Whop! The fist hit Red Bennett's jaw so viciously, it telegraphed pain to every joint in his body.
"Where's d' mine?" the tall, wide-shouldered man growled in gangster speak. A deep scar running from his left eyebrow to his jaw had turned from pink to dark red.
"There ain't no damn mine," Bennett said in a broken southern drawl, spitting blood on the floor.
"The mine, idiot? Can't you understand English?" The tall man drew a .357 magnum Smith and Wesson from his holster and swung it.
"Not with your illiterate mealy-mouthed accent."
The aggressor's blood-spattered plaid shirt and stonewashed jeans stretched and strained against his large muscles as he again stepped threateningly toward Bennett. "Let me annunciate...M I N E, mine."
"Well, well, I see you made it through the second grade. You know how to spell."
"You're going to tell me in the end."
"Go to hell." Bennett knew he shouldn't antagonize the man but he held his ground, setting his jaw in defiance. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. The miner was tall, lean, and well-muscled from a long, tough Spartan life. Yet, he knew his body couldn't take much more punishment.
"Yates, emphasize the point."
"You got it, Del." The thug's cohort, equally large and menacing, circled the table, two-by-four in hand, looking at Red's two partners, trying to decide which one he would continue punishing. He wore black workman's trousers and a brown flannel shirt just as blood-spattered.
"Eny, meeny, miny, moe. Batter up." Yates hit Red's partner in the back, slamming Cassidy Williams' face into the table. Again--whack--thud. Blood flowed from William's broken nose.
"Where's the damn Dutchman? Tell us or I kill your friend."
"Asshole, I don't know what the fuck you're talking about," Red growled.
"Where'd all this gold come from?"
"Don't tell him," Williams said. He was small, compact and wiry and looked ten years younger than his seventy years. "They're going to kill us anyway."
"Ah, there is a mine," Del chortled.
"Yes, why should I tell you?" Bennett was missing several teeth from the beating he'd received over the last half hour. As Del came close, Bennett spat blood in his face.
"Bastard." Del slammed the side of the magnum across the miner's cheek, laying it open, letting blood gush freely.
"You aren't going to leave witnesses." Butch Emerson tried to push himself up from the table but failed. Crimson ran from a cut over his eye. He was a young 50, dressed in a worn gray shirt and coveralls, now wet with blood.
"Maybe yes, maybe no," the first man said.
"Kill us and you're dead men." Bennett clutched his hands into fists.
"Yeah. You and whose army?"
"Not an army. One man--Robert Sable."
"Ooh, I'm scared." Del laughed, pretending to shake.
"Never heard of him," Yates said. "Who in the fuck is this Sable?"
"Sable's a trooper who always gets his man," Emerson sputtered through a gaping grill of teeth. "He'll run you to the ground."
Del picked up a twenty-pound bucket of gold nuggets and slammed it on the table. The table shook. "Now tell me--where'd you get this?"
"In the creek in front of the cabin," Bennett said. Suddenly, his one-room cabin seemed small.
"Liar. Where is the sluicing equipment?"
Bennett shrugged. "Fuck off."
Del slammed his fist into Bennett's face and the miner fell from his chair. "Show him we mean business, Yates."
Yates stepped behind Williams, placed his 9mm behind his ear. "Last chance, mother fucker."
"Go to hell," Williams said.
"You first." Yates pulled the trigger. The shot echoed in the cabin as Williams' head exploded in a shower of blood and brain matter. He slumped forward on the table with a thud. The blood spread out in a jagged pool over the table.
Yates moved around the table and stood behind Emerson. He placed the pistol behind the man's ear. "I'm ready, Del."
Bennett heard a faint familiar grunting and scratching outside his door. He tried not to smile as a spark of hope brightened the dismal situation.
"If you don't tell me the location of the mine, your other friend is dead. Now tell me where the goddamn mine is," Del said.
"Brownie, help," Bennett yelled.
"Who's Brownie? Your dog?" Del sneered. "I killed all your huskies. One bit me."
"No. Your worst nightmare." Bennett ran toward the door.
The door exploded with an ear shattering crack as a large snarling grizzly bear crashed into the room. Brownie took an instant to assess the situation. He roared and charged Del and Yates, jaws snapping, claws slashing.
"What the hell?" Del screamed as flesh disappeared from his arms and face. The men fired their pistols at the snarling locomotive. It didn't faze him.
"Die, bastard," Del yelled.
As Bennett leaped through the door, he heard the shot and felt a deep searing pain in his back. He felt himself weaken, yet he kept running. As he dove into the forest, tree branches clawed at his face. He doubled his pace. He heard rustling branches and snaps of twigs behind him. Apparently, Brownie hadn't killed both men. He felt sorrow sending Brownie to his death. Over the years, he'd made friends with the bear, feeding him fish and meat when he could afford it. The bear had even let him take a hunter's bullet from his shoulder.
As the sounds of pursuit began to fade, Bennett began covering his tracks. With each step, he felt his life force ebbing. When he stepped out on the bank of the Tanana River, he saw his canoe hidden in a stand of trees nearby. He was going to shove it off when he saw the claim-jumper's jet boat fifty feet upriver. He went to the stern of the boat and removed the cowling from the 300 horsepower Evinrude outboard, ripped out the spark plug wires, and tossed them into the river.
Bennett dragged his left leg as he headed back to his canoe. He pushed off and headed to his truck and Fairbanks. With each stroke of the paddle, the pain burned deep into his back. He bit his lip at the excruciating pain.