Chapter 16: Payroll, Powder and Pillage

Parables of the Beautiful Country

by Jack E’Dalgo

Chapter 16: Payroll, Powder and Pillage

“This thing of being a hero, about the main thing to it is to know when to die. Prolonged life has ruined more men than it ever made.” — Will Rogers.

Before Masterson left camp, he sent a telegraph to the sheriff in Canyon City for the immediate arrest of Billy Leonard with orders to hold him and anyone with him in jail until Masterson came for them. If Leonard was up to something, that should keep him safely clear of committing the actual crime, and, if Holliday were with him, it would keep Holliday where Masterson could find him.

The Santa Fe’s payroll operation was run completely on the rails, a kind of permanent special, with its own highly-vetted crews, payroll master and clerks, heavily armed guards, armored cars and engines. It had been the object of numerous attempted robberies with horrific results for the would-be thieves. It wasn’t due to stop in Canyon City on this run. It had spent the night in Pueblo instead and would make a direct run into the Grape Creek camp by two this afternoon then straight on to Colorado Springs.

Its route wouldn’t be common knowledge for a bit, yet. Regardless, the payroll run was a death trap for anyone stupid enough to make a play for it. , A small army manned gun ports inside and patrolling with the brakemen up top on the roofs of the cars. Any man approaching would be shot on sight, no questions asked. When it came to its payroll, the Santa Fe did not play around. Masterson couldn’t imagine Holliday would be so foolish as to rob a train, let alone the Santa Fe payroll train, but here Masterson was with Pickett, riding hell for leather on mountain ponies.

They weren’t even out of sight of the camp, however, before they found Holliday and John Shanssey. Shanssey was driving a two-horse trap, on its way back toward camp. Turkey Creek Jack Johnson had the shotgun guard seat. Holliday, looking particularly bright-eyed this morning, Masterson noted, occupied the entirety of the bench seat behind Shanssey and Creek, boots propped on the bench, one arm stretched along the back of the bench, enjoying the scenery. He sat up, dropping his feet to the floorboards at the sight of the approaching horses. Shanssey pulled up his rig as Masterson and Pickett came alongside. All three men in the rig were bundled against the chill morning air, weapons no doubt hidden behind their dark coats.

“Where are ya off ta, lookin’ so severe, Bat? Need some help?” Holliday asked before Shanssey could get a word in. The chill in the air was misting their breath to fog.

“What makes you boys think we need help?” Masterson asked. “We could just be out for a ride, like you bunch of loafers.”

Shanssey grunted doubtfully and looped the buggy’s leads around the rig’s brake pole.

Creek said, “We saw ya whippin’ them ponies into a lather and figured ya might be headin’ to a problem somewheres.” Masterson knew Creek was a lawyer, as well-educated in his field as Holliday was in his. The laid-back mode of address was how he preferred to present himself to the world outside the courtroom. The illusion of ignorance had blind-sided any number of prosecuting attorneys. Creek continued, “We been lazin’ around pretty bored mosta the night, might be nice ta see some action-like.”

“How ’bout you, Doc?” Masterson moved his pony a couple of steps toward the trap’s rear seat. “You well enough to see some action?”

Holliday was watching him closely, but then Holliday was a quick reader when it came to most people and incidents. It was the gambler in him. “I’m feelin’ fine, Bat. Where we headed?”

“We’re headed back to camp,” Masterson said easily. “I got business in town, but it can wait now. Creek? You wanna to tell me where you lot have been?”

Johnson sat skewed in the front bench and looked up from packing his pipe. “What’s that spot called, agin, Doc? Hell’s spring?

“Bell’s spring,” Doc corrected, still wary, but willing to play out the hand as it was being dealt.

Creek grunted. “Hot as some patches in that pond, they shoulda called it Hell’s spring. Ya shoulda been there, Bat, soakin’ up the waters, swappin’ lies and airin’ out the lungs. We had us a hog-killin’ time.”

Holliday laughed. It was good to see, and Masterson felt the tension in his gut start to relent. Despite this brusque interruption of his morning, Holliday was probably more relaxed than Masterson had seen him in months.

Masterson also noted Pickett had put his pony on a tour around the little trap and was staring at a worn and faded, not to mention very damp, union suit and a pair of boxing breeches hanging over the rig’s tail board, apparently intended to dry in the sun. Several damp towels hung similarly on the off-side top board of the wagon box.

Masterson had been to a hot spring once or twice. Each man would have had his area solidly staked out with a good distance between them if possible. He had no doubt Creek had worn the union suit. Shanssey, the former bare-knuckle middleweight, would have worn the boxing breeches. Holliday had no doubt been as naked as the day he was born.

Southerners. Can’t take them anywhere.

“Where’s Bill Leonard?” Masterson demanded. That raised the eyebrows of everyone in the wagon.

“Canyon City, least that’s where he said he was goin’,” Shanssey answered. Shanssey, like Creek, sat twisted in his seat in order to see both Masterson and Holliday. Everyone was apparently comfortable with Pickett at their backs. Pickett didn’t seem to have taken any offense at that.

“Why?” Masterson insisted, “What’s Bill need in Canyon City?”

Shanssey shook his head. “I dunno. You know, Doc?”

Doc was still watching Masterson and keeping Pickett in his peripheral vision. He sat relaxed but ready, but Masterson assigned no particular motive to Holliday’s hyper awareness. He’d known Holliday long enough to know that this was simply Holliday being Holliday. He’d have shown the same caution and alertness at a barber’s or while getting his boots shined.

Holliday said, “Bill was all hot and bothered ta get ta Canyon City.” He held up one hand in caution, unwilling to rat out a friend. “Now I can’t swear he actually went to Canyon City. He just kept harpin’ on it so I assume that’s where he went.” He frowned at Masterson’s brooding silence. “What’s wrong, Bat? Has somethin’ happened ta him?”

“Anybody else want to chime in here?” Masterson persevered. He kept his eye firmly on Holliday, however. Holliday had slid behind his poker face. He looked away from Masterson long enough to get a quick full-on view of Pickett. Without so much as a blink, Pickett moved his pony back toward the front of the buggy, placing Creek between Holliday and himself.

Shanssey noted the change of circumstances and offered, “When Leonard left, he left mad because he couldn’t get Doc to even talk to him in private. Leonard was about half-shot on something. Cocaine, if I know him, and I do.” He paused as Holliday swore low and fierce. “Now, don’t go lookin’ blue at me, Doc. I know he’s your pal, but you know he’s a four-flusher and this need he has to drag you down with him just pisses me off.”

Holliday’s eyes were darkening and Shanssey tried a different tack. “Besides, Bill was wasted. He may need some help. Like you said, something might have happened to him.” Shanssey turned back to Masterson. “Bill insisted on riding out to the spring on his own horse even though we’d plenty of room in the rig. I don’t think he’d intended on staying to begin with.”

Creek piped in, “Yep. And he rode out hot as a whorehouse on nickel night.” Creek put his pipe in his mouth and puffed, eyes alert, measuring Masterson, and raising an eyebrow at Holliday who was tensed and stewing in the back seat. Creek seemed to be content to ignore Pickett, for now, at least. Creek, like Holliday, was a mankiller in his own right. Masterson knew of three men he’d sent to their Maker and that didn’t include those he’d lawfully executed as Newton’s town marshal back in the day.

Masterson focused back on Holliday. “And you weren’t the least bit curious, Doc?”

Holliday sat up a bit straighter and tugged some of the wrinkles from his coat. “Sure. But.” He hesitated, constitutionally unable to sell out another man. Finally, he admitted, “Bill wanted me to go with him, but he wouldn’t say what his business was, leastwise not in front of John and Creek, so I told him to go ta hell.”

He wouldn’t look Masterson in the eye, but Masterson was willing to bet it was because he was ashamed of himself for having surrendered so much of Bill’s business, not because he feared anything from Masterson’s quarter. Masterson heard Wyatt’s voice in the words of that last telegram “if Doc thinks you’re cornering him, he will cut your throat.” But he just couldn’t help himself.

Masterson needled Holliday just a bit harder, just to see if he could make him squirm. “And you have no idea why he was so dead set on getting to Canyon City?” He felt the combined disapproval of Creek and Shanssey, but they said nothing. Here in the West, every man fought his own battles. At least until someone pulled a lead chucker. Then you chose sides and got to work.

“Goddammit,” Holliday hissed. He unbuttoned his peacoat and his Colt caught sunlight. Pickett eased his stud back from the wagon and dropped one hand next to the Smith and Wesson on his hip.

Holliday pulled out a cigar and his match safe. He didn’t acknowledge Pickett although he was certainly aware of him and well aware he was playing his cards fast and loose. Holliday was not adverse to putting himself between a bullet and a target when his temper was up.

Holliday allowed them all to watch him light his smoke. It was a measure of his pique that he pointedly did not offer his cigar case to anyone else, the veneer of southern hospitality be damned. Masterson had to smile in spite of himself. Holliday glowered at him for it.

Holliday got the cigar lit to his satisfaction and puffed a moment. He let out a bit more profanity with his smoke, but refused to focus on anyone specific, just tossing it out into the morning air. Finally he said. “I don’t know what Bill was on about. And I don’t care.” He glanced at Shanssey, “I got enough people pushin’ me and tryin’ ta tell me what ta do. I’ve had a gutful of it.” Creek tossed his own spent match at Holliday. A warning? Masterson wondered.

Creek gave out not a clue, but Holliday nodded at him, slid back against the backrest of his bench and crossed his legs. He dropped one arm across his knee and the other along the back of the bench. It all translated to a clear standing down of hostilities, but Masterson noted that no one but Holliday was relaxing. Holliday knew how to play a room, he thought.

Holliday puffed another moment. “Since we’re evidently to be kept in the dark, I will only go on record to say we had just as fine a time with or without Bill, anyhow.”

Creek shook his head. “How’n hell would you know, Doc? Ya feel asleep in the spring and John and I had to take turns keepin’ an eye out that ya didn’t slide over and drown.”

“Like hell,” Holliday muttered. Shanssey chuckled and Holliday gave him another severe look before turning to Masterson. “What did Bill do, Bat? From the look of ya, I assume you were comin’ for blood or to make an arrest. Me or Bill? Both?”

Holliday knew Leonard well enough to assume correctly, at least. Masterson said, “As far as I know nothing’s happened to Bill Leonard, Doc, and he hasn’t done anything I’m aware of. Yet. I’d just as soon keep it that way. You’re looking better, anyway. Maybe I’ll take a dip in that spring sometime, myself. Let’s head back to camp and I’ll get you updated over breakfast.”

The Santa Fe payroll train was on time and was as welcome a sight to the workmen as Christmas morning to a child. Masterson sat at the open door of his little office and surveyed all the activity. It was a fine afternoon for it, the sun still high in a nearly cloudless sky and a nice dry breeze typical of an arctic desert, thick with the odor of pine and juniper.

The train, although short, was impressive. It was heavily armored and buffered fore, aft, and sides. The engine was one of the largest of the line, a 4-6-0 capable of almost eighty miles per hour, as Matheson recalled reading somewhere. Such power was necessary, no doubt, to pull the weight of all that armor-plating.

The engine pulled only four cars including two cars serving as offices, and a Pullman sleeper. Attached to the rear was not a caboose, but a second coal car and another 4-6-0 engine, facing in reverse, which meant the train never needed to be turned. Each car was equally well-armored. There were gun ports on every car. The ports were open; now and again Masterson caught the glint of a rifle barrel sighting through the slots. The fourth car was rather nondescript and Masterson could only guess its use. As the train neared its stop, a squadron of armed guards detrained from that fourth car and fanned out to provide cover for both sides of the train.

That explained that, Masterson thought.

Less than a quarter hour after its arrival, one of the office cars opened a metal panel to reveal a window that ran about head-height from the ground. A clerk sat at the window surrounded by shelves of paperwork. Guards turned to provide extra security from anyone approaching the window.

At the train’s arrival, the camp’s workmen had begun lining up, apparently in some kind of pre-assigned order. It seemed everyone knew his place in line. When called up, one at a time, a man went to the window, received an envelope and signed a ledger. Each transaction took a mere moment. The process was repeated for the better part of three hours.

Masterson estimated that easily fifty thousand dollars or more was being fed out of that window. He knew the gambling houses, the brothels and the saloons would be full tonight. Normally, highwaymen would pay the gamblers in mining and railroad camps to keep the highwaymen apprised of when payrolls or money transfers were to be found along the roads. Tonight the gamblers and highwaymen were already in-situ, awaiting their chance at the cash. Courtesy of Bat Masterson.

Masterson imagined Holliday was resting up for the gaming tables tonight, then immediately chastised himself. Masterson himself already had dibs on his favorite poker table for the evening and here he was hypocritically denigrating a man who didn’t run around with two badges claiming to be anything other but an open and forthright gambler. Not for the first time, Masterson realized he had a decision to make. Lawing or gambling.

The calm flow of money was interrupted suddenly by a man screaming into the face of the clerk at the window. As best as Masterson could understand from the man’s profanity and thick brogue, he had been fired by the Santa Fe and was expecting to have been paid for the full month, rather than the few weeks he’d actually worked. He was threatening the little man behind the window with physical harm and swearing profusely.

Out of habit, Masterson rose from his spot to intervene, but the Santa Fe guards had already moved in. One of the guards struck the man on the head with what looked like a blackjack and the now unconscious offender was promptly set aside, well away from the train cars.

The men in line remained patiently in line, still coming forward as they were called, receiving their cash at a fair clip. The unconscious man was tended by his fellows who had already received their pay, and someone had the foresight to summon Doctor Fox.

Masterson reminded himself that there was much about the life of this camp that he did not control and could even get himself shot for interfering in. He resumed his chair.

Meanwhile, the reverse-facing engine was being primed for it’s time to run. Coal was being shoveled and steam was beginning to drift in thin streamers from the diamond stack.

The final group of men called up were the Santa Fe’s officers, surveyors, engineers and supervisors. Masterson thought it most democratic that they had made the higher-ups wait for last. One man received his envelope and a small package. He seemed surprised by the package but the clerk gave him a short explanation.

Masterson watched it like a pantomime, normal voices not carrying at this distance. The employee nodded at the clerk, moving out with his treasure across the camp toward Grape Creek. Masterson, curiosity piqued, thought to follow the man, but reminded himself that curiosity was the name of the shotgun that killed the cat. He remained in his chair.

When the last man was served, the window was closed, and it’s protective steel panel locked back into position. The brakemen made their final inspection of the wheels and axles then resumed their places atop the train followed by several guards.

The whistle sounded twice, but the remaining guards did not resume their positions on board until the train began to pull away. They grabbed the hand grips with one hand, the other hand still holding a carbine at the ready. The powerful second engine, fully stoked, tugged its burden up the rails and headed out of camp toward Colorado Springs.

Once the payroll train was well on its way, Masterson telegraphed the all clear for Billy Leonard’s release from the Canyon City jail. It would be the last telegraph he’d be able to send from camp for several days. That evening Denver & the Rio Grande cut the telegraph lines from Grape Creek. Both sides, it would appear, were still determined to claim victory.

That suited Masterson just fine.

Mysterious Dave Mather and John Jacob Webb reported to Masterson several hours later. They put in an impressive appearance, leading forty or fifty Dodge City men, all riding into camp in buckskins, shirtless, with war paint smeared on their faces and chests and on their saddle-less ponies.

At first glance they might resemble Indians to a greenhorn, but to Masterson they looked like the intrepid Beige-foot tribe of comic legend. He had to laugh. Especially at the sight of the usually dapper Luke Short who had so much paint smeared on his chest he looked like he was wearing a fuzzy plaid shirt.

Masterson greeted Mathers, “How, O great chief Run Amok.”

Mathers grinned and called him Paleface.

Masterson said, “This is typical. I ask you to fetch some blasting powder and you lot are off playing Cavalry and Indians.”

Webb dismounted. “Oh, the powder and dynamite got here about a half hour ago. We was following along like to make sure the Rio didn’t try ta steal it back. Frank Cady and Slap Jack Bill rode it in on that velosipedal thing like we told ya ’bout this mornin’. They’s lockin’ it up with our camp’s munitions. Me and Chief Full of Bull over there were just headin’ up the diversionary task force, ya might say.” Masterson could tell Webb was proud of his new vocabulary term.

Mathers shouted to the cheers of the men, “Ya shoulda seen the Rio run when we came whoopin’ down the canyon at ’em!”

In the spirit of reenactment, the rest of their tribe let out some war whoops and trotted their ponies to the stables.

John Shanssey had taken part in what the Dodge City bunch were calling the Spike Buck Indian massacre. He sneaked back to his tent late in the afternoon, determined Holliday would not see him in his buckskins and war paint. It would just make it harder for Holliday to pretend he was fine with not being included. Holliday was well aware of the state of his own health, but the man had sand. Tell Holliday he couldn’t do something and he’d damn near kill himself to prove you wrong. It was just the principle. Holliday was all about that damnable principle.

The Hollidays’ tent was quiet as Shanssey approached his own tent. No hint of light shone from the chinks in their tent flaps. The flap of the observation window that faced his tent was closed. Shanssey sighed with relief and slid inside his own tent to get the warpaint off and catch a few hours sleep before heading out for the saloon. The Hollidays had probably decided to get to the gambling tents early and beat out the competition. More power to them, Shanssey decided. Doc could use a break.


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