Chapter 3: A Long Ride on a Short Train

Parables of the Beautiful Country

by Jack E’Dalgo

Chapter 3: A Long Ride on a Short Train

“Trying to flesh out his character is like trying to put clothes on a ghost.” – Val Kilmer regarding Doc Holliday

Masterson stepped into the lobby of the Dodge House, and found it empty; even the desk clerk had abandoned his post. Masterson took the opportunity to pause and stretch, twisting his spine and rotating his shoulders to work out the kinks. He’d stayed up too late, having let “Bullshit Jack” Pierce, Dutch Henry Borne and “Turkey Creek” Jack Johnson talk him into a celebratory game of Mexican Sweat poker. Which had turned into a few dozen games, as it usually did.

Masterson had arrested Dutch, notorious horse thief that he was, just a few short months before, but Colonel Charles Goodnight had stood up for Dutch and gotten him cleared of his charges and Masterson was grateful that Dutch held no grudge. They’d all had a great time, but, as Masterson feared, he’d drank too much and stayed too long. His back was complaining about the amount of time he’d sat still. His head was buzzing from too many cocktails. Next time, he decided, he’d leave off the champagne and stick with Manhattans, stirred, not shaken.

Bat was content, regardless. He’d managed to add another sixty dollars to his wallet from the games tonight and another few dozen men to the team he’d assembled for the Santa Fe. Dodge was abuzz with the news that Masterson had finally gotten Holliday definitively signed on to the proceedings. Men had stopped Masterson on the street throughout the afternoon, eager to join up. Several men who had previously sworn they couldn’t be bothered for any amount of money had practically begged Masterson to take them on.

Masterson liked Holliday– well, most days, anyway– but he couldn’t see what it was that made otherwise perfectly sensible men idolize the irascible gambler. It was a fact that Holliday was one of those men who other men either hated on sight or remained fiercely loyal to for life. There was never a middle ground with Holliday, always and simply one or the other. Masterson guessed that he himself was the exception that proved the rule. He could take Holliday or leave him. He wondered lately, though, how much of that was due to so many of Wyatt’s tall tales about Holliday’s viciousness coloring Holliday with too harsh a brush. How much was true, Masterson had begun to wonder, and how much was merely Wyatt protecting a friend behind a fabricated veil of terror.

During the evening’s games, Bullshit Jack had shared a bit of his history with Holliday, though. “I saw Doc draw once,” he’d claimed in hushed tones. “Shackleford, Texas that was. I tell ya’, that ain’t no natural man. Some kinda deviltry was up with that. Ain’t no man can move that fast. And both hands. One second the Colts was in they’s scabbards, the next they was in his hands. Swear to God, I never seen the man move. ‘Taint natural, I tell ya. T’weren’t even aimed my way and still scared the shit outta me, I don’t mind sayin’.”

Masterson finished one last mighty stretch and glanced up the stairs, preparing to head to his room. And speak of the devil. There was the good Doctor on the stairs. Masterson opened his mouth to greet him, but hesitated, once more struck that there was something afield.

Holliday wasn’t climbing the stair, or descending it. He was just standing there, his back to the lobby, facing the wall, which made no sense. As Masterson took a step back against the door, he realized Holliday was not alone. Kate was there, her back against the wall with Holliday towering over her. They were so close a breath could scarcely pass between them but they were not touching.

Both Kate and Holliday were at an oblique angle to Masterson, both almost in profile to him. Kate’s visible hand was planted, fingers wide, on the wall behind her as though willing it to open and swallow her. Holliday’s hands were pressed in a mirrored position near her shoulders. The couple were speaking, Masterson could see Holliday’s jaw moving in that languid fashion of his, and Kate’s head trembling with her rapid staccato answers.

Masterson could hear nothing of their conversation other than Kate’s occasional hiccuping. He could see her eyes past Holliday’s arm, wide and wary, defiant as she tried to stare Holliday down. She did not blink. Not once.

Masterson tried to turn away, this was a couple’s private life, after all, but he couldn’t move. As much as he despised Kate, if Holliday struck the woman, Masterson would not tolerate it. He would intervene, Holliday’s Colts be damned.

Holliday’s near hand came down suddenly, but he did not strike. Instead he pulled Kate toward him, pressing her against the wall as he kissed her. Her hands released the wall and clawed against Holliday’s back like a woman drowning. Masterson stopped breathing on her behalf for an eternally long moment.

Then, just as suddenly as he had moved, Holliday released her from the kiss, dropping his head to her far shoulder. Masterson could hear a muffled growl of words but not clearly enough to make them out. Kate’s eyes were pressed shut now and she was nodding vigorously at whatever Holliday had said, her hands still against Holliday’s back. Fresh tears, Masterson could almost count them, squeezed out from her lashes.

Holliday released her and pulled away. Masterson stepped back, praying for invisibility. But Holliday and Kate were the only people in their universe. She fled up the stairs and down the hall. Holliday briefly straightened his mustache and proceeded up the stairs without looking around. Masterson took a deep, shuddering breath. The world resumed its usual spin.

Kate, apparently, had been taken care of, just as Holliday had promised. Masterson might just pull this off, after all.

By daybreak the platform of the Santa Fe station at Dodge was crowded with desperadoes. Every man one of them had an arsenal of some kind. Colts, Winchesters, Henry’s and Spencers, even the occasional old Springfield, and a Smith and Wesson or two were milling around in respective hands on the platform, getting on and off the special train Santa Fe had provided for the excursion.

These were Masterson’s men, he was proud to say, even if it was only to himself. They were rested, full of energy and well-heeled, ready for whatever the Santa Fe might require. Masterson was as pleased as if he’d gotten his first military posting. Major Masterson. It had a nice ring to it. Of course, the army, unlike voter’s registrars and public clerks, would have required him to prove citizenship, so there was that. He’d just keep to Mister Masterson and continue to fly his Canadian citizenship well under the radar. He loved his adopted American homeland and could be trusted to do his best for her. No sense rocking the boat if it wasn’t already sinking.

The Santa Fe had done all right by Masterson. Granted, the special they delivered was nothing special to look at: a squat locomotive with a coffee-grinder stack pulling just over a half dozen cars: three flatcars loaded with rails and ties — since the train was headed to the end of track labor camp, it made sense to send more building materials along for the ride – a stock car, one standard passenger coach, one parlor passenger coach and a caboose. Each passenger coach could hold from thirty to fifty passengers, so none of these volatile pistoleros would feel overly crowded, he hoped.

Horses were being loaded in the stock car, although Masterson had told the men the Santa Fe had mules and mountain ponies at their camp. Meanwhile, the men, luggage in hand, moved in and out of the coaches like they were confused about seating arrangements, or something. Masterson could already tell this endeavor was going to be like herding cats.

God help me, he prayed to no one in particular.

Meanwhile, Masterson had been recognized and was gathering a crowd. Some of the shootists appeared unhappy. Masterson dropped his valise and moved his cane to his non-shooting hand. It was all instinctive; he didn’t consciously have a prayer of taking on the entire Dodge City Gang and living to tell the tale and he knew it. Suddenly cat herding seemed a far more pleasant occupation.

“Where’s Holliday?” Ben Thompson demanded. “Dammit, Bat, you swore he was gonna be here and he ain’t.”

“Someone has been misreporting for damn sure”, someone else shouted from across the platform. “Where the hell is Doc?”

“I spoke to Doc just yesterday morning,” Masterson assured. “He had to leave last night and he’ll be in Canyon City waiting for us.”

A trickle of dissent threatened to become a flood. “A likely story. I smell a rat. I ain’t goin’ lest I see Holliday” all seemed the general consensus.

Masterson was having a mutiny on his hands. He waved for silence, but men with pistols and not much else to do tend to be quick on exercising their tempers.

“I understand, gentlemen, but Doc is joining us–“

“Well, of course I’m joinin’ ya’,” came a familiar drawl from over Masterson’s right shoulder. He spun, and sure enough, there was Holliday, out of breath, as usual, his slicker still spattered with droplets from this morning’s rain. He dropped his Gladstone on the platform. “Did ya think Bat Masterson would lie to ya?” Holliday demanded of the men. “For shame.” The dentist adjusted his black planter’s hat, leaned on his cane and made a broad gesture with his free arm. “I apologize for my tardiness, gentlemen, but I have arrived,” he announced with a grin. “Let the hostilities commence.”

A cheer went up across the platform. Mutiny had been averted.

“Now what’s all this I hear of takin’ my name in vain, Bat?” Holliday demanded as the men began swarming them.

“You told me you were leaving out last night,” Bat reminded him.

“Oh. Well. I had ta get Kate away last night and thought I might have to go part way with her ta get her settled like.” Holliday shrugged, fishing a panatella from his waistcoat pocket. “She went straight away, no problem. Given how much her shoppin’ will probably cost me, I figured I’d take the Santy Fee up on their free ticket.”

Turkey Creek Johnson offered Holliday a match for his smoke. “How the hell is life treatin’ ya, Doc?” he asked.

“Like the bitch she is, Creek, but whatcha gonna do?” Holliday puffed his panatella into life, checking its draw. “You hangin’ in there?” Holliday proffered the question to Creek with a perfectly serious look. Creek shrugged and looked away back toward town, not focused on much, as pale as Holliday himself. Holliday briefly tapped his arm, then removed his panatella to speak, low, but quite clearly. “You’re a good man, Creek,” he said and Masterson was instantly wondering what he was missing in this conversation and just how many undercurrents he’d missed thus far in his life.

He didn’t get to ponder for long however, Holliday said, “Oh, Bat, I tried to get Eddie Foy to join us yesterday afternoon but he wouldn’t budge. Poor ole codger thinks we actually expect him to blast someone. Imagine lettin’ that scamp lose with some actual buckshot.”

Creek chortled, his attention back front and center. “The kickback’ed knocked the little fella on his ass fer sure. I don’t think he could handle a .410, let alone a scattergun.” He shook his head at the idea.

Creek’s good-natured laughter was contagious. Masterson chuckled. “Well, it was a worthy effort anyway, Doc. Foy would have been a hoot to have along.”

And just like that, Holliday was swept along in the crowd of men and horses and luggage. The last Masterson saw of him he was being driven like a lamb to the slaughter into the standard coach near the caboose, with the dapper Luke Short carrying Holliday’s bag and Creek bringing up the rear, as tall and lithe as Holliday’s shadow.

Masterson picked up his own bag with a sigh and loaded himself into the parlor car. At least he wasn’t expected to keep this lot of hooligans entertained. He’d consider the cats herded and safely contained.

Masterson woke with a start and took a moment to become aware of just what he was doing in a parlor car of a moving train. He checked his watch. He’d been asleep for almost three hours. They were supposed to be averaging almost a mile a minute on this run, so they should be in Pueblo in another couple of hours. In Pueblo, he had been told, another car of supplies would be added to their entourage, and then there was the better part of an hour before they reached Canyon City.

The passenger car Masterson occupied was a Wagner built carriage, every bit as opulent as one of Pullman’s own. The carpet was thick, the curved ceilings ornamented with gleaming brass bulwarks featuring onyx pillars, carved reliefs of rampant horses, and heavily figured lamps with cut glass shades. The cushioned benches were deep, push and richly patterned. Plate glass mirrors reflected the amber glow of the lamps as well as the bright white of the sunlight pouring through the delicately etched transom windows that ran the length of the roof of the car.

Masterson unfolded himself from his wingchair and looked around. A half dozen men were scattered throughout the remaining chairs, asleep, hats down over their faces. Masterson walked softly, and almost regretted having to open the far door and allow in the gust of noise from the rail to wake everyone.

Open it, he did, however, and found that the two train cars were connected by a narrow enclosed diaphragm vestibule with interlocking footplates. The noise of the rail was certainly louder here and he could hear the growl of wind, but the space was well-enclosed and the noise was certainly not the cacophony he’d expected.

The door of the second coach was open at the end of the narrow vestibule, and filled by two men who were peering into the standard coach, straining to hear a conversation. They rocked easily with the pitching of the coach as it sped down the track. They were chuckling and elbowing one another knowingly at whatever was going on inside. Masterson approached the door himself, careful of his balance as the train plowed onward.

“Gentlemen,” he invited, “Why don’t you go on in?”

“T’aint no room,” the taller man responded. He was a broad-faced man with blue eyes and close-cropped brown hair. He wore a standard plaid shirt beneath his vest. The neck was opened loosely, allowing a glimpse of a tattoo of a Rebel flag on his neck. That definitely had to hurt, Masterson thought. It was clearly a testimony of the man’s convictions.

Masterson said, “Well, you’d think a man named Shotgun Collins could make himself some room.” He grinned as he said it, and Collins grinned back and stood aside to let Masterson pass.

Indeed, the standard coach was filled with men, the seats filled, many standing or sitting in the floor or straddling the backs of benches, and all laughing riotously. Masterson was impressed to see that the coach was a luxurious as the parlor coach had been, the tall back-to-back benches deeply upholstered and mahogany walls and arched ceiling burnished to a sheen to match the mirrors and brass ornamentation. The car was warm with all the bodies, not to mention testosterone, and hot air from the conversations.

Turkey Creek Johnson had made himself a perch by straddling the back of JJ Webb’s seat. Creek was whining, “…No, no, you laugh, but Gawd is my witness, it was a fair fight.”

Holliday, lost among the crowd, drawled, “Then your tactics suck, sir.”

There was another round of backslapping and laughter. Masterson looked around and realized he was standing next to Dave Mathers. Mysterious Dave had been laughing so hard he was wiping tears from his eyes.

Masterson was suddenly aware of the reek of alcohol so strong he felt he needed to wipe his own eyes. Dave Rudabaugh was dragging himself loose from a seat to Masterson’s left. The seat was instantly filled by Slap Jack Bill who slid into the seat from his standing-room only place along the wall. Rudabaugh, shit-faced, as usual, fell back into Bill’s lap as the train jostled briefly. Bill shoved Rudabaugh back to his feet none too gently. Rudabaugh scarcely noticed. He was peering into the crowd, intent on finding his quarry.

Rudabaugh slurred, “They say you married your whore, Holliday.”

Holliday, still invisible to Masterson, answered lightly, “I was told it would be cheaper. I was deceived!” Holliday seemed to be further back of the coach, to the right, lost in a huddle of men and hats and tall benches.

Holliday’s response had brought out a few more obdurate laughs although some of the men looked around uncomfortably. Everyone knew Holliday was sensitive on the subject of his mistress. Few men on this train wanted to get crosswise of Holliday and his notorious temper.

Rudabaugh mulled Holliday’s answer around a bit. He spat on the carpet. “They say you’re such a drunk you travel with your own bartender.”

“Jealousy,” Holliday tutted. “Cruel as the grave.” Masterson remembered then that John Shanssey was the one man he couldn’t get to commit to this venture no matter what he’d promised, even after Holliday had signed on. Rudabaugh waited for the laughter to die down so he could be heard.

“You’re not man enough to be shamed,” Rudabaugh slurred.

Holliday rose from his seat finally, looking back to Rudabaugh. No man took Holliday’s seat in his absence, Masterson noted. Holliday was saying: “To be insulted, sir, I must first value your judgment.” Holliday’s overcoat was unbuttoned, the Colts waiting patiently in their scabbards across his chest. “If it’s a fight you’re tryin’ ta make, Dave, why, just come on out and say. I’m as amenable as the next man.”

There was a general murmur of approval.

“Now, now gentlemen,” Masterson intervened. “If you bucks and blades think you’re being paid to shoot one another, you’re seriously mistaken. The first man dying among us will not receive his pay, I promise you.”

That brought a round of laughter to the room again. Holliday tapped his hat to Masterson and disappeared into his seat. Rudabaugh exited the car. Masterson wondered vaguely if the men outside would help the drunk stay upright long enough to reach the next car, but he honestly couldn’t bring himself to care. He didn’t recall even asking Rudabaugh into this fight.

“Speakin’ a shootin’ matches,” this from Bill Tilghman somewhere off to Holliday’s left, “We been doin’ a bit of a check amongst ourselves, and so far the youngest age for any of us to have shot a man is sixteen. How old were you when you unloaded on your first man, Holliday?”

Holliday was so long in answering, Masterson thought he might not have heard the question.

“Ten, I guess,” he said finally. The room instantly stilled. Masterson could even hear the wind whistling outside.

“Ten?! Shit. You opened the ball on a man at ten?” Masterson couldn’t see who had actually asked that question.

“I was ten,” Holliday clarified, “he was grown.”

“What the hell does a ten-year-old need to kill a grown-ass man for? Jesus.”

Holliday was still taking his time in answering. “He was tryin’– only tryin’, mind– to interfere with my mother. The damned Yankee filth.”

The silence was suddenly even deeper. The men, not all Yankees, but certainly not all Southerners, were suddenly lost in their own memories of the horrors of invasion and wholesale slaughter that too many of them had endured as children. Even after the war ended, most of them had withstood more years of violence, and the soul-crushing bitterness of so-called Reconstruction.

The American soul had been born when Washington crossed the Potomac to kill his enemies as they slept on Christmas morning. A hundred years later, brother had destroyed brother, son, nephew, and cousin so that congress could justify a “temporary” income tax. And they had damned near succeeded in burning the entire country down around their own heads. The physical damage might be scabbing over, but the psychic carnage would never heal. Men like John Holliday, and indeed most of the men crowded in the car with him, were proof enough of that.

“Ya know,” Holliday was emphasizing his drawl for effect, now. “They tell me I was born with a cleft palate and thus was unable to nurse. My mother, I am told, fed me with an eyedropper and a shot glass. Well. As ya can see, I have forsworn the eyedropper but retained the shot glass.” He held aloft his flask in salute and took a swig.

And just like that, good humor was restored and every man was laughing again. Masterson shook his head. Wyatt had been right. Let Holliday loose, and he really would manage to hold it all together for him.


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