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I Accept An Offer








From: Desert Dust

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?"

"To-morrow?"

"Yes. To-morrow."

"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.

"Good-night."

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.





Next: I Cut Loose

Previous: I Stake On The Queen



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