The Virginia City office of the Overland Stage Company was noisy & crowded. It smelled of spittoons & sweat & cigars. Pa and Mr. Ray G. Tempest were standing behind a counter and I was standing behind them. It was just past ten o’clock. We were waiting to see the owner so we could tell him our clever Plan.
Behind me, a woman’s hoop skirt nudged me up against pa so that his brown woolen greatcoat tickled my nose. Now that the road out of Virginia was passable, there were a lot of folk wanting tickets for the stagecoach.
‘We have an appointment with Mr. V.V. Bletchley,’ said Ray to someone on the other side of the counter. ‘We are Pinkerton detectives.’
‘I will see if he is ready for you,’ said an Irish Accent.
I could not see over the counter, so while we were waiting, I read a sign on the wall:
Overland Company Rules for Stagecoach Passengers
1. Do not to jab people with your elbows or jostle them with your knees.
2. Do not talk to other passengers if you have not been introduced.
3. Do not discuss Politics or Religion.
4. Do not wear strong-smelling toilette water or pomade.
5. Do not smoke a strong-smelling pipe or cigar.
6. If you must spit or vomit, do so out of the window. (On the leeward side.)
7. Do not stare fixedly at the other people in the stagecoach.
8. Do not drink whiskey or other spirituous beverages.
9. Do not lean upon your neighbors when sleeping.
10. Do not point out where murders, robberies and/or grisly stagecoach crashes have occurred.
11. Do not discharge firearms. The noise might upset the passengers & spook the horses.
12. If the team runs away, sit still and take your chances. If you jump, nine out of ten times you will get hurt.
It was that last rule that worried me the most on account of my stagecoach-going-over-a-precipice nightmare. If Mr. V.V. Bletchley liked pa’s idea, I would soon be sitting atop a stagecoach. I wondered, if something spooked the team would I be better off jumping or sitting still?
An Irish accent broke into my thoughts. ‘Mr. V.V. Bletchley will see you now. Please follow me.’
‘Remember, Pinky,’ whispered my pa, ‘It is important ye act like a girly-girl.’
I followed Pa and Ray around the counter. I practiced taking dainty half-steps. We went past some desks and along an echoing corridor. The clerk opened a door and stood back to let us enter.
I followed pa in & was about to close the door with a backward kick but remembered just in time & gently closed it with my gloved hand instead.
‘Please be seated, gentlemen,’ said a plump man behind a desk without looking up. He had some .36 caliber balls & powder & lint & caps laid out on the blotter of his desk & he was loading a revolver. I observed it was a Colt Pocket Navy. It is like the Normal Navy only it has a shorter barrel and the cylinder holds five balls, not six.
There were two chairs in front of the big maple desk and a small red velvet stool over by the window. My pa brought the stool and set it between the chairs and we all sat down with me in the middle.
The man still had his head down as he concentrated on putting little brass caps on nipples. I could see he had a few strands of black hair pasted over his bald head.
At last he finished loading his five-shooter & looked up.
I sometimes find it hard to remember people’s faces and names, which can be a handicap when you are a detective, but Mr. V.V. Bletchley’s face and name would be easy to remember. His cheeks were blotchy, which sounds like Bletchley.
‘Who is this?’ he said when he saw me sitting between the two operatives. His voice sounded clotted & thick, like porridge.
‘This is me wee lassie,’ said Pa. ‘Say hello, Prudence.’
‘How do you do?’ I said in my little girl voice. I half rose from my stool to make a curtsy.
‘Charming,’ said Mr. V.V. Bletchley. ‘Her mother must have been quite lovely. Mexican, I’d guess, like my wife. And who are you?’
‘I am Robert Pinkerton, founder of the world-renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency. This here is Ray G. Tempest, one of our finest operatives.’
They both opened their greatcoats to show the detective buttons on their coat lapels. Mr. V.V. Bletchley’s eyebrows went up.
‘Pinkertons!’ he exclaimed. ‘What are you doing this far west?’
Ray said, ‘We are on the trail of some “Reb Road Agents” who have been robbing stagecoaches in Utah Territory. They have recently moved their base west to the Sierra Nevada Mountains.’
‘I’ve heard of them,’ said Mr. V.V. Bletchley.
Ray said, ‘We believe they will be lying in wait for your next silver shipment to Sacramento.’
‘Where did you get this information, sir?’ Bletchley’s blotchy face had gone a shade lighter.
‘We cannot reveal our source as it might endanger the life of one of our undercover operatives,’ continued Ray. ‘But we have an idea of how to safeguard the silver and hopefully catch those bandits.’
‘Gentlemen,’ said Bletchley, ‘you have my full attention.’
‘A stagecoach leaving Salt Lake City was robbed last month and a female passenger gave us valuable information about these so-called Reb Road Agents,’ continued Ray. ‘She said the only thing they stole from her was a kiss on account of they do not rob stages with women nor children, but only those carrying gold and silver and Fat Cats. The woman’s little girl was on the stage with her and one of the Reb Road agents bounced her on his knee. He said they would not harm a hair of her head as they both had a little girls of their own.’
‘I was not aware of that incident,’ said Bletchley. ‘Nor of their fondness for women and children.’
‘This is our plan,’ continued Ray. ‘We suggest a trap. Put your best driver and your fiercest-looking conductor on top of a vehicle well-suited for transporting valuables. However, instead of silver it will hold your bravest guards. The bandits will see that heavy-laden coach and naturally assume it carries the big silver shipment. When they tell you to “stand and deliver”, your guards will spring forth and apprehend them. No passengers will be hurt, no silver stolen. As those Reb Road Agents are being clapped in irons,’ he concluded, ‘the genuine silver shipment will pass by on a second stagecoach, which will appear to be a harmless passenger stage.’
Mr. V.V. Bletchley pursed his lips. Then he nodded. ‘That is a bully idea,’ he said. ‘Simple yet effective. Let me put it to one of my drivers and one of my conductors.’ He struck a little brass hand bell on his desk: Ding!
The clerk came in.
Bletchley said, ‘What drivers and conductors have we got available at the moment?’
‘Almost all of em,’ said the clerk. ‘Blue, Calloway, Prince and Burns. Oh, and Dizzy just came in.’
‘Send in Blue and Dizzy.’
While we waited, Bletchley turned to me. ‘I would offer you coffee but it is cold and black.’
I was going to say that was my preferred method of drinking it but I remembered I was supposed to be a girly-girl so I replied, ‘I will be grateful for it, however it comes.’
Bletchley stood up, went to a sideboard, poured black coffee into a china cup with matching saucer & put it on the desk before me.
I lifted the cup to my lips, careful to keep my little finger crooked as I took a dainty sip.
Mr. V.V. Bletchley went back to the sideboard. ‘Whiskey, gentlemen?’ he said, lifting a cut glass decanter half full of amber liquid.
‘I dinna drink,’ said my pa.
But Ray nodded. ‘I ain’t teetotal. I will have one.’
As Bletchley was pouring whiskey the door opened and two men came in. One of them was known to me on account of he was an albino with skin as white as a corpse’s & stubbly snow-white beard & little round dark-blue goggles. Folk hereabouts called him ‘Icy’ because of his icy skin color and his initials, which are I.C.
I like people with such distinctive looks; I do not forget them like I do with ordinary people.
The man who followed Mr. Icy Blue into the office was unknown to me. He was short & tubby with a snub nose and stubble on his chin. He wore a floppy gray slouch hat with the front brim folded back & pinned to its dented crown. His faded flannel shirt showed me a glimpse of his undergarments where some buttons were missing at the belly.
When he saw me sitting there he snatched off his hat & sucked in his gut. ‘Beg pardon, Miss,’ he said. ‘I do not mean to exhibit my unmentionables but my dinner done popped the buttons of my shirt.’
Mr. V.V. Bletchley pointed to the man with blue goggles. ‘Mr. Isaac C. Blue here is a conductor.’ To me he said, ‘The “conductor” is what you might call the captain of the stagecoach, for he takes charge of the passengers & goods and protects them with his shotgun. For that reason the conductor is often called the “Shotgun”.’
I knew all this but I was pretending to be a girly-girl so I just nodded politely and tried to make my eyes big & round.
He smiled at me and then pointed to the tubby man. ‘Mr. Davey Scrubbs there goes by the name of “Dizzy”. He is one of our best drivers. Sometimes we call the driver the “Whip” because of the big black whip they hold.’
‘They call the whip a “black snake”,’ explained Dizzy. ‘And whipping the horses is called “black-snaking”.’
I covered my mouth with both hands, the way I had seen Bee do sometimes. ‘Does it hurt the horses?’ I asked in my girly-girl voice.
‘Nah!’ chuckled Dizzy. ‘It only makes a loud crack, like a gunshot. That is what gets em running. A good “Whip” will not even touch them horses,’ he added.
‘Dizzy,’ said Mr. V.V. Bletchley, ‘What would you say if I asked you to take the big silver shipment over the mountains to Sacramento this very afternoon and put it on the steamboat to Frisco?’
Dizzy was so surprised that he swallowed his chaw of tobacco. He coughed & then stood up a little straighter. ‘You never asked me to do that before, boss,’ he said. ‘I would not like to be responsible for that much silver. You know I cannot shoot worth beans.’
‘You don’t have to worry,’ said Ray. ‘One of us will be your conductor and ride shotgun with you, and the other will ride close by for extra protection, just in case. But you probably won’t even see the Reb Road Agents as the decoy stage will be a few miles ahead of you.’
‘Decoy stage?’ said the albino with blue goggles.
‘Just so,’ said Bletchley, turning to him. ‘Would you be willing to take a coach full of armed men in order to apprehend those robbers lurking up in the Sierra Nevada?’
Icy nodded. ‘I would relish the chance to meet those varmints,’ he growled. ‘I am ready to send those goddam road agents to h-ll.’
‘I thought as much,’ said Bletchley. He smiled at Dizzy. ‘So you see? There should be no danger. Icy here will be the bait so you can drive your coach full of silver right on past those Reb Road agents as he is clapping them in irons.’
‘But what if they miss spotting that decoy coach and spy me in a low-slung coach all groaning with silver,’ said Dizzy.
Pa said, ‘We have thought of that. We have an ace in the hand: my wee daughter Prudence!’
Mr. Bletchley looked at Pa and then at me. ‘What do you mean?’
Ray said, ‘Like we told you, we know that those Reb Road agents have a soft spot for little girls.’ He turned to Dizzy. ‘Therefore, we intend to get Prudence here to pretend to be your young niece and ride atop the stagecoach in a prominent position.’
‘What, sir?’ cried Bletchley. ‘You would put your own child at risk for the sake of a little silver? Why, that is monstrous! I could not live with myself if a hair of this sweet little girl should be harmed and I cannot believe you would be willing to put her in danger.’
I looked at Pa and he looked at me.
I was not sure exactly what had just happened but I think it was this: I had girly-girled myself right out of a job!
The Case of the Bogus Detective by Caroline Lawrence is the fourth P.K. Pinkerton Mystery. You can buy the first 3 real cheap HERE. And you can read the rest of this one HERE. Or just check into this blog, where I will be posting chapters weekly!