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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

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BOOK: Easy Pickings
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She felt a certain inevitability. Not that she called, not that she chose the vocation of war, but that it came upon her and she could not avoid it. It was not her calling, fighting a war. It was something that had landed on her as hard as the slab of rock had landed on Kermit and snuffed his life. She would do what she must, but never again call herself a woman, or dream of holding her own wee babe at her breast.

She had no weapons, but what did it matter? She would use what came to hand. She had neither sword nor firearm, but she had an iron will, forged by cruelty. And the more she thought about war, the more she understood how to wage it. In fact, this very night might be a good time to begin.

Farther along the cliff, under the same overhang, she had stored Kermit's mining supplies, along with those cached by the two powdermen. She hoped she knew how to put them to good use.



The pair of them were feverishly hacking quartz ore from her mine, and she could see faint light from their acetylene lamp at the portal. Once in a while she heard clatter, the sound of rock landing in Kermit's old one-ton ore car.

The night lay still and quiet, with scarcely a breeze. The milky way lay as a powdery streak across the heavens, tens of thousands of sparkles, like a field of dreams, showing mortals the edges of infinity. She smelled the pine, which had baked in the summer sun, and now leaked aromatic scents on the playful night breezes. The slopes were thick with lodgepole, Douglas fir, spruce, as well as groves of bright aspen. She had always felt she was in some sort of earthly version of heaven. She thought maybe God had created mountains to show himself to mortals.

It was July, and warm, one of the few warm nights she had experienced in the high country. She would have been happy this eve holding Kermit Four in the chair on her porch, with her husband beside her, the three of them a small family making its way in the Territory.

But these two, back in that slightly inclined shaft, were stealing her ore, her substance, her very life. She could even see them, moving shadows light dancing off their shovels and picks, as they toiled.

There they were, betraying their relatives, working feverishly to get the gold before anyone else did. There they were, the pair who had tried to shut down her mine, burned her home, took the life of her son, and left her homeless. There they were.

She would bury them there. She hastened through the forest, over the low ridge, to her hideaway, began collecting the things she would need to turn her mine into a tomb. She lit a candle lamp so she could see what she was doing. She got a copper-sheathed cap, treacherous to handle. She got the fuse, the crimping tool, and half a dozen waxy red sticks of DuPont dynamite. She got some wire that would bind her bomb together. She got her knife, so she could insert the fuse into a stick.

She started in, slicing three feet of fuse, slipping it into the cap and crimping it, and then she began building her bomb. And all the while, her mind was fevered with the thought of trapping them there, at the back of her little mine, turning it into their tomb. And if their relatives ever dug them out, they would see betrayal along with death.

But there was something else working in her mind, the thought of birds singing their heart out at the dawn of a fine summer's day. And then she set down her tools and stared into the night. She was a woman meant to nurture life, not destroy it. They might deserve to die, but she was not the one who would release the guillotine blade. She stood, peered out at the stars, and knew she could not do it. She could fight them tooth and nail; she could not simply kill them. If she did, she would live in the shadows ever more.

Kill them? No. Revenge herself? No, at least not with blood.

Feeling a sudden relief, she pulled the fuse out of the cap, carefully put the dynamite back into a hollow in the rock nearby, took the fuse and tools and the cap away, and then returned, numbly, to her hideaway. She had just discovered her own boundaries. Maybe they were a woman's boundaries, this reluctance to take life or wreak revenge. Maybe it was more; a way of honoring Kermit.

She was blue. She was fighting to preserve the sole property remaining to her, fighting against a powerful, connected cabal of men without scruples, fighting to keep from being thrust into the streets, penniless. And now she faced the barrier of her own conscience, the inhibiting moral sense that would keep her from acting as recklessly as the cabal. No matter which way she turned, the other half of her rebelled. She berated herself for a lack of courage, of good Scots warrior instinct, but in the end, she knew that she could not take life. Some memory nagged her, some Scottish warrior woman back in the mists of time, some fierce and mythic woman who led the oppressed Scots against—something. She couldn't remember. But she did remember that the legendary woman—was her name Scáthach?—fought for her people, and not for her personal interests. For the Scots, not for herself. And not to keep a gold mine from being stolen by greedy and muscular crooks.

She settled in a blanket in her sanctuary, defeated, melancholic, and at war with herself. How could she stop this ruin of her property and life, if she couldn't muster the courage to fight back? Was it all because she was a woman, with a woman's respect for life? Was it because she possessed a womb, a way of making new life, a way of adding to the human race? She wished she could have been born without the inhibitions of conscience.

But she didn't sleep. Nothing was resolved. Tomorrow would only be worse than this day had been. There was no point even in occupying this hideaway if she wasn't going to fight for her mine by whatever means she could muster.

She awakened weary, under a clouded sky, with a chill breeze rolling down the mountains. She could not last here long, especially after the land froze, the berries vanished, and gradual starvation loomed. But as she began her day, she realized her restless night had carried her somewhere after all: toward goals. Her purpose was to possess her mine. And maybe sell it. Her purpose was to drive away the predators. Her task was to stop them cold. Each step they took toward stealing and looting her mine should have its consequences. Whatever they gained in law or by pillage, they should lose in some other way. And her purpose was to survive, feed, clothe, and shelter herself, and get on with life.

But how?

She didn't know. But it wouldn't ever happen if she continued on as an invisible wraith in the mountains around Helena. She could not be the lone wolf-woman haunting the peaks and hidden valleys, the outcast of the mountains. Her future lay in Marysville.

She collected her stuff, and stowed it far under the overhang, safe from weather, and safe from sight, unless someone happened squarely on the refuge. She washed carefully, and dressed herself as stylishly as she could, given her borrowed clothing. She had no looking glass to guide her, and no real comb, but she did have a ribbon to tie her chestnut hair together behind her head, which was the only grooming she could manage.

Then she set off, slipping through forest, down steep grades, as secretive as a deer, until she burst into the gulch and took its lonesome road into Marysville. She wondered whether she would ever see her mine again.

The town seemed strange to her; raucous in the morning, with wagons rattling on the clay road, shopkeepers sweeping their doorways, and off on the slope, the steady thump of the stamp mill, and the occasional rattle of tailings pouring out of ore cars onto an ever-expanding pile of waste rock. Noise and motion shattered the peace, unlike the soft sounds of her solitude on the mountain.

She headed straight for the constabulary and city hall, pulled open the heavy door, and discovered Constable Roach at his rolltop desk, penning some sort of material into a ledger.

“You, is it?” he asked, glancing at her, taking note of every detail. “This is the thirty-fourth day without an arrest, though I did permit one Jacob Morehouse to sleep off his indulgence in a cell with an unlocked door,” he said. “We have a peaceful city without crime. Except now and then.”

He reached into a cubbyhole in the desk and withdrew two thick folded papers, and handed them to her. “Another summons,” he said. “Helena court. But no one knew how to deliver them to you, though of course every effort was made.”

“You may tell me about them,” she said. “It will save reading.”

“They've expired. You were summoned to appear in District Court to answer a debt proceeding, the matter being what you owed the funeral home for services involving your late husband. Since then there's been a summary judgment; the mine was placed into public receivership, and sold to the highest bidder. And since there were none, the mine fell into the hands of Laidlow Funeral Home for the sum of the debt.” He smiled. “That's all there is to it.”

“And the debt has been discharged?”

“That's the second paper.”

“How did the court know who owns the mine?”

“You didn't file any papers, that's how. It's all over with. The McPhee Mine is no longer in your hands, madam.”

“It seems a little hasty; the mine's owners had not been notified.”

“On the contrary, madam, advertisements were posted in the Helena and Marysville papers. And far be it for you to criticize our justice system. I don't think foreign-born people should object. Do you?”

“And what do you stand to gain from seizing the mine, Constable?”

The question caught him off guard. “Why do you ask such questions? Are you questioning the integrity of our judicial system?”

“Are you going to answer my question?”

“Well, it's none of your business, and that's my answer. Are we done?”

“No. Are you going to arrest me for vagrancy now?”

“I would imagine you'd best leave town as swiftly as possible, or face a night in that cell there, and forcible expulsion after paying a fine.”

“And are you going to start mining the McPhee now?”

“Madam, we don't even know what's there. Laidlow was lucky to get the patent. Maybe it'll cover his debt, maybe not.”

“He has the patent?”

“We will shortly; the original is missing.”

“How could the court award the mine to anyone, then?”

“Madam, your confusions about law are not worth a response. You shouldn't worry your pretty head about things that require learning. Now you're wasting my time, and I'll expect you'll be out of town by sundown.”

“You might as well put me in the cell right now,” she said. “And you can go fetch a good meal from the eatery, and feed your prisoner. Because I'm not going anywhere. Jail food would taste just fine, don't you think?”

He rose, stiff in his thick blue uniform, brushed free of the last dog hair and dandruff, and loomed before her. He actually was a compact man, no larger than herself, but he was bristling, his trimmed beard was quivering, his forehead was furrowed.

“All the requirements of the law have been answered,” he said. “But I am quite capable of taking it into my own hands if duty requires it.”

“What is your salary, Mr. Roach?”

“It's a matter of public record,” he said, “but you're not public.”

“You apparently aren't earning enough to satisfy your tastes.”

He stared at her, unsure whether to take vast offense or dismiss her foolishness. Then he laughed. “I always enjoy a bold woman,” he said.

He escorted her to the door, his hand forcibly steering her elbow, and then she was back in the bright, chill morning, with the sun struggling through whipping clouds. Well, she had learned something. Some sort of shabby proceedings had ripped the mine from her with rude haste, as if any delay might benefit her.

She stepped into the street, dodged some manure, and headed toward the office of her alleged lawyer, Hermes Apollo, who probably got his cut. But it would do no harm to find out.



Hermes Apollo greeted and dismissed her with a single glance.

“You've lost the mine. The Roach clan has it. Their pet judge handed it over.” He eyed her. “That means I retract my proposal. I would marry a gold mine, but not a vagrant.”

“Well, I would marry a lawyer, but not someone who thinks a bar exam is a look at a saloon.”

He laughed. “But my offer of bed and board survives,” he said.

“I'd be bored with your bed,” she said.

He smiled blandly. “It's an offer you can't resist.”

“They ran everything through the court in Helena, and hoped I wouldn't show up and fight,” she said. “I just got these papers from Constable Roach.”

“Oh, those. He didn't look very hard for you. That whole business, the funeral parlor lien, the alleged search for an owner, the seizure of the mine by the court, and the bidding on it—that was as good a joke as any. But maybe they didn't succeed. This came today.”

He handed her an envelope from a federal government bureau. She extracted a parchment document marked
and notarized. It was Kermit's claim. But it was more. She was listed as one of the claimants. He had done that for her.

“All yours,” he said. “If you can get it. The request for parish records in Scotland is not needed. You're named in the patent.” He eyed her. “Now, do we marry, or do I bill you for services rendered?”

“I'll decide that whenever I feel like it,” she said.

“My heart grows faint,” he said.

“Where do I stand?”

“The mine? They have it. They'll exploit it. They'll occupy it and keep everyone else out. Especially you. If you take them to court, they'll delay the proceedings for years. By the time you have your day in court, after agreeing to pay me my high fees, of course, they'll have cleaned out the ore. A mine lasts only as long as there's ore, and usually not long.”

“What do I do?”

“Find a husband. The town's full of suckers.”

BOOK: Easy Pickings
3.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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