Thursday, April 5, 1860
Back home, poker players often felt nervous sitting across from Lafayette. Here in Orleans, his skill with the pasteboards worked in his favor, for the Basin’s players strived to try their skill against him; each hoping they would be the one to claim, “I got the better of Lafayette Crowe, last night.” At times he lost, however, but never to the extent anyone could boast of besting him.
Since dusk, he had been bellied up to a green felt top at the Red Crescent Saloon with the same five players. Hearing the Cathedral bells chiming midnight, Lafayette paused in mid-shuffle, a line from Macbeth emerging from the recesses of his memory, ’something wicked this way comes’. Glancing round at the men, he frowned, wondering why it had come to him, and began dealing.
The first man he dealt to was, Thomas Alvert. Alvert was a diminutive man who consistently fidgeted with his currency. In no time, Lafayette had concluded that Alvert shifted his money piles in specific arrangements to match how he felt about his cards. Once he had broken apart Alvert’s pattern, the man had ceased being a challenge.
Next on the deal was Jonathon Burgess, whose company Lafayette habitually shared. It was not unusual for them to enjoy coffee and beignets as the sun came up over the Mississippi River. Despite their familiarity, Lafayette still could not work out Jonathon’s poker tell. He felt it had something to do with his friend’s eyes; for Jonathon’s eyes abounded with emotion, often revealing exactly what he was thinking. That is until the moment, he picked up a poker hand then they became flat as blue glass. It dug at Lafayette. Finding a player’s tell was at least three-quarters of his enjoyment when he played. Usually within a couple of hours, he could read each player at a table, but not Jonathon. Given time Lafayette knew, he would discover his friend’s Achilles. Besides, if he was correctly judging the intensity Jonathon was courting Josephine, he would soon be his brother-in-law, which meant he would have all the time he would ever need to figure the man out.
Sitting next to Jonathon, was a boatman by the name of Mitchum. His upper body was built like a barrel and there was little doubt, he had been up-and-down the old muddy river more times than he could count. In fact, Lafayette wondered if Mitchum could count past ten or even read for that matter. If he was uneducated, Lafayette could give two shakes. Yet, it did bother him whenever a man sat in on a game smarter than his self for he earnestly believed a man should know his limits. In this case, the players surrounding Mitchum were well above his cap. He was so easy to read, it was like he was playing his cards face up, so naturally, the boatman was losing and heavily.
The fourth player was Jean LaBeau, a Cajun who had come to town on business and stayed for poker. LaBeau began the evening as a decent player, his large personality making him difficult to decode; that is until he had gotten too deep into his cups. Then he had begun smiling whenever he had a decent hand and the better the spread, the bigger the smile.
A few rounds back, when LeBeau ordered a fourth bottle of wine, Lafayette queried, ’Jean, you positive you do not wish to share your vin with the filles?’ The Cajun had licked his lips, eyed the scantily clad women along the bar, but stayed at the table.
With a nod, Lafayette had counseled, ‘Well then, you ought to break off smilin’ so grandly, whenever Lady Fate graces your hand.’ His warning had earned him LaBeau’s gratitude and an odious glare from Mitchum.
The last player was a generously, proportioned Irish man named Reilly. It had taken no time at all, for Lafayette to conclude, Reilly reveled in watching the game, more than being part of it. The only time Reilly did not fold was when he had a sure-fire win. Within a few hours, all the players had learned if Reilly stayed, they might as well give in because the pot was already his. Except here and there, Lafayette would stick with him to the call, even staying with Riley’s high bids much to the others dismay. His congenial method of playing had spread word that Lafayette was an affable player, who despite his consistent ability to win never took advantage of a man more than he deserved.
Dealing Reilly his fifth card, and then one for himself, Lafayette set the deck down. He casually watched the other men pick up their cards.
Alvert shifted his coins, letting Lafayette know he held at least two face cards. Hence, he was nonplussed when the cautious accountant bid three dollars.
Jonathon slid three dollars out, his face as blank as a new slate board.
Mitchum dropped his coins in, accompanied by a mumbled line of curses.
LaBeau took a large drink of wine and tossed his bid in the pot.
And, Reilly folded.
Taking up his own cards, Lafayette fanned out the jack of spades followed by the three, four, six, and seven of clubs. Laying them in a neat pile, he deposited three dollars to the center, and thinkin, ’What the hell... why not?” Added five more.
Alvert shifted about in his seat before gingerly, adding his five.
Jonathon dropped his in, and knowing Lafayette was trying to read him, flashed his pal a toothy smile “Anything yet?”
Lafayette shook his head, “I will figure you out. You wait and see.”
“I am sure you will.” Jonathon smiled even brighter “However, it shan’t be tonight.”
Mitchum resembled a tragedy mask as his eyes shifted from man-to-man then back to his cards. Lafayette thought, ′Par Dieu, I hope he ain’t tryin’ to draw to an inside straight again.′ Then chuckling inwardly, he told himself, ‘You are a fine one to judge, when you are bluffing on the same chance.’ Just as everyone felt sure Mitchum was throwing in, he pushed out five dollars, as if it physically pained him, and it might have considering how little he had left.
LaBeau eyed the growing pile with chuckled adoration and threw his cards down, returning happily to his wine.
And, Reilly sipped his beer, his small gray eyes watching them all avidly.
“How many Alvert?” Lafayette asked, his clipped Missouri accent sounding out of place at the tense table.
Lafayette passed him two.
“Slide me three, Crowe.”
Lafayette did so with a grin.
Mitchum snarled, “Three damn you!”
Shooting the boatman a hard look for his insulting manners, Lafayette dealt him the cards, before taking one for his self. Then not sure, why he did it, he winked at Mitchum.
LaBeau saw him do it and guffawed, cheering, “Oui, Monsieur, you show this turtleback how it be played.”
Swapping out the jack for his new card, Lafayette bit back a rogue grin, and peeking up, was glad he had, because, Jonathon was eyeing him thoughtfully.
“Ya plan on bidding?” Mitchum prodded Alvert, his tone full of threat.
“How about two dollars.” Alvert said, not meaning it to sound like a question, but the tremor in his voice sure made it sound that way.
Jonathon steady as spring rain slid two coins to the center.
Mitchum threw his coins into the pile, throwing a glower to Lafayette, that said, ‘I just dare you to raise the bid again.’
Taking no heed, Lafayette tossed in two. Then, seeing at least ten dollars in front of the boatman, he dropped ten on the pile. As he did it, he once again winked at Mitchum, “I call.”
Alvert folded without hesitation.
Jonathon dropped in his ten just as quickly.
Mitchum snarled, slapping ten dollars into the pot before fanning his cards, “Four tens are what I got… Monsieur.” The way he said monsieur, he might as well have been calling Lafayette any number of derogatory names and it would have sounded the same. Mitchum’s hand was better than the three nines and pair of jacks Jonathon had spread out, and knowing this Mitchum chortled, reaching for the pot.
“Whoa there,” Lafayette drawled, taking the time to push his hat up, so it rested on the back of his head, then with a devil’s grin, he flipped his cards out one by one: three, four, five, six and seven of clubs. “I would say that belongs to me.”
“Hellfire Crowe.” Jonathon scowled, standing up. “You did that on ONE card… I am through playing with you for the night.”
Lafayette’s face split into his wide, dimpled smile.
Jonathon shook his head, “One card?”
Lafayette nodded and amazingly, his grin grew even larger.
Pocketing his funds, Jonathon said, “I am going to rid myself of some of the drink and I will meet you out front.”
Lafayette nodded again, standing to pull on his frock coat.
Mitchum’s eyes followed Jonathon as he wove away through the crowd then fell back to the cards, and the bankroll Lafayette was leaning across to rake in. Then, with a grunt, Mitchum’s hand shot forward, clamping around Lafayette’s throat. “Ya yellow bastard cheater! Ya slick dealt those cards.”
From a corner of his awareness, Lafayette saw Alvert jump away so quick, he might have left some of himself in the chair.
Reilly skittered back almost as agilely, but not before swiping up his currency.
As the boatman’s hard, calloused fingers dug deeper into his windpipe, Lafayette could hear LeBeau’s drunken laughter.
Snatching hold of Mitchum’s wrist, caused him to clench tighter, and with spots emerging before his eyes; Lafayette heaved himself up onto the table, throwing his entire weight into Mitchum’s hand.
The unexpected move caught the boatman off guard.
Having gained the higher ground, Lafayette punched Mitchum between the eyes; even as the table flipped sending currency, drinks, and cards pinwheeling through the air.
Rolling to his feet, Lafayette barreled into Mitchum, catching him about the middle; their combined weights sending them sailing across the room with the other patrons leaping clear and cheering them on, as they rolled in the sawdust, exchanging blow for blow.
Lafayette felt all was going well and they might even be pretty evenly matched, until his back crashed into the brass boot-rail surrounding the bar.
“I have ya now, ya fils de pute.” Mitchum snarled, snatching Lafayette up and plowing his head into the railing; making it ring out like a church bell.
Lafayette tried to break Mitchum’s grip, except the man had a good fifty-pounds on him and with a maniacal grin, Mitchum slammed Lafayette’s skull into the rail again.
A hot, splintering, burst through Lafayette’s head, ‘If’n, I do not get’em off me, the bastard is going to bust my skull wide-open.’ He thought, twisting frantically, reaching for the blade he kept in his boot. The smooth, ivory handle skimmed his fingertips as Mitchum lifted him for a third time, this time hammering his shoulder blades into the unyielding rail. An enraged scream erupted from Lafayette and with a lunge; he wrapped his hand about the blade’s hilt. Then, with a spastic jerk, he shoved its sharp edge up to Mitchum’s neck.
“Oh Ho! This be how ya want it.” Mitchum roared, leaping back and pulling an equally long blade. “Come on, me pretty monsieur, climb to ya feet so we can dance.”
Staggering up, the room sashayed around him nd shaking his head, Lafayette motioned Mitchum to come on.
“You ready to be gutted?” Mitchum gloated, charging in.
Holding his ground until the last second, Lafayette sidestepped, throwing his fist wrapped about the ivory hilt into Mitchum’s nose. Beneath his knuckles, Lafayette felt the satisfying crunch of bones giving way. Spinning, he drove his left fist into Mitchum’s neck, followed by a kick to the kidneys.
The combo flung the boatmen into the side of the bar, sending his knife spinning across the floor to disappear among the feet of the circling crowd.
Mitchum pushed himself to his knees.
Lafayette kicked him over and dropping a knee into the boatman’s sternum, slipped the point of the blade under his chin, “a fight can sure get a man’s blood up. Would you not agree?”
Mitchum’s eyes rolled to the crowd, seeing no one was planning to intervene, he nodded the slightest bit, feeling the blade’s keen point.
“The question on your mind, I would say – is am I goin’ to run you through and I would be in m’ full rights to do so.”
Mitchum licked his lips.
“Depends?” Lafayette stated, letting the blade cut Mitchum. “I seem to recall you sayin’, I was a yellow, cheatin’ bastard. Those were your words, were they not?” He allowed the blade to dig deeper and Mitchum’s dirt brown eyes rolled in their sockets. “Well?!”
Squeezing his eyes shut, Mitchum mumbled, “ya weren’t cheating.”
“Ya weren’t cheating!”
“Mes apologies Monsieur Crowe.”
Lafayette nodded, slapping him on the cheek, “Bonne,” and flicking his wrist, he gave Mitchum a reminder scar before releasing. “Get the fuck out of my sight.” Watching Mitchum slink out the door, he heaved a sigh and bent to retrieve his hat.
“Crowe! Behind you!”
He was only half-turned, but clearly saw Mitchum’s leering smile, right before he fell to his knees. His blood was pounding in his ears and there was a red stain spreading across his gold brocade vest. He could see Jonathon pushing his way through the crowd. Confused, he looked from Jonathon to the spreading stain, ‘Why is it all so quiet… and--’, and his eyes rolled up.
“Told ya, I would gut ya,” Mitchum gloated, pulling his knife from Lafayette’s back, where he lay on the floor, switching his grip to strike again. Before he could do so, Mitchum flew backwards, losing this second blade, the same way as the first.
Rising to his feet, the boatman centered in on the man who had hit him. “Why that was quite foolish of ya.”
“Not really, I ain’t had me decent fight in a while,” replied, Lafayette’s defender. A man who could only be considered slight in anyone’s book and with a wild laugh, the small man dove into Mitchum, skipping and whirling with pugilistic skill. His quick, deft blows irritating the boatman while drawing him further away from Lafayette.
Frustrated Mitchum, howled, “I aim to smash ya like a bug.”
“Ah, ye be thinkin’ yeself a fine prince.” The fighter taunted, laying a punch upside Mitchum’s head and smoothly ducking the haymaker swung at him. “Ye be findin’ it a wee bit harder fightin’ a man who be standin’.” Then quick as a hornet the Irish man darted in, pummeling Mitchum’s ribcage with rabbit punches before spinning clear; with his shoulder length dark-red hair flying about him like demon’s wings. “Ye be a big boy, but ye be slow.” He taunted, leaping in, nailing the boatman with an upper-cut that sent him staggering.
Shaking his head like a bull, Mitchum roared, “Par Dieu, I will kill ya, ya damn Mick.” And from somewhere on his person, Mitchum pulled another blade.
“Me man, I have no blade and me Boyo, be already bleedin’ his life out on the floor, thanks to ye. So, I be thinkin’, it be high time to end our dance.” The fighter stated and reaching back into next week, he threw a punch that was heard throughout the Crescent when it connected with Mitchum’s jaw.
Spittle and blood flew from the boatman’s mouth; his head lolled back at an awkward angle on his cracked neck, and slow as melting ice he slid to the floor.
It all came about so fast, the crowd stood silent before erupting in riotous cheering.
Shoving by the congratulatory men, the little Irish fighter knelt alongside, Jonathon at Lafayette’s side, “names Shelley, shall we be for gettin’ Mister Crowe outs of here?”
Jonathon stared at Shelley.
“Come now, me Boyo, snap to this not be the place for him in his condition.”
Jonathon nodded and between them, they hauled Lafayette to his feet.
Lafayette moaned, “What the hell happened?”
“That son-of-a-bitch back stabbed you.” Jonathon answered. “Can you walk?”
“I believe so.” Lafayette replied, managing a weak smile, “merci for steppin’ in. I owe you.”
“I was too slow.” Jonathon nodded to Shelley. “It was he who saved you.”
Turning his head to see who was on his right, Lafayette discovered the movement was a bad idea and did not even get a decent look before blacking out.