~~~There's one rule that pretty much always holds true for boomtowns: things are always changing, including the factors that caused the boom in the first place. That was certainly true with Deadwood. In the early days of the town, every small operator had a chance at hitting it big. At first there was plenty of surface gold, wealth that could be found in gravel banks or those natural traps you find in a creek or stream--the places where the water slows, and heavier material--such as flakes and small nuggets of gold--will settle into a crack or under a big rock.
This was what drew so many argonauts in the initial months of the Black Hills Gold Rush: the possibility that a man on his own, or with just a couple of his pards, could stake a claim and work it with pick and shovel and pan, or maybe build a little sluice with riffles to catch the gold. These simple tools, a little bit of good fortune, and a lot of backbreaking work could make a down-on-his-luck mechanic or laborer into a big-spending dandy. But of course, that didn’t last long. Those placer deposits dried up pretty fast. There still was a prodigious amount of the yellow metal to be extracted, but more and more it couldn’t be done by a few men using their picks and pans. It took bigger operators, running underground mines with steam engines driving the machinery, a big investment in equipment and workers, and dynamite (known as Giant powder) and timbers for shoring up the tunnels.
Yes, the gold rush continued, and many of the small time boys grimly held on to their claims trying to make it worth the work...but the real winners now were the big boys--large companies, like the fellows who ran the Father DeSmet mine, or George Hearst and his cronies with the Homestake. Middling sized operators tried to break into the action as well...one company that struggled to do so was Gold Star Mining Company, a firm whose Black Hills operations were overseen by a large bearded man, a mining engineer named Al Husar. Dio didn’t care for any of these big operators. She was mostly indifferent to the gents at the Father de Smet, but she sincerely disliked Al Husar...and she downright loathed George Hearst and his various “lapdogs” as she called them. The idea that the small-time argonauts were being squeezed out, that they were losing their dreams...well, it just sorta pissed her off.
She also didn't like the fact that the competition between these bigger operators was turning into a full-blown conflict. And she wasn’t the only one who felt this way: many of the townspeople were beginning to fear the possibility of a war between some of the firms. Hearst and Gold Star seemed to be particularly close to the precipice. They appeared to be very close to falling into a violent confrontation and most Deadwood folks, Dio included, figured that would be “right bad fer bizness.” When things seemed to be coming to the boiling point, Mayor Silverspar (yes, the same gent who had been shot in the leg by Hawk while working as a bartender at the Bella) had tried to head things off by issuing a decree that none of the mine company security men from either side were allowed within the town limits. This decision put Gold Star at a distinct disadvantage, and in fact, there proved to be severe consequences... as Dio was to find out one chilly fall morning at the California restaurant.
It was early--just past sunrise--but Dio was up, of course. She was already having her breakfast at the California. Estwee, the proprietor of the restaurant--widely regarded by old hands as the best place to eat in town for the money--was having one of her shy days. Estwee had gotten worse about it lately. Sometimes she would just stay in her kitchen, only bringing out big plates of food now and then for her customers to serve themselves from. The regulars always just tossed the coins for payment into a large coffee tin behind the counter, and if any greenhorn tried to get away with not paying or putting his hand in the till, the regulars would take care of him or her in some artistically violent fashion. The boys all loved Miz Estwee and weren’t about to let any worthless drifter or bowlegged chippie skip out on a meal at the California without paying.
Anyhow, this was one of those mornings. Dio had helped herself to a pile of flapjacks and had shouted a “How do, Estwee” back into the kitchen without expecting or receiving any reply.
As she ate, Al Husar ambled in. Dio looked up from her breakfast, scowled slightly, but still nodded and mumbled “good day to you, sir” through her face-full of flapjacks.
Al pulled up a stool right next to Dio, even though the place was deserted except for her, and he could have sat wherever he liked.
“Good morning, Mrs. Kuhr,” he smiled as he seated himself, tipping his bowler hat.
Dio’s scowl got a little more severe, but after a pause she spoke. “I hear tell that you have closed yer office in town..might I ask what's going on?
Al reached over and pulled a biscuit from the basket on the counter. He stared at it thoughtfully as he replied, “Well Ma’am, the new mayor gave me an ultimatum...he wants me to be ending this conflict with Hearst.”
Dio arched an eyebrow. There recently had been an open letter in the paper from Al addressed to Hearst, calling on him to meet with the Gold Star representative and hash things out in a peaceful way.
Finally she commented drily, “Well sir, judging by that letter o’ your’n in the paper, you was already trying to do that...”
Al Husar sighed. “Yes...and not very successfully. Hearst hasn't responded at all...not even a go-fuck-yourself.”
“So I reckon we're gonna have a mine war then?” asked Dio.
“Well Ma’am,” Al shrugged, “I believe the mayor’s intention was to avoid that very situation. He thought he could force us to sit down...work things out. But he told me I wouldn't be able to bring security guards into town until we did so.”
It suddenly dawned on Dio that the security man who usually accompanied Al everywhere he went was not to be seen. She was pretty sure that this was not a good thing.
Al Husar continued, “I can’t get by without that security. You know we just bought the Grubstake mine: I need to protect that, but it’s entrance is in the town limits. Plus we had the office here in town, and the people who work for me...if I am not allowed to protect them, I can't do business here....not with a bastard like Hearst in the mix.”
Dio took a sip of coffee. “I was starting to think you might actually care about this goddam town, Al. Not long ago you had tol’ me you was tryin to fend Hearst off and keep the mine war from happnin’ ‘cuz ye had the interests o’ the town at heart..”
“I do,” answered Al. “This town is my home now....but these people have elected a megalomaniacal fool for a mayor...”
Al smiled. “A feckless turd,” he explained.
Al went on, “I have to protect my people and the company's interests. The mayor gave me no choice. I have to give my people a fighting chance, so I had to pull them out of town...”
Dio blinked. “So you in town without no security right now?”
Dio was increasingly having a feeling that this was not a good thing.
“I had to come in and finish up some business,” said Al. “But shortly, I'll be out at our mines in the countryside...out in the hills. Those are a going concern and I gotta look after ‘em. So I won’t be too far away...if you need me.”
Dio looked offended. “Why in the name o’ Beelzebub's bunghole would I... or we need you?
Al Husar laughed. “You still don't like me, do you Mrs. Kuhr?”
“Well,” Dio answered, “the fact that you was opposing Hearst made me reconsider a spell, but no, with this latest development, I reckon yer jus like every other goddam selfish big bug from some large company who's gonna drive out the small operators sooner or later... and I still don't think yer very goddam smart comin’ to town without yer security shadow...”
Al Husar smiled and shrugged. “Well, Mrs. Kuhr, as my half-uncle used to say, life is dangerous."
Dio suddenly looked at the man with a expression of surprise. That particular phrase had rung a bell deep within her memory.
“Yer half-uncle?” she asked.
Al grinned. “Yes Ma’am. My half-uncle indeed. John Husar.”
“I am suddenly thinkin’ we are speakin’ o’ the same gent...the man what m’ fool of a husband accidentally won in a poker game an’ wound up manumittin’....John...I recollect him saying that purty regular, about life is dangerous...an smilin’ as he said it."
Al nodded. “Yes my father's half-brother was quite the philosopher.”
“Yer pa was ol’ John's half-brother?”
“Yes..funny world isn't it?”
Dio thought that was the understatement of the year.
“You see,” said Al, “on our side of the family...well, my father was the offspring of a union between my grandmother and the master.”
Dio suddenly felt the warm light of comprehension flooding the still sleepy recesses of her brain. “So most of y'all further down the line could pass for white...or creole anyway?”
Al nodded with with an ironic little smile.
“Well, I'll be dammed,” said Dio.
“I doubt it,” answered Al.
Any evidence of dislike had faded from her expression. Dio now had a look of genuine concern. “Dammit I shoulda figgered somethin’ was up here...tain’t a common name at all, Husar. So what ye gonna do now, Al? Just gonna hunker down up in the hills and wait them rascals out?”
Al shook his head. “No, I will keep trying to get a hold of George...I keep sending him messages by different means...different mutual acquaintances.”
As Al Husar made this statement, a young man with long sideburns and wearing an old army sack coat walked into the restaurant.
Both Dio and Al looked up at him. Al nodded to the young man, “Mornin’, sir.”
Dio likewise greeted him, “How do, pard.” She had seen this young man, a former soldier, around town before, though she had not spoken to him much.
The young man touched his hat brim in reply to their greeting and walked up to Al. “Excuse me sir, by any chance are you Mr. Al Husar?” he asked.
Al looked him over a moment and then replied, “Yes...yes I am... what can I do for you?”
The young man looked very serious and announced gravely, “I have an answer to your message....”
“Oh?” replied Al. And as he said this, he turned to take another biscuit from the basket.
While he did so, the young man pulled a Colt Navy from under his sack coat and fired, just inches from the back of Al’s head. As Al slumped forward onto Estwee’s counter, Dio--who had been sitting on the far side of Al from the shooter--was already rolling off her stool and clawing out the big Walker Colt from its holster. The young man re-cocked the Navy and fired a round at the woman in buckskins.
In a flash, he turned and was out the door. He had been told to get in, kill Husar quickly--preferably with one shot at close range--then take care of any witnesses and get the hell out of there as rapidly as was possible.
As he untied his horse from the railing of Miz Estwee’s porch and climbed on to gallop up Main Street, he was thinking he had done a pretty good job of following his employer’s instructions.
to be continued...