Wild Pony Publishing
www.wildponypublishing.com



Chapter One

         

            The massive door to the Excelsior's Gentlemen's Club suddenly swung open.  Through the doorway, walked an aged, gray haired man, dressed in a white summer suit.  Behind him, the gaming parlor's security guard stared nervously past the man blocking the doorway, distress shadowing his face as he attempted to apologize to Mr. Reardon, the Club's treasurer and the night's acting manager, for the man's intrusion.

          "Speak of the devil," said Jake.  Tapping Sam's shoulder, he pointed toward the door, "That old son of a bitch ain't dead, after all.  Look."  Sam Biggs turned as a gray haired gentleman entered the room.  All eyes in the room followed the man while he searched for and found a seat not far from the table where Sam sat playing cards.  It was a pattern he'd followed religiously month after month, but Harold S. Ledbetter had not been present at the last two month's poker games.
           And they had been a pleasant two months for the Club's members.
           Murmurs spreading through the room told the old man he was not welcome.  Harold already knew that, and he didn't give a damn.
           Finding his seat, he raised his arm and snapped his fingers at the  night manager.  With two extended fingers, he wiggled them with a come here motion.
           Mr. Reardon, irritated by being summoned in such a manner, reluctantly approached the man.
           “Get me a drink,” ordered Harold S. Ledbetter.
          The manager’s face reddened with anger, but he graciously held his tongue. He stood erect and motioned for the bartender to bring the old man his drink.
           “Compliments of the house, Sir. Welcome back.”

       Tonight, Harold Ledbetter seemed slowed as if by sickness or the burden of age.  Usually immaculate in appearance and personal hygiene, his gray hair was unkempt, his face pale.  He needed a two day’s growth of stubble removed from his flabby cheeks and hanging jowls.  In sharp contrast, he wore a perfectly cleaned and pressed white summer suit.  A monogrammed handkerchief, trimmed in red, stuck from his jacket pocket.
            The musty, unpleasant odor which often accompanies the elderly, gained him extra room as members sought seating elsewhere.
            He sat watching Sam.
           "Thinks he's that good, does he?  Wait till I get through with the arrogant bastard,” the old man muttered.  If anyone overheard and cast a look of disdain at him, Harold S. Ledbetter would either ignore it or sneer at them.
         Suddenly, lung ripping coughs erupted from his throat—consumption killing him. He removed his handkerchief and wiped at his mouth.  Pulling it away, he spread it open just enough to see what he already expected—yellowish phlegm, turning pink with blood.
         “Goddamn it,” he mumbled and stuffed the handkerchief back into his pocket.  Yet he continued to watch the game from his vantage near Sam’s table.  Every move Sam made was stored away in the old man’s mind.  Slowly, he eased himself up to the edge of the crowd beginning to gather around the table.  He was becoming restless and agitated and he intended to be next in line to challenge Sam Biggs.
           As usual, his tendency to think aloud and belittle those around him confirmed he was loathsome, but he did not concern himself with what others thought—he was there to watch Sam play cards.  He’d been doing that a lot since being granted membership in the Club. Sam too, had watched the old man’s card games.
           Fair is fair, he thought.
          Each now confident he understood the other, longed to challenge him from across a poker table—both thinking they had something to prove.
          Sam thought the man skillful and hoped he would prove to be a worthy challenger.  After years of playing hand after hand of poker with men who barely understood the game; men who seemed anxious to give him their money, he longed for a confrontation with a formidable enemy.
           He knew the man was ill-tempered, often rude to the other members of the Club, but such personality faults were of little concern to him. He’d spent his entire life with obnoxious, loudmouthed people.
         He liked the fact Harold Ledbetter was extremely wealthy and confident in himself.  Both were good traits to possess, but each could lead to foolish mistakes and Sam would use those mistakes against him.
           His gut hinted tonight would be the night Ledbetter would challenge him.
          Sam watched with amusement as the man toyed with his drink. Although the man nursed his drinks at first, he would start drinking heavier and heavier as the game wore on.  When he did, the old man’s demeanor would change—it always did.  Sam knew that, also. Few of his opponents ever noticed the more they drank, the less he did.
          Nor was he surprised when the elderly man became angry at not being able to buy into the game.  Sam could tell he thought it a sign of disrespect for his age or a lack of proper respect for who he was.  On his face, a smirk of superiority implied . . . Am I not one of the wealthiest plantation owners in all of North Carolina?  Not to even mention land holdings considered too large to farm successfully? He laughed at the fact that with all his holdings, he was worth more than all the hicks in the room put together.
           Like Sam, he had money to play with and money to lose. How often he thought of the irony of being so damned wealthy and now about ready to die.
            Still, he was a winner, everybody else losers—losers, all of them.
            “Especially you, Sam Biggs,” he mumbled, not caring who heard him.
           Sam watched the old man’s rheumy eyes. They held contempt for everybody in the room.  But it seemed he particularly did not like Sam.  Sam thought that was fair, also; he did not particularly like the old man.
             He watched as the man’s superior attitude grew along with his drinking.
           Sam was tired, but he had to play all challengers—all comers—an unspoken rule of the Club.  His current opponent, a young man, drunk or unskilled in the game of poker, perhaps both, seemed determined to keep losing his money to Sam.  The game could not last much longer; not with the man’s glass nearly emptied and his money nearly gone.
           Soon the hoped for last hand of the game was on the table.  Sam had worked the table down to himself and the young challenger.  Almost two thousand dollars lay in front of the two men.  An enormous amount of money, but such large hands were not uncommon; not in this Club.
           Play out the last game and fold up shop; that’s all Sam wanted, but Ledbetter was determined to get to the table.  Sam hoped the elderly man would become too drunk to stay or too tired to wait for a seat and leave.
           But Sam knew he would stay; drunk and tired.  It wasn’t about the money. He understood the man was determined to give him a good thrashing, thereby proving himself superior.

         The poker games had been held monthly at the Excelsior for over a decade.  It was an exclusive, members only Club, located on the uppermost floor and the players watched over by hired security.  No one could enter the room without a sponsor.  But being granted entry as a guest did not necessarily allow you to sit in on a game.  No one could sit at a table unless he had deposited the required amount of money in the Club’s guaranty account.  As simple as that—no deposit—no game.
        Most of the members, not all, were of the elite of Petersburg’s society; lawyers, prosperous plantation owners, and businessmen from varying walks of life.

         “Let me at that cocky little son of a bitch,” the old man muttered and gagged from yet another fit of coughing.  The elderly man was tiring. He looked tired—dying tired, even.
          All eyes were on the two players.  Tension mounted.  Ledbetter was not about to leave the room. The other members crowded the table, awaiting the inevitable war.  Sam Biggs had the cards; he had the game.  What he wanted—what he needed, was rest.
         Seeing Sam’s victim was about to fold, the man pushed forward, positioning himself to be the next in line for the chair soon to be vacated.
         Sam flipped his hold card, a six of diamonds, and covered the three spread upon the table before him.  The room gasped, but quickly quieted.  All men of honor. Membership rules.  No cheering for one player or jeering of another allowed. Men with enough wealth to play if they chose and lose if they did. A small matter—these men could make up lost money in their sleep.
      The young and unskilled opponent jumped to his feet, his face contorted with anger, ready to accuse Sam of cheating or trickery—needing to save face.  He wisely withheld his accusations, and throwing his chair in frustration, he stormed from the room.

        An elderly man who coughed occasionally into a soiled white handkerchief—an intoxicated man who cast contemptuous eyes at Sam and the men standing around him—a man that had a dying look about him, pulled up the vacated chair and sat down.
       Arrogantly, he threw a large bundle of money on the table.  Sam stared at Harold Ledbetter, and smiled at the feeble attempt to intimidate him.
        Seven hours later Samuel Elwyn Biggs' last opponent ever, rose from his chair and asked for the Club treasurer.  Harold Ledbetter had a debt to pay, a huge debt.                      

  
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