Martha Jean Cannary

George F. Smith


The frost had taken the first bite out of the quaken aspens and had begun to nibble at the chokecherries when the Cannary family planked their meager belongings in Independ- ence, Missouri back in 1865, after leaving their hard-scrabble dirt farm in Princeton, that being in Missouri also. Sebben members total, they being Robert and Charlotte as the parents along with three gurls an' two boys. I reckon that totals up to sebben. Lessee now, that be Pa as one, Ma makes two, then two boys iz five....nope, nope, that be four, not five. Then we stir the pot an' add three gurls to the grand total a sebben. Yupper. Gott'er right. Didn't think I could cipher, did ya? Well, it were a struggle seein' as how I ain't the ed-a-cated feller most folks are.

Annaway, among that tribe was a gurl a thirteen. Sprightly thang, who would rather dig out a worm then try an' make a lace doilly or arn some home spuns. Nopper, she weren't that kind. More boy then gurl, as most said of her, which didn't hurt her feelin's none a bit. Pa Robert were a shiftless feller. Didn't like hard work an' shied away from it as often as he could, but, the fambly did have ta eat now an' then. So Pa Cannary would have ta get on out there an' provide. Ma Cannary was the sickly type an' worthless Pa decided that the weather around Independence weren't doin' ma no good, what with all the imer-grints movin' in an' around them. What better excuse to pack up one more time an cut on outten there. That's what he did; headin' fer an easy dream in the gold fields of "Ginny City." That be Virginia City to you folks-Virginia City, Montana. Yupper, now, here was a place Pa Cannary could provide his fambly for. The town was small, the land big an' gold was skeerce but dreams of git-rich-quick were easy ta come by. You figger on Pa's next move. Winter nippin' at the heels a summer, mountains all over the place an' they was poorly outfitted ta make a run fer it. Nope. Pa had ta work an' work hard just so's they could squeech by. What saved the famblies butt was that snip of a tom boy by the nickname a Marthy. Martha Jane Cannary. She didn't shirk from a job an' what she throwed into the pot in the line of wages, got the fambly through the winter an' on into the next year.

This went on for two years then her ma up an' died, leavin' the fambly short by one, makin' six total 'sted a sebben. Not sartin', but my guess would be that pa figgered it out, there was one less mouth ta feed. An' with Marthy doin' all the hard labor of tryin' ta keep the fambly tagather, an' doin' a fine job of it, thankee kindly, it's no wonder Pa Cannary lit out fer parts unknown. Weren't long before word got back to Marthy an' the rest a the crew, that pa up an died somewhere in Utah. What from is a mystery but I gar-n'-tee, it warn't from hard labor. More'n likely it were lead poisonin'. My facts are a bit shakey so lets cut the jibber-jabber an' get on with the story, huh? Good. That's what I thought you'd say 'er think.

Well, sir, the railroad was comin' through the territory about now so make a stab at who went ta work for'em? Now, that ain't fair. You cheated when ya said Marthy, cause ya peeked at the next parry-graff. So be it. We'll let this one slide.

At sixteen years of age, Marthy became a bull whacker for the R.R. people, an' a damn good'un at that. Why they hired this young "boy" is beyond me but, they did an' no one questioned him, or her. Everbody thought she was a boy so they kept her on. What the hell, the pay was damn good at that time. Marthy was rakin' in fifty to sebbenty-five dolla a month, makin' a good enough livin' ta take keer a the kids their pa left a-hind. Besides the wages, she got her meals an' a place fer'em all ta stay.

Thangs was swingin' for the lil' Cannary fambly, real smart like, when one day, after makin' a hot return trip, the bull whacker crew decided ta take a dip in the nearest crick. Well, sir, this skinny mite of a boy jined 'em, or were about too, when the crew made a dash fer the crick, shuckin' off all their smelly clothes as they ran. When I say all, I mean jest that. Stitch one right on down ta stitch zero. Marthy was draggin' back a bit, since most of the whackers were older than him/her, but she jined the men, naked as the day she were borned. Imagine the shock when they seed she weren't no boy a'tall but a full growed female. "WHOA, now", they commenced ta speak loudly. "What the hail we got here, fellers?" one of 'em sez. Everbody turned an' seed fer themselves that before them were a gurl, if ya please. Poor, lil' Marthy. That were the day she done lost her job as a bull whacker fer the R.R. Now, what the hail was she agonna do? What would you do if'n you were her? RIGHT! Finish swimmin' an worry 'bout termarry, termarry. 'Sides, any comments them fellers had throwed at her were answered twicet over, cause she could out-cuss any one of 'em. That, friend, is a true known fact.

Thangs were heatin' up a-plenty around the Black Hills, an' I don't mean the weather, when our "good friend", Ol' Jen-rul George "the Dang Fool", Custer was sent ta make a surveylence inta them thar hills, fer what reason isn't rightly described. None that I could find out but I hear tell it had somethin' ta do with indins. Annaways, Ol' Custer lit out with a passel a troops, much to the dismay of the Souix since thar be a treaty sayin': "Ya'all White Eyes, keep the hail outten them sacred hills 'er ya gonna run inta a mound a trouble." Did they pay any 'tenshun to the treaty? Hail no! This was in 1875 an' lil Marthy was lookin fer work so she got hired on, probably as a teamster.

Weren't long a-fore she tuk the job as a scout fer the jen-rul at the ripe ol' age of 23. Now that is one, helluva woman, lemme tell you. Her could ride an' shoot better'n any man so that's why she got hired on.

Like I said, the Souix didn't like them white eyes pokin' 'round their hills too much an' with their warnin' goin' unheeded, trouble was jest around the corner. Marthy tuk over the job as dispatch rider fer the jen-rul fer quite a spell when one day he sez to her: "Hon? Mount up an' take this dispatch ta Fort Fetterman. The indins is gettin' shook up an' I might need some hep ta quell the up-risin'." Well, them may not be his 'zact words, but none the less, she mounted up an' lit out like the Souix was burnin' her butt; which could very well have happened. Marthy throwed a saddle on her pony fer a 90 mile ride ta Fetterman. Tweren't but a short ride ta where she comes ta the Platte Ribber. Now lookee here, thar weren't no toll bridge or ferry system back then so she, without thinkin', nudged her mount inta the ribber fer a nice long swim. Mind ya, this be in Joon an' the temps warn't up ta normal yet. Cold, lemme guess, but lil Marthy, she didn't go pussssy-footin' up to it, stob her big toe in them roily waters an' say: "Oooo, Hoss. It's jest too cold. Best we wait 'til it warms up another 50 degrees." No, sir. She stobbed the critter in the flanks with her spurs an' lept right in, boots, socks, hat an' spurs, the whole outfit. My guess would be, she spit out her plug a 'baccy so's she wouldn't gag on it mixed with the muddy Platte water, swum the ribber, got to the tother side, took a big swig a fourty rod an' thought about callin' it a day. Nope, not her. She had a job ta do an' by dingy, she were a gonna do it.

Picture, if ya will, a young gal ridin' off inta the sunset, wet to the ears, a cold wind comin' outten the west an' no time ta set before a f'ar ta warm her tootsies. It were a long ride fer her, a two dayer, so by the time she got ta the fort, she was more icycle then woman, where she flang down the dispatch, headed fer the nearest saloon fer a toddy without so much waitin' fer a "Thankee kindly, young lady." Two things in life she loved, one bein' her whisky, tother her hoss. An' with her hoss bein' taken care of, well, it were time ta shake off the chills, which she musta had a-plenty of. Only this time, them shakes wouldn't go away. Poor lil' Marty got flung inna hospital with a near case a nu-moanie. They's a dead space here, where she's recoverin' an' can't 'member what's about but, when she comes around a bit, she hears the news, all bad.

The Souix an' Cheyenne done had it with Custer messin' around an' rubbed him out, along with all the sojers of the infamous 7th. Cav. I think thar were a hunnert an' seventeen wiped out that 25th day in Joon a 1875.

History has it that thar weren't no survivors but, lemme tell ya somethin' innerrestin'. Way back when I fust comed ta Montanny in '64; that be 1964, I found an article hangin' on a wall of an old buildin' about two survivors, who described the battle in full. No, they weren't Crow scouts, as some claim, these two fellers were white. At the time, they might'n been black, red, green 'er orange fer all I know, but from their view point, I s'pects they damn shor turned white when they seed what was about. I know I woulda.

Yupper, Miss Martha Jean Cannary felt purty bad about the whole deal an' that mot be part a the reason she tuk the nick name of........Calamity Jane.


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