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- The Winds of Chance - 1/77 -
THE WINDS OF CHANCE
By REX BEACH
Author of "THE SILVER HORDE" "THE SPOILERS" "THE IRON TRAIL" Etc.
With an ostentatious flourish Mr. "Lucky" Broad placed a crisp ten-dollar bill in an eager palm outstretched across his folding- table.
"The gentleman wins and the gambler loses!" Mr. Broad proclaimed to the world. "The eye is quicker than the hand, and the dealer's moans is music to the stranger's ear." With practised touch he rearranged the three worn walnut-shells which constituted his stock in trade. Beneath one of them he deftly concealed a pellet about the size of a five-grain allopathic pill. It was the erratic behavior of this tiny ball, its mysterious comings and goings, that had summoned Mr. Broad's audience and now held its observant interest. This audience, composed of roughly dressed men, listened attentively to the seductive monologue which accompanied the dealer's deft manipulations, and was greatly entertained thereby. "Three tiny tepees in a row and a little black medicine-man inside." The speaker's voice was high-pitched and it carried like a "thirtythirty." "You see him walk in, you open the door, and-- you double your money. Awfully simple! Simpully awful! What? As I live! The gentleman wins ten more--ten silver-tongued song-birds, ten messengers of mirth--the price of a hard day's toil. Take it, sir, and may it make a better and a stronger man of you. Times are good and I spend my money free. I made it packin' grub to Linderman, four bits a pound, but--easy come, easy go. Now then, who's next? You've seen me work. I couldn't baffle a sore-eyed Siwash with snow-glasses."
Lucky Broad's three-legged table stood among some stumps beside the muddy roadway which did service as the main street of Dyea and along which flowed an irregular stream of pedestrians; incidental to his practised manipulation of the polished walnut-shells he maintained an unceasing chatter of the sort above set down. Now his voice was loud and challenging, now it was apologetic, always it stimulated curiosity. One moment he was jubilant and gay, again he was contrite and querulous. Occasionally he burst forth into plaintive self-denunciations.
Fixing a hypnotic gaze upon a bland, blue-eyed bystander who had just joined the charmed circle, he murmured, invitingly: "Better try your luck, Olaf. It's Danish dice--three chances to win and one to lose."
The object of his address shook his head. "Aye ant Danish, Aye ban Norvegen," said he.
"Danish dice or Norwegian poker, they're both the same. I'll deal you a free hand and it won't cost you a cent. Fix your baby blues on the little ball and watch me close. Don't let me deceive you. Now then, which hut hides the grain?"
Noting a half-dozen pairs of eyes upon him, the Norseman became conscious that he was a center of interest. He grinned half- heartedly and, after a brief hesitation, thrust forth a clumsy paw, lifted a shell, and exposed the object of general curiosity.
"You guessed it!" There was commendation, there was pleased surprise, in Mr. Broad's tone. "You can't fool a foreigner, can you, boys? My, my! Ain't it lucky for me that we played for fun? But you got to give me another chance, Lars; I'll fool you yet. In walks the little pill once more, I make the magic pass, and you follow me attentively, knowing in your heart of hearts that I'm a slick un. Now then, shoot, Kid; you can't miss me!"
The onlookers stirred with interest; with eager fingers the artless Norwegian fumbled in his pocket. At the last moment, however, he thought better of his impulse, grunted once, then turned his back to the table and walked away.
"Missed him!" murmured the dealer, with no display of feeling; then to the group around him he announced, shamelessly: "You got to lead those birds; they fly fast."
One of Mr. Broad's boosters, he who had twice won for the Norseman's benefit, carelessly returned his winnings. "Sure!" he agreed. "They got a head like a turtle, them Swedes."
Mr. Broad carefully smoothed out the two bills and reverently laid them to rest in his bank-roll. "Yes, and they got bony mouths. You got to set your hook or it won't hold."
"Slow pickin's," yawned an honest miner with a pack upon his back. Attracted by the group at the table, he had dropped out of the procession in the street and had paused long enough to win a bet or two. Now he straightened himself and stretched his arms. "These Michael Strogoffs is hep to the old stuff, Lucky. I'm thinking of joining the big rush. They say this Klondike is some rich."
Inasmuch as there were no strangers in sight at the moment, the proprietor of the deadfall gave up barking; he daintily folded and tore in half a cigarette paper, out of which he fashioned a thin smoke for himself. It was that well-earned moment of repose, that welcome recess from the day's toil. Mr. Broad inhaled deeply, then he turned his eyes upon the former speaker.
"You've been thinking again, have you?" He frowned darkly. With a note of warning in his voice he declared: "You ain't strong enough for such heavy work, Kid. That's why I've got you packing hay."
The object of this sarcasm hitched his shoulders and the movement showed that his burden was indeed no more than a cunning counterfeit, a bundle of hay rolled inside a tarpaulin.
"Oh, I got a head and I've been doing some heavy thinking with it," the Kid retorted. "This here Dawson is going to be a good town. I'm getting readied up to join the parade."
"Are you, now?" the shell-man mocked. "I s'pose you got it all framed with the Canucks to let you through? I s'pose the chief of police knows you and likes you, eh? You and him is cousins, or something?"
"Coppers is all alike; there's always a way to square 'em--"
"Lay off that 'squaring' stuff," cautioned a renegade crook, disguised by a suit of mackinaws and a week's growth of beard into the likeness of a stampeder. "A thousand bucks and a ton of grub, that's what the sign says, and that's what it means. They wouldn't let you over the Line with nine hundred and ninety-nine fifty."
"Right!" agreed a third capper. "It's a closed season on broken stiffs. You can't monkey with the Mounted Police. When they put over an edict it lays there till it freezes. They'll make you show your 'openers' at the Boundary. Gee! If I had 'em I wouldn't bother to go 'inside.' What's a guy want with more than a thousand dollars and a ton of grub, anyhow?"
"All the same, I'm about set to hit the trail," stubbornly maintained the man with the alfalfa pack. "I ain't broke. When you boys get to Dawson, just ask for Kid Bridges' saloon and I'll open wine. These woollys can have their mines; me for a hootch-mill on Main Street."
Lucky addressed his bevy of boosters. "Have I nursed a serpent in my breast, or has the Kid met a banker's son? Gimme room, boys. I'm going to shuffle the shells for him and let him double his money. Keep your eye on the magic pea, Mr. Bridges. Three tiny tepees in a row--" There was a general laugh as Broad began to shift the walnut-shells, but Kid Bridges retorted, contemptuously:
"That's the trouble with all you wiseacres. You get a dollar ahead and you fall for another man's game. I never knew a faro-dealer that wouldn't shoot craps. No, I haven't met no banker's son and I ain't likely to in this place. These pilgrims have sewed their money in their underclothes, and they sleep with their eyes open. Seems like they'd go blind, but they don't. These ain't Rubes, Lucky; they're city folks. They've seen three-ringed circuses and three-shell games, and all that farmer stuff. They've been 'gypped,' and it's an old story to 'em."
"You're dead right," Broad acknowledged. "That's why it's good. D'you know the best town in America for the shells? Little old New York. If the cops would let me set up at the corner of Broad and Wall, I'd own the Stock Exchange in a week. Madison and State is another good stand; so's Market and Kearney, or Pioneer Square, down by the totem pole. New York, Chicago, 'Frisco, Seattle, they're all hick towns. For every city guy that's been stung by a bee there's a hundred that still thinks honey comes from a fruit. This rush is just starting, and the bigger it grows the better we'll do. Say, Kid, if you mush over to Tagish with that load of timothy on your spine, the police will put you on the wood-pile for the winter."
While Mr. Lucky Broad and his business associates were thus busied in discussing the latest decree of the Northwest Mounted Police, other townsmen of theirs were similarly engaged. Details of this proclamation--the most arbitrary of any, hitherto--had just arrived from the International Boundary, and had caused a halt, an eddy, in the stream of gold-seekers which flowed inland toward the Chilkoot Pass. A human tide was setting northward from the States, a tide which swelled and quickened daily as the news of George Carmack's discovery spread across the world, but at Healy & Wilson's log-store, where the notice above referred to had been posted, the stream slowed. A crowd of new-comers from the barges and steamers in the roadstead had assembled there, and now gave voice to hoarse indignation and bitter resentment. Late arrivals from Skagway, farther down the coast, brought word of similar scenes at that point and a similar feeling of dismay; they reported a similar increase in the general excitement, too. There, as here, a tent city was springing up, the wooded hills were awakening to echoes of unaccustomed life, a thrill and a stir were running through the wilderness and the odor of spruce fires was growing heavier with every ship that came.
Pierce Phillips emerged from the trading-post and, drawn by the
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