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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

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BOOK: Easy Pickings
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“Sonofabitch,” he said.

“My mine,” she said. She turned abruptly, started up Third Street, walked straight through town, past people now, the tramp one step behind, muttering. She speeded up; he speeded up. She swerved; he swerved and caught her, his iron grip instantly crushing her shoulder. She felt the prick of steel in her side, and stopped at once.

“Walk slow and easy,” he said. “You're dead if you mess around.”

“Then I have nothing to lose,” she said.

Tipperary was walking beside, white apron, axe handle in hand. He passed forward of her, paying no attention. One of his patrons, dust cap and all, was coming up fast.

Her every instinct was to break loose and run. Instead, she halted abruptly, and the tramp slammed into her, unbalanced, and she twisted right.

The thud of the axe handle hitting the tramp's head, and then a groan, was all she heard. She landed on the clay street. Another thud, some cursing, and yells. She crawled up, turned around, found the tramp sprawled in the road.

“Be you safe?” he asked.

She felt her side, and the stickiness there, but it was nothing. “Think so.”

Now men flooded in, mostly gawking.

The tramp groaned. Someone collected a long, bloody knife with a narrow blade.

“Killed the lawyer,” someone said.

“You're bleeding, Miss.”

She was. “I'll put a plaster on,” she said.

“What's this?” someone asked.

“It's him that killed the lawyer and tried for her. And we're not done, not yet,” Tip said.

“I don't follow you.”

“It was hired, and we'll go for them.”

She was handed a rag, and she pressed it to her side, and it reddened. She felt dizzy.

“Who's this woman?”

“March McPhee, she whose mine was stolen, whose boy was killed.”

“You're her are you? I thought you were a madwoman.”

“And her freedom was stolen, too,” Tip said. “A good place to shut away a woman whose mine they took from her.”

“And what's all this? A tramp loose on the streets, Leary?”

“It's silence they were buying, right when they were about to be exposed, the whole bloody lot of them. You'll see it come together soon enough. We need men. Come along to the constable.”

She knew some of them now. They were Tip's customers, but there were others. Her side smarted, but there wasn't much of any blood.

“Mrs. McPhee, wait safe in my place of business, and put a little spirits on your cut.”

“Later,” she said. “I will come along.”

“There's a Celt,” Tip said. “Lift him up now, and carry him.”

The tramp had a bloody lump on his skull, and his breath was rasping. His fingers clutched and unclutched the knife that was no longer there. He opened his eyes, closed them, and went limp again. Two men in dust caps lifted him awkwardly.

March felt faint. But she was not going to miss any of it.

“What's this? What's this?” yelled Constable Roach, pushing his way through the crowd. There he was, natty blue uniform immaculate, mustachios trimmed to the last hair.

“Here's the killer, and he tried for her,” someone said. “See, here's the bloody knife, and it's the lawyer's own on it.”

“The madwoman,” Roach said. “Got her. She's behind this.”

“Constable, hand me that billy club,” Tipperary Leary said.

“What are you talking about? I'm taking you in.”

Tip's axe handle cracked down on the constable's hand. He howled.

“You getting us into a jackpot, Leary?” a man asked.

“He hired it done; him and his clan. Laidlow's one. It'll come clear. Check the constable, see he's clean, and bring him.”

“You'll pay for this; twenty years in Deer Lodge,” Roach said.

“You won't live to see it, because you and this here tramp, and a few more, you'll see the noose and nothing after.”

The constable's face drained of color.

“Bring him along,” said Tip.

Hesitantly, the crowd caught Roach.

“You'll pay, you'll pay,” Roach said. “You'll pay the price, and do time. Get your hands off me. I'm a peace officer.”

The crowd hesitated.

“Guess I'll haul you there myself,” Tip said, and began marching the constable toward the village lockup. Uneasily, the rest followed, two of them carrying the tramp. It was an uneasy, uncertain bunch that dragged the tramp and the constable straight through town, catching stares and glares at every hand, from every storefront. This was something unheard of in quiet Marysville.

Strangely, as they passed the assay office, Wittgenstein joined them, wearing his thick canvas apron. “Are you well, Mrs. McPhee? Do you need help?”

“I'm getting help from the truest men in town.”

They reached the city building, with its little lockup. The constable's office was orderly. She looked in vain for the brown folders, the papers that Hermes Apollo was about to file, and saw nothing. That shot fear through her.

“There's never a paper on the man's desk, Mrs. McPhee,” Tip said. “We'll look in a minute. He directed the men carrying the tramp to settle the man in the cell, and then the constable.

“Check him for a key,” he said.

They found a ring of keys on the constable, and nothing more, and pushed him in.

“Are you sure you know what's what, Leary?” A town merchant named Spreckels was objecting.

Tip circled behind the constable's desk, opened desk drawers, found some brown pasteboard folders and pulled them out. Written on one was
McPhee vs Laidlow, Roach, et al.

“The lot of them, this shadowy clan, all kin one way or other, was about to be exposed. The lady and her attorney, God bless his soul, were going to file papers in Butte, since Judge Roach in Helena's a part of it all. The complaint's here. The McPhee Mine, it's gone, a pocket is all, but this lawsuit had to be stopped, and they tried.”

“Oh, horsepucky, Leary,” another merchant said. “Have you lost your mind?”

“There's the tramp's knife, and it's bloody to the hilt,” Tip said. “And who was paying him to protect their reputations?”

The crowd jammed into the little office seemed uncertain, divided, and fearful.

Then Mortimer Laidlow burst in, armed with a shotgun. Jerusalem Jones and Bum Carp followed, with drawn revolvers. The crowd edged back, isolating Tip Leary and March McPhee at the desk.

“Heard it was like this,” the undertaker said. “We've come to restore law and order.”

 

Thirty

Oddly, nothing happened. The undertaker crouched at the door, shotgun in hand, backed by two nephews, revolvers in hand. Over in the jail, the tramp was coming around, shaking his head. Constable Roach stared. Behind the desk, folders in hand, Tip Leary stood, and beside him, March. And a dozen other citizens stood about, paralyzed.

It could turn into bloody mayhem. March planned to hit the floor. If she lived.

Constable Roach spoke quietly:

“Mr. Leary, release me. You are holding the key. Mortimer, lower that shotgun. You might hurt someone. You young men, holster your revolvers. The rest of you, stand quietly.”

Tip paused only long enough to see whether Laidlow would comply instead of firing, saw that the undertaker was reluctantly lowering his weapon a few inches so the barrel pointed at ankles rather than faces and chests, carefully unlocked the cell, let the constable out, and closed it again, keeping the tramp within. The lock snapped hard.

Constable Roach stepped toward his desk. There were tears in his eyes. He was as natty as ever, not a speck of dirt on his blue uniform, neatly shaven, his mustache trimmed, his gaze observant. But his lip twitched. It was one thing he could not control.

“Mortimer, the shotgun, please.”

There was a strange aura about the constable. He was without weapons, yet at that moment the most commanding mortal present, a Moses carrying the Ten Commandments.

Reluctantly, the undertaker surrendered the weapon. The constable did not heft it or point it; instead, he placed it on his desk.

“Boys, unbuckle your belts, and hand me the revolvers in their holsters.”

Slowly they did. They handed him the belts. Jerusalem was glaring, and the glare announced that he was being betrayed.

March marveled. The constable was disarming men on the very edge of madness.

“Is anyone else armed?” the constable asked.

No one was, except for Tip's axe handle, which Roach saw and ignored. Tip simply tucked it in his arms.

“Very well. We'll try not to keep Mr. Laidlow busy. You wonder about me now. I have been struck by lightning,” the constable said. “Put it this way. I'm a copper, sworn to keep peace and order. I wasn't keeping my oath of office until just now. But we sometimes receive guidance. Who knows what and when and where? Or maybe it's just conscience. I am not who I thought I was. It's a revelation. While I did not commission various crimes, I have known of them and did not object to them, and share the guilt of them. I should not be wearing this uniform.”

He held out his hand to Tip. “The keys, please.”

Tip handed Roach the jail keys. Roach headed for the iron-barred jail door, and flipped the lock once again.

“Mortimer, you and the boys walk into that cell.”

“But, Thomas,” the undertaker said. “This is all nonsense.”

Roach said nothing, a quiet pillar of blue, and such was his power, even unarmed, that the three meekly entered, joining the tramp. March could not imagine what powers the constable had that would achieve these things.

Roach swung the squeaking iron door shut and locked it.

He turned to the rest. “We'll restore order here first. Then we will see to justice. I am part of a clan of people who overreached, and ended up commissioning murder to keep our secrets from the world. When I've restored civil order and achieved justice for the victims of our crimes, I will turn myself in. My testimony will convict me. But first I will report to authorities in Helena what has happened and why it happened, and set justice on its way.”

He turned to March.

“Madam, we owe you more than an apology. It is upon us to make things right.”

She listened, amazed, and nodded.

“First we stole your mine, conniving at law and through violence to take it away at the dawn of your widowhood; then your son was lost to a fire these two boys set, intending to drive you away forever. Gold inspired all that. Gold is what loosened every shred of conscience. Then to silence you, we had you declared mad by our very own quack and put you away forever. And it turns out, that was only the start. When we discovered you got free and were preparing to go to law, we realized even filing the suit would expose the whole clan, so my cousin, Judge Roach, made certain arrangements in Helena, and another death happened, and yours would have followed.”

Those who did not know the story stood, mesmerized. There was only dead silence in that small office.

“It is not enough to apologize. But before I'm done, I will do all in my power to restore you to your life, liberty, and possessions, and bring an end to my clan's abuse of government power. And then they'll put me away.”

The dignified man stood rigid, and she saw his eyes were wet.

She supposed she should say something, acknowledge something good, or thank him for something, but all she could manage was a nod. He might make good for some things, but he had a part in the loss of her son. And the brutal death of her attorney. She nodded.

He addressed the crowd. “You may stay or go. You may witness the things I will do next. You may watch me deal with brothers and cousins and nephews. You may watch me deal with myself. And you may follow me to Helena, where I will bring the matter to Territorial officials. What I do now, I do in a fishbowl.”

March chose to leave. She wanted desperately to walk the streets of Marysville freely, not as a hunted woman, not as a reputed madwoman on the loose. She walked quietly past staring eyes, some of them friendly eyes, eyes rimmed with sympathy, and out onto the unpaved street where chill mountain air rolled down the slopes.

She was far across the sea from Scotland. Her Kermit lay buried nearby. Her dreams had vanished, every one. Her dear boy was ash. The future was a blank.

Tip joined her. “Would you like some company, March?”

“Always, Tip,” she said.

 

DEAD WEIGHT

 

H
ERE LIES THE COFFINMAKER

B
ARCELONA
B
ROWN

L
AID IN HIS FINEST,

S
IX FEET DOWN

Dodge City does a deal of dying, which is good for business. Mostly it's a summer occupation, when the drovers push up from Texas with their longhorns and beeline for the saloons with some Yankee dollars in their jeans. They tend to perforate one another after downing a few tumblers of redeye.

We get a little help from hot weather complaints as well, such as dysentery and cholera, and sometimes the ague. There is not much business in the winter, with the Texians gone south like the geese, but sometimes a consumptive parts from us when a good Canadian blue norther cuts through, or the catarrh or lung fever swathes through town, and then Doc McCarty ends up recommending me, Phineas Agnew, to the bereaved. McCarty and I try to steal each other's business, but in the end I always win. Morticians have a monopoly. It isn't a perfect monopoly, because sometimes there is no corpus delicti. But it's good enough for a man wanting a secure living, without the vagaries of boom and bust, famine or plenty.

I always come out ahead. It's an art, you see. To maximize the profit, you have to catch them at just the right moment. The moment of deepest grief is the time to suggest the finest casket, the fanciest send-off. When those Texians come up the long trail carrying one of their own in the cavvy wagon, all swathed in canvas, killed by lightning south of town or a stampede or bad water, then's when I mint money.

BOOK: Easy Pickings
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