Road Gambler

Road Gambler

Monday, 26 August 2013

Johnny Hughes on Bat Masterson.

“I have been connected nearly all the the gambling business and have experienced the vicissitudes which have always characterised the business. Some days -- plenty, and more days – nothing.” - Bat Masterson

Bat Masterson (1851-1921) was born in Canada but his family migrated to Kansas, where Bat and his two brothers, Ed and Jim, became buffalo hunters as teenagers. At 20, Bat went with a group of hunters to the Texas panhandle to establish a trading post at Adobe Walls. The party of 13 men and one woman built three sod houses with two-foot thick walls. It was here they were attacked by Comanche Chief Quanah Parker and 250 Indians from four tribes. Quanah was the son of Cynthia Ann Parker, the most famous Comanche captive. He would go on to be America's richest and one of the most famous Native Americans. Later he and Bat Masterson would both be friends with the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt.

At Adobe Walls, the hunters were equally split between three buildings. They were firing the .50 calibre Sharp’s rifles, called the Big Fifties, and they could pick the Indians off at will. At one point, Quanah's horse was shot out from under him and he was wounded at 500 yards. Billy Dixon, later a Medal of Honor winner, shot an Indian off his horse at 1,500 yards, nearly a mile.

Quanah had a bugler, an army deserter. Finally, someone shot the annoying bugler. After the Indian's retreat, several of their bodies were decapitated and their heads were hung on poles out front.

Bat Masterson was in the gambling town of Mobeetie, also in the Texas panhandle, when he met famed gambler and gunman Ben Thompson. While there, he also shot the only man he ever killed in a gunfight. An army bad man, Sgt Melvin King, rushed into a crowded saloon and gambling hall and shot the woman Bat was talking to, Mollie Brennen, killing her. He also shot Bat in the groin. Bat got off a single shot right though King's heart. Accounts vary but the squabble was over either the woman or poker. With Bat on the floor, some of the soldiers went for their guns. Ben Thompson jumped on the top of his faro table with both guns drawn. His fierce reputation controlled the room, as it did often. Bat would always remember that Ben saved his life.

When Bat recovered from his gunshot wound, he went to Cheyenne, Wyoming, on his way to the big gold strike in Deadwood, South Dakota. By now a professional gambler, Bat had a five-week lucky winning streak at faro and poker and just stayed there. When Bat returned to Dodge City, Kansas, he joined a political group called "the Dodge City Gang" which favoured wide open gambling and saloons. The townspeople knew Bat from the time a confidence man had fleeced the Masterson brothers out of $300. When he found out the conman was coming through on a train, Bat went aboard, marched him off at gunpoint and made him pay up. A crowd watched. Later a 300 pound sheriff's deputy was abusing a prisoner he was escorting to jail. Bat jumped in to fight for the little guy and ended up beaten up and in jail.

At age 23, Bat was elected sheriff of the county. He ran against the same 300 pound man he had fought with and won by three votes. Bat and his friends dealt faro and worked in gambling joints and the whole crew was there: Wyatt Earp and his brothers, Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, Luke Short, and Ben and Billy Thompson. As sheriff, Bat would take off on the gambling circuit to Colorado and the big poker games. He played poker with the biggest names. He and Luke Short hit the gambling circuit in Colorado together and Luke won $10,000 in one all-night poker game in Leadville.

Bat also ran the Lone Star Dance Hall which had a dance floor, dancing girls, faro, poker, roulette, monte and chuck-a-luck. His friendship and association with known killers like Doc Holliday and Ben Thompson looked bad. However, with Bat as sheriff and Wyatt as a police officer, these men who were known for making trouble all across the Old West were on their best behaviour because of friendship and loyalty.

As sheriff, Bat spent his time running the Lone Star gambling concession. Early in his term, he had some success with posses made up of his gambler friends. These gambler's posses made several notable arrests. Bat brought down a noted train robber and gang leader named Dave Rudabaugh from a great distance. Rudabaugh testified against his own gang for immunity. The newspaper said, "He was given a chance to squeal and he squole."  Rather than reform as promised, he joined Billy the Kid's gang.

Jim Kenedy was the son of one of the very richest Texans and a partner with Richard King of the fabled King Ranch, Texas’ largest and richest ranch, then and now. The mayor beat up Kenedy, who came back to town with murder on his mind. The mayor was out of town but Kenedy shot rounds into his cottage, killing a touring vaudeville singer named Dora Hand. Kenedy was seen riding out of town right after the shots.

Bat and one of his gambler's posses, including Wyatt Earp, figured out what route Kenedy would take back to Texas. They spotted him. Kenedy had purchased an expensive racehorse to help him take it on the lam. Bat shot the prize horse and the prize Texan with his Sharp's Big Fifty. Sea Biscuit couldn't outrun a Big Fifty. Kenedy confessed but later got off. He died in a year and a half, maybe from the huge wound to his arm. The Texas money and lawyers that got Kenedy off caused great anger in Dodge.

Two railroads, the Santa Fe and the Denver, were competing for the right-of-way to the big boomtown, Leadville, Colorado. They had lawsuits flying, but each railroad hired a group of armed men.

The Santa Fe hired Bat Masterson to recruit an army of 33 gunmen, including Doc Holliday and Ben Thompson. The Kansas sheriff led his little army into Colorado, but nothing much happened. However, it led the folks of Dodge to again question their sheriff's close association with a couple of the most famous gunfighters of all, Ben and Doc. In 1879, Bat was defeated in his bid for re-election as sheriff. He was madder than a broke pimp.

Of all these Old West Gamblers I write about, I like Bat the most, easily. He was the most ethical and humane. He started his career as a caustic, angry, humorous, provocative, and thin-skinned writer. Bat would write letters to the editor in different cities, attacking his political enemies, and Dodge itself. At one point, Bat put out a one issue newspaper called Vox Populi. He attacked all the candidates running for office on the opposing slate with outrageous stories, gossip and lies. He said one man had starved his own father to death. All of Bat's candidates won. He had tasted the self-affirming power of being a writer.

Johnny Hughes' latest book, 'Famous Gamblers, Poker History, and Texas Stories' is available from Amazon in hardback, paperback and Kindle editions.

Tags: Johnny Hughes, Road Gambler