"I'm beginning to hate ducks," griped Jim as he tossed another duck out the barn door in the general direction of the pond.
"You've never liked animals." Artie gently removed another set of pills from a duck's foot and tossed it in the bucket. To Jim it seemed as if the ducks would never end. It wasn't a job they could postpone, however. Dr. Loveless' latest scheme had involved drugs and ducks. The little man had almost succeeded in poisoning all the water in North America. Drugging Jim had been the first part of the Doctor's plan, taking over the world had come next. Thanks to a turkey bone and some fancy footwork the Doctor had been stopped. Now the agents had to clean up the mess and that meant carefully removing the drugs from the ducks. Luckily, Artemus had a way with birds.
"Whadda ya mean, Artie, I like my horse."
"What's his name, then?"
"His name is, well, big fella or boy, I haven't quite decided yet," retorted Jim.
"I rest my case. You could at least name the poor thing." Even laughing Artemus was keeping a close eye on Jim. Drugs aren't something to fool with, especially those cooked up by Dr. Loveless. Most of the drug would be thrown in the belly of the Wanderer but Artie intended to keep a sample to analyze...
"Sure you're feeling okay, Jim?"
"Yes Aunt Maude, I feel fine. Tired of ducks, but fine."
Twenty ducks later, Jim and Artie washed up before mounting Artie's horse and heading for town. Jim's horse was at the local stable. It didn't take long to pay the bill and saddle his restless stallion. Being cooped up hadn't improved his disposition. The big black charged down the street. Artemus followed at a more sedate pace. It would be a long ride to the town where Artemus had left the Wanderer to catch a stagecoach. There just weren't enough train tracks.
After about an hour the stallion had finally run out his jitters. Reining in close to Artie, they rode side by side. "Feeling okay?"
"Sure, it's good to be outside. My horse and I both get restless when we're cooped up too long." Jim patted the black's neck.
"So what was it like?"
"You mean the drug?" Jim really didn't want to discuss it. Artemus saw his reluctance but decided to push ahead.
"Yes, how'd it feel? What happened? What are you going to put in our report?" Jim glanced over at Artie he owed his partner an explanation. He took a deep breath and began brief but thorough retelling of the events before his partner had arrived. When he'd finished, he knew Artie was in shock.
"You really thought I was dead?" Artemus was stunned. A drug powerful enough to change a person's reality was mind-boggling.
"Yes!" Jim decided then and there that Washington was never getting the full story. Some things were better off left alone.
"I wondered why you were so happy to see me. Not that you aren't usually." Artemus considered the story Jim had told from all sides. "James, my boy, maybe we should leave a few things out of that report."
"My thinking exactly. Ya know Artie I would've missed you if I had shot you, I mean really shot you. Not that I haven't shot you before, but --"
"Oh shut up. We've both shot each other so many times we've lost count. Now, if one these days you really shoot me I'll come back to haunt ya." Jim and Artie shared a long laugh. The horses picked up the pace dinner was ahead.
The Wanderer was waiting patiently on a siding. Riding up to the stable car Artemus voiced his concerns. "Hey Jim why don't you let me take care of the horses? You should go on in and lie down. We really don't know what was in that drug Dr. Loveless gave you. Until I get it analyzed you should take it easy."
‘Don't worry so much, Artie, the drug's gone and I'm fine. Anyway somebody has to go start dinner. I'm hungry enough to eat duck." Jim was taking the reins and moving up the ramp before Artemus could think of another argument. Artie pulled his horse up the ramp and handed the reins to Jim. Grumbling he headed for the kitchen to start dinner.
Jim brushed the horses, picked their feet, then fed and watered them. Giving the tack a quick swipe, he headed for the varnish car and what he hoped was food -- and lots of it.
Artie was filling plates as he entered the tiny kitchen.
"My stomach is eating a hole through my back," complained Jim.
"Shoulda had some turkey with me, it was really quite good. I have to give Dr. Loveless credit, he does hire quality people."
"Yeah, but no giblet gravy," laughed Jim. They sat and ate together saying very little. Jim was ignoring the looks from Artie. Cigars followed dinner.
"James, my boy."
"Ya know, Artie, it's been a long couple of days, I think I'll turn in while you send the report to Washington. Just make sure to leave out the details," smiled Jim. Artie's eyebrows shot up as he considered the wisdom of getting what you wanted. Jim stretched dramatically then quickly exited. A pillow bounced off the door as Artie moved to the telegraph key.
The night deepened around the train as Artemus worked on the latest Loveless report. Some small amount of cursing could be heard as the telegraph fell silent. Artie stretched, and began to clear the table. Washing the dishes would give him time to think. The job quickly done Artemus grabbed up his bucket of drugs and went forward into the cab of the big engine. Silas opened the firebox and the drugs burned. Giving Silas their new destination he asked the engineer to wait until morning to get started. Jim needed a good night's rest.
The nighttime stretched into daylight to find Artemus sitting over a cup of coffee. He was pondering their next assignment. A long vacation in New Orleans is what we really need but Colonel Richmond had other ideas. Jim could be heard banging around but he had yet to put in an appearance. Finally, the door swung open to reveal a man who looked very much the worse for wear.
"Morning, Jim, how ya feel?"
Silence met his question. Pouring a cup of coffee for himself, Jim moved to the couch. He was not at his best this morning.
Artemus considered his next words carefully. His partner of several years obviously had a problem. Pushing for an answer would never work. The man was too stubborn. He'd have to wait patiently until Jim told him what was going on. Artie drank his coffee slowly. Glancing over at Jim he realized he was going to have a long wait today so he picked up his cup and went to the kitchen. He rinsed out his cup and thought of all the things he needed to do today. Maybe I could make a list of all the ways to murder someone in his sleep. Just research of course. Artemus was a patient man, but it wasn't always easy. Life with James West meant waiting, sometimes for days.
Sitting out on the couch drinking his coffee Jim ran his hand through his hair. His head had started hurting in the middle of the night. Tossing and turning half the night he had finally risen.
He knew he should tell Artie but it was just a headache. A little rest and it would go away. Today he just needed some peace and quiet, no talking. Jim set down his cup before walking out the back door and swinging down to the ground. Checking on the horses would distract him from his headache. Clambering up into the stable car he blessed the cool darkness.
"Easy boy," Jim murmured as he slowly tossed out the manure, checked the hay and water then fed them each a portion of grain. Picking up the currycomb he carefully brushed each horse. The pain in his head began to increase while he worked.
Finishing up Jim sank down on a bale of hay the train gave a sudden lurch and began picking up speed. I think I'll just sit here awhile, he thought. Sparkles danced in front of his eyes, the smell of the horses became overpowering. He knew he should go get Artemus but his body was not cooperating. Grabbing his head he sank to the floor.
* * * * *
The Wanderer chugged down the line. She was running fast and strong today. The rails glistened in the sun and her paint shone brightly. Her life was bound by wood and water, always the need to run.
Artemus sat in his tiny lab sketching out a few notes. Jim and I have something for almost every situation but what I really need is something to protect my head. Every time Jim sends me through the window first I end up with a huge lump on my head. What I need, he thought, is something like a sturdy hat to slap on right before impact. Pictures flew out of his fingers onto the paper. Jim was in the back of his mind as he worked. Maybe I should check on him. Now that partner of mine is awfully hardheaded. Make only one hard hat he wrote in the margin before rising.
Jim curled up in a ball rubbing his head. It was throbbing in time to his heartbeat. Sweat broke out all over his body. The pain began to grow filling his brain with heat. Finally his body began to revolt, the blood vessels in his eyes burst, he fumbled for a bucket and began to vomit. When he was finished he scrubbed his face with water. The pain receded for several minutes before slamming back. Something in his mind snapped, there was nothing but pain, pain, and more pain.
His body began moving, anything to get away from the agony. Brain on fire he stumbled past the horses threw open the connecting doors and continued down the narrow corridor. Artie came out from his lab, "What in the name of my Great Aunt Maude is going on?" Jim saw Artemus but only as an obstacle. Artie tried to protect himself as he was thrown through the door into the varnish car. "Wait!" Artie yelled moments before his partner's fist crashed into his jaw. Artie fell back, struck his head on a table and didn't move again. The insane man didn't even stop as he continued out the back door and threw himself from the train.
Hitting the ground at 25 miles per hour Jim West rolled down into the ditch. Stunned he lay there for several minutes. When no rational thoughts entered his head, the pain picked him up and threw him down a trail. Running without reason, the agony chased him until he collapsed. Even unconscious the fire raged inside his brain.
It was dark when Artemus returned to consciousness. "I've got to get that hard hat finished soon," he muttered as he struggled to his feet. Where the hell was Jim? His hand touched sticky blood as he stumbled through the train looking for Jim. He checked the stable car last then pulled the whistle. Silas immediately began to slow the train. Artie went to the kitchen to fix his head. What he'd really like to know is what the devil is going on here? Jim was acting insane. Artie carefully cleaned the blood and pondered the need for stitches. Moving into the lab Artemus began making a mental list. He had a hundred things to do and a short time to get them done. Analyzing the drug was now a priority.
Silas backed the train up for what Artie reckoned was 5 or 6 hours of travel time. Over the years Silas had learned not to bother asking questions. He had his train and she was more than enough.
The Wanderer came to a screeching halt. Artemus was ready. Lowering the ramp, he led his horse out. Jim's stallion whistled in protest and kicked his stall. Artie stopped and looked back at the big horse. "Sorry fella but I'm not sure where I'm going or how long I'll be gone, you'd just slow me down."
Silas hung out the cab of the engine. Artie yelled out, "Stay close by and feed Jim's horse will ya?" Silas waved in acknowledgement as Artie mounted up. "I'll head for the nearest town, if trouble's there, its name is James West," Artie booted his horse into a steady canter. The miles rolled by...
Jim came awake, his head roared, his vision dimmed and brightened unbearably. His only thought was to keep moving. He stumbled to his feet and continued down the trail. After several hours of walking, running and stumbling he came to a small town. He staggered down the main street. He found a water pump gave the handle a couple of good yanks then cued his hands to drink and splash his face. Heaven, he thought.
A sudden push from behind sent him into the horse trough. He came out boiling mad, his head pounding to face a pack of grinning bullies. "What do we have here, boys?" They all laughed and the biggest one snarled, "Just a saddle tramp, Sam. But where's his horse?"
"Um, good thinking, Elroy go hit him until he tells us." Elroy moved to do as he was told, throwing a strong right punch at Jim's head. Jim ducked out of the way, saying, "Look fellas, I don't want any trouble."
"Too bad, you found it. Where's your horse, bum?"
Jim didn't bother answering he began to fight like the crazy man he was, two men down three to go when the pain ripped through his skull like a freight train. Jim fell to his knees only to be grabbed up by Elroy. The huge bully held him down in the trough long enough to make Jim gasp for air when he was finally pulled up. "Horse, bum. Where's your horse?" yelled Sam.
Elroy held Jim's head under for a few more minutes but when his body went limp Elroy pulled him out and threw him in the dirt. "No horse, Sam, and no more bum either." The bullies moved off laughing and cursing. They could have sold a nice horse for beer money. The so-called sheriff wouldn't even have noticed.
Artemus consulted his map one more time. Dog's Hollow was another two-hour ride ahead. Could Jim have made it that far? It was the only town even close to the tracks. He'd had to estimate Jim's jump off point. "Well, Buttercup, at least we can get the sheriff to help us look for him.... if there is a sheriff in Dog's Hollow," sighed Artie. Buttercup's answer was a snort as Artemus gave him his heels.
The sheriff of Dog's Hollow was hauling Jim to his feet, "Are ya alive bubba?" Jim's answer was to vomit water on the sheriff's boots. "Yep, yer alive. Come on then." The sheriff dragged Jim into the jail tossed him onto a cot and locked the door behind him. "A troublemaker -- no doubt drunk -- in the road before noon. Some people."
Artemus rode into town two hours after Jim's encounter with Sam and Elroy. They were lounging outside the saloon, when their eyes alighted on what looked to them like a very fancy dude who no doubt had beer money. Artie swung off his horse at the hitching rail near the saloon. He figured this was the place to start looking for Jim but found his way blocked by two large unwashed bodies. "Excuse me fellas, don't want any trouble."
"Nobody wants trouble today, Sam, but you and that other fella sure found it," sneered Elroy. Artie's ears pricked up, "What other fella?" Sam and Elroy weren't listening anymore. "Take his money, Elroy, I'll git his horse."
Artemus didn't bother to argue he took one step back and threw a concussion bomb at their feet. Stepping around their gasping bodies he went into the saloon. Spotting the sheriff at the bar he moved over to sit by him signaling the bartender to bring him a beer.
"Excuse me, sheriff, I need your help."
"Shure, what ‘cha need?"
"Looking for a friend of mine. About this tall, brown hair, green eyes, always in trouble."
"Weel, that sounds like the fella I got in jail. I durn't know if ya want to see him. He's drunk as a skunk. I picked him up off the street a couple of hours ago. Puked on my boots, stinkin polecat."
Artie couldn't help but smile as he said, "Let's go see my friend, sheriff." The sheriff led the way over to the jail as Buttercup trailed behind Artie. He wasn't taking any chances on Sam and Elroy. Before they opened the door Artie removed a pouch from his saddlebag and checked his gun carefully. "Let me go first, friend."
Artie threw open the door to see James West, eyes wild, hair standing on end, pushing the cell door open. Jim took one look and ran right at him. Quickly Artie raised his gun and shot him right in the chest. He looked down in total bewilderment took two more steps and fell at Artie's feet. "Weel, he's a dead drunkard now, eh?" said the sheriff.
"He's not dead, here help me get him on the cot then give us some privacy." Each man grabbed an end. When Jim was on the cot the sheriff turned to leave. "If'n he dies, give a holler."
Artie nodded distractedly as he pulled the equipment out of his pouch. He'd had six long hours to analyze that drug and prepare an antidote. He hoped it was good enough. Using an ejector dart he had picked up from a puppet master, he carefully filled the mechanism with the solution he'd concocted. With a prayer to whoever might be listening he shoved the dart into Jim's arm. Now, all he could do was wait.
The sheriff brought him dinner and a beer several hours later. Artie ate, drank and hoped that Jim would wake up soon. He'd even forgive him for busting him in the jaw. He was drowsing in the chair that he'd pulled up when Jim sat bolt up, poised for flight. Artie pulled his gun and said, "Jim."
For a long moment James West looked into the brown eyes of Artemus Gordon, "A few hours ago I would have been grateful for a bullet or two."
"Feeling better then." Artie holstered his gun.
"My head is much better, thank you, now where the hell am I?"
"A little town called Dog's Hollow." Artie helped Jim off the cot and they both walked past a snoring sheriff. "You've had a rough day, James my boy."
"You're telling me, my feet are killing me." Artie opened the door hoping that Sam and Elroy hadn't stolen Buttercup. "And, where's my horse?"
"Only got the one, Jim, sorry." Artie swung into the saddle. Jim looked up at him for a moment then said, "A man couldn't have a better partner than you Artie."
Artie stared back momentarily then replied, "Thank you James, now let's ride before Sam and Elroy get here." Jim jumped neatly up behind saying, "Who?"
Far off to the north a steam train's lonely whistle could be heard, home was waiting.
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