The smell of gunpowder hung in the air as Jack Cody stared at the talkative stranger that had interrupted his violent spree. The rest of the Jackson gang had already fled their poker game, leaving Jack and the defenseless man alone. Having diffused the tension in the room, the mysterious man smiled gently at Jack.
"And just who the hell are you?" Cody hissed through gritted teeth as he aimed his gun at the man's head.
The strange little man pondered this for a moment. "Come back here, my new friend. I can call you friend I hope. To wish to be in the same room with a sworn enemy, I'd be mad! Not that it would make much difference, mind you." He winked slyly at Cody.
Still aiming his gun at the stranger's head, Cody cautiously followed him to the back room from which he had come.
"I suppose it's good you happened by. You seem strong and perhaps trustworthy. I have a knack for seeing these things you see. The lot out there, well, they were likely picking pockets right out of the womb. I don't like to judge, but one can never be too careful." The man piled things in Cody's arms as he spoke. "You know, it'll be harder to hold things with that heaving looking thing in your hand."
Jack was frozen in confusion. The man seemed to have little consideration for the position he was in. As the man attempted to grab Jack's gun from him, he cocked it and thrust toward his new opponent. "You little-!"
"Oi! Careful there! Those are very valuable, you know." The man hastily interrupted, steadying the packages in Jack's possession. Jack stepped back as more boxes were piled into his arms. It seemed impossible to get this little man to react.
"Here, here. I'll balance it for you." The man piled boxes up to Jack's chin."I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, ‘Why does this man need so much?' Well, I don't, but I never seem to be able to control myself. I always bring too much. I'm constantly telling myself-"
At his limit, Jack gripped the boxes with his left hand, thrusting his right at the man. Cody's gun was now at the man's temple, but this didn't deter him in the least.
"You're a hasty one aren't you?" In one swift movement, the man ducked under Cody's hand, lifted his parcels, and heeled at Jack's calf, sending him tumbling backward. "As I was saying, I'm always telling myself ‘Yosef,' my name is Yosef, by the way. Yosef Halevi, pleasure to meet you." He grabbed Jack's gun with one finger behind the trigger, halting it from its intended use.
Jack held fast to his weapon, catching himself before he hit the ground. He stared up at the man in shock. He couldn't recall how he came to be in this position. He could see everything, but this man slipped by him. This new stranger was more of a threat than he had first given him credit for.
Halevi pulled back on the gun, helping Jack to his feet, before burdening him yet again with boxes. "I say ‘Yosef! You know you aren't going to need this much! Look at your poor Tzili! She's the one who has to carry so much of the burden.' The poor little thing, she's right outside, if you'll follow me." Halevi tossed a sack over his shoulder and headed through a small door at the back of the room.
Jack stood in bewildered silence for a moment. He thought it better to holster his gun and keep an eye on Halevi, as he was unsure of the potential the little man held within. He considered running, but if Halevi were capable of magic, it would be pointless. Feeling like a spider caught in a web, he reluctantly followed Halevi through the door.
On the other side, a dark tunnel stretched out before him. The ceiling hung low, forcing him to duck through parts to avoid hitting his head. This was especially difficult while overburdened by boxes and bags of what seemed to be pure lead, as heavy as they were. As they neared the end of the tunnel, a damp and acrid odor hung in the air and left a foul taste in Jack's throat.
They exited out into the blinding sunlight as the dry air sucked the sweat off their skin and left them parched. The stench still with him, Jack surveyed his surroundings. To his right, a mule stood in the shade next to a small cart. On his left, a thin and starved horse stood in a pile of its own filth. He looked forward over the cracked ground and saw that he was now on the other side of the mesa.
Yosef piled what he carried into the cart and beckoned Jack to do the same. "This is my little Tzili. All the time I hear, ‘You could do for an animal with better breeding.' but I can't bring myself to part with her. She's a sweet one, never complains."
Jack walked up to the horse. It was a mottled brown and held its head low with a solemn expression. "At least it ain't the ass." He thought out loud.
Halevi made a sputtering noise. "That malnourished excuse of a horse isn't my Tzili. My Tzili is a precious one, and I take exceptionally good care of her. She's a mule mind you, not an ass. Very reliable, if a little on the short side." He threw a white tarp over the luggage and tied it down before hopping on her unsaddled back. "You going to walk? I don't condone of theft, certainly not, but at the same time." He glanced at the ragged horse.
Jack winced at the idea of riding the scrawny thing, as he wasn't sure it could make any decent stretch without collapsing. He sighed realizing it was either that or walking, and straddled the animal as it chuffed in discontent. He wasn't used to riding bareback, but he doubted a saddle would help to control a horse on its last leg. Halevi, sitting sideways on his mule, clicked a few times and was off.
"You know mules are very strong and exceptionally loyal, regardless of..." Halevi continued his prattle as Jack turned his horse to follow in defeat. He could hardly make a decent run on the crowbait he was riding. "Horses aren't treated worth shit around here." He thought to himself.
The two walked north toward town. The sun beat down on them relentlessly, but Jack was dealing with a more oppressive force. His head bobbed and lulled as he tried to ignore the sounds around him. The cart made a high-pitched squeal, and the mule grunted every time it hit a hill any steeper than a prairie dog mound. Above all, Halevi's constant chatter made his ears throb and his head numb to the world.
"Are you listening? Hello there! Drifting off in the desert isn't much of a good idea, let alone doing so on the back of a lame horse." Halevi was staring up at him.
Jack glanced around in shock. Through his stupor, he somehow made it to town without realizing it. It was rare for him to lose his faculties in such a way. He grunted as he slid off the horse and walked over to a rain barrel at the corner of a row of shops. He tossed water on his face as the fog lifted from his mind. "I don't mean to be a bother but-"
Before Halevi could finish, Jack had his hand around Yosef's throat. He glared at him with contempt. "I've had it with you and your jabber. I'm going to walk away now, and you're going to sit here with your mouth shut tight." He slowly let go of Yosef's neck as he stared him down. "That's better." Jack started to walk away. He didn't care where he went, as long as it wasn't near Halevi.
"Miss Kinkaid is quite the looker." Jack froze in his steps as Yosef uttered those words. "I can understand why you're chasing such a beauty down. So much spunk and those luscious..." He held his hands out palms up."Oi! Halevi, you're getting ahead of yourself there." He looked up almost emotionlessly at Jack as he resumed the silence requested of him.
Jack stared back, his nostrils flaring in anger. "You know where she is?"
"I might have an idea, but I really need to get these supplies back into my shop. Perhaps if I had help?" He looked shyly at his mule and cart.
Jack walked over to the cart and threw up the tarp, causing Tzili to start. Jack grabbed as much from the cart as he could while Yosef calmed his mule and tied her to a post at the back of his shop.
"This way, please." Yosef unlocked the back door to his shop and pointed to the corner, silently instructing Jack where to set his belongings. "Sit, if you will, and I'll tell you what I know."
"I'll stand, thank you. Now spill it, I ain't got time to be messing with the likes of you." Jack did his best to even his expression and tone as he tried to understand how Yosef's mind ticked.
"Well, the young lady was told to seek that outlaw Jackson. I say outlaw as if it's a bad thing, but he is a good customer, and-" Halevi paused as he could feel the pressure in the room rising with Jack's anger. "You don't care to hear about that, of course. Miss Kinkaid was talking something about a king of sorts trying to regain control of this area. I'm not sure I really understand, as I'm pretty sure no ‘king' ever owned this area, wherever it may be. I can only guess. She seemed pretty stricken about the whole thing and went to Mr. Jackson for help."
Halevi pulled out a small box from behind the counter he was now sitting behind, and set it down in front of him. "She also spoke of you."
Jack resumed his emotionless expression. "Oh?"
Halevi opened his box and stared at the contents. "You are the Texas ranger Jack Cody, I presume? Miss Kinkaid said she was running from a man such as yourself, and was keen not to be caught before finishing her business with Mr. Jackson in regards to this ‘king'."
Jack wondered what he was talking about. He could only think of one person fitting that description, but that couldn't be right. That would be bold, even for him. As he pondered what Halevi told him, a knock came from the front door of the shop.
"Who could that be?" Halevi mumbled to himself."I wasn't expecting anyone."
"Yosef? Ya back yet? I need to talk to you about that chain you sold me!" An angry sounding man barked through the door. Jack didn't recognize the voice.
"Yeah, yeah. I got you." Yosef walked to the door and unlocked it. "I told you if you wanted something better I'd have to order. No refunds! If it broke on you, then you shouldn't have been so cheap."
"You told me this was real gold!" Hoosegow Jackson griped as he walked through the door. You shouldn't be lying to a regular customer like myself if you know what's good for ya!"
Jack slid around the corner to the back room as Halevi negotiated with the disgruntled customer. "I've got what I need; this is my chance to get away from this loon." He thought as he made his way past the walls of books to the back door.
"Did ya' ask if he's got some decent lookin' boots, hun?" Chimed a woman's voice.
This time, Jack recognized the voice. Just as he was about to leave through the back door, his sought after prey entered the front. He pulled his rifle out of the holster on his back as he softly crept back toward the doorway separating the two rooms. He rested his back against the wall and listened intently.
"Why Miss Kinkaid, I was hoping to see you again! What can I do for you?" Halevi walked back behind the counter as he glanced at the wall he was almost certain Jack was behind. "Boots you say? I have plenty! I can even special order if you have something more specific in mind." He grinned at her, his eyes resting on something other than hers.
"You're outta' your league, hun." She winked at Halevi slyly. "I'll just take a look around, if that's okay."
"Certainly, my dear! Take your time." Yosef eyed her as she wandered around the shop.
Hoosegow planted his watch and chain on the counter in front of Yosef. "If I can't get a refund, how's about we talk about a replacement? I don't like the idea of throwing my money away, so let's get that straight from the start."
"Right you are. Let me take a look." He removed the chain from the watch and held it up before him.
While the occupants of the main room were going about their business, Jack was waiting for his chance to seize Katie and run. He had been waiting for so long to catch her. He thought about whether or not she knew anything about what he was, or if it was all coincidence. He could have just been reading more into it, her turns of phrase and flirtatious nature. If she really did know his true identity, she had to be dealt with. He held his striking pose as he waited for her to get a bit closer.
"I have something that'll work, but I don't think it's what you're looking for." Halevi reached for a box on the wall and pulled out a dingy, grey chain. "The one I sold you before was real gold, but perhaps I should have mentioned it was only plated. This one is made of a heavier material, but it doesn't look quite as nice."
"Why the hell would I want that piece of junk?" Hoosegow spat.
"Why would you want this? First off, it's stronger. Second, you can use it while I order a better one." He held the chain out while pulling the contents of the small box out and set them on the counter. It was a deck of tall, thin cards. "Third, this one would be free of charge until I get a nicer one in."
Hoosegow stared at the gangly looking chain and back to his gold pocket watch." Fine, but only cause it's in my current price range." He grabbed the chain and began attaching it to his watch.
In the meantime, Katie turned to Halevi with a pout. "This all ya got? I can't be seen in the likes of these, hun."
"Again, I can get something better if you have it in mind. Just let me know and I'll order it. Until then, this is all I've got." He shuffled the deck of cards he had just pulled from the box a few minutes before and set it back on the counter. He cut the deck and laid five cards in a line facedown on the counter in front of him.
"What'cha got there, hun?" Katie curiously looked at the cards as she walked up to the counter.
Jack realized that this was his chance. He had waited so long, his anticipation and eagerness were harder to control than he had previously thought. He was almost salivating as he rounded the corner and aimed his gun right at Katie's heart. Hoosegow jumped back, nearly dropping his new chain and watch. Katie gasped as she threw up her hands in surprise. "You!"
Halevi calmly turned over the center card as Jack rounded the counter and cocked his rifle. He didn't care if she knew his identity or not. It was better to get rid of her rather than guess.
"The Magician." Yosef spoke in a soft voice.
Jack froze in terror. Not just the voice, but the word caused him to swallow hard and he looked at Halevi in shock. He knew it, Halevi could use magic, this was a bad situation and he needed to get away, now!
Katie and Hoosegow glanced at each other confused. "What was that, hun?" Katie squeaked at Yosef in a nervous voice, confused at the situation in which she now found herself.
Halevi calmly flipped over the first two cards as Jack rounded on him. "The Fool and Death." Jack's blood boiled as he aimed his gun at Halevi and pulled the trigger.
Sweat poured down Jack's face and arms, and onto his hands, making it hard to hold the gun steady. His thoughts ran wild with fear. "He's magic, but won't be the end of me. A dud is rare, the second shot will do him in. Nothing else matters." His pupils shrank as he steadied his aim.
"Death follows the Fool. The Fool is curious and jumps into things before gauging her surrounding and situation." He spoke without regard to the danger he was in. Jack cocked his rifle again.
"Death, in order to keep up with the Fool must change in order to adapt to the chaos. He must shed his skin, so to speak." His eyes calmly met Jack's as he said this.
"Don't mess with me little man!" Jack pulled the trigger again.
Jack's arms sunk, defeated, as Hoosegow grabbed and pulled them back. Hoosegow pulled Jack's back to his chest and wrapped his hands around the back of Cody's neck in a tight hold.
Halevi ignored the ruckus and flipped over the first card. "Strength. A good asset in these times."
Jack let out a gruff and dismal laugh. How could he have been caught so easily? His head dropped to his chest.
Halevi flipped over the last remaining card, second in the line of five. "The Moon." He paused after saying this. "Interesting. You can let him go now, my friend."
Jack's expression returned to its cold and emotionless state as Hoosegow lessened his grip. Jack staggered forward and looked down at his rifle. He opened it and looked in the chamber. There was nothing there.
"Nodding off in the desert can be a dangerous thing, as I said. I didn't want to be pulled into anything I didn't think I could handle, but it seems I'm already in too deep. I trust that Miss Kinkaid's worry is genuine, and because of this, I feel it is my duty to assist you in this fight." Katie sighed in relief as Jack choked on his own bewilderment.
Halevi put the cards back in their box and walked to the front door of his shop. He opened the door and glanced out, his face a blank slate. The rest gathered behind him to see what he was looking at, including the stunned ranger at the back.
Returning their stare, standing off in the distance, was a man with long, black hair. A leather pack rested on the ground beside him, and attached to his back was a bow and a quiver. Halevi smiled as he gazed at the man before him. "It seems our fifth has arrived."