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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

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BOOK: Easy Pickings
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The pair of them were smiling, blandly.

“We'd like to fetch your little one from the ashes,” Bum said. “Put the dear little tyke to rest, good and proper, just as a mother would wish.”

“Go!” she yelled.

But they were in no hurry. They strolled about, noting her wagon and what she had salvaged.

“You will leave now. This is private property,” she said.

But they lingered, taking inventory, while her temper built up in her.

“Bring my husband here and I will bury him here,” she said.

That startled the pair, but didn't achieve much. They simply grinned, and continued their inventory of the place. But then, at long last, they called it quits.

“We'll be taking whatever we can find, to satisfy the debt, ma'am.”

Bum swept up the Dutch oven and kettle and tableware, and dumped it all in the cart.

“Stop that!” she cried, and bulled toward them, but Jerusalem caught her arm and held tight even as she wrestled to free herself.

Bum pulled a jackknife from his pocket, freed the canvas from the wagon, rolled it up, and put it in the handcart, in effect destroying the only shelter she might have there.

“You'll be wanting to pay Mr. Laidlow his rightful reward for services,” Jerusalem said, and let her go.

They smiled, bowed, and headed leisurely down the grade, pushing the handcart laden with the few precious things that she needed to survive far from town.

She watched furiously. She was angry, but she was sickened, too. The episode had revealed how vulnerable she was; how fragile her life in that wagon might be; how easily she might be coerced or brutalized or starved or bullied.

They were gone. She stared down the peaceful trail to the gulch below. The birds were singing. The countryside had restored itself.

There would be no service, no burial. What the mortician would do she could not imagine, but she guessed the county would bury her husband in a potter's field.

She had nothing. She could not stay.

In the space of a day, she had lost everything. And all because of a small gold mine. They wanted her gone. They meant to possess it. Drive her away. She struggled with that. All she had to do was walk down that long grade and into Marysville, and soon enough life would sort itself out. She would survive there, make friends, get help, begin anew, maybe enter a trade or domestic service. She would endure and build and create a new life.

Only she was stubborn, Scots-born, and bullheaded.

She needed a shelter, food and clothing, and a shotgun. There might still be some of those things lying about.

She eyed the still-smoldering ruin of her cabin, now the grave of her child as well as her every dream, and she let go of it. That life was gone. She did not start for town. She hiked up the steep grade to the mine head, high on a bleak slope that vaulted into rocky ridges. She felt the fine clear air and blessing of sun on the countryside. It was foolish to think she owned any of it. Foolish to think that predators would respect the four corner cairns, the discovery cairn, and the patent that her husband had gotten from the government of the United States. They would take it all away.

But she was what she was. It wasn't for the mine that she was willful, but because of the principle of the thing. She could sign away her rights, collect a pittance, and start a new life. But she was damned if she would.

She studied the disorderly mine head, and swiftly realized that the mine was not entirely sealed. The explosion had tumbled a lot of rock into the small shaft, but there was a place of darkness, a place where the rubble had not reached the top, a place where a woman might crawl into the shaft, if she were gentle and careful, and gouge out gold-bearing quartz. A place of shelter, rough and cruel as it might be.

What else was there? A powder magazine fifty yards off. An ore car now inside the blocked mine. A shed nearby, and in it some of Kermit's work clothing—faded flannel shirts, old britches, some work boots—which gladdened her. And to her unbelieving eyes, a surprise. A shotgun stood behind a hanging pair of pants. He had told her of it, told her it was something needful at a mine, but she had forgotten it. She studied the big thing, uncertain whether she could lift and shoot it. It was a simple, one-barrel weapon, with a box of shells tucked into a corner.

She found a steel bucket and wiped it clean. A tin kettle. Spoons and a knife for delicate work. A tin cup. A tin plate. She eyed a variety of tools, including an ax and maul and sledgehammer, drilling steels, a pike and crowbar, several shovels, some rope, and a box of kitchen matches. A tarpaulin lay on the floor. She found a crimping tool used to anchor fuse to a cap.

In the powder magazine she found half a crate of DuPont Hercules dynamite. Nearby, she found Bickford fuse and a box of copper-jacketed caps. She would hide these things. They would make a better weapon than the heavy shotgun. She had never worked with these explosives, but she had listened to Kermit talk about them often enough. And had watched him, a time or two, which he hated.

This would be her salvation. But first she had to crawl into the shaft, if she could. She eyed the rubble, looking for dangerous rock, and concluded that gravity had settled it in the mouth of the shaft. At the tool shed, she slipped out of her borrowed blue dress and climbed into Kermit's too-large flannel shirt and britches, and belted the pants tight, hoping they would stay up on her generous hips. They did. She eased onto the rubble, felt rocks slip and quake under her, and finally reached the open space, shaped like a quarter moon at the top.

Acrid air greeted her. She would need fresh, which meant she must enlarge that opening, rock by rock, until she and air could enter freely. So she set to work, mostly by prying rock loose with the pike and letting it slide down. It soon wore her out, especially when she wrestled with a large piece, too heavy to budge. She wished for a lot more strength, but wishing wouldn't help her any, so she pried and hammered and gradually enlarged the opening until she had cleared a three-foot-high passage.

She crawled in, her body hurting as she fought past the rock barrier, and finally she eased into the mine. The air was bad, but worse, she was totally uncomfortable in there, with only a little daylight to guide her. Gold, it seemed, was next door to hell, and probably for a good reason. She feared that more rock would fall on her, pin her, kill her.

She ached to escape, and found getting out was as treacherous as clambering in, and when she finally did escape, she was scraped and bruised. But she welcomed the sun, and the great blue dome above. She was not meant to live in the shaft of a gold mine. Her hope of quietly gouging enough gold-laden quartz from the mine to keep her fed and clothed had vanished.

She had a decision to make. Stay or leave. She could simply drift into town and see what employment she could find. She could abandon the place to those predators. Maybe all that gold wasn't worth it. Or she could stay there, defend the mine, live a lonely life, grow desperate for food and succor, wage a hopeless fight to hang on to Kermit's gold mine. All for what?

She might last a week or two.

She could come to no decision. But there were a few things she might do. Slowly, painfully, she carried all the mining equipment from the head of the mine and hid it in her root cellar. When she had finished, that cellar contained the Hercules dynamite, the tools from the shed, the tarpaulin, the shirts and britches, the iron pail, the shotgun and shells, and all the rest. She shut the door and found some brush to conceal it, and stared at her handiwork. She was weary and discouraged. Still, that cache of food and equipment might be valuable some day soon.



Something about her changed. Ever since the hour when she had slipped into Kermit's plaid flannel shirt and canvas pants, which she had to roll up a bit, she discovered she wasn't the same. She was the woman she had always been, but the freedom of men's clothing, the pants instead of a skirt, made life easier. She couldn't explain it; there were no words to describe this sudden influx of selfhood. It was almost as if Kermit had become a resident alongside herself.

Restlessly, she began to patrol the lode claim, fifteen hundred by six hundred feet, running up the side of the mountain, embracing gulches and ridges, forest and outcropped rock. The discovery shaft lay near the bottom. Above, forested slopes catapulted upward. She wasn't quite sure where the corner cairns were, demarcating the rectangular boundaries of the McPhee Mine. She would find them.

She would find a place to call a refuge. She didn't need a shelter. That was one of the odd changes she felt. Before, in skirts, she ached for a cabin, a roof over her, stout log walls, warmth and a good bed. Now, in Kermit's pants, she didn't need a shelter for a while. She had the old mining tarpaulin for cover and warmth, and that would do until autumn. If someone had asked her how she felt this hour, she simply would have replied that she enjoyed the freedom of pants.

She found no good refuge on the mining property, but a little south, along the rocky flank of the mountain, she found a protected ledge, with an overhang that turned it into an open-sided cave. Mountain lion scat told her it was much used by animals. It had wood nearby for fire, a ridge and forest for a screen so she could keep a fire without being seen, and easy access to the McPhee Mine.

At least until her food ran out, she could live in nature, invisible, a wraith unseen by the gold-fevered people who even now were casting their covetous eyes upon the mine. With the shotgun she might even be able to feed herself. And maybe Tip Leary would help her. As she worked to create a refuge, she gave thought to what would come next.

Who wanted the mine so badly?

There was the Constable, Roach, and the funeral man Laidlow, and Jerusalem Jones and Bum Carp. There might be the assayer, Wittgenstein, though she trusted him more than the others. There might be all sorts of ruthless people itching to steal a mine, people who would scruple at nothing.

She retrieved the tools and some of the food from her root cellar. It was the second time she had moved them that day. She was glad to abandon the cabin, which had become the grave of her baby and the death of her dreams. Let them think she had vanished, or left the country, or even died somewhere. There would be a parade of people who would wander around the burned cabin, and walk up to the mine, and peer into its mostly blocked shaft, and dream of tearing more gold out of the rock.

That eve, after boiling some potatoes in the iron pail, she taught herself to load and unload the shotgun, and then settled on a pine bough bed beneath Kermit's old tarpaulin. She fell asleep almost instantly, still in her flannel shirt and britches. In a way, March McPhee had disappeared from the world.

At the mine the next morning, she made some
No Trespassing
signs, using axle grease and black ash for paint. These she posted at the mine head, the burnt-out cabin, and at the foot of the property, where the trail entered the patented lode claim. The sign at the base also had the words,
Private Property
daubed on them. They might not stop anyone, but they laid legal ground for whatever would follow. She spent the remainder of that day sifting through the ruin of her cabin for whatever might be useful, but there was little of value.

She was alone, but not lonely. At least not yet. March had no intention of living out her life as some shadowy wilderness catamount, scarcely seen by the world. She would continue here until it was time to leave, which probably would be when those who tried to kill her were brought to justice.

She spotted a man laboring up the trail, and knew at once it was Tipperary Leary, her rescuer. It puzzled her. He opened his saloon at noon, and it was past that.

He was unfamiliar with these precincts, and eyed the burned-out cabin, finally discovering her standing quietly.

“So, I found you then,” he said, his gaze focused on her pants and shirt.

“You're a long way from Marysville,” she said.

“I said I'd keep watch over you, and so I will.”

“But your saloon—you open at noon.”

“I'll open when I'm good and ready. It'll improve the livers of my customers. You lack clothing, then.”

“I am in Kermit's. It frees me up. A dress is a bother.”

“It's not good, you wearing pants and all. I am hoping this will pass.”

“It's no business of yours, Mr. Leary. And I hardly have a rag to my name.”

Chastened, he cleared his throat and stared at the gloomy pile of ash that once had been a home. “I thought I'd see about you, that's all. There's things I hear—a barkeep hears more than most—and let you know. Now here's a thing: Your man's going to be buried tomorrow, I hear. Laidlow's going to give him a fancy sendoff, and charge you for it, and it'll be a claim against your mine. He's got an angle. So, eleven o'clock is the hour.”

“I did not authorize it, so it's no claim upon me, Mr. Leary.”

Leary stared into the unfamiliar blue of the heavens, and then proceeded. “Mrs. McPhee, I know a few things about the town. There's a lot of people from across the sea here. There's a clan—relatives, cousins, in-laws—all got together to squeeze what they can from whoever they've got in their crosshairs. Some are in Helena, some here. Mostly they go after the Micks like me. They're all related. There's Roach, the constable; Laidlow and his bunch; the Joneses; the Carps; and some Mortimers, the merchant family. They're mean, they're hard, but a little shy of outright crooks. Word is—and I heard plenty the last evening or two—they want this mine and they'll take it, and if you resist, you're mincemeat.”

“Then I'll avoid them.”

“Ah, it won't play out that way, Mrs. McPhee. They'll make sure of it.”

He gazed somberly at her, and she knew he was right. The last thing she wanted was some sort of war. But they had already started one, with the purpose of stealing her gold mine, and there was no way she could escape what was coming.

BOOK: Easy Pickings
12.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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