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 The Night of the Lethal Invitation
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California gal
SS senior field agent

USA
8376 Posts

Posted - 10/23/2011 :  14:13:55  Show Profile
THE NIGHT OF THE LETHAL INVITATION

Quid quisque vitet nunquam homini satis cautum est in horas.
[Man is never watchful enough against dangers that threaten him every hour.]
Carmina (II, 13, 13), Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus; Roman poet), 65-8 BC


Artemus Gordon checked his pocket watch as he emerged from the hack. Plenty of time. He turned to the driver and handed him some bills. “Just be sure to turn my luggage over to the stationmaster and give him my name.”

The driver touched his hat with a grin. “I will do that, Mr. Gordon. Thank you, sir!”

Artie watched the carriage drive away. He had been pleased to realize that the Fremont Hotel was within two blocks of the railway station. He could walk that distance easily after paying this courtesy call. Afterwards, he would board the train that would carry him east to Sacramento where he would meet Jim and the Wanderer.

He had seriously considered simply sending a note to Mrs. Lavelle with his excuses; however, that would have been rude. After all, she had taken the time to write to his hotel here in San Francisco to make her presence known and invite him for a visit. No doubt she wanted to reminisce about her late husband, who had been Artemus's first colonel in the Ninth Michigan.

I liked Colonel Lavelle. He was somewhat out of his depths as an officer, but he had the good sense to realize it and rely on other, more experienced men. Illness had taken the colonel out of the fracas early on, and Artemus had later heard that he died soon after the conclusion of the conflict, at his home in Michigan. It would be interesting to find out what brought his widow to San Francisco.

Entering the lobby, Artie had to wait a few minutes at the desk while the clerk assisted a couple that were checking out. He then asked for Mrs. Lavelle’s room number, stating his identity. “Oh, yes,” the clerk beamed, “she said to expect you and direct you up immediately. Room 27, second door to the right of the stairs.”

Thanking the clerk, he headed for the stairs and found the room easily. This hotel was not quite as nice as the one in which he had just spent a week while testifying at a trial, but it appeared clean. Likely the widow could not afford posh accommodations. Artie recalled that Colonel Lavelle had been a storekeeper, so possibly Mrs. Lavelle was on a frugal budget.

He knocked on the door, heard a woman’s voice call out an invitation, so he opened it and stepped inside. The room was pretty much as he expected, as indicated by the rest of the establishment: neat and clean but not extravagant. A woman stood near the window, her back to him, clad in dark gray, a scarf over her head.

Artie pulled off his hat. “Mrs. Lavelle? I’m Artemus Gordon. I…” He stopped short as she turned to smile at him. The scarf had disguised her lustrous dark locks. “Antoinette!” The word was a croak.

He started to step back toward the door, reaching inside his coat for the small gun he always carried, but a hand grabbed his arm. He had not noticed the man standing to one side. A gun barrel jammed into his ribs as still another man stepped out of a curtained doorway, probably a closet.

And then Dr. Miguelito Loveless appeared from behind the wardrobe, his grin wide and triumphant. “Good day, Mr. Gordon. How good to see you again!”

Artie remained still as the second man reached inside his jacket and withdrew the pistol. “What’s this about, doctor?”

Loveless continued to beam, his blue eyes glittering. “I want to thank you for being so cooperative, Mr. Gordon. Somehow I knew appealing to your sense of courtesy was the right thing to do.”

“What do you want?”

“Your help.”

“My help? With what?” Artie stared at the little man.

“I hesitate to admit this,” Loveless smirked, “but I believe you have information that I do not, and which I very much want.”

Artie shook his head slowly. “I have no idea what you are talking about.”

“I will enlighten you on our travels. Now, Mr. Gordon, we are going to go down the stairs, through the lobby, to a waiting coach. Our luggage has already been taken to the coach. No one will be holding a weapon on you during this trek, but I can assure you that my friends here will not hesitate to draw their guns—and shoot any bystanders should you misbehave.”

“Loveless…”

Loveless’s eyes hardened. “I know you do not fear for your own safety, but I feel that you do care about innocent parties. So you will behave yourself. All right?”

Artie glanced at the two armed men and saw the coldness in their gazes, the set of their jaws. They were indeed the type who would cut down innocent parties, and might even enjoy it. “All right,” he replied tightly.

As a group, they left the room, with Artemus in the midst, Loveless and Antoinette leading. Apparently they had already settled their bill because the clerk merely waved a friendly farewell, smiling even more broadly when he saw Artemus with them. No doubt he believes the reunion was friendly and successful! The clerk turned back to helping two older women who were apparently checking in. Another man sat on a nearby chair. Innocent bystanders.

A large and ornate black coach was waiting in front of the hotel. Artie glanced up at the driver and was startled to realize that he was the same man who had driven the hack that brought him here! Not only that, his largest suitcase was visible in the partially covered boot of the coach. At that moment Artemus realized just how he had been set up. He had also counted on Jim discovering his luggage at the railway station and backtracking.

I can trust Jim to do all he can, but in the meanwhile, it looks like it’s up to me to keep myself alive—and look for an opportunity to escape. But what is this about? What does Loveless want from me?

Antoinette and Loveless mounted into the coach first, then one of the “servants,” followed by Artie and the second man. Immediately a manacle was placed around Artie’s left boot and fastened via a short but sturdy chain that was embedded into the floor. Loveless continued to beam at him from the opposite seat as the vehicle started out.

“Make yourself comfortable, Mr. Gordon. We have a rather long journey ahead of us.”

“Are you going to tell me why?”

“Of course. I promised you an explanation, didn’t I? I’m sure you remember our mutual friend, Mr. Marius Hammer, who, sadly, was hanged a few months ago.” When Artie remained silent, Loveless continued. “As you undoubtedly know, I corresponded with Mr. Hammer prior to his unfortunate encounter with you and Mr. West. I know that you cooperated with him in his laboratory.” [See The Night of Paradise Lost.]

“I’d hardly call it that,” Artie muttered.

“He was quite excited to have your assistance, and he told me he allowed you to read all his laboratory notes.” Now Loveless gazed at Artie, a question in his eyes.

A little puzzled, Artemus could but nod. “That’s true. But…”

“So you know the formula for the truth drug.”

I should have known! Artie was unsure why he felt surprised. Perhaps because he had not known that Hammer shared that information with Miguelito Loveless. The two had been rivals more than friends. Perhaps Hammer had been doing some boasting. Now he shook his head. “No, I don't know the formula. I only know about it…”

“Don’t be coy, Mr. Gordon. I am quite aware of your intellect. I have no doubt you committed the formula to memory. I’m only surprised that I have not heard word that a government agency is working on it.”

Artie continued to shake his head. “No. I remember reading the notes, and perhaps a chemical or two. But nothing else.”

“You cannot lie to me!” Loveless roared. “I know you too well, Mr. Gordon. You know that formula and I am going to have it!”

“I cannot give you what I do not have.”

Now the doctor leaned back, composing himself. “We’ll see. Are you wondering why I have captured you alone?”

“I admit I puzzled over that.”

“For several reasons. One is that I have learned what a handful Mr. West can be, and together, the two of you have often proven to be too much. And yes, I know Mr. West will come seeking you. I’m counting on it. You see, I know you were to meet him in Sacramento and he is there now, waiting for you. When you do not appear, he will naturally come to San Francisco. I believe I have left sufficient clues that he will eventually find his way to our destination.”

“And that does not concern you?”

Au contraire, it fits into my plans. You see, when he appears I will take him captive as well. That is, unless you have provided the formula by that time. It may be a few days, or a week or more, but he will come. And when he is in my hands, you will face the choice of giving me what I want or watching him being tortured until you do.”

“Loveless…”

The small man smiled. “You know I’ll do it, Mr. Gordon. In fact, I will enjoy doing it. But I doubt if you will enjoy witnessing the procedure.”

W*W*W*W*W


Jim West stood on the platform at the rear of the parlor car, his gaze scanning the Sacramento railroad yards. After a long moment he muttered a frustrated curse, then stepped down to the ground and walked toward the front of the train where he found Orrin Cobb polishing the headlight of his engine.

“Anything yet, Mr. West?”

Jim shook his head. “Not a sign. And nothing from San Francisco other than what I told you earlier.” He had telegraphed the police in the city, and a good friend, Sgt. Morris, had gone to Artie’s hotel, learning that Artie had checked out on schedule. As far as that clerk knew, Mr. Gordon had entered a cab heading toward the train station.

“Orrin, it’s been almost two days. I’m not going to wait longer. Get clearance to San Francisco. We’ll pull out as soon as you receive it.”

An unusual situation had arisen whereby trials for two different criminals in two different places were scheduled at the same time, and testimony from the agents was needed at both. After some discussion, and consultation with the attorneys involved, the decision was made that in each case one agent would submit a written deposition, while the other would testify in person. Artemus went to San Francisco because he had been the actual arresting officer in that instance; Jim traveled to Kansas City to present the evidence he had personally found against another criminal.

They had decided to meet in Sacramento because their next assignment was in Oregon, and the rail tracks were more direct from that hub. But the chosen meeting date had come and gone. Jim arrived in Sacramento well ahead of schedule, and had telegraphed his partner, receiving a confirmation that Artie expected to board a train in San Francisco on Thursday. It was now Saturday afternoon.

Jim knew that any number of things could have occurred to delay Artie’s departure, but he also knew that, if he were able, Artie would have contacted him. That was the worrisome part. If he had been in an accident, Lloyd Morris would know about it by now. Thus far, Lloyd had not even been able to locate the hack that Artie boarded to take him to the train station. He also had not been able to find anyone who actually saw Artie at that depot. Artemus Gordon had walked out of that hotel and vanished into thin air.

W*W*W*W*W


“This is where you will work, Mr. Gordon. I feel certain you’ll have everything you need, but if you do discover anything lacking, you have only to ask.”

Artemus stared coldly down at the little man. “I’ve already told you I don’t remember the formula, and even if I did, I wouldn’t prepare the serum for you.”

Loveless was unperturbed, his smile remaining fixed. “And I informed you that I do not believe you. A man with your intelligence and intellect would not have forgotten something so unique and valuable. And I also told you what would happen if you persisted in resisting.”

Artie turned away, gazing over the array of glassware and chemicals placed on the tables and shelves around the small room. Loveless could be right, that everything needed was here. But I cannot create that truth drug for him! Nonetheless, the alternative was horrifying: Artie knew that Loveless would carry out his threat to kidnap and torture Jim West to “persuade” him to remember the formula.

Artemus wanted to believe that Jim was too alert to be taken by Loveless, yet he knew that Miguelito Loveless was a very clever man. He had kidnapped either or both of them previously, and although they escaped, they had not been able to capture and defeat him. Jim might not be aware that Loveless was behind his disappearance—unless he was able to trace his partner to the Fremont Hotel.

Upon leaving his own hotel, Artemus had told the hack driver he wanted to stop at that hotel, whereupon he would pay the driver extra to take his luggage on to the station. The hack was one of dozens in the city, one he simply hailed as he stepped out of the hotel. He did not know whether anyone saw or bothered to notice the extra long conversation he had had with the driver. How would Jim trace his movements?

During the lengthy journey in the coach, Loveless had offered more insight. Apparently, Hammer had told Loveless early on about the serum he was concocting, detailing some of his problems with it. Loveless now admitted he had not offered Hammer any advice on his work, saying that he intended to formulate such a drug one day when he had time and he did not want his mind “polluted” by another’s efforts.

In his last letter, Hammer had bragged about murdering James West and taking Artemus Gordon into his confidence. Gordon was reading his notes and would help perfect his current plot to enrich his coffer by selling a dangerous drug to criminals. Hammer planned to then continue his work on the truth drug. Loveless knew the formula and laboratory work had to have been in those notes. He apparently was now willing to accept the initial efforts of another—and probably claim it as his own.

“What happens to me if I do remember the formula?” Artie had asked.

“I have not decided yet, Mr. Gordon. A great deal depends on your behavior as well as your success.”

They had traveled south from San Francisco, a two-day journey on little used roads that was broken by a night in a seemingly deserted cabin, but obviously one that Loveless had discovered and prepared, for food was hidden under the floor, as well as blankets. Artie had been chained to one of the bunks. The two guards slept in a nearby shed, while Loveless and Antoinette took the other two bunks.

The second day, continuing off the main roads, they had climbed into the mountains. Artemus knew that logging was a big industry in the forested hills south of San Francisco, but Loveless seemed to know the area well, avoiding almost all traffic of any sort, until they finally reached a house situated on a rare level area at the summit of a rather low hill, surrounded by other tree-covered rises.

The house was surprisingly large, although in retrospect Artie realized he should not have been surprised at all. Loveless liked his creature comforts, and when at all possible, he preferred to live in luxury. The furnishings were not as lavish as some domiciles Loveless had resided in, but they were definitely far above what the rough exterior of the building indicated.

His own room was not quite so well appointed, a small cubicle on the second floor with a small window and containing only a cot and a small table with a washbasin, and a porcelain pot under the bed. The door was heavy and barred on the outside. Artie had been placed in that room immediately upon arrival, and except for being served a tin plate of a quite palatable dinner, had seen no one until the following morning when he had been escorted downstairs to first have breakfast with Loveless and Antoinette—with his leg chained to the heavy table—and then brought to this laboratory. Since then, he had taken all his meals with the pair.

Loveless refused to believe Artie when his prisoner told him he did not remember the entire formula. In truth, he did recall the components and much of the procedure, but not the measurements; however, he told Loveless that he remembered even less. At the time he had been more interested in Hammer’s description of the tests he had performed on hapless subjects. Two had died, but a third one had actually reacted somewhat as Hammer had wished. That third subject, however, regained his own will too swiftly. Shortly after that, Hammer abandoned the quest for the truth drug in order to pursue the chemical he planned to sell to would-be conquerors of the world.

“It’s a fine laboratory,” Artemus said then, turning back to Loveless. “I can try. But I wish you would understand that that’s all I can do—try. I simply do not remember the entire formula.”

Loveless beamed. “That’s all we can ask of a man, Mr. Gordon, that he tries. Keep copious notes and we will have long discussions. You will then attempt to put the formula together and test it. Now, I expect you would like to clean up and change clothes. All of your baggage is now in your room, Mr. Gordon, after I searched it thoroughly of course.”

W*W*W*W*W

No notice is taken of a little evil, but when it increases it strikes the eye.
—Aristotle (384-322 BC), Greek philosopher


Jim went first to the police station where he met Lloyd Morris, and the two of them traveled to the hotel where Artie had stayed while in the city. On the way, Morris told him what little more he had learned. “As I told you, Artemus never showed up at the train station. At least no one saw him there, and a number of the officials know both of you. So far I haven’t been able to locate anyone who noticed him boarding a hack at the hotel. It’s a busy street and a popular hotel, with people coming and going all the time.”

“I know that,” Jim sighed. “Please don’t think that I don’t trust you, Lloyd, but I want to talk to these people again.

“I have no problem with that,” Morris smiled. “I rather think your federal badge is going to carry more weight than my city one! Might be a few people who heard of Jim West as well.”

Jim nodded absently, knowing the truth of the policeman’s statement. His eyes were focused out the carriage’s windows, scanning the streets, looking for he knew not what. Artemus had been missing almost four days, from the moment he left the hotel and for all intents and purposes vanished. San Francisco was a pretty good-sized city now, but plenty of people knew Artemus Gordon. Lloyd had put the word out but no information was forthcoming.

When they reached the hotel, Jim talked to the anxious clerk who clearly wanted to help. He knew both agents from previous stays at the establishment, but he simply had nothing new to tell them. Mr. Gordon had checked out, walked through the front door carrying his bags, and that was that.

On a previous visit Morris had asked that Mr. Gordon’s room remain vacant, so he and Jim went to it. Jim did not really expect to find anything, and he did not. Artemus had not left either a clue or a forgotten possession. Returning down to the lobby, the clerk called to them anxiously.

“Sergeant, Mr. West, I am so sorry I didn’t mention this before. I just now remembered it. I suppose I thought it was not important!”

“Everything and anything might be important,” Jim said. “What is it?”

“Two days before his departure, Mr. Gordon received an envelope via special messenger.”

“A telegram?”

“No. Of course he had several of those, which I understood were from you, Mr. West. This was a white envelope—very fine stationery—and I remember noticing the handwriting on the front, and thinking it was a woman’s hand.”

“Did he give you any indication of the sender or its content?” Jim asked.

“No. He seemed puzzled until he opened it, then he smiled, thanked me, and went upstairs.”

Morris glanced at Jim. “Then it must not have been bad news. An invitation?”

“Perhaps. Did Mr. Gordon go out again that evening?”

“No, I don't think so. In fact, I’m sure he did not. He also mentioned he was very weary, looking forward to the end of the trial the following day. I’m sure he came down to supper, but he did not turn his key in for the evening as though he was going out. I was on duty at the time.” The clerk thought a moment. “And I’m quite certain he did not go out the evening before his departure as well. I remember now. Two men joined him for dinner. They were men who came here the first day of Mr. Gordon’s arrival. I felt they were lawyers.”

Jim nodded. “Sgt. Morris has spoken to those men. They had dinner together to celebrate the successful end of the trial. The jury brought in a quick verdict that afternoon.”

“But neither of them said anything about Artie having any plans other than departing the next day,” Lloyd put in.

“If Artie had any plans, he may not have mentioned them,” Jim mused.

After asking about the messenger who brought the envelope and being told it had been a man the clerk had never seen before, they thanked the clerk and walked toward the door. Morris looked at his companion’s grim expression. “Jim, is it possible Artie made an… an assignation, one he didn’t want to mention to anyone given…”

“Given he’s a betrothed man,” Jim finished as they stepped out onto the sidewalk. “I don't think so, Lloyd. Artie’s not that kind of man. He…”

“Mr. West!”

Both men turned to see the colored youth at the shoeshine stand a few feet away. Jim smiled, “Hello, Jimmy. I didn’t see you out here, earlier. How are you?”

“I’m fine, sir.” Jimmy Darnell had inherited the stand from his father, and had shined the boots of agents Gordon and West many times over the last couple of years. He was particularly proud to be sharing the same given name as the famous government agent. “Is Mr. Gordon ill?”

“No… why do you ask that?”

“On account of he ain’t with you. He told me he was going to be meetin’ up with you and you was gonna go to Oregon.”

“That was the plan, Jimmy. When did you see Mr. Gordon last?”

“Oh, a couple of days ago when he left. Four days I guess it was now. Thursday. I got sick that night, bad case of the grippe, and I ain’t been back here since then till now. Did he find the hotel?”

Jim cocked his head. “What hotel?”

“Well, the one he was lookin’ for. It was funny, he come out of the hotel with his bags, and stopped and looked back like he was forgettin’ something. Then he looks at me, and he says, ‘Jimmy, you know everything. Where’s the Fremont Hotel?’ I told him, and I says, ‘how come you want to go there? It ain’t near as nice as this one.’ And he says, ‘got a date with a lady.’ And he gave me a quarter. He hailed a hack, talked to that driver a little, put his bags aboard and off they went.”

“And that’s all he said to you?”

“Pretty much. Other than howdy and goodbye.”

Jim dug into his pocket and found a silver dollar. “Thank you, Jimmy. You have been a huge help to me today. One more question, where is the Fremont Hotel?”

Jim wanted to urge Lloyd to go faster as the police landau wended its way through the city streets. Although he himself was not driving, he could see the heavy traffic—streetcars, other buggies and hacks, horses, as well as pedestrians—clogging the streets this late afternoon. The fact that they were heading toward the rail depot only added to the confusion as a lot of people appeared to have that same destination.

The shoeshine boy’s information had given him new hope. What earthly reason would have caused Artemus to go to another hotel except whatever was written in the note he received? Someone had invited him. The question was… who? And why? It must have been a trap. Artie would not have walked into something apparent, so it must have been a very good trap. A lure he would not possibly expect. Lily is in New York, so it could not have been from her.

He jumped out of the carriage before Morris had brought it to a full stop and strode into the lobby. A chubby man behind the desk beamed at him. “Good afternoon, sir. Would you like a room?”

Jim pulled out and displayed his identification. “I need some information.”

The clerk snapped to attention. “Yes, sir. Are you following up on what the other agent came here for? I thought he was just visiting a friend.”

Now Jim lifted a photograph from his pocket and held it out. “Do you know this man?”

“Why, yes. That’s the other agent. At least he said he was an agent. He asked to see Mrs. Lavelle.”

Morris had come in to stand alongside Jim now. “Who’s Mrs. Lavelle?” Jim asked.

“The widow. Lovely young widow. Much too young to be widowed. I’m sure she won’t remain single long.”

“Describe her.”

“Lovely,” the clerk reiterated. “Lustrous black hair, big brown eyes, the sweetest voice and smile you’d ever want to see. Hard to imagine she’s ill.”

“What makes you say she was ill?”

“Because her personal physician traveled with her. Funny little man.”

Jim’s blood seemed to freeze in his veins. “Little?”

“Yes, sir. A dwarf, I guess you’d call him. Only so high. Handsome little fellow, all things considered. And quite the gentleman. Oh so solicitous of Mrs. Lavelle. They also had two menservants with them—though to tell the truth they didn’t look like servants. Did all the heavy lifting though.”

Jim managed to collect himself. “Mr. Gordon visited this Mrs. Lavelle?”

“Yes, sir. He went upstairs and about, oh, ten, fifteen minutes later they all came down. Mrs. Lavelle had paid her bill in advance, so away they went. Private coach was waiting. Same one that brought them the night before.”

“Did you see which way it went when it left?” Morris asked quickly.

“I’m sorry, no. Is that important?”

“Probably not,” Jim murmured. Regardless of which way the carriage traveled when it departed here, it could have gone elsewhere in short order. “Have Mrs. Lavelle’s rooms been let since she vacated?”

“No. No, they haven’t. In fact, I don't think they’ve even been cleaned. We usually have two cleaning ladies but one’s been ill, so the work has fallen behind. Fortunately this is a slow time of year so they haven’t been needed.”

He gave them the keys to the rooms and the two men ascended the stairs to enter room 27. As in Artemus's room at his hotel, Jim did not expect to find anything. And he did not. Not in the room apparently occupied by Antoinette—for he knew that was the identity of the “lovely” Mrs. Lavelle—nor in the second room where Loveless apparently slept. The clerk had informed them that the two “servants” had a room on the top floor. That was where Jim found the matchbox. It had fallen behind the bureau, and if either man noticed at the time, he had disregarded it. Jim West found it because he had learned the value of a thorough search, and he had pushed the bureau out a few inches.

Picking it up, he inspected the small box then handed it to Lloyd, who frowned. “Earl’s, Boulder Creek. Boulder Creek?”

“South of here, I’m pretty sure,” Jim said. “In the coastal mountains. We can check a map.”

“Do you think that’s where they’ve gone?”

Jim sighed, shaking his head. “It’s the only thing we have to go on, Lloyd.”

W*W*W*W*W

Periculosae plenum opus aleae tractas, et incedis per ignes auppositos cineri doloso.
[You are dealing with a work full of dangerous hazard, and you are venturing upon fires overlaid with treacherous ashes.]
Odes (bk. II, 1, 6), Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus; 65-8 BC), Roman poet


“And how are things this morning, Mr. Gordon?”

Artemus glanced up from the pad of paper where he had been writing down and crossing out chemical formulas. “As badly as I told you it would. I hoped that by jotting down some of the things I do remember, others might come. But not yet.”

Loveless was unperturbed, rocking up on his toes and back, arms folded across his broad chest. “Well, it’s early yet. Just keep trying. I hope you have everything you need.”

“Oh, certainly!” Artie’s tone was sarcastic. “Everything except my freedom.” He moved his leg to rattle the chain that connected his ankle to the leg of the heavy table.

The little man assumed an expression of contrition, though his eyes gleamed. “I am so sorry about that, Mr. Gordon. But you must realize that my experience with you and Mr. West in the past makes such measures expedient. Now explain to me what you have written here.” He stepped over to peer at the notepad.

Artie had been very careful with his notes. Loveless was aware of his knowledge of chemistry, but even more important, Loveless’s expertise in the field was unmatched. Artie knew he had to use logical chemicals, not something that could not possibly be involved in such a formula. At the same time, he did not want to list the correct ingredients, not yet anyway. Apparently Hammer had not revealed any of his concoction to his rival. At least not that Loveless had indicated thus far.

Loveless discussed the situation as though he was conversing with a fellow scientist at, say, a university. He grabbed the pencil and made jottings of his own, asked Artemus's opinion, or else came up with reasons why something could or would not work. Artie listened soberly and was cautious not to show any reaction when the doctor actually listed a substance that had been in the formula. Loveless shook his head and crossed it off.

“You can see how difficult it is,” Artie said then. “I read those notes just once. Mr. Hammer had no interest in discussing this particular formula. He wanted my views on his other concoction.”

“I know, I know. But I have no need of that one, as you are likely aware. Mr. Gordon, I am going to try to be patient with you. I have no way at this time to discern whether you are telling me the truth or not.” He stopped, smiled slyly. “So you see why I need and want this particular formula!”

“I am telling you the truth, doctor. I believe your threats against Jim, and I don’t want to see my partner harmed.” Not to mention I want to give Jim as much time as possible to find me. Regardless of what kinds of clues you did or did not leave, Doctor, I have to believe Jim won’t give up. Ever.

Loveless slid off the stool. “I hope you have better news for me soon, Mr. Gordon. I can be patient, but please don’t imagine I’m a fool. You will be escorted to the dining room when luncheon is ready.”

Artie watched him leave the laboratory then sighed deeply as he glanced around. The sole guard was seated on a chair between the room’s only two windows with a rifle across his lap. Putting on a pose of defeat would not work with Loveless. Although the doctor had an ego like Hammer’s, he knew the two agents too well and would be very aware that neither would yield that easily. The best Artemus could do right now was to keep bluffing. How long that would last, only time would tell.

As Loveless had promised, his luggage had been brought to his room—after being thoroughly searched, of course. Loveless had also inspected the garb he had been wearing in the city, which, except for the weapon Artie had worn under his jacket, was completely innocuous. He had not felt the need to take explosives and gas into the courtroom each day.

Thus far Artie had not noticed anything remotely resembling an opportunity to escape. When he was not locked into the secure room, he wore the manacle on his ankle, even at the table for meals. As usual, Loveless and Antoinette were perfect hosts, behaving as though he were an honored guest, not chained to the table leg.

Artemus had to admit that discussing Shakespeare and other literature and music with a man as erudite as Miguelito Loveless helped alleviate the constant tension he experienced. In fact, at times he could almost forget his situation—until he felt the weight of the manacle on his ankle and remembered Loveless’s threats against Jim.

Loveless had not mentioned that he was tracking Jim West’s activities and movements. He seemed content with the awareness that Jim would eventually show up here in these coastal mountains. Artie was not entirely clear on his location. They had not passed through any towns, and in fact had carefully avoided settlements on the trip down the coast. But he could guess by the weather, geography, and scenery, as well as the length of the journey, that they were somewhere near Monterey Bay.

He suspected the range of mountains bearing the same name as the town and county they encircled and cut off from inner California, the Santa Cruz Mountains. He and Jim had crossed through this area a couple of times but had never spent any appreciable time here. Santa Cruz had been the site of one of Father Serra’s missions, and was now a fishing village, as well as supporting surrounding agriculture and lumber industries. A number of small towns, based on the forestry, were nestled in the rugged hills.

Artemus was quite aware that escape was almost impossible, yet it was also what he needed to do. He could not wait until Loveless carried out his threat to capture and torture Jim. Nor could he give Loveless any part of the formula for the truth drug. Loveless was smart enough to take any little bit of real information and develop the drug for himself. He undoubtedly already knew or suspected at least some of the contents, the barbiturates in particular. Hammer had also developed a couple of new chemicals that Artie was unfamiliar with at the time, but again, felt that if he told Loveless, that little genius would discover how to manufacture them himself.

W*W*W*W*W


Because the tracks did not allow them to travel directly to his destination, Jim left the train parked on a siding some forty miles north of where he believed he might find his partner. He rode south and eventually arrived in the seaside town of Santa Cruz. There he looked up the county sheriff, Robert Orton, who informed him that a man fitting the description of Miguelito Loveless had indeed been seen in the area, if briefly. One of his deputies had done the sighting, and had been so amazed at seeing such a chap, he had told others about it. However, although that caused the fellow deputies to be on the lookout, he had not been seen again.

“We got to thinking Hal was seeing things,” Orton intoned. He was a burly man with a short and neatly trimmed beard.

“Loveless is like a bad dream,” Jim acknowledged wryly, “but he’s real enough. Can you show me on a map where he was sighted?”

On a wall map, the sheriff pointed out an area near Boulder Creek—the same town that the box of matches had come from. Orton said he had a part-time deputy in Boulder Creek who was also the owner of a nearby lumber mill. “Good man. There’s also a town constable who’s mostly useless, especially when it comes to a bunch of liquored up loggers.”

Jim studied the map a long minute then asked the lawman some questions. When he had the information he needed, he got a room at a nearby hotel, had dinner on the premises then rode down to the shore to watch the fishing boats come in for the night. After a drink at a saloon along the main thoroughfare, he went to his room, aware that all the while he had been under surveillance.

W*W*W*W*W

O ye gods! what thick encircling darkness blinds the minds of men!
—Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso; 43 BD-c. 17 AD), Roman poet


“I do believe we give Mr. West too much credit for his intelligence.”

Artemus looked up from the pad of paper on which he had been doodling. Loveless was coming toward him, arms folded on his breast, his expression one of both anger and contempt. “Want to explain that?” Artie asked.

“I was certain he would grasp the import of the blatant clues I left at the scene. And indeed, he traveled south. He was seen in Santa Cruz yesterday. But this morning, he mounted up and continued south.”

“We’re not really familiar with this area,” Artie stated blandly. Strange that Loveless could not see what he himself saw plainly: Jim was working a ruse.

The little doctor made a noise that was suspiciously like a snort. “If he does not return, I will send men after him. My patience is growing thinner and thinner. What is your progress?”

“Next to none. I’ve told you and told you, I cannot remember that formula. Not enough to be of any use to you.”

“And I’ve told you I don’t believe you. I have great respect for your intelligence, Mr. Gordon. I do not believe you would have perused those journals without committing some of the information to memory.”

“Why should I? I have no use for such vile combinations.”

“But your government might! I know you have not passed the information on to authorities. I suspect your moral standards would prevent you from doing so.” Loveless sneered at such an idea. “If I did not know better, I would think you were anticipating seeing your good friend suffer at my hands.”

Artie leaned his chin on his fist, elbow on the table, and gazed at the little man. “You aren’t really after the formula, are you?”

Loveless stiffened visibly. “Whatever are you babbling about?”

Artie kept his gaze direct. “Your real purpose is to capture Jim, isn’t it?”

“Don’t be ridiculous! I will capture Mr. West if you force me. It’s up to you to provide the formula to prevent him from undergoing hideous torture. The formula is my primary objective.”

“No.” Artie shook his head, now smiling slightly. “You know that I can’t give you that formula. It’s just a new tactic to bring Jim into your clutches.”

Now the doctor stalked forward, pointing a stiff finger toward Artie’s face, his own expression distorted by fury. “That’s a lie! A lie, Mr. Gordon! I want that formula.”

“You are unlikely to get it from me, even if you do torture Jim West. I don’t remember it. I had other things on my mind at the time, such as escaping from Marius Hammer.” Not to mention avenging Jim, whom I thought dead at that juncture.

You had better dredge it up out of your memory, Mr. Gordon,” Loveless snarled, his blue eyes blazing. “If viewing Mr. West in agony does not move you to produce the formula, perhaps experiencing my methods yourself will!”

Artie shook his head, sighing. “You are a difficult man to convince!”

“Because I know a liar when I see him, Mr. Gordon. I’m onto your tactics. You think if you stall long enough, Mr. West will rescue you. That won’t work this time. I have men watching him at all times. The moment he returns to this area—and he will—he will be taken into custody.” Now Loveless smiled in thoughtful anticipation. “And then the fun will begin.”

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
8376 Posts

Posted - 10/23/2011 :  14:15:08  Show Profile
W*W*W*W*W


Three days and some hard riding was required, but Jim arrived at the mountain town of Boulder Creek with the certainty that he had lost his tail. After riding south for almost two days, and constantly aware of the man following him, he had turned inland—and watched his shadow continue south.

He was not worried about the time factor. Loveless was not going kill Artie, not until he had Artie’s partner in hand. Jim was certain of that. He was still unaware of exactly what Loveless had in mind when he worked the apparent ruse to kidnap Artemus Gordon, but Jim was confident that the basis of it all had his own capture at heart. Loveless despised both agents for constantly foiling his plans, but his hatred of Jim West went beyond description, and sometimes beyond rationality. Jim wondered if even Loveless understood it.

Sheriff Orton had told him where to find the deputy in Boulder Creek, so Jim rode to the rough building that was the headquarters of the Big Trees Lumber Company, where he met Deputy Sheriff Pete Dalbey, a hearty, big-chested man in his forties with a mane of graying auburn hair and a long matching mustache.

“Sheriff Orton sent me a note telling me to expect you, Mr. West,” Dalbey said after pouring cups of coffee from a big chipped enameled pot that he had sitting atop a potbellied stove. “He mentioned this little fellow you are looking for. I’ve heard rumors about him, but haven’t seen him myself.”

“Are there any newcomers in the area? Anyone who seems… out of place?”

Dalbey leaned back in his barrel-back chair and the springs under it squeaked. “Yeah, there is. This widow lady.”

Jim’s eyes glinted. “Beautiful woman, long dark hair, voice as sweet as honey?”

“Yeah, that’s her. Several fellas have talked about trying to court her, but she never comes to town except to buy supplies—and she always has a couple of bruisers with her. Mean looking. Even our tough loggers don’t want to tangle with them.”

“I take it she’s living around here somewhere?”

“Yeah. About, oh, five miles west, down an old road. She rented a house that was built by a fellow who came from the east maybe ten, or closer to fifteen years ago. He made a little money in the gold fields and sent for his family. Never stopped waiting for them, even though he was told they were killed in an Indian attack somewhere along the way. The news kind of scrambled his brains, I guess. Anyway, when he died five-six years ago, the property was left to a cousin back east. That fellow appointed a lawyer to sell it, but it has never been sold. The lawyer rented it out a couple of times, and just now this widow lady is living in it.”

“And all you’ve seen is the widow and these two… bodyguards?”

“Yep. Like I said I’ve heard that this little fellow has been seen around that house, but that’s only hearsay.”

Jim sat with Dalbey for close to an hour, explaining his mission and in particular, emphasizing the danger Miguelito Loveless presented. “He would not hesitate to blow up this entire town if he felt it would help him gain his ends.” As he talked, and Dalbey asked questions, Jim was increasingly impressed with the deputy. He was a man who ran a company, after all, so he had to have reasonable intelligence. Hearing that a megalomaniac was in the vicinity did not rattle him at all.

W*W*W*W*W


Artie lay awake, his hands behind his head on the pillow as he stared up at the moonlit ceiling. He did not hesitate to admit to himself that he was concerned. For one thing, Loveless had been in an agitated state for most of the last two days. When he had learned that Jim West had apparently ignored or misread the clue he had left at the hotel, the doctor had been complacent, certain that West would return.

Shortly after that, however, he had learned the man delegated to follow Jim had lost him. He could offer no explanation other than one minute West was ahead of him on the trail and then he was not. Artie had had difficulty preventing himself from smiling, even chortling, when he heard that. No one could trail Jim when he did not want them to.

But now, after two days, Artie was wondering just what had happened to his partner. He had expected Jim to make a move by now, although he was unsure what Jim could have done. He would not bring a posse, or an army troop, to besiege the house, aware that Loveless would immediately present Artemus Gordon as hostage and have no qualms about killing him.

But where is he? Had something happened, completely unconnected with this ploy of Loveless?

Along with being agitated regarding West’s apparent disappearance, Loveless had been badgering Artemus to produce the formula, now threatening to deny food or drink until he had the secret in hand. Artie was not overly concerned regarding his own safety. If Loveless really desired the formula, he would need to keep Artemus Gordon alive. But Loveless was unpredictable at best. Artie was fairly certain that the ploy of kidnapping one partner to ostensibly gain the formula was, as he had accused Loveless, simply another means to seize Jim West. But if Jim was unavailable…

Artie raised his head and looked toward the door of his room. The hour was very late, probably after midnight now. Not on any other night had he heard anyone out in the hallway, and especially no one had come to his door. Yet it sounded as though the bar on the door had been lifted. And now the door began to open slowly.

“Jim!” Artie sat up as he hissed the word in utter surprise.

Jim stepped inside and carefully closed the door behind him before he approached the bed. “You all right?”

“I’m fine. How the devil did you get here?” They were talking in whispers as Artie reached for the boots beside the bed. He had not yet divested himself of his clothes to settle in to sleep.

“I’ll tell you later. We need to get the hell out before my luck runs out.”

Artie grabbed his jacket from a nearby chair and followed Jim to the doorway, where both men waited very quietly, listening. Hearing nothing stirring, they stepped out into the hall and gently replaced the bar in its brackets over the door. Jim kept his hand on the handle of his pistol and wished he had thought to bring a gun for Artie. They crept down the passageway to the stairs without incident, and upon gaining the lower floor Jim led the way toward the laboratory.

Artie was puzzled for a moment, but then realized that Jim had come through a window in that room without setting off any alarms. Who knew how many signals Loveless had rigged at the doors? He remembered that during the warmth of the afternoon, his guard had opened a window, and did not recall that it had been closed when he was summoned to dinner. The doctor would be furious if he realized this.

They climbed out the window then sprinted up the nearby slope. The house had been constructed on a slight rise, but the hills on either side were of higher elevation. The dirt road bent around those hills to the house.

“Where’s your horse?” Artie asked as they gained the top and ducked behind some bushes. The moon was plenty bright tonight.

“About a quarter mile down the road there. I didn’t want to take a chance on being heard. Artie, what’s going on? Why did Loveless kidnap you?”

“Allegedly for Hammer’s truth serum formula.”

“Do you remember it?”

“Mostly. But I tried to convince the doctor I did not. I’m not sure he bought it—or cared. I believe his real intention was to lure you in, James. He continually threatened to capture and torture you to make me talk. He was furious when you did not come directly to this house—wherever it is—the other day.”

Jim smiled briefly. “You’re about five miles from the logging town of Boulder Creek, up above Santa Cruz.”

“I kind of figured that was about where we were. But I wasn’t allowed to see any signposts on the way.” Briefly Artie explained how he had been lured to the Fremont Hotel and captured. “It never occurred to me that it was a trap.”

“No reason it should have. Artie, I want you to take Blackjack and ride back to Boulder Creek…”

“Hold it! I’m not leaving you here alone!”

“I need to watch the place and make sure no one escapes. And I’ve got the gun.” He patted the weapon at his hip.

Artie sighed. “But I don’t even know where Boulder Creek is!”

“Poor excuse is better than none.” Jim explained the directions to his partner, and told him how to find Deputy Dalbey. “He will have gotten a posse lined up. Bring them back as soon as you can, and as quietly as possible. We can surround the house before Loveless even wakes up and has a chance to escape.”

“All right. All right. You sure Blackjack will let me mount him?”

Jim grinned. “I already gave him instructions.”

W*W*W*W*W

Multos in summa pericula misit venturi timor ipse mali.
[The mere apprehension of a coming evil has put many into a situation of the utmost danger.]
Pharsalia (VII, 104), Lucanus (Marcus Annaeus Lucan; fl. 39 - 65),
Roman (Spanish-born) last of Roman epic poets


Jim found a spot where he could have a good view of both the front and back doors to the old two-story house and settled down behind some brush, putting his hat aside. Because he had gotten into the house and out again with Artie undetected, he did not expect anyone to stir until the usual morning hour. By then, he hoped, the house would be surrounded. Miguelito Loveless had escaped their clutches too many times.

The ease with which he had been able to locate and free Artie made him a little apprehensive. He had noticed the one window that was not completely closed, slipped in quietly and then waited a few minutes in what was obviously a laboratory to make sure no one else was moving in the house. When all was silent, he examined other rooms on the first floor then mounted the stairs. Locating Artie’s room had been easy: it was the only one with a bar across it.

Jim was unsure why he felt so unsettled, other than past experience informed him that if something came too easily, trouble followed. Just as that thought crossed his mind, he heard a sound behind him. He rose smoothly, turning and drawing his pistol as he did so. Then he froze.

“Good evening, Mr. West.”

He probably should not have been so surprised. This was Miguelito Loveless, after all. But there he was, grinning broadly, with two men on either side of him, guns drawn, pointing directly at Jim West. Slowly he lowered his gun. He had not seen anyone emerge from either the front or back door of the house, and earlier reconnaissance had shown no windows existed on the first floor at the far end of the house.

“Be so kind as to holster your gun, Mr. West,” Loveless purred, “then unbuckle your belt and let it fall.” When Jim did so, the little doctor ordered one of his men to tie Jim’s hands behind his back, which was accomplished with a length of rawhide the guard produced from his pocket. That man then headed to the left. Jim was prodded to follow him with the weapon held by one man who remained closely behind him, while Loveless and the other two—still with their guns in hand—came after him.

“How did you get behind me?” Jim finally asked as they started down a path toward the house.

Loveless chuckled. “Through the tunnel.”

“Tunnel!” Jim slued his head around to stare briefly at his captor. “What tunnel?”

“Well, it seems that the man who constructed this fine house had a mortal fear of Indian attack. No one could convince him that no hostiles resided in this area. So in complete secrecy, he hired some of the Chinese who had helped build the tunnels through the Sierra to come here and build one for him, under this hill we are descending. He kept the workers in his house the entire time, and of course they could not use dynamite. Once it was completed, he paid them off and spirited them away.”

“How did you know about the tunnel?”

“I have my ways. You know that, Mr. West.” They had reached the door of the house. “Mr. Gordon, I’m afraid, is not going to be very happy to see you.”

He doesn’t know I got Artie out!

Jim was glad his back was to Loveless because he was uncertain if he prevented his elation from displaying on his face. “How did you know I was out there?”

“Frank, there, answered a call of nature and glanced out the window. Saw you moving about. So naturally he alerted me. One day, Mr. West, you may learn that you cannot fool me. Ever.”

I just did!

Inside the house, Antoinette waited. She turned up the wick on a lamp she was holding as they entered. Jim nodded in her direction. “Antoinette. Lovely as ever.” She was attired in a dark velveteen robe with bits of lace protruding at the collar.

She smiled coyly, curtsying every so slightly. “Thank you, Mr. West. Always nice to see you.”

“Enough, enough,” Loveless growled. “Port, go upstairs and rouse Mr. Gordon so he can greet his dear friend.” As the man headed for the stairs, Loveless turned back to Jim, clasping his hands behind his back and rising on his toes as he spoke smugly. “You see, Mr. West, I asked Mr. Gordon to do a little favor for me. He was reluctant, so I offered to bring you here to… er… help convince him. I am certain that when he sees you experiencing a certain amount of… discomfort, he will…”

The footsteps pounded down the stairs and Port reappeared, eyes wide. “He’s gone, doctor! He ain’t there!”

Loveless glared. “What are you talking about?”

“Gordon! He ain’t in the room! The bar was on the door but…”

For a long second, the little man was a statue. Then he spun on one heel. “Mr. West! What did you do with him?!”

Jim gazed back with wide and innocent eyes. “Me? What do you mean? I was up there on the hill. Your man saw me…”

“Shut up!” Loveless was silent now, staring at Jim for perhaps thirty seconds. He turned. “Antoinette, please be so kind as to begin preparing for a journey. We are going to have to vacate this lovely home, I’m afraid.” He brought his gaze back to Jim. “I am sure that Mr. Gordon is on his way to Boulder Creek to bring back a posse. I am sorry that I will not be able to remain to greet him properly.” He jerked his head. “Bring Mr. West upstairs.”

W*W*W*W*W


At times, Artemus wondered if the big black horse did indeed understand his master’s vocal commands and conversation. When he found Blackjack waiting some yards down the road, the horse greeted him with a whicker, then remained perfectly still to allow Artie to mount. None of the usual dancing and nervous energy he would normally present for his regular rider.

As soon as he was in the saddle, Artie headed down the road at a full gallop, extremely grateful for the brightness of the full moon that lit his way almost as brightly, it seemed, as day. When he arrived in the town of Boulder Creek, the streets were mostly vacant, although lights and noise came from the several saloons that were still in full swing at this hour of the night. He marveled about the men who could drink heavily then get up in the morning and tackle the big trees in this area.

Finding the lumber office was no problem; Jim’s directions were specific. However, a great disappointment awaited: Artie found a note on the door stating that Deputy Dalbey had been called to one of the camps. He expected to be back within an hour. Artie consulted his pocket watch. Dalbey had put the time of his departure on the note. He had already exceeded his stated hour. Artie sighed aloud. That, he hoped, would mean the deputy would return at any moment.

I can’t do anything without him. Loveless took my identification, not to mention my money. I couldn’t even go buy a round of drinks to encourage men to follow me back there!

W*W*W*W*W


Jim was initially puzzled as to the little doctor’s plans. Loveless led the way up the stairs, with several men following. They entered a room that was apparently being used as a storeroom, stacked with trunks and boxes, two of which were chillingly labeled “explosives.” A door at one end apparently led to another room and Loveless sent men in there to bring back two wooden chairs.

He then instructed the men to use leather strips and nails to secure the heavier chair to the floor, some three feet in front of the door and facing it. The strips were nailed to the chair’s thick legs and the other end into the floor, making the chair immoveable. Only when Loveless procured a rifle from one of the trunks and started fastening it to the second chair did Jim begin to realize what was in the works.

At Loveless’s nod, two men grabbed Jim and forced him to sit in the larger chair, where ropes wrapped around his chest held him securely against the back, while other ropes tightly bound his boots to either leg. Then Loveless moved the other chair alongside it. He had used a box and other strips of thin leather to cause the rifle to rest levelly, and now he arranged the chair so that it aimed the rifle toward the hallway door.

Humming a cheerful tune, Loveless produced a ball of twine, proceeding to fasten it to the door handle and back to the rifle… and around the trigger. He checked it carefully, and checked it again. Then he cocked the rifle and telling the men to stay put, he went through the door to the other room. A minute or so later, the doorknob to the outer door moved—and the rifle exploded, sending a bullet straight through the wooden door. Outside, Loveless giggled.

He returned smiling broadly. “I regret the necessity of having to test the mechanism and possibly leaving the clue of a bullet hole, but I had to be sure. Besides it will still be dark when Mr. Gordon returns with the posse. Chances are very good that in the dim lamplight, he will not even notice the hole. Have you an idea of what is going to happen, Mr. West?”

Jim spoke levelly. “When the gun fires through the door, a member of the posse will undoubtedly be hit. And the others will immediately fire back through the door in retaliation.”

“Excellent! I always said you were a bright young man!” Loveless smirked. “Once the barrage ends, the door will be opened… and Mr. Gordon will discover he has murdered his dear best friend. Can you imagine his anguish? I can!” The smirk broadened into a smile. “But never fear, Mr. West. Your friend won’t have to suffer long. When I leave I will have set some explosives in the house, with a timer activated by the opening of the doors. Boom! No more posse, no more Mr. Gordon. I am a compassionate man, after all, to put him out of his misery. Mr. Gordon is very intelligent, and I’m sure he will be wary, but he will not see the mechanism for the timer, I assure you.”

Jim did not reply, knowing that to do so would only please the little madman. Loveless waited a moment, obviously expecting a remark, and when it did not come, he nodded once again, whereupon a man forced Jim’s mouth open to stuff a ball of cloth inside, and then bound another strip of cloth around his mouth.

“I’m sure you would have preferred to call out a greeting,” Loveless smiled. “But I prefer that Mr. Gordon be surprised. Farewell, Mr. West. It has been a long and interesting war, but I am the victor, as I always knew I would be.”

Instructing his men to bring certain boxes and trunks—including the explosives—Loveless strutted out through the door to the adjoining room. As soon as the men toted the luggage out, they closed the door and left Jim in the darkness, with only a patch of pale moonlight on the floor through the lone window. He struggled against his bonds but knew he was helpless. He could not reach either the knife in his coat or his boot or the acid in the coat button. He could not call out to warn anyone approaching. He could not move the chair to either throw himself out of the way or to send a signal. Artie would indeed be returning with help and eventually they would enter the house.

Perhaps the only hope was that the posse would encounter Loveless in his escape. They should. Only one road led away from the house. Jim knew he could only cling to that possibility.

W*W*W*W*W


Deputy Dalbey showed up about an hour later than his projected return, full of apologies. The situation at the lumber camp had been worse than he expected, and although no one had died, the combatants had wanted to continue their fight while he was present. Artie accepted the apologies, knowing that the man had his duties to perform, and asked that the posse be brought together immediately. Dalbey complied, leading Artemus to a nearby tavern where, he said, he had threatened a number of men with jail time if they overindulged before he was able to assemble the posse and set off. Artie had to smile when he saw the dozen or so men with beers before them, eager to prove that they had not been drinking to excess. Seemed that the deputy was respected and perhaps a little feared.

Dalbey gave Artemus time to explain the situation. Artie could see that a few of the men had actually heard of Dr. Miguelito Loveless, and even more knew the names of James West and Artemus Gordon. They appeared to be lumberjacks for the most part, although at least two might have been businessmen of some sort. None demurred or asked to be excused after hearing the whole story.

They were all armed with pistols, rifles, or shotguns, and they had horses saddled and waiting behind the saloon. Artie remounted Blackjack, who seemed a little edgier now, as though he was aware that his master would be waiting at the other end of this journey. The posse set out at top speed, and continued so, until about a mile from the house, when Artie slowed them down to a trot, and then finally a walk, before dismounting in the same area he had found the black horse waiting earlier.

Artie asked Dalbey to keep his men quiet while he walked ahead and checked in with Jim West then headed on down the road toward the house, staying to one side as he neared, lest someone be looking out the window. The sky was starting to lighten in the east, and Artie was aware that one or two of the men sometimes rose early to tend to the horses—although he never figured out where the horses were kept. The barn and corral that he had been able to see from a window appeared not to be used.

“Jim?”

Artie called out softly as he neared the spot where he knew his partner had set himself up. Puzzled that he received no response, he approached closer and saw that Jim was not there behind that particular bush. Crouching himself, he started to look further away, thinking that Jim must have moved, and then saw first the black hat, and then the gun belt and pistol, on the ground.

With an inward groan, Artie turned and sprinted back to where the posse waited. Tersely he explained that somehow—inexplicably as far as he was concerned—Loveless or his men had apparently taken Jim West. “I can only hope he’s in the house… alive. We need to be doubly cautious now.”

He and Dalbey conferred for a few minutes and then asked several of the men to circle around the house to see what they could see and come back. When those men returned, they reported the house was entirely dark and quiet. One had ventured to a window to peer in and it looked to him as though a desk he saw had been emptied, drawers standing open.

A chill passed through Artie. Had Loveless fled and taken Jim with him? Or… He did not at this moment want to consider an alternate scenario. This time he went to check the house himself, to the window of the laboratory. Even in the darkness, the moonlight allowed him to see that many of the books and notebooks, as well as some chemicals, were not where they had been. He quickly trotted back to the posse.

“Looks to me like Loveless has abandoned the place. I have no idea how he could have gotten by us, especially because he apparently took time to pack up his most important items. That isn’t important at the moment. I have to go inside and see if… if my partner is there.”

“Better have some of us with you, Mr. Gordon.”

“Thank you. Let’s leave half a dozen men out here and the rest come inside. Everyone stay very alert. Loveless is a clever and tricky man. He may have set up booby traps.”

Artie led the way to the door on this side of the house and cautioned the others to stay back as he very carefully opened it, finding it unlocked, and looked for wires or anything else. Seeing nothing, he pushed it wide and stepped inside. The house was deadly dark and quiet. He took a chance and called out.

“Jim! Jim?”

No response, no sound. Motioning the deputy and his men to follow him inside, he asked that they quickly search the lower floor with him. No one was to go upstairs alone. After about ten minutes they met in the front room again. Nothing had been found or seen. Everywhere was evidence of a hasty departure. Nothing to do but check the upstairs. Artie led the way.

Every door on the second floor passageway stood open, even the one that had been Artie’s bedroom, except one. Apprehensively, Artie made his way to that door, followed by the posse. He motioned three of them to move to the opposite side, while he and the others remained on the other. One of the posse had picked up a lantern downstairs and lit it, now holding it high.

Artie frowned when he saw the splintered wood in the door. He could not remember seeing it previously, and he had walked by it numerous times during his captivity. Did that indicate that Jim had been in the house and a gunfight…? No, Jim’s weapon was outside. That did not mean Jim could not have gained possession of a weapon. Drawing his own gun in his right hand, Artemus reached with his left to grasp the latch of the door and carefully began to push it inward.

The explosion of the weapon was very loud in the silent house. All of the men jumped back, and then every one of them started to raise their own weapons toward the door, Artie included. His finger started to tighten on the trigger. Then he whispered loudly: “No, stop!”

The men obeyed, if reluctantly, confusion on their faces. They had been shot at. They were on a posse. They were supposed to fight back. Artie waved them back again, and this time he swung around to face the door and slammed his foot against it. The door swung back, banging into the wall inside. Artie grabbed the lantern and held it inside the room.

“Oh, dear God.”

He knew what had nearly happened. Handing the lantern back, he drew his knife, intending to start cutting the bonds that pinioned Jim to the chair. But Jim was making frantic sounds behind the mask, his eyes telling his partner what he needed to do. Artie used the knife to carefully cut the rag that bound Jim’s mouth and then pull the cloth out.

“Artie!” Jim’s voice was hoarse, his tongue thick and dry. “Loveless set a bomb… can go off any second. Get out of here!”

“You heard him, Dalbey,” Artie rapped. “Get your men clear!”

The posse did not need to be told twice. However, Artie did. He began sawing at the heavy rope confining Jim to the chair. Jim worked up a little saliva in his mouth.

“Get going, Artie. Go!” He could hear the thundering footsteps of the men heading down the stairs.

Artie glanced up. “I’m not finished. You know I don’t like to leave a job unfinished.” The rope began to fall away.

Jim did not say anything further. He knew the look in his partner’s eyes and that any further pleas would be ignored. We’re still in it together. Regardless. He leaned forward to let Artie cut the leather thongs on his wrists then pulled the knife from the back of his coat. As Artie worked on one leg, he cut the bonds on the other.

Jim got to his feet, wavered ever so slightly as the circulation in his stiffened limbs began to flow freely again. Artie, of course, watched and waited. Then as one they bolted out the door. Down the stairs. Through the living area. Barely able to breathe. They burst out of the front door and sprinted toward the slanted ground that led to the hill above. The deputy and his men were already there.

The explosion threw them against the side of the hill, slamming both men into the dirt with its force. Almost instantly debris began falling around them, some flaming. Dust and smoke was everywhere. Artie pushed himself to his hands and knees, brushing a burning splinter from his shoulder. His ears were ringing.

“You all right?” he asked Jim, who was up on his knees now, similarly brushing dirt and other debris away.

“Yeah.”

As they got to their feet, Dalbey skittered down the hill, yelling to his men to start putting out the burning pieces. They did not need a forest fire starting from this. The men set to work, and within about fifteen to twenty minutes other men began arriving, having heard the explosion. Before long the flames had been extinguished.

“How in the hell did Loveless get by us?” Artie wanted to know. “He would have had to come down that road and go through town!”

“I’m sure he did,” Jim replied, “after you reached the house. They went through the tunnel.”

“What tunnel?” This was from Dalbey who had joined the two agents on the hill overlooking the completely destroyed house. Quickly Jim related what Loveless had told him. The deputy shook his head. “I never knew the fellow, but I heard tales that he was pretty… eccentric. He built a tunnel and no one ever knew. How’d this Loveless come to find out?”

Jim glanced at Artie. “He has his ways. Come on. It’s supposed to be under this hill, so I assume the exit must be over that way.”

They found the exit that apparently had been disguised by piled up brush. Signs indicated that a buggy and wagon as well as a number of horses had been inside the tunnel entrance, as well as in the rather wide open area, that was screened from the nearby road by trees and brush.

“That’s why I never saw any horses around the house,” Artie muttered. “So he set the explosives and came through here, loaded up his equipment, waited until I went by with the posse, and… left.”

“And is long gone, I’m sure,” Jim sighed. The usual story. The little doctor had an uncanny ability to slip away from them. He looked at his partner again. “Artie, Loveless was sure that once that rigged up rifle fired through the door, anyone out there would immediately shoot back.”

“We almost did,” Artie replied grimly, realizing all too well what would have been the result had he and the other men let loose a barrage through that door. “Then I remembered who we were dealing with. He would not make it so apparent, so easy. The previous bullet hole in the door was telling too.”

Jim had to smile in satisfaction. “He was certain it wouldn’t be noticed, but he had to test his mechanism. I’ve always said you were brilliant.”

Artie put his hand on Jim’s shoulder. “I’ll happily agree with you, James my boy. Even the good doctor can be wrong from time to time. Come on. We have a lot to talk about. And we haven’t had breakfast.”

Epilog

There is no faculty of the human soul so persistent and universal as that of hatred.
—Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) American Congregational clergyman, religious writer and reformer



“I think,” Artie said, as he came through the door from the galley wiping his hands on a towel, “that now the chores are done, we can tackle the mail.” He reached back to toss the towel into the galley.

Jim closed the hidden rack where the extra guns were secreted. “Guns all cleaned and oiled. Next time maybe we shouldn’t let things pile up.”

Artie grinned, heading for the burlap bag that was on the sofa next to the table. He knew as well as Jim did that they would do the same again. Although he generally kept the galley in pretty good shape, events of late had prevented him from doing a good cleaning job, and those same events had kept Jim from his assigned chore of keeping the weapons in good condition.

They had picked up the mail in Denver that morning and although each was anxious to see if they had correspondence from friends and loved ones, sorting and reading that accumulation could take hours. So as the train headed south toward their upcoming assignment, they had agreed to do the necessary tasks first. Their staterooms were in reasonable order so that the next cleaning lady would not sigh so loudly. They had sorted out soiled clothes to deliver to a laundry at the next lengthy stop. Floors were swept. The stable car area had been swamped out.

Artie dumped the bag on the table. Envelopes, newspapers, magazines and a couple of small packages tumbled out. He picked up one package and grinned widely. “Delicacies from Theresa.”

Jim grabbed the box. “Addressed to me!” His brother’s wife periodically sent him cookies and candies she concocted.

“Ah, but you’ll share, partner. You’ll share.” Artie sighed. “What a mess. We need to pick up the mail more often too.”

For several minutes they silently worked to sort the mail. Magazines and newspapers were tossed on the sofa. The Police Gazette and Harper’s Weekly would help pass the long hours as they traveled to south Texas. Many of the envelopes were recognizable as being from acquaintances and were put in separate stacks on the table.

Artie paused and gazed at an envelope he held. It was slightly larger than ordinary, a heavy envelope, somewhat darker than the usual manila color. “Wonder what this is?”

Jim looked up then took it from him. “Messrs. Gordon and West, Denver, Colorado. Hold for pickup.” He studied the bold blocky print. “No return address. Advertisement maybe. But there’s only one way to find out.” A letter opener was on the shelf nearby and he used it to slit the top of the envelope, and removed a rather coarse piece of folded paper. Opening it, his eyes widened momentarily before he silently handed it to Artemus.

Artie read it aloud, slowly. “Mr. West and Mr. Gordon. I have learned that Lady Luck deserted me again, allowing both of you to safely escape my snare in Boulder Creek. I don't know why Dame Fortune has chosen to plague me, but I believe I can safely state that my ill luck is at an end. The odds are in my favor. In some little way, I regret saying this, but our little competition is finis. I have won. I will miss you, but I will go on. Now I can complete my plans without your interference. Your ob’d’t servant, Dr. Miguelito Loveless, Ph.D., etc.” Artie looked up. “What in the world?”

Jim shook his head as Artie placed the paper on the tabletop. “His ego, I suppose. He cannot admit that someone else might actually outsmart him, let alone give us any credit for a modicum of intelligence.”

“Yeah. But that last part. What does it mean?”

Jim stared down at the paper and shook his head again. “More boasting, I suppose. He… Artie!”

Artemus saw it at the same moment. The boldly written words on the sheet of paper seemed to move, to shimmer.

“Get the door!” Jim yelled, turning to grab a large rock from the shelf. Artie had picked up the rock somewhere in Colorado and always wanted to show it to a geologist. But a greater purpose had arrived for it.

Picking up the sheet of paper by the edges, and aware that a thin vapor had begun to arise from it, Jim wrapped it around the rock, and sprinted toward the rear door, where Artie was standing with it open. Jim stepped out onto the platform, drew his arm back, and threw the rock, with the paper around it, as hard as he could off to the left side.

As the train sped on, the rock dropped away from the paper, which wafted briefly in the wake caused by the moving cars, then vanished in a small cloud of brownish-green smoke, which then dissipated in the air. Artemus stepped outside and Jim looked at him.

“What was it?”

“Obviously some kind of gas. Poison, no doubt. Must have been imbued in the ink and the paper. Perhaps exposure to light was the catalyst. If we had not noticed that the words were… dissolving…”

Jim grimaced. “I have a notion that gas didn’t smell very good. What about the envelope?”

They reentered the car. “I expect it’s all right, but I’ll burn it carefully. That’s why he used a heavy envelope, to keep the light out until we opened it.” Artie paused at the table, staring down at the envelope. “He’s always so confident. Always certain that his scheme is going to work. And it never does.”

“Not as long as we are around.”

Artie lifted his gaze. “I think he realizes that. You’d better go wash your hands, just in case.”

Jim nodded and went through to the galley. When he returned, his partner had poured two glasses of whiskey. “I think we deserve this,” Artie said, handing one over.

Jim lifted his glass. “To Loveless. He certainly keeps our life interesting.”

Artie chuckled. “An understatement.”

Both men drank heartily.

THE END

Uncertainty and expectation are joys of life. Security is an insipid thing; and the overtaking and possessing of a wish discovers the folly of the chase.
—William Congreve (1670-1729), English dramatic poet


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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