Tall Tales: Martha

Catron Courier - - News - By Sam “Sweet Wa­ter” Sav­age

Alex rode his horse up to the Cal­loway ho­tel in the small town of Terry, just out­side Dead­wood, South Dakota where he lived. He'd re­ceived a note from Madam Dora, the pro­pri­etor of Madam Dora's DuFran's brothel at the Belle Fourche in town. Alex had heard of Madam Dora, but couldn't imag­ine why she'd asked for him.

"It's so good of you to come!" the ex­trav­a­gantly dressed Madam Dora gushed.

"I'm sorry, ma'am. I have no rec­ol­lec­tion of know­ing you." Alex said po­litely.

“Oh, no. It’s not me who called for you. It’s Martha who asked to see you.”

Madam Dora es­corted Alex to a dark, di­lap­i­dated lit­tle room and left. Alex found him­self sit­ting at the bedside of a bloated, pock-faced old woman with yel­low eyes who smelled strongly of whiskey.

“There you are lit­tle Alex!” Martha blurted out, “What’s the date?”

“It’s Au­gust sec­ond, 1903, ma’am.”

“I sure am happy to see you grew up to be such a po­lite man. What’re you, aged ‘bout thirty years?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am. Just turned.” Alex spoke hes­i­tantly. He couldn’t fig­ure how this stranger, clearly a rag­ing al­co­holic, could know him. He had no mem­ory of such a woman. Work­ing up the courage, he asked “I hope you don’t mind the im­pro­pri­ety, ma’am, but how is it you know me yet I don’t seem to know you? I don’t know any­one named Martha.”

“That’s ‘cause I hardly ever use my birth name! I told you this story years ago, but I’m not sur­prised you don’t re­mem­ber – ‘cause of the fever and all. Ya see, back in seventy-two Gen­eral Ge­orge Custer called on me to be a scout to help him sup­press a Mus­cle Shell In­dian out­break. There ain’t never been a scout who could ride bet­ter or shoot straighter, so it’s no won­der they asked for me!

“Well, just out­side Goose Creek, Wy­omin’, Cap­tain Egan was leadin’ the sol­ders and me back to the fort af­ter a suc­cess­ful cam­paign, and sure enough there was a huge war party of ‘em In­di­ans wait­ing for us in a sin­is­ter am­bush! Be­ing a scout and all I was ridin’ ahead when I heard all them gun­shots.

“I rode back as fast I could and I saw Cap­tain Ea­gan been shot with an ar­row and had come off his horse. I lifted him up onto my horse and rode faster than light­nin’ back to the fort. While he was re­cov­erin’, that’s when he gave me my new name. He said, ‘I name you Calamity Jane, the hero­ine of the plains. You are Martha Can­nery no more.’”

“You’re telling me you’re the fa­mous Calamity Jane?” Alex said in a state of stunned dis­be­lief.

“You re­ally don’t re­mem­ber? That’s a shame. Seems I wasted all them sto­ries on you when I was carin’ for ya! Near about twenty-seven years ago I first came to Dead­wood. I had met Wild Bill Hickok on Char­lie Ud­der’s wagon train and sure enough Wild Bill and I hit it off right away. Seems like he was nearly as good as I was at shootin’, ridin’, weavin’ tall tales, and even drinkin’. Although you can see that drinkin’ has caught up with me.

“Well, old Bill and I be­came real close. So when that cow­ard Jack Mc­Call done shot Bill in the back, I didn’t take it too well. I tried my hand at prospectin’ and fi­nally found my­self to be use­ful nursin’ peo­ple back to health when the pox came to Dead­wood. That’s when I first met, you, lit­tle Alex.”

Alex had a vague mem­ory of be­ing told as a young child that he’d had small­pox and been nursed back to health in a pest tent back when Dead­wood was not much more than a camp. But when his mother told the story she’d never men­tioned Calamity Jane.

“The doc­tor tells me that my time on this earth is short, lit­tle Alex. I’m payin’ the price for all that fire­wa­ter I’ve drunk all these years. I called for you to do me a fa­vor. I’ve made ar­range­ments to be buried right next to Bill up at the Mount Mo­riah Cemetery. I’d like you to be the one to close the cof­fin lid, seein’ that you’re my last liv­ing con­nec­tion to Dead­wood. Of all the places I’ve lived— from Mis­souri to Mon­tana to Cal­i­for­nia—this is the clos­est I’ve ever felt to be­ing home.”

Calamity Jane closed her eyes, changed now to yel­low from her liver fail­ing. A stream of tears had be­come to flow from them. “At least I can be near Bill again soon.”

Her breath­ing eased. Alex

West, and on a rough and rau­cous chap­ter of the wild Amer­i­can west.

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