All characters belong to their respective creators / The BBC / etc. This story may not be distributed on a profit-making basis.Five Pit-Stops on the Way to the Twenty-First Century
I - Nameless
By Marcus L. Rowland
February 18th 1897
I was somewhat surprised to receive your letter, and I must confess my ignorance of the “Torchwood Institute” you represent, but since I gather that you report to the Queen herself I will do my best to cooperate. I certainly recall the man you mention, and will do my best to answer your questions. As it happens I made some notes at the time. They were written in the vernacular of the place and period, since I was then experimenting with this writing style, and I hope you will excuse me if I don’t “pretty them up,” but simply add the remarkable epilogue.
It was the height of summer in 1869 when I first met the man who called himself Jack. Some Mexicans brought him in from the desert, said that they'd found him wandering there, about twenty miles from the nearest water, naked as the day he was born, so sun-struck he didn't even seem to know his name. They took him to the mission thinking that there must be some sort of reward. Someone thought that I might get an article out of it and told me about him, so I went over to take a look.
He was in his thirties, muscular and well-proportioned. His skin was peeling badly, but even then I thought that he was probably a handsome man. I guess he was still delirious, because apart from muttering ‘Rose’ a couple of times he didn’t pay any attention to his surroundings. I guessed that ‘Rose’ must be his sweetheart, though from what I heard of his behaviour afterwards I began to assume that it was more of an infatuation, and a short-lived one at that. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
There wasn’t really anything for me in it, but I left my business card with a note that said I’d be interested in his story when he was feeling a little recovered. About a week later he turned up at my door, looking a lot better and wearing the old work clothes the mission had found for him, with a serape and broad-brimmed Mexican hat, introduced himself as Jack - he didn't want to give his last name - and offered to sell me his story.
What he told me – and bear in mind that I have no way of knowing how much of it was true – was that he was a prospector who’d been looking for traces of silver. Why silver, when even damn fools were finding gold in California? Because he reckoned that if people kept finding gold the stuff would soon be worthless. Well, it hasn’t happened yet, and I doubt that it ever will, but it showed the kind of mind he had.
Getting back to his story, he said that his horse had been spooked by a rattle-snake and thrown him, and he'd hit his head on a rock. He came to with a group of Mexicans - not the same ones that had bought him in - going through his clothes. They thought that he was dead, and didn't take kindly to his sudden resurrection. They'd already stripped him while he was unconscious, and they weren't about to give him his clothes back, nor his gun and the rest of his property. When he put up a fight about it two of them held him down while the third hit him on the head again. He must have had the hardest head ever, because that still didn't kill him. He came to a couple of hours later, and of course they'd gone, and so had everything he owned. After that he started following their tracks on foot. He got a couple of miles before he passed out, and that was the last he knew before he woke in the mission.
Well, I guess it was a story, but you couldn't exactly call it newsworthy as it was. When I asked him what he planned to do next, he told me that he was going to go looking for the men that had robbed him. Why? Because they'd taken a keepsake his girl had given him, and he wanted it back. He wouldn't describe it, just said that it was precious to him.
On the strength of that I gave him ten dollars, which was more than it was worth, and got his promise that if he ever tracked them down he'd come back and tell me the story.
A few days later I saw him in a saloon, playing high-stakes poker with some of the toughest men in town. Don't ask me where he got the money, ten dollars wouldn't even get you a seat at the table. He seemed to be winning. He was wearing better clothes, but still had the serape and the hat. I heard later that he'd given fifty dollars to the mission out of his winnings. And a couple of days after that I saw him ride out of town, still wearing that serape. By then he had a good horse, a rifle, pistols, and the air of a man who knew where he was going. I made enquiries, and heard that he had been spending money lavishly in the Mexican community. There were also rumours of his association with several different women, all of whom might have been expected to have their fingers on the pulse of affairs. I believe that several irate husbands were more than happy to see him leave.
Months passed, and I gradually forgot him. Then in March 1870 he appeared again at my door, wearing a dark blue coat of unfamiliar design. It had the look of military tailoring, but wasn’t any uniform I recognized. I asked him about the robbers; he hesitated, then eventually admitted that he'd caught up with them "South of the border," presumably meaning in Mexico, and recovered his property. When I asked about the keepsake he'd mentioned, he hesitated again then produced a gold pocket watch, which played a simple music-box tune. Inside it was a photograph of Jack, another man wearing a leather jacket, and between them an uncommonly pretty blonde girl in her early twenties who seemed to be wearing some sort of masquerade costume, a blouse or shirt patterned after the British flag. The picture was unusually sharp and perfectly coloured, obviously hand-tinted by a master of the art. He looked at it, sighed, then said "And that's Rose, with the Doctor." I asked about the other man, but he gave no reply. When I pressed him for more details he was at first reluctant to talk, then eventually told me that the bandits thought he was dead, and were so “spooked” by his reappearance that they gave him everything he wanted. Of course he had to use “a little persuasion” too. I wondered what that meant but didn’t press the subject since he didn’t seem inclined to reply. It still wasn’t much of a story, and when I said that he laughed and gave me my ten dollars back, with a bottle of malt whisky for interest!
I was still curious about him, and listened out for stories out of Mexico, anything that might explain what happened. And gradually I started to hear them, confused and incoherent. A “gringo” wearing a serape who stirred up the rival factions in a bandit village until they started fighting, then took what he wanted; a treasure that had been stolen from him. A man who came back to life to kill the men who had betrayed him. A deadly gunfighter with a musical watch, who told his victims to draw as the music ended but always fired first. A lover who seduced women (and in some tales men) and left them. Dozens more fragments like that, contradictory and incomplete, characterized only by ruthlessness.
Meanwhile Jack had dropped out of sight again, and I slowly forgot him. And so things remained for the next twenty-odd years. In that time I moved to Boston, then became a United States Consul in Germany then later Glasgow, and ultimately settled in London. And in 1892 I saw Jack again, seated in a neighbouring box at the Theatre Royal, in the company of Oscar Wilde and some of his cronies.
You might think that he would be hard to recognize after twenty-two years, but that was the strangest part of it; he was virtually unchanged. Still the same face and the watch chain I remembered. He was wearing full evening dress, and seemed to at home in the questionable company he was keeping. I wondered for a while if it was a chance likeness, but in a lull between scenes I heard the tinkle of his watch, exactly as I remembered it. With horror I recalled Wilde’s recent strange story, The Picture of Dorian Gray
. Could the story have somehow been taken from life? If I looked at the photographs inside that watch, what would I see? I hope that you will excuse these wild imaginings. As you will see, they have some relevance to later events.
As I left the theatre that evening I saw Wilde and his friends, including Jack, boarding some cabs ahead, no doubt en route
to some other entertainment. I thought to have a few words with him, but as I approached a man ran out from the crowd, screaming with rage against “the Sodomites” and brandishing a pistol! Women were screaming, and none of those attacked seemed to have an idea in their heads about defending themselves… except for Jack. He stood in the man’s path and tried to reason with him, but to my horror the attacker fired his revolver. Jack collapsed to the ground, shot through the heart, and with that shot the paralysis that had overtaken us all ended. At least a dozen men must have thrown themselves at the attacker, who seemed almost dazed by his crime; it later emerged that he was a lunatic who had stolen the single-shot pistol, and had no idea how to reload it.
Once he was subdued I stayed with Jack, identifying myself as a fellow-countryman who knew his family – a total fabrication, I’m afraid. I rode with the body to the hospital, but there was never any hope of reviving him. When the police had gone I bribed the mortuary attendant to give me his personal effects; the watch, his wallet (which contained a few pounds and some visiting cards identifying him as Captain Jack Hamlin, with an address in The Albany), and an odd device he wore on his wrist, a flat black box about three inches on a side and a half-inch thick, worn on a broad band of some odd rubbery material.
Once I had returned home I looked inside the watch; there were the same photographs I remembered, their colours a little faded, but of course the ages depicted were unchanged. I dismissed my thoughts as idiotic superstition, and turned my attention to the black box. It should have been easy to open, I could see a seam and an oval depression that looked like a recessed catch, but pressing it had no effect, nor had prying with a knife. I was about to move to more drastic methods when I heard a knock at the door. A minute or so later one of the house-maids came in, blushing prettily, and told me that there was a gentleman at the door who wished to see me. As I asked his name the door opened behind her, and Jack walked in, now wearing somewhat more plebeian clothing which didn’t seem to fit particularly well. I must confess that I fainted.
I missed the confusion of the next few minutes, and recovered consciousness to see Jack pour himself a glass of my best whisky, drain it, then pour another. I eventually said “If you don’t mind, I’ll have one of those.”
“Sure,” said Jack. “Sorry. It’s not every day a man gets shot.”
“I was dead, as far as I can tell. Had to slug the mortuary attendant to get out.”
“Damned if I know. Except that it happened once before, before the first time I met you. I was dead, and then I was alive again.”
“That’s impossible,” I gasped.
“Tell me about it.”
“There were those stories,” I said. “The stories I heard from Mexico. The walking corpse that got its revenge then took back its stolen property.”
“Nope. I had a couple of near misses that time, but nobody came close to killing me. It was all just bluff and a knack for playing with their heads. Trickery, not resurrection.”
“And you’ve never aged.”
“No. Believe me, if you think that’s weird, you should have been inside my head when I realised. I’ve been this way since sixty-nine. Like that story Wilde told, the one with the picture. Except that there isn’t one. There’s nothing. No fountain of youth, no portrait, no curses or deals with the Devil.”
“I did wonder if Wilde got the idea for that story from you.”
“It’s possible. I got drunk with him and his friends a couple of years ago, not long after I realised, something might have slipped out. What’s worrying me more is what happens now.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“You’re a reputable man, a writer, and you’ve seen me killed and come back to life. If you start spreading the story while I’m still around I’ll be a side-show freak. I know it’s too good to keep secret, but I want a head start.”
“How about a year?”
“On one condition,” I said.
“If you ever find out what happened, I want to know.”
We shook hands, and he took back his possessions and left. I’ve never seen him since. I kept the secret as I’d promised, and there was remarkably little fuss about the vanishing “body,” the lunatic (who was unfit to plead and committed to an asylum without trial), and my own part in the tale.
A year later I did consider writing the story, but eventually decided that it was too far-fetched to sell, even if I changed things and made it a ghost story. I used Jack’s name (if it was ever really his name) for one of my stories, A Protégée of Jack Hamlin's,
but I doubt that I’ll ever do more.
I hope that this information is in some way useful.
I am, of course,Your obedient servant,
Crossover with Bret Hart's novels of the Old West (I haven't tried to imitate his writing style), various spaghetti Westerns, and of course The Picture of Dorian Gray.
For more on Bret Hart see Wikipedia