The train lurched slightly as it slowed down and Jimmy's fork skittered across his plate until it stuck in the glutinous mashed potato he'd not yet made himself eat. He looked up and out of the window, sounding surprised as he said, "The train's stopping!"
Ben grinned; he'd finished eating the meat on his plate and had gone back to his cigar. "It's called a station, kid," he said. "Trains stop at them. You might have noticed one when you got onto the train."
Jimmy blushed, predictably, but Ben and I both noticed that his hand tensed and the fork started pushing through the mashed potato like a snowplough gone rogue.
"I think I might have noticed," he said quietly. "Noisy place, full of bonnets and hats that needed new owners?" He carried on without letting Ben riposte. "How are we going to... liberate... anything from this train if its keeps stopping? Any stop allows other people onto the train, the kind of people who might not want to see such freedoms being allowed."
"He talks like a three-dollar lawyer after too much communion wine," said Ben, his eyes narrowed slightly. "Well, to take things in order, if these stations have so many hats and bonnets needing new owners, you must have been robbed blind to end up with yours. Second, the stations aren't horse-removed from each other, they bunch up, kinda like haemorrhoids, which I reckon you'd probably know about. Thirdly, I'm guessing that what you're trying to say with all your fancy dodging and expensive, shiny words, is that people like your Pa might be minded to board the train if they knew what we were doing. Well Jimmy, thems the breaks, and this is the job."
Jimmy looked slightly cross-eyed, as people do when Ben chooses to let them know that they've thought he's stupid for longer than he's happy with. His lips moved slightly as he replayed in his mind what he'd just heard through his ears, and, as I expected, he came to a stop about the middle.
"Horse-removed?" he said, laying his fork down.
"Equidistant," I said, knowing that Ben would just sit there and let him suffer.
"So Jimmy, do you happen to know about your Pa or any of his friends having an interest in being on this train? Because if you do, now would be the right time to tell us, rather than seconds before your death."
"Don't scare the kid so," said Ben swiftly, "there's no way his death would last only seconds."
Jimmy paled, but otherwise he kept his calm.
"My ex-father does have an interest in the Claibournes, but I don't know a whole lot about it. I'd expect him to be up with the brothers' share, but I can't say as I know for sure. He sure doesn't know that I'm on this train though, if that's what you're thinking. This is my life now, this is my job to do as well as you."
"Might be best," said Ben, "if we check this train out now as well as later. I'd rather not have any more surprises than are truly necessary."
"One more stop," I said. "That was Muddy Gulch we just stopped at, and we've got Skull Creek next. Then there's over an hour before we reach Jack's Cactus."
"Does anyone live at Jack's Cactus anymore? I thought that was a ghost town."
"Rumours of gold, Ben. They keep bringing the prospectors back, and with them come all the people who need a station. Skull Creek's heading that way too, seems the cattle keep dying."
"Well-named then," said Jimmy, pushing his way into what I was thinking was a private conversation.
"Well then," said Ben, "after Skull Creek, you and Jimmy go up the train and I'll go down the train and we'll meet back up in here and have us some dessert and talk about all the exciting sights we saw on our little tour."
I wasn't thrilled to be the one looking after Jimmy, but I could see the wisdom in it, so I nodded agreement and glanced out the window at the arid landscape passing by.