Above the staccato of conversation and exclamation there arose the appeals of the barkers for the gambling resorts.
"This way. Shall we see what he's got?" the Colonel invited. Forthwith veering aside he crossed the street in obedience to a summons of whoops and shouts that set the very dust to vibrating.
A crowd had gathered before a youth—a perspiring, red-faced youth with a billy-cock hat shoved back upon his bullet head—a youth in galluses and soiled shirt and belled pantaloons, who, standing upon a box for elevation, was exhorting at the top of his lungs.
"Whoo-oop! This way, this way! Everybody this way! Come on, you rondo-coolo sports! Give us a bet! A bet! Rondo coolo-oh! Rondo coolo-oh! Here's your easy money! Down with your soap! Let her roll! Rondo coolo-oh!"
"It's a great game, suh," the Colonel flung back over his shoulder.
We pushed forward, to the front. The center for the crowd was a table not unlike a small billiard table or, saving the absence of pins, a tivoli table such as enjoyed by children. But across one end there were several holes, into which balls, ten or a dozen, resembling miniature billiard balls, might roll.
The balls had been banked, in customary pyramid shape for a break as in pool, at the opposite end; and just as we arrived they had been propelled all forward, scattering, by a short cue rapidly swept across their base.
"Rondo coolo, suh," the Colonel was explaining, "as you see, is an improvement on the old rondo, foh red-blooded people. You may place your bets in various ways, on the general run, or the odd or the even; and as the bank relies, suh, only on percentage, the popular game is strictly square. There is no chance foh a brace in rondo coolo. Shall we take a turn, foh luck?"
The crowd was craning and eyeing the gyrating balls expectantly. A part of the balls entered the pockets; the remainder came to rest.
"Rondo," announced the man with the short cue, amidst excited ejaculations from winners and losers. And according to a system which I failed to grasp, except that it comprised the number of balls pocketed, he deftly distributed from one collection of checks and coins to another, quickly absorbed by greedy hands.
"She rolls again. Make your bets, ladies and gents," he intoned. "It's rondo coolo—simple rondo coolo." And he reassembled the balls.
"I prefer not to play, sir," I responded to the heavily breathing Colonel. "I am new here and I cannot afford to lose until I am better established."
"Never yet seen a man who couldn't afford to win, though," Bill growled. "Easy pickin', too. But come on, then. We'll give you a straight steer some'rs else."
So we left the crowd—containing indeed women as well as men—to their insensate fervor over a childish game under the stimulation of the raucous, sweating barker. Of gambling devices, in the open of the street, there was no end. My conductors appeared to have the passion, for our course led from one method of hazard to another—roulette, chuck-a-luck where the patrons cast dice for prizes of money and valuables arrayed upon numbered squares of an oilcloth covered board, keno where numbered balls were decanted one at a time from a bottle-shaped leather receptacle called, I learned, the "goose," and the players kept tab by filling in little cards as in domestic lotto; and finally we stopped at the simplest apparatus of all.
"The spiel game for me, gentlemen," said the Colonel. "Here it is. Yes, suh, there's nothing like monte, where any man is privileged to match his eyes against fingers. Nobody but a blind man can lose at monte, by George!"
"And this spieler's on the level," Bill pronounced, sotto voce. "I vote we hook him for a gudgeon, and get the price of a meal. Our friend will join us in the turn. He can see for himself that he can't lose. He's got sharp eyes."
The bystanders here were stationed before a man sitting at a low tripod table; and all that he had was the small table—a plain cheap table with folding legs—and three playing cards. Business was a trifle slack. I thought that his voice crisped aggressively as we elbowed through, while he sat idly skimming the three cards over the table, with a flick of his hand.
"Two jacks, and the ace, gentlemen. There they are. I have faced them up. Now I gather them slowly—you can't miss them. Observe closely. The jack on top, between thumb and forefinger. The ace next—ace in the middle. The other jack bottommost." He turned his hand, with the three cards in a tier, so that all might see. "The ace is the winning card. You are to locate the ace. Observe closely again. It's my hand against your eyes. I am going to throw. Who will spot the ace? Watch, everybody. Ready! Go!" The backs of the cards were up. With a swift movement he released the three, spreading them in a neat row, face down, upon the table. He carelessly shifted them hither and thither—and his fingers were marvelously nimble, lightly touching. "Twenty dollars against your twenty that you can't pick out the ace, first try. I'll let the cards lie. I shan't disturb them. There they are. If you've watched the ace fall, you win. If you haven't, you lose unless you guess right."
"Just do that trick again, will you, for the benefit of my friend here?" bade the Colonel.
The "spieler"—a thin-lipped, cadaverous individual, his soft hat cavalierly aslant, his black hair combed flatly in a curve down upon his damp forehead, a pair of sloe eyes, and a flannel shirt open upon his bony chest—glanced alert. He smiled.
"Hello, sir. I'm agreeable. Yes, sir. But as they lie, will you make a guess? No? Or you, sir?" And he addressed Bill. "No? Then you, sir?" He appealed to me. "No? But I'm a mind-reader. I can tell by your eyes. They're upon the right-end card. Aha! Correct." He had turned up the card and shown the ace. "You should have bet. You would have beaten me, sir. You've got the eyes. I think you've seen this game before. No? Ah, but you have, or else you're born lucky. Now I'll try again. For the benefit of these three gentlemen I will try again. Kindly reserve your bets, friends all, and you shall have your chance. This game never stops. I am always after revenge. Watch the ace. I pick up the cards. Ace first—blessed ace; and the jacks. Watch close. There you are." He briefly exposed the faces of the cards. "Keep your eyes upon the ace. Ready—go!"
He spread the cards. As he had released he had tilted them slightly, and I clearly saw the ace land. The cards fell in the same order as arranged. To that I would have sworn.
"Five dollars now that any one card is not the ace," he challenged. "I shall not touch them. A small bet—just enough to make it interesting. Five dollars from you, sir?" He looked at me direct. I shook my head; I was sternly resolved not to be over tempted. "What? No? You will wait another turn? Very well. How about you, sir?" to the Colonel.
"I'll go halvers with you, Colonel," Bill proposed.
"I'm on," agreed the Colonel. "There's the soap. And foh the honor of the grand old Empire State we will let our friend pick the ace foh us. I have faith in those eyes of his, suhs."
"But that is scarcely fair, sir, when I am risking nothing," I protested.
"Go ahead, suh; go ahead," he urged. "It is just a sporting proposition foh general entertainment."
"And I'll bet you a dollar on the side that you don't spot the ace," the dealer baited. "Come now. Make it interesting for yourself."
"I'll not bet, but since you insist, there's the ace." And I turned up the right-end card.
"By the Eternal, he's done it! He has an eye like an eagle's," praised the dealer, with evident chagrin. "I lose. Once again, now. Everybody in, this time." He gathered the cards. "I'll play against you all, this gentleman included. And if I lose, why, that's life, gentleman. Some of us win, some of us lose. Watch the ace and have your money ready. You can follow this gentleman's tip. I'm afraid he's smarter than me, but I'm game."
He was too insistent. Somehow, I did not like him, anyway, and I was beginning to be suspicious of my company. Their minds trended entirely toward gambling; to remain with them meant nothing farther than the gaming tables, and I was hungry.
"You'll have to excuse me, gentleman," I pleaded. "Another time, but not now. I wish to eat and to bathe, and I have an engagement following."
"Gad, suh!" The Colonel fixed me with his fishy eyes. "Foh God's sake don't break your winning streak with eatin' and washin'. Fortune is a fickle jade, suh; she's hostile when slapped in the face."
Bill glowered at me, but I was firm.
"If you will give me the pleasure of taking supper with me at some good place——" I suggested, as they pursued me into the street.
"We can't talk this over while we're dry," the Colonel objected. "That is a human impossibility. Let us libate, suhs, in order to tackle our provender in proper spirit."
"And no lemonade goes this time, either," Bill declared. "That brand of a drink is insultin' to good victuals."
We were standing, for the moment, verging upon argument much to my distaste, when on a sudden who should come tripping along but My Lady of the Blue Eyes—yes, the very flesh and action of her, her face shielded from the dust by a little sunshade.
She saw me, recognized me in startled fashion, and with a swift glance at my two companions bowed. My hat was off in a twinkling, with my best manner; the Colonel barely had time to imitate ere, leaving me a quick smile, she was gone on.
He and Bill stared after; then at me.
"Gad, suh! You know the lady?" the Colonel ejaculated.
"I have the honor. We were passengers upon the same train."
"Clean through, you mean?" queried Bill.
"Yes. We happened to get on together, at Omaha."
"I congratulate you, suh," affirmed the Colonel. "We were not aware, suh, that you had an acquaintance of that nature in this city."
Again congratulation over my fortune! It mounted to my head, but I preserved decorum.
"A casual acquaintance. We were merely travelers by the same route at the same time. And now if you will recommend a good eating place, and be my guests at supper, after that, as I have said, I must be excused. By the way, while I think of it," I carelessly added, "can you direct me how to get to the Big Tent?"
"The Big Tent? If I am not intruding, suh, does your engagement comprise the Big Tent?"
"Yes. But I failed to get the address."
The Colonel swelled; his fishy eyes hardened upon me as with righteous indignation.
"Suh, you are too damned innocent. You come here, suh, imposing as a stranger, suh, and throwing yourself on our goodness, suh, to entertain you; and you conceal your irons in the fiah under your hat, suh. Do we look green, suh? What is your vocation, suh? I believe, by gad, suh, that you are a common capper foh some infernal skinning game, or that you are a professional. Suh, I call your hand."
I was about to retort hotly that I had not requested their chaperonage, and that my affair with My Lady and the Big Tent, howsoever they might take it, was my own; when Mr. Brady, who likewise had been glaring at me, growled morosely.
"She's waitin' for you. You can square with us later, and if there's something doin' on the table we want a show."
The black-clad figure had lingered beyond; ostensibly gazing into a window but now and again darting a glance in our direction. I accepted the glances as a token of inclination on her part; without saying another word to my ruffled body-guards I approached her.
She received me with a quick turn of head as if not expecting, but with a ready smile.
"Madam," I uttered foolishly, "good-evening."
"You have left your friends?"
"Very willingly. Whether they are really my friends I rather question. They have seen fit to escort me about, is all."
"And I have rescued you?" She smiled again. "Believe me, sir, you would be better off alone. I know the gentlemen. They have been paid for their trouble, have they not?"
"They have won a little at gambling, but in that I had no hand," I replied. "So far they have asked nothing more."
"Certainly not. And you put up no stakes?"
"Not a penny, madam. Why should I?"
"To make it interesting, as they doubtless said. The Colonel, as all the town knows, is a notorious capper and steerer, and the fellow Brady is no better, no worse. Had you stayed with them and suffered them to persuade you into betting, you would soon have been fleeced as clean as a shaved pig. The little gains they are permitted to make, to draw you on, is their pay. Their losses if any would have been restored to them, but not yours to you."
"Strange to say, they have just accused me of being a 'capper,'" I answered, nettled as I began to comprehend.
"From what cause, sir?"
"They seemed to think that I am smarter than to my actual credit, for one thing." I, of course, could not involve her in the subject, and indeed could not understand why she should have been held responsible, anyway. "And probably they were peeved because I insisted upon eating supper and then following my own bent."
"You were about to leave them?" Her face brightened. "That is good. They were disappointed in finding you no gudgeon to be hooked by such raw methods. And you've not had supper yet? Promise me that you will take up with no more strangers or, I assure you, you may wake in the morning with your pockets turned inside out and your memory at fault. This is Benton."
"Yes, this is Benton, is it?" I rejoined; and perhaps bitterly.
"Benton, Wyoming Territory; of three thousand people in two weeks; in another month, who knows how many? And the majority of us live on one another. The country furnishes nothing else. Still, you will find it not much different from what I told you."
"I have found it high and dry, certainly," said I.
"Where are you stopping?"
"At the Queen—with a bath for every room. I am now awaiting the turn of my room, at the end of another hour."
"Oh!" She laughed heartily. "You are fortunate, sir. The Queen may not be considered the best in all ways, but they say the towels for the baths are more than napkin size. Meanwhile, let me advise you. Outfit while you wait, and become of the country. You look too much the pilgrim—there is Eastern dust showing through our Benton dust, and that spells of other 'dust' in your pockets. Get another hat, a flannel shirt, some coarser trousers, a pair of boots, don a gun and a swagger, say little, make few impromptu friends, win and lose without a smile or frown, if you play (but upon playing I will advise you later), pass as a surveyor, as a railroad clerk, as a Mormon—anything they choose to apply to you; and I shall hope to see you to-night."
"You shall," I assured, abashed by her raillery. "And if you will kindly tell me——"
"The meals at the Belle Marie Cafe are as good as any. You can see the sign from here. So adios, sir, and remember." With no mention of the Big Tent she flashed a smile at me and mingled with the other pedestrians crossing the street on diagonal course. As I had not been invited to accompany her I stood, gratefully digesting her remarks. When I turned for a final word with my two guides, they had vanished.
This I interpreted as a confession of jealous fear that I had been, in slang phrasing, "put wise." And sooth to say, I saw them again no more.
"HIGH AND DRY"
The counsel to don a garb smacking less of the recent East struck me as sound; for although I was not the only person here in Eastern guise, nevertheless about the majority of the populace there was an easy aggressiveness that my appearance evidently lacked.
So I must hurry ere the shops closed.
"I beg your pardon. What time do the stores close, can you tell me?" I asked of the nearest bystander.
He surveyed me.
"Close? Hell!" he said. "They don't close for even a dog fight, pardner. Business runs twenty-five hours every day, seven days the week, in these diggin's."
"And where will I find a haberdashery?"
"A what? Talk English. What you want?"
"I want a—an outfit; a personal outfit."
"Blanket to moccasins? Levi's, stranger. Levi'll outfit you complete and throw in a yellow purp under the wagon."
"And where is Levi's?"
"There." And he jerked his head aside. "You could shut your eyes and spit in the doorway."
With that he rudely turned his back upon me. But sure enough, by token of the large sign "Levi's Mammoth Emporium: Liquors, Groceries and General Merchandise," I was standing almost in front of the store itself.
I entered, into the seething aisle flanked by heaped-up counters and stacked goods that bulged the partially boarded canvas walls. At last I gained position near one of the perspiring clerks and caught his eye.
"Yes, sir. You, sir? What can I do for you, sir?" He rubbed his hands alertly, on edge with a long day.
"I wish a hat, flannel shirt, a serviceable ready-made suit, boots, possibly other matters."
"We have exactly the things for you, sir. This way."
"Going out on the advance line, sir?" he asked, while I made selections.
"That is not unlikely."
"They're doing great work. Three miles of track laid yesterday; twelve so far this week. Averaging two and one-half miles a day and promising better."
"So I understand," I alleged.
"General Jack Casement is a world beater. If he could get the iron as fast as he could use it he'd build through to California without a halt. But looks now as if somewhere between would have to satisfy him. You are a surveyor, I take it?"
"Yes, I am surveying on the line along with the others," I answered. And surveying the country I was.
"You are the gentlemen who lay out the course," he complimented. "Now, is there something else, sir?"
"I need a good revolver, a belt and ammunition."
"We carry the reliable—the Colt's. That's the favorite holster gun in use out here. Please step across, sir."
"If you're not particular as to shine," he resumed, "we have a second-hand outfit that I can sell you cheap. Took it in as a deposit, and the gentleman never has called for it. Of course you're broken in to the country, but as you know a new belt and holster are apt to be viewed with suspicion and a gentleman sometimes has to draw when he'd rather not, to prove himself. This gun has been used just enough to take the roughness off the trigger pull, and it employs the metallic cartridges—very convenient. The furniture for it is O. K. And all at half price."
I was glad to find something cheap. The boots had been fifteen dollars, the hat eight, shirt and suit in proportion, and the red silk handkerchief two dollars and a half. Yes, Benton was "high."
With my bulky parcel I sought the Belle Marie Cafe, ate my supper, thence hastened through the gloaming to the hotel for bath and change of costume.
I had yet time to array myself, as an experiment and a lark; and that I sillily did, hurriedly tossing my old garments upon bed and floor, in order to invest with the new. The third bed was occupied when I came in; occupied on the outside by a plump, round-faced, dust-scalded man, with piggish features accentuated by his small bloodshot eyes; dressed in Eastern mode but stripped to the galluses, as was the custom. He lay upon his back, his puffy hands folded across his spherical abdomen where his pantaloons met a sweaty pink-striped shirt; and he panted wheezingly through his nose.
"Hell of a country, ain't it!" he observed in a moment. "You a stranger, too?"
"I have been here a short time, sir."
"Thought so. Jest beginnin' to peel, like me. I been here two days. What's your line?"
"I have a number of things in view," I evaded.
"Well, you don't have to tell 'em," he granted. "Thought you was a salesman. I'm from Saint Louie, myself. Sell groceries, and pasteboards on the side. Cards are the stuff. I got the best line of sure-thing stock—strippers, humps, rounds, squares, briefs and marked backs—that ever were dealt west of the Missouri. Judas Priest, but this is a roarer of a burg! What it ain't got I never seen—and I ain't no spring goslin', neither. I've plenty sand in my craw. You ain't been plucked yet?"
"No, sir. I never gamble."
"Wish I didn't, but my name's Jakey and I'm a good feller. Say, I'm supposed to be wise, too, but they trimmed me two hundred dollars. Now I'm gettin' out." He groaned. "Take the train in a few minutes. Dasn't risk myself on the street again. Sent my baggage down for fear I'd lose that. Say," he added, watching me, "looks like you was goin' out yourself. One of them surveyor fellers, workin' for the railroad?"
"It might be so, sir," I replied.
He half sat up.
"You'll want to throw a leg, I bet. Lemme tell you. It's a hell of a town but it's got some fine wimmen; yes, and a few straight banks, too. You're no crabber or piker; I can see that. You go to the North Star. Tell Frank that Jakey sent you. They'll treat you white. You be sure and say Jakey sent you. But for Gawd's sake keep out of the Big Tent."
"The Big Tent?" I uttered. "Why so?"
"They'll sweat you there," he groaned lugubriously. "Say, friend, could you lend me twenty dollars? You've still got your roll. I ain't a stivver. I'm busted flat."
"I'm sorry that I can't accommodate you, sir," said I. "I have no more money than will see me through—and according to your story perhaps not enough."
"I've told you of the North Star. You mention Jakey sent you. You'll make more than your twenty back, at the North Star," he urged inconsistent. "If it hadn't been for that damned Big Tent——" and he flopped with a dismal grunt.
By this time, all the while conscious of his devouring eyes, I had changed my clothing and now I stood equipped cap-a-pie, with my hat clapped at an angle, and my pantaloons in my boots, and my red silk handkerchief tastefully knotted at my throat, and my six-shooter slung; and I could scarcely deny that in my own eyes, and in his, I trusted, I was a pretty figure of a Westerner who would win the approval, as seemed to me, of My Lady in Black or of any other lady.
His reflection upon the Big Tent, however, was the fly in my ointment. Therefore, preening and adjusting with assumed carelessness I queried, in real concern:
"What about the Big Tent? Where is it? Isn't it respectable?"
"Respectable? Of course it's respectable. You don't ketch your Jakey in no place that ain't. I've a family to think of. You ain't been there? Say! There's where they all meet, in that Big Tent; all the best people, too, you bet you. But I tell you, friend——"
He did not finish. An uproar sounded above the other street clamor: a pistol shot, and another—a chorus of hoarse shouts and shrill frightened cries, the scurrying rush of feet, all in the street; and in the hall of the hotel, and the lobby below, the rush of still more feet, booted, and the din of excited voices.
My man on the bed popped with the agility of a jack-in-the-box for the window.
"A fight, a fight! Shootin' scrape!" In a single motion grabbing coat and hat he was out through the door and pelting down the hall. Overcome by the zest of the moment I pelted after, and with several others plunged as madly upon the porch. We had left the lobby deserted.
The shots had ceased. Now a baying mob ramped through the street, with jangle "Hang him! Hang him! String him up!" Borne on by a hysterical company I saw, first a figure bloody-chested and inert flat in the dust, with stooping figures trying to raise him; then, beyond, a man bareheaded, whiskered, but as white as death, hustled to and fro from clutching hands and suddenly forced in firm grips up the street, while the mob trailed after, whooping, cursing, shrieking, flourishing guns and knives and ropes. There were women as well as men in it.
All this turned me sick. From the outskirts of the throng I tramped back to my room and the bath. The hotel was quiet as if emptied; my room was vacant—and more than vacant, for of my clothing not a vestige remained! My bag also was gone. Worse yet, prompted by an inner voice that stabbed me like an icicle I was awakened to the knowledge that every cent I had possessed was in those vanished garments.
For an instant I stood paralyzed, fronting the calamity. I could not believe. It was as if the floor had swallowed my belongings. I had been absent not more than five minutes. Surely this was the room. Yes, Number Six; and the beds were familiar, their tumbled covers unaltered.
Now I held the bath-room responsible. The scoundrel in the bath had heard, had taken advantage, made a foray and hidden. Out I ran, exploring. Every room door was wide open, every apartment blank; but there was a splashing, from the bath—I listened at the threshold, gently tried the knob—and received such a cry of angry protest that it sent me to the right-about, on tiptoe. The thief was not in the bath.
My heart sank as I bolted down for the office. The clerk had reinstated himself behind the counter. He composedly greeted me, with calm voice and with eyes that noted my costume.
"You can have your bath as soon as the porter gets back from the hanging, sir," he said. "That is, unless you'd prefer to hurry up by toting your own water. The party now in will be out directly."
"Never mind the bath," I uttered, breathless, in a voice that I scarcely recognized, so piping and aghast it was. "I've been robbed—of money, clothes, baggage, everything!"
"Well, what at?" he queried, with a glimmer of a smile.
"What at? In my room, I tell you. I had just changed to try on these things; the street fight sounded; I was gone not five minutes and nevertheless the room was sacked. Absolutely sacked."
"That," he commented evenly, "is hard luck."
"Hard luck!" I hotly rejoined. "It's an outrage. But you seem remarkably cool about it, sir. What do you propose to do?"
"I?" He lifted his brows. "Nothing. They're not my valuables."
"But this is a respectable hotel, isn't it?"
"Perfectly; and no orphan asylum. We attend strictly to our business and expect our guests to attend to theirs."
"I was told that it was safe for me to leave my things in my room."
"Not by me, sir. Read that." And he called my attention to a placard that said, among other matters: "We are not responsible for property of any nature left by guests in their rooms."
"Where's the chief of police?" I demanded. "You have officers here, I hope."
"Yes, sir. The marshal is the chief of police, and he's the whole show. The provost guard from the post helps out when necessary. But you'll find the marshal at the mayor's office or else at the North Star gambling hall, three blocks up the street. I don't think he'll do you any good, though. He's not likely to bother with small matters, especially when he's dealing faro bank. He has an interest in the North Star. You'll never see your property again. Take my word for it."
"I won't? Why not?"
"You've played the gudgeon for somebody; that's all. Easiest thing in the world for a smart gentleman to slip into your room while you were absent, go through it, and make his getaway by the end of the hall, out over the kitchen roof. It's been done many a time."
"A traveling salesman saw me dressing. He went out before me but he might have doubled," I gasped. "He had one of the beds—who is he?"
"I don't know him, sir."
"A round-bellied, fat-faced man—sold groceries and playing cards."
"There is no such guest in your room, sir. You have bed Number One, bed Number Two is assigned to Mr. Bill Brady, who doubtless will be in soon. Number Three is temporarily vacant."
"The man said he was about to catch the train east," I pursued desperately. "A round-bellied, fat-faced man in pink striped shirt——"
"If he was to catch any train, that train has just pulled out."
"And who was in the bath, ten or fifteen minutes ago?"
"My wife, sir; and still there. She has to take her chances like everybody else. No, sir; you've been done. You may find your clothes, but I doubt it. You are next upon the bath list." And he became all business. "The porter will carry up the water and notify you. You are allowed twenty minutes. That is satisfactory?"
A bath, now!
"No, certainly not," I blurted. "I have no time nor inclination for a bath, at present. And," I faltered, ashamed, "I'll have to ask you to refund me the dollar and a half. I haven't a cent."
"Under the circumstances I can do that, although it is against our rules," he replied. "Here it is, sir. We wish to accommodate."
"And will you advance me twenty dollars, say, until I shall have procured funds from the East?" I ventured.
A mask fell over his face. He slightly smiled.
"No, sir; I cannot. We never advance money."
"But I've got to have money, to tide me over, man," I pleaded. "This dollar and a half will barely pay for a meal. I can give you references——"
"From Colonel Sunderson, may I ask?" His voice was poised tentatively.
"No. I never saw the Colonel before. My references are Eastern. My father——"
"As a gentleman the Colonel is O. K.," he smoothly interrupted. "I do not question his integrity, nor your father's. But we never advance money. It is against the policy of the house."
"Has my trunk come up yet?" I queried.
"Yes, sir. If you'd rather have it in your room——"
"In my room!" said I. "No! Else it might walk out the hall window, too. You have it safe?"
"Perfectly, except in case of burglary or fire. It is out of the weather. We're not responsible for theft or fire, you understand. Not in Benton."
"Good Lord!" I ejaculated, weak. "You have my trunk, you say? Very good. Will you advance me twenty dollars and keep the trunk as security? That, I think, is a sporting proposition."
He eyed me up and down.
"Are you a surveyor? Connected with the road?"
"What is your business, then?"
"I'm a damned fool," I confessed. "I'm a gudgeon—I'm a come-on. In fact, as I've said before, I'm out here looking for health, where it's high and dry." He smiled. "And high and dry I'm landed in short order. But the trunk's not empty. Will you keep it and lend me twenty dollars? I presume that trunk and contents are worth two hundred."
"I'll speak with the porter," he answered.
By the lapse of time between his departure and his return he and the gnome evidently had hefted the trunk and viewed it at all angles. Now he came back with quick step.
"Yes, sir; we'll advance you twenty dollars on your trunk. Here is the money, sir." He wrote, and passed me a slip of paper also. "And your receipt. When you pay the twenty dollars, if within thirty days, you can have your trunk."
"And if not?" I asked uncomfortably.
"We shall be privileged to dispose of it. We are not in the pawn business, but we have trunks piled to the ceiling in our storeroom, left by gentlemen in embarrassed circumstances like yours."
I never saw that trunk again, either. However, of this, more anon. At that juncture I was only too glad to get the twenty dollars, pending the time when I should be recouped from home; for I could see that to be stranded "high and dry" in Benton City of Wyoming Territory would be a dire situation. And I could not hope for much from home. It was a bitter dose to have to ask for further help. Three years returned from the war my father had scarcely yet been enabled to gather the loose ends of his former affairs.
"Now if you will direct me to the telegraph office——?" I suggested.
"The telegraph into Benton is the Union Pacific Railroad line," he informed; "and that is open to only Government and official business. If you wish to send a private dispatch you should forward it by post to Cheyenne, one hundred and seventy-five miles, where it will be put on the Overland branch line for the East by way of Denver. The rate to New York is eight dollars, prepaid."
I knew that my face fell. Eight dollars would make a large hole in my slender funds—I had been foolish not to have borrowed fifty dollars on the trunk. So I decided to write instead of telegraph; and with him watching me I endeavored to speak lightly.
"Thank you. Now where will I find the place known as the Big Tent?"
He laughed with peculiar emphasis.
"If you had mentioned the Big Tent sooner you'd have got no twenty dollars from me, sir. Not that I've anything against it, understand. It's all right, everybody goes there; perfectly legitimate. I go there myself. And you may redeem your trunk to-morrow and be buying champagne."
"I am to meet a friend at the Big Tent," I stiffly explained. "Further than that I have no business there. I know nothing whatever about it."
"I beg your pardon, sir. No offense intended. The Big Tent is highly regarded—a great place to spend a pleasant evening. All Benton indulges. I wish you the best of luck, sir. You are heeled, I see. No one will take you for a pilgrim." Despite the assertion there was a twinkle in his eye. "You will find the Big Tent one block and a half down this street. You cannot miss it."
I GO TO RENDEZVOUS
The hotel lamps were being lighted by the gnome porter. When I stepped outside twilight had deepened into dusk, the air was almost frosty, and this main street had been made garish by its nightly illumination.
It was a strange sight, as I paused for a moment upon the plank veranda. The near vicinity resembled a fair. As if inspired by the freshness and coolness of the new air the people were trooping to and fro more restlessly than ever, and in greater numbers. All up and down the street coal-oil torches or flambeaus, ruddily embossing the heads of the players and onlookers, flared like votive braziers above the open-air gambling games; there were even smoked-chimney lamps, and candles, set on pedestals, signalizing other centers. The walls of the tent store-buildings glowed spectral from the lights to be glimpsed through doorways and windows, and grotesque, gigantic figures flitted in silhouette. While through the interstices between the buildings I might see other structures, ranging from those of tolerable size to simple wall tents and makeshift shacks, eerily shadowed.
The noise had, if anything, redoubled. To the exclamations, the riotous shouts and whoops, the general gay vociferations and the footsteps of a busy people, the harangues of the barkers, the more distant puffing and shrieking of the locomotives at the railroad yards, the hammering where men and boys worked by torchlight, and now and then a revolver shot, there had been added the inciting music of stringed instruments, cymbals, and such—some in dance measures, some solo, while immediately at hand sounded the shuffling stamp of waltz, hoe-down and cotillion.
Night at Benton plainly had begun with a gusto. It stirred one's blood. It called—it summoned with such a promise of variety, of adventure, of flotsam and jetsam and shuttlecock of chances, that I, a youth with twenty-one dollars and a half at disposal, all his clothes on his back, a man's weapon at his belt, and an appointment with a lady as his future, forgetful of past and courageous in present, strode confidently, even recklessly down, as eager as one to the manners of the country born.
The mysterious allusions to the Big Tent now piqued me. It was a rendezvous, popular, I deemed, and respectable, as assured. An amusement place, judging by the talk; superior, undoubtedly, to other resorts that I may have noted. I was well equipped to test it out, for I had little to lose, even time was of no moment, and I possessed a friend at court, there, whom I had interested and who very agreeably interested me. This single factor would have glorified with a halo any tent, big or little, in Benton.
There was no need for me to inquire my way to the Big Tent. Upon pushing along down the street, beset upon my course by many sights and proffered allurements, and keenly alive to the romance of that hurly-burly of pleasure and business combined here two thousand miles west of New York, always expectant of my goal I was attracted by music again, just ahead, from an orchestra. I saw a large canvas sign—The Big Tent—suspended in the full shine of a locomotive reflector. Beneath it the people were streaming into the wide entrance to a great canvas hall.
Quickening my pace in accord with the increased pace of the throng, presently I likewise entered, unchallenged for any admission fee. Once across the threshold, I halted, taken all aback by the hubbub and the kaleidoscopic spectacle that beat upon my ears and eyes.
The interior, high ceilinged to the ridged roof, was unbroken by supports. It was lighted by two score of lamps and reflectors in brackets along the walls and hanging as chandeliers from the rafters. The floor, of planed boards, already teemed with men and women and children—along one side there was an ornate bar glittering with cut glass and silver and backed by a large plate mirror that repeated the lights, the people, the glasses, decanters and pitchers, and the figures of the white-coated, busy bartenders.
At the farther end of the room a stringed orchestra was stationed upon a platform, while to the bidding of the music women, and men with hats upon their heads and cigars in mouths, and men together, whirled in couples, so that the floor trembled to the boot heels. Scattered thickly over the intervening space there were games of chance, every description, surrounded by groups looking on or playing. Through the atmosphere blue with the smoke women, many of them lavishly costumed as if for a ball, strolled risking or responding to gallantries. The garb of the men themselves ran the scale: from the comme il faut of slender shoes, fashionably cut coats and pantaloons, and modish cravats, through the campaign uniforms of army officers and enlisted men, to the frontier corduroy and buckskin of surveyors and adventurers, the flannel shirts, red, blue and gray, the jeans and cowhide boots of trainmen, teamsters, graders, miners, and all.
From nearly every waist dangled a revolver. I remarked that not a few of the women displayed little weapons as in bravado.
What with the music, the stamp of the dancers, the clink of glasses and the ice in pitchers, the rattle of dice, the slap of cards and currency, the announcements of the dealers, the clap-trap of barkers and monte spielers, the general chatter of voices, one such as I, a newcomer, scarcely knew which way to turn.
Altogether this was an amusement palace which, though rough of exterior, eclipsed the best of the Bowery and might be found elsewhere, I imagined, not short of San Francisco.
From the jostle of the doorway to pick out upon the floor any single figure and follow it was well-nigh impossible. Not seeing my Lady in Black, at first sight—not being certain of her, that is, for there were a number of black dresses—I moved on in. It might be that she was among the dancers, where, as I could determine by the vista, beauty appeared to be whirling around in the embrace of the whiskered beast.
Then, as I advanced resolutely among the gaming tables, I felt a cuff upon the shoulder and heard a bluff voice in my ear.
"Hello, old hoss. How are tricks by this time?"
Facing about quickly with apprehension of having been spotted by another capper, if not Bill Brady himself (for the voice was not Colonel Sunderson's unctuous tones) I saw Jim of the Sidney station platform and the railway coach fracas.
He was grinning affably, apparently none the worse for wear save a slightly swollen lower lip; he seemed in good humor.
"Shake," he proffered, extending his hand. "No hard feelin's here. I'm no Injun. You knocked the red-eye out o' me."
I shook hands with him, and again he slapped me upon the shoulder. "Hardly knowed you in that new rig. Now you're talkin'. That's sense. Well; how you comin' on?"
"First rate," I assured, not a little nonplussed by this greeting from a man whom I had knocked down, tipsy drunk, only a few hours before. But evidently he was a seasoned customer.
"Bucked the tiger a leetle, I reckon?" And he leered cunningly.
"No; I rarely gamble."
"Aw, tell that to the marines." Once more he jovially clapped me. "A young gent like you has to take a fling now and then. Hell, this is Benton, where everything goes and nobody the worse for it. You bet yuh! Trail along with me. Let's likker. Then I'll show you the ropes. I like your style. Yes, sir; I know a man when I see him." And he swore freely.
"Another time, sir," I begged off. "I have an engagement this evening——"
"O' course you have. Don't I know that, too, by Gawd? The when, where and who? Didn't she tell me to keep my eyes skinned for you, and to cotton to you when you come in? We'll find her, after we likker up."
"Why not? Ain't I a friend o' hern? You bet! Finest little woman in Benton. Trail to the trough along with me, pardner, and name your favor-ite. I've got a thirst like a Sioux buck with a robe to trade."
"I'd rather not drink, thank you," I essayed; but he would have none of it. He seized me by the arm and hustled me on.
"O' course you'll drink. Any gent I ax to drink has gotto drink. Name your pizen—make it champagne, if that's your brand. But the drinks are on me."
So willy-nilly I was brought to the bar, where the line of men already loafing there made space.
"Straight goods and the best you've got," my self-appointed pilot blared. "None o' your agency whiskey, either. What's yourn?" he asked of me.
"The same as yours, sir," I bravely replied.
With never a word the bartender shoved bottle and glasses to us. Jim rather unsteadily filled; I emulated, but to scanter measure.
"Here's how," he volunteered. "May you never see the back of your neck."
"Your health," I responded.
We drank. The stuff may have been pure; at least it was stout and cut fiery way down my unwonted throat; the one draught infused me with a swagger and a sudden rosy view of life through a temporary mist of watering eyes.
"A-ah! That puts guts into a man," quoth Jim. "Shall we have another? One more?"
"Not now. The next shall be on me. Let's look around," I gasped.
"We'll find her," he promised. "Take a stroll. I'll steer you right. Have a seegar, anyway."
As smoking vied with drinking, here in the Big Tent where even the dancers cavorted with lighted cigars in their mouths, I saw fit to humor him.
"Cigars it shall be, then. But I'll pay." And to my nod the bartender set out a box, from which we selected at twenty-five cents each. With my own "seegar" cocked up between my lips, and my revolver adequately heavy at my belt, I suffered the guidance of the importunate Jim.
We wended leisurely among games of infinite variety: keno, rondo coolo, poker, faro, roulette, monte, chuck-a-luck, wheels of fortune—advertised, some, by their barkers, but the better class (if there is such a distinction) presided over by remarkably quiet, white-faced, nimble-fingered, steady-eyed gentry in irreproachable garb running much to white shirts, black pantaloons, velvet waistcoats, and polished boots, and diamonds and gold chains worn unaffectedly; low-voiced gentry, these, protected, it would appear, mainly by their lookouts perched at their sides with eyes alert to read faces and to watch the play.
We had by no means completed the tour, interrupted by many jests and nods exchanged between Jim and sundry of the patrons, when we indeed met My Lady. She detached herself, as if cognizant of our approach, from a little group of four or five standing upon the floor; and turned for me with hand outstretched, a gratifying flush upon her spirited face.
"You are here, then?" she greeted.
I made a leg, with my best bow, not omitting to remove hat and cigar, while agreeably conscious of her approving gaze.
"I am here, madam, in the Big Tent."
Her small warm hand acted as if unreservedly mine, for the moment. About her there was a tingling element of the friendly, even of the intimate. She was a haven in a strange coast.
"Told you I'd find him, didn't I?" Jim asserted—the bystanders listening curiously. "There he was, lookin' as lonesome as a two-bit piece on a poker table in a sky-limit game. So we had a drink and a seegar, and been makin' the grand tower."
"You got your outfit, I see," she smiled.
"Yes. Am I correct?"
"You have saved yourself annoyance. You'll do," she nodded. "Have you played yet? Win, or lose?"
"I did not come to play, madam," said I. "Not at table, that is." Whereupon I must have returned her gaze so glowingly as to embarrass her. Yet she was not displeased; and in that costume and with that liquor still coursing through my veins I felt equal to any retort.
"But you should play. You are heeled?"
"The best I could procure." I let my hand rest casually upon my revolver butt.
She laughed merrily. There were smiles aside.
"Oh, no; I didn't mean that. You are heeled for all to see. I meant, you have funds? You didn't come here too light, did you?"
"I am prepared for all emergencies, madam, certainly," I averred with proper dignity. Not for the world would I have confessed otherwise. Sooth to say, I had the sensation of boundless wealth. The affair at the hotel did not bother me, now. Here in the Big Tent prosperity reigned. Money, money, money was passing back and forth, carelessly shoved out and carelessly pocketed or piled up, while the band played and the people laughed and drank and danced and bragged and staked, and laughed again.
"That is good. Shall we walk a little? And when you play—come here." We stepped apart from the listeners. "When you play, follow the lead of Jim. He'll not lose, and I intend that you shan't, either. But you must play, for the sport of it. Everybody games, in Benton."
"So I judge, madam," I assented. "Under your chaperonage I am ready to take any risks, the gaming table being among the least."
"Prettily said, sir," she complimented. "And you won't lose. No," she repeated suggestively, "you won't lose, with me looking out for you. Jim bears you no ill will. He recognizes a man when he meets him, even when the proof is uncomfortable."
"For that little episode on the train I ask no reward, madam," said I.
"Of course not." Her tone waxed impatient. "However, you're a stranger in Benton and strangers do not always fare well." In this she spoke the truth. "As a resident I claim the honors. Let us be old acquaintances. Shall we walk? Or would you rather dance?"
"I'd cut a sorry figure dancing in boots," said I. "Therefore I'd really prefer to walk, if all the same to you."
"Thank you for having mercy on my poor feet. Walk we will."
"May I get you some refreshment?" I hazarded. "A lemonade—or something stronger?"
"Not for you, sir; not again," she laughed. "You are, as Jim would say, 'fortified.' And I shall need all my wits to keep you from being tolled away by greater attractions."
With that, she accepted my arm. We promenaded, Jim sauntering near. And as she emphatically was the superior of all other women upon the floor I did not fail to dilate with the distinction accorded me: felt it in the glances, the deference and the ready make-way which attended upon our progress. Frankly to say, possibly I strutted—as a young man will when "fortified" within and without and elevated from the station of nondescript stranger to that of favored beau.
Whereas an hour before I had been crushed and beggarly, now I turned out my toes and stepped bravely—my twenty-one dollars in pocket, my six-shooter at belt, a red 'kerchief at throat, the queen of the hall on my arm, and my trunk all unnecessary to my well-being.
Thus in easy fashion we moved amidst eyes and salutations from the various degrees of the company. She made no mention of any husband, which might have been odd in the East but did not impress me as especially odd here in the democratic Far West. The women appeared to have an independence of action.
"Shall we risk a play or two?" she proposed. "Are you acquainted with three-card monte?"
"Indifferently, madam," said I. "But I am green at all gambling devices."
"You shall learn," she encouraged lightly. "In Benton as in Rome, you know. There is no disgrace attached to laying down a dollar here and there—we all do it. That is part of our amusement, in Benton." She halted. "You are game, sir? What is life but a series of chances? Are you disposed to win a little and flout the danger of losing?"
"I am in Benton to win," I valiantly asserted. "And if under your direction, so much the quicker. What first, then? The three-card monte?"
"It is the simplest. Faro would be beyond you yet. Rondo coolo is boisterous and confusing—and as for poker, that is a long session of nerves, while chuck-a-luck, though all in the open, is for children and fools. You might throw the dice a thousand times and never cast a lucky combination. Roulette is as bad. The percentage in favor of the bank in a square game is forty per cent. better than stealing. I'll initiate you on monte. Are your eyes quick?"
"For some things," I replied meaningly.
She conducted me to the nearest monte game, where the "spieler"—a smooth-faced lad of not more than nineteen—sat behind his three-legged little table, green covered, and idly shifting the cards about maintained a rather bored flow of conversational incitement to bets.
As happened, he was illy patronized at the moment. There were not more than three or four onlookers, none risking but all waiting apparently upon one another.
At our arrival the youth glanced up with the most innocent pair of long-lashed brown eyes that I ever had seen. A handsome boy he was.
He smiled, with white teeth.
My Lady and he seemed to know each other.
"How goes it to-night, Bob?"
"Slow. There's no nerve or money in this camp any more. She's a dead one."
"I'll not have Benton slandered," My Lady gaily retorted. "We'll buck your game, Bob. But you must be easy on us. We're green yet."
Bob shot a quick glance at me—in one look had read me from hat to boots. He had shrewder eyes than their first languor intimated.
"Pleased to accommodate you, I'm sure," he answered. "The greenies stand as good a show at this board as the profesh."
"Will you play for a dollar?" she challenged.
"I'll play for two bits, to-night. Anything to start action." He twisted his mouth with ready chagrin. "I'm about ripe to bet against myself."
She fumbled at her reticule, but I was beforehand.
"No, no." And I fished into my pocket. "Allow me. I will furnish the funds if you will do the playing."
"I choose the card?" said she. "That is up to you, sir. You are to learn."
"By watching, at first," I protested. "We should be partners."
"Well," she consented, "if you say so. Partners it is. A lady brings luck, but I shall not always do your playing for you, sir. That kind of partnership comes to grief."
"I am hopeful of playing on my own score, in due time," I responded. "As you will see."
"What's the card, Bob? We've a dollar on it, as a starter."
He eyed her, while facing the cards up.
"The ace. You see it—the ace, backed by ten and deuce. Here it is. All ready?" He turned them down, in order; methodically, even listlessly moved them to and fro, yet with light, sure, well-nigh bewildering touch. Suddenly lifted his hands. "All set. A dollar you don't face up the ace at first try."
She laughed, bantering.
"Oh, Bob! You're too easy. I wonder you aren't broke. You're no monte spieler. Is this your best?"
And I believed that I myself knew which card was the ace.
"You hear me, and there's my dollar." He coolly waited.
"Not yours; ours. Will you make it five?"
"One is my limit on this throw. You named it."
"Oho!" With a dart of hand she had turned up the middle card, exposing the ace spot, as I had anticipated. She swept the two dollars to her.
"Adios," she bade.
He smiled, indulgent.
"So soon? Don't I get my revenge? You, sir." And he appealed to me. "You see how easy it is. I'll throw you a turn for a dollar, two dollars, five dollars—anything to combine business and pleasure. Whether I win or lose I don't care. You'll follow the lead of the lady? What?"
I was on fire to accept, but she stayed me.
"Not now. I'm showing him around, Bob. You'll get your revenge later. Good-bye. I've drummed up trade for you."
As if inspired by the winning several of the bystanders, some newly arrived, had money in their hands, to stake. So we strolled on; and I was conscious that the youth's brown eyes briefly flicked after us with a peculiar glint.
"Yours," she said, extending the coins to me.
"No, indeed. It is part of my tuition. If you will play I will stake."
She also declined.
"I can't have that. You will at least take your own money back."
"Only for another try, madam," I assented.
"In that case we'll find a livelier game yonder," said she. "Bob's just a lazy boy. His game is a piker game. He's too slow to learn from. Let us watch a real game."
I STAKE ON THE QUEEN
Jim had disappeared; until when we had made way to another monte table there he was, his hands in his pockets, his cigar half smoked.
More of a crowd was here; the voice of the spieler more insistent, yet low-pitched and businesslike. He was a study—a square-shouldered, well set-up, wiry man of olive complexion, finely chiseled features save for nose somewhat cruelly beaked, of short black moustache, dead black long wavy hair, and, placed boldly wide, contrastive hard gray eyes that lent atmosphere of coldness to his face. His hat was pulled down over his forehead, he held an unlighted cigar between his teeth while he mechanically spoke and shifted the three cards (a diamond flashing from a finger) upon the baize-covered little table.
Money had been wagered. He had just raked in a few notes, adding them to his pile. His monotone droned on.
"Next, ladies and gentlemen. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose. That is my business. The play is yours. You may think I have two chances to your one; that is not so. You make the choice. Always the queen, always the queen. You have only to watch the queen, one card. I have to watch three cards. You have your two eyes, I have my two hands. You spot the card only when you think you can. I meet all comers. It is an even gamble."
Jim remarked us as we joined.
"How you comin' now?" he greeted of me.
"We won a dollar," My Lady responded.
"Not I. She did the choosing," I corrected.
"But you would have chosen the same card, you said," she prompted. "You saw how easy it was."
"Easy if you know how," Jim asserted. "Think to stake a leetle here? I've been keepin' cases and luck's breaking ag'in the bank to-night, by gosh. Made several turns, myself, already."
"We'll wait a minute till we get his system," she answered.
"Are you watching, ladies and gentlemen?" bade the dealer, in that even tone. "You see the eight of clubs, the eight of spades, the queen of hearts. The queen is your card. My hand against your eyes, then. You are set? There you are. Pick the queen, some one of you. Put your money on the queen of hearts. You can turn the card yourself. What? Nobody? Don't be pikers. Let us have a little sport. Stake a dollar. Why, you'd toss a dollar down your throat—you'd lay a dollar on a cockroach race—you'd bet that much on a yellow dog if you owned him, just to show your spirit. And here I'm offering you a straight proposition."
With a muttered "I'll go you another turn, Mister," Jim stepped closer and planked down a dollar. The dealer cast a look up at him as with pleased surprise.
"You, sir? Very good. You have spirit. Money talks. Here is my dollar. Now, to prove to these other people what a good guesser you are, which is the queen?"
"Here," Jim said confidently; and sure enough he faced up the queen of hearts.
"The money's yours. You never earned a dollar quicker, I'll wager, friend," the dealer acknowledged, imperturbable—for he evidently was one who never evinced the least emotion, whether he won or lost. "Very good. Now——"
From behind him a man—a newcomer to the spot, who looked like any respectable Eastern merchant, being well dressed and grave of face—touched him upon the shoulder. He turned ear; while he inclined farther they whispered together, and I witnessed an arm steal swiftly forward at my side, and a thumb and finger slightly bend up the extreme corner of the queen. The hand and arm vanished; when the dealer fronted us again the queen was apparently just as before. Only we who had seen would have marked the bent corner.
The act had been so clever and so audacious that I fairly held my breath. But the gambler resumed his flow of talk, while he fingered the cards as if totally unaware that they had been tampered with.
"Now, again, ladies and gentlemen. You see how it is done. You back your eyes, and you win. I find that I shall have to close early to-night. Make your hay while the sun shines. Who'll be in on this turn? Watch the queen of hearts. I place her here. I coax the three cards a little——" he gave a swift flourish. "There they are."
His audience hesitated, as if fearful of a trick, for the bent corner of the queen, raising this end a little, was plain to us who knew. It was absurdly plain.
"I'll go you another, Mister," Jim responded. "I'll pick out the queen ag'in for a dollar."
The gambler smiled grimly and shrugged his shoulders.
"Oh, pshaw, sir. These are small stakes. You'll never get rich at that rate and neither shall I."
"I reckon I can set my own limit," Jim grumbled.
"Yes, sir. But let's have action. Who'll join this gentleman in his guess? Who'll back his luck? He's a winner, I admit that."
The gray eyes dwelt upon face and face of our half circle; and still I, too, hesitated, although my dollar was burning a hole in my pocket.
My Lady whispered to me.
"All's fair in love and war. Here—put this on, with yours, for me." She slipped a dollar of her own into my hand.
Another man stepped forward. He was, I judged, a teamster. His clothes, of flannel shirt, belted trousers and six-shooter and dusty boots, so indicated. And his beard was shaggy and unkempt, almost covering his face underneath his drooping slouch hat.
"I'll stake you a dollar," he said.
"Two from me," I heard myself saying, and I saw my hand depositing them.
"You're all on this gentleman's card, remember?"
We nodded. The bearded man tipped me a wink.
"You, sir, then, turn the queen if you can," the gambler challenged of Jim.
With quick movement Jim flopped the bent-corner card, and the queen herself seemed to wink jovially at us.
The gambler exclaimed.
"By God, gentlemen, but you've skinned me again. I'm clumsy to-night. I'd better quit." And he scarcely varied his level tone despite the chuckles of the crowd. "You must let me try once more. But I warn you, I want action. I'm willing to meet any sum you stack up against me, if it's large enough to spell action. Shall we go another round or two before I close up?" He gathered the three cards. "You see the queen—my unlucky queen of hearts. Here she is." He stowed the card between thumb and finger. "Here are the other two." He held them up in his left hand—the eight of clubs, the eight of spades. He transferred them—with his rapid motion he strewed the three. "Choose the queen. I put the game to you fair and square. There are the cards. Maybe you can read their backs. That's your privilege." He fixed his eyes upon the teamster. "You, sir; where's your money, half of which was mine?" He glanced at Jim. "And you, sir? You'll follow your luck?" Lastly he surveyed me with a flash of steely bravado. "And you, young gentleman. You came in before. I dare you."
The bent corner was more pronounced than ever, as if aggravated by the manipulations. It could not possibly be mistaken by the knowing. And a sudden shame possessed me—a glut of this crafty advantage to which I was stooping; an advantage gained not through my own wit, either, but through the dishonorable trick of another.
"There's your half from me, if you want it," said Jim, slapping down two dollars. "This is my night to howl."
The teamster backed him.
"I'm on the same card," said he.
And not to be outdone—urged, I thought, by a pluck at my sleeve—I boldly followed with my own two dollars, reasoning that I was warranted in partially recouping, for Benton owed me much.
The gambler laughed shortly. His gaze, cool and impertinent, enveloped our front. He leaned back, defiant.
"Give me a chance, gentlemen. I shall not proceed with the play for that picayune sum before me. This is my last deal and I've been loser. It's make or break. Who else will back that gentleman's luck? I've placed the cards the best I know how. But six or eight dollars is no money to me. It doesn't pay for floor space. Is nobody else in? What? Come, come; let's have some sport. I dare you. This time is my revenge or your good fortune. Play up, gentlemen. Don't be crabbers." He smiled sarcastically; his words stung. "This isn't pussy-in-a-corner. It's a game of wits. You wouldn't bet unless you felt cock-sure of winning. I'll give you one minute, gentlemen, before calling all bets off unless you make the pot worth while."
The threat had effect. Nobody wished to let the marked card get away. That was not human nature. Bets rained in upon the table—bank notes, silver half dollars, the rarer dollar coins, and the common greenbacks. He met each wager, while he sat negligent and half smiled and chewed his unlighted cigar.
"This is the last round, gentlemen," he reminded. "Are you all in? Don't leave with regrets. You," he said, direct to me. "Are you in such short circumstances that you have no spunk? Why did you come here, sir, if not to win? Why, the stakes you play would not buy refreshment for the lady!"
That was too much. I threw scruples aside. He had badgered me—he was there to win if he could; I now was hot with the same design. I extracted my twenty-dollar note, and deaf to a quickly breathed "Wait the turn" from My Lady I planked it down before him. She should know me for a man of decision.
"There, sir," said I. "I am betting twenty-two dollars in all, which is my limit to-night, on the same right-end card as I stand."
I thought that I had him. Forthwith he straightened alertly, spoke tartly.
"The game is closed, gentlemen. Remember, you are wagering on the first turn. There are no splits in monte. Not at this table. Our friend says the right-end card. You, sir," and he addressed Jim. "They are backing you. Which do you say is the queen? Lay your finger on her."
Jim so did, with a finger stubby, and dirty under the nail.
"That is the card, is it? You are agreed?" he queried us, sweeping his cold gray eyes from face to face. "We'll have no crabbing."
We nodded, intently eying the card, fearful yet, some of us, that it might be denied us.
"You, sir, then." And he addressed me. "You are the heaviest better. Suppose you turn the card for yourself and those other gentlemen."
I obediently reached for it. My hand trembled. There were sixty or seventy dollars upon the table, and my own contribution was my last cent. As I fumbled I felt the strain of bodies pressing against mine, and heard the hiss of feverish breaths, and a foolish laugh or two. Nevertheless the silence seemed overpowering.
I turned the card—the card with the bent corner, of which I was as certain as of my own name; I faced it up, confidently, my capital already doubled; and amidst a burst of astonished cries I stared dumbfounded.
It was the eight of clubs! My fingers left it as though it were a snake. It was the eight of clubs! Where I had seen, in fancy, the queen of hearts, there lay like a changeling the eight of clubs, with corner bent as only token of the transformation.
The crowd elbowed about me. With rapid movement the gambler raked in the bets—a slender hand flashed by me—turned the next card. The queen that was, after all.
The gambler darkened, gathering the pasteboards.
"We can't both win, gentlemen," he said, tone passionless. "But I am willing to give you one more chance, from a new deck."
What the response was I did not know, nor care. My ears drummed confusedly, and seeing nothing I pushed through into the open, painfully conscious that I was flat penniless and that instead of having played the knave I had played the fool, for the queen of hearts.
The loss of some twenty dollars might have been a trivial matter to me once—I had at times cast that sum away as vainly as Washington had cast a dollar across the Potomac; but here I had lost my all, whether large or small; and not only had I been bilked out of it—I had bilked myself out of it by sinking, in pretended smartness, below the level of a more artful dodger.
I heard My Lady speaking beside me.
"I'm so sorry." She laid hand upon my sleeve. "You should have been content with small sums, or followed my lead. Next time——"
"There'll be no next time," I blurted. "I am cleaned out."
"You don't mean——?"
"I was first robbed at the hotel. Now here."
"No, no!" she opposed. Jim sidled to us. "That was a bungle, Jim."
He ruefully scratched his head.
"A wrong steer for once, I reckon. I warn't slick enough. Too much money on the table. But it looked like the card; I never took my eyes off'n it. We'll try ag'in, and switch to another layout. By thunder, I want revenge on this joint and I mean to get it. So do you, don't you, pardner?" he appealed to me.
As with mute, sickly denial I turned away it seemed to me that I sensed a shifting of forms at the monte table—caught the words "You watch here a moment"; and close following, a slim white hand fell heavily upon My Lady's shoulder. It whirled her about, to face the gambler. His smooth olive countenance was dark with a venom of rage incarnate that poisoned the air; his syllables crackled.
"You devil! I heard you, at the table. You meddle with my come-ons, will you?" And he slapped her with open palm, so that the impact smacked. "Now get out o' here or I'll kill you."
She flamed red, all in a single rush of blood.
"Oh!" she breathed. Her hand darted for the pocket in her skirt, but I sprang between the two. Forgetful of my revolver, remembering only what I had witnessed—a woman struck by a man—with a blow I sent him reeling backward.
He recovered; every vestige of color had left his face, except for the spot where I had landed; his hat had sprung aside from the shock—his gray eyes, contrasted with his black hair, fastened upon my eyes almost deliberately and his upper lip lifted over set white teeth. With lightning movement he thrust the fingers of his right hand into his waistcoat pocket.
I heard a rush of feet, a clamor of voices; and all the while, which seemed interminable, I was tugging, awkward with deadly peril, at my revolver. His fingers had whipped free of the pocket, I glimpsed as with second sight (for my eyes were held strongly by his) the twin little black muzzles of a derringer concealed in his palm; a spasm of fear pinched me; they spurted, with ringing report, but just at the instant a flanneled arm knocked his arm up, the ball had sped ceiling-ward and the teamster of the gaming table stood against him, revolver barrel boring into his very stomach.
"Stand pat, Mister. I call you."
In a trice all entry of any unpleasant emotion vanished from my antagonist's handsome face, leaving it olive tinted, cameo, inert. He steadied a little, and smiled, surveying the teamster's visage, close to his.
"You have me covered, sir. My hand is in the discard." He composedly tucked the derringer into his waistcoat pocket again. "That gentleman struck me; he was about to draw on me, and by rights I might have killed him. My apologies for this little disturbance."
He bestowed a challenging look upon me, a hard unforgiving look upon the lady; with a bow he turned for his hat, and stepping swiftly went back to his table.
Now in the reaction I fought desperately against a trembling of the knees; there were congratulations, a hubbub of voices assailing me—and the arm of the teamster through mine and his bluff invitation:
"Come and have a drink."
"But you'll return. You must. I want to speak with you."
It was My Lady, pleading earnestly. I still could scarcely utter a word; my brain was in a smother. My new friend moved me away from her. He answered for me.
"Not until we've had a little confab, lady. We've got matters of importance jest at present."
I saw her bite her lips, as she helplessly flushed; her blue eyes implored me, but I had no will of my own and I certainly owed a measure of courtesy to this man who had saved my life.
I ACCEPT AN OFFER
We found a small table, one of the several devoted to refreshments for the dancers, in a corner and unoccupied. The affair upon the floor was apparently past history—if it merited even that distinction. The place had resumed its program of dancing, playing and drinking as though after all a pistol shot was of no great moment in the Big Tent.
"You had a narrow shave," my friend remarked as we seated ourselves—I with a sigh of gratitude for the opportunity. "If you can't draw quicker you'd better keep your hands in your pockets. Let's have a dose of t'rant'lar juice to set you up." Whereupon he ordered whiskey from a waiter.
"But I couldn't stand by and see him strike a woman," I defended.
"Wall, fists mean guns, in these diggin's. Where you from?"
"Albany, New York State."
"I sized you up as a pilgrim. You haven't been long in camp, either, have you?"
"No. But plenty long enough," I miserably replied.
"Long enough to be plucked, eh?"
We had drunk the whiskey. Under its warming influence my tongue loosened. Moreover there was something strong and kindly in the hearty voice and the rough face of this rudely clad plainsman, black bearded to the piercing black eyes.
"Yes; of my last cent."
"All at gamblin', mebbe?"
"No. Only a little, but that strapped me. The hotel had robbed me of practically everything else."
"Had, had it? Wall, what's the story?"
I told him of the hotel part; and he nodded.
"Shore. You can't hold the hotel responsible. You can leave stuff loose in regular camp; nobody enters flaps without permission. But a room is a different proposition. I'd rather take chances among Injuns than among white men. Why, you could throw in with a Sioux village for a year and not be robbed permanent if the chief thought you straight; but in a white man's town—hell! Now, how'd you get tangled up with this other outfit?"
"Which?" I queried.
"That brace outfit I found you with."
"The fellow is a stranger to me, sir," said I. "I simply was foolish enough to stake what little I had on a sure thing—I was bamboozled into following the lead of the rest of you," I reminded. "Now I see that there was a trick, although I don't yet understand. After that the fellow assaulted the lady, my companion, and you stepped in—for which, sir, I owe you more thanks than I can utter."
"A trick, you think?" He opened his hairy mouth for a gust of short laughter. "My Gawd, boy! We were nicely took in, and we desarved it. When you buck the tiger, look out for his claws. But I reckoned he'd postpone the turn till next time. He would have, if you fellers hadn't come down so handsome with the dust. I stood pat, at that. So, you notice, did the capper, your other friend."
"The capper? Which was he, sir?"
"Why, Lord bless you, son. You're the greenest thing this side of Omyha. A capper touched him on the shoulder, a capper bent that there card, a capper tolled you all on with a dollar or two, and another capper fed the come-ons to his table. Aye, she's a purty piece. Where'd you meet up with her?"
"With her?" I gasped.
"Yes, yes. The woman; the main steerer. That purty piece who damn nigh lost you your life as well as losin' you your money."
"You mean the lady with the blue eyes, in black?"
"Yes, the golden hair. Lady! Oh, pshaw! Where'd she hook you? At the door?"
"You shall not speak of her in that fashion, sir," I answered. "We were together on the train from Omaha. She has been kindness itself. The only part she has played to-night, as far as I can see, was to chaperon me here in the Big Tent; and whatever small winnings I had made, for amusement, was due to her and the skill of an acquaintance named Jim."
"Jim Daily, yep. O' course. And she befriended you. Why, d'you suppose?"
"Perhaps because I was of some assistance to her on the way out West. I had a little setto with Mr. Daily, when he annoyed her while he was drunk. But sobered up, he seemed to wish to make amends."
"Oh, Lord!" My friend's mouth gaped. "Amends? Yep. That's his nature. Might call it mendin' his pocket and his lip. And you don't yet savvy that your 'lady' 's Montoyo's wife—his woman, anyhow?"
"Montoyo? Who's Montoyo?"
"The monte thrower. That same spieler who trimmed us," he rapped impatiently.
The light that broke upon me dazed. My heart pounded. I must have looked what I felt: a fool.
"No," I stammered in my thin small voice of the hotel. "I imagined—I had reason to suspect that she might be married. But I didn't know to whom."
"Married? Wall, mebbe. Anyhow, she's bound to Montoyo. He's a breed, some Spanish, some white, like as not some Injun. A devil, and as slick as they make 'em. She's a power too white for him, herself, but he uses her and some day he'll kill her. You're not the fust gudgeon she's hooked, to feed to him. Why, she's known all back down the line. They two have been followin' end o' track from North Platte, along with Hell on Wheels. Had a layout in Omyha, and in Denver. They're not the only double-harness outfit hyar, either. You can meet a friendly woman any time, but this one got hold you fust."
I writhed to the words.
"And that fellow Jim?" I asked.
"He's jest a common roper. He alluz wins, to encourage suckers like you. 'Tisn't his money he plays with; he's on commish. Beginnin' to understand, ain't you?"
"But the bent card?" I insisted. "That is the mystery. It was the queen. What became of the queen?"
"Ho ho!" And again he laughed. "A cute trick, shore. That's what we got for bein' so plumb crooked ourselves. Why, o' course it was the queen, once. You see 'twas this way. That she-male and the capper in cahoots with her tolled you on straight for Montoyo's table; teased you a leetle along the trail, no doubt, to keep you interested." I nodded. "They promised you winnin's, easy winnin's. Then at Montoyo's table the game was a leetle slack; so one capper touched him on the shoulder and another marked the card. O' course a gambler like him wouldn't be up to readin' his own cards. Oh, no! You sports were the smart ones."
"How about yourself?" I retorted, nettled.
"Me? I know them tricks, but I reckoned I was smart, too. Then that capper Jim led out and we all made a small winnin', to prove the system. And Montoyo, he gets tired o' losin'—but still he's blind to a card that everybody else can see, and he calls for real play so he can go broke or even up. I didn't look for much of a deal on that throw myself. Usu'ly it comes less promisc'yus, with the gudgeon stakin' the big roll, and then I pull out. But you-all slapped down the stuff in a stampede, sartin you had him buffaloed. On his last shuffle he'd straightened the queen and turned down the eight, usin' an extra finger or two. Them card sharps have six fingers on each hand and several in their sleeve, and he was slicker'n I thought. He might have refused all bets and got your mad up for the next pass; but you'd come down as handsome as you would, he figgered. So he let go. 'Twas fair and squar', robber eat robber, and we none of us have any call to howl. But you mind my word: Don't aim to put something over on a professional gamblin' sharp. It can't be done. As for me, I broke even and I alluz expect to lose. When I look to be skinned I leave most my dust behind me where I can't get at it."
Now I saw all, or enough. I had received no more than I deserved. Such a wave of nausea surged into my mouth—but he was continuing.
"Jest why he struck his woman I don't know. Do you?"
"Yes. She had cautioned me and he must have heard her. And she showed which was the right card. I don't understand that."
"To save her face, and egg you on. Shore! Your twenty dollars was nothin'. She didn't know you were busted. Next time she'd have steered you to the tune of a hundred or two and cleaned you proper. You hadn't been worked along, yet, to the right pitch o' smartness. Montoyo must ha' mistook her. She encouraged you, didn't she?"
"Yes, she did." I arose unsteadily, clutching the table. "If you'll excuse me, sir, I think I'd better go. I—I—I thank you. I only wish I'd met you before. You are at liberty to regard me as a saphead. Good-night, sir."
"No! Hold on. Sit down, sit down, man. Have another drink."
"I have had enough. In fact, since arriving in Benton I've had more than enough of everything." But I sat down.
"Where were you goin'?"
"To the hotel. I am privileged to stay there until to-morrow. Thank Heaven I was obliged to pay in advance."
"Alluz safer," said he. "And then what?"
"I don't know. I must find employment, and earn enough to get home with." To write for funds was now impossible through very shame. "Home's the only place for a person of my greenness."
"Why did you come out clear to end o' track?" he inquired.
"I was ordered by my physician to find a locality in the Far West, high and dry." I gulped at his smile. "I've found it and shall go home to report."
"With your tail between your legs?" He clapped me upon the shoulder. "Stiffen your back. We all have to pay for eddication. You're not wolf meat yet, by a long shot. You've still got your hair, and that's more than some men I know of. You look purty healthy, too. Don't turn for home; stick it out."
"I shall have to stick it out until I raise the transportation," I reminded. "My revolver should tide me over, for a beginning."
"Sell it?" said he. "Sell your breeches fust. Either way you'd be only half dressed. No!"
"It would take me a little way. I'll not stay in Benton—not to be pointed at as a dupe."
"Oh, pshaw!" he laughed. "Nobody'll remember you, specially if you're known to be broke. Busted, you're of no use to the camp. Let me make you a proposition. I believe you're straight goods. Can't believe anything else, after seein' your play and sizin' you up. Let me make you a proposition. I'm on my way to Salt Lake with a bull outfit and I'm in need of another man. I'll give you a dollar and a half a day and found, and it will be good honest work, too."
"You are teaming west, you mean?" I asked.
"Yes, sir. Freightin' across. Mule-whackin'."
"But I never drove spans in my life; and I'm not in shape to stand hardships," I faltered. "I'm here for my health. I have——"
"Stow all that, son," he interrupted more tolerantly than was my due. "Forget your lungs, lights and liver and stand up a full-size man. In my opinion you've had too much doctorin'. A month with a bull train, and a diet of beans and sowbelly will put a linin' in your in'ards and a heart in your chest. When you've slept under a wagon to Salt Lake and l'arned to sling a bull whip and relish your beans burned, you can look anybody in the eye and tell him to go to hell, if you like. This roarin' town life—it's no life for you. It's a bobtail, wide open in the middle. I'll be only too glad to get away on the long trail myself. So you come with me," and he smiled winningly. "I hate to see you ruined by women and likker. Mule-skinnin' ain't all beer and skittles, as they say; but this job'll tide you over, anyhow, and you'll come out at the end with money in your pocket, if you choose, and no doctor's bill to pay."
"Sir," I said gratefully, "may I think it over to-night, and let you know in the morning? Where will I find you?"
"The train's camped near the wagon trail, back at the river. You can't miss it. It's mainly a Mormon train, that some of us Gentiles have thrown in with. Ask for Cap'n Hyrum Adams' train. My name's Jenks—George Jenks. You'll find me there. I'll hold open for you till ten o'clock—yes, till noon. I mean that you shall come. It'll be the makin' of you."
I arose and gave him my hand; shook with him.
"And I hope to come," I asserted with glow of energy. "You've set me upon my feet, Mr. Jenks, for I was desperate. You're the first honest man I've met in Benton."
"Tut, tut," he reproved. "There are others. Benton's not so bad as you think it. But you were dead ripe; the buzzards scented you. Now you go straight to your hotel, unless you'll spend the night with me. No? Then I'll see you in the mornin'. I'll risk your gettin' through the street alone."
"You may, sir," I affirmed. "At present I'm not worth further robbing."
"Except for your gun and clothes," he rejoined. "But if you'll use the one you'll keep the other."
Gazing neither right nor left I strode resolutely for the exit. Now I had an anchor to windward. Sometimes just one word will face a man about when for lack of that mere word he was drifting. Of the games and the people I wished only to be rid forever; but at the exit I was halted by a hand laid upon my arm, and a quick utterance.
"Not going? You will at least say good-night."
I barely paused, replying to her.
Still she would have detained me.
"Oh, no, no! Not this way. It was a mistake. I swear to you I am not to be blamed. Please let me help you. I don't know what you've heard—I don't know what has been said about me—you are angry——"
I twitched free, for she should not work upon me again. With such as she, a vampire and yet a woman, a man's safety lay not in words but in unequivocal action.
"Good-night," I bade thickly, half choked by that same nausea, now hot. Bearing with me a satisfying but somehow annoyingly persistent imprint of moist blue eyes under shimmering hair, and startled white face plashed on one cheek with vivid crimson, and small hand left extended empty, I roughly stalked on and out, free of her, free of the Big Tent, her lair.
All the way to the hotel, through the garish street, I nursed my wrath while it gnawed at me like the fox in the Spartan boy's bosom; and once in my room, which fortuitously had no other tenants at this hour, I had to lean out of the narrow window for sheer relief in the coolness. Surely pride had had a fall this night.
There "roared" Benton—the Benton to which, as to prosperity, I had hopefully purchased my ticket ages ago. And here cowered I, holed up—pillaged, dishonored, worthless in even this community: a young fellow in jaunty frontier costume, new and brave, but really reduced to sackcloth and ashes; a young fellow only a husk, as false in appearance as the Big Tent itself and many another of those canvas shells.
The street noises—shouts, shots, music, songs, laughter, rattle of dice, whirr of wheel and clink of glasses—assailed me discordant. The scores of tents and shacks stretching on irregularly had become pocked with dark spots, where lights had been extinguished, but the street remained ablaze and the desert without winked at the stars. There were moving gleams at the railroad yards where switch engines puffed back and forth; up the grade and the new track, pointing westward, there were sparks of camp-fires; and still in other directions beyond the town other tokens redly flickered, where overland freighters were biding till the morning.
Two or three miles in the east (Mr. Jenks had said) was his wagon train, camped at the North Platte River; and peering between the high canopy of stars and the low stratum of spectrally glowing, earthy—yes, very earthy—Benton, I tried to focus upon the haven, for comfort.
I had made up my mind to accept the berth. Anything to get away. Benton I certainly hated with the rage of the defeated. So in a fling I drew back, wrestled out of coat and boots and belt and pantaloons, tucked them in hiding against the wall at the head of my bed and my revolver underneath my stained pillow; and tried to forget Benton, all of it, with the blanket to my ears and my face to the wall, for sleep.
When once or twice I wakened from restless dreaming the glow and the noise of the street seemed scarcely abated, as if down there sleep was despised. But when I finally aroused, and turned, gathering wits again, full daylight had paled everything else.
Snores sounded from the other beds; I saw tumbled coverings, disheveled forms and shaggy heads. In my own corner nothing had been molested. The world outside was strangely quiet. The trail was open. So with no attention to my roommates I hastily washed and dressed, buckled on my armament, and stumped freely forth, down the somnolent hall, down the creaking stairs, and into the silent lobby.
Even the bar was vacant. Behind the office counter a clerk sat sunk into a doze. At my approach he unclosed blank, heavy eyes.
"I'm going out," I said shortly. "Number Three bed in Room Six."
"For long, sir?" he stammered. "You'll be back, or are you leaving?"
"I'm leaving. You'll find I'm paid up."
"Yes, sir. Of course, sir." He rallied to the problem. "Just a moment. Number Three, Room Six, you say. Pulling your freight, are you?" He scanned the register. "You're the gentleman from New York who came in yesterday and met with misfortune?"
"I am," said I.
"Well, better luck next time. We'll see you again?" He quickened. "Here! One moment. Think I have a message for you." And reaching behind him into a pigeonhole he extracted an envelope, which he passed to me. "Yours, sir?" I stared at the fine slanting script of the address:
Please deliver to Frank R. Beeson, Esqr., At the Queen Hotel. Arrived from Albany, N. Y.
I CUT LOOSE
I nodded; rebuffing his attentive eyes I stuffed the envelope into my pantaloons pocket.
"Good luck. When you come back remember the Queen."
"I'll remember the Queen," said I; and with the envelope smirching my flesh I stepped out, holding my head as high as though my pockets contained something of more value.
The events of yesterday had hardened, thank Heaven; and so had I, into an obstinacy that defied this mocking Western country. I was down to the ground and was going to scratch. To make for home like a whipped dog, there to hang about, probably become an invalid and die resistless, was unthinkable. Already the Far West air and vigor had worked a change in me. In the fresh morning I felt like a fighting cock, or a runner recruited by a diet of unbolted flour and strong red meat.
The falsity of the life here I looked upon as only an incident. The gay tawdry had faded; I realized how much more enduring were the rough, uncouth but genuine products like my friend Mr. Jenks and those of that ilk, who spoke me well instead of merely fair. Health of mind and body should be for me. Hurrah!
But the note! It could have been sent by only one person—the superscription, dainty and feminine, betrayed it. That woman was still pursuing me. How she had found out my name I did not know; perhaps from the label on my bag, perhaps through the hotel register. I did not recall having exchanged names with her—she never had proffered her own name. At all events she appeared determined to keep a hold upon me, and that was disgusting.
Couldn't she understand that I was no longer a fool—that I had wrenched absolutely loose from her and that she could do nothing with me? So in wrath renewed by her poor estimate of my common sense I was minded to tear the note to fragments, unread, and contemptuously scatter them. Had she been present I should have done so, to show her.
Being denied the satisfaction I saw no profit in wasting that modicum of spleen, when I might double it by deliberately reading her effusion and knowingly casting it into the dust. One always can make excuses to oneself, for curiosity. Consequently I halted, around a corner in this exhausted Benton; tore the envelope open with gingerly touch. The folded paper within contained a five-dollar bank note.
That was enough to pump the blood to my face with a rush. It was an insult—a shame, first hand. A shoddy plaster, applied to me—to me, Frank Beeson, a gentleman, whether to be viewed as a plucked greenhorn or not. With cheeks twitching I managed to read the lines accompanying the dole:
You would not permit me to explain to you to-night, therefore I must write. The recent affair was a mistake. I had no intention that you should lose, and I supposed you were in more funds. I insist upon speaking with you. You shall not go away in this fashion. You will find me at the Elite Cafe, at a table, at ten o'clock in the morning. And in case you are a little short I beg of you to make use of the enclosed, with my best wishes and apologies. You may take it as a loan; I do not care as to that. I am utterly miserable.
E. To Frank Beeson, Esquire.
Faugh! Had there been a sewer near I believe that I should have thrown the whole enclosure in, and spat. But half unconsciously wadding both money and paper in my hand as if to squeeze the last drop of rancor from them I swung on, seeing blindly, ready to trample under foot any last obstacle to my passage out.
Then, in the deserted way, from a lane among the straggling shacks, a figure issued. I disregarded it, only to hear it pattering behind me and its voice:
"Mr. Beeson! Wait! Please wait."
I had to turn about to avoid the further degradation of acting the churl to her, an inferior. And as I had suspected, she it was, arriving breathless and cloak inwrapped, only her white face showing.
"You have my note?" she panted.
There were dark half circles under her eyes, pinch lines about her mouth, all her face was wildly strained. She simulated distress very well indeed.
"Here it is, and your money. Take them." And I thrust my unclosed fist at her.
"No! And you were going? You didn't intend to reply?"
"Certainly not. I am done with you, and with Benton, madam. Good-morning. I have business."
She caught at my sleeve.
"You are angry. I don't blame you, but you have time to talk with me and you shall talk." She spoke almost fiercely. "I demand it, sir. If not at the cafe, then here and now. Will you stand aside, please, where the whole town shan't see us; or do you wish me to follow you on? I'm risking already, but I'll risk more."
I sullenly stepped aside, around the corner of a sheet-iron groggery (plentifully punctured, I noted, with bullet holes) not yet open for business and faced by the blank wall of a warehouse.
"I've been waiting since daylight," she panted, "and watching the hotel. I knew you were still there; I found out. I was afraid you wouldn't answer my note, so I slipped around and cut in on you. Where are you going, sir?"
"That, madam, is my private affair," I replied. "And all your efforts to influence me in the slightest won't amount to a row of pins. And as I am in a hurry, I again bid you good-morning. I advise you to get back to your husband and your beauty sleep, in order to be fresh for your Big Tent to-night."
"My husband? You know? Oh, of course you know." She gazed affrightedly upon me. "To Montoyo, you say? Him? No, no! I can't! Oh, I can't, I can't." She wrung her hands, she held me fast. "And I know where you're going. To that wagon train. Mr. Jenks has engaged you. You will bull-whack to Salt Lake? You? Don't! Please don't. There's no need of it."
"I am done with Benton, and with Benton's society, madam," I insisted. "I have learned my lesson, believe me, and I'm no longer a 'gudgeon.'"
"You never were," said she. "Not that. And you don't have to turn bull-whacker or mule-skinner either. It's a hard life; you're not fitted for it—never, never. Leave Benton if you will. I hate it myself. And let us go together."
"Madam!" I rapped; and drew back, but she clung to me.
"Listen, listen! Don't mistake me again. Last night was enough. I want to go. I must go. We can travel separately, then; I will meet you anywhere—Denver, Omaha, Chicago, New York, anywhere you say—anywhere——"
"Your husband, madam," I prompted. "He might have objections to parting with you."
"Montoyo? That snake—you fear that snake? He is no husband to me. I could kill him—I will do it yet, to be free from him."
"My good name, then," I taunted. "I might fear for my good name more than I'd fear a man."
"I have a name of my own," she flashed, "although you may not know it."
"I have been made acquainted with it," I answered roundly.
"No, you haven't. Not the true. You know only another." Her tone became humbler. "But I'm not asking you to marry me," she said. "I'm not asking you to love me as a paramour, sir. Please understand. Treat me as you will; as a sister, a friend, but anything human. Only let me have your decent regard until I can get 'stablished in new quarters. I can help you," she pursued eagerly. "Indeed I can help you if you stay in the West. Yes, anywhere, for I know life. Oh, I'm so tired of myself; I can't run true, I'm under false colors. You saw how the trainmen curried favor all along the line, how familiar they were, how I submitted—I even dropped that coin a-purpose in the Omaha station, for you, just to test you. Those things are expected of me and I've felt obliged to play my part. Men look upon me as a tool to their hands, to make them or break them. All they want is my patronage and the secrets of the gaming table. And there is Montoyo—bullying me, cajoling me, watching me. But you were different, after I had met you. I foolishly wished to help you, and last night the play went wrong. Why did I take you to his table? Because I think myself entitled, sir," she said on, bridling a little, defiant of my gaze, "to promote my friends when I have any. I did not mean that you should wager heavily for you. Montoyo is out for large stakes. There is safety in small and I know his system. You remember I warned you? I did warn you. I saw too late. You shall have all your money back again. And Montoyo struck me—me, in public! That is the end. Oh, why couldn't I have killed him? But if you stayed here, so should I. Not with him, though. Never with him. Maybe I'm talking wildly. You'll say I'm in love with you. Perhaps I am—quien sabe? No matter as to that. I shall be no hanger-on, sir. I only ask a kind of partnership—the encouragement of some decent man near me. I have money; plenty, till we both get a footing. But you wouldn't live on me; no! I don't fancy that of you for a moment. I would be glad merely to tide you over, if you'd let me. And I—I'd be willing to wash floors in a restaurant if I might be free of insult. You, I'm sure, would at least protect me. Wouldn't you? You would, wouldn't you? Say something, sir." She paused, out of breath and aquiver. "Shall we go? Will you help me?"
For an instant her appeal, of swimming blue eyes, upturned face, tensed grasp, breaking voice, swayed me. But what if she were an actress, an adventuress? And then, my parents, my father's name! I had already been cozened once, I had resolved not to be snared again. The spell cleared and I drew exultant breath.
"Impossible, madam," I uttered. "This is final. Good-morning."
She staggered and with magnificent but futile last flourish clapped both hands to her face. Gazing back, as I hastened, I saw her still there, leaning against the sheet-iron of the groggery and ostensibly weeping.