Con Jackson idly watched the bartender polish a glass as he listened to the whisper of the cards being dealt. The game was hours old and he had won a few small pots. The two young cowboys on his left had each won one pot and the drummer to his right had won two. The current dealer, who said he was a cattle buyer, had won four larger pots.
Con glanced at the cards lying in front of him. Four. Again he watched the bartender and listened carefully to the deal. There it was again – the unmistakable click of a poorly executed bottom deal. He glanced at the other players and realized that they were completely unaware they were being cheated.
Over the bat-wing doors, he could see the beginnings of a sunrise. Somewhere, a dog barked his presence, and a screen door slammed down the street. He picked up his hand and saw the expected pair. He was sure some of the other players also had at least as good a hand as he. The cheat was on. The unaware would bet freely, and possibly even be dealt two pairs or three of a kind to encourage recklessness. But the cattle buyer, by the name of Clay Everson, would always have a slightly better hand.
Con was not a professional gambler, although he was a far better player than most professionals. His father had been an honest Mississippi river boat gambler and one of the best. He had taught Con all the tricks and methods of cheating, including the sounds of a crooked deal. Con could spot a cheater every time, and if needed, deal a crooked hand any time he wanted, completely undetected. He could neatly stack a deck and with one hand, cut any card he wanted to either the top or the bottom. But he was not a cheater. When he did play, it was honest, and he usually won a fair amount because he knew the odds, and in short time, he also knew the other players. The first cowboy on his left unconsciously pulled on his mustache when he had at least a pair, as he was doing now. The cattle buyer showed nothing when he had dealt a setup like this hand, but when another player dealt him a good hand, he had a habit of moving his cards closer to his chest. It wasn’t much, but it was enough.
The drummer Al threw his hand down in disgust. ‘I’m folding this one too gents. Third bad hand in a row.” He finished his drink and signaled to the bartender.
Con opened on his jacks. Both cowboys and Everson stayed in the game without raising. Con drew three cards as did the cowboys and Everson drew two. Con’s draw was no help, so he folded. One or both of the cowboys were the victims. Sure enough, the first cowboy, Danny, placed his bet and then his friend Dave raised. So did Everson, and Danny called. Then Dave raised again and Everson called. So did Danny.
Dave held a pair of queens and a pair of deuces. Everson had three eights. Danny shook his head ruefully and turned over a pair of aces. Everson grinned and raked in the pot.
When the deal passed to Con, he purposely dealt Danny three eights off the bottom and four hearts to Everson. To the rest, he dealt poor hands. Danny pulled his mustache and opened and everyone but Everson folded. On the draw, Con dealt Danny another eight and filled Everson’s heart flush. Danny was fairly yanking on his mustache now and Con resisted kicking him under the table. But Everson, in his own barely concealed excitement, failed to notice. He pulled his hand close to his chest and waited for Danny.
Danny gathered himself and pushed twenty dollars worth of chips into the pot, his largest bet of the night. Everson glanced at him over his cards, but shook off his suspicions and raised Danny forty dollars. To Con’s relief, Danny feigned concern and hesitated. A tiny smile floated across Everson’s face and he waited patiently. Danny saw his forty and raised him ten. Everson decided to end it.
“I’ll see your ten and raise you everything you have in front of you.”
Danny looked at him in shock and glanced one more time at his hand. After a moment’s hesitation, he pushed all his remaining chips into the pot.
Everson spread his flush on the felt with a practiced flourish. He smiled at Danny.
‘Sorry son, but ain’t that a beauty?”
Danny looked at him for a moment. He put down his own hand face up and spread them out, a huge grin on his face.
“Yessir, that’s a fine hand, sure enough, but it won’t beat four eights.’’
Clay Everson sat in shock. He was a card sharp, not an odds player, but he knew the chances of two such hands in one deal were slim. He glanced at Con Jackson, who had dealt the hand, but the big drifter seemed oblivious.
In the next two hours, Al and Dave also won nice pots when Con dealt and Everson’s winnings dwindled despite dealing himself several winning hands. He began to feel the frustration of a man who knew something was wrong but couldn’t pin it down.
Con Jackson shuffled and passed the cards to Al for the cut. He then expertly palmed them back to his original stack and dealt. Danny and Dave quickly folded with no hands at all. Clay Everson opened on a pair of aces and Al folded. Con had all spades but one and saw Everson’s opening without raising
Everson drew three cards and Con resisted looking at him. He had dealt him the other two aces and a nine. Con drew one card.
Out of the corner of his eye, Con could see Everson’s barely contained excitement. Finally, Con looked up waiting
‘I believe the bet is yours Mister Everson.”
Everson blinked at the unexpected formality but shrugged it off.
“Well sir, I believe I’ll raise the sum of five hundred dollars! Yes sir, I believe I will.”
He placed the chips in the pot and smiled at Con triumphantly. Con had no more than seventy five dollars showing on the table.
Con studied him for a long moment and reached into his jacket.
‘This is a Wells Fargo voucher for the sum of ten thousand dollars.” He tossed it into the pot.
“I call your five hundred and raise you nine thousand, five hundred dollars. Your bet sir.”
Everson paled and his mouth dropped open.
‘What the hell are you talking about?” he sputtered. “I don’t have that kind of money! You’re trying to buy the pot.”
“What about your thumbs? You can bet your thumbs.”
“My thum…what the hell do you mean my thumbs? Did you say my thumbs?”
“That’s right. You bet your thumbs and I’ll consider that a call.”
Everson stared around in a panic. Danny and Dave looked at each other and began to laugh. A moment later, they were both roaring and pounding each other over a joke they barely understood, but the sheer enormity of it set off one loud peal of laughter after another.
Al the drummer had a puzzled grin on his face as he looked from Everson to Jackson, trying to figure out what had just happened. Only Con Jackson was calm, quietly waiting for an answer from Everson.
‘Make up your mind Everson. Call or forfeit the pot.”
Everson stared furiously at his cards. It was the best honest hand he had ever had. The odds were vastly in his favor. But his thumbs? Why his thumbs? Was the big man insane? He licked his lips nervously and looked again at his hand. It was four aces! But his thumbs? Did this fool mean to chop them off if he lost? Every dime he had was in that pot! But he held four aces! There was no chance of beating four aces!
“All right damn you! I bet my thumbs. You’re called!”
Never taking his eyes off Everson, Con Jackson spread his hand neatly on the felt and waited.
“A flush!” Everson heaved a great sigh. “A lousy flush! A flush does not beat four aces my friend!” He spread his own cards with a practiced flourish and grinned in triumph!
“Look again Everson. Look closely. It’s the five, six, seven, eight, and nine of spades. Not just a flush. A straight flush. You lose.”
Everson paled. Suddenly he lurched up from his chair and was clawing for his pistol when he heard the crisp double click of the hammer cocking on Con Jackson’s Colt and saw the cold black eye of it staring back at him. It was a .44 Russian and the bore looked enormous.
For a moment, nothing moved and the only sound was the ticking of the clock over the back bar. Then Con motioned Everson back into his seat with a wave of his revolver. Con reached down to his boot with his left hand and came up with a large hunting knife which he placed on the table. Everson’s already pale face turned ashen.
“You’ve been bottom dealing this entire game.” Con paused and let that news sink in. The other players looked from him to Everson, anger and realization beginning to grow on their faces.
“Your thumbs now belong to me fair and square. I have witnesses to that.” He glanced at the others who nodded their agreement, and looked nervously at one another.
“A man can’t deal without his thumbs and he damn sure can’t deal off the bottom.”
Con picked up the knife and Everson looked as if he was about to cry. ‘If I ever hear of you so much as picking up another deck of cards, I’m coming to collect my thumbs. Is that understood?”
Everson tried to speak, but could only nod his head.
“I have friends all over the country and I’ll put out the word, so be warned. In fact, some western folks have a real mean sense of humor and might even say you were dealing cards again just to see the fun, so you might think about heading east.”
“Who are you,’ Everson croaked. “Who the hell are you?”
“I’m Con Jackson.”
Everson seemed to shrink even more. “The Dakota gun hand?”
“Some call me that. I didn’t ask for it.”
Con pushed some chips toward Everson. “Take those and buy a ticket back east. I don’t think the western climate agrees with you”.
Con Jackson and the others watched Clay Everson disappear around the corner on the morning stage. As the noise faded away, Con turned to the small group.
“You boys ready for breakfast? I’m buying.’
Danny grinned and replied, “Hell yeah, I’m thumbs up for that!”
The peals of laughter began all over again.
Finally, Dave nodded. “As long as we don’t get Cora for a waitress this time.”
Con looked over at him. “Why’s that, Dave?”
“She’s all thumbs!”
With that, both young cowboys collapsed and rolled around in the dusty street, laughing uncontrollably.
Con Jackson sighed and entered the café.