Jedidiah Faster is not your ordinary Western hero.
“Fold,” the Judge said.
Faster forced a poker face smile to his lips, but his gray-green eyes burned in their sockets as he moved the winnings over to his end of the table.
“Call it a night, your honor?”
“One more hand,” the Judge answered. The stately countenance of the Judge belied his advanced years. His silver hair was managed and oiled to a sheen, his matching gray mustache and smooth bare face looked like he’d just stepped out of the barber shop. He seemed unaffected by the late hour.
Floorboards creaked. The bartender stepped up to the table. He spoke through his drooping handlebar mustache.
“Gentlemen, I’m sorry. But I’m going home.”
“That’s all right, Mickey,” Judge Mountjoy countered without taking his eyes off Faster “It’s almost three. Deputy should be coming by shortly checking doors. We’ll have him lock up. That’ll be our cue to call it a night. Deal the cards, Mister Faster.”
The professional gambler tried to imagine a polite way of begging off, but instead started tossing out the cards.
There was only the kerosene lantern above their heads for light. Everything else had been extinguished. Outside a wind blew, and it was dead black on the dirt street. They had moved their game closer to the potbelly stove as the night wore on and the crowd had thinned until it was just the two of them in the saloon.
Lodestone was not some tent camp for miners. It had a dozen saloons, three churches, two livery stables with blacksmith shops, two general stores and a rock and brick fortress that housed the bank. Still, the desert forced in from all sides. You were never more than a few steps away from wilderness.
The Judge leaned back in his chair, stared a hole through the man across from him, twirling his thin cigar in his upraised hand.
Faster pushed his horn-rim glasses up his nose as he looked at his own cigar to his left. The ashtray it sat in was some kind of piston, he imagined. An odd thing to have as an ashtray. He wondered if it came from some piece of equipment that had blown up at one of the nearby silver mines. The thought of touching the cigar made him queasy. Actually, everything made him feel sick, nauseous from cigar smoke, too much beer, and now a lack of sleep. He sighed. The life of a professional gambler.
“Five card stud?”
Faster dealt out the hand as the bartender walked through the swinging doors of the saloon entrance into the inky blackness. With the sound of the swinging doors, the man in the silk suit arched suddenly towards the gambler.
“Let’s make this quick, Faster,” the Judge said, his voice suddenly hard, hostile. He shoved all his chips to the center of the table, then reached into his pocket and pulled out a large wad of bills.
“That’s about three thousand dollars. Throw in what you got and turn the cards up.”
Faster blinked his gray-green eyes at the sudden challenge. He had barely had a chance to see his cards. Two twos and two queens. He hadn’t seen that good a hand, right off the bat, all night. Faster looked up at the Judge’s hand on the table.
“You haven’t even looked at your cards.”
“I’m ready to go home, Faster. I have a home.”
The jab was a curious dig, but Faster touched his forehead, squeezed his eyes shut behind his thick-framed horn-rimmed glasses. Through the haze of his exhaustion, he felt the sudden flush of realization. With a few extra bills thrown down, it was now all about his entire stake.
“I don’t know if I’ve got three thousand here.”
“Quit stalling, Faster. Throw it in.”
The gambler’s eyelids fluttered.
“I take it my company has worn thin.”
“I love the game, Faster. The luck, the skill, the measuring of another man against myself, him measuring me, testing another, friendly game with small stakes, or bigger games when the men are too full of themselves.” The Judge’s eyes set cruelly on the dark-haired young man in the black coat and withered ruffled shirt. “But I loathe professional gamblers. You might as well be a pimp living off a woman’s shame. You are a worthless, God forsaken sinner doomed to the flames of Hell, whether you win this hand or all the hands that ever gets fed to you from now on. I’d tell you to repent your evil ways, but I just don’t care that much one way or the other what happens to you. It sickens me to see a man as young as you wasting his life in squalidness and deceit.”
The words resonated off the plank walls and wallpaper of the room around them, the vacant melancholy room that, in its emptiness, could not hide the false gaiety that was forced here by the dance hall girls and lonely little men that had crowded it only a few hours ago. It was as if with only the two of them, all the social niceties had suddenly been lost. Faster felt a sense of dread, and he wished he could have followed the bartender home and slept on the man’s floor.
A buzz built in Faster’s head, the unwelcome warning of someone who needed sleep, had pushed too long now, too hard. With a frozen smirk Faster shoved his chips into the pile at the center of the table. It was everything he had, every penny. If he won he’d have to come back the next day to cash his chips in and give the house its share. If he lost, he had no means of paying for the room he’d rented earlier that evening.
“Could’a fooled me, your honor,” Faster offered in defense. “Four hours ago you sought my company out. I was ready to go to bed, but you insisted we play.”
The Judge did not answer. He seemed to slowly freeze in his seat, waiting. Faster broke eye contact.
“All right, then, how we gonna do this? Just turn our cards up?”
Faster slapped his hand down on the table, the fifth card an ace.
“Now will you look at your hand?”
The Judge picked up the card at one end, and used it to flip up each card, never looking down at them.
Four threes. The Judge threw the King of Diamonds on top.
Judgment Day. Faster knew he had been found wanting. Nothing less than a lightning bolt from above could have been more clear, or painful.
Faster stared at the cards for what seemed an eternity, then breathed out.
Everything he had. The room grew darker for a moment, and he imagined he lost his petrified reassuring smile he groomed so carefully. A second sigh.
“I should’a stopped playing you three hours ago."
He regretted his words immediately. A whining moan, a loser’s tirade. The Judge didn’t move, like the cold wind outside had sucked any emotion from his countenance. The man leaned back, didn’t even reach for his winnings.
“Why’s that, Faster?”
Now Faster locked his eyes on the Judge, the respected the man, the man of wealth, admiration and influence.
“Present circumstances not withstandin’ I’ve done all right gamblin’. Know how? I read men.” Faster nodded as he stared back at the Judge. How many men had been put to death on this man’s word, this man who held the winning round? How many men sat in the Territorial prison because of Judge Goodley Montjoy’s interpretation of the Law, his wisdom or the lack there-of. Dead eyes. Merciless, without even the heart to be cruel. At that moment Faster imagined the Judge not to be even human, and he himself very small. A small man speaking small words.
“Not right away,” Faster said as he found himself straightening up, nodding, looking away, forcing his eyes back to the Judge. “But give it an hour and I can read most any man, know when he’s bluffing, when he’s unsure, when he’s got a winning hand no matter what he’s got showin’.” Faster made a small motion at the man across from him.
“You? I couldn’t read you after three hours.” Faster looked away and added. “I can’t read you now.”
The Judge shifted imperceptibly, but the motion emboldened the penniless Faster to look back into the Jurist’s cold eyes.
“Your honor? Now, do you think you might find it in your heart to loan a poor sinner a few dollars so’s he could get his horse out of the livery stable? I promise I’ll load up and be out’a here by mornin’, and I won’t show my face in this here town ever again.”
The Judge’s face altered a fraction, less than that, but then he smacked his lips and rubbed his eyes.
“That won’t be necessary, Mister Faster. The money on the table is yours.” The Judge made eye contact again with Faster. “I cheated.”
Faster blinked, hiccuped. The incomprehension on his face was a blatant collapse of his professional poker face. The Judge worked his jaw muscles as he glanced down at the cards. “Palmed two of those of those threes half an hour ago.” The Judge looked back up at Faster. “I’m surprised you didn’t notice, being a professional and all.”
Faster shivered as his spine snapped up rod-straight, a little man’s visage with little man’s pride and principle, scorned.
“Well, forgive me, your honor, sir, but when one finds oneself playing the most respected man in the territory, one might be forgiven if one is blind-sided when said esteemed citizen cheats like a drunken miner.”
“Or professional gambler,” the Judge countered as three men burst through the still-open door of the saloon.
Big burly unshaven men, with their Colt six-shooters pulled, felt Stetsons smashed on their heads.
“Dammit, Judge, you’ve been messin’ around with this thief for four hours,” the lead man boomed. “Do we arrest him or not?”
The older man spoke to Montjoy, but the two younger ones pointed their weapons and words at the gambler.
“Get y’er hands up! Now get your piece out, nice and slow, and lay it down on the table.”
“I wouldn’t do that, boys, if I were you,” the Judge looked over to the younger men.
“And why’s that?”
“Because you’re just going to have give it back to him.”
The gambler did not tempt the odds. Very slowly, he pulled the Smith and Wesson Russian from his shoulder holster, and set it down on the table before him, barrel pointing toward the middle.
Montjoy had shoved his chair around to the right, cigar still in his hand, calm cool countenance blandly assessing the angry trio.
“What are you talkin’ about, Judge? This here card shark is a cheat! He cheated my boys out of near five hundred dollars this afternoon. We told you as much! We want our money back!”
“I just played him for four hours,” Montjoy answered with a shrug. “While I’m sure he’s the dregs of the earth, a sinner and lost soul, he’s a hell of a card player. Just beat me out of all that money there, and I can testify under oath, that he didn’t cheat. I tested him, taunted him, gave him every opportunity, and not only didn’t he take the bait, he didn’t need to, to clean me out.”
“He cheated, Montjoy! He cheated and he’s gonna pay! You hate tin-horn gamblers more’n we do!”
“Which is why you sought me out.” The Judge in his fine silk suit looked over at the gambler. “I have spent a great deal of time and effort to learn every dirty stunt a card cheat might employ, practiced them to see how you do them, the little distractions the crooks will use to slip the cards around, and I watch for them in the likes of you.”
The Judge pointed at Faster. He looked back at the older man. “Mister Faster did not cheat your sons, Bob. He out-played them. You’re just sore losers, and now you’re making fools of yourselves.”
“Wait a minute,” the older man said, and he shifted his gun over toward the Judge. “You tellin’ me, if we was t’take this skunk t’court, you’d testify on his behalf?”
“I didn’t cheat anyone,” Faster trebled, hands close to his ears. “I just don’t cheat.”
“Shut up, Faster!” one of the two sons bellowed.
“I could’ve spent this evening in bed, Boyd,” the Judge’s voice gained a new sharp edge. “Instead I wasted it investigating you and your sons’ allegations against this man. Having done so, I most certainly would be obliged to report my findings. You have made false accusations against this blameless man, and just as I am dedicated to the punishment of the lawless, I am equally loyal to the innocent.”
“You’d take the side of a low-down filthy godless sinner like this scofflaw against men like me and my sons, take his word over ours?”
“You’re drunk,” Montjoy stated bluntly. “Don’t do anything you’ll regret when you’re sober.”
“I won’t,” Boyd answered as he eared the hammer back on his revolver.
Faster saw it in Robert Boyd’s eyes, a drunken thought, an unpolished resolve, but the man was going to do it. He was going to shoot the Judge.
The boys had shifted their attention to their father, and Faster took a breath, a sharp snort that he’d practiced now for a long time. It seemed a brief thing to those others in the room, the angry cowboys, the Judge, but by the time Faster finished taking it in, the air was as thick as water.
For just a moment, the kerosene lantern seemed to flicker and dim, the colors in the room faded away to different shades of gray. The sound of the wind outside became a hollow slow suck, then faded away. Faster knew he would have to move quickly.
With practiced ease, he shifted his weight off the chair, then suddenly slid his right leg back, his trouser shooting up his calf from the sudden move, while in the same motion dropping his hands down to the bottom edge of the table.
The brothers continued to stare to where their father still went about earing his weapon’s hammer back, the Judge still in the process of realizing his plight.
Now Faster pushed up. The table did not move at first. Several times the Gambler shifted his weight until he was sure he had the best grasp, the best angle, and he threw all his strength into shoving the table up and over. He strained with all his might, his muscles stretching and aching with the effort. He sucked cold air in, then forced the breath out, hot, like steam whistling from a boiler.
Despite it being a sturdy table, a single pedestal in the center with a broad heavy base at the bottom for stability, the boards that Faster shoved on groaned and bent. For a moment the gambler feared they would tear loose. Then the table broke free from the floor. Even then, as Faster once again shifted his weight, gaining much better leverage, pushing off his legs, it felt like he was shoving the table through water at the bottom of a lake.
The brothers had begun to react to his actions, sluggishly bringing their attention back around to where their weapons pointed. Faster now could see the bottom of the table as it rose past his shoulder, glanced down at the far edge. The pedestal was going to clear him on his right, but the whole table was setting to spin up into him. He shot his left foot up, tearing his sock garter loose, caught the table top with the heel of his boot, hopped his right foot forward, then shoved again, now with all the strength of his legs, shoulders and arms. The table picked up speed, and Faster felt a vacuum behind it. He began to think how hot it was in his black suit when the roar of a pistol accompanied a fat .45 slug punching through the table top. It wobbled off to Faster’s right, a flattened slug of lead, but the sight and sound, the very near miss, thrilled him like a bolt of lightning. There were men there on the other side of that table looking to kill him and the Judge. A surge of brawn stirred his blood, his strength rebounded, and the table doubled in speed, the air behind it growing thin and cold.
Halfway through the push, Faster let go of the table, and yanked himself off to the left of it, heaving with his left foot, quickly bringing up his right and pushing again, leaning far forward. Without his glasses slewing off the wind, he would be blind. As it was, the hot air tore at the exposed flesh of his face like sandpaper.
Faster’s trousers wrapped tight around his legs, his coat tore at his shoulders, a flag in a gale force wind. It was more like running through water, though, he thought. Hot water. The gambler felt buoyant, as if he might float to the surface if he wasn’t careful. But where was the surface?
The hot current of air coming off the front of the table thrust him a foot out as he came around and ran alongside it. The two brothers were still two feet ahead of it. The airborne table had already begun to slow, and everything that had been on top of it sailed a few inches off its surface, the ash tray made from a piston, his cigar, his beer glass, the chips and cash, and his gun.
It was an intimate moment. White smoke still curled from the one brother’s revolver, him looking to where his round had made a neat hole in the approaching table, Faster maybe two feet away from him, at his elbow. The other brother, a foot beyond his sibling, had a stunned expression on his face, but he was looking straight at Faster coming around the table, right over the top of his gun that he’d brought around and was pointing across his brother’s chest at the gambler. Though seemingly bewildered by the circumstances unfolding, he struck Faster as the kind of man that shot first and figured out the details later.
Through a veil of floating chips, Faster reached his right hand out, the sudden motion popping buttons off his sleeve, the shirt and jacket riding up his arm, and he grabbed the handle of his Smith and Wesson Russian.
He knew from experience he couldn’t jerk anything as heavy as the revolver back to him. He’d hurt his wrist plenty of times that way. Instead, he set to squeezing the trigger with all his strength even as he propelled the gun away from him. He hit the barrel of the one brother’s gun pointing at him with the butt strap of his own. The jarring crack of metal on metal shivered through his hand, but the strike absorbed most of the forward momentum of Faster’s pistol, as well as knocking the barrel pointing at him into the chest of the cowboy between the gambler and the brother aiming the gun at him. Faster thought he heard the sickening crackling of ribs before it was drowned out by the brother’s pistol’s blast. Flame and smoke escaped both into the one cowboy and leaked out the space between barrel and cylinder.
Faster felt his trigger give, and he let his finger ride it down as he dropped his muzzle, lining up his sights on the brother facing him, aiming for the second button on the cowboy’s shirt. Faster fought the urge to watch the hammer fall, the flash, the bullet leap from the barrel amidst smoke and flame, but instead concentrated on lining up his sights, and riding the trigger back up. Timing wasn’t perfect, he felt the snick of the trigger traveling far enough back to engage the cylinder rotating mechanism, too soon. The bullet hadn’t cleared the muzzle. He put a small amount of effort into dampening its progression, but not enough to throw his aim off. Once the bullet appeared above his front sight, he reversed the direction of the rising trigger, squeezed hard until he felt it give, then once again lined up his sights, even as his first bullet reached its target and started burrowing into the cowboy, the man’s striped cotton shirt making circling ripples, like a pebble thrown into still water, right into and through the button Faster had been aiming at.
Before the second bullet got past the muzzle, the barrel began writhing like a three inch snake swallowing a mouse, but Faster had mastered the barrel flip, not fighting it, riding the recoil, raising the rear of the gun up fractionally, keeping the sights true long enough for the new slug to escape, and now Faster concentrated on using the recoil energy to move the firearm back toward him. The second slug hit an inch above and to the left of the cowboy’s new button hole.
Fast knew he could not dwell on it, no time, but he had killed again. How easy it had become.
As Faster progressed through the water-thick air, the man shot by his brother came between Faster and his brother and father. The gambler’s plan to use that time to pull his gun to him, and perhaps even cock it, came up short.
The first cowboy’s side mushroomed, then split open as his brother’s bullet exited out of him. Faster realized he was in a headlong plunge to intercept and run into the slug.
The table had reached the one brother’s gun muzzle, him still standing, still facing into the approaching ram, chips slapping into both men, a beer glass sliding right past one of their heads.
Faster considered the possibility of being hit by the bullet. Surely much of its energy had been absorbed by the cowboy’s chest, the bullet somewhat flattened, wobbling, unbalanced. It couldn’t have been going more than maybe three hundred feet a second. It might still miss him altogether. If he just didn’t have all this momentum built up.
The piston ashtray, all full of the thrust of the table, floated into his vision.
Faster did not think twice. He plunged his left arm across his chest even as he cocked his pistol. The ashtray filled his hand. Once again, he knew he could not wrench it to him. He needed to direct it, ease it to where he wanted it.
The bullet barreled out of the pink cloud that chased after it. Faster shifted all his attention to the slug, dragging the circular cast iron plate along, changing its trajectory, realizing he needed to shove it down.
No doubt, the bullet would surely hit him. It closed the two-foot distance between it and Faster, and the gambler imagined the slow numbing agony as the mashed piece of lead thumped into him. The ashtray was tantalizingly close to the bullet, just a fraction further toward him and down.
It was then the gambler made his mistake. He kicked off his right foot, and pushed down on the metal ashtray. It was like shoving off a rung on a ladder. The ashtray dropped a notch, and Faster lifted up, his feet left the ground. The bullet hit the ashtray, and Faster remembered how a baseball glove felt when the ball hit hard and true. The metal disk passed underneath him, the back of his left palm mashing the ruffles of his shirt to his chest before the ash tray slipped out of his grasp.
He floated along now, rising off the wood slats of the floor, headed toward the front wall of the saloon, completely helpless to stop himself.
The table had reached the two cowboys, picked them up, bent around them, the men grotesquely breaking around it, being lifted by the solid wood form , its weight propelling them even as it began to collapse into splinters.
The father of the boys had swung around, crouching, fast, his gun hammer set. He did not focus on his sons’ grizzly death as they and the table flew by him, but instead his eyes searched past them, leading with the muzzle of his weapon.
Without thinking, Faster prayed, dear Lord, save me.
The gambler raised his own weapon, arms-length from him, even as he squeezed the trigger, this time a much shorter pull, the hammer already cocked. He lined up his sights as the firing pin hit the primer.
Boyd saw him, saw the gambler flying away. Past him, off to the left, the Judge watched Faster as well. They both saw him, no longer dashing across their line of vision, but away. The father’s muzzle lit up with flash and smoke.
The .44 slug appeared above the front sight just as Faster felt the trigger notch the cylinder mechanism, and the gambler squeezed again. The hammer came back as the cylinder rotated, then fell, launching another round.
A fat .45 bullet twirled toward the flying Faster, covering the distance quicker than anything he could react to. For a moment the gambler imagined trying to use his second shot to knock the approaching bullet out of the air, but dismissed the idea as a lunatic thought, and stuck with the original plan, shooting Boyd twice.
The stage was set, the gambler thought. He had two rounds flying down toward the irate rancher, a slug closing in on the floating, flying gambler. A little low. There was always the possibility it would miss. After all, Boyd hadn’t aimed, but snapped the shot off his hip. It was all in the hands of the Good Lord, who owed the ne’er-do-well Faster nothing. Hadn’t He cursed him already?
Faster rolled into a ball, the motion causing him to spin. He closed his eyes and tried to remember the two brothers, where he had played them, when, but couldn’t. The gambler waited for the sizzling pain of two hundred and fifty grains of lead hitting him at roughly eight hundred feet per second, minus whatever Faster’s velocity. At this stage of the game, he must have been doing fifty, even seventy-five feet per second.
Faster’s breath wheezed out of him, his back smacking into the wall of the saloon. His eyes shot open and he could see he’d hit the wall about halfway to the roof beams, and now bounced up and away from it. His concentration collapsed. Everything moved at normal speed. He barely missed the roof, and now started down, falling the ten feet from the roof, landing on top of another table. It slipped and collapsed all at once, slapping him unceremoniously across the floor until he came to rest at the Judge’s feet. For a moment he looked up at Montjoy, whose eyes seemed on the verge of popping out of the venerable jurist’s head, then passed out, his last conscious perception being the Judge screaming like a tortured lunatic.