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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

Easy Pickings

BOOK: Easy Pickings
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To my resourceful and courageous friend Margot Kidder

 

One

Kermit was dead. A slab of rock had dropped from the top and flattened him.

March stared at her man, terrified that more lethal rock would fall from the roof of the shaft and kill her, too. She backed out, into daylight, her heart racing, glad to have the sun above her and not sinister rock.

He had not shown up for his noon porridge. That meant he was feverishly excavating a new pocket, or was dead. She had left Fourth, their boy, alone and hiked up the grade and shouted into the mine tunnel, which bore into a steep slope. There had been only silence.

She shouted, again, and was met with a foreboding quiet.

She had edged in, afraid and angry, and found him fifty feet back, under a gray tombstone that had caught him squarely and crushed life from him. His flattened head was visible, along with a twisted arm.

Horrified, she stood before the mine shaft, staring down a vast pine-clad slope to the creek and the trail that would take her to town for help.

“Kermit. Talk to me, please, please.”

But she knew he wouldn't.

The damned fool, she thought, and then relented. Kermit McPhee the Third was a stubborn man, and had said he would put up timbering when he was good and ready, and for now, he wasn't ready. March had been just as stubborn, foreseeing this, and they had been at loggerheads for weeks about it. A wave of tenderness caught her. Kermit McPhee was the man she had crushed to her chest, the man who had gotten her with child, a little one they called Fourth because he was the fourth Kermit McPhee. Now she was a widow with a gold mine.

She fled down the rocky path to the log cabin that had been their mountain refuge for almost a year, the place where they huddled against Montana blizzards and winds. Fourth dozed in sunlight that filtered through the sole window. She would need to go to town. The slab was too heavy for her to lift from Kermit. She would need to free him and bury him. And then what?

She wasn't ready to go to town. She felt the shock steal strength from her limbs. She sagged onto a chair at the rough table, and sat there, paralyzed. She had been named after the stormiest month in Scotland, and she had given him a stormy marriage. He knew she would when he had asked her. He had wanted that. There was nothing placid about Kermit McPhee the Third. Now she was angry with him. He had put off timbering. She had nagged him, and that had only made him more stubborn about it.

The mine penetrated only a hundred feet or so, the shaft rising slightly. He was always working in the light flooding in from its portal, and that had betrayed him. He was working a good quartz seam, and once a week or so he had loaded the mule with gold ore and taken it to Marysville, where there was an assayer who also bought small lots of ore.

“I'll put in timbers when I'm good and ready,” he had said. “Powder and fuse, tools, drills, they're robbing me blind.”

He had a point. They barely scraped by, and only because she sewed his rags together and bought the cheapest cereals, and patched her gowns and resisted her yearnings for a few comforts.

She left the memory alone and threw a shawl around her shoulders. The walk to Marysville would take half an hour, and the air was sharp. She swaddled Fourth in a blanket and set out, down the long trail through pine woods and over rocky shoulders, until she reached the gulch that would snake its way into town.

She didn't know who to tell, what to ask, what to say, but it would not matter. Fourth would be cared for, somehow. Marysville was a company town in a mountain-girt basin, existing to support Thomas Cruse's giant Drumlummon Mine and reduction works on the other side of the valley. It brimmed with cottages and pubs, dry goods stores and groceries. She thought that the town had a constable, but she wasn't sure she needed one. She needed someone to free Kermit and bury him. Marysville was the most peaceful place she had ever seen. Hardly anyone died in Marysville except careless miners, and she wasn't sure whether it had an undertaker, or much of a cemetery. Or whether she could bury a Scot in one.

The closer she came to town, the deeper her loss. At first she was mad at Kermit and then sickened, but now she knew she would miss him, especially when he would sip a little single malt and sing bawdy ballads to her. She was grateful that Fourth was too young to understand them, but they made the baby laugh because the Third laughed.

She passed the outlying cottages, some with rambling roses and picket fences, and made her way into the heart of town, closer to the giant works of the Cruse mine. She knew the assayer there, Mr. Wittgenstein, and thought to ask him for two men. It'd take two to release Kermit and get him onto a pallet.

But then she spotted the mortuary. Laidlow's Funeral Home. Of course. She had forgotten about Mortimer Laidlow. She had been more interested in life than death. But now she needed his help.

But it wasn't a man who greeted her. It was a voluptuous young woman, with sleek brown hair and a lot of frippery sewn to her green dress. That kind of woman shouldn't work in a funeral parlor.

“Never mind,” March said.

“Mr. Laidlow's in Helena today, ma'am.”

“I'll get some miners,” March said.

“You've lost someone. Let me help you.”

Fourth was squirming. March suspected the diapers needed changing. She had none with her.

“You are?”

“I'm Mistletoe. Mr. Laidlow uses me when he has need. We want to share your grief, carry your burdens, lighten your load,” the girl said.

“Here,” March said, and thrust Fourth at the woman.

Fourth squirmed, and a stink smote the air. Gingerly, the girl in green frippery accepted the baby. She was not familiar with babies.

“Mining accident. My man's dead, rock on his head. Send two men with some equipment to get the rock off, and then we'll put him in the graveyard.”

“I'd better wait for Mr. Laidlow, madam.”

“Never mind, I'll get help.”

March collected Fourth and started out.

“Give me a name and a place, and I'll send a wagon up,” the young lady said. “We're here to help you in your time of grief.”

March did. Even drew a little map.

March wasn't sure she was grieving properly. Kermit had been stubborn, and she was stubborn, and the log cabin half up a mountain wasn't her idea of a good life.

“Do you have a diaper, by any chance?” she asked.

“We have everything but diapers here, Mrs. McPhee. Now while you're here, you might want to look at coffins. They are a way of honoring the departed.”

“Cheapest on your shelf. Pine box. That's how Kermit would want it. He begrudged a spare farthing.”

“And you might want to look at headstones.”

“I have dripping diapers and you talk headstones.”

She retreated into sunlight.

Mistletoe might or might not send help. March headed for the assayer, Mr. Wittgenstein, bald with wire-rimmed glasses guarding baggy eyes, and found him studying a bead of gold in a ceramic dish.

“You, is it, Mrs. McPhee?”

“Kermit Three is lying under a rock and I need two men to get him out.”

“Is it urgent?”

“He's dead, and I don't want rats eating him.”

“You need a diaper. The miasma of a diaper fouls my chemistry.” He looked around. “Over there. The dish towel.”

“That's the first kind thing anyone's said to me, Mr. Wittgenstein.”

She settled Fourth on a specimen table and set to work. “The girl at the funeral home said she'd send some men, but I doubt it. Would you send some men, with equipment?”

“Consider it done. I'll go. I know how to get there.”

Indeed, the assayer had visited Kermit's gold mine several times.

March changed the diaper and rinsed the used one in a zinc sink.

“It'll be an hour,” the assayer said. “I'll take the afternoon off.”

March lifted Kermit Four and headed into fresh air. Assay offices stank of chemicals. She preferred the smell of dirty diapers. There was nothing left to do in town, so she started back to the McPhee. Kermit Three had named it after himself, which irked her. A more gallant man would have called it the March Mine. Usually, a man named a mine after his sweetheart. If Mr. Laidlow got himself a mine, he probably would name the shaft after Mistletoe.

She dreaded the long climb that would take her to the horror hidden in a hollow in a fir-clad slope. But ere long she discovered a wagon closing behind her, with two burly youths urging a dray along. They drew up and halted.

“Climb in, madam,” said the carrot-haired one. They were young men, not boys.

She hesitated.

“Mr. Laidlow's assistant sent us,” the man said. “I'm Jerusalem.”

“I will, Mr. Jerusalem,” she said.

“No, that's my first name. Jerusalem Jones. This is Bum Carp. Mr. Laidlow's our uncle, and we do odd jobs.”

They made room for her on the seat, while eyeing Fourth as if he were a meteor.

The dray dragged the creaky wagon upward, along a defile, over a tumbling rivulet, past the first larkspur, and finally into a chill, silent world scarcely imagined by those in town.

The two rescuers stepped down uneasily, staring at the small aperture in the gray rock and the skittery rails that erupted like writhing snakes out of the cliff. There wasn't much to see. No mine works, no towering heaps of tailings.

The sun lay low now, throwing the cliff into shadow, so that the shaft formed a black square mouth against cold rock. The height of the shaft was barely six feet, so low that the cruel rock lowered upon anyone who braved the confines of that little tunnel.

The pair stared.

“You want us to go in there?”

“He's back a way.”

BOOK: Easy Pickings
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