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"More to the story," Annalise said. "The lover and the other were foster brothers, blood brothers, even. The other had watched over the girl and her lover jealously, for his foster brother would nae spend time in frolics and games as he would before. Now, in looks, except for the other's white hair and fair skin, they were as alike as twins..."
Ronald Oberst watched in anger as his best friend, nay, his brother, wooed the common Annalise under the apple tree. What was she? A glorified farmer’s daughter? Landed gentry? Pah. The blood of kings ran in his veins, his lineage traced back to Charlemagne, while his brother James – fine, his cousin, but raised as his brother – suckled side by side with him on the fine white breast of a Bavarian milkmaid, imported to London by his sainted mother late in her pregnancy.
James was ready to give up their plans, their hopes, their plots… for this Woman? No. Ronald would not stand for it.
He turned away from the couple embracing under the fruit-laden branches and stalked back to his carriage, rapping sharply on the roof, and directing his driver to take him back to the city, back to his club. He had to find a way to break James away from the girl.
His foster brother smiled back, and took a long drag on his cigar, laying his cards face down on the table without a fight. “So you do. Funny that. Lady Luck must be with you tonight.”
“I hope so. I have plans for her later,” he responded, still smiling, thinking of sweet Annalise and their plans to run away and be married. In fact – he checked the time on his pocket watch – he told himself it was past time he be on his way. “Ronald, I’ve a pressing engagement. You’ll excuse me?”
“Of course, of course. Take care. And, brother -- ” He paused, and James glanced back at him as an impeccably dressed footman helped him back into his coat.
Ronald continued, “Good luck.”
The dark-haired James, a product of his Scottish heritage, clasped hands with his blood brother, and dashed out into the London night.
Taking another long, deep drag on his cigar, Ronald flipped over his cards, revealing a royal flush before shuffling them back into the deck and slipping the pack into his pocket. Signaling for his coat from another footman, he smoothed down his white blond hair, and smiled coldly.
In the garden, under the apple tree, he watched her wait. Wait for a fiancé that was not coming. Ronald had paid good money to bad men to abduct James as he walked down an alley on the way to meet Annalise. To knock him senseless and secure him on a ship debarking at midnight for New York. One of Ronald’s ships, truth be told.
He watched her wait, and seethed at the near ruin of their plans. Angered, and lusted. Unseeing, as if possessed by one of the Old Gods of which his peasant wet nurse had told him countless stories, he confronted her, bound her in silence with threats and promises of rumors and ruin, and took her. Violently. Hard. Against the apple tree.
When it was over, and he stood over her silently crying body, he buttoned up his flies and pulled a piece of fruit from the tree above, taking a bite with the same possessiveness he’d taken her. He dropped the half-eaten apple on her blood-stained skirts and walked away, and did not think of her again.
Ronald smoked another cigar and watched from across the smoky saloon as James – he was calling himself “Jebediah” by then, as if assuming some folksy name could erase his memories of the past – calmly took the life savings from another unassuming mark. They’d built up quite the portfolio, quite a sizable joint bank account back in New York, added to almost weekly from fleecings like the one in the saloon, land schemes, and other disreputable practices that kept them moving along the East Coast and across the country, now finding them in Idaho on a golden fall day.
With another hand won, James leaned back in his chair and signaled a barmaid, who pressed through the crowd with another glass of gin, and handed it to him. He swatted at her backside as she turned away, and Ronald threw back his own whiskey. James – no, Jebediah – was going to get them into trouble again. William sidled up to him with a smirk. “Is he making trouble again?”
“Hope not,” Ronald replied, terse. They’d met on a paddleboat on the Mississippi, and though William was playing the same game, if from a newer deck, the trinity found a way to work together. They each had different skills. “Go sit at the table, will you? Get another game running before someone worries about bad luck, and takes off again.”
William nodded, and sat across from Jebediah, playing a few honest hands as Ronald continued to scan the crowd, deciding if it was worth it to stay another day, or pull up stakes and move again.
In the last dying rays of the sun, the saloon’s swinging doors were pushed open, and a man stood silhouetted against the light, his hat pulled low across his face. He blocked the doorway, uninclined to move aside, to sit at the bar or a table, until he’d taken his full of the entire room. His gaze, hooded by the hat and the shadows, passed over Ronald, who shuddered and took a pull from another glass of whiskey, feeling suddenly like his grave’d been stepped on.
Silently, the man finally moved, and weaved through the crowd of gamblers to Jebediah’s table, standing at an empty seat until the hand had finished, and the players looked up. “May I sit in?” His voice was rough, like he’d been swallowing rocks for breakfast for the last decade or more. Jebediah gestured generously, as Ronald cursed him for a fool, and crossed to the table to take the last remaining seat beside his partners.
They didn’t usually waste time with pleasantries – the social niceties had gone the way of their British-born fastidiousness somewhere in Ohio, Ronald reckoned – but he found himself asking the lupine stranger’s name as William dealt the cards, the Spanish lady on the back of them winking as she slid from the top and bottom of the deck.
“I’m Nobody,” he replied, grunting it.
“That so?” Jebediah grinned.
“Maybe,” the stranger replied. “Maybe I’m somebody after all. Does it matter?”
“Not a whit,” Ronald answered, knowing it was a lie. And he knew lying.
They played. William bowed out early, emptying his pockets onto the table and leaving the blood brothers and the stranger to the game. Jebediah played rashly, as always, winning a fair share of the hands with a combination of luck and cheating, while Ronald relied on a more dependable skill. They shared the winnings for the most part, until the stranger began to win more regularly, bigger and bigger pots, and Jebediah bet more, sure at any moment his luck would change again.
They’d been playing for hours, and the Harvest Moon was wide in the velvet sky, when Jebediah’s luck did change, and Ronald marveled at his partner’s inability to recognize the game being played on him. Not for the first time in their long friendship, he cursed his brother’s desires. Now losing heavily, his pot dwindling to nothing, after another few hands the stranger pulled a piece of paper from his breast pocket, and smoothed it against the table in front of him.
“Gentlemen,” he began, “You’ve got skill, sure enough. Talent too. But have you got drive? Have you got… ambition?” Jebediah started to mumble some retort, but Ronald cut him off, recognizing that they’d been marked. “What if we do?”
“Why then,” the stranger said, “Perhaps you can use this.” He tossed the paper into the pot with the last of his coin. “I raise.”
“A deed?” Jebediah asked, peering at it.
The lupine man nodded. “160 acres of fine Texas land, suitable for ranching, planting – or perhaps you could find some other use for it. It’s not for me, I think.”
Ronald folded. “Too rich for my blood.”
The stranger snorted, almost a bark, and turned to Jebediah. “What say you, then?”
He fanned his cards out in his hand and stared at them, then pushed his entire stake into the middle of the table. “I call.”
Ronald felt a kind of hush in the room, as the other patrons pretended not to watch the action, only one man staring intently, as if memorizing the scene to tell it to later generations. Oberst caught his eye until the other fellow flinched, and dealt with the gnawing in his gut that told him this was more important than just a card game.
The stranger laid out two fives, then a pair of Aces… flipping over the last card with a thwack that echoed in the suddenly still room. The Ace of Spades. “Full house, aces high.”
Jedebiah grinned, then laid down the Queen of Hearts, followed by the Jack, the ten, the nine, and the eight. “Straight flush. Ron, I do believe I just became a landowner!”
“So, you did.” He watched the stranger as he stood up from the table, touched his hat, and smiled.
“Quite the game. Good luck with the land.” Without another word, he turned, and walked out of the saloon.
“Isn’t that the damnedest…” Ron murmured.
While Jebediah returned to New York to arrange transfer of their funds to a bank in Houston, and order supplies and furnishings for their new endeavor, William aided Ronald on the land in Texas. There were structures to be built, men to oversee, and, in a cavern underneath the only standing building on the lot when the partners arrived, a bargain to be made. Ronald signed for himself and his brother, and William died shortly thereafter, unloved and unmourned, and quickly forgotten as the Midway -- and The Avalon Group -- grew and prospered.
Some years afterwards, Ronald and Jebediah married sisters from Wisconsin, Norwegian girls who bore them each one child before disappearing in a sudden freak ice storm that destroyed the stable. Twenty years later, or thereabouts, when Olan Oberst returned from the boarding school in the Northeast to which his father had sent him against his will (though once there, he matched his uncle’s tendencies for hijinx that nearly caused his expulsion no less than 6 times, his continued education in the hallowed halls due only to his father’s contributions to the school building fund), he laid eyes on Jebediah’s daughter Virginia, his childhood playmate, and was swiftly signed up, again by his father, for the war effort in Europe.
Olan was one of the first American pilots in the RAF, and survived years of combat. His fellow Aces often crossed themselves in speaking of his unerring luck, his seeming ability to be in two places at once, his devil-may-care attitude. In post war London, Olan was welcomed to his father’s old club, and oversaw the final removal of the Oberst family asserts from England to America.
He returned to Houston, to the home Ronald had made miles from the Midway after his wife’s death, and fell harder still for Virginia. They met clandestinely at first, but eventually convinced their fathers – old now, their bones creaking, facing their mortality – to allow them to marry. In 1957, they were wed, and drove to California for their honeymoon, but not before stopping at the Midway, where Olan fulfilled his promise to his father, leaving his bride chatting happily with her friend Sylvia in the kitchen of the diner while he descended, swearing to take on old debts, and pass them on in time.
That was always the way.
Ronald James Oberst was born, uniting the blood of two brothers. His twin died a few days after his birth, while Virginia still lay in a hospital in Houston.
And the Midway continued to prosper, while something below it prepared.