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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

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BOOK: Easy Pickings
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She collected the shotgun and waited. She was tempted to vanish; there was still time to plunge into the forest and escape. But she elected to stay and see this through, whatever it was.

When he reached the burnt-out cabin, she stepped into view, which startled him.

He examined her closely, noting the flannel shirt and britches, and also the old shotgun.

“You fired that thing,” he said. “Pretty near killed a man, in-law relative of mine.”

“He was trespassing and wouldn't go. And he was also stealing my ore and wouldn't stop.”

“You shot him.”

“Through the legs.”

“You've crippled him.”

“I was defending myself.”

“You maybe took his livelihood away from him. That's a hard thing.”

“He was taking my livelihood and property from me. He was stealing. And he refused to leave. He and the others, who were in my mine.”

“Don't make no difference. I'm taking you in.”

“This is not your jurisdiction. You said so yourself.”

“I go where I need to go to get justice done.”

“Get a sheriff and a warrant, if that's what's needed.”

“You're getting a little too smart, I think. Woman running around in pants.”

“Maybe you should run around in skirts, and see what it makes you.”

Some feral hatred bloomed in his eyes.

“Get off my property,” she said, lifting the shotgun a notch.

He grinned suddenly, but it was wolfish.

“You coming in with me, proper and lawful?”

“What you're doing isn't proper. And not lawful.”

“Guess we'll see about that,” he said.

“Don't come back,” she said.

He was slow to leave, lingering, mocking, and only the shotgun stood between her and him. But then he left.



March watched the ebony buggy pulled by an ebony horse climb the steep road toward the mine. The buggy carried one person, its driver, who was swathed in a black suit, and seemed at that distance to have shiny black hair.

She saw no sign of a weapon. Indeed, the man looked to be a gentleman of means, perhaps a professional. Certainly he was well attired, in a gray cravat and polished black boots, a gold watch fob dangling from his waistcoat.

The dray struggled up the last fifty yards, where the road curved around a shoulder and then stopped at the little flat where her burned cabin lay in a heap.

She felt oddly intimidated. No such elegantly dressed person had ever visited the McPhee Mine. She had taken to wearing Kermit's pants and shirts because they were suited for the hard work she was doing. She had created a sort of outside living area, employing the salvaged woodstove for her meals, which were drawing down what lay in her root cellar.

But curiosity prevailed, and she strode toward the slightly dusty buggy as its owner pulled the dray to a halt. She did not neglect to carry her shotgun. It had become as intimate to her as a spare limb, and she was never far from it.

He lifted a black derby, and eyed her with warm, spaniel eyes, all the while examining her whole self, the camp, and the ruined cabin.

“You're Mrs. McPhee,” he said. “Permit me to introduce myself. I am Hermes Apollo, a practitioner of law. My mother couldn't decide whether it was Hermes or Apollo who fathered me, so she named me after both suspects. She lived in a world of her own. May I have a brief visit with you?”

“Why don't you just sit there on that quilted leather seat, and tell me?” she asked.

“I would feel discomfited, my nether regions resting in comfort while yours are perched on a stump. But I am at your service.”

“That's what I'm afraid of. I'll give you one minute to lay it out.”

“Madam, dire events are descending on you. Word is, in Marysville, that you will be hauled into assorted Territorial courts, where creditors intend to attach your mine, or prove that its patent is invalid, or prove that claims were filed on that lode prior to your husband's. In short, the jackals are looking for carrion, and I propose to be your knight.”

“I'll probably have it sold to a reputable buyer before they all start the tango,” she said.

“Ah, madam, you are innocent of human nature.”

“So I am. That's why I keep a shotgun handy.”

“I noticed it. A handy instrument, but of little value in a world of torts. No, madam, you need much more.”

“And what is your price, sir?”

“Absolutely nothing. I have admired you from afar, often envying your late husband for his great good fortune, and now my every wish, to be of service to you, is coming true.”

March chewed on that one for a while, and didn't quite know which point on the compass it was leading. But she was damned if she'd be any man's mistress.

“Sorry,” she said. “If you were a regular fee-charging lawyer, we might do business. But neither of us can survive on swamp gas.”

He sighed. “It's my duty to come abruptly to the point, for your gentle consideration. In a nutshell, I propose matrimony. It is the one sure defense against the unjust fate that is gathering on the horizon. Now, that is certainly a remarkable proposition, coming out of the blue, but bear with me. By acquiring a husband, especially one who will act as a knight, you will be assured of safety and security.”

“And you'll be assured of my mine.”

“Ah, of course you would suppose that. But marriage is share and share alike. Your good fortune is my good fortune, and vice versa. In exchange for my interest in the mine, you would be stoutly defended against predators circling you like rabid wolves.”

She was, actually, enjoying this.

“Now, about delicate things, madam. While you are the fairest flower of Edinburgh, and you make my heart and other organs quiver, I should be content with a marriage of convenience, at least until you discover in me the knightly qualities that might win your approbation.”

“Do you like haggis?” she asked. “If not, your goose is cooked.”

“I am not familiar with it, madam.”

“Then your goose is cooked.”

“Now, madam, there is more. If you should fail to welcome me to your bosom, there is always the possibility that my services might be employed by one or another of those who would like to find a shortcut to the McPhee gold. Now, I'm not saying I would succumb to such employment, but you see, the longer I wait, and the greater the distance between us, the larger the temptation.”

“To circle me like a rabid wolf.”

“Not I, madam, but my clients, who might use my considerable skills to find the wedge that will split your defenses wide open. Worse, if you employ that shotgun in some way not countenanced by law and civility, and it results in injury, you might face a court verdict that is many times what the McPhee Mine is worth. So all this takes some consideration.”

“How many widows have you fleeced so far?” she asked.

“There is a dire shortage of widows in Montana Territory,” he said. “You are a great rarity. This is a land of single males, many from abroad, who will send for their wives or sweethearts in due course. You are the true gold mine. Mineral is abundant in the territory, but a good, seasoned, experienced widow is pure bullion.”

“I can think of other things that I'm pure of,” she said.

He sighed, gently. “Now of course I understand perfectly how you must feel about me, about my proposal. A perfect stranger comes up the mountain proposing holy matrimony, and with an eye on your gold mine. Now hear this. I affirm it. My virtue is that I'm transparent. My every design is clear. That means you know the man you're dealing with, know what my plans are, and you won't have to deal with some secretive, silent, sly bamboozler full of nasty surprises. Here I am.” He doffed his bowler and settled it gently over his dark hair. “Think about it,” he said. “Scots thinkers are very superior.”

“Horsepucky,” she said.

“Would you mind if I meandered around a bit? I should like to see the mine that has become the object of my lusts,” he said.

“And what are you going to do? Snatch some ore so you can have it assayed?”

“Not a bad idea,” he said. “No, I thought I'd see if the corner cairns are properly in place, so that if you should turn me down I might have legal grounds to invalidate your claim under federal law. I fancy myself as a mine-robber.”

“Why do I like you?” she asked. “Go right ahead.”

“We're two of a kind,” he said, clambering into the buggy. “Now, if I can urge this dray up that grade, I'll see the McPhee.”

The buggy horse pushed into his collar and slowly dragged the buggy up the tough grade to the mine while she watched. She was entertained. Whatever else Hermes Apollo had done, he had given her a week's amusement.

She circled around through a forested slope until she could see what he was up to. He had parked the buggy and was hauling out some equipment, which she soon realized was a tripod and a bellows camera of the latest design. She watched him slide in a plate, adjust the lens, and then squeeze a bulb. He moved the tripod hither and yon, loading new plates into the big device. He photographed the mine head, the ore car, the rails, the shed, and then took some panoramic shots of the whole landscape. Then he loaded his equipment into the buggy, and eased down the hill.

By the time he reached the flat where she was camped, she was there again.

“Well, what did you discover?” she asked.

“I double as a mine broker, Mrs. McPhee. Say the word, and I'll put it on the market for, oh, half a million, but who knows whether I'll get it.”

“What other professions do you own to?”

“Well, Hermes Apollo is an accountant, a lawyer, a geologist, a cartographer, a chemist, a professor, a divine, a journalist, and a linguist with a passing knowledge of French, Spanish, Greek, Mandarin, and Romany—gypsy, if I may say so.”

“Are you a gypsy?”

“No, according to my mother I am half Greek god, half goat.”

“What about the divine part of it?”

“Druid priest.”

“Well, if nothing else works out, propose again and maybe I'll hitch up.”

“Madam, you have run galvanic currents through me.”

But she was smiling.

“What did you discover at the mine?” she asked.

“Madam, it is beyond words. Each day, when the late Kermit McPhee emerged from his brutal toil in that hole, he beheld the grandest prospect known to mortal eyes; vaulting slopes, peaks poking the clouds, noble mountains, lofty ridges and saddles, rushing creeks, and all of it painted by the hand of the divine. I stood there, contemplating this noble panorama, thinking that not all the gold in the bowels of that mine could equal the sheer pleasure of that vista. It was like dining at the table of the gods.”

She liked that. He might be a mountebank, but he was a poetic one. And artful in hiding his intentions.

“I think maybe you're a mine broker along with the rest, Hermes Apollo. If you find a prospect, and he makes a fair offer, you'll get a commission.”

“Oh, madam, I'm not interested in a mere commission. A small percentage? I've set my sights on grander goals, such as gathering the McPhee Mine and the widow McPhee to my bosom, and thus becoming the richest man on the planet.”

“Get out of here before you take a load of buckshot.”

He smiled broadly. “I count this trip a great success,” he said.

“You would,” she said. “For you, a quick trip to the outhouse is a success.”

“You don't know the half of it,” he replied.

“You want to do me a favor?”

“I leap at the chance,” he said.

“I have some quartz ore I would like to deliver to the Drumlummon mill. It's such a small amount they may not want it, but I'd like to try. It's in a burlap bag. If you'd deliver it, that would be a valuable service. If they won't take it, I think the assayer will. He can reduce small amounts of quartz himself. Get a receipt from either one. Would you do it?”

“I'm flattered to think that you would give the mission to Hermes Apollo,” he said. “The Greek god Hermes is the divine patron of travelers as well as the god of cunning, theft, commerce, and rascals. I am well named, you see. His Roman name is Mercury, fleetest of the gods, and in any gold mining town, mercury is known as the liquid that amalgamates with gold. Yes, entrust the quartz to your admirer and swain, Hermes Apollo, and watch what happens.”

She found all this a little outlandish, but what did it matter?

“Wait,” she said, and headed into the forest and caught up the heavy bag of ore. She dragged it toward his buggy.

“Permit me,” he said, and lifted it into the ebony buggy.

“It does my heart good to sit in the vicinity of gold, whether in pure form or still caught in its ore. Putting that bag of ore into my buggy is like a wedding,” he said.

“Except the gold is married to me,” she replied.

He sighed. “And so it is,” he said. “I'll have to marry you to marry the gold.”

He lifted his well-brushed bowler from his oiled hair, settled it, and eased the weary horse into a fast walk down the long slope and into the gulch. She watched him diminish and then disappear. He worried her, actually. The man had a bag full of tricks.

She wondered if he was another of Constable Roach's minions, or one of that greedy clan, but she doubted it. She counted it as more pressure. Ever since Kermit's death, she had been subjected to pressure from nearly everyone she'd met. The funeral man, Laidlow, had pressured her, along with his hooligans; so had the city cop, Roach. So had this quack, who might or might not be a lawyer. But he was proving to be useful.



March was waiting at the assay office when Rolf Wittgenstein appeared.

He unlocked, smiled, and motioned her in.

“Early,” he said. “What is your pleasure?”

BOOK: Easy Pickings
7.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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