SS senior field agent
Posted - 01/08/2015 : 08:33:02
| The Night of the Duplicitous Damsel
Wiles and deceit are female qualities.
—Aeschylus (525-456 BC), Greek tragic poet
“I hope you’re not forgetting,” Artemus said as he placed his napkin on the table, “that you lost the bet.”
Jim glanced up as he swallowed the last of his apple pie. “I haven’t forgotten. I was hoping you’d take into account that it’s a week before payday.”
Artie grinned. “You’ll get no sympathy from me, James. I am sure you’ll find a way to include this meal in your expense voucher for the month.”
Jim sighed as he reached inside his coat for his wallet. “You’re a heartless man, Artemus Gordon.”
“Hey, I did find this great restaurant, didn’t I?”
“With no attention paid to the cost of the meal.”
Artie was smirking as he got up. “Perhaps next time you win a bet you won’t search out and find the most expensive bottle of brandy in Saint Louis.”
Jim made a face. “Perhaps I’ll take that into consideration and find an even more costly bottle to pay you back for this evening.” He put some bills on the table.
They were laughing as they moved from the table toward the front door, nodding to the maitre d’ who hovered near the entrance. Outside the early fall twilight was deep now, heading for nightfall. Their hotel was just down the street, so the chill of early October in Reno would not be a problem.
“Mr. Gordon? Mr. West?”
Both men paused as they stepped onto the restaurant’s porch, turning toward the feminine voice that had spoken their names. She stood nearby, illuminated by the light falling through the restaurant window. A pretty young lady, in her early twenties, with golden curls peeping out from under her bonnet, and a woolen cape of some dark color clutched around her shoulders.
“Can we help you, miss?” Artemus asked. She did not look like anyone he remembered meeting.
She seemed to swallow as though gathering courage, and the hand holding the cloak tightened. “My name is Verna Sherborne.”
“Sherborne?” Jim echoed, glancing at his partner. He saw the same surprise and curiosity he himself was experiencing.
She nodded. “My father… is Luther Sherborne. He… he heard you were in Reno and sent me to find you.”
“For what reason, Miss Sherborne?” Artie asked rather sharply.
Her eyes lowered a moment then lifted to gaze at them again. Are they blue? Jim wondered; the dim light did not allow him to make that determination. “He wants to surrender to you.”
Again, the agents exchanged a glance. “Where is he?” Artie asked mildly. Luther Sherborne had been sought for the robbery of a federal payroll for some time now.
“He’s at home… my home… near Elko. He says he’s… tired of running and wants to give himself up, serve his time…”
“Why didn’t he come to us himself, Miss Sherborne?” Jim inquired.
Once more, her head dropped then rose. “He was afraid for his life. He thought… you might kill him.”
“Not if he did not threaten us,” Artemus said softly.
“Will you come to Elko?” she asked then, the pleading note in her voice even stronger. “Papa wants to serve his time and come home to his family. Mama has begged him not to surrender, but he’s so determined.”
“It’s a noble plan,” Jim nodded. “By surrendering, he may well reduce his sentence. Where is he exactly?”
“I will have to show you. I’m taking the train back to Elko tonight. I’ll meet you at the depot when you arrive. Just tell me when you will come.” A note of eagerness was in her face and voice now.
“We can be there by noon tomorrow,” Artemus responded.
“You… you will not harm him, will you? My mother and two younger brothers are with him.”
“Not if he surrenders peaceably,” Jim reiterated his partner’s earlier assurance.
“Thank you! Bless you! I’ll be at the depot at midday. Thank you!”
Before they could say anything further, the young woman turned and fled down the street. Jim took a step to pursue her, then paused, turning to look at Artemus. “What do you think?”
Artie shook his head. “I remember that Sherborne had a wife, but I don't know about a daughter. He is blond and blue-eyed, as I recall, so that at least fits. We should have time to send a telegraph message or two and get responses by tomorrow noon.”
Bait the hook well! This fish will bite.
—Much Ado About Nothing (Claudio at II, iii), William Shakespeare (1564-1616), English dramatist and poet
The Wanderer parked on a siding a few miles north of the Elko depot and the two agents saddled their mounts to ride to the small train station. The Central Pacific Railroad had founded Elko just a few years previous as the terminus of its eastward track that eventually met the Union Pacific’s westward expansion. When the railroad crews moved on, the town flourished as a supply center for the passing trains, as well as local ranches, farms, and mines. Around a thousand people still called the high desert town their home.
The depot was not large, making spotting Verna Sherborne easy. The daytime temperature was much warmer, so she wore only a knit shawl over her calico dress, golden hair gleaming in the midday sun. She was, Jim decided, even prettier than last night’s dim light had allowed him to discern. Her eyes were undeniably blue: sky blue.
They had received confirmation from Washington that Luther Sherborne indeed had a family consisting of his wife, daughter, and two sons, and that the last known location of Luther’s family was on a small farm a few miles from Elko, Nevada. Although law officers periodically checked the family residence, Luther had never been seen in the vicinity. That did not mean, of course, that he was not there now.
Luther Sherborne had been a farmer with no prior history of violence or crime before he participated in the payroll robbery. The consensus at the time was that he had been desperate, being deeply in debt and about to lose his Nebraska farm. Nonetheless, he was now a wanted criminal and posters had been circulated for some time. The farm outside of Scottsbluff had been lost anyway, and his family forced to move elsewhere. Before this residence in Nevada, they had lived with kin in both Nebraska and Kansas.
Although they had no reason to suspect that Sherborne was planning some sort of trap for them, the agents were wary. They followed Verna Sherborne’s buggy as it headed east from the depot, out into the open areas that surrounded the town. Basque sheepherders kept herds in this area, but some cattle ranchers and farmers were nearby.
Approximately an hour away from Elko, Verna turned her vehicle onto a very narrow and rutted road, slowing their progress somewhat. Jim did not like that it led through some low hills, and he kept his eyes peeled for signs of ambush. However, no incidents occurred and they eventually came upon a very ramshackle house. As they approached, the front door opened briefly, revealing a teenage boy. He quickly stepped back and closed the door.
“That was my brother Sully,” Verna Sherborne explained as Jim assisted her from the buggy. “I’m afraid he’s very unhappy about Papa’s decision.”
“Is your father inside?” Artie asked.
“Yes. I think so. He said he’d wait there.”
“Why don’t you go ask him to come outside,” Jim suggested quietly.
She hesitated, looking at each of them, then shrugged slightly. “I don't know if he will, but I’ll ask. I promise you, Papa doesn’t mean you any harm.”
They waited, staying near their horses, hands hovering near the butts of their pistols. Neither spoke. Conversation was not necessary. Each knew what was possible. Despite all they knew about Luther Sherborne, he had been on the run for over three years. He could have picked up bad companions, as well as habits.
When the door opened again, both stiffened momentarily. A worn looking woman, probably in her late forties, stepped outside, hands clutched at her waist. “Mr. West, Mr. Gordon, I’m Esther Sherborne. Please come in. This morning, after Verna left to meet you, Luther was trying to do some work to fix this place up for us. He fell and hurt his leg, can’t walk too good. It’s all right. Luther won’t hurt you. I… promise.”
“Guess we’d better,” Artie said in a low voice, after a moment.
Both had been studying the area, looking and listening, noting no sign of any threatening presence. Nothing indicated that others had been here. No horse tracks, or even another vehicle besides Verna’s buggy. Nevertheless, they kept their hands on the handles of their holstered guns as they walked to the cabin. The woman had stepped inside, leaving the door open.
That the woman did not wait to escort them inside should have been a warning, but neither caught it. The moment they entered the small room—which they quickly realized was vacant—the door slammed behind them. Jim spun, grabbing for the latch, and finding none. Artemus went to the nearest window, found it closed tightly and unmovable. He pulled out his gun and smashed at the glass; the heavy butt bounced off.
They both noticed the pungent odor and heard the laughter almost simultaneously. For another minute, both struggled with the door and the windows, to no avail. Then each sank into dark oblivion.
Oh, colder than the wind that freezes
Founts, that but now in sunshine play'd,
Is that congealing pang which seizes
The trusting bosom, when betray'd.
— Lalla Rookh—The Fire Worshippers, Thomas Moore (1779-1852), Irish poet, singer, songwriter, and entertainer
Artemus first became aware of his uncomfortable position and the strain on his arms. As he emerged from the gray stupor, he realized he was chained against a rocky wall, and until regaining consciousness and getting his feet under him, had been sagging against those chains on his wrists. He looked around the dim enclosure. He was in a cave with the only light coming from the opening, which was probably some twenty feet away. Other than a small, narrow table, placed about a half dozen feet in front of him, the enclosure was devoid of any other humans or furnishings. Two lanterns were burning on the table.
With a chill, Artie remembered the sound that had pervaded the small house just as he was falling victim to the gas. Loveless! Loveless… laughing. They had not heard from nor encountered the mad little doctor for quite some time, and had even ventured to wonder if he had met with some misfortune. We should have known. I don't think he’ll ever die.
What was going on? Had he been abandoned in this cave to die of thirst and starvation, while some other fate awaited Jim West? That hardly sounded like the egotistic man they had come to know so well over the years. That man hated Jim West with a passion, and Artemus Gordon only slightly less. He would want to witness, and have a hand in, their deaths. Nevertheless, Loveless had failed in all previous attempts to murder them. Perhaps he was turning to a new tactic.
So… sweet, lovely Verna had been bait. The young woman had played her part well, whether she was truly Luther Sherborne’s daughter or not. Having the older woman and the youth at the house was a nice touch. Knowing Loveless, no surprise that he attended to details. More than likely, he had found a couple of impecunious women, and even a young man, who were willing to do anything for money. Funny though, Verna seemed… genuine. I saw no hardness in her.
However, that was neither here nor there. He needed to get out of these chains, and at the moment that seemed all but impossible. If his picklock was still in his jacket lapel, it was unreachable. The chains simply did not extend far enough. The bolts that secured the chains to the rock wall were obviously strong and deeply embedded. Jerking on them did not do anything beyond cause pain in his wrists as the cuffs cut into his already tender flesh.
Hearing voices, Artemus ceased his efforts and stared toward the opening. After a moment, shadows covered most of the illumination that had been flowing through, then as the figures moved toward him, the light returned, throwing several men into silhouettes. Artemus recognized two. One was his partner, in the lead, the other the much shorter figure of Miguelito Loveless.
As they moved into the lantern light, Artie could see that Jim was in his shirtsleeves, his wrists bound behind his back. As far as Artemus could tell, his partner had not been harmed. His face was grim, displaying anger upon viewing Artie’s predicament. He looked toward Loveless and seemed to be about to say something but the little doctor spoke first.
“You see, Mr. West? As I told you, Mr. Gordon is fine, if a bit uncomfortable. Now it is up to you to keep him in good health… or not. Mr. Chapman?”
One of the four men accompanying Jim and Loveless was carrying a small lacquered black wooden box adorned with pink and yellow flowers. At Loveless’s nod, he stepped forward, put the box on the table, and opened its top. From it, he extracted three identical silver pistols with walnut handles—thirty-eights, Artemus decided—and placed them in the center of the table, about six inches apart, in a neat row. He then picked up the emptied box and stepped back.
Another man prodded Jim in the back with a pistol, positioning him in front of the table. Loveless moved up alongside him. “Three lovely, shiny pistols, Mr. West. Let me tell you about them. One is loaded with blanks. One has a single bullet. The last one is… shall we say… rigged with a special mechanism. When the trigger is pulled, a needle will be ejected to penetrate the hand of the person holding the pistol. The needle is coated with a very deadly poison, which will cause almost instantaneous death.”
Artemus caught his breath, grasping immediately Loveless’s evil scheme. Jim remained stone-faced, but Artie spoke. “Loveless, you can’t…!”
“Of course I can, Mr. Gordon. It’s quite fair, you see. Mr. West has your fate, and his own, in his hands. Or hand, perhaps I should say. I will untie one of Mr. West’s hands. With his free hand, he will choose a pistol and point it toward you, pull the trigger. Mr. West knows the consequences to innocent persons if he refuses to cooperate.”
Artie saw his partner’s lips tighten. “What do you mean?” Artie demanded.
“The Sherborne family. Oh, Luther is not here. Never has been. I have no notion where he is currently hiding out. But Mrs. Sherborne and her three charming offspring are in the same room where you and Mr. West … er… met your fate. Mr. West has seen the apparatus I devised. I have given him my word. Once he performs the task at hand, I will disable the timing mechanism, and the Sherbornes will go free… and alive.”
“You… you are insane!” Artie cried in horror. Loveless was obviously enjoying this immensely, his big blue eyes sparkling, a constant grin on his face.
“Only brilliant, Mr. Gordon. You should realize that by now. You see, I have given Mr. West my word, also, that if he is unfortunate enough to select the poisoned needle, I will allow you to go free. Moreover, if he should murder you, I will also turn him loose. I am quite aware that the guilt and grief he will experience will nullify his effectiveness as an agent. And should he be so fortunate as to choose the gun with the blanks… you will both go free.”
“I don’t believe you,” Artie snarled.
Loveless drew himself up, striking a dramatically affronted pose. “Really, Mr. Gordon! I am a man of my word. You should know that by now. Mr. West is not the only gentleman here.”
Jim had barely moved, his eyes on the three pistols that glinted in the faint light. “Jim, you can’t…” Artemus began then stilled his words. What do I say? “Don’t kill me?” “Don’t kill yourself?” He knew Jim obviously felt he had no choice. It had nothing to do with whether Loveless was trustworthy but everything to do with the type of man Jim West was; he would gladly sacrifice himself for his friend.
“Time is slipping by, Mr. West,” Loveless cajoled, stepping back. He nodded to Chapman, and as Chapman moved up behind Jim, the other three men drew their pistols, forming a semicircle around Loveless and Jim. Chapman untied Jim’s bonds then secured his left wrist, passing the rope around in front and fastening that hand behind him while his right was free.
For the first time, Jim spoke, turning his head to look down at Loveless. “Your word.”
Loveless held up his right hand. “My word, Mr. West, my solemn oath. If you die, your partner goes free. If he dies, you go free. If you choose the gun with the blank, you both go free. My word.” Loveless then moved further back, behind Jim’s vision.
Artemus saw the change in Loveless’s expression. The glee was still there, but also pure malice and calculation. Jim’s hand hovered over the three pistols, never once looking toward his fettered partner. “Jim!” Artie cried. “Don’t! He’s…!” He was going to say, “He’s lying, all the weapons are poisoned!” but time ran out.
Jim chose a gun, the one on the right, lifted it, pointed it toward Artemus, and pulled the trigger. Almost instantly, he winced as an expression of surprise flooded his face. No sound except the clicking of the hammer was heard. The gun then clattered to the cave’s hard floor, and Jim West followed it, collapsing in a heap.
For a moment, the silence remained. Then Loveless giggled. “At last,” he muttered. “At last!”
“You bastard!” Artie cried, enraged. “All three pistols had the poison needle!” And Jim knew it!
Loveless looked toward him with glittering eyes. “Why, Mr. Gordon. How could you think that of me?”
Artie took a deep breath, trying to control his fury and grief. Jim lay very still. The table blocked a portion of his view, but Artie could not see any movement, not even the rise and fall of his chest showing he still breathed. “I suppose you also lied about freeing me.” Every fiber of his being was required to speak in a calm voice.
“I am thoroughly appalled, Mr. Gordon. I gave Mr. West my word that you were to be freed safely, and I will keep my word.” Loveless reached inside his jacket and came out with a small case, which he opened, his grin growing wider. “I’m afraid it’ll be necessary to render you unconscious for a while. But I assure you, you will awaken alive and well, or relatively so.”
One sole desire, one passion now remains
To keep life's fever still within his veins,
Vengeance! dire vengeance on the wretch who cast
O'er him and all he lov'd that ruinous blast.
— Lalla Rookh—The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, Thomas Moore (1779-1852), Irish poet, singer, songwriter, and entertainer
He was first aware of being cold. Not freezing, but chilled to the bone. He opened his eyes and stared up into the canopy of trees above him. Beyond the pine boughs, he saw bright blue skies. The nearby rocks and steep slopes came into view as he lifted himself up on one elbow to peer around.
I’m in the mountains. What mountains?
Artemus sat all the way up, feeling the weakness in his muscles and soreness in his joints. He lifted a hand to feel the growth of whiskers on his jaw. Several days’ worth, he knew from experience. His clothes… he could only gape at his garb. A torn and patched jacket of very faded denim covered an equally faded flannel shirt. His well-worn and mended trousers were a couple of sizes too big, held up by a belt that did not appear too secure, with thin and abraded spots. The boots looked as though they might fall off his feet when he tried to walk in them.
He was not entirely surprised by his predicament. Loveless had pretty much said a surprise was in store for him as he injected the needle into Artie’s forearm. Loveless had been in high form, nearly dancing a jig around Jim’s deathly still form. He snorted when Artie asked if he could at least bury his friend.
“I have it all planned,” the doctor exulted. “The James West you know is going to disappear from this earth.”
Those words were the last Artemus remembered.
Artie climbed to his feet, then grabbed a low-hanging branch to support himself as a wave of vertigo washed over him. After a couple of deep breaths, he felt better, though still shaky. It’s Vladivostok all over again! The memories were faint, but they were there. He knew he had been kept sedated for a long period—days if one judged from his beard. They fed him and gave him water during the brief hazy periods he had been awake. No false effects of a seagoing boat this time, but Artie had a sense of movement.
I don't think I’m in Nevada… at least not in the Elko area. However, he had no idea of how long the journey had been. Day and night travel could have eaten up a lot of ground in three or four days, or his hazy memories might be duplicating each other so that the time was actually much shorter. Wyoming or Colorado, perhaps. Or eastern California? He knew those states well, but portions existed that he and Jim had never traveled through…
Jim. The memory of his partner’s collapse was agonizing. Jim may well have realized that all of the pistols were rigged with a needle, as Artemus had at that last moment. Jim West was—had been—Jim West. If he believed the Sherborne family was in peril, and with the slightest chance of saving his partner’s life, he would willingly give his own. And had.
First things first. He had to find civilization and a telegraph. He should be able to locate a residence or town within a day or two of walking, wherever he had been abandoned. Without supplies, it was going to be difficult, especially until the effects of the drug wore off. His pockets were completely empty: no money, no credentials, no weapon. Nothing.
They knew people all over the west, and had a good rapport with many of the Indian tribes. Question was whether he was in the vicinity of any of those acquaintances. The only way he was going to find out was to start walking. Which direction? West, of course. He could honor his fallen brother in that small way—if he could discern which way was west at this time!
The sun was midway above the horizon, but he was unsure at this moment whether it was morning or afternoon. The cooler air and some dampness suggested the time was before noon, thus Artie decided the sun had not yet reached its zenith for the day. Therefore, he headed in the direction opposite. As time moved on, he was proved correct in his assessment, the golden orb continued to rise until reaching its uppermost position whereupon it began to sink toward the west, the direction he had chosen.
He descended slopes and navigated through trees and rock-strewn areas, always trying to find a vantage point that would give him an outlook over the surrounding countryside. None were available that were free from view-blocking trees. He did come across some water, sparkling streams tumbling over rocks, which refreshed him. The cool clear liquid helped not only to slake his thirst but also to rid his head of the vestiges of the drug’s effects. Nonetheless, no food, not even berries. The few animals he saw—rabbits, a fox, and a small deer—were safe from the weaponless man.
Besides, I don’t have any matches, or even a flint, to start a cooking fire!
By the time night fell, Artemus knew he was nearing the foothills below the high mountains; as well, he was beginning to suspect where he was, recognizing some trees and other flora. Because of his weariness, he decided he would be wise to rest for the night. He found a hollow in the side of a slope that provided some protection against the night’s chill and dampness, but the gnawing hunger in his stomach precluded easy sleep. As soon as the sky started to lighten in the east, he crawled stiffly out of the haven and began his trek again.
The valley he entered was not a large one, nor was it a verdant flat land, being strewn with rocks and more trees. However, he soon saw cattle and even a fence of sorts that was constructed of rough wood. Someone lived in the region. He just had to find them before he collapsed entirely.
That probably was Loveless’s reasoning for stranding me in this manner. He fed me over the days of travel, but only enough to keep me alive. He kept his word in setting me “free,” figuring I would die of exposure within a very short time. I’m going to fool him. I AM going to fool him.
He kept repeating that phrase to himself as he trudged across pathless fields and navigated through piles of boulders and rocks, as well as more trees. Finally, as the sun was climbing toward midday again, he saw a thin spire of smoke. The sight invigorated him. Someone was there. Someone had a fire going—in a fireplace or a campfire. Who it was did not matter. It was someone: another human, with food, perhaps a horse to loan.
That his own appearance might startle anyone he would encounter did not immediately occur to Artemus Gordon. He simply trudged on, using a fairly straight and sturdy branch he had picked up for needed support. The destination was the column of smoke, and he aimed for it, never allowing it out of his sight.
More than two hours later, his legs shaky with exhaustion, body weak due to lack of food and water, he saw the buildings. A farm or ranch, he judged, continuing forward. Not a town. That was all right. Help was at hand. He could get some food, borrow a horse, and travel to wherever he would find a telegraph.
A grizzled man with a beard that strung down to the middle of his chest was working on a wagon wheel that leaned against a fence. Another man, younger, was nearby, sitting on that fence, apparently braiding some leather. He was the one who saw Artie’s approach. He said something, jumping down to grab a nearby rifle. The man at the wheel spun, also picking up a weapon, a shotgun.
Artemus raised his hand in a peace signal. “My friends,” he called, “I need some help.” Then he collapsed into renewed darkness.
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 - 01/08/2015 : 08:33:47
| Chapter 2
He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves, and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper.
—Reflections on the Revolution in France (vol. III, p. 195), Robert Burton (1576-1640), English writer, philosopher, and humorist
He slid off the slick back of the gleaming black horse and turned to help the young woman down from the chestnut mare, keeping his hands around her waist for a moment as her feet touched the ground. He knew that as unaccustomed as she was to riding, she would be stiff, her legs likely numb. Saddles might have helped them both, but time and circumstances had not permitted that luxury.
She took a breath. “Thank you. I think I’m fine. That water…”
Jim grasped her hand now and led her to the clear rushing stream that gleamed in the light from the full moon. “We can all use a good drink. The two of us and the horses. Go ahead.”
While Verna Sherborne knelt to dip her cupped hands into the water, Jim led the two horses downstream where they could reach the liquid as well. He then moved back to drop down beside her. The water was icy cold and utterly refreshing. They had not had any food or drink in the several hours since the escape from Loveless’s lair.
After the incident in the cave, he had awakened to find himself confined in a small cell apparently set up in the back of a house. He quickly realized that he had been completely disarmed, including the buttons on his jacket and the explosive material that had been secured in the hollow heels of his boots. For a long while he was alone, but eventually Loveless, with Antoinette beaming at his side, showed up to do some gloating.
That was not surprising. Miguelito was fond of gloating. Every time they had encountered him he had boasted of his superiority, conveniently forgetting the number of previous times they had overcome and destroyed his plans, whatever they were. This time he was happily mysterious, only hinting at some dire fate in store for his prisoner. Jim had remained stoic and silent, thus partially deflating the little doctor’s celebration. He had not even asked about Artemus, knowing that to do so would play into Loveless’s plans.
He had been given some bread, a hunk of cheese, and a cup of water for his meal. Nothing resembling a bed was in the cell, only some loose straw on the floor. The only “convenience” was a bucket in the corner. As darkness fell, he could hear voices beyond the heavy door that was in the wall of the small room where the cell was situated, and those fell away into complete silence. No one came to talk to him again.
That is, not until after complete darkness, when he was trying to fall asleep on the floor. The heavy door had opened slowly and silently. Jim had remained still, watching, completely surprised when he realized the figure entering the room was a woman. Not only that, but Verna Sherborne, the bait who had led them into this reprehensible snare.
She had come up to the bars and whispered that she was here to help him. Cautious and suspicious, Jim had listened to her apologies, seeing the gleam of tears streaking her cheeks in the pale moonlight that filtered through the small window high in the wall. “I have the keys,” she whispered, “and I know where the horses are.”
“What about my gun?”
“Yes. We can get that too. But nothing else.”
Jim was still wary as she opened the barred door. They quietly went to the other door, where Jim pressed his ear against the wood. The house was silent. “Everyone is in bed,” she hissed.
That the doctor apparently did not set up sentries was no surprise. His overconfidence was often his undoing. As Verna promised, his gun belt and weapon were easily available in a small cabinet in what apparently was the front room of the house. He buckled it on as he followed her, after first checking that the gun was properly loaded.
They went through a kitchen and out a back door as Verna quietly told him that the horses were in a corral a hundred yards or so beyond the house. Loveless’s men—close to a half dozen, she said—were in a bunkhouse on the other side of the corral. The gate was on the away side, farthest from the bunkhouse. The tack, however, was in a shed that was attached to the sleeping quarters, which made acquiring it very dangerous. Jim decided it was not worth the chance of rousing the sleeping men.
Verna was wearing a dress, and she said that while she had some experience riding, it was always sidesaddle. Nonetheless, she was game. Both his and Artie’s mounts were in the corral, and the two came eagerly when Jim called softly. He had lifted Verna onto the chestnut’s back, showing her how to wrap her fingers in the thick mane. Opening the gate, he let her ride out then he mounted up and carefully herded all the other horses through the gate. He was able to drive them perhaps a half a mile through the wooded hills before they began to disperse. Some might return to the corral, but if nothing else, their absence would cause a distraction in the morning.
The first thing he had asked Verna was where they were. The Sierra Nevada was her reply. However, she did not know exactly where. She had also been drugged during the travel away from the Sherborne home. Only because she had been privy to Loveless’s conversations once they arrived at the house did she come to be aware that they had traveled west into the mountains.
“I think we are well north of Sacramento,” she said. “I overheard the doctor telling a man to drive Miss Antoinette into Paradise for supplies. I know where that is. I don't think it’s the closest town to the cabin, but of course he would not want to lead anyone to his location.”
Jim was impressed with her powers of observation as well as her courage. She told him how Loveless had taken herself, her mother, and two brothers prisoner at their home, forcing her to go to Reno to contact the two agents. Loveless had somehow known they were there. He had, of course, threatened the lives of her family. He had then split them up, taking Verna with him and leaving her mother and brothers at the ranch with the threat that Verna would be safely returned to them as long as they did not contact the law. As well, Verna was told to behave to keep her family safe.
“But you’re not behaving,” Jim had pointed out.
That drew a little smile. “Well, I figured that at this point, the doctor was more interested in having you as a prisoner than bothering with my family. Besides, I whispered to Mama before we left to take the boys and head to Kansas City where we have kin.”
Jim had asked her about Artemus, but she could not help much. She knew that Mr. Gordon had been in the same wagon along with Mr. West, both of them kept drugged during the journey. However, Mr. Gordon was not brought into the house. She saw Loveless talking to two men who then continued with the wagon containing the other agent.
“They appeared to travel south, but I am not sure if that means anything.”
Artie at least was alive at that point. That was encouraging.
Verna was looking around their surroundings as Jim knelt to drink. When he got to his feet, she shook her head. “I don’t even see any berries! Wrong time of year I guess.”
“Yes. But I’ll be all right.”
“If indeed we are near Paradise, I have a friend who lives there. We can get shelter and food, as well as some money. I need to send a couple of telegrams!”
She now gazed up in the direction over which they had just traveled. “It will be light soon.”
“Loveless will send men after us, that is certain. We need to keep moving. The closer we are to civilization, the safer we’ll be.”
Turn, gentle Hermit of the Dale,
And guide my lonely way
To where your taper cheers the vale
With hospitable ray.
—Vicar of Wakefield--The Hermit (ch. VIII), Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774), Irish poet, dramatist, and novelist
Jasper Eubanks had been a hard man to convince. He was willing enough to spare some food and water to the tramp that wandered onto his remote farm, but he wanted recompense. Because the tramp had no money, Eubanks settled for some chores. He was not about to lend one of his two riding horses to this no-account stranger, however.
Jasper’s equally hirsute son, Merton, and his spouse, Daisy, were the ones who listened to the tramp’s story and started to believe him. Merton remembered that when he last made the two-day trek into Sacramento to sell firewood and apples, he read a newspaper that had a story about a government agent named Artemus Gordon. When Artie was able to provide details of the event the newspaper described, Merton started to realize the truth. Mrs. Eubanks had known from the start, she said. “A man with kind brown eyes like that couldn’t be lying,” she asserted.
Artie ate the food they proffered and slept in the barn on soft hay, regaining his strength during those two days and nights as he helped chop firewood and repair the barn roof. On the third, Jasper Eubanks relented, especially after Artemus suggested that Merton ride to Sacramento with him so he could bring the horses back. As fortuitous coincidence would have it, Artie knew that he had a friend in Sacramento if he could just get there.
Merton explained that the trek into Sacramento on a loaded wagon usually consumed almost three days, but he thought they could make it in a day and half on horseback. His estimation was close. After leaving at dawn, they camped out that night then rode into the California central valley town the following afternoon, whereupon Artie went directly to the store bearing the sign “Milady’s Emporium.” When he entered the small store, the dark-haired woman behind the counter peered around from the younger woman she was with, frowned when she noted the ragged garb of the unshaven man—and then spied the grin on the unshaven man’s face.
“Oh my god! Artemus? Is that you?”
“Hello, Lydia. It’s me. A little the worse for wear, but me.”
Lydia Monteran hurried to him, first putting her hands on his arms to study him more closely for a moment, and then hugged him. Artie was grateful that Mrs. Eubanks had laundered his clothes and he had been able to take a bath, although Mr. Eubanks did not own a razor. He did not believe in shaving. The best Artie had been able to do was to trim his whiskers with Mrs. Eubanks’ sewing scissors.
“Where’s Jim?” She looked beyond him, staring toward the doorway, which was empty.
“Jim’s in big trouble, Lydia. So am I, and I need your help.”
Nam quamvis prope to, quamvis temone sub uno
Verentem sese, frustra sectabere cantum
Cum rota posterior curras et in axe secundo.
[Why, like the hindmost chariot wheels, art curst
Still to be near but ne'er to reach the first.]
—Satires (V, 71), Persius (Aulus Persius Flaccus; 34-62), Etrurian satirical poet
Miguelito Loveless went into one of his patented rages upon learning that not only was his prisoner missing, but the young woman he had brought along as a security against being exposed was absent too. When one of the hired men reported that the two horses belonging to the agents were gone from the corral—along with almost every other mount—the small doctor shrieked, stomped his feet, and even threw a favorite book against the wall.
When he finally began to calm down, Antoinette offered him a cup of tea, which he accepted, breathing heavily, his blue eyes still fiery. He put the cup and saucer down without tasting the brew and began to pace the room.
“I don’t understand. This couldn’t happen!”
“Well, Miguelito, obviously Verna assisted Mr. West…”
“But she could not have! She knows the consequences! I made her understand what would happen. I’m sure she understood.”
“Perhaps you misread…”
“No! Never! I know people! I know how they think and feel! I never make such mistakes!”
Antoinette fell into silence then. This had happened numerous times. She loved the little man, but sometimes he could be rather unreasonable. Experience told her that her silence was best right now. She was right. After about fifteen minutes he picked up the cup of tea, drank it down without noticing it was no longer hot, then turned to her.
“All right. I know West. I know Gordon. Somehow, they will get together again, and then they will try to find me. Very well. I will wait for them. Right here. I will be ready this time. No dilly-dallying around. Both of them will die!”
He took to pacing a circle in the somewhat small living room, hands behind his back, head down, as he hummed an aria from Le nozze di Figaro, Antoinette smiled. That was a very good sign. Miguelito was back in form again. Mr. West and Mr. Gordon do not stand a chance!
Friends are much better tried in bad fortune than in good.
—Aristotle (384-322 BC), Greek philosopher
The Wanderer arrived outside Sacramento, California three days after the reunion with Lydia Monteran. When Artemus borrowed a horse to ride out to meet it, Lydia accompanied him, riding sidesaddle on a trim Arabian mare she proudly showed off as a sign of her current success. They both, he knew, harbored the faint hope that when they entered the Wanderer’s varnish car they would find the green-eyed man waiting for them. Artie knew it was impossible, yet stranger things had happened during their careers.
He was not surprised that Lydia insisted on helping. After the affair involving Juan Manolo, when she lost her casino in the explosions Jim set off, the two agents had made certain she received whatever rewards had been offered. She had, however, not learned their true profession until sometime later when they encountered her in the store she had established with the reward. The Sacramento area was prosperous. The wives of the upscale townsmen, the local miners, and the ranchers wanted to keep up with the latest eastern styles, so a fashionable establishment with finer ladies’ garments and accoutrements was profitable for her… and safer than a gambling casino.
Artie realized that Lydia harbored feelings for Jim, despite he had twice cost her a lot of money. He also believed that Lydia was wise enough to realize that Jim West was not going to return those feelings, at least not long-term. The two of them were much alike, however, and chances were very good she was satisfied with occasional attention from the agent. Quite likely, she had admirers in her new home area.
Jim West was not on the train; nonetheless, another real surprise waited when they reached the siding where the Wanderer was parked. Artemus had asked for assistance, and expected to see either Harper or Pike in the car, or at least have information that one of those two men was on his way. Upon entering the parlor car, he found not one, but five agents.
Ned Brown was the first one on his feet, extending a warm hand. “Artemus! Good to see you! And you brought us a present!” He eyed the lovely brunette at Gordon’s side.
Momentarily stunned, Artie gazed around at Brown, Bosley Cranston, Jeremy Pike, Frank Harper, and young Ned Malone. “What are you all doing here?” was all he could think to say.
“We were all in the area, relatively speaking,” Jeremy responded, “and relatively free. Moreover, when each of us heard what happened, we all applied to assist. The colonel thought numbers might prevail over brains this time.”
“Where is Jim?” Ned Malone asked. “Is he all right?”
“I don't know for sure,” Artie replied, quickly telling them what happened. “I have to admit Jim looked… dead. Nevertheless, the more I think about it, I don't think so. It’s not like Loveless. He would not want it to be so quick and so permanent.”
“I have to agree with Mr. Gordon,” Bosley piped up. “I have read—and memorized—the Loveless case files. He always has a grandiose scheme prepared. I recall in particular when he captured Mr. West and planned to perpetrate a brain operation, leaving Mr. West a virtual idiot. He would want to inflict more pain than a simple, swift death.”
“This Dr. Loveless must be a gruesome madman!” Lydia exclaimed. Artemus had told her some things about the little doctor, but not this particular incident.
“Gentlemen,” Artie said, taking Lydia’s arm, “this is Miss Lydia Monteran, an old friend. She rescued me when I wandered into Sacramento, and now insists on helping further.” Quickly he named off the five agents, all of whom gazed with great admiration.
“I hope none of you attempt to talk me out of helping,” Lydia stated firmly. “Artemus has already tried and failed.”
Frank stepped forward, taking her hand and bowing low over it, his eyes glowing with high regard. “Miss Monteran, I would never think of excluding such a lovely addition to our little group.” His gallantry was rewarded with a warm smile.
“I guess we now head back to Nevada?” Jeremy wondered.
Artie frowned, shaking his head. “I am not so sure. I’ve given that a great deal of thought as well. Let’s get some coffee and talk about it.”
He brewed up a fresh pot and soon the group was settled on the settees and chairs in the varnish car. Artemus first described in detail to the men how he and Jim had fallen for the ruse perpetrated by the charming young lady. “She may well have been Luther Sherborne’s daughter—she resembled him greatly. I’m not sure about the older woman and boy we saw. Luther was not there, obviously. A clever trap sprung on two unsuspecting agents.”
“It’s happened to all of us from time to time,” Jer assured him.
“And,” Artie sighed, “we had no thoughts of encountering Loveless at that time and place. We had stopped in Reno after the trip up the Sierra from San Francisco, giving the crew time to replenish fuel and water, as well as other supplies. The jaunt into town for dinner was a last-minute decision—after Jim lost a bet and owed me a meal.”
“Jim lost a bet?” Frank chimed in. “That should have given you a clue that something odd was in the air to begin with!”
Artie had to chuckle. “Yes, in retrospect. In any case, because everything was unscheduled, so to speak, I think we were completely off guard.” He went on to grimly describe in detail the snare they had entered, and Loveless’s subsequent challenge to Jim. “He knew Jim would carry through. I realized belatedly that all three of the pistols were drug-laden, and I would not be surprised that Jim comprehended this too. He did it to save my life, because we also both knew Loveless would carry out his threat to kill us both if Jim did not cooperate.”
“But you don't think Jim is dead?” the younger Ned inquired.
“No.” Artie shook his head. “As I said, it’s just not Loveless’s way. I think Jim and I know Loveless better than anyone—perhaps even better than Loveless knows himself. He hates Jim for many reasons, not the least of which that Jim has managed to foil his schemes—with my assistance—time and again. He would not want Jim to die so quickly, of that I am fairly certain.”
“So if not Nevada,” Ned Brown put in, “where?”
“That’s a good question,” Artie sighed. “It could be almost anywhere. Yet…” He paused, frowning deeply.
“Yet?” Lydia was the one to prompt him.
“As I’ve said, we know the little doctor very well. He loves his comforts. I am all but certain he accompanied the wagon that transported me from Nevada to the Sierras. I have the vague recollection of hearing his voice. I cannot imagine him making that same wagon trip back to Elko.”
“So you think he’s nearby?” Frank’s brow knit. “With Jim?”
“When I telegraphed Colonel Richmond, I asked him to make inquiries regarding possible sightings of Loveless and Antoinette, as well as a couple of the men I could describe who had been in the cave. And Verna. Just before Lydia and I headed out here, I had an answer. A woman answering the description of Antoinette was seen in Paradise three days ago, purchasing supplies at a general mercantile. According to the storekeeper who the marshal talked to there, the wagon was driven by a man who fit the description of one from the cave.”
“That’s about a hundred miles north of here,” Ned Malone mused. “And a rather sparsely populated area surrounds that town. Their main sources of income arise from the railroad that passes through.”
“You know the town, Ned?” Artie asked.
The young man nodded. “I stayed over there for a couple of days last year when I was helping Frank track down the gang that attempted the train robbery north of Paradise.”
“I remember that case,” Artie said thoughtfully. “What about places a man like Loveless and perhaps a half dozen men—and two women—could hide out, possibly with a prisoner?”
Ned shrugged. “I’m afraid there are numerous sites. The town lies in a pass—used by the railroad—and there are a few small farms and ranches. Nevertheless, the hills that surround the area are steep and quite wild, perhaps even unexplored. I remember one old timer telling me that a couple of near-hermits built a house up in the mountains. Right on top of a mountain, in fact.”
“So what do we do, Artemus?” Jeremy directed his query to the tacitly acknowledged leader of the group. “Take a chance on Paradise or wait for more information?”
Artie ran the fingers of both hands through his thick dark hair, and expelled a noisy sigh. “We’re here. I don't think it’s a good idea to delay any more than necessary.” He glanced at his fellow agents. “Any ideas?”
“I have one,” Frank spoke up promptly, his eyes on Lydia. “Suppose a wealthy easterner and his bride were in the area looking to buy property. Perhaps Bosley could act as a manservant. That could provide an excuse to look around.”
Ned Brown nodded enthusiastically, putting his hand on the younger Ned’s shoulder. “And of course, the happy couple would be accompanied by a land agent—and his son.”
Artemus was silent a long moment. He knew that what Frank and Ned were not saying was correct, that he was too well known to Loveless. Although he had fooled the doctor repeatedly, one more attempt at a disguise might be one too many. Loveless had met Frank just the one time, and had never seen either of the Neds, nor Lydia. Frank was an expert at disguise, and Ned Brown and Ned Malone had the same coloring, so could pass as kin to each other.
“What do Jer and I do in the meantime?” he asked. “Twiddle our thumbs?”
“Backup,” Frank responded promptly. “We always need backup.”
“Hey,” Lydia complained, “no one has asked me for my opinion!” All six men looked at her expectantly. She smiled sweetly. “Why, Mr. Harper, your proposal is so unexpected!”
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 - 01/08/2015 : 08:34:39
| Chapter 3
There is an emanation from the heart in genuine hospitality which cannot be described, but is immediately felt and puts the stranger at once at his ease.
—Washington Irving (1783-1859), American short story writer and essayist
The man emerged through the door of the house as they rode up. He leaned on the cane he held and raised the other hand to shade his eyes while peering across the short yard. “Hey!” he called. “Is that Jim West?”
“It’s me, Linus. With a friend.”
Linus Pederson limped down from the porch and headed toward them as Jim helped Verna down from Artie’s horse. As he had before, he held her a moment until he was sure she could stand on her own. Her smile was faint, and she nodded that she was all right. Jim turned.
“Linus, it’s good to see you.”
“And you, my friend. But what is this? You look like hell—excuse me, ma’am. Are you eloping with the lady’s pa close behind?” His blue eyes twinkled. He had known Jim long enough to know that such an occurrence was unlikely.
Jim smiled back. “I wish it was that pleasant. Can we come in, Linus? I’ll tell you the story. Miss Sherborne needs a rest and some food.”
“Then come right in. I have a pot of soup on the stove.”
Jim glanced back at the horses. “I’ll put these two in your corral if that’s all right.” Mesa and Blackjack would not likely wander far, but he would feel better if they were confined.
“Do that. They look like they could use some food too. Come along, Miss Sherborne.” Linus offered his free arm and Verna took it without hesitation. Jim could see that all her concentration was required to keep her legs steady. They had had very little to eat in the last three days, and except for some short naps, not much rest.
Jim got the horses settled with some food and water then trudged back toward the small house. Linus Pederson had been an officer in Artemus's Michigan regiment whom Jim had met during the war, and again afterwards, when Pederson settled in California. They had visited him any time they were in this part of northern California. Just like Linus to not ask too many questions.
Verna was at a small round table eagerly eating the steaming soup from a porcelain bowl, a plate of rolls nearby on the table. Linus was putting a full glass of milk before her when Jim entered. “There’s a bowl for you, Jim. Go to it. Coffee or milk?”
“Coffee. Verna? Are you all right?”
The spoon paused a moment. “Yes. Much better. Sorry for eating like a pig but…”
“You just shovel it down, miss,” Linus beamed. “That soup was one of my late wife’s favorites, and mine too. When you’ve had enough, I’ll show you where you can lie down awhile.”
Pederson continued to be patient with them, refilling their bowls and Jim’s coffee as he waited. One other time Jim and Artemus had taken refuge here at his little spread outside Paradise, California, and Linus knew that eventually Jim would explain all. He also knew that something dire must have occurred for James West to be unshaven and grimy, not to mention in the company of a young woman in similar straits, her dress soiled, hair undone, a smudge of dirt on her face.
When Verna began to display more exhaustion than hunger, Linus escorted her to a bedroom where she could rest, then came back to the kitchen where Jim was draining his second cup of coffee. The cup was quickly refilled. “All right, Jim. What happened?”
Tersely Jim related how Verna had been forced to act as bait, how he had been drugged, and Artie had vanished. “Verna realized that by sending her family away she didn’t need to heed Loveless’s threat, so she helped me escape. All we managed to get were the horses and my gun. No food, no water. We found water along the way but not much in the way of edibles. Linus, I need to send a telegraph message to my headquarters and…”
Pederson held up a hand. “I’m sorry to tell you this Jim, but we had one hell of a wildfire in the hills south of here. It wiped out all the telegraph wires and crews are still putting up poles and wires. They figure another week at least. You’ll have to go north and find a telegrapher that can detour around this area.”
Jim rubbed his whiskered jaw. “That’s something I didn’t figure on. I suppose it would be just as efficient to head south. I want to get out of Loveless’s range. If he learns about the lack of telegraph, he may believe I would indeed go north. Can I leave Verna here with you?”
“Of course. This Loveless shouldn’t have a reason to look here. Think she’ll stay?”
Jim grinned briefly. “That’s a good question!”
Visitors are insatiable devourers of time, and fit only for those who, if they did not visit, would do nothing.
—William Cowper (1731-1800), English poet
The old man with trembling hands and a head full of snow-white hair, including a longish beard, allowed the heavy set man to assist him from the buggy, then turned to watch the lovely woman clad in a fine navy blue traveling costume, matching feathers on her stylish hat, step out of the conveyance. A diamond brooch adorned her jacket.
“Be careful, dearest,” the old man warned in a scratchy voice. “I don’t want you to hurt yourself.”
“Thank you, Cyril, but I’m fine. Thank you, Mr. Green. You and your handsome son have been so much help.” She flashed a glance back at the young man who was preparing to debark.
“Mr. Van Buren, Mr. Van Buren!” The smallish man with dark hair and pince-nez on a sharp nose hurried around the buggy after emerging from the opposite side. “You really should be careful, sir. This mountain air is quite cool!” He proffered a shawl.
The old man waved him off. “Oh, quit fussing, Ellery. I’m as hale and hearty as a man forty years younger. Just ask my dear wife. Isn’t that true, Leila, dearest?”
She fluttered her lashes at the old man. “You’re all the man any woman could desire, my love. Neddie, will you take my arm?” She offered it to the youngest man, who kept his own gaze averted in obvious embarrassment as he took her arm.
Miguelito Loveless had emerged from the front of the house, glaring. “What is this?” he demanded. “Who are you people? This is private property!”
The large man bustled forward, pulling a straw boater from his head. “Sir! I am Edward Green, commonly known as Big Ned, finest land agent in all of the western United States—perhaps in the entire country. I have come to offer you the grandest opportunity any man could wish for. Could we speak in private?” The last was said in a much lower, conspiratorial tone.
“What? Go away. Go away!”
The old man tottered forward, reaching one hand out as though he expected to be able to lean on a cane, then withdrawing the hand, perhaps remembering he had abandoned the walking stick in his effort to appear more youthful. “Sir, are you the owner of this fine property? I am prepared to offer you a splendid price. My dear wife has fallen in love with this area, and we want to erect a glorious mansion on this spot. The view is stupendous!” He almost fell over as he swung an arm to encompass the scene below them.
Leila scurried up now, dragging young Ned Green with her. “Oh, sir, please do listen to my darling husband. We would be ever so grateful. Do you mind if I go inside and refresh myself? That carriage ride has been so tiring. I’m ever so thirsty!” Again, she fluttered her lashes in the manner of a woman who always got what she wanted after such a display.
“Ned boy,” the older Green commanded, “go fetch that sales contract from my case. Hurry now.”
Young Ned detached himself from Leila with some difficulty to sprint back to the buggy, while Loveless fumed. “No, you cannot go inside, Madame! Sir, I do not need to see a sales contract! This property is not for sale!”
“Nonsense,” old Mr. Van Buren sneered, “everything and everyone is for sale. It’s only a matter now of naming a price. I assure you, sir, price is no object! Cyril Van Buren always gets his way!”
“I don't think anyone was with them,” Jeremy sighed.
Artie sat back on his haunches behind the brush where they were situated. “I know. Those three men were alone. At least we know for certain that Loveless is here.”
Over the last three days, they had canvassed the area, asking questions of residents and following possible trails, until Ned Malone reported seeing one of the men Artemus had described previously. That man had ridden in the direction of this mountain, after which they had done some surreptitious reconnoitering to find the house. The agents then further developed the ruse of a rich old man wanting to buy the property for his young bride. As hoped, Loveless had been drawn out of the house to deal with them. They also hoped that the attention of any guards in the house was focused on the scene in front.
Jeremy and Artemus had made a difficult trek on foot up the hills behind the house, hoping to see more. They had arrived just in time to see several men scurrying in through the rear door when the buggy pulled up out front. The two agents had planned to be in place before the others arrived, but ran into an obstacle, a fallen tree that blocked the route they had chosen, requiring a detour to find another way up the slope; a detour consuming close to an hour.
“If Jim is there,” Pike said slowly, “do you think they would risk taking him out of the house?”
Artie sighed, shook his head. “I don't know. I guess… it depends on what condition he’s in. I wonder if I could make it to that window…” One thing that was easily discernable was that a portion of the house here at the rear was new. An addition of about ten feet width had been built onto the older structure. A single window, close to the roof, was visible in that addition.
“Not a good idea,” Jeremy responded quickly. “Artemus, we just don't know enough about what’s going on or who’s in there.”
They could hear loud voices emanating from the front of the small house. Artemus could not help but grin. “Sounds like old Cyril roused the good doctor’s temper.”
“He has a way of doing that,” Jeremy nodded, also smiling. “Shall we stick around awhile?”
“I think so. We need to get an idea of just who is here, how many men Loveless has on hand.”
As the day wore on and they maintained their watching post, the two agents saw several men emerge from the back of the house, primarily to visit the outhouse situated there. One man also entered a rough path that trailed from the right of the house into the deeper woods; another took the same route perhaps a quarter of an hour later. Curious, Jeremy followed the second one, staying in the brush off the trail. He returned about a half hour later to report that another building was located a hundred yards or so in that direction.
“Looks to me that that’s the bully boys’ bunkhouse.”
“I wondered about that,” Artie nodded. “This house isn’t big enough to shelter them all. How many men did you see there?”
“Just two—the two that we saw. Also a horse corral. I did not see your horses.”
“Odd. What did Loveless do with them?” Jim’s horse in particular was fairly well known. If Loveless tried to sell it, he might run into difficulties. “I think I’ve counted five different men in all thus far. I suspect Verna and Antoinette are also in there.”
“And… we hope… Jim West.” Pike’s voice was soft, but had an edge to it.
“It makes no sense,” Artie pondered. “If he has kept Jim alive all this time… why?”
“You know as well as I do, Artemus, how unpredictable—yet predictable—the doctor can be.”
Artie nodded, shifting his position to ease his aching legs. They had to remain low so as not to be seen, and regardless of whether on one’s knees, sitting down, or crouching, the position was uncomfortable. However, they could not move around too much, risking becoming more visible from inside the house. Both had chosen dark clothing to try to blend in with the vegetation, but that was no guarantee of invisibility.
“You can wager that Loveless has something nasty in store for Jim,” Artemus said then. “I’m sure he also has a good reason for the delay—if that’s what it is. Who knows,” he added bitterly, “he may be poisoning Jim or…” He did not really want to consider the possibilities.
“Most important is to find out if Jim is in there, Artemus. Once we determine that, we should be able to decide our next course of action.”
Ut appareat adeo periculum vitare debemus pavido nec paveatis: sed simul, ut ne offeramus nos periculis sine necessitate, qua nihil potest esse dementius.
[We should never so entirely avoid danger as to appear irresolute and cowardly; but, at the same time, we should avoid unnecessarily exposing ourselves to danger, than which nothing can be more foolish.]
—Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero, often called “Tully” for short; 106-43 BC), Roman philosopher, statesman, and orator
Verna absolutely refused to remain behind. If Jim left without her, she asserted, she would just start walking. After a good night’s sleep and a bath, she was feeling very much better and with a clear head. Jim realized he felt the same way, and that he really should not leave her behind. Loveless’s men would be seeking her as well as him.
Linus Pederson quickly saw the lay of the land and told Verna that he not only had a sidesaddle she could use, but a riding habit that belonged to his daughter, now married and living in Oregon. “She would be happy to see both put to good use.” He thought the clothing would fit her, although he was unsure about a pair of boots. Turned out he was right about the skirt, shirtwaist, and jacket, and the boots were a bit long. That was taken care of by stuffing small pieces of rags in the toes.
He also had a saddle for Jim’s horse. Importantly, he was able to loan Jim some money as well as provide a gunnysack filled with food supplies. The plans they discussed included staying away from civilization as much as possible except when it was necessary to go into a town to send a telegraph message. Jim did not have his usual tools that would enable him to shinny up a pole to connect with lines.
By the time everything was ready, the day was well into the afternoon. Jim could see that Verna was displaying some fatigue again. Another good night would help both of them, he was sure, so he made the decision to leave early the following morning. The moon was full so they could get a good start.
Pederson rode into town during the day, primarily to look around and ask a few subtle questions, picking up some supplies to cover the trip. When he returned to his ranch, he told Jim that he could find no indications that strangers had been in town, especially none asking about people matching Jim and Verna’s descriptions. “And no one seems to have seen matching the description of this Loveless fellow.”
Jim was unsurprised about that. Chances were very good that the doctor would send his minions after the escapees. Loveless had done some complaining about the strenuous and uncomfortable trip to his mountain hideout. He would not want to repeat it unless absolutely required.
Hope is the most treacherous of all human fancies.
—James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851), American novelist
“All we accomplished was finding Loveless,” Artemus complained, sinking down onto the sofa and nearly spilling his freshly filled coffee cup. His expression was taut, his brown eyes filled with worry and dread.
“Just because we didn’t see Jim doesn’t mean he’s not there,” Ned Brown encouraged. “Why else would Loveless be there?”
Artie just shrugged as Jeremy spoke up. “A nationwide alert has been sent out from Washington regarding Jim. We’ll hear if he’s located.” He did not want to add, “…dead or alive.” Artemus was very concerned about his partner and friend and had a right to be. Jeremy and Artemus had remained behind the mountain lodge for several hours yesterday, coming back to the train well after dark after a fruitless day.
“We need to post round-the-clock sentinels,” young Malone asserted. “I volunteer for the first shift.”
Artie lifted his gaze. “You’re right, Ned. Not only to watch for a sighting of Jim, but to be aware if Loveless departs. If he doesn’t have Jim held there, he might have another location. This might be a… distraction.” He wanted desperately to believe that. Nonetheless, to not have spotted any hint of Jim yesterday was extremely discouraging. Surely, they would have brought him out to visit the outhouse if nothing else. “I’ll go with you, Ned.”
“All right,” Frank said. “You and Ned Malone, me and Lydia…”
“Lydia!” Ned Brown exclaimed, looking at the lovely woman who was sitting at the desk, chin on her hands as her elbows rested on the desktop. She merely smiled.
“Miss Monteran has assured me she expects to be a full part of the project,” Frank replied, glancing toward Lydia now.
“And don’t forget,” she piped up, “I am an excellent rider. Not to mention that as a child, my father, siblings and I spent days camping in the Appalachians. I can rough it with the best of them.”
“Me and Lydia,” Frank continued, “Ned Brown and Bosley. We can take eight-hour shifts. Jer can remain here and man the telegraph.”
Artemus got to his feet now. “And we’d better start soon. We don’t want the doctor and his entourage slipping away while we sit here and fret.”
“I’ll pack you some supplies,” Lydia volunteered, also rising.
“Let’s go saddle up, Neddie boy,” Artie grinned at the younger man. Suddenly he felt much better, more hopeful, and was unsure whether simply the prospect of doing something was the reason.
Jim and Verna set out before dawn under the bright moon. The morning was cool but both knew that by midday the sun would have warmed the area considerably. Jim guided the way and stayed off the main roads and trails. The going was rougher, but Verna did not complain. She managed in the sidesaddle quite well. Mesa had been uneasy at first with the new configuration of the saddle strapped on her back, but being the steady horse she was, soon adapted to that as well as the lighter weight of the woman.
Oroville was the first town south of Paradise where they would find a telegraph office, and Jim rode into that small town by midmorning, leaving Verna deep in the hills above the town. He sent a coded message to Washington, assuring the colonel that he was alive and well, asking for information about Artemus and, if possible, Loveless. He informed the colonel that he should send the reply to Marysville, the next town they would strike.
Jim kept their pace rather slow and easy, not entirely due to the woman who was accompanying him. By staying off the well-traveled roads and better-known trails, it was necessary to pick their way through the wooded foothills. He did not want to unexpectedly encounter another traveler or a homestead that might then be able to give information to anyone searching for them. Several times, he spotted rising smoke, or heard a dog bark, causing him to veer away. This cautious rate of travel meant that evening was coming on fast by the time they neared Marysville.
Feeling that the telegraph office would be closed at this hour, he set up camp in a well sheltered clearing in the hills above the town, making a nearly smokeless fire to heat up some of the food Linus had provided. After eating, he set about cleaning up in a nearby stream, and upon returning to the camp, he found Verna had fallen asleep on her blankets. The day had been hard on her; the last few days had been difficult! She’s a trouper, though, he mused, sitting cross-legged on his own blankets.
The heartless Miguelito Loveless had forced her into this situation, and Jim suspected she was as concerned for her own family as he was for Artemus. Although she told her mother to go to Kansas City, she had no way to know whether they had escaped safely. Loveless had not left a guard at the house; he may, however, have sent someone there immediately upon discovering the escape of his prisoners.
Is Artie alive? That question had been on his mind almost from the first moment he awakened in the cell. Loveless had said so, reminding Jim of his “honor.” Jim was aware, nevertheless, that Dr. Loveless’s definition of honor was quite different from that of most men. He might have set Artie free, but in a situation that put him in great peril.
If Artie is alive, he will have contacted Colonel Richmond. Of that I’m certain! So the response he was expecting from Washington was very important. He would know his next moves after that answer. For now, I guess I should try to get some rest. Tomorrow could be a busy day!
Frank Harper stepped out onto the rear platform to enjoy his first cigar of the morning, and was pleased beyond expectations when Lydia Monteran joined him a few minutes later. “Beautiful morning,” she smiled.
He returned the smile. “It has just become even more so.”
Lydia laughed, pleased with the compliment. “I’ve been curious. You are obviously southern. How in the world did you come to be in the employ of the enemy, so to speak?”
Frank leaned against the rail, keeping his gaze on the lovely woman. “It was largely due to the influence and efforts of Jim and Artemus. We… er… happened to meet one fine day in the Shenandoah Valley. To make a long story short, they took me prisoner. We were required to spend several days and nights together as we made our way through Confederate lines back to the Union headquarters. I taught them how to play a good game of poker and they taught me the meaning of friendship and loyalty.”
Lydia cocked her head. “That almost sounds as though you were a friendless orphan… or something.”
“Or something,” he nodded. “Suffice it to say I was not the most popular man in my regiment. I enlisted with the Confederacy out of duty, not out of my beliefs regarding what the war was supposedly being conducted to secure. I did not like slavery. An abolitionist was not the most popular political stance in Virginia at that time. Especially one who could not keep his mouth shut!”
“I suspect that beyond all that, you carried out your duty and fought quite gallantly.”
“Oh, I got a couple of commendations and the rank of brevet colonel… though my true rank remained a lieutenant, something which Captains West and Gordon have never let me forget!” Frank chuckled. “In any case, after the war ended, I was at loose ends. I happened to run into Jim and Artemus when they were on an errand to Tennessee and they talked me into coming to Washington to apply for the department. I didn’t expect to get the job. But I underestimated the influence these two gentlemen have with President Grant.”
“I would like to hear more of your story,” Lydia said, her gaze softening on his. Then her eyes suddenly widened. “Someone’s coming!” She was looking over his shoulder.
Frank turned to gaze in that direction, frowning. “It’s not Artemus and Ned. They are late returning….” He peered harder. “I’ll be… I don’t believe it!” Throwing his cigar into the dust of the rail tracks, he vaulted over the railing, taking off at a sprint.
Lydia watched him a brief moment then turned back to the half open door. “Jim’s back!”
She scurried down the steps, lifting her skirts to race across the open field, not looking back, but hearing the commotion behind her. Frank had reached the two who had dismounted, and was happily shaking Jim West’s hand as she dashed up to throw her arms around the handsome green-eyed agent.
Jim laughed, giving her a hug. “Barely.” He turned to greet Pike, Brown, and Cranston with hearty handshakes. “Where’s Artie?”
Jeremy expelled a breath. “We were just discussing that. He and Ned Malone did their tour of sentry duty at Loveless’s place early this morning. Ned and Bosley went out to relieve them, and just got back. They didn’t find either Artemus or young Ned.”
Jim frowned deeply now. “That’s not good. As soon as I get something to eat, I’ll head out and check.”
“I’ll go with you,” Pike said quickly, his eyes flicking to the rather disheveled young woman at Jim’s side.
Jim glanced at her. “This is Verna Sherborne, who began the story, and now helped to end it… to this point. We both could use some water, rest, and food. Then we have a lot of talking to do.”
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 - 01/08/2015 : 08:35:27
| Chapter 4
As ill-luck would have it.
—Don Quixote (pt. I, bk. I, ch. II), Cervantes (Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra; 1546-1616), Spanish author
“An interesting turn of events,” Miguelito Loveless mused as he gazed at the two men now in the cell previously occupied by James West. “Not an entirely unwelcome one. I am flexible, you know. Not all is lost. With you in my hands, Mr. Gordon, Mr. West will return to my keeping before long.”
“Don’t count on it,” Artie growled. He was angry and frustrated. Everything had gone wrong—most especially the fact that Jim was no longer Loveless’s prisoner, but Artemus Gordon was.
“What truly interests me is why young Mr. Green is with you… if that is his name. I suspect he is not the land agent’s wishy-washy son as I was supposed to believe.”
“Then your suspicions are wrong,” Artie said, straight-faced. “I hired Mr. Green to guide me up here. You should allow him to go free. He has nothing to do with any of this.”
Loveless smirked. “You are a liar, Mr. Gordon. A good one. I suppose it is the acting training that allows you to look me straight in the eye while you prevaricate. No, I know enough about the Secret Service to realize they would not involve an ‘innocent’ in such an operation. He is young to be an agent, but I am sure his cheerful, innocent appearance has served him well… such as portraying the lackluster son of a bombastic man. Not to mention that I am very aware that Mr. West was quite young when he became an agent. The worst mistake he ever made. That group that visited yesterday did not fool me for a minute.” Behind him, Antoinette opened her mouth then wisely closed it tightly.
Artemus just shook his head. “You are way off the mark, Dr. Loveless. To think I had always admired your ability to judge people! I don't know about the visitors, although I know Mr. Green was part of the group. When I heard about it, I approached him to bring me here.”
“In the middle of the night.”
“That seemed the wisest course.”
Loveless folded his arms. “I see. And now, Mr. West has made his escape with, I sadly suspect, the assistance of a young lady I had befriended and trusted.” A mournful expression touched his blue eyes for a moment but the gleam immediately returned. “But as I said, not all is lost. James West will return to rescue you, and I will be prepared to retake him into captivity. This time, I will be certain he does not escape again. Nor you.” His grin was broad, but Artemus did not miss the flicker in his gaze. Jim West had escaped from him too many times.
With a short nod, Loveless stepped out of the cell, allowing one of the armed guards to slam the door shut and lock it. Moments later, the two agents were alone in the cell.
“Well,” Artie sighed, “I sure messed that up!”
They had arrived at the cabin without incident, after a climb that was even more grueling in the predawn darkness than it had been during the daylight. After watching from the bushes for a long period, Artemus had decided to approach the single window, planning to grip its frame with his fingers and pull himself up for a look inside. He had just reached a position of hanging from the sill when a man appeared on the path from the bunkhouse area.
Artie had been in plain sight, even in the light of the half moon, and with his hands occupied, he had not been able to reach his weapon swiftly. Ned, in the bushes still, had hesitated just an instant—an instant too long—before coming to his feet. The guard already had his gun out and was yelling for assistance as he fired two shots into the air. Within moments Loveless emerged from the house, weapon in hand, and several other men in various stages of undress appeared from the direction of the bunkhouse.
“You should have run,” was the first thing Artie said to Ned as the young man was rousted from his hiding place, and he repeated it now in the cell.
“I didn’t want to desert you,” Ned said.
“I know the feeling,” Artie acknowledged. Even when knowing escape was the wisest course, leaving one’s companion in peril was not always easy to do. “At least Jim is free. He’ll meet up with the others.”
“They won’t be able to return as the rich old man,” Ned commented.
“Oh, don’t be too sure. Loveless is not certain exactly who you are, or who they were. The best thing to do is brazen it out. I am sure the others will realize that. I hope Loveless comes back to talk to us. I want to find out what fate he had planned for Jim.”
“Can’t be good,” Malone murmured.
“That you can be sure of,” Artie confirmed. Not to mention Loveless has the two of us as hostages. Artie knew his partner. Perhaps the only thing that would convince Jim to surrender was a threat to other parties—especially if one was his best friend.
Jim stared out the parlor car window as he waited for Pike to saddle his horse and bring it around. At least, he had been able to have a bath and shave, as well as don clean clothes. Almost certainly, Artemus was in the hands of Miguelito Loveless. That was an unexpected development. Of course, he had not known that his partner—and the other agents—were in the vicinity, and Jim was unsure if he would have acted differently even if he had had that information. Getting out of the clutches of Loveless had been important. Even worse, Ned Malone was also in the doctor’s clutches. The older agents had long ago taken the young man under their wings, recognizing his promise as an agent.
If they are even alive…
The telegram he picked up in Marysville had contained a complete and utter surprise. The Wanderer, the colonel wrote, was now near Paradise, along with agents Pike, Harper, Malone, Brown, and Cranston, all of who had been in proximity to the northern California region and had been sent to help. Thus, he and Verna had retraced their ride in the northern direction, locating the train on a siding south of Paradise. Because of the downed wires, he learned, they had not received information about his situation.
Jeremy had entered the parlor car and paused by the sofa where Brown and Harper were seated. Lydia was again at the desk, while Bosley and Harper stood nearby, and Verna Sherborne was sitting at the table. “I’m ready to go,” Pike said. “But I think we should make some plans about what to do when we find our friends in the doctor’s chalet.”
“You’re right.” Jim noticed plainly that Jeremy did not phrase an “if” in his statement. All of them hoped that Loveless would have kept the pair as hostages.
“We don’t want to put the burden on you, Jim,” Ned Brown spoke gently. “But Jer is right. We cannot return to the mountain house in our disguises…”
Jim’s brow knit. “Why not?”
Lydia was the one who answered. “Won’t Dr. Loveless know who we are by now?”
“He may suspect,” Bosley Cranston put in, catching Jim’s drift. “He may suspect, and therefore not expect us to return.”
“Chances are very good, knowing Artie, that he is sticking to the story that Ned is the land agent’s son, perhaps with enough confidence to throw Loveless off guard.” Jim took a sip of his coffee then, and was slightly surprised how much it had cooled. He had been standing with it for longer than he realized.
“So if we appear boldly, as if nothing is wrong,” Frank took up, “it may just shake him a little more.”
Ned got to his feet, pacing a little. “I could appear disturbed—angry—that my young whelp has deserted me.”
Lydia got into the swing of things. “And I’ll pout because my handsome young puppy has gone away.” She had laid the flirtation with young Ned on very thick during the visit at the hideaway. So much so, even Loveless had given her a look of disgust.
Verna Sherborne spoke for the first time. She held a cup of tea, and Lydia had loaned her one of her dresses to replace the riding garb. “I do know that Dr. Loveless does not like the unexpected.”
Jim grinned at her. “That’s something we have noticed as well. When the unexpected happens, it means that he has not anticipated and planned quite as well as his ego causes him to believe.”
Learning of Artie’s disappearance had been a blow. Jim hoped he also knew the doctor well enough to hold firmly to the hope that Artemus and Ned were being held prisoners …to hold as a hostage against me. He can’t be very happy that I escaped and will want vengeance.
Are often welcomest when they are gone.
—Henry VI (Part 1, Act 2), William Shakespeare (1564-1616), English dramatist and poet
“Doctor, those people are here again!”
Miguelito Loveless spun away from the bars of the cell where he had been about to address his prisoners. One of his few pleasures these days was being able to taunt Gordon and perhaps cause the government agent to let something slip regarding the whereabouts of James West. He glared at the man who had brought the unwelcome message.
“What! What? That crazy old man and the whole carriage full?”
“Afraid so,” the unshaven man wearing a gun with a worn handle replied apologetically. He had been with Dr. Loveless long enough to not want to inspire the little man’s wrath. Having been a witness to what might happen if that occurred, he wanted none of it. “Shall we run them off?”
Loveless expelled an angry breath. He wanted to say yes, chase them away with fists and guns. However, he knew that to do so would cause those “respectable” people to contact the law, and he was not ready to have lawmen coming to ask questions. In fact, he was never ready to have officials on his premises.
“No, no. I’ll come out in a moment to deal with them.” Finished with the unhappy messenger, Loveless turned his attention back to his prisoners. Gordon and the young man known as Ned Green were standing on the opposite side of the bars. “I’m sure you wish that these noisome visitors were fellow agents, eh, Mr. Gordon?”
“That would be my futile hope,” Artie nodded, looking as downcast as he could. Ned was standing with his hands in his trouser pockets, head bowed, probably to keep the doctor from seeing the glee in his blue eyes.
Loveless cocked his head. “You don't think Mr. West will come for you?”
Artie shrugged. “I imagine he’ll try. Just as I tried to find him here… too late. But he’s only one man and you have half a dozen…”
“A dozen!” Loveless crowed, eyes gleaming. “I sent for more after your slippery partner escaped, aided and abetted by that treacherous female.”
Leave it to Miguelito Loveless to look upon the acts of a woman he had abused and threatened as “treacherous.” “So Jim really won’t have much of a chance,” Artie sighed, now hanging his own head.
“Not even the chance of that proverbial snowball,” Loveless chortled, rubbing his palms together, delighted to see the hated agent apparently cowed. “Now, I’d love to stay and chat further but I seem to have guests I must dispatch. But never fear, I’ll return later to explain my plans for you and your young friend.”
Neither Artie nor Ned moved or spoke until the heavier outer door closed and the voices they heard faded away. Then Malone looked at Artie. “The ruse being continued?”
“It’s a good idea,” Artie said, lowering himself to sit against the wall, knees drawn up. “It’s likely to distract and confuse Loveless. He has talked himself into believing they are a harmless nuisance. This will either convince them they are, or else start him fretting again. Either way is good.”
“I’m assuming at least one, probably Jer, will be scouting around behind the house.”
“Yes.” Artie looked up at the small barred window, then reached inside his coat and pulled out a pale yellow handkerchief, one of a set Lily Fortune had presented to him a while back. “We need to put out a signal.”
“Ned Green, Sr.” strode toward the front door, spreading his arms wide as the little man emerged. “Ah sir! I hope you were not dismayed by our absence these last several days. Mr. Van Buren acquired a case of the sniffles and his loving wife did not want him to venture out until he was well. Isn’t that true, Mrs. Van Buren?”
“Leila” had followed him partway toward where Loveless was standing just outside the door of the house. “I certainly didn’t want him sneezing all over me. Mr. Green, you still have not given me a satisfactory explanation as to why your son is not accompanying us today!” She put her hands on her trim hips and glared at him. “I need Ned to entertain me!”
The big man smiled rather condescendingly. “Well, young Neddie went to visit his aunt in Marysville. At least that’s what he told me when he left. I must say, he was not garbed in a satisfactory manner to me. My little sister will soon let him know that as well. Now…” He turned back to Loveless and leaned down to speak in a conspiratorial tone. “Sir, I believe that we are thinking alike, and I assure you, ask whatever price you wish for this property. The moon is not high enough. The old coot is richer than Croesus and will do anything to please his young bride. She has her heart set on this piece of property.”
Loveless glared at him, folding his arms over his chest. “I’m not interested. This property is not for sale!”
Green merely winked, leaning closer. “Why don’t we make a little deal? I’ll be getting a commission based on the price, of course. I will be happy to return a portion of that to you. I’m not greedy. What do you say?”
“I say go away and leave me alone! Find someone else to pester.”
The land agent sighed noisily. “Well, sir, we would except, like I said, Mrs. Van Buren has her heart set on this site. And believe me, Mr. Van Buren wants a happy wife!”
“What’s going on? What’s going on?” Cyril Van Buren demanded, toddling toward the pair, leaning on his bespectacled secretary’s arm. “What’s the price? Did he name a price, Green? I want to get this transaction done so we can start building before winter sets in. Snows here, doesn’t it? I hate snow. But Leila wants snow.”
“Sir!” Loveless all but shouted. “This property is notY for sale! Please go away and don’t come back!”
“Nonsense. Don’t talk nonsense, little man.” Frank saw the rage sparkle in Loveless’s eyes at the patronizing tone and words. “Name your price and move out. Cyril Van Buren always gets what he wants!”
Lydia sidled up to him, grasping his free arm and cooing. “Of course dear little Cyril always gets what he wants, and what his dear Leila wants. Isn’t that so, Cyril darling?”
The old man beamed at her. “Nothing is too good for my Leila. Nothing.”
“In one sense, it’s backfired,” Jim murmured from their hiding place behind the brush and rocks. “The visitors have aroused too much curiosity.”
Jeremy Pike nodded as he watched armed men circle the house to peer around the corner toward the scene at the front of the house. “True. I’m also seeing more men than we’ve noticed previously. The doctor must have summoned reinforcements. That’s not good.”
“No, it isn’t.”
They fell silent, watching and waiting. Jim had been able to confirm that the small, high window was indeed in the cell where he had been kept, and where, if they were captives, Artie and Ned would be. They wanted an opportunity to go peer through that window and had hoped with all the attention on the front of the house, that moment would arrive. It had not, however, so far.
“Maybe when our friends leave, we’ll get a chance,” Jeremy said softly.
“Yeah, maybe…” Jim stopped, eyes widening for a moment. “Jer, look! The window!”
“That wasn’t there before, was it?”
“No.” The pale yellow piece of cloth was fluttering slightly in the mountain breeze. “That’s Artie’s.”
“Are you sure?”
“Positive. Lily gave him a set of monogrammed handkerchiefs in that color. If you watch closely, you can get a glimpse of the dark brown stitching of the letters.”
“You’re right. They are in there. Or at least Artie is.”
“Has to be both. The window is too high to be reached alone. Nothing is in the cell to be used as a ladder. Likely one boosted the other up to tie it on the bars!”
“All right. What now?”
Jim expelled a noisy, aggravated breath. “Damned if I know. We aren’t enough to storm the place, not with the number of cronies Loveless has brought in. We need to keep an eye on the place to make sure he doesn’t move Artie and Ned—or himself and his gang.”
Jeremy was nodding again. “I’ll stay and watch. You go back to the train and talk to the others. Is there any way to get help from town?” Jim had told them about Linus Pederson’s assistance.
“I don't know. I’ll need to check with Linus to see how trustworthy and capable the law is in Paradise. Thanks, Jer. If we don’t get something put together in a hurry, someone will come to relieve you.”
“No problem,” Pike grinned. “I had a big breakfast.”
Aperit os suum, et claudit oculos iratus.
[An angry man opens his mouth and shuts up his eyes.]
—Cato (Marcus Porcius Cato, “The Elder,” aka Cato the Censor; 234-149 BC), Italian patriot and statesman
Antoinette wisely backed away from the door when she saw Miguelito spin and stalk toward it. He had remained in the yard a long while, watching the buggy slowly make its way down the dirt road off the mountain. Voices from that buggy were loud, excited, and sometimes angry-sounding. Mr. and Mrs. Van Buren, as well as the land agent, had not been happy with Miguelito’s behavior, particularly his refusal to even talk about a deal. Why in the world didn’t he heed my suggestion? Antoinette wondered. She had told him after the first visit that if the party returned, he should tell them that they should come back in another month, when he would be ready to depart the premises and talk about selling. They would be long gone before the month was out.
Loveless stomped into the front room of the small house, slamming the door behind him. His face was ruddy with his rage, and now, hardly noticing his amour’s presence, he began to pace around the room, talking half to himself, waving his arms.
“Stupid people! Idiotic old man to be led by the nose by that floozy! Last time she was flirting with the boy! Why can’t they leave me alone? Matters more important take precedence over dealing with a senile old coot and a greedy land man. Why, if they had any sense, they would know that I don’t even own this property. I don't know who does!”
“Did you see them, Antoinette? That fat old fool even tried to bribe me. Me! Miguelito Loveless, the most honorable man in the world!”
“Why don’t you sit down and I’ll bring you some tea…”
“Tea! I don’t want tea! I’ll tell you what. Next time they come—if they come—I’m going to say they need to return in a month or so, at which time I will be ready to leave this house and will talk to them about selling. We’ll be long gone by then. That is a brilliant idea, isn’t it? I’m sorry I didn’t think about it today!”
He had stopped pacing, standing now with a proud and beaming smile on his face, arms behind him, rising up on his toes twice. Antoinette smiled weakly. “Well, you are the most brilliant man in the universe, Miguelito.”
The smile became smug. “I am, aren’t I? Well. I have things to do. If I’m going to get Gordon and his young friend to San Francisco in time to meet the ship, we’ll have to depart very soon. Within three days. I can only hope that West reappears during that time so that he may accompany his good friend. I am sure they would enjoy a sailing trip together. Eh?” He snickered, and then began to laugh loudly and evilly as he made his way to the cell.
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 - 01/08/2015 : 08:36:20
| Chapter 5
Evil then results from imperfection.
—Philip James Bailey (1816-1902), English poet
Artie watched the outer door shut but stood for a long moment staring at it, aware of the younger man standing at his side. What do I say to him that could possibly be encouraging and not sound condescending? Ned has been an agent long enough, has been in dangerous situations, that he is aware of our chances if Loveless takes us away from here before Jim and the others can act…
“I get seasick.”
Bewildered, Artie turned. “What?”
Ned shrugged. “I get seasick. I can barely tolerate a ferry across a river!”
Artemus smiled then, before speaking wryly. “I wouldn’t worry too much about that. I doubt whether you will have time to get seasick. The good captain will probably work us to near death before he tosses us into the drink.”
Malone looked up at the small window. They had not had a chance to remove the handkerchief upon hearing Loveless’s approach, but he had not appeared to notice it. Did anyone else? Anyone looking for them?
“They’ll do their best, Ned,” Artie spoke softly. “Jim might not know what Loveless has planned, but he will know it can’t be good. He’ll also be aware that he has to move fast.”
Loveless had strutted into the cell area, laughing and chuckling about how he was going to outsmart the land agent and those noxious clients of his. He then launched into a narration of his plans for the two agents—or the government agent and the son of pompous land agent. He was still unsure of Ned’s true identity. Artie thanked Providence time and again that Ned had left his identity case at the train while posing as Ned Green, and had not thought to put it back in his pocket.
The original plan had been, Loveless recited, to take James West to San Francisco where they would meet an incoming ship at midnight, a ship that was making its way down the coast from Alaska now. It was due to dock at the Bay City in six days. He would need three days to make the journey from here to the city.
“The fact that you and Mr. West are so very peripatetic,” Loveless complained, “made planning extremely difficult. I watched your movements closely, and upon becoming aware of when you would be in Nevada, I set my scheme in motion. It worked perfectly… until that duplicitous girl decided to take matters into her own hands!”
“It was very brave of her to help Jim,” Artie returned, drawing a deep scowl.
“Stupid! I would have rewarded her generously. I am sure she did not believe my threats against her family. They were just for show. She must have known I would not hurt an old woman and boys.”
If possible, the glower deepened upon hearing the sarcasm in Artie’s tone. “In any case, we shall leave here in three days and journey to San Francisco. I would leave earlier except I don’t wish to take the risk of encountering, let us say, unwanted vagrants on the trail.” He meant law or military, Artie knew. “On the docks at midnight, you two will be turned over to Captain Legge of the good ship Lady Mary. He has quite a reputation for his treatment of shanghaied seamen. Few reach the next port. I understand he saves a good bit of money by not having to pay extra hands. Perhaps I should install such a system!” Loveless giggled. “So just relax, gentlemen, and contemplate your upcoming sea voyage. With any luck, Mr. West will arrive in time to join you.”
Loveless exited still chuckling. Artemus suspected that the doctor was taking out his frustration with his visitors on his prisoners. He knew that Brown and Harper would have done all they could to annoy Loveless, and no doubt Lydia and Bosley did their part. He also knew that their friends and fellow agents would do all they could to rescue them.
But what? This place has already proven to be difficult to access, or even spy on. If Jim or anyone was out there to see my handkerchief hanging from the window, they know for certain Ned and I are in here. However, what can they do? Even if they get help and surround the place, Loveless will just put guns to our heads and walk right out!
“Jeremy and I spotted at least seven men,” Jim told the group assembled in the parlor car. “When I was there, the number appeared to be four or five. So we’re thinking he has brought more men in… and we don't know how many. Jer is going to try to count them while he’s there today.”
“That’s certainly going to make rescue more difficult,” Bosley offered, stating the obvious.
Jim only nodded. “Loveless won’t hesitate to use Artemus and Ned as hostages against any show of force on our part.”
Verna, who had been primarily quiet, spoke up now. “I heard Dr. Loveless tell someone that he had seven more men located nearby that he could call upon. I believe he had five with him initially.”
“So twelve,” Frank grimaced. “That does change the odds.”
“I’m going to go talk to my friend Linus Pederson,” Jim said. “I want to get the lay of the land as far as what kind of help we could expect from the law in this county. The military is too far away to be of immediately help.”
“How much time do you think we have, Jim?” Ned Brown inquired, frowning.
Jim could only shake his head. “I didn’t get any idea when I was there. Verna?”
The young woman also shook her head. “He didn’t really talk about such things in my presence. I know he planned to leave that house at some point, but I don't know where he planned to go—to take you.”
“He was uncharacteristically silent about my fate,” Jim agreed. “However, I know it was something quite pleasant—from his point of view. All I can say is, I think we had better act as fast as possible. I told Jer that someone would relieve in him a couple of hours…”
“I’ll go,” Harper quickly said.
“Do you mind if I ride at least part way with you, Frank?” Lydia inquired. “My horse needs some exercise.”
“I would be honored and pleased, madam,” Frank replied with a sweeping bow.
Linus Pederson was extremely surprised to find Jim West dismounting in front of his house again. “What happened, Jim? Where’s Verna?”
“She’s all right, Linus. I’ll tell you all about it. Has there been any word around regarding strangers in the area?”
“As a matter of fact, there has,” the rancher replied, leading the way into the house. “What do you prefer? Coffee? Water? Or bourbon?”
Jim grinned as he settled onto the sofa. “Water for now. Maybe the bourbon later.”
Pederson went into the kitchen and came back with a tumbler full of clear cool water, handing it to Jim and then settling into his rocker, placing his cane on the floor beside the chair. “These strangers—I heard that folks noticed a few rough looking characters moving through town. At least they did move on through. Didn’t cause any trouble.”
Jim put the now half-full glass on the table beside the sofa. “We think they were going to Loveless’s headquarters.” He proceeded to fill Linus in on what had occurred. “So now we have to rescue Artemus, and we don't know how much time we have. Loveless can be predictable, but he can also be very unpredictable.”
“You don’t know what he has in mind?”
“Not a clue. Not even Verna knows. What’s the situation with the law here?”
Pederson looked toward a window, frowning slightly. Then he shrugged as he brought his gaze back. “Miller is all right, I guess. I haven’t had much contact with him. I didn’t vote for him, mostly because a friend of mine was running too. However, he’s down in the county seat, Oroville. The sheriff’s department set up an office here, but it’s rarely manned. We have a part-time constable. That’s about it.”
Jim was silent for a long moment. “I guess that means we are on our own. Including me, we are five men… and two women.”
“I can help…”
“No. You have done enough by assisting Verna and me earlier. This isn’t your fight, Linus.” He could not help but glance at the leg injured so badly at Chattanooga that Pederson needed the cane now. He had barely escaped having that leg amputated. “In any case, I think I have an idea of how to resolve this.”
Jim smiled. “It’s simple. I just have to let myself be captured again.”
“Jim! No!” Lydia Monteran leapt up from the sofa where she had been seated with Verna, stepping forward to grasp Jim on both arms. “You can’t do that! It’s too dangerous.”
Jim smiled at her. “It might be the only way, Lydia. We are not going to get any outside assistance in time. So we’ll need to work from the inside.”
Jeremy Pike nodded somberly. “I’m afraid Jim is right, Lydia. However, I think it should be me who walks into the lion’s den…”
Jim was shaking his head now. “No, Jer. Loveless has some dire fate planned for me and Artie. You, he might just have shot down. He’s extremely unpredictable.”
“Do you think… he’s harmed young Ned?” Brown asked worriedly.
“I can’t say for sure, but I doubt it,” Jim replied. “If nothing else, he would use Ned to make sure Artie behaves. And who knows? He may still think that Ned is your son! I have a feeling both he and Artie would try to convince Loveless of that.” Jim rubbed his chin now, as Lydia slowly returned to the sofa, her pretty face still wracked with concern. “I can think of one major problem. The reason I’d like to get back in there is to work from the inside, of course, but I will need weapons…”
“And Loveless will search you as he did before,” Jeremy continued for him.
“Exactly. At this moment, I cannot think of how I can smuggle anything in. He even knows about the hollow heels and my belt buckle. Everything was gone when I woke up in his cell previously. The first thing he would do is to have me searched thoroughly.”
“Perhaps I can assist,” Bosley Cranston said in his familiar sepulchral tone.
Pour tromper un rival l'artifice est permis; on peut tout employer contre ses ennemis.
[Artifice is allowable in deceiving a rival; we may employ everything against our enemies.]
—Les Tuileries, Armand Jean de Plessis, Duc de Richelieu (1585-1642), French cardinal and statesman
“Doctor!” the man who entered the front room of the cabin through the kitchen door spoke urgently. “Someone’s coming up the hill. Looks like that West, and another man.”
Loveless, who had been about to chide the man for interrupting his quiet moment with tea while Antoinette played her lute, slipped off the large chair to hurry over to the front window. He pushed the curtain aside and peered out.
“My word! It is West! Even better, he has his hands up. Is it one of our men, that fellow Charlie? I can’t see who is behind him!”
“Not Charlie. He’s out back.”
“Well, go get him and a couple of other men. Circle around behind these two and keep them covered until we know what is going on. Quickly!”
Loveless continued to peer out the window, aware that Antoinette was behind him, leaning over his shoulder. He caught glimpses of the man trudging behind James West but could not discern who it was. Someone who had captured James West and was bringing him right toward the cabin!
“This is wonderful, Antoinette. I can’t imagine who that is!”
“Perhaps it is some kind of trick,” the lady offered.
“Nonsense! West knows he cannot fool me. Oh! I see him now! Incredible! It is that puny little secretary of Van Buren’s! Good grief!”
His curiosity getting the best of his caution, despite Antoinette calling out “Be careful!” Loveless hurried to the front door, opening it and stepping out onto the small wooden stoop to wait. He now saw that several of his hired men were on either side of the pair still approaching. He saw the same astonishment as he experienced on the countenances of the men who recognized the secretary.
“Well, this is a pleasant surprise,” Loveless gloated as the pair neared.
West did not respond, but the mousy secretary stepped slightly to one side. He was holding a rather large pistol—not West’s, which was still in its holster!—with both hands, and still it trembled slightly. The spectacles had slid down the sharp nose slightly, quite possibly because the secretary did not dare release his hold on the weapon long enough to straighten them.
“Sir! I caught this fellow prowling around here. I thought he might be a danger to you.”
“You are absolutely correct, my friend. This is a man who is truly evil and dangerous. How did you come to accost him?”
Noticing the several men with guns drawn that came from either side, the secretary finally lowered the gun, clutching it in one hand as he used the other to finally push his glasses up his nose. “I was with a party searching for Mr. Green’s son. You have not seen him, have you? Mr. Green is terribly worried, as is Mrs. Van Buren. And Mr. Van Buren, of course.”
“No, I am afraid I have not,” Loveless lied smoothly. “Charlie, escort Mr. West into the house and…”
“Sir!” the secretary interrupted. “Might I beg you for a sip of water and perhaps a few moments to rest? I don't know how far we have been walking. I got separated from one of the search parties…”
“One of the search parties?” Loveless broke in this time. “How many are there?”
“Oh… I’m not sure. Three or four I think. Perhaps more. Mr. Green appealed for assistance from the local community and I think perhaps seventy or eighty men volunteered. Wasn’t that nice? They are all over the place I believe. I’m sure that I can find them again. But I encountered this fellow skulking around further down the way. I just did not like his appearance. I would not be surprised but what he had something to do with young Mr. Green’s disappearance. Nonetheless, I am parched and exhausted.”
Loveless expelled an annoyed breath. “Very well. Take Mr. West into the… er… storeroom, Charlie. I’ll see to him later. By the way, Mr. West, how did you come to be apprehended by such as… this?”
West glanced back at the bespectacled man. “Did you see how he held the pistol? I think I was in far more danger from him than from any of your hired guns!”
Loveless smirked then motioned the secretary to follow him into the house. Antoinette was waiting with a tall tumbler of water, which was accepted gratefully. After a long swallow, the secretary sank into the sofa.
“I cannot believe this happened to me! I am most grateful that Mr. Green insisted I take a pistol with me. He said that I might encounter dangerous creatures. He was right! However, I have never fired a weapon in my entire life.”
“One would have never guessed,” Loveless said, trying to disguise his sarcasm as he glanced toward the door that led to the cells. “Have you any idea where these search parties are?”
“Oh, all over! I am surprised none have appeared here before this. No doubt they will. You might alert your hired hands so that they will not be alarmed.”
“I’ll do that. I certainly will. Now, if you feel refreshed…”
“Sir, I wonder if I might ask a question.”
“I… suppose so. What is it?”
“Mr. Van Buren is still extremely anxious to acquire this property. Have you considered his proposal?”
Loveless cleared his throat. “As a matter of fact I have.” He paused now as the three men who had escorted West to the cell returned to the front room. “Is he secure?”
“Very,” Charlie replied, grinning.
“Excellent. Go on outside but don’t go far. I will need you in a short while to… to assist me.”
The men nodded and moved on out through the kitchen.
“This West certainly didn’t look all that dangerous,” the secretary offered. “Nevertheless, he made me quite nervous.”
“Oh, he is terribly dangerous. And a threat to my life! I will make sure he is turned over to proper authorities.”
“Very good. And about Mr. Van Buren’s wish to acquire this property?”
“Oh yes.” Loveless rose up on his toes and down again. “I have been thinking. I am going to be departing from this property at the first of the month. If Mr. Van Buren will return on the thirtieth, I will be most happy to make a satisfactory deal with him.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful!” The secretary took another long drink of the water and came to his feet. “You don't know how happy that makes me… and will make Mr. and Mrs. Van Buren. She can be quite a determined woman, you know. “
“Yes, yes, well, I’m delighted to oblige.” Loveless moved to take the secretary’s arm and urge him toward the still open door. “Remember, not until the thirtieth.”
“Yes, sir. Yes, indeed. What a happy coincidence this has all been! I’m extremely ecstatic that that terrible man was not able to do you harm.”
“So am I,” Loveless assured him. “So am I!”
Man wird betrogen, man betrugt sich selbst.
[We are never deceived, we deceive ourselves.]
—Spruche in Prosa (III), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), German poet
Artemus had been sitting against the wall, while Ned sprawled on his back on the hard floor, when he heard the movement and voices beyond the wooden door. Curious, he remained still, looking toward Ned, who also displayed puzzlement. Their midday meal had already been served. At least the food was more than adequate. When Ned commented upon it, the doctor had grinned. He wanted them healthy when he turned them over to Captain Legge, he said.
When the door opened and the first person Artie saw was his partner, he jumped to his feet, briefly hopeful. That hope instantly died upon noting the men behind Jim. Ned climbed erect as one of the men ordered them to move back toward the corner, waving a gun. They did so and stood quietly as the cell door was unlocked and Jim was pushed inside.
“The boss is happy now,” the man Artie had come to know as Charlie chortled. “He’s got both o’ you plus a bonus!” All three men laughed as they went back through the outer door and closed it securely behind him.
“Jim!” Artie cried in dismay. “What are you doing here? What happened? You can’t…”
Jim was not paying any attention as he grasped the bars to steady himself while he pulled the heel off his right boot. “Take these,” he said, handing a couple of small soft packets to his partner. He immediately did the same thing to his left heel, giving Artie the similar packets which, when blended with the others, would cause an explosion.
Ned was on his feet now. “What is this?”
“I’ll tell you in a minute. Hide this stuff in your pockets.” Jim was digging inside his coat now to retrieve the fragile balls that held gas and acid. Finally, his picklock, which he gave to Artie, while Ned secreted the orbs inside his own jacket, being careful that they did not show a bulge on the outside.
Artie was baffled. He and Ned had been searched thoroughly before being put in the cell, with everything resembling a weapon removed. He had been certain that had occurred to Jim previously, so that Jim had had to rely on Miss Sherborne for assistance in his escape. So how did he get put in here this time fully armed, so to speak? Only his pistol was missing from the holster.
Loveless entered then, followed by Charlie and another man. Loveless laughed with glee when he viewed the trio behind the bars. “Well, we are all together again, along with a new member of the congregation. Wonderful! Mr. West, please step out here.”
Jim did so, holding his arms high under the guns held by Charlie. Loveless and the other man searched the agent thoroughly, including ordering Jim to sit down so that his boots could be inspected. Jim had left a small knife inserted inside one boot, and a packet of explosive mixture in each heel. Loveless also found the derringer inside his coat.
“Well, well, well. You have been defanged, Mr. West. I have no idea what caused you to perform such a stupid act as to approach this place, but I am extremely grateful to that fellow for bringing you right to me. Now, we will be leaving at the break of dawn.”
“Leaving for where?” Jim asked mildly as he stepped inside the bars again.
Loveless giggled. “Mr. Gordon will tell you. I would not want to deprive him of the pleasure. I have much to do. Ta-ta!” He jauntily strolled through the door held open by one of the men, chuckling all the while.
The trio inside the cell remained silent until all the exterior sounds diminished. Then Artie whirled on his partner. “Jim! What’s going on?”
Ned had a more pointed query. “Why didn’t Loveless search you before having you put in here?”
Jim sank down on the floor, his legs angled “Indian fashion” as he leaned against the wall to look up at the pair. “You can thank Bosley Cranston that we now have some weapons.”
Artie hunkered down. “Okay, spill.”
“It was Bosley’s idea. I knew I had to get inside and I needed to have weapons with me, but I didn’t know how to do it. He came up with a ruse of having strayed from search parties looking for “Ned Green,” and encountering this suspicious character lurking near the cabin—me. He brought me here at gunpoint and then kept Loveless busy with idle chatter so that I was brought in here without being searched.”
Ned chuckled. “Leave it to Bosley to come up with surprises.”
Artie was still not entirely convinced. “All right. Now what?”
“Now we get ready to break out of here as soon as the others raise a commotion outside.”
“We don’t have guns!”
“No, but we have the gas and explosives. I think that will assist matters.”
“Jim, Loveless has close to a dozen men here now!”
“I know, Artemus,” Jim replied patiently. “That’s why the gas. Pike is going to try to get to the bunkhouse to throw a couple of orbs through the windows there, perhaps incapacitate reinforcements.”
“We hope,” Ned muttered.
“Exactly. We are flying blind,” Jim nodded. “We don’t have enough men on our side to surround the place, let alone break in. I couldn’t get help in town.” He quickly told them what Pederson informed him. “I knew that Loveless wasn’t going to be sticking around here much longer.”
“You are correct,” Artie informed him. “We are to be taken to San Francisco where tomorrow midnight we will be handed over to one Captain Legge of the Lady Mary.”
“I’m guessing it’s not for a luxury cruise.”
“This particular captain has a habit of shanghaiing men for his crew then dumping them overboard before the next port,” Ned added sourly. “And I get seasick!”
Jim grinned briefly then glanced toward the window. “I’d say we have an hour or so before the others get ready. Why don’t we relax awhile?”
While waiting for the signal Jim said would be coming, they quietly discussed the best way to apply the supplies Jim had smuggled in. The picklock of course would be used to open the cell door. The outer door was barred from the other side, so some of the explosive would be needed to open that. That particular move had to be coordinated with the movements of the ones outside, because the noise would certainly draw attention.
Jim also explained the plan as it had been discussed at the Wanderer. Artie’s eyes opened wide. “Lydia?”
Jim just shook his head. “You know her. She would not be left out. She is, you realize, a crack shot.” She had demonstrated that ability during a stopover at her shop in Sacramento, leaving a very chagrined Jim to remember how he had panicked and fled from her living quarters in Quemada, fearful of her wild shooting.
“Not to mention,” Ned said thoughtfully, “her presence may well help keep Loveless off guard.”
“That was another consideration,” Jim nodded. “Frank promised to make sure she got good cover when the fracas starts.”
Artemus looked at his partner. Did Jim notice what I noticed, the strong attraction between Lydia and Frank? It’s not like Jim to suffer a rival gladly. Then again, he’s had his mind on other things. So time will tell…
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 - 01/08/2015 : 08:36:59
| Chapter 6
The backbone of surprise is fusing speed with secrecy.
—Karl Van Clausewitz (1780-1831) Prussian military leader and author
“Miguelito? That carriage is coming up the road!”
“What?” Loveless stared up from the chair where he had been seated while studying a recent scientific journal. “That’s impossible! I told that secretary fellow…”
“He’s driving,” Antoinette replied over her shoulder. She was standing at the open door. “It’s Mr. and Mrs. Van Buren. Not the land agent this time.”
Grumbling, Loveless slid off the big chair and toddled over to peer around her skirts. “Of all the… don’t these people understand English?” He sighed noisily. “I shall dispatch them in a hurry!”
“Don’t lose your temper,” Antoinette called as he stalked out into the yard to meet the arriving carriage.”
“Mr. Van Buren!” Loveless called out sharply, as the secretary rather awkwardly eased the luxurious carriage to a halt. He seemed just as inept with the reins as he had been with the pistol. He also looked miserable. “What are you doing here?”
“Sir! Ellery informed me of your message. I am not a man to dillydally around. We can make the deal right now!”
“No, sir! No, sir!” Loveless waved his arms angrily. “I told him that you were to come at the first of the month. I will not be talking any ‘deal’ until then. Turn your buggy around and leave at once!”
Now, abruptly, Mrs. Van Buren climbed out of the carriage, and before Loveless could protest, she was standing in front of him, wringing her gloved hands. “Oh, sir! A very wonderful young man has gone missing. Have you seen him? Perfectly lovely golden hair and the brightest most marvelous blue eyes! He was with us when we visited previously. Have you seen him? His father is most desperate… as are his friends.”
“No, no, no! I haven’t seen anyone. I came here for privacy! Now please, madam, climb back into your conveyance and depart! Immediately!”
“But what about my husband’s desire to purchase this property? Why not talk about it now? I can just envision a marvelous mansion…”
“NO!” Loveless yelled at the top of his lungs. “No! Go away! All of you! Go away!”
The paper wrapped stone landed alongside Ned’s boot as he leaned against the wall. He reached over to pick it up, pulling the paper off and straightening it before he read it quickly then passed it to Artemus seated next to him. “Looks like it’s happening.”
Artie read the note aloud. “4 men in bunkhouse now sleeping. We are ready to move. 10 minutes.”
Jim climbed to his feet. “Let’s get busy then. Artie?”
Artie joined him at the cell door, pulling the picklock from his lapel pocket. He leaned down to insert it into the keyhole of the door and within moments heard a satisfactory click. Straightening, he opened the door. “Your turn, James.”
“Wonder where the other four or five men are,” Ned mused as Jim stepped over to the outer door and began pasting chunks of putty in the area of the hinges.
“No doubt at least a couple are inside,” Artie replied, moving further back from the door, in the area between the cell bars and the wooden walls. Ned followed him.
Jim had inserted short pieces of fuse in each piece of putty, and now he lit a match on his boot sole, rapidly touching the flame to the ends of those fuses before hurrying to join his friends. They all turned their backs and protected their ears with their hands.
The pop-pop-pop as each blob of putty ignited seemed very loud in the small space, but they were effective. The door sagged. Instantly the three agents dashed to it and ripped it back. Jim had told his friends where he found his gun previously, and both Artemus and Ned hurried to that cupboard while Jim went to the other door just as it opened.
Two men, guns in hand, rushed in. Jim launched himself at an angle to the nearest man, driving his shoulder into the shoulder of that man, which pushed him back into his companion and against the doorframe. The one who hit the wood cried out in pain and the weapon dropped from his numbed hand. Jim did not allow either man an opportunity to recover from their shock. He slammed a balled fist into the chin of the closest man and turned to the other to give him the same treatment.
Artie, having retrieved his own weapon, pulled it out of its holster and used the handle as a club to finish the job on the first man Jim had struck, while his partner used a second punch to send the other man to the floor. They heard shouts from outside as Jim received his gun belt from Ned. Strapping it on, he stepped out into the outer room, the front room of the house, just as two more men burst in through the kitchen.
Both men were holding their weapons and as they saw Jim emerge, they raised those weapons. Not fast enough though, as Jim’s pistol seemed to leap into his hand and spurt fire. One man yelled as he grabbed his bleeding shoulder and went to his knees. The other man staggered backwards with a slug in his chest.
As Jim dealt with that pair, Artemus and Ned raced by him and out the front door, guns ready. The first thing Artie saw was the carriage, pulled off to one side with the horse partially behind some trees, while Bosley, Frank, and Lydia crouched behind the vehicle, firing toward their left. Both Artie and Ned instantly saw the three men behind trees in that direction, and ducked for cover themselves behind a pair of full rain barrels at the corner of the house.
“Where’s Pike?” Ned asked between shots.
“Around back, I’d presume,” Artie said, getting off a shot that splintered the bark on the tree where a man was hiding. “If a dozen men were here, we have accounted for eleven of them. Jer might be dealing with that twelfth man.”
“We don’t even know if it’s eleven, twelve, thirteen or how many! Where’s Loveless?”
“Damn good question,” Artie muttered. “He has a bad habit of being able to vanish at times like these.” The quicker we dispatch these minions of the good doctor, the quicker we can look for him and his lady! Artie abruptly realized that Jim had not followed them out the front door. He must have headed out the back way to help Jeremy, or possibly to circle around behind the boys in the trees.
Jim disarmed both men he had downed even though they were unconscious—or dead. He did not stop to check, stepping by them to get to the kitchen door, where he paused at one side, peering out. He immediately spotted Jeremy Pike with his hands raised shoulder high, facing the house. Then a man stepped into view from the far side of the house, holding a rifle pointed at the agent. He walked slowly toward Pike.
“Just you stand still, mister. We’re gonna go around the front and get all that noisy shootin’ stopped. Else there will be one more shot fired—into your back. Move!”
Jim knew Pike had seen him at the door. He stood quietly, waiting and watching as his fellow agent docilely turned and started walking toward the far side of the building. As soon as they had gone about half the distance toward the corner, Jim stepped out, holstering his gun. In three long, quiet strides he was behind the gunman. He threw his arm around the man’s neck, pulling him backwards, and used the other hand to press his fingers into the back of the neck. Within seconds the man slumped.
“Good going,” Jeremy grinned as he rushed over to pick up the pistol he had dropped when accosted. “I’ve got to get another lesson from you on that technique. Come on. I know a way that’ll put us behind the ones giving trouble out front.”
“Did Loveless come back this way?” Jim asked as he followed his friend into the brush.
“No. I presume he’s still on the other side of the house.”
Jim did not respond as they moved as quickly and quietly as possible. He had a sinking feeling, one he had experienced too many times. When the trouble started, Loveless should have rushed into the house. Other men in his situation would have. Antoinette had not been visible either.
“They don’t seem to be ready to give up,” Ned Malone muttered as he dropped to his knees to reload his pistol.
“I’m getting that idea,” Artie responded, getting off a blast toward the trees. Even Lydia’s eagle-eyed shot that took a gun out of one man’s hand had not slowed them down. That man had simply come up with another gun to use with his other hand while his numbed hand recovered. “Where the devil did Loveless get to?”
“I don't know.” Ned fired toward the trees, saw more bark splinter, but that was all. The trees were thick in that area. “I did see Antoinette dash out and thought it was foolish of her, then I looked again and she was gone.”
Artie shook his head. “It’s not surprising. We probably won’t find hide or hair of either. The doctor always has an escape…” He stopped his words, peering toward the trees. “Don’t fire any more, Ned, or if you shoot, shoot high. Jim and Jer are back there.” He turned and did a sharp, short whistle, catching Frank Harper’s attention. With quick hand signals, hidden by the barrel, he made Harper understand the same thing.
The fray lasted only a few more minutes after that. Jim and Jeremy came up behind the three in the trees, ordered them to stop firing and drop their guns. Two immediately acceded, but the third thought he had a chance to flee. He did not. Jim was on him in a flash, jumping on his back and driving him forward into the ground. Although the man resisted further, and managed to clip Jim’s chin with his fist, his struggles were futile. Jim decked him then dragged the dazed man back to the others where they were pushed out into the open.
As soon as he saw matters were under control, Artie dashed into the house, searching every room. Jim saw the grim expression on his partner’s face as he emerged moments later.
“Nothing. I’m going to search around back.”
Ned quickly joined him. They scanned the ground, spotting a slight scuff that might have been a small footprint of a woman, but then nothing else. Artie used his gun butt to rap against the lower foundation of the house, stomped on the ground, pushed brush aside—all for naught. They went to the bunkhouse, where four men were still deeply unconscious, finding nothing there either.
“No buggy or any other conveyance was visible,” Artie said when they returned to the others. “I didn’t see any tracks, but quite a bit of grassy ground is back behind the corral.”
Jim was nodding. “Either he has a secret tunnel that leads far away from here, or he had a buggy waiting. They had the wagons that they used to transport us earlier, but they must be parked somewhere else. Loveless would not use such transportation. He would prefer a nice well padded buggy with good springs.”
“Same as me,” Ned Brown laughed.
“Hey, did you see that shot Lydia got off?” Frank wanted to know. He had his arm around Lydia’s shoulders—a gesture Jim did not miss. “She hit the barrel of that gun, slick as butter!”
“Wasn’t no female did that!” the victim of that shot cried out as his hands were being cuffed behind his back.
“Do you want another demonstration?” Lydia inquired, pulling her gun and aiming toward his hat.
“No, no!” The man ducked back behind his nearest companion.
After the laughter died, Artie commented, “I think we should try to find those wagons. It’ll be a whole lot easier to haul these boys in rather than putting them on horseback.”
The men from the bunkhouse, inside the house, and the one out back were brought to the front, whereupon a search was launched, leaving Brown and Lydia to guard the prisoners. Within about fifteen minutes, Pike yelled that he had them. Horses were brought from the corral and hitched up to one. The dozen men were put in the bed, the remaining horses strung together with rope to make them easier to handle. After one final fruitless search to try to locate Loveless’s trail, the agents, the lady, and their prisoners set off down the mountain.
Jim pointed out one thing as they descended. “As soon as we can get to a telegraph wire that’s working, we need to contact San Francisco police to inform them about Captain Legge and the Lady Mary. I have a hunch the police and possibly the Navy or Coast Guard will be interested in that ship.”
'Tis a lesson you should heed,
Try, try, try again.
If at first you don't succeed,
Try, try, try again.
—Try and Try Again, William Edward Hickson (1803-1870), English socialist and educational writer
Jim looked down into the rosy red wine in the goblet he held. “Once again, Dr. Loveless got away.”
Artie lifted his own glass slightly. “But we are still alive!”
“Here, here!” Ned Brown crowed, raising his glass higher. “A toast to saving our pals from the unholy doctor!”
“Here, here!” echoed Harper, Pike, Malone, and Bosley, along with the two ladies, Lydia and Verna.
They were all in the varnish car, preparing to go their separate ways. Loveless’s men were in the now crowded jail in Paradise, awaiting pick up by federal marshals. The agents had returned to the house in the mountains to do a thorough search, once again finding nothing useful other than a section of the outside wall of the building that could be opened, revealing a tunnel leading to the stables. This obviously was the route the doctor and his lady had used for their escape. During the time the gun battle was carried on, they had made their way down the mountain by some predetermined route.
“Don’t forget,” Lydia said after sipping her wine, “San Francisco reported that Captain Legge was picked up. Not to mention seven shanghaied men rescued that night.”
“Along with a hundred cases of smuggled rum,” Pike added.
Jim smiled now. “I guess it wasn’t all a failure at that.”
“Mr. West, Mr. Gordon,” Verna rose from the sofa where she had been sitting, “I want to apologize again for getting you into this terrible situation…”
“No, no, Verna,” Artie cut her off with a broad smile. “We understand your circumstances. We also know Dr. Loveless well enough to know how threatening—and frightening—he can be. We are just glad it turned out well, and your family is safe in Kansas City.”
“And Bosley and I are going to escort Miss Sherborne to join her mother and brothers,” Ned Brown assured them. “We will make sure they are all taken care of.”
Cranston cleared his throat. “I thought perhaps they might like to remove to Maine or some place far, far away from the doctor’s usual haunts. I have cousins there who would be quite willing to help.” He beamed toward Verna.
She smiled back. “I will certainly discuss that with Mother. Thank you so much, Mr. Cranston. Bosley.” Her cheeks darkened.
Cranston cleared his throat, took a quick sip of his wine, and immediately coughed and choked. Malone, next to him, pounded him on the back as the others looked on, grinning. No one had missed the manner in which Bosley and Verna spent time together on the trip from Paradise to Sacramento, where the Wanderer rested now.
“Now,” Lydia said, putting her glass on a table, “I have a shop waiting for me. I trust my assistant but I’m anxious to get back to see how things are proceeding. Mr. Harper, have you considered my invitation?”
Frank grinned. “Considered and accepted. My bags are on my saddle. Ned, I’ll meet you in Tacoma in a few days.”
“Fine,” Malone nodded. “I happen to know that Janet is in Portland with her father, so I’ll do a little visiting myself.” Janet Lewis was Ned’s fiancée. Her father was a retired agent and both father and daughter sometimes did small assignments for the department. They were in Portland checking out reports of counterfeit money right now.
Jeremy Pike sighed noisily. “So while you fellows are dallying with pretty ladies, I’ll be putting myself in peril seeking dastardly criminals in New Mexico. How about you, James? Artemus?”
“We’re heading for Butte, Montana,” Artie replied. “Not sure what we’ll find there with this report of a chap trying to raise a renegade army. The colonel thinks it is probably a hoax, but we have to check it out. Right, Jim?”
“Hmm? Oh. Yeah. Nice in Montana this time of year.”
Artie had noticed his partner gazing glumly at Frank and Lydia as they chatted quietly with Verna. Lydia had fussed over the bruise on Jim’s chin when they returned from the mountain that first day, but since then her attention had been primarily focused on Frank Harper. Jim had noticed.
“So speaking of which, I’d better get moving if I’m going to catch my train heading south.” Jeremy picked up the valise he had placed beside the door.
His decision precipitated a general movement to depart amid farewells. Lydia hugged both Jim and Artemus, shook hands with all the others, kissed Verna on the cheek, and departed on Frank’s arm. Then the two agents were alone in the car.
“Sure is a shame we lost Loveless again,” Artie commented, stepping over to the speaking tube embedded in the chimney.
“What? Yeah. Sure is.” Jim picked up a couple of the used glasses and carried them toward the kitchen.
Artie shook his head as he pulled out the tube and told Orrin Cobb they were ready to roll whenever he was.
Or as one nail by strength drives out another,
So the remembrance of my former love
Is by a newer object quite forgotten.
—Two Gentlemen from Verona (act II, scene IV), William Shakespeare (1564-1616), English dramatist and poet
“You know, Jim,” Artie said as he entered the parlor car with his fresh cup of coffee and headed for the desk at the far end, “did you ever stop to think how lucky we are that Loveless never seems to consider just shooting us, rather than cooking up some cockamamie idea to kill us off? Except for that one time he was going to shoot you, of course…”
He glanced over at his partner, and paused two-thirds the length of the car. Jim was on the sofa, his legs extended, ankles crossed, arms folded on his chest, and his chin almost resting on his chest.
“What are you pouting about?”
Jim’s head jerked up. “I’m not pouting!”
“Oh?” Artie moved on to the desk and sat down. “If my mother saw you, she’s say ‘Be careful or you’re going to step on your lower lip!’ What’s going on?”
“Uh-huh. I know it’s not losing Loveless again. That has happened too many times. Lydia?”
Jim straightened up on the sofa, and for a moment, Artemus thought he was going to push himself up and stalk away. Instead, he sighed heavily. “Artie, she invited Frank home with her!”
“Well, sure. Why not? They were getting along great.” He feigned bewilderment.
“But Lydia… Artie, she was my girl!”
“Oh?” Artie’s dark brows lifted. “When did you see her last before this time?”
“When did you write to her?”
“James my boy, your heart is not broken. Your pride is dented. Admit it.” When Jim remained silent, his chin sinking down again, Artie continued. “How many females have you wooed and walked away from? You miss them only until you encounter the next pair of sparkling eyes.”
“Lydia was… is special.”
“Of course she is. She’ll be your friend for a long while, I’m sure. Just as Frank is. Think about it, however. Think how alike they are. I overheard them discussing poker strategies and having a great time. They enjoy gambling, and will likely spend many nights at a table playing cards.” Likely a few nights not, as well!
“I suppose,” Jim sighed.
“Hey, look at it this way. It’s another couple to add to our resume when we start up our matrimonial service!”
Jim lifted his head, stared at his partner a long moment then burst out laughing. Lying down on the sofa, he said, “I’m going to take a nap. Wake me when we get to Butte.”
Artemus Gordon just grinned. James was a survivor in more ways than one.
Truly some men there be
That live always in great horrour,
And say it goeth by destiny
To hang or wed: both hath one hour;
And whether it be, I am well sure,
Hanging is better of the twain;
Sooner done, and shorter pain.
—The School-house, Unattributed Author, published about 1542
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