~~~JJ Drinkwater and the Widow Kuhr had stepped back out from the cool darkness of the Bonanza dance hall, blinking in the bright afternoon sun. Noticing a dark dampness that had been left behind after the day's shooting victim had been carted off, Dio scuffed some dust over the spot with her boot.
Her new friend, the writer, watched her in a glum silence. When she had finished more or less camouflaging the blood that had spilled in the street, she looked up and smiled a little sadly.
Yer feelin' a tad let down, ain't ye pard?
JJ Drinkwater tipped his bowler back on his head and stared thoughtfully back into the depths of the dance hall.
"No...not really," he said after a bit. "I've come to expect most stories that I chase to prove to be something less than I was led to expect. I suppose...well, I suppose I'm just a little bit tired."
Dio nodded. "Been a long day I 'spect. Ye got ye a place to rest yer carcass?"
JJ shook his head. "No, Miss Dio, I do not. I should attend to that. I stopped in your establishment almost immediately after having got down from the coach--I had no opportunity to investigate the possibilities."
Well, I tell ye what, pard, I shall take ye tothe Grand Central an' interduce ye to Miz Cookie an Aunt Coodnank who runs the place. I shall see to it they pervide ye with suitable 'commodations." Dio gave a bright little grin. "I think yer gonna like them ladies. Miz Cookie, well, she come from a high-falootin' N'Orlins famly which musta fallen 'pon hard times...an' she is just as charmin as the devil's butler...as well as bein' purt near a madwoman, unless I'm greatly mistaken."
This comment had its intended effect. JJ suddenly snapped out of his vague reverie and suddenly looked a bit intrigued. "Indeed? Mad, yet she runs a hostelry?"
"Yep," continued Dio. "Oh, an' her friend an' associate, Aunt Coodnank--she's this grand mountain of a colored creole woman, a gal o' some respectable age an' substantial wisdom...who is in point o' fact known to converse 'n make idle chit-chat with deceased folks...tho' in all honsety I do at times get to wonderin' what it is that they who've crossed o'er would have to talk about. Seems to me bein' daid probbly don' offer all that much in the way o' fodder fer lively conversation"
JJ looked at the compact figure of the frontierswoman, hands on her hips, her face wreathed in a smile of genuine enthusiasm, and he could not but help smile as well.
"Miss Dio, it would be an honor and a pleasure to meet your friends. I am immensely indebted to you for whatever you are able and willing to do in the way of suitable introductions."
"My pleasure pard, " Dio replied."I think yer gonna find Cookie 'n Coodnank an' their tales will be o' great interest to a scribbler like yerself--an' I can assure ye that Cookie fer one shall be most tickled pink with yer manner o' speech an' the way ye carry yerself. She's oft bemoanin' the lack o' real gentlemanly gents in these parts. An' I am more than happy to make ye known to various other folks who I trust yer gonna find intriguin'...tho'...I tell ye what...would be shame fer ye to come here an' not talk to the personage ye was orignally seekin'....I'm gonna talk with Sam at the Bonanza an request that he have Martha Canary call upon ye when she has once again got up a proper head o' steam suitable fer navigation."
Before JJ could say anything or protest that such an arrangement was unnecessary, Dio had strode purposefully into the dance hall. A moment later, she returned, and with a broad grin and a wink, announced, "Miss Clamity Jane shall meet us at the Number 10 tomorrow, bright and early, somewhere towards the crack o' noon.
Well, Miss Dio was as good as her word on all counts. She did get JJ introduced to some extremely colorful characters that evening, including the aforementioned Miz Cookie and Aunt Coodnank, and the good Mr. Drinkwater, depsite his exhuastion, did in fact find them all to be uniquely delightful.
Likewise, Dio had done a proper job in making arrangements for JJ to meet the actual object of his visit. Shortly before noon the next day, as he sat in the Saloon Number 10, sharing a newspaper with Miss Dio and her friend, Roku, the gunslinging courtesan, JJ was was startled by a harsh, strident voice baying from just outside the saloon, "Cockadoodlefuckin'doo DIO! HERE I AM! Bright an' goddam early as promised, ya dried-up ol' harpy!"
The widow Kuhr looked up from her piece of the paper. "MARTHA! ye scrofulous sack o' miscellaneous ill-used woman parts! Get yer miserable rye-soaked ass in here!"
JJ was surprised, not so much at the impolite vocabulary that decorated the greetin's that were exchanged, as much as he was by the expression on Dio's face.
She looked sincerely pleased to see Miss Canary, who in turn, was grinnin' like a dead possum at Dio. Roku on the other hand, did not even bother to look out from behind her paper, and from JJ's vantage point next to her (he could glimpse her face around the side of the newsprint page she held up), he could see that Roku's expression was not at all friendly.
He didn't have long to reflect on that however, as Dio was already introducing him to the woman who was already the centerpiece of numerous stories being told in places like Laramie and Cheyenne and beyond. He stood and extended his hand without hesitation--Martha Canary grasped it firmly and shook it in a very man-like way.
While Mrs. Kuhr made the introductions, JJ took mental notes about this woman who stood before him. She was of middling height and slight build, with dark, shortish hair and a plain but not unpleasant face. She was considerably tidied up since he had seen her yesterday--he could smell the fragrance of lavender soap from her--and her hair had been washed and neatly combed. Miss Canary wore a different dress...a better one than yesterday. It was a tiny bit frayed at the cuffs and collar, but clean and carefully pressed. There was something...something that JJ found curiously likable about the young woman.
Dio had previously suggested to JJ that he begin proceedings by buying a round of lager for all present (coffee in Dio's case), which he did, and this seemed to get things off to a good start. Martha Canary sipped her beer and sighed happily, and then looked at JJ.
"To yer very good health, pard...an welcome to the Black Hills."
JJ wished her good health as well and raised his glass to their hostess who clinked her coffee mug against all their glasses...including Roku's which had magically appeared for a wordless toast from behind the paper she was still reading.
"So Sam tells me that yer a writer, and that is why ol' Dio wished fer me to come meet ya?" asked Martha.
"Yes," answered JJ. "There are stories related about you down in Cheyenne and thereabouts...you know, there are even some things that have been written about you..."
The writer pulled out a modest booklet from his satchel--Dio could see the words "The Black Hills and American Wonderland by Horatio N. Maguire" on the cover.
Martha Canary took the pamphlet from JJ's hands and regarded at it for a moment with an oddly wistful look. Then she passed it back to him saying, "Pard, I would be greatly obliged if'n ya would read fer me the passage what mentions me...I ain't never larned no readin."
Mr. Drinkwater opened the small volume to a page that had a corner turned down and began to read a section that described how the author, on arriving in the Black Hills, inquired of an "old pioneer" how far it was to Deadwood. The man pointed to a figure on a horse and said, "About a mile and a half; that girl on a horse is going there now." The author said that rider appeared to be a boy rather than a girl, and the old pioneer assured him that it was most certainly a female, a girl known as "Calamity Jane."
The story made Martha Canary laugh.
"Yessir," she snorted, "I do get called that. But that story...tis amusin'...however, let me tell ye some REAL stories about ol' Calamity Jane..."
There was a sudden rustle as Roku put down her paper. She rose without a word and put her empty beer mug on the bar. Finally she spoke, "Thank ya fer the lager, scribbler. If ya care to invest in somethin' truly memorable, come down an' visit me at the Bella. See ya later, Dio." Without looking at Martha, she strode out. Nor did Martha acknowledge Roku's comments or departure. She simply sat with her face fixed on JJ Drinkwater, a stiff sort of smile etched into her features.
Suddenly, JJ was aware of a faint ringing sound. Dio was spinning a bright yellow coin on the table.
"Martha," she said in a quiet voice, not looking up from the spinning coin, "Yer a bettin' woman. I got a 20 dollar gold piece that says ye can't spend the entire afternoon talkin' with JJ here, tellin' him stories about yerself, all of which are nothin' but the absolute, rock solid, unvarnished truth."
Martha Canary looked slightly perplexed and stunned...then a grin slowly spread across her face.
"An afternoon o' stories--an' nothin' but the God's own truth?"
Dio smiled a slight, sardonic smile, and nodded.
"All right, ya goddamn heartless crone, yer on," spat Calamity Jane.