When the door to the tavern opened, the miners put down their drinks and stared. Standing alone in the doorway was a child. She looked to be about 12 years old and she was wearing a sweet frilly dress with a green bow carefully tied at the waist. She had huge emerald eyes framed by tight black curls. She blinked her enormous eyelashes, said nothing, and walked into the pub. Several patrons kept watching the door after she entered, expecting a parent to follow her in at any moment. But none did.
Not many strangers passed through this part of the land. Lollup was a rough mining town whose beauty could only be found three miles below ground. Lollup’s chief export, the Honey Stone, was the bright pink of a summer evening, and it could burn for hours. The stones provided fuel for most of the country, but coaxing it out of the hard clay that lay underneath the mountains was brutal work. In Lollup, days were long and lives were short. Few dared to enter such a mountain community.
The strange girl walked confidently towards the bar. She carried a worn leather bag that was incongruous with her pristine patent leather shoes. Several large men made way for her, not sure what would bring a young girl to this adult establishment. The girl found an empty stool and, not without effort, hoisted herself upon its wobbly seat. Silence still filled the sticky air. The bartender, Harry Ickman, was watching her closely from the far end of the bar, assuming that a customer’s wife had sent this child to fetch a husband for dinner.
But she was looking at him expectantly and he realized that she wanted to be served. “Yes, miss. What can I get for you? A glass of milk?”
The girl smiled. “Strawberry juice, please.”
Harry uncorked a large bottle, poured a glass and placed it on the bar. The girl took a long, slow sip of her drink and spun on her stool so that she was looking out at the rest of the tavern. She surveyed the tired faces of the miners, still sooty from their day in the mine, until her eyes came to rest on a group of men sitting in a circle in the corner.
“Oooh, cards!” she chirped and jumped off her stool, almost spilling strawberry juice down her dress. She approached the men, who were so engrossed in their game that they hadn’t noticed her entrance.
She stood behind a wide man with oversized sideburns and looked over his shoulder at his cards. She squinted at them a moment and then declared loudly, “I wouldn’t get rid of that if I were you. I would go with the seven.”
The table of men burst into laughter, and the one with the sideburns turned to glare at the girl. “Mind your business, ya brat!” and he swatted at the air like she was a bug.
Another man with ashy skin and a beard said, “Maybe you should listen to her Yusef. You haven’t won a hand all night.” The other men chuckled.
Yusef glared at the girl, and then played the card he had originally intended, a ten.
The player to his left was called Tippo, and he was known for his poor mining skills and taste for uncooked rabbit. Tippo sneered and put out his fist with a dirty thumb pointing down. He then put the thumb on the ten and dragged it towards himself. “That was just about the worst hand you’ve played yet.” He picked up the card and added it to his hand. “That would be a dead man’s lock, my friend. You’re out.”
Yusef cursed and then handed Tippo a gold coin.
Tippo then turned to the girl and asked, “Who taught ya to play ‘Black Thumb’ little girl? Yer daddy?”
“Oh no,” the girl said sweetly. “It’s like a kid’s game. I just learned from watching.”
“Ho ho,” the man guffawed. “Did you hear that Yusef? It’s a kid’s game! You can learn just from watchin’!” He laughed like a diseased weasel.
“I’d like to see her try,” Yusef said bitterly and got up to go to the bar.
“I’d love to!” And before anyone knew what was happening, the girl was sitting in Yusef’s chair.
“Uh, wait a minute young lady,” Tippo said. “This here is an adult game. We’re playin’ for cash.” “Oh. How embarrassing,” she replied. The girl held up her leather bag and shook it, the sound of coins lighting up the men’s eyes. She said, “I only have twenty coins. Is that enough?”
Twenty coins was more than any of the miners made in a week. Tippo winked at the other two men sitting at the table.
“Twenty coins is the perfect amount,” Tippo told her. “It’s Reginald’s deal. One-eyed jacks are wild and there’s a penalty for black deuces.”
The girl gulped down the rest of her juice, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and said, “Fun!”
Reginald shuffled the cards slowly, not sure how he felt about gambling with a child, but twenty coins! Imagine how happy his wife would be if he came home with that! “Ante up!” he announced, and everyone, including the girl, put two coins in the center of the table. He then dealt the hand at lightening speed.
The girl looked at her cards and then waited for the man on her right to begin. He was older and seemed to have difficulty seeing his cards. Finally, he threw down a four of hearts. The girl smiled sweetly and threw down a ten of spades. Then Tippo and Reginald put down cards.
Time for round two. Reginald dealt another hand, but before anyone could pick them up, Tippo said, “I raise the pot five coins.” And he threw in the money.
The old man put down all his cards. “I fold!”
The girl looked slightly confused. “So…. if I lose this game, I’m going to lose my two coins plus another five coins?”
Tippo knew he had to handle this just right. He spoke with what he hoped was a wise voice. “Yes, darlin’. But if you win, you’re goin’ to get seven brand new shiny coins!”
The girl’s eyes lit up. “Seven new coins! Golly!” She quickly threw in five more coins, and so did Reginald, who was looking nervous. Tippo grinned.
Everyone looked at the new cards. The girl frowned and Tippo could feel his heart racing.
It was the girl’s turn and she put down a one-eyed jack. Tippo couldn’t believe it. The silly child had just given up a wild card. He quickly put his thumb on the jack and added it to his hand, trying to suppress his giddiness. He selected a three of diamonds and put it on the table.
Reginald scowled, “I’m out.” He put his cards face down on the table.
Tippo smiled at the girl. “Lookin’ like it’s just you and me.”
By this time, the rest of the tavern had become interested in the game, curious to see how the girl would do. A waitress squeezed through. “This child should not be allowed to gamble. You should all be ashamed of yourselves.”
Tippo glared at her. “Frances, why don’t you get me another whiskey?” Several men agreed, thinking this was the most interesting thing to happen in Lollup in weeks.
Frances grumbled, “Fine,” and returned to the bar.
Tippo quickly turned back to the game, knowing he only had a moment before someone else tried to end it, and Tippo was not about to let anyone get in the way of him and his twenty coins.
He signaled to Reginald to deal them the last hand. Reginald complied and Tippo picked up his cards and kept a straight face, but inside he was dancing. He now had two red aces, two red kings, and a wild card. It was a “Red Thumb.” He looked over at the girl and tried to read her face. She looked befuddled. There was no way he could lose. He looked the girl in the eye and said, “I raise you 13 coins.”
The crowd gasped. It was an unheard of amount to gamble, let alone win from a child. But the girl stayed steady. “Okey, dokey,” she said and without batting an eye she placed her entire satchel of money in the middle of the table.
There was now a total of 58 coins, almost a month’s wages. Everyone held his or her breath.
Tippo smirked and put his cards up on the table. “Red Thumb!” he announced, and he clapped his hands and whooped for everyone to hear.
He reached forward for the money pot, when the girl asked, “Don’t I get to show everybody my cards?”
“Of course you do sweetheart. You go right ahead,” he said.
And the girl placed her cards on the table. She had two black aces, two black kings, and one black jack. It was a “Black Thumb” with no wild cards. The highest hand you could get.
Tippo’s jaw fell open. The odds of the girl getting that hand were . . . were . . . Tippo sank in his chair as he realized how much money he’d just lost.
The other people in the bar laughed and applauded, happy to see the little girl beat Tippo, who’d won money from almost everyone in Lollup.
The girl leaned over the table, grabbed her bag and started to scoop the rest of the money inside. “This was so exciting! I can’t wait to teach my friends!”
She stood up and put the bag over her shoulder, the weight of it making her stand lopsided. “I need to go meet my mother now. She’s visiting her sister and she’ll be worried about me.” And before anyone knew what was happening, she’d scurried to the door.
As she was walking out, she turned back to the bar. “Thank you, gentlemen. It was a pleasure. And please don’t use this evening as an excuse to teach your children to gamble. Gambling with children is wrong.” She smiled wickedly and was gone.
Tippo finally came out of his state of shock. He jumped up from his seat and ran after her, sure that somehow she had just swindled him, even if he couldn’t explain how. But when he got outside, she was nowhere to be seen. She had disappeared as mysteriously as she’d arrived.
Tippo shook his head and went back inside, and he found a roomful of men snickering at him. He said loudly, “Tell ya’ll what. I promise to buy y’all a round a drinks. And y’all promise me you won’t ever talk about this here little incident ever again.”
The men just laughed harder.
By the next morning, Ida was several miles south of the mining town. She’d learned over the years that it was best to get as far away as possible after hitting a card game. She was now in the middle of a thin forest, with not a soul in sight.
Her feet hurt. She’d been walking since midnight and she could no longer ignore the dull throbbing. She sat down on a rock and took off her patent leather shoes, sighing with relief.
She then opened up her bag, pulled out her coin purse, and dumped all the contents onto the dirt in front of her. She knew how much she’d won, but she counted it anyway, each coin filling her with more satisfaction.
Fifty-eight coins. Ida smiled. It was enough to get her back to Gulm. She could buy a horse for the journey and still have enough for provisions. She figured she could be there within the week.
She grabbed her regular clothes from the bag, and happily pulled her frilly dress up over her head. Five playing cards fell to the ground, Ida’s original hand that she’d hidden one at a time during the game. Ruffles tended to hide a lot. She’d walked into the tavern with a perfect ‘Black Thumb’ hidden within her petticoat.
She now pulled on cotton pants, a simple shirt and a decent pair of walking boots. She grabbed a hat and forced her black bob up into it until, from afar, one might not be sure if Ida was a girl or a boy. She took out a small flask and took a grateful sip of water.
She suddenly had a pang of guilt, which she wished she could push aside. Not only had she cheated the miner, she had taken advantage of his perception of her as young, innocent and ignorant. For in a million years the man couldn’t have guessed the truth – that Ida was actually seventeen years old.
He couldn’t tell from looking at her because in the last five years she had not aged a single day.