The Turn of a Card
Jack Bunney’s skin was slick with sweat. The night was hot and humid, stoked by an unseasonable wind blowing in from the south, and the air in the saloon was still and heavy with smoke. The staccato waves of laughter and conversation, the dull tread of boots on the saw-dusted wooden floor, seemed to make the air in the room vibrate, its thrum punctuated by the more regular rhythms of the piano. They had been playing now for more than three hours. Bunney’s eyes were sore from the smoke and alcohol, his mind dulled from concentrating on the diamond-backed rectangles being dealt out on the baize.
He could feel the stares and glances of the others in the saloon directed towards them; sensed a quietening of the general hubbub in the room. The stakes had suddenly been raised; the pot on this hand stood now at six hundred dollars. Even Brogan Sullivan’s ladies had come over to watch the game, seeing in it the possibility of some percentage for themselves. One of them - Belinda was her name - was standing behind him. She was a handsome girl; he liked her. He had been with her a couple of times, when he had won and had felt the need to pay back whatever luck she might have brought him - a gambler’s tentative nod in the direction of Fortune.
Tonight, though was different; he no longer had need of any such mascot, would never need such things again, neither for luck, nor for that other thing, which he had more or less learned to do without anyway. The drink, he had found, tended to keep other hungers at bay. His luck was turning though, and now he had his own lady of good fortune coming to stand permanently at his side. Her name was Rosalind. She was going to be his wife.
On the table in front of him, his cards showed two Jacks, Hearts and Diamonds - love and money Sullivan’s girls called them - and a pair of fives. Sullivan, sitting opposite, was dealing. He straightened the edge of the deck on the table-top and dealt out a final blind card to each hand.
Bunney’s fifth card slid across the table towards him. He left it lying where it landed, lodged against the Jacks and Fives.
The player sitting to his right - a thin, nervous prospector with a bushy red moustache and a dark carbuncle on his nose - snatched up his new card and held it cupped close to his chin. Bunney wondered what the man was doing sitting in this game. The cards he was dealt were almost mirrored in his face. The only good hand he had held they had all folded; his three Kings had won him just forty dollars. The man sighed deeply, and folded on the ace-high and nothing he had showing.
“Try dealin’ me some kinda hand next time, could ya?” he grumbled as he put down the cards.
“They come as they come,” Sullivan said quietly, almost as though talking to himself.
“Yeah, so it seems,” the man said in a petulant tone.
“You have a problem?” Sullivan asked, his eyes lifting unhurriedly to look squarely at the man. His face was devoid of expression, but the stare showed clearly what he was thinking. The man held his gaze for barely a second, then shook his head and looked away.
Ignoring the distraction, Bunney brought his right hand slowly up from his lap to the edge of the table and took a studied sip from his whiskey, then returned the glass to the shallow brass dish set into the table by his place. A bottle, half empty, stood next to it. Opposite, Sullivan’s brandy glass stood on a small silver tray, a folded, monogrammed cotton napkin beside it. Brogan Sullivan owned the saloon, and could afford such indulgences, though Bunney knew that while playing he rarely took a drink. Bunney peeled up the corner of the blind card with his thumb. The Jack of Clubs.
He took another careful drink and set the glass back in its dish. He did this with every hand, to disguise any emotions he might otherwise show, informing the other players whether his hand was bad or good. Always at the same speed, unhurried, unconcerned, whatever the hand or card, however large or small the pot. He was a good player, but lately his luck had been bad. Tonight though he had a feeling things were about to turn.
“Well?” Sullivan enquired lazily. “What’s your bet?”
Brogan Sullivan was a good player too. Jack Bunney had lost a sizeable amount of money to him over the past few months, probably the best part of a thousand dollars. Sullivan still held his markers, but he was a fair-minded and patient man, at least when it came to gambling. The two pairs Sullivan had showing peeked out on either side of his blind card, threatening to surpass Bunney’s own full house. Bunney separated half of his chips and threw them onto the pile in the middle of the table.
“Two hundred,” he said, and took another studied drink from his glass.
The player seated to his left flipped over the cards he had already been dealt - a pair of sevens and the ten and Queen of Clubs - and shuffled them into a tidy block, face-down, on top of his blind card. Bunney liked the way the man had been playing. He was a quiet, steady player. He had won a couple of good hands early in the game, but then the cards had turned against him.
“Way too rich for me,” the man said, and leaned back in his chair to watch how the game would play out.
Sullivan had both red Queens showing - also love and money - and a pair of eights. He reached out and casually turned up the edge of his blind card. There was no reaction in his face, in his hands or body as he counted out four fifty-dollar chips from his stake pile and pushed them into the pot.
“See your two,” he said, then separated and pushed forward another three piles of chips. “And raise you fifteen.” There were several exclamations from among the watchers, and a heightened murmur of interest added to the overall commotion in the saloon.
“Let’s find out what you’ve got there, Jack,” he said. “Let’s see if you really are a gambler.”
Bunney looked down at his chips. He had only two hundred and twenty dollars on the table and maybe another twenty dollars in change in his pockets. He did not want to have to fold on such a hand. With two pairs showing, he knew Sullivan might also be holding a full house, but one of the Queens he would need had already gone, and if his blind card was an eight, making the house the other way, Bunney’s Jacks and fives would win.
“It’s your bet,” Sullivan reminded him, his cigar jammed into the corner of his mouth, its stub clamped between his teeth. Bunney pushed his remaining chips forward and immediately Sullivan’s eyebrows rose and his hands flipped open, framing an unspoken question.
“How much for the store and a half-dozen claims?” Bunney asked. He owned the town’s grocery store, won in a game of poker, as had been the claims. He had kept the store, though he was never a storekeeper, and had hired a clerkish Austrian named Boehme to run it. The store provided his food, and lodgings, in the lumber-room above the store, and the income it brought in added to his stakes.
“What would I want with your claims?” Sullivan said. “We both know there’s no real gold here anymore.”
“I don’t think you’d want too many of your customers believing that,” Bunney replied. Sullivan shrugged his shoulders.
“There’re other towns,” he said. “Other games.”
“Is anyone else interested?” Bunney half turned and shouted over his shoulder.
“I’ll give ya five dollars each for ‘em,” someone shouted close by. Bunney threw back an obscenity and turned back to Sullivan.
“And the store?”
“Including stock?” Bunney nodded slowly. Sullivan thought for a while then said, “Five hundred.” Bunney laughed out loud. “With the stock, I said. That alone’s worth two thousand! More if winter comes early. A thousand.”
Bunney paused to consider, looked quickly across at Sullivan sitting implacably in his chair, then nodded again and called for a pen and paper. As he wrote out the note for the store, he thought about including the man Boehme as part of the inventory, but did not know whether such a thing was possible - to sign over the rights to another man without their permission. Sullivan would probably keep him on anyway, make him manager, unless there was someone else he owed a favour to. He made out the note for the store and its contents, added the agreed sum, and signed it.
“You’re still four hundred and eighty dollars short,” Sullivan said, his eyes fixed steadily on Bunney’s, a sly smile flickering across his lips.
Silence fell in the room. Even the piano player had stopped playing and had come over to watch the outcome of the game. Nervous coughs and grunts, the scuffing of booted feet on floor-boards punctuated the stillness; the laughter of two oblivious drunks sitting at a table in a far corner. Bunney looked around slowly. In the mirrored wall behind the bar, he saw the room reflected, the eager faces of the watching crowd, the composed figure of Sullivan, his red and gold brocaded waistcoat, the black velvet lapels of his jacket presenting an image of a man fully in control of himself, his destiny; and then his own, less clear-cut and assured image opposite, looking pallid and drawn, his clothes creased and soiled; between them, the sharp green circle of table, the chips and credit note piled upon it.
He suddenly felt distanced from the whole proceedings, as though he were in that other world behind the glass of the mirror, as though his image was the real person, looking out at a reflection of himself, watching Sullivan casually straighten his cuffs, then place his cigar carefully against his glass on the edge of the silver tray. In the reflection, the gold signet ring on Sullivan’s little finger flashed dully in the lamplight.
In a mirror world, that was where Bunney felt himself to be whenever he was drinking. In there, things seemed more certain, more predictable. In that stilled world where no one spoke, where people went about their business silently, never demanding anything of you, he always felt safe; much safer than he ever did out here.
“Come on now, Jack,” Bunney heard the man in front of him say, the real man playing cards with him in the real world, demanding his attention. There was an arch tone to Sullivan’s voice.
“There must be something else you have. Something a bit more... substantial.” As he spoke, he made a sinuous movement with his hands, tracing an outline that everyone watching understood. Knowing laughter rippled around the table. Bunney had made no secret of his anticipated arrival.
“You must have something else valuable to offer.”
The day she arrived, it seemed as though the whole town was out waiting. Some of the men had given up half a day’s prospecting just to see her, and even their women had sacrificed time from their gossiping, though Bunney knew they would have more than enough to tattle and whisper about before the day was through. Everyone was excited; everyone wanted to see the bride who had been made a whore by the turn of a card.
Everyone except Jack Bunney. All he wanted was to see his bride-to-be, even though he knew that such a creature no longer existed. She had vanished even more quickly than she had come into being. Something less precious, less certain, had been created in her place, a product of Jack Bunney’s own black conjuring. And now he was afraid of his creation, of what it would do to him in return. He was surprised too that Sullivan, for all the man’s improbity, had chosen to see the process they had together set in motion through to its illogical end.
The stagecoach appeared, coming along the broken road at the upper end of the town, trailing a broilling screen of dust. Some of the men waiting on the veranda outside the saloon began to whistle and cheer. Bunney saw Sullivan signal for them to be quiet, and one by one they all ceased until, as the coach slewed to a halt in front of them, the gathered crowd had fallen silent. The driver jumped down and opened the door, and what looked to Bunney little more than a young girl stepped down.
Bunney groaned. She looked so pretty, even from up here, through the dusty window of the lumber-room. She was dressed all in black, apart from a thin slash of crimson lace trim at her throat. As though she was dressed in mourning. A black straw hat with a bowed silk ribbon sat upon her head, tied under her chin with another black ribbon, the upper part of her face partially hidden beneath the shadow of its brim. Still, she looked so pretty, so innocent. Prettier than a man like him could ever have deserved.
Her black boots and the hems of her dress were covered in dust, and in her left hand she carried a black parasol and a small black bag. My sweet Black Lady, Bunney thought, and the memory came back to him - of the Queen of Spades, Sullivan’s blind card, nonchalantly flipped over and lying face-up on the baize; the four hundred and eighty dollars she had been worth to him, until he had lost her, everything she might have been.
He cupped his head in his hands, to contain his regret, his sorrow, while continuing to watch what was happening below. In her free hand she held his photograph - he recognised the silver-gilt frame he had sent the picture in, to impress her - as she searched among the faces milling round her, trying to find his one, singular countenance among them. She looked confused, and much younger than he had expected. Sullivan, standing only a few feet in front of her, coughed into his hand, to draw her attention. When she glanced towards him he bowed to her and held out his hand.
“I’m looking for a Mr Samuel Bunney,” he heard her say uncertainly, as she continued looking around, ignoring Sullivan’s proffered hand. Bunney flinched at the sound of his name. It sounded so unfamiliar, an echo from a discarded past. No one had called him Samuel since his mother had died. The name Jack had come later, a more acceptable abbreviation of his middle name, Jackson, and mainly of his own choosing, being preferable to the Rabbit and Jackrabbit his family name conjured up more readily in other people’s mouths. The young woman’s voice was soft and thin, exactly like his mother’s had been, and out here in the wilderness, in this hard-hearted town, amidst its trouble-hardened people, her Boston accent sounded too refined.
He was glad to see she had spirit, though. He needed her to be strong. To survive what was about to happen. It would be his only redemption, such as it was.
“He was to meet me. I’m to be his bride,” he heard the young woman say, more proudly now, directing her statements to everyone in the crowd.
“We know who you are, Miss Pearce,” Sullivan said, bowing again. “My name is Brogan Sullivan. Welcome to the town of Hope.”
Bunney cursed, and kicked at the wall in frustration. He knew he should be down there confronting Sullivan, claiming what had once been his. But he was afraid - of her, afraid to own up to what he had done. He had no fear of Sullivan, but had no idea where he would find the courage to face her, to offer an apology, let alone an explanation.
“I’m sorry, but Jack… Mr Bunney, is indisposed,” Sullivan continued.
A faint murmur of laughter rose from the crowd, and a voice shouted “When ain’t he?” provoking further laughter. As Bunney watched, he saw the German boy move out of the crowd to stand close behind Sullivan, his head cocked to one side in the odd way he had of seeming to be curious about everything. It was always easy to recognise the boy, with his thick mane of golden hair - the town’s lucky mascot, some claimed. He was always hanging around Sullivan, not that Sullivan seemed to mind. He used the boy to run errands, and they were always laughing together, as though sharing some secret joke.
“Where is Mr Bunney? I really need to…” Bunney heard Rosalind start to say, as she turned to face Sullivan, then she fell in a dead faint to the ground.