Harold Youngblood adjusted his string tie in the mirror above the chest. It was a more casual look than the European ties worn with the collar up that had been favored back east, and he liked the carefree, dashing air suitable to a young bachelor. It set off the look of his long-tailed frock coat perfectly. His newly-acquired plantation hat was the crowning touch, even if the color didn’t perfectly match the suit. He would rectify that soon enough, and in the gaslights downstairs, it wouldn’t be that noticeable. At least that was what he told himself, overlooking the fact that the clientele of his establishment would hardly be likely to notice if he came down in his underwear.
Satisfied, he entered the faux-closet and descended the circular staircase, its tight spiral almost a round ladder, and looked into his office through the peek hole. Empty. He entered the room and closed the door behind him, concealing all access to the upstairs apartment. His eye lingered on Newton Hamilton’s old black powder pistol, holstered in its tooled, fancy rig, and he considered strapping it on, but he had given his word to Isabella, and the word of a gentleman meant something. Leaving it on the desk, he stepped through the door and out into the Oyster Bar.
It was just after twilight, the first part of the business day for Stingaree, and only a few of the Oyster’s clients were in place. A few players were ensconced at a faro table, one of them David Gilchrist, he noticed, the man who had loudly accused his dealer of cheating on Youngblood’s first night here. Hopefully, he hadn’t been so free with the liquor before he had sat down at the table. Two navy sailors were at the bar; U.S.S. Brooklyn was still in port, and he had been told that navy men liked to fight. He hoped the attention of two of the girls, flirting with their eyes from the end of the bar, would calm that proclivity. A few dealers were gathered in a corner exchanging anecdotes as they waited for their tables to fill up.
Just a routine early evening in old Stingaree.
And then Isabella came through the front door on the arm of a dour-looking man. It wasn’t like her to be out of the bar during working hours, but he could see the attraction. Six feet tall, lean, with black hair to match his black suit, he wore his shirt open at the neck with no tie at all. In the small gap at the front of his long-tailed coat, Youngblood could see two belts; he was armed. His features were rough, though not unattractive, and set off by a long drooping mustache that perfectly complimented his neatly brushed neck-length hair. His face was softened by the smile he gave Isabella as they shared some bit of gossip, then she looked around the bar, and spotting him, motioned him over.
Wondering if this was the friend she had alluded to earlier, he made his way over.
“Harold Youngblood,” she greeted him as he reached polite socializing range, “I’d like you to meet my good friend, Wyatt Earp.”
Earp, left arm comfortably held by Isabella, extended his right to Youngblood. Youngblood, frozen by coming face-to-face with this legend of the dime novels, simply stared, mouth open in surprise.
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Youngblood,” Earp said after an awkward moment.
Youngblood, shaken out of his start, took Earp’s hand and pumped it enthusiastically.
“The honor is mine, Mr. Earp!” he said. “I’ve read all about Dodge City and the O.K. Corral. I can hardly believe— I mean, I- It’s an honor!”
“Half of what those writers wrote never happened,” Earp said, recovering his hand, “and the rest of it was mostly made up. Your hostess asked me to have a little talk with you. Is there someplace we can do that?”
“Why don’t you sit at the table under the stairs?” she said. “I’ll bring you some drinks.”
“Lead the way,” Earp said.
Youngblood did so, and they shortly found themselves at the small round table where he had been enlisted as Deputy Jackson’s spy in Stingaree. A good thing this table doesn’t have ears, he caught himself thinking.
“So, Mr. Earp,” Youngblood said when they had taken their seats, “what is it I’m supposed to learn from you?”
“Isabella is concerned that you mean to start wearing a gun, and she wants me to impart to you some idea of the risks involved.”
“Es verdad,” Isabella said, returning with two beers which she placed on the table. “You are a nice young man, Harold Youngblood, and I would hate to have to scrub your blood from the floor.”
“You assume I’m going lose,” he told her.
“Not true,” she countered, “but you should have some knowledge of what goes into it. Who better to give you that knowledge? Now if you will excuse me, I have to get to work.”
She headed out into the bar.
“She makes a good point,” Earp said.
“She often does.”
“Well, I’m sure you’re a busy man, Mr. Youngblood, so let’s get right to it. Why do you feel like you need a gun?”
“I’ve been in town for two days, Mr. Earp, and already I’ve had two deputy marshals in here demanding I bribe them to do their jobs, or dire consequences will be forthcoming, and the first night, someone who is apparently known as the Angel of Death came in here and offered to relieve me of the burden of owning my establishment. You should note that he was wearing a gun at the time.”
“The deputies, well, that’s what they do, that’s how this little enclave works. That’s the west. Dodge had this system, Wichita, Ellsworth, Tombstone. It’s common that if you keep the vice away from the civilized folk, and pay the police to look away, you can have this kind of place. The Angel of Death, now he’s another matter. We are speaking of Ambrose Duncan, are we not?”
“Blowhard. A windbag. He’s pushing you to see if you’ll back off.”
“He talked at me, Mr. Earp. Had I been wearing a gun that night, I’ve a feeling it would have been more of a two way conversation.”
“Maybe. Duncan always wears a gun. Don’t necessarily mean he’s going to use it. But when two men wearing guns don’t see eye to eye, well, at the back of my mind is always the notion that you might try to kill me, and the only way I can prevent that is to kill you first. What kind of weapon is it you’re thinking about using?”
“A Remington .36 caliber Navy.”
“Black powder gun.”
“Obsolete. Takes forever to reload, though five might be enough in the situations you’ll find yourself in.”
“It’s a six-shooter.”
“You always leave the hammer on an empty chamber. Wouldn’t want to lose a couple of toes if you were to sneeze real hard.”
“Remington’s got a long barrel, which makes it slow to get out of the holster. I’m guessing you have no experience with pistols and gunfighting?”
“That would be correct, I’m afraid.”
“Let me show you something. Stand up.”
Youngblood did so, and so did Earp.
“Now, as quickly as you can, push back your coat tail like you have a gun under there.”
Youngblood reached to his waistband, and before he could blink, he was staring into the barrel of Earp’s pistol as their end of the room went silent. Earp eased the hammer down and holstered his weapon, taking his seat as conversation resumed, punctuated by an excited whisper of Did you see that?
“That’s how quickly it happens, Mr. Youngblood, and you should note that I have never been regarded as one of the fastest shootists in the trade. I’ve made what reputation I have by being one of the most accurate.”
Youngblood took his seat, hands trembling.
“You open the door to a display like that by putting on a gun. Without it, no one will feel obligated to do that.”
“A very sobering demonstration, Mr. Earp, one that will weigh heavily in my decision.”
“That’s good. Isabella is very concerned about you. ‘Babe in the woods’ is the phrase that she used.” Youngblood started to protest that depiction, but Earp held up his hand to stop him. “Here’s another decision for you to consider. I’ve long wanted to acquire the Oyster, but Newton wouldn’t consider it, so I’ll make you the same offer. Fair market value, and I’ll pay you in installments. You continue to collect the revenue until I’ve paid in full.”
“I don’t know, Mr. Earp. I just got here yesterday. I sort of fancy being an entrepreneur.”
“But you don’t fancy dealing with crooked cops and bellicose competitors. I could take all those problems off your hands with a signature.”
“I mean to make a go of it. I may fail, Mr. Earp, and if I do, you’ll have the right of first refusal, but I can’t go back to Charleston and beg for my old job back because I failed after two days.”
“That’s understandable. You look me up if your outlook changes.”
“I’ll certainly do that. And Mr. Earp, thank you for taking the time for this.”
“I did it for Izzy. She’s a good woman, and she likes you. You should keep that in mind as well. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go invest a few dollars in your faro bank.”
He picked up his beer and headed for a game.
Isabella replaced him as soon as he moved away.
“Well, mister gunfighter, did you learn something?”
“That was damned harsh, I have to say!”
“Not nearly as harsh as getting shot. If you won’t listen to me, listen to an expert.”
* * *
Thoughts spinning in his head, Youngblood had taken to his office to indulge them. Taking a bottle of the good stuff and a shot glass from the filing cabinet behind the desk, he sat down and poured himself a drink. Sipping from it like an eastern gentleman, he considered what had just happened. Wyatt Earp, the Wyatt Earp, tamer of Dodge, hero of Tombstone, had deigned to give this city slicker a sizeable chunk of his time to educate him about gunplay. Looking down the flaring barrel of Earp’s strange electro-chemical pistol had been unnerving, but my God, the speed! He now knew beyond any doubt that there were leagues in which he would never play.
What else had he said, though? That Isabella liked him? Was that even possible? She had imposed on the time and good will of the most dangerous man west of the Mississippi to instill in him an understanding that attempting to appear a gunfighter would get him killed. He looked at the ancient pistol on the desk, the one with all six loaded chambers, and put his feet up, reclining in the comfortable chair. He admired the gun’s engraving as he listened to the piano music, the humming of conversation, and occasional bursts of laughter coming from the bar. His bar. And the charming hostess of that bar liked him. No less a personage than the great Wyatt Earp had said so! He relaxed further into the chair to consider the delightful ramifications of this unexpected development.
His mind wandered corridors that he had never expected to visit three short weeks ago as he had stood on the platform in Charleston. He just about had them in a lovely house on the hill north of town, Isabella working on their second child, when there was a crash out in the bar, some female screams, and all conversation and the piano went silent. He sat up quickly and started for the door, then turned back and picked up the pistol. He stealthily opened the door on a scene very different that the one he had left behind.
Chato lay on his back, hardly moving, while two weaselly-looking thugs sat holding his arms. A small smear of blood stained the floor behind his head. Above him stood a beefy ruffian with wild, curly facial hair, and more tightly-curled masses escaping from beneath a ridiculously small bowler. His suit barely fit him. He held something in his hand, a wooden box the size of a man’s fist, and as Youngblood entered the room, he was pulling a cotter pin out of the side. Directly in front of Youngblood, with his back to him, a tall, rangy man in flannel and denim held a pistol pointed at the two bartenders.
“Hold him still, boys,” curly-top told his thugs, stepping toward Chato and brandishing the box.
Youngblood cocked the pistol with a loud snap, and pressed it hard against the back of Denim’s head. The man jumped, badly startled, and Youngblood liked that.
“Put the gun down,” he said in his most authoritarian voice.
“So you’re the city boy who wants to play with the men, huh?” curly-top asked.
“Harold Youngblood, at your service. Just leave that box on the table on your way out.”
Denim started to lay his gun on the floor.
“Don’t do that, Willy. He ain’t gonna shoot nobody. Why, he’s about to piss himself right now.”
Youngblood knew his bluff was well and truly called. He had already cocked the pistol, so there were no more dramatic motions left to make. He next move was to shoot or give up. With a sneer, curly-top started toward Chato again. Youngblood held his aim on Denim’s head.
“I’m warning you!”
“See? He’s warning us. I told you he wasn’t gonna shoot nobody!”
“I will,” came a calm, commanding voice from off to the side.
All eyes turned to see Wyatt Earp standing beside the faro table, coat tail pushed back, exposing his large, intimidating pistol.
“H- hello, Wyatt,” curly-top said, suddenly on the defensive. “What are you doing here?”
“Trying to enjoy a game of chance. You?”
“We’ve just come to deliver a message, that’s all.”
“Some message. Now I’ve got one for you. Get out.”
“This— this ain’t your affair, Wyatt,” curly-top said, finding some gumption from somewhere.
“That’s where you’re wrong. If you make the right choices and get out of here alive, you tell Mr. Duncan that I’m considering buying this establishment, and I take a dim view of anything that might lower the value. Like this sort of nonsense.”
“Mr. Duncan ain’t gonna like that!”
“That pleases me to no end. You tell that snake to look me up anytime. Now, get out.”
Curly-top stood fuming for a moment, then put the cotter pin back into the box, and started to put it back in his pocket.
“I believe Mr. Youngblood told you to leave that,” Earp said in the same quiet, even tone he had used since he first spoke. One almost had to strain to hear him.
“This belongs to Mr. Duncan.”
“It did, right up until you tried to use it on Mr. Youngblood’s employee there. Leave it.”
“I can’t do that. Mr. Duncan told me to bring it back no matter what.”
“Seems like you have a decision to make, then.”
As they talked, one of the weasels on the floor beside Chato had been unobtrusively moving his hand toward his waistband, an inch here, an inch there, every time he saw an opportunity. Now he snatched a small Smith & Wesson .32 holdout gun from the back of his belt and tried to bring it into play. A shot rang out, and his gun went flying as he snatched his arm back. Isabella, wreathed in smoke, rotated the barrels of her over-under derringer.
“I have another bullet,” she said, “and unlike these gentlemen here, I don’t intend to talk anyone to death.”
As all eyes had jumped to her, Roberto, the bartender, had reached below the bar and retrieved a sawed-off double-barreled 10-gauge shotgun which he now leveled at Denim’s torso.
“Looks like you’re on the short end, Price,” Earp said. “Now put the God-damned thing down and clear out, or so help me God, I’ll send you back to Duncan in a gunny sack.”
Price, curly-top, stood weighing his options, then slammed the box down on the nearest table and motioned his boys to join him.
“You ain’t heard the last of this, Earp! Mr. Duncan ain’t nobody to cross.”
“Like I said, anytime.” Earp jerked his head toward the door, and the slimy little crew took their leave, the one nursing a nasty, gaping wound in the soft meat of his forearm, as Isabella and one of the girls knelt beside Chato, helping him to sit up.
“Mr. Earp,” Youngblood said, stepping forward into the room, “I can honestly say I’ve never been so happy to see anyone in my life! I fear you may have taken my troubles onto yourself, though.”
“Not likely. Duncan can be a real son of a bitch, but only to people he don’t think will stand up to him. There’s nothing I’d like better than for that big-mouthed blowhard to come after me, but he won’t. Now, your standing in his eyes may be coming up a notch or two, but I suspect he’ll find ways to test you further.”
“Are you all right?” Isabella asked, coming up on his left side and taking his arm.
“Am I all right? You shot a man!”
“No, I shot a dog, and a mangy one, at that. You were magnifico!”
“Mr. Earp did all the work. I just started it.”
“Mr. Youngblood, when a lady compliments you, the proper response is, ‘thank you, ma’am.’”
“Well, I- I- there’s no possibility that I could have shot that man in cold blood.”
“Then you shouldn’t have pointed a gun at him. The single most dangerous thing you can do is draw down on a man you don’t intend to shoot.” Earp squatted beside the table, examining the device left by Duncan’s man. “Why don’t we see what your friends brought you?”
Youngblood started to reach for it.
“Don’t touch it!” Earp snapped. “We don’t know what it does. Miss Izzy, could you get us a serving tray?”
“What happened to Chato?” Youngblood asked.
“They hit him with a sap. He’ll be all right. Just needs to lie down for a bit.”
She disengaged from Youngblood’s arm, and as she started toward the bar, a pointed finger and raised eyebrow launched the dealers into reassembling their card players once more.
* * *
Wyatt Earp sat the tray on the desk in Youngblood’s office as Isabella threw the bolt behind them.
“You shouldn’t be in here, Izzy,” Earp said to her.
“I shot a man, Wyatt. I’ve earned my ticket.”
“Fair enough, but what if this thing explodes? In a little room like this, it’s fair likely to get all of us.”
“He wouldn’t have been handling it like that if it was going to explode.”
“Well, I’m staying anyway.” She folded her arms and leaned against the door.
Earp turned back to where Youngblood was bent over from the waist, studying the side of the thing.
“Well, that seems to settle that,” Earp said.
“Huh…? Yeah. These brass strips seem to be hinged, did you notice that?”
“Not yet,” Earp said, bending to join him.
The thing was a dark wooden cube, rosewood, maybe, or mahogany, three inches high, four wide, and about six long. They already knew it was noticeably heavier than a simple block of wood would be. Brass strips bound it an inch from each end, and a bronze shaft with a hinged loop was set into the top. Lifting the loop would create a key to wind some mechanism inside. The pin that Price had pulled out had a ring that protruded from the side, and the bottom it sat on was marked by a small brass plate that stood out just slightly from the wood. The brass strips did indeed seemed to be hinged at the corners, and were separated into two closely fitting pieces at the center of the top. The features were completed by two tiny rivets on the bottom, one at each end of the plate. Nothing about any of it suggested what its purpose might be.
“Well,” offered Earp, “you wind it up, that much is clear.”
“That Price fellow had this pin out, and it didn’t do anything then, so it must be something that’s triggered manually. That may be what that plate on the bottom is for, but what the hell is it?”
“That’s the daisy of a question, isn’t it? I know what Doc would have done if he was here.”
“He’d have tried it out on Price instead of letting him leave.”
“I’ve always held a special affection of that particular friend of yours.”
“You knew Doc?”
“Through the novels.”
Earp started to spit, then remembered he was in a gentleman’s office.
“Listen, of all the nonsensical guff that has been written about my lawing career, none has been more inaccurate or far-fetched than the myths about Doc. He was a hot-headed, ill-tempered, trouble-hunting, cold-blooded desperado, and was greatly feared and genuinely disliked by all except a very few of the men who knew him. We barely knew each other when, for reasons known only to him, he saved my life in Dodge, and we both found it expedient to build on that relationship, but he was far from the merry, mad scamp the novelists like to portray.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I used to think I would have liked him as a friend.”
“You wouldn’t. But say, I have a friend you would like.”
“Not my friend, really. I sort of know him through Izzy. Who is that tinkerer, gadgeteer, whatever he calls himself?”
“Oh, Professor Maladroit!”
“Right. I’ll bet he could tumble what this thing is.”
“You’re right. I wouldn’t want to put him in any danger, though.”
“Professor Maladroit?” Youngblood repeated.
“Good chance that’s his professional name,” Earp allowed.
“Let us hope.”
“We’d have to let him know this is some sort of weapon,” Earp said to Isabella, “so he’d know to take the proper precautions.”
“You are talking about the same professor as the one I know, aren’t you?”
“Couldn’t be two like that.”
“And you think telling him to be careful is going to make him be careful?”
“Ah, I see your point. Still, we have to try. Who else has the knowledge to tell us about this thing? Hell, he might have made it, for all we know.”
“No, the professor would not make something to harm someone. This came from outside.”
“Slow down a moment,” Youngblood interrupted. “Just who is this professor, and how likely is he to help us?”
“Professor Phineas Maladroit,” Isabella replied, “owner of Maladroit’s Marvels.”
“He’s rented a stable outside of Old Town,” Earp continued. “Turned it into a workshop where he makes gadgets for sale to those who can afford them. Amazing stuff, I’ve heard.”
“So what we want him to do is to take this thing apart and see what it does?” Youngblood asked. “Do you think he will?”
“For the right price,” Earp said.
“I don’t think so, gentlemen,” Isabella said. “I think for the chance to look inside someone else’s work, he would pay us.”
“Seems to be settled, then,” Earp said. “We’ll take this up to Maladroit’s workshop tomorrow, uh, with your permission, of course, and set him to work on it.”
“Absolutely,” Youngblood said. “I’m eager to know to just what lengths Duncan is willing to go to get what he wants.”
“He’s willing to go pretty far when he doesn’t see you as a threat,” Earp assured him. “I have to get back to my place. I’ll take this with me if you don’t mind.”
“Please do,” Youngblood said. “I’ll be well-pleased to not have this thing in here.”
“All right, then. I’ll get back to you when I know something.”