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I Go To Rendezvous








From: Desert Dust

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."

"She did?"

"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.

"Hello, Bob."

He smiled, with white teeth.

"Hello yourself."

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.

I declined.

"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."





Next: I Stake On The Queen

Previous: High And Dry



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