Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of short fiction based on Dark Trails RPG classes by Pete Spahn. As part of separate project Pete and his partner Brandon Goeringer stat out the story.
Gambler: With the big changes running through the weird West, the gambler could be called the chosen paladin of Lady Luck, able to manipulate the ebb and flow of chance like an occultist weaves arcane energy. Gamblers alter the probability of events going on in their surroundings and have a skill set that favors thievery and subterfuge.1
Virginia City, Nevada, 1870.
The Bird Hall Saloon was crowded and thick with the smell of smoke and whiskey. The dancehall girls wandered about, entertaining guests and soliciting drinks while the piano player pounded out a lively rendition of Arthur McBride.
At a high stakes poker table in the back, Grant Calloway had been plying his trade for the past three hours, winning and losing just enough to keep everyone invested in the game. He had gradually upped the ante until he had the other players right where he wanted them. Now the time had come to break things open.
Grant called upon his secret benefactor, Lady Luck, as he shuffled the cards. Her power flowed through him in invisible waves, washing over the deck. His fingertips tingled with unseen energy as he slid each card across the table. This was his gift, bestowed upon him years ago during the hellish time known as the Seven Days of Night, when the world had changed forever and his life had suddenly become richer. The hands would be dealt, the game would be played, but there was no way he could lose.
The players looked over their cards and placed their bets. Raises and calls followed. Stacks of poker chips filled the center of the table. Old cards were discarded and new cards drawn. Then it was time to make his move.
“I’ll raise,” Grant said. “Ten thousand dollars.” He slid a stack of chips into the already sizable pot. A crowd had started to gather and the spectators whistled at the sight.
“Fold!” Calvin Weems said.
He slapped his cards face down, disgusted. The big cattle rancher was always drunk and covered in dirt, like he’d just stepped off the trail. But his money was good, and that’s all Grant cared about. Grant even pretended not to notice the way Weems glared at him from across the table.
Ollie Decatur sighed and laid his cards down. “Too rich for my blood.”
Ollie was a good man, a prospector who had struck gold in the hills near the Comstock. Weak-willed and not too bright, his partner had bought out his stake in the Gray River Mine last winter. Ollie liked to gamble and Grant suspected that much of the money from that sale was already gone.
“The bet goes to you, Miss Boudreaux,” Grant said.
The beautiful Creole woman bit the corner of her bottom lip. Evelyn Boudreaux was way out of her league. It was obvious she came from money, but just as obvious she had fallen on hard times. Although she still dressed and carried herself like a proper lady, Grant could see the wear on her clothes and the haunted look in her dark, voluminous eyes. He had warned her of the stakes before she sat down. Now, her money was on the table, the same as everyone else’s.
Ned Dixby shifted in the chair next to her, stroking his mustache. “Ma’am, he’s a cagey one. I’ve played against him for the past two years and he never bets large unless he’s sure he’s got a winning hand.”
“Thank you for your observation, Mr. Dixby,” she said. “But as I informed Mr. Calloway when I first sat down, I learned how to play cards in my father’s parlor in New Orleans. I have studied at the hands of stately lords, noble princes, and other men of great means—high rollers all. I can play my own hand.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Dixby conceded, unconvinced.
“I’ll call,” she said. Still, the way she wrung her delicate hands was an obvious tell. She was not confident in her cards. Not that it mattered.
That left only Dixby. He was the only one at the table who could offer Grant a real challenge. Shrewd and observant, the professional cardsharp had ranged the Mississippi for years, gambling and winning far more than he had lost. Grant almost admired the man. He was what Grant would have become had he not been kissed by the fortunes of Lady Luck. Grant had played him straight in the past, without calling upon Lady Luck to sway the outcome, and had found they were evenly matched.
“I’m out,” Dixby said. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
“It was your raise, Mr. Calloway,” Miss Boudreaux said, yet beneath her calm demeanor, Grant could see the desperation in her eyes.
He spread his cards on the table. “Straight Flush. Hearts.”
Her face fell. She turned over her cards without a word.
“Full House,” Dixby said, leaning back in his chair. “Damn.”
Dixby lifted his glass in toast, gracious as always. “Well played.”
Weems slid his chair back from the table and stood there glowering, fists clenched.
“Ain’t nobody can win that many hands!”
Grant was careful to keep his eyes off the big .44 thrust through Weems’s belt. His own hand fell beneath the table to rest on the butt of his Colt. The move was so practiced that no one seemed to notice. This wouldn’t be the first time a hand of poker had ended in bloodshed.
His other hand hovered close to his cards, ready to pick up and throw the straight flush at a moment’s notice. He was a fair hand with a gun, but if necessary, he could turn each card into a glowing missile that was more powerful and deadly than any bullet. Doing so would reveal his true nature, of course, and he wasn’t quite ready to do that, but he might not have a choice. Nobody could be allowed to call him a cheat and live.
“Easy,” Dixby said to Weems. “We don’t need that kind of talk here. He played it fair as far as I could tell. I was watching for it on the deal.”
“Then he must be the luckiest man in the room!”
“I often am,” Grant said.
Weems snorted and cursed, but the threat of violence had drained from him. He sat down and shouted for another drink. Grant reached out to rake in his chips but stopped when Miss Boudreaux rested her tiny hand on his.
“Please, Mr. Calloway. I . . . I seem to have wagered more than I can afford to lose. I am not the woman of means that I appear. My father has recently taken ill. We have lost our family home. I thought I might use the skills I learned in his parlor to restore our family name, but I see now that I was mistaken.”
Grant was acutely aware of the eyes upon him. He had to tread carefully here. She was not the first person to bet beyond their means and then try to take it back, but she was a woman, and a beautiful woman at that. How he handled this situation could affect his reputation among his peers.
“Such is the way of the gambler, Miss Boudreaux,” he said. “I will be happy to see to your lodging until travel arrangements can be made for your return trip to New Orleans, but I’m afraid I can offer little else.”
“Come now, man,” Dixby said. “Have you no heart? The girl has lost everything.”
“I am not unsympathetic to her plight,” Grant replied. “But you know as well as I do that everyone who loses at cards has a story to tell, usually a sad one. What would you have me do?”
“Wait,” Miss Boudreaux said. She unbuttoned her dress at the top and removed her necklace. It sparkled richly in the light. The quality of the gold was apparent; the diamonds were exquisite. Greed lit the eyes of every man in the room.
“I do not ask for charity,” she said. “This necklace belonged to my mother, and her mother before her. It should be more than equal to what is on the table.”
Grant shook his head. “I can’t take that, ma’am,” he said.
Not that he didn’t want to. But there would be nowhere he could show his face if he won. The men of the West lived by a rough code of honor and would not tolerate someone taking advantage of a lady in need.
Miss Boudreaux’s face fell.
“I’ll stake her, damn you,” Weems said. “Ma’am, if you lose, you keep your mother’s necklace. We’ll call it a loan and you can pay it back once your family gets back on its feet.”
“Thank you, Mr. Weems,” she said quietly. “That is very kind of you. I will not forget this.”
“You’re welcome, ma’am. It’ll be enough to see you win and wipe that smug look off Calloway’s face.”
Weems wagged a finger in Grant’s direction. “But I call the game. Poker. Five cards. No cut, no draw. You play the hand you’re dealt. I want a new deck and I want Ollie to deal. Whatta ya say, Calloway? You in?”
Grant clapped his hands and spread them apart in the air over the chips. “You have the table, sir. I’m all in.”
Grant tried to hide his smile. He might balk at taking a woman’s family heirloom, but he had no qualms at all about further lightening the pockets of Calvin Weems.
“It’s settled, then,” Dixby said.
A ripple of excited murmurs ran through the saloon. The spectacle quickly drew others from the street and a round of bets were wagered on the side. Someone handed Ollie Decatur a new deck and he broke it open. He shuffled the cards and started to deal them out, shifting uncomfortably under the gaze of the watchful crowd. All eyes looked for a bottom draw or some other shady trick, but Ollie was no cheat and every man here knew it.
As the cards fell, Grant took a deep breath. He called upon Lady Luck, willing her power to flow through him and into the cards as he had so many times before. But something was wrong. The wave of energy he normally felt had been reduced to a trickle, a light in the darkness that quickly fizzled and died. Frantically, he realized that his mystical luck had turned. Lady Luck had abandoned him! All the money he owned was on the table and he would have to play the hand straight.
Dixby noticed his discomfort. “Something wrong?”
“Not at all,” Grant said, composing himself.
He picked up his cards and fanned them apart. His hands began to tremble as he studied his draw. The Deuce of Diamonds, the Ace of Spades, the Ace of Clubs, the Eight of Spades, and the Eight of Clubs. Two pairs. Aces and Eights. The Dead Man’s Hand.
Sweat beaded his brow as a wave of fear washed over. The crowd had grown silent and tense with anticipation, waiting for him to lay down his cards. Grant could not. To draw the Dead Man’s Hand meant bad luck in the days to come, but to reveal it meant certain death—or so the true gamblers claimed.
“Blast it, man,” Calvin Weems shouted, exasperated. “Show your hand, already!”
Grant shook his head and placed his cards face-down on the table.
“Fold,” he said.
The crowd erupted in shock, with equal shouts of joy and outrage. Arguments started and men threatened each other with violence. Many felt they had been taken.
Weems jumped to his feet, flabbergasted. “You can’t fold! I paid to see that hand!”
He reached for the cards, but Miss Boudreaux stopped him.
“Please don’t, Mr. Weems,” she said. “Mr. Calloway has folded. It would be bad Mojo to turn his cards over now.” Grant blinked, surprised. Bad Mojo? Then he caught the look of amusement that passed between Evelyn Boudreaux and Ned Dixby and realized he had just been played. Evelyn Boudreaux had also been kissed by Lady Luck and her kiss ran deeper than his own.
“Mr. Calloway,” Miss Boudreaux said. “It’s not nice to stare at a lady with one’s mouth agape.”
Ned grinned at him. “Grant Calloway, allow me to introduce you to Miss Evelyn Boudreaux, legendary gambler extraordinaire, but you might know her better as the Dark Lady of the French Quarter. Would you like to join us for a late dinner? It will be our treat, of course. We have a business proposition we’d like you to hear, if you’re of a mind. Something that might put your considerable talents to better and more worthwhile use.”
Included for those not familiar with the Class ↩