Life on the Mississippi/Chapter 36
IT was in the early days. I was not a college professor then. I was a humble-minded young land-surveyor, with the world before me--to survey, in case anybody wanted it done. I had a contract to survey a route for a great mining-ditch in California, and I was on my way thither, by sea --a three or four weeks' voyage. There were a good many passengers, but I had very little to say to them; reading and dreaming were my passions, and I avoided conversation in order to indulge these appetites. There were three professional gamblers on board--rough, repulsive fellows. I never had any talk with them, yet I could not help seeing them with some frequency, for they gambled in an upper-deck stateroom every day and night, and in my promenades I often had glimpses of them through their door, which stood a little ajar to let out the surplus tobacco smoke and profanity. They were an evil and hateful presence, but I had to put up with it, of course.
There was one other passenger who fell under my eye a good deal, for he seemed determined to be friendly with me, and I could not have gotten rid of him without running some chance of hurting his feelings, and I was far from wishing to do that. Besides, there was something engaging in his countrified simplicity and his beaming good-nature. The first time I saw this Mr. John Backus, I guessed, from his clothes and his looks, that he was a grazier or farmer from the backwoods of some western State--doubtless Ohio--and afterward when he dropped into his personal history and I discovered that he WAS a cattle-raiser from interior Ohio, I was so pleased with my own penetration that I warmed toward him for verifying my instinct.
He got to dropping alongside me every day, after breakfast, to help me make my promenade; and so, in the course of time, his easy-working jaw had told me everything about his business, his prospects, his family, his relatives, his politics--in fact everything that concerned a Backus, living or dead. And meantime I think he had managed to get out of me everything I knew about my trade, my tribe, my purposes, my prospects, and myself. He was a gentle and persuasive genius, and this thing showed it; for I was not given to talking about my matters. I said something about triangulation, once; the stately word pleased his ear; he inquired what it meant; I explained; after that he quietly and inoffensively ignored my name, and always called me Triangle.
What an enthusiast he was in cattle! At the bare name of a bull or a cow, his eye would light and his eloquent tongue would turn itself loose. As long as I would walk and listen, he would walk and talk; he knew all breeds, he loved all breeds, he caressed them all with his affectionate tongue. I tramped along in voiceless misery whilst the cattle question was up; when I could endure it no longer, I used to deftly insert a scientific topic into the conversation; then my eye fired and his faded; my tongue fluttered, his stopped; life was a joy to me, and a sadness to him.
One day he said, a little hesitatingly, and with somewhat of diffidence--
'Triangle, would you mind coming down to my stateroom a minute, and have a little talk on a certain matter?'
I went with him at once. Arrived there, he put his head out, glanced up and down the saloon warily, then closed the door and locked it. He sat down on the sofa, and he said--
'I'm a-going to make a little proposition to you, and if it strikes you favorable, it'll be a middling good thing for both of us. You ain't a-going out to Californy for fun, nuther am I--it's business, ain't that so? Well, you can do me a good turn, and so can I you, if we see fit. I've raked and scraped and saved, a considerable many years, and I've got it all here.' He unlocked an old hair trunk, tumbled a chaos of shabby clothes aside, and drew a short stout bag into view for a moment, then buried it again and relocked the trunk. Dropping his voice to a cautious low tone, he continued, 'She's all there--a round ten thousand dollars in yellow-boys; now this is my little idea: What I don't know about raising cattle, ain't worth knowing. There's mints of money in it, in Californy. Well, I know, and you know, that all along a line that 's being surveyed, there 's little dabs of land that they call "gores," that fall to the surveyor free gratis for nothing. All you've got to do, on your side, is to survey in such a way that the "gores" will fall on good fat land, then you turn 'em over to me, I stock 'em with cattle, in rolls the cash, I plank out your share of the dollars regular, right along, and--'
I was sorry to wither his blooming enthusiasm, but it could not be helped. I interrupted, and said severely--
'I am not that kind of a surveyor. Let us change the subject, Mr. Backus.'
It was pitiful to see his confusion and hear his awkward and shamefaced apologies. I was as much distressed as he was--especially as he seemed so far from having suspected that there was anything improper in his proposition. So I hastened to console him and lead him on to forget his mishap in a conversational orgy about cattle and butchery. We were lying at Acapulco; and, as we went on deck, it happened luckily that the crew were just beginning to hoist some beeves aboard in slings. Backus's melancholy vanished instantly, and with it the memory of his late mistake.
'Now only look at that!' cried he; 'My goodness, Triangle, what WOULD they say to it in OHIO. Wouldn't their eyes bug out, to see 'em handled like that?--wouldn't they, though?'
All the passengers were on deck to look--even the gamblers--and Backus knew them all, and had afflicted them all with his pet topic. As I moved away, I saw one of the gamblers approach and accost him; then another of them; then the third. I halted; waited; watched; the conversation continued between the four men; it grew earnest; Backus drew gradually away; the gamblers followed, and kept at his elbow. I was uncomfortable. However, as they passed me presently, I heard Backus say, with a tone of persecuted annoyance--
'But it ain't any use, gentlemen; I tell you again, as I've told you a half a dozen times before, I warn't raised to it, and I ain't a-going to resk it.'
I felt relieved. 'His level head will be his sufficient protection,' I said to myself.
During the fortnight's run from Acapulco to San Francisco I several times saw the gamblers talking earnestly with Backus, and once I threw out a gentle warning to him. He chuckled comfortably and said--
'Oh, yes! they tag around after me considerable--want me to play a little, just for amusement, they say--but laws-a-me, if my folks have told me once to look out for that sort of live-stock, they've told me a thousand times, I reckon.'
By-and-bye, in due course, we were approaching San Francisco. It was an ugly black night, with a strong wind blowing, but there was not much sea. I was on deck, alone. Toward ten I started below. A figure issued from the gamblers' den, and disappeared in the darkness. I experienced a shock, for I was sure it was Backus. I flew down the companion-way, looked about for him, could not find him, then returned to the deck just in time to catch a glimpse of him as he re-entered that confounded nest of rascality. Had he yielded at last? I feared it. What had he gone below for?--His bag of coin? Possibly. I drew near the door, full of bodings. It was a-crack, and I glanced in and saw a sight that made me bitterly wish I had given my attention to saving my poor cattle-friend, instead of reading and dreaming my foolish time away. He was gambling. Worse still, he was being plied with champagne, and was already showing some effect from it. He praised the 'cider,' as he called it, and said now that he had got a taste of it he almost believed he would drink it if it was spirits, it was so good and so ahead of anything he had ever run across before. Surreptitious smiles, at this, passed from one rascal to another, and they filled all the glasses, and whilst Backus honestly drained his to the bottom they pretended to do the same, but threw the wine over their shoulders.
I could not bear the scene, so I wandered forward and tried to interest myself in the sea and the voices of the wind. But no, my uneasy spirit kept dragging me back at quarter-hour intervals; and always I saw Backus drinking his wine--fairly and squarely, and the others throwing theirs away. It was the painfullest night I ever spent.
The only hope I had was that we might reach our anchorage with speed--that would break up the game. I helped the ship along all I could with my prayers. At last we went booming through the Golden Gate, and my pulses leaped for joy. I hurried back to that door and glanced in. Alas, there was small room for hope--Backus's eyes were heavy and bloodshot, his sweaty face was crimson, his speech maudlin and thick, his body sawed drunkenly about with the weaving motion of the ship. He drained another glass to the dregs, whilst the cards were being dealt.
He took his hand, glanced at it, and his dull eyes lit up for a moment. The gamblers observed it, and showed their gratification by hardly perceptible signs.
'How many cards?'
'None!' said Backus.
One villain--named Hank Wiley--discarded one card, the others three each. The betting began. Heretofore the bets had been trifling--a dollar or two; but Backus started off with an eagle now, Wiley hesitated a moment, then 'saw it' and 'went ten dollars better.' The other two threw up their hands.
Backus went twenty better. Wiley said--
'I see that, and go you a hundred better!' then smiled and reached for the money.
'Let it alone,' said Backus, with drunken gravity.
'What! you mean to say you're going to cover it?'
'Cover it? Well, I reckon I am--and lay another hundred on top of it, too.'
He reached down inside his overcoat and produced the required sum.
'Oh, that's your little game, is it? I see your raise, and raise it five hundred!' said Wiley.
'Five hundred better.' said the foolish bull-driver, and pulled out the amount and showered it on the pile. The three conspirators hardly tried to conceal their exultation.
All diplomacy and pretense were dropped now, and the sharp exclamations came thick and fast, and the yellow pyramid grew higher and higher. At last ten thousand dollars lay in view. Wiley cast a bag of coin on the table, and said with mocking gentleness--
'Five thousand dollars better, my friend from the rural districts--what do you say NOW?'
'I CALL you!' said Backus, heaving his golden shot-bag on the pile. 'What have you got?'
'Four kings, you d--d fool!' and Wiley threw down his cards and surrounded the stakes with his arms.
'Four ACES, you ass!' thundered Backus, covering his man with a cocked revolver. 'I'M A PROFESSIONAL GAMBLER MYSELF, AND I'VE BEEN LAYING FOR YOU DUFFERS ALL THIS VOYAGE!'
Down went the anchor, rumbledy-dum-dum! and the long trip was ended.
Well--well, it is a sad world. One of the three gamblers was Backus's 'pal.' It was he that dealt the fateful hands. According to an understanding with the two victims, he was to have given Backus four queens, but alas, he didn't.
A week later, I stumbled upon Backus--arrayed in the height of fashion--in Montgomery Street. He said, cheerily, as we were parting--
'Ah, by-the-way, you needn't mind about those gores. I don't really know anything about cattle, except what I was able to pick up in a week's apprenticeship over in Jersey just before we sailed. My cattle-culture and cattle-enthusiasm have served their turn--I shan't need them any more.'
Next day we reluctantly parted from the 'Gold Dust' and her officers, hoping to see that boat and all those officers again, some day. A thing which the fates were to render tragically impossible!