Doc Holliday's eyes were the most memorable trait that he possessed. In bright sunshine they were light blue but when angry, his eyes seemed black. His body was skeletal, wasted by tuberculosis and alcohol. The only depth to his chest was the derringer that he hid in the top pocket of his silk waistcoat.
He sat at the poker table dressed in grey. His back was straight and his long fingers rested against the table. The silver ring on his right hand reflected the light from the gas lamp and the cards of a player on the other side of the table. Doc's index finger flicked through the stack of cards, feeling the edges for recent cuts, folds and tears. He played with the corners. He threw gold dollars into the centre of the table and waited. He peered over the top of his brown tinted spectacles. Everything red in the lower half of the room was magnified. The colours of the queen on the card beside him jumped up to kiss his cheek. The red mark, indistinguishable to the naked eye, shone in the top corner of the card. The top half of the room was tinged in yellow warmth from the gaslamp and was filled with the faces of strangers who wanted his money. His right hand moved over to the glass of whiskey and lifted it. It appeared golden from a distance, blood red near his face when he drank. He returned the glass to the table, and coughed. He wheezed and pressed his back against the chair to support his lungs. It stopped the pain. He brought his right hand to his chest and clutched his side, until the fit passed and his straining chest muscles relaxed.
The young cowboy watched Doc with scared brown eyes.
"Don't go for no guns. I know you got a derringer in that pocket of yours."
Doc rolled his eyes and watched his opponent. The cowboy was typical of the type that drove cattle through Wichita day in and out. He was young for twenty, brave on cheap whiskey and full of talk. He was a Texan, maybe from Dallas or some where close to the Louisiana border. The boy's eyes were restless and rolled backwards and forwards looking from gambler to gambler. When a card fell on the felt, the boy would twitch and goggle at the card as if he could see through its back to the picture on the other side. Doc felt pity for the boy, cowboys made a dollar a day he doubted the boy had seen so much money before in his life.
Doc leaned forward and peered over his dark glasses. His eyes focused on the boy's head, as if just by looking at the he could cause his head to catch on fire.
"You miss your Mother?" Doc said grinning.
"What in hell do you mean by that?"
Doc's kept his eyes on the boy but poured his glass full of whiskey and placed the bottle down by his side.
"I mean,” he continued. “You're kind of young to be playing these stakes without parental supervision. I understand that the gun l that I'm carrying in my top pocket concerns you. I'd like to inform you son that I am the dealer at this table and any derringers I carry are my business and mine only. I have no need for shooting little crawdads. So long as you're a clean player, you have no occasion to worry at tasting any of the lead that I carry."
The boy's nose twitched.
"I don't want trouble. I just want to win this here stake."
"Well, quit bellyaching and play the game."
The other men kept quiet. The cards whispered as they hit the felt and floated on their sides. The gold coins chinked together and joined the glowing pile in the centre of the table. Despite blank expressions, you could tell who wanted the money. Everyone eyed the gleaming pile of coins with a nervous twitch, all except for Doc.
Doc’s hands worked without visual aid, shuffling, dealing, skimming and dividing the cards.
A door in the saloon slammed closed. The players took their attention off their cards and listened. A man was searching for someone. The door to the poker room rattled, opened and hit the wall with a bang. A drunken cavalryman entered. He pointed a finger at Doc.
"You Southern dick. I didn't ask a drunk to pull my teeth, I want a refund."
Doc peered over his glasses but didn’t respond.
"What? You mute or something?”
Doc heard something click. Under the table his fingers brushed the leather holster and wrapped around the cold metal army revolver. He drew the gun and fired it. The bullet left the gun's chamber and spliced the soldier’s leg. He fell backwards, his face contorted in pain and collapsed on the ground.
The players pulled back from Doc and the table, running from the room. Only the trooper remained on the ground. He reached with some difficulty for his pistol and aimed his tired arm up at Doc.
Doc's fingers moved along the gun. His long, thin arm reached out and flicked the pistol down. The gun engaged and fired. The bullet flew through the air. A cloud of dust surrounded the burning tip and lodged itself in the trooper's blue coat. Small flames leapt from the soldier’s chest. He hit his coat with his gloves and choked as the warm blood flowed to his lips.
The gun was still warm in Doc’s hand. Blood dripped onto his wrist. He shivered and wiped the substance away. His breathing was rapid and noisy. His face paled as the shock hit him. He placed his gun back into the holster. He covered himself in his long, grey overcoat. 'I'm still alive,’ he thought. He shuddered. The hairs on his neck bristled and his skin grew cold. He left the poker room in a daze and drifted out of the saloon and on to the bright street.
A horse roared. Doc ran towards the noise. His knees gave way. He tripped and faltered. He grabbed the horse by the bit shanks. The horse reversed with a snort. It reared up, pinning its ears on its dappled neck. Doc reached for the horn of the saddle and swung his left leg into the stirrup. The horse pivoted around in a tight circle. Doc slid down towards the ground and tried again. He could feel the blood drain from his body. His legs sank.
Men swarmed from the saloons, shops and hotels, led by the town Sheriff.
"That's him, we've got him,” he said.
Doc crawled into the saddle. There was a loud bang as guns fired behind him. The horse lunged forward with him hanging on. It straightened out and with a final kick, galloped as fast as it could. Doc clung to the horse's neck and beat his spurs against its side. The dust rose in clouds behind them. Down the street they galloped and out onto the prairie. Doc turned back to see if anyone was following but could only see the grey tail of the horse and the thorny scrub. His ears buzzed, his head grew heavy and he dropped his face deep into the dark mane. The horse felt the weight on its neck and galloped faster.
After a couple of miles of hard galloping, Doc's mount grew tired. The horse had run alone out of fear for the first mile and had burnt up any stamina that it had left in his lungs. Doc clung on for most of the ride. He was too tired to fight the horse and was as scared as the horse was. Now exhaustion created a bond between them. Doc slowed the horse to a steadier pace.
The animal heaved and strained, breathing hard. The horse's breath and hoof beats echoed in Doc's head. He heard whistling from the horse's nostrils and the heavy snorts as each hoof hit the ground. Doc pressed his heels harder against the horse's ribs but there was no more energy to take. They slowed down to a trot. Foamy spit flew backwards from the horse's mouth and hit Doc’s overcoat. The horse moved with a slow stumbling gait. It puffed hard, veins raised in its face and its nostrils fluttering with every stride.
The dentist dropped his reins in disgust. He was tired too, the sweat dripped down between his eyebrows, over his nostrils and deep into his chestnut moustache. His heart was still pounding and his chest was tight and heavy from the effort. He wheezed, coughed and spat over the horse's shoulder. He slowed the horse down to a walk. The horse dropped pace with gratitude and pulled its neck to the ground, snorting. Clouds of steam rose from its back. Doc patted the horse's wet shoulders and turned to look back at the trail that he had ridden. He dearly wished he had stolen a faster horse. He had spent long enough as a farm boy to know that his horse was broken-winded. He felt the irony of his situation, fate had teamed him with an equine asthmatic.
Were there still people after him? Doc couldn't be sure. Where was he? He didn't know that either. He had been too distracted to follow any particular direction and had no time to plan any route. He rode until the sun retreated from the sky and left the clouds to float in the growing darkness.
Doc pulled the collar of his overcoat high up around his neck. From the far distance the thunder rolled and crept closer to the trail. There was an eerie silence before the first flash of lightning. The horse startled and roared. The second flash was closer still and broke the little horse into a shuffling jog. The rain fell. Icy droplets found a gap in Doc's overcoat and ran down his neck. Doc shivered and tensed his back against the cold. He pushed the horse back to a gallop. It slid down the trail before Doc felt it lose balance in the muddy ground and steadied it back. They were lost. Doc saw a clump of trees at the side of the track and rode towards them.
The ground was soft and dry beneath the trees. Doc was happy to get some shelter and take a break. He kicked his feet free of the stirrups and dismounted. His knees buckled as he landed. He grabbed hold of the horn on the saddle to steady himself. His body buzzed and tingled as he fought pain and exhaustion. He led the horse over to one of the biggest trees and he flopped down in the dirt. He kept his eye on the horse and stared at the rein until the leather slipped from his hand and exhaustion dropped him into a shallow sleep. He woke up cold and hungry. He took a long drink from his flask of whiskey. A warm glow spread through his body and took some of the numbness away. Why had he been so stupid?
The whole day had been a disaster. He had woken that afternoon with a warm bed, a hangover and winnings from the poker tables the night before. He had even earned some money from a dental job that had come his way. He had never dreamt that he would ever hit someone in the stomach with his bullet let alone kill anyone out right. Now he sat, cold and wet, miles from the nearest train station, guilty of murder with a stolen, worn out, horse for company. He moved his head to see where the horse had wandered off to but he was still dizzy and unfocused. He had felt lonely and depressed many times before but never had he wanted to die as much as now. He knew that suicide was cowardly but could see no other way out of his dilemma. He pulled his pistol from his coat pocket and placed it to his head. The shiny metal barrel sat heavy in his hand and his wrist wobbled as he fingered the trigger. He choked and felt tears of shame run down his face. His father gave the gun as a graduation present back home in Georgia. He closed his eyes and aimed the gun. The hammer pulled back and clicked against the empty chamber. He tried again with increasing desperation. The gun was empty. He searched in his pockets for ammunition. His pockets were empty. He threw the gun down with disgust, whimpered and clutched his chest, rocking himself, until he cried himself to sleep.
Raindrops dripping on the ground from overhanging branches woke Doc. He moved with a clear head and noticed for the first time that the trooper had shot him in the side. The wound was not deep but painful enough to make any movement slow and awkward. His body would have to wait for attention. He would be able to patch himself up once he reached a town.
He looked around for his horse and saw it grazing on a clump of grass at the side of the trees. He hauled himself painfully off the ground and limped towards it. His leg moved stiffly at first, his clothes were still wet from the night before and his muscles were cold. He moved a couple of strides and winced in pain. He watched the horse and wondered if he could get the animal to come over to him. He pursed his lips and whistled. The horse's ears pricked forward. Doc whistled louder. The horse lifted his head and turned around to look at him.
He whistled again and halted in mid flow to cough. The horse pricked both ears, took a stride forward and stopped.
The horse shook its head in disapproval, swatted a fly with its tail and continued grazing with a snort. Doc cursed and sighed.
He reached into his pocket and found a cigarette that he had rolled the night before. He smiled at his luck when he found a match to light it with. He took a suck of the end and blew the smoke out. The nicotine hit his bloodstream. He wheezed and choked between puffs. He had almost reached the drags when he felt a nudge in the shoulders. He looked up at the horse with surprise. The horse nudged him again.
"What is it? You want a cigarette?"
The horse poked its nostrils forward to sniff the smoke and jerked its head back at the sour smell. Doc smiled.
"Oh now honeysuckle you don't want to smoke this, it'll do bad things to your health."
He grinned and placed the butt in the corner of his mouth.
He pulled the reins up and across the horse's neck. He leaned against the saddle, shifting and hopping until he was in a better position to mount. He placed his boot into the stirrup and hauled himself up. He made some progress and then slipped back to the ground. He gritted his teeth and tried again. He grabbed the sides of the saddle for a better grip and used all his strength to pull himself up. The pain oozed from his side. Doc grimaced and held on with determination. His hands shook and his knuckles paled. With his weight leant over the saddle he moved his leg over the horse's side and lowered himself on to the saddle. The horse grew restless and walked away. Doc lost balance and leaned his weight down on the gelding's neck. The pony scared and moved with a shuffle into a trot.
He grabbed the reins and a piece of mane and pulled himself up into a sitting position. The horse trotted with speed through the long grass and hit the mud slick road in a rocking canter. Doc slipped his feet into his stirrups, took a quick puff of his cigarette and then took charge of the business of steering.
The pair of runaways galloped at their leisure along the track. Doc relaxed and enjoyed the ride. The pain in his side finally subsided, least he felt that it had, or perhaps he was numb to the sharp sensation. He felt completely at ease. He wasn't worried about where he was going any more. He really didn't care. He clicked his tongue and urged the cow pony across the open country.