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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

Easy Pickings (18 page)

BOOK: Easy Pickings
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“Tipperary's been looking for you.”

“Oh, oh, oh…”

“Seems a loose-tongued patron began talking, and a barkeep always listens.”

She stared about wildly, fearing trouble, but the day was progressing serenely.

“Be ready tomorrow. I'll be driving the wood wagon. It's got a tarpaulin, and a fresh bright dress under, and you'll be changing.”

“But these hobbles!”

“We've been studying on it.” He waved a slim metal pick. “This is the latchkey. I'll leave it with you. You've watched it done a hundred times. Only tomorrow, you'll do it yourself.”



He was there. Loading cordwood into the woodyard that sleepy morning while the air was cool and fresh and the day barely begun. Her task that day was to hoe the potatoes, where weeds were threatening to overrun the hills. She was the first out; other gardeners would drift in later.

He strode purposefully to her, and she feared someone might be watching. But the asylum was still barely stirring.

He smiled. “In the toolshed is a carpetbag. In it is men's clothing. Britches, shirt, straw hat, a red bandanna to wear about your neck. Hide that hair. Put it on. Put your women's things in the carpetbag, and your hobble. You have the pick?”

She nodded.

“When you come out, put the carpetbag in the wagon and help me unload the cordwood. When we're done, we'll drive away.”

“Just like that?”

“We planned it best we could. There are no armed guards. This is an asylum, not a jail.”

He returned to his task, unloading stick after stick of pine for the potbellied woodstoves and the cookstove. Her heart raced. She slid in, first surveying the quiet grounds, knowing it would take time to make the change. And then she pushed the pick into the hobbles and each leather contraption fell free. She yanked the clothing from the carpetbag and swiftly filled it with her own and the hobble, and wished she had a looking glass to see whether she looked like a male. She pushed her red hair under the floppy hat, and tied the bandanna, hoping to hide her neck, and then stepped out. She was just in time. One of the male inmates was heading for the shed to collect his tools. The old man ignored her.

She strode toward the woodlot, trembling, and soon was lifting cordwood and stacking it in orderly rows.

He winked. The wink told her to relax; it was all a lark.

But she couldn't relax, and worked furiously, wanting to speed time along, faster and faster. And then it was done.

“You drive,” he said.

“I've only done it a little.”

He just grinned, and settled beside her on the wagon seat. She flapped the lines over the croup of the dray, and the old horse took off handsomely, trotting away, the wagon wheels rolling, the wagon lurching beneath her.

“Well, lass, we fetched you,” he said. “I'm Mack. Call me whatever name pleases you.”

“Oh, Mack. You and Tip and all your friends.”

“We fetched you out.”

“It's not over.”

“No, but for now, just steer the nag along, and we'll have a little chat as we go. We've a two-hour drive to Anaconda, so there's no sense in wearing out the dray.”

“But I want to know everything!”

She peered behind her, fearful of being followed, but the morning sun shone quietly over empty plains, and the asylum dwindled down and finally slid from the horizon.

“It was on our minds, you disappearing from the little washerwoman cottage, and no one at Tipperary's had the faintest idea what happened. Maybe you'd gone away. But it worried us some, day after day. We'd made you our charge, and then you weren't there, and many a boyo didn't feel right about it. We put out feelers. Maybe you were up in the mountains, the way you had been.

“Then one of Tip's customers, Jerusalem Jones, he of the funeral parlor, he gossips a little, and Tip serves him another rye, and he talks and hints a little more, and never quite saying where the lady went, and then Jerusalem, he spills it. She's been locked away, he says, smirking. She's gone for good.

“But we didn't know where or how. Who or what. But some things get put on the record, like inmates to the county jail, and certain district court records we got a peek at, and we got the whole picture. You'd been railroaded right into the place where you'd be stuck the rest of your life, not to mention that anything you said or swore or wrote would be discounted. That was a fine old place for the widow, and that's how we got the word.”

She felt like kissing him.

“But it took some scheming and a little arguing and a vote among us. And a little money for rail tickets. And a day or two of hanging about there, seeing how it all went. And looking at you with a field glass, seeing it was really you. It was.”

“Where are we going?”

“Anaconda. See the works, on that hill, and that big stack? That's Marcus Daly's copper smelter, biggest in the world, and that's his town, right down to the street names. We're going there.”

“But what if they catch us?”

“We'll turn you into the lady you always was,” Mack said. “If you want, pull that tarp back and look.”

She stood, worked her way back into the wagon bed, lifted the tarp, and discovered a pink dress, a hat loaded with straw flowers, white gloves, a pair of white shoes, and a lady's handbag.

“I'll busy myself with the driving,” he said, smiling slightly.

“The shoes. What if they don't fit?”

“They're yours. The ones in the washerwoman cottage. We whited them up real ladylike.”

The thought of changing clothing out in the wide open, behind this man's back, dismayed her, but then she did it. He was most respectful, studying crows and magpies and hawks and talking to his dray. She was half wild to complete the task, her eye sharp on every horizon, ready to dive under the tarpaulin. And yet nothing at all disturbed the morning, a quiet drive down a lonely road, the birds trilling.

She stuffed the men's clothing into the carpetbag, which was brimming now with disguises. And then she clambered over the bench, and sat down.

A sideways glance assured Mack, and he swung around to eye her.

“A blooming lady,” he said.

“Running off with a true gentleman,” she said, admiring the compact man who was nonchalantly shepherding her through a great escape. And still the horizon was not disturbed by the passage of man or beast.

“What's your story, may I ask?”


“You need a story. A man with a badge rides up, what do you say?”

“I'll tell him to mind his bloody business.”

Mack smiled. “That's good. Don't tangle yourself with a lot of malarkey. If he asks what a lady's doing on a cordwood wagon, don't give him a clue.” He leaned toward her. “I'm from the old country, County Cork, and I know about these things. Best just don't say anything.”

“And you're helping a Scot?”

“We have a thing in common. I'll say it plain. That clan, the Roaches, have a mission of their own. To stop Irish immigration. Once, they even tried to steal Tommy Cruse's Drumlummon from him. They used to be the Know Nothings, keep the Irish and Germans and Catholics out of the United States. Now they have no name, but it's the same. Keep the Irish out.” He eyed her. “Some of us at Tip's, we're Fenians. The brotherhood. Keep that under your hat.”

Ahead a way rose Mount Haggin, and at its foot lay a shining city, and off to the left, a great industrial complex, with a towering stack pumping white smoke into the blue skies. She watched it loom larger and larger as the wagon approached. They began to meet other wagons and buggies on the outskirts.

“What happens next?” she asked. “I'm entirely in your hands, I believe.”

“Well, we've been wrestling with it. There's tickets for you clear to Marysville if you want them. The Butte, Anaconda and Pacific, that'll take you to Butte. The Great Northern to Helena. And the Northern Pacific to Marysville. But is it what you want, lady? You'd be swiftly recognized in Marysville.”

So it was back to her. That was good, she thought, even as she wished someone would be her champion and right the wrongs and free her.

“If they catch me, they'll send me back there,” she said. “And lock me up.”

“That's true. But maybe you could change your name, live somewhere else.”

“I could run away,” she said. “Why go back to Marysville?”

He slid into silence, and steered his dray toward a woodcutter's yard on the north edge of town. Heaps of tree trunks and limbs lay about. A rotary saw powered by a donkey steam engine stood silent.

“But I won't. I will see it through, win or lose. What's life for, anyway? To run away?”

“You won't be alone,” he said, and she heard approval in his voice.

“Is the washerwoman cottage still there for me?”

“It is. They know nothing of this. But Constable Roach, he'll be looking for you as soon as he learns about this.”

“I don't know what I'll do, but I'm going to try,” she said. “Tell me about the mine.”

He withdrew a pocket watch. “Ma'am, the station's a long hike from this woodlot, and the Butte train, she'll be boarding passengers right now and leaving in ten minutes. Here's your tickets if it pleases you. Next train's not till late.”

Mack handed her an envelope.

“Oh, Mack,” she said. “Oh, Mack.”

He pulled off his cap and smiled. And handed her the carpetbag. And pointed toward a white station two blocks distant or so.

“Oh, Mack,” she said, and hastened toward the building.

That was the last she saw of the man who had plucked her free.

She hurried, almost feverish to escape, and raced onto the platform just as a blue-clad conductor was lifting the steel step stool. He saw her, helped her up, and she found herself in a dark coach, mostly empty, with a ticket, not one cent, and a bag full of odd clothing.

She had hardly settled in a wine-colored horsehair seat before she felt the lurch, heard the hiss of steam, and felt the car roll toward Butte. She dug into the envelope, found the right ticket, a yellow square attached to other yellow squares. When the conductor came, she was ready.

She was free. A woman alone. The world was not watching her. The landscape passing across the window was gentle, anonymous, browning in late summer sun, and still virgin. The Territory was barely settled.

She smelled Butte before she saw it, as acrid fumes from mine boilers and mills eddied through the coach. Off to her left, the ramshackle city climbed a grade, and headframes from its many mines peppered the top. She saw not a tree, and had heard that the arsenic in the smoke extinguished plant life, if not animal. This was the fiefdom of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, and it was worth far more than any gold mine ever known. She didn't care for it, at least what she could see. It was a cancer growing out of the wilderness. Eventually, the train squealed to a halt at the clapboard terminal of the little railroad built by the copper king Marcus Daly, and she found herself stepping down to a gravel platform, wondering where to go next. Or if she could go somewhere. That was always a livelihood in Butte, she had heard.

She found a ticket window in the spare little station, and presented her ticket there.

“I'm booked for Helena, and don't know where to go.”

“Stay right here. Great Northern, leaves at four forty-five.”

That was a long wait. Her stomach was growling. She hadn't a nickel. And once she got to Helena, she still had to catch the one-a-day train to Marysville. She was hungry and a long way from home.

She settled into one of the polished benches in the waiting room, the ones that looked like pews where people could worship the railway gods. At least there was a drinking fountain. She could quench her thirst. But it was going to be a long wait.

A man in a dust cap approached, pulled it from his head, and stood before her. She was suddenly wary.

“Mrs. McPhee?” he asked.

She refused to acknowledge it. “You have the wrong person, I'm afraid.”

He looked uncomfortable. “Tip says to fetch you a dinner and see to your comfort.”

“Tip? Tip?”

“Tipperary Leary, madam. He'll be very glad when I wire him. We've been waiting. We've been hoping.”

He smiled. She arose, gratefully. But she couldn't help but stare, at the man, at the others in the station, at the people on the platform. At anyone who might show her a badge and drag her back to the asylum for the insane.

“I'm Sean,” he said. “Come this way.”



His name was Sean Touhy, and he led her to a bench and handed her something wrapped in butcher paper, and an apple.

“She's a pasty,” he said.

She stared blankly.

“A meat pie, with a little patooties and spices, in a pastry shell. We take them down, and they make our lunch.”

She peeled back the paper and discovered a warm and fragrant pastry. She bit in, discovering beef and potato and other things she couldn't identify, and juices still warm, and a high flavor that she enjoyed. She ate another bite, and another, and wolfed several more, while he watched, approving.

“I'm a mucker in the Neversweat, old Daly's mine. I came over about ten years ago from County Clare. They paid the way. I make a good living, send a little back, and live in the Big Ship—that's the rooming house for Daly's working men.”

She wolfed the pasty as fast as she could eat, pushing aside any worries about digesting it half-chewed.

“They wire me, the brothers I mean, saying to look for you, lady in pink, so here I come. I'll sit with you, fetch whatever you need, and put you on the coach to Helena for sure, so you'll be going home.”

“Well, Sean, you saved my life. I never was so starved! I don't know how to thank you, but I'll find a way.”

BOOK: Easy Pickings
12.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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