Chapter 47 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

A Game of Whist.

In the centre of the smoking-saloon, there was a table, and around it some half-dozen men were seated. Other half-dozen stood behind these, looking over their shoulders. The attitudes of all, and their eager glances, suggested the nature of their occupation. The flouting of pasteboard, the chink of dollars, and the oft-recurring words of “ace,” “jack,” and “trump,” put it beyond a doubt that that occupation was gaming. “Euchre” was the game.

Curious to observe this popular American game, I stepped up and stood watching the players. My friend who had raised the false alarm was one of them; but his back was towards me, and I remained for some time unseen by him.

Some two or three of those who played were elegantly-dressed men. Their coats were of the finest cloth, their ruffles of the costliest cambric, and jewels sparkled in their shirt bosoms and glittered upon their fingers. These fingers, however, told a tale. They told plainly as words, that they to whom they belonged had not always been accustomed to such elegant adornment. Toilet soap had failed to soften the corrugated skin, and obliterate the abrasions—the souvenirs of toil.

This was nothing. They might be gentlemen for all that. Birth is of slight consequence in the Far West. The plough-boy may become the President.

Still there was an air about these men—an air I cannot describe, but which led me at the moment to doubt their gentility. It was not from any swagger or assumption on their part. On the contrary, they appeared the most gentlemanly individuals around the table!

They were certainly the most sedate and quiet. Perhaps it was this very sedateness—this polished reserve—that formed the spring of my suspicion. True gentlemen, bloods from Tennessee or Kentucky, young planters of the Mississippi coast, or French Creoles of Orleans, would have offered different characteristics. The cool complacency with which these individuals spoke and acted—no symptoms of perturbation as the trump was turned, no signs of ruffled temper when luck went against them—told two things; first, that they were men of the world, and, secondly, that they were not now playing their maiden game of “Euchre.” Beyond that I could form no judgment about them. They might be doctors, lawyers, or “gentlemen of elegant leisure”—a class by no means uncommon in the work-a-day world of America.

At that time I was still too new to Far West society, to be able to distinguish its features. Besides, in the United States, and particularly in the western portion of the country, those peculiarities of dress and habit, which in the Old-World form, as it were, the landmarks of the professions, do not exist. You may meet the preacher wearing a blue coat and bright buttons; the judge with a green one; the doctor in a white linen jacket; and the baker in glossy black broadcloth from top to toe!

Where every man assumes the right to be a gentleman, the costumes and badges of trade are studiously avoided. Even the tailor is undistinguishable in the mass of his “fellow-citizens.” The land of character-dresses lies farther to the south-west—Mexico is that land.

I stood for some time watching the gamesters and the game. Had I not known something of the banking peculiarities of the West, I should have believed that they were gambling for enormous sums. At each man’s right elbow lay a huge pile of bank-notes, flanked by a few pieces of silver—dollars, halves, and quarters. Accustomed as my eyes had been to bank-notes of five pounds in value, the table would have presented to me a rich appearance, had I not known that these showy parallelograms of copper-plate and banking-paper, were mere “shin-plasters,” representing amounts that varied from the value of one dollar to that of six and a quarter cents! Notwithstanding, the bets were far from being low. Twenty, fifty, and even a hundred dollars, frequently changed hands in a single game.

I perceived that the hero of the false alarm was one of the players. His back was towards me where I stood, and he was too much engrossed with his game to look around.

In dress and general appearance he differed altogether from the rest. He wore a white beaver hat with broad brim, and a coat of great “jeans,” wide-sleeved and loose-bodied. He had the look of a well-to-do corn-farmer from Indiana or a pork-merchant from Cincinnati. Yet there was something in his manner that told you river-travelling was not new to him. It was not his first trip “down South.” Most probably the second supposition was the correct one—he was a dealer in hog-meat.

One of the fine gentlemen I have described sat opposite to where I was standing. He appeared to be losing considerable sums, which the farmer or pork-merchant was winning. It proved that the luck of the cards was not in favour of the smartest-looking players—an inducement to other plain people to try a hand.

I began to feel sympathy for the elegant gentleman, his losses were so severe. I could not help admiring the composure with which he bore them.

At length he looked up, and scanned the faces of those who stood around. He seemed desirous of giving up the play. His eye met mine. He said, in a careless way—

“Perhaps, stranger, you wish to take a hand? You may have my place if you do. I have no luck. I could not win under any circumstances to-night. I shall give up playing.”

This appeal caused the rest of the players to turn their faces towards me, and among others the pork-dealer. I expected an ebullition of anger from this individual. I was disappointed. On the contrary, he hailed me in a friendly tone.

“Hilloa, mister!” cried he, “I hope you an’t miffed at me?”

“Not in the least,” I replied.

“Fact, I meant no offence. Did think thar war a some ’un overboard. Dog-gone me, if I didn’t!”

“Oh! I have taken no offence,” rejoined I; “to prove it, I ask you now to drink with me.”

The juleps and the late reaction from bitter thought had rendered me of a jovial disposition. The free apology at once won my forgiveness.

“Good as wheat!” assented the pork-dealer. “I’m your man; but, stranger, you must allow me to pay. You see, I’ve won a trifle here. My right to pay for the drinks.”

“Oh! I have no objection.”

“Well, then, let’s all licker! I stand drinks all round. What say you, fellars?” A murmur of assent answered the interrogatory.

“Good!” continued the speaker. “Hyar, bar-keeper! drinks for the crowd!”

And so saying, he of the white-hat and jeans coat stepped forward to the bar, and placed a couple of dollars upon the counter. All who were near followed him, shouting each out the name of the beverage most to his liking in the various calls of “gin-sling,” “cocktail,” “cobbler,” “julep,” “brandy-smash,” and such-like interesting mixtures.

In America men do not sit and sip their liquor, but drink standing. Running, one might say—for, be it hot or cold, mixed or “neat,” it is gone in a gulp, and then the drinkers retire to their chairs to smoke, chew, and wait for the fresh invitation, “Let’s all licker!”

In a few seconds we had all liquored, and the players once more took their seats around the table.

The gentleman who had proposed to me to become his successor did not return to his place. He had no luck, he again said, and would not play any more that night.

Who would accept his place and his partner? I was appealed to.

I thanked my new acquaintances, but the thing was impossible, as I had never played Euchre, and therefore knew nothing about the game, beyond the few points I had picked up while watching them.

“That ar awkward,” said the pork-dealer. “Ain’t we nohow able to get up a set? Come, Mr Chorley—I believe that’s your name, sir?” (This was addressed to the gentleman who had risen.) “You ain’t a-goin’ to desart us that away? We can’t make up a game if you do?”

“I should only lose if I played longer,” reiterated Chorley. “No,” continued he, “I won’t risk it.”

“Perhaps this gentleman plays ‘whist,’” suggested another, alluding to me. “You’re an Englishman, sir, I believe. I never knew one of your countrymen who was not a good whist-player.”

“True, I can play whist,” I replied carelessly.

“Well, then, what say you all to a game of whist?” inquired the last speaker, glancing around the table.

“Don’t know much about the game,” bluntly answered the pork-dealer. “Mout play it on a pinch rayther than spoil sport; but whoever hez me for a partner ’ll have to keep a sharp look-out for himself, I reckon.”

“I guess you know the game as well as I do,” replied the one who had proposed it.

“I hain’t played a rubber o’ whist for many a year, but if we can’t make up the set at Euchre, let’s try one.”

“Oh! if you’re goin’ to play whist,” interposed the gentleman who had seceded from the game of Euchre—“if you’re going to play whist, I don’t mind taking a hand at that—it may change my luck—and if this gentleman has no objection, I’d like him for my partner. As you say, sir, Englishmen are good whist-players. It’s their national game, I believe.”

“Won’t be a fair match, Mr Chorley,” said the dealer in hog-meat; “but since you propose it, if Mr Hatcher here—your name, sir, I believe?”

“Hatcher is my name,” replied the person addressed, the same who suggested whist.

“If Mr Hatcher here,” continued white-hat, “has no objection to the arrangement, I’ll not back out. Doggoned, if I do!”

“Oh! I don’t care,” said Hatcher, in a tone of reckless indifference, “anything to get up a game.”

Now, I was never fond of gambling, either amateur or otherwise, but circumstances had made me a tolerable whist-player, and I knew there were few who could beat me at it. If my partner knew the game as well, I felt certain we could not be badly damaged; and according to all accounts he understood it well. This was the opinion of one or two of the bystanders, who whispered in my ear that he was a “whole team” at whist.

Partly from the reckless mood I was in—partly that a secret purpose urged me on—a purpose which developed itself more strongly afterwards—and partly that I had been bantered, and, as it were, “cornered” into the thing, I consented to play—Chorley and I versus Hatcher and the pork-merchant.

We took our seats—partners vis-à-vis—the cards were shuffled, cut, dealt, and the game began.