Authors: Tabor Evans
The aditâit was not a tunnel; tunnels go all the way through somethingâwas roughly square in shape, four-and-a-half feet tall and approximately four feet wide. Longarm had to crouch to pass through.
He crabbed his way forward. After fifty feet or so the light from the adit mouth disappeared and he had to rely on the headlamp to see his way. The beauty of the simple lamp was that it pointed wherever he looked, allowing him to see another twenty or thirty feet ahead. If he turned his head to the side, the light turned with him.
The bent-over posture he was required to adopt was hard to maintain. He discovered that every few minutes he had to stop and hunker down on his heels in order to rest his thigh muscles. Then, refreshed, he could go on again, using the chunk of pine like a cane to ease a little of the strain on his back.
The adit had walls, ceiling, and floor of roughhewn rock, chipped painfully out of the live rock by men with chisels and hammers. Longarm could scarcely imagine the effort that had been required to complete that work for hundreds, perhaps for thousands of feet into the mountain. It had all been done, of course, to follow a vein of valuable ore of some mineral or metal.
He still did not know what they were mining here. Probably silver, but it could have been for any number of other minerals instead.
Right now his chore was to mine one asshole named Henry, who was hiding somewhere underground. One murderous asshole, he reminded himself. The man had already tried several times to kill him. It was a habit Longarm wanted to break him of.
The adit twisted left and right, up and down. Curiously, the floor was soft underfoot. He did not take time to examine the layer of brown padding spread on the floor.
Then the answer to what it was came to him. Came in the form of a string of burros plodding toward him out of the darkness, each of the eight small, shaggy animals carrying bulging packsaddles of raw ore.
That, he realized, explained the height of the opening. It was just high enough to accommodate a burro and just wide enough to accept the burro plus the width of the ore sacks it carried.
The intelligent little animals were making their journey with no human hand guiding them. Obviously they knew where they were going. Longarm had to drop down to hands and knees and press himself hard against the cold, stone wall at his side in order to let the string of burros pass.
He reached an opening to his left which turned out to be a larger, taller expanse where a large pocket of ore had been removed. The light from his lamp showed nothing but stone walls and on this floor rock chips instead of the burro manure that carpeted the main line.
There was no sign of Henry or of any other humans. Back in the main line he traveled perhaps another hundred yards before he encountered lights and voices. He came upon a group of four miners, each wearing a headlamp, with a collection of hammers, chisels, and pry bars at their sides.
“You lookin' for Henry?” asked one of the men, with such a grimy, rock-dustâcovered face that Longarm was sure he would not recognize the fellow after he washed.
Longarm nodded, causing shadows to dance in front of him. “I am.”
The man eyed the chunk of wood in Longarm's hand, then pursed his lips to point with. “About fifty feet in there's a branch to the left. Take it.”
“Thanks.” Longarm touched a finger to his forehead and moved past the men, who were taking a break with sandwiches and bottles of coffee.
He moved slowly in until he came to the side opening the miner had mentioned. The adit branched straight left and sloped upward to the right.
Longarm paused there.
Left, the man had said.
Too easily? Henry, after all, was one of their own. And Longarm was a stranger.
Longarm knelt for a moment to ease aching muscles not accustomed to this cramped posture.
Then he moved forward. Into the right-hand adit.
If the would-be assassin was in there, he was sitting there with no headlamp marking his position. But then he knew this mine. And he did
want to be found.
Henry was the sort who preferred to murder without exposing himself to danger. That, Longarm thought, was the hallmark of a coward. Low, cunning, and sneaky. But cowardly. That seemed to describe Henry to the proverbial T.
There was no point in trying to be silent, Longarm realized. Not with his headlamp throwing a cone of light twenty feet in front of him. The bastard would be able to see him coming a hundred feet away.
He bent low but craned his neck to throw the light as flat and as far as possible. If he gave in to the fatigue of the bent-forward position and allowed his head to drop, that threw the light from his lamp onto the floor, practically at his feet, doing nothing at all to help him search for danger lying ahead.
Every few feet he had to stop, drop down onto his heels, and peer around as best he could.
Henry was somewhere ahead. He was sure of it. Well, fairly sure. He could have been wrong back there. The miner taking his lunch break could have been telling the truth about which way Henry went.
Longarm did not believe that. But then he had been wrong about things before now. He could well be wrong again here. If he were, that would allow Henry to get behind him, perhaps to flee from the mine while Longarm was still busy looking for him inside.
It was a risk. All Longarm could do was to use his best judgment and go on. And right now his best judgment was that his quarry was somewhere close ahead, waiting there to kill him with his bare hands.
Longarm spotted a shard of rock on the floor. It was long and thin, roughly the size and shape of a spike. Or a dagger.
He lay the piece of wood down and picked up the sliver of stone.
It occurred to himâtoo lateâthat he should have counted the number of hammers back there where the workmen were resting. Two teams of cutters? Probably. So there should have been two hammers in addition to two chisels. He had passed right on by without paying attention to the tools the men had with them that he might have made use of. A fatal mistake? It could have been.
There was no time to worry about that now. He had the stone knife. Henry might haveÂ .Â .Â . almost anything. Anything other than a firearm, that is.
Longarm craned his neck to look at the ceiling. It seemed solid to him, but the miners knew their trade far better than he ever would. If they said the rock was rotten and could come crashing down with the concussion from a gunshot, he was inclined to believe them.
Henry would know that too and would not risk death in a cave-in by trying to sneak a gun past the others.
When he attackedâif Longarm could find himâthe man would come with anything at hand, rocks or knives or clubsÂ .Â .Â . anything.
The adit Longarm was in opened up into a chamber where a large amount of ore had been removed from a concentrated area. He was able to almost, not quite but almost, stand erect in it. The change was a relief to his aching back.
He stood there for a moment, back arched, his lamp playing a cone of yellow light onto the ceiling.
He heard something. A faint skittering on the rock floor.
He looked down againâbarely in time to see the big thief from the day before charging for his throat.
The man held a chunk of rock in his fist.
A rock bludgeon against a stone knife. Their combat had come down to Stone Age weapons in a modern-age fight to the death.
Longarm braced himself for the onslaught and involuntarily let out a low-pitched war cry as his enemy closed with him.
The fight was swift and brutal, over in almost an instant. The big man swung his heavy rock at Longarm's head, intending to crush Longarm's skull with one hard swing.
Instead of pulling back, which Henry anticipated, Longarm drove forward, dropping underneath that roundhouse swing and jabbing Henry in the gut with his sharp, pointed shard of stone.
The stone knife was wrenched out of his hand when Henry turned, grunting loudly.
Longarm was so close that he could smell garlic heavy on the big man's breath.
When Henry pulled his bludgeon back, he grazed Longarm's ear and knocked Longarm's head lamp completely off, sending the carbide lamp tumbling to the floor, where it gave off a ghostly light.
Longarm grappled with the bastard.
Henry's hands groped for Longarm's throat, but Longarm clenched his hands together and drove them upward, knocking Henry's hands away.
Longarm pummeled Henry in the face and throat, drawing blood and a roar of rage.
Henry succeeded in grasping Longarm by the throat. He squeezed. Longarm could feel his consciousness fading. His vision turned red and blurred.
He knew if he did not break the hold soon he would die. He managed to get a grip on Henry's little finger. He pulled. Hard. He heard the distinctive crack of a bone breaking, and Henry let out another roar.
More to the point, his grip on Longarm's throat loosened a little.
Longarm shifted his grip from the broken finger to Henry's wrist. He twisted and pulled, ripping that hand away from his throat so he could grab the other wrist with both hands. He twisted, forcing Henry's hand away from his throat and down.
Longarm elbowed the man in the face. He felt cartilage snap. Felt the hot rush of blood flooding over him.
Henry cried out again but not so strongly this time. The big man seemed to weaken. He sagged to his knees, coming down almost on top of Longarm's headlamp.
Longarm stepped back, his breathing heavy after those few seconds of mortal combat.
The glare of light from the carbide lamp showed Henry slumped on his side. The stone knife Longarm had been carrying was buried half its length into his gut, high under his ribs. The man must have been bleeding internally ever since that first clash of bodies.
Henry gasped for air, mouth forming an O like a fish tossed onto a riverbank. One hand lifted as if in surrender.
It was no surrender. He tried in vain to punch Longarm but no longer had strength enough to throw the fist. His hand fell helpless across his body.
His mouth opened and for a moment Longarm thought he wanted to speak. Instead a gout of blood, dark in the light from the fallen headlamp, spilled out of his mouth to saturate his beard and dribble down onto the rock floor.
He clearly was dying.
Longarm rocked back onto his heels, gasping for breath himself. He shook his head.
“A waste,” he said, his voice coming out halfway between a croak and a whisper. “What a stupid, fucking waste.”
Longarm dropped down, sitting with his back pressed against the rock wall. He picked up the headlamp and put it on, then sat with the man called Henry until the man's breathing stopped and his eyes glazed into the blank sightlessness of death.
When Longarm's breathing had returned to normal, he knelt and closed Henry's eyes, then started back out toward the mine entrance.
He encountered the four workmen on his way out, the patient little burros following close behind them.
“Your buddy is back there,” he told the men. “You can haul his ass out; I'm not gonna do it for you.”
All four blinked, uncomprehending.
Longarm crouched low until the last burro was past, then resumed his low duckwalk back to sunlight and fresh air.
Her husband had made a find of some sort, Jane Nellis had said. Presumably then the three raiders wanted his claim as much as, or more than, whatever they might have been able to rob from the site.
Well, they wanted the claim and wanted the girl as well.
The problem was that Jane Nellis had no idea where her husband's find was located. She had been there, of course, but did not know where she was at the time.
Jane was a city girl with no knowledge of these mountains. Her only interest was with her family, her only reason for being there was to be with them.
And now her family was gone. Somewhere in these mountains, in one of the innumerable gulches and valleys. Even if Jane had been willing to go back, even if she were sufficiently recovered from her ordealÂ .Â .Â . and from the gunshot wound Longarm put into herÂ .Â .Â . she would not know how to find her way back.
Longarm knew he could wander these mountains for the next couple years and might or might not find his way into the right gulch. Worse, if he did find it, he might well not know it was the right place. Any new diggings with three or more owners? Wouldn't that be a futile telltale to look for since parties of miners often banded together to find and work their claims.
The only thing he could think of was how the mind of the average criminal worked.
The bastards could not themselves be trusted, and so they tended to not trust others. Apparently they assumed that everyone was as crooked as they were themselves.
When he reached the opening of the adit where Henry died, Longarm retrieved his .45 and said to the foreman there, “Mind if I ask you something?”
“Don't mind at all. So what's your question?”
“Up here, when a man makes a strike, where does he go to file his claim?”
The foreman turned his head and spat a stream of pale tobacco juice off to the side, then turned his attention back to Longarm. “You gotta post your markers at each of the four corners, then you go all the way down to Fort Collins. There's a government office where you fill out the forms and pay a five-dollar filing fee. But just in case you're wondering, this outfit is properly filed on, everything nice and legal.”
“Thanks,” Longarm said.
“Now do you mind if I ask you something?” the foreman asked.
“Not at all. What d'you want to know?”
“That son of a bitch Henry. Did you find him?”
Longarm nodded. “I found him.”
“But you're still upright and breathing.”
“Yes, but I'm afraid he isn't. They'll be bringing him out directly, I'd reckon.”
“Fast and dirty?” the foreman asked.
“That I am,” Longarm agreed, reaching for a cheroot. When he struck a match to light it, he discovered that his hand was shaking.
What he needed, he decided, was a drink. Or two.
Fortunately, Bedlam was well equipped to supply that need.
“Thanks for your help,” he said, touching the brim of his Stetson to the foreman.
Then, stiff and sore but still alive, he walked down to the creek and across to the business side of things, where there was whiskey available to ease a man's ills.