It was Friday, April 13, 1900, the first year of the new century or the last of the old, depending on your point of view. It was Eastertide, too, and Good Friday. But at the old Railroad Exchange Saloon in Port Newton, California, we always remembered it as the night Jack Dobbs floated into town. And I mean that literatim: the son of a bitch floated right on into town.
Young Calvin Elwell was tending bar that night, hard-cooking the eggs and salting down the meat for the free lunch. Rosa Paredes, old and addled, pumped the pedals of the player piano in back, "Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do." Me and Foghorn Murphy, the owner of the joint, sat at his favorite poker table playing five card stud and hashing over the town team's chances in the upcoming baseball season.
"We don't have a chance, Doc," Foghorn said, and Foghorn was the manager no less. "I'd ask God to send us some pitching, but He's dead, I understand. Saw it in the papers down at the Beehive Cafe just this morning."
I tossed a dime into the pot and told him I'd seen the article myself.
"He's not dead, exactly. Put out to pasture is more like it. Outlived his usefulness, you might say."
"Dead," Foghorn muttered. "Happened somewhere in Germany, back in the last century."
Outside, a west bound freight thundered down the Port Newton waterfront. The floor shook. Our beer mugs trembled, and Foghorn dealt the cards.
Mine was a jack, which paired me face-up, a monster of a hand when only two fellows are playing. I bet the limit figuring Foghorn would fold his tents and slip off into the night. But instead, he bent over until his cheek rested on the green felt of the poker table, lifted up a tiny corner of his hole card and eyeballed it.
"I don't recall seeing it in the article," he went on, cheek flat on the table, "but it occurred to me that if God really is dead, then the devil must be too."
I hadn't considered that possibility, and it rocked me, I'll say. For if He really was dead —irrelevant, useless or whatever— then it made a certain amount of sense that the devil was too. And if both of them were goners, then what of good and evil? Had good and evil also ceased to exist? Or was it just that the apprehension of virtue now depended solely on the eye of the beholder?
"Raise two bits," Foghorn said.
"You heard me. I raise two bits."
Now that rocked me even more than the devil business. I had that pair of jacks, all right, but Foghorn had a king showing and, by raising those twenty-five cents, he was trying to convince me he had another in the hole besides.
Foghorn Murphy, by the way, was the fellow who invented the Martini Cocktail, or so he always claimed. But Andy Mellus over in Martinez stole the recipe from him: two thirds Old Tom gin and one third French vermouth. Otherwise, the Martini would be called the Newton and to this day, too. Or so Foghorn Murphy always claimed.
"I call your two bits," I said, tossing a half dollar into the pot. "And I raise you two bits more."
Foghorn called the raise, then dealt my last card and Fortune smiled. It was a jack, which gave me three, face up, and I figured the son of a bitch's goose was cooked. But instead of cursing his luck, Foghorn stopped dealing altogether and started up on baseball and divine intervention again.
"Maybe a few Hail Mary's would serve to procure us some pitching," he said. "I mean if the man upstairs really is dead, maybe we'd have better luck if we asked the woman. . . Ave Maria."
He dealt himself his last card —the goddamnable king of hearts it turned out to be— and if he had that third one in the hole as he'd been trying to convince me, it was my goose that was cooked. I bet a nickel.
"Raise a buck," Foghorn said.
"Raise a buck? The limit's two bits. You can't change the rules in the middle of the game."
"And why the hell not?"
I had no ready answer for that, but as it is my habit to call a known bluffer whenever practical, I took a silver dollar from the stack of coins in front of me.
"He who hesitates is lost," Foghorn said.
But hesitate I did. The laws of probability are one thing, but a dollar is a dollar after all. And lost I soon became, condemned to wonder for the rest of my days if Foghorn Murphy really did have that king in the hole. For at that precise moment Captain T.A. Alvarado of the State Fish Patrol burst through the back door of the Exchange.
"Doc! Come quick! We need you!"
He was wrapped in a navy blue pea jacket and had a woolen watch cap pulled down over his ears. He'd been out on San Francisco Bay patrolling for oyster pirates that night, apparently with some result.
"Doc! Come quick!"
My first, terrible thought was that there had been a shootout or set-to of some sort, and I grabbed my medical bag. The captain disappeared out the door whence he had come, and Foghorn and I hustled after him, through that same door and down the long, narrow walkway on the dock side of the Front.
It was dark and starless that night —primeval, I'm tempted to say. Across the Carquinez Strait lay the town of Benicia, shrouded in fog. To the east stood Granger's Wharf where the hermaphrodite brig Martha W. Tufts lay at rest, visible only for the lights hung in her rigging. To the west loomed the ghostly form of Newton Wharf & Warehouse, closed and shuttered since Old Man Newton dipped into the till of Newton Savings & Loan, bankrupted half the town, then drowned himself in the cold, deep strait.
Captain Alvarado pointed down at the deck of the little sloop Esmeralda, tied up at the dock below and bobbing like a cork in the unsettled waters.
Long John Sheets, our town constable, guardian and protector —not to mention the best hitter on our ball team— stood in the bow dressed like the captain but bareheaded and boyish, hair tangled by sea and fog.
"Johnny," I called. "I feared you were shot up or some such."
He laughed at me with grand bravado. One hell of a fellow, Long John. He'd begun life as the seventh son of a hay farmer over in Pacheco. A barefoot farm boy he'd been, with underwear made of sugar sacks, but he'd pulled himself up by the bootstraps and made himself a life in Port Newton.
"Me? Shot?" Long John laughed. "Hell, no, Doc. We just pulled another floater out of the Strait is all."
There at his feet in a puddle of salt-fresh water, lay an unconscious man. Brown skinned, he appeared to be, aged about thirty-five years and dressed in a soaking wet, black tuxedo.
"Is the son of a bitch alive?" Foghorn asked, as we peered down from the dock.
"He's still breathing," Long John said.
"He's a big one, isn't he?" Foghorn said. "An Injun, unless I miss my guess."
As I climbed down to the deck of the Esmeralda, Long John began the tale of what had happened. The railroad ferry, laboring between Benicia and Port Newton, had just churned past them in the dark night. They'd heard some splashing, investigated, and come across the fellow in the tuxedo who, by then, was going down for the third time.
"Long John threw him a line," Captain Alvarado said, "and reeled him in, just like pulling in a big fish."
Long John made a big grin and shook his head. "The minute we landed him, the son of a bitch passed out. Hasn't been a peep out of him since."
I steadied myself on the deck and found the brown fellow's pulse.
"Heart like a goddamn mule," I pronounced.
Long John pointed to the bloody towel he'd wrapped about the Indian's noggin.
"Looks like somebody plunked him with a club. Tried to rob him, maybe."
I gestured towards the dock, the ladder that climbed it, and the Railroad Exchange beyond. "Let's get him inside. It's cold out here, and I'm not as limber as I used to be."
We looped a line under the big Indian's arms. Long John coiled it and tossed it up to Captain Alvarado.
"How many men you got up there, Cap?" Long John called out.
"Just Foghorn and me," the captain replied.
"Well, that'll have to do. You game, Foghorn?"
"I'm always game, Long John."
"You fellows pull from above, and we'll push from below. You limber enough for that, Doc?"
"I imagine I have no choice."
When all was at the ready, a count of three was made, and we commenced to heave ho. That Indian was well over six feet tall and must have tipped the scales at two hundred twenty-five pounds. When we got him up and over the railing, we lost our grips, and he fell with a thud onto the planking.
"Damn red devil," Foghorn said, puffing a bit.
"Get his legs!" Long John commanded.
Me and Foghorn grabbed hold of the Indian's south end while Long John and the captain took the north. The four of us manhandled him down the dock then through the back door of Foghorn's saloon.
We gave a grunt, all at once, and tossed Long John's big fish up onto the hand-carved mahogany bar that Foghorn had salvaged off the wreck of the Delta Princess back in `ninety-five.
"Damn. My back," Foghorn said.
"Don't ask me about backs," I told him. "No doctor alive understands backs. Have a shot of whiskey. That's my advice for backs."
By now, some of the boys began to filter into the Exchange. Just a few at first: a couple of railroad men from the yard; a deck hand off the ferry; two stevedores from the sugar wharf in Crockett. Rough and tumble boys, they were, and they gathered around the Indian like he wasn't even there, ordering up Port Newton Steam Beer and partaking of bread, cheese, hard-cooked eggs, and that greenish roast beef that Calvin Elwell, the bartender, had salted down.
"Is he a Hoopa?" Cal asked, surveying the Indian laid out in front of him. Cal played second base on our team, by the way, and not badly, either.
"Apache is my guess," Foghorn said.
Rosa Paredes, the addled old lady who'd been pumping the player piano, wandered over, took one of the eggs Cal had boiled and began to peel it. Rosa, who told fortunes and read palms, stopped, bent over, sniffed the Indian, then the egg, then the Indian again.
"Un bebo del agua," she said. "Made by fairies."
"Fairies?" Foghorn laughed. "Fairies don't wear tuxedos."
She showed Cal the peeled egg. "¿Usted tiene sal?"
"Sure, Dona Rosa," Cal said, pulling a saltcellar out from under the bar. "We got plenty."
Long John pushed everyone away from the big Indian. "Give him room to breathe!" Then I got down to work. I lifted one of the Indian's eyelids to have a look —red and bloodshot, it was. I undid the towel Long John had wrapped around the wound in the head.
"Bleeding's stopped," I said. "But you're right, Long John, looks like somebody plunked him a good one."
Foghorn shook his head. "He smells of whiskey. An Apache all liquored up. What the hell's the world coming to?"
I broke open a vial of smelling salts and shoved it under the Indian's nose. In my experience, such an act almost without fail caused a patient to burst forth into consciousness, but this time, it did not. Instead, he began to snore.
By now, Long John was going through the big fellow's pockets with the practiced thoroughness of a Holmes. Then, like a magician with two score rabbits in his hat, he began pulling out objects that seemed far too numerous for those pockets to contain.
"Brass watch," Long John said. "Half-drowned but still ticking. One handkerchief. One lucky rabbit's foot. A pair of dice."
He gave them a tumble across the bar and they came up seven.
"Loaded, most likely."
Long John ran his hands up and down the inside of the big Indian's legs.
"Ho, what's this?"
He pulled up the right pant leg, and there, strapped to the inside of the ankle, was a feisty little revolver. Long John slipped it out of the holster and unloaded it.
"A thirty-two," he declared. "And I'll be damned if it isn't a knife-gun." He unfolded the stiletto blade that was hinged underneath the barrel, snapped it into position, and held the infernal device up high for all to see. The boys began to yammer all at once.
"A fellow could do some real damage with that little son of a bitch."
"Gamblers and thieves are all that carries a thingamajig like that."
"Gitanos," Dona Rosa said. "Gypsies."
"And from how he wears his gear," Long John added, pointing at the holster on the Indian's ankle, "I'd wager he's left-handed."
He pulled a black, leather wallet from the Indian's jacket pocket, removed the three water-soaked one-dollar bills it contained, and handed one to me.
"Your fee, Doc." He pocketed the other two for himself. "Carrying charges." Then he continued on through the wallet.
"A one-way ticket, Sacramento to Oakland. A cigarette card depicting a chorus girl, a pawn ticket from Honest John's Honest Loans on Main Street in Watsonville, and, lastly, a California League baseball schedule from the year eighteen hundred and ninety-nine."
I passed the smelling salts under the big Indian's nose once more but again with no effect.
"Drunk, is what he mainly is," I told the boys. "He'll sleep it off by noon, I'd reckon."
"Noon?" Foghorn said. "You ain't gonna leave some savage passed out on my bar until noon. What if he pukes?"
"Do what you always do when somebody pukes," I told him. "Clean it up."
"Can't you cart him off to County Hospital, Doc? Isn't County Hospital the place where he belongs?"
"Well," I said, not feeling in need of a long, midnight drive, "best not to move him. He might be concussed, you know. Let him sleep it off right here. That's the wisest course, in my professional opinion."
Foghorn turned to Long John. "Can't you dust out a cell for him? Why, the man's obviously a malefactor of some sort. An Injun, I mean, drunk and with a pistol like that?"
Long John shook his head. "He hasn't broken any laws I know of."
Riley Towne, publisher, editor and jack of all trades at the Port Newton News —the same fellow who'd reported that God was dead— pushed through the crowd of working men that now surrounded the bar.
"Stop being such a damn priss, Foghorn," he said. "I thought you had some business acumen about you. An Indian splayed out on a bar is as good a draw as seals playing horns by Port Newton standards."
"Seals playing horns?" Foghorn pondered. "I never heard of such a thing."
"It's true," Riley told him. "Seals can play horns, if they're educated to it."
"Sounds like crap to me."
"All you need is a little puffery." He lit a tailor-made cigarette and coughed. "A goodly dose of the old ballyhoo, if you catch my drift, and that Indian will be as good a draw as seals playing horns. That's all I'm trying to tell you."
Riley Towne understood that Foghorn Murphy was the most corrupt man in town, and once he'd baited the hook it didn't take but a moment for Foghorn to swallow it.
"Ballyhoo, you say?"
The bargain was quickly made. Column inches in the News were traded for free steam beer and roast beef sandwiches at the Exchange. You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. Nothing wrong with it. It's just how things were done in those days, and times were hard in old Port Newton.