'A Wet-Plate Grifter'
By Phineas Redux
Summary:— Henrietta 'Harry' Knappe and Sally 'Snapshot' Nichols, lovers in 1870's Red Flume, Arizona Territory, USA, become involved in helping a female photographer explore the local vicinity for views and portraits.
Note:— Influenced by the 'Wolfville' stories of Alfred Henry Lewis.
Copyright:— All characters are copyright ©2018 to the author, and are wholly fictitious representations: the overall local geography may be questionable, too.
"She's a daguerreotype maker."
"That's one o'those people who make those picter's o'people, ain't it?" Sally showing away with her small knowledge of the subject. "Use one o'they camera's, don't they; an' take a deal o'time about gettin' back t'yer with the finished picter."
"O'which there's only one." Henrietta making free with her own grasp of the facts. "Cain't but ever make on'y one o'any daguerreotype. Yer wants a copy o'said picter, ye has ter go cap in hand t'the photographer an' plead fer another session in front o'the camera, an' another wait fer him ter make another picter, days later."
"Dam' time-consumin' business." Sally frowning under her wide-brimmed hat as they strolled along the covered sidewalk on the main street of Red Flume, Territory of Arizona, trying not to bump into too many of the passing citizens. "Makes yer wonder how anyone manages ter make a profit. Believes yer almost needs ter have a Doctorate in Science, ter be able t'mix all the necessary chemicals t'gether. Takes brains, thet."
"Oh, so yer wouldn't ever take up the job yerself, then, young 'un?" Henrietta grasping her chance when offered.
"Fool." Sally merely casting this ill-natured sarcasm aside with a sniff. "Where's the joint she's infestin', then? My feet are beginnin' ter hurt with all this traipsing aroun' town."
It was April in South-Western Arizona, which meant the weather was in no way visibly different from almost all other of the months, excepting perhaps December and January. The date was April 19th, 187-, to be exact, and the small township of Red Flume was vibrating with life. That is to say on the wide dirt main street two horsemen and a one-horse wagon were availing themselves of its dusty expanse; while on the sidewalks a desultory number of citizens wended their way from one, er, place to, er, another. Red Flume oftener than not, betimes, giving the impression of already sliding into the tenancy of a bona-fide ghost town.
"Roun' this corner, in Hutcheson St." Henrietta having previously extracted this information from unknown sources, as was her wont. "Believe she's set-up in ol' man Grierson's hardware store; him havin' kicked the bucket four months since."
As they threaded their way through Red Flume's rush-hour pedestrian traffic, which wasn't saying a great deal, the women presented a curious sight. Rather than long flowing skirts and blouses, they wore men's apparel of red and blue checked shirts, blue-jean trousers with heavy leather belts, and gunbelts housing some mighty powerful examples of the gunmaker's revolver arts. They each wore wide-brimmed hats and, from a distance, couldn't be recognised as members of their own sex. Henrietta, all the same, was renowned as the best bear hunter west of the Pecos, hitting any target at 800 yards with her Sharps' .50 rifle; while Sally, nickname 'Snapshot', held a reputation for being able to shoot the eye out of an ace of spades at sixty feet with her Smith and Wesson .38 revolvers.
"How d'you imagine she made it in'ta the photography grift t'start with?" Sally pursuing a train of thought which had exercised her mind since first hearing of the lady's occupation. "Cain't see it, myself."
"Must'a had an in, somewhere's along the line, stands ter reason." Henrietta applying all her immense reserves of pure logic to the matter. "Maybe someone's assistant t'begin with, who knows."
"What d'you suppose she wants with us, though?" Sally still frowning darkly. "Don't fancy havin' my picter took, y'know. Somethin', I don't know, supernatural about it, I reckons."
"Why'd ya say that, darlin'?"
"Well, look at any daguerreotype yersel', lady." Sally launched out on the ocean of her criticism. "Looks exactly like you're starin' in a lookin'-glass at yerself, don't it, apart from the lack of colour? Not a paintin' or pencil sketch or sich—but the dam' real thing, seemingly. How's thet possible? Must be some underhand, mystical trick t'it; an' I don't like same, dear, no-ways."
"Nonsense." Henrietta disposing of this childish outlook with contempt. "No magic to it, at all. Jest a mix o'fancy chemicals, a lot'ta light, an' the know-how t'put it all t'gether, an' make the dam' picter's all there is to it. Right, here we is,—after you."
The inside of the old hardware store looked more or less as it had in its previous occupier's time—a counter to the left-hand side, rows of shelves against the opposite wall, and a low long table taking up most of the middle floor space. To the rear a door led to further unknown regions; from which a middle-height brunette woman in a long dark dress came forward to greet the intruders.
"Hallo, you must be Miss Knappe and Miss Nichols, glad to meet you both; I'm Mary MacCloud."
"Hi'ya, Miss MacCloud." Sally stepping in blithely, as was her way. "Nice ter see ya. So, what's the grif—er, I mean, what'd ya like us t'do fer ye, then?"
Mary paused to examine her guests, taking note of their unusual apparel and the forthright straight gaze each was giving her in return.
"Ladies' who likes t'get down t'business right-off—I likes that." She stood aside to gesture to the door leading into the rear premises. "In here, if you will. My office and studio. We'll need to talk about, er, things; seeing as you both might not want to take up my offer, an' all."
The room they found themselves in was curious in several ways; apparently simply, in the previous tenant's time, a store-room, now it had had most of its roof taken off and replaced by flat glass panes, flooding the room with enormous amounts of light. On one side stood a table and fancy chair, backed by a large cloth or curtain as back-drop against the wall. In the forefront of the room stood a large tripod with an upended rectangular wood and metal box atop—the camera.
"So, thet there's a daguerreotype camera, eh?" Sally nodding wisely, wholly au fait with the situation. "Ain't seen one close-up afore; how does it work?"
"Well, t'start with it ain't a daguerreotype, it's a wet-plate camera." Mary turned to a shelf against the wall and picked something up, holding it flat for the women to inspect. "You see, just a thin piece of glass much like a small window-pane, with a thin wooden border like a picture-frame. We coat it with a wet sticky light sensitive mixture, put it in the camera, expose it, then go in the developing room to, er, do the rest of the business—chemicals and washes and so forth, y'know. It being imperative t'get it developed, as it's called, afore the mixture dries. End result, an image which can be copied from the original negative as many times as required. Daguerreotypes' cain't do that."
"What's a negative?" Henrietta speaking up, just to show she was listening if not quite understanding.
"When the camera takes the image of the subject, what develops later on the glass plate is that image, but with the tones reversed." Mary looked at her listeners, obviously wondering if she was wasting her breath. "All the blacks are white, an' all the whites is black; reversal of image, y'see. But never fear, when a copy on paper is taken it reverses again and the final photograph is positive; what you see in reality, as it were; except for the colour, of course."
"An' all this takes, what?" Sally pursing a dubious lip. "Masses o'fancy chemicals, the know-how t'use same, an' a grasp o'the gen'ral technicalities thet'd stun a Boston Professor? How'd y'do it, ma'am?"
Mary set the glass-plate down and laughed gently.
"Experience, is all, ladies." She turned to fiddle with some brass keys on the camera itself. "Was assistant to a photographer out of Philadelphia for two years. What he didn't know about the Art wasn't worth knowing. And so here I am. Now, you'll want to know the terms of business between us, I expect?"
"Depending, o'course, on exactly what's required o'us." Henrietta making plain the breadth of what she and Sally were willing to enter into. "Sort'a bodyguards, or gen'ral assistants, fer haulin' the heavy stuff about town, or somethin' similar?"
"We-el," Mary prevaricating in a suspicious manner to the experienced ladies before her. "slightly more than that. What I want to do, in fact, is broaden my horizons—broaden the horizons of the accepted content of photography up to this present time; and to do so I'll need your assistance."
Sally could see a dodgy deal with the best, and now proceeded to frown appallingly as she digested this explanation.
"What exactly d'yer mean, Miss?" Sally stepping close to glance over the camera herself. "Dam', this thing's as tall as I am, an' looks dam' heavy. Y'want we should haul it about town fer ye?"
"What I want is for you to haul it around most of the Territory for me." Mary sprang this mine with a determined tone of voice. "I've had a special photographic-wagon built, so I can develop the negatives in the outdoors, at the spots I pick to photograph. Horse-drawn, and full of expensive equipment. I'll need at least two experienced people who know the country to help."
"Y'want ter photograph the countryside?" Sally talking slowly as she got her head round this astounding idea. "Y'mean mountains, an' valleys, an' rivers an' lakes, an' sichlike?"
"Just so. My ultimate aim being, of course, to photograph the Grand Canyon itself." Mary held her head high as she voiced her special wish. "Hasn't been done before, y'know. My photographs'll sell big in the monthly magazines; like printing my own money. I might go down in History, even; as will you two, if you accept my offer. Well?"
There was a very long pause, then.
Another pause ensued while Mary surveyed the faces of her erstwhile assistants.
"You, neither of you, sound exactly overjoyed. Some problem, is there?"
Henrietta and Sally glanced at each other, Sally finally taking up the challenge.
"—ahh, Mary," Sally gently swiveled her head from side to side in a way she had. "Y'see, the problem with goin' t'the Grand Canyon is thet nearly no-one's ever been there a'fore. A few Government expeditions, yeah; the last one only a coupl'a years since. But the thing is—expence, and equipment, an' stores an' wagons, an' probably canoes if'n ye actually wan'na go deep in the bloody thing. It's dam' deep, so reports say; an' dam' long, the Colorado river goin' through it fer two hunnerd an' fifty mile or more. All in all any kind'a true meaningful expedition would take thousands o'dollars, an' huge plannin'."
"What we're sayin', Mary, is put any idee of goin' t'the Grand Canyon out'ta yer mind; cain't be done, not unless ye're a millionaire or Government backed." Henrietta, shrugged her shoulders. "There's any number o'other canyons an' mountain ranges an' rivers an' sichlike, all the same. Not t'mention towns an' cities an' their inhabitants, if ye're feelin' brave."
Neither Henrietta nor Sally had ever been within one hundred miles of the Grand Canyon before, never mind seen it in the flesh. But, as Henrietta had said earlier, there were several other mighty fine canyons available if you weren't picky about it. So, after some preliminary discussion, it was settled that the ladies would escort Mary and her scientific wagon to the hills some ways north and east of Phoenix. When their one wagon expedition finally made their destination three weeks later they, and Mary, simply halted amongst the never-ending sage, stunned into immobility by the enormity of the surrounding view.
"Fancy ye'll need a bigger camera, Mary." Sally making the most obvious conclusion in the circumstances.
The hills were not mountains, except perhaps in a descriptive sense. They were all gently sloping with rounded peaks for the most part; though several showed steeper inclines and rocky, if not jagged, tops—and they went on interminably, seeming to spread themselves across the whole horizon panoramically.
"Goodness, they're everywhere." Mary, sitting on the seat of the wagon, taking in the view from their relatively high point of vantage halfway up the slope of one group of rolling foot-hills. "Almost like a desert, except there's no sand; just bare earth and sagebrush. Say, I don't see any trees anywhere."
"An' yer won't fer scores o'miles, ma'am." Henrietta laying down the law, from experience. "This here sage's all there is, from horizon t'horizon. A few rivers an' streams, if'n ye know where t'look—an' the occasional lake, but they're even harder t'find. Mostly these sage-covered round hills, dam' everywhere. But they make somethin' of a scene, maybe."
"They surely do." Mary, after a first cautious investigation of the panorama on view, became enthusiastic. "The way the groups of hills cut the horizon line; the rolling shadows; the surface of the hills, with all those arroyos and scars running down them, and the high wide sky. Yeah, I can make something of all this. Right ladies, lend a hand getting the equipment sorted out, if you don't mind."
Whether they minded or not Henrietta and Sally, along with Mary, soon had most of what was necessary laid out on the bare earth beside the wagon; including the long rolls of near-black canvas which would make-up the developing-tent.
"Is it this one we unrolls first?" Sally giving the problem all of her intellectual capacity. "Or this'n?"
"I'll show you, it's easy,—watch."
But, of course, it wasn't.
Just over half an hour later, after some mighty fine cursing that would have made a Mississippi riverboat pilot proud if he could have heard Henrietta and Sally in full flow, the tent was firmly set-up and anchored with guide-ropes.
"Now comes the difficult bit, ladies."
"Oh, yeah?" Sally always ready to face unknown dangers at the drop of a hat. "What'd thet be, then, ma'am?"
"The chemicals." Mary stood by the rear of the wagon, wiping her brow. "Collodion bein' mighty dangerous stuff, when not handled properly. Poisonous, y'know."
"No, we didn't." Henrietta raising her eyebrows at this late disclosure. "Pi'sonus? In what way, exactly?"
"Well," Mary prevaricating without shame at this unexpected, indeed probably unanswerable question. "It's,—it's,—well, it's the way it's made—what's in it, er, y'know—"
"No, we doesn't, madam." Sally beginning to heat up, scowling viciously the while. "So, what's—in it?"
"—er, oh, this'n that." Mary evading the issue like a politician. "It's quite a mixture, in fact. The salient point you should keep in mind bein', in it's final more or less liquid form it tends to be, er, deleterious to one's health if you let your skin come in contact with it for any appreciable length of time. Or, indeed, breathe in it's fumes, to any extent."
The quiet which now descended on the small encampment prevailed so thoroughly that Henrietta forever after allowed she could hear, thirty feet off, a sand lizard chewing on a fly for its lunch—then Sally came to life, commencing trying her best to instruct Mary in all the more esoteric byways of Blue Ridge Mountain cussing, for which she, Sally, held the World's Record for amplitude of subject and breadth of descriptive power.
When she had finally run out of breath, which was not for some time, Sally hauled-off, giving Mary one of her best for Sundays No.1 glares, guaranteed to make a Demon of the night change its mind and search for fresh woods, and pastures new.
Henrietta, rather more calm, pinned the important topic to the card, like a butterfly in a collection.
"So, what makes collodion pi'sonous, an' what's in it, exactly?"
Caught between her very own Scylla and Charybdis Mary gave in.
"Ah, well, pyroxylin for starters." Mary bit her bottom lip as she revealed the secrets of the dark room. "Flammable, y'know—er, sorry, obviously you didn',—er, that is, then there's nitric acid—"
"Jee-sus." From an appalled Sally.
"—then, to fix the image on the glass plate, I use potassium cyanide in solution." Mary digging her grave ever deeper with every word.
"Cyanide?" It was Henrietta's turn to express wholesale disbelief. "Are ye joking, lady? F-ckin' cyanide?"
"—er, well, it's necessary to the process, y'kno—that is, yes, the chemical reactions involved require it, I'm afraid."
"An' so are Harry an' I, fer your information." Sally backing away a few steps from the source of this unwanted information. "If'n ye think fer one single second I'm comin' anywhere close t'a bottle o' cyanide, yer can think agin, lady."
The camp, if it could so be described, which it wasn't, was finally complete: the dark-tent, as Mary called her major centre of operations, was set fair on a piece of level ground, guide-ropes all round keeping it firm. All the necessary equipment and chemicals—the latter left mainly to their personal cicerone to manhandle—were inside the canvas enclosure, and everyone, meaning only Mary, was happy.
"Y'sure thet there dam' cyanide's safe?"
"Cyanide's never safe, as you well know." Mary carping at the moral quality of her salaried servants; it being true, you just couldn't get good ones these days. "But I've been working with the dammed stuff these five year past, so's I dam' well knows what the hell I'm doin'—OK?"
"Yeah, yeah,—suppose." Sally giving in but remaining highly sceptical.
Ten minutes later the large camera had been set-up on its three-legged stilt-like stand; Mary was out of sight in her tent; mysterious noises now and then attesting to the esoteric, chemical, not to say alchemical, nature of her preparations. And finally the sum and climax of the whole expedition had come to pass—Mary stepped out the tent holding a thin flat piece of wood some eight inches wide by twelve long.
"Is that it?" Henrietta being nosey, as only she could.
"The sensitised glass-plate? Yeah, this's it, in its light-proof cover. Stand-off, gim'me room."
With this less than polite request Mary strode over to the camera, aimed at a landscape view in the middle and far distance; its body and lens at a height with her chin, and slid the plate into a slot at its back, before turning to her interested spectators.
"Right ladies, what I want's is fer you both t'stand firm. No shuffling about or stamping your feet; the vibrations could easy wobble the latent image, see. Got that?"
"Right." Mary turned to the camera again, holding her right hand close to a switch on its side while leaning forward to twist something at the front of the camera with her left hand. "This'll take about thirty seconds. Ready,—now. One-two-three-four—"
When the specified time had run its course Mary straightened up, stepped to the front of the camera to twist the lens-cap back in place, returned hurriedly to the rear of the camera, where she clicked a knob round then pulled the wooden glass-plate container free, holding it in one hand before setting-off for the tent in something of a hurry.
"The rest's jest chemicals an' washes, an' whatnot." She calling this over her shoulder as she raised the tent-flap with her free hand. "Take about fifteen minutes, then I'll call you both t'come in the tent—but not before. Come in uninvited, an' I'll bloody kick yer butts, an' ye'd better believe it."
Then she had vanished into the tent's gloomy interior, the flap falling-to and being carefully tied shut behind her.
"Well, there ye are." Sally waxing philosophical, scratching her chin. "So thet's how ye take a daguerreotype? Who'd a'guessed?"
"Yeah, mighty strange." Henrietta nodding knowingly; though, of course, she didn't. "Suppose all we does now is wait ter see the finished item. Wonder what it'll be like?"
It was actually all of twenty or more minutes before the tent-flap twitched and was pulled aside, as Mary once more re-appeared. This time she held a clear glass plate in her hand, clutching it by the extreme edges with her fingers.
"Come on over an' take a gander, ladies."
Henrietta and Sally dutifully advanced on the photographer, standing on each side as she held the plate flat in front of herself; both women leaning over to examine the surface of the proto-photograph with keen eyes.
"Thet's dam' strange." Sally leaning even further forward to get a really close look. "Ain't ever seen the like. It's all—it's all, I don't know—strange. Why's it like thet? Surely ain't a dam' photy-graf, thet's fer sure. Did you have an accident with the chemicals, or what?"
"It's a negative—remember what I told you both about such, earlier?"
"God, right, listen this time, then." Mary coming it the schoolmistress. "Because of the way light reacts with the chemicals on the sensitised glass-plate, an' of how its prepared in the washing and fixing process, what we end up with is what's called a negative. Everything that should be black's actually white, an' vice-versa. Then, when I take a positive print—which is the next step—it reverses the light and turns, as if by magic, into the actual photograph you're used to seeing. The great thing being, with a glass-plate negative, you can take as many further positive prints as you want; a daguerreotype only bein' fit fer the one outting, y'see."
The ensuing four days could be chronicled in heart-rending detail, as Mary wended her way across the hills north and east of Phoenix, taking uncounted photographs of varying aspects of the country with what Henrietta and Sally quickly realised was gay abandon; but I will spare my reader that particular horror. Actually it was a sort of proscribed gay abandon, as Mary only had around forty glass plates in her developing-wagon; each of which she had to carefully prepare with collodion gelatin and sensitised silver salts solution before use; always a messy, smelly, complicated time-consuming matter. Both Henrietta and Sally, at various times, found themselves inside the developing tent assisting Mary at her dark alchemical activities—each keeping carefully out of the way of the dreaded cyanide solution when Mary came to fix the negative images on the plates.
Finally, on the fifth day in the wilderness, they all came to civilisation; or, at least, a minor form of such. Although the sage-covered bare ground and hills were generally also barren of any kind of human activity or presence there were, dotted around the desert-like landscape, single cabins here and there. These were not farmers, or gold or silver prospectors homes: in fact, it was quite a mystery exactly what had been their original purpose, but all the same there they were. Mary drove her wagon with Henrietta and Sally riding on either hand, round the side of an escarpment and, by the edge of a small stream, saw a solitary log cabin, with smoke emerging from its chimney. A group of horses were tied loosely to a wooden rail outside and the central door was open.
"Ah, civilisation at last." Mary taking it as it came, even if erroneously.
"Oh, sh-t." From Henrietta, on guard instantly.
"This don't look good." Sally providing the philosophical angle of the opening scene.
"What's wrong?" Mary still blissfully unaware of the rapidly chilling atmosphere. "Whoever it belongs to, I'm sure they'll give us a cup of coffee and a chat."
So saying she pulled up before the low cabin and jumped to the ground before either Henrietta or Sally could advise otherwise. And here Mary discovered that not all things are what they seem.
From the door emerged four men, all armed; three sporting beards that would have made a Kentucky mountain-man proud; the other making up for lack of chin coverage by revealing to the three weary travellers a wide-spreading moustache that would have made Friedrich Nietzsche himself jealous. The tallest of the group, carrying a long rifle with jaunty insouciance, made himself free of the introductions.
"Hi'ya, ladies." He grinned widely, taking a panoramic view of his visitors. "Right kind of you-all to visit. By way o'namin' names, I'm Curtiss Edwardes, an' this here's my gang—might be ye've heerd o'us?"
"No, sir, can't say your name rings any bells." Mary coming it the Society hostess. "Should I know you?"
"Yep." From Sally, frowning like a brown bear with a grievance.
"Dam' straight." Henrietta showing she too was on the up-and-up, nomenclature-wise.
"Am I missing something, Sally?" Mary appealing for information with a raised eyebrow.
"This here's, like he's just admitted, Curtiss Edwardes." Sally primed to the gills with all necessary facts in the case. "The low-downest, dirtiest, sun-uva-b-tchiest, rattlesnake west o'the Pecos. He's a bum."
"Oh, dear, thet ain't altogether fair." The rattlesnake in question beaming from ear to ear, not one whit put out. "Come on inside an' take the weight off'n your feet. There's some coffee, new made, jest awaitin' ter be drunk. This-aways."
Inside, the cabin showed as roomy light and remarkably clean. A few chairs and a large table being about the most obvious furnishings. Two rooms; one the living quarters and sleeping area, all hugger-mugger; the other the kitchen. Now, with three women and four men, space was rather constricted.
"We don't get many visitors round these parts, ladies." Curtiss doing his best as host, though still holding onto the barrel of his rifle. "In fac', yer the first in over a month. Thet there bein' the prime aspec' o'the sity-atin' o'this ruin thet most appealed t'us on arrival."
"A hideaway?" Sally being sharp as a hungry hyena.
"Jest so, Sal,—oh, yeah, I knows full well who ye two are, as who wouldn't anywhere in the Territory?" Curtiss essaying what he probably fondly imagined was a warm and engaging smile. "No introductions necessary. Yer companion, on the other hand, is a hoss of another colour."
As the silence expanded in the crowded cabin the ladies finally realised their host was awaiting an introduction on his own account—Mary stepping up to perform her own greeting.
"Mary McCloud, I'm a photographer, that's my wagon outside with all the equipment." She gazed at the ill-assorted men with a frown. "Are you criminals?"
This remark set-off a bout of sniggering and guffawing amongst the group that Curtiss had to quell with a wave of his dirty hand.
"If'n ye call bank-robbing a criminal undertakin', the answer's yeah." He grinned again, not a pretty sight. "Allied to bushwhackin', gen'ral robbin' o'widows, virgins, an' helpless citizens. Not fergettin' hoss-stealin' an' cattle-rustlin', an' downright cold-blooded murderin'. Yeah, I thinks we'd all here admit ter bein' criminals, leddy."
Having been given this unashamed insight into their personal moral outlook Mary raised her eyebrows and remained silent, there not being much more she could do. Then a happy thought occurred to her, she turning to her two female companions.
"You've got guns, ladies." She cast another glance at the men standing around. "These here are self-proclaimed bandits, of the worst sort,—shoot the dam' ingrates. I'm sure you'll be given the proper legal rewards back in Phoenix."
Another silence infiltrated the confines of the cabin, like snow falling on cedars; then Henrietta caught her breath and replied to this imbecilic request.
"We're armed, sure, Mary." Her voice rising in intonation with every word. "But they are, too. You ain't; you're jest a dam' hindrance. They've got, what, six revolvers, an' two rifles thet I can see. We've got three revolvers an' a Sharps. This here Sharps bein' mighty fine at eight hundred yards, but useless at anythin' under fifty."
"Yeah, I second's Harry's words." Sally butting in with a mean grimace. "What we's got here is a stand-off, is what."
Curtiss, listening to this discussion with evident glee, simply shook his head.
"Hardly thet, Sal." He took in his compatriots with a swift turn of his head. "What we've got here is yer actul upper hand, is all. What I says goes, an' what I says, ye do—savvy?"
Sally, as of duty bound, was having none of this; she casually caressing the butt of her right-hand Smith and Wesson .38 with loving fingers.
"Harry, I'll pepper Loud-mouth, here—you take the hairy baboon to the left, there; I'll get t'the others in due time. On my word, right—"
"Hold on, hold on." Curtiss raising a calming hand in the air. "Let's not all go off half-cock here. I ain't lookin' fer a shoot-out, or a recreation of Gettysburg. All we wants is some co-operative workin' together, fer the good o'the majority, y'see."
"What the hell'r ye talkin' about, Curtiss?" Henrietta's patience at about its nadir.
"What I doesn't want is wholesale lead, flyin' around promiscus'. What I does want is me an' the boys' here's daguerreotype took, is what."
"What?" From Sally.
"What?" From Henrietta.
"I can do that." From Mary, perfectly calm and in command of the situation.
"Our picter's took?" One of Curtiss's henchmen, of the flowing beard trio, cast an unhappy glance towards his leader. "Why'd we want our picter took? I don't hold with that there, no way's."
"Jed, ye've always bent our ears, these last months, on how much ye'd like fine t'go down in history, with yer picter in the news-rags, ain't yer?"
"So how's yer gon'na get said picter in the weekly rag when ye ain't got a picter t'hand?"
"But, Curtiss," Another henchman commenced to stroking his own beard, deep in thought, or what passed for such. "if'n we lets this here leddy take our impressions, what's ter stop the Law, acrost the whole Territory, using copies o'same ter make-up wanted posters wholesale?"
"Eejiot." Curtiss was up for this foolish suggestion. "This leddy takes our'n picters, in a group or individuul as the case turns out,—"
"So?" The first henchman no clearer on the subject.
"Then she makes 'em up an' hands 'em over t'our separate hands, y'see."
"But what about copies?" First henchman determined not to give up his argument without a fight. "I mean's, copies?"
"Jed," Curtiss sighed gently, as addressing a particularly dull child. "who ever heerd o'copyin' a daguerreotype? Daguerreotype's bein', by their very natur', uncopyable. The leddy here takes yer picter, makes it up in'ta the finished produc', an' hands it over,—end o'subjec'. Ye know how daguerreotypes can be scratched something easy? An' how ye got'ta look at 'em jest at the right angle t'see the image? They're one o' a kind, y'see. The Law cain't do anything with 'em, by way o'copyin'. Don't think they can be copied to be printed in a newspaper, either. Am I right, leddy?"
Mary, having listened to this rigmarole intently, was now au fait with the wishes and the foolish naivety of the group of outlaws, Curtiss in particular.
"You're pretty much there, Curtiss, yeah." She nodded wisely, staring Curtiss in his face, or as much as was visible behind the all-embracing moustache. "There've been some little advances lately. Daguerreotypes don't scratch so easy anymore; and they can be fixed better, so you can see the image from any angle now. Yeah, I can make you up a set of daguerreotypes, if you want. Then, afterwards, I hope I and my companions can be on our way. I expect that, by the time we make it back to civilisation, you will all be long gone from here, anyway?"
"Yeah, there's that, leddy, there's that." Curtiss fingered his luxurious facial hair for a while, deep in what he fondly thought was thought. "OK, I'll go fer thet there plan; we gets our indeeviduul daguerreotypes each, an' you-all goes free, ter carry on yer photy-graffing o'the wild lands aroun' here t'yer heart's content. How's thet sound, leddies?"
"Jee-suus." From Henrietta, under her breath.
"God, what a f-ck-up." Equally silently from Sally.
"Then let's get to it, before the light fades." Mary, on top of the world. "Come on, led—I mean, ladies. I'll need help with preparing the plat—er, daguerreotypes, and whatnot."
The outlaws seemed delighted at the prospect of having their photographs taken, they accepting Mary's orders like a group of school-children, once the difficulty of a shooting-war breaking out had been put to rest by both parties.
"Mighty fine chance, ye showin' up with all the fixin's of a daguerreotype t'hand, leddy." Curtiss, still full of beans at the thought of his features being impressed for all eternity. "So, ye say ye can take impressions fer all'a us here, then?"
"Sure will, Curtiss." Mary showing no sign of distrust or concern. "As you know, a daguerreotype's only a one-off, so to speak. So, if each of your, er, companions, wants one I'll have to take several separate, er, daguerreotypes—"
"I thought ye said you didn'—"
A swift thump in the short ribs by a sharp elbow is always guaranteed to halt a conversation mid-flow; Mary's elbow connecting with Henrietta's side doing so forcefully.
"Oh, I'm sorry." Mary prevaricating like billy-oh. "Did that hurt? Here, take this bottle of salts an' put it in the developing tent. Sal, will you take the bottle of cyanide—"
"Cyanide?" Curtiss paling and stepping back three full paces; the rest of his gang shuffling unhappily the while.
"Only necessary for the fixing of the image, sir, have no fear, all under control." Mary sounding like a Professor at the University. "Now, what's this in this jar, I wonder?"
Nearly an hour having gone by, and the developing tent having risen like a ghost from the past in this unlikely neighbourhood, all was finally ready for the series of photographs to be taken, it still being something short of noon.
"Light's perfect." Mary shading her eyes to stare heavenwards, probably making a short prayer at the same time. "If you all stand in front of the cabin door; yes, in a line. A bit closer together, if you will. No, closer, shoulder to shoulder. That's better. Now, don't move. Don't blink, don't smile; don't swat a fly; don't shuffle; don't turn your head. Got it?"
The group of dead-beats, still armed to the teeth, stood motionless, afraid to acknowledge this question in any way for fear of angry reprisals; then Mary turned and disappeared into her developing-tent, leaving the outlaws and Henrietta and Sally alone.
"What's she up to?" Curtiss, from long experience showing his suspicious nature to the full.
"Esoteric things; things we doesn't understand." Sally making the most of her opportunity. "Makin' up a glass-pla—er, a daguerreotype not bein' a piece o'cake at the best o'times. Mighty complicated; gelatin, collodion, silver salts, cyanide washes an' whatnot. Dam', it's like the entry t'hell in thet there tent; why, take too deep a breath in that atmosphere at the wrong moment an' hell's where ye'll take yer second breath, trust me."
Before the assembled outlaws could digest the import of this information Mary re-appeared, carrying a glass-plate holder in a firm hand.
"Right, let's get to it, gentlemen."
Two hours later, after Mary had crossed to the dark-tent innumerable times to renew her stock of glass-plates, the series of photographs had finally been completed; she having had to spend time fixing the image of each negative in turn. She had kept the finished products under wraps in the tent, not wishing Curtiss or his friends to see the completed glass-plate negatives for fear of them smelling a rat; they still under the innocent impression she was taking actual daguerreotypes of them.
"Sal-Harry, can you both help me now, in the tent." Mary gestured to the canvas-walled developing room with an easy air. "They'll need to help me with the various chemical washes an' setting of the daguerreotypes in their cases, Curtiss; won't take more than half an hour."
Inside the tent, out of earshot of the eagerly waiting gang, a council of war was in progress.
"I've got some old daguerreotype cases to hand." Mary gestured to a table at the tent's side. "I've already made positive prints of the negatives—"
"What're ye goin' ter do with the negatives?" Sally asking the important question. "If Curtis sees those he'll smell somethin' bad fer certin'."
"They're staying here, in this box." Mary nodding to an empty plate-box. "I can set the photographs in these daguerreotype folders pretty well. Of course, they ain't real daguerreotypes'; anybody with any sense, or experience, would recognise such in an instant. Do you think Curtiss will?"
"Hell, no." Henrietta was firm on this point. "He sound's-off mighty loud, but his sense is about equal to a gnat's at the best. Jest give him his photo an' he'll be happy, believe me."
"At least long enough fer us t'load up an' high-tail it out'ta here, like a bison herd crossin' the prairie." Sally giving of her best, too.
"Right, OK, let's do this, then."
A week later the intinerant photographers had returned to the happy confines of Red Flume; their first port of call being Sheriff Donaldson in his personal official domain.
"An' ye say Curtiss stood back an' let ye all take his image like a school-kid at a Sunday-school outing?"
"Yep, thet sez it all." Sally confirming his supposition with a nod.
"An' you, Miss McCloud, managed t'take all these separate photographs of the bunch, without a whimper o'concern or suspicion from any o'them?"
"That is quite right, Sheriff." Mary, in complete command of the situation. "They having no intimate knowledge of the workings of a camera, or what exactly a photograph was, why, it was easy as pie to hoodwink the fools. A perfect grift, in fact."
"Hum." Donaldson still expressing doubt. "Well, anyway, this means we have copies of their real features, fer the first time, t'print up an' spread wholesale across the Territory, like rice at a wedding."
"Shouldn't take long t'bring 'em all t'heel, after thet." Henrietta full of confidence. "When everyone an' their babies've seen the picters the sightings'll come in by the bucket-load."
"Yeah, hopefully." Donaldson remaining carefully neutral. "Anyhow, ma'am, you've managed to pull off a real sensation, I admits."
"Do we get a reward?" Sally's focus being, as always, on the profit and loss margins involved.
"Reward?" Donaldson taken aback at the suggestion.
"Well, hell, we put some lot'ta work, not t'say our dam' lives, in'ta the whole concern." Henrietta squeezing the scene for its entire dramatic potential. "Even after Mary here had taken the dague—er, photos, we still had some mighty delicate talkin' t'do ter eventual persuade him t'let us go, y'know."
"Yeah," Sally giving of her meanest scowl. "There was dam' near a gunfight afore the photo thing; an' there was dam' near a second gunfight after—but Mary's dulcet tones, an' her lies t'the effect thet the photos in their sticky hands was the only representations of the whole sorry crew remainin', he eventual buckled under an' let us go on our way, thinkin' we had nuthin' in the way o'evidence t'hold agin him; daguerreotypes', as ye well know, Donaldson, bein' one-off things by natur', as everyone knows—ha-ha."
"Yes," Mary having the last laugh. "he, like a lot of other people, not understanding the difference between a daguerreotype and a glass-plate negative photograph. I've given you the negative plates; keep them safe, and you can use them to print off as many more positives as you please."
"So, Donaldson,—reward?" Sally sticking to important matters, like a leech.
"Gim'me room." The Sheriff loath to be held accountable on such a matter. "I needs t'consult my superiors. I'll get back t'ye on this subjec', in say a fortnight, or so."
"Mrrrph." From an unsatisfied Sally.
"Iiirrph." From a dubious Henrietta.
"Ah, well, to pastures new; coming, ladies?" From Mary, who already had new ideas and panoramas in mind.
"F-ck." From Sally.
"Umm." From Henrietta.
"G'bye, ladies." From Donaldson.
Another 'Red Flume' story will arrive shortly.