How The Best Was Won

An Old West tale of two train robbers and the sheriff's son who wants to join them.

“This dump reeks of piss and sweat,” Ben grumbled around the freshly lit cigar hanging out of the corner of his mouth. I always worried that he’d set the wiry black hairs of his beard on fire when he did that, so I tried to keep conversation to a minimum when he was smoking. Of course, Ben spent most of his non-smoking hours either sleeping or showering, so that didn’t leave much safe time for talking. “Remind me again why we’re here?”

‘This dump’ was better known as The Setting Sun Saloon – not that there was a sign hanging outside to let anybody know that, of course. At least, not anymore; that rusting metal deathtrap had come tumbling down in a spring windstorm two years back and nobody could be bothered to replace it. The saloon wasn’t much to look at from the outside and the view didn’t noticeably improve once you pushed your way through the rotting wooden door. Assuming there was enough light and too little smoke to make anything out.

If you happened to be fortunate enough to enter its confines on one of those rare clear occasions, you’d find twenty tables crammed into an area meant to hold ten, an unpolished bar with an unspectacular display of spirits behind it, and an even more unrefined, unimpressive man slouched in between the aforementioned alcohol and said bar. There was no piano in the corner, no pretty pictures up on the wall, and no food worth eating. Looking at it that way, I suppose poor Ben had a right to complain about our presence there.

“Well it’s damn hot out there,” I said after a throat burning swallow of whiskey, “I needed a drink, and we have a lot of time to kill before our train leaves.”

“Well we could have easily found a better watering hole than this one,” he said with a disparaging look at the occupants of the table to our right. I followed his dark, close-set eyes to find two men with their tattered brown hats pulled low and snoring contentedly; two matching trails of drool mixed with booze ran from their mouths to their faded silver belt buckles. “The women ain’t even worth pinching, and you know that’s saying something coming from me.”

“Are they not?” I asked, searching through the smoke-filled air for a green or yellow dress. Not that I needed to look; I knew damn well Ben wouldn’t fancy any of those plain farmers' daughters. That was the real reason I had selected that dive – I wasn’t about to miss another train just because he was doing a horizontal jig with some serving wench. “I’ll just have to be more considerate of your needs next time I’m deciding where to wet my whistle.”

“Yeah, you do that.” Ben leaned his head back and sent a couple smoke rings to visit his daddy in heaven before pulling his pistol from the shining black holster attached to his belt and spinning its chamber. Midnight Rose, he called his pride and joy, and I was pretty sure that was the only thing on his person that he hadn’t stolen. I knew firsthand that he had taken his charcoal grey Stetson from an elderly gentleman in Tucson, and that his brown cowboy boots were procured at gunpoint on a train to San Francisco. I didn’t know anything about the source of his clothes, nor did I want to.

“Excuse me, mind if I join you gentlemen?” The young man who asked the question didn’t look like a razor had ever touched the delicate skin on his face, but his hands were steady and wisely well away from his holster. I rested an elbow on the table, grabbed my stubble-covered chin between my thumb and forefinger, and looked him up and down. Clean shirt, clean jeans, quality boots, and no badge in sight. I was immediately intrigued.

“Ain’t no gentlemen at this here table,” Ben drawled, his head tilted slightly to the side, before blowing smoke out his nostrils. His fingers continued spinning the chamber, round and round. “You’re too pretty to be in here boy; why don’t you mosey on down the street to a more upscale establishment?”

“Because I wouldn’t find Red Williams,” a nod in my direction, “and Black Smoke Davis,” a dipped chin toward Ben, “in a more upscale establishment, as you call them.”

“Well, well Henry,” Ben said to me with a slanted grin, his hands now motionless beneath the table, “did you hear that? This young man knows our names. I must confess, however, that I don’t have the honour and the privilege to know his.”

“The name’s James Best,” he announced with a challenging stare. Ben and I looked at each other in silence for a moment, though the maelstrom of noise coming from the rest of the room didn’t subside to join our sudden change in mood. I turned my head slowly back to our guest and shoved my custom made blood red hat higher up on my forehead. I grabbed my glass and swirled its sweet contents slowly.

“Jimmy Best?” I asked casually, keeping both hands above the table. “Son of Sheriff Charlie Best?”

“The one and only.”

“What on God's green earth do you think you’re doing, son?” Ben asked so softly I could barely hear him. He was the closest to being off-balance that I had ever seen him.

“I want to go into business with you gentlemen,” he replied, his eyes daring us to laugh.

“And what line of business, exactly, is it that you think we gentlemen are in?”

“Robbing trains.”

Ben and I exchanged glances one more time, our faces in perfect poker game form, giving not a single hint of what either of us might have been thinking. Jimmy stood waiting patiently but his eyes gave away his eagerness, his nerves, his fear. I checked the clock on the wall: 1:45 pm. We still had two hours before the train was scheduled to pull out of the station.

“Buy us all a round kid,” I told him after draining the rest of my whiskey, “and then we’ll have ourselves a nice little chat.”

The End

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