I figured I wasn't going to make it this time. I was hard and I had led a hard life. Lucky most of my time, I guess I had used it all up and should have quit this way of life six months ago. I was a cowpoke and gunslinger and had taken a job protecting some rag-tag cattlemen up north awhile back. They were good enough people, but they couldn't pull together against the big outfit that was pushing them off their land. When the man that hired me died, the rest just up and caved.
At the showdown on the little dusty street where he had been killed, I was lying there alongside him. He was dead. I wasn't. I wasn't a whole lot alive either. The other side had got lead into me. One slug bounced off two of my ribs, breaking them. I was carrying another slug that had hit me as I was going down. It was lodged in my thigh. The ranchers I worked for were two damned afraid to come near me or their dead boss. I lay there for two hours until it was dark enough to drag myself to my horse. A kid helped boost me into the saddle, and only half conscious, I guided my mount out of town.
I was three and a half days into a four-day trip when my horse stepped into a gopher hole and snapped his leg. I had just been coming up on the backside of a water hole when it happened. I had to shoot the poor beast and crawl the last hundred yards to the rocks sheltering the water. I was feverish and miles away from any help. My leg was infected and every breath I took was pass-out pain from the smashed ribs.
I would have made it to my brother's spread if this hadn't happened. I was traveling cross-country and this wasn't on any trail. It might be days before anyone found me. I got a drink and made my way back into the shade of the rocks. I passed out.
I roused up when I heard voices. Unbelieving, one of them was my brother Curt's voice. God how could I be so in luck. Maybe my luck wasn't all gone after all. I raised up ready to make myself known when there was a gunshot and I saw my brother keel over. Reflexes took over and I palmed my piece, dropping the two men standing over my brother. They were going to put a couple more slugs into their victim. They died before they could. I crawled out to see how badly my brother was hit.
It was bad. Curt had been hit in the chest and was dying. He knew it and I knew it, but there was enough life left in him to recognize me. "Clarence? Clarence, it can't be. Oh God, I'm glad to see you. You've got to do something for me. Listen carefully. My saddlebags are full of money. I'm coming home from a trail drive. Those men that shot me work for a man named Hal Downs. Most of the money is his, but he might not care so much about the money as he does something else. He wants my wife, Ada. He has bragged around that someday he will get her."
Curt passed out and I didn't know if he would regain consciousness. I crawled over to his bedroll and found his kit. Opening it up, a bottle of horse liniment fell out. I thought, "That just might save my life." Just that minute the coffee pot boiled over, and I surmised that my brother had time to make camp before he was shot and I was unaware of it all.
Curt could not have realized how bad off I was, for when he came to, he thought I was going to mount up and ride off to save his wife. I said I would stay for a bit. We went back over our lives. It had been three years since I had seen him. He had married and bought a little spread. We had kept in touch by him posting me care of General Delivery at various places he knew I would be.
He told me that just as he was leaving with the herd, Ada had said she thought she might be pregnant. He had almost stayed home, but they needed to sell some of steers that were finally old enough. This Hal Downs had convinced him to drive his much larger gather with his own and would pay him extra if he would put the cattle into the same herd. Money was always short so he had agreed. Curt could see what was behind it all now. With Curt out of the way and dead, he would be free to go after Ada.
We relived our childhood and laughed about my having to fight so many times over my name of "Clarence." Even Mom had admitted it had been a mistake to name me that, but she wanted us to have the same initials. Curt was two years older than me and bigger. I was smaller, just under five-ten, but I was quicker. Neither one of us regretted our lives. I had been everywhere and done whatever my fancy pointed to. Curt said his only regret was dying without seeing his Ada and maybe the little squirt--if there was one. His last words were, "Take care of her."
The next time I looked at him, Curt was gone. I set about caring for myself. I had a mission, if you call it that. Sometime and someday my gun was going to collect the man that ordered my brother's death. Staring at my leg, I finally did it. I took my knife and slit where the bullet had traveled from back to front and popped the bullet out where it lay underneath the skin just above the knee.
I had a gash almost ten inches long. The suppuration had killed a lot of the feeling or I wouldn't have been able to do this. I poured the liniment onto the wound and the pain put me out once again. Coming to, I took the now cold coffee grounds and made a poultice and wrapped it up in my kerchief, soaking it all with liniment. I bound it over the wound with some piggin strings I pulled from one of the saddles.
I said goodbye to my brother. I left him just the way he had died. I checked the guns and made it look like a real gun battle. I didn't have the strength to bury Curt or boost him onto one of the other horses. Hell, when I pulled myself onto Curt's bronc, I nearly passed out from the pain of the smashed ribs. I sat on the horse and looked around at what I was leaving.
I went over, leaned down and untied the other horses and set them free. Eventually Hal Downs would come looking for his men. I wanted it to look like Curt had killed them and then had died from a bullet he had received in return. The killers' horses headed for their home range and I let Curt's horse drift along with them for a ways. A lot of this wasn't planned, for I was in and out of consciousness and I must have been in this condition for several miles. The other two horses plodded along in the footprints they had made coming north.
Moon was up and suddenly I felt refreshed. I knew sometime I had to head west toward Curt's spread while the Downs' ranch was almost due south. Wide awake, I gently guided my horse to the right and nearer the hills that were coming down off a small butte. The other two horses followed for a hundred yards or so, and then turned back to the northbound tracks and retraced their way south toward home.
Just as the sun was coming up I pulled into the yard of a small, neat ranch house. I croaked, "Ada." Nothing. As loud as I could. "Ada!" The door opened and a woman peered out.
"Who are you? What are you doing with Curt's horse? Where's Curt?" She was holding a rifle and it came up to cover me as she spoke.
I talked fast. "Ma'am, Curt's dead. I'm almost dead and there will be some people looking for the money he had with him and I got it with me. You have to hide me because I killed those that killed Curt. I'm Curt's brother, Clarence."
I'll give the woman credit, she got right to it. She led the horse into the barn which was about five times the size of the house. Easing me off the horse I sagged to the floor. Seeing how badly I was injured, she wanted to stop and give me some attention. "No, there's no time. Drive the horse into the corral with the others and then drive the whole bunch out onto the range. Go east over the tracks I made coming in and leave them a half mile out. Leave the saddle on so no one will know the horse made it this far.
"You'll have to walk back. Just say the corral bars were down this morning and you were looking for the horses. Where can I hide?"
Ada went over to the feed box and tugging it forward, lifted three wide planks and pointed to a hole about four feet deep. There were a few steps down to the bottom. "Nobody knows this is here. The only trouble is, you won't be able to get out by yourself when I put the grain box back."
"That's okay. If I die down here, I've got some of Curt's money on me. Now get those horses moving, please."
I heard the rush of the remuda as it went pounding through the yard. An hour later I would guess, Ada was back. She was sitting above me and talking through the floor. "Tell me about it. Curt is really dead?"
"Yes, Ma'am. I had some little time with him. His last words were for you and he sent his love. I am supposed to ask if you are pregnant. He said somehow he would know, even when he was on the dark side. Another thing, don't trust Hal Downs, because he is the one that had him killed. He wanted the money and more importantly, he wants you. Eventually I will get him."
"Yes, I understand. Oh I had such a bad feeling when Curt left. I've had a sinking feeling every day for the two months he has been away."
I could hear the woman above me crying for her dead husband and for her unborn child. "Won't you let me look at your wounds? What do you need done first?"
"I need water. I can hear some penned up chickens. Can you bring a pail of water when you feed them? Just open the floor long enough to pass it to me. If anyone sees you they will think you're just bringing water to the chickens."
"Why would Hal think to come here and so soon?"
"He would have expected the killers back about dark last night so when they didn't return on time, he will be looking for them. He'll find the horses and then he will most likely come here. If he goes all the way to the water hole first, he might not be here before morning tomorrow. Otherwise you can expect him anytime."
She got me the water and a thick slab of beef between two slices of bread. Later I also heard an exchange between one of the Downs' riders and Ada. "Afternoon, Ma'am. Husband not home yet?"
"No, I expected him yesterday. I can't understand it. He mailed me a letter ten days ago and told me when he would be home. I fear something has happened to him. Say, would you do me a favor? Would you round up my horses for me? They got out of the corral last night. Buck, the hired man, won't be back from his usual bender for another day or two. I tried to find the horses on foot but couldn't see them anywhere."
"Gee, I can't Ma'am. I was just passing by and Hal is going to be upset I took the time to talk. I'm really sorry."
I heard him leave. Five minutes later Ada came into the barn. "Did you hear?"
"Yes, I heard. That rider was just scouting for Downs. He didn't want to bring in Curt's horse with the saddle on it. You're doing fine. I don't know as I could have bluffed like you did, knowing he is part of the outfit that killed Curt."
"I feel like screaming. Curt is still lying out there all alone and I can't do anything about it."
"Look, maybe you could speed this up. Why don't you go talk to the sheriff and tell him how worried you are. If someone can see Curt's horse out there with a saddle on it, the sheriff will have to look into it. If you grained any of your horses, they'll be looking for a bait about dark. Walk out there and call, maybe one will come up to you so you can ride into town."
"It's better than doing nothing."
I dozed and then I heard some cautious footsteps over my head. I heard the steps go up the ladder to the hayloft and could hear some heavy rustling in the haymow above. Whoever was there was looking for a place to hide or sleep.
Suddenly I heard Ada speak to a horse as she led him onto the barn floor. I thought, damn, I hope she doesn't speak to me. Then, "Buck, Goddamn you, get out of that haymow. This is the last time I'm going to put up with you. Get your duffel packed and get the hell out of here. You're fired. When I need you the most you're off in town drunk. The broncs got out and I had to look all over hell to find them. Curt will have to pay you when he gets home. Now git!"
I heard some mumbling and then silence. Twenty minutes later, which seemed like forever, Ada came back into the barn. "I'm going into town. I didn't see the other horses that were in the corral, but the driving horse came to me. I'm taking the buggy. You'll just have to stay where you are for a while longer. I think Buck was still drunk so I fired him. I can't have him around with you here. You keep quiet now, until I get back."
During the darkest part of the night, Ada led me into the house and fed me some soup while she looked at my wounds. She smeared some salve on my ribs and bound me up with a clean torn-up flour sack. She uncovered my leg and gasped in horror when she first saw it. I was pleased with it myself, though, for a lot of the putrefaction was gone out of it. The poultice of coffee grounds had pulled much of the redness out too. The only thing that Ada had she could make a poultice out of was some cooked carrots which she mashed. She said this would keep the wound soft and wet and allow healing by drawing more poison out.
You couldn't say Ada was a pretty woman--handsome, maybe. She definitely had her head on and was entirely competent. She was wearing a loose dress, and you couldn't tell yet she was with child. I felt really bad and wondered what she was going to do now, so I asked. "Keep running the ranch, I guess. You said you had the money that Curt got for our steers. That will keep me going for awhile."
"You can't use it though. How are you going to explain a whole pot of gold money? You're supposed to be busted."
"I thought about that all day. I'm going to write my sister back home to see if she has any ideas. You said the money was safe?"
"I think so, most of it anyway. When you go outside tomorrow, you look east to that pile of rocks about two hundred yards from the barn. I swung those saddlebags up on top. I thought it was going to kill me when I did it, but I didn't dare bring them in with me."
"Good plan. I couldn't have thought of a better one. Nobody can climb up the backside high enough to look down so the saddlebags should be hidden just fine."
Ada put me back into my hole before dawn. This time I had blankets, food and water. The hole was big enough to sit up and plenty of room to lie down. A most comfortable coffin to die in, too, if I was trapped here.
The sheriff and a deputy came by in the morning. Ada asked him to round up the horses for her. He wasn't gone long and came back into the yard with a rush, trailing Curt's mount with the saddle still on. They talked and asked about the direction Curt was to come in from. Soon he was on his way east. If the man was any good, he would soon pick up the tracks and back-trail them to the water hole. What he would find there would be debatable if Hal Downs had disposed of the bodies.
Ada came in and talked to me through the floor. "What am I going to do with you? You just can't appear here, no horse or nothing."
"Got it figured. Give me a couple of more days' rest. There must be a wagon yard or freight yard in town. You can hide me in the buckboard or the buggy if it is big enough. Somewhere near the yard, I'll ease out and if asked, say I hitched a ride on one of the wagons. It's done all the time. I'll be out on the street in the morning and when you come by you can hire me. I'll swear I can feed stock, and you can say that after Buck, a cripple is still an improvement."
The sheriff thought to take a horse with him. Curt was tied over a saddle when he returned. Talking to Ada, he figured that her husband was robbed and killed. The deputy had scouted around and found my dead horse and saddle and surmised whoever had ridden him had done the killing. I overheard all of this and I was thankful that neither the horse nor the saddle could be traced to me.
There was no mention of the Downs' riders, so I guess Hal had been there at the water hole after I was. This was confirmed when Hal Downs rode into the yard looking for the sheriff, claiming that Curt must have made off with his cattle money. Feigning shock over seeing Curt tied over the saddle, he immediately offered help to Ada.
It was a wrong move on his part. Ada lit into Hal. "Goddamn you Hal, I would still have Curt if you hadn't insisted he drive your cattle up the trail with ours. I don't want to see your butt around here at all. Just stay off my place." By this time Ada was crying. Hal was still trying to smooth things down, and it wasn't working at all. When Ada threatened to run him off with her rifle, the sheriff told Hal he better leave.
The sheriff took Curt's body into town with him to the undertaker. Ada said she would be in later to make the arrangements. It was nearing dark by the time they left. Ada came into the barn to feed the chickens. She was still crying softly. "Did you hear all that? If the sheriff wasn't here, I was working up to shoot that bastard. Hal don't know how close he came to meeting his maker."
"I know and I feel the same way. Tell me what he looks like? I want to know so when I meet him, I won't mistake him for somebody else."
"He's tall and I guess the ladies think he is good looking. He wears fancy clothes and smiles too much. He's tried to sweet talk me, ever since Curt left with the herd. I wanted nothing to do with him then and want a hell of a lot less to do with him now."
"Ada, let me up out of here. You are going into town after dark. This will be a perfect time to get me into the wagon yard. I can be on the street and you can hire me tomorrow as we planned."
"You're not well enough, yet. Wait another two-three days."
"I can't. If you hire me early in the morning, I can go to Curt's funeral. I want to be there when they put him down to rest. You can't deny me that, can you?"
"Okay, you are right. No I can't. I'll feed you good and fix your dressings before we go, though."
While she was doing this, I told her a little bit about the latest job of mine that had turned out so poorly. I said I had been going by the name of Charlie Wilkins up north. When I used my own name I used CW Collins, because I hated the name Clarence so much. Wilkins was my mother's name and Curt carried it, same as me. Ada asked me if I had any money and I said enough. I shouldn't need more than the dollar and fifty-seven cents I carried. It would see me through until I got back here.
"Don't forget, there is five hundred in coin behind the steps in the hole you had me in. I also suppose you know about the insurance money that Curt and I both carry too, don't you?"
"You mean the two and a half dollar gold coin he carried in his boot? Yes, I know about it. It's dark now and we better get going. You play it safe. I don't want to lose both of you." Ada gave me a hug and said she was sorry when I winced. Broken ribs were just not meant to be hugged.
I debated whether to wear my gun or not. I finally decided I had better. I wasn't the most popular person in some circles and you never knew when you might run into someone with a grudge.
Christ, the pain almost killed me riding in the back of the buckboard. Give me a solid bronc to ride anytime. Ada pulled into an alley beside the wagon yard and I slid out the rear and I sat down near a tarp-covered freight wagon. Ada pulled out and across the street and hitched her horse to the tie rail. I could see plainly the building she entered from where I was sitting.
I was leaning up against a rack that had a harness thrown over it. It must have been a half hour later and I could see Ada standing in the door as it was held open by someone talking to her. After a few minutes she came down off the steps, untied the horse and drove away. I felt around and found a comfortable seat near the entrance to the big barn where I could hear several horses munching hay. I hesitated to go in the barn without asking.
The next thing I knew there was a lantern shining in my face held by a person standing behind the light. I could see another person with him and could see a star shining on that person's chest. "Get up easy, fella, and make it slow. Keep your hand away from your iron." I had fallen asleep and most likely been spotted by a swamper belonging to the yard. He had gone and rounded up the law.
I stood the best I could. "What are you doing here? Where did you come from?"
"I dropped off a wagon passin' through. I got hurt a few days back and am trying to get to my brother's spread. He is supposed to have a place close to here."
"Who's your brother?"
The deputy looked at me and then made a decision. "Come on over to the jail. I'll find the sheriff and he can talk to you."
"Am I arrested?"
"No, but the sheriff will want to talk to you. Come along." I hobbled after him, out into the street and up to the jail. The deputy sent the swamper with the lantern to find the sheriff. When we arrived at the jail the deputy offered me coffee and said his boss would be right along.
I asked if the deputy knew my brother's place and he admitted he did. That was the only question he would answer until the sheriff came in. The sheriff must have been in bed, for he was still tucking his shirt in when he came through the door. He started right in with questions. "Who are you and what's your name?"
"My name is CW Collins and I'm looking for my brother. Can you tell me how I can get to his place? I was waiting until morning to ask around."
"Where you from?"
"Last place was a little valley up near Timberfork, north of here. I was signed on with some of the hill people, but I picked the wrong side. I got shot up some and was tryin' to get to Curt's place to mend up."
"Well, fella, I'm afraid I've got bad news for you. Your brother got robbed and killed a few days ago. I just found him and brought him in this afternoon. The undertaker over at the furniture store is building his coffin right now and your brother will be buried in the morning. His widow was in earlier and made the arrangements. God this must be awful for you. Terrible for his widow too. You know her don't you?"
"I knew he was married up. I never got to meet her yet. Her name's Ada, I think Curt wrote."
"You'll meet her tomorrow. She is a fine woman. This is bad for her. The money they were planning on was stolen when Curt was done in. You got anything to help her out with?"
"Nope, not hardly. I could give her a hand though for awhile."
"Well she'll need it. Pick one of those bunks back there and sleep here for tonight. You got enough to buy your breakfast?"
"Just about if it ain't more'n six bits."
"You're all right then. I'll see you in the morning."
I had a rough night, but it wasn't nearly as bad as it would have been sleeping in the hole where I was last night. I'd had enough of that place. My leg was starting to itch, so I guess that was coming along fine. I knew though, that I was going to be a little gimpy in the leg the rest of my life. I had too much muscle damage to expect otherwise. I saw the prices on the board when I went into the eatery to get fed and I almost backed out. I came away full and satisfied though, so guess the prices weren't too far out of line.
I went over and viewed my brother and said goodbye to him, privately. Word got around town about Curt being dead and about me being here too. I was a figure of interest because people stared at me when I went back to the sheriff's office to wait for the services. I pretty much was taken with the sheriff for he seemed damned decent. He was waiting when Ada pulled up in front of the funeral parlor. He helped her down and took the reins from her and told his deputy to take care of the horse.
He gave her the word about me being in town and led her over to the office and introduced us. He then stepped back outside to give us a few minutes alone. Ada's eyes were red and I could see she was trying to come to grips with the loss of Curt. The unexpected for people was very often bad and seldom good and this was an example of it. She did have some concern for me. "I was concerned how this was going to work out and really worried when I saw the sheriff waiting for me."
"It couldn't have worked out better. I've been over and said goodbye to Curt already. People are really feeling bad about Curt being killed. There is going to be quite a crowd here and they all feel sad for you."
"I know. This is really difficult. You don't know how it helps so much to have you here to support me. I'm ready to go over I guess--ready as I ever will be anyway."
There were some people watching us come out of the sheriff's office. I escorted Ada across the street, the best I could. There were three women on the steps crying and one man gave me a hand up the steps. The services were held in a back room of the furniture store. The owner was the one who laid Curt out. There was only room for twenty people to be seated on benches. The space to the room and the rest of the store was filled with mourners for Curt, for he and Ada were well liked. The casket lay across a pair of sawhorses. Ada and I made our way to the front and a man met us and helped Ada sit.
He introduced himself to me as the mayor and said he was going to perform the services, as the minister couldn't get here from the next town. He commented that someday the town was hoping for a church and a minister to preach, but until then he was usually asked to fill in. Ada whispered that she had asked that the casket be closed, as she thought that was the only way she could get through this. The service was short and quiet although some sobbing could be heard behind us. A young teenage girl sang, "A Closer Walk with Thee" and then it was all over.
The deputy had Ada's buggy brought around and we sat in it while some townsfolk loaded the casket onto a buckboard. We followed and made our way out to the cemetery. The mayor read over the casket as it was lowered into the ground. When it reached the bottom, he led us all in the Lord's Prayer.
The mayor's wife asked Ada to go round to her house as the town's ladies were preparing a lunch for her before she went back out to the ranch. Ada looked at me, not knowing what to do. "Go along. I've got enough money for a beer and I'll pick at the free lunch over at the saloon."
I sat at a little table nursing my second beer when a man I recognized to be Hal Downs, came into the saloon. He was loud and set drinks up for the three punchers that were with him. Bringing a bottle, he sat at a table near enough to me that I could hear him talking. "I figured I hadn't better go near Curt's burying this morning. For some reason Ada is blaming me for Curt's death. She'll come around, though. She ain't got no money and couldn't even afford old Buck. She fired him yesterday. The rumor is she's with child. I'll do just about anything to get that woman. If I can get her, and I will, you can be sure of that, I can name the kid for my own."
I thought to myself he wasn't reckoning with me. I just might have something to say about that. I must have been staring at him for he said, "What are you looking at, Bum?"
"You, I guess. I heard you talking about bedding a woman that just put her husband in the ground. I can't get around thinking anybody that low must have had something to do with her husband's death." As I said this, I got to my feet. "You most likely stole her money and thought that would put you in position to corral her."
I was ready and waiting patiently for the explosion that would come from my words. It didn't. One of the punchers was shaking Hal's arm, trying to get his attention. Hal shook him off, but the puncher persisted. Hal turned angrily to his man. "What?"
"Hal, that's Charlie Wilkins. You don't want to mess with him. Even if you get lead into him, he's not going to quit. I know of at least three times he has been near dead. He goes off somewhere to get well and then he comes back and reads from the good book to those that shot him. Leave him alone or at least let me out of here."
Hal was saved from making a decision as the sheriff showed up beside me. "CW, Ada says she is ready to go home. I'm really sorry about you losing your brother. You know I'm still looking for the money Curt was robbed of. I'm going out tomorrow where we found Curt and see what I can find. If I could track it down, it would help Ada a lot."
"It would, Sheriff. But watch your back when you're out there. Those killers might not want you tracking them." I was looking directly at Hal Downs when I said this.
Hal Downs about exploded. "What about my money, Sheriff? I lost a lot more than the Collins woman did."
"If I ever find the money, you'll get yours. In the meantime, I'm sure you won't be starving. Why in hell didn't you do something to protect your investment anyway? You've got a crew, why didn't you send a rep along with Collins and the trail crew? Collins worked his ass off for his wife and came up dead for it. Personally I don't feel sorry for you at all."
"You say his name is Collins? What about him being Charlie Wilkins? He's an outlaw and gunslinger."
"A lot of men, swift with a gun, use part of their family name to protect their families. Curt told me all about his brother when he first moved here. As far as him being an outlaw, I never had any paper on him come through my office. You better walk soft Hal, I sure as hell wouldn't want to do anything to rile him up if I was you."
"What do we do now? I feel the heart has been ripped right out of me. I couldn't have got through these last two-three days without you. Oh, CW, I feel so alone and empty."
"You said you have a sister back in Ohio. Can't she come out for a little bit? Surely she could leave her family just until you get over Curt's death."
"I'm the only family she has. She's a spinster and works in a bank. She said one time she might consider a move out here. It's such a long journey, though, and I don't know whether she would or not. I'd love to have her come."
"What's her name and is she older or younger than you?"
"Her name is Annie Taylor and she is two years older. She hasn't married because she doubts anyone would want her. She thinks she is homely and I guess I couldn't call her pretty. I'm big, but she is taller than me by four inches. I've heard people refer to her as horsy. She sits behind a window in the bank all the time so people won't laugh at how she looks. She has a heart of gold, though, and is always helping someone. Maybe if she got out here where there aren't so many women she would have a chance to find a man."
"Look we have to get that gold into your possession legally, somehow. Well maybe not legally, but yours without knowing where it came from. If we could figure out how to get it to your sister, she could come here and say she was delivering your inheritance from your folks or an uncle or aunt or something. It could go right into the bank with no questions asked."
"Well let's decide what to say to her. I'll write. I'm going to run out of money soon. It won't be long before any credit I had at the store will be shut down. People may feel sorry for me, but won't for long if I can't pay them back.
"How much money do you think there is in the saddle bags? I know Curt was hoping to be bringing home nineteen hundred or maybe a little more. He agreed to be the trail boss for two hundred and twenty dollars, but I don't suppose Hal Downs will ever pay up. I will try and collect, though. At the least, I can embarrass him."
Ada was the one to go into town to the post office. The post office was little more than putting a letter into a saddlebag and watching it go north on the stage. The mail that came in ended up in the general store and the store keeper held it for anyone that asked if there was anything for them. People who knew that they never would get a letter, made a ritual of asking anyway, always hoping, I guess. The town did have a telegraph for those that did business or needed to get a message off quickly.
My wounds healed up pretty fast, but as I suspected, I would always walk with a limp. It would be a couple months though, before I would attempt to bust any broncs or do any cattle roping. I could round up animals and move them somewhere, but that was about it.
I saw much of Ada. I could see why Curt had chosen her for his wife. I was half in love with her myself within a few days. I had never met a more pleasant or competent woman, of course I wasn't that familiar with women--good women, that is. I decided that when I got Ada settled with her money, I was going to be leaving. She would make out all right even with carrying a kid as she was. Already cowpokes were dropping around to see if they could give her a hand. Hal came once. Where others were welcome, she made it plain, he wasn't.
Three weeks and two days after Ada had mailed off the letter to her sister a livery buggy pulled into the yard and the driver handed Ada a yellow telegraph slip. He whirled and left and we waited until he was out of sight. Anxious, she opened it. There was a lot riding on the message scribbled on the sheet.
There was the one word. "Confirm."
Well, in a couple of weeks we would see. Ada was happy that night at supper. She was going to see the sister she hadn't seen in years. And, yes if the plan worked out she would have enough money to get by until another bunch of steers were ready to be sold or someone she liked came along. The nineteen hundred dollars would help in both cases.
I wasn't considering myself in the mix. Ada said, "CW, what about us? Or more to the point what about you?"
"What do you mean? I didn't know there was any 'us' or ever can be."
"I've seen you looking at me. I can recognize the signs as well as any woman can. You'd like to make love to me. Look, I know I can't make a life for my child without a man around. I've got to find someone to take care of me. I can't say I love you yet, but I would after a little more time passes. It has been over four months since Curt went away, and most of the time I can't remember his face. I'd like you to have the first chance. I know I could make you happy."
I was stunned. Here in front of me was a woman that any man would be proud to have at his side. I wanted her too, but. But what? It just didn't feel right, that's what. And that was why I was spending my nights in the barn alone and she was not more than fifty feet away in her own bed.
I finally said something. "Ada, I don't know why, but I can't. When I get you settled and your sister is here, I'll be off somewhere the same as I always am. You just deserve better than me, a wandering cowpoke that is too fast with his gun. That is why I use a different name, to keep from hurting my family. I want the best for you and I don't see how you can find it with me."
"You're a foolish man, CW, but I had to ask. You don't know how much I appreciate your being here with me. You are sure about this? I do have to find someone."
"I'm sure. That is unless Hal Downs enters into the picture. If it was him, and you married him, you would be a widow again before he could finish his vows."
"I hate him as much as you do. It never will be him."
"I get the feeling that there might be someone. Do you want to tell me about it?"
"There is an Englishman, Steven Claiborne. He is a remittance man that owns that farm over east of my spread. He is some older than me, but always respectful and asks if he can do anything to help. He knows I go into town Saturday mornings. The last two weeks he has invited me for coffee in the hotel dining room. I haven't encouraged him, but I haven't discouraged him either. I will see him tomorrow morning, most likely. If you are sure about yourself, I might invite him for Sunday dinner. I could dress out a chicken."
"You think that much of me to give me first chance? Ada, you're a wonderful person."
"No, it is you. You remind me so much of Curt sometimes. I was worried if we made a pair that I would think I was back with Curt and that wouldn't be fair to you or to his memory either. CW, why don't you find a woman and marry her? I'll sell you this place. It's big enough to make a living on. There is still the money of Hal's. That's yours as far as I'm concerned."
"I don't think anybody would have me for the same reason I gave you. Of course I could wait around and marry your sister." I laughed as I said this. Ada looked at me strangely, but didn't say anything.
It was foggy when I went to my bed in the barn. I lay there wondering if I had made a mistake by turning Ada down. I came to the conclusion I did love her, but that I hadn't made a mistake. This decided, I turned over to go to sleep. Then it came to me. The night was perfect. It was probably going to rain. I would retrieve the saddlebags and bring them in from the top of the rock pile. I was going to need them shortly and God forbid someone saw me getting them.
I made myself a chore! I missed the rocks completely the first pass, but the fog lifted and although dark I got my bearings. It was a wonder I didn't kill myself climbing up that pile of rocks in the dark. I was just about to give up searching for them when I slipped and my hand went down into a crevasse and there they were.
There had to be between twenty or twenty-five pounds of gold coins in the side pockets. It was dead weight carrying it back to the barn. I was out of breath when I got there and by this time it was pouring rain. That pleased me, for all tracks would be washed out. Hell, I thought, Ada might as well count it with me, so I went close to the side of the ranch house where I knew her bed was.
I spoke through the wall of the cabin. "Ada, let me in. Don't show a light though until I come in."
"I stumbled when I went through the door and dropped my burden. It made a loud clunk when it hit the floor. Ada lit a lamp and checked the three windows the cabin sported. She and I figured we had as much right to this gold as anybody, but all that had happened sure made both of us uneasy. I knew now how a guilty man felt.
I shucked my slicker and Ada suggested I take off my wet boots. She built up the fire that was nearly out. I emptied the saddlebags onto the kitchen table. There were eleven rolls of coins and a sack of some more coins in a bag from one saddle pocket. The other pocket held two rolls only. We sat and looked at the money. This was more money than either of us had ever seen before. "Ada, there is another five hundred dollars out in the barn that I took out of one of the pockets. It most likely came out of the one with the two rolls. I think that must be Curt's money too, for the cattle he sold. The other has to be Hal's. Christ, Hal must be crazy over the loss of all of this."
"Good. He lost his money when he had Curt killed, thanks to you. And he isn't getting me either, thanks again to you. I owe you so much. Are you sure about the decision you made earlier?"