Leonid Chaikov rubbed a clammy hand across his mouth and tugged on his great, grey beard. His cards wouldn't change, no matter how long he stared. He crushed them together and glanced around the tiny mountain shack. The bare studs of the interior offered no encouragement. The raw planks and barren cabin looked as bleak as his poker hand. He thumbed them open. No luck. Still the same stinkin' cards "Two pair. Two lousy pair."
"Come on, Chaikov. I ain't got all day. You gonna see my hand or not?" The voice from across the table grated in his ears. Turning to face the voice, he stared into merciless, beady eyes, glinting across the table. How had he ever allowed himself to get into a card game with Hargrave and Armitage? Sun Lee would have his hide if he lost their mine to the card shark and his 'go-fer'.
"Shut up, Hargrave. It's my mine I'm putting on the table."
The hint of a smile snaked across Hargrave's angular face. He leaned back, tipping his chair onto its back legs. "That it is, Chaikov, that it is. You take all the time you want, 'cause when we get done, it's all gonna be mine."
Hargrave's face set into its ever-present sneer. He jerked upright. The chair hit the floor with a resounding thud. Chaikov jumped at the sound, then settled into his own rickety seat. An unintelligible grunt escaped his lips. The cards, made thick by too many sweaty fingers from too many poker games, refused to budge. He held them toward the flickering lamplight and shook his head. No matter what he did, all he could see was two pair, with a Jack kicker. A shudder shook the big man's frame-- a shudder out of place on this stifling August night. Oh well, he couldn't cover his marker in the pot now. It was all or nothing at this point.
He smoothed the precious paper lying on the table. Picking up the pencil stub beside him, he scrawled his name on the front, endorsing the deed. Caressing it gently between his fingers, he finally stretched out his hand and deposited the document atop the pile of coins in the table's center. He brushed the other documents lying by the coins. " I'll call. I'm putting the deed to the mine down. And I'll see your hand."
Chaikov glared across the table, keeping his hand firmly on the two papers.
Hargrave's smile widened. "I'll be glad to show it to you. Read 'em and weep, Chaikov."
Hargrave stood up, spreading his cards on the worn tabletop. "Three pretty Queens lined up beside a pair of Jacks. A full house, Chaikov."
He leaned forward, pressing his palms of the table. Eye-to-eye, his hissed, "Show me better, if you got it."
Chaikov's shoulders sagged. He pulled his hand back and turned his cards face up. "You got me beat. My two pair won't take that." His heart sank. He'd lost it--lost the Golden Dragon Mine. Sun Lee would never forgive him--and she was such a good daughter. Since her mother's death, she'd loaded dirt and worked with him like a trouper. What could he say to her? He buried his face in his hands.
A strangled sound, coming from the third player in this unholy card game caught his attention. He glanced at Armitage, who'd been in the game at the beginning. Seeing Armitage's face, he looked back at the cards. "What's wrong with you, Rat Face? You look like you just seen a ghost?"
"Oh, nothing, nothing at all!"
Hargrave threw Armitage a withering glance. "Nothing's wrong, Chaikov. You just lost a mine, that's all. I'll be takin' my winnings."
Chaikov's huge arm stopped Hargrave's sweep of the table "Just a minute." His hand shot out, scooping up Armitage's cards. "I want to see these."
Hargrave tried in vain to stop him. "You can't do that."
Chaikov held the third hand in his huge fist and shook it slowly in Hargrave's face. "I just did." He spread the cards on the table between the other two hands. A pair of jacks peaked out of Armitage's hand. An icy chill settled over the three men. Chaikov stood, towering over the others. He glared at the winner. "It's your deck, Hargrave. Since when does a poker deck have five Jacks?"
"Ah, I. . ." Hargrave searched for words, his eye murderous thunderclouds, threatening to drown Armitage for his mistake.
"Never mind." Chaikov reached for the pieces of paper. "I'll be takin' the deeds."
Hargrave swung toward him "No!"
Chaikov's hand dropped to his gun. "Yes, I will." He was too slow. As his hand touched holster leather, he felt a searing pain in his chest, and instant before he heard the crack of a derringer. It was the last sound he ever heard. He clutched at his chest, trying to stop the pain exploding inside, trying to cover the hole exposing his lung. He couldn't breathe. Darkness eroded his vision, leaving him only a glimpse of the deeds on the table. With a dying gasp, he lunged toward the shadow.