Chapter 4: Reversals of Fortune

Parables of the Beautiful Country

by Jack E’Dalgo

Chapter 4: Reversals of Fortune

“I wish you would do me a favor,” Doc said to him. “Bill Allen is after me. I want you to come around and see me wing him when the ball comes off. He isn’t worth killing.” —Denver Daily Rocky Mountain News Oct 23, 1898

The brief stop in Pueblo gave the men a chance to stretch their legs and grab a quick drink at one of the saloons near the station. It’s about all they had time for. The Santa Fe was an efficient machine and specials were always given top priority. The promised supply car had been coupled on behind the caboose, a boxcar of whatever Strong had deemed necessary to fully outfit their awaiting work camp. Meanwhile, a hearty buffet was laid out in each passenger car and Masterson’s minions returned to eagerly accept the challenge of making every bite disappear.

Holliday meanwhile had condescended to patronize Masterson’s car. For all Masterson knew, Doc was already growing weary of being the lynchpin of peace for this mob of hellions and was simply looking for a reprieve. Holliday preferred his socializing in spurts from which he could retreat and regroup his private thoughts. Long-term exposure to humanity, Masterson had found, frequently left Holliday short-tempered and trigger-happy.

Holliday’s retinue would not be cast aside so easily, however. A dozen men had trailed him into the forward coach, determined to remain in orbit around the gambler’s aura. Holliday’s gift of the gab was still bearing fruit and the men remained boisterous for a bit, arguing over who would get the last biscuit or who’s mother made the best rhubarb pie, nothing serious. Masterson, refreshed from his nap and fortified by a deep bowl of pozole rojo, waited for Doc to load himself a plate and indicated the chair next to him when Holliday spun to find a place to sit.

At some point, Holliday had shed his ulster, and Masterson again wondered at the change in the man. It was true that Holliday had gotten himself a haircut and was immaculately dressed, but not in his usual easy-flowing frock coat and silk vest or even his customary gray. Instead he was in a heavily tailored short Norfolk jacket that buttoned tight and high against his thin frame, revealing little of the white linen shirt beneath. Instead of his usual cravat, he wore a satin four in hand, gloves– which Masterson noted he still hadn’t removed– and a broad-brimmed planters hat. Aside from the shirt and the rich leather of his shoulder holster, everything, including the stove-pipe narrow trousers, was deep and unrelenting black. Against Holliday’s too fair skin and blond hair, he looked ethereal and haunted. The impression Masterson got was of a painfully thin man constrained and in deep mourning, certainly not Holliday’s usual facetious character, or even the barest hint of the comic innuendo of this morning.

Masterson had never known Holliday to wear black. Holliday wore gray, cream, or lighter hues of brown or blue. It wasn’t like him to emphasize his own gauntness. The man had to have looked at himself in a mirror this morning, yet this is how he chose to be seen today.

Masterson refused to believe anything was right in Holliday’s life at this juncture and the continued reminder of the fact left a perpetual sense of dread in Masterson’s gut.

Holliday sat his bottle of beer on the pedestal ashtray beside his seat and pulled his cane out from under his arm before sitting down next to Masterson. He had a rolled tortilla that smelled of beef and hot olive salad. He angled his cane into an upright position against the arm of his chair and took a bite of his burrito.

Busy with their own meals, Holliday’s honor guards began to settle throughout the train car. The final hours were starting to wear them down. A day trapped in a tin can on wheels, even a well-padded one, could enervate a man. The men drifted between the passenger cars or availed themselves of sleep to pass the remaining time.

Holliday had merely gotten started on his meal when the whistle sounded twice and the train pulled out for the final hour to Canyon City. His cane slid with the jolt of the train and Masterson caught it before it slid to the carpet. It’s weight surprised him and he hefted it a minute, giving Holliday a surprised glance. Holliday grinned but offered no explanation as to why he would carry a weighted cane. The silver head was formed in an exaggerated Derby style with a carved head of a dire wolf forming the opposite arm of the “T.” The cane did not taper on it’s butt-end, which was capped with more richly carved solid silver. For the life of him, Masterson could not locate a switch or a mechanism of any kind.

Masterson demanded, “Is there a gun or a sword in this thing, Doc?”

“Naw, Bat, it’s just a stick.” Holliday blotted his mustache, but it didn’t conceal his mischievous smirk.

“Uh huh.” Masterson mumbled something about Holliday needing to give him the name of his cane maker. If it were just a stick it was the fifty-caliber of sticks as far as Masterson could imagine. You could kill a man with a bludgeon like that.

Holliday managed to consume most of his lunch before tossing the remains of his tortilla out the open window. He took a deep quaff of his beer, then unbuttoned the top two buttons of his jacket and retrieved his cigar case and a silver match safe. The match case was engraved and Masterson observed the initials were not Holliday’s. Something won at a poker table, no doubt. Masterson had won a couple of watches that way. He’d also lost both of them similarly. Holliday opened the cigar case and offered first choice to Masterson.

Masterson, a little too full of soup, declined the smoke and Holliday worked up a good burn on his cigar.

“So.” Holliday said finally, “Is there an actual plan for this Santy Fee thing, Bat, or are we makin’ this up as we go along?”

“It’s just care-taking, for the most part, Doc. You know, taking care that Palmer and his boy DeRemer don’t steal the Gorge from Strong.”

“Uh, huh. Sure.” Holliday was looking at him sideways while he released a mouthful of smoke trying to keep it from wafting back in Masterson’s face. Masterson grinned and closed the window. It was significantly quieter and Holliday wouldn’t have to strain his throat to be heard.

“So.” Holliday said again, releasing another puff rich with cherry and chocolate like only a decent Cavendish could supply. “We’re just makin’ this nonsense up as we go, then. Is there a map at least, so we can find our dicks in the dark?”

Masterson reached for his bag and retrieved his survey map while Holliday replaced his match safe and restored order to his buttons. Masterson had already made a few additional notations to those officially printed but Holliday had his confidence so he had nothing to hide. He leaned toward Holliday’s wing chair and spread the map between them. Holliday held his edge.

They studied the layout in silence for a few minutes. The map, with Masterson’s notations, revealed the area held by the Santa Fe, which included Canyon City, the road and rail lines to the Royal Gorge and the intended lines through the gorge to the D&RG tie camp at Spike Buck, just a bit west of the gorge’s western end. The map also made clear that the entire rail infrastructure surrounding Canyon City had been laid by the Denver & Rio Grande. Holliday puffed, then let go of the map’s corner to remove the cigar from his mouth. He regained his hold on the map’s edge, holding the still lit tobacco clear of the vellum.

“I assume the Santy Fee is claimin’ rights over the Rio Grande’s rail lines, but on what basis?”

“Court ruling. The Rio Grande needed cash and its board forced Palmer to lease the rails to the Santa Fe for some thirty years, I believe.”

“Well. Ya did say the Santy Fee has better lawyers.”

“And deeper pockets. Of course, they usually go together as far as lawyers are concerned.”

Holliday grunted assent. “So who’s the fair-haired child as far as Canyon City is concerned? Considerin’ all their supplies must come over Rio Grande’s rails, they’re stickin’ with the side that’s butterin’ their bread, one assumes.”

“You would think, but no, the Rio Grande has treated Canyon City poorly. They refuse to even complete the north to south line which they’d contracted to bring through the center of town before the Royal Gorge was even plotted out. The line stops a half mile short of town and has remained that way for years now. The residents and city council have each sued and won separate cases, but Rio Grande still hasn’t abided by either court’s ruling, nor has the Rio returned the money the town was taxed to death for to get the line completed.”

“Denver and Rio Grande should change their name ta Brigands and Thieves.”

“That’s not the worst of it, Doc. The town wants their railroad. They’re the ones that approached Strong to bring in the Santa Fe to complete the job the Rio Grande refuses to finish. Now the Rio Grande have threatened to retaliate against the town for bringing in the Santa Fe. So the gloves are off and some of the town even want revenge. When I left Colorado to gather the men in Dodge, there was talk of Canyon City forming a vigilante committee to run the Rio Grande men and their independent contractors out town by force. Most of the contractors are residents, though, which I imagine will split the town into an armed camp. The Rio Grande were threatening to retaliate against the vigilante committee by clearing the town of every man, woman and child claiming allegiance to the Santa Fe.”

“Damn me. And I sent–” Whatever Holliday had meant to say, he refused to finish. Masterson appreciated his obvious passion for the project but Holliday suddenly seemed to be taking it all surprisingly personally. Holliday stuck his cigar back into his mouth and puffed furiously for a moment, still staring at the map.

Holliday was a bundle of energy, a far cry from the day before when he’d been just short of morose. Not for the first time, Masterson was prompted to wonder if perhaps Holliday didn’t occasionally avail himself of something more than alcohol to lift his spirits. There were any number of tinctures and patent medicines that could provide a man a bracing jolt of cocaine when necessary, but Masterson didn’t dwell on the thought for long. In all the months he’d known him, Holliday had never seemed over the top and, despite sudden flares of his temper, remained in complete control of himself. Holliday was smoking far more heavily than usual, though. Masterson wondered if the tobacco was sufficient to fuel Holliday’s surge of energy.

Holliday spoke around his cigar. “Ya said Palmer is usin’ Spike Buck as his center of operations. I assume Strong has a camp nearer than Canyon City for the work, as well. Is that where we’re operatin’ from?”

“It’s just here,” Masterson pointed out an “x” he had drawn at Grape Creek, a half mile from the mouth of the Royal Gorge, near enough to the work to be accessible, but far enough from the noise of explosives to not rattle a man’s teeth unduly. “The camp is in a grove of cottonwood. We get our water from the Creek, clear and mountain fresh despite what they might be doing upstream to the Arkansas River. It’s a good camp. Mostly wood and canvas, but aren’t we all used to frontier towns by now to not be too bothered by all that–“

“I’ve lived in my share of Hell on Wheels camps, Bat. Mining camps, cow towns, fort towns. I won’t be turnin’ up my nose at the place.”

Masterson nodded. “Still, I think Santa Fe has done themselves proud at Grape Creek. You have to go to Canyon City for highfalutin but in camp we have mess tents, restaurants, cooks, carpenters, teamsters, a livery stable, sleeping quarters, a doctor, several saloons, gambling and women. All the comforts of home. There’s even a few separate tents here and there for them that want a bit of privacy. I saved you a tent, Doc. It’s not too far from mine.”

Not too close to it, either, thought Masterson.

“How very thoughtful of ya, Bat,” Holliday murmured. The sentiment was sincere, but he was back to being distracted again. “There’s security at the camp, I take it.”

Masterson was puzzled by the question. “Of course. I’ve set up regular shifts throughout the perimeter. Good men with every kind of rifle imaginable. Henry thirty-thirties, fifty-six caliber Hawken, Spencers, And don’t get me started on Winchesters. Winchester has cornered the market these days as far as I can tell. Of course, everyone is heeled, in the camp, at the worksite, in transit. Including the women. So don’t go accidentally calling the wrong woman Kate in the heat of passion, Doc. Some women won’t settle for that kinda thing.”

“Too droll, Bat. I take it we’re passin’ through Canyon City before hittin’ this camp at,” Holliday squinted at the map, “Grape Creek.”

“That’s the plan. The conductor mentioned taking on another engine at Canyon City to pull the train back to town after it unloads at Grape Creek.” He checked his watch. “They’ll probably hold our special in camp ’til end of shift to take some of the workers back to town. We get a regular shipment every day: workers, supplies, horses, mules, equipment, railroad ties, rails. You name it. There’s a purser on-site, so if you need anything, all you have to do is let him know. Meanwhile, I figure you and I should take a ride on horseback tomorrow morning, so you can get the lay of the land, as they say.”

“Bat. I’m gonna probably upset your apple cart for a minute, but I want ya to hear me out.” Holliday handed Masterson back his map.

“You said you weren’t going to let me down, Doc.”

“I’m not doin’ that, Bat. I’m here. I’m stayin’. There’s just somethin’ I have to check on first. In Canyon City. It shan’t take three hours. Then I’ll ride on out ta camp and report in. And will be there for as long as ya need me. Even if it takes us years. Hand to God.”

“You’ve been to Canyon City before?”

“Never heard of it until ya told me about it yesterday.”

“So what possible business could you have–“

“Don’t ask me, Bat. I cannot tell ya that.”

“Dammit, Doc–“

“I know it all seems terribly suspicious and maybe even traitorous. I can only assure ya that it is neither. I have not betrayed ya. Indeed, the situation has nothing ta do with you or with the Santy Fee or even the Rio Grande.” Holliday sighed. “Hell, it’s not even illegal. I’ve… I’ve done somethin’ damned foolish and I need ta make it right for someone else, is all. It ain’t against ya,” he emphasized. “I’d not do somethin’ so underhanded ta a friend, a man I gave my word ta. It’s– Well. It was against myself that I’ve done this thing. Three hours, Bat. That’s all I need.”

Masterson mulled over the sudden turn. He knew better than to push Holliday. Holliday didn’t push. He stood his ground even if he didn’t particularly like where he was standing. For Doc, it was just the principle of the thing.

“You know,” Masterson said, “you could have just made up an excuse, told me you had an old gambling debt there or that there was a dodger out on you. I wouldn’t have known any better. I would have understood–“

“It ain’t none of that. I’m bein’ straight with ya, Bat. I don’t like lyin’. A man trusts me ta back him with a six-gun, I’m not goin’ ta’ lie ta his face.” The response was said softly but the answer was firm.

“You need help, Doc?”

“No. No, but I thank ya. I got myself inta this… situation, I’ll get myself out of it.”

Damn Holliday and his self-sufficiency, anyway. Masterson didn’t like it. Not one damned bit. Masterson could feel his blood beginning to boil up around his ears. He should have ignored Wyatt’s advice just this once. Didn’t he have enough prima donna gun sharps in this bunch… But that wasn’t quite equitable, he knew. Holliday was probably one of the few shootists here that didn’t feel he had to prove anything.

Three hours. Bat had asked the man for two months and he’d pledged himself to it even though Holliday probably stood to make better money in Dodge, not to mention the personal cost to his relations with Kate. All Doc wanted was three hours. Doc’s comrades would surely not miss him that long, not with familiarizing themselves with the camp, settling in and such.

“You may have a problem getting a horse,” Masterson admonished. “Santa Fe have requisitioned most of the available–“

“I have a horse.”

“You… have a horse. You brought a horse to Canyon City.”

It was more a statement than a question so Holliday didn’t answer.

Masterson pulled out a letter from his interior coat pocket. He handed it to Holliday. “That’s a statement from Morley, Santa Fe’s surveyor. It gives you right of way if you run into any problems, and, Doc–


“It may also get you killed if DeRemer’s men find you with it.”

“Understood. I’ll get it back to ya PDQ”

“Keep your ivories there,” Masterson indicated Holliday’s Colts, “outta sight, if possible. The town’s on edge enough as it is. The sheriff has been confiscating weapons intended for the Rio Grande’s men, but if the next court order favors Rio Grande, that can swing the opposite direction in a heartbeat.”

“I’ll keep my Colts under wraps an’ my head on a swivel.”

“I’m trying to comfort myself that there’s not much trouble you can get into in three hours, Doc, but we both know I’m deluding myself.”

“Trust me, Bat. You’re being there to hold my hand will not guarantee any different outcome.”

Masterson sighed. “I have just one request.”

“Name it.”

“When or if you ever do need help in this lifetime, you’ll ask for me. Just once.”

Holliday waited like he expected a full listing of demands. Finally he said with some surprise, “That’s it?’

“That’s it.”

Holliday seemed to consider it. “Well,” he said, finally. “I’ll do that, Bat. Thank ya.”

The Canyon City railway station was festooned with Denver & Rio Grande signage and painted in the deep green and butter yellow of the Rio Grande trademark. But it was abundantly obvious it was merely the armed fortress of the Santa Fe. Most of the Rio’s signs were covered by canvas bearing the Santa Fe’s red and white nomenclature: the Catholic “Holy Rood” with the words Santa Fe, overlaid on a circle symbolizing the Indian sun god, two religions blasphemed for the price of one, as it were.

Guards braced with revolvers and carbines checked passengers for weapons and searched luggage before releasing either from the passenger train that had entered the depot a half hour before Masterson’s special. The larger train had been shunted to an auxiliary track before the special was brought through. A second engine was pulled from a side rail and positioned behind the special before the little train had even fully braked, ready to be coupled on for the special’s return trip from Grape Creek.

It was late April but a thick coverlet of snow overlaid the tracks in front of the forward engine. The engine appeared to be preparing to run trackless, the rails invisible under the snow pack. It was gone three in the afternoon but the spring sun had not melted the snow’s depth, merely reflected the light and intensified it.

The special was met by a cheerless Santa Fe guard with a carbine slung in the bend of his arm. His confederates were on the auxiliary line pestering the passengers there. A lone sentry, he stood central on the platform, wanting to be seen despite the snow fog and the train steam, ready to enforce Santa Fe sanctions.

Holliday didn’t even wait for the special to come to a full stop before detraining. He had no baggage, having left his Gladstone behind with Masterson while admitting, finally, that his horse was not in the stock car, but already in town. Masterson had raised his eyebrows over that revelation, but had said nothing further about it.

His lack of luggage and his cavalier lope onto the platform from the still moving train earned Holliday the immediate attention of the man with the carbine. He may have just seen Holliday get off the Santa Fe’s own special convoy, but that didn’t mean this solitary passenger wasn’t there to start trouble.

Masterson stood on the platform of the parlor car. He himself wouldn’t be recognized as anyone with authority here at the depot and he didn’t want to intrude into the situation and risk making the guard any more nervous than he obviously was already. Masterson waited to see how Doc handled this business, ready to back whatever play Holliday set out.

Doc had brass ones, Masterson had to give him that. His ulster buttoned tight and billowing in the wind, Holliday approached the guard directly, his free hand held at shoulder height in a kind of half surrender position, while he leaned heavily on his cane. His free hand was open, palm forward so the sentry could see he was presenting no weapon. He stopped a good two arms’ lengths short of the sentry, not crowding the man, too far away to attack with his cane, but close enough to the guard to be heard. Holliday, his back to Masterson, was apparently speaking, hand still raised. His voice, as usual, did not carry.

Masterson watched the sentry’s face for any indication of trouble. The sentry listened and frowned and spoke something. Listened again. Then suddenly, he was nodding and took one hand off his carbine to point to something in the direction of Canyon City. He made a kind of chopping motion with his free hand, indicating one, two and three, heading progressively west of where he’d begun his directions. He then put his hand back onto the carbine and stepped back a step.

Holliday’s head bobbed and he raised his free hand to tap his hat brim as a salute to the sentry. He kept the hand in plain view as he limped across the platform and toward the indicated direction. The guard watched him go, dividing his attention between Holliday’s receding form and any further activity regarding the special train. Masterson sighed and returned to his parlor car, grateful to be out of the biting wind. Whatever Holliday was up to, he hoped it was worth all his efforts. It had damned well better be.


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