Better The Devil...
Chris Larabee stormed into the saloon just after dusk, throwing a dirty glance up at the raised platform and the man playing poker there. The Southern gambler was a handsome man, smartly dressed in sharp clothes that shouted aloud his profession.
"How long has he been in here?" the gunslinger demanded as he slouched down at the table with Vin Tanner and Nathan Jackson.
"Came in just after lunch, started playin' and has won nearly every pot since," Nathan answered in disgust before he demanded, "Why the hell don't we just stop him?"
Larabee glared back over at the fancily dressed gambler and winced when he heard laughter float across the room, watching as yet another large pot was scooped up and placed in front of him. "Ain't illegal to play poker, Nathan," he said, a scowl still plastered on his face.
"Ain't illegal to win, neither," Vin added wisely as he poured both Chris and himself another drink. The gambler's mood had been jovial for the past day and a half, since he had entered the saloon and started his winning spree.
"That man..." Nathan huffed, as if reading Vin's mind, "has been sittin' there for the last day and a half, takin' money off anyone who gets close enough to get caught in his net."
Larabee frowned and glared over at the Southern gent, watching as the long, elegant fingers shuffled the cards, holding them up for all to see before he quickly dealt a hand to the other three men at his table.
"He took all JD's money last night," Vin commented. "Damn near tied Buck in a knot when he tried to talk to him about it...." The sharpshooter was unable to hide a smile as he recalled the conversation. The ladies' man had shamelessly tried to use his greater size to lean over the smaller gambler threateningly, but the other man had gently explained where JD had gone wrong and gallantly offered to play Buck for the money. The womaniser had snorted loudly before storming off, swearing dire consequences if the Southerner didn't calm down on his winning streak. The gambler had just smiled, dropped a comment about not putting your money where your mouth was, and dealt another hand.
"Can't do a damned thing about it unless we catch him cheatin'... you know that, Nathan," Chris said, pulling out a cheroot and lighting up.
"I've watched him like a hawk since last night and I can't figure out how he's doin' it, but he only bets high when he knows he's gonna win," Vin stated, a smile twisting his lips. Again a grumble burst from the table on the raised platform and another man stood and stormed off. "Hell," Vin continued, "if'n he don't watch out, he's gonna get himself tarred and feathered outta this town."
"Not while we're here watchin' the town, he won't," Chris said in a tight voice; he took the guarding of the small town very seriously. He wouldn't let the townspeople exact any vengeance against the gambler - not if he was playing an honest game. "But if I catch him cheatin', I'll tar and feather him myself."
Josiah chose that moment to walk in. He paused on the threshold and threw the gambler a hard look, then he stormed over to Larabee's table. Throwing himself down, he poured a shot of redeye from the bottle on the table and swallowed it down fast before he poured himself another one. His body shook with rage and suppressed anger.
"You all right, Josiah?" Nathan asked in concern. His old friend rarely lost his temper, but when he did it was a sight to behold.
"That damned gambler took all Joe Langley's money... including his ranch. Damn fool brought the deed into town this morning, after he lost it last night... what's he and his missus gonna do now with those five kids of theirs?"
"Did Joe say the game was rigged?" Chris pointed up towards the raised platform and the gambler, then turned to look back at Josiah.
The preacher slowly shook his head before he continued with great reluctance, "No... he just lost it all. Said he felt it was a fair game... but hell, Chris...." Josiah looked beseechingly at the gunslinger, who shrugged helplessly.
"Why the hell did Joe gamble his home?" Vin asked, unable to believe that the man would do something so stupid when he had a family to support.
"Said he did it before he realised it had gone that far...." Seeing the look this earned him, Josiah continued, "Damn fool felt he had the winning hand."
"Don't they all," Nathan snorted sadly. He had seen too many men lose their homes to such cheaters and it made his blood boil that Chris was taking it so lightly. Yet he also knew that if the game was honest, and it certainly looked as if it was, then there really was nothing they could do.
"Well it's about time someone set him straight; this is people's lives he's playin' with." Josiah began to rise, fully intending to take the gambler to task for what he had done, even if it meant beating some sense into him, but a firm hand on his arm prevented him.
He shot a hard look at Chris, who smiled coldly and commented, "He ain't done anything illegal, Josiah, so I reckon we'll just have to let him be."
"He's takin' people's homes away from them, Chris," the preacher snarled, his eyes flashing his anger. "That ain't right, no matter how you look at it."
Larabee gave him a cold look before he snapped back, "He wouldn't be able to do it if they didn't sit down at that table and gamble... so until he does somethin' we can take him to task for, I reckon we're just gonna watch him and wait."
"And in the meantime who else loses their homes to him?" Nathan snapped, feeling just as strongly about it as Josiah.
"Can't take a damned thing from 'em if they don't play with him," Larabee fired back as he stood and, giving them a nod, snatched up his hat and left the saloon, his long coat billowing behind him.
When Larabee returned to the saloon much later, he noticed that the others were all sitting at the same table as earlier. He shot a glance up to the raised platform and saw that the Southerner was still playing, but the other players had changed.
"Howdy," he said as he sat down and tossed his hat on to the table.
"He's still winnin', Chris..." Nathan grumbled. The gunslinger just looked at him: the darkly dressed man was not going to repeat himself. "Don't seem right that we can't do nothin' about it.... I mean...."
"What do you want us to arrest him for, Nathan... playin' with a winnin' hand?" Larabee's tone dripped sarcasm. The healer looked annoyed but didn't comment further, so Chris continued, "Besides, we start naggin' on him and he'll just up and ride out of town... is that what you want, with all the winnings?" As he spoke he looked about at the five men sitting at the table. He could tell from their lack of reply that they silently agreed with him. "Things are gonna get sorted... and I've...."
Before he could finish, the doors to the saloon opened and Ezra Standish paused on the threshold. The gambler looked tired and his clothes were very dusty; it seemed like he had had a hard ride. Ezra nodded over towards his comrades and then, after brushing off the settling dust from his suit with an elegant hand, he turned and with a brisk step headed towards the raised platform.
"You knew he'd be back early?" Tanner accused as he leant towards Larabee.
The leader just smiled and said, "Hell, no! I sent a telegram telling him to get his butt back here urgently... knew once he delivered that package he'd just be sittin' in the saloon in Eagle Bend, playin' poker, so I thought he might as well sit in the saloon here." He shot another look over towards their gambler. "Didn't realise he'd get back this fast."
Vin looked slightly shamefaced as he confessed, "Me and Buck sent a telegram of our own... told him about a gambler who played better'n he did."
"Damn, no wonder he got back so fast," Larabee stated, with a wide smile of his own.
All the men then turned their attention towards the table on the platform. Ezra had introduced himself and was now settling down to a hand of poker; whatever he said must have bit at the other gambler, as the cards were tossed in front of him. He smiled warmly and began to shuffle.
Several hours passed and one by one the others at the table fell away, either heading towards the bar to drown their sorrows at getting caught between the two professional gamblers, or moving out of the bar as the night passed.
Finally, several more hours into the long night, the handsome Southern gentleman who had been preying on the townsfolk of Four Corners slowly stood, wiped a speck off his coat, tipped his hat towards his opponent and headed out the door without a backward glance. The other men noted that he left the extremely large pot in the middle of the table.
Ezra slowly gathered his winnings and, after secreting them about his body, headed towards the table where his friends sat. "I do believe that Mr Logan will be leaving on the stage later today," he remarked dryly.
"You played a mighty sharp game there, Ezra," Chris said, pleased that the gambler had effectively seen off the latest threat to Four Corners.
"On the contrary, he was a dismal player... depending totally on counting the cards." He sniffed with disdain before he added, "I just added a few extra shuffles to the game, then he had to depend on his God given, natural-born talents..." he gave them all a big, gold-toothed smile as he added, "which, unlike me... he didn't have."
The gambler sat down and smiled when three hands reached to pour his drink. He lifted it and saluted his companions before swallowing it down. As he placed the empty glass on the table, another was poured for him. Pulling a wedge of paper from his pocket and handing it to Josiah he continued, "I would be grateful if you would convey this to Mrs Langley." It was the deeds to her ranch. "I cannot help but feel that to keep it would entail manual labour on my part." He noted the solemn nods that hid grins around the table and could tell he had not fooled his friends for one moment, but he pushed that aside and continued, "And I would strongly advise her against letting her husband come into town alone in future." With that the gambler finished his drink, then stood and, tipping his hat, said, "I assume that one of you gentlemen will take dawn patrol in my stead today... seeing as I have spent most of the night protecting this town from a most devious villain."
"You've got yourself a day off, Ezra," Larabee agreed with a warm smile. The gambler broke into an even wider grin and, turning, he took the steps up to his room. All could see that he was tired and knew that the ride back from Eagle Bend must have been a gruelling one.
After he had departed, Nathan leant back and said, "What do you think he'll do about the rest of the money he won?"
The look Chris gave him had him shrinking in his seat, but Vin took pity on him and said, "I wouldn't be surprised if it don't work its way back to its owners over the next week or two...."
Larabee leant back and sighed in contentment; everything was back on an even keel in the small town that he now called home. Seeing the looks the other men were giving him, he shrugged and commented lightly, "Better the devil you know." He then stood and headed out; after all he had a dawn patrol to ride.
"Amen to that, brother," Josiah said with a knowing smile of his own as he watched their leader leave. The seven men were back together and their town was safe once more.
"You once asked Chris why we needed a cheater, Nathan..." Vin remarked with a slight smile, remembering the words the healer had spoken to Larabee the first time they had met Standish.
The healer smiled back and said warmly, "I never thought I'd say this, but I'm sure glad he's on our side."
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