So Many Great Talks Happen at the Breakfast Table

Anthony McShane slid his black socks up to where his baby blue robe began. He sprung up, then plucked two burnt slices of white bread from the toaster.

“Here you go, son.” Anthony scooted his chair as close to Trent as the toast was to the runny eggs on his plate. “Did I ever tell you, Trent, that you are related to the great Bat Masterson?”

“No, Dad.”

“Through your mother’s side, of course—my side are just a bunch of crooks and hookers,” he said with a smile. ”But I feel a kinship to Bat through marriage and you.”

 Trent’s father squinted over his reading glasses, then opened Gunfighters of the Old West, as if it were a Ouija Board welcoming a spirit. He turned to a sepia photo of a man with a handlebar mustache and wide-brim bowler.

“Trent, have the nuns taught you about felix culpa yet?”

“No. Is that a picture of him?”

“Well, no. Felix culpa is not a man. It’s Latin for ‘happy fault.’ I’ll let the nuns explain the rest to you. But this here is a picture of Bat.”

Every family had a superstar in its tree. Bat Masterson flourished from page 121, inside the big brown leather-bound book.

So Many Great Talks Happen at the Breakfast Table 1
Bat Masterson (1853-1921)

The picture possessed Trent. Anthony McShane used the magnifying glass to bring Trent’s attention to a fold at the top of Bat Masterson’s left ear. Anthony McShane tenderly tapped his son’s with the edge of his toast, and said, “A child is a parent’s shadow born into the world.” Trent could not distinguish the detail in the sepia portrait of Bat, but Anthony McShane insisted that the obscure trait was unique enough to confirm that he left the hospital with the right infant.

Bat did look a bit like Tina. “The body is a mirror image of the soul,” he heard his father say. Trent could not deny that the man in the picture shared the same jawline, nose, and ears as his mother. He couldn’t say the same about the lips, because Bat’s were covered by a mustache. The most noticeable difference between the two was that Bat had eyes that seemed distant and disengaged—yet intense and mesmerizing.

At that moment, Bat Masterson was resurrected from the ranks of the dead. This gave Trent hope. Bat had returned the strength that his mother had taken with her.

The boy learned that Ed was a year older than Bat. Dapper Bat had a deadeye reputation that preceded him, whereas Ed had the scars to show that he was a hands-on peace officer who did not avert his eyes from trouble. Everybody liked Ed, but in Dodge it was better to be feared than to be liked.

Anthony McShane turned the page and read Trent the tale of “The Killing of Ed Masterson,” Bat’s brother. Anthony’s tongue became loose enough to carry the different words and inflections of all parties involved. Trent could hear the piano music and noises from crowds of people and herds of animals. The tale was as supernatural as Sister Margarita’s lectures on the apparition of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes, Fatima, and Guadalupe.

 “‘Bat worried,’” Anthony read, “‘that the outlaws who came and went from Dodge City would outwit his brother Ed, who wasn’t shrewd enough for the silver star he wore on his chest. One night, as Bat feared, evil overwhelmed Ed.’”

From a street lit only by saloon gas lamps and brothel red lights, Dent Wagner, six-shooter in hand, burst into the Peacock Dance Hall looking for trouble. Ed Masterson seized the cowboy by the shoulders, instead of pulling his own gun. Wagner’s six-shooter was leveled at the star on Ed Masterson’s chest. Ed Masterson grabbed Wagner’s wrist and, for the moment, put the drunkard’s weapon out of commission. The two stood in deadlock.

Bat was sixty feet away when the gunfight erupted. Wagner’s partner, Harvey Walker, ran from the dance floor and shot his pistol at Ed Masterson’s face. Dance-hall lamps flickered.

The gun failed to fire, and Walker never got off a second shot—Bat Masterson put three bullets through him with his Colt 45. As Walker went down, Wagner brought his gun up and shot Ed Masterson in the belly. Ed fell atop Walker. Bat shot Wagner between the eyes. Gun smoke wafted over Bat Masterson. His brother was dying, and Bat was now the new marshal of Dodge City.

So Many Great Talks Happen at the Breakfast Table 2
The Dodge City Peace Commission in 1883. From left to right, standing: William H. Harris, Luke Short, Bat Masterson, William F. Petillon; seated: Charlie Bassett, Wyatt Earp, Michael Francis “Frank” McLean, and Cornelius “Neil” Brown.

“Felix culpa,” Trent said.

“Indeed. When one man loses something, another man gets it.

“You see, Trent, a lawman has to be part man….” His father paused. Anthony’s eyes searched his son’s face.

Trent was waiting for his father to find the right words to describe something that would be very important to his boy. Trent’s imagination darted to mythological hybrid versions of cops that were half robot, cops that were mind readers with superhuman strength.

Anthony’s eyes found Trent’s. His pause ended with two final words: “…part snake.”

 A man who is part snake stuck in Trent’s Marvel Comics– molded mind: the superpower of detecting in the darkness the body heat of an evildoer, like a python hunts prey.

 Anthony never lifted his gaze. “A lawman has to be a good man, with the power to do great evil upon evil men. It takes a lawman years to develop that precise temperament.”

The boy watched his father gently pluck the air. “About as long as it takes a surgeon to perfect a steady hand,” the father told his son.

Anthony McShane’s words fell upon Trent’s mind like a spell cast into a cauldron. He had a birthright now. Like E. had treasure to find.

How magic was this big brown book. In the Legend of Bat Masterson, Marshal Bat swiftly established law and order in the wildest frontier town of Dodge City. Wind practically whipped across the book’s binding. Trent was under the control of a handsome, well-dressed man who brought evildoers to justice. Gunfighters of the Old West gave Bat Masterson a face.

So Many Great Talks Happen at the Breakfast Table 3
So Many Great Talks Happen at the Breakfast Table 4

Dodge City required careful observation. Trent discovered through a magnifying glass that an artist had concealed Boot Hill Cemetery beneath an exaggerated panoramic view. A legacy of violence became nondescript headstones under tranquil hills, calm green grass, and glowing clouds in a hazy sky. The caption read “Outside Dodge City, wind blows between rows of tombstones and stirs dry grass up on Boot Hill. Bones of strong and daring men rest in holes there.”

Trent swore that when he’d first touched Gunfighters of the Old West he felt the faint thump of a heartbeat. One glance and Trent was inside the mind of a man who had been dead for half a century. The pages had bound together two people who had never met. The shackles of time had been broken, and the long-gone reluctant hero became the compass with which Trent would now find his way through the world. The right words came from his father in the right order, and the feeling of a destiny—which Trent had lost with his mother’s death.

The ear fold unraveled the deepest mystery of Anthony and Tina’s creation: Trent was the descendant of Dodge’s demigod. His tiny shoulders felt an Atlas shrug. With his newfound knowledge, he’d inherited a burden from the world. From that moment on, when he caught sight of his own reflection, he’d see through kind, sharp eyes into the emerging image of a boy who looked a bit like Bat. They shared the same ear—and jawline.

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