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|Curley Coppers the Jack
"On Selby Flat we live in style;
We'll stay right here till we make our pile.
We're sure to do it after a while,
Then good-bye to Californy!"
-Canfield's "Diary of a Forty-Niner."
The beautiful Casino at Monte Carlo stands in one of the loveliest settings on earth. Facing the blue Mediterranean and enhanced by the exquisitely kept marble villas of Monaco, it may justly be called the acme of gambling institutions. It has become an institution through the years. Time has brought it stability.
Its absolute antithesis were the gambling dens of '49. Built over-night, destined to remain if the mines were rich, and to melt away if they pinched out, the gambling hells were sometimes the veriest makeshifts. Canvas covered, dirt floored, except for the dancing platform, rough red-wood bar and tables; surrounded by all the sordidness of Hurdy Gurdy town in which fortunes, and reputations, and lives were bid, and shuffled, and lost, as indiscriminately as grains of dust blown into the ever-changing sea.
The thirst for gold is universal. In those half-mad days of delirious seeking, the princeling rubbed sleeves with the scoundrel and the clod, and each man's ability was his only protection. Fortune played no favorites. The tale is told of the judge who drove home in his coach through a shallow creek. Ruin faced him for the lack of a few thousand dollars. He took out his derringer and shot himself.
Not half an hour later a Chinaman crossed the creek under his pole between two swinging baskets. He found a nugget there which brought him over $30,000.
This, then, is the tale of what Fortune did to Curly Gillmore.
* * * * *
"Whoop-ee! Ki-yi-ee hick-ee! Yi-ee-ee!"
"There comes Curly," said Teddy Karns," never altering the steady flow of the whiskey he was pouring into a tin cup for Sailor Jack to drink.
"Made a big strike, I hear."
"Yea-ah. About $25,000, they say. Might be a million, the way the female critters run," Ted laughed, as the hurdy-gurdy girls with shrieks of laughter pounced upon the noisy newcomer.
"Well, hel-lo, Nance, and Liz, and Babe, and Bouncin' Bet, old gal! All ready to help me sling it, ain't you? But where's little pale Alice?"
"Oh, Allie? She's back in the tents. Sick tonight. Awful bad, she's took. She'll be shufflin' off 'fore long, an' rid o' mortal misery."
"Poor little soldier!"
"Sweet, she was, an' born to be good. Why, I remember (we came 'round the Horn on the same sailin' vessel) that they wasn't a ailin' baby on board but what Allie could get a smile out of it, nor a sick soul that didn't bless 'er for 'er kindness an' care. Sick o' body, sick o' heart, Allie did for 'em all, bless 'er."
"She was happy, then," put in Babe.
"Yes. Comin' out to Californy to 'er lover, she were, all her folks back in the States bein' dead. She'd took care of 'er mother, last. 'Twas why 'er man came on ahead. An' when she got here - "
"Aw-w, Bet, don't you cry," said Babe. "Y' see, when we got here, Curly, we found her boy'd been shot in a fight over a mine. Allie, she hadn't no money left, and no gumption much, like Bet an' me, to fight her way, so we took 'er along o' us. We tried to keep her the little lady that she was, but - Well, we got snowed in last winter up on the divide an' - Faro Sam - Well, it broke her pure heart, an' most Bet's an' mine, too. An' she ain't never got over the cold she took, up there in the snow."
"Life's hard for a girl anyways you put it, an' she'll be happier over the river where there ain't no cold nor sorrer. Bet! Aw-w, she'll sleep on a finer bed nor you an' I could give 'er, an' wake happy, with ever'one she loved best around her. She's layin' there so white an' small an' still it'd most break your hear to see 'er. Like a little snowdrop you've picked, an' worn, an' slung away. So gentle - "
"Well, what's this, anyway? A wake?" broke in Faro Sam's icy voice. "Do I hire fiddlers to play a funeral dirge? Get on with you," scattering the girls in the direction of the card tables and the dancing platform. "Which ones do you want, Curly?"
"I want Babe and Betsy. Where's that little pale printer's devil, the one they call the gambler's ghost? I know Sam won't let you girls leave here."
"He's workin' up on the paper, I guess. They ran out of coal oil and had to fire up with pine knots."
"He's comin, now. He ain't no gambler's ghost tonight, though; he's pot black!"
"Ghost," said Curly, "you take this around to Allie." It was a $50 octagonal slug.
"And you say that there's more, all she wants, where that comes from."
Then, shaking his mop of brown, curly hair as though to relieve his head of a burden, he took the girls for what he felt was a much-needed round of drinks.
By midnight the place was wild!
"Sam," shouted Curly, "what's the limit on your pesky old game?"
"The ceiling's the limit."
"Well, I'll put up one bet! Bein' on Easy Street I was goin' back to the States to marry my girl, but I'm blamed if I don't put up my swag for one turn of the cards."
He sent for his "dust," and piled the long, buckskin bags criss-cross before Faro Sam's table.
"I'll copper the jack, gentlemen," he shouted. "All on the jack!"
Teddy Karn's face turned a pasty hue, and the tip of his tongue slid along his puffed lips, but the lines of Faro Sam's face never changed, and his eyes retained the blank impassivity of a snake's as he slipped his cards. There was a sudden, tense silence. The girls pressed forward with hurried breathing and the men waited, rigid as stones.
Somebody's mongrel paced to the middle of the platform and scratched for fleas, with soft thumping on the floor. That was all.
Suddenly a man swore! A woman's voice shrilled hysterically! Faro Sam rose to his feet ceremoniously. "The house is yours."
"By Jinks!" yelled Curly, "I've coppered the jack! I've broken the bank! I've - "
One of the doors swung open quietly. Silence dropped once more, with the speed of tropical night, upon the blare of the place.
The gambler's ghost stood there silhouetted against the light from a log fire outside. There were pink streaks down his dirty face, washed by tears, and his young shoulders drooped woefully. The dog came forward and licked his twitching fingers.
"Allie is dead," he whispered.
"Curly, I should like to apply for the position of dealer over at your place, which yesterday was my place," said Faro Sam, next day at noon, meeting Curly on the street.
"Sure, you can have it, Sam. Too bad it's the custom for the house to go, too, when somebody breaks the bank. I've turned it over to George Spellman, with a thousand to start with. He and I come from the same place back in the States. Great friends we were, till we both got to sparkin' the same girl. When she took me, George, he got pretty ornery, but I guess he's all over it by this time. I'm goin' home to marry her, now.
"I've just been around to the tents seein' about little Allie's funeral, an' he'll keep on the girls, too. I'm pullin' my freight for Hangtown (Placerville). This town's a little too small for a fellow of my means."
Faro Sam looked after him with a cynical light in his narrow eyes.
"The pot bubbles loudest when the water's nearest the bottom," he muttered, and turned to pick a fastidious way through the mud.
Life that night in the gambling hell went on much as usual. Teddy Karns "poured the rye," and Faro Sam "slipped the cards," whilst Babe worried over Bouncing Bet's intoxicated condition.
"It's Allie, you know," Babe confided to Red Shirt Pete at midnight. "She took it awful hard, and Spellman, the new boss, wouldn't let 'er off tonight. I bin tellin' 'er Allie's better off, but she won't listen to nobody. She's just bin pourin' 'em down all evenin'. What's that?" at a loud banging on the doors. Some one opened them and Curly rode into the place on the handsome horse he had bought that morning.
"Well, boys, I'm cleaned! Tried to copper the jack in Hangtown and the whole $50,000 went. George, I'll be askin' for this place back, I guess."
"This place belongs to me, Curly Gillmore."
"Who says so?"
'This old lady says so," covering him with his pistol.
Curly laughed, not too musically. "Well, boys, what am I bid for this horse? I need a grubstake."
"Play you for him," said Faro Sam, laconically.
"Done," said Curly. A moment later he laughed once more and swung down off the Spanish thoroughbred. "He's yours. Well, good-night, boys."
No one answered. He had, like Hadji the beggar, become in twenty-four hours again a drifter.
Babe sneaked out after him. "Here, Curly," she slipped her hand into her bosom and held out the octagonal slug. "When Bet an' I reached Allie last night she was holdin' it in her little dead hand, an' there was such a smile on her face! You gave her that happy smile. God bless you for it! Now, you take this - "
But Curly turned away, blinking his eyes, and trying to swallow the lump in his throat. Babe stood watching him through her tears as he tramped down the street, out of the town on the road to the south.
* * * * *
Two years later in a hall in Sonora, a man strolled in to the card tables.
"Why, hel-lo, Curly!"
Curly glanced up briefly. "Hello, George."
"Hear you've made another strike."
"You can hear a lot that ain't true. This happens to be."
"You know, I was telling - "
"Well, the sight of you don't put me in the mood to be told much." There was an imperceptible shifting of the crowd around the table. They were moving away from Spellman.
"I was telling my wife - "
"My girl, you mean! It wasn't enough to keep my business, you had to go home an' marry my girl, too, didn't you?"
"Curly, for the love of heaven - "
"Take your hand off my arm, Pete. I'm going to kill this - -. He's not the kind of man I thought he was."
Two shots crashed in the room!
Spellman wavered through the smoke haze, then dropped his pistol and fell slowly across the card table littered with shining cards and poker chips. An overturned tallow-dip dropped in a pool of wine and rolled down against the dead man's cheek, dabbling it with the color which would never return to it again.
* * * * *
"Bet, ain't that Curly Gillmore that we knew three years ago at Coloma, when Allie died?"
"Must be a-gittin' blind! Where?"
"The feller all dressed up an' walkin' with the lady. Sure it is! Hi, Curly, hel-lo! It's Babe. Well, ain't I glad - "
The woman with Curly fixed Babe with a stony glare. "If you wish to converse with this ... woman, kindly do so when your wife is not accompanying you," she said to him in an angry undertone, and went majestically on.
"I'll come back, Babe. We've been married just a month and she doesn't understand. I'll be back later," and he hurried off.
"Bet, did you see who that was with Curly? His wife, he said."
"Aw-w, Babe, don't you fret! I guess we fill our little place out here in Californy near as much as some o' the fine ladies do."
"I didn't care. No, I was thinkin' that the ways o' the Lord are curi-us. That lady used to be married to George Spellman."
"An' Curly shot him, down at Sonora, last year!"
"Well, I'll be - ."