Chapter 20: La Veta Helada

Parables of the Beautiful Country

by Jack E’Dalgo

Chapter 20: La Veta Helada

“I saw Allen coming, and I thought my life was as good to me as his was to him. I fired the shot and he fell on the floor, and I fired the second shot.” -Doc Holliday, court testimony, Leadville, Colorado 1885.

The remainder of the morning was a slew of surprises. Holliday not only agreed to return to Grape Creek with Masterson, he insisted on it. Masterson treated them to breakfast and Holliday ate like was going out of style. Apparently his bevy of beauties had worked him up an appetite. Masterson still refused to think too deeply about that, but he could, at least, appreciate the rewards of the ladies’ endeavors.

Holliday, having won his argument for Kate by default, was congenial and downright chatty. He and Masterson discussed the country’s return to the gold standard and the long-awaited lessening of the economic depression it had endured since the Panic of 1873. Having resolved that crisis to their satisfaction, they entertained the rumors of Dodge’s Alamo Saloon’s purchase of a phonograph.

Finally Holliday dropped his fork and shoved his plate away. “Between this damned waistcoat and all this food, I’m not gonna be able ta breathe.”

“Not to mention your broken ribs.”

“Bruised, not broken. And, yes, best not mentioned.”

Masterson sighed. “It’s just as well, Doc. l need to send a telegram before She-who-shall-also-not-be-mentioned reaches Ogden.”

“Sonofabitch. Cuttin’ it a bit fine, aren’t ya?”

“Doc, have you ever known a West Coast train to not be late?”

Holliday had already stood, pulling on his gloves. “I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been to the West Coast. Let’s be at it.”

When they stepped out into the sun, a Gharry coach was passing a bit too close to the boardwalk, its roof loaded with luggage. Holliday took advantage of the coaches’ proximity and the length of his legs and stepped from the boardwalk onto the rear running board of the coach, looping one hand through a luggage bracket.

He waved Bat aboard with the other hand and there was nothing for it but for Masterson to jump from the sidewalk and chase after the coach for a few yards until Holliday helped pull him up to the step and the remaining luggage bracket.

The driver, sitting high and forward of the rig, never even realized they were aboard, Holliday’s laughter drowned out by the grinding of wooden wheels on stone and the bruit of springs and chains.

Holliday’s laughter, as always, was unexpected and as guileless as a child’s. Masterson had to join in, invigorated by the joy of just being alive on such a beautiful morning.

The wagon got them within spitting distance of the Canyon City rail station and both men leapt free, straightened hats and coats as they approached the station’s street entrance. Armed Santa Fe guards stepped forward to dissuade them, calling them to halt and be identified.

Holliday batted his eyes, held his left hand forward, palm open, the other palm flat against his chest as though keeping his coat from flapping in the breeze. His fingers were, in fact, less than an inch from the handle of his .38.

Masterson noted Holliday’s stance and held both of his own hands high. He identified himself and offered proof of the Santa Fe’s trust in him in the form of a letter in the breast pocket of his coat. He did not reach for the letter, allowing the forward guard to find and remove it. The guard worked the letter free of its envelope, eyeing Holliday.

“I’m with him,” Holliday offered helpfully.

The guard grunted and scanned Masterson’s credentials. He handed the letter and its envelope back to Masterson without even refolding the letter. “You have a telegram inside, Marshal. The lines have been cut to Grape Creek. Again. They’ve been trying to locate you. Talk to the station master.” He pointed a finger over Masterson’s shoulder and shouted to another unsuspecting traveler approaching the station, “You there! Halt!”

Masterson and Holliday scurried for the door of the station house.

The station master, a squat, elderly man with angelic dimples, did indeed have a telegram for Masterson. Bat read aloud for Holliday’s benefit:

D&RG sending armed guards from Denver south with orders to shoot to kill. STOP. La Veta under siege. STOP. Walsenberg, Trinidad fallen. STOP. Must hold Pueblo roundhouse at all costs. STOP.

With Santa Fe’s world tumbling around them, the station master had set aside a special for Masterson and his Dodge City men. The train had already been pulled off the side rails and sat waiting for them to make the run to Grape Creek where Bat could load his pistoleers. The engineer was under orders from William Strong himself to run it wide open to Pueblo.

The station master assured Masterson that the telegraph line to the camp had just been restored that very hour. The camp had been notified to have the men from Dodge ready to roll out when the special arrived, weapons ready. Grape Creek telegrapher Harry Jenkins had already acknowledged receipt of the order.

Holliday had been writing furiously at Masterson’s elbow. He passed the Canyon City telegrapher a gold coin and a telegram slip for the marshal’s office in Ogden before letting Masterson tug him out to the platform and into their hastily assembled special: a locomotive and coal car followed by two standard passenger cars and a caboose.

The station master followed them out, the telegraph agent panting behind them. Holliday and Masterson stepped aboard the nearest passenger car’s platform and staggered when the train lurched into motion before they’d even reached the door. The station master trotted alongside the car, waving another telegram.

“Le Veta has fallen!” he shouted to be heard. “Palmer’s bastards have killed two of our best men!” He stopped as he ran out of platform and the special picked up speed. Over the scream of steal, Masterson heard the man thunder, “God help ya, young men!”

Holliday took a precarious step onto the car’s steps to offer a broad wave of his arm back at the man, acknowledging that they had heard. Masterson offered him a steadying arm back up to the car’s platform.

“Did I hear him right, Doc?” Masterson shouted to be heard even with Holliday close at hand. The train whistle was wailing like a banshee. “Did he say the Rio killed two of Santa Fe’s men?”

Holliday got the car’s door open and it slammed on its hinges as he shoved Masterson inside before following him in.

Holliday got the door shut and Masterson could finally hear him. Holliday was cussing a blue streak.

“Doc, did he say–”

“Yes, goddammit,” Holliday growled. “My rifles– Sonofabitch. I shoulda been in camp. The villains have struck and we’re all a-cock because I just had to be lollygaggin’ in town. I let ya down. I’ll never forgive myself–”

“We would have still had to wait on the train, Doc. With the telegraph lines down, we wouldn’t have even known. So stow that predicate. What we need is a plan.”

“Strong’s telegram said to hold the roundhouse at all costs.”

“Yep. But we’ll need to have a few men, at least, in the depot to give us access to the telegraph. In Pueblo, the station depot isn’t too far from the roundhouse.” Masterson was airing his thoughts for Holliday’s benefit at the moment.

He said, “The Pueblo depot is the Santa Fe’s main stronghold for this part of the territory. Between the Santa Fe’s men and ours we should have more than enough of us to hold both. There’ll be more munitions and weapons on hand at the depot, as well. We’ll need to requisition all that.”

Holliday was nodding. He dropped heavily into one of the high-backed passenger bench seats. He looked like he’d lost his best friend.

Masterson availed himself of the cushion next to Holliday’s. “Pickett has got enough sense to bring your weapons on board once we’re loading. Same with my weapons. Every man’s son will be there ready to roll with all their weapons. Your time to shine will come soon enough.”

“Shine like a damned pistareen, ya mean.” He swore some more, his brow furrowed. “Think the roundhouse will have a mule somewhere’s about? I know they used ta keep a couple at the depot in Jacksboro.”

The non sequitur had Masterson staring at Holliday like he’d grown a fly-wheel off one arm.

“Ah. Why would a railroad roundhouse need a mule, Doc?

“My uncle kept them around ta help load the freight. Uncle Rob was the baggage master for the Macon & Western in Jonesboro after the war. I worked there with him for a bit.”

Masterson couldn’t picture it. “You worked for the railroad?”

Holliday sniffed. “Well, it wasn’t like I was a gandy dancer, or anything important like a brakeman or anythin’. Before my pappy got me hid out up in Jonesboro, I was a ticket agent and what not for the Atlantic & Gulf in Valdosta. Payin’ for my dental schoolin’.”

Masterson had too many questions, suddenly. He chose one. “Why did your pappy have you hid out, Doc? How old were you?”

“Sixteen, seventeen.” Again, Holliday waved a dismissive hand. “It’s not worth gettin’ in ta, Bat. Let’s just say there’s a reason I know so much about black powder and dynamite. And there are a number of similar reasons why I am not welcome back in Georgia.” There was a flash of determination in his eyes. He fetched his cigar case from a pocket and passed it to Masterson. “Anyhow. I shoulda stuck with the railroad but my father wouldn’t hear of his only son bein’ a simple laborer.”

Masterson took his choice of cigars and passed the case back to Holliday.

“All right,” Masterson said, “so now I know why a railroad needs a mule. Question is, why do you need a mule, Doc?”

Holliday spoke around his unlit cigar while he replaced the case in his pocket. “Strong’s telegram said La Veta station had been under siege. If we’re gonna be under siege, Bat, I wanna cannon.”

“Cannon? Well, nice work if you can get it, I guess.” Masterson lit Holliday’s cigar cautiously in the careening train car. “But where in hell are we going to get a cannon and what’s the mule got to do with it?”

Holliday puffed quickly, building the burn from the shaking flame. He sat back and Masterson worked his own cigar into a suitable light.

Holliday said, “The courthouse lawn in Pueblo. Remember? That cannon even has some shot there beside it, as I recall. The wheels on the gun carriage still looked pretty fair. We’ll need the mule ta drag it to the roundhouse. There should be plenty of room in there to operate a cannon no matter what it kicks.”

Masterson chuckled. “I’d forgotten about that old cannon. Seriously, Doc. Have you ever fired a cannon?”

“A gun’s a gun,” Holliday shrugged. “Anyhow. We’ll figure it out. Think Picket will remember the powder stores?” He sighed. “I could really just kick myself.”

“Doc, you’re the one bringing a cannon to the party. I think you’ve redeemed yourself.”

True to expectations, the special was met by the entire Dodge City Gang and then some. Santa Fe’s own men were on hand handing aboard cases of the black powder. Porters, carpenters, blacksmiths and commissary workers joined in and even stayed aboard. Masterson caught a glimpse of Dr. Fox directing the loading of medical supplies and food stuffs into the caboose. Masterson realized he himself hadn’t even thought of such a necessity. He said a prayer of thanks for competent people.

Pickett met him as he was detraining and handed him an armful of weapons. In addition to Holliday and Masterson’s personal weapons, Pickett had cleared out the armory of the marshal’s office and relieved the commissary of all its weapons stores. The Santa Fe men had acted similarly with the Santa Fe’s corporate munitions. If trouble befell the Grape Creek camp, they’d have nothing but the personal arms of the day laborers to fend off disaster. Masterson didn’t like the idea much, but he had his marching orders and he put his mind to the task.

Holliday had leapt from the train once it had slowed and Masterson hadn’t seen him since. After checking in with Pickett, Fox, and Ben Thompson, Masterson made his way to his own tent. He saw Holliday across a distance approaching the train with John Shanssey, Creek Johnson and Luke Short. Between the four of them, they were loaded with rifles and boxes of ammunition, trudging back toward the train. Holliday and Shanssey were speaking animatedly, but not necessarily arguing with one another as far as Masterson could determine.

Masterson grabbed his valise and began filling it with the other necessities of life: an extra box of shells that got overlooked, a new box of cigars, his field glasses and his heaviest coat. He didn’t intend to direct night operations while half frozen.

With everything aboard in record time, the special pulled out.

The men on board were all were in high spirits, expectations heightened by the certain knowledge that they were finally getting down to what they’d all signed on for: a good old-fashioned ass-whooping good time. There were more of them this trip, given the additions of volunteers. The two passenger cars this time were as grand as the previous run, but there was no parlor car, just bench seats, which helped by providing more actual seating area. Still, the men sat where they could once the benches were filled: along the walls, on the floors, Indian-style. None of which dampened the camaraderie or excitement that pervaded the atmosphere.

Now that he’d had the time to register the fact, Masterson realized the locomotive for this special truly was special, a powerful Consolidation 2-8-0 with a diamond stack branded as engine number 51 of the Denver Southpark and Pacific Railroad. It wasted no time reaching top speed, it’s whistle screaming every few minutes to keep the track clear of life, wild or otherwise.

Masterson had never been aboard a train whose locomotive was set to run wide open. The noise was immense and the men could scarcely hear one another without shouting. It must have been deafening for the engineer and his stoker.

Masterson knew just enough about locomotives to know that there was only so much steam that an engine can handle and that an experienced engineer could listen to his engine and know when to apply the throttle and the cut off, and just how much modification was required. Each time their engineer adjusted the exhaust valve, there was an inhuman bark from the stack as the spent steam erupted from the blast pipe. It sounded like the howls of the damned then was just as quickly smothered.

The power was incredible. The entire car shook and Masterson had little doubt that the ground beneath the rails did the same. His chest rattled with the thunder the locomotive pumped through every inch of the train. His lungs began to ache with the effort to breath normally.

Masterson glanced at Holliday every few moments, concerned for his already ravaged lungs. Holliday, however, sat unmoving. His vision was out the window beside him, but he didn’t appear to register much of the scenery. Masterson was reminded of Holliday’s hallucination, when he seemed incapable of moving anything but his eyes. Now, even his eyes didn’t seem to focus. It wouldn’t do to ask Holliday about it, however. Masterson couldn’t have heard his answer above the din of the engine.

The engine slowed momentarily, navigating a particularly sharp switchback. The men’s easy banter made a brief appearance as the thunder of the locomotive relented for a bit. Even that enthusiasm damped to a moment of silence, however, as the little special passed the Territorial Prison just south of Canyon City. For these men, it was a squat gray reminder of how quickly the pride of life could destroy the best of them. The stone walls were a sobering sight for Masterson as well. He had been instrumental in putting a few of the inmates in the crowbar hotel, as some still flippantly called it.

Holliday, if possible, was even quieter, watching the fortress rushing toward them from the horizon. He had a wistful expression on his face that Masterson could swear he’d never seen before.

“Know anybody in the Territorial, Doc?”

“A couple of friends. One’s still there, I think.” Holliday admitted quietly. “Jonas still writes me from time ta time. Sent me a hand hitched horse bridle once. I sent him some cash for his commissary deposit.”

“That where you got your bridle, Doc?” He nodded. They agreed together that it was a damn nice piece of workmanship.

“Another friend, Cone, was up for a nickel but shoulda been released last year. I haven’t heard from him since. Hope he’s doing alright. He’s a good man. I may try ta get in ta see Jonas, though, before I head back to Dodge.”

“Think he’s still there, then?” “Oh, he’s doing life, Bat. He’s still there, if he’s still breathin’.”

“Life? That’s a tough one to do in the Territorial. What did he go up for?”

“Larceny. He rolled a drunk for forty dollars, put it on a faro game I was runnin’ in Denver. Lost it about two minutes before the law came ta collect him.”

“And the court gave him life for forty dollars?”

“Nah. They gave him three years, but he escaped a few times from Arapahoe county, then killed a deputy…” Holliday shook his head. “It just all added up ta no good for him. So he’s in the Territorial.” Holliday sighed as the prison fled past his window. He didn’t turn to look at it receding. “There, but for the grace of God go I, as they do say.”

“I can’t picture you ever rolling a drunk, Doc.”

“Nah. But I’ve come mighty close to killin’ myself a deputy or two, so there’s that,” Holliday’s focus was still out the window but Masterson kept his face blank all the same. “And I been rolled drunk a couple times myself,” Holliday mumbled after a moment, tugging out his watch. He checked its face and sighed again.

Holliday didn’t have long to wait. The engineer poured on the steam again and they were tearing like a bullet down the track. They pulled into Pueblo in a little less than half an hour. As the Pueblo depot came into view the train slowed. Like the depot in Canyon City, the Pueblo station was another Rio property masquerading as that of the Santa Fe.

When the brakes began screaming, Holliday stood and leaned over Masterson to make himself heard. “Unless you’re feeling particularly athletic today, Bat, I suggest that ya detrain before we reach the roundhouse.” He strode the length of the car without further explanation. Masterson jumped up and followed him. Holliday obviously knew something he didn’t.

The train passed the depot platform at less than a few miles an hour and continued to slow. Holliday loped off onto the platform with all the grace he had exhibited when he’d detrained at Canyon City not so many weeks before.

Masterson followed his example and followed Holliday’s quick stride down the platform and on toward the roundhouse. The station master hurried out and joined them for the brisk walk, introducing himself to both the Dodge City men.

Rather than pulling to a side-line to decouple, the locomotive pulled most of the train, cars included, into the roundhouse, nudging it’s pilot shield and a quarter of it’s engine out the structure’s opposite exit before coming to a full halt.

The station master at Masterson’s elbow explained the maneuver as a safety precaution agreed upon by the conductor and the engineer. Having the short train blocking the entrance into the roundhouse would keep the Rio Grande from barreling in with an engine of their own and trying to take possession of the roundhouse from either direction. They might be able to nudge a locomotive out of the way with another locomotive, but trying to move a fully coupled train from a complete standstill ran the risk of the cars derailing and doing serious damage to the roundhouse.

That sounded perfectly sensible to Masterson as far as he was able to understand such things. Holliday was nodding at the information. As Masterson’s resident expert suddenly on all things railroad, Holliday’s acceptance of the situation settled the question as far as Masterson was concerned.

Once inside the roundhouse, Masterson could see the wisdom of the position of the train. The roundhouse was a massive tin-roofed torus-shaped building, rather like a doughnut with two bites missing, one across from the other. The train almost filled the area of the “bite” on both sides of the building.

The passenger cars sat primarily atop the pivot track which was the star attraction and sole reason for a roundhouse’s existence. That movable section of track sat central to the building in a large open circle. Masterson was mesmerized by the sight and descended into the well of the turn-table to approach the train.

The pivot was geared to turn an unloaded locomotive three hundred sixty degrees, facing back the way it came regardless of which entrance it used. The mechanical workings were nothing short of an engineering marvel to Masterson who could not comprehend the power of such an unassuming bit of track to turn a one hundred five ton locomotive , but there was no time to investigate it at the moment.

Masterson could also see that Holliday’s wisdom of exiting the train as it reached the depot was justified. Within the confines of the turn-table, there was no platform to detrain to. Masterson’s men were leaping from the train cars and onto the sandy ground of the circle that the train dominated.

These were young men, for the most part, and no one was injured. They assisted one another up, adrenaline supplying both energy and foolhardiness. Once up, the men began looking for someone to direct them to the task at hand, whatever it might be.

Masterson assigned two men each to either side of the train to guard the slender spaces between the locomotive and the roundhouse proper. They didn’t need someone sneaking in around the bulk of the train and opening fire on everyone inside. The men chosen scrambled to recover their weapons and find their positions.

Masterson noticed a fifth man, Frank Cady, mount the caboose’s exterior ladder with a rifle slung across his back by a leather lanyard.


“Who’s ta say they don’t try to come trottin’ across the top of the train from the other end?” Cady shouted to him. “This way, we can blast ’em like geese before they start hissin’ at us.”

Masterson glanced over his shoulder. Apparently the “we” was yet another volunteer laying himself across the top of the roof of the locomotive’s cab and sighting with his rifle down the track to the east. Masterson could not identify the defender from this distance, but he seemed familiar enough.

Masterson turned back and saluted Cady. The man grinned, as pleased as if his momma had given him a gold star. Cady sat down cross-legged atop the roof of the caboose and began inspecting his weapon. Masterson left them to it. He was pleased to remind himself yet again that he had some good men.

Holliday was half-way across the building. He had remained on the roundhouse’s interior platform, not far from the door. A fair number of the Dodge City Gang had gathered below him in the sandy circle that comprised the working area of the roundhouse turn-table. Holliday was speaking and Ben Short was apparently repeating at least part of his speech loud enough to be heard by the outliers since Holliday himself couldn’t shout.

Masterson approached. From what he could make out from Short’s words and Holliday’s gestures, Holliday was ordering groups to man the windows of the roundhouse and setting various tasks for others. Masterson heard Short shout some instructions about a mule and smiled.

Short echoed a few more instructions regarding the telegraph office and the depot proper which Masterson quite agreed with. As Masterson recalled, the depot was at least a furlong from the building they were currently in.

As Masterson approached, several men in Santa Fe uniforms hurried past in deep conversation regarding their intention to block the depot rail with another set of cars from the Pueblo’s side rail. Masterson didn’t interrupt.

He reached Holliday’s position and mounted the steps as Holliday called for volunteers to join him for a wagon ride to the courthouse to retrieve a cannon. A cheer went up and ten men scrambled up behind Masterson, practically pushing him up the steps.

“Good to see you have everything well in hand, Doc,” Masterson chuckled as soon as he pulled himself free from the melee. Holliday looked as about sheepish as Napoleon blasting Nelson, but apologized. “I didn’t see where ya got ta, Bat, an’ time was awastin’.”

“I’m not complaining, Doc. Did you leave anything for me to do?”

“Well, we may want a central staging area for the weapons and ammo. I’m sure there’s a million other things I don’t know about.”

“We’ll get it sorted, Doc. I’ll command operations in the roundhouse for now, if you’ll cover the depot.”

Holliday favored Masterson with that bright, childishly happy smile of his. “Yes, sir, Captain, sir.” He saluted and spun on his heel to join his fearless squad.

“That’s Major Masterson to you, Doc,” Masterson corrected, but he wasn’t certain Holliday had heard him. Holliday was in deep conversation with a man in a depot agent’s uniform. Masterson turned and found Jordan Webb and Slap Jack Bill looking a bit lost.

“Gentlemen!” Masterson boomed, “Let’s set ourselves up an armory.”


Leave a Reply

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