Say what you will about Drake Connors, but boy did he know how to pick his target.
A quick scan of the barroom was all he needed. The girl? No. Judging by the faces of the men playing with her, she was clever, and, as much as Drake liked a challenge, his light pockets needed refilling. Old Bill? He’d be easier, true, but Drake had played him before, and he was the quiet sort who’d stare into his whiskey after a loss. No good for tonight—Drake was spoiling for a fight. The loud, jowly one, perhaps? Yes, he would do.
Drake knew this type of man: the arrogant sumbitch who forgot his big arms came from a few extra beers, not years of plowing fields. Six drinks in, by Drake’s count—too drunk to play well but not enough to realize it.
Drake drew in his shoulders and walked over to the man. This wasn’t the saunter he used with women or the stride he used on the street; this was a meek little walk, the kind used by people who say “’scuse me” after being bumped into.
“Hand or two, sir?” Drake asked, holding up a deck of cards.
The man looked him up and down, from beaten-up Stetson to scuffed boots, and then smiled. “Yer Linda’s boy, ain’tcha?”
Drake’s eyes opened wide. He didn’t just know this type of man; he knew this man. Drake had heard the slap of his flesh on hers, his low grunting, his “Thank ya kindly, miss” on the way out the door. All from the next room over, muffling the noise with a pillow over his head.
Drake’s jaw clenched, a small hole in his façade. “Yessir.”
“Well, considering all them… kindnesses she did me over the years, I can’t say no. Shit, maybe I’ll win some o’ my money back.”
Drake’s jaw clenched, a small hole in his façade. This would be fun.
“All in?” The man asked.
Drake trembled with his whole body, performing a well-rehearsed show. He shook his leg under the bar table, chewed a fingernail, fidgeted with his hat.
“I ain’t sure about this, sir,” he stammered, “but I got to feed myself somehow, and now’s good a time as any to get lucky.”
“I’m sorry, boy,” said the man without any remorse, “but there ain’t much chance in poker; it’s a game o’ skill. Not the best way fer a whore’s son to make a living. No offense intended, o’ course—she was a fine woman—but can ya even read?”
“A bit, sir.” Drake readjusted his Stetson again—a fake tell. He’d done it three bluffs in a row now. The man, thick as he was, must have noticed.
“I been emptyin’ folks’ pockets since ‘fore you was born,” the man said, “an’ I know how to spot me a tic.” He pushed his whole heap of money into the pot and winked at Drake. “Next time, keep those hands off yer hat.”
Drake had played this game before. So when he, smirking his trademark smirk, threw down a full house, he knew what to expect.
The man surged up from his chair—Bet that’s the fastest he’s ever moved, Drake thought—and slammed on the table, toppling stacks of coins. “Three aces? God dammit, boy, empty those sleeves! I ain’t trust you one bit!”
“I’m honest, swear it by the Lord himself.” The nervous act, having served its purpose, was gone now. “But I will not debase myself by rollin’ up these sleeves like some cheat.”
“Ain’t an honest way I could lose to you!”
“What can I say? Poker’s a game of skill.” Drake pinched the brim of his hat. “Now, if you’ll excuse me…” Reaching out his arms, he scooped his winnings towards himself. He bent over as if shielding them, and the Stetson slipped off his head.
“You bastard!” The man yelled, pointing at the overturned hat. The two aces nestled inside had fallen out onto the table. Before Drake could look up, the man’s meaty fist was flying at him.
But Drake knew this type of man, and he was prepared. He ducked the punch, scooted around the man, pushed him headfirst into the table. The man and table alike toppled, spilling cranial blood and Drake’s new fortune, respectively, on the barroom floor. Drake stood over the man, eyes half-lidded, and popped another ace out of his sleeve.
The barkeep scurried around the counter, pushing through the crowd that had gathered, and, crouching down on the floor, assessed the man’s injuries. Meanwhile, Drake was gathering up his winnings as if he’d simply dropped them.
“I love ya dearly, Drake,” the barkeep said, “and you’re always welcome if you’re sick of bein’ lonesome—I know you been lonesome a lot since… y’know—but these messes o’ yours ain’t cheap to fix. That table’s damn near split in half!”
“Well, John, on account of a recent windfall, I can reimburse you.” Drake pressed a wad of bills into the barkeep’s hand and turned around, heading towards the door.
Something nagged at John. Brow furrowed, he called after Drake. “I know ya better than most folk, and I’ve never known ya to cheat.”
Drake didn’t bother to look back. “I don’t. Just like to be able to bait a punch if someone needs to be humbled.”