Friday, March 12, 2010

A Deadwood story -- Plain Jane, part one


You know, to read some of the various accounts of life in the Black Hills during the Gold Rush back in the seventies, you would think that the only women present were either dissolute members of the demi-monde, or the occasional starched and proper lady, struggling to impose some element of civilization upon the situation.

Of course, truth is, it weren’t that simple. Truth never is.

In fact, there was actually a considerable variety of women of all classes, dispositions, and degrees of moral turpitude present in 1876 to ’77. Certainly they were greatly outnumbered by the men folk, but they were there nonetheless--hardworking laundresses and cooks, sturdy and capable farm-wives who followed the men who followed their dreams of golden wealth, and even more than a few enterprising businesswomen--as well as the numerous chippies and dance-hall gals, and the very occasional proper lady or two. And if you really want to get at the quartz-bearing, bed-rock, honest-to-Peter reality of it, in those days it was actually pretty challenging to fit a great many of the Black Hills women-folk into one hard-and-fast category or another.

Nossir, finding truth of any kind is not a simple thing.

The difficulty of sorting out truth and myth of the Gold Rush days did not stop many writers and journalists from being drawn to the Dakota Territory at the time, lookin’ for a good story. But then after all, most of those scribblers only had at best a nodding acquaintance with truth. And more than a few of them were downright strangers to the concept. Even so, there were a handful who had more than a a passing interest in uncovering good tales that also had the benefit of some foundation in reality.

Like there was this one gent named Drinkwater who came through Deadwood in the early part of ’77. Mr. Drinkwater stands out in memory as he was one of the few who actually expressed a genuine commitment to accuracy.

If you been there when J.J. Drinkwater got off the stage from Sidney and walked across the bridge into town, you would have seen a tall, thin fellah with small spectacles, a tad on into middling age and a bit balding on top in the back, but still attractive with sharp features and these piercing eyes that bespoke a curious mind and hard-edged intelligence of the sort that one don’t encounter all that often. He strolled down Main, his modest carpet bag in one hand and a leather dispatch pouch for the tools of his scribbler’s trade slung over his shoulder, surveying the bustle as he went. If you had encountered him on that day, you coulda told he was takin’ it all in, takin’ mental notes....makin’ no judgments as of yet, but still deeply engaged in the process of breathing in and absorbing all the clues and evidence and details that were laid out to be seen by those who, like Mr. Drinkwater, had a desire to actually look for ‘em.

He stopped in front of the Saloon No. 10. A woman, probably in her 40s, was busily engaged in sweeping the porch. Drinkwater observed that she was eccentrically dressed by eastern standards, wearing a plain black wool skirt with an impeccably clean apron, a stylish man’s gray wool waistcoat with shining brass buttons, and beneath that, a red flannel workman’s shirt, buttoned to the neck and with the sleeves rolled up. The woman’s skirt was a little shorter than was normally considered acceptable by most proper ladies, ending slightly above the ankles--undoubtedly, thought Drinkwater, to keep the hem from trailing in the mud and appallingly diverse shit that made up the street surfaces in this town. The shorter length of the simple skirt revealed a pair of well-worn, tall-heeled, pointed-toe boots of the type favored by Texican cowhands. But most interesting of all from the writer’s perspective was what she wore around her waist: a sturdy leather belt with a large oval Confederate army “CS” buckle; and hanging from the belt, an immense holster that was weighted down with an equally massive revolver.

Mr. Drinkwater could not help thinking that clearly, he was not in Chicago anymore. He walked over and tipped his hat, smiling politely.

“Good day to you, madam.”

“Well, a good day to you as well, sir,” replied the woman, looking up from her sweeping with what Drinkwater found to be a surprisingly genuine and welcoming smile. He had gotten used to small town folk, especially on the flint-hard edge of the frontier, to often be somewhat taciturn or downright hostile in the presence of someone like himself who came across as a bit of a “dandy.”

“Might I enquire if this would be the same Number 10 saloon where James Butler Hickok was assassinated?

The woman’s friendly smile flickered and faded slightly, and her face took on an expression that was one of cool politeness.

“Yessir, indeed it is. But if yer wishin’ to gaze at the very chair he sat upon when he was shot, or the actual table stained with his gore, ye need go elsewhere--there are multiple examples o’ both available for viewing at a number o’ establishments in this’ some other towns as well, unless I am very much mistaken.”

Drinkwater could tell this was not the first time--nor the fiftieth--that the woman had been asked this question. He sat down his carpet bag, took off his hat, and unapologetically looked her straight in the eye.

“No, madam. I assure you I have no desire to stand transfixed by artifacts of spurious provenance...nor even to look upon genuine mementos of the tragedy for that matter. I merely wished to study the site of the event, in order to gain some additional perspective on what actually transpired. Allow me to introduce myself: JJ Drinkwater, at your service. Forgive me if I came across as some mere tourist with a taste for the macabre and sensational--I am a writer, and my interest is the true and real stories of our western frontier.”

The woman’s expression softened slightly, but she apparently was still experiencing some uncertainty. Drinkwater felt like her gaze was giving him careful if she was sizing him up, reading what was in his eyes as well as in his words. Suddenly she stuck out a brutally scarred, heavily calloused hand to shake.

“Pleased to meet ye. I’m the widow Kuhr, tho’ mos’ folks hereabouts call me Dio. Yer welcome to do so, if’n ye care to.”

The writer unhesitatingly took her hand and gave it a firm shake. “I am pleased to meet you as well, Miss Dio. I would be gratified if you would call me JJ. Might I ask who is the present owner of this establishment?”

Dio laughed. “Yer shakin’ paws with her, pard...I took it over sometime after the death o’ Mr. Hickok. Kin I interest ye in a mug o’ lager beer? Maybe some grub, bein’ as it looks as tho’ ye just got off’n the coach.”

JJ was more than happy to take advantage of her offer, and was again surprised when the woman refused payment for the first beer and the plate of hot venison stew she provided him. He went through a good many more beers in the course of the afternoon--all of which he paid for, along with rounds he bought for various and sundry locals who came by and joined in the conversation. Mrs. Kuhr and her customers went into considerable detail with him regarding what they knew about Wild Bill Hickok--often from first hand experience.

He was quietly thrilled to learn that his hostess had evidently come in on the same wagon train that had brought Hickok to Deadwood in July of ‘76. Yet she made no grand claims of close friendship with the man or personal involvement in any of his adventures--something that inclined JJ to give greater credence to what she told him. She’d had only a passing acquaintance with the famous gunfighter, and had some random observations to share regarding Wild Bill’s brief sojourn in the Black Hills, but her real value to Drinkwater’s research was in her running commentary on the stories that were told by others. She served as a well-grounded Greek chorus, either confirming the accuracy of certain tales, or lambasting the storytellers when they strayed from the truth as she understood it, often doing so with the aid of some extremely colorful vocabulary. She also spent some time explaining the changes she made to the interior of the Saloon No. 10, so that JJ could better picture in his mind how it appeared and functioned at the time of Hickok’s murder.

Suddenly, this pleasant and entertaining storytelling session was interrupted by the sound of gunfire from down the street. Moments later, there was sound of small feet pounding down the boards of the sidewalk and a small flaxen-haired girl, who looked to JJ to be about 10 or 11 years old, burst through the door of the saloon.

“Dio! They say you’re needed down at the Bonanza dance hall! Some man got shot and they can’t find Doc Morpork!

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