Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Closet Origamist

I’m interested in the Wild West; I am something of a “buff”, and I’ve been wondering lately about the “Dead Man’s Hand”. As in: I know it’s aces and eights, but I couldn’t find anything about the kicker (n.b. the kicker is the fifth card), or if there even was a kicker (Hickok could even have discarded it; source: The Poker Encyclopedia; Allen, Hayes), and I know that ghosts are always bitter little clowns (Ghosts: if you are reading this, I would be happy to be proven wrong!), but I decide to pay the 40 bucks and do that service where ghosts take you back in time to see stuff and explain the context.

This is still a new service and there are kinks to work out, for sure. My experience with this has been that the ghosts won’t ever go back to their own moment of death; they just want to look at stuff that happened after they became omniscient, so I settle on the ghost of Davis Tutt Jr, whom Hickok killed in 1865. I calculate this should give me about 10 years of context.

He comes the next night at 1am (ghosts always show up at midnight in the time zone they died in). He says, “Scroooooge just kidding it’s Davis.”

I tell him what I’m interested in and he says, “What are you, a ‘buff’? OK, let’s go,” and then he takes my hand, which is the only part of the ghost you can touch, and we are flying through the air. The wind blows through his gunshot hole and plays the tune “Kingdom Coming” by Henry Clay Work (which was a popular song in the Old West (source: Popular Songs of the Old West; Gibbs, White); to which he sings along :

Say, darkies, hab you seen de massa, wid de muffstash on him face

It makes me uncomfortable!

But the way in which I am made to feel uncomfortable by this masks the barfing that is typically concomitant with time travel by ghost handshake and the next thing I know it’s 1866 in Springfield, Missouri and so points for Tutt there. “This is where the railroad came through,” he says, “I just missed it by a few years.”

I tell him he didn’t miss it, actually, due to he was a ghost and therefore omniscient, but he tells me there’s a very confusing period after you die where there’s a lot of vengeance and you miss a lot.

“Sorry, I’m not King Ghost, PhD or whatever,” is what I should say but instead I say, “OK, What I am interested in is the Dead Man’s Hand.”

Tutt shrugs, which is weird when ghosts do it because they can actually shrug their shoulders through their ears: “Look over there, then,” he says, and we’re in a back room where Hickok and Sempronius Boyd, who was the judge for Hickok’s trial (source: Encyclopedia of American Government, 1850-1899; Herringsworth), are playing cards. Boyd has tens over nines and calls; Hickok does some weird legerdemain and reveals four Jacks. Boyd frowns and then leaves and later gives the jury mutually exclusive instructions in Hickok’s conviction, which leads to his acquittal. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s the Dead Man’s Hand,” Tutt says. Like a big pronouncement, like he’s earned the 40 bucks. Then he says: “If the jury had gone the other way, we might all have been spared ‘The Daring Buffalo Chases of the Plains’.” Like a joke, but if this is meant to be a joke, I don’t know what the joke is. We jump.

Now it’s 1869, and Hickok is playing cards with Bill Mulvey, which I didn’t know he had done that (he will shoot Mulvey in another week or so; source: Calamity Bill, Rosa). Mulvey lays down a ten high straight, and starts to collect the pot, but then Hickok does another hand gesture and shows that he has a flush. I don’t get to see what it is a flush of before we jump again.

Now we’re in a hotel room and Hickok is folding playing cards into little angular birds. Tutt elbows me, which I don’t notice at first because ghosts? Bad at elbowing. “One for every person he told George Ward Nichols he killed,” Tutt says, putting his shoulders through his ears. We jump to when Hickok shoots Mulvey by bluffing him into thinking there are more people there then there actually are: “Don’t shoot him, boys!” Hickok yells. Mulvey hesitates and Hickok guns him down, startling some meadowlarks upward. I remember the collective noun for birds is a “flush” and we jump to Abilene to see Phil Coe unfolding a bunch of the folded up cards (and being a grouch about it) so he and Hickock can play a game. “I don’t know why this is my job,” he says.

He (Coe) holds up a bird he is about to untessellate and says he once killed one just like it. Hickok says, “Did it have a pistol? Was it shooting back? I will be.” Pretty much unprompted! Coe will soon be Hickok’s last gunfight victim, I know from books, although “gunfight” is stretching it in this case. When they play, Hickok’s hand beats Coe’s two pair. It is either three of a kind or four of a kind. It can’t be five of a kind, obviously, but at one point it does look like that; we jump a few more years ahead.

Hickok has pretty bad trachoma and his lashes fold inward like a flytrap as he writes a note to his wife Agnes whom he abandoned not long before. He signs off:

With wishes even for my enemies, I will make the plunge and try to swim to the other shore.

He folds the hotel stationery into a little envelope with a “pull here” tab. Tutt and I hold hands; we jump.

And here at last we are on August 12, 1876, in the Dakota Territory, specifically in the Black Hills, specifically in Dead Wood, specifically in Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon. Hickok sits with his back to the door. I peer over to see his hand: an ace of clubs, an eight of spades, a four of hearts, a Jack and three of diamonds. So, basically, nothing? I don’t get it. Hickok will soon be shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall. I tell Tutt, “I don’t get it.” Tutt waits until McCall comes in, then we zip back to present day. Tutt’s bullet hole whistles and Tutt sings:

It mus’ be now de kingdom coming, an’ de year ob Jubilo

And we’re back in my room.

I would like it said that Tutt was courteous to me, and that is why I ranked him A+ and I know people are cheesed off at me for not ranking him lower, because that was the last A+ he needed to move on to the Afterlife. What I am saying is I am sorry for other “buffs” who may have had questions specifically for him (I hope you all “have wishes even for [your] enemies”! Source: above letter), and I will try to answer anything I can if you email me. I’ve gotten a few emails about parting words, and Tutt’s parting words were answering my question about my not “getting it” about the Dead Man’s Hand.

“What’s not to get?” Tutt said, “He’s famous. But who will remember Sempronius Boyd? Who will remember Coe? Or me?” which I would say is empirically ridiculous, given I just spent 40 bucks on him, but maybe he meant, “Who, other than the ‘buffs’?” And then he said his last thing before his body spread out through the room and then turned into basically the air in the room; he said: “That’s how it is with guys like him: even when he folds, he wins.”

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