Chapter 21: Loose Cannons and Sons of a Gun

Parables of the Beautiful Country

by Jack E’Dalgo

Chapter 21: Loose Cannons and Sons of a Gun

“Holliday was a likable fellow and not looking for trouble but one could get it from him at any time they wanted it.” –JJ Crook, Holliday’s physician in Leadville and Glenwood Springs

Masterson had recommended Holliday delegate Ben Thompson to commandeer the depot, but Holliday appointed Luke Short instead. Holliday liked Thompson, he was a good ol’ Texas boy, generous and thoughtful when he had a mind to be, but the man as impetuous and as hot-head as Holliday, and the position demanded a man of patience and tact since the depot would have more than its share of civilians to be dealt with.

Short, as befitted his name, was small of stature but he was possessed of the manners and graciousness of an earl. Better, he was a master when it came to dealing with all and sundry, so Holliday was reasonably assured he would not need to assign a swamper to clear up a bloodbath when he returned with the cannon.

The Pueblo station was large enough that, as was fitting for propriety, the women and children had a separate waiting room from their male counterparts. One old dear and her still-lovely daughter with a brood of six hellions, had been easily sent packing when a dozen well-heeled buscaderos entered the room. The so-called menfolk in the next room had been almost as easily scattered when Slap Jack Bill stepped in and simply levered his Winchester.

Last seen, the impeccably dressed Short was dutifully persuading arriving passengers that today was not an auspicious day for travel, and assuring the Wells Fargo agent that they were not there to rob the latest shipment of bullion. Holliday, meanwhile, had found a freight porter who agreed to take him to the station’s livery. Turkey Creek Jack Johnson followed hard on his heels.

There were two mules at the depot, which Holliday had suspected there might be. Mules, he’d been taught, were social animals and worked best with another mule or with a horse. What he hadn’t expected was for the mules to be two powerful draft mules, easily sixteen hands of solid muscle, which, considering they were needed to pull a cannon, was all the more in their favor. Both mules’ tails were cut army-style into three bells indicating they were broken and trained for packing, driving and riding. The freight master who insisted on maintaining them obviously knew his ass from his elbow.

Creek set about harnessing one mule while Holliday harnessed the other. They had chosen a set of team driving harnesses since it would take both animals to pull the cannon. Holliday would have felt more merciful having four mules, but he would have to make do with what they had. He had been taught young to be humane to women and animals. He didn’t intend to turn into a sadist at this point in his life. Besides, both mules were young and well-cared for. The courthouse was only two blocks away and they’d be pulling a load only on the return trip.

The stationmaster, a tough but thickened old gentleman who gave his name as Elias Eichoff, had stepped in to supervise their progress so he could to report back to Masterson. Eichoff assured Holliday that he had himself fired cannon during the War of Northern Aggression. According to Eichoff, the courthouse cannon was a six-pounder, not the twelve-pounder Holliday had assumed it was, and promised that, given the smooth, mostly gently declining road to the depot, the two mules could deliver it with no problems, as long as the mules were not expected to run with it.

The courthouse cannon, the stationmaster informed Holliday and Creek, was an Ames Model 1841 last used during the Battle of Hatcher’s Run by Confederate horse artillery units. It was now a long ways from Virginia, Holliday couldn’t help noting. The cannon, with it’s gun carriage, weighed a mere “nine hundred pounds, and could do serious damage at less than two hundred yards,” Eichoff had declared, as proud as if he’d forged the weapon himself.

The man spoke with such authority, Holliday accepted his word for it all. He also got Eichoff’s assurance that not only would the stationmaster take charge of the cannon, but he would be right pleased to serve as their gunnery sergeant himself. Eichoff then disappeared to collect supplies for the roundhouse crew.

Still untangling the harness’s turnback from it’s spider and hip drops, Creek commented, “Doc, ya know if we ain’t careful, we’re gonna be too winded ta do this thing, let alone all the ‘tother things needin’ doin’ when we get back.”

Holliday hated to be reminded of his weaknesses, but knowing Creek shared the same problems and for the same reasons, Holliday merely nodded. His injured hand was beginning to ache from the effort of adjusting the quarter straps on his mule and he didn’t bother to make unnecessary small talk. Creek wouldn’t mind. He’d known Holliday long enough not to take a protracted silence amiss. Holliday glanced up as Creek grunted like the air had been knocked out of him.

His harnessing completed, Creek had laid himself across his mule’s back and after a moment’s struggle, managed to straddle her and get upright. He laid the long bulk of the reins against his groin, and looped the trace chains around the collar’s hames balls. He looked up and grinned at Holliday.

“I double-dog dare ya to ride the beast, Doc.”

Holliday laughed. Creek was almost as tall as Holliday but he was all torso where Holliday was all legs. Creeks boots were currently stuck out at odd angles because he couldn’t quite get his knees around the barrel of the mule’s chest. Creek adjusted himself to a slightly more dignified position, keeping a death grip on the mule’s collar.

Holliday considered Creek’s suggestion and chuckled. Holliday hadn’t ridden bareback in years and wouldn’t they both look a farce. Still, Creek made perfect sense about needing to conserve their limited energy, and Creek continued to smirk at Holliday, awaiting an answer to his challenge, knowing Holliday had never backed off a challenge in his life.

“Well,” Holliday sighed at last. “Needs must, Creek.”

Holliday slid onto his mule and arranged the trace chains and reins much like Creek had done, to keep it all from tripping the mule as it walked. He felt like he was sitting on his aunt Permelia’s Sunday-only settee. It wouldn’t be the most comfortable ride, but at least his knees bent at a proper angle well enough to keep him on the mule’s back. And he and Creek would indeed save their energies for the more pressing business of defending the roundhouse itself.

The two rode to the street from the depot’s public luggage porte cochère and were met with cheers by the Dodge City men who’d been milling around the depot’s door. A dozen self-appointed cannon rustlers leapt from the platform and trotted to get caught up to the mules.

Holliday estimated they had left some twenty more men behind with Short to defend the depot. Masterson had sent word he had about seventy men in the roundhouse. Masterson had his troops setting up provisions and ammunition. The stationmaster had drafted some brakemen and a few freight porters into running cannon drills. This activity was keeping any of Masterson’s otherwise unoccupied men reasonably entertained and out of trouble. Holliday said a brief prayer for Short who had no such diversions to offer.

Two men in Holliday’s company had shouldered the weight of the timber which would supply the second axle for the gun carriage. They carried it with all the pride of men carrying an emperor’s scepter.

Creek’s laughter was contagious. Despite, or perhaps because of the anticipation of coming bloodshed, the men behaved like children on an outing, working though their initial onslaught of energy so they could settle in for the battle ahead. Holliday laughed along with them for the sheer joy of being alive and finally being allowed to put a shoulder to the working of a plan. Having spent the better part of a month meandering about and wondering what the hell they were even there for, it was good to be focused and alert.

He imagined his band of immortals looked like drunks on a lark to the townsfolk, but he was just too energized to care. After his resentment of Bat this morning, followed by his anger at himself, Holliday was canny, his adrenaline primed and balanced and ready for the fight.

During the ride of two short blocks to their destination, the men began singing snippets of the newest Gilbert and Sullivan.

I am the Captain of the Pinafore! And a right good captain, too! I am never known to quail At the fury of a gale, And I’m never, never sick at sea! What, never? Hardly ever! He’s hardly ever sick at sea! Then give three cheers, and one cheer more, For the hardy Captain of the Pinafore!”

The cannon was, of course, exactly where Holliday had seen it last: in front of the courthouse next to the flagpole, it’s three rounds of shot waiting patiently beside it. Some dutiful city planner had taken care to create a bed of stone under the display to keep the gun carriage from sinking into the soil. The worthy soul had gone the extra mile, as well, and radiated a series of similarly constructed walkways leading from the display so the ladies with their parasols could visit the brass oddity on their morning constitutionals without damaging their button shoes.

Which, of course, would make the cannon easier to maneuver to the street. Holliday and Creek rode their mules to the flag pole and dismounted, untangling leads and traces for ease of attachment. Holliday stepped back as eager members of his merry band moved in, tugging and quizzing one another on the best course of action given their equipment and limited knowledge. The overwhelming sense of haste kept disagreements from becoming arguments and willing hands made for quick work in spite of their ignorance of the true workings of artillery.

Perfectly sensible people watched as Holliday’s squad worked to harness the mules to the gun carriage’s limber. Holliday could tell their audience was filled with sensible people because not one of them approached the heavily armed group of men stealing the cannon. No one even shouted at them. Well, he thought, you couldn’t ask fairer than that.

The hitching of the gun carriage took a bit of creativity but between the former farm and ranch hands in Holliday’s party, they managed to make it happen without agitating the mules too much.

Several of the other men, meanwhile, appointed themselves guardians of the cannonballs. Rather than being the expected heavy solid shot, all three iron balls were hollow exploding shells designed to be filled with black powder to detonate on impact. During the melee of this particular discovery one man managed, of course, to get his thumb caught in the fill hole and put up quite the fuss until Holliday ordered the men to stand down and stop playing with their balls in public.

Once the roar of hooting and laughter calmed, the thumb was yanked free and the cannon was declared to have drawn first blood in the coming conflict, surely a harbinger of their upcoming triumph in the famed War for the Royal Gorge.

With the cannon finally harnessed to everyone’s satisfaction, the men abruptly lifted Holliday and Creek back onto the mules. The men man-handling Holliday grabbed him by his arms, keeping him from reaching his Colts or from lashing out instinctively, so apparently they’d put some forethought into the effort. Holliday managed not to kick the lead mule as they got him aboard. Meanwhile Holliday had cussed them proficiently, which only served to render them prouder than all hell. Once settled and upright again, Holliday shook his head at them feeling a bit shamefaced at his unbidden reaction to such comradery. No one gave him any notice as votes were taken as to who would serve as hot-walker for the lead mule. Holliday supposed, that they didn’t trust the mules to not lose their way back to the depot.

Holliday reminded them not to get kicked for their efforts and was promptly ignored with grins and waves. The mules, thankfully, were a supremely steady pair, worthy of their breed, and thus they made the return trip to the depot relatively unscathed. The men, of course, chose a different chorus to celebrate their success and sang out with continued high spirits.

“I shall marry with a wife, In my humble rank of life! And you, my own, are she – I must wander to and fro; But wherever I may go, I shall never be untrue to thee! What, never? Well, hardly ever! Hardly ever be untrue to thee.”

The mules plodded along stolidly, ears swiveling to the cheers, the singing and all the accompanying gestures. Observers followed at a respectful distance, more curious than alarmed, and the parade continued without incident straight into the roundhouse.

After reporting in to Masterson and introducing him to Stationmaster Eichoff, his new gunnery sergeant, Holliday reported himself back to Luke Short. Somewhere uptown, a church clock struck the hour of two with a deep resounding tone.

As expected, Short had done his usual excellent job in cajoling those needing cajoling, and calmly threatening scoundrels into submission. Even the postal clerk was lending a hand in showing Ben Thompson the ins and outs of the depot. The only man unconvinced of their good will was the Wells Fargo agent, but he had done nothing more than to lock himself into his office, which was at least a more level-headed response than Holliday had received from any Wells Fargo agent he had ever encountered. The agent could have certainly made worse decisions. As excellent as Short was as a negotiator, he was also a dead shot and had more than enough sand to pull the trigger when provoked.

Most of the cannon rustlers had remained with the cannon in the expanse of the roundhouse. When Holliday and Creek returned to the depot they found its defenders had been amusing themselves by milling around like they’d never been allowed in one before. They meandered, obsessively touching the previously untouchable, investigating the inner workings of the large, round-faced Fairbanks-Morse luggage scales, examining the sorting-slots in the post office and rifling through the massive roll-top desk in the freight office. Meanwhile, Creek had disappeared and JJ Web was trailing Holliday now.

There was at least one budding artist among the men. The would-be Rembrandt had found a boxing crayon and drawn a top hat and glasses onto the portrait of president Rutherford B Hayes, and mustaches on the poster of Uncle Sam and Brother Jonathan. Lady Columbia’s image got a bit more embellishment than was fit for mixed company. Webb, peering over Holliday’s shoulder, had alternately tut-tutted and giggled.

Holliday dutifully continued his rounds. He stopped and spoke to every man he saw in a Santa Fe uniform, which included the section master, the ticket clerk, a brakeman, and a switch-tender. No one seemed to have any difficulty accepting the overrun by the Dodge City Gang, nor were they willing to simply go home to safety.

Someone had found a date stamper and inked the day’s date all around the door frame to the gentleman’s waiting room. June 11, 1879 was blazoned at all kinds of angles. The culprit was apparently on the stumpy side, however, because the top of the door jamb remained un-inked.

Inside the waiting area, a squad of men were taking turns using the shoe-shine stand to polish one another’s boots. Several perused copies of the railway time table while they waited. A number of them had adorned themselves with an assortment of metal disks used to label the baggage. The deadliest men in Dodge and here they were no better than unchaperoned children.

Holliday couldn’t recall ever having been that young. But he could also hear his sainted mother’s voice sighing, “Boys will be boys” so he supposed he had once been so. Webb decided to await his turn to get his boots shined and John Shanssey took his place in shadowing Holliday.

Shanssey favored him with a too-knowing smile. “Ready to murder ’em all, Doc?”

“They ain’t worth the trouble it’d bring me, John. But it is a comfortin’ notion all the same.” Shanssey’s laugh had the men glancing over with interest. Holliday waved them back. “Smoke ’em if ya got ’em, fellas.”

Holliday decided he should check for any hint of difficulties in the telegraph office. Telegraph offices were usually small quiet rooms, as he recalled, designed for concentration and not interesting enough to draw a crowd of ne’er-do-wells.

Shanssey in tow, Holliday located the room easily enough. Short was there, kicked back in a heavy rolling desk chair, smoking a Lucky Strike. Holliday obviously couldn’t fault him for wanting to take a break from trying to corral the herd of gunmen intent on banging around in every closet just to satisfy their curiosities. Short had a well-oiled Whitney Burgess Morse repeating rifle laid across the arms of his chair. It made Holliday’s mouth water.

Grape Creek’s telegrapher Harry Jenkins introduced them to the Pueblo telegrapher, a mild-looking, heavily freckled young man named Benson. Both telegraphers assured Holliday everything was in the pink and up to snuff. They reported that Masterson had ordered them to send a situation update to Strong as soon as the cannon had been delivered and they’d just gotten Strong’s response. They excitedly showed it to Holliday:

Watch STOP Stand fast STOP Quit you like men STOP Be strong STOP.”

Holliday disappointed them both by being decidedly underwhelmed. Here they were fighting a war for a terminally dissatisfied millionaire and all their commander could think to do was quote Bible verses at them. The term “plausible deniability” came to mind, and Holliday didn’t hesitate to say so.

Meanwhile, Ben Thompson had entered the room. He shut the door behind him before sitting on a spare desk.

Jenkins hastened to defend his employer. “Oh, but I assure you, sir, Mr. Strong has us well-covered. Indeed, he’s been at this game a long time and he knows all the tricks. He has a most thorough and scientific system set up throughout the territory to intercept all of his competitors’ telegraphs. Palmer thinks he has him fooled because he encodes all the Rio’s communications but Mr. Strong had the code broken over a year ago.”

Which still didn’t explain the Bible verse relative to the benefit of an actual plan from the Santa Fe’s much lauded headquarters.

Holliday defended his position. “Ya made my point for me when ya called it a game, Jenkins. That is how Strong sees all this, I have no doubt. But this is no game. Every man here is armed for a reason. Strong’s askin’ them to kill or be killed just so he can get braggin’ rights over a fellow plutocrat–”

Short piped up from his corner, “Not to interrupt, Doc, but Bat’s still insisting on his ‘clean war’ nonsense. How in hell are we expected to hold this ground if we’re not allowed the occasional casualty?”

“Bat’s already got casualties,” Holliday reminded him. “Three of them. Rio men, but dead all the same. Damned near had five that I know of. And all because he dragged me and my Colts to Colorado. He roped me inta recommendin’ this fracas so he could hire enough gun iron to turn a squad inta a company. If he’d wanted peace he should have hired sheepmen and farmers.”

Short grinned. Around his cigarette he said, “Doc, I’ve tried to tell him. You’ve tried to tell him.” He jerked a thumb at Thompson. “Ben here’s tried to tell him. Bat is the Man Who Smiles because he’s only killed two men in his entire life and those were simple one on one self-defense.”

“Well, we’re fightin’ for self-defense, then,” Holliday growled.

The telegraph began rattling and the telegraphers bent to writing.

Holliday continued, “My orders, for what they’re worth, is ta shoot ’em however ya want. Wing the sonsabitches or kill ’em as ya please. I’ll be damned if I’ll tell a man his own life ain’t worth defendin’ especially if he’s here because of my say-so.”

“Makes sense to me, Doc,” Thompson stood, “I’ll spread the word.”

“Ye might best make it quick, Ben.” Shanssey jerked his head at the telegraph office’s exterior window. “It looks like we’ve got a fair number of gawkers out there. It won’t be long before the chancers’ll be heeling themselves.”

Young Benson stared up from his machine. “It’s worse than that,” he said. “Palmer’s sent a message from Denver to get Pueblo’s county sheriff and and the town marshal to move in on us here. Palmer’s already got three hundred men up the rail-line just outside Pueblo. God help us,” his voice wavered. “What’s gonna happen now?” he whispered.

Shanssey’s voice was only a bit louder. “The town marshal. That still a man by the name of Pat Desmond?”

The young man nodded. “There’s talk the district attorney’s getting ready to file murder charges on him. He’s killed a few unarmed suspects here in town, they say.”

“What’s it about with this Desmond, then, John?” Short asked.

Shanssey rubbed at the back of his neck and shrugged. He was still watching Holliday. “I’ve met him a few years back in Jacksboro, Texas. He was headed to Colorado. He gets about as a lawman now and again. He’s a tough piece a’ work. He’d be around forty by now. Good with a slip gun and quick ta use it. Fenian. Brought from the oul country as a raider ta help some eejit Union general in New York invade Canada.”

“Canada?” Short snorted. “What the hell does anyone want in Canada?”

“A free Irish state,” Shanssey answered wryly. “Desmond did a few years in Sing Sing for his efforts.”

Holliday stood relaxed with one hand in his pocket, the other on the back of Benson’s chair. He remained looking at no one, perusing the tensions fluctuating across the room. Who would be dependable, who would not.

“This man bother ya, John?” he asked lightly.

“Not if ya tell me he ain’t a bother to you, Doc,” Shanssey promised.

Thompson waited, his hand on the door knob. Holliday didn’t need to look up to know that everyone was watching him expectantly.

Holliday, as weary and aggravated as he had been for most of the morning, became aware of none of that, suddenly. Listening to the men talk, his heart had steadied and a preternatural calm had descended on him. This spirit – he had no other word for it – seemed always to claim him just before a fight, chilling his blood and forcing the heat from his body and his brain. Behind him he felt Shanssey taking an instinctive step back, but out of respect, not fear, and wondered what it felt like to be outside the cloak of such a grace. All Holliday could feel at that moment was the weight of his weapons against his chest.

“Well,” Holliday said. “Palmer has himself a regiment and we have naught but a company.” He let that sink into the coldest part of his own brain and felt it ice over. “And wasn’t this just what we were brought here for?” he asked no one in particular. “So, that’s whats gonna happen.”

“You mean we still fight?” The Pueblo telegrapher almost yelped.

Holliday looked at him not unkindly. He said. “Any man who wants out can ride out now as best he can. Head for the roundhouse or hang out at a saloon until it’s done. No one will think the less of anyone who decides to clear out all together. I won’t ask a man to fight if he knows better, and I sure as hell won’t ask him to fight with his hands tied. For those of us standing ground, understand that we can lose the depot and probably will.”

There was a sudden loud clatter of metal and wood in the men’s waiting room, followed by raucous laughter. Holliday shook his head. “Hell, if our boys from Dodge don’t tear it down first, the Rio can have it. There are just too many entrances for a good defense, and far too much cover on approach. We’re only here for the telegraph anyhow. And ta give Bat whatever time he needs to gauge the enemy. It’s the roundhouse that’s the prize. When the depot falls, don’t wait for orders. Converge on the roundhouse. Will ya spread the word, Ben?”

“Sure, Doc, Thompson answered, steady as Gibraltar. “So you stayin’?”

Holliday grinned. It was good to feel unburdened as he did at this moment. He felt light, relaxed and without pain, for a change. Only one thing was certain to him: he would either live or die today. Either eventuality was out of his hands, a gift of God to be received in joy. All else was mere distraction.

“Ben, as best I can tell, I was put onta this world to drink whiskey and raise hell, and I’m currently out of whiskey, more’s the pity. It’s no recommendation ta anyone else, but I gave my word and I’m stayin’.”

“Well, I’m with you, Doc,” Thompson drawled. “I’ll spread the word to the boys.”

“Glad of ya, Ben. Meanwhile, someone needs to run tell Bat company’s comin’.”


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