Bob continued to keep his eyes on the grizzly as she rummaged through the thick trees. She made her grievances known with low grunts and growls. At anytime the air would shift and he will be in trouble. Rifle still in hand, an old Winchester 1873, he would defend himself. The grizzly was out of her den and this was a troubling sign for Bob; game was getting scarce.
Bob decided he wasn't competing with the old gal this morning and started back to the cabin. He noticed smoke coming from the chimney. Someone was in his house.
A black mare greeted him from the edge of the cabin. The mare, Bob knows who rides it. The horse looked at him as he got closer, and backed up, but someone hitched his reins to the fire logs piled against the building. Bob imagined his attire of animal furs made the horse nervous. Bob recognized the rider from the strange saddle that rests on the back of the horse; an alligator skin saddle with sharp teeth that lined the edges. Only one man dared to have such a saddle, and Bob gave himself a slim chance of making it out of there alive.
Bob entered the cabin calmly, with no threatening movements. The warmth of the fireplace hit him in the face and sweat appeared above his eyebrow. Closing the door behind him, he stared forward at the fire dancing over a metal spit. Twin pistols rested in a well-worn gunbelt, dangling on a nail on the wall, out of reach. Bob held his rifle by the barrel, not allowing the man waiting inside a reason to shoot. Bob didn't notice his unwanted guest initially, but he felt his presence and had a notion where he was sitting. He waited for the sound of the gunshot that would kill him. Bob once read you don't hear the shot that kills you, but he never faced a deceased man that could prove that rumor.
"Why am I not dead, Jim?"
"Because," the unseen voice said, "despite what you did, I will not shoot a man in his back, unlike you."
"Fair enough," Bob brushed off the insult, "I figured Jack would send you instead of finding me himself."
"Jack won't find you. I don't plan on telling him. I made it up here, not him."
"Double crossing them, is that it?" Bob asked.
"Why don't you lean that rifle against the wall there and have a seat with your old friend." Bob didn't move. He heard the hammer of a pistol cock back. Click. "I insist."
Bob shook his head, and did as he was told, leaning the Winchester against the wall next to the fireplace, then glanced over at the table in the corner. Jim leaned forward, exposing more of himself through the natural light coming through the window. Black hat, a seven-day growth of beard and he wore all black, except for a red sheepskin jacket. In his hands he held a custom-made Peacemaker with stag grip. Fancy like his saddle. Jim was dangerous and insane, but he loved the attention he got.
Bob dragged out a chair and sat down, looking at Jim.
"No luck finding game, I take it?" Jim asked. "I was getting antsy, waiting for you. Hell, I even prepared a fire, hoping you would bring back a squirrel at least."
"Sorry boss, nothing but an old grizz' out there." Bob paused for a minute, "Look Jim, I will not beg for my life. So if you plan on shooting me, then best get to it."
"How long have we ridden together?"
"Too damn long." Bob glanced at the Peacemaker that Jim gripped in his calloused hand, expecting it to bark at any minute.
"It's a damn shame the gang split up, we were doing well for ourselves," Jim smirked, baring his uneven, yellow teeth.
"Until I killed George."
"You shot old George in the back and stole our gold. One fact that always disturbed me about you, partner, is that I could never shake how complete a coward you are." Jim leaned back on his chair.
"It's about survival. I didn't give a damn about proving anything to anyone."
Bob ducked down, startled from the shot, the heat of the round whizzing past his head. Jim was out of his chair with such speed that Bob did not react. Jim grabbed Bob by the hair, pulling his head back. Bob looked up, staring into the killer's eyes.
"That was the only warning shot I'm giving! Where is the gold!?"
"Okay! Okay! I have it stashed in an old dig close to here!"
"It's in a mine?" Jim laughed. "You are full of shit."
"I didn't want in here in case anyone broke in while I was hunting!" Bob gritted his teeth, wanting to reach up and grab him by the throat. But he decided against it. He wouldn't survive this fight.
"That makes sense," Jim pushed Bob's head forward with a force that gave Bob minor whiplash. "Maybe you are not that stupid."
"Kiss my ass." Bob said, rubbing the back of his head.
"Be nice, Bob. I don't want you making me angry enough to shoot you."
"Go ahead. Do you know where the mine is? Do you know where I hid it once we are inside? No? Maybe you should put a cork on your kettle there, partner" Bob said, chuckling.
Jim grabbed Bob by his shoulders and stood him, knocking the chair down and shoved him out the cabin door. "Let's get this done before I do something I regret."
The snow ceased falling, fresh from the morning, and the sun was starting its descent. The elegance of the landscape always captivated Bob whenever he was out here. He embraced the quiet, the way the sun's rays passed through the trees, and the freedom that the creatures and birds enjoyed. He developed a loathing for the chaos of the civilized world since hiding in these mountains. Reality set back in as the barrel of the Peacemaker nudged him in the back.
"The mine near enough to walk?" Jim asked, staring over at his mare.
"No need for the horse. A grizzly roams these parts and the mare will only aggravate it," Bob said, thinking back to his own gelding and feeling a heartache. Bob had loved that horse, and it had saved his life.
"A grizzly? Are you serious?"
"This is the mountains Jim."
"If I leave my horse here, he might get et."
"Decide." Bob wasn't about to give advice. He wasn't lying about the bear, but he realized he would walk regardless so it didn't matter to him.
"Let's move," Jim urged Bob onward, but bob noticed his captor's worried look as they moved. The killer was losing control, becoming restless.
The men proceeded through the woods with no visible route to guide them. Bob knew the way, but the deep snow didn't make the trip easy. The chill didn't bother Bob at all. Having dressed to safeguard against the bitter freeze, he was used to it. Jim was not, as he crossed his arms over his chest, and blew into his hands, keeping them warm. This was not the assassin's domain by any means.
"How much farther?" Jim asked with his words coming in a labored breath.
"Maybe a hundred yards."
Through the thick woods they continued pushing forward with the towering pines blocking the sun as the morning was rapidly making way for the afternoon.
"There," Bob said, catching his breath, pointing at an opening in the side of the mountain.
The pair arrived at the entrance. Derailed mine carts, buried and deteriorated from decades of neglect, lay about the ground. The fresh snow was undisturbed, and that told him that the grizzly had not returned to her den, and maybe she wouldn't.
"We want to be careful. Who knows what lives in there," Bob said.
"That grizzly you babbled on about?" Jim asked and he sounded concerned.
"Shit," Jim said, looking at the entrance. Jim wasn't sure. He doubts himself, Bob thought. Jim's gut feelings were playing him, the kind a man gets when he steps foot into a saloon and right away he identifies something is wrong and best choose another saloon. Bob had that gift, but today had proved that all this peace and quiet made him unfocused and dropped his guard.
"We will chance it, anyway," Jim said. "I have a gun and can run faster than you. I will get out alive."
A few feet inside they saw more mine carts derailed, topped with old canvas tarps. Some carts had rocks filled to the brim while others were empty. Kerosene lanterns with broken glass lay scattered around on the ground.
"Hold on a minute," Jim ordered as he picked up each lantern, shaking them and tossing empty ones aside until he found one that still had kerosene left. He struck a match and lit the lantern, carrying it with his free hand. "Go."
The rotted support beams look decades old. Bob always wondered when they would give, cutting him off from his riches. He figured if he made it out of there alive, he would take them back to the cabin.
"What the hell is that noise?" Jim asked. Bob wasn't paying attention, absorbed in his thoughts. After taking a step, he heard the snapping. Jim aimed the lantern down at the ground, illuminating bones cluttering the ground.
"I told you something lived in here. I hope whatever it was is gone."
The mineshaft turned to a dead end. The lantern's light revealed a solitary cart and a heap of rocks from an ancient cave-in, and more bones.
"It's in the cart," Bob said.
"It better be. It may be dark in here but I guarantee that my shot will count." Jim's character was dead serious.
"I assume you will kill me anyhow, but at least I won't die a liar."
"Stand right there, friend. Move and I will shoot you." Jim inched his way towards the cart, with his pistol still on Bob.
Inside the cart, a large burlap sack lay partially opened with something glinting in the lantern's glow. Jim's face lit up and his eyes went wide as he whooped and hollered. He caressed the gold with his fingers passing over the metal like a lover. He altogether forgot Bob. He caught a blur in the corner of his eye as a rock struck him in the temple. Jim grunted and went down, dropping his gun. Bob didn't cease. He came upon Jim again with another swing, bashing him repeatedly with the rock to the back of his head and blood poured from the wound. Bob backed off and Jim was yet conscious, but his right eye was coming out of the socket. Jim's breath came in heavy gasps as Bob looked at his handiwork, feeling no regret.
"I am a coward, Jim. You could have left me well alone!" Bob said, picking up Jim's gun. "I won't allow you a mercy shot. This will be your tomb, you son of a bitch."
Jim mouthed words, but nothing would come. He laid there suffering. Bob thought of putting him out of his misery but dedided he didn't have time. He snatched the bag of gold and ran out of there as quick as he could.
There she was, watching Bob emerge from the mine, the enormous old grizzly in all her magnificent grandeur, a killing machine of fur and claw. Bob froze.
The bear rose on her hind legs and bellowed a roar that made the hair at the back of Bob's neck stand straight up. She was so close he grimaced at the putrid breath. It confused her to discover something strange coming out of her home. The sow's eyesight was poor, and Bob blended well into the snow. He had Jim's gun, but he preserved the bullets. Last resort, he thought, a last resort. He didn't want to shoot her. The grizzly smelled something else. Perhaps a smell she was not familiar with, but it grabbed her attention. Without warning, she rushed inside the mine. It took Bob a few seconds to realize that he was not being ripped apart.
"You miserable bastard," Bob sighed and turned for the cabin as quick as he could, thinking of Jim still in his tomb.
Bob's return home was not as hard since he took the same broken snow trail that the pair had made getting there. No snow fell, so it remained open and no resistance. The gold was heavier than he thought. When the dense trees gave away to the cleared property, Bob saw five men on horses waiting.
"Didn't I tell you boys I was right?" Four men all on horses idled in front of the cabin, "I knew following Jim was a great idea! Also, you all owe me 10 dollars each. I knew Bob would be back."
Jack and his men had their guns out. The man who talked was a tall, slender man with a refined face and, like the others, wore heavy winter coat and chaps of lamb's wool.
"Hey Jack," was all Bob could muster. He was tired and hungry and now he felt defeated.
"Well, look at you! You look nothing like you did three years ago," Jack said leaning on a saddle horn. "You're looking like a true mountain man."
The other men chuckled, enjoying their boss's teasing.
"Been up here for a while," Bob said.
They were none too concerned with Bob being armed because they knew Bob. Smart as he was, he couldn't shoot worth a lick. He had nowhere to go.
"So where is Jim?" Jack nodded towards the black mare. "That's his horse and ridiculous saddle."
"He's in a mine and won't be coming out," Bob said.
"Well, won that bet, anyway," Jack said in an amused tone and leaned back in his saddle, "So I take it you killed him."
"Yeah," Bob said, still not ready to make snappy comebacks.
"You killed George and took our gold," Jack said, as if asking for the time of the next train.
"Here!" Bob threw the bag of gold onto the snow, and the bag spilled coins. "It's more trouble than it's worth. I am sorry about George but what's done is done."
One of the men jumped down from his horse, keeping his gun pointed at Bob, scooping up the spilled coins, stuffing them back into the bag. He handed it to Jack before getting back on his horse.
Jack opened the bag and looked inside. "It's all here?"
"I kept none for myself, if that's what you're implying."
Jack put the bag into his saddlebag.
"What now?" Bob asked. "Going to kill me, Jack?"
"Nope," Jack answered. "I ought to, but I'm going to let you live."
Bob did not expect that from Jack. Neither did his men, who glanced at their boss.
"You serious, Jack? What's the catch?"
"I always liked you, Bob. You always made me laugh. Fact is, you killed Jim . . . and I hated that snake. I'm willing to bet he would have killed you, took the gold and disappeared."
"He talked of it," Bob replied.
Jack chuckled, shaking his head and pulled his horse to move down the trail.
Bob asked, "George?"
Jack scoffed, tapping his saddlebag, "You paid for that debt. Besides, he was getting old." Jack stopped his horse, as his men did the same, and Jack looked very serious. "I want you to listen Bob, right now. If you come down from this mountain, it won't be a happy ending."
Jack didn't even wait for Bob to agree or disagree. They rode out of sight, leaving him with Jim's horse. Not a terrible ending to his day. He lost his gold, but he had his life and a new horse with a very hideous alligator saddle. He walked inside the cabin, thinking of names for his new horse.