By Lyrissa S.C. Sheptak
This drivin’ rain insists on finding refuge in my covered wagon. But my saturation and misery doesn’t seem to bother its conscience. Life in these Black Hills is tough, and these stunted mountains surely live up to their name — especially on a bleak day such as this. Shadows falling on the evergreens cause them take on a swarthy complexion. Accented by perpetual mud, rock and timber, this place is on the road to hell. I actually like Deadwood, however. I could call it a breath of fresh air, although this cess-pool of humanity is about as filthy as my soul. That’s fine by me, though, I feel right at home here. And with the likes of people like my pardner Charley Utter and few other fellers of questionable integrity, we manage well enough. But lately I feel that ‘just managin’’ ain’t good enough anymore. I’m weary. Let me rephrase that. I’m utterly exhausted. It’s difficult keeping one eye reconnoitering ahead, while the other is forced to keep vigil over my shoulder. Thank God for whiskey, it numbs the demon that has taken up residence in my soul. It helps me forget how things have come to this, and it’s why I’m makin’ my way to the No. 10 saloon.
* * * * *
“Well, if it isn’t Wild Bill Hickok. Sit down and join in.”
It’s my old pal, Captain Massie, speakin’ to me as he stacks his poker chips. But that thorn-in-my-side bastard, Charles Rich, is at the table as well. Man that feller’s a piece of shit. He caused me all that trouble in the Gold Room back in Cheyenne. I feel like taking him outside and givin’ his ass a good whoopin’. But not today, I didn’t sleep well again. It’s those damn dreams, they wear me out. I’m tired and don’t have much fight in me today. Rich don’t know how lucky he is.
“Rich,” I nod at him. “How ‘bout you changin’ round with me.” Everybody knows I prefer to sit with my back to the wall.
“No chance, Bill. I quite like it here. Besides, no one’s gonna kill you. Yer too superstitious anyways. Take a seat and join the game already — yer holdin’ it up.”
I mull over his words and shake my head. Too many people in this world hate me. Too many more want to see me dead.
“Bill!” It comes sharply, “Either yer in or yer out.”
“Fine,” and I sit down in the open chair and note the distance from my seat to the nearest door. It feels like a snake is slitherin’ up my spine. I don’t remember the last time I left my back so vulnerable.
“Atta boy, Bill!” Massie declares, “Let’s play cards.”
“Nope. I cain’t do this.” I stand up just as fast as I sat down. “I cain’t sit like this,” and I kick my chair out as I stretch to my full height. And as I tower over them, and pull back my suit jacket to expose my weapons, I notice their silent acquiescence. Massie’s eyes linger on my guns, but Rich’s do not. He pretends to study his cards. My weapons are my closest allies, always ready and standing at attention. I wear them butt-forward in open-topped holsters because it makes for faster hands when I draw them underhanded and spin them forward.
“Rich. Move it. Change round,” I growl again.
Rich’s eyes slowly lift from his cards to meet mine dead on. I notice they take on an ornery glow. “Well Bill, it’s like this…not gonna do it. But yer welcome to sit over there.” With his oversized chin he points across the table. “You’ll be facing the main door like you prefer, you’ll just have this here smaller door at your back. But I ain’t gonna move. Besides, you’ve got me, Massie, and Mann to protect yah.” His laugh is shrill.
“I don’t need no protecting from girls like you. But fair enough, I’ll sit where you want. I ain’t afraid of nothin’.” But in my mind it ain’t much of an improvement and I still feel uneasy.
“Good, good. Everyone’s happy then,” Mann says trying to diffuse the tension. He deals the cards, tossing them out easy, and the jokes and stories come out the same way. It only takes a couple of rounds to figure out that it’s not much of a game. Uneventful. No one really has money to play with. But nobody has anywhere else to go. So I give my mind full dominion to wander.
It wanders straight to Agnes and a wave of loneliness washes over me. Then that loneliness is quickly chased by a pang of humility. I was supposed to come to Deadwood to get a stake in the gold fever and move us into a life of less dangerous pursuits. I didn’t have much money to work with, so I thought I’d gamble a bit to better our chances. But when things are left to chance, it’s just that, and nothing more. Gone all this time and nothing to show for it, and still she loves me. I don’t feel worthy of such a love, but I’m deeply grateful for it all the same. Contrary to what some may say, I’m true to her, and it’s easy to stay true to her; but there certainly was a time when I moseyed from one filly to the next.
But I’m married now…and older. Here in Deadwood, I feel like a piece of just that – dead wood. I’m strained, weathered, and exhausted from always having to stay one step ahead. Springs in my holsters, guns under my pillow, crumpled paper ‘round my bed, always sittin’ with my back against the wall. Always. If it weren’t for these tricks to keep me on the alert, I’d have been killed years ago either by a no good coward, or my sleep depravity. All my so-called friends say I’m superstitious. But I like to think of myself as a survivor. I always seem to find a way to be the one still standing after the smoke vanishes from the shot. But at 39, I’m feeling it. I may very well be the oldest gunfighter around. Gunfighter, mind you, not gunman. There’s a big difference. Us gunfighters follow a code. That code defines and sets us apart. Gunmen are just nasty bastards. They have no rules, and they’re a rotten kind of human who kill out of rage and revenge. They’re fueled by fear and hatred.
It’s funny, though. I’ve never feared the bullet. It means nothing to me. Like I always say, what’s to fear if you don’t actually believe the bullet can do harm? I never understood why people run wild when shots are fired. Hell, I can stand in a middle of a battlefield, drink my tar, and watch the display. No bullet ever scared me. Bullets are faster than people, and it’s worse to get a shot in the back while running away (even to safety) than it is getting struck from facing it head on. The only fear I hold within is that I won’t die in a fair fight. I don’t want to die from a silver bullet in my back, because then, what was all this for? And that’s why I’m so tired. I’m always watchin’ out for all the people who lurk in the darkness and want to shoot me from nooks and crannies. They’re predators. Oftentimes I feel like I’m being hunted.
The other day I said to Charley, “Charley, I feel this is going to be my last camp, and I won’t leave it alive.” I meant it. Dead in Deadwood — I really felt it settlin’ in my bones. Utter just laughed though, thinkin’ I was joshin’ him. But I wasn’t. I don’t want to die with my boots on. But he’s never known what it’s like to be me. A legend. My life has been full. I treat each of my stints as Pony Express rider, army scout, Union spy, lawman and gunfighter as a badge of honor.
But lately, I just want to get lost in the mess. It’s nice just be a regular man – driftin’, gamblin’, drinkin’. Free. Nothin’ better. Especially now. Here in Deadwood, I can almost forget that I’m a legend. But it’s the others who keep reminding me what I am. Nobody forgets. Nobody. So I’m left exhausted, and perpetually sore from taking my fair share of tumbles, cuts, shots, you name it. This old body is full of scars. And I’ve gambled away a little too much money too. Don’t tell Agnes. But it’s brought me to the verge of vagrancy.
“Bill! Wakey, wakey. Are you in the game or dreaming about your latest screw?” That’s Rich again, of course.
“I don’t know fellers. Maybe I’ll throw in the cards and head out. My mind’s just not in the game today.”
“Aw, don’t bother. If you’re not too spry, why, it’s better for the all of us!” Massie laughs at his own joke and passes up a crooked smile.
He’s actually not a bad guy, so I shrug and say, “Alright then, I’ll stay.”
Mann, a fan of mine, puts on a silly grin and asks me, “Hey Bill, what are you carryin’ on your hip now that you got rid of your two smooth ladies – I sure would have loved to caress your ivory handle Colt .45s.”
Rich pipes in, “Do you shoot like shit now, Bill?”
“They’re Smith and Wessons, but they do the trick just fine, Rich, thank-you very much. You don’t have to worry about me. I’m the talent. Not the gun.” I peel one out of the holster, do a few tricks and ‘Curly Bills’, and everyone around the table looks impressed. Except for Rich.
He’s an ass and makes my blood boil. I glare at him hard enough so he understands that he’s only one more smart-mouthed comment away from me taking this here gun, holdin’ it against his head and pullin’ the trigger. It’s common knowledge that when I hit hard times not long ago, I had to give up my ivory handle colts to pay back a debt. It was the hardest, most humiliating, thing I ever had to do. Giving up the most accurate, sharp-shootin’ guns that were ever made feels much like taking a bowie knife, slitting open your stomach and waiting to die. It made me almost sick to my stomach when I walked away from those guns, because when I left them behind, I felt like I’d never be safe again. The bullets flew out of those barrels with deadly accuracy. In fact, I can no longer get a proper night’s rest because I fear that one day I’ll awake from a slumber only to find those fancy Colts pointed down the bridge of my own nose by someone who wants to take his revenge. But so far so good. I’m still alive.
You see, it’s the fastest draw that always wins. I’m fast and a crack shot, even on a bad day. Prince of Pistoleers, they call me. Like I say, kill them before they hit the ground. Then they can’t shoot you in the back when you’re walking away. But there is such thing as being too fast, and I know that feeling all too well. And my actions have haunted me since. It’s hard to live with some sins. And yet I’m called a legend. Where does my plight take me when I’m such a hero? There’s nowhere else to go but down, I suppose. And I’m not ready for goin’ so low as six feet under. So what’s next?
“Wakey, wakey, Bill.” Rich flicks my hat and laughs.
“Aw don’t worry about Rich, Bill. Keep doin’ what yer doin’. Yer makin’ me a wealthy man today. Remind me to buy a round of drinks in celebration.” That’s Massie shakin’ me up again.
And I realize that it’s not so bad to be playing cards with this rag tag bunch of mess-ups. And it certainly hasn’t made a difference where I sit. And for a fleeting moment, I feel comfortably numb. Right now I’ve got my friends, a game goin’, and some smooth whiskey. Who knows what tomorrow will bring, but as for today, it’s treating me well enough.
“Damn you! Take that!”
Everyone is startled and I try to turn around and see who’s yelling. But all of a sudden, quick as lightnin’, I have a terrible pain in my head and it rips through my jaw. I’ve never felt anything like it before, and it feels like my jaw is being sliced apart. I cain’t understand what’s happening to me, and I certainly cain’t concentrate. My thoughts are scattered and the pain is searing. Then something flashes and the chaos gives way to a flood of memories. I cain’t control the speed in which they come.
First, I’m on the wide open plains where Buffalo Bill and I raced our ponies. Then, I’m in Abilene, walking down the promenade proud and shining up my new Marshall’s badge. Next, I’m target shootin’ with my brand new ivory handle colts. Perfect shot every time. No surprise. Finally, there’s Agnes when I last kissed her. She’s wearing a worried smile. Then the memories stop so violently that it almost trips me up. My mind goes completely blank. And try as I may, I can’t see anything but blackness — as if I’m lost in the smoke of a freshly shot gun. So not to panic, I stay calm and still until this haze lifts. Damn, what was in this whiskey?
As the smoke lifts I notice a scuffle, and some feller, practically a kid, is screamin’ over and over again, “Damn you! Take that!” Why is no one shuttin’ him up? Maybe I should do it. I reach for the butt of my gun to give him a good smack up top his head, but I’m unable to grasp it. Then upon closer look, I realize that I am very detached from things, as if I have an eagle’s vision from up high in the sky. What kind of whiskey was a drinkin’ — Turpentine?
“What’s goin’ on?” I holler as deep and as powerfully as I can. But no one hears me. The screamer tears out of the saloon leaving the others to lock-up hastily and tend to something on the ground. Everyone’s crowding over that somethin’. But as Mann pulls away, sure as shit, there’s been a killin’. I hope they don’t credit this one on me. My numbers are based solely on the killings I’ve done with my own guns, lookin’ my enemy straight in the eye.
There’s deep red blood pooling around the poor feller’s head. The bullet went in the back of the head and exited out of the front cheek and jaw, ripping apart the face leaving not much behind to identify the victim. Who got shot? I do a quick count – Mann’s there, Massie, Rich, Young. I wrack my brain trying to remember who else was in the No. 10. But today I was so lost in my thoughts that I never paid no heed. I notice my coveted hat on the floor. Damn. My jacket too. Realization hits me with the ferocity of a wielded axe.
It’s me. The dead man on the ground is me.
The others fall silent and stare at my body crumpled on the ground. And I must say, I look disturbingly pathetic. My biggest fear has come true. I was shot in the back of the head; I died with my boots on. It terrifies and saddens me at the same time. God damn. What a humbling end to a life that was lived so large. It’s left me with a sudden and overwhelming urge to weep.
The men shuffle around my body, not knowin’ what to do. Someone mumbles how angry Charley’s gonna be when he finds out. No shit, I tell myself. Charley’s gonna raise hell when he finds out. Everyone is stunned silent, almost afraid of the reality of what just happened. But it’s that damn weasel, Rich, who pipes up, “Well, well. If it ain’t for judge Colt and his jury of six. But in this case, all it took was only one well-placed shot.”
“Wait till Charley gets his hands on you! You’ll have hell to pay for sayin’ that!” The others have to hold Young back as he leaps forward to attack Rich. “You’re insensitive.”
I notice an unsettled Rich take a shot of whiskey, scratch his head, and ponder out loud, “Maybe I shoulda given him my seat.”
Silence falls over everyone. Dare I say they’re ‘deathly still’? Just like walking among the dead on a battlefield. They wear looks of dread and confusion, while I, for once, feel none of it. And I’m surprised that I like this feelin’. I’m free from bondage. My soul feels absolved. My burdens don’t suffocate me anymore.
An emotional Young croaks out, “Look at his cards — aces and eights.”
With his sleeve, Rich wipes the whiskey from his mouth and responds, “I’m not normally superstitious, but I think I could start now.” Staring at my cards scattered on the table, then staring at me, he downs another stiff shot and declares, “Those there aces and eights, fellers, is what I call a dead man’s hand.”
But I beg to differ. Those aces and eights aren’t the sign of a dead man, for I’m no longer held ransom by this world. Those aces and eights have become a surprisingly welcome banner of surrender. My white flag is hoisted, and now I’m gladly waving it. For once I can finally rest in peace.
Lyrissa S.C. Sheptak resides in Alberta, Canada where, when she isn’t taking care of the needs of her family of six, she’s writing non-fiction and fiction. As well, she’s the Assistant Editor for Nasha Doroha magazine. Lyrissa spent her youth wandering North America’s forts, historical parks, and battlefields. Those experiences not only heightened her imagination, but influenced her future. She attended Yale University and received her MA in 19th century American Frontier Military History. Lyrissa is an historian who comes from a storytelling lineage, and this passion compels her to bring history alive.