Wednesday, January 7, 2015

“El Jefe’s Biggest Bet”

by Horace P. Sternwall

Originally published in “Cracking Adventure Stories”, January, 1951; reprinted for the first time ever in They Call Me Cigarillo Sid: The “Cigarillo Sid” Stories of Horace P. Sternwall, Volume One; the Olney Community College Press.

edited by Dan Leo, Horace P. Sternwall Professor of Demotic Literature, Olney Community College.

illustrated by rhoda pnmarq for “penmarq™ multigalactic productions”.  

Monday night was poker night in the rooms of the science fiction writer Fred Flynn (Target: Earth; Starship Mutiny; Revolt in Galaxy X, etc.) at the Hotel St Crispian, and the other three regulars were also gentlemen of letters: Harold P. Sternhagen (author of Belle of the Bayou; My Gun Has No Conscience; Sixth-Floor Walk-Up, etc.),

the noted playwright Mr. Angus Strongbow, (Hail the Conquering Loser; Ask Not the Stars; Nero’s Fiddle, etc.),

and perhaps the most prolific member of the little band, if not the most successful, Horace P. Sternwall (Cattle Queen of Brooklyn; The Beauty from Baton Rouge; Journey to Lesbos, etc.).

Being storytellers, it was only natural that the four friends should swap yarns while they played their nickel-and-dime hands of stud and draw poker, and one night the subject of “real” gamblers came up.

“I knew a real gambler once,” said Horace. “I’ll bet a nickel.”

“We’ve all known ‘real’ gamblers,” said Angus. “See your nickel.”

“Yeah, even me,” said Fred. “Like this guy Tommy Sullivan. I’ll go for a nickel, by the way –”

“You knew Tommy Sullivan?” said Angus.

“Yeah,” said Fred. “I mean, I, you know, saw him around, because he was living here in the hotel for a while, before he, uh –”

“Before he got bumped off,” said Harold.

“To put it bluntly,” said Fred. “You in, Harold?”

“In for a nickel,” said Harold.

“Tommy Sullivan wasn’t a ‘real’ gambler,” said Horace.

“What do you mean?” said Fred. “That guy was notorious. I know for a fact that he would host games up in his suite in this very hotel where the pot got as high as fifty grand.”

“That’s a lot of dough, I grant you,” said Horace. “A lot of dough. But I still say he wasn’t a real gambler. I knew a ‘real’ gambler.”

They called him Cigarillo Sid {said Horace}, and he was the last of the last of the old-school gamblers.

Sid didn’t own a house or a car, and he traveled the country by train or by bus, living in hotels or motels or rooming houses.

If he was flush he traveled in a Pullman car, if he was busted he traveled by boxcar or by his thumb, and if he was somewhere in between he went by Greyhound.

He always kept an icepick in his left boot – he wore these old cowboy boots you see – and a straight razor in the inside breast pocket of his suit coat.

He never carried a gun, though. Sid always said guns were trouble, and he didn’t need a gun, anyway. He could do more damage with that straight razor and that ice pick than most guys could do with a .45 or even a shotgun. Not that he didn’t know how to use a gun if he had to, you understand...

I first met Sid one day over at Bob’s Bowery Bar, down at Bleecker and the Bowery. You guys know the joint. Nothing fancy about it, but the house bock (which Bob brews himself in the basement) is good and cheap, and so is the food, good hearty fare cooked by the taciturn old woman known as “Bob’s mom”. Is she really Bob’s mom? Who the hell knows, and who cares, anyway? 

At the time I’m talking about I was just getting started out in the writing game, churning out stories for the pulps at the rate of two or sometimes even three a day, and I had a cold-water shotgun flat on the sixth floor of the same corner building that housed Bob’s bar. That flat was as cold as Iceland in the winter and as hot as Borneo in the summer, so I spent a lot of time downstairs at Bob’s, where a nickel could buy you a glass of that delicious house bock and a quarter would get you a filling and nutritious bowl of “Mom’s” famous Mulligatawny stew. I would write out my stories longhand in those black-and-white marble copybooks, and then type them up later in my flat. I would have brought my second-hand Royal down to the bar, but Bob didn’t like the noise.

Bob’s was no fancy joint by any means, but Bob ran what he liked to call a “taut ship”. No foul language, no shouting, and any misbehavior at all and he’d bring his trusty old leather sap down on your skull before you could say Jack Robinson.

Bob didn’t like music either, so there was no jukebox, and no radio. (This was before the days of television, but even when TV sets became ubiquitous Bob refused to install one, and he still won’t have one in his joint to this very day.) So even when the place was packed it was never noisy, and a good place to write one’s deathless prose.

Anyway, one cold Friday afternoon in February I was sitting by myself at one of the booths scribbling away in my copybook and nursing my bock when this skinny little old guy in a ten-gallon Stetson said, “’Scuse me, young fella, you mind if I sit here? Ain’t another seat free in this saloon, and I’m getting too old to stand up and drink.”

“Sure,” I said, because who am I to hog a booth all to myself, and anyway, I was a writer, and something told me I could get a story from this character. Which turned out to be true.

The old guy slid in across from me and introduced himself.

“Sid’s the name. They call me Cigarillo Sid.”

Sure enough he had a cigarillo in one hand, and in the other was a schooner of what looked like Bob’s basement-brewed bock.

“Horace is my name,” I said, and I took the wiry old hand he offered. “Horace P. Sternwall.”

“What’re ya writing there, Mr. Sternwall? You don’t mind my asking.”

“Call me Horace, old-timer,” I said.

“Horace it is,” he said. “And you for your part may address me as ‘Cigarillo’.”

“Pleased to meet you, ‘Cigarillo’,” I said. “And to answer your question I’m writing a short story tentatively called ‘Tie My Noose Tight, Baby’.”

“You write for the magazines then?” he said.

“That I do, sir,” I said.

“’Cigarillo’,” he said.

“’Cigarillo’,” I said.

“I could tell you a million stories,” he said.

“I believe you could, Cigarillo,” I said.

“You see,” he said. “I’m a gambling man. Always been a gambling man, since I left home at the age of fourteen. Gambled all over this country, Canada too, all the way up to the Yukon and Alaska. Down through old Mexico and Central America and all the ways down to Panama City. In fact it was down in Panama City I got in the game of my life.”

“That so?” I said.

“I been in big games,” he said. “But this was the biggest one.”

“How big was it?” I asked.

“As big as a game can get. Stud poker was the game and it came down to me and this old boy they called El Jefe. We had ninety-two thousand American dollars piled up on that table. This El Jefe, great big fat Panamanian dude he was, smoking a great big fat Cuban cigar. Me smoking my usual little Robert Burns cigarillo. El Jefe had a pearl-handled revolver under his tropical white suit jacket; me, I had a straight razor and an ice pick. You want to see ‘em? I’m carrying them right now.”

“That’s okay, Cigarillo,” I said.

“Anyways it gets on near five a.m. and you could hear the cocks crowing, and coming through the curtains was them first faint glimmerings that mean another day is about to come, like it or not, ready or not. Now I admit I was getting tired, on account of we’d been playing like thirty-six hours straight at that point, and I guess old El Jefe was getting tired too, because he says, ‘One more hand amigo, for everything on the table.’

“’Sure, El Jefe’,” I says. ‘I’m game.’

“’But basta with this stud poker,’ he says. ‘We’re gonna shuffle a new  deck, cut it, and draw two cards. High card wins the pot.’

“’Shuffle ‘em up, chief,’ I says.

“’But I ain’t finished,’ he says. ‘High card wins the pot, but low card gets this.’ And he pulled that pearl-handled six-shooter out of his shoulder holster and lays it on the table.

“’Loser wins the pistol?’ I says.

“’No, amigo,’ he says. ‘Loser puts the muzzle of this Colt New Service to his head and pulls the trigger.’

“’That’s some bet,’ I says.

“’There ain’t no bigger bet,’ he says.

“Now I should mention here they was three of El Jefe’s boys sitting in chairs in that room, watching the game. Three mean-looking boys. Stone-faced they was, like they’d seen El Jefe make this bet before. And every one of them boys was packing iron under their tropical white suit-jackets too, and not making no effort to hide it, neither.

“’Or, Señor Cigarillo,’ says El Jefe, ‘you can get up and leave now. Except the dinero stays right where it is on the table.’

“What can I say, Horace?” said Cigarillo Sid. “I’m a gambler. I had never walked away from a game before and I wasn’t about to start then.

“’Like I said, El Jefe,’ I said. ‘Shuffle ‘em up.’

“Old El Jefe gave me a good long look, and the he snapped his fingers and one of his boys came over and gave him a fresh pack of cards. El Jefe broke the deck open, then shuffled ‘em up, shuffled ‘em up good, then clapped the deck down on the table. 

“’Okay, Señor Cigarillo,’ he says. ‘Cut.’

“And I cut the deck. 

“By this point all three of El Jefe’s boys were standing next to the table, to my right, and they all had their white suit jackets open, with their pistol-butts showing in shoulder holsters just like El Jefe’s.

“’You want to draw first?’ says El Jefe.

“’Hell, El Jefe,’ I says, ‘I’m a guest in your fair country. You draw first.’

“El Jefe give me another one of them long looks, but then he draws a card, looks at it, and lays it down on the table.

“’King,” he says. ‘King of hearts, Señor Cigarillo.’

“’That it is,’ I says, which was true, Horace, it was a king of hearts all right.

“Well, it was too late to get up and walk out by then, so without thinking about it a whole hell of a lot I drew a card and without even looking at it I threw it down face up on the wood.

“And you know what that card was? An ace it was, Horace, an ace of spades.”

“Wow,” I said. “So what happened, Cigarillo? Did El Jefe shoot himself in the head with the pistol?”

“Nope,” said Cigarillo. “I can’t say he did. But to be truthful I didn’t give him a chance to. He reached for it but I was quicker. I already had my icepick in my left hand and quick as a flash I impaled El Jefe’s fat mitt to the table with it and then with my right hand I picked up that pistol and put a bullet in between the old boy’s eyes. Then as he slumped onto the table as dead as he was ever going to be I looked at his three boys who all had their mouths open and their pistols out and pointed at me,

  and I said, I says, ‘Amigos, looks to me like you boys are out of a job. Now you can fire them pistols, but if you do I’m betting I can take at least one of you with me. Now who wants to bet they’re not gonna be the unlucky one?’

“I guess none of them took the bet?” I said.

“You’d be guessing right, Horace,” said Cigarillo Sid. “Them boys weren’t dumb, and they weren’t gamblers neither. But I left them a grand apiece, which was probably a hell of a lot more than El Jefe was going to pay them for the night’s work.”

“That’s some story, Cigarillo,” I said.

“I got a million of ‘em,” said Cigarillo Sid.

“I’m sure you do, Cigarillo,” I said.

“For the price of another schooner of this here bock beer I’ll tell you another one,” he said.

“So did you buy him a another bock, Horace?” said Fred.

“Damn straight I did,” said Horace, “and five or six more after that. And every one of them I sold to the pulps. I’ll take two cards, Fred.”

“Two cards it is,” said Fred.

No comments: