• Published 11th Jul 2012
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Off the Beaten Path - PingSquirrel



A tale of someone comfortable with his life becoming somepony not well liked at all.

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And Games

8.

Back home, I had spent some time trucking for a lumber yard. It was not long haul or anything so grandiose as that but it was good, honest work that made me very familiar of a good section of my home province. I can still navigate the gravel roads with the best of them, just using an odometer and the sun, but what I was applying here was a simple rule. When enough humans get together in a town, the first thing they seem to build is a bar. Sure, they might call it a hotel or a restaurant but as soon as you have ten or more people living in an area, they get together and put together a place where they can drink, swap stories, tell lies and play games of chance. I always thought it was healthy to have a place where one could kick up their feet and simply let troubles and woes get washed away by a little beer and good company.

The ponies of this world agreed with that sentiment and after asking a few passing ponies, I was given directions to an old, red brickwork building that was a stone's throw away from the town's centre. Time had not been overly kind to “The Shady Glade” and it was easy to see where the elements took their toll on it. The bricks were stained by years of water running over them, and the white paint on the wooden sign baring the tavern's name was peeling to reveal greying wood beneath. It even had a stereotypical placard fading by the door, declaring that “The Master of the Guitar – Luke Vox” preformed every weekend, complete with a picture of an old grey stallion playing on stage. I simultaneously thought the pony had a chance against the likes of Michael Romeo back home, and the play on words was terrible. Luke Vox and Jukebox. Really? But, for all its shortcomings, it was a welcoming sight to a weary traveller or a work pony that needed to take a load off, and right now, I had more than enough on my mind to need that service so I was not about to let some peeling paint stop me from entering.

I was not expecting much from the place. If it had a table that I could dust off the grime, something that was at least ten percent alcohol to drink and a barkeep that knew when a good tipper was near, I would be set until I wandered back to the truck in a content stupor. What I got was very much a pleasant surprise, because the care and pride placed on the inside was a far cry from the outside. The dark oaks of the bar and the tables were immaculately shined with a great lot of attention payed to the detail work of the designs laid in them, the smell of the place was not the reek of stale alcohol but rather a subtle scent that suggested an active kitchen in the back, and there was not a single unoccupied table that was not busked and ready for the next costumer. There was even a friendly nod and a smile from the dark green unicorn with a purple mane that was tried into a short ponytail who was manning the bar. Everything about him and his work seemed to be prim and proper, including the dark vest and white dress-shirt he had on. “Hello there! You're not quite the first here tonight, but please do come in,” was the accented greeting, though I could drive myself mad on actually placing it. My first guess would be that it sounded vaguely eastern European, but the impossibility of that being true was a stumbling block, so I did not dwell on it.

“That is what I intended to do, thank you.” I returned casually as I walked to the bar proper and quickly noticed the lack of stools and chairs around the place. Benches stood in their place, and I supposed that made sense for a place where the clients walked on all fours. Also, very few of the benches were actually occupied. At one table, there was a couple of older ponies, talking to each other in what was likely an ever escalating story that only ended in scope and scale when one called the other a liar, at which point the game started anew. “I don't know. That looks like a wild crowd.”

“You should be here on a Saturday then. There is usually a big turn out for Mr. Vox,” he said as his aura worked a cloth over a glass until it was made to shine. “Either way, you're a little ahead of the rush for seating tonight. Even with just an open stage, I am proud to serve any and all that make their way to the Glade.”

Great. It was karaoke night in Ponyville's only bar, but at least there were other things that would keep my attention too. A dart board adorned one wall, and pool table sat, ready to use. There even was a card table and a slot machine to that side. I finally decided this place was a mix of a western saloon and a English pub. Even with a pony warbling on stage, I could tolerate it. “What's good on tap, and how much?” I enquired as I opened my tool bag up to retrieve the coinage I was paid earlier in the day.

“We have Sweet Apple Acre's Hard Cider as the local drink of choice, and it is three bits a mug,” he replied proudly. I guess he had no idea how little that meant to me. At that moment, a drink was worth worth a lot to me and that was motivation enough to brave the unfamiliar ground. My mouth dipped into the tool bag (and I immediately resolved to clean the inside of it) to pull the small sack with that payment I was given. Without too much more thought, I gave it a shake out, dumping out at least fifteen of the coins and my eyes went wide. Until now, I had not given much attention to the Equestrian coinage as years with paper-money had trained me to simply not care about little metal disks, but these 'bits' were chunks of gold! Even if they were alloyed, each would have to be at least an ounce of the precious metal, and took three of them to buy a single drink! Obviously, my value system would have to make a rather sharp adjustment.

“Excuse me. Everything alright?” the unicorn asked, seeing my shocked and slightly horrified expression.

“Uh. Yeah. Just fine. Tell me when that runs out and I'll top it up again,” I stammered back quickly as I tried to recompose myself, and he nodded and gathered the currency up in his green aura and went to pour. With the bartender looking away, I glanced in my bag and saw a treasure trove that was worth more than a year's salary back home. If it was at all possible, this bag going to come home with me. The clack of a full mug filled with frothy, amber liquid being set down in front of me returned my attention back to the present. It was time to have the most expensive drink I ever had.

“So, you are new in town, yes?” the bartender asked just as I lowered my head to catch the lip of the glass in my mouth so I might carry it to a table.

“You can say that,” I replied, then went to get the drink again, only to be interrupted again.

“Oh, then you must of had the Ponyville welcome laid on you already,” he joked as his magic picked up a new glass to lavish his attentions on. “You have to forgive Pinkie Pie, but she really is a good one.”

This time I beat him to the punch and already had a firm grip of the mug in my mouth, and he had to make do with a simple nod for an answer. I really did not want to talk about a mare that had it out for me. He seemed content with that returned to his preparations for the night. I did the same by moving myself to a corner table where I sloughed the work bag and set down the mug on the table. The loop on it was wide enough for a hoof, and I was quite happy to hook one through it and it all felt quite natural and familiar to me all at once. I was, for an instant, waiting for my friends to join me at the bar, where we'd talk about anything and everything that struck our fancy, bad mouth the reffing during the latest game, and pay far too much for bad hot wings. I sipped the drink and the taste of a good stout was not in my mouth, and I was dropped back into the foreign place all at once. It did not matter how good the cider was even. There were no friends that were going to come to join me here in idle chatter. I was alone tonight and no matter how much I drank, or how long I waited, that would not change. On that note, I lifted the glass and toasted to no one.

“To the first day of the rest of my life.” I then drank the mug down quickly.

“I take it you like it,” the barkeep called over to me as soon as he saw the empty mug hit the table. I did not dislike it. It was alcohol. “Should I put some hay fries on to go with the next glass? They go well together.”

As if I needed another reminder that I was here. Hay fries? I have no idea what those would even look like, let alone how they would taste, so I shrugged. “Sure. I'll take a plate.” The turn around time on such an order is surprisingly quick because I did not even get time to really wallow in the emotional pit I fell into before the bartender trotted up to my table, setting a fresh mug and the hot plate down filled with what looked to be vaguely greenish french fries.

“Your order,” he said with pride as he presented it.

“If you keep up the service like this, you might have a regular on your hooves,” I replied as I possessively hooked the drink towards me with a hoof. “I'm Scriber, by the way.” The name felt far too natural for my liking. It was just another foreign thing that has wormed uncomfortably close to me in such a short time.

“And I am Merlot, and would love to have another regular in my tavern,” he said, complete with a deep bow. He was trying hard to earn his tip. “Though you do look a bit sad. May I ask why?”

Without any other customers vying for attention, seems he could focus on me. “I rather not talk about it,” came my answer. I considered lying briefly, but I really was not up to that either.

“Well, I hope you enjoy your stay here, yes. Even if you are upset about it, this is a very good place for a good pony. Maybe I can help you settle in, if you want.”

Right now, I really did not want 'help' from Merlot other than a perpetually-filled mug, but I lifted my gaze over lazily to him anyways. “Like how?”

“There are ponies that like coming in here to play cards,” he answered as he glanced to the card table as if to show it to me. My gaze follows his. “It is a good way to meet a few ponies from around town and enjoy yourself. Should I introduce you to them when they get in?”

I was ready to turn down him down without consideration, but he brought up my Achilles heel. I have been a gamer a long time. I have been known to hit a card table with strangers when I was on the road, or go to a convention, only to disappear into the gaming room until the convention was finished. If there was to be one thing more effective than alcohol at distracting me, it would be a good game. He must of seen me perk up as I recalled fond memories.

“I'll make sure you get in at the table, then. But for now, relax and enjoy your fries,” Merlot said, then turned to go back to his work at the bar. Somepony was working hard to get a hefty tip, and I was not about to begrudge him that. And besides, it was a good idea. I was looking at three months here, so I should try to meet other ponies and a game might lighten my mood. Especially if I won. I might even stand a chance of that if the game was close to something I would recognize. After thinking about joining in for a few rounds of cards, I found myself looking forward to meeting the competition and planing strategy in my head. I was not a professional, but I was no slouch with a deck of cards back home and would rarely fail to break even at the table. Of course, there was the niggling little doubt that the game might be entirely different. If that was the case, I would simply have to learn.

Time was measured by mugs and before my third mug was done, other ponies started filing into the tavern. The din of voices sharing the day's events and sharing ideas was pleasant. Even with the clips and clops of hooves on the ground, the place sounded like home, complete with an amateur singer taking the stage. It was about then that Merlot returned to my table, replacing my drink. “They are here, if you still want to be joining them,” he announced.

“I think I am up for it still, unless I keep at the cider like this,” I replied with a bit of a smirk.

The expression of mirth was returned quickly. “Nonsense. The cider will just help you relax,” he stated with confidence before he motioned me to follow him. I stood and let him lead me to a table with the for players sitting down already, each with a little coin in front of them as their buy in. Once again, I was taken back by the casual use of gold in this world, but at least this time I was not reduced to a shocked gape at the currency.

“Lyra, Thunderlane, Bon-Bon and Big Mac,” Merlot said, nodding to each pony in time to their name being said, “This is Scriber. He is new here, and wants to play.”

I nodded slightly to the group. “Hello.” I was never good at introductions. Either way, they all looked between each other, as if silently conferring on the issue.

The charcoal grey pegasus stallion spoke up first for the group. “Welcome to the table. Sit down and we will deal you in,” he welcomed without further consideration.

“As long as you have the bits,” added the green unicorn mare with a white stripe in her mane. I think her name was Lyra, and she was regarding me a touch more closely than the others.

“Lyra! Don't be so harsh. This is a friendly game,” the off-white mare with a blue and pink mane chided. At least that cleared everything up for me. That would be Bon-Bon, leaving the big red stallion wearing the yoke as Big Mac. The name fit as he was the first pony I really could meet eye to eye with.

“Yeeeup,” was the entirety of his contribution to the introductions, but he was the outstanding vote, and with it cast, I was unanimously accepted to the table. I was quick to pull up the bench, settle in and put the coinage on the table, which was exchanged for chips. And the game was off.

It was familiar and anything familiar was good. The conversations over the shuffling of cards were friendly chats about how the day went for the other four, and when the questions came around to me, I tried to be honest as I could be without revealing too much. Besides, today really was not a bad day, all things considered. I only came to that conclusion when Lyra asked me point blank, “Well, Scriber, what did you do today? Get settled into town?”

“Well, more or less started to do that. I am not sure if I will ever really settle here, but I got a job done for the Cake's and that got me a much needed pay-day,” I replied before adding, “And I think I am in line for another one. I raise ten.” I pushed the chip in, and instantly saw the reactions around the table. I was struggling to hold a poker face as I was sitting with only a pair of fives, but their eyes were so expressive! Ears perked, wings spread and tails flicked and each was a billboard of what the pony was thinking. Seriously, they were all just open books, making me wonder how good my face was.

“Can't do anything with these. I fold,” Thunder spat as he pushed his cards away, (Now that I think of it, how was I holding them this well. Never mind). He could not be that upset though, because as the other three at the table followed his example, he asked, “What is it you do?”

I really did not expect it to be that easy to spook them either, or maybe they simply believed me entirely. “Oh. I do metal work. Mostly air supplies, but if you need a worker to build something, I know a smattering about it,” I replied as I scooped the small pot my way.

“Maybe you can use a pony like him at your barn, there Mac,” Lyra added in as she already picked the cards up in her magic and shuffled them expertly as it was much faster than waiting on a hoof-shuffle which was nothing more than Fifty-Two Pick-Up with a little more organization.

“Maybe,” was his reply as I noted him watching me carefully, and I just kept the stone face going. Seemed like the stallion was trying to size me up.

“He does that blank face thing better than you, Mac,” Bon-Bon said with a grin as she picked up her cards and immediately tossed a few chips into the pot, “Maybe it's just a thing that big ponies do.”

“Nope,” came his reply as he looked at his cards and threw in his own raise into the mix. He looked too confident in that. I followed by tossing in my cards in instead, much to his annoyance. I did smile smugly his way though.

“Must be something there,” I added then leaned back to enjoy a sip and the company, “So, what is it you guys do?”

“Well, I am a musician,” Lyra said, touching her chest with a hoof. It was about then I noticed she was sitting upright. If my own experience in the matter carried any weight, I knew that could not be comfortable. “With the lyre, of course.”

The conversation followed around the play, and Bon-Bon answered, “I am a confectioner. If you buy candy here, likely I had a hoof in making it.” That did not sound that appealing a tag-line to me but I let it slide, “And the big quiet guy is an apple farmer. You're drinking his cider right now.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Really? Thank you, Big Mac for making such a nice drink,” I put in, “Too bad, by the time this game is done, I'll be drinking for free, eh?” He glanced my way, and did not appreciate the friendly jab even as he took up the pot. Everypony folded to him.

“Don't worry about it, Mac. You can stand to lose a game once in a while,” Thunderlane added with a chuckle, “Builds character. And I am a thunder and lightening specialist, Scriber. Work on the weather team is good if you can get it, and my job has the biggest bang to it.” I was beginning to think that pegasi were naturally boastful creatures, but his job did certainly sound interesting enough to make conversation around the table easy.

Hands came and went and I learned a few things as the night progressed. For example, ponies seemed to be naturally honest and trusting individuals. While I admired the spirit of such a thing, at a card table, it was a liability. Seriously, I felt like I was taking advantage of the ponies, but that did not mean I would not take their money too. A game is a game after all. It did make my think of the virtues of my native species though, if we were naturally so good at spotting falsehoods. I did not dwell long on that.

In conversation, I learned more about the ponies at the table. Apparently, ponies were magical terraformers who, in addition to having rulers that could control the day-night cycle, could manipulate the weather. Thunderlane, being the affable pony he was, would go into detail of his work at the slight provocation or interest into it. If I was not focusing on the game, and my growing stack of chips, I would have happily mused on the value that could provide back home. In addition, Lyra explained she sat up so she could practice the posture she'd hold while playing. If she could rest the lyre close in her lap to play, it would make the magical effort easier. I took her word for it. And, after I mentioned I added a fan to the Cake's kitchen, Bon-Bon wanted me to give an estimate to do the same with her little shop. The only one that was not joining in the banter was Big Mac. Instead, he was taking runs at me ever since I first teased him about it at the first hand. Every time he thought I had something, he would try and bluff me and every time his tail and ears would twitch nervously ever so slightly. I am not sure why the other ponies did not see it, but as far as BM I was implacable. If only he could see his face when he was the first out.

“Tough break,” Lyra said as she gathered up the cards, “Who knew Scriber was not bluffing that time?”

Big Mac looked at me hard and narrowed his eyes as if he were trying to inspect something he did not much care for. “You been playin' us fer rubes,” he finally said, much to the shock of everypony at the table I was simply surprised to hear him speak so much at once. “Yer some slick city type that hustles us small town ponies.”

“Hey. BM. You might want to take it easy. It is just a game. No need to make it personal,” interjected Lyra with concern in her voice. “He played a good game and had the cards to back it up.”

“Nope. Deal me back in. I am goin' to bring mah real game,” he said with conviction in his voice and fire in his eyes. He had something to prove to me, though I really did not want to see any bad blood develop.

“We can play another night, eh?” I tried but the stallion snorted and stood his ground, waiting for the next hand.

Eyes wandered the table back and forth before Bon-Bon piped in, “Well, you have to buy in again.” Her voice was very faint, as if she was worried to upset the big stallion.

Thunderlane added, “Those are the rules. Have the bits to back up the attitude?”

That stymied Big Mac and he ran a hoof under his yoke where he kept his coin pouch. There was a distinct lack of jangling from the little bag and that seemed to be that. Then he pulled off his yoke entirely and set it down. “Nope, but I have this here. You ponies good with that?”

He really wanted that rematch right now, and I finally shrugged. “I am good with it. It's just collateral for bits later. You guys?” They all gave half-hearted nods as they all saw a potential grudge developing at the friendly table. Either way, Lyra piled the new stack of chips in front of him, and followed it with the next deal. Things went pretty much as I expected after I made a couple little raises just to see what happened, then some big red pony threw a wrench into the works.

“All in,” Big Mac declared sharply and much to the surprise to the rest of the table.

“Jeeze, Mac,” Thunderlane muttered with a shake of his head, but I was not looking his way, but rather straight at the cold-faced Big Mac. He was definitely stepping up to the challenge he set out for himself. I glanced at my cards, and back to his face, then gave a casual shrug.

“I'll pay to see what you have.”

He smiled at me as predatory as a pony can get and laid out his cards. He had a straight to a princess (Apparently, instead of aces, that is what they had here). I even whistled appreciatively.

“And all I have is random number cards,” I replied as I tossed them on the table, and that big draft hoof reached out to scoop up the winnings when I added, “But does it matter when they are all the same suit?” Once again, I grinned smugly. “I don't always bluff.”

He did not seem to know what to do about that, and he just got up, and stamped away from the table, leaving behind the yoke. I really did not have a use for such a thing. I just wanted to be a friendly guy and let him stick around in the game longer, and I really did not expect him to leave the table like that. And judging from the rest of the expression at the table, neither did the others. No pony spoke as we all watched him leave out the door in a hurry.

I broke the silence first and with my head held low. “Sorry guys. I think I just killed the mood,” I admitted glumly. It was not the first time I have seen a player 'rage-quit' a game, but I wanted to make a good impression here on the others. Chasing off of their friend was bound to leave a sour taste in their mouths.

“Don't worry. We can call it here. You have played a lot though, haven't you?” Lyra asked as she gathered up the cards, and began to exchange out the chips for bits with that lime-green aura of hers. She was right, but before I could answer, another pony spoke up.

“I bet he has. Seriously, he has that blank stare thing,” Thunderlane praised, “You have to teach me how to do it. Big Mac does not let us leave with bits too often.”

"Yeah, I wouldn't mind learning how to do it either," added Bon-Bon as she sat up a little higher at the table and leaned in with interest.

“Well, let me buy you guys a drink, and I can try and show you how it's done,” I answered. I still had no idea what I was going to do with a yoke, but as for the bits, I had plans that involved paying Merlot back for introducing me to the table. The night was young and I had winnings to squander.