"They must be in here somewhere." It was Jenkins, his voice grating unpleasantly down the rocky shaft with an unaccountable resemblance to a blade being sharpened. A big, sharp, rusty blade, probably. "They have the map," he said, "so they'll have found the treasure by the time we get there."
I could hear the crunching of footsteps. At an estimate, I'd say there were about six men, although the echoey nature of the tunnels made it difficult to tell. They were getting close, though.
"They probably don't have enough firepower to take us," continued Jenkins, "but considering what they've done already, they're probably crazy enough to try. And cornered, desperate men are dangerous."
The footsteps stopped near the mouth of our hiding place. I could see some flickering torchlight licking up the rock walls. I took care not to move a muscle, save for the tip of my finger, which traced sweaty spirals over the handle of my revolver.
"What do we do, then?" Another man's voice this time.
"We make sure we have the upper hand," said Jenkins. "That's where you come in, Sheriff Best."
I could practically feel Jimmy's eyes widen in the dark next to me. I prayed he wouldn't do anything stupid.
"What's that supposed to mean?" growled Sheriff Best's voice.
"It means I'm going to help you and you're going to help me," said Jenkins. "That's what we agreed on, isn't it? Just so happens there's a back entrance to this mine our friends probably don't know about yet, since it ain't on the map. It's a vertical well, you see, not easy to navigate, but they used it to pull the ore up to the railway behind the mine."
Here Jenkins paused to make an exceptionally articulate and equally disgusting spitting noise. Judging by the splatter, you'd think he must have been saving up his saliva all day for this performance.
"Now," he continued. "You, Sheriff, get one more chance to walk in there and convince your boy to back out of this crazy venture. Whilst you distract them thusly, I'll take my crew down the shaft on the pulley and we'll surprise 'em from behind. They'll have to have torches if they mean to actually find their loot, so they should be easy pickings. So you get a chance to save your son, and we'll mop up the lawbreakers for you. Everyone goes home happy, see."
"And if the fools just decide to shoot me instead?" asked Best.
"That's the risk you run, ain't it, Sheriff," said Jenkins indifferently. "But I will say this: If you can't convince your son to defect on these scoundrels, he's fair game for my sharpshooters. Can't have him threatening the lives of my boys if he means us harm. We clear?"
"He's just a boy," protested Best.
"Not my fault he fancied becoming an outlaw. It's our duty as lawmen to uphold justice. Surely you understand that, Sheriff."
Best did not reply. The pounding of my pulse suddenly sounded loud as a buffalo stampede in the quiet passageway.
"Okay boys, we're turning back," said Jenkins. "Off you go, Sheriff. Good luck."
I heard one set of footsteps start moving. Jimmy and I held our breath as we watched Sheriff Best's torch flash by our hiding place. The footfalls were soon swallowed by the intestinal tunnels of the mine.
Still, Jenkins and his men didn't move. Finally, we heard Jenkins's voice again.
"Damn fool." He snickered. "Well, that's the last we'll see of him, and good riddance."
"Why's that?" asked another voice.
"Well he don't know about the traps," said Jenkins. "And even if he gets through all of them, it don't matter. I ain't messin' around with guns this time. We done lost too many men already. Let's block up the entrance now. There's oil by the train. We'll burn 'em out like foxes in a foxhole."
My innards began squirming like I'd just downed three servings of Ben's cooking. We'd planned to set a trap, and now we'd caught ourselves in it. I considered trying to beat Jenkins out of the mine, but quickly rejected this idea. He had more men with him than I'd counted on, and more were likely waiting outside. Besides, Jimmy was already injured. We wouldn't stand a chance. There was another way out, though. I didn't have complete confidence Jimmy and I could climb out the back way, but it was the only option we had.
"What did he mean, burn us out?" Jimmy whispered after we'd listened to the sounds of their boots receding toward the entrance.
"Exactly what it sounds like," I said grimly. "He plans to light up this place and wait till the smoke kills us. And if we try to escape, his sharpshooters will pick us off from above. We're in trouble, Jimmy."
"We need to save my Pa!" said Jimmy, getting to his feet. "He doesn't know Jenkins plans to kill him, too."
"Save your Pa!" I exclaimed, following him to the mouth of the passage. "Your Pa wants us dead, too! We need to focus on saving ourselves."
"No, Red, he wants you dead, not me," corrected Jimmy. "But listen here. Once he finds Jenkins means to kill him, he'll realize he's in the same boat as us, so to speak. He'll have to work with us if he means to make it out of here alive."
I scowled. But Jimmy had a point. And I couldn't really turn down the promise of another gun on our side.
"You think you can convince him to help us?" I asked doubtfully.
"I think so," said Jimmy.
"Well, let's get on it," I said, peering into the darkness ahead. "We don't have much time."