A scoundrel is tested and finds
that a good deed is not always rewarded.
THE GAME AT EDEN’S HILL
a short story by Beth Henderson
Grady O’Dell saw her standing at the edge of the crowd that summer day in 1862. She was like many of the frontier girls drawn to his show. Her homespun dress faded, her skin warmed to a soft brown where the gown had failed to protect her from the relentless sun. The wide-brimmed bonnet she wore shadowed her face but there was something about this particular girl that drew his gaze to her repeatedly.
Whether it was to impress her or simply keep the eyes of the townspeople gathered around his wagon, Grady squared his shoulders beneath the rusty black of his frock coat. With one foot on the wagon seat and the other on the floorboard, he stretched an arm out toward the crowd, and with a quick dramatic gesture, produced a bottle of his own snake oil concoction from the dry air itself.
A few gasped in surprise. Others chuckled at his sleight of hand. Grady grinned at them, his gaze seeming to light on each one before moving on to their neighbor.
“I’ve told you all about the miracles that this elixir has produced for other suffering souls,” he murmured to the audience, drawing on his theatrical training to carry the softly spoken claim to every ear. “And it can be yours today for the small price of one dollar, friends. A mere pittance for the wonders it can do for you.”
A man pushed to the front of the crowd. “Will it stop the war, Doc? I jest got ma notice ta go and I need somethin’ ta cure ma reluctance.”
The crowd laughed.
Grady widened his smile confidently. “That it can, my friend,” he said. “Might take a case or so, but I can guarantee you wouldn’t feel reluctant. You wouldn’t feel anything at all.”
As he had hoped they would, the crowd chuckled. All but the girl in the sunbonnet. She turned away, her shoulders slumped, and walked down the dusty street away from the men and women gathered around Doctor Leonidas P. Tybald’s Miracle Elixir wagon.
Grady camped outside of town that night. The profits had been small, but they had been sufficient for him to purchase a few supplies before moving on to the next town. One town after another linked together in a long procession away from the battlefields of Virginia. He’d been fortunate enough to escape with his life and limbs intact. It didn’t matter if he was a deserter. He’d left the army unannounced twice already. The only enticement to join had been the large bonuses paid to volunteers. After leaving the ship full of emigrants in New York, he’d stumbled into the first recruiter with money in his hand. It took only a few days in camp to convince Grady that his talents were put to best use away from the high ideals of Union or Confederacy. He had simply walked away with the Army’s money secure in his pocket.
The second time had not been nearly as pleasant. He had changed his name by the time he was swept into Buell’s Army of the Ohio. Now it was James Peters who accepted the bonus and faced down the guns of the South as the army swept into Kentucky. Dying for a cause had not been part of Grady’s plan when he sailed from Dublin. After the first skirmish, he headed north then west, away from the fighting. That was when he had fallen in with the original Doctor Leonidas P. Tybald, and his current occupation, one far safer than once more baring his face before a theatre crowd this close to the theatres of war.
Grady leaned back against his bedroll, a whiskey bottle for company, and stared into his campfire, his thoughts on the old man. Tybald willingly admitted that he’d made the name up. Selling patent medicine was better than any shell game, he’d told Grady, and a sight safer than dealing from the bottom of the deck. That knowledge hadn’t stopped either of them from cheating each other when they did play cards. But, as Tybald said, selling bottles of phony medicine was easier and far more prudent. Since Grady had taken up the trade, and old Tybald’s name as well, he had only been run out of two towns. Both times it had been the ardent interest the daughter of the mayor, the town banker, or the sheriff had taken in him, not the elixir, that had made skedaddling a pip of an idea.
The flames had died down when Grady heard the sound. His hand went to the rifle at his side. It wasn’t smart to stay unarmed in wartime, even if he was hundreds of miles away from the fighting. All deserters weren’t as cowardly as he, but they were all heading either for new gold strikes in the west or toward Canada. And he was directly in their path either way.
It wasn’t a bearded face that peered at him from the bushes though. It was a young girl’s. Her fair hair straggled over her thin shoulders and a bundled shawl was clutched in her arms, quite obviously binding together her worldly goods. She pushed her way through the underbrush then stood straight, tall and determined before him. “I’ve come ta request a ride, sir,” she said. “I’m wishful of leavin’ this vicinity and tryin’ ma prospects in the city.”
Grady blinked at the apparition and slowing released his grip on the rifle. “Which city, darlin’?” he asked, allowing his speech to slur gently back into the brogue he’d worked hard to suppress.
She pushed a lank strand of hair away from her face and sat down near him, drawing her legs beneath her skirt, the faded fabric puddling around her, hiding all but the scuffed and worn toes of her shoes. “Any city. I ain’t particular,” she said.
His lips curled in derision. “I appreciate the compliment of your company, but it’s not a city I’m bound for.”
She stared at him. “But Pa said—”
“Ahh. Runnin’ away, is it?”
She frowned. “Ya don’t sound like ya did earlier taday,” she said.
“And you don’t look like you did this afternoon,” he countered. “What happened to your bonnet?”
She shrugged. “Lost it, I guess. But it ain’t grand ‘nuff fer the city. I’d work ma way. I’m strong, kin cook, wash—”
He stopped her. “How good is your cooking?”
“Darn sight better ‘n beans an’ biscuits,” she said and smiled brightly at him. “I know’d I warn’t wrong in comin’ ta ya, Doctor Tybald.”
Grady sighed. He should send her back to her family and not risk another encounter with an irate parent. But it was late, and he was tired of his own company. “My friends call me Grady,” he said.
“I’m Patience,” she offered.
“It doesn’t fit you.”
She grinned impishly. “That’s what Pa says.”
When Grady started out early the next morning, Patience was by his side on the wagon seat.
She had the kind of eyes a con man envied. They shone with innocence. As part of Doctor Leonidas P. Tybald’s show, it only took a dip of Patience’s long sun-tipped lashes to sell the elixir. Since she’d joined him, Grady found his profits soared.
She also could turn hardtack pudding and hell-fired stew into something almost palatable, a miracle he’d never managed even after adding generous dollops of his own elixir to the ever-evolving ingredients. In exchange he gave her the benefit of his experience before the footlights, teaching her deportment and modulating her speech as he turned her into the semblance of a lady. Gowned and shod properly, her hair brushed to a luster that rivaled ripe corn silk, he doubted her relatives would recognize the lovely creature he had created. In the two months they’d been on the road together, Grady found he’d begun to depend on Patience for a good many comforts. She was a boon to the patent medicine trade and a welcome addition at his campfire, and under the blankets, every night.
Why then did he have a premonition about going into the sleepy hamlet of Eden’s Hill? It was just another thrown together frontier town, a community of farmers for the most part, their distance from the battlefields a boon to his mind. He’d never been of a fanciful mind, never one to believe in superstitions. And yet…
The town rose from the prairie one afternoon, a huddle of buildings, most a single story tall, blemishes on the landscape. Eden’s Hill marched up the side of a long, leisurely slope, surrounded by yard high grasses that appeared to lope into the distance, rippled by a warm, tantalizing breeze. The wind pushed the trail of dust the wagon made into a plume that trailed them, giving the town warning of their approach.
Grady glanced at Patience. She was already dressed in the demure gray suit and bonnet she wore in her role as his war widowed sister. Her tales of life threatening illnesses with miraculous recoveries, thanks to Doctor Tybald’s elixir, had been known to bring a tear to the eye of grown men.
The business had thrived. He had to admit that she even mixed a better batch of patent medicine than he did, adding more herbs and less bad whiskey to the concoction.
He pushed away the premonition, chiding himself for being a superstitious fool. It was what came of being a son of the auld sod and a past treader of the boards.
“After this stop I think we both deserve a rest,” he announced as they entered the town. “We aren’t that far west of Chicago. How would you like to go there, darlin’?”
She stared straight ahead out over the harnessed team. “Chicago,” she said. “What will you do there, Grady? Sell more elixir?”
He liked the now refined sound of her voice. Liked the idea that he could take credit for the change. “Maybe. Depends, darlin’. Never been there myself.”
Patience nodded but made no other comment. He put her silence down to stage fright. She often had it just before the crowd gathered while he thrived on the crowd’s attention.
They sold a goodly number of bottles, which pleased Grady. In a burst of generosity, he took rooms at the hotel for them and turned the team and wagon over to the livery stable for the night. Tomorrow they would put the small-town circuit behind them for a week or two and enjoy the pleasures of Chicago. He felt good.
The hotel was prosperous enough to boast a second floor and a small dining room where the tables were draped with neatly pressed white cloths. But visitors were rare, Grady realized when in the dining room Patience drew the interest of several men. It cheered him to see his work with her was appreciated. Patience had the bearing of a lady and the gown she wore suited her new persona, the neckline modest and trimmed with a modest swatch of lace, the color a soft blue that deepened the tint of her eyes. In a miraculously short time, she’d stopped being a raw farm girl and blossomed into a poised beauty. He was proud of her.
After dinner Patience pleaded weariness and retired to their room. Grady was buoyed up with plans for the future, considering what next to purchase for her when they reached Chicago. Perhaps another gown or a daintier pair of slippers. Musing on the various ways she might thank him for the next gift, Grady bought a cigar and wandered the dusty streets until he came to the local saloon. The smell of stale smoke and strong whiskey was potent even on the street, luring him inside.
“Hi ya, Doc,” a man greeted.
“Doctor Tybald! Whadda ya have?” The bartender wiped a tumbler out and sat it down on the polished counter.
“Somethin’ better than that rot-gut you sell, eh Doc?” another laughed.
Grady turned to the grinning men. “What do you suggest?” he asked.
“Whiskey,” the bartender said and poured a shot.
Grady savored the sting all the way down. The glass was filled again before he turned back to the seated company.
“What’s that you gentlemen are playing?”
One fellow shuffled a deck of cards from one hand to the other. “Poker,” he said. “Ever try it, Doc?”
Grady shook his head. “A little whist perhaps but I’m afraid I don’t—”
They shouted him down, eager to draw a greenhorn into the game. It would be an easy fleecing, Grady thought. They’d never suspect him of false dealing. Although, as he looked at each of the men gathered around the table, he doubted that much skill would be needed to best them at their own game.
He let them explain the rules and even made some clumsy moves that lead to a lot of laughter and higher stakes. By the end of an hour luck had been maneuvered to Grady’s side of the table.
The game dropped down to a duel between himself and a latecomer to the game around midnight. Grady recognized the stranger as a professional gambler by the amiable grin that remained on the man’s face no matter what the cards read. His expression never changed. Not even when Grady dealt from the bottom of the deck.
“One last game,” the stranger urged.
The man shuffled. Grady cut the cards. He watched the gambler carefully, waiting to catch him palming cards. The stranger grinned, acknowledging his opponent’s distrust. He flicked the cards out until they each had five.
Grady glanced down at his hand: ace of clubs, ace of hearts, king of hearts, jack of hearts, ten of hearts. He couldn’t believe his luck. A possible royal flush was in his grasp. Only the queen of hearts was missing. It was nearly impossible to fill. He should stick with the pair of aces. But the chance was too tempting to ignore. He threw the ace of clubs face down on the table and asked for a single card.
The gambler looked at him hard. “One card? Why not make the stakes a little more interesting then?”
Grady slid his cards into a stack and placed them face down on the table. “Such as?”
The stranger looked thoughtful. He fingered the diamond stickpin in his cravat, then removed it. “Everything on the table plus this against whatever you’ve got before you there and…” The gambler paused dramatically. “And your sister.”
Grady hid his surprise behind a modest smile. “I value my sister higher than a mere diamond, sir.”
“As you should rightly do, but how much higher?” the stranger asked. He reached into an inner jacket pocket and added another five hundred dollars to the pot. Then he leaned back, watching Grady’s face. “Is it a deal?”
Grady took a deep breath and another shot of whiskey. There was well over a thousand dollars on the table. A thousand dollars or Patience.
There had been a time when he wouldn’t have considered a moment, when he would have accepted the bet. But that had been before Patience.
He glanced at his cards one more time. Would the final draw be the elusive queen of hearts?
Grady tossed the cards down and got to his feet. “No, sir, I will not sully my dear sister’s name in any dealings with you.”
The gambler leaned back in his chair. “Then you forfeit the game?”
Rather than answer, Grady turned away from the table. He had taken no more than two steps when the gambler drawled, “Would you like to see what your draw would have been?”
The man he wished to be lost to the man he was. Grady glanced back, his eyes on the other man’s hands as he flipped over the next card: a four of clubs.
He would have lost anyway. It was a strange sensation to know that and yet feel good because he hadn’t fallen into the temptation to use Patience for his own gain in the game.
“And what did you have?” Grady asked.
The gambler’s smile widened. With a negligent twist of his wrist he turned his own cards over. Three of a kind. Grady stared at the trio of queens: spade, diamond and heart. The gambler had known he couldn’t fill the flush all along.
His pockets once more empty, Grady headed back to the hotel. He did not relish telling Patience that their trip to Chicago was postponed indefinitely. He could remember her telling him that first night that any city would do, that she wasn’t particular. She deserved a cultured city like New York or New Orleans, not a frontier place like Chicago. Now he couldn’t even give her that.
Grady checked on her before turning in himself. She lay on her side, her face away from him. He considered joining her then changed his mind. Waking her would force him to explain his losses at the saloon. He would wait until morning. Yes, it was much better to wait.
He woke much later than usual. The noise from traffic in the street told him the day was at its zenith. He wondered why Patience hadn’t called him. Hurriedly he dressed and left the room.
The hotel clerk intercepted him downstairs and handed him an envelope. Grady didn’t recognize the handwriting but the premonition he’d had upon entering Eden’s Hill returned as he stared at it. Inside was a short note from Patience, her script an ill-formed hand that belied her new image. The words she’d scratched rang a knell in his mind.
She had left with a gentleman who promised to take her to the city. She’d always wanted to go to the city, she reminded him. She wished him well selling his patent medicine and thanked him for teaching her the speech and habits of a lady.
The envelope also contained a twenty-dollar gold piece and a single playing card. The queen of hearts. The gambler had won again.
Doctor Leonidas P. Tybald’s wagon moved out of town that afternoon, still headed west. It made another few stops along the way to sell the miracle elixir and at each town Grady O’Dell drew a crowd. At the edge of the crowd oftentimes there stood a girl.
This story was originally written as an assignment in a college credit course the year before my first novel was released. I always meant it to be the start to a novel length story but that hasn’t happened…yet. While Grady O’Dell may not surface again, a character very like him – in that he is also a scoundrel and patent medicine man – is on the drawing board. Until then, Grady must suffice. All these years later, I still do like him a lot.
“The Game at Eden’s Hill” © Beth Daniels-Henderson 1989