Chapter 17: Silver Strike

Parables of the Beautiful Country

by Jack E’Dalgo

Chapter 17: Silver Strike

“Have you any idea of what a man must endure who leads such a life? No, you cannot. No one can unless he lives it for himself.” — Frank James

Holliday’s tent was still dark when Shanssey went to get water for his late morning shave. Everything was quiet, no hum of voices or clank of pan on stove. Shanssey wasn’t alarmed. Holliday and Kate were probably and sleeping in, worn out from last night’s haul. Shanssey himself was only up because he was getting ready for his evening shift working the Buckhorn’s bar. Besides, he had a few letters to write, and a bit of business to take care of.

The melee of chairs and tables still remained by the creek from where Holliday’s guardians had mingled for those few nights. The camp had since adopted the site as a picnic area, but it, too, was abandoned at this hour. Of course, the day after payday, the workers were working, and the gamblers were sleeping in, recovering from all their hard work of fleecing the labor-force.

Shanssey retrieved his water and walked back to his tent and realized he was having difficulty not continuing to look over at Holliday’s tent. He wasn’t certain why. The flaps visible on this side of the tent were closed, as was the doorway. There was no smoke coming from it and, given Holliday and Kate were probably asleep, there was no reason for a light to be visible at any loose seam or anything.

Shanssey shook off his uneasiness. He was just apprehensive after all the hubbub with Holliday’s lungs, too restive for his own good. Over the course of their friendship, he’d seen Holliday shot and even half-hanged, for crying out loud. For all his fragility the man was tough as nails. Shanssey had no doubt Holliday would rise like Lazarus from this situation given time.

Something about the situation, however, began niggling at the back of Shanssey’s brain. He ignored it, and it just became part of the background of his thoughts as he washed and dressed.

By mid-day, Shanssey at long last realized that Holliday hadn’t been seen all night. Kate, either. The gambling element had been in full force, three or four members of the Dodge City Gang working every gaming hall in camp and they had, of course, made a killing off the workmen’s wallets.

Shanssey had asked around for which gaming tent Holliday had worked, but no one recalled having seen him. Everyone, like Shanssey, had simply assumed he was holding court at a different gaming hall than the one they occupied. Next he checked the saloons, just in case. Same result.

That niggling at the back of Shanssey’s brain finally made its presence felt front and center. He wasted no time high-tailing it back to Holliday’s tent.

Again, the tent indicated no sign of life. Shanssey called out but no one answered. He found the tent flap was loose and poked his head in and called out again. The tent was dark, the air was close and becoming heavy from the heat of the day which told him the tent had remained shut up and unaired for some hours.

Shanssey stepped in and located a lamp by the glow of the sky behind him. He lit it and was instantly alarmed. Boxes, normally lined around the edge of the tent, were either missing or tossed over. The room looked to have been ransacked.

“Doc?” No response. “Doc, if you’re here, it’s John Shanssey. I’m alone.”

There was a scuffling from the back of the tent. Shanssey lifted the lamp higher and shone it in that direction. A pale hand saluted him from the edge of the far side of the bed. Shanssey scrambled to cover the distance without stepping on random items scattered across the floor.

He found Holliday flat on his back on the floor beside the bed. He was fully dressed for a night of gambling, aside from his coat and his holsters. His eyes were shut and he was obviously nearly breathless. It looked like the blue of his eyes had bled through into the skin of his eyelids.


“John,” Holliday sighed out the name. “Forgive me.” Holliday took another breath and winced. “Havin’ a bit a problem… breathin’ wise.”

Shanssey’s boots crunched on glass and metal. He angled the light to make certain of what he was walking on and found a heavy scattering of silver dollars. They were everywhere, reflecting the lamplight like small moons. Bits of shattered glass shot tiny rainbows across the walls.

Shanssey settled the lamp on a crate and dropped a book onto the floor to settle his knees on, avoiding the glass. He knelt beside Holliday, grabbing one wrist.

Shanssey was no physician but he’d assisted at ringside when he wasn’t one of the boxers. He’d never tried to countdown a pulse but he knew thready from hale. Holliday’s pulse was steady, but not too strong. Despite the heat in the tent, Holliday was not sweating; his skin was dry and hot. Not good, then.

Shanssey smelled no tobacco or alcohol on Holliday’s breath. He released the wrist and ran his hands over Holliday’s skull, searching for bruising or fracture. There was a three-inch cut above his left eye that had bled for a bit, almost a twin to the cut, now practically healed, that he’d received in Canyon City. By lamplight, the newer cut didn’t look too bad. The blood had dried and cracked. The bone beneath it seemed sound, but that didn’t preclude the possibility of injury inside the skull. Holliday’s eyes were dilated correctly, but the blue was very pale in the lamplight.

“What you in the floor for, Doc? Someone Chicago you?”

“I wish,” Holliday moaned. “Sounds so much better… ‘n havin’ a hackin’ fit… so hard I injured… my visceral… pleura and inter… costal muscles.”

Doc could pull out that medical jargon at the damnedest times, Shanssey thought. He said, “Yeah. Ain’t buyin’ what you’re sellin’, Doc. We both know someone jumped ya. Did ya hit something with your head when you landed?”

Holliday shook his head. He finally opened his eyes. “Jus’ slid over like,” he said.

“Uh, huh. Well, something or someone walloped you in the head,” Shanssey thumped the cut over Holliday’s eye with enough force to make the man wince. “Now, whilst you’re makin’ up your mind to tell me who the blaggard is, you can tell me how long you been like this,” Shanssey demanded.

Holliday fumbled at his watch pocket and finally pulled the instrument free. He held it high enough to see it without moving his head too much and squinted at it. “What day is it?” he asked.

“The Lord help me not ta kill ye meself. It’s Tuesday. I seen ya yesterday. Now, how long you been on the floor, Doc?”

Holliday’s brows rose and fell, and he stopped trying to stare at the watch. “I dunno,” he whispered.

“Liar,” Shanssey warned.

“Can’t do the math… right now,” Holliday admitted. He shoved his watch back into his pocket, interrupting Shanssey’s efforts to locate broken ribs.

Shanssey batted Hollidays hands away and thumped his chest carefully. “When did you go down, then?”

“‘Bout dusk. Last night.” Holliday inhaled carefully. “A little before, anyhow.” His flinch got Shanssey’s attention and the former boxer prodded the offended area of his ribcage expertly. Which got him another flinch.

“And you’ve laid here all night?” Shanssey continued his badgering.

“Kept thinkin’ I’d feel better after a bit.” Holliday gasped, and Shanssey relented his examination, waiting for Holliday to recover his composure. “Slept some now ‘n agin,” Holliday announced like it was something to be encouraged by.

Shanssey knew Holliday hated being coddled and refused to be a burden and was not above spinning the truth to make an event sound better than the reality. Shanssey looked around a bit further. Holliday had apparently pulled one of the furs from the bed. It laid beside him along with a blood encrusted handkerchief. Either Holliday had gotten cold during the night or he had tugged the fur off when he’d tried to pull himself up onto the bed.

He noted there was blood on the back of Holliday’s left hand where the skin had been scraped back with some force. That wound, too, had dried a number of hours before. His wrist had a dark bruise running up into his cuff but there were no bruises or cuts on Holliday’s knuckles, which told Shanssey at least part of the story.

Holliday would have fought a man without hesitation. Even a man he had no chance against. Shanssey knew that by experience. Holliday envisioned self-defense as a moral obligation. He’d have stood his ground against a man, any man. Therefore, Holliday’s attacker had either knocked him out with the first few punches or his attacker had not been a man.

Which just left Kate. Kate with her damned jar of silver dollars she hauled with her everywhere, but had left scattered all over Holliday in the floor. Kate, drunk or even just hung over, was frequently violent and didn’t hesitate to use anything near to hand when she lashed out.

Even during an argument, Holliday would have let her slip in close enough to do damage. Holliday wan’t a wimp or enfeebled, but he could be caught flat-footed by anyone he actually trusted and that certainly included Kate. The woman had pistol-whipped Holliday once with his own Colt. Considering Kate’s jar weighed in at over thirty pounds, Holliday would have been better off if she’d brained him with his Colt.

Shanssey demanded. “So, where’s ya pistol?”

Holliday looked puzzled, then alarmed.

“Ah, never mind,” Shanssey jerked his thumb toward the bedstead. “It’s hangin’ where ya left it.”

Holliday looked relieved. “Ya did that apurpose,” he mumbled.

“Damned straight. Now where’s Kate?”

Holliday shook his head. “Gone.” He tapped Shanssey’s arm with the back of his hand, bringing Shanssey’s next question to silence. “Tell ya ’bout it later,” Holliday promised. “I’m not breathin’ too well down here.” He cleared his throat and swallowed. “Ya know. I’m really hankerin’… for a smoke, right now.”

“I feel for ya, Doc, but I ain’t giving you a smoke while you’re on the floor .”

Holliday grunted and shook his head. “Couldn’t smoke it, if ya did.” He sighed. “My chest hurts too bad.”

“And yet a smoke’s the first thing you be askin’ for.”

Holliday shut his eyes. “Didn’t ask. Just… makin’ conversation.”

Shanssey sighed. “Sure. Sure. You ready to stop changin’ the subject and tell me who cold-cocked ya?”

Holliday shook his head.

“That’s a no. So, is it no, you can’t tell me? No, you won’t tell me? Or no, you’re not ready ta tell me? Which is it?”

“I’m all right, John. Truly.”

“Not the question, John Holliday. I want a name or I’m gonna assume it’s Kate and I don’t care if it harelips the governor. And none of your side-steppin’ now.”

Holliday opened his eyes. He said, “Dammit, I told ya I had a coughin’ spell–“

“That hurt your lungs enough for you to pass out. I know. I’ve seen ya do it a couple of times now, if you’ll remember.” Holliday refused to meet his gaze. Shanssey tried to remain patient. “I’ve just never seen you have a coughing spell so bad it gave ya a concussion, two bruised ribs and a self-defense wound on your hand.”

Holliday shut his eyes again.

“Impudent whelp.” Shanssey murmured. This was getting them nowhere. “Ah, hell and damnation. Think we can get you onto the bed?”


Doc held out his uninjured hand and Shanssey slipped it across his shoulders, leveraging Holliday onto his feet. Given Holliday’s weight, Shanssey could have scooped him up quite easily and laid him on the bed, but such a thing would have embarrassed Holliday to no end and Shanssey would not rob the man of any more dignity than his disease had already beaten out of him.

Holliday held his breath during the procedure, stifling any gasp of pain. His body was tense with misery, but he relaxed once he was sat on the edge of the bed. Silver dollars and glass shards slid off him and onto the floor.

“Thank ya, John,” he whispered.

“Sure, Doc. Can you sit up on your own a few minutes?”

Holliday nodded, but braced himself by pushing a fist into the mattress on either side of his body.

Shanssey found a glass and half-filled it from a bottle of Old Overholt Rye he found on the other side of the bed. Doc drank from it greedily and Shanssey didn’t scold him. Holliday had been too many hours with no liquid and nothing for pain.

Shanssey was surprised when Holliday didn’t quite finish the glass. Holliday handed it back to him, panting, eyes shut, brows furrowed, waiting attentively for the agony to pass.

“Do ya want me ta wrap your ribs? It won’t make them heal any faster, but might make ya a bit more comfortable.”

Holliday shook his head. “It’s not my first… bruised ribs. I’ll be alright.”

“Yeah. It’s a shame how easy it is to bruise a rib of two just sliding over sideways like that.”

Holliday set his jaw but didn’t respond to the jibe. Which told Shanssey that Holliday was in a world of hurt. The Holliday he knew would have been shouting down the blue blazes by now.

Shanssey was himself no killer, but not for the first time, he wondered how much it would cost him to have Kate waylaid and dumped somewhere. It could be done. He knew that from experience, too. The trick would be finding someone who wouldn’t learn she was Doc Holliday’s woman until well after the deed was done. Otherwise, he’d be whistling in the wind.

Shanssey took advantage of Holliday’s distraction and slid his boots off. He didn’t do it too gently, so Holliday wouldn’t make a fuss about being mollycoddled. Shanssey then circled the interior of the tent and tied open all four viewing flaps, creating a cross-current for the cool breeze coming down the Wet Mountain Valley.

Left to his own devices, finally, Holliday curled himself onto the bed facing the entrance of the tent. Holliday’s pupils were alright but his reactions and the sluggishness of his movements had Shanssey convinced he was indeed concussed. Shanssey chided himself for trying to pick an argument with a man so incapacitated. The truth was, he needed Holliday to shout at him, threaten to murder him. Something. This passivity was unnerving.

Shanssey occupied himself by clearing the debris off the floor at the forward part of the tent, uncertain what else to do. The mess wasn’t really as bad as he had first estimated. He moved boxes back to the walls of the tent, clearing the floor for walking. He left the glass and the silver dollars undisturbed. No one needed to be walking on that side of the bed anyway.

Shanssey had already recreated the final hours of Holliday’s consciousness to his own satisfaction. There had been a set-to of some kind, with Kate lashing out, giving Holliday the scrape on his hand and a few good kicks in the ribs for good measure. The coup de gras had been the thirty pounds of silver coins she’d damn near killed him with. The man may even have been asleep when she did it. Regardless, Holliday had been on the floor because his unconscious body had slid off the bed.

And therein was the truth of the “jus’ slid over like” statement that Holliday had side-stepped him with earlier. Just enough of the truth to not be damned for but not quite enough of it to be exonerated. Shanssey could understand how Holliday would be embarrassed to admit to being thrashed by a woman, but Kate was no woman. She was a she-bear who would eat her own cubs and who fought like a Kilkenny cat.

As the tent cooled, Holliday began breathing more regularly. His eyes were still closed, but the blue was fading from his eyelids. Holliday was not asleep, though. Shanssey would lay money on it. Shanssey had resolved himself to having to ask questions like he was pulling teeth. Holliday could be relied on to tell him at least part of the truth, but Holliday would die and go to hell before he would volunteer the simplest explanations where Kate was concerned.

Shanssey tried a neutral tone. “Tell me about Kate, Doc. She’s packed up and gone?”

Holliday gasped out a “Yeah.” And was silent.

Typical, Shanssey concluded. It did indeed look like Kate had packed in a hurry. Other than the hail of silver dollars, there wasn’t anything of her left. Bottles of perfumes, clothes, and magazines were all gone. Everything Shanssey knew of Doc’s seemed to remain, however. She’d taken the trunk with her, as well. Just as well that Masterson hadn’t yet given Holliday all his weapons back.

Shanssey wasn’t overly concerned about Kate’s welfare as he might have been. Holliday had a temper and a tongue sharp as a Waterville straight razor, but even drunk, physically striking a woman was a bridge too far for his southern sensibilities. Shanssey had intervened in a couple of their more horrific domestic disputes, and could attest to that. Shanssey, of course, had known southern men that didn’t hesitate to abuse their women. Holliday, however, was not one of them.

There was a small parcel just inside the tent flap, wrapped in paper and bound with string. It was addressed to Holliday but bore no stamps. Shanssey sat it on the table and contemplated checking Holliday’s pupil dilation again.

“Is Kate coming back, Doc?”

Holliday shrugged the shoulder he wasn’t lying on. He didn’t even look to see if Shanssey was watching him when he did it. Shanssey bit back his own exasperation. Reproaching Holliday would get him nowhere. Besides, the man was already down. Shanssey would be damned if he’d kick him just now.

Shanssey moved to the opposite side of the tent, giving them both some space. He righted a chair from under the table. Personally, he was gratified that Kate was gone, but he knew Holliday was feeling her loss. Shanssey knew by experience the pattern this would follow. Holliday would suffer silently, withdrawing into aggression and irascibility, determined to slowly destroy himself unless relentlessly pursued by companions not adverse to kicking his ass out of his doldrums. He’d start by drinking even harder than necessary. His smoking was already almost intolerable.

Shanssey wondered how long Holliday would wait this time before writing to Kate, inviting her to meet him for some frivolity or other. Holliday never made demands of that damned fool woman, he’d simply entice her to a bit of fun and hope she’d return. And maybe stay for a bit. It was as though Holliday assumed he couldn’t get another woman to tolerate him or his illness. Of course, that wasn’t the kind of thing Shanssey could comfortably ask Holliday about.

Shanssey understood at least part of Holliday’s situation. Barmen and professional gamblers just didn’t get to spend time in the company of “normal” women: the daughters of someone or other, the school teacher or even the farmer’s middle child all grown up shunned such men. Barmen and gamblers got whores or nothing.

Of course, there were perks of having your own whore, even if you weren’t pimping them. Such women were always up for it, were quick to learn what was wanted and how, and were just as quick to provide it. They could also be depended upon to keep things lively, but not bitch too much when you simply didn’t want to work too hard at it all.

But sometimes, dammit, a man just wanted a little peace. Neither Kate nor Shanssey’s own Nell were good in the peace department. The problem was that to a hammer everything looked like a nail. To a whore, any momentary disinterest in sticking your dick into them made them nervous. Were you getting ready to throw them over? Were you nailing someone else? They couldn’t imagine themselves as companions or “an help meet for him” as the Good Book would say. Their entire identity was wrapped up in their sexual proclivities, and they could not imagine anything taking precedence to that, particularly not from the men they serviced.

The Fourth of July was just over a month away. Holliday celebrated the Fourth like most people celebrate Christmas. He would find the biggest parade available or, better yet, a fiesta. By then he would be desperately lonely. Ironically, Holliday always managed to have himself chained back to Kate on Independence Day. And the cycle of misery would start all over again.

“John?” Holliday’s voice was marginally stronger. Shanssey surveyed him for a moment. Holliday’s breathing was better; the cooler air was easier to inhale, certainly, even for Shanssey. From this angle, Shanssey couldn’t tell if Holliday’s eyes were open. Holliday wasn’t looking at him, that much was clear.

“Yeah, Doc?”

“Can we keep this dry? You know, with Bat?”

“What about? Your bein’ laid out a corpse in the floor all night? Or you gettin’ shed of Kate?” Shanssey couldn’t wait to let Bat know about both developments, frankly.

Holliday squirmed, pulling his head up to look at Shanssey. The look made the barman uncomfortable, like Holliday was reading his mind. Knowing Holliday, he probably had.

Holliday said. “He’ll be glad of Kate bein’ gone. Didn’t want her here, anyhow.” Shanssey noted Holliday’s sentences were getting a bit longer. “I’d appreciate you not runnin’ your head about the other.”

“And since when do you care what someone else thinks of you, Doc?”

That was, Shanssey thought, the sum of Holliday’s charm and his most frustrating quality. Even with his friends, Holliday cared so far and then, just as certainly, he didn’t care at all. It was what made men admire him. Shanssey supposed. And fear him. You just never knew when Holliday would decide that you’d reached the end of his tolerance and you’d slam into the wall Holliday defended against all approach.

Shanssey bit his lip. Holliday was watching him, his eyes intensely blue. They were not blinking.

Holliday said, “Please, John.”

“As ya say, Doc.”

Shanssey felt himself finally released from that gaze. He kicked himself for making such a ready promise, given how close Holliday had come to death only a few days before. But it was the price of Holliday’s friendship: his hostility to mercy. God forbid Holliday suspect that there be a hint of pity for the man bleeding out on the floor.

Still. Holliday hadn’t said anything about not mentioning the situation to that doctor — Fox, wasn’t it? Shanssey could play this side-step game, too. He’d just have to get Fox to agree to simply drop in as a followup visit, not mentioning Shanssey.

Shanssey said, “Bat’s gonna want to know where Kate went.”

Another pause. “Globe, I presume.”

“Tell me true, now. Did you two have an argument?”

Again, there was a delay in the answer. “She packed… when we were at the spring. Got one of the surveyors to take her ta Pueblo ’bout… two yesterday.”

Which, of course, did not answer the question. It did, however, mean that Holliday had been in the floor well before the dusk he had admitted to. “A little before, anyhow,” indeed. Four hours before, an eternity to a man as fragile as Holliday. He could as easily have been dead right now. And if Shanssey understood that, Holliday himself certainly did.

Shanssey repeated his question. “You and Kate have a donnybrook about her leaving? Again?”

Holliday’s eyes were closed again. “She told me she was goin’. I didn’t fuss. She’s been through enough.”

Shanssey wanted to argue with him about that, of course. Kate had left Holliday any number of times and there was no simply watching her go. She’d pitch hell even when Holliday agreed with her. Especially when he agreed with her. Kate had to have an adversary, someone she could blame for every disappointment in her life. Holliday was always just all so handy for that.

“Dammit, Doc. You two had a knock-down drag out and you know it.”

“I told her when I married her I was gonna be hell ta live with. She said she didn’t care. What on earth made me chain the poor woman ta me like that?”

“The poor woman? Jaysus. She took the same vows you did, Doc. Why is it that everyone in your life gets a pass but you?”

Holliday’s voice was distant. “I’m not certain God holds a woman to the same standard He does a man.”

Shanssey cursed Kate under his breath. It did about as much good as cursing Holliday. Kate always left — always and without fail — when Holliday was already at his lowest point.

Holliday was frowning at him. “Ya can’t imagine any of this is easy on her.”

“You just said you warned her–”

“Ya can tell someone, but it doesn’t mean they understand. She watches me dyin’ over and over again, til it’s finally done. This damned disease. I knew. I watched my mother die. My brother. My brother was gone in a month. It took years for my mother. I shouldn’t have asked it of Kate.”

“So she gets a free pass for almost killing you?”

Holliday closed his eyes. “I don’t have the energy to hate all the people everyone seems ta think I should hate, John. I don’t know what else ya tell ya. Let me be for a bit.”

Shanssey considered a minute. He said, “I’ll go over to the Buckhorn and get you something to eat, Doc. And you need to actually eat it. All right?”

“Whatever ya think best, John.” Holliday conceded. His voice was softer, but steady. Shanssey watched as he took a deep breath. He didn’t wince this time, at least.

Shanssey went to get his bedroll from his tent and set it in Holliday’s tent before he headed for the Buckhorn. Holliday was breathing regularly. If he was not asleep, he was doing a damned good imitation. Shanssey wouldn’t argue with him about it. He would, however, have a quick word with Doctor Fox before he went to the Buckhorn. After all these years, he imagined he could play the innocent after the fact just as good as Holliday.


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