Hole in the Ace

I'd seen a good many strange things in my time with Ben, but this just may have taken the cake, even when you included the dead monkey incident. But I couldn't argue that Suzie had done her job and perhaps a bit more: Jenkins' men were very much distracted. Jimmy walked to the bar and immediately drained a glass of something that looked too hard for his slight frame, no doubt in an attempt to numb the pain of his bruised shoulder.

"You ready?" I asked Ben.

"When am I not?" he said, lighting up a cigar.

Ben and I sidled up behind Jenkins' table. I put a hand on Jenkins' shoulder and he turned to face me.

"Hello, Mr. Jenkins," I said. "We had a slight issue we wanted to clear up with you. We've heard word that you're after us to murder us, kill us, or otherwise knock us off, and worse than that, to soil our eminent reputations."

I saw Jenkins' hand drifting toward his gun as I spoke. When they reached his hip, his fingers did a confused little dance in midair. Across the table, Nate exhibited his pickpocket skills; he showed Jenkins his gun by leveling its barrel at him.

I grinned, then sat down next to the marshal as Ben took the seat on his other side. Nate stood up to get us drinks; the bartender had apparently joined in on the dancing festivities.

"Well, Marshal, I have to hand it to you," said Ben, puffing a hot lungful of smoke into Jenkins' face, "you've strung together a scheme tricky enough to make even a veteran criminal proud. That is, if said criminals weren't supposed to complete this venture with bullets in their brains."

"God damn you, Davis," cursed Jenkins. "What do you want? If you make one move, my men will have you so full of lead —"

"Actually, I think your men are mighty distracted at the moment, not to mention the fact that they'd have no horses to follow us on, seeing as we went through the trouble of taking them off your hands for you."

Jenkins twitched his lips furiously beneath his nest-like mustache.

"Well then, what the hell do you want?"

"Well, you not threatening to ruin us and blow our heads off would be a good start," I said. "We also happen to want your gold, which, seeing as you stole it in the first place, isn't really yours anyway. And you spending a few nice, character-building years in some desolate prison somewhere to atone for it all would probably be good for everyone concerned."

Nate returned with the drinks and went around the table placing one in front of each of us. I sipped at mine and waited for Jenkins' response.

"If you kill me, you ain't never finding that gold," growled Jenkins.

"I beg to differ," I said smugly. I pulled the map of the platinum mine from beneath my vest and smoothed it out on the table. "It seems awful coincidental that this here map — which was stolen from a supposed dead man's funeral carriage — would have your name scrawled in the corner. It seems awful coincidental that there's a handsome 'ex' labeled 'gold' on it too."

I finished my glass.

"I don't think you ever meant us to have this map, Marshal, but when we acquired it, you decided we'd be the perfect fall guys for your little retirement plan. That's when you had Sheriff Best plant the nunnery map on the train, wasn't it?"

Jenkins didn't say anything.

"And I'll bet there's more gold in that mine than there is platinum, isn't there?"

Jenkins still didn't say anything.

"Sorry, Jenkins," Ben smirked. "Let's go outside and finish this. Otherwise we're going to have to settle this in here with our guns."

"What guns?" said Nate.

I turned to see Nate glaring at us, holding my pistol in one hand, Ben's in the other.

"How in the —?"

My hand dropped reflexively to my side, but there was nothing there. I realized with a horrible lurch what had happened: Nate had stolen our guns while he circled around behind us on the pretense of bringing us our drinks.

"Nate —" I began cautiously.

"Shut up, Red," snapped Nate. He looked genuinely angry, and for once in his life, sober enough to shoot straight.

Marshal Jenkins got up and Nate returned him his gun.

"I've had enough of your empty promises that end in me being hoodwinked for nothing," snarled Nate. "Not to mention that Mr. Jenkins here offered me a helluva lot better a deal than you two did."

"You double-crossing b—"

Jenkins cut off the rest of Jimmy's enraged outburst by firing a hole clean through the boy's hat. The piano hiccoughed and died with a dissonant chord. The can-canners gradually stopped their singing and dancing, except for one last man who was so drunk he didn't appear to have noticed that anything at all had happened.

"Now, I've promised your pa I wouldn't hurt you," warned Jenkins, "but I may have to break that promise if you don't cooperate."

Jenkins smiled, exposing crooked teeth that glittered with gold.

A leaden feeling had settled into my stomach and dewy droplets of sweat began forming on my brow. I glanced over at Ben; his cigar had fallen out of his limp jaw and was now smoldering a hole in the ace of spades.

I took a halfhearted stab at diplomacy.

"Come now, Nate, Jenkins. We're all good men —"

(Nate snorted.)

"— I'm sure we can . . ."

I didn't really know what I was going to say, but it turned out I didn't have to. There was a sudden shout from the bar; Jimmy had drawn his revolver and fired, smashing a window behind Jenkins. Jenkins and Nate both swiveled to shoot at him, but he dove behind the piano, which twanged horribly as the pianist ducked for cover and bullets pelted the keys.

Ben knocked over the table, scattering cards and chips everywhere, and took cover behind it, while I lunged at Nate and began grappling for my gun. Someone fired at me, but the bullet struck Nate in the leg, causing him to yelp and slacken his grip on the guns. I grabbed mine and slid the other to Ben, while Jenkins was forced to jump behind the bar to avoid Jimmy's shooting.

The men on the stage seemed to have gathered their wits about them somewhat, and had unholstered their guns to add their own spectacularly drunken shots to the fray. Glasses popped and showered shards everywhere in sparkling curtains; whiskey exploded from shattered bottles. Chairs were overturned and salt shakers were kicked spinning across the floor. It was utter chaos.

And then, suddenly, Suzie was at my side, having somehow sneaked around the firefight beneath the tables. She had a determined gleam in her eye as she quickly drew a derringer from her boot and put it to my head.

"Not again," I groaned.

"Shut up, you'll thank me later — or at least Jimmy will," hissed Suzie. "And whatever you do, play along."

The End

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