It wasn’t supposed to end that way. The scene in the quarry that afternoon was never in the plan. In any of the plans, for that matter. It wouldn’t have been found in any of the revised versions either.
But there we were, smack dab in the middle of nowhere, with three prisoners (one unharmed, one shot, and the last unconscious and not looking like he was waking up anytime soon), awaiting the arrival of a crooked Marshal (aren’t they all?) and his army of henchmen.
And all we had going for us was a badly wounded Ben (without a cigar in sight), an injured sheriff’s son, and a dehydrated, passed out strumpet. Oh, and myself, basically fine aside from a few new air holes in my favorite hat.
More than enough cause to hightail it out of there as fast as our horses could carry us, with no stops until we found ourselves in the nearest watering hole. I would have happily done just that, to be honest.
If it wasn’t for that damned mine and its ill-gotten gold, so tantalizingly close but stubbornly beyond our reach until that army decided to show up…
A new game plan was required once again but our options were rather limited. Ben and Suzie were essentially stuck wherever we left them, which had to be with the horses and captives, as close to the water as we could hide them. That left me and Jimmy to sneak in after the Marshal and his crew had cleared the way, find the gold, and then… what? We couldn’t exactly carry it all out ourselves by hand. We’d just have to figure that part out if we actually managed to get that far.
Not that those were our only problems.
“Jenkins won’t trust all of his men to go in with him,” Ben said, far too weakly for my liking. That bandage I had wrapped around his hips was not nearly enough. He needed a doctor and fast. “Too many eyes knowing how to get to the gold is not in his best interest. He’ll take his brother and a few more at most… that leaves the rest… out…”
“Outside with us,” I finished for him, which didn’t even earn me a glare. Not good. “We’re not going to be able to shoot our way through that, and even if we did we’d just draw the head honcho back out anyway.”
“Then you and me have to be inside with them,” Jimmy said, drawing all eyes to him. “We hide inside, near the entrance, and follow them to the treasure. Once it’s safe we jump them and take them back to the surface at gunpoint, using them as leverage to send the rest of the lot riding for home.”
“Not the worst idea I’ve ever heard,” Ben muttered.
“No, obviously not.” I bent down and tugged on the ropes securing our three prisoners, wanting to make sure they couldn’t escape and take advantage of Ben’s weakened state. One of them smiled at me, knowing exactly what I was thinking. I gave his rope an extra hard pull. “That would be the time we were stuck in a bank vault with ten lawmen in the lobby and you suggested setting fire to a pile of money so that we could vanish under the cover of the smoke.”
“Oh no, Henry,” Ben said with a faint smile, “I’ve had worse ones than that.”
“We’re running out of time here,” Jimmy said with a nervous glance over his shoulder. “It won’t be long before they get here and we need to be in position by then.”
“I know, I know.” I looked at Ben, then Suzie, then the prisoners, then back to Ben. “Son of a diarrhetic donkey.”
“Just go,” Ben said, waving us feebly away before returning his hand beneath the blanket I had draped over him. “I’ll be here waiting for you when you come back. Promise. So shoo now. Go.”
“If you are Ben, I swear I’ll buy you the most expensive box of cigars I can get my hands on.”
“With all that gold dragging your pants down,” Ben said with a soft laugh, “that would be the least you could do.”
We held each other’s gaze for a long moment. I opened my mouth to say goodbye, shut it firmly. Ben saw it, forced a smile back onto his lips.
So we did. I have never felt worse in my entire life.
Jimmy and I set to work at the mine entrance, scattering our prisoners’ blood-stained shirts and bullet riddled hats where Jenkins would see them. It wasn’t as convincing as a dead body, but we didn’t have one of those (yet) and I wasn’t about to shoot a defenseless man just to get one.
The mine didn’t smell as bad as I’d expected, but it was pretty close. I was tempted to clear out some of the horse manure but the stench would come in handy: it would cover the lack of burnt gunpowder in the air. Jenkins might be sent into a panic when he was welcomed by that scene, but he wouldn’t necessarily ignore the fact that there was no evidence of gunfire to be found. As it was, we didn’t have to worry about wasting bullets into the ground in order to convince him otherwise.
Jimmy and I had reloaded our guns and each of us had one captive’s pistol stuffed in our belts. I was hoping that no shots would be fired but I wasn’t stupid enough to expect things to go that smoothly. We’d left Ben with the other extra gun and he’d held onto Suzie’s as well, just in case she was disoriented when she woke. If she woke.
“There’s not really any good hiding places in here,” Jimmy said from where he stood in the entranceway, the fingers of his right hand gently massaging his left wrist. A wince, quickly struck down, let me know it was not gentle enough.
“Well we have an ally in that matter at least,” I said, pointing over his shoulder at the ridge behind him. “Sunset will bring shadows and deeper darkness for us to conceal ourselves in. We’ll still need them to not look too closely before they go rushing in, but that’s something at least.”
“Yeah.” Jimmy sounded doubtful and I could hardly blame him. I think he was about to suggest we come up with a better plan but he never had the chance to do so. For on the ridge a trail of dust had just appeared, curling its way toward the heavens.
Marshal Jenkins and his band of mercenaries had arrived.