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Calamity Jane - How The West Began

Calamity Jane - How The West Began

Book excerpt

July, Civil War Era

              The scant light of dusk ebbed from Bannack, civilization’s most tenuous toehold in the Rocky Mountain wilderness.  Rude log structures clustered on one side of a creek, capped by dirt and sod roofs, on one of which a pair of crows hopped and cawed at one another. Inside, Jane Canary, a sturdy-looking girl of fifteen, bent over a steaming pot on a sheet-iron stove, wooden spoon in hand.  Jane was proud that she had been able to stretch to day’s end the meager rations her parents had left.

              “I’m hungry,” said sister Lana.    

              Jane glanced at Lana, her face all innocence and light. A sprinkle of dirt was shaken loose from the ceiling. “Damn crows,” muttered Jane. She glanced at the pole ceiling, then where the dirt had fallen near Queenie, their big yellow dog. Queenie nudged her recently weaned puppies and gave Jane a big sigh.

              “I’m hungry, too, Lana,” said Jane. “Don’t worry, we’ll eat in a minute, and then it’s your bedtime.”

              “Is Ma gonna be okay?” Lana asked.

              “She’ll be fine,” said Jane. But she could only mouth those words; there was no certainty behind them. Typhoid fever had laid Charlotte Canary awfully low in the past few days. Ma had finally decided to go to the doctor that morning before she might be too weak to make the short trip over the hill. Jane stirred the pot absent-mindedly, listening to the wind as it whistled through cracks in the walls. She bunched up the hem of her slip and used that to pick up the pot, then headed to the door to inspect it. A gunshot cracked through the dusk, and the crows took flight.  Unfortunately for the girls, one of the birds was directly above where Jane held the pot, for a big clump of dirt plopped into the pot of beans.

              “Goddamn it!” said Jane, as her body tensed, and her jaw clenched.

              “Pa says you shouldn’t swear,” said Lana.

              “Like he should talk,” said Jane, casting her glance to a half-empty whiskey bottle in one corner of the squalid disarray of their cabin. She gingerly tried to fish the dirt out of the pot with the spoon, but the blunt end of this clumsy instrument only crushed the clump. She dropped the spoon and reached into the pot with fingers, trying to salvage their meal.

              “Shit! Goddamn it!” she said, her hand jerking away reflexively, followed by a burning sensation lancing up her arm.

“Jane is a potty mouth, Jane is a potty mouth,” Lana teased.

“Yeah, what of it?” Jane snapped as she set the pot back on the stove and blew on her injured hand.

              Lana went wide-eyed, and her lower lip started to tremble. “I’m sorry.”

              “Ah, Lana, don’t be sorry,” said Jane, trying to avert the cascade of tears that was sure to follow.

              “I’m trying to be good,” Lana cried.

              “You’re being so good,” said Jane. She swept to her sobbing sister’s side and hugged her. Jane took the hem of her sister’s flimsy cotton slip and dabbed tears away.

              “I want my Ma,” wailed Lana.

              “Shush, shush there,” said Jane, casting an eye out the door. A canvas flap was all that separated inside from out. “The neighbors will hear you.”

              “I don’t care. They hate us. All the neighbors hate us.”

              “Here, Lana, I’ll feed you, then you’ll feel better.”

              Lana wiped away her tears and sat on the buffalo hide that covered part of the dirt floor, ready soon to be wrapped around the two of them as their bed. Jane took her knife out and in what light there was at the door she dug around in the bean pot, dabbing as many beans as she could onto a tin plate. “Here,” she said.

              Lana took the plate and scooped up the beans with her fingers, placing them in her mouth, licking her fingers on the way out. After a couple of chews, Lana screwed her face up and spit the beans out on the floor.

              “Lana, don’t do that,” said Jane. “We got enough mice in here already.”

              “I don’t care, you try it. It’s all dirt.”

              Jane teased a few more beans out of the pot and placed them in her mouth. The beans crunched in her back teeth, and she spit them out on the ground outside. She grabbed the pot from the stove again and took it to the doorway. It was hopeless. “Okay, Lana. I guess it’s just bedtime then.”

              “I can’t go to bed,” said Lana. “I’m still hungry. Where’s Pa?”

              “Across the creek. He’ll be back in the morning,” Jane said. Visons of gold had lured Pa to Bannack from distant Missouri, but the good claims were all gone by the time they had arrived. A farmer by rade, now he turned to gambling. 

              “I’m hungry now,” said Lana. “We gotta find Pa.”

              “I can’t leave you here and just go across the creek and get him,” said Jane. The late arrivals to the goldfields like the Canary family mostly lived on this side of the creek, the saloons and the early arrivals were on the other.

“Good. I’ll go with you,” said Lana.

There was a muffled gunshot, and simultaneously a dull “plunk” in their wall towards town. A little chinked mud cascaded to the floor to confirm the hit.

“It’s not safe, Lana,” said Jane.

“You’re a chicken. I’ll go by myself.”

“Lana, you are only six.”

“Next year I’ll be seven, and you’ll prob’ly still be a chicken.”

Lana knew how to goad her older sister, who prided herself in being fearless.

“All right. Then get your dollie,” said Jane.


“Yeah, really. I’ll teach you who’s chicken.” Queenie nuzzled Jane as Lana scurried for her doll. She was a good hunting dog, with coarse fur not meant to be petted. “You stay, old girl, and be a good Ma to them puppies,” Jane said, scratching behind Queenie’s ears. She went to the doorway to examine her hand, where blisters confirmed what the throbbing told her. A neighbor woman returned home with a bucket of water. The woman, one who had travelled the months-long journey from St. Louis with the Canary’s, was lit by an interior candle for a moment when she opened her door. She gave Jane a stern look, then hurried inside. Lana took Jane's good hand, clutching her corncob doll to her chest with her other hand. The girls passed through the canvas flaps and started their journey. Jane shivered as the breeze passed through the thin slip that was all that stood between her and the elements.

Violin music struggled to make itself known above the din coming from the saloons. The violins that the girls heard would have been musical if each instrument had been enjoyed in isolation, but the sound of several at the same time sounded like competing cats in heat. Combined with shouting and singing, occasionally punctuated by gunshots, this noise now served as the beacon that guided Jane and Lana to an uncertain destination. Scant steps from home, the girls came to the Salt Lake City Road, which they followed towards the creek. Water gurgled through long wooden troughs, sluices which the miners used to separate creek-bed gravel from the denser gold they coveted. The creek was shallow enough to be easily forded by horses and wagons, but for foot traffic there were two logs, hewn flat on top and worn smooth already over the few months of Bannack’s existence.

Jane took a step up on the bridge and offered her hand to Lana. “Come on,” she said.

“I’m scared,” Lana said, twisting away with her doll clutched close. The crack of another gunshot pierced the night air.

Jane tried to stop shivering so her voice would sound more reassuring. “Lana, we gotta find Pa,” she coaxed, her hand outstretched. “I won’t let you fall.”

Lana took Jane’s hand, and the sisters shuffled sideways across the bridge to the midpoint. The doll that Lana held so tightly was months old now, so it was beginning to fall apart. It was due to being held so

tightly that now, ironically, its foot fell off and into a fold of Lana’s dress. “Oh, no,” cried Lana. “My dollie!”

She bent down to pick up the foot, but in so doing the small fold flattened out and the doll’s foot plunked into the stream. “My dollie’s foot!” Lana cried as the stream swiftly carried it away.

“It’s gone, Lana,” said Jane. “Let’s go.”

“My dollie needs her foot,” said Lana, and she stamped her feet and pouted.

“I’ll look for it in the morning,” said Jane. “Right now we gotta go.”

“Look for it now,” Lana demanded, and stamped her feet again. Lana’s feet slipped on the wet log and she lost her balance, bending at the waist, flailing her arms in the air. Jane quickly grabbed her sister by the waist, flung her over her shoulder and took two steps on the log before she lost her own balance. She made a leap for the far stream bank, but landed short, splashing on her bottom at the creek edge, pulling Lana into her lap at the same time.

“Lana,” said Jane, “now look at us. You know you have to mind me when Ma and Pa aren’t home.”

“I told you, I’m trying to be good.”

“Well, fine,” said Jane. “Let’s go find Pa.”

They brushed off mud the best they could, and Jane wrung water out of her skirt. The sisters continued up Main Street, keeping to the edge to avoid the center that reeked of draft animal manure and urine. They passed a cluster of homes belonging to the early arrivals to the area, protected from errant bullets in a little hollow. These homes had a more substantial appearance than the rude and hastily built homes of Jane’s neighborhood. Some even had small windows of greased paper to let in light. Envy distracted Jane for just a moment, but she quickly pressed on.

The wilds around town were Jane’s natural element and where she spent most of her time, but she had been on Main Street once or twice before. She compared her recollection of those forays to what now lay before her in the dark. The brewery, the bakery, and the dry goods store were closed and it was hard to tell which was which, but no matter, that. It was from the multiple saloons interspersed among these businesses that Jane had to choose.

 The dust of the street turned to grime on the girls’ wet feet, extending halfway to their knees. Lana started to whimper again. “Maybe we should go find Ma instead.”

“Ma is too sick. We got to find Pa.” Jane shivered uncontrollably for a moment, as her wet slip clung to her skin. “We’re almost there,” she said, as if she knew. But how was she to guess where Pa was? It was no help that signs graced the fronts of some of the saloons, just so much wasted lumber and paint to an illiterate farm girl.  Jane peered in the door of the nearest saloon. Of all of them, this one had the most civilized façade, with two rows of pane glass windows on both sides of the door. No music came from within this one, only a steady stream of shouted threats and curses, as if every man within it wanted to prove he was the baddest man in a bad town. Jane decided to try the next one instead. Cursing and shouting flowed from that one as well, but at least the epithets she heard had a sense of humor and celebration to them. This place was crowded to overflowing, though, so Jane led Lana onward.

Jane scanned her remaining choices and was drawn to the one across the street. This place had a much less agitated appearance than the others, and the loudest sound coming from it was the violin music. So Jane and Lana carefully picked their way across the rutted street to this establishment, mud and manure squeezing between their toes. Jane stopped just short of the doorway and looked at Lana in the dim light that came from within. She grimaced at her sister’s grimy face and tattered, muddy slip, knowing that her own appearance must be just as disheveled. Already scorned on her side of the creek, she did not want more of the same on this side now. Nor worse, pity.

“Lana, here,” she said. She pulled her sister close, and with the cleanest part of her dress she could find, tried to wipe days of grime and neglect from Lana’s face.

“Are we there yet?” asked Lana.

“Yeah, this is prob’ly it,” Jane said. She grasped her sister’s hand, took a breath, and pushed open the door to the saloon with a determined thrust.

Screeching violin music washed over them as they stepped inside.  Jane’s blinking eyes searched quickly. The smell of cigars and something foreign and spicy was so intense that it made her nose sting and her eyes water. The violin player saw the girls first and stopped mid-note, bow pointed to the ceiling like an exclamation point. Bearded men in remnants of clothing from former lives turned from their card games one by one and stared in silence. Jane felt exposed in her scant clothing, and embarrassed that they were both so dirty, despite her efforts.

A Chinese woman with a modicum of faded beauty rose from dealing cards, revealing her shiny silk dress with ornate embroidery. “I am Madam Chi,” spoke the exotic woman. “How may I help?”

“I am looking for my Pa, ma’am,” said Jane.

Madam Chi nodded. “His name?”

“Bob Canary, ma’am.”

A Chinese man with a long pigtail came to Madam Chi’s side. She continued. “And your name?”

“Jane Canary, ma’am.”

“Is there here a Bob Canary?” Madam Chi asked the room.

A greasy-looking character in a tattered gray military uniform growled, “He don’t frequent this joint.”

Jane had half expected this, and was ready to turn tail and try the next saloon, but Lana was not prepared for such disappointment. Her lower lip started to tremble.

“I want my Pa!” she cried.             

Jane saw pity in the eyes of the men, and the greasy man in the military garb gave her a look that

made her feel vulnerable. “Come on, Lana, he must be next door.” Before the tears could cascade, she picked up her sister by her waist and rushed out the door.

The violin player resumed his merry tune. “Now there’s a calamity if I ever saw one,” he said.

Madam Chi conferred with her pigtailed partner, who nodded and left by the back door.

Outside, Jane ran across the rutted street. She stumbled and fell to her knees in the filth, dropping Lana.

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