Chapter 5: The Ties that Bind

Parables of the Beautiful Country

by Jack E’Dalgo

Chapter 5: The Ties that Bind

In that place and time, subliminal echoes of the old South’s code of honor still resonated powerfully in the sons of the southwest. As President Andrew Jackson’s mother told him when he was still a boy, there are some crimes so personal and so outrageous that court justice is simply too tepid to yield full satisfaction. By that doctrine, a man — if he is to call himself a man — has to personally avenge the wrong and thus restore honor to himself and his family. Or as a typical frontiersman might have put it: a man has to kill his own snakes.” – Bill Neal: Getting Away with Murder on the Texas Frontier

Holliday enjoyed his walk into town. His ulster and his hat managed to keep most of the wind at bay, and his legs and back relished the stretch after the close confines and continual necessity to be seated in the rail cars.

No one had told the upper reaches of the mountain range that summer was moving in. The wind today was coming straight down from the heights and still had some January in it. The chill irritated his lungs, but Holliday kept his muffler loosely over his nose and mouth, and his own exhalation into the wool managed to warm the air enough to keep his coughing under control. The walk itself was on level ground and wasn’t too taxing. Besides, it gave him an opportunity to explore the area he’d committed to for the duration of Masterson’s scheme.

As far as he could tell, Canyon City’s veneer of civilization was just as thin as that of any other frontier township he’d inhabited over the past six years: a few respectable streets to satisfy the genteel and the puritanical, with the rest of the town devoted to the cardsharps, promoters and prostitutes the supralapsarians had already consigned to hell on God’s behalf. Just like Dodge, Deadwood, Dallas or damn-near half of Texas.

Despite the persistence of snow, cottonwood and locust trees were coming into leaf. Mountains dominated the horizon to the north and the west. To the south, the Arkansas River surged impatiently, fresh from its headlands in Leadville two miles straight up — not merely north but two miles above sea level. The Arkansas would continue its 1,500 mile journey to the Mississippi through the high plains of eastern Colorado, then the great plains stretching through Kansas to the Ozarks. Well short of Georgia.

Holliday had not seen Georgia in six years, but no matter where he found himself, he always oriented his surroundings in relation to it and to his personal mecca of little Griffin, Georgia. He did it without conscious thought. It was merely part of his temperament, as much a part of him as the color of his eyes, and no more a matter of choice than his next heartbeat. He knew without doubt he would die never having seen Georgia again, but he was her devoted son and he refused to emancipate himself from her despite his exile.

The sentry had been true to his word. Holliday spotted the Grand Hotel the moment he’d reached the first intersection in little Canyon City. Main at First Street. Every two horse town in this country had a Main and a First Street. Such originality could only be found in the bowels of a city council, he thought. Still, the hotel was the only two story building in the vicinity so it was difficult to miss.

Holliday found amazing the number of Grand Hotels there were in the world. Some Grands were grander than others, as a general rule, but most were at least within walking distance of a train or stage depot. When Holliday sent Kate anywhere expecting to find her later, he would invariably start his search at the local Grand Hotel. It was a kind of perennial joke between them.

Holliday was within a few blocks of the Grand when a man stepped from a narrow alley between a haberdasher’s and a butcher’s shop. The man held a square-headed, short-handled trade hatchet low against his left leg as though he’d just been called away from his work and stepped out to find Holliday passing at random. His efforts to not appear to be brandishing the weapon made it that much more obvious to Holliday what his intentions were.

Holliday’s reaction was subtle and visceral. He assumed a kind of open guard position, his body straight and calm. At first glance he seemed almost nonchalant. He ordered himself instinctively, his muscles attuned with well-practiced drill: legs flexible and standing naturally, his right foot some eight inches forward, presenting his right flank to the man with the hatchet.

Holliday’s left arm bent lightly forward, holding his cane at his chest, vertically, his left hand some four or five inches below the handle. He rested his right hand on the cane just below his left hand and kept his head up, eyeing his opponent, his expression alert but winsome, with a hint of a cherubic smile just visible under his mustache. In this position, the tip of his cane was elevated well above the ground but below his right knee. His stance was that of a timid old man, uncertainly grabbing up his cane as a child would grasp a toy for comfort when in uncertainty.

“Well now,” said the hatchet man. “Who have we here? Gallivanting off a Santa Fe dinkey and sauntering into town all by hisself like he owns the joint? Ain’t no Rio man, I’ll wager, is he, Rolf?”

Rolf stepped across the boardwalk of the haberdasher’s shop, his motions exaggeratedly slow and smooth, like mercury in the bottom of a jar. Rolf had no visible weapons as far as Holliday could see, but Rolf probably didn’t feel he needed weapons given that he was a bear of a man, towering over Holliday’s six foot frame and outweighing him by at least a hundred pounds of sheer muscle.

Holliday’s Colts were practically useless buttoned under his ulster. Holliday also thought of the letter in his inside pocket. These were the very men Masterson had warned him of revealing the letter to, of course. If these two overpowered Holliday and found the letter, they could no doubt use it to create chaos in Grape Creek. Masterson and half of Dodge City’s best would be well within harm’s way at one level or another. Holliday factored that certainty into his resolve.

He blinked and smiled at the two men hesitantly.

Rolf the Bear was saying, “Now don’t get your dander up, ole boy. Why doncha just step back over here, and we’ll have a bit of a conversation like?” He waved one broad arm toward the alley dominated by the man with the hatchet.

“Why can’t we have the conversation here?” Holliday asked innocently, his voice a full octave higher and with a deliberate whine.

Both men took a moment to laugh and Hatchet man, still laughing, stepped forward bringing the axe up coolly as he came.

Holliday exploded into motion. Instead of fleeing, as the men expected, he lurched forward, stepping within the arch of the arm with the hatchet.

As Holliday came within reach, he twisted both his arms to drive the shaft of his cane up into Hatchet’s groin. The man buckled and Holliday reversed the cane’s angle, slamming the heavy silver handle into the man’s left collarbone. Holliday put his full weight behind the blow, his feet actually leaving the ground momentarily with the force of his attack. He felt and heard the collarbone shatter and the hatchet dropped, the man’s left arm useless.

Holliday completed the assault by driving the cane ever upward, the cane’s head undercutting the man’s lower jaw. Hatchet man landed with a thud. He didn’t move again.

Holliday’s assault had been so rapid and so unexpected, Rolf hadn’t had time to fully process this new development. Which, of course, was the point.

Holliday put the walking stick at ready on his shoulder. In his normal, graveled voice Holliday challenged Rolf. “Well, come on, son. I ain’t got all day.”

Rolf actually growled as he came forward. He didn’t even try to swing at Holliday, opting to sweep both his arms open to grapple him into a bear hug. Holliday crouched with his torso over his knees, bringing the cane down and forward, his grip solidly in the middle of the cane. As Rolf ran for him, leaping clear of the boardwalk, Holliday, shoulders hunched, surged himself at Rolf, planting the cane into the man’s gut with the full momentum of both of their body weights behind it. Holliday felt muscles pull in his upper back, absorbing his share of the impact.

Holliday’s blow struck Rolf’s right side, just below the rib cage, with an upper angle, straight into the liver. It took two seconds for the pain to hit the big man, two seconds of shock that left Rolf just enough time to pull back his fist. But the intended blow never formed. The liver spasmed and once it did, the man went down in agony, scarcely aware of where he was any longer.

Holliday straightened and spun as a roar erupted behind him. A third man — why did they always travel in packs, some idle part of Holliday’s brain wondered — leapt from the boardwalk of the butcher’s shop. He could have been Rolf’s brother, all brawn and height, bald as a lemon, butcher’s apron stiff with dried blood. In his right hand a cleaver, none too clean, glinted in the afternoon sunlight.

Holliday caught the man mid-jump, thrusting the cane handle up, into the man’s throat, crushing his windpipe. The growl squeezed off with a squeak and the man hit the ground, cleaver flying past Holliday’s shoulder.

Holliday had to wrestle his cane free from under the man’s carcass. He did so quickly before scooping up his hat and scurrying down the narrow alley he’d been so ceremoniously invited to enjoy just moments before. He knew to get off the street before any nosy innocent bystanders appeared to associate him with the devastation.

Once at the far end of the alley, Holliday paused to access his personal damage. There was blood on his cane and a dull ache in his left forehead. He removed one glove and explored the gathering dampness there. He located a fair-sized gash he couldn’t recall having received. Whatever had hit him — the hatchet, he assumed — had been only a passing glance and it had been sharp enough to leave little pain behind it.

Blows to the head always bled more than necessary. His proctor for his degree in dental surgery had told him it was the brain’s attempt to protect itself. The brain was a bellyaching malcontent that needed to grow a set as far as Holliday was concerned.

He applied his handkerchief, holding it in place to staunch the bleeding while he caught his breath and inspected his coat. There were a few dark drops which could pass for undried rain in the right kind of light. He felt his chest with his free hand. Beneath the ulster, both Colts were still snugly in their scabbards. He could feel the pressure of his sheathed knife against his calf still in his right boot. He hadn’t bothered with his derringer when he’d dressed this morning.

By this point Holliday was breathing easier and he took a chance to remove the handkerchief from his forehead. He felt no sudden resumption of bleeding and he blotted the spot gingerly to reassure himself that the injury had indeed clotted. He lightly brushed his forehead seeking out spots of dried blood that might need whisking away from public view.

Voices drifted to him from up the alley. Several distinct voices in varying amounts of distress or surprise. The three thugs had been discovered, apparently. Holliday removed himself from the alley and continued up the new street he found himself on. He moved as quickly as his limp would allow but he did not run. To do so would attract too much attention. He put his hat low over his forehead and used the handkerchief to wipe the blood from his cane before pocketing the bloody bit of cloth safe from prying eyes.

This new road — he saw no street signs — seemed to run roughly parallel to Main Street. He passed four more alleys, any one of which would have deposited him to his original route, but he wanted to be certain he’d distanced himself from the melee next to the butcher’s shop. He took the fifth alley and found he had indeed passed the Grand. All the better. He would be seen arriving from the opposite direction of the three bodies down the road and, thus, would be far less likely to be connected with the mayhem.

From across the street the Grand Hotel was not much to look at. Architecturally, someone had made an attempt at a Victorian gingerbread, fish scale roof, weather vane, but given the fact that it all overlaid shiplap that had been nailed in while still green, the result was more of a ginger beer. The building looked sturdy enough, however. There was a veranda running around the ground floor, and dormer windows across the upper front. Some worthy soul had installed flower boxes under the upper windows, which was a nice touch even if there were no flowers visible from the road.

Holliday took a final glance down the lane and at the small group of people gathering before the butcher’s shop. He rechecked the placement of his hat and calmly crossed the street for the hotel, leaning heavily on his cane like some genteel old codger who’d not hurt a fly.

Unlike it’s unfortunate exterior, the interior of this particular Grand was at least trying to live up to its name. It was small, but well appointed, bordering on luxurious if the lobby was any indication. The foyer was all Gothic revival, fitted with several suites of chairs arranged on Oriental carpets. Astral lamps with shades of amber glass reflected their warm glow into gilt mirrors.

The clerk, a myopic elderly man, sparse of hair but long on social graces, was attending to the registration of another client, a man in a pea green coat and plaid pants. Holliday made a quiet show of removing his muffler and gloves and dabbing his mustache with a clean handkerchief before stuffing the cloth up his jacket cuff, motions meant to convey his patience and his need of assistance. Holliday was aware that his disease often made him appear older than his true years and he was not adverse to emphasizing that fact to appear less of a threat in a tense environment.

The truth was he was intoxicated with adrenaline from the incident at the alley. He kept his external movements slow and well-controlled, but internally he could not bank the ravaging fire that had his hands trembling ever so slightly, and threatened to erupt his heightened aggression at the slightest provocation.

The clerk handed off a key to a bellboy and gave the youngster terse instructions. The boy, no more than twelve, loaded both hands with cases far too heavy for a grown man and managed to wrangle them up the stairs as the pea green patron followed behind, a man in his prime who ignored the child’s struggles. Holliday forced himself to ignore them as well, gritting his teeth in shame. He’d love to meet up with the pea man in an alley some time. The world would be a better place for the meeting, certainly.

At last, the desk clerk turned to give Holliday his attention.

Holliday waited for the boy and the pea to be out of earshot. “I believe,” he said softly, “that my wife has registered here, perhaps quite early this mornin’. Mrs. Thomas McKey.” He spoke the name as clearly as his drawl would allow, fully prepared to spell it, if necessary. McKey had been his mother’s maiden name, and Thomas was Holliday’s favorite uncle, so he rated the deception as merely half a lie and all in a good cause, surely.

The clerk peered closely at the signatures on his register. Apparently the twenty room hotel had so many guests he just couldn’t keep track otherwise. “Oh, yes, sir, Mr. McKey. Mrs. McKey said she was expecting you. That would be room two oh nine, sir.”

“Thank you so much,” Holliday withdrew his wallet, an action that always seemed to get a clerk’s undivided attention no matter how nearsighted. “By any chance has the little woman deposited anything in your hotel safe?”

The clerk was certain she had not and he had not needed to consult his ledger to say so, Holliday noted. Holliday did not necessarily doubt the man. Kate wouldn’t trust her ability to retrieve cash from the safe should the need to flee suddenly arise, as it did from time to time, but it didn’t hurt to ask.

Holliday opened his wallet as though seeking something. It did indeed seem to have quite a bit of cash stacked in it and the clerk eyed the currency with thinly disguised interest.

Holliday said, “I regret that necessity calls us elsewhere this evenin’. My valet will be attendin’ to the arrangements shortly–“

“That would be Mr. Shanssey, sir?”

“The very same. He would be in room..?

“Two-ten, sir.”

“Good, good. Please allow me to settle our bills in advance, if you would be so kind–“

“Speaking on behalf of myself and my colleagues here at The Grand, we are heartily aggrieved to have you and your lovely wife leave us so soon, Mr. McKey. I hope that this has not been occasioned by some slight on our part–“

“No, no, not at all. I–” Holliday took a deep breath, fighting a sudden onslaught of trembling that almost rattled his teeth in its intensity. Adrenaline, what he only knew as ‘nervous energy’, fed itself to him steadily when needed, but was ragged when left to its own devices to burn out. He wrested back control. “I’m sure,” he said softly, every nerve in his body wanting to scream, “everythin’ has been done decently and in order. But I have pressin’ business elsewhere.”

“Yes, of course, sir.” It was clear that the clerk attributed Holliday’s hesitancy to illness or grief, best left to discretion. He consulted his notes and Holliday settled the bill, hands still trembling, adding a bit extra for incidentals, in case the need should arise. God knows it usually did. Holliday distrusted voluntary human goodwill but he knew it could be bought and he was unusually good at calculating its going rate.

Kate answered the door on his third knock. Her hair was tousled and loose and she was wearing Holliday’s dressing gown, holding the garment closed with one hand. She gasped when she saw him.

“Finally!” she keened, “I thought you would never get here!”

She released her hold on the dressing gown and reached for him. Holliday caught a glimpse of fair flesh, one rose pink nipple and the patch of curls between her thighs before she pulled him to her and into the room. She was trying to kiss him and close the door behind him at the same time.

Holliday took mercy on her and kicked the door shut, returning her kisses. He didn’t bother to turn the lock, too busy tossing his hat and cane into a corner, and getting his hands into his dressing gown and the loveliness it held. Anyone opening the door would just have to be dumbfounded and goddamned. The combination of Holliday’s adrenaline rush and Kate’s proximity made the result a foregone conclusion.

“You must be tired, dearest,” Kate moaned between kisses. “Come to bed.”

Holliday found himself unable to speak momentarily. His mission, his promise and the anticipation of impending danger all dissolved as Kate brushed her arms across his neck and writhed under his hands, skin against skin.

He whispered something against her lips that she took to be protest although he himself couldn’t have honestly testified to his own words.

She whispered, “Don’t make a lady beg, John. It’s not very gentlemanly,” appealing to Holliday’s sense of duty. That did seem to reach some still functioning part of his brain.

“Dahrlin’,” he managed to pull his mouth free long enough to ask, “am I to be given to unnerstand ya got started without me?”

“I’ve been thinking about you all day, John Henry.”

Well. No pressure there, then, he thought but kept the irony to himself. She was surprisingly strong when she needed to be and he was far from being able to deny her.

“Guns, John,” she seethed, pulling him toward the bed. Holliday released her and slid out of ulster, Norfolk and shoulder holster in one practiced motion, looping the holster’s rings over one of the newels at the bottom of the bed, the Colts still in their scabbards. He dropped the coats onto the floor still tangled inside one another. He left the knife in his boot. He wouldn’t resist her long enough to get himself fully undressed anyway. They were both damned near hyperventilating and he hadn’t even squeezed her hard yet.

He tugged his dressing gown off her shoulders and pulled her against him. She had him at the edge of the bed by this point and she sat down and crab-walked herself backward, one hand in a death grip on his shirtfront.

“Anything you want, John Henry, anything at all,” she pleaded.

He allowed himself to be yanked onto the bed, crawling up after her. His boots were still off the big double bed when she wrapped her legs around him and he lifted her against him, repositioning her for her comfort as much as his own. His back muscles, already insulted by the afternoon’s attack, ached in protest but his desire had inflamed sufficiently to overrule practical considerations and the protest was duly ignored. He wasn’t anticipating a marathon, after all.

Neither had any interest at the moment for concepts like devotion or passion or the making of love. This was sex, primal, unvarnished and quickly accomplished, despite the increasing ache in Holliday’s skull or the burning in his back, even the harshness of his breathing. He whispered a few sweet endearments between Kate’s kisses, a kind of automatic mantra while she worked at his buttons. A few more adjustments to the situation and they were beyond the need for conversation.

Holliday managed to get himself out of bed and avail himself of a shot of whiskey without waking Kate. He searched the room quietly, collecting the few items of toiletries, clothing and magazines that Kate had unpacked upon her arrival at the Grand. He shoved them into her valise. He was more concerned about the location of whatever cash Kate had brought with her.

Kate was an intelligent woman and enjoyed finding new and clever methods of concealment for their valuables. Holliday, however, did not intend to reach Grape Creek to find he’d left behind a small fortune pinned in the hem of the damned drapes.

Holliday had found seven thousand in national bank notes, proudly stamped with the image of the Battle of Lake Erie. They were in the dresser, rolled in one of Kate’s camisoles. Either Kate had not yet decided on a hiding place, or she was seriously slipping.

Holliday himself had brought the majority of their funds to Colorado in the Gladstone he’d left with Masterson. But by Holliday’s reckoning, Kate should have had an additional three thousand in currency.

It concerned him that for once, he couldn’t be entirely certain. His head was throbbing in earnest and he was more than a little dizzy. And he truly could not remember the amount of money he’d brought and the amount he’d entrusted to Kate.

He stood at the dresser. The mirror reflected him clearly enough and there was a trickle of blood at the edge of the wound on his forehead. Holliday, however didn’t notice it, too busy fighting the overwhelming realization that his sense of control over his own life was slowly slipping away from him. His brain was not retaining vital information as it once had. Even his ability to remember entire hands of poker had begun to to falter over the past few months–

A sense of dread sought to envelope him and he turned his back to the mirror. He would not surrender. He’d be damned and burning in hell before he would surrender. Nor would he so much as voice the possibility.

Kate grunted and rolled over in the bed. She hadn’t managed to kick off the blanket except for one bare foot. One hand was outslung across the counterpane and making a series of grasping motions. Holliday watched the dainty fingers repeatedly flex in a vain attempt to hold the air. Finally they stilled.

He told himself, I’ll just ask her when I wake her if she’s hidden anything else. There’s no time for all this seek and go hide nonsense.

Holliday redressed himself — Colts, coats, cane and Stetson — and stepped across the hall to apprise John Shanssey of the change in plans.

Shanssey had answered Holliday’s knock almost immediately. He didn’t seem surprised to see Holliday. In fact he jerked him into the room abruptly, examining the weeping cut on his forehead and demanding to know its origins like such knowledge was some kind of primogeniture.

Holliday gave him a highly condensed version of the attack at the alley. It covered perhaps three sentences. Shanssey had given him a long look, but Holliday would surrender no further information beyond a look of wide-eyed innocence. Shanssey wasn’t buying it but it was all Holliday was selling today.

In retaliation, Shanssey insisted on fetching a doctor. Holliday dug in his heels and in compensation, Shanssey insisted on washing out the cut himself, getting it to bleeding again, and then rubbing it with an alum bar and packing it with tufts of flannel, trying to get the bleeding staunched.

Holliday had protested the entire rigmarole, of course, but Shanssey would not be placated by anything less than Holliday’s complete cooperation. In exchange for the cooperation, Holliday was finally allowed to update Shanssey on the new plan to get them into the safety of the Santa Fe’s camp.

Shanssey sat and chuckled wryly at the situation, pulling at the flocking on the arm of his chair. He said, “Kate is going to pitch hell, Doc. You know this.”

“Yes, I know, John. And I know what you’re gonna say next. And you’re right. At least here, she can shop and… well. She can shop. Until some scroundrel from the Rio finds out we’re here for the Santa Fe.”

Shanssey nodded but offered no opinion otherwise.

Holliday continued, “I don’t need her second-guessin’ me or startin’ in on her endless list of I-told-you-so’s, but, well, I’ll deal with it. I have got to get her out of this battle zone.”

Shanssey’s grunt was apparently meant to convey an entire conversation on the vagaries of women in general.

Holliday hated arguing with Kate but she too often insisted on it. Sober, Holliday could deal with her temperament. Drunk, he too easily lost all patience and shouted at her. In his upbringing, such a loss of control meant he was a coward and worse. Kate was merely a woman, after all. Lashing out was all the defense a woman had against a man’s superiority legally, financially, and physically. Rather than blame Kate, Holliday despised himself for his inability to remain civil to her no matter how sharp her tongue or her weapon. Despite all his efforts, and upbringing, he was still no gentleman.

Holliday considered a moment. “Perhaps I should send her to Pueblo or on to Globe.”

“Think she’s stable enough to be that far away on her own?” Shanssey hunched a shoulder as Holliday dropped his head. “I don’t mean truly on her own, Doc, just should she be so far away from you. I’ll go with her, of course, but it’s not like I have all that much control over her.”

Holliday considered. Kate had fallen asleep almost as soon as their physical encounter was over. He’d stretched out beside her, holding her close, her ear against his chest, and hummed to her, stroking her back. She’d been asleep within minutes. That shouldn’t have happened so quickly, he realized now. Just moments ago he’d been grateful that it had, but in retrospect, it was completely uncharacteristic of Kate to not have a litany of questions or demands or at least a suggestion of where they should have dinner. Just one more proof she was not yet fully herself.

Shanssey noted the concern on Holliday’s face. “Doc. Kate’s been just fine today. She’s been off in her room reading her magazines and what not. It’s been a nice quiet day. I take it you’ve seen her.”

“I did.” Holliday wondered at just how loud he and Kate had gotten, but dismissed the thought as pointless. “She’s asleep,” he added.

Shanssey raised an eyebrow. “You slip her something, Doc?”

Holliday blushed in spite of himself. “Don’t be gauche, John.”

“No,” Shanssey sighed. “I mean did you drug her with something?”

“Of course not. I don’t even have any laudanum with me at the moment.” As though remembering, Holliday pulled his flask and took another swallow of whiskey. He said, “I don’t know why ya continue ta tolerate me like this. Or why I keep expectin’ ya to. I mean–“

“Come off it, Doc. There’s no problem between you and me. You should know that by now.”

“Am I getting ya crosswise with Nell?

“Me Nell is in San Francisco,” Shanssey was starting to sound aggrieved. “She won’t be back ’til her sister’s baby is born. That’s at least another month yet.”

“You’d told me that. I’d forgotten. I’m sorry–

“You’ve got more problems than you can say grace over most days as it is, Doc. Quit lookin’ for problems that aren’t there. Christ. You’re worse than me old mam.”

Holliday had never met Shanssey’s old mam, but his Nell was in the same sisterhood as Kate. Gamblers and barmen often had whores as mistresses and common law wives, not surprising considering they spent the majority of their lives in one another’s company. Nell, however, had a keener mind than Kate’s. She would raise critical questions and hone her man’s thinking even when Shanssey failed to appreciate her “meddling,” as he put it. Kate, although better educated, was not so inclined. She said her piece and sulked if she was not instantly agreed with. Holliday, like Shanssey, often just let his woman stew.

Of course, Nell and Kate were both hell raisers of the first order. Holliday put that down as further confirmation of a woman’s only available means of protection when working a dangerous profession in the company of dangerous men. Life was a battle over one bit of fatuity after another, after all, and then you died. Eventually, it could work on your nerves.

Holliday said, not for the first time, “I don’t care what ya say, John, ya don’t owe me such loyalty. Not for Golden, not for Lottie, none of it. You’ve been a good friend and I sent ya inta another man’s war and didn’t even think–“

“Don’t get all het up about it, Doc. We both know you didn’t know all this Rio Grande backlash was going forward. Masterson can spin whatever tale he wants, but everyone here’s been sweet as punch to us. Not to you obviously.” Shanssey waved a finger at Holliday’s forehead. “But as far as you and I are concerned, whatever is owed to who or why isn’t the point. You’re like me own baby brother, dammit. Besides, since when does hell give advance notice? It’s just as liable to show up there as here, as far as I can ever tell.”

Holliday rested his head against his wing-back chair and concentrated on his breathing. His headache was easing thanks to the whiskey, but his stamina was failing him too readily these days. He’d burned through his adrenaline load with Kate. Lost as she was in the demands of her own need, she had prolonged their activities a bit more than he should have allowed. Such matters were no one’s fault, of course. It was simply life doing what it did. But, unfortunately, Holliday had nothing to rely on now but his own inherent cussedness.

Please, God, he pleaded silently. Just a little more time. For Kate’s sake, at least.

“Doc?” Shanssey’s voice was full of concern.

Holliday held up both hands. “I’m fine, John. Talk about being worse than your old mam.” Holliday forced himself to straighten, using some of his subliminal pain to fortify his resolve and buttress his spine. “God knows I don’t deserve ya. But you’re gettin’ on my nerves.”

Shanssey had to chuckle again, despite obviously wanting to argue about it.

The time for argument was past, however. Holliday had checked his watch and stood. “Damnation.”

“I don’t know why you won’t let me deal with the horses, Doc–“

“I don’t have the time or energy ta go over it again. Just let me go ta hell my own way. I’ll get enough grief from Kate, I’m sure.”

Shanssey surrendered the point. “Go get your horse, then. I can handle Kate. It wasn’t like we hauled so much out here with us to begin with, you know?”

Holliday fished his gloves from the pocket of his ulster. “I’ll get the livery saddlin’ my horse. And I’ll get a wagon hitched and drive it here myself. Ya want it out back or front?”

“The hotel will expect it in the front.”

Holliday nodded. “Of course. I’ll try ta get ya a buggy or some such, that way ya have some cover in this damnable wind and people are less likely ta notice Kate. There are two roads to Grape Creek, did I mention that?”

“You did. Kate and I will take the road used by the locals. There should be less traffic because it’s the longer route, but the grade should make it safer for a buggy, I would think. Also the Rio Grande’s men haven’t been patrolling there according to scuttlebutt. Not openly, anyway.”

Holliday nodded acknowledgment, but he was simply thinking aloud now, his thoughts on Kate once more. “It won’t do to wake her too soon. She’ll just make a fuss,”

Shanssey said, “I never unpacked, so I’m good to go. You said you got Kate packed up. Then we just need a buggy–“

“I’m gone. Which livery?”

Shanssey stood. “Judd’s, two streets south up on Fourth and Treywick. Your mare is under the name Tom McKey.”

Holliday collected his cane and opened the door. “Why don’t ya get somethin’ to eat, John? I’ve settled the bill but there’s extra funds applied–“

“I’ll do that, Doc,” Shanssey laid a hand on Holliday’s arm and stepped with him out into the corridor. “I’ll also order something Kate can eat on the way. That’ll help her sit still for a bit.” He handed Holliday his hat but held onto it for a little too long as Holliday attempted to take it. “The question is, Doc,” Shanssey asked softly, “can you do this?”

“Ya know me, John. It’s pretty much do or die. Every soddin’ day.”

Shanssey nodded and seemed to be struggling with what to say.

Holliday said, “You’re a good man, John Shanssey.”

“Well, there’s a lot of it going around then, John Holliday.”

Holliday found Judd’s quickly enough. The walk hadn’t been too involved, he hadn’t been accosted, and he wasn’t out of breath by the time he reached the location. So far, so good.

The sound of a hammer resonated from a few streets back. He scarcely registered the noise. It seemed everywhere he traveled, someone was building or rebuilding something or other. The belauding of hammer and saw was practically the concomitant of his life here in the West.

Carmichael & Sons Grocers advertised its wares with a broad expanse of window frontage just to the north of the livery. Judd’s Livery, however, was a typical clapboard affair that occupied surprisingly little of the street. The bulk of its operations — corrals, barns and pastures — were sequestered behind its storefront, stretching back and then further south in a gentle descent toward the river. The livery with it’s broad carriage entrance, and the barn behind it were both two story affairs, and most of the upper floors were covered with signage: “Stable, Baled Hay, Feed and Grain. Horses Boarded or Pastured. Household Goods Received, Stored, Shipped, Bought or Sold. Peter H. Judd, Prop.” More signs advertised tobaccos, fizzy water, and various animal feeds in an array of colors and fonts.

Holliday’s arrival had him witnessing a portion of someone else’s argument. A man in a red shirt and grease-stained buckskin breeches stood at the open barn door with a man in a mud-spattered leather apron. Both men were muscular and mustached with the sun-squint and tan of men who spent the majority of their lives in the outdoors.

The red-shirted man wore no obvious firearm, but had a demoralizing large knife strapped to his thigh and a plaited bullwhip looped on a bit of rawhide at his hip. Teamster. Holliday knew his mien. Anyone this side of the Atlantic would have known.

The civilized world, which ran on the very products such men delivered, thought the breed beneath notice. Holliday, who rarely remained in one location more than a few months, frequently traveled by freight when no other options provided quick egress. He had known too many teamsters personally to consider such men as pariah. They were rough, and incult certainly; they were hard by necessity and despite the occasionally misdirected tobacco juice, Holliday admired their work ethic and the fierceness of their independence.

With the most obvious livery agent otherwise occupied, Holliday scanned the building for a hint of a second employee who could get busy as soon as, as it were. Holliday had already used up too much of his three hours by this point, but he kept a tight rein on his impatience. It was scarcely anyone else’s crisis that Holliday had run himself short of time.

Preoccupied, Holliday did not hear much of the argument between the two men, intent on trying his luck at the smaller office door along the side of the building. A few well chosen and particularly profane words floated in from behind him as he stepped inside the open door. Behind a counter was the ubiquitous clerk, a man in a flour sack apron and sleeve stockings. He and Holliday exchanged greetings. Holliday explained his business and the man frowned a moment, checking his accounts book.

“But, sir, you’ve paid us for a week. I’m afraid the banks are closed–“

“I’ve no aversion to any balance being put forward to the lease of a rig. Duty has called me elsewhere and is impatient that I be gone, you understand. I will not quibble over a few dollars here or there. You’ve provided good service, I’ve no doubt.” Holliday was well aware he had just bought himself more of that milk of human kindness. In his experience the bean-counters of the world were the most easily corrupted.

“My lady wife,” Holliday continued, “will be travelin’ with me with a trunk and a bit of luggage, so if you have somethin’ that may assure her comfort–“

“Oh, yes, sir. We have just the thing. Buckboards are what demand a premium here, as you may imagine. We don’t get a lot of call for gentler equipage, so we have several nice buggies available. Either will seat two, with independent springs, no less. I believe the lady will be quite pleased. Mr. Judd is with another customer, but I am well-versed in the stock, if you will step this way, Mr. McKey.”

Holliday followed him out the back of the building and the clerk paused to give instructions to a stable hand. Holliday waited, biting his lower lip and refusing to consider the angle of the sun which was just beginning to lower to the west. The young man ran to the stable to saddle Holliday’s horse and the clerk waved over another young man.

Holliday meanwhile had been surveying the few buggies waiting at the side yard. He was looking for seating, concealment, springs and something that didn’t sit so high that it might tip on an especially tight turn. He was in mountainous country now, he reminded himself, none of the endless pampas of Dallas, Denison or Dodge. He pointed out his choice to the clerk.

“Oh, the rockaway, excellent choice, sir. We’ll be sure to have the oil lamps filled–” he tapped the stable hand to emphasize the point, “since you say you are traveling this evening. We can’t have our best customers–” he emphasized the term with a sharp look at the weary young man “–having difficulty on the roads. Pardon me,” he excused himself from Holliday, giving further admonishment to the stable hand. Holliday, blessed with excellent hearing, overheard the words, “saddle blankets, pair of grays, canteen,” and again “lamps” and “get it done yesterday.” Holliday kept his face impassive and his back turned as though he had an abiding interest in the stock pen.

He turned with the clerk’s approach, the man’s boots crunching on gravel.

“The matter is in hand, sir,” the clerk reported, “if you would care to sign papers inside the office–“

Well, of course he did. Anything to be gone, already. Holliday smiled benignly and allowed himself to be led in the appropriate direction.

Paperwork done, Holliday stepped out to the front of the livery to await his rig and his horse. The argument at the front of the building seemed to be in the gently simmering stage by this point, with Judd pointing out his side of the situation. Holliday found an errant patch of silvery lupine and fireweed growing against the building. He occupied himself by examining its stunted beauty while he listened in on the conversation without appearing too inquisitive.

The teamster was saying, “I know the freight wagon is overdue, but I’m tellin’ ye the goddamn Rio Grande bastards won’t take delivery of the ties until next week. They be tellin’ me to bugger me self off at every turn. The ties are loaded on the bleedin’ wagon, but those whoreson sods won’t take ’em and it’s more than I have in the thievin’ bank to get ’em unloaded and then reloaded. I’ve already spent all the fuckin’ profit on the load just payin’ your rental — which is fair, I thank ye — but what the nackle-ass hell be ye suggestin’ I do ’bout it?”

“That’s not my lookout, Hammond,” Judd refused to relent. “You signed the contract with me, not the Rio Grande, I can’t bill them for the wagon–“

Hammond wailed, “Fuckin’ great blue dicks.” He pulled out a leather wallet and began spasmodically packing chewing tobacco into one cheek.

Judd glanced over with no little embarrassment at Holliday, a new customer and obvious gentleman. Holliday pocketed his hands and continued contemplating the weeds as though he had been smitten with profound hearing loss.

Only partially mollified, Judd wagged his finger at the teamster. “I’m no Rio Grande man, Hammond, as you well know, but you signed a contract with me. I’m assumin’ you signed one with the Rio. I understand you’ve gotta stand by your word. Take the wagon down to Spike Buck and dump the load in the middle of the damned camp if ya hafta. Then bring my wagon back. We’ll call it even. I’ve got the Santa Fe breathin’ down my neck for that wagon. I’m losin’ money.”

Hammond gamely spoke around the wad in his teeth. “Well, fuckin’ hell, doncha think I done thought of that? I try something like that, DeRemer’s men’ll blast me to hell and gone before I’m half done.” He spit with authority.

Judd threw up his hands. “I don’t know what to tell you. It’s time you ponied up.”

The teamster’s response was to carry on about “the cunt-licking cock-suckers” working for the Rio Grande.

Holliday did not allow himself to contemplate how it could be anatomically possible to commit both indecencies concurrently. Through the open door of the barn he caught a glimpse of his saddled horse being tied to the back of his rig, two grays in the rig’s traces, blinders already donned. One of the two stable hands was buckling a breeching strap on the off-animal. The other young man had outfitted the rig with a couple of heavy woolen blankets and was pouring fresh oil into the lanterns.

Holliday registered all the activity being done on his behalf, but he was more actively pondering how Judd had phrased his admonition. “Down to Spike Buck,” he had said, but as in down river, or down the grade, Holliday wondered. Possibly both. Odds were the river–

It was now or never. Holliday turned to the teamster and offered his hand in greeting. “I thoroughly beg pardon, but I couldn’t help but overhear your so intriguin’ discussion with this good man here.” Holliday indicated Judd as Hammond accepted the handshake with some hesitancy. Given his social station, Holliday imagined the teamster was unaccustomed to being greeted like a peer. Holliday matched the solid grasp of the man’s hand, conveying strength, sincerity and trustworthiness. He then offered the same gesture to Judd. Judd, too, was wary but willing with a decent handshake.

“You with the Rio Grande, Mr–?”

“McKey. Thomas McKey,” Holliday answered. “No, sir, I most assuredly am not with the Rio Grande. Those high-handed sons of bitches can kiss my Confederate dick.” This bit of profanity brought smiles all around and suddenly he was part of their confidential circle. He addressed the teamster. “Am I to understand you have a delivery of railroad ties paid for by the Rio Grande? Is this west of their camp at Spike Buck?”

Hammond assured him it was indeed, west of the Spike Buck camp, needing to be driven down for delivery. “My lumber camp,” he spat again, “is upriver from Spike Buck at Texas Creek.”

Holliday hesitated only a moment as the stir of horses being pulled from the carriage building signaled his wait was finally over.

“It seems to me, gentlemen,” he said, “that your difficulty is a minor one on its face. The principal question is: will the ties float?”

Judd looked confused. Hammond mirrored his look.

“Float?” Hammond repeated the word. “Yeah. Sure, bi-gawd. They’ll float.”

“Well, why not deliver them to the Spike Buck camp via the river?”

There was a silence, both men fairly squinting at Holliday.

Then Judd laughed and once began, found it difficult to stop. “You’re suggesting he float the ties downriver to Spike Buck?”

Holliday shrugged. “Why not? Unless, of course, his contract specifies the load must come by wagon.”

Hammond was still staring at him. “No, the damned paper said not one whit about how they’s to be delivered, just that they must be. So I should toss the blasted ties in the river and let the Rio’s bastards fish them out?” He chewed a moment, both literally and figuratively, and spat again. “Bi-gawd Almighty, I like it, sir. I do indeed.”

Holliday turned to wave an acknowledgment to the young man holding the lead of his rig. He glanced westward as he turned back to Judd and the teamster. One of the not so distant mountains was being lit aflame by the sunset, blood red and gold in the slanting light. “Personally,” he said, “I’d set the ties on fire first. But that’s just my bent.”

When he turned back to Hammond, both men were grinning from ear to ear. His work here was done.


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