"Grandfather, oh Grandfather. Tell them. Tell them of the time that you won a twenty dollar gold piece from the
thimble man Mr. Thimblerig," shouted the little ten-year-old Mexican boy as he ran through the earth packed streets
of San Antonio Texas to the family villa. His companions did not believe him when he told the story. He would show
them. He would have his grandfather tell them. They would believe him.
Three ten-year-old boys ran as fast as their short legs could carry them each trying to outrun the other. The first
youth, the one shouting for his grandfather, was small boned with a mop of coal black hair, black eyes, and dark
brown skin. The second youth was of a average stature, had light brown eyes and skin and dark brown hair. The third
boy was big for his age. Kind of a sturdy pudgy build with flaxen banged hair, very bright blue eyes, pink skin and
a sandhill tacky washed out look. They skidded to a stop at the front door of the villa. The first youth's mother
came out. A quick exchange of words between mother and son then, "Out back in the courtyard. In his favorite chair."
The three boys revved their bodies in gear, zoomed through the front door, tore through the house, banged open the
back door and spurted out the into the cool green shaded gardened courtyard. There sat a shriveled up little old
Mexican man swallowed up in his high back rattan chair. Dressed in white pants, red sash belt, white blouse buttoned
to the neck, and leather sandals. Dangling his weathered calloused dusty feet over the front, his legs did not reach
the ground. His arms rested on the sides of the chair. The old man's thinning white hair was shaggy around the edges,
and thinning everywhere. There was a half dollar sized bald spot on top of his head. He brought his gnarled right hand
up to his chin, rubbed it with his crooked arthritic thumb and fingers and gave the boys a toothless smile, pleased to
have an audience.
"Tell them. They don't believe me that when you were our age that you outsmarted a shell game man and won a twenty dollar
gold piece. Tell them."
"Oh I didn't really outsmart him and I didn't really win it."
"What ya do, steal it then?" scoffed the tow headed youth.
"Oh I kind of won it but I didn't know how until years later after I won it." He paused. The boys sat there eyes fixed
upon him giving him that look that said, 'Well aren't you going to tell us the story?' The old man knew he had them now.
"Let me tell you what happened," he said, his face grimly serious while adjusting himself in his chair and leaning forward
to the three boys now deeply entranced all sitting crosslegged on the ground before him.
"It was in a little nothing of a town up in north Texas now called Jessup. At first the town didn't even have a name, it
being so small. Just had a sign up along the road that said "Just Stop" to encourage travelers to stop and spend their money.
Of course Texans being what they are started calling it Just Stop Texas and Texans being what they are somehow eventually
mangled the words into Jessup, Jessup Texas.
"My parents worked for a big ranch owner who had quite a spread just north of town a mile or so. My father was a vaquero.
That's a cowboy," he said directing his words to the tow headed lad.
"My mother was the head cook for the owner's family and all his ranch hands and domestic help. Every Saturday we'd hitch up
the old mule team to the rattily old buckboard and our whole family with a passel of the hired hands would saunter into town
to lay in supplies and find what limited entertainment there was, if any."
"Well this one Saturday there was this big whoop going on in front of the One and Only Saloon. It was named that because it
was actually thee one and only saloon in town. A boisterous mob of about half dozen local barflies and drifters had
congregated in front. So my father, myself and our fellow ranchhands hurried over to see what all the hubbub was about.
Soon all of us, that is excepting my father, but me included, stood there drop jawed watching the wonders of this one man.
A huge colorful display sign aptly proclaimed, 'The One and Only Amazing Mr. Thimblerig. Master of Deception. Do you dare to
take a chance?' Actually he was the one and only Mr.Thimblerig in town and to me, a young boy, he was amazing, fascinating,
and spellbinding. What is exactly what he wanted to be."
"His mouth verbalized at the rate of a mile a minute but not faster than his lightning hands as he shuffled, reshuffled,
scooted, shifted and swept the three thimbles across the slick frayed worn surface of his fancy gold, purple and red fringed
laced tablecloth. Then after he had everyone thoroughly confused as to where the thimble with the pea under it was, he would
dare anyone in the crowd if they would be so bold as to make a friendly little wager. Some fool always would and some fool's
friendly little wager money would slide into pocket of Mr. Thimblerig."
"Well I swallowed it all as they say hook, line and sinker. This thin tall debonair man in his fancy frilled colored suit with
ruffled cuffs and ruffled vest and with a gold pocket watch tucked therein and gold chain dangling therefrom, slicked back
fruity tonic smelling hair under his bowler derby hat, pencil thin mustache, and diamond and gold rings on both hands spellbound
me. He was quite the man of the world to a little Mexican kid from nowhere Jessup Texas."
"So naturally during all this hoopla and
gambling, I got pretty worked up as they say. I kept jumping up and down and hollering, 'Let me play. Please let me play. Let me
play, Please,' Over and over I begged Mr. Thimblerig for a chance, but all to no avail."
"'Run along home kid. You're too young son. Don't I hear your mother calling? Don't bother me. Scram kid.' were some of his many
quips that he threw at me as he tried to ignore me all the while shooing me away with both his hands."
"But I was so excited I just couldn't stop even though I was continually rejected over and over. Suddenly I realized what the
problem was and screamed out, 'But I got money!' I really did have money, a few pennies for candy that my father had given me."
"Well right then and there Mr. Thimblerig stopped pitching his trade mid-sentence, turned to me and said, 'How much money kid?'"
"Then my father jumped in. 'Excuse me sir, he needs to speak to his father for a moment.'"
"'By all means please do,' said Mr. Thimblerig as he put his hand on top of my head and ruffled up my hair and said, 'Cute kid
you got here mister.' Then he stared at me and said, 'You know I got a little boy about your age and kind of looks a little like
you too down in San Antonio,' Then he paused and added, ' Or is it Amarillo?
"From the back of the crowd someone snickered, 'Got one in every town do you Thimblerig?' Then while the crowd went into a hee-hawing
guffawing group laugh my father took me aside keeping his back to Mr.Thimblerig."
"'Look son I know how this scam works. I've seen it up in Dodge City and Ellsworth Kansas at the end of cattle drives when I was a
young hand. Let me take it from here. You just follow my instructions. Don't speak just nod your head. OK?' my father whispered to me."
"I nodded my head yes and he continued. 'I'll make the bet. After he's done shuffling the thimbles, you chose the middle one. Only
don't say it out loud or point to it like
everyone does because that allows him to immediately turn it over as he always does. Put your hand on it and keep it on it until I
place my hand on yours, then you can remove yours. I'll turn it over when appropriate. Got it?'"
"I nodded yes. 'Let's go,' he said and we brought ourselves to the table. 'We'd like to place a wager now sir,' said my father."
"'OK be my guest. Whatever you two wish,' offered Thimblerig."
"'Here's the bet,' my father continued. 'If we lose, I buy everyone here a round of drinks.' A roar went up from the crowd. ' If you
lose, you buy everyone here a round of drinks.' A louder roar went up from the crowd. 'See the crowd loves it. Everyone wins,'
exclaimed my father.
"'Except for one of us,' interjected Thimblerig."
"'Well? How about it?' taunted my father."
"Thimblerig started to say something then hesitated and stopped. He knew that he'd been lured in and had taken the bait.The crowd
began to grow restless and stir. They started chanting 'Do it
! Do it! Do it!' He knew that they might turn on him on a moment's notice if he balked.
"'You said 'Whatever you wish. You backing down now?' goaded my father."
"'Ok!' shouted Thimblerig and he immediately went into his usual spiel with all the bells and whistles, smoke and mirrors, holding
up the pea between his thumb and fore finger, lifting up and setting down all the thimbles to show that they were empty, placing
the pea under one and razzling dazzling them by sleight of hand over the table top quicker than the naked human eye could follow.
Then he suddenly stopped all the rigamarole, stepped back, thinking he had us, and said, 'The boy will choose. Young man make your
"I did exactly as told and latched on to the middle thimble."
"'Let me get that for you son,' said Mr. Thimblerig quickly reaching to lift the thimble as my
father's hand came down on top of mine.
"'We'll get it,' said my father."
"'Uh you sure you want that one and not one of these uh other two?' stuttered Mr. Thimblerig, his brow starting to sweat.
"'We're sure,' affirmed my father. 'For you see It can't be the one on the right,' he said as he reached down with his other hand
and lifted the thimble. 'Nothing there'. 'And' he continued, 'It can't be the left one because there's nothing on the left side
either,' he said as he lifted up a second empty thimble. 'So it has to be the one in the middle. To the bar! Thimblerig is buying!'
shouted my father. A third roar louder than the first two combined went up and a torrent of humanity rushed forward and swept through the hanging bar
room doors sucking everyone belly up to the bar. Everyone except Mr. Thimblerig, my father and me that is."
"'My son and I don't drink,' said my father, 'but my boy here would appreciate a few pennies for some candy.'"
"Now Mr. Thimblerig didn't deal in pennies only big denomination coins. He dug into his fancy vest pocket and tossed me a silver dollar."
"'Golly mister. Thank you, thank you very much.'"
"'You're very welcome', he said through gritted teeth. 'Now run along and enjoy yourself son, your father and I are going to, how
do you all say it, palaver some, have a friendly conversation. He'll catch up with you later.'"
"My father nodded his approval and off I ran with my new fortune to treat my friends to a round of candy."
"Now my father didn't tell me about the conversation between him and Mr. Thimblerig that happened next for some years, not until I was
a young man of about sixteen, but it went something like this:"
"'I don't take kindly to getting slickered by someone like you, senor,' he said, with the emphasis on senor.'"
"'But you do take kindly to slicker others don't you, sir,' retorted my father with the emphasis on sir.
"'You just cost me a lot of money.'"
"'Well the way I figure it Thimblerig, I could have cost you a whole lot more,' smiled my father as he lifted up the empty middle thimble.
'You got off cheap.' My father turned his back on Mr. Thimblerig and walked away."
"When my father found me I was pigged out on penny candy and had a high sugar buzz. I ran up to him jumping up and down shouting, 'I won.
I won. I won.' But my father never responded."
"'I won didn't I?, I won?' I asked for the umpteenth time? 'Didn't I? Didn't I? The pea was under the thimble wasn't it?'"
"My father didn't have the heart to tell me what really happened. He meekly said, 'Yes you won son.'"
"'Good. Hurrah! Let's play again,' I screamed. 'Can I? Can I please?' I kept dinging and dinging over and over to play again. So much
so I could tell it was driving my father crazy which was my plan."
"Finally he had had enough. 'Alright! Enough already!'' he shouted, 'I will go talk to Mr.Thimblerig and see if he's willing to play
again. You happy now? You wait here. I'll be right back.'"
"Now once again I did not know until years later what transpired between my father and Mr. Thimblerig when my father told me that
this is what happened."
"Mr. Thimblerig was folding up his table, taking down his sign, and closing up shop when
my father approached him. He'd paid for the drinks and now just wanted to get out of town before his whole house of cards collapsed."
"'Kid wants another game doesn't he? Wants to make sure he won doesn't he?, spoke up Thimblerig before my father could say a word.
'And you're feeling guilty as a father and you can't tell him no or tell him what really happened and you've come crawling back
begging for a rigged game so that your son can lift the thimble and expose the pea and see that he actually won. As we say in the
business, that's about it in a nutshell isn't it?'"
"My father was stunned and all he could mutter was, 'God Damn Thimblerig.'"
"'You want a deal. I want my money back. What's your proposal?'"
"'How much you out for the drinks', asked my father.
"'About twenty dollars.'"
"'That include the candy money?'"
"'Yes it includes the goddamn candy money!'"
"'Here's a twenty dollar gold piece,' said my father handing it to Thimblerig. 'The bet between us
will be for twenty dollars. Fix it so the middle one has the pea. I'll get me boy to chose that one again. Let him lift the thimble,
see the pea and win. Then give him the twenty dollar gold piece. That way I'm out twenty bucks, you're out twenty bucks and were even.'"
"'And your son is twenty dollars to the good. Pretty generous Dad,' smiled Thimblerig."
"'And I'm throwing in for free keeping my mouth shut so don't even think about lighting out for the Territory because you'd never make
it before the lynch mob gets you,' warned my father. 'Now its just me, you and my son, a private gentleman's game. Where we going to do it?'"
"'See that Baptist Church yonder over there. No one would think of looking for us there. See ya
in half an hour.'"
"My father then found me and said, 'Mr. Thimblerig wants to play again. Wants to recoup some of his money. I've made all the
arrangements for a rematch just between you and him. Look son I know how this works, I know how to follow his hands, as I said
I've seen it before.' But my father had no secret knowledge. He was lying. But he had a plan so he continued."
"'Here's what will do. You will choose as before only I will be behind you this time. If I stand to the right of you, chose the
right one, if to the left, chose the left one, if directly behind you, the middle one. OK?' I nodded my head in agreement."
"Half an hour later we were standing in front of the Baptist Church. 'But father we're Catholic . Why are we here?'"
"'Trust me son the Lord will be with us here too,' and he took me by the hand through the arched stained glass doorway into the
house of worship. There in the front was Mr. Thimblerig placing his thimbles on a table in front of the altar before a huge cross
with Jesus on it nailed to the church wall."
"'We'll skip all the hoopla and get right to it,' he barked. 'What's the bet?'"
"'Twenty dollars!' responded my father. I was taken aback by such a large amount but I kept my mouth shut and kept a poker face.
Mr. Thimblerig placed the pea under a thimble and furiously shuffled both his hands across the table faster than lightning can cut
the sky, all the while constantly arranging and rearranging the thimbles. Then suddenly he stopped, backed away from the table,
graciously bowed before me, waved his arm with hand extended palm upward and said, 'Please make your selection my fine young fellow.'"
"Now I remembered what my father had said and he was standing right behind me. I knew I was to chose the one in the middle but something
told me that wasn't the one. I had a strong feeling, a gambler's instinct it was, since I now deemed myself a gambler, that it was the
one on the right. I had to win this on my own. 'The one on my right, your left,' I said pointing to it but not picking it up."
"My father whirled me around, glared at me and put both his hands on the side of his head. He was too flummoxed to get any words out.
I thought he was going to have a conniption fit right then and there and pull out his hair.
"'I'm sure it's this one. I just know it,' I proudly proclaimed."
"Before my father could speak, Mr. Thimblerig rolled his eyes, shrugged his shoulders and said, 'OK kid if that's your choice.'
And before anyone could stop him he lifted my chosen thimble."
"There it was, the pea. ' Here you go kid,' said Mr. Thimblerig flipping me a twenty dollar gold piece, 'Don't spend it all in one place.'"
"'Gracias senor, gracias'"
"'Es de nada el kiddo.'"
"'Don't spend it on any more candy. You hear me!' warned my father. 'Now run along.'"
"My father had one last private conversation with Mr. Thimblerig without me present. It went like
"After I left my father crossed himself and mumbled, 'Madre de Dios.' But Mr. Thimblerig jumped up, waved his hands and arms in the air,
looked heavenward and shouted, 'Praise the Lord. Amen and Hallelujah Brother.'"
"'I guess my boy got lucky. The Lord was looking out for him,' my father said meekly."
"'Like Hell He was,' roared Thimblerig. 'The Good Lord looks out for those who look out for themselves. Verse something, chapter
something, right here in this Good Book somewhere,' he said while thumping on a Bible. Then he lifted up the other two thimbles,
peas under both of them. 'Didn't think I was gonna let the kid lose did ya?' he grinned sheepishly flipping the twenty dollar gold
piece back to my father. 'My treat,'"
"'God Damn Thimblerig,' again was all my flabbergasted father could spit out."
"My father told me the whole truth years later when I was about sixteen and had my first pocketful of wages. We were in town and a
different thimblerig was setting up shop. Before I could get over to him to try my luck, my father took me aside and revealed all
that transpired between him and Mr. Thimblerig."
"Oh Mr. Thimblerig thought that he had played a neat little trick on the cute little Mexican kid alright. But it was I, I who walked
away with the twenty dollar gold piece."