ACES WILD

 

By Andii Valo 

 

CHAPTER 27

 

Ben Wade checked his pocket watch continuously as he peered from the window of the train and down the crowded platform. He was impatient and frustrated. It was ten minutes to twelve, ten minutes before the damned thing departed San Diego, and not a single one of his accomplices had shown their faces. Cortez Thompson being late didn’t worry him much – he’d made it clear he didn’t want any part of the robbery but was also desperate for the information Ben possessed. He’d probably arrive at the last possible moment, just to spite his comrade. Charlie Prince’s no show most definitely did bother him, though. He’d not seen Prince since yesterday lunchtime, on his way to take a message to the gang, and he told himself Prince had simply decided to spend the night out in the desert. He wasn’t really convincing himself, though. Prince followed orders to the letter and tardiness was not in his nature.

Woodrow Ellerson was another source of irritation, though honestly Ben didn’t care if he showed up or not. Last time he’d seen Ellerson was in the Desert Rose saloon, well down the path of drunkenness, and Ben knew he wasn’t invested in either the robbery or the gang. Three men aboard was plenty enough firepower to stop the train but he had to admit Ellerson had done them a favour in getting the sleeping compartments. He glanced around the cramped car – all it offered was two bunks with a narrow gangway between them, a table and a couple of small cupboards. Wade had initially though it a ridiculous indulgence, since they’d only be aboard for thirty minutes maximum, but now he was grateful to the wily outlaw. The station and platform was teeming with soldiers and travellers and as he’d strolled past the armoured payroll car, right at the rear of the train, he’d noticed a couple of marshals hanging around. Every seat in the train was packed with passengers, full of idle eyes, and was really no place for wanted fugitives to be languishing. Ellerson had obviously been aware of this when he booked passage and given them somewhere to hide. Ben wondered if he’d known the sleeping cars were so close to the locomotive, but either way he’d made things a lot simpler and Ben had to respect him for that.

At exactly two minutes to twelve he spotted Cort strolling along the platform, hat pulled low and with a swagger in his step which irritated him immediately. Most passengers were now aboard, the platform almost empty, but he took his sweet time walking up the train and Ben fought the urge to yell out the window for him to shift his ass. The departure whistle was blowing as he finally hauled himself up the steps to the sleeping cars and Ben hurried across the compartment and opened the door into the galley, motioning at him impatiently.

Cort moseyed in, tipped his hat and offered a sardonic ‘afternoon’ as he sat on one of the bunks and tested it for comfort. Ben watched him, even more irritated. The idea of being in a confined space with this man, even for thirty minutes, was almost unbearable. God only knew how he’d managed to share a cell with him in Yuma for upwards of four weeks.

“Don’t get settled.  We ain’t gonna be here long.”

Cort cocked an eyebrow. “Where’s Ellerson and Prince?”

Ben worked hard to cover his sense of foreboding. “I ain’t seen Charlie since yesterday noon, and if you don’t know where Ellerson is then nobody does.”

“You figure they eloped together?” Cort sniggered as he rose from the bed and stuck his head out the window. The train was pulling out of San Diego and clouds of steam began enveloping the platform. He coughed and withdrew, turning to face Ben.

“Ellerson didn’t show for breakfast and when I banged on his door there was no answer. I figured he’d turn up here eventually.” He shrugged. “Guess he never made it out of the Desert Rose”.

Ben frowned. “That leaves two of us to take the train.”

Cort smirked. “Should we call it off?”

“You’d like that. You didn’t want no part of this robbery and I wouldn’t put it past you to arrange things this way.”

“Maybe they just got wise to you.” Cort approached until  a mere eighteen inches of air separated them. “That fancy rig of yours can surely compensate for a couple of missing men, don’t you think?” His tone was sarcastic and his eyes drifted to Ben’s pistol then lingered on it for long seconds. He frowned and there was a note of menace in his voice when he next spoke.

“What’s that cross supposed to mean? You asking forgiveness for all the folks you’re gonna kill?”

Ben smiled. He’d chosen this particular weapon with the express intention of needling his comrade and maybe getting hold of some truths.

“This gun’s got a name, Thompson. It’s called The Hand of God and it’ll be handing out some holy justice pretty soon. Maybe I’ll start with your conniving ass.”

What happened next took him totally by surprise. Cort’s right fist whipped out and connected solidly with his jaw. The impact sent him reeling backwards and he collided with the wooden door behind him. He bounced off it, lurched back into the car and cannoned into Cort, punching him hard in the solar plexus. Cort grunted, fell backwards onto a bunk and Ben went for his gun. But his forward momentum in the cramped compartment, coupled with a sudden, sideways jerk of the train, worked against him. He lost his balance, struggled to stay upright and then lost his footing. He fell, twisting as he did so, fetched up lying on his side in the space between the bunks and Cort was on him like a dog. He punched Ben twice in the back, right where he’d taken a bullet six months prior. The area was still tender and the eruption of pain incapacitated him. He gasped, swore and Cort shoved him onto his back and straddled him, his knees pinning Ben’s shoulders to the floor. He tried to move his arms, get in another couple of shots, but he was pretty firmly wedged in the gangway. Cort’s face was flushed red and he was breathing hard.

“You’re a godless son of a bitch and you won’t take His name in vain, not in my presence.”

Ben was breathing just as hard, gritting his teeth against the agony in his kidney and it was an effort to force out his words.

“I knew you was a fucking preacher, you treacherous bastard.”

“So you learned something today.” Cort’s face split into a nasty grin. “Was the juice worth the squeeze?”

Ben brought his right leg up and kneed him hard in the lower back, but Cort barely flinched. He reached into his coat pocket and produced a bottle. He grinned again as he poured fluid onto a piece of cloth.

“This stuff is called ether. I was introduced to it by a man who wanted me dead. It ain’t a pleasant experience but it don’t take long.”

He slid downwards a few inches then pressed his knees hard into Ben’s ribs. His body reacted instinctively, fighting to draw breath and he had no choice but inhale the foul-smelling chemical on the cloth. He felt dizzy and then he blacked out completely.

His senses returned first. His body was numb and wouldn’t move but he could feel the steady rock of the train, smell steam from the locomotive and hear the thunder of wheels on track. When he finally managed to open his eyes his vision was blurred but he made out the familiar environs of the sleeping car and realised he was lying on one of the bunks. He regained control of his body a few minutes later but when he tried to move he made some grim discoveries: his kidney was pounding like a motherfucker, his head was throbbing and he was wearing handcuffs. A chain had been run through them and secured to the bed, which itself was bolted to the floor of the car, and it offered just enough slack for him to sit upright, put his feet on the floor and look around properly. His new gun was lying on the bunk opposite, tantalisingly out of reach, and the son of a whore named Cortez Thompson was nowhere to be seen.

He stared out of the window as his vision slowly cleared, grimacing at the pain in his back and wondered how far they’d travelled in the time he’d been unconscious. He was pretty sure they’d passed the place of ambush, which meant the whole gang would now view him as a coward and traitor, and his blood boiled as he recalled the series of events which had placed him in this situation. He was furious with himself for letting Cort jump him so easily and for underestimating his adversary so badly. He’d known Cort was against holding up the train but had been sure he’d go along with it in order to get the name he wanted. He’d been dead wrong there but still possessed his ace in the hole, the vital piece of information which he would never give to the man who’d insulted him, ambushed him and was now holding him captive.

Right on cue the door to the car opened and Cort sauntered in. He seemed cool as a cucumber and was holding a bottle of beer in one hand, a piss pot in the other. He dropped the pot on the floor with a clang, pushed it towards Ben with his boot then sat on the empty bunk and studied his prisoner.

“The chain’s about long enough for you to use the pot. It ain’t coming off until we reach Yuma.”

Ben’s stomach twisted but he kept his expression neutral. “What happens in Yuma?”

Cort took a sip of beer. “I put you off the train and chain you to a post in the station. It won’t take long for a guard or marshal to figure out who you are and haul you back to prison.”

“You only got the jump on me ‘cause I wasn’t expecting it.”

Cort shrugged. “I took the idea from you in a Two Knives saloon.”

Ben smiled. “Reckon you can do it again?”

Cort was unruffled. “You give me trouble and I’ll fetch those soldiers in the armoured car. They’ll be glad to have their names connected to the capture of a notorious fugitive. And don’t think about yelling for help either, less you want to be drugged the whole way.”

The mean look in his eyes told Ben he wasn’t kidding and his mind skidded about, seeking some avenue of escape. He eyed his captor steadily.

“What’s in it for you, Thompson? If you’re after the reward you’ll find it a little hard to spend when you’re back in Yuma prison yourself.”

“You know what I want.” Cort glanced at his pocket watch. “You’ve got four hours to come up with a name or I swear I’ll leave you in Yuma and take my chances in Dodge alone.”

Ben laughed. “You’ve got God on your side, preacher. He’ll surely guide you to the man who took your womenfolk so you can kill him and earn your piece of heaven.”

Cort stood up and he was wearing a look of contempt.

“I preached the word of God for three years and my belief was absolute. But I was an outlaw and killer before that and when I find the bastard who killed my family I’ll give him what he deserves.”

“Spoken like a true sinner.”

Cort smiled. “I still remember how to turn the other cheek, but if you insult my faith again I’ll take that pot away and let you piss in your pants.”

Ben realised he was pushing his luck here. He was chained and pretty much defenceless against a man who seemed prepared to humiliate him in the worst possible way. It reminded him of a similar showdown, six years ago, when they’d nearly killed each other over the self-same man they were discussing now. His hand moved instinctively to his right bicep and traced the scar beneath the fabric of his coat. Cort was watching and he nodded his understanding.

“The first time we had this conversation you let me kill an innocent man. The second time you gave a false name and thought me fool enough to buy it. If you lie again I won’t just put a bullet through your arm, I’ll put one through your heart as well.”

Ben shrugged off the threat. “Don’t forget the knife I put in your shoulder, Thompson. I’ll do it again.”

Cort snorted and got to his feet. “You ain’t in a position to do squat. I’m getting lunch and you’ll contemplate your future. When I get back you’ll give me that name or Yuma station’s the end of the line for you.”

He made for the door, pausing only to turn and look at the bunk he’d vacated. Ben’s pistol was still lying on it.

“Don’t be getting ideas about that thing either, it ain’t loaded.”

Then he was gone.

Ben spent at least fifteen minutes yanking at the chain and shackles, trying to free himself with no success. The restraints were sturdy, as was the Southern Pacific bunk, and all he managed to do was make his wrists and shoulders sore. He tried a different approach, focusing on the lock of the handcuffs. He could probably pick it, if he could find something to use, but Cort had emptied his pockets and even the knife he carried in his boot was gone. He eyed the piss pot despondently. He could smash Cort’s head in with it given the opportunity, but the short leash he was on prevented the movement it required.

Finally he was forced to admit he was stuck. There was nothing he could do physically to free himself so he lay back on the bunk and tried to think his way out of the dilemma.

Clearly the only way to prevent Cort from carrying out his threat was to give him the name. He could lie again, make something up, but there didn’t seem much point anymore. They’d almost reached the end of this poker game and Ben figured he stood a better chance of giving Cort the slip if he appeased him, showed a little trust and worked on pretending they were still allies.

He focussed on the positive elements of his situation. He was on his was to Dodge, which is where he needed to be, and Cort was only one man. Ben liked to think it needed a small army to guard him properly, particularly through the many train changes required to reach their destination. If nothing turned up during the journey, Dodge would provide ample opportunities for escape and while he wanted to hit town with a large gang to do his bidding, ditching Ellerson’s mob wasn’t the end of the world. Dodge was a rough place and an outlaw of his reputation would attract the right kind of associates like flies to shit.

The main problem in releasing the name was getting to the man who’d betrayed and shot him before Cort did. Ben needed to establish where the stolen gold bullion was stashed before he killed that fucker, but suspected Cort would simply shoot him on sight. His slight advantage was that the man had changed his appearance considerably in the six years since Cort knew him, but Thompson was no fool and Ben was only just beginning to realise what a formidable adversary he really was.

With his decision reached he could finally relax a little. He spent a long hour gazing out of the window at the stark desert terrain. It didn’t change much and he was quickly bored. Now the train was slowing down and blowing its whistle. It indicated an approaching water stop and in normal circumstances he’d be looking forward to getting off and stretching his legs. He stood up and tried his chain – discovering it just long enough to let him put his head out the window of the car. As he was wondering if he could engage a railroad worker, maybe persuade him to pass over a thin blade or file, he heard the door handle rattle and sat down smartly.

Cort entered the compartment bearing gifts. He was carrying a glass of water, a bottle of beer and a sandwich wrapped in brown paper. He placed the water and sandwich on the table next to Ben, then sat on the empty bunk. Ben raised an eyebrow.

“You didn’t bring me a beer?”

“Be grateful I bought you anything, Wade, and don’t be getting ideas about sweet talking folks at this water stop. I’m watching you.”

Ben stared at him curiously, wondering how the hell Cort managed to keep second guessing his every intent.

“If I didn’t know better I’d take you for a lawman. You sure as hell think like one.”

Cort smiled. “The law’s got nothing to do with it. You’re as easy to read as a book.”

Ben ate his sandwich while the train took on water. Cort sprawled on his bunk, drank his beer and twirled Ben’s gun in his right hand, pulling off a number of fancy gunslinger’s tricks. Ben watched him closely.

“That’s a fitting gun for a preacher with a mind to kill.”

Cort glanced over. “It’s an abomination. I should toss it out the window.”

Ben smiled. “You ain’t done it yet.”

Cort threw the weapon onto his bunk. “How about that name? Time’s running out.”

“How do I know you’ll believe me?”

Cort sat up slowly. “Convince me.”

“What if he ain’t in Kansas anymore?”

Cort shrugged. “Then we got a problem.”

“Once you got that name, you might just put me off at Yuma anyway?”

Cort grinned. “Have faith, brother.”

Ben drained his glass of water and took a breath before he spoke. Cort was watching expectantly and, Ben thought, a touch smugly. He knew he held all the winning cards in this particular hand.

“His name’s Ashley Hughes. Red Ash to you and me.”

Cort reacted like he’d been stung. He jumped up from the bunk and pressed his back against the door. His eyes were wild and his jaw was clenched.

“He rode with us!  He was my buddy. One of my best…”

His voice trailed off then came back strong. “I swear to God, Wade, if this is another one of your lies…”

Ben made his voice sound sympathetic. “Hard to swallow, ain’t it? But that motherfucker killed your momma and little sister then came onto you like a brother.”

Cort glared. “Why did you protect him? Did you think him killing my family was okay?”

Ben shook his head. “It wasn’t my business and times were bad. Do you remember how the marshals hunted us right across Arizona? That weren’t the time to be splitting the gang over personal issues.”

Cort approached him. “Don’t bullshit me, Wade. You let me kill an innocent man to protect this bastard. Why would you do that?”

Ben shrugged. “Unfortunately he’s my kin.”

 

 

TO BE CONTINUED...

 

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