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Last Waltz

Old Guy

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You should all remember these characters from "Blood and Gold". :)

Last Waltz

It was a Wednesday night and business was slow in the Red Garter. Four men stood at the bar, clerks and laborers all. No miners. Those who worked their own claims lived on them and the bigger mines maintained rough lodging for their employees. In cooler weather, a few men might ride down for a drink or a friendly game of cards, but not when Prosperity baked under a mid-summer sun.

Peg-Leg Smith, Jupiter Wilson, Deputy Niall Ferguson, and Mr. Chin sat at table under a sign reading, "The Longest Running Draw Poker Game in Recorded History" and played one slow hand after another. Talk ran slower than the cards. Mr. Chin was not one to converse much at any time and Niall tended to long silences.

Jupiter glanced up as the batwing doors swung open. He leaned forward and hissed. "Look here. I smell trouble." An ex-slave out of Alabama, his speech usually carried a hint of magnolia and molasses. Not this time. Like the whisper of steel on leather, his words conveyed a sense of possible danger, but not an instant call to arms.

Peg-Leg and the others watched the stranger enter, pause to survey the room, then amble across to the bar, rolling as he walked, like a man long used to the saddle -- or the deck of a ship. "Whiskey," he rasped. The barkeep hustled to fill a shot glass with the good stuff.

The man sipped and looked around again. His clothes were workmanlike -- pants of the style favored by miners and cowhands alike, blue work shirt, red bandanna, and a worn leather vest with the tag end of a tobacco pouch showing at one pocket. His hat, battered and sweat stained. Beetling gray brows over dark eyes. Straight nose, firm mouth, sun-browned skin creased by age and hard use. A broad black belt angled across his hips, supporting a low-slung black holster.

"Another gunman," murmured Peg-Leg. Niall shrugged and turned slightly, so the man could see his badge.

Mr. Chin placed a dollar on the table. "We play cards?"

"We play cards," said Jupiter, smiling suddenly. "Whoever he is, he ain't about to get a fight from any of us."

The stranger knocked back the rest of his drink and walked slowly toward the draw poker table. Jupiter stopped dealing. Niall shoved his chair back and stood up. Mr. Chin's bodyguard stepped up behind his charge.

"Whoa," said the man, holding his hands out carefully. "I know I ain't purty, but I don't have the plague or nothin'." He extended a hand toward Niall. "I'm a Texas Ranger, sir. Doc Teague."

Niall accepted the courtesy. "I heard of a ranger named Teague. Long time ago. I heard you was dead."

"Not yet, sir." Teague grinned. "But not for lack of tryin' on the part of some folks. Yes, sir." He glanced up at the sign. "Is this really the longest running draw poker game in history?"

Peg-Leg chuckled. He could feel the tension draining out of the situation. "No one has claimed to have one that's been running longer." He pointed to an empty chair. "Join us, sir."

Teague sat down. "I will. Thank you for the invite." He reached into an inner vest pocket and produced a folded sheet of paper, which he handed to Niall. "This is the purpose of my visit. I'm after that man. Jack Dance."

"Jack Dance." Niall shook his head. "Description fits half the men in town." He returned the paper. Teague displayed it for the others. It was a wanted poster.

"Dance ain't gonna be workin' as a miner. He robbed a couple banks in Texas and in the Territory last year. Killed a bank clerk. Got him a little gang together and stuck up a stage coach down Abilene way. Driver and shotgun guard ended up dead. Rangers got on his trail after that." He put the poster away.

"Sounds like he got clean away," said Niall. "I mean, Texas is a long way."

Teague counted out ten dollars. "Shall we play? It's too damn hot for sleepin'."

Jupiter gathered the cards he'd already dealt and began shuffling. Teague anted a dollar and looked at the deputy. "You know how they get when they're on the prod. Twitchy-like. Nervous all the time. Can't trust a soul. Hand always close to a weapon. Never relax."

Niall nodded. "Wears on a man. I seen it. But I ain't seen anyone like that around here. Not for some time."

The men watched silently as Jupiter dealt the cards. As Teague arranged his hand, he went on with his tale. "I ain't here official-like. The stage driver Chance killed was my brother-in-law. I don't know what my sister seen in the bastard, but she was happy enough. She ain't smiled since he died."

Naill tossed a dollar on the table. "I'll open for a buck."

Teague called. Mr. Chin folded. Pegleg and Jupiter called.

"Two cards," said Niall.

Jupiter dealt replacement cards around the table.

Niall folded. "Can't make nothin' outta that."

Teague bet a dollar. Pegleg dropped out and Jupiter called. The Texas Ranger laid down three queens, a jack and a nine. Jupiter tossed his cards in. "Beats me."

"Dang." Teague grinned as he raked in the thin pot. "Just my luck. I always draw good cards when everyone else has squat."

"Well," said Peg-Leg, "the evening ain't over. Your luck may improve."

"Nah. It's always the same. Just like when I spotted Chance two days ago. It was in a little town east of here, maybe forty miles. He was riding out and saw me as I stepped out of a barber shop." Teague rubbed the stubble on his chin. "My Colt was tucked away in my saddle bags. Rifle was with my horse -- in the livery stable across the street. The bastard seen me and took off. Got clean away."

"Sounds like Cold Creek," said Niall. "Trail from here runs south around the Three Sisters."

"That must have been the place. I trailed him mostly cross-country. There was some peaks to the north. Tracks give out when he rode into the creek about a mile east of Prosperity. Never found where he come out. He may be here somewhere or he may be holed up out in the brush." Teague shrugged. "I'll get back on his track in the morning."

Each man tossed a dollar ante on the table. Jupiter began to deal.

The batwing doors swung open admitting a thin man clad in a sweat-stained blue shirt and dark trousers tucked into tall boots. Spurs rang as he strode toward the bar, sweeping his gray hat off. A red kerchief was tied around his neck and a single revolver hung low on his right hip. "Barkeep! Beer! And it better be cold."

Teague jumped to his feet and reached for his own weapon. "Chance!"

Niall was no more than a step behind the Ranger. "Stop! There'll be no …"

Chance spun toward the two lawmen, crouching and drawing in one motion. He fired before anyone else cleared leather. The explosion jarred the room. Peg-Leg, Mr. Chin, and Jupiter dove for the floor.

Teague grunted and stumbled. Chance fired again. The bullet plowed a furrow in the poker table.

Niall fired twice, striking the outlaw in the chest with both rounds. Teague's revolver hit the floor and went off. No one ever figured out where the bullet went. Chance sagged to his knees, still clutching his pistol. He glared up at Niall and tried to raise the gun for another shot. The deputy shot him twice more -- this time in the head. Chance collapsed like an empty sack.

Teague lay on his side. A red stain spread slowly across the left side of his shirt. Jupiter was the first up and around the table. He knelt beside the Ranger and cut shirt material away. "Y'all are lucky," he said after examining the wound. "Bullet went in and out. Mighta broke a rib."

Niall pointed at a man hunkered down beside the bar. "Shootings over, Carl. Go fetch the doc."

"Christ on a crutch," muttered Teague. "Just my luck. The guy I'm chasing gets killed by someone else and I catch a damn bullet."

Niall leaned against the end of the bar and tried to roll a cigarette. Peg-Leg took the paper and tobacco pouch from the deputy's shaking hands and built one for him, then lit it. Niall took a long drag and blew it out slowly. "Damn. I ain't got into a fight that quick since the war."

"Thank you," said Teague. "I reckon he woulda got me sooner or later. Maybe it's time I got outta this business."

Chance's legs were twisted under him. Bulging eyes stared unseeing at the ceiling. His hat lay in a spreading pool of blood. Peg-Leg glanced at the dead man and turned away. "He's ordering beer in hell now."

"We gonna need a new table," said Jupiter.

Niall smiled down at the Texas Ranger. "Is there a reward for Chance? He must have a price on his head."

"He does. Trouble is -- you'd have to collect it in Texas. And that would mean dragging his carcass back there."

"Chance ain't going any further than the cemetery," said Niall. "I figured on writing out a statement about his death and having a certain Texas Ranger witness that statement."

Teague grinned. "A certain Ranger might do that -- for a share in the reward."

"We got us a deal." Niall beckoned to the bartender. "Throw something over this here stiff, Billy. Then get us all a beer. On me."


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