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Riverboat Queen

Gambling on a Mississippi riverboat in the antebellum south may not be the safest place for a lady to be, but not all of them are Eloise.

By Henry SmithPublished 3 years ago 10 min read

The paddle steamboat, Reine de la Rivière, left Memphis earlier in the afternoon and rode the Mississippi’s current southward toward Washington, Louisiana, the last major port along the river before arriving in New Orleans. Many were saying it was the hottest summer in memory, and the stifling heat and humidity of lower Big Muddy in August made you feel like you were coated in bacon grease and wading through pudding. The extra speed the boat was getting from the current helped create a slight breeze across the deck, but it did little to mitigate the oppressive heat inside the boat.

The boat contained the usual mix of riverboat passengers: travelers expecting to catch a ship to another port when they reached New Orleans, merchants accompanying the goods they had stored down in the hold, and Carpetbaggers coming down from the ports in St. Louis and Cincinnati to try to make their fortune restoring a wartorn southern America. There were veterans from the recently beaten Confederate army, mostly officers since they were the majority of who could afford a ticket, heading back home after the surrender of Lee at Appomattox.

Others had their own reasons to be on the southward-heading ship, the most popular was that this ship was a well known gamblers hangout. Before the war, and the entire time of the conflict, the ship had the reputation of running clean games and dealt quickly, and brutally, with anyone who was caught cheating. And despite the country going up in flames over the past 5 years, the Reine de la Rivière kept chugging along the Mississippi as if it were just another day in a peaceful nation.

Scanning the parlor deck housing the roulette wheels and poker tables, everyone who Eloise saw gambling was an easy mark. They were the ones who didn’t realize they were just holding her money until she decided it was time to take it off of them. She considered them money in the bank!

Despite the boat’s reputation of being a clean gambling outfit, there were still a number of the riff raff, vagabonds and scoundrels on whom Eloise focused her attention. The riverboat gamblers who thought they could win big and walk away many times ended up overboard with a few more holes in them than they started with, and pockets without the money they’d won. She promised herself that she wasn’t going to be one of those unfortunate souls.

Seeing a spot open up at the main poker table, Eloise made her way over. “Do you mind if I take this seat?” She asks.

“It’s your money, you can lose it however you like, but you have to match the big blind on the next bet since you are just joining the game.” The man looks up at her and continues with his Appalachian drawl, “People at this table call me Virginia, but you can call me Henry,” he replies as he tips his hat and politely stands up. Walking around her, he pulls her chair out, lets her sit down, pushes her chair in behind her, and then returns to his own seat. “You are all uncultured vermin!” Henry exclaims at the table’s inhabitants, regarding their poor manners, before leaning over and quietly telling her about the table’s players. “I apologize for this ungainly lot but allow me to acquaint you with your fellow gamblers. Do you see that one over there next to the dealer? We call him Georgia. As you can tell by his hat, he was an officer in the 4th Georgia Cavalry and lost part of his leg at the Battle of Chickamauga when a yankee cannonball hit him just below the knee. Like many on this boat he is heading back home, but unlike the rest of these passengers, he is gambling away what’s left of the fortune his family made on their Savannah plantation fortune before he returns.”

Georgia extends his hand and gives Eloise a devilish smile. “Forgive me for not standing in the presence of a lady, but considering my predicament, I’m sure you understand.”

Eloise returns the smile and quickly answers in her best southern American drawl, “I would only be offended if you didn’t stand when they played Dixie.”

This quick retort was met by a number of cheers throughout the boat’s gaming area from those who heard, and a few declarations throughout the crowd of “The South will rise again!” A chorus of former soldiers standing near the bar started to sing Dixie, but when no one else on the boat joined in, it quickly faded. Yet through all the raucous laughter and cheering, Eloise noticed that one person didn’t find her or her witty retort amusing.

“If we are going to play cards, we need to play cards and not relive the fantasy that this war isn’t over for good.” He pauses, collects himself, and continues in an overly rough French accent. “I’m not here to make friends or chit chat, let’s get back to the game so I can win more money. Unless you have an ace up your sleeve, madam, I’m going to redistribute what’s in your purse into my pocket.”

Virginia leans in closer like he was telling her a secret and whispers quietly. “That man is known as Jacques New Orleans. He is originally from France but came to New Orleans running from the French law and avoiding the guillotine. He found lucrative work as a blockade runner, but when the war started going badly for the South, he gave up on that trade and is now the self-proclaimed king of riverboat gamblers. Sadly, he is also an impatient cad who suffers from a lack of manners. You can tell by the big pot of winnings sitting in front of him that he is on a roll, and he is quick to remind you that he has been taking everyone’s money today. Well, almost everyone’s money.” Virginia leans back and gives her a wink before talking again in a hushed tone. “Be careful around him though, he is also a dangerous leach who is quick to pull a dagger or a pistol on you if he thinks you have wronged him, whether in truth or in his imagination. It is rumored that he has been giving a cut of his winnings to the captain so he is able to do what he wants for the most part and has a free run of the boat.”

Virginia leans in and softly whispers again, “I suggest that you stay on this side of the table, across from him, and keep your back to the front of the boat. He suffers from a skin condition and his lack of basic hygiene has resulted in an offensive smell to those who are around him. If you stay on this side of the table, the breeze comes off the front of the boat, travels past you, then on to him and to the back of this vessel. The passengers riding there should be refunded their money.”

Virginia leans back, flashes a devilish smile, and then continues. “Alabama is to his left or the right of him as you see it, and I don’t know much more about him. He boarded the boat in Memphis and isn’t much of a talker. Then there is Ohio, who is making his way south to help rebuild our wartorn area. He is what we call a carpetbagger and not a popular passenger for most of this Confederate supporting crowd. Over there is Tennessee and he is on his last few coins. Drinking too much while gambling isn’t a good combination to follow, although sipping on a nice bluegrass bourbon in moderation is delectable. Next is Floyd. I have no idea where he is from so we can’t call him by his state or city. Speaking of which, what should I call you?”

Eloise had lost focus on listening to Virginia while studying the table, the dealer, and each of the other players as Virginia described them. After a moment she realized that Henry had asked her a question. “I’m sorry, but you can call me Ells…..but if you like the geographic consistency in names, call me Brixton.” This time speaking without hiding her south London roots.

“Well…” Virginia dragged out his response. “I’ve never heard of Brixton, or a lady speak that way, so let’s stay with something as unique as you are. Brixton it is!”

New Orleans interrupts and looks directly at her, “We aren’t playing Pharaoh like they do on most of the riverboats. It’s Texas Hold’em on this ship. No one wants to hear you cry about losing your money because you didn’t understand the game. So you may want to go put on a pot of tea or do some quilting.” Finishing with an odd laugh, while Ells and Virginia grimaced from the stench of his foul breath making its way to them despite the breeze he was speaking into.

And for the next few hours the group played Texas Hold’em. Despite his drinking, Tennessee still held on to enough money to keep playing and the winners were back and forth. Picking up tells on the group was fairly easy. Tennessee always looked at his cards and immediately took a drink if they were good. Georgia liked to scratch the stump of his leg when he was bluffing and bring his cavalry hat down lower on his brow when he held good cards. Ohio looked around when he had good cards, like he was expecting someone to steal them, and tried talking to everyone when his cards weren’t that great. Alabama, although quiet, was the worst card player of the bunch. He would physically grimace or smile, depending on the cards he was dealt.

The group was getting deep into the night and there were only three players left—Virginia, New Orleans, and the girl everyone has been calling Brixton. The small blind was Ells, the large blind was New Orleans, and they both chipped into the pot respectively.

Henry, or Virginia as he was being called, was a tough nut to crack and she couldn’t pick up on anything that gave away the strength or weakness of his cards. New Orleans was the one that really had her confused. It wasn’t that he was a good player, the way he bet made no sense and he was quick in everything he did. His hand movements were subtle, yet practiced, while the rest of what he did was labored and clumsy.

“Something tells me this is where you leave us broke, pretty lady!” New Orleans said in a rough French accent with a smile. “And when you need a meal and a place to stay in the Crescent City, come find me gambling at The Red Pig, Cochon Rouge. I can put you to work.” He continues to poke at her.

Paying no attention to insults, Eloise watched the deal and noticed the dealer deftly pulling cards from the bottom of the deck and dealing them to New Orleans. There was also some sort of communication going on between them but she couldn’t quite make it out. Damn if she was going to lose to cheating Frenchman!

“The bet’s to you, Brixton,” Henry says.

“I don’t think I’m going to bet on this one. As a matter of fact, I think New Orleans has been cheating,” Eloise declares. There was murmurs quickly spreading through the gambling parlor before everyone became quiet and focused their attention toward the main Texas Hold’em table. You could hear a pin drop and feel the tension hanging in the heavy Mississippi air..

New Orleans stands up and leans over the table, lifts up the right side of his jacket and shows the knife in his waistband. Then he moves closer to her and in a low tone says, “You had better shut your bitch mouth or I will cut you open and feed you to the catchfish.” He leans back and his voice gets louder. “If anyone here has been cheating it is you, and I think you have an ace up your sleeve, madam.”

Henry watched with concern at the situation starting to develop. He knew that Brixton was in trouble as New Orleans was a known thief and murderer, who was rash, arrogant, and quick to violence. He slowly moved his hand down to the Remington Navy Revolver on his hip and quietly cocked the hammer.

Eloise glanced down at the knife in New Orleans’ waistband and then back up into his eyes. Thinking he had the advantage, a large smile spread across his face and she could see the rows of brown, decaying teeth. New Orleans knew he had her cornered.

In a flash she opened up a straight razor with her left hand. Henry had no idea where she had it hidden or how she pulled it out so quickly. The blade raked across the front of his jacket, taking off a large piece of fabric that now hung down off of a few strands of fabric. Behind the hole in Jacques’ jacket, and tumbling onto the table in seemingly slow motion, were three cards from the deck.

New Orleans knew he had been found out and the smile quickly turned into a look of hateful rage. His hand immediately darted to the knife on his hip. Henry began to pull the revolver from his holster, hoping to get a shot off into New Orleans before his new lady friend was hurt.

Beating them both to the punch was Eloise’s right hand, which she extended right out in front of New Orleans’ face. Just a few feet away from him, when her arm was fully extended and pointed directly at New Orlean’s face, both barrels of a derringer pistol she was holding erupted, the first bullet hitting New Orleans in his upper lip and the second in his nose, both of them blowing out the back of his head and covering the column behind him in blood, brains, and gore,

Jacques’ body collapsed onto the table and slowly slid off onto the floor, leaving a streak of blood where his cards and chips were. Henry was stunned at how quickly Eloise had drawn her pistol and fired, and was frozen in his chair. All he could do was stare at the derringer in Eloise’s hand, smoke coming from both barrels, and read the word “Ace” engraved on the side.

Fan Fiction

About the Creator

Henry Smith

If I ever denied being a slave to the corporate world, the MBA branded and shackled me into chains of cubicle servitude. For relief, I’m a walking heavy bag when I spar in kickboxing or dream of being John Wick at the gun range.

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