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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

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BOOK: Easy Pickings
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“How much gold in it?”

“Two and a half ounces. Fifty dollars refined, but milled gold has some impurities. Worth about seventeen an ounce. Now tell me the rest.”

“I've been driven out,” she said. “By the hooligans. The ones with the funeral home. The ones who burnt down my cabin. Jerusalem Jones and Bum Carp.”

She told him that story, and then told him about the earlier visit from two powdermen ready to do some blasting. And after a moment, she confessed:

“I wouldn't let them. I suppose that was dumb.”

“Why wouldn't you let them?”

“The court order.”

She had to tell him about that, too. He hadn't heard.

“I'll retract my offer to marry you,” he said. “I wanted the gold mine, and now it's gone.”

She hadn't expected to laugh, but she did.

“But you could live in sin if you'd like,” he said.

“I may take you up on it, but not yet.”

“Meaning you'll go dicker with the barkeep first. Let me see what's to be done here. The Helena court's a half day away, and there's not much I can do against the local constabulary. But we could always elope.”

He was making a joke of it. That was the trouble with the gasbag. She whirled out, into the glare of midday sun, and headed for the saloon hoping Tip Leary would be about. He wasn't. She was alone. It hit her hard. She would soon need food. And shelter. And something to wear. She could wait for Tip and beg for help. She could find some of those miners, now off-shift, and beg for help. Or she could fight, and maybe die trying if it came down to that.

There was the overhang on the slope off a way from the mine boundary. There was the root cellar, which she could reach furtively, at night. There was Kermit's shirt and pants and boots at the overhang. There was Kermit's own explosives stashed near the mine head. There was the stash of those powdermen, somewhere.

She might have found a welcome in town. Walk into any church and get help. Marry some male on the spot; she knew there were scores of lonely miners ready to tie the knot. But that was not to be. She turned her back on Marysville. Instead, she walked wearily up the familiar gulch, with its walls of anonymous dark forest climbing the slopes. She cut off at a familiar spot, and worked through brush, past a bear nesting ground, past a dripping spring, ever higher, until she reached the place where native rock broke out in jagged strata, and a few minutes more took her to the overhang, not far from her mining claim. This would be home. It would umbrella her. With a little effort she could add to its comfort, barricade the wind and weather.

Kermit's britches and shirt were where she had left them. She climbed into them, again discovering the comfort of flannel and the odd liberation of pants. Even rolled-up pants. The next step was to steal food and maybe a blanket or some sort of cover. And after that, to fight her guerrilla war bare-handed and never quit and never surrender.

She was now as feral as a bitch wolf.

 

Fourteen

March McPhee discovered she had no trouble living in the wild. She found wild strawberries, as tiny as her fingernail, carpeting some hollows, and huckleberries, too. She smuggled potatoes and onions from her own root cellar, and even slipped into her canvas house to nab her clothing and blankets when no one was there. She collected her shovel and pick and hammer, and hauled them to her redoubt. These she used to build rock walls that effectively shielded her from the occasional mountain storm.

She ached now and then to slip into Marysville, but that would serve no purpose. There was nothing her friends could do for her. Tip Leary's miners had tried again to work the mine, but Roach's thugs had driven them off at gunpoint, and after that all forays into the property ceased. All this she had watched from several vantage points that enabled her to look down upon the mine head, and even the canvas house below. There wasn't much that escaped her.

She felt free, most of the time, to wander the area of the mine head, picking up valuable items. One day she discovered a cache of explosives, DuPont powder, copper caps, Bickford fuse, plus some equipment, too, such as a crimper, an acetylene lamp, and a box of kitchen matches. All these things vanished from the mine, and were stowed strategically and safely in or near her redoubt.

The summer days and nights passed one by one. No doubt things were happening. Courts were issuing edicts. Property was being seized. Plans being laid to start the mine up, this time for its alleged new owners, known as the Roach Clan, or sometimes the Laidlow Group, but encompassing several families.

March continued to ghost around the property, noting exactly when its watchmen departed, as they occasionally did. And then she slipped in, pillaged the canvas cabin, and made off with even more items. A blanket, a cook pot, a fork and spoon. She always took care not to call attention to herself, and with each passing day learned how to glide through the dense forest, leave no mark of her presence, live off the land, and keep a watch over the mine.

The watchmen were bored and restless. One day she spotted them at the mine head. One was standing guard while the other was deep within. When at last he emerged, he was carrying a heavy burlap sack. So they were nipping ore themselves, no matter what the court's edict might be, and in defiance of their employer, Uncle Mortimer Laidlow. That was the beginning. Soon they were gold-fevered, and spending more and more time at the mine head. They avoided any blasting, but managed to chisel and hammer ore out of the quartz seam. That would soon come to an end, though. The day would come when they could no longer sledge out quartz. The seam was narrow and surrounded by country rock that had to be blasted loose.

They must live somewhere in Marysville, and next time one of them walked into town she intended to shadow him. She was gradually thinking up some things she might do to make their long stay at her mine less comfortable. She was tempted to burn the canvas shelter, but that would only trigger a major manhunt for her. No, she would remain invisible if she could, and for as long as she could manage.

She didn't know what she'd do when winter set in, but that was months away, and maybe she'd have her mine back by then. But that looked less and less probable to her. Loneliness dogged her. She starved for company, and was often tempted to slip into town just to talk to someone, anyone, such as Tip Leary. But for some reason she didn't. She could not explain herself. She was becoming a hermit, even against her better judgment.

One day Jerusalem Jones headed into Marysville toting a heavy sack, no doubt full of her ore. She shadowed him, knowing how to be invisible, always on the slopes, never on the trail or the bottoms. He grew wary in town, paused whenever he saw anyone, and finally delivered the ore to the assayer. So, maybe this was just another assay. But she remembered that the assayer was capable of refining small quantities—for a price. Jones emerged in a while, without the sack of ore, and headed for the Laidlow Funeral Home, and disappeared there. She hesitated to follow him there, on a busy street, wearing Kermit's britches and shirt, which would have scandalized anyone who saw her. So she retreated until twilight fell and she could move stealthily. She hoped to find some sign of Jones, but he had vanished.

She had evolved a way of ghosting straight through Marysville, using doorways, shadows, alleys, hedges, and now she eyed the city hall and its constabulary office. A single lamp burned in a window. Roach was nowhere to be found. She located him at Mac's Eats, where he was dining importantly. She slipped into his sanctum and studied it. There were shotguns in a rack on the wall, and she was tempted to take one to replace the one stolen from her. But she didn't. She noted the ease with which the office was breached. The constable was scarcely worried about crime in the village. She spotted a key ring, and tried the key in the cell lock, and found it threw the bolt. She returned the key ring, and looked for another, which she found in a desk drawer. She felt bad about snooping. The town was quiet, and she felt she was violating its peace, just by poking around the empty constabulary.

She yearned to talk to Tip Leary, but that would place her there, and she decided against it. She slipped into the fullness of night, pausing at shadowed doors to make sure the coast was clear. Marysville was sleepy; Constable Roach had little more to do than keep rowdy boys from tormenting dogs.

She watched him finish his meal at the restaurant, leave without paying, and amble along the street, trying the doors of businesses without scaring up an army of thugs. When he reached the brightly lit funeral home, he turned in, and she saw him welcomed there by his brother-in-law, and saw several others, all male, through the window. She edged closer hoping to hear, since it was summer and most of the sash windows in Marysville were opened wide to catch any stray breeze. But she couldn't make out the conversation. One of those present was Jerusalem Jones, and she wondered whether he told them about taking ore samples to the assayer. Maybe he had been asked to do just that; then again, she doubted it.

Jones left, started through pale moonlight toward the mine, and she shadowed him all the way. He was unsuspecting, and never turned to see who or what might be coming along behind a hundred yards or so. He reached the grade leading to the McPhee, climbed it, and entered the canvas shelter. She edged around to the rear, glad there were no dogs, and listened to Jones and Carp. It proved to be easy. The canvas obscured nothing but herself, there in the dark.

“Court's seized the mine; we're pretty much through here. There's no fight. The woman's gone. Soon as the boss gets it, he'll be digging ore. If we're going to do it, we'd better set to work. You game?” Jones asked.

“Ah, they'll need a few days to hire a crew, and even then they'll fool around, getting equipment.”

“Naw, they'll move fast.”

“What did the assayer say?”

“Well, that's not so good. He pulled out some quartz, put on his spectacles, and studied it some. From the McPhee Mine? That's what he asked. I didn't want to say, so he pulled out a pad of forms. Sign the form, sez he. So I study on the form, and it authorizes him to do an assay and take a fee for it, and it sez the signer is owner or authorized agent, and he stares at me. I sez, I'll check with the owner, and hold off. So he nods, and the ore's in there waiting for a signature on a form, and I am thinking maybe putting my name on the line, that's just asking for it, not so much because of the woman but because of the family.”

“So it's just sitting there? Could we take it to the mill for a custom milling?”

“Beats me. We'd need a lot more ore to make a full load for custom milling.”

“Not much time for that—unless we start now.”

“I'm tired. I've walked all day. Took twenty, thirty pounds of ore down there. And now you want to go dig a ton out.”

“You got any better idea?”

She didn't hear the answer. The man probably just shook his head.

“If we don't get it now, someone else will. And we'll lose our only chance,” Bum said. “It don't matter if you're halfway worn out. Nothing matters but digging it out while we can. We'll put in a hard night, for sure, but it's worth it. You and me, we'll run a ton through the mill down there, and we'll put enough in our britches to live like kings.”

“For a while, Bum, and then what?”

“We're part of the clan. We'll get our cut. That's what old Laidlow himself said. Everyone in the clan gets a share.”

“Let someone else mine it. We'll get our cut,” Jerusalem said.

“Sure, one twelfth of the profits.”

“Less, last I counted.”

“Well, that's my point. Get it now and it's ours. Get that lamp. Get a pick or two and a shovel and some sacks. You can sleep tomorrow; tonight we're getting ours.”

So the pair was looking to clean out some of her ore, ahead of the Roach takeover.

Gold did strange things to people, even putting one family member against another.

So they had been stealing—and hiding it. She slipped into the darkness of the forest, wondering what to do, if anything. When she reached her redoubt under the overhang, she sat down, almost as weary as Jerusalem Jones.

She built a fire in her hidden vale and brewed bitter tea, and stared into the eve, gaining no wisdom. She felt helpless against them. Those who wore pants seemed to own a power that she lacked.

She thought of Scotland. Was there any Scot not familiar with death? It visited all too often, and plucked the young away. What else did the poet write about? Robert Burns wrote of death, and sometimes love, but mostly death.

She had wanted only to bring love to the table: to hold her wee one on her knee and slide a bit of porridge into him, and watch him grow strong and supple, and become the man her husband had always been. That was a woman's role, but also her fate. The good and the bad, like the time she had nursed Fourth through milk fever, and he lived. But here she was, wearing Kermit's britches, alone, and cast into the wilderness, and losing what little he had left her.

She scarcely knew how to defend herself, she who wished to be as fragrant as the heather on the hill, and as pleasing to the eye. She whose dream was a nesting one, supple and happy in the compass of her husband's world. But this wasn't Scotland, and she had no husband to please and to protect her and his wee ones.

There was a task awaiting her, an obligation wrought from blood, and not anything she would have chosen to shape her life. She shied from it. Defend herself, yes, if she could. That could be a woman's work. But war, that was farther away than her inner eye could see. Could she hurt them, the ones who pillaged and burned? Could she return war when she should sue for peace? And was she made of the same stuff as a man, as hard and determined to fight as whatever lay in a man, which seemed to rise from his very stones?

BOOK: Easy Pickings
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