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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

Easy Pickings (21 page)

BOOK: Easy Pickings
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“And how did you get this?”

“Now there's a mystery, Mrs. McPhee. Some say it walked out the door and into my lap, like a yapping dog.”

“Do they know it's missing?”

“So far, misplaced. In fact Jerusalem said so. They don't see it as a problem. Just a ledger that fell into the couch cushions or something.”

“I wouldn't know what to do with it. And it's stolen.”

Tipperary sighed. “It says here, Judge Roach, selfsame gent who shipped you to Warm Springs, got a payment from the McPhee. And Jerrold Laidlow, sort of an MD if you stretch his diploma a bit, the selfsame who found you mad as a hatter, he got his payment from the McPhee. And Laidlow himself, him who piled up your debt burying your man, and used it to steal a mine from you, he got his monthly dividend from your mine, after his cousin the judge euchred you out of the mine. I'd say, March McPhee, you've got the goods right here.”

“Maybe I do. But what good will it do?”

“You might talk to a good, ethical, upstanding, honest, bold attorney, shaped a little like your friend Hermes Apollo, a man of forthright and honest greed.”

“And other appetites,” she added.

She wanted to like all this, but she couldn't. “This should be returned,” she said.

“Oh, it will. It's just been borrowed—and copied.”

“I'll talk to Hermes Apollo. You know, Tip, he's an oddly honest man. He puts his worst foot forward, and it's his way of being ethical. He's saying, here I am at my least noble.”

“I'd need a few drinks down me before I could do that.”

She smiled.

“This'll be found in the funeral home, lying on the floor, where it had been overlooked. But we'll have a fine copy, thanks to Mike Boyle, an accountant up to the mine. It sure is an interesting little ledger, eh?”

She clasped his hands. “I don't know what I'd do without you,” she said.

Midday, she donned her handsome pink dress and flower-bedecked hat, and sallied out, hoping not to run across Constable Roach. It was a fine autumnal day, with a fresh breeze driving away the smoke from the mill boilers. She spotted the blue uniform on the other side of the street, but he took no notice of her. The pink dress had served its purpose, at least for the moment.

She found the attorney in his ornate Second Street chambers. He peered up, surprised, slowly registering her garb.

“Fancy that,” he said. “The madwoman herself. What have you done?”

It took a while, but she laid it out for him, while his eyebrows caterpillared up and down and his fingers harmonized on the polished table.

“I can't do much with stolen evidence,” he said.

“The ledger's gone back to the funeral home.”

“I can't do much with stolen information. They will ask where it came from, and any court would throw it out.” But he gazed into space a while. “But there are always ways. A civil suit. A subpoena of the ledger, necessary evidence. We'll demand it. We'll threaten dire things if we don't see it and admit it as evidence. It would be in another district court, of course. Judge Roach's a defendant. The dockets are crowded so it'll take a year. I'll seek an injunction that would stop the mining until ownership is settled. We're in for the long haul. So, I do this, and what happens to you? You're a fugitive, are you not?”

“I thought you'd prove that Dr. Laidlow's a quack.”

“That might not bail you out. Once a madwoman, always a madwoman. And what if I lose the case? You're bucking the most powerful cabal in the Territory.”

She had no answer to that.

Then he seemed to light up. That was the thing about Hermes Apollo. You could watch energy flow in and out of him. He would inflate, his eyes would brighten, or he would deflate like a tired hot-air balloon. Just now he was expanding.

“How are you going to pay me? I am a very expensive lawyer,” he said. “I really don't like to work on a contingency fee—payment contingent on success. No, that's a fool's game.”

“With profits from the mine once I get it back. I'll pay you well and fast.”

He sighed. “Your word is splendid, Mrs. McPhee, but all the best intentions in the world can't keep things from going awry. There's many a slip twixt the cup and the lip, as the saying goes. Now, here's how we'll do it. If I win, I shall possess half the McPhee Mine, plus one percent so I have control. If I lose—well, you shall marry me, like it or not.”

“What?”

“If we lose, madam, they will promptly send you back to Warm Springs, since the court will have confirmed that you are a madwoman. But if you should marry me promptly, then I have custody, you see. The madwoman's in her husband's custody.”

“Custody, custody?”

“Of the madwoman. A husband has that power. It wouldn't be so bad, dear lady. Endure my goatish behavior, endure my occasional naughtiness, for which the god Apollo is famous, and you will live your life in perfect liberty the other ninety-eight percent of your time. You'll be a prominent woman in Marysville society.”

She took a deep breath. “Is this a proposition or a proposal?”

“It's an escape, madam, from the clutches of the law, the bloodhounds scenting your trail and coming down upon you.”

She stared, dizzily. “I don't seem to have any other choice,” she said.

 

Twenty-five

The constable was there, half a block away, pretending not to notice. Behind her was the step into the law offices. She was tempted to go back in, but that would give the game away. Instead, she decided on boldness. She walked slowly along Second, eyeing stores and windows. And at a cross street, she turned and was able to see Constable Roach, ambling along himself, staying a careful distance back, sometimes twirling his nightstick.

He was following. She didn't know what to do.

She tried another turn, another stretch of browsing. He meandered along behind.

Her path took her in the direction of the Drumlummon works, mine and mill, so that's the way she drifted. But the closer she came to the ramshackle structures and thundering mill, the more absurd was her direction. The roaring mill, belching smoke and fumes, throwing soot, leaving mucky pools of arsenic-laden waste, was not the place for a woman in a fine pink dress with a flowered hat to go.

She turned instead toward the mine, scarcely knowing what she would do there. But at least there was a supervisory structure, as rudely built as the rest. Everything at a mine was as temporary as could be managed. Mines all died. A sign, black paint on a white board, announced the Drumlummon. No gilt and plush here. The main shaft with its headframe and hoist lay ahead. At one side of it was a sorting yard. Waste rock was sent to the tailing heap; ore was sent to a trestle that carried it to the mill. But there was that other rude building, known as the dry room, where sweat-soaked miners coming off shift changed into dry clothing so they could walk to cabins or rooming houses comfortably. A changing room was crucial to the miners' health, especially in the depths of winter, where sweat-soaked clothing brought on pneumonia, and other lung diseases.

She glanced quickly behind her. The constable meandered along, ostensibly studying clouds, or whatever constables do.

She took her chance. It was not shift-changing time. She would not be likely to surprise some half-dressed men in there. There were, actually, two doors, though she didn't know why. She waited, aware that the constable was waiting, and then for a moment he was obscured by the corner of a trestle, and she plunged in.

She was surprised to see how rough it was. Whitewashed raw wood, benches, pegs to hang clothing, a few small windows for light. And miners' clothing, lots of it, hanging from pegs, there for the moment when it was needed. A potbellied stove was present for winter days, but was cold now.

But what to wear? Whose? And what would someone think to find his duds missing? And what would she do about her hair? Her dress, her hat? The inside of the cold potbellied stove would have to do. She rushed to a window, to see who or what was approaching. She didn't even see the constable, which worried her.

She flapped one set of britches after another, finally found some small ones, along with a small blue chambray shirt. And good luck, a dust cap. She hurried out of her dress, maddened by the small buttons, and got out of her chemise, and got the britches up, and got the shirt over her and buttoned, and was feeling some relief when the door opened, someone big and male looked around, scarcely noticing the small figure now in pants, and then the door closed. She pulled the dust cap over her hair and pushed the red strands upward under it as best she could.

She rolled up the dress, saddened that she could never wear it again, stuffed it into the potbellied stove, along with the hat with the silk flowers, and edged toward the door. But first she paused at a grimy window. She quickly decided to head for the headframe and lift. Below, Constable Roach was puzzling the disappearance of the woman in pink.

She walked straight into the lift, which she shared with an empty ore car, and then she was dropping sickeningly, down into blackness, and finally to a halt some vast distance into the bowels of the earth.

The gate swung open, a rough man with a lamp shining from his hat yanked the ore car out, looked her over, and spat.

“You didn't bring the steels,” he said. “Go back and get them.”

She had been mistaken for a nipper, a boy who ran errands, brought supplies, such as new drilling steels. The gate slammed, the lift lowered, another ore car, full this time, was shoved in, and then she was catapulted upward, at a speed that dizzied her. After much rattling, she popped into daylight, and after a moment stepped out. She was glad to see blue sky.

She fled, but not without a stare or two from the surface men.

She saw no sign of Constable Roach, but that didn't dissolve her caution. She started down the grade, thought to retrieve her dress and hat from the stove, at least if she could carry it all with the pink hidden. She pushed into the dry room, found her things, rolled the dress into a ball she could cover with her white chemise, studied the hat, realized she would be fine if she could ditch its silk flowers, but she had trouble with it, and stuffed it into the stove. Then she fled the mine, sorry that she had stolen someone's shirt and pants. She didn't know what else she could do. Maybe she could return these, once she got into Kermit's britches. Yes, she'd do that. There must be mixups all the time in the dry room.

Constable Roach was nowhere in sight.

Only now did she realize she had been trembling. She had descended to the bottom of the mine. And that she never wanted to do again. It was like the portals of hell. She thought of those muckers who collected after each shift at Tip's saloon, and knew they were brave men.

She edged across open fields, reaching the washerwoman cabin in roundabout fashion, and was glad of its quiet welcome. For one more hour, one more day, it would grant her a safe corner of the world.

She changed out of the shirt and pants she had borrowed, garbing herself in Kermit's clothing, and then waited for dark. As usual, there was food quietly awaiting her, summer squash, split and baked and buttered. She thanked Tip, her shepherd. There had been a shift change at four, and now the second shift was hard at work. Someone went home in sweat-drenched clothing, and she was sorry. If things went well, the man would find his missing dry clothes in the morning.

Well into the eve, with darkness settled gently over Marysville, she ghosted her way through chill air to the Drumlummon, replaced the clothing on the same peg, and ghosted away. She had returned what was owed. That was important to her.

At her cottage, she pulled a blanket about her to ward off the chill. She did not dare light a fire. The day's events had rattled her. It was all fine that Hermes Apollo would begin a lawsuit, but he said it would take a year. Meanwhile, how could she survive? She had narrowly dodged Constable Roach this day. She had a haven, but only momentarily. She had food, but would Tip's crowd feed her month in and month out?

There comes a moment when the very impossibility of things becomes an inspiration. As she sat in that chair, swathed in whatever she could find against the bone-piercing chill, she arrived at that moment. In spite of the friendly help from Tip, and the peculiar support, for a price, of the lawyer, she was losing fast. She ought to escape. Maybe find work as a chambermaid in Butte, or maybe even hire out as a maid in a private residence. Bed and board. There were other, unsavory options, but she was damned if she would head that direction.

Whatever she did, she had nothing to lose.

The evening was young. She made sure she wore the darkest pants and shirt and sweater she had and ventured into the chill night. She thought of all the miners in their warm cabins, or in their warm saloons, or with their families around warm hearths, and she wanted nothing more than the warmth and comfort and security and freedom that they had.

The town was quiet. She walked past the Laidlow Funeral Home, noting the single lamp in its window. Her destination was the city building that housed the one-cell jail, Constable Roach's office, and a city hall. It was dark. The one-man police force was not there. She found the door open, walked in, saw no one in the shadowed room, located a kerosene lamp, and lit it with a spark igniter that lay next to it.

Paper, pen, ink bottle, blotter. Ah, but what to write? A threat? No, bad idea. Something that would send the message. Yes.

Constable Roach,

Eat, drink and be merry … and the rest of the proverb is in your hands.

March McPhee

That was all. She penned another:

Mr. Laidlow,

Eat, drink and be merry, before the eyes of the Territory are upon you.

March McPhee

She left Roach's on his desk, and headed through the night to Laidlow's. The window lamp was extinguished. She remembered that the door was connected to bells, to alert the funeral home to the existence of a customer. She wondered whether she could manage to ease past it, decided she couldn't, walked around to the rear service door, found it open, left the message on a zinc-topped table, and escaped into the chill night.

BOOK: Easy Pickings
7.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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