Fool’s Gold

"She stepped inside and then came out again and stood between them. In her right hand was a giant pistol, an old army Colt."

Miner washing grime off of gold pebbles in a pan.

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Otto Muller sat on a wooden chair outside the front door of his house, smoking his pipe and listening to the morning birdcalls. He sat there most days before starting work, usually holding a cup of his sister Elsa’s coffee and watching the sun rise above the Black Hills. This time he was holding a shotgun across his lap and watching the edge of the forest.

“You sure they vill come?” a voice said from the tiny doorway. Otto had to stoop every time he walked in or out.

He turned and took the steaming cup of coffee Elsa held out to him. “Yes. Soon as they figure out she might be here.”

A part of him wished she wasn’t. He knew Elsa felt that way too — she and Alice had never liked each other. He sometimes found himself wondering what had drawn him to Alice Bascom in the first place. Not that it mattered now.

So focused was he on the trail leading from the woods, he almost didn’t see the lone rider heading toward them through the meadow to the north. “Vee have company,” Elsa said. “Be alert.”

“You are suspicious voman, little sister.”

“Just cautious,” she said.

Which was true. Elsa had always been more careful and levelheaded than he was. Otto set his pipe and coffee cup on a wooden box beside his chair so he had both hands on the shotgun as he watched the man approach. Late thirties, maybe forty, Otto figured, straight and tall in the saddle with a droopy mustache and curly brown hair that fell to his shoulders. Not one of the Ferritts. Besides, that was the wrong direction — Eli Ferritt’s place was south of here, on the way through the woods toward town.

The stranger stopped his black mare 20 feet from the house. It nodded and pawed the ground with a hoof as if ready to move on.

“Mornin’ to you both,” he said.

“To you also,” Otto replied. Elsa said nothing. “Directions you need?”

“No, just passin’ by. I been visitin’, up the valley a ways.”

Otto glanced north and back again. “Only neighbor vee know, camped up there, is Jane Cannary.”

“Well, that makes three of us. That’s who I been to see.”

Otto and Elsa exchanged a look. “I did not know Jane had a suitor,” Otto said.

“Oh, I ain’t a suitor. Just a friend.”

“Did not know she had any of them neither. No offense do I mean.”

“None taken.” A smile appeared, behind the mustache. “Martha Jane’s different, that’s for sure.”

This man was different too, Otto thought. On the one hand he looked a bit sinister, with that bushy mustache and the two obvious gun-­bulges underneath his long black coat as he sat on his horse. But his eyes were kind. The eyes were what mattered. Windows to the soul, Otto’s mama used to say.

“I been past here a lot lately,” the stranger said. “Never seen either of y’all out here before.”

Otto jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Most times my sister and me, vee up on the hill behind house, verking our claim.”

“You’re prospectors, then. Good for you. Living the dream.”

“Dreaming the dream, more like. Vot about you?”

Another smile. “Nothing so noble. I play poker, mostly, with folks like you who’ve struck it rich.”

“Not like me, if they rich,” Otto said. “You live in town, then?”

“Grand Central Hotel. Only been there a few weeks.” The stranger glanced up at the hill, then nodded toward a pickaxe leaning against the side of the house. “You pannin’ or diggin’?”

“A little of both. Elsa pans, I dig.”

“Seen any color lately?”

“No. But vee still dream.”

Both men smiled a bit at this. Otto knew Elsa didn’t care for this kind of idle chatter — or idle anything, for that matter. Sure enough, he heard her snort and go back inside.

He was tempted to join her. This was when they usually gathered their tools and trudged up their hill to work, but he doubted there would be any work today. His nerves were on edge. Silently he looked past the stranger’s horse, checking the road to the woods. Nothing there, yet.

“I do not like unfriendly,” Otto said, “but you might not vant to linger. Trouble, it vill be here soon.”

The men studied each other. Otto was surprised to see no sign of worry on the stranger’s face. Otto knew he would’ve been worried, and curious too. What kind of trouble?

“What kind of trouble?” the man asked.

Otto hesitated. He realized he should’ve kept quiet. What if this mysterious traveler, despite his friendly eyes, knew the Ferritts? What if he worked for them?

The stranger seemed to read his mind. He swung down out of the saddle, led his horse forward a few steps, and stuck out his hand. “Call me Bill,” he said.

Otto stood and shook hands. Without thinking, he had put the shotgun down, propping it against the chair. So much for being cautious. “Otto Muller,” he said. “Lady a minute ago is my sister Elsa.”

“Pleased to meet you.” The stranger — Bill — led his horse over to a fencepost, tied him to it, and walked back. He glanced at the full cup of coffee and the pipe on the box beside Otto’s chair, then pulled a second chair up close. “Mind if I set and rest?”

Otto waved a hand. Both took their seats.

The stranger looked Otto in the eye. “Trouble ain’t unusual for me, Mr. Muller. It seems to find me, no matter what.” After a pause he added, “Is somebody threatening you? Trying to run you off this land? That happens now and then, especially to folks from … elsewhere.”

“Like us, you mean. No, no. Nothing like that.”

“What then?”

Otto frowned. He felt his cheeks grow warm. “Vedding problem,” he said.

“Come again?”

“No — not vedding problem. Marriage problem. English still hard, for me and Elsa. Vee sometimes use ­incorrect vords.”

“So do I,” Bill said. Without turning, he tipped his head toward the Deadwood trail. “You seem to be watching that road. Is it your wife you’re looking for? Is she missing?”

“She vas, matter of fact, till last night,” Otto said. “Then she come back home.”

“And that’s a problem?”

Otto sighed, choosing his words. Behind him, he heard steps in the doorway, sensed Elsa standing there. Wondering, probably, why her brother was telling all this to a ­perfect stranger.

“My vife Alice,” he said, “she leave me last veek, go to live vith man named Eli Ferritt. You know this man?”

“I’ve heard the name. Four brothers, right?”

“Five. Eli is oldest. These not good men, these Ferritts.”

A silence passed. Finally the stranger said, “How did your wife happen to meet somebody like that?”

Elsa harrumphed, so loud it made Otto jump, and said, “Probly the same vay she happen to meet my brother.” She gave Otto a dark look that probably included all men and their stupid ways. “Alice verked at that saloon in Deadvood. Nuttal and …”

“Nuttal and Mann’s?” the stranger asked.

Otto nodded. “Yes. I, ah, met her there. She vas a ­hostess—”

Elsa snorted again.

“A hostess,” he repeated. “She served drinks, visited vith the customers, made them feel velcome.”

“I bet she did,” Elsa mumbled.

Otto, still focused on his explanation, said, “Vee do not go to town much, Elsa and me, but ven vee do, I sometime go drink a beer vile she go to store. Alvays talk to Alice there, Alice alvays nice to me. Anyhow, vee got married, Alice and me, last month.” He shot a look at his sister. “Things vas all right at first—”

“And then she run off,” Elsa said. “Stupid voman. Good riddance, says me.”

“But as I say, she come back, late last night. Crying and veeping many tears. She say Eli vas mean to her.”

“And you welcomed her back?” Bill asked.

“Not so much velcome,” Otto said. “But I take her back. Vot else could I do?”

“Where is she now?”

“In my … our bedroom. Asleep. She said she run far through the voods.”

“And you think they’ll come for her, Ferritt and his brothers.”

“Yes, they vill come.”

The stranger seemed to give that some thought. Then: “Are you glad she came home?”

A long pause.

“No,” Otto said.

“But if these men come … you won’t give her back?”

“Not if she do not vant to go. I am still her husband.”

All of them fell silent. It occurred to Otto, even in his current unease, that it might be nice if Elsa offered this visitor a cup of her coffee. A glance at her face, however, discouraged that idea. She looked as if she wanted to put both of them in a headlock.

After a minute or so the stranger asked him, “Do you believe what your wife told you?”

“Do I believe that she come back because Eli mistreat her? Yes.”

The stranger looked at Elsa.

“Not me,” she said.

Otto said to Elsa, “Vy should vee not believe her?”

“Because I think she is up to no good, that is vy.”

The stranger cleared his throat. He had an odd look on his face. “Could this be Allie Bascom we’re talkin’ about?”

Otto blinked. “You know her?”

“We’ve passed on the street. Let me ask you something, Mr. Muller. Did Allie — Alice — did she have any reason to think your claim might be … more successful than it’s been?”

Otto shifted in his chair. “I mention to her that I expected to do vell. I sort of lie to you, earlier. Elsa and me saw some color in the pans veeks ago. Not much, but a sign vee are verking in the right place.”

“This was before you and Alice got married.”

“Yes.”

“And you told Alice about that.”

“Yes — I expected I vood soon be able to buy her fine things.”

“But nothing came of it.”

Otto sighed. “No. Ve find nothing more, there nor upstream neither.”

“And Alice left you, what — last week?”

“Yes,” Elsa answered. Her face, Otto noticed, had relaxed a bit. Not exactly friendly, but not as stony as before. He realized these same dark thoughts had already crossed her mind about her new sister-in-law.

The stranger, his eyes still on Otto, said, “But then something else changed, didn’t it. After she left.”

Otto stared. “How did you know that?”

“Just a suspicion. What happened, exactly?”

Otto gave his sister a questioning look. After a moment she nodded.

“I found a nugget,” he said. “Day before yesterday. Not in hillside vair I had been digging but in hole beside the stream vair Elsa vas verking. As big as your fist it vas.”

“Are you serious?”

Instead of answering, Otto bent and opened the wooden box beside his chair. From it he took what at first looked like a jagged gray rock the size of a baseball. But the gray was mostly dirt. Underneath, a band of yellow blazed in the early-morning sun. “And there is much more vair this come from. Know you anything about gold, Mr. Bill?”

“No. But a nugget that size … my God, what’s it worth?”

“It vood be vorth a hundred times more than everything vee own,” he said. “If it vas gold.”

“It’s not?”

“Not this rock. It is iron pyrite, and vorth nothing. Fool’s gold. But it is same size as the real vun that I found.”

“Where’s the real one?”

“In bag under floorboard, in kitchen. For safekeeping.”

Another silence. Otto replaced the heavy rock and closed the box.

“Who knows about this?” the stranger asked.

“About the floor safe? No vun except me and Elsa and Alice—”

“The nugget, I mean. Who else knows about that? Who knows you struck it rich?”

“Vell, I sort of hollered a little, ven I found it. Neighbor Joe Villiams heard me yelling and rush over. I showed it to him.”

“Could Joe Williams have told the Ferritts?”

Otto considered a moment. “Yes. He vood have told them.”

Bill settled back into his chair, brow furrowed in thought. Elsa, even though her expression had thawed even more, was still keeping a close eye on their visitor, probably in case he decided to pull one of his guns, murder them both, and steal their treasure. Otto knew that wouldn’t happen. Somehow he understood that this man was the opposite of Eli Ferritt.

“One more question,” the stranger said. “Who owns this claim? Your place, here. Whose name is it in?”

“Mine and Elsa’s,” Otto said. “Vee are partners.”

“And if anything happened to, say, both of you … who’d get it then?”

“Vell … Alice, I guess. Me and Elsa has no family, and legally Alice is still my vife.”

Everybody looked at each other as that sank in.

Otto squirmed again in his seat and said, “Are you saying you think they, these Ferritts, plan to kill me and Elsa?”

The stranger rubbed his eyes. “Maybe I better back up a little, here. I know nothing about you or your sister or your wife, Mr. Muller. I just saw you and stopped to exchange pleasantries on my way back to town.”

“But vot do you think?”

He let out a long breath. “I’m thinking the same thing you might be thinking, by now. What I just heard you say is that your wife came here last night saying she’d made a mistake and accusing this Eli Ferritt of rough treatment. But” — he paused — “if it turns out she’s lying about that, if she happens to be on their side instead a yours, she could later say the same of you. That you were abusing her, maybe you and your sister too, and might tell everyone she didn’t come here of her own free will last night at all. She could say you went to the Ferritts’ and grabbed her and snuck her back here, and when they realized what had happened they came here this morning and rescued her from bodily harm and there was a gunfight and both you and Miss Elsa died. Which means Alice would then own the claim and all the gold.” Another pause. “That’s just a thought, but it’s sure worth considerin’. I been around plenty a folks in my life crazy enough to pull something like that. And worse.”

No one said a word.

“Then again, I could be wrong,” he said. “Maybe things are like your Alice said they are, and nobody’ll come after her at all, and the two of you’ll patch things up.”

Otto ran a hand through his thinning hair. What a day this was turning out to be, and the sun was barely up. For the moment he had forgotten about watching the trail, and as he opened his mouth to reply they all heard it: the distant rumble of hoofbeats.

Otto rose from his chair and picked up the shotgun. The stranger stood also, eyes fixed on the road into the woods. “Go in the house and stay there, Elsa,” Otto said.

Instead she stepped inside and then came out again and stood between them. In her right hand was a giant pistol, an old army Colt.

The three of them watched the five horses gallop toward them. The riders stopped their mounts in a cloud of yellow dust 30 feet from the house. The biggest of them — Eli — stared at the two men and woman standing there beside the front door.

“Who are you?” he asked the stranger named Bill.

“I’m a friend of Muller’s. Who are you?”

The brothers exchanged an amused glance. Three of the five were grinning; the other two looked too dumb to know if they should or not. All of them looked mean.

Before Eli could speak again — probably to ask where Alice was — his gaze shifted to the front door. Otto turned to look, and standing there in the doorway was Alice Bascom Muller. She had a triumphant look on her face, as if she’d just won a hard-fought contest. “I been in the back room, listening for you,” she called. “It’s about time you got—”

She glanced at the stranger and stopped, eyes wide and surprised. He stared back at her.

In a blink she ducked back into the doorway and out of sight.

“Allie?” Eli Ferritt called. “What are you doin’?”

Otto glanced at the stranger, who frowned and whispered, “Any more guns in the house?”

Otto shook his head.

Eli, who seemed to have regrouped, focused once more on Bill and the two Mullers. His smile was in place again, his eyes glittering. “Sure you don’t want to go inside, ma’am?”

“So you can come in and kill me too, aftervard?” Elsa said.

His smile widened. “Have it your way,” he said. He turned his horse a bit, so his right side was facing the targets. His four brothers did the same. All five had their hands on their guns.

Otto, his shotgun aimed at the ground, wiped his sweaty right palm on his trousers and quietly cocked both hammers. From the corner of his eye he saw Elsa tense up, fingers white around the grip of her Colt. The stranger — Bill — had eased his coat backward off the handles of his two holstered pistols. He looked grim and calm and ready.

The scene was dead silent. Eyes were narrowed; jaws were set. Otto saw Eli’s hand tighten on the grip of his ­revolver—

And Alice appeared again in the doorway. “Wait!” she said.

She went past Otto at a run, holding a travel bag, and stopped beside Eli’s right stirrup, looking up at him. He bent down, confused, and she said something to him, sharp and low-voiced and urgent. His eyes flicked up to the stranger, then back to Alice. “Don’t be stupid,” she hissed. “Pick me up.”

Eli Ferritt reached down with his right arm, and she grabbed hold and swung up behind his saddle. He gave his four brothers a look, wheeled his horse, and left in a hurry, Alice clutching her bag in one hand and holding onto his waist with the other, her long hair streaming behind her. The others followed. Seconds later, their hoofbeats faded into the distance.

Otto and Elsa and the stranger stood there in silence, watching the dust cloud slowly disperse in the still air. Otto could hear his heart thumping in his chest.

“What just happened?” he asked.

“I believe they changed their minds,” the stranger said, adjusting his coat.

Elsa said nothing. She waited until Bill looked at her, and then held his gaze.

“I heard vot Alice vispered to Eli,” she said. “She recognized you. She told him your name.”

Otto blinked. “What?”

Ignoring him, she said, “Bill Hickok. I should have guessed. I vunce heard you and Jane vas friends. And Otto spoke true — Martha Jane do not have many visitors.”

Bill smiled. “Calamity Jane. The name fits, don’t it.”

Elsa took a long breath and swallowed. “You saved our lives,” she said.

“I think it was that Colt of yours that scared ’em off. It looked like it might blow up and kill us all.”

Otto, stunned, was looking back and forth between them, trying to absorb all this. Their stranger was Wild Bill Hickok?

Elsa broke out a smile that lit up her usually hard face. Then, very slowly, it became a frown. She looked toward the woods. “Vot if they come back, them bad men?”

“They won’t come back,” Bill said. “I’ll see to that.”

“How? There is no law in Deadvood.”

“There will be soon. Meantime, I know some folks there — Seth Bullock, Charlie Utter, a storekeeper named Star, several others — good men who’ll make sure this won’t happen again.” Bill reached out and took Elsa’s hand. “You won’t have to worry no more about the Ferritts.”

She blinked and nodded. “About Alice neither, I guess.”

“Vee vill let the Ferritt brothers vorry about Alice,” Otto agreed. He was secretly wondering if he might’ve wet his pants just a little, a minute ago. He hoped not.

Suddenly Elsa’s eyes went wide. With a gasp she released Bill’s hand and dashed into the house. Both men stared after her. Moments later she reappeared, holding an empty cloth bag. “She took it,” Elsa said, her face pale. “That’s vy she vent back inside. She stole the gold nugget from under the floor.”

In the beat of silence that followed, Bill let out a sigh. “I wondered why she ducked back in there.” He looked at Otto. “I’m sorry that happened, Muller. I guess I stood here and let you get robbed.”

“Nobody got robbed,” Otto said. He pointed to the box beside his chair. “That rock I showed you is the real nugget. I svapped the two of them early this morning.” He grinned. “Alice stole the chunk of iron pyrite.”

Now all of them were smiling. “Maybe Calamity ain’t the only name that fits,” Bill said. “‘Fool’s gold’ sounds just right, in this case.”

Elsa had a hand over her mouth and tears in her eyes. The last time Otto had seen that was six months ago, when they’d finished building this house.

The stranger — Hickok — had untied his horse and was standing there with reins in hand. “I better get goin’, folks. I got a card game this afternoon.”

Suddenly Elsa grabbed him and hugged him, tight. Then he shook hands with Otto, swung up into the saddle, and rode away into the woods.

They stood there awhile, the two of them, staring after him. Without turning, Elsa said, “That vas pretty sly, big brother, exchanging them nuggets. Smart, some might say.”

“Just cautious,” he said, and grinned again.

She wiped her eyes and looked at the sun. “Rich or not, it is time vee got to verk.” She handed him the heavy pistol. “Here. This thing scares me.”

Still smiling, Otto watched her march to the house. Then he walked slowly to his chair, picked up his shotgun, pipe, and cup, drank down the now-cold coffee, and followed her inside.

John M. Floyd is the prolific author of nine books and hundreds of short stories that have appeared in many publications, including the Post, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and the annual Best American Mystery Stories.

This article is featured in the March/April 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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