Tall Tales: Martha
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.