This is the 2nd entry in the Stories category: a freebie out of my back-catalogue of short pieces, most of them written several years ago as an undergraduate. You may read it for free, here, or share the link. But even as a rough draft, this is still my own work and I retain all legal copyright. Do not copy, or re-publish the text without express permission. ~ J. J. Griffing
It was a slow day in 1871, and the lanky little old man in the tyro hat pulled up to the bar. He was originally from back east somewhere, in a pair of silver-blue suspenders and a shirt of low-grade silk, and he sported the long plume of a Chinese pheasant in his silk hatband. He ordered a dilute whiskey, and, as ruddy natives and slender, ivory brunettes crowed with excitement and anticipation, he called for silence in the house. Leaning back against the marble counter, he began his tale:
The Fifth Ace
“Yes sir! I saw some mighty lively action on the River in my day. Old Nat here was one of the professional poker chaps, for a while. I wasn’t so thieving as some, using marked decks or such, but I made a good game occasionally. Let me tell you boys about one trip I made from St. Louis.
“It was a clear, moonless night, and the boat had left the pier only seven hours before. This was my own favorite steamer, and I had a special friend in Jonas McClure, the old Scotch skipper. His Highland Wren was the largest, fanciest boat on the Mississippi River, and it’s twin paddles were so large that at the mouth of the Ohio, one day, old Jonas was standing atop the housing with his spyglass, and looking east, saw in his little boy’s window in Pittsburgh. The glass was so powerful, on account of having to look downstream from the bridge to the bow of that boat, that McClure saw what his son was doing at home. He even saw the title off the little boy’s book of Arabian Nights. Then the greatest skipper ever on inland waters got so touched that he began crying, and as he was aft of amidships, when the tears fell through the housing, they set the wheel going backward, and the boat was in Minnesota before he stopped. That was the year of the great salt flood, but that is another story.
“Jonas built his boat as the longest ever seen, but there was one slight problem. No matter how much he tried, he could not turn with the stream. So I suggested that he hinge the boat, and his problems were solved. Jonas and I built huge pillars and plates, which swung and telescoped on either side to allow the Highland Wren to take corners, and we installed them at every thousand feet, making seventeen in all. The saloon of the ship contained nine of these, and this is where I spent my time.
“On this particular voyage, I was eager to try out a new invention of mine on the local gamblers. It was an odd deck, but not in the usual sense. In my shop in Missouri, (the smallest shop imaginable, so that cards had to be worked on edgewise to fit through the door), I had produced a deck with six suites. I kept the spades, clubs, hearts, and diamonds, but added two new suites, of stars and crescents, red and black, respectively. I had one hundred forty-four thousand of these decks printed, on quality paper, and had one for every third table in the saloon of the Highland Wren. And on this particular night, I decided to try them for the first time.
“I strolled nonchalantly into the saloon at about seven, and, walking up to the first bar, (as each section of the saloon contained two, staggered from one another and on opposite sides of the saloon), I purchased, for the sake of my opponents, a thick deck of the latest ‘house cards’, with the captain’s picture on the back. I sauntered over to an adjacent table and sized up my adversary for the evening.
“He was a softspoken man, with the look of a well-bred, educated dandy. With his balloon sleeves, and blue-black garters above his elbows, he seemed a match for any player, and more than a match for most. He was, however, Ed Palantino, the most famous card sharp in the business. He could out-deal, out-mark, out-read, out-swap, and out-grin every man east of the Pacific Ocean. He seemed a considerable and worthy opponent. I tore the paper from the cards carefully and deliberately, and began to shuffle, as the other, with and unlit cigar in his hand, and another smoldering between his teeth, gazed intently at my hands, watching for any tricks of the shuffle known throughout our common trade. But I shuffled as honest a deck as any preacher, and I asked him how he wished to play. One hand each, or two?
“‘Left and right, seven stud,’ said the stranger.
“Six suites,” I replied, and I delt the cards around. The other travelers with us were intimidated by his gaze, when he seemed to be staring right through one’s head, and he whispered about being part cobra, part vulture, and having been sired by the keenest stallion in the Confederate state of South Carolina. I stared back at him, piercing through his facade with such skill that I saw his muscles tense in his brow, and sweat rolled down his nose at my will–but he kept his constant smile, and shining gaze.
“Then we started play. I lead as dealer with one-dollar ante, and it soared from there. Each of us won in the first few games, and still, no new cards had appeared. Then, as I dealt the fifth game, the stranger’s eyes were on me all the more, and I saw him inconspicuously knead his left sleeve. I shuffled more thoroughly now, and the tension mounted. I dealt fourteen cards to each man, and looked at my right-hand spread. The extra suites, in the thickest deck in the world, had finally come into play.
“The ante sailed rapidly, and the men on either side of us folded first their left and then their right hands: laying plain cards, all low pairs and lone aces out on the table. I raised the pot another thousand grand, and my adversary matched it, and laid his left-hand spread out on the table. It was spades—a royal flush.
“I was unperturbed. I laid down my left—the same of clubs—and I saw his sweat bead. Here was the professional, and a fortune was at stake before him, to which all the mines of Solomon and California were mere trifles. He then smiled a gloating smile, and laid out five aces—of clubs, hearts, and diamonds, plus two jokers.
“‘Beat that, Mr. Bunker!’said Palantino.
“I was still as cool as ever. Not in the least worried, knowing that I had dealt and played fair throughout, I turned over my other hand. I had another royal flush–of crescents. The sable arcs on the cards revealed were a shuddering blow to the Italian, and as I scooped up my cards and my millions, I reminded him calmly that I had warned of the spare suites at the start of the game.
“’You no-good liar! You’ve robbed me straight!’ he roared.
“’I don’t believe that was a straight, either, Mr. Palantino,’ I told the Roman. ‘I distinctly saw a royal flush in there.’
“I reminded him, also, that not one but two aces of clubs had been played in that game, and raised my own for inspection. It was true, and had no marks. His own aces, however, were too thick, and upon my search revealed an improper back. All three were thus, as were his jokers, and the folded cards beside us revealed their own honesty. ‘Are you accusing me of cheating?!’he demanded.
“‘No, I’m proving you. Mister Palantino, you have a holdout in your left sleeve. Having loaded it after dinner, you cocked it while I dealt the cards,’ I said to the great gambler. ‘You really can’t cheat an honest man, if he knows his game,’ I said, giving his cheek a condescending pat. ‘Now, was I right?’
“‘No, you were most certainly not right, Mr. Pinkerton!’ said the Italian, his face so red that both cigars smoldered. ‘I always load the mechanism before dinner!’”
A tall stranger entered and sat down in a back corner, listening. But all eyes were glued on this tiny “Gnat” Bunker. Nat took another drink and began another tale:
Unfortunately, the WordPress platform does not provide enough space to render the whole of Mr. Bunker’s exploits at one go. His braggadocio will be continued in the following episode. ~ J. J. Griffing
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