Royal Aademy of Bards Halloween Invitational 2007.

The Game

Copyright 2007 by The Bard of New Mexico

“Now that you’ve seen the main attraction, would you like to go downstairs and see the poker room?” the lady in the gift shop portion of the Old West theater and saloon asked. Most of the building that dated back to 1879 was turned into a museum full of guns, saddles, cooking implements, and other mementos of the town’s wilder days.
“Sure!” replied Kristin, a woman who liked to do card tricks and enjoyed playing poker the handful of times that she’d ever done it. She wondered what it was like to watch a singer or a play at the upstairs theater part of the building and then come down for a few drinks, a legendary high-stakes game that would last for days, or possibly some other form of entertainment.
The lady led her over to the basement door and opened it, but then a family came through the attraction’s entrance and the lady had to sell them some tickets. “Go ahead and have a look around,” she said as she left the basement door open for Kristin.

Kristin enjoyed walking down the old wooden basement steps as much as she enjoyed the wooden sidewalks outside. Although she wore tennis shoes, they still had a soft, satisfying thunk that she imagined footsteps would’ve had back in the Old West, although she imagined the sound would’ve been louder in the past when people wore their boots. She imagined that spurs would add a little music to the percussive sound of footsteps.
The downstairs poker room, Kristin found out, was just a sub-basement. Narrow ground-level windows let in plenty of early fall light. When it got dark, though, three Old West style chandeliers -- old lanterns hung from the spokes of wagon wheels that were suspended from the ceiling -- provided enough light. The poker room’s door, the only real exit, was in the northwest corner and the stairs ran along the western wall. Three poker tables stood in a little alcove in the north wall, across the room from the windows, and the bar and accompanying barstools ran the length of the east wall. Kristin thought it was a large storage room or closet that jutted out from the southwest corner of the poker room, but when she took a second look, it was actually two smaller rooms. Each room had a twin-sized bed, a small stand with a tin pitcher and basin crammed next to the bed, and one rickety chair in a corner. Even though the rooms, the cribs where ladies entertained the gentlemen, were pretty sparsely furnished, Kristin wondered how two people could fit into the cribs.

Kristin sauntered up to the bar. She leaned on it and rested one foot on the brass foot rail. She admired the mirror in a gilded frame behind the bar. She admired the way the mirror made a line of beer glasses seem double their number and liked the pyramid of upside-down shot glasses that stood next to beer glasses.

As Kristin relaxed and soaked in the atmosphere, she heard a faint burring sound like cards being shuffled. She didn’t remember seeing any deck of cards on the poker tables or anywhere in the room, although it was a poker room and at first, she thought the sound was all in her imagination. Then it came again, louder this time. When she looked in the mirror and caught sight of a solitary deck of cards shuffling themselves, a stunned Kristin spun around and instantly decided it was time to leave. She bolted from the bar and sprinted up the basement steps two at a time. Before she reached the door, however, it slammed shut. Desperate, Kristin banged on the door.

“HELP! I’m stuck in here!” she screamed.

“Don’t waste your breath. Nobody can hear you.”

The low, raspy reply came from the poker table nearest to the stairs. Kristin timidly backed down the stairs and investigated. She saw his hands appear first. Then his arms revealed themselves, and slowly and completely, the whole mysterious card shuffler’s body appeared. He wore a red undershirt with a black leather vest, a black bandanna around his neck, and a black cowboy hat that was pulled almost too low to see the red glowing eyes that smoldered just beneath the hat’s brim. The cowboy, who seemingly was made up of nothing but shadows, emitted a sulfurous smell that fouled the air. Kristin had no doubt who he was.

“Sit down,” the cowboy ordered. When Kristin made no move to obey him, she saw flames flare in his eyes. “SIT DOWN! NOW!”

Kristin trembled and clumsily bumped against the table when she took the chair across the table from him. Her chair nearly tipped over.

“Would you like to play a game of Mexican poker? Five cards, best hand wins.” His voice sounded as if he had a smile on his face.

“No, thank you,” Kristin replied, frightened and intimidated.

“Too bad. You have no choice. The stakes? If you win, I let you go.” The cowboy’s voice took on the same tone that made Kristin suspect that he was smiling. “If I win... I get your soul.”

Kristin reached for the cards to give them a final shuffle and to deal, but the cowboy snatched the deck away. “Uh-uh. My game, my deal.”

“My soul.” She tried to take the cards from him again, but he pulled them back. She forgot most of her fear as her temper flared. “That’s not fair,” she complained.

“Get used to it,” he snarled. His eyes glowed a little brighter, but Kristin didn’t see flame in them again.

Kristin’s first card made a small whick as the cowboy slowly dealt it... the queen of spades. Then, he drew one for himself... the ace of clubs. Kristin’s next card was the queen of diamonds. He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and drew his second card...the jack of spades. Kristin’s third card... the jack of clubs. The cowboy’s third card ...the ace of diamonds. Sweat dripped from Kristin’s brow as the cowboy dealt her fourth card... the queen of hearts. The cowboy drew another card for himself... the jack of diamonds.

“Don’t look now. There’s an angel behind you,” Kristin abruptly said.

The startled cowboy dropped the deck on the table and turned around to look. Kristin quickly switched the top two cards.

“Quit stalling!”

Very slowly, so slowly that it tortured Kristin, the cowboy dealt her last card... the jack of hearts.

Not believing what he just saw, he quickly drew his last card... a three of diamonds. He looked at Kristin’s hand. “What? Full house?” His eyes blazed with fire again and Kristin wondered that he didn’t burn up from the inside out. “YOU CHEATED ME!!!!!!!!!!” he bellowed.

“What did you think you were gonna do to me?”

The basement door swung open and the cowboy chuckled as he and the deck of cards faded. “No matter. I have a feeling I’ll see you again someday.”

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