Sounds of laughter drifted to his ears as the Kid rode Katy into the yard of the Sweetwater Pony Express Station. Stopping the paint horse in front of the bunkhouse steps, he leaned across the saddle and regarded his fellow express riders with a smile. “What’s the joke?” he inquired.
The question elicited another laugh from Noah Dixon. “Joke’s the word all right. That’s exactly how I’d describe Cody and Hickok’s poker playing.”
“That ain’t fair,” Billy Cody retorted. “Me and Jimmy was skinned.”
This remark brought forth hoots of derision from the others present, as well as a series of mocking hand gestures from the rider wearing a red scarf tied over his head.
“Ike’s right.” Buck’s wide grin matched that of his mute friend. “Anyone fool enough to play poker with Lou after all the time she’s been spending with Rachel lately deserves to get skinned.”
Noah nodded agreement. “Ever since Rachel won back my daddy’s silver saddle from that pair o’ card sharps, Lou’s been after Rachel to teach her how to play like that. It ain’t been no secret.”
“Yeah, but who’da thought she’d learn so good,” Cody grumbled.
“C’mon, Cody, she beat us fair and square,” Hickok admitted.
“What’d ya lose, Cody?” The Kid swung down from Katy’s back. “Ya ain’t got no more money, ya already owe all of us.”
“Worse,” the blond groaned.
“Worse than money?” The Kid wondered what Lou had won to make their friend so glum. Just then her voice interrupted the answer.
“Kid! Hey, Kid!”
He looked across the yard to see Lou and Rachel approaching from Rachel’s house.
Waving to him as she called, Lou eagerly ran ahead of the older woman. Practically dancing with excitement, she grasped his hands and gave them a little tug. “C’mon in and git packed, Kid,” she said with a bob of her head towards the bunkhouse. “We kin finally take that trip you been promising me.”
“What? How? We ain’t got time, Lou. You know we got runs to make.”
“Cody and Hickok are gonna take our next runs,” she countered. “We got two whole days all to ourselves.”
“Why would...? Ohhh,” he answered, with a glance at the poker losers as light dawned. “So that’s what ya lost.”
“I still say it ain’t fair,” Cody maintained. “Lou fooled us inta thinking she weren’t no better at the game than she useta be.”
“It’s called bluffing, Billy,” Rachel said as she joined them. “As a dear old friend of mine used to say, you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time and those are very good odds.” She winked at Lou. “And I had a very good student,” she added proudly.
“I had a very good teacher,” Lou responded.
“I got a very good mind to be sick,” Cody said.
Hickok gave him a shove. “Stop bein’ such a bad loser. It’s only one extra run apiece. You’ll live.”
“A sadder but wiser man,” Noah consoled him.
Ike signed a comment and Buck laughed as he translated, “At this rate, Cody’ll end up bein’ the wisest one of us all.”
“Why, yeah, I...hey!” Realizing he’d been insulted, Cody chased Ike off the steps and across the yard.
“Guess I got some packin’ ta do.” Leaving his laughing comrades behind, the Kid went on into the bunkhouse.
The Kid and Lou cantered easily along the trail. The weather was fair and they had two whole days to enjoy each other’s company away from their boisterous friends. It was a happy prospect.
Overtaking a stagecoach, they waved good-naturedly to the passengers and driver as they passed. They weren’t in such a hurry as when on an express run, but they were eager to get to the town that was their destination so they could enjoy their brief holiday.
Rounding a bend in the trail, they were halted by the sight of a wagon stopped up ahead. Across the road a fallen tree blocked the travelers’ passage. At their approach, a man rose from his seat on the tree trunk.
“Looks like you could use some help,” the Kid said to him as they reined their horses to a halt and dismounted.
“Sure could,” the man said. “I figgered help would be along soon. I think there’s a stage s’posed to pass this way about now.” He looked searchingly down the road past them.
“Yep, we just passed it.” Lou automatically lowered her voice to match her boys’ garb. She was planning to take advantage of a rare chance to wear female dress when they arrived in town, but it was more practical to continue to pass as a male en route.
“The three of us should be able to move this out of the way.” The Kid indicated the tree in their path.
“Oh, I think we’ll just wait for the stage,” the man disagreed.
“What?” The Kid wasn’t sure he’d heard properly, but he understood when he saw a second man emerge from behind the wagon and point a rifle at them.
“Just toss yer guns down here, nice an’ easy-like,” he instructed them.
Caught off guard, the Kid and Lou had no choice but to obey.
“Now git behind the wagon before the stage gits here.”
Eying the rifle, they did as they were told.
Moments later, the stagecoach rounded the bend and drew to a halt, just as the young riders had done. As the driver began to climb down from his perch, the Kid took a chance and yelled out a warning.
Striking at him with the rifle, their guard leaped out from his hiding place as his partner drew his gun and fired a warning shot at the driver.
“Kid!” Lou bent over him solicitously.
“I’m okay,” he reassured her, as he rubbed the back of his head. A glancing blow, it hadn’t succeeded in knocking him out, but had given him a throbbing headache.
“Git out here!” Yanking Lou roughly to her feet and aiming a kick at the Kid’s midsection, their guard herded them over to the stagecoach to join the driver and two passengers.
While he continued to aim his rifle at them, the first robber climbed to the roof of the stage and threw down the strongbox. Jumping to the ground after it, he aimed a shot at the lock, then impatiently pulled off the broken piece of metal and opened the lid. Letting out a low whistle, he said, “I think there’s enough here to make this worth our while.” After allowing his partner a quick glance inside, he shut the box and loaded it into their wagon.
“Should I shoot ‘em now?” the man guarding the prisoners asked.
The woman passenger gave a little shriek and huddled closer to the man accompanying her, who put his arm protectively around her.
“Naw,” the other robber answered with a lazy grin. “Let ‘em move the tree first, then we’ll shoot ‘em.”
“See here...” the woman’s companion began, but subsided as the rifle pointed in his direction.
“No one’s doin’s any more shootin’,” Lou announced with a fierce look from under the large brim of her hat.
“No?” With a laugh, the robber by the wagon walked over to join their guard. “Who says so? You?” Looking the diminutive rider up and down, he laughed again derisively, his partner joining in.
“Yeah, I say so,” Lou answered with a defiant lift of her chin. “And this says so.” She held up her hand to reveal a tiny bottle of amber-colored liquid she had surreptitiously retrieved from her pocket.
“That little bitty thing? Now how’s that gonna stop us from shootin’ whoever we want?” the man with the rifle asked scornfully.
“Because this little bitty thing,” she informed them, “is nitroglycerin, that’s why.” She watched with satisfaction as their smiles faded and the scorn in their eyes was replaced by alarm. “You try to shoot anybody and this little bottle will blow you to kingdom come.”
The Kid looked at her sharply, but didn’t speak.
The first robber had something to say, however. “You wouldn’t do that. You’d kill yourself, too.” A touch of uncertainty caused his voice to waver.
“You’re going to kill us anyway. What have I got to lose?” Lou pointed out with a shrug. She tilted the bottle this way and that, watching it glint in the sunlight.
The robbers raptly followed the bottle’s every move.
The robber holding the rifle blinked. “We’ll just shoot you first,” he declared with bravado.
“You shoot me, I drop this, and you’re dead.” Lou held the bottle higher. “You shoot anybody, I drop this, and you’re dead. You try to leave, I throw this, and you’re dead. Any way you look at it, you’re dead. Unless you let us go, of course.” She smiled. “Now, why don’t you just toss yer guns down here, nice an’ easy-like,” she quoted back at them.
The robbers hesitated, exchanging a questioning look, but when it became apparent that neither had any idea on how to get out of the deadly trap their simple highway robbery had suddenly become, they threw their guns disgustedly to the ground.
The stage driver stepped forward to pick them up and aimed the rifle at the unsuccessful robbers.
The woman passenger buried her head in her companion’s shoulder as he patted her comfortingly.
“Lou,” the Kid asked in puzzlement. “Where did you get hold of nitroglycerin?”
“What, this?” she asked innocently, tossing it casually into the air and catching it. “Oh, this is some of Rachel’s toilet water. She lent it to me for our trip.” She smiled at the Kid’s astonished look. “It’s called bluffing, Kid. ‘Pears to me that poker’s a sight handier to know than them silly games like baseball and tennis that Teaspoon keeps trying to teach us.”
The Kid pondered this. “Uh, Lou, what would you a’ done if they’da called your bluff?”
She gave him a sober look. “When the stakes are that high, Kid, you just gotta believe so hard in your bluff that the other fella believes it, too. I had ta bet they’d fold like they done, but if they hadn’t, we’da been no worse off than before, anyhow.”
The Kid smiled. “Remind me ta buy Rachel a present for bein’ such a good teacher.”
“And then we turned the robbers over to the sheriff, and we were able to enjoy the rest of our trip after all. Not even a headache left to bother me,” the Kid finished the story.
“Lou, I take back everything I said about your poker playing,” Cody told them. “In fact, I think we should all start taking lessons from Rachel.”
“You could do worse,” Teaspoon advised. “To my mind, Rachel’s a real good teacher.”
“I had a good teacher myself. As my old friend Beauregard said,” Rachel mused, “‘if you know poker, you know people; and if you know people, you got the whole dang world lined up in your sights.’”
“Sounds like this friend of yours taught you a lot, and not just about poker,” Buck observed.
“Yes, he did. Poker was my survival back in those days, and I was lucky to have a friend like him to learn from. I’m just glad it helped you two out of such a bad fix.”
“Lotta ways to survive in this world,” Teaspoon remarked. “We all use what we know best.”
“Oh, Beauregard was the best I ever knew, at poker and at survivin’ both. His boys were quick learners, too. Handsome boys they were. Yes, I haven’t heard from them for a while, but I’d say it’s a safe bet that Bret and Bart turned out to be real fine poker players.”