December 1, 1876
“Is this seat taken?”
The denizens of the corner table in the Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon all raised their gazes from their cards to the newcomer.
“You’d best run along,” the sole woman at the table said lightly, a blonde beauty clad in leather. “The stakes here are higher than what you’re worth, son.”
“I think I’m a better judge of that,” he returned. “I’m worth more than I look.”
The dealer, a greying man with an eyepatch over his right eye socket, chuckled in apparent amusement. “That wouldn’t be hard, boy. How old are you?”
“I’m no boy,” the stranger said, a bit of irritation creeping into his voice. “I fought in the war. Isn’t that enough?”
“Did you now?” a pale, bespectacled man little older than the stranger asked. “Yes, maybe you did. You carry yourself the way of a man with battle scars.”
“Not scars enough,” the last card player commented, a man built like a railroad worker with broad chest and powerful arms. “He’d know well enough to leave a game alone.”
The stranger withdrew a stack of money from his pocket, counted off a hundred dollars, and tossed it down on the table. “Is that enough to buy into this game?”
The three men at the table laughed; strangely, the woman seemed unamused. “If you want in so badly, kid, pull up a chair,” the dealer said. “But don’t say you weren’t warned.”
“What’s your name?” the woman asked.
“Micah,” he answered as he seated himself between the woman and the pale man.
“And what brings you to Deadwood in the middle of winter?” the dealer asked idly. “I call.”
Cards were laid down, and the big man took the pot with a trio of jacks. With the hand over, the dealer exchange Micah’s hundred dollars for chips and slid the stack back to him.
“I’m always looking for opportunities,” Micah said casually as he anted up, tossing a dollar chip into the pot. He waited until all five cards were dealt before he picked up his hand. “Word has it that Deadwood is a place of opportunities.”
“There’s opportunity here, yes,” the big man agreed. “Plenty of danger, too, if you’re not prepared. There’s no real law here – McCall rode out of here after shooting Hickok in the back, and he’s hardly the first. The tribes don’t like us here, either – they think these hills are sacred.”
“And you don’t?” Micah asked.
“Boy, there’s nothing on this world that’s sacred,” the man declared.
Micah glanced down at his hand – a pair of nines, with an ace high card. Enough to stay in the game, he decided, matching the current bet of five dollars. When it was his turn he tossed in two cards and got two in return, which did nothing to improve his hand.
“Now, where were we, Rota?” the dealer asked as he moved his attention from Micah to the woman next to him.
“I was telling you ‘no’,” was her dry reply.
“Yes, you were, but I’m urging you to reconsider.”
“There’s nothing to reconsider,” Rota replied sharply. “I told you, I’ve left that life behind, and I’m never going back.”
“Hardly,” the dealer returned. “You know it will happen, and if you work with me you’ll benefit greatly from it.”
“The lady said she wasn’t interested,” Micah spoke up.
“Boy, this doesn’t concern you,” the dealer said icily as the betting raised.
With only the nines, the bet was rising too swiftly to risk staying in, and Micah folded. “Where I come from, when a lady says no, that’s the end of it.”
“And where exactly are you from, Micah?” the bespectacled man asked.
“Alabama,” he answered.
The air seemed to grow colder at the table. “You fought for the Confederates,” the big man commented. “You sure you want to be sitting here?”
“War’s been done ten years and some,” Micah said coolly. “Northern aggression won. Does it matter anymore?”
“Only if you make it a problem,” the big man said gruffly. “We fought, but we weren’t no Grey backs.”
The man in glasses took the hand again and raked in the chips. Micah anted up again and waited patiently for his cards to be dealt. “So you fought for the North. Congratulations.”
“I’d be a bit kinder in tone were I you,” Rota warned him quietly. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with.”
“He’s just another Southern boy who doesn’t know when he’s been whipped,” the dealer commented dryly as he finished dealing out the hand.
An uneasy silence fell on the table, and hands were played without anything said beyond “raise”, “call”, and “fold.” The woman took one hand, the dealer another, and the man in glasses the last.
“That pile of chips isn’t going to last, son,” the dealer smirked as he passed out the cards again. “You going to throw more money in?”
“Maybe,” Micah allowed as he surveyed his own remaining chips.
“What brings you to Dakota territory?” Rota asked. “It’s a long way from Alabama, and no one comes here for the weather. Are you prospecting or trading?”
“Surveying,” he deadpanned.
“Where did you serve?” the big man asked, his tone a mixture of contempt and curiosity.
“Army of Northern Virginia, under General Jubal Early. Barely survived Waynesboro, and had made it back the day before Lee surrendered.” Micah’s tone remained steady and distant, as though he were recalling someone else’s history. “After that, I was done with the war and went back to Georgia.”
“Georgia?” the dealer asked. “I thought you were from Alabama.”
“Was that what I said?” Micah asked. He pushed a twenty-dollar chip into the pot. “Raise.”
“You sure you want to do that? That’s half of what you have left,” the big man commented.
“What’s money matter in a place like Deadwood?” he replied dismissively. “Where did you three serve?”
“Together,” the dealer said, “in the Army of Tennessee.”
“Under that bastard Sherman?” Micah asked.
“All the way to the sea in sixty-four,” the bespectacled man nodded. “Under Captain Burns, that is.”
Micah turned to the dealer as the woman called, and the man with the glasses took the pot again. “You’re Captain Burns, I take it?”
“Captain Louis Burns, formerly of the Army of Tennessee,” he confirmed with a tight smile. “Dismissed from the service after the war ended. Just as well, or I might’ve been scalped by the redskins by now. Good chance I would’ve been with General Custer six months ago.”
“Montana territory isn’t far from here,” Micah noted, “and the tribes aren’t happy about us here in Dakota. If you’re worried about the red men, why are you in Deadwood?”
All three men laughed. “I’m not worried about the red men,” Burns said shortly. “And they’re of no concern to me.”
“What did you do after the war?” Rota asked, clearly trying to change the subject.
“Well, a funny thing happened when I went home,” Micah said as the cards were dealt out. “See, General Sherman’s armies marched right across my home. I had heard about it, of course – we all knew about the way he burned our homes to the ground, destroyed our crops, stole our horses.
“But for all the things his armies did, they left the people alone. All the farmers, the smiths, the workers – the Union armies didn’t lay a finger on them.” He matched the bet, tossed in two cards and received two in return. “I think Sherman was smart enough to know that if he started killing everyone, there’d never be peace again – there’d be no healing between North and South.”
“So you went home to rebuild?” Rota asked.
“With hardly a penny to my name,” Micah confirmed. “Raise,” he added, pushing all the chips he had left into the pot. “But there’s a problem when you fight a war and you give orders. Sometimes, your orders aren’t followed.”
Rota’s eyes, brilliant blue, showed horror; the three men didn’t look up from their cards.
“It took me two years to find out what happened. Three Union soldiers disobeyed orders and slaughtered three homes full of farmers. No one knew why – it’s not like any of the dead were important or wealthy. And it took another three to discover their ringleader’s name, and five more to track them down.”
Micah laid his cards down on the table – two pair, aces over eights. “To Deadwood.”
Silence reigned over the table for long seconds as the three men looked up as one to Micah. The dealer, Captain Burns, began to laugh slow and cold. “You have no idea what you’ve done, boy. I’ll give you this one chance to walk away from this table alive.” His smile was sardonic. “You can’t beat all three of us.”
“I don’t need to,” Micah said. “Your two buddies here, Lieutenant Mason,” he said as he glanced at the big man, “and Lieutenant Webb,” with a quick eye toward the bespectacled man, “aren’t armed. You’re the only one.”
“So now you shoot me?” Burns asked.
“I’ve been carrying this same Colt 1851 since the war ended,” the ex-Confederate said shortly. “I swore I’d carry it until the war was over…for me. And tonight, that’s happening.”
“You made a mistake, son,” Burns said. “You should make your big speech after you’ve killed me.”
Micah opened his mouth to respond, but Burns was already rising to his feet, his right hand blurring for the revolver on his hip.
Micah was faster.
The Colt 1851 Navy barked, a cloud of black smoke blossomed, and Burns was falling backward. Micah didn’t hesitate, the barrel swinging first one way, then the other, to deliver a bullet each to the captain’s two companions.
He let out a long sigh, felt more than ten years of anger and rage begin to drain away. “It’s over,” he said, mostly to himself. “I’ve avenged my family.”
“You fool,” Rota hissed. “Do you have any idea what you’re dealing with?”
From the floor three voices chuckled, and all three dead men slowly rose to their feet as Micah looked on in horror. “What?” he asked dumbly as he swung the Colt around again, putting all three of his remaining bullets into Burns with no discernable effect. “What?”
“You were warned,” Burns said with a wicked smile twisting his lips. “Now, you pay the price for gambling and losing.”