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Carry Your Men, And Their Dead Too

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The pot includes twelve pennies, a ball of lint, two dollars that’ve clearly spent some time going round in a washing machine, a hair tie, a stick of gum, a rusty nail that’s likely just teeming with tetanus, and Raylan’s hat.

Rachel’s holding a pair of fours instead of the straight she’d been aiming for, and she’s never been one to bluff. It’s not that she can’t -- law enforcement isn’t much of a career path for anyone who can’t bluff -- but a person only has so many lies in them, and she prefers to hold onto hers and save them for something special. She does want that hat, even if it doesn’t fit, but both Raylan and Tim look to have better hands, and neither of them are particularly partial to folding, even when they ought to. Maybe especially when they ought to.

Rachel folds, and Tim wins the pot. The hat’s slightly too big for him too.

She looks down and notices the smear of blood on the four of clubs. Raylan must have been holding it, during the last hand.

#

She isn’t sure how long they’ve been here. The room doesn’t have any clocks or windows, and the nice men with the guns took away Rachel’s cell phone when they relieved her of her sidearm.

She offers to shuffle for Raylan, but he impatiently gestures for the cards, the way she knew he would. “Don’t suppose either of you happen to have a watch on your respective persons?” he asks, wincing.

“No one wears a watch anymore,” Rachel says, secretly surprised Raylan doesn’t have one. Seems like the type, some old pocket watch passed down through the family, sixth generation hillbilly.

Then again, if any such watch had ever existed, it was probably buried with Arlo. She can’t imagine Raylan taking anything from him, not willingly.

“What,” Tim says dryly. “You in some kind of hurry?”

“Oh,” Raylan says. “Not particularly.” He passes the cards to Rachel. She knocks on the deck, and he takes them back. “Just thought I might get home in time to catch Dancing with the Stars, is all.”

“Can’t say I thought to record it,” Tim says. “You rooting for that one guy from that thing?”

“I don’t like to play favorites,” Raylan says.

Rachel watches Dancing with the Stars, occasionally. She decides not to tell them. “Ante?”

“Whatever y’all got in your back pockets.”

Rachel has another hair tie. Raylan has a quarter and a crumpled receipt. Tim has nothing at all. Raylan lets him play anyway.

“Game?”

“Five card draw. “

“Cowboy poker,” Rachel murmurs. “I’m shocked.”

Raylan throws her a look, but deals out the cards all the same. She has the four of clubs again. It’s not the only one with blood on it, this time.

“No ‘Hold Em?” Tim presses.

“This look like Texas to you?”

“Looks like a shithole,” Tim says.

No one can argue with that.

#

Rachel learns a few things playing poker with Raylan and Tim. None of them are particularly surprising.

Raylan doesn’t carry an ace up his sleeve; he carries a story, hundreds of stories. He’ll talk about every crazy bandit and scary redneck and desperate fugitive he ever met while trying to figure out if your cards are as good as your money says.

Tim raises nonchalantly, almost automatically, like it never occurred to him not to raise the stakes.

Raylan whines like a baby whenever Rachel throws a new game into the mix. Baseball, Low Ball, High Chicago . . . none of them are real poker to him.

Tim’s poker face is incredibly similar to his sniper face.

Raylan is mildly surprised Rachel knows the difference between a full house and a flush, even though he didn’t so much as blink that Tim knew how to play cards.

Tim isn’t surprised Rachel knows how to play cards. He rarely seems surprised by anything.

She studies Tim as he takes two cards and barely glances at them before betting the cellar spider in the corner. Tim’s an unpredictable player. She thinks he bluffs when he doesn’t need to and throws away winning hands just to see what he’ll get back. It’s not that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He just doesn’t care. He’s reckless.

It’ll get him killed someday. She’s sure of that. The only question is who will die first – him, or Raylan. Of course, her number could come up too -- dying’s always a possibility on this job -- but she doubts it. She figures she’ll live a lot longer than either of these fools, assuming she makes it out of this room.

Rachel glances at the blood soaking through Raylan’s makeshift bandages. Smart money says . . . but that’s not a bet she’s willing to take, not even with herself.

She’s never been one for unnecessary chances.

Rachel folds another hand, and no one says a word about it . . . but Raylan’s eyebrows raise a touch, and Tim’s lips twist into something like, but not quite, a smirk.

It doesn’t feel like cowardice, folding. It feels like strategy, but she wonders. She wonders how it looks to them.

#

They grow bored of betting the few things they have on or around them. Tim idly suggests playing strip poker in the same voice he might use to ask for a pack of peanuts, but Raylan protests, claiming himself a modest man, and Rachel just ignores him.

Instead, the stakes become . . . more interesting.

“Raylan’s daddy issues,” Tim says.

“Tim’s sniper stories,” Raylan says.

“Art’s marshall stiffy,” Rachel says, and actually manages to startle both of them into laughing.

Rachel has a good hand, a full house, queens over nines. She doesn’t bet big; in fact, she only raises once, and lets the men focus on outplaying each other. Raylan bets a good pulled pork sandwich, and Tim bets beer, all beer, but it’s Rachel who wins the pot.

She doesn’t really know what to do with Raylan’s daddy issues or Art’s marshall stiffy, but she could sure use that beer right about now.

Raylan’s eyes are closed. “Y’know, it feels kind of good, being free of ‘em. All day long, carrying ‘em on your back. Weighs you down some, but I don’t . . . I don’t feel . . .”

“Hey.” Tim shakes Raylan’s good arm gently. “Hey, it’s your turn to deal. Don’t fall asleep on me now.”

It’s not Raylan’s turn, but he blinks a few times anyway and nods, sits up as best he can and starts awkwardly shuffling the deck, even though his hands would be better spent keeping pressure on his wound. The shot seems to be a through and through, nothing fatal with medical treatment, but she doesn’t know what time it is, how much time has passed, how much time he has left.

“Five card draw,” Raylan says. “Jacks or better to open.”

Tim shakes his head. “And here I was just starting to feel sorry for you.”

Rachel can’t help but agree. She hates jacks or better to open. Takes forever, and there’s always a lot to lose.

Sure enough, she looks at her cards and has nothing higher than a pair of eights. Apparently, neither Tim nor Raylan have better hands, because they both throw down their cards, and the game resets itself, again and again. Each time they have to keep replenishing the ante. It builds higher and higher between them, a slowly toppling pile of intangible desires and skills and scars.

Tim whistles after the fourth round of failure. “Damn game just won’t end,” he mutters.

“Oh,” Raylan says, closing his eyes again. “It’ll end. Always does, eventually.”

#

Rachel loses the sniper stories but wins Tim’s probable PTSD.

She loses Art’s marshall stiffy but wins all the hillbillies in Harlan.

She can’t seem to lose any of her own ghosts. She keeps winning back her divorce, Shawnee, her father staring into nothing at all before finally dying from what was eating him from the inside out. She might think it’s her imagination, her negativity masquerading as supremely bad luck, or fate, but even Raylan points it out after she loses the pulled pork sandwich and wins Raylan’s “creepy, unfilled grave” in its place.

“Can’t help but feel Rachel’s getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop here,” he says. “Two cards, please.”

Rachel deals them.

“Well, shit,” Raylan says, and folds.

Tim asks for one card only. She assumes he’s drawing to a straight or a flush, probably catches it, too, if the way he taps his fingers against the floor is any indication. “Weakest men in the world can carry their own ghosts,” Tim says.

Rachel . . . doesn’t quite know what to do with that, really.

Is it a judgment about his own weakness? Is Tim criticizing himself for willingly losing what’s rightfully his to bear? Or is it a slight against her for being a woman, for not wanting to carry what even the lowest of low men could?

Raylan apparently doesn’t know what to make of it, either, because he cracks one eye open and asks, “What’s that now?”

Tim shrugs. “Some bullshit my old lieutenant used to say.”

“Yeah, and it means?”

Tim shrugs again and switches subjects, bets the bottle of bourbon that Art always keeps in his desk. Rachel wouldn’t say no to a glass, but she has a pair of threes and not much else. She folds.

Rachel didn’t pay to see his cards, but Tim flips them over anyway, smiling blandly. Four hearts and a diamond, and not one card higher than a jack. Damn.

“Should have bet your memories of high school or something,” Tim tells her. “Then you would have won for sure.”

#

Raylan’s hat is back in the pot, but it’s not the hat she’s after this time.

“Week’s worth of coffee,” Tim had said, passing out the cards. Tim always announced the ante while he dealt, like playing was a foregone conclusion and not actually a choice. “Winner gets fresh coffee on his or her desk every day for a week, courtesy of the losers. Not no bullshit coffee, neither. I’m talking the good stuff.”

“You mean, the kind you actually wait in life for?” Rachel had asked. “Costs at least four bucks a cup?”

“Multiple ingredients,” Tim said, nodding. “All of ‘em with fancy names you can’t properly spell. Maybe one of them green swizzle sticks too.”

Raylan had raised an eyebrow. “Happen to like my coffee black and swizzle free.”

“Anything beats office coffee,” Rachel had said, and because this was true, Raylan agreed to play.

Now, it’s down to the wire, and only Rachel and Raylan are left in the game. Tim had dealt himself two cards and promptly folded, complaining he’d had better luck in Afghanistan than he was having today. It’s hard to imagine his cards were worse than Rachel’s, though. She’s holding a hand full of nothing, queen high.

With any other pot, she’d fold for sure. Raylan’s certainly unlikely to. There’s almost no way she can win.

But she wants this one, damn it. And she’s saved up a lot of lies.

“Prisoner transport duty,” Rachel says. “Three transports.”

“Well, I’ll see your three transports,” Raylan says, “and raise it three more. And, hell, how about a cover too?”

“A cover?”

“Yeah. When someone comes calling, like ADA Vasquez, or maybe our good friends down at the FBI, looking to chew one of us a new asshole -- “

Rachel laughed. “As if Vasquez or the FBI comes looking for anyone but you.”

“Point,” Tim says.

Raylan ignores them. “If someone comes that the winner don’t have any particular notion to talk to, then the loser has to stall until the winner can make his escape, no matter who’s come calling. No questions asked.”

Rachel isn’t fond of anything that comes with the caveat of ‘no questions asked,’ and she knows that Raylan knows that. But she doesn’t even hesitate.

“I’ll see that,” she says. “And I’ll raise two weeks of writing up incident reports.”

Tim whistles.

Raylan pauses and peers at her, idly playing with one of her hair ties. He passes it from one hand to the other without ever bothering to look down. “Seen this girl once,” he says. “Real tall, you understand, maybe -- “

“Don’t waste my time with stories,” Rachel says, cutting him off. “Either I’m bluffing, or I’m not. Call the bet and see my hand, or cut your losses and fold.”

Raylan smiles and glances down at his cards again, staring at them for a long minute. “Well, hell,” he says. “Don’t want to win on this hand anyway.”

He folds, and Rachel grins because, yes, this is hers. She won this; she earned it; she can practically smell the coffee already. Like most law enforcement, she’ll drink pretty much any sludge she can get her hands on, but real coffee, good coffee, coffee that Raylan and Tim have to fetch for her . . . that’s worth more to Rachel than all the transport duty and cowboy hats in the world.

Although those are nice, too.

Rachel picks up Raylan’s hat and sets it on her head. It’s still entirely too big for her, but it doesn’t feel quite so ridiculous today.

“Looks good on you,” Raylan says, but it’s wrong, the way he says it. She looks up at him, sharp. He’s pale, of course – his skin’s been the color of old linen for quite some time now -- but he’s sweating up a storm, too, and he’s bled through another makeshift bandage. The red is dripping down his arm, splashing against his discarded hand.

Didn’t want to win on this hand, anyway, he’d said, and suddenly, she knows; she knows what cards he’s been holding.

She flips them over anyway.

Two aces and two eights. Dead man’s hand.

“Second time I’ve been dealt ‘em,” Raylan says, smiling. “You think . . . you think someone’s trying to tell me something?”

He passes out.

#

Sometime later, Rachel leans over to check Raylan’s pulse again.

“He still breathing?” Tim asks.

“Yeah. But he needs medical attention, soon.”

Tim leans his back against the wall and closes his eyes. “Yeah.”

They’ve long since abandoned the game. Tim had collected his bloodstained cards and put them back in his pants pocket without so much as wiping them off. She supposes he’s been covered with worse. Maybe they all have.

She’s still keeping pressure on Raylan’s wound, making new bandages from their collected jackets, praying he doesn’t catch an infection when they make it out of here, if they make it out of here. She’d thought their captors would have come back by now. She’d thought they would come back to gloat, or threaten, or shoot them . . . but they haven’t, and that’s bad. Rachel’s got a chance against a man with a gun. She doesn’t have any chance at all against four walls with no food or water.

“Wish Art would hurry up the rescue,” Rachel says.

“What, you a Dancing with the Stars fan, too?”

“So what if I am?” Rachel asks, because she cares less right now, what Tim thinks about her. Maybe she feels bolder with the cowboy hat on, or maybe it just matters less with her friend’s blood on her hands. “Don’t think I don’t know you read that 50 Shades of Grey.”

“Couldn’t help myself,” Tim says. “It was too steamy to put down.”

She laughs and switches out another bandage.

“You know. Art’s going to retire any old day now.”

She looks up at him. “You saying that’s why he’s not here? Short timer’s? Slacking on his last days of the job?”

Tim smirks. “You think he’d miss us?”

“He’d miss me,” Rachel says. “I don’t cause trouble all the time.”

She figures Tim will argue. Raylan would probably argue. Tim doesn’t. He says, “You’ll be good, you know. At the job. You’ll fit right in at the big chair.”

Rachel looks up at him. They haven’t really talked about this yet, her promotion, or the possibility of it. “We don’t know it’s going to be me,” she says.

Tim snorts. “Who else is it gonna be? Raylan? Me?”

“Well, you did win Art’s bourbon.”

He smiles in a sort of a directionless way and doesn’t say much for a while. Finally, when Rachel’s about given up, Tim shifts against the wall. “That old lieutenant of mine I mentioned? He was talking about command, about it being more than just giving orders and deciding who goes where. ‘Weakest men in the world can carry their own ghosts,’ he said, ‘but a leader, he can’t just carry his past. He has to carry his men, and all their dead too’.”

Rachel watches him. “You don’t think you have it in you, to carry all that weight?”

“Hell, Rachel. I can barely carry myself.”

“You do okay,” Rachel tells him.

“You do better,” he says.

Rachel opens her mouth, but Tim cuts her off. “It’s okay,” he says. “It’s not a thing. I don’t stay up nights worrying about it. Some’s just not meant to be command, that’s all. And then, there are some that are.”

Rachel looks down. “I fold a lot,” she says.

“Yeah,” Tim says. “You do.”

“That doesn’t worry you? A boss who’s scared to lose?”

“Depends,” Tim says. “Am I the card, or the poker chip? I keep losing track of the metaphor.”

“Tim – “

“Cause if I’m the poker chip, I think I want a player who isn’t gonna throw my life away, who’s got a lot to lose and isn’t one for unnecessary chances. And if I’m the card . . . shit. I don’t know. Draw your own conclusions. I’m too hungry for this. You got any of that gum left?”

She hands him a stick.

“Thanks,” he says.

“You too.”

He smiles -- and then there are voices, coming from just outside the room.

Tim looks at Rachel, and she nods, putting herself between Raylan and the door. Tim gets into position just as the door slams open.

“You gonna kick me in the face?” Art asks. “Because that’s not much of a thank you.”

“You’re late,” Tim says.

“Well, I’ve had this passenger slowing me down.”

Boyd Crowder, of all people, pops up behind Art. Rachel stares at her boss. What in the --

“Don’t ask,” Art says, holding up a hand. “Please.”

Rachel doesn’t ask.

“We need medics,” she says and looks over her shoulder. “Raylan.”

Art looks up and swears. Boyd crosses the room quickly, kneeling down in a pool of blood without even seeming to notice. “Raylan,” he says. “Oh, my friend. You seem to be having a bit of a harrowing day.”

Against all reason, Raylan stirs. “Boyd?” he says, opening his eyes. “Thought I lost you in a card game.”

“Well, I think it’s safe to say the boy’s a bit delirious.”

“Oh no,” Rachel said. “Actually, I own you now.”

Boyd blinks at her for a minute and then smiles. “Well,” he says. “While I can’t say I fully comprehend what’s transpired here today, if I must belong to someone, I suppose there are less winning creatures I could be bound to.”

“Yeah,” Tim says. “Think if I’d won that hand.”

Boyd doesn’t even turn to acknowledge this. “It’s all right now, Raylan,” he says. “We’ll have you on your feet again to chase me round the holler before you know it.”

Raylan coughs and closes his eyes. “Y’know . . . y’know, one of these days, I’m gonna catch you, Boyd.”

Boyd smiles. “Oh, my friend. Of this, I have no doubt.”

#

Boyd runs off once they get to the hospital, probably to do something nefarious. Art leaves to fill out the usual paperwork and, also, collect his winnings from the office pool.

“Damn it, Raylan,” Tim says. “Just couldn’t hold off getting into trouble for one more week, could you?”

Raylan doesn’t respond because he’s asleep in his hospital bed. Rachel and Tim sit side by side in short, uncomfortable chairs, drinking hospital coffee from tiny Styrofoam cups. Rachel starts flipping through channels until she finds something she wants to watch.

Tim looks up at the television and snorts. She points a finger at him.

He holds up his hands. “Not say anything.”

“Damn straight you’re not,” she says.

Raylan wakes maybe half an hour later, wincing and blinking at the television screen. “Are . . . are y’all watching Dancing With the Stars?”

“Yes,” Rachel says. “And if you want me to keep Tim from stealing all your pudding cups, I don’t want to hear a word about it.”

Raylan thinks about that.

“Well, okay,” he says finally. “You know how I like my pudding cups.”

“Hey, look,” Tim says, pointing up at the screen. “It’s that one guy from that thing.”

“He any good?” Raylan asks Rachel.

She shrugs. “I don’t like to play favorites,” she says and stretches her legs out, getting comfortable between her boys.