There was stillness in the Pine Box saloon that night. Ol' Stubby Jones looked down wistfully at the ivory keys as if inspiration would come to him. The mood was melancholy, it was getting late and customers were few. Kat McKenzie, the redheaded torch singer with the sultry green eyes stood by the piano wondering if she should prod Stubby for another song or if all she really needed was another drink. She pulled up on the top of her bustier and straightened the seams on her stockings in hopes of a little more action. Pete Griggs stood stalwart at the end of the bar, wiping out a shot glass with an old ragged towel. His large frame and rough rugged face gave customers the indication he could handle more than just the drinks.
No one ever gave Pete any trouble. If Pete could not bring order to the Pine Box, there was a 12 gauge under the counter that could. Business had not been bad, but it could have been better, it was more like Sunday afternoon than Saturday night. Pete looked around the tables in the nearly empty saloon and wondered "Why hadn't the Rankin boys been by tonight?" Of course after they had a few drinks in their belly who knows what trouble they could whoop up. Pete reassured himself the Pine Box was probably better off with those boys rustling someone's cattle.
At the other end of the bar, all alone, sat Jack Rose. He was strong, silent and mysterious. Jack's reputation was bigger than life. In fact, if Jack had done all the things that folks had conjured up about him, well he would have lived more than 5 lifetimes. Two things were for sure: one, you don't trifle with Jack, his left-handed draw was faster than sidewinders on the hot desert sand. The second—you don't play cards with Jack. No one really knew if Jack was just a shifty cheater or the luckiest man on earth, but everyone agreed: Jack never loses!
Word had it that Jack had journeyed from Texas, and little else was known about him. In fact, one of the monikers Jack carried with him was the Black Rose of Texas, although no one knew why. Jack pretty much kept to himself. He enjoyed his whiskey and an occasional dance or two with Kat. Aside from that, he was a loner. There had been the occasional altercation in the bar which always ended with the sound of two shots, a dead stranger on the floor, and a smoking barrel in the left hand of Jack Rose.
Jack eyed the whiskey glass he held with the thumb and the first two fingers of his right hand. With his left hand he twirled one end of his waxed moustache. As he brought the glass to his lips, his stone face would grimace as he sipped upon his sordid fluid. It certainly was not the best whiskey, but then again, it was the only whiskey available. As he put the glass down, he smiled at Pete as he said, "Barkeep, I'll have another, and strain it this time!" A smile crossed the burley bartender's lips. Pete retorted, "If I do that, the only thing left will be crick water!" Both men laughed as Pete slid another shot down the bar at Jack.
The weather was misty and damp that night. Although storm season had passed, there was an undiscernible sound in the distance, possibly thunder. It went unnoticed to the patrons of the Pine Box. Then it happened again and this time the sound was louder and closer.
"Did y'all hear that?" Stubby said.
"Keep playin'," said Jack, "It's nothin'."
There were more sounds, but not all distinguishable. A hammering rain came out of nowhere beating down on the Pine Box. There was a commotion outside baring the sound of hoof beats and the bay of horses. Pete Griggs looked at the crowd and said, "I guess the Rankin boys have finally made it and brought a storm with them." Kat McKenzie got up and straightened her scarlet locks to greet the new arrivals in hopes she may be in for some more money or at least a few free drinks. As she moved towards the loosely swinging doors, hinged by a few rusty nails, she peered out through the missing slats and stared at the rain. The streets had been turned to mud. There, outside in front of the Pine Box, stood six wide-eyed black stallions completely covered in sweat, rain and filth. They looked beaten and exhausted.
"It's not the Rankin boys," hollered Kat, "It's a coach!"
"A coach? Why, the stage never runs at night through here. What in the devil's name is a coach doing here?"
Kat stepped away from the doors. She could not make out who was driving the coach through the thrashing torrent. Kat thought the driver must have stepped down or was at the other side of the coach helping someone out. Then it dawned on her, no one was driving the coach! When the coach door opened, a dark stranger emerged. He was hard to make out in the pouring rain. He was tall and appeared to be dressed for the inclement weather. He wore a cloak with a hood and held a staff in his hand.
Kat continued to back away from the door. Although curious, she was frightened. The stranger did not move. He just stood outside the saloon by the coach in the rain. "Who was he? What did he want? Why was he here," Kat thought to herself. Finally, the stranger spoke. In a grisly, gravelly voice he called out, "Jack Rose, come forth and meet your destiny."
Everyone in the Pine Box froze. All eyes were on Jack. Jack sat at the bar, unmoved and brought the glass to his lips once more. "Sounds like another kid wants to make a name for himself," Jack said. "Well, we'll see that you make a name for yourself and we'll put it above your grave." Jack laughed out loud.
Jack slowly turned to face the entrance of the saloon. He put down the glass. As he stood up, his left hand inched its way up on his hip, his hand was steady. Pete's hands began to move under the bar. He did not want any trouble and he was not taking any chances.
Jack hollered out, "Who dares to disturb me during my time of solace? Who is it that yearns for death?"
The small crowd hustled for shelter, crawling under tables and moving behind chairs in the back of the bar room. They knew all too well what this meant. The voice from the darkness outside the saloon replied, "It is not I that yearn for death, but Death that comes for thee."
As the doors flew open the stranger stood in their midst, immediately recognizable to all. His dark cloak, and the glaring eyes that appeared from deep inside his hood meant there was no mistaking the stranger's identity. Jack eyed the scythe the stranger was clutching in his right hand. It was Death.
"Goodnight Pete," "Thanks Kat," and "We'll be seein' ya" were the only sounds heard while the patrons hurried out the back door. Stubby Jones was still at the piano, frozen in time. Kat McKenzie stood at his back with her trembling hands upon his shoulders. Pete Griggs kept his squinted eyes fixed upon the stranger. He realized the shotgun was useless and resumed wiping out shot glasses with the same ragged towel. Jack Rose sat at the edge of the bar with an uneasy soberness in his face as Death approached him.
"It is time, Jack." A single skeletal finger emerged from Death's cloak and beckoned Jack.
"You wouldn't deny me one last drink, would ya?" Jack replied as he tried to cut through the tension and make light of the seriousness awaiting him.
"Go ahead, have another. I have time. You will not cheat me this time," was Death's counter.
A half smile was beginning to develop across Jack's sunken, strained face. Death was right, this was not the first time he and Jack had come face to face. Jack was no stranger to precarious situations. He had scars on his hands, arms, and cheek indicating there had been life threatening predicaments in the past. Jack smiled staring Death straight in the eye and replied, "You wouldn't be referring to Widow's Peak, Dead Man's Gulch or the Running 'J' incidents, now would ya?"
Jack struck a deep, sour chord with that remark. Death was not amused. Jack knew he was playing with fire, but he had to buy time. Was his number really up? Jack had never run from a fight or backed down from anyone. But this was Death. When Death says it is time, it is time. Then it came to him. Legend had it that Death had a weakness— cards. Maybe, just maybe, one hand, winner take all, could be the answer. The stakes would be high of course— Jack's life.
Jack looked up at Death and put it to him,
"Word has it you're a card player."
"I have played a game or two. What's your play?"
"One final game," Jack said, "the highest stakes. If I win, I keep my life; if you win, I go with you."
Death shook his head. "What is in it for me? I am already here and you're going with me regardless. The game would prove nothing."
"You're wrong. You have more to gain. You know as well as I, I never lose at cards. Imagine being able to say, not only did you take Jack Rose to meet his maker, you also beat him at his own game, cards. No one else can make that statement. That would be quite a notch on that scythe of yours now wouldn't it? That's what's in it for you."
Death thought about Jack's proposition. The appeal to Death's vanity was taking effect. Death pointed to one of the card tables and said, "You are on. How do you want it?"
"5 card stud," Jack replied, "One hand, winner take all."
Death nodded in agreement. Jack and Death walked over to the table in the middle of the room. Both men sat down opposite each other.
"Pete, bring us some cards, and another whiskey for me.", Jack said.
"Not to worry," Death replied as he reached inside his cloak and brought forth a new deck.
"So, you had cards with you," Jack laughed.
"Well, you never know," acknowledged Death.
"So, who deals?" Jack asked.
"Certainly not you!" was Death's reply.
Death looked around the room. His glaring eyes became fixed upon Kat McKenzie.
"What about her," he said as he pointed to Kat. "I like her."
"Oh no!" Kat exclaimed, "You can't mean . . . I mean . . . I just couldn't . . . "
"I want the girl to deal," said Death.
"It's OK Kat," Jack assured her as he raised the glass to his lips once more. "You'll be fine. Hey Stubby, give us a little card playin' music."
Kat slowly made her way to the table while Stubby's fingers stumbled across the keys. She sat down with Jack to her right and Death on her left. Death handed her the cards. His bones were icy to the touch and sent chills up her arm. Kat opened the deck and discarded the jokers. She split the deck in half and started to shuffle.
"I'm scared, Jack," she said, as she paused to catch her breath.
"Don't you worry; you just shuffle and deal, I'll do the rest." Jack reassured.
Kat shuffled the deck eight times while fumbling the cards back and forth in her small hands. She put the deck whole again and planted the cards face down in front of Death. Death gave Kat a slight nod, and cut the cards. Kat took the deck back and began to deal.
"OK, boys," she said, "5 card stud and the first one is down and dirty."
Kat dealt each player a card face down. Jack cupped his hands over his card and raised it ever so slightly to reveal its value. Interestingly enough, Death did not even look at his. Kat eyed both players and dealt another card to each, this time face up.
"Round two comin' out boys and it looks like Mr. Death will get a trey. And the dealer sends Texas Jack an ace."
Jack's poker face was replaced with a look of confidence for the moment. Both men continued to stare intensely at each other. Kat dealt a third card to each player.
"OK," she called out, "We're going to 3rd Street."
This time Death drew a King and Jack drew an eight. Jack's ace was still high to Death's king. Jack once again cupped his hands over his hidden treasure and glanced at it again. Death remained unmoved.
Kat held the cards firmly in her grip, her right thumb on the top of the deck
"Let's move on down to 4th street."
As she turned over a card to Death and then another to Jack she remarked, "Our dark gloomy friend draws another King; and Jack sees another eight. Kings lookin' at eights."
Jack looked down at the cards that were now determining his fate. Jack knew what he was holding, but what was Death holding? Jack wondered why Death had not even looked at his face down card. "What was his game?" Jack remained cool on the surface but on the inside, he was like a feather bed unraveling. Jack looked down at the cards and said, "The game is all wrong, there's no wager. I just can't play the game without a wager."
"We have made a wager; your life." Death spoke up irritably, "One hand, winner take all!"
"No, No, NO,"said Jack, "That was just the ante. You know as well as I do, the real skill is in playing your hand. You can't play your hand unless there is a wager behind it."
Death brought his elbow up on the table. He scratched his chin as he pondered what Jack had said. Silence echoed in the near empty hall. At length he spoke,
"Jack, you're right. There is no wager. In order to continue and play our hands, value needs to be added and put upon the table. The question is: what are you willing to lose? Is there anything else of value that you have and I want?" Death surveyed the room. Nothing of value spoke to him. All he could see were the old chairs, weathered tables, the bar, a piano and some bawdy paintings on the wall.
"I know," said Death, "I will wager the lives of everyone in here that I have the better hand. If you do not agree to match the wager and fold, we leave now for the coach. If you do match the wager and lose, your friends here will keep you company on the long ride."
"You can't be serious," cried Pete from across the bar.
"Jack, do something," Kat said with her voice cracking.
"You can't do that," Jack stood up defiantly, "I can't put these people's lives up as a wager, they aren't mine to gamble with. These people have no quarrel with you. You just can't walk in here and toy with their lives."
"Yes, I can. Have you forgotten that I am Death? That is the wager. Put up or fold!"
Jack thought for a moment; his plan was backfiring right before his eyes. It was one thing to be gambling with his own life but now he had endangered the lives of his friends. Death had thrown down the gauntlet. Dare he pick it up? He was playing a new game of Russian Roulette, only this time there were 5 slugs in the chambers. Jack sat back down. He took another sip from the glass and began to tug at his moustache.
"I'll even up the wager;" he said. "I'll put up the lives of my friends on these two conditions. One, they must all agree to the wager. Second, if I win the hand, you must leave and never darken our path again until we have lived out long, healthy, and full lives."
"I'm with ya Jack," hollered Pete from behind the bar. Stubby also called out, "You take 'em, Jack, take that slimy roach down!" Jack looked over at Kat who sat at the table quivering.
"Oh Jack, I don't know. I wasn't planning on this."
"Don't fret girl, I can take him. But if you can't throw in, I'll fold and be done with it."
Kat swallowed the lump that was building in her throat. In a soft voice she said, "I'm in."
"The wager is set. Deal," quipped Death with glee.
Kat McKenzie again picked up the cards.
"So now we go down to the river."
Kat drew the card from the top of the deck and placed it face up with the rest of Death's hand. "Three kings," Kat cried out. She looked at Jack, her hand shaking as she drew up his card. Kat let out scream "Aces and eights", she cried.
"How appropriate is that?" said Death sarcastically.
Stubby's piano playing abruptly stopped. "The dead man's hand," gasped Pete.
"I have you now," said Death. "The cards have spoken."
Jack could not believe his horror. There they were staring him straight in the face: aces and eights. He looked across the table at Death's cards, three kings and a trey. What was he holding underneath? Jack was now beginning to feel Death's icy grip around his throat. Jack tried to read him, he looked up but saw no face, only the red glare emanating from the dark sockets inside his hood.
"What is your wager now, Texas Jack," laughed Death. "You are at the end of your rope. It is over. You know I've been patient, sitting here waiting to turn over my fourth king. The coach awaits!"
"Just a minute," cried Jack, "I fold."
"You cannot fold, your card has been dealt, I am high hand and the wager is to me. I stay and I call," Death replied.
"No, you offered me a fold, I'm taking it," pleaded Jack.
"Absolutely not, the wager stands. You lost your chance when you upped the wager. I am pat and I am calling you."
Jack stared hard into Death's dark void. Both men were fixed upon each other, neither wavering in position. Death leaned forward to turn over his last card. He groaned a deep growling laugh. He leaned closer to Jack and said,
"It is over Jack, for you and your friends. Make your peace." Death turned over his card and Kat exclaimed, "A trey, Death has a full house with kings over treys!"
Jack paused staring at Death's full house, his face remaining unchanged. Silence took over the Pine Box as Jack put his left hand on top of the hidden card. Jack's trigger finger flipped it over, for all to see, as if firing at Death.
"Ace" shouted Kat, another full house, aces over eights, Jack wins!"
Death roared in anguish while he struck the table. He knew somehow, someway, Jack had cheated him again. Disgusted, and humiliated, Death stood up and stormed through the bar room doors tearing them off their hinges. Death's anger carried him into the coach. Before anyone could get to the door, he was gone.
To this very day, everyone 'round these parts still talks about the night Jack Rose got the best of Death. Of course, everyone has their own theory of how Jack managed to pull out that ace, or what actually happened to the fourth king. Some say he cheated; others say he is just lucky. But as for me, I believe the glittering rock that now adorns the ring finger of Kat McKenzie Rose, lends credence to the possibility there were three hands in that game.