When the door to the tavern opened, the miners put down their drinks and stared. Standing alone in the doorway was a child who looked to be around eleven or twelve years old. She wore a sweet frilly dress with a green bow carefully tied at the waist. Her emerald eyes and enormous eyelashes were framed by tight black curls.
Without a word, she walked into the pub. Several patrons kept watching the door, expecting a parent to follow, but none did.
Not many strangers passed through this part of the land. Lollup was a rough mining town whose beauty could only be found three miles below ground. Its chief export, the Honey Stone, provided fuel for most of the country, but coaxing it out of the hard clay that lay underneath the mountains was brutal work. In Lollup, days were long and lives were short. Few dared to enter such a mountain community.
The strange girl walked confidently toward the bar, causing several large men to make way for her. She carried a worn leather bag that was incongruous with her pristine patent leather shoes. She found an empty stool and, not without effort, hoisted herself upon its wobbly seat. Silence still filled the sticky air. The bartender, Harry Ickman, watched her closely, assuming that a customer’s wife had sent this child to fetch a husband for dinner, but she was looking at him expectantly, and he realized that she wanted to be served. “Yes, ah, miss. What can I get you? A glass of milk?”
She smiled. “Strawberry juice, please.”
Harry uncorked a large bottle, poured a glass, and placed it on the bar. Taking a long, slow sip of her drink, the girl spun on her stool and surveyed the rest of the tavern. She studied the tired faces of the miners, still sooty from their day in the mine, until her eyes came to rest on a group of men sitting at a table in the corner.
“Oooh, cards!” she chirped, jumping off her stool and almost spilling strawberry juice down her dress. She approached the men, who were so engrossed in their game that they hadn’t noticed her entrance.
She looked over the shoulder of a wide man with oversized sideburns. Squinting at his cards, she declared loudly, “I wouldn’t play that if I were you. I would go with the ten.”
The men burst into laughter, and the one with the sideburns turned to glare at her. “Mind your business, ya brat!”
A man with ashy skin and a beard said, “Maybe you should listen to her, Yusef. You haven’t won a hand all night.” The other men chuckled.
Scoffing at them, Yusef played the card he'd originally intended: a seven.
The player to his left was called Tippo, who was known for his poor mining skills and taste for uncooked rabbit. Sneering, Tippo played an eight, placed his dirty thumb on the seven, and dragged it toward himself. “That would be a dead man’s lock, my friend. You’re out.”
Cursing, Yusef handed Tippo a gold coin.
Tippo then turned to the girl and asked, “Who taught ya to play ‘Black Thumb’ little girl? Yer daddy?”
“Oh no,” the girl said sweetly. “It’s a kids' game. I just learned from watching.”
“Ho ho,” Tippo guffawed. “Did you hear that, Yusef? It’s a kids' game!” He had eyes like a weasel's.
“I’d like to see her play you,” Yusef said bitterly, standing to go to the bar.
“I’d love to!” Before anyone knew what was happening, the girl was sitting in Yusef’s empty chair.
“Uh, wait a minute, young lady,” Tippo said. “This here is an adult game. We’re playin’ for gold.”
“Oh. How embarrassing." She held up her leather bag and shook it, and the sound lit up the men’s eyes. “I only have twenty coins. Is that enough?”
Twenty coins was more than any of the miners made in a week. Tippo winked at the two other men sitting at the table. “Twenty coins is just about the perfect amount,” he told her. “It’s Reginald’s deal. One-eyed jacks are wild.”
Gulping down the rest of her juice, the girl belched loudly. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Fun!”
Reginald shuffled the cards slowly, not sure how he felt about gambling with a child, but twenty coins! Imagine how happy his wife would be if he came home with that! “Ante up,” he announced, and everyone, including the girl, put two coins in the center of the table. Reginald dealt at lightning speed.
The girl looked at her cards and then waited for the man to her right to begin. He was older and seemed to have difficulty seeing his cards. Finally, he threw down the four of hearts. Smiling sweetly, the girl threw down the three of hearts. Then Tippo and Reginald put down the seven and ten. Reginald won the hand.
He dealt again, but before anyone could pick up their cards, Tippo said, “I raise the pot five coins."
The old man put down all his cards. “I fold!”
The girl looked confused. “So . . . if I lose this game, I’m going to lose my two coins plus another five coins?”
Tippo knew he had to handle this just right. “Yes, darlin’. But if you win, you’re goin’ to get seven brand new shiny coins!”
The girl’s eyes widened. “Seven coins! Golly, that's a lotta peppermint sticks!” She added five more coins, and so did Reginald, who appeared nervous. Tippo grinned.
Everyone looked at their new cards. The girl frowned, and Tippo could feel his heart racing. She put down a two of clubs. Tippo couldn’t believe it. The silly child had just led with the lowest card there was! He put a queen of clubs on the table, trying to suppress his giddiness.
Reginald scowled, “I’m out.” He put his cards face down on the table.
Reginald put his thumb on the jack and queen, adding them to his pile.
Tippo smiled at the girl. “Lookin’ like it’s just you and me.”
A crowd had gathered, curious to see how the girl would do.
Tippo signaled to Reginald to deal the last hand. When Tippo picked up his cards he kept a straight face, but inside he was dancing. He now had two red aces, two red kings, and a wild card. It was a “Red Thumb.” He tried to read the girl's face. She looked befuddled.
There was no way he could lose.
Looking more at his audience than at her, he said, “I raise you thirteen coins.”
The crowd gasped. It was an unheard-of amount to gamble, let alone win from a child.
The girl stayed steady. “Okey-dokey." Without batting an eye, she placed her entire satchel of money in the middle of the table.
Fifty-eight coins, almost a month’s wages, was now at stake. Everyone held their breath.
Smirking, Tippo placed all his cards on the table. “Red Thumb!” Clapping his hands, he whooped with delight. He was reaching for the money pot when the girl said innocently, “Don’t I get to show everybody my cards?”
“Of course you do, sweetheart. You go right ahead,” he said.
The girl placed her cards on the table. She had two black aces, two black kings, and one black jack. It was a “Black Thumb” with no wild cards––the highest hand you could get. Tippo’s jaw fell open. The odds of the girl getting that hand were . . . were . . . Tippo sank in his chair as he realized how much money he'd just lost.
The people in the bar laughed and clapped, happy to see the little girl beat Tippo, who'd won money from almost everyone in Lollup.
Leaning forward, the girl scooped money into her bag. “This was so exciting! I can’t wait to teach my brothers and sisters!” Standing, she put the bag over her shoulder, the weight of it making her lopsided. “I have to go meet my mother now. She’s visiting my aunt and she’ll be worried about me.” Before anyone knew what was happening, the girl had scurried to the entrance.
As she opened the door, she turned back to the bar. “Thank you, gentlemen. It was a pleasure. And please don’t use this evening as an excuse to teach your children to gamble. Gambling with children is wrong.” She smiled wickedly and was gone.
Tippo finally came out of his state of shock. He jumped up from his seat and ran after her, sure that the girl had swindled him, even if he couldn’t explain how. When he got outside, she was nowhere to be seen. She'd disappeared as mysteriously as she'd arrived.
Shaking his head, Tippo returned inside to a roomful of men laughing at him. He said loudly, “Tell y’all what. I promise to buy y’all a round a drinks, and y’all promise to never talk about this here little incident ever again.”
The men just laughed harder.