1

 

“WELL, LAFOUX, are you going to bid or fold?” Shank asked.

Sweat dripped down Hugh Lafoux’s hard-set face. He glanced at the other men around the poker table. The early summer heat had them all sweating, even in the cooling evening air that wafted slowly through the calico curtains, moved about by a gentle breeze off the river and slowly turning ceiling fans powered by the huge boiler that moved the boat’s massive paddle wheel. His opponents ranged from the soft banker out of Saint Louis, to a cowboy who wandered into the game at the last minute, to Al Shank, the swarthy owner of the riverboat Bayou Belle, who organized the game. Of all the men, Shank was the only one Hugh knew well enough to dislike.

Hugh looked at his cards, not a winning hand, not by a long shot. He glanced at the pile of coins on the table. A decent pot, but not the biggest of the evening. If he was going to get enough money to move on west, he needed more. He stacked his cards and laid them on the green felt in front of him. “Fold.”

Shank smiled as he reached for the pot. “I knew you were just bluffing. You keep claiming you’re a big-time gambler, but your face is an open book, at least to me.”

“You’re just having a lucky streak tonight, Shank.” Hugh tried not to frown and show his irritation with the riverboat owner. He glanced at his pocket watch. Not yet nine o’clock.

The player calliope in the corner cut off and the petite evening singer, Susie Sweet Tones, took the stage in a swirl of bright-colored skirts, a low-cut bodice, and curly brown hair. As Shank began shuffling the cards, she broke into a sultry song that drew the attention of almost every man in the bar.

“She’s worth every penny I pay her.” Shank chuckled as he passed the cards to the cowboy to cut. “She’ll make sure every man on this boat is ready for my top-deck ladies by the time she’s done with them.”

The cowboy smiled. “She does have a sweet voice. Nicer than some of them singers in the saloons out west. If you ask me, most of them women were just dropped off some wagon train when their menfolk couldn’t handle their screeching any longer.”

Hugh nodded slowly as the first card came his way. “I heard some of the little songbirds in Atlanta before she burned. Now there were some fine voices.” He waited patiently for all five to be dealt before he picked up his cards. The singer didn’t distract him like she appeared to do to the cowboy. He knew her, and they were friends, nothing more. Neither of them had anything the other was interested in.

“She says she used to play the bigger houses in Atlanta.” Shank shrugged as he finished dealing. “I’ve got no way to check. Since the war there’s not much left, but her voice is fine enough and she’s honest.” His gaze landed on Hugh. “Honesty is hard to come by in these parts nowadays, what with all them damned carpetbaggers coming down to help us rebuild and taking a good portion of what they want for themselves.” Then he laughed while he studied his cards. “But we all know that. So, gentlemen, I think I’ll open the bid with a dollar.” A silver coin hit the table’s green felt with a soft thud.

Everyone anted up, cards were discarded, and new cards were studied.

Although he didn’t need to, Hugh sighed as he stacked his cards in his hands, set them on the table, and tapped them.

Shank slid two silver dollars into the pile of coins in the center of the table. “We’re up to two dollars, gentlemen.”

Hugh studied his cards again. He had a full boat with queens high. It would be hard to beat. He tapped the cards and looked uncertainly at the other players.

Shank smiled. The banker studied his cards, stacked them in his hand, then spread them out again as if uncertain what he had there. Leaning back in his chair, the cowboy sighed and put his cards down on the table, a contented look on his rugged features as he slid two silver dollars across the green felt.

Hugh slid five coins into the pot. “Raise to three dollars.”

“Must have a good hand there, Lafoux.” Shank grinned harder. “I’ll see your three dollars and raise to five dollars.”

The cowboy nodded and slid two more coins into the growing pile, as did Hugh.

“I don’t know.” The banker shook his head before he added his coins to the pile.

Making a show of glancing at his cards, Shank nodded. “I think I’ll take one more card. Anyone else?”

“Nope.” The cowboy didn’t even pick up his cards. “I’m fine here.”

With a heavy sigh, Hugh picked up his cards and glanced nervously at the cowboy. It’s possible to beat a full boat, but he’s being too forward about it. He’s bluffing. Hugh shook his head. “I’m good.” He stacked the cards again and set them on the table in front of him.

“Three.” The banker slid three cards to the discard pile with a shaking hand.

Shank slid the requested cards to the nervous man, then looked at his own with a blank expression. The banker frowned at his cards, pulled out a silk handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped his sweating brow.

I bet he’s just a bank teller, Hugh thought to himself. He’s too nervous to be in charge of a bank. I bet he’d wet himself if he ever got held up. Just the type to hand over everything without even trying to put up a fight. I bet he’s from back east and trying to hide his accent. He’s probably terrified just being west of New York.

“So let’s raise the bid to ten dollars.” Shank moved his coins over.

The cowboy looked at his cards, then at the pile of coins. “I’ll see that.” He didn’t have many coins left after he slid his out onto the table.

Hugh felt comfortable with his winnings so far and added to the pot with a slow nod. The large pot would add nicely to the money he was gathering to head west in hopes of starting a new life.

“I fold.” The banker tossed his hand onto the discard pile. “I think I need a drink.”

“Don’t take too long if you want in on the next hand.” Shank glanced at his cards, then at the pot. “Looks to me like you both have good hands.”

The cowboy leaned forward, and a bit of hay floated off his black hat. “I might, and I might not. Why, are you thinking about making this interesting?”

Shank’s gaze rested on Hugh. Hugh shrugged. “What’s on your mind, Shank?” He’d sat across the table from Shank too many times to trust him.

“It’s been a lively game. Our friend from the range here is looking a bit low in funds. It might be time to open up the bidding a bit.” Shank’s flabby face remained unreadable, but Hugh knew the kind of bargains the riverboat owner made to people when they were short of funds. Many of his employees had run out of money in a poker game and found themselves working it off for years on end.

“If it means I can walk out with this here pot, you’ve got my attention.” The cowboy smiled. The two missing teeth in the front and the yellow tobacco stains ruined his rugged handsomeness.

“What have you got beyond your dwindling stack of coins, cowboy?” Shank looked him over. The move reminded Hugh of the way plantation owners used to look at slaves during an auction. It felt worse than how lonely, desperate men fresh off the trail looked at whores.

The cowboy frowned. “I ain’t putting up my horse. He’s been with me too long. Now my saddle’s worth a good twenty-five dollars. My rifle’s worth thirty. It’s got one of them newfangled mini spyglass scopes on it. I can hit a rabbit at half a mile with it, thanks to some adjustments that a tinkerer back in Saint Louis did to it. He added a removable chamber that can hold a lot of bullets. Best gun I ever fired. Even with all the bullets, it’s lightweight.”

“We can start with the rifle.” Shank slid twenty coins into the pot. “Bid’s at twenty.”

“But the rifle’s worth thirty.” The cowboy looked at his cards. “Fine. Twenty.”

Hugh wondered what he’d do with another rifle. He tried to avoid gunfighting if he could. “I’ll see the twenty.” Hugh thought about raising but decided to wait until the cowboy was out of the game. He didn’t want to take advantage of his obvious desperation, at least at the poker table; then, remembering the missing and yellow teeth, Hugh mentally shook his head. No, I wouldn’t even take advantage of him that way.

Shank called the next round. The cowboy turned over two pair, aces and kings with a queen trailing. Hugh breathed a little easier as he turned over his full boat, queens high.

“Nice hand.” Shank chuckled as he turned over his own full boat, jacks high with two fives. “Well played, Lafoux… well played. I guess you get a new rifle with a fancy scope on it.”

The banker came back over, clutching a glass of whiskey, as Hugh raked the pot over to his side of the table. I won that one fair and square. Unfortunately the cowboy is about empty and the banker doesn’t have much in him, even if he does have some cash. I’ll need to take this next hand as high as I can. It’s liable to be the last hand. I’m not about to play Shank just the two of us.

 

 

A QUARTER hour later, as Susie finished up her set, Hugh smiled at Shank, the cowboy, and the banker. “Well, gentlemen, it’s been a good game.” He raked the coins into his hands. At least the previous hands were honest enough that they don’t realize how much I took them for in the last hand.

“It’s always good to have you stop by at the Bayou Belle, Lafoux.” Shank chuckled, but there was something under it that sent chills through Hugh. “It’s just nicer when you leave with your pockets lighter, not heavier with ill-gotten gain.”

Shit! Hugh forced himself to remain calm as he put his winnings into his pocket. “Just a lucky night, I guess.” He knows I switched cards that last hand. I don’t know how, but Al knows. I need to get out of here. I hope we’re close to the dock. Not in the mood to swim for shore tonight.

“We’ll need to go up to my room to get my rifle,” the cowboy said.

Hugh glanced at Shank. If he didn’t go with the cowboy, it would look suspicious. He could bow out of taking the rifle once they got away from Al and his men in the bar. If he was lucky, he’d make it to shore before too many of Shank’s men were on his tail. “Okay, let’s go. I’ve got a room waiting for me near the river, so I need to get going as soon as we dock.” That was a safe story; there were plenty of rooms along the river in Memphis, but his was closer to the center of town.

He waved at Susie as she made her way to the bar. If he didn’t, Shank might realize he was going to try to run. Susie waved back but stopped to talk to the bartender.

A short, skinny Negro rushed into the room, nearly knocking the cowboy down as he made for Shank. He said something Hugh couldn’t hear above a strange chugging out on the water.

“What!” Shank roared. “I can’t believe that.”

“Which floor you on?” Hugh asked as he and the cowboy walked out of the bar and into the mezzanine in the middle of the boat. The lights of Memphis were still a short distance away. Too far for his liking. Back in the bar, it sounded like Shank was getting madder.

“Second deck, over the engine room,” the cowboy replied and started toward the stairs going down.

That would be bad. In the distance, a church bell tolled ten. “Hey, tell you what, I really don’t want your rifle.”

“You won it fair and square.” The cowboy shook his head emphatically. “My momma, rest her soul, always told me not to gamble. I just can’t help myself.”

“Pardner, you keep your rifle with its fancy new scope. I really need to be going. I’ll lose my room if I’m not there by ten fifteen.” Without waiting for a reply, Hugh turned toward where the gangplank would be shortly to jump off the boat, if necessary. Two men stepped out of the shadows as he neared the wooden path to freedom.

“Now, Lafoux.” Shank’s voice came from behind him. “You’re not going to run off before you collect all your winnings, are you? I’m sure our friend here wants to make sure you have everything you won fair and square.”

“We’ve already worked out something, Al. You don’t need to worry yourself about anything. My pardner here and I are perfectly happy with our agreement.”

Shank put his flabby arm over the cowboy’s shoulder. “Surely you haven’t been on the range so long you’re willing to take this no-account instead of any of my lovely ladies. Or did he even bother telling you all the conditions of him not wanting your gun?”

The cowboy stepped away from Hugh with a harsh frown. “What are you talking about?”

“Never mind.” Shank shook his head. “Just leave him to me. We’ll see him off the boat. Keep your rifle and don’t worry about anything the rest of the night.” He turned the cowboy toward the stairs.

The sweat running down Hugh’s back had nothing to do with the steamy night air that had lost most of the pleasantness he’d first felt when he walked outside. “Now, Shank. Can we talk about this? What split would you like?” If Shank had caught him cheating, he might as well not deny it. He didn’t mind cheating, but out-and-out lying was something he didn’t like to do, even to a snake like Shank.

Shank waited until the cowboy had disappeared down the stairs. “Split?” He spun toward Hugh faster than expected. His fist connected with Hugh’s jaw.

Hugh rocked backward and hit his head against the heavy wooden beam on the corner of the wall. His head pounded and he saw stars. He struggled to stand, grasping the corner he’d hit so hard. “Come on Al, let’s talk about this.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of coins with a shaking hand. He carefully left the majority of his winnings hidden, hoping to get away with something for his evening. “Here, take it. It’s not worth my life.” From the rumors he’d heard recently about Shank, his might not be the first life to feed the gators in the Belle’s wake.

Shank laughed. “The money’s not worth your life. You’re right. But I think it’s time I made an example of you.” As the coins fell to the deck with an almost musical clang, Shank stepped away from Hugh. “Lafoux, too many people think they can come onto one of my boats and cheat me. Sometimes it’s just me and sometimes it’s the house. I need to show people I’m not going to put up with cheaters anymore.” He gestured to his heavies. The first one struck Hugh with a blow to the gut that doubled him over. “I’ll spread the word that your disappearance is tied to your cheating tonight. I’m sure no one will really miss you.”

Thrusting his hand into his pocket, Hugh grasped the handle of his derringer pistol. He straightened and didn’t bother pulling the gun from his pocket; he just pulled the trigger.

The thug on his right stumbled away as the bullet grazed his leg. “Shit! He shot me!”

The other heavy yanked Hugh’s arm painfully out of his pocket. The little gun fell back into the pile of coins still in his pants. A few more coins clinked to the deck. “No more of that.” He punched Hugh in the face.

Hugh stumbled backward, hoping someone heard the shot and might come to his rescue, but it was Shank’s boat. A wall stopped his retreat, and the thug he’d shot hobbled over to him. The next blow, which struck him in the groin, was harder than any he’d suffered before, outside of the cannonball that had taken his leg. Hugh stopped trying to stand. He fell to the deck and hoped the beating would stop. A ringing started in his head as one of the heavies kicked him hard, leaving the iron taste of blood in his mouth. He curled himself into a fetal position, trying to protect his head, but they just kicked him in the back.

Finally, in the distance, Shank called them off. “Boys, I think anyone watching has the point. Now get rid of him. It’s time to throw this card away like the joker he is.”

Rough hands lifted Hugh from the deck. His legs slowly unfolded, almost on their own. His black leather boots dragged on the wooden deck as they half carried him, half pulled him toward the rear of the boat and the giant paddle wheel that churned there.

“Lafoux, you weren’t even the best cardplayer I ever had on my boat.” Shank stepped in front of the men carrying Hugh. “I’m sure somewhere, someone might miss you, but I doubt they’ll shed many tears for you.”

He stepped away from Hugh, and the thugs lifted him over the rail. The air cooled for a moment as Hugh fell from the ship toward the murky depths of the Mississippi River. The wheel hit his back hard before the water engulfed him. The paddle wheel spun and tossed up water around him, but he somehow missed the turning death Shank had planned for him. He came up in the shower of water dripping from the wheel, gulped air twice, then a current pulled him down.