GOLD FEVER

PART ONE


FORTUNE, CA.

1853


In a town like Fortune, there's a sucker born every minute. . . .

. . . Not that anyone in their right mind would call Fortune a town. Kindest way to put it would be to call it a collection of tents clustered around a saloon and a church. (No prizes for guessing which of those two is the most popular with the locals.) From a distance, when the grass blows in the wind and the tents blow with it, it looks almost like a sea with a hundred white ships on it. You almost think it's beautiful at times, until you realise there ain't any gold here or in any of the other tent-towns that have sprung up across the West. There ain't gold anywhere.

Daddy never accepted that. God knows he never accepted that. Rain, snow or shine, he worked his claim every day of the year. It didn't even matter if it were Thanksgiving or Christmas. You could find him there from first light until after the sun had set. For ten years, his life was that claim. He didn't care he hadn't found anything bigger than a nugget the size of his fingertip. He always believed the next day would bring the big prize, the one which would make him a millionaire. The claim damn well killed him too. There wasn't no mystery about his death. One day, he dug too deep and forgot to support the tunnel. He was too caught up in gold-fever, too desperate to get rich too quick. Everything collapsed on him. By the time they pulled him out, it was too late. He was dead.

You'd think after that, his daughter would know better. Sad thing is that I love gold as much as daddy did. I might even love it more than he did. I just go about getting it a different way. Let other people scratch away at the earth with spades and pick-axes. Let others pan in water until their bones ache and their fingers are numb. Let others argue over where their claim ends and their neighbour's begins. That ain't the way I want to get rich. I got my own way, and it ain't failed me yet. (Hell, I don't know why I'm being coy about what I do. It ain't like I'm ashamed of it.) I'm a thief, and a damn good one at that.

Do you want to know the trick of being a good thief? It's all about picking your target. In that way, it's a lot like mining. People say you can tell which claim is rich by looking at it, by tasting the soil, by running it through your fingers. You gotta do the same with people. You gotta be able tell which ones are rich and stupid, and which ones ain't. Take that man in the corner. Yeah, that dark-haired man with the fancy, grey suit and the silver pocketwatch he keeps checking every few minutes. He still stinks of the city. He's still used to polite society where people drink tea with their fingers sticking out, eat cucumber sandwiches and say "please, ma'am" and "thank you, ma'am". He ain't even thinking that he might be robbed. Gentlemen ain't robbed where he comes from. Besides, if he's dumb enough to keep flashing his wares, he deserves whatever he gets.

In fact, I think I'll be the one to give it to him. . . .


Nervously, Scott Summers pulled his watch out of his pocket and checked the time. It had just gone nine, and Samuel Guthrie was meant to have been here a half-hour ago to discuss the fist-sized nugget he had found. He hoped the miner had not changed his mind about dealing with them. After the initial rush that had made many men and women into millionaries overnight, good finds were becoming increasingly rare. It had been weeks since he had seen a nugget larger than his fingernail that wasn't fool's good. And it had been months since he had seen one as large as the miner had described in his telegraph.

Replacing the watch, he pulled a copious, red-spotted handkerchief out of his pocket and dabbed his forehead with it. He loved his job and was good at it, but having to visit these tent-towns was a decided disadvantage of working as an agent for Midas Gold. They were always mercilessly hot, and inhabitated by people who looked as if they would shoot you as soon as look at you. No matter whether he were in Fortune or Lucky Digging, he knew there would always be men hunkering at the saloon, unwashed and unshaven, while two-penny whores fluttered around them and cooed like brightly-coloured birds. He shuddered. It was true what Reverand Peace said about being away from civilised society having a degrading effect on the morals of people.

"Looking for a good time, sugah?" a whisky-husky voice drawled from behind him, and he felt a hand trace a line down his back. The smell of a woman's cheap perfume, like artificial violets, hung heavy on the air. He went stiff, brushing off her arm with his one.

"Miss, I must protest. . . ."

"You must protest?"

Before he could move to stop her, the prostitute - for that was the only thing the impossible woman could be - slid onto his lap in a flurry of scarlet silk and lace, and slipped her arms around his neck. Suddenly, Scott found himself staring directly into a pair of eyes that were as deep and green as a summer meadow. Beneath them, across her nose, was a gold-dusting of freckles. Tumbling in loose curls around her shoulder, her hair was chestnut, apart from a white stripe at her forehead, like a streak of iron. This whore was not as young as she looked. Her red-painted lips curved into a slow smile, as he stared at her without a word.

"Like what you see, sugah? You could see more, if you're prepared to pay."

"Please remove yourself from my person, miss. I am a member of the church, and I am not interested in your . . . your wares," he said carefully, enunciating each word.

"Suit yourself."

With the fluidity of molten gold, she slipped off of his lap and sauntered back across the room to her post by the bar. Sweating profusely now, Scott Summers wiped his face with his handkerchief and hoped like crazy that Samuel Guthrie would arrive soon.


Battling to keep a self-satisfied smirk off her face, Kate slipped the wad of bills that she had taken from the city-slicker's pocket down the front of her corset. It rested between her breasts, as soft and as warm as hope. The two-penny whore routine always worked on boys fresh from the city, she thought as she leaned against the bar and turned a sultry smile on the man sitting next to her, who was too drunk to notice or care. That kind of boy was still too afraid of damnation to risk his soul in a brief dalliance with a prostitute, much as he wanted to do so. Miners saw hell every day of their lives, so grew accustomed the the idea of spending their afterlives in the same way.

Casually, she allowed her eyes to drift to the grandfather clock in the saloon's corner. It would look suspicious if she left straight away. She would wait ten minutes, then she would saddle up and ride out of town before the boy realised what had happened to him and who had taken his money. Even then, he might be too embarrassed to admit to the sheriff that he'd had a whore on his lap. It might get back to the preacher, after all, who'd only take it the wrong way.

With a contemptuous snort, she bent down to adjust her stockings. Real prostitutes did that the whole time to flash some ankle or even some calf. Concentrating on making the act seem genuine, she did not notice the man coming up to her until he cleared his throat. Slowly, then, her gaze travelled up his body. Scuffed boots that looked like they'd seen a lot of riding. Faded, dusty Levis tight around legs and cowboy-lean hips. Arms and chest that were slim and muscular, even in a bulky, flannel shirt. And a face that an angel might have damned his soul by envying. Surely, he didn't need to buy a woman?

She put her most dazzling smile on her face in preparation for her refusal: "Sorry, sugah, the shop's closed for the day."

"Ya last customer must've been a big spender, chere," he leaned forward until he was almost close enough to kiss. His voice had an exotic, musical lilt to it that told her as plain as daylight that he was from Lousiana, "Pity he didn't know just how much he paid you. Or that he didn't get anyt'ing in return."

Kate battled to keep her shock from showing on her face. He must have seen her removing the city-slicker's money, but that was impossible. It had taken her seconds to take the bills from his pocket and to palm them. The city-boy himself hadn't known what was happening, so how could this stranger have done so?

He continued: "Dat isn't de best way to conduct business, chere. Good idea to give de customer value for money. Or to refund him."

"Ah don't think that's a good idea, sugah," her smile didn't falter for a second, but, behind her back, her hand closed around an empty whisky-bottle. It felt very cool and solid in her hands. Just as he opened his mouth to reply, she swung it directly at his face. His eyes widened in surprise, but his hand came up to catch hers. The force of her blocked blow vibrated through her body, as she felt his fingers tighten around her wrist, like handcuffs. She growled in fury - she would not be caught and taken to lock-up! - and slammed her knee right between his cowboy-lean hips. She heard him gasp sharply in pain, and felt his grip around her wrist loosen. The second that bought her was enough for her to break free and run towards the doorway, screaming: "STOP HIM! DON'T LET HIM GET ME! HE TRIED TA MAKE ME GO WITH HIM WITHOUT PAYING!"

To her private delight, as he made to follow her, the city-slicker, whose money she had stolen, moved to block his way. His voice was a high treble of disapproval, as he brandished his pocket-handkerchief in his face: "You should be ashamed of herself. She might be a jezebel, but it is not gentlemanly to force any lady against her will. Put up your dukes, sirruh!"

"Ya don't understand . . . ." the Creole tried to explain, but his words were lost in the shouts of the other men who were gathering about him. All of them sounded very angry and very drunk. Some of them were brandishing bottles and bits of wood that had probably been parts of a chair or a table a few minutes ago. She smirked. They didn't give two, tin bits for a prostitute's honour, but a fight was a fight and they made a point of honour of never missing one. From the sidelines, the other whores hissed and jeered. It would be a long time before he was able to follow her, and that assumed he would still be able to walk or ride after they were finished with him. . . .

As Kate strolled out of the door, she paused to glance over her shoulder and blow him a mocking kiss.


Disclaimer: All the characters belong to Marvel, even though these incarnations belong to me. I'm not making two, tin bits off them. This is easily one of the most unusual X-Men fanfictions I have written, but I have always been fascinated by the gold-rush period of US history and have always thought it would be great fun to write a 'fic set in that period. Huge thanks to everyone who read this for me, but especially to Keri for helping me seem less ignorant about US history. All the gaffes are my own. If you would like to see your favourite character in future parts, review if you're on FF.net or e-mail me, and I'll see what I can do. I still need shopkeepers, singers, doctors, whores, miners, and heaven knows what else. ^.^