The sporting men of Mulligan's were an exceedingly knowing lot; in fact, they had obtained the name amongst their neighbours of being a little bit too knowing. They had "taken down" the adjoining town in a variety of ways. They were always winning maiden plates with horses which were shrewdly suspected to be old and well-tried performers in disguise.
When the sports of Paddy's Flat unearthed a phenomenal runner in the shape of a blackfellow called Frying-pan Joe, the Mulligan contingent immediately took the trouble to discover a blackfellow of their own, and they made a match and won all the Paddy's Flat money with ridiculous ease; then their blackfellow turned out to be a well-known Sydney performer. They had a man who could fight, a man who could be backed to jump five-feet-ten, a man who could kill eight pigeons out of nine at thirty yards, a man who could make a break of fifty or so at billiards if he tried; they could all drink, and they all had that indefinite look of infinite wisdom and conscious superiority which belongs only to those who know something about horseflesh.
They knew a great many things never learnt at Sunday-school. They were experts at cards and dice. They would go to immense trouble to work off any small swindle in the sporting line. In short the general consensus of opinion was that they were a very "fly" crowd at Mulligan's, and if you went there you wanted to "keep your eyes skinned" or they'd "have" you over a threepenny-bit.
There were races at Sydney one Christmas, and a select band of the Mulligan sportsmen were going down to them. They were in high feather, having just won a lot of money from a young Englishman at pigeon-shooting, by the simple method of slipping blank cartridges into his gun when he wasn't looking, and then backing the bird.
They intended to make a fortune out of the Sydney people, and admirers who came to see them off only asked them as a favour to leave money enough in Sydney to make it worth while for another detachment to go down later on. Just as the train was departing a priest came running on to the platform, and was bundled into the carriage where our Mulligan friends were; the door was slammed to, and away they went. His Reverence was hot and perspiring, and for a few minutes mopped himself with a handkerchief, while the silence was unbroken except by the rattle of the train.
After a while one of the Mulligan fraternity got out a pack of cards and proposed a game to while away the time. There was a young squatter in the carriage who looked as if he might be induced to lose a few pounds, and the sportsmen thought they would be neglecting their opportunities if they did not try to "get a bit to go on with" from him. He agreed to play, and, just as a matter of courtesy, they asked the priest whether he would take a hand.
"What game d'ye play?" he asked, in a melodious brogue.
They explained that any game was equally acceptable to them, but they thought it right to add that they generally played for money.
"Sure an' it don't matter for wanst in a way," said he -- "Oi'll take a hand bedad -- Oi'm only going about fifty miles, so Oi can't lose a fortune."
They lifted a light portmanteau on to their knees to make a table, and five of them -- three of the Mulligan crowd and the two strangers -- started to have a little game of poker. Things looked rosy for the Mulligan boys, who chuckled as they thought how soon they were making a beginning, and what a magnificent yarn they would have to tell about how they rooked a priest on the way down.
Nothing sensational resulted from the first few deals, and the priest began to ask questions.
"Be ye going to the races?"
They said they were.
"Ah! and Oi suppose ye'll be betting wid thim bookmakers -- betting on the horses, will yez? They do be terrible knowing men, thim bookmakers, they tell me. I wouldn't bet much if Oi was ye," he said, with an affable smile. "If ye go bettin' ye will be took in wid thim bookmakers."
The boys listened with a bored air and reckoned that by the time they parted the priest would have learnt that they were well able to look after themselves. They went steadily on with the game, and the priest and the young squatter won slightly; this was part of the plan to lead them on to plunge. They neared the station where the priest was to get out. He had won rather more than they liked, so the signal was passed round to "put the cross on". Poker is a game at which a man need not risk much unless he feels inclined, and on this deal the priest stood out. Consequently, when they drew up at his station he was still a few pounds in.
"Bedad," he said, "Oi don't loike goin' away wid yer money. Oi'll go on to the next station so as ye can have revinge." Then he sat down again, and play went on in earnest.
The man of religion seemed to have the Devil's own luck. When he was dealt a good hand he invariably backed it well, and if he had a bad one he would not risk anything. The sports grew painfully anxious as they saw him getting further and further ahead of them, prattling away all the time like a big schoolboy. The squatter was the biggest loser so far, but the priest was the only winner. All the others were out of pocket. His reverence played with great dash, and seemed to know a lot about the game, so that on arrival at the second station he was a good round sum in pocket.
He rose to leave them with many expressions of regret, and laughingly promised full revenge next time. Just as he was opening the carriage door, one of the Mulligan fraternity said in a stage-whisper: "He's a blanky sink-pocket. If he can come this far, let him come on to Sydney and play for double the stakes." Like a shot the priest turned on him.
"Bedad, an' if THAT'S yer talk, Oi'll play ye fer double stakes from here to the other side of glory. Do yez think men are mice because they eat cheese? It isn't one of the Ryans would be fearing to give any man his revinge!"
He snorted defiance at them, grabbed his cards and waded in. The others felt that a crisis was at hand and settled down to play in a dead silence. But the priest kept on winning steadily, and the "old man" of the Mulligan push saw that something decisive must be done, and decided on a big plunge to get all the money back on one hand. By a dexterous manipulation of the cards he dealt himself four kings, almost the best hand at poker. Then he began with assumed hesitation to bet on his hand, raising the stake little by little.
"Sure ye're trying to bluff, so ye are!" said the priest, and immediately raised it.
The others had dropped out of the game and watched with painful interest the stake grow and grow. The Mulligan fraternity felt a cheerful certainty that the "old man" had made things safe, and regarded themselves as mercifully delivered from an unpleasant situation. The priest went on doggedly raising the stake in response to his antagonist's challenges until it had attained huge dimensions.
"Sure that's high enough," said he, putting into the pool sufficient to entitle him to see his opponent's hand.
The "old man" with great gravity laid down his four kings, whereat the Mulligan boys let a big sigh of relief escape them.
Then the priest laid down four aces and scooped the pool.
The sportsmen of Mulligan's never quite knew how they got out to Randwick. They borrowed a bit of money in Sydney, and found themselves in the saddling-paddock in a half-dazed condition, trying to realize what had happened to them. During the afternoon they were up at the end of the lawn near the Leger stand and could hear the babel of tongues, small bookmakers, thimble riggers, confidence men, and so on, plying their trades outside. In the tumult of voices they heard one that sounded familiar. Soon suspicion grew into certainty, and they knew that it was the voice of "Father" Ryan. They walked to the fence and looked over. This is what he was saying: --
"Pop it down, gents! Pop it down! If you don't put down a brick you can't pick up a castle! I'll bet no one here can pick the knave of hearts out of these three cards. I'll bet half-a-sovereign no one here can find the knave!"
Then the crowd parted a little, and through the opening they could see him distinctly, doing a great business and showing wonderful dexterity with the pasteboard.
There is still enough money in Sydney to make it worth while for another detachment to come down from Mulligan's; but the next lot will hesitate about playing poker with priests in the train.