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Chapter 49 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

The Sportsmen of the Mississippi

Before things had reached this point, I had gained an explanation of the mysterious alarm. I alone knew it, along with the individual who had caused it.

On hearing the shots, I had run forward under the front awning, and stood looking over the guards. I was looking down upon the boiler-deck—for it appeared to me that the loud words that preceded the reports had issued thence, though I also thought that the shots had been fired at some point nearer.

Most of the people had gone out by the side entrances, and were standing over the gangways, so that I was alone in the darkness, or nearly so.

I had not been many seconds in this situation, when some one glided alongside of me, and touched me on the arm. I turned and inquired who it was, and what was wanted. A voice answered me in French—

“A friend, Monsieur, who wishes to do you a service.”

“Ha, that voice! It was you, then, who called out—”

“It was.”


“I who fired the shots—precisely.”

“There is no one killed, then?”

“Not that I know of. My pistol was pointed to the sky—besides it was loaded blank.”

“I’m glad of that, Monsieur; but for what purpose, may I ask, have you—”

“Simply to do you a service, as I have said.”

“But how do you contemplate serving me by firing off pistols, and frightening the passengers of the boat out of their senses?”

“Oh! as to that, there’s no harm done. They’ll soon got over their little alarm. I wanted to speak with you alone. I could think of no other device to separate you from your new acquaintances. The firing of my pistol was only a ruse to effect that purpose. It has succeeded, you perceive.”

“Ha! Monsieur, it was you then who whispered the word in my ear as I sat down to play?”

“Yes; have I not prophesied truly?”

“So far you have. It was you who stood opposite me in the corner of the saloon?”

“It was I.”

Let me explain these two last interrogatories. As I was about consenting to the game of whist, some one plucked my sleeve, and whispered in French—

“Don’t play, Monsieur; you are certain to lose.”

I turned in the direction of the speaker, and saw a young man just leaving my side; but was not certain whether it was he who had given this prudent counsel. As is known, I did not heed it.

Again, while engaged in the game, I noticed this same young man standing in front of me, but in a distant and somewhat dark corner of the saloon. Notwithstanding the darkness, I saw that his eyes were bent upon me, as I played. This fact would have drawn my attention of itself, but there was also an expression in the face that at once fixed my interest; and, each time, while the cards were being dealt, I took the opportunity to turn my eyes upon this strange individual.

He was a slender youth, under the medium height, and apparently scarce twenty years of age, but a melancholy tone that pervaded his countenance made him look a little older. His features were small, but finely chiselled—the nose and lips resembling more those of a woman. His cheek was almost colourless, and dark silky hair fell in profuse curls over his neck and shoulders; for such at that time was the Creole fashion. I felt certain the youth was a Creole, partly from his French cast of countenance, partly from the fashion and material of his dress, and partly because he spoke French—for I was under the impression it was he who had spoken to me. His costume was altogether of Creole fashion. He wore a blouse of brown linen—not after the mode of that famous garment as known in France—but as the Creole “hunting-shirt,” with plaited body and gracefully-gathered skirt. Its material, moreover,—the fine unbleached linen,—showed that the style was one of choice, not a mere necessary covering. His pantaloons were of the finest sky-blue cottonade—the produce of the looms of Opelousas. They were plaited very full below the waist, and open at the bottoms with rows of buttons to close them around the ankles when occasion required. There was no vest. Its place was supplied by ample frills of cambric lace, that puffed out over the breast. The chaussure consisted of gaiter-bootees of drab lasting-cloth, tipped with patent leather, and fastened over the front with a silk lace. A broad-brimmed Panama hat completed the dress, and gave the finishing touch to this truly Southern costume.

There was nothing outré about either the shirt, the pantaloons, the head-dress, or foot-gear. All were in keeping—all were in a style that at that period was the mode upon the lower Mississippi. It was not, therefore, the dress of this youth that had arrested my attention. I had been in the habit of seeing such, every day. It could not be that. No—the dress had nothing to do with the interest which he had excited. Perhaps my regarding him as the author of the brief counsel that had been uttered in my ear had a little to do with it—but not all. Independent of that, there was something in the face itself that forcibly attracted my regard—so forcibly that I began to ponder whether I had ever seen it before. If there had been a better light, I might have resolved the doubt, but he stood in shadow, and I could not get a fair view of him.

It was just about this time that I missed him from his station in the corner of the saloon, and a minute or two later were heard the shouts and shots from without.

“And now, Monsieur, may I inquire why you wish to speak to me, and what you have to say?”

I was beginning to feel annoyed at the interference of this young fellow. A man does not relish being suddenly pulled up from a game of whist; and not a bit the more that he has been losing at it.

“Why I wish to speak to you is, because I feel an interest in you. What I have to say you shall hear.”

“An interest in me! And pray, Sir, to what am I indebted for this interest?”

“Is it not enough that you are a stranger likely to be plundered of your purse?—a green-horn—”

“How, Monsieur?”

“Nay, do not be angry with me. That is the phrase which I have heard applied to you to-night by more than one of your new acquaintances. If you return to play with them, I think you will merit the title.”

“Come, Monsieur, this is too bad: you interfere in a matter that does not concern you.”

“True, it does not; but it concerns you, and yet—ah!”

I was about to leave this meddling youth, and hurry back to the game, when the strange melancholy tone of his voice caused me to hesitate, and remain by him a little longer.

“Well,” I said, “you have not yet told me what you wished to say.”

“Indeed, I have said already. I have told you not to play—that you would lose if you did. I repeat that counsel.”

“True, I have lost a little, but it does not follow that fortune will be always on one side. It is rather my partner’s fault, who seems a bad player.”

“Your partner, if I mistake not, is one of the best players on the river. I think I have seen that gentleman before.”

“Ha! you know him them?”

“Something of him—not much, but that much I know. Do you know him?”

“Never saw him before to-night.”

“Nor any of the others?”

“They are all equally strangers to me.”

“You are not aware, then, that you are playing with sportsmen?”

“No, but I am very glad to hear it. I am something of a sportsman myself—as fond of dogs, horses, and guns, as any of the three, I warrant.”

“Ha! Monsieur, you misapprehend. A sportsman in your country, and a sportsman in a Mississippi steamboat, are two very distinct things. Foxes, hares, and partridges, are the game of your sportsman. Greenhorns and their purses are the game of gentry like these.”

“The men with whom I am playing, then, are—”

“Professional gamblers—steamboat sharpers.”

“Are you sure of this, Monsieur?”

“Quite sure of it. Oh! I often travel up and down to New Orleans. I have seen them all before.”

“But one of them has the look of a farmer or a merchant, as I thought—a pork-merchant from Cincinnati—his talk ran that way.”

“Farmer—merchant, ha! ha! ha! a farmer without acres—a merchant without trade! Monsieur, that simply-dressed old fellow is said to be the ‘smartest’—that is the Yankee word—the smartest sportsman in the Mississippi valley, and such are not scarce, I trow.”

“After all, they are strangers to each other, and one of them is my partner—I do not see how they can—”

“Strangers to each other!” interrupted my new friend. “Since when have they become acquainted? I myself have seen the three in company, and at the same business, almost every time I have journeyed on the river. True, they talk to each other as if they had accidentally met. That is part of their arrangement for cheating such as you.”

“So you believe they have actually been cheating me?”

“Since the stakes have been raised to ten dollars they have.”

“But how?”

“Oh, it is very simple. Sometimes your partner designedly played the wrong card—”

“Ha! I see now; I believe it.”

“It did not need that though. Even had you had an honest partner, it would have been all the same in the end. Your opponents have a system of signals by which they can communicate to each other many facts—the sort of cards they hold,—the colour of the cards, their value, and so forth. You did not observe how they placed their fingers upon the edge of the table. I did. One finger laid horizontally denoted one trump—two fingers placed in a similar manner, two trumps—three for three, and so on. A slight curving of the fingers told: how many of the trumps were honours; a certain movement of the thumbs bespoke an ace; and in this way each of your adversaries knew almost to a card what his partner had got. It needed not the third to bring about the desired result. As it was, there were seven knaves about the table—four in the cards, and three among the players.”

“This is infamous!”

“True, I would have admonished you of it sooner; but, of course, I could not find an opportunity. It would have been no slight danger for me to have told you openly, and exposed the rascals. Hence, the ruse I have been compelled to adopt. These are no common swindlers. Any of the three would resent the slightest imputation upon their honour. Two of them are noted duellists. Most likely I should have been called out to-morrow and shot, and you would scarce have thanked me for my ‘interference.’”

“My dear sir, I am exceedingly grateful to you. I am convinced that what you say is true. How would you have me act?”

“Simply give up the game—let your losses go—you cannot recover them.”

“But I am not disposed to be thus outraged and plundered with impunity. I shall try another game, watch them, and—”

“No, you would be foolish to do so. I tell you, Monsieur, these men are noted duellists as well as black-legs, and possess courage. One of them, your partner, has given proof of it by having travelled over three hundred miles to fight with a gentleman who had slandered him, or rather had spoken the truth about him! He succeeded, moreover, in killing his man. I tell you, Monsieur, you can gain nothing by quarrelling with such men, except a fair chance of having a bullet through you. I know you are a stranger in our country. Be advised, then, and act as I have said. Leave them to their gains. It is late: Retire to your state-room, and think no more on what you have lost.”

Whether it was the late excitement consequent upon the false alarm, or whether it was the strange development I had just listened to, aided by the cool river breeze, I know not; but the intoxication passed away, and my brain became clear. I doubted not for a moment that the young Creole had told me the truth. His manner as well as words, connected with the circumstances that had just transpired, produced full conviction.

I felt impressed with a deep sense of gratitude to him for the service he had rendered, and at such risk to himself—for even the ruse he had adopted might have had an awkward ending for him, had any one seen him fire off his pistols.

Why had he acted thus? Why this interest in my affairs? Had he assigned the true reason? Was it a feeling of pure chivalry that had prompted him? I had heard of just such instances of noble nature among the Creole-French of Louisiana. Was this another illustration of that character?

I say I was impressed with a deep sense of gratitude, and resolved to follow his advice.

“I shall do as you say,” I replied, “on one condition.”

“Name it, Monsieur.”

“That you will give me your address, so that when we arrive in New Orleans, I may have the opportunity of renewing your acquaintance, and proving to you my gratitude.”

“Alas, Monsieur! I have no address.”

I felt embarrassed. The melancholy tone in which these words were uttered was not to be mistaken; some grief pressed heavily on that young and generous heart.

It was not for me to inquire into its cause, least of all at that time; but my own secret sorrow enabled me to sympathise the more deeply with others, and I felt I stood beside one whose sky was far from serene. I felt embarrassed by his answer. It left me in a delicate position to make reply. I said at length—

“Perhaps you will do me the favour to call upon me? I live at the Hotel Saint Luis.”

“I shall do so with pleasure.”


“To-morrow night.”

“I shall stay at home for you. Bon soir, Monsieur.”

We parted, each taking the way to his state-room.

In ten minutes after I lay in my shelf-like bed, asleep; and in ten hours after I was drinking my café in the Hotel Saint Luis.

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