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chapter 1
 He was a big man, broad of shoulder, slim of hip. His Stetson was crimped Texas-style, over slate-gray eyes that impassively had seen much good and more evil in their twenty-six years. He stood in the saloon door with the dust of the streets of Dos Cervezas Pequenas still swirling about scuffed, range-rider's chaps. His left hand held open the weatherbeaten swinging door. The right hovered over the worn peachwood butt of the Colt holstered on his right thigh.
The slate-gray eyes, emotionless, swept the crowd bellied up to the bar, and stopped at one man. When he spoke it was flat, but with the ring of tempered steel, and every man but that one drew back out of range. "I want you, Dirty Jake," the big man said. "Now."
Dirty Jake shot him into doll rags, naturally.
Dirty Jake Niedelmeier was, you might say, the most feared ribbon clerk in the Territory. Easily the most.
I remember him from the early days, from the first day he came to town, in fact. I remember because he got off the stage just as I was leaning out the window nailing up my brand-new shingle, and my office was and still is upstairs next to the stage depot. I was down on the boardwalk admiring it, all shiny gold leaf on black like the correspondence school promised:
Hiram Pertwee, M.D.
His voice broke in on me, all squeaky. "Beg your pardon," he said, "where's the YMCA?"
Well, that isn't the usual sort of question for here. I turned around. There he was, a scrawny little runt about knee-high to short, wearing a panama hat, a wrinkled linen duster and Congress gaiters.
He wasn't especially dirty then, of course, only about average for a stage passenger. He kind of begrudged his face, with little squint eyes and a long thin nose, a mustache like a hank of Spanish moss and just about chin enough to bother shaving. Under his duster he wore a clawhammer coat, the only alpaca one I ever saw, and I never from that day out saw him wear any other. He stood there looking like he'd never been anyplace he really cottoned to, but this might just be the worst.
I was just a young squirt then and not above funning a dude. I told him the YMCA was around the corner, two doors down and up the back stairs at the Owl Hoot Palace. He nodded and went the way I told him.
That was, and still is, Kate's Four Bit Crib. The girls there wear candy-striped stockings and skirts halfway to the knee, and their shirtwaists are open at the neck. Dirty Jake didn't speak to me for three years.
He wasn't Dirty Jake then, though, just Jacob Niedelmeier, fresh from selling ribbons and yard goods in Perth Amboy, New Jersey and hot to find a fortune in the hills. He'd been a failure all his natural life. This was a new beginning, for a man 34 who was already at the bitter end and looking for the path back. Gold was the way, he figured. He was going to get it.
But he didn't. He was back flat broke and starving in four months.
He spent the next seventeen years behind the notions counter at Martin's Mercantile, selling ribbon and yard goods and growing old two years at a time. I think it tainted his mind.
Leastways, from the time I got to know him, some fourteen years gone, he's been what you might say, a queer actor. At first, when the store closed at sundown he'd take off for the near hills with a pick and a sack, still seeking for color somebody might have missed. After a while he didn't bother with the gear. He just moseyed around all that rock mostly, I suppose, to be away from people.
Truth to tell, people were beginning to avoid him anyway. He was getting kind of gamy over the years, and cantankerous generally.
Maybe it's kind of funny we got more or less friendly but doctors and ribbon clerks aren't so all-fired far apart. They both have to do with people and their ways, and like to get shut of both now and then. Every couple of months I'd go along with him up in the hills, to get the sick smell out of my nose. Night air and a night sky can be pretty fine if you've been looking at tongues and such long enough.
Going out like that, we didn't say much. I preferred it that way since Jake Niedelmeier was a boob.
A smart man can get on tolerably well with an idiot if both just have sense enough to keep their mouths shut. One time he didn't was when he brought along a bottle of rye. He got started and was going on to beat the band, yapping about how life was a cheat and someday everybody'd respect Jacob Niedelmeier, until finally I lost patience and told him that while I treasured our association beyond pearls I'd chuck him off a cliff if he didn't shut the hell up. I was nice about it, and after that it was like I said, tolerable.
Well, sir, about two years ago he came into my office while I was darning up some fool borax miner that'd got himself kicked square in the bottle on his hip. Jake stood in the corner picking his teeth while I finished. After the borax miner limped out he spoke up.
"Comin'?" That was all the invitation he ever gave.
"I guess," I said. I sloshed the suture needle in a basin, gave it a couple of swipes on the hone stone and threw it in my satchel. That miner had a tough rind.
Jake went out first. I closed the door behind us, not locking it, of course, because our night marshal was kind of my relief surgeon whenever I was on calls. He was a Secesh hospital orderly during the Rebellion. He was better with a saw than with sewing, but he could tie up most wounds well enough to do till I got back.
Jake and I set out south up the mountain trail, but pretty soon it hit me he was heading someplace considerable more directly than we usually did.
Sure enough, he took off at an angle from the trail after a bit. We struck up into some fairly woolly country. He wasn't following any sign I could see, at least not by moonlight, but he kept going faster until I was plumb out of wind.
We were in the hills overlooking Crater Lake when we came to kind of an amphitheater in the rocks, some twenty feet across. He stopped at the edge of it and stood staring in, silent and breathing catchy.
Me, I just chased my own breath for a while, then looked too and saw what he was aiming at. Right in the middle, shining pale in the moonshine like nothing else does, was a pile of old, old bones. Jake, I saw, had seen it before. It was scaring him yet.
Old bones, sir, are still bones. I've seen and set my fill. But after I got a good look at these they scared me too.
There were four skeletons altogether, all nicely preserved, and only three of them were men. Indians, I mean. You could tell that from the shreds of buckskin. Two of them still had weapons near their right hands: one a stone knife, the other a lance. And the top of each of the three skulls had been shot clean away.
At least, half of the top had, and the same half on all three. Almost the entire os frontale and ossa parietalia on the left side was gone on each one. I hunkered down to see closer, while Jake stood back and shook.
I struck a sulphur match and saw something else about those three redskin skulls. The edges where the bone was gone weren't fractured clean like a bullet or a club would do. They were charred.
The three were sprawled around the fourth skeleton and that was the one gave me the vapors. It was more or less man-shaped. But it wasn't a man, that I know. I don't believe I care to find out what it was. Instead of ribs there was a cylinder of thin bone, and it had only one bone in the lower leg. What there was for a pelvis I've never seen the like, and the skull was straight out of a Dore Bible. There was a hatchet buried in that skull.
The bones of the right arm were good and hefty, and it had two elbows. The left arm was about half the size—not crippled, but smaller scale. Like it was good for delicate work and not much else.
About ten inches from the widespread six fingers of its right hand was what you knew right off was a weapon even if it did look like an umbrella handle.
I was just reaching down to touch it when that fool Jake made his move.
He'd been standing behind me, closer I bet than he'd ever got before, staring down at that fourth skeleton and making odd noises. I tell you, it was something for a medical man to see. Suddenly he grunted like he was going to be sick. He snatched up a femur from one of the Indians and swung it up to smash that fourth skeleton to smithereens.
Well, sir, quicker than the eye could see the umbrella handle smacked itself into the palm of that bony hand, sending fingers flying in six directions. It hung there in the air against what was left, trained dead on Jake's head, and it hummed.
The femur dropped from Jake's right hand like he'd been shot. He hadn't, though, because he was still wearing his skull and by that time running. Soon as he did, the umbrella handle flopped over and just lay there, the hum dying away.
When it stopped the place was pretty quiet, because Jake was off in the rocks and I was going over some things I wanted to say to him immediately I was able to talk again. That fourth skeleton had the fastest draw I'd ever seen.
Jake stuck his head up from behind a boulder. "Doc," he said, "why didn't he shoot?"
The question wasn't as all-fired pip-witted as Jake was capable of. It took me upwards of three weeks to work out why a weapon that could draw and aim itself didn't shoot too.
I'd heard a little clink when the weapon flew into the skeleton's hand. It came from a metal disk that lay in its palm, toward the heel of the hand.
The disk was thin and only about as big as a two-cent piece. A mate to it was set in the butt of the umbrella handle, convex where the other was concave.
Going at it kind of gingerly, I slid the disk in my vest behind my watch and put the umbrella handle in my right coat pocket.
It was a key-wind repeater with a gold hunting case, that watch, and I worried about it every step down the mountain. I walked a good four hundred yards behind Jake all the way back into town, just to be on the safe side. We didn't linger, either. We wanted lights.
By the time I got the two objects locked in my rolltop my heartbeat in anybody else would have had me telling the sexton to start his hole. I prescribed bed for me, told Jake, who hadn't hardly even drawn breath the whole time, to go to hell and retired.
Next day a squabble came up over some borax rights upcountry. I didn't get to open that rolltop for a time. Then one early morning coming back in the buggy from a house-call in Pockmark, forty-odd miles north, I got to worrying again at the umbrella handle and those dead Indians.
Seems like four, five times a week some chunkhead hunkers down hard with his spurs on. When I got to the office that night there was one waiting—a bad one, Spanish rowels—and Jake was sprawled in my chair, picking his teeth with my spare scalpel. I patched up the chunkhead, took the scalpel from Jake and rinsed it off and watched him suck his teeth for a while. It began to look like he was going to be stubborn. So finally I said: "Say, Jake."
He grunted. "Jake," I said, "I think I've got that dingus figured." He snuck a glance over at the desk so I knew he knew what I meant, but he was busy pretending that wasn't what he came to talk about.
"I think it's a gun that can read minds like a gypsy," I said. Jake still looked bored, so I took the umbrella handle out of the rolltop and waved it at him. He dove off the chair and started rolling for the door.
"You damn fool," I said, "it won't go off." I was reasonably certain it wouldn't, but I laid it back down by the disk gently anyhow and sat in the chair. I've only got the one chair, on the theory that anybody who isn't bad enough to lie on the table is well enough to stand. Jake edged over and stood like a short-legged bird on a bobwire fence. "It kin whut?" he said.
"It can read minds," I said. "You were going to bash those bones. The gun knew it and trained square on your head. You remember?"
He remembered. "And those Indians," I went on. "You remember them? The left side of the head on each of them was blown off."
I hauled down a roller chart of the human skeleton, first tim............
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