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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

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BOOK: Easy Pickings
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Was this brotherhood among men the same as sisterhood she often felt toward her own sex? She could not say, and maybe it wasn't important. Strangers had honored Kermit McPhee and looked to his widow and his property. It all seemed a mystery to her; she, a new and hurting widow, and Dan, their spokesman, looking beyond her, his every word respectful, and yet serving a male brotherhood.

She wondered whether Kermit would have fathomed all this. It left her oddly pained, but so did most everything these dark times.

That evening she found herself entertaining a visitor. She discovered Constable Roach slowly climbing the grade to her shelter and mine. He walked easily, a compact man in fine condition, wearing his natty blue uniform. He was carrying a folder or envelope of some sort. A small silver bar pinned to his lapel identified him as the village peace officer. She debated whether to collect her shotgun, and decided against it. He stood on the small flat, eyeing the ashes of what had been her home, her new shelter, the woods beyond, and finally her.

“Good evening, Constable,” she said.

He took that for permission to come close, surveying her all the while with those spaniel eyes. “Here's something for you,” he said, and handed her the envelope.

She took it.

“There, then. That's a summons and you've been served properly. Your presence is required in district court.”

“For what?”

“Collection of debt, as I understand it. You owe the Laidlow Funeral Home a sum. They've gone to court. This action requires you to pay in ten days, that's tomorrow, or the mine will be attached. I should add that there's a court order prohibiting the removal of anything of value, such as ore, which might reduce the value or prevent my brother-in-law from full satisfaction.”

“What court?”

“The territorial district court in Helena. My cousin, Samuel Roach, presides there.”

“I see.”

“I'm glad you do. We are a tight-knit family, each branch of which looks after the advancement and well-being of the rest.”

“And how much time have I, and what happens if I fail to raise the funds?”

“You'll want to be there tomorrow. The mine will be attached and sold to satisfy the debt unless you bring cash.”

“And once the mine is sold, do I get the balance, beyond what is owed for Kermit's funeral?”

“I don't imagine you will. There's no evidence that you own it. It belonged to your paramour.”

“Paramour?”

He smiled slightly. “Can you prove otherwise?”

“Then why issue a summons to me?”

“You contracted the funeral services.” He discovered a stump and sat on it. “I'll take some tea and enjoy the sunset with you,” he said. “Nice prospect here, the view down the gulch.”

Maybe that was a good idea. She headed wordlessly to her shelter, where some hot water rested on the stove, and prepared the Earl Grey for him, and for herself.

“I have no sugar.”

“Tea has its own manly flavor,” he said. “Nobler than coffee.”

She handed him a crockery cup of it, and kept another for herself. Those were the sum of her crockery.

“So what happens if the mine is sold? Is there bidding?”

“My cousin will make sure there's an appearance of it.”

“Which means, I suppose, that one or another of your clan will snatch my mine for a song.”

He shrugged. “That's probably all it's worth. An exploratory hole is hardly a bonanza. We thought we'd take the risk. We may end up losing our shirts. But it's all under way, and there's no way you can derail it.”

“Except to pay the undertaker.”

“Oh, there are other approaches if you do that. A considerable amount of tax money is overdue on this place, you know. We discovered it recently. The court can seize it, you know. And there's some question about the patent; whether it is valid. There may have been an earlier claim on this very ledge.” He sipped. “Earl Grey. My favorite, and well brewed. You have gifts, Mrs. McPhee, or is that the right title?”

“It is the right one.”

“Well, I'm glad of that. One of my duties is to look after the morals of the village of Marysville. Thomas Cruse, owner of the Drumlummon, would have no other. We have none of the wickedness of Helena here.”

She reddened, furious, but choked it down. He was observing her closely, well aware of her gust of rage.

“Nice fellows, the ones from Leary's saloon, coming up here to build you a shelter. I gather they timbered that bad patch in the mine, too. That adds to the value, and that will help us ascertain what sort of operation Kermit McPhee was running. But that was generous of them, and I'm sure you'll be returning the favor any way you can.”

She threw her cup at him. It splashed by, barely wetting him. He stood abruptly, amused.

“Time to head down the hill, my lovely friend. It wouldn't be seemly for the town constable to be seen with the merry widow after dark.”

He lifted his visored cap and headed his natty way down the trail.

 

Thirteen

The pair stood outside her shelter in the dawn light, along with a laden mule. They had awakened her. She peered out, discovering the skinniest men she had ever seen.

“Friends of Tip,” one said.

“Powdermen,” said the other.

“We'll drill, put in some sticks, and blast. Tomorrow, there's be muckers.”

She was getting the idea. The slope was soaked in predawn gray, and a deep hush lay over the mountainside. These two were so thin she couldn't imagine them doing heavy labor. But they were wiry, and muscles lumped out of their arms.

She needed to think about this. There was that paper that forbade it.

“I don't think I'm allowed,” she said.

“Tip Leary said go ahead, don't worry about nothing. They can't stop us.”

It was a hard decision to make. She still felt sleep-fogged. The mule twitched restlessly. The packs were heavy, and sagged.

“I'm Del and this is Will,” said one. “We're doublejackers.”

“I guess I don't know.”

“Tip says they're trying to push you out, and it's the Laidlow crowd, so nothing's fair and right,” said Will. “They don't even need to know about it. You need a little ore? You'll have some ore.”

She was fully awake now. “What will you do?”

“We've got steels; I hold and turn the steel while he hammers, then he holds and turns the steels while I hammer. Each steel's a tiny bit narrower than the previous. When we get the holes drilled and cleaned, then we crimp Bickford into the caps, cut the caps into the DuPont sticks, slide the sticks into the face, and when we're ready we ignite the rat tails a certain way and get out of there. There'll be a thumpety-thump, and that's it. Maybe three feet of rock and ore to muck out. All quiet as a church on a Monday night.”

“I've watched my husband do it,” she said.

“Then the muckers come, but that's tomorrow, long before dawn, and they'll clean the load out before anyone's awake,” said Del. “There isn't nobody gonna know the shaft runs three feet farther, and you've got some quartz for the mill.”

Something in it froze up in her.

“The court says I can't remove ore,” she said.

“The court belongs to them that wants to drive you off,” Del replied.

She stared into the predawn gray, uncertain.

“There's something in me that respects the law,” she said. “Whether or not it's just. Thank you for coming. I'll see what the day brings.”

“We've hiked a long way, ma'am.”

“I know that, and I'll make it good somehow.”

“You're letting yourself be run down like a fox,” Del said. “They have the hounds.”

“I know,” she said.

“Tip, he won't be happy.”

“Tip is the kindest man I've met. Thank him for me.”

“You mind if we stash this stuff near the mine?”

“There's nothing against it,” she said.

“We'll find a place out of the way. It'll be handy.”

She nodded. She'd rarely felt such a heaviness. It was as if she had thrown hope and success out the window. She watched them lead the mule up the mine trail and then disappear above. She returned to her shelter, feeling foolish, and spent an uneasy hour preparing for the day. She neither heard nor saw the powdermen and the mule retreat to the gulch. She thought that if Constable Roach heard about it, he'd be amused. The man was often amused, usually by the foolishness of others.

Why had she sent them away? She couldn't say. They had offered to help her, to toil hard for hours, to expose themselves to danger, to dig her out of her troubles. They and the muckers who would shovel out the rock the following day. They and Tip Leary, shepherding her against impossible odds. And yet for some unfathomable reason she had chosen to heed the injunction of a biased court. She couldn't explain her conduct to herself, and finally decided she was stubborn, a trait she knew a lot about, because every Scot she knew was stubborn, including Kermit. It flashed through her thoughts that she was being honorable, but that was silly. There is no honor in heeding the dictates of a judge looking after his relatives.

The heaviness stayed with her. It was upon her when two more men toiled up the grade, but these two she knew. They were Jerusalem Jones and Bum Carp, part of Roach's little army, lackeys for the funeral home. Fear laced through her. She raced to her shelter and got the shotgun, and met them as they approached the forlorn flat, with its ash heap, and the canvas house built by Tim Leary's friends.

They stared across a chasm, not in the earth but dividing the soul. She knew them better than they knew her.

“Hey, put that thing down, lady,” Jerusalem said. “We've been deputized. We're township constables, old Roach pinned on the badges, and if you wave that shotgun at us, and threaten peace officers, you're gonna regret it.”

“You have no right to be here.”

He grinned. “We're moving in. Court says, you can't take anything of value out, and we're gonna see to it. Just keeping it honest, you see? You try to make off with property, like gold ore, that's being contested in court, you'll end up rattling bars in a cage for a couple of years. Get it?”

“Get off my property. If that's what's bothering you, camp in the gulch.”

“Naw. We thought we'd camp right there in that nice tent. Looks about right, don't it, Bum?”

“This is my home. You'll not stay here.”

“Looks like we've got us a domestic to keep us tidy during our stay,” Jerusalem said.

“Camp up at the mine if you must. That's what you want anyway.”

“No, you got things of value you might make off with, like that shotgun. That could help pay debts, I think.”

They both wore sidearms. But neither was in any sort of uniform.

“We saw a couple of miners and a mule on the road. You know anything about them?” Bum asked.

“I wouldn't tell you if I did.”

They eyed each other. “Bum, go up and see if they've been messing with the mine.”

Bum trotted up the sharp slope to the mine head while March and her captor waited in silence. Some puffball clouds scraped distant peaks. When Bum returned he seemed agitated.

“They're fixing to do it. They got timbering in there, ready for some serious digging. But the face wasn't touched.”

Jerusalem grinned. “Seems like we got here just in time to prevent illegal stuff going on.” He turned to March. “You gonna stay here and cook for us and clean the outhouse?”

She saw how it would be.

“Leave that here,” Jerusalem said, nodding at the shotgun.

“You will not enter my home,” she said, and stood squarely in the doorway through the canvas.

“You call that a home?” Jerusalem said. “Canvas on poles?”

“You burnt my home,” she said. “You won't burn this one.”

They grinned. “What are you talking about? Burnt your home? Are you resisting arrest or something?”

“Did you burn it?”

“What home?” Bum asked.

That was answer enough.

“Out!” she yelled, lifting the shotgun.

They rushed her, knocked her down, yanked the shotgun, pinned her down. She writhed and bucked, but there was Jerusalem, holding her to the earth.

He let loose of her and stood.

“You've got two choices. Either you walk out of here on your own, now, or we'll walk you out, straight to the lockup in town, and charge you. Threatening a peace officer, that should keep you in irons.”

She clambered to her feet and walked away, their eyes following her as she made her way down the grade and into the gulch. She doubted she would ever see her property again. And in a little while, the clan would own the mine. And if she lingered in Marysville, they would find some way to harass or shame her.

It was a long, weary walk. She did not plunge directly into Marysville, but skirted it to the small green cemetery where Kermit lay, and sat quietly beside the raw earth that covered him.

“Have to say good-bye now, Kermit. You left me a good mine, and it's gone,” she said. “You and I brought a good child into the world, and he's gone,” she said. “And you and I, we made a good match, and you're gone. I still have life and memories.”

She sat in the morning quiet a while, remembering her man, remembering the comfort of his arms. And then it was time to go.

She drifted toward Hermes Apollo's office near the big mine, walked in, found him alone. He peered up from his desk, where he had been perusing a law book. He seemed less flamboyant there, except for the gaudy sleeve garter.

“I need the cash. From the ore you took to the mill,” she said, abruptly.

He sighed. “Actually, you owe them thirty-seven dollars. The batch was so small it cost them more to mill it than you got out of it.”

BOOK: Easy Pickings
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