"You rotten son-of-a-bitch. You cheated me. You double-dealing horse turd."
Those were fighting words I heard in a Dodge City saloon in the summer of 1870. Somebody was about to get shot.
Here's what led up to the confrontation.
The love of my life that I'd follow anywhere was Gamblin' Gus Grayson. He got that name because of his trade. He was plain Gus to me.
We came to Dodge City 'bout a year ago. We rode up from Texas, where they didn't take kindly to a man defending himself over a game of cards and killin' somebody. Gus had a sixth sense about the game and sore losers. It was time to move on to Kansas. The day we arrived, Gus picked some daisies on the way in for me.
"I love it when you give me flowers."
"Bessie, they're pretty as you, my love." He filled his lungs. "You know, I think we're gonna like this place. With all these bars and gambling spots, we oughta' do real good here."
I followed Gus into one of the more prosperous-looking saloons so we could both get a shot of redeye. That coffin-varnish Rye doubled as paint-remover, but it burned good all the way down.
I took a seat at a table while Gus, at the bar, ordered a bottle for us with two glasses. Propping my elbows on the table and my chin in my hands, I recalled my past, growing up in Tennessee as a Doctor's daughter. My father went into the Confederate Army as a doctor and was murdered in Virginia. A Yankee raid killed everyone in a small town where the wounded were cared for. When the war came to Tennessee, I served as a nurse, and because of shortages, I cared for the horribly wounded fresh out of battle. I learned to extract a mini-ball out of a chest. I learned how to cut off a lower gangrenous leg of a soldier, saving skin below the joint, so when we severed the leg, we'd have some skin to wrap around and sew together for a stump and later fitted for a wooden leg. I only fainted the first time.
I had my own .36 caliber black powder revolver and learned to shoot even better than when I was a kid. I'd rather die fighting than be captured by a Yankee if it ever came to that. When the war ended, I came west, and that's where I met Gus at my first job in a dance hall. But all that's in the past. I shook my head to get back to the present.
Looked again at Gus. He was standing next to some bullwhacker who smelled like the Ox team he drove on the freight wagons.
"Hey, you're Gamblin' Gus, ain'tcha? And over there's your girl, Big Butt Bessie, ain't it?"
They didn't know I heard 'em. Yeah, I'd let some of my weight gravitate to my rear side, but it wasn't polite pointin' it out.
"She goes by Bessie. Better be careful what you call her. She's damn near as good a shot as me." Gus looked at the guy from his dusty boots to the ratty cowboy hat he wore. "You know me?"
"Naw, we ain't never met. I'm Pete. I hear'd about you two from other towns I drive my wagon through."
The ox-driver smiled. "You dealin' cards here?"
"That'd be my intention, Pete." Gus grabbed his bottle. "Here, want a neighborly shot of redeye from my bottle?"
The dusty old driver nodded. "Mighty fine of you. I'm a pretty good poker player. Might look you up the next time I'm in town—on my way out today."
After a quick, friendly drink, Pete shook Gus's hand and walked to the end of the bar where another obvious friend waited. They shook hands, gave each other a shoulder slap, and Pete left.
* * *
To the cowpokes, he was smooth-talkin and could crack a joke that not all of 'em could understand. Didn't matter. In his younger days, he mighta' palmed an Ace, but these days he was good enough to win way more times than losin' playing fair and square.
And he was generous—could afford to be. He even donated money to help buy the bell in the local church.
We settled in with a room over the Silver Dollar Saloon, and Gus set up business. He'd gamble way past midnight, and then we'd make love till daylight. He was all man and made me feel good down to my toes.
Didn't mean we never argued. Our strong wills brought us to near blows more'n a few times. But it was better'n ever when we sobered up and made love again.
"Damn, I hate you sometimes, Bess, but I don't think I could live without you." That's what he said when we'd make up. I felt the same way. I think we were made for each other.
* * *
The fall came, and we enjoyed long rides to places where the green tree leaves turned golden. Gus and I would set up empty bottles, and both of us practice shooting. While Gus was a whole lot faster on the draw than I was out of my purse, my .38 broke as many bottles as he did.
"I swear, Bess, you're a better shot with your pistol than I am at those tiny bottles."
Mighta' been true, and I loved how he respected me when he wasn't drunk.
One time we rented a buggy instead of riding our horses. I wore a dress. We set up bottles and shot as usual. Then, nearin' lunchtime, when the cartridges ran low, I suggested we have the sandwiches and apples I'd brought in the picnic basket to eat.
"Why don't we walk the horse a short ways down the trail with us? I think there's a little stream, and we can all get some fresh water and eat," Gus said.
We walked on either side of the horse's head with Gus holding the bridle. Just when we could see a tad of water pokin' through the trees, the horse whinnied, and front hooves went up in the air. He backed up a few steps.
"This ain't good," Gus said. He looked all around. I saw the movement in the leaves on a large limb. We both saw the fur move at the same time. The mountain lion's eye locked on me.
"Look out, Bess," Gus shouted. At the exact moment the cat sprang, Gus jumped in front of me, and the cat landed square on Gus' chest and knocked him to the ground. The horse dashed off, and I fell to the ground when his reins tore from my hand.
Gus struggled with both his hands and tried to keep the big cat's mouth away from his head and neck. One paw was already digging in his right shoulder. Blood turned his white shirt crimson.
Sitting upright on my natural center of gravity, I snatched my gun from my handbag on my wrist. I didn't reload, but I knew it wasn't empty-two or three shots, maybe. So I aimed and followed the action less than five feet from my eyes, I couldn't hit Gus, but I had to shoot.
BLAM-BLAM-CLICK as it hit on the empty cylinder. I was aiming for the big cat's head, and it worked. The cat stilled and collapsed partially on Gus, who shoved it off of his bleeding chest with his good left arm.
"You got him, Bess, good shootin' for sure. One behind the jaw and the other in his ear."
"I guess I did," I said and rushed to his side.
"Yeah, that old cat scratched my arm and shoulder up a bit."
"A bit? You saved my life, you old coot. But you got slashes wide as the Colorado River and gushing blood like a spring flood. We gotta get you bandaged up in a hurry and get you to town and the doc." My heart pounded like a bass drum and was tryin' to leap outta my chest. I didn't want to tell him I was worried he'd bleed to death long before we could reach the town. I had to try to save him.
We gingerly managed to get his jacket off. Then, with the tablecloth from the lunch we didn't eat and the two cloth napkins, I was able to stop the beet-red flow for the most part. Once loaded in the carriage, Gus hunched over and leaned against me as we started for town.
"I guess holdin' off that wildcat took a bit of strength outta me."
"Giddy-up, horse," I said and whipped the reins.
"Ow," he said as we went over a bump.
Torn between racing to town at full speed and the bumps that'd make the bleeding worse, I put the horse in a trot—a good steady pace to minimize the jolts.
"Hang on, my love. Don't you even think about leaving me here without you, or I'll haunt you in Heaven forever."
"Don't you mean the other place? Down . . . "
"Where ever, you just keep-a breathin' ya hear?"
It was the shortest ride to town possible. It was the longest ride I ever took.
We did make it to town, and I got him to the doc, who was amazed he was still alive. The doc's office smelled like a dead animal with a sprinkle of alcohol. Not the cleanest place, either. On the table and after cutting his shirt off, I saw all of the gashes and slices in his right shoulder, arm, and chest-even a couple on his right upper leg. Pressure had stopped most of the bleeding. The doc got his stitching kit out.
The doc shook his head."Wow, Gus, that cat really worked you over. You're gonna look like a lady's cross-stitched pillow cover when I get through pulling you back together in all these places."
Gus moaned. "Just get it over with quick, Doc."
I spoke up. "I've done plenty of stitching in the war, Doc. How 'bout I lend a hand?" He looked at me with a bit of surprise and a raised eyebrow. Then he tightened his smile and nodded.
We put a round wooden stick in Gus' teeth to bite down on cause it was gonna hurt. We'd do occasional rests and let Gus have some gulps of whisky.
After nearly two hours, the old sawbones and I finished. He wiped Gus' brow and then his own. He looked at my stitches in the rib and belly area and two short slashes in his leg. "You do a very neat job and line the skin up well. And you never went to medical school?"
"Nope, but lots of field practice."
"Well, you're good. Say, come with me back here to wash up and let me have a word."
I looked at Gus, nearly passed out and resting easy, so I followed him out.
"Gus's had a good bit of shoulder muscle and tendon torn, and likely he'll have very little use of that right arm again."
I shuddered, thinking that his fast right hand with a gun had saved him more than once when challenged to draw. He shot fine with the left but not a quick draw like the right. I told the doc to keep it real quiet about the shoulder. The doc understood.
* * *
We lived like hermits most of the fall in Dodge City while Gus healed. We both got bored with the four walls and a window for scenery. To keep us occupied, we played cards. I was already good, but with Gus carefully talking about reading people's faces and listening to the voice changes and how they did or didn't look at their cards, he made me nearly as good as him.
"Damn, Bess," he smiled and said to me. "Depending on luck, you could beat me in poker, and certainly those overconfident cowboys."
I smiled both at the compliment and because I knew he was right.
* * *
What wasn't so fine—he passed the time drinking while dealin' hands. I laid low so's not to start anything. I'd hate to tear up that shoulder of his more'n it was.
He didn't want nobody to know, but his best gun arm would never be what it was before.
Through December into the new year, he spent time over at the blacksmith's shop. He worked at some kind of thing and wouldn't tell me what it was. He only said it was an idea of his.
When Gus' accident happened, I kinda lost my appetite and 'bout 40 pounds in the process—slimmed way down in the right place, as well. Maybe my nickname would be forgotten. Gus liked my looks too, and we got friskier in bed, being careful of his shoulder. Life was lookin' up.
We'd always been travelers, itchin' to see other places, and it was only a matter of time before Gus would want to be movin' on to greener pastures.
He went back to playing cards full time in the saloon. He looked like his old self under the black long-tailed coat but moved his arms slow, often propped on the table to avoid letting on about the bad shoulder. He worried about news about his arm getting out.
* * *
A few more months passed and summer blew in like a hot blast from the blacksmith's forge. Gus thought the time had come to try out a wild new town. His self-defense killin' in Texas was catching up with us.
"It's where the railroad ends and waiting for a bridge that'll be years getting' built. It's called Diablo Canyon in Arizona. I hear they got fourteen saloons and ten gambling halls . . . and no law."
I told him anything named after the Devil couldn't be an all bad place for us. So we decided we'd leave in a week or two with summer comin' on again. It was a long, long way to Arizona, and Gus' reputation would not have gone that far.
I moseyed over to the general store, and Ed, the shopkeeper, read a small newspaper.
"Lookie here, Miss Bessie, a picture of a young woman named Calamity Jane from up north. She's supposed to be pretty tough."
I looked at the fuzzy photo, but sure nuff, dressed head to toe in buckskin with buckskin gloves and a wide-brimmed hat, she was holdin' the biggest rifle I'd ever seen and had a knife strapped to her lower leg. She wore a sixgun on her hip as well.
"I bet if she got mad at you, she'd live up to her name," Ed said.
"I speck so." Humm, nice outfit, but her face could stop a stampede. I bet the men don't trifle with her.
* * *
That same day, Pete, the bullwhacker, came back to town, mighty dry and wanting to play cards. Gus was playin' with two other men when Pete came over. "Hey, Gamblin' Gus, remember me, Pete?"
Gus nodded. "Yep."
"Dressed all in black, you look like an undertaker," Pete said. "Mind if I sit in the game to play with you boys?"
Gus motioned him to sit in the empty chair. Pete had a roll of bills and his full bottle of Red-Eye. He drank generously.
A few hours later, the bottle was near empty, and so was Pete's roll of money. The next big hand was ending. It was late, a big pot on the table, and Pete didn't quite have enough to call the bet. He slid the remainder of his money in the pot—all in. The others folded their cards and were out. Only Gus remained. He nodded approval and watched Pete put his cards on the table. Smiling, the bullwhacker spread out a full house of three sevens and two kings. Pete leaned back, ready to sweep in the enormous pile.
Gus leaned forward and, one at a time, placed a queen, then another queen. Pete winced a tad, but it would take four queens to beat a full house. When the third card went down, it was a nine, and Pete relaxed. Gus continued to lay down nines until the table showed three of the nines and two queens. Gus won the pot with another full house and the triple nines being higher. Others at the table and standing around gasped at the good luck and clapped.
Pete was having none of it. He issued a string of cuss words that would melt ice in the Arctic and challenge any gambler to fight, ending with, "You double-dealing horse turd."
Woah! I instinctively felt the gun in my purse as I stood behind Gus.
With that, Pete's right hand went towards his belly, and his sixgun tucked in his belt. Both Gus's arms lay extended on the table.
Two shots, nearly together, exploded. Pete had his gun in his hand but not even pointed yet. Pete looked at two holes in the center of his chest, blood circles formed on his shirt, and gazed in wonder. "You sneaky cockeyed bastard . . . you . . . " His voice trailed off.
I looked at my Gus at the table. Both his arms were still on the table, but in his right hand was his derringer on a spring mechanism he'd perfected for an occasion like this. He fired both chambers that hit the mark. The crowd was quiet as Gus started to rake in the money.
I caught motion of a cowpoke at the bar, who drew his sixgun and rushed the table, Gus looked up, saw the danger, and reached for his shopkeeper revolver in his belt as he stood, but it was too late. A blast hit him in the chest, and another followed in the gut.
He turned to me as his legs crumpled under him. "I love you, Bessie, and I . . . " He never finished.
"That was my brother he killed," said the cowboy. "Now, justice is done." He looked around. Everyone was frozen. He pointed his still smoking sixgun upward, opened the loading gate, pulled the hammer back, and proceeded to dump the two empty shells from the chamber, and grinned like a possum.
His turd-eatin' smile turned my stomach inside out. I'd already put my hand in my purse, but that tilted my bucket over. I drew my revolver, stood, and pointed my gun at the same time I cocked it. The click caused the cowboy to look at me with surprise. I aimed for his crotch. He started to lower his gun and shut the gate when I nailed him where I knew it'd get his attention. As he bent forward, instinctively, both his hands went to the new vent in his pleasure zone. I tried not to show my grin of satisfaction, but I wasn't through.
With plenty of time to recock the single action, the next shot put a bullet right through his forehead, just like shooting a tiny laudanum bottle. He crumpled like an empty burlap bag.
It was so quiet that you coulda heard the cockroaches scamper on the wood floor. I held out my cocked gun with one hand and took the money and chips into my bag with the other.
"Somebody, go get the undertaker. He's got a big job ahead." I looked at Gus and felt tears filling my eyes. I evened the score for Gus, but it wouldn't bring him back. Later that night, I cried over his body in the undertaker's back room.
After I cried out, I got mad. I decided then and there that I wasn't ever going to be with a man anymore. This hurt too much, and no one would ever hold a candle to Gus, anyways. I was on my own, and as a woman in these times, I would change what folks thought about me. First, I was never gonna wear a dress again. I'd wear the color of my mood from now on-black. Yep, black hat, shirt, jacket, trousers, and boots. No more Bessie or Bess. The next town I went to, I would be known by the single letter, B, no last name and no history. I'd wear Gus' shoulder holster with my gun in it, I was keeping his derringer rig for my right arm, and I wasn't gonna take no bullshit off nobody. I'd carry a razor-sharp knife in my boot for backup and when I needed to skin my dinner. And, I was gonna make my livin' playing cards.
* * *
I stood over the pile of dirt in the local Boot Hill—dressed all in black: shirt, pants, jacket, boots, and hat. I got a big letter 'B' stitched on my jacket lapel and my shirt. I decided I was going to keep dressing this way. A cross marked the spot with my man's name: Gus Grayson. I took six daisies for the six years we were together out of the bunch in my hand, and pressed those in my notebook, as well as my memory. The rest I put on his grave. I put my book in the saddlebags on Gus's horse that would be my pack animal to lead behind me. Plenty of food, Red-Eye, and a canvas for shelter on the long trail ahead.
I returned and stood over him and said a few words. "Gus, I hoped for another bunch of flowers when we left this town. I never wanted to get them this way. These are for you, my love, and I'm movin' on to Diablo canyon. I'm gonna pick up your trade. Let's see what them cowboys think of a woman dealin' cards to 'em. And hell can't be worse than here 'cause there ain't no bad memories in the Devil's town."
Them tough cowboys in Arizona ain't seen nothing till they see the 'B' come to town.