by  Tom Prigge

The Night of the Magi copyright © Tom Prigge.
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Being the United States’ first Secret Service agents had a number of perks that went with the job. There was, of course, the private train, a far better way to travel than dusty trails on horseback in all kinds of weather. But what James West and Artemus Gordon liked the most was the generous expense account their "Uncle Sam" allowed them to have. Nothing was too good for the two agents that President Ulysses S. Grant relied upon so heavily to keep him abreast of developments in the burgeoning western territories. The Treasury Department, for whom the two agents worked, had enough greenbacks to absorb West’s and Gordon’s sometimes extravagant tastes. President Grant thought of it as a good investment--an investment in the stability of a country that had just undergone a devastating Civil War less than a decade before.

Their latest assignment had brought them to Denver. With that assignment completed successfully, and with Christmas arriving the next day, the two agents would have a few days off before hearing from Washington again. Artie had a lavish Christmas meal planned, and he and Jim were in the Lonoke Brothers Butcher Shop. Artie was in search of the perfect Christmas goose.

"The best goose you have sir," Artie said to the butcher, a stout, balding man with a large handlebar mustache. "I plan on stuffing it with Aunt Maude’s famous fig, date, and raisin stuffing. Only the best goose you have will do." The butcher grunted and went about finding the biggest goose he had. This customer obviously has money, he thought, and the bigger the bird the more profit I’ll make.

While Artie awaited his goose, Jim caught the eye of a pretty young woman who had just walked in the door. Trailing her was a little boy, about four or five years old. Probably her son, Jim thought. Maybe her nephew. She was wearing gloves, so Jim couldn’t see whether she was wearing a wedding ring. Their eyes met and a sly smile crept across Jim’s lips. He was pleased with her reaction. Most women became embarrassed by Jim’s penetrating look. But not this redhead. Jim’s smile grew broader. Redheads were fiery and feisty and this one was no exception. The second butcher behind the counter approached her.

"What can I do for you today, ma’am," he said. He was the exact opposite of his brother and partner, tall and lanky with a pair of pince-nez clipped to his nose.

"I need something for Christmas supper," she said, continuing to gaze straight into Jim’s eyes. "I was thinking of a turkey, or maybe a goose. But I suddenly have a desire for . . . for sausage. A nice long, thick sausage. The spicier the better."

By now she had removed her gloves and Jim could see that she was wearing a wedding ring. He met her gaze again, tipped his hat to her, and turned to look out onto the street through the shop’s large plate glass window. When he turned, the woman now turned her attention to his backside. She couldn’t decide which view she liked the best--the one from the front or the one from the rear. Artemus had been watching the restrained interplay between the pretty redhead and Jim and couldn’t contain himself any longer. He sidled up next to the woman, noticing that her eyes were transfixed on Jim’s rear end.

"Perhaps the lady would prefer a juicy rump roast for Christmas," Artie said.

The little boy then spoke. "Rump roast, mama, rump roast. Rump roast, rump roast ," the child repeated, as if it were some kind of holy mantra. For the first time since entering the butcher shop the woman was obviously flustered as she tried to quiet her young son. Artie’s butcher handed him a canvas sack containing the largest goose on the premises and the two agents left.

Artie spoke first out on the street. "Jim, my boy, it’s getting to be that I can’t take you anywhere anymore."

"Why Artie, whatever could you mean? What did I do?" Jim’s tone was one affected by those who had been falsely accused.

Artie waved his left hand in the air. "Never mind, never mind," he said with a sigh. He looked down the street and saw a large crowd gathered outside a shop not more than two blocks away. "Hello. What do we have here?"

Jim’s natural curiosity was piqued. "Let’s find out," he said.

As they got closer, they saw that the shop was an apothecary. A knot of men crowded the doorway so that neither Jim nor Artie could see inside.

"What’s going on?" Jim asked.

"A little bit of trouble, that’s what," was the reply from the man standing in front of Jim. "Made all the worse, this being Christmas Eve and all. There was a robbery here, and the pharmacist was tied up back in his storeroom. Terrible, just terrible."

Jim and Artie exchanged knowing glances. A run-of-the-mill robbery was nothing to get excited about. They had both seen much worse. They had matched wits and fought men so evil that sometimes, when they would each lay in his bed and the night was a clear, black slate, the evil would revisit, writing its terror across the vacant, pitch-black surface. A simple robbery could be handled by the local authorities. Still, the two agents felt a responsibility to at least offer their help. Jim pushed aside the men blocking his way and Artie followed, the canvas sack slung over his shoulder.

The shop was much like any other apothecary. There was a counter made of dark, oiled wood, upon which sat large glass jars of penny candy. A large mortar and pestle, and two smaller ones, sat on a credenza behind the counter. Floor to ceiling shelves held a variety of patent medicines, the bottles housed in paper boxes extolling the virtues of the elixir contained within as well as the numerous and sundry ailments that it would cure. A man who appeared to be the pharmacist and proprietor sat on a stool. He held a red-stained rag to his head, attempting to stanch the flow of blood. A man in his early twenties was interviewing him, taking notes as they talked. He was obviously a city policeman and by his young age Jim surmised that senior members of the Denver police force had already taken the day off, getting a jump on the holiday. His first case on his own, Jim thought. Well, he was inside the shop now. He might as well introduce Artie and himself.

"Excuse me. Perhaps we can be of assistance," Jim said to the young policeman.

The young policeman looked at Jim and then at Artie. Like him, they were wearing suits. Unlike him, their suits were very expensive. What could these two Fancy Dans do to help him?

"I’m Frank Kearns of the Denver Police. And just who are you?"

"My name is West--James West. And this is my partner Artemus Gordon," Jim said, extending his hand to shake with Officer Kearns. "We’re with the United States Secret Service, in between assignments and thought we could help you with your little problem."

"There’s not much here to be worried over I’m afraid," Kearns said. "Obviously someone got a little drunk and came in here to rob Mr. Farnsworth," he motioned to the man sitting on the stool, "and whoever came in here was so drunk and confused that he left before taking anything of any value. He knocked Mr. Farnsworth in the head with the grip of the pistol he had been holding and then took off."

Artie addressed Farnsworth, not noticing the strange look Kearns was giving him as he quizzically looked at the sack slung over Artie’s shoulder. "What was taken, sir?"

Farnsworth shook his head and looked down at the floor. "Like the policeman said, nothing of any real value. Just my frankincense and myrrh, that’s all. I didn’t even have that much, just a small amount of each to mix up in elixirs as prescribed by a doctor. I guess wanting frankincense and myrrh is kinda appropriate, this being almost Christmas and all."

Jim and Artie realized immediately that there was nothing they could do to help the young Kearns in his first solo case, so they bid the young policeman and the pharmacist Farnsworth good-bye and left the apothecary. The crowd outside the shop had not thinned out as they made their way back onto the boardwalk. Jim and Artie walked in silence for a few minutes and then Artie spoke.

"Stealing frankincense and myrrh on Christmas Eve. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?"

Jim nodded. "Gold seems to be our missing ingredient."

"Precisely," Artie said. "And where would you go in Denver if you wanted a substantial amount of gold?"

Jim knew that Artie was asking the question rhetorically, but answered it anyway. "The gold depository. Their administrative offices are housed across the street from the Mint. Artie, I believe we should alert them. Of course this whole thing could just be a wild goose chase." He looked at the sack slung over Artie’s shoulder when he said that and cocked his right eyebrow.

"Very funny. This bird is really getting heavy. How about your taking it for a while?" Artie said.

Jim raised his hands in the air. "Oh no, I wouldn’t want to harm the fine fowl that will house Aunt Maude’s famous dressing." Artie mumbled something unintelligible as Jim had a hearty laugh at his partner’s expense. "Here we are. I’ll get the door, since you seem to have your hands full."

Artemus glared at Jim as he crossed the threshold into the administrative offices of the U.S. Gold Depository, Denver Branch. After introducing themselves as Secret Service agents, they were escorted into the office of the Director of the Depository, Hiram J. House. Jim explained to Mr. House how they thought there was more than met the eye in the robbery at the apothecary. The theft of frankincense and myrrh logically led one to believe that a theft of gold was soon to come. Jim urged the director to double his guard tonight.

"Double the guard?" House repeated it just in case he hadn’t been heard and understood the first time. "Double the guard? On Christmas Eve? I’m down to a skeleton staff, with just half as many guards as usual, and for good reason. My men deserve time off to observe the Savior’s birth. Your cockamamie theory holds no water with me young man." House removed his glasses and cleaned them with a handkerchief. The flushing of his skin showed in stark contrast to the starched white collar he wore. Even the few stray, wispy strands of gray hair on top of his head could not conceal the scarlet hue his skin had taken on. "Now if you two gentlemen wish to add your considerable talents to guarding the Depository tonight, by all means, do so. But as it is approaching three o’clock and I have made plans to leave early to be with my family, I bid you good day." With that, House arose from his chair and escorted Jim and Artemus to the lobby. They knew it was useless to argue with this arrogant ass. And besides, they didn’t have the authority to force House to do as they wanted. Despite their far ranging law enforcement powers, they were, after all, civil service employees, as was House. And House, by virtue of his position, had seniority over them. The two agents left without saying another word.

"I’ve got a feeling Artie," Jim said.

"Me too," Artie replied. "And it’s not just the pain in my shoulder lugging this bird around." Jim laughed and took the sack from Artie as they headed back to their private train.

Back at the train, the two agents knew there wasn’t much time to come up with a plan for protecting the gold depository. It was already starting to get dark outside, and soon the darkness would blanket the landscape, perfect conditions for hiding all sorts of misdeeds, mischief, and mayhem. The administrative offices that Jim and Artie had visited were separate from the actual location where the gold was held. That was three miles outside of town, essentially in the middle of nowhere, bounded on each side by woods. They and the skeleton guard detail would hardly be adequate to detect and defend against an assault. Artie walked into the parlor car from his lab where he tinkered with all sorts of contraptions. He was carrying a wood box.

"Last time we were in Washington, the lab boys gave me this to play with," Artemus said. "I’ve made a few minor modifications. This should help us with our surveillance of the depository tonight."

Jim inspected the box. It was made of wood, painted black. The front sloped and was attached to the top by hinges. When opened, Jim saw four spools of wires. These spools were connected to the underside of the hinged front by more wires. "All right, Artie. What is this, and how does it work?"

"The best way to describe it is to call it a motion detector. See these four spools? Each spool contains two very fine lengths of wire. Finer than a human hair. Now, each pair of wires is magnetized. What you do is unwind them, lay them on the ground close to each other, but not touching. They’re so fine, that the slightest vibration, even from a footstep, will cause them to move. Since they’re magnetized, the movement is converted into a small electrical charge that comes back to the box. And then right here," Artie pointed to the sloped front of the box, " are little flags that pop up, indicating which wire pair was disturbed."

"So we should be able to monitor all four sides of the depository," Jim said.


"Better dress warm Artie. It feels like snow tonight."

"That it does," Artie replied. "That it does."

The two agents rode to the gold depository, deployed the wires around the perimeter, and then concealed themselves at the edge of the treeline west of the building. It was a dark, moonless night, and they hunkered down, trying to stay warm in the unforgiving cold. Here it was, Christmas Eve, and here they were, in the cold, in the darkness, acting upon a hunch. Their thoughts went back to earlier Christmases, when they were boys, when the smell of pumpkin and warm cider and Yule logs burning in the fireplace filled the house. Artie remembered how he would act out the entire Nativity, playing each role---Mary, Joseph, the three Magi. He chuckled to himself. The thoughts of those past Christmas Eves were not only starting to make him feel a little warmer, but also a little lonelier here in the dark. Jim thought back to how he and his older brothers would wrestle and fight over who would place the angel on top of the tree each year. Because of his job as a Secret Service agent, he hadn’t seen any of his brothers in years. Jim made a mental note to arrange a reunion, perhaps next summer. The sound of one of the flags on the motion detector popping up snapped the two agents out of their reverie.

"North side, Jim," Artie whispered. "There, you see them?"

The pitch of the night made it difficult, but Jim could see them. Three figures, perhaps four, were moving toward the depository. "Let’s wait until they get inside and catch them in the act," Jim said softly.

A few minutes passed before the two agents crept stealthily toward the building and then alongside it. A door was open and they went inside. They were in a large anteroom. The door they had just walked through slammed shut behind them and before they could react they heard the unmistakable sound of a revolver’s hammer being cocked. Not just one revolver, or even two, but three. The burglars, thieves, whatever one wanted to call them, had the drop on Jim and Artie. The agents raised their hands in the air.

"Why, Mr. West and Mr. Gordon. What a pleasant and unexpected surprise to find you here." The voice was unmistakable, they had heard it on numerous occasions before. Its pleasantries were wrapped inside an icy tone that sent shivers up both of their spines. The voice emerged from the shadows and into the dim light cast by a single candle in a wall sconce.

Jim spoke. "Dr. Miguelito Loveless, I must say I’m surprised. Resorting to petty theft now, are we?"

"There’s nothing petty about stealing the country’s gold reserves," Loveless answered.

It was Artie’s turn to speak. "Oh, the stealing isn’t petty. You are, Loveless."

The diminutive doctor’s cold smile turned into a petulant frown as he stared at Artemus with a look filled with hatred. "You are so very clever Mr. Gordon. But your cleverness wearies me. It always has. But it shan’t for much longer. I won’t have to wait until the new year to make a resolution to dispose of both of you. I’ll do it tonight."

"You know Loveless," Jim said, "I can understand the gold. But why would you steal the frankincense and myrrh? I can’t imagine that Christmas brings out the sentimental in you."

"Quite right, Mr. West. There is nothing sentimental about it. But don’t you see? They are gifts. The gold, the frankincense, the myrrh are all gifts." He paused a moment and his eyes grew wide. "Gifts for me, the man who will lead this country into a new era of progress and prosperity. For I am the Second Coming, the new Messiah, born again here on Christmas. The gold is needed to fund my plans. And those plans do not include you." Loveless sneered at Jim, contempt for the agent oozing from every pore of his body.

"You never cease to amaze me Loveless," Jim said. "Now you’re adding blasphemy to your long list of admirable attributes." Artie stifled a laugh. Loveless stamped his foot on the ground, now angered beyond his ability to control himself. The little doctor took a deep breath, let it out, and then smiled.

"In keeping with the Christmas spirit, I’m going to give each of you a present--a quick death. Shoot them," Loveless commanded his henchmen, "But wait until I leave. Killing can be so messy. Wait until we are well on our way and then kill them." Loveless left with one of his henchmen, leaving the other two henchmen with their pistols leveled at the two agents.

Artie spoke. "Well, since we’re condemned men, perhaps you’ll grant us a final request. In keeping with the spirit of the season, you understand." The two gunmen stared at Artie, obviously puzzled. Artie continued. "You don’t object to our having a final smoke, do you?" The larger and uglier of the two gunmen shook his head. Artie slowly opened his coat, holding it wide so the gunmen could see. He reached inside the coat’s inside pocket and produced two cigars.

Jim took one of the cigars from Artie, placed it in his mouth, and leaned forward to receive a light from his partner. As he puffed, he looked into Artie’s eyes. Artie winked.

"Cubans?" Jim asked, holding his cigar at arm’s length.

"Most definitely," Artie answered. "Straight from Havana. The finest cigars made anywhere, and certainly the most unusual."

Jim smiled. "What a way to go."

"You’re absolutely right, Jim. It is quite a way to go. And speaking of going, I believe it’s time for us to go." As soon as he said that, Artie’s cigar began sputtering, as did Jim’s one second later. Thick yellow smoke billowed from the cigars as the agents pointed them at the two gunmen. The yellow smoke instantly rendered the gunmen unconscious. Jim and Artie grabbed the pistols from the now sleeping men and rushed outside where they were able to breathe again after having held their breath.

"I can’t believe this," Artie said. "Look, wheel tracks. They must have carted away quite a heavy load, judging by how deep the tracks are." It was snowing now, and getting heavier by the minute. "We’ll never be able to track them in this weather, Jim. At this rate of snow, their tracks will be covered within an hour."

Jim nodded his assent with Artie’s assessment of the situation, punctuating it by driving his right fist into his left hand. Just then, a bright light came from out of the sky, shining directly onto a spot fifty yards from where Jim and Artie were standing. They ran over to the spot and there was the wagon, still fully loaded with gold from the depository. Both axles had split under the weight of the gold. Loveless and his henchman had unhooked the horses and sped away as guards from the depository had finally become aware of what was happening and fired their rifles at them. The two agents followed the shaft of light from the ground up into the sky, the eastern sky, where a star far brighter than any other they had ever seen was shining.

Artie spoke. "When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy."

"Matthew, chapter two, verse ten," Jim said. The agents stood there, gazing at the star as the snow continued to fall in the silent night.

When Christmas morning dawned a few hours later, Jim and Artie were asleep back at the train. Just after noon, Artie got up and began preparing Christmas dinner. Jim got up a half hour later and was sipping coffee in the parlor car when Artemus walked in.

"Merry Christmas, Jim!"

"Merry Christmas, Artie! For me?" Artie had just handed Jim a box wrapped in green paper with a red silk bow on it.

"Go ahead, open it."

Jim unwrapped the package. "The Iliad. My favorite book."

"Yes, I know," Artie said. "You’ve only read it, what, twenty or thirty times?"

"Something like that. I think of it as a training manual for our line of work."

"Well, there’s something a little special about this one. Look on the title page."

Jim turned to the title page and saw that this was the Alexander Pope translation, a first edition at that, published in 1715. And it was signed by Pope. "Artie, where did you find a book like this? It’s fantastic!"

"Oh, I have my sources in the antiquarian book world," Artie said. There was a pause and then Artie cleared his throat.

"I didn’t forget you Artie. I hid your gift under the divan."

Artie reached under the divan and pulled out a long, narrow box. He opened it and a puzzled expression came over his face. "A feather. Well, thank you Jim, I guess. I’ve always wanted a big feather."

"It’s not a feather, Artie. It’s a quill. And no ordinary quill. Remember that little job we did with Reginald Farthing of the British Special Services Office?" Artie nodded, but still looked puzzled. "Well, as a token of appreciation they had that quill pulled from auction and allowed me to purchase it outright. That quill belonged to William Shakespeare himself, and is the one he used when he wrote Hamlet. I have the provenance in the desk."

Artie now held the quill a little more lightly, and with more reverence. "The Bard’s own quill," Artie said. He looked at his partner and friend. "Thanks, Jim. I-I don’t know what to say."

"Thanks is plenty, my friend. And thank you, too. I’ve never read Pope’s heroic couplets translation. I guess that’s appropriate for a couple of heroes."

Artie grimaced. "Please, Jim. Don’t ruin the moment with one of your puns." The two friends were laughing when there was a knock at their door. Jim answered it and in walked Hiram House, the director of the Gold Depository.

"Gentlemen," House said, nodding in turn at Jim and Artie. "I came to apologize for my behavior yesterday. I should have listened to you. I want you to know that I intend to write President Grant and recommend both of you for a special citation." His skin was flushed red, as it had been the day before when Jim and Artie had been standing in his office. Only today his red skin tone was caused by the cold weather outside. A half foot of snow had fallen overnight. "I just dropped by to give you my apology, sirs. My wife awaits me in our carriage. We’re on our way to the orphanage as we do every Christmas Day, to distribute presents to the boys and girls there. Unfortunately, it won’t be the same for the children this year."

"Why’s that?" Jim asked.

"The man who for years had dressed up as Saint Nicholas and distributed the presents passed away two months ago, and we have no one who can dress up and play the part."

Jim and Artie looked at each other. "Can you baste the goose every half hour for me?" Artie asked. Jim smiled and nodded. "Mr. House, give me two shakes of a lamb’s tail and you shall have your Saint Nicholas."

"I’ll wait for you with my wife and son out in the sleigh," House said.

Jim escorted House to the door and then stood on the landing at the rear of the rail car. He looked at the one-horse open sleigh that House was moving towards when he saw her. It was the redhead from the butcher shop, her young son nestled next to her in the cold, crisp air. Jim’s eyes met the redhead’s and they both smiled.

Jim closed the door behind House and settled into his favorite chair with the book Artie had given him and turned to the first page:

The wrath of Peleus’ son, the direful


Of all the Grecian woes, O goddess,


It was too bad Christmas only came once a year, he thought to himself.




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