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Mr. Pliskin and the Golden Fleece


Kevin Gonzalez and Tom Ewing 

            If merchant Jabez Wilkes, considered by many to be the stingiest man in Panacea, had a major failing, it was this: He not only had the first dollar he had ever made, he wanted to have your first dollar, too. Because as much as he enjoyed hoarding his wealth, he loved adding to it even more. Buy cheap, sell dear was his motto – and he made sure that you were always the one to whom he sold things for a dear price indeed.

All of which made him perfect for plucking through fair means or foul by a notorious grifter by the name of Monte Schaffer. He traveled from town to town in the Arizona Territory with minimal equipment: his wagon and a small folding table that seemed gilded, earning it the nickname, “The Golden Gamble.” Schaffer himself called it the Golden Fleece, because it helped him fleece unsuspecting victims and gull them into losing their money in a rigged game that left nothing to chance. His full moniker was “Three Card Monte” Schaffer because that card game was his favorite means of cheating.

Long after Wilkes stumbled in a daze away from The Golden Gamble after losing almost everything but the clothes he was wearing, Panacea townsfolk remembered him mumbling, “Follow the lady. Follow the lady.” For try as he might, he could never find the Queen of Hearts card that determined who was the winner in that game.      


Solomon “Secondhand Sol” Pliskin brought the subject up to his friend, Arizona Ranger Elijah Weiss, while the two were building a sukkah, or hut, in celebration of Sukkot, the religious holiday that followed on the heels of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur He had asked that his usual helpmates, children Jacob and Rachel, allow Weiss to take more of a hand this year. He explained to them that this way he could better help explain to Weiss the significance of the time. In actuality, he knew that the recent death of Weiss’ prisoner, Mordecai Baumgartner, a.k.a. Martin Gardner, still weighed on the ranger’s conscience and that Weiss needed time away from the job for rest and reflection.

The tough lawman viewed the meek and mild-mannered merchant as his mentor in all things Jewish. He had once turned his back on his religion as a youngster but was experiencing it again, balancing faith with firepower on the frontier as he helped bring law and order to the territory.

“So, tell me why we are doing this?” asked the ranger as he struggled to fit a board onto the side of the hut’s frame. The sukkah was to be erected in its usual spot in the backyard of the Pliskins’ home.

Sukkot means ‘booths.’ What we are building is a temporary dwelling in which we will live during this week-long observance. Well, really, my family will take its meals here, and Jacob and I like to sleep in it overnight if the temperature allows it.”

“And all this is to remember the time that Jews lived in temporary housing while they wandered in the desert, right?”

“Correct. It is a happy time, so much so we often refer to Sukkot as the ‘Season of our Rejoicing.’ It is also a time to celebrate the harvest.”

“Sort of like Thanksgiving.”

“Yes, I have always thought that. And the children love to decorate its walls with drawings. Jacob and Rachel are making pictures right now, while we put this hut together. You know, I like Sukkot because it is a religious observance that is centered in the home and not in a place of worship away from our house. Not that we have a temple yet in Panacea. But here, we emphasize the togetherness of the family – and what could be more important than that?”

“Family.” The ranger looked away as he said the word.

“You know that you are always welcome here as part of my family.”

The ranger said nothing for a long time.

Switching subjects, Pliskin turned to the tale of Schaffer’s latest victim. “That man Schaffer is worse than a horde of locusts, the way he devours his victims’ wealth. Jew and Gentile alike fall prey to him. Not only Wilkes, but Avram Meissner, the prospector, and even the Figueroa-Higgins brothers, Inocente and Salvaccion. Just once, I tell you, I would like to see him lose in a big way,” said Sol as he wrestled another board into place.

“You know, I’m pretty sure that he does cheat. But he does it so well that trying to catch him at it is like trying to corral the wind,” answered Weiss. “Men like him cheat because they’d rather steal money than earn it honestly. It’s not laziness; he works too hard to make it look like luck. It’s just more exciting to him to do something illegal. And did you ever notice that when he does lose, he loses to people you’ve never seen before? And never a lot of money, either.”

The lawman’s eyes narrowed as he spoke. “There was a rumor that he did lose big once in Tombstone, but the winner never made it out of town with his earnings. Got robbed and beaten soon afterward. It would take someone with a lot of luck to win and even more luck to keep his winnings if he were to make Monte lose.”

“What we need is someone like … I wonder.” Pliskin rummaged through his thoughts, the task of building the sukkah set aside for the moment.

“You favor yourself a man-hunter, right?” he asked after a pause.

“So does the Arizona Territorial government.”

“But have you ever tracked down a man who wasn’t guilty of anything?”

“That’s what they all say.”

“No, I mean really innocent. An ordinary citizen. Could you? Even after maybe 20 years?”

“Twenty years? That’s a mighty cold trail. If he left tracks like a family or a business, maybe. Or a reputation. What are you getting at?”

Pliskin told him about his idea. “But you have to find a certain man and bring him to Panacea when Schaffer is here.”

“Then I’ll start right away,” Weiss said, shrugging into his shirt.  He pulled his gun belt off the lumber pile and hitched it around his hips, making sure the Colt, facing butt forward on his left side, hung just so. On the right side of the rig, he had cartridge loops sewn for .30-40 ammo for his Krag carbine.

“I’ll make a few inquiries by telegraph first to narrow down my search for this jasper, given the information that you told me about him. You sure he can pull it off?”

“He’s the only man who could. But he might need your help.”

“As long as you and he are the brains behind this, I don’t mind being the brawn. Adios, Sol. Maybe I’ll get back in time to spend some time in this hut that I’ve helped build for my … family. I’d like that a lot.”

“As would I, my friend. And if all goes well, we will truly have a reason for a time of rejoicing.”


            In less than a week, Weiss arrived by train in the border town of Soledad.  Within an hour, he was in a ramshackle gambling joint, standing in front of a wizened faro dealer who was so thin that the only things keeping up his sleeve garters were his knobby elbows. A dilapidated eyeshade hung at a rakish angle on his brow. His bony pate reflected the gleam from the kerosene lanterns in the saloon. But his eyes seemed bright and alert, belying his raffish look.

 “Care to buck the tiger?” he asked by way of introduction, shielding his thoughts with a mechanical grin plastered on his lined face.

            “No, just looking for a man,” answered Weiss. “Goes by the name of Sam Aaron.”

            “Never heard of him.”

            “Quite a few did, at one time. Especially folks in the vicinity of Tombstone back when the Earps were still running things. Sure you don’t recall hearing about the legendary faro dealer they called ‘The Lucky Jew Kid?’ They said it was the rare man who did well at his table. And he was pure hell on cheats. Helped run them out of town. Any place he gambled was on the up-and-up. And he could beat you any card game there ever was, to hear folks talk about him.”

            The old dealer remained silent.

            “Could be he’s needed to help some people getting fleeced by a grifter named Three Card Monte Schaffer,” the ranger continued. “It would take someone who really knew what he was doing to expose Schaffer and turn the tables on him.”

            The dealer fiddled with his frayed silk sleeve garters without saying a thing.

            “The Lucky Jew Kid – I’m thinking he never had to cheat to win. But he could expose one that’s preying on innocent people. And in doing so, remind folks of who he once was.”       

            The dealer stopped grinning.  “Never cared all that much for Wyatt,” he said at last. “Mind you, he was an OK faro dealer, better at it than being a lawman. And Josie Marcus, she was a looker, all right. The way Wyatt stole her off Johnny Behan, that was criminal. And him being married at the time. Maybe Wyatt cheated, but not at cards.

            “In fact, we have a lot in common, me and him. After Tombstone, we both drifted, going where the mining was successful. I mined the money that was in folks’ pockets, but honest-like. Like Wyatt, I spent time in Alaska at the turn of the century. He was in Nome; I was one of the nearly 200 Jews in Dawson City. In the fall of 1898, about 36 of us men met at Charles Rosener's store to celebrate the first evening of Rosh Hashanah services. As the word spread, we had to rent the Yukon Order of Pioneers hall because it was bigger. It was the first time a Jewish holiday was celebrated in the Yukon and it led to the formation of the Hebrew Congregation of Dawson.

            “But old bones are cold bones, I guess. I got going south after that. Ended up here. I lost the reputation along the way.”

            “You were in your early 30s back in Dawson. That’s not so old.”
            “Mister, I’ve been living in bars and saloons for years and years. Got so I needed a high-proof eye opener to wake up in the morning and much more to sleep at night. Smoked a dozen cigars a day and slept less than four hours at a time. Then I got double pneumonia. Took me months to recover. Believe me, I was old in Dawson. I feel old here, too, but the dry air agrees with my lungs a lot better. I still deal, but nobody calls me ‘kid’ anymore.

“So how did you find me after all these years?” asked the dealer.

            “You left tracks. When it comes to famous people, someone always remembers them and is always willing to talk once you prime the pump with some folding money.”

            “Famous, hah. Mind you, a rep like mine was good when I was younger, full of vinegar. You know, moxie. Gets to weigh a bit more the older you get. You think that I can still help you?”

            “The friend who set me on your trail is sure of it.”

            Aaron shrugged. “Been years since I was that good. Maybe I got a little left for one more grandstand play.”

            “Can you leave right away? I can explain things on the way to Panacea. And you can educate me, too.”


“Can I cheat?” said Aaron, on the train trip back to Panacea. “Sure, I learned all the tricks because I needed to learn how to spot the tinhorns. But did I cheat? Never. I always played for the house, and everyone knows that the odds are stacked in favor of the house. There was no need. Besides, I was proud of my abilities. I was too good to stoop to that.”

            “How can you stop Schaffer from cheating? Man-to-man?”

            Aaron waved a warning finger at the ranger. “No such thing as man-to-man in three card monte. Here’s the basic set-up: I’m not playing just Monte, I’m up against his team. First, he’s got his shills. They are the first bettors and they always win to ‘prove’ that the game is fair. They encourage the suckers to make their own bets against the dealer and then they win for a while. Then the dealer ups the ante and the bottom drops out. The suckers stop winning and start losing big. They quit on their own when their fortunes are reversed, if they’re smart, or else they get busted flat. 

“Then he has his muggers. If the suckers actually win because they know how to spot the tricks, the muggers jump them later and take the money back.” 

“So, it's a team affair, you're allowed to win several times, the winning gets easier for you until it stops a little at a time, you're encouraged to continue, and then it goes real bad, real fast.  Anything you win at the table, you lose in the alley,” summed up the ranger.  “But how does Schaffer actually cheat?”

“Your run-of-the-mill monte game has two cards that are the same – say a pair of deuces and the money card, which is usually a queen. That’s why the game is often called ‘Follow the Lady.’  The sucker has to follow the queen as the dealer, or cardsharp, picks up the cards and moves her around.  The first couple of moves, she’s fairly easy to follow and the sucker wins, which boosts his confidence and makes him reckless with his cash.” 

Easing a deck of cards from a vest pocket, the aging gambler thumbed three cards off the top – two deuces and a queen of hearts – and began schooling the ranger. “The cards are always picked up like this: The right hand picks up two cards, holding both by the thumb in back and the first or second fingers on the front of each card. Same thing with the left hand.

“The actual scam is done with what they call the throwing action.  Let's say that in the right hand the queen is on top and the two is underneath.  The right hand can invisibly – and I mean really invisibly – throw either card down on the table.  So, for example, the sharp will flash the left-hand card, a deuce, and throw it down on the table.  He'll flash, or turn over, both right-hand cards where the deuce is seen on the bottom, tell the sucker he's going to throw the deuce and then, in the act of turning over his hand to throw down the deuce, he releases the queen. His readjusts his fingers that used to be holding the deuce to look like they are empty for just a second, and then he places the ‘queen’ in the middle.  The sucker bets on the middle card and loses.”

Continuing his lecture, he said, “Then the sharp tries to make it simpler.  He says he'll pay the sucker two-to-one and even give him an advantage.  He puts a sharp bend on one of the corners on the queen.  He goes through the throwing of the cards and shifting but, of course, the queen still has the corner bent.  The sucker bets on the queen and, what do you know, it's a deuce.”

“But how?”

Aaron smiled, glad to share his knowledge. “Because the sharp can take the bent corner out of the queen and put it in another card without being seen doing it. Often the bent corner is supposedly done by accident and the sharp pretends he doesn't know the corner is bent and the mark thinks he's got him beat.” 

“But what if the mark actually does pick out the queen?”

“He still loses. Sometimes the dealer can use the ‘Mexican Turnover.’  Don't know where the name came from, but to do it you pick up one of the cards the sucker didn't choose and use it to flip over or scoop up his selection.  Now, when flipping over the card that the mark selected, the sharp exchanges the cards. The card that he reveals turns out not to be the queen, although actually it really was picked by the sucker.” 

Weiss shook his head in bewilderment. “So, knowing all of this, can you beat him at his own game?”

Aaron sighed. “My eyes, they aren’t as sharp as they used to be, even if I do know what to look for. I may not be a kid anymore, but I’m betting I’m still lucky.

“And I will need a team of my own to beat his team. Pliskin, he can be my shill.  And you, Mr. Arizona Ranger, you’re going to be my mugger.”

“I think I can recruit another one for our side,” replied Weiss. “The town marshal would never let me hear the end of it if he wasn’t part of this scam. And Mr. Hubbard is as good with a gun as I am. Just don’t tell him I said that, please. But our best gear is going to be our badges, I’m guessing. And yours is located right between your ears.” 


Two nights later, on the last night of Sukkot, a nervous Solomon Pliskin stood outside the Drovers’ Rest in Panacea. Since there was no gambling emporium in the small town, Schaffer rented a corner of the drinking establishment to set up The Golden Gamble. Inside, the first of his shills was winning bet after bet, drawing a crowd of curious onlookers and potential victims. Schaffer, dressed head to toe in black like a prosperous undertaker, shook his head in mock outrage at his run of bad luck and was downing drinks to drown his pain. No one knew that his supply of “Napoleon brandy” was just a fancy bottle full of plain tea.

 He smiled plenty, but the warmth of his expression died just south of his cold and hard eyes. His pale skin told of hours spent in dark places. “Looks like this tiny burg’s going to be the death of my luck and my poke, folks,” he said, glancing down at the exposed queen on the yellow felt of the gilded wooden table. “My hands have lost their cunning. I may have to fold for the evening.”

“Not so fast, mister!” roared one of his shills. “You don’t quit quick when you’re winning. So stick around and give us a chance to get our money back.”

“That’s right, Schaffer. What is it you say? A fair deal from a fair man? Prove it,” said another of his plants in the audience.

The grifter held out both hands, palms out, in a gesture of surrender. “Right you are, gents. Fair is fair and so is Monte Schaffer. Folks, I will remain open for business until I go bust. And the ways things are going, that may not be for long. So come one, come all. Step right up to The Golden Gamble and test your mettle.”

Aaron stepped forward, a vision in broadcloth and silk. He had spent the afternoon rummaging through used clothing at Pliskin’s shop, Just Like New. And Hannah Pliskin had brushed his wispy hair to a gloss and shaved him with the skill of a San Francisco barber. He oozed class – and money.

“My friend, Samuel Aaron, of the Aarons of Tulsa, would like to place a few wagers,” said Pliskin. “He is passing through Panacea after completing several successful business deals on the West Coast and seeks some entertaining diversion.”

Schaffer’s eyes twinkled like fresh dimes straight from the mint as he eyed the stranger man and gauged his wealth. “Perhaps I could accommodate him in a fair test of ocular acuity, of perspicuity of the pupils.”

Three cards sprang to life in his hands. “What you have here, sir, are three, count them, three cards – two deuces and the little lady of hearts.” Schaffer said, beginning his spiel.

“What you have to do to win, all you need to do to take home some cash, all that’s necessary for you to line your pockets with my money, is to follow the lady and find out where she lays down to rest,” he said, shuffling the cards to and fro on the yellow felt.

“What could be easier? How could you possibly work less and make more? Where else could you earn a heap of cash with just the sharpness of your eyes than here at Monte Schaffer’s Golden Gamble, where we offer a fair deal from a fair man?”

His patter finished, Schaffer stopped shuffling, a questioning look on his face. “Well?” He splayed his hands over the three face-down cards in front of him.

Aaron, head cocked to the right in thought, reached out and tapped the card on the left. Sol noticed the tiniest of bends in the front right-hand corner of the card.

 “That one. And here’s my bet.” He tossed a double eagle onto the felt with as much nonchalance as if it had been a nickel.

“$20? A confident bet from a confident man, I’d say.” Schaffer flipped the card over. “Queen it is. You win, sir.” He made a rueful expression, corners of his mouth turned down.

The crowd clapped its approval.

Aaron won a few more times, each time upping his bet until he was winning $100 at a time.

“I like this game, Mr. Schaffer. But it hardly seems fair to you for me to keep winning at such small stakes. Shall we make it truly interesting?”

“If I can afford it.”

Aaron reached into his vest pocket for a pouch of gold coins and let it slip onto the table, spilling its contents. “Five hundred dollars.”

The crowd fell silent.

“Shall we make it a little more interesting?” asked Schaffer.


“Call me deluded, but let’s make it double or nothing. A fairer deal doesn’t exist.”


Schaffer smiled and flipped the cards to and fro. “Five hundred, five hundred, five hundred, all into the valley of cash rode the $500,” he said. “Cards to the right of them, cards to the left of them, cards in front of them, all into the valley of cash rode the five hundred bucks. Their’s is not to reason why, their’s is to make others go my, my my,” he went on.

He stopped tossing the cards.

And Pliskin noted that now all three cards had neat little crimps in their left-hand corners.

Aaron hesitated. His right index finger hovered over the cards.

“Well, sir?” prompted Schaffer.

“The bet was double or nothing?”

“As I recall.”

“Table stakes?”


“Then I wish to increase the bet.” Aaron reached into his other vest pocket and plopped yet another pouch of golden coins onto the tabletop. “Another $500.”

Schaffer’s smile grew even wider.

“If you insist.”

“That one,” Aaron said, tapping the middle card.

“Your choice,” said Schaffer, reaching for a far card to flip over Aaron’s selection.

Thunk! A small silver dagger flashed from Aaronson’s sleeve, pinning the card he had chosen to the table. “If you don’t mind,” he said. Retrieving his knife, he tugged it out and turned over the impaled card to reveal the queen of hearts.

“I do believe you owe me $2,000, Mr. Schaffer.”

The crowd roared its approval. Unseen by the throng during the hubbub, two men slipped out the back.

Schaffer, his face as still as stone, paid his debt without saying a word.

“Thank you, kind sir,” said Aaron, with a mocking bow. He turned to Pliskin. “An entertaining and profitable turn of events, indeed. Now, let us retire for the evening.”

Pliskin led the way back to his cottage at the edge of town. But they weren’t even a hundred yards away from the Drovers’ Rest when two masked men approached them out of an alley, guns drawn. “Fork over that cash!” one of them commanded, gesturing with his bulldog revolver.

“Of course. Just don’t shoot,” said Pliskin.

The second man pulled a set of brass knuckles out of his coat pocket. “You’ll wish you’d been shot by the time we’re through with the pair of you,” he said, raising his fist.

A loop of lariat dropped around his shoulders, and then tightened, tugging him down to the ground.

The four clicks made by cocking a Peacemaker’s hammer sounded crisp and clear in the night air.  “Drop it. Or I drop you,” commanded Eli Weiss.

The snub-barreled revolver hit the dirt, along with a cheap Belgian handgun and the brass knuckles. “Take it easy, mister,” said one of the muggers.

“Relax. Dead men make poor witnesses,” said Weiss. “You’re under arrest. We need you to testify in court against your boss. That $2,000 was just a little sting. We’re aiming to put him out of business for good.”

Marshal Verdell Hubbard dropped his lariat and drew his Webley revolver. “Haven’t dallied a loop since I was herding cattle during my ranch-hand days. Haven’t lost the knack.”

“What do we do next?” asked Aaron.

“We arrest Schaffer, haul him in front of a circuit judge and jury, and force him to pay back the people of Panacea – even that miserable miser, Jabez Wilkes,” said Hubbard.

“Case closed,” said Weiss.

“I can jail these yahoos and throw Mr. Schaffer in with them. I’ll join you folks later,” said Hubbard, leading the two muggers off at gunpoint.

The gambler tucked his dagger back up his sleeve, surprising Pliskin, who had not noticed him preparing to fight. “I call it my fifth ace,” he said with a smile.

“The ranger explained that he had helped you build a sukkah,” said Aaron, turning to the merchant. “Might I spend the night in it? It’s been a long time since I observed Sukkot.”

“Of course. We’ll even share a meal in it. I’m sure that Hannah can prepare something for us,” said Pliskin.

“After all, we’re a family,” said Weiss, relishing the word. “And families stay together during such times. Heck, during any time.”

“You see,” said Pliskin to Weiss as he led Aaron to his house, “I told you that we would truly have a reason for rejoicing.”

The End








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