J.M.J.

Author's note: Surprise! I'm posting the last chapter today instead of Tuesday, which is a full three days early. Part of it is because today is three months to the day that I posted the first chapter, and part of it is in gratitude for how patient you've all been with my slower-than-usual posting schedule. I'd like to thank everyone who reviewed the last chapter: Candylou, cowpoke, Rose12, and Drumboy100!

Chapter XXI

For a breathless moment, Dirk and Sanders both stood as still as statues. Everyone realized that one of them must have been hit, but it was impossible to tell which. Then Dirk slowly sank to the ground with both hands pressed against his side. Sanders pushed him away, but he didn't have long to enjoy his victory, for Humber immediately fired a shot that struck him squarely in the heart.

After a moment of shock, Nancy hastened to Dirk's side and helped ease him into a sitting position. She glanced at his wound, and though she was no doctor, it looked bad to her. The other men quickly gathered around.

Sam took a handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it against the wound, though the thin piece of fabric did little to stop the flow of blood. "Is the nearest doctor all the way in Dry Creek?"

"I'm afraid so," Carson said, handing over his handkerchief to add to it.

"Doesn't matter," Dirk said. He gave a shallow cough and then went on, "It's better this way."

Nancy glanced around her and saw that Fenton and Joe were bending over Frank, who seemed to just be coming to. "Joe," she said, "Frank said that the girls are nearby."

"Just over that ridge where that other fellow was shooting from," Joe confirmed.

"And Frances is with them?"

"Yeah, that's right." Joe realized what she was getting at and glanced past her toward the sheriff. "I can go get her, if you think that's a good idea."

Humber nodded wordlessly.

Joe started to get up, but then he paused as he glanced down at his brother.

"He's all right," Fenton assured him. "You'd better hurry."

Joe nodded and took off at a run.

With Fenton's help, Frank sat up and rubbed the back of his head. "Ugh. What happened?"

"You were hit in the head," Fenton told him. "Just sit still. You'll be okay."

Joe made it back in record time with Frances, the other girls, and Dave and Bud following him. Bess and George hugged Nancy ecstatically when they saw her, but Frances only gave her an astonished look and then hurried to Dirk's side. He was lying with his eyes closed while Sam was still applying pressure to the wound, though it did not seem to slacken the bleeding at all.

"Dirk?" Frances said through her tears.

Dirk opened his eyes at the sound of her voice. "Frances. I…didn't think…you'd come back."

"Of course I would." Frances brushed a strand of hair out of his face and tried to smile, but the action only brought even more tears to her eyes.

Dirk drew a shaky breath and winced. "I'm sorry, Frances."

"It's all right," Frances told him. "I don't know what happened, but I do know now that you couldn't have killed anyone. I'm so sorry for doubting you."

"You had…every reason to doubt." Dirk closed his eyes as a wave of pain washed over him. "I love you, Frances."

Frances's tears streamed anew. "I love you, too."

What other words passed between them in those final moments went unheard by anyone else, for Sam, realizing that there was no hope of saving Dirk's life, abandoned his attempts and withdrew to give them privacy, gesturing for everyone else to do the same.

NDNDNDNDND

There was quite a gathering at the Hardy ranch one night a week later. It had been a busy week of sorting out exactly what had happened. The most important thing that was done that week was burying Dirk Valentine, who was given a quiet spot in a corner of the churchyard at one end of town. The funeral had been far better attended than any other outlaw's might have been and the mourners were genuine in their sorrow. Now, Fenton and his boys, as well as Carson and Nancy, would be leaving on the stage the next morning and heading back to Bayport and River Heights, respectively, and so Ruth Hardy was throwing a farewell party for them. Everyone involved in solving the cases had been invited, as well as a large assortment of other people from the area, though not all came. The most notable people missing were the Humbers, who were in no mood for parties, and Ned Nickerson, who hadn't been cleared by the doctor or his parents to leave the house so soon or so late at night. Nancy surprised herself by how disappointed she was by these absences.

The party coming from Shadow Ranch was a little late in arriving, and nearly everyone else was gathered by the time they reached Crowhead Ranch. Much to Nancy's embarrassment, they were greeted by a general round of applause when they entered.

Frank and Joe were the first people to approach Nancy and her friends.

"It's been nice getting to know all of you," Joe said. "You're a really great detective, Nancy. I hope that someday we can work on another case together."

"I'd like that," Nancy said. "You two are fine detectives, too."

"So you're not taking your cousin up on her offer to let one of you stay and learn the ranching business so you can take over someday?" George asked.

Frank and Joe glanced at each other.

"I don't think either of us are meant to be ranchers," Frank said. "Besides, we've got plenty of time to think it over. Cousin Ruth is counting on one of us changing his mind eventually, but I don't think that's going to happen."

"Of course, staying out here wouldn't be all bad," Joe added thoughtfully.

"I hope not," Nancy said with a small smile. "I've got something to tell all of you. Dad and I have been talking it over, and it's not completely decided since we have to talk to Hannah about it and see what she thinks because she's a part of the family and we're not going to just leave her in River Heights, but Dad wants to come back out here to live and try to do something about the mess of a justice system that they have out here."

Bess clapped her hands and gave a squeal of joy before she grabbed Nancy in a hug. "Yes! This is wonderful news, Nancy!" She kept one arm around Nancy and put the other around George. "It will be the three of us together again! You have no idea how much I've been dreading putting you on that stagecoach tomorrow and not knowing or even if I'll ever see you again."

Nancy laughed. "Even if we don't end up coming out here to stay, I'd come back as often as I could."

"This really is great, Nancy," George added. "We've missed you so much, and it would be even worse to have to say goodbye again after having you here."

"Well, like I said, it's not completely certain, but I think it's pretty likely," Nancy said.

"It must be more than just likely if you even said anything about it to us at all," Bess told her. "And now this party won't be ruined by an overhanging cloud of sadness. Well, except that we really do have to say goodbye to you two." The last sentence was directed toward the Hardys.

Joe shrugged. "I wouldn't be surprised if our paths crossed again sometime. At least, I think we should all keep in touch. You know, writing letters and all if that's the best we can manage."

"That's a good idea," Nancy agreed.

After a few more minutes of talking, Dave Gregory approached the group. After exchanging greetings with them all, he turned to George. "They're serving supper already. Would you like to get some, George?"

George's cheeks took on a pink tinge, especially when she noticed Bess waggling her eyebrows at her out of the corner of her eye. Even so, she willingly took Dave's arm. "Yes, I'd like to."

As they walked away, Bess shook her head. "I've never been one to turn down a romance, but George with a beau is a weird idea."

"Of course, George will never admit that she has a beau," Nancy said with a grin.

"No, not until they're engaged, and then she'll have to admit it," Bess agreed. "For as smitten as Dave is over her, I'd say that's not too far off. You might not have time to move back here before you'll have to be a bridesmaid, Nancy."

Nancy grinned. The idea of George being the first out of her friends to get married was one that had never even occurred to her before, but she would be happy if it came to pass. "What about you, Bess?" she asked. "I always figured you would be the first of all of us to get married."

"It's going to take some time to decide exactly who I want to settle down and spend the rest of my life with," Bess replied. "Chuck is dashing and so fascinating to talk, and he actually is interested in what I have to say. Then there's Bud. He's terribly smart and he was so dashingly brave when we were captured. I don't know how I can ever choose between them. Excuse me. I'd better go find them."

Joe rolled his eyes as she left. "You know, for the record, Bud got knocked unconscious and I was the one who disarmed Sanders and got out of that."

"With the help of a thirteen-year-old girl," Frank reminded him. "Not to mention that Sanders escaped and while you were chasing after him, you managed to get yourself recaptured for the third time."

"Well…" Joe couldn't think of anything to soften all of that, so he did the next best thing he could. "I just saw someone I want to talk to. I'll talk to you two later."

Frank and Nancy chuckled as he shuffled away.

"How about we go get something to eat, Nancy?" Frank asked.

"Why not?" Nancy replied, and they approached the buffet table.

When they had dished up their food, they found a spot on the outskirts of the crowd to sit down. They ate in silence for a moment or two.

Then Nancy said, "I'm afraid people might start talking about us again."

"It doesn't make any difference," Frank said. "People are bound to talk even if you don't give them any reason to. Besides, we're both leaving tomorrow, and you're the only one with any plans of coming back. What does it matter if anyone talks?"

"It doesn't matter to me," Nancy admitted, resolving that she would talk to the one person whom she would mind hearing any such rumors herself to clear the matter up. "I just hope it doesn't…Well, there's no hard feelings between us, are there?"

Frank gave her a confused look. "No. Why should there be?"

"No feelings at all between us?" Nancy went on.

"Only feelings of friendship," Frank assured her with a smile.

"Good. I was a little afraid you hadn't quite been completely honest with me when I saw how worried you were over me."

"I always worry when my friends are in trouble," Frank said. "You don't have to be in love with a person to care whether they live or die."

"True," Nancy agreed with a sigh of relief. "I'm glad I met you, Frank. I hope we meet again sometime."

"Like Joe said, I wouldn't be surprised if it happened," Frank said.

When Joe had said that there was someone he wanted to talk to, it hadn't merely been an excuse to get away. At that moment, he had spotted Chet and Iola Morton. He had known that they had been invited to the party, but he hadn't gotten a chance to talk to them yet. They seemed as if they felt a little out of place here and that they greatly appreciated Joe's cheerful greeting to them.

"I'm glad you two could come," Joe told them.

"We couldn't miss the chance to say goodbye, even if you did break my arm," Chet replied teasingly, nodding at his arm, which was still in a sling.

"Oh, come on. Why not let bygones be bygones?" Joe said in the same teasing tone.

"We really are very grateful to you and your brother and your father and Miss Drew and everyone else who helped," Iola told him. "I might never have been rescued if it wasn't for all of you."

"I don't know about that," Joe replied, his cheeks reddening ever so slightly at the praise, especially praise coming from Iola.

The three talked for a while longer, until the dancing started. Then Joe asked Iola if she would like to dance, to which she eagerly agreed.

"You know," Joe said when they had finished their dance, "if you ever happen to be in Bayport, you have to come and visit me."

Iola gave him a mischievous smile. "You might as well have asked me to visit you if I ever happen to be on the moon. I doubt I'll ever just happen to be in Bayport."

"Oh," Joe replied in disappointment.

"But," Iola went on, "if you would invite me, I think it would be a different story."

"Consider yourself as having a standing invitation," Joe told her. "I'll write you every week to remind you of it, too."

"I'll save my money," Iola promised, "and I expect you to come back to Arizona to visit every now and again."

"As often as I possibly can," Joe replied.

Iola's face fell a bit. "Which couldn't possibly be all that often. I don't know that we can really make this work."

"It won't be easy, but we can try," Joe said. "We'll never know unless we try."

"We might just wind up with broken hearts," Iola cautioned him.

"Maybe, but maybe not," Joe told her. "It's worth the risk to me."

NDNDNDNDND

The party flew by in a blur. George spent practically the entire time with Dave. Bess, too, was claimed for practically every dance until she had to insist on sitting a few out, though it wasn't only Bud Moore and Chuck Chase who were vying for her attention. Nancy was asked to dance many times, but after a couple of hours, she quietly made her way outside by herself.

The first thing she did was take in a long breath of cool air – it was almost astonishing just how hot parties could become. The second thing she did was notice Alice Regor sitting on a bench outside and gazing up at the stars.

"What are you doing out here?" Nancy asked her.

"Oh, just trying to spot the constellations," Alice told her. "My father has been teaching them to me. You know, the doctor says he can start walking around in another day or so."

"That's great news," Nancy replied. "What I meant, though, was why aren't you inside enjoying the party?"

"I always used to think that going to a dance would terribly exciting, but it's really not, especially when most people are there so much older than me," Alice told her. "Maybe in a few years I can go to parties like this and enjoy. For now, though, I'd rather just be out here."

"I can't say I blame you," Nancy admitted, sitting down next to her. "I like parties and dances well enough, but…Well, someone I was hoping would be here isn't and now I don't know that I'll get a chance to say goodbye to him."

"There's a few things I don't really understand about this mystery," Alice said, changing the subject. "What exactly happened to Chris Mason? Why was he riding one of Mr. Hamilton's horses?"

"We'll never know for absolutely certain, but the way I figure it is this," Nancy explained. "Mason was up by the cliff houses, maybe looking for some of Mrs. Hardy's cattle, since they go up there sometimes. While he was riding down that steep, narrow path, his horse fell and broke its leg and he had to shoot it. Then he discovered the corral of horses that Morgan was keeping there to work the mine. He must have recognized Mr. Hamilton's brand and figured that either the horses were stolen or Mr. Hamilton was up to something he shouldn't be since he didn't have any business keeping horses there. He took one of the horses so he could ride back to Crowhead Ranch. When he got up to the cliff houses, he must have met Sanders, who might have even been following him in hopes of getting a chance to kill him. Then Sanders forced him to remove his gun belt and then killed him."

Alice shivered. "It's terrible that things like that can happen. I wish someone could do something to make it stop."

"We can all do a little bit," Nancy told her. "The only way anything's going to get better is if we all do as much as we can."

"I hope I can be just like you someday," Alice said.

Nancy grinned in embarrassment. "I hope you can be a whole lot better than that someday. Why don't you show me some of the constellations?"

Alice began pointing them out, and for several minutes, the conversation turned entirely to astronomy rather than detective work. Eventually, Nancy heard the sound of a horse and a cart approaching.

"Who's out there?" she asked, standing up.

"It's just me," a most welcome but unexpected voice replied.

Nancy smiled in delight and rushed forward to meet the driver of the two-person buggy. "Ned Nickerson! You're not supposed to be out of bed yet."

"No, not really," Ned admitted, "but given the circumstances, my parents thought we could make an exception. I don't think I'd better go into the party, but if you'd like a ride back to Shadow Ranch…"

"I'd love it," Nancy replied. "I'll just go tell my father…"

"I'll tell him for you," Alice offered. "You go on ahead."

"Thank you," Nancy told her.

As Alice headed back inside, Ned reached down and helped Nancy up into the buggy. Once they were both settled, he clicked his tongue and the horse started forward.

"I'm glad you came," Nancy said. "I didn't like the idea of going home without one more chance to talk to you."

"I didn't like that idea much, either," Ned agreed. "I suppose you'll be coming back again to visit your friends?"

"Better than that," Nancy said and told him that she and her father were considering moving here. "Of course, that won't be so very nice after if you're not here. Do you think your parents are going to leave?"

"I'm certain of it," Ned replied. "They're already making plans. Like I told you before, my father isn't one for sitting still. I think I could be, though. If you're really coming back here, I think I'd like to stay. To tell the truth, I was thinking about it, anyway. I was planning on seeing if I could find a job on one of the ranches around as soon as I'm up and around."

"It's quite a jump from being a newspaper man to a cowboy," Nancy said.

"Maybe," Ned admitted, "but this is the first place that has ever really even started to feel like home." He fumbled with the reins. "Um, Miss Drew…"

"You can call me Nancy."

Ned grinned. "All right, but then you'll have to call me Ned." He paused. "Nancy, there was a reason I wanted to come and see you and that I was hoping we could be alone. You see, I've never met anyone quite like you before. You're brave and smart and…well, wonderful, but you're not prideful about it. You're so much better than I could ever hope to be, but you don't look down on me."

Nancy took his hand. "You can't really be serious, Ned. You're one of the bravest men that I ever met. When those outlaws broke into the newspaper office to try to force you to tell them about me, you didn't tell them anything, even though they almost killed you. Then you came looking for me, even though you really shouldn't have in the condition you were in, and you saved my life, even though it cost you a great deal. I'll never be able to repay you for that."

"I didn't really have any choice," Ned told her. "Anyone would have done the same."

"That doesn't change the fact that it wasn't easy for you," Nancy replied. "Maybe you've never met anyone quite like me, like you say, but I've certainly never anyone at all like you."

Ned squeezed her hand. "When you come back, may I come and see you often? I'd like to get to know you."

"Yes, please do," Nancy told him. "I'd like to get to know you better, too." She rested her head against his shoulder and closed her eyes with a deep sigh of contentment.

Author's note: So there we have it. The end of this story. I hope you've enjoyed it even half as much as I've enjoyed writing it. It's been a long haul: 80,000+ words and three months. I'm so grateful to all of you who have stuck with me all this time, and all of you who started reading this story later but kept going to the end. It's a great honor to me that you've spent so much of your time reading this and I thank you for it.

I would also like to thank everyone who followed and/or favorited this story, and especially everyone who left reviews. I try not to be pushy about asking for reviews, so it might sometimes seem that I don't care about them as much as I do. There's really nothing I like better (at least in the fanfiction world) than reading what my readers think of my story, and I'm so very, very grateful to all of you who have or will take the time to leave me a note. Whether you've left one review or many, I greatly appreciate it.

I'd like to give a special shout out to my four absolute rock star reviewers: Drumboy100, Cherylann Rivers, Rose12, and angelicalkiss. You guys have reviewed practically every single and usually you leave thorough, detailed reviews that really help me see what I'm doing right and where things get confusing or unsatisfying. You're amazing, and I'm appreciative to all of you.

Before I go, I'd like to note a few things about this story. First off, as I said at the beginning, practically every named character in this story is from the HeR Interactive PC game, Secret of Shadow Ranch, the yellow-spine Nancy Drew books, The Secret of Shadow Ranch and The Sky Phantom, or the blue-spine Hardy Boys book, The Sign of the Crooked Arrow. Judge Hart, who appears in one chapter, is from the yellow-spine Nancy Drew book, The Secret of the Old Clock (I think he might have appeared in one or two other books, but I don't remember for sure) and there's also a brief reference to the blue-spine Hardy Boys book, Hunting for Hidden Gold. Of course, I played around with these characters', well, characters to some extent, but I can't claim any real credit for the ideas for them. The only true named OCs in this story are the two lawyers, Duncan and Elwood. I needed some terrible lawyers, and there weren't any to be readily had in any of my four main sources. I also want to note that I purposely left a few doors open for a sequel or two. This story has been much too much fun to not at least play around with the idea of a sequel, although I only have the slimmest and shakiest ideas for one at the moment.

It's always bittersweet coming to the end of a story. I miss the fun of working on that particular story and of getting to know the reviewers even just a little bit, but at the same time, there's always a sense of accomplishment and even freedom, since now I can work on anything I want, or nothing, if that's what I want. This time, it's especially bittersweet, for I'm going to have to take an indefinite hiatus from Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew fanfiction. Now, don't worry, I'm not going anywhere for good. It probably won't be that many months before I come back with a new story, and even before that happens, I intend to spend some of the extra spare time I will now have in catching up on some of the fanfics I've been meaning to read for a while now. Plus, taking a break is really going to recharge my batteries, so hopefully when I do come back, it will be with something that's really great. Still, I'll miss sharing my stories with you in the meantime. I'll be checking my PM inbox regularly, so don't hesitate to drop me a message to say hi.

Until next time,

hbndgirl