Strongest Tide


27. A Night Of Tragedies

The Lone Tree saloon and dance hall was ablaze with lights. Two bar-keepers in white jackets were setting out the bottles over the long, polished counter. There was the clink of glasses, as men stood in rows drinking the amber-colored liquid. "Have another on me," was frequently heard along the counter, as someone felt it was his turn to set up the drinks to the crowd.

A brawny miner stepped up to the side of a sheep herder who had been edging in all evening to get free drinks--and squirted a mouthful of tobacco juice in his ear.

"If anybody else had done that but you, Bill, I'd be tempted to strike him."

"Don't let your friendship for me spoil your notions," the miner said with a contemptuous look.

The sheep herder made no reply, as he wiped his ear. The fire that burned in his stomach demanded whiskey, and he would brook any insult to get it. He had reached the level of the sodden, and others passed him by. It was yet early in the night, and crowds were gathering in the rear of the large room, about the roulette wheel, the crap tables and faro layout, back of which the lookout was seated on a raised platform. Stacks of coin in gold and silver were on the tables to tempt the players. At other tables men were seated playing cards and smoking. In an adjoining room, cut with archways, was the dance hall. An orchestra on a platform played rag-time music, while painted women in short dresses to give them a youthful appearance, sat on benches against the wall, or danced with swaggering men to the calls of a brawny bullet-headed floor manager. His bleared eyes and heavy swollen jaw showed the effects of a recent debauch ending in a fist fight.

The women urged their partners to drink at the end of every dance. While the men drank whiskey, they gave the bar-keepers a knowing look, and a bottle like the others was set out containing ginger ale which the women drank as whiskey, and were given a check, which they afterwards cashed as their percentage.

While the sign on the windows read The Lone Tree Saloon and Dance Hall, the place had earned the sobriquet of the Bucket of Blood, from the many tragedies enacted therein. And this place was run by a woman, Calamity Jane, famous in several mining camps. One fellow analyzed her when he said: "She is a powerful good woman, except she hain't got no moral character."

Coyote Jim, faro dealer, sauntered in and took his place at the table. His eyes were a steel blue, the kind that men inured to the mining camps of the early west had learned were dangerous. His face was thin and white, hair of a black blue, like a raven's wing, hung half way to his shoulders. His thin hands handled the pasteboards in the box with a dexterity that marked him an expert. Supple in form, with quick, cat-like motions, he made one think of a tiger.

A dark faced woman wearing a Spanish mantilla was winning at the roulette wheel. The onlookers crowded about. She was winning almost every bet. The interest grew intense, men crowded forward to catch a glimpse of her whose marvelous luck surpassed anything in the history of the Lone Tree. Her stack of chips of white, red and blue, grew taller at every turn of the wheel. The face of the gambler at the wheel grew vexed and then flushed with anger. The devil appeared to have been turned loose and he was losing his stakes. The chips vanished from his box in twenties, fifties and hundreds, and the group of onlookers stared in astonishment. As he counted out his last hundred he said: "If you win this you have broke the game."

The woman lost and the gambler began to have hope, when she won again, and so the pendulum of chance swung to and fro over those last hundred chips for an hour, when the gambler slammed the lid of his box with the exclamation: "You have busted the game!"

The woman cashed in her checks. Over five thousand dollars was paid to her. She walked up to the bar and threw down five hundred dollars on the counter and said to a bar-tender: "I pay for everybody's drinks here tonight. Take no money from any of them and when this runs short, call on me."

The word was passed, "Free drinks at the bar," and the crowd surged forward. A half-tipsy fellow raised his glass above the heads of others. "Here's to Mary Greenwater, Queen of the Cherokee Indians!"

"Rah fer Mary Greenwater," chattered old Amos, holding his reeling form up by the bar rail.

The invitation was even too much for Rayder, strong as had been his resolution to let the stuff alone. The temptation of free drinks was too great, he imagined he needed something and called for gin.

Just then, some one came in and announced that the two men had been rescued from under the snow-slide. The games stopped and the men at the tables ordered their drinks from the waiters. The dance in the adjoining room stopped in the middle of a set, while men and women crowded about the bar.

Only three in that room did not rejoice at the news--Mary Greenwater, Coyote Jim and Rayder. Amos was too drunk to know whether he ought to be sad or rejoice. He did neither, but gave another loud "Rah for Mary Greenwater!" when a waiter led him to a seat. When the hubbub of voices which the announcement of the rescue had created, had subsided somewhat, the players resumed their games and amid the clink of chips and glasses, could now and then be heard from some gamester, "Hold on there, that's mine!"

Mary Greenwater went to the faro table. "Get up, Coyote," she said, "I'm going to bust this bank, and you and I have been together so much that they will think you have throwed the game. Let some one else deal." Another dealer was called and Mary laid down a hundred on the ace. Men crowded about as before, when she was at the roulette wheel. There was a hush for a moment, when the clear tones of a man at the door rang out.

"Hands up, everybody. Don't try to escape, the doors are guarded!"

All was confusion in an instant. Calamity Jane, eyes ablaze, strode from behind the curtain in the dance hall. Quick of action, she fired at the nearest hold-up in mask. The uproar was furious. The lamps were shot out by confederates of the hold-ups. The ball room women screamed with fright, while jets of fire spit from revolvers in different parts of the room. Men were afraid to make an outcry, lest a bullet would follow at the sound of their voice. Coyote Jim was crouching like a tiger, beside the stacks of coin on the table. In his hand was a long, keen blade. He felt a stealthy hand near his own and he lunged the knife. A heavy groan and a few words in a language which only he understood, and the body sank to the floor. The tiger's blood was now afire and he leaped upon the faro table, revolver in hand. His form was outlined in silhouette by a light across the street, when a spark flashed in the darkness and he fell headlong to the floor. There was a heavy roar of voices, as the men stampeded to the door.

When lights were brought from the outside, the masked men were gone except one. He lay dead near the door, with a bullet from Calamity Jane's revolver in his brain. Coyote Jim lay dead, and by his side, Mary Greenwater, with her life's blood still ebbing from the knife stab.

From this scene of tragedy, Amos made his escape to end with the horrors of delirium at home. The Bucket of Blood had maintained its reputation.

The excitement of the affair spread over the town, and among the spectators who crowded in was a haggard man. His eyes were hollow and deep-set, showing that he had undergone a severe mental strain for weeks. He saw them lift the affrighted Rayder from his place of safety at the baseboard, then his eyes rested on the dead woman at the faro table. He threw a cloth over her face, and sat staring into vacancy until the undertaker and assistants came. Then he took the undertaker aside and said: "See to it that she has a Christian burial. I will be responsible." When she was buried the next day, there was one attendant beside the undertaker and his assistants, at the grave.

The tragedies of the night marked a new era in Saguache. The better element arose in their might and demanded that the Bucket of Blood be forever closed.