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By William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 J. A. Johnstone
All rights reserved.
"Let's take a ride on a riverboat, you said," Ace Jensen muttered to his brother as they backed away from the group of angry men stalking toward them across the deck. "It'll be fun, you said."
"Well, I didn't count on this," Chance Jensen replied. "How was I to know we'd wind up in such a mess of trouble?"
Ace glanced over at Chance as if amazed that his brother could ask such a stupid question. "When do we ever not wind up in trouble?"
"Yeah, you've got a point there," Chance agreed. "It seems to have a way of finding us."
Their backs hit the railing along the edge of the deck. Behind them, the giant wooden blades of the side-wheeler's paddles churned the muddy waters of the Missouri River.
They were on the right side of the riverboat — the starboard side, Ace thought, then chided himself for allowing such an irrelevant detail to intrude on his brain at such a moment — and so far out in the middle of the stream that jumping overboard and swimming for shore wasn't practical.
Besides, the brothers weren't in the habit of fleeing from trouble. If they started doing that, most likely they would never stop running.
The man who was slightly in the forefront of the group confronting them pointed a finger at Chance. "All right, kid, I'll have that watch back now."
"I'm not a kid," Chance snapped. "I'm a grown man. And so are you, so you shouldn't have bet the watch if you didn't want to take a chance on losing it."
The Jensen brothers were grown men, all right, but not by much. They were in their early twenties, and although they had knocked around the frontier all their lives, had faced all sorts of danger, and burned plenty of powder, there was still a certain ... innocence ... about them, for want of a better word. They still made their way through life with enthusiasm and an eagerness to embrace all the joy the world had to offer.
They were twins, although that wasn't instantly apparent. They were fraternal rather than identical. Ace was taller, broader through the shoulders, and had black hair instead of his brother's sandy brown. He preferred range clothes, wearing jeans, a buckskin shirt, and a battered old Stetson, while Chance was much more dapper in a brown tweed suit, vest, white shirt, a fancy cravat with an ivory stickpin, and a straw planter's hat.
Ace was armed with a Colt .45 Peacemaker with well-worn walnut grips that rode easily in a holster on his right hip. Chance didn't carry a visible gun, but he had a Smith & Wesson .38 caliber, double-action Second Model revolver in a shoulder holster under his left arm.
However, neither young man wanted to start a gunfight on the deck of the Missouri Belle. It was a tranquil summer night, and gunshots and spilled blood would just about ruin it.
The leader of the group confronting them was an expensively dressed, middle-aged man with a beefy, well-fed look about him. Still pointing that accusing finger at Chance, he went on. "Leland Stanford himself gave me that watch in appreciation for my help in getting the transcontinental railroad built. You know who Leland Stanford is, don't you? President of the Central Pacific Railroad?"
"We've heard of him," Ace said. "Rich fella out California way. Used to be governor out there, didn't he?"
"That's right. And he's a good friend of mine. I'm a stockholder in the Central Pacific, in fact."
"Then likely you can afford to buy yourself another watch," Chance said.
The man's already red face flushed even more as it twisted in a snarl. "You mouthy little pup. Hand it over, or we'll throw the two of you right off this boat."
"I won it fair and square, mister. Doc Monday always says the cards know more about our fate than we do."
"I don't know who in blazes Doc Monday is, but your fate is to take a beating and then a swim. Grab 'em, boys, but don't throw 'em overboard until I get my watch back!"
The other four men rushed Ace and Chance. With their backs to the railing, they had nowhere to go.
Doc Monday, the gambler who had raised the Jensen brothers after their mother died in childbirth, had taught them many things, including the fact that it was usually a mistake to wait for trouble to come to you. Better to go out and meet it head-on. In other words, the best defense was the proverbial good offense, so Ace and Chance met the charge with one of their own, going low to tackle the nearest two men around the knees.
The hired ruffians weren't expecting it, and the impact swept their legs out from under them. They fell under the feet of their onrushing companions, who stumbled and lost their balance, toppling onto the first two men, and suddenly there was a knot of flailing, punching, and kicking combatants on the deck.
The florid-faced hombre who had foolishly wagered his watch during a poker game in the riverboat's salon earlier hopped around agitatedly and shouted encouragement to his men.
Facing two-to-one odds, the brothers shouldn't have been able to put up much of a fight, but when it came to brawling, Ace and Chance could more than hold their own. Their fists lashed out and crashed against the jaws and into the bellies of their enemies. Ace got behind one of the men, looped an arm around his neck, and hauled him around just in time to receive a kick in the face that had been aimed at Ace's head, knocking the man senseless.
Ace let go of him and rolled out of the way of a dive from another attacker. He clubbed his hands and brought them down on the back of the man's neck. The man's face bounced off the deck, flattening his nose and stunning him.
Chance had his hands full, too. His left hand was clamped around the neck of an enemy while his right clenched into a fist and pounded the man's face. But he was taking punishment himself. His opponent was choking him at the same time, and the other man in the fight hammered punches into Chance's ribs from the side.
Knowing that he had only seconds before he would be overwhelmed, Chance twisted his body, drew his legs up, and rammed both boot heels into the chest of the man hitting him. It wasn't quite the same as being kicked by a mule, but not far from it. The man flew backwards and rolled when he landed on the deck. He almost went under the railing and off the side into the river, but he stopped just short of the brink.
With the odds even now, Chance was able to batter his other foe into submission. The man's hand slipped off Chance's throat as he moaned and slumped back onto the smooth planks.
That still left the rich man who didn't like losing.
As Ace and Chance looked up from their vanquished enemies, they saw him pointing a pistol at them.
"If you think I'm going to allow a couple gutter rats like you two to make a fool of me, you're sadly mistaken," the man said as a snarl twisted his beefy face.
"You're not gonna shoot us, mister," Ace said. "That would be murder."
"No, it wouldn't." An ugly smile appeared on the man's lips. "Not if I tell the captain the two of you jumped me and tried to rob me. I had to kill you to protect myself. That's exactly what's about to happen here."
"Over a blasted watch?" Chance exclaimed in surprise.
"I don't like losing ... especially to my inferiors."
"You'd never get away with it," Ace said.
"Won't I? Why do you think none of the crew has come to see what all the commotion's about? I told the chief steward I'd be dealing with some cheap troublemakers — in my own way — and he promised he'd make sure I wasn't interrupted. You see" — the red-faced man chuckled — "I'm not involved with just the railroad. I own part of this riverboat line as well."
Ace and Chance exchanged a glance. If the man shot them, his hired ruffians could toss their bodies into the midnight-dark Missouri River and no one would know they were gone until morning. It was entirely possible that a man of such wealth and influence wouldn't even be questioned about the disappearance of a couple drifting nobodies.
But things weren't going to get that far.
Ace said in a hard voice that belied his youth, "That only works if you're able to shoot both of us, mister. Problem is, while you're killing one of us, the other one is going to kill you."
The man's eyes widened. He blustered, "How dare you threaten me like that?"
"Didn't you just threaten to kill us?" asked Chance. "My brother's right. You're not fast enough ... and your nerves aren't steady enough ... for you to get both of us. You'll be dead a heartbeat after you pull the trigger."
The man's lips drew back from his teeth in a grimace. "Maybe I'm willing to take that risk."
Well, that was a problem, all right, thought Ace. Stubborn pride had been the death of many a man, and it looked like that was about to contribute to at least one more.
Then a new voice said, "Krauss, I guarantee that even if you're lucky enough to kill these two young men, you won't be able to stop me from putting a bullet in your head."
The rich man's gaze flicked to a newcomer who'd stepped out of the shadows cloaking the deck in places. Wearing a light-colored suit and hat, he was easy to see. Starlight glinted on the barrel of the revolver he held in a rock-steady fist.
"Drake!" exclaimed Krauss. "Stay out of this. It's none of your business."
"I think it is." Drake's voice was a lazy drawl, but there was no mistaking the steel underneath the casual tone. "Ace and Chance are friends of mine."
Krauss sneered. "You wouldn't dare shoot me."
"Think about some of the things you know about me," said Steve Drake, "then make that statement again."
Krauss licked his lips. He looked around at his men, who were starting to recover from the battle with the Jensen brothers. "Don't just lie there!" he snapped at them. "Get up and deal with this!"
One of the men sat up, shook his head, and winced from the pain the movement caused him. "Mr. Krauss, we don't want to tangle with Drake. Rumor says he's killed seven men."
"Rumor sometimes underestimates," said Steve Drake with an easy smile.
"You're worthless!" Krauss raged. "You're all fired!"
"I'd rather be fired than dead," one of the other men mumbled.
Steve Drake gestured with the gun in his hand and told Ace and Chance, "Stand up, boys."
The brothers got to their feet. Chance reached inside his coat to a pocket and brought out a gold turnip watch with an attached chain and fob. "I don't want to have to be looking over my shoulder for you the rest of my life, mister. This watch isn't worth that."
"You mean you'll give it back to me?" asked Krauss.
Ace could tell from the man's tone that he was eager to resolve the situation without any more violence, now that it appeared he might well be one of the victims.
"I mean I'll sell it back to you," said Chance.
Krauss started to puff up again like an angry frog. "I'm not going to buy back my own watch!"
"I won it from you fair and square," Chance reminded him. "Unless you think I cheated you ..." His voice trailed off in an implied threat.
Krauss shook his head. "I never said that. I suppose you won fair and square." That admission was clearly difficult for him to make. "What do you want for the watch?"
"Well, since it came from a famous man, I reckon it must have quite a bit of sentimental value to you. I was thinking ... five hundred dollars."
"Five hun —" Krauss stopped short and controlled an angry response with a visible effort. "I don't have that kind of money on me at the moment. That's why I put up the watch as stakes in the game."
Steve Drake said, "We'll be docking at Kansas City in the morning. I'm sure you can send a wire to your bank in St. Louis and get your hands on the cash. That's the only fair thing to do, don't you think? After all, you set your men like a pack of wild dogs on to these boys, and then you threatened to murder them and have their bodies thrown in the river like so much trash. You owe them at least that much."
"Nobody's going to take their word over mine," said Krauss, trying one last bluff.
"Captain Foley will take my word," Drake said. "We've known each other for ten years, and I've done a few favors for him in the past. He knows I wouldn't lie to him. You wouldn't want it getting around that you were ready to resort to murder over something as petty as a poker game, would you? Seems to me that would be bad for business."
"All right, all right." Krauss stuck the pistol back under his coat. "It's a deal. Five hundred dollars for the watch."
"Deal," Chance said.
The rich man laughed. "The watch is worth twice that. You should have held out for more."
"I don't care how much it is. I just want you to pay to get it back."
Krauss snorted in contempt, turned, and stalked off along the deck. His men followed him, even though he had fired them. Evidently that dismissal wouldn't last, and they knew it.
A man with a temper like Krauss's probably fired people right and left and then expected them to come right back to work for him once he cooled off, Ace reflected.
Once Krauss and the others were gone, the Jensen boys joined Steve Drake, who tucked away his gun under his jacket and strolled over to the railing to gaze out at the broad, slow-moving Missouri River.
The gambler put a thin black cheroot in his mouth and snapped a match to life with his thumbnail. As he set fire to the gasper, the glare from the lucifer sent garish red light over the rugged planes of his craggy face under the cream-colored Stetson.
"We're obliged to you, Mr. Drake," Ace said. "You're making a habit out of pulling our fat out of the fire."
"Yeah," Chance added. "If you hadn't come along when you did, we might've had to kill that obnoxious tub of lard."
"Krauss's gun was already in his hand," Steve Drake pointed out, "and yours were in your holsters. He might have gotten one of you, just like you said."
"Yeah, and he might have missed completely," said Chance. "We wouldn't have had any choice but to drill him, though."
"And then we would have been in all kinds of trouble," put in Ace.
"The odds of hanging are a lot higher if you kill a rich man instead of a poor one."
"You sound like you have a low opinion of justice," said Steve Drake with a chuckle.
"No, I just know how things work in this world."
The gambler shrugged and blew out a cloud of smoke. "You may be right. We all remember what happened back in St. Louis, don't we?"CHAPTER 2
St. Louis, three days earlier
Neither Ace nor Chance was in awe of St. Louis. They had seen big cities before. Traveling with Doc Monday when they were younger had taken them to Denver, San Francisco, New Orleans, and San Antonio, so the buildings crowded together and the throngs of people in the streets were nothing new to the Jensen brothers.
It had been a while since they'd set foot in such a place. They reacted to it totally differently.
Chance looked around with a smile of anticipation on his face as they rode along the street, moving slowly because of all the people, horses, wagons, and buggies. He was at home in cities, liked the hubbub, enjoyed seeing all the different sorts of people.
Because Doc Monday, their surrogate father, made his living as a gambler, he had spent most of his time in settlements. That was where the saloons were, after all. And although Doc had tried to keep the boys out of such places as much as possible while they were growing up, it was inevitable that they had spent a great deal of time in those establishments.
Chance had taken to that life, but Ace had reacted in just the opposite manner. He didn't like being hemmed in and preferred the outdoors. He would rather be out riding the range any day, instead of being stuck in a saloon breathing smoky air and listening to the slap of cards and the raucous laughter of the customers. If he had to spend time in a settlement, the smaller ones were better than the big cities. To Ace's way of thinking, a slower pace and more peaceful was better.
Ever since Doc had gone off to a sanitarium for a rest cure, the boys had been on their own, and they had packed a lot of adventurous living into a relatively short amount of time. Chance was always happy when they drifted into a town, while Ace was ready to leave again as soon as they replenished their supplies and his brother had an opportunity to win enough money to keep them solvent for a while.
St Louis was the farthest east they had been in their travels, with the exception of New Orleans. There was no particular reason they were there, other than Chance deciding that he'd wanted to see St. Louis.
Ace figured Chance might have assumed St. Louis was like New Orleans, the city he loved, with its moss-dripping trees, its old, fancy buildings, its music, its food, its saloons and gambling halls, and especially its beautiful women. After all, both cities were on the Mississippi River.
Excerpted from Rimfire by William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone. Copyright © 2016 J. A. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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