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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

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BOOK: Easy Pickings
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He certainly was cheerful. The rhythmic thump of the stamp mill up the slope reached her ears. Day by day, in Marysville, a fortune was being torn from the mountains.

“Justify it,” she said sharply.

“A great endeavor. First, petition the federal land office for a fair copy of the patent. Send a request, indeed, duplicate requests to be on the safe side, to Edinburgh for the parish record. The will is less a problem. A wife inherits. But the mine is under siege. Word is that it will be seized for debt, or tax delinquency, or some such. They will invent these things faster than I can swat them down. In short, you are committing me to a lifetime vocation, for which I plan to be amply rewarded with the mine and March.”

He was still standing, oddly forceful in his quietness.

“I cannot bear the thought of marriage. It's not you, it's that I lost Kermit only a few days ago. I'm not ready.”

He said nothing.

“If you succeed, get the papers here, fend off the people who want to cheat me out of it, restore it to me, and help either sell it or put it into operation, then—yes, take half ownership in the mine. But only then. Not now. As for marriage, I will do what I have to do. But only if you succeed in all else.”

He reached into his humidor and pulled out a Havana and gave it to her.

“You win a cigar,” he said.

“Was that a proposal?” she asked.

“It isn't a five-cent Baltimore stogie.”

“It's the Hope Diamond of engagements,” she said.

“The mail coach leaves at four for Helena. With a bit of scribbling, I can start matters rolling. The state mining bureau is only a few miles away.”

“I'll want a contract,” she said.

“Oh, an oral agreement will suffice, don't you know?”

“Write the terms, and if there's the slightest weasel in the wording, I won't sign.”

He did. It was clear and unambiguous. She read it, reread it, and nodded. He made a fair copy. They each signed and dated the document, and she pocketed her copy. She walked into the daylight a betrothed woman—at least if he met all her terms.

There had been no parting handshake, much less a kiss, but a smile sufficed. She looked deep into his baggy eyes, and didn't recoil. He winked.

She was restored to the muddy streets of Helena a new woman. Or at least one with arrangements that affected every closet of her life. The day was benign. She had friends here.

She had no more business in town, and this was business enough for a long while. Three men. Three friends. Three allies. Mr. Wittgenstein, Mr. Leary, and Mr. Apollo. They had changed everything, simply because they wished to. She carried her little bundle, courtesy of Tip Leary, under her arm. His most precious gift was a ball of soap, which she would employ as soon as she could at the McPhee Mine. She saw Constable Roach down the street, and ducked into an alley, and managed to avoid the man at least for the moment.

But he was waiting for her when she rounded a corner.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. McPhee,” he said. “I thought you should know that my office is now the whole of Marysville township, thirty-six square miles, which includes the various mining properties near town. I am the law there.”

“Then you'll keep me safe,” she said.

“The mine will be in good hands,” he said. “I may deputize some officers.”

He smelled of witch hazel, and his hair looked newly trimmed. He was always natty. His blue uniform was spotless. He reminded her of a lordly passenger train conductor.

She edged around him and soon was treading up the wide gulch out of town. She felt his eyes on her back, but it was only her imagination.

For some reason the hike from town up to the mine was wearisome, and she toiled through the second mile, suddenly exhausted. She had accomplished all she could that day, hadn't she? Then, when she rounded the bend, and saw the ash-heap that had been her home, and her rude camp nearby, and the few things she had salvaged, a great wave of sadness engulfed her.

What had she done? What madness had got ahold of her? Kermit was barely in his grave, her boy had been lost to fire only a few days before, but here she was, committed on paper to marry someone she didn't know, someone who repelled more than warmed her. She had set aside every caution, written her signature on a paper that would change her life, and for what? For just what?

Even if Mr. Apollo was a good man, she felt nothing for him. Even if he got her papers together and rescued the mine and gave her a comfortable life, what good was it? Did she care for him? Love him? No, it was a fear of loss, of a mine, of her independence, of support, of respectability that had driven her. Fear, not love. Desperation, not desire. She felt her weariness steal through her limbs, robbing energy from them until she could barely walk. She passed by the ashes, reached her camp, and fell to the ground, desolated by the mistakes she had made this day, and by her own foolishness. Or stubbornness. Or maybe even her own greed.

She sensed she would regret this day the rest of her life. She sat bleakly beside her few things, until at last she undid Tip Leary's bundle, and beheld a soft gray woolen dress, needed warmth even in a Montana summer, and the small sack of oats, and the ball of home-made soap. The soap filled her with a longing so great she had no words for it. After days of living barely washed and never clean, she could clean herself.

She found kindling and wood and started a fire in the stove, which sat nakedly on the earth. She started water heating in the tin kettle. She rinsed the ash out of the sheet metal tub. She fetched more water in the wooden bucket, and as soon as the first pailful was hot, she poured it into the tub and started more warming. Nervously, she eyed the trail winding far below. She would see anyone ascending it long before they saw her, and that was all she needed. And yet it felt strange, and intimidating, to bathe in open air.

She fetched the soap, holding it as if it were gold, and when she at last had enough warm water, she stepped in, and luxuriated in it, and then scrubbed herself, lathering soap over her, cleaning her flesh, even if she could not clean away the darkness she felt about signing that paper committing her life and fortune to that man, that Hermes Apollo, names she could barely conjure up, and names that filled her with bleakness. What had the lawyer offered except some security and imprisonment in a cold marriage? How different that was from Tip Leary's tender gift, the soap, the warm dress, the promise of help to rebuild. Tip had given her gifts; Hermes Apollo had only offered a deal, a vast return on a small service. Tip Leary had a heart. Hermes Apollo had only an eye for easy pickings.

But in time, the warm water and suds did their magic, and about the time the water turned chill, she emerged, dried and dressed herself, and felt herself to be a woman once again. But the sadness stayed on. She had made a dreadful mistake, and had bound her life away.

She slipped into the soft gray dress Tip had given her. Nothing could have felt better. Scots knew wool, lived in wool, cherished wool, and now this wool warmed not only her body but her heart. She felt Tip's presence there, a friendship that had grown simply out of Tip's charity.

She knew she had to undo what she had done this day. She examined the paper, the simple contract that bound her perhaps for the rest of her life, if he made good his end of the bargain. She stared at her own signature, scarcely believing she had willfully written it, willfully bargained her life away.

Her thoughts drifted to Kermit, and she sensed his presence there in the wilderness camp they had called home for so little time. What would he want her to do? She decided that was the wrong question. What should she do to make his quest to give her a good life become reality?

She found a sunlit spot where she could let wind and sun dry her hair, and there she sat weighing her future. And there, while breezes toyed with her glossy red hair, she decided that she would not pursue any future; she would let the future come to her. Things had been set in motion. Tip was sending his patrons to build a new cabin, begin mining gold, and keep her safe, and all for the pleasure of doing it. And Mr. Apollo would, or wouldn't, get the papers together, protect her from predators, and keep her safe from people with warrants and summons and judgments. She was not alone.

 

Twelve

At first light, March awakened to the rattle of a wagon, and hastily clad herself. A group of working men in brogans and worn britches were toiling up the grade, along with a mule-drawn wagon loaded with something. It was barely five, but the nights were short in June.

She collected her shotgun and went to the road to meet them, her pulse rising.

They halted, aware of the weapon in her arms.

“The widow McPhee is it?”

She nodded.

“Himself, Tip Leary, sent us,” said a burly one with carrot hair. “We're all on the second shift at the Drumlummon, but we're here to do a little fixing for you, if it's a thing you need. Before we go into the pit.”

“Oh, my, you are welcome,” she said. “You and Mister Leary are most kind to me. Whatever it is, go right ahead.”

“It's a pride in us to help. Is it your husband was lost to a collapse here?” He didn't wait for a reply. “We can't save him, but we can save others. We've some timber men and some muckers, and we've some canvas and a little stovepipe and all. You show us where you'd like the little house put up, and we'll do it.”

“A house, you'd do that?”

“A wall tent on a pole frame, then. We'll get some poles up, make a frame, hang the canvas, get your stove in with the fitting to take the pipe through the roof. And these lads here, Micks every one, they'll cut some lodgepole and put a square set or two into the shaft, brace up that bad spot where the rock's hanging and ready to take the life of anyone in that hole.”

“I am March McPhee, and you are?”

They were content with first names: Two Mikes, a Harry, Sean, Peter, Ambrose, Brian, Kenneth, and two Dans. The red-haired one was a Dan.

“I will make sure that you are repaid,” she said.

Dan shook his head. “Not a man here would allow it,” he said. “Some of us would leave a widow behind; some not. But we who go into the pits, we're all brothers.”

Somehow or other, they all felt a solidarity with Kermit, with the lost baby, and her. She wondered at it.

They swiftly spread out, several heading for the mine, others to a thicket of young lodgepole pines where the trees crowded together. They plucked up axes and saws and tools she scarcely knew, and began hacking down the lodgepoles and limbing them. Others tackled thicker trees, limbed them, and began snaking them up the grade to the mine, where they would soon become mining timbers. She watched amazed. The pole frame of a cabin rose swiftly, not far from the ashes of her home and life. A ridgepole and rafters were lashed down, and then the canvas was wrapped around the poles and laced into place until there were four taut walls, one with a door opening, and a taut cover. A golden light filtered through the cloth, making the interior glow. In the space of a few hours, these busy and artful men erected a solid shelter against weather, one that even had a wooden floor made from Kermit's stores at the mine head.

They had a sheet metal fitting that would keep the stovepipe heat away from the canvas, and two of these men soon had it anchored and the stove ready for use.

They stood silently while she inspected her new shelter, the glowing room, the floor, the release from chill air, the safety of a small home.

“It'll take you through the summer and into the fall,” Dan said. “After that, you'll want to come live in town, I'm thinking.”

They smiled when she thanked them, and seemed eager to get on with whatever else they had in mind, which was timbering the mine.

There, a crew of four sawed and notched the stout lodgepole trunks into a square set timbering of the dangerous area of the shaft, wedged the timbers in place, and slid lagging, or ceiling poles, into place above the crossbeams. The fractured rock was held at bay with a wooden cube jammed tight and ready to fend off most any collapse in the roof of the shaft. They were experienced timber men, used to erecting stout bulwarks and timbers deep in the Drumlummon, and knew exactly what they were doing.

Then Dan showed her the timbering by the light of a carbide lamp.

“I should like to know who you are, and how I may be your friend,” she said to Dan.

“Oh, we're just patrons of our friend Tip. And he's not getting off for free. He promised us a spare mug for it. So you see? It's not for nothing we're working here.”

“Just you wait!” she said. “I'll get even with you!”

The whole lot were grinning.

“We're on the moonlight shift, four to midnight, and it's time for us to go down the hill,” said Dan. “You'll see some more of us. Some powdermen, they'll set up a little charge at the head, and some muckers, they'll clean it out and put the quartz in an ore car. But that's not for today.”

“What do they pay you at the Drumlummon?” she asked.

“Three a day, and some of us get more.”

“Then you'll get that, too.”

Dan sighed. “Ma'am, don't take the brother out of it, please. It's not only for you. It's for him that you lost here, going into the shaft and not coming out.”

Some sort of brotherhood, then.

“So we put up good timbers in his memory.”

Then they were gone. If they hurried, they would meet the whistle at four. And put in another long shift before they saw their beds. She felt an odd loneliness as she watched them hurry their mule and wagon down the slope to the gulch, and then vanish. It was past three in the afternoon, but the day had transformed her life. Now, suddenly, she had a safe mine, a shelter, and hope. And she barely knew their names. Friends of Tipperary Leary; that was all.

She arranged her few possessions in her snug shelter but her mind wasn't on the task. She was safe from most weather, but that wasn't in her thoughts. She could survive the long wait for the papers, but that didn't occupy her. No, the visit from Tip Leary's saloon patrons had brought something else to her attention. They had not come to help or console a new widow out of luck, though that had been present. They had not come to share her new and sharp grief. They had not come especially for her, a woman in trouble. They had come to honor a bond they felt with any man who braved the pits. Any man, anywhere, Hibernian or not, who gathered his courage and plunged into the bowels of the earth for a long shift with the sun hidden from his eyes and soul. In a way, they had come to pay homage to Kermit.

BOOK: Easy Pickings
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