Chapter 22: Trips and Triggers

Parables of the Beautiful Country

by Jack E’Dalgo

Chapter 22: Trips and Triggers

“The Doc myth that really grinds me is the persistent notion that Doc was a fatalist who wanted to die. I found him to be cynical and full of self-pity for more reasons than his consumption, but plenty of evidence showed he wanted to live, and to live with dignity. He developed a seemingly cavalier approach to danger, but that was more about survival than a death wish.” – Gary L Roberts, Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend

Short nominated Benson to notify Masterson. The young man looked horrified at the order. Holliday told him to tell Masterson what they knew and then to head home. That got him out of his chair and out the door. Holliday shared a wink with Short.

“Thought he’d never leave,” Jenkins grinned.

“Well, it’s all on you now, Jenkins,” Holliday nodded toward the telegraph key. “Unless you want out as well.”

“Do you really think we’ll lose the depot?”

“Two dozen against over three hundred? Of course, we’ll lose it.” Holliday shrugged. “We’re not meant ta hold it nor do we need ta. We’ll draw fire for a bit and let Masterson observe their weaknesses and their chain of command.”

“We run through a bit of their ammunition, and hopefully not run through too much of ours doing it.” Short supplied. “Then we make a run for the roundhouse and join up with the main force, as it were. That the plan, then?”

Holliday nodded. To Jenkins he said, “Before ya leave us, ya mentioned Strong has broken the code for the Rio. I take it Strong has his own code? Might wanna use it to request reinforcements or at least an ammunition supply line, PDQ.”

Jenkins began drawing what appeared to be random lines on a scrap of paper. Shorthand, Holliday assumed. While he scribbled, Jenkins piped up almost absently. “I’m staying, by the way.” Not waiting for a response, he flipped the circuit closer on his telegraph key, then tapped in his call signal. Another very brief pause and he was keying away almost frantically. His audience evaporated, leaving him to his work and setting about theirs.

Holliday, Short and Thompson assigned men to each opening of the depot, every window and door. The pews that provided seating in the waiting rooms were repositioned as barriers at doors and upended to provide cover for men shooting at windows. The freight rooms had been raided while Holliday hadn’t been looking and the depot proper had been filled with all manner of shooting platforms and barricades. Even trolleys of empty milk cans were braced here and there, although Holliday couldn’t imagine what that was in aid of. Whatever Thompson had said to the men had gotten them into a rapid gear, at least.

Every man was on high alert. The testosterone was so thick you could practically smell it, metallic and as rank as a Colt needing to be cooled and cleaned.

The church bell had struck three when the first shout went through the building. It was Jenkins who came dancing out of the telegraph office wailing, “They’re headed this way!” He was pointing over his shoulder at his office and Holliday was practically shoved inside as he, Thompson and Short tried to reach the windows of the telegrapher’s station.

Holliday saw no evidence of the promised three hundred, but the crowd of rifles approaching from the town was well above fifty. The crowd of men walked determinedly but no one was taking much of a lead.

Jenkins grabbed Holliday’s arm. “I’ve not heard anything back from Strong, yet,” he bawled. He waved an arm at the window with its view of the approaching mob. “They can’t do this! We haven’t heard from Strong!”

“That Jack of the Stack is probably busy in his countin’ house,” Holliday retorted. “Kin ya shoot, Jenkins? No? Get ta the roundhouse while ya still kin.”

Holliday shouted for Shanssey and cursed himself for the restrictions of his voice. Thompson echoed the request with a terrific bellow, however and Shanssey appeared almost instantly, wielding a Winchester carbine.

Holliday waved him in. “Could ya identify this marshal Desmond, if you’d a chance ta, John?”

Shanssey squinted through the window. “I believe so. But. No. I don’t see him. He’s a short, stocky fella, not much ta look at.” He scanned the faces again since they’d come a bit closer. “Nope, don’t see him, Doc.”

There was the sound of rifle fire from the roundhouse, just a single pop followed a good five seconds later by another. Holliday continued to scan the oncoming men but it was just to give his eyes something to do while he thought; he’d seen all he needed to see.

“Interesting,” Holliday murmured. “We have an advance guard, but the marshal isn’t amongst ’em. A sheriff, either, I’ll warrant. I’ve never seen a deputized constabulary with bayonets on their rifles.”

Short said, “I don’t hear no warnin’, neither. No calls to stand down by the law.”

“Strong’s three hundred, I be assumin’?” Shanssey at his elbow spoke sotto voce, like he was afraid of being overheard by the mob. The sight of so many bayonets could do that to a man’s mind, Holliday supposed.

“Part of ’em, John. Makes me wonder where the other two thirds are being staged ta.”

“You thinking they’re angling to surround us, Doc?”

“If we had the manpower, it’s what we would do, John.”

Short yanked the sash from the window. “Masterson’s crew will take care of the damned back shooters,” he said.

“We open fire, Doc?”

“Ben, they get any nearer than the feed store, blast ’em ta hell and gone. I can’t abide a lynch mob.”

Thompson grinned. “I’ll tell the boys the order has been given.”

“’Preciate it. How about it, John? Ya want back with the boyos or are ya coverin’ the front lines with me and Short?”

“Which window is mine, Doc?”

Holliday laughed, “Good man. Even if ya do still get on my nerves from time ta time.”

Shanssey started to retort but Thompson huffed, “You desperadoes get all the fun.” He laughed and handed his rifle to Holliday. “You need a longer range gun, Doc. You’re good with those Colts, but this’ll put ’em down and keep ’em there.” He held out his Spencer repeater.

Shanssey grabbed Holliday’s arm. “Nothin’ doin’, Doc. I seen what the last rifle did to ya.”

Thompson’s comprehension was instantaneous. He backed up, surrender fashion, taking his rifle with him. “We need ya standin’, Doc,” he said. “I’ll send in some more shells for you boys. Whatever reinforcements ya need, just holler.”

Holliday stopped glaring at Shanssey long enough to nod assent to Thompson. Thompson clicked his heels together with a grin and left to command the troops.

The men in the telegraph office were firing within minutes. Holliday and Short fired so closely together that Holliday would have been hard-pressed to testify which of them had fired first. Shanssey couldn’t get his window open so he smashed the glass and began blasting.

Three men went down, then a fourth and a fifth. Holliday could concede the wisdom of his not using a rifle, but he’d have given three of his back teeth for a shotgun just to get the lead into the air and the fear of God into the advance guard.

The telegraph office continued to unloaded on the men in the street and were joined by at least a half-dozen more shooters from the front waiting room. The mob finally began to scatter as the realization hit them that the men in the depot were not playing about. Suddenly the only men in the street were the wounded and the dead.

Holliday sensed movement from the freight loading area and finished unloading his .38 into a man with a rifle who had been slinking along the wall of the luggage porte cochère. There was a bright flash of something reflected along the farther wall and Short swore.

“Unless I miss my guess,” Short said calmly, they’re tryin’ to burn their way through the door.”

A wisp of smoke did indeed waft under the sill of the telegraph office’s outer door. Flames were reflecting in the glass of the transom. Several pops echoed from the wood itself as the flames fed into the oil-based varnish. John Shanssey used more profanity than Holliday had been aware he’d even known.

“I couldn’t agree more, John.” Holliday said wryly. He let off a few more shots with his .45 into the street just to remind the mob that they hadn’t been forgotten. The Dodge men from other areas of the depot were getting more shots in for themselves. So far none of them had yelped in pain, so he assumed they were still all accounted for.

“I’m outta shells,” he announced even as he reloaded from his shells belt. “We all know they’re comin’ in that door as quick as the flames die back enough ta kick it in. It’s time ta do what Hickok did when the Seventh Cavalry came for him.”

“What’d he do, Doc?”

“Went out the back window, of course.”

Short fired another round and declared, “Well, if it was good enough for Bill, it’s good enough for me.”

Between Short and Shanssey, they physically pulled Holliday out into the depot proper while he was reloading his .38.

“Out the back, boyos!” Shanssey used his booming voice to great effect, one fist still on Holliday’s arm. “We’re headed to the roundhouse!”

Short and Shanssey repeated the order several times. Men were responding, tearing through the back doors and windows, guns still firing and laying cover.

Holliday didn’t bother adding his voice to the melee. No one would have heard him anyway. Even in the confusion, he realized he had fewer men than he’d started with and he swore under his breath. There was no blood to speak of and certainly no bodies so he could only hope the deserters had simply had the good sense to join Masterson in the roundhouse and had not abandoned the effort altogether.

He’d reloaded both his weapons before he shrugged himself free of Shanssey’s grip. There was a crash behind them, the Rio’s men kicking in the door of the telegraph office. Holliday spun on his heel and shot the first raider full in the chest. The man fell back against his fellows and Holliday shot the kerosene lamp hanging above their heads. It exploded, raining fire.

“Ya like flame so damned much,” he hissed, “welcome ta hell.”

“Out we go, Doc!” Shanssey shouted. Holliday turned in time to see Short toss himself from one of the back windows, pistol blazing.

“See ya on the other side of this thing, John.”

“You better!”

Holliday ran for the door and Shanssey took the exit out of Short’s window.

His first step across the threshold, Holliday tripped over a corpse. It was Harry Jenkins, their Grape Creek telegrapher. He’d been shot in the back. The man didn’t even have a gun and they’d shot him in the back.

For the first time in his life while actively engaged in a fight, Holliday saw red. Literally. A crimson haze overcame his brain and clouded his vision. He felt sluggish and disjointed, but he stood, a gun still in each hand. He half entertained the idea of holstering at least one weapon and trying to drag Jenkins to the roundhouse.

The man was beyond the fight, now, however. The townsfolk would be around to collect the him shortly and give him, no doubt, a decent burial. The good people of the West were like that. They’d put up with swill in the streets, but frowned on the dead stinking up the joint.

Holliday realized that he heard a cannon fire but it seemed an impossible distance away, lost in the pounding of his own pulse in his ears. Someone was firing at him but he could not hear the blast of the weapon, only the wind as the bullet teased his coat sleeve.

He fired his .38 on instinct and watched the shooter fall in the midst of that red haze. Some quiet area of his brain registered the fact that he hadn’t heard the blast of his own weapon.

A horse screamed to his left and Holliday fired again, this time with his .38. The Colt kicked as it always had, but was as singularly silent as the .45 had been.

The horse stumbled and her front quarters hit the ground, partially rolling, pinning her rider beneath her momentarily. Then she was up again, blood trailing from her shoulder, her rider’s boot caught in the stirrup. Panicked, she spun, trampling the man, and ran back the way she’d come for all she was worth, dragging the body with her.

Holliday took several steps forward and the cannon fired again to his right. Holliday could see the gun from this angle, it’s verdant patina just catching in the sunlight as it rolled forward again from it’s recoil. He could make out the shot in mid-air trailing smoke rendered pale pink by the haze across his vision. Everything around him, the horse, the bullets, the cannon all seemed to be happening with impossible sluggishness, as though the very air had thickened to aspic and slowed time itself.

The cannon shot flew leisurely past Holliday’s visual range and he heard a crash of glass and wood and screams of men and horses. Then suddenly, the world had righted its clock and sped up to normal. He was running again, firing left and right, hearing the weapons discharge as well as feeling their recoil. Someone in the roundhouse was laying down cover fire for him and he ran straight for one of the closed doors, ready to toss himself through a window if necessary.

The door jerked aside as he approached, however, and Holliday slid through it on his side like Cap Anson base running for the Chicago White Stockings. He was helped to his feet and welcomed with a hearty back-slapping from at least a dozen men. Some of them were still wearing luggage tags and Holliday laughed maniacally at the sight.

Men were shouting and hooting all across the roundhouse but Holliday refused to believe all the noise was for him specifically. Creek Johnson grabbed Holliday’s Colt Lightning and began reloading it for him while Holliday caught his breath.

By the time Creek had returned his .38 and relieved him of his Peacemaker, Masterson was beside them.

“Damn, Doc. You went down and didn’t get back up for so long there I thought you were a goner.”

Doc squinted at him, “I just tripped, Bat. I got right back up. Besides, I’m so thin it takes some mighty good shootin’ ta hit me. Wish I could say the same for Jenkins. Poor bastard. Sonsabitches shot him in the back.”

“Yeah, I saw that,” Masterson agreed. He was blotting at Holliday’s head with Creek’s handkerchief and wiping blood. “I hate to tell you, Doc, but you’ve been shot. Looks like it grazed your head pretty damn good.”

In the relative quiet of the roundhouse, Holliday could finally feel the wound. His head pounded and he suddenly struggled to remain standing. Masterson steadied him to the edge of the platform and half-way down the steps into the well of the turn-table, and sat him down. Creek barked something about Doctor Fox and disappeared with Holliday’s .45.

Holliday coughed for a moment, a series of deep, sharp barks. “They shot him in the back, Bat,” he said again. “In the back. Who does that?”

“True sons a bitches, that’s who, Doc.” Masterson pulled Holliday’s head up by his jaw, staring at his hairline. “This is all on me. Doc. Not on you. I pulled us into this–”

“Hell, Bat.” Holliday shook himself loose and squinted at him again. “It’s not like ya held a gun to my head.” He felt the steps vibrate as Fox and Creek lumbered down them and into his view. “It’s not like you shot anyone in the back, neither,” Holliday managed to declare before Fox was taking liberties with his jaw as well.

He let Fox fuss a moment then watched as he rummaged in his bag.

“Bat? That boy make it ta ya all right? Benson, I think his name was?”

Masterson was watching Fox. “He made it. I told that idiot hen wrangler he needed to go back and tell you I wanted you to all to head to the roundhouse, rather than trying to hold the depot. He took off another direction and I haven’t seen him since.”

“That’s all right, then. He’s just a boy,” Holliday winced as Fox applied some ointment to his graze and swore until Fox backed off momentarily. “Damn. Fox. I’ve used horse liniment that didn’t burn that bad. He was just a scared youngster,” Holliday continued, still glaring at Fox. He realized Creek had disappeared and felt him scrambling around on the step behind him. Holliday said, “Hell, that boy’s probably got more sense than the rest of us. Sonofabitch, but ya got my head ta roarin’.” Holliday felt like he couldn’t stop talking for some odd reason.

Masterson grinned. “You were that young once, Doc. I don’t think you woulda run.”

“Yeah. Well. My father always said I didn’t have good sense.”

Fox handed Holliday a shot glass of whiskey and he gulped it down and made a face. “I don’t know what horse ya got this from, Doctor, but the beast is not fit for work.”

Whatever Fox had done had cleared the red haze from his vision, however, and Holliday blinked experimentally a few times.

“Besides,” he noted, “we were tryin’ to give ya some time, Bat, maybe burn through some of their ammo before they swarmed back here.”

He handed the glass back to Fox. He noted that Fox was readying sutures. Holliday turned from Fox to Masterson and pointed toward his temple where the graze felt puffy and angry. “Am I bleedin’?” he demanded.

“Not now.”

Holliday turned back to Fox. “Ya can just leave it alone, then. Damn. I ain’t sittin’ here all day just ta amuse ya.” Holliday made an effort to straighten his coat with a dignified air. Fox began collecting his equipment back into his bag and Creek handed Holliday his reloaded pistol from over his shoulder.

Holliday made a mental note to himself to check the weapon later. Verifying the status of his arms for himself was a deeply ingrained habit, but his fingers felt thick and unresponsive at the moment and he wouldn’t embarrass himself trying to rotate the cylinder, let alone operate the Colt’s loading gate. Masterson would get one look at him fumbling about and confiscate his weapons again.

Meanwhile, the men in the roundhouse had continued firing. The barrage had slowed substantially but Eichoff had apparently decided another ball of shot was in order.

Holliday felt he’d suddenly run out of words and sat quietly a moment watching the gunners swab the gun, and load the ball. A red flannel bag was thrust into the muzzle and rammed home. Another man stood by with a bright tin can — a canister shot of balls and gunpowder, Holliday assumed — and shoved it down the gun’s barrel. It too was rammed home.

Eichoff shouted a command Holliday couldn’t quite make out and the gunnery squad leaped back as the primer was inserted. A gunner turned the wheel beneath the breach and the muzzle rose. A lanyard was pulled and a plume of smoke shot up from the touch-hole. The gun carriage jerked back a full seven feet and the cannon thundered, belching smoke and shot.

Every man in the roundhouse held their breath, then there was a bone-rattling explosion and the entire roundhouse shook with triumphant shouts and whistles.

“Well, ‘least I got ta see it go off the once,” Holliday sighed. “There’s the third shot and there goes the last of the cannon ammunition.”

Masterson chuckled. “I wouldn’t bet that hand, Doc. Turns out there’s not a hell of a lot that you can’t fire out of a cannon given an appropriate weight of powder. The men have been piling up bits of metal from hammers to king-bolts and have started taking bets on who’s ammunition substitute will fly farther or do the most damage.”

Holliday heard him and nodded but said nothing. He felt suddenly cocooned and comfortable and became aware of the leather of Creek’s booted leg against his back. He attempted to move out of Creek’s way, but was stilled by a hand on his shoulder and then, just as suddenly, he was completely unable to move. And then he felt nothing at all and the world went dark.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *