. Only Billy remained oblivious, his fingers traipsing in their merry tune he accompanied with a jaunty hum.
“Evening,” said Wallis.
“Evening,” said Perkins.
Wallis navigated the drinkers and set his hand on the backrest of an empty chair at a table cluttered with empty shots and the largest stack of coins and dollars Jesse had ever seen.
“Mind if I join in?”
“Depends if you have the cash,” said the mustached man Jesse’d heard Perkins call Hoyd. He covered the cards laying face down before him, the three rings on three different fingers reflecting the oil lamps’ light. “We’re betting in dollars here.”
“I happened to have come into a few,” said Wallis.
He took a handful from his coat pocket and flicked them onto the table top one at a time. The gold pieces landed with a thud, then a clink, clink and scrape when the pile toppled.
Hoyd’s smile emerged, revealing a similar nugget at his incisor. “I suppose we can make room after this round.”
A leather-faced man with a gullied face grunted and tossed his cards into the table’s center. To his right, a younger fellow with a mop of ruddy curls who’d introduced himself as Josiah Marshall, grinned.
“Always room for one more,” he said and tossed a coin Jesse thought might be a whole two-bits into the still-growing pot.
“So long as he knows how to play,” said the last in the quartet. The pale faced gentleman adjusted his spectacles, as tidy as his shirt and waistcoat.
“No offense Mr. Benedict,” said Marshall, “but if a man’s asking to play, he should know how.”
“Perhaps we’ll find out.” Mr. Benedict motioned toward the chair.
“Much appreciated,” said Wallis. He doffed his hat and took the seat with the chair’s creak of protest.
Around them the room exhaled and a similar breath he hadn’t realized he held passed through Jesse’s lips. Conversations, downing slurps, Perkins’ pouring, and the deal of cards resumed while Billy’s pounding went on.
Jesse too restarted his chore, shuffling along the edge of the saloon and sweeping up dust and debris while making his way to the bar. He ignored the clumps hiding under the tables and in the floorboard’s crevices, making a mental promise to Perkins to get to them later. Coming to the bar’s side, he leaned onto the sideboard and kept watch on Wallis’ hands and like the other bystanders, on the turnout of cards, coin, and bills at the table.
When Hoyd won the round, he called for a fresh set of shots. Perkins filled a tray and by the time he delivered the drinks, Marshall hooted in victory and collected a sparse pot. The leather-faced man threw in hand after hand, but then after a lucky draw pulled the pile toward himself without a sound and began rubbing one coin between his thumb and index finger. Mr. Benedict’s own pile shrank and grew, but every time he added or subtracted a chip or coin, the stacks remained as orderly as marching soldiers.
Meanwhile, the drinks flowed, and the elixir eventually coaxed their lips into banter. Jesse tipped his head, catching what he could over the piano and other table’s slurred mumblings.
“…must have just come into town,” said Hoyd.
“I did,” said Wallis. He leaned forward and examined the cards the leather-faced man dealt. “I believe I might have run into your wife.”
Mr. Benedict, like he had all game, continued to sit stock-still in his chair. He flipped up each corner of his facedown cards and cocked his head to the opposite side. “You came in from San Francisco?”
“By way of some other towns, yes,” said Wallis.
“Then you must be Gabriel Wallis.”
Marshall chuckled and he finished his whisky while the leather-faced man tossed in his cards. Hoyd twisted up one corner of his bristled mouth as Wallis met Benedict’s bespectacled stare. Jesse gulped when Wallis adjusted the fall of his coat over his thigh, his hand nearing his pistol.
“My reputation,” he said with ease, “precedes me.”
“Your pistols do,” said Benedict, “as does your propensity for gambling. Although I heard you were much better.”
“Some nights I’m luckier than others.” He anteed in and asked for two cards by tapping alongside his dwindling pile.
The round ended in Benedict’s favor.
“A last go about gentlemen?”
“You do have that wife to tend to,” said Wallis.
“She’s a patient woman.”
“Then by all means.” Wallis sifted through his remaining coin and then tossed the mound into the center of the table. “I’m all in.”
“Why not?” Marshall downed a fresh shot and shoved an equal amount into the pot.
The leather-faced man grumbled and gathered up his pruned sash, dropping out by drawing a finger horizontally across his throat.
“Suit yourself,” said Hoyd who added in his ante.
Benedict joined in and then gathered the cards while silence draped the table and seeped into the surrounding saloon. He shuffled methodically before casting cards to each man with mechanical precision. They spied their lots, and then, Wallis pinched his nose.
The gesture jolted Jesse from his slouch against the bar as if a poker had jabbed him in the butt. His heart started to race and his mind grappled with Wallis’ earlier instructions while his imagination dawdled on the rewards aiding the gambler might garner. The thought of the Madison’s steak au poivre started his mouth watering.
“This is just not my night,” muttered Marshall.
Wallis grunted in agreement. “Can I get another whisky?”
“You better be able to pay for it,” said Perkins.
“I’ll cover him,” said Benedict. “I’ll cover a last round for the table.”
Flinging his dishtowel over his shoulder, Perkins shrugged and began pouring.
“I…I can take it,” whispered Jesse.
Perkins scowled and for a second Jesse thought the saloon keeper could spy though his apron and see the metal case warming against his stomach.
“Make it quick,” said Perkins.
Nodding, Jesse left his broom and scooped up the tray. Balancing the drinks so as to not lose a drop, he took care placing the first onto the sparse span of room between Marshall and the leather-faced fellow. After he’d set the last at Wallis’ elbow, he felt his feet stick to the floorboards and his hands went so numb he fumbled the tray. The platter clattered onto the ground.
“Jesse,” whispered Perkins.
“Sorry,” he said with a cringe.
Jesse dropped and grabbed the tray from its swirling rattle as it rotated around its rim, noting he passed Wallis’ hand along the way. Slipping the case from his waistband, he rose and slipped it into the other man’s waiting palm.
With the tray flat against his chest, Jesse scurried back to the bar. He leaned against the counter, his palms and the back of his neck damp with sweat. He couldn’t bring himself to turn, too fearful one of the men at the table had noticed. Instead, he watched the rotation of bets and distribution of cards in the bar’s mirror.
The coins transitioned into bills, and the tension at the table thickened like the smoke pooling at the ceiling. Hoyd asked for two. Marshall three. Wallis and Benedict each took one, before the latter upped the ante. When each man met the bet, Benedict added another dollar, then five, then ten. He finally stacked his whole pile in the center.
“Let’s quit dicking around, gentlemen.”
Marshall cricked his neck, causing snaps like dried firewood chucked onto flames. He then snorted and shoved his lot into the pot.
“I’m done either way,” said Hoyd and waved his assent.
Wallis left his cards facedown and slouched into his seat, making the backrest groan. He motioned toward Marshall with his umpteenth cigarette while his other arm hung limp in the table’s shadow. “Why don’t you begin?”
“Why not,” said the younger man. He flipped a flush of spades.
Hoyd cursed and flung his cards onto the pot, the five tumbling to reveal two pairs of sixes and eights.
“I guess that leaves you and I,” said Benedict.
“Don’t let me keep you,” said Wallis taking a long drag.
Benedict adjusted his spectacles, and then began flipping up one card after another.
Jesse gulped at each revealed king then the pair of tens. His knees watered and his imagined taste of the Madison’s fare evaporated.
“Pretty good,” said Wallis. Leaning forward, he stubbed out his cigarette and casually fanned his own cards with his opposite and suddenly empty hand. The turn showed four queens and an ace. “But it seems like my salvation came at last.”
Those seated at the table gaped in such silence Jesse thought he’d gone deaf. After the hushed moment, however, the loitering audience around the quintet burst into cheers and snickering, cringes and sympathetic groans.
Jesse pivoted at the bar, his anticipation turning like a steer in a rodeo. He watched Wallis collect up his winnings until a hole remained where the pot had been grown. A few bits, he felt sure would find their way into his hand somehow.
The reedy man stood and donned his cap with a slight tip of his brim. “Evening, gentlemen.”
Putting his back on them all, Wallis strode out of the saloon. The rhythmic thump of his stride smacked Jesse in the head like the tick of the grandfather clock in the Madison Hotel’s foyer. His chest suddenly emptied like the table top and he sagged against the bar.
“He can’t just leave like that,” he whispered, “I helped him—”
He flinched when Perkins shoved the broom handle under his nose.
“You can get a raw deal, Jesse,” whispered the saloon keeper, “or an honest one.”
Staring at the broom’s skirt, Jesse swiped the back of his hand over his mouth, his taste for favors and baseless hopes souring on his tongue. Heaving a sigh, he took the handle.
“Be sure to get under the tables this time,” said Perkins.
“Yes sir,” said Jesse.
While those at the table departed in a grim quiet and the rest poured their hearts into the bottom of their glasses, Jesse bowed his head and resumed his sweep of dirt and manure from the saloon’s tobacco-stained floor. He avoided a glance at the night outside, not willing to bet whether or not Gabriel Wallis would once again darken their door.