When measured by the standards of Colonial Virginia, where—in an earlier century—settlers sometimes used tobacco in lieu of money, Cyrus Whitney probably had the price of a decent saddle blanket soaking up saliva between his cheek and gums. The other passengers gave him a wide berth at the steamboat's rail as soon as they discovered not all of that fine, moist spray in the air was generated by the paddlewheel. Even his friend Homer was careful to stay upwind.
Cyrus spat over the side of the riverboat, and then turned his head toward Homer.
"What do you reckon? Will you ken a shark when you see one?"
Homer shrugged his shoulders. "Time will tell."
An eavesdropping bystander with more knowledge than sense waded into the conversation with both feet.
"Put your fears to rest, gentlemen. You'll find no sharks in these inland waters. That's a most fortuitous circumstance for us all, I must say. I remember well from my sailing days the threat posed by those finny creatures and their deadly tooth-filled maws. Why, one time in the South Seas . . . "
Cyrus turned to listen and leaned his back against the railing.
Homer waited for a pause in the narrative to inject a non sequitur.
"You've got an almost full set of teeth yourself, Cy. Do you suppose you could align your chompers in such a fashion as to propel a squirt of tobacco over the far rail? It might be worth a small wager."
"Distance alone is not a fair challenge, Homer. I might risk a coin or two, though, on my ability to hit a porthole from three or four paces away."
"Open or closed?"
"Closed, of course, so there'd be visible proof of my accuracy."
The other interlocutor was not yet ready to weigh anchor.
"I take it you two gents are betting men. You're both invited to go below decks in half an hour or so. There's to be a poker game then. In the meantime, I can tell you of my adventures on a whaling ship out of New Bedford."
It was time for Cyrus to discharge another spurt of tobacco juice. He stopped chewing, dry swallowed, and pursed his lips.
Homer took a step backwards.
The self-described whaler edged forward to keep the conversation going.
Cy turned his head slightly, closed his eyes as a precaution against back spray, and then spat squarely on the toe of the talker's boot.
If looks could kill, Cy would have been harpooned on the spot.
"Do you think he's really a sailor?" Cy asked Homer a short while later.
"Could be. He was cussing like one when he walked away."
The two men continued their conversation in hushed tones so they couldn't be overheard.
Thirty minutes later, Cy and Homer went below. The poker game was about to start.
There was room at the table for a couple more players. The sailor was already in place. He was visibly relieved to see only Homer sat down.
Cy circled the table, spotting spittoons, and then hovered on the opposite side from Homer.
Homer played a conservative game, but after winning a few modest pots early on, he began to lose steadily. The sailor did not fare any better.
One player had the outward appearance of an experienced gambler, but the gent's once-dapper suit was threadbare and the lining of his vest was torn. Although he sported a flashy ring, the large stone had an obvious flaw in it. Apparently, Lady Luck was not smiling on him either.
The big winner was an ordinary-looking man. The way he was dressed he could have been a homesteader or a laborer. Nobody asked his profession.
For the first time since starting to play, Homer looked directly at Cyrus. Cy shook his head ever so slightly, and Homer correctly interpreted the meaning of the barely perceptible motion. Based on previously-agreed-upon signals, as far as Cyrus could tell—and he'd been watching the play very closely—there was no indication the game was anything but honest. With his right hand, Homer brushed back his hair in acknowledgement. Message received.
The next hand added to the ordinary man's winnings.
While the cards were spread out on the table, Cy moved in for a closer look. He still had a mouthful of tobacco.
Cyrus sneezed. At the same time, his mouth opened slightly and allowed some juice to escape. That marked the cards. The spray also marked the money and more than a few of the players and spectators.
Homer whipped out a handkerchief and started to wipe off the table.
"These cards are a mess," he said. "Let's get a fresh deck. I'll pay for it."
No one objected. While they waited, Homer examined the deck they'd been using. He found rough spots on several cards, but didn't have sufficient time to figure out if there was a pattern to the scratches.
With the arrival of the new deck Homer slipped the old cards to Cyrus.
Homer rolled up his sleeves. He broke open the deck and fanned out the cards for all to see. The surfaces were smooth and undamaged. He shuffled the cards and play resumed.
The gambler and the big winner both threw in their first hands without betting.
When it was Homer's deal again, he found rough spots on some of the cards as he shuffled. He set the deck on the table and folded his arms.
Cyrus returned. The card players tensed, then relaxed when they saw the telltale bulge in Cy's cheek was gone.
"I tried to play solitaire with this deck, but it can't be done," he said. "There are two cards missing and they're both aces."
"Maybe they fell on the floor when you sneezed."
Everybody looked under the table except Homer, the gambler, and the big winner.
Cy set the cards on the table.
"Are you sure about the count?" Homer asked. "Those cards stack up higher than the deck we're playing with now."
"That means somebody's holding out cards, waiting for a big pot."
Backed up by a pair of burly crewmembers, the steamboat captain, who'd been an interested observer, conducted a search. The man who'd been winning had two aces from the old deck and four knaves from the new deck concealed in his clothes.
Cy was as proud as punch. "Homer caught the cheat for you, Cap'n, just like I said he would."
"There's no question but what this man's a crook, Cyrus, but I don't think he's ever been on the boat before."
"What about the gambler?" Homer pointed to the shabbily-dressed man.
"He's been aboard each and every time I've suspected something was wrong with the poker game," the captain said, "but he always leaves the boat with less money than he arrived with."
"A card shark doesn't have to rake in the pots personally in order to come out ahead, just as long as he has a confederate to win for him and split the take once they've gone ashore."
"How does he manage that?"
"He marks the high cards, and then passes them to his accomplice in the deal. He used a different partner each time to keep you from getting suspicious."
The gambler spoke up. "That's some tall tale you're spinning, Mister. You bought that last deck yourself. Just how was I supposed to mark the cards in it?"
"With your ring," Homer said, pointing toward the man's hand. "Do you mind if I take a closer look at it?" He stood up and leaned over the table.
The smug expression left the gambler's face. He had no innocent explanation for the presence of a needle-sharp projection on his ring. "I'm through talking," the man said. He also stood up.
The two men stood an arm's length apart taking each other's measure. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the gambler produced a Bowie knife. He brandished the lethal weapon in the manner of an experienced fighter. In the wink of an eye, the gambler extended his arm and rotated his hand ninety degrees. He was prepared to slash open his unarmed opponent's midsection with a single swing of the finely-honed blade.
Fortunately, Cyrus was there to save the day. He swung a copper spittoon with all his might and caught the gambler on the side of the head. Some of the contents sloshed out, but the bettor paid no heed. He was knocked senseless.
"Put him in irons," the captain told a couple of crewmembers. "We'll set him and his henchman ashore at the next town and let the law deal with them, but first divide out their money among the honest players."
While that was being done, Homer told the card-playing sailor, "Not all sharks live in the water."
"How can you be so calm?" the sailor wondered. "In your place, I'd be shaking in my boots."
"What's done is done," Homer said. "I reckon it wasn't on the cards for me to die today."
The captain went over to Cyrus who was busily gnawing on a fresh plug of tobacco.
"That was a propitious time for a sneeze, Cy."
"I agree, Cap'n, but it was no accident. I can sneeze anytime I want to. Would you like me to demonstrate?"
The captain's no was emphatic, but not quite quick enough to prevent some trampled toes as a space cleared around Cyrus.
Some heroes are best admired from afar.