The Cheater’s Game – C.J. Archer

The American Wild West was precisely how I imagined it would be. The hot sun beat down on the dry earth, horses’ hooves kicked up dust as cowboys chased off the Indians, and characters I’d only read about in Willie’s dime novels whooped and hollered. Willie didn’t appear to be enjoying the show as much as me, however. I did my best to ignore her and concentrate on the ATTACK ON AN EMIGRANT TRAIN BY INDIANS, AND REPULSE BY THE COWBOYS, the fifth act on the program. “Their hollering really carries,” I said. “I can hear them clearly even from here. Although we do have good seats.” Matt had secured tickets two rows from the front in the grand arena at the Earls Court Exhibition Grounds for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. I’d not been interested in attending at first when I discovered the date, but now I was rather grateful for the distraction. Sheriff Payne’s execution was scheduled for today. Watching the cowboys, sharpshooters, Indians, and other performers for a few hours was better than sitting at home, watching the clock. Not only would it stop me thinking about our role in ending his life, it would also stop me worrying about Patience’s wedding to Lord Cox. Ever since they announced their engagement two weeks ago, I’d had a niggling doubt it wouldn’t go ahead. My blackmail of Lord Cox had worked very well and he’d agreed to marry her, thereby freeing Matt from his obligation, yet I’d expected the baron to renege every day since. Even now, two days after the wedding had hopefully taken place at Rycroft Hall, my stomach was knotted with anxiety.

A distraction in the form of grand entertainment was certainly welcome. When Matt purchased two tickets, I thought he and I would go for his birthday last week, but he’d insisted Willie accompany me. Duke and Cyclops had flatly refused. I couldn’t think why. The show was marvelous. “Oh look, the cowboys are coming to the rescue,” I said, sitting up straighter. Willie snorted. “Look at that riding,” I said. “They’re going terribly fast and only holding on with one hand. It’s very skillful.

” She snorted again. “The Indians are riding bareback,” I went on. “Even you must concede that’s very well done.” She finally bit. “Riding bareback ain’t hard to do, India.” She emitted another snort as she crossed her arms over her chest. “Most of us learned to ride that way before we were knee high to a fly.” “Yes, but at those speeds? With only one hand on the reins while someone is shooting at you?” “The cowboys ain’t really shooting at them. There ain’t no real danger.” “They’re in danger of falling off.

” “No, they ain’t,” she said forcefully. “You’re so gullible, India.” I rounded on her. “And you’re jealous of Annie Oakley getting all the attention.” I turned back to the show, determined not to miss more than a moment and equally determined not to be drawn into Willie’s moroseness. “Jealous?” she cried. “Of actors making fools of themselves in a ridiculous show?” The woman in front of us turned and probably meant to hush Willie, but the sight of a woman dressed as a man seemed to shock her into silence. “What?” Willie snapped at her. “This is what a lady sharpshooter really looks like. Not that.

” She waved a hand at the arena where a few minutes ago, Annie Oakley’s bullets had split a card held edge-on and hit coins tossed in the air. I’d been in awe. Willie had sniffed and slouched in her seat. The woman turned back to the performance without uttering a word. “Are you saying you’re as good as Annie Oakley?” I asked Willie. “Put a cigarette in your mouth and let’s see if I can shoot it in half.” I lowered my gaze to her waist, hidden beneath a masculine jacket and waistcoat. “Please tell me you left your gun at home.” “Call me jealous again and you’ll find out.” I rolled my eyes and turned back to the show.

When Willie got like this, there was no talking to her. Unfortunately she wasn’t in the mood to be ignored either. “Annie Oakely ain’t bad,” Willie conceded. “But this…” She pointed her chin at the cowboy and Indian theatrical. “This is just a play. It ain’t real. It ain’t even close to being real.” “It seems to me the riders are really riding, and the Indians look real from here. The program says the wagons are even the same ones used years ago.” “It’s a cliché.

” “Clichés start out as original. Besides, that doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate.” “The true Wild West ain’t like that.” “Perhaps not anymore, but it must have been years ago, before your time.” She swore under her breath. “It’s overdone, India, created for folk like you who’re wet behind the ears.” “Does it matter? It’s entertaining and interesting. Now be quiet, you’re ruining it for me.” “And for me,” the woman in front piped up. Thankfully Willie obliged.

She even climbed out of her sour mood to watch the reenactment of a buffalo hunt, complete with sixteen real buffalos. It seemed she’d finally grasped the enormous scale of the production and appreciated how difficult it must have been to bring so many people and animals to England. “Buffalo Bill is an incredible man,” I said after the final applause faded and people rose to leave. “Pfft. I know dozens who can shoot like him,” she said. “I mean to organize a show like this. You have to admire him for it.” “I s’pose I do. Can we get a drink now? I’m as thirsty as a lizard in the desert.” I wanted to see the rest of the exhibition first but it was easier to keep Willie satisfied by obliging.

We left the arena, stopping at the first refreshment bar we came across. Unfortunately, so did many other spectators who’d been watching the Wild West show. “There’s too many people,” Willie whined. “I can’t do anything about that,” I said, joining the end of the queue. Willie, however, walked off. It would seem she wasn’t too thirsty after all. We crossed the bridge over the railway line and entered the main building. It was filling up quickly with ticket-holders who’d come from the arena after the show. I wanted to take my time and look at the displays of American products, but Willie wasn’t interested. She walked right past the whirring sewing machines and didn’t even glance at the noisy printing presses.

I, however, paused at the paper making equipment. Mr. Hendry the paper magician had created his paper by hand, using the traditional method of soaking rags until pulpy. Of course, he improved the quality of his paper by infusing magic through it. This paper felt thinner, the quality poorer. “Isn’t it great?” asked the salesman. “Very nice,” I said, moving on. Willie had disappeared. She couldn’t have got very far, but I could no longer see her amid the crush of people. I might look for her all day and not find her.

When I did find her, I’d wring her neck. She was as bad as Matt’s aunt, Miss Glass. No, she was worse. At least Miss Glass had the excuse of her age and mental infirmity; Willie had no excuse. She was simply selfish. We must have stumbled into the machinery section of the exhibition. The clanking, stamping, and grinding of American ingenuity filled every stall as well as my head. I was surrounded by noise. I forged on until I came to the end of the aisle. Up ahead were two pavilions.

The sign out the front of the right one said Art Gallery, and the left Dining Saloon. Willie was no art lover. I pushed open the door to the saloon and spotted her sitting at a table with two men. Somehow, in the short period of time we’d been separated, she’d found someone to play cards with. She’d never leave now, going by the gleam in her eye. “There you are,” I said, joining her. “Shhh. I’m thinking.” She pushed up the brim of her hat and studied her cards. She had a poor hand but spent a long time considering her options.

Her two companions studied me as they waited. “Good afternoon,” one said in an American accent. “You been to see the show?” “I have,” I said. “It was marvelous. Are you part of the exhibition? Do you have a stall in here?” “We’re in the show, ma’am.” The man had an impressive moustache that drooped past his chin. It was thick and darker than the hair on his head, and threaded with gray. His friend was younger, about thirty as opposed to forty, with dimples and boyish good looks that would have made my heart flutter at fifteen years of age. He gave me a cursory glance before returning to the game. “How exciting,” I said.

“Are you one of the riders?” “Riders and sharpshooters, both of us.” “I was very impressed with your skill. The way you scooped up those flags without falling off looked extremely difficult. You’re very talented.” “Stop gushing, India,” Willie said, discarding three cards. “It ain’t becoming for a lady in your situation.” I gave her a tight smile. “I wasn’t gushing.” Willie grabbed my hand and showed the men the ring on my finger. “She’s marrying my cousin.

” The mustachioed man laughed and picked up his glass. “We were just talking.” His friend smirked and discarded two cards from his hand. “Leave her be, Emmett, and play. I got to win back my wages or my wife’ll skin me.” I snatched my hand away. “You look set to stay here a while, Willie. I’ll be back in an hour.” I left them to their poker and wandered past the kiosks. There was so much to see, from American-grown food to American-made everything.

I inspected coaches and tools, woods and precious metals, weapons, medical apparatus, jewelry, musical and scientific instruments, and several stalls dedicated to the finer arts. An hour wasn’t long enough. I gave up touching objects when I realized I couldn’t see everything in that time. I’d not felt magical heat once. Magicians wouldn’t exhibit at an extravagant fair anyway. It was too risky to display their wares, particularly now that speculation about magic was still rife, despite newspaper articles on the subject having ceased. The speculation had reached America, so Oscar Barratt told me. His article from The Weekly Gazette had been republished overseas, but only in a small regional newspaper in Ohio. The existence of magic was hotly debated here, but it had not reached the same heights there. I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.

I returned to the saloon to find Willie sitting with the same two men. I tried getting her attention from across the room but she didn’t look up. She was focused on the game. By the look of the stack of coins in front of her, she was winning. “Ready?” I asked her. “The hour ain’t up yet,” she said. “Yes it is.” The mustachioed man—Emmett—pulled out a gold chronograph and perpetual calendar watch from his waistcoat pocket. It looked like a LeCoultre we’d fixed in our shop two years ago. LeCoultre watches were expensive.

“Your friend’s right, Miss Johnson. You better go with her.” He threw his cards on the table, face down. The younger man slid them back to Emmett. “We don’t have to stop playing.” “It ain’t no fun with just two.” The impressive mustache twitched with Emmett’s smile and his dark brown eyes sparkled. “Miss Johnson brings class to the table. It’s no surprise she’s winning.” Class? Good lord, if he was going to flirt with her, he should at least make it believable.

The only sign Willie gave that she’d heard him was the pinking of her cheeks. “Let’s finish this round, gen’lemen, then I better go before steam rises from India’s ears.” Emmett picked up his cards. Both men lost and Willie won the round. She pocketed her winnings and rose. “Real pleasure,” she said, tugging on her hat brim. “Maybe we can do this again some time while you’re in London.” “How ’bout tonight?” Emmett asked, also rising. The younger man lurched to his feet too, as if he just remembered Willie were a woman and a man should stand when a woman did. He picked up his glass but noticed it was empty and put it down again with a sigh.

“Sure,” Willie said. “Where?” “The Prince of Wales, a saloon near here. A pub, as the English say. The cast often go there after a show. Bring your fiancé, ma’am,” he said to me. “He’s away. But can we bring two of our friends? They’re homesick Americans and will be delighted to meet you.” “Delighted,” he mimicked in a terrible English accent. I laughed. He laughed too and kissed my hand before turning his attention to Willie and repeating the action.

She was stunned into speechlessness. “See you tonight,” I said, taking her arm. “Bring your friend,” she said with a nod at the younger man. Emmett clapped him on the shoulder. “I will if his old lady lets him.” “She ain’t the boss of me,” the man mumbled. Willie and Emmett exchanged grins. “Come on, Emmett,” the young man said as we walked off. “Let’s keep playing.” “You better stop while you’ve still got something left, otherwise your old lady’ll use you for target practice,” Emmett said.

“His wife’s a sharpshooter in the show,” Willie told me when we were out of earshot. I gasped. “Annie Oakley?” “The other one.” “Isn’t it marvelous that there are two female sharpshooters? It just goes to show, doesn’t it?” “Show what?” “That women can be as good as men at an activity dominated by men.” “I s’pose. Ain’t never thought about it before.” “Ha! You can’t fool me, Willie. It’s all you think about.” “Not all,” she said, lightly. “Right now, I’m thinking about big mustaches and what it says about a man.

” “What does it say about them?” “That they’re hairy everywhere.” I couldn’t tell if she thought that was a good thing or bad.

.

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