The Bad Bet
Chapters : 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6-25 Available On
PLEASE NOTE: This is a preview of this novel. It is available for purchase in its entirety via
July first, 1868, Abilene, Kansas
Arabella Mortenson was thankful for the full bonnet that hid most of
her blushing face. She was standing just outside the batwing doors of a
saloon, closer than she'd ever been to such a den of iniquity in her
thirty-one year life.
That she was driven to come that close to such a place was proof that
her need was dire. She needed to get her husband out of that saloon. He
had gone in to get a drink, but had stayed much too long for that
simple pursuit. She knew that meant he was gambling again.
He'd been losing their money in games of chance for years.
Before leaving for Kansas, they had lived in the house she'd
inherited after her mother's death. She'd had a garden and
had been able to barter laundry services for some beef each week, so
they'd had food and a roof over their heads. She had to
provide the food for the table, because Frank gambled away all his
wages unless, after being paid, he came home first. She had learned to
tolerate a bottle of whiskey in the house because the bottle was
sometimes enough to lure him home on payday, giving her the opportunity
to lift a few dollars from his pockets, before he'd be off to
the saloon to gamble away the rest.
Her first signal that something was terribly wrong had been when he
started talking about going to the Kansas territory, where it was said
a man could carve out a farm in the lush, fertile soil that lay under
the prairie grass.
Arabella was well aware that Frank Mortenson was a lazy man. She'd
married him at the tender age of fifteen and, in the sixteen years
since, had done ALL the work that got done around their house...unless
she was abed because of one of her "accidents." Frank had a mean streak
in him too, particularly when he had been drinking and most certainly
when he'd lost at cards or some other foolish game of chance. She often
had to stay indoors until the bruises went away, so the neighbors
wouldn't see them. Once she'd been laid up for weeks while a
bone knit enough that it could bear weight. The thought that Frank
would be willing to work hard enough even to hook a team up to a plow
was laughable to Arabella. She came from a farm family and she knew how
hard it would be to start from scratch in soil that had never felt the
bite of the plow. She assumed the homesteading idea must be the result
of some alcohol fogged conversation he'd had with some worthless
Then one day he came home with a covered wagon. Almost frantically he'd
told her to pack what would fit in the wagon, leaving room only for the
two children, Becky and Frank Jr.
What Arabella was unaware of was that her husband had borrowed
money...a lot of money. When he'd lost it all and been unable
to pay it back, he sold the house quick, getting the two horses and
wagon as part of the deal. Then he'd run from his debts.
They'd picked up supplies along the way, including two oxen when
he'd ruined the horses trying to put too much distance
between them and the men he was sure were looking for him. And by the
time they got to Abilene, Kansas two thirds of the pockets on his money
belt were empty. Still, it might be enough for them to get a new start,
if they were able to claim any land.
Upon pulling into the bustling town of Abilene, Frank had stopped the
wagon in front of the saloon.
"I'm going to go get news," he'd said. "You stay here."
"We don't have money to spend on whiskey, Frank Mortenson!" Arabella
had protested. He'd answered her with a backhand to her right
"Don't sass me, woman," he'd snarled. "I've been putting up
with your whining for weeks and a drink will clear my ears of it. You
wait here, and don't let your brats stray either."
When he'd been gone for more than fifteen minutes, she'd
known he was gambling with all they had left. She had to do something
or they'd be penniless.
Thus she'd been driven to stand perilously close to the
entrance of a place she would normally have crossed the street to
avoid. And not only was she standing there...she was actually thinking
about going inside.
Aloysius Julian Hobbs was footloose, fancy-free, eighteen years old,
and had money in his pocket. There were probably a couple hundred
cowboys within a few days travel who were just like him...except most
of them DIDN'T have money in their pockets. Aloysius, who
began calling himself "AJ" after the second time his name got him
laughed at by a grizzled cowpoke, and he got into a fight as a result,
had just finished helping drive three thousand cattle up the Chisholm
trail. Once he and fifteen other cowboys had herded the longhorns into
the stock pens at the railhead of the Kansas Pacific Railway in
Abilene, he'd been paid off by the trail boss and cut loose.
He ambled down the dusty street, looking for a saloon where he might
find a bath, a woman, and a meal consisting of something other than
beef and beans, in that order. Not being the most patient of young men,
he headed for the first one he saw. A wooden sign adorned with a
picture of bull's head hung over the doors.
A heavy Conestoga wagon that was loaded down with household goods and
two kids, not that much younger than himself, was blocking his path. A
girl, wearing a bonnet, with a load of fluffy brown curls hanging below
the cloth was sitting on the wagon seat. Idly, he estimated her age at
about fourteen or fifteen. A younger boy was leaning out of the back,
AJ detoured around the wagon, wondering why anyone would want to haul
all that stuff west and go through the pain and toil of trying to
wrestle a living from the earth. He didn't understand sodbusters.
As he mounted the boardwalk in front of the saloon, he saw a woman
standing hesitantly at the batwing doors, peeking inside. Something
about her drab gray dress and bonnet marked her in his mind as the
mother of the kids in the wagon. He thought it was odd that a decent
woman would be about to enter a saloon.
He forgot about the family as he stepped past the sodbuster woman and
pushed through the swinging doors of the drinking establishment. Had
someone asked him where he was, he wouldn't have been able to name the
This is not to say he wasn't aware of what was going on around him. But
AJ automatically prioritized the information fed to his brain through
his five senses. The name of the place just wasn't important. What WAS
important was that the noise level was all wrong, for a place like
this. There wasn't enough of it.
And tension filled the place. That caught his attention instantly. He
stopped in the darkened interior, letting his eyes adjust to the gloom.
He also dropped his left hand to the pistol that was canted forward,
butt first, set up for a cross draw, and took the leather loop off the
hammer of the pistol. He had no idea what was causing the tension he
felt, but it was his nature to be ready when he smelled trouble.
It didn't take him long to find that trouble.
There was a card game going on at a table to his right, situated near
the grimy windows through which the only light in the place was coming.
It was still early enough that the bartender wouldn't light any lamps
and waste precious oil.
There were four men seated at that table. Three were nondescript men
wearing hats. Two wore vests on top of the store-bought shirts they
favored. Another wore a leather shirt that was fringed and dirty. The
last wore homespun, and AJ knew instantly that he was the sodbuster who
the family outside belonged to. What he was doing in a saloon playing
cards while his family waited outside was a puzzle. The tension he had
felt was coming from the table, and was being transmitted by the small
crowd of maybe a dozen men who were standing around watching the game.
Leather shirt was dealing and AJ saw immediately that he was dealing
off the bottom of the deck. The cards he dealt from there went to the
sodbuster. At first AJ thought he and the sodbuster were in cahoots,
but as he watched it became clear that wasn't the case. AJ saw the
things he'd been taught to look for in the three men who were playing
the sodbuster – cheating the sodbuster, actually. Just about
all the money on the table was evenly spread in front of the three men.
The sodbuster had six coins left in front of him and he was sweating.
AJ could see it running down the back of his neck, below the badly
chopped hair above his collar.
He was also sipping heavily at the whisky in the dirty glass to his
right. While AJ watched, a saloon girl appeared at his shoulder,
refilled the glass and faded back into the crowd. AJ knew she'd been
told to do that by someone other than the sodbuster. Every saloon he'd
ever been in was a pay as you drink kind of place. Since the sodbuster
wasn't paying, that meant somebody else was. When the farmer picked up
his cards, AJ saw two queens and two threes. Leather shirt had dealt
him two pair on purpose.
AJ shook his head and turned for the bar. If the sodbuster was stupid
enough to get into a rigged game, then he would learn a hard lesson. AJ
ordered whisky and savored the first few sips before knocking back the
rest of the shot. He ordered another and was about to drink it too when
the voices rose from behind him.
"You KNOW that's all I got. You done TOOK the rest of my money from me.
I NEED that money to make a go of things when I claim a homestead. You
GOT to let me bet!" It was the sodbuster, who had been raised to the
point that everything he had was in the pot.
One of the vested men replied. "I raised you, and if you cain't see me
then you got to fold. Them's the rules of the game, mister."
"I got things in the wagon worth money. Let me put that up!" cried the
sodbuster. He was frantic. AJ got up and moved toward the table. He
could see, over the sodbuster's shoulder, that he had drawn another
three. Holding a full house he was frantic to stay in the game.
Leather shirt looked out of the window, toward the wagon. "Don't need
no pots and pans." He spat tobacco juice on the floor. "That's a right
purty girl up there on the seat, though. You could bet her if you want
ter." He spat again and cackled. The other two men laughed.
One of them leaned over and looked through the window, too. "She's a
right tasty looking girl, she is." he said. "How's about you
add her to the pot, farmer man."
The sodbuster was at once angry...and greedy. AJ could see it in his
posture. And he could almost hear the gears turning in the man's head.
He had a full house...sure to win...what could be the harm? He still
didn't know he'd been dealt that hand on purpose. If he he'd known
that, he would also have known that somebody else had a better hand,
and that the whole purpose of the game had been to take his money. All
of his money. And now it looked like they wanted the girl, too.
"Don't take that bet, mister," AJ heard himself saying.
He hated that about himself. He had a tendency to talk first and think
later. It got him into trouble pretty regularly.
Leather shirt looked up. "You shut yor trap, cowpoke. This ain't none
of yor affair."
The sodbuster had turned around and looked to see who had warned him.
AJ saw in his eyes what he saw in a lot of farmer's eyes when they
looked at a cowboy — derision. The man turned around. "You're
on," he said. "My Becky and my last five dollars say I've got the
Leather shirt grinned. "Lay em down." One of the vests had folded
earlier. The other one was still in and laid down a pair of jacks. The
sodbuster threw down his full house with a yell and reached for the
pile of money in the center of the table.
"Not so fast there, farmer man," said leather shirt, with a mean grin.
He flipped over his cards. There were four tens and an ace.
It was deathly quiet for three split seconds and then there was a wail
of anguish, followed closely by three men laughing.
"Haul her in here, farmer man," said one of the vests. "We got us some
lovin' to do!" He yelled over his shoulder. "Sydney? You still got a
room free? Looks like we'll be needing it for three or four hours." His
grin, when he turned back to the sodbuster, was malicious.
AJ glanced at the bartender, to see what he'd do. Without even looking
up from the glass he was polishing with a dirty rag, the man called
out, "Cost you three times as much, if you're all gonna use her."
The sodbuster was still staring at the cards. "NO!" he shouted.
"A bet's a bet, farmer man," said the other vest. "Now git her in here.
I've got an itch in my pants that needs scratchin'."
"You were cheated, sodbuster."
Again, AJ couldn't believe the words came out of his mouth. He had no
call to get involved in this mess. But he'd seen the girl out on the
wagon, and she'd reminded him of his sister. He hadn't seen his sister
in four years, but he remembered her saucy disposition. If that girl
out there had a saucy disposition, it would be gone in a very short
time, most likely never to return, if these hard cases had their way
It got really quiet then, as three faces turned toward him and the
crowd around the table split apart like they had practiced doing it a
Leather shirt stood up and looked at AJ. "I thought I told you to butt
out." His hand drifted toward the holstered Army revolver on his hip.
AJ sighed. One of these days he'd learn to mind his own business. But
one thing he never did was back down once he'd made his stand. "You
dealt him that hand off the bottom of the deck. I'm bettin' I'm not the
only one who saw you do it either. You cheated him, plain and simple."
There was no posturing. There were no verbal threats or warnings. There
was only sudden movement, and there was a lot of it.
People in the crowd made a mad dash to get away from the table, some of
them leaping headlong, to land on the floor. The two vests stood up as
one, their chairs falling backwards as all three reached for the
revolvers in their holsters. The farmer pushed his chair back and
prepared to stand up. Apparently unaware of the gunplay that was about
to erupt, he was thinking about how to demand his money back.
The only part of AJ that moved, initially, was his right arm.
The extremely short and extremely violent gunfight would be described
later by at least a half dozen patrons of the saloon who actually
observed it. It was surprising, all in all, that their descriptions
were actually quite similar in most of the important points.
All agreed that the three men drew first. All agreed that if the farmer
hadn't stood up, he wouldn't have been shot. And all agreed that the
kid who had caused all the trouble was the fastest man with a gun any
of them had ever seen.
In fact, AJ's eyes sorted out all kinds of information in the split
second it took him to reach across his body for his gun. Leather
shirt's movements were the most practiced, so AJ shot him first, in the
middle of the chest. His left hand came up and he fanned the hammer
three times, once for the man in the middle, who took the bullet high,
just below his Adams apple, and twice for the third man as he pulled
the barrel back down. Both shots ended up within one inch of a button
in the middle of the man's vest.
Only the two men wearing vests had managed to get a shot off. One hit
the farmer in the face; the other winged AJ's left arm.
As the men went down, the sodbuster sat back down heavily and his head
tilted back, his ruined and lifeless face staring up at the ceiling.
The whole fight had lasted no more than three and a half seconds.
AJ knew he was in trouble. He also knew it was highly unlikely that any
of the other three men was still alive. His instinct had been to go for
the heart. He'd seen the dusty impact of at least two of his slugs and,
in any case, he knew he rarely missed. He'd practiced for hours until
his muscle memory did it all for him...even if he didn't think he'd
actually ever shoot anybody. Like most young men, AJ performed his
routine tasks surrounded by an invisible haze of fantasy, like smoke
from a campfire.
It wasn't wood smoke stinging his eyes now, though.
A boy, who had been peeking through the doors of the saloon, began
shrieking the news outside. AJ's instinct was to flee, and he gave in
to that instinct as terror over what he'd just done sent fire to his
The way out was clear, because the small crowd of watchers had exploded
away from the danger. He ran past the woman who had been standing
outside. She was now just inside the doors, her mouth open in a silent
scream. AJ's boots thudded on the raised sidewalk outside the saloon
and he leapt for the dusty street. Like any cowboy, he hated to walk
anywhere, much less run, but he'd left his horse in the livery stable
where it could get a pan of oats. That was clear down the street, and
his shoulder blades pulled toward each other as he anticipated bullets
flying toward his back.
He couldn't stand the idea of going down shot in the back and, as he
came level with the sodbuster's wagon, he whirled, realizing he only
had two shots left and there would be no time to reload.
But no one was boiling out of the saloon, eager to shoot down the
murderer. There were a couple of faces there, peering out into the
brightness of the sunlit street...but no pursuit.
Once again he turned and ran. He ran as hard as he'd ever run in his
Arabella had heard everything from her vantage point just inside the
saloon doors. No one had noticed her slip in, because all attention was
on the men at the table. She hadn't been able to see much, initially,
but she'd heard everything. Her horror at hearing Frank bet her
daughter's virginity had left her in a curious state of being frozen
and weak-kneed at the same time. At the last moment when the crowd
around the table had evaporated like mist in the sun, she had watched
in horror as the gunfight erupted. In the few seconds that followed she
saw Frank's face change shape as the bullet struck it.
It was most likely her next actions were caused by the combination of
what she'd been trying to get the courage to do originally, mixed with
the shock and panic that zinged through her when she saw events play
She'd been planning on going in there and taking the money in front of
her husband off the table ... and damned with convention. What he had
left was all they had, and she couldn't bear to see it all lost. That
had given her the strength to start through the doors. Then she had
heard her husband bet their daughter, and cold panic had left her
unable to move. Her mind was, as yet, unable to deal with the
processing of the immediate facts, so it settled on what she'd come in
this place to do.
The cowboy who had shot the three cheaters ran past her. Noise exploded
in the room, and it freed Arabella's muscles. It was dark and, still in
a panic, she ran to the table, scooped up bills and what coins she
could. Part of her was shocked that she wasn't the only one grabbing
for money. Horrified she ran back outside. The wagon was only yards
away. She literally threw the money in the back of the wagon, where
Frank Junior's wide eyed face was staring at her, and then continued to
the front of the wagon where she fairly leapt to the top of the smaller
front wheel and onto the seat. The brake wasn't set, and she picked up
the reins and snapped them expertly, screaming "HEYAH!" at the top of
her lungs. The startled oxen lunged in the traces, their hooves
churning the dust, until the wagon creaked forward, and then gathered
speed slowly. By the time they got to the edge of town, headed south,
the wagon was lurching alarmingly and Arabella loosened the reins.
She was crying now, babbling without thinking about what she'd seen and
heard. Some part of her brain realized she was going to kill the team
if she didn't slow them down. Becky was screaming "MAMMA!" over and
over again. She didn't know what to do, and the reins dropped from
lifeless fingers as she swooned.
Becky knew something bad had happened. When she'd seen her mother go to
the saloon doors, it seemed as if she was suddenly dreaming. She
couldn't believe it when Arabella had actually gone inside, and then
shots had rung out. The handsome young cowboy Becky had seen looking at
her only a few short moments ago came tearing out, followed soon after
by her mother, who was also running, holding something to her chest.
Then there had been the wild ride, with mamma screaming only half
understood things and leaving her father behind. She was terrified of
the wild lurching of the wagon as it went much too fast. When she saw
her mother sway backwards and drop the reins, Becky dove for them
herself, grasping the leather strips and tugging on them instinctively,
to slow the team.
The oxen bawled, tossing their heads. One looked sideways and Becky
could see its eye rolling in excitement.
"WHOA!" she called out.
The team slowed a bit, and her mother came alive. "NO!" she shouted.
"KEEP GOING!" Arabella had visions of a posse coming after them, saying
she stole cash money, and putting her in jail.
A horse thundered past them, the rider leaning forward and so low that
it looked like he was lying down on the neck of the horse. Becky
recognized the cowboy who had fled the saloon after the gunfire. He and
his horse grew smaller, leaving a trail of dust that hung in the air.
Becky had seen their team of horses killed by running them like this,
and she ignored her mother's scream, slowing the team more, yelling
"Whoa!" in softer tones as the team fell to a trot and then a fast
walk. They were breathing hard already and foam flecked their mouths.
Almost suddenly they adopted their usual routine, plodding gait, as
they finally calmed.
Arabella's control broke and she began sobbing as the impact of events
reduced her to helplessness again.
Over the next ten minutes Becky got bits and pieces of information from
her mother. Frank Junior crawled over the load in the wagon, his face
appearing above her, and he told her what he'd seen and heard. He had
money gripped in his fist and waved it at his sister, telling him where
he'd gotten it. She found out her father was dead, shot during a card
game, but not by the cowboy who had fled past them.
It came out in a disjointed and unbelievable fashion, at first, and her
own adrenaline caused her to flick the reins and set the team at a trot
again when she realized her mother had taken money from the table in
the saloon, and expected pursuit.
Ten more minutes refined the information into a narrative, of sorts, in
Becky's mind, that explained what had happened, and why they were
fleeing without seeing to her father's body.
Most young women might have collapsed into the same uselessness that
her mother was displaying, under the circumstances. But Becky had had
to grow up much faster, in many ways, than other girls her age. She and
Frank Jr. had been on the receiving end of her father's rages too ...
many times. She had had to work hard in the garden and helping her
mother collect, wash and return clothing to customers. Her hands were
tough and red, like those of a much older woman. In truth of fact, she
felt no remorse that her father was dead.
There was, in fact, one bit of information that Becky did not pursue.
One of the things her mother had screamed, initially, was "HE BET
BECKY!" The girl, knowing it was a poker game, unconsciously inserted a
comma into the sentence, making it into "He bet, Becky!" She would not
realize the import of those few words, or the way she had interpreted
them, until much later. But the pure fact is that it wouldn't really
have made any difference.
"It was OUR money, Mamma," she said, at length. "You said he was
"It was said," moaned Arabella. "I don't know. I just grabbed it! What
was I thinking?!"
"You were thinking that it was our money!" said Becky firmly. She
slowed the team a bit. Her practiced eye determined they were going to
have to stop and let them rest soon. They'd need water too, pursuit or
no pursuit. She turned and looked up at Frank Jr. "Go back and see if
we are being followed," she ordered. His wide eyes were complimented by
his Adams apple bobbing and he nodded. He turned and disappeared.
"It was our money, Mamma," she said again. Her mother's hands were
twitching in her lap.
"But he's DEAD!" wailed Arabella.
"And we're safe at last," said Becky.
Her mother was shocked into silence as her jaw dropped and she stared
at her daughter.
"Well we are!" insisted Becky. "He put his hands on me two nights ago,
Arabella's mouth closed and she sat up suddenly. "Oh no!"
"When you went to sleep he put his hands on me. I had a bottle hidden,
just in case. I gave it to him and he left me alone. I told him he
could get more in Abilene. It's my fault he went in there, Mamma, but
I'm not sorry!"
"It's not your fault," moaned Arabella. "He'd have done it anyway."
"I'm not sorry," said Becky in a dignified voice. "He treated us all
like animals and slaves, Mamma. And lately it's been harder and harder
to stop him from doing things to me. Your face is bruised right this
minute and Frank Jr. is still limping from the last time he was kicked.
We're better off without him, Mamma, and you know it."
"Don't speak ill of the dead, Becky!" blurted Arabella.
"All right," said the girl. "May he rest in peace."
She let that lie for a few seconds, and then added: "If there's peace
to be had in the fires of hell."
Next Chapter >>