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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

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BOOK: Easy Pickings
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“And am I?”

“Well, I have it from my cousin that you not only refused to sign a perfectly ordinary sales agreement, but that you collected each and every piece and stuffed it in your, ah, bosom. “Now tell me, why did you do that? Worthless paper? Scraps of refuse?”

“Because it might be valuable.”

“Now you do arouse my curiosity.”

She hesitated, and then rushed ahead. “It's evidence. Fraudulent dates on both.”

He laughed. “Oh, my, you are a bit off-kilter. What do you think we should do about it?”

“Return my mine patent, which the judge has, set me free, and put me out on the streets.”

“I'm afraid that's pure fantasy, and has nothing to do with reality, Mrs. McPhee. Here you are, in contempt of court, no sign of rational thought, no proposal to remedy your contempt by signing the documents, no sign that you really grasp the grave nature of your dementia, or are living in a real world.” He sighed. “No, it's clear from this extensive evaluation that it would be better for the Territory if you were to spend time in our facility. There are a variety of treatments intended to restore you to your senses, ranging from electromagnetic shocks to therapeutic enemas.”

“If that's the price of signing, you'll learn I'm stubborn.”

“Rigid is the word, madam. Rigidity is a mark of the deranged soul. A healthy mind bends, flexes, adapts. But one who is so set upon a course that she can't change, well, there's deep, deep trouble afoot. And I should add that you become a menace to society. What if in your sad condition you should decide to violate the laws of man and God, and do something very dark? We can't have that. What if voices drive you to commit mayhem? You would be powerless to resist, and you might imperil the lives of countless worthy citizens.”

She saw how this was going, and oddly didn't mind, if it got her out of this dark hellhole.

He paused. “Well, you can still prove your serene good health to me if you wish.”

She shook her head.

“It's a simple matter. I have, here, copies of the papers you are now harboring in your sweet bosom, and I have also pen and blotter and ink. First, you will need to extract those sad shards of paper you in your delusions scooped up, and give them to me. Second, you will sign both papers and I will witness. Third, I will send Judge Roach word that you are sober, sane, and repentant. And I expect he will send word to set you free, providing you take the next train out.”

He pulled the papers out of a portfolio, along with the writing instruments.

“Bring in some fresh air,” she said. “The place is all stunk up.”

He shook his head in resignation. “My findings are most dismaying,” he said. “It is needful to commit you to Warm Springs. Dementia praecox.”

 

Twenty

The beauty of Warm Springs surprised March. The asylum sat in a broad, bright valley rimmed by mountains. A warm spring nearby burbled from a limestone cone. The Territorial asylum, begun in 1877 even as the Sioux war raged in the eastern half of the Territory, was a generous structure with dormitories for men and women, and one for dangerous inmates, along with service and dining facilities. The windows opened on noble panoramas, and the dormitories were bright and airy, fresh and clean. There were extensive gardens, worked by those who were suited, which grew much of the food for the inmates.

But the rooms were populated by odd, tragic, and sad mortals, deemed mad, even as the court had deemed her mad, a stain that would be upon her the rest of her days. A sheriff's deputy was assigned to bring her there. She wasn't shackled, but nonetheless a captive, as any criminal in transit might be. Trains carried them to Butte, and then Anaconda, and horse and carriage brought them to Warm Springs, where the bored deputy delivered his charge and vanished.

The matron of the women's ward, Mrs. Botts, took over, showed March her bunk, asked about any special health needs, and warned March to be obedient, behave, or she could be deprived of her “privileges,” whatever those were. The woman was big, tough, had red work-coarsened hands that looked capable of beating someone to pulp, so March listened warily, paid heed to the rules, which were not numerous, and kept her counsel. There were twenty-three other females enclosed with her, kept in the hall by a locked door. She eyed them. Some stared vacantly at the ceiling. One or two groaned and sobbed incessantly. One sat in a chair slapping herself, as if under siege from a thousand gnats or spiders. One was a midget with forlorn eyes, who seemed to be imprisoned only because of her odd nature.

Some looked ready to befriend March, and she knew she would find out which ones could be actual friends, and which ones would only spout gibberish. But for the moment, she studied the surrounding landscape. The Clark Fork River cut through the Deer Lodge valley, on its way to the western sea. This was the Columbia River drainage. Even as she studied that broad and open land, she was dreaming of escape. This could not be the end of her life. This could not be where she would exist, alone and forgotten, until she grew weak and faded away.

She knew that this lightly guarded place would offer its chance in due course, but she would have to make good on it or be put in the guarded ward for dangerous and demented mortals. And she knew at once that the difficulty would not be in walking away, but getting away, through open fields with no camouflage, no place to hide, no way to disappear. Indeed, the very clothing they gave her would mark her in the event she sought help. Food, water, shelter, a map, a compass, a plan, a refuge. But she was March McPhee, and she would do whatever she could, and if she failed she'd do it again, and again, and again, because that was the only way she could regain her life.

Was it all for gold? Had that cabal of relatives killed her baby, robbed her, stolen her mine, railroaded her here, for gold? Violated every decency for gold? Rolled over a newly widowed woman for gold? Condemned her to the life of a reputed madwoman, no matter what the facts, for gold? The answer was yes. And because their conduct was base, she felt at liberty to take whatever measures she could.

The windows in the dorm had no bars but neither were they the sash variety, and there would be a long drop from this second-floor lockup to the hard ground. The dormitory door was always locked, and inmates who could walk were taken to the dining area, a place of plain benches where they were fed cheap food, usually gruel of one sort or another, and something from the garden.

She resolved to work in the garden if possible, not only for the exercise, but also to survey the whole establishment. The more she saw from the outside of the structures, the more she would know about means to escape.

The prescribed way of addressing Mrs. Botts to gain her attention was to raise a hand and wait, and maybe she would attend you, maybe not. So when the matron next entered the ward, March raised an arm and waved it. Mrs. Botts approached like a steamboat and then settled a wary step or two away, lest the madwoman leap at her throat.

“I see there is a garden, madam. I like gardening. I am good at it. With your permission, I would like to hoe and weed and water.”

The behemoth eyed her coldly. “They all say that,” she said. “They see the garden and think they'll just walk away. We have a remedy for that. Hobbles. If you wish to garden, we'll allow it, but you'll be shackled. And if you plan on killing anyone with a hoe or a rake, you'll discover the discipline of the whip.”

That certainly wasn't what March had expected, but she didn't hesitate.

“I'll garden, and observe your boundaries,” she said.

The blue-eyed Botts grunted, making no reply. Then she wheeled away, without deciding the issue.

This might be an asylum, but it was not a friendly one.

The woman hunched in the next bunk caught her attention. She wore a scarf, had weepy eyes, reddish flesh, and thinning hair.

“I'm March McPhee.”

“Brottslig,”
she said.

“Ah, is that your name?”

“Bry sig om,”
she said.

So that was it. The woman couldn't speak a word of English. She seemed desperately lonely and maybe that was the reason. Or worse, maybe that was why she had been committed to this place. An asylum would be a good place to get rid of someone who couldn't defend herself.

March tried to talk to the woman, and the woman tried to talk to her, but the best March could do was assume that the woman was Scandinavian. Which country, she didn't know. And why she was in Warm Springs would always be a mystery. But there she was, tiny, forgotten, desolate.

After a few stabs at it, March reached over and patted the woman on the arm. The little creature caught March's hand and held it tight, her grip warm and desperate. March let it all play out, the woman gripping her hand, until at last she needed to move about, and pulled her hand free. The woman cried out, reached for March, and then fell back, tears welling up on her reddened face. The woman's small hands clenched and unclenched.

“I will be back to talk with you,” March said. “Somehow.”

The hours passed slowly. March fought back despair, the underlying knowledge that she had been wrongfully adjudged insane, confined for life, and there was not a soul on earth who might help her.

She quietly surveyed the inmates. They varied widely, from seamed old women to weeping young ones. Some wore leather restraints, the purpose of which she could only surmise, but they apparently were intended to keep the women from damaging themselves. The saddest case was a woman whose arms were pinned together.

March tried to talk to them all, but some were incoherent or silent, while others broke into litanies of grief or anger. Some made perfect sense; others began stories of heartache or persecution or hatred. It all made March wonder about those confined for criminal insanity, ones who would kill or rape or torture or commit suicide if they ever broke free. Surely this asylum served a valid purpose; the trouble was, some of the inmates plainly were not insane, but had been committed merely to get rid of them.

There was no lunch. The inmates were fed twice a day, herded into a dining area and handed a bowl and a spoon. Except that some were denied a spoon, and had to lift the bowl to consume whatever was in it, which was usually a pallid stew. Variety mattered little; what good would it do among the mad?

A week slid by, and March was restless. She had not yet been allowed to garden. She scarcely knew what lay outside of the doors of the building, or what her chances would be to slip away. If anything characterized this place, it was the oppressive sameness of each day, each hour, each week. She stood before the windows, memorizing every distant ridge, the river bottoms, the weather. No wonder they could catch runaways so easily. The land hid little; any dog could scout out a runaway in a few hours.

The matron and her small staff rarely entered the ward, and often contented themselves with a quick survey of the inmates to see what might be amiss. This was a place shot with dullness. Even the desperation of some of the women was dull because it never varied, never ended. Conversation was a rarity; some couldn't manage it, while others didn't know English, and others had slid into utter silence.

Then one day the matron appeared, nodded to March, took her down creaking wooden stairs, and out the doors to the generous gardens.

“You wanted it, you can have it,” she said. “But you'll be in hobbles. Just don't get notions.” She paused. “Some inmates want to destroy the crops, hoe them down. If you try that, you'll end your chance to work here.”

A sleepy male orderly appeared, carrying some cruel contrivance, and soon March was wearing a device that wrapped around both calves and couldn't be unbuckled without a special tool inserted into a little slot. Her task was to hoe and weed rows of beans. There were half a dozen other inmates at work, all men. All hobbled. An overseer did nothing but sit in a lawn chair and watch.

She set to work. The garden was a great success. Rows of healthy vegetables filled several acres. She worked quietly down the rows, whacking away weeds, working steadily until she tired. There was no Simon Legree with a whip. When she wearied, she walked as best she could with the hobbles to a pail where there was water and a cup, and slaked her thirst. It was during those moments that she studied the sleepy asylum, watched tradesmen arrive with supplies and then turn their wagons toward Anaconda. Maybe one of them would carry her away, under a tarpaulin, to the nearby smelter town run by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. Maybe the best flight would be straight into the neighboring city.

But she had come to realize that the very clothing she wore, a plain gray Mother Hubbard dress, was a sign of her incarceration, and would immediately alert an observer. Still, she toiled at her hoeing, studied the entire asylum, and hoped to learn how to put wings on her shoulders and fly away.

She liked the hoeing and gardening. Each day an orderly came for her, escorted her to the extensive garden, put her in hobbles, and left her to her toil. She was permitted to work at her own pace, rest when she needed to, pause for a drink of water, and even converse with other inmates, if they were working adjacent rows. Sometimes they hoed and weeded; once they bucketed water when summer heat threatened the crops; and now and then they harvested their produce. Beans, squash, cucumbers, zucchini, and later, tomatoes. The hills of potatoes were coming along.

And still she studied the way things worked. The employment shifts. The endless wagons of suppliers. The asylum ate firewood in its cookstoves, and its potbellied stoves in the dormitories, and as fall approached, yards of cordwood grew near the service areas of the asylum.

Then one day a firewood deliveryman with a ruddy face caught her as she rested.

“You wouldn't be March McPhee, would you?”

She stared, amazed, into the blank face of a stranger, and then nodded.

BOOK: Easy Pickings
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