Jessie’s forehead smashes into a beer-soaked wooden table, smearing damp cigar ash across his face. The bustling saloon instantly falls silent, like a jabbering coterie of prairie dogs upon a coyote’s howl.
Batwing doors across the saloon creak open to reveal the outline of a round person, then pendulum back to stasis. A cane taps the floor behind each pair of steps as the figure advances.
It’s the coyote.
The Satin Spur’s owner, Wyatt, approaches Jessie. He’s wearing a brown suit topped with a bright red bowtie and a devious smirk. Jessie knows that smirk. He’s seen it a thousand times. “People will never respect you,” Jessie’s father used to tell him of men like Wyatt, “you have to force their hand...Givem’ no other choice.”
Jessie watches Wyatt’s entitled gaze cut through the humid smog of sweat and alcohol suffocating the saloon. As he scans the staring faces of his patrons—a hodgepodge of ranchers, merchants, miners, mercenaries, and prostitutes—Jessie can tell he’s prepared a show for them.
“If ya’ll can give me yur attention, this’ll be over shortly!” Wyatt announces to the crowd, raising a hand.
Wyatt pulls a chair out from under the table, its legs scraping against the hardwood floor. The golden coyote head atop his cane presses into the palm of his shaking hand as he lowers himself into a seat. There is a stale stench to him, like a set of linens that spent the last five summers in a dusty attic. Wyatt removes his tophat revealing thick silver hair that matches his handlebar moustache.
“Ya don’t have the money?” Wyatt says to Jessie.
Jessie’s head swirls in a mix of anger and confusion. “What money?” he answers honestly.
Jessie is supposed to escort Wyatt on an expedition in exchange for his debts to be cleared. They had a deal. “I thought we were leaving in the morning?”
“A man who cannot be trusted must be confronted! Surely I am not the only man here who’s fallen prey to Jessie’s sins,” Wyatt declares to the crowd. “Surely I am not the only one who’s noticed the greed of the Devil in his eyes?”
Fingers the size of sausages dig into the back of Jessie’s neck, forcing his left cheek into the splintered grain of the table. The burn scars on his face tingle under the pressure. “I don’t...have it on me…I…” Jessie mumbles, his mind racing to make sense of the situation.
“I’m gonna make this simple for ya, Jessie. There are honest men in this room ya owe a debt to and the payment has gone long overdue. It’d seem Cleaver here swung by yur place to collect yur debt and brought ya back when ya didn’t pay,” Wyatt asserts, relaxing into the back of his chair.
The giant man holding Jessie’s neck puffs his chest and grunts in confirmation. His calloused hands feel like sandpaper on Jessie’s sunburnt skin.
“So, if ya don’t have it here and ya don’t have it at home, where is it?”
Jessie needs to get out of the saloon. He doesn’t know what’s changed with the slippery old man, but he can deal with Wyatt later. He blurts out a lie, “I’ve got a game tonight. Rich man. I’ll win and bring...the money tomorrow,” he says through a strained voice, pausing as he struggles to breathe through the hold on his neck.
“Hmm…” Wyatt twirls his finger around the end of his mustache. “I wonder, Jessie. Seein’ I’ve already got the deed to yur land and every cent in yur wallet, what’ya got left to gamble with?”
The doors to the saloon burst open as a lanky woman runs through. Her long black hair flows behind her, framing a pretty, but weathered face.
“Let go of my husband,” she cries out, “or I’ll call for the sheriff!”
Jessie recognizes the voice of his wife, Mary. He contorts his head backward just enough to get a clear sight of her. The pit of his stomach drops when he notices she’s holding the hands of their chunky son, Davy, and their pigtailed daughter, Dorothy, on either side of her.
“Go—!” Jessie begins to yell, but Cleaver slams his head into the table again, then leans on his neck.
“Sheriff Bender,” Wyatt calls to the man standing in the corner, “do ya have any issues with an honest man collecting his debts?” As Bender turns his protruding nose toward the table, the sun reflects off his sheriff badge into Jessie’s eyes.
“Not the slightest,” Bender says, tipping his hat.
Mary lets go of her childrens’ hands and rifles through her blouse, pulling out a bundle of papers. “Take this!” she pleads. “It’s everythin’ we own. Just take it and let’im go.”
Wyatt holds his shaking hand out. Mary pushes the kids against the wall, then strides over and forces the documents into his hand.
“Hmm…” Wyatt says, flipping through the papers, “I see.”
Atop Davy’s head sits his brown bowler hat, crooked and adorned with his grandpa’s old belt buckle, a crown-shaped badge inset with multi-colored rocks that outline the extravagant, bolded lettering, Western Circus. Jessie’s mind flashes back to memories of his father divulging every thought and detail about the location of The Fountain of Youth around their evening campfires—a life-long obsession condensed into those fleeting moments he spent shooting the shit before his bottle of whiskey knocked him out. Davy is young, but Jessie can already see his own father’s countenance in the boy’s face.
“Let’im go!” Mary yells.
“So, ya had counterfeit deeds made, did ya?” Wyatt says to Jessie.
Jessie moves his lips, but his throat is too compressed to talk. Wyatt gives Cleaver a nod, then Cleaver yanks Jessie up to his feet, holding him by the collar of his jacket. Jessie coughs repeatedly, sucking air.
“Tell me, how many of these have ya gambled away? Is the one I have real?” Wyatt asks, holding up the counterfeit deed. “Does anybody else here possess a deed Jessie assured them was real?!”
Silence. Jessie leers at Wyatt, then looks at his family huddled against the wall.
“Take the kids,” cough, “and go,” Jessie orders Mary. She should have never come here. She’s made the situation worse.
“Jessie,” Mary says, “what’s—”
“No!” Wyatt shouts. “Let them stay. It’s time they know, don’t ya think, Jessie?”
Another one of Wyatt’s cronies stumbles over to Mary and grabs her by her arm.
“Do ya have any idea how much ya owe me?” Wyatt asks.
Dozens of eyes stare at Jessie. He searches the faces of the saloon and is relieved to find his partner, Johnny, sitting at one of the nearby tables.
“Four thousand five hundred and forty five dollars,” Wyatt declares, pounding his fist into the table between each word.
Jessie throws his elbow back into Cleaver’s gut, knocking the wind out of him. Cleaver lets go of his collar and hunches over as Jessie stumbles across the saloon toward Johnny, who’s slouched in his seat, fiddling with a pocket watch.
“Johnny, throw me yur gun!” Jessie yells, holding his hands out. He can already hear Cleaver back on his feat, stomping toward them.
Johnny patiently scans the room, spits tobacco-stained saliva through his front teeth, then looks Jessie in the eye, “Sorry, Jess. We ain’t that good’a friends.”
Jessie briefly considers ripping the gun from his scrawny partner’s hip, but glances over his shoulder and sees Cleaver approaching. He takes off toward his children with Cleaver in pursuit, furiously flipping tables in his wake. There are a few screams and grunts as bystanders jump to their feet and back out of the way.
Jessie grabs a chair and swings it at the man holding his wife’s arm, connecting with his shoulder. He lets go.
“Davy, Dorothy!” Jessie shouts, reaching his hand out for them to grab.
Davy stands frozen with fear as Dorothy runs into his leg, wrapping her arms around him. That’s when something hits Jessie on the back of his head.
The world spins in and out of foggy consciousness as Jessie falls to his knees. Dorothy’s crying now. He reaches out to help her but finds only empty air. As someone pulls Jessie back to his feet, he notices Sheriff Bender holding the nozzle of his gun.
“Ru—” Jessie starts to yell, but Cleaver punches him in the gut.
Jessie’s stomach is paralyzed from the blow, unable to pull air into his lungs. Cleaver drags him back toward Wyatt, slams his face into the table again, then forces him into a chair opposite the saloon’s owner.
“There’ll be no more runnin’. Yur debt’s come due,” Wyatt declares. He raises his voice. “We all know Jessie likes to gamble. I wouldn’t be a fair operator if I didn’t give him a chance to win his money back, right?” Wyatt asks, swiveling in his seat to speak to his patrons. There are a few cautious grunts and nods.
Jessie wipes blood from his mouth and feels a broken front tooth with his tongue.
“Yur a gamblin’ man, Jessie. So let’s gamble. I’m prepared to erase all four thousand five hundred and forty five dollars of yur debt. What d’ya have to offer?”
Excitement builds in Jessie’s chest. His lips curl. This old man is an arrogant fool. Now Jessie’s the one wearing a devious smirk.
“Ya ain’t got nothin’ worth that kinda money, do ya?” Wyatt says condescendingly.
“I’ll...wager re—el deed,” Jessie croaks.
“Oh, the real one he says!” Wyatt shouts, throwing his hands in the air. “How could I ever trust ya with documents again!? Besides, you already owe me the deed. Nah, yur gonna have to offer more’n that,” Wyatt declares, rubbing his fingers together.
Jessie shoots a venomous glare at Mary, then bites his bottom lip.
“How about the starting location?” Wyatt suggests, lowering his voice to a whisper.
Jessie tilts his head, narrowing his gaze on Wyatt’s bloodshot eyes. The situation is starting to make sense. Their deal was that Wyatt would purchase and gift Jessie the immensely expensive map to the Fountain of Youth that Jessie has struggled to obtain for the last decade and in exchange Jessie would allow the old man to heal himself in the fountain once they found it. This particular map is ambiguous, portraying a winding route starting from an unknown location. It could begin in London or St. Louis and there is no way to know by looking at it. In order to find The Fountain of Youth, you must possess the map and know it’s starting location. Only Jessie knows where the map starts. It’s a secret his father held his entire life and shared with him through the whisper of his final breath.
Now that Wyatt owns the map and knows Jessie holds the secret of its starting location, he’s attempting to cut Jessie out and take everything for himself. The map his father dedicated his life to pursuing. The map Jessie has sacrificed his sanity and every cent in his wallet to obtain. The only difference between Jessie and a common drunk is this intangible inheritance his father bestowed upon him—the starting location of the map. Wyatt is a fool if he thinks he can extort it out of him.
“I don’t know what yur talkin’ about,” Jessie replies.
Wyatt rubs his chin, staring Jessie down. He waits, then says, “...It’s like that?”
Jessie cracks his neck to either side, then spits blood onto the ground toward Wyatt.
A few moments of silence pass. It feels like everyone in the saloon is frozen, holding their breath.
“Ya know, prostituion’s a good business,” Wyatt speaks up, winking at a curvy young blonde sitting on the lap of a hairy man. “A good whore can bring in that kinda money. Maybe more depending on her…aptitude.”
Jessie’s stomach sinks. He tries to wiggle free, but Cleaver’s got him pinned to the chair.
“Gourd, fetch Jessie’s daughter for me,” Wyatt hollers over his shoulder.
Mary wraps the heads of both her children into her armpits and squeezes as Gourd rips Dorothy from her grasp.
“No!” Mary sobs. “No…Jessie!” Her shrieks cut through the silent, musky air.
“What’s yur favorite game called? The one ya always win at?” Wyatt asks Jessie. “Five finger fillet, is it?”
Dorothy covers her eyes as Gourd sets her down on Wyatt’s lap. Her muddy white dress drapes over his thigh. “Yu’re a pretty one, ain’t ya?” Wyatt says, smiling at Dorothy. “I have a knack for spottin’ an early beauty.” He turns back to Jessie. “What d’ya say?”
“Jessie!” Mary calls. He chooses not to hear her.
Jessie weighs his options. If he declines, Wyatt will probably torture him until he gives up the secret. Both Bender and Johnny clearly have their noses up Wyatt’s ass. There’s no help coming.
Perhaps Wyatt has made a miscalculation, though. If Jessie wins the wager in front of this crowd, there will be witnesses that his debts have been paid. Wyatt would have no choice but to let him go. He’d have to flee Santa Fe with his family, but at least they’d have a chance. At least they’d make it out of the saloon alive. Besides, this is his game. Wyatt is a sick old man whose hand sometimes shakes so violently, he can hardly take a sip of whiskey. This is the kind of bet Jessie likes—one he can’t lose.
“Don’t worry, Honey. Daddy never loses at this game,” Jessie assures Dorothy.
“Jessie, don’t!” Mary shouts, glaring at him.
“Cleaver, fetch us some blades,” Wyatt says, bouncing Dorothy up and down on his leg.
Cleaver lets go and shoves Jessie’s shoulders as he turns him around. A jolt shoots down Jessie’s spine as his head whips forward, but he doesn’t give the big man a second thought. He has a wager to win.
The saloon is no longer silent. Patrons whisper amongst themselves. A miner wearing ripped denim overalls stumbles up to the bar demanding more whiskey. The bartender hesitates, but eventually obliges. Sheriff Bender turns away from the unfolding scene and leans on a windowsill, staring into the vast expanse of rock and dust. A bearded man whispers something into Johnny’s ear, then sets a bag of coins on the table.
Cleaver will be back with the knives soon. Jessie pictures himself jumping across the table and stabbing Wyatt in the throat. It would only be justice. Jessie won’t do that, though. He can win this fair and square.
Jessie and Wyatt lock eyes for several moments of tense silence. Cleaver emerges from the backroom, shaking the floor with each step. He places two needle point knives in the middle of the table.
“Down and back five times?” Wyatt asks.
Jessie nods, reaching for one of the knives. He holds it out and balances it on his pointer finger, finding the center of mass, then wraps his right hand around the leather handle. It’s heavier than he’s used to, but it should work.
Wyatt grabs the other knife and asks Dorothy playfully, “Will ya do Papa Wyatt the favor of tellin’ us when to go?”
Dorothy hops off his lap and tries to run back to Mary, but Gourd wraps her into a bear hug against his belly. She kicks and screams as Gourd stands dutifully restraining her.
“Jessie, stop!” Mary yells, taking a step toward the table. She has Davy in her arms now, his hands wrapped around the back of her neck.
Jessie puts his left hand up, stopping Mary dead in her tracks. She looks betrayed. Disgusted. Like she’s looking at a man she’s never seen. Jessie can’t stand to see her right now. It hurts. This is all Wyatt’s fault.
Mary turns around and begins bouncing Davy up and down, telling him it’ll be okay. Davy’s chin rests on Mary’s shoulder facing Jessie, his young eyes beaming at his father. This is the kinda shit we have to put up with in this world...watch closely, Jessie thinks.
“Well then, I guess I’ll do the honors?” Wyatt says, shrugging.
Jessie nods. Both men spread their left hands and place them palm down on the table. Their right hands grasp their knives, with the blades hovering just above their pinkies.
“Ready…Go!” Wyatt grunts.
The game’s second nature to Jessie. His mind races as he jabs the tip of the blade into the wood through the gaps between each of his fingers, making his way towards his thumb. When he reaches the end, he reverses direction and heads back toward his pinkie. That’s one time down. Eleven knicks done, fourty to go.
Jessie moves across the gaps between his fingers with finesse. He’s done this so many times, he can count the knicks of both his blade and Wyatt’s as they happen.
Fifteen. Sixteen. Seventeen. He’s ahead by six knicks already.
Twenty four. Twenty five. Twenty six. As Jessie passes the halfway point, his heart rate elevates. He’s ahead by twelve nicks.
Thirty six. Thirty seven. Thirty eight.
He hears Wyatt’s pace slow considerably, but doesn’t look up to see why. There are mumbles from the crowd and the squeak of the hardwood planks, but none of it phases Jessie. He’s in a rhythm. This is his game. He’s going to win it all back.
Forty four. Forty five. Forty six.
Jessie rounds the last turn and is on his final trip back toward his pinkie.
Click. Click. Click.
Wyatt’s knicks have stopped completely. It might be a trick to distract him; make him think he’s already finished. Jessie slows down, taking care not to hit any of his fingers on the home stretch. If he draws his own blood, he automatically loses.
When Jessie reaches the end, he yells, “Fifty one!”
Jessie stares at the butcher's knife that’s sunk into the table between his left hand and forearm. A magician traveled with him and his father in the Western Circus for a while. He used to do a trick that looked like he was cutting the bat-eyed psychic, Sue, in half. It looks like that.
He lifts his arm up to his face, expecting the mirage to reveal itself and his hand to be there like it always has been. Instead, blood squirts from his stubbed wrist with each heartbeat, spraying the table.
Mary is still facing the other direction, muttering empty reassurances to Davy. “Shhh...It’ll be okay...It’ll be okay, Davy…” Davy’s eyes are glued open and pointed at his father. He isn’t crying, but he looks scared. Jessie wants him to turn away.
Jessie hears someone across the saloon hurl as Wyatt pushes himself to his feet with the assistance of his cane. He hobbles over to Jessie and projects his voice to the room, “Jessie Bennet, the Bible says the love of money is the root of all evil! You have gambled away everything the good Lord has bestowed upon you, including the life of an innocent child, in the pursuit of riches.” Wyatt turns toward the crowd and points his cane at Jessie, “May this man come to his senses and escape the snare of the Devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will!”
The words wash over Jessie in his lucid state, but he can tell by Wyatt’s tone that it’s all theatrics—part of the righteous character Wyatt portrays to the public.
“I pray for this man!” Wyatt continues, “As you all should, too! For the Lord will never leave or forsake him, as He will never leave or forsake you! Let this set you straight and be the first day on your new path, Jessie Bennet. The righteous path of the Lord!”
The room is still quiet, but most of the patrons have turned to look away or have covered their faces with their hands. A few of the men tend to a woman who’s fainted on the ground.
Wyatt leans toward Jessie’s face. His wheezing breaths smell like death. He whispers in Jessie’s ear, “Johnny told me you were plannin’ to kill me on the trail and steal the map. If ya want yur daughter back, I’ll need the startin’ location.”
Wyatt grabs Dorothy by the wrist and leads her across the saloon. She stumbles behind him as she screams for help. “Mommy!...Daddy!”
Jessie’s barely conscious when Cleaver grabs him by his collar and begins dragging him toward the exit. Gourd shoves Mary, forcing her and Davy to follow.
Jessie wants to rescue Dorothy, but he can’t look away from the raw flesh and bright white bone on the end of his arm. He concentrates and tries to move his fingers, but there’s nothing to move.
When Cleaver pushes through the saloon doors, Jessie’s head rolls to the side. He sees Wyatt hand Bender a stack of cash, then turn around and take Dorothy upstairs. Jessie reaches his arms out to grab her, but she’s already gone. Where’s Mary and Davy?
Next thing Jessie knows, he’s flying through the air. His limp body crashes into sunbaked dirt, leaving a trail of blood up into the saloon. The punishing midday sun blinds Jessie as a dust devil races across the empty street and over his body. He can hear the normal commotion of laughing, bantering, and wagering roaring from the saloon again as his vision fades to darkness.
I wrote the first draft of "Five Fingers, Four" in early 2021 as a standalone short story, but was inspired by the themes and characters upon completion. I spent about a month in the summer of 2021 outlining a full novel that expanded upon it. I may some day write this western novel, but I concluded that I have higher priority novels to write for the time being. For now, I hope you enjoy the short story, but don't be surprised if I someday publish new stories starring Jessie, Mary, Davy, Dorothy, and Jessie's father, James.