It had a fancy peep sight mounted on the wrist of the stock, which was decorated with checkering...and the receiver was case-hardened steel, the colors o' which seemed to ripple in the sunlight.
Just the kind of shiny piece o' hardware that would make any gal feel right purty and all equipped like a fine lady.
Anyhow, as she worked her way up the hillside behind Main Street, she noted her friend JF Kanto seated upon a stump gazin' off across the gulch into the distance...but not really looking at nothin'... if ya know what I mean. JF had just recently stepped down from his duties as a lawman...of his own volition, it seemed. But nonetheless, as she got closer, Dio caught the glint of a bottle--an empty bottle--in the weeds behind the stump.
She called out in a manner so as to not startle him, and waved. JF stood and smiled at her an' walked over to exchange greetings in a most cordial manner.
JF an' Dio always liked each other. Not in that way o' course. JF was a bit younger than Dio, and he was hitched to Lola, a gal who had been workin' at the Bella when they first met. And Dio was committed in her feelin's for Sepp. No, it was more that they had both grown up in Texas...been through some rough times that were similar....it was kinda like they could speak a similar language, that they understood one another in the way that only comes from walking a mile in your neighbor's boots, as they say.
In private conversation, there wasn't much they couldn't say to one another. Though I will admit that there were things in JF's past that Dio was vaguely aware of, but she had too much respect for the man an' his privacy to enquire about. Some things you just don't talk about unless the other feller brings it up.
Anyhow, they got to talking, and being as JF seemed inclined to have some company, Dio said what was on her mind.
"So JF...now that yer off from bein' law..."
"Yes?" JF looked at her with an expression that suggested he knew what she a was going to ask.
"What you doin' with yer time?"
The recently retired lawman looked down at his boot toes. "Dio...I been..."
JF sighed and pushed his hat on to the back of his head and then fixed his gaze on his friend.
"Goddamit. I been drinkin' again...a bit," he answered, shaking his head.
"A bit?" asked Dio. "Or more'n a bit?"
JF Kanto smiled slightly. "I...well, shit....yeah, a lot." Then he sighed heavily and frowned. "Lola has had to help me home more'n once."
Dio kicked at a rock on the ground at her feet and then looked up at JF. She commented soflty, "Well, pard...ye know that is a journey I took m'self for a good many years."
"Damn it all, Dio, I know...and it's a journey I took once before too," he replied.
Dio nodded and continued, "One thing I can tell ye, is if'n ye make it to the end o' the journey an' come out t'other side, back onto another path...yer gonna be stronger fer it. I know it don't make sense in a lotta ways, but I look on it as bein' part o' the fire that tempers yer steel."
The man looked deeply into his friends eyes, his face largely impassive, but there was something about the look in his own eyes that led Dio to ask a more personal question than she would have under normal circumstances with JF.
"Things allright twixt you an' Lola? I ain't seen her about fer quite some time."
JF grimaced a bit. "Would be better if I stopped the drinkin', I reckon. I 'spose it reminds her too much of what she used to have to put up with....at the Bella."
There was a pause while Dio sighed a bit and looked out across the gulch for a moment. Then she turned back to her friend and asked, "Do ye want to stop the drinkin?"
JF nodded. "Yeah, I do."
"Well, one way o' doin so," replied Dio, "is just get away from it an take to hard work. Even before I stopped complete, I managed to dry out quite a bit....by goin' onto the grasslands an' makin m' livin as a bufflo runner fer two years. Hell, I couldn't get drunk cuz they was no likker at hand...just hard work."
"Yeah, that would be one way," said JF lookin' thoughtful.
"But," Dio went on, "the real thing is ye gotta figger out why yer drinkin'....an' goddam well go do somethin' about that root cause. With me it was m' grief bein' outta hand. T'wasn't the drinkin' what had me in its power...it was my grief that had control...an' m' disappointment...in m'self. An' hellfire, I was also angry at Jack fer goin off like that an' gettin kilt, truth be told. He din't have to go....but...well...now...I got a different perspective on all that now. An' gainin' that perspective was the only way to climb outta the bottle fer good."
The former lawman nodded in understanding.
They stood in companionable silence for another moment, looking off over the town. Then Dio asked another question.
"You angry, JF?"
JF Kanto briefly pondered that and answered, "No, not like before...when I was drinkin' heavy the first time it was 'cause of havin' lost someone...Nancy...but now...I just feel lost..."
Dio considered this statement, trying to understand. "So...before, when ye was dealin' with yer hurt by means o' drinkin', twas because ye lost yer Nancy...now...yer feelin' a empty space inside again...but because ye have lost yerself?"
JF gave a small sardonic laugh. "Dio, I only ever been good at one thing. I was doin' it before I got here, and then was doin' it here in Deadwood...and now I've gone and resigned from it...."
Suddenly, JF whipped around, his Colt leaping from holster to hand as if by magic, and he snapped off a round that shattered the empty bottle behind the stump. Dio noted that he returned the pistol to its holster without bothering to eject the empty casing and reload. That really struck Dio. It wasn't like the JF Kanto she knew.
JF seemed to be considering his words carefully. Finally, he spoke .
"Dio, do you know what I was before I came to Deadwood?"
Dio's face was fairly impassive--but not unsympathetic--as she answered, "Not fer sure...but I reckon most likely ye made yer livin' with yer irons..." She paused for a moment before adding, "one way or t'other."
JF's face had turned hard, and he nodded. "Yeah, my guns were for hire to the highest bidder...I killed for pay...and sometimes, just out of pure cussedness. An' bein' drunk most of the time, to boot."
Finally, Dio asked the question that you only asked a real friend. "How many men have ye kilt, JF?"
JF answered softly, "Not counting the war.....17 men...also not counting women and children."
Dio's faced betrayed no trace of either condemnation or approbation regarding her friend's reply. She just nodded. It simply was what it was, and she was not about to say anything judgmental. Her reply was phrased as nothing more than plain acknowledgment of the reality of both their histories:
"Yes, pard, that's more'n enough. I only have kilt 11 by my reckonin'...not countin' Comanches, bein' as the rascals always took their dead an' wounded with 'em, so's I cain't really say as to that number. But yes....you an' me we have both done our share."
She realized that JF was looking at her with widened eyes.
"Goddamn Dio," he muttered. "I knew you were handy with the irons, but...."
Dio shrugged. "Look, JF...I jus' hope to Providence I ain't never gotta kill another man so long as I live...mebbe yer at that particular fork in the road yerself."
"Maybe, " JF replied pensively. "I dont...I can't be what I was before...but what to do?"
"No...ye cain't go back." Dio agreed. "An' not jus cuz yer still wishin' to save yer soul an' make it to the happy huntin' groun'...but also cuz...well, JF, the West is changin'...us old coots what grew up on the hard edge o' the frontier...they ain't gonna be no place at'all fer us soon if'n we don't change with the times."
JF looked at Dio. He knew she was right about how things were different from even just a few years before.
"Yes." he said dryly. "It is a world that keeps changing....I just ain't sure what's next though."
Dio's eyes sparkled and a faint smile crossed her lips. "You 'n Lola got some land outside town don't ye?"
"Yeah....got a little place in the hills," JF replied.
"You done much with it yet?"
"No, been too much in town."
"Well, ye got some time on yer hands now, don't ye?" said Dio.
JF Kanto chuckled a bit, "Yeah, too much."
Dio nodded. "Well sir, let me make ye a proposal here, what ye might ponder as a possibility. Let's consider what else yer good at--besides work with a gun....I know that yer a helluva horseman....ye spent some time nursemaidin' cows er hosses?"
The ex-lawman laughed. "Yeah...but damn, I always hated farm work. You know...I got some book learnin'....I've read most of the classics...my mother insisted I learn to read and write...I don't like to let on, as some gets put off by it"
Dio arched an eyebrow at this information. "Well, pard, I'm seein a side to ye which ye have hidden well...but here's what I am gonna suggest...at the end o' the year, Sepp is gonna be comin' back...his hitch...his last one..is just about up. I'm gonna sell all my shares in Hearst's company what Al left me, an' take that cash, an' we's gonna buy some land not too far from here. Sepp 'n me was thinkin' upon raisin draft hosses...."
"You could make a tidy profit off'n the sale of them critters," observed JF.
"True enough," replied Dio. "But they's more to it than that...we was also considerin' makin' it a ranch where folks from the east could come an' pay fer us to take 'em ridin' an huntin'...hell's britches, raisin' heavy hosses don't take all that much time...ain't like with cattle." Dio spat and grumbled, "Stupid goddam animals."
JF laughed. "Ain't gonna disagree with ya on that point. But how does this have anything to do with me?""
Dio grinned. "What I was thinkin' was mebbe if'n we could find land next to yer'n...or...hell, if we kin find some place big enough, you could sell yer tract an' come in on the deal with us. Together we could buy a much bigger place together than the twain of us kin separately. An' we would make it a workin concern with belgians 'n percherons to sell...and maybe a few head o' goddam cows...but we also bring folks out, show 'em a workin' ranch, and mebbe you 'n Sepp, mebbe even some o' our friends from amongst the army injun scouts, could take the gents on long hunts 'n rides..."
JF was obviously giving the concept serious consideration. "Well...hmm I suppose it would be a way for me to keep too busy for the whisky. Would need to discuss it with Lola, but I reckon she would like the idea."
Dio looked pleased. "I'm guessin' you an Sepp would get on well...ye know he's well-read hisself...he studied medicine, an' read all them classics as well, before he give it up an' came back to Texas...an' wound up a captain o' rangers." Dio laughed a bit to herself. "Ye know, he used to read Shakespeare to the Tonkawa 'n Lipan Apaches in his company...they quite liked the stories what was about revenge 'n death, 'n honor..."
JF grinned. "Yep, I reckon they woulda...he sounds like a fine fellow. And the idea...I think it has merit..."
Dio returned the grin. "Well, ponder on it, m' friend."
"I will," answered JF. Then his face darkened slightly. "Dio, can I ask ya a question?"
"Sure ye kin, pard. Ask away."
"Did Lola ask ya to talk to me...or have I been acting the fool big enough for all to see?"
Dio shook her head. "No, pard...no, she has not. An' I cain't say as ye been actin' a turrible fool so as to stand out from a crowd o' fellers who truly fit the description. No...I could tell ye mebbe been strugglin' a bit, but then 'tis only as I have walked that path myself."
JF Kanto sighed. "It pains me o' think o' what I been putting Lola through of late. I would not have blamed her if she had said somethin' to ya."
Dio gave a reassuring smile. "No, pard, she has not said any words to me regardin' yer state o' mind, nor anythin' else...when I have seen her it's been nothin' but howdeedo's an' a smile. She ain't the sort to display her concerns like a circus parade fer all to marvel at..."
"No, she ain't," agreed JF.
Dio coughed. "Not like some folk hereabouts," she muttered.
JF laughed and then looked very serious again. "Yeah, I have been a fool..."
Dio shook her head. "No sir, not a fool. Jus' strugglin' a bit. An' with folks like us...we keep our own counsel an' try to fix things on our own. Mind ye, I ain't sayin ye NEED any hep with addressin' yer troubles...but sometimes it's just a bit easier if a couple o' fren's is workin' on their lives side by side...kinda like mules in a team..."
"Yeah...good comparison...I am a bit mule-headed," JF chuckled.
"JF, I will be deeply gratified if ye will consider this plan I have proposed. I mean lordy, think about it...they's all these books 'n articles about the Black Hills fer folks back east to read...Neil is always goin' on about what people think about it...like it's this land o' magic an' myth...we already see folks drawn to it..not by gold...but just wantin' to live a part of it fer a spell...to see it, taste it, 'fore it's gone...an' I expect that's gonna happen more 'n more..."
"Yeah. Makes sense," commented JF
"Well, pard," Dio contined, "We could kinda hep some o' them folks...fer a reasonable price o' course. Look, how much o' what we done fer the last year was straightening out some feckless greenhorns an' steerin' 'em aroun' the pits an beartraps?"
"Quite a bit, I reckon,"
Dio looked quite pleased with herself and her reasoning. "Well, there ye go! There's somethin' yer good at...somethin' besides usin' yer irons. Yer good at helpin' folks an' showin' 'em what's what. Ye could do that, an get compensated fer it for a change."
The discussion seemed to be having some effect. JF Kanto looked like a new man. Dio could see the wheels turning in his head.
"Stand back a tad," he said softly.
Dio did so, and after she had moved back a few steps, JF drew his pistol once again with his right hand, and cocked the weapon. With his left hand, he pulled a small, flat bottle filled with an amber liquid from his jacket pocket. He tossed it a good distance in the air and fired, breaking the bottle as it descended. He opened the loading gate on his Colt, and after punching out the two empty casings from the cylinder, he took two fresh cartridges from the loops on his belt and carefully replaced the rounds that had been fired. Then he turned to Dio and smiled.
"I gotta go find Lola and talk to her. Thank ya Dio. Oh..and by the way...right fine looking rifle ya got there. Looks like it would be a dandy for doin' some huntin' with."