Hustle Henry and the Cue-Ball Kid
It was mid-morning on September 30, 1908. A massive cloud of dust swirled through the air as a group of horsemen galloped across the marshlands of Louisiana under the intensity of an unrelenting sun that threatened to scorch the earth. Depending on whose testimony one trusted, there were from five to nine riders, but to a man they believed the group represented the remaining members of the Hole-in-the-Table-Bunch.
An old codger named Clem, last name unknown, his face a mask of leather after decades of exposure under a brutal Southwestern sun, later came forward, claiming to be the only eyewitness.
“Yup, all I saw was a bunch o’ horse’s asses with tails a-waggin’,” he said, “but as sher as I’m standin’ here, it was them.”
The Hole-in-the-Table-Bunch was a gang of pool hustlers journeying through Texas and Louisiana from 1902 to 1908, striking fear in the hearts of billiard players everywhere.
One might wonder what did become of the Bunch.
Nobody knows for sure, except perhaps Clem, and he isn’t talking. Some believe the entire gang is dead, cut down by outlaws, their lifeless bodies scattered along the desolate prairies of Texas and soggy marshlands of Louisiana. Others say a mob that comprised their victims from pool halls, saloons, and hotels hanged them from the highest tree in the Gulf Coast region. There are those swearing the gang fled North America for another country.
Clarence Marvin Flannery was born to Elijah and Matilda Flannery at three thirty-two in the afternoon of June 19, 1866 in a modest two-room farmhouse on the outskirts of Topeka, Kansas. For the first seven years of his life, Clarence lived as normal a life as any son of a hard-working and dedicated Kansas farmer. Although he received no formal education, his mother taught him basic reading and writing, with Clarence taking a special interest in history and keeping up to date on current events through local newspapers.
Clarence’s life changed dramatically on his eighth birthday when his father introduced him to the game of pool.
Elijah Flannery, a hustler of note during his wild and more carefree years, build a crude table of ash in their barn. Clarence used a gnarled tree branch as a cue stick and two balls his father chiseled out of stone to practice as much as he wanted, provided he finished his chores on the farm. Neither Clarence nor his father realized until many years later how much that day influenced not only Clarence’s life, but would adversely affect the lives of scores of others as well.
Clarence immediately fell in love with the game of pool and not a day passed when he didn’t spend at least four hours in the barn, improving his skills even if it sometimes meant sneaking out in the middle of the night after his parents fell asleep. Pool became an obsession and it was often an emotional struggle to respect his father’s wishes to keep things in perspective and understand that family responsibilities took priority. When Clarence turned sixteen, his father rewarded Clarence’s perceived obedience by presenting him with a real cue stick handcrafted from elephant ivory. Unfortunately, the high cost of the cue stick didn’t allow his father to replace the stone balls with real billiard balls.
Impatient and competitive by nature, Clarence soon lost interest with swatting at the stone balls on a makeshift pool table with a legitimate cue stick in a barn. Once his father gave him permission, he took his cue stick to the saloon in nearby Shack Creek to practice pool the way it was meant to be practiced, on a real pool table with real balls. His skills improved exponentially, but before long he became bored with playing by himself, often resorting to playing with himself.
Over the next four years Clarence challenged every rancher, farmer, and miner coming into Shack Creek to a match of fifteen-ball, the most popular game at the time, but no one offered him sufficient competition.
The rules of fifteen-ball were simple but the game was challenging because the shooter couldn’t always control where the balls came to rest on the table. The balls are racked in position according to number, with the fifteen-ball placed at the front of the triangle. Players alternate shots, collecting the point value of the balls they pocket. The first player reaching sixty-one points wins the match.
News of Clarence’s talent circulated and before long he developed a reputation rivaling Jesse James, without the violence. Men journeyed from as far away as five-hundred miles to compete against him. He never lost a match, and by the time he turned twenty, people considered him the best pool player in the territory.
Perched at the pinnacle of their field is something most men dare not dream of and there were drawbacks to the legendary status. Number one, since nobody in the territory came close to beating him, Clarence was left to wonder how best to use his skill. Second, since he spent so much time away from home he developed unhealthy eating habits. His favorite dish was fried chicken smothered in gravy, a meal he ate sometimes five days a week. This eventually caused chronic irregularity, usually occurring at the most inconvenient times, although one might ask whether any time is convenient for one suffering with the squirts.
Clarence’s unmatched prowess at the pool table continued and before long the billiards action dried up, no one willing to even watch him practice.
Forced to reassess his priorities, Clarence reluctantly decided to help his father grow cotton and tobacco on the farm.
Like most fathers, Elijah Flannery tried to guide his son to the straight and narrow path by encouraging him to pursue farming as a living. When the Civil War ended in 1865, jobs were scarce and many God-fearing and morally decent men chose to rob trains and banks to support their families. When Clarence turned thirty in 1896, he and his father stood shoulder-to-shoulder gazing at a ten-foot square tomato patch in front of their modest home. “This will all be yours someday, son,” Elijah said. “Don’t let the glamour of the outlaw’s way contaminate your mind. Crime is a dead-end career and will surely shorten your life. Most of those men will end up in prison or dead. Farming is hard work but at least it’s honest.”
Clarence faced a dilemma. He knew his father was right; crime was inherently dangerous and not a good alternative, because although he liked adventure as much as the next man, he was a coward at heart. He wanted no part of the aches and pains, let alone the repulsive odors, associated with a life of farming. He needed something less physically demanding yet still monetarily rewarding. Deep down, he couldn’t predict how or when, but he knew somehow his billiard skills would blaze the trail to his success.
In the early afternoon of June 24, 1896, Clarence was mugged by an angry sun as he meandered down the streets of Shack Creek, contemplating the course of his future. Wiping the accumulation of sweat from his neck, he turned when he heard a sound to his left. The General Store proprietor, sweeping dirt from the steps in front of his establishment, glanced up for a moment and muttered, “There goes that little shit pool hustler, Clarence.” It wasn’t the “little shit” part that bothered him. After all, he didn’t impose a stature causing many gun-toting bandits to cower in fear. It was the “Hustler Clarence” causing his stomach to churn with anxiety.
He uttered the words aloud, “Hustle Clarence.” Not particularly smooth sliding off the tongue and certainly not what he desired for his legacy. He wanted to be remembered and it wouldn’t happen if people didn’t take him seriously. Something needed to change. It was then he decided his first name would be Henry. It might not be ideal, but was a far sight better than the likes of Clarence. After all, he was six feet tall, blessed with youthful good looks, dimpled cheeks, and a heart-stopping smile, sure to be an attraction to women. “Henry” was a much better fit. “Clarence” was a puny, five foot three, red-haired pushover with oversized teeth and floppy ears. Whatever possessed his parents to choose the name he’d probably never know.
Three weeks later, Henry stood at his bedroom window and gazed out at the sun looming on the horizon. The dew settled thick on the grass. It promised to be a magnificent day, the perfect day to notch a major crossroad in his life. After eating a substantial breakfast of eggs, sausage, pancakes, and corn bread, Henry grabbed a carpet bag, packed enough clothing for a week and slung the sheath housing his cue stick over his shoulder. With no more than a token smile, he said goodbye to his parents and left the farm.
He strutted down the narrow dirt road to pursue his dream, turning back after a tomato whistled past his ear and splattered against a tree to his right, missing his head by inches. His father, clad in his favorite purple long johns, stood in front of the tomato patch, shaking his fist and airing his lungs with curse words. His mother, dressed in a tattered pink and white housedress, stood on the porch of the farmhouse, waving a soiled handkerchief in the air, tears streaming down her face.
Henry flashed a smile and waved, then turned and continued down the dirt road. His chest tightened with a spasm of guilt, but he was determined to follow his instinct. Clarence Marvin Flannery, aka Hustle Henry, would form a group of the best pool players in the territory, soon achieving notoriety as the Hole-in-the-Table-Bunch.
The last memory of his home in Topeka, Kansas remained with Henry for as long as he lived. After hearing Matilda scream at Elijah to get back into the house, Henry turned for a last look.
In his haste to show disapproval with his son’s decision, and valiant but unsuccessful attempt to pelt him with a tomato, his father neglected to secure the waist of his long johns and the brightly shining sun reflected off his wrinkled white ass.
* * * *
Henry bought a horse in Shack Creek with the savings he’d accumulated from hustling and rode through Kansas and Oklahoma, looking for men to join his gang of pool hustlers. He earned money as a cobbler, bookmonger, and peddler to pay for food and lodging, camping out and sleeping under the stars during the leaner times.
When he reached Norman, Oklahoma in October 1898, he decided he was far enough away from Kansas to support himself by hustling pool. He rode from one town to the next through Oklahoma, crossing the border into Texas on December 3, 1899.
Twelve days later, Henry sat in a saloon in Flintrock, Texas sipping whiskey from a shot glass riddled with fingerprints. The barkeep claimed his towels were too soiled from wiping up beer and tobacco spit from the floor and counter to keep the glasses clean. Whatever. The saloon had seen better days. The legs on most of the chairs and tables were either cracked or broken, the walls bare, the piano hideously out of tune, and the stairs so rickety, the survival rate for getting to the upper floor was less than twenty percent. The odor of urine and vomit mixed with liquor hung in the air like a horse’s fart in high humidity. Flintrock, located two-hundred miles south of the Oklahoma-Texas border, would never rank high as an Old West tourist attraction.
Henry would not normally be caught dead in such a God-forsaken place but he’d heard talk of a man named James Talbot Skinner, rumored to be the best pool player anyone ever saw. Henry wanted to see for himself, if only to set the record straight he was the best pool player anyone ever saw.
Skinner was in the saloon playing pool that day.
Henry observed each of Skinner’s matches with the same interest as if listening to Galileo explain the meaning of the universe. The rumors were true. Skinner vanquished one challenger after another, ten in all. Only one match was marginally competitive and the entire event lasted less than two hours. Although most of Skinner’s challengers were old cowhands, many of whom probably never saw a pool table, Henry was nevertheless impressed with the man’s skill. What made it more amazing was Skinner downed three shots of whiskey after each match, and by the time the third match was over it looked as if it required every ounce of his strength to avoid collapsing into a ball of jelly.
Skinner’s last victim limped out of the saloon with nothing more than the shirt on his back. Why they bet clothing instead of money Henry never found out, but he was so captivated he didn’t even mind that Skinner paid far more attention to the man’s naked ass than he thought appropriate. Henry attributed it to Skinner’s advanced inebriated state and although Flintrock was by no stretch the billiards capital of the world, this man was someone Henry must meet.
Skinner stood five foot eleven, was ruggedly handsome with a slender build, square jaw, sandy-brown hair, baby-blue eyes, and a thick and neatly trimmed mustache. The first three buttons on his light brown shirt were undone, revealing a chest of thick brown hair sprouting like ears of corn at harvest time.
Once Henry introduced himself, it took fifteen minutes to convince Skinner he wasn’t there to be his eleventh victim. After Skinner groped the air for another twenty minutes before locating Henry’s hand, Henry helped him to a chair, expending more energy than if he lugged an overfed elephant through a dense jungle.
For the next two hours the two drank whiskey and became better acquainted, although forty percent of Skinner’s dialogue came out as slur, another forty percent emerged as spittle. Henry listened far more than he talked while he fought back tears of laughter and grabbed Skinner’s shoulder to prevent him from tumbling to the floor. Fortunately, with every tip of the shot glass, Skinner struggled to locate his mouth and ninety-five percent of the whiskey landed on his shirt. Otherwise he might have passed out after five minutes.
From the remaining twenty percent of coherent dialogue, Henry learned Skinner was born on August 18, 1869 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His mother, a seamstress who moonlighted as a prostitute, ran off with another man when Skinner was eight years old. His father earned a good living as a blacksmith but was devastated when she left and drowned his sorrows in a whiskey bottle. He died less than a year later, forcing Skinner to stay with his Aunt Harriet who lived a mile down the road. She urged him to follow in his father’s footsteps, touting him as the “best blacksmith in the American West,” but he fell far short of her expectations. He left Aunt Harriet’s home on his eighteenth birthday to wander the region, searching for a more fitting career, using his limited talent as a blacksmith to provide enough food and lodging to survive.
Skinner admitted to Henry he’d recently lost his job as assistant blacksmith in Flintrock after several customers complained to his boss their horses limped so badly after Skinner shoed them they couldn’t ride from one end of the town to the other, about one-hundred yards, without collapsing in the dust.
When Skinner couldn’t recall how he became so proficient at billiards, Henry thought perhaps the man wasn’t everything he’d hoped but it didn’t matter, he was in Flintrock with nothing else going at the time, so why not give the man a chance?
Henry outlined the details of his plan to form a gang of highly skilled pool players to tour the region and make a living at hustling pool. “I want you to be my right hand man, second in command, assistant to the chief, aide to the number one guy…”
Skinner interrupted Henry with a feeble wave of his hand. “All right, all right, I get it.”
Henry convinced Skinner to accept his proposition although the man was so inebriated he’d probably agree to accompany Henry on a horse and buggy ride to the moon.
Henry gave himself a nickname, why shouldn’t Skinner have one? Given everything he’d learned about him so far, ‘BenderHead’ was more than appropriate but wouldn’t do much for the man’s reputation. If he became Henry’s partner, he needed to command some measure of respect.
Next to himself, Skinner was by far the best pool player Henry ever saw. “I got it,” he said, “we’ll call you the Cue-Ball Kid.”
After fifteen cups of coffee, an extended soak in a hot bathtub, and a change of clothes, Hustle Henry and the Cue-Ball Kid rode out of Flintrock in search of suitable recruits to form their gang.
For the next two and a half years, Hustle Henry and the Cue-Ball Kid traveled throughout Louisiana and Texas to find nine of the most proficient pool players in the region, arguably in the Western Hemisphere. Henry was satisfied with the results but his gang needed an engaging but intimidating name, so The Hole-in-the-Table Bunch was born.
Sitting tall in the saddle, Henry compared himself and his Bunch to Robin Hood and his Merry Men, with one major difference. They wouldn’t steal from the rich and give to the poor. They would hustle from the less gifted and donate to themselves.
The following documents the final eventful months of the Hole-in-the-Table-Bunch. None of it can be easily verified by anyone, except perhaps Clem, who seems to have disappeared, so the suggestion is to not bother trying but read with an open mind.