“I have never been so happy to leave a place,” I said, as we stood at the rail in the rear of the steamboat watching the buildings of Albany fade into the distance.
“They are mighty easy to fool, though,” Jack said, “you have to admit that.”
The boat left Albany at precisely 7:00 am. A great number of people, mostly well dressed, boarded along with Jack and me; even if the police had been looking for the Reverend Jonathan P. Travis and his wife—and I suspected they weren’t—we could have easily hidden in that crowd. But I still did not breathe easily until they raised the gangplank and pulled away from the dock.
After bidding farewell to Albany, Jack and I went to the front of the boat and sat down to view the river scenery. The Hudson was at least a mile wide, and in the water around Albany it was filled with boats of all kinds—sloops, canoes, rowboats—but our steamer dwarfed them all. The engine loudly chugged along filling the air with smoke and soot, and sometime the progress was not so smooth as blades churned up the water on both sides of the boat. But I got used to it all quite soon and began to enjoy the ride. Steamboats are preferable in every way to canal boats.
The scenery unfolding before us was monumental. Tree covered mountains sloped down to the shore on both sides of the river with thick forest on each bank interrupted only occasionally by dock and landings of the smaller towns along the river. It all felt majestic and invigorating as if we truly were heading toward a glorious new beginning. We were dressed like all the rest of the passengers, looking just like an ordinary couple, taking an excursion down the Hudson to see the sights in New York City. And that is just how I felt.
I believe we could have sat there the entire journey viewing the splendor that was the Hudson Valley (and, as it turned out, it would have been the wisest course.) But the morning passed quickly, and Jack and I were hungry for lunch. We went inside to see what the restaurant was serving.
There was a bar along one side of the cabin, and Jack suggested we have a drink before lunch. I was amenable, so we found a place to stand. Jack put a foot on the rail and asked the bartender for a glass of whiskey.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, no ladies at the bar.” He replied
“What are you talking about?” Jack growled.
“The bar is for men only.”
“No ladies at the bar, Jack,” I said, with a gesture towards her dress.
“Oh, sweet Jesus,” Jack said and went off looking for a place to change her clothes.
I decided to do likewise and found a privy large enough to undress in. I was anxious to get out of my preacher duds, but I had no desire to become a trapper once again. I decided to put on my cooper’s attire; a simple workman’s shirt and trousers. It was a comfortable outfit with the additional benefit of not associating me with any crimes committed in the state of New York.
Back at the bar, I saw Jack dressed in her canal boy clothes. She wore her trapper’s hat but left off all of the extras she had purchased in attempt to resemble a trapper. Jack had not made it all the way back to the bar; she had stopped to watch a man playing a peculiar card game. He had an umbrella open, resting on its side on the floor in front of him and was using the up-facing side of it for a table. I watched as he threw out three cards, face down. An old farmer who was playing the game picked one. Apparently it was the wrong one because he cursed and put up some more money to pick again. They played again, and again the farmer picked wrong. I asked Jack what it was about.
“It's simple. There’s two black aces and a red queen. He mixes ‘em up, and you have to pick the queen. This farmer can’t get the hang of it, but I can find it every time. “
The farmer lost again and said, “That’s it; I’m busted.”
The card man looked at Jack, “What about you, sonny, think you can find the queen?”
Jack reached for a coin, and I said, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to start gambling, Jack.”
“No time for religion, Pratt. I have an opportunity here.”
Jack bet a quarter. The man showed us the queen, then started picking them up and throwing them down, attempting to mix us up, but I followed the queen, and so did Jack. She pointed to the card; the man turned it over and, sure enough, there was the queen.
“I told you it was easy, Pratt.”
The man handed Jack a quarter. She bet again, and once again I knew where the queen was. Jack picked the right card and won. I could not believe how easy it was to win this game.
“Alright, two-bits, step aside now and let the men play.” Said the dealer.
“You’re not getting rid of me that easy,” Jack said.
“Put up some real money then. “
“Does a dollar suit you?”
“That’s more like it. Let’s go.” And he shuffled the cards again, and once again I was sure I knew where the queen was, and Jack picked the same card but when he flipped it over it was an ace.
“Another dollar,” Jack said.
Once again Jack and I both picked the wrong card. The game seemed to get harder the higher you bet. This went on several more times I began to think we were not good enough for the dollar game.
“Come on, Jack, let’s go get a drink.”
“No, I’m going to beat him. He threw my timing off, but I almost had it that time.”
They went again, and Jack lost again.
“I’m going to take all your money, boy, one dollar at a time.” The man said.
“No sir, I’m going to get it all back at once.” And Jack put up ten dollars.
Well, I could not find the queen, but I could predict the outcome of this. Jack continued to lose, but now at the rate of ten dollars a deal. I pleaded with Jack to cut her losses and come to the bar, but it was as if the cards had a spell over her. She had won before and would win again, and there was nothing I could say to change her mind. When she began betting twenty dollars a throw, I left her and went to the bar myself.
I drank whiskey and worried about how to get Jack away from that game. At twenty dollars a bet she would soon lose all of her money. I prepared for the fight we would have when she came asking for mine.
The old farmer who had been losing when I arrived at the card game came up to the bar and stood next to me.
“That your partner losing at cards back there?” he asked me.
“I don’t know how much longer, though,” I said.
“You know the man’s cheatin’ don’t you?”
“That notion has crossed my mind.”
“I don’t know how he does it, but he can make those cards fall any way he wants and change them even after they’re out there.”
“It doesn’t matter how he does it; I won’t be able to convince my partner.”
“Maybe you won’t have to.”
The farmer told me that although he had lost all of his money to the card man, he stayed nearby to watch. He said he had discovered a way to beat the cheater at his own game. He said there was a mark on the back of the queen, a smudge, maybe lampblack from someone’s dirty finger, but worn away and faint enough to be invisible to all but the person who knew it was there. Using that mark, I could pick the queen with absolute certainty regardless of how he mixed them.
“It has to be one big bet, though.” Said the farmer. “As soon as he loses he’ll know something’s up and stop the game.”
“You’re sure it’s still there?”
“Sure it’s there. I’d use it myself, but he already has my money. If I can’t get it back, at least I’ll have the satisfaction of seeing him lose.”
I went back to the game. Jack was still so engrossed that she could not or would not acknowledge me. Ignoring the bets as must as possible, I looked closely at the cards. Sure enough one of them had a faint black smudge in the corner, and it was never the card that Jack chose.
Jack made her choice, and the man flipped the card to reveal an ace.
“I don’t believe the queen is down there,” I said.
“You insult me, sir.” The card man flipped one of the cards and revealed the red queen. It was the card with the smudge on the back.
“Can you handle a three hundred dollar bet?”
Jack looked up then, “No Pratt.”
“Have you three hundred dollars?” the man asked me.
“There is at least three hundred in this bag” I pulled out the bag that held all of my money, it was probably closer to four hundred.
“No Pratt,” Jack shouted.
“I will cover all that is in the bag.” The man said and started throwing the cards.
My heart was pounding, but I knew I could not lose. I would win back all the money Jack lost and put an end to this theft once and for all. The cards landed on the umbrella, and I scrutinized them closely.
“Take your time, lad. Don’t act in haste.”
And there it was. The card on the left had the smudge on the corner. I had seen that mark on the back of the queen and none of the other cards had it. I could not lose. I pointed the card; he flipped it over.
“Ace of spades,” he said, “what a tragedy.”
“Pratt, you idjit!”
I was stunned. I could not lose, yet I did lose. I had trouble catching my breath. I thought I would faint.
“Pratt, what did you do?”
Then it came to me, all at once, like a flash of lightning.
“They were in it together,” I said. “The dealer and the farmer were in it together from the beginning.”
I looked around, but they were gone. There was no sign of the farmer. The card man had folded his umbrella and disappeared.