Poker Face

Originally Published Online and in the Oklacon conbook October 2014

Approaching deadlines often result in mistakes.  A few days before the deadline for “Oklacon 2014: The Good, The Bad, and the Furry,” I misread their website and believed their story limit was one thousand words.  At that point, ‘Poker Face’ was nearly at that length, so I trimmed it before submitting it to them.  Here is the original version.

It was a sweltering August afternoon as AJ Gunner arrived in the small town of Watonga, Oklahoma.  The dingo exited the train station and began walking down the town’s main concourse.  AJ had sand-colored fur, stood about six feet tall and wore a pair of well-worn jeans and a white shirt.  His ears poked out of a white hat that he proudly wore.

There were very few furs out and about in the sweltering August heat.  AJ paid little mind to the burning sun; the heat was not unlike that found during the brutal summers of his native Australia.  Despite his tolerance for the heat, he was thirsty, and looked for a place to wet his whistle.  He guessed that a building named “McKellum’s” was the town’s saloon, and walked over to investigate.

AJ stepped onto the saloon’s wooden boardwalk.  Without warning, the saloon’s double doors burst open and a half-drunken beagle stumbled out.  AJ stepped to one side to get out of his way.  Before he could ask what was happening, a visibly upset white female cat wearing a red and black dress also exited the saloon.  She hitched up the bottom of her ruffled dress slightly and delivered a swift kick to the beagle’s posterior.  AJ winced as the beagle yelped and fell forward onto the dusty ground.

“AND STAY OUT!  I TOLD YOU THE NAME IS NANCY, NOT MISS KITTY!” she yelled.  “I swear, I am going to shoot the next cowboy who cracks that joke,” she muttered to herself while adjusting her dress and headfur.  It was then that she noticed AJ, who was standing nearby waiting.  “Oh!  I’m sorry you had to see that, sugar.  I am Nancy McKellum, proprietor of this establishment.” she said she stepped aside and pushed open one of the doors.  “Come on in.”

AJ smiled and tipped his hat.  “My pleasure, ma’am.  The name is AJ,” he said with a slight Australian accent.

Nancy let out a quiet ‘ooh!’ under her breath upon hearing him speak.  “I’m guessing you’re not from around here, mister,” she said.

“That’s right, ma’am.  I came to the American West from my home country to seek fortune and fame.  I haven’t found either one yet, but I can’t complain,” he answered.

“Well, come on in, we got drinks, chow, and even a few rooms if you need to rest your tail for a spell.” Nancy invited.

“Hmm,” AJ acknowledged, nodding his head.  He entered the saloon and Nancy followed.

McKellum’s was a modest saloon consisting of a bar and a dozen tables scattered about.  A few furs sat at the bar while others sat around the various tables, some were drinking, chatting up the saloon girls or playing cards.  AJ moseyed on up to the bar and leaned on the counter.

“I’ll have a shot of whiskey, barkeep,” he said.  The bartender, a slightly older terrier with greying fur and glasses, nodded his head in acknowledgment and turned to reach for a bottle and a shot glass.

“Anything exciting happening in town?” AJ asked.

“Afraid not, greenhorn,” the bartender replied, “things have been mighty peaceful here since Sheriff Gillman and his posse ran the Four Arms gang out of town.”  He placed the shot glass on the bar and mostly filled it up.  “About the only excitement you’ll find in Watonga these days is at the poker table,” he said, nodding towards a round felt-covered table where three cowboys sat.

“Guess I’ll have to join the game.” AJ said, sure of himself.

“Might want to reconsider that, son,” the bartender warned, “unless you want to walk out of here naked as a jaybird.”

“He ain’t joking, Mac,” a jaybird standing at the end of the bar said.  He was wearing nothing but a barrel held up by a pair of suspenders.

AJ smiled, picked up the shot glass and winced as the liquor made its way down his throat.  “Appreciate the advice, gentlemen, but I think I’ll be okay,” he confidently said.  AJ winked, placed the empty shot glass and a few coins onto the bar and walked toward the poker table.

The bartender shrugged his shoulders before picking up the shot glass and money.  “Suit yourself,” he said.

“Better get another one ready for him,” added the jaybird.

Nancy intercepted AJ before he could reach the table and warned him: “You probably shouldn’t play cards there.”

“Relax, Miss McKellum.  I’m a big dog; I can take care of myself,” AJ reassured her.  He tipped his hat and continued walking.  He grabbed an unused chair and dragged it towards the card table.

“What’s your game, gentlemen?”  AJ asked, smiling as he placed the chair in an empty spot and prepared to sit down.

The player sitting across the table, a roadrunner wearing a poncho and sombrero, looked AJ over and snarled in a Mexican accent: “Best you find another table, perro, if you know what’s good for you.”

A lizard in a black vest that sat to his right added, “Yeah, I’d hate to take all your money after you just got into town, mister,” he growled.

The third player, a slender horse wearing a suit, laughed at the lizard’s statement.  “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you’ve developed a conscience, old boy,” he said with a British accent.

“Ain’t no fun taking candy from a baby, hoss.  I like to earn my money,” the lizard answered.

The horse looked at AJ and explained: “In all seriousness, they are correct, sir.  If you play here, you will lose.  We are warning you because we do not wish to take advantage of…” he hesitated, trying to think of a phrase, “your kind.

AJ was shocked at the statement. “And what is THAT supposed to mean?”  he said, angry.  He loudly dropped his seat down behind the table and sat down to join the game.  “Alright, I’m going to have to teach you boys some manners now,” he said, scooting up to the table and cracking his knuckles.  “Deal me in!”

The three animals were unimpressed.  “Pendejo,”  the roadrunner muttered under his breath before reaching for the deck of cards and shuffling them.  After a few moments of shuffling, he began dealing cards.  Meanwhile, the other two players took turns looking in AJ’s direction; first the lizard, and then the horse.  To his confusion, they appeared to be looking behind him.

AJ quickly glanced back over his shoulder.  Seeing nothing, he asked, “Just what are y’all looking at?”

“Nothing, dog.  Nothing at all,” The lizard said with a sly grin…

An hour later, a dejected AJ walked back to the bar.  He took a seat next to Miss McKellum.

“I don’t like to be an ‘toldja so,’ kid, but I toldja so,” she said.

AJ looked confused.  “I don’t get it, ma’am.  I have the best poker face of anyone I know, but I might as well have had my cards on the table the whole time,” he said.

“Your face wasn’t the problem, son,” the bartender said, “I’m guessing you’ve only played cards with canines before at raised tables.”

AJ thought for a moment, then answered, “Yeah, the tables are always a little bit higher, I’ve always wondered about that.”

“It’s to keep the players honest,” the bartender said, “You can have the best poker face in the world, son, but nothing in the world will keep a happy canine from wagging his tail.”

AJ started to say something, but stopped short and let out a sigh.  “Well, the joke’s on me, then, but they did try to warn me.  I’ll just have to scrape by until work comes around again.  All I have left to my name are two bits, the clothes on my back, and of course, my hat,”  he mused.

Nancy slinked over to him and took his arm: “Well, you know, sugar, I could use a big strong animal like you around here,” she purred.

AJ smiled.  “Now that’s kind of you, Miss Kitt-EEE!” he yelped as Nancy unsheathed her claws and dug them into his arm.  She then began to growl.

AJ’s eyes began to tear up from the pain.  He quickly corrected himself:  “I mean, Miss McKellum!”

“That’s better,” she replied, retracting her claws. “I swear, you boys need to learn some manners!”