Chapter 14: Nicotine and Cutthroat Dominoes

Parables of the Beautiful Country

by Jack E’Dalgo

Chapter 14: Nicotine and Cutthroat Dominoes

How, unless you drink as I do, could you hope to understand the beauty of an old Indian woman playing dominoes with a chicken?” — Malcolm Lowry

It was the third day and sunlight had finally capped the timbered hill on the far side of the camp when Holliday emerged from his tent. That area of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains shone like the Blood it was named for, all reds and golds. The colors were reflected across the clouds and in the choppy waters of the Arkansas River.

There was a chill in the air, but Holliday wore corduroy and a guernsey sweater under his usual gray frock coat so he was warm enough. He wore no discernible weapons, of course. He was still under arrest and under guard. It was a disquieting development given the number of gunmen running loose all around him, but again, it was something over which Holliday had no control. There was, therefore, no sense worrying over it. A quick, clean death today merely meant that all the worry over a protracted, painful death later had been an epic waste of time.

John Shanssey and Deputy Pickett — Holliday had forgotten his first name if he’d ever actually heard it — were sitting at a folding card table playing dominoes. Nearby, a banked fire warmed a coffee pot. There were a few more tables, a dozen folding chairs of various designs, and about twice as many cups, but only Shanssey and Picket remained from whatever party had taken place during the night.

Shanssey was saying, “Well, I’ll have to disagree with ya there, Pickett. I know you guys love your Colts, but Smith and Wesson has a nice one out now. Plenty of fire-power, and it’s so much faster to reload after firing than the Peacemaker.”

“Well,” Pickett said around his toothpick. “I don’t much care about reload speed. If I’m having to reload after six shots, the bastard I’m gunnin’ for has me dead as a doornail and it don’t matter to me no more.”

Shanssey laughed. “Yeah, I guess so. I’m thinking on getting one, though. Wells Fargo has their road agents carrying them. Theirs are shortened to a five inch barrel and — Hey, Doc! How the hell ya doing?” Shanssey checked his watch and grinned. “Told ya,” he hissed at Pickett. Pickett shook his head and rummaged in his pocket.

“Mornin’,” Holliday answered. “What transpires, gentlemen?”

“You know us, Doc,” Shanssey was beaming bright as a candle on Christmas morning. “We’re just sittin’ around comparing hardware.”

“Well, if you’re expecting me to whip mine out, you gotta helluva long wait.” Holliday found himself a reasonably clean cup and poured coffee in it before pulling himself a chair near the table. Pickett looked up from his coin purse long enough to exchange good mornings with Holliday as he sat down.

Holliday glanced around a moment. “Nice set up ya got here. Apparently I missed the soiree last night.” The fact that no one was explaining the furnishings meant, to Holliday anyway, that it would be ungentlemanly to ask, so he didn’t. The situation here so near his door was a mystery he would not speculate on. It was obviously not a threat to him or to Kate so he could wait on an explanation.

He watched as Pickett handed Shanssey a half dozen gold quarter eagles. He knew a bet being paid when he witnessed it. He did not ask the details, however. Frankly, he knew men so addicted to betting they would wager on fire ants, if they had nothing else to bet on. To each his own. Holliday made his living gambling but he could play cards without the financial layout. He simply enjoyed cards.

Shanssey pocketed the coins with a self-satisfied air. “Have a sweet roll, Doc. Ben Thompson’s man John Chinaman made ’em fresh this morning.”

Holliday eyed the rolls. He smelled peach preserves in the glaze and helped himself. “It is kind of my good friends from Dodge to ensure my jailers are so well fed.” Holliday scanned the layout of the bones across the table as he chewed. He swallowed the bite down with a quaff of coffee and said, “I’ve not seen a decent game of dominoes since I left Texas.”

Pickett chuckled and Holliday instantly labeled him a good sort for his attitude given he’d had no lingering animosity about his recent payout for his wager. “Well, we tried playing whiskey poker,” Pickett admitted, “but the wind kept gusting the cards off the table.”

Holliday said, “There is nothing ignoble about a good game of dominoes, Pickett. And I apologize but can you remind me where I’ve seen you before? I’ve been wonderin’ since we left Dodge.”

“Fort Griffin, Doc.”

“Oh.” Holliday sat up straighter with sudden realization. “Oh. Pickett, I apologize all to hell.”

Pickett shrugged. “There’s no need for that, Doc. We all do what we gotta do sometimes.”

John Shanssey chose to stay out of the discussion, flipping the bones face down. “Wanna play the next set, Doc?”

“Nah. I’ll just watch this time out.”

“So, you wanna learn our tells first.”

“I already know your tells, John. I just wanna know if they’re the same ones you use for poker.”

“You bastard.” Shanssey grinned and shoved the bones closer to Pickett and for a few moments there was just the clacking of the ivory dominoes being shuffled atop the table.

Holliday sipped his coffee contentedly. To his mind there were few sounds more comforting than the clattering of dominoes. He recalled many such games being played by his uncles when he was a child.

He had never been interested in dominoes, preferring cards even then, and he’d viewed dominoes as something the older folk pursued with near comic seriousness. But, through both the sweet and the bitter, the clattering of shuffling bones had been part of the background music of his childhood. Now witnessing a game of dominoes was a rare and unexpected gift.

The men drew their tricks, and dealer fell to Shanssey who promptly reshuffled.

“The list of people I wouldn’t kill for a smoke is abysmally short,” Holliday announced as the clattering ceased again.

Shanssey said, “Lie to me and tell me I’m on the list, Doc.” He held up a panatella.

“You’re the charter member, John,” Holliday agreed.

Shanssey handed over the smoke and fished for a match. “You think Kate’ll tell on us?”

“She’s not on the list,” Holliday promised.

Masterson arrived in time to watch Holliday light the panatella and draw-in appreciatively. Holliday held the puff a bit too long and then struggled to control a spell of coughing.

“Doc, you know you’ll have to give those things up one of these days.”

“Bat, I’ll be givin’ up every little thing by and by.” Holliday took another drag of tobacco and managed to stifle the cough this time.

Masterson grabbed a seat and joined the men at the table, watching the domino players draw their seven bones and shove the remaining dominoes to the boneyard. Shanssey made first down and Pickett swore.

“Just had ta play that damned double-six straight outta the gate, didn’t ya? Well damn ya, give me fifteen off my trey-six.”

Shanssey swore back at him, laying a deuce-six. “Push back on that, then.”

Pickett feigned surprise. “Well, just kill that SOB spinner deader ‘n hell like that, then, why doncha?”

Masterson leaned to Holliday, “I didn’t know dominoes was such an intense pastime.”

Holliday nodded. “How the hell do you think I learned to cuss?”

“Hum. Oh, The Canyon City Gazette had a notice that you had some mail at the post office. I hope you don’t mind, I picked it up for you.” He fished an envelope from his jacket pocket and handed it to Holliday.

“I had mail in Canyon City?” Holliday accepted the envelope and examined the returnees address area.

Just in case he had difficulty reading it, Masterson provided the relevant information: “It’s from Cyrus K Holliday.”

“So it is. I haven’t heard from cousin Cy for ages.” Holliday held the envelope without opening it, concentrating on his smoking for a moment.

“You’re related to Cyrus Holliday, one of the primary directors of the Santa Fe Railroad? You mighta said, Doc.”

Holliday shrugged. “I got lotsa cousins, Bat. Who can keep track anymore?”

Shanssey growled “dammit,” and slapped a domino hard on the table. Pickett chuckled evilly.

“Laugh it up, you sumbitch,” Shanssey demanded. “We both know you got that blank-trey and you intend to hold it ’til it screams.”

Masterson said, “Got a telegram this morning. Foy is getting part of his troupe to stop by and entertain us here in Grape Creek. We’ll be converting the Buckhorn into a music hall for a few hours.” Masterson didn’t mention that he’d specifically requested Foy come and that Foy had rearranged his schedule immediately when he’d heard Holliday had been seriously ill.

“Do I get to go?” Holliday asked with almost childlike pleading.

“We’re all going, Doc, and we can hardly leave you on your own recognizance, being a dastardly wanted fugitive and such.”

Holliday called out, “Hot damn, Kate, we’re going to a vaudeville show.”

Masterson hadn’t seen Kate standing there in the tent door. She put a hand on her hip. “That’s nice, Doc. And I’m just supposed to stand here and pretend I don’t see the smoke rising from that shit stick you’re holding?”

Holliday said, “Don’t be angry, darling. I need the nicotine.” He said it in French, however, not English: “Ne sois pas en colère, chérie. J’ai besoin de nicotine,” shielding the conversation from the men listening.

Masterson hailed from French-speaking Quebec. His family had moved from there when he was still a child so he didn’t speak it well, but he understood it well enough.

Kate was obviously caught off guard by this level of public intimacy from Holliday. Private conversations between couples in public were boorish in the chivalrous world of Holliday’s upbringing. Masterson had heard Kate tell Holliday once that what brought him west might not vouchsafe him back, but as far as Masterson knew, a quick whisper behind his hat was as close as Holliday seemed to ever come to breaking his resolve.

Kate said “Stop blowing smoke up my ass,” in French. Then she said, also in French “I love you, John,” “Je t’aime, John.

“You’re a good woman, Kate,” he said. This time in English.

“You’re just saying that because I have your bail money.” She smiled at his wink in spite of herself. “Well,” she said, “Some of us have things to do.” She turned and left the men to their accustomed bullshit.

Holliday puffed contentedly.

Masterson said, “Your hearing’s tomorrow afternoon, Doc. Santa Fe is running us to Pueblo about sunrise tomorrow morning. Should get us there in time to finish any additional paperwork and such.”

Holliday nodded, “Ya know, I could get used ta all this special train service.”

“Tell good ol’ cousin Cy,” Masterson suggested. “Listen, do you want me to get you a lawyer for the hearing? You’re entitled. I have my own lawyer available in Pueblo. Santa Fe has a couple in town. They’re not criminal law, but, as I said, it is just a hearing.”

“I think I fleeced those two for enough when they came through Dodge, don’t you, Bat?”

Masterson laughed. “That was the Rio’s lawyers. And good on ya, Doc.”

Holliday tossed his smoke into the remains of his coffee. “Damned lawyers. Gotta have one in a criminal trial, then they wanna portray me to a jury as some pansy waist that couldn’t dry his own dick in a windstorm. Well.” He tapped his fingertips on the arm of his chair and propped an ankle over a knee. “I don’t know about you, Bat,” he said, “but the suspense is killin’ me.” He flipped open his pocket knife and opened his letter, finally.

He read in silence, a hint of a smile lifting the edges of his mustache. He handed the letter to Masterson. “Cousin Cy is sendin’ us some dynamite to blow up above Twenty Mile.”

Masterson took the paper. “Blow up? Blow up what? Whose hair-brained idea is that?”

Holliday shot him a look. “Empty track, Bat. Just ta slow the Rio down a bit. Kinda mess up the rails like. Or whatever the hell else we want ta. We’re just not allowed to damage the gorge. Express orders.”

“I see that,” Masterson looked up from the paper. “And he suggested it. On a switchback, no less. Damn. You Hollidays have a bit of a militant streak.”

“He’s a Yankee. But he’s family so we try not ta hold it against him.”

“Uh huh. And what then keeps the Rio from blasting us to hell and gone?”

“We’re just talking about blasting some track, Bat. If you’re worried about retaliation in kind, we can do a preemptive strike on their black powder stores, maybe steal their dynamite.”

Masterson thought a moment. “That almost sounds reasonable, Doc.”

“Bat. If I am the voice of reason in your situation, you are pretty much screwed, doncha think?”

Later, Pickett insisted on accompanying Masterson to the court hearing in Pueblo.

Masterson didn’t disagree. “You think I’m too lenient with Doc, doncha, Pickett?”

Pickett thought that over. “Ya dress nice, Bat. Ya walk right, ya got a spiffy hat, and everybody likes ya. You’re civilized. Doc dresses nice, too, and he knows them big words and how to string ’em together. He might be genteel-i-fied but you and I both know that man ain’t civilized. Hell, he ain’t even housebroke.”

Masterson had to chuckle at that. But Pickett wasn’t finished

Pickett picked at a thumbnail, collecting more of his thoughts. He said, “I was lawin’ in Fort Griffin around, I dunno, ‘seventy-six maybe. Well, there’s no sense goin’ in ta all that. You probably heard when Doc knifed that sumbitch Bailey. What ya may not know was I was there when that all happened. I was assigned to hold Doc in custody in his room at the Planter’s Hotel. They didn’t have no jail then.”

“You mean that knifing actually happened? I’d always half thought it was one of those tall tales whispered about to keep the smart-asses off Doc’s ass–“

“Naw. It happened, alright. And it was fearsome. I think even Doc was shook by the amount of damage he’d done. But Doc turned his-self in just like he was s’posed ta. Let the law do it’s business and all that. But the mob decided they wasn’t gonna be waitin’ on no trial. They got themselves all liquored up and came for the both of us. Half of Fort Griffin was determined to rope Doc into that hempen cravat they strung up for him. They’da not thought twice about gunnin’ me down ta get to him, neither.”

Pickett stretched his own neck and flexed his shoulders, working a kink between his shoulder blades. “So. There’s his lynchin’ party screamin’ in the street and there’s me and Doc, in his room, and Doc’s just chattin’ all easy and calm-like, then damn if he don’t knock me in the head mid-sentence and jump outta that second story winda. Hit me with my own pistol, is what gets me.” Pickett rubbed his head near the base of his skull like he could still feel the lump.

Masterson grunted something sympathetic.

Pickett continued. “Doc rode his own horse outta town, so they couldn’t get him for horse theft. Smart play, that. Anyhow, I was so addled, the sheriff wouldn’t let me be part of the posse. Probably a good thing since half of ’em didn’t ride back in on their own. Shit, even some of the horses they rode against him didn’t make it back.”

“Doc do all that?”

“T’weren’t no one else ridin’ with him. I had a theory about how his horse managed to be saddled and waitin’ out back of the hotel like that, but once Doc was gone, folks was too busy havin’ funerals to pay me no never-mind. Kate took a stage to Denver the morning what was left of the posse returned. Real quiet like. And we both know that woman don’t do quiet often.”

“Well, I appreciate you coming to Pueblo with us, then. You wanna speak at Doc’s hearing?”

“Nah. I got nothin’ to say they’d wanna hear, far as I know.”

District Judge Moses Hallett sat in his elevated chair and looked toward Masterson and his charge. Hallett was a nice-looking man in his mid-forties, very distinguished with a full beard and mustache trimmed like the Prince of Wales. He had a deep voice, and deeply set intelligent eyes. He blinked at Holliday a moment, glanced at Masterson and consulted his paperwork.

Holliday was dressed in Sunday best, a gray broadcloth morning suit and pale green shirt. He wore no stickpin in his cravat, nothing so flashy, just his watch and chain, a pearl collar stud and cuff links of heavy Mexican silver. He was as pale as ever. His tailor needed to take his jacket in a few more inches. His breathing still required too much effort, and he tired too easily. Or perhaps Masterson was just noticing it all more than he used to.

When Masterson had gone to Holliday’s tent to collect him for the train this morning, he’d found Holliday freshly shaved, dressed, and as sociable as a cup of coffee can make a man before dawn. Masterson had returned Holliday’s hat; he’d had it since the night of Doc’s arrest and the laundry had finally gotten the blood cleaned off it.

Masterson had asked Holliday how he’d slept and was given a non-committal shrug. Which got Holliday a scowl from Kate, but she didn’t contradict him. Masterson had already gotten two reports that Doc had hacked all night like he was coughing up another lung.

Kate had insisted on putting Doc’s watch and chain on for him, despite Holliday’s protests. She had fussed with it, fumbling and finding every excuse to tug at Holliday’s waistcoat and his collar before she’d finally gotten the chain laced through the waistcoat’s buttonhole just the way she liked it. She was whispering God knows what all to Holliday while all this was going on, and Masterson realized it was just a ploy to gain a few more minutes between them.

Before Masterson could protest about the time, Kate had suddenly grabbed Holliday and held him with a little sob she only just managed to strangle. Holliday held her and whispered in her ear. They remained like that as Masterson rose to wait outside to give them some privacy. But by then, Kate had calmed enough to release Holliday with a peck on the cheek.

“You boys be good,” she’d admonished like a mother sending her brood off to school.

Now in court, Holliday sat up straight and he was alert and cordial. His eyes were clear and that vivid blue that indicated contentment. He kept his hands folded in prayerful-fashion, fingers interlaced loosely atop the table. He’d trimmed his mustache and had another haircut, a much better job than before. He looked every inch the respectable professional man he had once trained to be. Masterson wondered what Holliday might have accomplished in this world had he simply remained healthy. He wondered how often Holliday might have wondered that himself.

Judge Hallett finally glanced up from his paperwork. “Good morning, Doctor Holliday, we meet again,” he said drily. Masterson’s heart sank. Holliday remained silent for a change. “How is your lovely wife, Doctor?” Hallett prompted.

“She is well, thank ya, sir,” Holliday assured him.

The judge again perused the file before him as he spoke. “Mrs. Holliday was gracious enough to share her recipe for currant jam with my own dear missus recently. They correspond with some measure of regularity, I am told.”

Holliday managed to pale significantly.

“Wonderful jam it is, too,” the judge marveled. “Be sure to thank her for us.”

Holliday looked amazed and mumbled something of an assurance. He glanced at Masterson like this was all his fault.

Hallett looked up from his file again. “Marshal Masterson, this is deplorable.”

Masterson responded with a “yes, sir” out of sheer panic then waited to be told what he’d just agreed with.

Hallett continued. “Do you mean to tell me that you allow gambling to be conducted in the same facilities where spirituous liquors are being served?”

“Ah, we are in the process of setting up another accommodation for that, your honor,” he lied.

“I should hope so. Next thing I know you’ll be allowing the demimondaine into the bar to entice every young man who might simply be thirsty.”

“Perish the thought, sir.”

“There needs to be a clear demarcation of such activity.” Hallett looked over his glasses at the Marshal. “I read here that witnesses say the victim had previously impugned the honor of Doctor Holliday and his good wife. It is my experience that these unfortunate incidents are the direct result of the confusion born of mixing vices. Alcohol, tobacco, sport such as women and gambling. Men, especially young men, may become overwhelmed by the presence of so many diversions available in one location. They lose all sense of propriety and tragedies occur which might have been so easily avoided. Do you not agree?”

“Oh, I do agree, sir. Absolutely.” Masterson nodded vehemently. How in hell Holliday’s hearing had became Masterson’s come-uppance, he had no idea.

Hallett continued. “As far as bringing charges against our good doctor, I agree that there is no precedent. It is a pity a decent professional man such as Doctor Holliday must find himself fending off ruffians merely to enjoy an evening’s entertainment. Doctor Holliday, you have the court’s apology for any inconvenience this may have caused you. Case dismissed.” Hallett lightly tapped his gavel against its sound block.

Holliday stood with the court with the rising of the judge. “Thank ya, your honor,” he said sincerely.

“It is a pleasure, Doctor. Please give my sincere regards to your wife.”

“I will, thank ya, sir.”

Holliday and Masterson stepped from the courthouse, with Pickett close on their heels from his spot at the back of the courtroom. Pueblo was almost invisible in the glare of sunlight. Before them the entire Front Range rose ten thousand feet above the Great Plains, eternal as day and night, seeming to float on the gleam.

Pueblo was warmer than Canyon City, and the wind was more of a calm breeze. A faint scent of rain was in the air. Blankets were scattered on the courthouse lawn and clumps of witnesses, awaiting their turns to testify in various cases, played marbles, checkers and dominoes beneath the shade of honeylocust, hackberry and hawthorn trees, all in full leaf. A cannon, a cavalry twelve-pounder, Masterson estimated, held pride of place in the middle of the lawn next to the flag pole. The city fathers had even provided three iron cannon balls stacked beside it’s gun carriage as though ready for action in defense of the Republic. How thoughtful.

Masterson donned his bowler, repositioned it a moment until it felt right. He fished Holliday’s .38 out of his pocket and handed it to him. Now that he was a free citizen again, it wouldn’t do for Holliday to get himself shot while in town. Holliday’s lady wife would have Masterson roasting on a spit and Hallett would probably say it served him right. Holliday, his own hat settled, checked the weapon for shells.

While Holliday handled the Colt, Masterson got a better view of those silver cuff links he was wearing. They were finely engraved with the image of a rampant tiger such as advertised every saloon with a faro game. Considering the number of times Holliday had been arrested for having a faro table in his possession, the fact that he’d worn it’s image to court — even granted that it would be invisible to the judge — was a personal act of rebellion that typified Holliday and left Masterson shaking his head. Holliday noted Masterson’s appraisal of his jewelry and grinned.

“Well,” Holliday said and slipped the weapon into his waistband. Masterson had reloaded it just like Holliday liked it.

Masterson couldn’t help himself but he kept his voice low while trying to mimic Holliday’s drawl. “Yes, sir, your honor, sir. No, sir, your honor, sir. Why, thank ya kindly, sir. Kiss my ass, sir.”

“Did I actually say that last bit out loud?”

“No, Doc. Your training as a gentleman kicks in at the damnedest times.”

“My mother always said good breedin’ would bring me through most things in my life.”

Masterson thought of a few things he’d like to say about Holliday’s mother and what she’d bred but thought better of it. The man was heeled now. And sober, to boot. Besides, Judge Hallett would no doubt decree Masterson’s death a justifiable homicide.

“Did McDawes actually say something about Kate, Doc? You didn’t mention that.”

“Hell, if I remember. I was drunk, Bat.”

“I asked you that night, Doc. You told me you weren’t tight.”

“I wasn’t tight. I was shit-faced drunk. McDawes just insisted on drawin’ on me. If I hadn’t been so inebriated, I’da just winged him. He wasn’t worth all the trouble he’s been ta kill him. Poor bastard.”

Holliday looked away again, his eyes pale beneath his hat. Virgil always said Holliday was the most cold-blooded man he’d ever met. Despite Holliday’s bravado, Masterson was starting to have his doubts.

Holliday began fishing in his coat pocket. He said, “Hell, if I have ta take a fatal exception to everyone who has a problem with Kate, I’d have ta start with self-slaughter. Then my poor momma would crawl outta her grave and murder me herself.”

He offered Masterson and Pickett a smoke and the three of them busied themselves with lighting and puffing for a few minutes. Fresh air was for neophytes and nonprofessionals.

Finally Masterson moaned, “Doc, do you know how much money you just cost me? Now I have to set up more damned tents for the gambling.”

“I know. It’s wonderful. Ain’t that right, Pickett?”

Masterson sputtered, “Wonderful?!”

Holliday said sweetly, “I get my very own gamblin’ house right out in the middle of nowhere. And Pickett here is gonna be in charge of the domino concession.”

Pickett smirked.

“I should kick you both over the gorge,” Masterson growled. “Meanwhile Kate gave me your bail money, Doc. You’re treating me and Pickett to lunch.”

“As long as a whiskey or two is on the menu, I’m your huckleberry.”

Masterson refused to take them in for a standing lunch at one of the four saloons they passed on the way to a decent restaurant. He could get bar food in camp, dammit. He wanted a steak and all the trimmings, especially since Holliday was paying. Pickett ordered food like a man who didn’t expect to ever eat again. Holliday behaved himself, amiable and relaxed, eating a decent-sized lunch for a change, saddle of veal with an iced mint julep. He never even mentioned a whiskey.

Masterson flattered himself that he could now tell the difference between liquored Holliday, and laudanumed-and-liquored Holliday. Liquored Holliday was routinely jovial, then increasingly more quiet, and excused himself from public view when he became unsteady. Laudanum had Holliday slurring, morose, and damned near under the table way too quickly. He’d not used laudanum this morning, at least, despite the hard night of heavy coughing.

Holliday even cast a few flirtatious glances at a quartet of ladies sitting alone a few tables over. They were sedate, well-dressed and coiffured, eyeing the men demurely over their menus. They all smiled back at Holliday and warbled behind their menus to one another when he looked away and back to his own table. He periodically glanced over, just long enough to not leer, but certainly long enough to reconvene the warbling. The red-head went so far as to part her lips in a discreet smile before dipping her face behind her napkin, the feathers of her hat trembling.

“You’re shameless, Doc.” Masterson scolded, keeping his voice low.

“Bat, you have no idea.”

Pickett whispered. “That’s probably more excitement than those ol’ girls have had all week.”

“Don’t bet on it,” Doc advised softly. “I’ve known at least one of the dainty little darlings. Biblically. She may be a miss but she ain’t missed much, I promise ya.”

Masterson almost snorted his bourbon up his nose.


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