Photographing Minnesota Pete
Gary Cuba

John St. Germain studied the corpse while holding a perfumed handkerchief over his nose. The body lay crammed inside an open, narrow coffin that had been propped up on the rickety plank porch in front of Moose Fork’s sole saloon.

The dead man seemed to glare back at him menacingly through an intervening haze of flies, but St. Germain knew that was only a figment of his imagination; in truth, the eyes were gelid, unseeing. He noted that the head lacked its nose and one ear. In its unembalmed condition, the body was moving quickly along the route to total corruption.

A crudely painted wooden placard hung from a cord draped around the corpse’s neck, identifying the man as “Minesota Pete, theeving murdrer, brot to Justise by The Sherif.” Despite the corpse’s poor shape, there could be no doubt it was, indeed, the renowned criminal Minnesota Pete—given the six fingers on the dead man’s left hand, carefully arranged so as to be plainly visible to any and all who viewed the body.

St. Germain chortled. Lady Luck was surely smiling at him this day. A business opportunity stared him in the face, and he’d only just arrived in town.

He reached inside his enclosed wagon and pulled out his black overcoat, dusted off his derby with a stiff brush, and then strode into the sheriff’s office next to the saloon.

Moose Fork’s sheriff lay back in his chair, boots propped up on his desk, his Stetson hat tilted over his eyes, apparently taking a snooze. Another man practiced his quick-draw in front of a mirror in the rear of the room, near the jail’s single empty cell.

“Ahem,” St. Germain said.

The deputy spun around, pointing his gun at him. St. Germain took a quick step backward and raised his hands, palms forward. The sheriff awoke, shifted his legs off the desk and righted his hat.

“Who the hell are you, stranger?” he said.

“John St. Germain, professional photographer, at your service, sir. Please accept my business card. And your name is…?”

“Jackson. Minton Jackson. This here’s my somewhat gun-happy deputy, Duster Yokum. What brings you to our fine town, Mr. Germain?”

#

St. Germain knew his perfected spiel was sure to bear fruit, as it always did. Two dollars for a tintype image of the sheriff flanking Minnesota Pete’s corpse was not a trifling sum. But the potential advantages he began to lay out would be far too enticing for the lawman to pass up—if history was any guide.

“Consider it a permanent record of your accomplishment, Sheriff Jackson,” St. Germain said. “If the picture were to be positioned prominently in your front office window, the fine citizens of Moose Fork would have a constant reminder of how well justice is being administered by their current sheriff—long after Minnesota Pete himself dissipates into a pile of rotten bones. It’ll be hard for them to forget it, come next election day. Photography is the wave of the future, sir, and he who embraces this new science of visual documentation will surely prevail!”

In no time at all, St. Germain found himself preparing for the shot, setting up his camera and erecting the metal armature to one side of the elevated coffin for Jackson to lean against and hold his head steady. Deputy Duster watched in obvious amusement.

“As I explained, Sheriff,” St. Germain said, “the exposure will take several minutes in all. This apparatus will help keep you perfectly still over that time.”

“You ought to nail his boots to the porch, Mr. Picture Man,” Duster said. “That might be the only way to keep him in one place long enough. Might also want to nail old Pete down, too!” The deputy guffawed and did a spinning, high-stepping fool’s dance, thumbs behind his suspenders, elbows flying wide. The sheriff glared at him.

St. Germain posed the sheriff with the man’s firearm held against his breast in traditional fashion. He prepared the photographic plate with a series of wet chemical treatments inside his wagon. At length, enshrouded by the camera’s canvas cover, he took the exposure. After a few more minutes spent processing it, St. Germain proudly exited the wagon again with a crisp, clear, perfect tintype in hand.

He showed it to the sheriff. Jackson’s jaw fell open. The man gasped.

“I must say, Mr. Germain!” he said. “This is one fine piece of art you’ve produced. I never expected it would turn out so… so real-looking. It’s a wonderment, pure and simple! I suggest we adjourn to the saloon and toast the occasion with a drink. On me!”

“Maybe even two drinks,” Duster interjected. “It’s a right warm day out here. As to which even old Pete hisself can attest, in his own way. Phew!”

#

The trio was working its way through the fourth glassful of the local hog-swill that passed as beer in Moose Fork when the saloon door burst open and two men entered. The first one inside, a tall, gaunt man, wore a five-pointed star similar to Jackson’s badge.

“There you are, you varmint,” the man said to Sheriff Jackson. “Been lookin’ for you.”

“Milo Jensen!” Jackson replied. “And your diminutive deputy, Delbert Young. What got you two gents rustled up enough to crawl out of Gypsum Falls this fine day? Ain’t you afraid your town’s criminals are going to raise a ruckus there, in your absence? The place is full of ‘em, as I know it. And when the cat’s away, like they say…”

Jackson smiled after saying this, but St. Germain detected a dissembled cast to his expression. Sheriff Jensen only frowned deeper.

“You know damned well why I’m here, Jackson. You done stole my kill, and now you’re tryin’ to claim the credit for it!”

Jackson stood up from his chair slowly, and his deputy did the same. “I wouldn’t be tossing around such aggressive accusations here on my turf, Sheriff Jensen. As we both know, possession is the biggest part of the law.”

“You betcha,” Duster added. “Plus’n’s, we got us proof of our kill in the way of photergrammatical evidence. Show him, Minton.”

Sheriff Jackson pulled the tintype out of his vest pocket and slid it across the table toward Sheriff Jensen.

Jensen looked down at it and snorted. “That’s odd. I happen to have one o’ them things myself.” He pulled another tintype out of his own vest pocket and slapped it down on the table. This one showed a slightly fresher image of Minnesota Pete.

They all swiveled their heads toward the chair that St. Germain had been sitting in.

It was empty.

Sheriff Jensen turned and spied the photographer trying to slip quietly out of the saloon. “Hold on, you polecat,” he said, grabbing St. Germain by the collar. He spun him around and slung him back into his chair.

“Way I perceive it, polecat’s too kind a word for his like, Milo,” Jackson said.

The two sheriffs and their deputies glared at the photographer. St. Germain held both his hands out in a supplicating gesture.

“Gentlemen! I… I’m sorry for causing all this confusion. I’m just a simple businessman, trying to get by. Is it a crime that I took you both at your word, and didn’t question it? Am I to be faulted for selling you my services in an honest and faithful manner? In point of fact, what law did I actually break?”

“Unmitigated duplicity is close enough to a crime to me. In my book, anyway,” Jackson said. “Maybe even a capital offense.”

Jensen nodded in agreement. St. Germain saw the man’s hand shift ever-so-slightly toward his revolver’s holster. Jackson’s hand did the same.

“That’s a fair enough conclusion, I’ll grant—on the surface of it. But consider this…” St. Germain very slowly pulled a third tintype out of his own vest pocket and laid it on the table. “Here is yet another image of Minnesota Pete’s corpse, a copy of one I took up in Beaver’s Run, about thirty days ago. In it, you’ll recognize Sheriff Manfred Jacobson, and his deputy Dwayne Yolt in the background. You’ll also note how fresh Pete appears in the picture. Fact is, if you gentlemen still have a bone to pick, it’s with each other—but by my eyes, that bone is pretty well gnawed clean.”

Both sheriffs arched over the table to look more closely at the third tintype.

“You bastard!” Jackson said to Jensen. “And you come in here calling me a varmint!”

“All’s I know is, you’re suckin’ on the sow’s hind tit, Jackson,” Jensen said.

It was hard to tell who drew first. What St. Germain saw, while falling over backwards in his chair and scrabbling like a crab into the corner of the room, was Minton Jackson’s right ear explode in a spray of blood. Then he saw Milo Jensen take a bullet to his agate belt-buckle, turning it into a cloud of powder. The shot didn’t seem to penetrate the buckle, but it knocked the man back hard against the saloon’s front door. Delbert Young took a try at Duster Yokum, but his round went wide, downing the bartender and shattering the big plate mirror behind him. Duster’s return shot wiped out the front window of the saloon, leaving Delbert standing there agog, patting his chest, apparently dumbfounded to find himself still alive.

In the midst of his terror, St. Germain was surprised to find his mind flying free, wondering about the day when photographic technology could faithfully capture everything that was happening all around him in those few seconds. It was a surrealistic moment.

“Gentlemen, please!” he said. “For the love of God, pause and make a finer assessment of the situation. Please!”

St. Germain heard the sound of multiple hammers being recocked, and he pinched his eyes closed. Another loud volley of shots rang in his ears. After the second round, there was nothing but silence and the sharp, acrid smell of gunpowder. And underneath that, the unmistakable tangy odor of blood. The sheriffs and their deputies had apparently found their targets, given a reprise to do so. When he forced his eyes back open, St. Germain saw four bodies lying on the floor around him. Unmoving bodies. Deaders, all.

St. Germain rose slowly on wobbly knees. He somehow found the presence of mind to pocket all the tintypes from the table before he staggered out of the saloon into the blinding rays of the late afternoon sun.

#

John St. Germain, itinerant photographer, clucked at his drowsy mare and steered his wagon westward. Moose Fork had been a lucrative stop—although not quite in the way he’d envisioned it. The mayors of both Gypsum Falls and Moose Fork desired death photographs of their slain lawmen, and St. Germain had dutifully accepted their commission to produce them, at two dollars each.

As he clopped toward the next town on his itinerary, he glanced over at Minnesota Pete’s empty coffin in front of the Moose Fork saloon. St. Germain chuckled and drove on, ever hopeful of the opportunities that might lie ahead.

END

Gary Cuba’s speculative short fiction has appeared in more than thirty magazines and anthologies, including Jim Baen’s Universe, Flash Fiction Online, Abyss & Apex and Andromeda Spaceways. He lives in South Carolina, USA, with his wife and way, way too many dogs and cats.

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