Authors: Dan Arnold
Our house was on the very outskirts of town, on the west side. It was down right beside Bear Creek, the stream for which the city was named.
The house, a huge, two-story whitewashed wooden structure with a wraparound porch, sat on about thirty five acres of land. From our back porch we had a grand view of the mountains.
Before we were married Lora had run a boarding house there, and we continued to take in boarders after we were wed. That all ended when I was shot by one of our guests.
Although we were no longer accepting boarders, Lora decided to continue serving lunch and dinner on the premises. This kept Consuela employed, and made use of the space, without endangering the family. I found it amusing (and rather convenient) I was now living in what was arguably one of the best restaurants in Bear Creek.
It was a mixed blessing.
I had both the opportunity and the responsibility to greet and interact with the visitors. I was aware I might’ve become an attraction for some folks, kind of like a trained monkey, a caged bear or some such oddity.
I’d smoothed things over with Lora, and she agreed to allow Bat Masterson to stay with us until the next day. It turned out he was something of an attraction himself.
At lunch, we discovered Bat was an accomplished raconteur. He held our guests spellbound as he told them stories about his time in the west.
We learned, as one of the buffalo hunters in the second battle of Adobe Walls, he helped hold off a combined force of Comanche and Kiowa for three days.
That was interesting to me, because my friend, Yellow Horse, was on the other side in that fight.
Bat went on with stories about living in various boom towns. He never mentioned his days as a deputy to Wyatt Earp in Dodge City.
“Yessiree, now, Creede is
place to be. She’s going to be a great city. Folks, I’m telling you, money flows like water there and so does the whiskey.
I arrived in that delightful locale right at the start of the boom. There were dozens of new minors arriving every day.
King silver lined our pockets, until the fire swept through town. Most of the buildings were just tents and slap together shanties. I had a fine gambling hall, but the fire wiped us out. My place was burned to the ground and there was nothing left, not so much as a single unbroken glass. Why, even the paper money inside my safe was all burned up. That fire nearly destroyed the whole town, but Creede can’t be kept down. No sir! She’ll come back bigger and better than ever.” He paused for effect.
“Isn’t that the way it goes, folks? One day I was a well-established, wealthy, and prosperous business man. The next day we were all vagrants, and poor as church mice.
One day, boom, the next day, bust. The town is still booming, but we’re busted. My wife and I are forced to make a new start in Denver,” he concluded.
“What brings you to Bear Creek, Mr. Masterson?” Someone asked.
“Well, I had planned to open a gentleman’s sporting club up in North Fork. I intended to sponsor prize fights and other similar propositions, but now I find myself without sufficient funds to do so. I decided to have a look around and see if the climate was healthy enough to risk securing a loan for the purpose.
I’m given to understand the mines are not paying out as well as they were. And recent events,” he glanced at me, “have changed the climate up there. So, I’m exploring new opportunities.”
“Have you considered Bear Creek? We have a fair grounds and rodeo arena. We even have horse racing. I would think this would be an ideal location for a prize fighting venue. Maybe you and the Missus should plan to move up here, from Denver?”
“That is a possibility. I’m considering my options. Today, I’m just spending some time visiting with my friend John, here.”
Lora narrowed her eyes and glanced my way.
It was pretty clear she did not like our house guest.
When the lunch crowd eventually cleared out, I sat down with Bat to do the interview.
“I understand you were in Dodge City with Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday. Is that correct?” I asked, seeking some common ground.
“Yep, me and my brothers and Wyatt and his brothers, were all the law that was needed in Dodge. It’s where I first met Doc.”
“I met Doc Holliday in Dallas, years ago. He filled a tooth for me. He got into a shooting scrape there and had to leave town in a hurry. I never saw him again after that.” I said.
“Well, I did. I saw him again in Tombstone, Arizona. I was going to work for Wyatt, but there was an incident in Dodge City which required my attention, so I went back to Kansas. I never saw Doc again. He died right here in Colorado, just a few years ago.”
“I know. I heard he died in bed.”
“Yep, he finally wasted away. I always figured he would go out in a blaze of glory. He was a man who should’ve died with his boots on, but the consumption finally got him. It sure took a lot longer than anyone thought it would.”
We sat in silence for a moment.
“Are you ready to tell me about what happened up at North Fork?” He asked.
“Sure, but the story didn’t start there. Let me tell you a somewhat longer tale.”
Bat licked the end of his pencil, and nodded expectantly.
When we were done with the whole story, he started asking questions to clear up the details.
“Are you sure Martin Pogue was one of the men killed?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear it. He was a bad outlaw. If any man deserved to die in a pool of his own blood, it was Martin Pogue.”
“We all do.” I observed.
“I said we all deserve to die horribly.”
“I don’t see it that way.”
“Bat, my point is we’re all sinners. We want to look at other people and see their sin, but we don’t want to recognize our own.”
“Speak for yourself, sir!”
I nodded. “I am speaking for myself. But, be honest, you must agree your choices have often included certain attitudes and activities which are not above reproach.”
“Reproach from whom? I don’t believe society has the right to determine what is, or is not, acceptable behavior for me, or anyone else.”
“I wasn’t speaking about society, but it strikes me as an odd position for a lawman to take.”
“When I was a lawman, I enforced the law because without it, in those places, there would’ve been complete anarchy. I didn’t have any sense it was important to have a bunch of laws to regulate people’s individual morality.”
“Now, Bat, I’m sure you would agree there are some folks who just don’t have much sense or self-control. People lie, cheat and steal. It just comes naturally. Unless we recognize and confess our sin, God will not forgive or change us. It’s an important part of being a Christian.”
“Perhaps, but I am not one of them. I believe self-preservation is the only true morality. In this life you have to take advantage of every opportunity to get ahead. No one is going to give you anything. You have to find a way to get it for yourself.”
“So, you don’t worry much about sin?”
“What is sin? If a person wants to gamble, I see no harm in it. The same could be said for drinking and carousing. I imagine most folks would call those things sin, but a little of that now and then is harmless enough. It’s how I make my living. There’s always some sucker who’s just asking to be taken advantage of.”
“Spoken like a true sporting man, Bat.”
“Oh yes, I am that, John,” He grinned.
Bat’s attitude worried me. I was concerned he’d become a complete reprobate.
I walked over to a side table and took a deck of cards out of a drawer.
“Perhaps you would be interested in a little game of cards.” I said, shuffling the deck.
“What do you have in mind?”
I fanned the cards, and selected three. I dealt them face up on the table. One of them was the Queen of Hearts. I turned the cards over, face down.
“…Three card Monte? You’ve got to be kidding me.” He exclaimed.
I quickly slid the three cards around, with a flourish.
“Let’s call this game ‘Follow the Queen’. You just have to guess which card is the Queen of Hearts. Would you care to bet on it?”
“I know what it’s called. I also know I can’t win. You’ve used some sort of sleight of hand to palm the Queen.” Bat said. “Where did you learn to do that? You’re as good as anyone I’ve ever seen.”
“Perhaps you would rather play the Shell game?”
“Of course not, what do you take me for?”
“I take you for a sporting man, Bat.”
“Now see here. If you’re suggesting I’m a cheat or scam artist…As I said, you are mistaken sir.”
“No, Bat, I’m not suggesting you’re a scam artist. I’m telling you I used to be one.
I learned to play these ‘games’ when I was still just a kid. I grew up in a traveling carnival. I got to be pretty good at sleight of hand tricks.
We Romani would sometimes take advantage of the ignorant and the ‘sucker’ you referred to earlier. We did little harm and then we moved on. But I felt remorse for the deception.
I know people who are very good as short change artists and a host of other two bit tricks. You know, Bat, the short cons like these, they’re all as crooked as a dog’s hind leg. You might think they’re harmless. But wrong is wrong.
There are also people who are good at the long cons. Those cons that take hours, days, or even weeks to put in place, and tend to pay off with big rewards of money stolen from people you call “suckers.”
“I told you…I don’t do that.”
“I heard you. I’m not saying
do. However I have to consider the company you keep. My point is; I’m not a sucker. Don’t ever mistake me for one. Do we understand each other?”
“Why, John, you’ve wounded me. I’ve given you my assurance I will not attempt to take advantage of you, in any way.”
“I’m taking you at your word for it, Bat”
“It would not appear you do.”
“You correctly told me a man’s reputation is largely out of his control. I know you have a long standing association with Soapy Smith. Need I say more?”
Bat hung his head.
“No, I hear what you’re saying. The man sticks to me like a bad smell. He has a lot of power in Denver, and he practically ran Creede.”
“That bad smell you speak of is the smell of corruption. It’s what sin always leads to. No man should ever have to try to convince other people he’s not a crook, especially not a man like you. I’d get shut of Soapy, if I were you.”
“I intend to.” He said, looking me in the eye.
Sin is real and always destructive of whoever embraces it. Sin isn’t so much a particular act, as it is a matter of the heart, a sickness of soul. The wages of sin is death. There is a spiritual death as well as a physical one.
It’s not my place to judge another man’s heart or know his ultimate destiny. Bat had attempted to befriend me, so I put out my hand.
“That’s good enough for me.”
We shook on it.
The next morning, I was out of the house early and arrived in my office in the courthouse only to find it already occupied.
“Morning, John.” Buckskin Charlie Owens said, as though we met like this every day.
Buckskin Charlie Owens had recently been an exhibition shooter in a traveling Wild West show. He could do amazing things with a handgun, or pretty much any type of long gun. He’d been billed as “Buckskin Charlie Owens, the world’s finest marksman and fast draw artist.” These days, he’d cut his hair, and he seldom wore the double holsters, or the fancy fringed buckskin coat, which had been part of his stage persona. He still had a big bushy walrus mustache. He’d been well on his way to becoming a famous entertainer, but Charlie had gotten sick of show business. Most folks still thought of him as “Buckskin” Charlie.
Before the Wild West show, he’d been a little known and underappreciated law man. I was thrilled when he accepted my job invitation. I’d recently promoted him to Chief Deputy.
This morning, he was sitting at my desk in my “official” office on the first floor of the courthouse. We had another office downstairs in the basement, near the jail. That was his usual post, but with me out these last couple of weeks, he’d taken custody of my office.
“I suppose you want your desk back…”He said, as he started to stand.
“No, Charlie. You stay right there.”
He raised his eyebrows.
“I just came in to tell you I’m going to be gone for a little while longer.”
“Oh, alright, I understand. I sure am looking forward to you coming back though. I hate having to be the man in this office. Now I understand a little about how President Cleveland must feel.”
“Kinda makes you appreciate the bad guys, huh?”
“Shoot yes! I’d rather spend my time with the men locked up downstairs than have to deal with the people who walk into this office. I swear; the criminals are more honest and less likely to stab you in the back.”
“I know what you mean. Listen, I’m going to attend the meeting of the Board of Commissioners tonight, so you won’t have to be there. I’ve got some things to talk over with them.”
“Appreciate it, but I’ll be there anyway, if you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind at all, Charlie. I just don’t want you to feel like you have to.”
He nodded once and changed the subject.
“How are you feeling, John, you healing up alright?”
“Good, Charlie, I’m doing fine. I just need some time to work out some personal stuff.”
“You bet. Don’t worry; we’ve got the duties of the Sheriff’s department pretty much under control.”
“Have you heard anything from Ed?”
I’d left orders to send my deputy, Ed Burnside, up to North Fork. I’d sent him up there after the shooting trouble in the town. He was supposed to stay up there for two weeks, or until the worst of the riff raff had pulled out. It all started, when the Governor instructed me to put an end to the open corruption, prostitution, and gambling up at North Fork. I’d given the town notice they had one month to get it done. Two weeks into the month, I found myself shooting it out with some bad outlaws.
“He came in late last night. I haven’t seen him yet this morning.” Charlie said.
“Seen who?” Ed asked, from the open doorway.
“Hah, just the man I was looking for.” I said.
We shook hands.
“Sheriff, I heard you’d been shot. You look a little the worse for wear, are you OK?”
“I’m fine, and you’re a sight for sore eyes. I was afraid I was gonna have to ride up there to check on you. Has there been any trouble?”
“No sir. The local ‘sheriff’, Tommy Turner, hasn’t been much help, but he never tried to interfere with me. I’ve had to say and do some things to get the point across, but I haven’t had to deal with any really strong resistance. I’ll bet fifty people have pulled out of town, in the last couple of weeks.”
“I’m glad to hear it. I knew I could count on you.”
“Yes sir, but I think I’ll need to go back up there. Least ways, someone will have to. I don’t mean to say Tommy Turner can’t be trusted…”
“…But Tommy Turner can’t be trusted.” Charlie and I chimed in.
We all shrugged, simultaneously.
“That’s one of the things I need to address with the Board of Commissioners tonight.” I observed. “If you’re willing to go back up there, I can’t think of anyone better than you.”
“Yes sir, but I need some things…”
“Whatever you need to do your job, I’ll see you get it.”
“Yes sir, only do you think maybe I could get my pay?”
I looked at Charlie.
“I’ve got your pay right here,” he said, opening one of my desk drawers. “I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to get it to you, Ed.”
When I left the courthouse I walked over to the livery stable. I spent some time grooming Dusty. I hadn’t seen him much since I’d been shot.
I saw Alexander Granville Dorchester III, the proprietor of the livery stable, approaching.
“Hey, Al,” I said, my usual greeting.
I needed to discuss the matter of Dusty’s board. The county was paying to have Dusty boarded here at the livery stable. If I took him home with me, Al could lose some income.
There was considerable convenience to having him at the livery stable. Al took good care of him, sparing me having to feed him at least twice a day, and keeping his feet properly shod.
Then again, we had good pasture down by the creek and our barn had stalls. Our two carriage horses were quite content there.
“Al, I’m thinking about moving Dusty down to my place. What do you think about that?”
Al nodded thoughtfully.
“Sure would beat having to hike up the hill into town every day, especially when the snow falls. You can ride him up here, and ride back down in the evening. I know he would enjoy having some room to roam around and roll in that good grass you have down there. It isn’t natural for a horse to have to be penned up all the time.” He said.
“Maybe the county would still pay his board bill, if I had him boarded here during the day.” I mused.
“Well, you do what you think is best. You know I’m pretty fond of him myself.”
“I’m gonna give it a try. Jake wants to ride him some.”
“How are those kids doing? I kind of miss having them around here,” he said.
“Do you, really?”
“No, not really, it’s not safe here for children, and they worried me some.”
“It was kind of you to let them hide here, not chasing them off.”
“Tonight, at the meeting of the Board of Commissioners, I’m going to address the issue about all the orphans in town.”
“Good. I’ll come to the meeting myself.”
“You might want to speak to some other folks about the meeting, too. It would be good if some of the more prominent town folk were there.”
He squinted at me. “Say now, it’s a good idea and I’m gonna do exactly that.”