Tommy went wide up the slope into the trees. I motioned for Buck to stay behind me. All of a sudden it hit me. I didn’t know what this horse would do if the shooting started. ‘Hey, Lord. Please keep an eye on this horse and let me hang on, Please. Thank you, amen.’
I rode along the steam.
A spot where the stream had been blocked a bit by rolling rocks across its width, causing a pool of fifteen feet across and two feet deep right in front of mouth of a cave. The cave looked like it was natural. The top of the dam lined up with the cave and on my side of the stream, fifty feet or so, was a pile of smaller rock that looked different than the rock the cave was in. There were no fresh tracks anywhere except for one set where Buck had come close a couple days before.
I got off the horse, dropped the reins, and walked across the dam. The cave opening was natural. No sign on it of any tools, but inside the mouth ten feet, I could see a pick and a single jack standing against the wall with a couple of drill steels alongside. A wooden box like one I had seen blasting powder in once over by Amarillo what seemed like a long time ago.
I walked up close and read the label. AJAX BLASTING POWDER. I lifted it and moved it up to the trees behind a bunch of scrub and rock with Buck’s help. Actually, he grabbed it and rode up there while I walked empty handed.
Returning to the hole was in a quandary. That hole was dark. How far could I go in and be safe. I had no light of any kind. ‘Lord, I need to see what’s in there. Any ideas.’ All I came up with was that small voice in the back of my head saying, ‘walk.’
I did, carrying my little pointy headed hammer.
Thirty feet in it was so dark the floor was difficult to see and there were no more colors, just dark shapes and space. Running my hands up the wall on the right side and across the ceiling I came to a foot wide hole in the ceiling. I checked it out by running my hand along the hole toward the entrance. It ended ten feet back. Now that I was looking in a different direction I could see a bit better. At the edge of the slot in the ceiling were whitish rocks with lines in them.
I went back to the thirty foot area, took a whack at the edge of the slot with the hammer, and brought down a fair sized slab of the roof, a few pieces hit me on my hat. Bending over, I grabbed the slab and made for the entrance.
In the noon sun the whitish stone looked white as snow and the lines were a rusty yellow. The rock crumbled with very little effort. The tough parts felt the hammer. Tommy came down from the trees, took one look, and said, “Gold, or my name’s little Suzy Brown.”
“Gold?” said I.
“Gold?” Buck said.
“Yeah, that’s gold. That’s the kind of gold miners love to see, cain’t remember what it’s called, but they love it. You can sit here with our little hammer and crumble it, separating the white quartz from the gold veins, and walk away with almost pure gold to take to town. Most banks’ll give ya 90 to 95 percent of the ounce price without any further refining. Why heck, you can refine it in a forge down to dang near the pure stuff.”
We all said, “Woooweee,” at the same time as we stood there gawking.
Tommy looked around and found a couple of sappy pine knots. Buck got a fire going. When we put the two together I had two torches to go in the mine with. They smoked a bit, but put out a fair amount of light. Forty feet in the veins of rusty yellow got bigger and the channel in the ceiling went wider and wider. All I could think of was, ‘Nancy’s gonna be a rich gal. This mine has enough gold showing to restock the ranch and build those line shacks she wanted.’ It was just a shame that her daddy wasn’t going to get to see it.
I left the mine without burning out the first torch. A dunk in the stream simmered it to out and both were put in a crack twenty feet south of the entrance so no one would see them if they happened to drop by.
We headed for the ranch house with some good news for a change.
Nancy cried all the way through the meal she prepared and set before us. I said grace and the crying started. It the time for me to eat the steak in front of me and five biscuits for her to settle down enough to talk about it. “What would I have done without you all? I feel so good and so bad all at the same time. Cicero missing. Tor dead. Shorts dead. All those gun hands dead and even that horrible Mr. Everson dead. All over gold. I wish it wasn’t there. Why couldn’t it be on someone else’s ranch? My mother homesteaded that section just because of the water. My father always said that place was a waste because it was so far out. I wish he was here now.” Her bawling wiped out the rest.
I went for a walk. I had a lot of questions I would have liked answered. Why homestead a place that far out even with water? Who was digging the hole deeper into the wall? Who found it? “What do I do next, Lord? I really need You to tell me.”
Everything seemed so done. The kidnapper/killers were all accounted for. Nancy was safe. Every body we knew of was buried properly. The hands remaining were trustworthy. I could leave whenever I wanted to.
Tommy died that night.
Tommy had the first watch. He never woke up me or Buck. I woke at the first hint of dawn and saw Buck’s bunk occupied. I didn’t even bother to check my boots for varmints before I kicked my feet into them. Grabbing my gun belt I whipped it around my hips and missed catching the buckle. I tried again and succeeded. The yard was empty. The house was quiet. All the horse seemed to be in the corral. Solomon looked at me like, ‘What’s up, Deacon?’
I found Tommy in the kitchen with a cup of coffee on his finger. The coffee was ice cold. I put the pot on the stove and added some kindling, blew on the ashes, and had a fire in a minute or so. Buck ran in, saw Tommy, and asked very quietly, “What happened?”
I told him all I knew.
Tommy’s body laid on the floor just as I had found him. He had soiled himself and his face was one of agony. His back was arched backwards. The coffee that had been in the cup must have gone down his gullet because none was seen spilled on the floor except one large drop under his cup lip.
The pot on the stove boiled. I reached for a cup on the counter and handed it to Buck. He grabbed the pot and poured as I reached for another cup.
I dropped it and spun around, slapping Buck’s full cup from his lips. The hot coffee go on both of us. My shirt caught some, but I leaned forward to give the hot coffee distance from my skin. Buck wasn’t as lucky. The scalding coffee splashed on his cheek and ear before pouring off his face and down his back. He screamed like a gut shot horse. I grabbed the water bucket and doused him with half a bucket of water.
“Thanks, I think. What was that all about?”
“The coffee is the only way Tommy could have been poisoned.”
“How do you know he was poisoned?”
“The box in the far corner of the counter. See, the one that says ‘rat poison’ on it.”
“Oh, thank you, Deacon.”
Nancy walked into the kitchen with her wrong shaped robe wrapped around her and fear in her eyes. “What’s all the . . .”
She saw Tommy.
“Is he dead?”
“Yes. Poison,” Buck answered.
“Oh, my god.”
“Ma’am. I wish you wouldn’t say that unless you know God up close and personal.”
“How’d he die?”
“Poison. I already told you that.”
“You don’t have to yell.” The crying started all over again. “Damn gold.” She turned and walked back to her room.
I heard the door slam.
“Let’s get him out to the barn, Buck. Did you see that box on the counter at dinner?”
“No. No one puts poison on the kitchen counter.” He looked around. “Do they?”
“Someone did. Far’s I can see. Either you or Nancy put it there, cuz I know I didn’t do it.”
“You can count me out. I know I didn’t do it either.”
I just shook my head grabbed Tommy under his arms. He was cold and stiff. Buck grabbed his feet. The barn was cool and a board across a stall became his marble slab until the grave was ready for him.
Nancy was still in her room with the door shut when they returned to the house. “I’ll cook, you watch,” I said.
“I’m watching after I get rid of this rat poison.” Buck walked out the back door. I watched him go a hundred yards from the house and slowly pour the poison out of the box onto the ground in a thin stream. The morning breeze kicked up a bit to help disperse the poison. He brought the box back and threw it in the stove.
We both watched it burn to ashes. I stirred the ashes. It was gone.
Three of us on the ranch and one of us was a killer.
Then my brain kicked in again. It wasn’t me. The reason for the murder was important. Tommy knew where the gold was. Of course, so did Nancy and Buck. Nancy already owned the gold mine. That only left Buck, and he didn’t act like a killer. He was genuinely startled and surprised when his saw Tommy on the floor. So was Nancy.
Was there someone else on the ranch trying to kill us off? Why? Because that someone else knew about the gold and did not have a prayer of getting it without killing us off. That had to be it.
My head hurt as I grilled some steaks in a fry pan and burned some biscuits in the oven.
We ate it all regardless.
I told Buck I was camping out a ways tonight and if he wanted to do that he could. I informed Nancy of my decision and she just shrugged, locked her bedroom door, and yelled, “All you brave men leaving a woman at home to guard the fort. Oh well, I guess it is my ranch so it’s up to me to keep it. I won’t move outta this room tonight and I want everyone to know, I have a Winchester and two pistols in here. I know how to use them and I can’t miss if you come through the window or the door. Goodnight.” Her lamp went out.
I had done so much figuring that I was wondering if I was guilty of the murder of Tommy, by accident. We had really torn that kitchen apart a looking for all we needed to cook and serve a big meal, any one of us could have left that poison on the counter. Although, I can say I don’t ever remember seeing it in the kitchen or anywhere before.
I just started riding trying to keep the moon light bright around me while I was in shadows and under cover. After a mile or so I just rode. The dog appeared beside me just sauntering along with the horse’s quick walk. So here we were so deep in the mystery, but all together like we had been shortly after it began. The dog wasn’t too talkative, so I just shut up and rode.
Without thinking I had ridden toward the mine and come in on the high side of the ramp down to the creek. We set up camp near the high side of the slope and settled in for a night’s sleep in peace and quiet.
Solomon grunted which woke me up. I didn’t move. I didn’t open my eyes. I prayed that my breathing hadn’t changed any. Someone was very close to me. How did I know? I don’t know, I just knew.
A foot step.
A sixgun rubbing leather as it was drawn.