Doctor John Holliday receives a grim diagnosis, and decides to leave his home in Atlanta and to abandon his profession of dentistry to seek better health on the south-western frontier.
“Well, John, I would have to confirm your diagnosis. The symptoms are clear. You show all signs of suffering from the early stages of tuberculosis. I’m sure sorry.”
The speaker was a thin man with a lined but kindly face, topped with a mane of greying hair.
“A final gift from my dying mother,” said Doc Holliday dryly. “Tell me, Charles, what’s your recommended treatment.”
“Well, John, you know that there’s no cure for this disease, but you can prolong your life considerably if you find the right climate and take care of yourself,” said the doctor.
“You mean quit my drinkin’ and cut out the cigars,” said Doc, smiling bitterly.
“Well, that’d sure help,” replied the doctor. “But the best thing you could do would be to head out west, maybe down to Arizona or New Mexico. It’s hot and dry, and the air is clear. It’d do you the world of good, and out there dentists are few and far between. Your services would be in high demand – all those cowpokes with a toothache!”
Doc Holliday grimaced. “I’ve had my fill of looking into people’s mouths and pulling out rotten, blackened teeth,” he snapped. “I’ll find another trade for myself that pays better and more regular!”
“All that college, all that training gone to waste. That’d be a crying shame!” declared Charles. “Besides you’re a good dentist, John.”
“But a better poker player!” retorted Doc. “Thanks for your advice, Charles,” he continued as his friend looked set to protest. “I’ll take it under consideration.”
The two men shook hands, and Doc left the office without a backward glance.
Doctor Charles Forsythe shook his head regretfully. “That’s a talent wasted,” he said out loud. “I wonder what’ll become of that fellow!”
“Are you really going to leave Atlanta, Doc?” said Mary Lou, her face a picture of disappointment.
“It’s for my health,” replied Doc Holliday. He was sipping a last cup of coffee at the restaurant. Business was slow, and the waitress was standing next to his table, chatting amiably. She noticed that he had hardly touched his food. Eats like a sparrow, she thought. No wonder he’s so thin and frail-looking.
“Why I’m sure gonna miss you, Doc Honey!” said Mary Lou. “What’s ailin’ you?”
“I’m a consumptive,” explained Doc. “I have tuberculosis. It’s a family curse. My mother died of it when I was just fifteen years old. I was real close to her. I grieved her loss for a long time.”
“I’m so sorry, Doc,” said Mary Lou. “What was your mother like?”
A faraway expression came into Doc’s eyes. “Her name was Alice. She was a handsome woman, so kind and considerate. She taught me good Southern manners, how to be courteous and polite to a lady,” he replied. “A lady like you, Mary Lou,” he continued in a teasing tone.
“Gosh, Doc. I ain’t no lady. Just a simple waitress in a restaurant,” simpered Mary Lou.
“One does not judge a lady by her appearance or social standing, but by her behavior,” insisted Doc. “And you, Mary Lou, have always behaved to me with great courtesy and kindness!”
“Why, thank you, Doc!” said Mary Lou, blushing to the roots of her light brown hair. “You’re such a gentleman. What about your father? What kind of man was he?”
“He was a soldier,” answered Doc. “His name was Henry Burroughs Holliday and he fought in the Mexican-American War and in the recent War between the Union and the Confederacy. He reached the rank of Major in the Confederate army. After the conflict was over, he became a druggist and the mayor of Valdosta, Georgia. He taught me how to shoot.”
Doc drew his pistol and laid it on the table.
“Now, Doc,” said Mary Lou, “you know as how Mrs. Gillespie don’t hold with weapons in the restaurant. Be a good gentleman and please put that weapon out of sight. Is your father still living, Doc,” she said as Holliday holstered his weapon.
“Yes, but I haven’t seen him in some years,” answered Doc. “We had a falling-out over his marrying a second wife. I didn’t care for the women. She took to ordering me around and making trouble for me. She was only eight years older than me, and I believe she was after my father’s money. I took off for Philadelphia at the age of nineteen, to study dentistry at Pennsylvania College, earned my diploma, and here I am back in Atlanta Georgia drawing teeth by day and in the evening…drawing high straights at the poker table!”
Mary Lou giggled. “Gosh, Doc, you’re so funny sometimes! Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“My sister died before I was born,” said Doc. “She was just a baby. I had a stepbrother, a Mexican named Francisco Hidalgo, whom my father adopted, but he died of the tuberculosis too.”
“My, what a tragic life you’ve had!” said Mary Lou, laying her hand sympathetically on his arm. “I wish you weren’t leavin’ town, Doc. We was just getting acquainted!”
“I’m sorry too, Mary Lou,” replied Doc kindly, putting his own hand over hers. “Maybe one day I’ll be back this way, and I can look you up. Anyway, just time for one more poker game before I leave. So long, Mary Lou.” Doc threw a handful of notes on the table that included a generous tip for his friend.
“Gee, thanks, Doc,” said Mary Lou. “You’re a real gentleman!”
With a wave of his hand, Doc Holliday was gone leaving young Mary Lou staring wistfully after him.
Doc Holliday eyed the growing pile of chips on the table in front of him, and commenced to deal the next hand. One of his opponents across the table, a florid-faced man named Scott, picked up the whisky bottle and said in a slurred
“Have a drink, Doc!”
“No, thank you,” replied Doc coldly. He didn’t like the man. A heavy drinker and a poor card player!
“What’s the matter, Doc? Ain’t I good enough to drink with?” said Scott menacingly.
Doc’s icy cold eyes flickered over the man’s red face.
“It’s nothing personal,” he explained. “I never drink when I’m playing cards. Miss Sophie Welton, the mulatto woman, who taught me how to play poker, said that you always need a clear head to play well. I’ve always followed her advice.” He swallowed his revulsion. “I’ll be happy to drink with you when the game is over. When I’ve relieved you of all your money!” he added. A light ripple of laughter ran around the table because Scott had indeed been losing heavily.
“Just deal the cards, Doc!” he growled. “From the top!”
Doc ignored the last remark with its implication of cheating. He knew that all the players with the exception of Scott trusted him to play fairly. His jacket lay, neatly folded on a nearby chair, and his sleeves were rolled back from his wrists. There was no way to conceal a card. He dealt with deliberate slowness lest Scott should suspect any sleight of hand.
Scott glanced at his cards, and a visible gleam came into his eyes. This man is incapable of bluffing, thought Doc. A poor player!
Scott pushed a pile of chips into the center of the table and called for three cards. The satisfaction on his face when he placed the new cards in his hand was transparent for all to see. Doc took two cards himself.
The other two players folded, leaving only Scott and Doc playing the hand. Scott discarded two cards and took two more. As he placed them in his hand, he could barely contain his excitement.
“I’ll raise you fifty dollars,” he said, pushing his remaining pile of chips into the pot.
Doc matched him and called Scott.
“Two pairs, kings and jacks!” Scott crowed triumphantly, turning over his cards with a flourish.
Doc turned his cards over slowly. Four of diamonds, seven of hearts, a pair of aces. Scott was already reaching for the pot when Doc turned the last card. Another ace! Three aces! Scott froze, a look of disbelief on his face, and drew back his hands. Doc’s sharp eyes spotted the right hand sliding under the table.
“My hand, gentlemen, I believe,” said Doc evenly, drawing the chips across the table towards his chair.
“Something goddamned fishy about this game!” blurted Scott, his florid face livid with anger.
“What are you implying, sir?” said Doc sharply.
“I don’t know how you did it, you tin-horn Southern gent, but you cheated me!” roared Scott reaching for his gun.
His right hand had scarcely touched the handle of his pistol when he noticed that Doc’s pistol was already pointing directly at his heart. His mouth dropped open at the speed with which his opponent had drawn his weapon.
“I regret that I must ask you to withdraw those last remarks in front of these two witnesses,” said Doc calmly. “You can see that my sleeves are rolled, I wear no jacket, and I dealt the cards slowly so that your drink-addled brain could see clearly that there was no cheating. Did you see anything irregular, gentlemen?” he said to the two other players. They shook their heads. “Well, sir?” he said to Scott in a menacing tone, deliberately cocking his pistol.
Beads of sweat formed on Scott’s brow and slowly trickled down his face. He coughed nervously.
“I guess I misspoke. It was a fair game,” he muttered finally.
Doc carefully lowered the hammer of his pistol and holstered it.
“I think that’s enough poker for tonight, gentlemen” he said, rising from the table and pocketing his chips. “A good evening to you!” He put on his jacket and hat, and turned to leave.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Scott’s hand coming up from beneath the table.
He whirled and fired in one fluid movement. The crash of his pistol was deafening in the hushed room.
Scott’s pistol slipped from his nerveless fingers to the floor, and he clutched frantically at his shoulder where blood was oozing from his shirt.
“You are fortunate, sir, that my father instructed me so well in the use of fire-arms,” declared Doc. “I might have killed you, but you are not worth the bullet. May I advise you to desist from the game of poker and also from pistol duels as your face transparently betrays your every emotion? You would be wise to seek medical attention without delay for I should not wish to have your death on my conscience. And now, good night.”
Doc Holliday backed cautiously to the saloon door, and out into the night. In the safety of the street he holstered his pistol, and only then noticed that his legs were beginning to shake uncontrollably. He leaned against the wall for support, and rolled himself a cigarette as the trembling gradually subsided.
“Just as well that I’m leaving town tomorrow,” he murmured. “Scott may have friends!”
The following day, Doc Holliday tossed his dentist diploma into the waste basket in his empty office, and without a backward glance boarded the morning stage for Dallas, Texas.