The next morning Zeke was in the general store. "Mr. Burell, I'd like to order twenty pounds of flour, ten of cornmeal, fifteen pounds of beans, five pounds of lard, ten pounds of salt pork, and twenty pounds of grain for my donkey."
* * *
Walter Burell nodded as he jotted notes. "Any more dynamite, Zeke?"
"I think so." Zeke scratched his head. "A case, I guess. Can't hurt to have it on hand." He stared at the jar of peppermint sticks on the counter. "Give me one of them, too." He jerked his chin at the jar.
"Sure thing." He put down his pencil and as he removed it the glass top rang on the jar below it. He took out a stick, handing it to Zeke. "On the house, for a good customer."
"Oh, no, Mr. Burell. These must cost you a fortune to ship in."
The storekeeper shrugged. "Call it good business, Zeke. You pay your bills, you're polite. I like doing business with you." He picked up the list. "When do you want your order ready?"
"A day, maybe two." Zeke was about to say he was waiting for a test from the assay office, then changed his mind. "I have some other business in town to take care of. I'll let you know."
"Fair enough. Anything else I can get you?"
"Some mercury and a sack of potatoes. Oh, yes. Some writing paper, a couple of envelopes and a pencil. I need to write to my ma and pa. "
"Good boy." Walter Burell walked along his counter and reached up onto a shelf on the wall. "There's ten sheets of paper in this box and five envelopes. How many stamps do you need?" The general store was also the post office and Walter Burell the postmaster.
"Four stamps. That should do me for awhile."
The storekeeper added the paper and stamps to the list. "That'll be seventeen dollars."
Zeke handed him the money.
Walter put the stamps in the box with the paper and the envelopes. He pulled a pencil out of a can on the counter and dropped that in the box as well. "There, all together in a kit, so to speak." He handed Zeke the box. "I'll have your order ready by tonight so when you're ready, come on by to load up."
The men shook hands. "Thank you, Mr. Burell."
Zeke went out of the store and stood on the porch, leaning up against one of the posts. He pulled the stick of candy out of his shirt pocket and stuck one end in his mouth. The blast of peppermint filled his mouth. He felt good. The morning wasn't yet too hot, he had some free time and he had a candy treat.
From his vantage point he could see men already camped out in front of the three bars. The Oxbow had several men on the porch, chairs tipped back against the wall, their feet up on the porch rail. It seemed curious that so many men were just lazing around. Why weren't they on their ranches or at work somewhere? Maybe they were cowboys driving cattle through the area and stopped to resupply, just like he was. The thought occurred to him that they could be outlaws but he shoved it away. He was just standing around on a porch, too. Maybe they were wondering about him.
He pushed off of the post and headed back to Mrs. Entrada's. He'd sit in the shade of the barn and write his folks and Mary. Zeke passed the livery on his way. Three men came out, guns on their hips. The way they were dressed, Zeke thought they'd been living rough for awhile. While it wasn't uncommon for men to carry guns out in the countryside, very few people in town carried them. He'd left his rifle in his room. Still, a prickle of danger ran down the back of his neck.
As he passed them he nodded and moved out of their way. "Hey," the middle man called out. "You Zeke Stanford?"
Zeke stopped, took the peppermint stick out of his mouth and put it in his pocket. He turned to face them. This could not be good. He could already feel a patch of sweat on his back. "Do I know you?"
The man laughed. "No, I just heard about you. I'm Tom Duffy. You're a gold miner, I heard."
Zeke wondered who had been talking. Earl at the Oxbow? "I mine, pan for gold a little. Why do you ask?"
"Oh, me and the boys here," he nodded at each man beside him, "were wonderin' where some likely spots were."
"Sorry, can't help you. I'm still searchin' myself."
"That's not what I heard." Tom Duffy's voice dropped the friendly tone.
Zeke wished he had his rifle in hand as the hairs on his neck rose. "Shouldn't listen to bar room rumors." He turned and walked off, the skin in the middle of his back itching. He didn't relax until he'd reached the Entrada barn. Cesar was sitting on a keg, mending a piece of harness.
"Hey, Cesar." Zeke dropped onto a stump the ranch hand used as a chair or as a table, depending on what he was working on.
"Something wrong, Mr. Zeke?"
Zeke took off his hat and ran a hand through his hair. "I don't know, Cesar. A stranger just stopped me outside the livery. Knew my name and my business."
The harness Cesar was working on dropped to his lap. "That doesn't sound good, Mr. Zeke."
"No, it doesn't." Zeke put his hat back on. "There seems to be a lot of men sitting on the bar porches. Is there a cattle drive in town?"
"No. I would have heard." Cesar picked up the harness and began to work again. "Were there a lot of cowboys?"
"Not that I could tell. Just men. The man who questioned me was wearing a gun on his hip. Him and his two friends."
Cesar peered up at him as he punched a hole in the harness leather. "Not too many men in town go around armed, Mr. Zeke."
"I know. I was wishin' I had my rifle with me."
"Did they threaten you?"
"Not exactly in so many words." Zeke scratched an ear. "But I felt threatened. How did they know me? They asked me about my claim. Seemed to think I found something." He stared at the stationery box in his hand. "I'll take this up to my room. I'll hold off writing to Ma and Pa until things are more settled."
He stood and went to the back door. Pia was pulling a pie from the oven. "Blackberry pie for dessert tonight, Mr. Zeke."
"Smells wonderful, Pia." He held up the box. "Just taking some letter-writin' stuff to my room."
Once upstairs he placed the box on the dresser and stood staring out the window at the cottonwoods. He wondered how much time Mr. Markum needed to do his tests. Zeke felt nervous and wanted to get the claim signed and out of town. Those men, they didn't seem like cowboys and they were too curious about his mining. He needed to get out of the house and move around.
Back in the kitchen he told Pia, "I'm going out to the stream. I need to think."
"Wait, Mr. Zeke." Pia hurried around the kitchen. She pulled a chicken thigh from her cool storage and wrapped it in a napkin. She did the same with a square of cornbread. "Here." She thrust the napkin bundles at him. "For your lunch."
The thoughtfulness made him smile. "Thank you, Pia. I appreciate it."
She waved him to the door, smile beaming. "Go on now. I have work to do."
Zeke left and headed for the line of cottonwoods. He felt a little of the tension drain off, after Pia's gesture. But he was still worried. Were those men watching the assay office? All they had to do was sit on the Oxbow porch for a clear view of anyone going in or out. That worried him but he didn't know what to do about it.
Late afternoon Zeke came back to his room and after splashing hands and face with water from the basin, he pulled his rifle out of the wardrobe. An Army Springfield, it only held one shot at a time. He had cleaned the rifle the first day he was in town. Now he dropped a handful of cartridges in his pocket, checked the action once more and went down to the kitchen.
* * *
"I may be late for dinner, Pia."
Her eyebrow raised as she looked at the rifle in the crook of his arm. "Trouble, Mr. Zeke?"
He sighed. "I hope not, Pia. I'm going to the assay office."
"Take care, Mr. Zeke."
The young man nodded and left through the back door. He breathed a sigh of relief that he didn't see Cesar. He didn't want to explain to the man he considered a friend what he was doing. He certainly didn't want Cesar to come along. Zeke was hoping he wouldn't run into trouble. But if he did, he didn't want the man he thought of as a second father to get hurt.
Once in town, he peered at the street around the corner of the livery. The Oxbow was the farthest from him. Two men, beer glasses in hand, sat sprawled in their chairs, feet on the porch railing. The two bars across the street from the Oxbow had empty porches. The assay office was a little over ninety feet from him, two buildings past the livery. It was close to closing time and Zeke was counting on it that the cowboys, or whatever Tom Duffy and his men were, would have given up watching the assay office for the day.
He saw the two men on the Oxbow porch empty their glasses and get up and go inside. This was his chance. He walked to the assay office, doing his best to appear normal. He opened the door, surprising Mr. Markum, who was just about to grab the door handle. "Sorry, Mr. Markum." Zeke moved inside and shut the door. "There are men watching the door, I didn't want them to see me come inside."
Markum looked out through the wavy glass of his door. "No one out there now, Mr. Stanford." He took off his hat and faced Zeke. "I suppose you'd like to know about the test?"
"Yes, sir. I would."
Markum cleared his throat. "It's a good strike with a high percentage of ore in the quartz. Are you ready to file?"
"What is the legal standing, Mr. Markum, if I file now?"
Markum went to the filing cabinet and pulled out the claim form. "You mean if something should happen to you before the claim reaches the territorial capital?"
"Yes, that's it."
The assay man pulled his gold-nibbed pen from his pocket and motioned Zeke to the chair on his side of the table and sat down in his usual spot. "It's an official claim, even if a copy hasn't reached the mail office."
Zeke took off his hat and scratched his head. "Let me see the form, then."
Markum handed over the form and the pen. Zeke read through the whole document. "I'm sorry I'm keepin' you from your supper."
"Don't worry about it, son. Take your time."
Zeke uncapped the pen and began to write in the location of the mine. He filled out all of the rest of the blanks on the page, then signed his name at the bottom. "You said you needed a copy. Should I fill that out?"
"I can do that, Mr. Stanford. It'll be labeled as a copy. No need for your signature."
"If you don't mind, Mr. Markum. I'd like to see that done, then I'd like to walk you to the General Store to give to the post office."
"Being cautious, son."
"I know. I just have a feeling, is all. Do you mind?"
Markum shook his head. "No. This won't take long." He pulled another sheet from the cabinet under the table and, with Zeke's original in front of him, filled in all of the blanks on the sheet in neat Spenserian script.
Zeke stood up and went to the window. Across the street he could see Tom Duffy and his two friends take the chairs on the Oxbow porch. He could feel his hands go sweaty as his mouth went dry.
When Markum finished, he pulled an envelope out and addressed it, folded the copy claim form in thirds and sealed it inside. "There we are, Mr. Stanford. Signed and sealed. We just need to deliver it." He scraped the wooden chair back from the table and put his hat on. "Shall we go?"
"The men that have been watching are back on the Oxbow porch."
The assay man stood beside Zeke at the window.
"Do you know those men?"
Markum shook his head. "No. You sure they're watching?"
"They stopped me in the street this morning. Seemed to know all about my claim."
"We can go out the back door." Markum locked the front door and led Zeke to the back of the building. There was a store room on one side of the short hall and a work room, full of shelves of stoppered glass bottles, a small stove and cast iron pots and other implements Zeke couldn't identify. Markum unlocked the back door and once they were outside, relocked it.
Here weeds grew in the shadow of the building, and the back side of a row of three houses were forty feet away. Markum led Zeke along behind the buildings until they reached the General Store. They went in.
Walter Burell was at the counter, working on his books. Zeke looked around. No one else was in the store.
"John, Zeke, what's the matter?"
"We didn't want to be seen, Walter." John Markum handed Walt the envelope. We have a letter to give to the postmaster and didn't want others to see the delivery."
Walter scratched his beard. "Fair enough." He looked at the envelope, pulled a stamp from under the counter and pasted it in the upper-right corner. "I'll add it to your tab, John." Walter walked the envelope to the end of the counter and in a space clearly marked United States Mail, dropped it into a canvas bag marked U.S. Mail. "It's as safe there as I can make it, gentlemen."
Zeke went to the front door. The Oxbow porch was empty. "Thank you, Mr. Burell. And thank you, Mr. Markum. Appreciate your time."
The men shook hands. "Stay safe, young man."
Zeke nodded. Despite the fact that Tom Duffy had disappeared from the porch, he felt better. His claim was official. The original was in the assay office and a copy was in the post office. "Mr. Markum, shouldn't I have a copy of the claim?"
"You're right, son. In all the hurry, I didn't make one for you. We'll go back right now. I know you'll sleep better having it in hand."
"Thank you, sir." Zeke turned to Walter. "I'll get my supplies tomorrow, Mr. Burell. Time for me to get out of town."
"Sure thing. It'll all be ready when you get here."
Zeke and Markum left through the back door. They were halfway to the assay office when Tom Duffy and his two friends came around the corner of the building. "Well, look who's here, boys. Mr. Stanford."
Zeke moved his Springfield from the crook of his arm and readied it in his hands, muzzle pointed at the ground. It was loaded, but with only one shot before he had to reload, he was outgunned. Each of the three men had six-shooters on their hips.
"Now that isn't very friendly, Zeke." Duffy looked with a raised eyebrow at the rifle now pointed in his direction.
"Not used to town life, people springing out at me from around corners." Zeke could feel his heart pounding.
"Step aside, gentlemen," Mr. Markum told the men. "I'm on my way to my office."
Duffy grinned. "Do tell. And with Mr. Stanford along, too."
Zeke adjusted his grip on the rifle and stepped forward. "Gentlemen."
He and Markum walked around the three men, giving them a wide berth. Duffy tipped his hat, grinning all the while.
Inside the assay office, Markum locked the back door. "We aren't going to be able to go out that way when we leave." He went to the table and pulled out the original claim and a blank. He sat down and began to write.
Zeke watched out of the door. Duffy and his men left the alley and walked across the street to lean on the hitching post in front of the newspaper office. "They're across the street. Waiting." His hands were slick on the rifle. He wiped each one on his jacket.
"Here you are, Mr. Stanford." Markum was folding the claim into thirds when Zeke turned around. He put it in an envelope.
Zeke took it and folded it in half, then put it in his inside coat breast pocket. He took a deep breath and held out his hand. "Appreciate the help, sir."
"Look. If all three men are across the street, we can go out the back."
"No, Mr. Markum. This needs to be settled now. I'll go out. You lock the door behind me."
Markum shook his head. "Don't be rash. We can go out the back and that'll be the end of it."
"No." Zeke looked out of the window. "No, sir, it won't. They'll follow me out of town, tonight or tomorrow and if I'm lucky, someone will find my body. This has to be handled tonight."
"I understand, son." The assayer rubbed an eye. "That's mighty brave." He walked to the door and unlocked it. "Good luck to you, sir."
Zeke wiped each hand on his coat. "Thank you."
Markum opened the door and Zeke stepped outside. He saw Duffy and his friends stand up and could hear the assay office door lock behind him. That was good. He didn't want John Markum to get hurt. He stepped off of the porch onto the street. Duffy and his men stepped away from the hitching post. They spread across the street each man three feet from the other. There was no way they were letting Zeke go.
"Gentlemen." Zeke's hands twisted on the rifle. He'd never had to shoot a man before. His stomach rolled.
"Hey, boy." Duffy laughed. "You've been mighty unfriendly. You should come have a drink with us." The two men with him, grinned.
"No thank you, sir. My supper is waitin'." The late afternoon sun shone just over the top of the newspaper office. The outlaws' shadows slanted to Zeke's left. The street was in full sun—it would be hours yet before the sun dropped behind the buildings to shade the street. He wished for a breeze. He could feel the sweat forming on his back and armpits.
"We can eat at the Oxbow, boy. The chili is pretty good, I hear."
"Appreciate that. But I think I'll just go back to my room."
Duffy and his friends took a step toward Zeke. They were about thirty feet away. "Don't be unfriendly, now."
Zeke didn't know what to do next. It was clear they weren't going to take no for an answer. Could he go with them and then slip out the back? Did they know where he was staying? He didn't want to bring trouble to Mrs. Entrada's house. "Don't mean to be unfriendly. It's just been a long day. I'm going to turn in."
"Young man like you, goin' ta bed already?" Duffy glanced at each of his friends. "Young men today have gone soft, boys."
The men didn't take their eyes from Zeke but they both laughed. "Weak, boss. That's what I say."
"Look, I'm done with my business. I don't want a drink. I'm going to pass by and be on my way." Zeke took two steps forward and raised his rifle to point at Tom Duffy. He'd decided it was better to shoot the leader than the other two. They stood twenty-five feet apart.
Duffy raised a hand. "No sense bein' hasty, son."
"I'm not your son."
"Oh, ho! Listen to that, boys. There is a little fight in the boy." Duffy's hand moved from his belt buckle to hover over his gun. "Looks to me like he wants a fight."
"I don't want a fight. You go back to the Oxbow and I'll tend to my own affairs."
"I don't think so, son. Word is you have found gold in the Mazatzal's. We'd like to be partners."
"I don't need partners." He took another step toward the men. His stomach was rolling and his mouth was so dry he could barely speak the words. Zeke was beginning to think the gold was more trouble than it was worth.
"Don't be like that. Mining's more work than one man can do alone."
Zeke saw Duffy's friends' hands move over their guns. He stared at Duffy. "If you touch your gun I'm shooting you first. He pointed the rifle directly at Duffy.
"Don't be stupid, boy. That Springfield is a single shot. The boys here would both shoot you before you could get to your next cartridge."
"Let me worry about that." Zeke saw movement at the corner of the General Store. He glanced at it but couldn't look for long—he needed to keep an eye on the three in front of him. More of Duffy's men, no doubt. He could feel his knees begin to tremble. Zeke began to regret not writing his ma and pa and Mary when he had the chance. Now they'd have nothing from him after he died. He swallowed. The three men in front of him were trading glances. They were going to make their move. His hands moved on the rifle, getting a grip through the sweat.
He saw Duffy make his move, his hand moving that fraction of an inch to the gun. Zeke took a breath, he didn't want to miss. When Duffy's gun cleared the holster, Zeke fired. Smoke filled the air as he heard four shots ring out.
Four shots? The smoke cleared. Duffy and his two men lay on the street. Zeke felt light-headed and sank to his knees in the dirt. From behind the newspaper and the General Store, two men came out. Zeke could see the star on the one man's vest. The other man was Mr. Markum.
Zeke pulled himself to his feet as the sheriff stood over the three men on the street. He nudged them with the toe of his boot.
"You all right, young fella?"
Zeke staggered over to the men, Markum joining them. "Yes, sir. I'm fine."
"You look shaken, Mr. Stanford."
"Yes, sir, Mr. Markum. I reckon I am. I thought I was a dead man."
"John found me and told me what was going on. You did well, son."
Zeke didn't feel that way. He felt as though he were going to vomit. "I suppose so, since I'm still standing."
"I'll look through my posters and see if these men are wanted. There may be a reward."
"Oh." The young miner's hearing buzzed. "Thank you."
"You're free to go. I saw what happened. You gave them several chances to back off. They attacked you. It's cut and dried son."
Zeke nodded. It didn't feel cut and dried to him. He shook hands with the sheriff and Markum and began the walk back to Mrs. Entrada's house. Halfway there he ran into the bushes to throw up.
The next day at the General Store, Zeke handed Walter Burell two envelopes. He'd written to both his parents and to Mary what had happened. He didn't feel good about himself at all. Three men dead for rocks in the ground.
He was nearly loaded when Mr. Markum stopped at the back of the store to speak to him. "Any plans for that mine, son?"
"I'm gonna work it best I can, sir." He added the lighter goods to the top of the pack on Jenny.
"You know, there's many a company that would buy the rights to your claim."
Zeke blinked. "I didn't know that."
"If you'd like, I can contact two or three of them. Get some bids on the claim. Next time you come to town you can make your decision."
"You would do that?" Zeke thought about the three men lying in the street. His stomach still rolled at the memory of the sight and the smell of gunpowder and blood.
"Yes, I would. I'll have everything here by the time you return."
Zeke liked the idea. The fight for the mine was a black cloud on everything he wanted for his parents and for himself. "You do that. I'll be back in about a month." The two shook hands. He finished loading Jenny as Markum walked off toward the telegraph office. He thought about the money he might be able to sell the mine for. It would still be tainted. A month working the claim wouldn't be nearly enough penance.
He finished loading the donkey and left, staying in the back alley to the edge of town. He'd have to do some good with whatever money he got. He'd talk to his ma and pa and Mary. In the meantime, he'd think on it. Zeke led the donkey out into the already hot morning, dust rising in puffs from their footsteps. It was going to have to be a very good thing, a gold dream.