The Little Man Wins

Here’s a story that I wrote in 2005, with a bad western/magical realism vibe…

Wounded Dog’s eyes searched mine, asking a question to which I had no answer. Shadows of his tribespeople moved about the campfire.

‘You’ve a long journey ahead, Johnny.’
He offered me herbs and firewood. Like a fool, I pointed to the leather boots by his bundle.
He shook his head. ‘They’re trouble. Don’t ask for them.’
They were soft, supple, like silk. He pushed some sage leaf into my hand.
I nodded, and stowed it safe in Grandpappy’s old silver cigar case. I already knew that I’d made a mistake.
‘One more thing’, he said, ‘remember – the little man always wins the game.’ He melted into darkness and I turned in to my doss-bag, a warm stone from the fire for company.
I awoke in the dark, and felt the boots tight on my feet. I scraped at them but they weren’t coming off. I went cold as I felt the rattlesnake on my chest.
‘Mighty fine night.’ I ventured.
He shook his rattle and whispered. ‘I’ve come for my brother.’
‘I ain’t seem him in these parts.’ I was sweating some, I could tell you.
He gestured at the boots with his poisoned tail, ‘These used to be his.’ He raised his rattle above my heart and struck hard.

I leapt up as his barb rebounded off the cigar case, and jumped away before he could get another pop at me. I yanked at the boots, but they were staying, and I took to my heels, scrambling in the dark down towards the creek.
I’d been running three days and nights when I came to the inn. I reckon he was half a day behind me, although I could still hear his belly sliding across the dust. I needed somewhere to rest. It was a grand old place with a verandah right round both floors, the blackened wood defying the heat.

Inside, a small group huddled round a little fat fellow with rings on his pudgy fingers. Some ragged, rough-looking sorts got up as they noticed me, squaring me up as if ready for a punch-up. But the little fellow just raised an eyebrow and gestured to the empty seat across from him.

‘You like to play?’ he inquired mockingly. I nodded. Out in the brush, I could hear soft snakeskin rasping over the sand, and I knew I didn’t have much time.
He began to shuffle, fluttering the two halves of the deck into one another like butterfly wings, then snapping them shut.
‘Got a stake?’ His eyes were roving over me greedily. There was the click of a switchblade and a gentle pressure against my ribs. I emptied my pockets of a few coins and gold nuggets, and added my cigarette case as casually as I could to the pile on the table.
‘Nice buckle’, he remarked. I undid my belt, as he swung his legs with glee from his high stool.
‘Oh, and I do like those boots.’
‘Sure ‘nough, but they’re staying put for now.’
He pouted at me, but I held his gaze. ‘Plenty on the table already. Should see us through a few hands.’ The whisper of the snakes coils weren’t getting any quieter.
‘Hmph. Alright then, big spender. Best out of three to start with.’

He soon cheered up though, as he fleeced me of my gold. Wounded Dog’s words were with me, and I thanked my lucky stars for his good advice. Two games down, all I had left on the table was the cigarette case.
‘Been in the family a long time,’ I murmured as he shuffled the deck again.
He leaned over the side of the table, licking his lips again. ‘Well, we could always…’
‘You ain’t getting your paws on those,’ I yelled. ‘Those boots cost me dear.’
He grinned a wicked grin at me, like a cat with a mouse. I reckoned I’d got him now.
‘You think I’m going to settle for the cigars, Johnny? Think again.’ The room spun as he stared at me over his vermouth.
‘Ok, we play for the boots.’

First trick I beat him, and I had to bite my lip. The snake wasn’t far off now. Second trick I bluffed him recklessly on a worthless card, and he called it, laughing as he won. I stared him down on the final round, and he produced a straight run of aces, clicking his fingers like the kid who owns the candy store. I gave him a look as low as I could muster, and peeled off the boots, pocketing the cigar case and shaking my head.
‘Ain’t got no more game left in me. I’m all spent.’
He rocked in his seat like a fat baby, laughing openly at me now as I climbed the stairs. The clink-clink of the snake’s scales crossing the railroad track thundered in my ears.

I was burning sage when I heard the saloon doors swinging, and the rattler slid up the stairs. There was a shriek and footsteps, as the little man rushed past in his nightshirt and cap, the boots firmly on his feet. The rattler turned and caught my eye.
‘You’re off the hook today, Johnny.’
I nodded, as his tongue flicked over the sage-smell of my fingers.
‘I’ll be back.’
‘Sure ‘nough. A man can’t keep running forever.’

He turned then, and I watched the little fellow’s legs pumping away into the distance. Good runner for somebody his size, I’d give him fair odds for a day or two, maybe. It’s true that the little man always wins the game, but it seems to me the rattlesnake comes out plum lucky in the end.

 

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