Following the Enemy’s Trail – Extended Epilogue

The old garden had to be completely dug out. Donnie and Nicole had taken possession of Jason’s farmhouse, and with Cynthia’s help, got it back into shape. They had to replace many broken floorboards, several doors and windows, and the roof, which had a gaping hole on one side they didn’t discover until it rained like mad and flooded out one of the rooms they’d been working on.

They found success fixing up the house in three months’ time, and Cynthia was allowed to move in. Through frequent trips back and forth between Bent Creek and Liberty Court, Nicole had become quite close to Cynthia. They were like sisters in a short amount of time. Nicole was sure Cynthia would have made the perfect wife for her brother.

She and Cynthia had planned to dig out the old garden and plant fresh seeds in the uprooted soil. It was almost spring, the perfect time to get some vegetables growing. If they worked it right, they would have fruit and vegetables to sell off a cart in either town. Cynthia was delighted to hear they wanted her to handle the cart and said she would love to do it. Donnie had already started building the cart.

But that was a few weeks down the road when the food actually started to grow. For now, they were at the beginning stages and would need to start digging out the old dirt and bringing up the new.

Donnie had purchased two sets of small workman’s gloves for the ladies so they wouldn’t blister their “tender hands” as he called them. Nicole was grateful, as they really did keep her hands from feeling the constant rubbing and friction caused by the trowel and shovel she was using.

She started on one row while Cynthia started another nearby. There were six rows from one side of the fenced-in garden area to the other and each row was thirty feet long. They would have plenty of food to sell in Liberty Court.

Nicole got to the end of her row and started on the third, working her way back toward the house. She worked hard and steady, until sweat had soaked the hair on her scalp and was dripping down her forehead and the back of her neck. She used a handkerchief from her waistband to wipe away the moisture, looking at the house in the distance, avoiding the group of trees where the benches used to be. Donnie had removed those benches, and they were contemplating whether or not to cut down the circle of trees.

Cynthia had told her the only reason they’d spent any time back there was because of those trees. Jason had thought it was so interesting the way the trees had grown in a circle. He didn’t care if someone planted them that way on purpose. He was enthralled, she’d said, by the idea that someone in the past had had. He wanted to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

But Nicole and Donnie weren’t interested in the circle of trees, though at one time, they would have been. Now they were a painful reminder that there was evil in this world, and it didn’t necessarily reside in just the hearts of men. Catherine Stern and Barbara Sykes were the epitome of evil, having killed, in total, a dozen people, four women, and eight men. One deceased woman was still unaccounted for, with Barbara refusing to tell what she’d done with the woman.

Nicole thought about the two women as she continued her work. She’d used her anger at them as fuel for energy on many occasions and took advantage of that tactic then to make the work go faster.

As she neared the end of the row, she was plunging the shovel in with a great deal of force, twisting the handle abruptly to force the dirt up and out, using every bit of her anger at the women who’d killed her brother to do a good job sifting the packed ground.

She thrust the spade of the shovel into the ground at the end of the line. Pain slid up through her arms when it slammed against something hard. She immediately dropped the shovel and turned around, shaking the pain from her arms. She growled low under her breath. What in heaven’s name was a huge rock doing underneath a row of dirt in the garden? What had Jason planted that could be that hard?

She dropped to her knees and began to pull the loose and hard dirt away from the hole her shovel had made. She saw a bit of gray. Curious, she pulled out the dirt in a frenzy, like a dog digging a hole. She let the dirt fly behind her.

“Cynthia!” she called, glancing up at the other woman.

“What?” Cynthia was busy with her shovel and didn’t look up at Nicole.

“Cynthia, come over here. There’s something down here. Something buried down here.” She bent down and continued to pull the dirt away from what was increasingly looking like a metal box. Someone had hammered the metal flat and created a container out of it. She felt around the edges, pushing dirt away to reveal a rectangle. The top was smooth, which meant it must open from the side.

The container was buried good. It had obviously been down there for a long time.

“Do you think Jason could have buried this?” she asked Cynthia, who had left her shovel behind and came over with a curious expression to see what was going on.

Cynthia dropped to all fours and stared at the box. “No.” She shook her head. Nicole noted how confident she sounded. “I don’t think Jason was ever out here in the garden during the whole year he was here. He didn’t get the house right away. I reckon he might have had it about a year and a half of the time he was here in Liberty Court. But he didn’t come out here in the garden. I never saw him use it. He said he was going to several times, but he never did. He would have. We would have. Eventually.”

“I know. I believe you. Help me dig around it and see if we can get it out. I bet it’s been buried here for a real long time. The rain probably packed it in the way it is. What do you think?”

“I don’t know. This box doesn’t look like it would have been made too long ago. It’s metal. I’ve never seen anything like it myself. Is it tin?”

“I don’t know,” Nicole replied, examining the top of the box. She used the tips of her fingers to dig around the edges of the box. She tried to pry it out, but the corners pressed against her fingers painfully, and she had to stop.

“I know what we can do,” Cynthia stated, standing up and reaching for Nicole’s shovel. She stood a foot or so away from the hole exposing the box and plunged the shovel in. She made a wider hole around the outer edge, which automatically loosened the dirt around the box. Cynthia finished up her work by sticking the blade of the shovel into the dirt right beside the box and using it to pry the container out.

“That’s wonderful, Cynthia. I’m so glad you’re here.”

Nicole did her part, easing the box out of the hole but keeping her hands away from the sharp edges of the shovel blade.

As they’d suspected, the latch on the side of the box was the only way to open it, other than the hinges on the other side. There were two handles on either side of the box, both made of hard wire.

Nicole examined the box, first with her eyes and then grabbing one of the handles to lift it. She was taken aback by how heavy it was and the fact that she heard the sliding of coins inside when she moved it.

Her eyes wide with wonder, she gazed at Cynthia, who looked just as fascinated.

“You better open it,” Cynthia said. “Surely the lock has rusted off, if it had one.”

Nicole studied the outside of the box. She didn’t see a lock at all. She cautiously took the latch in hand, lifted it, and slid it over to open it. When she pushed the lid up, it didn’t budge. Frowning because she’d expected exactly the opposite, she tried to lift the box and bring it closer to her eyes. She intended to turn it from side to side. But it was so heavy, she grunted and put it back on the ground heavily.

Cynthia gasped loudly. “I’ll bet you it has gold coins in it!” she gushed. “My grandpappy always said gold was one of the finest precious metals and also one of the heaviest when in solid form. How many there must be in there. And it’s all yours, Nicole. You’ll never want for anything again.”

Cynthia truly sounded happy for Nicole, which touched her heart. But she shook her head.

“Don’t jump to conclusions just yet, Cynthia. It could be rocks. It could be junk. You never know. Maybe the box is just heavy.”

Cynthia dropped her eyes and gave her friend a pouting frown. “No, silly. Those are gold coins. But why won’t it open? What’s wrong with that latch?”

She came closer and knelt down, pushing the box around and flipping it over, an action that caused the loudest ruckus inside it Nicole had ever heard. She decided Cynthia was right. There were probably coins in there. Whether they were gold or not remained to be seen.

“It looks like they burned it shut.” Cynthia sounded fascinated by just the concept. She examined the melted seals that made the lid and the body of the container one. “We’ll have to bust this open to get them out.”

She jumped to her feet and took off toward the small shed by the barn. Nicole watched her for a moment, pondering how excitable the young woman was. She looked back down at the box and moved it from side to side. Who could have created such an ingenious product? Nicole hadn’t seen anything stronger than a tin box. This looked handmade. Her curiosity mounted when she glanced up and saw Cynthia returning carrying an axe.

She got to her feet and stepped away from the box. “Are you going to hit that box with that thing?” she asked, silently questioning Cynthia’s skill at such a thing and wondering if she should be standing twenty or thirty yards away while the woman attempted it.

Cynthia laughed. “My father taught me to split wood when I was just a girl,” she replied. Mentioning her father made Nicole think briefly about their suspicions that he’d known all about the murders because he’d signed the certificates. It had turned out the signatures were forged on blank form papers stolen from the undertaker. It was a huge relief to everyone that he was as honest as he said he was. “I can get this open. But go ahead and stand back, just in case it explodes with gold coins. One of those flies at your face, it’s gonna hurt.”

Nicole nodded, glad that her idea to move far back was suggested by the woman with the axe.

She watched as Cynthia lined up her swing. She planted her feet shoulder-width apart and tapped the top of the box with the axe.

Nicole knew personally that the axe Cynthia was using was heavy. It was too heavy, in fact, for Nicole to use. But Cynthia certainly looked like she knew what she was doing when she took aim for the box, lifted the axe above her head, and swung with all her might.

The blade came down on the metal box, but it did very little damage.

“Oh, dear,” Cynthia said, shaking her head, leaning to examine the top of the box. “I may not be strong enough to bust it open. I think this is the only way we’ll be able to do it, though. I think we need Donnie.”

“It’s a good thing I’m here then.”

Nicole spun around to see Donnie coming toward them, his eyes on the box. “You ladies mind tellin’ me what the heck you’re doing?”

Nicole smiled wide, going to him to give him a hug. “I’m so glad you’re here. Look what we’ve dug up. Cynthia is the one who got it out of the ground after I spotted it. We think it has coins in it. Cynthia says they’re gold. I don’t know, but I would sure like to find out.”

While she was speaking, Donnie went to the box and knelt down next to it, picking it up and turning it over as if it didn’t weigh anything at all. Nicole pushed her lips out but didn’t say anything.

“I see what you mean,” he mumbled, tilting his head this way and that while he studied the container.

He got to his feet and stood for a moment, his hands on his hips. “All right, ladies. Let’s get into this thing, shall we?” He held his hand out to Cynthia, and she gave him the axe without a word.

Donnie picked up the box and walked away with it. Nicole and Cynthia shared a glance before hurrying after him.

He went to the tree stump by the barn that was used for cutting firewood. He placed the box on its side on top of the stump. He had to move it several times to steady it so it would stay on its side long enough for him to hit it with the axe.

Finally, when it looked like it wasn’t about to fall over flat, Donnie lifted and swung the axe without hesitation. Nicole was impressed by the difference between his swing and Cynthia’s. The difference in their strength was obvious.

The axe busted through the welded seams and the container split in two. Nicole’s eyes opened wide as she watched gold coins and sparkling gems spill from inside the two parts. They flowed out and over the side of the tree stump, clinking to the ground where they hit roots and bounced off a few feet.

Nicole and Cynthia both squealed at the same time. Donnie grunted loudly and slapped his hands over his ears, but he had an amused, delighted look on his face, too.

Nicole jumped into his arms, tugging on his shoulders, laughing. “Look, Donnie! Look at all that gold. Those jewels. How much do you think that stuff is worth, Donnie? Oh, Donnie, we’re rich. We’re rich.”

She continued to jump up and down, dancing over to Cynthia and grabbing the woman’s hand. Cynthia laughed and danced with Nicole, who stopped her abruptly to say, “You realize you are rich, too, now, right? We aren’t going to be stingy. We’ll give you a bunch of these coins and a bunch of gems, and you can do what you want with them, sell them, buy more property, whatever you want.”

Cynthia’s excitement couldn’t have grown any wilder. Nicole saw tears of joy in her friend’s eyes, and it brought on an onslaught of her own. She held on to Cynthia, dragging her over to Donnie so the three of them could hug together.

“You ladies have lost your minds,” Donnie teased in a good-natured tone. Nicole laughed when he added, “I don’t know where you’re getting your money from, but all of this is mine. All mine. Mine.”

He said it without any conviction whatsoever, which made Cynthia and Nicole laugh even harder.

Nicole was the first one to start picking up the coins and putting them back in one side of the metal box. She was still fascinated by it, wondering who had made it and how long ago it had been buried. They were questions she likely would never get an answer to.

Her heart sang with joy as she thought about the reaction of her loved ones and friends who would benefit from this buried treasure. It wasn’t just Cynthia who would be given a portion. She would offer some to her father, too, so he could expand his undertaker business. She would offer a portion to Arnold, so he could hire another carpenter and bring in more profit. Karen would get some, but Nicole had no idea what the woman would use hers for. Perhaps she could arrange parties more frequently and be paid for it. That was a novel concept. Nicole didn’t know anyone else who had a job like that.

So many people would be so much happier. Life would be easier. All because her brother had purchased the property in Liberty Court, moving himself away from the family and friends who loved him. He had to do it, he’d told Nicole for months before and after moving there.

It was getting easier to think about Jason without feeling guilty. She knew there was no way she could have prevented what happened, even if she’d been in daily contact with her brother. He wasn’t Cat and Barbara’s first victim.

But he was their last.

Donnie and Cynthia joined her in picking up the coins and gems. They worked in silence until the last one was off the ground. Nicole held one side of the metal box while Donnie held the other, which had most of the gold coins in it, making it quite heavy.

Nicole thought she would burst into tears when Donnie looked up, lifting the coins at the same time. “Thanks, Jason,” he said. “And you, too, God. Thank you.”

“Thank you,” Cynthia added her gratitude to Donnie’s.

“Yes.” Nicole lifted her tear-filled eyes to the clear sky above, picturing her brother standing up there looking down on her with a smile. “Thank you. Miss you. Love you.”

THE END


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19 thoughts on “Following the Enemy’s Trail – Extended Epilogue”

    1. I loved this story. Fora while there I was worried for the characters but it came out alright.
      I enjoy all your books.

    2. I didn’t receive the chance to do the official review. I really liked the story and would like to respond to the review opportunity. thanks for all your efforts.

  1. A very good story with a surprise ending in the extended epilogue.

    You Sir, are a talented author… I look forward to reading more of your adventures.

  2. Iam a slow reader took me a while to get to the end. Think about it at nite and wonder who did it. I good story. You are a talented weighted.

  3. Such an unexpected twist for a villain. A must read. Extended portion could have included an update on the outcome of the prison sentence and how the children were doing.

  4. I thank you once again for some very fine entertainment. Your stories are always well written and the characters are developed so thoughly that they come to life for me. I have enjoyed reading your western tales and hope that you continue with your writing. You are one of my favorites authors. I appreciate you.

  5. A most entertaining book. Your characters are so developed, I feel their happy and painful times. You kept me guessing as to which person(s) was the real danger.

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