The Shopkeeper

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A man struggling to provide for his family on the frontier is given the chance of a lifetime...but is it worth it? A short story set in the Arizona Territory during the 1880s. This is the first of a series of a connected universe of characters and stories during the Old West. Edward Hardy is a general store owner in a small dying town in Arizona. He stubbornly refuses to move on with his family despite his failing business and constantly dwindling town. However, he is given the chance to save his town and business while providing for his family without having to move away when he is offered a job by two shady individuals.

Adventure / Action
Age Rating:

The Shopkeeper

Edward Hardy breathed a sigh of frustration as he read his ledger. There was just no way he was going to be able to pay for the suppliers to come from Tucson next week. Leaning against the counter, Edward ran his hand through his charcoal hair and looked around at the store. The shelves were running thin, even though he barely gets any customers. Having bought fewer supplies than usual the last few deliveries, it seemed that Goldgate General Store’s goods were in high demand, but the ugly truth was that it was going bankrupt along with the rest of the godforsaken town. When Edward was a young boy, Goldgate was a prosperous little town for prospectors and their families to congregate while they struck rich from the gold in the river and caves. Now that the Rush had become a thing of the past, people packed up their stuff and moved on to bigger, more civilized towns in the Arizona Territory. Some even went as west as California and some moved back east. Being a stubborn man, Edward and his family stayed put with about a hundred others.

“We might be a quaint little place nowadays, but we’ll get by just fine,” was what Edward would say on the regular. Now, he was slowly becoming disillusioned. He couldn’t feed his family with the income he was making. The last thing Edward wanted to do was set off blindly to some big town or, dare he consider, city. He was adamant that they’d be living on the streets or in some pathetic shanty. At least in Goldgate, Edward and his family lived in a rustic cabin with all the amenities and luxuries a family of five needed.

Alone in his shop, Edward pondered his dwindling options. Still, he maintained that he could get by, somehow. He paced the aisles of the store, studying the cans of beans, bags of grain, wide-brimmed hats, bundles of rope, and other goods. Edward stroked his bushy mustache that his wife, Emily, always said added twenty years onto him. He personally believed it made him look much more professional. His youngest boy, Seth, had cut his upper lip with Edward’s razor a few nights before because his six-year-old mind had reasoned that using the razor on his lip would let him grow a mustache just like his Pa. Edward silently chuckled as he recalled the look of pure shock and betrayal Seth gave the razor as if it was its fault. Emily had scolded Edward for not being more serious when it happened, but he couldn’t help it- it was almost adorable, the innocent reasoning Seth had behind it all. It was only a small grazed cut, nothing that couldn’t be easily cleaned and bandaged. It’ll definitely be a funny tale to tell the townspeople for years to come.

If the town is still around in the years to come, that is.

Re-focusing on the predicament at hand, Edward decided a hot meal and a night’s rest might be the best remedy to the aching pain that stabbed his temples. He’d worry about everything tomorrow. Edward closed up shop and threw on his grey coat and black telescope hat. He stepped out into the cooling air outside as the sun set. It was hot as Hades during the day in the Arizona desert, but fairly chilly at night. Edward decided he needed a moment to calm his nerves before he started for home, so he strode toward Goldgate Saloon and Inn. As he lit a cigar and puffed it’s alleviating smoke, Edward surveyed Goldgate’s main street. As a boy, Edward could see rows of streets and buildings when he looked out from where he stood this very moment. Now, it was simply a single main street and some houses and homesteads scattered around the place.

Sighing, Edward walked toward the two-story saloon, its name painted in white letters on the top half of the darkened crimson building. It wasn’t necessarily dilapidated, but the building, along with most of Goldgate, could use some repairs. Loose boards there, cracked windows here, things of that nature. Still, it served its purpose and whom were they trying to impress? Seldom do travelers come through Goldgate. It’s almost always the same few patrons at the saloon and they could care less about it looking a little rough.

Just as Edward thought this, though, he was shocked to see two new faces when he stepped into the saloon. I’ll be damned, he thought. There were two men leaning against the bar, speaking with Donald, the bartender. One of the men was fairly tall, easily over six feet, while the other was equally short, perhaps a little over five feet. The tall man was wearing a red shirt with the sleeves rolled to the elbows, a black vest, and light brown trousers. His black leather boots reflected a lustrous silver design. A black cattleman hat sat on his head. Edward couldn’t see his face, but he could make out that the man had short brown hair and a scruffy beard. The short man was draped in a grey overcoat with a yellow vest and white shirt. He wore black trousers and brown leather boots, plain in design. His dark hair reached his shoulders. Edward watched the men carefully as he approached the opposite end of the bar.

“So you haven’t heard of it? Renegade’s Gully? Sounds pretty specific to me.” The short man asked, seemingly on edge.

Donald sighed and shrugged. “I’m afraid not. You said it had to do with the war? Far as I know, it never reached further west than New Mexico. You might need to ask around there, gentlemen.”

The tall man took a sip of his drink. A pint of beer, it seemed. The short man tapped his fingers rhythmically and looked aside. He noticed Edward. “Hey, mister, have you heard of a place called Renegade’s Gully?”

Edward thought for a moment, gestured for Donald to bring him his usual, and shook his head. “Can’t say I have.”

“So you’re saying this place is just some figment of our imagination,” the short man fumed. “We didn’t come all the way from El goddamn Paso to be told our information is false!”

Edward tensed up and Donald looked worried just as the tall man placed a hand on the short man’s shoulder. “Calm down, Andy, Jesus!” He nodded to Edward in apology. “Let me explain, huh? We have good reason to believe that there’s a place around this area called Renegade’s Gully, where some Confederates took off to with a stash of rebel gold when their army started going to hell in ’65. They traveled by wagon all the way from Georgia to Arizona, trying to start a new life or whatever the hell. Something happened and the gold was left in a gully- Renegade’s Gully. However, every town we’ve visited in the region has told us the same thing you and bartender are telling us now.”

Donald poured Edward a shot of tequila, who shrugged his shoulders. “Well, friend, I don’t know what to tell you or your friend there. Never heard of it.” Edward sipped his drink and hoped the two strangers would leave. Something about them spelled trouble. Maybe it was their belligerent attitude. Maybe it was the fact that Andy was fingering the clasp of his holster, which carried a revolver. Maybe it was the fact that Edward simply didn’t like strangers.

Suddenly, Andy slammed his hand on the counter, which caused the three other men to jump. The short man threw his hands in the air and smirked. “By God, Terrence, don’t you remember what that redskin told us out near Gila Bend Station? Renegade’s Gully is just some nickname. Locals don’t call it that.” Andy looked at Edward and pointed his finger at him. “Alright, how about Archibald’s Trench? Heard of that?”

Edward’s eyes lit up in realization, as did Donald’s. Archibald’s Trench! Edward had visited that place when he was young on his way to Maricopa with his uncle, who was a traveling merchant. He had gone down into the trench with his uncle, amazed by it. However, he was bitten by a snake and his uncle had to extract the venom. A small bite mark remained on Edward’s leg to this day. He wouldn’t forget that day at the trench, or how to get there. It was Edward’s first time leaving the boundaries of Goldgate, as well as the day his uncle said he had become a “man”.

Edward nodded. “Oh yeah, I know Archibald’s Trench.”

Terrence smiled. “Great!.” He turned to Andy and shot him a glare. “Why the hell didn’t you think of that earlier?”

Andy glared back. “Oh, shut it! I remembered it, didn’t I? Now, where is it? I can smell that million dollars already.”

Edward froze. One million dollars? That’s gotta be an exaggeration. He’d heard tale of Confederate gold in the past, but never that much. Besides, no gold had ever been found, anywhere. Right? Still, the idea enticed Edward. With just a portion of that gold, he could save his business and provide for Goldgate for years. As much as he hated the thought, especially considering what he has seen of these two strangers, Edward felt as if this was God holding the door of opportunity open for him, and it was shutting fast. Edward cleared his throat and leaned back against the bar. “I know where it is, but here’s the thing- I don’t suppose you’d be looking for a third member of your party…?”

Andy scoffed. Edward really didn’t like that shrimp. “Like hell we are! That just means less money for us.”

Terrence nodded. “That ain’t how it’s gonna work, mister. Andy and I have been partners this whole way, we ain’t gonna take on some stranger and lose money ourselves. Now, tell us where the trench is and we’ll be on our way.”

Edward sighed and shook his head. He held the aces, so he had no reason to be worried; unless they decided to kill him, of course. “Shame. I’d love to see some of that money, but I guess none of us will, now. In fact, it seems my memory is failing me. Where was Archibald’s Trench again…?”

Terrence’s face was stone. He was obviously conflicted. Andy, on the other hand, had drawn his revolver and cocked the hammer back. Donald exclaimed and reached under the bar for his shotgun, but Edward held his hand up. Donald froze.

“Tell us where the trench is, mister, or I swear to God I’ll-”

“Shut the hell up, Andy, and put your damn gun away. If you shoot him, we won’t see a cent of that money,” Terrence interrupted. He nodded politely to Donald and sighed. “Alright, you win. But you only get fifteen percent. $150,000. Fair enough?”

Edward, satisfied, nodded and sipped his drink. “I’m glad you came to your senses, Terrence.” He walked over to the tall man and shook his hand. “Edward Hardy.” In reality, Edward couldn’t believe his luck. He was able to convince two angry hicks to let him in on a treasure hunt that could reward him with more money than Goldgate’s seen...ever, perhaps.

Andy had put away his gun and kicked a chair over. “Goddammit,” he swore. He shot a stabbing glare to Edward and pointed to him. “Any funny business and I’ll put one between your eyes.” Andy then looked Edward up and down. “You don’t even have a gun on you. What do you do for a living?”

Edward cleared his throat again and shifted his weight. “I have guns at home, and I expect to leave tomorrow morning, so I can get my gear together. And if you must know, I run the general store. I don’t see why that’s important. I know the way, and it’s not as if we’d be fighting bandits over the treasure or anything...right?”

Terrence shook his head. “No. Don’t mind Andy. I trust you’ll meet us in front of the stables at dawn?”

Edward agreed and shared his farewell with the two men and a shaken Donald. He started for home, smoking another cigar as he relished in his fortune. It seemed almost divine, his luck. The sun was nestled in between the far off plateaus now, the orange sky gradually turning a shade of dark blue as the night closed in. As he laid eyes on his cozy cabin, he could see Emily in the window, cooking dinner. Seth and the middle child, eight-year-old Virginia, were running around the house as they played and giggled. Edward assumed 14-year-old Silas was feeding the horses or some other evening chore before supper. The sight of their father caused Seth and Virginia to call to their Pa as they ran to him, hugging and kissing him. Edward grinned from ear to ear as he embraced his children, silently thinking that soon they’d be rich in both money and love, though there was already plenty of the latter to go around among his wonderful children.

Edward entered his home to find Emily standing by the stove, a wooden spoon in her hand and a smile on her face. The couple embraced and kissed. Edward sniffed the air and smirked. “Smells wonderful, darling.”

Emily grinned. “Your favorite- pork, beans, and grits.” The blonde woman stepped away to focus on finishing cooking. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see her husband removing his coat and hat, setting them on the rack near the front door.

“Sounds delicious. Is Silas outside?”

“He should be coming in soon. That boy’s gotta wash up, I’m sure he smells awful, working outside with Abel all day.”

Edward furrowed his brow. “Oh, was that today?” Abel was Goldgate’s blacksmith, and he had promised Silas he would let him work at the forge with him one day to see if he wants to apprentice under him or not.

Emily chuckled. “Yes, that was today. I suppose you’ve had your nose too far into that store to notice.”

Edward knew she was joking, but he still sighed. “Well, that store makes us a living, Emily, and things don’t look so good, to be honest.”

Emily gave a grim expression and wiped her hands with a cloth. She shooed the children outside and walked over to Edward, who had sat down on the couch and begun reading the newspaper. She rested a hand on his shoulder. “You know what our best option is, Edward…”

Edward pulled away slightly and shook his head, looking up at his wife’s emerald eyes. He wanted to tell her, but should he? “No, Emily. We can’t. This is our home. Where would we go? We’d be out on the streets, I’m telling you. I’ll find some way, I promise.”

Rolling her eyes, Emily walked back to the stove to begin making plates of food. “What would that way be, Edward? You keep saying that, but nothing’s changed.”

Edward was silent for a moment. He decided against telling her about the treasure hunt. She would worry about his safety, as well as be skeptical about the gold even existing. Both good reasons to worry, Edward thought, as he felt he was a fool for trusting the men. But he had to try. This could be his last shot at saving the whole town.

Instead of telling the truth, Edward’s eyes lit up as he smiled. “Well...I was offered a spot in a caravan to Tucson. They were recruiting men in every town in the area, including little ol’ Goldgate. It’s a simple enough job. A day’s ride there. A day to trade and strike up new deals. A day to return. If I take it, I could possibly find a new supplier or even a potential buyer. I offer goods for much cheaper than whatever the godawful prices are in those big cities. This could be our chance.” Edward prayed she wouldn’t catch his bluff.

Much to his delight, Emily seemed to look intrigued. She stopped making plates of food and looked at him, her face slowly beginning to soften. “Hmm...if you take this, you better not wake snakes and find us a good deal, Edward. If not, we’re leaving. I’m serious.”

Swallowing hard, Edward nodded. “You needn’t worry, dear. When I return, I’ll have pockets full of money.” Now that wasn’t a lie. Or, at least, he hoped. $150,000 is more than enough to fill pockets, that’s true, but what troubled Edward was whether or not the gold was even there. A seed of doubt that was planted the moment he heard of the two men’s mission had been growing all evening. Still, there was a powerful voice telling Edward that he had to at least try, for if the gold is there...

At that, Silas burst into the house. The boy was tall and lanky, like his grandfather, and his messy sandy hair blended in nicely with the desert they lived in. His shirt was unbuttoned at the top two buttons and his sleeves were rolled up unevenly. He smiled when he saw Edward and went to hug him. Edward rose from the couch, but then backed away.

“Hold on, boy, go get washed up first. What’s the matter with you? Supper’s ready and you intend to walk in here looking like the wild man of Borneo. Go clean yourself.”

Silas gave a look of embarrassment and nodded. “Yes, Pa,” he said before walking outside to the wash bucket. Edward called the two younger children to the table as he sat down himself, a plate of delectable food in front of him. When Silas returned, he chattered about his day in between bites and sips. Apparently, Abel really appreciated his assistance and told him he’d make a fine blacksmith. This thrilled Silas, and in turn made Edward even more determined to find that gold, so Silas would be able to stay in Goldgate to learn from Abel.

As the children went their separate ways after dinner, Edward helped Emily clean off the table. As they cleaned, Edward shot smiling glances at his wife, admiring her beauty. Eventually, he decided that it would be best to share his goodbye with her tonight, as he planned on leaving early tomorrow morning. For one reason, Terrence told him to meet the two at dawn. Another, leaving before his family was awake would reduce the risk of the true meaning of his journey being uncovered.

Edward walked up behind Emily and embraced her. She smirked and sighed. “I’ll be leaving before sunrise tomorrow, so I suppose this is goodbye,” Edward said.

“This little trip better be worth it, Edward,” she said.

Edward smiled. “How many times do I have to say it? I’ll secure a deal or two, and we’ll be in business. I might have to travel to Tucson more often as a result, but rest assured, it’ll be worth it.”

Emily turned around and kissed him. When she pulled back, she tapped his shoulder reassuringly. “I believe you. Shocking as it may seem, I don’t want to leave Goldgate either.”

“And neither do I. And we won’t. You have my word, dear.”

The couple embraced again before Edward called the children into the living room. The children hugged and said their goodbyes to their father.

“Couldn’t I come with you, Pa? I’d love to see the city,” Silas begged.

“I’m afraid not, son. You need to stay and practice with Abel,” Edward reasoned, hoping he’d leave it at that. He did.

That night, Edward could barely sleep. He dreamed of gunfire, shiny gold ingots, and explosions. Most of the instances where he had left town was for business. He had never shot a gun at another human. Many of his mannerisms would probably cause a rough and tumble traveler to snicker at his “civilization”. Now he was to delve into the wilderness with two potentially dangerous strangers with the blind promise of riches that might end with him getting hoodwinked or even killed. The things I would do for my family and store, he thought.

Edward awoke just before dawn. The sky was still dark, but steadily became less black and more of a dark blue. The rooster had yet to crow. The desert was still chilly and the wind blew gently. On the other side of town, Terrence and Andy were waking up from their camp. Edward rose out of bed and began to get dressed. He decided to wear grey trousers and a grey coat to match, a white shirt and black vest, black boots, and a black telescope hat. Boring colors, sure, but they matched well and Edward never enjoyed loudly colored clothes.

Edward packed two bags of gear that would be carried by his horse. Equipment included canned food, some eating utensils and a pot, matches and cigars, a bottle of whiskey, a change of clothes, a canteen, and several other necessities. Edward pulled a lockbox out from under his desk and opened it, revealing a revolver and holster. He equipped it to his belt and packed all of his ammunition for it, being fifty rounds. He also grabbed his hunting rifle from the mantlepiece in the living room and fifty rounds for it, as well.

When all was done, Edward placed his bags on his horse, a chestnut Canadian breed named Lotus. He had won Lotus in a game of poker about ten years ago. She was in her prime, though he rarely had to use her for more than sport or using his supply wagon. He patted the horse’s nose and whispered some reassuring words to her before mounting the steed and trotting off to the town stables. The sun had begun to rise by then. The sky began to turn orange and the bright ball of flame shone brilliantly on the horizon. The air was still chilly, but the sun’s heat would be in full force soon enough. Edward lit a cigar to alleviate his growing apprehension, hoping that this was the right decision.

He saw the two men leaning against the stables, their horses tethered. As Edward approached, he noticed Terrence was smoking a cigarette and Andy was shuffling a deck of cards. A young man, the stablehand named Timothy, approached the two and appeared to be telling them something they didn’t like. Edward guessed Timothy was telling them that their horses needed to be in the stable properly, paid for and everything. Terrence said something to him and Andy spit on the ground. Timothy, visibly nervous, walked away. Edward’s fear and doubt continued to grow.

The two men noticed Edward finally, and Terrence smiled and waved him over. Edward trotted Lotus over to the stables and dismounted, a hand on the horse’s lead. Andy spun around to face Edward and grimaced slightly.

“I’ll be damned, you actually showed up,” Terrence remarked.

Edward shrugged. “The money was too enticing.”

Andy scoffed and smirked. “I told ya, Terrence, all men are swoon by money.”

Terrence seemed to silently agree before untethering his horse. “No use in chattering now, we need to get a move on.” As he mounted his house and Andy followed suit, Terrence nodded to Edward. “Alright, you lead.”

Mounting Lotus, Edward nodded back and snapped the reigns lightly, steering Lotus out of town and down the beaten path, heading west. Edward turned to the men. “We’ll head down this road a ways before diverting-” Edward paused. He couldn’t tell them the exact directions. What if they decided to kill him, now that they knew where the trench was? He hesitated and quickly re-routed his statement. “-off the path.”

If the men noticed his hesitation, they didn’t make it known. Terrence simply nodded and Andy chewed on a fingernail. The trio remained mostly quiet as they rode the path, watching the sun rise and the heat begin to settle in. Edward thought about his family, his business, his town. He continued to wonder if he’d ever see his home again, if the two men would shoot him in the back and leave him on the wayside, rotting. Eventually, Edward shook off these doubts, as there was no use in such thoughts now. Instead, he focused on the possibility of the gold, and what he’d do when he got his share.

The three men stopped around noon for a lunch break. They ate canned beans and drank from their canteens. The desert was still a desert. Flat plains of pale sand, shrubs, withered trees, and cacti, with the occasional small bird or lizard. The landscape would grow more rocky and uneven as they approached the trench, but until then they were left without shelter from the unforgiving sun. They had plenty of water, but any traveler in the Arizona territory knows just how miserable it is riding a horse in the middle of the desert under a clear sky.

Not long after lunch, Edward stopped the men and indicated for them to follow him off the path. He directed his horse to turn left and begin trotting into the desert. Andy hesitated with his horse and Terrence followed suit.

“You must be crazy,” the short man said. “We’ll get lost and die of heat stroke off the path.”

Edward sighed. “Well, I guess I’ll be the only one finding that gold. I know the way. Don’t trust me? Turn back.”

Silence. The two other men stared at Edward for a moment, reading him. Eventually, Terrence sighed and gestured for Andy to follow.

“Come on, Andy,” he said. “It ain’t like we got any other choice.”

Swearing to himself, Andy nudged his horse to head on as Edward pressed on, smiling to himself.

As the afternoon dragged on, the men became more vocal. Terrence sang a tale of a cowboy wrangling the devil’s cows in a low voice. Andy hummed a tune to go along with it. Edward listened intently, enjoying the entertainment. Soon, the two men convinced Edward to tell them a funny story, and Edward chuckled as he remembered a certain account of when Donald had to wrestle a vaudeville strongman out of the saloon for violent drunkenness and the two ended up in a pile of horse shit behind the building. The two men laughed heartily at this, and Edward wondered if they had begun to enjoy his company. The shopkeeper hoped desperately that if he continued warming up to them, they wouldn’t consider putting one between his eyes.

As night fell, the landscape began to change. Rocky terrain became more and more prominent. The trio passed by a few large boulder formations that were carved when the Earth was young. Edward stared at these archaic monuments, wondering if some Navajo man hundreds of years ago did the same. He morbidly thought that this would be as good of a place to die as any, considering he’d be among God’s impressive handiwork.

Edward’s thoughts were cut off by Andy’s incessant whining.

“It’s time to stop for the night, boy,” the man called out. Edward was considerably offended by the fact that he called him “boy”, even though he appeared at least five years older than Andy. He began to turn Lotus around to retort, but Terrence beat him to it. The tall man glared at Andy.

“Lay off,” he demanded. “He’s with us for the time being, so you don’t have to pester him like an insect.” Edward couldn’t really read Terrence’s tone or look in his eyes when he said this, but he appreciated the defense nonetheless. Terrence turned to Edward as Andy made an annoyed expression. “He is right, though. It’s time to stop. How far out are we?”

“If we stop now, we should arrive by midday tomorrow,” Edward said.

“Good. Then we’ll stop.”

Edward agreed and the three set up camp. Terrence started the fire using dry shrubs and branches from a dead tree. They burned quick, but there was plenty around to use. Edward cooked supper, more canned beans and salted pork. Andy stood guard, clutching his repeater as he watched the darkness around them. Edward studied Andy, wondering why he was so intent on acting hostile. Of course, there was an innumerable amount of possibilities, and many of them could be true at once. He could be jealous, he could be territorial, he could not trust him, he could be wishing they hired an actual gunslinger, or he could just as plainly be a rat. Edward thought of all these theories, the latter had to be the truest. While Terrence seemed to at least tolerate him, Andy was adamant to let Edward know he was not welcome. Still, the shopkeeper wished that some form of truce could be made until they returned to Goldgate. In the grand scheme of things, he couldn’t care less as to whether or not the man enjoyed his company, but it’d be best to be on his good side when there was the chance of being left for dead by him.

Edward thought about Terrence’s words earlier that evening. “He’s with us for the time being,” the man had said. He pondered on those words. He had trouble deciding if it just meant that he was in their crew until they found the gold and returned to town, or if it was something more sinister…

Eventually, Edward shrugged off these thoughts that did nothing but build a wall of negativity around him and would eventually keep him from trusting or earning the trust of these men he found himself with. He fixated on finding a way to make peace with Andy. As he ate his supper, he glanced at the churlish man, who was sipping some whiskey and chewing on some pork. Edward cleared his throat to get his attention, and Andy peered at him.

“What’s your story, Andy?”

“None of your fuckin’ business.”

Ok, Edward thought, that plan flopped. He noticed that Terrence, who was eating supper while sitting on a nearby boulder, was staring at Andy, though Andy didn’t pick up on it. Edward snickered at Andy’s comment in an attempt to brush it off as jesting. Andy didn’t laugh. Instead, he spoke again.

“I’m not interested in small talk. I want that gold, and you’re gonna show us where it is, take your measly share, and get lost. Terrence and I know just as well as anyone that no one’s to be trusted. You should realize that, boy. In this land, you gotta look after your own hide to be successful and survive.”

Edward absorbed his words, not surprised in the slightest with the man’s philosophy. Despite that, he decided he’d persist.

“Alright, well when you do get your gold, what’ll you do?”

Andy responded with less hostility this time around. The shopkeeper guessed he was just touchy about his past. Andy smirked.

“I’ll ride to Canada. Get out of this damned heat. I’ll build me a big ol’ mansion, hire servants, host parties every single night. Plenty of drinking and women for the rest of my days. I’ll buy out a local business to keep bringing in the money and hire plenty of guns. No law will touch me. Neither will any annoying questions.”

Edward was legitimately surprised that he had thought his plan out that much. Andy would basically end up being a dirty businessman north of the border. Knowing that last part was directed to him, he turned his attention to Terrence. “And you?”

Terrence shrugged. “Probably the same, though I’d rather head down to ol’ Mexico. Not a fan of the cold, or the canucks. Andy and me have been riding since we were young, robbing and killing folk for little more than a measly wage. We’re tired of it, so once we heard about this gold we knew we had to find it, so we’d finally be able to live comfortable lives and at the same time not have to answer to no law, ’cause we’d buy ’em out.”

Edward anticipated their plans might not play out the way they wanted them to, but he kept that to himself. Instead, he nodded understandingly. He didn’t wait for them to ask what he’d do with his share, as he thought they probably wouldn’t anyway.

“My business is failing, my family is struggling, and my town is dying. $150,000 is more than enough to save all three and keep them thriving.”

When he said this, Edward noticed Andy glance at Terrence peculiarly. Uneasy, Edward stroked his mustache and shifted his weight. He fingered his revolver holster, though the two men couldn’t see it. Edward spent the next hour or so in silence, reading from the small Bible he had brought with him. He occasionally glanced at the two other men. Andy had gone to bed and Terrence had begun standing guard. Terrence saw him looking at him and told Edward that he’d take the next watch and he’d better get some rest before then. Edward agreed and apprehensively lay down to sleep. Though shaken, the shopkeeper was considerably exhausted, so sleep overtook him soon.

Terrence shook Edward awake at about eleven o’clock. Edward rose up quickly and rubbed his eyes. He grabbed his rifle and sat on the boulder that Terrence had sat on earlier that night, watching the Cimmerian shade that surrounded the camp. He could hear the occasional bird call or rustle in the distance, which would sometimes cause Edward to flinch and raise his rifle, though he quickly calmed. Edward spent most of his turn keeping watch worrying about his situation. He had seen several warning signs that he’d ought to keep a hand on his gun the rest of his time with these men, and he prayed that he would see his family again, gold or no gold.

A voice in his head whispered that he could easily mount Lotus and bolt out of there, leaving the two men alone in the desert without a guide. He could even ride straight for the trench and take the gold himself. However, he decided against it. It was too risky. If the men ended up making it back to Goldgate, they might harm his family, or even the entire town. Edward wasn’t about to be responsible for the massacre of his family and the rest of Goldgate.

Checking his pocket watch, Edward determined that it was now almost three o’clock. He had stayed awake an hour longer than Terrence and he had agreed on. He nudged awake a grumbling Andy and lay back down to return to sleep. The last thing Edward thought about before dozing off was Emily’s emerald green eyes watching over him.

A neighing horse awoke Edward, who groggily lifted himself up to find the other two men packing up already. Edward cleared his throat and spoke.

“I hope you weren’t planning on taking off without me.”

Terrence shook his head as he rolled up his blanket. “Why would we? You’re the one who knows the way,” he said.

Shrugging, Edward rose and began packing his things hurriedly. He briefly combed his hair and mustache and decided against changing clothes, as it’d take too long. Once his gear was together and on Lotus, the trio continued riding southwest. The lithic and craggy terrain became more prevalent as the morning dragged on, the men remaining in silent anticipation. Edward grew more and more nervous, speculating what might happen once they find the gold, if it’s even there.

Suddenly, Edward had an epiphany. He glanced at Terrence. “So...when we get to the trench, where exactly will the gold be? Did the Confederates bury it? Leave it above ground? Keep it in a chest, or a wagon…?”

Terrence held a hand up to silence Edward and gave a look of confidence. “We know that they buried it and we know the vague area- in between the pillars made by God Himself. Must be a few tall rocks that look like pillars, but finding the right area might be harder than it sounds. That’s alright, though. We’ve come prepared.” As he said this, Terrence unclasped the top of his left saddlebag, revealing sticks of dynamite.

Gasping, Edward furrowed his brow. “What? You’ll blow the gold up! Or even worse, bring the trench crumbling down on us!”

Terrence brushed off Edward’s protests as Andy rolled his eyes. “We’ll only blast the surface ground, and gold is gold, whether or not it’s a bit broken up.”

Edward shook his head. “This is foolish. If you damage the gold or get us killed-”

“Shut the hell up and look forward! We don’t need your input. We know what we’re doing,” Andy snapped.

Edward did as he said, but he realized he had been wrong. These men were dumber than he thought. He hoped desperately that they don’t make this whole journey in vain by destroying the gold, but what was he to do?

Edward’s thoughts were interrupted when they came closer and closer to a large drop-off. About half a mile across from the cliff was a mirrored image of the drop-off. It was a canyon- Archibald’s Trench. Near the men was a more gradual dip that could serve as a path down to the bottom of the trench. Edward directed them toward it. As they descended down into the large ravine, Edward recalled visiting the natural wonder with his uncle. He wondered if his uncle had known that potentially a million dollars worth of gold lie underneath this ground.

Scanning the area, the shopkeeper saw that the bottom of the canyon was much like the rest of the desert- shrubs, dead trees, rock formations, and cactus. The three men began traversing the trench, which spanned about two miles long, for rock formations that could qualify as “pillars”. Terrence was right, for it was harder than it seemed to find the correct structure of several rocks in a group. There was a tall, skinny rock figure here and there, but never several in general proximity of each other. The men grew frustrated as they continued to scan the gully.

Just as Edward began to lose all hope of finding the pillars and Andy began swearing and grumbling more and more, Terrence pointed ahead. “There!” The other two men looked at where he indicated, and all three sighed in relief. Terrence smirked as he gazed upon a nigh-on circular arrangement of pillar rocks, clay in color and shaped like contorted fingers more than anything. It was as if a goblin’s hand rested under the ground, and he had bent his fingers to protrude from the earth. The pillars made by God Himself.

The three men circled the pillars on their mounts, all three fantasizing about the riches that should be resting dormant underneath. Andy was hooting and laughing. Edward remained quiet. Terrence was the first to dismount as he pulled the sticks of dynamite out of his bag. Edward swallowed hard, staring at the red explosives in the tall man’s hand. Andy noticed his apprehension as they dismounted, and scoffed. “Why don’t you loosen your corset and trust us, Mr. Hardy,” he said condescendingly. “Unless you want to go ahead and turn yella and run.”

Edward shot him a glare and shook his head. “Just...get this over with, Terrence. Know that I’m warning you, though. If the gold is damaged or we happen to find ourselves buried by massive pieces of the trench- remember that I recommended shovels,” he warned. Terrence chuckled as he placed two sticks of dynamite on two opposite sides of the area that the pillars surrounded.

“I’m with Andy, Mr. Hardy,” Terrence responded. “Stop with your ‘concerns’ and get ready for your share.”

As he says this, Terrence pulled out two matches, handing one to Andy. The shorter man walked over to one dynamite stick while Terrence remained by the other. The two nodded to one another and lit their respective matches before using them to light their respective fuses. As soon as the fuses began to spark and burn, the two men turned around and ran to a nearby boulder, Edward following suit. The three men covered their ears and wait. A few seconds passed and Edward swore that he felt the blast before he heard anything. But even through his covered ears, Edward could hear the deafening explosions. The ground around him rattled as the horses neighed and whinnied in fright.

As soon as the blast ended, the three men quickly peered out from behind the boulder, ravenous to see just a sliver of shiny yellow. As the dust settled, Edward was relieved to see that no apparent damage was done to the pillars or the other surroundings- except for the ground, of course. A pit now lay inside of the circle of pillars. In the middle of that pit, a small portion of cloth jutted out of the sand. Edward stared in awe. Andy and Terrence, however, rapidly raced one another to the cloth. They slid down into the pit and began tearing at the sand to reveal the rest of whatever they were seeing. Cries of excitement and joy escaped their lips as they began to behold what was buried in the sand.

Not one, not two, not three, not even four, but five cloth bags, each about the size of a satchel and resembling in shape a sack of potatoes, were pulled out of the pit. Edward slid down to help the two men lift the bags out of the pit. What they contained was no secret, as the first two bags had ripped, and shiny gold coins spilled out of them. As all three men, even Edward, jeered and howled like Apache warriors at their fortune, they sat the bags in a neat arrangement beside the pit. Edward was ecstatic- the story was true, and he could save his whole town!

However, their harmonious celebration was short-lived, for Andy began to grow quieter and more cold in expression. Terrence noticed and followed suit, asking what was wrong. Andy gestured to the bags.

“They were supposed to be ingots. Large bars of gold. And in a big ol’ chest. This can’t be a million dollars,” he said. “Can it?”

Terrence stared at the gold for a moment, thinking. Edward looked at the bags, then at the men, then at the gold again. They can’t be serious?

“You’re right…” Terrence agreed. Edward interjected.

“Now hold on,” he said. “Let’s not be ungrateful or anything here- we found gold! Plenty of it. Now, it might not be a million, but whatever we get each will be more than enough. Most men don’t see a fraction of this money in their entire lives!”

Terrence remained silent, staring at the bags. Everything was quiet for an uncomfortable amount of time. Edward grew confused...and nervous. His hand began to drift to his side, but he hesitated. He wiped the sweat from his brow, the sun almost directly above them, smoldering the land in heat. Andy fidgeted a bit, then looked at Terrence, who gave a nod. The two men had their backs to Edward as they stared at the gold. At last, Terrence spoke.

“Well, Edward, you of all people should know that when the circumstances of a business deal changes unexpectedly, it affects everything else. Being the unofficial honcho of this journey, it’s my duty to decide how we adapt to these new...undertakings. To put it plainly,” he looked up from the bags. Edward broke into a cold sweat as his hand moves closer to his side. He could see the two men doing the same. “ seems it’s in our best interest you be cut from the final take. Therefore, you’ve spent your purpose here.”

All three men drew their revolvers. Edward, though having the slowest draw, had the advantage of not facing away from the men, so by the time the two men had drawn their guns and turned around, Edward also had his gun out and pointing it at the other two. Edward prayed they couldn’t see him shaking in fear and anger. He had seen this coming a mile away, but his foolishness had caused him to hold onto the hope that these were to be trusted. He could see now that he was wrong, but he feared it was too late now. It was two against one. Specifically, two experienced bandits against one shopkeeper who had never pointed a gun at another man in his entire life.

Edward exhaled shakily, having held his breath for almost thirty seconds due to shock and fear. He spoke. “This is completely unnecessary. Listen, I can have one bag and you two can get two each. That’s plenty. Hell, give me half a bag! That’s all I need. I can get by with that. I deserve at least that. I got you here, goddammit!”

Andy scoffed. “You don’t deserve shit! You were nothing but a guide! You weren’t with us for more than a couple days, and you expect us to give you a share of what we’ve spent months huntin’? ‘Specially now that we gettin’ less than what we were promised ourselves!”

Terrence spoke quickly just as Andy finished his last sentence. “Put your gun down, Edward. It’s nothing personal, but we don’t want this to get ugly. Sorry, friend, but this is how it’s gonna be.”

Edward didn’t answer, only glared in disgust. He kept his gun fixated on Terrence’s head, figuring he’d be the better shot. He kept an eye on Andy, though. He had to think quickly if he was going to win this. He thought about what he could use as cover and noticed a large boulder to the right from the corner of his eye. If he was fast enough, he could get behind that boulder before he’s shot. Edward figured he had to act now if he had any chance.

In a flash, Edward threw himself to the right, putting all his weight into his dive. As soon as he did so, he heard several gunshots and saw the sand around him be launched into the air, but he didn’t feel any pain, so he decided he hadn’t been shot. Edward was now behind the boulder, and as soon as he lifted himself off the ground he fired two shots to each side of the boulder, keeping the two men at bay. He could hear Andy cursing. Edward unbuttoned his coat pocket and pulled out four bullets to load his revolver with. He prayed one of the men didn’t decide to come around the boulder and shoot him then, as he wouldn’t be able to return fire. Thankfully, they didn’t. Instead, Terrence returned to talking.

“Dammit, Edward, stop it! You got no chance, so you might as well quit. Throw your gun on the ground and take this like a man, or else we’ll have to tell your wife personally just how much of a coward you were.”

Edward felt these words hit him like needles. The thought of the men visiting his family almost made him vomit right then and there. He couldn’t, he wouldn’t let them. As a husband and as a father, Edward Hardy had to stop these rotten men. With a sudden surge of rejuvenation, Edward remembered that Terrence had only used two sticks of dynamite, but he had taken all of the sticks out of the saddlebag. There had to have been more sticks lying around. Taking a bold move, Edward removed his hat to prevent it from protruding from the side of the boulder and peeked out to the right side of the large rock ever so slightly. He could see the pillars, the spooked horses congregated on the other side of the pillars, and...he could make out some red-

The side of the boulder exploded as a crack rang through the air. A bullet had grazed the mass of mud-colored stone and chipped it, caused small pebbles to project all over the place. Andy’s bullet. A small piece struck Edward in the chin as he threw himself fully behind the boulder. He could feel warm liquid run down his chin, but he didn’t feel any pain. Adrenaline took care of that. Instead, Edward began to mentally line up his shot. He would have to perform with zero error or else he’d never see his family again. The thought of his children hugging him and Emily’s emerald green eyes cheered him on as he rapidly worked out his plan. It couldn’t have been more than a minute since the shooting began, but it felt like an eternity. Edward knew if he took any more time, it’d be too late. The time to act was now. The shopkeeper exhaled and bolted to the right side of the boulder.

Having remembered where the dynamite was placed, Edward already had his revolver lined up in such a way that it took little aiming after he had moved to the side of the boulder. He saw the red sticks on the ground and fired just as he heard a shot ring out. Edward threw himself back behind the boulder just as the Earth shuttered in pain as he heard the roar of the dynamite. This was followed by a blood-curdling wail of agony. Edward knew his shot was successful. He heard Terrence cry out.

“You son of a bitch! You’re gonna fucking pay!”

Edward closed his eyes for a moment and prepared himself. He waited for Terrence to speak again, and knew it was time when he heard Terrence’s voice closer to where Andy was, saying something to his partner along the lines of, “You’re gonna be ok.” Edward sprung out from the boulder and saw Terrence quickly turn his attention from Andy to him, his gun raising to aim at him. It was a split second too late. Edward, his gun already cocked, fired, then cocked and fired again. He was prepared to return to the boulder, but saw that there was no need.

Edward’s first shot had struck Terrence next to his right arm, causing that arm to buckle and his shot to be inaccurate. The second shot hit Terrence in the throat, causing him to gasp and gurgle before stumbling back and falling, his body leaned against a large stone. Blood flowed from his neck like a fountain of red as he coughed and drowned in his own fluid. Terrence attempted to lift his revolver, but as he raised his arm his eyes became glossed over and he breathed his last, his body going limp. Meanwhile, Andy, whose leg had been blown off by the blast and shrapnel had pierced his chest, had bled out and was lying, lifeless, on the red-stained sand.

Edward beheld all of this in shock...and relief. He had won. Somehow. Whether it was the hand of God or some other, more tangible reason, Edward had won. The adrenaline drained from his body, Edward realized that his chin and torso was coated with blood and used some whiskey and a piece of sleeve from a shirt in his saddlebag to clean and patch the cut on his chin. Afterward, he sat down abruptly out of mental exhaustion. Giving himself a few minutes to compose himself and sort out what had just occurred, Edward realized that all five bags of gold was now his.

The gold. The whole reason he was out there. The whole reason those two scoundrels had entered Goldgate and the whole reason he had gone with them and ended up killing both of them brutally. Out of self-defense, yes, but killed them he did nonetheless. Edward considered burying the gold again. Maybe giving it away to some random strangers on his way home. But, despite the new blood that was now a part of the malevolent gold’s history, not using the gold for what he originally intended would make this all in vain, Edward reasoned.

After packing the bags of precious metal onto Lotus, Edward mounted his steed and rode for Goldgate, breathing a sigh of frustration.

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