Chapter 12: Visual Acuity

Parables of the Beautiful Country

by Jack E’Dalgo

Chapter 12: Visual Acuity

“You may hear of a killing if everything works right… but it may be some time yet.” — Texas Ranger Ira Aten to Capt. L. P. Sieker in 1888

Holliday did not die. Not yet, at any rate. Fox could not account for it. Masterson certainly could not.

The ice had done its job once Fox had cleared most of the blood pooled in Holliday’s right lung. It had taken another trip or two to the ice house, but the hemorrhaging had slowed from its initial flood and finally clotted entirely.

Under Fox’s watchful eye, Holliday had gradually begun breathing almost normally. He’d even spoken a few words to Kate before giving up the effort as too exhausting.

Kate refused to get off the desk. Once the ice was deemed unnecessary, she had lain beside Holliday, her small frame fitting with surprising ease on the desk beside Holliday’s too thin form. Cautious of putting any further pressure on his chest, she laid one arm across his narrow waist, staring into nothing, listening to Holliday breathe.

Doc and Kate were finally delivered to their tent just before daybreak. The camp was quiet and curious eyes had grown heavy and dispersed elsewhere. Masterson had commandeered a pony cart just large enough to accommodate Holliday and Kate. Kate sat beside him, holding him upright.

Once at his tent, Holliday point blank refused to be carried to bed, committed to the illusion of self-reliance, but it took Pickett and Shanssey both to get him there from the cart. Kate had flown into the tent, fluffing and rearranging pillows and coverlets. Fox supervised the proceedings before taking a survey of the tent and the Hollidays’ supplies.

Kate dealt with Fox’s questions and instructions. She set about the tent in a frenzy, searching boxes and luggage, pulling out an odd assortment of cloths and clothes, a couple of fair-sized bowls and cans of this and that. Shanssey stoked the fire, Jenkins grabbed a bucket and set off for the creek. Masterson felt a bit superfluous and excused himself out of the way.

John Shanssey had apparently taken possession of the tent next to Holliday’s since his arrival in the camp. He insisted that he be allowed to help Kate and even suggested Fox share his space. Fox declined. He had more than just Holliday to tend to, he reminded them.

Masterson set about organizing shifts to have someone other than just Shanssey on hand should Kate need assistance or Holliday took a sudden downturn. All she would have to do was shout and help would be at hand.

Deputy Pickett reminded Masterson that Holliday was still in custody. Masterson reminded him that Holliday, practically knocking at death’s door, obviously wasn’t going anywhere.

“I was offering to sit a shift if I’m needed,” Picket clarified, a tad miffed. Just a few hours ago, he’d been ready to shoot Holliday down in the street like a mad dog.

“I appreciate that, Pickett, but we still have a camp full of trigger-happy gun sharks to keep an eye on. Take it up with Shanssey, if you like. Maybe you can spot him from time to time. Personally, I’ll be taking over the afternoon shifts from 3 to 7. Get with Jenkins and who the hell ever might be willing just to hang out until Kate needs ’em. It’s just for a few days. Maybe someone can get some fishing done in the creek along here. I saw a nice size trout yesterday morning.” He realized he was rambling, probably a reaction to all the pent-up tension. He jerked a thumb back at Holliday’s tent. “Meanwhile, anybody setting this nest, must report to me at the end of their shift. At the least, leave me a note, or something.”

There was the sound of something heavy dropped in the tent, the words “Goddamn ya!” groaned in an unfamiliar voice, followed by Kate’s voice with a few words of something not in English that still managed to sound suspiciously like profanity.

Masterson only just managed to beat Pickett to Holliday’s tent. Shanssey beat them both.

“John, no!” Kate was wailing.

All three men struggled to get into the tent without pulling it down. Once inside all they saw was Holliday, upright, half off the bed, with a grip on Fox’s necktie and a derringer pressed under the old man’s chin.

Kate had one hand on Fox’s arm, the other hand reaching for Holliday. She was pleading, “No, Doc, please don’t do it! They’ll hang you!”

Fox’s eyes were as big as silver dollars. He was obviously too bewildered to speak. He remained perfectly still. Shanssey swooped in and pulled Kate from the line of fire, dragging her to the door.

Masterson moved cautiously forward. Pickett stood with his hand on his pistol grip without drawing it, uncertain who did and did not need shooting for the moment. Masterson trusted him not to shoot him in the back meanwhile. He felt Pickett moving sideways behind him, keeping a clear line of fire should he need it.

“Doc,” Masterson kept his tone congenial and cheerful. “You know you don’t want to shoot anyone right now. Put that lead chucker down and let’s talk for a minute.”

Holliday didn’t look around at him. He was breathing hard and his hand slipped a few inches on Fox’s tie, but he did not release it. Holliday was having difficulty sitting up on the edge of the bed but he remained determined.

Fox whispered something Masterson could not make out. Masterson could only see Holliday’s face in profile. Whatever Fox had said had Holliday blinking suddenly.

Kate was quiet, thankfully. Shanssey had moved her to the entrance of the tent but she refused to be tossed out. Shanssey held her in place and she held her hands over her mouth as though she didn’t trust herself not to start screaming again.

Fox spoke without moving his jaw any more than necessary, mindful of the barrel of the .41 pressed beside his windpipe. “He’s hallucinating,” he rasped. “A bad reaction to the injection. He thinks I’m tryin’ to kill him.”

Masterson sought for something to say that would be calming to Holliday. Bits of patter, measured in a pleasant tone. Words came easily to him. Whether they made any sense or not, he didn’t waste time trying to determine.

Masterson moved slowly forward, knowing Holliday’s peripheral vision was extraordinarily acute. He wanted Holliday to see him approach so he wouldn’t be startled into firing, but he didn’t want to appear aggressive. “I’m just coming over to lend you a hand, Doc. No one expects you to take on the world on your own, you know.”

Masterson kept talking as he crossed the distance to the bed, his voice softer as he approached. He didn’t focus on what he said, just allowed the words to come, a conversation among friends. comments about the weather, the latest gossip from Dodge.

“Doc, didja hear Dog Kelley got himself a new hunting dog? Six-month old Russian greyhound, named Jim after Jimmy Earp. Paid two hundred dollars for the whelp. Can you imagine? This from a man who never paid more than seventy-five dollars for a horse–“

He kept up the chatter until he was finally at the bedside. He couldn’t say if Holliday had registered any of the words, but the tone seemed to be reaching him. There was a hint of confusion in the hunch of Holliday’s shoulders. His eyes, normally large and bright, were hooded as though he were in deep contemplation.

“Kelley lost the pup during one of those antelope hunts last month,” Masterson was saying. “Found him, finally, after he had half of Dodge out searching for him. Poor thing was worn out trying to keep up with the big dogs.”

Holliday blinked rapidly, staring through, rather than at Fox. There was no hint of what he was thinking, or if he was thinking at all. His grip slid a little further down Fox’s necktie and Fox still didn’t resist him.

Masterson chuckled. “Yep, Kelley laid the poor dog across his saddle and took him to the Lady Gay Saloon. Put a shot of gin in his water bowl. The pup perked right up. Think I’m gonna like that dog.”

Holliday’s hand finally slid from Fox’s tie. His derringer hand backed a few inches away from Fox’s chin. The hand was obviously shaking, and the metal glinted sporadically in the lamplight. Holliday blinked at the sparkle.

Fox had the presence of mind to remain hunched as though Holliday still had possession of his tie. Thus bent, he took a slow single step back. Holliday did not react and Fox took another step away, back still bent.

“There, ya go, Doc,” Masterson eased out one hand, leaving it hanging in the air, palm open, for Holliday to see he held no weapon. “I told you I got your back. We’re in this together, you and me.” Master moved the hand to settle it lightly on Holliday’s forearm.

Holliday did not turn his head to look at him, but he also was ignoring Fox. His eyes dropped to Masterson’s boots, his head never turning. It was unnerving. There was a depth of tension rolling off Holliday Masterson had not experienced before. Holliday with a weapon in his hand had always been preternaturally cold and tranquil in Masterson’s experience. This was not Holliday.

“Doc, Why don’t ya holster your–“

“Wyatt.” The word fell from Holliday’s mouth about half-strangled and Masterson froze in place. Across the room Kate stifled a gasp.

Masterson collected his thoughts. He said, “It’s Bat, Doc. Bat Masterson.”

Holliday closed his eyes with slow precision and reopened them again with equal deliberation, still contemplating Masterson’s boots.

“I apologize, Bat,” his words were slurred but gaining a bit of strength. “I know the difference…” another word or two formed on his lips but Holliday put no air behind them and they remained there. He finally lowered the arm with the derringer and raised his eyes to see what was in his hand. His head never moved, just his eyes. They blinked in surprise and he laid the weapon on the bed beside him.

Fox finally unbent and took another silent step backward. He was now against the back wall of the tent and there was no place left to go.

Masterson said calmly, “Why don’t you rest a bit, Doc? You look kinda beat.”

“Well. If ya don’t think you’ll be needin’ me, Bat,” Holliday intoned the words completely without inflection. He was still staring at the weapon, his eyes the only part of his body capable of movement apparently.

There was the soft hiss of fabric and Kate entered Masterson’s field of vision.

“John, dearest,” her voice was the softest of whispers. “You lie down now, and I’ll fix you a whiskey and honey for your throat.” She sat on the derringer, withdrawing it from Holliday’s line of sight. His eyes moved to her hand upon his knee just above his boot. He seemed to be considering the offer then abruptly laid back against his pillows, eyes closed. Kate rose and stroked his hair, leaving Masterson to retrieve the derringer and uncock it.

Kate was cooing at Holliday, her lips close to his ear, her words not for public consumption, obviously. Holliday did not respond.

Fox approached with a formal deference Masterson thought understandable considering his near brush with death at Holliday’s hands. Fox checked the dilation of Holliday’s pupils. The blues, as far as Masterson could tell, were pale but still true. He realized Fox was also checking Holliday’s pulse.

“He’s unconscious,” Fox reported. “His condition is quite unfavorable but his heart is much improved. He’s had a terrible reaction to the injection. I’ve never seen the like.”

“So you won’t be able to treat him with it,” Masterson surmised.

“It wasn’t a treatment per se,” Fox admitted. “I thought it might simply get him through this rough patch. Instead I seemed to have confounded his difficulty temporarily.”

“He’ll sleep it off, then?”

“Oh, yes. It is not long acting. He should be himself within a few hours.”

Kate shook her head. “I told you that kind of shit makes him paranoid. And he can’t tell his visions from reality even when he wakes up.”

“The hallucinations–“

“He’s done with the hallucinations,” Kate grumbled. “As soon as his head hit the pillow he was done with the hallucinations. He never remembers those. It’s the visions that come later that frighten me.”

Fox regarded her closely. “You are thinking he will have these visions as you call them, in his sleep tonight?”

“Oh, no. In a few days, maybe. And he’ll be awake. He tells me about them sometimes.” She looked up at Fox, and her eyes glittered in the muted gaslight. “He’s convinced he knows how he’s going to die. He sees it. He… feels it.” She looked back down at Holliday, stroking at a single strand of stray hair. “It’s always the same,” she whispered. “He’s always alone. It’s morning with daylight shining in the windows of a beautiful room and he’s alone. And there is a sudden intense pain in his chest and then nothing but all that daylight flooding the world.”

Fox and Masterson were silent. Again, Masterson experienced that sensation of truth in his bones that Holliday had spoken of. Fox’s brow was furrowed. He was watching the motionless Holliday.

Kate stroked the blood on Holliday’s tattered waistcoat. She said, “He tells me all these things about the beautiful room. And then he laughs, like it’s just the funniest thing. But he won’t tell me anything more, damn him. He sees what happens before the beautiful room, but he won’t say that part out loud. ” She tugged one of the quilts over Holliday’s chest “He intends to slink away to die alone like an animal,” she hissed more to herself than to the room. She leaned to kiss each of Holliday’s eyelids. “You won’t be alone, kincsem. I swear it. You won’t be alone.”

Masterson waited for Fox to make a further statement. Fox was nodding, staring now at Holliday’s hand on the blanket with intense interest, but no comment seemed forthcoming.

“Kate,” Masterson asked, “are you afraid to be left alone with Doc tonight?”

Kate seemed puzzled for a moment. “Oh.” She shook her head emphatically. “No. No, of course not.”

Masterson nodded. “Pickett, there’s a few rifles and a shotgun in the trunk here, along with another revolver. We’ll need to hold those for a bit. And the .410 over there behind the boxes. Kate, is there another one of these pocket advantages I should know about?” He indicated the derringer before he pocketed it.

Kate shook her head no, but Masterson didn’t believe her. If truth were told she had another down her corset and yet another under the pillow she had crawled up on to sit next to Holliday. Damned Derringers bred like rabbits where professional gamblers were concerned. Still, he trusted Kate to be concerned enough to keep one out of Holliday’s hands while he was compromised, especially after the stunt he’d just pulled.

Masterson said, “Doc will get all his hardware back after the hearing, Kate. Hell, you know how it works by now. We’re getting outta here and you two get some sleep. We’ll be within earshot if you need anything. Just give a shout, right?”

She nodded and kissed Holliday’s forehead. “We’ll be all right now, won’t we, Doc?”

Holliday took a deep breath, his eyes still closed, lost to the world.

Once outside, Holliday’s little team unfurled to set up a guard station about ten yards from the front of the tent. Masterson followed Fox back to his office.

He asked, “When you were examining Doc, you said the consumption had begun to affect his other systems, what did you mean by that?”

“Medical science still does not understand the underlying cause of consumption and why it presents as it does. There’s not even a clinical test, only symptoms that can vary widely from patient to patient.” He sighed. “We know, of course, that it usually affects the lungs. Doctor Holliday has progressed to the point we can now safely say he has miliary consumption, meaning it has spread and invaded other organs as well. You yourself can hear the effect this has had on his vocal cords. Also, if you pay attention, you will see he eats a very bland diet, with the exception of the alcohol he uses for his pain. That is because he has ulcers and consumption nodules throughout his alimentary tract.”

Masterson recalled John Shanssey mentioning something about Doc needing to soothe his gut. Masterson hadn’t even thought to question him. “It hurts him to swallow?”

“To swallow, to digest. His kidneys are damaged, as well as the liver, which is only exacerbated by the alcohol, but alcohol and morphine are all medical science has for his pain. Both are poisonous and highly addictive. And all this damage is irreversible and will merely continue to compound, increasing the need for the alcohol and morphine.”

Masterson started to speak, but Fox wasn’t done. “He no longer moves like a young man because the illness is eating into bone. Including his spine. If you pay close attention, you’ll notice a hesitancy in his movements, a natural reaction in a body wracked with chronic pain. Sitting a horse must be excruciating for him.”

Masterson jerked Fox to a halt to face him. “I believed you when you said he was physically fit for all this.”

Fox looked more weary than offended, “But that was not your question to me, Marshal. You asked me if he can do the job. He can. No matter the personal cost he will do whatever is required of his life until it kills him. That young man has a will of iron. Death shall tremble when it takes him.”

“But death will still take him.”

“None of us get out of this world alive,” Fox reminded him. “Doctor Holliday’s problem is that death reminds him daily. And he is dying with a young man’s brain. A highly educated brain. And a young man’s heart. And drives and all the chemical signals that control a young man’s impulses. It’s a fascinating field of which we know so little. Except for all the grief that comes along with all that.. His brain knows his prognosis, but his spirit refuses to be anything but a young and vibrant man, and as far as he is able, that is how he lives before the world. He will not simply give up and lie down and wait.”

“In other words, he intends on burning himself out.”

“Nothing so dramatic, He merely wants to live. A true and genuine life like even the least man among us. Meanwhile, he has been denied strength of body, so what can he build? He has no children, what legacy can he leave to prove he was even here? He thinks about such things even if he will not say.” Fox’s voice was kind. “You worry that you are helping to kill him by encouraging him, but it is not so. There is no death wish in your Doctor Holliday. He will do anything to live. He cannot comprehend anything else.”

They walked for a few minutes in silence. Bat asked, finally, “Is this how consumption runs its course? I’ve never heard any of this before.”

“I’ve never seen a man live this long with such a degree of it. Most are dead before there is this much damage. I would say that God wants this young man so bad He’s given Himself a guaranteed take down. Any time He wants him. Absolutely any time, be it minutes or another year.”

Well the devil wouldn’t have Holliday, so God was just kinda stuck with him. The thought came to Masterson unbidden and he chastised himself over the hardness of heart the thought implied.

“No hard feelings about him not taking your medicine, Fox?”

“No. Never. It is no cure and can become its own poison. Even if he hadn’t had such an adverse reaction, Doctor Holliday wants to live life on his own terms, conscious and able to make his own decisions. For myself, I’m too afraid of pain. Your young friend has no time for such fears. I envy him, but I couldn’t do it myself. I haven’t the courage.”

Fox stopped and turned to look back at the way they had come, “My medical opinion aside, I believe that when he is truly tired of this world your Doc Holliday will find a place to make his stand and he will lie in wait for death. Just he and that grim specter. My guess is the good doctor will get in a couple of shots before death talks him into a game of cards. And that, as they say, will be that.”


Leave a Reply

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