Some folks thought the devil’s card hands were all about spades, full of death and darkness. Others that he chose hearts for men’s passions. But Rick had seen enough of the cabalist tables in New York to know better.
That was why Rick had come out west, to get away from the magic before his soul wore through. To play some straight poker – no weaving of power, no double layered games, just good hard bluffing and good cold cash.
It was getting on for midnight in a two shack town when he realised that something wasn’t right. It wasn’t the wind whistling in through the door of the rickety saloon, or the candlelight flickering in the cheap gilt-frame mirrors.
It was the old lady’s play, sticking on a weak pair. That pair was fours, a match for the players around the table, revealed with the diamond on top – man’s greed and payment to the Beast. She played it cool, her other hand patting at her tight grey bun.
Too cool. Poker face even as she lost the pot. They’d all stuck, bound themselves to the game while their guard was down. Rick fought to keep his breathing steady even as his heart hammered. This here was some nasty goings on.
He played it safe for the next few hands, waiting for her to make her move. He didn’t like to be the dove at the table, but the stakes had just rocketed.
Not that the others realised. It was the Apache who went all in, giving his best dead-eyed killer look as he pushed forward a big heap of pennies.
The Indian’s face fell as the old lady’s full house beat his flush. His eyes went blank and he flopped back in his seat.
The old lady ran a finger along her cards. Clubs high, warrior’s cards, tapping into the brave’s soul and snatching it away. A glimmer of power flickered at the corner of her eye.
Rick’s blood ran cold. Not just horror at seeing another man’s spirit stolen but terror at the thought that it could be him next.
The black fellow, a railroad worker out of DC, tried to leap up and away. But his chair was stuck to the ground, and he was trapped just as surely in it. Fear filled his face.
Rick threw his blind penny out onto the table, nodded to the railroad man to do the same.
‘Just play to win,’ he said.
But the real game would be down to him, whatever became of the pot. Rick’s soul might be tarnished but he sure wasn’t willing to give it up easy.
A few more hands went around, the old lady’s eyes flickering with hellfire while Rick’s pile of pennies slowly seeped away. He had to find a way out before his pot ran empty and the witch had him trapped, able neither to win nor to leave. He’d seen zombies made that way, down in the Big Easy, men without a will of their own. Men blank-eyed as the Indian, feeling what was done to them but unable to prevent it. Better death than that.
But there was no way out, not without a good hand or knowing how bad hers was. He tried to buy his way out magically by sticking on two pairs, diamonds in both, but she countered with the three incorruptible men – club, heart and spade of jacks. No good playing diamonds against that.
Soon he had cash for just a few rounds. He watched Titus, the railroad man, blow his last chance on a straight. It might have freed him if the top card had been a diamond, but that nine of spades went down to the old lady’s club flush, and she scooped up his cash along with his soul.
The power in her eyes flared even as Titus went cold. No hiding it now.
Rick dealt, watching the cards fall on the table. He had the queen and ace of clubs, and matching spades in the hole. If he went all in on those pairs it might just about break the spell. But she had two kings on the table, and the ace of hearts besides. With a diamond to match either, she’d take his very soul.
Her eyes stayed steady as she looked at her cards, showing only an ember of their earlier glow. She was giving nothing away.
Then it struck him. Maybe, just maybe, there was no power in her eyes ‘cause her hand held no power. Because right now her magic was weak.
Maybe this was his chance.
It was a slim thing to gamble his soul on. Was he judging her right, or had he lost his touch out here in the west?
He hesitated for a moment, but what choice did he have? He slid his whole pot across the table.
‘All in,’ he declared.
‘You sure?’ she asked.
She matched his bid and revealed her cards.
No king, no ace, no fire in her eyes.
Rick laid out his two pairs, pushed out what power he had, and the spell broke.
The Indian looked at the table in confusion. Titus bolted from his seat and straight out the door.
Rick gave a sigh of relief. He felt drained, like without the tension he had nothing left.
The old lady shook her head, pushed the pot across to Rick.
‘I’m heading west tomorrow,’ she said. ‘Care to join me? We could make quite a mark, my power and your smarts.’
Rick looked from his winnings to the dazed Indian, then back at her. It had felt good to play that way again. The game behind the game, gambling for life or death.
Other people’s lives. Other people’s deaths.
‘No ma’am,’ he said, scooping up his winnings. ‘Straight poker’s good enough for me.’
Doing the Writing Excuses exercise earlier this week, I developed an idea about magic using playing cards. It’s not the first time I’ve played with that theme, so it seemed like a good time to whip this story out.
Plus I’ve just started playing weird western card game Doomtown, so I’m all about the wild west this week.
If you enjoyed this then you might also like my other free to read Flash Friday stories, my fantasy collection By Sword, Stave or Stylus, or even my steampunk collection Riding the Mainspring, which contains a couple of western flavoured stories.
I’m currently working on a fantasy/scifi idea suggested by Glenatron, but if anybody else has an idea for something they’d like to see me include in a Flash Friday story then let me know – I’m always open to ideas.