Mississippi River Gamblers
by Sandra Jones
Personally, I’m a pitiful card player—usually the last person anyone wants as a partner at the table. But I think that’s why I admire the psychological skill and brilliance of players like George Devol and Canada Bill Jones.
George De Vol
While researching for my new historical romance, Her Wicked Captain, I read an autobiography written by Devol, entitled Forty Years A Gambler on the Mississippi. In this 1887 memoir, the card sharp paints vivid pictures of his escapades (whether imagined or real) including high-stakes games, lost loves, and fights with dangerous opponents.
According to Devol, he was a runaway living on a riverboat by age ten. By fourteen, he knew how to stack a deck of cards, and he eventually bilked players out of thousands of dollars without remorse. Yes, he was a cheat.
Canada Bill Jones
A contemporary and partner of Devol’s, Jones was born in Yorkshire and migrated to Canada and later Mississippi looking for bigger games. He’s been said to be the greatest of all riverboat gamblers at the three-card-monte. His cunning, charm, and sense of charity were all attributes I included when I created the riverboat gambling hero of Her Wicked Captain. In fact, it was probably Jones’s sense of selflessness that made him the target of George Devol when his longtime friend attempted to cheat him, thus causing the end of their business dealings together. Afterward, Jones worked his way from boats to railways, moving west and attempting to open gaming establishments. He died of consumption by age 40.
If he hadn’t introduced himself, Dell wouldn’t have recognized him. Her childhood memories came in spurts and flickers like sparks drifting up from a burning log, to vanish into the void of a black sky. She recalled how big everything had seemed—her mama’s dressing room, the nice bed where she slept the day away, and the giant paddle wheels as the steamboats came into port. How the kids would come running from the city streets to gather around each arriving ship like a swarm of giddy flies, and the older girls would wave at her friend—her playmate, Rory.
“Gory Rory. You ate a pollywog catfish? Ew!” She’d once teased. Gory Rory? Had she really called him that?
Presently, the captain’s strong arms went around her as he lifted her over the rail. His hands lingered on her sides a moment past propriety.
Flushing, she stepped aside. “Thank you.”
He winked at her and helped hoist the rest of the party up from the keelboat onto the packet’s leaning deck. Standing behind her cousins, Dell could still feel the branding on her ribs where his hands had touched her. She willed herself not to panic, but her pulse fluttered wildly at the base of her throat. She couldn’t hide, nor could she return to the riverbank, though every second she stood under his nose was another second he might recognize her.
She couldn’t allow that to happen.
The steamboat’s whistle rattled to life, and she jerked as if she’d been shot, grabbing the rail. The deafening roars and metallic tones sounded overhead as she gritted her teeth. She vaguely recalled standing too near as a babe, and now fought the instinct to cover her ears like the wailing brat she’d been back then.
For whatever reason, her mama had moved her hundreds of miles away, leaving their home and her husband, Quintus Moreaux. Now here was his former ward, Rory Campbell, standing more than six foot tall with wide shoulders and a rogue’s grin, less than eight feet away.
He and the freedman gave the final visitor, Mr. Gaskin, a boost onto the boat. The lumber mill owner joked that he’d gladly salvage the boards of the vessel, to which Rory declined with rich laughter and clapped a hand on his back.
The shy Rory that Dell remembered had soft, boyish round cheeks, and wasn’t able to put together more than two words around her pretty mother. The confident man standing before them now wore a shadow of golden whiskers on a rigid jaw, but he had the same eyes, the color of green bottle glass lit by sunlight. While the others headed for the bow, her former friend singled her out, sharing his infectious smile.
He bowed slightly, gesturing with his hat. “Ladies first.”
Dell ran unsteady hands down the pleats of her dusty clothes to chase away the twinges of her stomach. She mustn’t call attention to herself. If she lost her composure, he would surely figure out she was Eleanor’s bastard daughter, fathered by one of Moreaux’s black workers. One word from him about her mixed blood, and the town would turn on her.
“Thank you,” she murmured again and glided past, keeping her head down. She felt his measuring gaze, and her chest heated in response.
Sarah and Nathaniel were just steps ahead with the preacher, weaving from the rail, straining to see as much of the vessel as possible. Dell hurried to catch up. Rory’s tread creaked ominously on the deck behind her.
She played right into his hands. Possessing uncanny people-reading skills like her mama, Philadelphia “Dell” Samuels has spent thirteen years in her aunt’s rustic Ozarks home, telling fortunes over playing cards and trying to pass as white. But the treacherous Mississippi River childhood her mama dragged her away from finally catches up to her on a steamboat captained by her old friend Rory Campbell.
Known to his crew as the Devil’s Henchman, Rory is a gambler in need of a miracle. Following the cold trail of his boss’s wife and bastard daughter, Dell, Rory has only one goal in mind: saving his crew from the boss’s cruelty by ruining him. The only one who can defeat the Monster of the Mississippi is the man trained to take his place. Rory’s convinced he can lure his boss into a high-stakes game against a rival, and with Dell’s people-reading skills, the monster will lose everything.
Under Rory’s tutelage and protection, Dell agrees to the tortured captain’s plan. Passion and peril quickly bring them together as lovers. But when Rory’s plan goes awry, the lives of the innocent depend on Dell’s ability to read the situation correctly—and hopefully save them all.
Goodreads link: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22922437-her-wicked-captain
Historical romance author Sandra Jones was born and raised in Arkansas. She loves living in a cabin overlooking White River where she enjoys watching eagles and dreaming about the adventurous frontiersmen who once traveled past in steamboats. When she’s not reading, writing or researching, she’s the cook for her cranky old tom cat, her husband of more than 25 years, and her two grown sons. She also loves to chat with her fans.