SS senior field agent
Posted - 06/17/2012 : 11:19:34
| THE NIGHT OF THE DEVIL’S MISTRESS
Give me your hand first; fare you well.
—Julius Caesar (Act V, Scene 5), William Shakespeare (1564-1616), English dramatist and poet
“James my boy, this looks like it could be it.”
“I agree, Artemus. What do you say we go out in a blaze of glory?”
“I couldn’t have said it better, James.” He turned to his partner, and held out a hand. “I’m glad to have known you.”
Jim gripped that hand tightly for a moment, but said nothing. Down below them, hidden among the rocks, were at least thirty or forty men who wanted to kill them. He and Artie could get a few more of them, no doubt, but not nearly enough. Eventually those men would realize their opponents were out of ammunition. But before that happens, we will get as many of them as we can!
Of Adam's first wife, Lilith, it is told
(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve)
That ere the snakes, her sweet tongue could deceive
And her enchanted hair was the first gold—
And still she sits, young while the earth is old
And, subtly of herself contemplative,
Draws men to watch the bright net she can weave,
Till heart and body and life are in its hold.
—Lilith, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), English painter and poet
A few days earlier…
Artemus Gordon’s frown was deep as he mounted the chestnut after leading it out of the train car. “I have a bad feeling about this, Jim.”
Jim West nodded as he settled into the saddle. “Ned Malone is a good agent, but he’s also young and lacks experience.”
Now Artie shook his head as they started their steeds moving across the arid land. “Such a simple errand. Deliver a letter and go back to Phoenix.”
“You know as well as I do, Artie… things happen.”
Artemus did not reply as they urged their horses into a steady, ground burning lope. They had almost a two-day ride to Rattlesnake Wells, possibly longer. This siding was the closest they could get to the town in this part of the territory. The remoteness of the town and the lack of regular mail service to it was one reason why Ned Malone had been assigned to deliver the missive. He should have reported back to Phoenix several days ago.
Ordinarily, Malone’s usual partner, agent Frank Harper, would have accompanied him, or at least would have been assigned to track him down. But Frank was in Phoenix recovering from a bullet wound received during the pair’s last job in that city. In fact, West and Gordon had diverted their train on its way back to Washington to pick up Harper when this information was routed to them. The train crew would care for Frank while the other agents sought the young man.
Both Jim and Artie felt certain closeness—and even some responsibility for—young Edward Malone. The youthful agent had assisted them ably in one of his first assignments, and had since proven his courage and resourcefulness. Frank Harper had pretty much taken Malone under his wing and had often raved about the young agent’s progress and intelligence.
Malone wouldn’t do something stupid. Artie was pretty sure of that. Although a pretty good fighter and able to handle weapons, he was no Jim West. Malone was aware of that and used his other skills—his considerable charm and his brain. Kind of like me. Artie smiled inwardly. Frank was instructing Malone in the use and application of makeup and prostheses in disguises, and Artemus did as well when the opportunity arose.
The orders Ned had received had been to deliver the letter and return to Phoenix; he should have been back in time to also travel east on the Wanderer. As far as Gordon and West knew, the contents of the letter were not especially urgent. Malone had been sent because he was free of any current assignment.
Little was known about the town of Rattlesnake Wells or the area around it. Fort Challenge was about sixty miles south and east, and Jim suspected that the landscape was going to be similar—rough and arid. Rattlesnake Wells could not be a very big town, nor was it likely to be prosperous. The attorney in question, one John Gantt, had been practicing in Salt Lake City until two years ago, and Jim knew that the letter addressed to him was in regard to some government business Gantt had been involved in while in Utah.
Officials had simply taken advantage of the fact that Ned Malone was in Arizona and available to send him on this errand. Gantt needed to see and perhaps respond to the correspondence, but timing was not important, apparently. Why Ned had not returned on schedule was the big worry. Had he met with an accident along the way? In such a rough and remote area, any number of things could have happened, including bushwhacking.
At midday the agents came across a shallow stream and a small grove of cottonwoods, so they took advantage of the shade and water to rest themselves and their horses and have a meal. They did not talk much, nor attempt to speculate what had happened to their fellow agent. What they needed was to find out, not talk about it.
By sundown, two weary men and their equally weary horses made a dry camp among some rocks, having been unable to find further water and grateful they had been able to refill their canteens at the noontime stop. They had enough to refresh their horses as well as themselves, although both agreed they had better skip coffee in the morning. They had several hours of riding before they reached their destination and no knowledge of the countryside, especially where water was concerned.
At least, as Artemus commented while they saddled up in the morning, the time of year was in their favor. April in Arizona was warm, but not nearly so warm as it would be in July or August. However they were also missing the monsoon season when they might have encountered a bit of rain, when streams would have been running full.
The very crude map they had been given showed a road that led from Yuma to Rattlesnake Wells, and eventually, around midmorning of the second day, they encountered that road which, as Artie pointed out, was more of a trail than a road. Some signs indicated wagons traversed it, but not often.
“Wonder why this lawyer relocated to this town,” Jim mused as they rode. “As I understood, he had a very lucrative practice in Salt Lake City.”
“Maybe he likes small towns,” Artie retorted. “Not to mention little money!”
“Could be we’ll find out once we get there.”
“If we ever get there. Feels like we’ve been riding for days and…” Artie’s words halted as they topped a low rise and a high mesa came into view. “That must be it,” he said. The mesa was on the map.
“Or a mirage.”
They continued, as the trail dipped and then led around the periphery of the mesa, which was not the largest they had ever viewed, but still of good size. On this side the slopes were steep and fairly bare, but as they rounded and headed south again, the terrain became rougher, with larger and larger boulders becoming visible. Then piles of those rocks, building a lesser angled slope on the opposite side. They also saw in the distance a number of buildings.
Jim abruptly pulled his dusty black horse to a halt. “Artie…”
Artemus had halted his chestnut as well. “Maybe we’d better go into town separately.”
Jim nodded, unsurprised that his partner was having the same thoughts. “I’ll go on ahead, ask some questions. Follow me in a couple of hours.”
Artie pointed toward a grove of trees that appeared to be a mile or two towards the west. “Might be water in that spot. I’ll wait there and devise a disguise.”
“Any ideas what?”
Artie shrugged. “Seems to me in this kind of terrain, an addled old desert rat ought to be about right.”
Jim smiled briefly. “And one you do well.”
His partner’s dark brows lifted. “Are you insinuating that I’m addled, James?”
“You said it, not me,” Jim chuckled. “I’ll see you in a few hours.”
“Take care, Jim. We have no idea what’s going on—if anything.”
Jim waved and urged his horse forward. As he neared the cluster of buildings, he initially saw pretty much what he expected. Most structures on the outskirts were quite dilapidated. One that bore a sagging sign identifying it as having once been a livery stable had its roof half gone, and one wall nonexistent. The attached corral fence appeared to have been scavenged for wood.
However, heading into the middle of the town, he saw the buildings were in better shape, but not by much, not at all what he expected. All needed paint as well as other repairs. Only three or four people, all men, were on the sidewalks, and they paused to stare at him as he rode down the street. Jim saw wariness in their stances. Not many newcomers came this way, no doubt.
He had thought he would see more existing businesses, but only three appeared to be open: a general mercantile, a restaurant and a saloon. Spotting one of the sturdier buildings with a sign “Town Marshal,” Jim steered the black horse that way and dismounted in front of it.
Upon stepping up onto the porch, Jim discovered that the door of the office was locked. He rapped on it a couple of times without response, so he turned and looked around. Directly across the street he saw the office of “John L. Gantt, Attorney-at-Law.” He strode across the street, still conscious of the eyes on him. The men he had noticed initially had not moved and were still watching. At least the door to the attorney’s office was open, and Jim stepped inside. A young man was seated at a desk. He looked up in surprise.
“I’d like to speak to Mr. Gantt, please.”
“I’m sorry. Mr. Gantt insists on appointments. If you’d like to make one…”
Jim reached inside his coat and produced the leather folder with his badge and identification. “James West. Please ask Mr. Gantt to make an exception.”
Now the clerk jumped to his feet. “Yes, sir. One moment sir!” He hurried through a door behind him. Within seconds he returned, waving Jim to enter.
The man inside the book-lined office was in his late forties, Jim judged, with thinning dark hair, a rather round face that went along with his round body. He smiled widely. “Mr. James West! This is an honor! I’ve heard so much about you through the years. Why have I the pleasure of a visit from you?”
“Mr. Gantt, did an Edward Malone come to see you in the last couple of weeks?”
Gantt frowned. “Malone? I don't think so. Name isn’t familiar. Describe him?”
“Young man, about twenty-five, blond, blue-eyes. He’s also a government agent.”
Now Gantt was shaking his head, obviously baffled. “Doesn’t sound familiar at all. Why would an agent be coming to see me?”
“He was to deliver a letter regarding the Gil Bratton case.”
“I thought that case was closed!”
“It is, but some new information apparently came to light. I don't know the details. They were in the letter. I’m sure a duplicate will be on its way to you soon. My task is to locate Mr. Malone.”
“I wish I could help you, but I haven’t seen him. Is it possible he met with an accident on his way here?”
“All too possible,” Jim replied somberly. “This is just a starting point. I’ll have to try to backtrack him now. Of course, I probably should ask around town first.”
“Yes. Yes, I suppose that’s a good idea. However, it would seem to me that if Mr. Malone’s assignment was to call on me…”
“Yes. I know. Still, I have to be thorough. Is there a hotel in town?”
Gantt’s expression was rueful. “I’m afraid not. As you can likely discern, Rattlesnake Wells is not the most prosperous of towns at the moment.”
“I did notice. I presume the few stores exist with the support of farms and ranchers in the area.”
“As well as a couple of mines. The hope is that one of those mines will make a big strike.”
“I’m sure that would help.” Jim smiled slightly. “Any suggestions where I might find a room for the night?”
Gantt shrugged. “I know there are rooms above the saloon. Can’t vouch for their condition.”
“Any port in a storm, as the saying goes. Thank you, Mr. Gantt.” Jim started to turn toward the door but paused when the lawyer spoke again.
“I was under the impression that you always worked with a partner, Mr. West. Is he here with you?”
“No. He had another assignment. Doesn’t happen often, but occasionally we do get sent on different tasks. Thanks again.”
Noticing that the assistant was not at his desk, Jim passed through the outer room out onto the street, where he paused just a moment then headed toward the saloon. Except for the restaurant and general store, the other buildings were dark, most with boards over their doors and windows. Not a very prosperous town indeed. The puzzle of why a man like John Gantt would leave a successful practice and relocate here was even stronger.
The saloon proved to be the biggest surprise. The exterior matched the other buildings, unpainted and shabby, but once inside, Jim knew he had not been in a finer-appearing place this side of Saint Louis. Mirrors gleamed behind the long polished bar, and glistening glasses were stacked on the shelves among equally shiny bottles. Everything was first class, including the requisite portrait of a reclining nearly nude lady on one wall.
The saloon was also heavily populated. Perhaps that was even more astonishing. Probably twenty-five or thirty men were at the bar or occupying tables scattered around the room; several women were interspersed among them. A couple of poker games were in progress. One glance informed Jim that these men were not necessarily cowhands having an afternoon of recreation. He recognized a few of them and also sensed that every one of these men knew who he was and why he was here, especially because conversation all but ceased for a few seconds upon his entry.
He moved through the tables to the bar and asked for a beer from the smiling bartender. When it was served he put a coin on the bar. “I was told I might be able to get a room for the night here.”
“Maybe. You’ll have to talk to Mrs. Devereux.”
“The owner. She’ll be down shortly. Enjoy your beer.”
Jim murmured his thanks and sipped the beer, his gaze in the mirror. Every man—and woman—present was watching him. I sometimes tell Artie that things are not always what they seem. In this case, however, I have a feeling things are exactly as they seem. Something is going on here… and I’m even more worried about Ned.
He had consumed about half the beer and was considering asking the bartender to send for this Mrs. Devereux when a man who had been sitting at a table glaring at him abruptly got to his feet and stalked toward him. “West!”
“Hello, Horse. I wondered where you had gotten to.”
Horace Creech was a rawboned man with thinning blond hair and with enough vanity that caused him to generally keep his hat on. The given name had been shortened to “Horse” a long time ago due to the similarity in pronunciation.
“You ain’t welcome here,” Creech snarled. His right hand hovered close to the weapon strapped to this side.
“Sorry to hear that. However, I do have business here.”
“I’m sayin’ you ain’t and you best get moving on out of here. Now.”
Jim casually lifted the glass of beer to his lips, keeping his eyes fastened on Creech. He saw the flicker in the other man’s gaze and the slight flinch to his shoulders. The beer glass fell toward the floor almost at the same instant Jim’s hand came up with his pistol it in. He fired once and Horse Creech screamed in pain, dropping his own gun as he grabbed his upper right arm with his left hand. Blood seeped through his fingers.
“Damn you!” Creech squealed. “Kill him! Kill him!”
Jim tensed as he realized that several men had come to their feet and were ready to pull their weapons. Before that happened, a woman’s clear voice rang out. “That’s enough!”
Every man froze, their eyes turning toward the woman descending the stairs at the far end of the room. She was beautiful, with glowing chestnut hair stylishly coifed, clad in a satin gown in a shade of gold that enhanced the color of her hair and displayed a magnificent figure. Jim thought she was probably in her mid thirties, perhaps a year or two younger or older. She was smiling as she approached him, the admiration overt in her gold-brown eyes.
Jim glanced down at the shattered glass on the floor and the spilled beer. “Sorry about the mess.”
“Not a problem,” she said, shifting her gaze to the other men. “Get back to whatever you were doing. Creech, go find Lucas. He’ll fix you up.”
Not waiting to see if her commands were obeyed—which they were—she turned back to Jim. “Hello.”
Jim smiled. “Mrs. Devereux?”
“Madalon. Madalon Devereux. Mr.—?”
“West. James West. Have you a room I can rent for the night?”
“A very nice room, Mr. West. Would you like to see it?”
“This is a surprising place,” Jim commented as he followed her up the stairs.
“I think you’ll find many surprises in Rattlesnake Wells,” she replied, glancing back over her shoulder with her gleaming eyes.
“I shouldn’t be surprised.”
She laughed as they reached the upper floor. “That’s my room,” she pointed to the first door. “I’ll put you in the one next to it… for now.”
Opening the door, she preceded him in. The room was small, but nicely furnished with a bureau and a single bed. “I think this will do fine. How much do I owe you?”
“We can talk about that later. What brings you to Rattlesnake Wells, Mr. West?”
“I’m looking for a friend who has gone missing. Perhaps you saw him. Young man, blond, blue eyes. His name is Edward Malone. Called Ned.”
“I’m afraid I cannot help you on that score. We don’t get many visitors here. I’m sure I would have noticed him. Has he been missing long?”
“A week or so. He was on an errand and didn’t return.”
“How sad. You’re very good with your gun.”
“Just a knack.”
“James West. The name is familiar.”
“Is it? Kind of a common name, I guess.”
“But not a common man.”
“How’s the food in the restaurant down the street?”
“Terrible. At least compared to mine. I invite you to take your meals with me, Mr. West. Dinner… and breakfast… at no extra charge.”
“That’s very tempting.” He smiled warmly, meeting her eyes. Once again, he realized, things were exactly as they seemed. She was attempting to seduce him and making no bones about it. Perhaps the real question was why. Why so quickly and so openly? Jim West was accustomed to women noticing him and making advances, but he sensed more existed in her motives than the usual.
“I’m sure you want to rest and clean up. I’ll have some hot water sent up. I’ll let you know when dinner is ready.”
“Thank you. I should attend to my horse. I noticed the livery stable seemed to be out of business.”
She laughed. It was a rich and throaty sound. “Slightly. But I have a stable out back. You may put him there. My hostler will take care of him for you.”
“I’d better do that myself. My horse can be a bit difficult to handle.”
“Just like its master, I’ll wager. I’m very glad to have met you, Mr. West.” Madalon Devereux turned and left the room, closing the door behind her. Only then did Jim realize he had not been given a key to the room.
Probably on purpose!
They say, an old man is twice a child.
—Hamlet (Act II, Scene 2), William Shakespeare (1564-1616), English dramatist and poet
“Hey, old timer, where the hell you get a horse like that?”
Artie carefully wrapped the reins of the chestnut around the hitching rack, grabbed onto a post as though for support, and pulled himself up onto the porch of the only saloon he saw in town. He had dismounted slowly and stiffly, as befitting a man with a white beard. “Ain’t no business of yours, sonny!” he cackled. “But if ya gotta know, I found her. Raised her from a pup, I did.”
“How much you want for her?” the man leaning against the wall asked. He was lean and hard looking, with a gun strapped low on his hip.
“Huh! Why’d I wanna sell her? Don’t need the money. Soon’s I make my strike, I’m gonna build her a big stable all her own. Good horse, she is. Deserves it! An’ me, I deserve a cold beer!” Hitching up his baggy trousers, he shambled by the man and through the doors of the saloon, where he stopped abruptly, unable to disguise his surprise.
Well, this is not at all what I expected considering the shape of the town!
After a moment of looking around, and being cognizant that he was under scrutiny from every eye in the place, he made his way toward the bar and put a coin down before asking for a beer, quite aware that the barkeep was giving him a fishy glance. Quite likely other desert rats wandered in from time to time and expected a free drink.
He drank the beer with obvious relish, all the while scanning the patrons of the saloon. Jim was not present. What that meant, Artie was unsure. They had not set an exact time for Artie’s old coot to roam into town. Jim could be out talking to other residents about the missing man. However, I’m not too sure how many other folks reside here, considering the number of boarded up buildings. These gentlemen don’t exactly look like farmers and merchants!
He had just drained the glass and was about to ask for a refill when he saw the reflection of the woman descending the stairs. She paused a moment and looked his direction, but seemed to quickly lose interest. I’ll bet she didn’t do that if she spotted Jim! He continued to surreptitiously regard her movements as she strolled among the tables, speaking to the various men, occasionally laughing at some remark.
“Who’s that?” he finally asked the bartender after signaling for another brew.
“That’s Mrs. Devereux. She owns the place.” A freshly filled glass was placed in front of Artie.
“That right? Think she’d be interested in staking a sure thing?”
The man snorted loudly. “Not likely, old man. Not likely.”
Artie displayed umbrage. “Well, it’s a sure thing. She’d be foolish to turn it down.”
The bartender just laughed and moved away. Artie muttered something about fools, took a long swig of his beer, and spotted Jim coming down the stairs. Mrs. Devereux saw him as well, and turned her full attention on him, although she did not move from where she was standing. Jim nodded and smiled slightly in her direction, then passed through the saloon and out the door with barely a glance at Artemus.
Artie did not move, continuing to savor his beer and make remarks to the bartender about a grubstake, remarks that were ignored. Mrs. Devereux glanced his way a time or two but still did not approach him. Her gaze had been directed on the door through which Jim exited for a long moment after that agent’s departure. Artie saw the usual interest women displayed in Jim West in her gaze, but wondered if he did not see more. However, he was unsure what that “more” meant.
“Now that was good stuff for the inner man,” Artie sighed then. “Hey, ain’t there no ho-tell in this town? I’m in need of a night on a real bed.”
“No hotel,” the bartender replied, but did not offer any suggestions.
Artie sighed noisily. “Well, is there a place I can put my horse up?”
“You can use the stable out back. Mrs. Devereux don’t mind.”
Artie pushed himself away from the bar and shuffled out the front door. There he paused and looked around. The man who had been out there was gone. Artie had not seen him come inside. Jim was not in view either. Artie took the time to pull out cigarette makings and carefully roll one, his attention seemingly on his task, but all the while keeping his eyes on his surroundings. He was rewarded when Jim emerged from the general store across and down the street. Jim halted long enough to light a cigarillo, which he apparently had just purchased, then he crossed the dusty street, angling toward the saloon, whereupon he disappeared into the alley alongside the building.
Artie lit his own smoke, enjoyed it for a few moments then tossed it in the street, untying the chestnut from the hitching rack and leading it down the passage on the other side of the building. Jim was just inside, currying the black horse. He glanced at Artie but did not speak. In character, however, as the garrulous desert rat, Artie struck up a conversation.
“You live in this hole of a town, mister?”
“No, just passing through.”
Artie pulled Mesa’s saddle off and threw it aside. “Not much of a town.”
“Doesn’t seem to be.”
“Can’t even find a hotel!”
“Ask in the saloon. They have rooms.”
“Huh! The barkeep didn’t say nothin’ when I asked about a hotel.”
Jim had been looking and listening carefully as they conversed. Now he lowered his voice. “I think we’re alone. I got a room, Artie. And an invitation to dinner… and breakfast.”
“I can guess who made the offer! Learn anything?”
“Not a damn thing. John Gantt claims Ned never showed up. Mrs. Devereux also says she doesn’t recognize the description I gave her. Something very odd is going on here, Artie.”
“You’re telling me. Looks like the only residents are gunslingers. Other than the lawyer.”
“That’s what I noticed. I think there are at least forty or fifty of them here. I recognized a few, and I think they recognized me. Only one approached me. Horse Creech.”
“Yeah? I didn’t see him in there.”
Jim smiled briefly. “He went to get patched up and hasn’t come back I guess. Our lovely hostess, Madalon Devereux, put a stop to further mayhem.”
“Madalon? Is she French?”
“Hmm. Well, I’ll hang around town for the rest of the day, then might disappear. Occurs to me I could have a problem riding back into town. One fellow paid particular attention to the horse here.” He patted the chestnut’s neck. “I didn’t happen to run across an old mule that I could use instead.”
“I’m wondering if this is a dead end, Artie. Either Ned didn’t make it this far… or it’s as far as he made it.”
“Yeah. And how do we find out, short of locating a grave?”
Jim shook his head. He did not like to consider the idea that something happened to Ned Malone, but he also knew it was all too possible. Biggest question would be why. Ned could have arranged to stay overnight at Mrs. Devereux’s saloon, but why would she have harmed him?
“Artie, I’m going to be hard-pressed to find an excuse to stay in town beyond tonight as well. Why don’t you camp at that grove you spotted? I’ll join you there tomorrow and we can decide our next step.”
“Hmph! While you’re enjoying breakfast in bed!”
Jim grinned. “Breakfast in bed wasn’t mentioned… but who knows?” He sobered then. “I have a notion a man might do well do avoid Mrs. Devereux’s amorous clutches. I have a distinct sense she’s more than just a saloonkeeper.”
“Strikes me that a woman of her looks and tastes—considering the décor in that tavern—could do a lot better elsewhere.”
“My thoughts exactly. Why is she here? Why is Gantt here? The marshal’s office is locked and although I haven’t asked, I’m sure no lawman resides here.”
“All right. I’ll stick around until after supper, then head out. Watch yourself, James. I saw quite a few guns in there.”
“I’ll be a good boy.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Artie grinned as he waved and wandered out of the stable, reassuming the hunched over, shambling gait of the old prospector.
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
SS senior field agent
Posted - 06/17/2012 : 11:25:06
Jim was seated at a corner table, a glass of tequila in front of him, when he saw John Gantt enter. The attorney glanced around, saw him and nodded, before going to the bar himself. He procured a glass of beer and made his way to Jim’s table. No one else had approached him since the encounter with Horse earlier, not even one of the several women who looked his way with interest more than once.
“Mr. West. Any luck?”
“None. Sit down, Mr. Gantt. Taking time off away from the law books?”
Gantt chuckled. “As you might guess, I have a lot of time on my hands here. Not the busiest metropolis in the world.”
“Makes one curious why a man would leave a prosperous office—in a thriving metropolis—to set up shop here.” Jim picked up his glass and sipped the smooth liquor.
Gantt did not appear to take offense at the somewhat prying question, shaking his head slightly in some bemusement. “A man can make mistakes. Big ones. I decided I did not like Salt Lake City, so different from the rural area in Illinois where I grew up. So I cast around for an area, a town, where a need might exist. Heard about Rattlesnake Wells, and decided to try my lot. Not a good decision, as it turns out.”
“Stubbornness? I’m not really sure. I know that if any of the several mines strike it big, the town will boom again—and I’ll be in on the bottom floor.”
“In the meanwhile, you remain on the bottom floor.”
Gantt sighed. “True. Very true. What are you going to do next in regard to your missing colleague?”
“Don't know yet. Get a good night’s sleep for one thing. I’ve been on the trail for several days. Then I guess I’ll try backtracking Malone, checking towns where he might have passed through.” Now Jim shook his head sadly. “It’s possible we may never find him. The Arizona desert is a big place. But I will make sure that the letter is re-sent.”
The lawyer waved a dismissive hand. “That’s the least of my worries. Sad to think a man so young may have lost his life—perhaps to some road agent, if not to an accident.”
“He was a good kid,” Jim said mournfully. “Had the makings of a fine law officer.” Beyond Gantt, Jim saw Madalon Devereux coming down the stairs. She paused just an instant, then headed straight toward his corner table. When Jim started getting to his feet, Gantt looked around and rose as well.
“Sit down, gentlemen. I hope you are enjoying yourselves.”
“You know I always do, Madalon,” Gantt beamed. “Whatever else Rattlesnake Wells lacks, as you may notice, Mr. West, it is not a fine saloon with excellent refreshments.”
“Nor beautiful women,” Jim smiled, sitting down again as she took the vacant chair. “I’m looking forward to our dinner, Mrs. Devereux.” He saw Gantt look at him sharply.
But she smiled warmly. “I put a chicken in the oven, Mr. West. I have a special recipe for roast chicken.”
“Handed down for generations?”
She laughed. “No. Taught to me by my late husband. He was a chef in New Orleans before the war. He also passed on a recipe for dessert… which I’m sure you’ll enjoy.”
“I have no doubt.” Jim allowed his eyes to meet her golden ones, aware that John Gantt was simmering. Hard to believe this pudgy man had any chance with a woman like this, but stranger things had happened. Whether or not it was all a figment of the lawyer’s imagination, he was definitely jealous.
Now she asked the same question Gantt had. “Have you had any luck in finding your missing man?”
“None. As I was just telling Mr. Gantt, I think my next step is to attempt to backtrack him.”
“Sadly,” Gantt put in, “Mr. West acknowledges that they may never know what happened to the young man.”
“That is sad,” she murmured. Jim did not notice any particular sorrow in her eyes, however. Once again, he was unsure what he did see. He thought he had never met a woman so enigmatic. Her face and eyes did not always register her words, and perhaps not even her thoughts.
He decided to push a little harder. “I’ve asked Mr. Gantt what brings him to a town like Rattlesnake Wells…”
“And you’re wondering what I’m doing here.”
“You might say that.”
“Well, look around, Mr. West. Despite the appearance of the town, you can see that I am quite successful. Every table is filled. Every man is drinking. I’m making a good profit.”
“Which raises another question. Where do these men work?”
She shrugged. “I never ask. As long as they pay for their drinks, it doesn’t matter to me where they got it.”
“I can understand that. By the way, where is the nearest ranch or mine? Perhaps I should ride out and ask about my missing friend.”
“The closest ranch is the Culligan place,” Gantt put in, “about twenty miles south, near the border. As for the mines, they are scattered all over the place in the nearby hills.”
“Has valuable ore been found in this area in the past?”
“Some gold, a little silver,” Madalon responded. “Just enough to feed a man or two, not much else.”
“Yet you feel there could be a bigger strike.”
“Geologists say so,” Gantt said.
“Is that right? I saw that old prospector in here earlier. I expect he feels something could be found as well. Those old desert rats can be pretty shrewd.”
“Lafe, the bartender, told me the old fellow was looking for a stake,” Madalon glanced toward the bar where the barkeep was polishing glasses. “Too bad he didn’t ask me. I might be interested.”
“Has he left town? You might still have an opportunity.” This chitchat was interesting Jim. Neither Gantt nor Mrs. Devereux exhibited any signs of concern that a government man was in their midst. That could not exactly be said for many of the men in the saloon, who were definitely on edge, watching and waiting, especially the few that Jim had encountered in the past. Perhaps the mere fact that he had not acknowledged them was even more worrisome to them.
But what in the devil are they all doing here?
“Perhaps I’ll tell Lafe that if the old man comes in again, to send him to see me,” Madalon said thoughtfully. “Might be interesting to get to know him better.”
Something in her manner, something indefinable at the moment, put Jim’s nerves on edge. When he had seen Artie in here previously, Madalon had not gone near him. Had she gotten close enough to spot the disguise? Artie was generally quite expert in creating a new character, but he had been discovered in the past. I’d better try to warn him.
Madalon Devereux left the table moments later, saying she needed to go check her oven, and reminding Jim again of their supper appointment. Jim saw how John Gantt watched her cross the room, where she paused to talk to a trio of men at a table. The lawyer turned to him.
“Mrs. Devereux invited you to dinner, I take it.”
“Yes, she was very kind. Dinner and breakfast.”
Gantt’s lips tightened. “She’s a very good cook.”
“Is she? I take it you’ve partaken of her meals.” Jim kept his voice and expression bland.
“Many times. We are good friends.”
“She’s a beautiful woman. I’m quite surprised she is hiding her light under a barrel, as the saying goes, in a place like Rattlesnake Wells.”
“She’s a great deal like me. Tired of the big city.”
“New Orleans I take it. Do you know how long she’s been here? I’ve spent a good deal of time in New Orleans since the war. Don’t recall ever hearing of a chef named Devereux.”
“Afraid I don’t know the answer to any of those questions, Mr. West. I’ve been here just two years, and Madalon was established prior to my arrival. I have never asked any prying questions.”
Jim pretended he did not comprehend the gibe. “Well, as she pointed out, she’s been successful. It doesn’t hurt, I’m sure, that this is probably the only saloon in a fifty mile radius. And a fine one to boot.”
At that moment, Jim saw the old prospector enter the saloon. Artie looked around then ambled toward the bar. Jim picked up his glass and finished the tequila. “I’m going to get a refill. Can I freshen your drink?”
“Oh, no thank you. I’d better get back to my office. My clerk tends to doze if I’m gone too long. Not that he has much to do otherwise.” Gantt chuckled as he got to his feet. “I just think it looks better if I have an assistant.”
“I see what you mean. Perhaps I’ll see you again before I leave, Mr. Gantt. And again, I’ll make sure a copy of that letter reaches you in due time.”
As Gantt headed out the front door, Jim strolled over to the bar and situated himself alongside Artie, who had just received a beer. The bartender was down at the far end now. Artie lifted his glass to his mouth. “Anything new?”
Jim pretended to scratch his upper lip, covering his mouth with his hand. He could see in the reflection that eyes were still on him. “I’m not sure. Can’t talk now. If Mrs. Devereux approaches you, skedaddle.”
Though curious, Artie did not ask any further questions as the bartender returned and filled a fresh glass for Jim. He knew that his partner would not make such a statement without good reason. Jim turned and walked back to his table. He saw Artie down his drink and then totter out the front door—just as Madalon Devereux started toward him. She stopped and did not attempt to follow him out, turning and going up the stairs.
The feminine voice startled Jim. He had been so intent on watching Artie and Mrs. Devereux he had not seen the other woman approach his table. She was in her late twenties, with dark hair and a thin but attractive face. “Sit down,” he invited, a bit curious. Prior to now, none of the other women had made an attempt to join him. “Would you like a drink?”
“Thank you. A beer would be nice.”
Jim went to the bar and brought back a glass of the amber brew, placing it on the table before her. “My name’s Jim.”
“I’m Kate.” She lifted her glass to her smiling lips but did not drink. “Please don’t react to what I’m going to say.”
Jim smiled back, placing his elbow on the table and his chin on the heel of his hand. “I’ll try not to.”
Now she did sip the beer, and continued smiling, leaning toward him. “You’re looking for the young man, Ned.”
“That’s right.” He laughed now, and winked at her. “What do you know about him?”
“He was here.” Kate reached over and touched his free hand, which rested on the table. “But I don't know what happened to him. I know he didn’t leave Rattlesnake Wells. His horse was tethered on the street after he disappeared. It may be in the stable now.”
“Anything else you can tell me?” Jim had not paid particular attention to the horses in the stable; next time he would.
“Only that you should leave right away. This is a dangerous place for a man like you… alone.” With a merry laugh, Kate rose, carrying her beer, and moved to join several men engaged in a poker game. Jim watched her for a few moments, smiling slightly, while his thoughts were roiling.
This is bizarre. Why would anyone harm Malone? Unless he saw something he wasn’t supposed to see. That was the only explanation Jim could come up with. That indicated that both John Gantt and Madalon Devereux were lying, not much of a stretch to believe. He already knew something was going on in Rattlesnake Wells. The mere presence of such a large number of known gunmen indicated that. But what?
Leaving his glass of liquor on the table, Jim rose and went to the door, but paused a moment before stepping outside. He saw John Gantt emerge from the alley alongside the saloon, striding toward his office. Well… I’ll wager there’s a back entrance, perhaps a stairway, to the living quarters upstairs, and Mr. Gantt just paid a visit to Mrs. Devereux. That was not unduly surprising. Gantt had not been happy to learn that the saloon owner was going to host the agent for a meal. Whether jealousy was the only element playing into that remained to be seen.
Leaving the saloon, Jim walked down the alley toward the rear himself, glancing idly at the rear of the building and noticing what he had not before, a door. Entering the stable, he made a show of checking on his black horse while noticing that Artie’s chestnut was gone. A chubby, middle-aged man was there mucking out the stalls, but Jim did not ask him about the old prospector. He would have no reason to do so, and he did not know what this stableman might or might not report to his employer. He also did not take any more than a cursory glance at other steeds in the stalls, unable to see Ned’s buckskin gelding in the dimness.
The shadows were long as the sun was lowering, and Jim knew his partner had probably departed to set up camp in the place they agreed upon. He debated momentarily with himself whether to saddle up and ride out after him, but decided that he would have a better chance to learn more if he kept his appointment with the lovely Mrs. Devereux.
A man who has committed a mistake and doesn't correct it is committing another mistake.
—Confucius (c. 551-478 BC), Chinese philosopher
Artemus emptied the last dregs of the coffeepot into the still glowing coals, his gaze sweeping over the nearby landscape. No sign of the black horse and its rider. He glanced up to note the position of the sun. Midmorning was approaching. He had thought Jim would head out soon after his morning meal with Mrs. Devereux.
Granted, the lovely lady might offer reasons for dallying, but Artie knew his partner well enough to know that Jim would make his excuses and leave, not overwhelmed by the woman’s beauty or her advances. Not when something as serious as finding Ned was involved.
He had lain awake for a long while last night fretting over the mistake that had been made, even while realizing that had he the opportunity to do it over, he probably would have come to the same decision. Entering Rattlesnake Wells as an old prospector had seemed logical. The town was located in a desert area where some mining had taken place, and might still be going on. When the old sourdough had gone to the stable to saddle his horse, a very friendly man had been there, engaging him in conversation and displaying no suspicion whatsoever that the prospector was not who he appeared to be.
Yet, in retrospect he knew now that a guise as a gunman, or even a down on his luck cowboy would have been better. They had not had any information that would have led them to realize the situation in the town. All had seemed straightforward: Ned Malone disappeared; find him. Nothing had indicated they would enter a nearly deserted town, populated by a horde of gun-bearing men, many of them known outlaws, even if warrants were not currently out for them.
The fact that that one man had paid particular notice to the chestnut exacerbated the problem. It would have been great if I had been able to come up with an old mule, or at least another horse, for the old coot to ride. What kind of excuse could he give for riding the same horse with its distinctive blaze?
Of course I could say I killed the old man for the horse. Artie chuckled aloud, causing the beast in question to lift its head from the small pool created by the spring and look toward him, ears forward, almost as though asking, “what’s so funny?” Artie grinned, stepping over to pat the steed’s neck.
“Don’t worry about it, girl. I don’t plan to kill your master. At least not yet.” With a sigh he looked out in the direction of Rattlesnake Wells again. “James, where the devil are you? If you don’t show up soon, I’m going to have to go into town anyway, damn the horse mix-up.” The idea of saying he had killed for the rights to the horse seemed more and more the way to go.
Even while realizing a return to Rattlesnake Wells was probably necessary, Artemus knew he could make an even more egregious error if he rashly saddled up and rode into town immediately. A very good reason could exist for Jim’s delay in meeting him, something other than the usual, that is, Jim being in peril.
He thought about Jim’s warning to stay away from Mrs. Devereux. Jim appeared to believe that the woman might see through his disguise. Too damn bad we didn’t have more opportunity to talk after that. Artie had gone to the stable, hoping that Jim would follow, but with the stableman there, he had not had much of an excuse to linger any longer than he had, nor even to tarry in town. He had considered breaking into one of the boarded-up stores but the chance of discovery was too strong, especially after dark when he would have had to had some form of illumination, if only a match.
So I need to be patient a while longer and trust that Jim is handling whatever situation has arisen. Perhaps he’s learned something new and is investigating it. I can only hope!
Nor stony tower, nor walls of beaten brass,
Nor airless dungeon, nor strong links of iron,
Can be retentive to the strength of spirit;
But life, being weary of these worldly bars,
Never lacks power to dismiss itself.
—Julius Caesar (Cassius at I, iii), William Shakespeare (1564-1616), English dramatist and poet
Ned Malone laughed softly in the near complete darkness when he heard his companion’s grunt of discomfort. “Not the finest accommodations I’ve ever had, that’s for certain.”
Jim West sighed. “Would have been nice if they’d at least provided a light.” The only illumination into the room came from a narrow slot at the top of one outer wall, where either the building had shifted or a too short piece of wood had been used. The space was barely three inches high, eight or nine inches long. About all it succeeded in doing was to allow the men inside to know whether it was day or night outside, relieving the gloom only minimally.
“I wish I could tell you one gets accustomed to the darkness,” Malone sighed. “That’s not the case. The only light I see is when they bring food. Of course they carry a lantern. Damn, that lantern seems as bright as the sun after all the time in the darkness!”
Jim was silent for a long moment. He had been imprisoned for just a few hours. Malone had been held in this cellar for over a week now. He told Jim that originally he had been kept tied to a chair in a second floor room, but Mrs. Devereux had decided the cellar was a more secure prison. His weapons of course had been confiscated. He had some putty in the heels of his boots but an inspection of the heavy door made it doubtful it could inflict much damage unless he used all of it—which would create a noise loud enough to bring every man in town. Their chances of reaching their horses were extremely slim.
Malone had arrived in Rattlesnake Wells on schedule and delivered the letter to John Gantt without a problem. Like Jim, he had asked about overnight accommodations and the lawyer had sent him to the saloon. “At the time, I’m sure Gantt thought I’d stay the night and head out in the morning, which are what my plans were. However…”
However, he had recognized two men among the numerous gun-toters in the saloon. “Zeke and Wilford Dean.” As soon as Ned spoke the names, Jim realized what had occurred. The Deans were notorious for their assaults on the federal government since the war. They had not served in the Confederate Army or, as far as any information indicated, even with a renegade band like Quantrill. Yet they harbored an intense hatred of the national government. They had led raids on government stores and ambushed military patrols. A very high reward was currently offered for their capture. The pair had, apparently, managed to stay out of sight when Jim West arrived in town and in doing so had probably stayed out of Artie’s range as well.
Ned had tried to pretend he did not recognize the pair, but his surprise at spotting them had given him away. Worse, they knew him as an agent. Within moments Malone had been taken prisoner and grilled about his presence in Rattlesnake Wells. Gantt appeared to accept the errand of delivering the letter, but Madalon Devereux was more suspicious. Although Gantt argued for killing the young agent, Mrs. Devereux was certain Malone had more to tell.
“They knocked me around a little,” Malone stated. Jim had seen the bruises on Ned’s now-bearded face when he was brought into the cellar under lantern-light. “But she seemed to think that simply holding me prisoner in the dark for a long spell would work as well.” He laughed softly. “And she might have been right, after a while.”
“I expect I’ll be due for some questioning,” Jim murmured. He had been groggy under the influence of some drug his hostess had slipped him when brought into the cellar. He had been very careful, or thought he had, eating only what she also ate. But somehow she managed to put the narcotic into his food or drink.
They were “free” to roam around the cellar room, but as Ned told him and Jim soon found out, the prison was secure. The wooden door was very heavy and barred on the outside, the walls dirt and stone.
Jim was glad they were not chained or tied up, but he was unsure at this point whether that was going to be much help. His first plan was to figure out the schedule and procedure of the food delivery. Ned said his meals were brought every morning and evening. He related he was quite hungry each time the food arrived, “which might account for why it tastes good!”
One man—who Ned thought was the cook at the nearby restaurant—brought in the food while another one or two stood at the doorway holding guns. Those guns were the sticking point. They could jump the cook, but would be at the mercy of those weapons, unless they could somehow convince the guards to enter the cell.
Ned had also been able to tell him something of what was going on here, as much as he had gleaned from the questioning sessions and conversation he overheard. Madalon Devereux and John Gantt were planning to succeed where Armando Galiano failed; they expected to take over Sonora with their army of killers.
“That’s insane!” had been Jim’s first reaction. Yet, upon considering, he knew it was feasible. The military presence in Sonora was small. Nothing had changed in that respect. Had the imposter colonel been able to lead the forces from Fort Challenge against the Sonora garrison that morning, the Mexicans would have been trampled.
Mrs. Devereux and Gantt were not using Galiano’s tactics of attempting to set the two armies against each other. They were going to send forays into the Mexican state to ambush the military and other authorities, to weaken and unnerve not only the army but also the civilian population. Malone said he understood that they had gathered over fifty toughs so far and expected to bring in forty or fifty more at least.
“A hundred men who don’t mind bushwhacking and killing in cold blood could create havoc,” Jim concurred. “However, I’m not entirely clear on why they would want to take over Sonora.”
“I remember Artemus saying that Galiano wanted to use the state as a stepping stone to taking all of Mexico,” Ned put in.
“That’s true. This is an odd situation, Ned. These two people—how did they come up with this idea? How did they know each other previously? Why hadn’t we heard about them before?”
“That I cannot answer, Jim.”
Jim laughed softly in the gloom. “I know, Ned. I’m just releasing some frustration, I guess. At least we still have our secret weapon out there.”
“You think Artemus can do anything?”
“He’ll do something. Whether it’ll be enough… well, we’ll find out.”
Be slow in considering, but resolute in action.
—Bias of Priene (c. 566 BC), one of 7 Greek sages
Drastic action was needed. That was the only conclusion Artemus Gordon could reach. He could return to Rattlesnake Wells as the old prospector, but doubted he would learn much. No, a bold move was required, but he was initially unsure what it should be. He had brought several items of clothing in the carpetbag tied on the back of his saddle, having used the ragged outfit for the sourdough, but should he go in another disguise, or as himself, a Secret Service agent? Biggest problem right now was the horse he had been and would be riding regardless of his identity. Would a story of having hijacked it—or purchased it—from the prospector be accepted?
The sun was now deep into its downward descent toward the western horizon. Jim had not appeared, and that meant one thing, and one thing only, to Artemus: his partner was in trouble. At this point, the extent and seriousness of that trouble was a moot point. Jim would have come, or at least sent word, if he could. Now Artemus had to find out what had happened. As difficult as it was to wait, however, he knew the wisest course was for him to make a late night reconnaissance into town. Once he learned as much as he could, he would make the audacious ride into Rattlesnake Wells.
Artie stared at the bag sitting on the ground at his feet and went through the inventory of its contents in his mind. Suddenly he smiled and looked toward the horse. “Well, old girl, seems I will have to kill your master after all!”
There are men and women who are in life as the wild river and the night-owl, as the blasted tree and the wind over ancient graves.
—Charles Godfrey Leland (1824-1903), American scholar, miscellaneous writer and litterateur
The saloon was relatively quiet at midmorning. Madalon Devereux sat at a table near the rear with one of her bartenders, going over a list of needed supplies. She would send a pair of men with a wagon to one town or another for them in the next day or so. She varied the sites from which the supplies were procured to allay suspicion about where all these boxes of food and liquor were going, and who was buying them.
Concentration on the task at hand was difficult because her thoughts kept returning to the two men currently imprisoned in the cellar below, and to one man in particular. A long while had elapsed since she had encountered such an attractive man. The appeal was more than simply his fine-featured face and lithe body, though that certainly added to it. No, the allure was also the way he carried himself, the confidence and even arrogance in the lift of his chin, the obvious intelligence and barely disguised amusement in his green eyes.
She had heard of James West but had never seen him before. Somehow he was not at all as she had pictured him. The stories of his physical prowess had caused her to think of a brute of a man, more like those she was hiring for the upcoming venture. James West was a gentleman; that was evident. She did not even have to talk to him for long to determine that. The twenty or thirty minutes they conversed at the dinner table before she slipped him the drug on the rim of the coffee cup she served him was all that was needed.
The question now, of course, was what to do with him. She had kept the younger agent, Malone, as a possible hostage in case plans went awry—something she did not believe would happen but was wise enough to anticipate every angle. Killing him eventually would have been regrettable; he was good looking himself, and very young. West would be even more valuable as a pawn if it came to that, but the idea of killing West was much less straightforward in her head.
“Mrs. Devereux?” The voice of Abe, the bartender, cut through her thoughts. “What about the rye? Want to replenish it? These boys don’t seem to take to it that much.”
“No. If we run out, they can drink bourbon. They…”
Madalon noticed the sudden hush in the low murmur of conversation that had been going on among the twenty or so men who were in the room, mostly playing poker and drinking coffee. She had let them know early on she did not approve of consuming alcohol before midday, even if it did cut into her profits. But the talk had halted and when she looked, she saw that every man’s attention was focused on the one who had just come in through the front door.
Her own gaze shifted that way, and initially she viewed only a silhouette. However, as he strolled toward the bar, she saw a man attired mostly in black. Mexican she thought, or at least part Mexican. His garb was well fitting black trousers, almost knee-high black boots, with a short black jacket trimmed in silver conchos. A dark red shirt was under the jacket, and his hat was also black, the hatband consisting of more conchos. The brown gun belt draped over his trim hips as though he had been born with it in place.
He spoke a moment to the man behind the bar and then turned his back to lean against the bar with one elbow, stroking his thick mustache with the finger of his other hand as he gazed over the other men, who were now beginning to talk again, but in even lower tones than they had been using before. Madalon got the impression that the black-clad man knew quite well the effect he had, and was amused by it.
“Finish the list, Abe,” she said, getting to her feet. “I’ll check it over later.”
Artie had spotted Madalon Devereux the moment he stepped into the tavern, but had deliberately kept his gaze away from her. He now saw her rising from the table and starting his way. This will be the acid test. I still don't know what Jim had in mind when he warned me away from her. Need to turn on all my charm and keep her from inspecting too closely. So he grinned in her direction.
“Ah, señorita! What a surprise to find such enchantment in a godforsaken place such as this!” He took off his hat and swept it in a low bow. “El Pantera at your service, señorita. ”
“The Panther,” she said, pausing a few feet away. “And it is señora.”
“A thousand-thousand pardons, señora. I should have known that such a lovely creature would not be free. May I buy you a drink?”
“We don’t serve this early. Usually.” She nodded toward Ernest behind the bar and he produced a bottle and glass, filling it to the brim with tequila.
Artie picked up the tumbler and held it high. “To you, señora. A pleasure to view such beauty after so many days in that desert!” He took a large swallow and was not surprised to find it flowing down his throat smoothly. Good stuff.
“And why are you wandering in the desert so many days, Mr. Panther, if I may ask.” Her eyes had raked over his form a couple of times now, from the dusty yet shiny black boots, up the slim black trousers and all the way to his thick and wavy dark hair.
“Just sight-seeing,” he grinned, and took another swallow before placing the glass on the bar. “I am so surprised to see this town, and even more astonished when I find this lovely place. I hoped to get water and instead I find ambrosia, for the inner man and for the eyes.” He allowed admiration to shine in his brown eyes, not a difficult task. “What is this place, if I may ask?”
“A sanctuary,” she replied with a smile. “For men like you, men seeking… a place. A job.” A question was in her golden eyes.
“Ah, so you are a vidente, señora… a mind reader. I am indeed searching for my place in this great world… as well as lucrative employment. Might I find it here?”
Before Madalon could reply, a man who had just entered came up, his eyes on the newcomer. “That your horse out there?”
Mrs. Devereux spoke sharply. “What do you want, Hurd?”
The lean man jerked a thumb toward the door. “He rode in on a big chestnut with a distinctive blaze. Same one as that old sourdough was riding.”
She looked at Artie. “Your horse?”
“Si,si, señora. I am most grateful to that old fellow. A generous man to a fault, as the saying goes. You see, I was foolish enough to engage in a race with several fellows I encountered on the desert. It was a challenge I could not ignore, understand.” Artie grinned widely, white teeth flashing in the dim room. “My horse, he was very fast, and we won easily. As a matter of fact, those fellows gave up soon and did not try to follow me across the river. But my poor horse, he stepped in a hole and broke his leg. Nothing I could do for him but put him out of his misery.
“So I was on foot, for miles and miles. It was a very weary El Pantera who came across this old man on the fine chestnut. ‘Take my horse,’ he says. No, he pleads. ‘Take my horse!’ So what am I to do? I did not want to hurt his feelings. And then tragedy of tragedies, el anciano starts walking down the road, and he does not get ten feet before he drops dead. Right there in the dust! I was desolate! Such a generous fellow! But of course, now he did not need the horse. Él vuela sobre las alas de los ángeles. He has wings!”
Several nearby men chuckled, but Madalon Devereux kept her eyes fastened on him. This one is special, she decided. Something of an opposite of the man locked in the cellar: of the same type, but… different. “I take it you know what to do with that gun.”
“Señora, what would be the reason to carry a weapon if one did not know how to use it? Do you wish a demonstration?” Artie was more than a little relieved that everyone appeared to accept the story regarding the horse. Probably because it was something they were likely to have done themselves!
They went outside, with most of the men following. Madalon looked around, and pointed to the battered and faded sign on a building down the street, hanging by one end and swaying in the morning breeze. “Dot the eyes in Oliviera.”
A gasp went through the spectators as Artie’s weapon leapt into his hand and fired twice. Down the way, the sign jerked twice, and two holes appeared, one above each “i” in the name. Jim always says I’m good with small targets.
“Nice,” Madalon murmured. “Looks like a good gun.”
Artie held it out in the palm of his hand, knowing that the question was going to come up sooner or later. “The best. Another generous gift from a fellow I met in Tijuana. Unfortunately, his name was not the same as mine.”
Madalon lifted her gaze. “If you want a job, Panther, it’s yours. I’ll tell you more about it later.” She turned and reentered the saloon.
Artie looked at the man who had first questioned him about the horse, “Señor Hurd, where does an hombre bunk?”
Hurd pointed down the street. “Two-story building down there is an old hotel. Still quite a few beds left. You find one that ain’t taken and you like it, it’s yours.”
Artie grinned as he spun his weapon and deposited back into the holster. “I find one I like, and I take it.” Touching his hat, he untied the chestnut from the rail and strolled down the street.
Of all the passions, jealousy is that which exacts the hardest service and pays the bitterest wages. Its service is, to watch the success of our enemy, to be sure of it.
—Charles Caleb Colton (1780-1832), English sportsman and writer
“Ned, I don't know how you managed to do it.”
Malone peered at his fellow captive through the gloom of their prison. “What do you mean?” He was sitting against the wall, legs extended.
“You’ve been here over a week—by yourself. I’m already going insane after less than two days.”
Ned grinned. “Well, Artemus told me something a long while back that came in handy.”
“What was that?”
“He said that when he found it necessary to spend time in one spot quietly—as a prisoner or otherwise—he would recite poems or other literature he remembered in his head. Of course, with him, he probably was able to remember Hamlet and Othello verbatim. I just recalled poems I learned in school.”
Jim cast another glance up toward the small opening, always half watching for someone to walk by, but he was unsure what he would do if he saw someone. Chances were very slim that that person would be anyone who could help them, given the population of this town. He had been pacing restlessly around the cell.
“Artie is pretty shrewd. That’s not a bad idea for passing the time. Ned, when you first arrived, did you talk to a woman named Kate?”
Malone frowned. “I don't think so. The only woman I spoke to was Madalon Devereux. Why?”
“She came up to me in the saloon and told me that you had been here, while everyone else denied seeing you. She also warned me to leave.”
“Which advice you did not take.”
“No,” Jim chuckled drily. Then he sobered. “After hearing that you had actually been seen in this town, I couldn’t just walk away.”
“I appreciate that,” Ned sighed. “However…”
“Yeah. But Artie is still out there. He’ll do something, whether it’s calling in the cavalry from Fort Challenge or entering town himself… he’ll do something.”
“Will he come back as the old man you told me about?”
“Not likely. He…”
Jim halted his words as the noise at the door indicated the bar was being removed. That bar was the biggest deterrent to any escape attempts. As was occurring now, no man ever came alone. This time four were at the doorway, all holding guns until one holstered his and came toward Jim, pulling a length of rope from his pocket.
Jim was ordered to turn around, which he did, quite aware that this bearded, scarred man would like nothing better than to cuff him around for any perceived infraction. Jim’s wrists were tied behind his back, and he was escorted from the cell, the door closed and barred behind them as they headed for the narrow staircase that would lead them up into the back portion of the saloon, past a flight of narrow stairs that led to the second floor. Jim was surprised that they did not ascend those stairs, but pushed through a door leading into the main saloon.
Because of the oil lamps hanging from the rafters, the illumination had been somewhat brighter in the passageway from the cell to the stairs, thus Jim’s eyes adjusted to the light by the time they stepped out into the daylight-lit, though smoky, saloon—which immediately fell silent, every man’s eyes on the group, including the black clad man leaning indolently against the bar. Jim barely glanced that direction, but his spirits lifted immediately. He also spotted the two men standing a few feet behind Artie: Zeke and Wilfred Dean, the brothers whose presence got Ned into difficulty.
His escorts prodded him toward the stairway, and he climbed them never looking back. That Artie was present was no surprise. Perhaps his guise was not either. “The Panther” had been of immense help once before (see The Night of the Panther and the Wildcat), not to mention that same getup had fooled none other than Miguelito Loveless quite badly. After his visit to town as the old prospector, Artie had certainly realized that a slick gun would be welcomed.
One of the men stepped ahead of Jim to knock on Madalon Devereux’s door. Without waiting for a response, he pushed the door open. Jim almost lost his balance when they shoved him through the door, barely able to catch himself with his hands tied behind his back. No one was present. However, a moment after the door was closed behind him, Madalon emerged through a curtained doorway on the far side of the room. Jim had gotten the impression the other evening at dinner that that doorway led to her bedroom.
She paused and gazed at him, and Jim returned the gaze steadily. Madalon wore a dark brown velvet gown today, cut low at the bodice and nipped in to display her narrow waist to its best advantage. Her auburn hair was swept up, and gold earrings dangled from the earlobes. Those were the only ornaments; she really needed no other.
After a moment she came toward him. “James West.” When Jim did not respond, she moved closer, and as she had in the saloon that first day, her eyes devoured him. Her voice was soft and throaty. “You have quite a reputation as a fighter… and a lover.”
Jim smiled then. “Untie my hands and perhaps we can test that.”
Without a word she moved up to him, putting her hands behind his head and pulling it down as her lips covered his. The kiss was passionate and Jim did his best to match her ardor, despite his bound hands.
Finally she stepped back, eyes gleaming, face flushed. “I think your reputation is deserved, Mr. West.”
“I’m not at my best,” he replied smoothly. “Untie me…”
“Sit down,” she invited, waving to an easy chair, while she moved to the matching settee. “It is your reputation as a fighter that interests me… at the moment.”
“Does it? Why?”
“Because you would be of immense help in my organization, James.”
“And what organization is that?”
“You saw quite a few of the members. The men in the saloon.”
Jim’s eyes were green and cold as a glacial ocean. “I saw killers. Men who would cut a throat for the price of a drink.”
“Exactly. The men I need to initiate my project. Eventually I will weed them out, keep only the best, the most controllable.”
“Such men are not controllable. You’re playing with dynamite.”
She laughed. “Perhaps. And perhaps that is why I want a man like you at my side.” When Jim said nothing after several long seconds, irritation flashed in her brown-gold eyes and she continued. “As my consort, you would command their respect. I saw how some looked at you, with hatred… but also with fear.”
“I rather thought Gantt was in line for that post.”
“John Gantt has been very useful, and he may even prove so further. But he cannot fill the post I have I mind. Not all of the, er, duties involved.”
“Why don’t you tell me your plans?”
“I’m sure young Mr. Malone told you a great deal. I am going to take over Mexico.”
“Tall order. Napoleon failed.”
“Napoleon tried to swallow too much with one bite. I will take Sonora first…”
Jim was shaking his head. “Armando Galiano failed there.”
Madalon laughed again. “I know all about that. And I know you foiled him. He moved too slowly. Despite his clever plan to use the American army to destroy the Mexican soldiers, he allowed the authorities an opportunity to find him. I won’t be that stupid. I intend a lightning strike with several hundred men.”
Jim cocked his head now. “I didn’t see that many men present here.”
“No, you are right. But they are coming. Every man has contacted acquaintances, and told those acquaintances to contact others. I have no doubt even citizens of Mexico will come forward, men unhappy with the state of affairs. Within weeks, I’ll have my army. I will take Sonora with my current force, and once established, we’ll move to the next state, and the next and the next… until all of Mexico is under my control.”
“You cannot imagine that the Mexican authorities—and perhaps those of this country—will stand by idly.”
“Of course not. But the wheels of such governments spin slowly. When word of my conquest reaches out into both Mexico and the United States, as well as other countries, men will flock to join my army. A ruthless army that ordinary soldiers will not be able to stand up to.”
“Where were you during the war?”
The question seemed to surprise her. “I lived in New Orleans.”
“Did you see any actual battles?”
“No… I saw the casualties. What are you driving at?”
“I participated in those battles, Madalon. I fought with Union soldiers against Confederate soldiers, all Americans, but all completely capable of being as ruthless as necessary. When men are fighting for their country…”
She waved a hand dismissively. “Mexico is not the United States.”
Jim fell silent, aware that nothing he could say would change her mind. She waited, gazing at him for a full minute then seemed about to speak again, when a rap sounded on the door. “Come in!” she called sharply.
John Gantt entered, and stopped for a moment, the door still open behind him, staring at Jim. Finally he moved forward and shut the door. “What’s going on?” Now he glared at the woman.
“Just having a conversation,” Mrs. Devereux replied calmly. “What do you want, John?”
Gantt glanced at Jim again. “It occurred to me that we are holding these two government men too long. They already sent West to look for Malone. More will be coming.”
“Which is why, John,” she replied acidly, “we are keeping these two alive. Hostages. The government will not attack us as long as they are safe and alive in our hands.”
“You’re playing with fire, Madalon. Remember what you told me last night? That West has a reputation? The longer he is alive, the more dangerous he is!”
Now she came to her feet. “And I told you that I am in charge here and I make the decisions! Have you finished those maps?”
Gantt glowered. “Not yet.”
“Then go get them completed! I am expecting twenty-five to thirty new men within the next few days. We want to be ready to move as soon as our complement is filled.”
Jim watched the exchange with interest, briefly wondering if he should mention Madalon’s offer to make him her consort. Not yet, he decided. Gantt was already jealous and suspicious. To overtly fuel the flame at this moment would draw Madalon’s wrath his way and at the very least, he needed to keep her guessing.
With one last hate-filled glance toward Jim, Gantt departed, slamming the door behind him. Madalon Devereux shook her head. “Pitiful man.”
“How did you ever connect with him?”
She shrugged and settled on the sofa again. “He came to New Orleans on business. We met at the home of a mutual acquaintance and soon realized we had ambitions in common.”
“Such as world conquest?”
Madalon laughed. “Not quite. For the time being I’ll be content with Mexico.” Jim did not miss the change from a plural to a singular pronoun.
“That’s still a big undertaking.”
“Of course. But as I was telling you, I’m going to take it one step at a time. You were a soldier, James. You know the strategy of overcoming obstacles bit by bit, pushing the enemy back.”
“A battlefield of a few acres is nothing like an entire state, or country.”
“Quite a challenge, I admit. But I like challenges… such as a reluctant, very moral man. I think I can change your mind, James.”
“You’re welcome to try.” He smiled slightly, allowing the dare to appear in his gaze.
“Perhaps after you witness our success in Sonora you will start to see my point.”
“You’re planning to allow me to accompany you?”
“Of course! I told you, I want you as my consort. And a consort is always at his queen’s side.”
“Suppose I want to be king instead.”
Madalon laughed again, throwing her head back, then came to her feet once more. “That can be negotiated. For now, I’m afraid I’ll have to send you back to the dungeon. I think it’s the perfect place for contemplation, don’t you think?”
Jim pushed himself to his feet, not an easy task from the soft chair without the use of his hands. “What about Malone?”
She shrugged. “We’ll see. He’s obviously an intelligent and brave man as well. It might be up to you to save his life.” She opened the door and nodded to the men loitering out there.
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
SS senior field agent
Posted - 06/17/2012 : 11:28:08
Sweet is revenge—especially to women.
—Don Juan (canto I, st. 124), Lord Byron (George Gordon Noel Byron; 1788-1824), English poet
Once again the occupants of the saloon became silent as the group of men descended the stairs. Artie glanced around and saw the hatred on the faces; he also saw fear. They did not like the idea that the Secret Service man was here—and alive. As the quintet disappeared through the door under the stairs, Artie turned idly to the men behind him.
“Senores, pardon me, but who is this fellow that is all tied up like a pig ready for market?”
Zeke Dean, the elder of the two brothers, and the more ugly, with features that appeared to have been squashed with pressure from above and below, scowled deeply, increasing his repulsiveness. “That’s West.”
“West? I do not know the name. But of course, I have spent much time in Mexico and further south lately. He is un hombre malo?”
Wilford shot a sly glance at his brother. “You sure don’t want to try to tackle Jim West alone, right, Zeke?”
“He was lucky that time,” Zeke snarled.
Artie lifted his glass to take a sip in order to quell the smile that threatened. Jim had had an encounter with Zeke in Kansas, when the larger man had decided he would teach the government man a lesson. Within minutes he had been flat on his back. Lowering the tumbler, he said, “El Pantera, he has come against many hombres malo. None walk away. I would like to face this Señor West.”
“No, you don’t,” Wilford was shaking his head. “He’s not only one hell of a fighter, but he’s greased lightning with his gun. Faster than you, even.”
Artie made a scoffing sound. “I have never met a man faster than El Pantera.”
“Don’t listen to my brother,” Zeke growled. “If I had my way, I’d match you up against West any old time. I saw you shoot out there. Even West ain’t that fast.”
Artie dipped his head as though in modesty. “Gracias, señor. Perhaps the time will come, no? Maybe I will speak to the Señora. It could be an interesting contest, no?”
Wilford poked his brother’s arm. “Zeke, we gotta see about getting those horses shod or she’s going to be mad as hell.”
Amused, Artie watched the two men head out the door. It seemed as though Madalon Devereux assigned chores to the men who planned to join her in conquering Mexico. He knew that the Deans’ father had been a blacksmith; perhaps because of that the two brothers had been assigned that task.
“Buy a lady a drink, señor?”
Artie turned at the soft voice, and found a pretty woman he had noticed before. His opinion had been that she was not a run-of-the-mill saloon “hostess,” and up close, his views were enhanced. She did not possess that hard look that so many of the practiced whores had. Up close, she also appeared somewhat familiar to him, as though he had seen her elsewhere. Her dark hair was neatly coifed above her narrow but lovely countenance. The neckline of her rather plain gown was cut somewhat low, but that was the norm.
“I should be delighted, señorita. What will you have?”
“Just a beer. Why don’t we go to a table?” Without waiting for his assent, she turned and started away.
Artie purchased the beer and carried it and his own glass to the table she selected against the rear wall, somewhat away from most of the patrons. The nearest was a man playing solitaire at a table by himself. Artie had noticed that few of the others socialized with this man, who had narrow, mean eyes.
“My name is Kate,” she said as he seated himself across from her, placing both drinks on the table. She had taken the chair facing the room.
“Kate,” he echoed. “Una mujer bonita. I am the Panther.”
She smiled, lifting her beer. “Yes, I know. But as I said to your partner, please do not react too strongly.”
Artie’s brows lifted. “Partner? I do not understand. La pantera trabaja solo. I do not have a partner.”
“Yes, you do, Mr. Gordon.”
Artie caught his breath, gazing at her placid but determined expression. “You are mistaken…”
“No. My maiden name was Katherine Bushnell. My mother was Alice Bushnell.”
This time he was very glad his back was to the crowd. “You’re little Kathy?” No wonder she had seemed familiar to him!
She smiled broadly now and cocked her head as though reacting to a flattering comment. “It was a long time ago. Fifteen years?”
“At least.” Memories flooded back to his first real job with an acting troupe. Alice Bushnell, a fading star from the New York stage, had joined the same year, and her young daughter had traveled with them from town to town throughout the middle and western states. With her past reputation Alice could have been a demanding prima donna. Instead she was gracious and extremely helpful to a young novice named Artemus Gordon. He gazed at the woman across from him, seeing now the resemblance to her mother, especially in the greenish-brown eyes and the narrow face. “And you remember me from so long ago?”
“Oh yes,” she laughed. “I was what, ten, twelve? I had the most fervent crush on you Mr. Gordon. I’m surprised you didn’t shoo me away, the way I tagged after you all the time. I watched all your performances, over and over, memorized your face—and all your disguises.”
Artie sighed, shaking his head. “I was just learning the craft at that time.” Alice and others had helped him not only with his acting technique but his dress and makeup. Being a newcomer, his roles had been varied, from portraying an overgrown boy to an elderly man.
“I tried to warn Mr. West, but I guess I was too late. I read about you two in the newspapers, so I realized that if he was here, you would be as well.”
Artie shook his head slightly. “Jim is a stubborn man at times. But thank you for trying.”
She reached across the table now, taking his hand. “I’m asking you to go upstairs with me. Please react properly. We can talk better up there.”
Artie grinned widely as he got to his feet, holding onto her hand. He bowed over it, leaned to whisper in her ear. “Is this proper?”
She giggled, and led him up the stairs to a small room, where she closed the door. “All the other girls are still downstairs, except Madalon,” she said. “And her room is two doors down. It’s not unusual for me to bring a man up here.”
“Kate, why are you here?”
Now her face hardened slightly. “I’ve come to kill Madalon Devereux.”
Artie was glad they had come upstairs; he was unsure he could have controlled his shocked reaction. “What? Why?”
“She murdered my husband.”
“Tell me,” Artie urged, leading her over to the bed where they sat side by side. The room was pleasant and clean, but not very large. The only furnishings were this bed, a bureau with a mirror over it, and a stand in the corner with a porcelain basin and ewer.
In a quiet voice, Kate related her tale. She had been living in Wisconsin with her retired mother, occasionally acting with a traveling troupe for a few months at a time. When her parent died, she decided to change her life. At the end of the war, she traveled to New Orleans to be a schoolteacher in a colored school. There she met, fell in love with, and married a young Confederate veteran, William Niles.
“Times were hard. I continued to work, much to William’s displeasure, but he had difficulty finding a regular job. His brother, Lewis, lived with us and helped defray expenses in his job working in a lawyer’s office. Lewis had more education than William, having been too young to enlist and continuing into college.”
Somehow—and Kate was unsure how it transpired—William had become acquainted with a man working for Mrs. Devereux in her small but successful café. That man had offered him a chance to make a stake, money that would allow William to take his wife west for a new start. The plan was foolproof. William had been very enthusiastic, and neither Kate nor Lewis could talk him out of it. They also feared to notify authorities lest William be arrested, or worse.
“As it turned out,” Kate sighed, “the worst came to pass. The bank robbery was successful. I understood over fifty thousand dollars was taken. But as they made their escape, an off-duty policeman happened by and fired his gun at them. William was the only one hit—and the bullet pierced his heart.”
“I’m so sorry,” Artie said softly. Both were silent for a long moment before he spoke again. “Kate, what would your mother have said, you working in a place like this?”
Her expression hardened again. “I’m here for revenge, Mr. Gordon. I can’t be a ‘nice girl’ and keep this job!”
“You should not have come here alone!”
“I’m not alone. Lewis is with me.”
He was surprised. He had not seen any particularly young men among the thugs in the saloon. “Lewis?”
Kate’s smile was smug. “He works for Mr. John Gantt, the attorney who is Madalon Devereux’s partner.”
“Ah.” Artie had heard the name Gantt mentioned, and a while ago, had seen the well-dressed-man stride through the saloon and ascend the stairs. He had returned within ten minutes, red-faced and angry. “But it’s dangerous for both of you.”
“We know that. But I’m using my maiden name and Lewis adopted a different name. We never speak to each other where anyone can see us. Our primary purpose is to kill Madalon.”
“And mine—as well as Jim’s—is to stop her. Not to mention I need to rescue Jim and our fellow agent. Is… do you know if Ned Malone is alive?”
“I think so. I’ve seen food being taken down to the cellar, even before Mr. West was imprisoned.”
“Probably being held as hostages. Somehow I have to get them loose, and send word to Fort Challenge.”
“I don't think either is possible.”
Artie gazed at her. “What were your plans… about killing Mrs. Devereux I mean?”
Now Kate’s smile was weak. “I don't know. I guess… I’m just waiting for an opportunity. I did try to creep into her room one night, but she keeps the door locked.”
“And you were going to do what? Shoot her in her sleep?” When Kate lowered her eyes, Artie went on. “Kate, you are not that kind of person. At least your mother was not, and I can’t imagine that you would be so different.”
Tears welled in the young woman’s eyes. “I loved William so very much. I didn’t tell you, one reason he felt so desperate was that we… we had a child, a baby girl named Alice, after Mother. She died… of fever… before her first birthday. William blamed himself because we didn’t have the money for a hospital. But we did have a doctor come see her and he said there was little that could be done. Still… that’s why William wanted money. He didn’t want that to happen again. Madalon promised him five hundred dollars.”
Artie nodded sadly. “That would have gone a long way toward a new start. I don’t suppose she then paid it to you.”
“No. I honestly did not even think about trying to collect it. But I did go try to find her to… to kill her, only to learn she had left New Orleans immediately after the robbery. Lewis and I set out to find her, and finally tracked her here, learned her plans. Fortunately, Mr. Gantt needed an assistant, and it was easy for me to get a job here. We’ve been here about nine months now.”
Artie cocked his head. “How long ago did the robbery—and the death of William—occur?”
“About two and a half years, now. We spent quite some time searching for her.”
“I guess.” And that shows how determined you were! Artie fell silent, his thoughts somber. He had to rescue Jim and Ned, but he had to stop Kate and her brother-in-law from carrying out their plans. Even if they were never caught and punished, by the law or even friends of Madalon, the deed would haunt them for the remainder of their lives. They were not killers.
He lifted his gaze. “Kate, I want you to tell me everything you know about what’s going on here, including any sentries and where they are posted.”
“What happened?” Ned asked as soon as the bar slammed down on the door the guards shut behind them.
Jim shook his head, as he attempted to find a reasonably comfortable position beside the younger man on the hard cellar floor, leaning against the equally solid wall. “I’m not sure, Ned. I was taken to Madalon Devereux’s rooms, and the guards stayed out in the hall. She hinted that she would like me to join her enterprise, but before we got too far into it, John Gantt showed up. I don't know what would have happened otherwise.”
“Why would she think you would cooperate?”
“She wouldn’t be the first. You remember how Hammer thought Artie would help him even after it appeared Hammer had killed me. Something in the makeup of these megalomaniacs… they are right and everyone else is wrong.” [See The Night of Paradise Lost.]
“And of course everyone is eventually going to agree with them because they are right and everyone else is wrong.”
“Yeah. The good news is Artie’s here. I saw him in the saloon. He’s in his gunfighter disguise, so no doubt he was accepted as one of the gang.”
“What can he do?”
“I don't know. But never underestimate Artemus Gordon, Ned.”
“I know. But there are at least fifty armed men in town.”
“And more coming. I wish I could get word to Artie. Madalon said she expects more men in the next few days… and more after that. She apparently has set one hundred as the number she needs to invade Sonora.”
“So it could happen soon.”
“Exactly. Because we never had any hint of this at the department, chances are it’ll be a complete surprise to the Mexicans as well. It has to be stopped.”
“Jim, she can’t possibly succeed!”
“Probably not in the long run. But she might have initial success. Nonetheless, innocent people are going to be hurt.”
“How the hell do we get out of here?”
“I have given that a little thought. The guards seem to have a pretty set schedule for feeding us. We might be able to use that to our advantage.”
El Pantera leaned idly against the porch post in front of the saloon, seemingly not paying attention to anything. In truth, Artie’s full attention was on a half dozen men who had just dismounted in front of the old hotel down the street. They were being greeted by a couple of the current residents of Rattlesnake Wells, with raucous laughter and handshakes. He recognized at least one who had a wanted poster out on him, and another possible. He would need to see that up close to be certain.
More recruits for Madalon’s army, he mused. That would bring the total close to sixty. He had seen a lone rider return earlier in the morning, going first to John Gantt’s office, and then to speak to Madame Devereux. Whatever message he carried caused her to smile and quickly cross the street herself to Gantt’s office. She had returned a short while ago, pausing to greet The Panther, her good mood continuing as she flirted.
I’m sure she was trying to work her wiles on Jim when she had him in her quarters yesterday. I’m also sure Jim was wise enough to allow her to think she has a chance of succeeding. Artie wondered what The Panther would do if invited for a cozy supper. He did not want to insult the woman and cause a rift. Yet he would have to somehow disengage and remove himself if she indicated she wanted more than his company at the table.
He saw the young man emerge from the lawyer’s office now, and stride toward the saloon. Artie had earlier caught a glimpse of Lewis Niles, Kate’s brother-in-law, going under the name of Lewis Haskins here. Lewis was in his mid twenties, perhaps a year or two older, but blond and probably appearing younger than his actual age, similar to Ned Malone.
As the young man reached the steps of the porch, he suddenly seemed to stumble and fell toward the dark-clad man leaning nearby. Artie automatically reached out to catch him. “Whoa there, fellow!” He immediately felt Niles’ hand seeking his own, and realized that a folded piece of paper had been slipped into his hand.
“I am so sorry, mister. In too much of a hurry, I guess. Please forgive me.” Lewis hurried on inside.
Artie casually inspected his cigar, noticed that it had fortuitously nearly extinguished itself, so he casually reached into a jacket pocket for a match, depositing the folded paper in that pocket at the same time. He would find a safe place to read it later.
Stepping down off the porch, Artie casually strolled down the alley that led behind the building. He headed for the stable, but took a look at the rear of the saloon. There was the back door Kate mentioned. She told him a set of stairs led to the second floor, but if you bypassed the stairs, a door to the basement was down the passageway. She said it was probably the door used to bring Jim West upstairs.
It’s the only way in other than going through the saloon. He suspected that the lock on the door—if locked at all—would be easy to pick. I need to learn more about the schedule for the prisoners, when they are fed, if they are ever taken out of the cell. He doubted the latter—other than Jim’s visit to Madalon—because of the need to keep the two men out of sight, and reduce chances of an escape.
Kate was pretty certain they were fed twice a day. She had seen the cook from the café down the way come through the back door when she happened to be using the rear stairway. The man carried a tray toward the cellar entrance. She had noted him in the morning as well as late afternoon. She could not say if the meals were brought at exactly the same time every day. But at least one, and often two, armed men accompanied the cook, according to Kate.
I could handle that, if I was able to surprise them. But Artie knew he could not hang out in this area for long periods, waiting for the cook to appear. Suspicions would be aroused, especially if he did it early in the morning. He had noticed that the saloon stayed open until around three or four in the morning before Madalon kicked all the late customers out. The men then went to their rooms at the old hotel, some to bed, some to continue their poker games. They slept well into the day.
Except the ones who had some kind of duties… Those duties would include escorting the cook. How can I get that duty? I can’t just request it from Madalon. Again, doing so would incur too much of a risk of arousing suspicion. If he could learn who had the duty, he might be able to make a swap. Or at least ambush one of the men and take his place.
Artie sighed as he entered the stable, where he paused to stroke the neck of his chestnut mare, talking to her softly while he ascertained whether the hostler was present. After a minute or two he decided he was alone, and he moved further into the stable, to stalls against the far wall, where Jim’s black horse was kept, and saw Ned’s buckskin in the next stall. Blackjack in particular raised a bit of commotion upon recognizing him, and Artie patted him to calm him down.
The saddles for all the horses were on the dividing walls between the stalls. Artie was amused and pleased to notice that Jim’s studded rifle was still in its boot. He would have thought that some opportunistic fellow would have grabbed it by now. Then again, it was possible that few of the men came to the stable. They turned their mounts over to the hostler and expected him to take care of the beasts, probably saddling them when needed. El Pantera had done the same.
“Hey, what’re you doin’, mister?”
Artemus turned to face the hostler who was standing in the open doorway. “Ah, señor, there you are. I wish to thank you for the fine care you give to my caballo! She looks very happy.”
“I heard you just… uh… acquired that mare a few days ago.”
“Ah, that is so true. But she is a fine horse. Perhaps the finest I have ever possessed. I want to make sure she is well treated. I don’t want her to mourn for the old fellow who met with such a tragic death. ¿Entiendes?”
“Yeah, yeah, I getcha. But I got work to do.” He picked up a shovel that was leaning next to the door.
“Ah, si, señor. I will not keep your from your labor. But tell me, that fine black horse. Who is the owner?”
The other man shrugged. “Don't know his name. Left the horse the other day and ain’t come back for it. Same as the buckskin. Mrs. Devereux, she just tells me to take care of them.”
“Gracias, señor.” With a touch of a finger to his hat, Artie strolled out. The hostler appeared to be beyond the machinations of Devereux and Gantt, or else he thought it best to pretend he was. Although tempted to try to enter the saloon through the back door, Artie instead returned to the street via the alley to go inside.
He picked up a beer at the bar and wandered over to join some others watching a fairly tense poker game. One of the players was Zeke Dean, and Artie was aware that he was a notoriously bad loser—which he was doing now. Only a few chips and a couple of coins were on the table in front of him. The grinning man opposite him who had the huge pile apparently was unaware of Zeke’s reputation.
Horse Creech was sitting next to Zeke Dean and he obviously did know about Dean’s temper on occasions like this. When the man with the pile raised the stakes on the current hand, Horse quickly tossed his own cards in and got to his feet. “I’m done.”
Another man looked around, saw the fear on Horse’s face, and followed suit. He may or may not have known about Zeke, but he had sense enough to realize trouble was coming. The glower on Zeke’s countenance was a strong clue as well. Zeke pushed his holdings toward the center of the table.
The grinning man placed his cards face up on the table: three aces and two deuces. That was all Zeke needed as he jumped up, grabbing for his gun. Intent on the actions at the table, Artie had not noticed Madalon Devereux make her way quietly to the table, and just now she stepped up alongside Zeke and seized his right arm.
“Miz Madalon, he cheats!”
Her gaze was unsympathetic. “You’ve been playing cards with him for days, and just now for over two hours. If you think he cheats, you should have stayed away.”
For a long moment, no one moved or spoke. Artemus was prepared to dive for shelter if Zeke continued to draw his gun, and he thought everyone else in the room had the same plans. But Zeke, still glowering, pushed the gun back into his holster, cast one more black glance at the victor, and stomped out of the saloon.
“I am very impressed, señora!” he said, sweeping off his hat and bowing.
Madalon smiled. “These men have been told that if there are any fights among them, they are out of the game… if they live. And they are all aware of the high stakes involved.”
“Ah, I see, señora. Money talks, eh?”
“Indeed it does. Come and sit with me.” She did not wait for him to refuse or assent, turning to walk to a corner table. Curious, Artie followed. “Tell me about yourself, Panther,” she said as he took the chair opposite.
Artie shrugged. “I am a poor fellow trying to make my way in the world. But always there are stones in the road, no?”
“Stones wearing badges?”
He grinned. “Sometimes, señora. And you? What about you?”
“I think I could say the same about myself. I often find that the law stands in the way of prosperity, don’t you?”
“Ah, si! The law, they do not understand how us poor people must survive! It will be different in your new land, eh?”
“Very different. The strong will be the wealthy ones. And I am a strong woman.”
“I have no doubt of that, Señora Devereux. A weak woman could not have brought these splendid fellows together as you have… and held them together.”
“As you said earlier, money talks. I will soon have one hundred men, and with those men, I will conquer Sonora. Mr. Panther, I have a feeling you are going to be very valuable to me. Have you been told of the two prisoners I hold?”
“Ah, yes. Yes, I heard the… the rumorear… the rumor. It is true?”
“Very true. They are government men, agents of the United States Secret Service.”
Artie opened his eyes wide. “Aye, caramba! That is dangerous!”
“Possibly,” she replied smoothly. “But they are valuable, in case anything goes wrong. James West is one of them, and he is one of President Grant’s favorites, I’m told. I think Grant might hesitate before he acts against me, if he knows West could be endangered.”
“Perhaps. I do not know this el presidente well, but I know he is a strong man, a great hero to the American people. Ah… you will take these two men to Mexico with you?”
“Of course. In fact, I hope to convert Mr. West to my way of thinking. He would be even more valuable in that context.”
“Si, I can understand that. Señora, you say I could help you. How?”
“For starters, I would like to put you in charge of the prisoners when we make our move south.”
“Señora, it is a great honor you do me! I am muy feliz… ah, happy. Very happy. Very honored.”
“From what I’ve been able to learn about West, he is very tricky. I want someone in charge who will be alert… and as tricky as he is.”
Artie laughed aloud. “Ah, señora, you have come to the right hombre! El Pantera, he have many tricks up his sleeve!” I hope you have no idea how many!
“Good. We’ll talk more about it later.” With that, Madalon Devereux rose from her chair, turned and walked away, never once glancing back as she went to the stairs and ascended.
Artie watched her, a smile on his lips, his mind racing. There’s got to be a way I can use this new “assignment” in a way to help Jim and Ned. If nothing else, perhaps I can ask to see them, thus get an idea of the layout down in the basement. A big question was time. How much time did he have before more of Madalon’s “army” arrived, before she set her plans in motion?
It very well could be a trap. He knew that. Although she gave no indication of suspecting him, she was a very clever woman, adept at hiding her thoughts. Because of that, Artie realized he had better continue with his plans to find a good time to go to the cellar and rescue his friends; the sooner the better. He could not wait for the assignment to escort the prisoners to Mexico.
“I think I have an idea,” Jim said as he put his bowl and spoon aside.
“About escaping?” Ned asked, scooping up the last of the stew in his own bowl. The food was not the greatest he had ever eaten, but eating only twice a day certainly increased his appetite.
“Yeah. The cook steps all the way inside to put the tray down where it won’t get hit by the door when it’s closed again. The guards stay in the passageway.”
“Suppose when we hear them coming, I stand on that side of the door, while you get behind the door itself. I’ll grab the cook and pull him inside. The guards will immediately step forward…”
“And I slam the door against them. Hard!”
“Uh-huh.” Jim nodded in approval as the younger man grasped the idea so swiftly.
“That could work! It would stun them all long enough for us to get the guns and lock them in here.”
“That’s the idea.”
“I’m thinking breakfast, when there will be fewer people out and about.”
“What about Artemus?”
Jim shook his head. “If we escape, the word will spread. Artie will figure out a way to separate himself from this place. The most important thing is to get to Fort Challenge and send troops back to stop Madalon’s schemes. I’m afraid that’s about the only way to stop her.”
“So… tomorrow morning?”
“Yeah, if all works out right.”
Men must be decided on what they will not do, and then they are able to act with vigor in what they ought to do.
— Works (bk. IV, pt. II, ch. VIII), Mencius (371-289 BC), Chinese philosopher
Artemus read Lewis Niles’ note in his hotel room, and frowned deeply. Apparently the messenger who had arrived brought news of some thirty recruits that would be arriving within the next week. That would bring the total members of Madalon’s army to close to the magic number of one hundred.
It means we have to act fast. I’ve got to get Jim and Ned out of that basement… but if I cannot do that, it’s imperative that I get word to Fort Challenge. The only way he could conceive of to accomplish that would be to leave Rattlesnake Wells himself. He knew he could manage that unnoticed fairly easily. Leaving his two friends behind would be the difficult part.
But first he would assure himself that rescuing Jim and Ned would be foolhardy, if not impossible. He felt sure the two men were safe for the moment, with Madalon considering them valuable hostages. However, he could not predict what the future would bring, what would occur if the military did arrive and demand surrender of the residents of this desert town. Madalon Devereux was a very determined woman. Artie could see her putting one of the hostages to death to prove her will.
So the best scenario was to get both men out of here, so that they could all head to Fort Challenge together. I’ll make one effort at least. I think I know enough about the goings-on around here to figure out the best time and method. I won’t take any unnecessary risks. Both Jim and Ned would understand that. Stopping this mad plot to conquer Mexico was more important than anything else right now, even the lives of Jim West and Ned Malone.
He burned the note from Lewis and crumpled the charred paper into fine ashes, which he dumped into the old potbelly stove in the corner of his first floor room. He had taken a room he wanted by intimidating its previous resident, a man who had seen his “target practice” in the street and did not want anything to do with El Pantera. He was quite happy to move to another room.
Artie went to the window and looked out onto the back lot of the old hotel. A couple of privies sat out there, but nothing else. In order to see this room’s window from another room, one would have to open the window, say, on the second floor, and lean out. For someone to do that in the early dawn hours, he felt, was highly unlikely. Most of the men were still sleeping off their late night activities.
Suspecting that if he remained out of sight too long, his absence would be missed, Artie left the hotel and strolled back to the saloon, which was really the only place to go other than one’s room in this near-deserted town. The Dean boys were at a table together, Zeke still sullen over his losses, as well as embarrassment, at the poker table. Otherwise everything seemed rather normal, with most of the tables occupied and games ongoing. Artie saw Kate with two men at one table.
She had been very helpful, giving him information regarding the layout of the town, the saloon, and as much as she knew about the various people. Madalon Devereux was the most mysterious to her. Madalon hired her, and told her at that time that the job would be “temporary,” although she did not give specifics. Only over time did Kate come to realize what was going on and that the saloon would close down when the invasion began. Madalon was willing to leave all this behind—including her investment in refurbishing the place—in order to live her mad dream of conquest.
Artie bought a glass of tequila and took it to a table, saluting Kate with the glass and winking as he walked by. After all, he had spent a couple of hours with her in her room yesterday. A little flirting would be expected, and not necessarily resented, by the men who were enjoying her company now. He had just taken a seat at one of the few empty tables when two men descended the stairs from the second floor. One paused while the other walked across the room to speak to a pair at another table. Those two got up and returned with him, and all four went through the door that would lead to the cellar.
Strength, wanting judgment and policy to rule, overturneth itself.
—Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus; 65-8 BC), Roman poet
Jim had been stretched out on the dirt floor, dozing, when Ned touched his shoulder. He came awake instantly, and did not need to ask the reason for the arousal. He heard the heavy bar being lifted off the door. “What now?” he muttered, getting to his feet to stand alongside Ned. The hour was mid afternoon, he was pretty certain, so it could not be a meal delivery. A summons from Madalon again?
That’s what it was. He was ordered to turn around so his wrists could be bound, and then taken under guard from the cell, leaving Malone in the darkness alone. When they reached the saloon, Jim immediately spotted Artie at a nearby table. Artie’s expression did not alter as his eyes followed the procession up the stairs. Jim glanced back just before they reached the second landing, and his gaze met his partner’s for an instant.
I almost wish I hadn’t done that, he mused as they approached Madalon’s door. He was sure he had seen something in Artie’s gaze; however, he did not know what that “something” was: almost as if Artie was trying to tell him something. As before, one of the men rapped on the door and then pushed it open, shoving Jim inside. No one was in the room, but the door was shut behind him and Jim was alone for the moment.
She entered from what was apparently the bedroom, wearing a black velvet dressing gown, with beaded slippers on her feet, her lush hair falling over her shoulders like a blanket of fire. He could see a touch of black satin at the bodice, trimmed in black lace. “Good day, James.”
“Madalon. I apologize for my appearance. I’m afraid the servants have been rather lax in providing hot water for bathing and shaving, not to mention fresh linen.”
She smiled. “I’ll speak to them about that.” His black gun belt slung across the back of a chair. The silver rattlesnake-embossed handle pistol was in the holster and he could not prevent himself from glancing at it. “That’s yours, James. Do you want it back?”
“Since you offer, yes.”
She laughed and took the sofa as she had previously, waving to the same chair he had occupied before. “I want you to have it, James. But you must gain my trust. Have you considered the offer I made?”
“Considered, yes. Agreed to it, no.”
Her head tipped to the side. “Strange, I always heard you were a smart man.”
“Perhaps not smart enough,” he replied, smiling. “But I do know I could not go along with your plans. I would stop them if I could.”
“If you could,” she murmured. “That’s the problem, isn’t it? You cannot stop me. You are helpless, my prisoner. You and young Mr. Malone are alone here, surrounded by thirty times your number. Unarmed…. Are you sure you should not rethink it?”
“I’m sure. Even if I said I agreed, you wouldn’t believe me.”
Now Madalon laughed aloud. “I suppose you are rather bright after all. Well, I do not plan to have you killed yet. In fact, I will take you to Mexico with me, both of you. Having you as a hostage will be handy. But do not doubt me, James. I am attracted to you. I would very much like to have you at my side… but I will kill you if it comes to that.”
“No, I don’t doubt you at all. You’re a woman with a purpose. It’s sad you did not devote your strength to a more worthy cause.”
“Such as being a loyal wife, raising a family, withering away in the background?”
“No. Examples of women making a difference abound. Queen Victoria… Clara Barton… Harriet Beecher Stowe…”
Madalon was waving her hand in dismissal. “I will be queen of Mexico! Don’t you understand that?”
“I know you will try to be queen. Perhaps I know the Mexican people better than you do. There are bad men down there. But good ones abound as well: men who love their country and will fight for it. You are not going to have a cakewalk.”
She rose to her feet abruptly. “I don’t want to talk about this! I want to talk about you! I want you, James. Don’t you understand that? Don’t you find me attractive? I know I’m a few years older than you but not enough to make a difference!”
“I find you a very beautiful woman, Madalon. But your beauty is not enough to tempt me to betray my country.”
“Mexico is not your country!”
“No. But you will be drawing the United States into it, one way or another.”
For a long moment she gazed at him. Jim could almost read her mind. She had probably always been able to draw men in and control them with her looks and sensuality. His refusal was something she was unaccustomed to, and perhaps she was unsure what to do with it. Abruptly she stepped forward, leaning down to grasp his face with her hands and press her mouth to his.
Jim did not attempt to respond this time, remaining passive, until she finally drew back, eyes blazing. One of her hands drew back and slapped him hard on the cheek. It stung, but Jim did not react, simply catching her gaze with his own.
“You’re a bastard, James West!”
“I’ve heard that before. Usually because I don’t agree with someone who is trying to commit a crime that will injure other people, or especially, our country.”
“Our country! My country no longer exists.”
“I presume you were a staunch Secessionist.”
“Of course I was—and still am. I was born and raised in Louisiana. The United States ruined the life we knew. The life I’m going to have again, in Mexico.”
“I wish I could say good luck, but I cannot.”
Madalon glared at him a moment before speaking. “I will have enough men within a few days to accomplish my initial goal. Perhaps after that, when you realize just how successful I can be, you will change your tune.”
She stalked to the door, jerking it open and ordering the men out there to take him back to the cellar. Jim was pulled to his feet, and escorted back down the stairs. Artie was no longer at that table, and a quick glance did not reveal him anywhere in the saloon. I wish I could talk to him! Jim knew that was impossible in the current situation.
Malone was on his feet when Jim was shoved into the cell. “What happened?”
“Pretty much same as before. Madalon wants me to join her enterprise.”
“She doesn’t give up easily, does she?”
“No, she doesn’t. A couple of problems are evident. One is she may decide to kill one of us to prove her point.”
Jim saw Ned’s faint smile in the dim light. “You mean she’ll kill me.”
“Maybe.” No use to lie to Ned. He knows. “But perhaps even more importantly, she figures to have enough men very soon to start her raid. We have got to get out of here, Ned.”
“We can try your plan.”
“Yeah. Tomorrow morning, if at all possible.”
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
SS senior field agent
Posted - 06/17/2012 : 11:29:18
Jealousy, the jaundice of the soul.
—John Dryden (1631-1700), English poet and dramatist
El Pantera entered the lawyer’s office, and upon seeing the surprise on the face of the young man at the desk, winked. “Señor, I wish to speak to el abogado… the… lawyer. He is in?”
Lewis Niles recovered quickly. “Just a moment. I’ll see if he’s available. May I have your name?”
“Just say El Pantera.”
Lewis smiled, bit it back and turned to open the door behind his desk. He went inside and about a minute later returned. “You may go in, Mr. Pantera.”
Artie grinned at him then, as Lewis had, sobered his expression as he stepped through the door. He pulled off the black hat. “Señor Gantt?”
Gantt stood up, extending his hand. “I am John Gantt. Sit down and tell me how I may help you.”
Artie took the chair, still holding his hat in his hands. “Señor el abogado, I wish to ask a question.”
“Please, go ahead.” Gantt smiled encouragingly.
“Well…you see… I am born in Tijuana. I spend much time there and other parts of Mexico. Only… well… there are people in Mexico who do not like me very well. They make trouble for me when I go across the border. Comprende?”
“I think I do. And what is the question?”
“I wish to help la Señora in her quest to improve the life of the people in Sonora… and perhaps in all of Mexico. But I fear those people who do not like me. I fear they may want to… do bad things. Imprison me.”
“You have nothing to fear, I assure you. Mrs. Devereux and I will be the law in Sonora, and beyond. If you are loyal to our cause, you will win rewards, not punishment.”
“Ah.” Artie leaned back, smiling as though greatly relieved. “Señor, I feel mucho happier. You have eased my mind.” He stood up then. “Gracias, gracias. I owe you money?”
Gantt waved a hand. “No indeed. Perhaps you will do me a favor one day soon by fighting valiantly for the cause.”
“Si, si! Yes! That is what I will do! Gracias!” He turned as to go but paused, looking back. “Señor, I have one more question?”
“This man who is prisoner. He is a spy?”
Gantt frowned. “Which man? West?”
“Si, that is his name. The others, they tell me he is a government man, much feared. But I’m thinking that he is la Señora’s spy, to try to make other man talk about secrets.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand, Pantera.”
Artie shrugged. “Well, she has him brought to her rooms so much. I thought…” He shrugged again.
Now the lawyer got to his feet, face hard. “When? Again?”
“Today. They take him upstairs. He is there for long time. He is giving Señora Devereux much information, si?” Artemus kept his face as bland and innocent as possible, knowing that would help increase Gantt’s suspicion and rage.
Gantt was working hard to regain his aplomb. “That’s possible,” he said. “I hope you’ll excuse me, Mr. Pantera. I have some business to take care of.” Without further ado, he brushed by Artie, out through the office, and exited. Artie watched him through the front window, and saw that he was heading for the saloon.
He stepped out into the anteroom. “Seems Mr. Gantt suddenly got an anxious feeling.”
Lewis had moved over to peer out the window. “He went to the saloon.”
“Yeah, I know.” Artie grinned.
“What did you tell him?”
“Oh, that Jim West has been spending some time with Mrs. Devereux.”
Now the young man smiled. “I’m sure you are aware that Mr. Gantt is deeply infatuated with her.”
“I rather imagined that was the case.”
Lewis sobered. “What are we going to do, Mr. Gordon?”
“I’ve got something in mind, and if it works, I’ll have Mr. West and Mr. Malone out of the cellar by tomorrow morning. If that happens, be sure you and Kate remain completely clear of any trouble that occurs.”
“And if you succeed?”
“We’re heading for Fort Challenge to bring the military back… which might result in some fighting. Again, be sure you get Kate out of here, or at least hide in a safe place.”
“Don’t worry, I will. From what Kate says, several of the other women over there are concerned about their safety once Mrs. Devereux begins her campaign. When they were brought here, they didn’t know what was going on.”
“Help them too, if you can. And Lewis, if I fail, if the other two agents and I… don’t make it out, please try to get Kate and yourself away from here as soon as possible. I’d better get out of here before someone notices us talking.”
Artie left the office, assuming El Pantero’s swaggering gait, crossing to the saloon. As soon as he entered he knew things were going on. For one thing, all the patrons and the women were unusually quiet. For another, he heard the loud voices from the second floor. After pausing a moment and looking around, he went to the bar and signaled for a tequila, then turned to the man next to him, a man called Snake-eye, possibly because his left eye was on a tangent, looking off to the side rather than straight ahead.
“What happened, Señor?”
“Not sure,” Snake-eye replied with a shrug. “Old Gantt came storming in, stomped up the stairs, and first thing, him and Miz Devereux are yelling at each other. Don’t like that. Things have been goin’ smooth around here.”
“Si, I understand. If they cannot agree…” Artie shook his head sadly and sipped his tequila. With any luck, Gantt will be too furious and incoherent to tell Madalon where he heard about Jim’s latest visit. But if she wants to question me, I can be all innocence.
About five minutes later a door slammed upstairs and Gantt stomped down the stairs, his face red, eyes wide and angry. He shoved by anyone or anything that got in his way as he headed for the exit. Artemus lingered at the bar for another ten minutes, and when Madalon did not appear, or ask to see him, he decided that in Gantt’s ranting he had not revealed where he learned of her visit with Jim West.
Returning to the hotel, he set about making sure he knew exactly what he was going to do tonight to free Jim and Ned from their cellar prison.
After a couple of nights in the cell, sleeping on the hard dirt floor became easier. But this night Jim did not want to fall into a deep slumber. He wanted to be alert to hear the guards coming with breakfast, which was usually around dawn. To that end he sat up, leaning against the hard wall, urging Ned to get some sleep.
“One of us should be well rested tomorrow anyway! Or as rested as one can be in here.”
During the night, his eyelids would droop, his head dropping, chin on chest, but each time he would jerk awake, a couple of times due to noise outside, coming in through the slit of a window. He had come to know when the saloon above closed, as the dull roar of footsteps and voices ceased. Sometimes they could hear loud talking outside as the patrons made their way to the hotel, drunken talking and overly loud.
The night was long, especially because he had no real sense of the time. He had his pocket watch but it was impossible to read in the darkness. Almost the only clue he would have that morning was nearing was to watch the “window” for a sign of lighter sky.
He had just pulled himself out of some uncomfortable slumber and looked toward that window, seeing nothing, when he heard a noise at the door. Immediately he reached over to grasp Ned’s shoulder. The young man came alert instantly, sitting up. Obviously, he had not slept as deeply as hoped.
Without a word each took their places, Ned behind the door, Jim alongside where it would open. In the silence, the rattling of the bar outside the door was loud. A long silence ensued. Jim frowned in the darkness. He could see a thin stream of light under the door. Whoever was out there had a candle or a lantern. What was the holdup?
Then the door opened slightly. “Jim?”
Jim West could hardly believe his ears. He grabbed the door and pulled it open further. “Artie?”
Artemus grinned, holding up his lantern. “In the flesh. Where’s Ned?”
“Right here,” Ned said in a low voice, stepping around the door. “Good thing you called out or you might have ended up with a busted nose.”
“I’ll ask more about that later,” Artie said. “Let’s move. I had to wait because for some reason, Madalon allowed a poker game to continue until just a little while ago. It’s almost dawn. Let’s go.”
Silently and cautiously, Artie led them to the stairs, where they crept up into the upper area, then out the back door. All was quiet as they made their way to the stables and quickly began to saddle their horses. Jim wished he had some way to retrieve his gun and holster, but knew it would be foolhardy at this time to attempt to enter Madalon’s quarters. If all went well, he could get them later. If not… well, it wouldn’t matter anyway. At least he had the rifle on the saddle. He noticed Malone’s carbine was available as well.
Leading the horses outside, they had just mounted up when two men emerged from the alley alongside the saloon. One was the hostler, the second a member of Madalon’s “army.” Both stopped short as they saw the three horsemen, peering through the gloom. Then the armed man appeared to recognize them.
“Hey! Hey you! Stop!” he pulled his gun and started running for them just as the trio kicked their mounts into full gallops. Behind them, gunfire resounded, but nothing came close, the shooter firing wildly. But the sounds would awaken the town; that was a certainty.
Damn it! Jim breathed the curse as he leaned low over Blackjack’s neck. Another few seconds and they would have been on their way and out of sight. Perhaps the prisoners or the horses would not have been missed for a long while, depending on when the hostler entered the stable. Now they would have pursuers within minutes. The men in Rattlesnake Wells knew what was at stake, and they would saddle up rapidly, despite what kind of night they had had. The power and money they hoped to acquire in Madalon Devereux’s schemes took precedence over headaches and lack of sleep.
The sun began to peek above the eastern horizon as the three riders urged their steeds to their greatest efforts. Artie remembered the landscape they had traversed on the way to Rattlesnake Wells and knew that if they could round the mesa, a good hour’s hard ride from the town, they would have two choices. One would be to take advantage of the flat desert-like area for even greater speed than was possible on this rough and rutted road. The other would be to seek a hiding spot among the ravines and rocks that were at the base of the mesa on the far side.
The latter would be the better choice if they managed to keep far enough ahead of their pursuers. A glance back revealed numerous horses already behind them, and more were being saddled and mounted, Artie was sure. If they could hide before Devereux’s men rounded the mesa, they could allow those riders to pass on by, then emerge and take a different route to the fort. It might be longer, but they would have a better chance to make it.
They had just topped a rise that was about ten minutes away from the base of the mesa when Malone suddenly yelled, pointing back. All three pulled up their horses. Jim stood in the stirrups and gazed into the distance. Their pursuers were at least twenty minutes behind them, which was good. But the bad part was that about a half to a third of the men had left the main body and were angling off the road, heading in a direction that would take them around the circumference of the mesa’s base—to eventually intercept the escapees.
“They plan to cut us off,” Jim growled.
“And they might succeed,” Artie rapped, glancing at his companions.
“What now?” Malone asked.
Jim looked around. “Ned, you ride on ahead.”
“What?” the younger agent was baffled.
“Ride around the mesa to that area with all the ravines and rocks, and hide there. Artie and I will take a position up there.” Jim pointed to a slope that eased down from the mesa, filled with boulders. “We’ll start shooting at the bunch behind us, which will bring the others on the double. When they pass you safely, ride like hell to Fort Challenge and bring back the cavalry.”
Ned was aghast. “I can’t do that! I can’t desert you two…”
“You have to, Ned,” Artie interrupted. “It’s far more important the plot be stopped and the only way to do that is to bring in the military. Now do what Jim said. Don’t forget, we’re your superiors.”
Ned Malone glared at the pair for a long moment, glanced beyond to the riders who were still oncoming, as well as those heading across the open land. He sighed gustily and pulled the rifle from his saddle. “Take this. If they catch me, it won’t matter whether I have it or not. And this.” He unhooked the half full canteen from his saddle.
Jim hesitated just a second, then accepted the items. “Get going. You’ll find water along the way. Be sure to take advantage of it.”
With a smile and a salute, Ned whipped his horse around and dug in his heels. The buckskin responded with renewed vigor after the few minutes of respite. The two others watched him for a moment then wordlessly continued on. They rode about five hundred yards before heading off the road up into the rugged terrain below the lip of the mesa.
After wending their way among the boulders, they finally selected an area that had a pocket where they could put the horses, and also boulders of various sizes, including ones that would give them excellent vantage points toward the roadway below, while offering very good shelter as well.
They retrieved the canteens and any extra ammunition from their saddles and settled down behind the rocks to await the pursuers. Artie took advantage of the time to pull off his fake mustache and sideburns. He also shed the jacket, knowing that before long, the sun was going to be very hot. Jim also pulled off his jacket and wished he had his hat. That sun would be burning on his bare head.
“We have the three rifles and my pistol,” Artie said. “Fair supply of ammunition.” He looked at the pile on the ground between them.
“But we’d better make every shot count.”
Artie nodded grimly. Fort Challenge was hours away. The day would be nearly done by the time Ned would return with the military. Once all of Devereux’s men were reunited, more than seventy could be down below firing at them. The rocks they were behind would offer good shelter; however, numerous large rocks would provide protection for the men below as well. He looked around. At least it’s unlikely they can come up the slope without us seeing them at some point, and they won’t be able to get above us either. The walls of the mesa beside and behind them were too steep to be scaled.
“Here they come…” Jim murmured, lifting his rifle to rest the barrel on the rock before him.
Artie did the same, and when the horde of riders were nearly directly below them, they began firing, getting off several quick shots to gain the wanted result, which was immediate. One man simply tumbled from his horse. Another screamed and grabbed his shoulder, leaning low over his horse. Pandemonium ensued for several long seconds as the shots from above continued. One by one the men dismounted, grabbing their own rifles and other weapons and heading for the rocks next to the road.
Straight away a barrage from below caused the two agents to duck. From then on they chose their moments, moving to either side of the protecting rocks or above them, getting off a quick shot before diving down again. Answering shots splintered the rocks and a few shards hit them, opening cuts on face and hands, but neither was hit badly.
Twenty or so minutes later, the second group arrived at a furious gallop from around the mesa. Artie directed a few shots at them, just enough to create some alarm and cause the men to scramble for cover.
“It’s not exactly a shooting gallery,” Artie commented.
“No.” Jim got off a shot at a man who was trying to dash from behind one rock to another. The man staggered and fell. “But almost.”
Artie chuckled, aiming toward another foolhardy man, but that fellow ducked back, so Artie stilled his trigger finger. Conserving ammunition was paramount. They also did not have a lot of water in the three canteens—and some of it was quite stale—but they could make it last a while. When the bullets were gone, they would be all but helpless. He knew as well as his partner did that they did not have enough ammunition to last out the day until the army would arrive. At least they could hold the men down below in this spot for a while, just in case Madalon and Gantt had any thoughts about heading for Mexico with their army earlier than planned.
“Sort of reminds me of that spring day in the Shenandoah Valley,” Artie said laconically.
“True. But I think we have a tad more adversaries here.”
“Yes, that’s so. I don't think there were more than twenty Rebs that day. Well, we always did love a challenge, didn’t we?”
“Yeah. But Artemus, there are challenges, and then there are challenges.” Jim got off a shot that sent a man scrambling for cover. “Damn, almost had him.”
“Don’t worry, there are plenty more. You’ll get your share, James.”
The minutes and hours crept by inexorably as the sun rose and became a scorching ball in the sky. Perspiration poured down their foreheads and necks, especially Jim’s. All he could do was wipe it off with his shirtsleeve, which would become soaked but dried quickly. Artie offered him the hat for a while, but Jim shook it off. “As soon as we get past noon, we’ll start to get a little shade at least.”
Artie glanced up at the mesa looming above them. “Yeah. A little.” He then looked down at the dwindling ammunition supplies. Would they last long enough to enjoy that shade?
Both men knew they had a massive advantage at the moment, not only because they were above their opponents, but also because those opponents were disorganized. The men below had no real leader. Any man who tried to give orders would be ignored or responded to angrily. In an army with ranking officers, one of those officers could, and probably would, order a charge. Even though some men would be shot down, the attack would succeed in the end. None of these men, however, were willing to risk their skins that way, despite they knew that they could not allow the agents to escape and foil the plans to raid Mexico.
Both Jim and Artemus moved their positions frequently, not only to ease the discomfort of crouching behind the rocks, but also to make it seem as though three, not just two men were there. At least for the first couple of hours, it was important that no one head off in pursuit of Ned Malone.
“Wonder what Madalon’s doing,” Artie mused aloud during a brief lull.
“Spitting nails,” Jim responded as he jammed new cartridges into the rifle he held. “Did I tell you she wanted me to join her?”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Oh, you know. This being king business grows old after awhile. Figured I’d get bored.” He lifted the newly loaded carbine and took down a man who must have thought the lull meant the agents were dead or badly wounded at least. Either that or he had a death wish, exposing himself that way.
The shooting resumed in earnest. West and Gordon continued to conserve their ammunition, firing only at sure or near sure targets. Artie was pretty certain he had hit at least ten men, probably a couple more, and Jim surely had the same success. But that still left an overwhelming army below them. He looked again the dwindling pile of ammunition and grimaced. He could almost count them visibly now. Not enough. Not nearly enough.
Probably an hour later, Jim put the last of the cartridges in the rifle he held and glanced at his partner. “How many do you have left?”
“Four in the pistol,” Artie replied calmly, getting off a shot that knocked a man off his feet as he tried to move from one rock to another. Those fellows have a hard time staying in one place! “Three. Half dozen in the carbine there.” He nodded toward the one at his side. “The other is empty.”
“I’ve got eight in his one. That’s seventeen to use well.”
Artie just nodded. He waited, as did Jim, just watching for a clear shot. Sooner or later, someone would do something foolhardy down there. He and Jim had managed to avoid being nicked other than by the rock fragments, which they barely noticed now. Dried blood mixed with the dust and sweat on their faces.
Over the next hour or so, they got off their shots, one at a time, each mentally counting down. Artemus knew he had three left in the rifle he now held. Jim, he was sure, had two. “James my boy, this looks like it could be it.”
“I agree, Artemus. What do you say we go out in a blaze of glory?”
“I couldn’t have said it better, James.” He turned to his partner, and held out a hand. “I’m glad to have known you.”
Jim gripped that hand tightly for a moment, but said nothing. Down below them, hidden among the rocks, were at least thirty or forty men who wanted to kill them. He and Artie could get a few more of them, no doubt, but not nearly enough. Eventually those men would realize their opponents were out of ammunition. But we will get as many of them as we can!
A man’s head appeared above a rock, peering up toward them. Jim fired, and smiled grimly. “I do believe I just put an end to Zeke Dean’s career.”
“Good. Makes me feel even better.” Except for the fact that Jim has just one shot left. He ejected one of the shells from his carbine and passed it over. “Two each. Nice even number.”
“Maybe we should charge, Artie. Might scare them.”
Artemus had to chuckle. “Certainly would put a quick end…” He halted as Jim suddenly reached over and grasped his arm.
“Am I hearing things?”
Artie cocked his head, his eyes widening. “If you are, I am too. What…?”
“It’s not thunder,” Jim murmured.
The sound was coming from the north and west, a dull rolling roar. He had heard that sound so many times during the war, the charge of cavalry, hundreds of horses at a gallop. The men below were hearing it too, and several bolted for the horses that had drifted off to the far side of the road, away from the gunfire. Before they made it, however, a great cloud of dust and blue appeared from around the mesa. Carbines fired en masse, and abruptly the men down below were throwing down their weapons and raising their hands.
“Oh my God,” Artie breathed, his entire body seeming to turn to jelly in the relief he experienced as he sank on his knees, leaning against the rocks that had protected them.
“It’s Ned!” Jim exclaimed. “How…?” He rose slightly, leaning against the rock with one hand to support his weakened legs.
The young agent was climbing the hill now, through the rocks, yelling their names. Jim stood up and waved. “Here we are, Ned.”
Taking deep breaths, Artie got to his feet. “Ned, how the hell did you get back so soon?” he demanded as Malone reached them, grinning and shaking their hands.
“A minor miracle… or maybe a big one. About two hours from here I encountered Major Reynolds, out on maneuvers with the entire force from Fort Challenge. As soon as I explained what was happening….”
“You couldn’t have cut it closer,” Jim said, ejecting the two cartridges from the rifle and holding them in the palm of his hand.
“Good Lord!” Malone murmured. He shook his head. “What now?”
“We’d better get back to Rattlesnake Wells and round up Madame Devereux and Gantt,” Artie said.
“Good idea,” Malone nodded.
“Not you, Ned,” Jim smiled. “You and your horse are both beat. Stay here and help the major sort things out. The guardhouse at the fort is going to be pretty crowded.”
Malone was disappointed but he knew Jim was right. The three of them went to talk to Major Reynolds for a few minutes. Jim and Artemus asked for fresh ammunition for their weapons; they then retrieved their horses and headed for town.
Furens quid foemina possit.
[That which an enraged woman can accomplish.]
—The Aeneid (V, 5), Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro; 70-19 BC) Roman epic, didactic and idyllic poet
Both agents understood why Ned Malone watched them depart with disappointment on his face. He would like to be in on the arrest of the pair that imprisoned him. Jim particularly comprehended, thinking of the darkness, the hard floor, and the long, long hours, broken only by the arrival of their meals. But Ned also understood that what Jim and Artemus said was true, that he had been in the saddle all day, and his horse was also worn down.
They set off at a rapid pace, but not the headlong gait they had urged their horses to during the flight out of town this morning. Madalon Devereux and John Gantt would not go anywhere until they got the news that the escaping agents had been captured or killed. Both were undoubtedly feeling rather secure as the day wore on and they had not received a warning to flee the advance of the army.
As Rattlesnake Wells came into view, they slowed further, to a trot. “Artie, why don’t you pick up Gantt?” Jim called across. “I’ll take care of Madame.”
Artie nodded. He could understand why Jim wanted to deal with Madalon himself. She had tricked and drugged him. So when they entered the town, Artemus steered his horse toward Gantt’s office as Jim continued further to the saloon. Jim dismounted a couple of buildings away, so as not to be seen through the front door and windows of the tavern. Taking his rifle in hand, he walked quietly along the board walkway, and finally stepped in through the door.
The first thing he saw was the man sprawled on the floor near the bar. John Gantt, on his back, with a large red stain on his chest. Kate, Lewis Niles, and the other women were back near the stairs. Madalon Devereux stood behind the bar, and she held a pistol pointed at Jim.
“I rather hoped I would not see you again, James.”
He smiled. “That’s not a very nice thing to say.”
“I know. But you see, I did not wish to be the one to kill you. And I’m afraid that’s necessary.”
Jim stood relaxed, his rifle loosely in his right hand. He should have come in with it ready, he knew now. He might be able to throw himself to one side and get a shot off, but she had her finger already on the trigger of her weapon. “Is it necessary?” Keep her talking. Artie will head this way as soon as he realized Gantt isn’t in his office or upstairs quarters.
“I am most afraid so. Unless…”
“Have you changed your mind? Is that why you have returned?”
He shook his head. “I’m afraid not. I’ve returned to arrest you. Your men—those that are left—are now in the custody of the United States Army.”
Madolon’s eyes widened slightly. “That’s not possible!”
“You know, my partner and I thought the same thing. But it happened. Put down the gun and I’ll tell you how.”
The pistol she held lifted slightly. “I am so sorry, James. You and I… we would have been magnificent together.”
The shot rang out and for just an instant Jim expected to feel the lead penetrate his body. Then he saw the surprised, pained expression on Madalon’s face, and the blood that blossomed between the fingers of her left hand as she clutched her right shoulder and staggered back, the pistol clattering to the floor.
Jim looked around and saw Kate across the room, holding a small pistol in both hands, her face ashen. He moved then, striding around the bar to first scoop up the gun from the floor, and then take Madalon’s arm to ease her to one of the chairs, as Artemus dashed in the front door, gun in hand.
As soon as he realized John Gantt was not in his office or his apartment upstairs, Artie had started back toward the saloon… and heard the shot, knowing immediately it was not a rifle’s report. Pulling his pistol, he had raced to the saloon, stepping inside just as Jim reached Madalon. Across the way, Lewis Niles was putting his arm around his white-faced sister-in-law’s shoulders. Kate was still holding the weapon.
Artie strode across the room to gently take the gun from Kate’s hand that he perceived was shaking. She looked up at him. “I tried!”
“I suspect you saved my partner’s life, Kate. But count your blessings you did not succeed in killing Madalon. It would have haunted you. She’ll get what’s coming to her now.”
Jim turned to the several women still huddling together. “How about someone get some cloths and water and get Madalon’s wound bandaged?”
That galvanized them into action, including Kate, who hurried behind the bar to find a stack of clean white towels, while another woman procured a basin of water. Still another brought a bottle of whiskey to the table. “She might want a swallow or two, but it’ll help clean the wound,” she explained.
At first Madalon Devereux refused treatment, still clutching her bleeding upper arm. But when she stood up to try to get away from the ministrations and nearly fell, she settled down, although still angry. Jim stepped back with Artemus and Kate. Artie had told him about his history with Kate and her mother during lulls in the battle by the mesa.
“What happened here?” Jim asked.
Kate shook her head. “Everything was quiet after all the men left to chase you. Madalon had just come downstairs when suddenly John Gantt burst in, angry, and yelling at her.”
Lewis interjected, “He was very agitated when he learned you two had escaped, Mr. West, and that the man everyone knew as El Pantera apparently engineered it. He was pacing the office, talking out loud to himself, cursing Mrs. Devereux and everyone else. He seemed to think it was some kind of plot to oust him from the whole scheme. Then all of a sudden he ran out of the office. I followed him. Mrs. Devereux tried to silence him. The two bartenders that were here got out of the way when she went behind the bar. Both of them went out the back door. I suspect they left town!”
“She got the gun that’s behind there,” Kate went on. “Gantt was just too wild to even consider that she might actually shoot him, I think. He went up to the bar, on this side, and continued ranting at her, insane with jealousy. He accused her of plotting to replace him with you, Mr. West, and thought this escape was somehow part of the plot. Then she shot him.”
“I don't think she said a word the whole time,” Lewis added. “Is it really over? The army has those men?”
Artie nodded. “Most of them. Jim and I picked off a few when they had us cornered. We sent Ned Malone to Fort Challenge, but he encountered some troops out on maneuvers and brought them a heck of a lot sooner than we imagined possible.”
“Kate,” Jim said, turning to the woman, who was recovering her aplomb, though still obviously shaken, “thank you for what you did. I’m sorry you had to do it. I may have been able to stop her, but there was no guarantee.”
Her smile was wan. ““I’m glad, now, I didn’t kill her. I think I didn’t realize… what it would mean. When I saw the blood…. But I couldn’t let her just shoot you down, Mr. West. I told Mr. Gordon what she did to my husband.”
“Artie told me. She’ll go to prison now, for conspiracy, as well as murdering John Gantt. You two and the other women will need to bear witness.”
“Gladly!” Kate asserted.
“Will she hang?” Lewis asked.
Artie shrugged. “That’s hard to say. Not too many women are, as you no doubt know. She will, however, face a very long stretch in prison, if not.”
Jim turned to look toward the table where Madalon was now slumped against it, her shoulder wrapped in the towels and secured with strips of others. The dress had had to be cut away. He moved toward her, and looked at the oldest of the several women who had seemed to take charge. “The bullet is still in there?”
“Yes. Too deep for us to get at.”
Jim nodded. “The surgeon at Fort Challenge will take care of it.”
Madalon lifted her head, eyes blazing. “This is not over, James. You have ruined my dreams. I will have my revenge.”
Jim gazed at her for a moment, then turned back to his partner. “Artie, I recall seeing a couple of wagons out back. I think we’re going to need them.”
Artie nodded as Jim headed toward the back door of the saloon, but remained still, looking at Madalon Devereux. Her eyes were boring into Jim’s back, burning with hatred. A woman scorned… he reflected. Well, in prison she was not going to be able to do much about the promised vengeance. He turned and followed his partner.
Femmina e cosa garrula e fallace:
Vuole e disvuole, e folle uom chi sen fida,
si tra se volge.
[Women have tongues of craft, and hearts of guile,
They will, they will not; fools that on them trust;
For in their speech is death, hell in their smile.]
—Torquato Tasso (1544-1595), Italian epic poet
The next few days were very busy. Madalon and the other women were delivered to Fort Challenge, where as promised, the surgeon tended to Madalon’s wound before she was placed in a vacant officer’s quarters with a round-the-clock guard. Marge, the older woman who had helped tend the wound in Rattlesnake Wells, volunteered to remain to take care of the female prisoner’s needs. After a moment’s hesitation, Kate also volunteered, saying that Marge would need some time off. And Lewis decided to remain with his sister-in-law.
Their plans were to travel to California now. Lewis had a married sister living in the Sacramento area, and that sister had a younger sister-in-law who had caught Lewis’s eye a while back when he visited. Kate felt it would be a good place for her to get a new start as well. They would, of course, testify at Madalon Devereux’s trial first.
U.S. marshals were contacted to start picking up the prisoners who were wanted in various areas of the country. While most of them could be charged with conspiracy and assault on federal agents, the charges that awaited them elsewhere were often more severe, and more likely to gain a conviction.
After some rest, the three agents returned to Rattlesnake Wells, along with several soldiers, to search the premises for any incriminating documents—of which they found several. They also packed up what food and liquor they found, along with the possessions of the people now in custody. Three wagonloads headed back to Fort Challenge a couple days later. It would be up to Colonel Roper to decide the disbursement of those supplies.
Finally they headed for the train, and from there to Phoenix to pick up the anxious and recuperating Frank Harper. He had received a telegraph message from Fort Challenge, which helped allay his anxieties, but seeing his young partner and two friends helped much more. The Wanderer finally headed to Washington, where Harper would continue to heal. After reporting to Colonel Richmond, West and Gordon prepared to return to Arizona for the trial.
However, an unexpected telegram halted those plans. One could almost see the red-faced and angry colonel as he dictated the missive:
M DEVEREAX ESCAPED <STOP> ABETTED BY SURGEON <STOP> BELIEVED GONE INTO MEXICO <STOP> COL. ROPER <FINAL STOP>
The agents were flabbergasted. They had met the post medical man; to them he appeared quite unlikely to be influenced by Madalon Devereux’s beauty and sensuousness. Yet that seemed to be what had occurred. The next time Jim and Artemus were in Arizona Territory, they called at the fort to get the full story.
Although Marge and Kate had been there to help Madalon with her personal needs, and guards were at the door constantly, the doctor, a middle-aged widower, had spent, in retrospect, an inordinate amount of time with her, usually sending the two female attendants away. They had not been suspicious because in their presence the physician spoke to Madalon about her criminal activities and seemed to be trying to reform her as well as heal her. Beyond that, the army surgeon had an excellent reputation.
However, the only story that could be drawn from the events was that the doctor called on Madalon late one evening, bringing the guard a cup of drugged coffee. When the sentry was relieved a few hours later, he was found unconscious and Madalon Devereux was gone—as was the doctor.
“Through Mexican authorities,” Roper said, “we were able to trace them to Matamoros on the Gulf coast. Evidence indicated both boarded a ship bound for New Orleans, but when we contacted New Orleans police, they met every incoming boat with no results. The pair simply vanished.”
The surgeon was never seen again.
As for Madalon Devereux… that is another story.
We shall find no fiend in hell can match the fury of a disappointed woman,—scorn'd! slighted! dismiss'd without a parting pang.
—Love's Last Shift (act IV, sc. 1), Colley Cibber (1671-1751), English poet, dramatist, and actor
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