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Stamp Mill Murder: first three chapters


Charlie Chaplin leaned his arm out the open window of the truck. “And then, supposedly while I’m distracted, I reach into the workman’s lunch bucket and grab a long coil of bologna. I salt one end and almost take a bite … and it turns out to be a snake. Get it? I had the snake charmer’s lunch bucket.” His laughter filled the tiny cab of the 1926 Ford Model TT truck as it hurtled along the narrow dirt road on the Montana mountainside.

His companion in the truck, its very capable driver, moonshiner Delores Bailey, looked over at the dapper little gent with his heavy mustache and his small round bowler hat perched on wild hair, and rolled her eyes.

“Really? Come on … you really didn’t know there was a snake in the bucket?”

“Of course I did. But not knowing was the gag. I was acting surprised. We’d already shot that little scene five times and had to do it again a dozen times more. With all the time we wasted, thank goodness we were working with Hollywood extras and not the expensive talent.”

The truck jolted over the rough road, and the bottles of moonshine under the tarp in the back of the truck rattled. Delores flinched. A gunshot wound in her shoulder from a few weeks ago still smarted, and the pain reminded her of Johnny, the man who had broken her heart.

“Broke your heart? What about trying to kill you?” Charlie asked.

Delores sighed. The problem with an imaginary friend was they were always in your head. What she wouldn’t give sometimes for a few private thoughts.

She rolled her shoulder, looking for a comfortable spot. “I’ve been shot at before. That’s nothing new. But Johnny betrayed me. And killed Pete. That’s worse. A lot worse.”

“You’ve been betrayed before as well. That’s not new, either. What a—”

The truck struck another rut.

“Ouf! Keep your eyes on the road. We’ll lose a tire if you’re not careful,” Charlie said, clutching his bowler hat to his head.

A large white wolf riding in the truck bed along with the moonshine lifted his head from his paws, and his startling blue eyes glared at Delores through the rear window. She grimaced an apology. “Sorry, Lash.”

Lash was an important member of the team. And if it hadn’t been for Lash showing up when he did, first on the road outta town when she was being set up for Pete’s murder, and then in the woods out at Pete’s claim site, she wouldn’t be here on this godforsaken road in the backwoods of Montana.

Which was exactly where she wanted to be.

Even if she had to take a bullet to realize it.

And it was all thanks to her wonder wolf, Lash. He was some kind of special, all right. Her own guardian angel, although why she deserved a guardian angel was beyond her. He’d given up his own wildness to stick by her. And it’s not every day that a gal has a wolf as a champion. She owed him a lot.

She eased up on the gas.

“That’s better,” Charlie said.

She turned her attention back to the road. “Snakes have extras?” Delores asked, working to keep the truck away from the deeper ruts.
Charlie looked at her like she was a backcountry moonshiner that had never been to Hollywood, which was all true. “Yes, everyone has an extra in Hollywood, including the snakes. The ones I almost ate during rehearsals were local. The talent—at $50 a day, I might add—were from Texas.”

Delores gasped. “You paid $50 a day for a couple of snakes to star in The Circus?”

“Hardly ‘star,’ my dear. There is only ever one star in a Charlie Chaplin movie.” Charlie sniffed and wiggled his eyebrows. “You should have read your latest issue of Variety magazine more closely. They’re giving The Circus a ton of ink. When it gets released next year, the box office is going to go boffo.”

“What I wouldn’t do for fifty bucks a day.” She lurched forward, gripping the wheel of the truck as it struck another darn rut. “I’d fix the goshdarn brakes in this heap, for one thing.”

“You only really need them when you’re going down the mountain,” he quipped.

They slowed to hug the turn, one side of the narrow road a rugged wall of rock, the other side disappearing over the steep precipice. Towering treetops from the gorge below were eye level, and Delores’s shoulders tightened as she clenched the steering wheel. “Shows how much you know about driving,” she said through gritted teeth.

Charlie tipped his little hat. “I know what you know, my dear. Imaginary friends are like that.”

Delores risked taking her eyes off the road and flashed him a grin. She and Charlie had been hanging around together since she was a lonely little girl sneaking into the movie palaces in Philadelphia in search of a place to escape her brutal family for a few hours. The Baileys were notorious but small-time mobsters, keeping the thirsty folks in Prohibition-era Philly craving more of their homemade moonshine and bootleg whiskey.

Having Charlie to talk to helped her get through the lonely times back in Philly and the long trip west on her own. In the women’s magazines, women were supposed to look for men who made them laugh as a sign they were meant to be together. Well, Charlie made her laugh like nobody else did. It was the closest thing she had to feeling like a kid again. Or at least what a kid was supposed to feel like. Happy. Silly. Cared for.

After all these years, having him in her head was a hard habit to break, even now in Pony Gulch, Montana.

“You should get Stanley to check out the electrical while he’s at it. When it’s damp, the lights won’t work and the truck won’t start,” he said.

“Sure. But we made it through the spring rains. Brakes gotta come first.”

“You can’t drive in the dark, my dear.”

She shrugged. “True enough.” She made a mental note to get a bigger savings jar. There was a glass sealer jar labeled Truck Repairs that sat on the counter in the kitchen, but it obviously wasn’t big enough. She’d have to move up from the pint to the quart.

Delores had been able to pick up the almost brand-new truck for a song—and a couple of crates of ’shine—almost as soon as she’d moved to Pony Gulch. Stanley’s bad luck at farming and cards had turned into her good luck when he’d been forced to sell off the Model TT truck to keep his bankers happy. But a year later, the heavy loads of moonshine she carried and the rough roads she carried them over had taken their toll on her truck’s brakes. They’d been soft when she’d bought it and were getting worse with every mountainous mile.

And Lord only knows what was wrong with the battery. Stanley thought there might be a short somewhere in the wiring. An older model Ford wouldn’t have this problem … a good hand crank and the engine would turn over. These new-fangled improvements like the starter button on the floor were a headache.

She and Stanley bartered truck repairs for moonshine, a good deal for everyone all ’round. Like most farmers, Stanley had a knack for machinery repair and was happy to drown his agricultural sorrows in a bottle or two of her best. But she knew she was driving on borrowed time. And Charlie was right. A brake failure going down the side of Tobacco Root Mountain would be bad news.

“How much farther?” Charlie asked.

Delores rolled down her window and slowed the truck to listen. “I can’t hear anything, so a while yet. The stamps at the mill kick up quite a ruckus. You can hear them pounding a good twenty miles away.”
Charlie glanced out at the rugged mountains surrounding them. “There’s gold in them thar hills,” he said, quoting from his movie, The Gold Rush.

“There’s also competition in them thar hills,” Delores said. She’d had to make her point—forcefully—when she and her business had been challenged by the moonshiners from over in Mammoth last month. It had been a loud warning about the threat of competition that she had heeded.

Outlawing the manufacture and sale of liquor during Prohibition had resulted in unintended consequences in America. Mobster rule had taken over everything to do with booze, making it a dangerous business and one that Delores’s family of thieves, smugglers, and moonshiners thrived in. She was more comfortable up at her still than in town and could handle a gun better than a scrub board or any of the domestic gadgets other women found so compelling.

Delores’s tummy gave a rumble to remind her she’d missed lunch, and her fingers rooted around in the paper bag on the seat beside her. She pulled out half of the cheese sandwich she’d made earlier that morning.

They drove on, Delores enjoying the scenery and the food. From far away, she was making out the rumble of the stamp mill’s heavy iron mallets crushing the ore.

It was a beautiful, sunny July afternoon, and the blue sky above Montana’s thick pine forests and snowy mountaintops was as big as advertised on the travel posters that drew her to this remote place. Delores had fled to Montana when she was just sixteen, one step ahead of the law and a pair of vengeful brothers set on revenge. She’d thwarted their chance to take out Philadelphia’s powerful King of the Bootleggers, and everybody knew what happened to snitches and backstabbers—even if they were family.

A year later, she’d translated her family’s recipes for moonshine into a successful business, running her ’shine out to the numerous mining camps and ore-crushing mills that surrounded her new home of Pony Gulch.

A large bump drove the air out of her lungs. “Ouff.”

“Slow down, my dear. I’m not sure all this agitation is good for the inventory.”

Through the rear-view mirror mounted on the side of the truck, Delores checked out the truck bed. Moonshine was an explosive product, so it was a good thing she knew what she was doing. Her ’shine had been fermented properly and wasn’t likely to blow up.

“It’ll be fine.”

In the distance, Delores could easily make out the booming of the stamp mill. As they drove, it grew louder, and above the trees she could see a cloudy haze from the ore dust.

“Almost there,” she told Charlie.

The Morris family, who owned the Strawberry mine and several others, had set up the twenty-stamp mill about thirty years ago to crush the chunks of gold-rich quartz their miners were pulling out of the many mine shafts that riddled the Mineral Hill mining district. The mill ran day and night, the heavy iron stamps weighing almost a thousand pounds, each falling onto the rock with a relentless inevitability.

With thirty men on a shift at the mill, it was an important stop on Delores’s regular delivery route. She tried to time her arrival to the shift change so that she could double the size of her customer base.

Unfortunately, today she was running early because of a lighter delivery at the Whip-Poor-Will mine at the stop before this one.

“Us being early… That going to be a problem?” Charlie asked.

Delores shrugged, eyeing the wilderness around her. “It isn’t like I got anywhere else to go to pass the time.”

She slowed and followed the road, heading toward the thunderous pounding. Between the dynamite in the mines and the cacophony of the ore-crushing stamp mills, Delores could understand why most of the men in this part of Montana were as deaf as posts.

Towering above her as she drove onto the site was the twenty-stamp mill, four stories of industry crawling up the side of the mountain. The mill relied on gravity to keep the ore moving, from the boulders that were dumped into the top of the mill, through the crushing process that was generating the booming thunder, to the finished product of low-grade gold that was scrapped off the amalgamation tables on the lowest level and shipped off for further processing.

Riding the tramway that ran down from the mine half a mile away was a string of ore cars pulled by a small steam engine. The track floated high above a gorge behind the mill. Delores shuddered at the sight of the ribbons of rails on post and beam supports looking like a massive spider’s web or the cat’s-cradle game children played with string wrapped around their fingers.

She parked under some trees for shade from the sun and whipped off the tarp covering the crates of her moonshine. She ran a rag quickly over the tops of the bottles to try to take off some of the road dust and began sliding the wooden crates for the Strawberry Mill’s orders to the edge of the truck bed. Men began to crowd around the back end of the truck, eager to buy a bit of release from the gritty, back-breaking labor of the mill.

The workers, their faces black with machinery oil and grease mixed with ore dust, shouted and jostled to be at the front of the crowd. The large white wolf, which had been riding in the back of the truck, stood and growled, hackles raised, until they formed an orderly line.

“Settle, Lash. They’re paying customers,” she said, pulling her order book from the bib pocket of her overalls. On busy days like this, Delores wished she had an extra pair of hands. Juggling the orders, the ’shine, and the men was almost getting to be more than a wee slip of a thing like her could manage.

“It’s like he knows what’s going on,” one of the mill workers said as he paid for his bottle of moonshine.

The fellas waiting behind him gave his shoulder a nudge. “Of course he does. That’s the wolf that saved the sheriff’s life. Ain’t you heard about him? He can read yer mind if yer not careful.”

Delores chuckled. Yup, some kind of special.

She was negotiating with one of the mill workers when she heard a growl and a snap behind her. Whirling, she was just in time to see a dirty arm and hand that must have reached over the side of the truck drop the bottle of moonshine it had been holding and pull back amidst a flurry of cursing. The regulars gathered around all laughed. They were used to the wolf and kept their distance.

Delores grinned. “Good boy, Lash. Keep ’em honest.” She pointed her pencil at the worker and snarled. “Try that again, Tony, and you’ll pull back a stump.”

“Sorry, Delores, just thirsty,” Tony said, cradling his arm.

“Like the rest of these fellas aren’t? I’m thinking that you’ll have to come back my next trip to pick up your ’shine.”


“I don’t take kindly to line-jumpers or thieves. Take off and maybe—just maybe—I’ll have a bottle for you next time.”

“Why, you—” Tony stepped up to Delores.

“You have anything more to say and I’ll make sure you never get another drop of ’shine outta me again. Now, git.”

Lash let out a low, rumbling growl to underscore her point, and Tony slunk off, empty hands jammed deep into his pockets, muttering. The rest of the men shuffled aside to let him pass. They didn’t want any of his stank to stick to them. Moonshine was too precious.

Delores might only be seventeen, but her reputation as a cranky but honest broker was well established. Because she traveled out to the camps, her word was law—if you wanted to taste the oblivion in the bottles she was selling. And in Montana’s backwoods, what fella didn’t?

The negotiations at the back of the truck settled into a normal pattern. Most workers ordered ahead from one delivery run to the next. They knew they could rely on Delores to show up every week, same time, same place, same ’shine.

Crumpled bills and dirty coins were exchanged for a bottle or two, and then the next man in line stepped up. A few tried to flirt—women were as rare as moonshine in these parts, and a few tried to bluster—but Delores was above it. Her job was to sell the moonshine as quickly as possible and get back on the road to the next camp. She didn’t have time for socializing. She let her moonshine do the talking.

The banter and noise from the men died away, and Delores looked up from her order book. Another low, rumbling growl churned at the base of Lash’s throat.

“Oh, great.”

Mr. Dawes, the mill superintendent himself, was striding down from the mill toward her. He was the only man in a suit for miles around, and he looked none to pleased to see her there.

He was shouting over the boom of the stamps as they crushed the ore. “Hey. You.”

That alone would have gotten Delores’s back up. She’d been coming out here for a year now. It wasn’t like he didn’t know her name.

“Throwing his weight around. Trying to put me in my place,” she muttered to the wolf.

“You. Girl,” he said, pointing at her. “Close it down. You’re not supposed to be here in the middle of a shift. The men don’t have time for this.” The men, heads down and hands stuffed into pockets, shuffled nervously under his glare. As the mill superintendent, Dawes was next to God around there, but dang—it was moonshine.

Delores pushed past the customer she was dealing with and stepped up to Dawes. She was shorter by more than a few inches, but she filled the space. Shrinking violets didn’t last long in the Bailey family, or they got crushed underfoot.

“Don’t get your knickers in a knot, Mr. Dawes. I know I’m running early. But we’re almost done here, and then I’ll be on my way.”

“Pack it up. Now. You know better. Between shifts only. You can sit here and wait until then.” Whirling around to face the men, he barked, “We have quotas to keep. Back to work the lot of you or I’ll be docking your pay.”

Delores did a mental count of the orders left to deliver as she watched her crowd begin to drift back to the mill with their money still firmly in the bottom of their pockets.

Damn. This is really going to cost me. The Strawberry Mill was only one of the many mining properties owned by the Morris family. She had her deliveries at the Strawberry mine itself, as well as the other Morris-controlled mines like the Ned, Willow Creek, Clipper, and Tweed mines to consider. Delores couldn’t afford to get on Dawes’s bad side, or it could really bite into her sales.

Delores stood firm. “You can’t shut me down.” But inside, her stomach was in knots. She didn’t know how far she could push Dawes, and there had been that trouble with other moonshiners from Mammoth last month, trying to move into her territory. No way could she afford to get pushed aside at the Morris mines and leave all that moonshine money to her rivals.

Nope. She couldn’t afford to tick off Dawes. She was going to have to leave.

“You want to sell to the men, moonshiner, you do it on my terms.” His eyes narrowed as he glared at her. “And I want you out of here. Now.”
They were at an impasse. A few more men peeled away from the back of the line and began a slow shuffle up to the mill.

She did another quick calculation of how full the “Truck Repairs” sealer jar was. Not even close.

From inside the truck, Charlie yelled to her, “Ignore the jackass in front of you and focus on the dream, my dear. We can’t afford to wait around until the next shift. We’ve got the Boss Tweed mine deliveries next, and they have triple the number of customers. We’ll catch these mill workers next week.”

It was a good thing Dawes couldn’t hear anything Charlie was saying.

“Cripes,” she muttered under her breath. “All right. Fine. Whatever you say, Mr. Dawes.” She started shoving crates to the back of the truck bed, her frustration a slow burn in her belly.

Delores saw Dawes hesitate, and her hopes went up.

“You know, your being early has caused me some inconvenience, moonshiner. I had to walk all the way down here from my office, and you can be sure I have better things to do.”

Delores turned back to the crates. Just one more lecture. “I’ll time it better next time,” she said over her shoulder as she began loading her crates for the trip to Boss Tweed.

And it was a good thing Dawes couldn’t hear the cursing that was blasting in her brain.

Beside her, Lash’s hackles were up, but he hadn’t yet curled back his lip to bare fangs. “Easy, boy. We’re going,” she said under her breath.

“Make sure that you do. And to atone for the trouble you’ve caused me, I’ll take some of that chokecherry liqueur, if you’ve got it. Mrs. Dawes is partial to it over ice in this heat.”

Delores bit down hard to keep from snapping back. She shoved Lash aside so she could hop up into the back of the truck. She always tucked a few bottles of the popular cordial away, just in case of a sale. Giving it away was going to hurt, but heck—she’d put it down to the cost of doing business.

She was turning to hand the bottle to Mr. Dawes when a shrill steam whistle pierced the air.

As one, everyone turned to look at the mill. Four sharp blasts split the air again, and the men began running back to the building. A few workers appeared at the entrance, waving their arms and shouting.

Delores couldn’t tell what they were saying over the pounding stamps, but they were clearly upset. Something was very wrong.



Dawes turned away from the bottle of chokecherry liqueur Delores was holding out to him and hurried after the men now streaming into the mill.

Lash howled at the next sharp blast, and Delores hopped down to follow the crowd, pulled by the urgency of the whistle’s scream and curious about what would warrant it.

Arriving at the door, she peered past the sweat-stained, filthy backs of the men in front of her into the dusty gloom inside the mill. Something was catching their attention, and a few were gesturing upward. This close, the thunder of the pounding iron stamps was a physical thing, pushing against her. Delores could feel the vibrations rumble right through her. Unconsciously, she shifted her legs and planted her feet more firmly in an effort to keep upright.

Covering her ears, she craned her head up to see what the men were pointing at. It was her first time inside the mill, and it took a moment to sort out what she was looking at. Everything was massive—oversized—and she felt dwarfed.

Above her, heavy timbers braced the giant sheave wheels that towered twenty feet above the main floor of the cavernous space.
The wheels turned, powering camshafts that drove massive iron poles that were the stamps. The bottom of each stamp was encased in more iron, forming a heavy shoe. It could easily weigh a thousand pounds as it dropped down onto the ore, and there were a hundred of the beasts moving up and down, up and down.

Delores felt like she was standing in front of the giant hammers of an ancient god. The entire building seemed to shake at the relentless rhythm that pulverized the rocks beneath them to dust.

Over the booming of the stamps, from far above she could hear the thunder of boulders being dumped from ore cars that ran along the tramway from the distant mine. Large rocks fell through the hole in the ceiling onto a shaking metal conveyor belt. Small rock shifted through the grates and disappeared into the mouth of a large wooden bin, while larger rocks were carried along the metal belt to a grinder to be broken into smaller pieces.

As Delores looked up, grit and dust filtered down from the massive machinery.

There was the roar of grinding and crushing overhead, but all Delores could see were rocks now the size of grapefruits falling through wooden chutes or hoppers into wooden troughs that ran underneath the ore bins. The rolling avalanche of rock was carried down through the troughs to the base of the pounding stamps to be crushed. The mill relied on gravity to supplement the power of the sheave wheels.
Through the dust, Delores could see the rocks on the metal conveyor belt below the chutes glisten. And the wooden troughs above the stamps were dripping.

Everything coming down from above was dark. And wet.


The mill workers crowded in front of Delores, where something splattered as a stamp drove into it. Gore covered those closest to the stamps, and they leaped back, yelling. From somewhere close by came the sour smell of vomit. As she pushed closer, she could see pulverized rock mixed with mangled body parts and floods of blood.
Delores gagged, refusing to puke in front of the men. So much blood.
There were cries of “shut the mill down” over the roar of the crushing stamps. Two quick blasts of the steam whistle, followed by a long burst, caused a scramble on the catwalk near the top of the stamps as heavy iron keys were fitted into the gears to stop the stamps’ relentless pummeling.

The mill shuddered to a stop, and unfamiliar silence bounced around the massive machinery.

Delores watched the ugly, wet stain spread through the bottom of the ore chute. Her stomach lurched.

“Hell, it’s raining blood,” the man next to her cried.

“Look at them challenge feeders … they’re soaked through,” said another voice behind her, pointing to the sloped wooden troughs that carried the rock to the base of the stamps.

“Is that a hand?” The question was accompanied by the sound of retching.

The stamps’ heavy iron shoes were covered in carnage, having performed their merciless work well.

Everyone shuffled back and looked up. Somewhere above them, something had been slaughtered.

The crowd surrounding Delores buzzed to life. “They ain’t never shut down the mill before.” “Something bad musta happened.” “Remember the time Davidson took a tumble? Lost his arm, but they didn’t shut down the mill.” “Well, they’re shutting it down now, ain’t they?”
Delores wasn’t part of the mill, but it was part of her world. She’d never known them to shut down the mill before, except for regular maintenance during the winter when the mine slowed down. Time was money, and the pursuit of profits was as relentless as the stamps crushing the ore. Nobody got paid if the mill was shut down.

Cries of “what is it” were swiftly replaced by “who was it?”

Mr. Dawes started climbing the wooden stairs leading past the massive sheave wheels, upward past the tops of the stamps, higher yet past the staring men on the catwalk, even past the dripping challenge feeders.

Upward he climbed past the bottom of the ore bin to the very top of the towering mill, followed by a parade of some of the men. They disappeared through an open hatch door leading to the delivery floor.
The mill workers gathered around her shuffled restlessly, waiting for answers. She recognized many of their faces as regular customers who had been out by her truck before the whistle blew. In addition to the men on the stamp floor, there were likely men up top where the ore came in off the tramway from the mine, as well as a man or two monitoring the immense jaws of the ore crusher as it ground the large pieces of rock the size of pumpkins into smaller apple-sized chunks.
Everyone was keen to figure out what had happened. Names were pitched back and forth across the floor, up and down the staircase, trying to pin down who was there and who was missing.

As missing men were found, there was back-slapping and giddy relief. Heads craned upward, staring where the staircase disappeared through the hatch. A couple of men began to climb, impatient to know what was going on. The names of men still missing were shouted up after them.

Her eyes followed the course of the ore. Everything above her seemed soaked in blood. Her skin felt cold and clammy. It was a grisly reminder of Pete’s cabin when she’d found his body. Blood had soaked into the floorboards. There had been that same sweet smell in the air. It got stuck up her nose, buried deep in her brain.

Pete. Johnny. Her father shot in the back. A target on her lover Mickey and the carnage on the streets in Philly that followed after her brothers had let loose with tommy guns. Violence seemed to have knitted itself into her soul.

And she was tired of it. Not again. All I want is to make and sell moonshine. Is that too much to ask? What do I have to do to shake Death off my coattails?

Delores felt a shiver run down her spine, and she glanced around the mill, looking for a distraction. Although it was hard, given the fat red drops that were falling from the machinery.

A few of the workers leaned against the timbers and equipment, smoking. Not the most ideal circumstances, but a break was a break. Accidents happened. Not usually so gruesome or spectacular, but heck, a man’s gotta take the opportunities he’s given.

From above, Delores could hear shouting. The crowd around her listened intently, straining in their deafness to make out what was being yelled. It was someone shouting for the sheriff.

From the blood and gore, bringing out the doctor would likely be a lost cause. But calling for the sheriff? Well, that meant something else entirely.

Through the chaos and confusion, information emerged. “It’s McKenzie.” “Looks like he fell into the ore-bin.” “Tripped, most likely.” The men looked around at each other. Under the grit and grime, they were pale with guilt but giddy with relief. Fate’s grisly claw had passed over them, for today at least.

An order was shouted down from above. “Hey, Reed. Get up here.” A man on the catwalk next to a wheel began to climb the stairs.

“The shift boss. Checking out the body. He’ll know who it is.” “Can’t imagine there’d be much left to identify.” “What’s happening?”

Jerrod Reed came back down the wooden stairs. He was holding a hat and looked grim.

“What’s he got?” “Ain’t that McKenzie’s hat?” “Looks like Neville’s fancy one he picked up back east.” “You bet it is. I saw him wearing it earlier.”

Delores rubbed the back of her neck, cricked from staring upward.
Neville McKenzie. The name was familiar. Not from the ’shine she sold at the mill, but she recognized him as someone who lived—had lived, if it were true—in Pony Gulch. It was a small town, and everybody knew everybody. And everybody’s business.

Now she understood why they’d shut down the mill. And why they’d called for the sheriff. Neville wasn’t just a worker. He was special. He was the owner’s son-in-law. And now he was soup.


With the grisly scene and all the memories it dredged up fresh in her mind, Delores stumbled out of the mill building. Lash was waiting on the path where her truck was parked, his plumed tail waving as he caught sight of her. She kneeled down to greet him; her shaking hands burrowed down deep into the soft fur around his neck. Feelings of comfort and security radiated up her arm and buried into her soul.
She could feel the steady rhythm of his beating heart next to her cheek, and her own heart slowed. The rise and fall of his chest as he breathed dulled the horrors that made her tremble, and she stopped gulping for air. The warmth of the wolf’s body warmed her. It would be okay.

“Whatcha doing out of the truck, boy? Although I’m glad to see you. It’s a real mess in there, but you and that nose of yours know that already, don’t you?”

Delores shook her head as she hopped up into the cab. As she gave a quick glance in the mirror to make sure that Lash was settled in the back, she unscrewed the top of a sealer jar she’d filled with water, rinsing her mouth and spitting it out the open window. She took another deep guzzle, washing down the dust and grime of the mill.

“Are we going to stick around and finish the sales?” Charlie asked.

“Nobody’s gonna come out of the mill until they figure out what’s going on.” Her hands were shaking as she started the truck. They were quickly on their way again. The next stop was the Boss Tweed and Clipper mines and the rest of their deliveries for the day. Delores wanted to put as many miles as she could between her life and the bloody scene behind her.

“How bad was it?” Charlie asked from the corner of the cab.

“Pretty bad. Looked like a slaughterhouse in there. They’re thinking it’s Neville McKenzie. He’s missing.”

“McKenzie? The one married to that horrible Morris woman? She and that brother of hers own the mill, don’t they?”

Delores nodded. “Yup. Now she’s Edna McKenzie and not one of my biggest fans. Nothing but rainbows and daisies flow out of her mouth when she’s talking about me … which she does with regularity. Lucie knows her.”

Charlie nodded. “What happened to him?”

Delores shuddered at the memory of the blood. “Looks like he fell into the ore bin from up top of the mill. Would have been buried under the rock the tram cars were dumping.”

Charlie’s mouth under his square mustache was a perfect ‘O’.

“I know. Grisly, right? The ore crusher would have chewed him into little pieces. And then the stamps made short work of whatever was left.” Delores’s stomach twisted, and she grabbed the lunch bag with its lingering food smells and shoved it far away under the seat.

“Jeez. That’s a horrible way to go. There’s some real potential in it, though. Do you think we could use it in a movie? I can just see it… I’m dumped out of an ore cart with a few tons of rocks and then climb out to wander through the mill—dirt in my eyes, maybe? Avoiding the thousand-pound stampers by fractions of an inch. Then I dust myself off and casually walk away twirling the cane.”


“Sorry. Occupational hazard. Was it a bad accident?”
Delores shrugged. “Hard to say. They’ve called for the sheriff.”

“Ah. The capable Sheriff Sam Browne rides to the rescue. Again.”

Delores slid a look over at Charlie. “He’s okay.”

“Plays a mean hand of poker, which tells you all you need to know about the man,” Charlie said with a wink.

They came to the main road and turned toward the next set of mining camps. Delores down-shifted as the truck groaned under the weight of the moonshine, climbing higher up the mountain.

“Were you able to sell most of it?”

Delores did a quick mental tally. “Got through about half of the order before Dawes showed up. What a jerk. Tried to shut me down.”

“If you don’t stand your ground, people like him will push you backward.”

“I’m tired of flinching. That was part of the reason we skedaddled outta Philly.”

Charlie nodded wisely. “I remember.”

They hadn’t gone far when the truck shuddered through some washboard ruts and Delores did a quick check in the rear-view mirror to make sure everything in the back was secure.

Charlie settled his hat. “That’s new.”

“Musta been because of the rain last week. We’ll need to remember that when we’re heading back. I wouldn’t want to go over it at speed. This old truck would shake its last bolt loose.”

“When are you going to take it over to Stanley so he can have a look at the brakes?”

Delores was about to answer when she became distracted by a splash of color on the road ahead.

“What the…?”

It looked like a woman and a small girl at the side of the road. Way out in the middle of nowhere. Dressed like they were waiting for the train. There was even a suitcase. Delores shook her head—it was a day full of surprises.

She slowed the truck.

“That’s Grace Reed and that girl of hers,” Charlie said, pointing with his cane.

“Evie. The little girl’s name is Evie.”

“What are they doing way out here?” Charlie asked as he peered out the front window.

A flash of guilt rolled through Delores. She’d first met Grace and her daughter on an outing with Lucie. Even then, the evidence of the rough home life the pair endured had been evident, and while she’d meant to keep an eye on them, other things had gotten in the way—like Doc digging a bullet out of her shoulder—and, well, she’d put off making the time.

Delores swallowed the regret and stopped the truck, pulling hard on the parking brake. Hopefully, it would hold. The way the truck’s brakes had been working, she didn’t want to slide backward down the mountain. She leaned out the open window to talk.

“Mrs. Reed. You’re far from home. Everything all right?”

Delores caught a quick look at a fresh bruise on the side of Grace’s face before it was hidden under the brim of her hat.

Grace Reed looked up and down the empty road as if whatever they were waiting for would suddenly appear out of the vast wilderness that surrounded them.

Where the heck is the woman going? And imagine hauling her little girl along with her.

“We were, ah … waiting for … ah … a friend. He promised us a lift,” Mrs. Reed said.

Delores also looked up and down the empty road.

Mrs. Reed followed her gaze. “But he’s late. We were expecting him hours ago.”

Delores picked up on the hesitation after the word “friend.” And the “he.” Women like Grace Reed didn’t go meeting men out in the wilderness of Montana with a packed suitcase and a child in tow without trouble behind them.

“You couldn’t have walked from town. It’s miles from here,” Delores persisted, trying to make sense of the situation.

“We hitched a ride.”

“And they dropped you off here?” Delores asked, frowning. “In the middle of nowhere?”

A flash of white in the mirror, and Lash had hopped down from the truck bed.

Grace shrieked, grabbing her daughter close.

Delores shut off the truck and flung open the door, jumping out, putting herself between Grace and her little girl and Lash. “It’s okay. He’s pretty tame. He won’t bite.”

The small girl, her long blonde curls gathered up in a pale blue bow, pulled away from her mother.

“I remember. He’s a wolf, Mama. We met you before. With Miss Santoro.”

Delores held out her hand to Grace Reed. “Bailey. Delores Bailey. I live in Pony Gulch.”

Grace gave a small nod. “I remember meeting you, and I’ve seen you around town.”

Lash circled around the pair, sniffed the suitcase, and sat down beside the little girl. Delores was reminded of all the fairy tales about forests, lost youngsters, and enormous wolves. It rarely ended well. A quick look at the little girl’s mother and Delores could see she was thinking similar thoughts.

Her gaze traveled to the suitcase and then back to Grace.

Grace noticed. “We are going to visit my, um, my sister. And a friend was giving us a lift.”

Delores nodded. Sisters were a convenient destination. She’d told that fib herself when she’d been questioned during the mad dash outta Philly.

Grace looked about ready to faint as she watched her small daughter and the white wolf.

“Really. He’s fine. You can pet him if you like, Evie. Nice and gentle. Mrs. Reed, would you like to sit down in my truck for a minute? I have some water on the front seat.”

Flustered, Grace looked at her daughter, arms wrapped around Lash’s neck, her face inches from his sizeable teeth. Lash was basking under the attention.

“Lash is very gentle. And he loves children,” Delores reassured her as she coaxed the mother toward the open driver’s door.

Delores took Grace and helped her up onto the seat, tucking her in sideways behind the wheel. She reached around her to grab the sealer jar of water. “I have a bit of my lunch left over if you’d like to eat something.”

“Thank you. No, this is fine.” Grace took a dainty sip. Her eyes never left her daughter.

“So, you are waiting for a friend. He works at one of the mines?”

Delores’s curiosity was never far from the surface. And it wasn’t in her nature to pretend anything about the situation was normal.

Grace held out the jar of water. “Evie, sweetheart. Come have a drink of water. And say thank-you to Miss Bailey.” Evie reluctantly abandoned her adoration of the wolf and came over to the truck, taking the bottle. Lash looked bereft and followed.

“I really like your wolf, Miss Bailey. Does he do any tricks? Can he hunt in the woods? Does he sleep inside? What does he eat?” The questions were fired quick, like a Gatling gun, between sips of water.
Delores chuckled at Evie’s spunk. She might be out in the middle of nowhere, but unlike her mother, she seemed to be enjoying the adventure.

“Sometimes he lives in the woods, but mostly he hangs around me. Don’t you, Lash?” Delores reached over to give the large white wolf a pat.

“Ooh, he has a name now. He didn’t when we met him before. Lash. Lash. Lash,” she repeated in a sing-song voice, handing the water back to her mother so she could swoop down for another nuzzle into the wolf’s neck.

From deep in his fur, Evie said, “You should have called him Snowball because of his white fur.”

“Hmm. I don’t think he looks like a Snowball. That sounds more like a cat’s name. Maybe Blizzard? But Lash suits him, and he seems to like it.”

“We really mustn’t keep you. You’re working. And I’m sure my friend will be along shortly,” Grace said.

Delores looked up and down the empty road. And then at the cargo in the back of the truck destined for the next delivery at the Boss Tweed Mine.

Evie peered at Delores over the back of the wolf. “Why does he hang around you?”

Delores laughed. She recognized the relentless curiosity. “He keeps an eye on things when I’m working. And he, ah, he guards things. He’s very strong. And I give him cheese.” She tempered her remarks for the girl’s young ears. Moonshining was illegal in Montana, especially during Prohibition.

Lash’s ears perked up at the mention of the treat.

“He wants some right now. Don’t you, Lash? Do you have any cheese I can give him now?” Evie asked.

Delores thought of her sandwich tucked under the seat and how long it was going to be before she finally got her dinner. “Sorry, kiddo. Maybe next time.”

Evie’s shoulders slumped in disappointment. Her little lower lip pouted.

“But you know, Evie. If you find a stick, you can throw it and Lash will bring it back. Won’t you, Lash?” Delores smiled. The wolf appeared to huff in disdain. Evie scrambled to find a suitable stick and moved past the truck to a clear spot on the road to play fetch. With another huff and a shake to settle his ruffled fur, Lash followed.

The two women watched the pair play. Delores turned back to Grace. “Mrs. Reed, I’m not comfortable leaving you out here. How about I run you and Evie over to where your friend is? Something must have delayed him. Or…”

She took another mental look at her inventory, thinking of the potential sales at the mine ahead that might make up for the lost sales at the Strawberry Mill … and the half-empty sealer jar on the counter. She grimaced. “Or I could drive you back to Pony Gulch, and you could make arrangements to travel to your sister’s another day.”

The alarm on Grace’s face was real. “No. I mean, thank you, Miss Bailey. But I can’t show up at his work. And I can’t go back to town.”
Delores snuck another look at where the bruise was hidden behind Grace’s hat brim.

“I could take you to the train station if you like. You can still get to your sister’s.” Delores cast just the smallest emphasis on the last word.
Grace took another look at the deserted road. And then over at Evie. She sighed deeply. “Thank you, but we can’t take the train. I don’t have money for a ticket. And, well, the depot’s in town.” Her shoulders slumped, and Delores was glad the woman was still sitting. Otherwise, she looked like she could have collapsed.

“Well, I can’t leave you here. Is there anyplace else I could take you? Another friend’s, maybe?” Delores offered.

Flustered, Grace blushed. “Really. We should wait. We had arrangements to meet here.” She looked down the empty road.

Delores thought she looked ready to burst into tears.

Delores shook her head. “It’s getting late, and the roads aren’t that well traveled. I suppose there’ll be a few vehicles later on at shift change. A few of the miners and mill workers live somewhere beside the camps.” She cringed at the thought. She wouldn’t want to be picked up by one of those rough-and-ready men—in the middle of nowhere. Alone in the dark except for a small child. “But surely you wouldn’t want Evie out here at night.”

Delores reached out and laid a hand on Grace’s knee. She spoke softly, like she was talking to an injured animal. “Let me take you home. Unless you want to wait here for your husband. Mr. Reed will be finished his shift in a few hours. I’m sure he’ll come this way on his way back to town.”

Grace’s eyes widened at the words. She shook her head.

“Although there’s been some trouble at the mill. It might be longer than usual before he’s heading home.”


“There was an accident. Looks like Neville McKenzie is, ah,” a quick glance at Evie who was out of earshot and busy with the wolf, “I don’t know much more than there was an accident, and he’s missing.”

The bit of color that had crept into Grace’s face fled. “An accident?”

Delores could have kicked herself and hastened to reassure the stricken woman. “Mr. Reed is fine. He wasn’t hurt. I don’t know what happened, Mrs. Reed. But I saw Mr. Reed myself, and he was fine.”

With a shuddering sob, Grace nodded. “Thank you, Miss Bailey. I’d be grateful if you could run Evie and I home. If you’re sure it’s not out of your way.”

Delores sighed and made a mental note about her unsold inventory. She’d have to make the trip up to Boss Tweed and the Clipper mines and maybe finish up the mill’s orders tomorrow. “No problem, Mrs. Reed. I’m happy to do it. You scoot over, and I’ll call Evie and Lash.”

On the trip back to Pony Gulch, Evie sat with her nose pressed to the back window, zeroed in on Lash. Delores was glad the tarp was pulled up over the moonshine and managed to evade all the questions about what was under it.

Evie was quite happy to pepper Delores with questions about the wolf. “Does he have a family?” “Are there puppies?” “They say he flew through the air to save Sheriff Browne. Where are his wings?” “Does he like riding in the back of your truck?” “How fast can he run?” “Does he howl? Does it sound like this?” After a very brief demonstration from Evie of a wolf howling, her mother shushed her.

“How about a cookie? I have a few in the paper bag that’s under the seat,” Delores said.

Checking with her mother, who nodded, Evie bent over to search for the bag, retrieving it with a delighted giggle. “Oohh, there’s half a sandwich in here. Can I have it?”

“Evie, that’s Miss Bailey’s lunch,” her mother said.

Delores glanced at the little girl, her nose buried in the bag. “Help yourself, kid.”

Four bites later, the sandwich was gone.

“And there are two cookies left.” Evie lifted out the chocolate chip cookies and showed her prize to the two adults. “Can I have both?”

“Evie,” her mother warned.

“Sure,” Delores said. A mouth that was full was less likely to talk.
Munching happily on her cookies, Evie made the rest of the trip in silence, staring at Lash out the rear window.

After a few miles, Delores missed the chatter. The silence in the cab of the truck was oppressive. Delores imagined the woman beside her gathering herself to face what might be waiting for her as they grew closer to town.

By the time she pulled up in front of the Reed house, Delores was as exhausted—as much by the silent drama of the mother as she was by the endless chatter of the girl. With deep misgivings, she dropped the pair off. It was certainly better for Jerrod Reed to arrive home to the appearance of normality and the suitcase safely stowed back in the attic or under the bed than for Grace to have to explain herself to him at the side of a deserted mountain road.

However, as Delores drove home, she hoped she’d made the right decision.

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On sale February 22-23-24

Copyright © Sherilyn Decter All rights reserved

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Stamp Mill Murder is a work of historical fiction in which the author has occasionally taken artistic liberties for the sake of the narrative and to provide a sense of authenticity. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, dialogue, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Print ISBN: 978-1-7775151-0-2
EPub ISBN: 978-1-7775151-2-6