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No prospector expected to stay. They started out to dig, make their pile, and go back rich. So they left their wives and sweethearts at home. In the West there might be one woman to ten men, five to a hundred, or sometimes no women at all.
There were never enough women for the dances set afoot by any prospector who could provide music, so half the men tied bits of cloth around their arms or tucked patches of calico in their belts to designate themselves pro tem ladies. "Long-bearded men with flannel shirts went through all the steps and figures of the dance with as much enthusiasm as if their partners had been the gentler sex."
The California census of 1850 reported seven women for every hundred males, but most of the women were in the cities. When Horace Greeley visited Gregory Gulch, Colorado Territory, in June 1859, he found a mining camp of four thousand men with twelve females: five white women and seven Indian squaws, two of them with white husbands. There were five white women in Denver in the summer of 1859, a dozen the following winter, as against a male population exceeding a thousand.
The arrival of anything in a bonnet and skirt was the signal for a holiday in a mining town. Miners in California gave gold to amazed parents for the privilege of touching the heads of their young daughters.
The few women who did venture into the boom camps and the wild towns were likely to be of the scarlet sisterhood. They cashed in behind the narrow doors of the cribs, in the lush boudoirs of fancy bordellos, and in upstairs rooms of the combination hurdygurdy houses and gambling saloons. Every woman was attractive to the hungry eyes of the men; every woman felt like a oreat courtesan. And at no other time or place have women been more brazenly wanton or profited more from promiscuity. Vice was accepted as a necessity.
The best come-on any gambling-house proprietor could have was a professional gambling woman. Men lost willingly for the favor of a smile, the touch of the fingers that dealt the cards and raked in the cash. But not many of the adventurous sisters remained in that calling for long. Instead they turned to picking up cart wheels of bold trading on their flesh.
A few did make gambling their profession and they were colorful and competent, fighting the tiger or taking a hand in a hot card fest with the best. Kitty the Schemer, who followed the boom towns in the '70s and '80s, was the kind of woman mothers warn their sons against. She made her way by being an easy woman in a man's town, but gambling was her favorite pursuit. Big Nose Kate Fisher, doxy of gambling, gunnin~ Doc Holliday, was so expert at cards there wasn't an hombre alive who could bluff her. She never hesitated to look down a man's throat when she had an ace to draw and she could bet a sick hand to win as though she held a royal flush. Colorado Charlie Utter's mistress, Minnie, four feet tall, was known all over the Southwest as an ace poker player, particularly in El Paso, where she ranked as the best house dealer in Charlie's gamblino- hell. He and Minnie went south of the border after reformers took over El Paso, and rambled and gambled through Central America till fever finished Charlie and Minnie came back to live out her days in Los Angeles.
When Americans began to stream into the Southwest, Dona Gertrudes de Barcelo, more familiarly known as "La Tules," was the most beautiful monte sharp ever to grace the Santa Fe gambling tables and probably one of the greatest gamblers the Southwest ever produced. She owned several exclusive gambling halls on Santa Fe's main avenue, San Francisco Street, with carpets laid wall to wall, chandeliers shiny bright under countless candles, and talented musicians playing while men gambled fortunes in pesos, gold, and silver.
The senorita had come up the hard way. Born into a family of poor Mexican peons, she left home at about sixteen and went to Taos to become a prostitute. Strumpets were as numerous as fleas on a dog and came dirt cheap in Taos. La Tules wanted a better market for her charms and in 1834 gravitated to Santa Fe, where men had money to pay for a beautiful young daughter of joy and Mexican silver dollars began to roll in.
La Tules had gambling fever and when she was not working at her profession she spent her time and money at the monte tables. On one of these sprees the senorita earned enough money to give up hustling, opened a monte bank of her own, and became a full-time professional gambler. She grew very rich in a very few years, wore the finest dresses, adorned her fingers with rings, and hung three gold chains around her neck, on the longest of which was a large gold crucifix. By 1843 it was known to one and all that La Tules ran the steepest games in the Southwest. Only the most favored entered her private salon, where she herself dealt monte for the house.
Eighteen forty-six was the year of the Mexican War and, with quixotic pro-American sentiment, Dona Tules helped shape the westward course of empire. To her gambling establishment came the reckless brass of the American army and the dashing Mexican officers serving under Manuel Armijo, the rabbit-hearted ex-dictator of New Mexico who ran away. Troop movements were projected and political intrigues hatched in Dona Tules's private rooms. The gambling lady has been credited with playing spy and warning the Americans of the Christmas Eve conspiracy, thereby saving New Mexico for the Americans.
Shortly afterward Dona Tules rendered the Americans another service. A grand ball was to take place in Santa Fe and everybody of importance was invited. That is, everybody but Dona Tules, who was too fascinating and too wayward for the aristocratic senoras and senoritas to compete with. Female Santa Fe had long peered from behind grilled windows as husbands and sweethearts flocked to private tables where they lost their money and succumbed to Dona Tules's beauty. Dona Tules broiled over the social snub.
At this moment the irate lady was approached by Colonel David P. Mitchell for something more urgent than informationmoney! He had to send his troops posthaste to Chihuahua and he had no funds with which to buy supplies to carry out his sudden instructions.
Dona Tules's heart was big for Colonel Mitchell and she agreed to give him the money he needed in return for a little favor. The colonel had an invitation to the ball. Would the colonel take her as his guest where she was not wanted?
The colonel assured her that he would.
The senorita invited the biggest plungers in Santa Fe to her salon for a select and steep game of monte. She never played a cooler, more ruthless game in her life and before the night was out she was able to provide the United States Army with the sum it needed for its mission.
A grateful colonel escorted Dona Tules to the grand fandango. The hearts of the assembled senores beat faster; the senoritas's eyes snapped shut with jealousy as she whirled with beautiful bare shoulders under the bright-candled chandeliers.
Colonel Mitchell rode off to the battle of the Rio Sacramento, which the Americans won handily on February 28, 1847. Dona Tules was repaid her money and with it went the heartfelt thanks of the United States Army.
Poker was the architect of Alice Ivers's life. Poker Alice, it was said, was born in Sudbury, England, in 1850 and had come to America with her family when she was very young. Her schoolmaster father sent her to a fashionable Southern school where she acquired the polish of a young woman of breeding. When gold beckoned in Colorado, the Iverses and their Alice went west and there she met and fell in love with Frank Duffield, a mining engineer. They were married in Lake City, Colorado.
Frank did well and the Duffields moved from boom mining camp to boom mining camp and were leaders in whatever society existed. Poker was the chief diversion of the parties they went to and Alice took to the game quickly, amazing everybody with her gambling spirit and good card sense.
Several years after their marriage Frank Duffield was killed in a mining accident and, after a suitable period of mourning, the young widow turned to professional gambling to support herself.
Gambling and gold made Alice Ivers Duffield a peripatetic gal, turning up in the wild cow capitals and at every great mining strike during her lifetime. By the late '70s she was well known as one of the smartest poker players and the best faro dealers in the West, and she smoked long black cigars while she played. She had other idiosyncrasies that added to her picturesqueness: she spoke with a clipped British accent, did not drink when she gambled, and never gambled on Sunday. Alice took her whisky neat and could carry a load of it, but she stayed bone dry when she gambled. Sundays she devoted to reading the Bible and to devout meditation.
Poker Alice delighted to play the great card professionals in other houses, and to break the bank was her highest pleasure.
When Poker Alice beat the house at faro in Silver City, New Mexico, she went to New York for a binge of night spots, shows, and shopping, spent all her money, and headed west again.
During the Black Hills gold rush she ran the faro, game for Bedrock Tom, working the graveyard shift from midnight to 6 A.M., when the prospectors were likely to be at their most reckless.
At Creede, Alice dealt in Ford's Exchange, a gambling saloon and dance hall operated by the man who killed Jesse James. She was reported to be an on-the-spot witness when Bob Ford was shot down by a young fanatic who had vowed to avenge the slaying of the Missouri bandit.
Poker Alice went back to the Black Hills in her middle age and helped to keep Deadwood one of the last lawless towns. She picked up and lost two husbands in the years that followed, but never her high-toned English diction or her penchant for cigars. When her third husband, George Huckert, a loafer and barfly, died, Alice resumed a previous married name-Tubbs.
A reform wave hit Deadwood and it hit Alice Tubbs, so she left but got only as far as Sturgis, a dozen miles away and near Fort Meade, where she opened a gambling joint and bagnio. The Fort Meade soldiers got their money's worth at Alice's.
The reformers moved in again and Alice ran afoul of the law. She shot a soldier supposedly breaking into her place. Alice explained that she had killed him accidentally, had not even intended to hit him, and sat in her cell reading the Bible till the jury brought in a verdict of innocence of murder (the shooting was in self-defense).
Alice was a bad old lady, over seventy, when she was hauled up for the second time-during Prohibition. Charged with running a house of prostitution, a gambling joint, and possessing liquor, she was convicted. Public opinion forced the governor to stay her sentence. The old freebooting times may have been over, but gallantry was no more dead than sentimentality in the West.