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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

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BOOK: Easy Pickings
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“Thank you, Mr. Leary. You've told me truly. I'm a stubborn woman. It's in the blood. I'll see to it that they are repaid. I repay with interest. If they do me a favor, I will repay it; if they do me harm, that, too, will be repaid in full.”

“Mrs. McPhee, madam, it would be your ruin, forgive me for saying it.”

“Then I will be ruined, Mr. Leary. They started this, you know. They sealed the mine. That keeps others out of it, and the ore in it. That also keeps me from selling the mine. No one would buy it if he can't see the ore, the vein, the prospects. So that was their first step. And the second, done a few moments after the blast, was to burn me out. They caught my son, but I was not inside. They intended to leave the mine without an owner. You say they're a little shy of outright crooks, sir, but that's not it. They're hooligans of the worst sort. They might look respectable, but they aren't.”

“There, you see? You'll want to think this out, madam.”

“You've done that for me, and I'm glad of it. Tell me, is Mr. Wittgenstein, the assayer, one of them?”

“No, not at all.”

“I didn't think so. He's been a friend of my husband and will be mine as well.”

“Mrs. McPhee, you're one lone woman.”

“Would I be better off if I were one lone man?”

“Well, I'm thinking, maybe yes, forgive me please.”

“Come with me, Mr. Leary, and we'll have some tea in my hideaway. It's a little bit up from here.”

“No, with thanks, but it's overdue for me to head down to the tavern and let all those poor thirsting wretches through the doors, so they can get their foot up on the bar rail, as usual.”

She smiled.

“I hear plenty, madam. I sometimes know what's what, and sometimes what's going to happen. I will keep you posted. And if you want for anything, like real female clothing that restore you to what is right and natural in the universe, I will do it.”

“Medium,” she said.

“Medium what?”

“Medium height, waist, shoulders.”

He smiled. It was odd how rarely he smiled. But she liked the sudden brightness in his eyes. “A whole wardrobe for my friend, Mrs. McPhee,” he said.

She watched him tenderly as he made his way down the grade. He had come a long way to tell her a few things and to look after her. He was used to walking—barkeeps walked a great deal—but not used to steep grades. He seemed different there at the mine, lonely and out of his element. Less confident than in the town, where he was entirely at home. It was good to have friends like Tip Leary, people who watched over her.

Should she go to the unauthorized funeral? She decided she should. She ached to do right for Kermit, to bury him with respect and honor. Maybe his spirit would know it, would see it, would thank her. She didn't know for certain about an afterlife. For years she had tried to reinforce a belief in heaven by reciting these things by rote, and then she realized it did her no good. She wasn't sure. She wasn't at all confident that she would reach another life, and find her husband in another life, and live in eternal bliss somewhere or other.

She slept uneasily that night. A sharp breeze told her that a hideaway under an overhang of rock would not spare her from cold and wind, or even rain. By dawn she was drawn and worn.

She washed at a nearby runnel, and slipped into the blue dress, which was stained and ill suited. But it would have to do. She would attend her husband's funeral. When the sun was warming the bottom of the gulch, she headed toward Marysville and whatever her fate might be.

She headed straight for Laidlow's, unnoticed in a humdrum morning, and straightaway entered the chapel, which was banked with lilacs. She was alone. A burnished oak casket with expensive furniture stood closed. Her heart melted. There he was, the man who had cleaved to her and wrought a life together for her and him. The man whose dream she had shared. The man who smiled at her while he ate his porridge. There he was, gone, the lid of the casket hiding the crushed ruin of his face and mangle of his body and arms and legs.

“You came, Mrs. McPhee.”

She whirled to find Mortimer Laidlow, gotten up in a swallowtail and starched white shirt, behind her.

She wanted to blister him, say that she had not authorized any of it, would not pay for it, didn't owe anything for it, and would sign nothing. But the presence of death changes everything.

“This is right,” she said.

“It's a little early. Perhaps you'd like to look over the contract before the ceremony, and get all that out of the way.”

She nodded, and he led her into that asphyxiating little alcove back in the mortuary.

The contract was just as before; if she could not pay, she would deed him half of the McPhee Mine as payment in full.

She would not sign. “I will assume the debt, and find a way to repay it. I will not deed any part of my mine to you, in any circumstances, sir. Two hundred and eighty dollars will be paid to you when I am ready; the mine will not change ownership.”

He seemed oddly content with that, and she wondered what was running through his mind. Surely he had a dozen angles, and she scarcely knew any of them. She knew little about liens, and supposed that was what he had in mind.

But at least Kermit would be buried.

 

Seven

It was a proper funeral. March was escorted to a front pew; before her was the fine casket of burnished hardwood, with brass furniture. Bouquets flanked the chapel altar. A frail, bent minister unknown to her, the Reverend Mr. Pinkerton, recited the usual prayers, condolences, and hope of eternal life in some unfathomable place. He did not know Kermit.

Behind her sat just two people: Constable Roach, and the assayer, Mr. Wittgenstein, bald, bespectacled, and wreathed in black. Mr. Laidlow hovered at the doors along with his flunkies; Mistletoe, Jerusalem Jones, and Bum Carp. The latter had been recruited as pallbearers. March wondered whether they had also been recruited to burn her to death in her cabin.

The assayer, alone among those attending the funeral, came to honor Kermit.

March felt discomfited by her blue dress, gotten from a lady of the streets, misshapen and unclean. But maybe it didn't matter. She was present, no matter how she was clad.

“May I offer the pulpit to anyone who wishes to eulogize Mr. McPhee?” the divine asked.

March found herself rising and walking up two steps, and then facing the empty chapel. She didn't know what she would say. She wanted Kermit buried within a cocoon of blessings and kindness.

She was aware of how ill-kempt she was, but somehow it didn't matter. What counted was Kermit.

“My husband, Kermit McPhee, grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, and attended the university there. He graduated with a degree in geology. His gaze was always on the horizon, and soon he emigrated here, bringing me, his bride, with him.

“He was not afraid of hard labor or physical hardship, and saw opportunity in the North American continent, as yet little explored and much of it unmapped. I came with him gladly, proud to be married to a man who wished to advance through life on his merits and industry, through his skills and knowledge, through his integrity and courage.

“So he prospected for minerals, located the present mine, and followed your laws scrupulously, proving his claim and winning a patent, which he shared with me. There were things he scorned. He had no use for people who tried to snatch wealth from others through questionable means. Such people, he felt, were not real men; they were parasites, feasting on the courage and industry and wisdom of others. He believed in honest industry, and did what he believed in.

“He had a great heart, a rare courage, and a kindness that brought him friendship and trust from others. I can put it simply: he was an honorable man, and that separated him from those whose entire enterprise is to snatch away what others have won.

“I shall miss him. I will visit his grave now and then, refreshing my understanding of what is good about the human race because he was a good and true man. He loved me. He supported me. He nurtured a family. He also inspired me, and his legacy to me is the wish to live as he did, with courage, kindness, and honor.”

She gazed at the small audience, at the ones who would not meet her gaze eye to eye, but seemed to stare at the ceiling.

“We are burying this day a fine man,” she said. “And the man I love.”

And returned to her pew.

She had not started her eulogy to deliver a message but that was how it ended up. She knew she had forced those who heard her to consider their own conduct. Maybe it would do them some good.

The service ended with a simple blessing, and she found herself in a cortège carrying her husband to his grave. He would not have approved of the coffin or the funeral. But what was done was done, and that was how his life on earth would end.

The Marysville cemetery had few graves in it because of the rawness of the town, but one was ready for Kermit. Laidlow's two young men eased the coffin into the gray earth, and off a way Constable Roach watched. The constable was determined to see everything and miss nothing.

March left a red rose on the coffin, a rose supplied by the funeral home, and then they took her back to the funeral parlor, and she was freed to go where she would.

Except that Constable Roach intercepted her.

“Mrs. McPhee, follow me, please.”

She did, and he took her to his alcove in the city hall, and bade her sit down.

He carefully removed his blue hat and eyed her, his mustache twitching.

“You are by definition a vagrant,” he said. “We have a law that forbids vagrants from loitering in Marysville. The law defines a vagrant as a person without visible means and without a residence and without funds and without moral or ethical scruple. You have no means, no residence, and no funds. You qualify. I will not hold you this time, because of your loss, but if you should enter my town again, I will be forced to place you in that cage there for a day and fine you two dollars and confiscate anything you possess and evict you from this peaceful community. That's all I have to say.”

He rose.

“Don't ever propose marriage,” she said, and laughed.

It was so unexpected and gamey that all she could do was whoop. He turned red, his rheumy eyes blazed, and she could see he itched to pitch her into the cell then and there. But some sobriety returned, and he simply nodded curtly.

“You might lock yourself up and fine yourself and banish yourself from Marysville,” she said, stepping into fresh spring air.

She headed for the assay office, hoping Mr. Wittgenstein had returned. She entered, which triggered a cowbell, and soon enough he emerged from a small rear room, dressed in his laboratory smock once again.

“Well, well, Mrs. McPhee,” he said, uncertainly.

“I wish to thank you for paying your respects,” she said.

“He was a remarkable man, Mrs. McPhee. And had he lived, I believe he would have prospered. The mine was getting better and better.”

“It is for sale, sir. Do you know of a reputable buyer?”

“I'd buy it myself if I had the means. But you may be in for a difficult time, because the mouth has been blown shut and there are parties who'll do whatever they can to prevent a sale, and delay or discourage you in every way.”

She stared.

“I think you know that,” he said gently.

“I think my little eulogy reached the right ears,” she said.

At that point some understanding passed between them.

“Following the burial, the constable invited me to his warren and told me I'm a vagrant and will be fined and jailed if I return to Marysville.”

Wittgenstein stared, amazed.

“Well, I am a vagrant,” she said. “No home, no funds, no visible income or position or connection.”

“Mrs. McPhee,” he said. “You happen to possess a gold mine with great promise. People come to me all the time, offering me a reward if I reveal the tenor of the McPhee ore I've assayed. Only yesterday, several people approached me, nearly all of them relatives of our worthy constable. At one point, this place was broken into. Since then I've kept all my assays of the McPhee Mine under lock and key. I also reported the break-in to Constable Roach, telling him I've notified the county sheriff as well. That served as a warning.”

His manner became very gentle, his voice low and soft.

“There are people here who mean to take the mine from you by rook or crook. Frankly, they're a clan plus a few in-laws. They're all in tight. Mortimer Laidlow is the godfather. He's a careful one and always has the younger ones doing his dirty work. I've seen it. An assayer can't help but see it. They'll try to steal it, or do it with intimidation, or lawsuit, or bribery, or whatever. Actually, they were circling your husband, but he was not a man to be bullied. I confess, when I heard of his death, I wondered if it had been arranged, but that is most unlikely. He didn't timber his shaft, even in fragmented rock, and paid a terrible price for his daring.”

“I begged him to.”

“Once, he told me it'd put his mine in the red. He'd do it, after it was showing a tidy profit.”

She felt an odd tenderness. “Mr. Wittgenstein, what should I do?”

He shook his head. “I wish I knew. People without scruple will never cease to alarm or hurt you to get the prize. I think I would call Roach's bluff. You might well go back there, now, and tell him you're going to stay in town, and if he wants to arrest you, go ahead.”

“And what if he does?”

“This town, Mrs. McPhee, would laugh the man out of office.”

“Unless I rot in there undiscovered.”

“I am standing ready. It happens I do the assays for the Drumlummon. A word from me will be heard.”

Thomas Cruse's great mine was the sole reason Marysville existed. A little pressure from the powerful men who ran it would go far.

BOOK: Easy Pickings
11.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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