A Turn of the Cards
(Part Four of The Ranch Days Series)
By Maz McCoy
Brown eyes studied the cards. They flicked to the pot in the centre of the table, then at the faces of the players. Smoke filled the room and the murmur of alcohol fuelled conversation dulled into the background as he focussed on the game.
“Two,” Heyes said, discarding cards from his hand and picking up the replacements the dealer sent his way.
“One,” the man next to him replied to the dealer’s questioning look.
Heyes spread his hand. He licked his lips, keeping his emotions in check. It was a good hand. A winning hand in most games, but then the man next to him wasn’t playing in most games. The dark-haired man was smartly dressed and played with confidence. He tapped a finger against his lips but it gave nothing away, he did that whenever he was thinking, whether he won or lost. Heyes had established that much. He drank very little when he played; a single glass of whiskey had sat in front of him for nearly an hour.
Heyes looked up at the dealer’s question.
“Yeah. Ten.” He tossed his money in the pot.
He heard Jed’s gasp behind him. Sheesh, he hoped the kid hadn’t seen his cards and, if he had, that he would give nothing away. Ten dollars was a lot of money but he was sure this was a winning hand. Correction, he KNEW this was a winning hand. He’d followed the cards, knew the chances of any number of combinations coming up. There was no way…
They were waiting for him to show his cards. Heyes suppressed a smug grin at the cards already on the table. His hand beat them all. He spread his cards. His mouth dropped open when the dark-haired stranger placed his hand face up. How the…?
“Sorry, son. Looks like I win this one.”
Heyes could only watch as the man pulled the pot towards him. The man met his eyes.
“Let me buy you a drink. I’d like a word with you.” He turned to the others. “Deal me out for a while fellas.” Pushing back his chair he set off for the bar. After a moment, Heyes joined him. He was grateful that Jed didn’t feel the need to remind him of just how much he had just lost, nor that he’d been playing with some of Jed’s money as well as his own. Nathan placed a conciliatory hand on Heyes’ shoulder.
“Tough luck, Heyes.”
“Maxwell Carrington.” Heyes shook the stranger’s offered hand.
The man caught the bartender’s eye and ordered two whiskeys.
“You play well.”
“You play better.”
“Thank you. You didn’t expect that last hand.”
“No. I thought I had them all accounted for but…” Heyes shrugged and took a drink.
“I’m impressed by your skill. For someone so young…” He looked at Heyes and smiled. “No offence meant.”
“None taken. I watched you. I couldn’t tell whether you had a good hand or not. You’ve got the best poker face I’ve seen.”
“You’re a serious player too and a skilled one. You could be a lot better.”
“I’m always willing to learn.”
“Let’s go over there.” Carrington indicated an empty table in the far corner. Picking up his drink he headed towards it and Heyes followed.
Jed leaned his back against the bar and watched his friend as he sat in conversation with Carrington.
“You seen him around before?” he asked Nathan. The ranch hand took a closer look at the stranger.
“Nope.” His eyes slid sideways to meet the youngster’s. “You worried?”
“No!” Jed lied.
“So you’re not thinking Heyes’ new friend might be a card sharp?”
Two blue eyes looked up at him.
“You worried he might get Heyes into trouble?”
“Perhaps you should have a word.”
“He won’t listen to me.” Jed’s eyes narrowed as Heyes laughed at something Carrington said.
“Then maybe we should keep an eye on him?”
“The table next to them’s free.” Nathan smiled, put a hand on Jed’s shoulder and led the way across the room. Sitting down he leaned casually back in the chair as if he didn’t have a care in the world and the fact that he could hear every word Carrington said was pure coincidence. Jed settled into the opposite seat realising too late that he was in Heyes’ direct line of sight. Jed met Heyes’ gaze and leaned closer, listening.
“Would you be up for a little wager, Hannibal?”
Jed was shocked the man had used his friend’s Christian name. Heyes didn’t like it and only let Jed call him Han because he’d done it all their lives.
“What do you have in mind?” Heyes asked, casually.
“What do you think the odds are of making five pat hands out of any twenty five cards you deal?” He pulled a deck from his jacket pocket and tapped them on the table.
“That a straight deck?”
“I’m shocked at the suggestion!” Carrington smiled, mockingly, as he placed a hand on his heart. Heyes suppressed a smile of his own.
Heyes eyed the cards.
“Any twenty five?”
“You can shuffle them and deal them yourself.”
“Well, I guess maybe the odds are…A hundred to one?”
“Pretty high then.” He watched Heyes. “What would you wager?”
“Against you doing it?”
“I don’t know. You took…I mean you won, most of my money.”
“Well then, let me give you the chance to win it back.”
“I got nothing to bet.”
“I’ve got ten dollars.” Nathan pushed back his chair. “If you reckon he can’t do it?”
“I don’t know, I mean five pat hands…?” Heyes frowned in thought. He turned to Carrington. “Okay.” He picked up the cards and shuffled the deck, then shuffled it again. Finally he dealt twenty five cards, face up on the table. Carrington leaned forward and studied the cards. He began to move them, matching pairs, creating straights, moving several from one pile to the next. Heyes watched, fascinated. As the cards began to form poker hands his confidence began to wane. Jed saw his friend frown.
“How’s he doing?”
“Good. Very good.”
In less than a minute Carrington sat back. The others blinked at the five pat hands laid out before them.
“Wow!” was all Jed could think to say.
“Would you look at that? That really is something,” Nathan muttered, shaking his head in amazement.
“How did you do that?” Heyes asked.
“Works nine times out of ten. Purely a matter of probability.” Carrington smiled at Heyes. “Why don’t you try?”
Heyes gathered the cards together and shuffled them as Nathan reached into his pocket.
“Here.” He held out ten dollars to Carrington. The man took it with thanks.
Heyes handed the cards to Jed.
“Deal me twenty five cards.”
Jed did as asked and his friend studied the cards. As the others watched he slowly made one, then two good hands. He stopped, removed two cards from one hand and replaced them with two others. His hands moved across the table again. Two more hands appeared. Cards were swapped over and then he stood back and smiled. Five pat hands.
“Nine times out of ten,” Carrington said with a smile.
“…And he travelled from New York city to…”
Jed stopped listening. Heyes had been going on and on about Maxwell Carrington ever since they got back from town. Not that he was jealous. No. That wasn’t it at all. It was just that he didn’t stop talking about him. I mean how much could they have possibly talked about in the short time they were together?
“He spent a year in…”
Jed carried a box from the back of the wagon into Henry’s food store.
“Where d’you want this?” he asked the cook.
“At the back. By that sack…Yep, that’s it.”
“He showed me how to spot a…”
Jed passed Heyes on his way back to the wagon. He collected another box and returned to the store.
“I mean, I never would have thought you could tell what cards were…”
Jed placed the box on top of the previous one.
“What’s he talkin’ about?” Henry asked.
“We met a man in town. Good poker player. Heyes thinks he’s the best man he’s ever met.” Jed headed back to the wagon.
“He’s won and lost more money than we’ll make in a lifetime working here.” Heyes smiled at Henry as he carried a sack inside. “He once lost $10,000 in a single game. Can you imagine losing that amount of money? I can’t imagine ever having that amount.”
“Hmm,” was Jed’s only comment. He rolled his eyes as he passed Henry.
Heyes stopped in his tracks as a thought hit him.
“Say Henry, are you a betting man?”
“Seein’ as how we’ve played hours of poker together, I think you already know the answer to that.”
“Well, what do you think about this? You deal twenty five cards and I try to make five pat hands.”
“Any twenty five?”
“It’s okay, Jed. Let me explain to Henry.” He smiled innocently at the cook. “You shuffle the cards and deal twenty five.”
Henry considered this.
“Don’t sound too likely to me. Maybe eighty to one?”
“So, would you be willing to make a small wager?” Heyes waited, hopeful.
Jed, carrying another box, stopped behind him.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m gonna try to make five pat hands.”
“I know, Jed. It’s not easy, I know, but I’m willing to have a go.” He gave his friend a look, telling him in no uncertain terms not to say anything. “Would you bet ten dollars, Henry?”
“I would, but have you got ten dollars for me when you lose?”
“Not in actual cash. Not right now. ”
Henry looked at him.
“You’ll owe me.”
“If I lose.”
Jed sighed and carried the box to the back of the room. When he returned to them, Henry was dealing twenty five cards on top of a box. Jed watched as Heyes pretended to be puzzled by the cards. He frowned, reached for one card and then…No, he didn’t want that one. He picked up an ace, then a king. Henry watched as Heyes rearranged the cards and, to his astonishment, made five pat hands.
“Well I’ll be…”Henry shook his head and checked through each hand. “Five hands, just like that.”
“Works nine times outta ten,” Jed told him as he passed by with yet another box.
Henry looked at Heyes.
“And of course you knew that.”
Henry reached into his pocket, pulling out a few bills. He found ten dollars and handed it to Heyes.
“You don’t think you cheated me, seeing as you knew the odds?”
“It could have been that one time in ten. I coulda lost.”
“Somehow boy, I doubt it. Now go get the rest of my stuff.”
“Boys, come over here.” Jed and Heyes wandered over to where Henry sat at a table, in the bunkhouse, wiping feathers off new laid eggs as he took them from a basket. A basin of cleaned eggs sat on the table beside him. “Sit down.”
They sat, wondering what the cook wanted.
“You caught me good the other day with those five pat hands, so now I have a question for you. What d’you think the odds are of me standing this egg up on this here table?”
“Standing it up, how?” Jed asked.
“On its end, like this.” Henry placed it before him and the egg rolled onto its side.
Heyes looked the cook in the eyes.
“What’s the catch?”
“No catch. It’s a simple question.”
Jed looked to his friend.
“I don’t reckon it can be done.”
“What are you betting?” Heyes asked.
“I got a heap of potatoes need peeling and a chicken coop needs cleaning.”
“And if we win?” Jed asked confidently.
“I’ll cook your favourite food with extra helpings all week.”
Jed turned to Han.
“We hafta take that bet!” Heyes looked sceptical. “Han, we hafta. Extra helpings!”
Heyes looked Henry in the eye once more, not liking the sparkle he saw there but like Jed he couldn’t resist taking the man up on his wager.
“All right. You got a deal.”
Henry picked up an egg and kissed the bottom.
“For luck,” he said as he rested it in his hand. “All right, my little beauty, stand on the table for your uncle Henry.” The boys watched in awe as Henry placed the egg carefully on the table.
“Hello Maxwell.” Heyes walked towards the man standing at the bar.
“Hannibal! Good to see you again. I didn’t think you boys would be back so soon. Come to try those five pat hands again?”
“No sir, but I do have a proposition for you.”
“I’m all ears.”
Heyes reached for an egg from the basin sitting on the bar.
“What do you think are the chances of me standing this egg up on the bar, without cracking it?”
“Without cracking it?”
“Standing on end?”
Carrington studied the young man and his bright eyed blond friend standing beside him.
“May I?” He held his hand out for the egg. Heyes handed it over and Carrington examined it.
“It’s just an egg,” Jed told him, helpfully.
“All right. I can’t see how you can do it.”
“Are you willing to make a wager?”
“D’you have any money this time?”
“After that trick you taught me, I do.”
“In that case, ten dollars says you can’t do it.” Carrington withdrew the money from his jacket and placed the bill on the bar.
“Make it twenty.”
“You’re that confident?”
“I have a good feeling.”
Carrington placed another ten on the counter.
Heyes put his hand in his pocket and pulled out twenty dollars, placing it on top of the bills on the counter. Then he reached into his pocket again as if to straighten his vest. Heyes picked up an egg and kissed the bottom.
“For luck,” he stated resting it in his hand, just as Henry had done. Jed held his breath as he watched Heyes place the egg carefully on the bar. It remained there. Upright.
“How d’you do that?” Carrington asked in awe.
“Skill, and a little Heyes’ magic.”
“No such thing as magic.”
“Then how come it’s still standing?”
Carrington didn’t have an answer to that. He looked at Heyes but the youngster’s face gave nothing away. He stared at the egg, then picked it up and examined it. His eyes narrowed as he noted tiny white crystals stuck to the bottom. He licked his finger, dabbed at the crystals then tasted them.
“You put salt on the bottom.”
“Oh no. I didn’t say anything about not using something to help me. I asked what you thought the chances were of me being able to stand the egg up on the bar and that’s what I did.”
Jed looked from Heyes to Carrington.
“He’s right. He didn’t say how he was going to do it.”
“I guess I need to be more specific about the questions I ask. Looks like you got me this time. You’re learning boy, I’ll give you that.” He gestured to the money on the bar. “Yours, I think.”
Heyes picked up the bills.
“How about a game of poker before you boys head back? Give me a chance to win my money back.”
“Well…” Heyes hesitated, sorely tempted. “Maybe a quick…”
“We can’t stay,” Jed interrupted, firmly. “He’s got a pile of potatoes to peel and I hafta clean out the chicken coop.”
End of Part four