Episode 49: Let 'Er Rip | Scryer's Gulch
The next day passed uneventful and serene, the weather dry, cold and clear. School let out. The little pack of kids scattered in ones, twos and threes to their various haunts around town.
Jed Bonham called at the Hopewell once Annabelle had had a chance to freshen up. To his disappointment, she'd muffled her trim figure in a sturdy coat, but her cornflower eyes still sparkled up at him as she took his arm and let him lead her to the Big Blavatsky Mine. She seemed much more tractable today than she had in the past, and that pleased Jed no small amount. He'd hardly begun to pour on the charm. If this was the result of just a little effort, she'd jump straight into his lap in no time.
They strolled up the street, dodging street vendors, greenhorns pulling carts with their belongings stacked high upon them, and various comers and goers. They passed the jail; Deputy Runnels lounged on the porch and tipped his hat to Miss Duniway, and she smiled and nodded in return. At least Rabbit wasn't after the girl. Runnels's brother--who was--must be inside the jail or marching around the camp somewhere with a stick up his ass, chuckled Jed to himself.
They strolled out of the camp talking of Lily, a subject Bonham never tired of. His precious little girl, his Lily, so like her mother. Annabelle reminded him of his first wife in a way. But his darling Lillian had been malleable, innocent, and too fine for this world. The Duniway girl's skin was just as porcelain, her eyes just as blue, her hair just as gold as Lillian's, but the porcelain was laid down over iron; he could tell by the way she'd stared Cherry down at dinner the other night. She wasn't for protecting, as Lillian had been. Annabelle Duniway was for possessing, and when he was finished with her he'd have little guilt setting her aside. She was the kind of girl who'd land on her feet, probably had already landed on her feet once. She wasn't as demure as she seemed, that's all he knew. She was a pistol.
Annabelle kept up the small talk all the way to the Big Blavatsky Mine, always mildly astonished at the depth of Jedediah Bonham's love for his little girl. So unexpected in a man willing to do almost anything to anyone for any amount of money or influence. Everyone has a weakness--she knew her own, that was for sure--and Lily was Bonham's.
Annabelle wondered briefly if she might use Lily to get at Bonham's secrets. If she could figure out a way to either implicate or clear Bonham in the ore contamination--and not hurt the child in the process--she'd do it. She'd feel like a rat, but she'd felt like a rat before in the pursuit of justice. Then again, if Bonham were guilty there wouldn't be much she could do to shield Lily from the pain of her father's downfall. No, she couldn't afford to think like that; Annabelle turned her thoughts fully outward, though her natural watchfulness had never ceased.
There. There was the flicker she'd been waiting for. It was time.
"Now then, Miss Duniway, here's how we separate the hermetauxite ore from the rock," Bonham was saying. "It starts with those men over there." Men were shoveling rock into a dry sluice; a flume from the north fork of the Ashen River would divert water into the sluice with the turning of a valve, and the water would carry the rock toward the machinery Bonham was displaying for Annabelle like a proud papa. They stood beside a tall, fat boiler with a funnel atop it; a black trickle issued from the smokestack. "This here's a steam donkey, the newest engine of its kind. Lucky for us it's not at full steam right now or we'd never hear one another, between it and the stamp mill it runs just over there. See the belts?" Connected to the steam donkey by the belts was a great iron frame. Suspended from it were ten giant cam-driven crushers, and beneath them ran the sluice.
"Oh, my," she answered, keeping her eyes forward but her attention everywhere else, "that must take a great deal of hermetauxite to run!"
"Naw," said a man standing beside an enormous pile of lumber. "We run it on firewood. It's free!"
"Stoke 'er up good, Johnny!" yelled Bonham. "Let's show Miss Duniway what she can do!"
"Isn't it a little late, Mr Bonham?" said Annabelle. The sky was already taking on a dusky look, but though the air was chillier by the minute, the boiler kept the area around it toasty.
"It runs almost twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week excepting the Prophet's Birth and Assumption Days on account of my first wife's memory. Money don't wait, Miss Duniway. The only reason it's not running now is shift change. Let 'er rip!"
It didn't take long for the steam donkey to get good and hot; the great engine began to vibrate. A boy--the whistle punk--pulled hard on a chain, and an ear-splitting shriek pierced the air to let everyone know the stamp mill was about to get under way. The worker Bonham had called Johnny took hold of a lever; the belt between the stamp mill and the steam donkey vibrated, then went taut. Johnny cranked a wheel valve hand over hand, the stamp mill creaked, and the heavy iron hammers came down again and again on the ore beneath them, crushing it into bits before the water swept it away.
The ground shook. Speech was impossible; Annabelle couldn't hear anything beside the rattling of the steam donkey and the pounding of the stamp mill.
And that's when Mamzelle and Misi struck.