Chapter 8: Sir Galahad and Flour Tortillas

Parables of the Beautiful Country

by Jack E’Dalgo

Chapter 8: Sir Galahad and Flour Tortillas

“From the moment I laid eyes on him, Doc Holliday’s appearance haunted me. It does to this day.” – Wyatt Earp

Masterson had worried for Webb and Thompson unduly. Both men were back in camp minutes before Masterson and Holliday made it back on horseback. Webb and Thompson had met Texas Jack and Shotgun Collins as they’d fled to the camp at Grape Creek. Jack and Collins had actually had the presence of mind to bring extra ponies in case the two missing men could be found. The ponies, Colorado mountain bred, had made the downhill trek in record time.

Masterson dismounted and there was much hearty backslapping among them all. Holliday had joined in the laughter and ribald jokes about the men wanting potluck and pussy and not necessarily in that order. All the usual testosterone-driven drivel that serves to help men remember why they struggle so hard for life to begin with. Holliday, however, had not dismounted, sitting his horse throughout the clamor.

Thompson was busy telling any and everyone about their ordeal with the Rio gunsmen holding them captive, sending messages to Spike Buck and waiting to hear what was to be done with the hostages. There was even more backslapping and loud opinions offered to the two comrades with every sentence. The rest of the searchers were back by now, Masterson noted, grateful everyone seemed to be accounted for at last.

Webb interrupted the telling and retelling of the search, to describe, from his perspective, the shooting of their guards. There was whistling and shouts of amazement. The tale was told several times as questions were asked and answered and other men approached having heard only part of the story. Between Webb and Thompson, the distance the bullets had to have traveled became further with each telling. Finally Webb shook Masterson’s hand. “That was a damn fair bit of shooting, Bat. I wouldn’t have thought it could be done.”

“Oh, no, no,” Masterson spoke loudly to be heard over the din, “I assure you, gentlemen, I was not the one making those shots.” He turned to share the limelight with Holliday, but Holliday was gone. Masterson spun, looking past shoulders for some sign of the man. He caught the faintest glimpse of Holliday from the back, his horse picking its way toward his tent alongside Grape Creek. Masterson wanted to shout to him, and even shout at him for abandoning him to the rabble. But there was no way Holliday would hear him from this distance. Masterson squinted, confused, but there was nothing to be done. Doc musta been worn out, he surmised. Bat knew that he certainly was. And this bunch was, after all, Masterson’s responsibility.

He turned back to the men who waited for him expectantly. “Webb,” he said, “did you know Doc Holliday has a 49-inch Whitworth with an Enfield site?”

Thompson let out an appreciative whistle and tugged at his goatee.

Webb laughed. “Damn. How come Doc gets all the best toys?”

Masterson grinned. “Let’s get to the mess hall, men. I’ll join you for the potluck but you’re on your own with the pussy. If you’re sure you can still handle it.”

Half the Dodge City Gang joined in the parade to the mess hall, everyone talking at once, excited to be alive.

Holliday tethered his horse near the creek, providing access to water and fresh grass for the beast. It was not his usual routine after a ride, but he simply didn’t feel capable of standing long enough to surrender his horse to the livery, let alone walking from the livery halfway across the camp. He’d deal with the grullo in a bit, he reasoned, after he’d been able to catch his breath.

Just walking from the creek’s edge back to his tent was ordeal enough. He felt unsteady and dizzy, but refused to surrender to the sensations. He made the thirty feet to his tent with his head down for most of the way, carefully watching his step.


He glanced up. Kate was standing in the flap of their tent, drying her hands on an apron of all things. When money allowed, which it usually did, he and Kate lived in good hotels and ordered meals from restaurant chefs. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d seen Kate wear an apron. He didn’t even know she owned one. Right now she looked concerned and not a little fearful and he smiled to reassure her. He had no way of knowing the action was, to Kate, more a show of teeth than the comforting smile he thought it was.

She repeated his name again and he said hers in response. He slipped an arm around her waist as he reached the tent flap, trying not to put too much of his weight upon her, while still managing to use her to steady himself. She slipped both her arms around him and pulled him gently into the tent and to a chair at their table. She was saying something about him sitting down and letting her get his boots off.

He protested the ideas, but put no real effort into the argument. She didn’t fuss, just got him seated, and dropped herself to the floor to slide his boots off. She kept up a steady stream of conversation but Holliday’s head was pounding too loudly to hear her. His blood pressure was up for some odd reason and he wasn’t thinking too clearly. He made a few more ineffective protests about her being his wife and not his maid, and she tutted something or other. He tried to tell her about his horse and how he would still need his boots to square the horse away and she ignored him. Instead she sat his boots near the bed and poured him a whiskey. A double.

“Blessed art thou amongst women,” he said, and she removed his hat and kissed him softly on the lips before handing over the glass.

She left him with his drink and he tried not to gulp it down. It burned like a sumbitch down his throat and into his gut and managed to wake up some form of survival instinct that activated his brain and restored his hearing. He took another appreciative swallow and the room slowly came into better focus.

Meanwhile, Kate had sat two plates of food on the table.

“What’s this, dahrlin’?” he asked sweetly, removing his gloves.

“Rabbit, szívem.”

“Where ever did ya find a rabbit, ma tigresse?”

“It was eating clover at the creek and came right up to the tent. Well, almost.”

Maman tireuse d’elite. Git it with your .410, did ya?”

She nodded. Holliday continued to examine his plate. In addition to the roast rabbit, there was gravy, and wild onion. Spanish rice replaced the ubiquitous beans. He recognized braised bugle and was almost glad of it, for once. Kate did cook it at the oddest times, probably when she could locate it growing wild. The vegetable was bitter and he disliked the texture, but its roots and tubers, once cooked, had a mild narcotic effect that eased cough and helped him sleep. Kate sometimes used it for her monthly courses but he noted that she’d put none on her plate tonight. Mid-table, a basket held flour tortillas.

“Since when do ya make tortillas?” he asked in wonder.

“Since the woman in the next tent lets me buy her tortillas.”

“There is a woman in the next tent?” He knew the moment he said it he’d crossed the Rubicon.

“Why do you need to know this thing?” Kate demanded.

He showed her his hands like a dealer at a blackjack table. “Just makin’ conversation, Kitty-Kate.”

“Make it about something else, then.”

She slammed herself into her chair and stared down at her own plate. “Well,” she insisted, “are you going to bless this before it gets any colder?”

Holliday bowed his head and, not quite breathlessly, expressed his gratitude for the food, for his wife, and their collective appreciation for all such gifts. Heads upright, there was the fluttering of napkins, and the filling of wine glasses and they ate in silence.

Kate had given Holliday two teaspoons of charcoal dissolved in his whiskey. He had downed the drink without comment, possibly without even noticing. She’d dissolved the charcoal from the remnant’s of the morning’s fire. It helped alleviate pain sometimes, headaches anyway. Kate used the remedy herself from time to time.

Between the charcoal, the bugle, the whiskey, the wine and his own exhaustion, Holliday had been unable to remain upright long enough for the dessert she had made: mince with molasses sauce. It was just as well. It would make a nice change for breakfast.

She’d only just managed to get Holliday to the bed. She’d have dealt with him, of course, even if she’d had to make a mat for them on the ground. But he had lost so much weight the past few months she’d been able to maneuver him with heartbreaking ease.

Holliday had come to consciousness several times as she worked to get him to the bed and undressed. He’d apologized each time he’d become aware, even when he didn’t seem too clear on what it was he was apologizing for. That was just his way. If something seemed amiss, it must, of necessity, be down to him. She wondered what kind of man had raised such a son. She hoped that the man suffered from having lost him so utterly out here in the vast west. And she prayed that she did not lose him now that she had him.

She’d met John Henry Holliday, known him for two blissful months of the summer of 1872. This had been in St Louis. He was twenty, recently licensed as a dental surgeon, setting up practice with a friend, full of life and energy and all the dreams of vibrant young manhood. Kate had been older by mere months, but with seven years more experience at her own craft. He never knew she’d seen him first, that she had followed him down the busy streets, watched him sharing a beer with his friends, relishing that heart-stopping smile–

He’d been so innocent that he’d thought she’d just been a sweet young thing he’d taken undue advantage of in a moment of passion. She never let him dream otherwise, knowing that such a man would forever after awaken during the night and think of her. And that on those nights he would want her, and perhaps wonder what had become of her. That she would be forever young and precious to him, hidden there, always perfect, in his secret heart of hearts. She’d lay awake sometimes thinking of that when her own body was exhausted from being reduced to doing volume work, remembering that once she’d had a man who’d simply used her as a man uses a woman, no money, no abuse, no undying declarations of love, just curiosity and mutual need and the wonder of life only now being realized.

She’d met him again six years later. He was no longer that callow youth but a man of 26, already half-crushed with grief, living with a torturous disease that was nothing short of a death sentence, and with a criminal record that included at least two absolved murders to his account. It was whispered there were so many more. He had even given up his own name and wore a weapon every waking moment. Other men feared him and spoke in hushed whispers about how fast those fire breathing Colts could clear leather when the tall, gaunt doctor was cornered.

Kate had recognized those eyes, though, large and cornflower blue and clear as branch water, that straight, noble jaw line, the strong chin. The scant wisps of hair he’d been trying to grow on his upper lip all those years before had become a full sandy mustache, perfectly formed and not too bushy, just like she’d told him once she’d like it.

She’d walked up to the man her boy had become as he sat playing patience alone at a table in the cold light of a Texas morning, trying to unwind his mind from a night of dealing faro, and working at drinking himself into a stupor deep enough to let him sleep for a few hours. He’d glanced up as she’d stood there, and merely looked back down at his cards, pulling the queen of spades, ready to play. Then he’d hesitated, the one card in his hand trembling suddenly, and he’d looked at her again, really seeing her that time.

“Hello, John,” she’d said and he’d spoken her name with that same hint of wonder as when he’d whispered it in her ear their first time together. And he’d smiled, the smile of a man who had abandoned all hope only to find that goodness and mercy had indeed followed him all the days of his life after all. It had broken her heart then that she was neither of those things but she had determined to give him what she could. Because he had indeed recalled her during those six years of hell. He had indeed wanted her. Still wanted her. She could see it in his eyes.

She’d made love to him later that morning and he’d slept for two days without waking once. John Shanssey had feared she’d done something to him, but Shanssey had equally feared to wake Holliday to check him. Holliday had woken, finally, and resumed his place at the gaming tables. He’d made love to Kate almost every morning ever since. Suddenly she was no longer the sun of her own life, but merely a retrograde planet in orbit around Holliday’s dark star, slipping close and swift past the meteors that came and went in his universe. And any time she resented that, all he had to do was smile, and all her anger fled away.

In the years since, he had been good to her. He’d realized what she was, of course, standing there beside his table. Whores and gamblers ran the same circuit, sought the same customers, so of course, he now recognized her for what she was. But he didn’t care. He’d never berated or shamed her, never tried to pimp her out, never accepted money from her. He’d even grieved that she refused to let him keep her for himself, although, if truth were told, there were damned few who wanted to risk crossing the man they now called Doc Holliday.

Kate kept her reputation alive, hoping it kept others from assuming they could use her against him, but she began to rely on Doc to make their living. Men might like to brag they’d bedded the woman who bedded the fastest gun in Texas, but what they could say and what they were actually man enough to try were often two different things.

After a while, Kate didn’t even mind. Doc was a good provider. He kept her occupied and he didn’t put many demands on her. And he treated her like gold. John Henry had been her Sir Galahad in St. Louis and even now he was never cruel to her, never demeaned her. Holliday was no fool and he was no longer that sweet timid boy, but he knew she still saw him as he had been as a younger man: healthy and full of life. It was nice having someone around who still remembered him like that, he said once. He also admitted that he couldn’t think that far back with any seriousness anymore. Despite how life had tormented him, he was kind to her and generous to a fault and she tried not to take advantage of that. Most of the time, anyway.

Now, in the coolness of the tent, she had him bedded down naked under the quilts, the quilts draped with furs on his side of the bed. He no longer had night sweats these days, but his skin carried a kind of constant chill even in August, and he seemed to slip into pneumonia like some men slip into shirt sleeves.

She’d rubbed his back with bay rum to ease the tension she’d found there. In his condition, Doc needed to be sitting a horse like she needed a damned canoe but you couldn’t tell him that. He’d been riding solo since he was six, for some god-awful reason. Southerners. Who could comprehend them?

He was a good horseman and enjoyed being mounted despite the pain that invariably followed these days. He’d always dealt with pain as it came to him — and it was almost constant now — blunting the worst of it with whiskey, or a sip of laudanum when necessary, but he rarely complained and aside from an occasional involuntary gasp, he certainly never bitched and moaned about it like some men did.

Holliday refused to let pain steal his life away from him. Pain would eventually get the upper hand, he had been told, but for now he worked at building a tolerance to it, or drowning it in whiskey and sleeping it off.

Kate’s own physician had told her once that marital relations helped relieve pain, releasing something in the body that held all but the worst pain at bay. She had shared this information with Doc and they’d spent several mornings inventing double entendres and some of the most bawdy jokes about it. The laughter they’d shared in discussing the topic had been almost as enjoyable as the sex they’d tested it with.

Technically speaking, they were still testing it, she supposed, but she didn’t believe that was the only reason Doc still wanted her to keep his bed warm. Far from it, she was glad to say. The fact that neither of them were faithful she set down to their stupid pride and the ravaging demons that haunted them both. She loved him as much as she was able and she believed he did the same for her. So far, that had been enough.

About eight, Holliday woke again, tearing at the covers, trying to get his long legs untangled. She sat down on the mattress between him and his side of the bed, pulling the quilts and such back into place and generally managing to keep his feet off the floor.

“Mary Katherine!” he protested, “I shan’t leave the horse out all night, it’s not right–“

“I have taken care of the horse, John. She is in the stable and they gave her the extra oats, just like you always said to do. That’s right, is it not, John?”

He blinked at her as though only partially comprehending but he relaxed back against his pillows, at least.

She asked, “What happened to your saddle, mon bonheur? It looks like someone tried to shoot your poor horse out from under you.”

“I’m all right, Kitty-Kate.”

“That is not what I asked, John.” But she didn’t press the issue. She’d checked him for injuries as she’d undressed him, lightly stroking old wounds as she’d uncovered them, reliving the fear that had gripped her with each one, still awed by several that he’d accumulated before she had rediscovered him. At least two of those had to have brought him to death’s door just judging from their positions and angles.

He refused to speak about those. It infuriated her sometimes, but once John Henry had made up his mind about something, he rarely changed it, and she had learned there were limits to her seductions and her machinations where he was concerned. When Holliday yielded to them, he did so with full awareness. He never fell for them, he simply picked them up by their tails and dragged her to him.

Tonight she’d found a bruise that he hadn’t had the day before, on his chest at his right shoulder. It was purple, deepening to black and enlarging each time she checked it. Whatever had caused it had been a serious blow. If it was a fall from that horse of his, she would take a shotgun to the stable and destroy the beast herself.

Holliday partially woke again about ten. He pulled Kate to him urgently and hard, rolling her over him then under him onto the far side of the bed, mere inches from the edge. She responded by wrapping her legs around him and kissing his clavicle in encouragement, but he suddenly relaxed into sleep again, leaving her body to ache for want of him.

She could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times in the past three years when he’d not made love to her when they’d been in the same town together. The fact that his body, even injured and drugged three different ways, still had such a physical response to her presence left her feeling smug and not too seriously frustrated. He would make it up to her later, of course.

Kate didn’t wake again until almost four. The tent viewing flaps were open and the moon was still quite high so she’d been able to read the face of her watch from the combined efforts of moonglow and the lanterns of the Buckhorn not too distant from their tent. Her lower back ached, probably from tugging Holliday to bed last night, but it wasn’t too bad. She’d just borrow a good-sized shot of his whiskey to make up for it. She did so, pouring from the bottle he kept at his side of the bed. She drank it down too quickly and gagged then began hiccuping. A macska rugja meg!

Holliday stirred, just the faintest movement under the fur across his legs. He laid one arm across his eyes. She set aside her glass to pull the covers over his bare chest. His nipples were taut with cold and there were goose bumps on his arm although she felt the room was comfortably warm. He was mumbling something unpleasant about whoever kept turnin’ on that light, but she could tell he wasn’t truly conscious.

“Shush, now, John. I’ll take care of that old light.” She tugged his arm back down and under the quilt. It was dark in this area of the tent but she dutifully closed the one flap that allowed in light from the Buckhorn. He’d just have to deal with the moonlight from the two other open flaps. She knew better than to expect him to breath without some form of ventilation. She’d been down that rabbit hole with him once too often.

She laid down beside him carefully, hoping not to wake him while she sorted her side of the quilt and mounded her pillow just so. She pressed her hands against either side of her neck and found them warm enough, but rubbed them together anyway and blew on them a few times to get them nice and sultry before she touched him. She knew her flannel gown would be warm against his skin. In town, she would have not bothered with a gown, but she’d be damned if she’d provide a free show to half of Dodge if the kibaszott tent collapsed.

She’d slept in her share of tents but she was a city girl and proud of it. She’d only come west, she told herself, because the pay was better. There were fewer women and less competition. And here she lay beside the only man that, despite her boasts to the contrary, she’d actually bedded in three years. Life was a strange thing. Her mother always said that even the white lily casts a shadow.

She wanted to put her head on Holliday’s shoulder as she often did as he slept. She could listen to his breathing that way. She always found it a comfort for some reason and right now she felt the need for all the comfort she could get. The problem was his bad shoulder was on her side of the bed, and she hesitated to put pressure on that bruise. It had bypassed purple and its black was deepening with none of the typical reddening of its edge. It was an ugly, feeding monster there against the alabaster of his skin.

She slid lower down into the bed and laid her head against his rib cage, her arm around his waist. She allowed her hand to drape low toward his hip. She knew him well enough to know he’d see that as an invitation if he woke to it there. She smiled, allowing her fingertips to lightly stroke the skin just below his hip bone. He was a light sleeper as a general rule and the concoction of intoxicants he’d consumed at supper had long ceased to be effective.

And yet he did not move. Her ear against his rib cage could detect none of the rasping of air through damaged lungs she was accustomed to hearing. She sat up and laid her ear against the left side of his chest. She could detect no heartbeat. She shook him. Slapped him. Shook him harder. She said whatever words would come out of her mouth. She put her mouth to his ear and shouted at him.


Frantic, Kate climbed over him and out of the bed, stumbling to the wash basin. Holliday had set it up for them on a barrel, convenient for hand washing and shaving. The basin was full and the water was just short of freezing. She scooped some up in his shaving cup, splashing it on his face, going back and scooping more and splashing it on his chest. Kate thought she caught the barest hint of a wheeze, but couldn’t be certain if it was not her own.

She lit a lamp and brought it to the bed, tottering in haste in spite of her best efforts to be careful. She settled the lamp on the tall box beside her side of the bed then retrieved her hand mirror from beside the water bowl next to Holliday’s razor.

She crawled into the bed beside him and knelt, placing the mirror beside his cheek. There, in the flickering lamplight, she thought she saw the barest hint of condensation, the ghost of a breath on the mirror. She crossed herself, laid the mirror on his chest and laid her forehead against the mirror, still kneeling on the mattress, face down. She felt for his hand and placed it on her head, a head-covering and an anointing as the priests had taught her. Her man was her federal head. He covered for her. She tried to ignore the question of how much covering a dead man could provide. It was, when it came to her John Henry, impossible to comprehend.

She prayed in Hungarian. It was her native tongue, the first language God gave her and so surely God would understand her best that way.

Almighty, she whispered so low that not all the syllables made actual sound, my man, the man you gave to me. He is dying. Before my very eyes. He is dying unawares and does not even know that he is dying. Surely you do not wish this. You cannot wish this. You cannot wish to take him like this. Please. Please do not take him from me so, give me more time I must have more time he must have more time You have all time and can You not spare some little bit for me–

Her words began to string together into an endless bit of nonsense that certainly only God could comprehend. She prayed all these things, however, with no hope of an answer in the affirmative. She simply could not comprehend anything else to do. She prayed it all, all the same, until she slept from exhaustion.

And yet in the morning, he was still with her. She woke to his coughing. Kate was crumbled in the center of the bed and had wrinkles denting her face from the bedclothes. Her back was unwilling to uncurl but the sound of his hacking had her up, limbs unfurled within moments.

This was not his usual cough, the deep barks she was accustomed to, but a great, deep rolling choke, convulsive and violent.

She tugged on her full length fur, a Russian sable he’d given her one Christmas. She’d never understood what she had done particularly to deserve it. He had bought it for her all the same. He was a gentleman and in his world, that was what gentlemen did for their women.

Her gentleman was standing at the wash basin, half dressed, naked to the waist, braces dangling against his thighs, hacking his life out a bit at a time. She approached as close as she dared.

She wanted to hold him, wipe his brow, speak and be spoken to, anything, something, but she knew it would only make him angry. When he was coughing badly, he didn’t want to be touched. His skin, he’d told her once, would be raw and inflamed and he would be fighting for air and didn’t want anyone close, holding all that all-consuming fire against his body. She’d seen mornings when he’d stood at an open window with snow swirling in onto the carpet, gasping for air with tears in his eyes, unable to inhale for the fire in his lungs.

Here and now in the chill of this morning, cold water dripped down his neck and chest from where he’d washed away the shaving soap. His razor lay across one boot where it had fallen. The basin was blood streaked and clots of lung tissue floated in the water and still he coughed, a death grip on the barrel that held the basin, trying to hold himself upright. She poured him a whiskey, a full tumbler, her hands shaking so hard she lost several ounces worth on the ground. She entered his immediate space only long enough to set the tumbler beside his hand. She did this without a word. She stepped out of the tent, telling herself she would fetch John Shanssey as though he could help.

She remembered her inopportune prayer and knew God had answered her and was allowing her to see what she had cost the man as a result. God had thought enough of Holliday to take him in a peaceful sleep, in a dignified and quiet passing. But she had thought she had known better and this is what she had consigned him to, instead. And God, her willing accomplice, had let her do it.

She was overwhelmed by her guilt and left Holliday standing there without a word. She wouldn’t fetch John Shanssey. There was nothing he could do and it would only embarrass Doc when he was vulnerable and overwhelmed. And surely, she had done enough damage already.


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