All sound stopped, but my hand was on my blood red engraved pistol handle.
Another foot step.
I rolled fast, pulling the hammer back and letting a lead slug fly toward the shadow that appeared as I opened my eyes. The shadow dropped with a grunt and intake of air a man makes when he’s hurt bad.
I rolled again.
The shadow, which I couldn’t see now, fired two quick shots into where I had been. All I could think was that makes two more holes in that saddle blanket.
Now I was blind due to the flash of his gun.
I heard him or her running into the woods downhill toward the mine. I waited until the moon came out from behind a cloud and my night vision began to come back. When I could make out trees and tell them from a horse, I moved downhill taking a wide sweep to the left where I remembered there was thick brush in places and lots of trees, big trees.
I turned Solomon loose as I went past him and told him to stay close unless something happened to me. Like he understood or something.
I walked, my boots crunching everything they touched. I took them off and hung them on a couple broken off branches so I could find them later. I walked quieter, much quieter.
The sound of splashing through the stream, probably the pool, told me a lot. If there weren’t two of the enemy here, the one had just gone in the mine.
Picturing the mine, I thought perhaps he had a smallish cowpony in the mine waiting for him.
Something moved off to my right. Something big. I went to ground. A fair sized pine was between my position and the big thing. I was ready to shoot when I realized it was a horse. A small cowpony. I let it walk right up to me and stood to greet it.
I knew the horse. Only one man had ever ridden it until he died. That man was Shorts. Shorts’ horse had come all the way here. I might believe that he would go to the ranch, but no out here.
I buried Shorts so I knew it wasn’t him down there in the mine. There was just one other man that might have brought that horse here.
Stepping out in the open I yelled, “Cicero, come on out. I’ll see ya get a fair hearing.”
No reply. The horse walked to the creek, bent down and drank.
“Come on, Cicero. It’s all over. You killed a lot of people, but you’re done, finished, it’s all over.”
“I’m coming in, Cicero.”
I walked keeping the horse between me and the mine mouth. As I approached the line sight kept me drifting down stream until I stepped over the stream and walked along the wall toward the mine. Every two little steps I stopped to listen.
I arrived at the edge of the entrance to the mine. There was no way I wanted to do what I had to do. He had ridden with me. We shared the hunger of the hunt. Then at one point I think he even saved my life.
“Cicero,” I said softly, “Come out, now. Toss your gun out first and then come out.”
After a few moments of listening to the music of the stream, I heard, “I’m hurt. You hit me bad. I can’t come out.”
“I’m coming in. Put your gun on the ground and I’ll come get you.”
“Come get me and take me out of this hole so I can die looking up at the moon.”
I could hear the pain he was feeling in his voice. He was a hurting man. “I coming in.”
I moved into the entrance of the cave. He should have been able to see me silhouetted by the light of the moon behind me. I slid into the hole along the left side, my back rubbing the wall and my sixgun pointed deep into the cave. “Where are you?”
“Here.” A grunt and then a shot.
A line of flame come toward me and finished off my night vision again. My hand started pulling the hammer back and then the trigger until I had fired four rounds.
He screamed again.
This time I could hear death grab him and wrestle him deep down to hell where the unrepentant go.
I went outside, started a fire, got the pine knots, lit the unused one, and returned to drag Cicero out and across the stream where I laid him out like he was in a coffin before I went back in to find a shovel at the face of the mine.
With him buried I rode back to the Rafter B, sleeping in the saddle as Solomon took me where I needed to go and the dog tagged along.
The sun came up on me lying in my blanket in the dirt behind the house. Now I could tell Nancy and Buck that it was really over. Nancy could get a few miners to work the mine. Within days of beginning work there, she could afford all the cows she wanted. Buck could ramrod for her, he was a capable man.
I, I could got back to Evelyn and figure out what was next in my life of being the Deacon, a servant to the Church.
Two days later, with Solomon all packed up and another horse from the outlaw Laze E crew packed with almost nothing, I headed for Golden. The plan was to load up the pack horse with food and other supplies, I had a list, and hire a couple of hands to bring it back to the ranch and work there while I went on to Denver and the Caravan, hopefully with Evelyn if she waited. Oh, I wasn’t going to marry here, but we made a good team for the Lord. I had two or three great sermons in my head that needed to be preached.
Arriving at the main street of Golden, I checked the horses in to the livery down the alley from the hotel and then walked into the hotel. The lobby was busier than on the last visit. The windows had been fresh washed and the furniture was polished and waxed to shine like the sun itself. On one of those shiny pieces of furniture was a familiar face.
“Daniel, come and sit down.”
“Tor, what’s up with you? I sent you in here to recuperate, not hibernate or retire.”
“Well, I’d like to tell ya right now, but it’s my bed time. I am under strict Doctor’s orders. If I don’t live up to those orders I will be fired and the good Doctor’s bill will be mine to pay.” He got up stiffly and walked to the stairs with the stiffness of a very old man with all kinds of rheumatism.
“I’ll meet ya here in the morning. What time?”
“Make it about 8. And, do I have a surprise for you. Sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite.”
The desk man yelled, “We have no bed bugs in this hotel.”
Tor chuckled. “See ya a 8. I’ll bring the surprise.”
“I can wait. I need the sleep.” I turned to the desk, “Sir, a bed now or I perish.”
“Boy. Take this man to room 305 and hang the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign out for him. His rig is right there by the settee. Make it quick before he faints from exhaustion, Boy.”
It was everything I could do to keep up with the young man he called, Boy, but I made it. He did hang the sign after my gear was put on a rack next to the door. The lamp was turned down. I blew it out as he closed the door with, “Good night.”
“Wake me at 7 please and have the barber fill a tub for me.”
“Yes, Sir.” I heard from the hall.
The pounding on the door was deafening. “I’m coming.”
“It’s 7:20, Sir. I’ve been trying to rouse you for twenty minutes.”
“I’ll be down for the barber in five. I’ll want a shave and a bath.”
“Yes, Sir. The bath is waiting. It might be a touch cool by now.”
“Get out of here. I’m coming.”
I grabbed the cleanest clothes I had, the ones I had on for the last week, and headed down the stairs.
The barber was waiting with hot water, a razor, and soap.
As I finished and was getting ready to dress, he returned. “Sir, you cannot surely wear those same clothes. I had the Boy iron out the store creases in these. Your Mr. Tor has paid for them. He stated that he would be waiting in the café you ate breakfast in last.”
“Thank you.” I wanted to toss him a dollar, but I was broke until I could get to the bank and get some dollars for the gold in my bags.
“Mr. Tor said for you to not worry about money.”
Then I thought, ‘What is this guy, a mindreader?’
I dried and dressed. Brushing my hat was a waste, but I did it.
The café was a hole in the wall where an old roundup cookie held sway with a spatula and a cleaver. Tor was waiting for me in a back corner table sipping a cup of what I assumed to be coffee. I sat down with him and told the waiter, “I’ll have what he’s having.”
The man delivered the cup and I took a testing sip. “TEA! You’re drinking tea?”
“Yeah, according to this Doctor I have, it’s supposed to promote healing and I need all the promoting I can get.”
“How much longer before you can ride back to Denver with me?
“Don’t know that I’ll be going back to Denver. Sent the Marshall a note to tell him I’m probably out of the law business. Thinking about ranching with my new partner.”
“New partner?” That was a surprise, but then a lot had happened since we separated not that long ago.
“Order up. I’m hungrier than a sore toothed bear.”
“So what’s the surprise?”
He put a dumb grin on his face, “It’s comin’. Don’t you be worrying none.”
My mouth was full of steak and fried potatoes when Tor whispered, “Here she comes.”
“She?” I turned to see who he was talking about.
Coming across the room was a stunning young woman in a wool shirt and denim trousers. Her hair was the darkest of blacks. The way she walked said ‘look out here I come and I am confident.’ Then her eyes focused on me. Those eyes were dark and seemed to penetrate deeply whatever they focused on. “And, who is this lovely young lady?”
“This is my new partner. She has nursed me and wants me to work her ranch with her. I asked her to marry me last night and she is supposed to answer this morning.”
I could not take my eyes off her.
Arriving at the table triggered my manners. I stood. She stuck out her hand which I took strictly out of habit. “I’m Nancy. This man here has told me all about the Deacon.”
She looked at Tor, “The answers ‘yes’ to your question last evening. I have already talked with the local Parson and he can do the ceremony this afternoon if that’s what satisfactory with you.”
“Whatever you say, Dear.” He tried to stand to greet her.
“Sit down. You aren’t ready for standing alone and walking, yet.”
“How’d you get here, then?” I asked.
“Got me a fancy chair with wheels. The boy from the hotel pushes me around when Nancy’s not available.”
“How can we have two Nancys in our lives?” I asked.
“We can’t. One of them is a fake.”
I sat down. My brain went to work with the extra pressure on it. “Nancy is a fake.”
“One of them is.”
I looked at the strong woman still standing at the table and stood up again. Sliding her chair out, “Would you care to join us at the table and have some breakfast?”
“I would.” She sat and slid herself up to the table.
I sat. “So, tell me about all this. I am, shall we say, befuddled.”
“Dad had come to Golden to meet me coming back from school in Philadelphia. I got here and he wasn’t here so I was waiting when Tor came in. My training was Nursing, in part, so the Doctor asked me to wait on him hand and foot until he was well. He’s been ordering me around forever. The gal you chased all over the country and rescued was an imposter. I am sure she was the daughter of that Lazy E owner. They been after the ranch for a long time and Dad was getting a bit leery of their activities. We were missing cows and hands were leaving without notice. They would just come in, get their gear, and leave. My last letter from Dad said that someone was shooting up the place without really trying to hit anything. He was worried they would start shooting to kill. So, here I am. I left school and caught the next train. I had wired the Doctor here to let him know I was coming.”
“Sorry about your Dad. Wish we had gotten there sooner.”
She looked at Tor, “When do you want to do the wedding?”
“When I’m ready for the honeymoon.”
“I am not waiting that long before I go to the ranch, cowboy. Today or six months from now. Take your pick.”
“Now, of course.”
I chimed in with, “I was told in Denver I could do weddings.” I smiled.
“Who said that?” Tor asked.
“We’ll use the Parson,” Nancy ended the conversation.
We talked a bit longer while we finished breakfast. I left to get a spring wagon from the livery along with a couple of horses to pull it. The wrangler was very understanding and was willing to anything for Miss Diane and her beau. “That’s a right purty woman there. Women rare enough out here and purty are impossible to find. Danged if I can even find an ugly one.”
I chuckled as I drove off to the front of the hotel.
It was three days later when we stopped on top of the rise and looked down on the ranch house. I was mad. Tor was hurting. Nancy was ready to spit nails at the phony Nancy down below.
“I will ring her neck first and then slap her silly,” Nancy spit out like venom.
“Nancy. Hate will burn you for the rest of your life. What happened happened. We can get things straightened out and you will have your ranch with the gold for the rest of your life.”
“Don’t be preaching at me, Deacon. I’ve heard it all before and it did nothing to keep my Dad alive.”
“Everything dies. Why should you be exempt from death in your life?”
“Don’t even try to give me that religious garbage, Mr. Deacon. I have had it up to here,” she waived her hand above her head.
I pointed to my heart, “You only need it in here.”
“Shut up and drive.” She kicked Solomon in the ribs and headed for the ranch house as fast as he would go.
I had to take is slow. Tor was hurting and whining. Not that I could blame him any.
He said, “Catch here. That woman down there will shoot her out of the saddle if she gets half a chance.”
I saw Nancy jump off Solomon in the middle of the ranch yard and run to the house. The front door open and the false Nancy walked out. The two met at the edge of the porch in a collision I thought was going to kill them both. I could see the fur fly from my bouncing seat as we zigged and zagged down the slope to the yard.
We got there just in time to see the false Nancy catch Nancy with a beautiful roundhouse swing that caught her in the left ear. Nancy went down into the dirt hard.
My eyes must have bugged out because she bounced up and laid the false Nancy backpeddling onto the porch and flat on her back. Her head hit the wood with a resounding boom and bounced. She laid there still with a small pool of blood growing under her head.
Nancy moved forward and rolled the unconscious one on her side and began doctoring the head wound. Within moments the false Nancy looked like a war hero with a bloody bandage around her head as she sat up on the edge of the porch.
Nancy said, “Why?”
I moved Tor into the wheeled chair on the porch and into the house. Neither of us worried about the battle on the porch.
After returning to the porch I asked, “Where’s Buck. Did you kill him, too?”
False looked up at me and said, “I have killed no one, ever. Buck is out checking a rumor from a passing rider that over two hundred head of my cows are over to the west in a large hole in the lava country. Who’s the tramp?”
“The real Nancy who was raised on this ranch, whose mother is buried up on that rise, whose father was killed by the Lazy E, that’s who.”
I watched. She never blinked. “So who am I if not Nancy who was raised on this ranch, whose mother is buried on that rise, whose father was killed by outlaws?”
“Beats me, lady. I have no idea. Who are you?”
“I am Nancy.”
Nurse Nancy came through the door. “No, you are not. I am the Nancy and I can prove it. Deacon, in the top drawer of the dresser in the room Tor is in you will find a tintype. Bring it out here.”
I looked at it as I walked out. There was no longer a doubt in my mind. I handed it to false Nancy. She took one look at it and began crying. As she shook her head the ends of the bandage flapped in the breeze.
“It’s not true. She planted that tintype while she was in there. I am Nancy.”
I was taken aback by her anger and pain. Why would she continue to cry and fight with the picture settled it? The tintype was definitely Nurse Nancy. I asked, “When was this picture taken, Nancy.”
“Around spring last year. Dad wanted me to get the picture so he could put it on his dresser. We never got around to getting a frame for it.”
I looked at False Nancy. “If you are you the real Nancy, what do you have for proof?”
“There was never a picture of me, but there is a picture of my mother in my room under the paper in the bottom of my jewelry box, the small wooden ammunition box on my dresser.”
I retrieved the box and handed it to Nurse Nancy. She fumbled the latch. “It sticks.” On the second try she got it open and laid out the jewelry on a small table like it was important to her, lifted the paper, and there was nothing there.
False Nancy grabbed the box and shook it. Nothing fell out. “Where did it … She took it. She stole my mother’s picture. Now I really do have nothing, no ranch and no picture.
Nurse Nancy said, “I found where you had hidden it and put it up on the shelf in the closet.”
I looked at the paper lying on the table. There was a slight change of color over a part of the paper that was close to the size of the supposed picture that I saw when Nurse Nancy brought it out.
I prayed, ‘Lord, I need wisdom and answers here. Please show me the truth.’
An idea hit me, I looked at false Nancy, “What’s the terrain like to the west?”
“Mostly slow rolling hills until you get to the mountain.”
“Nancy, which direction is the nearest water hole from here. Just point.”
She stalled as if to think, “I don’t know if the one over there, or over there.”
False Nancy said, “There are no water holes in that direction for miles.” She pointed and shook her head with a smile. She knew she was right.
“How old was your dad?”
“61. He married late and I took a couple of years to come along.”
I said, “Alright. Nancy, how old was your mother and when and why did she die?”
She looked lost. “What is all this questions crap? I am the daughter. I’ve been away for a long time and now you want all these answers.”
The real Nancy yelled, “My mother died six years ago from some sickness that withered her away like a hot wind on green grass. She went from a healthy woman to dead in less than four weeks. I helped dad bury her. Come to think of it, she’s buried up on the hill, but her feet are under the headstone. Dad wanted it that way so the pressure wouldn’t be on her head. If you look at the head stone you’ll see a five pointed star that I carved in the sandstone one day when I was up there crying.”
“She spied it all out while she was here alone with the cowboy. Tramp? You’re the tramp living alone with a cowboy.”
“Did up the coffin and see where her feet are. No one could know that except Dad and me.”
I picked up the tintype from the jewelry box and then I slowly lifted the paper. When I put the two together it was plain that the tintype had been in that box at one time under that very piece of paper.
Nurse Nancy turned and walked to Solomon as I was doing the match up. As I lifted my eyes from the paper, she swung onto his back and took off like a shot. I called, “Solomon.”
He spun on a silver dollar and gave about ninety-five cents change before returning to the hitching rail right in front of me. False Nancy the nurse landed in the dirt after her flight of fifteen feet or so.
I’ll give her this. She got up and started walking away from the ranch slumped in her defeat.
I went to retrieve her. There were still questions without answers.
The last chapter
After a tough couple of days we found out that Nurse Nancy was really a Nancy, just not the right one for the ranch. Cicero had met her on a trip to Golden when he had the gold assayed first time. He got drunk and told her everything, so when XXX brought Tor in she figured she could worm her way in if the outlaws killed the real Nancy or there was a miracle and the real Nancy died of unknown causes.
Cicero had told her a lot about the ranch and where to find the gold when he was whiskey blabbing and had even invited her to the ranch where she could live at the mine and he could visit her. She liked the idea of living in a gold mine and sooner or later would have killed Cicero. The gold would have then been hers and she could get out of area from time to time to spend a lot of money. The first thing she was going to do was buy out the saloon and dance hall she was working in.
I made sure she didn’t change her mind to ride away by taking her to the law in Golden.
Bottom line, Nancy had her ranch and the Lazy E was not going to be a problem anymore. Buck was going to stay on. Tor cried because he mad at himself for getting suckered in. He decided to take on the Lazy E seein’s how he no longer had a job in Denver and all the owners were dead.
Me, I went home to Evelyn to get my head on straight after all the killing and rescuing and just plain miracles.
If God was for me, who could stand against me. I could see me getting real proud in a short time. My thinking could turn to – Since I am so good, no one can stand against me.
For the first time in my life I felt fear so deep I trembled and froze. Fortunately, I was on Solomon and he was headed for Denver.
It wasn’t all about the money at all.