The Riverman by Stewart Edward White
After the men had been paid off, perhaps a dozen of them hung around the yards awaiting evening and the rendezvous named by Orde. The rest drifted away full of good intentions, but did not show up again. Orde himself was busy up to the last moment, but finally stamped out of the office just as the boarding-house bell rang for supper. He surveyed what remained of his old crew and grinned.
"Well, boys, ready for trouble?" he greeted them. "Come on."
They set out up the long reach of Water Street, their steel caulks biting deep into the pitted board-walks.
For nearly a mile the street was flanked solely by lumber-yards, small mills, and factories. Then came a strip of unimproved land, followed immediately by the wooden, ramshackle structures of Hell's Half-Mile.
In the old days every town of any size had its Hell's Half-Mile, or the equivalent. Saginaw boasted of its Catacombs; Muskegon, Alpena, Port Huron, Ludington, had their "Pens," "White Rows," "River Streets," "Kilyubbin," and so forth. They supported row upon row of saloons, alike stuffy and squalid; gambling hells of all sorts; refreshment "parlours," where drinks were served by dozens of "pretty waiter-girls," and huge dance-halls.
The proprietors of these places were a bold and unscrupulous lot. In their everyday business they had to deal with the most dangerous rough-and-tumble fighters this country has ever known; with men bubbling over with the joy of life, ready for quarrel if quarrel also spelled fun, drinking deep, and heavy-handed and fearless in their cups. But each of these rivermen had two or three hundred dollars to "blow" as soon as possible. The pickings were good. Men got rich very quickly at this business. And there existed this great advantage in favour of the dive-keeper: nobody cared what happened to a riverman. You could pound him over the head with a lead pipe, or drug his drink, or choke him to insensibility, or rob him and throw him out into the street, or even drop him tidily through a trap-door into the river flowing conveniently beneath. Nobody bothered--unless, of course, the affair was so bungled as to become public. The police knew enough to stay away when the drive hit town. They would have been annihilated if they had not. The only fly in the divekeeper's ointment was that the riverman would fight back.
And fight back he did, until from one end of his street to the other he had left the battered evidences of his skill as a warrior. His constant heavy lifting made him as hard as nails and as strong as a horse; the continual demand on his agility in riding the logs kept him active and prevented him from becoming muscle-bound; in his wild heart was not the least trace of fear of anything that walked, crawled, or flew. And he was as tireless as machinery, and apparently as indifferent to punishment as a man cast in iron.
Add to this a happy and complete disregard of consequences--to himself or others--of anything he did, and, in his own words, he was a "hard man to nick."
As yet the season was too early for much joy along Hell's Half-Mile. Orde's little crew, and the forty or fifty men of the drive that had preceded him, constituted the rank and file at that moment in town. A little later, when all the drives on the river should be in, and those of its tributaries, and the men still lingering at the woods camps, at least five hundred woods-weary men would be turned loose. Then Hell's Half-Mile would awaken in earnest from its hibernation. The lights would blaze from day to day. From its opened windows would blare the music, the cries of men and women, the shuffle of feet, the noise of fighting, the shrieks of wild laughter, curses deep and frank and unashamed, songs broken and interrupted. Crews of men, arms locked, would surge up and down the narrow sidewalks, their little felt hats cocked one side, their heads back, their fearless eyes challenging the devil and all his works--and getting the challenge accepted. Girls would flit across the lit windows like shadows before flames, or stand in the doorways hailing the men jovially by name. And every few moments, above the roar of this wild inferno, would sound the sudden crash and the dull blows of combat. Only, never was heard the bark of the pistol. The fighting was fierce, and it included kicking with the sharp steel boot- caulks, biting and gouging; but it barred knives and firearms. And when Hell's Half-Mile was thus in full eruption, the citizens of Redding stayed away from Water Street after dark. "Drive's in," said they, and had business elsewhere. And the next group of rivermen, hurrying toward the fun, broke into an eager dog-trot. "Taking the old town apart to-night," they told each other. "Let's get in the game."
To-night, however, the street was comparatively quiet. The saloons were of modified illumination. In many of them men stood drinking, but in a sociable rather than a hilarious mood. Old friends of the two drives were getting together for a friendly glass. The barkeepers were listlessly wiping the bars. The "pretty waiter- girls" gossiped with each other and yawned behind their hands. From several doorways Orde's little compact group was accosted by the burly saloonkeepers.
"Hullo, boys!" said they invariably, "glad to see you back. Come in and have a drink on me."
Well these men knew that one free drink would mean a dozen paid for. But the rivermen merely shook their heads.
"Huh!" sneered one of the girls. "Them's no river-jacks! Them's just off the hay trail, I bet!"
But even this time-honoured and generally effective taunt was ignored.
In the middle of the third block Orde wheeled sharp to the left down a dark and dangerous-looking alley. Another turn to the right brought him into a very narrow street. Facing this street stood a three-story wooden structure, into which led a high-arched entrance up a broad half-flight of wooden steps. This was McNeill's.
As Orde and his men turned into the narrow street, a figure detached itself from the shadow and approached. Orde uttered an exclamation.
"You here, Newmark?" he cried.
"Yes," replied that young man. "I want to see this through."
"With those clothes?" marvelled Orde. "It's a wonder some of these thugs haven't held you up long ago! I'll get Johnny here to go back with you to the main street."
"No," argued Newmark, "I want to go in with you."
"It's dangerous," explained Orde. "You're likely to get slugged."
"I can stand it if you can," returned Newmark.
"I doubt it," said Orde grimly. "However, it's your funeral. Come on, if you want to."
McNeill's lower story was given over entirely to drinking. A bar ran down all one side of the room. Dozens of little tables occupied the floor. "Pretty waiter-girls" were prepared to serve drinks at these latter--and to share in them, at a commission. The second floor was a theatre, and the third a dance-hall. Beneath the building were still viler depths. From this basement the riverman and the shanty boy generally graduated penniless, and perhaps unconscious, to the street. Now, your lumber-jack did not customarily arrive at this stage without more or less lively doings en route; therefore McNeill's maintained a force of fighters. They were burly, sodden men, in striking contrast to the clean-cut, clear-eyed rivermen, but strong in their experience and their discipline. To be sure, they might not last quite as long as their antagonists could--a whisky training is not conducive to long wind-- but they always lasted plenty long enough. Sand-bags and brass knuckles helped some, ruthless singleness of purpose counted, and team work finished the job. At times the storm rose high, but up to now McNeill had always ridden it.
Orde and his men entered the lower hall, as though sauntering in without definite aim. Perhaps a score of men were in the room. Two tables of cards were under way--with a great deal of noisy card- slapping that proclaimed the game merely friendly. Eight or ten other men wandered about idly, chaffing loudly with the girls, pausing to overlook the card games, glancing with purposeless curiosity at the professional gamblers sitting quietly behind their various lay-outs. It was a dull evening.
Orde wandered about with the rest, a wide, good-natured smile on his face.
"Start your little ball to rolling for that," he instructed the roulette man, tossing down a bill. "Dropped again!" he lamented humorously. "Can't seem to have any luck."
He drifted on to the crap game.
"Throw us the little bones, pardner," he said. "I'll go you a five on it."
He lost here, and so found himself at the table presided over by the three-card monte men. The rest of his party, who had according to instructions scattered about the place, now began quietly to gravitate in his direction.
"What kind of a lay-out is this?" inquired Orde.
The dealer held up the three cards face out.
"What kind of an eye have you got, bub?" he asked.
"Oh, I don't know. A pretty fair eye. Why?"
"Do you think you could pick out the jack when I throw them out like this?" asked the dealer.
"Sure! She's that one."
"Well," exclaimed the gambler with a pretence of disgust, "damn if you didn't! I bet you five dollars you can't do it again."
"Take you!" replied Orde. "Put up your five."
Again Orde was permitted to pick the jack.
"You've got the best eye that's been in this place since I got here," claimed the dealer admiringly. "Here, Dennis," said he to his partner, "try if you can fool this fellow."
Dennis obligingly took the cards, threw them, and lost. By this time the men, augmented by the idlers not busy with the card games, had drawn close.
"Sail into 'em, bub," encouraged one.
Whether it was that the gamblers, expert in the reading of a man's mood and intentions, sensed the fact that Orde might be led to plunge, or whether, more simply, they were using him as a capper to draw the crowd into their game, it would be difficult to say, but twice more they bungled the throw and permitted him to win.
Newmark plucked him at the sleeve.
"You're twenty dollars ahead," he muttered. "Quit it! I never saw anybody beat this game that much before."
Orde merely shrugged him off with an appearance of growing excitement, while an habitue of the place, probably one of the hired fighters, growled into Newmark's ear.
"Shut up, you damn dude!" warned this man. "Keep out of what ain't none of your business."
"What limit do you put on this game, anyway?" Orde leaned forward, his eyes alight.
The two gamblers spoke swiftly apart.
"How much do you want to bet?" asked one.
"Would you stand for five hundred dollars?" asked Orde.
A dead silence fell on the group. Plainly could be heard the men's quickened breathing. The shouts and noise from the card parties blundered through the stillness. Some one tiptoed across and whispered in the ear of the nearest player. A moment later the chairs at the two tables scraped back. One of them fell violently to the floor. Their occupants joined the tense group about the monte game. All the girls drew near. Only behind the bar the white-aproned bartenders wiped their glasses with apparent imperturbability, their eyes, however, on their brass knuckles hanging just beneath the counter, their ears pricked up for the riot call.
The gambler pretended to deliberate, his cool, shifty eyes running over the group before him. A small door immediately behind him swung slowly ajar an inch or so.
"Got the money?" he asked.
"Have you?" countered Orde.
Apparently satisfied, the man nodded.
"I'll go you, bub, if I lose," said he. "Lay out your money."
Orde counted out nine fifty-dollar bills and five tens. Probably no one in the group of men standing about had realised quite how much money five hundred dollars meant until they saw it thus tallied out before them.
"All right," said the gambler, taking up the cards.
"Hold on!" cried Orde. "Where's yours?"
"Oh, that's all right," the gambler reassured him. "I'm with the house. I guess McNeill's credit is good," he laughed.
"That may all be," insisted Orde, "but I'm putting up my good money, and I expect to see good money put up in return."
They wrangled over this point for some time, but Orde was obstinate. Finally the gamblers yielded. A canvass of the drawer, helped out by the bar and the other games, made up the sum. It bulked large on the table beside Orde's higher denominations.
The interested audience now consisted of the dozen men comprised by Orde's friends; nearly twice as many strangers, evidently rivermen; eight hangers-on of the joint, probably fighters and "bouncers"; half a dozen professional gamblers, and several waitresses. The four barkeepers still held their positions. Of these, the rivermen were scattered loosely back of Orde, although Orde's own friends had by now gathered compactly enough at his shoulder. The mercenaries and gamblers had divided, and flanked the table at either side. Newmark, a growing wonder and disgust creeping into his usually unexpressive face, recognised the strategic advantage of this arrangement. In case of difficulty, a determined push would separate the rivermen from the gamblers long enough for the latter to disappear quietly through the small door at the back.
"Satisfied?" inquired the gambler briefly.
"Let her flicker," replied Orde with equal brevity.
A gasp of anticipation went up. Quite coolly the gambler made his passes. With equal coolness and not the slightest hesitation, Orde planted his great red fist on one of the cards.
"That is the jack," he announced, looking the gambler in the eye.
"Oh, is it?" sneered the dealer. "Well, turn it over and let's see."
"No!" roared Orde. "You turn over the other two!"
A low oath broke from the gambler, and his face contorted in a spasm. The barkeepers slid out from behind the bar. For a moment the situation was tense and threatening. The dealer with a sweeping glance again searched the faces of those before him. In that moment, probably, he made up his mind that an open scandal must be avoided. Force and broken bones, even murder, might be all right enough under colour of right. If Orde had turned up for a jack the card on which he now held his fist, and then had attempted to prove cheating, a cry of robbery and a lively fight would have given opportunity for making way with the stakes. But McNeill's could not afford to be shown up before thirty interested rivermen as running an open-and-shut brace-game. However, the gambler made a desperate try at what he must have known was a very forlorn hope.
"That isn't the way this game is played," said he. "Show up your jack."
"It's the way I play it," replied Orde sternly. "These gentlemen heard the bet." He reached over and dexterously flipped over the other two cards. "You see, neither of these is the jack; this must be."
"You win," assented the gambler, after a pause.
Orde, his fist still on the third card, began pocketing the stakes with the other hand. The gambler reached, palm up, across the table.
"Give me the other card," said he.
Orde picked it up, laughing. For a moment he seemed to hesitate, holding the bit of pasteboard tantalisingly outstretched, as though he were going to turn also this one face up. Then, quite deliberately he looked to right and to left where the fighters awaited their signal, laughed again, and handed the card to the gambler.
At once pandemonium broke loose. The rivermen of Orde's party fairly shouted with joy over the unexpected trick; the employees of the resort whispered apart; the gambler explained, low-voiced and angry, his reasons for not putting up a fight for so rich a stake.
"All to the bar!" yelled Orde.
They made a rush, and lined up and ordered their drinks. Orde poured his on the floor and took the glass belonging to the man next him.
"Get them to give you another, Tim," said he. "No knock-out drops, if I can help it."
The men drank, and some one ordered another round.
"Tim," said Orde, low-voiced, "get the crowd together and we'll pull out. I've a thousand dollars on me, and they'll sand-bag me sure if I go alone. And let's get out right off."
Ten minutes later they all stood safely on the lighted thoroughfare of Water Street.
"Good-night, boys," said Orde. "Go easy, and show up at the booms Monday."
He turned up the street toward the main part of the town. Newmark joined him.
"I'll walk a little ways with you," he explained. "And I say, Orde, I want to apologise to you. 'Most of the evening I've been thinking you the worst fool I ever saw, but you can take care of yourself at every stage of the game. The trick was good, but your taking the other fellow's drink beat it."