Published on Wednesday, June 2, 2010
A Poker Game in Wheeler's Pool Hall
By Oscar Case
The sun was beating down in a steady stream of shimmering light on this hot, late afternoon in July in Upamona. Wheeler's Pool Hall was busy, that is for Upamona, having four customers at one of the two poker tables and me practicing shots on the pool table. Jim Wheeler was in his usual position on a high stool behind the counter, leaning against a wall with his hands crossed over his protruding belly. His eyes were open, watching the poker players as they studied their cards and throwing an occasional glance in my direction at the pool table.
"I'll open for two-bits," said Johnny Ferguson, one of the poker players. His blue eyes blinked and a little smile wrinkled his cheeks at the ends of his mouth. Ferguson owned two hundred acres south of town and ran a small herd of Holstein cows. His father was the Bishop of the local church.
"Is that all you're going to open for?" said Picky Wampickel, with a gleam in his eye. "I'll raise you twenty-five cents."
"What the Hell, Picky? We said no raisin' on the opening," old man Sanglant said, staring at Wampickel with murder in his eye. "You can't do that. You must think you got a good hand this time."
"That's the third time you tried to do that, Picky," said Ben Heacock, also eyeing Picky angrily. "If you do it anymore, I'm quittin'. If you can't follow the rules, you shouldn't be playin'."
"Let him raise me and when he loses, he'll think twice about it next time," put in Ferguson.
"You young whipper-snapper!" Picky said to Johnny. "I ain't goin' to lose, not this time. I got you beat, so you might as well toss in your cards now. I'm takin' my raise back and throwin' in my quarter. That'll teach you."
"You better watch out, Picky, or that red-headed wife of yours is goin' to come and get you by the ear and drag you out of here," said Sanglant, throwing a two-bit piece into the pot.
Picky was studying his cards and acted like he hadn't heard.
"How many cards you want, Picky, before she comes and gets you?" asked Sanglant, the dealer this round. He was a sheepherder, that is, his son herded the sheep while he lived on his ranch at the top of the hill north of town where he looked after a few sheep that weren't taken to the mountains for the summer. His wife was a hard-working pushy brunette. His son, Slim, was an ornery, obnoxious sort that couldn't get along with anybody but his father. It was said he had blackened the eyes and bloodied the noses of about everyone in town, except Bishop Ferguson, storekeeper Toller, and Jim Wheeler, who sold him beer when he came into the pool hall.
Now, Ben Heacock's wife was blonde and slightly on the chubby side. She had a degree in midwifery, the only person in Upamona who had a college education. She was called on to administer to anyone who got hurt or sick, since there was no medical doctor for at least thirty miles and no way to get there in a hurry except by horseback.
Ferguson was the only person at the table not married, and I wasn't married either. My name is Crawford and I couldn't help eavesdropping because I was engaged to brown-haired Gladanella Maxwill and I wanted to hear where this was going. Picky wasn't going to let that comment pass without making something of it.
"You leave Mercy out of this. She ain't going to be pulling me out of here by the ear, uh-uh," said Picky, giving Sanglant an angry stare. "She ain't nothing like that black-haired witch you got for a wife."
"If she finds out you're in here playing poker, she'll get her Swedish ire up and drag you out of here in a hurry, Picky. You know that," said Heacock. "What're you bettin', Johnny?"
"Thank God I'm not married yet," said Johnny. "I'll bet fifty cents on this hand, because I know it's a winner."
"I seen Mercy Wampickel get mad at ole Toller one day and let him have it with both barrels," Sanglant said. "I ain't never seen a woman get as mad as she was when she saw she was bein' charged too much for a dozen eggs. Whew! I thought she was going to kill ole Toller. I'll call and raise you two-bits."
"That black-haired nag you got ain't any better," said Picky, still staring at Sanglant. "If she knew you were in here, she'd be standing up there by Jim nagging her head off at you to get home and start shearing those damn sheep you got."
Picky glanced at his cards and said, "I'll raise you both a dime, that makes a dollar and ten cents total I got in there. Hurry up and bet, Ben, before Sanglant's wife shows up and starts nagging at him."
I let the handle end of my pool cue rest on the floor and waited for what was coming next. Old Sanglant looks agitated and his face is getting red. He's looking at the five cards in his hand, smiling now, and relaxing a bit.
"You staying in, Ben, or are you going to tell us that blonde-haired wife of yours is a peach to live with when we all know different?" niggled old man Sanglant.
As I waited for Heacock's response, I was thinking Sanglant sure knows how to widen an argument, don't he? I glanced at Wheeler. He had kept quiet, but he was listening intently while he pretended to be reading an old edition of the Police Gazette. He's probably heard all this before, but that doesn't keep him from hearing it again.
Heacock cleared his throat, looked at his cards, his eyes squinting. Opening his eyes wide, he looked at each of the players, studying their faces and hoping to get a little edge on what cards they held.
"Don't you go bringin' my wife into this, Sanglant," said Heacock. "You got enough trouble with that hussy you're married to without asking for more. I'll call you, but I oughta raise it another quarter."
"Go ahead and raise and I'll be glad to take your money," said Johnny. "I got a full house, queens over threes. Yes sir, three queens, a redhead, a blonde and a brunette with a pair of threes! Ha, ha, ha, ha!"
A loud groan echoed through the small building as I gave Wheeler a quarter to pay for my pool time and walked out the door, hearing Wampickel telling Ferguson, "Why, you young whipper-snapper, them three ladies got me beat and I gave you an extra dime, damn it to Hell. Hey, hold on there! There ain't no redhead in them cards!"
Oscar Case began writing family history and genealogy about ten years ago before he switched to writing western fiction. He has one novel published, The Stranger from the Valley, and one coming out this summer, The Upamona Gold Claim Wrangle, both set in the Uintah Mountains of Utah.