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California gal
SS senior field agent

USA
8383 Posts

Posted - 03/13/2009 :  07:36:14  Show Profile
THE NIGHT OF THE CURSE OF THE MOON DIAMOND

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so,
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overbrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
Holy Sonnets [1635] – John Donne



A prospector found the corpses. Rather, he thought they were corpses, bloody as they were, sprawled on the dusty path that meandered through the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento. Then he saw the younger of the two men open his eyes briefly. Dismounting from his mule, Johann Eversole knelt by that man, felt for a pulse, and then checked the other one. He could almost not believe they could be still breathing, their hearts beating, with so much gore staining their clothing and on the ground beneath them.

He bandaged them as well as he could with his own clothing, and with what he found in the saddlebags of the two nervous horses lingering nearby. While doing the bandaging, he discovered the papers that revealed the identity of the pair. Johann knew he had to transport them down into Auburn as soon as he could.

He got the two men over the saddles of the waiting horses, and set off for Auburn, the nearest settlement out of these hills. Johann knew that haste was important, and although also aware that the jarring ride might start the wounds bleeding again, he kept his mule moving at a steady pace. The two horses complied, almost as though they understood. The black one in particular had been uneasy until the moment Johann approached with the younger, lighter-weight man in his arms.

Dr. Dermott’s place was on the eastern edge of the town, and Eversole went directly to it. They got the injured men into the house and settled in beds where Dermott and his wife could treat them, while Johann went off to find the local law. Attempted murder—maybe murder—had been committed.

W*W*W*W*W


I observe the physician with the same diligence as he the disease.
Devotions [1624] – John Donne


He came to consciousness slowly, but did not immediately open his eyes, aware of strange sensations, that he was not where he should be… and without the knowledge of why. Gradually memory filtered into his consciousness, and with that memory, pain and fear. With a jolt, he popped his lids open, stared around, and tried to sit up.

The agony movement caused in his chest and shoulder sent him back down with a groan he could not suppress. Almost instantly a man he had never seen before was leaning over him, hands gently but firmly on his shoulders.

“Careful, Mr. West. You’ll open your wounds.”

“Where’s Artie?” He wanted to shout the words, but they came out as a hoarse croak.

The man, white-haired and white-bearded, with compassionate blue eyes, released him, turned a little, then came back with a tumbler full of water. Gently he put a hand behind Jim’s head to lift it enough so as to allow him to take several swallows.

“Where’s Artie?” Jim West asked again, a little panic in his tone. The memory of seeing his partner pitching from his horse was strong—and the only one he had at this moment.

“In the next bed, over here.” The man stepped back slightly, and Jim rolled his head on the pillow to gaze across the small room at the other bed to his left.

“Is he… all right?” Artie’s face was still and pale, a thick bandage of gauze wrapped around his forehead.

“Just as all right as you are. He woke up awhile ago, took a little broth, and went back to sleep. I suspect you’ll do the same.”

“No… I have to…” Once again Jim tried to raise up, and as before, he fell back in weakness and pain. “What happened?”

“First, my name is Dr. Colby Dermott. You are in my home in Auburn, and have been for nearly three days now. As to what happened, the sheriff was hoping you’d throw some light on that. A prospector named Johann Eversole found you in the local foothills and brought you in. None too soon, I might add. Much longer and both of you would have been beyond saving, primarily due to shock and loss of blood. I’m not going to ask you questions now. Sheriff Hickman will do that, when you are strong enough. Lay quiet, and my wife will bring you some broth. You need nourishment to rebuild the blood you lost.”

Before Jim could say anything further, the doctor turned and left the room, closing the door behind him. He looked toward his sleeping partner again, and tried to remember. They had sent the Wanderer on ahead from Reno while finishing an assignment in that Nevada border town. Cobb, the engineer, had requested opportunity to get some maintenance done on the engine in Sacramento, and the agents had agreed. Their next assignment in San Francisco was not for several weeks hence. A leisurely horseback ride over the Sierra in the summer was no hardship.

Lily Fortune was expecting Artemus in San Francisco but she had warned him she would not have time for him until the end of her current play’s run, when she would have a few days hiatus before moving on to the next scheduled performance in Chicago. As Jim had pointed out when they decided on the trek, no one would be able to contact them to interrupt the horseback journey to assign them on another job before the San Francisco commission.

They had treated it almost as a vacation, doing some fishing in streams, swimming in snow-fed ponds, trying their hand at some hunting. No luck finding a deer, but Artie had brought down a couple of rabbits that made for delicious meals. Ironically, Auburn would have been at least an overnight stop, a chance to clean up and sleep in a bed before heading on to Sacramento.

They had not been looking for trouble, had no reason to expect it. Yet suddenly… Jim West frowned, thinking hard. He recalled the reports of rifles but could not swear who had been hit first. He knew he saw Artemus jolt in the saddle, a streak of crimson abruptly appearing along his temple.

That’s about it. I can’t really remember being hit myself. Just blackness…

On the other bed, Artemus moved his head, muttered something, then opened his eyes. He stared at the ceiling a long moment, orienting himself, then turned his head—almost too swiftly—to look at the bed a few feet away, and met his partner’s green eyes. “You’re all right?”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Jim replied. “Seem to be wrapped up tighter than a mummy.” He had investigated the bandages around his left shoulder, a thick one on his right thigh, and still one more on his right forearm. “You?”

“I’m not sure.” Artie brought a hand up from under the coverings to touch the wrapping on his head. “Got one hell of a headache from this. When I first woke up I couldn’t remember a thing.” He had also taken a slug in his right side, just below the rib cage, as well as another deep crease across his back near the shoulders. None life-threatening on their own, but causing a great deal of bleeding and pain.

“What do you remember now?”

“Nothing.”

Jim smiled briefly. Artie had several days’ growth of whiskers on his jaw, and Jim knew that he did too. Obviously the physician spent time caring for their wounds, not for their appearance. “Bushwhacked,” he said then.

“I agree. But who, and why? Why didn’t they finish us? Dr. Dermott believes we had been shot at least an hour, maybe two, before the prospector found us.”

“Did you meet this prospector?”

“No. Seems he headed back to the hills almost as soon as he dumped us here. The sheriff came by, but I was too groggy to talk to him.”

The door of the room opened again, and a handsome, buxom woman with graying blonde hair entered, carrying a tray. “Hello, Mr. Gordon. Good to see you are awake. I hoped you would be so I brought extra soup. Mr. West, I’m Almira Dermott and I’m going to try to get a little nourishment in you before you pass out again.”

“I’m not hungry,” Jim spoke a little testily. “And I’m not going to pass out.”

“Don’t bet on it, pal,” Artemus warned him. “First off, Mrs. Dermott makes delicious soup. Second, you’re going to find the process of taking a few swallows exhausting.” Though both had been wounded in the past, during the war, and during their service for the government, never before had the situation been so dire. Each had been hit three times, and each had taken a slug that required surgical removal, not to mention the severe blood loss. Dr. Dermott had told Artemus that the wound in Jim’s thigh has been potentially the most serious one, occurring so near the femoral artery. Had that vessel been pierced…

About ten minutes later, Artemus allowed Mrs. Dermott to prop a pillow behind his head so as to be able to be fed, and he looked toward his slumbering partner. “Don’t take it personally, Mrs. Dermott,” he said in between swallows. “I’m a bad patient, but Jim is the world’s worst. He hates being an invalid.”

“Having been my husband’s nurse for almost thirty years, I’m accustomed to it,” Almira replied serenely. “I’ll just tell Mr. West what I tell all my patients, the more you submit to my care, the faster you’ll be out of here.”

W*W*W*W*W


The following day, both men were able to sit up in bed long enough to talk to the sheriff. Dr. Dermott sent his youngest son for the lawman, who came right away, a burly man with a bushy reddish beard and almost no hair on his head. He introduced himself as Sheriff Amos Hickman, placed a chair between the two beds and planted himself on it.

“Gentlemen, who shot you?”

The two agents exchanged a glance. “We were hoping you could tell us,” Artie said.

Hickman sighed noisily, shaking his head. “Soon as Johann brought me the news and I checked with the doc, one of my deputies and I went up to where Johann said he found you. We could see the dried blood in the dust, so we knew we had the right place. Scouted all around. Only thing we found was signs of four, maybe five men, who had spent some time behind some rocks west of the trail, up about a hundred yards from where you fell. Lots of cigarette butts and some shell casings. But when we tried to find a trail they might’ve left getting out of there, no luck. They covered their tracks good.”

“Any indication that they checked us afterward?” Jim inquired. “To see if we were dead or alive?”

“Maybe. Not really sure what it means, but there was tracks of a real small buggy, maybe half the width of a regular one, pulled by a single horse, on the trail. Maybe like a pony cart, except it was pulled by a full-size horse. Looked to have stopped not far from where you were. Noticed them because that path is not one normally used by anything but horses and mules and feet. Tried following the wheel tracks, but they petered out too. They didn’t want to be followed.”

Artemus looked at his partner. “They must have thought we were done for and didn’t want to waste extra ammunition.”

“From what the doc said, they weren’t far wrong,” Hickman put in. “That’s not a busy trail. If Johann hadn’t come along, who knows when the next traveler might have.”

Jim’s face and voice were grim. “So if whoever was behind this knew we weren’t dead yet, they were perfectly happy to know that we were going to die slowly and surely.”

“You’re tellin’ me neither one of you remember seeing anything or anybody?”

Jim shook his head. “No one and nothing. It’s baffling because as you said, it’s not a well-traveled route. We pretty much chose it randomly, heading toward Auburn.”

“No one knew you were going that way?”

“We didn’t know exactly where we would be riding until we took that trail,” Artie said. “We informed our superiors that we were going on horseback from Reno, but we had no set route.”

“Someone was following us.” Jim’s voice was steely.

Artemus nodded. “That seems to be the case.” And we were completely ignorant of it!

“Now what I want to know is why you were talking about the Nile, Mr. Gordon.”

Artie blinked. “Why what?”

“According to Johann Eversole, when he was bandaging you, you came awake and started muttering about ‘the Nile.’ He couldn’t make heads or tails of it.”

Artie shook his head slowly, still conscious of the wound and his headache. “Nor can I. He’s sure that’s what I said?”

“That’s what he made out.”

“I must have been out of my head.”

“So, do you boys know of anyone who’d be gunning for you?” Hickman grinned suddenly. “That’s a foolish question, isn’t it?”

“A little,” Jim smiled wryly. “I guess the question should be, who’s available to be gunning for us. We’ll have to find out if there’s been any prison breaks, or perhaps the whereabouts of men known to be on the loose, if possible.”

“Well, I sent a telegraph message up to Reno and a few other places, but I’m not hopeful of any answers that are going to be useful. I’ll let you two know whatever I learn.” The sheriff got to his feet. “Meanwhile, you rest and get yourselves well, pronto. Seems to me that if whoever did this finds out you didn’t die…”

“Don’t worry, sheriff,” Artie said, “we’ve already thought of that. We’re going to need to send a few telegraph messages ourselves.”

The two agents were silent for several long minutes after the lawman departed. Artemus finally spoke his thoughts aloud. “The Nile. That doesn’t make sense!”

“You’ve always said you’d like to visit Egypt, Artie.”

“Yeah, sure. But why would I babble about it when I’m at death’s door?”

Jim did not respond, his eyes on the bandage wrapped around his right forearm. The physician had told them both that all the wounds should heal cleanly, without any lingering effects, so long as they gave themselves time to allow the healing process to complete itself. That was going to be the most difficult part, remaining inactive for the duration, knowing that whoever attempted to kill them was out there somewhere.

In one of his first really lucid arousals, Artemus had asked the doctor to send a message to Colonel Richmond, so their superior knew what had happened. A reply had come back informing them that Richmond was on his way west from a meeting he had been attending in Saint Louis. Jim had no doubt that the colonel would be summoning other agents. That was also galling. Jim West and Artemus Gordon usually took care of their own problems.

“Who, Jim? Who was it?”

Jim looked toward his partner after the outburst, saw the anger on Artie’s face, the same anger he was experiencing. “We’ll find him. Them. Whoever. The sheriff is right. Someone apparently thought we had no chance to survive, and was confident enough to go off and let us simply die there. When that someone finds out we’re alive, he’s going to come back.”

“Or she.”

“Yeah. Or she.” They had dealt with a number of females in the past who might be capable of setting up such an ambush. “In fact, the buggy the sheriff mentioned might indicate a female. We’d better get some paper and write those messages. Orrin is probably sitting in Sacramento wondering what became of us.”

“And I need to contact Lily. Don’t want her to hear of this second-hand—if she hasn’t already.”

W*W*W*W*W


And they all had trust in his cussedness,
And knowed he would keep his word.
Jim Bludso, John Hay (1838-1905), American statesmen and author


When Colonel James Richmond arrived two days later, the agents were able to be out of bed, though neither could walk very far without assistance, a fact that irked both of them. Jim in particular had to use a cane because of his injured leg. The doctor and his wife kept close watch on them to make sure they did not overdo it, quite aware of the notoriety of their patients and what it would mean if one or both suffered a relapse. Besides, as Mrs. Dermott told her husband, “They are nice young men. Not at all what I expected when reading about their exploits.”

The colonel brought Frank Harper and young agent Ned Malone with him. The pair had been finishing up a case in Kansas City, so the colonel arranged for them to join him on the train on which he was traveling. The three men had stopped over in Reno to make inquiries about the case West and Gordon had been working on, but learned nothing beyond the fact that the trio involved in a bond theft were safely in jail. An interview with those men was fruitless, and both Richmond and Harper had to admit that as far as they could discern, the men were telling the truth when they claimed to know nothing about the ambush.

“I have to concur with that,” Jim said. He was sitting on his bed now, leaning against pillows, his injured leg bolstered by another pillow. “Lake, Cochran, and Battoni did not strike me as men prone to violence. They are thieves, clever thieves, but not killers.”

“There’s always the chance,” Frank Harper put in from his position leaning against the wall near Artie’s bed, “that someone near and dear to them set out after revenge.”

Artemus was sitting with his legs dangling over the edge. He knew that Jim was annoyed that the leg wound precluded him donning his trousers, while his partner had been able to. Jim was wearing a flannel robe the doctor had provided. “If any of them had anyone ‘near and dear’ to them,” Artie said, “they didn’t show up at the trial. So far as I know, none of them asked for word to be sent to any family or friends.”

“Has to have been someone from the distant past,” Jim stated. “Someone we may have forgotten about.”

“I can tell you conclusively that no one has escaped or been recently been released from prison,” the colonel said flatly. “That’s the first thing I checked. I’ve asked wardens to check about visitors to people like Emmett Stark and Furman Crotty, and I’m waiting to hear from them.”

“Maybe Loveless,” Harper suggested.

Both wounded agents shook their heads, and Jim spoke. “No. Not his style. Not an ambush. He would want us to know who did it. Besides he was last seen in Alaska Territory, just a couple of weeks ago.”

“If that tip can be trusted,” Artie muttered. He knew Jim believed it, primarily because Antoinette and Voltaire had been spied as well—at least according to the report received. Nevertheless, Artie tended to agree with his partner that an ambush like this was not the way Miguelito Loveless would act, especially in their case. He would certainly seek vengeance, but he would want agents West and Gordon to be very aware of who was ending their lives. His enormous ego demanded that.

Richmond got to his feet from the chair that was situated in almost the same spot the sheriff had placed it previously. “The main thing now is for you two to recover fully. You are on medical leave until that day, regardless of whether it takes two weeks or six months. You are not to attempt to do any investigating until you have complete clearance from a physician. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir,” James West said promptly.

“Yes, sir,” Artemus Gordon said at once, as the pair spoke almost in unison.

Their superior looked at each one of them. “I know you two well enough to realize you are already thinking about how you’re going to get around this order. But I also know you are men of your word. So I’m going to demand your word of honor that you will obey my instructions.”

The response was a little slower this time, but both agents concurred. Knowing that the colonel was right, that they needed to heal, did not ease the frustration both were experiencing. The wounds they had suffered were serious, but blood loss even more so. They needed to fully recover in order to be fully effective. But out there somewhere was a person who had attempted to take their lives, or ordered it done. That person needed to be run to ground, and quickly. As much as they respected the colonel and their fellow agents, James West and Artemus Gordon knew that they were the only ones who could accomplish this task. They were the ones who had to do it.

W*W*W*W*W


“Well? Did you get the newspapers?”

The man entering the door of the secluded cottage nodded, holding out a bundle of journals. “Got ‘em, Doctor. As many as I could find. From Reno, Sacramento, San Francisco… but there ain’t nothing there.”

“What do you mean, nothing?” He reached out and grabbed the papers, started leafing through, looking at the front pages. “There has to be!”

“Yes, sir, I know that. But there ain’t.”

He looked up, glared at his hireling. “But you said the bodies had been taken away.”

“Yes, sir. When I went back next day, they was gone. Just the puddles of blood left.”

“It’s some kind of trick. They think they can fool me. Idiots! The story will come out sooner or later. Men like West and Gordon cannot just disappear. Someone will learn of their demise and publish it. But no matter. We have six more weeks. In that time span, the news will be published. If necessary, I myself will arrange for the story to be leaked to the press.” He stopped and looked at the man standing in front of him again. “They are dead.” Though posed as a statement, it was a question and a command.

“Oh, yes, sir! Yes, sir! I couldn’t find no pulse on either one, Doc… I mean, Doctor. Dead as doornails. Um, I’d better go get my horse in out of sight.”

Alone again, he stared at the door the man had just closed behind him. Are there no intelligent men in this country? I suspect that I have ordered killed the only two with any brains… if indeed they are dead. They must be dead. I cannot allow them to interfere again. And James West in particular must pay for what he did to me.

W*W*W*W*W


Lily Fortune arrived the following day, almost simultaneously with the Wanderer, though she traveled on a commercial train. The actress’s performance in San Francisco had ended, and she had been looking forward to meeting Artemus there, had the pair’s journey continued as scheduled. The telegram had come as a shock, so she hastened to Auburn. She greeted her fiancé with a tearful kiss, gently embraced Jim with more tears, then calmed down and announced she had engaged a husband and wife team to board the Wanderer and take care of the convalescing agents as long as needed. She herself, regretfully, could remain only two days before she continued east to Chicago for her next performance.

Naturally Artie and Jim protested, claiming they would be well enough to take care of themselves. Nonetheless, Lily, like the doctor, the doctor’s wife, and the colonel, was adamant, quite familiar with the two agents and their tendency to ignore their own safety and health.

“You are both very ill,” she told them firmly. “You need days, perhaps weeks, to rebuild your strength after these injuries. I’m going to make certain you eat well, you get your rest, and do not do anything foolish. The couple I have engaged are quite capable of ensuring that these things take place.” Lily looked at Jim, then at Artemus. “And they will report to me. Artemus, my darling, we have not yet set a date but I want to make sure you are alive to meet that appointment!”

“We’ve been kidnapped,” Jim complained as soon as they were alone.

His partner sighed. “Looks like it. Jim, it’s as though they don’t trust us, and think we are… irresponsible.” The two men gazed at each other, and after a moment, both grinned widely. “I think,” Artie added, “we also have people who care about us.”

W*W*W*W*W


Sheriff Hickman reported that he and his deputies had scoured the countryside, and not only could not find any signs of strangers, they had not talked to anyone who had seen any strangers either. Nor had any spotted an undersized buggy. “Sometimes seems as though you were shot by ghosts,” he griped.

Artemus touched the white patch covering his head wound. “Didn’t feel much like ghostly bullets.”

“Yeah, I reckon.”

The three men fell silent a moment before Jim spoke. “It’s got to be someone with a grudge, or at least a reason to want us out of the way, but also someone we wouldn’t suspect.”

Artie shook his head. “I don’t get that, Jim. We’ve already talked about this. Someone with a grudge has to be someone we know about.”

Again silence, until the sheriff broke it. “You figure out if you muttering about the Nile is important, Mr. Gordon?”

“If it is,” Artie sighed, “I haven’t come up with anything yet. I had to have been delirious.”

“That reminds me,” Hickman said. “Nearly forgot. Johann Eversole is going to be in town tomorrow. Farmer a little ways south of here ran into him the other day. Johann would like to see you before you head to San Francisco.”

“We’d like to see him,” Jim replied. “We owe him a huge debt of gratitude.”

“In fact,” Artemus added, “if necessary, we’ll delay our departure.”

W*W*W*W*W


“They are still alive!”

“No, sir! That ain’t so! I swear, Doc. I checked. They was dead!”

“They are still alive! Their train is in Auburn to pick them up. Mr. Gordon’s fiancée visited, and she was not grieving!”

“Please, sir! I don’t like to touch dead people. But I swear…!”

The report of the pistol cut off his words, and the man slumped to the floor. Obeying the jerk of a head, two of the other men in the room quickly seized the deceased’s shoulders and dragged him out the front door.

“Now… I want no more idiotic failures. We have time, but it must not be wasted. James West and Artemus Gordon must be dead before we put our operation is place. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir!” The five men remaining spoke as one.

W*W*W*W*W


Artemus Gordon opened his eyes, instantly tense. “Jim?” he whispered into the darkness.

“I’m awake.”

“Someone…”

“Yeah, I know.” Carefully, Jim reached across his body with his right hand for the pistol on the small table next to his bed. Both he and Artemus had asked for their weapons. Dr. Dermott was reluctant, but when Colonel Richmond decided it might not be a bad idea—“until we find out and nab whoever attempted to kill them”—the physician acquiesced.

A scratching sound at the window had aroused him, and apparently Artemus as well. Years of being on alert had honed their instincts finely. Jim was certain that his partner now had his weapon in hand as well as they lay quietly and waited, stretching slightly, and uncomfortably, to watch the window on which a shade had been drawn at sunset.

A murmur of voices was heard, then a loud snap, as though a twig had been stepped on. A moment later, a louder male voice came from a distance. “Hey! Who’s out there!”

No doubt about the sounds that ensued. Whoever was at the window departed hastily. Moments later, the sound of horses that had apparently been waiting a short distance away, leaving rapidly.

“Well,” Artemus said, easing back on his pillow. He knew his partner felt as he did, wanting to get out and chase whoever had been lurking out there. An impossibility at this time.

Someone knows where we are.”

“And that we are alive.” They had agreed with Colonel Richmond’s decision to keep the incident out of the newspapers as long as possible. In fact, that idea had been in Artemus’s head almost from the beginning. “Maybe came to finish the job.” Artemus looked toward the window again. All was silent now. The resident at the next house had apparently gone back to bed.

“We’d better not tell anyone,” Jim said.

“Right.” No need to get Richmond or anyone else all nervous and excited. They sure did not want a round-the-clock guard set up! “Not unless that next-door neighbor decides to call in Sheriff Hickman. And that seems unlikely now.”

“Probably thought it was a couple of drunks. Artie, someone wants us dead, and wants it badly.”

“Yeah.”

Artemus knew Jim was not expressing astonishment at the notion. They had been threatened numerous times in their career. Somehow this one seemed different, as though an urgency was behind it. Someone had taken the time and effort to learn their plans after leaving Reno. Those plans had not really been a secret. They had told the Reno authorities with whom they had been cooperating, as well as sending a telegraph message to Colonel Richmond, who had still been in Washington at the time. Because the Wanderer had already departed, they had had to use a Western Union office.

“What gets me,” Jim said slowly in the darkness, “is that we must have been watched all along the way.” That realization was unnerving, as well as infuriating to two men who prided themselves on their awareness of their surroundings at all times.

“Maybe not all the time,” Artie returned. “We were in several locations where an ambush could have been set up. But perhaps our general direction was enough for whoever this is to figure out our probable route and lay in wait. Hickman said they appeared to have been behind those rocks for some period of time.” They had not talked about this much yet. By the time they had recovered enough strength to converse at length, company always seemed to be present when they were awake, if not the doctor and his wife, then Lily, the colonel, or Harper and Malone, as well as the sheriff. Their conversations together had been short, always aware that they could be interrupted at any moment.

“But who? Someone who took the trouble to follow through to find out whether we died, and where we were being treated.”

“And came—or sent someone—to try to finish the job tonight. I agree, Jim. Who? Quite a few possibilities come to mind, but none that could have opportunity. Stark and Crotty could be reaching out from prison, as Crotty did for the smallpox serum, but I have a notion that those two men would want to commit the murders themselves. Or at least be present to watch.”

“So far no information indicates they had visitors who might be capable of carrying out such orders.”

“I know,” Artie sighed. Richmond had been diligently and persistently contacting the wardens of the various prisons, demanding information. “I guess the thing for us to do is to follow orders—as we’ve been ordered—to get well and take care of business ourselves.”

“Seems so. Good night, Artemus.”

“Good night, James.” Artie settled back against his pillow, the pistol still in his hand to rest across his chest. He knew that his partner was similarly cradling his weapon. Forewarned is forearmed!

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 - 03/13/2009 :  07:37:39  Show Profile
W*W*W*W*W


I hate this!

Jim West maintained a stoic face as Ned Malone pushed the wheeled chair down the board walkway toward the waiting carriage. He had tried to tell the doctor and the others that he could walk from the physician’s home to the buggy that would take them to the depot and the train. Dr. Dermott had sternly refused, however, and Colonel Richmond had agreed.

“Jim, you don’t want to take a chance of stumbling or falling at this point. Everything is healing well. The more you stick to the doctor’s instructions, the faster you’ll be healthy again.”

Artemus could almost read his partner’s mind. He himself was able to walk, though Frank Harper and Colonel Richmond were close by his side. He was a little surprised at just how much effort this short walk was consuming. Like Jim, he had felt pretty darned good in the bedroom, able to move from the bed to the chair, and this morning they had gone to the table in the Dermotts’ dining room for breakfast for the first time.

Those little trips on a firm, smooth floor are nothing like managing stairs and then making sure one lifts one’s feet high enough so as not to stub them on the boards of the walk. I don’t mind admitting that the seat in the buggy is going to feel dang good. Doubt if James will say that though.

Ten days had elapsed since they had been brought to Dr. Dermott’s home, unconscious and weak from loss of blood and the shock of the wounds. Each had had a bullet removed from their flesh, but Artemus knew that Jim’s wounds had been more severe than his own, despite the bullet that came so close to entering his brain. A small patch now covered that head wound, and the headache that had accompanied it for several days was completely gone.

Gives me the chills to consider how close we came to buying it this time. If the course of the bullet that grazed my head had moved an inch or so. If the bullet that struck Jim’s leg had severed that artery… And most importantly if Johann Eversole hadn’t come along.

The prospector had visited them a few days ago. Both agents were surprised to find that Eversole was a much younger man than they had anticipated, probably in his mid forties. He was a big man, with a long, straight blond beard and a head full of curly blond hair. He also did not talk much. Artie suspected that might be the result of spending so much time alone in the mountains.

However, he reiterated what the sheriff had told them, that he saw no one around, had not encountered anyone in the vicinity, and also that Artemus had muttered ‘the Nile’ several times. “Seemed kind of important to you, Mr. Gordon. You grabbed my arm and I had to pry your fingers loose once you passed out again.”

That still makes no sense. Probably means nothing, yet… Hearing Eversole’s description of the scene and his behavior was extremely baffling to Artemus Gordon. The prospector had also seen the tracks that indicated the assailants—or someone—had approached the injured men, then went off and left them. If someone wanted them dead, why did they not finish the job? Why take the chance of them dying from loss of blood and exposure?

“You okay?”

Artemus was startled to become aware that he was now sitting in the rear seat of the landau, alongside his partner. He realized that the other men had assisted him into the seat. His own movements had been somewhat automatic, if uncomfortable. Maybe because I’ve been so uncomfortable these last days that I didn’t even notice a little more.

He glanced at Jim. “Yeah, fine. You?”

“I’ll make it.”

That was, Artie realized, as close as Jim would come to admitting the stress of the short trek from the house. Hearing his name called, Artemus turned to find Mrs. Dermott at the side of the vehicle.

“I want you two boys to take care of yourselves,” she urged. “I don’t want to hear that you’ve undone all my care.”

Artie reached out to take her hand. “And fine care it was, Mrs. Dermott. You have our deepest gratitude. Next time we are in this area, we’ll stop by so you can see how we are doing.”

Jim leaned forward slightly. “And we owe you and your husband a dinner in Auburn’s finest restaurant.”

Colby Dermott heard that remark and he laughed. “Mr. West, Auburn’s finest meals are served by my wife. You’ll be our guest.”

With Frank Harper handling the reins, Colonel Richmond beside him on the front seat, and young Ned Malone riding alongside, leading the horses of the two agents, they set out. The nearest siding where the Wanderer was parked was over an hour away by buggy. At first, Richmond kept turning around and asking his two injured men if they were all right, but soon realized he was probably not going to get an honest answer from either of them, so gave up asking. He did glance around from time to time.

To make sure we haven’t fainted, Artie decided.

Frank Harper spoke over his shoulder. “Jim, the colonel tells me you’ve now completely ruled out Loveless as being behind the attack. I’ve never dealt with the man, but from what I’ve heard, he sure would be happy to have the two of you out of the way.”

“He can’t be ruled out one hundred percent,” Jim replied. “But to me, anyway, it’s just not the way he would operate.” He looked at Artemus.

Artie caught that look and knew his partner wanted his agreement and confirmation. But I can’t give it. He had given a lot of thought to the matter since the little doctor’s name had first been brought up in regard to the ambush and come to the conclusion that sheer hatred could well have caused Loveless to alter his usual tactics. “There’s always the chance he’s decided to put his ego aside in the interests of seeing you dead, Jim.”

Jim clamped his jaw shut. I have no reason to defend Loveless. In fact, I should not defend him, considering the number of times he tried to kill me and Artie. Not to mention the instances when he wanted to virtually destroy the world. Yet… I just know this attack was not instigated by Miguelito Loveless.

“We haven’t come up with anyone else,” Richmond, turning slightly in the front seat so he could view his agents. “Everyone we checked on is in prison or we know where they are.”

“You said Loveless was in Alaska,” Jim shot back.

“That was the report we had, and it seemed reliable. However…”

No one spoke further. The carriage rumbled along, with Frank Harper doing his best to avoid ruts and potholes, but not always successful. By the time the vehicle pulled up alongside the varnish car, two very weary agents were doing their level best to not display just how weary they were.

“Good to be home,” Artemus murmured as he stepped inside the car. Jim did not reply, but Artie could see by his face that he felt the same way.

“Ah, sir! Welcome back. Please sit down. Coffee is almost ready to be served.”

Both agents stopped short and stared at the slightly built man who emerged from the galley area, a beaming smile on his countenance.

“Tennyson!” Jim exclaimed. “What the devil are you doing here?”

The smile on the face of the former manservant grew even wider, if that was possible. “Miss Fortune looked us up, sir, and related your current difficulties. Of course we are more than happy to assist.”

“We?” Artie asked, still stunned. They had not seen Tennyson in two years, not since he left them to marry and settle down in the Sonoma Valley north of San Francisco.

“Why, Phoebe is with me, certainly. As a former nurse in the Crimea, she will be most helpful, don’t you agree? But please sit down. I am sure you are both fatigued. I was extremely disturbed when I heard what happened.”

“Sit down,” Richmond ordered, “before you fall down. Frank and Ned are looking after the horses.”

Jim and Artemus sank onto the sofa, both still flabbergasted. Neither had thought to inquire further about Lily’s selection of a “husband and wife” to look after them on the trip to San Francisco. “How did Lily… Miss Fortune find you?” Artie asked then.

Tennyson beamed. “We were in the city to see the drama in which she was appearing, and took the liberty to call on her, seeing as how we had mutual acquaintances. She knew, therefore, that we were in the city and looked us up once receiving the dire news. Miss Fortune is a wonderful woman, Mr. Gordon. You are most fortunate.”

“Yes, I know. Thank you.”

Phoebe Tennyson entered then, bearing a tray with coffee service. She was a petite woman with graying dark hair in a neat bun and bright blue eyes. Tennyson had fallen hard for the British widow the first time he saw her, but both of them had had a difficult time raising the courage to approach Tennyson’s then employers to tender his resignation. Even now Phoebe bore a rueful smile as she poured the coffee.

“Sirs, I do hope you’ve forgiven me for taking my dear from you.”

Artie had always thought it a strange quirk that Phoebe never seemed to address her beloved by his given name, but always called him “Dear,” and referred to him as “my dear” to others. “We have managed, Phoebe,” he smiled to show her he was teasing. “But barely.”

Within a short while the train began to move on its way toward San Francisco. The agents had known that their colonel, as well as the two other agents would accompany them. Artie and Jim had briefly argued that they did not need bodyguards, but quickly realized that arguing was futile, so conceded. After all, once in San Francisco they would be ensconced in a safe and comfortable hotel room, and soon busy on their assignment. Highly unlikely that the assassins would follow them into the city.

W*W*W*W*W


“Our opportunity has passed us by. The train is somewhat impregnable, and it would be difficult, and probably useless, to attempt to wreck it. Even that would not guarantee the finish of West and Gordon. No, now we must plan carefully. I must plan carefully. Fortunately, I was perceptive enough to begin early, not only in order to dissuade the authorities from connecting the events, but to allow for failure. But failure will not be acceptable, gentlemen. Failure is never acceptable. In this case, it cannot fail. I will not allow it. I will personally attend to the task.”

W*W*W*W*W


The Wanderer arrived in the San Francisco rail yards on a foggy summer day after a slow, three-day journey from the mountains to the coast. Both Artemus and Jim quietly admitted to each other that the opportunity to completely relax in their “home” and be cared for had been of great avail as far as their health was concerned—though neither would say so to their colonel or anyone else.

Tennyson had been there to help them dress each morning and prepare for bed at night. Phoebe had not only cooked the excellent food and served it, she had changed the bandages on their wounds, making certain the healing scars continued to heal and stayed clean. She also watched the two agents like a hawk to ensure they did not overdo their activity, but also that they did not become sedentary, and thus prevented the scars from becoming painful lesions. Phoebe kept a journal which she insisted the two men should present to whatever physician they saw in San Francisco.

They were entertained by Frank Harper and his skills as a card player, and highly amused when Ned Malone turned out not to be a soft touch as a poker player, and indeed won his share of chips. Even Colonel Richmond joined some of the games, but lost consistently, and usually preferred to observe.

The one thing the two men did not do was discuss the identity of the man who led the attack on them. They did not talk about the assault much at all. Artemus experienced a touch of sorrow, because he knew Jim felt betrayed that his partner did not agree with him regarding the possibility that Miguelito Loveless was involved. Artie thought he understood why Jim was so adamant, yet he himself was practical enough to apprehend that the likelihood existed that the little doctor had changed his tactics after so many failures.

I see Jim’s viewpoint. Almost every time one or both of us has been attacked when a specific crime was not involved, Loveless has been behind it. Like the time Loveless lured Jim into a trap by pretending he was dead, or the attempt to substitute a doppelganger for Jim West. But Jim is being his usual stubborn self, refusing to consider options and guard against all possibilities.

All during the trip, every man, including the crew, was on alert. No one was willing to be assured that the attacks would not be resumed, even though neither Jim nor Artie mentioned the late night prowlers at the doctor’s home. As far as Colonel Richmond was concerned, someone was out to kill his best agents and he was not about to let down his guard, nor allow his men to lower theirs.

That nothing occurred during the journey was almost more worrisome than if the train had been attacked. Without information on who had staged the assault—and nothing new was forthcoming from all of the inquiries Richmond sent out—figuring out what to do next was nearly impossible, beyond remaining watchful.

By the time they reached the San Francisco railroad yards, the only decision that had been made was that Jim and Artemus would go directly to their hotel—along with the Tennysons. As surprised as they had been that the couple had been employed to assist them, West and Gordon were astonished to realize they were to remain in San Francisco to continue the task of attending the agents.

As Tennyson succinctly put it, “Miss Fortune contracted us for a definitive length of time, sirs. We intend to fulfill that contract.”

Richmond reluctantly admitted that he could not leave Harper and Malone to assist the agents. The other pair were already committed to travel to Seattle to take care of a matter similar to the assignment that West and Gordon had been detailed for in San Francisco. Nor did he have any other agents available. He was, however, going to speak to the Chief of Police in San Francisco to request assistance.

Jim and Artemus tried their level best to talk their superior out of this notion. “Sir, we do not need babysitters!” Artie protested. “It’s not the first time we’ve been targeted. Nor likely the last.” If we survive this.

The colonel was adamant. “There’s something particularly nasty about this business, gentlemen. I have complete and utter confidence in your abilities in most situations. But remember, you are still weakened by your wounds. You can carry out your normal duties without any problem, I’m certain. But should you be attacked again... I’m just not certain you would be able to repel it.”

Jim later admitted he would be happy to continue to have Tennyson available to help him dress in the morning, not to mention shaving. His shoulder and arm were still stiff from the wound. “While I can shave, Tennyson has a particularly deft touch with a razor.”

“And having Phoebe at hand will negate the necessity to visit a doctor or the hospital to have the bandages changed regularly,” Artemus agreed. The one on his own side had been particularly problematical. Because of its location, he had accidentally reopened the healing scab twice on the train, once bumping into the corner of the fireplace when the train swayed slightly while crossing a bridge. The head wound now required only a small piece of plaster, while the streak on his back had healed more rapidly, though a scab remained and Phoebe insisted it be covered by a light bandage.

Their appointment with Dr. Holtz at the museum was still two days away, so the agents devoted their time to rest and recuperation. Sergeant Lloyd Morris of the San Francisco police visited at the behest of his chief to discuss the situation and to see how the department could assist.

“We won’t know for certain until after we visit the museum and study the surroundings,” Jim replied blandly, quite aware that that was not the type of “assistance” Lloyd was offering. “We’ll figure out how many guards are needed…”

Morris rolled his eyes. He knew these agents well enough from past experience to be aware he was not going to receive a direct request for assistance. They would not, nevertheless, turn away any help he offered. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to ring the hotel with a cordon of police officers.” They were in Jim’s hotel room, with Jim sprawled on the bed, Artemus and Lloyd Morris on chairs. Lloyd could see the bulge of the bandage on Jim’s thigh under the trousers. Artemus had told him how dangerous that wound had nearly been.

“What about the Moon Diamond?” he asked then.

“It’s due to arrive in San Francisco via a secret courier in eleven days,” Artie responded. “Even we don't know who the courier is. Our job is security at the museum.” Which was something that was worrying him more and more, especially because he was now not convinced that Loveless was not involved. The little genius had developed a method to steal the crown jewels from the Denver museum and though unlikely that Loveless would use the same modus operandi, he could come up with something even more ingenious… whatever that could be.

“Your chief has promised us some of his most reliable officers,” Jim put in. He knew that Lloyd would put the same meaning on “reliable” that he did, to wit, the most honest policemen. Even the police chief did not want the stigma of the theft of one of the world’s most famous stones on his watch.

Morris leaned forward, elbows on his knees as he looked from one man to the other. He also knew from experience that being straightforward with this pair was the best way to get straightforward responses. Though no guarantee. “What do you know about whoever tried to kill you?”

“Almost nothing,” Jim replied promptly. “Artemus and a few others believe Dr. Loveless could be involved, but I’m 99% sure he’s not.”

Artie was glad to hear this being brought out into the open. “What about the other one percent?” he twitted.

Jim flashed a grin. “Well, I want to be able to say I was at least partially right in case I’m wrong.” The smile faded. “It’s a gut feeling, Lloyd, from knowing Loveless as well as I do. He has never changed, and I cannot see him doing so. He wouldn’t send minions to do the job, not unless he was there to watch us being shot down and…”

“It could have been him in the little cart,” Artemus interrupted.

“And…” Jim continued with an annoyed glance, “he would have lined us up facing him, so he could see us and we could see him.”

Artie just sighed as Morris inquired, “What’s that about a little cart?”

Jim tersely explained, drawing a deep frown from the officer. “What? What do you know, Lloyd?”

Lloyd Morris shook his head. “It’s probably nothing.”

“Let us decide that,” Artie said softly. He too had seen how the police sergeant’s expression had altered upon hearing about the cart.

“Couple of boys in my precinct—brothers—have family connections down in Davenport, which is a whaling community south of San Mateo. I recall that they came back from a visit there a few months ago and were laughing about a local carriage maker and the strange cart he was custom-making for someone. Said it looked like an oversized pony cart.”

The two agents looked at each other before Jim spoke. “Lloyd, can you get in touch with those officers and get the name of the carriage maker? We may need to send someone down there to talk to him.”

“Certainly. I’m pretty sure one will be on duty tonight. I’ll talk to him and get back to you. If it’s not Loveless, who is it?”

“That’s the problem, Lloyd,” Artemus replied. “Colonel Richmond has been burning up the wires trying to get information on who might be responsible, but so far, nothing but dead ends. We don't know who it was, we don't know why, and we don't know if that’s the end of it.”

“Pretty unnerving,” the sergeant said softly.

“That’s putting it mildly,” Artie said, looking toward his partner, who was staring at his boots, his face somber. “Jim?”

Jim West looked up. “I was just thinking… look at how many years we’ve been doing this. Started during the war, technically. The spying, the undercover work…”

“So you’re suggesting it could be someone from the distant past,” Artie mused. “That’s quite possible. Yet… Jim, we already discussed this, the planning and snooping required to find us in Reno, then to follow us over the mountains. To be waiting for us in just the right location.”

“You’re saying?”

“That it’s someone who’s been tracking us for awhile.”

“So you’re back to Loveless.”

“Not really. I’m saying we’re back to square zero. We just don't know. We may not know until we run the culprit down.”

“Unless you figure out why you were raving about the Nile.”

Artie shook his head, grimacing. “Delirious ravings.” Seeing the question on the sergeant’s face, he explained what their rescuer had reported. “I’ve come to the conclusion that the head wound rattled my brains momentarily. No comment please, James. As Jim mentioned early on, one of my ambitions is to visit Egypt before I leave this earthly plane. Perhaps… thinking I was dying…” He shrugged.

“Strange,” Lloyd nodded. “But you might be right. I sure cannot see what the Nile would have to do with anything. The diamond isn’t from Egypt is it?”

“Originally mined in South Africa,” Jim said, “on some property controlled by one Joseph Bleak. He took possession and held it until his death, whereupon he willed it to the National Museum.”

“And now the museum is sending it around the country,” Artie added, “to be displayed in various museums. Seattle after San Francisco. Various agents are in charge of each location. We chose San Francisco.” Artemus knew that he and Jim had been given the privilege of selecting which site they wanted, primarily because of the manner in which the Moon Diamond had been handed over to the federal government. Jim had nearly lost his life accomplishing the feat.

When Jim had arrived in Washington with the diamond in his possession—hidden among dirty laundry in his valise—he had told his partner the incredible story of what had occurred on Bleak Island. Originally Artemus had been scheduled to accompany him, but certain aspects of the work Artie was working on in Washington simply could not be cleared up rapidly enough, so Jim had gone alone.

“Is the Moon Diamond all it’s cracked up to be?” Lloyd asked.

“More,” Artie replied. “It’s incredible. Never touched by a diamond cutter, it is nonetheless one of the most beautiful diamonds ever discovered. Over a thousand carats, and priceless. Of course it does not generate its own illumination but…” He shook his head, recalling the first time he had seen the stone.

“Is it cursed? I’ve always heard that some large diamonds are.”

“A couple of people died over it,” Jim said softly. “I’m not sure if that means it’s cursed or not.”

Lloyd pulled his pocket watch out, sighed heavily. “Time for me to go to work.” He got to his feet. “I’ll get the information about the carriage maker to you as soon as I can. Hope it helps.”

A knock sounded on the door just as Morris rose, and he stepped over to open it. Phoebe Tennyson was there with her small black medical bag to announce it was time to inspect Mr. West’s and Mr. Gordon’s injuries and apply fresh bandages.

“Where’s Tennyson?” Artemus asked as he removed his shirt to allow examination of his wounds.

“Oh, the dear is down in the hotel kitchen teaching the cook how to prepare the potatoes for your breakfast, sirs. We both noticed that neither of you consumed all that was on your plate.”

Artie bit back a grin, remembering how picky their former valet was when it came to preparing meals. Artemus Gordon had known how to cook prior to their employment of Tennyson as their servant, but he learned a great deal more from that excellent man. Occasionally Tennyson would allow him into the galley to fix a meal, but his eyes were sharp, along with his criticism, if he detected a misuse of a tool or spice or any victual. Knowing that Tennyson had learned alongside great chefs in New York and New Orleans, Artemus Gordon had never argued, simply absorbed the lessons. Phoebe too had obviously been educated by her spouse as far as the culinary skills were concerned.

“Your back is healing nicely, Mr. Gordon,” Phoebe proclaimed proudly, as though she was responsible. And perhaps in a sense she was with her scrupulous attention. She applied a light bandage, more to protect the healing scab than anything else. The wound in his side still needed firm wrapping, but it too was healing well.

Phoebe fussed over the wound in Jim’s thigh. “You must stay off your feet more, Mr. West, to allow the wound to heal.”

Jim of course promised he would, but he avoided Artemus's gaze as he did so. Bad enough that he had to use a cane to get around. He simply could not lay in bed all day. Time was running short. They had to apply themselves to the task at the museum.

W*W*W*W*W


“Time is slipping away from us, gentlemen. Yes, I know indeed that a fortnight is between us and the appointment to apply our labors. However, due to inexcusable lapses on the part of one who is now departed from us, we must ensure that certain obstacles are taken out of our path first. Thus far, messieurs West and Gordon have been rather unreachable, confining themselves primarily to their hotel, or in the company of police and others.

“Nonetheless, I am certain that our opportunity will present itself, and we must be ready. The site is prepared to receive them. This time they will not escape. Do you know, in a small sense I am elated that the previous attempt failed, for their deaths now will be far more appropriate, and ironic. Water will be their nemesis. Not only that, but they will have time to reflect on their misadventures where I’m concerned, and perhaps even regret. Best of all, they will know that I am the one taking their lives.

“Yes, all of it will be worthwhile to see their faces. Even if it’s the last day available to carry out our plans, it will be done. So be watchful, gentlemen, and continue to report their activities to me. Most men are creatures of habit to one extent or another. We will select the appropriate time and place to take them captive.”

W*W*W*W*W


Jim West climbed out of the hack, muttering curses at his own awkwardness and toward the unknown person who put him in this position. The leg was healing too slowly for his purposes. He had suffered leg wounds in the past, so was familiar with the healing process. Time. Phoebe Tennyson kept telling him that. “Time, Mr. West. It will heal better if you heed my advice and allow time for the process to occur.”

Artie had suggested he remain in the hotel and let him keep the meeting with Dr. Holtz, but Jim had refused. The museum was a big place. Both of them were going to be needed to inspect the area and set up the security. Jim had promised his partner that he would confine himself to the first floor and not attempt to take the stairs. The steps out front would be bad enough to manipulate. The display was going to occur on the main floor anyway, so that would be where most security was needed.

Jim was perspiring a little by the time he managed the stairs that led to the front door, and both his left side and his left shoulder were aching. A round man with curly blond hair and gold-rimmed glasses that seemed too small for his face opened the door for them, introducing himself as Marvin Dills, Dr. Holtz’s assistant. He then led them across polished floors and among gleaming display cases to an office in the rear.

Holtz turned out to be a spare man with thinning dark hair and a Van Dyke beard. He was in his shirtsleeves but did not attempt to don a coat nor apologize. Several opened crates were in his office, and he obviously had been sorting or cataloging recent arrivals. He greeted them warmly.

“I don’t mind telling you gentlemen that as thrilled and honored as we are to be selected to display the Moon Diamond, it is also causing me sleepless nights.”

“That’s why we’re here,” Artie smiled. “We hope to relieve you of the burden.”

Holtz gazed at them, his eyes flicking to the cane Jim was leaning on, and to the small patch, very white against Artemus's tanned forehead and dark hair. “I heard you were attacked. Do you think it is related to the diamond?”

“That we do not know,” Jim admitted. The story had finally, somehow, been leaked to the newspapers. They had fended off reporters for the most part, but had thought it wise to speak to a chosen few to set the story straight. “But we can assure you that if that is the case, the assailants failed, not only in their attempt to murder us, but to dissuade us from carrying out our duties. If anything, we are more vigilant as well as diligent.”

Holtz beamed at the response. “Very good. Can you give me any further information about when to expect the diamond or who is bringing it?”

Artemus shook his head with a rueful smile. “Even we do not have that information, Dr. Holtz. We know approximately when it will be delivered, but have been told nothing about who is carrying it, or when it will arrive.”

“We do expect to be given last minute instructions,” Jim put in, “undoubtedly on the morning of the delivery so we can be prepared to receive it.”

“I understand all the precautions,” Holtz nodded. “I’m sure that any number of nefarious persons would be interested in the schedule. Now suppose we start by showing you the area we have selected for the display. Do not hesitate to object if you feel it is not the best site. We are completely willing to listen to your expert advice.”

The next two hours were spent roaming about the museum, including storage areas, inspecting every egress and ingress—doors, windows, the trap door that opened into the basement, another that allowed access to an unused attic. Back in Holtz’s cluttered office, Mr. Dills brought coffee and supplied some paper for Artemus to sketch on. The assistant would have lingered, but his superior dismissed him. Both agents had already told the museum director that the fewer who were in on the discussion of plans, the better.

Upon returning—wearily—to their hotel, they found Lloyd Morris waiting for them. The sergeant had known they would be at the museum, but thought it best not to meet them there. Being as it was long past midday, and both Tennyson and his wife were gazing at them askance, the trio went to the dining room to talk. Phoebe was a great one for proper nourishment. She had been extremely pleased—as had her husband—to note that both recuperating men ate all their breakfast, including the potatoes prepared under Tennyson’s watchful eye.

“What’s wrong, Lloyd?” Jim asked as they settled in around a corner table, away from any other patrons. He had discerned that Morris was unhappy about something.

“Bad news, I’m afraid. I talked to Nick Petrino late last night. He’s one of the brothers who I told you about. He told me that he had a letter from his cousin in Davenport who said the carriage shop had burned down a few weeks ago, along with the next-door home of the owner, who died in the blaze, as did his wife and two sons.”

“My God,” Artie murmured. “That’s awful.”

“It is. Worse, the authorities there believe it was arson. Apparently it happened, so far as Nick can discern, soon after the custom-made buggy we were discussing was picked up. Within a week.”

Jim let out a breath. “As if someone didn’t want the man who made the carriage to be able to supply information.”

“All the records were lost in the blaze too,” Lloyd confirmed.

Conversation paused as a waiter poured coffee and took their orders. When the server walked away, Artie asked, “Any suspects?”

“No. Of course, they didn’t know anything about the carriage. Nick didn’t connect it until I mentioned it to him. He’s willing to write to his cousin for more information. But that’d be a few days getting back to us.” His gaze on the two agents asked a question.

“Can you get the time off, Lloyd?” Jim inquired.

“I already asked,” Morris grinned. “I can leave this afternoon. I’ll take the train down the coast—it stops in Davenport. Should be there by this evening, and back tomorrow. Any questions you want me to ask other than the usual?”

After a moment, Jim said, “Be sure to ask if anyone has seen a midget in the area in the last few months.”

Artemus nodded, aware of how difficult it had been for his partner to make that comment. “That’s important. However…”

“However what?” Jim asked as Artie paused.

“This is going to sound strange, but that kind of arson really does not sound like Loveless to me. I know he was willing to kill thousands, perhaps millions, to cleanse the world. And he has ordered the deaths of others, including us. But to burn down a house around a sleeping family… I don't know, Jim. I’m just baffled about who it could be if not Loveless.”

“It’s entirely possible that the fire is unconnected,” Jim said. “Perhaps someone else had a grudge against the man.”

“I’ll ask about that,” Morris assured them, “although according to Nick, this fellow was very well liked in the community. What kind of person would want this sort of custom-made carriage? Why would they want one? Why not just ride in a regular sized buggy? Even your Loveless normally does, doesn’t he?”

“So far,” Artie concurred. “Usually a very well appointed one. Hard to believe he would have had one constructed simply for the trek through the mountains.”

“Unless he wanted to be there,” Jim suggested. “In at the kill. He can ride a horse, with a special saddle, but I’m sure a long trek on horseback would not be something he’d want to experience. So a small carriage that would be maneuverable through the mountains would be perfect for that purpose.”

Once again they were interrupted, this time by the serving of the food. Jim had lost some of his appetite with the news about the carriage maker, and had ordered a bowl of oyster stew, which he knew this hotel’s was among the best in the city. Even Tennyson concurred. Slices of warm sourdough bread complemented the meal.

Artemus took it up after the waiter departed. “Think about it, though, Jim. You agree that Loveless likes his creature comforts. Why would he select an area for our murder that would cause him to be uncomfortable, even for a short time. And if they followed us over the Sierras, as we believe, he would have been out in the elements for over a week. That does not sound like something Loveless would do.” Odd, we’re arguing from opposite sides all of a sudden!

Jim watched the creamy liquid of the stew drip off the chunk of buttered bread he had just dipped into his bowl, then looked up. “I’m stumped. It’s got to be someone who’s currently in prison and is somehow getting instructions out. That doesn’t explain the special carriage though. Most women would ride a horse in such an area.”

“Maybe I’ll be able to find something out down the coast,” Lloyd offered. “The police there probably did not know the kind of questions to ask. I will.”

“In the meanwhile,” Artie said firmly, “we have a lot of work to do. That museum is not going to be easy to protect. Too many doors and windows.”

W*W*W*W*W


The following days were busy ones for the agents. Several visits to the museum were required, along with consultation with the chief of police regarding the men who would be needed. Lloyd Morris returned without much new information. A few people owned up to actually having seen the custom buggy the carriage-maker was fashioning. One had even asked who it was for, but the craftsman had declined to identify the purchaser.

No one could remember seeing strangers in the area, so it was surmised that the arrangements for the carriage’s construction were made late at night. Artemus guessed that either extra money had been paid, or perhaps the reasoning given had been that the carriage was a surprise for someone and the buyer did not want to risk the surprise being spoiled. A visit from a sergeant of the San Francisco police, who casually mentioned he was working with the government, caused the local sheriff to promise to continue to investigate thoroughly.

In the meanwhile, the agents pursued their assignment and remained alert, always studying their surroundings and who was nearby. Both had to admit that either no one was watching them, or someone very clever was behind it all. Someone familiar with their habits and abilities, who would make certain that any “shadows” were changed frequently, perhaps even disguised. Artemus prided himself on being able to discern disguises, but he also knew he had been fooled in the past.

“I think Phoebe’s sorry that we’re healing,” Jim said as they climbed into the hack on their fifth day back in the city. This was the first day he left the cane in his room. Though he had a limp, he did not feel the need to support his injured limb.

Artemus chuckled. “I know. And truth be told, I’ll be sorry to see them leave for home. I’d almost forgotten what a delight Tennyson is to be around. Good for the ego, you know.” He grinned.

Jim knew what he meant. The manservant could sometimes be quite outspoken, and deflating. Tennyson also had assisted in several cases in the past, and his input, as well as his participation, had been valuable. They had been extremely sorry to see him leave their service, yet they had known they could not stop him from having a personal life. The agents had desultorily discussed replacing him, but aware that a man like Tennyson was irreplaceable, they had settled for an occasional cleaning lady, and managed for themselves in all other aspects of their life on the Wanderer.

“Well, at least we are healing,” Jim said then. “We’re also making good progress at the museum. I’m sure we’ll have it set up by the time the diamond is delivered.”

“I wish Richmond, or someone, would give us a little more information. Do we have four days left, or five? Or even three or maybe six?”

Jim smiled. “Yeah. But if we don't know, chances are very good that no one else knows. To tell you the truth, I think we got the easy job. Everyone will know when the diamond leaves San Francisco and heads for Seattle… even if no one knows the courier.”

“Frank and Ned have their hands full, that’s for certain. Then Denver, Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago and back to Washington. Each stop is going to be more and more difficult to guard. Still, I consider it an honor that we were selected for this site, Jim. All the others will be patterning their security after what we do here.”

“Let’s just hope it works!”

W*W*W*W*W


“We have less than a week remaining, gentlemen. According to your reports, I think we have an excellent notion of the pattern of the activities of Mr. West and Mr. Gordon. Seizing them should not be too difficult.”

“Getting them out of the city might be, Doctor.”

“Not if you follow my plans exactly. I’m rather pleased with the manner in which it is all unfolding. The commotion aroused when the men in charge of the museum security go missing will draw attention away from the museum, making our task easier.”

“Have you found out anything more about the delivery, Doctor?”

He scowled at the questioner. “That is immaterial. Once the diamond is inside the museum, it will be a simple matter to remove it. No need to go chasing about the countryside for it, or watching for the bearer. All the information we want will appear in the newspapers.” He saw the concern on the faces of several of the men. “Gentlemen! Have no doubts. I have carried out numerous successful feats such as this. The intelligence of a rustic police force is no match for mine, especially when they will be without the services of the two finest agents in this country. We shall soon be celebrating our victory.”

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 - 03/13/2009 :  07:39:04  Show Profile


W*W*W*W*W


“I think you’ll soon be able to notify the newspapers of the gem’s schedule,” Artie smiled toward the scowling museum director. “The day is very near.”

Dr. Holtz shook his head. “In some ways that has been the most difficult part. I was allowed to notify the newspapers that the Moon Diamond would be on display, but without any details of when. Daily we are visited by representatives from the papers, asking the same question. When, when, when! Sometimes twice a day from the larger ones. This is a big event for a city like San Francisco, not only to have the gem to display, but to be the first on the route.”

Jim approached the area where Artemus and the director were standing, next to the newly constructed display case for the diamond. He was accompanied by Lieutenant O’Grady of the city police, who was going to be in charge of the men assigned to guard the stone. O’Grady was a ruddy-faced man with clear blue eyes and a direct gaze, something both agents commented upon after meeting him. “If he’s hiding anything, he’s a damned good actor,” Artie had said.

“The lieutenant is in concurrence with the placement of the guards, as well as the schedule,” Jim said. “So I think we are pretty well set.”

“I’ve instructed the guards to visit the museum as soon as they possibly can, Dr. Holtz,” O’Grady said, “to give them a chance to familiarize themselves with the layout. They’ll know what to expect and be on hand when the delivery is made.”

Holtz rubbed a hand across his forehead. “I don't know when I’ve been so excited—and terrified. We can’t allow anything to happen to the Moon Diamond.”

“Nothing will,” Jim replied grimly. “Everything possible has been and will be done.” He looked at his partner for backup, but Artemus, as Jim had noticed several times this day, had a faraway expression on his countenance. His mind seemed to be elsewhere. Not like Artie. Not at all.

So as soon as they were settled in the hack for the return to the hotel, Jim asked, “What’s on your mind?”

At first Artemus was going to deny it. No. Foolish as it is, I’ve got to bring it up. “I had a dream last night, Jim. Not really a dream, I guess. It was just as I was going to sleep. I started… well, hearing voices. I think I know why I babbled about ‘the Nile.’ Ebersole misunderstood, probably because I was mumbling in my half-conscious state.”

“So? What do you think you said?” Jim was mystified.

“Sir Nigel.” Artemus hurried on as Jim started to open his mouth. “I know. I know. He’s dead. You saw him go over the cliff on Bleak Island, along with the dog. My feeling is this, Jim. I must have heard someone speaking, perhaps when our attackers approached after we were down, and the voice reminded me of Sir Nigel Scott.”

“British.”

“I suppose so. Which doesn’t help much, does it? I cannot think of who it could have been. But obviously the voice and the accent very strongly resembled Sir Nigel’s. His was rather unforgettable. So very… English.”

Artemus had enjoyed their time in England working with the British police to break up an international crime ring headed by Nigel’s nemesis, Dr. Jacob Calendar. The fact that they had been able to visit Paris to consult with the Sûreté, as well as other European police agencies made the journey even more enjoyable. Artie had dragged Jim to a number of performances and exhibits in Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere, not to mention famous landmarks, and he suspected that his partner enjoyed himself as well, despite his grumbling.

Learning that Sir Nigel had attempted to not only steal the Moon Diamond on Bleak Island, but also to kill his old friend James West had been a real shock. Sir Nigel’s obsession with the master criminal Dr. Jacob Calendar had taken a toll on his mind, a mind which apparently snapped after Calendar’s demise. Sir Nigel’s death had been a blessing of sorts, for he did not need to face the disgrace of his crimes, not to mention his insanity.

Jim tried to remember anyone else they had encountered during their careers, military and civilian, who might have had a voice similar to Nigel Scott’s. He came up blank. “Dream or not, it’s no help, Artie.”

“I know. I’ll be glad when the diamond departs San Francisco so we can devote full time to finding our attackers.”

Jim chuckled. “What makes you think Colonel Richmond is going to allow us that time?”

Artie’s face assumed innocence. “A relapse might preclude full return to duty, mightn’t it?” He was silent a moment. “Jim, was Nigel Scott’s body ever found?”

“Not so far as I know. But he couldn’t have survived that fall. The dog didn’t. Poor creature. Driven mad by Sir Nigel’s mistreatment. He got his vengeance, but paid for it.”

“But the dog’s body was found.”

“Yes.” Jim gazed at his partner. “What are you driving at?”

“I don't know,” Artie sighed. “It’s just… now that I remember more, that voice was so very similar to Sir Nigel’s.”

“Could it be kin of his?” Jim frowned, thoughtfully. “I cannot remember him ever mentioning any close family. Always seemed like a lone wolf to me.”

“That was my impression. Those long dinners we had, just talking, or the time we spent together on the boat across the channel… I always felt he was completely alone in the world. Until you told me what happened on Bleak Island, I thought he liked us!”

“I think he did, Artie. He was certainly most apologetic when he left me in that pit to die.” Jim’s tone was wry. For a few minutes both were silent, staring out the cab’s windows at the passing scenery. Then Jim turned to his partner. “I’d be more willing to believe Loveless is responsible than Nigel rising from a watery grave.”

W*W*W*W*W


Hatred and vengeance, my eternal portion,
Scarce can endure delay of execution:—
Wait, with impatient readiness, to seize my
Soul in a moment.
—William Cowper (1731–1800), British poet.


“The time is nigh, gentlemen. I do not have definitive information regarding the arrival of the diamond, but from what I gather, it is imminent. We cannot delay any longer. Artemus and James must be taken care of promptly. They are the only ones who can stop us.”

W*W*W*W*W


The desk clerk brought a telegraph message to the agents when they were eating breakfast in the dining room the following morning. Artie read it, then passed it to his partner. Neither commented as Jim placed the slip of paper inside his coat.

“Is it today?” Tennyson inquired. Usually both Tennyson and his wife breakfasted with them, but Phoebe, having been convinced that her patients were safely on their way to recovery and could exist without her ministrations for a day, had left yesterday afternoon to spend some time with a cousin who resided in the nearby town of Alameda.

“Is what today?” Artemus asked, keeping his expression blank.

Tennyson put down his cup of tea. “Gentlemen, I lived with you, worked with you, far too long. I’m quite aware when ‘something’ is up.”

“We never could put one by you,” Jim grinned. “Yes, it’s today. The courier will arrive at some point today—though we still don’t have that person’s identity, nor the schedule.”

“One certainly cannot fault them for playing it, as the saying goes, ‘close to the vest,’ sirs.”

“Absolutely not,” Artemus agreed. “It means, however, that we’ll be at the museum all day, and possibly longer. We can’t even notify Lieutenant O’Grady until the stone is actually in our possession.”

“Well, I’m glad it’s going to be on display before Phoebe and I must return home. She so wanted to see it. And truth be told, so do I.”

“It’s worth seeing,” Jim nodded. “And worth a fortune.”

“Jim,” Artie said slowly, “it’s not possible that the attack on us had something to do with the Moon Diamond…”

“The thought occurred to me,” Jim nodded.

“Do you mean,” Tennyson took it up, “that someone wants you out of the way so as to smooth the route to thievery?”

“That could be,” Artie said. “Part of it anyway. However, if that is the case, why haven’t the attacks continued?”

“Good question,” Jim stated, getting to his feet and dropping his napkin on the table. “I think we’d better get to the museum, Artie.”

W*W*W*W*W


Thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.
Twelfth Night. ACT V Scene 1 – William Shakespeare


He heard the voice from somewhere in the distance. A familiar voice, laughing in triumph. He tried to move, found that something was restricting movement.

“Wake up, James,” the voice called from somewhere… above? “I know you are rousing, dear boy.”

Carefully Jim West opened his eyes and looked around, first seeing only dimness. He then spotted his partner next to him… sagging against the chains that secured his wrists. Only at that moment did Jim realize he was also confined by chains, chains that were fastened into a hard rock wall behind them. They were in a pit, some fifteen or twenty feet deep, eight to ten feet across, with wrists and ankles fettered.

“Artie…”

“He’ll awaken soon, James,” the voice continued from above. “We cannot start the festivities until he does.”

Now Jim looked up, and his blood ran cold. He knew instantly he was not seeing a ghost, but it might as well have been. The face was pallid, scarred and twisted. Perfectly recognizable, however.

“Sir Nigel! How…”

“Come, come, James. You are too wise for such foolishness. Nigel Scott is dead. Surely you recognize me.”

As Jim peered up toward the top of the pit, he realized that the man he saw was in a wheeled chair, a chair placed close to the edge, being held secure by a man standing behind it, while several others stood along the rim, gazing down.

“Dr. Calendar,” Jim said slowly. “How… how did you survive…?” He became aware of movement at his side; Artie was rousing. The last thing he remembered was settling into the cab that had rolled up to the front of the hotel just as they stepped outside. Artie had noticed a strange odor, commented on it, but by then it was too late. The gas had had a paralyzing effect before it induced unconsciousness.

“By good fortune alone,” the man with the scarred face snarled, leaning forward slightly. “I struck the water, rather than the rocks. I was injured, but I managed to stay afloat… and out of your sight. A boatman came by and accepted my offer of payment to carry me to safety. Relative safety. My legs were broken and my spine severely injured, not to mention the other scars you can see plainly. I want to thank you, James. Only my hatred of you and my need for revenge gave me the will to live.”

“Glad to be of service,” Jim replied with more equanimity than he felt.

“What’s going on?” Artemus muttered. He could hear the voices, those of his partner and another. Another that could not be. The same voice he heard that day in the foothills.

“Artemus, remember Dr. Calendar? Jacob Calendar?”

Artie stared at his partner and as his vision cleared, turned his gaze upward. The man they had known as Sir Nigel Scott was recognizable, but barely. The voice was the giveaway, certainly. The cultured, very British voice. Jim had related how Sir Nigel’s obsession with the master criminal Dr. Jacob Calendar had warped his mind. After Calendar’s death, Scott was at a loss for purpose in his life, and became compelled to continue Calendar’s felonies, including the theft of the Moon Diamond from Bleak Island.

“Dr. Calendar. How nice to renew your acquaintance.”

“Always the suave gentleman, Mr. Gordon. Let us see how long that urbanity lasts as death approaches.”

“I take it you’re still after the Moon Diamond,” Jim said, tugging at the chains that secured his wrists. They appeared to be strongly embedded.

“And with you two out of the way, the fabulous gem will be mine. I know it will be delivered to the museum in the next day or so. The confusion entailed by your disappearance will make it that much easier to carry out my foolproof plan.”

“Why didn’t you make sure we were dead in the foothills?” Artie asked, just as aware as his partner that they needed to buy time. Whatever Nigel Scott had in mind, time was valuable.

“Because I employed a fool,” Sir Nigel snapped back. “But it’s no mind. It’s actually going to work out better this way. My only regret is that I cannot remain and watch you die. I put you in a pit once before, James, and you foiled me. You won’t escape this one. I don’t suppose you want to tell me what that telegram I took from James’s pocket says. I could probably decode it if I had the time.”

“As it reads, just greetings from an old friend,” Jim responded mildly.

“I know better. It refers to the Moon Diamond’s delivery. But no mind. We will be ready for it.”

“You had that odd carriage constructed to accommodate your wheeled chair,” Artie stated.

“Indeed, yes. I could not take public transportation, and ordinary carriages are too difficult for me to get in and out of now. The fine vehicle allows me to roll my chair up onto the bed, and secure it. When I have the funds from the sale of the diamond, I plan to travel to Europe and have surgery that will put me on my feet again.”

“So you murdered the carriage maker’s family,” Jim grated.

“A sad necessity. I simply could not chance them allowing something to slip. But enough of this. Do you want to know how you are going to die?”

“I presume you are not going to sit up there and bore us to death,” Artemus spoke acidly.

He drew a glare. “This pit was dug some time ago by a relative of one of my friends here. It was to be the cellar of a home, but the poor fellow perished from illness before anything more was done. But Fred knew of it, and he also knew about a spring that is about ten feet away. A very active spring. If you listen carefully, you can hear the water gushing from it and tumbling down the hillside. It was a simple matter to construct a trough to divert that water. Shortly I will open the gate.” He pointed off to one side.

The imprisoned agents looked that direction and saw the wooden wall, a couple feet high, at one end of the pit. Water was already leaking around it.

“I have no idea how much time will be consumed before the water level reaches your nostrils, gentlemen. You cannot imagine how I wish I could sit here and leisurely watch, to see the terror in your eyes as death approaches. How perfectly fitting, don’t you think? James caused my fall into the water that put me in this dreadful condition. Now water will take your lives. You can cry for help all you want, but it will be of no avail. The nearest civilization is the military, much too far away to hear you. ”

“Don’t rush off on our account,” Jim cracked.

“You always had a fine wit, James. It’s too bad you did not put it to better use. I’m afraid, like Sir Nigel, you have this distorted sense of honor. If I could trust you… no. It’s better this way.” He nodded toward the man nearest the gate. “Goodbye, James. Farewell, Artemus. It’s been delightful knowing you. I’m sorry things could not have turned out better.”

Sir Nigel waved jauntily as his wheelchair was pulled back, just as the man at the wooden retaining wall leaned in and lifted the holding device. Immediately water gushed over the side, with a noisy roar. After a few moments, the rushing water subsided, but still poured in at an alarmingly rapid rate. The bottom of the pit was covered, and the water level began to rise, flowing over their boot toes almost at once.

Artemus pulled at his chains and learned what his partner had already discovered. They were securely embedded into the wall. “This doesn’t look good, Jim,” he spoke tensely.

“I still have my picklock, Artie.” He had already noticed that the manacles on their wrists were secured by keyed locks.

“But it’s in your lapel! Can you reach it?”

Jim did not respond, pulling his left hand as far as possible toward the left lapel of his jacket. The chain was about six inches short. Hunching his left shoulder up, he leaned his head down, and grasped his jacket edge with his teeth. Over the next few minutes, he “chewed” at the jacket fabric, inexorably slowly, but steadily, bringing the little pocket in the back of the lapel toward his mouth.

Artie watched, almost not daring to breathe. He saw the beads of perspiration forming on his partner’s brow and realized that the tension on the shoulder had to be painful. The bullet wound had not yet healed entirely. Yet Jim did not flinch, continuing the process until, finally, he got his teeth around the small tool and pulled it out. For a brief moment, he relaxed, leaning his head back and closing his eyes. The next task was to get the picklock into his right hand.

That undertaking proved to be slightly easier, if no less delicate. Again stretching the chain on his right wrist as far as it would go toward his head, and leaning his body toward the right, Jim was able to grasp the tool between two fingers. Both men knew that if the picklock was dropped, they were lost. Even having it in Jim’s possession was no guarantee. The water was up to their knees. Artemus knew that Jim felt its chill inside his boots as well, but paid no heed.

“Push your wrist over here as far as you can, Artie. And hold still.”

It made sense, Artie realized, although he found himself a trifle surprised. He had thought Jim would attempt to open his own manacle first. But working on Artie’s was a little less awkward. Three or four minutes, long minutes, were required, but suddenly the manacle fell away as Jim grasped the picklock tightly.

“Give it to me, Jim,” Artie said quickly. “I’ll open yours…”

“No! Free yourself, Artie. It’s better if one of us is completely loose, rather than both partly.”

Artemus Gordon opened his mouth to protest, but met his partner’s steely gaze. They could not waste time arguing. Even though the flow of the water slowing over the wall appeared to be lessening, it was still coming in and apparently would continue to do so. They could not chance, or hope, that it would cease. The level was approaching their thighs.

I know you’re right, James, but I don’t like this!

He carefully accepted the tool and turned to work on his right wrist. Another precious few minutes were needed to work the lock, but it too opened. “I never did like deep sea diving,” Artemus grumbled, flashing an encouraging smile toward Jim, who just nodded, his own face somber. Both knew that opening the leg manacles in the cold, dirt-saturated water was going to be far more difficult.

Perhaps the most arduous aspect was concentrating on grasping the tool while underwater. The chill water numbed his fingers and twice he straightened, not only for breaths of air, but to enclose his fingers in his underarms to gain a little warmth, and thus some sensation. Artemus did not miss that the water level was nearly up to his armpits, and thus James’s as well.

The dirt in the water made it impossible to open his eyes, so everything depended on his sense of touch, made more arduous by the numbing cold. Upon finally loosening one leg iron, Artemus found it slightly easier to do the second, remembering how he turned the picklock in the first one. Even so, when he finally was able to step away from the wall and face his partner, the water level was at their chins.

“Hang on, buddy,” Artemus muttered, and dived under. He knew that by loosening Jim’s leg irons first, Jim would be able to push himself up a little higher, out of the water. But it’s rising so swiftly! I have to hurry, and yet I cannot be hasty! I mustn’t drop the pick!

Panic threatened when, upon a dash to the top to fill his lungs with air, Artemus realized how close the water level was to covering Jim’s nose, even though Jim tried to hold his head back in order to expose his nose and mouth to air. On the third dive, Artie was able to loosen one leg manacle. He immediately set on the other, holding his breath as long as he could.

Yet, when he came up for air after no success on that second iron, Jim’s head was almost completely submerged. With renewed vigor, Artie dived down again, forced himself to concentrate on staying under longer, and achieved his goal. Both legs were free and lazily floating in the water.

Artie noted that fact as he plunged toward the surface, coming out and grasping toward the walls for a bit of support as he gasped for air. Oh, dear God! No! James West was unconscious, his head totally submerged, eyes closed. Not enough slack was available in the wrist chains to get his face out of the water, which was now inches above the top of Jim’s head.

Muttering both curses and prayers, Artie worked on the wrist manacles. With one loose, he tried to get Jim’s face out of the water, and succeeded to some extent by putting his own shoulder against Jim’s chest and pushing up. But in order to loosen the second manacle, he had to have both his own hands free, so it was a haphazard gesture. And I don't know if it’s doing any damn good! Damn it, Jim! God, please…

The picklock slipped out of his numb fingers as the manacle clicked and opened. Artemus immediately pushed Jim out of the water, toward the now near top of the pit. A bush hung over the edge, and he was able to grab it to gain some purchase, along with the rough sides of the stony wall, and managed to get his partner’s upper body up onto the ledge.

“Don’t you move, James!” Artie admonished, grabbing the bush and pulling himself out, saying prayers of gratitude when the shrubbery held against his weight.

He hauled his partner completely out of the water immediately, and lay him on his back, leaning down to put his ear next to Jim’s mouth, confirming what he had dreaded. James West was not breathing. At once Artemus began artificial respiration, first rhythmically pushing on Jim’s diaphragm, lifting and dropping the arms. His partner’s pale face did not change, and seemed to be becoming grayer and grayer.

Artemus was conscious of the hot streaks on his wet and cold face, mixing with the frigid water dripping from his sopping dark head, as he grasped Jim’s shoulders and turned him on his side. “Damn you, Jim! If you die on me, I’ll never speak to you again!”

Balling his fist, Artemus Gordon struck his best friend hard, once, twice, thrice in the back, continuing to plead for a response, and for help from a greater power. When James West’s body suddenly shook in a spasm, and a harsh cough emanated from his throat, Artie almost did not believe it. Then Jim coughed again, spewing up dirty water.

Artie quickly got his partner up into a sitting position, leaning him over so more of the filthy liquid could be expelled. Damn, I wish I had a blanket. He could feel shivers, then realized he himself was shaking as well. Jim was looking around dazedly.

“What happened?” he croaked.

“Thank your lucky stars you have a master lock picker as your partner, James. It was close.”

“Did I drown?”

“Pretty damn near.” Too near.

Jim looked at his partner’s dirt streaked face, saw the odd, almost clean path that lined each cheek. “Thanks.”

Artie did not grin, though he felt like it. That single word was likely all he was going to get in the way of tangible gratefulness from his friend and partner. Jim West was not a demonstrative man; at least when it came to showing his emotions. Yet he would, in some other manner, display his thanks, perhaps something as grand as purchasing a bottle of Artie’s favorite wine, or as simple as allowing Artie to sleep later while Jim made breakfast.

Jim rolled over and got to his knees, looked around. “Where the devil are we?”

“In the woods,” Artemus replied drily as he climbed to his feet and extended a hand.

Jim grasped the hand and allowed Artie to pull him up, and he was grateful that that hand remained on his arm for a long moment, steadying him. His legs were shakier than he had believed they would be.

“In the woods,” Jim repeated, using his hand to push a mop of wet hair off his forehead. They were surrounded by trees. “Sir Nigel mentioned the military. He must mean the Presidio. Artie, if that courier with the diamond arrives and we’re not there…”

Artemus nodded. “Chaos. Not only that, a poor crippled man in a wheelchair is not going to be suspicious. If Nigel and his men get inside, and the full police security force isn’t present…”

“We’ve got to get there.”

“Jim, when you told me about what happened on the island, I had to concur that Sir Nigel had gone a little off his rocker with his obsession about Calendar. But now he’s completely insane. Seems to be wavering between the two personalities and mentalities.”

Jim nodded. “Sir Nigel’s mannerisms and Calendar’s depravity.

As it often was in San Francisco this time of year, though the sun was warm, the breeze was cool. Artie held up a damp finger. “Breeze is coming off the ocean, from the west. That way.” He pointed.

“The Presidio is that way then,” Jim concurred. “We could try following the carriage tracks.”

“Not likely Sir Nigel was heading directly for the Presidio,” Artie concluded. “He’s probably taking the easiest route back to the city—and the museum—in that carriage. No matter how mobile it is, he has to have a path wide enough for the horse and the buggy.”

The two men scouted the area around the pit, searching for and finding first the tracks of the wheeled chair. Movement helped warm their bodies, although their soaked clothing and boots were extremely uncomfortable. Artie found the track of the carriage, showing up in an area of soft, bare ground. They saw the signs of the wheelchair being rolled close to the end of the buggy, then disappearing.

“Ingenious idea,” Artie mused as they started down the hill, following the tracks. “The chair rolls up onto the bed, is secured, and the person in the chair can handle the reins. Still bothersome though that he was able to trail us over the mountains without our knowledge.”

“Pretty obviously, he remained well back. Perhaps that’s why the ambush didn’t occur before it did. They needed more open areas to maneuver that cart. Sir Nigel wanted to be able to witness the ambush, after all.”

“I still can’t believe he’s alive,” Artemus said. “Not after what you described.”

“Yeah.” Jim was silent a moment, pushing some brush aside. “I don't know how he missed those rocks. A quirk of fate, just like a boatman appearing at the right moment to rescue him. Strange things happen, Artie.”

Artie did not reply, aware his partner was referring to numerous bizarre incidents in which they had been involved over the years, most of them concerning Dr. Loveless, but also Count Manzeppi and Colonel Vautrain, among others. Nothing magical or even scientific involved in Sir Nigel Scott’s escape from death off the cliffs of Bleak Island. Just pure fate.

“You okay, Jim?” His partner had paused, leaning one hand against a tree trunk.

“Listen!”

Artie heard it then. Voices. Very distant, but voices. “From the Presidio?”

“I’m not sure. Let’s keep moving.”

“Sure would be nice to have some weapons,” Artemus grumbled as they started out again. For all they knew, Sir Nigel had left some men charged to return to the pit and ensure that the agents had drowned, and those were the voices they were hearing.

With unspoken agreement, the two men switched tactics. Instead of following the tracks of the carriage and men on horseback, they headed toward the voices, moving farther apart and using brush and trees for cover. Artemus noticed a different scent in the air, perhaps smoke and the odors of the city, mingling with the usual smell of the nearby ocean and fog. They were not that far from San Francisco, after all, and probably indeed in the woods near the Presidio.

Makes sense when I consider it. In Nigel’s condition, he would not want to travel too far, with the need to return to the city and the museum swiftly. A few roads run through this area, so the fake cab would have been able to bring us relatively near the pit.

The route toward the voices, which were growing closer, followed the tracks of the carriage rather closely, which caused Jim to believe that indeed Sir Nigel had sent men back to check on them. We’ve got to be careful, being unarmed, not to mention my shoulder is still throbbing. Didn’t help that Artie rolled me on that shoulder. But he did what he had to do, and I’m grateful. Not ready for the grim reaper yet.

Artie judged they had traveled close to a half a mile on foot, when they began to hear the approaching voices more clearly. Whoever they were, they were coming toward the agents, so a meeting was imminent. He looked toward Jim and saw that his partner agreed with him, waving his hand silently. Artemus crouched behind a thick stand of brush, and Jim secreted himself behind a pine tree to wait tensely.

Sounds like there’s at least half a dozen men, Jim mused, puzzled. They had not been able to see clearly how many men had been at the pit with Sir Nigel, but he had had the impression of not many more than six or eight. Why would Sir Nigel send that many back to check on his victims?

“Jim! Artemus!”

Both agents froze for a moment in utter astonishment. The voice was one they knew well. Jim stepped out from his shelter. “Lloyd! Here!” He looked toward Artie, who stood up, amazement on his features. “Where did they come from?”

Artie just shook his head as they hurried toward the men who were in turn hastening in their direction. Lloyd Morris, four policemen… and Tennyson… appeared with anxious faces.

“Sirs!” Tennyson cried. “Are you well?” He was gazing in horror at their disheveled clothes and dirt-stained faces and hair.

“Better than we have a right to be,” Artie answered. “How in the devil did you get here?”

“You can thank the observant Mr. Tennyson,” Lloyd replied. “When you didn’t show up at the museum as you should have, I went to the hotel to check. Tennyson told me he had followed you out of the hotel and saw you board a hack. He was able to describe that distinctive cab.”

“It was rather unusual,” Artie nodded. “I remember thinking it must be a brand-new carriage.”

“That’s the case. It had been stolen from a fellow who had just taken delivery on it a couple of weeks ago. Whoever took it made a huge mistake, because it was so easy to track down. Many people saw it this morning, and especially when it headed up into the hills behind the Presidio, it was noticed. We just followed the reports. Right now, it’s abandoned on the road below us. We knew it was the right one because your hats and guns are inside. What happened?”

“Did the diamond get delivered?” Jim asked instead.

“Not yet. Is it expected?”

“Today,” Jim replied. “We’ve got to get back to the museum. We can tell you more as we go.”

The hack, horses still in the traces, was indeed on the dusty road as they emerged from the woods. One of the policeman dismounted and gave his horse to Jim, in the interest of speed, while that officer brought the cab back into the city. Tennyson, a bit saddle sore after some unaccustomed riding, happily turned his mount over to Artemus.

Lloyd Morris had a thousand more questions to ask after he heard the story, but once they were mounted, conversation was not really possible. He knew enough to be aware that theft of the Moon Diamond was imminent, especially if West and Gordon, along with the officers, did not reach the museum in time. Because Jim and Artemus had not been able to transmit a planned signal to Lieutenant O’Grady, the special guards would not be in place when the gem arrived.

People on the streets of San Francisco stared as the posse, led by two muddy men, raced by them on the city thoroughfares. Officers on patrol who saw their approach made sure that the way was clear, stopping other traffic, even if those patrolmen did not know the purpose of the haste. They saw that other policemen were involved and that was enough.

At one point, Morris dispatched one of the men to headquarters in order to bring in help. Their small band might have a problem, if indeed the agents were correct in stating that this Sir Nigel character could have eight or more men with him. Neither Jim nor Artemus could swear to the number of men who had been with the wheelchair-bound man, nor if those had been all of Nigel’s men.

“In England,” Jim had informed him, “this Dr. Calendar he believes he is now often had twenty or more men on his payroll.”

Realizing they were within two blocks of the museum, Jim called to the men to halt their lathered horses. They needed to do some reconnoitering. “Lloyd, will you have a couple of your uniformed men stroll down that way as if they are patrolling a beat?”

That was done. Twenty minutes later the two men returned with important information. One officer in particular knew this area well, and he was aware that normally not so many men loitered on the street around the museum. “They’re smoking, reading newspapers, couple just sitting on a stone wall across the street from the museum, acting like they are talking. Saw a pair in the rear of the museum too.”

The most important information came from the other officer. He had spotted an unusual carriage, horse still hitched, waiting in an alley. He also saw an elderly man in a wheeled chair being tended by a white-coated attendant. The pair were in a small park down the street a half a block or so from the museum.

“That’s Sir Nigel,” Artie breathed when he heard the description. “Jim, he’s got the place surrounded.”

“If only we knew who the courier was,” Jim grated. “We could stop him before he reaches the museum.” He looked around to view pedestrians, several men on horseback, a couple of carriages and hacks. The streetcars did not reach this street. But all looked like ordinary citizens out and about in the city. We can’t stop them all!

“We could try to cordon off the area,” Morris offered, but doubt was in his tone.

“Take too much time,” Artemus responded grimly. He looked at his partner. “Maybe bold actions are required.” I wish I had my makeup kit! Of course, I’d need a bath before I could use it.

“How many patrolmen are in this area, Lloyd?” Jim asked.

Morris frowned a moment as he thought about it. “Probably four or five within six to eight blocks. Want me to round them up?”

“As fast as you can. Artie and I are going to amble down to the museum, let ourselves be seen. With any luck, we’ll startle Sir Nigel into action. We can…” He halted his words as Artemus grabbed his arm.

“Jim! That hack that just went by! I’m positive it was Jeremy in disguise inside.”

“Did he see you?”

“I don't think so. If he did, he didn’t give any sign. But he must have the diamond! He’s disguised as an elderly man.”

“That might simplify matters,” Jim said, “but we have to get to him. Lloyd, round up as many officers as you can and surround the place. Make sure they are armed. If Lieutenant O’Grady arrives with reinforcements, have them do the same thing. Sure wish we could get these civilians out of here.”

Morris shook his head. “Stopping traffic would call attention to our activities.”

“I know. Let’s move.”

As the four policemen headed off to carry out their assignment, Jim and Artemus spurred their tired horses toward the museum, riding boldly down the middle of the street. As before, pedestrians stared at them, but a few men gaped with open mouths. Two, at least, turned and sprinted down the sidewalk.

The cab Artie had spotted was just now pulling away from the front of the museum. The man Artemus had seen was not in sight, so he must have entered the museum. Nor could they see a man in a wheeled chair. But they did see the commotion their appearance continued to cause among a number of the loitering men. The ones who had followed them up the street met up with some of those men.

“Well, James,” Artie murmured as they tied off their horses, “things are happening.” All told, at least a dozen men appeared to be connected with the activities surrounding the museum. Some must have been watching the building while Sir Nigel carried out his murderous plans in the hills.

“I noticed. Let’s get inside.”

“Right. And be ready for anything. I suspect Sir Nigel is already inside, probably along with a few of his men. They would have had to carry his chair up these stairs.”

“Pike’s inside… with the Moon Diamond. That’s what counts right now. It’s not likely that Sir Nigel knows about us yet.” They had not seen any man dash into the museum.

Artie did not reply. As they gained the stone portico at the level of the front door, each moved to one side, right hands resting on the guns now strapped to their sides. Jim reached over, grasped the door handle and pushed; these doors opened inward as he quickly stepped inside, confident his partner was following. They left the double doors standing open so that any help that arrived could make a swift entrance.

The immediate area inside the museum was empty. The site for the display of the diamond was toward the rear, chosen so that patrons could line up inside the museum and file back out in the shape of a horseshoe. By causing visitors to have to stand inside the museum for at least some period of time, depending on the length of the lines, the hope was that the security men posted there would have a chance to watch them, and if possible, identify potential troublemakers of any sort.

The main display room was L-shaped, with the angle of the L turning left. From that direction voices could be heard, at least one frightened, another angry. Artemus nodded at Jim’s eye signal, and they quietly moved that direction. Both were aware that they could be caught from behind at any time. No doubt Sir Nigel’s outside men had specific instructions, and chances were they were the type of men who did not normally act on their own initiative. But sooner or later, at least some of them were going to decide to follow the agents—whom most believed were dead—into the museum. Chances were also good that that move would occur before the police could get into position.

“I don't know who you are,” Jeremy Pike’s voice was hard with anger, “but you’re way off base here. I’m delivering some papers to Dr. Holtz, not a diamond.”

“Yes, yes. Papers. Just papers!” Terror was in the museum director’s tone, and his denial was not very convincing.

“The diamond,” Sir Nigel’s suave tones were heard. “I know you have the Moon Diamond. Hand it over quietly and save yourself the embarrassment of a search.”

“Search all you want,” Pike retorted.

“I can get if after you are dead.”

“Gunshots will bring the police on the run,” Jeremy warned.

The two agents stepped out into the open as one, guns in hand. “Drop your weapons,” Jim snapped.

Sir Nigel Scott twisted in his chair, eyes wide with astonishment. “No! You can’t be alive!” Up close, they could see more clearly the ravages caused by the fall off the cliff. Scars on the face, up into the hairline, as well as the right shoulder bent slightly crooked. Both legs were covered by a plaid afghan. The eyes were the same icy blue.

“You’re right,” Artie replied sarcastically. “We’re ghosts. Drop your guns.”

Two of Sir Nigel’s men were there, holding guns on Jeremy Pike, who was still wearing the white wig and beard, and the museum director. Both looked toward their boss for orders, but Sir Nigel was fixated on the two men he thought he had finished. Slowly he turned his chair, never taking his eyes off them.

“James, Artemus, you have proved once again that you are in the wrong business. You should work with me. We could rule the world!”

“Seems to me you’re having a problem ruling your robbery plans, let alone the world,” Jim said sarcastically. “Tell your men to put your guns down, Sir Nigel.”

Jeremy had taken Holtz’s arm and drawn him to one side. He then produced a gun of his own. He was astonished to hear the name by which Artemus addressed the wheelchair-bound man, having heard the story of Bleak Island himself. What he wanted to hear now was the story of why Jim and Artemus looked as though they had fallen into a mud hole.

“I have twenty men outside,” Sir Nigel proclaimed, turning his chair now to face the agents. “Tell your fellow agent here to hand over the Moon Diamond and we’ll leave peacefully.”

“Your men are being taken care of by the San Francisco police department,” Artemus lied smoothly. He hoped it was not a lie, but chances were slim that the full complement of policemen had arrived yet.

But Sir Nigel Scott reacted to the information, eyes blazing with anger. “James, you have crossed me for the last time!”

With practiced skill, the invalid spun the wheels on his chair, causing it to careen towards James West. Startled, Jim jumped back, but not quite in time, as the side of the chair slammed into his previously injured leg. With a grunt of pain, he went down, his gun clattering from his hand. Both Artemus and Jeremy yelled in alarm, and Jeremy, being closest, attempted to grab the back of the chair.

The chair headed for Jim again, but this time Artemus was able to seize one corner of the back, causing the chair to tip slightly. But Nigel got it righted, and took advantage of the confusion by making a dash for the still open front door, ricocheting off a couple of display tables and cabinets.

Jim scrambled to his feet to follow Artemus and Jeremy, who were chasing the speeding chair, yelling first to stop, and then a warning. “The stairs! The stairs!”

The three agents had not reached the front door when they heard the scream of terror and pain. When they did step out onto the portico, a small crowd was already gathering on the walkway below. Sir Nigel Scott, also known as Dr. Jacob Calendar, was sprawled alongside his smashed chair. The angle of his head told them all they really needed to know, but the young policeman who pushed through the quickly gathering crowd knelt down to touch the throat.

He looked up as the trio descended the stairs. “He’s dead. What happened?”

Artemus quickly pulled out his identification, still barely identifiable despite being soaked, and asked the officer to try to keep the crowd back. Other policemen were now visible down the street, either on horseback or sprinting on foot toward the scene. Jim recognized Sergeant Lloyd Morris and Lieutenant O’Grady among the horsemen, and he limped out toward them to quickly give instructions about attempting to round up any of Scott’s henchmen they could identify.

Artie had not noticed how his partner’s limp had worsened until he saw Jim hurrying along the street. When Jim turned back after speaking to Morris and O’Grady, Artemus noticed something else, and strode out to meet Jim.

“Jim, your leg is bleeding again. Must have been when he knocked into you with that chair.”

Jim looked down at his pants leg, saw the dark, spreading stain. “Phoebe’s not going to be very happy with me.”

W*W*W*W*W


Most of Sir Nigel’s men fled upon viewing the scene on the museum steps. The two who had been inside with their leader were apprehended, however, and with some persuasion and offers of leniency, named many of their cohort, quite a number of whom were picked up later. Charging them with crimes was going to be difficult, but the police wanted to make sure that these men realized what they had been involved in. None confessed to being the shooters in the Sierra foothills, nor could that crime be laid at any particular man’s feet.

Phoebe Tennyson, indeed, was upset that much of her ministrations on Jim’s leg had been undone, even while understanding it was not her patient’s fault. She decided, however, that a doctor’s attention was not needed. She cleaned and bandaged the leaking wound firmly, then handed him his cane with a stern remonstrance. Her annoyance with her patient was mollified by the fact that she was promised a special viewing of the fabulous diamond that had been at the center of the contention. Phoebe and her dear husband were present as the stone was placed in its special display case at the museum, long before the public were admitted.

Most ironic of all, Jeremy Pike had not had the stone in his possession. He had been the “advance man,” the decoy, which worked better than anticipated. The Moon Diamond arrived later that day in the reticule of young Janet Lewis, sometime helper in service matters, and recently fiancée of Ned Malone, who had accompanied Frank Harper to Seattle. In her guise as a bereaved daughter traveling to San Francisco to attend her mother’s funeral, she had been unsuspected and unmolested all the way from Washington, D.C.

The Tennysons boarded a train to return to their Sonoma home, while Jim, Artemus, and Jeremy gratefully entered the Wanderer to head east again. Jeremy Pike would be dropped off in Denver before Artemus and Jim continued to Chicago to reunite with Lily Fortune and see her latest production. Colonel Richmond agreed that a few more days of recuperation might be just the thing for his best agents, but he also ordered James West to use his cane until a doctor gave him leave to abandon the walking aide.

Jim was annoyed at first… until he realized how being an invalid garnered attention and sympathy from among the lovely young actresses in Lily’s troupe. In truth, he relied on that cane for much longer than he would have needed to, ignoring a physician’s suggestion that he probably did not require the stick to support his nicely healing limb. Artemus finally hid it from him one morning.

THE END

At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, your numberless infinities
Of souls.
Holy Sonnets [1635] – John Donne



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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