The night is warm for a late March when Nicole settles her bedrolls down by the campfire on the banks of the Arkansas river. She pulls a copy of a “Wanted” poster out of her breast pocket with the countenance of John Wesley Hardin and a reward listed as $2,000. Walking closer to the fire to take a closer look at the face she has seared in her memory already, she dusts her pants off of the grime of the past 12 hours riding in the plains. Even though she spent her entire adult life out West, she was born and raised in luscious Marion County, AR, and still to this day can’t get used to the arid climate of the West and the never-ending plains.
As she sits down on her bedroll, putting the poster securely away in her vest’s pocket, Nicole checks the pocket watch that once belonged to her father and starts getting ready for bed. After taking off her vest and a thick cotton button-up shirt, she mindlessly unwraps her chest. It’s a long process, one she is quite used to by now living as a man for the past ten years, and she lets her mind wander. Maybe it is the constant and comforting hum of the Arkansas River – more a stream, really, this far into the Colorado Territory – that brings her mind back yet again to her childhood.
Her father’s booming laughter bounces off the walls of their small pigsty. At 6’5”, Cole Haught is a tall, well-built man, with playful brown eyes. His blonde hair is disheveled and –in the afternoon sunlight filtering through the sty’s door – it looks like liquid gold. His brown corduroy pants, patched in places by Nicole’s mother, Margaret, from the years of use, are secured over his immense chest with black suspenders.
Nicole’s older brothers, John Twitty and Silas, rush in to see what all this commotion is about. They both stand by their still chuckling father, letting their eyes adjust to the gloom of the sty, before starting to laugh as well. John Twitty is the oldest and one day will become the spitting image of their father. At 16 years old, he stands almost as tall as their father but is lankier and to his chagrin still can’t seem to grow a proper mustache. He is boisterous, jovial, and always has enough energy to get into trouble, even though he meticulously helps their father on the farm. Silas is four years younger, and as much as John Twitty resembles their father, Silas takes after their mother. Tall – but not nearly as tall as John Twitty – Silas’ blue eyes and red hair betray their Irish heritage. He is calmer, more conscientious and kinder than John Twitty, and his good-natured laughter sounds like liquid honey.
The scene unfolding in front of the three men is the sole reason for their merriment. The youngest of the Haught siblings, Nicole, is entirely covered in mud, clumsily trying to catch a 3-month-old black piglet, which is equally muddy and slippery to boot. Nicole plops herself gracelessly, ass first, in a mud puddle, crossing her arms over her chest with a petulant pout. Her father’s and brothers’ mirth gets her to cast an offended eye in their direction before she looks herself over and shoots a wolfish grin at them, bursting out laughing herself to tears.
Nicole smiles at the memory, putting on the union suit she always sleeps in. Her revolver goes underneath the pile of clothes she just folded that will be used as her pillow. She lies down and as soon as she pulls her Stetson over her face, she drifts off to sleep filled with dreams and half-memories of her childhood.
She’s lying at the back of their wagon, feet dangling off the back axle, and can just barely hear fragments of her mother’s singing voice over the ruckus of over a 100 travelling wagons. They have been on the West-ward trail for well over 4 months now and she feels restless and antsy. She’s six now – her birthday was just a couple of months ago, already on the trail – and she’s sure she could help her brothers herd their family’s 100-head-count cattle herd along the trail. She’s tall for her age and used to physical labor from climbing trees and helping out at their farm. She frowns as she corrects herself – their old farm.
Her mother says that now that she’s six, she’ll have to start behaving like a lady and when they get to California she will have to start wearing dresses. Nicole doesn’t see the appeal in bunching skirts nor does she understand what is deemed so lady-like about having your entire skeleton, possibly along with your soul, rattled out of your body by sitting in the back of the wagon, “like a lady”.
“Pff, more like a sack of flour!” She scoffs to herself.
Nicole also doesn’t entirely understand why they had to leave their home. They had a farm with acres of rolling hills covered with grass, which sustained a large herd of cattle. Their parents worked hard, sure, but she could also see that they dressed as nicely and smartly as anybody else at their Sunday mass, and there was nothing either she or her brothers wanted for. Just then, she remembers her father’s stories about California – the land flowing with milk and honey, and it makes her temporarily less frustrated.
Her dangling foot is kicked roughly and she lifts up on her elbows to see her brother, John Twitty, riding on the horse right behind their wagon.
“Make yourself useful, little piglet, and go check on Mary Ann and the baby for me,” he grins at her, twisting the ends of the thin mustache he finally managed to grow.
“This damn nickname will never go away,” Nicole thinks to herself.
She’s about to lie down again and ignore her brother, when he says, “Silas can’t herd ‘em all and Mary Ann was complaining of abdominal pain this morning.” John Twitty looks backwards, where about 40 feet away is his wagon with his young wife and their 9-month-old baby. “I know we’ll be at the Mountain Meadows camp soon but I uhm… I’m worried about them…” he says with a level of sincerity and emotion Nicole is not accustomed to.
She rolls her eyes at him because she doesn’t know how to act around this version of her brother. John Twitty has not really been around in the past year since he got married to Mary Ann but the brother she remembers is someone who pulled her braids, threw more mud at her that day two years ago in the pigsty, and proceeded to mercilessly calling her piglet on any and all occasions. She always knew it was the type of relationship they had and there was nothing vicious about it; that’s just how John Twitty showed his affection. She knows because he also taught her to ride a horse in secret, after their mother specifically forbade it, taught her to track rabbits in the forest and catch fish in the stream behind their farm.
So yes, she rolls her eyes because how else would she show him her love but dutifully jumps off the wagon and starts making her way against the traffic of a seemingly never-ending sea of wagons, people, cattle, oxen, and horses. She catches his beaming smile, so similar to their father’s, and a thankful nod of his head, before he’s lost in the hubbub of dust and people.
Before she reaches her brother’s wagon, Nicole hears commotion and screams from the left. Everybody stops and an eerie silence blankets them for a brief moment before all hell breaks loose. She hears gun shots, horses neighing, children’s cries. She hears men yelling “Indians!” and “Red skins!” She hears a roar of a wounded ox, not further than 5 feet away from her. She hears all of this and yet, she is rooted to the spot, frozen, as if in a dream.
Just as a mounted man charges at her with an axe swinging, a vicious sneer on his face, a wagon she was standing by topples sideways, covering her with its canvas cover. Nicole wiggles and feels her legs trapped underneath one of the wagon’s bows yet she stays quiet, not daring to yell for help, not daring to cry, not daring to make a slightest whimper, should she be discovered.
She stays still and quiet for hours on end. The massacre didn’t last longer than maybe half an hour but for Nicole it seemed like an eternity has passed. She tries to think of Californian rivers running with milk and honey. She tries to think about how fun it will be to fish in those rivers with John Twitty, how much Silas will enjoy teaching her to read his favorite books in the green Californian hills, and how Mary Ann’s baby will never want for milk. She even thinks that she will happily go with her mother to have new dresses made for her in town.
It has been uncannily quiet for hours and the night has already fallen but none of this is evident to Nicole. Suddenly, someone cuts the canvas cover that has sheltered her from the massacre. She sees a Native man with long straight black hair and a large intricate bead neckless adorning his naked chest. He smiles at her but –with the large knife he used to cut the canvas still in his hand, reflecting the full moon in its blade –his smile looks ferocious and terrifying to her traumatized brain.
Nicole yells at the top of her lungs.
She stirs in her slumber and her dreams go blank for a second. When she starts dreaming again, she subconsciously notices how the colors look different from the washed-out, nearly sepia-like quality of her previous dream, of her memories. Everything looks vivid now, oversaturated, like the red canyons of the southern Utah Territory.
Nicole yells at the top of her lungs. The man in front of her puts a finger to his mouth in a universal sign for “Be quiet.” She doesn’t relent. She was a coward before, hiding like a child underneath a fallen wagon, when her family and friends were fighting for their lives. She’s six now and she will scream for all she’s worth.
Behind the man with a knife she sees somebody else approaching. She exhales with relief, as she can see that even though this man is dressed in the similar manner to the one with the knife, he is in fact a white man. Nicole smiles at him with pure joy and an overwhelming feeling of deliverance. Yet as he pulls out his hunting knife and slits the throat of the man haunching above her, she recognizes him and his sneer as the man who was charging towards her right before the wagon collapsed over her head. The man who cut the canvas open looks down at her with an utter shock of betrayal before he collapses, his unseeing eyes fixed at her.
“Kuttsu Nakka!” Nicole wakes up with a cry, sitting upright, her union suit completely soaked with sweat. Still breathing harshly, she tries to orient herself; the dawn is almost upon her and she can hear the susurrus of the stream nearby. She lays down again, rubbing her face with her open palms.
“It was only a dream… It was only a dream… Kuttsu Nakka didn’t die that day. Nor did you for that matter so get your shit together…” Nicole murmurs to herself until her heart-rate slows down.
With the daylight fast approaching, Nicole decides to get up and hunt for squirrels or at least find some yucca roots and pine nuts for breakfast and head East towards Dodge City, KS, where she has a hunch John Wesley Hardin is bound for.
“Waverly, honey, when you’re done for the evening come and join me and uncle Curtis, why don’t you?” Her aunt Gus tells her, leaning over the bar before she collects her hat and heads out through the swinging bat-wing doors of the saloon, not waiting for a response.
Aunt Gus is a slight, middle-aged woman, with a salt-and-pepper hair that is shorter than strictly appropriate but she’s also the kind of a woman who doesn’t care much for conventions. As Waverly affectionately watches her aunt walk out of the saloon, she thinks how Aunt Gus and her mama look nothing alike, even though they’re sisters. What does she know, though? She hasn’t seen her mother in 17 years. Waverly shrugs, collects the last few remaining empty glasses off the bar counter, and sets off to wash them, humming unconsciously. She won’t let a stray thought about her estranged mother ruin her good mood.
Today was a great day, what with the slow traffic through the saloon and the agreeable and ever charming Champ Hardy keeping me company, Waverly thinks to herself and blushes at the thought of the handsome cow-boy… man… and the few kisses they managed to steal.
She keeps humming as she leaves the saloon, heading for Uncle Curtis’s townhouse just next door. The McCreadys own the only saloon in Purgatory, MT, commonly known as “Shorty’s”, nick-named so based on Uncle Curtis’s unassuming height. It turned out to be the right investment when the news of the gold strike in the Little Rockies hit and the town was transformed seemingly overnight from a little community into a booming gold rush city. That turn of events quickly made Curtis and Gus one of the more influential people in town, which is how eventually they managed to secure the sheriff’s post for her father, after the last lawman walked out of his office one day, never to be seen again.
Waverly glances at the small sheriff’s office across and a bit to the right from Shorty’s. The lights are out and she realizes that is the reason for Aunt Gus’ invitation to join them. Back in Wichita, KS, Wyatt Earp forbade little Waverly from ever learning to ride a horse, after the continuous fighting between him and Waverly’s older sister ultimately drove Wynonna to ride off towards the sunset. At the time, Waverly was too young and naïve to understand why Wynonna was so dismayed with their father working at Uncle James’s saloon. Now, as she looks to the opposite side of the street, right next to the quiet and dark sheriff’s building and a little two-cell jail, she sees the ruckus and dancing in town’s only boardinghouse and she begins to realize that Uncle James’s saloon may have housed an entertainment of a different type than they serve at Shorty’s.
Waverly has been mad at her sister for up and leaving her alone with their father for a lot of reasons, least of which is the fact that she now can’t ride a horse to return to their homestead which lays about four miles east of the booming town of Purgatory, nestled against the Little Rockies.
Putting on the most cheerful smile in her arsenal, the one she used over and over again as they moved from town to town to win the trust and affection of locals, Waverly resigns herself to another fitful night on her aunt’s couch. She typically rides between the homestead and Purgatory with her father, on a little cart Wyatt acquired from one of the disillusioned miners passing through town. She’s certain something important must have held up her father; perhaps he is leading another posse or organizing a raid on one of many illegal mining camps that pop up like mushrooms after the rain down the creak from the Little Rockies.
As she knocks on Aunt Gus’ townhouse door, gun shots reverberate across the street. Alarmed, Waverly looks towards the boardinghouse but she calms down considerably, seeing a pack of inebriated men leaving the establishment and shooting their guns in the air. She bristles, when she spots Champ Hardy being a part of the revelry but her train of thought is momentarily derailed when she sees her father’s friend, John Henry Holliday, commonly known as “Doc” around town, hauling a supremely intoxicated man with a help of one of the boardinghouse girls. The night is dark and the only source of light are the dim oil lamps in the boardinghouse, but Waverly could swear that the lewd drunk being dragged towards Doc’s dental parlor is none else but Wyatt Earp. His ample mustache, a source of pride of her father’s, is also the most recognizable and distinguishable part of his countenance.
Aunt Gus must have heard the commotion, because the door suddenly opens and Waverly is unceremoniously pulled inside before she has half the mind of either follow Mr. Holliday and his merry party or give a piece of her mind to her supposed beau.
“Oh, honey,” Aunt Gus says, folding her shotgun against her hip and looking at Waverly with a great deal of pity and sorrow but evidently missing any sense of surprise at the behavior of the two most important men in Waverly’s life.
Waverly’s no stranger to pity but the realization that she was kept in the dark by one of very few people who she unequivocally trusted in her life is too overwhelming in the current circumstances. She looks at her aunt in utter disbelief and lets a few stray tears fall down her face before pulling herself together. Her father was never very attentive towards her and she knew he was no saint but Waverly never suspected she idolized him beyond what he deserved. She doesn’t even have the time to think about Champ, who was so kind to her, so outwardly committed in the first months of his courtship.
“That lily-liver, flannel-mouthed, scalawag, piece of shit…” Waverly hears her uncle rant in the hallway. She’s not sure whether he’s talking about her father or Champ but it brings a small smile to her face either way.
With her hand still on Waverly’s elbow, Aunt Gus gently directs her towards the kitchen. “I’ll set the kettle on, my dear.”
As evident by the deep frown lines on her forehead, Waverly is deep in thought that Aunt Gus promptly interrupts before her niece has a chance to spiral out of control. Gus knows that Waverly tends to overthink things, that she spent the majority of her young life playing and spending time alone, creating better worlds in her head than the dreary reality of being abandoned by both her mother and her older sister, and being left at a mercy of a father who could never settle in one town for longer than a few years. Waverly’s been happier – genuinely more radiant with the fake chirpy smiles she hides behind appearing less and less frequently – in the past year than Gus has seen since Wyatt arrived in Purgatory three years ago. Stability is not something that was afforded to Waverly often and if a couple of years on a homestead and Champ Hardy’s courtship provided that, neither Gus nor Curtis were going to badmouth the boy.
It seems like the magic spell was broken tonight, though, and Gus will be damned if she’ll go on pretending like that buckaroo wannabe is good enough for her niece.
“From your acock expression, I take it you weren’t aware of Champ’s… extracurricular activities?”
Waverly can only shake her head sadly.
Nodding to herself, Aunt Gus clears her throat uncomfortably, before marching right on, “And I hope you always remembered our conversation about never… entertaining… gentlemen about two weeks after your monthly and a proper hygiene during and after such… activities?” Aunt Gus swiftly loses the awkward and uncomfortable tone of her voice, as it moves onto something much more akin to anger, “I swear I see that boy visit the hookshop across the street more than I see him put a hard day at work! That place crawls with French pox and…”
“Of course, Aunt Gus! I was always careful...” Terrified and wide-eyed Waverly stops her aunt’s rant.
“My sweet girl…” Her aunt softens considerably and places a gentle, comforting hand on Waverly’s cheek. “It seems like you weren’t even knee-high to a lamb when Wyatt rode into Purgatory with you in tow. With Michelle gone, I felt a great deal of responsibility for you, but now I feel I must have disappointed you greatly.”
“Please don’t say so, Aunt Gus. With you and Uncle Curtis letting me help out at Shorty’s on some days, you ensured I wasn’t constantly alone at the homestead, waiting with dinner for the return of my father, and watching the property become more dilapidated every passing year,” Waverly responds eagerly.
“Thank you for the tea and a place to stay tonight but I am quite exhausted. May I please be excused?” Waverly leaves her aunt and drifts off to sleep on the drawing room’s couch, hearing quiet murmurs of Gus and Curtis discussing Wyatt, the sorry state of the Earp’s homestead, and the future of a young, unmarried Waverly in a harsh reality of the Montana Territory.