17 minute read

The Last Photograph

DANNY PUT A DAMP cloth on his mother’s forehead to cool her fever. It didn’t do much good.

“You can’t stay with your step-daddy.” She struggled for air between her words. “Not when I’m gone.” She finished with a cough that took most of her strength.

“Fever puts those ideas in your head,” Danny told her. “You’ll feel better when it breaks.” There were natural remedies to help with that—Indian remedies. Everybody in the Territory knew them. Danny burned sage, but it made her coughing worse. He brewed a tea of Cottonwood bark and yarrow, but she couldn’t swallow it. He drew the curtains and tried to talk her into sleep. When all else failed he gave prayer a try.

“Lord please help Lucille Tinnin,” He kept it formal. Otherwise it sounded like he was whining, and he guessed the Lord wouldn’t care for that. “She’s suffered most of her life and ain’t done nothing wrong.” There ought to be more he could say, but all he could think of was, “Amen.”

Lucille’s fever stayed the same, her cough got a little worse, and she made a wheezing sound when she breathed.

“The Captain’s gone for help.” Danny hoped that was true. He rode off early that morning before he even had a cup of coffee. Didn’t say where he was going, but it stood to reason. The nearest doctor was a half day’s ride away, but a Creek healing woman lived just south of Jack Fork Mountain. People said she had ways.

“The Captain. . . .” Lucille’s eyes glazed over and for a moment it looked like her time had come, but she managed to fill her lungs with air again. “All I did was smile at him. That was my mistake.”

Another gasp, followed by a short coughing fit, “Hugh Tinnin has needed killin’ for a long while now.”

That was the first time Danny heard his mother call her husband by his name. First time since Captain Hugh Tinnin rescued her by killing the Black Seminole farmer she’d jumped the broom with at sixteen years of age. The Captain rescued Danny too, but only because he couldn’t scare Lucille into abandoning her half-breed boy.

“The war ain’t never ended,” Lucille said. “Not for him.”

A portrait of General Robert E. Lee looked down on them from the fireplace mantle. A pair of crossed dragoon sabers were mounted over the door. The quilt that covered Lucille was stitched to look like a Confederate flag. She pushed it aside and showed Danny the little pistol she was hiding.

“Waiting ‘til the time is right.” Another coughing fit, followed by a whistling sound that lasted as long as it took Lucille to fill her lungs with air.

Danny recognized the gun, a little caplock derringer, exactly like the one John Wilkes Booth used to kill Lincoln. One of the Captain’s prized possessions.

He brushed stray locks of sweaty hair from his mother’s forehead. The contrast of his coffee-colored hand against her pale complexion was striking. She was right, he couldn’t stay with the Captain, but if she were capable of killing him, surely, she’d have done it long ago.

“You’ll be fine, Momma.” He knew it was a lie. Diphtheria would get the best of Lucille Tinnin. The sickness had ridden into Indian Territory the way it always did, with wagons of relocated Creek and Choctaw. Locals called it Bull Neck Croup. It was easy to see why.

Danny busied himself hanging strands of Prairie Bundleflowers around the cabin. They were supposed to “sweeten the air,” whatever that meant. He looped the last strand around Lucille’s swollen neck. She recoiled when the flowers touched her skin, but pushed him away before he could take them off.

“That him I hear?” She turned the little pistol toward the door and struggled to pull the hammer back. “That him?” She pointed the derringer and argued with people only she could see, a string of feverwords that made no sense. She ended her gibberish by saying, “Frenchman,” plain as day. She took hold of Danny’s shoulders and gave him a violent shake.

“The Frenchman,” she said, as if that made perfect sense. “Listen to what he says.” The worry left her eyes and her breathing got easier. Whether it was the Bundleflowers or just the way of the sickness, Danny couldn’t say.

“Won’t be much longer ‘til the Captain’s back, Mamma. An hour. Two at the most.” He propped her up on fresh pillows and fetched the latest edition of The Tip Top Weekly. Lucille didn’t care much for the stories, but she loved to listen to him read.

He showed her the photographs that made the magazine different from the other dime novels. Real pictures of outlaws and lawmen alive and dead, taken by Mr. Jules Lion—the most famous picture man in Indian Territory. Mr. Lion wrote most of the stories too. This issue was all about Captain Hugh Tinnin, Hero of Honey Springs. The story hardly mentioned that the rebels had lost that battle to a union force made up mostly of Blacks and Indians.

It concentrated on the exploits of the man Danny’s stepfather became after his side lost the war. The Captain put on a U.S. Marshal’s badge and collected bounty on wanted men in Indian Territory. Pictures of Hugh Tinnin and dead outlaws were scattered through the book. The story turned him into a hero but the truth showed clear enough in the photographs.

Half-way through the first chapter, Lucille laid her hand across the page.

“Fetch the Spirit board,” she said in her gravely voice. “I need counsel from the other side.” Danny’s mother took ghosts for granted. Most of the people in the Territory did.

Talking boards were popular. Usually they were homemade, but Lucille Tinnin had a fancy one from Lilly Dale New York. It had a calligraphy alphabet and a thick coat of crystal-clear varnish. The Captain brought it home one night in a burlap bag along with a lot of other things.

Danny and his mother put their fingers on the heart shaped planchette the spirits would guide across the board and settle on the letters that spelled out their message. The ghosts didn’t wait for Lucille to ask a question. The pointer trembled for a moment, then raced to the number row and stopped twice on the same one.

“Forty-four.” Danny spoke out loud without meaning to. He’d never put much stock in the spirit world, but forty-four was the caliber of the little pistol under his mother’s Confederate quilt. He didn’t think there was any way she knew that.

The pointer made three big circles and headed for the alphabet. It jerked from one letter to another and spelled out FRENCHMAN, just like Lucille said earlier. She tried to carry on but the fever shook her so hard she couldn’t keep her hands on the board. Danny plumped her pillows and tucked her under her quilt. She talked with people he couldn’t see, all in whispers because her voice was practically drowned in phlegm. Danny made out, ‘Frenchman’ now and then, mixed in with a lot of other things he couldn’t understand.

Finally, Lucille no longer had the energy to shake. Her whisper-talk faded away and she drifted off to sleep. The house went dead silent. No wind noises. No settling creaks and pops. Certainly nothing Danny would confuse with supernatural noises. He’d almost fallen asleep himself when the Captain walked in the front door.

“Has Lucille passed yet? I brought someone.”

A tall, thin black man followed him into the house. The first full-grown black man Daniel had ever seen so close to the Captain who wasn’t in custody. The stranger wore a pair of dress boots, and a suit that made him look like a reconstruction politician.

The black man looked at Lucille and crossed himself the way Mexican cowboys did. His eyes found Danny’s and stayed there long enough to let the boy know there was a connection.

“French-colored,” is how the Captain introduced him, a French-colored man who came from New Orleans to Indian Territory to take photographs after the war.

“Best picture man south of Kansas City.” Hugh Tinnin started to put a hand on the black man’s shoulder but changed his mind at the last minute. “Name’s Jules Lion,” he added. The man who put the Captain’s story in The Tip Top Weekly. The only colored person Hugh Tinnin was likely to let into his house, except for Danny.

Lucille’s throat had closed down so much she could hardly breath, much less talk, but she managed to squeak out, “Frenchman.” Danny figured that was his mother’s last word, but Jules Lion thought she had more to say.

“Go ahead, mon cher.” He put his ear next to her lips while she whispered something no one else could hear. When she was finished, he placed a hand over her face. When he took it away, her eyes were closed.

“What did she say?” The Captain asked.

“When the time is right,” The Frenchman said. “It’s best I tell you then.”

THE CAPTAIN STOOD IN the parlor with his arms crossed and watched the photographer set his equipment up. He didn’t object when the Frenchman put an arm around Danny’s shoulders.

“Time fixes things. You’ll see.” Jules Lion’s words had a kind of melody to them. No one in the Territory talked like that.

He encouraged the boy to investigate his camera. “She’s kind of an antique—you see—but no camera takes a better picture if you understand her moods.” He rapped his knuckles on the wooden case, checked the tripod for stability.

“Pho-to-gra-phy.” The Frenchman stretched the word into something that sounded like a poem. “Cameras are simple things—you see—but taking pictures is an art, especially the very last photograph.”

Memorial pictures were popular in the Territory, mostly because photographs were so expensive, ordinary folks wouldn’t spend the money until they knew there’d never be another chance. It was an extravagance that families did for the cherished dead. Fancy people back east did it, even people in England.

Jules Lion made a dramatic gesture toward Lucille as if he were presenting her. The last photograph didn’t usually capture the departed at her best, but Madam Lucille would be different.

“Fever gives her a fresh look that can’t be duplicated by cosmetics,” the picture man said. “Her muscles haven’t stiffened so she’s easy to clean and dress.”

He turned to the Captain, looked him directly in the eyes, something almost no one—much less a black man—would do. “There are things I need to do,” he said. “To prepare Miss Lucille—you know. Things she wouldn’t want you to see.”

The Captain looked puzzled, but Danny understood. A colored man putting his hands on a white woman, even after she was dead . . .

To give the Captain an idea what he meant, Jules Lion worked Lucille’s hands back and forth. He kept close watch on Hugh Tinnin because men like him didn’t spend much time thinking things through.

The fingers of the Captain’s right hand closed around the butt of the pistol he wore on his hip. He pursed his lips as if he had a mouthful of tobacco juice he might need to unload soon.

“I’ll get busy with the diggin’ and the carpentry. The dead don’t bury themselves.” He gave Lucille a last look and then backed out the door.

Danny started to follow him, but Jules Lion put his arm around the boy’s shoulders. “Stay with me. There are things your mother wants from you.”

That’s all it took to hold him back.

“I’ll show you how we make death look a bit more pleasing to remember.” He placed Danny’s hands on Lucille’s and showed him how to work them.

“Fingers and hands are my first trick. Death turns them at angles that don’t please the eye.” It felt strange, but it didn’t feel wrong. Danny hadn’t thought about the derringer since his mother closed her eyes for the last time, but now he did.

“Leave it.” Jules Lion seemed to read his mind. “The dead are good at keeping secrets. Let Madam Lucille do her part.” The photographer moved to the window overlooking the back yard and assured himself the Marshal hadn’t decided to come back inside.

THE FRENCHMAN INCLUDED DANNY in every phase of his mother’s preparation. “Useful things push regrets out of the mind.”

“Check on your stepfather,” he said. “He might have to kill me if he saw this part.”

Danny felt uneasy being in the same room while the Frenchman washed and dressed his mother, but Jules Lion treated her with respect. He took care with every button, and after she was fully clothed he applied rouge and paint as if he were restoring a damaged masterpiece.

“The dead have pride,” the Frenchman said. “That’s the essence of memorial esthetics.” He posed her in a chair so she looked natural, asked Danny’s advice when he needed a decision. “Would she hold her arms like this? How would she tilt her head?”

He shaped her lips into a faint smile, and worked her hair into an elaborate style Lucille never wore but probably would have if she hadn’t worked so hard.

“Touching the dead can be dangerous work,” the Frenchman told Danny. “Especially those taken by diphtheria.” But it was the duty of a first-rate picture man, because he knew the importance of producing one final memory.

He disguised most horrors with light and shadows. He concealed others with strategically placed clothing.

“Tricks like these take years of practice, and your mother’s death isn’t the proper place to learn” the photographer said. “But exposing images? Now, that’s another matter.”

Jules Lion allowed Danny to remove the lens cap on his camera and count enough seconds so that every detail that remained of Lucille Tinnin was captured. Every crease in her face, the moisture in her eyes, as if she mourned herself.

While the Captain dulled his grief with digging and carpentry, the Frenchman taught the boy to print images on paper with equipment from his buckboard—black drapes to make a darkroom, developing chemicals, a blood red lamp that wouldn’t leave a mark on the film. He was especially proud of his enlarger with a real Westinghouse battery powered electric light. Lucille’s death became part of a process that was half science and half art and resulted in a product that was beautiful and horrifying at the same time.

Daniel couldn’t take his eyes off the image projected on the print paper. The picture man waved a piece of cardboard on a stick over the negative projection of Lucille’s face. He passed it over her hands, over her burying dress, to bring out details that would turn the memorial photograph into a work of very peculiar art.

“Burning and dodging,” the Frenchman called it. He talked about photoreactive chemicals and exposure to light. He let Danny burn and dodge a print all by himself. Let him pick out which details he wanted to stand out and which ones he wanted to hide.

The Frenchman looked like the devil in the red light of the dark room, but Danny wasn’t afraid. The photographer talked to him without making threats. His voice was full of sympathy. Kindness showed behind his every gesture.

The complicated task of making the memorial photograph beautiful for his mother chased the memory of the derringer out of Danny’s mind until it was time for the two of them to place her in the Captain’s homemade coffin.

"You see how well Madam Lucille keeps her secret," the Frenchman said. "Let her keep it a little longer."

MOST FOLKS IN THE Territory had a service when they died. Members of their church served food. A preacher promised a place at the right hand of God. Relatives milled around the parlor making plans to meet again on judgement day. For Lucille there was only the Frenchman, her son, and Captain Hugh Tinnin, the hero of Honey Springs.

Danny and Jules posed her graveside in the crude wooden box her husband made while the Captain prepared himself inside the house like a nervous groom waiting to see his bride dressed for the ceremony.

The boy had plenty of time to fetch Lucille’s pistol, to see the powder and slug were in place, and the percussion cap was on its nipple. There’d be no second chances once Danny started putting his mother’s last wishes into action.

When everything was set, Jules walked the Captain to Lucille. Hugh Tinnin wore his officer’s uniform complete with a light cavalry saber and the Beaumont-Adams revolver he once used to execute captured Negro Union Soldiers. The only thing missing from the ceremony was music, but there were mockingbirds perched on the cross, laying claim to the territories of other species. It seemed appropriate.

The Captain’s eyes were fixed on the beautiful woman in the box, made even more stunning by the beam of light that fell through the clouds and illuminated her face. Tears that couldn’t quite bring themselves to fall added a shine to the eyes of the man who’d taken Lucille captive.

“She looks . . . .” He wasn’t handy with soft words so the Frenchman finished the thought. “Like she’s closed her eyes for a few minutes of rest between dances at the cotillion.”

The Captain held his hand over Lucille’s face as if he meant to touch her, but the Frenchman warned him, “The plague that killed her is still there,” and he pulled away.

Danny stood close by the coffin, to show Hugh Tinnin there were things that didn’t scare him and to hide the derringer-size bulge in his pocket.

“What did she say?” the Captain said. “I must know her last words, Jules.” Reduced to a first name basis by the strain of the day, but it was understood familiarity only reached one way.

“You shall, mon amie.” He moved Danny aside and crowded close to the Captain, wrangling him to the head of Lucille’s coffin without laying hands on his uniform.

“She’d want you to stand here, monsieur.” Between the coffin and the grave.

“What did she say, Jules?” A touch of spite in his voice, at having to ask a French-colored man more than once. The fingers of his shooting hand caressed the grip of his Beaumont-Adams pistol, probably an idle threat, but with Hugh Tinnin you could never be sure.

“Danny knows,” Jules said. “Go ahead, my young messenger. Tell Madam Lucille’s husband what she wanted him to hear.”

When the Captain turned back to his stepson, the boy had the derringer leveled at his chest.

Hugh Tinnin flinched when Danny drew the hammer back, unsure of himself, but more indignant than afraid. “Go on boy, tell me what she said.”

“Hugh Tinnin has needed killin’ for some time now.” The pistol jumped when Danny fired the shot.

The Captain looked at the expanding red stain on the uniform Lucille had laundered and put away for him. He wiped at it as if it were something that might come off with a bit of soda water and elbow grease. He raised his gaze to the colored boy who’d just shot him and kept staring until he lost balance fell backwards into the open grave.

His eyes were open but it was impossible to say whether he was alive or dead.

“Go get the camera, my young friend,” the Frenchman said. “This is an image you’ll want to remember.”

Danny hoped those were the last words the Captain heard.

John T. Biggs

John T. Biggs describes himself as a regional writer whose region is somewhere west of the Twilight Zone. His work blends speculative fiction with a literary style and frequently includes Native American mysticism. Sixty of John’s short stories have been published in magazines and anthologies that vary from literary to young adult speculative fiction and everything in between. Some of these stories have won regional and national awards including Grand Prize in the Writers Digest 80th annual competition, third prize in the Lorian Hemingway short story contest, Storyteller Magazine’s People’s Choice Award, and two OWFI Crème de la Crème Awards. John has published four novels: Owl Dreams, Popsicle Styx (Oklahoma Book Award Finalist) Cherokee Ice (Oklahoma Book Award Finalist & OWFI Best Published Fiction Book of 2015), andShiners (OWFI Best Published Fiction book of 2017), as well as a linked short story collection,Sacred Alarm Clock, which includes the OWFI Crème de la Crème winning story, “Twenty Percent Off”, and a series post-apocalyptic novellas, Clementine: A Song for the End of the World.