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By Bruce Thorstad
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Bruce Thorstad
All rights reserved.
Riley Stokes, wounded at cards, turned his back on scraping chairs and men's voices and stepped out of the Railway Advance Barroom, his sore eyes squinting at the morning. He'd been heading for the street, but he slowed at the realization it would only lead places he'd been to already. Bad luck, he supposed, signaled a need for avoiding old ruts. Hard thinking seemed called for. He sagged a shoulder against a balcony post—as good a spot as any from which to review his prospects.
He was a dark-haired man in a rumpled black suit and a blue cotton shirt lacking both tie and collar. On his back he wore thirty years, making him young by most standards, but old for a man on the Kansas frontier having no trade to fall back on.
His squint deepened. Such a generosity of sunlight after a poor night of poker was fazing, so that he was tempted just to go down to the Hays House and on up to bed. In respect of his losses, he would have welcomed a drizzly morning, a day that sorrowed with him. Instead, he was dealt the usual, giddy Kansas sunup—a yellow blaze climbing a roofless sky and the rising, curing smells of prairie grasses.
Riley found such mornings fraudulent. They showed up promising fresh beginnings, then turned hotter than hellfire by half-past breakfast, and by noon had reneged on all such promises. Give a person a day that starts out rainy, he thought, and it can only improve as it goes along.
He supposed, though, he was remembering the nourishing rains of Kentucky. Kansas rains were different—in a word, fickle. For weeks you scorched to a cinder, but take those broad skies for granted and they'd cloud up ugly and come at you like an army with a grudge. Then you'd get rain in riverfuls, hailstones like grapeshot, and maybe your behinder chased by a cyclone in the bargain. It was a wearing, all-or-nothing sort of weather, oddly similar, now that he thought of it, to the boom-or-bust business of poker luck. Riley preferred rain that doled itself out predictably in gentle showers. More like, he realized with discomfort, the regular salary of a workaday job.
Well, he had come a stretch since Kentucky, mostly downhill. His pants were thinning in the hinder, his coat ripped along one sleeve. The money in his pockets tallied less than four dollars, fifty-one fewer than he'd sat down with at the poker table. The sum total of the Riley Stokes estate consisted of his father's old watch and a cap and ball revolver, neither of which he fancied selling just to pay his room rent. Wherever had he got the notion he was cut out to be a gambler?
Behind him, voices toned. Then boots scuffed wood and the batwings strained against coil springs. From the blue haze of the barroom, three of the four players who'd spent the night at Riley's table came into the morning, their faces fisting to shelter night-owl eyes, their expressions as aggrieved to meet the sun as Riley's own. A round of coughing erupted as they hit the fresh air. Two of the players set off down the boardwalk, trailing pipe smoke, leaving the other standing with his hands in his pockets.
"Ah, morning on the prairie," he said expansively. His eyes played toward the town's outskirts and he inhaled conspicuously, demonstrating the morning's bracing qualities. Riley turned and looked behind him, seeing only dazzle coming off dirt street. His squint became fierce. Someone—so it seemed—had thrown another log on the sun.
"Say, I didn't clean you out of breakfast money?" the man inquired.
"No, I ..." Riley patted a pocket. "Of course not. I'm not much hungry in the mornings anyhow."
Riley's listener nodded absently. He was taller than Riley, with a keg of a head and barrel torso to match, but with long, oddly slender arms and legs. He wore a nut-brown, tailored coat, a double-breasted hound's-tooth waistcoat, and a citified hat with abbreviated brim. His face was reddish, meaty as a ham, framed by side-whiskers that were white and feathery. He stood with his weight on his heels, a big man, looking as though he had never missed a meal in his life.
"Well, sir, it is clean sheets for me," the man said. He stretched and yawned, his chin retreating to swell a full throat. With an exaggerated shrug he resettled his shoulders, then smoothed his lapels to his satisfaction and bade Riley a good-morning.
Watching him set off down the boardwalk, Riley had a momentary, useless urge to ask for his money back, for the man was the night's big winner, a Chicago salesman named Powers. "Purveyor of agricultural implements of the most modern patterns," he had told Riley the evening before, then flourished an illustrated catalogue. Riley, still watching the drummer, had not felt hungry until the man had mentioned breakfast.
The swinging doors parted again for the last of the night's players, an even taller man than the other, though uniformly lean, with a narrow face and sandy mustache. His coat was good charcoal broadcloth trimmed in black velour. Under it was a blaze of white shirt and a brocaded vest. All the man lacked was a riverboat, Riley thought sourly; he'd never had much use for dandies.
Riley found himself irritated. He said, "That damned drummer about cleaned me out," not so much to inform the dandy as to lodge a protest in front of a witness. He nodded down the boardwalk at the salesman's diminishing back. "When one player gets all the luck, it leaves a bad taste."
The tall dandy did an odd thing: he laughed—abrupt, sarcastic, a kind of snort. "That fellow's no more drummer than I am," the dandy said.
Riley's scrutiny rotated, then elevated. He had studied this dandy off and on all night. With his straw-pale hair and darker mustache, the fellow looked no older than twenty- eight, yet he had a self-assurance more common to older men. Now he stood amused at Riley's expense, eyes crinkling, the sole possessor of superior knowledge.
"The man's a drummer from Chicago," Riley said. "I saw his prospectus."
The dandy lit a cigar, the kind called a twist, crooked as a dog's leg. "I guess anyone can pick up a prospectus," he said through blossoming smoke. "Lest I'm bad mistaken, that sport walking off with our money is Terrible John Parrott."
"Him—Parrott?" Riley said, surprised. He took a hasty look at the disappearing, now slightly malignant form of the implement salesman. Suspicion bunched his brow. "He gave his name as Powers."
"Naturally he'd hide his identity," the dandy said. "Folks knew he was Parrott, who'd be fool enough to share a poker table with him?"
"For damned sure not me!"
"I'm surprised to see him this far west," the dandy said. "During the war, he was supposed to have run the shady side of Memphis till Federal troops shut him down. Last I heard he was a big operator on riverboats. I expect he's just stopped off the Kansas Pacific to clean out us rubes. Heading to Denver, I'll bet, looking for new ore to mine."
Riley imagined himself a mine, his pockets excavated by this Terrible John Parrott. He felt invaded. "Whoever he is, he's one lucky bastard."
The dandy laughed again. "A gambler of his caliber, luck has naught to do with it."
Riley scowled. "Let me understand this. Are you saying he ... cheats?"
"You'd best draw your own conclusions. As a sporting man myself, I say nobody's fortune's sweetheart. I figured going in this Parrott would cut himself some margin or other—he's got the reputation for it. I expected it to cost me, bucking a big-time sharp, but I hoped to learn something in the bargain." He chuckled ruefully and savored his cigar.
"So did you?"
"Not a blessed thing," the dandy admitted, "except he's slicker than I thought."
Riley was getting the hollow, untethered feeling that came before his humors turned around. If he weren't careful, he was liable to get mad. "Well, by God, no wonder we got skinnt! I got a mind to sic the marshal on him."
"I'd not advise it," the dandy said mildly. "Lest you can prove your charges, you'll just make a bad enemy."
Riley exhaled frustration. Here he—Riley Stokes, professional gambler—had been cheated without even suspecting it, and by a man he still thought of as an implement salesman. And here was this brocaded dandy, a fellow who seemed about as smooth as warm butter, and it turned out there were players even he was no match for. Riley had a feeling he'd spent too long in the wrong line of work.
"I looked for hole cards," the dandy said. "I checked for readers and strippers, but I couldn't get a thing on him. About the only trick left is using a shill." For a moment, the dandy seemed lost in wonder and contemplation up there at his six-foot-and-something; cigar smoke settled around his head like a cloud on a mountaintop. Riley himself was five feet, ten inches, a height he found satisfactory. More height than that was purely show-offish, he believed, often downright annoying.
"Well, hell and hallelujah," Riley said, "you could've said something about the man being a card cheat! That game cost me fifty-some dollars and I didn't learn a thing either, other than now I'm flat busted!"
The dandy's dreamy expression resolved. His eyes settled on Riley and cooled by notches. Riley looked away, first to the man's too-extravagant cravat, then to the vest, which swirled in an elaborate print—intertwining maroon and gold somethings, maybe tadpoles mating—the whole business as gaudy as a hotel carpet. On the front page of Riley's thinker, the term "tinhorn" coalesced. He was suddenly all done with gaming and gamblers.
"Let's not go off half-cocked," the dandy warned him. "What I told you were only suspicions. Besides which, I assumed we were all grown men at that table. A wise man, as I'm sure you've heard said, never risks what he can't afford to lose." Then he shrugged, a subtle, superior gesture accomplished solely with the eyebrows.
Riley didn't know what most stuck in his craw, what the man had said or the way he'd said it. Hot words were rising in Riley's throat, but he didn't trust himself to unlimber them. He glared at the dandy, then muttered something he did not quite catch himself. The dandy's face went mystified, giving Riley one small satisfaction.
Riley turned and took a long, angry step off the boardwalk, which was higher than he'd expected. He momentarily stumbled, recovered, then steamed rigid and erect across Main Street, crossing obliquely behind a passing freight wagon, his gait complicated by sun-baked ruts. He felt unwashed, unshaved, and unhappy; the grit of sleeplessness was itchy behind his eyes. Floating like a lithographed ghost before him was the image of that brocaded vest, its tadpoles mating in frenzy.
A wise man never risks what he can't afford to lose, indeed! A person's whole life was a risk, and some lives riskier than others. Here was this brocaded son of a bitch thriving in a profession that was sending Riley to the poorhouse. Where was the fairness in it? The dandy was fussed up in fancy clothes, tall as a flagpole, and what was worse, probably just the sort that women found good-looking. He was some rich man's son, probably, with a head start on life that would carry him forever.
In front of the Star-Sentinel building, Riley reset his hat and stepped up on the boardwalk, careful to keep his back to the dandy across the street. Somewhere in the washboard ruts between the saloon and the news office he had crossed a threshold. He would put the sporting life behind him; he would get a fresh start. In short, he would buy a newspaper. It was high time, Riley considered, that he found himself a job.CHAPTER 2
Forbiddingly, a green shade was drawn the length of the Star-Sentinel's door. Riley tried the doorknob and was relieved to find it unlocked. It was the day the new edition came out. His plan was to read the Situations Offered advertisements before anyone else got to them. Riley Stokes, Kentucky poor boy, would get a head start of his own. He stepped into a high-ceilinged room that smelled of the woody stuffiness of newsprint. An ink smell overlaid it—oily and biting. A newsman, probably the editor, and his boy helper were running the press, laying a fresh double sheet of paper on the typeboard and then cranking it with an elliptical rumble under the rollers. Then they cranked it back again, carefully peeled off the printed page, and laid it on a table. Finally, the editor looked up at Riley, his expression owly over round-paned glasses.
Riley stood like a parson—hands clasped behind him, weight on his heels—clear indications, he felt, that he was willing to be patient. "Morning," Riley said pleasantly.
The newsman scowled and turned on the boy, a bright-looking lad behind an ink- stained apron. "I thought I told you to lock the front door."
The boy blinked and said, "No, sir," at which the editor made a sour face and then started forward to confront the intrusion. He wore sleeve garters like a grocer.
"Yes?" the newsman said, still looking over the spectacles. He gave off exasperation.
Riley displayed a five-cent piece, survivor of the night's poker. "All I need is the new paper."
The newsman assumed theatrical weariness. "I'm afraid I have a policy. On press day no one gets a copy till the whole edition is printed. Otherwise, everybody wants to jump the gun on merchants' sales, et cetera, et cetera."
Riley felt his cheer souring. "A policy," he repeated. Having policies reminded him of certain army sergeants, who'd had various policies of their own, all contrived to make their own lives convenient and a poor private's miserable. Riley eyed what were surely finished Star-Sentinels stacked on a table by the press. The coin in his fingers was faintly greasy.
"You mean you won't sell me a paper?"
"What'd I just now say?" the newsman asked him. "I start doing that and I'll be besieged by every bummer off the street. We couldn't get our work done."
"Ah," Riley said, enlightened now, "you don't want to be bothered."
Wicks of gratification came alight in the editor's eyes. He said, "Discerning of you." The corners of his mouth made a brief, tight smile.
Riley knew sarcasm when he heard it. He looked at the fresh papers, then at the editor, then at the boy assistant. A night of losing poker was a tiring business. But if he toddled up to bed and slept away the morning, he would be beaten to his paper—and thus to any job that showed promise—by that race of ordinary men who slept nights, got up mornings, and were resigned to working for wages.
Again Riley proffered the five-cent piece. "How about you?" he asked the boy. "You have the same policy?"
The boy looked stunned to be asked. He glanced at the older man for a cue. "Of course," the boy said.
Riley whistled. "You two sure stick to your guns. I bet even was I the mayor or the marshal you would not sell me a paper."
The editor said, "Well, I hardly think—"
"I guess, was he in town, even the president of the Republic would not get the new paper to enjoy with breakfast," Riley said, letting his face hang comfortably in no particular expression. One reason he'd gone into poker was that folks had praised his deadpan.
The editor crumpled his forehead, showing a hardening of attitude. "We're very busy."
"I guess if you made exceptions, you wouldn't have much of a policy," Riley said. There was more he could have said, but he saw it would not prove useful. He turned to leave, the editor following. When he opened the door the editor held it for him.
"Good day," the editor said stiffly.
"I sure do hope so," Riley said. He stepped onto the boardwalk and had the door closed behind him. The bolt shot home a little abruptly, Riley thought, considering he was a paying customer.
The dandy no longer stood in front of the Railway Advance; he'd been replaced by a swamper with a broom. Riley put the five-cent piece in his pocket with the rest of his meager stake. Feeling so little money in there reminded him of having been cheated, which reminded him he was mad at himself for not detecting it. Then he was mad all over again at the riverboat dandy, who'd been wise to the cheating throughout the game.
Riley's room was on the second floor of the Hays House, down in the next block. Until the new paper came out, he had nothing to do but go on up to bed.
Traffic was picking up on Main Street. Riley crossed, watching two soldiers riding into town on the tailboard of a granger's wagon. They sat facing backward, their legs swinging, probably having bummered a lift from nearby Fort Hays. He looked at the blue uniforms and thought of the army and then of how he hated officiousness. Give a man a dash of power and he liked to thwart you with it; the army had taught Riley that much. On the other hand, the army had also taught him there was nearly always a way to get what you wanted. All a person needed was a lick of smart and sufficient brass to use it.
Excerpted from The Gents by Bruce Thorstad. Copyright © 1993 Bruce Thorstad. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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