Ocean Echoes - Tops And Bottoms
( Originally Published 1922 )
ONE afternoon as I was walking along the water front, looking at the ships of many nations and wondering if a sea-voyage wouldn't help me, a round and red-faced man about forty, wearing a straw hat and tweed suit, walked up to me and asked me for a light for his cigar. Then he began to talk to me, and seemed kind and sympathetic. Little did I know that I was talking to one of the worst crooks in San Francisco.
He became communicative, as we stood there, and told me how his poor wife was sick up in Vancouver, turning from me as he spoke, with his handkerchief to his eyes.
"If I can only get there before she dies!" he said. "Every minute is precious, and I am a stranger here."
"I am a stranger, too," I said, "but I ought to be able to find a ship for you." I felt very sorry for this tender-hearted man whose wife was dying hundreds of miles away. My own troubles sank into nothing compared to his.
He was grateful, and assured me that money was nothing to him. He even pulled out a roll of bills and asked me to help myself. I, of course, refused, for it was a pleasure to help him. It never occurred to me to think that the bills might be phoney.
At the Pacific Mail dock I learned that a steamer was leaving the following day for Victoria, B. C., on which he would be able to get passage. He said that he would go back later for his ticket, and, urging me at least to let him treat me to a glass of beer, skilfully guided me into the saloon of his choice.
"Now," said he, on the way, "you must let me help you to some money. I doubt if you have much."
"Oh tes, I have a little," I answered, bashfully.
Quick as a flash he asked me how much I had, and I, taken unawares, answered like a fool, and told him that I had two hundred and forty dollars. His eyes sparkled, and his stride lengthened. We entered the saloon.
The barroom was small. Its only occupant was the bartender, who was long and lanky, with a face that might have been chiseled out of Car-rara marble, so pale and expressionless it was. He was an opium fiend, I discovered later, and well known, and sometimes protected by the police.
"What will you have?" he asked, as my seeming friend and I approached the bar.
"I will take steam-beer," I said.
"Ditto for me !" cried the crook, as he flung a gold eagle on the bar.
The beer being served, the bar-tender excused himself, to go and get change, he said. I offered to pay, but he said that he needed the change anyway. I didn't know that this was all a part of the piece that the stage was set for me, and that now another character was about to make his appearance for my sole benefit.
As we drank our beer, a door opened from a back room into the bar, letting in an elderly man whose hair and beard were graying. He wore a long linen duster and slouch hat.
"Have a drink with us, old fellow," said my friend.
"No, sir," answered the old man, with a strong Western twang, "I buy my own drinks, and pay for 'cm."
"Oh, very well, if that's the way you feel about it. I'll just shake the dice with you and see who pays for the three of us."
Enter Mr. Hophead, Bartender.
"Give us the dice," roared the old man. "How will we shake?"
"Tops and bottoms, three dice."
"Never heard of such a thing," whined the old Westerner, "but I'll try anything once, to be sociable. Now how does that game o' your'n go?"
I was bristling with interest. This was -something I had not run across before, and the three crooks knew that I was about ready to nibble-at the bait. - I might have been saved, if that was all I did, but instead I insisted on swallowing hook, line, and pole.
My mother told us children that you can catch the small-pox only once, and should you recover, you will be forever immune. I know that I have helped many young men to steer clear of the crooks who infest our cities, because I have myself been through the mill of ignorance. For this reason, if for no other, I am glad that the saloons no longer exist as a legitimate meeting and operating ground for crooked men.
"The game is simple," said my genial friend, whose wife was dying in Vancouver. "Take these three dice, put them in the box, rattle and roll. Guess the numbers on top and bottom, add them up, and the one who guesses closest is the one who drinks free beer."
"Gosh a'mighty ! I'll take a whack at ye any-way," and the old man unbuttoned the long duster. I stood by, feeling sorry for myself, that I wasn't asked to join in this wonderful game of dice.
The old fellow rattled the bones.
"Before you throw them on the bar," said my companion, with his most winsome smile, "we must both make a guess."
"All right, I'll guess twenty-seven, and, damn my old wild skin ! I'll bet ye ten dollars and beer."
"You are certainly on," chimed the other, digging into his pocket for money. "My guess will be twenty-one."
The money was up, and the game was on. The hop head bartender and I looked on wistfully as the dice rolled.
"Count the numbers," roared old Linen-Duster. "And gol-darn ye, count them right !"
My companion won, and tossing the ten dollars to me said :
"Here, take my old hayseed's money. I have more than I need."
"No, no !" I cried, "I wasn't in on your game, the money is yours." And I tossed it back again. Had I been a little more intelligent I would have noticed that the hop-headed bartender sighed and the old man retreated through the door by which he had entered in a sort of routine way. This fact passed me by at the moment, but the memory of it certainly taught me something.
The trap was now ready to spring, and I was to be my own hangman. I deserved hanging. We hang ourselves many times in our lives with the hemp rope of our selfish greed. And that day I was no exception.
My friend turned to me, and smilingly whispered : "You see how this game works, don't you?" He picked up the three dice in his fingers.
"No matter which way you count them, top and bottom, there's always twenty-one, seven on each dice."
Surely I was green and dense.
"I can't understand it yet,". said I, getting terribly excited. I was afraid that old Linen-Duster might come back and spoil my chance of ever knowing. Then he explained as if he were talking to a child, that if there was a six on top, one was always on the bottom; if four, then three on the bottom always seven, top and bottom.
The old man walked into the bar again, holding a fat-looking purse in his hand. "The loss of that money doesn't hurt me very much, stranger," he said, striding over to the bar. He opened the purse. It was full of what appeared to be twenty-dollar gold-pieces. It wasn't gold at all, I learned afterwards, but mid-winter souvenirs of San Francisco.
"I'll shake with anyone here for three hundred dollars, but don't think that if I lose it will break me."
My companion nudged me. "Here's your chance," he whispered. "Go after him. Put up your two hundred and forty, and I'Il lend you sixty more. It's easy money."
There was no chance to lose, that I could see. I put up my money, all that I had in the world, and sixty more.
"Now you shake the dice," said my opponent. "You certainly look honest to me. Rattle them, roll them, throw them on the bar."
"I'm a-guessing twenty," he continued.
"I guess twenty-one," I cried; and I wouldn't have given one dollar for all of his three hundred, so sure was I of winning. Well, I rattled and rolled the bones, being sorry for the old man all the time. Then I counted them. I counted them again. The numbers top and bottom amounted to only twenty !
I was aware of the cynical bartender looking at himself in the mirror, smiling at the sucker, who like the dreamer, pervades society from highest to lowest strata. I was aware that the old man had quietly pocketed my earnings, leaving me only a few coppers to my name. I saw the other crook deliberately slide out of a side door. I felt myself to be alone, with possibility of vengeance gone from me. Still I stood in the bare and silent room, staring, staring at the dice on the mahogany bar, knowing at last the trick of substitution that had taken from me all I had.
The psychology of being a good loser is the feeling that the hurts of yesterday may be the cause of winning to-morrow's fight. I went out of that saloon as if I were bent on urgent business, and I was. By now it was plain enough to me that my time would be wasted in seeking redress. The matter of the moment was food, shelter, and occupation. I had not even time to think of malaria and the chills that were sure to get me soon. The past was obscure with the dawn of the morrow.