After just a short jaunt down the train, it was quite easily apparent which compartment it was that held the goods we were after. Near the back of the train, Jimmy and I were stopped by a pair of burly men with shiny black guns and grubby, stubbly faces. They wore what looked like an exhibition of various skins and pelts from half of the animal kingdom, as well as smug expressions reminiscent of the way a tyrant ruler looks over his dominion.
"Hold up there, fellas," said one in a voice that carried a whiff of alcohol on it. "What're yous doing down this here end of the locomotorative? The passenger section's down the other end."
"I know that," I said casually. "Me and my nephew here were just taking a bit of a tour down this fine locomotive."
I didn't even have to glance over to know that Jimmy was scowling at being referred to as my nephew. But he still hardly looked like more than a boy, and it was the first easy lie that slipped into my mind.
"Well I'm sorry, fellas," said the whiskey-breathed man, "but this end of the loco -- train is off limits to civilians."
"Really?" I said, feigning disappointment. "How come?"
"Not for you to know, civilian," said the man. "I suggest you go on back toward where you came from."
Jimmy and I returned to our table where we sat and waited for Ben to come back from his reconnoitering mission. I rapped my knuckles on the tabletop in unison with the grating chugging of the train, thinking of what the best way to gain entrance to the guarded compartment might be. Jimmy was intermittently fiddling with his dilapidated hat and gazing out at the dusty, reddish landscape that was sailing by outside the window.
After a minute, I got up and ordered us all some apple pie. When I came back, Ben had settled himself back in his seat and lit himself another cigar. I sat down across from him and watched as Jimmy tried to tell him that we weren't in a smoking car, but Ben predictably ignored him. I slid a piece of pie out to the two of them, then laid into my own. After a few bites, I decided I'd had worse.
"So how did you make out?" Ben addressed me, apparently disregarding the fact that Jimmy had been with me. "I'm assuming you found the goods down your way, since I didn't find anything."
"We found the compartment, all right," I said, scraping my fork along my plate in a way that made a man at a nearby table frown at me. I waited until he had turned back away before continuing. "Two gentlemen standing guard with guns and not-so-refined manners. One of them's a tad inebriated by the smell of him."
"Well, can't say we weren't expecting them. Still, easier to get past 'em than blast 'em, I say," said Ben, somehow managing to eat his pie but not his cigar, which he hadn't bothered to remove from his mouth. "What do you recommend, Henry?"
"I was sort of thinking of coming on from the outside, then dropping in from above," I said. "The train won't be guarded on top at least, and even if we do run into a spot of trouble, no one hears a gunshot up there if that's truly necessary."
"That's what I was thinking, too," agreed Ben, exhaling a thick tunnel of cigar smoke into my face. "We've been in this dern business too long, Henry, we're starting to think alike."
"You know, we could just walk right into the compartment," ventured Jimmy.
Ben stared at him as though he had just suggested that he lived on the moon. "I don't understand if you're really as stupid as you sound, or just pretending. You did see the two chumps guarding that car, didn't you? Well, guess what, Jimbo, they weren't greeters. You know, you strike me as a decently smart kid, but then you come out with stuff like this --"
"No, listen," Jimmy explained crossly, fishing something out of his pocket. "Before I left, I nicked my Pa's sheriff's badge. He doesn't deserve it anymore, anyway, he does his job about as well as a mule."
"My my, I didn't realize we'd taken on such a criminal," I said, unable to stop a smile from tugging at the corner of my mouth.
"Don't pretend you're not one," replied Jimmy, but other than that he received my compliment quite graciously. "Once we get to Jack's Cactus, we'll just go on up the train and Ben can play as sheriff for a bit, pretend we're inspecting the train; I doubt those thugs will give us any trouble. Then we make off with the goods easy as whistling."
"Well, damn," said Ben around his cigar, taking up the silver, star-shaped badge. "Do you think I would make a good sheriff?" He flashed me a crooked, yellow smile and held the badge up to his breast.
To be honest, if I could search the whole train for someone best-suited to pose as a sheriff, Ben would probably come pretty close to last place, but at least he would rank before the tipsy man guarding the compartment. And seeing as Jimmy and I had already been seen by the guards, Ben was really our only option.
"Finest sheriff in the West," I said, "keeping the land free of all manner of thieves and bandits and train robbers."
Ben winked. "I thought so," he said.