The card table had claimed its territory and had become unapproachable. The players would only acknowledge the game in front of them. The surroundings in the saloon were obscured by blackness.
Dr. Simon Tam had the deal. He felt comfortable knowing, in unfamiliar territory, that he was sitting nearly perpendicular to the joint's front door. Jayne and Wash, his fellow partners, knew the drill and sat to his left. The three had arrived at the saloon separately. No one there had ever met them before, and they each claimed to be individual wanderers passing through town. Few people would play with them otherwise - especially if they mentioned Serenity.
They had two opponents - both sitting to Simon's right. Tector Bradley was one of their names. He was quiet and thoughtful; hence a very good card player. The other fellow's name was Durango Hammond; he looked well built and intimidating.
They played five-card stud; a name adopted from an earlier version of the game that was popular on the Earth that was. Roses were tall. Wash would go through every betting interval without dropping. The first card showing for Wash was a rose, then a black, a sea, and another rose.
Durango's hand looked promising. His first two cards showing were a pair of plums, then came a lemon, and the last card was a plum. Durango appeared to have the best chance of winning with three of a kind showing. Tector, Simon, and Jayne folded upon seeing Durango's last card. Durango placed his bet in the final interval believing he would take the pot.
His confidence level lowered when Wash saw Durango's bet and raised it three chips. Wash had a pair of tall cards showing. Durango knew that if Wash's facedown card was a rose, Wash would take the pot. Three tall cards beat three lesser cards, but three of a kind is too good of a hand to fold unless it is certain to lose. Hence, Durango assumed Wash was bluffing and called.
With obvious giddiness, Wash turned over his facedown card after moving it closer to the center of the table. With the card flipped, everyone could see its rose value, and Wash accepted the pot.
While Wash gathered his chips, Tector plainly and articulately said, "You three know each other."
After looking up away from the chips he had won, Wash looked at Jayne and said, "I've never seen him before. What was that luh-suh name you said you had?"
Jayne tapped the front of his manly brown hat as he looked up from the table toward Wash. He wanted as clear a view of his apparent adversary as possible, and tapping the front of his hat removed that obstruction. He then said, "My name is Jayne, and I am gorram proud of it you liou coe shway duh biao-tze huh hoe-tze duh ur-tze!"
"Okay," Wash said. He intentionally wanted to appear non-aggressive. "I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. I'm sorry."
"Good," said Jayne settling back into his play mode. "Let's play some more. I gotta win my money back."
Tector, however, was not at all convinced. "We've played at least twenty hands," he said.
Simon replied, "Yeah, what's your problem? It's still light out, and I ain't quittin' yet. We were gonna quit at sunset. Remember?"
"Whenever one of yah has had the deal, one of the three of yah has ended up winnin'," Tector said. "That's fishy to me."
Confrontational as ever, Jayne looked at Wash and said, "I ain't lettin' him win." Wash appeared to be worried.
"Gentlemen, this is getting less friendly," said Simon. "I suggest we take a break and each have a calm, sportsmanlike drink. Then, we'll continue playing."
Tector and Durango stood up simultaneously. Durango said, "I suggest you three leave your winnings on the table and leave this joint." He made sure the revolver in his holster was clearly visible to the strangers. An open welcoming door had just slammed shut in their faces.
"I take it you two know each other," Wash responded.
Tector said, "He and I have been playin' in this joint for years. We're pretty good card players, and we know cheaters when we see `em."
"I'm sure you know a few things about gunplay too," said Wash as he looked at Durango's revolver. "I'm lookin' at these winnins, reflectively lookin' at these winnins, and I don't see a reason I should die for them." He calmly stood up and said, "Just go ahead and divvy up my winnins, but don't expect me to work any deals with you folks in the future. I don't like it when people threaten me with guns." Wash directed his attention to both Jayne and Simon before asking, "You two gonna leave with me?"
Jayne was visibly angry but indecisive. He just sat there for the time being.
Wash began walking away while Simon took a good look at Tector and Durango and said, "We weren't cheatin'. I'm not happy with you takin' that tone with us."
Wash turned around and said, "Doc, are you crazy? This ain't worth it." It was obvious to Tector, even in this confrontation, that Simon and Wash had established some form of trust.
Simon had a different tactic in mind. He said, "Actually, I know these fellas quite well. The three of us are pretty good in a fight ... in lots of places."
Jayne and Wash didn't know what to say. Denial just would never work very well in that situation.
Durango looked at them, and with laughter he said, "The Doc is a weakling. The other two are damn fools. I'll enjoy killin' all three of yah."
Wash suddenly became very angry. He came closer to the table and said to Durango, "You tah-mah-duh hwun-dan! Nobody talks like that to me or my friends." Waves that were once gentle had begun rocking the boat.
Jayne came closer to Wash and said to him, "What the guai!? You're getting over the hill, and someday someone will put you down."
Simon, standing to Wash's right, grabbed him by his shirt and tried to take him aside. Making sure Durango and Tector could hear him, he said, "You don't know how tough or how fast these two are. Now, now, Wash, what would Serenity do if her pilot was shot and killed in a duel?"
"Gorram them!" Wash responded. He was just then recognizing the foolishness of reacting so rashly to Durango's words. However, Simon's obvious intimidation tactic of mentioning Serenity gave him a way out. "Captain Reynolds will make sure they both go down with me."
Serenity and Captain Reynolds were two names that always went together. Tector and Durango had heard them many times. "That don't scare me," Durango said quietly as if only talking to Tector. "I can beat `em."
After hearing Durango say this, Tector could only think of the places and the contexts where he had heard those names. The rumor mill began churning again. The Whitefall Rebellion. Conning Adelei Niska out of business. Payback. Shooting out nets. The Ariel robbery. The Serenity Valley historian. Payback! The "Hands of Blue" scandal. Successful perjury. Riddlin' full-a-holes. Payback!!! Tector whispered to Durango, "All three of `em?"
Durango had heard all these words too. "They're over their heads," he said. "Half the flatfoots in this sector know who they are if not all the flatfoots."
Tector began whispering aggressively, "Durango, they're all scared of `em."
"If they kill one of us, the other has a strong testimony. The promise of nabbing Serenity will give protection to you or I."
"It's the killin' one of us part I don't like."
Little did Tector and Durango know that their companions were merely quietly discussing the variations in Serenity's engine efficiency. The three stood there and watched while they talked amongst themselves.
Durango whispered, "The big one has had a lot to drink. He ain't sober."
"Their shipmates will hunt us down," Tector replied. "They won't take kindly to losing them in some bar fight."
Durango stopped the whispering and said, "Gorrammit, this here's about honor! I ain't livin' down lettin' `em cheat us and walk away with our money." At this point, Durango and Tector were looking directly at each other. This was when they heard the familiar sounds of revolvers being drawn out of holsters. They stopped arguing with each other and began quietly accepting defeat.
Simon came closer to Durango, pulled out his dagger, and said, "There! I know where your corroded artery is. Slitting your throat would be most effective there. That is . . . should push comes to shove."
The usually threatening Durango was at a loss for words. Wash acted confrontational as he walked up to the table and began collecting his party's winnings. They planned to divide the money equally among Serenity's shipmates and her budget for keeping her in the air. As effective and dependable as they were as criminals, their selfless acts were their most distinguishing aspect.
Once they had collected their winnings, the three left ever so slowly with their revolvers in their hands. Tector and Durango weren't interested in risking their lives by making trouble. The tension faded away as Serenity's card players walked through the front door and finally disappeared sometime after they were out of sight.
After they were outside walking to their jeep, things became familiar once again. The violent waves began to settle down, and the afternoon sunlight was welcoming. Wash actually had the nerve right then to demand some answers from Simon. He said to him, "You were gonna stay and face those goons. You're supposed to be delivering our baby."
Simon responded by saying, "You were the one who wanted to fight them. I wasn't about to let them steal our winnings. I knew that once they heard we were on Serenity's crew, they'd back down. You are the father-to-be, who was going to risk his life."
Wash stayed quiet from then on. Simon and Jayne knew Wash would not mind an easy way out. Wash may not have recognized it, but his shipmates could see the anxiety painted all over him. Abandoning Zoe with their baby was unthinkable to Wash, but in the saloon he wasn't thinking - only acting on instinct. The questions about raising a child in his world had polluted all of Wash's instincts.
Wash and Jayne, once again, had the feeling Simon's antics would leave a mess for his shipmates to clean up. They saw Simon distancing himself from the rules that dictated how Serenity could function. He was a lone wolf hunting for some unknown satisfaction. The verse stepped on him, and he longed to poke his way back; give the verse a case of tetanus.
Jayne just did his thing - with observation.
Tector and Durango quietly sat down where they were. Inevitably, they dwelled on the affair. What could we have done? If the doctor hadn't talked about Serenity, we could've taken `em by surprise. Yet, to protect their reputations, this had to be a secret. Card players shouldn't know we got conned. It'll be impossible to play disciplined games.
"They'll never last," Tector said to Durango in a calming manner. "Someone'll do `em in. They'll be over the hill one of these days." After having a drink, they resumed playing against a new group of opponents.
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