Chapter 6: The Ties That Burn

Parables of the Beautiful Country

by Jack E’Dalgo

Chapter 6: The Ties That Burn

“When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.” Isaiah 43:2. KJV

It was good to be on horseback again. It had been a few weeks, at least. Holliday had owned this particular mount just over a year now, a pale grullo with black points and a soft fox trot gait that ate the distance without tiring horse or rider. As mares went, she maintained a quiet temperament. She was bridle-wise and responded well to leg pressure and could cover serious ground at a dead run when pushed, and not merely as a sprinter. His previous horse had been a buckskin stud. Amazing horse.

The grullo wasn’t as broad across the back as the stud had been, but then Holliday was himself lighter by a good ten pounds these days. He wouldn’t be surprised to learn he had lost a couple of inches in height from his six feet as well. The consumption had begun a gradual disintegration of his spine, randomly crumbling bone against his spinal column in minuscule but often excruciating increments. The grullo at least didn’t pain his lower back as much as the stud had done in the last few months he’d had him.

Holliday had sold the buckskin to a breeder and the stud was in a pasture somewhere, happily making more little buckskins. Holliday had done the best he could for the buck but his loss still grieved him from time to time. He and that horse had been through hell and Texas once or twice, and the buck had always seen Holliday to safety no matter the terrain.

Kate had once teased Holliday that he spent more money stabling and feeding his horses than he did himself, but even she had to admit that should Holliday need a quick retreat, it was better to have his own horse than to risk being hanged as a horse thief on top of whatever else a posse may be trying to lay at his busy door.

He’d gotten Kate and Shanssey safely away from Canyon City, and had even been able to watch their progress down the lower road before the juniper and aspen became too thick. The roads lay along a valley, and the shoulders of the mountains blocked the lowering sun, creating a premature twilight. Shanssey had lit the lamps on the rockaway and Holliday could still catch an occasional glimpse of the two pin-point beacons off to the southwest.

They would reach Grape Creek before him, which was the plan, of course. Masterson would be looking for Holliday on horseback. He wouldn’t be expecting him in a rig and would hopefully ignore the buggy’s arrival. The conveyance was not so fancy it would attract undue attention, after all. It could simply be another engineer or surveyor reporting in for work.

Kate had been uncharacteristically amenable to the sudden change of venue. On reflection, Holliday realized why she hadn’t kicked up a fuss and had he not been so distracted, he would have been less hesitant to include her as an active participant in her rescue. It had all been a matter of perception, as most problems are. His perception, that is.

Holliday often prided himself on being a thoughtful, considerate lover, but Kate had known him long enough to expect otherwise at the most random of times. Kate had been with Holliday through the aftermath of several shootings, a knifing and even a few pistol-whippings. She knew what adrenaline did to him and how it drove him. This afternoon, Kate had most certainly recognized his need to burn off excess adrenaline after an episode of violence. She hadn’t known exactly what had happened to bring him thundering to her bed this time, but she had clearly understood the implications. She’d also not been so far gone that she’d not noted the streak of blood on his forehead.

She’d been extra cooperative, having almost instantly assumed time was of the essence and that he was possibly minutes away from discovery by the law. At the same time, her fear for him had made her unwilling to let him go. She had asked no questions, knowing he would tell her what she needed to know at the appropriate time. By experience, she understood that should she be overtaken by the law, the less she knew, the better it would be for the both of them.

Once awakened, Kate had been incensed that Holliday had allowed her to simply fall asleep. Heedless of his efforts to explain, she had thrown on her clothes, getting Holliday to work up ties and buttons as she struggled to get into the next layer. She’d apparently assumed she was to ride horseback because she refused to wear her bustle. She didn’t bother with it even when told she’d be traveling in a rig. Assuming they would be traveling separately, she urged Holliday to take the seven thousand in the dresser and she’d take the three thousand she’d concealed in a hidden pocket of his dressing gown. Which answered the question of money Holliday had been worrying over earlier.

Kate had then dropped to the floor and pulled on her slippers without bothering with her stockings. She ignored Holliday, busy tugging her carriage boots over her slippers, grunting as she did up the lace of the left boot. Holliday joined her in the floor, lacing the right boot, doggedly trying to get her to listen to his reassurances.

With all that done, still on the floor, Kate had grabbed him mid-sentence and kissed him with such passion he’d been tempted to take her back to bed. “I understand,” she whispered huskily, “John Shanssey’s taking me to this camp, Doc, but when will I see you again?”

“Kitty-Kate, listen to me! I’ll be right behind ya, darlin’. I’ll be there in the camp with ya tonight. I don’t think I actually killed any of them so–

“Them!” she’d gasped.

“I’ll explain later, Katya. It’s not so bad. Honestly, sweetheart. Leastways, there’s no posse lookin’ for me. Far as I know, anyway.”

Finally heeding him, she’d almost collapsed in relief and he’d scooped her up to comfort her, the depth of her relief a condemnation to him for his lack of perspicacity. He’d been unduly concerned about himself again, without regard for how all this hubbub would be perceived by his Kate. He’d tried to protect the woman and managed to merely alarm her unduly. He held her, damning the countdown running in his head, and then Shanssey had come to collect Kate and the last valise.

Shanssey and Kate exited town quietly, Shanssey trotting the horses at a calm, steady pace. Holliday had waited a quarter hour then rode several streets over, leaving town courtesy of a different neighborhood, disassociating himself with the couple in the buggy, just in case he was still an object of concern to any observers.

He had no fears for Shanssey and Kate reaching Masterson’s camp on their own. Shanssey was capable and inventive and blessed with such a gift of the gab that he’d never once had occasion to draw a weapon other than his fists on anyone, no matter how seriously challenged. Shanssey was not above pretending to be an amorous young man taking his affianced out for an evening buggy ride. Kate would play her part.

Holliday didn’t trust Kate as far as he could throw her, which wasn’t far, but he trusted John Shanssey with his life and his wife, and had done for years. There was nothing in Shanssey that even resembled treachery. God knows he’d been provided enough opportunity — and offered more than enough money — to turn Judas, but Shanssey was an oak rooted too deeply to God’s good earth to turn to the left or the right from his path of rectitude.

Jackpine crowded closely on either side of the road here. The tops of a few aspen glowed amber in the reflected light of the lowering sun. The air was thick with the pungent vanilla odor of ponderosa pine, and Holliday was occasionally pelted with redbuds when the wind whipped his ulster. He had unbuttoned the coat as soon as he had cleared Canyon City, leaving his Colts accessible, just in case.

The gloom was descending faster now, and Holliday checked his watch while there was still enough sun to see its face. He had a half hour remaining of his three hours. He stretched his back to shake loose his weariness. The grullo, alert to every move, slowed momentarily, concentrating on any new commands Holliday might be trying to communicate. He laid a comforting hand along her crest and she resumed her former pace. Holliday relaxed as much as he was able. He felt as though he had last seen Masterson two days ago, let alone less than three hours.

Despite Masterson’s emotional distance, or maybe because of it, Holliday liked the man. Masterson was about Holliday’s age and almost as well traveled. He was tough as nails, but never a bully or a braggart. Wyatt said he sometimes found Masterson prudish, but Holliday had never known him to be shocked by much that he would admit to. Masterson was the quintessential Good Man in every way that mattered, the basis of the Hail Fellow Well Met, and Holliday found Masterson’s ease with life slightly intimidating. Masterson, it seemed, knew a secret and assumed everyone else was in on it. Holliday was certain he himself hadn’t a clue what that secret was, but he’d be damned if he would admit that to anyone. Especially to Bat Masterson.

Holliday’s mare shied suddenly at the abrupt appearance of a man who stepped out into the road. Holliday reigned in the grullo immediately.

The intruder was short and stocky, dark-haired and hatless but so bushy-browed it was difficult to see his eyes. His face was as red and round as a beet, with a tobacco-stained longhorn mustache. He was breathing hard as though he had been scrambling about for a bit.

What got Holliday’s attention, however, was the beautiful British Greener double barrel 12 bore shotgun the man aimed straight at Holliday’s solar plexus. The breechloader was well-cared for and its burled stock gleamed in the remaining sunlight. Holliday had no doubt it could handle blasting a hole clean through his bony chest and beleaguered lungs but the belauded weapon was a thing of beauty even if it was directed at him.

Holliday sat his mare and reviewed the situation. He was well within range of the Greener. There was no use running. The man could have killed him from several yards back without even revealing his position. He hadn’t done so, however, so one would assume the man wanted to talk.

Holliday waited, puffing his panatella calmly. Still the man did not speak, nor did he fire. Holliday made no move toward his own weapons, quietly smoking with one hand, his reins lightly threaded through the fingers of the other. Both hammers of the Greener were cocked and one squeeze of the trigger would bring both loads to bear through Holliday quickly enough.

Horseman and rifleman regarded one another. Holliday puffed his panatella another full minute. The only sound was the twittering of grouse, the crunch of gravel as the horse shifted impatiently, and the creak of leather as Holliday’s saddle responded to the restlessness of his mount.

Finally Holliday removed his panatella. “You posin’ for a picture or you gonna pull the trigger on that vixen?” he demanded.

There was still no response. Holliday shifted slightly in the saddle, just to see if the man had turned to stone. No. The barrel tracked with Holliday’s movement well enough. The man blinked slowly, but did not look away or alter his shooting stance. And he still did not fire or speak.

“Well. Hell.” Holliday said at last. “Do it and be damned, then.”

He squeezed his mount’s ribs and the grullo responded, obediently walking forward down the road at the same steady pace that had brought them there. Holliday resumed his smoke. The man would either blast him to hell and gone, or he would not. Since the decision was out of Holliday’s control, he saw little reason to bother himself about it.

Masterson stood on the bank of the Arkansas, enjoying his evening maduro, and watching the sun prepare to dive behind the ridge. Before him, the river was flooded with snow melt, churning and roaring over rock that had resisted the river’s onslaught for millennia.

Behind him, the camp at Grape Creek was almost as alive with activity, men trying to get as much done as possible before full darkness hit. The camp was little better than any other end-of-track camp within the first weeks of habitation: a collection of temporary shacks and even more temporary tents, many castoffs from the military. Disused freight cars provided bunk housing and offices, storage, and machine shops.

Signs were posted before the common areas: Buckhorn Saloon, Salty Dawg Saloon, Sadie’s Sporting Lounge, Hay’s House, Dry Goods, Livery, Medico, Blacksmith. Grape Creek boasted five saloons, four brothels, multiple workshops for metal, wood, hemp and leather, a half dozen welders and chemical labs, six restaurants besides the Santa Fe’s own mess hall, three veterinarians and three dance halls.

Dead center was a row shack divided into units, each only slightly bigger than lean-tos. Their labels, not as prominent as that of the saloons, read: Security, Marshall, Adjutant, Post Office, Telegraph.

The entire area reeked of creosote and burning coal and was designed to pull up stakes and move forward with the track being laid, literally Hell on Wheels. They had been camped here probably longer than in most locations simply because there was no room for it all inside the confines of the Royal Gorge. There was scarcely room for the train they were laboring to feed the track for. There was no pushing the camp to the opposite end of the gorge because DeRemer’s men held the Twenty Mile, as it was called, with his own Hell on Wheels and an army of men outnumbering Masterson’s by around eighty. To his credit, what Masterson’s men lacked in numbers, they more than made up for in skill and notoriety. As Masterson had told Strong, “We have the best. They have the rest.”

Of course, responsibility for most of the camp fell outside Masterson’s purview. His authority here was to police and lead his men, known by the other camp inhabitants as the Dodge Gang. The term was not always, or even often, spoken kindly. The majority of the Santa Fe’s rank and file had little time or energy to spare for a coven of freeloading gunsmen who were being paid a king’s ransom, as far as the day labor was concerned, to merely hang around and look tough. DeRemer’s men had occasionally threatened violence to Strong’s workforce, but so far, had not actually made good on the threats. There were rumors that DeRemer provided his men with weapons but no ammo. Not that anyone was anxious to test the validity of the rumor.

Wyatt had telegraphed Masterson this afternoon, congratulating him on finally getting Doc’s concession to join him in Colorado. Masterson felt like crowing as he read it until Wyatt’s final line: “You’ll do fine now,” the telegram had read, “as long as you remember, if Doc thinks you’re cornering him, he will cut your throat.” Masterson was still mulling what he’d say to that in his next response, or even if he should bother.

Masterson hadn’t been startled by Wyatt’s reply, of course. Wyatt had met Holliday in Texas briefly and had instinctively liked the man, although he found him taciturn and laconic — not Wyatt’s words, of course. Masterson believed Wyatt’s impression that Doc had some kind of redeeming quality was down to the fact that John Shanssey called Doc a good friend. Shanssey had befriended Wyatt when Wyatt had been a kid of twenty and now, over a decade later, Wyatt still thought the world of John Shanssey.

Masterson had never learned what made Shanssey meld Doc to his tribe. That would probably be an interesting tale. Doc played the long odds with his life as well as at the poker table. It was no limit or nothing with Holliday. Despite his frail health, or maybe because of it, Holliday was fearless to the point of foolhardiness, and he was astonishingly annealed given he was dying. Shanssey was tough as nails himself, but with a far gentler spirit. Shanssey preferred long periods of peace and his excitement in increments. Life hunted Holliday with a big stick most days, so Shanssey’s increments tended to come hard and fast with Holliday around.

Masterson glanced back to where Twelve Mile Bridge provided access into the camp, expecting to see what he had seen the past twenty times he’d checked: an empty road, or a wagon of supplies or men. No lone horse, no sign of Holliday. He did a double-take this time however: there was the man himself, ulster rippling in the wind, atop a pale horse. It was fitting. Even from here, Holliday looked like death warmed over.

He watched the two sentries speak to Holliday. The evening was chilly and their breath bloomed about them. One of the sentries turned to Masterson and Bat waved his arm, approving the arrival. He didn’t check his watch. He knew Holliday had made the three hours even if only with a minute to spare. Holliday was many things, but if he had to dig himself out of his own grave he’d find some way to keep his word. Masterson didn’t care regardless. Holliday was safely back and smoke was not rising from Canyon City, so not too much could have gone wrong.

Just as that thought occurred to him, however, Masterson caught sight of the first flaming log bursting out of the confines of the Royal Gorge, tumbling in the rapids of the Arkansas River. It swept past Masterson’s position at breakneck pace.

By the time the sixth such log had passed him on its way to Canyon City, men had started to gather along the bank thirty and forty yards away, stunned at the sight of the river alight, pointing in wonderment. Masterson didn’t tear his eyes away from the scene, but he heard Holliday dismount beside him, his horse restive at the sight of the flames.

More logs were treading the river now– no not logs, these were dressed and cut and, wait, these were railroad ties.

“What the holy hell–” Masterson breathed.

Beside him, Holliday asked, “So, Bat, what do you think?”

“I’m trying not to,” Masterson admitted. “I take it this is down to you somehow, Doc?”

“Well–,” Holliday was quiet a moment.

So many ties were tumbling down the river now, they had begun swamping one another. Miraculously, they managed to remain lit despite the torrent they flowed in. Some were tumbling end over end, off of rocks and other ties, still stubbornly aflame. The Arkansas looked like the seventh circle of hell.

“I’m waiting, Holliday,” Masterson reminded him, “Speak, damn you.”

Holliday was selective in his proffered explanation, offering a much abbreviated version of events at the livery only. Masterson silently compared Holliday’s story with the intelligence his informants had given him, noting the number of details Holliday did not admit to. Details like Kate and Shanssey, the hotel, and the name of the livery. But Holliday did observe that the men at the livery seemed to appreciate his suggestion of a new delivery system.

“It was only a suggestion, Bat. I didn’t insist they actually do it, or anythin’. Oh. Here’s your letter back. I didn’t need ta use it.”

“Uh huh.” Masterson pocketed the envelope and puffed his maduro, trying to strengthen it’s burn. Of course, Masterson’s informants had told him nothing of the events that had prompted this inferno. They most likely couldn’t even relate the event to Holliday at all.

Of course, they couldn’t give an explanation for the three half-dead men the authorities found near an alley, either. Masterson knew Holliday well enough, however, to sense a kind of signature style he did not hesitate to attribute directly to the cagey gambler. As usual, it was nothing that would stand up in court. Not that Masterson was currently lawing, of course.

Holliday hadn’t lied to him about the things Masterson was aware of. Holliday just hadn’t bothered mentioning the majority of his actions this afternoon. Masterson had a moral dilemma about accusing a man of lying by omission. He wasn’t certain such a thing could be equitably prosecuted. If he were prosecuting.

Masterson said, “You got a lot accomplished in three hours, Doc. I shoulda given you a bit more time. We’d probably all be packing to leave for home by now.”

“Is this you getting rid of me, or you sending me to town to cook up somethin’ else?” Holliday asked sweetly.

“We lost a couple of men today,” Masterson told him.

“Lost? As in dead?”

“No, Doc, not dead. I hope. Just not reported in. They went out to spy on DeRemer’s camp at Spike Buck and haven’t made it back yet. Maybe they just got busy or got lost. Maybe they’ve been injured. Maybe they just said to hell with it and left. They didn’t go back to Canyon City, or I woulda heard from my informants by now.”

He looked significantly at Holliday, and Holliday turned his head, refusing to meet his gaze. The Georgian said something under his breath that Masterson didn’t quite hear.

Masterson tapped his own forehead, mirroring the position of the bit of flannel showing from under the brim of Holliday’s hat. “Cut yourself shaving Doc? Might wanna try sharpening that hatchet first next time.”

Masterson re-lit his cigar and puffed it a few minutes, letting Holliday stew in tense silence.

“At any rate,” Masterson continued. “John Jacob Webb and Ben Thompson are both capable men and should be able to handle themselves. We’ll not be able to locate them in the dark in this terrain and they surely have the good sense to lay low and wait for daylight themselves. If they’re simply lost or delayed they’ll just camp and come on in come morning. Otherwise I’ve set several teams to reconnoiter starting at first light. I figure we’ll cover more ground spit into pairs. You ride with me come daylight, unless that’s going to be a problem.”

“No problem, Bat. Well. There may be a problem you’re not anticipatin’ meanwhile, though.”

“Go on. Put me out of my misery.”

Holliday described his encounter with the man with the Greener, something else Masterson’s informants had no idea of. Masterson admitted he did not recognize the man’s description, although Holliday seemed to have a more lovingly detailed remembrance of the rifle than the man wielding it.

Holliday asked, “Is it possible DeRemer’s men have, I dunno, captured Webb and Thompson for some reason? Bargainin’ rights, perhaps?”

Masterson considered the idea. “I honestly don’t know, Doc. Seems a bit far-fetched, but here we are watching a river burn, so there’s that.” The number of water-bound ties had lessened now. The men along the bank had disbursed to their work or their meals, or to the saloons. Masterson finished his thought. “We’ll find our men in the morning and know for certain. Meanwhile, go get yourself something to eat. Kate mentioned having brought you some supper from town.”

Holliday had half turned toward his horse. He paused, took a moment and finally looked over at Masterson.

Masterson removed his cigar and spoke softly. “I told Kate that she is to restrict herself to your berth and not to ply her trade in camp or in Canyon City. I also told her I won’t hesitate to arrest her otherwise.”

Holliday sighed. “I take full responsibility for her. She’ll give ya no grief.”

“She’s responsible for herself, Doc. And I’m sure she won’t give me any grief.” He looked away, giving Holliday a bit of breathing space. “We’re square, Holliday, you and I. You’re just doing your best to take care of your own. I can understand that. Besides, I finally got John Shanssey to join up. He’s a good man.”

Holliday nodded, not merely staring at the river but through it. His grullo snuffled impatiently.

Trying to restore his own natural joviality, Masterson said, “You know, one of these days I’m going to get Shanssey to tell me how the two of you got together.”

Holliday looked up at that. “No, you won’t,” he said simply.

Masterson grinned. “You think not?”

Holliday’s voice was small and hollow. “Some crimes have no statute of limitation, Bat. Shanssey’s a good man. Do yourself a favor and let it go.” He remounted his horse and was gone before Masterson could think of anything else clever to say.


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