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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

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BOOK: Easy Pickings
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He paused at the counter, as if listening to her were a duty to be performed. His flasks and furnaces needed his attention. She was struck again by the acrid odor of the place; whatever happened in laboratories was foreign to her.

“Do you buy or sell mining claims? Or broker mining properties?”

“Ah, I see what you're after. Now and then. But broker? No, there are gentlemen in the cities, like Helena, who do that. I take it you wish to sell the McPhee.”

“I've needed to all along, but ever since Kermit … well, it's all I could do to keep strangers off.”

“Gold does that. And you want me to find a buyer. A reputable buyer who will pay a proper price.”

“That's why I'm here. You did the assays; you know more than anyone else what's there.”

Wittgenstein could no longer contain his impulse to begin his ritual, and even as he talked he began building up charcoal fuel for his furnaces. She didn't mind. Oddly, it was easier for them to negotiate when he was busying himself.

“It's not really my business. A good broker could get you more, and has better contacts. But yes, I could—protect you. That I can be sure of. Now, I'll need to know some things. What do you expect of me?”

“A commission for a sale. I don't know how much. You know these things.”

“And if I choose to become a partner in the mine, what of that?”

“You will find some way to protect me.”

“And what if a buyer wants half a mine with you the other partner?”

“I would prefer an outright sale. Kermit told me the ways that partners are fleeced.”

“They are too numerous to count, Mrs. McPhee.” The assayer began pumping bellows, generating white heat in his assay furnace. “I trust you have Kermit's papers? The patent from the government?”

“No, that burned up.”

“A copy of the application, the claim?”

“All that burned, sir.”

“Did he leave a will?”

“Handwritten, everything to me, but it burned.”

He abandoned his bellows for the moment. “That makes things difficult, but not impossible. You'll need to prove ownership if you hope to sell. But the government has its own records, and duplicates can be gotten. But that takes time.”

“How much?”

“Bureaus are very slow, Mrs. McPhee. Let's say six months. And you'll need a lawyer to thread that needle.”

“I might have one. If he's to be trusted.”

That was all disheartening.

“Do you have a marriage license?”

“The parish record in Scotland.”

“It would be a good idea to apply at once.”

More delay. A wave of dismay swept March.

“I can't just sell the mine now?”

“Well, who'd buy it without the documents? Can you even prove it's yours?”

“What should I do?”

“Write for documents, find someone to mine it on shares while you wait, and never give up possession. Staying right there, on the property, would be the most important. But I'm no lawyer.”

She thought of Apollo, and shrank from the idea of consulting him or employing him to achieve any of it. She wondered whether there might be another lawyer in Marysville who'd help.

Wittgenstein looked uncomfortable, and eager to begin his day's run of assays.

“Thank you,” she said, and fled into the cold sun. She stood, blinking, in the glare of mountain light. Marysville had been thrown up swiftly, mostly from lumber that was scarcely cured. Its board-and-batten buildings leaked smoke from the stoves within. The smoke hung against the slopes, and would soon blow away when the breezes picked up. The thump of the Drumlummon stamp mill on the far side of town was the heartbeat of the place. When the thump of the mill stopped, so would Marysville. That's how it was with most mining towns. They came and went, swift shelter that would soon rot away in the winter snows and summer fires.

She drifted, aware of her shabby borrowed dress and ungroomed manner. But she lacked so much as a tin bathtub and soap. She was not just poor; she was swiftly running out of her last stores of vegetables and necessities in her root cellar. The clock was almost at midnight.

She passed Tipperary Leary's saloon, and saw it was dark. He opened at noon, he said. And that was a long time ahead.

But then the door burst wide, and there he was.

“It's a good thing I washed the window,” he said. “It goes cloudy on me. Half my patrons smoke a pipeful each evening. If you don't mind stepping into a place not made for women, come in.”

She did, still curious about saloons, and also glad to see his ruddy face and bold gaze, which was taking her in even as she plunged into the twilight of the interior.

He motioned her to a table, brought a jar of pickled eggs and another of pretzels, and asked what she might want to drink.

“Just … water, please.”

“You look like you could use a good feast,” he said. “We'll go over to the beanery and fill you up.”

Somehow, that seemed the wrong thing to say, and she fell silent.

“There's more trouble, is there?” he asked.

“I can't hang on for long,” she said. “And I have no place to go, and no vocation.” She let the options remain unspoken. Women in her position arranged a swift marriage, easily done in the woman-shy west, or drifted into a life she didn't want to think about.

“The owner of a good mine? No place?”

“It will take time,” she said. “Assuming that I'll ever get what I need.”

She told him: No patent, no will, no evidence of marriage, no way to wait half a year—if that—for precious documents. No sale. And she without a roof over her head, and running out of food.

“And half the town, all the Roach clan, scheming to snatch it,” Leary said. “You want to kiss it good-bye, or what?”

“I've had a marriage offer.”

“Do my ears betray me? Marriage, you say. As in, nab the widow and the mine?”


“Some old billygoat, is he?”


“Would you keep my curiosity from burning a hole in the bar?”

“A lawyer named Hermes Apollo.”

“The profane marrying the sacred, is it?”

“Which is which?” she asked.

He laughed. She nibbled on a pretzel, liking the salt. She liked being in a saloon. Life in saloons seemed to ooze possibility and hope and connection to the world. She liked being with Tip Leary, too.

“He drove up the lane to my mine, and introduced himself, and laid out some good reasons why we should marry, and as soon as possible. You seem to know him. What do you think?”

“I know him,” Tip said, hesitating some.

She thought he was choosing his words carefully.

“A lot of show and posturing. The way he dresses, talks. But I hear things now and then. You want my half-baked and fool opinion about him? Underneath all that noisy surface is a man with a heart.”

“Why do you say that?”

“It's a gift I have, to ken the heart.”

“You know him well?”

“He's come in. And a barman hears things. I'm never without the word. I'll tell you a thing or two about Apollo. He puts his worst foot forward. Now, if he drove out there thinking to marry his way into owning a gold mine, that was probably the way he started in with you. He probably said, March McPhee, you need a husband and I need a gold mine. And between us we'll lick the jackals.”

She smiled. “It was a little like that. Yes, he does that. It's rather disarming, don't you see? And that's why I'm asking.”

Tip Leary turned somber. “But that's not all I've kenned. Once he has his way with you, and gets you bound up in a marriage, it might not go so easy for you. The man's got a bag of tricks.”

She nodded. “That's my fear. I'm a woman alone, and I am just edging my way along, not really knowing what to do. And now I see no way out. Marry Hermes Apollo, attorney at law, or walk away from the mine with nothing, scarcely even the borrowed dress you fetched me.”

“Would you mind, madam, if I rallied some help for you?”

He sat there, looking almost like a supplicant rather than a rescuer. She hardly dared to speak.

“You need some help. You need to get those letters off, and you need to get yourself a cabin at your mine, and you need to get some ore out to pay for things. Here's what I'm thinking, Mrs. McPhee. I'll get some of the off-shift boys, most of them muckers in the Drumlummon, to go up the gulch and make things right. You'll need a little shack to call home for a bit. You'll need a little food to stay alive. You'll need some men who know how to blast and muck to bring out the ore and get it to the mill. You need some strong men who'll stand up to gangs trying to cop your mine. You'll need all that, and I think my patrons, most of them from the old country, will be glad to do it, and be glad to bust a few heads if it comes to it.”

“You're describing a miracle.”

“No, these boys were born poor, and born into a hard world, and they know what's mean and cruel in the human beast, and they'll take delight in keeping a new widow, husband killed in the pit by falling rock—yes, take a bit of pleasure helping out. Especially if I give them the word.”

“Some day I'll repay. If they'd do that, and they can get some ore to the mill, most of the pay's theirs.”

“Ah, don't worry your head about that, madam.”

“But I must. It's an obligation.”

“That's what's bonny in you. All right then. But there's one thing we can't help you with. Schemers will use the law and the courts and the police to rip your mine from you. You can count on it. There's not a man comes into my pub who knows how to deal with that, if it comes to it. The police have claws. Lawyers have claws. Courts have claws. You might just hire that man Apollo, for a fee of course, and my boys, they'll dig the ore to pay the lawyer to beat off the jackals.”

“Mr. Leary, forgive me, but why are you doing this?”

“Justice, ma'am. I've seen injustice. Every man comes into my pub for some ale and a pipe has known injustice across the sea. That's why we're here, half a globe away from our home. We know about that, Mrs. McPhee. It's a memory bled into our bodies and our brains. The fight for justice never ends, never slows. And now that my patrons are here, in a new land, a free land, with none of the dead weight of the old world on their shoulders, they'll want to give a little back to this country, and maybe you'll be the way to do it.”

She sat numbly in the twilight of the saloon, unable to summon words.

He vanished into his rear room and returned with a bundle.

“I thought you'd be needing a few things, and I've got a little stuff for you. There's a little clothing and dainties wrapped in here, and a little sack of rolled oats to keep body and soul together, and a bar of soap, and a few little things. Take it. I've been meaning to hike up there and leave it with you.”

She took it gratefully. He ushered her into the sun and she started up the gulch to her mine, with the gift of hope.



March paused in the mountain light of Marysville. She never grew weary of the ever-changing face of the mountains, as clouds bellied over them, or sun blazoned them, or sunset skies lit up behind them. She was far from her birthplace, but Marysville was home.

If she could keep it.

She hunted for the law office of Hermes Apollo, and was finally rewarded by a shingle dangling in the bright breeze, on a side street she had never traversed, a narrow lane close to the Drumlummon. There was an
after the name, and
beneath. The building was nondescript, but the door wasn't. It was lacquered ebony, and was a startling contrast to the roughly laid up shiplap of the structure.

She paused, collecting her courage and trying to anticipate his maneuvers, and then entered. Something, probably cowbells, jangled. There was no need for them. The single room housed the whole establishment, including Hermes Apollo in his shirtsleeves, the cuffs slightly soiled, a garter on his sleeve.

He plummeted upward and melted into an oleaginous smile.

“And so we meet again,” he said. “Do you accept?”

“You might ask me to sit down,” she said, and did without waiting.

“So I've lured you to my lair,” he said. He was eyeing her in ways that made her uncomfortable.

Law books filled a glass-fronted case on one wall. Behind his enormous glossy desk was a portrait of a black-robed judge in wire-rimmed spectacles, a law book in hand.

“He's no relative,” Apollo said. “But he's impressive, and intimidating, and well worth the twenty-seven dollars I paid for him in Altoona.”

“Like your watch fob with the phi beta kappa key,” she said.

“Cigar?” he asked.

She ignored him, and began the recitation: there was the problem of no patent, no will, no marriage record in the New World, and these would take months to acquire. And she could not hope to prove ownership or sell the mine without them. And she was under siege from all directions.

“It's a pickle,” he said.

“Do you think you can apply for these things, fend off claim-jumpers, and help me sell the property when my ownership is established?”

“Wedlock, holy or unholy,” he said.

“A marriage of convenience,” she replied. “Not a hand will ever touch me.”

“Wedlock, man and woman,” he replied. “All things shared and shared alike. Including you and the gold mine.”

“Can you get the papers? Fend off Constable Roach, and his kin?”

“I am good at delaying the inevitable,” he said, mysteriously.

“I am not inclined toward marriage. I have only just lost the man I've loved more than life. I'm sure you understand.”

“Wedlock, whole and true,” he replied. “That's what I treasure in you.”

BOOK: Easy Pickings
12.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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