“You don’t just walk out on the Boss, Stromgren. Stay a spell and enjoy some of the best hospitality you’ll find north of a Texas barbecue on Uncle Sam’s birthday.” Ace sneered and pulled the gun another inch from the holster. To decline the “invitation” meant a permanent numbing of the taste buds.
Albin’s mind squirmed with the vigor of a snake in an eagle’s claws. The little freak wouldn’t dare, not in here, would he? Surely the bark of a gun would be heard, and the Mounties summoned. Then again, perhaps this place was a vault, able to ricochet sound in an endless cycle, until expiration. To devil with the noise, there’d be a body to dispose of! Speak up, man! State your reasoning and save your life! But for the second time that night, Albin was mute, crippled by a chalk tongue dissolved in heavy rains.
It was just as well, a creature like this couldn’t be bargained with, for the troll craved blood, not gold. A body could be incinerated, given the proper tools and knowledge. “Just having a Texas barbecue, Constable. Want some long pork?”
Jackson was the key . . . the only one who could muzzle Ace.
But why would he? Why spare a mad drifter, who’s life had the worth of a fruit fly’s? The “King” and his musketeers probably believed Albin wouldn’t be missed, and therefore no report would be filed with the Mounties. Time to gather the backbone and reveal his true identity.
“I came here by boat!” Albin yelled. “The Seraphin carried us from Seattle to Saint Michael and the ill-fated Wilton brought us downriver, that is, until that drunkard Beckett ran her onto a shoal! Miles of travel on foot accounts for my current appearance! I am a man of means and of connections! I carry my tickets, sewn into my jacket, as proof. If you do this, my people will cry for justice and the Law will have no choice but to investigate!”
A mirthless belly laugh emanated from the office and the wiry killer added his own brand.
“Stromgren, you are by far the best entertainment for today! Bring him back here, Ace. We’ll hammer out a deal.”
Entertainment? Albin was conflicted between relief and anger, as he stepped back into the one room palace.
The despot hefted his bulk off the chair and plodded towards an ornately carved bar hutch, from which he retrieved a bottle of whiskey.
Albin shook his head but thanked him.
Jackson shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He filled a crystal goblet to the brim, took a sip, and sauntered back to the desk, with bottle and goblet in hand.
“So, Mister Stromgren, you are a man of means, I see.” The half-full bottle landed hard against the green leather desk cover. Jackson remained standing as he swept his beverage free hand around the room. “I’ve noticed you admiring my décor. I like it too. As a man of your standing can appreciate, most of these pieces are from the early part of this century and older.” He gave a dismissive wave, then continued. “I don’t care much for anything newer than the twenties.” Thus, an in-depth sermon was launched about each article, with a heavy emphasis on value and acquisition. The deviant was a library about the finer things.
Fascinated, Albin was fully engaged, and flicked away the guilt that tugged at his ear. He would beg the Father’s forgiveness when he crossed paths with the starving. Lucifer’s lair was beguiling.
“And here, this right here, is the soul of this place. You understand, Stromgrem?” Jackson caressed the top of a Regency-Era mahogany card table. “You like games, Stromgren?”
“I-I,” Albin was at a loss. Gambling was a sin and he wasn’t a card player, at least not anymore. As a boy, he’d enjoyed Skitgubbe at the kitchen table with his brothers and cousins, but this table had seen far less innocence. The whole tour was bait to get him to this point. Albin was a pawn in a game, an object of amusement for a bored monarch.
Stone grey eyes deadpanned Albin in demand for the inevitable response. Albin’s tongue was lashed by fear and morals ingrained since early childhood.
“Simple question, Stromgren.”
Albin cleared his throat. “Is this for sport, or is there a reward?”
The granite mouth bent into a smile. “We each have something the other wants. I want the gold, I always do, but what is it you want? Food? New clothes? A bath?” He winked at Albin. “The company of one of my girls? Of course, you’ll need the last two before any of them will ‘accompany’ you.”
“A claim of my own. What I came to Dawson for. It seems they’ve all been spoken for.”
Jackson snapped his thick fingers, bent over his desk, and retrieved a large scroll from the top drawer. He unfurled it across the desktop, revealing a map of every creek and river surrounding Dawson.
Albin’s heart palpitated at the sight of numbered claims.
Jackson fingered a spot at the juncture of the Bonanza and Eldorado creeks. “There’s your claim. Well, not yet. Only if you win.”
Albin moved in to get a closer look. “Gold Hill?”
The boulder-sized head shook. “Nope. Those are taken. French Hill, just next to it, on the other side of Irish Gulch.”
Albin used the scale at the bottom of the map to determine that French Hill was about fifteen miles from Dawson. Not a bad trek, considering how far he’d already come. Bonanza and Eldorado were renowned for their yields, so why not try French Hill? The proverbial fly in the ointment was that claim eleven sat on a hill above Eldorado Creek rather than along the creek itself.
Jackson read his mind. “It’s a bench claim, and they’ve gotten a bad rap. Everyone wants the creeks but,” he pointed to his temple. “The smart folks think differently. Besides, that’s all that’s left. Take it or leave it.”
Albin sighed. He’d never heard of a bench claim, but the Klondike King waited for an answer.
“What kind of game?”
“Name it. I’ve got cards and dice, even a roulette wheel.” He looked at the clock. “I haven’t got all night.”
“Can I just purchase the claim? With this gold?”
Jackson burst into laughter. The man’s temperament was unnerving. “I like your humor. Stromgren, you barely have enough dust to buy a pickaxe, at least by Dawson prices. I don’t really need your gold, though I’d be happy to keep it. What I want is some fun. Oh, but I do like to help the less fortunate, such as yourself. Have you dozed through my entire presentation? I have it all, Stromgren! So how about it? Allow me to choose. We’ll play Devil’s Dice. The rules are simple. Number one is that the one who rolls the highest total out of three rolls each, wins.”
He opened a small drawer in the card table and grabbed a pair of ivory dice. “Rule number two, we use these. You can examine them, Stromgren. You’ll find them to be of standard weight. I’m not a cheat. I’ve come by my wealth with old fashioned hard work.” He gave the dice to Albin. “See for yourself.”
Albin examined them and found nothing out of sorts. He dropped them on the table.
“Rule three, the dice must remain on this table after the toss, anything that falls will be disqualified. They must bounce at least once. We shake on this before any dice are cast. A gentleman’s blood oath if you will. Now pay close attention to this one, Stromgren.” The stones narrowed to pebbles. “I’m honest and will always honor the contract. What about you? What kind of man are you? I’ve placed my trust in you, but I hope it’s not misplaced. If that trust is broken, you’ll meet a bad end. Dawson is a viper’s nest full of no-accounts, and I’ll not be victimized.”
After the threat had been delivered, Jackson’s countenance shifted like the tides. He extended his right hand and grinned. “What about it? Do we have an accord?”
Albin gulped but inquired about the obvious. “So, if I win, I keep the gold and the claim is mine?”
Jackson chuckled, “Well, yes, but I’ll require a thirty percent royalty.”
Albin was initially stunned, but quickly grew indignant. Of course, the royalty. Anyone who dubbed himself a king could demand such. But “King” Jackson wasn’t omniscient. He couldn’t possibly account for every ounce.
“I suppose that if you win, I hand over my gold and leave with nothing. Is that the way of it?”
“Why, you’re a weasel impossible to catch asleep! I suspect that a man of your wits will take my generous offer.” The hand moved closer.
Albin took it. “You have yourself an accord.”
The massive hand swallowed Albin’s, the way a snake ate a mouse. “Trekking miles through an Alaskan winter, and now wagering with the King of Dawson. I admire your moxie.” He pointed to the dice. “You first.”
Albin took a breath deep breath and rolled. The ivory pair skittered halfway across the table and stopped on a total of five. Way too low.
“My turn,” Jackson snatched the dice and tossed them. They bounced and rolled for a lifetime, before producing a devastating sum of nine.
Ace whooped and clapped.
Jackson smirked, and handed the dice to Albin. “One down.”
This time he managed twelve. Unless Jackson tied, the round was his.
The crime boss clucked his tongue. The pair shot from his hand and landed on ten.
The score was nineteen to seventeen in Jackson’s favor. The challenger rattled the dice in his hand and began the Lord’s prayer. “Our Father—” but nerves weakened his grip and he watched helplessly as the pair tumbled to the floor.
“Pleading to the Almighty, huh? Getting nervous, Cheechako?” Ace said.
“Ah, give the poor fella a chance, will ya?” Jackson grabbed the dice and handed them to his rival. “Try again. Last chance.”
A white-knuckled cast earned a seven. This put him five points ahead. Better than a couple, but too close to the firing line for comfort.
“Well, partner, this is it. Though I believe you have more to lose than I,” he gloated. The release appeared nonchalant, but the mouth twitch spoke volumes about Jackson’s attitude towards losing.
Both dice performed a series of lackadaisical pirouettes before coming to rest on snake eyes.
The room spun, and Albin squeezed his head to stop it. He’d won! Exuberance changed to fright. What now?
“You lucky swine!” Jackson was a locomotive boiler about to blow. He flung the dice into Albin’s chest. “Get out of here, before I kill you!”
Albin raced for the door, but the muzzle of Ace’s revolver stopped him cold.
“Leaving so soon? Don’t you want to collect your prize?” Ace giggled like an entity that dwelled beneath the cellar stairs.
“Go ahead and shoot, if you must. If I leave here empty handed, I have nothing left on earth.” How was it possible to hear his own voice above the blood rushing in his ears?
Laughter bellowed from behind Albin. Ace cut loose with another hellish peal and he lowered the gun.
“Stromgren, you should have seen yourself, just now! Did you really think we were going to send you to the Maker after you’d won fair and square?”
The blood drained from Albin’s face and pooled at his feet. What was all of this? What kind of sick minds threatened death for amusement?
Enough of this! I’ll take my gold and flee. Albin had moved one step towards the hall when a document was thrust into his hand.
“Take it and go, Stromgren, your antics are worth every ounce! Don’t worry about registering your claim, I’ll see to it. But don’t forget about my thirty.”
The exit was a blur. Albin collected his boots and jacket, then left the building with his feet on fire. The pace was maintained for several blocks before the realization of the victory struck him. Life had changed with the roll of a dice! Literally! A mitt full of gold AND a claim to boot! Hallelujah! He leapt from the boardwalk and click both heels together. He couldn’t wait to tell Isabella that he was officially a prospector!
“Is he gone?” Jackson took a sip from the whiskey glass.
“Yes, thinks he’s all that, now that he’s defeated the legend of Dawson. How’d you want this one done? Accidental trampling by a horse? Drowning in the river? Or a mining mishap?”
Jackson yawned. “Too many drownings, pick another method. I don’t care which, long as the Mounties stay out of it and you remember to nab the gold and fake claim document. Have fun. I’m going to take a nap.”
“Sure thing, Boss.” Ace closed nodded and closed the door behind him.