Chapter XX
 

Morris Best's new partner was a square gambler, so called. People there were who sneered at this description and considered it a contradiction as absurd as a square circle or an elliptical cube. An elementary knowledge of the principles of geometry and of the retail liquor business proved the non-existence of such a thing as a straight crook, so they maintained. But be that as it may, Ben Miller certainly differed from the usual run of sporting-men, and he professed peculiar ideas regarding the conduct of his trade. Those ideas were almost puritanical in their nature. Proprietorship of recreation centers similar to the Rialto had bred in Mr. Miller a profound distrust of women as a sex and of his own ability successfully to deal with them; in consequence, he refused to tolerate their presence in his immediate vicinity. That they were valuable, nay, necessary, ingredients in the success of an enterprise such as the present one he well knew--Miller was, above all, a business man--but in making his deal with Best he had insisted positively that none of the latter's song-birds were ever to enter the front saloon. That room, Miller maintained, was to be his own, and he proposed to exercise dominion over it. As for the gambling-hall, that of necessity was neutral territory and be reluctantly consented to permit the girls to patronize it so long as they behaved themselves. For his part, he yielded all responsibility over the theater, and what went on therein, to Best. He agreed to stay out of it.

This division of power worked admirably, and Miller's prohibitions were scrupulously observed. He was angered, therefore, when, one morning, his rule was broken. At the moment he was engaged in weighing, checking up, and sacking his previous night's receipts, he looked up with a frown when a woman's--a girl's--voice interrupted him.

"Are you Ben Miller?" the trespasser inquired.

Miller nodded shortly. He could be colder than a frog when he chose.

"I'm looking for work," explained the visitor.

"You got the wrong door," he told her. "You want the dance-hall. We don't allow women in here."

"So I understand."

Miller's frown deepened. "Well, then, beat it! Saloons are masculine gender and--"

"I'm not a dance-hall girl, I'm a dealer," the other broke in.

"You're a--what?" Ben's jaw dropped; he stared curiously at the speaker. She was pretty, very pretty, in a still, dignified way; she had a fine, intelligent face and she possessed a poise, a carriage, that challenged attention.

"A dealer? What the deuce can you deal?" he managed to ask.

"Anything--the bank, the wheel, the tub, the cage--"

Disapproval returned to the man's countenance; there was an admonitory sternness to his voice when he said: "It ain't very nice to see a kid like you in a place like this. I don't know where you learned that wise talk, but--cut it out. Go home and behave yourself, sister. If you're broke, I'll stake you; so'll anybody, for that matter."

His visitor stirred impatiently. "Let's stick to business. I don't want a loan. I'm a dealer and I want work."

Morris Best bustled out of the adjoining room at the moment, and, noting a feminine figure in this forbidden territory, he exclaimed:

"Hey, miss! Theater's in the rear."

Miller summoned him with a backward jerk of his head. "Morris, this kid's looking for a job--as dealer," said he.

"Dealer?" Best halted abruptly. "That's funny."

"What is funny about it?" demanded the girl. "My father was a gambler. I'm Rouletta Kirby."

"Are you Sam Kirby's girl?" Miller inquired. When Rouletta nodded he removed his hat, then he extended his hand. "Shake," said he. "Now I've got you. You've had a hard time, haven't you? We heard about Sam and we thought you was dead. Step in here and set down." He motioned to the tiny little office which was curtained off from general view.

Rouletta declined with a smile. "I really want work as a dealer. That's the only thing I can do well. I came here first because you have a good reputation."

"Kirby's kid don't have to deal nothing. She's good for any kind of a stake on his name."

"Dad would be glad to hear that. He was a--great man. He ran straight." Rouletta's eyes had become misty at Miller's indirect tribute to her father; nevertheless, she summoned a smile and went on: "He never borrowed, and neither will I. If you can't put me to work I'll try somewhere else."

"How did you get down from White Horse?" Miller inquired, curiously.

"'Poleon Doret brought me."

"I know Doret. He's aces."

"Can you really deal?" Best broke in.

"Come. I'll prove that I can." Rouletta started for the gambling- room and the two men followed. Best spoke to his partner in a low voice:

"Say, Ben, if she can make a half-way bluff at it she'll be a big card. Think of the play she'll get."

But Miller was dubious. "She's nothing but a kid," he protested. "A dealer has got to have experience, and, besides, she ain't the kind that belongs in a dump. Somebody'd get fresh and--I'd have to bust him."

There was little activity around the tables al this hour of the day; the occupants of the gambling-room were, for the most part, house employees who were waiting for business to begin. The majority of these employees were gathered about the faro layout, where the cards were being run in a perfunctory manner to an accompaniment of gossip and reminiscence. The sight of Ben Miller in company with a girl evoked some wonder. This wonder increased to amazement when Miller ordered the dealer out of his seat; it became open-mouthed when the girl took his place, then broke a new deck of cards, deftly shuffled them, and slipped them into the box. At this procedure the languid lookout, who had been comfortably resting upon his spine, uncurled his legs, hoisted himself into an attitude of attention, and leaned forward with a startled expression upon his face.

The gamblers crowded closer, exchanging expectant glances; Ben Miller and Morris Best helped themselves to chips and began to play. These were queer doings; the case-hardened onlookers prepared to enjoy a mildly entertaining treat. Soon grins began to appear; the men murmured, they nudged one another, they slapped one another on the back, for what they saw astonished and delighted them. The girl dealt swiftly, surely; she handled the paraphernalia of the faro-table with the careless familiarity of long practice; but stranger still, she maintained a poise, a certain reserve and feminine dignity which were totally incongruous.

When, during a pause, she absent-mindedly shuffled a stack of chips, the Mocha Kid permitted his feelings to get the better of him.

"Hang me for a horse-thief!" he snickered. "Will you look at that?" Now the Mocha Kid was a ribald character, profanity was a part of him, and blasphemy embellished his casual speech. The mildness of his exclamation showed that he was deeply moved. He continued in the same admiring undertone: "I seen a dame once that could deal a bank, but she couldn't pay and take. This gal can size up a stack with her eyes shut!"

Nothing could have more deeply intrigued the attention of these men than the sight of a modest, quiet, well-behaved young woman exhibiting all the technic of a finished faro-dealer. It was contrary to their experience, to their ideas of fitness. Mastery of the gaming-table requires years of practice to acquire, and not one of these professionals but was as proud of his own dexterity as a fine pianist; to behold a mere girl possessed of all the knacks and tricks and mannerisms of the craft excited their keenest risibilities. In order the more thoroughly to test her skill several of them bought stacks of chips and began to play in earnest; they played their bets open, they coppered, they split, they strung them, and at the finish they called the turn. Rouletta paid and took; she measured stacks of counters with unerring facility, she overlooked no bets. She ran out the cards, upset the box, and began to reshuffle the cards.

"Well, I'm a son of a gun!" declared the lookout. He doubled up in breathless merriment, he rocked back and forth in his chair, he stamped his feet. A shout of laughter issued from the others.

Ben Miller closed the cases with a crash. "You'll do," he announced. "If there's anything you don't know I can't teach it to you." Then to the bystanders he said: "This is Sam Kirby's girl. She wants work, and if I thought you coyotes knew how to treat a lady I'd put her on."

"Say!" The Mocha Kid scowled darkly at his employer. "What kinda guys do you take us for? What makes you think we don't know--"

He was interrupted by an angry outburst, by a chorus of resentful protests, the indignant tone of which seemed to satisfy Miller. The latter shrugged his shoulders and rose. Rouletta stirred as if to follow suit, but eager hands stayed her, eager voices urged her to remain.

"Run 'em again, miss," begged Tommy Ryan, the roulette-dealer. Mr. Ryan was a pale-faced person whose addiction to harmful drugs was notorious; his extreme pallor and his nervous lack of repose had gained for him the title of "Snowbird." Tommy's hollow eyes were glowing, his colorless lips were parted in an engaging smile. "Please run 'em once more. I 'ain't had so much fun since my wife eloped with a drummer in El Paso."

Rouletta agreed readily enough, and her admiring audience crowded closer. Their interest was magnetic, their absorption and their amusement were communicated to some new-comers who had dropped in. Before the girl had dealt half the cards these bona-fide customers had found seats around the table and were likewise playing. They, too, enjoyed the novel experience, and the vehemence with which they insisted that Rouletta retain her office proved beyond question the success of Miller's experiment.

It was not yet midday, nevertheless the news spread quickly that a girl was dealing bank at the Rialto, and soon other curious visitors arrived. Among them was Big Lars Anderson. Lars did not often gamble, but when he did he made a considerable business of it and the sporting fraternity took him seriously. Anything in the nature of an innovation tickled the big magnate immensely, and to evidence his interest in this one he purchased a stack of chips. Ere long he had lost several hundred dollars. He sent for Miller, finally, and made a good-natured complaint that the game was too slow for him.

"Shall I raise the limit?" the proprietor asked of Rouletta. The girl shrugged indifferently, whereupon the Mocha Kid and the Snowbird embraced each other and exchanged admiring profanities in smothered tones.

Big Lars stubbornly backed his luck, but the bank continued to win, and meanwhile new arrivals dropped in. Two, three hours the play went on, by which time all Dawson knew that a big game was running and that a girl was in the dealer's chair. Few of the visitors got close enough to verify the intelligence without receiving a sotto voce warning that rough talk was taboo--Miller's ungodly clan saw to that--and on the whole the warning was respected. Only once was it disregarded; then a heavy loser breathed a thoughtless oath. Disapproval was marked, punishment was condign; the lookout leisurely descended from his eyrie and floored the offender with a blow from his fist.

When the resulting disturbance had quieted down the defender of decorum announced with inflexible firmness, but with a total lack of heat:

"Gents, this is a sort of gospel game, and it's got a certain tone which we're going to maintain. The limit is off, except on cussing, but it's mighty low on that. Them of you that are indisposed to swallow your cud of regrets will have it knocked out of you."

"Good!" shouted Big Lars. He pounded the table with the flat of his huge palm. "By Jingo! I'll make that unanimous. If anybody has to cuss let him take ten paces to the rear and cuss the stove."

It was well along in the afternoon when Rouletta Kirby pushed back her chair and rose. She was very white; she passed an uncertain hand over her face, then groped blindly at the table for support. At these signs of distress a chorus of alarm arose.

"It's nothing," she smiled. '"I'm just--hungry. I've been pretty ill and I'm not very strong yet."

Lars Anderson was dumfounded, appalled. "Hungry? My God!" To his companions he shouted: "D'you hear that, boys? She's starved out!"

The boys had heard; already they had begun to scramble. Some ran for the lunch-counter in the adjoining room, others dashed out to the nearest restaurants. The Snowbird so far forgot his responsibilities as to abandon the roulette-wheel and leave its bank-roll unguarded while he scurried to the bar and demanded a drink, a tray of assorted drinks, fit for a fainting lady. He came flying back, yelling, "Gangway!" and, scattering the crowd ahead of him, he offered brandy, whisky, creme de menthe, hootch, absinthe and bitters to Rouletta, all of which she declined. He was still arguing the medicinal value of these beverages when the swinging doors from the street burst open and in rushed the Mocha Kid, a pie in each hand. Other eatables and drinkables appeared as by magic, the faro-table was soon spread with the fruits of a half-dozen hasty and hysterical forays.

Rouletta stared at the apprehensive faces about her, and what she read therein caused her lips to quiver and her voice to break when she tried to express her thanks.

"Gosh! Don't cry!" begged the Mocha Kid. With a counterfeit assumption of juvenile hilarity he exclaimed: "Oh, look at the pretty pies! They got little Christmas-trees on their lids, 'ain't they? Um-yum! Rich and juicy! I stuck up the baker and stole his whole stock, but I slipped and spilled 'em F. O. B.--flat on the boardwalk."

Rouletta laughed. "Let's end the game and all have lunch," she suggested, and her invitation was accepted.

Big Lars spoke up with his mouth full of pastry: "We don't allow anybody to go hungry in this camp," said he. "We're all your friends, miss, and if there's anything you want and can't afford, charge it to me."

Rouletta stopped to speak with Miller, on her way out. "Do I get the position?" she inquired.

"Say! You know you get it!" he told her. "You go on at eight and come off at midnight."

"What is the pay?"

"I pay my dealers an ounce a shift, but--you can write your own ticket. How is two ounces?"

"I'll take regular wages," Rouletta smiled.

Miller nodded his approval of this attitude; then his face clouded. "I've been wondering how you're going to protect your bank-roll. Things won't always be like they were to-day. I s'pose I'll have to put a man on--"

"I'll protect it," the girl asserted. "Agnes and I will do that."

The proprietor was interested. "Agnes? Holy Moses! Is there two of you? Have you got a sister? Who's Agnes?"

"She's an old friend of my father's."

Miller shrugged. "Bring her along if you want to," he said, doubtfully, "but those old dames are trouble-makers."

"Yes, Agnes is all of that, but"--Rouletta's eyes were dancing-- "she minds her own business and she'll guard the bank-roll."

Lucky Broad and Kid Bridges had found employment at the Rialto soon after it opened. As they passed the gold-scales on their way to work Pierce Phillips halted them.

"I've some good news for you, Lucky," he announced. "You've lost your job."

"Who, me?" Broad was incredulous.

"Miller has hired a new faro-dealer, and you don't go on until midnight." Briefly Pierce retold the story that had come to his ears when he reported for duty that evening.

Broad and Bridges listened without comment, but they exchanged glances. They put their heads together and began a low-pitched conversation. They were still murmuring when Rouletta appeared, in company with 'Poleon Doret.

'Poleon's face lighted at sight of the two gamblers. He strode forward, crying: "Hallo! I'm glad for see you some more." To the girl he said: "You 'member dese feller'. Dey he'p save you in de rapids."

Rouletta impulsively extended her hands. "Of course! Could I forget?" She saw Pierce Phillips behind the scales and nodded to him. "Why, we're all here, aren't we? I'm so glad. Everywhere I go I meet friends."

Lucky and the Kid inquired respectfully regarding her health, her journey down the river, her reasons for being here; then when they had drawn her aside the former interrupted her flow of explanations to say:

"Listen, Letty. We got just one real question to ask and we'd like a straight answer. Have you got any kick against this Frenchman?"

"Any kick of any kind?" queried Bridges. "We're your friends; you can tip us off."

The sudden change in the tone of their voices caused the girl to start and to stare at them. She saw that both men were in sober earnest; the reason behind their solicitude she apprehended.

She laid a hand upon the arm of each. Her eyes were very bright when she began: "'Poleon told me how you came to his tent that morning after--you know, and he told me what you said. Well, it wasn't necessary. He's the dearest thing that ever lived!"

"Why'd he put you to work in a place like this?" Bridges roughly demanded.

"He didn't. He begged me not to try it. He offered me all he has-- his last dollar. He--"

Swiftly, earnestly, Rouletta told how the big woodsman had cared for her; how tenderly, faithfully, he had nursed her back to health and strength; how he had cast all his plans to the winds in order to bring her down the river. "He's the best, the kindest, the most generous man I ever knew," she concluded. "His heart is clean and--his soul is full of music."

"'Sta bueno!" cried Lucky Broad, in genuine relief. "We had a hunch he was right, but--you can't always trust those Asiatic races."

Ben Miller appeared and warmly greeted his new employee. "Rested up, eh? Well, it's going to be a big night. Where's Agnes--the other one? Has she got cold feet?"

"No, just a cold nose. Here she is." From a small bag on her arm Rouletta drew Sam Kirby's six-shooter. "Agnes was my father's friend. Nobody ever ran out on her."

Miller blinked, he uttered a feeble exclamation, then he burst into a mighty laugh. He was still shaking, his face was purple, there were tears of mirth in his eyes, when he followed Broad, Bridges, and Rouletta into the gambling-room.

There were several players at the faro-table when the girl took her place. Removing her gloves, she stowed them away in her bag. From this bag she extracted the heavy Colt's revolver, then opened the drawer before her and laid it inside. She breathed upon her fingers, rubbing the circulation back into them, and began to shuffle the cards. Slipping them into the box, the girl settled herself in her chair and looked up into a circle of grinning faces. Before her level gaze eyes that had been focused queerly upon her fell. The case-keeper's lips were twitching, but he bit down upon them. Gravely he said:

"Well, boys, let's go!"