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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

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BOOK: Easy Pickings
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“I left a wife in County Clare, coming here for the mines, but then she died of the lung sickness,” he said. “Gold takes us away from our own.”

“I came with Kermit,” she said. “And spent my days fighting catarrh and keeping us warm. This is a cold place.”

“Yes, and there's no comfort when gold's lying about, waiting to be fought over.”

They pushed into sharp air, and walked to Laidlow's whitewashed funeral home, which slumbered in the early light. The town shimmered in the breeze.

A pullcord rang a bell that summoned the proprietor. The owner took his time, perhaps not used to responding at an unusual hour.

But at last a gent in muttonchops and a black frock coat opened, and eyed them.

“You must be Mrs. McPhee,” he said. “Do come in. We've been awaiting you.”

She nodded, and they entered. The mortician steered them to a small office, his gaze questioning Tip Leary.

“Now then, your bereavement is a matter of deepest concern for me. I want to do whatever is possible to accommodate you in your hour of need.”

She let him drone on a little. He was describing his services, and raising questions.

“There'll be a service for another,” she said. “The baby, Kermit the Fourth. He died in the fire.”

“Fire?”

“Our cabin was burned.”

Laidlow seemed puzzled enough. She talked of the fire. She didn't talk of the sealing of the mine, or her absence from the cabin. He listened intently. She saw no sign of the young woman who was keeping the doors open the previous day.

“You will need to comb the ash to find my baby. If there's anything left. McPhees burn as fast as any other mortal.”

Laidlow fussed a little with some wire-rimmed spectacles. “Have you reported this, madam?”

“That will come. Now, you find my baby. I couldn't even get close in the night, it was so hot.”

“We may not be able to, madam.”

“You mean there'll be nothing left. Not so much as a lock of his hair as a keepsake.”

“I will send some assistants. Young men I employ. This is grievous for you. And if we find the child…”

“Cremate him. If he is not yet ash, let him be ash. It is the only dignity.”

“Now there is the matter of a coffin, and a grave, or two graves, and a service, Mrs. McPhee. And knowing how much you wish to honor your loved ones, I think a good stone would be appropriate, with the names of both incised upon it. Of course, with your considerable assets, you need not worry about managing the obligations. There are some fine lots at the front of the cemetery, a few dollars more but you need not walk to the pauper's field at the rear whenever you wish to spend a quiet hour with your loved ones.”

And so it went. March grew weary of the negotiations, but in due course they set a day, the following Thursday; a place, a chapel; and a coffin, a pine box stained to look like hickory.

“And where may we find you, Mrs. McPhee?”

“At the mine,” she said.

“And you have means, of course. I believe the total will be two hundred and forty.”

“In time,” she said.

“I will send along a little agreement,” he said. “You'll need to sign it for us to proceed.”

Leary had said not a word, but had absorbed it all, and when they reached fresh air, she asked him what he thought.

“You are a courageous woman, March McPhee. I don't know where you'll be staying at the mine, at the place where everything burnt to ash, but at least you'll see who the man sends to look for your baby—and maybe you'll be seeing the very ones that snuffed the life of that bright boy, the very ones who'll comb the ash for whatever's left of the boy.”

“Where's the constable, Mr. Leary?”

“Would you like me to come?”

“You are my help.”

He led her to a small whitewashed structure that was at once Marysville's city hall and peace officer's quarters. The little town was stirring at last, with shoppers out on the streets and deliverymen stocking stores. Leary opened for her, and she discovered a wiry mustachioed man in a blue serge suit, the sole occupant.

“Constable Roach, may I present a fine lady, Mrs. McPhee. There's been a bit of trouble.”

“Trouble, eh? What sort of trouble? Have a seat, madam. And you, if you want,” Roach said, nodding at a stool.

She poured her story into the silence, starting with the cave-in, quest for help, the pair sent by the funeral parlor, and later, that night, the thump, the fire, the loss.

Roach listened intently, rheumy brown eyes assessing her in a way that made her feel as if she were not the victim, but the suspect.

“Gold mine, was it?” he asked. “I think I know the one.”

She saw where his thoughts were running.

“And what is this gent's role in all this?”

“Mr. Leary offered help when I arrived deep in the night and didn't know how to locate you or get help.”

Roach eyed Leary with the same assessing gaze, adding to his list of suspects. But then he surprised her. “My powers extend only to city limits. That's a matter for the sheriff, up there. But I think the fire was likely an accident. You were a bit distraught, weren't you? Losing your source of income. I'd hardly call it arson, much less manslaughter. It doesn't take much. Leave a lamp burning, did you?”

She fought back the impulse to shout at him. The mine was sealed with an explosion. The cabin was doused in kerosene. An obvious attempt to kill a surviving heir to Kermit McPhee's property.

She glanced at Leary, who sat on the stool with compressed lips. Somehow she could read Leary's thoughts, and he was warning her to back away, fast, hard.

“Those people at Laidlow's. Fine fellows, and that young lady's a niece of mine, Mistletoe Harp, a bit flighty but otherwise just fine,” Roach said. “Those boys, they're my nephews, Jones and Carp. I can't say I'm proud of them, not wanting to go in there to help free your husband. But boys are scaredy-cats, and I guess you showed 'em a thing or two. They just need some weathering.”

That's all it took. March felt as alone in the world as a mortal can be.

“That mine's not worth a plugged nickel anyway, so I hear, so there's no cause for anyone to cop it. Whoever planted the charge did you a favor,” Roach said. “Pocket mine. Clean out a ledge and quit the place. Was McPhee trying to pawn it off?”

Leary's lips were tight.

March stood. “My husband is dead,” she said.

“Well, I don't speak ill of the dead,” Roach said. “I'm sure you are feeling some loss. But after the funeral, how about you stop in here for some record-keeping? I'd like to know what that mine was producing, and whether that vein was pinching out, which is obviously what lies behind all this stuff. It looks like a scheme. But as I say, I'll speak no ill of the dead.”

March ignored Leary's tight lips, and flared up. “So that's how it is, is it? Well, someone tried to kill me and my boy.”

She scarcely knew where that had erupted from, but it sure quieted that little nook. There was a single-cell jail, mostly an alcove with iron bars, but it was empty. She wanted to throw Constable Roach into it and throw away the key.

“Come along, Mr. Leary; I'm done here. We're going to the newspaper. They'll write it up.”

Roach stared, unmoving.

“I'll expect you at the funeral for my husband and son, Constable,” she said. “I know you'll want to pay your respects.”

With that, she headed for the street, with Leary at her heels.

“I always pay my respects,” Roach said. “With interest added.”

His great mustachios twitched like cat tails.

Outside, she smiled. Whenever life was out of kilter, she suddenly smiled. That was how she was. And Leary saw it, and smiled, too.

“So that's how you are,” he said.

“His kinfolk are more important to him than justice, and he's not got a lick of kindness in his head,” she said. “So now I have another enemy. He's got nephews and a niece to protect, even if they decided they wanted a gold mine.”

“Are you going to the
Beacon
?” he asked.

“With an obituary,” she said. “Let him worry about a story for a few days. Let him fear the widow's word.”

“You know, madam, and I hope you'll forgive me for saying it, but it's no longer about a gold mine someone's trying to nip from a widow. It's about a family's honor. That little copper, he's got it in his craw now. You're telling a story that makes his niece and nephews look bad. The three look like schemers and maybe killers, too. You've told a story that could put Roach's relatives in the state pen for a long time.”

“If he's half a lawman, he'll look into it and do his duty.”

“I would not want Roach making life painful for me,” he said.

“Well, I thank you for your help, then.”

“No, I didn't mean it that way, Mrs. McPhee. I'm in. I was speaking of his power to make life miserable for you. He has his ways. He's a rattler without rattles. He's in thick with the district judge, you know, and the pair have emptied the pockets of a lot of good people, including plenty of my customers. Now, you may think you're safe up there, at the mine, where the constable has no powers, but you'll be dead wrong. And that reminds me. You have no place. How are you going to live at the mine?”

“I don't know,” she said. “But I will, and soon enough I'll see who comes for the gold, and I'll know who killed my son and tried to kill me.”

 

Five

It was no easy thing to return to the mine.

“You shouldn't be there alone. Where'll you stay? What'll you eat? Who'll protect you?” the barkeep asked.

She dealt with him sternly. “Mr. Leary. I am thankful for your help. Now I will leave you and I'll manage.”

“Sure, and there'll be another victim, this one a woman alone.”

“You have your business to run, Mr. Leary. Yes, I like to be watched over, just as you did last night. I woke up, saw you sitting there, watching over me, and I knew what safety is. I will never forget it. But now I wish to be alone with my memories. It's what I need now.”

She watched Tip Leary wrestle with it. Her intentions ran counter to his every instinct, and he couldn't let go of it.

“I'll come by and watch over you, then, and bring a little to eat. You have enemies, and they'll take advantage, and you need a man.”

She was touched. “We're almost strangers, and I marvel that duty summons you so strongly. You are a fine man, Mr. Leary. The thing is, I'm a stubborn Scot, and there's nothing more bullheaded than a certain type of Scot, who's rooted into the ground like a hedgehog and won't budge.”

He accepted the defeat. “You'll be calling on me, any hour, if there's a need, and I'll be doing what's in my powers. You have that from me.”

She took his hand boldly. “I'll be looking for you at the mine, and you'll be welcome.”

She left him there in the clay street. The morning was not even half spent. She felt his gaze upon her as she made her weary way to the far side of town, and turned off into Long Gulch, which would take her into the mountains.

She was inexpressibly weary, and scarcely noticed the vaulting slopes, the pine forest, the giant shoulders of the wilderness. But then she climbed the last grade and beheld the smoking ashes of her home, her life, and her baby.

She edged to the smoking ruin, dreading what she might see, but she saw nothing. The roof had collapsed, a pile of gray ash, covering everything. There was no sign of a crib. She walked over to the kitchen area, and found a few things she needed. Iron and steel did not perish. She found a Dutch oven, some knives and forks, a kettle, and other metal things, some pottery, too, some still too hot to touch, but things she would redeem.

She headed for Kermit's wagon, and knew she could live in it. The wagon had a roof and open sides, with roll-down canvas to keep out weather if needed. And then she worked her way to the root cellar that had been dug into a cool hollow that always felt like winter. There were potatoes, onions, tins of oats on a shelf. Food enough, if she could collect enough wood to cook it. And if she could start a fire. She had no matches but there would be whatever she needed at the mine—if Kermit's explosives hadn't been stolen.

She spent the next hours fashioning a camp. Except for clothing, she could manage for a while. Early in the afternoon Jerusalem Jones and Bum Carp appeared, along with a handcart and some shovels.

She studied them somberly as they wrestled the cart up the final grade. Were these the ones? She had every reason to fear them.

They eyed the smoldering pile of ash.

“Ma'am, we're come to fetch the late little baby for you,” said the one she remembered as Jerusalem. “Mr. Laidlow sent us.”

“Very well,” she said.

They were eyeing her camp, the wagon, the metal things she had salvaged.

“Be about it quickly,” she said. “I don't wish to be here.”

Jerusalem smiled. “Well, maybe we will. Mr. Laidlow, he sent along a little paper for you to sign. He says get it down, her signature, and then we're to do a bit of sifting here.”

The cheerful young man handed her an envelope. She discovered a handwritten agreement within and a line where she was to sign it. The young man even had a bottle of black ink and a nib pen at the ready.

The agreement was a bill for two hundred and forty dollars, payable on signing to Laidlow Mortuary. But what followed got to the heart of it. If the bereaved could not come up with the funeral and burial expense, these could be satisfied with a half interest in her mine.

“So, that's the nettle,” she said. “You may leave now.”

“There'll be no funeral, then, ma'am.”

“Do what you will with my husband.”

“You'll still owe, ma'am, for what's been done. He's been prepared, for fifty dollars.”

BOOK: Easy Pickings
13.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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