Chapter 23 Roundhouses and Square Deals

Parables of the Beautiful Country

by Jack E’Dalgo

Chapter 23 Roundhouses and Square Deals

Holliday had a mean disposition and an ungovernable temper, and when under the influence of liquor, was a most dangerous man. Holliday had few friends anywhere in the West. He was selfish and had a perverse nature, traits not calculated to make a man popular in the early days on the frontier.” –Bat Masterson –Human Life, May 1907

Holliday remained unconscious until well after nightfall. By then, the last of Palmer’s men had withdrawn to a more comfortable distance to lick their wounds. There had been a few hardy souls among them, but they quickly learned the foolishness of trusting the cover of darkness to hide them from the watchful eyes of Masterson’s gunmen. The men in Masterson’s team, gamblers to a man, were more accustomed to the night than the day, more alive in the dark times of the world, keener of eye and quicker to strike.

The Pueblo freight storage area had been a godsend. Eichoff had been industrious in his provisions and had brought Masterson two crates of signal flares that the line inspectors used as track warnings. Eichoff suggested Masterson have the men ignite and toss them from the windows at odd times, illuminating the area surrounding the roundhouse, keeping an eye for any stealthy moves on the part of their attackers. It hadn’t taken Palmer’s men long to figure out Masterson’s guns weren’t interested in sleeping and were eager to draw blood wherever they could find it.

Fox had instructed that they leave Holliday on the step where he’d lost consciousness. Masterson had made Holliday as comfortable as he could with cushions from the various offices within the roundhouse and from the train cars.

Holliday had surprised Masterson by sleeping through all the ministrations on his behalf, propped half upright against the slant of the stairs with a few jackets tucked around him. Fox swore he had not given Holliday the same drug he’d experimented with before, but admitted he’d given Holliday enough of whatever it was to “knock out a bull elephant” and that he should sleep all night and into the next morning.

After that announcement, Masterson had almost been afraid to leave Holliday unattended. Fox had no such compunction, but then Holliday had threatened the man’s life and Masterson didn’t know the physician well enough to know how vindictive the man could be. Thankfully Creek and Shanssey had volunteered to stand watch as well, allowing Masterson to alternately make rounds of the men manning the windows and then taking cat naps next to Holliday on the stairs. He had no doubt he would need to be alert by dawn. He was grateful someone had thought to keep various kettles of coffee brewing on the various stoves that warmed the back offices.

Fox’s concoction might have been effective on bull elephants as he had sworn, but it failed to phase Holliday for long. Masterson had just settled down on the step from his latest trek of the roundhouse when Holliday sat up with a cough and a gasp. His swiveled his head briefly, getting control of his breath and taking in his surroundings before he finally glanced over at Masterson.

“Evenin’, Doc.”

“Ya did that apurpose,” Holliday accused.

“Did what?”

“Drugged me. Had me drugged, anyway.”

“I did nothing of the kind. That was all Fox’s idea and he didn’t so much as give me advance warning.”

“I owe that man some pain, by God.”

“You may at that, but can you restrain yourself until after the battle? He’s currently our field surgeon.”

“The bastard.”

Anything else Holliday had to say was cut off by a rattling cough and Masterson remembered Fox had once been wary of compromising Holliday’s breathing with his drugs. He wondered why he hadn’t had any such scruples this time and wondered again, just how much spite the Santa Fe doctor might be capable of.

“Anyhow,” Holliday finally was able to manage. “Kin I get a status report or whatever the hell we’re calling it?”

“Sure, Doc. Not much has happened while you’ve been out, but, well, I may have helped us overstay our welcome here in Pueblo.” Masterson sounded almost remorseful.

“Do tell, Bat. No wait, let me guess, you hired every member of the demimonde in Pueblo for the boys tonight and the city council is fighting a mutiny.”

Masterson grinned in spite of himself. “No, I didn’t stir the pot quite that badly.”

“Well, then. So. No sweet companeras for us weary soldiers tonight.”

“Such are the sacrifices of war, Doc.” Masterson became serious again. “No, one of the Rio Grande’s Pinkerton agents came through just at nightfall purporting to be a Pueblo policeman. He was raising cane about the cannon being removed from the courthouse square and kept trying to barrel his way in. Tried to use a bludgeon on me. Well, he pissed me off just a little too much.”

Holliday looked intrigued. “And?”

“And I buffaloed him. Only I think I hospitalized the man. I’ve never lost control like that. Wyatt would have buffaloed me for it–”

“Well, as you well know, I am not Wyatt. I’m sorry you’re upset about it, Bat. Sometimes things just come at ya sideways and ya react… in a way ya hadn’t intended.” He was quiet for a minute. “Damned Pinkertons. They sent one to my Aunt Permelia’s home a few years back. Wanted a photograph of me for a wanted poster.”

“She have one to give him?”

“She had several. And several cousins on hand who promptly slipped aforementioned photographs down the laces of their corsets in case of a warrant ta search.” Holliday taunted. “There’s a reason Southerners are still called rebels.”

“Should I ask what prompted the Pinkertons’ investigation?” Holliday rubbed at the back of his neck. “It was a controversy over semantics, mostly. I was playing cards with a buffalo soldier just outside a military post in the Texas panhandle. He was absent without leave– which I neither knew nor cared about. Drunk– which also didn’t bother me personally. And trigger-happy– which I found to be conduct most unbecoming of an officer. He tried ta draw on me. I drew first.” Holliday eased out a protracted breath, his focus on something well past the floor. Finally he said, “I called it self-defense. The army called it murder. The soldier’s platoon called me target practice. It was all a matter of opinion and everyone had at least one.”

“You run?”

“One of the few times in my life, I ran.”

“Still running?” Holliday shrugged. “They never put any paper out on me with the Marshal’s office, so I don’t know. But back to the man of the hour.” Holliday waved a congratulatory hand indicating Masterson. “So the Pinkerton found your last nerve.”

“I guess he did. I don’t know,” Masterson shook his head. “I’m can just hear Wyatt going on about how he can’t abide private police. And he’s right. There’s something wrong in this country when justice can only be had by those who can afford to buy it.”

“Well. If you’re going to put it that way, I won’t point out the fact that, at the moment, we seem to be Strong’s version of private police.”

Masterson opened his mouth. Closed it again and gave Holliday a sidelong glance. Holliday couldn’t quite wipe the smirk off his face, but Masterson chose to ignore it. “You wanna hear my status report or not, Doc?”


He told Holliday about the crates of flares and the apparent reticence of the Rio’s men to attack under cover of darkness. “One fine thing, though,” Masterson quipped, “it appears we both owe young master Benson an apology.”

“He came back then? The boy has less sense than I credited him with.”

“He not only came back, he rode in with six big Belgians pulling a caisson and a Gatling gun.”

Holliday sat up straight. “The hell ya say. Where the devil did little Benson steal a Gatling gun?”

“Seems his uncle runs security for… what did he say? Hell, I don’t remember, Doc. The Grabitall Mining Company or some such. I was just so overwhelmed, I really wasn’t paying attention, I don’t mind saying.”

“I’ll be damned,” Holliday marveled. “And he brought ammunition–”

“Yep. That rascal of a gun can fire up to three hundred rounds per minute. Better yet, it turns our Santa Fe ticket agent served in the Tenth Cavalry during the Red River War just a few years back and he manned a Gatling gun. Can you believe our luck?”

“I begin to wonder if God isn’t on the side of the Santa Fe after all. Frightening thought, that.”

Masterson chuckled. “I for one, refuse to look a gift horse in the mouth, Doc. Whatever the hell you say.”

Holliday sat contentedly a moment staring up past the arch of tin roof above the platform and through the open circle of sky above the roundhouse’s turn-table. Stars were becoming visible. Masterson estimated the time as somewhere around eight in the evening.

“Anybody done a reconnoiter out there lately?” Holliday asked at last.

“Think we need one?”

“They mighta gotten a Gatling of their own whilst we’re all bunched up in here like a covey of quail.”

Masterson grunted. “And of course, you’ll insist on volunteering for the duty.”

“Given the circumstances, I’m probably the one with the least ta lose, doncha think?”

“No, Doc. But you’re gonna do it anyway, I have no doubt.”

Holliday’s grin was so bright, Masterson could make it out in the semi-darkness of the moonlight. If it had to be done, and he didn’t doubt Holliday’s wisdom on the matter, then it was best done before the moon got much higher and broke through the clouds. He should do well, though, Masterson supposed, under the shadow of the roundhouse’s eaves. He watched Holliday walk across the sand of the turn-table and finally saw the hesitancy in his movements Fox had spoken about. But, hell, the man had been sleeping on a set of stairs. Masterson was healthy as a horse and even he was a bit stove-up this evening.

Across the turn-table one man cat called, “Don’t let it get blown off, Doc!” and the men laughed. Holliday flung a rude gesture over his shoulder along with another grin. He was allowed to pass past the train cars and out into the night and there was a flurry of movement as the men on that side of the roundhouse applied their weapons to their stations, eyes peeled for trouble.

Masterson could track Holliday’s movement by the positions the men filled covering for him as he circled the the exterior of the massive building. He apparently stopped on the odd occasion. He thought it a mark of singular respect that none of the men stood down even after Holliday had evidently passed their position. None of the men needed to be told his business or the fact that every man’s blood was on the line.

“What hath I wrought?” Masterson muttered the words aloud although no one was near enough to hear. He couldn’t avoid the regret in the words, nor was he surprised to hear it. Rather than unburdening himself, the words spoken only served to accuse him further.

Holliday was back, finally. He’d apparently entered the opposite side of the train, entered one of the passenger cars on that side and exited it on Masterson’s side. He didn’t have to toss himself off the train and into the sand as the men had done earlier. The station porters had provided steel ladders on either side of the train cars, allowing easier access. Holliday climbed down to the sound of muted cheers and the men at the windows gradually eased off the intensity of their weapons and called soft greetings to Holliday as he made his way back to Masterson. Holliday made the walk in his own sweet-ass time, stopping now and again to speak to some of the men. The group dispersed to various areas of the roundhouse and Masterson assumed he’d given each division head a status report.

Well, aren’t we just a well-oiled machine? Masterson thought, but not unkindly.

“How’s it hangin’ out there, Doc?” he asked as Holliday approached.

“Not too badly considering they got the world and we got a roundhouse.” Holliday sighed and stretched his back. “There are a several men leaning against the outer wall of the depot facing us. They are enjoying the most delicious-smelling cigars. It was everything I could do to not turn myself over just to get a puff of that.”

“They do know how to test a man’s loyalty,” Masterson nodded.

Holliday closed his eyes and breathed longingly, then coughed. “Where was I?”

“The north side of the roundhouse.”

“Oh, that’s right. The east side has just a few more men. I estimate five at the most. They’re makin’ themselves a pot of coffee.”

“Not worried about being spotted, then.” Holliday shrugged. “I’m sure they’re aware we know there’s an entire town laid out around us even out here on the wrong side of the tracks.”

“There is that,” Masterson agreed. Creek and Ben Thompson had joined him on the steps.

Holliday continued. “There are just two men on the south side of us. Awake anyway. They are arguin’. Quietly, so far. But from what I could hear, they have locked horns over a woman they have both enjoyed. With no one apparently anxious to storm our position, I’ll wager ten pesos that these two kill one another before the night is out. Any takers?”

“No one on the west side, Doc?”

“I’m sure there are. But I didn’t see them, hear them or smell them. They’re the only competent ones to deal with.”

“What’s west of us, then, the track itself?” Creek mused, trying to recall.

Thompson answered. “A smithies. A small corral and a store front? Don’t remember what of. A bakery, maybe.”

“Huh,” Creek considered. “Could be they are covering that side from inside the buildings and we have ourselves some actual snipers.”

Masterson frowned. “So why not have shot Doc, if they’d been there and had him in their sights?”

“Why give away their positions over one man,” Thompson waved an arm at Holliday, “when they can blast us hot and heavy first thing tomorrow?”

Holliday chuckled. “Ben, I always did like the way you think.” He shrugged. “Regardless, the fact is we’re surrounded. Which simplifies our problem. No matter which way we aim, we’re liable to hit somethin’.”

It was Creek’s turn to laugh. “Leave it to you, Doc, to put a road agent’s spin on a disaster.”

Short finally spoke up with that quiet way he had. He sing-songed a verse from the Charge of the Light Brigade:

“Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon in front of them

Volleyed and thundered;

Stormed at with shot and shell,

Boldly they rode and well,

Into the jaws of Death,

Into the mouth of hell–” He didn’t finish the verse.

Creek broke the resulting silence. “When I get my payoff from Strong, I’m gonna buy my wife a new buggy. She’s got her heart set on one in this year’s Sears Roebuck catalog. Leather roof, full spring seat and enough room for the girls to sit like ladies without their petticoats all scrunched in. Ninety dollars, regularly a hundert-and-fifty.”

Short whistled appreciatively. “That’s some cost-effective shopping for a woman. You done good with that one, Creek.”

“And don’t I know it. After I visit with her and our girls a bit, I’ll join Doc in New Mexico. We’re members of the Lunger’s Club at the Adobe Hotel and they got a right nice spa.”

Holliday nodded. “They do at that. And ya might as well take all my rifles with ya to Utah. I won’t be using them anymore.”

Creek looked scandalized. “The hell ya say, Doc!”

“Ya know it’s time for me ta give ’em up, Creek.” Creek dropped his head in resignation. Holliday shoved him with a shoulder. “Hell, Jack. You’re just gettin’ my rifles. When I surrender my Colts ya can pawn them to pay my gravedigger. Speakin’ of loot, whatcha getting with your share, Luke?”

Short grinned. “Well, my Hettie’s been after me to settle down in one spot for a bit. She likes Dodge so I’m gonna try for the gambling concession at the Long Branch.” He paused for the oohing and aahing to die down. “And lest you think I’ve gone soft and become the devoted family man,” Short winked, knowing every man there was aware of his womanizing despite having a raving beauty for a wife. “I’ve ordered myself a special Colt. Forty-five caliber with a real snub nose barrel, so it’ll fit in my hip pocket. And if this adventure of ours goes really well, I’m thinkin’ I’ll have a gold foresight made on it.”

There were more sounds of envy from all assembled and Thompson offered his wish list. “Anybody ever been to the Iron Front Saloon in Austin?” he asked.

“Ain’t that John Neff’s place at Sixth and Congress?” Holliday clarified. “Nice nest that. Very nice.”

“It is. Opulent as the court of Henry the Eighth and twice the women. I intend to use my winnings to buy the gambling concession in the rooms upstairs. Neff and I have been discussing it for a bit. He’s amenable.”

Holliday nodded. “Well, hell, Ben. I guess I’ll have to sneak back in ta Texas sometime and visit your place, then. Congratulations. How ’bout you, Bat? Whatcha gonna use your payout for? A gamblin’ adventure?” Holliday’s eyes danced, no doubt recalling the conversation with Masterson that brought him to Colorado to begin with.

“Hell, Doc,” Masterson teased, “I’d give up my share just to learn why you have to sneak back into Texas.”

That brought scandalized laughter and a few risque suggestions that had Holliday himself guffawing.

“I ain’t confessin’ ta nothing, gentlemen,” Holliday conceded. “But I admit I will take some of your ideas under advisement.”

Once he wiped his tears of amusement, Creek piped up, “Oh, Doc, before I forget again, JJ Webb had a tooth knocked out while he was exitin’ the depot. It’s a bit touchous right now, but he wants ta know if you know a good dentist here in Colorado so he can get it fixed before we head back to Dodge.” He shrugged. “Or if can even be fixed.”

“Well, of course it can be fixed. Tell Webb not ta fret. I’ll fix him up myself with a gold tooth before we leave camp.” Holliday winked. “And no charge for a fellow brother in arms.”

Thompson interrupted, “Seriously, Bat, what do ya intend to do with your share of the payout on this Royal Gorge thing. Hell, you should be getting’ the lion’s share just for puttin’ it all together.”

“Nope, I’m dividing the money pretty much equally. I’ll get the same as you and Doc. Not disparaging your contribution, Creek–”

Creek waved a self-depreciating hand. “I’m happy with my share, Bat, or I wouldn’ta signed up.” Masterson continued, “to be honest, I’m not really sure what I’ll do with mine. A new hat and some nice duds. Then, yeah, Doc, I’ll probably save the rest for a stake when I retire from the sheriff’s office come next June.”

“Well, I do wish ya luck, Bat,” Holliday was sincere.

“So say we all,” Creek chimed.

Masterson thanked them. “Of course, I’m assuming I’m not going to make a pig’s ear out of the mess we’re in right now. Men dead over a damned millionaire’s money-grabbing scheme. I should have my head examined, not to mention having my ass kicked for my conceit.” The other men stood silent, not knowing what to say. Masterson realized he’d sucked all the joy from the room, but didn’t know what to say to make it right. He sighed and rubbed his forehead.

Holliday rushed in, as usual, where angels feared to tread. “Bat, are you sayin’ you regret bringin’ a gun to a knife fight?”

“Not funny, Doc.”

“Not laughin’, Bat. Seriously. You brought eighty-some hardened gunmen into one square mile of one another and you expected not to have casualties?”

“I will admit to being an arrogant bastard,” Masterson conceded. “I will also admit that I appreciate all you other arrogant bastards making me look better than I deserve.”

“Well, Bat,” Short smiled wanly, “my momma always told me that the biscuits are better in the morning. You need some shuteye. We’ve been usin’ the passenger cars for a bunkhouse. You’re gonna need to be fresh come mornin’ regardless. I can’t see Pueblo letting us squat here for long.”

Thompson gave Masterson a more or less playful fist bump against his bicep and Creek patted his shoulder on his way down the stair. Masterson and Holliday watched Short, Creek and Thompson stroll off to the passenger car closest to the locomotive, Creek stretching his arms and yawning as they walked.

Bat said soto voce for Holliday’s benefit. “Wait, come back. Was it something I said?”

Holliday grinned. “Well. You certainly know how to clear a room.”

“Do you think I’m wrong, Doc? Surely not.”

Holliday sat on the step beside him. “You’re askin’ the wrong man, Bat. From what I can see, existence is a race toward death that requires all manner of compromise and humiliation. Some days I despair to find the point of any of it. But it’s what we’re called to do.”


Holliday quoted, “No man, havin’ put his hand to the plough, and lookin’ back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”

“Hum.” The two men sat in silence for a bit. It was a surprisingly comfortable silence.

Finally, Masterson asked, “What about you, Doc? What are you going to use your payout for? You never said.”

“I don’t need nothin’ I can think of. I just wanna have enough to set something aside for Kate so that when I’m gone she can have a few options other than the obvious. God knows she won’t be beautiful forever. All I can leave her is filthy money.”

Masterson, having run everyone else off with his morbidity didn’t even try to pretend he didn’t understand that Holliday was using “gone” to indicate his death. Gone where, Doc? Masterson thought to spoof, but it wasn’t something he felt comfortable joshing about. It just hit too close to home now. So he said nothing.

Holliday said softly. “You know, its always amazed me that God took less than a day ta invent a creature as sublime as a woman. Imagine what He woulda accomplished given a full day. Man woulda been too overwhelmed ta get anythin’ done a t’all.”

“Maybe that’s why He didn’t spend the extra time on it,” Masterson offered.

Holliday, lost in his own thoughts, did not reply.

“So, you and Kate will reconcile?”

“Ah. She’ll be back. She’ll come and go until I finally say I’ve had enough and just act like I don’t know her or somethin’.”

“Again, it’s not my business, Doc, but I hope you at least get her to apologize to you for all the grief she’s been.”

Holliday pulled out his cigar case and offered it to Masterson. Masterson declined and Holliday replaced his case in his breast pocket and retrieved a panatella instead.

“You know,” Holliday paused to light his smoke. “It’s one thing to make a man grovel who is hell-bent on dispatchin’ ya to the next world because he’s…” he shrugged, “bored? It’s quite another to expect grovelin’ from a woman who, never once complainin’, mind,” he glanced briefly up then down again, “has lain beside ya night after night on bedsheets stained with your blood for one reason or other.” He glanced up again, head still down, peering at Masterson. “Whatever you might think of her, and whatever I know of her, I don’t expect Kate to grovel.” He considered his panatella. “I don’t want that,” he said softly. He tapped the ash from the cigar. “I don’t need that. Not from Kate.”

“You’re a better man than I am, Doc.”

“Not even in my dreams, Bat. Bless your heart, but you don’t know me half as well as ya think ya do. The only completely decent men I know are you and Wyatt. And Creek, ta be honest. And Wyatt has doubts about himself which tells me the rest of us ain’t got a prayer.”

“You know,” Masterson struggled to hold back the words, but was suddenly powerless to prevent it. “Wyatt told me once that he thinks of me as his friend. But he thinks of you as his brother as certain as Virgil or Morgan.”

Holliday turned his head, but didn’t fully look at Masterson. “Does he? He never said.” Holliday seemed to think on the statement a moment. “Well,” he said finally. “Well, then I envy ya, Bat.”

“Envy me? How’s that?”

Holliday shrugged. “Doesn’t Christ say that it’s the friend that sticks closer than the brother?”

Masterson blinked a full minute thinking that through. “Is that a fact?” he said finally.

“Promise me, when I’m gone you’ll tell the world I was a right bastard. If anyone even asks ya.” Holliday chuckled. “It’s Wyatt that should be remembered. And remembered well.”

Masterson said nothing.

“Why doncha turn in, Bat? I’ll keep an eye out on the boys ’til mornin’.”


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