Me-Smith / Caroline Lockhart / Ch-16


Smith did not care for money in itself; that is, he did not care for it enough to work for it, or to hoard it when he had it. Yet perhaps even more than most persons he loved the feel of it in his fingers, the sensation of having it in his pocket. Smith was vain, in his way, and money satisfied his vanity. It gave him prestige, power, the attention he craved. He could call any flashy talker’s bluff when his pockets were full of money. It imparted self-assurance. He could the better indulge his propensity for resenting slights, either real or fancied. Money would buy him out of trouble. Yes, Smith liked the feel of money. He took a roll of banknotes from the belt pocket of his leather chaps and counted them for the third time.

“I’ll buy a few drinks, flash this wad on them pinheads in town, and then I’ll soak it away.” He returned the roll to his pocket with an expression of satisfaction upon his face.

He had done well with the horses. The “boys” had paid him a third more than he had expected; they had done so, he knew, as an incentive to further transactions. And Smith had outlined a plan to them which had made their eyes sparkle.

“It’s risky, but if you can do it——” they had said.

“Sure, I can do it, and I’ll start as soon as it’s safe after I get back to the ranch. I gotta get to work and make a stake—me,” he had declared.

They had looked at him quizzically.

“The fact is, I’m tired of livin’ under my hat. I aims to settle down.”

“And reform?” They had laughed uproariously.

“Not to notice.”

Smith sincerely believed that nothing stood between him and Dora but his lack of money. Once she saw it, the actual money, when he could go to her and throw it in her lap, a hatful, and say, “Come on, girl”—well, women were like that, he told himself.

Ahead of Smith, on the dusty flat, was the little cow-town, looking, in the distance, like a scattered herd of dingy sheep. He was glad his ride was ended for the day. He was thirsty, hot, and a bit tired.

Tinhorn Frank, resting the small of his back against a monument of elk and buffalo horns in front of his log saloon, was the first to spy Smith ambling leisurely into town.

“There’s Smithy!” he exclaimed to the man who loafed beside him, “and he’s got a roll!”

His fellow lounger looked at him curiously.

“Tinhorn, I b’lieve you kin smell money; and I swear they’s kind of a scum comes over your eyes when you see it. How do you know he’s carryin’ a roll?”

Tinhorn Frank laughed.

“I know Smithy as well as if I had made him. I kin tell by the way he rides. I always could. When he’s broke he’s slouchy-like. He don’t take no pride in coilin’ his rope, and he jams his hat over his eyes—tough. Look at him now—settin’ square in the saddle, his rope coiled like a top Californy cowboy on a Fourth of July. That’s how I know. Hello, Smithy! Fall off and arrigate.”

“Hullo!” Smith answered deliberately.

“How’s she comin’?”

“Slow.” He swung his leg over the cantle of the saddle.

“What’ll you have?” Tinhorn slapped Smith’s back so hard that the dust rose.

“Get me out somethin’ stimulating, somethin’ fur-reachin’, somethin’ that you can tell where it stops. I want a drink that feels like a yard of barb-wire goin’ down.” Smith was tying his horse.

“Here’s somethin’ special,” said Tinhorn, when Smith went inside. “I keeps it for my friends.”

Smith swallowed nearly a tumblerful.

“When I drinks, I drinks, and I likes somethin’ I can notice.” He wiped the tears out of his eyes with the back of his hand.

“I guarantee you kin notice that in about five minutes. It’s a never failing remedy for man and beast—not meaning to claim that its horse liniment at all. Put it back, Smithy; your money ain’t good here!”

Tinhorn Frank’s dark eyes gleamed with an avaricious light at sight of the roll of yellow banknotes which Smith flung carelessly upon the bar, but he had earned his living by his wits too long to betray eagerness. He masked the adamantine hardness of his grasping nature beneath an air of generous and bluff good-fellowship.

He was a dark man, with a skin of oily sallowness; thickset, with something of the slow ungainliness of a toad. His head was set low between stooped shoulders, and his crafty eyes had in them a look of scheming, scheming always for his own interests. Smith knew his record as well as he knew his own: a dance-hall hanger-on in his youth, despised of men; a blackmailer; the keeper of a notorious road-house; a petty grafter in a small political office in the little cow-town. Smith understood perfectly the source of his present interest, yet it flattered him almost as much as if it had been sincere, it pleased him as if he had been the object of a gentleman’s attentions. When he had money, Smith demanded satellites, sycophants who would laugh boisterously at his jokes, praise him in broad compliments, and follow him like a paid retinue from saloon to saloon. This was enjoying life! And upon this weakness, the least clever, the most insignificant and unimportant person could play if he understood Smith.

The word had gone down the line that Smith was in town with money. They rallied around him with loud protestations of joy at the sight of him. Smith held the centre of the stage, he was the conspicuous figure, the magnet which drew them all. He gloried in it, revelled in his popularity; and the “special brand” was beginning to sizzle in his veins.

“I’m feelin’ lucky to-day, me—Smith!” he cried exultantly. “I has a notorious idea that I can buck the wheel and win!”

He had not meant to gamble—he had told himself that he would not; but his admiring friends urged him on, his blood was running fast and hot, his heart beat high with confidence and hope. Big prospects loomed ahead of him; success looked easy. He flung his money recklessly upon the red and black, and with throbbing pulses watched the wheel go round.

Again and again he won. It seemed as if he could not lose.

“I told you!” he cried. “I’m feelin’ lucky!”

When he finally stopped, his winnings were the envy of many eyes.

“Set ’em up, Tinhorn! Everybody drink! Bring in the horses!”

Bedlam reigned. It was “Smithy this” and “Smithy that,” and it was all as the breath of life to Smith.

“Tinhorn”—he leaned heavily on the bar—“when I feels lucky like this, I makes it a rule to crowd my luck. Are you game for stud?”

The film which the lounger had mentioned seemed to cover Tinhorn’s eyes.

“I’m locoed to set agin such luck as yours, but I like to be sociable, and you don’t come often.”

“I likes a swift game,” said Smith, as he pulled a chair from the pine table. “Draw is good enough for kids and dudes, but stud’s the only play for men.”

“Now you’ve talked!” declared the admiring throng.

“Keep ’em movin’, Tinhorn! Deal ’em out fast.”

“Smithy, you’re a cyclone!”

A hundred of Smith’s money went for chips.

“Dough is jest like mud to some fellers,” said a voice enviously.

“I likes a game where you make or break on a hand. I’ve lost thousands while you could spit, me—Smith!”

“It’s like a chinook in winter just to see you in town agin, Smithy.”

The “hole” card was not promising—it was only a six-spot; but, backing his luck, Smith bet high on it. Tinhorn came back at him strong. He wanted Smith’s money, and he wanted it quick.

Smith’s next card was a jack, and he bet three times its value. When Tinhorn dealt him another jack he bought more chips and backed his pair, for Tinhorn, as yet, had none in sight. The next turn showed up a queen for Tinhorn and a three-spot for Smith. And they bet and raised, and raised again. On the last turn Smith drew another three and Tinhorn another queen. With two pairs in sight, Smith had him beaten. When Smith bet, Tinhorn raised him. Was Tinhorn bluffing or did he have another queen in the “hole”? Smith believed he was bluffing, but there was an equal chance that he was not. While he hesitated, the other watched him like a hungry mountain lion.

“Are you gettin’ cold feet, Smithy?” There was the suspicion of a sneer in the satellite’s voice. “Did you say you liked to make or break on a hand?”

“I thought you liked a swift game,” gibed Tinhorn.

The taunt settled it.

“I can play as swift as most—and then, some.” He shoved a pile of chips into the centre of the table with both hands. “Come again!”

Tinhorn did come again; and again, and again, and again. He bet with the confidence of knowledge—with a confidence that put the fear in Smith’s heart. But he could not, and he would not, quit now. His jaw was set as he pulled off banknote after banknote in the tense silence which had fallen.

When the last of them fluttered to the table he asked:

“What you got?”

For answer, Tinhorn turned over a third queen. Encircling the pile of money and chips with his arm, he swept them toward him.

Smith rose and kicked the chair out of his way.

“That’s the end of my rope,” he said, with a hard laugh. “I’m done.”

“Have a drink,” urged Tinhorn.

“Not to-day,” he answered shortly.

The crowd parted to let him pass. Untying his horse, he sprang into the saddle, and not much more than an hour from the time he had arrived he rode down the main street, past the bank where he was to leave his roll, flat broke.

At the end of the street he turned in his saddle and looked behind him. His satellites stood in the bar-room door, loungers loafed on the curbstone, a woman or two drifted into the General Merchandise Store. The Postmaster was eying him idly through his fly-specked window, and a group of boys, who had been drawing pictures with their bare toes in the deep white dust of the street, scowled after him because his horse’s feet had spoiled their work. His advent had left no more impression than the tiny whirlwind in its erratic and momentary flurry. The money for which he had sweat blood was gone. Mechanically he jambed his hands into his empty pockets.

“Hell!” he said bitterly. “Hell!”

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