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On Grand Tour








From: Desert Dust

The sun had set and all the golden twilight was hazy with the dust
suspended in swirl and strata over the ugly roofs. In the canvas-faced
main street the throng and noise had increased rather than diminished at
the approach of dusk. Although clatter of dishes mingled with the cadence,
the people acted as if they had no thought of eating; and while aware of
certain pangs myself, I felt a diffidence in proposing supper as yet.

My two companions hesitated a moment, spying up and down, which gave me
opportunity to view the scene anew. Surely such an hotch-potch never
before populated an American town: Men flannel shirted, high booted,
shaggy haired and bearded, stumping along weighted with excess of belts
and formidable revolvers balanced, not infrequently, by sheathed
butcher-knives--men whom I took to be teamsters, miners, railroad graders,
and the like; other men white skinned, clean shaven except perhaps for
moustaches and goatees, in white silk shirts or ruffled bosoms, broadcloth
trousers and trim footgear, unarmed, to all appearance, but evidently
respected; men of Eastern garb like myself--tourists, maybe, or
merchants; a squad of surveyors in picturesque neckerchiefs, and revolver
girted; trainmen, grimy engineers and firemen; clerks, as I opined, dapper
and bustling, clad in the latest fashion, with diamonds in flashy ties and
heavy gold watch chains across their fancy waistcoats; soldiers; men whom
I took to be Mexicans, by their velvet jackets, slashed pantaloons and
filagreed hats; darkly weathered, leathery faced, long-haired personages,
no doubt scouts and trappers, in fringed buckskins and beaded moccasins;
blanket wrapped Indians; and women.

Of the women a number were unmistakable as to vocation, being lavishly
painted, strident, and bold, and significantly dressed. I saw several in
amazing costumes of tightly fitting black like ballet girls, low necked,
short skirted, around the smooth waists snake-skin belts supporting
handsome little pistols and dainty poignards. Contrasted there were women
of other class and, I did not doubt, of better repute; some in gowns and
bonnets that would do them credit anywhere in New York, and some, of
course, more commonly attired in calico and gingham as proper to the
humbler station of laundresses, cooks, and so forth.

The uproar was a jargon of shouts, hails, music, hammering, barking, scuff
of feet, trample of horses and oxen, rumble of creaking wagons and Concord
stages.

"Well, suh," spoke the Colonel, pulling his hat over his eyes, "shall we
stroll a piece?"

"Might better," assented Bill. "The gentleman may find something of
interest right in the open. How are you on the goose, sir?" he demanded of
me.

"The goose?" I uttered.

"Yes. Keno."

"I am a stranger to the goose," said I.

He grunted.

"It gives a quick turn for a small stake. So do the three-card and
rondo."

Of passageway there was not much choice between the middle of the street
and the borders. Seemed to me as we weaved along through groups of idlers
and among busily stepping people that every other shop was a saloon, with
door widely open and bar and gambling tables well attended. The odor of
liquor saturated the acrid dust. Yet the genuine shops, even of the rudest
construction, were piled from the front to the rear with commodities of
all kinds, and goods were yet heaped upon the ground in front and behind
as if the merchants had no time for unpacking. The incessant hammering, I
ascertained, came from amateur carpenters, including mere boys, here and
there engaged as if life depended upon their efforts, in erecting more
buildings from knocked-down sections like cardboard puzzles and from
lumber already cut and numbered.

My guides nodded right and left with "Hello, Frank," "How are you, Dan?"
"Evening, Charley," and so on. Occasionally the Colonel swept off his
hat, with elaborate deference, to a woman, but I looked in vain for My
Lady in Black. I did not see her--nor did I see her peer, despite the fact
that now and then I observed a face and figure of apparent
attractiveness.

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.

"Well, sir?"

"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.





Next: High And Dry

Previous: I Meet Friends



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