Chapter 1: Dances, Derringers and Dodge

Parables of the Beautiful Country

by Jack E’Dalgo

Chapter 1: Dances, Derringers and Dodge

Some things occur in Dodge that the world never knows of. Probably it is best so. Other things occur which leak out by degrees, notwithstanding the use of hush money.” – Dodge City Times Sept 1, 1877.

Late Spring 1879

“And look who finally shows back up in my gin mill. Sheriff Bat Masterson, as I live and breathe. It’s good to see you back in Dodge.”

“After the month I’ve had, it’s good to be seen in Dodge or anywhere else, Shanssey.” The two men reached across the bar, shaking hands warmly. Masterson admitted. “I had occasion to wonder if I’d live long enough to see the Long Branch again.”

“Aye. I heard the badlands of Ford County was trying to kick your ass. And that you kicked it right back.” The barman had a good-natured laugh. “I should have known you’d win that one, regardless. Lemme buy you a drink.”

“I appreciate that, Shanssey, but I can pay, you know.”

“To be sure, but if one old friend can’t buy another old friend a drink, what the hell good is it to run a bar, I be askin’?”

“Since you put it that way, I doubt even the county commissioners could quibble over the occasional free drink.” Masterson laid his gold-topped cane on the bar and watched as Shanssey poured the bourbon. A double. My, my.

Masterson raised the glass in salute to Shanssey. “To your good health, sir.” He sipped. And the good stuff, no less. It was good to have friends.

Shanssey was grinning at him, basking in Bat’s appreciation. Shanssey was a star as far as Masterson was concerned, a quiet man with quiet ways. Where Masterson had been a boxer with a credible record, Shanssey had been a bare-knuckle champ not too many years before. He was a mere five years older than Bat, his hair the color of west Texas sand, deep red where Masterson’s was dark, but he was roughly Masterson’s build, average height, a few inches taller than Bat, perhaps but with enough heft and will to still pack a punch when necessary. Men’s men as they called them in the day.

At the back of the saloon, Beeson’s band concluded their rendition of “The Days of the Forty-Nine” and set their instruments aside for a break. Masterson had enjoyed the music, but he was grateful he wasn’t having to compete with it to be heard, at last.

“Speaking of old friends, Shanssey, have you seen Holliday these days?”

“Doc? To be sure, I been looking at him half the night.” Shanssey gave a quick motion with his chin that indicated the area to the far end of the bar.

Masterson turned. Sure enough Doc Holliday was sitting at the first table to Shanssey’s left, his back against the wall as usual, the lacquered bar providing cover for his right side. How the hell had Masterson missed him? Probably because he hadn’t expected Holliday to be sitting so close to all the action around the bartender. Doc was usually in the dark recesses of the corner of the saloon, well away from the hubbub. Masterson could actually hear Holliday speak from here if he listened closely. He was at an oblique angle, though and other than the top of his hat, Masterson couldn’t see much of him.

Shanssey grinned at Masterson craning his neck about, and he indicated a massive new mirror on the far wall that managed to reflect much of the gaming area. It hung high enough that most of the punters wouldn’t complain about it revealing their cards, although its angle managed to do just that if your vision was acute enough. It also collected much of the light of the gaslamps and reflected it back into the room. Holliday, with his fair hair and consumptive pallor, positively glowed in it.

The gambler’s back favored the bar at the moment. He faced his table at an angle, as though preparing to stand. His feet were set wide and flat, his back, as usual, quite erect. Even in his cups, Holliday remained straight as an arrow, a bit more limber, perhaps, but as a gentleman born and bred, he never slouched. He was dressed in his usual gray: loose-fitting frock coat, knife-creased trousers with just a hint of pinstripe, silk waistcoat with a cravat of robin’s egg blue highlighting a bright diamond stickpin that looked like a captured star in the lamplight.

The light also reflected off Holliday’s dark gambler’s shades. The round lenses flashed light one second, then absorbed it as Holliday altered the angle of his vision, a kind of continual strobing that would be distracting as hell to anyone sitting across from him. Which was probably the point. Across Holliday’s chest was a double-ring cross draw holster, each scabbard cradling an equally dazzling ivory-handled Colt.

Holliday’s open carry was like the striping on a coral snake: beware the venom. It was the one peculiar habit of Holliday’s that Masterson most appreciated; the man was honest in his intentions.

Masterson had once teased that Holliday wouldn’t be able to hold his own in a free-for-all brawl with a fifteen-year-old. Holliday had taken exception to the statement. Masterson, blindsided by the ferocity of Holliday’s attack, had gone down on the second punch and Bat hadn’t gotten off the first one.

But in truth, few men came after Holliday with their fists, so Doc advertised his willingness to accommodate them accordingly. More often than not, Holliday kept his weapons on display across his chest, and thus easily visible across a table. In easy reach so Holliday didn’t even have to stand up to send your soul back to its Maker. He was efficient. He was able. God knew he was willing. And yes, he was ambidextrous.

You had to respect a man so forthright. Most men did and Holliday was thus allowed to ply his trade in relative peace.

As Masterson watched, Holliday shuffled cards for another game, waiting until one old gentleman completed some kind of ritual circling of his own chair. Thrice. The man then tapped the top of the table with his cane, also thrice, and sat with the air of a man who had not done something so completely ridiculous the moment before. Some gambler’s had the strangest incantations with which to draw down their luck. The unwritten code of the gaming table, however, was that no man acknowledged the foibles of his opponent aloud. A couple of other gentlemen were already seated on either side of Holliday. They looked a mite confused but since Holliday obviously thought this was the done thing, they played along.

Masterson grinned at Shanssey. “Doc’s looking well, at least. Got through that last bout of pneumonia, finally.”

Shanssey didn’t return the smile, surveilling his mirror like something had caught his eye.


“Ah, well,” Shanssey said distractedly, his focus still on the mirror. “Our Doc could bleed out on the floor and never make a sound if he could help it.”

It was far from a ringing endorsement. It was also obvious Shanssey wasn’t ready to divulge what he was thinking. While Masterson called Shanssey friend, he was under no illusion as to who Shanssey would side with if there were ever irreconcilable difficulties between Masterson and Holliday.

For sheer loyalty Shanssey and Holliday, worlds apart in temperament, build, and character, might have been brothers in another life. Both men had apparently known one another since Noah’s flood and Shanssey always seemed to arrive on Holliday’s heels no matter where the gambler traveled. And they did not brook outsiders prying into either of their personal interests.

Masterson found it unnerving that Shanssey was finding it necessary to devote so much of his attention toward Doc at this moment. Shanssey had run the mail through the Nations for a few years and was not given to flights of unnecessary anxiety.

Or maybe it wasn’t Holliday he was staring at. Masterson scanned the mirror again. He looked further back into the side of the room Holliday was currently favoring. A petite blonde, about five foot nothing, dressed in vibrant yellow moire silk was swaying slowly across the floor to music that wasn’t there. She was a picture, generous curves in all the right places, hair piled high in that Psyche up-sweep that was all the rage of fashion, jewelry thick on her neck and in her hair, gold glowing like a nimbus in the gaslight. Masterson recognized her immediately and bit his lip to keep from swearing aloud. Kate Elder. Dammit all to hell. He’d been told she’d left town.

Holliday was busy lighting a panatella. Masterson had no doubt he was more than aware of Kate’s presence, however. Around his smoke, Holliday asked his latest customer, the circler, “What is your pleasure this evenin’, Wilcox?”

“Seven card stud.”

“Easin’ into the evenin’. Very sensible.” Holliday drawled in that down-home-hush-your-mouth Georgian accent that was honest to God authentic. There was a growl in the voice, but it was not intentional. Something or someone had damaged the man’s vocal cords and left him gravel-voiced and hard-pressed to speak much above a normal tone even if he shouted. Holliday asked “Is seven card stud agreeable to y’all, gentlemen?” The two other players at the table shrugged assent.

“Shanssey,” Holliday called over his shoulder, not much louder than his normal tone. “If we could prevail upon you for a bottle of rye and a fresh deck, John.”

“Sure thing, Doc.” Shanssey, always attuned to Holliday’s voice, gathered the requested items and leaned to Masterson. “You want me to tell himself you be wanting to speak to him?”

“No, no. I’m in no hurry. I hate to interrupt a man while he’s working.” Masterson instead, focused on lighting a cigar.

Shanssey grinned again and went to make his delivery. Holliday sorted through the new deck to apprise his customers of it’s integrity and Masterson, by virtue of the mirror, watched him riffle shuffle, handling the cards with no tension in his mechanic’s grip, long slender fingers providing the lightest touch, the cards responding smooth as silk. No stress, gentlemen. Just a friendly game of cards.

Masterson admired the skill. He hadn’t quite attained that level. Holliday had tried to teach him and had been more than generous with his time doing so. He’d said all Masterson needed was practice for the muscle memory to kick in. It hadn’t happened yet for Masterson, though. Holliday had also introduced Masterson to his tailor. Now, that part of the gambler’s accouterments Masterson had taken to like a duck to water.

As Kate Elder approached his elbow, Holliday dealt the first hand then laid the deck within reach in plain view on the table. Holliday’s hand nearest Kate held his panatella and he stretched that arm over the back of his chair, the burning ember of his smoke near the wall, safely away from Kate’s swaying silks. He still hadn’t so much as spared her a glance.

He perused the cards he’d dealt himself for only the briefest moment before laying them face down on the table and placing his initial bet: $40 in gold. Holliday used his free hand to sip from his little silver stirrup cup. He left his hand on the cup even after he placed the cup back on the table.

Everyone knew Doc Holliday drank to excess. It was part of his legend, the part that brought the punters to his gaming table and encouraged them to play whatever he was dealing, be it faro, or poker, figuring the dealer would be too many sheets into the wind to best them. More fools, they.

Holliday’s capacity for alcohol was inhuman. He drank the good stuff, he drank it straight, and he drank it hard. He neither guzzled nor sipped and he could be counted on to hold his liquor like a man. Doc could go for hours, happily relaxed and charming as hell, never once lazing off into sloppiness or morosity. When he’d had enough, he walked himself to his rooms, loose-limbed perhaps, but without staggering. Or, on rare occasions when the pickings were too good to abandon, Holliday simply slid to the floor unconscious and got himself carried to bed while Kate collected his winnings. There was never any in-between with him.

Shanssey checked his other customers along the bar, refilling drinks and spreading cheer before rejoining Masterson. Kate by that point had finally arrived at her destination. She entered the scope of Holliday’s long legs and perched on his knee. Neither of them had so much as looked up at one another the entire time Masterson had stood watching them. Holliday’s hands remained where they had been when she approached: one on his drink, the other looped over the back of his chair.

Kate set about playing with Holliday’s waistcoat buttons without actually unbuttoning them. Masterson wondered that Holliday showed no concern for his life with his weapons just inches from Kate’s hands. Just a few months ago the woman, a rampaging drunk if there ever was one, had threatened Doc with a shotgun, for Chrissake.

Holliday removed his hand from his drink long enough to deal additional cards from the deck on the table and to place a further bet. Most dealers used both hands to deal even after the first deal. Holliday could manage most necessary manipulations invisibly even single-handed, although most cardsharps would tell you that was impossible.

Shanssey was saying something. Masterson forced himself to focus. “I understand that no one but Doc sees Kate as a good thing. I get it. The woman… unnerves me and she’s not right on many levels. But she has her good points–“

“Name one. I dare you.” Masterson kept his voice low. He noticed Shanssey was doing the same. Holliday had a hair trigger when it came to the subject of Kate’s nonexistent honor. It wouldn’t do to have him overhear her name being bandied about.

“Doc is calmer with her around, for one,” Shanssey offered, topping off Masterson’ drink.

“That’s just his Southern gentleman routine.”

“He doesn’t drink as much.”

“Bullshit. He’s on at least his second bottle and she’s practically in his lap.”

“But that’s not whiskey in his cup.”

“Come again?”

“He drinks from the cup until it’s empty and she refills it from her flask. Meanwhile, he only occasionally fills his shot glass from the whiskey bottle.”

Masterson watched a few moments as that exact scenario played out at the table across the bar. “So, what am I seeing that I don’t know I’m seeing, Shanssey?”

“Kate makes him chamomile tea. Adds some honey to make it darker in case anyone is overly observant. Lets it cool. Pours it in her flask. No one would ask a lass for a drink from her flask although they might ask Doc for a drink from his. Am I right? Results: Doc is not nearly as drunk as the punters think he is and they start relaxing and not minding their tells, believing they have the upper hand. Doc meanwhile soothes his gut and his cough, rakes in the cash, and no one’s the wiser.”

“Damn me. She’s his spotter.”

Shanssey smiled. “Doc’s working. She’s working. They’re a hell of a team. They took in over twenty grand just last night. A couple of fancy Philadelphia lawyers heading for Colorado still don’t know what hit them.”

“My, my. Good on Doc.” If they were the lawyers Masterson had in mind, Holliday had already done him some good. Although if Holliday were pulling in that kind of cash these days, it could make hiring him problematic.

Suddenly bored with the strand of Doc’s buttons, Kate hissed at him, “Can I get some sugar?” Holliday’s response was to release his drink and hold out his hands in a partial surrender fashion. He made no move otherwise. Kate slid up his thigh and kissed him full on the mouth, long, slow and intimate. As far as Masterson could tell, Holliday helped a bit but didn’t move to touch her. The kiss done, Kate resumed her inspection of Holliday’s waistcoat buttons, her head on his shoulder.


Masterson had once seen an overly exuberant couple mount one another on a table in a crowded barroom in Sweetwater. That couple couldn’t compare to the heat that Holliday and Kate’s one kiss had generated in any man who happened to glance over.

Holliday resumed his game. “Gentlemen, play or fold. I’m workin’ here.” His poker partners recovered themselves with difficulty and rechecked their hands.

They were interrupted by the approach of Old Man Newman Clanton. Clanton was known by most in Dodge as the cantankerous head of an equally cantankerous clan. If it was crooked, bent, or outright broken, Clanton was your man. You could bet on it. Holliday despised him. Masterson pushed his drink away and dropped his right hand to the left side of his waist, resting his palm on the grip of his Colt where it holstered, cross-draw fashion, high against his hip, ready for anything. He noticed Shanssey step back to be in easy reach of the snub nosed scattergun he kept behind the bar.

“So, are you the one I pay, Doc?” Clanton was cackling. He was sun-grizzled and none too well-washed, aside from a snow-white, blunt-cut beard. He was certainly old enough to know better than to antagonize Doc Holliday. “How much for the one been sitting on your lap tonight?” the man laughed death in the face without being sober enough to realize it. “Seein’s ya got her all warmed up for me, like.”

Holliday removed his shades. He did it in no particular hurry. His face still held its professional demeanor. His body revealed no overt tension. If anything he was supremely calm. His eyes, like the eye of a twister, were all stillness and electric blue. Masterson’s aunt once had a big feral tabby like Holliday. The monster would rip your arm off and never alter the rhythm of its purr.

However, there must have been some type of variation in Holliday’s poise that Masterson couldn’t make out in the mirror. Masterson could see Clanton’s face clearly and the old man realized somehow he’d grabbed a rattler in the dark.

Clanton whined, “No need to get riled, now, Doc. If you’re not her pimp–“

“I am not her pimp,” Holliday agreed in that quiet drawl. “I am her husband. And you, sir, have overstayed your welcome.”

That quiet voice was all most of the bar needed to alert them to the possibility of leather-slapping gunfire. Half of the patrons ran for the walls and a fair number dropped to the floor. Amazingly, few of them had the sense to leave altogether.

“Husband,” Clanton chewed the word with unbridled amazement. He removed his hat as though the extra air would assist his ability to process the information. Holliday remained silent, allowing the old man to work it out for himself. Clanton finally stuttered, “So, yous sayin’ you’re wed ta– Lawdomercy. I’ll be good and goddamned.”

“Any time I can help with that, Clanton,” Holliday offered quietly.

“Fie,” Clanton let the word float there and his lips worked soundlessly as he stood a moment longer, his hat in his hand. “I beg pardon to the lady. Guess I’ll be goin’ now, Doc. Sorry to have bothered ye.” He nodded his head to Kate without daring to look at her. “Ma’am.”

He hobbled away toward the door and Holliday watched him through the corner of his eye.

And that’s when Holliday saw Masterson.

“Bat. How in hell are ya?”


Holliday brushed Kate off his thigh like a man flicking crumbs from his lap. She slid away wordlessly. Holliday and Masterson ignored her. Holliday said, “My partners seemed to have retired for the evenin’.” He indicated his suddenly empty table. “Care for a friendly game o’ cards?”

“I prefer poker.” Masterson laughed at his own joke, old as it was. “Actually, Doc, I’d like to offer you a business proposition. If you have time later. I will not to interrupt while you’re attending to your vocation.”

“In that case, I usually fold up shop about three of a mornin’ an’ retire. How pressin’ is your business?”

“It’ll keep until tomorrow. Let me buy you lunch. Or dinner, whichever comes first for your schedule.”

“A late breakfast, then. Meet me at Beatty and Kelley’s, gone nine, shall we say?”

“As early as that, eh? It’s good to see your stamina is improving. Until nine, then.” Masterson tapped his hat-brim and excused himself.

Masterson was almost to the door when he froze in place.

Clanton stood just a yard from the door. He’d pissed himself, unfortunately, which no one likes to see in the elderly, but Clanton would certainly not claim disability for his situation. He was obviously all too aware of the danger he was in. Kate Elder stood not five feet from the unfortunate old man, using both hands to hold the prettiest little nickel-plated Derringer aimed at his head.

“Kate?” Masterson said at the same time Shanssey yelled for Holliday. Masterson took a deep breath. “Clanton, whatever you do, don’t make any sudden moves.”

“Bat?” Clanton whined, “can’t you do something about this whore?”

Holliday was suddenly in Clanton’s line of sight and the man sputtered. “Now, I didn’t mean nothin’ by that, Doc. Honest to God!”

Holliday was not listening. He tapped his waistcoat pocket and frowned, crossing to Kate in a few long silent strides. He approached her from behind, not speaking. Gently, almost gingerly, he laid his right arm along Kate’s and closed his broad hand over both of Kate’s hands, pulling her against him just as gently with his left arm.

“Well, now, dahrlin’,” his voice was just above a whisper, his mouth next to her ear. “You’re such a clever kitten ta find my pepperbox. Why, I’ve been lookin’ for it everywhere.”

“I found it,” Kate answered woodenly. “Wasn’t that clever of me? Wasn’t that kind? Am I a good girl, John?”

“Ya are the very best, mon bijou.”

Kate slumped against him, her arms still outstretched, his arm around her the only thing keeping her from collapsing to the floor.

“Do ya still have that headache, sweetheart?” he asked as if they were discussing the weather.

Kate nodded, eyes now tightly shut. She released the pistol to Holliday and he pocketed it before lowering her arms for her.

“Why don’t we go upstairs,” Holliday invited, “an’ take a little nap? We’ll both feel so much better in just a bit, doncha think?” She did not respond. He turned them both as one unit, holding her like an eggshell as he half carried her up the stairs. He had a pronounced limp, but his movements were steady. She didn’t even seem to open her eyes, following on kitten feet without resistance.

The room below them didn’t breathe until the couple had turned down the hall. Although the collective intake of air and the resulting ruckus was subdued, Masterson knew the word would be on the street in moments: That murderous bastard Doc Holliday had bedded himself a raving lunatic, and half of Dodge would claim to have no doubts as to who was the cause of her madness.


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