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California gal
SS senior field agent

USA
8383 Posts

Posted - 02/06/2009 :  09:30:48  Show Profile
THE NIGHT OF THE UNRELENTING BULLET

I have heard of some kind of men that
put quarrels purposely on others to taste their valour.
Twelfth-Night, Act. III, Sc. 4, line 269 — William Shakespeare


“I think we made the right decision,” Artemus said as they descended the stairs. “A couple of good meals, a night’s sleep in real beds… just what the doctor ordered.”

Jim smiled, but did not reply. The suggestion to stay over in this small town had been his partner’s. Jim was quite aware that long horseback rides were not Artemus Gordon’s favorite pastime. They had been in the saddle for three days, sleeping on the ground at night and cooking their own food over the campfire. They also had at least two more days of riding before they would reach the Wanderer, waiting for them in Denver, where it had been undergoing maintenance while the two agents were attending to the assignment in southern Montana.

So Jim had to agree that the idea had been a good one—though he would not tell his partner that, not right away at least. The job just completed had been onerous, dealing with a gang who had stolen government gold and who had been willing to kill to keep it. Chances were pretty good that by the time they reached Denver, another assignment would be waiting for them. Taking a “day off” here in the middle of Wyoming was probably just the ticket.

They had come upon the town accidentally, after encountering a waterway filled to overflowing when a strong storm raised the current speed to a dangerous velocity. The only bridge for some distance had been damaged by the storm and swift flow, so they had asked for advice from local residents. A man they met told them that a particular road would lead them through Hidden Valley. They would eventually meet up with the road to Denver on the other side.

Hidden Valley, aptly named, could only be accessed from the north through a narrow pass, which opened into a wide and verdant area, in the middle of which this small town, named Silver Creek, was situated. The merchants of the town served the surrounding ranches. Silver Creek had a hotel, not fancy, but at least rooms were available. The accommodations were clean, and the beds appeared that they would be more than adequately comfortable. They had arrived in early afternoon, checked in, and now were going out to find the café the middle-aged lady at the desk had recommended.

“Must be payday,” Jim murmured as they moved out through the door to the porch.

Artemus nodded, noting the number of horses and wagons in the street, as well as several cowhands on the walkway in front of the saloon directly across the street. “Maybe after a hearty meal, we can join those fellows in a beer.”

“Sounds good to me,” Jim said, stepping down off the porch into the dusty street. Their horses had been taken to the stable behind the hotel by the landlady’s son to be tended. The café was on the other side of the street, down a few buildings.

They were about halfway across, angling toward the café, whose sign proclaimed it to be named “Caswell’s” and boasted of home cooking, when the voice called from behind them. “Hey, West!”

Both paused and turned. Jim did not recognize the voice. Nor did he know any of the four men, who he realized were the ones who had been on the saloon’s porch and were now coming toward them. A young man with a swaggering stride was in the lead. He was probably not much more than twenty or twenty-one, with curly dark hair under the hat set at a jaunty angle, and his right hand swung loosely near the pistol strapped to his leg.

“Do I know you?” Jim asked casually as the group approached. One man was hanging back somewhat, and appeared somewhat distressed. Thin-faced with straight blond hair, he also looked vaguely familiar, but Jim could not place him. He was probably around thirty, as were the other two men, both of whom were grinning and appeared to be looking forward to whatever they thought was going to occur.

“Nope,” the young grinned, “but you’re going to. I’ve heard a lot about you, West. ‘Specially that you’re the one who outdrew Lightnin’ McCoy, fastest gun that ever lived. How’d you manage that, West?”

“It was my lucky day,” Jim replied. “We’re on our way to get a meal, but if we meet up in the saloon later, I’d be happy to buy you a beer and tell you about it.”

The youth snickered. “Don’t reckon that’ll be possible. You won’t be doing much tale-telling. I’m pretty fast, West. The boys will tell you I’m damn fast. Likely faster than you.”

Artemus saw his partner’s shoulders stiffen but Jim’s voice was very quiet as he spoke. “I’m not here for a gunfight, son.”

“Don’t matter. You got a gun. You gonna draw?” The boy started to back up, his companions moving off to either side. People on the sidewalks had already stopped to watch the confrontation.

“No. No, I’m not. I have nothing to prove, to you, to myself, or anyone. I’ll still buy you that beer later. Come on, Artemus.”

Jim turned and continued toward the café. After a moment’s hesitation, Artie followed. He could not help but glance back a couple of times, even while aware that the boy was seeking to build his reputation, and that could not be done by back-shooting the man he challenged. So far as he noticed, Jim never looked back, more confident than his partner was that the youth was not going to back-shoot him.

“West!” the young man screamed. “Coward! You damn yellow coward! Turn and face me!”

Neither of them spoke until they were seated in Caswell’s. A pretty waitress with strawberry blonde hair and charming freckles brought them coffee and commented. “That brat is trouble, mister.”

Jim looked up at her. “Who is he?”

“Floyd Hobart. He’s spoiled rotten. His daddy owns a big ranch and Floyd can’t do anything wrong. He’s just nothing but trouble.” She sighed audibly, shaking her head. “Far as that goes, we can’t seem to do anything about his daddy either. What’ll it be, gents? We have steak and fried potatoes today, or chicken stew.”

Both men decided on the steak. Artie waited a long moment after the waitress departed, eyeing his partner’s grim visage, before he spoke. “Maybe stopping overnight here wasn’t such a great idea after all.”

“It’s not over.”

Artie knew what he meant. That young man was likely stewing over the rejection, especially because so many had witnessed the encounter. “I think it would be a good idea to finish our meal, check out, and ride on.”

They had never been sure how the story of James West’s encounter with the master gunman known as Lightnin’ McCoy had gotten out. The incident had occurred within the confines of Axel Morgan’s Colorado mansion, the only witnesses being Dr. Loveless, the ambassador, and Artemus Gordon. Of course, the local law had been called in afterwards, but little press attention had been given to the story, primarily because the men involved preferred to not talk about the bizarre adventure. They had agreed upon a tale to tell the local law, not mentioning the strange events they had just endured involving the “magic” paintings Loveless had created.

So how did this kid in this remote valley hear about it? They had met the type before, of all ages, over the years, even before Jim outdrew the fabled gun handler. Jim West’s prowess with a weapon was nearly as legendary as Lightnin’ McCoy’s had been. Artie knew Jim was correct in surmising this encounter was not ended. That young man was determined to force Jim into a gunfight. Too bad some way was not at hand to show this Floyd Hobart just how fast—and accurate—Jim was. Then again, not likely such a demonstration would impress him. He was obviously determined to make his name by outdrawing the man who outdrew Lightnin’ McCoy.

When the waitress brought their platters of food, Artie posed a question. “Miss, is there any chance that if we spoke to the boy’s father he would stop him from… making a fool of himself?”

She was shaking her head before he finished the question. “Floyd can’t do wrong, mister. Now if it was Jake Hobart, it’d be different.”

“Who’s Jake Hobart?” Jim inquired.

“One of the fellows that was out there with Floyd. A cousin. He lives out on the ranch, pretty much acts like the old man’s assistant. But if he got into trouble, Rufus Hobart wouldn’t lift a hand to help him. Jake knows that.”

The two grinning men had both had dark hair like Floyd Hobart, so Artie presumed one of them was the cousin. When the waitress departed, he asked, “Jim, did that blond fellow look familiar to you?”

“As a matter of fact he did. Can’t think of why though.”

“Yeah. Must have seen him somewhere at some point in time. Or someone that looks a heck of a lot like him.”

They continued the meal in silence, then both refused the offer of apple pie with cream for dessert. Jim was starting to wish they had just turned around, gone back to the hotel and checked out immediately. He had an extremely bad feeling about this situation. He did not want to face that boy in a gunfight. Nothing good could come of it, one way or another.

As expected, young Hobart was on the porch of the saloon again, this time with the blond man and one of the two dark-haired men. The blond man had a hand on Floyd Hobart’s arm and appeared to be trying to have a serious talk with him. Hobart shook him off and strode off the porch as soon as he spotted the two men emerging from the restaurant.

“West!”

Jim ignored the hail, and kept walking toward the hotel across the street.

Floyd Hobart broke into a trot and cut in front of the two agents, forcing them to halt. “You’re a white-livered coward, West. Prove you’re not and face me.”

“Look, son,” Artemus began, extending a hand.

Hobart slapped his hand away. “You keep out of this, Gordon. I’ll take you on after I finished with your gutless pal here. Come on, West. What are you afraid of? That I’ll prove you’re just a faker? What did you do, shoot McCoy in the back and then put out the story about outdrawing him?”

The blond man had followed Hobart and he touched the youth’s shoulder. “Come on, Floyd. You’re being crazy. I’m sorry, Mr. West. Didn’t mean to cause you this problem.”

Jim glanced quickly at Artemus, saw that his partner was as puzzled as he was. The man seemed to know them. “There’s no problem,” he said then. “We’re just passing through and will soon be on our way.”

He brushed by Hobart and headed for the hotel. Artemus hesitated, watching the young man, whose complexion flushed red, his mouth a flat line of rage, far angrier now than he had been on the previous encounter. Twice was too much. Artie took several quick strides to catch up with his partner.

“West!” Hobart screamed.

Almost simultaneously another voice yelled, “Mr. West! Look out!”

Jim spun, his hand dipping for his gun, shoving Artemus aside with his left hand and throwing himself to the right as he saw the pistol that was already lifted out of its holster and starting to point toward him. A bullet whizzed by his ear as he got his gun out and fired an instant before his shoulder slammed into the soft dust of the street. Rolling, Jim came to his knees, gun at the ready. He saw Floyd Hobart laying on his back, arms out flung, a red stain forming on his checkered shirt.

Artemus took one look at his partner, saw he was all right, then hurried to kneel by the fallen man. He was aware of shouts and commotion around him, but did not look up as he sought a pulse in the throat, and then the wrist. Only then did he raise his eyes to meet Jim’s stricken ones.

“He’s dead?” Jim asked in a tight voice.

Artie got to his feet, nodding. “Right through the heart.”

Jim West frowned, shook his head. “But I…”

“What happened! What happened! Floyd! My God! Floyd!”

The agonized words were spoken by a burly white-haired man who was pushing his way through the gathering crowd, though most seemed to quickly move aside as soon as they realized who he was. A lanky, mustached sheriff was in his wake. The older man froze for a long moment, staring down at the fallen youth, then dropped to his knees.

“Floyd! Floyd! Who did this?” He looked up and around, saw Jim West still holding his pistol. “You killed him! You murdered him! Sheriff, arrest that man.” Rufus Hobart scrambled to his feet, pointing an accusing finger.

The sheriff hesitated, seemed about to protest, then resignedly held out a hand. “I’ll take that gun, mister.”

“Wait a minute,” Artie intervened. “Mr. Hobart, I’m sorry as I can possibly be for this, but your son drew when Mr. West’s back was turned. You can see the gun in your boy’s hand. It was a fair fight. Anyone here can attest to that.”

Suddenly the crowd fell deathly silent, and many started moving away. Rufus Hobart, eyes gleaming with rage and grief, spoke up. “Anyone want to speak up? Anyone?” He glared around at the shrinking witnesses.

Artie suddenly remembered what the waitress had said, something about not being able to do anything about Floyd Hobart’s father. This must be what she meant. He’s got a hold over this town, these people.

“I thought so,” Hobart sneered. “Arrest him, Joe. We’ll hang him in the morning.”

“Just a minute, sheriff.”

Every eye turned toward the speaker, the lanky blond man. He had pulled his hat off and was plainly nervous, fingering it as he held it at his waist. “Sheriff, Mr. Gordon is telling the truth. Floyd pulled his gun when Mr. West’s back was turned. He would’ve shot Mr. West in the back.”

Jim realized that this was the voice that had shouted the warning. Hobart glowered at him. “Parsons! You work for me!”

“Yes, sir, and I reckon that won’t last long. But I gotta tell the truth, no matter what. Mr. West and Mr. Gordon did my family a big favor that can’t never be repaid, but I can try. I’ll swear on a bible that Floyd drew first.”

The sheriff cleared his throat, relief plain on his face. “Mr. Hobart, in that case, I can’t arrest this man.”

Hobart’s face, like that of his late son had been, was beet red. “Pick up your pay, Parsons. You’re finished. Mack!” He turned to the dark-haired man who had been with Floyd. “Get some boys and a wagon and take Floyd home.”

Once more the sheriff cleared his throat. “Ahem. Mr. Hobart, the law says the body has to be examined by the coroner, and that’s Dr. Kittredge.”

Hobart was furious, but he also seemed to know he had to yield to the law in this instance. “All right, all right. Where’s Jake?”

“Right here, Uncle Rufus.” The other man who had been with Floyd earlier pushed through the remainder of the crowd. “My lord, what happened? Floyd…” He stared at the bloody body.

Artemus realized his partner had not spoken a word in his own defense, and had hardly moved, the pistol still in his hand at his side. He touched Jim’s arm. “Let’s go into the hotel, Jim. We have some packing to do.”

Again the sheriff cleared his throat. Artie briefly wondered if that was an ingrained habit. “Gents, you gotta stay for the inquest. Sorry to inconvenience you.”

“When will that be?” Artie asked.

“Ahem. Tomorrow morning, I reckon.”

“All right.” What difference did it make now? They could get that good night’s sleep, attend the inquest, then move on.

“I’ll send you word where and when,” the sheriff said, after that inevitable throat clearing.

Jim West’s silence continued as they entered the hotel and climbed the stairs. Artie followed his partner into his room. Jim walked to the window and stared down at the street, where people were still clustered in knots, watching as the wagon slowly approached to pick up the young man.

“Jim, it wasn’t your fault,” Artie began.

Jim whirled around. “Artie, I aimed for his right shoulder.”

“But you were off balance, falling…”

Jim was shaking his head strongly. “I thought I missed completely. I don’t see how I could have been that wrong.”

“Well, obviously you were. Don’t blame yourself. That kid was looking for trouble.”

The knock on the door interrupted whatever Jim was going to respond. Being closest to the door, Artie stepped over to open it, revealing the blond man, hat in nervous hands. “Mr. Gordon, my name is Len Parsons. Can I have a word with you and Mr. West?”

“Yes, of course. Please come in. Thank you for stepping up to tell the truth out there. Didn’t seem like anyone else was going to.” Artie moved back to allow the cowboy to enter, then closed the door.

Parsons spoke rapidly. “Rufus Hobart has this town pretty well buffaloed. He owns more’n half the valley and most folks in town owe their living to the Hobart spread, including Joe Best, the sheriff. But like I said out there, my family owes you two.”

Jim came toward them. “Have we met you before, Mr. Parsons?”

“No, sir, but I knew who you were. We saw you through the window of the saloon when you rode into town and I’m afraid I’m the one who told Floyd. I’ll never forgive myself for that. Soon’s I mentioned your name, all he could think of was you was the one who bested McCoy and the rep he’d get by gunning you down. I’m really sorry for that. Wish I’d kept my mouth shut.”

“But how do you know us?” Artie asked. “What did we do for your family? I don’t remember anyone named Parsons…”

“We never met. But you saved my cousin, Lucius Brand, from the hangman a couple years back. He sent me a newspaper story with your picture in it, that’s how come I knew you by sight.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Brand!” Artemus cried. “Of course. How are they?”

“Doing right well. Lucius was able to buy some land and hang onto it. They have two young’uns now, a boy and a girl.”

“That’s wonderful,” Jim smiled, briefly. “But it seems you’ve bought yourself a peck of trouble by supporting our story.”

Parsons shrugged. “I’ve been thinking about moving on anyway. Hobart pays real good, but I don’t like what he asks a man to do for that pay. So I’ll go out to the Big H and collect my pay, then ride on after the inquest in the morning.”

“We’ll be leaving too,” Artie said. “Why don’t you ride with us a spell? I’d like to hear more about how your cousin and his wife are doing.”

The cowboy grinned. “I’d sure enjoy that. I don’t reckon the inquest will take long once I tell my story. Heck, who knows, maybe a couple other folks will get some gumption and step up too.” He made a wry face now. “But don’t count on it.”

Jim held out his hand. “Thanks, Len Parsons. We’ll see you at the inquest.”

“Got a long afternoon ahead of us,” Artie commented after closing the door behind the departing Parsons. “I don’t think we ought to be roaming the streets.”

Jim nodded, turning back toward the window. The wagon had carried the body of Floyd Hobart away, and the crowds had mostly dispersed. “Artie, I just don’t get it.”

Artie came up alongside his partner, put a hand on his shoulder. “Jim, don’t torture yourself over it. None of it was your fault.”

Jim turned toward him. “But I simply cannot see how I could have hit him dead center like that.”

“Like I said before, you were off balance. Come on, forget about it for now. I’ll go get the deck of cards and we can play some gin rummy. Maybe you can make a dent in the fifty grand you owe me.”

The fact that Jim only nodded and did not dispute the gross distortion of the winnings in their ongoing, long-running game convinced Artemus of the state of his partner’s mind. Jim West had killed men, as had Artemus Gordon, during the war and later throughout their employment with the Secret Service. Sometimes the killings occurred during the prevention of crime, sometimes to save their own, or others, lives. Neither of them liked it much, but recognized it was part of the job.

Not often did it become so personal as it had today. Jim had been challenged by the infamous Lightnin’ McCoy, and had beaten that celebrated gunman to the draw, killing him. Most of the time, they faced hordes of other guns, similar to what they had done during the late war. To have a kid, not even dry behind the ears, challenge him and persist in that challenge, then to force the fight… Artie knew that Jim’s first choice would have been to walk away, as he had attempted to do. Second would be to injure the boy, show him he was not the slick gunslinger he imagined himself, and perhaps cause him to have second thoughts next time.

The fact was that, primarily because of the necessity to protect himself, Jim had thrown himself toward the ground while drawing and firing. Artie had seen him do that before, and knew his partner was unmatched in the feat. However, if he had not hit the target he intended, he should not blame himself.

Yet he will. That’s the kind of man Jim West is.

The card game was desultory, but it did help to pass time, helping distract Jim to some extent. He could not completely forget, however, finding himself reliving the moment over and over in his head. He could hear Floyd Hobart’s yell, Parsons’ warning, feel himself spinning, the hard cold grip of his pistol leaping into the palm of his hand. He could hear the sound of the shot as the pistol bucked in his hand, feel the impact of the ground against his shoulder. Artie’s right, I was completely off-balance. That’s why my shot went so awry. Had to be. But…

They went across the street to the café for dinner, and the same waitress was there. “I didn’t see it, but I heard it. I’m not surprised. Floyd was looking for trouble from the day he was born. But I gotta warn you, look out for his old man. He’s not going to let this go so easy.”

Artie looked up. “What can he do? A witness will testify…”

“I don't know. Judge Tabor here is pretty honest, and so is Doc Kittredge, but they both gotta live in this town. The town attorney, Bill Blade, is a fellow who knows which side his bread is buttered on, so just watch out is all I can say. Rufus Hobart is used to getting his own way. Floyd was his pride and joy, and his heir.”

“No other kids?” Artie asked.

“Nope. I suppose next in line would be Jake, but that won’t make Rufus happy.”

They had just reentered Jim’s room, prepared to take up the time-killing card game again, when a knock sounded. This time Jim answered and found the lanky mustached sheriff. The lawman pulled off his hat.

“Ahem. Just wanted to let you gents know the inquest will be tomorrow morning at nine, in the town hall, which is down that way, next to the livery stable.” He gestured with his hand.

“I think we saw it when we rode into town. Thank you, sheriff.”

“Ahem. Name’s Joe Best,” the lawman said, extending his hand. “I got to say I’m honored to meet the two of you. Heard a lot about West and Gordon. Just sorry this had to happen.” He shook his head sadly. “It was bound to, though. That kid was always looking for trouble, ever since he was a youngster.”

Artemus stepped over closer to the door. “Sheriff, are we going to encounter any… trouble at the inquest?”

“Ahem. If you mean, will it be rigged? No, sir. The one thing we got here is honest law. Sometimes it’s hard to upkeep, but me and Judge Tabor, ‘long with Doc Kittredge, we do our best. The Town Council…” Again he shook his head. “Well, they won’t have nothing to do with the inquest. We’ll hear your stories and Len Parsons, and that ought to it. There’ll be a jury of course, but the judge will make sure they do the right thing, and he’ll keep Bill Blade in line. Don’t fret on it.”

“I wonder if it’s going to be that easy,” Jim murmured as the door closed on the sheriff.

W*W*W*W*W


Quite a few people were already in the Town Hall meeting room when the two agents entered a little before nine the next morning. Neither had slept well, but Artemus could tell that his partner had had the worst of it. He knew Jim was not concerned specifically about the inquest. He continued to stew about the incident itself, seemed to be unable to accept the fact that he could have slipped up in his attempt to merely wound Floyd Hobart. Nothing Artemus could say convinced Jim that he was not to blame.

Artemus realized that Floyd Hobart had been about the age James West was when they first met, and he wondered if Jim was thinking of that as well. Not yet twenty-one, already a seasoned soldier when they were thrown together by Grant for a special mission, with neither aware of what the future held for them. Floyd Hobart would never have a future. Was that on Jim’s mind?

A stocky man with a round face and small eyes approached as they entered the large room. “Mr. West? I’m William Blade, the town attorney. You can take a place at the table up front.” He eyed Artemus, and clearly his invitation did not include the second man.

Jim saw this. “Mr. Blade, this is my partner, Artemus Gordon. He is going to act as my counsel this morning.”

Blade’s surprise was evident. “Don’t know that you’ll need an attorney, Mr. West. This is just an inquest…”

“Nevertheless,” Artie said, “that’s my capacity today and I’m sticking close to my client.” They had agreed this beforehand, bearing the waitress’s caution in mind. She had not been at the restaurant when they took breakfast this morning. When asked, the older woman who waited on them said that Shirley had gone to pick up restaurant supplies in a nearby town north of the valley, something she did once a week, usually accompanied by her brother, as the local mercantile did not carry everything they needed. The eating place, known as Caswell’s, was owned and operated by a family.

With obvious reluctance, the attorney led the two men to a table placed in front of the chairs where the spectators were seating themselves. Before them, against the back wall, was another table situated on a slightly raised dais with a single chair behind it. Rufus Hobart and his nephew were in the first row of spectators, both with black bands on their arms. The older man glared with open hatred, while Jake Hobart’s expression could only be described as a smirk.

Off to the right, three chairs were arranged facing toward the dais and the other tables. Artie was a bit surprised to see those three chairs were already occupied. Surprised and concerned. The men in those chairs did not look like townspeople, but bore the distinct appearance of cowhands, rough-looking cowhands at that; all were armed. He knew that the judge could have summoned jurors from among all citizens, but Artie had expected those would be residents of the town, not the outlying countryside.

He was about to comment to Jim about this when a door behind the dais opened to admit a number of men. As the man in the lead appeared, the assemblage came to their feet, so the two agents followed suit. He had a flowing mane of silver-white hair, and clear blue eyes, a well-fed man attired in a somber black suit. Behind him was a younger man, probably in his forties, with short-cropped auburn hair and a beard in a similar shade. Both men had grave expressions on their faces. They were followed through that door by six other men, five of them in business suits and all five looking very uncomfortable. The sixth man was wearing the sheriff’s star.

“Artie,” Jim began in a whisper, but before he could say more, the white-haired man stepped up on the dais behind the table, waving for those present to be seated before he spoke in a somber tone.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the first order of business is a very sad one. Some of you already know, I’m certain, that our honorable and much admired sheriff, Joseph Best, met a tragic end late last night, apparently the victim of a terrible accident. He was found in the livery stable, and appears to have been kicked to death by that fractious mare belonging to Lou Shandy. It’s a terrible loss, and we extend our deepest condolences to Mary Best and their children.”

The judge paused a moment, his sky-blue eyes fastening on the two men seated at the table. “Mr. West, Mr. Gordon, we will not involve you any more than necessary in our town’s troubles. The Town Council has appointed an interim sheriff, Mr. Alvin McTeer, who I’ve been informed is one of Rufus Hobart’s best men. I’m sure he will handle the duties just fine until we can hold an election.” Artie wondered if he heard a tinge of irony or sarcasm in the magistrate’s tone. His face was perfectly somber.

Jim West looked hard at the man wearing the badge. The same man Hobart had addressed as Mack yesterday, telling him to go fetch a wagon. McTeer had dark hair slicked down with oil, narrow brown eyes, and thin mouth that just now was drawn tight over his teeth in what might have been supposed to have been a smile, not a nice smile, his gaze on the two agents.

Artemus looked behind him at the seated spectators again, then leaned toward Jim as the judge took his seat and began to look at some papers. “I don’t see Len Parsons.”

“Yeah, I noticed.”

Judge Tabor looked up. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are here on a serious matter. Yesterday, Floyd Hobart was killed on the streets of our town. Our purpose is to discover what happened to cause his death, and whether anyone should be held responsible. As most of you know, an inquest is a relatively informal proceeding, although with a jury that will make the decision. Mr. Blade, will you commence the hearing?”

Before the town attorney could speak, Artemus was on his feet. “Pardon me, judge, but it appears that one of the key witnesses has not arrived yet.”

The magistrate’s bushy brows lifted. “Who’s that?”

“Mr. Len Parsons, sir.”

“Parsons. Mr. Hobart, Len Parsons is in your employ, is he not?”

“He was,” Rufus Hobart growled from his seat. “I paid him off yesterday. Ain’t see him since.”

Jake Hobart then chimed in. “He saddled his horse and left the valley, your honor.”

Alarmed, Artemus glanced down at his stony-faced partner before speaking again. “Judge, Mr. Parsons told us yesterday he would be here to testify. I would like to ask for a delay to allow time for him to arrive, or for someone to fetch him.”

“Won’t do any good.” This from the sheriff who was lounging against the wall near the jury box. “I see him riding toward the south pass yesterday evening. He’s gone.”

Tabor glared at the two Hobart men, at the sheriff, then spoke slowly. “Well, it seems with three witnesses telling us Mr. Parsons has departed, there’s no real need for delay. Proceed, Mr. Blade.”

Artemus sank into his chair. Shirley, the waitress, had assured them that Tabor could be trusted, and Artie had the sense that the judge was reading more into the statements from the three “witnesses” to Parsons’ departure than their actual words. He hoped he was right.

The proceedings moved swiftly. Dr. Kittredge was the first witness, reporting that one Floyd Rufus Hobart had died due to a bullet wound in the heart, stating the date and approximate time of death. Artemus noticed that Kittredge stared straight ahead all during his testimony, not looking at the two agents, nor the jury, nor the father of the victim.

James West was called next. He tersely reported the incident as he remembered it, relating the first encounter with Floyd Hobart, how he had walked away from it, and that the young man had approached him again, that he once more had attempted to walk away. When one of the jurors snorted aloud, the judge fixed him with a baleful glare.

“You are an experienced hand with a gun, are you not, Mr. West?” Blade inquired.

“In my line of work, I have to be,” Jim replied simply. “I also served in the Union cavalry during the late war.”

“Yes. I know. You are excused.”

Artemus was about to protest when he caught Jim’s eye. Clearly his partner wanted to see what was going to happen next, perhaps saving cross-examination for later. Blade called the newly appointed sheriff to the stand next. Somehow neither Artemus nor Jim were surprised by what the man reported.

According to McTeer, one James West had taunted an innocent lad into drawing on him, all the while knowing the boy was no match for him, and had coldly shot him dead while Floyd’s gun was still in the holster. It took Jim’s hand on Artie’s arm to prevent him from jumping to his feet in fury. Jim saw the lack of expression on the judge’s face. He’s not buying this. But can he do anything?

Two more “witnesses” repeated the interim sheriff’s narration, almost verbatim. “Jim,” Artemus whispered as the second man returned to his courtroom seat, “we have to do something.”

“Wouldn’t do any good right now,” Jim whispered back. “Just be ready.”

Artie did not need to be told anything further. When Judge Tabor asked if he wanted to present any witnesses, Artemus declined. Their only real witness was not present, and Artie deeply feared that Len Parsons had paid a great penalty for bucking Rufus Hobart.

The jury was out of the room for less than five minutes, returning with the verdict that Floyd Hobart had met his death at the hands of one James West, and advising that Mr. West be held on the charge of first degree murder. At the judge’s behest, Jim came to his feet, Artemus rising alongside him.

“I have no choice, Mr. West,” Tabor said soberly. “Sheriff, take this man into custody.”

Mack started toward them, then paused, his gaze on the weapons both men still wore. An oversight, obviously, Artie mused. The fine new sheriff is just realizing his error, especially after witnessing yesterday what Jim can do with a gun.

“Jake Hobart, I’m appointing you special deputy to help me with the prisoner. Go get his gun.”

An amused murmur arose from the spectators. Artie suspected no one would dare laugh out loud in the presence of Rufus Hobart, but most recognized what was happening, especially the shocked expression on Jake Hobart’s face.

Jim glanced at Artie just once, and knew that, as usual, he and his partner were on the same page. He waited as Jake Hobart cautiously started to move behind them. As soon as the newly appointed deputy began to reach for the weapon in the holster at Jim’s side, Jim grabbed his arm and forcibly hurled him toward the sheriff. He then spun and smashed through the nearest window, not looking back to see if his partner was following, but certain he was.

They had asked the hotel owner to have their bill ready and their horses in front and saddled for them, the plan being to go inside after the inquest to pick up their saddlebags from their rooms, pay for their rooms, and depart. Up the street, he could see the two horses waiting in front of the hotel. Jim West raced up the street, aware of the shouts of anger and confusion emanating from the meeting hall. Only when he vaulted into the saddle of the black horse did he look back… and saw that Artemus Gordon had not followed him through the broken window.

He hesitated only a second, then spurred the satiny horse out of town, heading north toward the pass through which they had entered the valley. There’s a reason Artie didn’t follow, he told himself. I just hope it’s a good one!

W*W*W*W*W


“Gordon, you’re under arrest!” the sheriff screeched after ordering the members of the jury, along with a good portion of the audience, to get their guns and horses to form a posse.

Artemus gazed at the new lawman. “What did I do?”

Judge Tabor had come around the table. “He’s right, Mack. None of the witnesses implicated Mr. Gordon in the shooting, nor did he do anything to assist Mr. West’s escape. Get on with your business.”

McTeer hesitated a moment, glaring alternately at the judge and at Artemus, then glanced toward Rufus Hobart. Whatever he saw there spurred him to action and he headed for the door, followed by Jake Hobart, who had been lingering.

“Mr. Gordon,” the judge said, “a word with you please.”

Artemus followed the magistrate back through the door from which the judge had originally emerged, and found it led into a hallway lined with doors, offices and other rooms used for the town’s business. As he did, Artie glanced at the doctor, who was standing near the jury area. Dr. Kittredge immediately dropped his eyes.

Tabor opened the second door along the hallway and they entered a small office fitted with a desk, a couple of chairs, and lined with shelves full of well-used books. The judge waved Artemus to one of the visitor chairs as he sank into the one behind the desk.

“I’m surprised you did not depart with your partner.”

Artie smiled slightly. “It was tempting, believe me. But I think I can do more good remaining here in town.”

Tabor shook his head sadly. “This been going on for quite some time now, and isn’t likely to be broken until Rufus Hobart kicks the bucket. And now, if Jake is his heir, I wonder if it’ll happen then.”

Gordon leaned forward, putting his arms on his knees. “What is going on, judge? We’ve certainly had some hints, from conversations with a couple of people, and now with this mockery of an inquest.”

“Years ago, Rufus Hobart settled in this valley and claimed about a fourth of it. He used most of the remainder as if he owned it—until other folks starting moving in and filing claims. Hobart got smart and legally grabbed some more, but what he couldn’t, what was already claimed, he has since acquired. At least a good portion of it.”

“You’re hinting he did not acquire that land according to the law?”

“I’m certain of that. I wasn’t here at the beginning, only was assigned to this district by the territorial governor about eight, close to nine years ago. But I know all the stories. Joe Best was a good sheriff, an honest man, but he was no match for Hobart. People pretty much do what Rufus says or pay the consequences.”

Artie leaned back in his chair and was silent a moment. “I presume his excuse was he was building a legacy for his son.”

“That’s about it. And he didn’t care how he went about it. He has a couple of men on his payroll who are killers. I know it. The town knows it. But so far we haven’t been able to do anything about it.” His blue eyes settled on Artemus’s face.

“And you were thinking Jim and I could? We were just passing through, judge. Would have left this morning if this hadn’t happened.”

“I know. Not long after you registered at the hotel, Mrs. Lederer at the hotel sent her boy Josh to tell me. She recognized the names. If this business hadn’t happened, I planned to call on you last evening to engage your assistance. Now it seems you’re going to have to help me whether you want to or not.”

Artie nodded. “I’ve got to clear my partner of this murder charge. If the inquest is any example, I’m sure he’d be found guilty in a heartbeat in a regular trial.”

“Exactly. I can keep the rules of order, instruct the jury, make sure all the procedures are legal… but when the witnesses step up, one after another…” Tabor shook his silvery head. “It’s been going on a long while. Joe and I held it in check as well as we could, and that wasn’t very good.”

“What about Sheriff Best, judge? I mean, his death.”

The magistrate’s face became grim. “I don't know. I was just told that he was found in the livery stable, next to the stall of a horse known to be uncontrollable at times. I have no idea yet why he was there. But I’m sure when we have the inquest for his death, the jury will find him dead by accidental means.”

“He has a family here?”

“Yes, wife and three kids. They live in the gray house on the east edge of town.”

Artie just nodded, then asked, “Dr. Kittredge?”

“What do you mean?”

“He seemed uneasy giving his testimony. Is that his usual demeanor?”

“Now that you mention it, no. Karl Kittredge is a very good physician, and knows his business. He usually states it all, matter-of-factly, and that’s that. I was too busy keeping an eye on the rest of the courtroom this morning and didn’t really catch that in Karl’s performance. You are right, however. He wasn’t as confident as usual.”

Artemus got to his feet. “Thank you, judge. I’m going to try to dig into this. I’m particularly concerned about Len Parsons.”

Tabor had risen too. “Yes. I don't know Parsons that well, but I have heard some good things about him. Not the usual ilk that works for Hobart. And if he stepped up to buck Hobart… well, I don't like to think about it.”

“It’s not likely the new sheriff will do any investigating.”

“Right. What about Mr. West? What will he do? Leave the valley?”

“Oh, no. Jim won’t walk away from this, judge. I have no doubt I’ll be in touch with him, one way or another. By the way, judge, if I seem to disappear at any point, don’t worry. I’ll still be around.”

W*W*W*W*W


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

California gal
SS senior field agent

USA
8383 Posts

Posted - 02/06/2009 :  09:32:27  Show Profile
Jim West moved a few feet upstream from his horse before kneeling down to cup his hands and lift the fresh cold water to his mouth. The sun was very warm at midday, and until now he had not felt easy enough to pause long enough to drink. Both he and the black horse needed it badly.

After leaving town, he had ridden a couple of miles at a rapid pace, conscious that a posse would be on his heels. Coming upon a stream that flowed under a wooden bridge, he had crossed the bridge then doubled back before going off into the water and riding perpendicular to the main road for at least a mile. Not long after entering the stream, he had heard the thunder of the posse crossing that bridge.

Aware that the riders would soon realize their error, Jim had continued on, finally leaving that stream at a rocky area, and plunging through some scrubby pines. Although he heard no sounds to indicate the posse was anywhere near, those men lived in this valley and knew it much better than he did, making alertness a constant necessity. He had no doubt that if spotted, he would be fired upon. Rufus Hobart would not mind having a dead murder suspect brought back into town.

Straightening, Jim gazed around him. One thing they had noticed upon entering the valley was that while it appeared to be quite wide, perhaps ten or fifteen miles across, the walls on either side looked to be very steep and impenetrable. Artie had commented that likely a river had cut through this area over the millennia, scoring a granite tableau until the vast valley was formed. The floods that eroded the rocks also left silt to create a verdant floor.

But it could well be that only two exits exist, the one we came through, and one at the far end. Easily guarded exits. Rufus Hobart probably already has men at those passes. I’m not going anywhere anyway. I just hope that Artie stayed in town on his own accord.

That was troublesome. Jim would not put it past a man like Hobart to drum up some kind of charges against Artie, especially now that his own man wore the star. Jim did not like to think that his partner would be locked up in jail, not only for Artie’s sake, but because Artemus would not be of much assistance if incarcerated. We always work better as a team.

In the meanwhile, he was alone. He had his pistol, and the rifle in the saddle boot, but his ammunition was limited to what was in the belt and in the rifle’s magazine. Not only that, he had no food, nor a way to carry water. The canteen that usually hung from his saddle was in the hotel room. They would have picked up supplies from the local store before heading out this morning, and filled the canteens. Thus far it appeared that water would not be too much of a problem, because the valley was far from arid. He would likely encounter streams like this one, or springs, in other locations. Food was another matter.

Swinging back into the saddle, Jim pushed further into the wooded area. Finding a high point would be a good idea, but so far he had not noticed any. The floor of the valley appeared to be quite flat. The only higher areas were along the walls. He might be able to scale the wall himself, but that would mean leaving the horse down below. All right for a brief reconnoiter, but not a good permanent solution.

Rufus Hobart wants my neck in a noose. Probably would not have mattered if other witnesses came forward to verify the true events of yesterday. Hobart would have tried something else. I’m sorry as hell for killing his son, but…

Jim West sighed and shook his head. Every time he thought about the incident, the more puzzled he became. Artemus was right that he had been off balance. But because he had been attempting to hit Floyd Hobart’s right shoulder, the likelihood appeared extreme that he would have missed to the right, not to the left. Not hitting the kid dead center in the heart.

The fact of the matter was, nonetheless, that he was on the run to escape what was essentially a lynch mob, though under the guise of the law. He did not know a whole lot about the situation, nevertheless, what he did know was all too familiar. One man had gained power in this community and was abusing it. Odds were pretty good that both Sheriff Best and Len Parsons were dead because of Rufus Hobart, the two men who stood in the way of Hobart’s quest for revenge.

I’ve got to stay clear, not fall into their hands, or into the range of their guns. Eventually Artie will get to me if he’s able, and together we’ll figure something out.

W*W*W*W*W


Before he left the judge, Artemus asked if the town had a telegraph office. The answer was negative. Some of the citizens had talked about requesting a line, but the idea was vetoed by Hobart. He obviously did not want to open up an easy way for anyone to request assistance from outside of his kingdom.

I wonder why a man like Tabor stays. Even as the thought crossed his mind, Artie thought he knew the answer. Judge Tabor could not correct everything that was wrong, and certainly could not stop Hobart on his own, but by sticking to the legal system as much as possible, he could put a damper on at least some of Hobart’s activities. Quite likely Hobart was smart enough to know that if Judge Tabor was killed, being a state-appointed magistrate, investigators would come to Hidden Valley.

Knowing that he had little or no chance to sway the men who had perjured themselves during the inquest—and two of the three were out with the posse anyway—Artemus got his horse from in front of the hotel and took the street that bisected the main avenue, heading east, quite aware that another man had mounted and was following. He found the gray house easily. A black ribbon was already tied to the door. I don’t like to do this, but too much is at stake.

Dismounting, he went up onto the porch and rapped on the door. A moment later it was opened by a young girl of about twelve or thirteen, her face and eyes puffy from weeping. Artemus pulled off his hat. “Hello. May I speak to your mother?”

Before the girl could answer, a woman stepped up behind her. “Come in, Mr. Gordon.”

Artie was not particularly surprised that she knew his identity. “Mrs. Best, I am terribly sorry to intrude at a time like this, but it’s important that I speak to you.”

She nodded as she closed the door, then told her daughter to bring coffee. Mrs. Best was a handsome woman, a little on the plump side, with blonde hair pulled into a plain knot at the back of her neck, her garb a somber gray. Her face too bore the ravages of grief. “I know. I was hoping you would come. Mr. West?”

As she sat on a well-worn sofa, Artemus took a nearby stuffed chair. “He escaped this morning.”

“Good. I expect they found reason to bind him over for trial.”

Artemus did not respond as the young girl brought two cups of steaming coffee on a tray with some sugar and milk. Mrs. Best told her to go stay with her brothers, and the girl left the room again.

“Yes.”

“Joe knew they would. He was awfully worried about it and glad that Len Parsons spoke up yesterday. And worried about Len.”

“Seems he had reason to be,” Artie replied soberly. “He did not show up at the hearing, and several men told stories that made it seem as though Mr. West killed Floyd Hobart in cold blood.”

“Oh, poor Len. He was a good fellow. Couple times that I know of he helped my boys and some others to learn how to play base ball. Seems Len played it during the war.”

“Mrs. Best, what can you tell me about what happened to your husband?”

She swallowed hard before speaking, but her voice was steady. “Almost nothing. He came home for dinner, went back into town to make sure things were quiet, then came home again maybe eight-thirty or so. We were in bed when someone knocked on the door. Now that wasn’t unusual, and I didn’t even question Joe when he came back in to get dressed and said he had to go out. Fact is, I went right back to sleep. This morning, Dr. Kittredge came to the door to tell me Joe had been found in Lou Shandy’s stable, his head crushed.”

The new widow paused a moment to swallow again. She had been holding herself together well until that moment. “I don't know why he would have been in the stable, and he sure wouldn’t have gone near that mare without Lou around to control her. She’s a grand horse, fastest runner in the valley, but can be pretty wild at times.”

“And you have no idea who came to the door?”

“No. Like I say, that happened from time to time. When Joe first took the job, I’d ask him all sorts of questions, but…” She sighed. “It just became commonplace. Usually, when I woke up in the morning, Joe was in bed again, or maybe in the kitchen drinking coffee. I wasn’t even over worried when he wasn’t in the house when I first woke up. Just never thought… I mean, I know he was a lawman, so that meant he might’ve been in danger. But after all these years…”

Artemus sipped his coffee, giving her a moment to compose herself, before he spoke. “Can you tell me what your husband said about the shooting yesterday?”

“He said that Floyd finally braced the wrong man. It had happened before. Floyd killed a man last year, an older man that he said was taunting him. Of course Jake and Mack and some others backed Floyd up, but the rumor was that it had been the other way around. Floyd pushed the poor fellow into drawing. I remember Joe said that he understood Jake and Mack had a hand in it too, pushing Floyd in turn. Jake never liked Floyd much, and I guess the feeling was mutual.”

“But your husband believed my partner’s story.”

“Oh yes, absolutely. He was sure that the inquest would go well, and you’d both be free to leave. Though he was hoping you’d stay around.”

“Seems as though we’re going to do that whether we want to or not,” Artie smiled. “Are you going to be all right, Mrs. Best?”

She sighed. “Yes. I think so. I’m going to miss Joe. He was such a good man. I just hope you can catch whoever killed him. I know he was murdered. I haven’t decided yet whether to stay here or not. I have kin in Kansas that we could go be with. Though Hidden Valley would be a lovely place to raise my children…”

Artie finished it for her. “If it wasn’t for Rufus Hobart.” He got to his feet, putting his cup aside. “Thank you, Mrs. Best. I won’t trouble you any longer. But if I can help you in any way, or if you think of anything else to tell me, I’m at the hotel. Leave a message with Mrs. Lederer if I’m not around. I won’t be leaving Hidden Valley without my partner.” And hopefully, we’ll both be alive.

As he mounted his horse, Artemus noticed the man he had spotted earlier now sitting on a pinto in the shade of a tree a little further down the road, which led out into the valley. Without hesitation Artie reined his chestnut mare around and rode toward the man, who stiffened in the saddle as soon as he realized that he was being approached.

“Howdy,” Artie greeted mildly.

“Uh, howdy,” the man replied. He was square-faced with tobacco-stained teeth and mustache, the bulge in his cheek attesting to his habit.

“I paid a condolence call on the widow. I don’t expect that’s your reason for being here.” Artemus’s voice became harder as he continued. “I just want to tell you that if I hear any hint that Mrs. Best and her family have been bothered in any way or form, you will have the weight of the federal government coming down on your head—and on the heads of whoever gave you the orders. Is that clear? Good. Adios.

With a friendly wave, Artie turned his horse and headed back toward the center of town, never looking back at the open-mouthed man. No doubt that he would report the encounter to McTeer or whoever sent him, which was just fine. I think it’s time those fellows, including Rufus Hobart, understood just who they were dealing with. Killing a cowboy, or even a local sheriff, is one thing. Hobart needs to realize that if Jim and I don’t report in, agents will come looking.

W*W*W*W*W


As the sun began to settle over the western horizon, one very tired Jim West was looking for a place to hole in for the night. He was hungry, but some berries that he had found had helped assuage that. He had resisted the temptation to shoot at a rabbit that scurried across his path at one point. Not only would the shot possibly be heard, but if he built a fire, no matter how carefully, the chance was always there that someone would see or smell it.

He had not been able to find that high point to survey the valley, primarily because his pathway had been intersected by armed men. They did not see him, but he saw them and turned away to seek cover. That had occurred twice, so he gave up the notion for the time being. He had no idea how many men Rufus Hobart had on his payroll, but chances were pretty good he had enough to not only guard the passes but to continue to scour the valley. Regular ranch chores would take second place to the search for the man Hobart considered to be the murderer of his son.

He was in the northeast corner of the valley, a few miles from the pass through which he and Artie had entered yesterday, when he spotted the homestead, consisting of a cabin, a barn with a corral, and a couple of other small outbuildings. Jim secreted himself in nearby woods, watching for a long while. He spotted only one man moving about. That did not mean others were not inside, but he suspected that if anyone else was in the house, it could well be the fellow’s wife. Any hired hands would be out helping him with the chores he was doing to close out the day.

Smoke was coming out of the cabin’s chimney, which likely meant the evening meal was cooking. Jim tried not to think of that. The important point was to find some shelter for awhile before heading out again. The night was going to be cool, and again, his heavier jacket was back at the hotel, stuffed into a saddle bag. Day and night temperatures fluctuated widely in this part of the country at this time of year.

So he hunkered down among the trees, talking quietly to the restless black stallion, occasionally getting up to walk the horse around a little, and always listening and watching his environment. He knew Hobart had not called in his men, and would not likely do so, although the men themselves might set up camps for the night even if they did not go back to their beds at the main ranch.

For a long while after darkness fell, a lamp burned in the cabin, but finally went out. Jim waited another twenty minutes or so, then quietly led the black horse down to the barn, keeping his eye on the cabin the entire while. Nothing stirred. At the barn, he carefully opened the door and stepped inside.

He did not light a lamp, but after a few minutes his vision adjusted to the darkness enough to allow him to find some oats for the horse, and then some clean soft hay to throw into an empty stall. Jim lay down, keeping his gun in his hand. He would rest for a couple of hours and then see what he could accomplish in the darkness, while—he hoped—his pursuers were also resting.

W*W*W*W*W


Artemus Gordon made two attempts to talk to Dr. Kittredge during the afternoon. Both times, however, the physician’s uneasy wife informed him that the doctor was out on calls. Her obviously uncomfortable demeanor reminded Artie of the doctor’s manner on the witness stand that morning, and caused him to wonder. Everyone he spoke to had praised Dr. Kittredge for his honesty and courage. Yet something about this situation was making the doctor very nervous. Was he deliberately avoiding talking to the accused man’s partner?

Artie also spent a great deal of time reviewing what he remembered of the incident. When Jim shoved him, he had not gone down completely, but had lost sight of the events for a moment, hearing rather than seeing the shots that were fired. His first conscious thought had been to check Jim’s well-being, then saw his partner rolling over in the dust, coming up, gun ready… as though he expected to see Floyd Hobart able to shoot at him again.

I don't know what to make of that. Jim thought he missed completely, but that doesn’t mean he did, despite his prowess with the weapon. Things happened so rapidly, probably consumed just a few seconds, though at the time seemed to take an eternity. All I know is that he was railroaded at the inquest and we have to straighten that out somehow.

Shirley Caswell had not been in the café for the midday meal, but she had been back waiting on tables when Artemus entered for supper. She brought the coffee pot at once. “I’m so darned sorry to hear about your friend. But I’m also not surprised. Floyd was the apple of Rufus Hobart’s eye, like I told you before, and couldn’t do wrong. Rufus would want to punish the man who killed Floyd, whether or not Floyd was at fault.”

“Thanks, Shirley. I hope we can solve the matter.”

“So Mr. West is hiding out?”

“Seems so. And don’t ask me where.”

She flashed a smile. “I sure wouldn’t. I’ll tell you what, though, there’ll be more folks out there in the valley willing to help him out than you’ll find here in town.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well, the folks in town, like the blacksmith and Mr. Karlson at the mercantile, they got to have the Big H business to survive. No way they’re going to rile Hobart. Not to mention they’ve seen what happened to the small ranchers and farmers in the valley who tried to go against Rufus Hobart. They don’t want to have their stores burned down, their family hurt.”

“That has happened?”

“Oh, yeah. Out in the valley. Hobart just keeps taking over one ranch after another, and when he pushes up against the next one, those folks get mighty nervous. Usually they sell out and move on rather than risk a fight. A few folks have been hurt, or killed. Poor Joe Best did what he could, but there was never any proof, and any witnesses were too scared to speak up.”

“You don't think they’ll be too frightened to help Jim?”

“Oh some will, that’s for sure. But maybe he’ll get lucky and run in to Duane Prentiss or Jeff Thorne. They were both run off their land, but they haven’t left the valley. Maybe the fact that they are both bachelors, with no family, has something to do with it.”

Too bad we didn’t know about Prentiss and Thorne before Jim’s escape, Artemus considered as he sat in the hotel room that evening. He had brought all of Jim’s gear into his room for now, wanting to be ready in case need or opportunity arose to clear out of Hidden Valley. He had asked Shirley about the possibility someone might be able to take a message to the telegrapher in the next town, and she had frowned.

“Not too many people leave Hidden Valley regularly, like I do. Now that I’ve made my weekly trip, I’d have to think of a good reason to leave again. Of course, there’s Lee.”

Lee, she explained, was her fiancé, living in the town where the telegraph office was situated. Her weekly excursions to pick up restaurant supplies also gave her an opportunity to visit with him, and he occasionally came to Silver Creek to see her. She had been about to say more when a group of customers entered, calling for her attention. Artie had waited awhile, but she was too busy to talk to him further. Maybe in the morning he could ask her again if she knew of anyone trustworthy enough who might be able to think of an excuse to go out of the valley. Artie was quite aware that both ends of the valley were under guard. Jim probably knew it too by now.

Be a good idea to send a wire to the colonel and ask for some help. No army post is closer than two days away, but perhaps a federal marshal, or even another local lawman, could be sent to assist. Anything to prevent Jim from being lynched, which is what it will be, even with the façade of a trial covering the hanging.

W*W*W*W*W


“Hey!”

Jim West came awake instantly, his hand bringing up the gun it was still holding. He stared up at the swarthy man who was standing over him while holding a lantern high. A rifle was in the other hand, but not in a threatening position.

“You this West I’ve been hearing about?”

Keeping the gun ready, Jim grabbed the side of the stall to steady himself as he got to his feet. “Who are you?”

“Name’s Prentiss. Duane Prentiss. This is my barn you are in.”

“Sorry. Seemed like a good idea at the time.” Jim motioned with the barrel of the gun, but the man stood his ground. “Back up. I’ll get my horse and get out of here.”

“No need to do that. You’re welcome here, Mr. West.”

Jim gazed at the man. He saw a dark-haired man, probably in his mid to late thirties, not overly tall, but well built. His facial features indicated he might have some Indian blood. “Why do you say that? Do you know I’m wanted for murder?”

“Sure. The story is all over the valley. Hobart’s men were here yesterday, and they’ll likely be back. But I’ve got places you can hide if they do. Meanwhile, why don’t you come into the house where it’s more comfortable. You hungry?”

Slowly Jim lowered his pistol, but did not holster it. “Why would you want to help me when you know it could cause a great deal of trouble for you?”

“Because I’ve already had plenty of trouble from Rufus Hobart. I have a little piece of land here now, but I once owned a right nice spread, ran a thousand head of cattle. Then Hobart got the property between mine and his, and it was only a matter of time before he got mine. Ran off my cattle, burned my buildings… I couldn’t make my mortgage payment, and he bought the property from the bank.”

“But you stayed.”

“This is my home. And I haven’t given up on the idea of getting my land back.”

Now Jim stuck the pistol in the holster. “You could be buying yourself more trouble by helping me.”

“Not likely,” Prentiss chuckled dryly. “Want to unsaddle your horse?”

Jim did so, asking the other man how he found the intruder in his barn. “My dog growled a little while after I went to bed. I looked out the window and saw you.”

“How long ago was that?”

“Oh, couple hours. Thought I’d give you some time to catch a little shuteye. I imagine you had a tough day.”

“Not one of my better ones,” Jim concurred as he heaved the saddle on the partition between stalls. He would put the saddle back on the black early in the morning, but for now it would be good to give the horse a respite.

He followed Prentiss out of the barn, remaining watchful. His gut instinct told him the man was to be trusted, but those instincts had been known to be wrong in the past. They crossed the yard to the front of the house, where Prentiss paused and spoke before opening the door. “Jack is going to be all suspicious, but once I introduce you, he’ll be fine.”

For just one instant, Jim was confused—and wary—but then remembered Prentiss mentioning the growling dog. The dog, some kind of shepherd mix, was indeed just inside the door, teeth bared against the stranger. Duane patted him, speaking encouragingly, then called Jim over to allow the dog to sniff his hand, and soon all was well.

Prentiss offered to warm up some stew, and Jim did not refuse. He sat at the rough wooden table while Prentiss worked at the stove, and when his host brought a steaming bowl, along with a cup of coffee over, Jim gazed at him. “Cheyenne?”

Duane Prentiss smiled briefly. He had heard how smart James West was, how observant. “Yes. I’m one-quarter Cheyenne. My grandmother was a cousin of American Knife’s grandmother. She married a trapper.” He sat down on the opposite side of the table. “What happened yesterday?”

Between bites of the excellent stew, Jim tersely related the incident. “The kid wouldn’t let it go.”

“Floyd Hobart was like that. A whole lot like his daddy. Rufus Hobart got it into his head that his whole valley belongs to him, whether he holds the title or not. He’s been slowly but surely getting those titles. Funny, it occurs to me to wonder if he might slow down now. Floyd was his whole life, next to acquiring land. And he was always saying he was building Floyd’s future.”

“I can understand that to some extent. I suppose the boy thought he was impervious to harm, just because his father treated him like a prince.” Jim shook his head as he consumed the last spoonful of stew.

Prentiss eyed him. “You say the kid braced you, tried to shoot you in the back, and you fought back, killed him. Nothing wrong with that. The way I see it, you couldn’t have done much else.”

“That’s just it. I tried to. I didn’t want to kill him. I aimed for his shoulder, or thought I did. My partner keeps telling me it was because I was off balance, but I just can’t figure it. I should have missed in the other direction, and that’s what I thought happened. No one was more surprised than me to see young Hobart with a bullet in his heart.”

“And regardless of how it happened, or why, Rufus Hobart wants you hanged.”

“Seems so.” Jim drained his coffee cup. Though still tired, he felt much better with some nourishment.

“So he filled the jury with his own men, and bullied a few townsmen to testify to what they didn’t really see.”

“That appears to be the case. I’d heard Judge Tabor was honest…”

“Oh, he is. No doubt about that. But there’s only so much he can do. He tried to help me, but the fact of the matter was I couldn’t pay my loan and the bank had a right to foreclose the property and sell it. Poor Joe Best couldn’t do anything about the barn burning and stolen cattle. He couldn’t find any witnesses who would speak up other than me, and my account wasn’t worth much in a court of law. Prejudiced, you see.” Prentiss grinned.

Jim saw the irony. “I expect you’ve faced a bit of that.”

“Yeah. But not so much from the regular folks. Not unless Hobart put them up to it. Just makes me more stubborn though. I’m like that.” Prentiss got to his feet. “Now, my idea is you should sleep up in the loft.”

“That’s fine with me.” Jim saw the overhang where some boxes and other items appeared to be stored.

“There’s space behind those boxes. I do that deliberately—just in case I need a hiding place one day.”

Jim stood up. “My horse…”

“First thing I’ll do if I hear anything—or Jack warns me again—is go out and turn your horse loose into the woods. But it’s not likely anyone will be around yet tonight. Hobart might have ordered his men to search all night, but they ain’t going to. They’ll be snug around a campfire somewhere, or in someone’s barn, just like you tried to do.”

“Mr. Prentiss, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this. But there’s one other thing…”

“Getting word to Mr. Gordon? I expect I can manage that tomorrow. I usually go into town every other week for supplies, and it’s getting close to time. No one will be surprised to see me.”

W*W*W*W*W


Artemus had just seated himself at a table at Caswell’s when Rufus Hobart entered, accompanied by his nephew, the sheriff, and one other man Artie remembered seeing at the inquest, one of the jury panel. They paused, stared at him hard, then moved on to sit at the only other vacant table during this busy breakfast hour. Shirley ignored the quartet and came straight to Artie’s table with the coffee pot.

“Ham and eggs?”

“That’ll be fine.” He lowered his voice. “I thought they would be out searching.”

“I know Mack well enough to know he’s going to let others do the work for him. He… Mr. Gordon, the man coming this way…”

Artie turned to look out the window. “Dark man?”

“That’s Duane Prentiss.”

“Thanks.”

Artie picked up his cup and watched the rough-clad man enter the restaurant. Prentiss paused, looking around. “Come join me, mister,” Artie called. “I don’t need all these chairs.”

“I thank you. Don’t usually get into town so early, didn’t realize how busy this place gets. No surprise though. Best food in the west.” He sat down.

“I’d have to agree with you,” Artie replied genially. He did not miss how the other man put a slight emphasis on “west.” He did the same. “You know the west well?”

“Getting to know it better all the time.”

“It can be a dangerous place.” Artemus took a swallow of his coffee, his eyes on the man across from him.

“Well, right now it’s pretty safe,” Prentiss replied laconically as Shirley arrived to fill his coffee cup and take their orders.

Artemus felt as though a large portion of the weight that had been resting on his shoulders was lifted. “I’m glad to hear that,” he said.

They did not talk much during the remainder of the meal, conscious of the presence of Hobart and his companions at a nearby table. Prentiss finished eating first, and got to his feet, putting some coins on the table. “Thanks, mister, for sharing your table. I’ve got to go down to the livery and see about getting a horse shod. Maybe see you around.”

Artemus only nodded and continued to eat. Moments later, he heard a stir behind him and was not the least surprised when Rufus Hobart appeared at the table, Jake and Mack behind him. The other man apparently remained in his seat.

“Where’s your partner?” Hobart demanded without preamble.

Artie carefully spread some blackberry jam on his still warm biscuit before responding. “That’s what everyone would like to know. Including me. You know I have not been outside of town. For all I know, he’s closing in on Denver, where he’ll contact our superior and request assistance.”

He looked up as he spoke, and although Rufus Hobart’s expression barely changed, except for a flicker in his eyes, both the sheriff and the nephew displayed varying degrees of apprehension. Artemus thought that McTeer’s complexion grew a couple of shades paler.

“No kind of assistance is needed,” Hobart growled. “West was indicted for murder. Nothing the federal government can do about that.”

“Perhaps.” Artie kept his voice quiet, his expression placid. “They’ll at least want to witness the proceedings, I’m sure.”

“He didn’t get out of the valley, uncle,” Jake spoke up. “The boys have both passes blocked.”

“In that case,” Artie continued, “it’s likely that when we don’t report in on schedule, someone will come looking for us. Same result.”

Now Hobart waggled a finger inches from Artie’s nose, who fought the impulse to slap it away, remaining calm. “You listen to me,” the rancher growled, “West killed my son and he’s going to pay for it! Not even the federal government can do anything about it.” He spun and stomped back to his table, followed by the two younger men. The fourth man trailed after them.

He finished his own meal deep in thought. At least Jim apparently had found a refuge, as Shirley had suggested he might, with one of two men who were willing to try to stand up to Hobart. He was anxious to talk to Duane Prentiss and learn about James’s situation, and above all, what could be done to extricate him from this fix. They had to get out of the valley, or at least get someone to travel out and send a telegraph message. Maybe Prentiss could do that.

When he completed his meal, Artie called to Shirley to tell her to compliment her mother on it. “Best home-fried potatoes I’ve had in some time. I’ll be back for lunch.”

Leaving the restaurant, he turned and walked the opposite direction from that which he had seen Duane Prentiss take. He saw horses hitched in front of the saloon and guessed that that was where Hobart and his companions had headed. A few buildings down, and out of view from the front of the saloon, he cut down an alley and headed for the livery stable via the rear of the buildings.

Artemus had visited the livery yesterday to talk to baffled owner, Lou Shandy, about the supposed accident that took Sheriff Best’s life. Shandy had no idea why the sheriff would have been in the stable late at night. He himself had been home asleep, and had not summoned the lawman. He also said that while the cream-colored mare he showed Artie was known to be hard to handle, he had never known her to attack a human for any reason.

“Don’t let anyone talk you into putting the horse down,” Artemus had advised. “Not until we get to the bottom of all this.”

Upon gaining the stables, Artemus entered through a back door and found Duane Prentiss waiting for him in the dim interior. “We’re alone,” Prentiss said quietly. “Lou is home for lunch.”

“Where’s Jim?”

“At my place, northeastern-most end of the valley. I’ll give you specific directions. He’d like to see you, but you need to be damn careful.”

“Don’t worry. I can be a shadow when the need arises. He’s all right?”

“Sure. He was holing up in my barn, but I took him into the house to keep my dog Jack company.” Prentiss grinned briefly. “You going to wait until night?”

“Not sure. I’ll see how it plays out. I have been trying to talk to Dr. Kittredge, but I’m getting the feeling he’s avoiding me.”

“Can’t see why he’d do that. He’s a straight-shooting man.”

“That’s what I’ve heard. But there’s something going on. I have no idea what, but I just have this feeling I need to talk to Kittredge. Tell Jim to stay put if he can. I’ll get out there as soon as possible. And thanks, Prentiss. Jim and I are in a fix where we could use a friend.” He held out his hand.

“Well, there’s quite a few of us in this valley who could use friends like you and Mr. West. Maybe we’ll end up helping each other.”

After receiving more explicit instructions on how to reach the homestead, Artemus left the stable the same way he came, made his way to the hotel to get his horse, then rode directly to the doctor’s office. When Mrs. Kittredge opened the door, her eyes lit up. “Oh, Mr. Gordon. You’re in luck. The doctor is home.” She caught his arm. “Please come in.”

Quite obviously, the woman wanted him to see her husband before he had a chance to slip out again, Artemus entered, pulling off his hat. She guided him to the first door along the hallway, and opened it. “Karl, Mr. Gordon is here to see you.”

Karl Kittredge was seated behind a desk, and he jumped to his feet, openly startled. “Amy, I told you…”

“Don’t blame your wife,” Artie said, stepping inside. “I’m afraid I forced my way in. It’s important I talk to you, doctor.”

“Are you sick? Hurt?”

“No.”

“Then I’m too busy to see you.” Kittredge sat down, made a show of reading a journal laying on his desktop.

“Karl…” Mrs. Kittredge started to move by Artemus.

This time Artemus caught her arm, nodded to her, and smiled. She smiled back, though unsurely, and left, closing the door behind her.

“I’m still here, doctor.”

Kittredge’s head jerked up. “I told you I don’t have time to see you.”

“Yes, you sure do look busy.” Artemus deliberately stepped over and sat down in the visitor’s chair. “What’s wrong?”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s just that I’ve heard so many good things about you, I’m surprised that you’ve been avoiding me. What is it you don’t want me to ask?”

Artemus saw the doctor swallow hard, and as he had done at the inquest, he avoided meeting Artie’s eyes, staring at something on the wall behind the visitor. “I’m a busy man, Mr. Gordon. I have no time to talk about your murdering friend. He shot young Hobart.”

“That’s another strange thing. I’ve attended many inquests and trials. The coroner almost always describes the murder weapon, and in cases like this, the caliber of the deadly bullet. You didn’t mention it.”

“Didn’t seem relevant,” Kittredge snapped. “Everyone knows the bullet came from West’s gun.”

“That may be true enough. Do you have the bullet?”

“No.”

“Now, that is strange. What happened to it?”

The doctor got to his feet. “I have nothing more to say to you, Mr. Gordon. Pardon me, but I have calls to make.” He went through a door behind his desk. Artemus heard a lock snap after it closed.

With a sigh, Artie got to his feet and went out into the hall, where he found Mrs. Kittredge waiting. “Did he… say anything?”

“Not really. Am I mistaken in that this behavior is not usual for him?”

“Very unusual. I think… I think McTeer said something to him.”

“McTeer? What do you mean?”

“When Mack and Jake Hobart brought Floyd’s body. Afterwards, Karl was extremely upset, but he wouldn’t tell me why.”

Artie patted her arm. “Don’t worry about it too much, Mrs. Kittredge. I’m sure your husband is doing what he thinks is best. Thank you for helping me to speak to him. Tell me, have you children?”

“Why yes. Two sons. They are currently visiting my sister and her family in Omaha. Why?”

He smiled. “Just wondering. Good day, Mrs. Kittredge.”

He rode back into town, dismounting in front of the hotel. Just before he went through the front door, Artemus glanced around. He saw a pock-faced man leaning against a post on the other side of the street. That same man who had been at breakfast with the two Hobarts and McTeer. Maybe McTeer didn’t decide to continue to have me watched soon enough for them to notice I visited Kittredge. Hope that’s the case.

He went up to his room and checked a few things, then came out and walked down the street to the mercantile, making some purchases. With his bundle in hand Artie returned to the hotel, pausing on the porch to wave in a friendly manner to the man across the street who had not budged from his position, obviously because he felt he could keep his quarry in sight. Good lad, Artie mused. A lazy deputy could be very helpful.

After taking his purchases upstairs, Artemus came back down, went outside, and led the chestnut through the alley toward the stable in back. He had seen young Todd Lederer in the lobby, so knew he would not be in the stable. He hoped Todd’s duties at the desk would keep him there awhile longer. Once more he returned to his hotel room.

W*W*W*W*W


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

USA
8383 Posts

Posted - 02/06/2009 :  09:34:01  Show Profile
Jim was glad to see Duane Prentiss return, and even happier when Prentiss reported his conversations with Artemus Gordon. “He’ll be here as soon as he can.”

Jim nodded. “I have no doubt he’s being watched. But my partner can be a pretty clever fellow in situations like this. Three men came by while you were gone.”

Prentiss grimaced. “I thought I saw fresh tracks. I presume they caused no trouble or you wouldn’t be here.”

Jim chuckled. “I was ready to bolt.” They had moved Blackjack from the stable to an area Prentiss knew about, some hundred yards toward the high precipice that framed the valley. A number of large boulders had formed something of a natural corral, needing only a couple of wooden poles to provide a gate. Duane had a half dozen head of cattle in there already.

Duane started putting the supplies he had purchased into cupboards. “So they just looked around and left?”

“Yeah. Didn’t knock on the door or even go into the stable. I watched them from the window up there.” He motioned toward the loft, which had a very small aperture from which one could observe the front of the cabin. “They did put something on the wall of the stable. I suspect it’s a wanted poster, but I didn’t go out to check.”

Prentiss did so when he took his horse to the corral next to the barn, coming back with an eight by eleven inch sheet of paper covered with black printing. “I could be a wealthy man,” the rancher grinned, handing it over to Jim.

“Wanted, dead or alive, five thousand dollars reward.” Jim shook his head. “That could be pretty persuasive.”

“Not for me, though I am afraid it could be to a number of people in the valley. When Mr. Gordon gets here, maybe you and he should get the hell out.”

“That’s tempting, but it was my understanding that there’s only the north pass and south pass to get in and out.”

“That’s true for the most part. I could lead you out another way, but you’d have to leave your horses here.”

“As a last resort, maybe. I’m not leaving the valley as long as there’s a price on my head.”

He hated being confined to this small cabin, but knew that for the time being, at least, he was safest here, especially because Hobart’s men had searched here yesterday, and now the trio who had passed by this morning would likely report that they too had searched the premises. Prentiss had told him that Hobart’s men had reputations for being dangerous, but also lazy. They were not hardworking ranch hands for the most part.

The reward offer might make them a little more zealous, though it had not appeared to affect the men posting the notice. Had Hobart told them it did not apply to them, that he was only trying to tempt other valley residents to help capture the fugitive?

“Mr. Gordon and I couldn’t talk much,” Prentiss said then. “Happened that Rufus Hobart came in for breakfast as the same time, along with Jake Hobart and Mack and another man. But he met me a little later at the stables.”

“I’m sure Artie has been busy, but Hobart knows he’s my partner and will be trying to help me.”

“Might not be a good idea for him to come out here.”

“Don’t worry. Artie won’t lead anyone here.”

Perhaps three hours later, Jim was relaxing reading a book Duane had produced, while the rancher went out to tend to his stock. The dog Jack was asleep by the door, but abruptly lifted its head to draw back his teeth and growl, just an instant before Jim heard a shout from outside. Leaping to his feet and drawing his pistol, Jim went to a front window to peer out carefully. Then he grinned and went to open the front door.

“Come on in, old timer.” He grabbed the dog’s leather collar. “It’s okay, Jack. This is a friend, even if he is a little strange looking.”

The man with stringy white hair and tobacco-stained beard dismounted from the bay horse with obvious effort. “Why, thankee, sonny. Nice place you’ve got here. And a friendly dog… I hope.” He shuffled toward the door and stepped inside, only then straightening his stooped body. “Hi, Jim. Looks like you have yourself a pretty good hideout here.”

“I lucked out, Artie. Maybe wasn’t as vigilant as I should have been. If Prentiss had been anyone else…” He could only shake his head. “Make friends with Jack. Let him smell your hand—unless you’ve smeared it with bear grease or some such.”

Artie chuckled and went through the gentle procedure to become acquainted with the dog, whose tail was soon wagging in a welcome. “Where is Prentiss?” he asked, bending down to scrub the dog’s head between the ears.

“Out in the barn. I expect he’ll be in shortly. Good man. Did he tell you he’s kin to American Knife?”

“No! What a coincidence. We didn’t have much time to talk this morning. Most importantly, he gave me directions to this place.”

“You found it.”

“Yeah.”

“Have any problems with Hobart’s men?”

“Couple stopped me but only one had sense to wonder how I got into the valley with the entrances guarded. I told him I entered a few days ago and had been camping out. That satisfied him.”

The door opened suddenly, Duane Prentiss entering with his rifle ready. “It’s okay, Duane,” Jim said. “You may not recognize him, but it’s Artemus.”

Prentiss gaped at Artie for a long moment, then burst out laughing. “I never would have known!” He put his rifle against the wall. “Sit down. I’ll make some fresh coffee. I know you two have a lot to talk about.”

“What happened after I left town, Artie? Why didn’t you follow me out?” Jim pulled out one of the chairs at the table and sat on it. The dog settled in front of the door again.

Artie took another chair. “I didn’t follow because I had a feeling I would be more helpful in town. McTeer and Hobart wanted to arrest me, but Judge Tabor stopped them. They have, however, been watching me, especially today. Presumably one fellow with a face full of pockmarks is still holding up a post across the street from the hotel, waiting for me to come out.”

“And have you found out anything?”

“Not a lot,” Artie sighed. “I’m fairly certain Sheriff Best was murdered. Proving it is another matter. I talked to Mrs. Best, the stable owner, and Dr. Kittredge. I’m sure Kittredge is hiding something about the shooting, maybe due to a threat against his family, but I don't know what it is.”

“Strange. What is there to hide? The kid was dead with my bullet in his heart.” Jim’s voice went harsh, a tip to Artemus that his partner was still brooding about the incident.

“I asked Shirley in the café about someone taking a message to the next town to send a wire to Colonel Richmond. She can’t go immediately without falling under suspicion because she just made the trip, but she’s going to try to find someone else.”

Prentiss brought the coffee pot and some cups to the table. “You want to be even more careful now with that reward being offered.”

Artie glanced up at him, looked at Jim. “Reward?”

The flyer was laying on the table, face down, and Jim flipped it over. “Interested?”

Artemus assumed his old man voice. “Well, dog my hide! That there could put me in terbaccy for the rest of my life!”

“Which wouldn’t be very long if you tried it,” Jim retorted.

Artie sighed and resumed his normal voice, albeit filled with concern. “That’s not good, Jim. You need to stay out of sight, for sure.”

“I can’t hide here while you…”

“Yes, you can! I’ve thrown a few hints to Hobart that they will be messing with the federal government if anything happens to me. Of course, that’s not going to stop McTeer from trying to drum up some charge against me. But I’ll be walking the straight and narrow. When I go back to town, I’m going to call on Judge Tabor. again He might have some ideas.”

“You going to tell the judge where Mr. West is hiding?” Prentiss asked.

Artie shook his head. “No. Not yet anyway. He might take it into his head to visit, and lead others here. But he may be able to get a message out of the valley for us. That’s important.”

“Damned important,” Jim concurred. He glanced at their host, who was leaning against the nearby wall. “The longer I stay here, the greater the chances increase that I’ll be found. Hobart would not take kindly to Duane sheltering me.”

“Don’t you worry about that,” Duane said quickly. “I look at it that I’m getting some revenge against Hobart for stealing my land. And if in some way it helps bring Hobart down, so much the better. I’m sure there are laws against trying to railroad someone to a hangman’s noose.”

“Not to mention perjury,” Artemus put in, “though I’m sure that Judge Tabor, and perhaps any judge, would take into account the duress they were probably under. Especially if Jim doesn’t hang.”

“I’d prefer that scenario,” Jim said wryly.

“I think a few of us would,” his partner returned, getting to his feet. “I’d better get back to town—which might be more difficult than getting out was. I’ve got to think of a good reason why I borrowed one of the other horses instead of riding my own! I’m not sure what the next step is going to be, Jim. I’ll call on the judge, and maybe the doctor again. I want to know why he’s behaving out of character.”

“You can bet Rufus Hobart has a hand in it,” Prentiss put in.

“I agree. But why? And to what extent? There’s something not right about this whole thing.” He looked down at Jim West, who was staring down at the cup of coffee before him, both hands wrapped around the heavy mug. “I know patience is not one of your strong points, Jim, but try to hang in there. Hobart’s men are all around the valley. This may be the safest place for you right now.”

Jim looked up. “You take care yourself, pal. Hobart is out for vengeance, and he knows you’re my friend and partner.”

Artie grinned behind the whiskers as assumed the creaky voice again. “Doncha worry, sonny. I’m watching my steps pretty durn careful like.”

As he feared, problems arose while attempting to return to town. First he was accosted by another of Hobart’s men. This one thought he recognized the horse Artemus was riding as one belonging to the “kid at the hotel.” The old man mounted on that horse denied it, opined that all bays looked alike, cussed a little, rambled a lot about horses and life in general, and got pretty cantankerous until the gunman wearied of him and waved him on.

He removed the makeup and whiskers and changed his jacket before riding into town. Todd Lederer was in the stable, and though the young man was curious about why Mr. Gordon hadn’t ridden his own horse, he seemed inclined to not worry too much about it, asking only whether the chestnut had come up lame. Artie made a vague statement about his own mare needing a rest, and that was that.

Entering the hotel through the back door, Artemus went to his room and peeked out the front window at the street. He had to grin. His “guard” was still on the porch across the way, looking bored as hell. He had had no idea that his quarry had left the hotel for over two hours.

After washing up and getting rid of the last vestiges of the gum Arabic that had secured the whiskers to his chin, Artemus donned fresh clothing, then left the hotel again, this time by the front door. He crossed the street and nodded to the pock-faced man. “I’m heading for Caswell’s for some food. Join me?”

The man merely stared at him.

W*W*W*W*W


The clouds began rolling in before dark, and rain was soon falling heavily, accompanied by wind, thunder and lightning. Jim West was glad he was within the shelter of the cabin. He regretted, however, that he was currently unable to join his partner in investigating the situation, even while knowing that Artie was right. Hobart had too many men out there scouring the valley for him.

He looked toward the window as a brilliant flash of lightning illuminated everything, followed within seconds by a ferocious clap of thunder that caused the cabin to vibrate. Jack, the dog, who had been laying in front of the door, sat up and looked around. Duane spoke to him soothingly, and Jack settled down again. Duane Prentiss was sitting on a chair in front of the fireplace, mending a harness, while Jim sprawled on the room’s lone “sofa,” more of a cot, which Duane used for his bed.

Jim knew he was going to have difficulty sleeping again this night, and not only because of the storm. The confrontation with young Hobart still haunted his thoughts. Again and again he reviewed the incident, and always came up with the same question: How did I “miss” so far to the right when I was aiming left? Artie’s explanation was logical, that he was off balance. Yet it made no sense. If anything, I should have hit the building, breaking a window or something.

Jack scrambled to his feet, barking and growling, an instant before the window shattered above where Jim lay. Seeing a gun barrel poking through, Jim rolled off the bed, yelling to Duane to get down.

“Both of you, drop your guns and raise your hands!” a voice boomed from outside, almost inaudible over the loud rumble of thunder.

“Duane, don’t!” Jim shouted, seeing the rancher grabbing toward the rifle that was leaning against the wall near him.

Prentiss either did not hear or simply did not want to heed the warning. As he came to his feet with the gun, the weapon at the window roared. The next few minutes were pandemonium as several men burst in through the door, guns drawn. Jack went on the offense, but one man swung his pistol barrel at the dog’s head, and the animal dropped limply to the floor.

Outnumbered, Jim surrendered, then tried to go to Prentiss, who had collapsed near the fireplace, crimson staining his shirtfront. His captors refused to let Jim check on the wounded man, instead binding his hands behind his back and gleefully dragging him out into the rain, chortling about the reward they were going to earn.

W*W*W*W*W


The hand over his mouth awakened Artemus Gordon swiftly and he stared into the shiny damp face of his partner, the lightning from the still raging storm casting an eerie glow in the hotel room. He pushed himself up onto his elbows as the hand dropped away.

“Jim! What the devil…?”

Jim pushed back a wet shock of hair from his forehead. “I just escaped from jail.”

“You… what?” Artie threw the blanket back and swung his feet over the side of the bed, reaching for the trousers he had placed at the foot of the bed. “Start at the beginning, pal! How did you end up in jail?”

Tersely Jim told how he and Duane had been surprised. “Got too comfortable, I guess, figuring no one would be out on such a night. Artie, I need you to get the doctor and take him out to Duane’s cabin. I don't know how bad he’s hurt.”

Artemus was on his feet now, buttoning his shirt. “Whoa! Whoa, now. You still haven’t explained the escape-from-jail part.”

“Well, they locked me up and went to the saloon to celebrate. I still had some explosive buttons, used them to loosen the bars and climbed out the window. Not sure how much time before they discover I’m gone. No doubt they’ll come to see you, first thing.”

“Yeah, I think you’re right. Maybe I’d better get back in bed and wait for them. Once they head out, looking for you, I’ll get Kittredge and… but what about you, Jim? Where are you going now?”

Jim shook his head. “I don't know. I’m going to have to steal a horse. Blackjack is still out at Prentiss’s, in a hidden corral. Hobart’s boys hijacked one of Duane’s to bring me into town, but I think I’d be better off taking one from the hotel’s stable.”

Artie was nodding. “Take Mesa. She’s no Blackjack, but she’ll get you where you want to go. I’ll do the borrowing of the hotel’s horse. But Jim, you’re going to have a tough time staying clear of Hobart’s men. They’re going to be even more furious if they figure they’ve lost the well-earned reward.”

“I know. Did you talk to the judge?”

“Yes. He thinks he can get out of the valley, but he’s not sure when. I wrote out a coded message for him to send. But he’s powerless to do much else, Jim. You’re a fugitive from justice right now.”

“Yeah.”

Artemus gazed at his partner. “Jim, there’s really nothing you can do except try to stay out of sight. They’ll put you in jail again… and make sure you don’t escape. That is, if they don’t shoot you on sight.”

“You always have such a cheerful outlook, Artemus. I need some ammunition, and my canteen. No way to get any food right now. I’ll make do.”

Artie provided the needed items from the pile of material he had brought from Jim’s room. “Jim, we ought to figure out a way to get in touch.”

Jim looked at him. “Any ideas? Smoke signals?”

Artie sighed. “I guess not. Don't know the valley well enough to set up a specific site, either.”

“I’ll try to listen to the gossip from the men searching for me—out of their line of vision of course. Get out to Prentiss as soon as you can, Artie. I hope to God he hasn’t paid the full price for helping me!”

W*W*W*W*W


The rain let up as Artemus started out with Dr. Kittredge from the physician’s home in the early morning hours. By the time they left the main road to head toward Prentiss’s property, the skies were starting to clear, bright moon and stars lighting their way. The rough dirt lane through the trees was muddy, the potholes filled with water, slowing their passage.

Some convincing had been required to, first of all, even gain entry into the doctor’s house, and then for him to accompany Artie. Artemus thought it was not so much that Kittredge disbelieved the story, but that same reticence—or fear—he had displayed previously was causing him to balk. Mrs. Kittredge was the one who convinced her husband he had to go.

Though he had a thousand questions he wanted to ask, Artemus held them back on the journey. He did not want to upset Kittredge any further than he was. The doctor was clearly torn between his duty and… something. Artie could only surmise that some sort of threat had been made. But what and why? What could the doctor-coroner do besides certify that young Floyd Hobart had died because of a bullet entering his heart? The more he thought about it, the more Artemus Gordon wondered: what did someone believe that the doctor could do otherwise?

Jack was awake and attempting to do his duty, rising from his master’s side and staggering toward the door, snarling. Blood matted the top of the animals’ head. Remembering how Jim had introduced him previously, Artie first allowed Jack to smell his hand, and then the doctor’s, talking quietly. Perhaps because he was not feeling so well himself, Jack gave in easily and allowed the two men to approach Duane Prentiss, who was lying beside the fireplace. Artie was not entirely surprised to see that a folded towel had been placed over the wound, held in place by a torn strip of cloth.

Kittredge did not comment on the rough bandage, first determining that the young rancher was still alive, then he and Artie carried Prentiss over to the cot, which Artie pulled away from the wall a couple of feet. He then brought the two lamps in the room and set them up so as to shed as much illumination as possible. For close to an hour the two men worked in near silence, the only words spoken were primarily by the doctor as he instructed his assistant.

Finally Kittredge went to the basin on the stand in the corner to wash his hands, then stepped back to allow Artemus to do the same. “He’s lost a great deal of blood,” the doctor said, “but he’s young and strong. With rest and care, he should be all right. The bullet missed all vital organs, including the lungs and heart.”

Artie knew that the wound was in Prentiss’s left shoulder, above his heart. “The care part is going to be difficult, doctor. Any suggestions?”

“Jeff Thorne,” Kittredge responded briskly.

“I’ve heard the name. Where do I find him?”

“You’ll need a horse…” They had swiftly unhitched the team to put them in the barn, noting the absence of any other animals in the stalls.

“I think I can find one. Just give me directions.”

Just before leaving the hotel room, Jim had told him where to find the hidden corral, so Artemus slogged through the mud in the moonlight until he came to the boulders. When he called out, he smiled. The answering whinny was familiar, not from Jim’s black stallion. When Jim came by to check on Prentiss and try to staunch the bleeding, he had also switched horses, to Artemus’s relief. He had not been thrilled with the idea of handling the black horse.

A little over an hour later Artemus returned, riding alongside the wagon being driven by gruff, middle-aged Jeff Thorne. A bachelor like Prentiss, he was on the verge of having his property swallowed by Hobart, but was fighting to the last. He told Artemus that had he a family he might behave differently. “But there’s just me. They can only kill me once.”

Thorne greeted the doctor warmly. During their conversation on the trek back to the Prentiss place, Artemus had probed Thorne as to how well he knew the doctor and was there any chance Kittredge would cooperate willingly with Hobart.

The rancher had shaken his head vehemently. “No way, Mr. Gordon. Must be something else on Kurt’s mind if what you’re saying is so about the way he’s acting. Can’t see why Hobart would threaten Kurt. Rufus Hobart knows that the doctor will do his duty and tell the truth. From what I heard, Kurt didn’t witness the shooting, so he couldn’t have testified about that at all. And if he had, he would have told the God’s honest truth.”

Unless Hobart threatened him, as he apparently did the other so-called witnesses who testified. So it still did not make sense. Artemus continued to mull it over as he helped Kittredge and Thorne carry Duane Prentiss out to the wagon, using the mattress from the cot as both a stretcher and a bed in the back of the vehicle. They then put the anxious dog in with him. Kittredge had spent the time while Artie was fetching help tending to the dog’s head, so most of the dried blood had been washed away. Jack appeared to feel better as well.

Artemus tied his chestnut to the back of the doctor’s buggy and climbed in beside him. He could see that Kittredge was somewhat surprised, and also wary. He had obviously expected Artie to mount his horse and go on his way, perhaps seeking Jim. Artie had given the physician a minimum amount of information concerning how Prentiss was injured, and how he had learned about it.

“You haven’t met my friend, Jim West,” Artie began the conversation, waiting until the doctor had completed guiding his horse and buggy through the morass that was the trail leading from the cabin to the main road.

“No. Saw him in the court, that’s all.”

“You won’t find a better man,” Artemus continued. “He walked away from Floyd Hobart twice, not wishing to risk injuring a boy of that age. Young Hobart persisted though. I’m not sure if he would have shot Jim in the back, but Jim could not take a chance. As it was, Hobart had his gun out of his holster when Jim turned to him.”

“That’s not what the witnesses said.” Kittredge kept his gaze straight ahead. The sky was starting to lighten in the east, but they were still traveling primarily by the glow from the moon and stars, with a few clouds still floating around.

“Yes, you’re right. Those witnesses swore on the Bible, didn’t they? Of course, that means they are telling the truth.” Artie’s voice held a tinge of sarcasm. “At least as coroner, you did not have to swear an oath.”

The doctor’s head jerked around. “I didn’t tell any lies!”

“No… but you also didn’t offer much information.”

“Nothing to tell. The boy was shot in the heart. That was that.” His gaze went over the horse’s back again.

Artie remained silent for several minutes. “My friend is agonizing over the killing,” he said quietly. “Jim comes across as a hard man, but that’s just a veneer. Inside, he’s caring. Tough, but caring. I’ve seen him risk his life to save men, women, and children—and me.”

Kittredge remained silent for long moments before speaking. “I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”

“He is not a cold-blooded killer, doctor. Just as I prefer to succeed with my mind, Jim prefers to use his physical prowess, rather than weapons. As well, Jim is puzzled as to how he shot young Hobart in the heart, considering he was falling to his right, while attempting to wound Hobart in the right shoulder. He thought he had missed. And I can tell you that I saw Jim come up off the ground, ready to fire again because he thought Floyd was still able to shoot at him. The more I think about it, the more puzzled I am as well. I know Jim and I know his abilities. He could do what he said he wanted to do—just wound the kid. But he was falling and off balance, so I originally assumed that his aim had been off. But not that way. Not to the right, instead of the left. Do you see what I mean?

“Floyd Hobart was shot in the heart. That’s all I know. The witnesses said that your friend…”

“Jim West would never bait anyone, let alone a kid like that, into a gunfight. We had one witness who was going to tell the truth of the matter, but he has disappeared, and we fear some harm has been done to him. Rufus Hobart is determined to make Jim pay for his son’s death—regardless of the circumstances.”

“There’s nothing I can do,” Kittredge said in a very soft voice.

Artemus decided to let it drop for now, although he was certain that Kittredge knew something he was not willing to speak about, whether because he was threatened by Rufus Hobart, or whatever reason. Just makes no sense! Why would Hobart feel he had to threaten the doctor to tell the jury honestly what happened? That’s Kittredge’s job, and from what I’ve heard about the doctor, he always gives straightforward testimony with no prejudice. The truth is that, apparently, Jim shot the boy, but not in the manner the other witnesses described. Nonetheless, I have the feeling that something Kittredge knows may be the key to this whole thing. What could it be?

W*W*W*W*W


Well, now I know how the other side feels when Artie and I are chasing them. Jim West shook his head ruefully as he secreted himself and the horse behind a large boulder, his hand over the black’s muzzle to prevent him from calling to the several horses that were going by, not twenty feet away. Fortunately, he had heard them coming. Not the horses, but the men. Their voices as they laughed and talked loudly carried well, perhaps bouncing off the cliffs above them.

I would say that Hobart has not hired the brightest of men, Jim mused. Although a few had been smart enough not only to double-check the Prentiss cabin, but to sneak up under cover of the rain and thunder, for the most part they appeared to be not extremely intelligent. At least not smart enough to be quiet. Not the first time he had heard them coming because of their irresponsible behavior.

But keep it up, boys. Makes it easier for me to evade you.

He waited until the voices had faded, stayed put another five minutes, and then climbed up onto the saddle of his horse to hoist himself atop the boulder, keeping a low profile while surveying the countryside. He was in the south end of the valley now, as far as he could be from Prentiss’s property. He had checked the pass leading out of the valley, found it still tightly guarded, witnessing rancher with a wagon being turned back, after the wagon had been thoroughly searched.

Although Duane had told him no other exits were available, Jim had spent the morning looking for one. This valley was a little world unto itself, which had probably made it easier for Hobart to dominate without outside interference as he terrorized other residents into following his rules. But Jim had run into solid rock walls on the perimeter all along the way. A man could probably climb out in certain places, and perhaps a sure-footed burro or donkey could as well, but not a man on horseback.

All morning long, he had fought the urge to ride into town and confront Hobart and his personal lawman. Jim West was a man of action, but the action he craved was not the type he was enduring now, this staying out of sight and being constantly on the alert. Artemus was right, of course. Chances were very good that if he was spotted again the guns would open on him. Hobart would like to see him hang, but dead was dead, no matter how it happened.

Sliding back off the rock and into the saddle, Jim steered the black stallion out onto the main trail that ran through this area. He knew he was on Hobart property. He had seen the posted signs. But as far as that went, all of Hidden Valley was Hobart property. Jim had carefully avoided any homes he encountered on the trek across the valley, not only unsure of what kind of welcome he would receive, but unwilling to bring trouble to the residents.

Maybe the worst part of all was being out of touch with Artemus. Artie would be working for him; Jim knew that. But generally, they worked together, even when separated. This time that was not the case. They were two entities striving toward a common purpose, but Artie was the one really doing all the work. Jim West was just trying to stay alive!

If I could just find a good safe hiding place... He had looked for a cave in the granite walls of the valley but spotted nothing. Boulders like the one he had hidden behind, and the ones where Duane formed his secret corral, were common along the base of the canyon walls, but none of them appeared to offer much in the way of long-term protection. Great for seeking cover as he had just done, but not for setting up a camp.

At least the weather had cleared. Although the ground was wet, muddy in some spots, the sky was clear and the sun warm. The wetness would soon dry up. For now, he had to be extra careful about leaving tracks in areas where tracks would be easily spotted.

“Mr. West?”

The youthful voice seemed to come out of nowhere. Jim West swiveled his head, his hand dropped to his pistol, as he sought the source, pulling his horse to a halt. “Where are you?” he said aloud.

The boy stepped out from among some brush at his left side. He was probably eleven or twelve, with sandy hair and a lot of freckles, attired in faded dungarees and a calico shirt. “My Aunt Shirley said we should help you if we could.”

“Shirley? In the restaurant?”

“Yes, sir. My Ma is her sister. We have a place north of here—near Duane Prentiss. We heard the shooting last night.”

“North of here! That’s fifteen, twenty miles. What are you doing here?” Jim swung down from his horse.

“I’ve been trailing you.”

Jim West’s mouth dropped open as he gaped at the youngster. So much for being clever! “All morning?”

“Pretty much. I was awake when you rode by our place before dawn. I guess you was goin’ back to Duane’s place.”

Jim nodded. “Duane was injured when I was captured. I wanted to make sure the doctor got to him.” He had lingered in that area until he saw Artemus returning with a man Jim did not know driving a wagon, and saw Artie and the doctor carry Duane to that wagon. He had resisted the urge to contact his partner, primarily because of the presence of the stranger. He knew Artie had reason to trust the man where Duane was concerned, but that did not mean that the gent would not be interested in the reward offered for one Jim West. “Do your folks know you’re out here trailing me?”

The lad’s face turned rosy. “Well, not exactly. But Pa said last night he wished there was some way we could help you. Len Parsons came by and…”

“Parsons? When? Where is he?”

“Well, it was the day of the shootin’. Len and my pa, they’re good friends from when they lived in Kansas. Len told us what happened, and said he was going to collect his pay and move on. Was just saying goodbye for now.”

“Have you seen him since?”

“No. And Pa is worried on account of he heard that Len didn’t show up at the… what was it called? Not a trial.”

“Inquest. What’s your name, son?”

“Wayne Marshall. Listen, if you want somewhere to lay low, our ranch is the place to do it. Mr. Hobart’s men have been by twice already and searched high and low.”

Jim hesitated, remembering what happened to Duane Prentiss. “I don't know if that’s a good idea, Wayne. Your folks…”

“Oh, it’s all right. Pa already said that if you came by, we were going to hide you out. You ain’t got nowhere else to go, have you? My ma is a real good cook too.”

“You sold me, Wayne. Where’s your horse?”

W*W*W*W*W


Artemus Gordon stepped out of the hotel and waved jauntily to the man across the street. At least Pock-face had gotten some release. The current watcher was a man who had enjoyed a few too many meals, broad of girth, with suspenders needed to support his trousers. His gun belt was worn rather high, undoubtedly because of that girth.

He did not feel jaunty, however. Artie was frustrated. He had spent the entire day after returning to town talking to people, including the men who had perjured themselves at the inquest. None offered to recant their testimony, and the fear they were experiencing just talking to him was palpable. He also found a few people he recognized as having been among the spectators. Those people vehemently denied they had been anywhere near when the shooting occurred. Artemus was sure that the presence of one of Hobart’s men, shadowing him, was at least part of the reason for their fear.

He had held another conversation with Judge Tabor, who expressed nearly as much frustration as Artemus was feeling. He had to uphold the law. James West had been indicted by the coroner’s jury based on sworn testimony. Tabor was extremely aware of the influence of Rufus Hobart in this valley. With Sheriff Best gone, the judge felt that he himself was the only barrier against Hobart taking complete dictatorial control of the valley.

“He’s close now, but he also knows he has to adhere to some vestige of the law, which he has done. Although men have been killed and property destroyed, no one has ever been able to come up with any proof that Hobart had anything to do with any of it. He merely collects the spoils once the ranchers are forced to sell or otherwise give up their land.”

He was uncertain, however, whether Hobart’s men would let him through the pass to send the telegram. He expressed the thought that the best chance would be Shirley Caswell, who traveled regularly to the south.

Artie had shaken his head, repeating what Shirley had said about having already made the weekly supply pickup. Judge Tabor had smiled. “Perhaps Shirley didn’t tell you about her fiancé.”

“She did mention him,” Artie responded.

“Then she did not tell you that he is a deputy sheriff? Shirley need only mention that her betrothed is expecting her at a certain day and time. They’ll let her through because they wouldn’t want Lee Carlton to come looking for her.”

At the midday meal, Artemus had brought this up with Shirley, and she admitted she had not thought of that aspect, that Hobart might be concerned about upsetting the deputy. She would try to make the trip the next day, but the problem now was that her mother was not well, and the restaurant would be shorthanded. She agreed that Jim West’s life might depend on her making that journey, and she would do her best. Artemus alerted her that she was not to leave until he was able to give her the message that she was to telegraph to Denver.

In the meanwhile, however, Jim was on his own in unfamiliar territory, trying to elude the notice of men who were very familiar with the landscape. Artie almost expected momentarily to see a triumphant band ride into town with Jim West as a prisoner… or dead across the saddle.

Just as he reached the porch of Caswell’s, Artemus noticed several riders coming from the south. He paused just a moment to ascertain that this was not the posse bringing Jim back, and recognized Jake Hobart as the leader. As he went on into the restaurant, Artie remembered the expression he had seen on Jake’s face when Hobart’s hand-picked jury announced the verdict and called for Jim West to be bound over for trial. He had been well pleased, smugly so.

Deep in thought, Artie entered the restaurant and took a chair at the nearest empty table. He had not given much thought to Jake Hobart since the killing. According to what he had heard, Jake was now next in line to inherit the Hobart holdings. Was that the reason for his smirk at the inquest? At the time, Artie had attributed it to Jake being pleased that his uncle was having his way. But how could Jake have had anything to do with his cousin’s death, other than, perhaps, goading the younger man into the gunfight?

He started when Shirley Caswell appeared beside him with a cup of coffee and to take his order. She listened to his wishes, then leaned down slightly to straighten the checkered cloth on the table. “I have something to tell you. Don’t leave before I do.” Her tone was barely above a whisper.

Artemus did not react, picking up his cup. He barely had time to wonder if her news was regarding her trip out of the valley, or something else, when Jake Hobart entered, followed by the men who had been riding with him. They paused at his table.

“Where’s your friend, Gordon?”

Artie shrugged. “You know as much as I do.”

“He ought to just give himself up. My uncle isn’t going to rest until West is on the gallows for murdering Floyd.”

Artie cocked his head. “You weren’t present at the fight. How do you know it was murder?”

“I heard the testimony the witnesses gave. Cut and dried. He’s going to pay one way or another. If he was a man, West would just come in and take his medicine.”

“Be a bitter pill to swallow,” Artie responded, straight-faced.

Jake stared hard at him for a moment. “I reckon you know the boys picked him up last night, then he escaped.”

“Is that right?”

“They got a little careless. But it won’t happen again. You talk to him, you tell him to surrender. Make it easier on him.”

“Easier for you, you mean… to hang him on a trumped-up charge.”

Jake Hobart opened his mouth, closed it again. He seemed to finally realize he was not going to come out on top in this discussion. Jerking his head as a summons, he led his men to another table. A few moments later, Shirley brought Artemus’s plate. This time she dropped the plate containing the roll on the floor.

“Oh, sorry! I’ll bring you another one.” As she stooped down to pick it up, she whispered again. “Can’t tell you now. When you finish eating, come around to the kitchen door.”

Artie ate his food, resisting the urge to shovel it down quickly so as to be able to go find out what the waitress wanted to tell him. Probably not just that she’s going to make the journey out of the valley. Something else. He had seen the excited glint in her blue eyes.

When he did finish, he stood up and put some money on the table, noticing that Shirley was just now serving Jake and his friends, profusely apologizing for the delay and saying something about the stove going cold. Clever girl. She’s delaying them, giving me an opportunity to get outside and around to the back without them noticing.

However, there was the matter of his personal shadow. Stepping out onto the café’s porch, Artie glanced around, saw that man, the pock-faced one again, glumly leaning against the porch post a couple of buildings down. Artemus stepped off the porch and strode to the hotel, entered, and went straight through to the hallway that led to the back of the building. Being dinnertime, neither of the Lederers were in sight. One would come out in answer to the bell being struck, if necessary.

The problem was going to be crossing the street without being seen by the watcher. The main street was straight, with both ends visible from where Pock-Face was lounging. Artie walked behind about six buildings then through an alley that opened onto the street. Peeking around, he saw his guardian across from the hotel now, concentrating on rolling a cigarette.

At that moment, a large wagon lumbered up the street. Artemus breathed a silent “thank you,” waited until the wagon barely passed his hiding spot, then dashed across the street, using its bulk as cover. I’ll deal with getting back across the street later, he decided, entering another alley and heading for the back of the buildings where the café was located.

The back door was standing open, and as soon as Shirley saw him, she left the pot she had been stirring on the big iron stove and came to him, saying something quietly to the young man slicing bread at the table. He was also sandy-haired and freckled, so Artemus assumed this was the brother.

“Mr. West is safe,” she said quickly. “He’s at my sister’s place.”

Relieved, but bewildered, Artemus asked how that happened, so she explained how her nephew had contacted Jim and taken them to her brother-in-law’s small ranch, near the cabin of Duane Prentiss. “Wayne came by earlier to tell us. Mr. West wanted to be sure you knew. And don’t worry about Emma and Boyd and the kids being in any danger. First off, Hobart’s men have been there three times already and of course didn’t find anything. Then the ranch house backs right up against the canyon wall, and there’s a secret cave nearby that Mr. West can hide in if they come back. Boyd is a good man, and a tough one. He knows that eventually Hobart is going to start looking greedy-like at his little bit of property, and he’d just as soon do something to stop that now.”

“Thank you, Shirley. I’ll try to ride out there late tonight. Don’t suppose you’ve heard anything about how Duane Prentiss is doing?”

“Oh, yeah. Wayne said his ma went to look in at the Thorne place, and Duane is fine. The doctor was going to check on him this afternoon, I guess. Oh, and my mom is feeling a lot better, so she’ll be back here at the restaurant tomorrow. I’ll take a try at leaving the valley.”

“Thank you again. When I come to breakfast, I’ll slip you a piece of paper with the message to send, and with instructions on where it should be sent.”

Her blue eyes sparkled. “I love this!”

“You love it? It could mean trouble…”

“We’ve been under the thumb of Rufus Hobart much too long around here. I’m ashamed of those men who got up there and told lies about Mr. West, though I can understand why they would. Hobart is a mean cuss. He’ll do anything to get what he wants. It’s time he was stopped somehow.”

W*W*W*W*W


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

USA
8383 Posts

Posted - 02/06/2009 :  09:35:25  Show Profile
Jim was awakened by the tap on the door of the small room where a cot had been set up for him. He came alert instantly, grabbing the pistol from the holster lying alongside him, then relaxed as he heard Boyd Marshall’s voice. Having lain down fully clothed except for his boots, Jim pulled his footwear on, strapped on his gun belt, and stepped out into the hallway, lit only by the small lamp Marshall carried, to follow the rancher—who had obviously also dressed hastily, his shirttail hanging out—back into the front room of the house.

Marshall put the lamp on a table. “I’ll go make some coffee,” he said, and left the room.

Artie extended his hand. He didn’t often shake hands with his partner, but somehow this seemed an appropriate time. Jim seemed to agree, as he grasped that hand heartily. “How are you doing?”

“I’m fine,” Jim replied. “Got a warm bed, good food, and good company. I’m a little concerned about drawing Hobart’s men to this house, but Marshall insists.”

“They are a courageous family,” Artie said, sitting down on the worn sofa as Jim took a chair. “Shirley is going to try to get out of the valley tomorrow. If she’s turned back, the judge will give it a try. We need some help, Jim. It’s almost impossible to get any questions answered. People are too terrified.”

“I don’t suppose you got any answers from the doctor either.”

“No, and that’s the most baffling aspect. I can’t see what he has to hide, why Hobart would threaten him.” Artie shook his head in frustration.

“Are you sure it was Rufus Hobart who threatened him?”

“I’m not sure of anything. But why would anyone else?”

Jim sighed as Marshall entered carrying two steaming cups of coffee. “I don't know, Artie. All I know is we are in a trap here. I don’t like involving Mr. Marshall and his family in it.”

“Don’t worry about us, Mr. West. Like I told you earlier, when we heard what happened to Duane, we knew we had to help if we could. Now you two take all the time you need to talk this out. There’s more coffee in the kitchen. Good night.”

“Too bad there aren’t more like him,” Artie said.

“I think there are. This Thorne who took Duane in, for instance.”

“Yeah. But then there’s the ones who testified falsely. Jim, if neither the Shirley nor the judge are able to leave the valley, we are in a pickle. Hobart isn’t going to give up searching for you, and who knows how long I’ll be allowed to rove free. I’ve got a man tailing me during the daytime. At least so far they seem to trust that I’m safe in my bed at night.”

“What kind of message are you having them send?”

“To Colonel Richmond asking him to request help from the nearest army fort, which I guess would be Fort Laramie.”

“They’re two days away,” Jim said quietly.

“I know. But it’s the best we can hope for, I’m afraid. If we can hold out a little longer…”

“Maybe I should surrender and take my chances that Judge Tabor will be able to control the situation at the trial.”

“It’s not the judge you have to worry about, Jim, it’s the prosecuting attorney and the jury he’ll select.”

Jim grinned. “Are you selling yourself short as my lawyer?”

“Not in the least!” Artie assumed a pose of mock umbrage for a moment. “Consider this, though. Hobart will fill the jury pool with his men, and others he has under his thumb. Not much of a selection. No, Jim. Stay away from town and stay away from Hobart’s men. At least until we learn whether Shirley or the judge can get away to send the message. “

Jim put down his coffee cup after taking a long drink. “All right. But if the Marshalls are threatened…”

“I know. I’d better get back to town in case my little shadow decides to make a sneak inspection. At least now we have a way to communicate. Shirley shouldn’t be under any suspicion for visiting or talking to her kin here.”

W*W*W*W*W


That afternoon, Jim was in the Marshalls’ barn currying his spirited black stallion, which young Wayne had found too much to handle. He and Boyd had arranged that if anyone approached, especially from the Hobart camp, he would take his horse out the back way and into some thick pine woods behind the building. So far everything was quiet, and he was enjoying the physical activity as well as the quiet solitude.

That quiet solitude did not last long enough, for Boyd Marshall entered the barn, followed by young Wayne. Both of them had grim faces, and Boyd was holding a sheet of paper.

“Another reward flyer?” Jim asked.

“Not exactly,” the rancher replied, extending it toward Jim. “Wayne found this on a tree down the road a bit.”

Jim accepted the sheet of paper and stepped nearer the door for better light. His stomach tightened as he read the printed words. Without a word, he handed the paper back and turned to begin to saddle the black horse.

“Mr. West!” Wayne cried, “you can’t go into town! They’re fixing to hang you!”

Jim glanced back over his shoulder, glancing at the boy but meeting the father’s eyes. “You have any doubts Hobart will carry through with that threat?”

Boyd Marshall had to sigh and shake his head. “He’s crazy enough and mean enough to do it. Even you two being federal men won’t stop him.”

James West: You have 24 hours to surrender or your friend will be hanged in your stead.

Those were the words, printed in stark black against the white of the paper. The blunt threat could not be ignored. They could not wait to find out if either Shirley Caswell or Judge Tabor could leave the valley and send the message to their superior. Even if Shirley left today, at least another forty-eight hours would be required to get the army in here, probably longer.

“I don’t even know when those twenty-four hours started,” Jim grated, leading his horse outside, followed by the rancher and his son. “Mr. Marshall, thank you again for sheltering me. It’s probably best that I get away anyway, to prevent any problems for you.”

“I told you before, I am not worried about ‘problems.’ We can take care of ourselves, and I know of others who would help if the opportunity was right.” Boyd paused a moment, then shook his head. “Trouble is, I don't think there’s enough of us to take on Hobart’s men. We’re ranchers and farmers, not gunfighters, even if a number of us have war experience. Not the same.”

“No,” Jim agreed. “It’s not the same.” Not for men who have spent the last eight or nine years never touching a gun except to shoot varmints or food for the table. He held out his hand to the boy. “Wayne, thank you for trailing me and bringing me back here. Thank your mother too, for the excellent food as well as shelter.” He was surprised to see tears spring into the lad’s eyes, though Wayne quickly wiped them away with his shirtsleeve. Last evening the two of them had spent a couple of hours playing checkers and talking.

He then shook hands with the grim-faced Boyd Marshall, who once again tried to dissuade him. Jim just shook his head. “I can’t take the chance that Hobart won’t carry through. Artemus is my partner, my friend… and as close to me as a brother could be. Chances are that Hobart will try to kill us both because he’ll know he cannot allow Artemus to be free with the knowledge. But we’ve faced that before. So we’ll see what happens.”

W*W*W*W*W


Hearing the door of the sheriff’s office open, Artemus got to his feet from the wooden cot and stepped over to the bars of his cell, gripping them tightly. He could not see the door from his vantage point. They had put him in the cell that had a barred window still, not the one that Jim had blasted his way out of. He did not like the sound of the voices he was hearing, the triumph and glee in those tones even if he could not exactly comprehend the words.

A moment later, Jim West was pushed through the opening through the heavy wooden wall that separated the cells from the outer office. No door was available to cover that opening. Jim’s arms were bound behind his back, and a livid bruise was visible on the upper left cheek.

“Well, hello, Artie,” Jim said affably. “Nice to see you again.”

Artemus could see the anger in his partner’s eyes, despite the casual tone. He responded in kind. “Say, Jim. Where the heck you been? I’ve missed our gin rummy games.”

Sheriff McTeer produced keys and opened the cell door while Jake Hobart and another men held drawn guns. Artie backed up as Jim was pushed inside.

“Aren’t you going to untie my hands?” Jim inquired.

“Your friend can do that for you,” Mack snarled, slamming the door shut.

“Wait a minute!” Jim West’s angry tone now matched his expression. “The deal was I turn myself in, you let Mr. Gordon loose.”

“Oh, he’ll be set loose… just in time to watch you hang. No tricks this time, West. There’ll be a twenty-four hour guard… if we even need twenty-four hours before the jury finds you guilty.”

“Jim,” Artie said quietly, beginning to work on the knots on the ropes binding Jim’s wrists as the four men went back out into the office, “you knew that was going to be the case. What are you doing here?”

Jim simply threw his partner a glance as he began to massage his chafed wrists when the ropes fell away. The men who approached him a mile from town had not been gentle, even though he surrendered his weapon along with himself.

Artemus sighed, sinking down on the bunk again. He had feared this would happen, had known it would happen, but still held out faint hope that Jim would ignore the threat. He had been taken into custody just after breakfast this morning. Rufus Hobart had been with the sheriff and Jake, grinning maliciously as he handed Artie a copy of the flyer that was being posted throughout the valley.

“I have a notion West isn’t the kind of man to stand by and let you hang in his place,” Hobart had chuckled as the cell door had been closed.

Artie had not responded, musing silently that the wonder was Hobart had not thought of this trick earlier. He caught his partner’s eye and jerked with his head to signify Jim should sit down beside him. Then he spoke very quietly.

“Shirley left early this morning. I don't think she’s back yet. She told me that if she did get turned away, she’d let me know.” Undoubtedly Shirley saw him being arrested, because it happened right outside the café.

“I don't think we have time to wait for the army, Artie.”

“I know that. I was thinking of telling Hobart about sending the message through Shirley well after she was gone—except I don’t want to get Shirley and her family into trouble.” He fell silent a moment. “You have any weapons on you?”

“A little explosive putty in my boot heel. They figured out how I blasted the cell window the other night and took the rest of my buttons.” He indicated the hanging threads on his jacket. “You?”

“A couple of gas pellets in my belt buckle. Trouble is, I don't think they are going to take us out of this cell except in manacles—and probably with our hands behind our backs. That’s going to make it a little tricky.”

They fell silent. Each knew that in the past they have faced difficult odds, somehow always overcoming them. But this was a tight scrape. They were two men against Hobart’s several dozen. Even with the few locals who might be willing to help, the numbers were still overwhelming. And neither wanted to involve people who might have to pay long after the agents were disposed of—if those offering assistance were not killed at the same time.

The voices in the outer office were still triumphant and laughing, but then quieted for a few minutes while Mack’s terse tone apparently gave orders. The sheriff clearly instructed one or two of the other men to take the news to Rufus Hobart. The door opened and closed and all was silent for a long moment.

Then Jake Hobart laughed. He did not bother to keep his tone down. “Didn’t I tell you it would work, Mack?”

“Hush!” Artie could almost see the sheriff casting an alarmed glance toward the cell area. “It ain’t done yet!”

“All but!” Hobart returned. “My dear uncle will want the trial held as soon as he hears. Likely the hanging will happen before sundown. And then on to the next step.”

“Damn it, Jake, keep quiet!”

“We don’t have to worry about them, Mack. Who’d believe them anyway? Certainly not Uncle Rufus.” But he apparently decided to take the sheriff’s warning to heart, as their voices dropped to inaudible.

Jim looked at his partner. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“Maybe,” Artie replied quietly. “Jake Hobart somehow engineered the shooting… by egging his cousin into the fight?”

“That,” Jim nodded, “and maybe something else.” His gaze met his partner’s.

For a long minute Artemus frowned, not quite getting it. Then suddenly he expelled a breath. “My God! Could that be what Kittredge is hiding? The bullet?” He had difficulty keeping his voice to a near whisper.

“Rufus Hobart didn’t threaten the doctor. Jake did.”

“My God,” Artie said again. “Jake instigated the fight, then positioned himself… had to have used a rifle.”

“Exactly. Which would be a completely different slug from one out of my pistol. Artie, one of us has to get out of here to talk to Kittredge.”

“I’m open to ideas, pal. Gas or explosive?”

“Neither. Good old-fashioned cunning. Something you’re good at.”

About thirty minutes later, McTeer and Hobart left the sheriff’s office in the hands of two new men, one of whom was the pock-faced man who stuck his head inside the cell area to grin jeeringly at Artemus. Artie waved back cordially. The two prisoners waited another ten minutes, then began their act.

Hearing the sudden loud voices, the two men in the office jumped up from the desk where they had been indulging in a desultory poker game. They headed for the cells, and stopped in the doorway, frozen by the sight of Gordon, on the floor, knees on Jim West’s chest, with his hands around West’s neck, apparently throttling him as the younger agent flailed helplessly.

“You bastard!” Gordon screeched. “I’ll teach you to say that about my girlfriend Zelda. She’s as good as any other dance hall queen in Kansas City!”

“Hey, stop that!” Pock-face shouted.

“Aw, let’m go ahead. Be one less to hang,” the other man chuckled.

“Hell, Frankie! It’s West the big boss wants to see dangling from a rope. You gonna be the one to tell him he ain’t gonna get that pleasure?”

Frankie considered a moment, then turned and raced back to the desk for the keys that were laying on the top.

“Hurry, hurry!” his friend urged as Frankie started to insert the keys in the cell lock. “West’s about done for!”

They barged into the cell, grabbing Artie’s arms as Jim lay limply on the floor, eyes closed. As they pushed a wildly struggling Artemus back toward the wall, Jim leaped to his feet, grabbing the weapon from Frankie’s holster. Frankie spun around, leaving pock-face to deal with Artie… for whom he was no match as Artemus caught him with a roundhouse right, sending him slumping onto the cot.

“Just stand quiet, Frankie,” Jim said easily as Artemus relieved the unconscious man of his weapon and picked up the keys that had fallen to the floor. Artie then went out into the office, returning with two sets of manacles and an old shirt. He used the manacles to fasten both men to the bars, and tore the shirt into strips to use as gags.

“That was pretty easy,” Artie commented as they dug their own weapons out of a desk drawer.

“Yeah, now comes the hard part—getting to Kittredge and persuading him to tell the truth.”

Artemus checked the loads in his pistol then jammed it into the holster. “You know, Jim, it may not make much difference. Hobart is not any more likely to believe his nephew guilty than he would believe that his beloved son instigated the gunfight.”

“At least we’re free for the moment. Let’s go.”

Peering out the front window revealed to them that nobody was even looking toward the jail, and in particular, no one they recognized as a Hobart man in sight. Stepping out the door, the two men dashed into the alley alongside, paused to make sure no alarm was being raised, then hurried on down the alley. Staying to the rear of the buildings, they reached Dr. Kittredge’s home in about fifteen minutes.

The doctor himself opened the front door, and the surprise on his face revealed he had heard the news of the capture of both the agents. Jim and Artie did not allow him time to refuse entrance, pushing by him and closing the door.

Artie spoke first. “Dr. Kittredge, where’s the bullet you removed from Floyd Hobart’s body?”

“I… I threw it away.”

His hesitation and the pallor that washed over his face indicated otherwise. Artemus pressed on. “Doctor, we think we know why you held back testimony about the bullet. It was so you wouldn’t perjure yourself, right?”

Some of Kittredge’s color returned, but now perspiration appeared on his brow. “Please! Go away! I can’t tell you anything.”

“Doctor, we understand. Jake Hobart threatened your family. Even if your children are away, your wife is here. And the children will return eventually. It’s understandable.” Artemus kept his voice even. “But Hobart is planning to hang Jim—and probably me—for the death of his son, unaware that his nephew actually did the killing.”

“How did you—what makes you say that?”

“We just reasoned it out, doctor,” Jim said with a tight smile. “We’re pretty good at that sometimes. If we promise that your family will be safe, will you testify concerning the caliber of the bullet?”

“How can you promise that?”

“The army will be here in a couple of days,” Artie went on. “We just have to stay alive until then. But we need to know if you will cooperate. Do you have the bullet?”

“Yes. I placed it in an envelope, in a secure place. Only Amy—my wife—knows where it is. I hoped—I hoped to turn the tables on Hobart, if necessary, by threatening to reveal the location to… someone. Though at the time I had no idea who that someone would be. Gentlemen, I don’t want to be responsible for your deaths. But I have to protect my family!”

“Of course you do,” Jim said gently. “Did Jake give you any information about how he pulled off the stunt?”

“Not really. In fact, I had not even removed the bullet when he first came to see me. Otherwise he might have taken it with him. He just told me that I should not reveal the caliber of that slug at the inquest. I soon realized, once I extracted it, why it was important that the bullet not be revealed at the inquest.”

“So he threatened your family to ensure your silence,” Artie stated.

“Yes, and told me to throw it away. I told him later I had tossed it into the well out back. I know what kind of men the Hobarts are. I have no doubt Jake would have carried out his threat.”

Artemus caught the physician’s eyes and held them. “Doctor, you have to promise me this. No matter what happens to me or Jim, you will eventually let the proper authorities—someone outside Hidden Valley—know the truth. I don’t want Jim going down in history as a murderer.”

“Artie…”

“I promise. If I possibly can. If the army comes as you say they will…”

“They’ll come. One way or another. Shirley Caswell may have gotten out of the valley to send a telegram. If she didn’t make it, Judge Tabor is going to try. Not only that, if we don’t report to our superiors, someone will come looking. They’ll find Hidden Valley, and they’ll learn what happened… whether we’re still alive or not.”

“Mr. Gordon is right,” Jim said. “The army will come, and probably our boss, Colonel Richmond, as well as a few other agents. Hobart is on his last legs. He just doesn’t know it yet.”

Kittredge looked from one to the other, shook his head. “You both talk so calmly about the possibility that you may be dead soon.”

Artie laughed. “It’s part of our job, doctor. We can’t get too overwrought, or we’ll lose our effectiveness.”

“Speaking of which,” Jim said, “we’d better get moving, Artie. We need to find our horses—or some horses, and get the devil out of town.”

Kittredge held out his hand. “Gentlemen, thank you. You’ve made me ashamed of myself, but you’ve also given me my pride back. I wish you the best of luck.”

After accepting the hand, both agents departed, again heading for the rear of buildings, and going toward the livery stable. Made sense to them that their mounts would have been taken to the local stable. By the time they were halfway to the stable, they could hear a commotion starting up in town. Their escape had been noticed.

“We don’t have much time,” Jim muttered, breaking into a trot.

Artemus knew what he meant. Anyone with half a brain would realize they would be going for the horses. If they had not taken the time to seek out the doctor, they could have been mounted and long gone. But speaking to Dr. Kittredge had been important, for his sake as well as theirs. When they reached the stables, they found both their horses in stalls.

They also encountered Lou Shandy, the owner of the livery. That man, however, was of no mind to stop them. He only asked that they lock him into a small storage room, which the agents were glad to do, knowing that he would need an alibi to escape the wrath of Hobart’s men. Once the animals were saddled, they headed out the back door, very conscious that some shouting men were nearing the structure.

Having wandered the valley in the last couple of days, Jim had grown more familiar with it, and he led the way, heading toward the pine forest in the north end of the valley. They would find water there, as well as cover, and the detritus under the trees tended to hide their tracks better. Artemus followed, cognizant of the situation.

When they finally halted alongside a stream to allow the horses a breather, as well as the themselves, Artie was the one who asked the question. “What next?”

Jim exhaled a long breath, shaking his head. “I don't know, Artie. Just keep on the move, I guess, as long as we can. There are hiding places, but chances are very good Hobart’s boys know about them too.”

“Would have been nice if we’d been able to bring along some supplies,” Artemus commented.

“We might be able to get some help in that department from the Marshall family, though I’d want to be extremely careful to make sure they don’t get involved.”

“Jeff Thorne too,” Artie put in, climbing into the saddle.

“Yeah. I’d like to see how Duane is doing.”

For the remainder of the day they did as Jim stated they would have to, constantly moving about the valley, constantly alert for any signs that the searchers were near. That happened more than once, and a couple of times the “posse” came uncomfortably close to where they had secreted themselves. Each time, however, the group of men moved on without spotting the fugitives.

Nightfall found the two weary and grimy agents crouching behind the Marshall house, watching and waiting. After perhaps a half hour, they decided no searchers were in the area. Leaving their horses secreted among some rocks, they carefully approached the rear door of the house, noting a light and movement in the kitchen.

Boyd Marshall opened the door to their knock, a rifle in his hand. Recognizing the pair, he hurried them inside, and made sure that the curtain over the kitchen window was closed securely. “I’ve been kind of expecting you,” he said as he filled cups of coffee. “One of my hands was in town today when you made your escape.”

“We don’t like to put you at risk…” Artie began.

The rancher waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it. Let me go get Nancy and she’ll fix you some food. I’m going to have Wayne keep an eye out front. He often sits on the front porch on an evening like this, so it won’t look unusual.”

Jim took a couple of swallows of the hot brew, enjoying the taste and the invigorating effects as Marshall left the kitchen. “We’d better eat and run,” he said softly.

“I agree,” Artie replied. “Not polite, but politic.”

Jim smiled briefly, recognizing his partner’s play on words. Moments later, Nancy Marshall entered the kitchen, greeted them warmly, then set about slicing ham for sandwiches, which both men ate greedily. Afterwards, she provided slices of apple pie and more coffee. Boyd Marshall joined them, taking a cup of coffee. He was able to inform them that Duane Prentiss was doing very well at the Thorne home, and that rancher Thorne had urged him to tell the agents that if they needed help to come to him.

Artemus brought Marshall up to date on their latest discovery at the doctor’s home. Boyd nodded firmly and told them that he heard that Jake Hobart was a crack shot with a rifle, having been a bushwhacker with Forrest during the late war.

“Jake goaded his cousin into challenging me, then positioned himself somewhere, most likely on a roof, to make sure the job got done.” Jim’s face was grim, recalling the agonizing he had done over this incident.

“When he saw Jim fall,” Artie continued, “and Floyd was still standing, he took care of it. He was far enough away that the report of his gun was not noticed. In the confusion, any discrepancy in timing was not that noticeable. Probably just a couple of seconds.”

“Sounds like something Jake would do,” Marshall stated. “Year or so ago when Floyd challenged another fellow, I heard it was Jake who pushed him into it.”

“So this time he made sure.” Artie shook his head. “Whoever said blood was thicker than water didn’t know these cousins.”

Both Boyd and Nancy urged them to stay the night, in the barn if they felt necessary, but the agents refused. They were endangering the family already by merely stopping by for a short while. Upon realizing they were adamant about leaving, Nancy packed some food, and Boyd gave them directions to a spot he thought would be a good place for them to spend the night. He could not swear that Hobart’s men did not know about it.

Retrieving their horses, the two agents made their way toward the spot Marshall recommended. The still bright moon was both a blessing and a curse, lighting their way, but also making them more visible to any observers. Jim did not forget that he had been ambushed at the Prentiss cabin during a fierce nighttime storm, which led him to believe that Hobart would be sending his men out at all hours, perhaps promising a bonus on top of the offered reward.

The hiding spot was an old mine shaft, dug into the side of the canyon wall. Boyd said speculation was that some prospector dug it before the valley was settled—or if it was constructed after Rufus Hobart was here, very likely the miner was run off, or killed. The entrance was overgrown and as far as he knew, very few people were aware of it.

The tunnel was not only deep enough to bring the horses in with them, but to build a small fire in the morning to boil some of the coffee Nancy had pressed on them along with a small old pot and a couple of tin cups. Artie was able to creep out and fill the pot with water from a nearby stream. He reported no sign of activity in the dawn hours.

“Whatever that means,” he scowled. “They could be anywhere.”

“That’s true. Very true. So the question is, do we skulk in here all day or…” Jim looked up his partner, who had just come back from taking a look through the brush covering the opening.

“Maybe we should flip a coin,” Artemus replied, sinking down to sit cross-legged. “I think one is as good as another, beyond the fact that I think I’ll go crazy if we have to stay in here all day.”

“My thoughts exactly. I wish Nancy had heard from her sister.” They had asked, and Nancy Caswell Marshall had shaken her head, stating that sometimes when Shirley went to visit her sweetheart, she stayed overnight with his family, who had a spread nearby. The good news was that apparently Shirley had been allowed to leave the valley. Wayne had ridden into town to pick up the mail during the afternoon and his grandmother told him that Shirley had not come back yet.

They could only assume that she reached the next town and sent the telegraph message. They had told her not to wait for a reply, because it would likely come back in code and she would be unable to read it anyway. Artie’s message had informed Richmond of their situation, asking for help. The colonel would contact Fort Laramie, as well as any other Secret Service agents who were in the area. The problem remained whether anyone could arrive in time, especially if Hobart’s men succeeded in recapturing them.

As they saddled the mounts and put out the fire, the agents discussed the possibility of taking a captive or two themselves. Not that they figured Rufus Hobart would worry about the safety of any of his men. But the men might be able to take a message back to Hobart about his nephew’s crime.

“The question will be whether Rufus would believe that Jake was capable of murdering his own cousin,” Artie commented as he climbed into the saddle outside the mine. “I’ve gotten the impression that he’s not overly fond of Jake, but that doesn’t mean he’d swallow the story. He might not even believe the doc’s statement.”

“I know,” Jim replied. “I don’t remember ever being in such a predicament, Artie. Usually we’re able to take some action. Right now, we’re completely dependent on the action of others.”

“Yep. All we have to do is stay out of Hobart’s clutches for another day or so. Easy, huh?”

Not so easy.

Twice during the morning they were required to seek shelter when they spotted several riders in the vicinity. The third time was the charm. They had stopped at a spring to refresh themselves and their horses, when four men with guns drawn stepped out of the brush. Jim cursed under his breath as he raised his hands.

Artemus glanced at his partner when he heard the angry mutter, prepared to grab Jim if he tried to engage the quartet. The expressions on the posse’s faces revealed they were not about to treat the two wanted men with kid gloves. They would open fire. However, Jim remained quiet, if stony-faced, raising his hands.

The sheriff was one of the quartet, and he grinned triumphantly as he viewed the surprise and anger on the agents’ countenances. “Don’t feel so bad, boys. We got lucky. Cut your trail a ways back, then lost it. Decided to take a chance in figuring which way you was going… and we was right. Put our horses upwind so yours wouldn’t catch their scent. This is going to make Mr. Hobart real happy.”

“Look,” Jim spoke tautly, “I’m the one you want. Let my partner go…”

Mack’s barking laugh halted Jim’s words. “So he can help you escape again? Not on your life, West. Mr. Hobart raised the reward to include both of you. The four of us, we’re aiming to collect in full.”

The sheriff produced manacles and the prisoners’ wrists were fastened behind their backs before they were shoved up into their saddles. Mounting, the sheriff and another man led the prisoners’ horses, while the remaining two rode behind, guns in hand. They were taking no chances even though, with their hands fastened behind them, West and Gordon were at a severe disadvantage when it came to attempting to escape.

Artemus spoke up. “Judge Tabor will have something to say about…”

McTeer broke in with a barking laugh while looking back over his shoulder. “The judge left the valley this morning. Something about visiting kin. Don’t worry. We can find a substitute judge, if need be.”

“Oh, lord,” Artie said softly. “I forgot to inform Tabor.”

“What?” Jim asked in an equally quiet tone.

“That Shirley left… we hope.”

“Shut up, you two,” the sheriff commanded, glaring back at them. “You start making plans to escape, and we might have to gag you or knock you cold and bring you in over the saddle!”

The two agents fell silent, each with the same thoughts. Without Judge Tabor’s influence—both legal and personal—Rufus Hobart would have free rein to wreak his vengeance, and cook up a story afterwards. This predicament was indeed one of the worst they had ever encountered. They were going to need outside help, either from the military, or from citizens of the valley—neither of which appeared likely to occur.

Friends are few and far between here, Jim mused. The waitress and maybe her family, the two ranchers, one of whom was badly injured, perhaps the sheriff’s wife. Not much of a rescue posse there. Can’t expect any of them to risk their lives, and their families, for two strangers. Even the fact that Shirley’s boyfriend was a lawman might not be of much avail. He would not have jurisdiction here, anymore than the sheriff of the next county where the deputy worked would.

As the posse and their prisoners rode slowly down the main street of town, people on the sidewalks stopped to stare, a few stepped out of doorways, or stood just inside. Those that were next to someone else bent their heads toward each other to converse quietly. Not likely they’re discussing our rescue, Artie thought bitterly. He sighed inwardly. They could not expect these people, so long and so thoroughly under Hobart’s thumb to take any action, not at their own peril.

Halting in front of the sheriff’s office and jail, the two prisoners were roughly pulled off their horses and shoved up onto the porch. When Artemus stumbled, he received a cuff to the head. Jim reacted angrily, but his partner quickly assured him he was all right. The window in the cell had not yet been repaired, so once again they were placed in the same cubicle. This time, however, their hands were not freed, and a man posted himself in the doorway between the cell block and the office, rifle in hand.

“I wonder how much time we have,” Artie murmured as both men sat down on the bench, side-by-side.

Jim knew what he meant. McTeer had sent one of his men to fetch Rufus Hobart, who was apparently at the Big H. Once Hobart got to town, things were liable to happen rapidly. Hobart would not want to risk any further delay to allow interference in his plans for vengeance.

“There’s got to be something we can do, Artie.”

“Name it. I’m up for anything. First, though, I think we’d need to get rid of these shackles.” And with the man in the doorway glaring at them, that was unlikely to happen. The fellow wants his share of the reward, and he’s not going to chance us doing anything that might lead to another escape.

Jim West fell silent. Hell of a note, after all we’ve been through—battling Loveless, Count Manzeppie, Emma Valentine, any number of evil geniuses—and it’s going to end in this remote valley at the hands of a ruthless rancher baron, at the end of a rope. Just as happened to many of the criminals we’ve sent to trial. He almost smiled at the irony. Almost.

The minutes crawled by with aching slowness—and meanwhile the time was flying by much too rapidly. Both men wracked their brains for something to say or do to alter the situation. Neither were successful. The men who had captured them, who were guarding them now, were interested in the reward money and nothing else.

The only thing that’s left is to convince Hobart that Jim didn’t kill his son. Artie closed his eyes a moment as painful frustration washed over his soul. Chances were they could talk and talk and talk, but Hobart would not believe the story. Not without some proof, someone else to come forward. Someone like Dr. Kittredge. Would Hobart even believe Kittredge? Even if the doctor produces the bullet, it’s only his word concerning where it came from, and that Jake threatened him. Hobart is single-mindedly bent on vengeance.

Still, it was virtually all they had left. Lily had once referred to him has the “silver-tongued speaker” from their high school days. Artemus knew he was going to need every bit of that talent. He suspected that Jim would concentrate his energies on convincing Hobart to let his partner go free. He also suspected Jim was aware that that could not happen. Hobart would not want a credible witness left alive, one who could not be threatened into silence. Regardless of the futility, Jim would try.

The guard in the doorway changed periodically, but whichever man was there was on the alert. Jim stood up to move around a bit, and the rifle was pointed toward him. The guard did not relax until Jim sat down again. Finally, nearly two hours after they were placed in the cell, they heard new voices entering the sheriff’s office. Moments later, Rufus Hobart pushed past the guard at the cell block door, his eyes on fire with hatred.

“So we have you murderers at last!”

Jim immediately came to his feet. “Mr. Hobart, I didn’t kill your son, but if you must punish someone, I’m the one you believe did it. Let my partner go.”

“He’s just as guilty,” Hobart snarled, pointing an angry finger toward Artemus. “He helped you escape!”

Artie stepped up alongside his partner. “Mr. Hobart, you’ve got to listen to us. Jim West did not kill your son. Your nephew Jake did.”

For one long moment, Hobart stared at him. “Talking like a desperate man,” the rancher growled.

Both Jake Hobart and McTeer entered to stand behind the older man. Artemus suddenly realized he could not mention the doctor’s part in this. If Rufus Hobart did not believe him, and that surely seemed as though it was going to be the case, Jake Hobart would punish the physician and possibly his family.

Now Artie tried another tack. “We know Judge Tabor is away. You’ve got to wait for him to return so a trial can be held.”

“We don’t need a trial,” Jake stated, grinning triumphantly behind his uncle’s back.

Jim spoke up. “Mr. Hobart, you realize Mr. Gordon and I are government agents. An investigation will be launched.”

Hobart shrugged. “Let ‘em investigate. I’ll have plenty of witnesses that’ll swear that you went crazy and shot down your partner, and we had to shoot you to stop you.”

Mack chuckled. “Even have your own gun, West. Bet you never figured your pal would die from a bullet from your gun.”

“All right, all right,” Rufus said. “We have some planning to do. I want this over today. We’ll be burying Floyd tomorrow morning. Be good to know his killer is dead.” He turned and marched out to the office. After giving instructions to the guard to continue to be on guard, the sheriff and Jake followed him, the latter throwing a smirk toward the cells as he exited.

James West and Artemus Gordon exchanged a long glance, then both wordlessly sat down on the bench again. What’s left to say? Artie wondered silently. Goodbye? Goodbye would be the same as giving up. Jim would be angry, and as far as that goes, so would I. We’ve never given up. Never.

“Artie,” Jim said quietly. “He wouldn’t listen. It’s wrong for you to be blamed for…”

“Stop right there, Jim. We’ve always been in it together, through thick and thin.”

“A lot of thin,” Jim smiled briefly.

“Been a lot of fun.” Artie sighed noisily. “Wish I could write a note to Lily. But she knows how I feel about her… and she knows the kind of life I lead.”

“What I hate,” Jim spoke softly now, “is going out without a fight.”

“We might be able to kick some teeth out.”

“Yeah. And I think I’m going to try!”

Neither was certain how much time had elapsed when McTeer entered the cell area, three men carrying weapons behind him, to unlock the door. He ordered them out, and with a glance at his partner, Jim complied. He was surprised and not a little dismayed to find another half dozen armed men in the sheriff’s office, along with the grinning Jake Hobart—who was wearing Jim’s gun belt, with the black and silver-inlaid handle in the holster—and the glaring Rufus Hobart.

We can still raise hell, he decided grimly.

They were escorted out the front door. Artie glanced around at the people lining the board walkways. Had they been ordered out to witness the executions, or brought by their own morbid curiosity? He had a good idea when Jim was going to make a move, and he was correct. As soon as their boots hit the dusty street, Jim jammed a shoulder into the nearest man. Artemus did likewise.

“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” Rufus Hobart’s voice rose above the ensuing din as the guards attempted to subdue the struggling prisoners.

Two men grabbed Jim’s arms on either side, and he used the support of that grasp to lift both feet off the ground, ramming his boots into the face of a man who was attempting to help. Jim then saw another man swinging his pistol toward his head, and the same grasp prevented him from doing more than jerking his head to one side. He avoided the full force of the blow, but it was stunning, and he slumped.

Artemus saw his partner taken out of the fray, but he continued to struggle, even when knocked to his back on the street. Like Jim, he kicked hard, taking a man in the stomach and sending him stumbling back to sit down hard, gasping for breath. And like Jim, that was pretty much all he was able to accomplish as more men got hold of him, pulling him to his feet. Despite Hobart’s commands, guns were aimed at the two agents.

“You fools!” Rufus Hobart snarled. “What the devil did you hope to accomplish?”

“Trouble,” Artie replied. And every second of delay that we can accomplish. Who’s that? A movement at the edge of his vision caused him to turn his head. He saw the black buggy coming down the street and he recognized it. Kittredge! And he’s not alone!

Others saw the direction Artemus was staring, and looked that way. Jake Hobart’s complexion darkened with anger as he too recognized the vehicle and its driver. No one spoke as Dr. Kittredge climbed out of the buggy, then turned to first help his wife down, and then Duane Prentiss, his arm in a sling. Artemus then noticed what he had not before, that Jeff Thorne was on horseback behind the buggy.

“What do you want here?” Jake yelled. “Go on home, all of you, before you get into trouble.”

Amy Kittredge grasped her husband’s arm tightly as they walked toward the group in the middle of the street. The two men followed and Artie noticed that Thorne was watching Prentiss carefully. Obviously Duane was still weak from his injury. But his face was hard and full of purpose.

“We’ve come to stop murder,” Kittredge replied firmly. The quartet paused just outside the circle of guards. His eyes went to Jim West and to the blood streaming down the side of his face. “That man needs attention.”

“Just never you mind,” Rufus grated, stepping toward them. “Get out of here. You can have the bodies afterwards.”

“Is the trial over?” Thorne called. “We heard the judge was out of town.”

“They’ve been tried, convicted, and sentenced,” the sheriff returned. “You heard Mr. Hobart. Get out of here before you get yourselves into big trouble.”

Dr. Kittredge ignored him. “Rufus Hobart, Mr. West did not kill your son, in a fair gunfight or otherwise. Floyd was killed with a rifle bullet. Mr. West had a pistol.”

“Who put you up to these lies?” Hobart demanded.

“Ain’t nothing but lies, uncle,” Jake said quickly. “Likely West or Gordon paid him off.”

“I know that!” Hobart retorted. “Just stay clear, Kittredge. We’ve got work to do here. Everyone! Stay where you are and watch this. You’re the witnesses. West is going to kill his partner, and the sheriff will have to gun him down to save other lives! You got that?”

Artemus’s gaze scanned the faces of the people on the walkways. He saw fear and horror, but for the moment, no indication that anyone was going to step in to try to stop the “execution.” He realized with some irony that they were now standing close to the site where the showdown between Floyd Hobart and Jim West had occurred.

He started to look around to see if he could spot the place where Jake Hobart could have hidden with his rifle to fire the fatal shot. As his gaze swung by the building alongside him, he saw something.

“Hobart! Look there at the ceiling of the porch of the gunsmith! There’s where Jim West’s bullet went!”

Every eye turned to the spot where Artie’s gaze was riveted. The *****ed wood and paint were very evident when one looked directly at it, but likely no one had taken the time to look up at that ceiling over the last couple of days. A man in a leather apron was standing on the porch, and he stared up.

“That’s a bullet hole!”

“Been there for ages,” Jake shot back.

The apron wearing man shook his head. “No. I painted that ceiling two weeks ago.” Then he seemed to realize what he was saying and doing, ducked his head for a moment, before lifting it up again, gaze firm. “I’d have to agree that that’s the shot that Mr. West fired. Looks to be at the right angle.”

Jim’s head had cleared after the stunning blow. He looked at Rufus Hobart. Without a doubt, the rancher saw the truth staring him in the face. Just as clearly, the stubborn expression on his face revealed he was not willing to accept the truth, that his nephew killed his son as claimed.

“That’s a lot of hogwash,” Sheriff McTeer snapped. “Let’s get on with this business.”

“Wait,” the doctor spoke up. “There’s something else. I did the post-mortem on Sheriff Best. He was not killed by a blow from a horse’s hoof. More likely it was a gun butt. He was murdered.”

Now Rufus Hobart’s eyes flashed with a combination of fear and anger. “Shut your yap, Kittredge. You’re just digging yourself into a hole.”

“You can do what you will,” Mrs. Kittredge said firmly. “We have already decided that we cannot simply stand by. Our children are safe from your nephew’s threats… and yours.”

Jim now saw people on the sidelines looking at each other with consternation. They had lived under duress, certainly, but they had had their doctor all this time. Plainly Kurt Kittredge—and his wife—were known and liked. Perhaps the mention of the threat to the children was bothering these people.

McTeer signaled his men, and all of them turned their guns outward, with the two prisoners in the middle of the circle. “Everyone go inside!” he commanded. “Kittredge, you folks get back in your buggy and get the hell out of here. I’m going to lock anyone up who disobeys, and if anyone tries anything, we’re going to start shooting.”

“Hobart,” Jim said in a steady tone, “you know you’ve lost. Give it up before you make it worse.”

“Shut up!” Jake rapped, spinning to point his gun—Jim’s gun—directly at Jim West.

Rufus Hobart stared at his nephew a long moment, then seemed to make up his mind. “Keep quiet, West, or you’ll be gagged. You murdered my son, and you’re going to pay for it.” He had lost his son, but apparently was determined to retain his remaining blood kin, despite what the nephew may have done. He did not appear to notice that none of the bystanders had obeyed the sheriff’s orders to disperse. “Let’s get on with this!”

Artemus looked at his partner, caught his gaze for a long moment. They had lost. Even the intervention of Kittredge with the truth was not going to help. Wish we had time to tell the doctor how much we appreciate it. And to fully express our gratitude to Prentiss and Thorne as well, along with the Caswell family.

Jake Hobart barked orders. Two men aimed their guns at the doctor’s group, while others kept an eye on the people standing on the sidewalks. Jim and Artemus were forced to stand about six feet apart, facing north. Jake Hobart drew the gun.

“Now, West, you’re going to have the pleasure of watching your pal die with bullets from your own gun. Then you’re going to join him, knowin’ that you’re going to go down in history as a murderer.”

“You’ve got visitors,” Jim said quietly.

For a moment, Hobart and the others stared at him, seeming not to grasp his words, then McTeer looked around. He cursed lavishly. Artemus had seen what Jim spotted, the two men riding swiftly into town from the north. A badge glinted on the shirt of the younger man, a stocky fellow with a brushy blond mustache and a head full of curly blond hair.

“Get out of here, Carlton!” Rufus Hobart yelled as the pair skidded their horses to a dusty halt. “You got no jurisdiction here.”

“But I do,” the other, older man yelled back, pushing his jacket aside to reveal another badge. His dark hair and beard were streaked with gray, and his equally gray eyes were like granite stones as they came nearer. “Federal marshal George Stone. You’re under arrest. All of you!”

His attention on the two lawmen, Jim did not see Rufus Hobart turn toward him, gun drawn. Artemus did however, and with a yell he hurtled himself at his partner. Both went down into the dust as Hobart’s gun spat several times. Before he could readjust his sights on the men in the dust, Jeff Thorne was there, grabbing the weapon from his hand.

Then others began to act. As Artemus struggled to his feet, he saw the expressions on the faces of the townsmen who rushed into the street to disarm both Hobarts, the sheriff, and their men. They were not smiling, but a great weight had been lifted from their shoulders, revealed in their faces. Within moments, the former rulers of the valley were prisoners themselves.

The young deputy sheriff, who introduced himself as Lee Carlton, Shirley Caswell’s fiancé, procured the keys from McTeer to remove the manacles from the two agents, who expressed their gratitude, warmly shaking his hand, and then that of the marshal.

“Glad to finally meet you boys,” Stone grinned. “Heard a lot about you. I was visiting with my sister—Lee’s ma—when Shirley came into town with the story. We were deciding what to do when Judge Tabor arrived in town with the same tale. The army is on its way, but we figured it might be a good idea to show up ahead of them.”

“And you were absolutely correct,” Artie grinned, rubbing his tender wrists. “Another few minutes… I don’t even like to think about it.”

Dr. Kittredge came forward with his bag, insisting that Jim allow him to look at the cut on his temple. Jim would have declined, but his partner thought it was a good idea as well. While Stone directed the citizenry in the handling of Hobart and his men, Jim and Artie went with Kittredge, along with his wife, Prentiss and Thorne, to the Caswell restaurant.

Jim had a white patch on his head when the two local lawmen came in to accept coffee from Mrs. Caswell. “Not enough room in the jail for all of them,” Stone said, “but a couple of the stores have storerooms we’ll use for now.”

“Likely there’s more at the ranch, if they don’t scram before we get out there,” Lee Carlton put in.

That was the next order of business, taking a large posse out to the Hobart ranch. Duane Prentiss wanted to go along, but both the doctor and Mrs. Caswell forbade it. He was not yet fit to ride a horse. Seventeen more prisoners were taken at the ranch, with little trouble. The word had not yet reached them of events in town. Though they knew more men were likely out on the range, the officers decided not to try to round them up just now. If any foolishly wandered into town, they could be picked up.

The great surprise was finding Len Parsons alive and well, though a prisoner. The cowboy related how he had come back to claim his pay, had been threatened in an attempt to prevent him from testifying, but when Rufus Hobart realized threats were not going to be sufficient, had ordered Parsons locked in a small storeroom in the ranch house.

“I had the notion they were going to kill me eventually,” Len stated, “especially on account of I heard them talking about how Joe Best was going to be a problem that they had to take care of. I know they lured him from his house and killed him. Rufus ordered it.”

The next few days were busy ones. As expected, the army arrived the following day and were able to assist in handling the prisoners. Judge Tabor returned and a speedy trial was held to convict Rufus and Jake Hobart and Mack McTeer on several counts of murder, attempted murder, conspiracy and numerous other charges. They were immediately transported to the nearest prison. Other men faced lesser charges, particularly because the court had no specific information on what they had done under Hobart’s orders. One man did speak up and say that he witnessed McTeer clubbing Sheriff Best to death, thus earning himself a bit of leniency.

To the delight of Shirley Caswell, the town council asked Lee Carlton to assume the badge of sheriff in the valley. That meant her sweetheart was nearer, and also that they could make firm plans for their wedding, an earlier obstruction being Lee’s worry about supporting a family on a deputy’s pay.

To show their appreciation for their assistance, and in some instances risking their lives, Jim and Artemus held a dinner at the Caswell restaurant for Shirley and her family, including the Marshalls, Dr. and Mrs. Kittredge, Duane Prentiss and Jeff Thorne, and especially Len Parsons. Artie did most of the cooking, but was grateful when Shirley and her mother offered to help, despite being guests. His partner, he confided, was all thumbs when it came to doing much more than frying eggs and bacon over a campfire.

Finally the two agents made ready to leave, and as originally planned, Len Parsons was going to ride out with them to be transported on the Wanderer back to Kansas and his kin.

“Nice town,” Artie commented as they ceased waving farewells to the people on the restaurant’s porch and elsewhere. “Now.”

“There’s some good folks there,” Parsons assured him. “Without Hobart to lord it over them, it’ll be a good place to live. Might come back some day.”

“Artemus,” Jim said, looking directly at his partner.

“Yes, James?” Artie knew what was coming.

“Next time, no time outs. No overnight stays just to ease your aching bones. That can wait until we get to the Wanderer.”

“Yes, James. I fully and wholeheartedly agree. However…”

“No ‘howevers,’ Artemus. No ifs, ands, or buts. Next time we ride straight through.”

“I was just going to say… all’s well that ends well. Right?”

Jim West sighed, grinning and shaking his head. He knew that the way trouble always seemed to find them, it wouldn’t make one bit of difference whether they made a stop or just kept riding. “Right, partner. Absolutely right. This time, at least.”

THE END




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