Excerpt from Just a Girl, by Charles Garvice
There was really a lovely row on at Dan MacGrath’s Eldorado Saloon in Three Star Camp.
The saloon, a long and narrow room, built of rough, feather-edged boards and decorated with scraps of turkey-red cotton and cheap calico lining, with occasional portraits of local celebrities rudely drawn in charcoal, was well filled with the crew of miners and camp followers which made up the population of Three Star Camp—Three Star, it is needless to explain, after the well-known legend on the brandy bottles.
At one end of the saloon was a drinking-bar, at the other a card-table; in the center a billiard-table, spotted with candle grease and stained with the rims and bottoms of wet glasses. Men were lounging at the bar or playing a noisy game at pool, or gathered round the faro-table, over which presided Mr. Varley Howard, the professional gambler of Three Star and other camps.
Whether the really lovely row commenced at the bar, began at the billiard-table or originated at the faro, it would be difficult to say; rows sprung up very quickly at Three Star Camp at all times, but especially at this season, when the weather was disgustingly hot and everybody feverish and overstrained.
Rows not only began with great facility, but spread with marvelous ease and rapidity. You had only to refuse a drink; to take up somebody’s glass; to push against a man accidentally; to observe that it was cooler than yesterday, when the man you addressed happened to be particularly hot; or to wear a tall hat—an article of attire held in special detestation by the whole of Three Star, and only permitted to Mr. Varley Howard as a special recognition of his peculiar qualities as a gambler, a man of fashion, and the promptest and deadliest shot in the district—to raise a shindy directly. On this night the row was generally welcomed, for everybody felt blasé and bored and thirsting for any excitement to relieve the dull monotony of an existence in which bad luck and the perpetual heat fought for predominance.
So it was with cheerful alacrity that the men gathered round the two who were credited with starting the shindy, and pulled out revolvers and bowie-knives for the free fight which everybody knew would set in with the usual severity.
Varley Howard was the only man who did not rise. He leaned back in his chair and passed his white hand over his pale, unwrinkled brow and smoothed his black, gray-streaked hair with a gesture and manner of languid indifference. His revolver lay on the table beside a new pack of cards and ready to his hand if he should need it; but it would not amuse him to kill any one, and it was not very likely that any one of the desperadoes, however excited, would desire to kill him. As he leaned back and turned the diamond ring on his finger, he hummed an air from “Olivette” and looked on at the rowdy scene through half-closed eyes.
Shots were fired, knives gleamed in the light of the hanging paraffine-lamp, two or three men were carried out, several others leaned against the wall stanching more or less serious wounds; Dan MacGrath himself stood behind the bar, revolver in one hand, a bottle of his famous—some called it “infamous”—whisky in the other. Every now and then, as a stray bullet came his way, he ducked his head, but always clung to the revolver and the bottle, as if they were the emblems of defense and conciliation: if the fight continued he might want the one, if it continued, or ended, his customers would certainly want the other.
When the row was at its height, a man came in at the door—an oldish man, with a grizzled beard and a face scarred and seamed by weather and a long series of conflicts with man and beast. He held a bundle in his arms, and as he entered he put it under his coat and turned sideways, as if to protect it from the various missiles which were hurtling through the tobacco-laden air.
“Stop it, boys!” he shouted in a leather-lunged voice. “Stop it, or some of you will be plugging Her Majesty’s mail.”
He was the Three Star postman.
At the sound of his voice the row ceased as if by magic. Men stuck their revolvers and knives in their belts and turned toward him, as if there had never been any fight going on at all.
He strode up to the faro-table, and still with his bundle under his arm, took a leather wallet from a side-pocket and flung it on the table.
The men flocked around with cries of “Got anything for me, Bill?” “Hand out that check I’ve been waiting for!” “Got a message for me, Willyum?” and so on; most of them in accents of simulated indifference or burlesque anxiety.
He dealt out the letters with a remark more or less facetious accompanying each; then, when the distribution was complete, placed the bundle gingerly on the table in front of Varley Howard.
“What have you got there, William?” asked that gentleman in the soft and low and musical voice which was one of his most dangerous fascinations.
The other men looked up from their letters and stared at the bundle, a soft something wrapped in an old mail-bag.
“Who have you been robbing now, Bill?” inquired one.
“It’s a new dress he lifted from the store at Dog’s Ear Camp for his missis,” suggested a humorist.
Bill twisted his huge mouth into a smile.
“Guess again,” he said, “though you wouldn’t hit it if you tried all night. Hands off!” he added, as one of them made for the bundle. “What do you say, Varley?”
Varley Howard shrugged his shoulders and took up a pack of cards.
“Take the child home to its mother,” he said.
Bill smacked the table noiselessly, and eyed Varley Howard with admiration.
“Right the first time, Mr. Howard!” he said. “There’s no getting a rise out of you.”
He opened the old mail-sack as he spoke, and disclosed to the gaze of the astonished crowd a little child. It was asleep, and as peacefully and soundly as if it were in a satin-lined cradle.
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