The True Sorrows of Calamity Jane

The night Bill Hickok was shot in the back of the head at a Black Hills poker table by the coward Jack McCall, my mother indeed grabbed a meat cleaver …

Illustration by Selena Wong

The night Bill Hickok was shot in the back of the head at a Black Hills poker table by the coward Jack McCall, my mother indeed grabbed a meat cleaver to take her revenge on that fuck. She ran barefoot through the streets, a buckskin jacket slung over her nightgown, the crowd parting like a dark sea before her until all that my mother faced was Bill’s head blooming open on a wooden table of the saloon. There were no female hysterics. There were no fainting spells. Just Jane’s steady hand bled white from her grip upon that cleaver’s handle.

“Who did this? ” she asked, so quiet that the crowd moved further away. But McCall had already fled, and so my mother was left with only the cleaver and her mourning, Bill’s ruined head now resting on her stained lap.

I am the bastard son of Calamity Jane. Facts and lies, they are so often the same when all you get is glimpses. Like spotting the flash of rainbow trout in a stream. But I know the truth. I am her blood. She was my mother.

Yes, she did spin a gorgeous yarn. What else to do on those long nights by a fire or done dancing at the brothel? Yes, she partook mightily of the bottle, but only in her last years. And no, she did not acquire the nickname Calamity because she had the clap. She came by her name honestly. And she was the lover of Wild Bill Hickok. But I am not Bill’s son.

Certainly, my mother gave herself to many men in the years after Bill’s murder, in part to try and drown the voices that would not leave her alone. She was always true to Bill, though, and he to her. The ones who were closest to both testified to that fact. One of them, the half-breed Charlie Utter, claimed Hickok from the morgue the next morning. Charlie carried Bill in his thick arms to the Utter camp three miles away to prepare and shroud the body for burial. The whole of town followed, black-clad bodies with faces etched in pale grief, a thin, dark stream that ran those miles from Deadwood. Crates of whisky screeched open in the late sun. Men began to fight for shovels to help dig the grave. By the time Charlie cried “Enough!” the hole was twice the depth and length than was necessary. Each one of those fools, they only wanted one day to claim, “I helped bury Wild Bill.”

As the sun weakened and the preacher did not show, a woman dressed in black lace and veil, sidesaddle on a pale horse, appeared from town. The din of the wake grew still. Heads turned to her, faces red and sweating, straining for a glimpse. She rode up to the prospector’s tent that held Bill’s closed coffin from the flies then rode straight in before slipping off her mare.

“I need to see him,” she spoke to red-eyed Charlie Utter. He leaned to pick up a hammer, sweat dripping on the casket as he whined the lid open. The horse grew nervous at the scent. My mother lifted her veil, then bent down to Bill’s long face and moustache outlined in thin cloth, as if to kiss his lips. If any in the tent had been sober enough to notice, they’d have seen that rare thing. My own mother’s hands, clasped behind her back, those same hands that had killed Indian and white outlaw alike, those steady, steady hands, they trembled. “You did a good, job, Charlie,” she said as she drew up to her height. Then she took the bottle from its place at his feet and drank deeply. I know now that this was the start of the end of my mother.

As the moon rose, pistols came out of holsters and shotguns out of burlap sacks, their crack and thunder aimed to pierce and sink that orb. Talk stank of tracking down the assassin Jack McCall, a few of the drunker men even clawing onto their horses and weaving into the dark, only to return a short while later, confused and embarrassed at their foolishness.

Is it true some of the early risers awoke to the sight of my mother curled up and naked, snoring in Wild Bill’s casket, her arm across his chest? What is truth is that she stood watch over Bill for hours that next morning, still dressed in black lace that hugged her woman’s curves like her buckskin couldn’t. Then she crossed the tent to oversee Charlie Utter carve with his knife onto a tombstone of sanded oak, Pard, we will meet again in the happy hunting ground to part no more. Good bye.

When the preacher didn’t show that second day, the wake drank hard to mob. The same men who’d thought it a reasonable idea the night before to ride whisky posse for Jack McCall rode more soberly into town, returning with the white-collared preacher on a mule between them, this one not much older than a boy and just as pimply.

That child preacher tried to make order when he realized he couldn’t escape, holding his Bible up above the sunburned crowd with shaking hands. “There shall be no drinking and there shall be no cussing at the funeral of any man,” he whined, his voice ignored in the ebb and flow of laughter, of mourning. He cried out again, loud as he could, and a few nearby men spat, offering him a pull off their jug.

My mother took action when the boy had been roughhoused enough, picking him out of the mud and piss by the hand, telling him to wipe the hork from his face. “Come, preacher,” she said. “Why don’t you and me have a quiet moment? Let’s say we pray.”

Inside the tent, my mother again asked Charlie Utter to remove the lid, and on this second hot day Bill had truly begun his stink, his thin face sunken, the browning shroud unable to hide it. My mother stood still with hands clasped behind her back. The preacher wretched then puked. As he wiped the bile onto his dark sleeve, my mother asked Charlie to leave the tent and secure it.

When she and the preacher were alone, she asked, “Will he go to God? ”

“He’s already there,” the boy stumbled rote, afraid to look.

“Don’t lie to me or know that I will kill you,” my mother said.

They stood for a time until the boy gained some wits. “I don’t know,” he said. He glanced to my mother then glanced away.

“So you don’t know if I will be with him again,” my mother said. When the preacher didn’t answer, just staring dumbly at his feet, she asked, “You’re useless, then? ”

The two stood long minutes, the clamor of the crowd outside finding its pitch. “My Bill killed many men,” my mother spoke, as if to hush them all. “And I have, too.” She took her eyes from the body and turned to the young preacher. “In self-defence or under the name of the law.” She paused. “But for a few.”

“I want your answers for you,” the boy said.

My mother raised her finger to hush him. “You are useless, then,” she spoke, walking for the tent’s flap.

The boy found his voice as she struggled to untie it. “I promise you that I will bury him well.”

She turned her head to him before walking out.

It speaks to Bill Hickok that on that second night my mother refused to bury him the crowd did not diminish but swelled. Riders thundered in from the dark, some with telegrams of grievance, others only with hopes of not missing this event. My mother sat in a straight-back chair outside the flap to Bill’s tent, taking the condolences of new arrivals, passing their unread letters brought from afar to Charlie. Through that night he crouched by her, offering her his bottle, but she only shook her head.

When the moon began to set and the hooves had finally quieted, she leaned to him, said, “I need some now.”

The two drank, and Charlie tried in his slow drawl to read a few letters to my mother in the dim light of that dying moon. “This one here’s from George Custer’s widow,” he’d say, or, “Now here’s one from our friend Bill Cody.” He read so poorly she had to hush him.

With the sun threatening and the night animals quiet, humans nearby snoring and mumbling, my mother finally spoke. “Killing ain’t the hard part, is it? ”

Charlie, near sleep, awoke. Looked up to her, listened.

“It’s what comes after, I think,” she said.

“What do you mean? ” he asked. “This? ” He raised his hand to the temporary town of tents and fires.

“I once rode scout for cavalry out of Big Horn River,” my mother said, “and we killed some Blackfoot who wouldn’t stand down.” She took the bottle from Charlie’s hand. “When we came back the next day, we heard it from over a mile away. We thought it might be coyotes.” She drank then passed it back. “But I knew it wasn’t. I rode up on them first. Squaws wailing and rubbing red dirt on their dead men’s faces, trying to scrub something away.” My mother looked at Charlie. “I sat on my horse and listened to their mourning.” She stopped, as if to swallow something down. “That wail didn’t sound human. Not animal either. More than both. Both.” She took the bottle from his hand again and drained it. “It’s the sound of what comes after that I can’t make leave me.”

She stood then and walked into Bill’s tent.

On the third afternoon, only Charlie had the courage to approach my mother. “He needs burying,” Charlie whispered to her. The flies about the tent hummed their disapproval.

“No,” my mother said. “Soon. Not yet.”

Charlie worried for her sanity at the entrance to the tent, was surprised but fascinated to watch the young preacher pass him and into it as the afternoon grew long.

“Miss Jane,” he heard the preacher murmur, “it’s time to let him go to God.” Charlie cocked his ear, listened for the wail, for the sounds of gunfire or gutting through the thin walls. But all he could make out were a few whispers, a Lord’s Prayer, a tiny sob.

As the sun set, six men emerged from the prospector’s tent, Bill Hickok’s casket raised on their shoulders with Charlie and the preacher at the lead. Like sparrows at dusk, the crowd chattered then grew still. They flocked about the grave, gently shoved closer, and cocked their heads as the boy preacher declared Wild Bill dust to dust, watched as the preacher sprinkled water onto the casket as ropes lowered it down. Some say that the smoke of incense and camp stoves played tricks with the light, the sky burning orange like a prairie fire drawing near. Some even claimed they witnessed my mother present at the burial, in her black lace, damping tears with Bill’s white handkerchief. But I know different.

One rarely hears of Calamity Jane’s last years, of her nursing the smallpox ridden of Deadwood or of her birthing me. But the gossips certainly do chatter about her death, of how the conductor on her last train carried her from it to a cabin in the woods, how he reported that she was dressed in buckskin and smelled badly, how he somehow noticed that she wore no undergarments and stunk of whisky with her dying breath.

The truth is my mother watched Wild Bill Hickok’s burial from the entrance of that tent, watched the crowd get their fill of him until they realized there was nothing left, watched every one of them pack up their gear and depart as the night crawled across. She kept witness until the preacher rode away alone on his mule, until she was the last one standing, the canvas walls still smelling of Bill’s remains, and the smouldering campfires all around her.

And that is when she spotted him, sitting by Bill’s grave. She called out, “Charlie Utter, you are his one true friend.”

The man who was soon to become my father startled, turned his head to her voice, saw it was she, picked up the last full whisky bottle the deserted camp had to offer, and raised it. She walked to him. They drank.

“I need,” she said, holding Charlie’s shaking hands in hers. For the first time in her life, but sadly not the last, my mother begged. She pleaded that night for Charlie to help her get the wailing of squaws from her ears.

All he could muster was, “Calamity Jane, I can make you no promises.”

They did what they had to. After that night, they were never again able to look each other in the eye.

I don’t know what happened to my father. He became mist burnt off by the morning sun. My mother, though, she’ll live on. Her exploits, truth and lies, are carved. Buffalo Bill did take her in not so long after my birth, and he eventually came to terms that she’d become too wrecked for his company. Her once-steady hand, more and more, slipped into shaking.

My mother, a wanderer, she left me young to the care of others, but she did visit, rarely, time to time. I don’t hold her decisions against her. I watched careful when she came, and I listened. Especially, I listened. In her right moods, she had a lot to tell.

I need to go now. I am the bastard son of Calamity Jane, of the West, and, truthfully, I’m already gone. But you must know this by now. Facts and lies, they are so often the same when all you get is glimpses. But I know the truth. I am her blood. She was my mother.

Joseph Boyden
Joseph Boyden won the CBC’s 2014 Canada Reads contest with his third novel, The Orenda.
Sous Sous
Sous Sous has won two gold National Magazine Awards.