“You sure don’t say much,” said Blackjack Bud Hudson across the table.
“I apologise for my reticence, it is simply the way such games are played in the gentlemen’s clubs of London. Is conversation the accepted convention in these parts?” asked Edmund.
“I, er, what?”
“Do you desire conversation?”
“Er, I dunno...you sure talk awful fancy, English fella.”
“No, I simply speak English. There is nought fancy about it when used in the correct fashion, as an educated man is wont to do.”
“You sayin’ I’m not edumacated?”
Blackjack Bud narrowed his bloodshot eyes. He twisted his thin lips into a sneer.
“Of course not. It would be most unbecoming of me to insult my host in such a genial and hospitable place as this,” said Edmund. He gestured around the half-empty saloon. His eyes lingered on the buckshot embedded in the walls, testament to an old grudge turned violent.
“You’re usin’ big words there, English fella. I think you’re tryin’ to make me feel stupid.”
“I assure you it is not my intention. As it happens, I consider you a natural raconteur and easy wit. Come now, this talk distracts us from our game,” replied Edmund.
Blackjack Bud grunted and looked back at his cards. Edmund suspected a bad hand from the way Bud squinted and frowned at the cards.
“I think I’m gonna call you out.”
“Very well,” replied Edmund. He spread his cards on the table. Blackjack Bud’s face contorted in rage, his eyes bulging as a vein in his temple throbbed. He threw down his own cards – a pair of threes, a six, a nine and a King.
“Oh that is bad luck, Mr Hudson,” said Edmund. He reached across the table for his winnings.
“You dirty cheat.”
“What did you call me?”
“I said you’re a dirty cheat. Ain’t no way you can keep winnin’. No way at all. I’m a born gambler – why do you think they call me Blackjack Bud?”
“But Mr Hudson...this is poker.”
Blackjack Bud slammed his fist down, trapping Edmund’s hand on top of the crumpled bank notes. He leaned across the table. The stale alcohol on his breath made Edmund’s eyes water.
“Come now. I have won every hand fair and square. I am no cheat.”
Blackjack Bud’s free hand trembled beside his holster. Edmund jerked his own free hand to his shin. His hand grasped the smooth ivory handle of the knife hidden beneath his trouser leg. He unsheathed the blade and slashed across Blackjack Bud’s face in one fluid motion.
Hudson howled, yanking back his fist and pressing both hands to his cheek. Blood welled up between his fingers and dripped onto the table. A drop splashed the King of Hearts.
Edmund grabbed a fistful of money and bolted. The other patrons of the saloon watched him vault over a table and burst out of the swing doors into the street. Edmund tucked the knife into his belt as he strode down the boardwalk. He forced himself to calm down, torn between indignation over the accusation and fear of the drunken gambler with the itchy trigger finger.
“Turn round, you bastard! I don’t wanna shoot a man in the back!”
He turned around. Blackjack Bud stood on the verandah of the saloon, blood dripping from his slashed cheek. Passersby dove for cover when he drew his Colt. Edmund cursed himself for not burying the knife in Blackjack Bud’s gun hand.
Silence fell, as if the whole town took the same breath of anticipation. The seconds crashed by in Edmund’s head. He noticed an alley to his left, between the saloon and the hotel. Edmund stretched his hands up in surrender, glancing between Blackjack Bud and the alley.
“Mr Hudson? Would you really shoot an unarmed –”
The crack of the pistol smashed the silence of the street. Edmund felt the impact as pain ripped into his gut. The force of the blow threw him backwards and a soundless scream tore itself from his throat. A fresh wave of pain rippled throughout his body when he hit the hard-packed earth of the street. The world turned dark.
* * *
Edmund opened his eyes. He gazed up at a purple sky shot through with streaks of gold. Sunset.
Why, only moments have passed! But why has no one come to my aid? he thought.
The sound of hooves on dry ground passed him. He wriggled up onto his elbows to see a black horse pulling a stagecoach down the street. Edmund looked around, but the town seemed deserted. He looked back at the coach, but didn’t recognise the silver crest on the door. This visitor was far too grand for a dusty hole like Blackwood.
The door swung open. A young woman poked her head out. Hair blacker than midnight tumbled around her white shoulders. Her black lips broke into a smile of grey teeth and purple gums.
“Evening, friend. You look like you could use a ride somewhere?” she asked. Her cold voice buzzed like a thousand flies around a carcass.
“Oh, indeed I could! I thought I had been shot but it appears I have had a miraculous escape,” said Edmund.
He clambered to his feet and walked to the coach. His boots made no sound on the dirt. The young woman’s face fell.
“I say, this is most decent of you. I shall be more than happy to reimburse you for your kindess,” said Edmund. He climbed into the coach. Up close, he realised that the young woman’s black eyes were filled with tiny stars.
“Sweetie, you won’t ever need to pay for anything ever again,” she said.
She closed the coach door.
* * *
This is the first of a loose trilogy based around the Dead Man's Hand, the hand of cards allegedly held by infamous gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok when he was shot in the back while playing poker in a Deadwood saloon on August 2, 1876.
Also, the mysterious mademoiselle in the black coach has appeared in my work before, in Fast Away The Old Year Passes, and New Year's Dance.