Saturday, April 10, 2010

A Deadwood story -- Plain Jane, part 5

At this point in her interview with JJ Drinkwater, Martha “Calamity Jane” Canary paused and looked around.

“Dio?” she asked in a small, almost child-like voice. “Ya got any o’ Miz Estwee’s pie about? I am feelin’ a mite peckish.”

“Yep.” answered Dio. “Got some o’ her apple crumble. I shall fetch plates for you an’ JJ, should he care to join ye. An’ fer that matter, when was last time ye had anythin’ o’ substance fer vittles?”

Martha looked sheepish at first and then defiant. “I am quite sure that I ain’t got the goddamndest recollection...but that don’t matter bein’ as the likes o’ me kin live off’n seegars ‘n red eye quite nicely, thank ye very much...why, I kin...”

The older woman held up the gold 20 dollar piece. “No ye cain’t. Goddammit, girlie, ye know I was wooin’ John Barleycorn for a many a year m’self. Hence, I understand all too well what drinkin on a em’ty stomach’ll do to yer innards. So hesh up raht now ‘fore ye win me this bet only half way through the afternoon.”

Martha Canary laughed and mumbled something about “yes mother.” Dio then brought over plates of Estwee’s highly regarded apple crumble for her and the writer, even though JJ had not actually asked that she bring one for him.

In fact, he had not said anything at all throughout this exchange. He appeared to be lost in thought--very deep thought. Suddenly he roused himself and looked at the young woman across the table from him, fixing her with a gaze that that was both piercing and at the same time tinged with empathy.

“Martha,” he began in a slow, clear voice that picked up momentum as he spoke. “You were perhaps thirteen years old...your parents were both had no other relations to draw upon for support...and you got your siblings placed with families that would care for them, but you were on your own?”

Calamity Jane nodded enthusiastically. “Yessir! Master o' m’ own fate. Captain o' m’ own ship, by Gawd!”

“I have to ask...what did you do to get survive?” said JJ Drinkwater.

“OH hell, scribbler, it were better than mere survival.” The young woman grinned. “I followed the railroad camps as the line got built through Wyoming an’ Montana, an’ spent time around the army posts like Fort Russell an’ Fort Sanders. Yeah, I did things to get I said before, singing songs in saloons fer spare coin...then I moved on to dancing in the hurdy gurdy houses...sometimes, I was doin’ a bit o’ laundry ‘n cookin’ fer the boys who built or guarded the line, an’ the ones haulin’ the supplies. Then as I got older, yeah...I got into workin’ the road ranches, sellin’ m’ company. But don’t get me wrong. It was a great time fer a gal like me. Bein’ aroun’ sojers, teamsters, ‘n the railroad’ often bein’ like a mascot to ‘em...I also learned all manner o’ things...useful things like handlin’ firearms passable well; how to win at cards; the way’s o’ proper drinkin’ ‘n cussin’’ even how to handle a team o ‘ mule or oxen.”

The boisterous activity in a dance hall or "hurdy-gurdy" house of the type that Martha Canary worked in.

The writer sat back slightly surprised at this answer. He looked over at Dio, who nodded, chuckling, “She ain’t pullin’ yer damned leg, there JJ. She’s a right decent bullwhacker an’ muleskinner. She ain’t the best lady teamster I ever seen, but by God, she’s better’n a good many o’ the men who follow the trade. Martha’s got the two mos’ important skills ye need fer it--she handles the big whip like one born to’ she kin cuss like one o’ the divil’s dockhands.”

JJ turned back to Martha. “So...rather than what is related in all these stories...stories about you being a scout...fighting were...a camp follower?”

“Yeah...purty much sums it up, I reckon.” Calamity Jane agreed. “But mind ya, I did actually go on a couple o’ military expeditions.”

“Indeed? I had heard a story that you were on General Custer’s 1874 Black Hills expedition, and...”

“OH HELL NO,” Martha interrupted. “I warn’t never along with any o’ the column’s commanded by Yella Hair. But I did go along on Mr. Jenney’s expedition in 1875, with the rock men lookin’ to confirm the presence o’ gold in the hills. Well...I was along with ‘em as far as their camp at French crik, an’ then the officer o’ the troops that was with ‘em, he found out I’d been passin’ m’self off as one o' the young men o’ the column, an’ he sent me back with the supply wagons to Ft. Laramie. That was m’ first time in the Black Hills!”

The young woman smiled and shoveled the last bit of apple crumble into her mouth. “Say Dio, could I get me another cuppa joe here, t’ warsh the pie down?”

While the older woman refilled the coffee mugs all around, Martha Canary continued her narration. “T’other military expedition I went on was Crook’s campaign against the injuns in June o' 1876. Got to go along on that lil’ jaunt by dressin’ an' workin’ as a muleskinner in the pack train o’ the column.”

“What happened that time?” asked JJ

“Oh, well, damn if I didn’t get caught once agin, an’ was sent back to Ft. Fetterman with the wounded after the fight on the Rosebud.”

The writer looked pensive. “Tell me, Martha, what possessed you to want to go along on those expeditions?”

Calamity Jane smiled. “Goin’ with Crook...well sir, it certainly was an adventure...but mostly twas fer bizness purposes. As a matter o’ fact they was two o an’ another workin’ gal known as ‘Little Frank.’ She dressed like a feller too, ‘til we got caught. But they was a surprising amount o’ money to be made on a trip like that.”

Quite actually, JJ Drinkwater was not particularly surprised to hear this. Marching through the wilderness, there wouldn’t be anything else for the men to spend their pay on. Even if the girls only managed to conceal themselves for a short while, a couple of prostitutes obviously would do very well working amidst a column on campaign. But Martha Canary’s next statement did catch him a bit off guard.

“On the other hand,” Martha said with a sigh, “I went on the Jenney expedition in order to be with this fella--a sargint in the army--who I fancied more than others. Just so ya know, Mr. scribbler, I ain’t always flexible with m’ affections. In point o’ fact, I prefer to be settled down with an agreeable man. An’ I have done times, steadily enough to regard the fella as m’ husband--tho’ without benefit o’ clergy, o’ course. It’s in between those occasions that I have turned to whorin’...”

It was at this point that JJ Drinkwater had something of an epiphany. In her wandering from place to place, attaching herself to closely-knit groups--soldiers, bullwhackers, railroad navies--not to mention floating in and out of more-or-less monogamous relationships with “husbands”...Martha Canary probably was looking for a new family, a place to belong...a situation to fill the void once occupied by parents and brothers and sisters...

And her habitual sessions as bar-room raconteur and every man's congenial drinking buddy...ultimately, that too was most likely about wanting to feel “at home” someplace. Even the temporary companionship of saloon “pards” can seem like a form of family for a little while, especially when the companionship is lubricated by the sharing of plentiful liquor and some whacking good stories.

JJ paused for a moment and then asked his next question in a quietly earnest voice. “While we are on this subject...the subject of men for whom you formed a particular affection...might I ask about your connection with James Butler Hickok?”

“Hehe, WILD BILL!” laughed Calamity Jane, “now that was a MAN!”

Suddenly Martha stopped and looked over at Dio, who was frowning...and who had resumed spinning the gold double eagle. She smiled wanly at the older woman and sighed before continuing.

“Yessir, Wild Bill was one hell of a man. He warn't a’feared o’ nothin’ this side o' Satan’s outhouse. He dressed ‘n acted like a real’ was probbly the finest pistolero, cardplayer, former scout an’ sometime lawman you could ever hope to meet. An’ no...while I thought he hung the goddamned moon, he had no interest in me. Bill ‘n me never took up together. He’d jus’ got married to some lady from Ohio, after all. But we got here in the same wagon train, ya know...ya see, I’d kinda gotten in a little bit o’ trouble around Ft. Laramie ‘bout the time that Charlie Utter’s outfit was restin’ up near there for the last leg o' their trip t’ the Black Hills. The provost marshal at Laramie kinda suggested it might be a good idea if’n I accompanied the Utter party to the gold fields.”

Martha chuckled and took a big swallow of her coffee. “I knew some o’ the boys who was workin as teamsters fer Colorado Charlie, an’ they talked him into lettin’ me jine ‘em. An’ in all honesty, there was, in fact, a man I formed an attachment to in that party...but it warn’t Wild Bill. Twas Charlie Utter’s brother, Steve. We got on quite well, him an’ me..fer a while anyhow. But Bill...he...he liked me...I think. I made him laugh sometimes...’til he got irritated with me, an’ then he’d send me off ...or one time, he give me some money, tellin’ me to get cleaned up an’ dressed like a gal...”

She laughed and slapped her knee. "That was somethin’ it was! Good ol’ Steve, he done took me to the Whitewood crik an’ give me a hand with the scrubbin’...Wild Bill an’ the others claimed they din’t even reckanize me when I was done gettin’ all dolled up. Bill made much o’ askin’ t’ be interduced to this ‘new lady’ when I come around to show him how I looked...but no..that was what m’ connection with James Butler Hickok amounted to. It was kinda like bein’ a mascot to the sojers or the bullwhackers agin...or mebbe...mebbe like a lil’ sister who ya tolerates an’ then lose patience with after a spell...”

Martha Canary’s voice had softened and taken on a slightly plaintive edge. “I took it right badly when that mud-eatin’ cocksucker McCall shot Bill in the head. Took it even worse when that miners’ court let him off an’ jus’ tol’ him to get the hell out o’ town. McCall got what he truly deserved in the real trial in Yankton. But that warn’t gonna bring Bill back. Things jus’ warn’t the same with any o’ us after his killin’...”

JJ Drinkwater nodded. “ did people come to start calling you by the ‘Calamity Jane’ nickname?”

“Well ya see, pard, it’s like this,” answered Martha in a very serious tone, “they’s actually a number o’ Calamity Jane’s from here to’ it’s just that when someone like me enters the scene, all peace an’ quiet is generally disturbed by the great rumpus I will sooner or later set in motion...we's like a calamitous event that stirs things up! But I think I am most likely the best known o’ any o’ the Calamity Janes...”

Dio nodded in agreement. She rose and stood behind Martha Canary and placed a hand gently on the plain-featured young woman’s shoulder. “Yessir, that’s a good explanation fer the name...this here gal is like a force o’ nature...some calamity like a whirlwind or a flood or a wildfire that’ll turn things upside’ like she says..make one hell of a distrubance...but some o’ us think it’s a bit more’n that....Martha’s had her some hard luck o’er the years. We all catch some bad breaks...part o' goddam life...but ye kin argue that she’s had more’n her share in her time.”

JJ Drinkwater closed his notebook. He was not going to disagree with Dio’s assessment.
to be continued...

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