What I love most about my long-running Aces & Eights campaign—it’s a tabletop, pen-and-paper roleplaying game—is that it doesn’t play like a classic, heroic Western. It plays like the kinds of Westerns I love most. It’s more like what the Wild West sounds like when you read the actual histories and first-hand accounts of the exploits of famous gunmen. It’s Deadwood, not Zane Grey. Even the most epic encounters are punctuated by ugliness, viciousness and dirty dealing.
So, last night’s game.
It ended with a midnight shootout between four deadly gunfighters. In the dime novels it’d no doubt go down as a tense showdown that ended with a courageous blaze of gunfire that saw the heroes victorious. In reality it was a confusing, terrifying mess—the players were watching every roll for the one that would kill one of them—that started and ended in treachery.
By my count, 33 shots were fired. Three hit. One of those killed a man. One killed a horse. The third crippled a man and left him almost certainly dying. The victors didn’t stick around long enough to make sure of him and they sure didn’t take him with them.
The two player characters were a strapping 20-year-old cowboy named Pecos Jake (the El Paso Kid) and his buddy, would-be politician and/or grifter Sly Murray, aka Brad Dexter, a thin, dark, handsome fellow a few years older and much finer in a tailored black suit.
Jake is well known and well regarded across the region after facing down dangerous enemies many times, and he recently signed on as deputy marshal in a boomtown. Sly has gotten better known in the last few weeks just being around Jake and Jake’s nearly-as-famous partner, a dangerous French-Canadian trapper turned gunman named Antoine. Jake and Antoine both have bounties on their heads from a series of run-ins with a Mexican rancher a year or so back that left a dozen cowboys dead. They heard recently that two infamous bounty hunters, Joe Flint and a Mexican called Il Duce, had come from California to track them down.
Jake, Sly and Antoine came out to an anarchic prospector district to help the miners deal with banditry and thievery. Jake and Sly spent a few days keeping an eye on things, and they headed off a confrontation between two rival clans of prospectors that was about to turn bloody. (That’s what took up most of the session, and the players had a fine time negotiating with and intimidating the prospectors.)
Very late one night Jake and Sly woke to the sound of gunfire a few miles off. It was coming from an area that didn’t have any prospector camps that they knew about. They didn’t know what to make of it, so they saddled up and rode out to investigate.
About halfway there, they came over a little rise and saw in the darkness about a hundred feet off another pair of riders coming up the other side. This was in the wilds in the middle of the night, with just a sliver of moon and a few stars, so all either party could see was shadows shaped like horsemen.
Both sides stopped and called out. Jake said who he was and that he and his friend were keeping an eye on the prospectors.
On the other side, the man, with a Mexican accent, swore softly. Before he said his name, he asked if they could agree to be friendly, because he and his partner were on the run from Apaches that had tried to raid their camp. Jake suspected that the strangers were bandits but he said sure.
The other man took a breath, straightened up, and said, “Very well. I am called Il Duce.”
Jake leveled his rifle and fired.
Il Duce and his partner—Joe Flint, of course—saw the movement and reacted fast. By the time Jake pulled the trigger, Il Duce was off his horse and running to a nearby tree for cover and Flint had drawn an enormous pistol and taken aim.
In Aces & Eights gunfights, you track actions down to the most minute detail, wringing excruciating suspense out of split-second timing. All four characters here had lightning-fast reflexes and good aim, but they were hampered by the darkness. The luck of the dice-rolls played a very large part.
Jake’s shot missed, and so did his next two, one of which hit the tree an inch away from Il Duce’s heart. Meanwhile Flint’s big pistol fired wide in the darkness twice, then Sly fired his long Springfield trapdoor rifle at Flint. He fired too low and to do Flint any harm but the bullet slammed into Flint’s horse’s belly. The animal went down sprawling and screaming.
Flint rolled clear without getting trapped under the horse. He dropped his pistol but drew an identical one from the other side of his belt as he scrambled up to one knee.
Meanwhile Sly had spurred forward, dropped his rifle, and pulled a sawed-off shotgun. As he rode past Il Duce’s tree he fired down and put pellets in the tree but only two grazed Il Duce. Il Duce returned fire with his own shotgun but fired high.
Sly aimed the other barrel at Flint while Flint was aiming at him, and both fired. By some miracle Flint’s shot went high. Sly’s blast scattered, with a few pellets hitting the dying horse and a few others grazing Flint’s arm, head and leg. But two pellets tore into Flint’s belly and groin. He dropped with a cry and his pistol again flew from his hand.
Sly dropped the shotgun and drew a pair of Schofield revolvers from his hips as he guided his horse loping around toward Il Duce on the other side of the tree.
Seeing this, Il Duce shouted out that he’d give up if they promised not to kill him. Jake kept him covered but agreed. He dismounted and started coming closer.
Sly rode near, aiming both pistols at Il Duce’s face in the darkness. Il Duce glared up at him, ready to level his shotgun again, and asked if he had Sly’s word not to fire. Sly said he did. His horse stopped about ten feet away.
Il Duce slowly, warily put the shotgun down on the ground and slowly lifted his hand from it.
Sly said, “Dummy,” and fired both guns.
Il Duce cursed and whipped the revolver from the holster at his belt and returned fire, first from the hip and then leveling it with both hands. He fired three more times and Sly fired four or five times from each pistol, and in the darkness and the smoke of black powder and the dazzling glare of gunfire neither of them hit the other.
They were blazing away at each other when Jake came running around one side about fifteen feet away, pointed his rifle, and shot Il Duce in the head.
The tale that spreads once they get back to the prospector camps will probably sound a little different from that. It will depart even further when it gets written up in the papers and the dime novels. But here you have the truth of how Pecos Jake and ‘Brad Dexter’ confronted and defeated the infamous California bounty hunters Joe Flint and Il Duce in Aces & Eights.