The door opened and the attitude of the others at the table made me look up. It was a woman. And not the kind of woman that normally frequented saloons. Her long, heavy skirt and homemade jacket spoke much more of someone that should be on her way to the milking shed.
She paused at the door, as everyone did, to beat the snow off her boots. Then she looked around and made her way directly over to our table.
I stood, and the others followed my example. My mother had taught me well.
“Gentlemen,” she said, sitting down, “I would like to sit in for one hand. I have no money to wager.”
We looked at each other. One of the other men spoke up, “What are you going to wager then, ma’am?”
“My husband died two weeks ago, and we buried him. I have six children, and there is lots to be done. I have come to see if I can’t win myself a husband.”
“And what would you pay if you lost?”
“I have money, but none I can afford to wager. If I lose, I will pay with my… honor.”
She was still young enough, and attractive enough to make this offer.
“What’s your game, ma’am?” I asked.
“Whatever is the quickest. I have work to do, and the children are alone.”
“Stud then. Five cards. Best hand wins.”
I started to deal out the cards, just to her and to me. The first two were on the table and I was preparing to deal her second card, when the young man on my left spoke up,
“Hey, deal me in this. I wouldn’t mind…”
He didn’t see me draw, but saw the barrel of the gun pointed at him easily enough. “If you don’t know the game,” I said, “it’s best to leave the table.” I had never liked that young creep anyway.
I resumed dealing as he left. No one else said anything.
I could see her watching the cards. I imagined she was thinking of her children right now. Anything to keep her mind off what she was doing. Soon ten cards lay on the table.
Four years I had been playing cards. My father brought me out west, hoping that the consumption that had killed my mother and my siblings would spare us. When he saw that he was doomed anyway, he taught me cards.
“It is not a good life, not what I would like to teach you. But I have little money left, and no energy for anything else. Use it like a tool, and get out. Treat it like a business, and you will do well.”
I had learned to draw, and to deal. To calculate the odds and the men. And since he had died when I was 15 I had done as he said, and treated it like a business. A business that paid well. I spent as little as I could, and saved, for the future my father wanted me to have.
I glanced at my cards, and glanced at her. A pair of sixes. A good hand. She stared back at me, openly, and nervously. Her hand lay face down on the table, unexamined. She didn’t know the game, and was hoping she had drawn well. And I guess she had.
I reached out, and tossed my cards into the discard pile.
First we visited the preacher, then the bank, then my hotel; where I gathered my things. She came openly into my room behind me and shut the door, but I decided to wait on that until we were in my new home.
As we rode out of town I said, “How’d you know I was there?”
She rode for a while in silence, and then said, “I didn’t. But I prayed that God would send me to a gentleman.”
I mused over that, and the preachers crude and short ceremony, probably meant to intimidate foolish brides: “Do you, Adelaide Johnson, take this man, Jonathon Jones, to be your husband, to sleep with him, bear his children, and obey him in everything, till death do you part.”
“Funny thing,” I said, “not many wedding ceremonies end like that one.”
She chuckled as well, and reached out to grab my hand, the preacher’s final “Merry Christmas” still echoing in both of our ears.
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