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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

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BOOK: Easy Pickings
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“You could buy me lunch.”

“Actually, I was going to suggest that you buy me lunch. That might save me from billing you for services. And if you buy me lunch, it'll prove that you've set your cap for me.”

She stared at his comfortable offices, with showy law books lining the walls, and massive oak furnishings.

“Good morning,” she said.

He watched her leave. She doubted she would enter that office again. But at least she had something she didn't have before, a valid copy of the mine patent, and with her name on it, too. All she needed now was to take over the mine.

She stood in the street, near a fragrant pile of horse apples, unsure of what to do next. She was starved. She walked slowly toward Grand Street, and then to Mr. Wittgenstein's assay office.

The cowbells clanged when she entered the barren room.

He was back at the rear, loading one of his furnaces.

“In a minute,” he said.

The room was very hot from escaped furnace heat. With tongs he slid several porcelain dishes into the fierce heat. Each dish had some sort of powder in it.

He closed the door of the furnace, and faced her. His forehead beaded with sweat.

“Expecting you,” he said. “Do you still own the McPhee?”

“I do. I think.”

“Some hooligans in here the other day, brought ore from your mine. I recognized it immediately. They wanted an assay. They also wondered if I was able to mill small quantities of ore. I said I was busy.”

“Jerusalem Jones and Bum Carp. They're trying to clean out ore ahead of their relatives.”

“I thought so. I did an assay anyway. That ore's getting better. If it continues, you've got a rich mine. But that's always a big if.”

“I've been pushed out. Some fandango in the courts, and now the Roach people have it, and I can't get near it. But I have the patent. Right here. Would you like to buy the mine, Mr. Wittgenstein?”

It took a while to explain it all to him. She included Hermes Apollo's dark prediction that the mine would be exhausted before she could take it back, even assuming she could find a lawyer able and willing to pursue a years-long struggle, all for a percent of an unproven mine.

He sighed, stared out the small window, and shook his head. “The deck's stacked,” he said. “I can't afford lawyers for several years, with no certainty about what might result. Not even a group of investors could.”

“Thought I'd ask,” she said.

He was staring bleakly. “Mrs. McPhee, there's one thing I can do. I can let you know what is happening inside the mine. Assayers know that.”

She smiled and nodded.

There were walls in Marysville, invisible ones, higher than she could climb. She stood in the street, wondering what next. Then, almost involuntarily, she made her way to the Laidlow Funeral Home, entered, and found Mortimer Laidlow himself.

“Well, if it isn't Mrs. McPhee,” he said, appearing almost magically from behind red velvet drapes. She noted his rum-soaked nose, its capillaries blooming. And his pocked cheeks, probably from a losing bout with adolescence.

“You want another body?” she asked.

“We're always ready to help the bereaved,” he said in a practiced manner.

“I could come up with one. Who would you prefer to embalm?”

“We never jest about these sacred things, madam.”

“You might try it on your lackeys here, Mr. Jones and Mr. Carp. I do believe they've been gouging quartz out of my mine without your knowledge or consent. Some of it's stored at the assay office. They would both look handsome in a casket, the best that money can buy.”

It took a moment to process that, during which his cheek twitched and his fingers diddled.

“They were hard at work, last I knew. Stealing can inspire some serious labor, if the theft seems profitable enough.”

“Ah, I trust I misheard you. You referred to your mine?”

“I did.”

“I'm afraid you've been away too long, madam. The courts have found for me.”

“I know all about the courts, and their jackrabbit justice, and I'll tell you it's my mine, and I own the patent, and here it is.”

She held it before the man, careful not to let him snatch it away. “I was the co-owner of the patent, and as the survivor, the sole owner. This is a fair copy, notarized with the embossed seal of the bureau.”

She snatched it away before he could put his mitts on it.

His oleaginous smile, funereal in all its glory, twitched through his face. He sighed. “It's too late, my dear lady. The courts have transferred unclaimed property to me, because I held a lien against it. You'd best just consider that paper a bit of history.”

“It's a gold mine, my gold mine.”

“Ah, yes, sometimes the bereaved delude themselves, thinking their loved one lives on, a spark that will burst into renewed life, even during the last rites.”

“You're a corker, you are.”

She had expected as much. “Mr. Laidlow, bring me a sheet of paper, an ink bottle, a blotter, and a nib pen.”

He smiled. “Your last will and testament. I have these things right here, at my desk.”

He led her to a small, discreet desk, the place where rites and services and payment were usually negotiated, and he produced a sheet of good white vellum.

She dipped the pen, dated the sheet, and began:

“Herewith is notice that you are to vacate the McPhee Mine within twenty-four hours of the above date, and to cease removing ore from it. Failure to do so will result in whatever action the owner deems necessary to prevent theft and trespassing.”

She put her name to it and handed it to him.

He read it, making a great effort to look amused.

“I will share it with the other owners,” he said. “It's the property of the Roach Group, you know. A trust company.”

“You've been served,” she said. “And do share it with the rest. That makes more witnesses. Especially, share it with Constable Roach. I don't know his given name, but it doesn't matter. I'll find out.”

“The bereaved have strange ideas,” he said. “Sometimes it is necessary to commit them to Warm Springs. The Territory's asylum for unfortunates,” he said. He was acting twitchy.

“Is that a threat?”

“We do what we can for unfortunates.”

She rose quietly, smiled at him, which evoked another twitch, and headed for fresh air. Why did nature seem so clean, and interiors in Marysville seem so unclean?

She stood in the sun a moment, feeling her stomach hurt, and noted that it was nearly noon. Maybe Tip Leary would be on hand. She found the double doors unlocked, and entered, smacking into the stale ale smell of the place that she remembered. And he was there, sitting at the end of the battered bar, keeping his ledgers.

“You, is it? Some sunshine in Tip's grog shop?”

“You mind if I dig into your pretzels, Tip?”

He eyed her closely, saw she was in need, and handed her the jar. And the other one with the pickled eggs.

“Seems to me I'd better close this place for a little bit, to keep it legal,” he said, and ambled to his doors and shut them. “The law says ladies and saloons are mutually exclusive.”

She tackled a big, salty pretzel, and another, and started on a third before she was ready to talk, which he watched closely.

He found some sarsaparilla, and poured it for her, and she sipped it gratefully.

“Now, then,” she said, and plunged in. She had to go back a way, to her life day after day in a hideaway of her own fashioning. The patent with her name on it. Roach's court papers that he had neglected to serve in a timely way. And the arrival of the Laidlow hooligans, and the rest, up to her visit with the mortician himself. Then, suddenly, she was worn out.

“And you haven't a roof over your head, or more than what you wear.”

“I have my hideaway. I can live there a while more, before they find me out.”

“You're a bird with a broken nest, and the chicks all gone,” he said.

“I'd like a safe place. Now, with this patent, proof of my ownership, I'm ready to do what I can.”

Tip shook his head. “When the courts aren't good and true, and when they're robbing your mine while keeping you out, and while the lawyers land low punches and charge you high, while all that's going on, you're without a nest, without a meal—but not without friends.”

He eyed the small wind-up clock at the end of the back bar, and made a decision.

“Rest a little at your hideaway, where you'll be safe. Then make your way here about midnight, and there'll be hands to guide you to a safe place, and other hands to put a little food in you, and other hands to watch over you through the days to come.”

“Tip, what are you saying?”

“I'm saying a widow has friends in my saloon, and these friends, they'll find a nest for ye, and keep you fed, and give you a safe place here in town, and whatever you do up at the mine, ye have a place that's tight and silent.”

“They'd do that?”

“They'd do more than that. They tried to drill and muck for you, but got chased away. They were ready to dig ore, get your little debt paid down. Count on it. Come by when the saloons shut down. There'll be a lamp in my window here to let you know, and I'll be here to introduce you to some lads who'll look after you.”

She stood, refreshed by the small meal, drew him to her, kissed him, and headed into the bright day.

“Take a couple of pretzels with you,” he said.

 

Seventeen

March didn't know whether it was midnight. She only knew the night was long when she started down the obscure forest trails in deep dark.

She had toiled her way back to her hideaway, rested, and gathered what little clothing she possessed in a burlap sack, and then decided to peek at the McPhee Mine. She had worked her way through densely forested slopes to a place where she could observe, and what she saw stirred bitterness.

A crew of maybe a dozen men had been prepping the mine. Some were adding trestle that would take the ore cars to a good waste dump site. Timber men were cutting posts and crossbeams, putting in the shoring that Kermit could never afford. Other men were erecting a storage shed outside of the mine head.

She had watched darkly, and then retreated to her hideaway. She knew it wouldn't stay a hideout for long; those men would fan out, hunting for new deposits nearby, and they would happen upon the little refuge under the overhang. She was escaping to Marysville just in time.

Now, with a thin moon to help her, she eased through deep night, stumbling over deadfall, until at last she reached Long Gulch and the trail into Marysville. Then the walk was easy. The trail led not only to the McPhee, but other outlying mines in the area, and was well used. The Drumlummon was the primary mine in the district, but now there were several more, which was one reason Marysville prospered.

The town lay quiet, the miners' cabins dark, the lamps in the saloons turned down. Nothing prowled but cats, which were prized in mining towns because they killed rats, which were the unseen plague of most mining districts.

One lamp burned softly at Tipperary Leary's saloon, the light welcoming and gentle. She found the door unlocked, and found Tip dozing, along with two miners she didn't know.

“Good,” Tip said. “These two, they've stayed up to be looking after you. They'll take you to your fancy new home.”

“But Tip, I don't need…”

“Be quiet, will ye? Here's the thing. There's about twenty of my patrons in the know. You'll have food daily. Not fancies, but things to keep you fed. It takes a bit out of their brown envelope to do it, but every one's pledged to it, for as long as you need a little something to fill the stomach. Now, you'll be staying on an estate. Not Tommy Cruse's own digs, but the washerwoman house in the back. Cruse got rich, built this place, sold the Drumlummon to a big corporation, moved himself and his brood to Helena, but hung on to the house. He's got a little sentiment about Marysville, having started it and named it and saw it grow to three thousand. This washerwoman cottage, it's back in a grove of aspen so thick it's not seen from the house. There's a room for the woman, and a room to wash, with a stove and big tubs and drying lines outside. The Cruses, they ran through sheets and tablecloths and their own clothing enough to keep a hired woman busy. But they're gone, and she's gone, and the place lies in a grove of trees that will keep it from prying eyes.”

“Oh, Tip.”

“These two are Monk and Brian, and they'll take you now.” He reached for a jar. “And have a pretzel.”

They took her into the night. Marysville slept. But the stamp mill on the slope still thundered, muted violence reducing rock to powder. It was like a heartbeat. She followed them through the chill. The town lay near the continental divide, and was rarely warm. They steered her into an open field with a large white home in the middle of it, every window black and lonely.

“That's the Cruse house, ma'am. They find Helena more to their taste now, since he pocketed a million and more,” Monk said.

“That's the washhouse yonder,” Brian said. “We've fixed it up a little.”

They led her into an obscure building. She could see nothing until Brian lit a candle. It was snug and bare, the cot without bedclothes, the room naked. But it looked like paradise to her.

Brian deposited some things atop a cold stove. “This'll keep you. It's just oats and potatoes, but there's a little split wood there, and all the fixings, and you can boil up what you need. The aspens, they'll hide the smoke.”

“May I ask why—all this?”

“You were born with a four-leaf clover in your hand,” Monk said.

She wouldn't let go of it. “There's more to it, I think.”

“What Tipperary Leary says, that's how it goes,” Monk said.

BOOK: Easy Pickings
13.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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