When I look back at my life, there is a period of time that sticks up like a splinter when you run your hand down a hard-wood banister worn smooth and creamy by the flesh and oil of decades, a century of touch. My life has not been simple or naïve, but the chaos has been largely of my own creation, or a reaction to the misdeeds of others. There has been a certain consistency of self-sufficiency. I have always been in control of myself, have always had choices.
To some degree my entire life has been an exercise in ingenuity, in terms of my livlihood. To some degree, I have always been at a loose end, since I lost my vocation in Dallas, since I became a sporting man with neither home nor visible means of support.
Nevertheless, save for the time of my illness in Leadville, there has always been the possibility of dignity. I am inclined to say I am ashamed, but I do not believe in shame. I can still say I did my best, but I was helpless, and my own devices did not sustain me.
I was dealing Faro at the The Monarch, and later at The Avenue, and later still at Mannie Hyman's saloon - establishments decreasing in quality. I was in decline. There was the ever-present tuberculosis, of course, but I must ever cater to it, and circumstances had been against me. Leadville had never agreed with me. Perhaps the air was too sparse with the elevation. Perhaps it was caustic from some chemical from the mines. Perhaps it was the troublesome and persistent cold. In any case it stabbed with icy crystals at each breath.
Further to this prevailing difficulty, there was the fire, which seared my already ailing lungs. Fire is deadly, a catastrophe on the frontier. An entire town can go up in an hour, dry wood buildings are paper tinder to the lives they contain - the homes and businesses. No one can stand idly by, no matter how ill. I worked with the others. There are not only goods in such buildings, but human souls as well, and as well as pulling down burning buildings, tearing at them with my soft gambler's hands, I retrieved a terrified child - a little girl. I heard her screaming, and sought her out, choking on the smoke. I saved her life, but it ruined me.
There I was, afterwards, dealing Faro. Illness is more than obvious symptoms, it is more than pain and weakness. It is exhausting to be ill, to cough incessantly, to attempt to heal oneself. All one's physical resources are directed towards healing. It could be seen as a war, the sites of symptoms as battlefields. What is left for the home front? What is left to the mental resources that steady the hands, that allow precision, that hone the keenness of attention and memory? These are the things that Faro relies upon and they were unreliable. I failed.
I lost the livelihood that remained to me after dentistry had been taken. At the time it seemed as if I should die, never regaining it; as if I should ail until I died, ever more incompetent, ever more rambling in thought and movement. I was terrified, I'll admit it. Hyman allowed me to live in his back room, but this charity shamed me. All the town knew of it. I have enemies. How I could imagine them laughing then! There is no need to kill a dying man, but I feared lest they torment me, just for spite and hate. How I could imagine them gathering around me, goading their better, finally brought low.
While I had a place to sleep, there are so many small things one needs, food greatest amongst them, but one needs to be clean, one needs medicine, one needs attendance, hallucinating in fever. I had nothing, had depleted my savings to nothing. What could I do? There was no question of burdening and distressing my family. I was ashamed I had to rely on Hyman for the room, even a poor and draughty one. There was no rational self-blame, but feeling is not thought, and I felt
ashamed. In a fever, small thoughts engorge themselves until they become obsessions and terrors.
Once upon a time there was a war. My family lost so much - land, homes, property, livelihood. My grandfather swore: Never again. Never. Not for any of his children, and he bought up diamonds. A handful of diamonds, amassed gradually, shining, glittering in his hand. He gave these to his sons, that they should have means to live, even in dire circumstances. The Major held his. My Uncle John, for whom I was named, gave me one, French-cut, set in a tie pin. Precious for the fact of the gift, for his acknowledgement of me, as good as a son, it still could fulfil its original purpose. I could not bear to sell it, with no hope of retrieval, but I tottered to the pawn shop, leaning on the counter in a feverish haze, and I put it in soak, with my watch, my cufflinks, my rings.
That is how I lived, when I was brought to nothing. Eventually, I regained my latter profession and reclaimed my possessions. Dying in Glenwood Springs, when I knew my life was forfeit, I sold them utterly and my last days were spent in care and what comfort my illness would allow. I was not ashamed then. I had purchased that relief, that service.
Name: John H. Holliday, DDS.
Word Count: 936
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