December 02, 2007

Kelso McQuire's Christmas Secret

By Johnny Hughes © 2007

The gamblers always stand in the back at West Texas funerals. In the middle of Kelso McQuire's funeral, Ice House Henry was whispering around and telling this fifty-year old story about Kelso, that not one living, breathing soul had ever heard before.

Henry is causing a bit of a ruckus. They always sing "Amazing Grace" but Henry kept right on talking about Christmas Eve, 1957.

Kelso was known as the "little man with the big mouth." When somebody lost a huge pot, folks would know to mum up, but Kelso would pop off, "What looked like a light at the end of the tunnel was a train." Old jokes. Folks would get hot at Kelso and he would back right down. He just could not seem to learn the cardinal rule, never rib a loser.

"I didn't mean anything by it," he said countless times. Tougher gamblers spoke up to protect Kelso over and over. Kelso never weighed over 140 pounds, keeping trim with foul-smelling, menthol cigarettes. He drew bullies, even in grade school. Sometimes his warped humor got him in trouble. Sometimes it got him out of trouble.

Hershel Rountree was an all-day sucker beloved by all forms of gambling joints. He carried his ex-jock's extra sixty pounds with pride. His Daddy left him a ton of money or Hershel would have starved. Hershel was around all the dice games and poker games where Kelso was trying to eke out a living as a gofer, coffee server, some-time cook, shill, bookie errand boy, stake horse, and any other thing he could think of to keep from being a square John, a nine-to-fiver.

Hershel picked on Kelso constantly and nobody much said anything. Being the big producer, it would have been alright if Hershel shit in somebody's hat. Hershel kept riding Kelso one night at Reverend Pruitt’s crap game. Hershel said, "My Momma didn't raise no fool."

Without thinking, Kelso shot right back, "Then who raised you?"

Iron Drawers Shaw goes to laughing and couldn't stop. Hershel Rountree got so outraged that he made the Reverend fire Kelso.

Christmas Eve of 1957, Big Fred had a come and go party at the Shop. He'd made several of the old brokes that owed him string popcorn and cranberries and buy some colored lights to decorate the gambling joint. They get into it and steal a red colored Christmas tree from the Girl Scouts. A lot of gamblers that didn't usually come around dropped by for lots of free food and drinks. Somebody got up an Ace Away game, first anybody had seen in a while. The poker cranked up early. The Mule won three dimes in thirty-five minutes and hopped the game. The poker game was a lot bigger than usual but got slow really fast since everyone had to go home to be with their families.

Big Fred left Kelso to run the poker game and lock up. Being drunk and in the Christmas spirit, Fred even stakes Kelso. Hershel is really on Kelso, verbally abusing him and making actual threats. There is nobody there to stop him. This runs off a couple of live ones. Carney Carl begins to take up for Kelso and now the hot score is between Carl and Hershel. Everybody is unreasonably drunk and morose. There's this string of red Christmas lights right behind Hershel and it adds to his evil. It was down to four-handed and Ice House Henry was there.

Suddenly, Carney Carl is on his feet with a .38-caliber, snub-nose revolver pointed straight at Hershel's fat gut. He screams at Hershel. "You ain't no kind of a man. I don't want to waste a cap on your sorry ass but I will."

Hershel rolled over on the floor and fired his own .38 hitting Carl twice. Carl got off one shot which hit Hershel high on the right shoulder, his gun hand. His gun slid a few feet on the concrete floor. Carl was dead. Hershel was squealing like a pig stuck under a gate.

Kelso started to pick up the chips and the money on the floor. Then he picked up Carl's pistol and shot Hershel in the middle of his forehead. They called the laws. Ice House Henry and Kelso both took a Gambler's Oath that these most recent residents of Hell died in a two-way shoot out. The laws bought it. Merry Christmas to all. Silent Night. Silent Fifty Years.

Johnny Hughes is the author of the novel, Texas Poker Wisdom.

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