What Do You Think The Odds Are…

Dana DeVos

Colorado, 1874

 

Heyes didn’t miss the Plummer gang at all.  Not only had Plummer himself been a conceited fool, the last two jobs had been a botched mess followed by a total loss.  Heyes, like some of the others, firmly believed Plummer had the money with him when he disappeared.  Heyes missed his share of the $30,000; but no one missed Plummer.

For a while Heyes drifted along with Preacher and Lobo, even taking up honest work here and there when they ran out of money completely.  The lure of whiskey, gambling, and saloon girls always got them broke again pretty quick, though.  After a few weeks, the aimlessness of it started to get to Heyes.  He wished Kid was still around; he missed him in more ways than he thought possible.  He liked Lobo and Preacher well enough – Preacher was good to talk to, he thought about stuff beyond the immediate situation, and Heyes’ brain needed such stimulation.  But only with his cousin had Heyes known that complete, trust-you-with-my-soul-itself kind of bond.  If he had had any idea where to start looking, he’d have done it by now. 

Central City, Colorado, had slowed down some from the first gold boom in 1859-1860, but was still a place where riches came out of the ground and into men’s pockets.  Along the way, large amounts could be found in banks and being shipped in rail cars, just waiting to be relocated into the right pockets.  Preacher’s suggestion that the trio move that way sounded good and they did so.  Coming up on a steep ridge, they laughed to see a train robbery in progress below them. 

“Well, boys,” Preacher declared, “we seem to have come a mite late to the party.  Heyes, let’s make this an educational moment for you, since you’re the newest to the business.  How many fellers you think are working this job?”

Heyes hated being the newest.  “I see the two with the engineer and fireman up front.  I see two outside the express car, but there’s bound to be one or two inside there.  I don’t see them from here, but I’m betting there are a couple on the other side of the train, too, probably keeping an eye on the passengers.  If there are any.” 

“Good, son, you remembered there’s always more than meets the eye.”  Preacher knew Heyes had a head for the business, young though he was.  It wouldn’t surprise him to see Heyes ramrodding his own gang one of these days.  He had the brains and the gumption, just needed some experience. 

Squinting, Lobo suddenly asked, “Preacher, ain’t that ol’ Wheat down there – the big fellow with the engineer?”

“Why, so it is!  Then Kyle oughta be…yep, down at the express car with that skinny yahoo.  Why, this is plumb a family reunion.”

“I take it you’re acquainted, Preacher.”  Heyes tried to ignore how ‘family reunion’ hurt.  “I hope you’re on good terms, because the tall skinny fellow at the express car just spotted us.  We’d better look friendly.”  He raised his hands as he spoke, acknowledging the scrutiny of the man apparently in charge of the robbery.  Preacher and Lobo did the same, also removing their hats so they might be recognized.  The robber named Kyle did so, with a laugh and a wave, turning to the leader and apparently explaining.  The conversation went on a while, with the leader firmly shaking his head.  Kyle seemed to get some concession from him, though.  When the band (Heyes had reckoned correctly as to the numbers) rode off north, leaving the train crew to deal with the log across the tracks, Kyle rode up the ridge to his friends.  It was not necessary to suggest moving on before the railroad men came after them; everyone moved on.  Even mounted, Kyle was obviously shorter than his friends and none too fussy about cleanliness.  But he was friendly, and clearly delighted to find his amigos again. 

“Preacher!  Lobo!  Ain’t seen you boys in donkeys’ years!”  As soon as they had some distance between them and the train crew, Kyle was shaking hands with both, and trading shoulder punches with Lobo.  He waited expectantly when he got to Heyes. 

Preacher did the honors.  “Kyle, this young’un is Hannibal Heyes.  Heyes, Kyle Murtree. We used to ride together some.” 

With a side glance to Preacher for the ‘young’un’ comment, Heyes shook hands and exchanged howdy’s.  Kyle’s simple nature was visibly pleased with a new acquaintance. 

“You boys oughta be ridin’ with us again – fellow named Jim Santana has taken over things and we’re doing fine now.  That feller’s smart.” 

“Is that an invitation, Kyle?” Lobo wanted to know.  “The hombre you were jawing with didn’t look too welcoming to me.” 

Heyes watched the conversation closely.  Lobo had asked exactly the question he wanted answered, too.  Young as he was, Heyes had already recognized and disliked the pointlessness of their lives lately.  A smart leader would be a good thing.  And Heyes had appreciated the efficiency of the robbery.  It had been thought out, well planned, not a movement wasted.  That was something Plummer wasn’t good at; his gang had moved into trouble because of it. 

Kyle hesitated briefly.  “Not exactly.  See, Big Jim likes to pick his own men, so I had to talk him into meeting you.  And no offense, Heyes, but I don’t know you from Adam’s off ox right now, so I couldn’t vouch for you personal like.”  Kyle waited, unsure whether Heyes would take offense, but he just shrugged.  It was the truth, after all.  And underneath the dirt and the greasy blond hair, Kyle was hard to dislike.

“So this is hail and farewell, then?” Preacher was a little disappointed at the rejection.  The operation he’d seen made him hanker to be part of such a group.  

“No, I’m supposed to take you to where we’re holed up right now.  Jim has a regular big hideout just across the Wyoming border, but he’s the only one decides to invite anyone there.  But come and meet everybody, anyway, we got a hombre with us that’s a good cook.  And Jim can look you over, think about it.  You got to remember, though, he’s the boss, no arguments about that.  He even makes Wheat stand around, and you know how bossy Wheat is.”  From their grins, Preacher and Lobo did know.  Tall and barrel-chested, Wheat gave rise to the expression throw your weight around.  Big Jim Santana must really be the goods. 

“Lead us on, then, Kyle,” Preacher requested.  “You just got some supper guests.” 

It did not take long for Jim Santana to appreciate potential in Heyes.  Innate intelligence was one thing Santana valued, but he also saw that Heyes had the kind of brains to see the whole situation, to look ahead and anticipate problems.  Then when he learned Heyes could crack safes, it was like the younger man was the prodigal son come home.  To the displeasure of Wheat and a few others, Santana made him second in command in just a few months.  It took a couple of fistfights, and a few quiet words from Santana that Heyes didn’t know about, before the bunkhouse pecking order was straightened out.  It occurred to Heyes that if he ever ran his own gang, he’d have his second in the leader’s cabin with him.  By the fall, the gang was becoming well known in Wyoming and Colorado both, called after Santana’s name for their hideout, Devil’s Hole. 

Seven months, nearly to the day, after the robbery Heyes and his companions had witnessed from the ridge, he was part of the crew robbing the same train near Central City.  With Santana, he climbed quickly into the express car, and they politely but firmly convinced the two guards there that the mining company’s payroll wasn’t worth getting shot over.  Examining the safe, Heyes grinned over at Santana as the leader held his pistol on the guards.  “This’ll be easy, jefe, it’s the old style.”  Removing his hat, he slicked back his long, dark hair and nestled his right ear to the safe.  Long, skillful fingers slowly turned the lock as he listened for the significant clicks in the tumblers.  He had “the Curry hands,” Grandpa Curry used to say.  As the memory came to him, as always, he thought wistfully of how Kid was chronically annoyed that Heyes had them and he didn’t.  He sternly turned his mind back to the safe.  It didn’t take long, and the safe should have been bulging at the sides from the riches inside it.  He and Santana exchanged gleeful exclamations, but wasted no more time transferring the gold and greenbacks into their sacks.  In only a few more minutes, the Devil’s Hole bunch had fled the scene, taking with them their biggest haul to date. 

The smooth-as-glass holdup and the munificent haul made Santana’s rule about the waiting period harder than ever to endure.  No one argued about the good sense of not flashing fresh “earnings” around; it wasn’t a good idea to argue with Santana even if you didn’t agree.  But it was a long three-four weeks of evasive traveling.  Central City was much closer to Denver than to Devil’s Hole, and the men definitely wanted to do their hoorahing in Denver.  Santana let them have their way about that part; in fact, he liked “the queen city of the Rockies” himself.  With a little investigating, he picked a day when a good many mine workers and cowboys would be blowing their pay, too, and the Devil’s Hole gang took their shares of the loot to town.

The Devil’s Hole boys attracted no special notice, since they were doing what everyone else who just finished a job was doing:  replacing worn-out clothes, boots, tools and weapons, and searching out bath houses, saloons, whorehouses, or whatever entertainment lured them.  Heyes followed Jim Santana’s lead and secured himself a decent hotel room first off.  Together, they then made the rounds of the various activities, ending up hours later at the Horn of Plenty Gambling Emporium, a splendid establishment Santana felt more worthy of their attention than places they’d already seen.  “That’s one of the best things about Denver, Heyes,” he explained, watching Heyes scanning the large and relatively quiet room of gamblers.  “There’s something for everyone.  Now, Kyle and Wheat like their games of chance – we’ll probably find Kyle at the faro table in that saloon until he runs out of money.  But what’s the problem with faro, Heyes?”

Heyes turned his thoughtful dark eyes on his leader.  “There’s a problem?”

“Not for men like Kyle.  But for you, and for me, yes.  What’s the difference between us, Heyes, and most men?” 

Heyes knew Santana was getting at something but didn’t see the point.  “We’re pretty smart.  We’re the leaders of the gang, is that what you’re saying?” 

“And why are we leaders, Heyes?  Because we are smart, and because we like to be in control.  Control, Heyes.  Games like faro and the roulette table, they’re just luck.  But blackjack, and even more, poker, that’s where having brains makes a difference.  You, amigo, could be a great poker player.”  Santana looked over the Horn of Plenty; a man could almost smell money in the air.  “And this is a fine place to practice.” 

Still unclear on Jim’s intentions, Heyes asked, “You’re not talking about cheating, are you, Jim?  I’ve heard your opinion on that subject before.”  It had amused Heyes at the time – it was fine to steal for a living, but not to cheat at cards. 

Santana answered by cuffing Heyes lightly on the back of his head.  “Don’t act stupid, Heyes, it’s unbecoming to you.  Let’s find a poker table in need of players.”  Heyes slicked back his hair (biting back his comments—he hated being the youngest) and gestured for Santana to lead on.  They joined a table of four men: two ordinary cowboys (one bearded, heavyset, grimy and gamy from the trail; the other younger, thinner, mustached, grimy and gamy from the trail), a substantial-looking businessman of about forty, and a slender, dark man in the finest suit of clothes Heyes had ever seen.  Black frock coat, cream-colored trousers, ruffled shirt front, black string tie…Heyes decided, if he had any money left after Santana’s “schooling,” he was going looking for a tailor the next day. 

Quick introductions happened, the two outlaws sat down, and the businessman, Mr. Byers, began to deal.  “We’re playing five card stud, gentlemen, and we have agreed that straights and flushes are played at this table.”  Heyes and Santana exchanged a look (what else would you do in poker?) and nodded agreeably.  Not a complete novice, Heyes knew the sequence of what beat what, and had some idea of the odds of building one of the top hands.  He had learned how to play, after all, back at the Home for Waywards.  But he hadn’t before thought of poker as such a mental exercise, something a man could control somewhat.  This could be interesting. 

Mr. Byers was a talkative sort, especially about the wonders of his town.  And he really meant it was his own town, too; he was the force behind its growth and its achieving the railroads before any other place out west had them.  The splendidly dressed player, a Mr. Maverick, cheerfully carried on the conversation and played ably at the same time.  Heyes and Santana found the pontificating annoying; Heyes especially was distracted from his concentration.  But the older, bearded cowboy couldn’t take it.  About three hands later, he abruptly got up, pushing over his chair in the process, and spewed forth a vigorous string of cursing at Mr. Byers.  With a final speculation as to Mr. Byers’ ancestry, he left, the younger cowboy following without a word. 

“My apologies, gentlemen,” Byers said soothingly, “we’re still a little on the rough side in Denver, but not usually at this establishment.  No doubt Mr. Hudson and Mr. Sawyer will be better served somewhere else.  But they may have a valid point.  Have I been talking too much?” 

Heyes was trying to frame a polite enough reply when Santana interceded.  “No, of course not, Mr. Byers.  You’re right to be proud of what you’re building here in Denver.”  As Maverick agreed, Heyes choked back his incredulous response.  All right, then, if the older players could stand it, he could.  He dealt.  Byers described his 1859 guidebook to the golden west, specifically Denver City that helped begin the rush to his town.  Heyes tried to ignore the history lesson and concentrate on cards. 

Players came in; players left.  The four men stayed.  Maverick was the steady winner overall, seeming to know just when to bet and when to let be.  Heyes tried to figure out how he was deciding, what he saw that not everyone did.  And suddenly, he realized something.  Taking the two exchange cards he’d requested from Santana, who was currently dealing, he looked around the table at the cards showing.  His own hand was worthless now, had been to start with; but looking at it, he could see he had the cards to prevent Santana from getting the straight he had been building.  Not only that, he had a queen and Maverick had a queen showing.  That meant Byers couldn’t have the full house one might suspect from the cards in front of him.  Heyes caught Maverick smiling at him and dropped his gaze to his cards. 

“Mr. Heyes, either a miracle happened with those two cards and you need to work on your poker face,” Maverick drawled with some amusement, “or you’re working on one of the best bluffs I’ve seen lately.”  The bet was to him, and he put up ten dollars. 

Heyes hated the feel of color rushing to his cheeks; it made him feel boyish.  With an effort, he smiled back.  “Actually, I’m folding.”  He tossed in his cards.  “I just suddenly realized something that made me understand the game better.” 

Santana made his bet and said, “My young friend is trying to learn the intricacies of real poker, gentlemen, what separates a true player from the average card pusher.  I’m sure you understand.” 

“Of course.”  Byers called the bet.  Sure enough, Maverick won.  Heyes felt vindicated, and also like a candle had suddenly been lit in the darkness.  He could do this.  He could really play, not just push cards. 

A couple of hours later, the crowd had thinned out in the gambling house.  Byers lost his self-proclaimed limit, thanked everyone for a good game, took time to remind everyone that he had free seeds for anyone who stopped by his newspaper office (The Rocky Mountain News was promoting agriculture in the area), and eventually went his way.  Santana decided to call it a night as well and asked Heyes if he was coming.  Heyes looked to Maverick.

“I got no urgent plans, Mr. Heyes.  I’ll play a little longer if you want.” 

A little longer turned into the rest of the night.  And nearly all the rest of Heyes’ money, but he didn’t care.  Maverick told him to think of it as paying tuition to a college; he was investing in an education that would pay off later.  With wry amusement, he advised Heyes that in six months, he probably wouldn’t play with Heyes again. 

“Then you think I can really do it?  That I can be really good?”  Heyes knew he had a lot of card-playing ahead of him to approach Maverick’s obvious skill, but still…

“Quite possibly.  Earlier, when you had your big realization, you looked like St. Paul having the scales fall from his eyes.  You’re a man of vision now.  My ol’ pappy used to say that if a man has vision, the rest of the world might as well be blindfolded.”  Heyes had managed to miss a lot of his Bible lessons back at the home, but he understood what Maverick was getting at. 

It was nearing dawn when they parted, and later than that before Heyes slept.  A strong mental stimulation could keep him awake a mighty long time; he wished again he had Kid to talk to about it.  Tomorrow (today, he supposed) he would arrange some more funds from Jim…he would see about a tailor to make him a fine suit…he would play poker with Maverick again…

It became an obsession.  It was a good thing Maverick understood and was amused by his pupil’s enthusiasm, or Heyes might have had a problem.  Of course, it helped that Heyes was still paying tuition to “Maverick College”; he lost steadily for the next two nights, too.  But he lost less to Maverick each night, and he began to win some, too.  Santana gave up on getting him away from the poker table and sought other amusements.  Late into the gang’s third night in Denver, Santana came back to the Horn of Plenty to find Heyes and Maverick having a quiet drink.  They had obviously played out everyone in the place.  Once invited, he joined the pair and inquired how Heyes was progressing. 

With a triumphant laugh, Heyes answered, “Must be pretty good, Jim.  Someone accused me of playing partners with Maverick here, we were beating everybody else so bad.  I had to move to a different table.”

Santana’s astonishment showed.  “You mean you did?  Move, I mean?  Why, if you weren’t doing anything wrong?” 

Maverick took this one.  “I asked him to, Mr. Santana.  We could have argued, maybe fought, over the issue.  But my pappy brought me up to be a devoted coward, and I never interrupt a poker game for a fight if it’s not extremely urgent.  And like I told Heyes here, it’s not like he needs me any more.”  He and his pupil exchanged grins and clinked their whiskey glasses.  Heyes had done all right for himself at the other table, more than breaking even from when he started the first night. 

Shaking his head, Santana noted that the “cowardly” Mr. Maverick wore his six-gun tied down for quick use and remembered the gambler’s lack of fear when the big cowboy let loose that first night.  But it wasn’t polite to contradict a man, so he didn’t.  Instead, he delivered the message he came with.  “Heyes, we’re leaving tomorrow, going back up north.”  He knew Heyes would recognize the euphemism for Devil’s Hole.  “We need to get Wheat and Lobo and, I think, Hartman, out of jail.”

“Anything serious?” Heyes’ question also meant Do we need to pay their fines, or do we need to break them out?  He was relieved at Santana’s negative head shake. 

“No, nothing very troublesome.  I’d like to be riding before noon, though, so I’ll say good night.” 

The two poker players wished him good night and watched him leave.  “Well, Mr. Heyes, it’s been a pleasure.  I hate to see you leave so soon.  But, then, I’ll be on my way in a few days anyway, so it’s probably just as well.”  Maverick genuinely hated to say this farewell; he’d developed a fondness for his protégé and had sort of begun to understand how his father must have felt, training his own boys.  They sat silent, finishing the whiskey, for several minutes, and then Maverick came to a decision. 

“Mr. Heyes, to commemorate your graduation from Maverick College, I’m going to bestow on you a family secret.” 

“Mr. Maverick, I’d be honored.  Honored and touched.”  While his formality may have been partly from the whiskey, Heyes spoke the truth.  He’d come to respect Maverick, and to be taken into the family circle had meaning for Heyes. 

Maverick shuffled the deck of cards before him and began dealing out twenty-five cards. 

                        

                  

           

                  

“This is a game my ol’ pappy invented, which might also mean stole from someone, called Maverick Solitaire.  It’s a good brain exercise, and you can use it as much as you want that way.  But we all take a family oath not to trick people with it for money.  It’s a great temptation, Heyes, because people generally think it’s hard to do, that the odds are ’way against it.  People are generally fools, you know.”

Dimpling a grin, Heyes nodded.  He’d always suspected that himself.  “How does it work?”

“See if you can make five pat hands out of those cards.  Arrange them any way you want, but you have to use the first twenty-five cards you deal out.  And yes, straights and flushes are allowed.” 

Thinking Why do people keep saying that?, Heyes studied the cards.  There were a handful of pairs and triples, and he arranged two full houses from them.  He switched out the pair of tens for the pair of threes, so he could put together a hearts flush.  Three hands down.  Maverick watched, sipping his drink.  Heyes re-arranged.  He put everything back out and started over.  Twice.  Finally he looked up, defeated. 

“Well, I guess that answer is no, I can’t.  Can you?”

Maverick began arranging cards.  Heyes’ hearts flush was right, and so was one of his full houses.  But within seconds, Maverick had arranged a different full house, a spades flush, and a straight.  Five pat hands.  “Vision, Heyes, vision.  You have to learn to see all the possibilities.  Takes practice, of course.” 

                    

                    

                    

                    

                    

 

Dark eyes aglint with a new challenge, Heyes was already shuffling and dealing out another set of twenty-five cards.  “Does it always work?” 

“Very nearly.  My brother Bart claims to have played two hundred hands in a row one time when he was in jail for something or other.  He says it worked a hundred and ninety-two times.”

“Ninety-six percent.”  Heyes, arranging cards, automatically did the math.  “Very impressive.  But most people wouldn’t expect it to work, is that the trick?” 

“Exactly.  But remember:  it’s not a cheap parlor trick to be done willy-nilly.  Plus, it’s dishonorable to lie about it.  You can say, What do you think the odds would be, but you can’t tell people it’s hard when it’s not.  And above all,” Maverick paused and waited for Heyes to meet his eyes, “it’s not to be abused as a source of income.  I’m putting you on your oath, Heyes, not to use this to win bets.”  Heyes nodded and the two men shook hands solemnly.  Then Maverick drained the last of his drink and added, “Unless you really, really, need the money.” 

Chuckling, Heyes turned his attention back to the cards.  He had three hands arranged, and could make a full house for the fourth, but had a mismatched set left over.  Maverick watched him stew for a bit, then suggested, “Switch out this eight for the eight of clubs in that straight, then do the same for the six over here, and you’ll have a clubs flush.” 

“I should have seen that.  I was thinking I should be able to make a flush, since I had three clubs left.”  Heyes shuffled and re-dealt.  He looked up in surprise when Maverick got up to leave, holding out his hand.  Heyes shook it and said, “I’m most grateful for everything you’ve taught me, Mr. Maverick.  I hope we cross paths again.”

“If we do,” Maverick advised him, “I might not want to play poker with you.  It’s one thing to play with ordinary players.  But with another man who really knows how to play, why, that’s gambling.  Adios, Mr. Heyes.”  He left Heyes arranging cards.

Mid-morning the next day, the young outlaw met Jim Santana at the sheriff’s office and bailed out the three gang members.  They all met up with the rest of the gang at the livery stable, where Preacher had paid the bill and had their horses saddled.  The group rode north, most of them untalkative from exhaustion and the knowledge they were dead broke until the next good job Santana planned.  Heyes wished Wheat had been in that group; instead, he was very vocal about having spent two of his three hoorah days in jail, not getting to gamble like he wanted to, just because of a little fight at the whorehouse.  “Not that I mind still having my money,” he admitted, “but I sure didn’t have much fun.” 

Heyes edged his bay gelding closer to Wheat’s roan.  “Didn’t get to gamble, huh?  That’s too bad.  I know how much you like to bet on stuff, Wheat.”  Wheat grunted something in agreement.  “Fellow I was playing cards with told me about an interesting proposition, but I didn’t take the bet.  You’re more experienced with these things than I am, Wheat.  What do you think the odds are that I could deal out twenty-five cards…