~~~Suddenly, Calamity Jane looked at Dio with apparent suspicion. “Wait a goddamn minute. Yer puttin’ up a gol’ double eagle in this wager...what if I lose?”
The older woman smiled benevolently. “Oh I reckon I shall give ye a choice, Martha. If’n ye should not be able to go all afternoon without tellin’ any fabrications to Mr. Drinkwater, I shall require of ye either one o’ yer pistols, OR that ye take the temp’rance pledge and abide by it fer at least a month. Yer choice.”
Martha “Calamity Jane” Canary looked somewhat alarmed for a moment, then nodded. “Very well. Done. Though I ain’t fer certain as to how yer gonna know if'n what I sez is the God’s Honest ‘r not.”
“Well, hon,” I reckon we’ll sort that out as we go,” replied Dio. “Should I doubt the veracity o' some tale or statement, I shall challenge ye on it...and we shall settle it as best we can.”
The young woman laughed and slapped her knee. “Allright, I reckon the two o’ us kin figger it all out...Mr. writer gent, ya may proceed.”
JJ Drinkwater smiled and took out a notebook and set of already sharpened pencils from the pouch that carried his writing materials. “Splendid, Miss..ah..um...would you prefer that I call you Miss Canary, or Jane or...”
“Martha,” brusquely answered the young woman, without waiting for him to finish. “Jane ain’t m’ real name, an’ Miss Canary sounds...oh hell’s gatepost, it sounds like yer talkin’ to someone else, not t’ me. Most o’ m’ friends ‘n associates do call me Jane, an’ have fer years...but i would not give ol’ Dio there the satisfaction o’ me conveyin’ somethin’ that ain’t the absolute truth so early on in our conversation. I have no wish to allow the grizzled ol’ sack o’ buzzard guts any excuse to retain that 20 dollar gol’ piece. So Martha it shall be fer the duration o this conversation.”
Dio chuckled at this as JJ nodded and wrote something at the top of a fresh page in his notebook. Then he looked up, and asked in a quietly serious voice, “We should begin with your origins--what can you tell me about your family and your birth...starting with the when and where of it.”
“Well, sir,” began Martha, “I was born in the year o’ 1856, near Princeton, Missouri. M’ pa, Bob Canary was a farmer from Ohio, an’ m’ ma, Charlotte, she was mostly yer ordinary sort o’ farm wife...she bore a number o’ young’uns while we was in Missouri, m’self, an’ a brother, an’ a couple o’ sisters. I was the oldest. We left there when I was oh, mebbe ‘bout 8 year old.”
“Why did you depart from Missouri and where did you go?”
The young woman sighed. “Oh, best as I understand it, m’ pa had legal troubles. Owed folks money, that sort o’ thing. So we took off fer the gold fields of Montana, though I recall we tarried in Iowa fer a spell with fam’ly. Pa figgered he could make a decent livin’ diggin’ the yella’ metal in Montana. But he couldn’t nor didn’t.”
“Oh? What happened?”
“I ain’t fer certain, but after a while he was tryin’ to live off gamblin’...an’ m’ ma was takin’ in warsh fer other folks...an’...well, I was tasked with lookin’ after the younger chillun’...was on m’ own most o’ the time with that...even had to do a bit o’ beggin’...fortunately miners kin be generous fellers when they got some color in they pokes...oh yeah, I oughtta mention that Ma had her another babe durin’ this time, so I was carin’ fer a infant sister t’ boot, whilst Ma was tryin’ to make some money.”
JJ looked up from his notebook. “That...must have been...very difficult.” He was impressed that Martha was describing her family’s misfortune in such matter-of-fact, undramatic terms. Dio was giving off a very different affect as well. Her cocky, smug expression had melted into something softer, a sort of half-smile...and she was no longer flipping and spinning the gold piece. She left it laying on the table as she rose and went over to pour two mugs of coffee from the pot on the small iron box stove. As she returned to the table, she sat one mug in front of the writer, and one in front of Martha. Then she gently patted the younger woman on the shoulder as she sat back down.
Martha looked at Dio with an odd little smile and then turned back to JJ. “Ya do what ya gotta do. Lots o’ folks face hard times now ‘n then...people lose their farms or have t’ sell ‘em fer less than they paid...they work brutal hard t’ get by, an’ then some goddamn thing 'r other happens...a lawsuit, the cholera...or the war...an’ ever’thin’ goes t’ shit, spittle ‘n ruin. So ya try to find a way t’ get back on yer feet. But with us’n, it din’t get no better, fer Ma died a couple years after we got t’ Montana, an’ then Pa passed a few years after that in Utah. Reckon I was ‘bout 12 at that point.”
“What did you do after that?”
Martha shrugged. “I was tryin’ to keep us all together as best I could...I done things like goin’ in saloons an’ singin’ songs fer the boozehounds, tryin’ to squeeze a coin ‘r two out of 'em here ‘n there....o’ course, thing is, even then, I couldn't sing worth a good goddamn.”
The young woman laughed and took a long swallow of black coffee and then frowned.
“Some folks offered to take us in...an’ I tried to get along in those circumstances, but I’d gotten used to bein’ m’ own boss by that time. Eventually, I found sitiations where m’ sisters ‘n m’ brother had fam’lies to stay with...folks who would do well enough by ‘em. But by 13 or 14 years o’ age, I was purty much a free agent, settin’ m’ own course.”
to be continued...
to be continued...