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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

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BOOK: Easy Pickings
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“Do you think my mine will support me?”

He shook his head. “I'm not a geologist. There are dozens of factors. The vein might pinch out tomorrow. The ore might not reduce well. The mine might flood. The price of gold might decline. But I can say this: his assays got better and better, and he told me his vein got thicker and wider as he bored in.” He smiled. “That's the heart of it.”

“I wish I knew what to do,” she said.

“I wish I could help you with that,” he said. “I'm a chemist, not a swami.”

“I've just assumed a heavy debt, burying Kermit. He would be horrified.”

“Yes, and they'll use it as a lever.”

“Do you know someone willing to buy it straight off—for what it's worth?”

“No one knows what it's worth, I'm afraid.”

“There's nothing now. Nothing keeping me up at my mine but the wish to sell it properly.” Then she added a caveat. “And no one's going to push me off.”

“Then the way to do that is to share in its profits. Find a partner. Make sure he's square. Gold does things even to men who start out with a head full of ethics.”

“Would you?”

He sighed, smiled and shook his head. “I know my profession very well; buying and managing mines is quite beyond my abilities. I come from an Austrian family known for its suicides, so I live without high ambition.”

She felt weary. The funeral had drained her of her last reserves. “Mr. Wittgenstein, thank you for coming. Thank you for, well, looking after me. You've helped in ways I can't explain.”

He nodded, and lifted a white work smock from its peg on the wall. “I like to think I'm good for a few things,” he said. “Not just chemistry.”

She stepped into the fresh spring air, walked back to the building that housed city offices and Constable Roach's prim warren.

He looked up at her, started. His revolver lay in pieces on a table. He had been cleaning it.

“Well, here I am,” she said. “The vagrant is staying in Marysville.”

“It seems you're begging for trouble.”

“Go ahead. Arrest the vagrant who is a widow with a gold mine. Arrest the vagrant with the fifteen hundred by six hundred foot patented, proven lode mine.”

He did nothing.

“Mr. Roach, I don't even know your given name. Is it Herald? Donald?”

“For you, it's Constable.”

“Have you held this office long?”

He reddened slowly, and fidgeted with his fingers, and looked exactly like a man being bested.

“Here,” she said. “Go ahead.”

She walked into the cell and waited. She saw the heat boil through him. He was a man not at all used to being thwarted or crossed. But some innate caution slowly cooled him down, and he did not leap from his stool and slam the barred-iron door shut.

“Thank you, peace officer,” she said, and stepped out. “If you owned a gold mine, I'd do the same for you. You wouldn't qualify for vagrant. Not even after arsonists burnt your home. Which is something well understood in this town. Now I will task you. Find out who set my home ablaze. And arrest them for premeditated taking of life.”

“Not my jurisdiction,” he muttered.

“And not your inclination,” she said. “You might be related.”

The look on his face, as she walked into fresh air, was one she would never forget, and one that she knew would torment her dreams. She thought maybe she had pushed him too far, and would pay a price for it. She had pointed at his clan.

 

Eight

The
No Trespassing
notice at the edge of her property was missing. She stormed up the trail to the mine, and found three men hard at work mucking rock out of the mine shaft. They were young, burly, and knew what they were doing.

They had cleared the shaft, piled the rock to one side, and were putting Kermit's ore car back into operation.

They spotted her, but barely stopped working.

“You are on my property, and you must leave,” she said.

They ignored her.

“This is private property. You are trespassing.”

“Sorry lady, we're taking over,” said one. He was the smallest of the three, ferret-faced, full of itchy energy that made him unable to stand still. The other two ignored her, cleaning out the rock from the ore car.

“Your name, sir?” she asked.

“Call me Poker. Call him Three-Card Monte. Call that one Faro. We just hit the jackpot, wouldn't you say?”

They all paused, grinning at her, knowing they held the high cards.

“Looks like an abandoned mine to me,” Poker said. “All shut down, no one around. Dead mines, they're fair game. No one owns 'em. So we done took it.”

“Lady, you're trespassing. This here is now our claim,” said Three-Card Monte.

“Yeah, and if you don't, no telling what'll happen to you. Can't say as you'd like it,” added Faro.

That one was big and smirky and grinning.

She understood the threat. And it riled her.

She headed down the grade, but then turned off toward her refuge, where Kermit's shotgun was waiting for her. She needed a double-barreled one, but this would have to do. What she planned to do might be reckless, but it had to be done.

She hastened along an invisible trail on the slope, through dense timber, and then to her ledge under the overhanging rock where her few small possessions were hidden. She found the twelve-gauge shotgun, checked the load, pocketed half a dozen shells, and headed back.

By the time she reached the mine head, they had gotten the mine opened, and two of the three had vanished, no doubt into the shaft. The third, Three-Card Monte, was urinating on the rock pile.

“Hands up,” she said, enjoying his dilemma.

They were slow to rise.

“Do it. This is buckshot and it will cut you in two.”

“Aw, lady, you hardly know how to hold that thing. I bet you never pointed a gun in your sweet little life,” he said.

His hands did not reach for the heavens.

“Button up and then walk in front of me. We're going to Marysville,” she said.

He grinned, sat down, and didn't budge.

He had read her well. She was not ready to kill the man in cold blood, and he knew it. There were proper ways to deal with this, and shooting an unarmed trespasser was not one of them. She felt a sudden flood of frustration.

He stood, slowly. He eyed her, eyed the shotgun, and stepped toward her.

“You're going to give me that gun, lady,” he said, moving one step at a time, closer and closer.

She aimed at his knees and pulled the trigger. The shotgun bucked violently, knocking her back. Three-Card Monte howled, collapsed, as blood blossomed on his lower legs.

She was shocked at herself.

He sat howling. Both of his legs gouted bright blood.

She ejected the shell and slipped in another and snapped the shotgun together.

The other two erupted from the mine, took it all in with a glance, and studied her shotgun.

“Patch him up and carry him off, and don't come back,” she said.

They saw the blood, the howling man, and nodded. She let them reach the wounded man and start to bind him up with their shirts. She watched, her shotgun leveled. One of the balls had hit a kneecap. Two others had cut into his calves. Three-Card's mining days were probably over.

“Next time, I'll aim higher,” she said.

The injured man coughed and sobbed. The other two got the bleeding more or less slowed, but the wounded man was wailing, an eerie howl that sent shivers through her.

She watched them load the man into a wheelbarrow, ignoring the picks and sledges and shovels they had brought, and slowly wheel the man down the mountain. The three card sharks never looked back.

She sat at the mine head, shaking. She had shot a man. Gold had fevered her, along with the rest. It was hard to swallow, inflicting so much pain upon the man, even if he was robbing her and defying her. If she had been a man would he have ignored her as he had? She didn't know. It didn't matter. She was simply March McPhee, and she would do whatever she must to preserve her property and her life.

But it had been almost as shattering for her as it had been for the one calling himself Three-Card Monte. And yet there was a difference. She would not kill if she could help it. She was not born to womanhood to take life, but to nurture it. If she could defend her property without taking life, she would. That was the difference. She would not stoop to the level her adversaries had reached, reckless of life. She had her pride.

She wondered whose men they were, whether they, too, were part of Laidlow's clan, doing the first dirtywork. Or whether they were simply opportunists, a threesome who heard all the gossip in one of the saloons, and decided that some bold marauding might get them a gold mine. Maybe it didn't matter. What did matter was what to do next, and how to defend herself.

Maybe Tip Leary could help her. She wanted to talk to him. It was a marvel how much a barkeep knew. He would soon know all about Poker and his friends, and what their fate had been, and what sort of new troubles she faced. There was something tender in Tip Leary, and she saw something in his gaze that he wanted to hide from her, and she knew what it was, and it actually caused her to smile.

The mine shaft was wide open again. She could walk in if she wanted. And so could anyone else. The glint of the thin rails vanished in the gloom. She was afraid to go in there. The working face wasn't far, but it was all too far for her. This tunnel into the mountain drew men of all sorts, men who would do anything to seize the gold threading the vein of milky quartz that kept getting wider and wider. It was a hungry man's dream. Gold, gold, not far in, easy to tear out of the mountain. A bonanza, fit for a king, and nothing but a widow in the way.

She pushed the ore car into the shaft and let it rest there as a barrier. They would be coming now, wave after wave, and she had only moral suasion and perhaps the courts to stop them—if the judges were upright. She thought they might be. But what good was it? She hadn't a nickel to hire a lawyer.

She spotted the picks and sledgehammers and shovels the three had left behind, and these she collected and hid in a nearby gully, out of sight. There was no point in leaving the tools of robbery around for the next invader to use.

Then, weary, she made her way to her refuge, and there she changed from her borrowed blue dress into her husband's flannel shirt and britches. And once again she marveled at the change in her: it was no longer necessary to walk and sit decorously. A man could walk any way he pleased.

There was something she had to do, and she didn't know where she would find the courage. She had to pierce the work face of Kermit's mine, and chip enough quartz out to take to Marysville now and then for food and necessaries. She hated the thought of it, but without a little cash her determination to stay on the mine property and defend it was nothing but fantasy. The very idea terrified her, but she knew she would do it, make herself walk in there step by step, and chip out the quartz. She returned to the solemn shaft, basking in bright sun, and peered in. She had the tools in hand: a burlap sack, a pry bar, pickhammer, and Kermit's carbide lamp.

She studied the silent mountains, looking for signs of human beings, but the mine slumbered in the June warmth. She eyed the roof of the shaft, with its jagged, broken rock that should be supported with timbering. Maybe she could poke it, hit it, make it fall ahead of her if it was going to drop. She started the acetylene lamp going, and stepped in. The initial dozen feet were solid enough, but the next twenty were plainly fragmented strata, and this worried her.

She tapped it, and a few small pieces dropped, startling her. She tapped again, sometimes hard, but nothing happened. That gave her a little courage, and she dared to go another few feet and do it all again. But she failed to unloose anything ahead of her, and gradually she worked along the shaft, even as daylight faded behind her, until there it was, the face, the thick milky seam laced with wire and nodule gold. Her heart hammered, and she decided to be quick about it. She worked feverishly, prying pieces of the rotted quartz loose and dropping them into her burlap sack. It was hard going, and sometimes she jammed a pry bar in and moved nothing.

And then, somehow, she had as much quartz as she could drag out, and she tugged it along on the rough surface, step by step, foot by foot, until sunlight blinded her and alpine breezes began to cleanse her face and cool her body. She never was so glad to see sunlight. She studied the flat, the copses of pine, the tumbling slope, the silent ore car, and saw no one. She slid over to the gully and hid her tools.

She didn't know what to do with her heavy bag of quartz. Kermit had rented a mule now and then and hauled his quartz to the Drumlummon mill, which crushed it and removed the tiny bits of gold through an amalgamation process she was hazy about. But she knew it used mercury to pluck the gold from the crushed rock. She would need to get that heavy load to town, where Mr. Wittgenstein would help her. There in that quartz was gold to sustain her, but as long as it was locked in, it would get her nothing.

She knew a little about these things. Kermit had always talked about them, wanting her to know about their mine. But she only half-listened; operating a mine was scarcely on her mind. But now she wished she had listened more. She dragged the sack of quartz down to the burnt-out cabin and hid it nearby. The great heap of ash wrought a sadness in her, along with a flood of memories of Kermit, of meals gotten from a cranky woodstove, of tender moments and winter moments when they were snowed in and Kermit couldn't even climb the path to his mine.

Now she was wearing his pants.

She wished she had a dog. She needed one to alert her to anyone coming up her trail. Wilderness is quiet, and people and animals pass through it in utter silence. She was about to head for her refuge, the protected ledge, when she did spot a man laboring up the trail. The blue suit was familiar to her, along with the wiry frame. It was not someone she welcomed.

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