"For a good man, ay look. Yew work, ya?"
The hum of conversation died in the rough-hewn room. Jethro Spring spun on his stool made of a pine block, not realizing he was the one being addressed. His gaze almost passed over the kid with the oversized Mackinaw coat and baggy trousers; the one he'd watched sidle into the eatery a few moments before. Only this kid wasn't a kid at all--not with such a deep voice, Swedish accent, and rutted face. Even sitting on the pine block, Jethro's gray eyes were still at a level with the pale, watery orbs of the little man addressing him. "I'm sorry," Jethro said. "Were you talking to me?"
"The horses outside. Dey are yours?"
"The sorrel mare and the gray with the top pack? They're mine. Why?"
"Dey are cared for good. To treat animals so is not always done in this place. Such a man is one ay want for work. Yew will do so, ya?"
Jethro smiled. The little runt had a black and white dog sitting at attention at his feet--maybe some shepherd in it. The mutt's ears were at half-mast, with orange-brown eyes riveted on her master. But when Jethro twisted to get his bowl of soup and swung back, the dog read the move as a threat and leaped to her feet, ruff standing aloft, teeth bared.
The little man let an arm fall, palm extended and the dog fell back onto her haunches, staring up attentively. "Yew will work?" the dog's master asked again.
Jethro sensed that every eye and ear in the log building strained their way. "There are five other men in here. Why me?"
"For me, ay would not let dem work. It is yew ay want."
A ripple of muted laughter swept the other men crowded at the plank counter. Jethro began spooning soup. Between spoonfuls, he said, "Hell, little man, I'm an Indian. You want to hire an Indian?"
Pinched lips showed the Swede's annoyance. "Is Indians not able? It is work yew need. Ay have work. Is this not so?"
Jethro finished his soup and laid the bowl on the plank at his back. "I just rode in here fifteen minutes ago, yet you seem to know a lot about me. That's plumb amazing if true."
"Is true. Is night, soon will be. Is cold. If money yew had, yew would stable your horses. If money yew had, yew would have more than soup, ya? Yew are hungry. Your face shows yew are hungry for long time. Snow will soon come. Your horses will then be hungry."
Jethro's was a thin smile. The Swede continued, "The shoes of your horses are thin. You come from above, over the mountains and you have far to go. You must soon work. You will do so for Gunnar, ya?"
Jethro dropped his hand to the dog, who licked her lips and avoided the hand, continuing to stare adoringly at her master. "What the hell," he said at last. "If you treat your hired help as well as you must treat this dog, I could probably do worse." Jethro stuck out a hand and developed a new alias on the spot. "I'm Jason Frost. And you're who?"
The little Swede took the hand with one that was calloused and hard. "Ay am Gunnar. Einarssen, too." The Swede signaled the cook. "Bring dis mans some meat, Walter. One who work's with Gunnar, he must eat like horse."
One of the other patrons laughed. "Hell! He'll be meat if he works for the runt."
"The horses, ay will take to stable," Gunnar told Jethro. "While yew eat, ay will do this. Then we go to cabin."
Jethro slid from his pine block. "No pard. I take care of my own horses. You got your rules; I got mine. I'll eat when I get back." He paused. "That is, I'll do it if you'll take care of the stable bill."
The Swede nodded. "Next door is stable. Walter is owner."
An alpenglow washed summits of the eastern hills as Jethro Spring untied the sorrel mare and his gray packhorse from the hitchrack. He kicked at a clod, knowing he needed the work--no doubt about that. But what kind? Must be a mine. Hell, he knew nothing about mining. Closest he'd ever been to a pick and shovel was building roadbeds for rail lines. Well, he wasn't in any position to be choosy. This looked like as good a place as any, perhaps better than most, to shelter for a few days, or weeks, or even months. Especially for a man with 'JETHRO SPRING - WANTED, DEAD OR ALIVE' posters out on him.
Inside the stable he stripped the pack and saddles from his horses, wondering why the little Swede chose him. Five other men were inside and the Swede came straight to him. What was it the little man said? That they wouldn't work "for me." And "I wouldn't let them--it is you I want." Then one of the others at the counter had said, "He'll be meat if he works for the runt." What did that mean?
He rubbed down each of the two horses, first the sorrel mare, then Baldy, the gray. Then he took them to stalls and forked hay into their mangers. He decided he'd find out soon enough what the Swede meant, and headed back to the log-and-wattle eatery.
The other men were gone when Jethro entered. A long-barreled Colt lay upon the counter near the little man's hand. The new workman threw saddlebags and bedroll into a corner.
"You had to fight them other guys off with a gun, Gunnar? That why you're called 'Gunnar'?"
The watery blue eyes turned on him. "They don't scare Gunnar." There was no smile.
"Did they try?"
The little man turned to his steak. An even larger steak was set before Jethro. A few minutes later, the Swede said, "Ay have mine. Nordic Summer is name. Is like beautiful woman. Yew will see."
The mine might be like a beautiful woman, but wading the San Miguel to get to it was a tad annoying, and as far as Jethro could make out in the flickering candlelight, Gunnar's tiny cabin failed the luxury test. There was one bunk, a table consisting of two warped planks laid across a pole frame, two small-diameter pine blocks for chairs, and a cookstove. Empty dynamite boxes standing on end served as cupboards.
Gunnar kicked a few odds and ends from a corner and said, "To sleep, yew will do so here. If stay yew do, we will build bed."
Jethro picked up a straw broom and swept out his corner as best he could in the uncertain light. The black and white dog crawled under Gunnar's bunk and soon began snoring. It seemed to the younger man that he'd just fallen asleep when pans began rattling in the cabin. When he sat up, Gunnar said, "Soon will be day. We will not waste it."
The little man, holding a pan, paused on the way from stove to table to watch as Jethro buckled on his gunbelt. He opened his mouth to say something, then set the pan to the table and turned back to the stove. Jethro took a dipper of water from a galvanized bucket perched on the stove. Outside, not knowing where--or if--there was a wash basin, he dribbled water over his hands, splashed some on his face, and brushed his teeth with a forefinger. Back inside, he took a pine block and dug into flapjacks and sidemeat.
Later, he pulled a dishpan from the wall, filled it with hot water, and pared soap flakes into it. Gunnar crowded to the stove. "We do our own, each of us," he said.
Jethro shrugged. "Does that mean we each cook our own? After I get squared away, that is."
Gunnar ignored him to wash his plate, cup, and pans. Then the little man pulled on a Mackinaw coat. "If ready yew are, den yew should follow." Jethro jerked a sheepskin-lined canvas coat from his bedroll and hurried behind the dog. He'd almost finished buttoning the coat by the time they reached the mine tunnel.
Daylight filtered weakly into their valley as Jethro paused to stare about. The shaft, roughly four feet in height and width, was cut into an imposing, sloping rock wall of reddish basalt that Jethro remembered from his days laying steel, almost directly east from here, across the summit of the Rockies, through the Arkansas River's Royal Gorge. The little Swede, bent over, had continued into the mouth without pause as Jethro eyed his surroundings in the growing light. Beyond the redrock wall were mineralized outcrops of grayish-green and brownish-red intrusions in southeast to northwest lines.
Gunnar's face appeared at the tunnel mouth. "Yew see Nordic Summer, ya? She is thing of beauty, yew betcha."
Jethro grinned and waved the other back. So low was the tunnel ceiling, he had to drop to his hands and knees in order to crawl forward. The tunnel floor was mostly sand and small gravel, slanting downward at an almost imperceptible angle. Up ahead, a rhythmic banging began. When he arrived at the headwall, the dog growled at his approach and Gunnar murmured something in Swedish. At the command, the dog curled into a ball and thrust her nose to her tail.
The Swede had a drill bit in his hand and was `single-jacking'; driving the bit into the wall with a short-handled, four-pound sledge. "Is called a" (bang!) "single-jack," he grunted. "Yew must twist" (bang!) "after yew strike."
"Gunnar," Jethro said, "I've used a single-jack. But there's not enough room for us both to work in here. Even if I knew where you wanted me to drill, and even if there was another drill and sledge, there's not enough room. I'm not sure ..."
"This one yew have. Ay will work outside." The little man handed Jethro the drill and sledge, then crowded past to allow his workman room at the tunnel's headwall.
The younger man crept forward, took a sitting position, set the drill in the depression left by the Swede and, in the uncertain light, took a practice swing, two, three. Then he delivered a heavier blow, twisted the drill, then another.
"A drill yew have used before," the Swede murmured from behind. "Yew have worked the mines, ya?"
"Nope," his workman grunted. "But I've drilled a little rock."
A few moments and a dozen blows later, Jethro paused to catch his breath and ask, "Where's the spoon?"
In reply, Gunnar handed him a long rod with a tiny dipping spoon on the end. Jethro took it and scooped the rock dust from his hole. While he did so, Gunnar crowded forward and with a forefinger, spotted places for four other drill holes in the tunnel wall. As he turned away, the stooped older man's watery eyes passed inches from the seated younger one's. Jethro thought something passed between them in that brief moment and wondered what it was.
When Gunnar retreated a few feet, he stopped and squatted on his heels, wrapping arms around knees, again watching his workman swing the sledge. "The powder. Yew work?"
Jethro paused and shook his head. "Not if you're using black. I've seen some dynamite handled--even done a little myself." He swung again and added, "But I'm not comfortable with it and probably not safe enough with it." More swings, and when he looked around to see how the little Swede accepted his admission, his boss was gone.
The morning slipped by. He finished one hole to such depth as he could spoon rock dust and began another. He was in the second hole to several inches when the light dimmed at the tunnel entrance and Gunnar and his dog appeared. "Ay will swing the hammer. Yew will eat. At cabin is meat and potato."
Outside, Jethro glanced at the clear, blue sky and breathed deeply. A robber jay squawked from a scrub juniper and a pine squirrel scurried after cones he'd recently cut from surrounding trees. The man took another deep breath, sighed, and smiled. After a few moments he strode to the murmuring creek, drank his fill and washed rock dust from his arms and face. Then he turned toward the cabin and stopped abruptly. Its door was open.
Jethro drew his revolver and slipped forward, moccasin-soled boots barely whispering on the path. With only the barest pause, he leaped into the cabin and darted to one side, out of the beam of doorway light. A man looked up in surprise, fork filled with slices of Jethro's steak halfway to his mouth. The stranger wore a rough-cut, broadcloth suit and a wide-brimmed, flat-crowned brown hat. The coat was buttoned to the top, but an open-necked, white shirt peeked from the throat. He wore wire-rimmed glasses.
Seconds passed. The only movement was the thumb on the revolver hammer, the only sound the "click" as it was eared back. Then the fork and steak and hand and arm ratcheted to the tabletop and the stranger said, "Who the hell are you?"
Jethro slid three feet further right, into deeper shadow between the open door and the cabin's single muslin-covered window. "For starters," he replied, "you're eating my dinner."
The stranger never blinked. "That so? I thought it was the Swede's." He laid the fork and steak on the plate and dusted his hands, then started to push back from the table.
The roar of Jethro's .45 was deafening in the tight space. Splinters flew from the tabletop and the stranger jerked both hands above his shoulders.
"Explain," the gray-eyed man said, "and make it quick."
"I'm a friend of Einarssen's. I stopped by to see him. I thought he'd fixed his dinner and stepped out. I thought he'd laugh when he came back and found me eating it. Touchy bastard aren't you?"
"Whittle. I own a claim down to Placerville. Can I put my hands down?"
"Get up first."
The stranger--Whittle--scooted back and stood. The right flap on his thigh-length, broadcloth coat thrust out from his side.
"Lay your gun on the table, but do it careful."
The man did as instructed.
"No. I ain't no gunhand."
"Now get out of here. You can come back tonight and get your gun. Do it after Gunnar comes back. That's the same time you and him can laugh off your eating my food. That's also the same time you can find out if I'll laugh with you."
Whittle stalked slowly to the door, his face blank. But all the while, the man stared through the wire-rimmed glasses straight-on into Jethro Spring's flat, gray eyes.