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California gal
SS senior field agent

USA
8381 Posts

Posted - 07/10/2007 :  08:02:32  Show Profile
THE NIGHT OF THE SHATTERED HEART

By California gal

"This looks like the place," James West commented, slowing his black horse as they came up on the tall iron fence. Stone gateposts supported a gate that was hanging open, one upper hinge loose on the right side. Vines, living and dead, along with other weeds, were visible in the moonlight on and below the fence. The winter rains that usually greened California had not had much effect here.

Artemus Gordon brought his own horse to a complete halt. "Are you sure? Looks deserted to me." The February moon’s glow was casting an eerie aura about the area, including the large house they could see further down the driveway that led through the gate.

Jim could only shrug. "Well, it’s the only house that’s approximately two miles off the main road. At least the only house we’ve come across. There are lights inside. We can ask anyway." He looked toward his partner, saw the deep frown on Artie’s face. "What’s wrong?"

"I don't know, Jim. I just don't know. I have… I can only call it a premonition. A bad one."

Jim West laughed. "Hey, just because it looks like a haunted house doesn’t mean it is! And if this is the place, the lady we’re to talk to is over eighty years old! What can she do?"

Artemus sighed. "Yeah. I’m allowing my imagination to run wild, I think. But remember… if anything happens here… I told you so!"

"I’ll remember. Let’s go. Maybe we can get this over with and get back in town tonight to see the play after all. And who knows, perhaps Adelaide and Wanda will be waiting for us."

"You wish," Artie responded, starting Mesa up to keep pace with Jim on Blackjack. They had reluctantly informed their dates for tonight that they had been ordered back to duty. Their superior, aware that the pair were passing through San Francisco on their way back from another assignment, had intercepted them at their hotel with this command. More of a personal favor than a command, Artie opined. Seemed Colonel Richmond had served under General Fairbanks many, many years ago.

Riding through the gates did not help Artie’s mood. If ever a house was haunted, this was the one. He saw broken windows on the upper floor, sagging timbers off the eaves. Even in the moonlight the need of paint and repairs was evident. The vegetation on the expansive grounds had been allowed to go wild. Perhaps once a showplace garden had flourished here.

Chances were, he informed himself, this poor old lady, widow of the late general, was existing on a puny military pension which did not permit her to keep up the old homestead. Surprising that she had not sold the place and moved into the city, instead of remaining out here in the Marin headlands. This was a pretty remote area. Above the sound of the evening breeze whistling through the numerous trees, Artie could hear the murmur of the surf. The Pacific Ocean was not far away.

Jim dismounted, glancing around. He hated to admit it, but Artemus’s sense of foreboding was striking him as well. Yet he also knew that the very atmosphere, the darkness, the moonlight, the sound of the breeze and the surf, were conducive to such feelings. During the daytime, in bright sunlight, all would be different. Throw in the fact that both were disappointed to have had to cancel their evening plans… well, easy to feel apprehensive and moody.

The first step creaked loudly under Jim’s boot, but he prevented himself from looking at his partner. Haunted houses always creaked, did they not? Now if I heard chains clanking, and a ghostly moan, I might start to really worry. The only sounds were those of the sighing breeze and a distant rumble of waves. He had had plans to take Adelaide for a ride in a hired buggy to view the moon shining on those waves. Perhaps that could still happen.

"Whoops." Artie stepped aside quickly as he felt and heard a board on the porch start to give way under his foot with a crunching sound. Looking down, he saw how a portion of the slat had slivered. "Man, this place is falling apart, Jim!"

"Probably too rundown even for haunts," Jim grinned, grabbing the heavy brass knocker on the ornate door and letting it fall a couple of times.

Neither were prepared for the sight that greeted them when the door opened. Jim knew his own jaw dropped as the tall, willowy blonde woman gazed back with a serene smile. She wore a servant’s uniform, dark blue dress with a white collar and cuffs, the skirt covered by a white apron tied around her slim waist.

"Good evening, gentlemen," she said, smiling with luscious rose-pink lips. The smile reached her clear blue eyes. "May I presume that you are Mr. West and Mr. Gordon? Mrs. Fairbanks is expecting you. Please come in."

Both men belatedly jerked their hats off as they stepped inside. They saw that the interior pretty much matched the outside. The runner on the hallway floor was threadbare, the paper on the walls faded and peeling. A sense of long lost grandeur was everywhere, including a fancy grandfather’s clock which appeared to no longer operate, displaying the time of midnight or noon on its now frozen hands, pendulum still. A single lamp was glowing in a wall sconce. Further down the hallway, through the dimness, they could see a curving staircase.

The lovely maid took the cloaks they had donned against the California winter evening chill, hanging them on a tree inside the door, along with their hats. "Please follow me," she instructed, turning to lead the way toward the staircase. She halted before reaching the stairs, however, pushing open a set of double doors, then stepping to one side. "Mrs. Fairbanks, Mr. West and Mr. Gordon have arrived."

"Oh, come in, come in, gentlemen!" a thin voice called. "Katri, please bring tea. The special tea as we discussed earlier. This is a special occasion, indeed. We are honored by two of dear Colonel Richmond’s finest agents."

She was seated in a wheeled chair placed next to a monstrous stone fireplace that covered more than half of the far wall. A large fire was roaring on the hearth, the heat emanating all the way back to the doorway. Well, Artie mused, old people have thin skin and thin blood. Likely she notices the damp chill of these coastal nights… even California could be chilly in the winter, especially once the sun went down. Nonetheless, the room was too warm for his own comfort. With any luck, they would not have to remain long.

"Mrs. Fairbanks," Jim said cordially, bowing slightly from the waist, "we are very honored to meet you. Your husband was one of our nation’s heroes."

"Thank you so much. Please sit down. And would you mind addressing me as Leticia? With two such handsome men in my parlor, I really don’t want to dwell on formalities." She smiled sweetly.

Her hair was snow white, tending to thinness, with some pink scalp showing through. She seemed to be shrunken, wrapped in afghans with a shawl over her shoulders, appearing to possess little corporeal physicality. Any robustness and flesh had withered with the years. Her face, however, though heavily lined by age, displayed the fine bones that suggested beauty at one time. The eyes were bright and blue, evincing none of the confusion that one sometimes saw in a person of her years.

The two men sat down on the sofa across from her, Jim giving his partner a glance when Artemus quickly claimed the side farthest from the hearty flames. Two large logs were on the hearth, so no chance that the fire was going to burn itself down in the near future. Best to get this over with and get out of here before we fall asleep from the heat, Jim decided.

"Mrs. Fairbanks… Leticia… Colonel Richmond indicated you had some information for us. Something important.

"Yes, indeed I do. But nothing that cannot wait while we get acquainted. Ah, here is Katri with our tea. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. I have it imported from India. Almost the only luxury I can allow myself these days. The dear general introduced me to it so many years ago, after he found it during his travels. You know that he was a world traveler."

"Yes, we do," Artie replied, struggling to prevent himself from staring at the blonde Viking who was daintily pouring the steaming amber liquid into cups from a silver teapot. He was sure the pot was silver. Something the old lady could sell for a fancy price, he judged. Sometimes familiar possession were more important than money, especially to the elderly. The cup and saucer he was served was of delicate bone china, decorated in blue forget-me-nots and pink rosebuds, undoubtedly hand-painted, also expensive.

"I hope you’ll forgive me for not offering sugar or lemon," Mrs. Fairbanks smiled rather deprecatingly. "I am so very fond of the flavor of this tea that it hurts me to see it diluted."

"This is fine," Jim said, taking a sip. All they needed was hot tea in the warmth of this room! "Very fine flavor indeed." He took another sip regardless of its hotness. The heat of the room made one thirsty.

"That will be all for now, Katri," the old woman said, almost snappishly, Artie thought. Had she noticed that the young woman had stepped back and kept her eyes on the two visitors? "I’ll ring when you are needed."

"Yes’m." Katri did a neat little curtsy, nodded to the two men, and left the room, closing the door behind her.

"Excellent tea," Artie said, drawing a pleased smile. "You say it is from India?"

"It is blended there. Grown in the hills of China, I believe. An import house in San Francisco obtains it for me. Unfortunately, I cannot enjoy it as often as I would prefer. The expense dictates I must save it for special occasions, such as tonight."

"We’re honored," Jim murmured. He wished the bounds of polite society would allow him to remove his jacket, or at least loosen his collar. The old woman looked cool as a cucumber, swathed in her afghans and shawl, with only a tiny portion of a lace collar appearing at her withered neck. "Can you give us the information you wish us to relay to Colonel Richmond?"

"How is the dear colonel these days? I remember him so well as a young lieutenant. Dashing fellow he was, too. I knew he would go far in the world."

"He’s fine," Artie replied. The heat was beginning to affect his thinking processes. The tea was hot, but it was wet, and soothed his parched-feeling throat. He took another swallow. "We’ll be glad to take whatever message you wish us to deliver."

Jim looked at his partner. Artie’s words sounded odd. Almost slurred. Funny, he even looked slurred. Fuzzy around the edges. This heat is getting to me! Need to get this business done and out into the fresh air! "Yes, that’s true. If you can tell us… tell us…" Jim frowned. Tell us what? What the devil are we doing here? "Artie…"

"Damn it, Jim," Artie cried out in alarm, or tried to. His words came out in a jumble, his suddenly thickened tongue not working properly.

"I knew you’d enjoy my special tea," Leticia cooed somewhere off in the fiery furnace. "Katri!"

WWWW

Artemus Gordon opened his eyes into the chilly darkness. He lay still, staring at the odd sight of something rising and falling within range of his vision. A cold and hard surface was under his cheek, a constant roar in his ears. He started to pull his arms under him, so as to raise up, but something caught at them, prevented him from doing that.

"Damn!"

His wrists were manacled, he realized, as he lifted his head to look around. He was lying on his stomach in the sand, with the pounding surf just yards away, the waves undulating up and down. The chain between the manacles was fastened to a stake buried in the sand, a metal stake with a "cap" on it that would prevent sliding the chain off the top. James West was sprawled on the opposite side.

Artemus scrambled to his knees, drawing closer to the stake to do so, then edged around to get nearer to his partner. "Jim! James! Come on, pal, wake up! We got problems!" He could not quite reach West with his hands because, as he had been, Jim was stretched out at the full length of the chains on his wrists, just out of Artie’s reach. Both, Artie took in, had had their boots removed. The boots with hidden explosives and other tools. Said footwear was in a heap at the base of the high cliffs, yards away and completely out of reach.

Artie twisted himself around and used his stocking-clad foot to nudge his partner’s shoulder. For one long horrendous movement, as Jim lay still and did not respond, Artemus Gordon feared the worst. But then Jim groaned and moved, lifting his head and staring around blearily.

"What…?"

"Jim, wake up. Come on, pal. We have big troubles here."

The cool dampness of the air helped rouse Jim West. As Artie had been, he was surprised by the manacles as he worked himself up onto his knees. "What the devil is this?"

"A diabolical scheme, partner. The tide is coming in. From the looks of those cliffs and the sand around here, the water can get pretty deep, not to mention ferocious, when one considers winter surf in these parts. And when it does, unless we can get loose, we’re going to be going swimming underwater for a long, long while."

"Yeah." Jim noticed his missing boots. "Someone who knows us. But who?" That frail old lady?

Artie shook his head. "We’re not going to find out unless we can free ourselves."

Artemus Gordon grabbed the iron post with both hands to try to dislodge it. "Damn it! It’s in there solid! Could be ten or more feet deep, embedded with a sledgehammer, I’d wager." He touched the blunted top of the post, the moonlight showing the marks of the blows.

Jim moved closer, tried his hand at moving the post. He jerked up on his chains, but the links were stopped by the broader flange at the top. "We’ve got to get it out of there, Artie. It’s our only chance."

"I agree," Gordon said, glancing at the oncoming waves. They were already rolling in closer than just a few minutes ago. He had no idea how much time they had, only that it was running out. "Let’s get at it then."

Their hands were the only available tools, tools hampered by the chains and manacles. After a little practice, the two men settled into a rhythm scooping out the wet sand and throwing it aside, moving the chains concurrently up and down on the post. At least with the sand being as wet as it was, it did not tumble back into the excavation as much as dry sand might have, even though the wetness also worked against their efforts by making the sand more difficult to dig out with their fingers and nails. Periodically they paused, not only for a breath, but to attempt to move the rod. It did not budge.

The waves continued to wash in, nearer and nearer. In Artie’s ears, their crash against the shore was as loud as any dynamite he had ever heard. Through the waves he could hear the mournful howl of a foghorn, which meant the ever-persistent fog in this part of the coast was likely out over the ocean, would be rolling in toward the land soon. Not that it made much difference at this point.

Neither man had attempted or even thought of yelling for help. Each knew innately that this small beach, probably not more than a hundred yards long and fifty feet deep, was in a remote area, nowhere near anyone who could offer assistance. Yelling would be a waste of time, energy, and breath. No ready access to the cliff top, such as a ladder, was visible, which meant that the rocks remained to be scaled even if they should be successful in freeing themselves.

The shock of the cold water on his toes caused James West to dig more frantically. He was no seaman, had never even spent much time fishing in the ocean, but he knew that tides could be unpredictable, at least to the inexperienced. A true sailor might be able to discern how fast this one was going to rise, how strong the surf would be, whether it would indeed cover the beach all the way to the cliffs. Being winter, that was all the more likely. All Jim knew was that they were in danger, as serious a danger that they had ever been in. Someone had planned well. Someone wanted them to die, and probably preferred them to be awake when death sought them.

All manner of questions coursed through his mind as he worked, but now was not the time to ask them, let alone seek answers. All would be moot if they drowned here. The next wave lapped completely over his foot and leg, and Jim saw that the same was happening to Artie. They dug faster, or as fast as they could with the chains that hampered their movements. The deeper they got, the more problems the manacles caused as they were required to slide the links further up and down the bared portion of the pole while lying on their stomachs.

Artemus suddenly rose to his knees, sitting back on his heels as he lifted his sandy hands to wipe his sleeve across his damp brow. "Damn, Jim, we’re not going to make it!"

"We have to! Come on, pal! Dig!"

"We’re going to need some help," Artie said firmly, "and I think we’re going to have to rely on Neptune."

"What?" Now Jim halted his efforts, staring up at his friend, who was gazing at the rapidly oncoming waves.

"Jim, the water may help loosen the pole by loosening the sand, once it gets to the hole we dug."

West shook his head. "We can’t rely on that."

"I know. I know! But Jim… we aren’t going to budge this damn thing. I don’t know how much deeper we need to go, but I’d say at least two or three feet. It’s like cement down there. With these manacles on, I don’t know if that’s possible."

James West did not want to admit defeat. "Artie…"

"We keep digging as far as we can, Jim. But we’re not going to beat the waves. We have to hope that I’m right, that once the water hits the hole, it will loosen the sand down there enough."

"The waves are getting pretty big. We might not be able to withstand the force."

"Together we can, pal," Artie said firmly. "Together. One way or another." He extended his manacled right hand.

Jim gripped that hand with his own for a moment, smiling as he felt the gritty sand on their skins. "One way or another, pal. Come on, old man Neptune! We need your help. Only don’t kill us with kindness!"

They continued to dig, laying back down on their stomachs to reach down into the hole, sliding their chains down, and then up again. The coordination of the movement up and down was almost as important as the quantity of sand they were able to scoop out and lift up. The water sloshed at their legs, then their sides, cold and gritty with sand, occasionally washing in some kelp that caught on their limbs. Artie felt the current tugging at his soggy socks as it moved out toward the sea again. You can have my socks, Neptune. Just give us a little hand here.

When the first wave flowed into the hole, Jim experienced a spasm of dismay as he viewed how the force of the water pushed some of the now loose sand they had so agonizingly removed back into the hole. Digging was not possible now. If they remained on their stomachs, for one thing, the water would be breaking over their heads.

So they sat up, facing each other, grasping the pole with both hands, one atop the other. No words were needed as they began to push and pull on the pole. More waves crashed in, slapping against their bodies, almost knocking them over, evidencing the power of the ocean. At Artie’s suggestion, they locked their legs against one another and continued to work on the pole. Pushing, pulling, pushing, pulling.

Jim was just about to scream in frustration when a wave slammed into him, knocking him over, strong enough that even their interlocked legs did not help. He heard Artie’s yell, but then both realized, first, that the pole itself was going to prevent either of them from washing away, and more importantly, that wave, possibly in combination the weight of Jim’s body pulling against it, had caused the pole to move.

With a cry of excitement, Artie threw himself into it as Jim righted himself and joined. Another wave hit, this time he was ready for it, as was Gordon, both only by the hardest staying erect, hanging onto the pole. The waves were driving well passed them now, toward the cliffs, and not receding quite as far. Both were aware that within minutes they could be sitting in it, surrounded by, perhaps overwhelmed by, the moving water, the force of which would make it all the more difficult to maneuver the post.

"It’s coming, it’s coming!" Artie shrieked triumphantly.

And indeed it was. Battling against the waves, both men got to their knees, then to their feet, lifting the pole out of the sand. A large wave knocked them both down as they struggled to slide the chains off the other end. Finally they were free of the post, but another battle was yet to be waged, one against the power of the sea. Grabbing each other for support, soggy and cold, they staggered, stumbling to their knees a couple of times, through the powerful current toward the cliffs.

The water had not quite reached their discarded boots. By tacit consent, both sat down and tugged the footwear on over their wet feet, not an easy task. Ascending the cliffs shod was going to be easier than attempting to scale it barefooted. Climbing the nearly shear wall was not going to be easy in any case. But it had to be accomplished. Before long those waves would be crashing against the rocks, and likely hurling them with it if they were not out of reach.

Using his hands as a stirrup for Jim’s foot, Artie gave his partner a boost up to a projecting rock, where Jim steadied himself before reaching down to pull Artemus up near him. From then on, it was pretty much hand over hand, seeking rocks for handholds and footholds. Below them the angry ocean collided against the cliff, strong enough that they could feel the reverberation in the stones they were pressed against.

The cliffs were probably forty or fifty feet high, but felt like forty or fifty miles to the two exhausted men who threw themselves on the grassy surface at the top. For several long minutes, both lay still, breathing deeply, giving their thanks to whatever powers had assisted them. Finally Jim sat up, looking at his hands in the moonlight. Sand and dirt mixed with the blood oozing from the scrapes and scratches. Some fresh water to wash them off would be nice, but he was not complaining.

"You okay, pal?" he asked his prone partner.

Artie rolled over and sat up as well. "Damn, Jim. That was…" He could not say it. He could almost feel the cold water closing around his head, stifling his breath. Even while climbing the cliff, a couple of times a foot or hand had threatened to slip loose to hurl him down in to the churning water.

"Yeah."

"I just have two questions, James," Artie said after a moment. "Where are we, who the hell was that old woman, and why did she do this?"

"That’s three questions," Jim pointed out sardonically. But he shook his head, then looked around. "My guess is we’re on the Marin coast. Maybe a little further north." A broad field extended behind them. He could see the dark shadows of some cattle at the far side. "Civilization is around somewhere. We just have to find it. And getting ourselves moving might not be a bad idea. I’m cold." Not to mention wet and tired and without weapons, which had been removed from the holsters located under their jackets. Pretty much all they had was the explosive putty in his boot heels.

"You and me both." Artie staggered to his feet, pausing a moment with his hands on his knees to regain his balance. Funny, it was almost the same as stepping off a ship, where one felt as though the ground continued to sway as the ship’s deck had on the sea. "Oh, one other thing, pal. I told you so."

Jim laughed, and it turned into a shiver as a cold ocean breeze struck his damp clothes and hair. The fog was out there now. He could see the massive bank of it shining in the moonlight. Before long, the fog would close off the moon and lower the nighttime temperatures.

They started out across the field, slowly at first, but picking up the pace as their muscles loosened and warmed. The small herd of milk cows gazed at them curiously but did not move. At the far side of the meadow they found a fence, a gate, a path which they followed. Eventually it led them to a sturdy farmhouse, lights gleaming at this early hour of the morning. This was a farmer’s home, after all. Labor did not always wait for the rising sun.

A lot of talking was required to convince the German farmer that they were not thieves or vandals pounding on the door. Both agents were grateful that they still possessed their identification, soggy as it was. Artemus’s proficiency with the German language helped as well. In the end, the farmer’s wife served them breakfast while drying their damp coats in front of the stove. She also daubed a pungent salve on their damaged hands. Afterwards, her husband drove them to the nearest town in his wagon, where they were able to hire a couple of horses.

"You know," Artie commented as they rode along a narrow road that would take them back to the old house, "someone planned this well. I have a suspicion that our horses will be turned loose, to be found eventually. Could be our… unknown friend… planned to go to the beach later and remove the manacles before tossing our bodies into the sea. By the time we washed up, little would have remained of the scars the cuffs might have caused on our wrists."

"You have such pleasant thoughts, Artie," Jim responded, shaking his head. "But you’re undoubtedly right. Our deaths might have remained a mystery, with all sorts of speculation whether it had been accidental or deliberate. No bullet holes, no crushed skulls. Who could say?"

"Which brings back two of my questions. Who the devil was that old lady? Why did she do this?"

"She could well be Leticia Fairbanks," Jim said. "She didn’t seemed demented, but who knows. Some perceived grudge against the colonel? Something dating back to her husband’s service? Hard to believe. Colonel Richmond always spoke warmly about his former commanding officer."

"One thing is certain. She had help, and more than just the lovely Katri could provide."

"Yeah, Katri’s obviously no delicate flower, but I can’t see her wielding the sledge hammer needed to drive that pole into the ground through the chain links."

"Someone—someone male most likely—carried us down that cliff." Artemus knew they were pretty much talking to be talking, but oftentimes doing this helped clarify their thinking.

They left the rented horses a quarter mile from the house, and approached on foot. To their amazement, as they neared the big iron fence they could see their own horses grazing in the yard. The steeds had been untied from the iron post where Jim and Artemus had secured them last night before entering the house. The gate was now closed, though one side still hung precariously from the lower hinge; it was not locked.

"That’s interesting," Artie murmured as they ducked behind a bush of wild lilacs at the roadside.

"Yeah, but interesting how? Are the dear lady and her lovely servant still inside? Or did they merely loosen the horses out of the kindness of their hearts, being the dedicated animal lovers they are, before departing the premises."

"If that’s the case, they sure weren’t worried about being suspects in our deaths!" Artemus leaned back slightly, peering left and right. "Wonder what’s around back?"

"Let’s go see."

They were soon apprised that the tall iron fence circumscribed the entire house, enclosing a stables and several other smaller buildings. They also found out that the gate at the rear was stronger than the one in front, as well as being locked securely with strong chains. After a few minutes of discussion, both agreed they would be better off scaling the fence in the rear rather than boldly enter through the front.

"After all," Artie pointed out with a wry grin, "how much more damage can we do to our frocks now?"

Fortunately, this fence did not possess the spikes at the top as some similar fences did, whether for decoration or protection. They did discover, however, just how sore the night’s exertions had left them, especially their battered hands. Making it safely to the other side, both men immediately crouched behind a hedge that separated the house from the outer buildings. The hedge, like the other vegetation, was overgrown, thus providing excellent protection.

"I don’t see anything," Jim said after a long moment.

"Whatever that means."

"Yeah. Got to believe that if someone was still in there, the horses wouldn’t be out front."

"I agree. I’m wishing now we’d come in the front and got the spare weapons from the saddlebags… if they are still there."

"I wouldn’t be surprised that they are," Jim said, "maybe even the ones taken from us last night. That would serve to confuse the authorities when the horses were found wherever they planned to leave them."

"It confuses me!" Artemus cracked.

At a nod from Jim, the two men both rose and ran toward the back door of the house, which opened into a kitchen. The room resembled what they had viewed last night, in terrible disrepair but having once been a state-of-the-art workroom for a cook and other servants. Artemus went to the big iron stove, put his hand on the metal, then lifted one of the grates.

"Still some warm coals. This is where that delicious imported tea was brewed."

"Yeah." Jim went to the swinging door that connected the kitchen to the next room, pushing it open just enough to see the shrouded forms of tables and chairs. No sound emanated from anywhere in the house. "I think it’s all ours, Artie."

And it was. They searched from top to bottom, from the dusty attic down to the spider-web-infested cellar down below. Their capes and hats were still hanging in the hallway near the door. Although they saw signs of recent habitation, no actual persons were spotted, nor any real clues, unless one counted the silver teapot and the delicate porcelain cups that were still in the parlor. The embers in that fireplace were still glowing.

"I suppose the heat was to cause us to drink more tea," Jim mused. The cup where he had been sitting was on its side on the floor, a damp spot under it. Artemus, it appeared, had been able to place his cup and saucer back on the small table beside his seat before falling unconscious. The cup still contained cold tea.

"I would say so, though I would have thought that having it extra chilly in here would have served the purpose even better. Maybe something in the tea, combined with the heat, was designed to cause us to drink more." Artie picked up his used cup, sniffed at it. "I don’t smell anything, but I think it would be a good idea to find something to put this tea in to have analyzed."

"Who the devil was she?" Jim murmured, looking around. He could see marks on the carpet where the wheeled chair had been moved. The chair itself was not in sight. "Why would an old lady like that want to kill us? Or at least be complicit in the scheme?"

"Leticia Fairbanks," Artie said. "Presumably the window of the colonel’s former commander. I think he’s going to want to know about this. And maybe he has some useful information."

California gal
SS senior field agent

USA
8381 Posts

Posted - 07/10/2007 :  08:04:40  Show Profile
WWWWWW

Useful information was indeed waiting for them back at their hotel in the city, in the form of a telegram from Colonel Richmond. They had stopped in the nearest small town to the old house, the village of Petaluma, to talk to a white-haired constable, who informed them that as far as he knew, the old Hawthorne place was deserted, and had been for nigh onto ten years. Old man Hawthorne had died intestate, leaving several distant kin to wage a battle that was still ongoing.

When Artemus expressed surprise that the place was relatively intact, with the furniture and other possessions not having been vandalized or stolen, the constable chuckled. "That’s because it’s ha’nted. No one will go near the place, day or night." He peered at the disheveled men. "You didn’t have a few too many and wander in there, did you?"

They paid a youth the constable recommended to take the two rented horses back to the stable near the German farmer’s home, then rode on to San Francisco, arriving near noon, weary and hungry. Breakfast, though substantial, had been a long while ago. The telegram from Colonel Richmond forestalled immediate plans for rest and restoration.

"Learned Mrs. Fairbanks died weeks ago. Might be some sort of trap. Stay away."

"Great," Artemus sighed, shaking his head. The clerk had told them the message had been delivered last night literally within minutes after their departure. Those few minute had nearly meant their lives.

After asking for baths to be readied, the two agents went up to their rooms, obtained fresh clothes, and then spent the next hour or so luxuriating in the hot water that laved away the encrusted salt and sand. By pre-arrangement, James and Artemus met in the hotel dining room. Artie had the small bottle they had found to carry the tea.

"We drop this off, then… what?" Artie asked after their meal order had been placed with the waiter.

"I think we need to go back to the old house."

"What? Why?"

"Artie, remember your idea that whoever arranged this planned to go back to the beach, free our corpses to give them a burial at sea? Presumably, those folks have returned to the scene of the crime and found we escaped. In fact, if we had been in condition to realize that early this morning…"

"We might have nabbed them when they returned to the house," Artie sighed. Jim was right though. They had been too exhausted and cold to be thinking clearly this morning. "You really think they’ll return to the house? What are you looking for?"

Jim had been gazing around the fairly crowded dining room. "Just thinking. They could be here, and we wouldn’t know it."

"You do have such pleasant thoughts." Artie could not help but look about him as well. He saw well-dressed guests of the hotel, along with citizens who simply patronized the establishment because of its reputation for good food. Ordinary people. He saw no one leering in their direction, although he did spot one handsome woman several tables behind Jim, looking their way with some interest. That did not make her a criminal! Plus, she certainly was not old Mrs. Fairbanks.

"We didn’t go over the house as thoroughly as we could have," Jim went on after their soup was placed before them. "Whether or not the culprits return there, it’s still possible they left something of interest."

Artemus Gordon was doubtful. "Maybe. I’d argue more forcefully, but frankly, I don't know where else to start! I suppose we could ask neighbors what they saw, if anything."

"In case you did not notice, no other residences were within a quarter mile of the place, maybe further." Jim spooned some of the excellent clam chowder into his mouth.

"Wonder if the Hawthorne holdings encompass all that surrounding land, or if the ghostly reputation has prevented anyone from settling there. Still, it may be worthwhile to ask. After all, they hauled us out to the beach—presumably in a wagon—in the middle of the night."

"You’re right, as usual. All right, you can cozy up to the neighbors. I’ll…"

Both looked up, abruptly conscious that someone had stopped by their table. Artemus instantly recognized the woman he had seen gazing their way. She was in her thirties, he judged, and more than lovely, with dark golden hair and clear blue eyes, of a rather petite stature, and attired in a gown that Artie recognized as being of the latest mode and not inexpensive. Both men got to their feet.

The woman smiled rather apologetically. "Please forgive me for my boldness. I don’t usually do such a thing. But are you James West and Artemus Gordon?"

"We are," Jim replied. "Is there something we can do for you?" Extremely handsome woman. The kid gloves she wore disguised whether or not she wore a wedding ring.

"I believe you knew my late husband, Captain Philip Herron."

The two agents exchanged glances and Artie spoke, "Indeed we did, Mrs. Herron. He was a very good friend of ours. We were both saddened to hear of his death three years ago. Accept our belated condolences."

"Thank you. I do miss him, but time heals… to some extent. Are you here in San Francisco on business?"

"Just passing through pretty much," Jim replied pleasantly.

"Then you’re not going to be here long? I was hoping… well, I have rented a home south of here, near Pacifica, and I’m having a dinner tomorrow evening. Just a few friends. I would be so honored if you two could be there. It would be lovely to talk about Philip. He never told me much about his military service. I have his medals, so I know he was quite gallant."

"He was, to be certain," Artemus assured her. "In fact, he saved my life at Cold Harbor. You know, Jim, we really don’t have to hurry back to Washington."

"I was thinking the same thing," Jim said with a smile. "Mrs. Herron, we would be delighted."

"I’m so pleased." The lady spent a few minutes giving them directions to her home, then offered her hand to each, smiling warmly. "It will almost be as though Philip had come back to me."

"Funny," Artemus Gordon said softly as they watched the woman join two men who were waiting for her near the restaurant’s entrance, the men Artie had seen seated at her table, "I remember Phil as being closemouthed, but I really never got the idea he was married."

Jim shrugged as a waiter swept away their empty bowls to place the steaming entrées before them. "Maybe he wasn’t. Could have married after the war. When did we see him last?"

Artie thought a moment as he cut into his prime rib. "About a year after Appomattox. At Fort Laramie, I believe."

"I think you are right. That was five, six years ago. Anything could have happened. I never saw the obituary, just heard about his death. Typhoid, as I recall."

"Yes. I suppose you are right. Fine looking woman. Looks like the kind of woman Phil would have chosen." Yet Artemus could not divest himself of an apprehensive feeling. Just like last night when they had approached the old house. No "ha’nts" involved here. A lovely woman invited them to a fete at her home. They could use some relaxation after last night’s experience. Settle down, Artemus. Stop looking for trouble! Not everyone is out to murder you. Nevertheless, the feeling persisted.

Finishing the meal, the two agents procured their horses from the hotel stable, and after making one stop to leave the tea sample with a trusted chemist, headed north again. Upon reaching the area of the house, they stopped to talk to residents of farms in the general area. One man stated he had indeed heard a wagon in the wee hours, but because it passed on by, he had not gotten out of bed to see who it was. No, he had not seen anyone around the old Hawthorne place. No one ever went there. Place was haunted, you see. The man winked as he said this to let them know he didn’t really believe in ghosts himself.

"Something occurred to me," Artemus said as they approached the old mansion once more.

"What’s that?"

"I’m sure it’s just an odd coincidence, but… think of this. Colonel Richmond thought he heard from an old, old friend, Mrs. Fairbanks, the widow of a member of his regiment. The widow of his commanding officer, actually."

"So?"

"So, not long afterwards, we are approached by the widow of an old friend of ours, a member of our regiment."

"Coincidence, Artie. I can’t see any connection. Mrs. Herron has fifty or so years to go before she reaches Mrs. Fairbanks’ age. At least the Mrs. Fairbanks we met. Actually, the only similarity is they both have blue eyes."

"And both of petite stature," Artemus reminded his partner. "Jim, I’m sorry to keep harping on this, but it’s this gut feeling. You know about my gut feelings."

"I think you should try taking bicarbonate of soda more often." James West did not want to admit that his partner’s worries were affecting him. He knew all too well how on-target Artemus Gordon’s intuitive feelings often were. He had been wrong as times. Nevertheless, when he was right, he was spectacularly right, as last night.

Yet comparing the comparatively youthful Mrs. Herron to the old lady of last night bordered on paranoia as far as Jim was concerned. Despite that Phil had never informed him of his marriage, that did not mean it had not occurred. He was going to need more proof before suspecting that handsome younger woman of foul deeds.

As before, they approached the Hawthorne house cautiously. The first thing noticed was that the front gate now stood open. That was enough for them to dismount and walk toward the house with guns drawn, all senses alert. On the porch, they stood at either side of the door, Artie reached over to grasp the latch to push the door open, remaining to the side. Nothing happened.

As soon as they stepped inside both men recognized the odor. The odor of death. Wordless, they began checking rooms. Artemus opened the door to the parlor. "In here, Jim. My God!"

Jim sprinted down the hall, halted in the open doorway. Artemus was on one knee beside the body of the lovely Katri. She was no longer attired in the maid’s uniform, but the bodice of the pale blue gown she now wore was gory with her own blood. Blue eyes stared sightlessly toward the ceiling.

"Throat cut," Gordon said grimly, standing up.

"Why?" Jim murmured, stepping further into the room now. "Why would they kill her?"

"Who knows? I think we are dealing with some extremely dangerous people, Jim. The method they tried on us last night was not exactly humane. I’m thinking they are also determined, and nothing and no one is going to stand in their way."

"Meaning that somehow poor Katri became a liability?"

"Who knows?" Artie repeated, shrugging. "I’d like to say she was an innocent party, but I got the idea last night she knew all about the ‘special tea’ to be served. We may not know until we run ‘em down. I’d say she’s been dead three or four hours. Happened around midmorning… some time after we were here."

"And none of the neighbors we’ve talked to thus far saw anyone." Jim expended a harsh breath. "Let’s check the house thoroughly again, then go report this to the constable and get a doctor or coroner out here. Maybe someone in town saw Katri and whoever she was with."

The constable and the doctor-coroner returned to the house with them, both expressing horror and outrage before they viewed the corpse, and even more after they saw the youth and beauty of the victim. Neither had any recollection of ever seeing her previously, and as the constable stated sadly, she did not look to be a woman that one would easily forget. The doctor quickly confirmed Artemus’s estimation of the time of death. They used a sheet to transport poor Katri out to the doctor’s wagon, then the three law officers spent more time scouring the house, all to no avail. Nothing remotely resembling a strong clue to the murderers was to be found.

A couple of fruitless hours were then spent talking to neighbors all around the area. One more woman claimed to have heard the wagon in the middle of the night, this time returning toward the house. But absolutely no one could remember seeing anyone, let alone strangers, in or near the Hawthorne house. Most admitted that they avoided the place, day or night. A couple claimed that in past years they had been among those who witnessed the activity of spirits within the old walls, another reason to shun the environs.

The early darkness of winter had settled in by the time the two men reached their San Francisco hotel. Artie mentioned that they should send a telegram to the colonel. He would write it as they ate supper.

"I’m too tired to eat, pal," Jim sighed as they paused in the lobby. "I think I’ll just go up to bed."

"Good lord, man, it’s not even seven!" Artie grinned with the admonition. He was weary himself.

"I know, I know. I may not even sleep, but laying on that bed sounds too damn tempting. You mind?"

"No. I’ll probably just get a bowl of soup myself and hit the sack. I will write the telegram though and arrange for it to be sent. Maybe we can get an early start in the morning, even find out some things, before heading south for the dinner party."

"Huh, almost forgot about that. Another reason to get a good night’s rest. Last night’s enforced sleep was not very restorative."

Artemus laughed and patted his friend on the shoulder, then headed for the desk to ask for some writing paper. Jim went to the stairs, thankful that their rooms were on the second floor. Another hot bath would feel good on his aching muscles, but he was too tired to even consider that.

He had just gained the second floor when a woman emerged from a room near the top of the stairs. Courtesy bade Jim to pause, and he touched his hat. She was well dressed in a fine green gown that set off the green of her eyes, the fiery copper of her hair. Hair that was barely confined by combs and pomades into a stylish up-do. In her middle twenties, he judged. A very lovely woman with a slightly snubbed nose and a generous, sensuous mouth.

Jim turned to watch her descend the stairs, vaguely disturbed. He wondered if his vanity was injured. She had barely glanced at him, in fact, had seemed somewhat startled to see him there. However, she rushed on by him without acknowledging his salute.

Could be she was meeting someone in the dining room. The fact that she left her room without a cloak or any sort of outer clothing would indicate she was not leaving the hotel. Maybe he should got get that bowl of soup after all…

With an audible sigh, Jim shook his head and went on to his room. Just because a pretty woman snubbed him did not mean he had to chase after her. Likely that someone she was meeting was her husband. Lucky man.

He smiled as he entered the room. Hell, she might be as wild as that hair. Mean tempered too. She just… again he shook his head, starting to pull off his clothes. He could not think of another time in his life when a single glance had been like a blow to solar plexus. Probably another good reason not to pursue her. Many women had been in his life, women who came and went. That was the way he liked it. That was the way it needed to be in his line of work.

This time, he told himself as he undressed in the dark, leave the women aside. He was going to have to watch himself with Mrs. Herron. Perhaps vanity was involved again, but he was fairly certain the officer’s widow had looked upon him with interest. Alice Herron was not as young and pretty as the redhead, but damned attractive. And experienced.

Damn!

Jim West threw himself on the bed, realizing he was still resisting the urge to go to the dining room, if only to see who the redhead met. He could ask Artie later but… You don’t have to conquer every woman you meet, James. Was that really it? Injured pride? Bruised vanity? He soon became aware that unless he got that green-eyed woman out of his thoughts, he was not going to get much rest tonight.

WWWWWW

Artemus Gordon was not overly surprised when Jim did not respond to his knock the next morning. His partner had gone to bed earlier, so probably also roused earlier. He found James West in the dining room, nursing a cup of coffee.

"About time you woke up, sleepyhead," Jim greeted, waving to the waiter.

"You could have awakened me."

"Wanted to be sure you got your beauty sleep. How do you feel?"

Artie nodded his thanks to the waiter who placed a cup of coffee in front of him, and asked for a plate of ham and eggs, which Jim seconded. "Rested. Still sore. My hands especially. Look like hell to be going to a fancy dinner party." He held up his scratched and bruised hands.

"Know what you mean. Suppose we could wear gloves the entire time?"

"Boxing gloves, perhaps," Gordon replied, eyeing his partner.

Jim knew that look. "What does that mean?"

"Means that when I wrote to the colonel last night, I asked him about Phil Herron’s widow. A response was waiting for me at the desk just now." He reached into his jacket pocket to withdraw a yellow envelope which he handed to Jim.

"I don’t suppose I even need to read it. Phil didn’t leave a widow, right?"

"Give that man a big fat cigar."

"Then who the hell is she, and why did she make up this story?"Artemus was right once again. When will I learn to trust his gut feelings?

"Jim, if I knew that… Who are you looking for?"

James West blinked. "What?"

"You keep looking around the dining room. You think dear Mrs. Herron will be returning?"

"No. I’m just… looking. Did the colonel say anything else that I should know about?" He handed the envelope back to his partner.

"Only that we have his permission to stick around and find out what it all about. As if we were going to head home anyway before learning who the devil tried to kill us in such a nefarious manner."

The platters of food were brought to their table, but Artemus saw how his partner’s greenish eyes continued to scan the dining room, especially looking up with each new entrant. Jim had selected a table—and took the chair—which afforded him an excellent view of the room and the door. Artie wondered if he was also seeing disappointment in those eyes.

"Next question," Gordon said as he slathered butter on his warm biscuit, "do we attend the soiree in Pacifica anyway?"

"Of course. How else are we going to learn what Alice is up to."

Artie sighed. "You know I was hoping for a different answer."

"No you weren’t. Then again, if we don’t show up, she’s liable to come looking for us anyway."

"I prefer action rather than reaction. We’ll go. I believe there’s a train to Pacifica. Too bad our car is still in Sacramento being refurbished."

"We’ll just have to ride with the common folk," Jim said, his eyes again going toward the door.

"Who the devil are you looking for?"

"No one." Jim looked at his partner. He knew he was not going to get away with feigned disinterest. "You didn’t happen to notice a pretty redhead in here last evening while you ate."

"No, not that I can recall."

"You sure?"

"James, if a pretty redhead was within a hundred miles, don’t you think I would have noticed? Who is she?"

"No one. I mean, I got a glance at her upstairs when I went to my room last night. Was just… curious. Hair like fire, eyes like emeralds."

"A glance, huh? Did you ask the clerk at the desk?"

"Yeah. But he’s been off duty the last three days and doesn’t know all the current guests. It’s not important."

Artemus knew better, but did not pursue it. James West always had an eye for the pretty women in the vicinity, and he usually never had any problem attracting interest, and more. Neither man was apt to be lonely if he did not want to. Yesterday they had arrived in the city, contacted two women they had known from another visit, lining up appointments immediately and without difficulty. Even though they had had to cancel last night, both the women had assured Jim and Artemus that they would be awaiting a call.

Be interesting to find out who this redhead was and how she had caught Jim West’s attention to the point where every person entering the dining room who was not her caused West’s face to display deeper and deeper disappointment.

Before leaving the hotel, they turned their evening clothes over to the concierge for refreshing. These outfits had been brought with them on the assignment just finished because they had been required to attend a diplomatic function in Seattle. Neither had believed they would be needing the attire again before returning to Washington City.

The chemist confirmed what they already knew: the tea contained a strong opiate that would render a grown man unconscious within minutes. He was still in the process of determining the structure of the compound. The tea, he said, was rather ordinary. The drug gave it a distinctive flavor.

"You know," Artie commented as they went back to their horses, "I could have sworn that the old lady drank some too, and it all came from the same pot."

"Yeah. Then again, it never occurred to me that that sweet old gal was anything than what she said she was. I was not watching her that closely. All I wanted was to find out what she wanted and get out of that heat." He glanced up at the overcast sky. "We might run into some rain today."

"Noticed that."

Their next stop was the telegraph office where they sent a query to the police in Pacifica, the small coastal town south of San Francisco, asking the operator to deliver any response to their hotel. If "Mrs. Herron" was a relative stranger in town, very likely the police knew about her arrival. Whether they would have any other information remained to be seen.

Halfway toward the wilds of Marin, the rain came, lightly at first but soon pelted down. An accompanying strong wind drove the rain into the men, and moisture trickled under the neck of the slickers they donned. Both men were happy to accept the offer of hot coffee from the constable when they arrived at his little office.

The constable reported he had been asking a lot more questions, and had come up with a bit of information, though he was unsure how important it was. The attorney in charge of the Hawthorne estate, who lived here in town and whose office was right across the way, stated that he had had an inquiry from a gentleman who wanted to see the old house, with the idea of perhaps purchasing it. Thinking that because the prospect of a quick sale might cause the heirs to settle down and simply split the money, permission was granted. However, the man never returned to speak to the lawyer. This had been several days ago.

"A man," Artemus murmured, sipping the wonderfully hot and rich coffee. Every swallow caused warmth to flow through his soul. Seemed like he had been cold and wet an awful lot of late! "We figure at least one man was involved, although we did not see any. Got a name and description?"

The constable went to the front window of his office and peered out. "There’s a light in Henry Lewis’s office across the street. He’s the lawyer, want to go talk to him?"

Though they hated leaving the warm and dry office, and most particularly the coffee, West and Gordon dashed across the street to the attorney’s office. Mr. Lewis greeted them warmly but did not offer coffee. He expressed his bafflement about what was going on. "Mr. Wells seemed like a fine man."

"Wells?" Jim echoed. "That was his name?"

"Arthur Wells. From down in Los Angeles he said. Said he made some money in real estate down there, but preferred living in this area. He was hoping that the Hawthorne place would be one he could fix up for his family. Said he had three children. Seems really nice, too. Honest sort."

"What did he look like?" Artemus inquired.

"Kind of a big fellow. Burly, I guess is the word. Looked like he enjoyed his meals if you know what I mean. Probably a little taller than you, Mr. Gordon. Sported a big, dark brown mustache, but not much hair on top. Well dressed. I took him for a gentleman."

The barrister was unable to tell them much more. Wells had not returned to the office with the key he had been given. Lewis had been initially concerned that the potential buyer had met with an accident at the old house, and had gone out there to check. He found no one, nor any damage done. He was unable to offer an explanation, other than possibly Mr. Wells had decided he was not interested and also was not the gentleman Lewis had imagined him to be.

After sending a telegram to the field office in the Los Angeles district for information on "Arthur Wells," the two agents rode out to the house again, not expecting to find anything, and proving themselves correct. Nothing indicated that anyone had entered the house since the body of Katri had been taken away. The constable said that he had been unable to learn anything about the deceased, so the county was prepared to bury her. Plainly "Wells" had obtained the key for "Leticia" to enable her to perform the charade that had trapped the agents.

At least the long ride back to San Francisco was relatively dry, the rain having let up. The desk clerk had the train schedule for Pacifica, and also promised to have a hack ready at the door to take them to the railroad station. A telegraph message from the authorities in Pacifica stated that Mrs. Herron had rented the home there for almost a month, and was respected in the community, if not well known. Another response had come from Los Angeles with unsurprising information: the agent had no information on anyone named Arthur Wells, but would continue checking. Nothing left to do but prepare for the evening, which promised to be more than a little interesting.

After baths and a change into their evening attire, and they boarded the hack which conveyed them to the depot. On the relatively short ride down the coast, they talked a bit about their plans for the evening. Most importantly, to be alert and on guard. Alice Herron was not who she said she was, but who was she? They did not even know for one hundred percent certainty that she had been involved in the insidious attempt to drown them. Intuition suggested yes, but they would need more than that.

The rain started again as the hack they hired at the Pacifica depot headed toward the home of Alice Herron. The driver did not need to ask directions. He simply nodded and smiled his approval.

"Seems Mrs. Herron has done well here," Artemus commented, trying to adjust the mica curtain so that water would stay outside the closed carriage.

"Appears so," Jim agreed. "Because she is a fine, upstanding lady, or because she went out of her way to present that appearance?"

"We may well find out tonight, pal." Artie patted his side, feeling the comfort of the pistol holstered under his arm. Other weapons were, as usual, on his body. Being prepared was always preferable to being dead. They had erred the other night, and had no plans to be surprised again.

By the time the carriage pulled up in front of the surprisingly modest home situated on a cliff overlooking the storm-tossed ocean, the rain was pelting down, the wind howling. The two men paid the driver, asking him to return in three hours, then dashed for the porch of the house, which at least offered a bit of refuge.

Artie used the doorknocker, and a moment later, James West stared, dumbfounded. The uniformed maid who opened the door was the woman he had seen in the hotel! Or at least sure as the devil looked like her.

"Good evening, gentlemen," she greeted courteously, displaying no signs that she recognized him. "Please come in."

Artemus Gordon noticed his partner’s distracted state as they peeled off their damp cloaks and handed them along with their hats to the pretty, red-haired maid. Jim could not seem to take his eyes off the woman. However, the green-eyed servant treated them with cool efficiency as she escorted them through a doorway into a fine parlor where a fire was warming and several people waited.

One of course was "Alice Herron," splendidly gowned in dark red satin with what appeared to be rubies at her neck and earlobes. She came forward, extending a hand to each of them, warm smile on her lovely face.

"I’m so glad you made it. I would apologize for the weather if I had anything to do with it! Unfortunately, I do not. Please come and meet my other guests. Cinnia, you may tell cook we’ll be sitting down to eat in fifteen minutes."

The redhead curtsied neatly. "Yes, ma’am."

Jim found he could barely concentrate on what the hostess was saying as she introduced the others in the room, all men, three of them. Seemed she was going to be the only woman at the table. But his mind was not on that societal incongruity. What the hell was that redhead doing here working as a maid? The gown he had seen her wearing last night was hardly something that could have been purchased with a servant’s salary. For that matter, the rates at that particular hotel should have been out of reach as well!

James: Thanks, Artie.
Artemus: "Thanks Artie"! Is that all you can say to me? I've just come back from the grave, risen like Lazarus, and that's what you say? "Thanks, Artie"?
James: Thanks, Artie.
Artemus: It's a pleasure.
- TNOT Pistoleros
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California gal
SS senior field agent

USA
8381 Posts

Posted - 07/10/2007 :  08:06:30  Show Profile
One of the three male guests was a large man, could possibly be considered burly. However, he had a head of curly blond hair and was clean shaven. His name was Orson Crawford, and Mrs. Herron introduced him as her cousin from Washington State, an accountant. A second man was much younger, perhaps not yet twenty-five, a slender fellow with cold, slate-blue eyes and straight dark hair. Of the three, he seemed the most uncomfortable in evening dress. He was, according to the lady, Mr. Crawford’s assistant, name of Ben Edmonds.

Artemus glanced at his partner as the third man was introduced. He saw at once that Jim’s mind was not on the business at hand, and that he might not be recognizing the man they had known some years ago as the Paso Kid. A lanky fellow with wide shoulders out of proportion with the thinness of his body, narrow brown eyes and thinning dark hair. His name was given as Harold Painter, which was not his birth name, Gordon knew. Noting how the Paso Kid eyed both of them, Artie did his best to not reveal recognition.

James West took another look toward the door that the redhead had exited—Cinnia? What a name! He knew he had to stop obsessing about the woman. He was being ridiculous, and even adolescent. He forced himself to concentrate on the task at hand, to acknowledge the introductions, and to not allow the Paso Kid to realize he had been recognized.

Odd, he considered as their hostess led them into the next room where a long table was splendidly arrayed with fine china, crystal, and silver place settings, a bowl of roses in the center. Jim had attended many dinners like this, sometimes in the line of duty, sometimes not. He could not recall another one where the men outnumbered the women five to one. Nor did "Alice" make any excuses, such as saying that the weather had caused someone to cancel plans. Jim suspected that the actual guest list was two: himself and Artemus Gordon.

He and his partner were seated opposite each other at either side of Alice. She kept up a running conversation, asking about their journey down from the city, mentioning the play she had attended the night she saw them at the hotel, and other light subjects. Never once did she bring up her late husband, which she had stated would be the prime topic that she wanted to discuss with them. Of course, the evening was early.

The other three men remained pretty much silent as the meal progressed. Artemus thought that the Paso Kid was the least comfortable in this atmosphere. He hunched over his plate and appeared to be concentrating on not spilling or breaking anything. Young Edmonds seemed to know which fork was which, but gave the impression that this was not his favorite way to be enjoying the meal. And Painter simply ate with gusto as befitted his size.

Both agents were careful to watch what others were eating. The soup was ladled out of a common bowl by the maid, who placed the individual bowls in front of each. The hostess deferred to her "cousin" to slice and serve the prime roast. Wine was poured from a single bottle. Jim and Artemus ate cautiously, prepared to stop, or even spit out anything that had an off taste. However, the meal continued without anything untoward happening.

Unless one considered the maid. Jim worked hard to prevent his gaze from following her around the table. As far as he could see, she never looked at him. At least not any more than necessary to perform her duties. When she placed his soup bowl in front of him, however, he caught a whiff of that same scent of roses. Had he had any doubts whether she was indeed the woman in the hotel, that squashed them.

What is she doing here? Is she mixed up with this fake widow? What the devil do I do if it comes to arresting her…

Jim almost shook his head. He could not see why that was a problem. Over his career, he had arrested other lovely women. If she was involved in whatever Alice was doing, especially if it involved attempted murder, Cinnia would have to pay the penalty. Cinnia. What a name!

When the dessert was served, the agents shared a glance of warning. The delicate plates containing slices of fine-grained pound cake smothered in berries, syrup, and whipped cream looked luscious. However, the fact that the plates were served individually, prepared elsewhere, ran up a red flag for both men.

Artemus waved a hand and laughed. "Mrs. Herron… Alice…" She had urged them to use her given name, "I’m afraid your excellent dinner has my waistcoat about ready to pop. I couldn’t down another bite."

"But you must at least taste it, Artemus," she urged, putting a hand on his as it rested on the table. "We have a new cook, but from his references I know he is justly famous for his desserts. James?"

West too presented an embarrassed smile. "I’m sorry to tell you this but berries cause me to break out in a rash. I apologize for not mentioning this at the time of the invitation."

"Oh dear," Alice murmured. "And here I thought I had the perfect finis for our lovely meal. Cinnia, please clear the plates. Perhaps we’ll retire to the parlor for coffee."

Artemus Gordon could not say exactly why he expected it, but he did. As he rose from the table along with their hostess, he felt the hard object press into his side. The Paso Kid’s gun was jammed into his ribs. Artie looked quickly at Jim, saw that the same thing was occurring, only in his case young Ben Edmonds was the one with a gun. Jim winked. These men should know better than to act in such close quarters.

They moved in coordination, bringing elbows down and back, slamming the pistol barrels away, and with the same movement, spinning around to plant a fist on the gun wielder’s chin. After that it was Katy-bar-the door. Crawford was closest to Jim, and he tried to grab that agent with a bear hug around the shoulders. Jim again used an elbow to drive some wind from Crawford’s diaphragm, weakening the hold enough that he was able to slip free. Using a chair as leverage, West slammed both boots into Crawford’s chest, throwing him back against a glass fronted China cabinet. The crash of glass resounded in the room, accompanied by Alice’s shrieks. Jim was vaguely aware that the redhead was nearby, but he could not keep track of her.

West and Gordon were holding their own against the three men, although the furnishings were getting the worst of it, when a pistol shot thundered, causing everyone to freeze. Jim and Artie stared at the maid, who held one of the dropped pistols in both hands, moving it in a slow arc to cover everyone else in the room.

"Stop it!" she ordered. "Right now. Stop it! Everyone…"

Jim West was nearest to her, and he chose the exact right moment, when the pistol pointed momentarily away from him, her green eyes following it. Jim took a long stride forward, grabbing her wrist and twisting it slightly. The gun once more clattered to the floor. The maid known as Cinnia shrieked in rage, and Jim was certain he heard a few unladylike curse words jump out.

In fact, he was so busy trying to hold onto her, his arms about her trim waist as she struggled to get free, that his attention was diverted from the remainder in the room. Only when he heard a strange thud did he look around and see his partner on his hands and knees, rubbing the back of his head. The other occupants of the room were heading toward the door that led to the kitchen.

"Artie!" Jim yelled. "Get them!"

Artemus Gordon grabbed the back of a chair to steady himself as he pulled himself to his feet. His world was reeling. "Easier said than done, pal," he croaked.

Jim West was torn. If he let go of the hellcat he was holding, she would flee. Yet he could not pursue the woman and three men…

"You damned idiots!" the woman in his arms screeched, "they’re getting away! They have horses out back!"

Jim was so astonished by the words his grasp loosened. She twisted free and dashed toward the kitchen, with him in hot pursuit. A wide-eyed man was at the sink, but Cinnia paid him no mind as she jerked open the back door. Jim West came up behind her, and although the rain was still pounding and the wind howling, even over the roar of the surf, he heard the distinct sounds of hoof beats, retreating.

"We’ve got to stop them!" the flame-haired woman cried, and started out the door.

Jim grabbed her again, this time by the arm. "Too late. Who the devil are you?"

She glared. "Who do you think I am? I’m Cinnia O'Donnell!"

She said it as though he should know the name, but all Jim could do was shake his head. "Who?"

"Oh, blast it! The best chance I’ve had in months, and you two fools ruined it!" She pushed by him to go back into the dining room.

Artemus was seated on a chair now, still holding his head. "You okay, Artie?" Jim asked.

"It’ll pass. They get away?"

"Yeah. And we still don’t know who she was."

"Sweet Alice," Cinnia O'Donnell stated firmly. "You mean you came out here without knowing who she was?"

"Sweet Alice!" Artie blurted out the words, gaping at his partner, then at the woman. "That was Sweet Alice Benning?"

"You didn’t know? What kind of agents are you. Glory! Talk about an inflated reputation!"

"How do you know we’re agents?" James West demanded.

Her scorn was evident. "Because I’m one of you."

Now Artie shook his head gently. "We don’t have any women agents, miss. Miss…?"

"O'Donnell," Jim supplied. "Cinnia O'Donnell." He watched to see any sign of recognition on his partner’s face, saw none. Then he looked back at her. How her green eyes were blazing. "Why would you claim you’re an agent? You couldn’t get away with such a deception."

Her sigh was noisy, exasperated. As they watched in astonishment, she pulled up her heavy dark skirt, revealing a very shapely stocking clad leg and a glimpse of lace-trimmed drawers. Before it went that far, she slipped her fingers under the garter supporting the pale white stockings and came up with a folded piece of paper. To Jim’s vast disappointment, the skirt’s hem dropped to the floor again.

Artie took the paper and opened it, his deep frown turning to surprise. "You’re a Pinkerton?"

"I am. And I work for the federal government as well."

Jim firmly shook his head. "Pinkerton detectives are not government agents. They are a private…" Artemus put up a hand to stop him.

"Jim, there was a notice not long ago that the Department of Justice contracted with Pinkerton. Something to do with the scant budget Congress provided… surprise, surprise. Miss O'Donnell, why were you here? Surely you’re not working alone!"

Her scathing glance revealed she did not appreciate being considered helpless. But she said, "I have a partner, Sam McKee. Until yesterday, he was the cook here. He got word to me that Alice was looking for a new maid, and I applied. She was desperate, so hired me almost on the spot."

"Do you know the name of the previous maid?" Jim asked.

"Katri, Sam said. I never saw her. I was keeping my distance. The plan had to be altered on the fly, so to speak. Sam is heading north, following two more of Alice’s men. We think there’s a drop to be made in Mendocino."

"No wonder Katri had to be killed," Artie said softly. "If we had seen her here…" He shook his head. Alice Benning, like her husband, was known to be bloodthirsty. No compunctions about killing off the young woman, rather than just keeping her out of sight.

"You know her?" Cinnia asked, looking from one to the other. She had to force herself to not give the more slightly built agent her undivided attention. She had seen his green eyes on her in the hotel, and again throughout this evening.

"We knew her," Arty stated soberly. "Okay, what do you mean, a drop?"

"Smuggling! Merciful heavens, you mean you don’t know about Sweet Alice?"

"We have never met her before tonight," Jim said. "Or rather, not as Sweet Alice." He looked at Artemus who was nodding. "Leticia."

"She’s an accomplished actress," Artie mused, "and a makeup artist. Gad! I consider myself an expert in the field, and I didn’t spot it!"

"You hanged her husband," Cinnia expressed her disbelief. "What do you mean you didn’t know Alice?"

"She never appeared at the trial," Jim explained. "Or at least, if she did, she was not recognized. She was not complicit in the crime that hanged Bill Benning, so far as anyone knew. But it sure as hell explains why she wanted to murder us in the worst possible way."

"I’ll talk to you later, to get more information," Cinnia said then. "I’ve got to get moving. They’ll be following the other men and Sam to Mendocino. I need to catch up."

This time it was Artemus who caught her arm. "Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Where are you going?"

"I have a job to do, Mr. Gordon. Our assignment is to find out how Sweet Alice and her gang are smuggling gold and opium in and out of the country. I had hoped to ingratiate myself with her so that she would take me along when she headed north. Thanks to you two, that’s no longer possible. But I have to follow them."

"You have a horse?" Jim asked.

"In San Francisco. At the hotel stables."

"That’s where ours are," Artemus told her. "We have a hack coming back for us in about an hour. I suggest we spend that hour searching this house to see what Alice may have left behind in her haste."

Cinnia wanted to protest that time was of the essence, but she saw the wisdom in his words. Above all, she did not want either of these men to see her as a flighty, irrational female. He… they needed to respect her abilities. Beyond that, Gordon was right. She had no transportation to the depot, and she would need to take the train back to the city, just as they would.

WWWWWW

"She’s just going to slow us down," James West grumbled as he watched his partner jam an extra shirt into a pouch of his saddlebags.

Artie barely glanced up. "It’s her case, Jim. You read the colonel’s telegram."

He had. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Jim scowled unconsciously. As soon as arriving back in the city last night, they had wired east to explain the situation and get further orders. The reply had been waiting for them this morning: cooperate with the Pinkerton agents.

The three of them had talked all the way back to the city last night. Cinnia O'Donnell and her partner had been tracking Sweet Alice for weeks, all the way from Mexico to Canada and back to Pacifica. When Alice returned to the house in Pacifica, which she had apparently rented a month or more previously, Sam had hired on as her cook, having conveniently arranged for her previous cook to leave the area. Cinnia remained in the city, occasionally meeting her partner for updates and planning.

Sam McKee knew that something happened earlier this week, but he did not know what. He overheard Alice giving Katria some very specific instructions just before the two of them, and Crawford, who had been living there, departed the house one afternoon. Edmonds and the Paso Kid, along with two other cronies, were living in a cabin further back in the hills, away from the coast.

Sam later was aware that whatever plans Alice had been trying to implement had not gone exactly right. She and Crawford had returned in the morning, angry and upset. Katria was not with them, and when Sam inquired, he was told she had had to leave to take care of her ailing mother. That was when Sam quickly contacted his partner to come apply for the position. That same day, Sam realized that two men had headed north, and he followed them.

Cinnia had not said much when the two agents related how close they had come to death at the hands of Sweet Alice, in the guise of an old lady. "It’s pretty obvious she did some homework," Artemus had commented. "She knew of the colonel’s connection with the late Colonel Fairbanks—and possibly that the widow was already deceased—and as well knew about Philip Herron’s past relationship with the two of us."

Cinnia also could not exactly confirm that the dessert had been drugged or poisoned. She had, however, been instructed to serve two specific plates to the guests. She had switched plates, but of course had been unable to inform them. Both Jim and Artemus had to laugh, imagining what might have occurred if they had been less alert and the desserts consumed. Jim also had to grudgingly admire the woman’s sharpness of mind, even if he did not speak it aloud.

So now the plan was for the three of them to follow Alice and her gang, as well as Sam McKee, north. Cinnia had also sent a wire last night, coded, to her fellow agent, to inform him that they were on their way. She had explained how their investigations revealed that the smuggling operations took place on the far north coast of California. They had been waiting for an opportunity to catch the smugglers red-handed. The army at Fort Bragg was prepared to assist if called upon.

"Ready?" Gordon asked, hefting his saddlebags over his shoulder and picking up the rifle and blanket roll that had been on the bed.

"Ready as I’ll ever be," Jim replied sourly. "I’m not taking orders from a woman, I don’t care what the colonel said!"

Artemus’s brows lifted. "He said ‘cooperate,’ not take orders."

"Same thing," James West muttered as they stepped out into the hallway.

She was waiting for them, and once more Jim had a problem pulling his eyes away. No green satin gown, no maid’s uniform, but trousers that encased the long slim legs they had glimpsed last night. The blue-checked shirt she wore seemed to enhance her womanly curves more than either gown had. Like the two men, she had slung a pair of saddlebags over one shoulder, with a carbine in one hand, a saddle roll under the other arm. A holster bearing a small pistol was strapped around her trim waist. Her magnificent hair was pulled back and tied with a string at the nape of her neck, flowing like a stream of fire down her back, though unruly strands curled around her ears and forehead.

"About time," she snapped.

"Sorry," Artie responded evenly, eyes twinkling. "But you know how long it takes a man to get ready. I couldn’t decide whether to bring my blue shirt or the green one and…"

"Oh, shut up! Let’s go!" Cinnia O'Donnell grabbed a short, heavy jacket that had been laying on a nearby chair, whirled and headed for the back stairway.

Jim held back, allowing his partner to follow directly behind the woman as they descended the narrow staircase, used primarily by the hotel staff. They had informed the management of their imminent departure but arranged for the rooms to be held until their return, because some possessions were being left behind.

The three horses were saddled and waiting for them in the predawn darkness. Jim tossed a coin to the hostler, then strapped his saddlebags and blanket roll behind the saddle. As he mounted the black horse, he stole a peek toward the redhead, fully expecting that she was standing on the ground yet, waiting for a "gentleman" to give her a hand up. Instead, however, she was already in the saddle, seated comfortably and confidently. Her horse was a small but very sturdy-appearing brown and white pinto.

Artemus said what Jim never would as they headed down the alley toward the street. "Good looking horse."

"Thanks," Cinnia replied. "I bought him off some Arapaho in Montana couple of years ago. Never regretted it."

Jim clamped his mouth shut. What the hell was she doing dealing with the Arapaho? Why had she even been in Montana? He hated the intense curiosity and interest this woman caused in him. He did not usually experience apprehension around a female, beautiful or not. He prided himself on his ability to be in control of his thoughts and emotions. But this one….

He had not slept well last night, and that was another reason to be angry with the woman. When he did sleep, she had floated in and out of his dreams, always seeming to be just out of reach. As if he wanted her within reach! He had never liked bossy, independent women…

Jim knew that was not true at all. He had known some very feisty women over the years, a few of whom had been on the wrong side of the law. Nonetheless, he had handled them. None got the best of James West, whether in their criminal activities or in the romance department. He could and had coped with women of all manner of shapes, sizes, looks, and personalities.

Then why is this particular one eating me alive?

That was a good way to put it, Jim decided. Almost as though he dreaded seeing her, being with her, yet the thought of opting out of this particular job had not occurred to him. He needed to be with her. He just did not understand why. Because she’s ignoring me? Jim knew quite well that that was not something he was accustomed to. He had caught her eyes on him a few times, but could never totally grasp what he saw in those green orbs.

They rode through the dark and nearly empty streets of San Francisco at a rapid clip. The sun was just starting to peek up over the hills when the trio gained a narrow road that led north through dense redwood forests. Even when the sun cleared the hills, in late February it was not all that warm, and the shade from the trees caused all three to don heavier coats.

Having skipped breakfast, they stopped for an early midday meal, finding a clearing off the road with a nearby stream and starting a fire. Jim did not comment as Cinnia O'Donnell helped gather wood, then took a small coffeepot to the stream for water. She’s no stranger to camping, he realized. One part of him experienced an odd sense of pride over her capabilities. Another part continued to feel the unreasonable anger. Damn the woman!

Artemus opened a can of beans and set it near the flames to heat before settling himself on a log. "A feast fit for a king… and a queen," he said. "Especially ones who are starving."

Cinnia had to smile. "That does often affect how food tastes, doesn’t it? I’m surprised I was able to function without my coffee this morning."

"You sound like Jim," Artie said. "He’s a real grizzly bear without his coffee. Maybe that accounts for his sour disposition this morning, eh, pal?"

James West knew he was being chastised. While little conversation had been held during the morning’s trek, most all of what did occur had been between Artemus and Cinnia. Jim had kept Blackjack behind them, half using that as an excuse, and feeling like an idiot the whole while. So Artie had noticed. Had she?

"Yeah," he said finally, "I guess that might have something to do with it."

"Then we’ll fix that," Cinnia said, kneeling by the fire to pick up the pot, using her coat sleeve to protect her hand against the heat. She looked toward Jim, he held out his tin cup. She filled it, smiled at him, and he nearly dropped the cup.

Thankfully, she turned her attention to Artemus, so perhaps did not see what that smile did to him. Once more, Jim had to compare himself to an adolescent with a crush on a teacher, or the prettiest girl in the class. One he knew would never notice him. That smile, the sweet curve of her soft lips, the way her eyes…

Jim took a swallow of coffee. It was too hot and he nearly spit it out, but managed to swallow it without making himself look further like a fool.

"Cinnia," Artemus said. "Unusual name."

"It’s Celtic," she replied. "It means… it’s the name of a Celtic saint and means beauty." Cinnia kept her eyes on Gordon, even while feeling the heat in her cheeks.

"An apt name then," Artie nodded. "How in the devil did Cinnia O'Donnell get involved with Pinkerton’s?"

Thank you, Artie! Jim West sipped his coffee and gazed off into the trees, disinterested in the conversation. At least he hoped he looked disinterested.

"The summer of my twenty-first year, almost five years ago now," she said, "my parents gave me money so that I could leave our Iowa farm to travel to Chicago. My cousin was getting married, and I was the family representative to attend."

"An Iowa farm," Artemus said, wonderingly. "Somehow I thought you’d be from a big city. New York City, for instance."

Cinnia smiled. "No, just a little farm. My two brothers are still there, working with Papa. My mother passed away a few years ago. But in Chicago, I learned that my cousin Liam—he’s actually my second cousin, twice removed—worked for the Pinkerton’s. They needed a female to take employment in a millinery that was suspected to be the front for a counterfeiting ring."

"You’re kidding!" Jim could not stop the words from jumping out, but the flash in her emerald eyes as she looked around revealed she had misunderstood. "A millinery fronting for counterfeiters?" he added.

"That is a new one," Artemus agreed.

"And it’s why they were undetected for a long while. The printing press was in the basement of the shop. I got the position, the ring was broken up at least partially due to information I provided, and apparently Liam’s supervisor liked the way I handled myself and the situation. He offered me a permanent job with Pinkerton’s."

"You like the work?" Artie asked.

"I love it! I love the travel, I love meeting people and dealing with all manner of situations. I’ve worked a great deal with Sam. We make a good pair, I think. He’s a wonderful man."

"Are those beans hot yet?" Jim West asked rather querulously.

"You feeling all right, pal?" Artemus asked when Cinnia took the cups, tin plates, and coffee pot to the stream to rinse them out. He kept his voice low.

"I’m fine. Why?"

"Because you seem out of sorts. The kind of ‘out of sorts’ that would have caused Great Aunt Maude to prescribe her strongest spring tonic."

"I’m fine," Jim West repeated, but this time could not prevent his eyes from drifting toward the woman kneeling by the stream. A stray beam of sunshine found its way through the dense trees. Pure fire gleamed off her hair.

"Look," Artie continued quietly, "I’m the last person in the world to be giving this sort of advice, but why don’t you just talk to her?"

"Talk to her! Why should I?"

James: Thanks, Artie.
Artemus: "Thanks Artie"! Is that all you can say to me? I've just come back from the grave, risen like Lazarus, and that's what you say? "Thanks, Artie"?
James: Thanks, Artie.
Artemus: It's a pleasure.
- TNOT Pistoleros
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California gal
SS senior field agent

USA
8381 Posts

Posted - 07/10/2007 :  08:09:55  Show Profile
Artemus Gordon wanted to grab his friend by the shoulders and shake him. "To get to know her, if for nothing else. She’s a remarkable young woman, Jim. I got the feeling you noticed that."

Jim did not reply as the woman in question got to her feet and started back toward them. Maybe Artemus was right. He knew he was being a coward, only he did not know why. Why did this particular woman bother him so strongly? She was pretty, but he had seen prettier. But something about her, something he just did not understand, caused his insides to contract, especially if he allowed himself a thought about holding her in his arms.

Jim glanced her way as she efficiently tightened the cinch on her saddle. "Is he fast?"

A smile of pride touched her lips. "Pretty darn fast. I’ve run down a few on him."

"And then what?" Artie inquired, grinning. "Don’t tell me you haul the bad guy off his horse!"

"I could if I had to," Cinnia replied haughtily. "Once I come abreast, with my gun pulled, they usually stop."

Artemus looked at his partner, and saw that Jim’s astonishment matched his own. Remarkable woman, indeed. He knew that he had never met one quite like her, and he suspected Jim had the same thoughts. Was that why Jim was behaving so strangely? Normally, with a pretty woman nearby, James West would be flirting like mad, looking to conquer. Something about Cinnia O'Donnell had Jim West on edge.

A clue to that situation appeared that evening. They came upon a roadhouse near Bodega Bay just about sundown and decided to halt there for the night, aware that such accommodations might not be available on subsequent nights. A good meal would not be unwelcome as well. The innkeeper had a couple of rooms available, and a stable for the horses, although they had to take care of the beasts themselves.

After stowing their gear in their room and taking a brief wash, Jim and Artie descended the stairs. The dining area was off to one side of the big lower floor room, and next to a bar where several rough appearing men were lingering. Lumberjacks, Artemus thought. All of those men were watching Cinnia O'Donnell at the table where she was sitting. Not much imagination was needed to read their minds.

As the two agents crossed the room, one big blond man with a matching golden beard pushed away from the bar and headed toward Cinnia, reeling slightly, but managing quite well. He reached her table before they could.

"Hey, little lady," the man slurred, "why don’t you come and join us? No need for you to be lonely."

She barely glanced up. "Thank you but no. I’m expecting friends."

"Those puny fellows you came in with? Why, they couldn’t do nothin’ for a woman like you. Us ax handlers, we know how to treat a lady." He leaned heavily on one hand against the table.

"The friends are here," Cinnia said, putting as much ice in her tone as she could manage. "Please excuse us."

The big man shoved himself erect, turning, catching the back of a chair to steady himself. "These little guys?"

"Now we don’t want any trouble, do we?" Artemus spoke in a conciliatory tone, smiling. "How about you go back with your friends, and we’ll stand you for a round."

"Don’t want no trouble!" the lumberman chortled. "Can’t make no trouble. Come on, sweetie, let me buy you a drink." He took a swipe at Cinnia’s arm.

He missed, but Jim West did not. He grabbed the man’s arm, spun him around, slammed his left fist into the solar plexus, and the right cracked the bearded jaw. The man staggered back a few steps, then sat flat on the floor, his eyes bleary. Only then did his companions at the bar react, all starting toward the three agents.

The man behind the bar reacted too, coming around the end with a shotgun in his hands. "Hold on, Pete! You too, Lars! Hank was asking for it. He knows better than to bother a lady."

Things settled down then. Hank was dragged back to the bar and plied with a fresh glass of whiskey. The innkeeper/bartender apologized, promised that food was forthcoming, and hurried away.

"Thank you," Cinnia said, green eyes on Jim West’s face. "I think I could have handled him, but I wasn’t looking forward to it."

Jim grinned, and an odd sense of elation washed over him under the warmth of her gaze. "I think you could have too. I expect you’ve had practice handling fellows like that."

"I’m afraid so. There are some men who think that just because a woman is reasonably attractive, and especially if she appears to be alone, that she wants their company. The drunken ones get that idea most often. Sam taught me a few tricks how to handle them. He said his wife used to have problems too. She’s absolutely stunning. Nancy was a singer on the Chicago stage before she married Sam."

"So he’s married," Artie commented, peeking at his partner out of the corner of his eye. Did he see relief on Jim’s countenance?

"Oh yes. Solidly so. More than twenty years now. His only worry is that his daughter wants to join Pinkerton too, and she uses me as an argument!" Cinnia laughed.

Cinnia O'Donnell noticed a definite alteration in agent West’s behavior during that meal. All day he had been almost surly, rarely speaking unless spoken to. She was questioning her own feelings of attraction toward the man, wondering why she should be remotely interested, beyond his definite physical attributes. Now that he smiled and talked to her… well, she had to be even more cautious.

She had heard of James West and Artemus Gordon long ago. One could not help but hear about their fabulous exploits against the criminal element of this nation. She knew they were special friends to the President, and because of that, often received the most difficult or sensitive assignments.

More than that, Cinnia was aware of their reputation where women were concerned, most particularly how both of them were perfect charmers and how most women fell into their arms without resistance. Having met them, spent these hours with them, she quite understood. Artemus Gordon was a dear. He was eloquent and well-read, and those brown eyes were like a pool of chocolate that any woman might fall into.

James West’s charm was of another sort. Oh, he could be smooth, she was certain, although thus far she had not been on the receiving end of that suavity. His attraction was far more physical, with that finely chiseled face and strong body. She wondered if other women noticed how his green eyes could sparkle and his smile became almost mischievous. That was what she noticed throughout the meal. That was the memory that kept her awake for a long while in her bed that night.

The owner’s wife served them breakfast early the next morning, then they headed north again. The innkeeper had shaken his head when asked if another party containing a woman had passed through within the last couple of days. The three of them were the first travelers to come through in over a week. At least the first ones who had stopped in his establishment.

"Obviously Alice and her boys took another route," Artemus commented as they rode out.

"There’s a slight chance," Cinnia said thoughtfully, "that she met a boat somewhere. We had some indication in Mexico that they used a boat to travel occasionally. But more often she seems to stay away from the boat carrying the goods."

"Probably depends on how much of a hurry she’s in," Jim said. "At least your pal Sam is already in Mendocino. Or should be by now."

"Yes. And Sam will be on the watch. Of course, his biggest problem is now Alice knows him. He’ll have to stay out of her sight!"

Artemus was tempted to tease his partner about his change in demeanor since the previous day, but held off. The alteration had occurred just after Jim defended Cinnia and she expressed her gratitude, and even more so once she revealed that her partner was an older married man. Likely, Artie decided, Jim had not even realized that he had been jealous.

Throughout that day the conversation was primarily between Jim and Cinnia, almost to the extent that Artemus felt left out. Yet he held his own, and did not interfere. He liked what he was seeing. The Pinkerton lady and the government agent swapped stories of their adventures, compared notes when it happened that they had had experiences with the same persons. Cinnia had heard of Dr. Loveless, but had not yet encountered him. She had seen Count Manzeppi once, fleetingly.

"Be glad," Jim informed her. "Manzeppi is an evil man, and has abilities that not even Artie can explain."

"Oh wait a minute," his partner protested. "I’ve just never had time to sit down and write my thesis on that! Just give me a few minutes."

Cinnia liked the relationship between the two men. She already had witnessed instances where they seemed to think with one mind. Yet they were so different from each other that the close friendship could almost seem like an aberration. At the same time, the differences in the pair complimented each other. West was the man of action, Gordon the thinker. She suspected those roles could be reversed when the occasion demanded.

A heavy mist began to fall as the afternoon wore on. All three donned slickers and hoped they would come across another inn. Cinnia admitted she had never been in this part of California before, and the two men had to confess it was a new area for them as well. They had been in Oregon and Washington and other parts of this section of California, but not the coast. Towns were farther inland, apparently.

Finally, as darkness closed in, they sought a place to camp for the night. Artemus Gordon thought he heard the sound of falling water, and soon found a shallow creek that flowed swiftly over some cataracts. Almost coincidentally, as they dismounted in an open area, the rain down came with a vengeance.

"No campfire tonight," Jim called.

"Probably not much sleep either," Cinnia retorted as she pulled the saddle off her pinto and stowed it under a pine tree. "Why couldn’t you have found a nice cozy cave, Artemus?"

Artie pulled his slicker up closer to his neck. "With my luck, a bear would probably already be in residence anyway. Cold beans anyone?"

It was a miserable night. The trio huddled up against a large tree, gaining a minimum of shelter from its branches. The downpour halted in the early morning hours but by then they were all too wet to care. No dry firewood existed to start a fire, so upon rising, they just saddled up and resumed the northward journey.

Jim West had not thought he could be further impressed with the woman, but he was. She did not whine about the weather nor any of the other discomforts. She even laughed as she wrung out her sopping hair in the morning. When it came to personal business, Cinnia simply excused herself and went off, never displaying any self-consciousness.

"She’ll do to ride the river with," Artie commented as they finally stopped at midday to build a fire. Jim had brought back an armload of somewhat dry wood, and Artie was attempting to start a flame with it. Cinnia had wandered farther out.

"She’s really something," Jim concurred, staring off in the direction she had gone. He was just starting to feel a little unsettled and worried about the length of time Cinnia had been absent when she appeared, arms full of wood. Dry wood.

"Where did you find that?" Artemus demanded.

"That cave you couldn’t find last night. It’s in the hill back there. Looks like someone actually stored some wood inside. I figured they wouldn’t mind if we borrowed some. It will at least get the fire going."

"I should say so," Artie enthusiastically agreed.

No source of water in this area, but they did have some in their canteens, so were able to make enough coffee for each to have a steaming, most welcome cup. The sun had come out, warming enough that they could remove their still damp jackets and hang them on sticks poked into the ground near the fire as they enjoyed hot food and drink.

Cinnia sat on a fallen log, warm cup between her hands. She looked around. "This is beautiful, isn’t it? The trees make it seem almost like a cathedral. They are so tall!"

Jim glanced up, then sat alongside her. "Quiet too. Quiet as a church?" He grinned at her.

She jabbed her elbow into his arm. "Don’t break the mood."

"Me? Never. Let’s see. There’s the aisle over there. Oops, I think we are sitting on the altar!"

Cinnia laughed aloud, causing that now familiar tingle along Jim West’s spine. He liked her laugh. It was rich and real. "Well, here comes the preacher. Want to say your prayers, Mr. West?"

Artemus stood solemnly in front of them, holding up a beatific hand, the other at his chest as though clutching a prayer book. "Friends, we are gathered here…" he began.

"Whoa!" Jim jumped to his feet. "Let’s not get too serious here!"

She giggled now. "A-skeered, Jimmy? Skeered of a preacher man?"

Jim hitched his pants in an exaggerated motion and plopped himself down beside her again. "I ain’t a-skeered of nothin’, ma’am. Do your worst, preacher man!"

"Friends," Artie began again. I’m tempted, he thought. I’m very tempted to do a mock wedding ceremony just to see how these two react. However… "Dear friends, we are gathered her to say farewell to one of our own. A man we all know so well. Ahem. Excuse me. What was the dear departed’s name again?" He leaned toward Cinnia, cupping his hand around his ear.

She was laughing too hard to answer now, clinging to Jim’s arm. He laughed too, more from the joy of sharing her mirth, of hearing that wonderful sound. He could, he realized, listen forever. What would forever be like with Cinnia O'Donnell? If Artie would just go away for a few minutes, I might try to kiss her and see what she does. But Artie was there. Jim knew that his partner would not necessarily be embarrassed, but Cinnia might. He would never want to do anything to hurt her in any way, shape, or form.

They headed out again in a good mood, their purpose for this trip pushed into the backs of their minds. Cinnia O'Donnell started to realize she did not want the trek to end. She loved Sam McKee dearly, as an uncle perhaps, but these two men…. After their rough beginning, they were partners now. She looked at James West and he smiled at her. More than partners. Is it possible to fall in love so swiftly? Cinnia smiled back. I think I love him. I’ve never been in love before in my life. Not like this. But it’s too soon, isn’t it? Isn’t it? What does he think about me? Am I reading the smile correctly? He has a reputation with women. But I think it’s different this time. I hope it’s different.

An hour or so later they came upon a lumber camp, where the foreman informed them that he had seen several riders pass by day before yesterday. He was pretty sure one had been a woman, and he had been a bit surprised that they did not come into the camp for some refreshments and a bit of rest for the lady.

"Sounds like they are going to get to Mendocino well ahead of us," Jim commented as they rode on after that short period of rest and refreshment. "At least we know they did not take a boat. Hope Sam is ahead of them."

"He is," Cinnia assured him. "I just wish we would come across a telegraph office, or even a wire. We could tap in."

Jim stared at her. "You know how to do that?"

Her chin came up. "Of course I do."

He grinned that devilish grin. "Is there anything you can’t do?"

"Cook!" she retorted.

All three were relieved and more than a little delighted when they came upon a small town late in the afternoon, a town that had an inn. The decision to break off the chase a little early and spend the night there was unanimous. The owner had three rooms available, and even better, as far as Cinnia was concerned, she was able to get a bath, with the tub and hot water brought to her room.

She half wished she had brought a dress along, but the chided herself as she brushed out her hair. This was not a social occasion. Donning a dress would be too obvious, anyway. Cinnia giggled to herself. Too obvious for what?

Jim and Artemus were waiting for her downstairs in the lobby, sitting in front of the large stone fireplace where a roaring fire was warming the room.

"You look much refreshed," Artie said, offering his arm. "Shall we dine?"

James West inserted himself in between the pair, casting an arch glance toward his partner as he took Cinnia’s arm. Artie only grinned back.

"We’re getting close to Mendocino," Artemus Gordon said as they finished a fine meal. "I think we’d better start thinking about what we’re going to do when we get there."

"First we find Sam," Cinnia stated.

"That’s a given," Jim agreed. "We also have to stay out of Alice’s sight, at least until we find out what she’s up to."

"Sam will know what’s going on," Cinnia assured them. "He always does. When you meet him, you’ll understand why. No one looks less like a detective than Sam McKee. He’s clever as well. Even if Alice should see him, he’ll have a story concocted about why he left her house so abruptly."

"I’m very anxious to meet Sam," Artie put in. If he’s responsible for training this marvelous young woman, he must be quite a fellow. I think Jim would agree. Only problem might arise is if the stars in Jim’s eyes cloud his judgment. But I believe he’s too well trained himself to let that happen.

They all agreed that although the food at this inn was not as good as what they could find in San Francisco, and perhaps not as tasty as their meal at the previous inn, it definitely beat out cold beans. Plus the proprietor had an excellent beer on tap, and all three enjoyed a couple of glasses. They were tacitly aware that this evening might be the last relaxation they had for awhile, as they would likely reach Mendocino tomorrow evening.

As they talked, the trio realized that indeed they could not formulate any firm plans before talking to Sam McKee. Sam, they hoped, would be aware of not only the location but the activities of Alice Benning and her boys. That information would go a long way toward deciding what to do.

They continued discussion in the lobby, seated before the big stone fireplace and enjoying the warmth of the fire. Cinnia told the two men more about what she and Sam had learned about Alice Benning, how she often used her expertise with disguise and changing character to assist in her illegal doings.

"Up in Canada, Sam and I had a run-in with the Northwest Mounted because they thought we were persecuting this dear adolescent girl. By the time we convinced them, Alice was long gone. She’s extremely good."

"You’re telling me," Artie muttered, still burned because he had not seen through the old lady’s disguise. "Do you think she’ll be using a disguise in Mendocino?"

"I would not be the least bit surprised," Cinnia responded. "She may have an identity established."

"If she had not slipped up by claiming to be the widow of a friend of ours," Jim stated, "who knows what she may have done at the dinner party."

"That was an unusual error," Cinnia stated. "The reason we’ve been pursuing her for such a long while is because she does not usually make such mistakes. I’m thinking her emotions got too involved. We had heard previously that she bore the two of you a deep grudge."

Artie chuckled dryly. "After all, the only thing her dear departed husband did was destroy a railroad bridge, to cause an accident so he could steal government bonds. The fact the seven innocent people died in that wreck was irrelevant. We worked hard to track down and convict Bill Benning. It’s a feat I for one am very proud of."

They talked for awhile longer, but the conversation became sporadic and desultory as the warmth of the fire and the weariness of the long day in the saddle closed in. Artemus did not fail to notice how Cinnia O'Donnell’s head leaned toward James West’s shoulder, finally resting on it, her eyes half closed. She did not move until Artie stood up and announced his plans to go to his room, when she straightened up, displaying some mortification.

"I… I think I’m going to rest here awhile yet," Jim said casually, very aware of the scent of roses about the woman again. He knew she had bathed, and could only guess she had brought some bath salts of that scent along with her. He did not mind in the least bit that she had been using his shoulder for a pillow. In fact, his arm felt very cold when she sat up.

"I’m not… sleepy yet either," Cinnia said casually.

Artemus said his good night and left them. For a long moment neither on the sofa moved. Then Jim casually extended his left arm over the back of the divan. Cinnia needed no further invitation. She nestled up against him, and his arm closed in over her. Neither spoke.

After awhile the proprietor came to rather self-consciously add wood to the fire, careful not to look at the pair on the sofa. "I suppose," Jim said with great reluctance, "we ought to turn in too. Morning is going to be early."

"Yes," Cinnia sighed.

She climbed to her feet and as Jim rose, she took his hand. They went up the stairs into the dim upper hallway, which was lit only by a single lantern hanging from the ceiling. Somehow it seemed the most natural thing in the world to move into each others’ arms and share a warm and lingering kiss.

Cinnia O'Donnell leaned her head against his chest and his arms wrapped around her. "You know," Jim West said softly, "you have the most incredible green eyes. I think I need to try to find an emerald ring to match… although I’m not sure that’s possible."

She giggled, tipping her head back. "You can’t see my eyes here. It’s too dark!"

"Those eyes are embedded in my brain forever."

"Well… you know, you have rather nice green eyes yourself."

"Do I?"

"Hadn’t you noticed?"

His lips brushed the top of her hair. "I’m afraid I haven’t paid that much attention."

"Well…" Cinnia took a breath. Now or never! "I have a mirror in my room."

"You do? A mirror?" He feigned astonishment.

She stood back a little, taking his hand again. "Shall we go inside? We can… compare…"

"That does sound like a good idea."

Cinnia opened the door. "Should I light the lamp?"

"Don’t bother," Jim West said quietly, closing the door behind me. "I don’t need light to see you."

James: Thanks, Artie.
Artemus: "Thanks Artie"! Is that all you can say to me? I've just come back from the grave, risen like Lazarus, and that's what you say? "Thanks, Artie"?
James: Thanks, Artie.
Artemus: It's a pleasure.
- TNOT Pistoleros
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California gal
SS senior field agent

USA
8381 Posts

Posted - 07/10/2007 :  08:13:43  Show Profile




WWWWWW

Artemus Gordon was in the lobby waiting when his partner sauntered down the stairs early the following morning. Jim West was whistling a jaunty tune. "Seems as though you had a good night’s sleep," Artie commented, eyeing him.

Jim paused at the base of the stairs, his countenance assuming a guileless expression. "Partner, I think I had the best night… night’s sleep I’ve had in a long while. Maybe ever."

"Must be all this cool wet weather," Artie replied in a relaxed manner. Not for all the gold in China would he reveal to Jim that he had risen from his own bed and gone to Jim’s room with a question to ask, only to find his partner’s bed empty. A little concerned, Artemus had stepped over to rap on Cinnia’s door, holding off just in time as he heard the laughter from within.

"Ah, the lovely Miss O'Donnell," Jim cried, turning to look up at Cinnia as she descended. Her eyes were sparkling, a fresh flush on her cheeks.

"Good morning, Mr. West," she said. "Mr. Gordon." Artie did not miss how her hand immediately sought Jim’s as she joined them.

"Good morning, Miss O'Donnell," Artie replied with a slight bow. "Shall we dine? Or is breakfast considered dining?"

If ever the axiom "three’s a crowd" was true, Artemus considered as he consumed his meal, this was the time. The other pair seemed to not even be aware of his presence at the table. I hope this is real. I’ve never seen Jim happier. And I couldn’t be happier for him, and her.

By the time they were on the road again, Jim was ready to try to concentrate on the task at hand, though he found it extremely difficult with the redhead riding at his side. He kept asking himself what had made last night different from myriad other nights, and was almost afraid to consider the answer. So many women had passed in and out of his life over the years, but right now he found he could not remember the faces of any of them. Only that of the green-eyed beauty who had tied a lasso around his heart and brain that he could not seem to loosen.

The feelings he was experiencing were frightening and wonderful at the same time. One part of his brain said, run, run like hell! However, another portion of his brain, and his heart, kept whispering, forever.

The nearer they approached Mendocino, the more serious the trio became. They knew they could not risk riding directly into the village, lest Sweet Alice or one of her minions spot them. Yet they needed to contact Sam McKee. Cinnia stated that usually, in previous instances where they had become separated like this, Sam would leave a note pinned to a bulletin board, at the local post office if one was present.

The note would be in code, Cinnia said, and at first she insisted she needed to be the one who rode into look for it. The two men talked her out of it, pointing out the obvious, that her appearance was pretty unmistakable and difficult to disguise. Cinnia had to smile ruefully and admit that her hair and eyes had been something of a detriment in her chosen career a few times, though—she smiled toward Jim—more often than not, it was an advantage.

The decision that Artemus would make the trek into town was fairly easy. He had not been able to bring a full makeup kit, nor much in the way of extra clothes, but he thought he could make himself up to look like a bearded prospector without much effort. The attire that had been rain-soaked their second day out would give him a pretty disheveled appearance. Cinnia gave him some ideas what to seek when he read the notices, the sort of code Sam would be using. Artie would need to memorize the message to repeat to Cinnia in order for her to translate it.

A chilly fog was rolling in as they came upon a hill that overlooked the village of Mendocino and the ocean beyond. Artemus took the time to change his appearance, gluing graying whiskers to his chin and supplementing his eyebrows before pulling a battered hat down low over his face, then donning the now very wrinkled coat that had gotten soaked previously. He removed everything from his horse and person that might identify him, and the headed down into town.

Jim and Cinnia found a spot that was somewhat sheltered from the ocean breeze and sat down to await Gordon’s return. Of course, Jim took advantage of the privacy to hold Cinnia and kiss her. She did not seem to mind. After awhile they sat against a rock, hands clasped, just talking quietly.

"Tell me about Iowa," Jim invited.

"Iowa! You’ve never been there?"

"Well, sure. Mostly just passed through on the train, though. Never really gave it much thought. Lots of flat, rolling prairie. No scenery to speak of."

"Oh, that’s where you’re wrong, Jim. Iowa is beautiful. All the farms. The fields of corn and wheat. My father and brothers grow both. The time of year I always loved was just before the wheat was harvested… those fields full of golden wheat gleaming in the sun. It’s so different from here, where we have all the mountains and trees. California is beautiful in its own way, but Iowa will always be my home. I plan to go back there to stay one day."

"When?"

Cinnia shook her head, bemused. She wished she had not said that now. "Well… someday. When I decide to leave Pinkerton’s I suppose."

Jim fell silent, imagining himself as an Iowa corn farmer. He did not laugh aloud, but came close. Maybe it would be a good place to retire to. After all, he was not going to be a Secret Service agent forever. If he was not killed in the line of duty before that thinking about retirement, maybe…

The feelings were too scary, too new. He really did not quite know what to do with them. On the one hand he knew he wanted to be with Cinnia O'Donnell. On the other, the thought of being tied down… This time he prevented himself from shaking his head. Cinnia O'Donnell would never tie a man down. She knew what his life was like; she had lived pretty much the same life.

"Penny for your thoughts," Cinnia murmured, leaning her fiery head against his shoulder.

Jim smiled. "I think this is where I’m supposed to say they aren’t worth that much. But…" Again words failed him. This was crazy. He had never been at a loss around a woman in his adult life. Oh, maybe when he was a kid, and some extra pretty girl smiled at him. He was not a kid, however. He was a grown man, and experienced in the ways of the world. This woman, nonetheless, caused him to mentally stutter and hesitate. He really did not want to think about why that would be. Not yet.

But? Cinnia wanted to ask. She held her tongue. Intuition told her that this was a man with whom one would need to move slowly, to leave out on a long and slack leash. At least at the beginning. She smothered a smile, nearly a giggle, as she thought about last night. They did not move slowly last night. Everything just happened. She had not really intended to invite him into her room. The words simply came out.

The night had been one for a lifetime. If she never loved again, last night would be implanted in her memory forever. She had awakened at one point, lying in Jim West’s arms, and simply smiled. He had laughed and called her a "wild woman," and did not seem to care that she was also an experienced woman. If she was wild, what was he?

Cinnia had always hoped she would have an opportunity to meet the fabled Secret Service man. Never in her remotest dreams had it occurred to her that she might fall head first in love with him. Nor had it occurred to her that he might reciprocate. She was not entirely certain yet. Time was going to be needed. And they had all the time in the world.

"Tell you what," Jim said after a long moment. "When we wrap this up, Artie and I will be taking our special train back east. You and Sam can ride along… and we’ll stop in Iowa to visit the folks."

Cinnia laughed in delight. "You’ll like my father and brothers. And they’ll like you!"

A shrill whistle split the air and Jim reluctantly climbed to his feet to go peer down the hill. Artemus Gordon was approaching, leading his horse as he trudged up the slope. "Not only found the message, but I saw and spoke to Sam."

"He recognized you?" Jim asked, amazed. Artie’s disguise seemed pretty good, if not one of his best. But for someone who did not know him personally…

"I recognized him," Artie returned, grinning widely as he started pulling off the fake whiskers. "He was hanging out near the post office. Looked like any ordinary down-on-his-luck bummer. Cinnia was right. He’s perfect for an undercover detective. I struck up a conversation. We waltzed around a bit, but finally got to the point. I then bought him a beer and we managed to pass some information back and forth."

"Has he seen Sweet Alice?" Cinnia asked.

"Yes. Matter of fact, we’re a tad late. The boat unloaded last night, and took off again."

Jim and Cinnia exchanged a glance. Artemus did not appear upset by that information. "And?" Jim asked.

"And Sam has the Coast Guard and the Navy after the boat. He knows where the stash has been hidden, and we’ve set up a little ambush for tonight. He thinks it’s liquor and opium."

"You have it all planned?" Cinnia inquired, a bit miffed.

Artie patted her shoulder. "Don’t worry, you’ll be there. I told Sam we ought to try to convince you to stay back, but he said that would be like advising the tide not to come in. Jim and I have too much experience with the ocean’s tide to even try it."

James West scowled. He had had that very idea, to try to convince Cinnia to remain behind when the final denouement came. He could see by the set of her chin that attempting that feat would be futile. "Where are the goods hidden?" he asked.

Artemus turned and peered off in the distance. "See that hill over there on the other side of town? The one with the big oak tree? There’s an old mine there. Some fool once thought he was going to find gold in that hill, and apparently dug a pretty good-sized tunnel before giving up. It’s abandoned now, and Sam says that’s what Alice uses to keep her smuggled goods in until she can move them out. That’s why he wants to make the move tonight. Crawford was seen getting a wagon axle repaired today. Likely they aren’t going to be hanging around long."

"Be a perfect night for it," Cinnia said happily. "March second. It’s Sam’s birthday. We can celebrate afterwards."

"We’ve arranged a meeting spot for just after dark," Artemus added. "For now, I guess we just sit and wait. Too bad we couldn’t go into town. There’s a couple of pretty decent looking cafés down there. Oh, and by the by, Sam has arranged with the local constable to have a few extra men on hand. We aren’t going to be facing Alice and her five men alone."

"He sure the constable can be trusted?" Jim asked, somewhat sourly. He was still not easy with the prospect of Cinnia participating.

"Sam is an excellent judge of character," Cinnia put in. "After all, he trained me!" She poked an elbow into Jim’s arm.

He could not help but grin at her. I have to learn to trust her, he told himself. It’s not like she’s a complete novice. She’s even carrying a gun strapped to those damnably shapely hips.

"Beyond that," Artie told them, "Sam says he knew the constable back in Virginia, before the war."

"You never said Sam was a Reb!" Jim exclaimed, looking at Cinnia.

"He’s reconstructed," she assured him. "Completely red, white, and blue now. But his southern background has come in handy for a few of the cases we worked on. I told you about the one in Tennessee."

"Yeah, you did," Jim sighed. This was sure going to take some getting used to! He bit back a grin. It sure as hell might be a lot of fun as well. She was like no other woman he had ever known. Or so she seemed. He was still unsure what made her so… different, so appealing to him. He had known bold and adventurous women. More often than not, however, those women were looking out for themselves, or complicit with some man who was intent on crime of some sort. Any policewoman he had ever encountered had been a jail matron, usually older, grimmer.

They settled down for the long wait for darkness. Artemus apologized that he was unable to bring any food from town, but he had not wanted to arouse any suspicions by his purchases. He had not seen Alice or any of the three men who had been at the house in Pacifica. He would not recognize the other two, though Sam said none had been sighted in the village thus far today.

The fog moved out and though the air was still cool, the sun was warm. Jim West dozed off for awhile, and when he awakened, he heard his partner in conversation with Cinnia, so he lay still and listened. They were discussing Cinnia’s family in Iowa. Her pride in her family, as well as her love for them, came through as she told Artemus about how her parents had homesteaded and built one of the finest farms in the region. Her older brother was married, the younger one seriously courting.

"And here you are," Artie said, "gallivanting around the country hauling in criminals."

"I love it! I think if I had not had the opportunity, I would have withered and died away. I love the farm, but… I needed something more."

"No thoughts of settling down?" Artemus asked. Jim recognized the guileless inflection of his partner’s voice. Did Artie realize he was awake under the hat shielding his face?

"Well… yes. Actually. It… occurs to me from time to time."

"Recently?"

Cinnia giggled. "Artemus, you’re terrible!"

Jim West knew he had better "wake up" before this went any further. He stretched and yawned, pushed the hat aside. "What time is it?"

"Time to start thinking about building us a little fire and fixing supper," Cinnia replied. "Sleepyhead!"

Jim just grinned at her as he got to his feet. If Artemus had not been there, he might well have explained how the sleep he had missed last night was entirely her fault. Instead, he set about finding some dry firewood. They would want to keep the smoke to a minimum, so as not to alert anyone, most particularly Alice Benning’s men, that anyone might be lurking in the hills, even a couple of miles away from her hideout.

WWWWWW

A quarter moon barely illuminated the landscape as the trio made their way toward the area of the old mine. Sam McKee had given Artemus instructions, but unfamiliarity with the region plus the darkness made the going slow. Just as Jim was about to question his partner’s sense of direction as they rode along a narrow path, a man stepped out in front of Artie’s horse.

Jim went for his gun, but Cinnia, behind him, cried out, "Sam!" She was off her horse in a flash to run to embrace the man. Jim could see a stocky man with a graying beard who hugged the woman warmly.

Artemus introduced Jim. "I’ve heard a great deal about you from Cinnia, Sam," Jim commented as they shook hands.

McKee chuckled. "I expect she’s overstated it a bit. Have to say your reputation precedes you, Jim West."

Artemus Gordon watched McKee as he sized up Jim West. Artie had warned the Pinkerton man that "something" was going on between his partner and McKee’s. "That’s probably been overstated as well," Jim said with a smile.

"Are we set up?" Artemus asked.

"Pretty much. Vickers—that’s the constable in case Gordon didn’t tell you—has four good men. They are watching the mine right now, but staying well back. I think at least two men are inside right now, but we haven’t seen Alice."

"But you have seen her here in Mendocino," Jim put in.

"Yep. She’s worn a couple of disguises, but I’ve been on her trail for so long I’ve come to pretty much see through them. Artemus told me of your encounter with her. That old lady get-up is one of her best. She’s fooled quite a few people with it."

"That sure makes me feel a lot better," Artie said sardonically. Jim knew he still had not recovered from not recognizing a disguise.

"There’s a clearing up here where you can leave your horses," Sam said. "They’ll be out of the way and unlikely to make any noise, but still be within reach should you need them. I’m hoping you won’t."

Cinnia O'Donnell saw Sam look back at her as she walked hand in hand with Jim. She thought she had seen approval in her partner’s eyes, but she was unsure in the darkness. Sam worried about her as much as her father did, she knew. She was pretty certain that Sam was aware at the lengths to which she had taken her "act" in a few undercover situations, but he never censured her. He also never said so, but she sometimes wondered if he, in his younger days, had not found it necessary to play along with some woman he was trying to get information from. Cinnia thought that Nancy McKee might be aware of this as well.

Cinnia glanced at the chiseled features of James West as he strode along beside her. He had known many women, in the line of work and otherwise. He would continue to do so. Was she going to be able to accept that fact? That is, if things progressed to the point she hoped they would. Part of his job, she told herself. Only part of his job. I must not be a jealous, possessive…

She almost giggled aloud as the word flitted through her mind. Wife. Although both had talked vaguely of the future—and Jim had even mentioned an emerald ring—they had not talked marriage. Perhaps actual marriage was not in the plans, or not for a long while. Cinnia was aware that for a man in Jim’s profession, entanglements could be a big problem, especially if his enemies learned of them. In a sense, it worked for her as well.

He has not said the words, she mused. Then again, neither have I. But they’ve been in my mind for a long time. Love. I can’t believe that I could love him as much as I do if he did not love me back. Neither one of us are quite ready to make that big leap. But it will come. I know it will!

Constable Vickers was a lanky man with a short, pointed goatee and a broad smile as he met the other agents. "We don’t get this kind of excitement up here on the coast very often. Hope we can be of some help." He motioned to the four men with him, all bearing weapons of some sort.

"Like I told you, Fred," Sam said, "we need you for backup. I’d like you to position your men well out of sight, but where they can come running on the double if we yell. Miss O'Donnell, Mr. West, Mr. Gordon and I will be closer. As soon as we are certain that Alice and her boys are inside, we’ll make our move. It might be a long spell of sitting. Remember, no smoking."

The edict caused some muttered grumbling, but no outright complaints. The men knew they had been chosen by Constable Vickers because he knew he could count on them; every one of them had served on previous posses. In a situation like this, the slightest mistake could cause failure. All were honest men who hated to see their region being used for smuggling, something that had occurred before, primarily due to the remoteness of the area.

Once again, they waited. From this vantage point, they could see the flashing of the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse on the rocky coasts. According to Sam, Alice Benning’s smugglers had used that lighthouse beacon as a reference point, landing further up the coast in a secluded spot to unload their booty, which had been transported during the darkness to this cave.

"I think she then separates it to be sent to different clients," Sam said. "We have evidence of at least a half dozen people who buy from her, but probably not enough proof for conviction. We hope that one of Alice’s boys will crack once arrested and give us that proof we need. Alice won’t, that’s for damned sure. As you fellows learned, she’s a vicious, hard-as-steel woman."

Artemus had just checked his watch, noting the time was passed eight-thirty. He was about to ask Sam if any chance existed Alice had either changed her plans or learned she was being watched, when he heard the rumble of a wagon ascending the dirt road that led up to the mine.

"Here she comes," Sam whispered.

They had already decided they would wait until Alice and all her men were in the mine. Sam was pretty sure they would all go inside because of the amount of merchandise that needed to be moved, and moved rapidly. He had crept inside and seen the stacks of crates and bundles.

"The place is a deathtrap," Sam had also said. "It wasn’t constructed very well in the first place. Vickers put up that sign you can see, warning folks to stay away. But it’s a damn good hiding place for that very reason."

"Didn’t they try to shore it up?" Jim had inquired.

"Nope. I suspect they figured any improvements would be noticed. They probably are very careful to move easily and not bump any of the lumber holding the walls and ceiling up!"

Cinnia’s hand gripped Jim’s arm, and he sensed her excitement. Glancing her way, he recognized his own feelings on her face, glowing in her eyes, which were dark in the faint moonlight. Artemus was absolutely correct: she would do to ride the river with, rapids and all! Jim West found himself looking forward to the ride.

The wagon lumbered into view some ten or fifteen minutes after they first heard its approach, drawn by two laboring draft horses. Alice was visible on the seat alongside a man Jim did not know who was handling the reins. Crawford and the Paso Kid were on horses, while Ben Edmonds and still another man Jim had not seen before were in the bed of the wagon. Crawford halted the team as Alice gave some orders that were unintelligible to the watchers, then they all climbed to the ground.

"Get ready," Artie murmured as the group headed toward the entrance of the old mine, a yawning dark hole in the night.

Jim West drew his pistol, saw Cinnia do the same. Once again, he wanted to sternly order her to remain behind and safe, and still knew it would be a useless gesture. Maybe that was part of the attraction, he decided. She was smart and brave. This was part of that wild river they would be navigating together. He was entering a new phase of his life, and was both thrilled and terrified.

As they watched, lanterns were lit just inside the mine’s entrance. They flared brightly, then slowly dimmed as, apparently, the holders moved further in.

"Let’s go," Sam said.

They approached the entrance at a dead run, bending low, trying to watch for any twigs or rocks that would make noise and give them away. Artemus knew that Vickers and his men would be moving up closer now, by pre-arrangement. Artie and Sam moved to one side of the opening, Jim and Cinnia to the other. Murmured sounds could be heard emanating from inside. Alice’s voice barked a sharp order.

Sam gave the signal, a brisk nod, and all four stepped out into the opening. Back about thirty feet, the lanterns glowed, hanging on the tunnel walls now. The five men were visible, facing the stacks of booty. One man had already hefted a small crate to his shoulder.

"Raise your hands!" Sam boomed. "You’re under arrest."

All spun around, the crate crashing to the floor. The Paso Kid went for his gun. Artemus Gordon’s weapon barked, and the Kid spun around, yelling in pain, and clutching his bleeding arm.

"Drop your guns!" Artie yelled.

"Where’s Alice?" Jim spoke urgently, abruptly aware that the woman had not stepped out from behind any of the stacks of goods. She had to be there…

"Right here," the small woman grated, coming out from behind the large Crawford. She had her pistol aimed right at Jim West’s chest, and she pulled the trigger.

"No!" Another woman shrieked just an instant before, and a shape flew in front of Jim. Sweet Alice’s pistol barked, and the form staggered back into Jim.

A long time later he realized that it had all occurred in split seconds, but at the time, an eternity, with everyone moving at a snail’s pace, appeared to elapse. He heard his own voice scream in protest and grief as Cinnia fell against him. His arm automatically went around her body, and he felt the warmth of the gushing blood gushing onto his hand.

Other weapons fired. Artie barely had time to glance at his partner, who fell to the floor with Cinnia in his arms, as he himself pressed his body against the side of the tunnel. Sam did the same. They saw one of the two unknown men go down, and Edmonds receive a leg wound. Alice was screaming commands, as she continued to fire her pistol toward the entrance, but leading her men further back into the tunnel. Was there another opening? Sam had not mentioned one; no time to ask now.

"Cinnia, Cinnia!" Jim cradled the woman in his arms. In the low light from the lanterns he could see her pallid complexion, in stark contrast to the seemingly black liquid that was oozing from the wound in her chest. Her eyes were closed. "Cinnia, no! Please, no!"

Artemus felt the trembling under his boots first, and then dust began to flake off the ceiling and walls. "Earthquake!" he shouted. "Earthquake!" The timbers supporting the old tunnel were beginning to quiver and creak. "Jim, come on! Come on!"

Feeling his partner’s anxious hand on his shoulder brought Jim West’s attention to what was happening, so that he too became conscious of the way the ground was shaking under him. He staggered to his feet, the limp body of the woman in his arms, as he headed for the tunnel’s entrance, having some difficulty keeping his balance on the quivering earth.

"My God," Artemus murmured, dropping to his knees and staring back at the tunnel. The ground was quieting, but the roar from the diggings continued, as the timbers gave way. Storm clouds of dust flew out in the moonlight. He was only vaguely aware that Vickers and his men were appearing from wherever they had taken cover. The draft horses on the wagon had been shrieking and pulling at their harnesses, and one man ran to them, speaking calming words.

"No, no," Jim West was sobbing.

Artemus got to his feet then immediately knelt alongside. Sam did as well. "Jim…"

"Artie, we have to get a doctor! Quick!"

Artie caught Sam’s agonized glance. Sam could see the wound as well. Both men knew that a doctor was not going to be of avail.

Jim stroked her hair, touched her cheek. "Cinnia, darling girl, please… don’t leave me. Don’t leave me!"

Her lids fluttered, closed, and then opened. "Oh… Jim… did we get them…?"

"We got them, sweetheart. Just hang on. We’ll get you to a doctor. Please… hang on."

One of her hands came up slowly, gently caressed his cheek. "It’s all right, Jim. I’m all right. I lived a lifetime… this last week. You’re alive. You’ll go on… that’s what matters."

"No, no. We’ll have our time… Cinnia, don’t leave me. Please, God! Help her!"

A soft smile curved her full lips. "Don’t, Jim. I’m… I’m glad I knew you… loved you. You’ll go on… for me. Kiss me?"

Jim West tasted the salt of his own tears as he gently pressed his lips against hers. He felt her mouth go still under his, her body fall limp. His sobs were uncontrollable as he held her, rocked her gently in his arms.

Artemus Gordon got to his feet, feeling the moisture streaking down his cheeks. Sam was crying too. The other men were looking on, varying degrees of emotion on their countenances. They had not known Jim nor Cinnia, but they certainly recognized what they were seeing.

"Sam," Artie said softly, "we’d better see what’s going on there." He nodded toward the mine, where the dust was finally settling. Artemus knew nothing could be done for Alice and her crew, but he also knew Jim needed some time. Artie had never felt so helpless where his partner was concerned, but at least he could do this. Sam, though grieving, also recognized the difference between his own feelings and those of the man holding Cinnia. He motioned to the others and they went toward the collapsed mine.

WWWWWW

The wagon that had been brought up the hill to haul the smuggled goods away was used instead to carry a coffin to Sacramento. Jim West had promised Cinnia O'Donnell a ride home in the special train. Artemus had wired ahead and arranged for an additional car to be connected to the train, one with a bier on which the coffin rested.

Artemus Gordon became concerned with his friend’s stoicism. After the expression of nearly hysterical grief at the mine, James West had come quiet, rarely speaking, showing almost no emotion. Artie had half expected his partner to want to ride in the special car for a good portion of the journey; instead he never went anywhere near it, remaining in his quarters, or the parlor car, sometimes staring blankly at an open book, sometimes simply into space.

The impassivity continued in Iowa where they were met by Cinnia’s family. Artemus managed a few private words with Mr. O'Donnell to explain the attachment that had been formed between his daughter and the agent, in an attempt to make the farmer comprehend West’s behavior. Mr. O'Donnell grasped the situation, and indeed, treated Jim as though he might be the mourning husband and son-in-law. So that’s where Cinnia got her intelligence and sensitivity, Artemus mused.

Jim displayed almost no emotion at the funeral services, which were attended not only by local family and friends, but by a number of Pinkerton agents from Chicago, including Alan Pinkerton himself. Artemus was gratified to see his friend place a single white rose tied in a bright green ribbon inside the open casket at the church. He did not ask where the rose came from at this time of year. James West would find a way.

The two agents remained two days in Iowa, then their train headed east again, leaving the special car on a siding to be returned west by another train. Sam stayed with Cinnia’s family.

Artemus entered the parlor car and paused, momentarily nonplussed. He had expected to find Jim here. The train was moving… the sense of alarm passed quickly as he went to the rear door of the car, opening it to step out. The landscape was flowing by, endlessly flat but not golden. The middle part of the country on their trek eastward. Jim West was leaning his elbows against the railing, staring out, not at the scenery, but at the long stretch of parallel tracks they were leaving behind.

"All right?" Artemus asked quietly, stepping up beside him.

Jim shrugged. "Sure." A moment passed. "No," he said. "No, I’m not all right. I can’t… Damn it, Artie, she might have been the one." He straightened, turning to face his partner, handsome face contorted with grief.

Artie did not need to ask what Jim meant. They had never really talked about it. The women were always there and available. Artemus had met a couple in the past that he considered could be a lifetime partner. He had always felt that James West never had. Until now.

He also did not try to offer platitudes. "There will be another," was not what Jim wanted to hear at this moment. Artemus spoke quietly. "She was an extraordinary woman."

James West swallowed hard, feeling the sting in his eyes. He did not turn away though. If he could not reveal his emotions to Artemus Gordon, who could he show them to? "One part of me says to give it all up. Another part says she wouldn’t want me to."

"Listen to that part. Cinnia would have made a terrific partner for you, Jim. She died so that you could continue."

Jim turned and stared out toward the tracks again, remembering her last words. "Do you think… do you believe…?" He could not quite finish the question.

"You’ll see her again."

Jim swallowed again, as the tears streaked down his cheeks. "I need to believe that. I never told her how much I loved her."

END

*****
In 1871, Congress appropriated $50,000 to the new Department of Justice (DOJ) to form a suborganization devoted to "the detection and prosecution of those guilty of violating federal law." The amount was insufficient for the DOJ to fashion an integral investigating unit, so the DOJ contracted out the services to the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.
*****
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, an earthquake of magnitude 6 occurred at 9:05 p.m. on March 2, 1871, at Cape Mendocino, California. Depending on type of ground and stability of structures, a magnitude 6 earthquake can cause significant damage… especially in an old mine shaft that was poorly constructed in the first place.
*****


James: Thanks, Artie.
Artemus: "Thanks Artie"! Is that all you can say to me? I've just come back from the grave, risen like Lazarus, and that's what you say? "Thanks, Artie"?
James: Thanks, Artie.
Artemus: It's a pleasure.
- TNOT Pistoleros
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