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
Murmurs spreading through the room told the old man he was
not welcome. Harold already knew that, and he didn't give a damn.
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.
Reardon, irritated by being summoned in such a manner, reluctantly
me a drink,” ordered Harold S. Ledbetter.
manager’s face reddened with anger, but he graciously held his tongue.
erect and motioned for the bartender to bring the old man his drink.
of the house, Sir. Welcome back.”
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.
musty, unpleasant odor which often accompanies the elderly, gained him
room as members sought seating elsewhere.
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
ripping coughs erupted from his throat—consumption killing him. He
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.
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
usual, his tendency to think aloud and belittle those around him
was loathsome, but he did not concern himself with what others
there to watch Sam play cards. He’d been
doing that a lot since being granted membership in the Club. Sam too,
watched the old man’s card games.
is fair, he
now confident he understood the other, longed to challenge him from
poker table—both thinking they had something to prove.
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
him their money, he longed for a confrontation with a formidable enemy.
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
with obnoxious, loudmouthed people.
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
tonight would be the night Ledbetter would challenge him.
watched with amusement as the man toyed with his drink. Although the
his drinks at first, he would start drinking heavier and heavier as the
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,
less he did.
was he surprised when the elderly man became angry at not being able to
into the game. Sam could tell he thought
it a sign of disrespect for his age or a lack of proper respect for who
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
holdings, he was worth more than all the hicks in the room put together.
Sam, he had money to play with and money to lose. How often he thought
irony of being so damned wealthy and now about ready to die.
he was a
winner, everybody else losers—losers, all of them.
you, Sam Biggs,” he mumbled, not caring who heard him.
watched the old man’s rheumy eyes. They held contempt for everybody in
room. But it seemed he particularly did
not like Sam. Sam thought that was fair,
also; he did not particularly like the old man.
watched as the man’s superior attitude grew along with his drinking.
was tired, but he had to play all challengers—all comers—an unspoken
the Club. His current opponent, a young
man, drunk or unskilled in the game of poker, perhaps both, seemed
to keep losing his money to Sam. The
game could not last much longer; not with the man’s glass nearly
his money nearly gone.
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
in this Club.
out the last game and fold up shop; that’s all Sam wanted, but
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.
Sam knew he
would stay; drunk and tired. It wasn’t
about the money. He understood the man was determined to give him a
thrashing, thereby proving himself superior.
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
the required amount of money in the Club’s guaranty account. As simple as that—no deposit—no game.
of the members, not all, were of the elite of Petersburg’s society; lawyers,
plantation owners, and businessmen from varying walks of life.
me at that cocky little son of a bitch,” the old man muttered and
yet another fit of coughing. The elderly
man was tiring. He looked tired—dying tired, even.
eyes were on the two players. Tension
mounted. Ledbetter was not about to
leave the room. The other members crowded the table, awaiting the
war. Sam Biggs had the cards; he had the
game. What he wanted—what he needed, was
Sam’s victim was about to fold, the man pushed forward, positioning
be the next in line for the chair soon to be vacated.
hold card, a six of diamonds, and covered the three spread upon the
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
lose if they did. A small matter—these men could make up lost money in
young and unskilled opponent jumped to his feet, his face contorted
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.
who coughed occasionally into a soiled white handkerchief—an
who cast contemptuous eyes at Sam and the men standing around him—a man
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
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.