Welcome back, oh devotees of CONJURING MISERY. We’re (by this I mean, me, Dave Benneman and Camille Douglass) happy to pick up our tale of gunslinging mayhem and magic as we rejoin our plucky gambler, Sam, at his invite only poker game….
The cards were not falling into my lap as usual and my ability to sense what the other players might have was hit or miss. Gunther came through loud and clear, but I could take his money without any help. I played my cards smart and kept my bets conservative. Villalobos was less clear, but his tells were readable. When I looked at Jinx thousands of playing cards swirled about caught in a twister. It made me dizzy. Miss Snake projected her usual blank slate. Two Crows scared the shit out of me. Searching him had me staring into an endless abyss. Blacker than midnight and smelling of death. I didn’t usually get scents making Two Crows doubly disturbing.
Gunther’s stake diminished with each hand. I watched Villalobos close as he dealt the next hand. He seemed the most likely to pull a fast one. Hard as I tried I couldn’t get Two Crows to do more than grunt at me when I asked him something. I had the distinct feeling the stakes were higher than the pot indicated. Everyone at the table had that look in their eye a miner gets when he first sees a sign of gold. For some it meant greed and for others it signified power.
The half playing card matching my own was more of a summons than an invite. It meant the Yaqui Star was in play. Throwing my lot in with the sisters seemed like a smarter move with every deal. Villalobos didn’t have it. If he did, he’d be high-tailing it back to Mendez with the goods. Gunther was a throw away. He didn’t belong here. Once his money ran out, he would be tossed out on his ass. Jinx represented the wild card. Was he with us or against us? Based on my observations I leaned toward against. Two Crows could be holding the goods. It was an Indian relic after all. He could also be in pursuit of the Star. I was no closer to figuring this out than when I walked in.
Smoke came in with chaos on one arm and charm on the other. Her constant traveling companions were easily recognizable. “Hey y’all, brought you some decent hooch if anyone’s interested.” Glasses clinked in her hand as she waved them about.
“What the hell? Is this a public hanging?” Villalobos pointed a dirty finger at her. “Get out. This here is private game.”
Smoke’s smile grew sharper. “If you want to count to ten tomorrow, you’ll put that away. Mendez is not a man who likes damaged goods. He’ll throw you out with yesterdays bath water if I send you back with nine fingers.”
Confusion washed over his face, but to his credit, he slowly lowered his finger.
Jinx chuckled, but didn’t look up from his cards. “Don’t pay her no mind. She’s as flaky as yo mama’s biscuits.”
“Who’s responsible for letting that old reprobate in here?” She motioned at Jinx with her bottle of hooch. “I didn’t know Meemaw’s apron strings stretched this far. Or are you AWOL from the protection of her womb?”
Jinx’s color turned a little darker. “Shut it Smoke, before I put you across my knee and whip your fanny.”
I noticed too that his projection changed from a whirlwind of cards to a dark figure in a hooded shroud. This twisted my mind even further. Over the years, I understood the projections that came to me were of significance to the person sending at that moment. During a poker game, most men concentrated on their cards, giving me a peek into their hand. Any other time the images meant nothing to me and were all over the place, to the point I taught myself to block them out. Tonight the volatile gathering made blocking them out difficult.
Smoke laughed and set the booze and glasses down next to me. “Why don’t you try that? Lay hands on me once and I’ll gut you like a fish. Alls’ I need is one reasonable explanation for Meemaw.” She gave a careless shrug. “She won’t like it, but I’ll take my chances.”
“You much respected by your family Jinx.” Villalobos slapped the table rattling glasses. He laughed alone.
Two Crows looked like he was taking a nap, but I knew he saw everything through those slitted eyes. Poor Gunther was about to soil his britches. Jinx glared at Villalobos. Snake sat quiet, but her mouth held a hint of a smile. I think she was hoping to see Jinx gutted. Aside from me, it appeared no one liked Jinx. At the moment, I had no opinion one-way or the other.
“Don’t you worry your greasy head over it none,” the beleaguered redhead drawled, finally looking up. “Respect is over rated. Fear of me is what they have. And their fear will keep them breathing until they forget.”
I opened the bottle Smoke brought in and poured myself a liberal amount. “Here’s to fear.” I tossed back the drink. “Now can we get back to the game at hand?”
The room felt crowded and the air thickened. I waited.
“Señorita, you are playing?” Villalobos asked.
Smoke’s red lips made a sneer of distaste. “I think I’ll sit this hand out.”
“There is no room for, how you say, sitting out.” He watched her the way a cat watched a curious mouse. “Play or leave.” He twisted one end of his mustache.
“Look who found his cajones.” Smoke applauded.
Villalobos pushed back his chair. Before he could rise, Snake’s two lead spitting machines were out. One pointed at Jinx. The barrel of the second one placed squarely in the center of Villalobos’ dark eyes.
“Niece of mine, why you pointing that at me?” Jinx set his cards face down on the table.
“You never know what direction trouble comes from.” Her full attention remained on Villalobos even as her tone stayed lazy. “Maybe you get shot in the crossfire. One can’t be too careful.” There was no humor, just haunting darkness as she continued, “You’re going to want to slide your macho ass back into that chair before I have to ventilate your forehead. You understand me, Mexican?”
With the introduction of Snake’s two side arms, the room got smaller and the air huddled in the corners. I considered cashing out. My gut screamed to cut and run. I was a lover, not a fighter. Yet when it came down to it, I stayed. I could hold my own under normal circumstances. Dragon Breath spilled her share of blood in desperate times. I could see another such moment arriving here as clearly as one could see a late night train arriving at the station.
Raising both hands, I slowly stood. “Let’s all settle down a little. Miss Smoke, if you would please join us.” I grabbed an empty chair sitting behind me and made space between Two Crows and myself. She gracefully sat with a rustle of taffeta and pushed in her chair.
“Mr. Villalobos, please.” He scooted in, not much, but enough.
Now for the hard part. “Miss Snake, if I might, implore you to put your weapons away for the moment.”
That half smile returned and she nodded at me. I understood this as direction to sit. I sat and she retired her pistols keeping the one on Jinx until the very last. Obviously, the sisters wanted me to believe they had issue with their Uncle Jinx. For what, I could only imagine.
Straightening my glasses, I cleared my throat. “Before we begin, I suggest we all try some of this very tasty moonshine Miss Smoke so graciously brought us. At no small expense either, if I know Charlie.” I poured and passed glasses around the table. To my surprise, Two Crows accepted one. “May Lady Luck sit at your right hand tonight.” Everyone drank, except Two Crows. He politely lifted his glass, but the moonshine never touched his lips.
Smoke arranged two bit coins along with an ample supply of silver dollars.
I held my hand out for the cards. They were passed my way with only a little grumbling.
Gunther mopped sweat off his brow and forced a smile. “That’s more like it. A friendly game of cards.”
I was sure he’d soiled his britches by now and was grateful I hadn’t chosen to sit next to him. “Miss Smoke, as the new comer you may have the honor of the deal.” I showed off my one handed cut before passing her the cards.
The deal progressed around the table to Jinx without incident. Gunther was one hand away from getting the boot and I didn’t understand his purpose here. At least, not until he shared how he and Diamond Jim were old friends. Seemed the two served in the war together, fighting for South. The more he drank the more he talked. When he got to the story about Jim’s Indian girl friend, no one interrupted but the tension grew to a fever pitch. Wrapped in alcoholic splendor, Gunther remained oblivious as he related how the Yaqui Star came to be in Jim’s possession. As he babbled on, I wondered. He must know, or at least have a guess, as to the where abouts of this sought after piece of folklore.
With a pair of aces and an eight, I raised the bet.
Jinx passed out the fourth card and I froze. Another eight. The dead man’s hand.
I would not be playing this hand out.
Our humblest apologies, but we shall stop here, mid-chapter so as not to take you away from your daily routine for too long. Tune in next week for the exciting conclusion to Sam’s dilemma on our way to the next blood curling stop in our magical western adventure…