Chapter 10: Arresting Developments

Parables of the Beautiful Country

by Jack E’Dalgo

Chapter 10: Arresting Developments

…the South’s Victorian ‘Code of Honor’ which posited that the preservation of one’s honor was more important than life itself — yours or anybody else’s.” — Bill Neal: Getting Away with Murder on the Texas Frontier

As Masterson had bragged to Holliday, every man and his dog was heeled at Grape Creek. So naturally, one could expect the occasional shooting. And wasn’t it just guaran-damn-teed with Holliday in camp?

Holliday had no sooner gotten off the supply train in one piece than he’d reported to Kate. He’d apparently gifted her a stunning demi-parure, a matched set of necklace, earrings, and a bracelet, very dainty things, the purser assured Masterson, finely worked gold, set with emeralds and pearls and surely quite pricey.

The purser also admitted that Holliday had done no actual shopping in Pueblo, dutifully watching over the procurement of everything from coffee to horse nails as expected of him. Several people, however, had arranged to speak with him semi-privately over the course of the day. Masterson had thought that odd since Holliday had only been informed of his trip to Pueblo an hour before the arrival of the special to take him there. But on the train’s return trip, Holliday was proudly exhibiting his new purchase.

Masterson knew Holliday had sent out at least two telegrams before leaving for Pueblo because the telegraph operator kept a logbook. But the message slips were missing. Holliday had in fact sent a dozen telegraph messages since his first full day in camp. The slips for all those messages were missing as well. What a coincidence.

Holliday had also sent out a half dozen letters, mostly to people sharing his last name. Some of the envelopes were so thick with paper he’d had to pay extra postage. The postal clerk agreed to noting down the names and addresses of future missives sent by Holliday, but he staunchly refused to obey an order to hold the actual envelopes for Masterson to examine. The post was sacrosanct and Masterson’s federal badge meant nothing to the wizened little clerk who seemed to feel the post office served the citizens, not the government.

Masterson had not questioned Holliday about any of this. Masterson was as curious as a cat, but Holliday was not a prisoner and he was certainly not a child. It was scarcely Masterson’s business what a man bought his wife or who he wrote to. All Holliday’s secrecy about his messages would have been disturbing if Doc had been a turncoat, but no matter what else he was, Holliday was stubbornly loyal, even if it put a noose around his own neck. Masterson had no fear that Holliday was playing double agent for the Rio or some other such idiocy. He thought it a bit odd that it took meeting with three individuals to buy jewelry, and he wondered what else Holliday may have arranged for. New handkerchiefs, perhaps.

But now, dammit, Holliday had shot and killed a man right here in Masterson’s camp.

Word of the shooting reached Masterson at a few minutes before three this morning, almost a quarter of an hour ago, Masterson estimated. Apparently Holliday had been in the camp’s Number Four saloon playing faro — not banking it, just playing — when a game of Russian roulette had broken out, as it does from time to time. Never.

As far as Masterson’s deputy could gather, Holliday had gotten bored with the faro game, and moved to a poker table where he and another player had found an interesting use for Holliday’s Colt Navy Peacemaker, playing a game of chicken with a single bullet between them.

Tom Pickett, former Texas Ranger, was trying to explain all this to Masterson. Pickett was doing double duty as Masterson’s deputy at Grape Creek. He was a seasoned law officer so Masterson decided that since none of what Pickett was telling him made any sense, Masterson must still be half asleep and needing coffee.

“So, Holliday shot the man while they were playing Russian roulette in the street?” Masterson asked again while getting dressed in yesterday’s clothes for the second day in a row.

Pickett was about Masterson’s age, broad faced, with the heavily-lidded eyes of a man accustomed to staring far distances in the sun. Pickett shook his head. “Naw,” he said. “Apparently they’re waterin’ down the drinks at the saloon a tad too much, ’cause Doc and this ol’ boy got bored playin’ cards and right there in the saloon, they got Doc’s .45 pared down to one bullet. And took turns putting it to each o’ ’em’s head and pullin’ the trigger. Only, Doc was the only one ever actually holdin’ the weapon. Ya see?

“I think so. So Doc’s playing Russian roulette in the saloon and graciously invited a friend to share the frivolity.”

“That’s about the size of it. ‘Cept the fella he’s taking chances alongside, gets pissed off after a bit and pulls a Walker from God knows where, and calls Doc out to a duel in the street. And Doc, bein’ Doc, says, ‘Sounds like a good time ta me, lets get at it.’ So. No surprise, Doc out draws the ol’ boy and kills him with his .38. I got witness statements and such.”

Pickett handed Masterson a thin sheaf of papers filled with pencil marks. Masterson shoved them, unread, into his coat pocket.

“I hadn’t made no arrest yet,” Pickett explained. “Doc’s still in the saloon. I know we gotta take him in, but you know him better’n me and I thought it might go a bit smoother-like if you was ta be there. I’ll back your play or you can back mine, it’s up ta you.”

Masterson sighed. “Well, hell,” he said. Like either of them could outdraw Doc Holliday. Christ on a cracker. He hoped Holliday was more sober than he sounded, or too drunk to stand straight, but honestly, he’d seen Holliday draw and fire under both conditions and right now Masterson just wished that he was in another line of work. He hoslstered his own Colt and he and Pickett set off for the saloon.

Masterson could smell burning human flesh while still a good ten minute’s walk from the saloon. On the way, Pickett had told him the corpse had caught fire, but Masterson hadn’t been overly alarmed. Both Bat and Holliday carried similar Colt self-cocker Navy Peacemakers, a model known unofficially as the Smoke Wagon because it frequently spat fire along with a bullet. In close action, a man’s coat could catch flame. Many men had gone to Boot Hill with the scent of hellfire already clinging to their clothes. This man’s body, however, was fully engulfed.

Masterson approached the fire in front of the saloon, then recoiled in shock and no little horror. He had survived the massacre of Adobe Walls and was not easily nauseated or rattled. Until now.

Jesus H. Christ.

“Yeah,” a voice shouted to him from the front of the saloon. “That’s down to that pissant piece of shit Doc Fucking Holliday. Dickless Confederate son of a bitch.”

Masterson squinted at the saloon. The light of the barroom poured out of the open door behind the man shouting obscenities and it was difficult to see his face. The lighting here was dim, mostly reflecting from the better lit line of whore’s cribs next to the saloon. The man addressing him was familiar. Masterson couldn’t place the boy’s name, but he was pretty certain he was a cook’s helper here at camp. He looked to be maybe twenty, scraggly haired and pretty well shit-faced, but he was at least standing, weaving slightly, but standing.

“Yep,” the young man repeated, “that cunt friend of yours what done that work right chere. Hope you’re proud’n shit and all that.”

Masterson ignored him. He hated drunks. Especially young ones who seemed to forever confuse the amount of liquor they could consume with the quality of their manhood.

Holliday himself exited the saloon’s door just as Masterson told the boy to move on.

“Need to talk to ya, Doc,” Masterson said dully. The odor of the cooking corpse was starting to make him dizzy and he moved a bit further away, toward the cribs and the forward corner of the saloon.

Pickett was following Masterson’s lead, keeping enough distance between himself and Bat to allow both of them enough room to work if anyone needed to clear leather suddenly.

Meanwhile the boy started in on a repetition of his foul-mouthed tirade.

Holliday said nothing, just stood there at the door another minute, puffing the stub of a cigar and watching as the cook’s helper spun on one boot heel, tracking Masterson’s movements, getting louder to ensure Bat could hear every syllable of his monologue.

Masterson wanted to tell the youngster to stand down, but he probably wouldn’t have listened even if he could have heard Masterson above the sound of his own ranting. Holliday, standing so close to the verbal abuse wouldn’t have heard Bat very well, either, so Masterson waited and watched for Holliday to pull his pick of Colts and take out this offense to his manhood. Holliday just stood there, silent and loose-limbed, at the boy’s back.

The young man had finally turned far enough to catch sight of Holliday, a mere yard from him. Holliday was back lit by the glare of light from the saloon, a deep shadow within an outline of light as far as anyone else could see, the brim of his hat transcribing the corona of an eclipse. Unknown and unidentifiable.

The boy was immediately offended to find this breach of his personal space. “Who the hell are you?” he demanded.

Holliday calmly removed his cigar from his mouth and held it indolently, unconcerned that what most men would consider his gunhand was now otherwise occupied. “I’m Doc Fuckin’ Holliday,” he offered. “Do I know ya, sir?”

The young man took a moment answering. “Ah, no sir, Doctor Holliday.”

“Well, then,” mused Holliday, “let’s keep it that way.”

The boy flinched as Holliday flipped the remains of his cigar into the dirt and walked past him. Masterson ignored Holliday, continuing to watch the kid. For all he knew, Holliday had simply offered an easy target for a back-shooter. Holliday had just been playing Russian roulette, after all. The boy, however, cut a hasty retreat back into the saloon.

Holliday had passed Masterson and then stopped, waiting a few yards away, equidistant from both Bat and his deputy.

Masterson moved to Holliday, just within the circle of light from a coal oil lantern at the top of the line of cribs labeled “Greta’s Girls.” Several of the whores had gathered at the nearer end of the row, keeping an eye on the commotion. Holliday noticed their interest, and solemnly doffed his hat to the ladies with a full bow. They tittered like birds on a limb.

Masterson kept his voice down. No sense working up a bigger audience. “You know I have to take you in, Doc.”

“I understand, Bat. I take it you’ll need my weapons.”

“Just your lead chuckers. For now.”

Holliday hesitated for the briefest second, ensuring Pickett had heard the conversation and had adequate time to process it. He could no doubt sense Pickett’s wariness and was trying to keep from antagonizing the man any further than necessary. Holliday was aware that his mere existence aggravated some men without any further efforts on his part. Holliday may claim to not understand it, but he knew it to be fact, and could only hope Pickett was not one of those men.

Gingerly, Holliday handed Masterson each revolver singly, the Colt .45 Peacemaker, the Colt .38 Lightning and finally the Remington Derringer from his waistcoat pocket. Masterson accepted each item with a detached air, being more concerned with finding pockets and waistband room to carry them than in determining their condition or if they’d been recently fired. He knew all about that already. Masterson imagined Doc would be feeling quite light enough to float without all that hardware.

The last pistol surrendered, Masterson asked if that was all Holliday’s weapons. Pickett was still watching closely.

“That’s all of the shooters,” Holliday clarified. “You want the rest of it now?”

Masterson shook his head. “Let’s ignore the knives, Doc, and just say I didn’t. I’m all out of pockets and you’re starting to look undressed. It’s not decent.”

“Is your deputy gonna be agreeable with that?”

Masterson looked over at Pickett who was busy supervising the arrest and scanning the area on all sides like the professional he was. Masterson and Pickett operated on mutual respect, but Bat knew Pickett would be damned if he’d turn his back on an offender like Masterson had just done with Doc, friend or no friend. Holliday had a murder charge against him now. When men risked swinging from a rope for something, they tended to entertain desperate thoughts. Holliday looked meek and mild at the moment, but his reputation was as a murderous hell-raiser. In the idiom of the day, Holliday was more than simply a shootist. He was a mankiller, multiple times over. Pickett would be taking no chances.

“I guess he’s gonna have to be agreeable, Doc. Unless it bothers you that much.”

Holliday shrugged. “I’m alright, Bat. Mind if I smoke?” he asked.

Masterson started to remind him that he’d just finished a cigar. He said, “Smoke ’em, if ya got ’em, Doc. I won’t stand here waiting for you to roll one.”

Holliday held one hand out about waist level for Pickett’s benefit and used the other to gingerly fish a panatella from his chest pocket. Masterson lit a match and watched Holliday closely as the gambler tilted his head, accommodating his hat while working to get the thin cigar well lit.

Masterson made a decision, finally, based on the pallor of Holliday’s skin under the match light and the fine beads of sweat trapped by the beginnings of stubble along his jaw. Masterson could have kicked himself for not having done it sooner. He waved Pickett over.

Holliday straightened and puffed gratefully before peeling a bit of tobacco from the tip of his tongue and flicking it away. “Thanks, Bat.” He went quite still with Pickett’s approach, exhaling his first puff through his nose.

Masterson said, “Pickett, you know the man I was speaking to yesterday morning when you were making coffee?”

“Yeah, you mean Do–“

“Get him. Now. In my office.”

Pickett glanced at Holliday, “But–“

“Doc promises not to murder me while you’re gone, Pickett. Ain’t that right, Doc?”

“Sure. I’ve waited this long, I guess I can wait till he gets back.” Holliday put his cigar back in his mouth, indicating he was done with his part of the conversation.

“While we’re young, Pickett,” Masterson sighed.

Pickett took off, shaking his head.

“Let’s get this done, Doc. I hate working nights.”

“Lead on, sahib.”

They walked side by side for a few moments in silence, Holliday softly whistling short bits of melody between puffs from his cigar. Masterson thought he recognized the tune of “Sweet Betsy from Pike.”

“Damn, Doc,” Masterson said at last, “you can’t stay out of trouble for what, a week?” Holliday stopped whistling but said nothing. Being lectured by a man two years his junior and in rude health no less was probably galling, Masterson conceded, but Bat was drowsy and slightly annoyed about the whole thing. “Violence tracks you down like hell’s hound,” Masterson continued, “and your only response is to run right in and offer it a bone or something.”

“Hell’s hound?” Holliday retorted. “How long you been rehearsin’ this speech, Bat? If you’re suggestin’ I just lay down and let a man kill me so you can avoid some kind of paperwork–“

“No. I don’t expect you to do anything more than you usually do: jerk your Colt and go to work.” Masterson stopped mid-stride. “All things being equal, Doc, don’t you ever get frustrated with the fact that you simply cannot stay out of trouble?”

Holliday seemed to actually be contemplating the question. “Well. It’s not like I go lookin’ for it, Bat.”

Masterson recalled Kate’s comment: Evil stalks all things bright and wondrous. The problem was, Masterson supposed, that Holliday didn’t look all that bright and wondrous at the moment. He looked tired and old. Twenty-eight, Masterson reminded himself. In August.

“Jesus.” Masterson started to pat Holliday reassuringly on the shoulder. His hand would not obey. Holliday was regarding him with those cold blue eyes. He didn’t like being touched. Not by other men, anyway.

“Forgive my ill-humor, Doc. So far, every one you’ve opened the ball for has needed it or even begged for it, as far as I know.” He resumed the trek to his office, Holliday beside him, sans musical accompaniment.

Holliday puffed for another yard or so. “So. What’s the holding cell situation here in the Big Empty?” he asked.

The question brought Masterson up short again. “Are you taking the piss, Doc?”

Holliday removed his cigar from his mouth. “That’s a hell of a thing to ask me. I assume you’ve arrested me. I assume ya intend to hold me. I assume you’re not turning me over to Canyon City’s law, and you don’t have a jail cell in camp, ’cause I checked. I’m just wondering if I need a warmer coat if you’re gonna be chaining me up in the livery. What the hell?”

Masterson wouldn’t know, of course, but Holliday had once been kept two days in a dry well awaiting a circuit judge because some city council in Horseshit, Texas hadn’t gotten around to constructing a jail. A rare West Texas Nor’easter had unloaded into the open hole and Holliday had damn near drowned but for his good friend John Shanssey. In the end, the judge had freed Holliday with a sheep-faced apology, and arrested the city council for corruption and misappropriation of funds.

Masterson shook his head. Most criminals will try their alibis out on the first person they see, a kind of dress rehearsal, to see how it sounds before they get to whatever law enforcement crossed their paths. Not Holliday. Holliday had to have it dragged out of him even by the law, even if the truth of it would save his neck. Holliday would tell you the facts all right, if you were patient enough and knew the right questions. But God knew he wasn’t about to volunteer information otherwise. As far as Holliday was concerned, God knew the truth of the thing. That should be good enough for all concerned. Like he assumed the legal system had some kind of direct ingress to the Great White Throne Judgment or some such.

Masterson and his charge had reached the little clapboard structure that served as Grape Creek’s administrative housing. Holliday could no doubt read the word ‘Marshal’ painted on the rough door before Masterson opened it and waved Holliday inside.

“Let’s get back to speaking of the dead, shall we?” Masterson invited.

The room was as rough-hewn as the rest of the settlement: a desk surrounded by mismatched chairs, walls posted with maps and notices, a telegraph setup on a table in one corner, a lit stove providing heat in the other corner. Kerosene lanterns hung from various angles and with varying degrees of success.

Pickett sat reared back in a chair near the heater. An elderly gentleman sat on one of the chairs at the side of the desk, obviously waiting. He was a mild-looking man, his thatch of dark gray hair parted down the middle and tucked behind large ears. He wore small wire-rim glasses but seemed to spend most of his time peering over them. He had more hair on his face than on his scalp: a long mustache and a short goatee. A medical bag occupied his corner of the desk. The man’s smile was trying too hard to be reassuring and Masterson noted that Holliday was instantly uneasy.

“Speaking of the dead?” Holliday prompted Masterson.

“Speaking of the dead,” Masterson repeated, “Doctor Charles Fox here has notified me that the altitude here is probably not the best thing for your health.”

Fox, the man with the medical bag, rose and offered a handshake. He turned out to be tall but bent, with an angular frame, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, at last, Doctor Holliday. I’ve heard so much about y–“

Holliday ignored him. “What in hell are you playing at here, Bat?”

Masterson removed his hat and tossed it on top of a deal file cabinet. He was obviously going to have a fight on his hands, but given this was Holliday, he’d not expected anything less. Masterson was determined to ease into the confrontation if he could, however. “How much you had to drink tonight, Doc?”

Holliday considered his answer like a man looking for a bear trap. “I had two drinks in a quarter of an hour before we left the saloon.”

“And how much before that quarter of an hour?”

“I’m not tight, damn you.”

“You ain’t right, neither, Doc.” Masterson stalked to the big chair at the rear of the desk and sat.

“Doctor Fox here,” Masterson explained, “works for the Santa Fe Railroad who is employing us. You can stay in camp if he says you can stay. Otherwise, I am authorized to pay you five hundred and I’ll send you on to Canyon City’s jail to await the circuit judge.”

Holliday opened his mouth and closed it again, staring at Masterson. There were decided hints of color suddenly in Holliday’s face. Blood pressure, Masterson thought, not fever. Holliday was noted for his cold-bloodedness and his almost cavalier attitude to the presence of danger. Now the mere presence of a medical colleague sent him into a dither? Surely not.

He watched Holliday take as deep a breath as he could manage without setting off a spell of coughing. Holliday had been a professional gambler too long not to recognize Masterson’s threat was a bluff, Bat realized. Masterson had overstepped and now Holliday’s natural cunning was sliding into open hostility.

Holliday maintained his composure, however. He said, “You called me to this hellacious hole in the world. I didn’t ask you. You asked me. I came as a favor for a friend–“

“And as a favor for the self-same friend, I asked Doctor Fox to do a quick physical.”

“The hell you say. I do not consent.”

“Doc, it’s for your own good. If you’re too sick–“

“As ya know,” Holliday was firm, “and have known since before ya met me, I am not sick. I am dyin’. I’ve been dyin’ for five years. That’s four and a half fuckin’ years longer than I was s’posed ta be dyin’.” He glanced at Fox. “I don’t need another man’s permission to do it. And I’ll be goddamned if I’ll lay down in my grave to meet another man’s schedule.”

“It’s not about that, Doc, and you know it.”

“Do I? Well, perhaps I’m just witless, Bat. I am southern, after all, so perhaps you should explain it ta me slowly.”

“Doc, I’m really not looking for an argument–“

“Well. Ya got one in spite of yourself, then,” Holliday growled. “Go on, man ta man, damn ya, tell me what the fuck your problem is, because I’ll happily tell you what mine is.”

Masterson said, “I will not be sending a telegram to Wyatt Earp explaining how I killed his friend.”

Holliday had not expected that response and it brought him up short. He opened his mouth, then closed it again.

Masterson was not adverse to pressing his advantage, but he refused to be high-handed about it. “Please, Doc,” he gestured toward the chair opposite him at the desk, “have a seat.”

Masterson unloaded his pockets, placing Holliday’s hardware in a desk drawer. Masterson was grateful to be rid of the excess weight, but he performed the action deliberately as a reminder to Holliday that he was not free to simply walk out as he pleased.

Holliday blinked a few times, scanning the room before he sat. The two available chairs put his back to the door. In defiance, the chair he chose was a few scant feet from that of Fox.

That was Holliday, for you, Masterson thought, defiant even in the face of manifest futility.

Holliday eyed the old doctor briefly. Fox was still smiling like the Cheshire cat, but wisely said nothing. Holliday no doubt fought an impulse to slap him. Masterson would have done it under similar circumstances. Instead, Holliday realized his panatella had gone out from inattention. He tossed its remains onto Masterson’s desk.

Masterson repeated quietly, “I would like Doctor Fox here to have a look at you. That’s all, Doc. Just a quick, professional once over. Just for my peace of mind. I’m asking for myself. And you are correct, you are not obligated to consent.”

Holliday spoke slowly, enunciating carefully, “I understand the arrest, Bat. I’m not contestin’ the righteousness of the arrest. But that gives you no right ta have me pawed and pried for some kind of twisted–” Holliday struggled for an appropriate noun, finally settling on “amusement. And I’ll be go-ta-hell-damned if I’ll tolerate it.”

“I’m not talking anything invasive, Doc. Just listen to your chest. No poking or prodding.”

Fox frowned, but remained silent. Bat continued, “No thermometers, no samples–“

“I shan’t comply,” Holliday was firm. “This ain’t justice.”

Masterson refused to rise to the bait, pulling out the sheaf of papers Pickett had given him earlier and flattening them against the desk. “Five minutes of your time, while I read through these witness reports on this situation with,” he consulted the top page, “Richard McDawes. Does that name mean anything to you, Doc?”

“Is he the man I shot?”

Masterson nodded, still looking at his papers, rather than at Holliday, thinking it was kind of Holliday to confess like that. Of course, Masterson expected nothing less from Holliday. A stand-up fellow is our Doc, he thought. “Mr. McDawes was from New York City,” he said. “Ever been to New York City, Doc?”

“A few times. Me and a million more.”

“Ever met Richard McDawes?”

“Not ta my knowledge, no.”

Masterson stopped reading and stared harder at the paper in his hand. “Are you dicking me around, Pickett–” Masterson sat up straight. “McDawes had consumption?” Masterson jerked his focus to Fox.

Fox nodded. “Yes. He was recently diagnosed, and came west for his health.”

“There’s a lot of that going around,” Masterson observed.

“Oh, for Chrissake–” Holliday snatched the sheaf of papers from Masterson and read the top page for himself. “I’ll be damned,” he said in actual wonderment, and Masterson could have sworn his hand shook for a moment. Holliday laid the papers down on the desktop and slid them back to Masterson. “I am sorry,” Holliday said as though he spoke to someone else. “I didn’t know the man.”

Masterson accepted the papers, and tugged at his mustache for a moment. “Doc,” he said finally, “if you would please open your shirt. Doctor Fox, please proceed while I read for a bit, if you two gentlemen don’t mind.”


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