Burke Thomas is a free-wheeling private investigator of valuables from long past and a part-time treasure hunter. Conned into kidnapping a young woman, Burke discovers that the client who hired him is dead before he gets a chance to free her. Now he’s got a gang pursuing him, the local sheriff asking embarrassing questions, and, worst of all, he was only vacationing in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California in hopes of finding a long-buried, massive hoard of ingot gold. About the only thing he’s dead certain of is that this trouble is far more than he bargained for.
Word Count: 55, 187
The mine buildings sprawled, three structures staggered down a slope, clearly abandoned and deteriorated. As soon as I got a glimpse of them I pulled the jeep into the throat of a side gully, stopped and got out, a little surprised that I’d seen no sign of a vehicle. I picked up my canteen, then the carbine I’d brought along, a lightweight Browning semi-auto in .22 Magnum. I was also carrying a .357 Magnum revolver — better to carry weapons and not need them than the reverse.
I stood quietly listening, re-impressed by the absolute silence of desert terrain in the day’s still heat, aware that anyone in the old mine buildings could have heard my jeep for at least the last mile of its approach. I could detect no sound, no visible movement, although from here I couldn’t see the buildings themselves.
Working my way uphill and across one lip of the gully I was in brought me within sight of the buildings from above. Then I began to work down toward the uppermost one, the shaft house, keeping behind what cover I could find, scattered boulders and scraggly brush. I saw the gun barrel poke out a window, then the flash of a shot, in time to drop behind a rock and roll to one side well before the sharp crack of the shot reached me. Stupid. Should have waited until I was closer, with less time to react.
Looking from blazing sunlight into the black shadow of the building’s interior I could see nothing of the shooter, but it surely wasn’t an armed services veteran. The first thing a combat soldier learns about shooting from inside a building is to keep his weapon a couple of feet inside and shoot through a window from one side.
I studied the buildings and the area around them, still seeing no vehicles, then worked my way downslope. I kept to adequate cover now, which meant I couldn’t see the buildings full time. It took a while, and I wasn’t all that quiet, but I got no more fire. Once close enough to rush the wall of the shaft house I raised the carbine and let off three rounds to cover my approach, ending flat against the wall at one side of a door at ground level. The ear-splitting crack of the .22 Magnum rounds and their echoes died slowly into silence. Nothing. No other sound. The acrid odors of gunpowder and my own sweat, mixed with dust and the dry heat, stung my nostrils. It was hot even here, in the narrow shadow close to the building.
I dove through the door and rolled, coming back to my feet with the carbine leveled. Large mistake. The four day old, shallow shotgun wounds on my back and shoulder sent screaming signals. There was no more gunfire. I waited while the pain eased and my eyes adjusted to the comparative dark inside, seeing nothing to shoot at. Then I made a thorough, cautious tour of the building I was in. No one.
The three mine buildings were connected. I made my way down an inside stair into the dirt-floored middle building, once the site for jaw crushers or stamp mills but bare now other than for a couple of empty ore bins. I was alert for sound or movement. Nothing. Checked around. Still nothing. Another stair led down to the last building, once the final stage of the operation.
As I dropped below the level of the rafters I saw a man’s body lying face up on the floor near a window opening. As I closed in there was no movement, no sound, even of his breathing. A mix of odors, gunpowder, the faint coppery smell of dried blood and the stench of death, intensified by the close heat, hung in the still air. I’d found one of the two people I’d been looking for.
The body had been Johnny Balfour. Shot twice in the chest from the front, I guessed several hours ago. The shots had driven him back, dumped him on his back. Heavy caliber Magnum weapon; blood and tissue had sprayed for several feet, the direction indicating he’d probably been shot from outside, through the window. No weapon was in sight anywhere near the body. I wondered at that, and at the absence of the Balfour girl I’d expected to find with him.
Thinking ahead, something that’s often necessary in the detecting business, I relieved the body of the wallet I found in a hip pocket. It might be as well if identification took some time.
Outside, I came upon two cartridge cases. I picked up one by sticking a pencil into the case so I could look without leaving prints. Forty-four Magnum. Probably an Israeli Eagle, the only large-caliber semi-automatic pistol handling rimmed cartridges, as .357 and .44 Magnums are. Pistols kick out the fired cases; revolvers don’t. I put the case back in place.
Scanning the dry ground I could see partial tracks left by several boots, and it was apparent those who made them had gone inside, then come out and left. The departing marks were all men’s boots. A bad sign or a good one, depending.
Making a circuit of the buildings I found a set of smaller tracks, wide spaced, headed off in a different direction. The girl, I hoped. Running. She might have hidden out until after the men who’d finished Johnny had gone, then when I’d turned up took a shot at me and left on the run.
It didn’t take much skill in tracking; she’d made no attempt to hide her trail, something she’d probably not even thought about. She was also so desperate to get away she’d taken off in the wrong direction, straight toward the heart of the desert. Near certain death, if I hadn’t turned up to find her.
I went over two ridges, headed east, before I got a glimpse of her. I wasn’t trying to hide, and she soon noticed I was following. She tried running again but the unaccustomed exertion and the heat were too much for her. Turning finally, chest heaving, tears streaming, she brought up the rifle she was still carrying, a .22 lever-action from the look of it. From the way she was holding it I didn’t think I was in much danger, so I rushed her. She jerked at the trigger but nothing happened. Apparently she’d failed to jack a new shell into the chamber after her one shot at me.
I grabbed the gun, a light .22 as I’d thought and nearly useless as a defensive weapon. As I directed it away from myself she let go and collapsed on the ground, sobbing hopelessly. I lifted her up, supporting her with an arm around her waist, and brushed the hair away from her face with my other hand. Then I offered her the canteen and waited while she drank, taking it away before she’d had too much.
I did my best to speak softly. “I’m not here to hurt you. I’ll take you back to your father.”
That brought a new burst of tears and a wail, “Oh, no.”
I held her away from me and stared at her. Now, with her hair tangled, her face streaked with dirt and tears, she looked even more like a child than the first time I’d seen her. “What is it? You don’t want to go back?”
Another wail. “Oh, no. Not with those people there.”
“Then where do you want to go?”
She shook her head despairingly. I knew I had to get her under cover and settled down. Then, if I could get any sense out of her, maybe I could decide what should be done.
She refused to wait where she was while I went for the jeep. So, as tired as she was, we walked the distance together. I felt it unsafe to pass the mine site again since Postin’s crew or whoever else killed her brother might come back at any time. That meant a longer and more difficult route and a lot of climbing, with me helping as much as I could, and an arrival at the jeep only well after sundown. The temperature was plummeting; it was too early in the year for the heat to hold into the night. I asked a few questions on the way but got no answers. Whatever she could tell me would have to wait.
I wrapped her in a blanket I had in the jeep and we set off. She slumped in the seat, shivering despite the blanket. It was slow going until we reached the highway, but even then I had to make three stops before reaching Susanville.
The first was at a service station to let her use the rest room. I waited, sure she’d make no attempt to get away. After all, where could she go? She came back to the jeep, hair finger-combed and with a clean face, looked less spiritless and closer to human but still very young. Next I stopped at a highway cafe, where I went in for food to take along. She ate hungrily, obviously having missed a number of meals. Then on the outskirts of Susanville I took her into a Walmart store and insisted she pick out a change of clothes and a padded ski jacket. At my suggestion she also chose a nightgown and some toilet articles.
The hotel had vacancies, so I traded my room for two adjoining ones, registering the Balfour girl as Mary Rainier, the first name I could think of. I doubted there’d be any sleep for me this night, but even the best professional investigators make a minor mistake occasionally.
When I explained to Dina that she was free to leave if that’s what she wanted, I got a blank look and a question. “And go where?”
I had more food sent up before room service shut down, and a Thermos of coffee. I left the door between the rooms open while Dina was in the shower, then called her into my room. She came in dressed in the new clothes, barefoot, but with fear and hopelessness back in her eyes. She sat in the chair I pointed out, her exhaustion evident, as was the effort she was making to stay awake.
I offered her the sandwiches I’d had sent up, which she refused, and coffee, which she accepted but made no effort to drink. I said, “Look, I don’t mistreat children, which is how you seem to me. I’d like to help you, if you’ll let me. Right now, I have just a couple of questions.”
When she nodded, her eyes avoiding mine, I said, “You were taken from the New Beginnings settlement five days ago. Do you remember anything about your kidnapping?”
She ducked her head, plainly ill-at-ease with the subject. “Nothing. Just going to sleep in the cabin and waking in a strange house with that Mel Barnes there. He had a gun. He said I had to go with him; that he’d shoot me if I didn’t.” Her eyelids drooped closed, and I could see the effort it took for her to re-open them.
“Mel Barnes? Are you sure?”
“Yes. why shouldn’t I be?” She raised her eyes to mine, then lowered them, remembrance striking. “Oh. He’s dead, isn’t he?” She shuddered, looked up again and asked, “Who are you? And why should you want to help me?”
“Let’s just say I’d like to right a wrong.” I was relieved that she had no memory of my involvement. “Now, do you want to tell me about what happened or would you rather wait until morning?”
Her eyes blinked closed again, then slowly opened, blank and unfocused. I got her on her feet and led her back into her room. When she sank onto the bed I pulled a blanket over her and left the room. She was sleeping deeply before I got to the door.
Back in my own room I went through the new-looking wallet I’d taken off the body: A driver’s license in the name of Mel Barnes; a cursory examination showed me it was a fake. Some business cards in the Johnny Balfour name, probably faked too, although I didn’t know how he’d managed the confirmation I’d gotten from the firm’s personnel department; maybe he had been hired by them. Anyway, I’d see the wallet got to the Sheriff without any trace back to me. Maybe he could find out who the man really was; I sure hadn’t, up to now.
I sacked out, leaving the connecting door open. I woke before five and checked on Dina. She hadn’t moved since I’d helped her to bed. I showered as best I could without wetting the bandages on my back, had the thought while trimming my beard that I’d save time by simply shaving it off, and dressed. Then I left the room and the hotel.
Finding a public phone a couple of blocks over, I dialed a number. It was answered on the first ring.
“Plumas County Sheriff’s Office. Dispatcher.”
“Listen. I’ll only say this once.” I was doing what little I could to disguise my voice, slowing my speech, drawling a bit. “A man’s been killed at an old mine, East Slope Seventeen.” I’d seen the name on a sign above a door at the site. I gave sketchy directions to reach the location.
The dispatcher was attempting to interrupt before I’d finished. “Who is this? Your name and location, please.”
“You don’t know?” And when he said, “No,” I said, “Good,” and hung up.