The ripple of the cards upon the table, the shifting of everyone upon their chairs, the thumbing of glasses and clothes, the shuffle of money and hands: Burgess can hear it all. His eyes are closed and there is thunder in his mind, but he can hear it all. The air is redolent with the stench of rotgut whiskey, sweat and the wood burning in the stove they are all huddled near to keep out the winter cold.
Burgess opens his eyes at the sound of the door opening and sees Pederson returning within from the outhouse. A gust of frigid air makes them all tremble. Pederson takes off his coat, his breath still staining the air in clouds around his head. Everyone watches as he returns to the table and picks up the deck.
“Sorry boys,” he says with a smile. “Where were we? Five card draw?”
There are grunts of assent and the cards go out. Burgess does not touch his until they are all dealt, his eyes intent upon Pederson’s hands. His face feels hot in spite of the chill in the room, and his gaze goes blurry and then steady with each blink of his eyes. There is the sound of the ocean in his ears as someone stands to refill the glasses and someone else asks a question about Maggie Garneau. He thinks about saying something witty, but decides not.
The cards are dealt and he looks at them. Trip fives. He looks around the table. Everyone is looking at their cards. The bet comes to him and he throws in five dollars.
“Spending all your winter funds,” Pederson says, not glancing up from his cards.
Burgess bristles. “We’ll see where I stand at the end of the night.”
“You’ll be standing because you’ll have nowhere to sit again.”
Everyone laughs, even Burgess manages a chuckle, though it stings. Only this summer he ran out of funds at a game and bet a chair his mother had gifted him years before. Handcrafted, a fine piece. The thought of it makes him wince. The chairs he has now are makeshift things he built himself, as is all the furniture here in his one room shack he threw together ten years ago as a temporary home while he homesteaded this quarter. Ten years on and everything still feels temporary, especially his funds.
“At least you didn’t bet your crop through,” Pederson says.
He is just warming up Burgess knows, and he forces himself to stay calm. The whiskey is no help there, but he takes another gulp anyway, the liquor burning at the back of his throat.
“Of course, that’s what you’re doing here, isn’t it? Just throwing it all away. How’s the root cellar stocked? I don’t recall you having much of a garden.”
Several others shift uncomfortably in their seats, Pederson’s words getting a little to cutting and personal. Burgess doesn’t notice, he is too busy biting his tongue to stop himself from shouting at the dealer. He takes his two cards and raises the pot again without even registering what the cards are. He looks again and sees ace high. Trip fives, ace high. There is a taste of blood in his mouth.
Pederson sees his bet and raises, ten dollars, which makes Burgess quiver with doubt. They are the only two remaining in the game. The others have sat back and are watching with a mixture of fear and curiosity. They seem to guess how this will end. I will show them, Burgess thinks to himself, and he pushes the rest of his coins and bills in.
“Should be twenty or so in there, I think,” he says, his voice sounding odd. He feels a surge of adrenaline. Trip fives. He is back in this game.
“Call,” Pederson says without hesitation, pushing his own funds into the center of the table.
His adrenaline vanishes and Burgess feels ill, certainty of his doom taking hold. He flips over his cards to reveal the three fives. Pederson does the same and Burgess sees three nines and the air goes from his chest.
An ugly silence that hangs over the table. Pederson breaks it, reaching out to pull his winnings close. “So, turnips for winter then.”
“You goddamn cheat. You sonofabitch.”
There are murmurings from others that it is only a game, that it has been aboveboard, but Burgess doesn’t hear them. All he hears is Pederson’s chuckle.
“It’s not my fault you’ve got a pisspoor head for whiskey and cards.”
Burgess throws his chair clattering to the floor and everyone stands, Pederson bracing himself for a fight, and the others preparing to intervene. He stalks over to his bed and pulls out the case for his revolver from beneath the bed. The gun is there, resting on the velvet molding, a few bullets scattered on the lid. He takes one and returns to the table, spinning the chamber open. Everyone, even Pederson, has their hands up, whitefaced with worry.
“There’s no need…” someone begins to say.
“Let me win my money back,” Burgess says, slamming the gun and bullet onto the table.
“Alright,” Pederson says, breathing out with his words. “What do you propose?”
“Roulette,” Burgess says, pointing at the gun. “I win and I get my money back.”
The others begin to argue with him, but Pederson holds up his hands and says, “I’ll take that bet.”
He begins to count out the money, while Burgess picks up the gun and bullet. He spins the chamber again, listening to it go. It sounds clean and moves well, which is good. His father had always told him that you could always win at Russian Roulette, provided you had a clean gun. The chamber with the bullet would be pulled by gravity to bottom of the cylinder. He cannot remember when last he cleaned it, but it was some time ago.
When the money is counted out, Burgess puts the bullet into the top chamber and slides the cylinder back into the gun. He takes a long look at everyone’s faces. Their expressions blur and drip. He worries that his hand is shaking and he looks at the gun, forcing it steady. He spins the chambers, listening to them whir until they lock into place.
No one breaths as he levels the gun at his head. He forces a grin to his lips and pulls the trigger. There is the click of the chamber and then the hammer descends, all in an instant. What follows is a long and endless silence.
In A Flash: read a new story every Thursday…
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