“No, I don’t play poker any more,” said a big Westerner, who came into an up-town club-house the other night with some friends who had been showing him the town. He spoke rather seriously, although he had been chatting and laughing in a loud, breezy way until the very moment when somebody suggested a little game of draw as an appropriate wind-up of the night’s diversion.
“Why, how is that?” exclaimed one of his friends. “You used to play a stiff game. You haven’t sworn off, have you?”
“N-no,” said the Westerner, still serious. “I have not sworn off, but there is no excitement in the game for me now. The last game I played was too exciting.
“It was a dozen years ago, when I was a tenderfoot, with the usual allowance of freshness and ignorance of frontier perils. We used to call it brashness, and I was certainly brash. I roamed around the country for the better part of a year, with a more or less vague purpose of settling somewhere, but not caring much where. I had money enough to start with, whenever I should find an opening to suit me, but I was not in a hurry, and was enjoying the freedom and adventurous life of the plains as only a youngster can who is not obliged to put up with the hardships, but looks on them as mere incidents.
“I was well down toward New Mexico when there was a rumor of Indian troubles, and I heard that a company of United States troops were on the march toward one of the principal villages, where the redskins were particularly sullen. I had been out hunting for a week with a couple of fellows I had met in one of the towns, when we got the news from a stranger who came into our camp late at night and asked for supper. He admitted when we questioned him—not too closely, for inquisitiveness is at a large discount on the plains, but casually—that he was a scout in the government employ, and was on his way to join this company.
“‘There’s likely to be some pretty warm work,’ he said when we asked a little more, ‘for if the red devils are not on the warpath now they will be in a day or two, and you fellows will do a smart trick if you turn back.’
“Turning back, however, didn’t seem very attractive to me when there was so much excitement ahead. I promptly remarked that I thought I would go on with the scout and offer my services to the Captain in command. I told you I was pretty brash at the time, and I had no knowledge of military affairs. My notion was that the Captain would be glad of a recruit, or, at least, that he would make no objection to my going with him.
“I noticed that the scout looked at me a little curiously, but he evidently thought it was not his business to educate tenderfeet, and he only grunted. My two companions were as fresh as I was, and we told the scout we would go along if he had no objection.
“‘It’s a free country, and I reckon you can travel wherever you like,’ he said with a grin that I understood better afterward.
“We started before dawn, and had some thirty odd miles to go to strike the trail where the company was expected to camp that night. There were still some ten miles to go when, as we were rounding a small hill, the scout suddenly leaped from his horse and called to us to do the same.
“He had seen Indians, and, to cut it short, we camped that night in a place where the scout said that four men could hold out for a while, even against the hundred or so in the party that had surrounded us. It was a certainty, though, that we would all lose our scalps unless help came, for there was no water to be had, and the Indians knew it and made themselves comfortable just out of range of our rifles. The scout didn’t say much for a long time, but we could see that he was thinking as hard as any of us, and we were all pretty busy at it. There didn’t seem to be anything to suggest, or at least there was nothing that I could think of excepting to make a dash and try to break through. Nobody said anything in reply when I spoke of that, and the scout gave me a look of disgust that made me angry enough, but shut me up all the same. Finally he said:
“‘It’s just this way. These devils have caught us, and they know it. They won’t make a rush, for they know we will shoot, and an Indian will never risk being shot if he can get his man without. We can’t fight our way out. There’s too many of ’em. And we can’t stay here any longer than we can live without water.’
“I asked him if the Captain wouldn’t make a search for him, and he said the Captain didn’t know he was coming. ‘He’s on his way south,’ he said, ‘and the trail he is on is ten miles to the east of us. There’s only one thing that I see, and that means certain death for somebody, I reckon. It’s certain death for all of us, though, if something ain’t done.’ We asked him what it was, and he said:
“‘If one man can make his way south-east far enough, so that the noise of the firing will reach the company, the Captain will send a searching party. It all depends on how far the man gets before he is killed. If we all ride out, we will all be killed. If one man goes, the others may stand a chance.’
“We all looked at one another in silence for a good while. My blood ran cold at the idea of riding out alone into that pack of fiends, but I realized that our only chance was for somebody to go, and I knew life was as sweet to the others as it was to me. Instinctively we began first talking about the way the man who should go should manœuvre to best advantage, before raising the question who should be the man. It took only a few minutes, though, for the scout to give his advice, which was for one to ride out, waving a white handkerchief. He was to keep to the eastward and ride as far as he dared toward the Indians, looking sharply for the weakest point in their line toward his right. He should then make a dash and ride as hard as possible until it was all over, firing as often as he could. Then we had to decide who should go, and I supposed, of course, that we would draw lots, but one of the men spoke up unexpectedly:
“‘Whoever goes,’ he said, ‘doesn’t want to start for some hours. The scout says just after daybreak is the best time. What is the matter with settling this thing with poker? We can play freeze-out, and three games will settle it, the winner dropping out each time.’
“The proposition caught me. You know I used to pride myself on my poker. After a little hesitation the others agreed. The man who proposed it had the cards, and we counted out six hundred coffee beans for chips and began playing on a blanket folded and laid on the ground. You would think the details of a game like that would fix themselves in the memory, so that I would be able to tell you every hand I held and every bet I made, wouldn’t you? Well, I can’t. In fact, I can’t tell anything about the first game excepting that I was the first man to lose all his chips. I had played often enough for what I thought were high stakes, but the thought that I was playing for my life rattled me completely, and I really believe I bet at random. Whatever I did I lost, and the man who had proposed the game won out. He was shot in a gambling house three months later—had an extra ace in his sleeve, I believe, or something like that.
“The next freeze-out, between three of us, was a comparatively short one. It did not take more than twenty minutes for the scout to gather in all the chips, but short as it was, I managed to get myself together a little, though I was still full of the thought of the value of the stakes—a thing which, I have noticed, always interferes with my play. When I consider the value of a chip it always influences my betting one way or the other, even though I try not to allow it to do so, and in this case I said to myself that each bean represented the one hundred and fiftieth part of my life. In other words, I was gambling away months and years instead of money.
“When the third game began, however, I pulled myself together with a most tremendous effort, and really became as cool as I ever had been before at a game of cards. The man I played against this time was a young Englishman whom I had grown to esteem highly in the short time I had known him. He was a gentleman clear through, and as cheery and companionable a man as I ever met. His people at home never heard this story, and I hope they never will. They know he was killed by the Indians and that he was on a hunting trip, but they never heard of his last game of cards, nor of the way he rode to his death. We had each three hundred beans, and half a dozen hands were dealt before either of us got cards to bet on. Then on my deal I caught three deuces and made it fifty to play. He looked at his cards and raised me fifty, which I covered. He drew one card and let it lie without looking at it, while he watched me. I saw him looking, of course, and I am more glad than I am of almost anything else I ever did in an almost useless life to think that I made the worst play I ever saw made. I liked the man well, as I said, and some impulse that I couldn’t understand then, and can’t explain now, told me to leave the thing to chance, and to give him a little the better chance. I had played with him before, and I was certain that he had not come back at me the way he did on two pair. He was drawing to a flush, and somehow I felt that he had filled it. Of course I should have drawn to the strength of my hand, but I didn’t. I drew one card only, holding up an eight spot to my deuces, and I shoved all my beans into the pot without looking at my draw.
“He gave me one look, in which I read a perfect appreciation of what I had done, and without a word and without lifting his fifth card he pushed his chips forward. Then my nerve gave out. I grew as white as death, I know, though no one ever told me so, and I actually could not lift my cards. His nerve never shook, though, apparently, and he turned his fifth card over as he laid the other four on the blanket. They were all clubs. He looked at me, and I swear I saw regret in his eyes. I tell you, he was a man. Then I managed to control myself to turn my hand over. I had drawn the other eight.”
The Westerner stopped. He drained his glass and then said:
“Waiter, bring another bottle, and bring me some whisky besides. This stuff doesn’t go to the right spot.” Then, after he had had his drink, he said:
“You don’t wonder, do you, that I don’t play poker any more?”
“No,” said his hearers, “but finish the story.”
“Oh! there isn’t much more to it. At least that is the end of it, as I think about it. The Englishman shook hands with us all, and rode away. We watched him until he fell, and he must have gone fully three miles. A good many Indians fell before he did, for he was a clever shot. Later in the day the company came to our rescue, and I am glad to say a good many more Indians paid for his death with their own.”