Before You Meet the Devil

Submitted into Contest #204 in response to: Write a story about someone seeking revenge for a past wrong.... view prompt


Western Fiction Drama

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

Skinner, Arkansas, 1877

Jack sat behind the bar reading a newspaper. It was mid-afternoon and the saloon was quiet, but it was always quiet until suppertime when the gamblers came in. It would be standing room only, everybody hoping to get a seat at a table or making bets on the side. 

Jack had started the bar in a tent, in 1870. He had named it the Red Ace Saloon and it soon garnered a reputation as a card-playing hot spot. He learned quickly that gambling was thirsty work. Men drank to calm their nerves, for courage, or to drown their sorrows after a bad bet. As far as Jack could see, if you wanted to make good money as a booze-slinger, running a gambling house was the way to go. Hotels were too much work and whores were a nightmare.

A fly buzzed nearby and he swatted it away from his balding head before he took a sip from his coffee. He wiped the dregs out of his mustache and sighed. The money rolled in during the evenings, but it was a lot of work. He tried to savour the lazy afternoons.

The door swung open and a young man walked in. “Howdy,” the boy said cheerfully.

“You got iron on you, boy?” Jack asked.

“No sir,” the boy replied. He was wearing a long duster coat. 

“Mind pickin’ up yer coat?” Jack said.

“Not at all,” the boy replied as he lifted the jacket to show his waist. He turned a full circle. “I don’t carry any weapons in town,” the boy said. “Not my nature.”

“Good ‘nuff,” Jack said as the boy walked to the bar. “Fellers try to sneak guns in here from time to time. We do a bit of gamblin’ and everybody has to check their weapons at the door. Had a feller get sour over a lousy hand a while back and things got ugly. No good when yer tryna run a business,” he said as he leaned towards the boy with his arms spread wide, hands resting on the bar.

“Understandable,” the boy said. 

“Don’t even want any fist fights in here. You wanna fight? Take it outside,” he said. “That’s what the scattergun’s for,” he said gesturing with his thumb towards a shotgun on the wall behind the bar underneath a mounted deer head. “You start trouble in here and I’ll spill yer guts.”

The boy smiled; his sharp eyes disappeared good-naturedly and crinkled around the edges. His smile was wide, each side capped with a rosy cheek. His teeth were still a healthy colour and straight. “You won’t get any such trouble from me,” he said. “As I said, ain’t my nature.”

“Good ‘nuff,” Jack replied before standing up straight. “What can I getcha?”

“Just a cup of coffee if ya got it,” the boy said. 

“Sure thing. Be a few minutes while I brew some up.”

“Thank ya, sir,” the boy said. 

Jack went to work on the coffee. Once the pot was filled, he walked into a room behind the bar where a stove was burning. “Ya look a little young to be off on yer own, son. You don’t look any older than fifteen, iffen you don’t mind my sayin’” he said as walked back from the stove.

The boy laughed warmly. “I’m twenty-one if I’m a day. Be twenty-two next month, sir,” he said.

Jack’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Well, ya coulda fooled me. Where are ya from, young feller?” 

“Indiana,” the boy replied.

“Long way from home. What’re ya doing down here?” Jack asked.

“The frontier’s always called to me. Left as soon as I could,” the boy said.

“Fair ‘nuff,” Jack replied. “Coffee’s boilin’. Be right back.”

“Thank ya, sir,” the boy said as Jack slipped into the back room again. He came back and poured the boy’s coffee into a tin cup. 

“What do I owe ya?” the boy asked as he pulled the cup towards him by the handle.

“A dime,” Jack replied.

The boy reached into a pocket and set a dime on the bar. Jack noticed his hand.

“Mother of God! Where are your fingers, son?” he said. The boy was missing his ring and pinky finger on his left hand.

The boy grinned and looked away. “My father took ‘em off when I got caught stealing peppermints as a boy,” the boy said. “He said, ‘One for stealin’ and one more so you won’t do it again.’ Worst part is I’m left-handed. I think he partially did it to make me use my right.”

“Bet you never stole again,” Jack said, taking the boy's dime.

“Not so much as a crumb of bread,” the boy said before he took a sip of his coffee. “Mmmmm. Thank ya, sir.”

“My pleasure,” Jack said, picking up his paper again.

“Truth be told, I’m a bit of a card player and I heard about a feller named Tom Foley. He come around here?” the boy asked before taking another sip.

Jack’s eyes jumped to the boy from his paper. “You can’t be talkin’ ‘bout ol’ Mean Tom Foley?” he said.

The boy flashed his handsome smile. “That’s him. Heard he was the best and I’d like to play cards with him.”

“Son, listen closely,” Jack said, leaning toward the boy. “Mean Tom is the biggest son of a bitch you ever seen and he’s got a temper to match. He is the best card player in Arkansas. If he loses, and it don’t happen often, he gets mad as a bull. I have seen him pick a man up over his head and smash him through a solid wood table. Don’t know if that feller ever walked again, but he sure as hell didn’t walk outta here.” 

Jack looked the boy up and down. He was a little shorter than average and he wasn’t skinny, but he was slight. He certainly wasn’t a physically imposing person. “Mark my words, if you did somethin’ he didn’t like, he’d break ya in two.”

The boy took another sip. “I never said I wanted to fight him. I just want to play cards with him.”

“Son, he may not even let you sit at the table.”

“If he’s so much trouble, why do you let him in here?” the boy asked.

“Look, I’m a businessman first. If the Devil himself walked in here one night and drew a crowd, I’d invite him back.” Jack left out the fact that Mean Tom gave him a cut of the winnings and paid extra for the privilege of staying armed.

The boy looked around and pointed to the big table toward the back wall. “That the main table? The one he plays at?”

“That’s the one,” Jack said.

“What time does the dealer show up?” the boy asked.

“‘Round six.”

“Mind if I stick around until then?” the boy asked.

“Suit yerself,” Jack said picking up his paper. “Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.” 

The boy smiled again and walked over to the empty seat at the table where some older men were playing faro.

* * *

The Red Ace became busier and busier as the evening progressed. The tables were full and so were the glasses. The air was heavy with the smell of smoke, alcohol, and sweat, each man worrying about their bets and drinking; gambling was thirsty work. 

Jack had kept an eye on the boy and he proved to be amiable towards his fellow card players and a sensible gambler. He had managed to go from game to game without going bust and sharing a few laughs. He’d drunk coffee all afternoon. “Whisky makes for lousy gamblin’,” he had said.

It was around eight o’clock and the boy had managed to score a seat at the main table. Tom’s seat was empty; If anybody tried to take it, Bill the dealer would tell them that if they valued their life, they’d steer clear.

Jack was watching the boy in between serving drinks when a customer walked up to the bar and nodded. “Can I get a whisky?” he asked just as the door swung open to reveal Mean Tom Foley towering in the doorway. 

He was well over six feet and his shoulders nearly touched either side of the door frame. His black hair hung in curls down to his shoulders, his dark eyes sparkled menacingly beneath scowling, heavy brows, and his mouth was twisted into a grimace underneath a thick, black mustache. He wore a plain maroon suit and vest, pressed and clean. Two ivory-handled revolvers sat at his hips, held up with a leather bandolier, each slot holding a brass cartridge.

The atmosphere in the saloon changed immediately from jovial to business. Mean Tom stepped in and puffed on his cigar. “Evenin’, Jack. The usual. Bring it to the table.” he growled, blue smoke curling out of his mouth. He didn’t even stop at the bar.

“Sure thing,” Jack said. He was already pouring a glass of his best bourbon.

“Not gonna check your steel?” the man at the bar asked.

Tom stopped. “You got a problem, boy?” he said.

“When I got here, The barman made me give up my gun and told me there ain’t no guns allowed in here. You’ve got two hangin’ off ya,” the man said.

Tom turned and shoved the man, who stumbled backward, catching his footing before he bumped into the window.

“One more word outta you and I’ll make ya eat this cigar,” Tom said.

The man straightened his vest and pulled his hat down around his eyes, embarrassed. Tom sauntered over to his seat at the main table and sat down, with Jack and the bourbon in tow. “Evenin’, Bill,” Tom said, followed by a gruff, “Gentlemen.” He surveyed the table and reached into his jacket pocket, producing a pile of ivory chips and a shiny penny, all of which he placed on the table neatly in front of him.

He took a sip of the bourbon and his eyes settled on the boy, “Do I know you?” he said, breathing blue smoke.

“No, sir,” the boy said, smiling. “Name’s Douglas.”

“I don’t give a shit about yer name,” Tom growled. “And if you don’t wipe that smile off of yer face, I’ll rip every one of those nice teeth out, one by one.”

Douglas stopped smiling. 

Tom turned to Bill. “How many cards left in that deck?” he asked.

“Just a couple.”

“I’ll wait,” Tom replied. He leaned back in his chair, puffed on his cigar, and watched, waiting for a fresh deck.

* * *

Once the deck was finished and the game continued with a full one, Tom joined in. None of the four players said anything outside of table talk. Even the onlookers, placing bets amongst themselves, talked in hushed tones.

With only a few cards left, Douglas placed a bet on the three. Tom placed a chip and his penny on the six and another chip on the ten. 

Bill flipped the next two cards over, revealing the queen of spades and the six of hearts. “Shit,” Tom said with disgust as Bill flipped the penny back to Tom and took his chip.

“A bad penny always turns up,” Douglas said. 

“What did you just say?” Tom said.

“I said, ‘a bad penny always turns up.’”

“Never mind yer teeth, you mouthy little cuss. I’m gonna rip your tongue out and make you eat it,” he said as he started to rise. 

Douglas pulled a revolver out from under the table and cocked it. 

He’d hidden the revolver in his boot, cutting the barrel down close to the cylinder to make it fit. He slipped it out, under the guise of an itch in his boot, and tucked it underneath his thigh a few hours earlier, waiting.

!! PKA-EWW !!

Men screamed and ran or ducked for cover as the blast bounced off the walls and rattled the windows.

!! PKA-EWW !!

“JESUS CHRIST!” Jack cried, turning for the shotgun on the wall.

!! PKA-EWW !!

The man Tom had shoved was standing at the bar again and drew a Queen Anne pistol, which was hidden beneath his coat, and stuck it in Jack’s face. “I wouldn’t,” he said. Jack froze, his eyes wide with shock and face twisted with fear.

!! PKA-EWW !!

Tom was standing up straight when the first three rounds hit him in the stomach and chest. The muzzle flashes made him squint and the volume of the blasts made his ears ring.

 It was the fourth shot before he realized what was happening. He had gone from ferociously strong to staggering weak in the three seconds it had taken Doug to fire four rounds. He stumbled back toward the wall.

!! PKA-EWW !!

With the fifth shot, Tom slumped with his back against the wall down to the floor. 

The gunsmoke rolled in the dim light of the lanterns as Doug stood up. The other three that had been sitting at the table with them had either dove for the ground or gotten up and fled.

“You got the barman, Lonnie?” Doug asked over his shoulder.

“Yeah I got ‘im,” Lonnie replied.

“You’ll hang for this!” Jack screamed.

“Shut UP!” Lonnie yelled at him. Jack obliged.

Doug walked around the table to find Tom laying on the ground, dark stains spreading across his chest, which was heaving with effort, his breath wheezing in and out.

He was fumbling for one of his revolvers with one hand, while the other hand lay limp across his stomach. It was coated in dark blood and was missing fingers, blown off by one of the shots.

Doug squatted down and looked Tom in the eyes. “Shit,” he said, snapping his fingers, “you know what? We have met! Just outside of Witchita. We was playin’ cards together and you accused me of cheatin’. I was square, but you dragged me out back anyway, and cut my fingers off!” he yelled while shoving his hand in front of Tom’s eyes. “‘One for each dollar.’ you said. And you laughed as you did it. Well, who's laughin’ now you big bastard?”

Tom’s face twisted up and he was struggling to unholster his revolver. Blood was pooling around him and dripping down the wall.

“Here, let me get that for ya,” Doug said, as he slipped Tom’s revolver out of the holster and rose to his feet.

“Fancier than mine,” he said as he pulled the hammer back and turned the barrel to Tom’s face. “Any last words before you meet the Devil?”

Life was fading, but Tom’s eyes still sparked with hate. It took all his strength to spit blood at Doug’s feet.

!! PKA-EWW !!

The bullet hit Tom underneath his left eye and exited the back of his skull with a spray of gore onto the wall behind him. He twitched and writhed for a few seconds with his brain’s last jolts of electricity and then became still. 

Doug threw the guns aside and turned to Lonnie.

The door burst open and the Sheriff and two deputies rushed in, guns ready. Lonnie threw his gun down and they both raised their hands.

“WHAT IN THE LORD’S NAME IS GOIN’ ON HERE?!” the Sheriff bellowed. His face was stern and deeply lined from years of being a lawman.

“These two! Shoot ‘im both Sheriff!” Jack cried, pointing at Lonnie and Doug. “That little sonofabitch over there killed Tom Foley!” 

“Jack, I ain’t gonna shoot ‘em, they’ve got their hands up,” the Sheriff said. He walked past Lonnie to where Doug stood and looked at what was left of Tom. “Jesus,” he said, then “What’s yer name?” turning to Doug. 

“Name’s Doug Joyce, sir.”

“What happened here, Mr. Joyce?”

“I shot Tom Foley. He threatened to kill me,” 

“That’s BULLSHIT!” cried Jack.

The Sheriff held up his hand. “Jack, you have a no guns policy here doncha?” he said. Jack didn’t say anything. “Well, the dead feller is armed when he shouldn’t be.”

He turned to Doug. “And, obviously, so were you.” He took a deep breath before pointing between Doug and Lonnie. “You two are gonna spend the night in a cell until we talk to the Judge tomorrow. Smith?” he said to one of his deputies, “Shackle ‘em. Stevens?” he said to the other, “Get the coffin maker. Foley’s gonna need a big coffin.” 

* * *

Two riders, guided only by the moon's light, headed quietly toward the sleeping town. Tom Foley lay cold and dumb with two coins over what was left of his eyes while the coffin maker worked. Doug and Lonnie sat in a cell together at the Sheriff's office, lit only by a few candles, while a deputy leaned back in his chair, sleeping. 

Lonnie was stretched out on the single bench with his feet crossed at the ankles, his arms crossed over his chest and his hat over his eyes, snoring softly. A coyote howled in the distance as Doug sat on the floor, rolling his foot back and forth on his spurs, tracing the lines they made in the dirt and singing softly to himself,

“O bury me not, but his voice failed there

But we paid no heed to his dying prayer…”

He looked out the window at the moon when he heard soft hoofbeats approaching on the dirt street outside and the quiet nicker of a horse. He kept singing,

In a narrow grave, just six by three…”

He softly tapped Lonnie on the arm.

We buried him there…”

Lonnie lifted his hat and peeked out sleepily at Doug, who brought his finger to his lip, signaling Lonnie to stay quiet.

On the lone prairie…” he continued to sing.

July 01, 2023 01:55

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C. Charles
09:49 Jul 13, 2023

For anyone interested, this is a universe I first wrote about in a story called “Justice” that’s on my profile.


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M.L. Chatten
03:27 Jul 08, 2023

Very enjoyable read! I really liked that it was a prequel to Justice— makes for great world building


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Mary Bendickson
14:03 Jul 03, 2023

Jack and Jake same guy? Otherwise classic western fare delivered with fine fingerless gunplay.


C. Charles
15:00 Jul 03, 2023

Whoops! Good catch! Thank you! I will fix that lol my spouse usually gives me a hand editing and neither of us caught that lol


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