The lone figure on a healthy looking black horse paused every few minutes as they ambled along the dry and arid sand and dirt of central Montana. He needed these pauses to drink from his canteen and it greatly bothered him that he hadn’t gotten his horse anything to drink but some muddy water from a stream the day before. It was a scorching hot day as horse and rider maneuvered their way down the Montana Trail. The rider wore a Stetson with silver buckles across the rim of the hat and his clothes gave off the sense that he had money. Money to spend on clothes with a proper fit and fine material, money to spend on comfort. When he wasn’t drinking from his canteen, his hands kept a tight hold on the reigns that controlled the horse’s speed and direction. This grip was not to keep the horse under control, it was to keep his hands from shaking. It had now been four days since he had a drink of whiskey, and for Eb Walker that was too much. He had placed a lot of faith in the idea that he could make the gold mining town of Bannack before he ran out of water or lost his mind. As he sweated in the midsummer heat though, his doubts rose.
Soon the sun left it’s position high in the sky and started to dip towards the western horizon. Eb decided this would be a good time to make camp. He rode up to a patch of trees by the side of the trail and dismounted. His first instinct was to roll up a cigarette, but his shaking hands would just waste all of his tobacco before he could lick it and light it. He broke off some dried branches from a fallen tree and with the help of some paper from a bible an ambitious young priest had given him back in North Dakota, he started up a small fire. Once he got that going, he took his canteen and poured some water in his hand and let his horse lick the water out of it. Then he took and unrolled his blanket, laid it out by the fire, peeled off his leather boots and laid down to rest.
His sleep didn’t last long, a few minutes after falling off into oblivion, Eb Walker had the hideous sensation that insects were crawling all over him. He woke up screaming and slapping himself and when that subsided, he lay, half awake and half asleep, trying to wake himself each time he slipped into another hallucination brought on by the DT’s. Somehow he made it to sunrise.
He packed up his gear, somehow managed to roll a cigarette, lit it from an ember of his dying fire and mounted his horse again, silently praying that he would make the bustling mining town by nightfall.
Eb didn’t know how to react when he saw the town of Bannack come into view as he rode his horse down the trail that afternoon. He had seen mirages before, and he knew this could be one more. But to his elation, this was the real thing. The promised land. The first thing he did was get his horse all the water he could drink, then he took the half-dead animal to the livery stable and then started to worry about his own needs.
There were a couple of taverns in town and he went into the nearest one, and asked for a shot of whiskey, which he downed as soon as it was poured.
“You look like you needed that one. Have another?” The bartender asked. Eb took out a dollar coin and pushed it towards the bartender.
“Leave the bottle.” He said.
Two hours later, near the bottom of the whiskey bottle, Eb finally spoke again: “Got rooms for rent in this Tavern?”
“With or without company?” The bartender said and winked.
“Without. I’m a God-fearing man!” Eb replied.
“You’re the first one of those I’ve seen drink whiskey like that. If you want a flop, you can sleep in the spare storage room for a quarter. A proper room is two dollars a night.”
“Two dollars? Why in hell do you charge that much?”
“This is a mining town Mister. Everyone here either has Gold or gets paid by those who do. Like I said, drunks can flop in the back room for a quarter.” Eb grabbed the bartender by the collar and glared at him, but didn’t seem to be able to get any words out. Then he took out his wallet and put down a $10 bill on the bar.
“I trust you’ll give me the change when I leave.” Eb said.
“Yes Sir, would you like a meal taken to your room?”
“Just breakfast. Eggs and toast. And a beer.”
“As you like Sir.”
Though it was barely suppertime, Eb got his room key and went upstairs and slept for almost the next 15 hours. He got up, ate breakfast then brushed out his clothes as best he could to clean them and walked downstairs feeling like a new man.
“Barkeep, have you got any cards?”
“What game do you play Sir?”
“For now, solitaire. I need to get the feel of the cards.”
“In a couple of hours some boys will likely be here playing poker. If you like, I can introduce you.”
“That would be fine my good man. What kind of stakes do you play for here?” Eb asked.
“As high as you want them Sir.”
“Excellent.” Eb said, and sat down and carefully dealt out a game of solitaire. It was a fascinating thing to watch as he methodically and with finesse laid out all the cards in perfect rows. His eyes were alight as he scanned through each card, each new draw of cards, not missing a beat. The bartender noticed, and, unbeknownst to Eb, made a signal to a man in the back of the room who left for a half an hour and came back with a big, angry looking hulk of a young man with a large wad of tobacco in the side of his mouth. He came in the door, spat a big greasy oyster of goop into the spittoon, then picked it up and brought it over to where Eb was playing cards.
“You play for money Mister?” The hulk asked.
“I’ve been known to. Allow me to introduce myself, I’m Eb Walker. I hail from Canada.”
“You don’t carry no guns. Why don’t you carry no guns?”
“Sorry uh… your name?”
“They call me Lewis. You didn’t answer my question.”
“Well uh… Lewis… up in Canada we don’t have much use for them. We don’t have such a wild west like you do. We have the Queen’s law. It works pretty good too.” The giant named Lewis laughed and let loose another cannon shot of liquid tobacco into the spittoon, and then wiping his chin.
“You ever play poker Mister?”
“Yes, I know the game. Five card stud, deuces wild?”
“Sure, you can deal first.” Lewis said. Eb played for the next while, letting the odd pot go, making the odd mistake. After a few hours, more people joined in and Eb seemed to get a little better, he started winning the odd hand. The stakes started going up and Eb ordered a bottle of whiskey and a shot glass. He took a shot, then a half hour later another and then he seemed to forget the bottle was there. Somehow he seemed to know when he should bet heavy and he got better at bluffing.
The game wore on until midnight and a few players dropped out and then it seemed that everyone had gotten a good hand. All six of the players at the table had a good chunk of their money in the pot and then it kept getting raised and all there was left was Lewis and Eb.
“I think you got nothin’ Mister.” Lewis said, adding a large plug of tobacco to his overstuffed mouth.”
“Well, you’re welcome to try me. Here, I’ll match whatever you’ve got left. Show me your cards.”
“Full house, Aces over Kings.” Lewis said, and spread out the hand that by all rights should have won.
“I’ve got a full house as well, but I only have tens high.” Eb said, and Lewis smiled, a little tobacco dribble running down his chin as he reached out to rake in his winnings.
“Yes Sir, tens and deuces. That makes for five of a kind, and unless I miss my guess, that means you lose Lewis.” The crowd erupted with laughter and cheers.
“Who in the damn hell do you think you’re playing with Mister?”
“Going to have to call you Mr. One Eleven from now on. You’ve got three ones on your face now Lewis, three lines of tobacco all spilling out of your mouth.” With this, the hulk of a man jumped to his feet and reached for his Smith and Wesson six-shot .45 in what seemed like the blink of an eye.
“What the hell did you say?”
“Lewis!” Someone chimed in. “Don’t shoot him! He’s got no gun, you’d hang for it.” The young giant holstered his gun but didn’t sit down.
“I think you’re a damn cheater Mister Eb. Walker. What do you say to that?”
“I say you’re wrong and that you don’t know how to play poker.”
“If I’m wrong how the hell did you win all those hands? You got x-ray vision?”
“No, I just notice things. Like how you chew your tobacco harder when you have more than a pair and how you tap on the table when you bluff.”
“How the hell could you know that?”
“Just by watching.”
“I want a chance to win my money back!” Lewis said.
“I won’t let you throw any more money at me in this game and I won’t loose to satisfy you. I won this money fair. And if you’re out of money I suggest you refrain from betting.”
“I have a way to do it fair.” Lewis said.
“What way is that?”
“Someone lend me $700.00. I’ll take this guy down to Joe’s up the block.”
“That wouldn’t be fair. You’re the best player in town Fat boy!” A spectator to the game said.
“You shut the hell up!” He said and threw a beer glass at the man. “That’s right Mister, you can’t cheat at Joe’s and you have to give me a chance to win my money back. House rules says you can’t bow out without a five hand notice and if you leave now you break the house rules and forfeit your money!”
“Don’t do it Mister, he’s good! Give him half your money and he’ll back down.”
“No, no. If he wants to shoot pool for the money I think I can let him. My nerves aren’t so bad.” Eb raised his hand which was shaking, then carefully poured a shot of whiskey, drank it and then had another. “Can someone lend Mr. One-Eleven seven hundred bucks?” Eb shouted and looked around.
“I’ll cover him.” The bartender said.
“Well then it’s done. Lets head over to this Joe’s place.” Eb said and poured one more shot of whiskey and drank it for good measure. Lewis laughed hard and finally wiped his chin.
Joe’s tavern was full of smoke from what smelled like good cigars and pipe tobacco. A lot of well dressed men, likely wealthy ranchers and mine owners sat around and watched the four pool tables in the bar that were kept immaculately clean despite all the carousing that seemed to go on in the bar room. The men that manipulated the numbered balls around with sticks and a cue ball didn’t seem as wealthy and were a fair bit younger. Likely the well to do ones were there just to watch the excellence on the green wool that these men could acheive. Lewis went up to one table where some younger men were playing and they vacated the table as soon as they saw him. The hunkering ape disappeared for a minute and when he came back he had the fanciest pool cue in likely all the west. It looked like it was made of ash, and it had decorations and fancy designs all over it. Eb walked over to a rack of cues on the wall and took one without even rolling it on the table to see if it was straight.
“Okay, we shoot a ball to the end of the table and whoever gets their ball closest back to the edge gets to break. After that, the winner breaks.” Lewis explained. “Five games, winner takes all.”
“So what you are telling me is that if one of us wins three games, they walk away with $1,400.00. Seems pretty simple.” Lewis grimaced.
He had looked a bit drunk, but when Eb leaned over the table with his cue to shoot down table and get as close as possible to the end they were shooting from, his eyes seemed to focus, his unsteadiness seemed to go away. He tapped the ball and it went all the way down, all the way back and stopped while it was touching the edge of the pool table. Lewis’s shot left him just an inch away, which meant Eb got to break.
Eb walked down to the end of the table, took a close look at the 15 balls racked into a triangle and then walked back, carefully placed the cue ball and then said ‘one’. Then he pulled his cue stick back, slammed it into the cue ball and it hit, scattering the 15 balls but sinking the eight ball. Since no other balls went down, that meant he won. A cheer rose up from all the people that had ever lost money from his hulk of a friend.
After that, Eb broke the next balls out, ran five balls and left an impossible shot for Lewis. Somehow he raised his cue up, hit the ball off to the side, and it miraculously spun around the ball that was blocking his shot and he sunk a ball, giving himself another shot. He took it and sunk four of his balls but while he was shooting for the fifth, he hit the cue ball too hard and it ended up sinking. Eb took over and ran all the remaining balls and then sank the eight.
“Two. Want to give in now?” Eb chided. As he said this, the large man looked like he was about to explode.
“No, let’s play it out. You have your fun.” Lewis said.
“Well, let me go easy on you then.” Eb said, and placed the cue ball in the middle of the table, then hit it hard with a jump shot and it landed in the middle of the racked balls and once again, sank the eight.” Lewis became livid.
“Where the hell did you learn that trick?”
“Oh, I toured with the circus for a while. Got my $700.00?”
“I got it but you aren’t going to get a chance to spend it.”
“How so? You going to shoot me?”
“Maybe. I’ll follow you to hell to get my damned money back if I have to.”
“That’s alright, I’m headed there anyways.” Eb said.
“Here,” Lewis said, handing over the money. “Now I’d like to see you outside.”
“Don’t forget I’m unarmed my friend.”
“You ain’t my friend and I don’t care if you’re unarmed.” Lewis said, spitting on the floor. Eb walked out and his benefactor came out after him. Eb walked off towards the livery stable, counting his $1,400.00 as he went.
“Hold it Mister!” Lewis yelled. “I ain’t finished with you yet.” Eb kept walking. Lewis took out his Smith and Wesson and fired off two shots at Eb’s feet. Eb stopped and turned around.
“You better think about what you’re doing Lewis.” A voice came out of the crowd that had followed them. Eb looked over and saw that it was the Sherriff. “You shoot him and you’ll hang.”
“Aw hell, I just want my money back. Come on Mister, fork it over.”
“It isn’t your money anymore Fatso. I won it all fair and square.”
“Yeah but you never told me you were that good at cards or pool.”
“And you had never played any pool before? That cue of yours is probably worth a hundred bucks!” Eb said.
“Mister!” Lewis said. Eb walked up to him, raised his arm, pointed his index finger at him and made a quick motion like he was pulling the trigger. Just as he did this, Lewis got spooked and went for his gun.
“BANG!” a shot rang out, but to the surprise of everyone, it was Lewis that fell. Dead. He had been shot right in the head. Eb turned around and walked off, then got his horse and rode out of town.
The Sherriff couldn’t very well stop Eb, he had never charged anyone with lethal assault with a finger before, but the next day he went out on the street and looked around, tried to get an idea of the angle Eight Ball had been shot from and what he knew of the people in Bannack. Suddenly the answer came to him and he went up to see Casey, one of the working girls in town who lived up in a second story room above the Dry Goods store. He climbed the rickety stairs and knocked on her door.
“Sherriff.” Casey said as she opened her door to him. “Took you less time than I thought to figure things out.”
“So you’re not denying it then? You shot him.”
“Would you have preferred I let him kill that old man?”
“No, but I would prefer if you gave me your gun so I can get rid of it and not mess around with pistols at least within city limits.”
“That’s all you’re going to say to me Sherriff?” Casey asked.
“We both know that skunk Lewis deserved what happened and worse. As far as I understand I’m the only one that knows what happened, and I like you more than I liked that oversized tobacco spitting jerk. I know you were the only one who could have pulled that shot off, but why?”
“That big lummox was bothering me and the other girls since he discovered he liked girls. It was just a matter of time before he tried to rape one of us and hurt them bad. He had already forced a couple girls into freebies and smacked them around. He was giving us a bad name in town. People were thinking they could do what they wanted. Now I suppose you’re going to want some store credit for this favor. Well you ain’t gettin’ any. I know your wife too well. But if you come back in a week or so I’ve got a friend who can be real discreet about things.”
“Casey, how could I ever get you in trouble? You’re my favorite working girl!”
“Well I’m not going to be a working girl for much longer. I’m retiring from the profession.”
“What are you going to do? Become a gold miner? You can’t just give up this sort of life. You make good money and you’re well taken care of, all in exchange for a few indiscretions now and then.”
“You just might be surprised. You just might be surprised.” Until he finished talking and left, Casey stood so that the Sherriff wouldn’t see the envelope behind her that was from the office of the town of Bannack that contained five brand new $100 bills.
Eb rode off that night and carefully followed directions he had gotten in a letter some weeks back. He went past the mountain peak that looked like a castle, then waited on the far side of a small stream that crossed the Montana Trail. Before too long after the sun rose, he met up with the man who had written him.
“Mr. Mayor, nice to finally meet you.”
“Heh heh. I guess it’s true about you Canadians. All so damned polite. And man, you must have brass balls old man. That was beautiful! Here, this is yours!” The Mayor of Bannack handed him an envelope with ten crisp $100 bills in it.
“I’m surprised no one thought to get rid of that big arse sooner.” Eb said.
“We had wanted to for some time but he was a damn fast gun and had a bag full of tricks and a bunch of men watching his back. Now that we’ve got him out of the way we can either jail the rest of his gang or at least run them out of town. You should consider coming back to town! With that money you got you could stake a nice claim, make some real money, and the people there will never forget the courage you showed.”
“Well, to be honest I would love to, but I’ve got other plans. Some time before I put in that ad you answered in the Montana Express, I got the travelling bug. I’m off to San Francisco and I want to see Alaska before I’m done with this world.”
“But why did you need all that money? You could have been shot just as easily as a fly landing in syrup!”
“Because of these people.” Eb said and showed him a picture of a man in a red serge Mountie uniform standing next to a beautiful woman and a young daughter.
“This is you in this picture?” The Mayor said.
“In the flesh. I love this young girl and this woman more than anyone in my life. I just can’t stand being around them and my wife never liked that I was a drinker.”
“Well God bless you Mr. Walker. I feel like I owe you my life for what you did. I brought you something, maybe it won’t be so good for you but what the hell—you only live once.” He said, and went to his saddlebags and handed over to Eb two large bottles of whiskey. Eb smiled and saw the mayor off, then soon headed further down the trail where he stopped at a bank and bought a $500.00 bank draft which he sent to his daughter along with signed divorce papers giving over the rights for all their common property to his soon to be ex-wife. When the Mayor returned to Bannack, it wasn’t much longer before he married Casey and he remained married to her right up until the mines dried up and Bannack became just another ghost town in the wild west.