“I met her in a poker game. She was dealin’ for the house at the Bee Hive Saloon in the Flats at old Fort Griffin over in Texas. As I recall, a typical evening went kinda like this.”
“I’ll see your five and raise you twenty,” uttered this smug Eastern dude with his snooty British accent.
“That’s too rich for my blood,” said the young cowboy as he made a big deal out of tossing in his hand.
“I’m out too. I fold,” I mumbled.
“I’ll see your twenty and raise you twenty more … here’s my forty … I call you.” Declared the attractive redhead all dolled up in a dress more suited for a church social than this dusty old saloon.
“You got bigger bollocks than any man at this table, Lottie. I never met a woman who could bluff the way you do. I’ll see your twenty. What do you have?” demanded the city slicker.
“Three queens,” Lottie said as she laid down her cards and began raking in the chips with her forearms. “I think that’ll do it for tonight, gentlemen. Good luck. I’ll see you all tomorrow. Goodnight or more appropriately good morning,” she said as she rose from the table. The house guy sittin’ behind her jumped to his feet, pulled out Lottie’s chair and began stacking up her winnings. She didn’t seem to care that she was leaving over three hundred dollars on the table.
As if on cue, I rose too, pocketed my chips and said my goodbyes. Lottie left through the back door of the saloon as I strolled out of the front. We met down the block a ways and walked arm-and-arm to her one-room adobe shanty over in Clear Fork. She always made it known in some subtle way at the poker table if I was invited over that night or not. I’d guess we spent about three or four nights a week together.
The minute she left the saloon she was a southern lady again and anyone who didn’t know her from the Bee Hive wouldn’t suspect that she was as good and as tough a gambler as the west has ever known. It was these two personas and her ability to switch from one to the other that fascinated me. Oh yeah, I was also fascinated by her flaming red hair, her beautiful brown eyes, her sophisticated wardrobe and her endless stories of her travels and other adventures.
We would have a drink or two and talk about anything and everything. She was especially fond of talkin’ about growing up in Kentucky and talkin’ on and on about her father. She revered him and was grateful for all of their travels and for him teachin’ her to gamble. I remember how excited she was telling me about her many trips to New Orleans and her trip to Europe. I had never met anyone who’d been to Europe before and that just added to the mystery that was Lottie. She would also talk sadly about the war years and the loss of her father and her mother’s mental breakdown. After a couple of whiskeys we’d crawl into bed and make love until the sun came up.
I had to be out of Lottie’s before sunrise so that no one would see me leavin’. Her real love, Frank Thurmond, was run out of town a couple of months earlier after he killed a man with his Bowie knife. The dead man's family put a bounty on Frank’s head and he had to leave town in a hurry. I didn’t know if he kept in touch with Lottie or if he was ever comin’ back but I knew one thing for sure … I wanted no part of Frank’s Bowie knife.
I was in love with both Lotties … Lottie the rough and tough gambler that beat the hell out of everyone at poker, craps and faro and Lottie the southern belle with all of the manners and refinement of her convent school education and her well-to-do life as the mistress of a Kentucky plantation. She might have been in love with me too but with her you just couldn’t tell. I think she saw me as just another gambler but she believed that Frank Thurmond was her ticket back to a life of respectability.
My favorite stories about Lottie, the consummate gambler, were part of the folklore of the Bee Hive. One story went that Lottie and Doc Holliday had become friends and Doc spent a lotta time at Lottie’s faro game. Doc was at Lottie’s table one evening when his girlfriend, Big Nose Kate Elder, stormed in. She was intensely jealous of Lottie and started such a heated argument that both women drew their guns. Doc stopped the fight before either fired a shot. And on another evening Kate got on to Lottie again for tryin’ to steal Doc. Lottie supposedly rose from her chair and yelled at Kate. “You low down slinkin’ slut! If I should step in soft cow manure, I would not even clean my boot with that bastard! I’ll show you a thing or two,” she screamed as she pulled her gun. Kate drew her gun and again Doc had to break up the fight. Now, I never heard Lottie use language like that, but as I told you, her gamblin’ house persona was as tough as they come.
I was madly in love for the first time in my life … in love with someone who only used me to fend off her loneliness in that desolate little town. I was Lottie’s only friend away from the saloon … the only person she could play her cultured, southern belle role with.
I still remember the day she left me; it was May 25, 1877. I wandered into the Bee Hive a little after 10 that night, my usual time. Lottie wasn’t there. I thought she might be runnin’ a little late after our wild night of love together. At midnight I went over to the owner, John Shaunessey, and asked about Lottie. He said she had resigned and caught the Fort Concho stage earlier that afternoon. She had left without even saying goodbye.
The Bee Hive just wasn’t the same without Lottie so I moved my game over to the Cattle Exchange across the street. I soon tired of that too. I wanted to leave Fort Griffin, but to where? One night I bumped into Sheriff John Jacobs and happened to mention how much I missed Lottie. He claimed to have talked to her right before she left town. She told him she was heading west to New Mexico or Arizona or maybe all the way to California. The next day I caught the same westbound stage that Lottie had taken a little less than a year earlier.
Bouncin’ along in a stage gives you plenty of time to think. If Lottie were alone she would be drawn to a gamblin’ town but if she’d hooked up with Frank they would, more than likely, be in some booming mining town. Where would Frank go? Let’s see, Frank was a southern gentlemen turned cowboy, adventurer and all-around tough guy. Lottie had told me many times that she admired Frank for his southern roots, his mastery of western life and mostly, his get up and go. He was a hustler. Now where would I find a hustler?
I bummed around, gambled and got on with my life in one dusty town after another for the next few years. I’d ask any out-of-towners if they had run across Lottie or Doc Holliday in their recent travels or if they knew of any mining towns booming at the time. Lottie was proud of and told me many times how Frank and Doc Holliday were good friends so I thought Doc might be my key to findin’ Lottie. One crusty old prospector seemed to think that the next big boomtown in our part of the country would be Silver City over in the New Mexico Territory.
Silver City wasn’t your usual lawless boomtown; it was wound as tight as a banjo string. This rogue lawman, Dan Tucker, was shootin’ folks right and left. Late one night I was playin’ poker in my usual haunt when Dan Tucker busted into the bar to round up, what I later learned were three suspected horse thieves. He had no qualms about goin’ head-to-head with three armed desperados. A gunfight broke out and I dived under the table as soon the shootin’ started. When the smoke cleared there stood “Dangerous” Dan Tucker over one wounded and two dead cowboys. That was it for me. I’d had enough of Tucker’s Silver City and moved on.
It was gittin’ on three years since Lottie had walked out of my life. By then everyone knew that Doc Holliday, Kate Elder and Wyatt Earp had hung up their spurs in Tombstone, over in the Arizona Territory. Kate, or so the stories went, was runnin’ a bordello while Wyatt was practically runnin’ the town. As best as anyone knew, Doc would be pilin’ his chips on Tombstone’s faro tables. I was off to Tombstone.
Tombstone was certainly a boomtown but a boomtown unlike any I’d ever seen. It had an air of permanence about it that other mining towns always lacked. It was as if the 1000 or so residents intended to build a real city, and a sophisticated city to boot. The miners were pulling gold and silver out of the ground so fast that the saloon keepers, gamblers, hustlers, painted ladies and shop keepers had to work overtime just to keep up with ‘em.
Everyone dressed so well with their big city fashions that you had to remind yourself that you were in a mining town and not some snooty town back east. I upgraded my wardrobe and grabbed a chair at a poker table in the Oriental Saloon.
I renewed my friendship with Doc and avoided Kate as best I could. I didn’t want to start that whole Lottie/Kate thing all over again. Kate was runnin’ Tombstone’s first sportin’ house out of a huge tent. She had lots of girls and cheap whiskey. What more could a man ask for? Doc was just being Doc, gamblin’, drinkin’ and enjoyin’ his considerable reputation as the town’s big-name gunfighter.
Wyatt was ridin’ shotgun for Wells Fargo when I arrived but was soon appointed deputy sheriff for the southern part of Pima County. Wyatt and I spent a lot of time together after he became part owner in the gamblin’ concession at my hangout, the Oriental Saloon.
I liked Tombstone better than anywhere I’d been in a long time. It was growin’ like a prairie fire but in a good kinda way. So much so that a little bit of culture was actually creepin’ back into my life. Maybe my interest in culture was somehow linked to the rising balance of my bank account. My winnings were mounting so fast that I’d be able to retire soon. I crossed my fingers that the mines would hold out.
One hot summer evening in 1884 Doc invited me to have a drink with him at the bar. Over our second drink Doc said somewhat tentatively, “I know you been lookin’ for Lottie for some time now. Well, I just got a letter from Frank Thurmond. He’s lookin’ for some investment money for some mining thing or another. I thought you’d be interested.”
“You think Lottie’s with him?”
“I’d bet my boots on it.”
“Where did he say he’s livin’?”
“I know you’re gonna go after Lottie but I want to remind you of one thing before I tell you where she’s at. I like you and I don’t want you to do anything stupid. Listen and listen good … Frank Thurmond is one tough hombre. You go sniffin’ around Lottie and you’re likely to find your balls hangin’ over Frank’s fireplace. You can count on that. Understand?”
“Yeah Doc, I understand. Where is she?”
“Deming, New Mexico Territory.”
The wind was blowin’ when I got off of the Southern Pacific at the Deming Station. I was really impressed with the train station with its Harvey House Hotel and all. I walked around town just to get a feel for things. Downtown was four blocks or so of mercantile stores, a bank, a hotel, a drug store, a couple of Chinese laundries and, thank god, a number of saloons. If I thought Tombstone had a feel of permanence in a thrown-together Western sort of way, Deming had it even more so. Deming was a brick and mortar Eastern city in the making. I had a drink in a friendly saloon and checked into the hotel.
I spent the following day wandering around town. Everyone seemed to know Mr. and Mrs. Thurmond. They apparently lived a couple of blocks away. I hadn’t realized until then that Frank and Lottie were actually married and living together as husband and wife. What should I do? I had been searching for Lottie for years and now that I finally found her I didn’t know what to do. I knew my love for her was hopeless but I had to see her and see for myself.
After two stiff drinks and numerous rehearsals of my opening words. I headed off to Frank and Lottie’s house. Lottie opened the door. She stared at me for a moment before her puzzled look changed to a look of surprise and then to a welcoming smile.
“Why Bob, it’s been years. Please come in.”
Where were of those witty lines I’d so patiently rehearsed?
“I haven’t seen you in … what’s it been … um … seven years now? What have you been up to?” Lottie said as if she were making polite conversation with an old classmate rather than a bygone lover.
She was beautiful; even prettier than I remembered. The last few years had been kind to her. Let’s see … she would have turned 40 earlier that year and a damn attractive 40 at that.
“I’ve been … ah …I’m still doin’ what I’ve always done?” I said nervously.
“Would you like lemonade or maybe something a little stronger?”
“Lemonade would be fine.”
Lottie left the room and I looked around for the first time. The parlor was richly decorated in collector pieces, expensive furniture and fine art. She had sure come a long way from her little adobe shack in the Flats.
We talked and talked. Not like the intimate lovers we had once been but much more like old friends trying to catch up on each other’s lives. I thought I saw a tinge of jealousy when I talked about all that was going on over in Tombstone and about Doc and Wyatt. She sighed when I told her Doc’s sent his regards. She talked about Frank and his business ventures, their ranch, her work with the church and the civic organizations in town. She was nothing like the lonely southern belle I remembered, the woman who longed for her long lost girlhood, and the privileged life she led before the war.
If I had loved two different Lotties in Texas, I was now talking to a third Lottie -- Lottie the married, respectable, church-goin’, civic-minded society woman. She was no longer either of the two young women that I fell in love with. The flaming redhead who could take your last dollar at the poker table or the southern belle that could cuddle and giggle in bed like a teenage schoolgirl.
As I was preparing to leave, Lottie said, “I don’t play poker anymore even though I miss it sometimes. I’ve been thinking about having a little game, just for old time’s sake. Just a friendly game, not the high stakes poker we used to play. Frank will be out at the ranch until Saturday. Do you think you could come by on Thursday at say … 2 o’clock in the afternoon for a few hands of stud poker?”
“I couldn’t think of anything I’d enjoy more,” I said immediately thinking of something that I would enjoy a whole lot more.
“Good, see you on Thursday. Bye.”
What was this poker game all about and which Lottie will come to the table, the accomplished gambler or the bridge playing society matron?
Thursday was a long time a comin’.
Lottie had set a real poker table up in what must have been her dining room. She introduced me as an old friend from Texas to our playing partners, James Madison a neighbor and local business man and another old gambling buddy from somewhere else. She just called him Slim.
I wasn’t surprised when Lottie the society matron sat down at the table. She poured whiskey all around. In all of the years I had known her I had never seen her take a drink at a poker table or in a saloon for that matter. The game went well. The new Lottie wasn’t half as good as the old Lottie but she won her share of the hands. I didn’t like Slim at all. He was the shifty sort of slime ball that you run into in almost every gambling town out here in the west.
We had been playing for a couple of hours when Frank stormed into the room. Lottie stopped the game and introduced Frank to her guests. He seemed okay with coming home and finding his wife entertaining three men while he was away. I remembered Doc’s warning to me -- something about my body parts hanging from Frank’s fireplace. Frank tore into Slim right away while Lottie tried to carry on a conversation with James and me. Soon Frank and Slim were yelling. Something about an old gambling debt over in Kingston as best I could tell. They became so heated that Lottie, James and I stood and backed away from the table just as Slim pulled a derringer from his coat and was bringing it up to Frank’s chest. Frank reached behind his head, pulled his Bowie knife from beneath his shirt collar and slashed Slim across the throat. Slim fell to the floor in a pool of blood. No one moved. No one ran to help Slim. We just stood there startled and watched him die.
James left and I was reaching for my hat when Lottie came up and pulled me close to her saying, “Don’t go Bob. Stay and help us with Slim.”
“There’s not much I can do for Slim now.”
“Yes, you can help us get rid of his body. He’s a drifter; no one will miss him if we can just get him out of here.”
“Frank can do that, he knows the town and the countryside. He can dump Slim somewhere where he won’t be found.”
“Yes but you see Frank was involved in a little scrape some time back and I don’t want him associated at all with Slim’s death. Can you help us get rid of the body? I’d be ever so thankful.” She said as she held me. She was her southern belle again, the girl that I had fallen in love with.
How could I say no?
We stripped Slim of all of his clothing and rolled him into a tarp that Frank had brought in from somewhere while Lottie cleaned up the blood on the floor. We carried Slim out and dumped him in the back of Frank’s wagon. Frank said we should wait until dark before we took Slim for his final ride. He offered me a drink and we went back in the house and sat at the poker table. Frank picked up Slim’s money from the table and put it in his pocket.
No one said anything. We just stared at the wall and drank.
Finally it was dark; Frank stood and indicated it was time to go. He went out to the wagon, got a shovel and we headed out.
About 3 miles out of town to the west we came to a lonely spot with some small sand banks near the road. Frank stopped the team and we carried Slim over to some soft sand next to a rise. We took turns digging and after we had dug about three feet we dumped Slim in the hole, covered him and headed home.
Lottie wasn’t there when we got back. I said goodbye to Frank and made my way back to the hotel.
The next couple of days I just sat in my room trying to figure out what to do next? What to do about Lottie if anything. I had finally decided to head back to Tombstone when I heard a knock on my hotel room door. I opened it and the sheriff came charging in. “I’m arresting you for the murder of Anthony Ricco, also known as Slim. Put your hands up and let me search you.”
“You got to be mistaken. I don’t know any Anthony Ricco and I haven’t killed any body.”
“I’ve got three eyewitnesses that saw you cut Mr. Rico’s throat over at the Thurmond’s house on Thursday evenin’. Frank Thurmond took me out to the body this mornin’. It looks like it happened just the way they said. Now come with me.”
“That’s my story and I swear it’s true. You have to believe me,” I said to my new lawyer through the bars of my cell.
“Oh, I believe you all right but will a jury when they’ve got three eyewitnesses that say they saw it differently?”
“What should I do?” I stammered.
“If we can show that Slim pulled a gun on you, we can plead self defense.”
“What did the so-called eyewitnesses say about Slim and a gun?”
“They said he didn’t have one.”
“What’s goin to happen to me?”
“You’re gonna hang.”
Carlotta J. Thompkins aka Laura Denbo,
Author’s note: I tried to portray Lottie and all of the other characters in my story exactly as history has recorded them. I made up everything about Lottie’s dealings with me along with the players and activities at the final poker game in my story. Although I made up the scene where Frank kills Slim he did kill another man in a quarrel with his Bowie knife in August 1884 at the time my story is set. All of my information about Lottie came from the article Lottie Deno: Queen of the Paste Board Flippers by Maggie Van Ostrand and the books Lottie Deno, Gambling Queen of Hearts by Cynthia Rose, Pistols, Petticoats, & Poker, The Real Lottie Deno: No Lies or Alibis by Jan Devereaux and The Story of Lottie Deno - Her Life and Times by J. Marvin Hunter. Lottie and Frank continued to live in Deming following my story. Frank died in 1908 at the age of 67 and Lottie passed away in 1934 at the age of 89. They both rest today in adjacent graves at Deming’s Mountain View Cemetery. She is mourned as one of Deming’s most loved and respected pioneer citizens and is best remembered for her efforts in the building of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and her founding of the Golden Gossip Club, a club that still meets today. Lottie Deno lives on in our hearts through the characters she inspired. The beautiful, redheaded Miss Kitty who runs the Longbranch Saloon in the Gunsmoke radio and television series is based upon Lottie Deno as is Laura Denbo, the role played by Rhonda Fleming in the Gunfight At The O. K. Corral. Lottie, we’re still talking about you.
Faro Nell, Charlotte Thurmond and as I
remember her: Lottie Deno