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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

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BOOK: Easy Pickings
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She absorbed that for a moment, and stormed out.

 

Twenty-seven

The bells at the door of the Laidlow Funeral Home clattered when she walked in at two in the morning, shattering the peace. A kerosene lamp burned quietly in the hall. She waited patiently in the quiet, hearing muffled thumps above, and finally the tread of feet down a stairwell.

Moments later Bum Carp appeared, bedraggled but clad in hastily drawn-up britches and the top of a union suit. His face lacked the attention of a straight-edge, and his dark hair tufted this way and that, an odd frame for his youthful face. He looked sleep-drugged, and indeed, was not entirely himself at that hour.

“Mr. Carp, I'm March McPhee,” she said. “I understand you're Mr. Laidlow's relative.”

“You need services, ma'am?”

“No, actually, I came to talk to you. I think it's time for a little visit. Have you a place where we can converse?”

“Here's good enough.”

“It's customary to invite a customer to sit down, especially a grieving one,” she said. “I've been grieving the loss of my boy, Fourth, we called him, because my husband was Kermit the Third. I do believe you know about that, don't you?”

He was rapidly wakening now, which was fine.

“Actually, I'm doing you a favor. I've come to warn you. I'll let you know privately what is going to be public soon, the exposure of your clan's rather unusual enterprises, Judge Roach's interesting decisions, Constable Roach's strange law enforcement, and of course your— What is he, uncle? Mortimer Laidlow's remarkable activities.”

“What do you want?”

“I do believe that you and your cousin Jerusalem were at my husband's mine the night my cabin burned down and took my little boy, Fourth, with it. The Territory's about to learn all about that. Premeditated, you know, that's always worse. I think if you're smart, you'd put your shoes on right now and flee the Territory of Montana. People are talking, you know. You can't hide something like that for long, Bum Carp. Is that your real name, Bum? I doubt it. No parent would burden a boy with that.”

“Who's talking?”

“By the time you find out, it'll be too late.”

“This is all horse apples, isn't it? What's to keep me from hauling you over to the jail?”

“This hatpin, for starters, and more. Who's out there? In the dark. What's going to happen next? I've made my point, young man. Run when you can. It's all falling apart.”

He glowered, not knowing what to do.

“Did you start that fire, Bum?”

“I was up at the mine.”

“So Jerusalem did? The court papers say that both of you started it. You'll want to defend yourself when you testify.”

He stared, plainly wondering whether to plow into her.

“Give me two dollars,” she said.

“What? What?”

“You heard me. Go get it and give it to me.”

“Two dollars?”

“I'm waiting.”

Slowly, he turned, vanished up the dark stairwell, and returned, with two greenbacks.

“Place them on that table,” she said.

He did. She picked them up.

“Good night, Bum,” she said. “Go wake the constable and ask him about this, if you wish. It might comfort you—for now.”

She opened the door, jangling the bells again, and stepped into clean night air. She left him standing there next to the kerosene lamp burning in a wall niche. He did not rush after her, and she hurried into the black, moonless night, her mission accomplished. It had been easier than she had thought it would.

He was not a born leader, she thought.

A round-trip ticket to Helena on the stub line to Marysville cost one dollar and twenty cents. She would have enough left over for a treat at the chocolate shop on Last Chance Gulch.

She boarded the morning freight, which had a coach attached, before the sun topped the mountain ridges to the east. There had been no one except a pair of drummers at the little station, and no one in the ticket window. The conductor would take her fare.

Maybe, in Helena, she could rattle the Roach clan a little more.

The wooden pews in the coach did not suggest first-class service, but the run was short, and her back could endure the half-hour of jarring. But she was in Helena while breakfast was still being served in the Territorial capital. She was early, but she had enough to enjoy a cup of coffee and a pastry in the Northern Pacific Beanery.

She wondered where she might find Jerrold Laidlow, MD. If indeed he was a medical doctor. She had her doubts. The only time she had seen him was in a cell of the county jail, where Judge Roach had thrust her, for alleged contempt of court. Helena was a bustling town; he could be anywhere, or nowhere.

But on Last Chance Gulch she spotted an apothecary shop, and thought that was as good a source as any. She entered a narrow dark room lined with large brown bottles and dark blue vials, and an egg-bald proprietor with a furrowed forehead.

“How may I relieve you?” he asked.

“Of what?”

“Pain, money, dyspepsia, what does it matter?”

“I am looking for a Doctor Jerrold Laidlow, and wish to be directed to his chambers.”

He frowned, deepening those furrows. “Are you suicidal?”

“At the moment, inclined to homicidal.”

“You will improve the human race,” he said. “May I inquire what for? I can sell you more than he knows how to prescribe.”

“You are suggesting his, well, mastery of medicine is limited?”

“Far be it from me to say anything of the sort, madam. But I hope you will investigate all options before placing your life in his hands.”

“I must see him. He's a weak link.”

“I've heard him called many things, but that's truly the best and most original.” He brightened. “I was afraid that if I sent you to him, I'd be assuming some liability that I would rather avoid.”

March liked this gent. “Well, I thought to improve his outlook by giving him advice, which is to leave the Territory while he can.”

“Ah, indeed. In that case, I shall gladly supply his address. It's on Lawrence Street, west of the gulch, a frame house in which he has converted the parlor into his chambers. A sign advertises his business.”

“Good, thank you.”

“I have a favor to ask of you, madam. If you succeed, please tell me about it.”

“I'll shake on it,” she said.

She hastened down the gulch, found Lawrence, and turned up the street, climbing a steep hill. The run-down house was there, with a shingle advertising the doctor's wares, out front. She turned in, knocked, and got no response. She tried again, and this time Jerrold Laidlow himself, disheveled and grouchy, responded.

He looked her up and down. “Oh, I suppose so,” he said, and let her in.

It took her only a moment to realize that the doctor was not entirely sober, and had not been sober for a long time. He led her into the parlor.

“Female problems, I presume,” he said. “All right, prepare for the indignities.”

“No, I've come to warn you about what's in your future,” she said.

“I knew it. You're the Warm Springs suicide.”

“Mad fantasies. Lunatic dreams. Now, let's just take one. Your demise. Let's say the highest officials in the Territory learn that you helped steal a gold mine? That you committed its owner to Warm Springs as a way to get rid of her? That you've already received the first payment, let me see, five hundred fifty dollars? Each of you with a full share in the stolen mine got that much, and those with half a share got two hundred seventy-five, and that was for the first month, with more payments stretching out for as long as the mine produces. Suppose that the Territorial governor sees the ledger, sees the names, sees how much boodle's been distributed, and who's getting it. Now suppose the officials learn that a certain Judge Roach and a certain undertaker in Marysville played a little game on the new widow, well, it'll all come out shortly. Of course not here in Helena, where the corrupt judge presides, but elsewhere, in another district. Now, another fantasy is that the two youngest of those in this cabal, the ones who deliberately set fire to the widow's cabin, and that fire took the life of her only child, let's suppose those two are scared of what's coming. Probably flee the Territory. If they don't they'll not only have to testify, they'll spend the next few years in the penitentiary. How's that for a mad fantasy, Doctor?”

“Sounds like fantasy to me. My decision to ship you to the asylum was right on the mark.”

“Well, I'm not one to predict the future, Doctor, but simply to imagine it. Maybe reality will be different. Maybe this family cabal is so powerful that it's in cahoots with the Territorial officials. And nothing happens. In that case, the madwoman would be wrong, wouldn't she? Her vision of the future wouldn't resemble the real world, and real events, and real people. Then you could say you were right to ship her off to the lunatic asylum. Well, Doctor, what do you think?”

“You're buzzing about like a pesky horsefly. What's the drill? Are you threatening blackmail? Are you extorting me?”

She smiled. “It's out of my hands. I thought you'd appreciate the warning. By tomorrow you could be on a train to some safe place. Oregon, or South Dakota. Beyond the long arm of the law in this Territory.”

“Extortion, that's what you're up to.”

“Have I asked you for anything? Of course not. You seem to be having mad fantasies. Name my price. What am I demanding?”

“I'll learn soon enough,” he said.

“I talked to an apothecary to find out where you live. Why does he think ill of you? Are you a real doctor?”

He nodded toward the wall. “There's my parchment.”

“From a correspondence school?”

His gaze bored into her.

“What courses gave you the ability to judge my mind?”

He said nothing.

“The Territory will soon find out,” she said. “The court will want to know the basis for your decision to send me to Warm Springs. Or was the basis a piece of my mine?”

“You certainly are a horsefly,” he said, yawning.

“Enjoy your day,” she said. “Now you have a reason to drink. Until now, you drank without a reason.”

He laughed.

She headed into the morning, uncertain what had been accomplished. He was somehow tougher and sharper than she had imagined, and more dangerous. He was capable of wiring Constable Roach in Marysville to meet the next train, and capture her. In fact, the more she thought of it, the more she worried. She had overreached, and now there was new risk. The telegraph wires would pulse with urgent messages.

She remembered her previous trip in a caboose. But who could say what the next brakeman she encountered would do. The other option would be to wait a few days, until the constable got tired of meeting trains from Helena. But that wasn't an option, not with the few cents she had in her reticule. And now that the cabal was in trouble, Constable Roach would be on hand at every arrival, and probably departure, too.

The caboose seemed risky. But maybe a ride in a boxcar, or one destined for the Drumlummon, would work better. She hiked to the rail yards, waited several hours for the Marysville local to load passengers, and saw what she needed to see. A boxcar loaded with mining equipment. It wouldn't be comfortable, but the ride wouldn't last forever. From the far side, opposite the station platform, she climbed in, unladylike in her quick ascent, and found herself in a world of crates and barrels, along with a grizzled hobo.

 

Twenty-eight

The hobo took one look at her and pulled a knife from somewhere.

“Get outa here,” he said, brandishing it.

She didn't argue. But no sooner had she moved toward the open door of the boxcar than a heavy jerk on the couplings threw her backward, and the train started to roll.

“I said get out. No women.”

“Get out yourself,” she snapped. She was tired of being hounded and bullied and robbed, entirely by males.

The train huffed and the wheels rolled.

The hobo's alert gaze altered slightly, but he kept the wicked knife in his hand.

“No women,” he said again.

“Go find another car,” she snapped.

The train was lumbering along now, swinging out of Helena. She was stuck with a tramp who looked ready to kill her and had a half hour to do the job.

“Get out. Find another car, or I'll knock you out of here,” she said, wondering where that erupted from.

He didn't get out, but after a bit he slid the knife into a sheath hidden at his waist. His gaze never left her.

She knew somehow she was safe for the moment, but things might change at any time. The train was rattling along now, fifteen or twenty miles an hour; she could jump out, but it would kill her. Smoke and ash from the engine blew in, sooting her face.

“You're sitting on the wrong end of the car,” he said. “Come to this end, and that stuff won't choke you.”

“But you might.”

“More than likely you'd choke me,” he said, “and toss me out the door.”

She laughed. She couldn't help it.

They sat facing each other for ten or fifteen minutes. She stared out the door, felt the ash and wind in her face, wondered if she could get outside of the car, climb one of those little ladders to its roof, and keep out of his sight. The reality was, she didn't even know where to step, or how to do any of it. And she saw nothing in the car that would serve as a weapon. Just big crates and casks of chemicals.

Still, the brief run was half over and she was still alive and unharmed.

Then he breached the silence.

“You broke or something?”

“No, I have a ticket to Marysville. It's very simple. There may be a man at the station I don't want to meet.”

He grinned. “Copper, maybe?”

BOOK: Easy Pickings
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