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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

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BOOK: Easy Pickings
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She saw no sign of Jerusalem Jones now, and surmised that he rode to town each evening and showed up only during the day. That was good. She saw no dog, and that was good. A barking dog would be the last thing she wanted. One of the men emerged from the shack, headed to an odorous place, and drained himself. Maybe that was good, too. She needed to know what sort of traffic the night might bring.

She was cold and weary, still worn from her escape. But the sooner she did what she must do, the better. She slipped through the forest in last light. She could see twilight through the treetops, but it was night in the forest. She paused at her hideaway, which seemed cold and uncomfortable in the changing climate. But it would shelter her now. She collected Kermit's DuPont Giant Powder, waxy red cylinders of dynamite, which was simply blasting oil, nitroglycerin, mixed with fine clay to stabilize it.

She had a dozen sticks, not very much for the task at hand, but it would have to do. At the back of the walled-off overhang, she lit a carbide lamp. It hissed quietly, popped, and threw ghostly light around her shelter. She had watched Kermit perform the next steps—he had crossly urged her to leave—and everything she did now would be modeled on what she had seen. She was preparing two bundles of dynamite which she intended to ignite at the faulted area that had doomed Kermit. That was the only spot in the shaft where loose dynamite might do some serious work. The badly faulted area was about fifty feet in. She would need three feet of Bickford fuse, which burned thirty seconds to the foot. The rule was to walk, not run. Runners stumbled and fell and perished. She cut the three feet and picked up a copper fulminate of mercury blasting cap, and gently slid the fuse into the copper tube, and carefully crimped the fuse tight, using Kermit's special crimping tool as gently as she knew how. The spark burning up the center of the corded fuse would need to reach the fulminate. That would ignite the cap. The cap would ignite the stable dynamite.

Her pulse climbed.

She gently sliced open one red stick of the DuPont, and eased the cap into the soft giant powder, as it was called, and carefully wrapped a thin wire around the fused stick, holding the fuse tight. Now she had a very dangerous primed charge of dynamite. She gathered five more sticks around the primed one, and wrapped wire around them, completing one bundle. She peered outside, saw that there was an alpenglow that would light the way, and carefully carried the bundle down to the mine, placing it behind some rock. She eased up to her hideaway even as the last glow faded into night, stumbling now and then.

The second shift was hard at work, but no one was outside. Shifting light from carbide lamps bled from the mine portal. It was too dark to do anything except work on the face within, the men double jacking holes into the face and filling them with DuPont sticks just like hers. Apparently this smaller group simply drilled and loaded charges and blew them, and went to bed. In the morning, the muckers would start shoveling ore from each lateral.

She understood the way things worked at the McPhee.

The stumbles were a warning, and she heeded it. She would not charge the second bundle. Instead, she put the remaining sticks back, returned the caps to a separate notch in the cliff, and stowed the rest. Now she would wait. She tried lying against the hard stone, but it hurt her cruelly. Even the stern little bunk at the asylum brought more comfort than this.

Would they come looking for her? Most certainly. They would find this place. She would leave nothing here. She thought the remaining explosives would be safe in their niche in the cliff well above, invisible unless one stumbled on the little hollow. She would leave them. She was wearing black pants and a blue chambray shirt, and only her straw hat and pale face might give her away. She thought to abandon the hat. It was a man's hat, and she would leave it there, for the searchers to find.

Time stretched slowly, and now the night was cold. When she judged the time to be about midnight, she eased down the slope, gingerly crossing the talus that slid from above, and made her way to the mine. It glowed in the white light of a quarter moon. She waited, wary of a sentry, but saw nothing. There was no reason for the miners to post a sentry; they simply had folded for the night. She stood at the dark mouth of the mine, peering into the gloom. She saw no shifting lights, no sign of work. She eased in, her passage lit by moonlight, her eyes sharp in the deep gloom. She wasn't sure at first where the dangerous area was, the loose and splintered rock that had killed Kermit. But then she knew. It was where the timbering began. The first fifty feet remained without support except at the mouth, where timbers protected against loose surface rock.

She couldn't see the lagging, the heavy planks resting on the crossbeams to catch any caving stone. She also couldn't see what space existed above the lagging, space where she intended to place her charge. She would briefly need to light a lamp to see what she was doing, and could only hope no one down below would see the light.

She chose a candle in a reflective holder, something she could blow out in an instant. Kermit had mostly used lamps, but he kept a few candles handy. Quietly, she plunged into the gloom, reached the point where the timbering began, and lit the candle. She studied the lagging, and the rough space above it. She wasn't tall enough to see what lay above, and she wondered whether she should wait until she could know where to place the charge.

She felt herself being watched, turned, and found two small eyes, bright buttons of light, near the portal. Some wild creature. It ambled off. Skunk, badger, marmot, raccoon, who could say? She retreated from the shaft, worked her way around equipment, and reached the spot where her charge rested. Six sticks, primed and ready.

She wondered if they would be effective. Dynamite worked best when confined by solid rock. Miners even plugged the charge with a little muck to increase the explosive force. But her charge would rest on thick planks under the unstable faulted area, and not even six sticks could equal the force of a charge resting inside solid rock. But she had learned a few things, and one of them was that unstable areas followed their own rules. A low-level blast could trigger a landslide.

That was her hope.

Gingerly she carried the charge into the portal, and worked through the gloom, found the timbering, and reached upward. She slid the charge into the few inches of space and eased it as far as her arm could push. She felt the fuse, the rat-tail, hang from the lagging, ready to ignite.

She was a little shaky. A charge that could ignite from a sharp blow, and could blow her to bits, did not induce calm in her.

“Well, Kermit,” she said aloud, “I'm ready. This is where you fell. This is where our fate is sealed.”

She heard nothing, but thought he was there, listening, smiling.

Now she needed another sort of courage, the will to walk out, not run, because if she panicked and fell, she might never again see a sunrise.

She scratched a match, watched it flare, found the fuse dangling from above, but the match died. She caught the fuse in her hand and scratched another match to life. Powdermen did not use matches. They held a flame to the fuse until they were sure it was spitting sparks. That match expired, so she tried the candle, getting a flame going, and then, her hands trembling, holding the steady flame to the fuse. In a moment she saw sparks, heard it hiss, and she knew she had ninety seconds to vacate the mine and turn away from the portal and the powerful blast that would erupt from it.

She walked. In fact, walking proved to be easier than lighting the fuse. She walked carefully, the fuse spitting behind her, walked toward the open night ahead, walked step by step, walked into the starlit night, turned sharply right, kept on walking through the night, wondering when, when, when, and then as she reached the edge of the little plateau, the earth bucked under her, and a throaty boom rumbled through the night, and the peace of the mountains was ruptured.

She could not see the result. She could only hope that the charge would trigger a landslide, and the unstable area would seal up the shaft for a long time. And keep them from stealing any more of her gold.

She threaded into the deep forest, when all she could see was the open sky, found her carpetbag just where she had left it, and hurried through the forest, her gaze uncanny, hastening down to Long Gulch, because she knew if she tarried, it would be sealed off and she might be trapped.

She exulted. She had begun to fight back, and this was a first step.

 

Twenty-four

Tipperary Leary brought her some papers. The
Helena Herald
said it loudest:

MADWOMAN ESCAPES

FROM WARM SPRINGS

But the story was helpful. It described her as short, stout, and dark-haired. That offended her until she realized it was wrong on two counts: she had chestnut hair and had lost weight. Even better, it said she spoke with an Irish burr, and left behind a note threatening suicide. Officials were walking the Clark Fork River in search of a body.

“Suicide, Tip?”

“Our man Mack did a little more than he told you about,” Tip said. “He left a note in the toolshed where you changed into pants. It said you despaired of life. They think you simply walked away.”

March could scarcely believe her good fortune.

“Not to say they haven't looked here,” Tip said. “Constable Roach. That cabal doesn't like the thought of you loose.”

“Well, they must know. After I set the charge.”

“They're not sure. They found a man's straw hat nearby. But they think it might be you.”

“How far along are they?”

“They'll have it cleared in a few days. It's a narrow shaft, and only two men at a time can muck out that pile of rock. They've laid off half a dozen until they can reopen.”

“Did it seal the shaft?”

“No, they could crawl over the top of the heap into the mine, that's what Jerusalem Jones said, vowing to catch and hang whoever did it. He's bragging that they'll have it up and running again in record time, and they'll find the pig who fired that charge.”

“It's a good thing he stops in for a drink, Tip.”

“I pour him one on the house now and then.”

“Tip, why do you do this for me, you and your friends?”

He hesitated. “We have our reasons.”

“Not we—you.”

“Ladies deserve respect,” he said, in a way that foreclosed further questions.

Tip had been faithful to his word. Each day, some fresh food appeared on the table of the washerwoman's cottage. That had sustained her for several days. Once she got into the handsome pink dress and silk-flower hat, and ventured into town, unchallenged, and mostly unobserved. New faces were routine in a bustling town.

Still, it was a risky thing, and she dreaded an encounter with Constable Roach, pink dress or not. But she was alone, and she felt a need to reconnect, to be among people, and not be hiding, or venturing out in disguise.

The weather was turning. Some fall rains had swept through, and people were burning cordwood in their stoves again. One morning there was a veil of white on the peaks. It vanished later, but it was a sign of what would soon come to Marysville.

That night she slipped into her men's britches and blue shirt, and added a drab sweater that once had been Kermit's, and slipped into a cold wind, made her way up Long Gulch in darkness, and cut into the forest at about the right place. She was numb from the raw wind, but kept on until she could view the mine. It was dark. She circled down to the lower flat, with its tarpaper barracks, and peeked in through a grimy window. It was empty. On a mean night, they had all gone to town. But there was no lamp lit in the dormitory. She wasn't sure it had been vacated, and there was only one way to find out, so she opened the door noisily, yelled in a low voice, and aroused no one. She spotted a kerosene lamp, which was perfect. She unscrewed the wick, poured the kerosene onto the wood floor and walls nearest the stove, lit it, and backed away as flames licked up the walls closest to the potbellied stove. Then she headed into the night, an invisible wraith in dark colors, and made it back to Marysville even as the sky behind her was, for a little while, aglow with orange light.

That would slow them down some more. The nights were getting cold. They needed shelter now.

She padded back to Marysville, knowing that the barracks fire would trigger another, fiercer manhunt, and no building would go unexamined. The Roach crowd wouldn't for an instant believe it was accidental. The washerwoman cottage would not shelter her for long. And now the weather in that mountain locale could turn any day.

The next nights she dressed in dark clothing and probed the sprawling Drumlummon works, which clung to a hillside and covered many acres. Even as the night shift toiled, and ore cars were shunted from the mine to the mill, she examined every structure hoping to find a safe haven if she needed one. But she found nothing. There were sheds but they leaked air and were filled with kegs and crates.

“Arson!” screamed the headline of the Marysville weekly. “Madwoman on the Loose.”

The paper said that Constable Roach was doing a door-to-door hunt for a woman believed to have escaped a Territorial asylum.

It was only a matter of time before they found her. What chance did she have?

Tipperary showed up one frosty dawn, knocking gently. She peeked out, and opened to him. He slipped in, carrying something.

“Cold in here,” he said.

“I can no longer keep a fire.”

He nodded.

“If I could get to Helena, find work—chambermaid, something … I've got to start somewhere else. Tip, I'm not making headway here.”

“Well, look at this first, if you will.”

He laid a gray-and-red clothbound ledger book on the table. The light was so low she could barely see what was written on its pages.

“This little book, it's your ticket. It's the Laidlow Group's accounting. It lists who's in on it, who's got a full share, who's got a half share—the younger ones have halves. It lists the whole blooming lot: Judge Roach in Helena, the constable here, the miserable doctor in Helena, his brother in the funeral home here. There's a page for Jerusalem Jones, a sister's son, who has half a share. He's the one who told me. He sat in my place, soaking up gin, and began telling me about this here ledger, and how it was kept at the funeral parlor, and how it showed the monthly accounting, and the payouts, not only from your mine, but all sorts of other properties and real estate they've gotten by rook and crook. Here it is, black-and-white, or blue-and-white, anyway, neat columns, sums piled up nice and even.”

BOOK: Easy Pickings
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