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Sixes and Singles
The deterioration in moral conduct that followed the Civil War and the invention of the Colt .45 were in large measure responsible for the waves of immorality and violence that swept the border towns. Everybody went armed and all disputes were settled by six-shooters. The wild bunch of the Western frontier, hard men who laughed, drank, fornicated, and fought, made rules to suit themselves, simple rules that set no limits on their freedom of action. A man did what he damned pleased. If he stepped on somebody's toes or rubbed him the wrong way, he was splashed with bullets unless he could shoot quicker and straighter.
Gamblers played with their backs to the wall and guns at their sides. The cowboys, dangerously trigger-disposed when likkered up or angry, often shot up the gambling house and the winning gambler when they were jarred by losses. Many a trail boss could boast that every member of his outfit had killed a man. But others fell to walleyed gamblers who shot their way to fame and filled the Boot Hills with troublesome cow hands.
Whisky was responsible for many a sudden death along the frontier. The best gamblers were calm and impassive and stayed away from drinking. House gamblers were not even allowed to drink during working hours, if the proprietor was on his toes, for only sober could they play and bet their cards right. But some of the ones sensible enough not to murder the whisky glass when dealing got bung-eyed in their hours away from the tables, lost their tempers, and ended up in the midst of lead slingings.
While no one is entirely sure, it seems likely that Charlie Storms, without doubt one of the greatest gamblers and gun slingers of the West, was pretty well sozzled when he took on Luke Short in a gun duel at Tombstone. If Charlie had been sober, perhaps not he but little Luke Short would have ended up the customer for Boot Hill sod. The shoot-up has been discussed for decades in bunkhouses, bars, and gambling hells. Why did these two expert gun fighters wrangle?
Charlie Storms and Luke Short were normally civil when they played for high stakes, winning and losing without the quiver of a whisker. Their ability with guns was as well known as their talent for cards. But so far as anybody knew there had never been bad blood between them.
However, there was a general gamblers' war on in Tombstone in 1880. The most sumptuous gambling saloon in town, the Oriental, was the most patronized, and proprietors of quieter joints were naturally jealous. They hired gunmen to intimidate the Oriental's clientele with rowdy hossplay and gun spraying. The feud was lively, but none of the professional gamblers had traded bullets.
Then Charlie Storms and Luke Short mixed it up with each other. The popular and probably least garbled version is that Luke, newly come from Dodge City to play for the Oriental, was paying off a coppered bet while dealing a simple game of faro just as Charlie Storms barged in. Charlie had a load of whisky under his skin and a cantankerous bug in his brain. He started making cracks about the Oriental's employees, looking at Luke.
"They're all bowels and no guts," Charlie sneered.
Luke ignored him and went on dealing. Charlie kept right on needling, trying to get a rise out of Luke. Finally some of his cronies managed to haul Storms away. Before long he was back, still drunk, still dangerous.
The little dealer had gone out to eat, so Storms waited for him in front of the Oriental. When he spotted Luke Short coming back he dared him to a gun duel, popping off big by offering Short the first shot. One shot was all Luke needed to kill Charlie Storms.
"Charlie should've known better than to throw lead when he was alkied up," his friends said.
"Yes, he should've known better."
Some gamblers used the derringer, a pistol with a large bore, slight enough to secrete in the palm of the hand. The barrel was so short that the weapon was inaccurate beyond a five-foot range. Its second disadvantage was that after one shot it had to be reloaded, so the holder of the derringer who missed was in the power of the man with a slower six-gun. Men who favored derringers were likely to carry a pair.
Most super-killers preferred the six-gun with a tied-back or stripped trigger. The experienced fighter could raise and release the hammer with his thumb and send six shots spurting out at great speed.
Of course a smart gambler no more played his cards wild and foolish than he went plumb loco with his shooting irons. Both games called for steadiness. Even though an accurate gun slinger might finish him with the first bullet, the nervy ;ambler was prone to hold his fire, in the hopes that the opponent would expend his shots crazily, leaving the gambler to end the party with one well-placed shot.
Cockeyed Frank Loving, who played poker in the Long Branch Saloon of Dodge City, had a misunderstanding with Levi Richardson, the old buffalo hunter. Richardson, known all along the frontier as quick with pistol and rifle, had word passed straight to Frank Loving that he was out gunning for him. Loving, the youngest gambler in Dodge City, was dealing poker when the news reached him, and he reckoned the smartest thing was to sit with his back to the wall, his eyes covering the front door. The boy changed his seat and went on playing, giving no sign of being perturbed. Wyatt Earp, himself a great gambler and gun fighter, equally cool at playing and killing, advised him: "Take your time and make your shots count."
Before long the old buffalo hunter stampeded into the Long Branch saloon, brandishing an ugly-looking .45. Faster than it tool: to give two whoops and a holler, the players at Loving's table scattered and the old frontiersman emptied the chambers of his Colt wildly. The youngster sat through it without turning a hair and not a bullet grazed him. Then, while all the saloon watched with dread fascination and Richardson waited with the grit of a brave man who knows his time has come, Frank Loving raised his pistol and let loose with one neat, deadly slug.
It was in Bowlby's gambling hell in Cheyenne that Charlie Harrison, celebrated for his daring, had a run-in with Jim Levy, a hard hombre new to town but famous from his Deadwood days as being handy with a six-shooter. Neither man was packing a pistol when the row began, so they left Bowlby's to get their shooting irons, agreeing to meet in front of the Dyer House and shoot on sight.
The citizens of Cheyenne started to make book on the outcome, with Harrison favored to kill Levy in full daylight. The few who had seen Levy swap shots in Deadwood played a gambler's hunch and put their money on him.
Charlie Harrison came around the corner as Levy stepped out of the Dyer House, and both men reached for their irons. Harrison, a split second faster on the draw, blazed away first and emptied his .45 in a rain of lead before Jim Levy, deliberately using a heartbeat of time to aim, sent a bullet smashing through Harrison's mid-section. Jim Levy walked away, nicked but not seriously harmed. Charlie spun and dropped, dying minutes later, and the smart bettors who had backed him stood drinks for the boys. The whole town turned out for his funeral.
Part of the gamblers' code was to take swift action at the green table - shoot first and ask questions later. In a street duel they seldom shot without warning.
The man who shot and killed was renowned as a trigger genius, and there was no rest for him. An unknown could gain fame with one bullet. In every wild town great fighters were stalked by desperadoes bent on keeping men from forgetting their names by shooting it out with celebrities. The killer-gambler was arrogant enough to take a chance with death just to satisfy his urge for melodrama. He moved into rough camps knowing that his very name was a challenge, and he shot on the slightest provocation.
The rotgut that passed for whisky on the frontier divested many a maverick of caution and encouraged an exaggerated belief in his gun prowess, often deflated by a quick dose of lead poisoning.
Bat Masterson was one of the few gunman-gamblers who lived long and died in bed. This bright flame, who for years added his glow to the lurid West, said he hated shooting any man who had put his nose too deep in a bottle, and was admired for it. In his youth in the '70s and '80s, as a buffalo hunter, scout, and law man, he had known many mustachioed, cold-eyed gamblers, and few of their shooting or card techniques had escaped him.
Old-timers like to recall the time about 1890 when Bat was dealing cards for Watrous and Bannigan in Creede. When lie was off duty, mingling with the boys at the bar one night, a drunk struck him across the face without warning. The rumble of voices over the whisky glasses died instantly, the click of chips ceased, and men waited to hear Masterson's guns roar. According to one witness, "The silence was so great we could hear the electric light sputter in the next room," for Bat was a fighting tiger with a six-shooter. Wasterson looked the drunk up and down, gave a loud laugh, then his face froze as he told the whisky-deluded bravo to come back sober if he wanted to trade bullets.
The one thing the gambler could never afford to relax was vigilance and he slept with his loaded six-shooter close to hand.
Early in the winter of 1874 gold was discovered in the Black Hills of Dakota Territory. By the spring of '76 Deadwood Gulch was on the map, and before the year was out seven thousand gold seekers had made it a crazy, lawless ~ town. Wild Bill Hickok was among the rogues, loose fish scamps, and colorful characters with six-guns and cards. He gambled with adventurers like Charlie Utter, California Jack, Bedrock Tom, and Charlie Storms.
When Wild Bill arrived at the divide and looked down into the gulch, he had a premonition that he would not leave the town alive and he was right. On August 2, 1876, he accepted a seat not backed against a wall in Nuttal and Mann's gambling saloon. Likkered up and the worse for it, Crooked Nose McCall sneaked in behind Wild Bill and shot him in the back of the head. Wild Bill slid to the floor without a sound, his knees drawn up and his fingers tight around a queen and two pairs, aces and eights. Ever since, aces and eights have been called "the dead man's hand."
Bill had been a fanatic about draw poker, but he was not the shrewdest of gamblers and often came out on the short end. He was strictly on the square, dangerous whenever he caught anyone running a brace game against him. One of many legends tells how in Bill's scouting days he was regularly cleaned out by a sharp gambler named McDonald in Sioux City. Wild Bill's friends had a notion that the tinhorn wasn't winning on mere luck and skill, so they warned Hickok. But Hickok said cockily that he could take care of himself.
One night in a two-handed, sky's-the-limit game Wild Bill drank as he played and by midnight, though he seemed calm and stony, he was tense underneath. McDonald made the mistake of disregarding these signals and the game went on. Bill began to bet heavily on an apparently strong hand, McDonald raising every time. The middle of the table was piled high with money.
"I've got three jacks," McDonald said, and showed his hand.
"I have a full house - three aces and a pair of sixes," said Bill, throwing his cards face down on the table.
"Ace full on sixes wins," said McDonald. He turned up Bill's cards."Hold on!" he cried. "I see only two aces and one six.
" Wild Bill whipped out a six-gun with his right hand and replied, "Here's my other six." Then he flashed a bowie knife with his left hand. "And here's my one spot."
"That hand is good," said McDonald coolly. "Take the pot."