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Babylon

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Alma Garret couldn't feel her toes. This was a familiar lack of sensation, which she welcomed whole-heartedly.

She gazed through her window, down to the street below, watching the early evening traffic as it passed by. There went the town's doctor, an accommodating if rough man. She'd seen Bill Hickok pass by earlier, and remembered her girlish fancy of him from her youth. And there was the preacher, on his way from giving counsel to someone, no doubt. She had spent many hours at this window since they'd arrived here, just as she had once spent so many hours at her bedroom window in Philadelphia. Always, it seemed, she spent her life looking out of windows, watching other people as they conducted their lives. How had she come so far, only to find herself trapped in such a small world again?

When they had first come here, she had ventured out to the hills, but had soon been warned that they were not safe for a white woman. Brom had also made it clear there were no fit places in town for a lady, so she had soon resigned herself to staying in the hotel. She did not venture farther than the dining room downstairs, and that only rarely in hopes of avoiding the odious and odiferous Mr. Farnum.

She smiled at that. Mother would be so shocked at the turn of her thoughts, that she would possibly think such things of anyone. Daddy would only be amused. But many things amused Daddy....

No, she would not think of him. She was busy enjoying her warm numbness, and would not let anything interfere with that. She would simply continue to float around the room until Brom returned.

Brom appeared to be enjoying himself on his little adventure. He had been spent the last few evenings at the Gem, with some of his new friends. Poor Brom. So convinced of his own cunning, so deluded as to his own stupidity.

It wasn't that she didn't like Brom well enough. He was sweet, and obviously quite enamored of her. And he was even taking it quite well, her avoidance of wifely duties this last week or two. She wondered idly if he had been taking more to the local women who worked in the saloons, but didn't spend much time on the thought. As long as he left her alone most of the time, that was enough.

She'd tried, the first two months of her marriage, to be available to Brom for his conjugal rights. While he was not her first choice for husband, she was determined to be a good wife. However, whenever he touched her, she could think only of what he had made her, what her father had made her, and her headaches worsened and became more frequent. At first, she still remained available. But whether, in an incredible feat of unusual perceptiveness, he was able to discern she could not stand his arms around her, or he had tired of lying with the dead, she could not say. All she knew was that there had been precious few advances for a while, and she was content.

What made her different from the sporting girls in the saloons? she wondered, the numbness fading. How much cleaner were her feathers than any soiled dove's?

Suddenly she felt the floor crashing into her feet. Or was it the other way around? No matter, the bottle and glass were close at hand, and they would soon settle the shaking in her hands and the oncoming headache.

Ah, that was better. And it was time to lie down anyway. So, Alma Garret lay back across the bed, two inches above the mattress, and waited for her husband to come back so that she might pretend to be asleep.

***

My darling Lydia,

It has been too long since I last wrote to you, dearest. I wished to send word to you sooner, but I find my time limited. It is quite late at night as I write this, and I can still hear people moving about outside my tent. It seems never to be completely quiet here.

The camp grows larger and busier by the day. And the people who come! More arrive each day, to my growing wonder. Babylon never saw the like, I'd wager, such a wide variety of people, all from different lands both near and far. What wonders shall surely be accomplished as all join together and build this community.

With the growing number of people in this camp and the others, I find that God's Word is in some growing demand. I have been called to witness to His love in the neighboring communities several times in the past month. I have officiated at four weddings all told since coming here, in this camp, and in Spearfish and Crook City. And yes, there have been some funerals, God rest the departed souls. It is a rough place, to be sure, but much like Canaan must have looked to the Chosen after wandering the deserts for so many years. And like Moses following the voice, I feel as if I was called here. This is where I belong.

Already, I feel as if people know me. "Hey, there, Preacher Smith!" I hear now and then as I go. I do not feel as friendless as I once did. God's love sustained me through the worst of it, and I know He and the memory of you will help me through the rest.

As well as ministering to the people, I am trying to earn money by helping those around me in more material ways. I look after shops and goods while the proprietors are otherwise detained elsewhere. I also have helped the camp's doctor now and then, when he needs assistance, sometimes if only in giving comfort to someone about to leave this world for the next, as I did earlier this evening. The doctor is a gruff man, but a good one. I believe he is wounded in his soul, however, perhaps by the Brothers War, perhaps by something else. There are many such wounded men here, which simply makes me believe more than ever that I am needed here.

Two newcomers to our camp are Misters Bullock and Star. They are settling in well. They have set up a new hardware business, which I have been trying, in my own small way, to help with by looking after their tent when they are away. Business does seem to be going splendidly for them. Mr. Bullock is not talkative, but he is a fine man, obviously of great moral quality. He has already paid for the burials of a number of men without connection or family here. And he, too, is separated from his wife and child, who he is working to bring out. I fear he does not know how good a man he truly is. God willing, he will someday see.

Mr. Star is of the Jewish race, and a finer example I could not imagine. He is as hard working as any man I've seen, and no matter how tired he must be from his labors, I have never once heard a cross word escape his lips.

I might also have mentioned the arrival in camp of Mr. Wild Bill Hickok. I know you would have heard him mentioned, dearest, and he is far better a man than any of the accounts I have ever heard give him credit for. He and Mr. Bullock seem to have become fast friends, which I think marvelous. Who among us would not welcome more companions? But I think these two men, especially, have need one of the other.

The hour is late, dearest, and I must close this letter if I have hope to be up in time to put it on the morning stage. I have hopes in my prospects that I will soon be able to send for you and our beautiful daughters. It has been so long since I have seen any of you. I confess that this morning I nearly wept, as I could not recall the exact feeling of our Amanda's hair in my fingers or the color of her eyes. I could not quite remember the sound of your voice....

But there I will stop, for it gives you far too glum a picture of me than what is real. I am well, I assure you, and only suffer in that I cannot be with you now. But through God's grace and love, we shall be together again soon.

Until then, I remain your ever devoted husband,
Henry

***

Joanie stood braced against the bed post as Greta worked to loosen her stays. Cy might have been willing to help her with them, but she wanted to be alone tonight and didn't want to worry about what she should and should not say.

As soon as everything was loosened, she turned to give the girl an almost-real smile, and Greta left, a small blush on her cheeks. She was new; the blush wouldn't last long.

Joanie walked to the mirror and sat down to take off her jewelry and paint, the small porcelain water basin waiting for her with the white linen face towel beside it. She looked at her thin fingers ("Hands just like your mama's, sweetie.") as she took off her rings one at a time. She looked into her own eyes ("Such beautiful eyes, my Joanie.") as she wiped the paint from her face.

A new start, Cy had said. Deadwood would be a new place, and they'd all feel new and real again, and the problems of the past wouldn't weigh them down any longer. She wondered how fresh a place could be with a name like Deadwood.

But she'd come because she believed Cy, because she wanted to believe Cy. She believed his honeyed words and his smoky voice and his soft touches, all of which carried that small bit of threat just under the surface. Because there wasn't much to her life if she didn't believe Cy.

She looked lower in the mirror and realized there was a small crack in the beautiful porcelain bowl; someone had turned it to the back, but she could see it reflected in the glass. Such a pure white bowl with a ragged crack. Someone should throw the bowl out and get a new one; that crack was just going to get worse until the whole thing broke.

Joanie turned away from the mirror and went to bed.
***

It was a nice night. He'd seen to what patients he had, had looked in on Trixie to make sure she was healing well. He looked forward to being left in peace, drunk off his ass, and with no one he had to immediately worry about. The child was doing well under the woman Jane's care. Some might have been surprised at one so rough being so good with a child, but he'd seen far rougher, far more damaged people take care of dying men as gently as they would handle an egg.

He didn't have the patience for it anymore. He had come out to the Hills to get away from the world and what people expected of him. To get away from the blood and the muck and the screams. What he'd found was a town where no one asked where he'd been, and no one minded if he didn't say. He took care of the whores and the occasional complaint from a miner, the ones not too terrified of a sawbones to knock on his door, and the rest of the time he was left alone to pursue oblivion in a bottle.

It should have been all he could ask for. But lately he'd been feeling the pressure to care, to help. He didn't want to help anymore, didn't want to care, yet he found himself drawn back to it, like a fly to blood, and couldn't walk away. And he felt disgusted as much by himself as he was by every other poor goddamned soul that wandered through camp, so wrapped up in the lure of gold or their own pain, they did not care about the pain of others.

He wanted to be like them, to not care, to walk away and never have to hear another person in pain. He hated them for being able to do it when he couldn't.

But tonight, maybe he could crawl far enough into his bottle that he couldn't hear anything outside of it.

***

Trixie stared at the knife. It was sitting with the discarded dinner plate, abandoned on the table by the bed.

I could kill him right now, she thought, as she looked at Al in the big featherbed. No one would know.

Al turned in his sleep.

He was odd: Most men looked more innocent in their sleep, no matter how mean they were awake. Al somehow managed to look meaner when he was asleep, as if whatever thin mask of charm he wore during the day finally came off.

She could walk over and grab the knife--it was closer than the gun, which was still on the other side of the bed--and stab him in the heart or head. She'd seen enough men die, even killed a few on her own, to know where to put it, where was likely to do him in quickly.

Would Dan do anything? He'd hurt her, probably kill her with only a moment's regret if Al asked him to, but if Al wasn't there to tell him to do it, would he feel bound to do anything on his own?

Trixie almost didn't care. She stared at Al's forehead. One thrust, and how many people's lives would be better? How many people would sigh in relief? And even if another would just pop up to take his place, sometimes the devil you know is worse than the one you don't, no matter what people say. Certainly no one would cry over the body.

Except maybe her.

Trixie left the window with one last glance outside (a lone figure was stumbling down the street in the early morning light), before dropping her shift and getting back into bed. She lay staring at the knife for a long time, and when she closed her eyes, she could still see it as she slowly drifted to sleep. Wishing for things got you nowhere.

***

Wild Bill looked at his cards, and wondered how he'd ended up sitting here.

James Butler Hickok. In his youth, he'd hated that person. Boring, ordinary soul from Lasalle County, Illinois, who should have grown up to be a farmer. But no one gave a shit about James Butler Hickok and he'd hated him, wanting to get out and see the world, make his mark. When he was young.

Now, sometimes he wished he could just be James, married to Annie, settle down with a business he and Charlie would run, and let the world go past and do what it would. He'd have a passel of kids, maybe a dog. No one would bother him, because no one gave a shit about James Butler Hickok.

Unfortunately, James Butler Hickok was dead, his passing unmourned and unnoted--except, perhaps, by Charlie, but even Charlie had his own idea who his friend Bill was, which didn't completely mesh with who he'd ever been. Bill couldn't even say when it had happened, when that strange, ordinary man had died. Maybe he had died the first time Bill killed a man. Bill thought it more likely that it was a slow illness, though, bits of him dying off a moment at a time. Consumption of the soul, with the occasional hacking up of conscience.

James Butler Hickok was long dead. Wild Bill was dying under the millstone of his own infamy. He was tired of being famous. He was tired of every cocksucker who'd ever read a dime novel about him thinking he knew him. He was tired of the looks and the whispers, the well wishers and the cunts. He was tired of everything but poker, and even that was wearing on him these days.

He found it funny, the times when he was lying in his bed at night, unable to sleep and disgusted with his own stench, that it wasn't a bullet that had felled him or Indians or even some pox he'd gotten from a soiled dove. "Here lies Wild Bill," he had imagined his epitaph to read, "dead from exhaustion."

And exhaustion it was. Not as if he hadn't heard the cunt come in behind him.

***

Sol had known Seth for ten years, and he'd never seen him like this.

Seth was a man who kept himself under tight control. He had a rigid sense of right and wrong, and he held himself most rigidly to those standards. It could have made him as popular as a preacher in a whorehouse, but while he was a hard one to get to know, and never much for suffering fools gladly, he had a charm when the mood was on him that made him difficult not to like. It was when the mood left that you really had to watch out.

Sol had seen his friend angry before, and knew there was a reason for that tight control. Seth was a powerful man, body honed by a hard life. He was also an emotional man, no matter what some might think; his passions he kept to himself and showed few, but they ran wide and deep. He was a danger to all when he was riled, but Sol was one of the few people who knew not only where to put the pin to let a little of the hot air out of Seth when he got like that, but was allowed to do so. It would end with a rueful smile instead of a swung fist--or whoever was on the business end of all that anger pissing himself. But when Seth was angry, truly deeply angry, he was blind and unthinking about the consequences or who happened to be in his way. And Sol was perhaps the only person who knew exactly how frightened of himself Seth was when he got like that.

So Seth was a man who kept himself under tight control--but the tighter you put a lid on a pot, the bigger the explosion. And Sol had never seen Seth so angry in all the years that they'd known each other as the day after Hickok died.

When they'd heard the gunshot and Seth had gone to see what had happened, Sol had assumed it was just another dust-up over gold. Gunshots were, after all, not uncommon in Deadwood. But Seth had such a look like Death himself had run his hand along his back, and had taken leave before Sol could say a word. When Sol had caught up with him, still kneeling there in the No. 10, the look on his face wasn't much different from when news had come about his brother.

They laid side by side in the night and didn't say a word. Sol was out of words for his friend. He could have said any number of things: "It wasn't your fault." "He died the way he lived." "He wasn't you." All of which would have been true and none of which would have been appreciated. Instead he offered a hand, just the bare touch to Seth's iron-like leg. Not sexual, not clinging, just a touch that he hoped would be enough to keep his friend grounded, to keep him from floating off on a tide of grief. And at one point, he felt his hand taken, felt it squeezed almost to the point of pain. But Sol could feel his anger build up more and more as the night wore on, and Seth eventually rolled away completely, back rigid and blank. Sol neither moved away nor closer.

Where else would he be?

--30--