THE BET IN RED DUST
by J. David Core
Marty Calhoun had been running The Red Dust Inn for as long as the town of Red Dust had been on the map. He prided himself on the quality of his liquor, the quality of his service and the quality of his red beans andrice. Most of all, though, he was proud of the quality of his bar. The smooth finish had been the result of weeks of labor on the part of both himself and his son, Jeb. They’d planed the wood to as smooth a sheen as you’d ever seen using just a gerry-rigged plane made from an old shaving razor and a block of wood. Then, to coat the bar, they’d gathered ooze from felled trees in a local wooded area which the railroads had been deforesting, and it had hardened to a lustrous amber finish.
Calhoun had bored many a prospector -- and even many more a cowhand who had passed through Red Dust -- with his constant braggadocio about his bar. He’d garnered himself a reputation as a proud little man with a cocky little sondespite the fact that both men stood well over six foot.
He was in the middle of just such a boastful episode when the stranger walked into his bar. "Did ya ever notice how even the knot holes fall at just the right spots to seem like them fancy-pants coasters?" he was saying when the door to the front opened, revealing the silhouette of a man in spurs and a Stetson. The average sized figure seemed assured and imposing as it stood motionless shrouded by the light, but when finally the stranger stepped into the bar proper, his aura fell off as his appearance became known. He was thin and wan. He had scars that told of torment without leaving the usual facade of toughness. He had greasy hair falling from under his hat into his right eye, and he didn’t seem to notice nor care.
Most disturbing of all, his clothes were completely covered in the rose colored soot that had given the town its name. It was as if he’d recently been dragged down the street. Anybody seeing him would be certain of two things even if they got no closer to him than twenty yards. One was that he’d smell – bad. Another was that he’d be stupid. Anybody that looked like that, had to be incapable of forming a coherent thought.
Marty turned his attention back to the gentleman he’d been telling about his fascinating knotholes, the stranger nearly forgotten; except for the fact that he could still be seen standing foolishly at the door out of the corner of the proprietor’s eye. "We did that on purpose," Marty said. "We placed the individual boards randomly at first, and then I noticed the round marks, and I said, ‘Hey, Jeb, look-a-there. I bet we could trim a litttle here and shave a little there and move these planks around so that it would look like coasters." Jeb’ll tell ya that it was his idea, but don’t believe him."
The stranger had slowly walked to the bar during this exchange; if it could be called an exchange since the other party had done little more than sip and nod. "Excuse me, sir. Could I get a shot of Rye, please?" The stranger had interrupted with business, but Marty doubted that he could afford payment.
"Got any money?" Marty insisted.
"I’m sorry?" the stranger said dubiously.
"I’m sorry too, if you ain’t got no money," Marty said. The stranger reached deeply into his pocket and pulled out his coin in a cloud of rusty, powdery grime. He had just enough for one shot of Rye. "You can get one shot withthat," Marty said as he poured the stranger his shot. "If you ask for a second, you’ll have to show me more."
"I ain’t got no more," the stranger said. "That’s my last three nickles."
"Are you sure you want to spend it on a shot of whisky?" Marty asked.
"Well," the stranger said, "I’m pretty thirsty. It’s dusty out there, you know?"
"Thirsty enough to spend the last of your coin on a shot of whisky? You know you can get a half a sandwich for that down the street."
"I can’t drink a sandwich," the stranger said. "But I don’t really want to blow my last three nickels on one drink. Tell me, are you a wagering man?"
"You’ve got nothing to wager," Marty said. "Do you want the drink or don’t you?"
The stranger rubbed his face. "Mister," he said, "I’ve had my worst run of luck in a number of years since coming out this way. My horse got sick, and I had to put her down. My partner run off with most of my clothes, my money and both my six-guns. Right now, all I want is a couple of drinks, so I can muster up the courage to find him and get my stuff back. I know he’s in this here town. I know where he is, and I think I can get him. I’m thinking my luck has changed. I’m willing to wager this last three nickels agin’ two shots of whisky. What do you say? Want to take a risk?"
Marty looked incredulously at the fellow who’d been listening to his ramblings about his bar. "You believe this guy?" he said.
"Find out what’s the bet," the cowboy said. "I’m curious."
"What’s the bet?" Marty asked with a wry grin.
The stranger shrugged. "You call it. Give me a challenge. Nothing too tough though, okay."
Again Marty looked at the cowboy he’d been talking with. The cowboy grinned wide. "Bet him he can’t bite his eye," the cowboy said. "Look at his face.
That looks like something maybe he should be able to do."
"Mister," the stranger said, "if I wasn’t already planning on one killing, I’d settle your hash right now." Then he paused. "No, wait,’ he said. "What the hell, I’ll take that bet. Why not? My three nickles against two shots of Rye says I can bite my eye."
Marty scratched his head. "You serious, stranger?" he asked. "You want to try to bite your own eye?" The stranger simply nodded and folded his arms across his scrawny chest. "Okay," Marty said. "You’re on.
The stranger slowly broke out in a wide grin. He lowered his head to his palm and dropped a glass eye into his cupped hand. He displayed the curved hemisphere to the bartender and raised it gingerly to his mouth where he clamped it loosely between his teeth.
The cowboy hooted and slapped his knee. "No wonder he didn’t mind having that hair hang in his eye. It ain’t a real eye!" Marty angrily slapped a second shot onto the famous bar, but the cowboy covered the cup with his hand before Marty could pour. "Wait," the cowboy insisted. "Bet him double or nothing he can’t bite the other one."
"What?" Marty insisted.
"Well, you don’t think he’s got two glass eyes, do you?" the cowboy insisted back.
Understanding dawned. "Right," Marty said. "What do you say, stranger?
Double or nothing on the other eye?"
"Why should I?" the stranger asked as he pulled an eye-patch from his breast pocket. "As it stands, I have to pony up my last three nickels for two shots of Rye. If you want me to bet, you’re going to have to make it worth my while."
The cowboy laughed again. "He’s serious! He wants to bet he can bite his other eye."
"I’ll bet you a whole bottle of Rye agin’ the one free shot you owe me," the stranger said. "If you win, I still pay you full price for a single shot."
Again Marty looked to the cowboy. The cowboy seemed confused. He put up his hands and shrugged a mighty shrug. Marty nodded acceptance and said, "Yeah. Okay. Yeah, sure. That’s a fair bet. You’re on. Let’s see you bite your other eye."
"Slow down," the cowboy said. "He’s probably trying to trick you again."
"I thought you said he couldn’t have two glass eyes," Marty said.
"It wouldn’t hurt to make sure," the cowboy said as he turned to the stranger. "That other eye real?" the cowboy asked. The stranger nodded. "And you’re going to bite it?" Again the stranger nodded. "With your own teeth?"
The stranger showed his bite and tapped on the front incisors. "With these teeth right here," the stranger said through his clamped mandible. The cowboy looked at Marty and shrugged again.
“Okay, stranger," Marty said. "You’re on."
Again the stranger slowly smiled. He pulled gently on the teeth he’d tapped moments before. As they broke away and came free exposing the wire that held them in place, Marty realized that he’d been buffaloed again. The stranger pressed the denture against his eye and mimicked the act of chewing as if the bridge was a hand puppet. Marty looked angrily at the cowboy, and the cowboy shrugged yet again.
As Marty huffily pulled the bottle to the bar top, the stranger asked. "Want a chance to win even up again?"
Marty slitted his eyes. "What do you have in mind?" he asked.
"Well, in the town where I used to live, I was the spitting champion. We used to have contests. I could hit a spittoon at twenty paces. It’s the missing teeth."
"What’s the bet?" Marty asked.
"Double or nothing, but all cash. How many shots do you get out of a bottle?"
"About seventeen, I guess," Marty said.
"Okay, so seventeen times fifteen cents times two bottles. Umm, about five dollars. I’ll bet you five dollars that I can spit in a spittoon at say twenty five paces."
Marty shook his head. "No way," he said. "You can’t fool me twice."
"I already have," the stranger said casually. "But it’s okay. How about if I do it blindfolded?" Marty didn’t answer, and the stranger stole a one-eyed glance at the shot glass on the bar. "And what if I spit in a shot glass instead of the spittoon?" the stranger said. "If you put a shot glass at one end of the bar, I’ll stand at the other end and I’ll spit in the shot glass blindfolded. I could really use five dollars to set up my plan against that thieving partner of mine"
Marty looked at the cowboy again. The cowboy -- who had long ago given up advising the bar owner -- gestured that he could be of no help. "Okay," Marty said. "I’ll take that bet." Marty was sure he had the stranger buffaloed at last. "Let’s make sure we both understand the rules. I’ll put a shot glass at this end of the bar, you’ll stand at that end with a blindfold. I’ll even tap on the target with a spoon to help you locate it. You get one shot. Once you work up a spit, you can send it down at will. If any of it ends up inside the glass, you win. If none of it ends up in the glass, I win."
The stranger considered the specs. "Sounds right to me. I’ll go get my chew." The stranger left the bar, and Marty giggled like a fool.
"What are you laughing about?" the cowboy insisted.
"I’m going to beat this guy at his own game," Marty said. "All I’m requiredto do is wait for him to put his blinders on and set a shot glass on the bar, right?"
"Right," the cowboy agreed.
"But we didn’t say I had to set it with the open side up." Marty waited for the idea to sink in. Shortly, recognition registered on the face of the cowboy.
"Oh," the cowboy said. "Yeah, that’s pretty good."
At that moment, the door opened again, and the stranger entered followed closely by Jeb, Marty’s son and business partner. "What’s going on," Jeb asked. "Nothing much," Marty said. "Just a little friendly gambling."
Jeb sat at the bar next to the cowboy. "What are you talking about?" Jeb said. "You don’t gamble. In fact, you’re always hollerin' at me because I gamble too much."
"That’s not because you gamble too much," Marty said. "It’s because you lose too much. Maybe if you’d win a bet now and then… Hey, where’ve you been all day, anyway?"
"There was a big poker game over at the livery," Jeb said. "Before you go asking, no – I didn’t win. I lost twenty dollars to a guy from out of town, but he’s giving me a chance to try to win it back pretty soon."
The stranger had worked up a juicy well of brown saliva in the side of his jaw. "You ready, mister?’ he asked interrupting in an almost unintelligible murmur, what with all the tobacco and spit and his teeth missing. "Yeah,"
Marty said, "assume your places. You guys might want to stand back from thebar."
The stranger found his mark at the end nearest the exit, and Marty carried the empty shot to the opposite end. The stranger covered his good left eye with the eye-patch, and grinning in smug self-satisfaction, Marty placed the
glass upside down on the bar. "Ready?" he asked, and when the stranger nodded, Marty began to tap the glass with a spoon. "You may fire when ready," Marty said, truly enjoying the fun for the first time. The stranger pulled back and let fly with a huge and dirty gob of tobacco juice and bits of leaf. The liquid projectile hurled nearly the full length of the bar before hitting in a splattering skim on the hand-planed finish. Bits of tobacco and staining droplets of spittle found their way into minute imperfections in the grain, where they would be found for years to come.
Some even managed to splatter up against he side of the target and may haveeven found their way to the topmost point, however, (needless to say,) not a solitary drop found its way into the overturned shot glass.
Silence. -- Though only for a moment. Marty suddenly let loose with a loud and boisterous guffaw. He walked to the end of the bar where the stranger stood, his eye-patch raised like the lid on a snuffbox, surveying the treachery that had foiled his scheme. Marty slapped him amicably on the shoulder and said, "You didn’t say the glass had to be set right side up. Sorry there, fella."
"You got me," the stranger said. "You win the bet." The stranger reached out to shake the hand of the man who had bested him. As the stranger crossed the room toward his son, Marty placed his hands on his hips and beamed. "You see there, son," Marty said, "that’s how a bet is made. You’ve got to know when you’ve got a sure thing ,and when you haven’t."
The stranger sat on the stool next to Jeb. He wiped a spot dry, and Jeb pulled a sheet of paper from his breast pocket. He placed the document on the bar and began to sign his name. Marty slowly crossed to the area of this
transaction. "Jeb," Marty said cautiously as he recognized the document, "what are you doing?"
The stranger spit the wad of tobacco from out his mouth into a regulation spittoon. "He’s signing over his share of the deed to this business to me," the stranger said. "We’re partners now, but I’ll sell you this share back for $1500."
"Why is he signing his shares over to you?" Marty demanded, his question directed at Jeb, who had lowered his head to his folded arms on the bar.
"He lost it to me in a bet," the stranger said. "I’m the guy from the poker game at the livery, see. Don’t be too hard on him though. He thought he had a sure thing. He’d been telling me all day about how proud you were of this here bar the two of you had made. That’s when my partner here and me got the idea."
"Partner?" Marty said turning his attention to the cowboy who simply smiled and waved. "So that was all a lie about the sick horse and how he took your clothes and six-guns."
"No," the stranger said. "My horse did die, that’s part of why I need the $1500. And he did take my stuff, only what I didn’t say was that I gave it to him to hold for me."
"You said you were planning on killing your partner," Marty said.
"No," the cowboy corrected, "he said he planned on making a killing. $1500 is a pretty good killing wouldn’t you say?"
"So what was the bet, Marty asked sitting, defeated.
The stranger folded his arms proudly while his partner, the cowboy, rested a consoling arm on Marty’s shoulder and told him, "We bet him that he could spit tobacco juice all over your nice bar on purpose, and you’d laugh about it."