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The Gambler, the Prostitute, and the Bully
Not every picturesque fellow gained the mythical status of a Wild Bill Hickok. In the San Francisco of the '70s the lurid John Peters began a minor tragedy that history has ignored.
A Barbary Coast combination gambling hall and saloon was crowded with men drinking up and listening to the professor thump the piano, while a voluptuous thrush sang a song just coming into vogue in San Francisco:
I sat down to a coon-can game, But couldn't play my hand, I was thinking of the woman I love, Run away with another man.
The entire saloon, gripped by the spell of this creepy song, joined in the chorus:
Run away with another man, Poor boy! Run away with another man.
One of the red-light beauties wandered away from the music to the rear, where a red-hot poker game was proceeding under a pall of seegar smoke. Ann Masters, prominent in local brothel society, looked with interest at one of the players, tall, darkly handsome John Peters, who sat behind flashy stacks of gold, silver coin and chips. This man, recently arrived on the Barbary Coast, had already earned a reputation for his wits, his fancy clothes, and his card manipulation.
Peters looked up from his cards long enough to catch the woman's glance and for days afterward he remembered the eyes that were brown and deeper than a wild doe's, the hair that was bright and soft. Her nose was short, her cheeks clear, and, altogether, he had never seen a prettier face. Ann Masters was a beauty in her low-cut gown, showing off a powdered, delightful bosom. For once in his life something more important than aces and deuces was shaping up.
John Peters played out his hand, cashed in his chips, and went over to where Ann Masters was standing. He spoke to her as if he had known her all his life and they went upstairs into one of the private rooms. Before the night was over these hard and worldly people had discovered that they were honestly in love.
Son of a distinguished Connecticut clergyman, John Peters, had had every advantage, even to attending Yale, where he steeped himself in English literature and the classics. Well built and coordinated, he first rowed, then became an outstanding pupil of pugilist Bill McCabe, the London Pet. He was already wild, given to flings at the student gambling nests and noted on the campus as a reckless and successful card player. So he graduated without honors, shunned by his classmates as a cardshark. As a professional gambler Peters tackled New York, rambled south to New Orleans, and, with a homicide charge hanging over him, fled to St. Louis. Everywhere he talked like a scholar, slicked himself out like a gentleman, and gambled convincingly with the moneyed bloods. When his unprincipled cheating of suckers netted him a quick fortune, St. Louis seemed too easy and he journeyed to San Francisco to become one of the Barbary Coast's most elegant, dangerous, and dissolute gamblers.
Of course women were nothing new to John Peters. But there was no dealing from the bottom in Ann Master's case. His love was strictly square.
Ann Masters's life was an old story. The daughter of respectable New England parents, she was a young and pretty dish when she first "went wrong" and ran away to Boston to ply the harlot's trade. She hustled in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Denver before reaching San Francisco. In the lace-curtained, high, chandeliered rooms of the superior bawdyhouses men paid handsomely for her talented amours. Big, ample-bosomed, and attractive, she was built for male enjoyment and her clients showered her with gifts.
Her love for John Peters put Ann Masters out of business. She ceased hustling and longed to be a lady, longed, too, for her gambling man to lead a conventional life. John Peters never gave a sucker a break and someday she might lose him to a gun or a knife. Peters was willing to abandon his cheating ways to make her happy.
They turned their backs on San Francisco and moved eastward, finally settling in the wide-open town of Anton-Chicot, New Mexico. John Peters became Jean Pierres because John Peters was a wanted man in several states.
Anton-Chicot stood on a plateau, eighty-five miles east of Albuquerque, thirty miles due south of Las Vegas, in a bowl of mountains with a branch of the Pecos River flowing by. Life was cheap and insecure, so everybody went armed and most men slept in their clothes, knives and guns at their sides. Peters and his Ann opened the Casa Rouge on the plaza, the center of town, in an adobe house one story high with a garden and a fountained courtyard. Peters hired a bartender and three tinhorns to deal, with orders to deal honestly. The lovers lived happily in one of the back rooms and prospered.
In the spring of 1873, Mike Shaw, as bad an hombre as the Southwest ever knew, swaggered through the streets of AntonChicot. Swarthy bartenders in Mexican cantinas were dazzled by the huge gringo's capacity for their tequila and cowed by his roaring, drunken voice as he staggered from saloon to saloon.
Mike had been a New York Bowery b'hoy in his younger days, a sidewalk bully, a barroom brute available cheap for brawls and dirty work with fist and club. As a volunteer fireman he made money looting burning buildings. But he slugged and stole once too often and had to leave town whep the police started moving in on him. Owing to his bully-boy tactics he left Chicago at the point of a pistol. The vigilantes in San Francisco dangled a noose under his nose and invited him to leave town , fast. In Denver he barely escaped the Regulars, who resolved criminal problems by lynch law. From Santa Fe he fled, as a horse thief, and landed in Anton-Chicot with a standing reward on his head, dead or alive. No one had the temerity to collect.
Mike Shaw was at the Casa Rouge one night when the houseman caught him sneaking a card from the deck. Hard words followed and Mike knocked his accuser down. He reached for his gun but Jean Pierres, at that moment inspecting the faro and roulette tables, knocked it out of 'Mike's hand. Mike roared and jumped Pierres. Each pulled a knife. Pierres took Shaw's blade in his shoulder and managed to stick his knife through the Bowery bruiser's left forearm. The customers hauled both men off to their respective beds, where their wounds were treated. As a group of Texas cowboys bore Mike away he still had strength enough to swear that Jean Pierres would die for this.
After they recovered, they warily avoided each other but both went armed. Matters stood so for several months while the town waited for a showdown.
Jean Pierres got up one beautiful July morning and dressed himself in front of the large mirror in his bedroom. He was unusually particular about his appearance, combing and stroking his curly hair and twirling his droopy mustache. He put on his best silk underwear and his finest outer garments.
Ann Masters, lying awake and eight months pregnant, watched her lover dress his fastidious best, and when he put on an expensive Panama asked in alarm, "Where are you off to, Jack?"
"Only to open the bar. Go back to sleep."
"What's the time?"
"Six." He stooped over the bed. "Kiss me good morning, Ann." "Please don't go out, Jack," she begged. "Something is going to happen."
"If anything should ever happen to me there's plenty of cash in the safe. You need never worry, angel," he answered lightly.
Ann held her man close and cried, "Don't go out, Jack. Don't!" Jean kissed her gently, went to a drawer, and took out his ivory- and silver-handled .45, put it in his pistol pocket, and left the room.
Ann called her half-breed Mexican and Indian maid to help her dress. She slipped a keen-bladed stiletto into the front of her frock and went in search of her man. With great relief she found him smoking on the veranda, enjoying the mountain air. Ann stayed beside him all morning.
During the early afternoon Jean left the Gasa Rouge before Ann could pick up her hat and go with him. As she stepped out of the door the sound of a pistol sent a chill through her. Men were gathering around the bleeding body of her gambler. She was just in time to hear him cough out his last words. "Thank God, I die dressed like a gentleman." Unnoticed in the excited crowd, she slipped around to where Mike Shaw stood, drew the stiletto, and with the strength of her hatred plunged its blade into his thick throat. She tore the wounded bruiser's hair, bit his hands and arms, spat in his agonized face, and screamed curses at him till he died at her feet.
Then Ann Masters fainted.
Roughened hands carried her tenderly back to her room, where, that night, her child was born and died. For weeks she lay near death and when she recovered she auctioned off the Casa Rouge and left Anton-Chicot for parts unknown. NO word of her was ever heard again.
Jean Pierres and Mike Shaw were buried side by side in the Boot Hill cemetery where their contemporaries have long since joined them. And the little town, Anton-Chico, now without the final "t," is a peaceful, friendly place today, sleepy beside the Pecos.