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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

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BOOK: Easy Pickings
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She hoped the calling cards would stir up a little alarm.

Constable Roach would form a posse in the morning and head out.

She headed for the washerwoman cottage, wary of it, but it showed no signs of life. She crept in the back way, filled her carpetbag with her meager wardrobe, hid some squash and a melon in a cupboard, and headed into the bleak night. When she reached Tip's saloon she noted that it was shut, so she tried the alley door, and it creaked open. He had left it that way. She settled on the billiard table, and in spite of the hard surface, fell swiftly to sleep, in warmth, and with pretzels and water close at hand.

At dawn she was out, carefully closing the door behind her, and headed for the assayer's office. Mr. Wittgenstein had always been an early bird, in part because firing up his furnaces took a long while. It was just reaching daylight when she knocked and he opened.

“You, is it? I'm not surprised.”

He motioned her in. It took only a few minutes to tell him her story, and he nodded.

“It's about what I supposed,” he said.

“I need your help. It's a long wait before my case can be heard. And I'm being pursued. May I stay here during some nights, when you're away? When I need warmth and shelter. A refuge?”

“It's irregular,” he said.

She agreed. “I'm a fugitive.”

“They processed me at Ellis Island,” he said. “Long lines, waiting to go through, and enter the land of the free. But now I am a citizen.”

She didn't know where that was leading. “Well, thank you,” she said.

“Ah, no! I am not done. Come here.”

He led her to a small room boxed into a back corner of the building, and opened the door. A cot and chair rested there in the dim light of a small window drawing in the dawn light.

“I live out of town. Some nights I work late. Some days I wait for hours for my furnaces to do their job. Some nights it snows. I have this. It's yours when you need it. I have precious metals here, so I will give you a key. Always lock.”

“Oh, sir!”

“There is another reason. I have watched this arrogant clan. They remind me of the old country. They bring me ore to assay. They're careless about what they say to each other. They were careless when they spoke of you and your mine, and how good it is, and how clever they were, figuring out how to get it and put you away for the rest of your life. They think assayers don't have ears. I hear more than most saloonkeeps. So … you see?”

“Oh, I am so indebted.”

He stared. “No, it is a rare privilege to bring a little justice into the world. You see, I count my worth not by how much I make, but by how much I do to make this new land a better place.” He smiled sadly. “I am an idealist. Don't ever be an idealist. It is a vice. It is better to be a poet.”

She hugged him, but he was embarrassed and soon retreated to his furnaces. She put the carpetbag in the little haven, feeling as if the world was new.

 

Twenty-six

Nothing happened. But March didn't expect to see newly sworn deputies collecting in front of the city building. Instead, she supposed the members of the clan would be in touch, seeking ways to hide their graft. Her next notes would alarm them further.

Now that she had refuges and means, she could work out a strategy, and that would be to start the Roaches and Laidlows to fighting one another, driven by fear of exposure. There was plenty to hide: a judge using his powers to steal property. A physician using his powers fraudulently to advance a theft of property. A constable doing the same. A funeral home inflating a bill as pretext to seize property. The Territory was lax, but not so lax that these things would be ignored. The trick was to set the clan against itself, if she could do it.

Late that afternoon, she slipped out of town, a wraith meandering along creek bottoms, unseen. She cut into the timbered flanks of the mountains, and made her way to the McPhee Mine, where from the safety of the dense forest she could observe the action. Now there was an armed guard, in fact Jerusalem Jones, and he carried a carbine. A work crew was industriously hauling out landslide rock her blast had loosened, one ore car after another, each load going into the tailings heap. It would not be long before the clan got her mine up and running. The crew was living in tents, hastily erected below the mine head. She saw wagons coming and leaving, bringing supplies up from Marysville.

The place would be well guarded all night, but she had a few other ideas. She retreated to her haven under the overhang, after watching it a while. Nothing was there. It was a good place to wait for dark. If they had found it, which she doubted, they had found nothing to suggest that anyone had been there in recent times.

Dark came faster with the change of seasons, and she was grateful. At dusk she climbed up the talus to the hollow in the cliff where she kept the blasting supplies, the place where she had a bundle of six sticks of DuPont, the bundle she decided not to use earlier. She added a fused cap.

When it was full dark, she made her way through the forest, carrying the fused dynamite. But she did not head for the mine, with its armed guards, not to the flat with the tents, but to a place well below, at the bottom of her mining claim where the steep road upward was flanked by a wall of decayed rock, great slabs of it that had weathered almost free from the mountain.

At a place where the road passed through a narrows, she peered about, wary of sentries, but there was only the quiet of the night and the deepening chill. She knew the exact place, but doubted she had the explosive she needed. She was working in starlight, but the big open sky of the West seemed to shed enough light for her to complete her task.

It was simple. Slide the charged bundle deep into the main fault that separated the weathered rock from the rest. First she felt about, hesitantly, wondering what might bite her. It might not be too late for snakes. But nothing did, and when she found the place that she thought would work best, she guided the dangerous bundle into the crack, slowly eased it back, halted when it bumped rock, and then she set it down. It would have to do. Her heart was pounding. The fuse did not extend all the way out, but that was fine. She could scratch the kitchen match there, the crack hiding its flame, and be out of there, a shadow upon the night.

She hoped it would work. If it did, it could bottle up the mine for many days.

She scratched the match. It flared. She touched the fuse, but it did not spark. She watched it until the match died, scratched another, and applied the flame. This time the fuse spat white sparks, the powder in it burning steadily. She withdrew, and headed downslope toward Long Gulch, and waited.

The flash and boom shattered the night. Some shards of rock struck her, to her own shock. The percussion knocked her back. The boom echoed from surrounding slopes. The peace of the mountains stopped. She wanted to see, and waited a bit. She heard rattles and thumps, as the debris settled. Then she edged up the slope for a closer look. A great formless mass of rock had fallen across the mine road.

“That'll keep you from stealing my ore,” she said to the night, and hastened away.

She did not hear shouts from above, which was good. They were probably just awakening to the reality that something had happened.

She walked back to Marysville, enjoying the bowl of stars above her, and the brisk night. She wondered what she would do next; it didn't really matter what. She would find the ways to drive the cabal out.

She slept away the last hours of the night at the washerwoman cabin, after first casing the place. She circled it, peered into the gloom, and finally entered. Nothing had changed. Constable Roach hadn't poked into this corner of his world recently.

She slept fitfully in the cold cottage, awakened, checked the view from the two windows and the laundry room, and then began planning her day. She knew what she wanted, to get her stolen mine back, and to throw every single crook in that cabal of kinfolk into the Territorial Prison at Deer Lodge. But it was one thing to have a goal; another to get there. How could a one-woman assault on a powerful and politically entrenched gang succeed?

From somewhere she had this thought: a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. That was all she needed. She wondered where that old idea had come from, but it didn't matter. It seemed to reach her just when she needed it. The weakest link was the reckless young man, Jerusalem Jones, and his relative, Bum Carp. She didn't know how the pair were related to each other, much less the Laidlows, but they were. And they had been anointed to do the dirtywork, beginning with the fire that burnt her cabin.

Jerusalem Jones, the selfsame young braggart who bent an elbow in Tipperary Leary's pub. The selfsame loudmouth who regularly spilled the cabal's secrets to Tip.

She ate some uncooked corn off the cob, knowing she couldn't start a fire and boil it. She ground the kernels down, bit by bit, feeling like a milch cow. It was no way to live. She wore the shapeless green dress into Marysville, arriving early, and keeping a sharp eye for trouble. At Tip's saloon, she slipped to the alley and let herself in, and waited in the dusky barroom for the men she needed to talk to.

It took a long while, and not until nearly noon, when Tip opened, did he show up, entirely unsurprised to find her there.

“Does Jerusalem Jones still come in?”

“Sure, and he's noisier than ever.”

“I'm hoping to set his alarm bells ringing.”

“You are, are you?”

“Could you whisper in his ear?”

“Now, what would a proper man like me be doing that for?”

“I'm hoping you'll tell him you've heard some rumors.”

“About?”

“What he did, and how the Territory knows everything.”

“And if he asked where I got that, what shall I say?”

“Just smile, Tipperary.”

“For you I'd do most everything, but break trust. A man's business depends on trust, so I won't be telling Jerusalem a story. No, ma'am. That goes double for anyone running a pub.”

“Well, tell him the truth then. Hermes Apollo's about to file a suit in the Butte district court against the whole gang. And the suit will name names and list what they've done. Every person in that clan will be named, including those who set fire to my cabin and killed my baby. And everything I've told you, it's happening. And now you've got the word.”

“I'll buy him his third drink, and mention it,” Tipperary said.

“You know something, Tip? You're a gem.”

He stared at the back bar a moment. “You know, my bonny girl, the things a lad like me hears, they cut both ways. I'm glad you're here, and I'm glad we're putting down cards, because I've been listening, too. And it's not what you'd want to hear.”

“Scots women are stronger than Scots men,” she said.

“I don't know if you'd want to hear it,” he said.

“If it's something I should know—”

He lifted a white hand with blue veins. “Himself, Jerusalem Jones, he has a wagging tongue of his own, once it's loosened a little. They're looking for you, and they'll find you. They know you're around. And here's the rub. They have no plans to send you back to Warm Springs, not after that convenient suicide note. You following? That lad Jones, he smiled, and he said, she'll meet her fate.”

She sat, silently. He was talking about her own murder.

“If you'd like to go, my friends and me, we'll buy you fare to Butte. A woman can get good and lost in Butte, my bonny lady.”

She wasn't ready to go to Butte. “We've traded threats, my life, the exposure of a corrupt clan. And you're the men with the ears.”

“You're alive, March McPhee. There, I've said your name. You're a living woman, with a name to her, and it's not the name on some headstone. We'll dip into the cookie jar, and we'll get you out, and we'll put you in good hands in Butte. We're an army in Butte. Please do that.”

She was reluctant. “It'd leave an injustice staining the world.”

He said nothing, wisely not pressuring her any further.

She watched motes of dust settle through a shaft of sunlight.

“You're looking after me,” she said. “I don't know why. I might take you and your friends up on it, but not just yet. You see, things might happen fast. As soon as the lawyer files my case, it's out in the public, you know. It might take a long time to come to trial, but meanwhile there's these things out in the open. They can't afford to let them hang. Any reporter for any paper can have a look. Any official, he can have a look. Judge Roach. Constable Roach. You see?”

He smiled. “You're the bonny one, then. I knew it.”

“If I live through the next few days,” she said.

She eased out the alley door, studied the alley and deemed it safe, and made her way to Hermes Apollo's chambers, all the while keeping a sharp eye. Her nondescript green dress would not help her now. Nothing she wore would help her, if she were discovered.

The chamber, redolent of Havana cigars, with flocked red wallpaper, always repelled her, and she knew the place was an expression of the tastes of her future husband, if it came to that.

He was pomading his slick hair, plastering it down, and ignoring her until it was just so.

“Is the suit ready?” she asked.

“Been ready for days,” he said. “I simply haven't the time or energy to carry it to Butte. Travel costs money, and I'm certainly not getting any from you.”

“Could I do it?”

He stopped messing with his hair. “You could, but won't.”

“What's involved?”

“You hand it to the clerk of court, get a receipt and docket number, and leave my name and address.”

“Then I could save you some time.”

“No, you would deprive me of the pleasures of Butte. There are houses that welcome me with open arms, so to speak.” He lipped his dead cigar. “Three houses and four exemplary ladies of the demimonde. If you'd only pay me, I could afford them all.”

BOOK: Easy Pickings
10.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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