Jack's Cactus

Ben and I hurried along the narrow swaying corridors of the train to the horse box, seeing no sign of Jimmy or the Sheriff's men on the way.  I was half expecting him to be in the horse box waiting for us, but there was just horses and a sleeping ostler.  Ben and I saddled up, the movements automatic after all the practice we'd had doing it, and our horses responding just as familiarly.

"Should we bring Jimmy's horse?" I said, looking around.  There were five or six other horses in there apart from ours.

"Do you know which one it is?"  Ben was at the door of the carriage unbolting it already, and the train seemed to be barely moving any more.

I shrugged, and started leading my horse out of its little stall.

"Me neither.    And you know, Henry, I'm having my doubts about that kid again.  Seems to be very coincidental that his Pa just happens to turn up on this train, and that he's got a trap set for us.  Seems to me like he was expecting something like this to happen, like maybe he'd sent a man ahead to make sure we got on this train."

Our horses were down now, and Ben started closing up the compartment while I led them away from the platform edge.

"He gave us a saw and some time, Ben," I said.  "And he knocked his old man out."

"He didn't kill him though, Henry.  And I'm not sure that if I had a father like that, I'd leave him alive when I had the chance to set the world to rights."

It sounded callous, and it probably was, but then I knew Ben and we went a long way back.  Ben was pragmatic, terrifyingly practical in the way he addressed the world.  If machines could have brains then Ben would fit right in with them, up to the cigar-smoking at least.  If he'd been a lawman instead of an outlaw, then he'd have been a hanging judge and I've have been too scared of coming up before him to turn to a life of cri-- I mean, adventure.  The door to the compartment closed with a satisfying clunk, and Ben turned, looked down the train and waved his hand high above his head.  I looked as well, and saw the guard wave back, then he blew his whistle.  Slowly, the wheels of the train started to turn again, groaning as they picked up the load.

"So," I said as Ben rejoined me and we mounted up.  "Jack's Cactus, and it's just the two of us again.  What were you saying about that map back there on the train?"

The hat flew backwards off Ben's head before either of us heard the zing of the gunshot.  Ben was flat against his horse's neck and digging his heels in to her flanks even as I, idiot that I am, was turning to see where it had come from.  Even as my survival instinct belatedly kicked in and I kicked my horse, I saw two men on the roof of the train struggling, then one threw the other off.  Someone landed on the platform and didn't try to get up.  Then I was gone, chasing Ben and hoping there was no more gunfire.

Ben stopped his horse as soon as he was safely behind the station-house, rearing up and keeping his balance as easily as any seasoned cow-hand.

"Who fell?" he said, patting his pockets for another cigar.

"I didn't see," I said.  "They didn't get up though."

Ben sighed, sucking air through his teeth.  His hands finished patting his pockets, coming up empty.  He looked annoyed.

"We'll have to go back and check," he said.  "If it's Jimmy, then his Pa's got a whole new beef with us, and it looks like tales of his drinking might have been a wee bit exaggerated."

"And if it's not?"

"Then Jimmy and his Pa are likely in cahoots, and I've got a whole new beef with them."

"We've got a whole new beef with them,' I said, emphasising the we.  Ben could get all independent when he ran out of cigars.  That, and I didn't like being taken for a sucker, and I was starting to think I might have been.  We turned the horses and cantered back, Ben slightly in front with his tiny pistol ready for the one shot he'd likely get.  The body was still on the platform, and the station-master, or someone wearing his pants, was kneeling by it.  He turned as we approached, and the look on his face said that it wasn't good.

"Howdy fellas," he said, his accent strong enough to make me think he was parodying himself.  "Lookee here, seems like someone was dead keen to get off the train."  He laughed at his joke, his jowls shivering and his white, whiskery walrus moustache wriggling like a caterpillar.  I glanced down, then looked at Ben.  It wasn't Jimmy.

"..." Ben opened his mouth to speak, but someone behind us beat him to it.

"I reckon that's a train-jumper," said Jimmy, his face bruised and swollen, his shirt torn to the waist and a nasty knife wound running parallel to his ribs.  "Like a claim-jumper, and just as successful."  The station-master thought that was just as funny, and started laughing again while I stared at him and Ben stared at Jimmy.

The End

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