In which Doc Holliday encounters a notorious female outlaw!
“My name is Doc Holliday, and I’m a peaceable traveler. I’d be mighty grateful to warm myself by your fire. I ask your permission to approach,” called Doc from the shadows.
The man by the fire sat bolt upright, and reached for his rifle that was propped against a nearby rock.
“Okay, mister,” he said cautiously. “Walk in real slow with your hands high where I can see them, and don’t make no sudden moves or I’ll cut you down where you stand!”
Doc stepped gingerly forward, edging into the firelight, his hands raised high above his head. The fingers of his right hand were crossed, and he was uttering a silent prayer that the man by the fire wouldn’t suddenly turn trigger-happy.
“Are you carrying?” asked the man cautiously.
Doc nodded, and lowering his hand cautiously, he tweaked his coat back to reveal the revolver on his hip.
“Toss that over here, Doc,” ordered the man. “Use two fingers only!”
As Doc complied, the man moved slightly, and the firelight glinted off a star-shaped badge on his chest.
“So you’re the law, then,” said Doc.
“That a problem for you, mister,” said the other pugnaciously.
“On the contrary, sir,” replied Doc. “In fact my best friend is Wyatt Earp of Tombstone, Arizona. We’ve passed many a convivial night at the poker table.”
“If you’re truly a friend of Wyatt Earp, you must be okay,” said the lawman cautiously. I know Earp. I had the privilege of seeing him face down Ben Thompson in Wichita, Kansas, many years ago. You can put your hands down, Doc, and come on in, but don’t give me no reason to doubt your word ‘cause I’ll shoot first and ask questions after.”
Doc stepped forward, and the lawman proffered a worn, callused hand.
“I’m Marshal Steve Benton,” he said gruffly.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir,” replied Doc grasping the outstretched hand firmly. “Pardon me for asking, but why were you so cautious in your welcome?”
In response the Marshall gestured across the fire. “That’s the reason!” he declared succinctly.
Doc glanced over, and saw a tiny figure, huddled against the cold in an over-sized black coat and a slouch hat pulled down low. The face was hidden, but Doc’s eyebrows raised as he observed the voluminous black skirts that enveloped the lower part of the figure.
“A woman?” he exclaimed in surprise.
“That ain’t just any woman, Doc,” said Benton grimly. “She’s Belle Starr, female outlaw and desperado. She’s wanted for cattle rustling, horse stealing and robbery in Oklahoma. I took her prisoner, and I’m taking her back for trial.”
“But she’s so small! She doesn’t look dangerous at all,” protested Doc.
“Scorpions are small, and they don’t look dangerous till they bite ya!” said Benton.
At that moment the figure raised her head to reveal a pair of piercing eyes that seemed to flash and cut right through the night. Doc felt a sudden chill, as she fixed him for a moment with a menacing expression. Then all of a sudden a wide mouth opened in the dark face to reveal a set of gleaming white teeth.
“Why, Doc Holliday. It’s indeed a pleasure to make your acquaintance at last,” said Belle with a pronounced Southern drawl. “I have heard of you, sir. I believe you’re a gamblin’ man and sharp with a pistol. I confess I have a weakness for dangerous men!” She fluttered her eyes in an exaggerated parody of feminine seductiveness and grinned roguishly.
“The pleasure is all mine, Miss Belle,” replied Doc with a calm courtesy that required some effort. “Your reputation precedes you! I myself have a deep respect for ladies.” He paused. “Especially…dangerous ones,” he added.
Belle let out a throaty chuckle. “Why, sir,” she said, “I do declare you have that sweet-tongued, Southern charm. Are you from the south?”
“From Georgia, ma’am,” acknowledged Doc.
“Well, Mr. Holliday,” said Belle with a baleful glance toward the Marshal, “you being a gamblin’ man, I’ll make you a wager that this here fellow will never get me back to Oklahoma. Horse stealin’s a hangin’ offence, and I have no intention of placing this neck of mine in a hangman’s noose, so I’m bound and determined to break free. You can depend on that!”
Underlying her jovial tone Doc sensed a hard edge. He glanced at the Marshal, and thought: I wouldn’t want his responsibility.
“That’s enough of your lip, Belle,” growled Benton roughly. “Holliday, you can tether your horse over there with ours, and if you come on back, there’s beans in the pan and coffee on the fire.
“Thank you kindly, Marshal,” said Doc. “Excuse me, ma’am,” he added, tipping his hat to Belle Starr.
He turned and strode off into the darkness to tend his tired mount.
“I tell you I must attend to the call of nature,” insisted Belle Starr. “I may be a wanted woman, but surely you can show me some common courtesy.”
The marshal and his prisoner were riding the trail with Doc, who, it proved, was traveling in the same direction.
“Very well,” said Benton reluctantly. “You may go behind them bushes, but don’t you try to slip away. This is wild country, and you wouldn’t get far, especially in them skirts o’ yours!”
Belle held out her cuffed wrists.
“You’ll have to unlock these, Marshal,” she said with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, “for I’ll not be able to raise my skirts with my hands tied together.”
The marshal paused, momentarily perplexed. “No tricks, Belle,” he warned. Then grumbling under his breath, he unlocked the cuffs.
“Why, thank you, Marshal. You’re such a gentleman!” she simpered with a grin. Turning, she walked seductively towards the bushes, shooting a sly glance over her shoulder before disappearing.
Marshal Benton pushed back his hat from his brow, and mopped his face with his kerchief.
“That woman is a heap of trouble. I’ll be right glad to get her off my hands. She’s tricky as a snake. Can’t afford to take my eyes off her for a minute,” he said.
“She seems harmless enough,” said Doc mildly, “but then I’ve heard some stories about her exploits that tell me different.”
“You don’t expect a woman to be a criminal this way,” reflected the marshal. “A whore, maybe, but rarely a robber or a killer. I tell you she’s a cunning one and no mistake. But I had the sheriff’s wife in Santa Fe search her person thoroughly for weapons, and I’m sure she’s got nothing hidden!”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Marshal,” said a soft voice behind them. “Drop your guns, both of you!”
They turned to see the petite figure of Belle Starr standing three feet away. A small silver derringer pistol was clutched in her hand.
“Now don’t be foolish, Belle,” growled Benton, lunging suddenly forward. He crashed into the diminutive woman sending her reeling. The derringer went off with a sharp crack, and the marshal collapsed moaning to the floor.
Doc stood paralyzed with surprise for a moment, but then he dropped to his knees, drawing his revolver. Belle Starr was on her knees, still clutching her derringer. Smoke was curling from its barrel.
“You’d better drop that derringer, Miss Belle,” he ordered sharply. “I have never fired upon a woman before, and I am hoping you will not force me to do so now.”
A few seconds elapsed, and then Belle Starr let the derringer fall at her feet. She looked over at the body of the wounded marshal, an expression of concern on her face.
“Is he dead?” she asked anxiously. “I didn’t mean to shoot him.”
Doc was not sure whether to believe her. “You don’t point a pistol at someone unless you’re prepared to use it,” he scolded sharply. “Go sit on that log over there!” he snapped.
As soon as the woman was seated, he un-cocked his pistol and replacing it in its holster, he crouched down by the fallen marshal. The blood had drained from Benton’s face, and his breath was coming in gasps.
“Doc,” he croaked, “You gotta promise me something.” Blood was now seeping freely through his shirt. “Take Belle back to Santa Fe, and put her in the hands of Sheriff Brady. He’ll know what to do. Promise me, Doc!” he panted urgently, reaching out to clutch Holliday’s sleeve. Doc saw the pleading look in the man’s eyes.
“I promise,” he said, regretting his rash pledge even as he spoke. Then a rattle sounded in Benton’s throat, his eyes glazed over and he died.
“I sure wish you hadn’t made that promise, Doc,” came a silky voice from the vicinity of the log. “I don’t want to have to kill you too!”
Doc scooped up the derringer and put it in his pocket.
“Was that really an accident, Belle?” he asked quietly.
“I was hoping he’s just drop his gun,” answered Belle. “I honestly thought he’d do what I said. But then he jumped me and the gun went off. I never thought I’d kill him. I thought derringers weren’t powerful enough to kill!”
“Believe me, ma’am, as an observer of numerous confrontations in saloons and gambling houses, I can assure you that derringers can be lethal at short range,” replied Doc. “I am a man of my word and I intend to take you back to the custody of the authorities. So we will replace the handcuffs,” he said.
“Aw, come on, Doc,” said Belle adopting a wheedling tone. “I got no quarrel with you. Just turn your back, and I’ll climb on my horse and ride away. You and I are cut from the same cloth.”
“I, madam, would never turn my back on you under any circumstances,” declared Doc curtly. “Who knows what other weapons you have concealed about your person?”
“You’re welcome to search me, Doc,” said Belle, her voice dripping with mock seduction. “I sure won’t resist!”
“I think, ma’am, that I will decline your offer,” said Doc, “but how did you manage to conceal that derringer. The marshal said that a woman searched you thoroughly.”
“Do you really want to know, Doc?” asked Belle archly. “There are some places even a woman don’t want to search, especially a respectable woman!” She gestured lasciviously towards her lower body.
Doc’s jaw dropped in amazement. “You don’t mean…” he began.
“I surely do, Doc honey,” continued Belle with relish. “I have a cute little holster strapped to the inside of my thigh just next to my little…”
Doc felt himself blushing profusely. “That’s quite enough, madam,” he snapped. “I never did hear such an outrageous admission!”
“Why, Doc,” mocked Belle. “I do believe I have discomfited you. Did you think me too much of a lady? I may not be a lady, but believe me I am all woman. In return for my freedom, I am willing to show you my little…” she paused with relish, “…holster! Now just you step behind these bushes with me and…”
“Stop!” ordered Doc. “I am a man of the world, but I have never encountered such brazen talk!”
“Okay,” said Belle shrugging her shoulders, “but you just don’t know what you’re missing.” A sober expression came over her face. “Well, I know where I stand with you, Doc. Don’t expect no breaks from me! To survive as a woman in this world you gotta be tough, and use every weapon you got. I ain’t no wilting flower! So, if you’re taking me in, let’s hit the trail. Put them bracelets on!” she commanded brusquely, holding out her wrists.
That night as they sat by the fire, Belle suddenly said:
“Now look here, Doc! You’ve been cold-shouldering me all day. You haven’t spoken a word. I know you don’t approve of me, but cain’t you even talk to me a little? It’d be a lot less lonesome for us both.”
Doc sighed. “Now what are we gonna talk about, Belle?” he asked.
“Well, I’m interested in people. Tell me something about yerself,” she replied.
“What is there to tell?” asked Doc dryly. “I’m an unsuccessful dentist, who’s barely scraping a living at the card table.”
“What about your love life, Doc?” said Belle. “You ever been married?”
“I have never considered entering the state of matrimony,” answered Doc.
“Boy, you sure use some fancy phrases,” exclaimed Belle. “But why not, Doc? You’re a good-lookin’ feller. A woman’d be mighty lucky to hitch up to your wagon!”
“I thank you for your kind words, ma’am,” said Doc, “but the truth is I am suffering from tuberculosis, and I don’t know how many years I have left on this troubled earth. Not more than five or six I fancy! I can’t ask a woman to share the fate that’s in store for me!”
An expression of genuine concern came over Belle Starr’s face. “Gee, I’m sure sorry, Doc. I had no idea you were a sick man. That’s a crying shame. You need to have some fun in the years you got left. And I know just the gal to show you a good time with plenty of thrills and excitement!”
Doc smiled in spite of himself. “You never give up, do you, Belle?” he said. “What about you? Are you married?”
“As a matter of fact, I am,” replied Belle. “It’s the second time. My first husband was a rogue. Always in a fix, robbin’ and stealin’ and rustlin’. Got himself shot down Texas way. Now my present husband is Sam Starr, a Cherokee man, from Oklahoma. He’s a scoundrel, too. I guess I don’t cotton to decent law-abiding men. I always fall for the bad ones. Story of my life!”
“But you’re a strong and intelligent woman, Belle,” said Doc. “You could have been a lady of quality, married a rancher or run a hotel or a millinery shop.”
“Too dull for me, Doc,” said Belle. “I crave the excitement of pulling off a daring robbery or making a hair-raising escape from the law. Sometimes I dream of going straight, but I don’t believe I’ll ever change.”
“You know that your kind of life only ends one of two ways,” stated Doc grimly. “You go to jail for a long, long time or you get yourself killed. I’ve seen it a thousand times.”
“Maybe you’re right, Doc. But I’d rather live a short time and feel truly alive than rot away in a dull little town for thirty years!” declared Belle. “Hey, Doc, let me pour you some more coffee!”
She reached out for his cup, and at that moment a mournful howl pierced the night air, followed by a rustling sound from the brush behind Doc’s head.
“What’s that, Doc?” said Belle in a trembling voice.
Doc turned his head for a moment.
“Why it’s only a coyote, Belle! You must have heard that sound before. He’ll do us no harm,” he said reassuringly.
She held out a steaming cup of coffee. “I guess I never got used to that sound,” she confided. “It’s so lonesome and sad.”
Doc sipped his coffee. His head was feeling heavy, and his eyelids were drooping.
“I guess it’s time to turn in,” he said.
He got up with difficulty and walked across to Belle. “I’m sorry to do this, Belle, but I’m going to have to tie you to…”
Suddenly he felt unaccountably week, and he sank to his knees. Then he slumped over and rolled onto his back. As he looked up at the stars in the moonlit sky, they seemed to be whirling in circles above his head. Then he lost consciousness.
When he awoke the following morning, the sun was already high in the sky. Someone had placed a blanket over him and laid his head gently on his saddlebag, using it as a makeshift pillow. His mouth felt dry and his tongue was furry. He reached for his canteen, and then he realized. She was gone!
As he tilted the canteen and tasted the cold refreshing water running down his throat, he glimpsed a speck of white paper pinned to the ground with a sharp stick. It was a note scribbled hastily in pencil.
“Doc,” he read, “Sure sorry to do this. Spiked your coffee with knockout drops. Could of shot you while you wus sleeping but couldn’t do it. You wus too good to me. So long, Doc. We won’t never meet again, Belle Starr.”
Doc stood up and saw his pistol lying next to the ashes of the now-dead fire. A shiver ran up his spine. Well, I guess there are worse ways to get it than when you’re sleeping, he thought to himself.
Slowly and soberly he saddled his horse and set off down the trail, heading for Santa Fe where he planned to deliver Marshall Benton’s personal possessions to the Sheriff. He hoped that Sheriff Brady would believe his story!
Well, he thought wryly, if the good sheriff should not believe my story, I can always hightail it and go look for that most dangerous new acquaintance of mine, a lady by the name of Belle Starr!
Belle Starr, born in Carthage, Missouri, in February, 1848, supposedly grew up closely associating with the local James and Younger outlaw families, which may well have directed the impressionable young woman in the direction of a life of crime. As she admits in my story, she was attracted to shady characters, and in 1866, still a teenager, she married one of them, Jim Reed, a habitual criminal, wanted in Arkansas for murder. During their eight-year marriage she was supposedly an accomplice in her husband’s life of crime, and in 1874 she was indicted for taking part in a stagecoach robbery although no convincing evidence for her participation was ever offered in court. Later that year her first husband was killed in a gunfight in Texas. During this time Belle had become acquainted with the Starr family, Native-American outlaws from the Indian Territory of Oklahoma. In 1880 she married Sam Starr and spent the next few years assisting her husband in the stealing and fencing of cattle and horses. In 1883 she served her only prison sentence of nine months in the Detroit House of Corrections. In 1886 her second husband, Sam Starr, also came to a violent end in a shoot-out with Officer Frank West, and Belle was a widow again. She promptly married Jim July Starr, a relative of her deceased husband, who was fifteen years her junior! This was clearly not a romantic match, but seems to have been engineered by Belle to retain her residence on Indian land. In February, 1889, Belle was shot dead from ambush by an unknown assailant two days short of her 41st birthday. There were numerous credible suspects, including her new husband and a man with whom she had quarreled shortly before her death. Nobody was ever arrested or convicted of her murder.
Belle Starr has been celebrated in fiction and in the movies as ‘The Queen of the Outlaws’. Dime novel writers exaggerated, glorified and frequently invented her exploits much as they had done for Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickock, Jesse James and Billy the Kid. Hollywood cast such luminous beauties as Gene Tierney, Jane Russell and Elsa Martinelli in movies about Belle’s life and career. The few existing pictures of the real Belle Starr reveal her to be a short and rather plain woman, who would not in any era have been described as beautiful. That she was a strong and perhaps charismatic personality is, however, very likely as she attracted and won the affections of two dangerous outlaws and held her own in a rugged man’s world. Reputable Western historians generally agree, however, that her exploits were probably considerably more mundane than fictional accounts suggest. There is no evidence that she accompanied either of her husbands on any bank or stagecoach robberies and although she enjoyed posing for photographs wearing western outfits, a pistol hanging at her waist, there is no evidence that she ever fired on anyone in anger! Her criminal career most likely involved the fencing of stolen animals and feeding and harboring fugitives on the run!
Consequently, my story is a pure work of fiction and should be approached with tongue firmly in cheek. I hope you will enjoy it nevertheless!