The Culverton Mine Disaster

“Good Lord.”

Lestrade removed his derby to wipe the sweat from his brow, “The good Lord has got nothin’ to do with this, Doctor.”

The carnage was incredible. Every man in the mine lay dead, arrows sticking up from their bodies. Some of them had even been scalped. There were hoofprints still visible in the dirt, ranging all over the mine.

“According to Mr. Culverton, every last miner was killed,” Lestrade said.

Holmes's stony countenance told nothing of his thoughts as he carefully walked among the bodies, stopping to examine one draped over a barrel of blasting powder. A figure all in shades of gray approached the site, tapping an anxious finger against his leg. He was fair haired and fair skinned, soft faced, and clearly a businessman.

“Mr. Culverton,” Sheriff Lestrade greeted him, “have you met Dr. Watson?”

“I’m happy to say I haven’t needed his services,” Culverton shook the doctor’s hand with a small smile. “No offense meant.”

“None taken," Watson replied. "Did you discover the bodies this morning?”

Mr. Culverton nodded, “As I told the Sheriff, I’d only gone to town to place an order for more essentials. I didn’t think I’d been gone that long, but you can see—”

“Yes. You didn’t hear or see anything else?” Watson asked.

“No. The Indians were long gone.”

“This wasn’t the natives,” Holmes said.

Everyone stared at him. Culverton was flabbergasted. Lestrade cleared his throat, “Mr. Culverton, Mr. Holmes.”

“The ‘second opinion’ you wanted?” Culverton’s skepticism was obvious.

“Mr. Holmes has been of some assistance to me the past few years,” Lestrade stated with puffed up dignity, “and given the delicacy of the matter, I thought it couldn’t hurt to hear his thoughts.”

“Except that he’s clearly insane,” Culverton frowned. “Who looks at a mass of scalped men turned into pincushions, and maintains that dirt-worshipping savages didn’t do it?”

“Any man willing to look at the evidence, rather than jump to the obvious conclusion,” Holmes said. He approached the group with a respectful tilt of his head to Lestrade. “Our good Sheriff recognized that we haven’t had any trouble from natives for months. The last incident was a stagecoach being harassed, just a minor scare to remind us that the natives are still in the hills, and have no intention of leaving. A massacre of this sort is unprecedented. Hence, his desire for a second opinion. I must say, Lestrade, I’m flattered.”

“Don’t ruin the gesture, Holmes,” Lestrade rolled his eyes.

Culverton’s frown had deepened as Holmes spoke. Now he looked Holmes up and down, taking in the fawn trousers and black frock coat, the scarlet waistcoat and matching thin cravat precisely tied against his white shirt, the top hat. His estimation of Holmes was blatantly obvious; an aristocratic Southern dandy. “And what,” Culverton sneered, “do you know about ‘natives?’”

“I know they don’t shoe their horses,” Holmes stated. “I can clearly see the nails in some of these prints. You seem to take some issue with me, Mr. Culverton.” Watson was certain Holmes was exaggerating his accent on purpose.

“Just seem to recall hearing about a Southern dandy in town, supposedly on the run after the war. Wonder if you might be him.”

“Why should that matter?”

“The fellow I heard of might have supported the Union.”

“Yes, one can imagine that would be an unpopular position in the short-lived Confederacy. Judging from your vowels, you yourself hail from the Southeastern coast, North Carolina, perhaps?”

Culverton scowled. “My brother was gunned down by Union soldiers.”

“As was my father.”

The two men faced each other for a tense moment. It was Culverton who broke first. His face went a little red as he blustered a protest to Lestrade, “Sheriff, my men were killed and scalped, and if you aren’t going to do something about it, I will.”

“You know what’ll happen if a bunch of soldiers go up over those hills?” Lestrade said. “Every last Indian for miles around is going to come down on this town, and then you’re really gonna see a massacre. Yeah, we might wipe them out, but not without a whole lot of people dyin’ in the process. Rushing into things is the last thing we want to do!”

“Well, while you’re ‘not rushing,’ I’m going to see to the burial of my men.”

“At least let me examine—” Holmes'ss protest was silenced by Lestrade’s elbow in his side.

“We’ll leave you to it,” Lestrade said with a tip of his hat.

“Mr. Culverton,” Watson said with a farewell gesture.

“Sheriff,” Holmes kept his voice low as they walked back to their horses, “those arrows were fired after the bodies lay dead.”

“And how the devil did you figure that?”

“If I’d been permitted the opportunity to examine a body thoroughly—”

“I’m not letting a bunch of bodies lay out in the sun all day just so you can experiment on them.”

Holmes bit back whatever callous remark he’d been about to make. “Do we agree that the natives weren’t responsible?”

“We agree it was unlikely.”

“Did you see the hoofprints?”

Lestrade hesitated a moment before confidently stating, “No, I didn’t look.”

“They were shoed. Surely you at least believe I can tell the difference between the print of a shoed horse and one that is not?”

“... granted.”

“It was not a native’s horse that rode around that mine, and without a horse, no natives could have killed every man in that mine fast enough that none of them fought back. And unless you think a group of bandits have suddenly taken to murder by bow and arrow, those arrows were planted there, and the men died of something else.”

“Something else. Such as?”

“If the physical wounds happened after death,” Watson reasoned, “then the men died of some internal distress.”

“You are positively scintillating today, Watson,” Holmes said.

Watson’s jaw dropped. “Holmes, you don’t think Culverton poisoned his own men!”

“I think it is a possibility we must consider.”

“Some of those men were scalped!” Lestrade protested. “Besides that, Culverton doesn’t even have a motive. What profit could there be in killing the men making him rich?”

“Many white men are as familiar with the act of scalping as any so-called savage, if not more so, and those men weren’t making him rich, were they?” Holmes challenged. “Culverton’s mine has never been terribly profitable.”

“Wanted to expand, I think,” Lestrade nodded, “Convinced there was more to be had nearby.”

“In the hills, perhaps?” Holmes said. “Where do those natives that Culverton was so eager to blame reside?”

Lestrade looked as though he’d been slapped. “He set up a massacre of his own men, just for an excuse to wipe out the Indians so he can expand his mine?” That ever present bull-headed sensibility rallied to the fore, “Mr. Holmes, you have no proof that that is what actually happened.”

“It is the only explanation that accounts for all the facts.”

“Only explanation my foot,” Lestrade grumbled. “Mr. Holmes, you bring me proof that Mr. Culverton murdered his men just to frame a bunch of natives, and I’ll gladly put him behind bars. Your theories won’t cut it. Hard, solid proof.”

With that, Lestrade turned his horse in the direction of the jail.

“That man has so much potential to be intelligent,” Holmes muttered, “it’s remarkably aggravating.”

When they arrived back at Baker Street House, the place was open for business, with Billy playing a minstrel tune on the piano, and Mrs. Hudson herself behind the dark wooden bar. The daylight through the windows provided enough light for now, but as night fell the chandelier would cast a warm glow over the tables. Mrs. Hudson’s girls lounged against the bar and along the stair railing, chatting with customers. There was a decent crowd already, despite the relatively early hour.

Holmes and Watson made their way up the stairs, ignoring the curious looks of new faces as they went to their room, and nodding a greeting to the regulars. It wasn’t until they were outside their door that Watson finally spoke.

“Culverton certainly took a dislike to you.”

“Ha! Mr. Culverton fled the Confederacy after the war was lost to take advantage of the new opportunity and distinct lack of legal boundaries the western frontier provided. My father may have died defending the Confederacy, but at least he had principles. Culverton is an opportunistic businessman, little better than the carpetbaggers destroying the remains of the South with their so-called Reconstruction.”

“Somehow, I doubt he sees it that way.”

Holmes chuckled. His slow southern drawl became more pronounced when he was offended, “No doubt I am little more than a pompous scalawag in his eyes.”

Holmes retrieved his pipe once they were inside 221, sitting down in his basket chair. Watson sat in the chair across from him, not bothering to hide his grimace this time. “Well?”


“The case, Holmes. Culverton aside, what are your thoughts on the case?”


Holmes smiled before regarding the window, a distant gaze in his eyes as if he looked across the town to the scene at the mine from his chair. “There is one detail, only one, that remains unaccounted for,” Holmes spoke softly, “I’m not certain of its significance, yet.”

“Are you going to tell me what it is? Or just sit there, being infuriatingly impenetrable?”

Holmes laughed a little, and drew a small bottle from his pocket, “What do you make of that, Doctor?”

Watson examined it carefully, trying to apply the same attention to detail that Holmes would use. Unfortunately, to Dr. Watson’s eyes, it was just an amber bottle with a solid black label. “A medicine bottle,” he shrugged. “Where did you find it?”

“It was lying just to the side of one of the bodies. I picked it up while you were talking with Culverton.”

“Why should a bottle be cause for concern?”

“It isn’t the bottle, Watson, it’s the label. No store in town has such, not even for the less pleasant substances. Where did it come from?”

“A traveling salesman with poor business sense?”

“You joke, Doctor, but...” Holmes froze, his eyes fixed on Watson with something almost like awe. He sprang to his feet, “Watson, you never cease to amaze me!” He was out the door and down the hall as he called back, “You are not yourself luminous, but you are a great conductor of light!”

With a curse, Watson followed. “Can all southerners make an insult sound like a compliment, or is it just you?”

Holmes gave no indication of noticing as he hurried down the stairs. “Mrs. Hudson!” His strident call was clear over the sounds of conversation and tinny piano.

“You’d think a gentleman would learn not to shout so much,” Mrs. Hudson scolded him from behind the bar.

“It’s the most expedient way to ensure your attention. Was the last silver tongued leech to pass through town a customer of yours?”

“The snake oil man? Sure was. Why, want your money back?”

“Your rapier wit knows no bounds, Mrs. Hudson. Whose favors did he purchase?”


Holmes scanned the room, spotting her almost instantly and crossing the distance between them in a few long strides.

“Is this case going to be worth the grief of him interrupting Kitty and her customer?” Mrs. Hudson asked as Watson approached.

“That depends on if you think solving a mass of murders worth more than the dollar you’d get from that fella,” Watson replied as he sat down at the bar.

Mrs. Hudson poured him a shot of whiskey, “I suppose.”

Kitty and the customer, a rough faced teamster, were fortunately still in the ‘negotiating’ phase of the evening. Holmes smoothly inserted his long arm between them, holding a gold coin up to Kitty’s face. “I require your services, Miss Winter.”

She smiled, “Can’t say no to a gentleman.” The other man started to protest, “Sorry, but I take the offers I get. Stick around, when I’m done with him, I’ll come back to you.”

“I ain’t in the mood to wait,” he grunted, grabbing Kitty’s arm hard enough to hurt.

Holmes knocked the hand away, “If that is your method of handling women, it’s no wonder you have to pay for their company.”

“I sure as hell won’t take lessons from some hoity-toity jackanapes, neither.”

Holmes smiled, his voice honey and molasses. “I doubt there’s anything I, or anyone else, could teach you.”

The people standing nearby were suddenly terribly interested in their drinks, or found something else to do on the other side of the room. The sudden exodus was enough to give the teamster pause. Holmes's gaze remained fixed on him like a hawk, and that smile and those sickly-sweet words made the air a little colder.

“I apologize for interrupting your plans for the night, Miss Winter,” Holmes said. “It is ungentlemanly of me, but I have my reasons.” Holmes turned, leading Kitty to the staircase.

They were halfway across the room when the stranger’s pride flared. “Sonofabitch,” he muttered, and went for his gun just as Holmes spun around to face him, a small streak of silver flying from his outstretched hand. The gun never made it out of the holster. There was a moment of silence before the stranger howled in pain, Holmes's knife lodged firmly in his wrist.

“Shall we?” Holmes offered Kitty his arm. “You’ll see that I get my knife back?” Holmes called over his shoulder to Watson as he went upstairs.

Watson sighed. Mrs. Hudson poured him another.