Lizzie tugged at the reins, steering Hunter and her little waggon into a side street outside the saloon. Already she could tell that this would be a one night town, a quick stop on her way to the mining settlements in the hills. There couldn’t have been more than a couple of hundred people living here. Tracking down the ones who knew about mineral deposits wouldn’t take long. Whatever her employers needed to know, she’d find it out tonight.
She got down from the waggon, checked the purse secreted in the folds of her dress, and tied Hunter up next to a watering trough. The horse guzzled eagerly at the filthy water, anything being better than the dusty landscape they’d been riding through.
As she walked along the creaking boards out front of the saloon, she noticed dust rising from a work site beyond the far end of town. It looked like the railroad was coming. Maybe there was something worthwhile here after all.
All eyes turned to her as she entered the saloon and approached the bar, a collection of reclaimed planks that had been proudly polished until they shone. She ordered a whiskey, to the surprise and delight of the moustached barman, and scanned the room while she waited for him to pour.
Only the middle of the afternoon, and already there was a poker game going on in one corner. Four men clustered around a table, cards in their hands and coins piled in front of them. One was a native, two labourers. The fourth man caught her eye. His suit might be dusty and patched, but it was better than most out here.
He’d be the company man.
“Room for one more?” she asked as she approached the table.
All four men showed the same mix of surprise and delight as the barman. The native pulled up another seat beside him. His smile was soft, but there was a hardness in his eyes. The company man grinned and ordered a bottle of whiskey for the table.
Even as she picked up her first hand of cards, Lizzie felt the power stirring in her guts. The same power she felt whenever she entered a game, the rituals of play letting her tap into her magic.
As she stacked up coins in front of her, she let some of that power flow into them.
The labourers didn’t interest her. Men like that understood the practicalities of mining, not the big picture. Instead, she started with Laughing Wolf, the native. His tells were subtle, but they were there. She could see by the twitching of a finger when he had a strong hand. Then she made sure to gamble more than she sensibly should, weaving her magic into the winnings as they slid across to him.
She knew that her power was working. Whenever one of the other men got lucky and won some of her funds, he would blurt out something about the resources she sought. Old Jim talked about a silver seam in the high hills. Ben, a lean youth with barely a wisp of beard, showed off his knowledge of how to dig coal.
But Lizzie wasn’t here for silver or coal. She was relieved when those two ran out of funds and had to leave.
Meanwhile, Laughing Wolf remained tight lipped. If he knew anything about minerals, then something else was protecting him from her power. Meanwhile, her funds were running dangerously low. As she watched her steadily decreasing pile of coins, she fought not to clench and give away her tension.
It was time to change tactics.
“Looks like I finally got lucky,” said Figgis, the company man, as he piled up winnings in front of him. “Reminds me of the day we found a gold seam out by Red Bend.”
Lizzie smiled inside. She played the next few hands carefully, challenging Laughing Wolf when he was strong, giving small bets away to Figgis whenever his eyes narrowed in triumph.
But things were tougher without a couple of easy marks to win hands against. For all that they had tells, Figgis and Laughing Wolf hid their feelings better than the labourers. Lizzie was struggling to win enough hands to stay in the game, and Figgis still hadn’t told her what she most needed to know.
The day was growing cooler, afternoon stretching toward evening, but Lizzie was sweating beneath her dress. She would hate herself if she’d given so much away for mere fragments of knowledge. Where was the win in that?
She had to take a real risk.
She dealt out the cards and watched the others look at their hands. Laughing Wolf’s finger twitched. Figgis’s eyes narrowed a little.
Someone was going to win big.
She glanced casually at the aces in her own hand. If she double-bluffed now, tried to signal that she was covering up weakness, maybe she could win a decent pot. But what if that didn’t work and she gave away her last real chance to lose to Figgis?
“All in,” she said, sliding her remaining cash into the middle of the table. As she did so, she chewed at the corner of her lip, a tiny gesture, but hopefully enough for Figgis to pick up on.
Laughing Wolf matched her bet. So did Figgis, barely suppressing a grin.
Laughing Wolf laid out his hand, a spade flush. His eyes gleamed behind his soft smile.
Figgis grinned wider as he presented a full house, jacks over threes, and the native’s face fell.
They turned to look at Lizzie, who in turn considered her own full house, aces over queens, enough to win the pot.
“Dammit,” she muttered, placing the cards face down in surrender. “I’ve got nothing. Was hoping you were both bluffing.”
Figgis drew the pile of coins across the table.
“Last time I saw this much gold, it was that big seam up by Blue Rock,” he said. “Gonna make a fortune off that when the time comes.”
“Fat good that does me now,” Lizzie said. Inside, she was beaming. Gold deposits were what her employers paid so well for. She’d head for a town with a telegraph office and let them know to come grab the claim.
As she stepped away from the table, the magic tying her to the game dissipated. For a moment, she thought she felt some other strand of power tugging at the table, but she shrugged it off.
“Pleasure playing with you boys,” she said. “But it’s time for me to move on.”
“Good luck with that,” Laughing Wolf said.
He too stood up, shovelling his winnings into a deer hide pouch.
“What, you giving up now?” Figgis grumbled.
“While I’m winning,” Laughing Wolf replied.
On her way out, Lizzie looked up at the sign board above the saloon. “The Pawn Sacrifice” it read. Strange name for a saloon, but then saloon keepers could be an odd lot.
She untied Hunter, got into the waggon, and rolled out toward the hills. As she rounded a bend, she saw another town in front of her, near identical to the one she had just left.
She smiled. As long as she could keep moving, who wouldn’t love this work?
* * *
This story marks the start of an experiment. Over the next seven weeks, I’m going to write a series of stories that connect together into something bigger. Hopefully, they’ll all be accessible on their own, but combined will make something more.
If you enjoy this then you might also enjoy some of my previous stories set on the Gambler’s Frontier, a western setting where games power magic:
- Betting Big – gambling, magic, and otters fighting an alligator – it all makes sense on the Gamblers’ Frontier.
- Counting Coup – industry, magic and the clash of cultures.
- The Making of Meredith Brown – slaves find a way to resist through magic.
- Straight Poker – Rick came out west to leave magic behind, but the cards have other ideas.
And if you’d like to have the rest of this series delivered straight to your inbox every Friday, please sign up to my mailing list. You’ll also get a free e-book.