The Bad Bet

by Lubrican

Chapters : 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6-25 Available On

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Chapter One

July first, 1868, Abilene, Kansas

Arabella Mortenson was thankful for the full bonnet that hid most of her blushing face. She was standing just outside the batwing doors of a saloon, closer than she'd ever been to such a den of iniquity in her thirty-one year life.

That she was driven to come that close to such a place was proof that her need was dire. She needed to get her husband out of that saloon. He had gone in to get a drink, but had stayed much too long for that simple pursuit. She knew that meant he was gambling again.

He'd been losing their money in games of chance for years. Before leaving for Kansas, they had lived in the house she'd inherited after her mother's death. She'd had a garden and had been able to barter laundry services for some beef each week, so they'd had food and a roof over their heads. She had to provide the food for the table, because Frank gambled away all his wages unless, after being paid, he came home first. She had learned to tolerate a bottle of whiskey in the house because the bottle was sometimes enough to lure him home on payday, giving her the opportunity to lift a few dollars from his pockets, before he'd be off to the saloon to gamble away the rest.

Her first signal that something was terribly wrong had been when he started talking about going to the Kansas territory, where it was said a man could carve out a farm in the lush, fertile soil that lay under the prairie grass.

Arabella was well aware that Frank Mortenson was a lazy man. She'd married him at the tender age of fifteen and, in the sixteen years since, had done ALL the work that got done around their house...unless she was abed because of one of her "accidents." Frank had a mean streak in him too, particularly when he had been drinking and most certainly when he'd lost at cards or some other foolish game of chance. She often had to stay indoors until the bruises went away, so the neighbors wouldn't see them. Once she'd been laid up for weeks while a bone knit enough that it could bear weight. The thought that Frank would be willing to work hard enough even to hook a team up to a plow was laughable to Arabella. She came from a farm family and she knew how hard it would be to start from scratch in soil that had never felt the bite of the plow. She assumed the homesteading idea must be the result of some alcohol fogged conversation he'd had with some worthless gambler.

Then one day he came home with a covered wagon. Almost frantically he'd told her to pack what would fit in the wagon, leaving room only for the two children, Becky and Frank Jr.

What Arabella was unaware of was that her husband had borrowed money...a lot of money. When he'd lost it all and been unable to pay it back, he sold the house quick, getting the two horses and wagon as part of the deal. Then he'd run from his debts.

They'd picked up supplies along the way, including two oxen when he'd ruined the horses trying to put too much distance between them and the men he was sure were looking for him. And by the time they got to Abilene, Kansas two thirds of the pockets on his money belt were empty. Still, it might be enough for them to get a new start, if they were able to claim any land.

Upon pulling into the bustling town of Abilene, Frank had stopped the wagon in front of the saloon.

"I'm going to go get news," he'd said. "You stay here."

"We don't have money to spend on whiskey, Frank Mortenson!" Arabella had protested. He'd answered her with a backhand to her right cheek.

"Don't sass me, woman," he'd snarled. "I've been putting up with your whining for weeks and a drink will clear my ears of it. You wait here, and don't let your brats stray either."

When he'd been gone for more than fifteen minutes, she'd known he was gambling with all they had left. She had to do something or they'd be penniless.

Thus she'd been driven to stand perilously close to the entrance of a place she would normally have crossed the street to avoid. And not only was she standing there...she was actually thinking about going inside.

Aloysius Julian Hobbs was footloose, fancy-free, eighteen years old, and had money in his pocket. There were probably a couple hundred cowboys within a few days travel who were just like him...except most of them DIDN'T have money in their pockets. Aloysius, who began calling himself "AJ" after the second time his name got him laughed at by a grizzled cowpoke, and he got into a fight as a result, had just finished helping drive three thousand cattle up the Chisholm trail. Once he and fifteen other cowboys had herded the longhorns into the stock pens at the railhead of the Kansas Pacific Railway in Abilene, he'd been paid off by the trail boss and cut loose.

He ambled down the dusty street, looking for a saloon where he might find a bath, a woman, and a meal consisting of something other than beef and beans, in that order. Not being the most patient of young men, he headed for the first one he saw. A wooden sign adorned with a picture of bull's head hung over the doors.

A heavy Conestoga wagon that was loaded down with household goods and two kids, not that much younger than himself, was blocking his path. A girl, wearing a bonnet, with a load of fluffy brown curls hanging below the cloth was sitting on the wagon seat. Idly, he estimated her age at about fourteen or fifteen. A younger boy was leaning out of the back, peering around.

AJ detoured around the wagon, wondering why anyone would want to haul all that stuff west and go through the pain and toil of trying to wrestle a living from the earth. He didn't understand sodbusters.

As he mounted the boardwalk in front of the saloon, he saw a woman standing hesitantly at the batwing doors, peeking inside. Something about her drab gray dress and bonnet marked her in his mind as the mother of the kids in the wagon. He thought it was odd that a decent woman would be about to enter a saloon.

He forgot about the family as he stepped past the sodbuster woman and pushed through the swinging doors of the drinking establishment. Had someone asked him where he was, he wouldn't have been able to name the place.

This is not to say he wasn't aware of what was going on around him. But AJ automatically prioritized the information fed to his brain through his five senses. The name of the place just wasn't important. What WAS important was that the noise level was all wrong, for a place like this. There wasn't enough of it.

And tension filled the place. That caught his attention instantly. He stopped in the darkened interior, letting his eyes adjust to the gloom. He also dropped his left hand to the pistol that was canted forward, butt first, set up for a cross draw, and took the leather loop off the hammer of the pistol. He had no idea what was causing the tension he felt, but it was his nature to be ready when he smelled trouble.

It didn't take him long to find that trouble.

There was a card game going on at a table to his right, situated near the grimy windows through which the only light in the place was coming. It was still early enough that the bartender wouldn't light any lamps and waste precious oil.

There were four men seated at that table. Three were nondescript men wearing hats. Two wore vests on top of the store-bought shirts they favored. Another wore a leather shirt that was fringed and dirty. The last wore homespun, and AJ knew instantly that he was the sodbuster who the family outside belonged to. What he was doing in a saloon playing cards while his family waited outside was a puzzle. The tension he had felt was coming from the table, and was being transmitted by the small crowd of maybe a dozen men who were standing around watching the game.

Leather shirt was dealing and AJ saw immediately that he was dealing off the bottom of the deck. The cards he dealt from there went to the sodbuster. At first AJ thought he and the sodbuster were in cahoots, but as he watched it became clear that wasn't the case. AJ saw the things he'd been taught to look for in the three men who were playing the sodbuster – cheating the sodbuster, actually. Just about all the money on the table was evenly spread in front of the three men. The sodbuster had six coins left in front of him and he was sweating. AJ could see it running down the back of his neck, below the badly chopped hair above his collar.

He was also sipping heavily at the whisky in the dirty glass to his right. While AJ watched, a saloon girl appeared at his shoulder, refilled the glass and faded back into the crowd. AJ knew she'd been told to do that by someone other than the sodbuster. Every saloon he'd ever been in was a pay as you drink kind of place. Since the sodbuster wasn't paying, that meant somebody else was. When the farmer picked up his cards, AJ saw two queens and two threes. Leather shirt had dealt him two pair on purpose.

AJ shook his head and turned for the bar. If the sodbuster was stupid enough to get into a rigged game, then he would learn a hard lesson. AJ ordered whisky and savored the first few sips before knocking back the rest of the shot. He ordered another and was about to drink it too when the voices rose from behind him.

"You KNOW that's all I got. You done TOOK the rest of my money from me. I NEED that money to make a go of things when I claim a homestead. You GOT to let me bet!" It was the sodbuster, who had been raised to the point that everything he had was in the pot.

One of the vested men replied. "I raised you, and if you cain't see me then you got to fold. Them's the rules of the game, mister."

"I got things in the wagon worth money. Let me put that up!" cried the sodbuster. He was frantic. AJ got up and moved toward the table. He could see, over the sodbuster's shoulder, that he had drawn another three. Holding a full house he was frantic to stay in the game.

Leather shirt looked out of the window, toward the wagon. "Don't need no pots and pans." He spat tobacco juice on the floor. "That's a right purty girl up there on the seat, though. You could bet her if you want ter." He spat again and cackled. The other two men laughed.

One of them leaned over and looked through the window, too. "She's a right tasty looking girl, she is." he said. "How's about you add her to the pot, farmer man."

The sodbuster was at once angry...and greedy. AJ could see it in his posture. And he could almost hear the gears turning in the man's head. He had a full house...sure to win...what could be the harm? He still didn't know he'd been dealt that hand on purpose. If he he'd known that, he would also have known that somebody else had a better hand, and that the whole purpose of the game had been to take his money. All of his money. And now it looked like they wanted the girl, too.

"Don't take that bet, mister," AJ heard himself saying.

He hated that about himself. He had a tendency to talk first and think later. It got him into trouble pretty regularly.

Leather shirt looked up. "You shut yor trap, cowpoke. This ain't none of yor affair."

The sodbuster had turned around and looked to see who had warned him. AJ saw in his eyes what he saw in a lot of farmer's eyes when they looked at a cowboy — derision. The man turned around. "You're on," he said. "My Becky and my last five dollars say I've got the winnin' hand."

Leather shirt grinned. "Lay em down." One of the vests had folded earlier. The other one was still in and laid down a pair of jacks. The sodbuster threw down his full house with a yell and reached for the pile of money in the center of the table.

"Not so fast there, farmer man," said leather shirt, with a mean grin. He flipped over his cards. There were four tens and an ace.

It was deathly quiet for three split seconds and then there was a wail of anguish, followed closely by three men laughing.

"Haul her in here, farmer man," said one of the vests. "We got us some lovin' to do!" He yelled over his shoulder. "Sydney? You still got a room free? Looks like we'll be needing it for three or four hours." His grin, when he turned back to the sodbuster, was malicious.

AJ glanced at the bartender, to see what he'd do. Without even looking up from the glass he was polishing with a dirty rag, the man called out, "Cost you three times as much, if you're all gonna use her."

The sodbuster was still staring at the cards. "NO!" he shouted.

"A bet's a bet, farmer man," said the other vest. "Now git her in here. I've got an itch in my pants that needs scratchin'."

"You were cheated, sodbuster."

Again, AJ couldn't believe the words came out of his mouth. He had no call to get involved in this mess. But he'd seen the girl out on the wagon, and she'd reminded him of his sister. He hadn't seen his sister in four years, but he remembered her saucy disposition. If that girl out there had a saucy disposition, it would be gone in a very short time, most likely never to return, if these hard cases had their way with her.

It got really quiet then, as three faces turned toward him and the crowd around the table split apart like they had practiced doing it a hundred times.

Leather shirt stood up and looked at AJ. "I thought I told you to butt out." His hand drifted toward the holstered Army revolver on his hip.

AJ sighed. One of these days he'd learn to mind his own business. But one thing he never did was back down once he'd made his stand. "You dealt him that hand off the bottom of the deck. I'm bettin' I'm not the only one who saw you do it either. You cheated him, plain and simple."

There was no posturing. There were no verbal threats or warnings. There was only sudden movement, and there was a lot of it.

People in the crowd made a mad dash to get away from the table, some of them leaping headlong, to land on the floor. The two vests stood up as one, their chairs falling backwards as all three reached for the revolvers in their holsters. The farmer pushed his chair back and prepared to stand up. Apparently unaware of the gunplay that was about to erupt, he was thinking about how to demand his money back.

The only part of AJ that moved, initially, was his right arm.

The extremely short and extremely violent gunfight would be described later by at least a half dozen patrons of the saloon who actually observed it. It was surprising, all in all, that their descriptions were actually quite similar in most of the important points.

All agreed that the three men drew first. All agreed that if the farmer hadn't stood up, he wouldn't have been shot. And all agreed that the kid who had caused all the trouble was the fastest man with a gun any of them had ever seen.

In fact, AJ's eyes sorted out all kinds of information in the split second it took him to reach across his body for his gun. Leather shirt's movements were the most practiced, so AJ shot him first, in the middle of the chest. His left hand came up and he fanned the hammer three times, once for the man in the middle, who took the bullet high, just below his Adams apple, and twice for the third man as he pulled the barrel back down. Both shots ended up within one inch of a button in the middle of the man's vest.

Only the two men wearing vests had managed to get a shot off. One hit the farmer in the face; the other winged AJ's left arm.

As the men went down, the sodbuster sat back down heavily and his head tilted back, his ruined and lifeless face staring up at the ceiling.

The whole fight had lasted no more than three and a half seconds.

AJ knew he was in trouble. He also knew it was highly unlikely that any of the other three men was still alive. His instinct had been to go for the heart. He'd seen the dusty impact of at least two of his slugs and, in any case, he knew he rarely missed. He'd practiced for hours until his muscle memory did it all for him...even if he didn't think he'd actually ever shoot anybody. Like most young men, AJ performed his routine tasks surrounded by an invisible haze of fantasy, like smoke from a campfire.

It wasn't wood smoke stinging his eyes now, though.

A boy, who had been peeking through the doors of the saloon, began shrieking the news outside. AJ's instinct was to flee, and he gave in to that instinct as terror over what he'd just done sent fire to his muscles.

The way out was clear, because the small crowd of watchers had exploded away from the danger. He ran past the woman who had been standing outside. She was now just inside the doors, her mouth open in a silent scream. AJ's boots thudded on the raised sidewalk outside the saloon and he leapt for the dusty street. Like any cowboy, he hated to walk anywhere, much less run, but he'd left his horse in the livery stable where it could get a pan of oats. That was clear down the street, and his shoulder blades pulled toward each other as he anticipated bullets flying toward his back.

He couldn't stand the idea of going down shot in the back and, as he came level with the sodbuster's wagon, he whirled, realizing he only had two shots left and there would be no time to reload.

But no one was boiling out of the saloon, eager to shoot down the murderer. There were a couple of faces there, peering out into the brightness of the sunlit street...but no pursuit.

Once again he turned and ran. He ran as hard as he'd ever run in his life.

Arabella had heard everything from her vantage point just inside the saloon doors. No one had noticed her slip in, because all attention was on the men at the table. She hadn't been able to see much, initially, but she'd heard everything. Her horror at hearing Frank bet her daughter's virginity had left her in a curious state of being frozen and weak-kneed at the same time. At the last moment when the crowd around the table had evaporated like mist in the sun, she had watched in horror as the gunfight erupted. In the few seconds that followed she saw Frank's face change shape as the bullet struck it.

It was most likely her next actions were caused by the combination of what she'd been trying to get the courage to do originally, mixed with the shock and panic that zinged through her when she saw events play out.

She'd been planning on going in there and taking the money in front of her husband off the table ... and damned with convention. What he had left was all they had, and she couldn't bear to see it all lost. That had given her the strength to start through the doors. Then she had heard her husband bet their daughter, and cold panic had left her unable to move. Her mind was, as yet, unable to deal with the processing of the immediate facts, so it settled on what she'd come in this place to do.

The cowboy who had shot the three cheaters ran past her. Noise exploded in the room, and it freed Arabella's muscles. It was dark and, still in a panic, she ran to the table, scooped up bills and what coins she could. Part of her was shocked that she wasn't the only one grabbing for money. Horrified she ran back outside. The wagon was only yards away. She literally threw the money in the back of the wagon, where Frank Junior's wide eyed face was staring at her, and then continued to the front of the wagon where she fairly leapt to the top of the smaller front wheel and onto the seat. The brake wasn't set, and she picked up the reins and snapped them expertly, screaming "HEYAH!" at the top of her lungs. The startled oxen lunged in the traces, their hooves churning the dust, until the wagon creaked forward, and then gathered speed slowly. By the time they got to the edge of town, headed south, the wagon was lurching alarmingly and Arabella loosened the reins.

She was crying now, babbling without thinking about what she'd seen and heard. Some part of her brain realized she was going to kill the team if she didn't slow them down. Becky was screaming "MAMMA!" over and over again. She didn't know what to do, and the reins dropped from lifeless fingers as she swooned.

Becky knew something bad had happened. When she'd seen her mother go to the saloon doors, it seemed as if she was suddenly dreaming. She couldn't believe it when Arabella had actually gone inside, and then shots had rung out. The handsome young cowboy Becky had seen looking at her only a few short moments ago came tearing out, followed soon after by her mother, who was also running, holding something to her chest.

Then there had been the wild ride, with mamma screaming only half understood things and leaving her father behind. She was terrified of the wild lurching of the wagon as it went much too fast. When she saw her mother sway backwards and drop the reins, Becky dove for them herself, grasping the leather strips and tugging on them instinctively, to slow the team.

The oxen bawled, tossing their heads. One looked sideways and Becky could see its eye rolling in excitement.

"WHOA!" she called out.

The team slowed a bit, and her mother came alive. "NO!" she shouted. "KEEP GOING!" Arabella had visions of a posse coming after them, saying she stole cash money, and putting her in jail.

A horse thundered past them, the rider leaning forward and so low that it looked like he was lying down on the neck of the horse. Becky recognized the cowboy who had fled the saloon after the gunfire. He and his horse grew smaller, leaving a trail of dust that hung in the air.

Becky had seen their team of horses killed by running them like this, and she ignored her mother's scream, slowing the team more, yelling "Whoa!" in softer tones as the team fell to a trot and then a fast walk. They were breathing hard already and foam flecked their mouths. Almost suddenly they adopted their usual routine, plodding gait, as they finally calmed.

Arabella's control broke and she began sobbing as the impact of events reduced her to helplessness again.

Over the next ten minutes Becky got bits and pieces of information from her mother. Frank Junior crawled over the load in the wagon, his face appearing above her, and he told her what he'd seen and heard. He had money gripped in his fist and waved it at his sister, telling him where he'd gotten it. She found out her father was dead, shot during a card game, but not by the cowboy who had fled past them.

It came out in a disjointed and unbelievable fashion, at first, and her own adrenaline caused her to flick the reins and set the team at a trot again when she realized her mother had taken money from the table in the saloon, and expected pursuit.

Ten more minutes refined the information into a narrative, of sorts, in Becky's mind, that explained what had happened, and why they were fleeing without seeing to her father's body.

Most young women might have collapsed into the same uselessness that her mother was displaying, under the circumstances. But Becky had had to grow up much faster, in many ways, than other girls her age. She and Frank Jr. had been on the receiving end of her father's rages too ... many times. She had had to work hard in the garden and helping her mother collect, wash and return clothing to customers. Her hands were tough and red, like those of a much older woman. In truth of fact, she felt no remorse that her father was dead.

There was, in fact, one bit of information that Becky did not pursue. One of the things her mother had screamed, initially, was "HE BET BECKY!" The girl, knowing it was a poker game, unconsciously inserted a comma into the sentence, making it into "He bet, Becky!" She would not realize the import of those few words, or the way she had interpreted them, until much later. But the pure fact is that it wouldn't really have made any difference.

"It was OUR money, Mamma," she said, at length. "You said he was cheated, right?"

"It was said," moaned Arabella. "I don't know. I just grabbed it! What was I thinking?!"

"You were thinking that it was our money!" said Becky firmly. She slowed the team a bit. Her practiced eye determined they were going to have to stop and let them rest soon. They'd need water too, pursuit or no pursuit. She turned and looked up at Frank Jr. "Go back and see if we are being followed," she ordered. His wide eyes were complimented by his Adams apple bobbing and he nodded. He turned and disappeared.

"It was our money, Mamma," she said again. Her mother's hands were twitching in her lap.

"But he's DEAD!" wailed Arabella.

"And we're safe at last," said Becky.

Her mother was shocked into silence as her jaw dropped and she stared at her daughter.

"Well we are!" insisted Becky. "He put his hands on me two nights ago, Mamma."

Arabella's mouth closed and she sat up suddenly. "Oh no!"

"When you went to sleep he put his hands on me. I had a bottle hidden, just in case. I gave it to him and he left me alone. I told him he could get more in Abilene. It's my fault he went in there, Mamma, but I'm not sorry!"

"It's not your fault," moaned Arabella. "He'd have done it anyway."

"I'm not sorry," said Becky in a dignified voice. "He treated us all like animals and slaves, Mamma. And lately it's been harder and harder to stop him from doing things to me. Your face is bruised right this minute and Frank Jr. is still limping from the last time he was kicked. We're better off without him, Mamma, and you know it."

"Don't speak ill of the dead, Becky!" blurted Arabella.

"All right," said the girl. "May he rest in peace."

She let that lie for a few seconds, and then added: "If there's peace to be had in the fires of hell."

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