As one of the #RUDC15 featured bloggers, I get to start the shenanigans early with a few of the fabulous authors who will be up all night in Denver at Reading Until Dawn 2015 by showcasing their many stories. To help do that, I came up with this really fun idea to having the authors introduce us to their characters and world by showing us what it would be like if they were staying up all night, playing games of their own.
Quite a few of the authors took me up on it and today Aaron Michael Ritchey has set up a game between Wren and her mama from his upcoming series, The Juniper Wars. The first book, Dandelion Iron Part 1, will be releasing later this fall!
That Fourth of July in the Colorado territory, we’d spent the day in our small town laughing, bobbing for apples, watching a parade, and eating hot dogs, ice cream, and apple pie. Then we’d sat down for a Texas Hold ‘em tournament.
It would be death by poker, either for Mama or my sister Wren, whose real name was Irene, but she’d punch anyone who called her that. Except for Mama or Sharlotte, my oldest sister.
In the central park, the tall cottonwoods gathered twilight shoulders into their leafy arms. A hundred meters away, the Kit Carson Carousel piped music and whirled around, steam-powered ‘cause electricity didn’t work in the Juniper, the five states affected by the Yellowstone Knockout.
Mama and Wren sat across from one another. Neither looked at their cards. They knew what they had. The other two final players had already busted.
Sharlotte and I stood on either end of the table, looking on. Clustered around the table were mostly women and girls in New Morality dresses—not a lot of boys ‘cause of the Sterility Epidemic. The few boys there had been crowded out, but not Father Pilate, who hung over Mama’s shoulder. He’d thrown open the collar of his priest shirt, rolled up his sleeves, and gazed down on the cards on the picnic table. Low-numbered clubs, a deuce, a four, a six, and an eight. And just to complicate the matter even more, the deuce had doubled up with the two of spades. All the cards were dark, like Wren’s hair, hanging to her shoulders, beautiful.
It was the kind of hand that made you either want to puke from fear or break your face smirking. A hand like that makes you bet and bet some more. The pot overflowed in all kinds of currency—gold coins, greenback dollar bills, a Betty knife, even a six-pack of old-school Coke, aluminum cans collared in yellowed plastic.
Mama laughed, her hair a little wispy and unkempt, sticking sweaty to her face. She went all in and shoved her pile of loot while her eyes shot sparks like the sparklers the little girls brushed through the air in showers of sizzling light. We’d have real fireworks when this last hand was over, if anyone survived it.
Wren couldn’t match the pot, but still wanted to play her hand. Her lips curled like rattlesnakes. “I’m gonna win, Ma. You best fold. I’ll cover your bet if Pilate can help me, but then I’m gonna raise ya.”
Pilate tossed in a crumpled twenty-dollar bill. “Isn’t this exciting? I’d imagine one of these ladies has an ace of clubs, which gives them a high-card flush. Or one of them could have gone this far on pocket deuces, hearts and diamonds, so they’d have pure poker, four-of-a-kind. Or maybe one of them ignored all strategy and hung on with a three and five of clubs. That’s a straight flush, not royalty, but the best hand possible. I doubt Mama Weller would’ve risked everything on such bad cards, but Wren might’ve.”
Sharlotte glared at him and his table talk. Shar was too upright to tolerate a priest who let his plastic collar dangle.
Wren drilled Mama with eyes like bullets. “I see your bet, and I raise ya, Ma, ‘cause this is my chance to beat you. I’ll do all my chores, all your chores, ‘til school starts. No word of complaint. I’ll be up before you get up, and I’ll be working when you go to bed.”
“And Mass, everyday,” Mama said, “while Pilate’s around.”
“And if you lose, you do all my chores,” Wren said, “and I don’t go to Mass, and I don’t go to school until October, and I want your saddle.”
Murmurs. Whispers. Mama lost her smile. It wasn’t a game any more. Even the crickets playing a summer night orchestra had quieted. Mama and Wren locked eyes. It was always a war between them—Wren was the enemy, Mama was the president, and Sharlotte her favorite general, who handled all the discipline.
“Okay, Irene, if I lose, you get my saddle. And if I win, you listen to every word Sharlotte tells you to do. Without question. You become so sweet to her, to Cavvy, that they’ll both get cavities.”
“Fine. But my last bet? If I win, you let me leave. I want to go work for the Meetchum ranch. I’ll need you to write a nice letter saying that even though I’m thirteen, I’m a good worker.”
Mama nodded. “It’s a bet. And maybe it would be for the best.”
Women gasped around us. I couldn’t even squeak from fear.
Our family had always been damaged, but we’d limped along through the horror of it all—Wren hating Mama, and Mama unable to back down from the hate, only adding to it, twisting it back onto her daughter, and Sharlotte, silent, glaring, eighteen, but already almost as big as a man—already like a widowed woman, hard of heart and small of mind.
Scorpions slithered in the wet sack of my stomach. The sun was gone, night ruled, and Satan hovered over us—he’d be the only real winner. Wren would take off and never come back. The whole town would talk of it forever more, how a poker game shattered the Weller family.
I began to cry. I shoved my hand into the pocket of my dress and pulled out a few crumpled dollars and some silver coins. I put them down onto the table. Fat tears fell on them. “I’ll do the chores. I’ll go to church. I’ll listen to Sharlotte. I’ll cover all the bets. Please, please, don’t turn over them cards. I’ll take it all on me. Just don’t turn over them cards.”
I collapsed into sobs and Pilate hustled over to hold me. His smell, so strong, so manly, shocked me quiet. As did his soothing whispers.
“You okay with that, Ma?” Wren asked.
Mama moved her hands across the table, took Wren’s cards, and folded them into her own, and then into the deck. She shuffled.
“Who’s up for fireworks?” Mama asked. A weary smile split her lips.
The whole crowd let out a whoop. Yeah, some muttered that it wasn’t fair, but they’d get over it.
While the sky broke apart with light and sparkle, colors and shapes, happiness and freedom, Wren put an arm around me.
She never told me if she had the straight flush, of if she’d gone all the way to brink of death with pocket deuces. She didn’t say a word. Just held me.
And Mama never told either.
It might have been the one secret in our family that wasn’t poisonous. In fact, that secret became sacred.
Meet Aaron Michael Ritchey!
For 20 years, through 12 novels, Aaron Ritchey has stood at the mountain pass of Thermopylae and has surveyed the Persian army of rejection, failure and death and yet he continues to write. When he’s not battling Persians, you can find him supporting anesthesiology software, bicycling, or being swept away by the raw female power living in his house. His first novel, The Never Prayer, is available now from Crescent Moon Press.
Want to purchase Aaron’s novels?
The Juniper Wars
- Trapdoor Door (Free at Wattpad)
- Armageddon Dimes (Sept 2015)
- Dandelion Iron Part 1 (2015)
The Never Prayer
Long Live the Suicide King
The Best of Penny Dread Tales
In Darkness Clockwork Shine (Penny Dread Tales Volume III)
Perfidious and Paranormal Punkery of Steam (Penny Dread Tales Volume IV)
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