ACES AND EIGHTS
A Historical Novel
Catherine Holder Spude
By Catherine Holder Spude
will be published by
Lynn Canal Publishing,
if you have questions, please contact Catherine at
ACES AND EIGHTS
SATURDAY, JULY 7, 1905 (A week later). Chris hustled up to the bar, later than he’d meant to be. “Scram, Charlie. I’ve kept you too long. The volunteer fire department meeting went on longer than I thought it would.” He grabbed up an apron and started to wrap the strings around his waist.
Charlie Talbot, the night bartender, shrugged his shoulders. “Extra pay don’t hurt none, boss. Besides, the fire department’s for a good cause. I’m thinking of joining up myself.”
Chris grinned and lightly jabbed his bartender in the shoulder. “Atta’ boy.” Then, like he suddenly thought of something the two of them had forgotten, he glanced around the floor of the saloon. He made a big show of searching around behind the bar as if someone might be hiding there.
“Who do you suppose we’re gonna’ get to tend bar while we’re both at the meetings or putting out a fire?” he asked.
“Mr. Patten?” Charlie suggested.
Chris laughed, and Charlie joined in. It had become a sort of game of theirs to see if they could think of ways to get Fred behind the bar and serving customers. Sometimes their ruses worked, sometimes they didn’t. Chris’s partner preferred his management position, whereas Chris still loved pouring drinks and joshing with the boys. He even dealt out the cards at the black jack table from time to time if Pat or one of their other gamblers was out of town.
As Charlie slipped out the back, Vic Sparks and Martin Itjen lumbered over to the bar.
“Hey boys. Beer?” Chris asked
“Yeah, four drafts.” They nodded to a buddy that had found a table over by the windows. A tall, skinny kid who Chris didn’t recognize joined them. He’d been staring at the photographs on the wall.
“What’s with the stiff?” he asked Vic, jerking his thumb towards one of the framed pictures.
“Oh, that’s Soapy Smith,” Vic laughed.
“How long you been in
Uh-oh, Chris thought. Here we go again. Another windy argument. You get four drunks in a room together, you get six versions of the Soapy Smith story.
The boys took their beer across the room to a table, Martin already starting in on his favorite version of how Soapy Smith conned every Cheechacko that came through
Chris mused about Soapy. Now Chris’ own personal favorite version came from Si Tanner. Si ought to know, Si was there and had led the posse that routed the whole gang after Smith was killed. Some folks even said Si had fired the fatal bullet, but he denied it, so vehemently that there were times when Chris was of the opinion he might well have done it and didn’t want anyone to know for some reason. The old magistrate was appointed U.S. Deputy Marshal right in the middle of all the big fuss. Most of the old timers from
Si’s version went that the White Pass railroad was ready to take over
For whatever reason, Si became increasingly reticent to have his name connected with the story in recent years. Chris frowned. He wondered why. The people who were actually there when it happened were becoming fewer all the time. As Tanner downplayed his own role in the episode, folks were beginning to forget just how much the town did owe him.
And then there’s the version put out by the Chamber of Commerce, Chris thought. Soapy and his con men were a menace to the respectability of the community. They cheated newly returned
Why, Chris and the Pack Train would be doing the community a great service to publish the story, using all these pictures they had hanging on the wall, using the truth the way John Troy and the Chamber of Commerce saw it.
Chris thought about the last Chamber of Commerce meeting he had attended.
Chris grinned. He’d thought he’d call it The Soapy Smith Tragedy.
He looked up to see Si Tanner walk into his saloon.
Chris grinned wider and marched for the end of his bar, where he kept the hot plate for the pot of coffee.
“Your boys helped beat those ball teams from
“Whatdaya mean, shenanigans? We never cheat,” Chris huffed as he plopped down the coffee cups and started to pour.
“Those rat wharfs of yours are slimier than a banana slug and harder to hang on to. No respectable team’s ever gonna’ play them. I’m sorry I had to stoop to pick some of them up this year.”
“You won, didn’t you?”
“I always win.”
It was true. Si had managed the winning baseball team at the annual
“Like you did in July 1898?”
The question was met with absolute silence.
After about fifteen seconds and three or four sips of coffee, Si Tanner decided what he was going to do about the question. He chose not to ignore it.
“You wanting me to stay this morning, or just move on?”
“I’m hoping you’ll clear up some confusion in my mind.”
“Nope.” Si got up and started to leave.
“Hey. I’m not talking about who shot Soapy. We’ve been through all that before. I don’t care.”
Si stopped about halfway to the door. He didn’t turn around, but Chris could tell he’d caught the attention of the magistrate. “Well, what?”
“Why do want everyone to forget you were part of it?”
Tanner settled down on one hip, his nearest hand resting on it for extra effect. It was right about where a six-shooter would have been, had such a thing been strapped to his waist. Chris figured an old lawman never forgot where such a weapon would sit. The saloon owner heard the exasperated sigh even with the magistrate’s back turned toward him. Si waited a good half minute before he decided to turn back towards the bar and return to his stool. He nodded towards the coffee cup.
“And two Odero cigars, Whippersnapper. You’re buying.”
Chris chuckled, but gladly dived into his cigar case for the aromatic cigars.
“You’re writing the story?” Si asked.
“I’m pulling it together. I’ll have them tell it any way you want me to,” Chris assured him, handing him a cigar and searching for a match.
He heard a distinct harrumph. “If John Troy and Henry LeFevre have any say about it, they’ll tell it the way they want to, even with you paying for it.”
Tanner nodded. “Rumor has it he’s already written the thing. Just looking for a publisher.”
Chris whistled. U.S. Commissioner LeFevre had once worked for The Daily Alaskan, in fact had edited the paper from time to time when
Si waved aside his concern. “Doesn’t matter. I don’t want my name in the story, and they don’t want me in it, so we’re all agreed.”
“Tell me why, and I’ll go along with them,” Chris urged.
“Tell me what you know.”
“Well, let’s see. I was in
“You know why it is much more complicated than that, don’t you?” Si quizzed.
“Who stood at the foot of the
“Frank Reid, John Landers, Jesse Murphy, and,” Chris grinned, “Si Tanner.”
“And what happened when it looked like that disruption was about to occur?” Si asked, a sardonic smile turning up one side of his mouth.
Chris mimicked his professor, imparting a partial grin. “Soapy Smith, the man who thought he had run
Si rolled his eyes at the end of the last sentence, clearly annoyed at the extra tribute.
“Official version,” Si drawled.
“Yep. That’s what I read in both newspapers. That’s I’ve been told. By you, by Mrs. Harriet Pullen, our self-appointed historian, and by John Troy, the President of the Chamber of Commerce, who desperately wants us to coordinate our versions of the events for the sake of the tourists who come to town. It seems too many conflicting stories will confuse the public.”
“Wanna’ hear the real story?”
If he didn’t have the cigar to hold onto, Chris would have gaped. Instead he widened his eyes and gave one quick little nod, hoping Si wouldn’t change his mind. He was afraid to take a puff of the cigar, never mind breathe, for fear the town’s magistrate would change his mind.
“Mr. Smith struts up to the four of us, all puffed up, more than a little full, not only of liquor, but himself, as usual,” Si began.
Chris nodded, remembering the self-important gentleman.
“He had a number of his men with him, might have been a dozen, I wasn’t counting. Turner Jackson, one of his strong-arms, walked straight up to me and stuck a gun in my chest.” He hesitated, eyeing the man across the big desk from him. “I haven’t told anyone else this.”
“Nothing goes out of this room,” Chris assured him.
“Barrel of the damn pistol looked like a stove pipe. I’d been a deputy sheriff in
Chris nodded in understanding. “A young gunslinger out for glory.”
Chris had only been six when Wild Bill had been killed by a kid in a Deadwood,
“So I backed off, wanting to think about the whole situation a little,” Si continued. “But Frank, now, he hated Smith. He pulled his Colt out of his pocket and went straight for the leader.”
Chris nodded. He’d heard that part hundreds of times.
Si shifted the cigar to his left hand and crooked the index finger of his right hand. “Click, click, click. All four of us heard the hammer of Reid’s pistol fall on…” Si shrugged. “No ammunition? A clogged firing piece? Frank usually kept his guns clean. None of us are sure what happened, and I was far too busy in the days that followed to be snooping around Reid’s place looking for his gun.”
He shook his head and took a puff of the cigar, followed by a big swig of the cooling coffee.
“In the meantime, Smith kept cocking that rifle and firing at Frank. As soon as that wiry little Irishman, Jesse Murphy, realized what was happening, he jumped in and grabbed the barrel of Soapy’s
Si looked off through one of the windows that gave a view of the
“It was Jesse Murphy that jammed Soapy’s own rifle into his side, just as that con man pulled the trigger. It wasn’t Frank Reid who killed Smith. We all saw it, all of us but Frank. Smith’s gang, the three of us and maybe half a dozen others, mostly strangers. They were all too confused to know what happened. They believed what Stroller White printed in The Skaguay News, I guess.”
Chris nodded. He’d heard whispers of this story. None of it was new. While it wasn’t widely known, it was a part of the secret knowledge of the senior members of the Skagway Arctic Brotherhood, this true tale of the killing of Soapy Smith. He never thought he’d hear Tanner confirm it.
“Yes, I know. After turning Smith over and verifying he was dead, you turned back to Frank,” Chris volunteered. “‘I’m done in, Cap,’ he told you. ‘Did I get him?’”
Si nodded. “I didn’t have the heart to say no. Murphy and I looked at each other. He nodded, giving me permission to lie. We both thought the man was about to die. Damn it if he didn’t live for another twelve days. Jess, John Landers and I had to swear to Judge Sehlbrede and his board of inquiry that Frank shot Smith. We had to convince Dr. Whiting to “misplace” the bullets he took out of Smith’s body until after the inquisition. Never wonder why I booted Billy Saportas and Allan Hornsby outa’ town?”
Chris stared at Tanner. “Because they were newspaper reporters? You mean they had nothing to do with Smith?”
Si nodded. “Except they figured out who killed that slimey little con man. They swore they’d keep the secret, but I didn’t trust ‘em. Men like them have to tell a story. Seems I should have. Allan came back later, and he’s never said a word. He’s been a good doctor for the railroad. Still won’t talk to me, though.”
Chris wrinkled his forehead as he frowned. “Whatever for, Si? For the sake of a man’s honor?”
Si Tanner took another large drag from his cigar and washed it down with the thick coffee.
“That, and for the safety of my family, and the lives of John Landers, Jesse Murphy, and myself.”
“What do you mean?” Chris asked, puzzled.
Si took a puff of his cigar and watched the smoke climb to the ceiling as the meaning percolated through to Chris’s brain. Just as it began to dawn on him, Si spoke again.
“Only three men of the nine I sent to
Chris couldn’t believe his ears. He narrowed his steely eyes in sudden anger. “You’re afraid of the likes of Turner Jackson?”
Si Tanner came around the back of the Pack Train’s bar faster than Chris had ever seen him move. He grabbed up a handful of Chris’s shirt, tie and collar and pulled him forward, hissing in his face.
“That’s the first and last time you call me a coward, friend.”
Then he coolly set Chris back on his feet.
The owner of the Pack Train took a moment to clear his head. He grabbed a deep draught of coffee and inhaled a long drag on his cigar, waiting for his hand to stop trembling. Then it came to him.
“Aces and eights.”
Tanner smiled under that bushy mustache.
“A dead hero isn’t someone to come gunning after,” Chris observed.
“Wild Bill always had to sit with his back in the corner of the room,” Si explained. “Even then, he got killed by a glory-hunter, some kid who wanted to make a name for himself. Wyatt Earp is still engaged in a game of revenge for the shooting of his brother Virgil and the murder of his brother Morgan. A kid named William Bonney – better known as Billy the Kid – watched his boss, John Tunstall, get shot by the henchmen of his enemies, Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan, beginning what has become known as the
Chris smiled wryly. “Bob Ford shot outlaw Jesse James in 1882 when I was ten years old. I still remember the headlines on the newspaper in
“Well, it wasn’t Soapy Smith, like some of his followers would have us believe,” Si chuckled, “but it was one of James’ cousins. And it was while Soapy engaged in petty economic battles with Ford in
He puffed on his cigar. “All of us are still a target, and not necessarily at the hand of Turner Jackson, a man who went to prison for the assault of special officer J. M. Tanner.”
Si paused before proceeding. “Jesse Murphy, the real killer of Soapy Smith, and I are much more worried about a glory-seeker than Turner Jackson.”
“Aces and eights,” Chris observed after a moment of reflection.
Si nodded, puffing on what little was left of his Odero. “Leave us out of the story, Chris. Tell it the Chamber of Commerce’s way. One con man. One martyr. No gang to round up. No heroes that cleaned up a town. No questions about who shot who. We’ll all rest better at night.”
They both watched puffs of smoke rise to the ceiling.
“Too bad,” Chris observed. “Your horse, Buck, would have made a great charging stallion.”
Si chuckled. “Ah well. Better an unsung hero, than a dead one.”
“Amen,” Chris agreed. He raised his coffee cup. “To unsung heroes,” he said and toasted the man standing across the bar from him.
SATURDAY, AUGUST 12, 1905 (six weeks later). “The last public display of ‘Soapy’s power was on the Fourth of July, when as marshal of the day, he rode at the head of the parade. All the gang with its aiders and admirers and the weaker-kneed business men who feared to offend the uncrowned king by absence, had prominent positions in the line.”
The crowd in The Pack Train broke into uproarious laughter. That particular paragraph never failed to bring the boys to their knees. Chris couldn’t help himself. He let one side of his mouth slide up into a lopsided grin.
He glanced over the heads of the Saturday night crowd and noticed Tanner standing by the bar. When had the judge taken to coming in on a weekend night? On a “Tragedy” night? The guys had gotten so they liked Chris to read from his recently published booklet, The “Soapy” Smith Tragedy. Chris had to admit it had become a resounding success, the way he’d buried all the political innuendo about cowtowing merchants who wouldn’t take a stand with the Committee of 101 that spring of ’98, the ones who wouldn’t fight the railroad on the issue of the right-of-way down Broadway, and the lawsuit against the
He handed the little booklet over to Martin Itjen, knowing the born entertainer would rather be reading with his tongue firmly imbedded in his cheek, as the story demanded. He pulled up a couple of drafts of beer and headed for Si.
“Smith was uncrowned king of
“That’s how Harry Suydam told the story,” Chris agreed, settling into a chair at a small table by the darkened front window. “In his big story for Leslie Frank’s Popular Magazine, about four years ago, now.”
Si frowned into his beer. “This is getting out of hand, you realize. The more glory you give Frank, the worse you have to make Smith look. He’ll go down into history as a something more important than he was.”
“Ah, come on, Si. It’s a joke. Everyone knows Smith dangled along at the end of that parade, leading a couple of dozen of his own crooks pretending to be Alaska Guards, with his scrawny eagle in a cage and Johnny Brooks following along with half a dozen skinny pack mules. That letter he got from the White House secretary ‘thanking’ him for signing up his own men to be an
“Little books full of pictures have a habit of becoming history. You write something like that down, twenty, thirty years from now someone’s gonna’ believe you.”
That really made Chris laugh. “Newspapers will prove them wrong. Folks’ll see for themselves that Smith was at the end of the parade, that Charlie Everest was up front and Judge Sehlbrede gave the best speech of his career, and Governor Brady just mumbled a few words about how successful Skagway's become. People won’t soon forget a rousing talk like those.”
Si narrowed his eyes and glared at the owner of the Pack Train. Through the fog of the tobacco smoke came the sounds of laughter.
Martin’s voice cut through the silence that followed. “That said wound was the result of a pistol shot fired by one Frank H. Reid.”
“You see, I gave him the credit you wanted him to have,” Chris pointed out.
“They don’t believe it, not the way you tell the story,” Tanner growled. “They consider the source and know you’re funnin’them.”
“They’re not arguing,” Chris pointed out. He was right. Not a chuckle or snigger be heard from the crowd.
“That such shooting on the part of the said Reid was in self-defense, and in the opinion of this jury entirely justifiable,” Itjen continued.
The room sat silence. Apparently the boys in the bar agreed with the pronouncement of the coroner’s jury.
“See?” Chris whispered to the judge.
Martin took up the tale again. “The Honorable Jefferson Randolph Smith, the free hearted ‘Soapy,’ the generous good fellow and acknowledged leader of the town, worshiped by his gang, courted by the business people and tolerated by everybody, had none to do him honor when he fell. Many of his most servile courtiers were immediately in evidence in displaying guns and loudly proclaiming their determination to aid in rooting out the gang.” Sarcasm oozed from his voice. Not a man in the house missed the fact that every word meant the opposite of what was said.
The moment of sobriety left the crowd in the Pack Train, and the boys fell into another round of hearty laughter.
“You’ll turn him into a legend, Shea.”
“That’s what you wanted for Frank, isn’t it? We all liked Frank. He gave us
“It’s not Frank I’m talking about.”
With that, Tanner drained off his mug of beer, deliberately set it back on the table, stood up, and left the Pack Train, a look of absolute disgust on his face.