The Silver Yoke

Chapter 1


IOne post of the abandoned mine's hoist was splintered, its gallows frame sagging and creaking with the wind. A discarded whiskey bottle lay in a puddle left from the previous night's deluge. A strange-style, calf-length moccasin boot with a hole worn through the sole also lay in the puddle. The boot was occupied.

Lewis surveyed the discarded bottle, broken gallows frame, and mud-splattered drunk who huddled against the hoist post. "Derelicts, the three," he muttered, kicking the unconscious man. He kicked harder. "Up and about, you."

Lewis crouched and jerked the collar of the ragged Union Army greatcoat from the grimy neck, then fingered for a pulse.

The derelict waved feebly and muttered, "Go 'way."

"Come on you. Let's go." Receiving no response, Lewis shook the sprawling man. "Let's go, I say. Get up. It's a fine day. Come on."

Instead, the drunk scrambled under an angle brace. Lewis grabbed him by one moccasined foot and yanked. Without laces, the boot slipped free; there was no stocking beneath. Cursing beneath his breath, Lewis tossed the boot aside and seized the bare foot to jerk. The canvas trousers on that leg was ripped from ankle to knee; the trouser leg slid halfway up the intoxicated man's thigh as he was dragged from his shelter. The man scrambled back for his refuge, only to be kicked in the ribs for the effort. "Wha ... wha's goin' on?"

"Get up."

"Go 'way."

"I will not."

Lewis delivered a series of punishing kicks until the receiver rolled over and opened his eyes. They were disconcerting--those eyes. Though red-rimmed and watery, they were gray, contrasting sharply with an angular, bronzed and stubbled face framed with unkempt black hair running to salt and pepper around the temples. The drunken man's voice tapered off, into the distance. "Wha' d'you want?"

"MacFarlane wants to see you."

"Go 'way."

"Get up, damn you. You will see Mr. MacFarlane, for he told me to bring you in. We've been looking all over for you."

The derelict threw an arm over his eyes to shield them from a rising sun. "Don't want to see nobody. Leave me alone."

Lewis kicked him again, this time in the head.

The arm was flung aside as the victim glared up at his abuser. He saw a florid, round, clean-shaven face without expression. Focusing further, the watery gray eyes took in the clean woolen shirt and trousers, and freshly blackened boots. "Wha' do you want?"

"Come on. My boss wants to see you."

"Who are you?"

"Do you care?"

The unkempt man shook his head, wincing with the effort. "Tell me anyway."

"Lewis. I'm a foreman for Peace and Prosperity. It's me boss that wants to see you."

"Who's he?"

"I said once. MacFarlane. Now get up."

"Don't wanna see him. Leave me alone." The man's eyelids began to droop.

The mine foreman again kicked. The derelict moaned and rolled to his stomach. "Why me? Why does Mac ... Mac-whatever-his-name want to see me?"

"Is your name Jason Frost?"

At mention of his Colorado name, the derelict sighed, rolled back over and sat up, rubbing grimy fingertips to his temples. "Why you ..." He swallowed. "... want to know?"

"Is it then? Is it Jason Frost?

The drunken man nodded and staggering, pushed to his feet. "We've wasted enough time. Follow me." Lewis walked a few brisk steps before pausing. "Dammit, man! Come on. Do you not understand? Me boss wants to talk to you."

Jethro Spring fumbled for his lost moccasin. "Why?"

"Good Lord! That I do not know. Only that he wants to talk to Jason Frost. Half the men at Peace and Prosperity have been searching for you. Now come on!" The mine foreman's face brightened. "C'mon, Mr. Frost, I'll buy you a drink."

It was Leadville, Colorado, a little after nine in the morning, June 3, 1886. The swift-striding Cornish mine foreman and a shambling Jethro Spring traveled but two blocks before they passed a functioning gallows hoist, its cable squeaking as it spooled out.

The foreman led the derelict toward a freshly painted white bungalow near the mine's entrance. A sign hung over the door. It read: SUPERINTENDENT - PEACE & PROSPERITY. Lewis knocked.

"Come in."

The Cornishman pushed through the door. His ward hung back, peering into the shadowy interior. "Oh for God's sake, man," Lewis said, taking Jethro by the front of his grimy greatcoat and yanking.

"A man seated behind a desk asked, "And what do we have here?"

"This the fellow you wanted, Mac?" asked the mine foreman. "He says his name is Frost."

Angus MacFarlane glanced toward a dark corner where a nasal voice said, "That's him."

Jethro tried to turn toward the new voice, but staggered against the desk instead.

"Lewis, a chair for Mr. Frost, if you please."

The mine foreman slid an oak chair across the room. "Only way I could get him here was to offer him a drink," he said. "He's already drunk." Lewis pushed the chair against the backs of Jethro's knees and he collapsed into it.

"Tis that I can see, yes," MacFarlane said.

The drunk leaned back in an exaggerated effort for control, then shook his head, trying to clear it. One hand slipped; only the chair's sturdy armrest kept him from crashing to the floor. "All right, Lewis," MacFarlane said. "We'll take it from here. You may return to your duties. But first find Muldoon and send him here."

"As you will, sir."

"Well, Mr. Frost, tis a drink you'll be wanting, eh?"

Jethro Spring's disconcerting eyes came slowly into focus, but he said nothing.

MacFarlane slid a drawer open and set a full quart whiskey bottle on the desk. Then he brought out a water glass. "A little hair from the dog what bit ye, eh boy?"

Jethro's eyes riveted on the bottle as the door behind squeaked open, then clicked closed. He lurched up. "Wanna ... want ... go to hell, whoever you are." He wheeled and staggered toward the door. A squat, powerfully built man in a checkered suit and bowler hat leaned against it, chewing a matchstick. Otherwise he seemed made of stone.

"Go 'way," Jethro mumbled. The squat man stopped chewing the matchstick.

MacFarlane said, "Help Mr. Frost back into his chair if you will, Mr. Muldoon."

Jethro allowed himself to be led back to his chair. MacFarlane handed a half-filled glass across the desk. Muldoon passed it on to the weary man. The glass fell from Jethro's hand, shattering against the plank floor. MacFarlane smiled. Without taking his eyes from the red-streaked, watery, gray ones across from him, the little superintendent reached into a drawer and took another glass. He poured it half full, then handed it on to Muldoon, who again passed the glass to Jethro, this time making sure the derelict had it firmly in hand. Just as Muldoon stepped back, the second glass also shattered on the floor.

MacFarlane's smile stayed in place. "Never mind, Muldoon," he said as he shoved the bottle over to the far side of his desk, nearer to their guest. At last the gray eyes faltered and fell.

"We'll just leave the bottle there, Mr. Frost," MacFarlane said, "should you find yourself in need of a drink."

The derelict's gaze lifted to the bottle and he swallowed. Then he stared at MacFarlane. What he saw was a small man with a thick shock of white hair, wrinkled face, and probing green eyes. Like Lillian's father, thought Jethro Spring. MacFarlane wore a blue-checkered wool shirt and a black string tie, loosened at the throat. "What do you want?" Jethro croaked.

"Mr. Frost, ye came to our attention when one of our Peace and Prosperity drillers recognized ye for who ye are." MacFarlane paused when Jethro's eyes flickered to the whiskey. "The name Jason Frost is one what's widely known in Colorado mining circles, ye know. Nae many mucker-lads inherit a rich mine from their dead employer, then walks away and leaves it."

Jethro tried to concentrate on what MacFarlane was saying, though his eyes were more often on the whiskey than the speaker. What is it he wants? The man knows about Gunnar's mine. What else does he know? Does he know about the "Stinkingwater Affair" and how I killed the father of the only woman I've ever loved?

"Where've ye been the last three, four years, boy? There's a bunch o' lads was looking for ye."

So he doesn't know about Wyoming. Frost reached for the bottle. As he fumbled with the cork, he thought, It's been easy to reach for a bottle since I rode from the Rock House. He tilted the bottle and swallowed once, twice, three times. His eyes came back to those of the white-haired man across the desk; he made several stabs at thrusting the cork back into the bottle's neck before succeeding. Then, as he reached to set the bottle back on the desk, his eyes again met MacFarlane's and he deliberately opened his hand. The bottle thunked against the planks, then rocked back and forth, unbroken. Jethro stared it in fascination.

MacFarlane said, "You can put it back on the desk for Mr. Frost, if you please, Muldoon."

As Muldoon stepped back, Jethro asked, "Who're you?"

"MacFarlane. They call me Mac."

It was obvious the shabby man's liquor-fogged mind struggled. He asked again, "Who're you?"

"I'm the superintendent for the Peace and Prosperity Mine, Mr. Frost. We became interested ..."

"Who's he?" Frost interrupted, jerking a thumb over his shoulder.

"That is Troy Muldoon. Mr. Muldoon is head of security here at the Peace and Prosperity."

Jethro tried to turn in the chair to see behind. A hand slipped from its armrest. His chin sagged to his chest. Both hands fell loose upon his lap.

"As I was saying, Mr. Frost. Mr. Frost? Ah mon. Wake him up, Muldoon."

"Huh? What you doin'?" Jethro Spring said through rattling teeth.

"MacFarlane," said the voice with the nasal twang, "I'm getting a bit vexed with this entire process. Get on with it."

Jethro twisted at the voice, locating a slender, dark-haired man standing in a corner. The man wore a tailor-cut, brown tweed suit and a dark four-in-hand tie. The newcomer's hair was brushed straight back, parted in the middle and heavily oiled. A pencil thin mustache spread across his upper lip. His eyes appeared black in the poorly lighted room.

"We want to purchase your Nordic Summer Mine, Mr. Frost," MacFarlane said. The shabby man twisted back to stare at the little mine superintendent. "Einarssen's old mine at Fall Creek. We want to buy your claim, Mr. Frost."

Jethro blinked several times. They want to buy Gunnar's mine? The little Swede had opened his heart and soul to him when he was a down-at-the-heels New Mexico cowboy; a useless Lincoln County refugee with a governor's pardon and nothing else. The Swede had given him a job in his mine and he'd taken it because he had no other prospects. Gradually he'd grown to love the little man and his dream of rags-to-riches success. And when the Amalgamated octopus moved in, it was the strong right arm and quick gunhand of the man known as Jason Frost that held the corporate giant at bay until they murdered Gunnar by dynamiting the Nordic Summer's tunnel.

But to everyone's surprise, Gunnar had willed the promising Nordic Summer to his helper. Jethro moved on, however, caring little for the wealth the Nordic Summer might bring, retreating to an isolated valley in northwestern Wyoming Territory where he established a hardscrabble homestead in a hitherto unwanted canyon. Then, his sole objective had been to live at peace--to escape life as he'd always known it: a life of savagery, where might ruled right and power crushed kindness and love and generosity....

"We want to be fair with ye, Mr. Frost," the mine superintendent said. "So we're prepared to offer you twenty-five thousand for the Nordic Summer."

Jethro slumped in his chair. It would have worked, too, had not a grasping, empire-building scion of a powerful, conniving eastern family coveted every acre of ground throughout the entire Stinkingwater Valley. Until, that is, Ellis Burroughs, with all his family's financial resources and ruthlessness butted up against a simple, obstinate half-breed who'd taken out a homestead in an isolated section of the vast federal domain claimed by Burroughs' Lazy T Bar Ranch. Burroughs and his deadly foreman reacted, and a two-year war ensued.

The half-breed fought on tenaciously until the Stinkingwater Affair drew to a bloody stalemate in the midst of a cattle stampede in a remote canyon. Not, however, before the homesteader had poisoned a waterhole in a far-off corner of the Burroughs range--and accidentally killed the father of his life's only love. An unseeing Jethro Spring reached for the bottle. Again, he swallowed three times. This time he did not drop the bottle, but held it in his lap.

"Well, boy, how about it? Will ye sell to us?"

Despite a pounding that was growing in his temple, Jethro wagged his head vigorously. The mine! Gunnar's mine! Hell no, I won't sell it. It's the only way I can get back at Gunnar's murderers. He'd held the rich claim, paying his taxes and hiring a minimum of assessment work in order to guarantee his rights to the claim. He'd held it knowing Amalgamated wanted Gunnar's Mine badly enough to kill for it; knowing development of their already rich Uncompahgre District mining complex could not proceed full-pace without acquisition of Gunnar's Nordic Summer.

"Is it that twenty-five thousand is nae enough, Mr. Frost?"

Jethro's watery gray eyes again focused on the man who looked so much like Lillian's father. Still staring, he pulled the cork from the bottle and took another long pull then tried unsuccessfully to jam the cork back in place.

"Take that blasted bottle away from him," ordered the man in the corner. A fleeting smile flashed across the inebriated man's face as Muldoon darted forward to snatch the bottle. Then his chin again fell to his chest.

"Frost? Frost? Dammit, mon, wake up!"

Muldoon tried to shake the drunk awake, but the black-haired man in the corner said, "Let in him sleep it off. He's in no condition to sign any kind of sale agreement anyway."

The man called Jason Frost dozed his drunken way through two hours of troubled sleep. He dreamed of Lillian and August Mathers, Sam Buttercut, Gunnar Einarssen, and Ellis Burroughs. He twisted in the chair and moaned, once crying aloud. His dream turned to Lillian, the auburn-haired, oval-faced beauty who once loved him. But that vision shattered when Buttercut led a horse carrying her dead father roped face down across the saddle, head and feet swinging, through the gate of the Rock House Ranch.

The sleeping man's knuckles turned white from clinching fists as he dreamed, and his dirty, unshaven, tousled head thrashed from side to side. Then he subsided into the more peaceful somnolence of a beautiful Indian mother and a kind and courageous mountain-man father; of Montana's Medicine River country and a buffalo robe tipi; of mallards on ponds and trout in streams.

Just as this latest dream was turning to soldiers, horses, the purple face of a dying cavalry major, a sleeping Indian village, and a jail cell, Jethro Spring jerked awake. He grasped the chair arms and slowly looked about. His clothes were damp with perspiration and his head felt like a horse kicked at his temples. He saw the squat, powerfully built, smooth-shaven man in a checkered suit and bowler hat standing by the door and he turned back to slump once more. A desk was before him, and an empty chair behind it. Along one wall was a row of file cabinets. Beside the file cabinets was a drafting board covered with assorted diagrams and blueprints. Two other oak chairs identical to the one in which he sat stood against a wall. He put a hand to his forehead and gingerly rubbed the hammering temples "Where am I?" he croaked. "What am I doing here?"

He heard the door open behind him and a man say to someone outside, "Tell Mac his sot's awake."

Roland Cheek Country


Home / Reviews / Buy the Book / Return to Bookstore

Home / Reviews / Buy the Book / Return to Bookstore