Chapter 13: Hell and Gone to Prescott

Parables of the Beautiful Country

by Jack E’Dalgo

Chapter 13: Hell and Gone to Prescott

“He had the calm confidence of a Christian with four aces.” –Mark Twain

Holliday managed to sleep deeply once Masterson and his bunch had left the tent. So deeply sometimes that Kate had checked to make certain he was still breathing.

But that grace extended only for a few hours. He’d been restless the past two hours now. Kate supposed that damnable drug was finally out of his system.

Kate herself could not sleep. She wore her flannel gown, but she tossed in the bed, unable to get comfortable.

With a half-dozen men gathered just outside their living quarters, Kate kept the tent closed aside from two observation flaps open for a cross breeze. Working nights, she and Holliday were used to sleeping in daylight with open windows for ventilation in the warmer months. As a general rule, short of a sick-headache, the light did not disturb them much. The hubbub of everyone else’s day — the rumble of wagons, the shouts of people in the streets, even gunfire — was the background of their existence and was absorbed by the brain, sifted for relevance and released in favor of slumber.

This morning, however, Kate felt she would never sleep again and cursed herself for having ever done so with Holliday so near. She would have so much time to sleep once he was gone. She could have had so much more time with him than this had she not craved the comfort of sleep so much.

Holliday sighed and shifted again, eyes closed, hands relaxed, legs akimbo.

Kate lay close and very still in the crook of Holliday’s arm, her ear against his chest listening to his lungs working to move air. She, therefore, heard the turbulence rising in him before she felt it, a deep rumbling in his core that within seconds had him shivering violently.

Kate sat up, shocked. She’d never known Holliday to have any kind of seizure before, so it simply wasn’t possible.

She spoke his name several times, trying to break what she assumed was some kind of aberrant nightmare. She covered his exposed chest with a blanket and instinctively turned him to his side, but by then Holliday had woke and managed to become completely aware. Meanwhile, Kate’s fear had her voice rising as she realized he was trying to speak but that his teeth were simply chattering too hard with the violence and speed of the convulsions.

She leaned away from him, trying to call out to the men outside the tent. She got out no more than a small yelp before Holliday jerked her abruptly, pulling her hard against him. He placed a broad hand over her mouth and pressed it determinedly. He’d never done such a thing to her before, even in rough play, and it only served to make her panic. He rolled her under him, his hands trembling, but firm, purposely keeping her silent. He laid his lips near her ear and managed to hiss, “No, Kate. Please, no.”

Kate struggled in confusion for only a moment, feeling the vibration of the tremors he was enduring echoing against her own body. She forced herself to relax and nod to him. He held her fast a minute more, searching her eyes for understanding. Finally he removed his hand but he did not release her, keeping her trapped beneath him, his head buried at her neck. She pulled the blanket over them both and rubbed the chilled skin of his back. She waited with him for this attack, whatever it was, to pass.

It did pass, finally. One part of her brain perceived the agonized minutes, another part was determined to deem it an eternity. Holliday’s malady was incessant, but it was not, thankfully, immortal. Once his body had stilled, he waited, his breath hot against Kate’s ear lobe, as though he expected some form of sequel.

After a few moments, he rolled away from her in exhaustion, yanking the blanket off his chest to allow the cooling breeze to dry the sweat that the torment to his body had produced.

Kate remained still beside him a bit longer, giving herself the time to catch her own breath and to realize that the world remained as it had before. The breeze had not died, the sun had not set, she could still hear the quiet voices of men playing cards next to the creek.

Holliday’s eyes were shut and he breathed heavily but he grasped Kate’s arm as she moved to sit up.

“I am not going anywhere, John,” she assured him, her voice soft. “I think we could both use a drink, yes?”

He opened his eyes as she spoke and tried to answer. She placed a finger on his lips, then moved it to kiss him. He slipped his arms around her and kissed her back, grateful to be alive and not alone. After a bit, she got up and made them both a whiskey plush.

Holliday woke a second time around noon. He simply startled awake that time. Nothing overt, just a change in his breathing that Kate had come to recognize through the years. She whispered, “What do you need, John?”

“You. In my arms.”

“I’m right here, sweetheart.”

He shifted again, rolling to his side to wrap her in both arms.

“Now don’t be getting up to anything, John. You can make all this up to me later, okay?”

She sensed his smile there with her head still against his arm, the soft, sparse, golden hair of his chest against her cheek, the scent of him a comfort. His palm scribed a slow circle on her lower back for a few moments and then he slept again.

An hour later he coughed, merely clearing his throat, and felt her tense. Kate hadn’t intended to do it but such were things between them. Kate could lie to him all day, but her body would always betray the truth. She knew he could feel the fear in her and that it grieved him.

“I’m alright, Kitty-Kate,” he whispered. “Please don’t be afraid of me.”

“I’m not afraid of you, John. I’m afraid for you.”

“But I’m not scared, Kitty-Kate,” he said in his softest growl, unable to maintain the whisper without his voice breaking. “There’s nothin’ to be afraid of.”

They’d had the discussion before, in various forms. Holliday had comfort of soul that Kate simply did not possess. She had once attributed it to that optimism intrinsic to most gamblers: that the next hand would bring them that evasive payoff and everything would be pleasant and profitable. She knew that in Holliday’s conviction it was more than that, much more, but she couldn’t grasp it. It eluded her like so many other essential things about him.

His was a child-like faith that said that as long as he did what he could, whatever else happened was the will of God, and that God would work it all out just fine. Kate had no such confidence. If she ever had, it was not in the kind of God who would create such a disease and inflict it on such a man.

“I just want to keep you forever, John.” She managed to keep the tears from her voice. “And I’m afraid God won’t let me.”

“No. He won’t let ya.” Holliday’s voice was soft and far away, half sleeping. He stirred, repositioning his bony hip to relieve pressure. “He won’t let ya. Not in this world. The next one, ya get me forever. I promise.” He let her think about that a moment, maybe giving her time to object. He never coerced her into agreement on this subject. Always merely offered fodder for thought, melodic phrases that seeped in around her consciousness and later flavored her worries and fears.

“I’ll go first,” he said, like he was planning a trip to the San Augustin Festival, “and find us a place. Get the lay of the land. I’ll have a nice stake by then and we’ll do just fine.” She put her hand on his chest to cover the fact that she’d pulled her head away. She didn’t want him to feel her tears, dammit. He laid one long leg across her calf, keeping her near.

He continued, “Just think of me like I’ve gone to Prescott or Tuscon, getting things ready for ya, dahlin’. Then later, if they let me,” he said, “I’ll come git ya myself. Thataway you’ll know not ta be scared. You’ll have a good long time to enjoy yourself here, you’ll find someone ta love ya and treat ya right. Don’t ever let yourself get so low ya let some damned drunk bastard beat on ya, Kate, ya hear me?”

She nodded, not trusting her voice.

“You find yourself a good man and then the next thing you know, you’ll finally be tired and done with it all and there I’ll be. Just like always.”

She buried her face in his chest, tears be damned. She still couldn’t speak.

Holliday pulled her close, wrapping himself around her. “It’ll be alright, Kitty-Kate. By and by, every little thing’s gonna be alright.” They remained still for a very long time, then finally he was asleep again, his body relaxed, exhausted from so much talking. His face was so much younger when he slept with the cares of the day and all its pain forgotten for a while.

Szeretlek, Janos Henrik,” she whispered. He slept on.

Masterson had claimed the afternoon shift for himself, but he couldn’t bring himself to wait that long without hearing a report first on how Holliday had done during the night.

Kate had given a list to the requisitions clerk. The clerk had brought it to Masterson for approval as he had been instructed to do for any items requested by the Hollidays or John Shanssey. The list included four tins of milk, a pint of quinine, a pint of phosphate of lime, gauze, a half-dozen eggs, a dozen tomatillos, five avocados, assorted cheeses, a box of bicarbonate, four apples, and a half pound of horehound candy. The items were unremarkable in themselves but Masterson found the idea of them being needed in any kind of combination intriguing.

According to Jenkins’ midnight report, once they’d cleared the tent, Kate had taken a pair of scissors and cut Holliday’s blood-spattered clothing off his body. She’d then burned them in the little pot-bellied stove along with her own ruined dress. The immolation had taken several hours since Kate hadn’t wanted the stove generating so much heat that Holliday couldn’t breath. She didn’t trust anyone to dispose of the clothes, wary of souvenir hawkers who would seek to profit off the blood of the infamous Doc Holliday.

Meanwhile, she had bathed Holliday in the bed. Holliday had apparently endured all this in relative silence and then watched Kate take her own bath alongside the bed near him. Masterson didn’t want to know how Jenkins knew that particular bit of information so he didn’t ask. Apparently Santa Fe telegrapher Harry Jenkins was a man who took his duty very seriously.

Masterson had made certain to keep an open presence in the camp that morning. Checking for signs of trouble, checking in on the gossip, seeking signs of unease. After the Dodge Gang’s near mutiny on Holliday’s behalf before they’d even boarded the train from Dodge City, it surprised Masterson that trouble and unease were practically non-existent now that Holliday was out of commission.

The faith of gamblers and shootists was a strange thing, he’d decided. Once it had been determined that Holliday was not dead, that he was holding his own and still in fighting spirit– if not form– the community consensus appeared to be that the event in the marshal’s office had never actually happened. Or that it had happened, but that it hadn’t been as bad as it may have looked at the time. Holliday had merely had a bit of an upset, he was going to be vertical again shortly and life would go on as before.

Yarns were already being spun that Doc Holliday had whooped the devil himself, outdrew Old Scratch and laid out a full house against Death’s pitiful pair of treys. No man would denigrate Holliday by even suggesting otherwise. Meanwhile half the Dodge City Gang were gambling the other half for their right to await Kate’s next shout for help.

Even the saloon and mess hall had gotten in on the action, providing coffee and baskets of foodstuffs for Holliday’s guards every few hours. Although no one seemed willing to guess how many days his recovery would take, Holliday’s gambling fraternity were taking bets on the exact time of day Holliday would emerge from his sick bed and rejoin the living. Winning odds were on a quarter after three, for some reason no one seemed able to clarify. Masterson figured if Doc’s recovery took much longer the whores would start having bake sales and cake walks.

Masterson didn’t understand it but he found himself hoping that at some point of his life, he could stir the same level of respect.

Masterson arrived a little before his appointed time of three that afternoon and let Dave Mather know he was being relieved of duty. There were easily a dozen men gathered about assorted folding tables, drinking coffee or whiskey, playing cards and checkers or just BS-ing in general. The overall atmosphere was low-key, but jovial, voices kept low and friendly. A few of the men were so relaxed they’d laid out on the grass for naps.

Mather, seated next to a game of five card stud, nodded his thanks for the relief of duty but made no move to rise, apparently enjoying the proceedings at the table.

Mather was what gamblers called an eye-batter, a man who watched the games but rarely participated. Masterson himself had never known Mather to gamble on anything. He was a small, quiet, orderly man, slender through the shoulders, dark-eyed and mustached like most of the men in camp. He wore two Colts, swung low across both hips, but Masterson had never known him to use them. Dave was known as Mysterious Dave because he spoke so little and was notoriously hard to pin down on any topic.

“Anything I need to know, Dave? Any hubbub in the tent?”

Dave tugged at his forelock, absently. “Naw. Pretty quiet. So quiet in fact, I actually poked my head in the tent a couple times.” There was a pause before he concluded. “Won’t do that no more.”

Dave blushed just enough for Masterson to get the impression he’d not been met at gunpoint, but perhaps had found Kate and Doc getting frisky. Kate was noted for the depth of her sexual appetite and nothing but complete lack of a heartbeat would keep her hands off Holliday for long.

Masterson prompted, “Think the coast is clear by now? I need to check in with Doc.”

“You can take your chances same as me, Bat. Believe me, that woman’ll put some hair on your chest.”

Masterson was spared further suspense when the flap of Holliday’s tent opened at his approach. Kate was holding a bucket of water and he relieved her of it. It smelled of bay rum and shaving soap. She watched him splash the water at the root of a cottonwood several yards away and held the flap open for him until he could grab it for himself. She offered him coffee and served it from her handy pot-bellied stove. She was far from effusive but she was at least as cheerful as she usually presented herself when in Holliday’s presence.

As expected, Holliday himself was still in bed. He was as pale as the sheets he lay on, but he was conscious and even speaking clearly. Holliday was breathing normally, with just the barest bit of cough from time to time. Masterson would not have thought it possible just the day before.

The entire tent smelled of coffee and bay rum. Two of the viewing flaps were tied open to allow the breeze to mollify the heat of the afternoon.

Holliday was thin, and fine boned, but he was not a small man, six-foot or just under that, with broad shoulders and a surprisingly well-developed chest given his illness, all long arms and even longer legs. But he looked lost laying there under a mound of blankets and furs. He wore a quilted dressing gown under all that and still managed to look like he was freezing to death. Masterson realized how rarely he’d seen Holliday without his usual brushed jackets and silk waistcoats. Here he lay, sans armor, slain but unyielding.

Masterson took a chair set on the far side of the tent, next to Holliday’s bed. “Well, you’re looking better,” he lied.

Holliday pushed himself a bit higher against his mound of pillows. “You’re such a crock a shit.”

Masterson grinned. “You getting any sleep?”

“Not much else ta do. Normally if I’m locked down in bed, I use the time ta clean my guns, but…” He shrugged.

Kate brought Holliday a bowl of something. She sounded inordinately excited about it. “Look, Doc. I made you some migas. Now, how long has it been since you had migas, hum?”

Doc said something Masterson couldn’t make out and Kate’s tone was instantly petulant. “You’ve got to get something in your stomach, John. Don’t make me beg or I’ll have that quack back in here so fast it’ll take a bloodhound a week to find him.”

Holliday accepted the bowl but didn’t look overly happy about it. Kate kissed his cheek and he said ‘thank you’ just as meekly as you please. Masterson was uncertain how to deal with meek Holliday. They’d never been formally introduced.

Kate eyed Masterson. If looks could kill… “Don’t be giving him any bad news. And make sure he eats. If you can.” To Holliday she said, “I’m going to slip over to the commissary and see what newspapers have come in so you have something to read and you’ll keep your sweet ass in bed a bit longer. You two men talk. Don’t get too tired, Doc. And please, please eat, szerelmem.”

Holliday nodded. He said, very softly, “Remember that… item we discussed last night. Don’t forget.” She leaned over to kiss him again and said something inaudible in his ear. Holliday nodded again, stirring whatever was in the bowl with a fork. Masterson’s interest was piqued about this ‘item.’ But he didn’t ask.

It had occurred to Masterson finally that he had slipped up when he’d ordered the confiscation of Holliday’s weapons cache last night. He’d revealed he had known their exact location without warrant or precedent. Granted, there weren’t a lot of places to hide those kinds of weapons in a tent, but Masterson had tipped his hand there a bit too openly. It wasn’t like Holliday, ill or not, to be unobservant or too trusting when it came to his weapons. If nothing else, Kate was sharp enough to mention it to Holliday eventually. Masterson had no doubt there could be repercussions at some point.

Kate collected her shawl and reticule and looked back at Holliday. He asked if she would bring him a couple of bottles of Old Overholt. She suggested another activity he could engage in.

Masterson almost choked on his coffee. He’d never hear a woman use quite that depth of profanity before, not even a whore.

Holliday brandished his fork at Kate suggestively. Kate was gone in a flurry of polished cottons and a parting grimace at Masterson. She left the flap of the tent open, allowing in more muted sunlight.

Holliday glanced at Masterson. “Don’t mind Kate,” he scoffed. “She thinks she’s mad, bad and dangerous ta know. Has herself confused with Lord Byron, apparently.” Holliday took a bite of his migas.

“I’ll bring you a bottle of rye later, Doc.”

Holliday swallowed. “Nah, it’s all right. She’ll bring it. She just likes ta give me a hard time.” He leaned back on his pillow and stared at the empty tent door for a long moment. “She’s gonna leave me, ya know,” he said quietly.

“Who? Kate?” Masterson was flummoxed. “Naw, Doc. If you’d seen her when you were… well. Just naw. Never gonna happen.”

“It will. It always does. And I did see. I was there. I couldn’t… respond, but I saw. I’ve terrified the life out of her. She still trembles a little bit when she touches me. There’s a hesitation that wasn’t there before.”

Holliday’s voice had ground to just above a whisper. Masterson felt he was hearing the confessions of the damned. He was no prude but he wasn’t accustomed to such intimate things between a man and his wife being spoken in his presence. And Masterson had no doubt that, despite their unusual arrangement, that was exactly what Holliday regarded Kate as.

“She’s just a little shook up, Doc. She’s not going to leave you.”

“She will,” Holliday insisted. “It’s what she does. She gets scared, or I put her into a panic over somethin’. With my health. With money. With my… mulishness. Once because she found out that I’d killed a man over jealousy for her. She still insists I didn’t see what I know I saw on that one, but the fact that she was so upset over it rather proves my point.” Holliday shrugged away his self-incrimination. “Somethin’ happens and life slides over sideways. She gets scared and she runs. She runs away from me.”

“Maybe…” Masterson couldn’t believe he was sitting here trying to supply marital advice to the Hollidays. Wyatt, who hated Kate, would have told Masterson to shut the hell up and let it ride, that Holliday was better off without her. It was clear Doc was grieving, though. The woman hadn’t even left yet and Holliday was grieving her loss. “Kate maybe just needs a little time to think, Doc. She always comes back to you.”

“Until she doesn’t.”

“Doc, this isn’t like you. You’ve never been a fatalist or…”

“It’s not fatalism. It’s just the truth, Bat. Kate’s never seen me that close to dyin’ from this thing.” Holliday finally glanced over at Masterson, then quickly down at his bowl. “Oh, she’ll wait a bit, just to make sure I’ll be all right for a little while. But she will go. To prove she still can. That it’s all her idea. It’s kinda an agreement between us that ol’ Mr. Death thinks he’s negated now. She has her independence and I have mine. That way we can’t blame one another if it all goes to hell someplace.” Holliday sighed. “Well it went to hell. It went all to hell.”

Masterson had always thought Holliday foolhardy, his temper so ungovernable that he would rage against the world even if the world didn’t know he existed. Fox was right, Holliday was fearless. Except when it came to Kate. When it came to the effect his death would have on her.

“I shouldn’t say this, I know,” Masterson admitted. “Kate’s not good for you. You know that. Surely you know that.”

“Yeah. I know that. I’m good for her, though. Most days, anyway. So there’s that.” Holliday would not look over at him. He sighed. “I don’t know why I fight it. It’s going to happen. Kate will leave me when it is her time to leave me. She’ll do it without realizing it is the last time she walks out, but she’ll do it, and I’ll be on my own again for a bit. Then I’ll die.”

That last sentence, spoken calmly and without inflection, with no sense of regret or misery, brought Masterson’s head up sharply, but Holliday was not done with his thought. “It’ll be alright by that point, though,” Holliday said in the same quiet assurance. “By then, I’ll be ready for it.”

“How can you possibly know all that, Doc?”

Holliday sighed and set the bowl on the bed. “I don’t wanna talk about it anymore.” Masterson recalled then what Kate had said: He laughs, like it’s just the funniest thing. But he won’t tell me anything more, damn him.

Masterson didn’t know what to make of any of it. Holliday was right, though. It had the ring of truth about it, like Holliday had said. Masterson felt the truth of Holliday’s statement in his gut and in his bones. It frightened him just a little that a man could be so certain of something so impossible to know.

Masterson concentrated on the world before his eyes, instead. He focused on the bowl Holliday had set on the bed.

“If you like,” Masterson said conspiratorially, “I can feed that to the dogs and get you something from the Buckhorn.”

“Oh, Kate’s not a bad cook. Even she can’t mess up migas, anyhow.” Holliday insisted. “Just everythin’ still tastes like blood.” He sighed and adjusted his back against the pillows again. “What news, then?”

“Well the newspapers aren’t reporting anything about last night’s killing but oddly there’s an article in the Denver Daily that someone is trying to smear you in the burglary of the Wright and Beverly store in Dodge.”

Holliday scowled. “That bastard Wright runs his mouth like Balaam’s ass. He’s already accused me and Creek of being damned gold-brick men. He accused Wyatt of the same thing. So now I’m supposed ta be crawling in windows and burglin’ damned general stores. I musta been outta canned peaches. Shit.”

“Now, Doc–”

“Meanwhile, I’m not able to reassure that this talk has not been made because I’m not there to plug his ornery ass and there can be no evidence of somethin’ that never happened, anyhow–“

“Pull in your horns, Doc. The article made it clear that there is only one man accusing you and that he himself is the suspect.” That slant pulled Holliday out of his patch of ire. Masterson said, “The same article exonerates you by saying you’re not a common thief. Of course, the reporter tries to prove his point by calling you an infamous shootist and claims you’ve shot up half of Kansas.”

“Well, hell. No wonder I’m so tired.”

They sat in silence for a moment while Holliday eyed the bowl on his bed. “Bat?”

“Yeah, Doc?”

“I’ll give you a twenty dollar gold piece for a swallow of whiskey.”

“Is that allowed?”

“Sure. Gold is legal tender everywhere.”

“You know what I mean, Doc.”

“Just one good swallow ta get the blood out of my mouth, Bat. Hand ta God. I won’t tell and I won’t ask again. You know, that in spite of bein’ a homicidal shootist and whatall, I’m still a man a my word.”

“I know.” Masterson hesitated, “Where did Kate hide the whiskey?”

Holliday smiled like a little boy left alone with a cookie jar. “In the sugar box.”

Masterson retrieved the bottle. It was only a quarter full and he handed it to Holliday without bothering for a glass.

“No charge, Doc.”

Holliday took a deep drink and looked at the bottle longingly as he swallowed, but, true to his word, he refastened the stopper and handed it back to Masterson with his thanks.

“God bless ya, Bat.”

“Don’t you be worrying about God and me, Doc. You need to be concerned about what He’s doing to you.”

“God and I have an understandin’. He does anythin’ He wants ta, and I deal with it.”

“Hell of an arrangement.”

“It is at that. But what am I ta do? God and the Santy Fee’s got better lawyers.” Holliday collected the bowl of migas from the bed and finally took another bite.

Masterson replaced the bottle to spare Holliday the continued temptation and spare himself the grief with Kate. He could have used a drink himself. He resumed his chair. “Better?” he asked just to have something to say.

Holliday, chewing, nodded. Presently he said, “It’ll do.”

Masterson was unaccustomed to sick room visits and remembered being uncomfortable with even friendly visits during his own long recovery from being shot in the pelvis. “So, you know anyone at the Denver Daily who might have a bone to pick with you?”

Holliday grunted. “I played cards with one of their copy editors once. A nice enough fella, I thought at the time, but a degenerate gambler who tried every cheat he could think of. Chintzy bastard owes me seven hundred dollars, damn his beady eyes.” He took another bite of the migas. Masterson’s nervousness about the whiskey began to abate.

“Can I ask a question, Doc?”

“I think my life’s pretty much an open book for you at this point, Bat.” Holliday stirred the migas.

Masterson reassessed his question. “I shouldn’t ask. Never mind.”

“Hell. Now ya got me all curious. I hate that. Go on and ask me whatever ya want.”

Masterson couldn’t help but chuckle. “All right, then. I understand the whiskey for the pain. But what do you get out of the tobacco? That’s got to irritate your lungs, right?” It wasn’t the question he’d wanted to ask, but he’d be damned if he’d expect Holliday to lay himself bare just to satisfy his morbid speculations.

Holliday was saying, “The whiskey helps the pain and the cough. but dulls the brain. Nicotine wakes the brain. Gives me a bit of energy against the constant fatigue. And ya don’t inhale cigars, so.” Holliday shrugged. “That’s the working theory, anyway. The trick is the calibration. How much of this or that and when. Kate says I spend so much time on the calibration that it keeps me outta trouble. Shows what she knows.”

He’d leaned back against his pillow again, tired from talking but Masterson’s chuckle made him smile in spite of his debility. “Ah, hell, Bat. I like tobacco. I like whiskey. I like breathing, too. At this point I need whiskey most and I have to be breathin’ ta get it, I suppose.” He humphed. “It’s all just a wearisome trap, but then what isn’t?” He smiled again. “How about a game of Ace Deuce Jack?”


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