SS senior field agent
Posted - 06/15/2014 : 12:21:00
| The Night of the Portentous Portrait
The torpid artist seeks inspiration at any cost, by virtue or by vice, by friend or by fiend, by prayer or by wine.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), American essayist and poet
“Nice of the weather to cooperate,” Artemus said wryly as he dismounted into the mire that was the street of Broad Springs, Montana. He stepped carefully, not wanting to lose his footing and fall into the muck. The rain had started last night soon after the Wanderer parked on a siding some two or three miles from town, and had continued coming down steadily all during their ride. Their slickers were shiny with moisture, their hats soaked, as well as their shirt collars and any portion of their attire and body where the persistent downfall could find an opening through their attire.
“Yeah,” Jim laughed as he tied the reins of his black horse to the rail, before ducking under that rail, grabbing his hat lest it tumble into the slimy mud. He knew that as soon as the sun came out again, the streets would dry and the complaint would be dust rather than the sludge it was now.
They climbed up the two stairs to the porch of the bank, stomping their feet to cast off as much mud as possible before entering through the single door. The street, Jim had noticed, was mostly deserted, with only a few horses and one wagon, which was parked in front of the general mercantile a few doors down. Most people were staying dry inside if they possibly could.
No customers were inside the bank; one of the two men behind the tellers’ cages came hurrying toward them. “Mr. West? Mr. Gordon?” He was a slender man in his forties, wearing rimless spectacles with a pencil poked behind one ear.
“That’s right,” Artie replied. “We’re here to see Mr. MacCloskey.”
“Of course. Of course. Hang your wet slickers there, gentlemen. I’ll tell Mr. MacCloskey you are here.” He scurried toward a closed door at the rear of the building.
The coat tree the clerk had indicated was next to the door, with pile of rags underneath; its obvious use was to catch the drips from soaked rain garments. The agents shed their hats and slickers, conscious of the warmth of the room as they did so. In one corner, a large potbellied stove was radiating heat.
Just as they finished, the door the clerk had gone through opened again, and the clerk followed another man into the lobby of the bank. As the clerk returned to his cage, the second man strode toward the agents, holding out his hand. “Mr. Gordon? Mr. West? I am Osbert MacCloskey. Welcome to Broad Springs. I’ve long looked forward to meeting you two, but I wish the circumstances were more felicitous.”
Artie accepted the hand first. “I’m Gordon. That’s Mr. West. We’re here to do what we can, Mr. MacCloskey.”
The banker shook Jim’s hand enthusiastically. “Come into my office. I have hot coffee in there. I can tell you everything that’s happened.”
They followed him back through the rear door to enter a well-appointed room, dominated by a large desk and a portrait that was hanging on the wall to their left. The portrait was of MacCloskey, and was a fine reproduction of the man, Artemus mused. It must have been painted fairly recently, because it displayed the silver hair and slightly receding hairline of the older man. In the portrait, the banker was seated in a chair with his hand on a small table alongside, an urn of what appeared to be yellow chrysanthemums on the table.
“That’s an excellent likeness,” Artie commented, nodding toward the portrait as MacCloskey filled cups from a pot that was on the top of a much smaller potbellied stove in the corner behind his desk. By keeping his office door closed, he would not benefit from the outer heater. During Montana winters, the inner office would get quite chilly otherwise, Artie surmised.
MacCloskey glanced up at it, smiling broadly. “Isn’t it? I told my wife I never realized what a handsome fellow I was until Alex unveiled that portrait. I’m thrilled that I decided to have it done.”
“Is Alex an artist here in town?” Jim asked politely, discerning that the banker would not mind talking about the portrait. “Where’s he from?” He had to agree with his partner that the likeness was excellent, as fine as he had ever seen. One could almost expect the man in the picture to speak!
MacCloskey chuckled as he served the coffee and went to his chair on the other side of the desk. “Yes, Alex lives in town. She took up residence about a month ago. Those of us who have availed of her services are extremely pleased.”
“She?” Artie echoed, feeling a trifle ashamed that like Jim he had also assumed that such a talented painter would be male.
“Yes, she. Alexandra Alexander. An unusual name for an unusual woman. I’m sure you will meet her while you are here.”
“No doubt,” Jim responded, putting his cup aside after taking a warming swallow. “Tell us about the robbery, Mr. MacCloskey.”
The banker heaved a big sigh. “It’s all so incredible. I still cannot believe it happened. The safe is right here, gentlemen.” He gestured to a large, obviously heavy vault sitting in the opposite corner from the small stove behind the desk. “It is one of the finest, strongest ever made, which is one reason the government felt secure—and so did I—to hold those bonds beyond the time interval originally intended. Only two people know the combination, my chief clerk, Mr. Penner, whom you met out there, and me. I trust Elijah Penner implicitly. He has worked here from the day we opened this bank, and previously was employed by a bank in Billings. He came to me with excellent recommendations. I hope my own reputation precludes me from suspicion.”
“What happened?” Artie prodded.
“Two weeks ago yesterday, a Wednesday morning, I entered to find this window broken.” He motioned toward the one behind his chair, the only window in the office; it was intact now. “The glass was inside on the floor, indicating it was smashed from the outside. The safe was open, and two hundred thousand dollars worth of government bearer bonds were gone. Other bank funds and valuables were not touched.”
Jim gazed over the banker’s shoulder. “The window is barred…”
“And the bars were and are intact. That was the first thing Sheriff Skinner checked. We inspected those bars closely and they displayed no indications of being disturbed at all. The weather was dry—unlike now—and some signs of disturbance were seen out there, but no clear footprints.”
“What about the front entrance and windows?” Artie asked.
MacCloskey held out his hands, palm up. “Same thing. The door was locked when I entered that morning. The front windows are undisturbed. The sheriff can tell you; he inspected the lock on the door and once more, no signs of tampering. Mr. Penner and I, again, have the only keys.”
Jim got to his feet, motioning to the window with one hand. “May I?”
MacCloskey rose and stepped to one side as Jim went around the desk, unlatching and opening the newly repaired window. Cool air rushed in as he gripped each of the window bars firmly and attempted to move them. Shaking his head, he closed the window and turned back. “Unless something has been done to repair them in the interim, I have to agree. They were not moved.”
“The only repair was to the window, I assure you,” the banker said, resuming his chair. “I want to tell you that this whole affair is extremely upsetting. I am sure you know that the bonds were to be held here for a very short period, less than a week, before being transferred to Billings. However, the explosion and fire in the federal bank there two months ago made it necessary to keep them here. We were undisturbed because of the security we feel—felt—we had here. I opened this establishment originally to accommodate the miners in this area, so a very strong safe was mandatory. The building itself, as you no doubt noticed, is constructed primarily of stone and brick. We felt we were impregnable.” MacCloskey sighed noisily.
Jim had gone back around the desk but remained standing, gazing absently at the portrait of the banker. Artie looked up at him. “What are you thinking?”
Jim smiled slightly. “Nothing, I’m afraid. I’m as stumped as Mr. MacCloskey is.”
Artie looked at the banker. “Have there been any strangers in town, or the area?”
“I believe the most recent arrival is Alex. Alexandra Alexander. As I mentioned, she arrived a little more than a month ago and set up her studio. I have not noticed anyone else. You might ask Sheriff Skinner—and the bartenders at the four local saloons. I suspect they’d be inclined to notice anyone new.”
Artie smiled. “I believe you are correct.” Now he stood up. “I guess we should go talk to the sheriff, James.”
“Oh, by the way, gentlemen,” MacCloskey said as he escorted them to the front door. “My wife and I are having a little affair tonight to celebrate our wedding anniversary—dinner and conviviality. A number of local people will be there, including Alexandra Alexander. I know it is short notice, but I want to invite you. It would give you a chance to meet many of our citizens.”
“Thank you, sir,” Artie said, after a glance at his partner. “I think we would like that.”
“Excellent. It’s the large house east of town. You can’t miss it. Seven o’clock.”
The rain had ceased and the sky had lightened, although not completely clear yet, and the street was still ankle deep in mud. The sheriff’s office was at the far end of the street and on the opposite side, so they mounted up, after tying their still damp rain gear on the back of the saddles. Again, when they dismounted in front of the sturdy stone structure bearing the sign “County Sheriff’s Office and Jail,” they stomped on the porch to rid their boots of grime.
However, upon entering, they could not help but notice the drying mud on the bare wood floor, as well as the mud on the boots of the man leaning back in his chair, feet on his desk. That man, wearing the sheriff’s star, immediately pulled his boots down and got to his feet. “Something I can do for you gents?”
Sheriff Aubrey Skinner was in his forties, with curly sandy hair and, Artie suspected, quite a few freckles under the burnished tan on his rather handsome face. His eyes were grayish green, his jaw square and accented by the Shenandoah beard, which left his chin and jaw line bare, while covering his under chin and neck. The beard was a slightly darker shade than his hair.
Jim pulled out his identification folder and displayed it. “I’m James West; this is my partner, Artemus Gordon. We’re here to investigate the theft of government bonds.”
“Oh yeah, sure. Osbert told me to expect you. Damnedest thing. I’m completely confounded. Sit down.” Skinner waved to a couple of wooden chairs, both of which had stacks of paper on them. “Throw that stuff on the floor,” they were instructed.
Noticeable was the disarray of the office. A wastebasket was overflowing at one side of the desk; some used dishes were on the desk, which was scattered with other papers and envelopes. The sheriff himself wore a stained shirt, denim vest missing a couple of buttons, and twill trousers with mud-stained cuffs.
One item in the office stood out: a portrait. Like that of the banker, this one appeared to have been painted recently, although the sheriff was wearing more formal attire than he wore today: matching jacket, vest, and trousers and a neatly tied ascot. Skinner noticed Artie’s gaze on the picture.
“Isn’t that great? I will tell you honestly, it never occurred to me that some day I’d have my picture painted like that. Hell, I haven’t had a photograph picture taken since my wedding day! First I turned Alex down, but then I saw Mr. MacCloskey’s portrait and thought, what the heck. My wife wants me to bring it home to hang but I like it right here where I can see it. That sounds crazy, eh?”
“I guess it’s your picture,” Jim murmured, unwilling to express an opinion. It made more sense for the banker to keep his portrait in his office than for the sheriff, but… “Tell us what you know about the robbery, sheriff.”
“Oh yeah. Not a lot. MacCloskey sent his clerk Penner for me. Crazy thing. Except for the broken window, no sign of a break-in. Yet, no one could get in through that window without removing the bars, and they weren’t touched.”
“Mr. MacCloskey mentioned you saw signs that someone had been outside the window,” Artie put in.
The sheriff shrugged. “Just some scuff marks in the dust. I can’t say for sure they were made by the person who broke the window.”
“What’s your opinion of the people at the bank?” Jim asked. “Do you think…?”
“No, no, no!” Skinner interrupted, leaning forward to put his arms on his desk. “No way. No way in hell. Osbert is straight as an arrow. If he had wanted to swipe valuables, he had plenty of chances when the miners brought him their gold and silver dust to store back when mining was big in the area. Same with Penner. The other clerk, young Tim Faulk, has only been working there for a couple of years, but he has lived in this county all his life. His folks own a ranch north of here.”
“So what do you think happened?”
The sheriff looked directly at Artemus. “I don't know. I have no idea. Someone got in somehow and opened that safe. That is about all I know about it. Almost like it was a ghost.”
“We asked this of Mr. MacCloskey and he suggested you might be a better source for the answer. Have you noticed any strangers in the area?” Jim inquired.
Skinner frowned, shaking his head. “Not a one. We don’t get many people passing through. Stagecoach goes through twice a week, in each direction, but mostly the only thing that’s dropped off is mail and packages. Passengers just keep going. Newest person in town is Miss Alexander and she has been here a month or so. Nice woman. You should meet her.”
“Seems we will tonight,” Artie smiled, “at Mr. MacCloskey’s home.”
“Oh yeah. My wife and I will be there. Osbert and Clara have been married for quite a while. Shame their kids can’t be here tonight.”
“Where are they?” Artie asked conversationally.
“Well, the oldest boy lives in Omaha. Works in a bank there. Another boy is out in California, last I heard. Don't know what he’s doing. The two girls, they both married and moved off, one to Canada and the other is somewhere in Wisconsin, I think. Something like that.”
They talked to the lawman for a few minutes more, but it soon became obvious that he could not give them any further information. Their next stop was the saloon that was a couple of doors away. The bartender there could not remember any strangers passing through. At least they had not stopped in his establishment. They checked two saloons on the same side of the street, and got the same response.
Deciding to forego the other two saloons for now, they walked back to their horses and headed back toward where the Wanderer was waiting. Because of the need to concentrate where their steeds were treading on the sloppy roadway, they did not talk much. Back at the train, both changed clothes, got a glass of whiskey, and sat down across from each other at the table.
“Only one thing jumped out at me,” Jim said. “MacCloskey’s other son ‘in California’ last the sheriff heard. I got the impression by the way he mentioned it that this son might be the black sheep.”
“Same here. Probably means nothing, but it might not be a bad idea to see if we can track him down. Perhaps tonight we can get more information from MacCloskey or his wife. At least the kid’s name.”
Society is a masked ball, where every one hides his real character, and reveals it by hiding.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), American essayist and poet
The MacCloskey house befitted the town’s leading, and probably wealthiest citizen, although it was not overly ostentatious: two stories with a broad front porch, beautiful garden at the front and sides. Inside the furnishings were tasteful as well as comfortable. Mrs. MacCloskey turned out to be a petite woman with a warm smile, her hair silver like her husband’s. She welcomed the agents warmly and invited them into the first parlor where other guests were enjoying a pre-dinner drink, sherry for the ladies, whiskey or brandy for the men.
Banker MacCloskey saw them enter and hurried to meet them, quickly announcing their arrival and identity to the other guests, which numbered around a dozen, Artie thought, fairly evenly split between the sexes. Most of the guests were close to the age of the MacCloskey pair, but for two young women.
Osbert MacCloskey promptly introduced the agents to one of the women, Alexandra Alexander. She was nothing like Jim expected. He had imagined a thin-faced woman with stringy hair wrapped into a tight bun, perhaps wearing drab clothing, even with spectacles. He had not encountered many female artists, but the serious male painters he had met had always been eccentric. I suppose I could include Artemus in that bunch, he grinned inwardly.
Alex Alexander was in her late twenties, he judged, possibly thirty, but certainly no older. She was on the slender side, but with a fine womanly figure. Her hair was thick, dark, and shiny, arranged in fashionable curls intertwined with blue ribbons that matched her stylish gown. Her countenance was perfection, marred only by a small scar that rested alongside lush lips.
She shook Artie’s hand briefly, but kept hold of Jim’s for a long moment, gazing at him. “Mr. West, I’m delighted to meet you at long last. I have seen your photograph in the newspapers, and I actually saw you once from a distance when you attended a theater performance where I was also in attendance. You must allow me to paint your portrait.”
Jim shook his head a little, somewhat bemused by her enthusiasm. “I’m flattered, Miss Alexander, but I’m afraid I won’t have the time.” He did not bother to mention that having his portrait done was very low on his list of priorities in his life.
“Oh, surely you can spare an hour or so a day. That is all it will require. You must, Mr. West. You have such a wonderful face. I must be allowed to capture it on canvas.”
MacCloskey patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry, Alex. I’m sure Mr. West will relent. He has already seen my portrait and that of Sheriff Skinner. He will want to be preserved for history, no doubt. Gentlemen, may I present our schoolteacher, Miss Faye Skinner? She is the niece of our good sheriff.”
Despite her beauty, Jim was somewhat relieved to be able to turn away from Alex Alexander’s intense scrutiny. Faye Skinner was also quite attractive, but in a very different manner. She was several years younger, in her mid twenties, with the same sandy, curly hair as her uncle. She had tried to contain it in a neat chignon, but charming curls escaped all over, especially on her forehead and cheeks. Because her face was not as tanned as her uncle’s, her freckles were very visible, no doubt to her dismay, Jim thought. For some reason, young women did not like freckles. He thought them charming. She also wore gold-rimmed spectacles, which did not detract from her appeal.
Her greeting was warm but not nearly as effusive as Miss Alexander’s. Artemus had noticed how the artist’s attention made Jim uncomfortable, which was a rarity. Jim usually enjoyed the company of such beautiful women. However, other lovely ladies did not immediately start discussing painting a portrait. We had enough trouble getting Jim in front of a camera for the department records! Jim certainly was aware of his attractiveness to females; he was not especially vain in that manner. Nonetheless, he certainly had no qualms using his appearance to attract the ladies. He liked to dress well, as much to impress the males they encountered as the females. Quite a few men seemed to assume that such a dashing man could never be the physical fighter James was.
Courtesy required them to begin mingling with the other guests, sometimes being introduced, often introducing themselves, or having the other person speak up first. They met Mrs. Skinner, who was a robust woman with smiling dark eyes. Artie noticed those eyes glancing at her husband from time to time. The sheriff was attired in the same suit of clothes he had worn for his portrait, but he looked nowhere near as trim. The vest was buttoned crookedly and his tie seemed to be coming loose. As well, his boots were muddy, which was not entirely strange considering the weather, but most of the men here, including the agents, had managed to keep their footwear reasonably clean despite the mud. When their conversation concluded, Lucy Skinner led her husband out into the hallway; when he was next seen the vest and tie were tidy.
They also met the mayor of Broad Springs, an older, stoop-shouldered man with thin white hair and rheumy blue eyes. Jonah Houseman informed them proudly that he had had his portrait done by Miss Alexander. “Fine work,” he proclaimed. “Fine. No one dare say different!” He glared at them with a challenge in his eyes. His white-haired wife tugged at his arm, apparently dismayed by his belligerence.
After about twenty minutes, Mrs. MacCloskey announced that dinner was ready to be served, and she led the guests into a large and fine dining room where a table was set with splendid china and silver. When everyone was seated, two women, one older, one younger, with enough resemblance to be mother and daughter, began serving the meal.
Place cards had rested on the plates, and Jim found himself next to Alexandra Alexander. He was initially pleased, feeling she would not press the issue of painting his portrait so he could just enjoy being next to a lovely woman, but he was wrong. Although he led the conversation in different directions, she continually brought it back to persuading him to sit for her. She seemed to believe that he would yield, but she was wrong. He held his annoyance in check, but firmly told her no each time she mentioned it. “Maybe some other time, if I ever get back to this town,” he tried to placate her.
“But I may not be here!”
Jim’s fork paused as he started to lift a bite of chicken to his mouth. “You don’t plan to stay in Broad Springs?”
“Oh no. I originally lived in New York City, and I did a fine business. Nevertheless, I found it very boring. All the faces were the same. So in the last several years, I have been… migratory, I suppose you could call it. I move from town to town in the north in the summer, and in the south in the winter. I look for small towns like this. I remain in each place two or three months, or until the clientele thins. I have found the work much more interesting and invigorating. Do you understand?”
“I think so,” Jim nodded. In the big city she would have clients that all came to her dressed in perfectly tailored gowns or suits, their beards clipped, hair styled by experts. Just glancing around this table was an example of the different kinds of faces she was finding in the smaller towns. He smiled then. “So it’s possible we may encounter each other again, perhaps under better circumstances when I don’t expect to have my time filled.”
“Well, perhaps,” she pouted. “But I really don’t understand why you can’t spare an hour every day or so for me.”
Throughout the meal, all Alex wanted to discuss was the opportunity to do his portrait. Afterwards, when they returned to the parlor for coffee and dessert, a moist, rich chocolate cake, Miss Alexander stayed at his side, sometimes silent as he conversed with others, but bringing up the idea of sitting for a portrait at every opportunity. A few people in the vicinity, such as the sheriff and Mayor Houseman, enthusiastically supported her.
Thus, on the ride back to the Wanderer, when Artemus asked whether he enjoyed the evening, Jim just grimaced, causing his partner to be surprised. “What? James, you had the company of the beautiful Alex all evening.”
“And all she wanted to talk about was painting my portrait!”
Artie chuckled. “Well, why don’t you? You could spend even more time with her.”
Jim shook his head, expelling a breath. “I don’t have time and I don’t want a portrait done. What would I do with it? Hang it in the varnish car?”
Now Artie laughed aloud. “Yeah, I see what you mean. In that case, I guess I’ll have to agree with you!”
In the morning, with the sun bright and warm, the agents returned to Broad Spring where they again talked to banker MacCloskey, his two clerks, the sheriff, and the mayor. Nothing new emerged. They had managed to ask a few questions at the banker’s home the previous night, but had not wanted to turn the affair into part of their investigation, keeping their queries conversational. By midday, they were sitting in the town’s only restaurant.
“This is crazy,” Artie complained, poking his fork at the steak on his plate.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Huh? Oh, I mean the theft. The meal is fine. Jim, it honestly appears that no one broke into that bank, and yet the safe was opened and the bonds stolen.”
“I know. I hate to cast suspicion on MacCloskey or his employees, but what else is there?”
Artie finished chewing the chunk of meat he had put in his mouth. “Maybe Loveless shrunk a couple of his men and sent them in through that broken window.”
Jim was glad his mouth was empty, as he laughed and coughed. “That’s the most sensible solution I’ve heard yet!”
“Seriously,” Artie said then, lowering his voice and leaning toward Jim, “I do not see any solution other than it was an inside job.”
“I know. Look at it this way, though, Artie. Why would MacCloskey insist on government help if he were the perpetrator, or if he knew one of his trusted employees was behind it?”
“Yeah. It just does not make sense, James. None of it. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
“We’ll accomplish more faster if we split up.”
“Good. I think it’s a good idea to ask people who live outside of town what they know. You take the townspeople. I’ll ride out and see what I can find.”
Flatterers look like friends, as wolves like dogs.
—George Chapman (c. 1559-1634), English poet and dramatist
Artemus began his tour of the town businesses somewhat systematically, going to the far end of the street where the blacksmith shop and stable was located. He wondered if the blacksmith might have indeed stabled or worked on horses of someone passing through, but the burly man shook his head. He had not seen any strangers, not even just riding by.
The response to his queries was consistent as he went from shop to shop, store to store. No one remembered noticing anyone unknown during the past few weeks. He stopped in the two saloons they did not hit yesterday. The bartender in the second one said he saw a woman he did not recognize one day a few weeks back. He did not see her again, but his description startled Artemus: a slender woman with shiny dark hair, her features slightly sharp but very beautiful.
The barkeep could not quite remember where he saw her, either. Was it when he went out to visit his sister who lived south of town? No, wait, maybe it was here in town… No, his memory was too fuzzy on it. Nor was he certain she was a “stranger.” After all, he had lived in this town for only a few months. His brother-in-law’s cousin owned this place and had given him the job.
That sounds like Antoinette! Could that be? They had joked about Loveless being behind the robbery, but Artie was certain Jim was no more serious than he was. I’ll see what Jim thinks about it. We might need to press this bartender further.
As he strode down the board walkway to the next open shop, he passed by one with boarded up windows on the ground floor, and just as he reached the corner of that building, he saw movement at the edge of his vision. Turning his head, he was quite surprised to espy Alexandra Alexander descending stairs that were built on the side of the vacant building. Artie paused, pulling off his hat.
“Miss Alexander! Is that your studio up there?”
She smiled warmly as she reached the ground, holding out her hand to take his in greeting. “It is. Many windows provide lots of light, making it a perfect studio. Would you like to see it?”
“I would indeed! Thank you!” As she turned to lead the way back up the stairs, Artie continued. “I do a little bit of drawing myself, but I’ve never tried oils.”
Alex unlocked the door at the top and entered. “I’m sure you would do very well with oils, Mr. Gordon. I have heard about your talent as an actor. I suspect you would succeed at any artistic endeavor.”
Artemus chuckled. “Maybe once I retire I’ll take a stab at it. Are you working on any portrait right now?”
“Yes.” She walked over to an easel and turned it around to show a handsome older woman. The portrait needed the background filled in. “This is Mrs. Houseman.”
“I recognized her immediately from the get-together last night. You are very talented, Miss Alexander.” He had to admit the portrait did not have the vivacity of the two he had seen of the sheriff and banker, but it was good. Why was she hiding her talent in this little Montana cow town?
“Thank you,” she smiled. Then the smile faded. “I do wish I could convince Mr. West to sit for me.”
Artie shook his head. “It’s just not something Jim is interested in, I’m afraid.”
“Could you possibly convince him?”
“So it’s not really that he doesn’t have the time.”
“We are busy trying to solve this robbery. Nonetheless, I’m sure if he really wanted to, he could spare some time for you.”
Alex sighed and stared toward one of the windows for a moment before turning back to him. “Well… I hope you don’t think I consider you second best, but… would you allow me to paint you? You have a wonderful face, Mr. Gordon: very handsome with great character. The perfect countenance for a thespian of your talent. I’d love to try to capture it on canvas.”
He laughed a little self-consciously. “I don't know, Miss Alexander. I guess I have to echo something Jim mentioned to me last night: what would I do with such a portrait?”
She smiled. “I understand you are betrothed to the beautiful and talented Lily Fortune. You intend to marry and have a home with her someday. Would you like to have a portrait to hang over the fireplace in that home? Perhaps it will transpire that I could do one of the future Mrs. Gordon as well, to hang alongside it.”
Artie’s mouth dropped open for a moment. “I have to admit that never occurred to me—and it also appeals to me. I really don't know how long Jim and I are going to be here. We could be called away at any time if our superiors decide this is a hopeless situation…”
“Oh, don’t worry! Once I get the basic outlines done, I will be able to fill them in. I much prefer having the subject for the entire process, but I have been known to do quite well from memory. Do you want to start right now?”
Artie glanced down at his attire, the usual buckskin jacket he wore while working. “I suppose so. My first thought is that I should be in evening attire, but it also occurs to me that I would want any children and grandchildren to see me in my everyday attire. So let’s do it. I can spare an hour or so right now.”
“Excellent. Now the first thing I need to do is prepare a canvas. I am going to make you a cup of tea while you wait. People tend to get a little nervous before we start and be a little tense. I have found that this particular mixture of chamomile and other herbs to be very relaxing for subjects. All right?”
“Sounds fine to me,” Artie replied. “I like a good cup of tea.”
Jim’s day was a little less frustrating than his partner’s, but not by much. He rode from one ranch to another, met nice people, was invited in for coffee, and received a generous offer for his black horse. However, only one person remembered seeing anything out of place in the last few weeks.
“I guess it was a couple of weeks before I heard about the robbery at the bank,” Silas Smith said, rubbing his grizzled chin. “My boys and I were up on the north side, repairing some fence, and we saw this wagon coming down out of the hills north of here. About all I could see was a man driving it and a woman sitting beside him. Couldn’t tell you what they looked like—too far off. We watched a bit to see if they needed help, but they just went on toward the main road. Seemed to be heading for town.” He described the wagon as having a “box” on the back, like a peddler’s vehicle. However, this one was not painted with slogans and pictures. Just the dull gray of weathered wood.
Because no one in town appeared to have noticed the presence of any strangers, the chances were that the wagon bypassed town, having no business or need to stop there. Surely it would have been spotted if it passed through town. Yet, it was the only significant information they had received so far. He asked other ranchers in that vicinity about the wagon, but none had seen it.
The best part of the day came while he was riding slowly back to town when he encountered Miss Faye Skinner as she emerged from the path that led off the schoolhouse about a quarter of a mile outside of the town’s limits. Jim dismounted and walked with her. Their initial conversation involved her school, and how she came to be teaching there. She had been living and working in Wisconsin, she said, when her uncle wrote to tell her of an opening here.
“He’s my favorite uncle and Aunt Lucy is my favorite aunt, so I love being with them. I like the area in general. My two cousins have married and moved out, so they had room for me. With Uncle Aubrey’s endorsement, I got the position!”
As they neared town the talk veered toward last night’s party. Jim asked her if she had had her portrait painted. Faye laughed. “No, I’m afraid I cannot afford it. Uncle Aubrey offered to pay for one, and I may eventually accept his gift, but it will have to be after the school term ends. I’m much too busy. Besides, I have heard she has a waiting list. Perhaps I should make an appointment for the summer!”
“It seems she was going to make time to paint my portrait if I agreed,” Jim mused.
The schoolteacher’s aqua eyes glinted mischievously. “Most women would, Mr. West.”
He laughed a little self-consciously. He had not meant it that way. “In any case, I have no use for a portrait at this point in my life.”
“You know, it’s very odd.”
“You have of course seen the portrait of Mr. MacCloskey?”
“Yes, and your uncle’s as well. Excellent likenesses.”
“Yes. That is the puzzle. You see, I’ve seen the ones Miss Alexander has done of others, such as Mrs. Foyle, the wife of the owner of the general mercantile. It is good, but not nearly so good as those of Mr. MacCloskey and Uncle Aubrey.”
“Perhaps she excels at painting men.”
“Possibly,” Faye said, frowning. “However, it’s more than just the likeness. I can’t explain it. If you go into the mercantile, Mrs. Foyle’s portrait is in their residence, upstairs. You might ask to see it. She is usually very willing. She’s proud of it and should be. It’s just…”
“I’ll try to take a look when I get a chance. It would seem odd that Miss Alexander is unable to bring the same life to a portrait of a woman as she does for a man. The two I’ve seen give one the impression that the subject could speak!”
“I agree. Aunt Lucy is a trifle annoyed that Uncle Aubrey insists that his portrait remain in his office!”
They both fell silent for a little while. Then as the buildings of town came into view, Miss Skinner spoke again.
“Oh, Mr. West, I wanted to speak to Mr. Gordon last night, but I just didn’t get an opportunity. I wonder if you would pass a message on to him for me.”
“Certainly, what is it?” They paused outside the fence that circled the home of the sheriff and his family.
“I know that Mr. Gordon was an actor before he became a famous agent. I understand that he was quite well regarded for his Shakespearean performances.”
“Artemus is very fond of Shakespeare,” Jim smiled.
“Do you think he would be willing to come to the school one day for an hour or so to give some dramatic recitations or readings? As you might imagine, schoolchildren are not always enamored with such archaic writing. But they know about Mr. Gordon—and you.”
Jim chuckled. “Artemus is always willing to perform before an audience of any type. I will mention it to him, and I am sure he will contact you.”
They chatted a little longer, until Mrs. Skinner emerged to start sweeping the porch. She waved to them, and continued her chore. Faye smiled then, said goodbye and went through the gate, turning to wave to him as he mounted to ride on into town. He did not see Artie’s horse anywhere on the street, so presumed his partner had done what he could do and returned to the train.
Jim decided to stop in the sheriff’s office, but found only Lucy Skinner there, with a mop bucket and a burlap bag she was filling with some of the papers scattered around. She shook her head ruefully. “Aubrey used to be the neatest man in the world. He would sometimes scold me if I left something out of place in the kitchen or living room at home, and he always kept this place neat as a pin. I never had to do a thing other than come with the mop from time to time. But lately… I don't know what’s got into him. Even his clothes. I’m sure you noticed.”
“I just assumed he was a busy man who did not have time to see to his appearance.”
“Well, that happens sometimes. But he hasn’t been that busy lately.” She sighed. “Oh well. This place will be neat for a while. Oh, if you’re looking to talk to him, he rode out to see a friend who lives south of here. Won’t likely be back until dinnertime.”
Thanking her, Jim mounted up on Blackjack again and made his way to the Wanderer. There he learned from the pair of train crewman that Mr. Gordon had not been seen since the two agents left that morning. Jim was a little puzzled, but not concerned. Perhaps Artemus had gotten a lead that he went to check out.
Jim was sitting at the desk recording some incoming telegraph messages when the door from the galley pushed open. He smiled when Artie appeared. “Hello! Any luck?”
Artemus pulled off his hat and tossed it on the nearby table as he came through the car. “Not one bit. Nothing. You?”
“Only the merest scintilla.” Jim repeated what the rancher had informed him about the wagon. “Apparently it was never seen anywhere else. At least no one mentioned it to me. I haven’t talked to all the local people. This is a big county.”
Artie sank onto the sofa. “Well, I talked to everyone in town. At least it felt like it. I suppose I missed some in the stores that weren’t open, or the proprietors were too busy. Guess what?”
“I can’t. Tell me.”
“I’m going to have my portrait painted.”
Of all things his partner might have said, that was probably the last thing Jim expected. “What?”
“Yeah. I met Alex outside her studio and she invited me in. We talked a little bit and… I ended up deciding to let her do it. She pointed out that it would look good in our house. Lily’s and mine, I mean. Perhaps Lily can get her portrait done, by Alex or someone, to hang alongside it.” Artie held up a hand as Jim started to speak. “I know you’re going to say I don’t have time. I’ll make time. My job won’t suffer.”
The telegraph key clattered again, and both were silent as Jim recorded the message. When he finished, Artie was in front of the desk, eyes blazing. “Why did you ask for information on Alex?”
Again, Jim was surprised. “Because it’s part of our job, pal. I asked about everyone. You knew that. You were sitting here last night when I sent the queries.”
“They didn’t find anything. And they won’t.”
Jim leaned back in his chair, vaguely puzzled by his partner’s behavior. It seemed as though Artie had been really charmed by the lovely artist. “Maybe not. Nonetheless, we have to check. I got answers on Sheriff Skinner and banker MacCloskey. Nothing to indicate they are anyone but who they appear to be.”
“I could have told you that.”
“I imagine you could have.” Jim smiled in a teasing way. Artie just turned and went back to the sofa. “By the way, I met the schoolteacher, Miss Skinner, on my way back to town. She requested I ask you if you could find some time to do a little Shakespeare for her students…”
Again, Artemus waved a hand to stop his words. “I’m not here on earth to impress pretty girls for you, James.” He pushed himself up off the sofa and stalked back through the galley door.
For an instant, Jim thought about following him. He remained seated, however, staring at the door. I believe that is the first time I ever heard him refuse to perform—for anyone, on any occasion. Maybe he’s not feeling well. Or tired. He had to talk to a lot more people than I did today, even though mine were spread out farther. I’ll bring it up again later.
However, he did not have an opportunity. Perhaps a half hour later Artemus emerged from his quarters, attired in his fine wine-colored suit and matching vest. He briskly told his partner he was joining Alex Alexander for dinner so they could discuss his portrait, especially the background. “We have decided on the pose. The background is a major decision. So you and the boys are on your own for supper.”
Jim considered what had just occurred as he went into the galley to start peeling potatoes. Artie acted as though he thought his partner was going to argue with him. Because he believes I might think he is cheating on Lily? He should know I trust him, just as she does. Jim could not think of any other reason for the mildly belligerent stance his partner displayed. Well, we can talk it out later. We always manage to settle things.
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
SS senior field agent
Posted - 06/15/2014 : 12:22:21
But curb thou the high spirit in thy breast,
For gentle ways are best, and keep aloof
From sharp contentions.
—The Iliad (bk. IX, l. 317) (Bryant's translation), Homer (“Smyrna of Chios”; fl. 750 BC or earlier) Greek poet
Jim smelled the aroma of the coffee before he left his compartment and was surprised at the relief he experienced. Artemus had not returned to the Wanderer by the time Jim went to bed the night before, but he had not been aware of being particularly concerned. Maybe it wasn’t the fact that he was out later than I expected as much as how we parted. That had kept him awake for a while.
While the coffee pot was steaming, Artie was not in the galley. Jim filled his own cup and pushed through to the varnish car, where he saw his partner at the telegraph. Artie did not look up until he finished transcribing the message that was just finishing. A message from Washington. Jim caught only the last lines: …we are still investigating and will advise as soon as we acquire more information.
“What’s that about?” he asked.
Artie’s head jerked up. “More nonsense about the people here in Broad Spring. Good Lord! Most of the citizens have lived here since the town was founded!”
“What did Washington say?” Jim persisted, a little astonished at Artie’s reaction.
“Read it yourself.” Artie dropped his pencil, rose from the desk, and brushed by Jim on the way to slam through the door to the galley.
Jim stared at the vibrating door for a long moment then shook his head slightly as he went to the desk. His astonishment continued as he noticed the entire message had not been recorded. Artie had written down that it was from Ned Brown, concerning inquiries… but after that, he made only brief notes or marks, usually a word. Alex was one of the words.
With a sigh, Jim tapped on the key, got a response, and then asked that the previous transmission be repeated. He was glad that Artemus did not return to the car while that message clicked out again, and then wondered why his partner had been so upset. The information was simply that Alexandra Alexander had been traced from New York City to Washington and then to places further west. Nothing incriminating had been found. She was a struggling artist as far as the department could ascertain.
Struggling? With the talent, she possesses? Jim dropped the pencil, leaning back in the chair with a frown. While she had not indicated having tremendous success as an artist, Jim had rather assumed she more than made a good living with her ability to portray subjects in such a lifelike manner. Then again, he remembered what Faye Skinner had said about the portrait of the storekeeper’s wife not being up to the standards of the others he had seen.
The department was going to continue their investigation. The final lines of the message indicated that nothing had been learned about any of the other leading citizens of Broad Springs, which was to be expected. As Artie said, they were long upstanding residents. So why is he so upset?
After taking a couple of swallows of his cooling coffee, Jim rose, carrying the cup, and entered the galley, where he found his partner busily preparing breakfast. Artie did not look around as he spoke. “Cobb and Kelly just told me they are going to walk into town for breakfast.”
“Okay.” Did you scare them off? Jim regretted the thought instantly; nonetheless, he knew Artemus Gordon well enough to realize that the stiffness of the shoulders and neck meant he was still in a bad mood. Possibly one of the crew stepped into the kitchen to innocently inquire about the morning meal and got his head snapped off. That is just not like Artie. He is generally cheerful in the morning, even before coffee!
“What do you think we should do today?” Jim asked quietly, leaning against one of the cupboards.
As had been his recent habit, Artie did not look around. “I don't know about you, but I have an appointment with Alex.”
“All right. What time?”
Now Artie shot him a hot glance. “What difference does that make?”
Jim controlled himself. “I guess we need to know so we can figure out what to do before and after. I’m a little stumped myself.”
“I’m not leaving Broad Springs until my portrait is finished.” Artie turned now to start sliding the fried eggs onto waiting plates that already held bacon and fried potatoes. Jim could see the anger on his face.
“That’s a given,” he said mildly. “So long as we’re not ordered away.”
Artie slammed the spatula he had been using onto the iron stove. It bounced and fell to the floor. He ignored it. “I’m not leaving until my portrait is finished!”
“All right, all right, pal. Let’s not worry about spilt milk until it happens.” Jim picked up the spatula and put it on the counter. He then took one plate to carry it out into the varnish car, along with his coffee.
Moments later, Artie emerged with his plate and sat opposite. He ate with his eyes down, discouraging conversation, so for the moment Jim obliged him. Maybe he’ll feel better with some food in his stomach! I don’t even want to ask him about his dinner with Miss Alexander at this moment. Not until I figure out what the devil is going on!
Silence reigned until Jim rose to go back into the galley, bringing back the coffeepot and refilling both cups. Normally, Artemus would have smiled, thanked him, often making a joke of some sort. This morning he continued to eat, not lifting his gaze.
Jim put the pot on the table, regained his seat, took a couple of swallows of the coffee, and then spoke. “Artie, are you feeling all right?”
The brown eyes shot up. “I’m fine. Why?” The words were sharp in tone, the expression suspicious.
“You… seem out of sorts this morning. Was there a problem with Miss Alexander last night? Did you disagree on the painting…?”
“What the devil do you care?” Artie demanded, jumping to his feet with such force his chair nearly tipped backwards. As it settled forward again, he slued round and headed for the galley door. Jim was just starting to stand himself, planning to follow, when Artie paused, a hand on the door. After a few seconds, he looked back, his face softer and eyes filled with regret.
“I’m sorry, Jim. I don't know what got into me.” He shook his head as he returned to his chair. “No, I know what it was. You were right. The evening with Alex ended badly because we could not agree on the portrait’s background. She wants draperies and flowers. I want a theater stage.”
Much relieved, Jim smiled. “If it comes to a vote, I’ll side with you. After all, it is your portrait. You’re paying for it.”
“You’re right. She is a lovely woman but quite hardheaded. I will have to show her I can be hardheaded too.”
Jim almost made a crack about that, but held his tongue. He did not want to rock the boat now that Artemus seemed back to his normal self. Instead, he commented, “I suppose there are more people in town and out on the ranches we should talk to, although I’m not optimistic that we’ll get any information.”
“I agree. How about we go around town this morning? I will be able to tell you whom I have talked to, and we can look for others. Then I can go to my appointment with Alex. If time remains afterwards, maybe we can ride out to the outlying homes you didn’t get to yesterday.”
“A good plan,” Jim replied. Seems the real Artie is back. I certainly was not looking forward to dealing with a cranky partner!
A sudden, bold, and unexpected question doth many times surprise a man and lay him open.
—Francis Bacon (1561-1626), English philosopher, statesman, and writer
When they reached town, Artie pointed out the establishments he had visited. A few had been closed, or else the proprietor was too busy to talk. He also suggested that they should call on the bank again, this time talking to the two clerks. Jim concurred. Despite Mr. MacCloskey’s faith in his employees, experience informed them that even the most trusted worker could find a reason to go off on the wrong path.
After talking to the proprietors—and two or three customers in each place—of the ladies’ emporium and the gun repair shop, they headed for the bank. They spoke to Mr. MacCloskey, who agreed that, if only in fairness to others in town, Penner and Foulk should be interviewed thoroughly. He offered his office, and then took the absent clerk’s place at the window.
Penner entered first. To Jim he appeared confident and with nothing to fear. He was caught unawares when Artemus launched into a harsh grilling, demanding proof of the teller’s activities during the night that the robbery took place. Penner could only stammer that he had been at home with his wife and family.
“Of course your loving spouse will vouch for you,” Artie sneered.
Penner blinked. “Well… yes.”
“Mr. Penner,” Jim said quickly, “please understand that you are not a major suspect. We hope you will be able to give us information to help us solve this business.”
Artie’s glance was annoyed. “Can you, Mr. Penner? What can you tell us about what happened that day? Did any strangers enter the bank? Did you slip the combination of the safe to an accomplice?”
Penner shot to his feet. “I did not! Mr. MacCloskey entrusted me with that combination, and I regard it as a sacred trust! I would never tell anyone!”
When it seemed Artie was going to blast out with some other harsh words, Jim put a hand on his arm. “I’m sure you would not, Mr. Penner,” he said quietly. “We have asked many people around the area if they have seen any strangers. Do you recall anyone entering the bank around the time of the robbery, especially in the days prior?”
The head clerk sank down in his chair. “I’ve thought about that quite a bit. However, I do not remember seeing anyone with whom I was not acquainted. We seldom have newcomers in this town. I believe Miss Alexander was the most recent.”
Artie’s chin jutted. “Are you accusing Miss Alexander?”
“Of course not! I’m merely answering the question!” Mr. Penner, despite his deferential mien, had a backbone after all.
“I think that’s all for now, Mr. Penner. Would you send Mr. Foulk in, please?”
Artie spun on Jim as Penner scurried out through the door. “I wasn’t finished with him!”
“Artie, take it easy. You were acting as though Penner was guilty.”
“Maybe he is!”
Jim sighed. “We have absolutely no proof or any hint of proof to indicate either of the clerks had anything to do with the theft.”
“That’s what we are here to find out!”
A tap on the door preceded the entrance of the under-clerk, Timothy Foulk. He was a young man in his early twenties, with limp dark hair that he parted in the middle of his scalp, so that it fell on either side of a round face. He also had a barely visible mustache, an obvious attempt to look older and more sophisticated. He was trying to appear self-assured as he took the chair Artie indicated, but was not very successful.
Artie started in on him before Jim could say a word, demanding to know if he had stolen the safe’s combination from Mr. MacCloskey or Mr. Penner. The horrified clerk denied it. “How could I steal it? It’s not written down!”
“Mr. Foulk,” Jim spoke more quietly, “have you information you could share with us regarding the events before and after the theft?”
“Not really. I came to work that morning as I usually do to find Mr. MacCloskey very upset. He told me what happened, and I ran to fetch Sheriff Skinner. I don’t know any more about it than that.”
“Do you gamble, Mr. Foulk?” Artie asked abruptly, causing even Jim to look at him in surprise.
“Gamble?” the clerk blinked.
“Do you play poker?”
“Well… yes. Not at the saloon. I live at the boarding house owned by Mayor Houseman’s daughter. She’s a widow. Four other male residents and I occasionally play a few hands. Not for money! We use dried beans.”
“So you practice up and go to the saloons to play.”
“What? Oh, no! I told you! I couldn’t do that. Mr. Carter—he’s another resident at the boarding house—he tells me I have the worst poker face he ever saw. I can never bluff! I wouldn’t dare try to play poker for money with more experienced men!”
“But you did, and you ran up a gambling debt, didn’t you?”
“Artie! Stop it!” Jim grabbed his partner’s arm. “What the devil are you doing?”
“Trying to get to the truth!” Artie shouted, jerking his arm free. “This pipsqueak, trying to act all innocence and ignorant, is likely the mastermind.”
“Mr. Foulk,” Jim stated firmly, “you may go now.”
Artie stared speechless as the young man scurried from the office, then glared at his partner. “We weren’t finished with him!”
“I was. Artie, what has gotten into you?”
Artemus stiffened. “What do you mean?”
“I’ve never seen you question witnesses like this before.”
Artie pointed to the door. “He’s not a witness! He’s a suspect!”
“Why would you say that?”
“Well… well, someone is!”
Jim smiled then. “Pal, I think this case is getting to you. I can’t remember when we’ve had such a mysterious situation with no seeming answers.” He glanced at the safe in the corner. “Someone got in here and opened that safe. We have to find out who and why. It’s that simple.”
Artie seemed to relax a bit. “Yeah. Simple. It’s gotta be Loveless reducing someone to miniature, right?”
“That does seem to be the only explanation,” Jim chuckled as the door opened again and MacCloskey entered.
“Did you learn anything? Mr. Foulk seemed rather upset.”
“I think he was just nervous,” Jim replied easily. “I’m afraid we did not learn anything new from either of your employees. An answer is out there. We will find it.”
The banker beamed. “I know you will, Mr. West. You and Mr. Gordon are the best. I know things are going to work out perfectly.”
Artie had pulled his watch from his pocket, and without a further word, he turned and exited the office. Jim looked toward the closed door for a moment and sighed softly. “I apologize for his rudeness, sir. I think this portrait business has him in a tizzy. He’s not himself.” I guess that’s what it is. I sure cannot think of anything else!
MacCloskey chuckled loudly. “Oh, I quite understand. I was in something of a tizzy myself, especially when sitting there all alone with Alex and she was gazing at me so intently. Say, are you getting your portrait done next?”
“No. I’m not interested in a portrait of myself.”
“Oh, you really should, Mr. West! You’ve seen Alex’s work.” He waved to his own portrait on the wall. “Have you ever viewed a better likeness? It’s almost as though it is a photograph in color.”
“It is very good,” Jim nodded. So why isn’t she more famous and successful? “My partner plans to marry and have a home one day. He wants to hang the portrait in the home. I don’t expect to have such a future.”
MacCloskey wagged a finger at him. ‘Ah, Mr. West, never assume anything. Surely a pretty lady is waiting for you somewhere.”
“Maybe,” Jim smiled. “I have to be going, Mr. MacCloskey. We have more people to talk to.”
“You haven’t been able to discover anything at all so far?”
“Very little. Of course, the most puzzling thing is how anyone got into your bank without leaving signs of entering, not to mention being able to open your safe.”
“Yes. That is indeed an enigma. I know it was not me, and I think I can state with full confidence that neither of my employees are involved.”
Jim left him then, crossing the street and heading for the sheriff’s office. Today Skinner was in his chair. A great deal of his wife’s efforts yesterday had been undone, with papers all askew on his desk and some scattered on the floor. At least with the sun drying the mud, the floor was relatively clean.
The sheriff had been eyeing his own portrait, and Jim had to wonder again why it was here and not at their home. He sat down and discussed the robbery with the lawman again, asking more probing questions regarding what he had found when he first entered the bank after being summoned.
“Not a dang thing. That’s what is so crazy. The broken window, which doesn’t make any sense because anyone with a lick of brains could see that breaking the window was not going to help unless they were able to remove the bars too. Those bars are in deep. Fellow would need a rasp or dynamite or something.”
“You saw nothing to indicate the front door lock had been jimmied?”
“Nope. I looked close. No scratches. Nothing. Then you get into the bank and everything was neat as a pin ‘cept the safe door was standing open. It wasn’t blasted open either.”
Jim was silent a moment. “You have not noticed anyone in town behaving out of character, before or after?”
“Nope. Has to be someone from out of town. Only that makes no sense ‘t all. A stranger wouldn’t have the safe combination. Or shouldn’t. Right?”
“Right,” Jim murmured. I’m missing something. What is it?
Experiencing even more frustration, Jim left the sheriff’s office, mounted his horse, and then rode in the direction that he had not covered yesterday. He knew that Artemus had indicated he wanted to participate in some of the interviewing of the ranchers, but time would be wasted if Jim waited for him. He could talk to the ones nearest to town before coming back to meet his partner.
We have to do something! I hate like the devil to have to walk away from this unsolved, but chances are very good that if we don’t come up with something solid soon, the colonel is going to send us elsewhere. He will be as unhappy as we are to leave the case open, but what can we do?
He had some luck at the second ranch he called on when the teenage son mentioned seeing a wagon as described by the other man: looked like a gypsy wagon only it was not painted up in bright colors. The lad saw it on this side of town a few days ago, but he was unsure of the direction it was taking. It was parked, he said, somewhat off the road, barely visible. He had been in a hurry to carry out an errand for his father and did not stop. On his return trip, the wagon had gone.
The fact that the wagon was seen this time within the last week was promising. Jim got the directions to the site where it had been parked, and galloped out there, unsure what he would find, if he would find anything at all, but knowing he had to take a look. The intervening heavy rain, he was sure, would have wiped out any signs.
For that reason, he was astonished when he came to the clearing the boy described to find wheel tracks. He was certain that the wagon had been here in the last two days, since the rain stopped. He also saw some boot tracks, and found the stub of a fat cigar that had been tossed aside in a lingering puddle.
Although he searched diligently, Jim could not ascertain where the wagon went after it left the clearing. The possibility was that someone just stopped here on a return trip; that the wagon had passed through the area going one way; that it used the same route upon returning to wherever it came from. Nevertheless, a nagging sense told him this was important. He just had to find out how and why.
And Doubt and Discord step 'twixt thine and thee.
—The Prophecy of Dante (canto II, l. 140), Lord Byron (George Gordon Noel Byron; 1788-1824), English poet
Back in town, Jim dismounted in front of the boarded up storefront and climbed the stairs. Artie had pointed this building out as where Alexandra Alexander’s studio was located on the second floor. He tapped on the solid wooden door, noticing that she had not posted a sign to indicate her location, then opened it when he heard a call from inside.
Artie was standing at a window that overlooked the rear of the building while Miss Alexander was hanging a cloth over a canvas resting on an easel. Artie turned. “Jim. I didn’t expect you back so soon.”
Jim smiled. “Sorry if I’m intruding.”
The woman laughed aloud. “Not at all, Mr. West. Mr. Gordon and I usually have another cup of tea when our session is finished. Will you join us?”
“No thank you. I was about to tell Artemus that I’m ready for lunch. Perhaps you would join us for that.”
“Oh, I wish I could. I have some paints to mix up. It’s an exacting science to get the right hues.”
“I’m sure it is. Artie?”
“Do you want to get something to eat?”
“Oh. Sure. I guess so.”
She smiled warmly as she turned to Jim. “Is there any chance I can persuade you to sit for a portrait?”
“Losing cause,” Jim said. “I’m just not interested at this time.” He tempered his words with a smile.
“I’m not giving up,” she returned, grasping his arm as he moved toward the door. “I do so want to paint that face!”
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Alex,” Artie said as he headed out the door.
“Tomorrow is Sunday,” Jim commented as they descended the stairs.
“Alex is dedicated,” his partner responded snappishly. “She wants to complete the portrait as soon as possible.”
“Have you seen your picture?”
Artie was ahead of him and glanced back. “No! Alex says no one sees a portrait until it’s finished.”
“What if you don’t like it?”
“No chance of that,” his partner replied, reaching for the reins of his chestnut that were spun around the hitch rack.
Jim did not respond, not wishing to get into another set-to here on the street. Artie seemed in a fairly good mood; why disturb it? They led the horses down to the restaurant, tied them off, and went inside. A buxom middle-aged woman took their orders and departed, whereupon Artie looked at his partner.
“Maybe. I decided to ride out to a couple of the closer ranches…”
“We were supposed to do that together!” Artie glared across the table.
Jim took a deep breath and continued. The calm had not lasted long. “I had the time and didn’t want to waste it. We don't know when or if Richmond is going to summon us away from here. Anyway, at one ranch a kid had seen a wagon that matched the description of the one seen earlier. He told me where it was, and I rode out, figuring that the tracks would have been washed away. However, it appears that the wagon was there in the last couple of days—after the rain. I don't know what that means.”
Artie waited while the woman placed cups of coffee before them, but his face was still hard with anger. “I doubt it means anything—other than you broke your word.”
“Artie! What is so blasted important that you needed to ride out there with me? I know of at least a half dozen more spreads out that way that we need to check. We can do them this afternoon…”
“You can do them this afternoon. I’m going back to the train to write a letter to Lily.”
Sighing inwardly, Jim bit back the hot comments that wanted to leap out. This needed to be discussed, but not here in a public space. It has to have something to do with the portrait. That’s when it started. I cannot believe that Artie is infatuated with this woman, as beautiful as she is. He has encountered other lovely women, staying true to Lily Fortune all the while. Not to mention the fact that Alex immediately turned her attention to Jim West when he entered the studio.
Jim would not even consider that Artie might be jealous of that attention. The rancor had begun after Artie’s first session in the studio. Jim could not imagine what might have occurred during that first session that would have initiated the alteration in his partner’s mood. Even if he was jealous of me, that would not explain his treatment of Penner and Foulk. I also know he did not get a letter from Lily during this time, so it couldn’t be something she wrote.
Nothing made any sense. Not the incredible theft of the bonds, not Artie’s behavior. How could they be connected? Jim mulled over these paradoxical situations during the mostly silent meal. He tried once to initiate a pleasant conversation, and upon being rebuffed with a curt response, gave it up. When they got back to the train, he would attempt to talk about it and get some answers. He suspected, however, that at least initially Artie would deny anything was amiss.
Upon finishing the meal, they stepped out onto the porch of the restaurant. “Are you sure you don’t want to come with me?” Jim asked.
“I owe Lily a letter,” Artie responded, at least in a conversational tone with no sharpness in it.
For a long moment, the two of them stood silent, gazing out onto the street. Then Jim jerked to attention. “Artie, look! Come on!” He leapt off the porch, pulling his gun as he raced across the street, not checking to see if Artemus was following as he headed for the alley that was between the saloon across the dirt street and the feed store next to it.
Upon gaining the alley, Jim stopped short, peering into the dimness, gun ready in his hand. The space appeared empty except for some discarded crates and other detritus. Cautiously, he walked toward the rear, aware now that he was alone, that his partner had not accompanied him. At the far end, he paused and peered around the corner. All he saw were open lots and broad fields beyond, except for a couple of outhouses and another small structure that appeared ready to fall over in the next slight breeze. Holstering the pistol, he stepped out into the open and stared around. Nothing. No one.
I know I saw something, however.
Artie was still on the restaurant’s porch, arms folded, watching as Jim crossed the street toward him. “What the Sam Hill are you doing?” he asked.
Jim stopped below the porch and gazed up. “You didn’t see him? You were looking the same direction I was.”
Artie made a snorting sound as he descended the two stairs to the dusty street. “You have Loveless on the brain. You see him everywhere.”
“I didn’t see anything!” Untying the reins of his horse, he mounted up and headed at a brisk pace in the direction that would take him to the Wanderer.
Jim stood still, watching as the chestnut loped down the street. How could he not have seen him? He was in plain sight! He had seen the little man peering around the corner from the alley. No doubt resided in his mind. Loveless had been looking directly toward them as well. I was not imagining it!
Discarding the impulse to follow his partner, Jim mounted Blackjack and headed the opposite direction. Even if Artie was unwilling, they still had a job to do. If Miguelito Loveless was indeed involved, the job could be even more complex. How had the doctor managed this robbery? Why was he still in Broad Springs if he had successfully obtained over two hundred thousand dollars?
Does he have something to do with Artie’s behavior? How? Artie knows how to prevent being hypnotized. Quite possibly, if Artemus was drugged beforehand, mesmerism might be successful. When would Loveless have had an opportunity to do it?
I must tell him all! I must tell him all!
The words seemed to reverberate in Artemus Gordon’s brain as he pushed the chestnut to a faster speed. He did not want to be late. He did not want to receive the anger that would be directed toward him if he were late. At least he had something to convey. He was not certain how well it would be received, but at least he did have information.
He slowed the horse as he neared the grove of trees that indicated he was near the site where he had been instructed to go. He reined the chestnut off the main road, in among the trees. No trail was visible but he had been given explicit directions, and within a couple of minutes, he emerged out into a clearing.
A wagon with a boxlike structure resting on the bed was in that clearing, with the pair of horses grazing nearby. A couple of armed men were lolling in the shade. Antoinette was on the seat at the front of the vehicle, a crochet hook in her hands as she worked on something in a delicate yellow shade. She smiled toward the newcomer and turned to say something through an opening behind her.
Miguelito Loveless clambered down the steps in the rear a few moments later, grinning widely. “Ah, Mr. Gordon! I am glad you are prompt. Although I should not have expected less from a member of the Secret Service, should I?” He chuckled. “Come down, come down. I am sorry I don’t have refreshments to offer. We don’t plan to stay here long enough to build a fire.”
Artie dismounted. “I just had lunch with Jim.”
“Oh good. How is the dear boy? Completely frustrated, I hope.”
“Yes. Except I’m sorry to have to tell you, he saw you in town earlier.”
Loveless rolled his big blue eyes. “And I in turn despair to admit that I erred. I knew the two of you were in that restaurant and I went to check to see if you had emerged yet. Perfectly wrong timing. But I managed to elude him.”
Artie smiled slightly. “I told him he was seeing things, that I did not see anything.”
“Good lad. Good lad. Now we are running short of time, Mr. Gordon. It is imperative that we draw Mr. West into our little circle within the next few days.”
“Yes, I know. He steadfastly refuses to have his portrait done.”
“I am not surprised.” The doctor clasped his hands behind his back and rose up on his toes for a moment, his expression complacent. “I have a plan. A relatively straightforward plan. But you will be required to play a prime role.”
“Of course. What do you wish me to do?” Artie gazed at the little man, remembering how he had been startled, but not alarmed when Loveless appeared in Alex’s studio that first day through a door that she had told him led to the abandoned lower floor. The doctor had genially greeted him, and explained what was expected of him. All very reasonable. They had been persecuting the little doctor for many years. A time had come to put an end to it.
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
SS senior field agent
Posted - 06/15/2014 : 12:23:33
Eigentlich weiss man nur wenn man wenig weiss; mit dem Wissen wachst des Zweifel.
[We know accurately only when we know little; with knowledge doubt increases.]
—Spruche in Prosa, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), German poet
Jim kept the black steed at an easy lope as he headed back toward town and thence to the train. The afternoon had been unproductive. Jim wondered inwardly if his own distraction had contributed to that fruitlessness. He had difficulty putting his concern regarding his partner out of his mind, and thus probably did not ask the questions he might have done if his head was clearer. The sighting of Miguelito Loveless had not helped matters.
The thought occurred to him that Loveless’s appearance had been purely coincidental, that perhaps the little man had been passing through town with no knowledge of the presence of the agents. He threw the idea aside instantly. Even if the department had difficulty keeping up with Loveless’s movements, Jim was certain that Loveless knew theirs. That had been proven more than once.
Rounding a curve in the road, Jim spied a rider a couple of hundred yards ahead of him, a woman riding sidesaddle on a small horse. Just as he touched his heels to the sides of Blackjack, she turned around. The afternoon sun glinted off her spectacles as she waved and halted her horse.
“Oh, Mr. West! I’m so glad to see you—for more reasons than one.” Faye Skinner smiled brightly. “I think my saddle is slipping. I’ve been looking for a spot where I could easily dismount and remount.”
“We’ll take care of that. Let’s go over here.” He nodded toward the meadow alongside the roadway, and led the way toward a rippling brook about fifty feet away. Once there, he put his hands around her trim waist to lift her down, and then tightened the cinch on the mare. “Yes, you might have ended up in the dust,” he grinned.
“I saddle her myself and usually do a good job. I don't know what happened today!” She let the mare follow Blackjack to the water. “Isn’t it a lovely day?”
“Very. Do you often ride alone?”
“Oh yes. I know my uncle and aunt scold me all the time, but I’ve never encountered a problem—until today. And my guardian angel appeared out of nowhere.”
Jim laughed. “I’m glad I did. By the way, I must apologize for not coming to see you with the answer to your query. Further, I am sorry to tell you that Mr. Gordon refused the request. It is very unlike him. I don't know what’s going on. He’s been in a very unusual—and bad—mood the last few days.”
Faye sighed. “Something must be in the air or the water. Uncle Aubrey has been a changed man as well. He was always so neat, keeping his office spic and span, dressing nicely. He even sometimes helped at home because Aunt Lucy might not have kept something as neat as he liked it. Now…”
Jim was nodding. “I know. I ran into your aunt in his office yesterday and she was telling me about how he had changed. I suppose that happens sometimes.”
“But it’s not just him. Mayor Houseman was always a very kind and fair man. One reason he has been elected several times is that he can always see all sides of a problem. He can usually solve them equitably. But of late, he has been quite… well, grouchy and unjust. People who have gone to him with troubles come away very unhappy. The mayor’s solutions are inequitable.”
“I met him,” Jim mused. “He’s elderly…”
“Yes, that’s true. My grandfather’s personality changed in the few years before he passed away. He became quite crotchety. However, there is also Mr. MacCloskey.”
“The opposite happened with him. He was known for being hardheaded and opinionated. He was generally a fair man as far as the financial dealings are concerned, according to Aunt Lucy, but he could be very intractable, enough so that some people did not like him. But you’ve seen how very genial he is these days.”
Jim was silent for a long moment, his thoughts whirling. What do these men have in common? They had their portraits painted by Alexandra Alexander! However, how could that make such a change in their personalities? If Loveless is involved…
Faye Skinner’s voice penetrated the fog in his head. “I’m sorry, Miss Skinner. I’ve still got this robbery on my mind.”
“I’m sure you do. It’s very puzzling. I was astonished when I heard about it. Mr. MacCloskey may be testy at times, but he’s very honest. I am certain he has nothing to do with it.”
“I agree.” At least not willingly or possibly knowingly.
This time Faye was silent for a long several seconds, her gaze on her horse. She turned back to Jim. “I saw something very odd today.”
“What was that?”
“On lovely Saturdays like this, I often take a book and ride up into those hills.” She motioned toward the wooded prominences to their west. Jim had circled around them. “I have a favorite spot up there that’s fairly well hidden from the road below. I can see a lot around me, but people down below cannot necessarily see me.”
“And you saw someone?”
“I did. Mr. Gordon. I noticed him first because he rode very swiftly up the road. Then he slowed down almost directly below me, and came through the woods. I actually thought at first he had spied me and was coming that way. Instead, he veered off slightly and entered a clearing. I had not noticed earlier that a wagon was parked in that clearing. The wagon was somewhat hidden by the foliage of the trees. But I did then notice two men, and another one came out of the wagon.”
Jim tensed. “What did he look like?”
“A small man. Very small. I suppose a midget or dwarf.”
“With graying hair?”
“Yes. You know him?”
“I think so. What happened?”
“Well, I couldn’t hear what was being said, but Mr. Gordon spoke to this man for several minutes. I got the impression Mr. Gordon was explaining some things that the small man was not exactly happy with. I could just barely see his face, but his body stance… you know what I mean?”
“I know. Go on.”
“I don't think Mr. Gordon stayed there for more than ten minutes. He rode away, the small man apparently went back to the wagon, and a short time later, I heard it leave. I’m not sure where it went because of the foliage, but I do not think it entered the roadway. A couple of fairly wide trails are around there.”
“Thank you, Faye. That information is very helpful. May I ask you to keep it secret? Don’t even tell your uncle.”
She nodded. “I will. I thought it very odd that Mr. Gordon was meeting someone like that.”
“Odd indeed,” Jim nodded with a wry smile. “Looks like the horses have had their fill. Shall we proceed? I’ll escort you to your home.”
She smiled winningly. “I would like that.”
By the time Jim helped her from her horse in front of the sheriff’s home, they were on a first-name basis. Jim also promised that if they were still in town next week, he would attend the ice cream social at the church with her. She was so very different from Alex Alexander. Not nearly as pretty, yet with a warm and comfortable personality.
He had to go back through town to reach the road to the siding, and was startled to see Artie’s chestnut tied up in front of the building where Alex’s studio was located. Puzzled, he dismounted there and climbed the stairs. When he rapped on the door, she opened it.
“Oh, James! How nice to see you again.”
“Is Artemus here?”
“Artemus? No. Why?”
She stepped back, and Jim entered. “His horse is at the rack in front.”
“Really? No, I haven’t seen him since he left with you earlier. When I opened the door and saw you I was certain you were coming to tell me you have changed your mind.”
“No. I’m not likely to. How is Artemus's painting going?” Jim glanced toward the covered canvas on an easel near the window.
“Very well. He is an excellent subject as well as a delightful man to converse with. You are so lucky to have him as a partner. I’m sure his intelligence and conversational skills prevent boredom. Oh, I’m being a terrible hostess. Would you like some tea? I can make it in an instant.”
“No. Thank you, no. Miss Alexander, are you acquainted with Dr. Miguelito Loveless?”
She blinked, shaking her head. “I do not believe I have ever heard the name. Who is he?”
“Never mind. Artemus must be somewhere else in town. I’m sorry to have disturbed you.”
She caught his arm as he turned toward the door. “James, please. Please let me paint you… if only for myself. I may never see you again.”
He gazed at her pleading expression. “Perhaps you can do it from memory.”
Alex evinced slight surprise. “Well, perhaps. I would so much rather have you sitting here with me, so we can get to know each other. Please?” She stepped closer to him, now putting a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry, no. It’s not something I want to do.” He smiled slightly then. “Sitting for a portrait, I mean.”
She apparently took that as an invitation, moving even closer, putting the hand behind his head and pulling it to hers. The kiss was very warm and could have been very intoxicating if Jim had not kept his senses level. He returned the embrace, but did not allow it to continue as long as she would have liked, putting his hands on her shoulders to gently push her away.
“I have to go,” he said.
Her hands grasped both his arms now. “James, no. Can’t you tell? We are perfect for each other!”
He shook his head slightly. “We barely know…”
“That’s not important. I can feel it. I know you can as well. Please stay. I’ll fix some tea and we can talk.”
Jim freed himself from her grip. “I’m sorry, Alex. I have work to do.”
He managed to escape out the door before she could move again. Descending the stairs, he wondered about the tea. So many times, it has been mentioned and urged on me. Was that what contained the drug that allowed Artie and the others to be hypnotized? Somehow, that did not seem right. Artie’s behavior was not that of a hypnotized subject. A great deal of time would have been needed to change his personality so drastically, and the alternation had started after just a short time with Alex that day.
Something else. Something else is involved. If Loveless is mixed up in it, it could be anything!
Reaching the ground, he found Artie’s horse was gone. His first thought was to hurry to the Wanderer to see if Artie was there. However, he glanced across the street to see the general mercantile, remembering what Faye Skinner had told him about the owner’s wife. Therefore, he led the black horse across the way, tied it to the rack there, and entered the establishment.
Several people were at the counter waiting to pay for their purchases, but a handsome woman with rosy cheeks and graying brown hair was nearby straightening a display of shirts. She turned to him. “Good afternoon, sir. Do you need assistance?”
“I’m looking for Mrs. Foyle.”
“That would be me. What can I do for you?”
Jim made his explanation simple. He had heard she had her portrait done by Alexandra Alexander; he was considering doing the same thing. He would like to see more samples of Miss Alexander’s work. Mrs. Foyle was pleased to lead him up to their living quarters, where the portrait occupied a place of honor on the wall.
Jim gazed at the framed picture. Mrs. Foyle’s likeness was very good. However, as Faye had said, it lacked the “spark” that the other portraits possessed. Good, but rather ordinary. Why?
“I was a trifle disappointed at first,” Mrs. Foyle said at his shoulder. “The one of Mr. MacCloskey is so much better. But as my husband said—with a smile—consider the subject. Mr. MacCloskey is a very distinguished appearing man, don’t you think?”
“I do. Nevertheless, this is a nice picture, Mrs. Foyle. One person suggested to me that Miss Alexander was better at painting a man’s face. That could be.”
“Yes, I suppose so. However, I am very glad I have this. I’m trying to talk Mr. Foyle into having his done!”
They chatted a little more before Jim thanked her and took his leave. He mounted up and headed for the train, keeping an eye open for his partner’s chestnut that might have been moved elsewhere in town. He saw no such horse, and continued to the train. The door to the stable and lab car was open, with the ramp still down. He rode up the ramp to find the chestnut in her stall.
Jim unsaddled his horse, rubbed him down briefly, promising a better job later, patted Mesa on the neck, and made his way to the main car. Coffee was brewed in the galley, so he poured himself a cup before entering the varnish car. Artemus was at the desk, sending a telegram, which he quickly ended as Jim came in.
“Learn anything new this afternoon?” he asked casually.
“Nothing.” Jim sat down on the sofa. “Did you get your letter written?”
Artie sighed. “No. I’ll do it this evening I guess. I’ve been sitting here for better than an hour sending and transcribing messages.”
Biting his tongue was getting more difficult, but Jim did it. When he had touched Artie’s horse, he found her still warm. She had not been in the stall for “better than an hour.” “Anything interesting?”
“Not much. Other than the fact that Loveless was spotted in northern Saskatchewan.”
“Yep. That was one question I asked, if the department had any information on him. So obviously you didn’t see him in Broad Springs.”
“Obviously,” Jim muttered. Damn, Artie, what is going on? How did Loveless get his claws into you? Moreover, what does he want with you? With the two of us? Jim knew that Miguelito Loveless would want both agents in his control—or dead. Initially, Alex had attempted to persuade him to have his portrait done. She had then turned to Artie and succeeded. Loveless had something in mind that did not, at the outset, include killing the two men he despised most in the world.
The remainder of the day elapsed more normally, which worried Jim considerably. Over the last couple of days, since the changes in his behavior, Artie had returned to his usual manner briefly, before reverting to the bad-tempered, confrontational stance that had started after his first session with Alex. For him to be his congenial self for hours was troublesome now.
Jim kept thinking of the meeting between his partner and Loveless witnessed by Faye Skinner. He could only conclude that the doctor had instructed Artemus to consciously slip back to his normal ways, perhaps to allay any suspicion—and not realizing that it would only increase them! Jim West knew his partner too well. Artie was not the type to flash from one mood to another. As well, if he was in a bad mood, usually he and Jim could talk about it.
Jim had moods himself from time to time. Neither was perfect. The life they led sometimes caused periods of darkness as well as light. Usually, the one who was not having a bad time could talk the other one out of it. The periods did not last long. Not several days such as was occurring now with Artemus Gordon. Jim had no doubt whatsoever that Loveless was involved. However it had been accomplished, Miguelito Loveless was behind it.
At Artie’s suggestion, they rode back into town later in the afternoon to do some more checking around the bank. Jim suspected it would be a futile exercise, and it was. A magnifying glass used on the safe as well as the door lock did not reveal any signs of forced entry.
Artie gazed at the safe for a long moment at one point, his hand on his chin, the elbow supported by his other hand. “You know, James, if we could have been here immediately after the crime, we quite possibly have nailed down the culprit by the marks of his fingers.”
“What do you mean?”
“A number of European scientists have noticed that the ridges on our fingertips appear to be quite different from one person to another, and it’s possible that every person living has a different pattern. If we could have somehow removed the prints from the metal safe and preserved them, then taken ink prints, I suppose, from suspects to compare…”
Jim shook his head. “Even if that were so, it’s useless now.”
“Yeah. Too bad.”
Jim thought about that moment as they departed from the bank and headed for the sheriff’s office. That sounds like the old Artie. Is it? On the other hand, is it simply a ruse to put me off guard? I wish I knew! Nonetheless, I think I had better remain alert until I am certain one way or another.
They paid a short visit to the sheriff, which was as useless as the time spent in the bank. Skinner had nothing new to offer. Jim wished he could have a moment alone with the lawman to mention Loveless’s name or description to see what the reaction would be, but that opportunity did not occur.
Artie suggested calling on the mayor, a person they had not really talked to other than at the banker’s anniversary party. Jim could not see what they would learn from the city leader, but because Artie mentioned it, he knew a good reason could exist. A reason perhaps suggested by Loveless.
The mayor was in his office when they arrived at the town hall. Jonah Houseman’s portrait was hanging above his desk. As with the other two Jim had viewed, the artist had captured the man perfectly, giving it lifelike appearance. Some, he mused, might not appreciate being portrayed as a white-haired, slightly stooped old man, and would have preferred the artist do some “touch ups.” Nevertheless, Houseman obviously was pleased with the results.
He greeted them with clipped tones and immediately launched into a tirade, blaming the two government agents for giving his town a bad name. “Who’s going to want to invest, or deposit money, in our bank if they can’t trust that it will not be stolen?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Artie replied politely, “but we are working with a complete lack of clues. No witnesses either.”
“That’s no excuse,” Houseman grumbled. Jim could not help but remember Faye Skinner telling him how fair the mayor was—before having his picture painted. Perhaps he would have been more understanding before that happened.
“Chances are we are going to be called away before we solve this case,” Artie went on, “but rest assured it will not be a closed case until the culprit is located and the money returned to the bank.”
“Hmph! Well, it’s not the bank’s money, is it? It belongs to the government. No wonder you’ll keep looking!”
“We only came to assure you we are doing our best,” Artemus said, as Jim stood silently. “If we do get called away by our superiors, we’ll attempt to persuade them that we need to remain longer.”
Artie then excused themselves and led the way out of the office. “Cranky old fellow,” he said as they reached the sidewalk.
“I’ve heard he wasn’t always like that,” Jim mentioned.
Artie looked at him sharply. “What? Who said that?”
“Hmm? Oh, I don’t remember. I’m sure it’s just age catching up. He must be seventy at least.”
“Yeah. At least. Well, let’s head back to the train and I’ll fix dinner. What sounds good?”
“Anything you prepare is good, pal.”
Artemus clapped him on the shoulder. “I’ll remember that next time you complain that I fix chicken too often!”
Nos amis, les ennemis.
[Our friends, the enemy.]
—'Opinion de ces Demoiselles, Pierre Jean de Beranger (1780-1857), French poet
The following morning Artemus departed earlier than usual for his sitting with Alex. “Might be the last one,” he proclaimed. “I’ve told her we might have to leave, so she wants to put extra time in. After all, there really isn’t much more for us to do as far as investigating the robbery.”
Jim had agreed with him, saying he would remain at the train and make some notes about what they knew and did not know. “Perhaps tonight we can go over them. Who knows? Something might come to mind.”
“Good idea, James my boy!” Artie answered enthusiastically. “I’ll see you later.”
Jim waited until he was sure his partner had traveled a long distance from the Wanderer. He then saddled Blackjack and headed out himself, circling around town until he came to the area where Faye had witnessed the meeting between Artemus and Loveless. She had given him good directions and a description of the area. He had not immediately traveled to the site yesterday for two reasons. One was that she had seen the wagon leaving, so the likelihood of anyone being there was small. The other was that he had felt he needed to check on the whereabouts and activities of his partner. He did not want to encounter Artie while searching for the wagon.
He was certain Artie would be spending whatever time necessary with Alex Alexander to finish the portrait today. He was less certain about what would happen next. Finding Loveless and taking him into custody would be a great help, but Jim was not overly hopeful about that, given past history. He suspected that both Artie and Alex would try again to convince him to sit for a portrait. Maybe I can draw them out if I show some inclination to do so.
However, that was later. For now, he needed to find out what was to be learned at the site where Loveless had been spotted. He reached that site, dismounted and walked around a while, noting signs of human presence, including horse tracks and wagon wheels, as well as a small fire. As Faye had mentioned, a couple of trails led off this clearing, one of them wide enough for a small wagon to travel through.
Jim followed that trail and it eventually opened out into another public road, where the wagon tracks he had been following blended into the dust with other tracks. After a moment of thought, he headed his black horse away from town, watching along the sides of the road for signs that a wagon may have pulled off, either onto a lane or just into a field.
After about five miles, he reversed his course and rode in the direction of town, still eyeing the roadsides. The sun was high in the sky and starting on its downward trek when he reached Broad Springs, having seen no further sign of the wagon. He did not know what that meant. Had he missed something? Was the wagon here in town?
With that thought, Jim veered off the road before reaching the first building of Broad Creek, traveling through the fields that surrounded the town, until he reached a point that gave him a good view of the building where Alex Alexander’s studio was located. Nothing.
So much for that, he sighed inwardly, once again reversing course to regain the road and head into the main street of town. Hungry, he dismounted at the restaurant and had a meal. He had noticed Artie’s striking chestnut tied up in front of the artist’s building. Hence, his partner was likely with Alexandra, posing for the portrait. And what else?
Riding back to the Wanderer, Jim realized that this had to be settled soon. In the dark as he was, he could not take the chance that Artie was going to do something that would ruin his life, not to mention the lives of others. That Loveless had gained control of Artemus Gordon was evident. What was not so evident was how that had been accomplished. The one thing Jim did not want to have happen was for Loveless to use his method on him. If that happened…
It was not worth thinking about. He had to stop Loveless, and if necessary, stop Artie. The biggest question was how. He knew he had to learn more, and perhaps he was going to have to pretend to acquiesce to Alex’s plea to do his portrait. Everything was connected to that, he knew. Alexandra Alexander was key, if only to draw victims into Loveless’s web.
Treason is greatest where trust is greatest.
—John Dryden (1631-1700), English poet and dramatist
“Can you do it?”
“Of course I can,” Artemus Gordon replied. “Jim West trusts me. He will want to participate, as well, in anything that makes me happy. I’ll convince him this is important.”
Miguelito Loveless smiled broadly. “I knew I could count on you, Mr. Gordon. You want to make up for all the wrongs done me, correct?”
“Absolutely. I cannot believe I was part of that. I just didn’t understand.” I’m not sure I do yet. Somehow, this doesn’t seem right. Nonetheless, I have to do what the doctor says. I know that. I cannot disobey the doctor.
“Good lad. Bring Mr. West here and I will take care of the rest. I am sure that once we are able to explain all the harm he has done, he will be contrite and delighted to join our little group.”
“I’m sure of that,” Artie beamed. “Having him on our side will be good.”
“Good lad,” the doctor said again, preventing himself from giggling aloud. This was all working perfectly despite the initial snag of not convincing West to have his portrait done. In fact, it might even be better. James West was going to be brought into it aware that he had no choice. He would be helpless. Miguelito Loveless could not wait to see the expression on his too handsome face. “Go along now. We don’t want your partner to come looking for you and arrive prematurely. We will get things ready for the party.”
Artemus picked up his hat. “I won’t disappoint. Good day, doctor. Ladies.”
Who should be trusted, when one's right hand
Is perjured to the bosom? Proteus,
I am sorry I must never trust thee more,
But count the world a stranger for thy sake.
The private wound is deepest. O time most accurst,
'Mongst all foes that a friend should be the worst!
—The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Valentine at V, iv), William Shakespeare (1564-1616), English dramatist and poet
Jim lowered the book he had been holding when he heard the footsteps in the galley. He knew it could be one of the crew, but sensed it was not. He had spent a long afternoon waiting for his partner to return to the train. As he had said he would, he sat at the desk for a long time writing down what they knew about the robbery, including the information he had from Faye Skinner, and his own sighting of Loveless.
Some of that information he had telegraphed east, with a request to not mention it in return telegraphing. He did not tell Washington about Artie’s altered personality and the fact that he might be conspiring with Loveless. Not yet. Not until he had all the facts. He had also written a second version, leaving out all the Loveless information and his suspicions about his partner. That one he left on the desk. The first one was hidden under his mattress.
The galley door pushed open and Artemus entered with a big grin on his face. “Guess what, James! The portrait is finished!”
Jim sat up, lowering his feet to the floor. “How does it look?”
Artie chuckled. “I don't know. Alex still hasn’t allowed me to see it. We are going to have a grand unveiling tonight. You’re invited.”
“Tonight?” Jim glanced toward the windows where dusk was plainly visible. “Wouldn’t it be better in the daytime?”
“I can’t wait that long. Alex is going to have plenty of lanterns and lamps, she said. We will have tea and cake. I think she’s inviting Sheriff Skinner, Mr. MacCloskey, and the mayor. Maybe more. Should be a fun evening.”
Now Jim got to his feet. “What time?”
“As soon as you are ready. Right now?”
Jim hesitated an instant, and then looked down. “I think I’d better put a clean shirt on.”
“That one looks all right to me.”
“No, I spattered some grease when I was fixing supper—bacon and eggs for the boys and me. I won’t be a minute.” Before Artemus could protest again, Jim hurried through the swinging door.
Artie was pacing around the varnish car when Jim pushed back through the door. “What took you so long?”
“Sorry.” Jim displayed chagrin. “I couldn’t remember where I put the white shirts when I got them back from the laundry in Omaha. For some reason, I stowed them in the wrong cupboard.” He straightened his bolo tie, then stepped over to pick up his gun belt from the chair where he had placed it earlier. Artie was irritated but he appeared to not be suspicious. The few minutes in the lab area had been necessary.
“You don’t need that,” Artie said rather sharply.
Jim looked at him, one brow lifted. “You have yours.” Besides, I may need to shoot you if whatever Loveless has done to you proves irreversible. The thought made Jim’s blood run cold, all the while realizing the truth of it. If Artie attacked him with intent to kill…
Artie glanced down at the belt strapped around his hips. “Oh. Yeah. Well, we shouldn’t have any troubles tonight.”
“Artie,” Jim grinned as he strapped the belt on, “you know that trouble always finds us somehow.”
Artemus made a noncommittal sound and headed toward the galley door. Jim followed, and was not overly surprised to find his horse already saddled. Artie is really in a hurry. Why? Surely not simply to see his finished portrait. Under Loveless’s orders?
In friendship your heart is like a bell struck every time your friend is in trouble.
—Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887), American Congregational clergyman, religious writer, and reformer
Jim had to call out a couple of times to urge his partner to slow down. On the second call, Jim reminded Artie how dark it was without a moon and that they could injure the horses. That seemed to get through to him. They entered Broad Springs at an easy lope. Only the saloons and a few second story living abodes displayed any light in this late evening. The stores were shut down on this Sunday evening.
Dismounting in front of the artist’s building, Artie led the way up the stairs, pushed the door open and stepped aside for Jim to enter first. Warily, Jim did so. The room was well lit with lamps and lanterns, as Artie had said it would be. Alex Alexander hurried forward to greet them, taking Jim’s hands with a warm smile.
“Thank you so much for coming, James. This means so much to all of us!”
Off to one side, surrounded by the lamps, was the covered easel. Nearby were the mayor, the sheriff, and the banker. They were standing close together, all smiling broadly. Their very smiles made Jim apprehensive. He heard Artie close the door behind him—and heard the key turn in the lock. He was about to spin around to ask why it was being secured, when the three citizens of Broad Springs moved apart.
The little doctor smirked as he emerged from behind them. “Good evening, Mr. West. How nice of you to join us.”
“My pleasure,” Jim replied easily. “I wondered when you were going to make an appearance… again.”
One of the two doors in the room opened to admit two burly men, each with a gun in his hand, coming up behind Jim. One jerked his pistol from its holster. Jim barely glanced at them, keeping his eyes on Loveless. Artemus went to stand with MacCloskey, Skinner, and Houseman.
“Yes,” Loveless said, “I had heard that with your general acumen you believed I was present, and even thought you saw me. Well, it makes no difference now. Are you ready to join us?”
“I’m not much for joining clubs. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll just go have a beer at the saloon across the street.”
Loveless chuckled. “I’m sorry, Mr. West, but your presence is required.”
Jim assumed a casual stance, jamming his hands into the pockets of the corduroy jacket, and keeping his eyes on Loveless. He did not want to look at Artemus Gordon, standing now with the three men and Alex. The expression on Artie’s face was almost unbearable: one of triumph and expectancy. Jim could not see any hint that Artie realized, or cared, what was happening and planned to be of any help.
“Why don’t you tell me what’s going on, doctor? How did you gain control of these people?”
“I should be delighted,” Loveless replied smugly. He certainly felt he was going to win this time, after all the encounters where he had come out second best. “The story is extremely interesting. Many, many years ago, when I was still a lad, I heard a story about an herb that was once found in the deepest jungles of South America. This herb was so prized by the tribal leaders and shamans that it eventually went extinct because they pulled up all the plants, never allowing them to reseed and continue to grow.
“An amazing herb that had an astonishing effect. Used in a tea it causes the drinker to lose a sense of willpower, obeying the commands of the person who administered the tea. Similarly, mixed with materials used to create a likeness of a person, the person in the image again loses self-will. Used concurrently, the power is increased a hundred-fold. The subject has no will but mine. Conscience plays no part in it.”
“I have heard the tea mentioned a few times.”
Loveless sighed noisily. “Yes, and had you but accepted the invitation, this would have been done and finished a long while ago. We would have been on our way to fortune untold.”
“I’m not sorry to have disappointed you. Tell me something. Miss Alexander has painted the portraits of other people here in town beyond these men…”
“Ah yes. That’s another story. I encountered Miss Alexander a few years ago and recognized her talents—although nowhere close to my own, you understand—and always remembered her. When, a few months ago, I learned that a small cache of this miraculous herb remained, I… ah… procured it quickly. I did some experimenting and found it worked as advertised. I knew immediately what I would use it for, but I also realized I needed an accomplice. Miss Alexander proved to be the perfect person. She is talented enough to create the portraits that would encourage others to come to her. She is also greedy.” Loveless cast a warm smile toward the artist, who smiled back.
“Another interesting aspect of the herb is, when it’s mixed into the artist’s medium—whether that be oil paints, chalk, charcoal, herbal dyes such as used by aborigines—it tends to magnify the talents of the artist. The completed work appears much more lifelike than that artist’s ability alone can produce.”
Jim shot a glance toward Alex Alexander. “So the artist is not nearly as talented as she appears.” The woman’s eyes narrowed at the implied insult, but did not speak. Is she under the doctor’s spell, or as he just mentioned, simply greedy for whatever he is paying her?
“You could say that, for some people. I of course…” Loveless cleared his throat. “But that’s another story.”
“What about the personality change?” Jim was quite aware of how Loveless like to talk—boast—about his accomplishments, so he wanted to draw it out as long as possible.
“That is an unfortunate—or in some instances, fortunate—side effect of the herb. A complete reversal in personality occurs. A genial person becomes a malcontent and crosspatch, while a usual grouch turns into an angel. Quite interesting. Doubtless you noticed the change in Mr. Gordon. I instructed him to concentrate on being his usual congenial self around you. He won’t have to worry about that now.” Loveless tapped his chin. “I shall be fascinated to see what it does to a person like you, Mr. West.”
Jim frowned thoughtfully. “So it’s permanent?”
“As long as the portraits exist. The portraits overshadow the effects of the herbal tea once they are created. The tea merely assists in causing the subject to be more amenable, especially initially.”
“I am presuming that it is now my turn to sit for Miss Alexander.”
“As perceptive as always, Mr. West. Antoinette!” Loveless raised his voice.
A moment later the second door from the room opened and the lovely woman poked her head out. “The tea is almost ready, Miguelito. Another two or three minutes.”
“Excellent, my dear. We want it to be just perfect for Mr. West.”
“You don’t think I’m going to drink the stuff, do you?”
“You will,” Loveless smirked. “Perhaps with some assistance from our friends.” His glance went from the two still standing behind Jim to the four men near the easel. Artemus grinned. “But now,” the doctor continued, “I think it is time for the unveiling. Alex, dear?”
“It will be my honor and pleasure,” the artist replied, dipping her head as she moved over alongside the easel, taking hold of the cloth. “One… two… three!” She jerked it off.
Jim took a good look at the portrait and had to admit to himself he had never seen a better likeness of his partner. Artie was standing with his arms folded; behind him was a scene that clearly represented a theater stage, with footlights and some backdrop, curtains at the side. His buckskin jacket hung open, the gold shirt vivid, hat in one hand. Lily would love it, Jim mused. Too bad…
His right hand came out of his pocket and with a swift movement, he swung it toward the easel. The pellet flew across the short distance, smashing into the center of the picture. Instantly an acrid, malodorous white vapor arose. Loveless roared with rage as the others cried out in alarm. The acid from the pellet quickly ate into the paint, destroying the image. During the frozen moments of surprise, Jim pulled out another one that followed the first, this time striking higher on the canvas. Within moments, the entire painting was dissolving away.
Jim took further advantage of the confusion and consternation, whirling back toward the two men behind him. He kicked one in the stomach and hurtled himself at the other, throwing him to the floor, and pounding him with hard blows to the head. As soon as he was certain that man was out, he leapt up to go after the other, who was climbing to his feet. Amidst the din of voices in the room, he heard a familiar one shouting orders.
A left to the already sore stomach and a strong right to the jaw sent the second man to the floor. Jim grabbed his own gun from that man’s belt, and kicked the others that had fallen to the floor toward the far wall. Only then did he turn around.
Artie was standing close to the reeking easel, his gun in his right hand. His left was firmly around the wrist of Alexandra Alexander, and the weapon was pointed toward the banker, mayor, and sheriff, who were staring in wide-eyed confusion.
“Jim! Loveless went that way!” Artie jerked his head toward the door where Antoinette had been seen.
Jim sprinted across the room, slamming that door open. He found two rooms that comprised the living quarters of the artist. The first was a kitchen-dining area, with a strong aroma of herbal tea. The second was a bedroom. From that room, another door opened to a second set of outside stairs. Jim hurtled down those stairs and quickly searched the area as best he could in the dark.
Thwarted, but not astonished, Jim climbed the stairs on the studio side of the building. Remembering it had been locked, he kicked it open and entered, pistol in his hand. The three townsmen and the woman were now sitting on the floor against the wall, Artie above them, gun in hand. The two other men were still out cold.
“Got away, huh?”
“As usual,” Jim sighed. “He always has an escape plan. How are you?”
Artie shook his head slightly with a bemused smile. “I am fine. Great, as a matter of fact. My head is clear for the first time in days. Jim, I knew everything that was happening, but I could not do anything about it. I did not have the will to do anything other than what the doctor commanded.”
“I understand. I’m sure it’s the same with our friends here. We’re going to need to collect those paintings and burn them.”
“And the paint and whatever is left of the tea,” Artie nodded. “Loveless told me earlier that just enough of the paint mixture and the tea remained to bring you into the fold. By the way, unless he had time to grab them just now, the bonds are downstairs. He planned to use them, of course, to finance his ambitions, but the main reason he stole them was to draw you and me into all this.”
“I was beginning to suspect that,” Jim nodded.
Mr. MacCloskey looked at the two of them. “You must let us go. The doctor needs us.” His two companions nodded earnestly.
Artie smiled. “You’ll thank us later, sir. The boys over there are stirring, Jim. What do you say we find them quarters for the night?”
The three townsmen, the two thugs, and Miss Alexander were locked in separate cells at the jail. The sheriff cried out in protest from the cell as his painting was taken down. Keys had been collected from the banker and mayor, so they then went to the bank to collect Mr. MacCloskey’s portrait, and finally to the mayor’s office. Those three men were distraught as they were then removed from the cells. They realized what was going to become of their treasures, but under the weapons held by the agents, they behaved themselves, perhaps partially, Jim mused, because they did not have Loveless to tell them what to do.
Jim found a jug of coal oil in the sheriff’s office, which they took along with the paintings to the vacant area behind the jail. The inflammatory liquid was poured onto the paintings, and a match tossed in. The effect was almost instantaneous, as it had been with the acid that destroyed Artemus's portrait. The three men reverted to their previous selves, all abashed to remember the past weeks and what they did. Like Artie, they had known they were doing wrong but could not resist.
Artie went back to the studio to gather up the oil paints and a small container of dried herbs he found in the kitchen area. They were brought back to the still burning pyre, and tossed on. “That should do it,” he murmured.
“If Loveless was telling the truth about that being the last of it,” Jim nodded. He clapped his hand on his partner’s shoulder. “Glad to have you back, pal.”
“I can’t tell you how happy I am to be back, James. I was sick inside with the knowledge of how Loveless had control of everything. I’m going to be interested to learn how you determined what was going on.”
Jim grinned in the firelight. “As the good doctor said, just my usual acumen, Artemus. That’s all.” He wondered if Artie now realized that the delay earlier in the train had been caused because he went to collect the acid pellets from Artie’s store in the lab area.
Banker MacCloskey later told them how he had been the first victim of Loveless’s scheme. Miss Alexander had come to the bank to open an account and persuaded him to visit her studio for a sitting. He had been served the tea, and that was that. Shortly thereafter, Loveless himself appeared. The robbery had been set up, as the agents surmised, to bring them into the area.
Sheriff Skinner had been chosen so that the local law would not interfere, and to complete the job, the mayor. Loveless had inquired of his first two victims who among the town’s citizens would be more likely to get involved if the theft seemed unsolvable, and Mayor Houseman had been named. The mayor was very proud of his town. He probably would have been the one to request government help anyway. As it was, Loveless was able to set it up so that the two men he wanted to see most were sent to Broad Springs.
The bonds were recovered from the vacant store below the studio. Loveless and Antoinette had spent time there, when they were not camping out with their wagon, which had been moved all around the area so as not to be noticed as much. The agents knew that the doctor was probably doubly furious that he had lost the bonds. Even if he could not carry out whatever he had in mind with the drugged agents, he would have no doubt preferred to have the funds in hand for his next nefarious project.
Mrs. Skinner, Mrs. MacCloskey, and Mrs. Houseman were glad to have the husbands they knew back, although Mrs. MacCloskey admitted it was rather nice to have a more pleasant man about the house. Mr. MacCloskey could only say he would try to be more like that man. The sheriff was appalled to realize how he had allowed his office to deteriorate, not to mention his attire. As for the mayor, he set out to apologize to persons he may have offended while under the spell of the doctor. When the full story got out, the citizens of the area understood why their banker and elected officials had altered so severely and suddenly.
Artie issued a full apology to Miss Faye Skinner and visited her school at first opportunity, delighting in reading and performing the Bard for her students. Jim attended, primarily because he liked the company of Miss Skinner. They attended the church social with her before boarding the train to be off to their next assignment.
Omnia per ipsum facta pactione in—hoc demum firma amicitia est.
[Agreement in likes and dislikes--this, and this only, is what constitutes true friendship.]
—The War with Catiline by Sallust, Catiline (Lucius Sergius Catilina; c. 108-62 BC), Roman politician and conspirator
“Jim,” Artie said as he came through the galley door, wiping his hands on a cloth, “I want to apologize…”
Jim looked up from the newspaper he was reading. “Artie, you’ve already apologized a hundred times or so. I know that everything you did was not your fault. So forget it.”
Artemus laughed. “Actually, this time I am apologizing that dinner is going to be late. I had trouble getting the oven to the right temperature for the chicken.”
Jim smiled. “Oh. All right. I’ll live, I think.”
“I also wanted to tell you,” Artie said, coming around to the sofa where Jim was reclining, “I wrote to Lily to tell her about the portrait. Of course, I don't think we would be able to find anyone who could paint such lifelike portraits without the help of the herb, but I think we should get ours painted. For over the fireplace, you know.”
“What fireplace? Here?” Jim looked over at the wall above the car’s fireplace.
“No, no! In our home.”
“You have it picked out?”
Artie settled down on a chair, leaning forward and clutching the cloth. “Not yet. We’ve talked about it. A big place, with a room where the family can gather by the fire on chilly evenings…”
“Family? How large a family?”
Artie shrugged. “I don't know. Three, four. We’ll see how it goes.”
“Where is it going to be? In Michigan?”
“Oh, no, I don't think so. We wouldn’t want to have to deal with that snow. Maybe Arizona.”
“It gets hot in Arizona, Artie. Not many cool evenings to sit by the fire.”
His partner nodded pensively. “True. Maybe someplace with a more temperate climate.”
“Yeah, that’s a thought. Why are you asking all this, Jim?”
“Just making conversation until dinner is ready. What do you think, two boys, two girls?”
“Gosh, I don't know. You can’t order those things like you can a slice of pie, James.”
Jim’s brows lifted. “You can’t?”
Artemus grinned then, getting to his feet. “All right, James. I know you’re having me on. How about you? Are you considering a portrait?”
“Nope. That’s still not on my agenda.”
“You could at least get a photograph taken, just in case someone wants to remember how you looked way back when.”
“I can’t think of anyone who’d want that.”
“What about Matthew’s kids? They might want to whip out a photograph to show their children their great-uncle, the famous James West.”
Jim’s brows knit a moment. “I hadn’t thought about that.”
“Not to mention,” Artie went on as he headed for the door, “it would be good to scare the mice away in the attic.” He ducked through the door, letting it swing shut behind him.
Jim sighed, placing the newspaper over his face. It was not often when Artie got the last word. I guess I can let him have it this time. For now…
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