Stingaree 10

Saturday, January 26th, 1889

Bang-bang-bang-bang-bang!

“Deputy?”

Bang-bang-bang-bang-bang!

“Deputy Jackson!  They told me you’re up here.  Open this door, suh!”

Bang-bang-bang-bang-bang!

“All right, all right, keep your shirt on.”

There was the sound of a latch being drawn, and the door opened to reveal Deputy William Jackson clad in denim work pants, the top of his Union suit exposed by his lack of a shirt, aiming a large bore pistol at his door’s assailant.

“Jesus Christ, Youngblood, are you just trying to get killed?”

“Hardly,” Harold Youngblood replied, stepping past Jackson into his sparsely furnished room of Old Town’s Cosmopolitan Hotel.  “I’ve just been told that you’ve locked up Wyatt Earp.”

“Now who would have told you something like that?” Jackson asked, returning his pistol to its holster where it hung a peg behind the door.

“Ambrose Duncan.”

“Well, there’s a font of truthful information.”

“Are you saying he’s lying?”

“He usually does.”

“Is he this time?  Do you have Earp in your jail, or don’t you?”

“I do, but I fail to see what business of yours-”

“What the hell is he in jail for?”

“The murder of Charlie Price.”

“Are you insane?  What makes you think he killed Charlie Price?”

“The evidence.”

“What the hell evidence are you talking about?  Did Wyatt sign the body or something?”

“Something like that.”

“That’s lunacy!”

“Is it?  Price and Wyatt almost came to blows in your bar the other night.  Guns were drawn, and a man was shot.”

“By my hostess in defense of an employee.”

“Yes, and that maybe stopped the escalation.  But men like Wyatt Earp and Charlie Price don’t shake hands the next day and get on with their lives.  They don’t forget, and if it came to a showdown between Earp and Price, I know who my money’s on.”

“Sure, me too, but Wyatt isn’t some sneaking thug who stabs a man in the back.  He’d have dragged the body to your office and given you a statement.”

“Not if he murdered him.”

“Maybe not, but who says he murdered him?”

“Charlie Price.”

“Now that doesn’t make a lick of sense.”

“Not until you know the whole story.  Sit down.”

Youngblood joined Jackson at the simple wooden table in the corner.  The deputy took out a piece of paper and a pencil.

“If you’d just been shot, stabbed, whatever, and you knew you were going to die but you had a few seconds left to write something, a single word, what would you write?”

“Well, that depends.”

“It depends on nothing,” Jackson almost shouted.  “You’d write the name of your killer.”

Youngblood stared at him.

“Come on, you know you would.”

“All right.  So what?”

“So Price is in your outhouse.  He has to know he has seconds to live, a few minutes at best.  All he has to work with is his own blood for ink, and his finger for a quill, so he does his best.  He writes the name of his killer, but he’s woozy, uncoordinated, losing consciousness, so the best he can manage is this.”

Jackson wrote Price’s cryptic message on the paper:

C412?

“So what?  That’s gibberish.”

“Is it?  Look what happens when you connect the 1 and the 2, and add three tiny lines.”

Jackson did so, and the meaningless jumble of letters and numbers transformed:

EARP

Youngblood stared, dumbfounded for a moment, while his mouth worked soundlessly like that of a fish.

“But that’s—  That can’t be!”

“If you have another explanation, I’d love to hear it.”

“It’s a room number, or an address on C Street.  He telling us where he was killed.”

“Why?  Why would he tell us where, when he can tell us who instead?”

“There’s another explanation.  There has to be.  The killer!  The killer wrote that in there to throw you off.”

“Again, why?  He’s dumping a body in a place that sees a lot of traffic.  Why is he going to hang around writing on the door?  He isn’t.  He’s going to get rid of the body and high-tail it out of there.  But if he did, he’s left the body behind your bar.  He’s going to frame you, not Wyatt.  Sorry, Harold, it doesn’t hold water.”

“It has to.  If Wyatt was going to kill Price, he would have done it right there in the Oyster when he could have plead self-defense.”

“All right, Harold, neither of us is going to convince the other, so let’s say for a moment that you’re right, and Earp is being framed.  The safest place for him is in jail, because if somebody’s out to get him, he’ll be walking around Stingaree with a target on his back, and that’s not a good look for anybody.  Agreed?”

“But he’s innocent!”

“Maybe he’s innocent, and if he is, we’ll sort it out.  The thing for you to do now is go run your saloon, and let us take care of the investigation.  Now, go on.  You’ll see me down there later interviewing witnesses and whatnot.  Now go get some rest.  Saturday’s your big night, I’m told.”

“All right, Deputy, but I’m warning you, I won’t stand for any hanky-panky.  If your lot tries to sweep anything under the carpet, I’ll speak out.”

“You know, threatening me is not going to help anyone.  Don’t worry, everything’s going to be honest and above board, you’ll see.  Now, go have some breakfast.  You’ll feel better for it.”

*          *          *

Youngblood had taken Jackson’s advice, eating a hearty breakfast at Princher’s on B Street, then found a cabbie who wasn’t afraid to take him across Market Street into Stingaree, at least not in full daylight.  Stepping down in front of the Oyster, he paid the man, including a healthy tip, and put his key to the lock.  Before he could turn it, it was twisted out of his hand and the door flew open.

“Harold, where have you been?” Isabella asked as she drew him in, checking the street behind him.  Satisfied, she locked the door.

“What is it, what’s happened?”

Her demeanor had instantly put him on edge, and he surveyed the room looking for . . .  What?

“What has happened is that Professor Maladroit has worked out what Señor Duncan’s little box does.  His note came an hour ago.  Where were you?”

“Oh, I went up to Old Town to see Jackson.”

“You went to his room?”

“That’s where he was.”

“Harold, if anyone saw you . . .”
“Then they saw me raising hell.  Did you know he’s jailed Wyatt Earp for Price’s murder?”

“Yes, Harold.  Señor Duncan told us last night.”

“Yes, well, Señor Duncan might tell us all kinds of things, but Jackson confirmed it.  He added a couple of lines to those numbers they found on the door to make them spell ‘Earp,’ and decided that Price tried to write the name of his killer in there.  That’s his evidence, can you believe it?”

“Well, that and the brawl he had with Price right in this room just a few nights ago.”

“Oh, you believe it too?”

“I do not have enough information to believe anything, and jefe, neither do you.”

“I know Wyatt.”

“Do you?  You know what he did in Tombstone, then, after the gunfight.”

“Izzy, they killed his brother!  You don’t think that compares with that little name-calling contest he had with Price, do you?”

“We do not know the real Wyatt Earp.  No one does, beyond what we see him do.  Harold, he is a man for whom violence is a solution, a final solution.  If a man makes himself a problem for Wyatt, then Wyatt kills him, and he is no longer a problem.”

“But, Izzy—”

“No buts, Harold.  We don’t know, and that is all there is to it.  Eventually, we will, but right now, we don’t.  You need to put this matter aside, and accompany me to the Professor’s workshop.  What he learned may help Wyatt’s cause.”

“Or harm it.”

“It is a fact that will come out, for better or worse.  We have been offered the chance to see it first.  Will you take it?”

 *          *          *

George Belmont was a hands-on type of boss, and unlike most wealthy industrialists, the place to find him on a Saturday morning was in his boatyard overseeing the work being done by his half-day shift.  It was a long carriage drive down the to new community of National City, nearly halfway to the Mexican border, but Dr. Phillip Greene chose to make it because it was important.  The sleepy gate guard passed him through with hardly a second look upon being shown his Businessman’s Association pin, and he knew Belmont well enough not to waste time looking in his office.

As expected, he spotted Belmont before he was ten feet inside the gate, walking with his foreman, who was black, Greene noted, beneath the hull of one of his gunboats that had been drawn up on the skids.  As Belmont pointed here and there, and the foreman took notes on the plank that served as a portable desk, Greene moved to a point within Belmont’s field of view.  As soon as Belmont saw him, he waved him over, and as he began to pick his careful way over rails, blocks, and puddles of oil, he heard the foreman say, “Those changes won’t be a problem at all, Mr. Belmont, sir.  We should have them done by mid-week.”

“Excellent, Deke,” Belmont replied.  “Go ahead and set it up, then.  We’ll get started Monday.  Phillip, what brings you down south?  You lost?”

“Hardly.  I need some information from you, George.”

“And you had to drive all the way down here to get it?  Well, shoot.  What do you need to know?”

“It’s kind of, um, private,” Greene said with a pointed look at the foreman, studying the hull a few yards away.

“All right, come on up to the shack, then,” Belmont replied, beginning to lead the way up the slip toward the weather shelter that covered the winch.

“All right, Phillip, what’s on your mind?”

“The Scarecrows.”

“What about them?”

“What about them?  George, Stanhope and Lee, that’s what about them.”

“I’m sorry, Phillip, you’ve lost me.”

“The printers!  Jesus, George, when you send those thugs to trash a business, have the good grace to know their names.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Are you telling me that you didn’t send the Scarecrows to scare off those printers?  Printers who just happen to be a black and a Chinaman?”

“That’s what I’m telling you, I guess.”

“After this week’s meeting?”

“Phillip, listen to me.  The Scarecrows are independent contractors, another business, you might say, and they can sell their services to anyone who wants to pay for them.  Just because we’ve used them before doesn’t mean we’re the only ones.  They wouldn’t stay in business for long if we were their only customer.”

“And you didn’t hire them to shoot up Duncan’s place, either?”

“No, Phillip, I didn’t.”

“Then who did?”

“Well, how should I know that?”  He gestured up toward the boat.  “Do you think the company that sells me those propellers reports to me on all their other customers?  No?  So, how much more secretive is an outfit like the Scarecrows going to be?”

“It must have been somebody around here, though.”

“I’m sure it was.  You’d need to find out who has a grudge against Duncan, and from what I understand, that’s damned near everybody in Stingaree.  Relax, Phillip.  This doesn’t concern us.”

“You swear?”

“Phillip, I swear.  You need to go home and enjoy the weekend with that pretty wife of yours, and stop worrying about those Stingaree animals.  The more of them shoot each other, the better.”

“Yeah, I suppose you’re right.  Well, thanks, George.  This puts my mind at ease.”

“Good.  You go on home and relax.  The association will be consulted way before we bring in the Scarecrows for any work.”

“All right, George. I guess I was worrying about nothing.  You have a nice weekend.”

“You, too, Phillip.  Maybe I’ll see you around town.”

Belmont watched Dr. Greene pick his way back toward the gate, replaying their conversation in his mind.

“Phillip, Phillip, Phillip,” he muttered under his breath, “you might be getting too nosy for your own good.”

*          *          *

The carriage conveying Youngblood and Isabella picked its careful way across the mud flats toward Maladroit’s laboratory, bumping and swaying over the uneven ground.  Isabella had given up trying to hold on to the seat rails, and firmly clutched Youngblood’s arm; Youngblood did not object.

He did, however, object to the terrain.

“What in hell’s the matter with this guy, that he lives out here in the swamp?”

“These are mud flats, Harold, and he lives out here because the townsfolk are afraid he’ll blow them all up if they let him have his shop in town.”

“You’re joking, right?”

“Wait until you meet him.”

He didn’t have to wait long, as he managed to negotiate the flats and reach the front of the professor’s shop without breaking an axle.  As they stepped down, the stocky little man strolled out of the shop to greet them.

“Good morning, Miss Isabella,” he said.  “Who’s this?  I thought you’d be bringing Wyatt with you.”

“Professor,” she replied.  “This is Harold Youngblood, owner of the Oyster.  Wyatt was going to come, but . . .”

“But he’s in jail,” Youngblood finished for her.

“Jail?  For what?”

“The damned marshals think he murdered Charlie Price.”

“Who?”

“One of the enforcers down in Stingaree,” Isabella told him.

“Ah, well, he is Wyatt Earp, after all.”

“So you believe it, too?”

“I have no idea, but you have to admit that Wyatt Earp isn’t a man to back down from a threat.”

“I suppose,” Youngblood muttered.

“So, what have you found out, Professor?” Isabella asked, steering the conversation back to matter at hand.

“Ah, about your little box.  Strange.  Strange device indeed.”  He ushered them into his workshop, maneuvering easily around stacks and piles of odd materials and pieces of equipment.  Isabella took Youngblood’s offered hand to steady herself and prevent a nasty fall.

“The device itself gives no clue as to its function,” Maladroit said as he reached a cluttered workbench, “so I determined that the only safe way to find out was to set it off.  I built a containment chamber incorporating a window of tempered glass so that I could observe it.  Frankly, given the lack of sophistication among these Stingaree denizens – oh, present company excluded, I assure you – I expected it to be a simple explosive, or an incendiary at best.  So, imagine my surprise when I set it off.”

He paused, waiting, no doubt, for admiring comments.

“Well,” Youngblood asked, “what happened?”

“Oh, quite.  Well, two needles protruded from the bottom, the surface that would have been pressed against the subject’s skin.  One of them squirted a small quantity of blood.  It would have been injected into the victim, of course, and it was mixed with some other substance that made it thinner.  The other did nothing that was immediately visible, but once I found it was safe to dismantle the device, it became immediately apparent that it would have drawn a similar-size sample from the victim at the same time.”

“What the hell for?” Youngblood asked.

“That I can’t tell you,” Maladroit replied.  “I can tell you quite clearly what it does, but I have no idea why.  The device itself consists of two glass vials attached by rubber tubes to a pair of needles.  A clockwork mechanism is wound up, and when it is triggered by the act of being pressed against a person’s skin, the mechanism swings these brass stringers a hundred and eighty degrees to clamp it tightly to victim.  I’m guessing from the size that it’s meant to be used on the arm, but any extremity would serve as well.  Then it fills one vial and empties the other.  The cotter pin is a simple safety device that keeps it from being triggered accidentally, and it can be used over and over again.  There was a fluid in the vial that would have received the blood.  It consisted of a mixture of plant fluids.  I don’t know what the mixture was supposed to do, but I injected one of the stray cats around here with it, and it suffered no ill effects at all.  I have no idea what it’s for.  Possibly, it preserves the sample taken from the subject, but I don’t know why it would inject the subject with a different sample at the same time.  It’s possible the thinning agent was the same mixture, possibly a preservative, but I don’t know that, and I can’t guess what the purpose of the whole process might be.”

“That’s damned peculiar,” Youngblood said.  “You’ve done a hell of a job here, Professor.  I only wish you could have found out more.  I guess it’s for us to discover the rest of it, and I know just who to ask.”

“Who?” Isabella and Maladroit asked as one.

“Ambrose Duncan.”

“Madre Dio!” Isabella breathed.  “Señor Duncan is not going to tell you anything.”

“He will if he’s asked in the proper manner,” Youngblood said.

“And what manner is that?”

“Over the barrels of a ten-gauge,” he replied.

“Are you mad?  Duncan will kill you over breakfast!  You cannot be thinking of confronting him.”

“Look, Izzy, I haven’t been here for a week yet, and the whole town already has me pegged as their personal whipping boy.  I tried to be nice, and that’s what it got me.  Now I mean to try something else.”

Isabella made the sign of the cross before his face.

“Then may God have mercy on you!”