Authors Note: I'm not the fastest writer out there, so updates are going to be sporadic. I usually don't post until a fic is complete, but I gave in to the whining and begging (Megan) LOL

Chapter One

"Th' fuck did he want?" Daryl spat, eyes narrowed as he watched their foreman make his way back to the office. Lazy son of a bitch spent 90% of his time in air-conditioned comfort while they all sweltered in the Georgia humidity. He had to have one hell of a good reason to venture into the yard, especially to engage in conversation with Daryl's brother.

Merle shifted the toothpick in his mouth from one side to the other around a shit-eating grin. "Why, just a friendly little chat with our boss man, brother."

Daryl snorted and helped himself to another sandwich from their shared lunch cooler. "Yeah, 'cause that bodes well for ol' Eddie."

"Any o' them cookies you made left?" Merle dove in and came up with the last few in a plastic baggie. "Shit! This all that's left outtah three dozen fuckin' cookies?"

"What can I say? They're good cookies." Daryl shrugged. He didn't get the urge to bake often-a talent he'd learned from their momma-but when he did, he made enough to share with the guys at work. Like him and Merle, there was very little sweetness in their lives.

"Damn fine cookies, but next time keep some back for us, ya dipshit," Merle complained, stuffing his mouth full.

"Oh, calm th' fuck down, Merle. There's two dozen back home in the cookie jar."

"Schyeah, if Buck don't get to 'em first." Chocolate chip craving appeased for the moment, Merle sucked down the last of his 'Sprite', which was actually straight vodka and ice. He fixed himself one every morning and it was always gone by lunch. Sure, he would get fired if any of the higher ups got wind of it, but it never occurred to Daryl to chastise him for it. Merle without his morning 'Sprite' was an ugly, ugly thing for everyone who worked with him.

There was still twenty minutes left of their lunch hour when Daryl gathered up their trash and stuffed it in the empty cooler. "So, what did ass face want with you?"

"Oh, man!" Merle snickered as he lit up a Camel. "That dumb shit wants in on the game this weekend."

Daryl gawked. "And you politely told him to get fucked, right?"

"Well..."

"Aw, hell no, Merle! Ain't nobody here can stand that pus-bag, so what makes you think anyone wants to spend quality time with him when there's no work involved?" Daryl demanded.

"Simmer down, son. Ol' Merle's got a plan."

"Oh, this should be good," he muttered. Usually when Merle had a plan, they ended up in jail or the emergency room. Neither were anywhere near Daryl's favorite place to be.

"Why ya gotta always be so mean to me?" Merle pouted. "Do you wanna hear this shit or what?"

"Might as well, you ain't gonna shut up about it till you spill."

That earned him another glare, but sure enough, Merle commenced to spilling.

"Well, think about it for a sec. He's always talking about his money, about his pricey home and his cars and his bike, right?"

"That bike ain't shit, Merle," Daryl contested hotly. "It's a fuckin' Honda!" He snarled the word out like it was something evil.

"Not the point, Daryl. Damn! You're s'posed to be the one with the brains, ain't cha? Try to stick with me, here." Merle moved in closer and lowered his voice. "So, he brags about that shit just to make himself look better'n all of us, but at the same time, it drives him bug-shit that we don't include him in our reindeer games. I say, we let him in on a couple games, let him win a little more each time, then when we got him right where we want him, we blindside him. Hit him where it really hurts. The way we play-without cheatin', I might add-our buddy Ed will be standin' in line at the food stamp office in no time!"

Daryl had to admit it sounded like a pretty damned ingenious plan. Ed Peletier had been lording it over the sawmill employees and making their lives miserable for almost five years, so he was ripe for some payback. He tipped his brother a rare smile.

"Count me in."

It took some fast talking on Merle's part, but the rest of the crew finally agreed to allow Ed Peletier to join their Saturday night poker game. More than anything, the deciding factor was how much they were all going to enjoy seeing the look on their foreman's face when he realized he'd been well and truly screwed.

The game was usually held in the Dixon garage. Since theirs was a bachelor pad, and Buck Dixon was an indiscriminate horn dog, wives were discouraged to attend. On the rare occasion they did show up, they were pressed into cleaning the pigsty of a house. Actually, that could be considered an insult to the pigs, since their pen was undoubtedly cleaner. Daryl's room was the cleanest in the house, not that any of the women ever stood the chance of finding out. They barely made it halfway through the kitchen before Buck took off after them with a salacious grin on his face and his pecker in hand.

Everyone brought snacks and their choice of beverage, plus there was an admission charge of a case of beer for their charming host. Since the first game nearly five years ago, Buck never had to buy his own beer again. All the liquor was iced down in an old horse trough, all the snacks were spread out on the workbench, and all the drugs were kept in the trunk of Merle's old Camaro in case the cops showed up.

In spite of the difference in their temperaments, things had gone rather smoothly over the years. Of course there was the occasional fight. They were southern men, after all, and a few of them had tempers as bad as Merle's. They were usually quick to resolve their issues and get back to gambling, and no one carried a grudge to work the following Monday.

Things went downhill pretty fast after Ed showed up. The first night, there were three fights, all started by Ed. It got really hairy when he accused Walt Earlecher of cheating, because, of course, Walt whipped out his switchblade and threatened to gut him. By the end of the evening, they all wanted to kill the asshole. Buck just wanted to fuck him.

He'd been to prison, after all.

At lunch that Friday, everyone gathered around Daryl's truck to bitch and complain about Ed and how he was ruining their fun.

"I've h-h-had it up to he-he-here with that f-f-fucker!" Walt Earlecher hissed, glaring in the general direction of the office. Since being struck by lightning while mushrooming several years back, Walt had been cursed with a horrible stutter. Ed had been cruel enough to tease him about it on more than one occasion.

"Shh! Tone it down, Walt," Merle soothed, trying not to be too obvious as he wiped Walt's spit from his face. "Just a few more games and it'll all be over with."

"I say we kill him after the last game. Cut him up and feed him to my pigs." This from Seth Woolery. Seth worked like a dog to support a wife and six kids, with number seven on the way. When he offered to work any available over time, Ed smiled to his face, then offered it to everyone else before Seth, regardless of seniority.

"Yep. Them pigs'll eat anythin', even a tub o' guts like him." In his own way, Trey Daniels fared worse than the others. He was one of the few black men that remained after Ed took over. Ed was possibly the world's worst bigot, and even if he deigned to speak to Trey, every sentence ended in a derisive "boy" or "nigger". When Trey dared to complain about it, he was cut back to one day a week and his family would have starved if not for his church. After several months, he got his hours back, but Trey had learned a hard lesson.

"I say we let Buck fuck him an' make him his bitch."

They all turned to face Daryl, eyes bulging and jaws agape.

"What?" he scoffed. "Ya'll know he's been to prison."

Walt frowned. "Did being in p-p-prison turn Buck gay?" he wondered.

"Hell, naw, ya idjet!" Trey shoved Walt off the tailgate, where he sprawled in the dirt and cussed and sputtered. "Buck's always been this way, ain't that right, Merle?"

Merle nodded agreeably. "Yep. He says he shoulda been a plumber, 'cause if he sees a hole, he feels a powerful need to plug it up."

Daryl leaned forward and pounded Seth on the back. "Kinda like you, buddy!"

"Fuck all ya'll, okay?" Seth groused. "My wife says if I come home pissed off from one more card game, she's puttin' her foot in my ass."

"Least you won't have to worry about Buck's dick gettin' in there," Daryl snickered.

"Alright, fellas, we need t' quiet down. He's lookin' out the window," Trey cautioned.

"Everybody wave at him and smile, 'cause, tonight, it's no more mister nice guy for our pal, Ed," Merle gloated.

They all waved and smiled.

"So, how 'bout I write you an IOU and come Monday I'll go to the bank?" Ed suggested. He was already down almost a thousand bucks, but there was no way was he leaving this early.

Merle bit his lip in consideration as he shuffled the cards. "Well, now, I don't know, Ed. We ain't never made it a habit to uh...extend credit to anyone." Which was a bald faced lie. They did more credit than the Merchants Bank, downtown, but Ed didn't need to know that.

"Come on, asshole! You know I'm good for it."

"No need for name callin', Ed. I guess one time won't hurt us none. Ain't that right, boys?"

Everyone agreed with an award-winning show of reluctance, but their eyes glittered as Ed signed the IOU Merle wrote out for him.

By the time the game broke up around 2am, Ed was down another two thousand and looking decidedly green as he signed a second note.

After he left, Merle waved the papers in the air with a grin. "And next week, shit is gonna get serious," he chortled.

"Lemme get this straight." Merle was slurring his words, but he was nowhere near drunk. He just wanted Ed to think he was. Ed, on the other hand, was extremely inebriated. "You wanna bet...your house?"

It was three weeks later. In that time, Ed had lost his sports car to Trey, his bass boat and all his fishing gear to Walt, and the Honda to Daryl, who turned around and traded it for a sweet used pick-up truck. "Did I stutter? Ain't that Walt's job?" Ed sneered.

Walt, who had folded early in the evening, yanked out his switchblade and made a leap for Ed's back. It took Trey and a few others to hold the man down after they pounced on him and wrestled him to the floor.

Oblivious to the going's-on behind him, Ed glared at Merle. "I'm in this game pretty deep, I know, but I got the winnin' hand right here." He made a show of slapping the cards but missed the table completely and nearly rolled out of his chair face first.

Merle chose that moment to glance up at Daryl and wink. Daryl nodded and made a cutting gesture across his throat with his fingers.

"And ya ain't got nothin' else to bet?" he asked, frowning.

"That house cost my in-laws a ton o' money, mister! And no, all I got left is my kids college money and I cain't touch that. The fuckers made sure o' that 'fore they died," Ed muttered bitterly.

"Well, if that's all ya got left...We'll have t' write it up and someone'll have t' be a witness, just in case," Merle mused aloud.

"Write it up however ya want, ya dumb redneck!" Ed bellowed. "I'll sign it, 'cause I know I ain't gonna lose. Got the winnin' hand, I said!" He raised his hand to wallop the table again, then thought better of it. "Get it writ up!"

The sickly expression on Ed's face was completely worth all they had suffered to get to this magical moment.

"Guess you got yourself a house, brother," Daryl said as he clapped Merle on the shoulder. "Great hand, too!"

"Always wanted me a big fancy house. Reckon I'll have to get me one o' them sassy l'il French maids to clean it for me?"

Merle's royal flush lay on the table, mocking Ed's plain old flush.

Ed's green complexion was coated with perspiration. "This cain't be happening...My house..." He looked up at them, his eyes filled with tears and his lower lip wobbling. "You gotta give me a chance t' win it back!" he pleaded desperately.

They all got a good laugh out of that.

"Come on! Double or nothing, man!"

"Bubba, you ain't got nothin' else to bet," Merle told him gently. "You're tapped out."

The strangest expression crossed Ed's face and Daryl shivered. That must be what pure evil looks like, he thought.

"Oh, I got somethin' left, all right," Ed informed them. "Double or nothin'...Winner takes the house...And my wife and kid."