A rasping cough racked the room as the old miner pointed toward the corner, his sore-ridden hand trembling with sickness and rage. “Git me the map, woman,” he choked out between spasms. “Time’s short, too short not to be doin’ what needs doin’ b’fore I pass on.”
The boarding house’s landlady, Mrs. Garroway, ignored him and instead wrung out a wet cloth and pressed it to the old man’s forehead. She stroked his head, balding with patches of hair and weeping sores.
Exeter Devonfield watched the scene unfold through a partially open door as he waited to meet with his uncle, the crotchety prospector in the bed. The unlikeable geezer had struck it rich, at least according to Mother. She had received a letter from Uncle Tremont, indicating he was dying and imploring her to visit. Mother was too frail to travel, but Exeter wasn’t about to let a rich uncle die alone. He’d immediately left his Philadelphia law practice in the hands of his partners and set off for Colorado.
“Now, now, Tre. Settle yer self down or you’ll have a conniption,” fussed Mrs. Garroway as she bustled her way over to the portmanteau sitting in the corner. “Your nephew’s barely arrived. I’m sure he wants to inquire as to your well-being and pass along news of your sister before you pass along your inheritance to his care. He seems a right proper gentleman.” She ferreted through the leather case, finally plucking out a folded, yellowed piece of parchment.
The bedridden old man snorted so loudly Mrs. Garroway twisted her head around fast, her eyes wide. Truth told, Exeter wasn’t sure the noise wasn’t his Uncle’s last, gasping breath, or perhaps the conniption fit Mrs. Garroway had feared. “Pass along?” the old man hollered as Mrs. Garroway fetched the paper and placed it in the old man’s still outstretched and trembling hand. “You think I’m gonna pass along this here map to my kin? My family, even my hoity-toity nephew, don’t deserve what they’d git if’n they could find my mine.”
Once the old man’s hand had secured the precious parchment, he snatched it back to his chest, then twisted his frail body in the bed, reaching out with his other hand to the lit candle on the nightstand. He grabbed up the candle awkwardly, bringing it toward his chest as it dripped hot wax over the log cabin quilt covering his body. “I’m dyin’,” the old man declared, his eyes suddenly fierce and fever-bright. “And this here map, she’s dyin’ with me.” He set the candle’s flame to a folded corner of the paper, which burst into flame. The demented prospector chortled with glee as he held the family’s burning inheritance in the air.
Mrs. Garroway faltered backward in shock, but Exeter was a man of action. He threw the door fully open with his left arm as he leapt into the room, diving for the bed … for the map … his right arm fully extended. Though he fell clumsily onto the edge of the bed, he managed to pluck the map from his deranged uncle’s grasp, then twist about on the edge of the bed to plunge just the burning corner of the map into a bowl of water on the nightstand.
“Let it burn,” yelled the old man as he beat at Exeter with hands too feeble to cause any harm. “Let it burn, you fool.”
“I shall do nothing of the sort,” replied Exeter as he removed the now extinguished corner of the parchment from the bowl before it could wick up water and cause even more damage to the mysterious contents of the map.
“Then give it back,” the senile old coot demanded. He opened his fist and stretched out his hand.
“I shall do no such thing,” replied Exeter in a calm voice as he pushed himself off the bed and stood, blotting the wet edge of the map against the fine wool of his jacket. “Mother deserves this, even if you think I do not. It is my duty to protect her interests.”
Mrs. Garroway’s eyes flicked from her sickly charge to Exeter, then to the map, then to the cooling wax on her quilt, and then back again. Finally, she spoke, her voice shaky and tentative: “I dare say, Mr. Devonfield, that paper you hold is your dear Uncle’s property and not in any way your own.” Her voice firmed. “While his choice is not the same choice you, or even I, might make—he is overdue on his lodging expenses—the choice is still his to make.”
“Balderdash,” growled Exeter. “Poor, dear Uncle Tremont is clearly and, more importantly, actionably non compos mentis. He is obviously not of sound mind …”