Stingaree 8

Friday, January 25th, 1889

Wyatt Earp tended to keep his ownership of The Tombstone Saloon & Entertainment Emporium somewhat low keyed, but that was the sort of secret that was well-known to everyone, and Deputy Town Marshall William Jackson didn’t have to look too hard to find him.

“Good afternoon, Wyatt,” Jackson said, having tried the door and found it unlocked.

Earp was behind the bar looking over the liquor stock as a couple of his employees brushed down the felt on the faro tables.

“Deputy.  What brings you to my humble establishment on a dreary day like this?”

“I need to talk to you about Charlie Price.  I’m sure you’ve heard that he was murdered the other night.”

“Too bad.  Still, the city will be improved by his absence.”

“Yeah, that’s what I want to talk to you about.  Where were you last Wednesday night?”

“You think I killed Price?”

“Somebody did, and I’m just weeding out the possibilities.”

“So you come right to me?”

“It’s not exactly unwarranted.  The run-in you had with Price the night before he was killed is still the talk of Stingaree.  Maybe he came after you.  Maybe it was self-defense.”

“Don’t insult me, Deputy.  If I’d killed a man in self-defense, I would have sent a runner to get you while my gun was still smoking, and I’m pretty sure you know that.”

“Can’t argue with that.”

“Yeah.  Anyway, Price was Duncan’s dog.  Duncan sent him and his cronies to the Oyster to make trouble.  If I was going to kill somebody, it would have been Duncan.  You kill a snake by cutting off its head.”

“Well, that’s true enough.  So, where were you?”

“Didn’t you hear a word I said?”

“Heard them all, and they didn’t include an answer.  I need to know where you were when Charlie Price was being murdered.”

“Well if this isn’t some pile of horse manure, to come in here practically accusing me of murder!”

“Is it?  Wyatt, the whole country still talks about your vendetta ride after the Tombstone business, about how you fled the Arizona Territory to escape murder charges.  You hardly encourage anyone to forget it when you name your bar the Tombstone.  Half-a-hundred people heard you threaten Price’s life the night before the murder.  I have to take you out of consideration, or the whole town is going to consider you in.  Now, where were you?”

“I was here, all right?  I was here running my business.  My dealers saw me, my bartender, my girls, and a couple of hundred customers who came through here.  I was right here.”

“And there weren’t ten minutes that you could have been out of sight?”

“Well, I didn’t take anybody with me when I went to drop a log!  I didn’t see Price while I was in there doing that, either, just for the record.”

“All right, Wyatt.  Your word’s good enough for me, but I’m not going to be the judge, if it comes to that.  For the time being, we’ll just say you were here, and leave it at that.  I’ll go look at some other people.”

“You should do that, Deputy.  There’s hardly a person south of Market who didn’t hate Price enough to kill him.”

“Yeah.  Guess I’ve got a job of work to do, then.  You have a nice day.”

Jackson took his leave and stepped back into the street, thinking that, yes, Price had a lot of enemies, but only one had offered to kill him in front of a room full of witnesses.

*          *          *

“Ah, Chato, come in,” Youngblood greeted his bouncer from behind his desk.  “Close the door and have a seat.”

Chato did so, taking the offered seat beside Isabella.

“We have a big problem,” Youngblood began, “and we need to have a plan to deal with it.  As you both know, hell, everybody knows, Ambrose Duncan’s right-hand man was killed two nights ago and left in our privy where he eventually died, but not before making some chicken scratches on the door in his own blood.  Nobody knows what they mean, but if Duncan gets it into his head that we killed him, he might decide to retaliate.  This is the first night of the weekend, and Stingaree will be going at full roar tonight.  He might think it’s a good opportunity to make some noise.”

“Señor Duncan is mean, to be sure,” Isabella said, “but he surely would not be loco enough to come murder someone in outright retaliation.  Anyway, he has his own problems.  Just a few hours after Mr. Price was killed, someone tried to burn the Dusky Rose.”

“Yes, and he might think that was us, too!  The altercation that started all this was their attempt to put that thing on Chato, so I have to ask, did you kill him?”

“No, Señor. I use hand weapons, knives and clubs mostly.  I don’t even own a gun.”

“Well, given what might be coming, I’ll get you one if you want it.”

“It was Señor Earp who stopped those men.  Perhaps Señor Duncan will think he did it.”

“And perhaps he did.  Look, if Duncan chooses to go gunning for Wyatt Earp, that’s his lookout.  My lookout is what happens here, and we need to be ready for whatever Duncan might pull.  That doesn’t leave out much, from all I’ve heard about him.  First thing is, Chato, I feel safer if you were to carry a gun.”

“I am not much of a shooter, Jefe,” the big Mexican said.

“Nothing says you have to use it, but if the party starts, and you need one, I don’t want you to have to go looking for one.  I’ll provide you with something easy to use.”

“As you command, Señor.”

“Same with you, Izzy.  I know you carry a Derringer.  So does Duncan, now.  I’d like to see you with more firepower, something with five or six shots that hits a little harder.”

“Things in these bars happen very quickly, Harold.  By the time you can fire two shots, it is over.  I’m very happy with my Derringer.”

“I’m not.”

“Harold, you do not know this place.  I do, and I’m telling you what works.”

“Then keep your Derringer.  Just tuck a Peacemaker under your skirt, or a sawed-off shotgun.  I don’t want to discover I was right by finding you dead on the floor.”

“All right, Harold, I will do it if it makes you happy.”

“Thank you.  I still feel like I’m overlooking something.  The bartenders?”

“They always have guns behind the bar,” Chato said.

“Good.  How about the girls?”

“They are our weak spot,” Isabella said.  “They are of necessity alone with the customers, many of whom are strangers.  In the privacy of those rooms, many things could be done without anyone knowing.”

“Can we arm them?”

“Difficult.  They do their best work naked, and besides, if we start arming our girls, the policia might think we have crossed a line into forbidden territory.”

“Well, we have to think of some way to protect them.  Is Rula here yet?”

“No.  She and the girls don’t usually start arriving until just before we open.”

“All right.  If either of you see her first, tell her I need to talk to her.  As for us downstairs, we’re all armed, and ready to use our weapons, right?”

“That can be dangerous, Harold,” Isabella told him.  “If we’re going to shoot first and ask questions later, someone is very likely to get shot who shouldn’t have.”

“All right, Izzy, you’re the voice of reason in this, but you told me yourself that Duncan is the angel of death.  If anybody gets shot in here, I want it to be him, not one of us.”

“Now, that is something we can all agree on, I think.  If that is all, Chato and I will warn the bartenders, and see to getting some larger guns.”

“Yes, that’s fine.  Just don’t let your guard down until we know what Duncan’s plans are.”

*          *          *

Harold Youngblood waited at the table below the stairs, a game of Klondike spread before him.  Several available moves had gone unplayed because his mind was on anything but the pattern of the cards.  He had watched with approval as Roberto made a show of polishing and reloading the coach gun he kept ready to hand, and Floyd, the card dealer, had hung a small caliber Remington pistol on a hook beneath his table.  He was glad to see his staff taking this seriously.  Now he just waited for—

Ah.  He waited for Madame Rula and the girls who worked upstairs to arrive, and the elegant older woman now opened the door to enter, accompanied by tall, rangy Helen, almost certainly the roughest of her crew.

“Rula,” he beckoned, “sit with me a moment, would you?”

“I’ll see you upstairs,” Helen said, and prepared to keep walking.

“You, too, Helen.  This is important.”

Both women came to his table and took the chairs available.

Youngblood rose and held the chair for Rula.

“How are you ladies this fine afternoon?” he asked as they settled themselves.

“Just fine, Mr. Youngblood,” Rula replied.  “What can we do for you today?”

“Besides what we usually do,” Helen added.

“As it happens,” Youngblood said, settling into his own chair, “Izzy, Chato, and I have been talking about Charlie Price’s murder, and it occurs to us that while Ambrose Duncan doesn’t know anything about what really happened, he might jump to the conclusion that it was us who killed him.  In view of that, we want you to keep a close eye on each other up there.”

The door opened, admitting Charlotte in her revealing burgundy ruffles, and Rula motioned her over to the table.”

“Charlotte, dear, Mr. Youngblood seems to feel that we’re in danger from Mr. Duncan.”

“Why?”

“Because of that run-in we had with Price and his cronies the other night where Wyatt Earp stepped in to get them off of Chato,” Youngblood told her.  “The next night, Price is found murdered in our privy, and Duncan might be excused for thinking that we killed him.”

“What’s that got to do with us?  It sounds like you folks downstairs are the ones he’ll be after, if he comes after any of us.”

“Maybe, but what if he decides to punish us by cutting up one of you girls?  All I’m suggesting is that you pay attention to each other, and don’t be shy about bursting into a room if you hear something that doesn’t sound right.”

“Why, Mr. Youngblood, I’d simply die of embarrassment if someone stormed into my room while I was, you know . . .”

“That might be better than dying of knife wounds,” Youngblood said.  “Down here we have dealers, bartenders, Chato, and a hundred people watching everything that goes on.  Upstairs, it’s you and one man, and one man can do a hell of a lot of damage to a woman before the rest of you can get to her.  All I’m saying is pay attention to what’s going on up there, and don’t be afraid to intervene if something seems wrong.  You might even consider arming yourselves.”

“Way ahead of you, Mr. Youngblood,” Helen said.  “I never go up those stairs unarmed.  I’m never more than arm’s reach from a sharp knife, and I’m not afraid to use it.”

“I applaud your foresight, Helen.  Don’t be afraid to help the others if they seem to need it.”

“We all have ways of looking out for ourselves,” Charlotte said, “but I don’t see how an altercation downstairs could be expected to spread to us.”

“Charlotte, what if Mr. Duncan decides to take his revenge by throwing a fire bomb through our front window?  The same thing was done to him just the other day.  Do you think those flames are going to seek out the guilty parties, and let the others go?”

“Well . . .  No.”

“Just be alert up there, that’s all I’m saying.  Use all your senses, and evaluate everything you hear, see, smell, whatever.  If we all look out for one another, we can all come out of this all right.”

“If you say so, sir.  I just don’t see Mr. Duncan risking murder charges until he has all the facts though.”

“Perhaps not.  All of you people know him better than I do, but the first night I was here, people went out of their way to convince me that this gentleman is the angel of death incarnate.  Those were the exact words used, angel of death.  Now I’m simply suggesting that you people heed your own words, and be alert up there.  If he sends someone in here to carve his name on one of your faces, Chato’s got a long run up those stairs to get to you.  Rula, make sure you pass this along to all the girls as they come in.  I don’t want to have to arrange a funeral my first week here.”