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I Stake On The Queen








From: Desert Dust

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.





Next: I Accept An Offer

Previous: I Go To Rendezvous



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