Excerpt from Dead Man’s Hand by Pati Nagle. Copyright © Pati Nagle. All rights reserved.
(listen to James’s soundtrack on Pandora)
Deadwood, South Dakota
James awoke to the sensation of flesh creeping onto his bones. It had been a long time since he’d worn any such thing and the feeling was disconcerting.
So was finding himself seated with his back against something cold and hard, dressed in his favorite buckskin jacket and trousers, hat and boots, gun belt with his .36 Colt Navy pistols—all the traps he’d been buried in. That jacket and all the rest had rotted away a long time ago, along with any expectation of ever feeling alive again.
But he felt alive now.
It was a moonlit night and he was sitting inside a little fenced rectangle. When he craned his head around he saw that the thing he was leaning against was a big old gigantic pillar of bronze. He stood up and turned around to get a better look at it. It was taller than him by a good few feet, and at the top was a giant bust of a man’s head. His.
He became a bit self-conscious standing there, so he stepped over the fence and looked the whole thing over from the outside, as a visitor might do. It was impressive, certainly. He stared at the words on it:
J. B. HICKOK
DIED AUG. 2, 1876 BY PISTOL SHOT
AGED 39 years
CUSTER WAS LONELY WITHOUT HIM
He reached out a tentative hand, new-grown flesh all pale in the moonlight, and touched the metal surface bearing his name. It was cold.
He knew where he was. He had some vague memories of being moved once or twice, a bright light and someone staring down at him saying “Look at that!” He’d been here for a long time, up on the hill, only now somehow he’d gotten outside of the grave and acquired a new set of duds—or a resurrected set—along the way.
There was a dead bouquet of flowers at the foot of the pillar, crushed. He’d been sitting on it. Lot of dry leaves blowing around; the smell of them woke memories. He glanced up at the moon and saw a cloud scudding over it, blown by a chill wind. Autumn, and a cold night to boot.
Another cairn stood a little behind his, with a plaque. Agnes?
Heart thumping, he hurried over to it, but the name on it was not his wife’s. It was Calamity Jane’s.
He shook his head and sighed. That gal was crazier than a hoot-owl. Why they’d put her next to him he could not imagine, unless it was because the stories she told about herself were even more exaggerated than his own reputation.
All he’d ever wanted was a simple life. A chance to make a living, maybe set him and Agnes up comfortable. That was why he’d come to Deadwood, hoping to stake a claim and strike it rich. Hadn’t worked out that way, though.
Memories came crawling back to him, buzzing around inside his head like a mess of fireflies. A game of cards, a hand he thought sure to win: aces and eights. Gunfire, pain, darkness. He knew he shouldn’t have taken the chair with its back to the door. He knew it; why had he gone and done it?
He stepped over to Jane’s marker and squinted to read the dates. She’d died a good twenty-seven years after him, and the carved numbers looked alarmingly worn.
Underneath her name it said “Martha Jane Burke” in smaller letters. He’d never heard her called Burke. Maybe she’d married and settled down, though that didn’t seem too likely from what he knew of her. He stepped back and looked all around to make sure Jane hadn’t shown up, too.
Nobody else in the graveyard. He was alone.
“What the hell is this, anyway?” he muttered aloud.
The question seemed to agitate those fireflies in his head. His brain must’ve grown back too, he guessed, and something inside it was itching.
He frowned, looking east. Something was calling him. He didn’t know who or what, but now that he was paying attention he felt the most insistent urge to follow it.
Agnes. What had happened to her, after he’d died? Was she dead, too, by now? He swallowed senseless hope that she wasn’t.
Maybe that was why he felt the need to go east. Back to Cincinnati, maybe, to find her—to find her grave.
He looked up at the sky again, where the wind pushed the ripped-up clouds across the cold moon and carried the smell of snow. Better get moving ‘fore he froze, standing here.
He made his way out of the graveyard, which was large and looked to be housing more dead bodies than the whole mining camp of Deadwood had housed live ones. It was a great deal grander than the boot hill in which he had first been laid to rest—if you could call it that; he hadn’t found it especially restful.
Being dead was a fair bit confusing, and not all it was cracked up to be. He’d seen nothing of pearly gates or such glories. He’d spent a lot of time remembering all the stupid things he’d done in his life. Over and over, with the feeling there was something he ought to understand about it all, but he never had done. Above that, the constant murmur of living people coming around—people he couldn’t understand and didn’t want to understand, but who tickled the edges of his awareness with their presence—had kept him from any sense of peace.
Death for him had been a vague sort of existence, and compared to the brilliance of all the physical sensations he was suddenly feeling again, it was like being in an uncomfortable dream world. He couldn’t say as he’d care to go back to it.
He followed a path down to a roadway—flat black and curiously smooth—that led downhill toward Deadwood. It entered a vast field of the same paving, and there stood a stagecoach, all black, with a team of black horses hitched to it.
James’s heart sank at the sight and he hastily withdrew in among the pines alongside the road. That coach was here for him, he knew, and seeing as how he hadn’t requested a coach, he was disinclined to get into it.
He made his way through the trees, following the road downhill, through a smaller field of black, and down into the valley. A glow of light came from the valley bottom and he heard some vague rushing sounds and what might be a distant scrap of music.
A slow smile came onto his lips, and his left hand came up to smooth his mustache. Deadwood was still hopping, it appeared.
The road was painted with a yellow dotted line down the middle and white stripes on the sides. He’d seen avenues planted with fancy bushes and rows of tall trees alongside, but he’d never seen a decorated road before. It occurred to him as he walked along the dotted line, trying to fit his pace to it so it took exactly two steps for the length of each stripe, to wonder how long it had been since he’d died.
He heard a sound and paused to listen. It was like the rushing sounds from below but much louder and closer, kind of a roaring growl. Reminded him a little of a locomotive, only lighter, and angrier somehow.
A pair of blinding white lights came up the hill and the roaring grew more intense as they rushed upon him. He threw up an arm to block the light and heard a banshee shriek as the lights wavered side to side, then stopped a little way past him.
He turned, heart pounding with the fear of almost being hit by whatever that was. Some kind of vehicle—looked vaguely like a boxcar only smaller. Built out of metal and all shiny, with the light glaring off down the road. It sat there, still rumbling but quieter now, like a giant cat purring.
He heard a heavy “chunk,” then a man’s voice started yelling. “What are you, crazy?! You could have been killed! Jesus, I almost hit you!”
James’s right hand hovered near his pistol. He cleared his throat and warily addressed the man, whom he could barely see in the dark after being blinded by the vehicle’s lights.
“I thank you kindly for not doing so.”
A bright light hit him in the face and he blinked, startled. The stranger let out a groan of disgust.
“Not another one of you nut-cases. Look, the cemetery’s closed. Come back and pay your respects in the morning. Meanwhile, let’s not get killed walking down the middle of the road, all right?”
“Beg pardon,” said James. “I didn’t know it wasn’t allowed.”
“You drunk, mister?”
“No, sir, I haven’t had a drop.”
He said it a bit wistfully. He was getting to think a glass of whiskey would be a comfort.
The bright light was lowered, and James blinked, trying to see the man in front of him. The clothes he was wearing were strange. The pants and boots looked all right, but he had on some kind of jacket that was all puffy like a featherbed, only it was blue. He wore a black hat over short-cut dark hair and frowned as he stared at James, as if doubtful of his condition.
Having nothing to hide, James looked frankly back at him. Finally the stranger sighed.
“All right, where’s your car?”
“Car?” James laughed at the suggestion he owned a railroad car.
“No car? How’d you get up here?”
“I-I was brought here.”
“Lemme see your I.D.”
This was getting awkward, and James was beginning to be annoyed. He kept his voice polite, though. “I’m sorry, sir, I’m afraid I don’t know what that is.”
“Don’t be a smartass. What’s your name?”
James swallowed and gave a deferential cough. “Hickok.”
“Yeah, I get it. I mean your real name.”
“It is Hickok, sir. James Hickok.”
The stranger frowned at him. “OK, fine.” The light came up again and played across the gunbelt at his hips. “Those loaded?”
“I don’t know,” James said truthfully.
“Right. Take off the belt and put it on the ground, nice and slow.”
He swallowed. “I must decline to do that, sir. You would not expect a man to disarm himself, would you?”
“I expect you to do what I say if you don’t want to wind up in jail! You’re halfway there already, buddy!”
“Might you be the sheriff, sir?”
“That’s right, I’m the sheriff. See?” The light swung aside and glinted off a metal badge the man held up, then hit James in the eyes again. “Now take off the guns and put ‘em down.”
Swallowing his growing resentment, James did as he was told. He didn’t suppose a night in jail would do him any harm. There were worse places, certainly more dangerous places, to be.
“OK, now step over here and put your hands on the car.”
The light swept toward the coach and back, so James gathered the man meant that vehicle when he said “the car.” James placed his palms on the slick surface above the window and frowned. He’d been a sheriff himself, and while he’d certainly had to dispense forcible justice from time to time, he had always been civil to those who were civil to him. Times had changed, it seemed.
Startled by the sherrif’s hands touching his hips, he turned. “Now, see here—”
“Hold still! Face the car and don’t move, buddy. I’m losing my patience.”
James turned around again, silently tolerating the swift brush of the sheriff’s hands over his limbs. Searching for hidden weapons, he supposed. He swallowed his ire. He would have to get used to the way people acted, if he wasn’t going to end up dead in a fight. Again.
“Got anything in your pockets?”
Saying he didn’t know was probably a bad idea. “See for yourself,” he said instead.
The sheriff stuck his hands into James’s coat pockets, then his trouser pockets. Apparently he found nothing.
“Where’s your wallet?”
James would like to know that himself. Before he could answer, the sheriff gave a disgusted grunt and stepped back.
“Don’t suppose you have a permit for the guns, either. OK, turn around.”
James did so, and stood still for a long moment with the sheriff’s hand-held light in his eyes. The man leaned close, and James had to fight the instinct to push him away. Finally the sheriff stepped back and lowered the light.
“You don’t look drunk or stoned. I assume this whole act is an attempt to get into the show down at the Number Ten.”
James drew a sharp breath. The No. 10 Saloon was still around? And hosting some kind of show, apparently.
He had only ever been in two shows: Bill Cody’s play, and his own disastrous “Buffalo Chase.” He hadn’t done so well in either case. He wasn’t really cut out for a showman, but it might be a way to make some money, just temporarily. He’d need money to pay his way east, and for necessities. He could use a drink, for example, though he wasn’t especially anxious to get it at the No. 10.
“Here’s the deal,” said the sheriff. “I’m taking you to the station where you’ll take a breathalizer test. If you’re clean, you’re free to go. If not, you can sober up in the drunk tank. If I have any more trouble with you it’s three days in the slammer for vagrancy. Got it?”
He hadn’t understood half of what the sheriff said, but he had the strong impression that cooperation was his best bet for staying out of jail. The part about vagrancy he had understood. He’d been locked up on that charge many a time.
“OK, get in the car.”
The sheriff pulled open the second door of the coach and gestured toward the seat. James stepped toward it, wishing his heart would quit thumping so. He was a little wary of riding in this great roaring thing. A strange, green light was glowing inside it. That was nearly enough to change his mind, but he did want to get down to Deadwood and it would be a long, cold walk, and anyway it didn’t seem as though he had much choice.
“My guns?” he said.
“I’ll get ‘em. Go on, get in.”