Chapter 9: Admissions and Arrogance

Parables of the Beautiful Country

by Jack E’Dalgo

Chapter 9: Admissions and Arrogance

“No people ever prospered by being protected from life. It is the struggle that makes them strong. It is the struggle, too, that is the reward in life.” –James H. Kyner. End of Track.

It was well after midnight and Masterson was still conscious in spite of himself. He and John Shanssey were the last two still playing poker at the back table of the Buckhorn.

Masterson was down forty dollars. He’d won and lost that same forty dollars about six times already. The eagles on those two coins were about ready to de-feather and scream.

Shanssey was giving him a closer look at his tattoo. Masterson had noticed it long ago of course. Being on the back of the man’s hand, it was a bit hard to miss, but he’d never actually had occasion to read it. It was a quote in a Gothic font, surprisingly small and fine for its sentiment: “Many a man’s mouth has broken his nose.”

Masterson couldn’t help himself. “You’ve seen Doc’s tattoo, right? The ace up the sleeve?”

“Ah, sure,” Shanssey was slurring badly and wobbling in his chair like he could barely keep his head up. “Got my ink the same time Doc got his’in.”

“That was in Deadwood then,” Masterson spoke the words lightly, encouraging Shanssey to assume he already knew the story and was merely reminiscing.

Shanssey nodded. “Bang on ya are. Me and Doc were workin’ for Thomas Miller back when he owned the Bella Union. Ya kin ask Creek. Shot a couple a’ oul boyos, did Creek. The feckin’ eejits insisted on gettin’ shot, so he done it.” Shanssey sighed, an effort to control his ability to speak clearly. “Doc didn’t shoot nobody thereabouts, though. ‘Course, Doc wasn’t Doc in Deadwood. Had a dodger on ‘im and was inn-cognita.”

Shanssey laid a finger over his lips and tried to shush; it came out more like a spitting horse. “Tom Macky.” Shanssey hiccuped as he said the last name, rendering it unclear. “Any rate, all this was right after that gobshite backshooter done for Hickok. Doc got his tattoo ta honor Bill. Fine fella that Bill.”

“Wild Bill Hickok?”

“Is there any other?” Shanssey honest-to-god giggled and Masterson felt almost contrite about taking advantage of the man’s inebriation. Once he’d got to going, though, Shanssey couldn’t seem to control himself, like a kettle boiling over.

Shanssey sighed again and hurried through the next phrase before taking a deep breath and sighing it out for the next phrase. “Inking over the wrist like that (sigh) hurt like a son of a bitch, but Doc (sigh) took it like a man. Stone cold sober. He’d swear t’otherwise, (sigh) a’course, but I think da pain was part of hiss… tribute to Hickok. Kinda an offerin’, like.”

Masterson nodded. “But Doc had never met Hickok.”

“Ah, sure. A’fore Deadwood, o’ course. By the time Creek and Doc and me hit Deadwood, Hickok t’was under the sod. Jaysus rest ‘im.”

Masterson’s heart was pounding suddenly. He recalled any number of times he’d sat in Dodge whining about how he’d always wanted to meet Hickok, how he idolized the man, with Holliday sitting there listening, not even smug, but never saying a word, damn him.

Shanssey was saying, “Yeah, Doc was banking faro for Sullivan, I think t’was. Anyway, Doc had just come west, hadn’t been outta Dallas a year, I ‘spose. He was in Denison. Fort Worth maybe, who knows? Mighta been Fort Wanker for all I can ‘member.” Shanssey was sighing again, the alcohol competing with the oxygen in his bloodstream. “Any rate, Hickok ran a posse against Doc. Doc won’t talk about it, but the story runs that the posse played out and Hickok brought Doc in alone after a couple a’ weeks on the run. Through the Nations, no less.”

“My, my. Doc steal a horse or something?” Masterson laughed off the question, playing his cards close and trying to keep the conversation light. The minute Shanssey sensed danger or even became aware he was divulging a secret Holliday would prefer hidden, Shanssey would cut his own throat rather than talk.

“Yeah, right,” Shanssey chucked. “You know Doc never gets called down for nothin’ but gamblin’ in a whore house or murder. They don’t put a posse on ya for gamblin’. It was murder. Three counts. That I know for a fact.”

Masterson tried to keep his face impassive.

Shanssey took another sip of his tequila. “Doc was cleared, a’ course,” Shanssey assured him. “No duty to retreat and all that.” Shanssey waved a hand over his drink. “I know Doc likes his rep as a curmudgeon who’d shoot ya soon as look at ya, but Doc never clears leather without a damn good reason. I dunno what happened in Horseshitville with Hickok, but I know Doc thinks the world of that man. Won’t hear nothing said agin him to this day.” Shanssey stabbed a finger into the table top and stared at it a moment. “Shit,” he said suddenly and peered at Masterson. “Don’t tell Doc I said anythin’ about anythin’, will ya? He’d never speak ta me again.” Shanssey was pleading and he was deadly serious.

“I wouldn’t dream of it, Shanssey. We’re just old friends chewin’ the fat here. Wild horses couldn’t drag it outta me and all that.”

Shanssey looked back down into his glass. His finger was still stabbed at the table. “Well. I… I gotta see a man about a horse, Bat,” he said finally. He pulled his finger up and flexed it, then stood with all the dignity he could muster. Masterson helped steady him to his tent.

“Goo’night to ya, Bat.”

“Goodnight, Shanssey.”

The report next morning was that the Rio Grande had decided to retaliate for the killing of two of their men. Rather than taking out the loss in kind, DeRemer had his men waylay the Santa Fe’s supplies from Canyon City. One railroad literally robbing another at gunpoint.

To avoid unnecessary ill-will in the camp, Masterson elected to take responsibility for the supply run, promising to supply protection for the Santa Fe purser and his team. Rather than run the populace of Canyon City short of food and drink, Masterson elected to restock from the larger town of Pueblo. He set Holliday and Bill Tilghman the task of protecting the team of porters, the purchasing agent and the head cook during the trip.

Doc protested that he was superfluous to the excursion but Masterson had insisted, mentally filing that superfluous phrase for possible future use in one of his dime novels. Masterson wanted Holliday out of camp for the day for reasons of his own. And since the trip would ensure Holliday spent most of the day lounging in a cushioned seat of a passenger train or lolling around the back rooms of Pueblo’s better shops, Holliday might even get a little rest in spite of himself.

Meanwhile, with Holliday occupied, Masterson might be able to get some answers out of Kate.

The West was a surprisingly small world for all its vastness. Masterson had met Kate before he’d met Holliday. Wyatt had known her before even then, when she’d worked for his brother James Earp in his bordello. If Masterson had understood Holliday’s confession during their reconnoiter, Holliday still had the earliest claim to Kate amongst them all, but Masterson didn’t know how much of Kate’s past she’d managed to keep a mystery from Holliday. Masterson knew only that he would have to tread carefully to keep Kate from unleashing Holliday’s vengeance on Masterson once Holliday got back.

Kate was only moderately friendly toward Masterson at the best of times. She distrusted law of any kind and hated Earps in particular, both of which left Masterson out in the cold of her regard.

She had another reason to loath Masterson, however. A few years back, Masterson had taken a fancy to one of Kate’s few good friends. He’d met her at a dance hall in Sweetwater, Texas. Mollie had been a lovely girl, new to the life, and the soprano to Kate’s alto in Tom Sherman’s singing dance troupe. Mollie had been so lovely, in fact, that another man had taken exception at finding her in Masterson’s room. He’d shot Masterson in the groin, leaving him with a permanent limp, but Mollie had stepped between the bullet and it’s target and had died instantly. If Kate ever blamed Masterson for the death of her friend, she had never said. But she avoided Masterson whenever she could.

For some reason Masterson kept thinking of one of those odd Sunday School verses that had gotten stuck in his head as a child, the one where Sampson realized Delilah had betrayed him to his enemies: “If ye had not plowed with my heifer, ye had not found out my riddle.” The verse hadn’t made a great deal of sense to Masterson as a child and he was none the wiser for it now, but it had stuck with him all the same.

He couldn’t figure why it kept running through his thoughts today. Masterson was no plowhand and, while Kate was a lot of things, she was no heifer. Holliday was certainly no Sampson. Still, Masterson could recognize enough similarity in his ploy to make himself nervous. Sampson, after all, had brought down the wrath of God on Delilah’s collaborators. Holliday’s Colts could certainly do damage more quickly than Sampson’s jawbone of an ass.

Still, needs must, as his mother always said.

With Holliday on his way to Pueblo, Masterson presented himself at the Hollidays’ tent. He shouted “Hello!” and waited. There was no response. Masterson tried again, and got the same result. He hesitated, but felt foolish just standing in front of a tent flap. He lifted it slightly and called again. There was no response, no sound from inside.

Masterson caught the scent of Holliday’s cigars, onion, and the faint hint of bleach. A lamp burned within, but the tent was empty.

Masterson wondered what it said about him that he was not averse to taking advantage of Kate’s absence to glance around this temporary home she and Holliday had furnished for themselves. Masterson, however, like Holliday, was a pragmatist. He’d get over it.

Kate didn’t intend to be gone long, apparently. She’d left a coal-oil lamp and the little pot-bellied stove burning. A pan of water and onion was simmering on the top of the stove plate. A coffee pot sat next to the pan, but Masterson smelled no coffee. There was the lingering scent of bay rum. Nearest the entrance was a small table laden with china cups and blue ware.

Masterson recognized Holliday’s damaged saddle just alongside the front flap next to what he assumed was Kate’s .410, a Harrington & Richardson Pardner. There were wooden crates and a myriad of band boxes scattered around the edge of the tent, pretty much the same kinds of things Masterson had stacked in his own tent.

There was an iron four poster bed on the far side of the tent. Masterson had one just like it in his tent. Masterson had had his fill of sleeping in cots so when the Santa Fe came calling, Bat had insisted on a real bed for his tent. The Santa Fe had sent several to accommodate him and whoever else Masterson deigned to favor with the comforts of home, so Holliday and Ben Thompson slept in style, as well.

Holliday’s bed was piled with blankets, and not the thinskins favored by most of the former range hands in the camp. Kate and Doc enjoyed a beautifully embroidered album quilt and furs, no less: buffalo and, was that coyote?

A worn leather-bound trunk sat alongside the bed. On it was a mason jar filled with silver dollars. Masterson thought, given the circumstances that was a hell of a heavy thing to be toting around. One of Kate’s affectations, he assumed. There was a second mason jar filled with panatellas, obviously Holliday’s, and a couple of leather-bound books: Art de la Guerre, Masterson’s limited French managed the title, and a well-used copy of The Collected Letters of Samuel Rutherford.

Kate and Doc’s belongings were surprisingly mundane — clothing and toiletries, a few more books, copies of Popular Science Monthly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, a cache full of jewelry, not all of it real, but all of it really nice, some of it impressively so.

Masterson rummaged carefully but quickly, but found nothing shocking. Aside, that is, from a French .41 Remington 1858 Le Mat nine shot revolver and the meanest looking Bowie knife Masterson had ever seen. And seventy grand in cash in one of Holliday’s boots. Not to mention the eighty grand New Mexico bank draft payable to John H Holliday that had fallen out of one of the books beside the bed.

The most surprising thing Masterson discovered was a strong box. Its catch had no lock and Masterson did not hesitate to open it, knowing he could scarcely expect a second opportunity to satisfy his curiosity. The box was filled with letters, apparently from Holliday’s extended Georgian family.

Among the letters were photos: sincere people of various ages standing together with spouses and children, new horses, prize-winning milch cows, newly-let houses and picnics — the gamut of celebrations that comprised life in these United States for most families. Clippings from newspapers mentioned the career and church accomplishments of various members of Holliday and McKey lineage. There was even a congressional letterhead from Senator James Johnson to his nephew John Henry Holliday congratulating John on his graduation from the Medical College of Pennsylvania. There was nothing in the box that even remotely referenced Kate.

On closing the box, he realized one of the top letters had fallen to the floor. It was a small square envelope without decoration, one used for invitations to dinner parties and Masterson thought little about opening it and unfolding the small page. It was covered in a fine, flowing cursive, the words tightly packed but still covering both sides front and back.

“Dearest John,”

“I have at last received your letter dated 23 March. I hope this reaches you quickly and aides to dissipate your disquietude. I will make this letter brief in hopes that it will give you comfort until I may write longer. As it has always been your custom, you have been so valiant in your endeavors to hide your despair from me. You hope to protect my own solace, but, such is not necessary, dearest cousin. I share your heart and I hear it beat across the miles even as I write these words. God will raise us up some day, John Henry. Together, he will restore our precious dust to life, life with no ills or hurts, as beautiful as when the world was new. I will once more see the fair blue of your eyes and joy in your smile. That is my gift from Him. The assurance I have of that fact, is my gift to you. He blesses both gifts. Please accept them.”

Masterson blinked and rechecked the envelope. The return address was “The Sisters of Divine Mercy, Novitiate M Holliday, Savannah, Georgia.” Masterson was not himself a religious man, but he was not aware that nuns were supposed to be so obviously endeared to members of the opposite sex. He returned to the paper:

“In your previous two letters you have despaired of my suggestion of intentionally offering up your sufferings for the good of the souls of others. You suggested that Christ could not use the suffering of so great a sinner as yourself. Also, if I understand your letter, you believe that because you are suffering from a disease, rather than suffering for the Name of Christ, that your suffering is doubly unworthy and tainted. Suffering, as you know better than I, ma moitié, is a great mystery and is outside my ability to explain clearly. I can only say two things with certainty, sweet John: firstly, we are all great sinners. The apostle Paul murdered many saints and Christ met him on the road and promised him suffering not for his sins, but for his obedience. Secondly, all suffering, no matter its source, is sacred to Christ. He suffered most greatly and for us all. I have asked my Bishop to write to you and hope that he can explain more clearly this great grace. I believe it will bring you some measure of peace–“

Masterson slid the letter back into its envelope and replaced it in the box. There were depths to John Holliday that the legend of Doc Holliday could not fathom and that Masterson would not violate further.

He found Holliday’s cigarette case with a dozen Lucky Strikes inside, and his hand-roll makings in a saddle bag along with a half bottle of laudanum. On the floor beside the bed was an unopened bottle of Old Overholt Rye. In the trunk beside the bed were Holliday’s Whitmore and Henry rifles in their scabbards and the remaining two weapons Holliday had mentioned: a lovingly wrapped Colt Richards-Mason .38 revolver and a sheathed richly engraved Remington 10 gauge double-barreled shotgun.

Masterson heard a grunt and the splashing of water from outside the back of the tent. Over the splashing he heard Kate singing suddenly. Masterson shook his head. He’d forgotten both sides of the Holliday couplet were musically inclined. He removed himself from the tent and followed the music to the area behind the tent.

“Some folks like to sigh,

Some folks do, some folks do,

Some folks long to die,

But that’s not me nor you

Long live the merry, merry heart

That laughs by night and– Bat!”

Masterson hadn’t been certain what he’d expected to see, but Kate Elder in an apron with a washboard was nowhere on his list. She seemed to be embarrassed that he found her being domestic for once. He refused to gloat. Pissing Kate off would get Bat nothing but shot when Holliday got back.

“You’re in fine voice this morning, Miss Kate,” he offered.

Kate pursed her lips together tightly. Masterson assumed Kate was washing her chemise in the little pan sitting on a tree stump and tried to be gentleman enough not to peek. At least not while she was looking directly at him.

‘What do you want?’ Kate growled.

“I just stopped by to see how you and Doc were doing. And was there anything you two might need–“

“No.” she said abruptly..

“No? You don’t need anything at all?”

“No, we do not need anything. And if you want to know how Doc is doing, you ask him for yourself. I’m no pigeon.”

Masterson stood there a moment. He really hadn’t prepared well for this conversation, he realized. Kate continued scowling at him. He said. “Everything’s alright for you then? Doc’s been treatin’ you alright?”

“Of course. Doc is good to me. Always.”

Masterson nodded. “Okay.”

Kate seemed to be considering. “He did threaten me with a knife once. But that was a while back. And only because I was threatening him with a thirty-thirty.”

Masterson nodded again, hoping he looked reasonable.

She explained further, “We try not to be drunk at the same time now.”

“Probably wise.”

Masterson meanwhile realized the water in Kate’s bowl was a bright red, despite the strong smell of bleach. The portion of the garment draped on the washboard was white linen.

“So, if I asked you how ill Doc truly is, you wouldn’t tell me?”

“Would he tell you?” she snapped.

She had him there. “Probably not,” he admitted.

“Well, then,” was all she said.

“Even if I could help him? Would you help me to help him, at least?”

“Help him? How help him? You have a cure for the scourge of the world, this white plague?” She looked back down into her washpan. “You have no more a cure than I. My first husband and our baby died of the Yellow Fever. I nursed them both and I was never sick a day. But I could not save them, either.”

“I am sorry, Kate. I didn’t know.”

She shrugged. “Why should you know?” She squared her shoulders, all defiance again suddenly. “Doc is a badman. Cold. Hard,” she declared. “His lungs…” She dropped her head again. She looked back up at Masterson. “If you knew what he has to put himself through some days just to get out of bed– But he will not say these things to you.” She was defiant again. “And I will not betray him.”

“I wouldn’t ask you to, Kate.”

Her face was set like flint and his assurance did not soften it. Masterson tried a different tack.

“Kate, I realize Doc hides as much of his illness as he can. I understand. No man wants to appear weak, especially to another man.” She still said nothing. Masterson plowed on, uncertain where he was heading exactly.

“He was just riding with me yesterday,” Masterson reminded her. “He looked well but–“

“Well? This is well to you?” She snatched the cloth from the washbasin and threw it against Masterson’s boots.

The linen shirt plastered itself against the dark leather momentarily and Masterson could clearly see deep brown blood stains spattered across the fabric.

Kate stared at it mournfully. “He is a proud man. You cannot tell him you know.”

“I’ll send him back to Dodge, Kate. I’ll tell him I need him to… I don’t know. I’ll think of something–“

She laughed. There was no humor in it. “That is what you Earps never understand. Wyatt says that Doc makes him laugh.” She said “Wyatt” like she could spit. “Doc is his jester, he thinks. But Doc is no fool. He knows a lie when he hears it. When you are lying to him, he knows this. You Judas. I read Doc’s cards this morning. You and Wyatt. Jack of Diamonds. King of Spades. And my Jack of Hearts. The Ace of Spades. The Four of Clubs. Hateful. Hateful.”

She was obviously talking to herself now. Masterson feared he’d run her off that deep end. And there was no Holliday here to manage her.

“I’m sorry, Kate. There’s got to be some way I can help him. Maybe there is some way to buy him a bit more time. He’s only, what thirty-five?”

“Twenty-eight. In August.”


Kate crossed herself. “Lord Jesus help us,” she whispered. She slapped at the pan of bleach and sent it spinning into the grove of cottonwoods that shaded the tent.

“He is good enough when you need his guns,” she hissed. “You Earps lie and spread rumors that Doc Holliday can’t hit the side of a beef– barn,” she corrected her colloquialism, “but let someone take a potshot at one of you and who is the first man you call to protect you? My man, that’s who. And then you call him a drunkard behind his back and a murderer–“

“He does tend to attract violence, Kate, you must admit that, at least.”

“Evil stalks all things bright and wondrous, Bat.”

Masterson had to pause to let that one sink in.

He said, “I understand. He’ll just dig in his heels, if I suggest he go back to Dodge. Maybe you can use your influence with him–

“My influence? I do not know what kind of alliance you believe Doc and I have, but he does not take orders from me. He barely registers suggestions. He goes where he goes and he does what he does and he expects me to do the same if I do not like it.”

Masterson recalled the sight of Holliday and Kate on the stairs of the Dodge House where he’d watched Holliday “discuss” the issue of their leaving Dodge. He’d seen with his own eyes and had not considered the depth of what he had witnessed: Holliday’s decision made and Kate in tears. And yet here she was.

This was getting him nowhere. He’d come to Kate because Wyatt was convinced she had some form of hold over Holliday. Wyatt blamed Kate for most of Holliday’s problems and Masterson had fallen into the same snare. He should have known better. Wyatt’s understanding of women was problematic enough in Wyatt’s own life and Masterson should have known better than to simply accept Wyatt’s understanding of another man’s domestic union. Obviously, Masterson would need to man up and go to Holliday himself. He felt an ass for not having done so to begin with.

“I admit,” he said, “I don’t half understand Doc. I do understand you don’t want him here,” Masterson waved an arm at the tent, “living in primitive conditions as we are, but you don’t seem to want him in Dodge, either. What do you want, Kate?”

“I want him well again,” the words caught in her throat but she continued speaking, gasping as though the words burned on their way out. “He is the eldest son — the only son — of the eldest son. He should be home, the respected head of his own family. He should be well shod of me– and of you. I would give him up for that. To know he was healthy and happy as he was when I first met–.” She choked off the flow of words and was suddenly back to reality. She slapped angrily at her own tears. “I cannot give him this. You cannot give him this. Why do I waste my words? You Earps destroy everything you touch, everyone who refuses to obey and to fawn–“

“Kate, I am not an Earp. And Wyatt has tried to do everything he can to help Doc–“

“How? He finds Doc living his life in Texas and hounds him to come to him in some hell-hole, pissant town because he has stirred up hornets and wants Doc to watch his back. I worked for Bessie Earp. Do not tell me that I do not know what you Earps are capable of.”

It was true that Wyatt had reacted badly once or twice in Masterson’s hearing when Holliday had refused to surrender autonomy over his own life in favor of something Wyatt had taken a hankering for. Masterson admired Wyatt, would lay down his life for him, just like Doc would, but Wyatt assumed everyone should bend to his will at the oddest times. Wyatt’s own brothers could not say no to him. To do so was a sign of disloyalty they could not risk. But it was just Wyatt’s way.

Kate was demanding, “And what makes you think Doc would survive this trip back to Dodge you suddenly want him to make after dragging him out here to even less of nowhere? God is my witness, if he does not come back to me tonight, alive, damn you, I’ll gut you myself.”

“Kate. I swear I didn’t know he was this bad off. Or I would have never asked him to come.”

“So you would have ignored him, treated him like he was less than a man, a pariah–“

“God, Kate,” Masterson groaned. “I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.”

“Why not you? Doc is.”

Masterson had no answer for that.

“And you think you can do something,” she spat at Masterson’s boots. “You arrogant ass.”

She left him standing beneath the cottonwoods.


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