Sunday, July 12, 2009

A story from Deadwood -- one warm afternoon in the Gem

This is one of my favorite stories from the early days of the Deadwood sim, re-posted from the Road to Deadwood Forum. It didn't start out as a story, it was actually an impromptu bit of roleplaying that happened between myself and my friend Sepp. We did this scene, pretty much as you read it here, with both of us making it up as we went along. Sadly I did not save an actual chat transcript (we didn't have the forum at the time, and there seemed to be no reason to do so), so I had to reconstruct it from memory. It 's a bit cleaner and a bit more polished than what actually transpired, and some of the descritpoive elements have been fleshed out to give it some depth. But the spirit of what you are going to read here is as true to the real encounter as I could make it. And yes, Foxy and Lil were eavesdropping, thank you girls. And thank you Sepp.

The Gem saloon in the Deadwood sim, ca. late 1876.
Photo courtesy of Mr. Rod Eun

Dio was back in the corner at the end of the bar, drinking her coffee and trying to not pay much attention to the usual Gem noises. Willie the bartender was breakin' wind like a buffalo with bad digestion, Foxy was yelling at someone about something or other, and a couple of drunks were arguing and threatening each other in that vaguely hilarious way that only dimwitted inebriates are capable of. Lil was, as usual, in the back "medicating" herself.

All in all, it was just another normal afternoon at the Gem Saloon, Deadwood City, the Dakota Territory.

Dio's ears, attuned to picking up new noises from the usual din, noted the sound of boots moving towards her across the broad uneven planking of the Gem's floor. Instinctively she turned, expecting to see good ol' Lefty or Daz, or one of the other boys that made the Gem more than just another booze parlor.

Instead, it was a figure that was not one of the usual cast of characters--yet at the same time it was strangely familiar...not too tall, slightly stocky....and dressed in a manner that set the wearer apart from the usual run of cowpokes and miners, trail trash, drifters, confidence men, dandified grifters, and pointlessly arrogant pistoleros that seemed to make up the bulk of the male population in this wretched little tin-plated piss-pot town.

He had on a blue army shell jacket of an obsolete pattern, decorated with faded yellow cavalry piping; a battered old-style forage cap; yellow-striped blue breeches, stuffed into riding boots; and a heavy revolver--a venerable cap and ball model that had been converted to cartridge, she noted--and he had it worn butt-forward, set at the perfect angle to be efficiently drawn while fighting from horseback.

Her eyes traveled up to the face...sun and wind burnt, rough features with a small, neatly trimmed beard..and a eyepatch...the surviving eye, looked straight into hers, and she knew him, then and there. Even with all the changes that can be wrought by the passing of 16 years, by traveling thousands of miles on bad coffee and worse food, by taking the impact of yankee shell fragments and prison camps and witnessing the deaths of friends and enemies at close hand, living out an endless life in the saddle and carrying out orders that may or may not have made any sense to a man who loved reason and logic and human decency...through all the damage that had been done over time and distance to the young man she had once known...she recognized him.

He stopped next to the bar, a good eight feet or so away from her. Not all that far, really. But it felt to her like a great chasm still stood between them, and he seemed to understand and respect that. After a pause, a voice, soft but deep, spoke to her, quietly, but at the same time cutting through the surrounding din, like the light of a hand lamp piercing the dark of night.

"Hello Diogenes. Some gentleman told me I could find you here."

She could still only look at him blankly.

Another pause followed, but he never took his one-eyed gaze away from hers.

His voice was still quiet. "I am sorry about Jack. For what it is worth, I wanted to let you know that I did my best to keep him alive. I am desperately, truly sorry."

Finally she spoke. "Hello Sepp."

Then the words came out like a small flood, "Cap Johnson's boys come to see me after they got sent home. They tol' me he din't suffer none. An they give me his ol' forage cap. An' they needed them some money..but wouldn't accept a gift nor a loan from me, so the eldest, Mo, he done give me his calvry sack coat an let me give him some money fer shit...please, tell me the truth, Sepp...and goddam you to hell for ever if'n yer lying to me...was it quick? Did he really feel nothin'? did..."

The old horse soldier did not flinch, his expression was like stone: impassive, grim, but still looking straight into her eyes. "On my honor, Dio, it was as quick as a soul can depart this minute we were all sitting there on our mounts under some trees, waiting to move out. And all of a sudden there was a woosh and a bang, like a huge clap o' thunder, and we all went down..and Jack was gone. Same shell killed his horse, and my old bay, Ceasar, and took my eye, and few other less noticeable pieces of me, and it hurt one o' the other boys something dreadful..."

Sepp dropped his gaze to the floor for a moment and then looked up into her eyes once more. "Dio, if I thought there actually was a God, I would swear to you on his Holy Book that Jack felt no pain in his passing."

"I...well...the boys told me that...but you know how fellers'll tell a widder just about goddam anythin' tryin' to spare her feelin's. I'm right glad twas the truth. I believe you Sepp. Funny...I still got Mo's gray woolens, but damn me if'n I din't lose Jack's cap somewhere..." Her voice trailed off.

Silently the soldier reached into a haversack he carried, and pulled out a very battered old gray military cap. It had dark brown stains around jagged holes..the kind of holes that no moth can make.

He gently set it on the bar, in the gap in between them. She stared at it as if it was some strange creature...

"I found it on your kitchen table at the ranch Dio," he said. "I got there just as the foreclosure auction was ending. You were one knew where...but I saw the cap and I picked it up, I thought maybe you might want it some day."

She continued to stare at it. Her face was impassive, set with a determination that would have held a world of meaning for Sepp's Apache and Tonkawa rangers from before the war..those men would have understood what her face meant, and would have appreciated it. A single tear slowly etched it's lonely path down her cheek.

"He loved you very much Dio," Sepp continued. "Jack was not a man of many words, he didn't have much to say a lot of the time, but there wasn't a day that didn't go by that he didn't think about you and miss you terribly."

For the first time he took his single eyed gaze away from hers. He looked at the floor. "I had something I wanted to give make sure you knew how much he loved you...that locket with your picture...when I came to, I ... I got it from Jack's..well Jack's mortal remains...I had it with me all these years...I was determined I was going to give it to you how much he loved you..that locket, that picture that when he thought no one was looking, he would pull out and gaze at it, and, well...he loved you more than can rightly be put into words."

He again raised his one eye to meet hers. "But damn if I didn't lose it..just a few weeks ago..must have been a careless damn fool and lost it on the trail somewhere..."

Now it was his voice that trailed off.

For the first time she smiled. A tight, wry, ironic smile.

"It's allright, Sepp. Someone I god, they, um... sort of found it." She pulled it out of the pocket in her buckskin skirt.

For the first time since he had walked into that barn-like shithole of a saloon, he smiled.

Suddenly her expression changed.



"That note you left for me..with Mr. Bu..."

"The old Chinese gent, your neighbor?"


"What about it?"

"In told me to stop hunting for you up in the hills, to wait down here in town..."

"Yes. It was too dangerous for you to be doing that, Dio."

"In said you din't want nothin' to happen to me...cuz you loved me."


"That true?"

"Yes it is. Dio, I've always loved you."

She regarded him in silence for a moment and then slowly, quietly asked, "Even back then...when we was young an just bein' foolish?"

"Yes. And if your next question is did I love you just like a sister...or a right good friend...No. I loved you the other way. But Jack was my best friend. I was always happy for you two. You two being married...well, it was the best a fellow could hope for under the circumstances."

"That how come you never got hitched?"

"Well, it wasn't all of it, but yes, by God it was a big part of it. No woman ever seemed to quite measure up to you, Diogenes."

Suddenly, without a word she moved closer to him. She slowly put her arms around him and pressed her head against his shoulder and began crying. Huge heaving sobs, as years of pain and loss and emptiness poured out in a wave that wracked her slight body. He gently put his big paw-like hands around her and held her... even as she began hitting him on the chest.

"Goddamit" she hissed. "Goddamit to hell and back, you lousy ol' good fer nuthin' feckless saddle-tramp sonofabitch! And you know somethin' else? You look like a goddam idjit in that blue monkey suit."

For the first time in years, the old soldier laughed. He laughed so hard tears came to his eyes.

They kissed...gently, tentatively at first, and then the kiss lengthened and became more intense. And then, arm in arm, they walked out of the Gem and down the street towards her new home in the back of the laundry at the end of China Row, in that very good location right next to Mr. Bu's popular opium house.

Neither noticed that they had left something behind on the bar: an old gray military cap. Later the next day, she would remember it was still there and would go retrieve it. But life, as it does, seemed to have moved on...


  1. I've sat down to read this half a dozen times nd everytime been called away, hence this late, late reply.

    That was brilliant! I loved it - there was a real sense of emotional release in there. I actually found myself reading faster as I went along, not wanting it to be over, but rather being swept away in the flood waters. Keep em coming! x

  2. Thanks HB. Like I said, this is one of my favorite scenes. I think one of the reasons that it means so much to me is that at my age one can be almost overwhelmed by the sense that for so many of us, our lives are essentially about searching for something. And all too often that something was a thing that at some point we had, but may not have realized what it was or even that it had been present. In this case, at least my characters have a chance to understand what they were looking before it is too late. Wishful thinking on my part? Evidence of being a hopeless romantic or foolish optomist? No, I think I am just too soft-hearted to not give Dio and Sepp a chance.

    Anyhow, I'm glad you liked it, my friend.