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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

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BOOK: Easy Pickings
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She didn't reply.

“You came to the right car,” he said. “I know about coppers. Most are dumb as stumps.”

“Why are you going to Marysville?” she asked.

He drew back into himself. “Got a job,” he said.

“Mining?”

He laughed. “I'd no sooner go down into one of them pits than I'd walk into a church.”

“I prefer sunlight—day and night,” she said.

“Night's my time of day,” he said.

“What kind of job do you have?” she asked.

The look on his face warned her she was getting onto dangerous turf.

That was the end of conversation. They train huffed up a grade, pushing deeper into the flanks of the Rockies, and then Marysville lay ahead.

“Don't get off at the station, even on the far side,” he said. “Just wait. They'll run this up to the mine after dropping the passengers, and then you get off.”

So he was helping her.

“There's a fat little bitch causing trouble around there,” he said.

She felt insulted.

“I'm dealing with it,” he added.

She no longer felt insulted.

The train hissed to a stop, its bell clanging, and down a way she saw people on the platform. The blue-clad constable was among them, as she had feared. She lowered her head until the crates hid her. The tramp eyed her carefully. But nothing happened, and in a moment, the train huffed and clanged its way to the Drumlummon, and wheezed to a halt. He smiled dourly at her and was out of the car the instant the train ground to a stop. She arose, looked around fearfully, but saw no one, and swiftly stepped down, using little strap-iron steps hanging from the car. She knew she must be a strange sight, a woman in that male world, but no one noticed, no one stayed her, and she drifted toward the road, and the Cruse house, and the washerwoman cottage.

It had been ransacked. A cupboard door was left open. She understood at once that the manhunt would return again and again. They were looking hard now. No doubt some of those she had visited were talking, and now they knew for sure she was there, on the loose.

She was weary. There was no safe place. Food was scarce. Changes of clothing were in her carpetbag at the assay office, and there was still plenty of day left before she could get to it.

She headed out, skirting the aspen grove, edging the meadow, until she reached the Long Gulch road, and headed up it, wary of traffic. It would be a long time until dark, and the night would be cold, but her niche under the overhang near her mine might be a place of refuge. She encountered no traffic at all, and wondered about it. Near the road up to her mine, she cut into forest, working slowly through dense, cold woods. She paused at a place she knew would give her a look at her property, and discovered that the trail was still blocked by tons of rock. She continued upward, at points cutting toward her mining property, and when she finally viewed the mine, she found no one at work. The flat where her cabin had stood was empty of all habitation. There was nothing but ash save for a single tent. The mine was quiet. She wondered whether someone lay in the tent, threw a small rock at it, got no response, and edged closer. It was empty. There was not a mortal on the whole of her claim.

Was it because the mine lane was still blocked? Or because the charge she set in the mine shaft had sealed it beyond recovery? Warily, she walked the flat where her cabin had stood, looking for clues, and finding none. The tent was empty. She had hoped to find something warm, a jacket, a blanket, but it was no more than flapping canvas in chill mountain air. Cautiously, she walked up to the mine portal and peered in, edging up the grade, finding the wall of debris untouched. It was gloomy there, and she hastened out, debating whether to climb to her refuge upslope, or just use the tent overnight. It was eerie.

She studied the sky, and saw low gray clouds crawling over the peaks and ridges, pushing a haze before them, clawing down valleys. And above, a skin of white blotting the sun.

She could not stay there. What she hoped was a refuge could well kill her. She returned to the wall tent, unbuttoned its door, and wrapped it around her. It was not bad for a poncho, but she had miles to go to reach town.

The rain struck about when she reached Long Gulch, and rivered out of brooding gray clouds that sawed off the mountains. The cold shocked her. One moment she was making headway; the next moment arctic cold drenched her head. She pulled the tent door tight, suddenly aware that it was pure good fortune. The icy rain lashed her face, but at least most of it drained away, thanks to the canvas that she clutched tight. The rain turned to sleet, snapping at her head, her cheeks, her wrists. Winds rocked her, tried to tear the canvas off of her, and sometimes almost succeeded.

She was worn; this very day she had shared a boxcar with a violent tramp, discovered that her washerwoman haven had been ransacked, and now she had two miles of misery to reach town and blessed warmth.

She endured, step by step, even as the icy rain stole warmth from her and tried to undo the thin canvas armor that now preserved her very life. There could be no stopping now. Just pacing, no matter how tired, step by step, enduring whatever ice and rain and snow lashed her, caked her hair, numbed the hands that held the canvas to her chilled body.

I'm a Scot, she thought, and somehow that heartened her, though she doubted Scotland, girt by sea, could ever test her so ruthlessly. But somehow she endured, step by step, and finally, with the last of her energy, worked through the deserted streets of Marysville, found her key to the assayer's office, let herself in, and collapsed onto the floor, as water dripped away. The residual warmth of the furnaces lingered there like love, slowly easing the cold of her worn flesh.

The canvas lay on the floor, cold and soaked, leaving pools. But it had saved her life. The humble, tight-woven fabric had stayed the storm. She huddled around the still-hot furnace for a while, reviving, alone in the dark. Alive. She felt her way back to Wittgenstein's little hideaway in the corner, and found the welcoming cot. After a while, when the shaking had ceased, and the heat had lifted her spirits, she slipped into troubled sleep.

She knew nothing of the stormy night.

A tapping on the door awakened her all too soon.

“Forgive me, madam. Business hours approach.”

She couldn't stay there by day.

“One minute,” she said, springing out of the cot.

She found a dry dress, actually her shapeless Warm Springs one, got into it, jammed everything into the carpetbag, and opened.

“You were out in the storm,” he said. “Here's this.” He handed her the canvas, neatly folded.

He had started up the furnaces, and dawn was breaking. She must go.

“This place was the most welcome in my life,” she said. “The rain caught me coming from my mine.”

“Not much to see, was there?”

“Not a soul was there. I can't imagine it. I thought they'd be digging out.”

He stared through the window at the dawning sky. “I'm going to do something I've never done—talk about someone else's assays. Your mine is probably dead. The ore pinched out in one lateral, is declining to a two-inch seam in the other, and not present at all on the face of the main shaft. The last batch of assay samples were, shall we say, the death rattle. The ore they brought in was so devoid of gold it wasn't worth mining. Four samples, and none of them promising. One had no metal at all. A pocket, exploited and gone.”

She felt numb. “Nothing? All this for nothing? I'm a fugitive for nothing?”

He nodded. “They didn't bother to reopen the shaft.”

“All for nothing,” she said. “I've been running, homeless, for nothing.”

He spoke softly. “And they've been hounding you for nothing, breaking every law for nothing.”

She wanted desperately to lie down on the cot again. The world outside was cold and cruel.

“Are you well? If it's necessary, stay here for a while.”

“I will go,” she said.

He seemed ill at ease. She wanted to hug him, but instead, slipped out of the door, even as the half-light of the new day brightened. She hastened through empty streets, cleaned of manure by the rain, and found her way to Tipperary's saloon. As usual, the alley door was open, and she entered the cold dark confines, suddenly desperate for food. She plucked up two pretzels from the jar, settled on top of the billiard table, and tried to process what all this meant. What was she fighting for now? What could she expect? Why was she here? Where could she go? She didn't know, but she couldn't shake the idea that her troubles were worse than ever. She didn't know why, only that the Roach cabal wanted to catch and silence her worse than ever before.

 

Twenty-nine

March heard the thump of feet, the sound of people running, muffled shouts, a clatter of wagon wheels, and whistles. She lay on Tipperary's billiard table, desperately trying to make sense of anything, and no more rested than when she fell into the assayer's cot.

Something was amiss. Fear lanced her; there were men here who wanted badly to return her to Warm Springs. She crept to the fogged window, peered out, and saw men hastening, all heading one direction. And just vanishing from her view was the Laidlow ebony hearse. Death, then.

She weighed the consequences of stepping outside. She sensed this was something she needed to know about, but couldn't say why. She wore only the shapeless dress of the institution she had fled, but maybe that was good. She didn't wish to attract attention. It would not be like wearing a pink dress and a straw hat laden with silk flowers. On a peg she found a cape, something some customer had left behind, and now she borrowed it, wrapped herself tightly, eased out the alley door, past the odorous outhouse, and up the empty alley.

Ahead, all noise had vanished and there was only a strange, oppressive silence. She walked steadily toward Second Street, her chest tight with fear. But no one stayed her, and then she reached the cross street and beheld the crowd, several hundred strong, crowded about the law chambers of Hermes Apollo. Something terrible was happening. The hearse stood there, and at the door stood Constable Roach, a brown folder clutched under his arm. Suddenly she understood what that folder contained, understood what this was about, and felt terror course through her. She chose to stop there, at the edge of the alley, even if the distance kept her from seeing everything. The awful thing was that she already knew.

The crowd kept expanding. It looked like most of the males of Marysville were collecting in front of the law office. Constable Roach stood on the front step, watching the crowd quietly. He seemed a model of calm. Apart from whispering, that occasionally hissed in the breeze, this army of males was silent.

Someone from Laidlow Funeral Home was pressuring people away from the black drays that stood, tails switching, in black harness. She studied these men, thought she spotted Tipperary, but at that distance was not sure. Finally, Laidlow's two flunkies edged out the door, carrying a stretcher, and eased through the gawkers, with Laidlow himself pushing men out of the way.

March got only a glimpse, when the pall was being carried out the door of the law office. On it lay Hermes Apollo, his white shirt and dark waistcoat bloodied, streaked with red, long, cruel cuts. He had been knifed. He had perished from multiple stabs and slices and gouges. His reddened arms flopped over the pall, even as Jerusalem Jones and Bum Carp pushed their way through the gawkers to the ebony hearse, and pushed the late lawyer inside.

Oh, Hermes, she thought. Oh, Hermes. Because of me.

“A fiendish murder,” Constable Roach said. “I will pursue the killer to the ends of the earth, down into hell if I must. Now be gone. Let the streets be safe again.”

But no one moved. Laidlow conferred with Roach on the steps, each of them carrying folders stuffed with paper, and then he walked through the horrified crowd, climbed up on the hearse, took the lines, and gently slapped croups, urging the black horses through the spectators, who continued to watch in deep silence.

March knew what was in those folders.

And knew she would be next.

And felt a powerful arm wrap her, a hand across her mouth preventing a scream, and then the prick of a knife in her side.

“They want a suicide,” the tramp said. “Fits the note you left.”

She writhed, struggled, briefly pulled him out from the alley into the view of the others, who were all watching the hearse wind its way to the funeral home. But no one saw, and no one came.

He force-walked her ahead of him, expertly pressuring her in ways that made the steps seem almost routine. But the slightest resistance brought the blade into her side, so she felt its sting, its heat, and its terror.

She searched for help, both wanting it and knowing that if it arrived, that blade would sink deep into her. No help came.

“Too bad I didn't peg you in the boxcar,” he said. “Wrong description. But it don't matter now. Where do you want to commit suicide?”

She kept silent. They walked further. Her limbs ached from the pressure.

“My mine,” she said. “It's two miles out.”

She would live that long, anyway.

“Two miles out? Fat chance.”

“It's where I lost my husband. My baby boy. And the mine.”

“You'll croak in a boxcar. That'll do fine. I'm going to let go of you. Walk in front of me. Don't run, don't try nothing. I'm a lot faster than you.”

She felt herself freed, and it was all she could do not to run. She turned abruptly.

“Where?” he asked.

“My mine.”

He yanked her violently and steered her toward the rail siding that ended at the Drumlummon at the edge of town. A man on the street stared.

“I'm going to my home,” she said, and veered again, and again she was yanked violently and now cakewalked directly toward the rails. Her heart was hammering. She walked faster and he was right behind. She saw a string of flatcars but no boxcar. Not one.

BOOK: Easy Pickings
3.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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