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A Game Of Poker








From: Kid Wolf Of Texas

A whitened human skull, fastened to a post by a rusty tenpenny nail,
served as a signboard and notified the passing traveler that he was
about to enter the limits of Skull, New Mexico.

"Oh, we're ridin' 'way from Texas, and the Rio,
Comin' to a town with a mighty scary name,
Shall we turn and vamos pronto for the Rio,
Or show some hombres how to make a wild town tame?"


Kid Wolf, who appeared to be asking Blizzard the rather poetical
question, eyed the gruesome monument with a half smile. Bullet holes
marked it here and there, testifying that many a passer-by with more
marksmanship than respect had used it for a casual target. The empty
sockets seemed to glare spitefully, and the shattered upper jaw grinned
in mockery at the singer. It was as if the grisly relic had heard the
song and laughed. Kid Wolf's smile flashed white against the copper of
his face. Then his smile disappeared and his eyes, blue-gray, took on
frosty little glints.

The Kid, after straightening out the troubled affairs of the Thomas
family, was heading northwest again. It was the age-old wanderlust
that led him out of the Rio country once more.

"What do yo' say, Blizzahd?" he drawled.

His tones held just a trace of sarcasm. It was as if he had weighed
the veiled threat in the town's sign and found it grimly humorous
instead of sinister.

The big white horse threw up its shapely head in a gesture of
impatience that was almost human.

"All right, Blizzahd," approved its rider. "Into Skull, New Mexico, we
go!"

Kid Wolf had heard something of Skull's reputation, and although it was
just accident that had turned him this way, he was filled with a mild
curiosity. The Texan never made trouble, but he was hardly the man to
avoid it if it crossed his path.

As he neared the town, he was rather surprised at its size. The
budding cattle industry had boomed the surrounding country, and Skull
had grown like a mushroom. Lights were twinkling in the twilight from
a hundred windows, and as the newcomer passed the scattered adobes at
the edge of it, he could hear the clip-clop of many horses, the sound
of men's voices, and mingled strains of music. The little city was
evidently very much alive.

There were two principal streets, cutting each other at right angles,
each more than a hundred yards long and jammed with buildings of frame
and sod. Kid Wolf read the signs on them as the horse trotted
southward:

"Bar. Tony's Place. Saloon. General merchandise. Saddle shop. Bar.
Saloon. Hotel and bar. Well, well, seems as if we have mo' than ouah
share o' saloons heah. This seems to be the biggest one. Shall we
stop heah, Blizzahd?"

There seemed to be no choice in the matter. One could take his pick of
saloons, for nothing else was open at this hour. The sign over the
largest read, "The Longhorn Palace."

Kid Wolf left Blizzard at the hitch rack and sauntered through the open
doors. A lively scene met his eyes. It interested and at the same
time disgusted The Kid. A long bar stretched from the front door to
the end of the building, and a dozen or more men leaned against it in
various stages of intoxication. In spite of the fact that the saloon
interior was well lighted by suspended oil lamps, the air was thick and
foul with liquor fumes and cigarette smoke. A half dozen gambling
tables, all busy, stood at the far end of the room.

The mirror behind the bar was chipped here and there with bullet marks,
and over it were three enormous steer heads with wide-spreading horns.
It was evident that drunken marksmen had taken pot shots at these
ornaments, also, for they were pitted here and there with .45 holes.
Kid Wolf was by no means impressed. He had been in bad towns aplenty,
and he usually found that the evil of them was pure bluff and bravado.
Smiling, he strolled over to the gambling tables.

The stud-poker table attracted his attention, first by the size of the
stakes and then by the men gathered there. It was a stiff game,
opening bets sometimes being as much as fifty dollars. Apparently the
lid was off.

The hangers-on in the Longhorn seemed to be of one type and resembled
professional gunmen more than they did cattlemen. The men at the poker
table looked like desperadoes, and one of them especially took The
Kid's observing eye.

A huge-chested man in a checkered shirt was at the head of the table
and seemed to have the game well in hand, for his chip stacks were
high, and a pile of gold pieces lay behind them. His closely cropped
black beard could not conceal the cruelty of his flaring nostrils and
sensual mouth. He was overbearing and loud of speech, and his
menacing, insolent stare seemed to have every one cowed.

Kid Wolf was a keen student of men. He had learned to read human
nature, and this gambler interested him as a thoroughly brutal specimen.

"It'll cost yuh-all another hundred to stay and see this out," the
bearded man announced with a sneer.

"I'm out," grunted one of the players.

Another, with "more in sight" than the bearded gambler, turned over his
cards in disgust, and with a chuckle of joy, the first speaker dragged
in the pot and added the chips to his mounting stacks. He seemed to
have the others buffaloed.

The card players had been absorbed in their game until now. But as the
new deal was begun, the bearded gambler saw the Texan's eyes upon him.

"Are yuh starin' at me?" he rasped. "Walk away, or get in--one o' the
two. Yuh'll kill my luck."

"Pahdon me, sah. I don't think I could kill such luck as yo's."

The Kid's voice was full of soothing politeness. The gambler made the
mistake of thinking the stranger in awe of him. Many a man before him
had taken the Texan's soft, drawling speech the wrong way.

"Well, are yuh gettin' in the game?"

"I'm not a gamblin' man, sah." The Texan smiled.

The bearded man exposed his teeth in a contemptuous leer.

"From yore talk, yo're nothin' but a cheap cotton picker. Guess this
game's too stiff fer yuh," he said.

The expression of the Texan's face did not change, but curious little
flecks of light appeared in his steellike eyes. He laughed quietly.

"I'd get in," he said, "but I'd hate to take yo' money."

"Don't let that worry yuh," the big-chested gambler snarled. "Sit in,
or shut up and get out!"

If Kid Wolf was angered, he made no sign of it. His lips still smiled,
as he drew a chair up to the table.

"Deal me in," he drawled.

The atmosphere of the game seemed to change. It was as if all the
players had united to fleece the newcomer, with the bearded desperado
leading the attack.

At first, Kid Wolf lost, and the gambler--called "Blacksnake" McCoy by
the other men--added to his chip stacks. Then the game seesawed, after
which the Texan began to win small bets steadily. But the crisis was
coming. Sooner or later, Blacksnake would try to run Kid Wolf out, and
the Texan knew it.

The size of the bets increased, and a little crowd began to gather
about the stud table. In spite of the fact that Blacksnake was a
swaggering, abusive-mouthed fellow, the sympathies of the Longhorn
loafers seemed to be with him.

He seemed to be a sort of leader among them, and a group of sullen-eyed
gunmen were looking on, expecting to see Kid Wolf beaten in short order.

Finally a tenseness in the very air testified to the fact that the time
for big action had come. The pot was already large, and all had
dropped out except Blacksnake and the drawling stranger.

"I'm raisin' yuh five hundred, 'Cotton-picker,'" sneered the bearded
man insolently.

He had a pair of aces in sight--a formidable hand--and if his hole card
was also an ace, Kid Wolf had not a chance in the world. The best the
Texan could show up was a pair of treys.

"My name, sah," said Kid Wolf politely, "is not Cotton-pickah, although
that is bettah than 'Bone-pickah'--an appropriate name fo' some people.
I'm Kid Wolf, sah, from Texas. And my enemies usually learn to call me
by mah last name. I'm seein' yo' bet and raisin' yo' another five
hundred, sah."

At the name "Kid Wolf," a stir was felt in the crowded saloon. It was
a name many of them had heard before, and most of the loungers began to
look upon the stranger with more respect. Others frowned darkly.
Blacksnake was one of them. Plainly, what he had heard of The Kid did
not tend to make the latter popular in his estimation.

"Excuse me," he spat out. "I should have called yuh 'Nose-sticker.'
From what I hear of yuh, yuh have a habit of mindin' other folks'
business. Well, that ain't healthy in Skull."

If the Texan was provoked by these insults, he did not show it. He
only smiled gently.

"We're playin' pokah now, I believe," he reminded. "Are yuh seein' mah
bet?"

"That's right, bet 'em like yuh had 'em. And I hope yore hole card's
another three-spot, for that'll make it easy for my buried ace. I'm
seein' yuh and boostin' it--for yore pile!"

Quietly The Kid swept all his chips into the center of the table. He
had called, and it was a show-down. With an oath, Blacksnake got half
to his feet. He turned his hole card over. It was a nine-spot, but he
had Kid Wolf beaten unless----

Slowly The Kid revealed his hole card. It was not a trey, but a four.
Just as good, for this made him two small pairs--threes and fours. He
had won!

"No," he drawled, "I wouldn't reach for my gun, if I were yo'."

Blacksnake took his hand away from the butt of his .45. It came away
faster than it had gone for it. Guns had appeared suddenly in the
Texan's two hands. His draw had been so swift that nobody had caught
the elusive movement.

"This game is bein' played with cahds, even if they are crooked cahds,
and not guns, sah!"

"Crooked!" breathed Blacksnake. "Are yuh hintin' that I'm a crook?"

"I'm not hintin'," said The Kid, with a flashing smile. "I'm sayin' it
right out. The aces in that deck were marked in the cornahs with
thumb-nail scratches. It might have gone hahd with me, if I hadn't
mahked the othah cahds too--with thumb-nail scratches!"

"Yuh admit yuh marked them cards?" yelled Blacksnake in fury. "What
about it, men? He's a cheat and ought to be strung up!"

Most of the onlookers were doing their best to conceal grins, and even
Blacksnake's sympathizers made no move to do anything. Perhaps The
Kid's two drawn six-shooters had something to do with it.

"Yuh got two thousand dollars from this game--twenty hundred even,"
Blacksnake snarled. "Are yuh goin' to return that money?"

"I'll put the money wheah it belongs," the Texan drawled. "Gentlemen,
when I said I wasn't a gamblin' man, I meant it. I nevah gamble. But
when I saw that this game was not a gamble, but just a cool robbery, I
sat in."

He holstered one of his guns and swooped up the pile of money from the
center of the table. This cleaned it, save for one pile of chips in
front of the bearded bully.

"It's customary," said Kid Wolf, "always to kick in with a chip fo' the
'kitty,' and so----"

His Colt suddenly blazed. There was a quick finger of orange-colored
fire and a puff of smoke. The top chip of Blacksnake's stack suddenly
had disappeared, neatly clipped off by The Kid's bullet. And the Texan
had shot casually from the hip, apparently without taking aim!

Kid Wolf returned his still-smoking gun to its holster, turned his back
and sauntered leisurely toward the door. Halfway to it, he turned
quickly. He did not draw his guns again, but only looked Blacksnake
steadily in the eyes.

"Remembah," he said, "that I can see yo' in the mirrah."

With an oath, Blacksnake took his hand away from his gun butt, toward
which it had been furtively traveling. He had forgotten about the
bullet-scarred glass over the long bar.

As the Texan strolled through the door, a man who had been watching the
scene turned to follow him.

"Kid Wolf," he called, "I'd like to see yuh, alone."

The voice was friendly. Kid Wolf turned, and as he did so, he jostled
the speaker, apparently by accident.

"Excuse me," drawled the Texan. "I didn't know yo' were so close
behind me."

"I'm a friend," said the other earnestly. "Let's walk down the street
a way. I've something important to say--something that might interest
yuh."

The Kid had appraised him at a glance, although this stranger was far
from being an ordinary person either in face or dress. His garb was
severe and clerical. He wore a long black coat, black trousers neatly
tucked into boots, a white shirt, and a flowing dark tie. Yet he was
not of the gambler type. He seemed to be unarmed, for he had no gun
belt. His face, seen from the reflected lights of the saloon, was
clean-shaven. His eyes seemed set too close together, and the lips
were very thin.

"Very well, I'll listen," The Kid consented.

The two started to walk slowly down the board sidewalk.

"They call me 'Gentleman John,'" said the black-clothed stranger.
"Have yuh been in Skull long? Expect to stay hereabouts for a while?"

The Texan answered both these questions shortly but politely. He had
arrived that evening, he said, and he wasn't sure how long he would
remain in the vicinity.

"How would yuh like," tempted the man who had styled himself Gentleman
John, "to make a hundred dollars a day?"

"Honestly?" asked The Kid.

The man in black pursed his lips and spread out his palms significantly.

"Whoever heard of a gunman making that much honestly?" he laughed
coldly. "Maybe I should tell yuh somethin' about myself. They call me
the 'Cattle King of New Mexico.' The man yuh bucked in the poker
game--Blacksnake McCoy--is at the head of my--ah--outfit."

"Oh," said The Kid softly, "yo're that kind of a cattle king."

"Out here," Gentleman John leered, "the Colt is power. I've got
ranches, cattle. I've managed to do well. I need gunmen--men who can
shoot fast and obey orders. I can see that yo're a better man than
Blacksnake. I'm payin' him fifty a day. Take his job, and yuh'll get
a hundred."

Kid Wolf did not seem in the least enthusiastic, and the man in black
went on eagerly:

"Yuh won a couple o' thousand to-night, Kid. But that won't last
forever. Think what a hundred in gold a day means. And all yuh have
to do is ter----"

"Murdah!" snapped the Texan. "Yo've mistaken yo' man, sah. Mah answah
is 'no'! I'm not a hired killah, and the man who tries to hire me had
bettah beware. Why, yo're nothin' but a cheap cutthroat!"

The cold eyes of the other suddenly blazed. He made a quick motion
toward his waistcoat with his thin hand.

Kid Wolf laughed quietly. "Heah's yo' gun, sah," he said, handing the
astonished Gentleman John a small, ugly derringer. "When I bumped into
yo' in the doorway, I took the liberty to remove it. I nevah trust an
hombre with eyes like yo's. Nevah mind tryin' to use it, fo' I've
unloaded it."

The face of the man in black was white with fury. His gimlet eyes had
narrowed to slits, and his mouth was distorted with rage. It was the
face of a killer--a murderer without conscience or pity.

"I'll get yuh for this, Wolf!" he bellowed. "Yuh'll find out how
strong I am here. This country isn't big enough to hold us both, blast
yuh! When our trails meet again, take care!"

The Kid raised one eyebrow. "I always do take care," he drawled. "And
while I'm heah in Skull County, yo'd bettah keep yo' dirty work undah
covah. Adios!"

And humming musically under his breath, The Kid strolled toward the
hitch rack where he had left his horse.





Next: Pot Shots

Previous: Goliday's Choice



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