There comes to mind a tale about a man. The year was 1870. The man's name was Ned Benedict. His reputation was not the type that a God fearing, respectable citizen would want. His was one of deceit and bloodshed, the latter, in his case, being the more the better. He was a gambler by profession, a gunfighter by necessity.
He had in his days won and lost a fortune in money and property, and had put to rest an unknown number of men who had wronged him. His reputation followed him everywhere, but he always managed to stay far enough ahead of it, until he came to an all-but-dead town named Dry Cliff.
Riding atop a horse he won in a bloody poker game, he rode into Dry Cliff at noon on a hot summer day. He pulled his hat down to shield his eyes from the sun, or perhaps to shield his identity from those he passed that were staring up at him. Most people hadn't seen anyone new in the town in years.
He dismounted and tied his horse up outside the town's only saloon. As he stepped onto the boardwalk the sound of his spurs raced away, swept along by a breeze that carried with it dust and tumbleweed. He looked down the street in both directions. There wasn't a soul to be seen. Odd how everyone had vanished, he thought. He brushed a light coating of dust from his all black clothes then reached for the swinging gate entrance to the saloon..
He entered the saloon. The place suddenly went deathly still. He was used to it, happened everywhere he went. No one shed so much as a whisper as the man in black walked up to the bar.
"Give me a whiskey, barkeep," Benedict said as he reached the bar.
"We haven't got any whiskey," replied the barkeeper. "We do have beer though."
Benedict looked around the room at the two dozen or so men seated at various tables. They were all drinking beer. "I've never been in a saloon that didn't have any whiskey," he said a he returned his attention to the barkeeper. "Why is it you don't have any?"
"Because the boss say's so," the barkeep answered nervously.
"What's in the bottle on the shelf behind you?" Benedict asked, looking past the barkeeper.
The barkeeper coughed as if clearing his throat. "Whiskey," he said, barely audible. "But it belongs to Mister Blackwell."
"Give me the bottle," Benedict ordered.
"I can't do that. Mister Blackwell would fire me if I did."
Benedict's eyes twitched a split second before he grabbed the barkeeper and dragged him halfway over the bar. "And I might kill you if you don't," he threatened.
"Alright, take it easy," pleaded the barkeeper. He slid off the bar as Benedict released him. "Here's the bottle, take it."
"That's more like it," Benedict said. He poured himself a drink, but before he had a chance to drink it he felt a hand upon his shoulder.
"That's my bottle," said a man behind Benedict.
The hand pulled Benedict around, and as Benedict turned he brought the barrel of his six-shooter up against the stranger's belly. As the sound of a half dozen six-shooters being cocked was heard, Benedict looked into the burning eyes of Mister Blackwell.
"Tell them to drop their guns or I'll blow a hole through you big enough to pass that bottle," Benedict said.
Blackwell looked at his men and nodded. Without delay they dropped their weapons.
"Who are you, and what makes you think you can come into my town and carry on as you are?" Blackwell asked.
Benedict pressed the gun barrel harder against Blackwell's belly. "This tells me I can do anything I want, and the name's Benedict, Ned Benedict."
One of Blackwell's men stepped up and whispered something to Blackwell. Blackwell's eyes rolled until they were looking first at the man and then back at Benedict.
"I understand you have quite a reputation, both with a gun and a deck of cards, Mister Benedict," Blackwell said.
Benedict drank the shot of whiskey he'd poured , then handed the bottle to Blackwell. "I'll be leaving now," he said and holstered his six-shooter.
"And a price on your head as well," Blackwell said. His men quicly gathered up their weapons and trained them at Benedict.
"And you must also know that I could take out you and at least two of your men before they cut me down, even though my gun is holstered," Benedict said.
"I'm sure of that," Blackwell said. "Put them away," he said. His men holstered their guns. "I'm not interested in dying on such a nice day, Mister Benedict. As I'm sure you're not either. I have no sympathy for anyone that you have confronted. I'm sure it was business on your part. As for now, why leave so soon?"
Blackwell grinned. He dared to place a hand upon Benedict's shoulder a second time as he turned the gunfighter around as to face the bar. "Give Mister Benedict another shot," he directed. He leaned on the bar and faced Benedict. "Well, I'm sort of a gambler myself, and I haven't been up against a good challenge for some time now. All the men in here, in this town for that matter, haven't got one amongst them that offers even a slight challenge against my poker skills. I don't let the barkeep serve anything other than beer. That bottle of whiskey is incentive. It's the only bottle in at least twenty miles in all directions. I saw to that."
"Incentive for what?" Benedict asked.
"For someone to beat me at poker," Blackwell said with a broad smile. "But alas, no one can. If anyone does, they get the bottle."
"So you want to play poker with me?" questioned Benedict.
""I was thinking we could sit down to a friendly game of poker, yes," Blackwell replied.
"There's no such thing as a friendly game of poker."
"Perhaps for you there hasn't been, but I'm proposing such a game to you now," Blackwell said. "An honest game, no guns, and a neutral dealer."
"And the limits?"
"Draw poker. A hundred dollars to open, two hundred dollars limit each bet. Of course if that's to high for you we can lower the limit."
"How about no limit at all?"
"Fine with me."
The two men sat at a table in the center of the saloon. Everyone else in the building stood around them. Soon as word spread through the town, everyone in the town was looking on, some standing on the boardwalk looking in through windows.
From a pocket Benedict removed a roll of money large enough to choke a horse. He placed it on the table in front of him. It's appearance was met by a glare in Blackwell's eyes. He smiled and shook his head slightly before producing his own sizeable amount of neat, almost new bills from his wallet and placing them on the table before him.
"We'll each shuffle the cards and then the dealer will deal them, if that's alright with you, Mister Benedict?"
Blackwell shuffled the cards first, and it became immediately apparent to Benedict that he was up against someone who knew cards as well as he. Blackwell's hands worked the cards with grace and style, the way someone with a great deal of experience could only have done. When he was through he handed the cards to Benedict.
"Not to shabby," Benedict said. "Where'd you learn to handle cards like that?"
"Working on a riverboat," Blackwell answered. "I was a young deckhand. A dealer taught me in his spare time."
Now it was Benedict's turn to impress his foe. Through the years he'd learned several card shuffling tricks, and he wasn't about to hold anything back now. His hands brought the cards virtually to life as he did things that even Blackwell had never seen before.
"Excellent. Superb," Blackwell said, obviously delighted. "I truly have found a worthy opponent."
Two miles from Dry Cliff Marshal Damien Boedel rode alone toward the small town. He stopped and checked a wound to one of his shoulders, a wound given to him by Benedict. He wiped persperation from his face and then took his hat off. After taking a swallow from his canteen he poured the remainder of the canteen's contents over his head.
"It won't be long now, Benedict," he said to himself and continued on his way.
The first two hands went by quickly, for Blackwell that is. As for Benedict, they dragged by, costing him nearly a thousand dollars. Even so, there remained an aura of equanimity about him. He looked at Blackwell with cold eyes, as if to say, "You've had your fun, now it's my turn."
"You seem to have run into a bit of bad luck, Mister Benedict," Blackwell said. "Perhaps I've given you more credit than due."
"Does it bother you?"
Blackwell chuckled and took out two large cigars from a pocket. "Not in the least. Would you care for a cigar?"
"It seems to me that at the rate you're losing, we may not play ten hands," Blackwell said while striking up a match and lighting his cigar. He offered the match to Benedict.
"We only played two hands."
The next three hands changed Blackwell's opinion of Benedict's poker skill. All three hands were easily won by Benedict. The stakes had risen greatly. Blackwell had suddenly lost twenty three thousand dollars.
Through deep, dark eyes Benedict looked at Blackwell. It was as if the devil himself were looking at Blackwell. "You seem to have lost your touch," Benedict said.
Blackwell was puffing away on his cigar, the smoke rising above his head. He stripped off his suit jacket and rolled up his shirt sleeves. "If it's a challenge you seek, Mister Benedict, then it shall indeed be a contest that you get."
Benedict shuffled the cards and handed them back to the dealer who in turn presented them to Blackwell.
"Deal the damn cards," Blackwell scoffed as he waived off the shuffle.
"I detect a bit of unreast," Benedict prodded.
"Not in the least," Blackwell said. "I've been up against players who were twice the player you are, and I've beaten them all. I'm not about to let the likes of you beat me."
Benedict picked up his first card and looked at it. Instead of holding it in his hand and keeping its identity a mystery to Blackwell, he placed it on the table so Blackwell could see what it was. It was an ace. He did the same with the second card. It too was an ace. Blackwell remained outwardly poised, but Benedict looked straight into Blackwell's eyes and could detect a feeling of uneasiness.
Benedict's third card was a three. Blackwell smiled ever so slightly, somewhat relieved no doubt. He continued to collect his cards and keep them out of Benedict's sight. The fourth card was dealt. Benedict laid down a queen. Blackwell's smirk faded. The fifth card Benedict kept in his hand.
"Do you want to open, Mister Benedict?" the dealer asked.
"Five thousand dollars," Benedict said.
"That's a lot of money just to open with," Blackwell said. "Your two aces don't scare me. I'll see your five thousand, and raise it by two more thousand."
Benedict glanced at the card in his hand. "Call," he said. He placed two thousand more dollars into the table's center.
"I'll take three cards," Blackwell said.
"Do you want any cards, Mister Benedict?' the dealer asked.
"I'm fine as is," replied Benedict. He looked at Blackwell. "I'll bet five thousand dollars."
"The odds are against your having three aces," Blackwell said. "You might have aces over old ladies. But even that's a long shot at best. I could beat that. Five thousand dollars, ay. Handsome pot., fourteen thousand dollars. Enough to make your mouth water. I'm a gambler, Mister Benedict. The odds would be in my favor, but there's plenty of time to get that money back.." He threw down his cards. "The pot's yours."
Benedict placed his card on the dealers stack. Blackwell reached for it but was stopped by Benedict's firm grip around his wrist.
"Let it be," Benedict suggested.
"You bluffed me," Blackwell said. He smiled. "Son-of-a-bitch , you actually bluffed me. Interesting. Very interesting. Two can play at that game."
The dealer took the cards and handed them to Blackwell who commenced to shuffle them.
"Before we begin, I'd like to propose something different," Benedict said.
"Such as?" Blackwell asked.
"We play no more than eleven hands. The first one to win six hands wins the pot. We place the money in the pot before we begin and there isn't any betting, straight card playing. We make the pot sweet."
"Fifteen thousand each of us. Winner take all. Loser doesn't get a shot at getting it back."
"What are you up to, Mister Benedict?"
"Nothing. I need to be on my way is all."
"The law's on your tail."
"You could say that."
"Okay, but let's just add something else to the pot."
"I win, I get the reward for turning you in."
"You never intended to let me leave this town," Benedict said. He stood quickly with his hand touching the grips of his six-shooter.
"Sit dow, Mister Benedict," Blackwell said. "I have every intention of letting you ride on out of here, so long as you win your freedom. Like I said, I win, I get the pot and the reward. You win, you get the pot, a free pass out of town and an hour head start before my men start out after you, and, because I'm a sport, you get the bottle of whiskey. Is it a deal?"
"If I say no?"
"Then we just lock you up now and wait for the law to get here."
Benedict sat. "Agreed."
"Good," Blackwell said. He glanced at the dealer. "Shuffle and deall the cards."
Blackwell won the first three hands. He sat with a smirk on his face. "Feel your freedon slipping away?" he said.
"No, not really."
It was now Benedict's turn to win, winning the next five hands in a row.
"Hurry up, deal the damn cards," Blackwell shouted at the dealler.
"A bit tense, aren't you?" Benedict said.
"I wouldn't give you that satisfaction."
They each recieved their next five cards. Blackwell looked at them for a second, glanced up at Benedict, then threw down three cards. He promptly recieved three new cards.
Benedict was about to speak when he felt the cold steel of a six-shooter barrel pressed against his neck.
"It took you long enough to catch up with me, Marshal," Benedict said, knowing full well who was standing behind him. Also, the panicked look upon Blackwell's face was a clear indicator.
"You're coming with me, Benedict," Marshal Boedel said. "Try anything and I'll put a bullet through you and make it more permanent than the one you gave me."
"Now hold on, can't you see we're in the middle of a card game," Blackwell said.
"I couldn't care less," Boedel said.
"Well, he can't leave until the game is over," Blackwell said. He nodded at his men who in turn drew thier six-shooters and pointed them at Boedel.
"I'll make you regret this," Boedel warned.
"Marshal, listen to me," Benedict said. "Forget them. You're a gambler. God knows as bloody one as I am. You know what it's like to play against a good, no, a great player. It's a challenge. Sometimes, it's the differnce between life and death. I know you wouldn't walk away from a game if your life depended on it." He looked directly into Blackwell's eyes. "Well my life depends on it now."
"We'll finish the game," Blackwell said. "Put your gun away, Marshal, as you can see it's not doing you any good being drawn anyway."
"Do you want any cards?" the dealer asked. He felt about as at ease as a man standing in the middle of a shoot-out.
"No," Benedict answered.
"Bluffing won't do you any good this time," Blackwell said. "I doubt you can beat three queens."
"I believe you said earlier that the odds where against my drawing three aces," Benedict said. He laid his cards down. There lay three bold aces.
"That's six hands won by me," Benedict said.
"I believe it is," Blackwell said. "I believe in keeping my word, Mister Benedict." He nodded. A man near Boedel drew a six-shooter and held it against Boedel's back. "I'd say you're free to go, Mister Benedict. You get the pot and an hour head start, from the marshal here I reckon, instead of my men."
Benedict stood and began walking through the crowd of onlookers. He stopped at the bar and grabbed the bottle of whiskey from the barkeeper.
Outside, Benedict mounted his horse. He looked down at Blackwell. "By the way," he said, "that card I put back on the dealer's pile was an ace."
Blackwell chuckled. "It was a pleasure to be certain, Mister Benedict. It may be some time before I find another player of your caliber."
Benedict looked at Boedel. "Hey, Boedel, he thinks I'm good at cards. Why don't you show him how good you are?"
"I would welcome that, Marshal," Blackwell said. "As for you, Mister Benedict, the clock is running. Get out of here."
ACES DON'T BLUFF
Benedict and Boedel meet again in my novelSilver Fox
The "H. G. Wells Literary Award" is awarded with only one criterion: Literary Excellence. "Literary Excellence" is defined here as ready for print publication and likely to be accepted for print publication, if submitted.
This one belongs to Joel Goulet for "Aces Don't Bluff"