Target Practice

We dismounted without need for directions to be given and each of us dropped into a crouch. Jimmy was the first to realize that this did us no good with the horses standing over us, so he gathered up their reins and led them back the way we had come until he could no longer see the mine. I looked at Ben, Ben looked at me, and Suzie shook her head in disgust.

“Amateur hour in Dixie,” she muttered as she lowered herself to her stomach and began to crawl forward. Ben and I joined her, but only after taking a moment to enjoy her… uh, technique.

“There’s no way in hell Jenkins beat us here,” Ben declared around his cigar. We were probably at a safe enough distance for it not to matter, but I grabbed it out of his mouth and stubbed it in the sand anyway. He just looked at me like he knew I was trying to make up for my earlier stupidity.

“Agreed,” I said, ignoring his glare and peering over the ridge at the figure below. He was leaning against the rock face next to the mine entrance, trying to stay cool in the shade. A brown cowboy hat sat low on his brow, obscuring his face. “That’s not him - too tall.”

“He ain’t ugly enough to be the Marshal,” Ben said without needing any proof. “Looks like the horses are inside the entrance.”

“How do you know there’s more than one?” Suzie asked.

“Too many horse apples around the opening,” I said. “A man doesn’t want his mount defiling his dinner table. So they get paraded around a couple times a day until they do their business, then they’re brought back out of the sun.”

“Probably tie them up outside overnight,” Ben added. “Still, it’s bound to smell something terrible in there.”

“I can’t wait to see for myself,” Suzie said as enthusiastically as a doctor preparing to treat a leper for a lung infection.

“So who’s down there awaiting our arrival?” Jimmy asked as he appeared next to me. While I waited for my heart rate to return to normal I looked back to see our horses standing where he’d left them, looking rather bored with our antics.

“Another skeleton crew of guards,” I said, returning my gaze to the mine. “Just like what Suzie had stinking up her fine nunnery.”

“Not just like,” Suzie said quietly and all heads turned in her direction. “This stash, unlike the one in the cloister, is in the middle of nowhere. Jenkins couldn’t just stick any old hired guns out here with nobody around to keep an eye on them. He had to send men he trusted. He had to send the best.”

“Who are they?” I asked, not wanting to hear the answer.

“The cretins guarding the nunnery gold talked about them a lot. There was some jealous badmouthing, but for the most part they spoke about the platinum mine guards with… I’m tempted to call it reverence. There will be four men down there, and three of them are just about the best shots in the West.”

“And the fourth?” Ben asked, chewing his bottom lip with no cigar to sharpen his teeth on.

“That would be the guy in charge out here,” Suzie said. “Oliver Jenkins - the Marshal’s younger brother.”

“Jenkins has a brother?” Ben spluttered. “Is his mother blind?”

“Hope springs eternal,” I muttered as a second guard emerged from the mine carrying an empty can of beans. “I can only imagine the atmosphere in there… maybe those boys don’t have functioning olfactory systems.”

We watched as the new arrival chatted briefly with the original guard before strolling in our direction. The sun was starting to burn a hole in my back but I held my ground as the man continued to advance. With a final backward glance he drew to a halt and placed the can on a knee-high boulder. Then he turned and made his way back to his partner.

“Not a chance,” Ben said, his eyes narrowing.

“He’d need binoculars just to see the damned thing,” I added.

Suzie made a noncommittal sound while Jimmy watched with his mouth hanging slightly open. Once the guards were side by side again they drew their pistols and took aim. I was about to make another disparaging comment when the first man fired.

The can flew into the air as the shot echoed around us, but before it could land the second man loosed a shot which sent the can flying backward to land in the sand on its side. We didn’t need a closer look to know the can had just been blessed with four new holes.

“So… no frontal approach then?” Jimmy asked weakly.

I wasn’t able to muster a reply and Ben didn’t look up to it either, so we remained silent. A few moments later a third man emerged from the mine, spooked horses in tow. He exchanged some angry words with the first two before leading them out into the fresh air to do (or maybe just complete) their fertilization of the general area.

“Wait a second,” Ben said, going tense. “Why are there only three horses? Where‘s the fourth?”

I scanned the area, thinking hard. What would I do if I was tasked with guarding a space this large with only four men?

Oh, son of a donkey.

“He’s patrolling the perimeter. We need to move!”

The End

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