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Double Take
SS novice field agent

USA
2087 Posts

Posted - 03/03/2009 :  05:37:27  Show Profile
THE NIGHT OF THE SHIFTING RAVEN


“Ever seen a blue-eyed raven, James?” Artemus Gordon asked his partner who rode along side him as their horses trotted through the dusty heat of the Arizona foothills. Artemus studied the cloudless, blue sky where a small black speck circled over head.

James West glanced briefly at the sky, following Gordon’s gaze. He frowned slightly, he was much more concerned with following the trail of the killers than worrying about a bird. Still, he knew his friend and fellow Secret Service agent would not let the subject drop if something was troubling him.

“Can’t say as I gave it much thought, Artie, but I would’ve said ravens have black eyes. Why?”

“The same bird has been pacing us for the last twenty miles or so,” Artemus replied as he continued to watch the circling bird.

“Okay, I’ll bite. How do you know it’s the same bird? Ravens aren’t exactly unusual in these parts.”

“Blue-eyed ravens?” Artemus queried his partner. “The last two times we stopped to rest and water the horses, a raven with blue eyes landed nearby. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but I swear it’s the same bird!”

“Maybe it’s a spy for the Cotter gang,” West shook his head and smiled grimly. He wiped his forehead on the sleeve of his jacket. Though he would like to dismiss his partner’s concerns as being ludicrous, he trusted Artemus Gordon’s instincts.

He glanced at the sky again, “We have a few more hours of light, then we’ll be forced to stop. I expect the Cotters will push on after dark. We could do with a spy of our own that could track them at night.”

*****

This was West and Gordon’s second day following the Cotter gang through the Arizona foothills. Normally murder did not fall under the jurisdiction of the Secret Service, but this time it did. Two experienced Secret Service agents had been killed while investigating a counterfeiting ring in the town of Blue Water, north of Tucson. The Cotter brothers and their gang of hired guns had been contacted by the counterfeiters to provide protection for the passers who would be moving the money to various cities in the western states and territories. The Cotters had stumbled upon the two agents, Michael Greer and Jeffery Matson, monitoring the counterfeiter’s hideout, an old shed that was part of a long abandoned ranch. After torturing the agents to learn what they knew, the Cotters had executed them.

When Matson and Greer did not report in to their superior, Colonel McPherson, as scheduled, James West and Artemus Gordon were sent to contact the overdue agents. Greer’s last message indicated that the counterfeiters were looking for protection for the passers. Greer suspected that the notorious Cotter gang had been contacted to provide this service.

West and Gordon had arrived at the counterfeiter’s hideout less than a day after the agents were murdered, and found it abandoned. Inside the building were the bodies of Michael Greer and Jeffery Matson; both men were well known to West and Gordon. There was sadness in Artemus Gordon’s brown eyes as he examined the bodies of the men. Meanwhile his partner canvassed the area looking for tracks of the killers.

Judging from the signs Jim had found, it appeared that the group had split up. The larger group, presumably Marion Cotter and his gang, had headed across the sparsely populated territory avoiding any roads or trails, while the smaller group of counterfeiters took the main road.

Colonel McPherson would have preferred sending the Secret Service’s top agents after the counterfeiters, but James West had other plans. It took some convincing, but he finally received permission from Colonel McPherson to pursue the Cotters, while another team of agents went after the counterfeiters.

For two days West and Gordon followed the Cotter’s trail, trying to lessen the gang’s twenty-four hour lead. Two men traveling fast and light could cover a lot of territory, but the Cotters knew the area and were able to continue on after dark. West and Gordon were forced to halt as soon as they lost the light for fear of losing the trail, but they made up for it during the day by riding hard.


*****

Several hundred yards to the East of the trail, West spotted a shallow ravine bordered by low, scrubby oak trees. Knowing they may not get another chance to refill fill their canteens before dark, he veered toward the water.

It was hot. Jim took off his jacket and hung it over his saddle horn. He and Artemus left the horses to drink and moved a few yards upstream to fill their canteens. As he walked Jim unbuttoned his blue shirt, by the time he reached a sandy spot by the stream, he had pulled it off and thrown it over a log. With a quick flip of his wrist his hat landed next to the discarded shirt.

Jim dropped to his knees by the water and filled his canteen. Sweat glistened as it slid down his spine and disappeared. The sun beat down on his muscular shoulders threatening to burn his freckled back.

Leaning forward, Jim cupped the clear water in his hands and laved his face. The water trickled down his neck and chest. Taking the path of least resistance, it traced its way down the center of his well defined chest parting into smaller rivulets when it met the taught lines of his abdomen.

Unnoticed, a large raven watched the half-naked man intently with its brilliant blue eyes. It was like the bird was hungry for something it couldn’t have, a morsel that was off limits, but still desired.

After filling his canteen Artemus grabbed Jim’s shirt and tossed it to the younger agent as he stood up. When the two men turned around, Artemus called softly to Jim, pointing to the large black bird perched at the top of a gnarled tree.

“What did I tell you? There it is again!” Artemus spoke quietly to his partner.

The raven watched them with its intense blue eyes. It fluffed its feathers and then flew down to drink from the edge of the stream across from the horses. The horses snorted uncertainly and moved away from the bird. The raven let out a hoarse croak, spooking the horses which clambered out of the shallow ravine. Artemus’s chestnut settled down quickly and wandered over to a patch of grass to graze, but Jim’s black continued to watch the bird. Head high and ears pricked forwards, Blackjack’s nostrils flared as he caught a puzzling scent.

Jim glanced from the bird to the horses, frowning slightly. The horses’ reaction to the bird was unusual and puzzled him. First Artie, now the horses. That raven’s got everybody on edge. It’s almost like that it wants us to notice it.

“Let’s get moving,” he said to Artie as they approached the horses.

Jim hooked the full canteen to his saddle, and then grabbing the horn and cantle he leapt lightly into the saddle. Artemus followed more slowly, watching the raven as it spread its wings and took flight. The bird spiraled higher and higher, but remained directly over them. Still watching the raven, he mounted his horse and urged it into a trot after his departing partner.

****************************************************************************************************

The Cotter brothers had become a well known scourge to the area for the past few years. Like flies to decaying flesh they had attracted a sizable band of ruffians who lived outside the law, stealing whatever they needed and killing any who got in their way. Marion Cotter, a rough, sun-baked man in his early forties, was a natural leader and organized the men into effective gangs that moved through the territory raiding small towns for supplies and attacking passing stage coaches for money.

Marion Cotter and his younger brother, William, figured they would make some easy money when they were approached by a local counterfeiter who needed protection for his passers. Providing an armed escort for the men who were transporting the counterfeit money to the larger cities west of the Rockies should not prove too challenging. With enough guns, highway robbers and even Indians would think twice about attacking the travelers.

The other end of the deal was controlled by Morris Lohman, a skilled craftsman who, after working for many years at the Denver mint, decided to give the government some competition. Southern Arizona was made to order. It was sparsely populated, but still close enough to a number of major cities that could be used to filter the money into general circulation. Lohman did not relish the idea of involving a bunch of rough outlaws like the Cotter gang, but realized that his passers would be vulnerable while traveling. The agents the Cotters had discovered demonstrated the need for protection and secrecy.

After discovering that the government agents were cognizant of their activity, Lohman and Cotter decided to split up and meet some seventy miles to the northwest, outside of the small town of North Bend. There they could establish a new base of operations in the barn of Lohman’s cousin. Morris Lohman and the four passers set out on the well traveled main road that ran northwest from Blue Water to North Bend skirting a small chain of the mountains to the east. They had most of the printing supplies and tools hidden inside crates and barrels. Everything was loaded on two wagons each pulled by a sturdy carthorse. With a few artfully arranged burlap bags filled with grain, the counterfeiters easily passed for farmhands transporting goods to market.

The press, plates and printed money went with Dennis Finley, Lohman’s right hand man, under the protection of the Cotter gang. They were taking the rougher path, through the arid foot hills, then over the mountains by way of a little used pass to North Bend. After they rejoined each other, the passers, accompanied by members of the Cotter gang, would take the counterfeit money and continue west into California.

*****

The sun was melting into the dusty landscape. It would be dark soon, but Marion Cotter was unconcerned. The moonlight was enough for him and his men to navigate through the familiar country. They knew these hills well, their primary camp was only ten miles away, but that was not there destination. Cotter wanted to cover a few more miles before they stopped for the night. He knew the government agents could travel faster during the day than his band escorting the wagon loaded with money and supplies. Traveling after dark would allow him to increase his lead back to nearly eight miles. Tomorrow would be the critical day for the hunters and the hunted.

He hadn’t been surprised when Rusty had galloped up, after riding hard from Blue Water, where he had been keeping an eye on the abandoned hideout, to report the arrival of additional agents to his boss. Rusty’s horse was lathered in sweat and both horse and rider were caked with dust. Marion Cotter frowned slightly when Rusty told him of the two agents snooping around the old shed where the Cotters had left the bodies. Two more agents, Marion Cotter thought. We only got outa there just in time. If they’re after blood, they’ll be following us not Lohman.

Cotter had smiled to himself as he considered his options, then called to his brother, “Hey, William! Rusty says there’s a couple of agents likely to be coming after us. You ‘n a couple men want some target practice up at the ridge?”

*****

“You think they’re still back there, Mr. Cotter?” Ben asked nervously. He was the newest members of the gang and this was his first job with them.

Marion Cotter studied the shaggy-haired youth and smiled to himself, “You can bet on it. Them Federals won’t give up that easy.” He looked over at his brother, William, who rode at the head of a small knot of men a few yards away, “Hey, William, why don’t you take Ben here with you tomorrow. He’s a might worried about the Feds. Seeing them die should set him at ease!”

The group surrounding William laughed. “Like shooting ducks at a gallery,” one of the men grinned.

Dennis Finley left the wagon he had been riding alongside, urging his horse into a canter until he caught up with the brothers. “When you planning to take them out?” he asked.

Finley was a short, nervous man. He looked out of place amongst the outlaws dressed in a dark suit, matching vest and dove gray silk puff tie. His thinning hair was covered by a bowler hat. He too was uneasy about the agents following them and did not like the cavalier attitude of this band of ruffians. Like Morris Lohman, he would have preferred to distance himself from them.

“It’s not so much a matter of when, but where,” the elder brother answered. “We’ll be passing through a defile tomorrow. William’ll hang back with a few men and pick them off as they pass through.”

“Won’t they be suspicious of a trap? These are government agents, not a couple of two-bit deputies still wet behind the ears,” Finley objected.

“They won’t have a choice. The south side of the ridge is faced by sheer cliffs. Not too high, but no way can you get a horse, or even a man, over them without going twenty miles outta your way. Them agents ain’t gonna risk losing us by doing that! The north side is sloped so William and his men will be able to get up above the Feds. It’ll give the boys some target practice.”

No one noticed a raven perched in a scrubby tree. As the last of the gang passed by, the raven spread its wings and flew south.

****************************************************************************************************

Double Take
SS novice field agent

USA
2087 Posts

Posted - 03/03/2009 :  05:38:19  Show Profile
Artemus built a small fire from some dried brush he had gathered. He finished preparing the coffee and started heating some beans while his partner tended to the horses. They had set up camp at the foot of a rocky outcropping that overhung a small stream. The outcropping provided protection from the light breeze that had picked up as the temperature dropped, but also shielded their fire from prying eyes. A moth fluttered into the light of the fire and was soon joined by others.

Jim approached the fire and dumped his saddle on the ground. He pulled his rifle from its scabbard then peered into the night, listening intently.

Artemus heard the restless movement of the horses. Blackjack was blowing and snorting as a disturbing scent reached him. He set down the pan of beans and checked his revolver to make sure it was fully loaded.

“You hear something?” Artemus asked his partner.

“No, but the horses smell something. They’re acting like they did with that raven back at the ravine.”

Dried grass crunched just beyond their sight, and presently a coyote stepped into the firelight. Her head low, she watched the two humans. Jim slowly raised his rifle, but did not immediately fire at the animal.

“Wait, Jim,” Artemus whispered staring hard as the gray figure stepped in a little closer to the fire. “Blue eyes, just like the raven’s. There’s got to be a connection.”

Jim carefully lowered the rifle; the sound of a gunshot out here would travel. They had made up some distance on their quarry, and Jim did not want to alert them to the agent’s whereabouts. With equal care, Jim opened a hidden compartment in the bottom of his holster and a small whitish marble dropped into his hand. A quick flip of the wrist and the device detonated with a muffled pop at the feet of the coyote. Smoke billowed up enveloping the animal. There was a sharp yip and the men heard the quick patter of feet as the prowler retreated.

Artemus returned to the fire and his cooking pot, but Jim walked the perimeter of their camp. He was about to head over to the horses when he heard the soft swish of nearby wings. He turned raising his rifle. A figure approached fearlessly through the dark. Jim could not hide his surprise as a young woman entered the light of the fire.

From all appearances she was an American Indian, but as she moved further into the light Jim was captivated by her blue eyes. Though still alert for danger he lowered his rifle slightly. As beautiful as this woman was, she could still represent danger. The trail the agents followed did not take them close to any ranches, nor was Jim aware of any Indian villages in the immediate area. The woman appeared to have materialized out of nowhere.

“Artie, looks like you better set an extra place at the table for our guest,” Jim called to his partner who looked up in surprise.

“Well, well, well. James, why didn’t you tell me you had invited a raven-haired beauty to join our evening repast? I would have chilled the wine!”

The woman frowned, perplexed by their reaction to her sudden appearance. She was dressed in a simple calf-length dress of dark blue woven cotton. Across her shoulders and hem of her dress a simple pattern in royal blue mirrored the blue of her eyes. A belt of silver conchos encircled her slender waist. Soft, beaded, knee-high moccasins permitted her to move with barely a whisper through the dry grass. Her long black hair was pulled back into a bun, accentuating the sharp planes of her cheeks.

“You seek the men who murdered your friends?” it was as much a statement as a question. “They know you follow them. Turn back, they are evil and would do the same to you.”

“You seem to be well informed...Miss,” Jim hesitated.

“I am called Aiyana. I have come to warn you of the men you follow. They are known to my village. They take food, clothing, horses and leave tears in their wake. Go back! I would not have the tears we shed be for you!”

“I’m James West and this is my partner, Artemus Gordon. Why don’t you tell us what you know about the Cotter gang.”

He lowered his rifle and gently took Aiyana by the elbow, guiding her towards the fire. Artemus immediately poured some coffee into a tin cup and offered it to her with a bow. Jim leant his rifle against a boulder and poured himself a cup of coffee.

After the three were seated around the fire, Jim quizzed Aiyana about what she knew, “Where is your village, Aiyana? Is that where the Cotter gang is headed?”

The young woman stared into the fire as if she could see the intentions of the outlaws play out in the flames, “No, they veer away from the village towards a pass through the mountains. Others await them on the other side to continue as before.”

“You seem sure of their plans. Were you traveling with them?” Jim was confused by the woman. His reason told him to be cautious, but his gut instinct was to trust her. She seemed genuinely concerned for their safety, and there was no mistaking the bitterness she expressed over the gang’s treatment of her village.

“The night whispers to me of many things. I would not have you hurt. Please, return the way you came.”

Artemus left the questioning to his partner, but listened intently to the conversation. He tended his beans, then rose and retrieved some additional provisions and implements from a saddlebag. Presently, he handed Aiyana a plate of food.

Jim let her eat in silence for a few minutes, then pressed again, “What is your connection to the Cotter gang?” There was a hard edge to his voice.

Artemus knew Jim’s patience was wearing thin. Not even a beautiful woman could come between James West and his duty. Aiyana’s cryptic answers did not satisfy the straight-forward young agent.

“Aiyana, the men who were killed were friends of ours. They were also government agents. Your help could prove very valuable to us, and prevent more deaths,” Artemus tried a gentler approach.

Aiyana rose and stepped towards the edge of the firelight. Jim moved immediately to intercept her, catching her by the arm. His grip a little firmer than it had been when Aiyana first arrived.

“You weren’t thinking of leaving were you? The night can be dangerous to a woman traveling alone.”

“I have delivered my message. I thank you for your kindness, but I cannot stay longer.” She gazed into Jim’s green eyes. “Please, heed my warning!” she whispered.

Jim’s grip on her arm tightened, he was not prepared to let her go without a better explanation. Suddenly, the horses startled. Blackjack pulled back against his picket tossing his head as Artie’s chestnut gelding trumpeted in fear. Both Jim and Artemus turned towards the horses, drawing their revolvers. Artemus, being closer, moved cautiously towards them.

Jim was forced to release his grip on Aiyana’s arm in order to draw his gun. As he turned toward the horses she slipped into the darkness. When he looked back there was no sign of the young Indian woman, but he heard the soft swish of wings like a bird taking flight.

As quickly as the horses had panicked, they quieted back down and returned to cropping grass as though nothing had happened. Jim grabbed a burning branch from the fire and searched the immediate area, but there was nothing to find. The young woman had disappeared as suddenly as she had appeared.

As they had during the past several nights, the two agents took turns standing watch. Neither coyote nor woman re-appeared. Artemus settled in his blanket after turning the watch over to Jim. He wondered about the connection between Aiyana and the animals that seemed to be watching them. During their travels he and Jim had heard many Indian legends and fanciful stories. As he lay there one particular legend kept creeping into his thoughts, but it didn’t quite fit. The Navajo skinwalker is usually male...and evil.

*****

Artemus shivered in the cool morning air as he dipped a cooking pot into the small stream. He set the pot on the camp stove to heat and returned to the stream to wash, leaving his shirt neatly folded on his bedroll. The cold water gave him goose bumps, but drove any lingering sleepiness away as sure as the strong coffee he had brewed.

He dried his face on a chamois, then ran it over his chest and arms. He walked over to the fire to retrieve the water he had heated for his shave and found the pan nearly empty. Crouched in front of a small mirror, his partner carefully ran a blade over his lathered chin. As Jim flicked the blade to clear it of foam, Artemus snapped the chamois skin and tagged his friend on the shoulder.

“That water had better still be warm,” he warned his partner.

*****

Artemus kept an eye open for the blue-eyed raven while they broke camp and saddled the horses. He was uncharacteristically silent as they picked up the trail and urged the horses into a brisk trot. All morning the bird was conspicuously absent.

Jim noticed his partner’s pensive mood and needled him, “First you worry when we’re followed by a bird, now you worry that it’s disappeared. You know, Artie, I think the horsefly you swatted this morning had blue eyes.”

Less than two hours after they started, the two agents came upon the camp of the Cotters. Jim gazed down at the blackened logs of their fire. A tiny wisp of smoke indicated that the fire had only recently been extinguished. Jim pulled a collapsible telescope from inside his jacket and scanned the horizon in the direction the hoof prints led. He thought he could make out a dusty haze against the backdrop of a ridge of hills in the distance that rose higher than the rest. Beyond that the mountain range stood out clearly against the morning sky.

Artemus leaned forward in his saddle, his hands resting on the horn. “We need to catch them before they reach those mountains. They must know the area well if they plan on getting the wagon through them.”

“We should be able to catch up with them before noon,” his partner replied confidently.

“Hhmmm. What then? We’re two against at least eight, not exactly the best odds,” Artie grumbled.

There was a knowing gleam in Jim West’s eyes, “We get ahead and then circle around them when they camp for the night. They won’t try the mountains after dark, not with a wagon. Your new knock-out grenades should even the odds.”

Artemus smiled smugly, his new grenades could be launched from a pistol providing better range than if thrown by hand. A specially designed launcher fitted over the end of the pistol barrel and helped silence the weapon. The grenade itself was also nearly silent when it detonated releasing a colorless, odorless gas that worked in seconds on anyone within twenty feet of the grenade.

“What are we waiting for then. We have a band of murderers to catch!” Artemus urged his horse into a brisk canter following the outlaw’s tracks.

The tracks led directly toward the ridge Jim had seen earlier through his telescope. As they got closer, what looked like a single unbroken ridge of rock split into two separate hills, divided by a steep, narrow cleft created and widened by a small stream.

The two agents eased their horses to a stop at the foot of a hill several hundred yards back from the defile. The opening in the ridge was a perfect place for an ambush and they knew it. Leaving the horses, the two men crept to the crest of the hill keeping low so as not to be visible to someone watching from the ridge. Once again Jim scanned the surrounding country for another route, but the ridge extended on in both directions as far as the eye could see. The only available path appeared to be through the defile. Even if they could scale the cliff, without their horses they would never catch the Cotters.

“Artie, you lead the horses directly to the gap. Hopefully, if the Cotters are waiting there, they will be watching you and I can reach the cliff without being seen. Once I’ve reached the top of the ridge they will lose their advantage.”

“And, in the meantime, they use me for target practice!” but Artemus knew that Jim’s plan was their best chance at catching the Cotters.

“Give me about twenty minutes before you start out,” Jim instructed his partner as he retrieved some gear from his saddle bags, then set off at a run along the valley away from Artie and the horses.

After ten minutes, he changed course and dropped into a low crouch as he angled up the hill. At the top he paused to catch his breath, scanning for his partner. After a few minutes Artie appeared at the crest of the hill leading the horses as he headed cautiously towards the narrow gap between the hills. Jim pulled out his telescope and scanned the ridge. He thought he saw movement as the outlaws spotted Artemus and moved into position for the ambush.

Keeping low and using whatever cover he could find to conceal his movements, Jim made his way as swiftly as possible towards the cliff face. Crouching at the base of the cliff, Jim looked back to mark his partner’s progress; Artemus had covered about half the distance to the defile. Jim needed to scale the cliff quickly and locate the members of the Cotter gang waiting to ambush them.

From his inside jacket pocket, Jim pulled out a steel dart on a cable attached to a small winch. After fitting the dart into the grenade launcher he had affixed to the barrel of his gun, Jim stepped far enough out from the cliff to get a clear shot at a stout tree that leaned out from the top of cliff above him. With a muffled pop, the dart shot skyward and embedded itself deep in the tree’s trunk. Jim gripped the winch tightly, and after giving it an experimental tug, thumbed a button which activated the powerful mechanism that winched him up the sheer cliff face. When he reached the top Jim gripped the tree trunk and scrambled over the ledge.

Certain that the outlaws had not spotted him, Jim moved as swiftly and quietly as he could towards the defile keeping close the cliff. Speed was essential now, Artemus was nearly within range of the guns, and, though Jim was sure they would wait until he entered the defile, he wasn’t going to take any unnecessary chances with his friend’s life.

Jim crouched down behind a bush when he spotted the first outlaw, a nervous looking young man in need of a haircut. Coming up silently behind him, Jim tapped him on the shoulder. The outlaw started in surprise and spun around only to encounter a hard right to his chin. He crumpled to the ground. There was no time to tie him up, so West grabbed his rifle and moved on quietly looking for his next target.

Fifty yards further on, West spied another outlaw positioned so he could fire down into the cut that separated the ridges. The man turned and spotted West. Jim snatched his knife from its hidden pocket not wanting to give his position away by using a gun. The outlaw’s warning cry was cut off and ended in a gasping gurgle as Jim’s expertly thrown knife embedded itself in his chest. Although the cry was not loud enough to get the attention of the men positioned across from him, the body falling into the defile and the thud as it hit the ground did. Jim found himself ducking for cover as William Cotter and his two remaining men opened fire.

The plummeting body had also alerted Artemus. Pulling Jim’s rifle from its scabbard, he fired at the only figure he could see on the ridge. A second body cartwheeled from the heights into the shallow creek, but at least two more men were concentrating their fire in the direction of James West.

Leaving the horses, Artemus ran forward searching for another target in the scrub at the top of the cliff while, at the same time, doing his best to keep himself under cover. Both outlaws were hidden from his view. He reached the base of the cliff below where his partner was pinned down. He stepped out from the cliff face to gain a better vantage point, but as he did so William Cotter spotted him and took aim with his rifle. A scream shattered the air above the outlaw and a large hawk stooped down on the man. Talons extended, red tail glowing in the sunlight, the hawk grabbed the rifle barrel before the man could fire. Surprised and off balance William Cotter staggered toward drop-off. Arms flailing to catch his balance, he inadvertently clipped the hawk with the rifle barrel, stunning it, before he tumbled down the steep slope.

Artemus heard a gun shot from Jim’s position and then silence. He moved cautiously to check on the man lying half in the stream. After determining that he was very much alive, he grabbed the man by the arms and pulled him clear of the water.

A sharp whistle from the other end of the cut made him look up. The call echoed off the walls and was answered by hoof beats as Blackjack cantered up in response to the summons. Jim caught the black’s reins as he came to a halt and patted his neck. He retrieved a short length of rope from his saddle bag and tossed it to Artie; taking a second length he headed back toward the path that led to the top of the ridge.

A few minutes later, Jim returned with the young outlaw and deposited him next to William Cotter. He tied Ben’s ankles and looked around for Artemus. His partner was checking the bodies of the less fortunate members of the gang, so Jim headed up to locate the remaining outlaw on the opposite ridge.

Jim was just about to head back after finding the body, when he heard a soft moan from some bushes close to the edge of the defile. As he approached, Aiyana pushed herself into a sitting position; blood trickled from a cut on her left temple.

“Aiyana?” Jim was puzzled by her presence, but helped her to her feet. His strong arm wrapped firmly around her waist for support. Slowly, they made their way to the bottom where Jim helped her to sit on a boulder by the stream.

“Artie!” Jim called to his partner who grabbed a canteen and came over.

Gordon wet a kerchief and tended to Aiyana’s injury. He smiled at her, “You’ve got a nice bruise, but the bleeding has stopped. I’m in your debt. Your quick action saved my life.”

“So that was your hawk?” Jim asked. “And the raven we saw earlier, was that yours as well?”

Aiyana dropped her eyes unsure how to respond to the handsome agent, but Artemus answered for her.

“She didn’t control the hawk, Jim. She is the hawk…and the raven, as well,” Artemus hesitated before he continued. “I’m right, Aiyana, aren’t I?”

Slowly, Aiyana raised her eyes and gazed at the two men uncertain how they would react. A slight frown briefly crossed Jim’s face, but he masked his surprise quickly. Artemus continued to smile openly at her.

These men were unlike any that Aiyana had met before. The men of her village regarded her with a mixture of fear and awe. She had never experienced anything like the gentle strength of Jim’s touch or the open warmth of Artemus’s smile. She was afraid to lose them, but knew she had to risk it with the truth.

“You’re a skinwalker aren’t you?” Artie asked. Aiyana nodded slowly.

“I’ve heard the tales. Skinwalkers in the Navajo legends are generally evil. I never expected one to be a beautiful woman,” Jim said.

“Tales of evil travel faster than good. Not all Yeenaaldlooshii are evil. I use my powers to aid my village. I have tried to stop the men you follow, but there are too many of them. Many times, all I can do is warn of their approach so the young women can disappear into the hills. I would do more,” there was fire in Aiyana’s eyes as she spoke. She rose and met the eyes of the two men before her, “I will help you stop them!”

“We’re grateful for your help, Aiyana, but you need to go back to your village and let us handle the Cotters,” Jim smiled and cupped her chin in his hand.

Aiyana gazed into Jim West’s eyes and saw there courage and determination, but also a gentleness that she did not expect. She did not resist when he raised her chin and pressed his lips to hers. She closed her eyes and let herself get lost in his kiss. Her will wavered and she would have gladly done as he asked...but William Cotter chose that moment to regain consciousness with a groan.

All three looked toward the bound man, Jim with some annoyance. Aiyana glared at the bound man and took a step in his direction. Jim started to reach for her and froze, no longer was there a beautiful, albeit angry, woman walking towards the prisoner, now a snarling coyote had taken her place!

Jim’s jaw dropped, but he quickly recovered his stoic demeanor. Up to that point he had been somewhat dubious about Aiyana’s claim to be a skinwalker.

“Aiyana, no. We need him. We need information,” Jim cautioned.

“Wait, Jim, Aiyana may have the right idea,” Artie said with a wicked grin. He addressed William Cotter, “What will it be, talk to us or talk to an angry Indian maiden with a nice set of teeth!”

Despite being bound hand and foot, Cotter and the young outlaw, Ben, struggled to get out of the path of the advancing canine. Aiyana stopped just out of reach of the two men. Her coyote head held low and ears pinned back against her skull. Her normally gentle blue eyes burned fiercely. West and Gordon moved up to flank her on either side.

“Where is the rest of the gang headed?” Jim asked William Cotter.

West knew that their chances of cutting off the remainder of the gang before they reached the mountains were fading with each passing minute, but he still intended to try and stop them before they made it to the mountain pass. Even if he and Artemus were unable to catch up to the rest of the Cotter gang, Jim believed that with Aiyana’s help the other team of agents following the main road could catch the counterfeiters before the passers started moving the money. He needed to know where they would be headed and get help moving in that direction to intercept them.

The coyote circled around the two prisoners, until she was standing behind them, her muzzle close to William Cotter’s ear. Cotter could feel her breath on his cheek. Her low growl was barely audible, but held a menace that spoke of a greater danger than the two government agents standing before him. Cotter tried to turn away from the threat, but found himself looking down the barrel of James West’s revolver.

Given the choice of being shot or having his throat torn out, William Cotter took his only logical out, he talked, “The...they’re headed through the pass to North Bend. They’re meeting up with Morris Lohman at his cousin place. I don’t know his name, just that it’s a farm just east of North Bend. Got a big barn with a root cellar where they can hide the press. That’s all I know. Call it off!”

“Where is the counterfeit money?”

A drop of saliva dripped off the coyote’s fangs and slid down William’s cheek.

“The money’s with my brother...the plates, too. Please, call it off!”

Jim nodded at Aiyana and she stepped back from the prisoners. In a blink of an eye the coyote was gone and the woman with the incredibly blue eyes was back.

“Better watch yourself, James. One minute you could be kissing a black-haired beauty and then next minute a wildcat,” Artie whispered as he brushed past Jim on his way to the horses.

“Aiyana, can you return to your village and have some men take care of these prisoners and the bodies?” Jim asked the young woman. “Have them escort these two to Sheriff Bender in Blue Water. We’ll have them picked up there after we catch the rest of the gang.”

Jim pulled a small pad of paper and pencil from his jacket pocket. He quickly wrote a note to the sheriff outlining the counterfeiter’s plan and directing him to pass the information on to the Secret Service office in Tucson who would contact the team pursuing the counterfeiters. He handed the paper to Aiyana.

“Have them give this to the sheriff along with the prisoners.”

Aiyana nodded taking the paper from him and tucking it inside her dress, “I will catch up to you before you reach the pass.”

Jim gently placed his hands on Aiyana’s slender shoulders, “No, it’s too dangerous. Stay at your village. You have already done enough!”

Aiyana reached up and pulled Jim’s head down, kissing him much as he had kissed her earlier. After a few seconds she pulled away and ducked out of his arms.

“You need my eyes and my ears,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. Before Jim could protest, she was gone. A glossy black raven winged away from the defile toward the Indian village.

Artemus approached leading their horses, grinning widely, “Don’t say I didn’t warn you!”

Without commenting Jim took the reins from his partner and swung into the saddle. Looking down at the two bound men he warned them, “I suggest you don’t try anything with the Indians. I get the feeling they don’t like you much and would be happy to have an excuse to shoot you!”

Blackjack danced on the spot while Jim waited for Artie to mount, then with a gentle nudge of his heels, Jim urged the fiery black horse into a gallop following the outlaws trail as it continued toward the mountains. The ambush at the ridge had cost the agents several precious hours. The race was on, the remaining members of the Cotter gang had increased their lead, and the two agents would have to ride hard to implement Jim’s plan.

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Double Take
SS novice field agent

USA
2087 Posts

Posted - 03/03/2009 :  05:39:03  Show Profile
Now they were through the defile Marion Cotter allowed them to travel at a more leisurely pace, but still fast enough so they would reach the pass before nightfall. The wagon slowed them down, but Cotter was confident that his brother would eliminate their pursuers. Traversing the pass with the wagon would be tricky; nonetheless, if they started at first light they should be through before dark. Once through the pass it was a trek to the main road which would make the remainder of the journey easier.

Marion was sure that William would catch up with them before they made camp at the entrance to the pass. He was looking forward to his brother’s report. He was especially interested in how the newest member of his gang, young Ben, handled himself. Marion Cotter wanted only the best men working for him and he was unsure if this new man would measure up to his standards.

The day progressed without incident. Whenever they stopped to water and rest the horses, Cotter gazed back toward the distant ridge, looking for any sign of his brother and the others.

It wasn’t until they had set up camp and finished eating that Cotter began to feel concern over his brother’s absence. William Cotter had kept four men with him, leaving only five gunmen, not counting the counterfeiter, Dennis Finley, to protect the money and help get the wagon past any rough spots they might encounter in the pass. If William had failed to stop the federal agents at the defile, then trouble could be fast approaching.

“Barker! Jackson!” Cotter called. “I want you to take first watch. Me ‘n Morely’ll take the second watch. Finley and Duncan last. I don’t like it that William and the others aren’t back yet. Stay alert, but make sure you don’t plug any of our own men. With the moon this bright, Anderson may try and make it through the pass tonight instead of waiting for morning.”

Dennis Finley poured himself some coffee and sat down next to Cotter. He was a nervous man under the best of circumstances, now, with nearly half the gang missing, his agitation was growing, “What are we going to do? We can’t wait here for them. Lohman is expecting us the day after tomorrow. You said this would be easy. No problems. What if there are Feds waiting for us on the other side of these mountains?”

Marion Cotter took a deep breath before answering. Dennis Finley irritated him at the best of times, now he had to fight to keep the annoyance out of his voice, “There’s no sense in looking for trouble, if it’s coming it will find us and we’ll deal with it. My men are the best, they know how to follow orders and handle themselves in a tight spot.

Anyways there’s Anderson’s. He’s the ace up my sleeve. He ‘n a small crew will be comin’ through the pass and meet up with us in the mornin’, maybe even tonight. Anderson’ll know if there is trouble on the other side the mountain. And I know that area well. If we have to stay off the main road once we’re through the mountains, we will. You keep your cool and do what I tell you and everything will be fine!”

Cotter wasn’t sure if Finley bought his pep talk, but at least he had returned to his bedroll by the wagon. Cotter built up the fire and checked on the horses. All was quiet. Barker and Jackson had stationed themselves on opposite sides of the camp about fifteen feet out from the fire. Satisfied that all was as it should be, Cotter lay down to get some sleep before his watch started.

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Alternating between a ground eating canter and a brisk walk, West and Gordon rode hard to make up the distance to their quarry. They wanted to catch up with the rest of the Cotter gang before they made it through the pass. The mountains now dominated their view to the north. They paused at the top of a hill and West pulled out his telescope to scan the landscape before them for any sign of movement. It was mid afternoon and he hoped they were close enough to spot the men they were pursuing.

“See anything, Jim,” Artie asked.

A smile played across Jim’s lips, “They’re no more than a couple of miles ahead of us. We’re going to have to swing wide around them so we can reach the pass before they do.”

“Mmmm, and just where is this pass we’re looking for? Aiyana’s eyes would be handy about now.”

Jim returned the collapsible telescope to his pocket, “We’ll just have to watch their movement and stay ahead of them. We’ll find it.”

Suddenly both horses spooked, lunging forward. Jim swung Blackjack around to see what startled him; Artemus grabbed the saddle horn as he reined in his chestnut. He, too, turned to look back the way they had come. Nostrils flaring, the horses shifted uneasily as a raven landed a few feet away and transformed into Aiyana.

Jim dropped lightly to the ground and regarded the determined young woman before him, “You shouldn’t have come, Aiyana. The Cotters are killers and you are too important to your village to risk your life.”

“I bring a message from Colonel McPherson,” she approached Jim and handed him a note. She felt his strong fingers brush the back of her hand as he took the message from her. She was startled by her body’s reaction; his touch made her skin tingle and butterflies dance in her stomach.

Jim read the note, then handed it to Artie, “The colonel is going to have some men locate the new hideout. They should be able to catch the counterfeiters without any problems with the information we provided.” He looked in the direction of the mountains, “We need to take the Cotter gang tonight!”

Jim gazed into the blue eyes of the young woman, “Thank you again, Aiyana. Now, please, return to your village.”

“It is for my village that I do this,” Aiyana replied. “I can guide you to the pass. Keep you from the eyes of those you seek.” She looked down demurely for a second, and then boldly met Jim’s green eyes, “I would not see you hurt.”

“She’s our best shot at getting around them unseen and locating the pass, Jim. We need her help,” Artemus said.

Jim glanced over at his partner, then studied the woman before him. “Help us locate the pass, then stay out of sight until we have them. Agreed?” Jim ran his thumb gently along the line of her delicate chin.

Artemus shook his head with a smile. His partner never seemed to miss an opportunity to woo a beautiful woman. It seemed to come as natural to him as breathing. Ah well, he thought, if she has the strength of will to challenge James West, she is strong enough to handle any men her future may hold.

Aiyana let her hand rest on Jim’s, “I will do as you ask. For now head northwest. I will locate the pass.”

Suddenly there was a raven perched on Jim’s outstretched hand. It gently rubbed its thick bill against his strong hand and then took flight. Artemus shook his head and grinned at the surprised look on Jim’s face.

“James, my boy, I think that woman is good for you. She’ll keep you on your toes.” Artemus urged his horse into a canter, not giving his partner a chance to reply.

Jim’s leg had barely cleared Blackjack’s back when the horse broke into a gallop to catch up with Artie’s retreating form. Jim slowed the fiery horse a little to give himself a chance to regain his composure. Artemus is having way too much fun with this! Jim thought to himself.

Several times during the afternoon, Aiyana appeared and had them alter their course to stay out of sight of the gang. Now they were actually ahead of the slower moving outlaws and just a short distance from the pass. Aiyana, in the form of a coyote, trotted in front of them leading the way. The horses were still a little shy of the woman in any of her guises, but no longer panicked when she appeared.

The entrance to the valley was sparsely wooded, but the trees became denser as it gradually climbed to the pass. It was a nice change from the arid foothills through which the agents had been traveling for nearly three days. An old, forgotten trail led up the valley and then over the pass through the mountains. Despite its lack of use the trail was still wide enough to allow the passage of a wagon.

The woods provided West and Gordon with excellent cover for their attack. The horses were left further up the valley since they did not want to risk the horses whinnying and giving away their position. As the sun dropped lower, the two men positioned themselves several hundred yards into the trees. From their hiding place they could see a blackened area not far from a bend in the stream where someone had made a campfire in the past. Jim was sure they would camp in the same area again since wood and water were readily accessible.

Reluctantly, Aiyana left the two men. The blue-eyed raven flew out from the valley until she spotted the approaching men. She circled them once then winged her way north following the valley into the mountains. As she passed over the hidden men, she let out a loud caw. From his hiding place in the crook of a large pine tree, Jim raised his telescope and watched the approaching band of outlaws. Only six, Jim thought, hardly worth using Artie’s new knock-out grenades, but it will let us test them out.

West remained up the tree, watching the Cotter gang set up camp. As dusk fell he noticed Marion Cotter wandering around the camp. The outlaw repeatedly looked back along the trail expecting his bother to come riding up at any moment.

Jim climbed down to a lower limb and then dropped to the ground beside his partner. He accepted the canteen and some jerky, then sat with his back against the tree. The plan was to wait until the men had settled in for the night and then launch the knock-out grenade. With luck, they would be able to take out all five men without throwing a punch.

Close to midnight, the two agents crept closer to the outlaw’s fire. The two sentries had just added more wood and the fire blazed brightly allowing West and Gordon to see the position of most of the men. The sleeping men were all with in a few feet of the fire. Even the guards were no more than fifteen feet out, well within range of the knock-out grenade.

Jim fitted the launcher onto the muzzle of his pistol. He primed the grenade and fitted it into the launcher. His experience with munitions gave him the knowledge to aim his gun so the trajectory of the grenade would have it land a few feet from the fire. The revolver made a soft pop as the grenade was launched.

The grenade landed exactly where West had intended, just a few feet from the fire. Its landing and detonation went unnoticed by the sleeping men and the guards. Marion Cotter shifted restlessly. He started to sit up thinking he should check on the guards, but a heavy sleepiness stole over him. His limbs felt like dead weight and he let himself fall back on his bedroll.

Just seconds before the grenade landed, the two outlaws standing guard moved out of the circle of firelight. Barker headed in the direction of West and Gordon’s hiding place to gather more wood for the fire, while Jackson wandered over to the horses in search of tobacco. Consequently, neither man was within range of the knock-out gas before it dissipated.

It took the two agents several minutes to move into position after they realized the guards had not been affected by the gas and would have to be incapacitated in a more physical manner. Artemus moved in a low crouch toward Barker, the nearest guard. He squatted down behind a bush and waited for his partner to close in on the other guard. Barker spotted a good sized branch at the base of a bush and bent to retrieve it. Before his hand could close on the branch, a fist materialized from the bush and connected solidly with his jaw. With a thud, the outlaw dropped to the ground unconscious.

Jim’s only cover as he approached the remaining guard was darkness. Jackson had finished rolling his cigarette and struck a match to light it. In the brief flare of the match he saw the light reflected off of Jim’s revolver. The outlaw immediately dropped the match and cigarette, slipping behind a horse for cover. Jim stepped back from the horses toward the fire and scanned for the outlaw. Jackson drew his gun and ducked underneath the horse’s neck. He spotted the agent and fired, but Jim had already seen the movement and thrown himself to the ground, simultaneously firing at the man. The impact of the bullet spun Jackson around and he fell, face down, at the feet of a second horse.

The picketed horses whinnied with fear at the close gun play. Jim rested his had on the neck of the nearest horse to calm it before checking the condition of the outlaw. Finding him still breathing, Jim heaved Jackson over his shoulder and carried him back to the fire where Artemus was busy securing the other members of the Cotter gang.

Jim lowered the injured man to the ground. Further up the valley he heard the high yip of a coyote, followed by a howl. The howl was repeated twice more then faded into silence. Jim looked up towards the pass frowning. It could be a wild coyote, but he felt sure it was a signal from Aiyana.

Artemus finished tying up the last of the outlaws and glanced up at his partner.

“Aiyana?” he asked thinking along the same lines as his friend.

Jim nodded, “Trouble.”

Even as he spoke there was a brief flash of light from the direction of the wooded valley followed by the retort of a rifle shot. West and Gordon immediately dropped to the ground. While Artemus fired off a few shots in the direction of the flash, Jim crawled over and kicked out the campfire so they would have the cover of darkness. The two agents split up and ducked behind a couple of large boulders that littered the area.

“They’re too far away. We can’t use a knock-out grenade,” Artemus observed.

“Unless one of us gets closer,” Jim contemplated the distance from the camp to trees.

“Be my guest,” Artie responded. “I wouldn’t want to deprive you of your fun.”

Despite his light words, Jim could hear the concern in his friend’s voice. They both knew that something had to be done quickly and Jim’s physical abilities made him the logical man for the job. The same darkness that provided cover for West and Gordon did the same for the outlaws making it possible for them to surround the agents.

“Cover me, Artie. I’m gonna hitch a ride over there.” Jim moved stealthily towards the picketed horses.

Under the cover of darkness West untied a number of horses and gathered up their lead ropes. A small bay had been left saddled and, after checking to make sure the cinch was tight, Jim led it and the other horses away from the picket line. He positioned the bay in the center of the group and then, with a resounding thwack to the bay’s rump, urged the horses into a gallop towards the valley. Keeping the little bay on his left for protection, Jim ran alongside it for a few steps and then grabbed the saddle horn and swung his left leg just far enough over the seat to permit him to hang onto the side of the horse, his right foot in the stirrup. The animal’s body provided physical cover for the rider while the additional horses increased his odds of making it all the way to the safety of the trees without having his horse shot out from under him.

West could hear Artemus trading shots with the outlaws, but, so far, they did not appear to realize what he was doing. Suddenly one of the horses whinnied in pain and its lead rope was jerked from Jim’s hand as the horse stumbled and fell. The remaining horses panicked forcing West to drop their leads while he concentrated on guiding his mount toward the valley. With just a few yards left to go, he dropped to the ground and, keeping low, ran into the cover of the trees.

West fitted the grenade launcher onto the barrel of his revolver, but before he had an opportunity to fire a burly man with a shaggy beard crashed through the bushes and tackled him to the ground. The two men struggled in the dappled moonlight. Jim found himself pinned under the heavier outlaw who assumed he now had West at a disadvantage. He tried to use his size and brute strength to overpower the agent and get a grip on Jim’s throat. While he struggled to keep the man’s hands from his neck, Jim drew his knees up until his booted feet were firmly planted against the outlaw’s stomach, then with a powerful kick sent the sturdy outlaw staggering backwards.

Instantly West was back on his feet and on the offensive. He pressed his advantage and slugged the outlaw hard on his hairy jaw. A follow up fist to the stomach dropped the larger man to the ground struggling to catch his breath.

Anderson, who had crept up quietly during the fight, leapt from his cover and punched Jim hard on the jaw. Jim staggered backward a step before catching his balance. As the outlaw came at him again, Jim kicked him in the chest. With the wind knocked out of him, Anderson fell backward. Jim grabbed him by the arm and pulled him to his feet only to slam him back with a fist to his jaw. The bearded outlaw was just regaining his feet when Anderson crashed into him and both men went down.

Jim could hear additional gunmen approaching through the woods. They had heard the fighting and came running, making no effort to conceal their approach. West backed away from the pair of outlaws who were climbing back to their feet to give himself more room. He looked around quickly for his gun which he had dropped in the fight, but there was no time to find it in the dim moonlight. He pulled a grenade from an inside pocket of his jacket and primed it. He knew he was too close and may be affected by the gas, but his choices were limited so he threw the grenade. It detonated in front of the battered outlaws just as they were joined by two more of their cronies. Covering his nose and mouth with a handkerchief Jim ran deeper into the woods. A wild shot followed him, striking a tree to his left, then silence.

*****

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Double Take
SS novice field agent

USA
2087 Posts

Posted - 03/03/2009 :  05:39:52  Show Profile
Artie glanced to his right when he heard the hoof beats. The moonlight shone on the horse’s coats as they galloped toward the wooded valley. He couldn’t see his partner, but knew that he was somewhere within the surging mass of horses.

A large boulder to his left looked like it would provide better cover and draw the gunfire away from Jim and the horses. Firing off a couple of quick shots to drive the outlaws deeper into the cover, Gordon dashed across the opening. It was a near thing, and a bullet sent a rock chip flying just as he slid to a stop behind his new cover. Artie paused to reload his revolver and then peered around the boulder looking for a target. He returned fire after the flash of a muzzle gave him a target. He knew hitting anything in the dark would be a lucky shot, but luck was on his side and he heard a yelp of pain.

Artemus started to raise his head above the rock, when a well placed bullet tore his hat from his head. He ducked back down and glanced at his cream-colored hat lying on the ground ten feet away with a neat bullet hole through the crown. Glad it was my hat and not my head. Still maybe a dark hat would be less of a target at night!

The scream of a dying horse caught his attention. Artemus could only just about see them now. It looked like the animals had veered to the right, pounding away into the darkness. Then he noticed one horse maintaining its course toward the trees. That has to be Jim! Artemus went back to laying down cover fire for his partner. When he took a second to glance in that direction again, he saw that the lone horse had also veered off and quickly disappeared.

Two or three more shots came from the direction of the outlaws, then nothing. Artemus knew he had not wounded or killed all the outlaws which meant something else had their attention. That something was most likely James West. Although the silence meant that his partner was not under fire, it also prevented Artemus from determining the position of the outlaws.

Artemus Gordon subscribed to the premise that at times discretion is the better part of valor, but not always, and not in this case. He started moving towards the valley, keeping low and using whatever he could find for cover. It made for slow going, but it would put him in a better position to help his partner if he needed it.

*****

Moving cautiously, Jim circled back around to check on the outlaws. He found them; four men out cold. He quickly disarmed them and managed to locate his own gun in the process. The gas would keep them unconscious for several hours, so he moved stealthily through the underbrush toward the track leading up into the mountains.

Jim had no way to signal Artie without alerting any remaining outlaws to his presence, nor was he even positive of his partner’s position. The gunfire between Artemus and the gunmen had ceased shortly before the last two outlaws had rushed West.

Gun in hand, Jim moved from tree to tree. It seemed to take forever, but he eventually was able to see the path bathed in moonlight. A coyote trotted down the path toward him. With a quick glance in Jim’s direction she moved unhesitatingly to a figure lying in a heap by a large tree. Jim’s face grew taught when he recognized the figure the woman now crouched beside.

As Aiyana reached out to touch the still form, a hand reached around from behind the tree and grabbed her arm, dragging her backward. She found herself with a gun to her head; the man’s hand grasped her opposite wrist, pinning her arms against her body. West moved out from the trees, his gun aimed at Aiyana’s assailant. A second gunman stepped out of the deep shadows created by the bright moonlight, his weapon leveled at West’s chest.

“I don’t know what ya are, ya pretty little thing, but if ya try anything, Lester there’ll shoot your friend,” the outlaw hissed into Aiyana’s ear. “Drop it,” he said motioning to West with his pistol.

Aiyana looked pleadingly at Jim, fear in her eyes. The man’s threat, as well as his grip prevented her from changing form. Slowly, West lowered his revolver and then dropped it, but out of the corner of his eye he caught a slight movement at the base of the tree.

Keeping his arms spread so as to appear non-threatening, Jim tried to distract the gunmen, “So what happens now? You kill two federal agents, you’ll pay the price. They know we’re out here. More ’n half the gang is already in custody, up for murder and attempted murder. So what’ll it be for you fellas? If my partner and I don’t return these hills’ll be swarmin’ with the federal agents.”

As he spoke, Jim slowly moved to his right forcing the two outlaws to shift slightly to keep themselves opposite the agent.

“Now, Artie!” West shouted as he slapped his right elbow against his side; the derringer slid into his hand. He fired and the gunman spun around as the bullet plowed into his shoulder.

At Jim’s shout, Artemus reached up and grabbed Aiyana’s assailant by the pant leg, pulling him backwards as he kicked him behind the knee. Off balance the outlaw instinctively released his hold on the young woman. West lunged forward, grabbing Aiyana and pulling her clear, at the same time he kicked the revolver out of the man’s hand. As the outlaw fell, Artemus snaked his body out from beneath him and smoothly twisted around so he ended with one knee planted on the man’s chest.

“You all right?” Jim asked his partner, the small gun aimed at Artie’s prisoner, his other arm circled protectively around Aiyana’s waist.

Gordon rose gingerly touching a telltale lump on his temple. Aiyana slipped out of Jim’s arm and, standing on tip-toe, kissed the tall agent lightly on the cheek.

“Oh…well, yes. That’ll perk a man up quickly,” he said smiling down at the young Indian woman.

Jim retrieved his gun and went to check on the wounded outlaw while Artemus secured the other prisoner.

“Kind of the Cotters to supply us with a wagon, otherwise we would have a tough time transporting this crew to the sheriff,” Artemus said. “How many others are there?”

“Four, ‘bout a hundred yards east,” Jim answered nodding in the direction where he had left the others. “They got a whiff of your grenade and took a nap. That’s pretty potent stuff, even trying not to breathe it, I could feel its effects.”

Artemus grinned and shook his head, “You’re not supposed to be that close!”

“Fine, partner. Next time I’ll ask them to give me a few seconds to get clear before it detonates.”

Jim located the outlaw’s horses and used their ropes to tie up the still unconscious men. Before long, he and Artemus had the six gang members lined up on the track bound hand and foot. He wasn’t surprised when a few minutes later Aiyana appeared leading Blackjack and Artie’s chestnut.

“You want to stay here and keep an eye on them while I go get our transportation?” Jim asked his partner then turned to Aiyana, “You’ve helped us so much already, but I need you to get a message to Sheriff Bender. Have him send some men to meet us.”

“I will stop at my village first. It is closer and Yiska and some of men from the village can reach you in less than a day’s time.”

Jim noticed a far away look in Aiyana’s eyes when she mentioned Yiska’s name. He watched as a great horned owl silently disappeared in the direction of the Navajo village. With a shake of his head, Jim mounted his horse and headed toward the Cotter’s camp. He was grateful for the bright moonlight, but kept his spirited horse to a cautious trot.

After checking on the five members of the Cotter gang and Dennis Finley to make sure they were still secure, West harnessed the horses and drove the wagon back toward the woods. It took a while, but eventually he and Artemus loaded the six men on to the wagon after dumping the counterfeiter’s equipment. As Jim drove the wagon back to the campsite, Artemus pulled a large suitcase from beneath the bench seat. Opening it he whistled softly at the sight of the fake bills, all neatly stacked and wrapped, ready to be distributed around the western states and territories. In another, smaller case he found the plates.

“Nice of them to leave the evidence neatly wrapped and organized for us,” Artie said with a smile.

The agents took turns resting and watching their prisoners. The next morning they set out on the long road back to Blue Water. It was slow going. The injured outlaws rode in the back of the wagon along with their leader, Marion Cotter, and two others. The rest were on horseback with their hands tied behind them. The horses’ reins were tied to the wagon. Gordon drove the wagon while West, mounted on Blackjack, monitored the party from the rear and sides, revolver in hand, alert for any attempt at escape.

They had stopped to rest and water the horses when Aiyana reappeared. The raven landed a short distance away and transformed into a woman.

“What the devil!” exclaimed Marion Cotter in disbelief. Aiyana ignored the surprised mutterings and apprehensive looks of the prisoners.

“Two government men were with Sheriff Bender when I delivered your message. They ride this way, but their path is long. Yiska and some men from my village set out at dawn. They should meet us tomorrow before the sun reaches its height.”

As she climbed into the wagon next to Artemus, the prisoners watched her warily. A beautiful woman who could transform herself into a raven was something none of them had encountered before. Marion Cotter couldn’t help but wonder if she had something to do with his missing brother.

*****

Artemus spotted a group of riders approaching, their galloping horses kicking up a cloud of dust. He pulled back on the reins and stopped the wagon. Jim urged his black forward positioning himself between the rapidly approaching riders and the wagon. He cocked his pistol and held it at the ready. It was Aiyana who recognized the riders as men from her own village. She climbed down from the wagon and stood next to Jim.

“Friends of yours?” he asked glancing down at the woman.

“They are men of my village,” she acknowledged with pride in her voice.

Jim dismounted as the Indians rode up. Aiyana greeted the men who were clearly in awe of the young woman. Jim noticed a change in Aiyana’s demeanor from when she had first greeted the agents. Gone was the shy young maiden, unsure of herself and how others would react to her unusual powers. Now she radiated confidence, and Jim noted how her eyes lingered on a well-built, young man with keen, dark eyes who rode at the front of the group.

The leader of the Indians slipped from his horse and approached Jim. Aiyana introduced him as Yiska.

Jim extended his hand in greeting, “I’m James West and my partner, Artemus Gordon,” he said indicating his partner who nodded and tipped his hat. “I gather you are acquainted with some of these gentlemen we are escorting,” he added.

The Indian surveyed the prisoners coolly, “We are grateful for what you have done. Bringing these men to justice will restore peace to our village. We are farmers and craftsmen, not warriors.” He signaled his men to spread out around the group. “We are pleased to help the men who rid of us of this evil.”

Yiska narrowed his eyes as he watched West walk Aiyana back to the wagon his hand resting lightly on the woman’s hip. Jim helped her to climb up to the wagon seat next to Artemus. Yiska noticed that Aiyana’s hand lingered in West’s for a few seconds longer than necessary and when the handsome, young agent looked at her, it was not as a Yeenaaldlooshii to be feared and respected, but as a beautiful woman.

*****

A few miles from the Indian village the weary agents and their prisoners encountered Sheriff Bender and his deputies accompanied by two Secret Service agents. Bernard Butler, an agent who had been with the service since its inception, greeted West and Gordon and introduced them to his young partner, George Bailey out on his first assignment.

“Colonel McPherson sent Dietrich and Watson after the counterfeiters in North Bend. They got Morris Lohman and some of the supplies, mostly ink and paper, but no plates and no money. They need them for a solid case,” Butler reported.

Artemus indicated the cases beneath his seat, “We have the plates and the money here. Not to mention Lohman’s partner, Dennis Finely.”

“That should tie things up quite nicely,” Butler said. “After what they did to Matson and Greer, I would’ve hated to see them get away from of lack of evidence!”

Jim offered a hand to Aiyana as she climbed down from the wagon. He glanced briefly toward Yiska, noting how the keen, young Indian watched the pair. He smiled down at the young Navajo woman and kissed her lightly on the lips, “Thank you, Aiyana. You are a remarkable woman, and I suspect Yiska is just beginning to realize that.” His fingers grazed her chin in a gentle caress.

Aiyana turned to find Artemus standing by her. He kissed her lightly on the cheek. “Try not to scare him too much,” he said inclining his head in the direction of Yiska with a sly grin.

The group started moving again, leaving Aiyana and the Indian men to return to their village. Jim held Blackjack back to a prancing trot next to the wagon. Artie shifted the horses’ reins into his right hand and pressed the other against his hip as he stretched his back, “Next time we go after a gang of murders, let’s make sure they follow the rail lines!”

END



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