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Gambling: A Relief for Boredom
Gambling: A Relief for Boredom

The Old West was colorful, dangerous and boring.

People who lived back East in the more populated areas read dime novels about Western life. They read highly sensationalized accounts of gunfighters, lawmen and cattle drives, many of them highly fictionalized. The books fired up the imagination of many young people. They wanted to go out west to find the white elephant.

The white elephant was a phrase used to describe the unknown. People picked it up and used it in conversation without really knowing what they were talking about. It was a little like the blue flash that some people reported seeing while watching a sunset in Florida or from an island in the Caribbean or South Pacific. Some folks would see it while others didn't. It was all in the imaginative powers of the individual.

Some young people traveled out West by stagecoach, horseback or even bicycle and tried to find jobs working on cattle ranches. The jobs were sparse and they didn't pay much. Sometimes a ranch owner would put a person on his payroll out of pity and teach him the rudiments of being a cowhand. After a while, some of the workers got pretty good at riding horses, fixing fences, and digging waterways. They became known as cowboys and the label stuck.

Cattle drives were long, dreary and hard work. People would ride herd to keep cattle moving to a place where they could be sold in order to be dispatched in the form of beef to supermarkets or restaurants throughout the country. Sometimes a rider would be on the trail for three months or more before being paid off in a cow town like Abilene or Dodge City.

The cowhands would be paid in cash or scripts that could be exchanged for chips in the town's gambling saloons. All the cow towns had pleasure palaces where single men could let their foolish desires seize control of their senses.

There were upstairs rooms where attractive women of the evening would be available for a price. Downstairs there were games of chance operated by unsmiling men with handlebar mustaches who would smile just long enough to take your money and give you a slim chance to increase it. A very slim chance.

While some of the games like poker could be honest, others were as crooked as the hind leg of a dog. Liquor and attractive cocktail girls would dull the senses of the cowhand victims.

Sometimes somebody would slip up and a person would realize he was being robbed. Guns would suddenly appear and somebody would be shot or killed. A lot of gambling disputes were settled that way and life would go on until the next time.

In one of his fine western novels, Jack Schaefer, author of 'Shane,' 'Monte Walsh,' 'First Blood' and other depictions of the Old West wrote about a handful of cowboys who drove a herd to a nondescript cow town. None of them had any money and they waited there to be paid.

They waited. And waited.

Flies buzzed in the heat. Horses whinnied. The cowboys stared longingly at the saloon across the street, aching for a drink or something to dispel the boredom that had set in.

Finally, the paymaster arrived and paid them off. They headed like arrows to the saloon where gambling would relieve their boredom brought on by the long dangerous trail ride.

The games were many. Sleight of hand, cards, dice, roulette wheels, numbers, all designed to benefit the house. Rarely a cowboy would win. Most were losers whose only solace was a shot of whiskey or beer and the comforting hand of an attractive woman who made certain she got her share of the pie.

But somehow the Cowboys wouldn't mind it. They would arrive in town with their pockets full of cash or script and head for the well lighted gambling saloons to 'buck the tiger', to 'see the white elephant,' and to take their chance with lady luck.

The next morning they would wake up by inches, fighting a hangover, and discovering their pockets were empty. There would be little left of their small fortune from the night before except traces of lipstick on glasses and cigarettes and a memory or two.

Oh well, they would say, shrugging. As they nursed their whiskey hangover they would think, 'Better luck next time.'

They would find their way to the livery stable where their saddled horse would be ready for them and hit the dusty trail for the long ride back to the ranch, their boredom relieved for the moment. Such was life in the old West.

P.S. It hasn't changed that much.

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