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The ongoing Saga of the Toenail Ridge Shortline

Uploaded June 10,1998

New Jersey Jack

George Baker Lancelot was born and raised in Atlantic City, New Jersey. From an early age he showed great promise, teaching himself to read by the age of three, mastering the skills of writing by five and being cautioned by the local constable at age seven for buying candy and toys with counterfeit checks. He completed high school and attended Atlantic City Polytechnik where he qualified as a high school teacher. Subsequently, George gained employment in his field at Plainfield High School, just out of Newark.

His area of expertise lay in the graphic arts, painting, illustration, penmanship. George had a fine eye for detail and a steady hand and would regularly turn out little masterpieces of art for school fairs, academic prizes and birthday gifts. He was also able to turn his hand to fine sculpturing, using his dextrous fingers to produce lifelike models of objects around him.

Those same dextrous fingers were employed in his hobby, card tricks.

The man was so proficient at making cards appear and vanish into the most unlikely places that he was even called on occasionally to perform at social functions. He was immensely popular with his pupils, particularly those of the fair sex, and would flirt shamelessly with them both in class and after school.

Herein lay the path to Lancelot's downfall.

He was a young man of 22, cast into a position of authority and maturity over students who were only four and five years his juniors. It is one thing to be Mr. Lancelot, Sir in a class of twenty students.

It is a whole different situation when on picnics and social functions one is thrown into close proximity with those self-same students on a one-to-one basis, in the same age group, with similar interests in dancing and fun-fairs and trips to the Boardwalk in Atlantic city.

Well, the inevitable had to happen, (that's what inevitable means) and George found himself in the awkward position of having to grade papers from Monday to Friday of a young woman whom on Saturday he was seeing a great deal. A very great deal, as he had, among other things, persuaded her to pose for him while he painted her portrait.

Considerably under-clad.

And then they were found out.

Now in the early part of this century a scandal such as this could travel like wildfire from one end of a small community to the other and back again faster than a new groom could turn off the light.

And it did.

And when it reached certain female ears, it brought forth further tales of similar activities with other young ladies.
Each unknown to all the others.

George apparently was a man of great charm and persuasive ability, and going on the number of young ladies who developed attacks of the vapors on hearing the gossip, apparently also great stamina.

Now this was in a time where the father was the undisputed head of the house and it was his duty to support his family and to right all wrongs perpetuated against it. Not the way we do these days, in courts. Rather by physical intervention.

In a country where not only do the citizens have the right to bear arms, but are damn fools if they don't, a man finding himself in the invidious position of being accused of a crime and knowing that not only will his protestations of innocence not be heeded, they are also wrong, does himself a great favor by removing his person from the immediate surrounds. In other words, when six irate fathers come knocking at your door to discuss matters with you, all of them armed with products from the Smith & Wesson factory in Massachusetts, the best way to greet them is from the next county.

So that is what George Baker Lancelot did.

He packed his carpet-bag, he pocketed his special deck of cards and he left through the back door with considerable alacrity.

Lancelot's travels took him rapidly away from New Jersey into Ohio.

He thought of re-establishing himself there as an artist, but heard that the Plainfield fathers had each contributed to the employment of a Pinkerton man who's charge was to return George dead or alive, and dead travelled cheaper because the coffin went at baggage rates.

The era of the steam boats was coming to an end on the Great Rivers, mostly due to the irrepressable onslaught of the railroads as they took away freight and passenger services from alternative methods.
But the occasional old stern-wheeler still plied its trade from Cinncinatti down the Ohio River and by stages, a passenger could still make his way to New Orleans at the delta end of the Mississippi, or travel north to the frigid waters of Minnesota.
And because Federal regulations hadn't caught up with them, the river-boats still were the mecca for the man wanting to support the professional gambler in the manner to which he had become accustomed.

A gambler earns his living by playing the odds using a deck of cards.
If the game is honest, the skill lies in knowing when to hold them, when to fold them, when to run.
And with that skill comes success. Of course, in the hands of a very skilled card magician, a deck can do whatever he decides it should, regardless of the odds.
A man practiced in the art of sleight-of-hand using 52 pieces of pasteboard can, with little effort, make every hand a winner, every hand a loser.
In a living-room, this is called entertainment.
On a riverboat, at a table with professional pokerfaces, this is called sure suicide.
But until you get caught, it is a licence to print money, and so that is exactly what Lancelot proceeded to do.

No longer as George Baker Lancelot, though.

Scared by the Pinkerton pursuit, George had quickly changed his name to Jack Lazyacre, calling himself after the name of a property owned by a former professor of his from the Polytechnik.

Anyone who depends on the arrival of fresh wallets to empty is welcoming of a new face at the table, and Jack had space made for him with courtesy and civility.
Which continued all the way through the first few hours as poker chips criss-crossed the table in an even ebb and flow.
Then the flow seemed to outweigh the ebb a little.
Especially when it was Jack's turn with the deal.

Poker can produce strange hands, times when a pair of twos can win thousands, times when four kings isn't good enough.
And that is accepted and understood by every poker player.
But not sixteen hands straight.

It takes either a brave or a foolish man to be so blatant in the presence of professionals, and no-one would believe that the perpetrator could walk away unscathed.
Or at least unchallenged.

But life had changed in one way on the boats since the old days after the end of the Civil War. Gambling debts had been ruled by the Supreme Court not to be binding on Federal Territory, and while underway, a riverboat in the middle of a river was on Federal Territory.

So a man caught cheating could laugh in the face of his accuser and walk away from the table. This of course didn't mean that he was off scot-free.

It just meant that he could walk away from the table.

He then was faced with the distinct possibility of middle-of-the-night callers, around-the-next bulkhead lurkers, through the next doorway knife-wielders, or once again transporters of Messrs. Smith & Wessons merchandise, requesting immediate redemption of funds.

Jack was not a stupid man.

As has been seen, he was highly intelligent as a child, well-educated in his youth and young manhood, had had experiences the envy of story-tellers, and had done his homework.

In his carpetbag Jack had packed certain items prepared in his cabin before he had entered the gambling saloon on the stern-wheeler. He had a long wig.
He had a false beard.
He had a black cassock.
He had a stiff white collar.
He had a black shirt.
He had a Bible.

He left the gambling saloon on the second deck of the Mississippi riverboat, the Proud Myrtle, pausing to light a cheroot in the doorway. He turned to the right, heading for his cabin.
As soon as he was out of sight he climbed the rail and dropped to the lower deck. Opening a cabin door he slipped inside where he had previously stashed his bag. The curtains were drawn, the light was out.

Jack had rehearsed this a number of times in Ohio, so with no delay, he donned the black shirt, cassock, wig, beard. He attached the stiff collar backwards, he grasped his bible and exited the room, dropping the now empty carpetbag over the railing to be churned into the muddy water by the paddle-wheel.

At midnight, the Proud Myrtle docked at Rock Island in Illinois, the site of the first railway bridge over the mighty river. Lazyzcre was on the dock via the engine room deck before the bow and stern ropes were tied. In his black cassock he was invisible in the gloom of the night, and into that gloom he disappeared, un-noticed although sorely missed by his former playing partners who at that moment were standing with hands under coats waiting at the gangplank for the appearance of their sporting companion.

Lazyacre spent the night in a little hotel on the Moline road and in the morning crossed the river to Davenport in Iowa. Here he temporarily established himself in a boarding house, charming the landlady and his fellow residents with his wit and humor and above all, his gentle piety.

So impressed were some of these aquaintances that before long Jack was asked to baptize the infant nephew of the landlady's sister. He accompanied the family down to Credit Island, just downstream, and in the backwater he called on the Lord to bless the child.

Now it doesn't matter if an un-ordained person baptizes a child, they are still baptized.

Not so with a wedding.

While resident in Davenport, Jack performed a number of weddings, producing legitimate looking licences and registration forms for signature.

His favorite venue was on the river levee, where he would exhort the newly-wed couple to labor in the Lord and be fruitful and multiply. Then he would pocket his fee and repair to his room to print off more licences and registration forms.

(To this day, Davenport is suspected of having one of the biggest collections of progeny of unlawful couplings that is to be found in the continental United States.)

Jack Lazyacre spent a pleasant and financially beneficial summer in Iowa and then, using the technique at which he had become expert, disappeared without trace.

The overweight, cleanshaven and spectacled businessman who boarded the train heading west from the Davenport station above 6th St at Main drew not a glance from the local people gathered on the platform, and Reverend Lazyacre was gone from their lives.

The story of New Jersey Jack Lazyacre continues in

The Next Chapter!

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