Whores, Hoglegs, and Whiskey
Markus G. Hearts
Markus is of average height, weight, and slight build. There is nothing remarkable about his physical appearance. This frustrates him greatly. As a result he tends to overcompensate in other areas of his appearance. He is fond of fancy clothing. He wears a long mustache which he is constantly restyling.
He typically wears a ruffled dress shirt with a fancy pocket vest. He favors a gray or silver vest but at times has worn green, or red vests.
When he has the funds, he wears a gold pocket watch and chain. He considers heart shaped cufflinks his personal signature. He prefers silver cufflinks. He can rarely hold on to such jewelry – often his baubles end up on the poker table. Markus has often found other card players wearing a pair of silver hearts – he always wonders if he had them made in the first place.
Markus favors black Spanish style riding boots. He wears his pants over the boots – in the southerner (CSA) style. He often levees his iron spurs on – just in case he should need to get away in a hurry. He prefers spurs with clover leaf rowels because he thinks they are better for the horse. (Most rowels are spiked metal disks at the business end of the spur. Clover leaf rowels are a more of a disk and are smooth against the horses flanks.)
When out in the weather he typically wears a black duster over his black long coat.
The various layers compensate for the fact that Markus thinks he looks too thin. (Of course he still looks thin despite the layers.)
Markus tops his duds with a short brimmed Pork Pie hat. He keeps a hawk feather totem in the hatband just above his right ear. (Any luck the Choctaw Shamans imbued into the totem has long since run out.)
Markus sometimes plays his harmonica and sings this little song he wrote…
Way down… Way down in New Orleans ‘ere a gambling man. ’erthing ’e owned was in a suitcase or a trunk. The only time he’d be satisfied was when he was on a drunk. ’e sent my brothers to die for honor. Too bad ’e had none ’mself. Smacking me ’n ma down was just his fun. I watch him die – face down in a puddle of mud.
Way down… Way down in New Orleans a gambling mans son was me.
An evil voodoo god has curse’ed me to be just the same as he.
Markus sings this song to remind himself not to forgive or ever forget. His mother, Ella, forgave and forgot and it killed her. No one knows if Markus really watched his father, Bill, die. Some might wonder if Marcus had a hand in the death. Markus won’t say either way, he just cracks a crooked smile that will chill your blood.
Ella Hearts was a tailor with a successful series of contracts for CSA officer uniforms. She provided well for her large family. Well it was once large. All but one of her children were killed in the War for Southern Independence. Two sons were lost in the first battle of Vicksburg. A daughter and the youngest boy were lost to Union shelling of New Orleans. The remaining Hearts boys made it as far as Atlanta only to lie in shallow graves where they fell.
Markus remembers his father first as a drunk, then a brawler, then a gambler. His only honest work was as a longshoremen and then only until he could grub up a game. Bill had no interest in the tailoring business. Bill’s interest didn’t lie much further than the bottom of a Kentucky Bourbon bottle. It was probably best that he stay clear of the family business. His heavy drinking and other personal demons would have surely shortened his miserable life.
Markus cannot remember exactly when his mother started getting sick. He tried to help her where he could but he had no talent for cloth. He did manage to keep customers coming back by plucking at their heartstrings. The lingering sickness prevented Ella from running her shop – her assistants could maintain neither the quality nor the schedules demanded by military officers. Sales contracts were canceled and jobs dwindled. The tailoring business collapsed. This failure contributed to Ella’s illness. In all of this Markus found blame with his father. Markus and his father rarely spoke. Markus made a habit of being elsewhere when Bill was home. Markus may have noticed that his father was also having a hard time too, but at that point he didn’t give a damn. Everything was Bill’s fault.
With Ella on her deathbed, Bill decided to sell off the business. He invested a sizable chunk of the proceeds into a new venture. What, do you suppose, would a gambler and a drunk dream up as an investment? A Saloon – naturally.
The “Lost Chance Saloon” should have had “last” in its name – but Bill was sampling the inventory the day the sign painter showed up. It didn’t get much better after that. As a young man, Markus tried to make a go as a barkeep. This might have been successful if Bill wasn’t drinking and gambling away all the profits. In desperation, Markus had to learn the gamblers trade. This was necessary both to win back what Bill lost and to expose the many cheats that found Bill to be an easy mark. After several years Markus started to build a reputation as a card player to beat.
One dark and stormy night, Markus was having an unbeatable streak of luck at the table. His reputation had drawn in some of the most famous and notorious gamblers in the city of New Orleans. After many hours at the table, the players were weeded down to a handful of players. The last table of the night was a remarkable group of players. Had anyone thought to take a photograph, it would have capture the image of a voodoo mambo, a Confederate General, and two dead gamblers who didn’t remember that they had shot each other through the hearts. Sailors have the expression “any port in a storm.” Markus picked up the expression “any table still upright in a hurricane.” The photograph would have also shown a young man whose life would never be the same after that night.
Small fortunes waxed and waned amongst the other players as the storm raged outside. The mambo pulled at a lock of her blond hair while pondering her bets. The corpse with the eye patch had the most money on the table. The other corpse, whose flesh was turning black, was taking most of his money from the General. The Confederate officer was drinking too much and making a lot of mistakes. He was over-betting and bluffing too often. The tactic probably worked well against his junior officers who were too afraid to call his bluffs. But this was not a “friendly” game. Not on this night.
The pile of money in front of Markus continued to grow. He didn’t win every hand, he just continued to win more than he lost over the hours. As always, where there are winners, there are losers too. After wagering his officers sword and a fine tract of land in Georgia, the General lost to the Eye Patch’s inside straight. The General left the game angry enough to chew nails, but claimed he would return. The storm made that unlikely. Although the storm clouds had blackened the sky, Markus could feel that the moon was full.
The luck that helped Eye Patch rake away the Generals money ran out. Markus was sure that the mambo was going after the dead man. Markus found her strategy a bit odd, but it was working. She went in when he went in and folded when he folded. She played as if they were playing there own private game. She was relentless. She was slowly siphoning off his funds while leaving the rest of us alone. Markus was for the first time in any game, unsure that he was going to win.
The game continued into the wee hours of the morning. Markus mused when one of the corpses wagered his left arm. Markus recognized the joke – in older times the Cajun punishment for cheating was the amputation of the hand. At any other poker table on any other night everyone would have just laughed and the jokester would have thrown in his money. This was not a normal night or a normal game.
The other corpse, Eye Patch, drew out a long bowie knife and chopped the arm at the elbow. One-Arm tossed the dismembered arm into the pot – both corpses smiled. Surprisingly Markus was not worried about the arm. He was convinced that he was delirious from the lack of sleep. He must have been seeing things. What would he do with an arm? He really didn’t want to win the arm. He breathed a sigh of relief when the mambo won the pot.
The game continued with Markus, the mambo, One-Arm and Eye Patch. One-Arm struggled to keep playing. He didn’t have any problem with the missing arm – he was just short stacked. One-Arm also developed a tell – the stub of his arm seem to reach for the table if he had good cards. The mambo fully exploited the sign and One-Arm lost his stake even faster.
When One-Arm was finally down to his last few dollars, he raised a bet with an old book with a worn and tattered cover. Markus eyed the book and tired to gauge the value. The book was simply an old copy of Hoyle’s. The book couldn’t have been worth much. The mambo called the bet with fist full of money. Perhaps the book was autographed or a first edition. Markus called the bet despite noticing that One-Arm’s stub was waging towards the table. Eye Patch used both hands to push his money. Everyone though they could win. Markus wondered if the delirium was spreading to the others. The cards turned… a straight, a flush, and trips – all good cards. Markus suppressed a grin as he turned over a full house. As he raked the winnings Markus put the old book in the space between himself and the mambo. He was tempting her with it. He planed to either use it as a bet later or he could sell the book to her at some point. It also might distract her enough to give him an edge. He wondered where she had put the arm.
The game reached a natural break point. One-Arm was out of the game. He didn’t have anything left to bet. He didn’t have enough for ante unless he bet the other arm or a leg. Markus shuttered at the thought. When a player left the table it usually was a good chance for the remaining players to stretch their legs and even adjust the chairs. Markus pushed his chair back and mentioned coffee. Words that he had spoken in jest once or twice echoed across the table. One-arm said “I wager my immortal soul.” This time he knew, somehow, that there was no levity in the words. Thunder cracked outside. Markus realized that something extraordinary was about to happen. It was both exciting and terrifying. Markus could not leave the table.
Eye Patch dealt the cards. Hands went to cards. Fingers rearranged cards. One-Arm tried to hide his tell but his stump wiggled. Eye Patch folded. Mambo pushed a pile of money into the center of the table. What was the bet? Overwhelmed by the experience, Markus folded despite having a playable hand. One-arm took no cards. Mambo asked for only one. Eye Patch pitched the card onto the table in front of her. Mambo didn’t even touch it. One-arm laid his cards on the table – Aces and a pair of eights. Mambo smiled with just the corners of her mouth. One-arm stiffened like he was holding his breath. Mambo leisurely tapped her tinted and buffed fingernail on the back of the face down card. She still didn’t pick it up. The fingernail moved from the table to the cards in her hand. She pulled a card from the middle of her hand and slowly laid it on the table. The eight landed on the table in utter silence. The cards that followed were the nine, the ten, the queen, and the king. Hearts all. The air drew still. On the table the four hearts and the down card almost shimmered. Mambo look at One-arm. One-arm looked at the down card. Mambo tilted her eyes towards the down card. One-arm looked back at mambo and waited. She did not look back at him. It was as if time had frozen. It was agonizing. After an eternity mambo started to move it a lazy slow-motion. Markus was not sure there was any air in the building. At least no one had yet taken a breath. The moment of mesmerization was broken by a bright flash of light.
By the time the spots had cleared from Markus’ vision One-arm had made it half way to the door. Eye Patch was half the way to One-arm. Running? Markus had assumed that betting ones soul would be the same as betting ones life. If you are already dead, how does that equation change? Whatever the answer, a terrible thing was about to happen to One-Arm. It made sense that he might run. Was Eye Patch running too? Was Eye Patch trying to catch the other dead man. Markus would never find the answers to any of these questions. He would only find a new set of questions. Was any of this real?
Markus realized that the mambo was moving too. As he turned his eyes, the mambo had just reached her full standing height as the chair spun away behind her. Markus had not realized she was so tall. He had not really looked at her before she sat down at his poker table. She had joined a game in progress and he was more concerned with his cards. Now that she was standing he could get a good look at her. Underneath her long storm cloak, she was wearing a French style black dress with a modest bustle. A black lace cape that was fastened at her neck with a silk ribbon choker. The dress was scandalous short exposing the tops of her lace up heal boots. Markus still wonders how women-folk walked in those things. She was clearly from the French Quarter. She was almost dressed for a cotillion. Even with the protection of her heavy cloak, the dress would be ruined in the foul weather.
Lightning flashed bright enough for Markus to notice her expression of anger, contempt and unadulterated joy all at the same time. She glared towards the running One-Arm. The lightning had flashed off a silver dagger in her hand. She spoke some words which Markus could not recall even a moment after he heard them and stabbed the dagger down. The dagger pieced the dismembered arm – pinning it to the table. One-Arm never made it to the door. He spun to an ungainly stop as if his stub of missing arm was also pinned to the table. Mambo reach out her free hand towards One-Arm. His expression was of fear, sorrow, and deep consolation. A ghostly apparition of his likeness was pulled towards the mambo. One-Arm collapsed into a pile of bones and dust. The apparition dissolved into a vapor cloud as it was dawn into the grasp of mambo. She clutched it like a dogs rough and the cloud faded into nothingness.
Eye Patch didn’t make it to the door either. Mambo pointed two fingers at his way. Eye Patch began to burn from his feet up – yet he never stopped running. The fire turned his rotting flesh and bone to ash. The only thing that made it to the door was a few cinders which were snuffed out by the rain outside the open door.
Markus wondered if his life was lived well. Considering that the mambo was about to end it, he decided that his life could have been better. He could have done more for himself rather than worrying about others. He wondered if having your soul burned out of your body would hurt very much. He simply waited to die. He waited a long time. At least the rain had stopped.
The mambo turned to Markus and looked at him for exactly two seconds. She raised her hands up over her head and began speaking the words. The room began to shake. A glass on the table shatter. Markus though of going for his revolver, but it was hopeless. Perhaps his mother would meet him at the pearly gates. Then again he wasn’t sure he was headed that way.
A ray of sunshine smashed through the remaining storm clouds and beamed through the back window of the Saloon. When the light reached the eyes of the mambo, she paused. The echoes of her strange words faded. Slowly her hands lowered. She spoke new words to Markus, “Listen boy, poker is not your life, but some day I will find you and we will finish our game.” The mambo turned and walked out of the saloon.
Markus is still waiting…