Zeke Stanford pushed open the doors to the Oxbow Saloon and stopped to let his eyes adjust to the dimness. His donkey, carrying what he needed for the trip into town, was tied to the hitching post in the mid-day Arizona sun but Zeke wanted a beer. Right now.
* * *
He left the door and walked to the bar. "Beer."
"Just get in, Zeke?"
"Yeah, Earl. Just want to cut the dust before I go to the assay office."
Earl put the mug of beer, foam dripping down the side, in front of Zeke, his eyebrow raised.
Zeke picked it up and drained half of it in one swallow. "Oh." His eyes closed as he savored the brew. "That hits the spot."
"You find something?"
Zeke opened his eyes to look hard at Earl. "Maybe." He drained the rest of the beer. "See ya later." He dropped a coin on the bar and left.
Back out in the sun he untied the donkey and pulled the lead rein. The donkey snorted and balked. "Come on, Jenny. We go to the assay office, then the barn, all right?"
The animal shook itself, dust rising from it in great clouds. Jenny snorted again then allowed herself to be led. Zeke had an itch between his shoulder blades. He looked around the dirt street. There were a few men on the porches of the Oxbow and the bar next door and the one across the street. It didn't seem as though they were watching him any more than anything else moving on the hot, dusty street. Earl's question had raised his hackles, though. It didn't happen often but claim jumpers could be anywhere and Zeke had worked too hard to trust anyone right now.
He tied Jenny to the hitching post outside the assay office, then glanced up and down the street once more and went inside. A man sat at a wooden table with a ledger open in front of him, making an entry with a fountain pen, the gold tip glinting in the sunlight coming through the dusty window. "Howdy." The man capped the pen and looked up expectantly.
"I have a sample for you to test." Zeke glanced out the window, then at the door behind him before he put a dusty burlap sack on the desk. It thudded on the wooden surface then slumped over as the contents inside shifted.
"Well, young man." The assay man stood up. "I'm John Markum. Let's see what you have."
"Zeke Stanford." Zeke watched as John took the bag to a workbench where there was a scale and glass-stoppered bottles of liquids.
John opened the bag and pulled out a fist-sized chunk of quartz. He put it on a scale and added and took away weights until the scale balanced. He turned to look at Zeke. "Could be gold. The weight seems right." He picked up the rock and placed it in a metal pan. "I'll have to run a test, of course, to tell you how rich the strike might be. I'll keep the sack and run a test on several samples."
Zeke's heart was racing but he wanted to keep a clear head here. He'd seen men whoopin' and hollerin' about their strike. Next thing they were dead a few miles from town, their pack animals and equipment gone. Zeke eyed the assay man. "Good. You have the papers here to file a claim?"
"I do, young man. I do." He walked to his table and the filing cabinet underneath it. He opened the top drawer and pulled out a sheet of paper, placing it on the table top. John pushed his ledger to the side. "Have a seat son."
Zeke sat down in the wooden chair opposite Markum.
"Well this says that you're filing a mining claim. You have to put down the location or it won't be official."
Zeke nodded. It made sense but he was still reluctant to reveal the mine location. He picked up the fountain pen and studied the tip. Someday it might be my gold that makes these nibs. John pointed out where to put the location. Zeke hesitated, pen hovering over the spot on the paper. He handed the pen back. "I think I'll wait till you can tell me how the tests come out."
"Fair enough, Mr. Stanford. Will there be anything else?"
The miner pulled a small leather sack from his inside coat pocket. "I'd like to get some cash for this." Zeke placed it gently on the table top. He watched Markum study the sack. The afternoon sunlight came through the dirty glass window and made the dust motes around the assayer sparkle. Zeke had spent long hours panning the cold creek, searching for the mother lode the gold dust and tiny nuggets had come from. The sack of gold-bearing quartz was proof he'd found the spot. The dust would, hopefully, pay some bills until better arrangements could be made.
Markum reached for the sack and hefted it in his hand. He nodded and stood up, walking over to the scale once more. He poured the contents onto the bowl of the scale. He adjusted the weights until the scale balanced. He turned to look at Zeke. "Could be gold. The weight seems right." He picked up the bowl of the scale and took a pinch of the contents and placed it in a glass bowl. John selected a glass bottle from the bench and, with great care, poured a little of the liquid into the glass bowl. It began to fizz, the gold specks dancing around in the few drops of liquid, a little smoke coming from the bowl.
"Is it supposed to do that?"
John grinned. "It is if you want your sample to be gold."
Zeke grinned back. "I'd like to cash that in."
Markum frowned. "I'd like to help you out, son, but it's what they call a conflict of interest. You can take that
sack to the bank. Albert Hennesy is the banker, he'll give you an honest price. Tell him I sent you." He handed Zeke the sack. "The money you get should last a while, if you're careful." He raised an eyebrow and glanced out the window toward the bars.
"I understand, Mr. Markum. I have plans, but they don't include buying drinks for the town." Zeke stood and shook hands, with the assayer, a little light-headed. It seemed too easy after all of the digging and shoring up and cold nights.
"That'll be twenty dollars. You know where to stay?"
"I usually stay at Mrs. Entrada's boarding house. It's clean and not expensive. She gives a dinner along with the room." Zeke pulled out the coins and handed them to Mr. Markum. "Appreciate the help. I take it this business between us is private?"
"Aye. I wouldn't be in business long if I told everything I know."
They shook hands again. "Thanks."
Zeke left the office and pulled Jenny along the street. He wanted a bath and a good dinner. He thought about all the things he could do with the gold. A nice house for his ma. Ranch hands for his pa. Yep, that was something to look forward to in his gold dream. But first, a stop at the bank.
Zeke walked to Mrs. Entrada's house after talking with Mr. Hennesy. The weight of the coins in his pocket was reassuring. Before he'd died, Mr. Entrada was a rancher. Mrs. Entrada had sold the ranch and all of the stock and had a three-story Victorian house built on five acres of land here at the edge of town. Zeke would board Jenny there, out of mischief's way. Mrs. Entrada's man, Cesar, was a fine hand with the donkey. Zeke tied the donkey to the hitching post in front of the house and went to the front door, twisting the bell in the center. He could hear its ring echo through the house.
Cesar's wife, Pia, answered the door. A huge grin lit up her face when she saw him. "Oh, Mr. Zeke!" She waved him inside. "So good to see you. Mrs. Entrada will be so pleased."
Zeke pulled his hat off and instantly regretted the cloud of dust that flew from the hat onto the polished wooden floors. He blushed. "I'm so sorry, Pia."
"Hush." She flapped a hand at him. "Easy to clean. Are you here for the night?"
"For a few nights, if Mrs. Entrada has the room."
"Good." She looked out of the side panes of glass. The door window was stained glass and difficult to see through. "You take Jenny to Cesar. He'll take care of her. I'll get you a bath. The same room as always."
"You are most kind, Pia, as always."
"I'll tell Missus that you are here." She opened the door. "Go on, take care of Jenny. Then come in through the kitchen."
He nodded. "Thank you."
Pia took the door and shut it behind him. He liked staying at Mrs. Entrada's but it made him a little uncomfortable it was so fancy. Zeke untied the donkey and walked her around to the barn in the back of the house. "Cesar!" The ranch hand came out of the barn door, pitchfork in hand.
"Mr. Zeke! Welcome back!"
"Good to see you, Cesar." The two men shook hands. "I'll be here a couple of days. Where do you want Jenny?"
"Last stall on the left, Mr. Zeke. Same as always."
Zeke liked that stall. It had a door to the corral and Jenny could go in or come out as she pleased. He led her in and unloaded the gear and the pack saddle. It would be safe here in the barn. Cesar brought feed and hay while Zeke filled the water bucket. They led the donkey out to the yard and tied her to a post. Cesar began to curry the donkey. She stood, back left foot slack, ears relaxed as the man loosened her sweat-matted coat and rid her of the dust.
"You have a gentle hand, Cesar."
"Thank you, Mr. Zeke. Jenny's a good girl." He scratched behind her ears. The donkey opened one eye, then closed it again.
"Appreciate the help, Cesar." Zeke dug into his coat pocket and pulled out two dollar coins. "This is for you. I wasn't able to offer you anything last time."
Cesar waved off the money. "Is not necessary, Mr. Zeke. Missus pays good."
"Just the same. I feel bad. Please take it." He held the coins out.
Cesar sighed. "Very well. But just because you feel bad. There is no need."
Zeke felt better. His last trip into town for supplies was hard. He hadn't panned all that much gold and still hadn't found the mother lode. Money was needed for beans and salt port, dynamite and some grain for Jenny. "You let me know if you need something, Cesar."
"I will do that, Mr. Zeke. Now you'd better go and get cleaned up. Missus won't like you coming to dinner all dusty."
Zeke grinned. "That is the truth, Cesar."
Outside the back porch, Zeke beat as much dust off of his hat and clothing as he could before knocking on the screen door. "Pia?"
She opened the door. "Come in, Mr. Zeke. You know the room. Go on up. I'm filling the tub for you. Just put your boots and clothes outside the door. I'll get them clean for you."
"You have a bucket ready, Pia? I'll carry it up."
The middle-aged woman grinned. "You are such a gentleman, Mr. Zeke." She pointed to a bucket beside the woodstove. "It's full. I'll bring another in a minute."
In his second-floor room, Zeke poured the hot water into the copper tub and put the bucket outside his door. He pulled a clean set of clothes—his town clothes, he called them, as they were moderately better than his everyday set—out of his saddle bags and laid them out on the quilt-covered bed.
He looked out the window. It was a good spot. The creek flowed through the property, and a line of cottonwoods marked its path. Five acres was too small for a ranch but Mrs. Entrada had a couple of milk cows, chickens, and out behind the barn, which he couldn't see from here, he knew there was a pig pen with four fine sows. Mrs. Entrada sold eggs and milk to the general store and a pig or two as well, in the winter. She had a big garden, watered with irrigation from the creek. He hadn't heard of irrigation before. She had walked him around the grounds and showed him how it was done on his first visit. Even more amazing was her turkey run. The birds were a welcome addition to the menu over the winter and the birds, still more wild than not, were a thing of beauty. This was what he was working for. This was the kind of place he wanted. A knock on the door broke into his reverie.
"More water, Mr. Zeke."
"Thank you, Pia." He dipped the dressing table pitcher into the bucket, filling it halfway. "I'll save some for shaving."
"Take your time, Mr. Zeke. Dinner is at six."
"Chicken and biscuits?" He wagged his eyebrows at her.
She laughed. "Only for you, Mr. Zeke." She left the room, closing the door behind her.
At dinner, Zeke held the chair for Mrs. Entrada. "Nice to see you again."
"Nice to see you, too, Zeke." She pointed out the others at the table. "This is Mr. and Mrs. Pike. They're on their way to Flagstaff. This is Mr. Porter, a salesman for the Gold Bond insurance company."
Zeke took his seat. "Nice to meet you."
"Zeke is a miner," she told the group at the table.
"How interesting," Mr. Porter leered. "Successful?"
"Not so much." The hair on Zeke's neck stood up.
"Oh, that's too bad," Mrs. Pike said.
The questions were broken when Mrs. Entrada said grace. Dinner was delicious and Mrs. Pike and Mrs. Entrada did their best to keep the conversation light. Sometime after dinner, Zeke was surprised to find Mrs. Entrada knocking at his door.
"Mrs. Entrada? Everything all right?"
"Certainly, Zeke. I just wanted to deliver your mail."
Zeke's heart began to beat faster as he took the two envelopes. "Thank you. I hope it's not an inconvenience for you to hold my mail for me."
"Not at all, Zeke. I'd hope that if I had a son, some kind soul would help him."
"I appreciate it. I know my ma and pa do, too."
"They wrote me a letter saying that very thing. They speak highly of you, Zeke, and expressed their gratitude for my helping you."
Zeke's heart swelled. He had hated leaving his parents but that ranch just wasn't going to be successful. He needed to do something else. "I appreciate it, Mrs. Entrada."
"I'll let you get to your letters, son. Sleep well."
"Thank you, Mrs. Entrada." Zeke closed the door and hurried over to the bed and turned up the oil lamp. He tore open the letter from his parents first.
It's a dry summer here but we're keepin' the horses watered and fed. There's more people moving into Santa Rosa but the Mescalero Apache are kickin' up a fuss. Mostly cattle rustling and ranch burning. The cavalry are keeping them in check but nerves are frayed. I made a sale to the fort, twenty horses. That'll keep us in good style for the next few months. Me and your ma worry about you and hope you're stayin' well. Your Mrs. Entrada is a fine woman and we're happy you've found a place to go when you come into town. We pray for you daily.
Zeke read the letter through twice more trying to milk all of the meaning from it. Pa wasn't one to complain and he'd said they'd made some money. Even so, Zeke worried. The news about the Apache was worrisome. He put the letter back in its envelope and picked up the second one.
The return address was from Mary Younger. He stroked the envelope, smoothing the wrinkles from its hard journey. He finally cut the top of the envelope with his knife and eased the single sheet of paper out of the wrapping.
He paused and read and reread the salutation. Dearest Zeke. That had to be good, right? He continued.
I hope this missive finds you well. I had a summer cold a couple of weeks ago but have recovered and am doing fine. I see your ma and pa in church on Sundays and always stop to say hello and ask about your welfare. Mother and Father are also well and have been inviting Thomas Drew to dinner every other week. I believe they are trying to make a match for me.
Thomas is a fine young man and they appreciate that as a lawyer, he'd be a wonderful provider. Zeke, you've been gone over a year. They always speak highly of your parents but they'd prefer I marry an educated, professional man. I miss you, Zeke. I'm holding off my parents but I don't know how long I can delay. If we are to marry, you must come back soon.
Zeke's heart constricted in his chest. Thomas Drew? The man was a dandy from back east! What did he know about
living in the wild west? Zeke re-read the letter, worried about Mary's cold, grateful that she was polite to
his parents. Angry with her parents. He'd always known they didn't approve of him. He could feel it. Zeke
carefully refolded the letter along its lines and put it back in its envelope. What was he going to do? How
long could Mary hold out against her parents and that . . . that dude!
He stripped down to his long johns and crawled into bed, blowing out the lamp. Visions of Mary and Thomas in the Younger family parlor filled his head. Zeke wondered how long it would take the assayer to get him an estimate on the value of his mine. Would it be in time?