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Published on Thursday, December 1, 2011

Doc's Warning: "Play Poker!"

By Lowell "Zeke" Ziemann


Note: The following story is historical fiction based upon a report given by Wyatt Earp to a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner in 1896. No public records have been found to substantiate Wyatt's recollection, but many historians believe it to be true.


To quote Wyatt: "Doc Holliday and Ed Bailey were playing poker. Bailey kept monkeying with the deadwood (peeking at the discards). Doc warned him a few times to 'play poker' (the experienced gambler's method of cautioning a cheater). The next time Bailey looked at the deadwood, Doc raked in the pot without showing his hand, an acceptable and legal act allowed by the gambler's code of ethics." *

*Wyatt's quote is continued at the end of the story.

The bloody confrontation that followed Doc's warning is told in this story.

CH 1

"Whoa," yelled the driver as he reined in the four horse hitch. "Welcome to The Flat at Fort Griffin."

Twenty-three year old John Henry Holliday stepped down from the stage coach. Always conscious of his appearance, John used a glove as a duster and applied it in brisk fashion to his hat. He swept his tailored grey suit, and used his hanky to wipe the dust from his boots.

At the Planter's Hotel he rented a room, opened his valise and hung up his clothes. Carefully, he laid his attaché case on the dresser, opened it, and found all of his instruments had survived the trip without damage. He left the room, locked the door and walked out to the street to look over the town.

On the mesa that rose above the town, the Stars and Stripes fluttered over Fort Griffin. Below the fort, on a broad, dry plain, stood the commercial site nicknamed "The Flat" by its thousand or so inhabitants. Canvas tents, framed stores with false fronts, and drab, tawny adobe huts lined the single thoroughfare. Next to the sheriff's office, carpenters were building a small jail. There must be a dozen saloons.

Bored soldiers from the fort, bedraggled buffalo hunters returning from the Great Plains, and lonely cowboys driving herds to the railhead at Dodge City shopped for supplies and milled around on the boardwalks that paralleled the sides of the rutted street.

Commerce flourished. Merchants supplied an abundance of vital goods and services.

Saloons provided lusty, twenty-four hour recreation. Of course, when settlements like The Flat boomed, the gamblers, card sharks, prostitutes and drifters always followed.

John Holliday's stoic youthful face suddenly broke into a slight smirk. There's opportunity here. Whether he practiced dentistry, or gambled, John could smell money floating around.

He stopped at the fanciest looking joint in town, the Bee Hive Saloon and walked in. He went to the end of the bar. A well-muscle bartender was telling a ribald joke to a tall, rather stiff looking man with a silver star pinned on his dark vest.

The barkeep wore a long white apron. He approached and stuck out a meaty right hand. "John Shanssey, owner, operator. What'll you have stranger?"

"Whiskey," said Holliday as he laid a coin on the bar. "Ah'm John Henry Holliday. Just came in on the stage."

"John Holliday? I heard of you. Your theee Doc Holliday, the gentleman dentist and gambler."

"Ah've been called worse," said Doc as he shook the big man's hand. The husky bartender laughed.

Doc noticed an empty Faro table standing adjacent to the bar. He paused for a second or two and searched the face of John Shanssey. The pug nose and a cauliflower ear marked him as a pugilist. The big Irishman smiled and his eyes twinkled with friendliness. This man can be trusted.

"Ah would appreciate an opportunity to deal Faro here in your saloon."

"I know you've had experience dealin' Faro and I could use a dealer---if there shan't be no trouble."

"Ah dealt in Dennison and Dallas. Made big profits both places. If ya'll care to stake me occasionally in a poker game, ah'll include that also. Ah'll pay the house twenty five percent of the take. Those, sir, are mah terms."

Shanssey nodded. "Twenty-five is fine."

"Ah'm obliged. Ah'l start tomorrow afternoon after ah hang out my dentist shingle at the hotel. Ah'l practiced dentistry mornings."

Doc threw down the jigger of whiskey, and Shannsey poured another. "On me."

Doc scanned the saloon. Four cowboys played poker at a table in the middle of the room. Then his sweeping gaze stopped abruptly and he focused on the raven-haired beauty sitting alone in a corner booth. He nodded and touched the brim of his hat. The curvaceous woman bowed her head slightly and returned a smile. She wore little powder or paint. This woman is not just another soiled dove.

Her long dark hair and flawless, glowing face reminded Doc of Mattie, the love he lost back in Georgia. First lost when he headed west to relieve his diseased lungs, and then brought to a close when Mattie entered a convent. Once again he fought off the lingering pains of loneliness, homesickness, and the dark fate of consumption. The memories haunted him, and surfaced all too often.

"John, introduce me to that woman."

Shanssey took Doc over to the table. "Kate, this is Doc Holliday, my new Faro dealer. He just arrived in town."

The woman looked up from her Solitaire game. She glanced at Doc's clean and pressed suit, and studied his face. Her devilish green eyes seemed to stare right through him. Daintily she extended her hand. "Kate Elder, my pleasure."

Doc kept holding her hand as he sat down. He studied her creamy complexion as he sipped the jigger of whiskey. "Y'all work here?"

Kate snuffed out the cigarette she held. "Yes, but not as you think. I only cater to the occasional well-to-do clientele." She cocked her head to the side. "Why do they call you Doc? Are you a doctor?"

"A dentist, and, --- a sporting man."

"My father was a doctor." Her eyes seemed to sadden. "He died when I turned sixteen. I quit my studies and hit the road. Been traveling ever since."

Doc sat back, smiled tenderly, took a tobacco pouch from his vest pocket and rolled them each a quirley. He handed one of the smokes to Kate and sighed. "Miss Kate Elder, you're a helluva fine looking woman."

CH 2

Shanssey backed away from Doc and Kate and returned to his friend who leaned on the bar studying Holliday and the woman. "Guess it's love at first sight," said the man with the badge.

Shannsey laughed. "Kate is her own woman. She'll decide if it is love."

The tall lawman moved close to Shanssey and whispered. "So that's Doc Holliday huh? He's a killer ain't he?"

"Well Wyatt, he ain't killed nobody hereabouts. He's gonna dentist and run my Faro table. Stick around awhile and I'll introduce you."

Wyatt Earp straightened his vest and turned to go. "Later John, I'll be in tomorrow afternoon. I'd like to meet him before I go. I'm headed back to Dodge City in a couple more days."

CH 3

"Ho—oh," yelled Ed Bailey.

The wagons stopped. He checked the three flat bed racks loaded with buffalo hides and re-fastened a couple of loose tie-downs. Circling the entire train, he inspected the mule's harnesses, the wagon tongues and the greased wheels before he climbed back into the lead wagon and signaled the drivers to continue. It was only seven more hot and dusty miles to Fort Griffin and every hide was precious. He and his crew shot and skinned buffalo on the Great Plains for the past three weeks. The hunt had been hugely successful.

Now was the time to deliver the goods, pay off the boys, gamble, and spend his earnings on wine, women and song---though he didn't intend to sing much.

The wagons carefully crossed Clear Creek, near its junction with the Brazos River. The pungent odor of a gigantic pile of drying buffalo hides stacked at the edge of town reached Bailey before he saw them.

"Whoa, whoa there mules," Bailey shouted as they entered The Flat. The wagons creaked to a stop.

He got down and approached the small office that stood on a muddy corner at the edge of town. A short bow-legged man, dressed in an ill-fitting suit and carrying a worn green ledger stepped out to meet him. "Quite a load you got there Ed."

The little man eyed the three racks. "Here's my offer. The goin' price ain't but five dollars per hide."

"Jules, you better sharpen your pencil. Try seven," said Ed as he attempted to scratch some of the grime off of his beard.

Jules leaned forward and cupped his right ear. "Eh?"

Bailey took a step toward the buyer. "Jules, ya damn old four-flusher, yer not hagglin' with no greenhorn here. Don't ever try to bulldoze me agin, or we might have a blow-up."

Jules retreated one step, then stopped and rose up on his tiptoes. "Bailey, yer a bull headed, hard old polecat. Six-fifty, and no more," he said with his voice rising.

"Done," said Ed with a satisfied chuckle. "Pay me in cash, and soon! Five boys throwed in with me and are hankerin' to get their wages and raise a little hell."

Jules went to his shack and returned with a fist full of greenbacks. Ed gathered his crew. "Here you go men. Each man's pay plus a ten dollar bonus." The men hoorayed. They grabbed their money and headed for the saloons, dancehalls, or the alley cribs.

Bailey stuffed the balance of the cash into his pocket and walked to the hotel. He reached his room and hung up his buckskin coat. After pouring water into the basin, he took the soap and tried to wash three weeks of stench from buffalo guts and hides off of his hands and arms. He donned his one spare shirt, slicked back his greasy hair, and stuck his six-gun in his coat pocket. A good poker game is what he needed. "I'll be damned if some tinhorn gambler is gonna fleece me this time," he said out loud to himself.

CH 4

Ten days after arriving at Fort Griffin, Doc looked over the hotel room he had adapted into a dental office. A roll top desk held the attaché case that contained his instruments. A rocking chair that could bend backwards would be used for patients. He perched on a tall three legged stool to do the work.

Doc had pulled a rotten tooth out of the mouth of an old trail boss that morning. He folded his pay of three dollars, placed it into his pocket and moved to the rocker to relax.

Doc was tired. Most mornings he filled or pulled the tobacco stained teeth of cowboys or smelly buffalo hunters. Afternoons and nights were spent in the Bee Hive dealing Faro or playing poker. Both activities required acute concentration. Sleep was disrupted by occasional coughing fits followed by medicinal jiggers of whiskey. The strain left him exhausted.

Doc's mind wandered over the acquaintances made since coming to town. His reputation usually caused strangers to regard him with suspicion, fear, or utter disdain. That's good. It kept adversaries wary, unwilling to mount a challenge. But Earp is an unusual lawman. He displayed only curiosity and accepted Doc without judgment. Cold and calculating, no ruffian will get the bulge on Wyatt Earp. He's nearly like family.

"Ah need a friend---and one like that," Doc said to himself. "Wyatt wants me to go to Dodge City---might do it too, when this town plays out."

Doc shook his head and smiled. "And Kate, beautiful and charming Kate. Would she go with me to Dodge? Hot blooded woman, yet with a soft heart. Nice to have occasional conversations with an educated lady for a change. But damn, she can be regular hell on wheels when riled. Never a dull minute with Kate. What a daisy, a real daisy."

CH 5

Kate rolled out of bed. She had shared his life for nearly two weeks now. Doc's deep throated cough commenced as he woke up. A short jigger of whiskey from the bottle that stood on the nightstand quelled the raspy hacking. He set the glass down, sat up and slowly began to dress. Doc's gold watch, lying next to the bottle, indicated that it was nearly noon.

Kate dressed in the rose-colored frock that Doc purchased for her a day earlier. While he dressed she primped in front of the standing full length mirror. She wanted to look good for him. Furthermore, she cheerfully provided a foxy distraction for card players who ogled her as she stood behind Doc during poker games. Picking up the small matching purse she asked, "Where will we go for breakfast?"

Doc stepped in front of her and placed his silver stickpin in the middle of his black ascot. He admired his grey suit and powder blue shirt, donned his Prince Albert coat and grabbed a towel to dust off his boots. Now fully awake, a smug, confident look adorned on his pale face. "Let's go to Shansseys' Bee Hive and have the café send something over. There'll be a game there this afternoon. Some buffalo hunters came in last night. They'll be full of drink and backed up with plenty of cash."

CH 6

When Doc and Kate pushed open the swinging doors of the Bee Hive, John Shanssey rushed to meet them. He nodded toward a corner table. "See those four playin' stud over there? That black bearded galoot is Ed Bailey. He's a rough customer, and he'll hornswoggle you if he can. Best watch him close."

Doc grinned and Shannsey continued. "The old trooper sittin' next to Sheriff Jacobs comes in here whenever he's off-duty. His name is Dugan. He's a straight shooter. The young drover I never saw before."

Then he slipped Doc forty dollars, winked and spoke in a low tone. "Bailey brought in hides yesterday. He's flush."

Doc walked to the table. Kate followed. Ed Bailey looked up. "Care to sit in?"

"I'm your huckleberry," said Doc. He nodded to the sheriff and took a seat to the left of Bailey. Kate moved close behind Doc.

Wide-eyed, the young cowboy's mouth dropped open as he stared at Kate. The soldier slowly stroked his flowing mustache and gazed at her with covetous eyes. With a coy smile, Kate adjusted the neckline of her low cut dress.

Bailey paid no attention to Kate. He counted the stack of bills in front of him. Three members of his crew, however, stood at the bar and watched her every move.

Kate noticed Sheriff Jacobs fix narrowed eyes on John Henry Holliday. A slight frown grew on the lawman's face. There had been no trouble in The Flat, but apparently exaggerated rumors of Doc's previous altercations with the law preceded him.

Doc's face lit up in a slight smile as he dealt the next hand. "Draw poker."

Kate knew the smile was part of the scheme. A confident smile when he dealt, when he looked at his hand, when he bet, and when he won. Even when he lost a hand the grin was there. It was Doc's poker gambit---meant to keep the other players guessing; and it worked.

Kate marveled at Doc's hands; small, clean and delicate. Whether used for dentistry, dealing cards, as a gunman, or as a lover, his hands operated proficiently. This man, she hoped, would take her out of this hellhole known as Fort Griffin.

Doc could laugh or curse with equal ease. He had few friends, but to those he trusted, he demonstrated loyalty to a fault. Drunk or sober, fearless and yet remorseful, sardonic and witty, despondent or sarcastic, Doc Holliday's moods were difficult to anticipate. Though unpredictable and possessed of a quick temper, Doc drew her like a moth to a flame. And whether he would admit it or not, she knew he needed her as well.

Consumption rendered Doc unable to defend himself in possible rough and tumble saloon brawls. Therefore, he always armed himself with a nickel plated .45 pistol carried in a shoulder holster, as well as a long dagger tucked into his breast coat pocket. Potential foes were convinced that he could be lethal with either.

After Doc dealt the five cards to each player, Sheriff Jacobs opened with a three-dollar bet. The trooper tossed in his cards, as did the young cowboy who continued to ogle Kate. Bailey called Jacobs' bet as did Doc. Jacobs drew three cards, Bailey one and Doc took two. They all tossed their waste cards into a pile. Brazenly, Bailey reached over and began to look at the discards.

Doc lowered his head, squinted through slits of eyes and pointed a finger at Bailey. "Ed Bailey, have you sir, no knowledge of poker rules or etiquette? Don't monkey with the deadwood! Play Poker! Peek at the discards again and you lose the hand!"

Bailey grunted, smirked, and growled a string of obscenities. "I play with my own rules."

Doc opened his coat and tapped the butt of the six-shooter in his shoulder holster. He spoke in a somber, but certain tone. "Ah advise you sir, not to monkey with the deadwood. Play poker."

Sheriff Jacobs diffused the tension. "Take it easy boys, let's have a friendly game." Then he looked at his draw and bet ten dollars. Bailey threw a defiant look at Doc and raised the bet ten more dollars. After Doc called, Jacobs folded his cards and got out. "Two pair, aces and jacks," beamed Bailey.

"Three little fours. Ain't that a daisy." announced Doc. His grin returned and he drew in the pot.

"Damn!" growled Bailey. Several of Ed's friends gathered around the table like bodyguards.

Sheriff Jacobs dealt the next hand. After a round of betting, draws and a second round of betting, only Doc and Bailey were still in. Bailey again reached over and took a peek at the discards.

"You were warned." Said Doc as he casually folded his hand and began to draw in the pot.

Bailey jumped to his feet and shouted. "Damn you and damn yer rules." He rose and kicked out a leg of the table. The table flipped over sending cards and drinks flying. The trooper, still seated, tipped over on his back . The cowboy kicked back his chair and hastily ran for the door.


Bailey reached in his coat pocket, came up with a pistol and threw down on Doc. Before he could cock the gun, a bright crimson stream of blood strained through his shirt and flowed steadily from his midsection. A deep gash ran from under his right ribcage to his left hip.

Ed's scream cut through the smoky saloon like a clap of thunder. "Eeaagh! Boys!---Boys!---I'm cut! I'm cut bad! I---" Ed dropped his gun, grabbed his stomach and crumpled to the floor. One of his crew rushed to him and rolled him on his back. The bloody mess spread on the hardwood floor.

Ed's associate wrinkled his nose, choked, drew back and put the back of his hand over his mouth.

Ed Bailey suddenly lay quiet and breathed his last.

Sheriff Jacobs drew his gun. "The knife Doc, give me the knife---and your pistol."

Doc handed the weapons to the Sheriff. Blood from the long knife dripped on Kate's new gown. She took a step back.

Three of Bailey's crew slowly advanced. One of them yelled. "Get a rope!"

"Get back. I'll drop the first man who moves!" warned the Sheriff, pointing his six-shooter at the nearest buffalo hunter. "There'll be no lynching here. Doc, you're under arrest."

Kate looked at Doc. He seemed remarkably calm. A buffalo hunter stared at Doc with venomous eyes, a set jaw and veins that bugled from his neck. He turned his glare to the sheriff, but remained where he stood.

Kate's stomach tightened. Her hand shook as she reached into the small purse. Her fingers closed on a small derringer, but left it alone. "There's too many. Calm down," she told herself. "I gotta do something. Think, think."

Jacobs grabbed Doc's arm as he kept a steady eye on the crowd. They backed toward the door. "Stay put," the sheriff shouted. Upon reaching the entrance, the two men turned and quickly departed. Doc did not look back.

The friends of Bailey retreated to a far corner of the saloon and formed a tight circle. They talked quietly.

Trying to collect her composure, Kate hurried to Shannsey. "Help me John. We've gotta do something. Those buffalo men will find Jacobs and rush him. They're gonna hang Doc!"

Shannsey took Kate's arm as he watched Bailey's crew huddle. He whispered. "Jacobs will take him to the hotel. We'll have to get him out of there."

CH 8

Doc looked around the hotel room. With his drawn pistol, Sheriff Jacobs waved Doc to a chair in the corner of the room and locked the door. He sat on a chair opposite his captive. "I see it as self defense Doc, even though I figured havin' a man like you in town could cause trouble. I'll hold you here until my deputy gets the judge---might take a day. You can bet that those buffalo men'll try to lynch you."

"Ah'm obliged Sheriff," said Doc. "But I'm afraid if you don't get help quick, that'll be the end of John Henry Holliday."

Buffalo hunters were hard men, accustomed to handling life or death situations on the vast prairie. Some were killers. They escaped the law by disappearing on the Great Plains. After Bailey's crew made their plans they would be coming, and soon.

CH 9

With the plan set, calm and determination replaced panic. Kate looked to the big man she and Doc trusted.

"Are we agreed?" asked Shannsey.

Kate nodded.

"All right then, go to the big oak tree behind the wagon yard. It's in the willows down by Clear Creek. Give me about an hour."

Kate hurried to Doc's room at the Planter's Hotel and changed into a pair of Doc's riding pants and one of his shirts. She stuffed a pistol into her pants pocket. With an old hat pulled down over her eyes, she casually walked out of the back door of the hotel. She entered the barn out back and untied all of the horses. Picking up a pitchfork Kate threw some dry straw against the side wall, then opened the door and chased out the freed horses. A lighted match tossed into the straw immediately ignited a blaze.

Kate hurried to the front of the hotel. "Fire! Fire!" she shouted. She entered the hotel and continued to yell. Soon everyone within hearing distance was rushing, bucket in hand, to the blazing barn.

Kate returned to Doc's room and grabbed his attaché case. Then she knocked on hotel room doors yelling "Fire! Fire!" Arriving at a room that was locked, she pulled the pistol from her pocket and pounded on the door. Sheriff Jacobs opened up to find the business end of a six-shooter thrust into his ribs. Kate pushed him with the six-gun. "Sit in the corner Jacobs."

Doc tied the Sheriff to the chair with a curtain pull. After he gagged him with his hanky, he and Kate hurried out of the room and locked the door.

CH 10

As townsfolk rushed to form a bucket brigade to battle the blaze, the commotion, noise and confusion allowed Doc and Kate to scurry toward the willows behind the wagon yard. Two sturdy horses, already saddled, stood tied to a big oak tree. Rain slickers and a large bag of grub hung on the saddles.

Two weeks and four hundred miles later they rode into Dodge City. Doc signed the register at the Dodge House hotel as "Mr. and Mrs. John H. Holliday", and set up his dental office. His relationship with Kate and his friendship with Wyatt Earp were now cemented.


*Continued quote from Wyatt: "Bailey started to throw his gun on Doc, who jerked out his knife and caught Bailey just below the brisket."


Fort Griffin

Established in 1870, the fort housed army troops used to quell Comanche and Kiowa raids. Later, the business district called The Flat by locals, sprung up and became a commercial center for regional enterprise. Besides the buffalo hunters and trail herds, several gunfighters passed through the area in the early 1870's. They included Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. By the mid 1880's the Indian raids waned, the fort closed, and The Flat became a ghost town.

John Shanssey

Known for his boxing skills, Shanssey opened a saloon in The Flat in 1870. Later he went into politics and became the Mayor of Yuma, Arizona. He is still best remembered as the man who introduced Wyatt Earp to Doc Holliday

Wyatt Earp

When Wyatt entered Fort Griffin, he was beginning a notable career. He served as a lawman in Wichita, Dodge City, and Tombstone. He roamed from boomtown to boomtown, and when gold was discovered in Alaska he even travelled to Nome. Wyatt hoped to make a quick strike, whether by mining, law enforcement, or real estate.

Late in his life he even worked as a movie consultant in Hollywood and counted several early Western movie stars as friends.

Despite being involved in many shooting scrapes, including the infamous "Gunfight at the O. K. Corral", Wyatt was never wounded and died peacefully in Los Angeles at age eighty.

Kate Elder

Mary Kate Harony (aliases Kate Fisher, Kate Elder, Kate Holliday) was born in Hungary. When she was ten, her father, a doctor, immigrated to the United States, ultimately settling in Iowa. At age sixteen she ran away from her foster home, stowing away on a Mississippi river boat. When she met Doc Holliday, she was twenty-two and considered herself a high class "sporting woman." Her tempestuous relationship with Doc lasted for about fifteen years, until Doc died of consumption on November 8th, 1887 in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

In later life, Kate married a man named Cummings. When he died she moved into the Pioneer Home in Prescott Arizona. She died there in 1940 at age ninety.

John Henry "Doc" Holliday

Doc Holliday is one of the most interesting characters of the Old West. His many biographers are still trying to come up with "the real Doc Holliday". Born in Georgia, in 1851, educated in the classics in primary school, Doc went on to graduate from Pennsylvania Dental College in 1872. Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, called consumption at the time. His family sent him to Dallas to recover. (He may also have been sent west to stop a scandal because of the love he shared with his first cousin, Mattie.) Doc and Wyatt met for the first time in Fort Griffin and became lifelong friends. Wyatt described Doc as "a dentist whom necessity had made a gambler; a gentleman whom disease had made a frontier vagabond; a philosopher whom life had made a caustic wit; a long lean ash-blond fellow nearly dead with consumption, and at the same time the most skillful gambler and the nerviest, speediest, deadliest man with a six-gun I ever knew."


Lowell "Zeke" Ziemann was a mathematics instructor and basketball coach for sixteen years. For the last thirty years he has worked in the financial services field, as a planner, registered representative, and compliance supervisor. He is now semi retired.

Zeke has had a life long interest in the Old West. He has a large collection of books, movies, and magazines that deal with many facets of that era. He has visited historical sites from Deadwood to Tombstone and is a member of the Wild West History Association.

He has had six short stories published on line.


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