The Medicine Show Murders by John A. Miller, Jr. by John A. Miller, Jr. - Read Online



A body falls off a train during a heavy downpour near Tucson, Arizona in late January of 1895. As the rain ends, the wagons of a traveling medicine show arrive in town with performers to entertain and a doctor of questionable credentials to peddle his wares.

Pima Gallagher, a detective for the Southern Pacific Railroad, assisted, or at least she thinks so, by Scout Walker, his eleven-year-old stepdaughter, try to learn the identity of the corpse and whether its sudden appearance has anything to do with the nearly simultaneous arrival of Dr. Blenheim’s show. Meanwhile, Pima’s brother and sister, back in his home state of Mississippi, are causing him a great deal of concern with their letters about brother Jefferson’s deteriorating health.

Eventually things come to a satisfactory conclusion, but not before more murder and mayhem manage to put Pima and Scout in fear for their lives in the mountains and desert areas between Tucson and Phoenix.

Published: John A. Miller, Jr. on
ISBN: 9781465978462
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The Medicine Show Murders - John A. Miller, Jr.

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First Symptoms

A mournful whistle escaped the powerful locomotive as it chugged southeastward through the darkness along the desert track, although many observers would have wondered about the appropriateness of the term desert because heavy rain was busily turning the beige, sandy soil into mud. Behind the engine, which was clearly labeled as belonging to the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, stretched a string of boxcars and flatcars, some heavily laden with the output of American industry and ingenuity, others conspicuously empty of everything except for, in a few cases, examples of the flotsam and jetsam of human life. Most of these forlorn representatives of humankind huddled in the dark corners of empty boxcars, doors slid shut to provide minimal protection against the damp chill of the Arizona winter. Some had been fortunate enough to hitch their rides in accommodations that featured the relative luxury of leftover piles of straw, straw that had been used as packing and cushioning materials for earlier, revenue-generating loads but that now served to provide limited amounts of solace, warmth, and comfort to the present contingent of non-paying passengers.

The engineer, pulling his whistle cord diligently each time his vehicle approached the crossing of a desert roadway or trail in order to warn off any soul foolhardy enough to be out on such a miserable night, peered ahead at the gloomy twin strands of steel, barely illuminated by the beam from the shiny-reflectored headlamp. Even on such a night not fit for man nor beast he had to remain alert for cattle that might have strayed onto the tracks or for damaged roadbeds or stream crossings that could precipitate him, his iron steed, and his entire cargo, human and otherwise, into a trackside ditch or off a bridge into one of the overflowing torrents that were attempting to undermine the pilings of each such crossing. On this particular line man was currently holding the forces of nature at bay, but nature most definitely was not acknowledging defeat.

Because of the darkness and the rain it was impossible to make out the grandeur of the encircling mountains as the train approached the thriving town of Tucson, a community at this time in 1895 of nearly seven thousand souls and one of the largest towns in the Arizona Territory. The engineer had traveled this road so many times he knew by instinct exactly when he passed each of the various mountain ranges and rock outcroppings that jutted from the great intermountain plains of southern Arizona. At this point he knew that just to his left lay the arrowhead of the western part of the Santa Catalinas, a range that soared over a mile and a quarter above the half-mile high plain, and off to his right were the beginnings of the much lower Tucson Mountains, although their saw-toothed peaks gave them a certain dramatic interest, especially when silhouetted against the frequent brilliant sunsets.

As the train chugged across the trestle that carried the rails above the raging stream in the Cañada del Oro wash the engineer could feel an unusual shaking and unsteadiness that, for a moment, unnerved him. He could visualize the bridge collapsing and, in a manner of speaking, sinking his train with all hands (he was an avid reader of seafaring stories and tended to apply the terminology that permeated such epics to the non-nautical aspects of his life as well). He made a mental note to alert the authorities at the depot in Tucson that repairs would be necessary as soon as the weather let up.

A short distance south of the suspect crossing the powerful engine embarked on another elevated journey, this time across the bridge that traversed the rain-swollen Rillito River. Here the engineer was relieved to feel no untoward vibrations as they proceeded. It wasn’t until the engine had regained the relative comfort of solid ground that it lurched suddenly, nearly throwing the engineer off his feet, and then steadied again on the last leg of its voyage toward Tucson. He decided one of the plates that stiffened the joint between two sections of rail had bent or some anchoring spikes had worked their way out of the ties. In either case it was a problem that would have to be seen to, although the bridge repairs obviously were much more critical—track repairs were relatively easy but a washed-out bridge could shut down the whole operation for several days or more.

Because of the darkness and the downpour no railroad employee was witness to a curious incident that occurred at the same moment that a certain boxcar passed over the point where it, too, gave a sudden lurch. From the wide-open doorway of this less-than-luxurious carriage a silent, dark, oblong object hurtled out into the night and landed on the embankment that elevated the trackage above the surrounding desert. Except for the rumbling and clacking of the wheels as each car passed by and the incessant patter of the rain on the hard desert soil there was no other sound to disturb the scene, and eventually, as the train continued on its journey, only the patter of the rain remained. The dark object lay still, pointing away from the rails and toward the bottom of the slope.

** ** **

Not too many minutes later a boxcar door slowly slid open as the train drew to a halt in Tucson to take on coal and water. While the crew members, heads bent to avoid the heavy downpour, hurried through their tasks a young man led a saddled horse off the opposite side of the train onto the unoccupied freight platform. Quickly he mounted and, giving a soft clucking sound with his tongue, urged the animal away from the stopped freight and into the muddy street. In the background other figures furtively crawled from their hiding places under and inside the boxcars and scurried off into the wet darkness, although none other was fortunate enough to have any more exotic transportation than shoe leather.

Appearing oblivious to the intense storm the rider continued along his chosen route until he spied an overhang at the side of a dark building that provided some shelter from the driving rain. Here he drew in, thereby sparing himself and his horse from some additional discomfort, although both were already as wet as it is possible to be without being actually submerged in water. The man dismounted and stood beside his animal, which nickered softly and then was silent.

The Pallor of Death

Elizabeth Mary Walker, Scout as she preferred to be called, scowled out of the parlor window at the cold rain streaming steadily from the leaden Arizona sky. This was the second day of a torrential downpour, unusual but not unheard of weather during late January in Tucson, but Scout would have preferred to be out in the bright desert sunshine riding her pinto, Apache, a gift from her late father before he had been killed several years before. She would not have minded the rain so much if this had been a school day, but it was Saturday and her new stepfather, Pima Gallagher, had offered to take her to sharpen her shooting skills. However, with this rain it was no weather to be going down to the Santa Cruz River and setting up cans and bottles for target practice.

Scout, who had been given her nickname by Pima because the name her mother had always called her, Betsy, was the same as that of Pima’s horse, was eleven years old—actually just over midway between her eleventh and twelfth birthdays. She had short blond hair, a pretty face, and a petite build, although she agreed with her mother, Ellen Gallagher, that she was beginning to grow out of her clothes and to develop a woman’s figure. The girl wore cowboy attire whenever possible: jeans, boots, a plaid shirt, and a broad-brimmed hat, but her mother insisted she wear a dress to school, something Scout really hated to do. For one thing she considered dresses an embarrassment because whenever she ran or climbed the boys could see her drawers, and for another she liked to wear boys’ clothes because she was determined to succeed in a traditionally male occupation when she grew up, the same as that of her stepfather: detective. A few months before, she had even helped Pima solve a major case for which some of the adults in town, including Henry Blystone the sheriff, still praised her courage. It was shortly after that case that her mother had finally married Pima, something for which Scout had been hoping for several months. Oh, she had loved her real father, although his memory was becoming more and more faded by the mists of time as the years passed, but she loved Pima, too.

Today Scout had been hoping to get in more practice with the revolver. She was already a good shot with a rifle, which Pima had begun teaching her the previous summer, but she wanted to become proficient with all firearms, especially because of her choice of careers. The first time she had ever fired a revolver she had managed to save her own life and capture two dangerous outlaws at the same time.

At least times weren’t as difficult financially as they had been before her mother and Pima had married. Before that, Ellen Walker had been forced to take in boarders—Pima was the last—and sew for a dress shop to support herself and her daughter. In those days luxuries had been non-existent. Now the days of running a boarding house were behind them, and Ellen, although she still worked for the dress shop, was planning to open her own in partnership with a close friend, Maria Gonzales.

Pima had not yet returned from the Southern Pacific Railroad depot where he maintained an office. Although his official working hours were erratic because of the nature of his job, he liked to keep the office open Saturday mornings, especially when there was rail traffic coming through. Pima always had to be on the alert for potential criminal activity. There had not been a successful train robbery on the Southern Pacific for several years although a silver shipment Pima had been guarding while it was temporarily stored in Tucson the previous summer had been stolen and almost immediately recovered by Pima and Sheriff Blystone. Now there were rumors that a new gang was operating in the Arizona Territory.

Scout worked part-time for Pima at his office writing letters, taking notes, and keeping his files up to date. She knew enough to keep her mouth shut about any shipments of valuables, but she also worried sometimes about the danger of holdup. She always worried during particularly dangerous situations that something might happen to Pima. She had already lost one father because of violence—he had been a teller in a bank and had been killed when it was held up—and she did not want to lose another.

The rain splattered against the thick adobe walls of the house. Fortunately the minerals in the Arizona soil made the adobe almost impervious to rain, thus eliminating the need for extensive repairs after the two annual rainy seasons of the Sonoran Desert. There was always some mild erosion but that was easy to patch. The house, plus a small stable in the back, sprawled across a piece of land just three blocks from Pima’s office in the railroad depot. The house itself consisted of a large parlor and dining area in the center with a kitchen and three bedrooms opening off it in a rather unusual pattern. Definitely the house was not coveted by any of the more affluent citizens of Tucson, most of whom lived in large, wooden, Victorian-style dwellings in a fancier area of town several blocks to the west. Currently the stable was occupied only by Pima’s and Scout’s horses, Betsy and Apache, although Pima had hinted he might be able to buy a buckboard and pair of horses to draw it at a very reasonable price in the near future.

Just then the outside door opened and a tall, muscular, young-looking man with light-brown hair and mustache entered, shaking water off his poncho as he came. Miserable day, Pima said. Ain’t fit weather for man nor beast out there. A freight stopped this mornin’ and the engineer told me the tracks don’t look too good up near Cañada del Oro; the water’s risin’ pretty fast up there. Cañada del Oro was a large, normally dry, creek that flowed southwestward along the northern and western slopes of the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson and then eventually into the Santa Cruz River.

Where’s your ma? Pima asked.

She had to go downtown to the dress shop to pick up some material and some orders, Scout replied.

Sorry we couldn’t go shootin’ today, little gal, but I don’t think this would be the best weather for it.

I know. I’m sorry, too. I’m bored.

With that there came a loud knock at the door. Pima turned and opened it to discover Henry Blystone, rain gushing from his hat, standing outside.

Come in, Henry, before you drown, Pima said.

The five-foot-four-inch sheriff, nearly ten inches shorter than Pima, stepped into the room and quickly shut the door behind him. He shook the excess water off his poncho and said, Pima, I’m going to need your help. A cowboy on his way into town found a body just this side of the railroad bridge that crosses the Rillito River, and he said it looks like it may have fallen off a train. He didn’t try to bring the body into town with him because his horse was a bit lame, and he didn’t want to carry the extra weight in this weather. We’d better get out there to pick up the body and see what we can learn. If it did fall off a train, that’s something you should know about.

I’ll be right with you, Sheriff. First, Scout, is there any coffee in that pot?

Yes, I just made it.

Good. You’d better pour a cup for me and Henry. That’ll warm us up before we set out in this cold rain.

Henry said, Dick Lester started out that way already with the wagon, but he’ll have to move pretty slow so we shouldn’t have any trouble catching up with him. Dick Lester was a Tucson policeman and part-time sheriff’s deputy who worked closely with Henry.

As she poured cups of steaming coffee for the two men and herself, Scout asked, Pima, can I go with you? It would help me to see how you work.

Well, Scout, I don’t know. I realize the sight of a dead body ain’t goin’ to bother you none, especially with all the ones you saw last summer, but you’re liable to take cold in this weather and then I’ll catch hell from your ma.

Oh, Pima, don’t worry about Ma. I can handle her. And I have a poncho and hat. I’ll stay as dry as you will.

Yep, and that ain’t very dry. Oh well, I reckon if I don’t take you along you’ll just follow us anyway. Better leave a note for your ma, though.

I will.

A few minutes later the three started their seven-mile ride northwestward along the Southern Pacific right-of-way toward the Rillito River crossing. Near the halfway point they caught up with Dick Lester, who was driving an open wagon along the road that bordered the tracks.

Desert shrubs, mainly creosote bushes, plus prickly pear cacti and palo verde trees, were the main vegetation in this area. All of them looked hopelessly out of place in the sodden ground with the rain dripping from their branches and spiny pads. An occasional saguaro gave the impression of a many-armed giant standing in the gloom by the roadside.

The rain continued undiminished in intensity, and the road was a mass of brown puddles. The wagon wheels and the horses’ legs were spattered with mud, and the animals didn’t appear to be too happy with their lot. Scout decided Pima was right—even with a good poncho and hat you didn’t stay very dry in this weather.

It took them more than an hour of steady, but slow, riding to reach the rain-swollen Rillito River. Normally a dry bed of sand and small stones, today the river was a wide, raging torrent several feet deep. Fortunately they wouldn’t have to cross it if the cowboy’s report were accurate. As they approached the railroad bridge—the dirt track they were following merely dipped into the river and climbed out on the other side—they saw a dark object, colorless in the gray light, lying on the embankment that separated the road from the raised railroad tracks. When they drew closer they could see it was a human body sprawled face down in the mud with its feet several feet away from the steel rails and its head farther down the embankment.

Before approaching the corpse Pima and Henry searched the area around it for footprints of any kind. There were some indentations in the mud on one side of the body, probably made by the cowboy who had reported it, but no other indications that anyone had been in the area since the rains began. It did appear that the person had fallen or been pushed from a passing train. Scout dismounted and walked closer as the two men rolled the body on its back. At first glance the mud-covered face appeared to be that of a slim, young, clean-shaven man with short brown hair. However, as the rain washed off the mud they noticed the soft, small features and the two small bulges that pushed up the chest of the sodden, plaid woolen shirt. This was the body of a girl or young woman.

With Dick Lester’s help they lifted the corpse into the wagon and covered it with a piece of canvas. Then, after a last look around to make sure they had not missed anything of importance, the small party began its slow journey back to town.

Initial Diagnosis

Old Doc Reilly came out of his surgery into the outer office, wiping his wet hands on a towel. A lighted lamp on a side table struggled feebly to dispel the afternoon gloom. She was strangled and was probably dead before she hit the ground. There was no sign of mud in her mouth or deep in her nostrils, which there would have been if she had still been breathing while lying face down in that mess.

How could you tell she was strangled? Scout asked.

You certainly have a morbid curiosity for a little girl. There were bruises around her neck where somebody’s fingers had been pressed hard. Her neck is pretty thin so it wouldn’t necessarily have had to be a man that did the strangling. Her face was scratched, too, especially on the nose, chin, and forehead, and I found a few splinters in the scratches. Anyway, it looks like a clear case of murder.

Can you tell how long she was dead? Pima asked.

It’s hard to tell with this damned cold rain, but I’d say several hours. Rigor mortis had already set in pretty well by the time you got her here.

What’s rigor mortis? was Scout’s next query.

When a person has been dead for several hours all the muscles get rigid. You may have noticed when they carried her off the wagon that she was as stiff as a board. After a few more hours, though, she’ll turn completely limp again. Tell me, girl, are you planning to be a doctor and put me out of business?

No, just a detective like Pima, came the reply.

Pima asked, How old would you say she was?

I’d say about sixteen or seventeen. It’s hard to tell. One thing you might find interesting, though. She was a good three months in the family way. For you, little girl, that means she was going to have a baby.

I know what being in the family way means, Scout said in an annoyed tone of voice. I’m not a baby, you know.

Well, I’m very sorry I offended you. I’m afraid some little girls aren’t as well informed as you are.

Doc, before we have her buried I’d like to have her photograph taken, Henry said. Do you think we could arrange for that?

I’ll get her body moved over to the funeral parlor. They’ll get her cleaned up, and then you can have the photographer see her there, Doc Reilly replied.

** ** **

After they left the doctor’s office Pima, Scout, and Henry walked to the sheriff’s office to discuss the case. It was still raining although the intensity had diminished, and Henry had lit a fire in the pot-bellied stove to drive away the chill dampness. On top of the stove sat a large coffee pot from which Henry poured them each a mug of inky black liquid.

My God, Henry, this stuff would remove rust, Pima said with a grimace after he took a sip of the coffee.

Scout took a drink from her mug and also made a face at Henry.

You two are softies. That’s good coffee. It ain’t at its best till it’s been boiled for a few hours.

Tastes more like it’s been boilin’ for a few days, Pima said. Anyway, what do we do now?

Danged if I know. I certainly ain’t ever seen her around town before. Have either of you?

Both Scout and Pima shook their heads to indicate they had not.

Henry continued, I suppose the first thing will be to see what trains have come through in the past twenty-four hours or so. Unless that cowboy who told us about her planted the body there himself, and I can’t imagine why he would have, then she was strangled on a train and pushed or thrown off onto the embankment. I think maybe whoever did it might have been trying to get the body into the river but pushed her out either too early or too late.

What do you mean, too early or too late? Scout asked.

It all depends on which way the train was movin’, Pima explained. "Because the body was south of the bridge if the train was an eastbound, which means it would have been goin’ southeast right through there, she was pushed out too late to land in the river, and if it was a westbound it was too early. If it hadn’t been rainin’ so damned hard, we could probably have seen some marks where the body skidded that would have shown us which way it was movin’ when it hit the ground, but with it layin’ there so long in this heavy rain all those marks were washed away.

"I’ll go on back to my office and talk to the station master about what came through in the past day. I may wind up havin’ to take that picture to some of the other stations on the line to see if anybody recognizes her.

Come on, Scout, finish your coffee and let’s get to work. Henry, I think I’ve figured out a use for this stuff, Pima said as he took a final gulp from his coffee mug. You should bottle it and sell it for horse liniment.

** ** **

Pima and Scout returned to Pima’s office in the railroad depot where Pima consulted the station master’s log of what had gone through Tucson in the past twenty-four hours. Westbound there had been one freight and one passenger train, and eastbound there had been two freights and also one passenger train. Nothing unusual had been reported in Tucson by any of the eastbound crews except for their concern about the stability of the bridge over the Cañada del Oro wash, which was approximately a mile northwest of the bridge over the Rillito River where the body had been discovered. Upon inquiry by telegram to the stations to the northwest he discovered there were no reports of any unusual occurrences by the westbound crews, either. He did send telegrams with the girl’s description to various newspapers in nearby cities and towns,