Hearts

Hearts

Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon – Deadwood
August 2, 1876

It was raining as I recall, a deluge of Biblical proportion. The streets leading in and out of Deadwood were a muddy wash, dictating our longer than anticipated stay. A week sitting tight is bound to make any outlaw jumpy, so it was no surprise when I felt the muscle in my partner’s jaw tense, just before I heard the creak of the saloon’s bat-wing door.

A stranger stepped in, quietly, without drawing the attention of anyone else in the crowded saloon, that is to say, without drawing the attention of anyone else in the crowded saloon, except Kid Curry.

I watched as each of them regarded the other, the Kid from his place at the poker table – corner of the room, back to the wall, the newcomer, from just inside the swinging door, where he stood, dripping a puddle onto the dirty wooden floor.

To the casual observer, their shared glance would have appeared no more than cursory, but I saw it pass between them, the recognition, each man conscious of the other.

My heartbeat quickened.

The stranger shouldered his way across the crowded room, making his way to the bar. Bottle of whiskey in hand, along with a glass, he appeared at the Kid’s shoulder just as I raked in a sizable pot.

“Room for one more?” the stranger asked.

The Kid nodded, inviting the stranger to the single open chair, across the table, opposite his.

The stranger nudged the player on Curry’s left. “What’s your name?” he asked, placing his hand on the back of the man’s chair.

“Name’s Rich.”

“Rich? Judgin’ by your winnin’s, you ain’t that rich,” the stranger chuckled. “You take that seat down there.”  He gestured with his bottle.

“Change your seat, change your luck,” quipped Rich, pleasantly, if not nervously.

“Your luck looks like it could use a change.” He indicated the dwindling stack of coins in front of Rich, then nodded a second time toward the open seat.

“If it’s all the same to you, I’m stayin’ put,” Rich insisted.

I saw the stranger’s upper lip curl, in an almost indiscernible grimace. Only two things I know cause a man to grimace like that. Anger and fear – two deadly cousins.

“Captain’s deal,” Curry addressed the stranger, tossing his cards to an older man seated at my right side. Then he glanced at the stranger still standing at his left. “You in or out?”

A tighter clenching of the stump of cigar between the Kid’s teeth, told me he’d seen the grimace too.

“Deal me in,” the stranger said, and he moved toward the open chair. As he did, I heard Rich exhale. The stranger tossed his drenched slicker over a peg on the wall, then sat.

The Captain dealt. “What your name, son?”

“Jim,” the stranger answered, then filled his glass. He tipped it toward Curry in salute.

The Kid followed suit, lifting his glass to the other man, and their eyes locked.

I heard, no, felt, a silent conversation taking place between them. Not words, but a secret communion, to which I alone was privy. They knew each other, Jim and Curry. Not the “who” but the “what.” A mutual respect, exchanged between gunmen, each acknowledging the other was deadly, yet posed no threat, not here. Not now.

***

To the best of my recollection, it was Jim who dealt that final hand, the hand we never finished, before the saloon door creaked open again.

Curry lifted his eyes. My eyes followed the Kid’s, and suddenly, I realized that my hand was moving toward my holster, and Curry had already drawn.

I heard someone yelling, though I can’t be certain what was said. A name — Hickok! Then a shot rang out, just one.

Fear and panic gripped me. My heart raced. A man behind Jim faced our way, a smoking gun in his hand.

“No!” I yelled, and spun to my left, but the Kid stood, safely, gun trained on the man who had just shot Jim.

“Got no quarrel with you, mister,” the shooter said, backing toward the door.

Looking to my right, where the Captain sat, I saw blood spurting from his wrist, then, I looked to Jim.

He was slumped forward bleeding out, his cards spread before him, splattered with Jim’s blood. Two clubs, two spades. Aces and eights.

I placed my trembling hand on my partner’s shoulder, for his support, or mine. His gaze dropped to the table, taking in Jim’s unplayed cards. I watched as the Kid’s eyes moved to his own hand, now scattered on the floor. Two diamonds. Two hearts. Aces and eights.

dead mans hand

James Butler Hickok, known as “Wild Bill” Hickok, met his Maker on August 2, 1976, in the Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood. It is said Hickok always sat with his back to the wall, and his eye on the door, ever vigilant against approaching danger. On August 2nd, Hickok was forced to break his own rule when Charles Rich twice refused his request to change seats.

Jack McCall burst in, catching Hickok at the poker table, with his back to the door. He fired, his bullet passing through Hickok’s head, killing him instantly, and striking another poker player, Captain Massie.

At the time of his death, Hickok held two black Aces and two black eights — The Dead Man’s Hand.

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.

All historical people and places are used fictitiously.

February 2013

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