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California gal
SS senior field agent

USA
8379 Posts

Posted - 01/14/2016 :  09:11:50  Show Profile
The Night of the Vanishing Act

Objects imperfectly discerned take forms from the hope or fear of the beholder.
—Samuel Johnson (aka Dr. Johnson; “The Great Cham of Literature”; 1709-1784); English author and lexicographer


“Well,” Artemus Gordon said as he dismounted and began to pull his saddlebag off the back of the chestnut horse, “after all of our bad luck of the last twelve hours or so, it seems our fortunes have changed for the better.”

Jim nodded, likewise procuring his saddlebag. “Seems so,” he rejoined. The old house they had spotted from the road appeared to be abandoned. Although some windows were broken or boarded up, the structure could provide some shelter from the chilly November night that was coming on rapidly.

The day had been long. They left the small town north of here early this morning, certain they would reach their destination by afternoon. However, they encountered a damaged bridge that spanned a wide and quite deep creek with a swift current fueled by early autumn rains here in northern California. The man they met at the bridge shook his head when asked about crossing it on horseback.

“I sure don’t recommend it, gents. I’ve seen a bull as big as a house washed away in a flow like that. Just don’t understand why anyone would be so crazy as to blow up the bridge!”

He eventually concluded that either someone had a streak of meanness or a grudge of some sort. The bridge had stood sturdily over the creek for more than a dozen years. Now crossing the water required a five or six hour detour downstream. He gave them directions about how to find the shallow ford on horseback.

No choice remained but to continue riding downstream, as he said. At least going horseback allowed them to remain closer to the stream, whereas folks with wagons had to stick to the road, which would require an extra two or three hours. Finally, about three hours ago, they had come to the much shallower, although not really less swift, part of the creek, and were able to ford it. Then came the long ride toward the town where their friends were to meet them.

“We should have known,” Artie had commented when they left the area of the damaged bridge, “that a favor from Colonel Richmond does not necessarily mean everything is going to go right.”

The colonel had contacted them to state that he had no assignments for them, or for the other agents in the western part of the country, including Harper, Pike, and Malone. Richmond suggested they meet up and come east on the Wanderer. They could then spend Thanksgiving in the nation’s capital.

They were not on a strict time schedule, however. The other agents had agreed to meet in Rosedale, a town somewhat central to their locations at the time. None could state exactly when they would arrive. Once all were together, they would head for the railroad tracks where the Wanderer would be waiting for them.

The door groaned loudly as Jim pushed it in, but it opened, and they stepped into a room that had once been someone’s front parlor, or living room. Dust and cobwebs abounded, but at least a few pieces of furniture remained, including a small table and a chair that even appeared usable. Other furniture had obviously been broken up to use for firewood; some was in a pile near the stone fireplace on one side.

Artie went to bend over and peer up the chimney. “Looks clear. We should be able to put in a decent fire for the night.”

Jim had gone to open a door on the other side of the room. “Kitchen in there, but the stove has been taken out.”

“We won’t need it. The fireplace will work just fine.”

Jim pulled that door shut tightly, wanting to keep any heat provided by the fire in the smaller room. “So much for being the first ones into Rosedale.”

Artie laughed as he began to stack wood in the fireplace. “At least no prize is at stake… other than our pride. We do have a good excuse. Got that coffee?”

Jim had put his saddlebag on the rickety table. He went to it and pulled out the cloth bag of coffee beans, along with the battered steel coffeepot. Spreading a handful of beans on the tabletop, he used the butt of his pistol as a hammer to smash the beans. Artie came over then with his canteen, from which he poured water into the small coffeepot. After a few moments, Jim scooped the crushed coffee grounds into his hand and dumped them into the water.

Artie carried the pot back to the fireplace, where a decent flame was now burning. He placed the pot next to that flame, and stood up. “That shouldn’t take long. We…”

A few feet away, Jim blinked. Then blinked again, staring toward the stone hearth. The fire was still burning brightly, even gaining strength. The coffeepot rested against the flames and would soon be boiling to create that much appreciated brew, something they had learned to savor even more during their years in the military.

However, Artemus Gordon was no longer standing by the fireplace.

“Artie? Artie!” Jim’s voice lifted as he stared around the dim room. He knew he had never felt more astonished in his entire life. One moment Artemus was standing there, talking to him. The next moment, he was gone. Simply gone. No longer in view. Not in the room.

Jim strode across the small room to the door that led to the old kitchen. He opened it, fully expecting his partner to be inside, laughing uproariously at the trick he had just performed. The room was empty, however. A door on the other side opened into still another room, empty except for some trash. Still another door in that room revealed a smaller space, probably a second bedroom. Houses like this did not always have hallways. None of the rooms contained Artemus Gordon.

As mystified as he had ever been, Jim went back to the front room. The fire was still crackling. The aroma of coffee was filling the air. Artie was not there. He went on out the front door where the horses were waiting patiently.

“Artie!” Jim shouted the name. “Come on! It’s not funny anymore! Artie!”

The only response was a snort from Blackjack, the shiny black horse that was responding to his master’s voice.

Jim stood with his hands on his hips for a full minute, waiting and listening. He then finally turned and returned inside the house, and again went through the other three rooms, looking out windows and seeing nothing.

What the hell?

In the front room again, the coffee aroma was very strong. The pot needed stirring, he knew, but he had lost interest in it. Using his boot toe, Jim moved the pot away from the flame.

“Artie, where the devil are you?”

W*W*W*W*W

O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
Hamlet Prince of Denmark (Horatio at I, v), William Shakespeare (1564-1616), English dramatist and poet


When dawn crept up over the California hills that surrounded him, Jim West saddled both horses. He had eventually taken time to tend to them during the night, forcing himself to cease his unceasing search for his missing partner. The night had been long and cold, but he had not tried to sleep, and barely rested, taking only time enough to keep the fire going and at one point to start a new pot of coffee, which sustained him through the darkness as he searched and searched again in the house and outside of it.

Because the weather had been dry of late, the ground was hard, and he found no tracks. Local animals could have disturbed bits of grass and brush. Jim knew that Artemus would not have remained outside all night long. So where was he?

Nothing made any sense. In the first place, Artie would not play a prank like this. He could not play a prank like this. To vanish in an instant—how could he? Jim replayed the moment in his mind again and again. His partner had been standing by the fireplace talking. Then he was gone. Simply vanished.

How? Where? Why?

Artie was clever, but he could not have managed such a disappearance, especially not in this rundown, abandoned house. They had had no idea they would end up here until they spotted it. Had the bridge not been damaged, they would be in Rosedale by now. He would not have had opportunity to set anything up. Beyond all that, Artie generally reserved his practical jokes for times that were more suitable. They were not pursuing an assignment just now, but they were on their way to some important time off. Artie planned to contact Lily Fortune to invite her to join him in Washington City. Getting there was crucial to him. He would not do anything to delay that.

All these thoughts played through Jim West’s mind throughout the night and into the morning. Sleep was not something he could manage right now despite his deep fatigue. With the coming of the day, he knew he had to get some help. One or more of his fellow agents could be in Rosedale right now or would soon be there. Any lawmen in the area would be of assistance as well.

He finally mounted the black horse, taking up the reins of the chestnut to bring it along. He could not leave the horse behind. If—a huge if—if Artemus were indeed hiding somewhere, he would just have to wait in the old house. It would serve him right.

W*W*W*W*W


The ride to Rosedale, even at a fast past, consumed three hours. That length of time had been the primary reason he and Artemus had decided to stay in the old house last night, rather than try to make it to town. Jim first made a stop at the livery stable where he arranged for the chestnut to be boarded for the time being, and for the black to be given a good feeding and rubdown. He would be back for the shiny horse in a while.

He walked into town, looking for a lawman’s office, seeing nothing. A man on the sidewalk that he stopped informed him that Rosedale did not have a regular lawman. When law was needed, the sheriff at the county seat was summoned. Jim got directions to the county seat, but before he even considered traveling that extra hour, he spotted a familiar face emerging from a restaurant down the street.

“Jer! Jeremy!” Jim called out as he sprinted toward the other agent, who heard his voice and turned toward him.

“Jim! Good morning. Where’s Artemus?”

Jim stopped and took a breath. “He has vanished.”

“What?”

Glancing around, Jim saw several townspeople staring at them. “Let’s go back inside and I’ll tell you.”

They re-entered the restaurant and Jim ordered coffee. Food was beyond him right now. Quickly, tersely, he related the night’s incident to the other Secret Service agent, and saw the amazement—and doubt—on Pike’s face.

“Jim, that can’t be true. Artie is playing a trick.”

Jim’s green eyes flashed with anger. “And stayed out all night to carry it out?”

Jeremy saw the anger, just as he had noted the deep concern on Jim’s unshaven face. “I guess that would be carrying it too far at that. You didn’t see signs of anyone else in the area?”

“No one. I probably covered the area a quarter mile from the house, in the moonlight.”

Pike nodded. “The moon was big last night, almost bright as day.”

“Jer, Artie was talking to me. I was standing less than six feet away. Suddenly, in the midst of a sentence, he was gone. Simply gone. Vanished.”

“Yeah. All right. What do you want to do?”

“I want you to come back to that house with me and help me look. An explanation is there. Maybe it takes fresh eyes.”

And perhaps eyes not quite so tired, Pike mused, smiling as got to his feet. “Let’s go, pal. If Artie is there waiting, we can both kick his behind.”

W*W*W*W*W

The problem is, whether a man constantly and strongly believing, that such a thing shall be, it don't help anything to the effecting of the thing.
—Francis Bacon (1561-1626), English philosopher, statesman, and writer


Jim’s hopes were dashed almost the moment they rode up to the ramshackle house as the sun rose to its zenith. Artie was not standing in the doorway, arms folded, appearing abashed or even triumphant that his trick had been so successful. He was not inside the house. Nor did they locate him anywhere outside.

Pike soon agreed that no signs existed that anyone had been outside, also concurring that the dryness of the ground would make it easy to hide such signs. “Jim, why would anyone—how could anyone—perform such a trick?”

“I don't know. I just don't know. The way it occurred… it seems to be beyond human capabilities. I’m not sure even Loveless or Manzeppi could do it.”

They were standing in the front room of the house, with Jeremy by the fireplace, almost in the same spot Artie had inhabited at the instant of his vanishing. A moment ago Jeremy had bent over to peer up into the chimney. Now he frowned thoughtfully. “You told us about those paintings Loveless created…”

“I know. But a painting would need to be in the room to… to s*ck Artie in. No paintings here.”

Pike nodded. “No paintings. Hardly anything.”

“Not to mention I was near enough that I probably would have been drawn in too. As well, they were activated by sound. I did not hear any sound. No. That is not it. I’m not saying it couldn’t be Loveless. We haven’t heard from him in a while. It’s not like Loveless to perform some sort of trick like this without making sure we know it is him behind it.”

“He could change.”

“Maybe. So where is he? Why isn’t he laughing…”

Jim’s words trailed away as he gaped at the fireplace—the fireplace where Jeremy Pike had been standing an instant before. “Jer!” he shouted. “Jeremy! Where are you?” Just as Artemus had, Jeremy Pike had been there one instant, gone the next.

As he had the evening before, Jim spent the next minutes racing through the small house, but the results were the same as previous. Pike was not to be found. Not Jeremy Pike, not Artemus Gordon.

Taking deep breaths to gather his equilibrium, Jim went outside. The horses were still waiting, tied to the bush. He looked around. No one was in sight. The only sounds were those of the horses and a couple of birds in a nearby tree. He forced himself to move, to walk around the periphery of the building, looking at the ground, into the nearby woods. Even in the sunlight, he saw nothing to indicate anyone had been near the house other then him and his fellow agents.

My god! What is going on? Only when he saw both horses turn to look in his direction did Jim realize he had spoken the words aloud. He ran his fingers through his hair, hardly noticing at first that his hat fell to the ground. He did reach down to pick it up however, the movement automatic.

For a long moment, he stood staring down at the black hat he held in both hands. Instead of the hat he saw first the instant that Artemus Gordon had vanished, and then Jeremy Pike. So much the same. Identical, in fact, beyond that Artie had been speaking and Pike had not. “I was the one talking,” he said aloud. While he had been speaking, Pike evaporated.

“No.” Jim shook his head, beginning to pace around. “Jer didn’t evaporate. Like Artie, he was there and then was not there. He didn’t fade away. Suddenly, perfectly… gone.”

W*W*W*W*W


Frank Harper got up from the bed and went to the door, anticipating he would find either his new landlady or his young partner out in the hallway. He most certainly did not expect to see a man who resembled James West standing there. “Resembled,” because this man was unshaven, his shirt half undone, the usual neat bolo tie or ascot missing. The James West Frank knew rarely appeared in public in such a condition.

“Jim?”

West pushed by him into the room. “Where’s Ned?”

“Down the hall, I guess. What the devil is going on, Jim? What’s happened?”

“Get Ned and I’ll tell you both.”

Frank grabbed West’s arm, further amazed that the other agent seemed to be swaying. “Sit down. I’ll go get Ned.” He steered Jim toward the room’s sole chair and noticed that his fellow agent did not resist the assistance.

Harper hurried down the hall to the room Mrs. Blandings had given to Malone in her rooming house. Without explanation, he told Ned to follow him. The younger agent knew better than to protest or even ask questions. The expression on his senior’s face was enough.

When they reentered Frank’s room, they found Jim still in the chair, leaning forward with his face in his hands. He did not move as they came in. Not until the door clicked shut. Then he looked up and appeared half surprised to even see them.

“Jim,” Frank spoke crisply and almost sternly. “What is going on? Where’s Artemus? Mrs. Blandings told us that Jeremy had been here too, but we haven’t seen him.”

Jim shook his head. “They’re gone.”

Malone gasped. “Dead?”

“No. I don't know. I don't know. They are just… gone.”

Frank went to the dresser, where he opened the drawer into which he had stuffed his saddlebag. From it, he withdrew a flask that he uncapped and handed it to Jim. “You seem to need this.”

Jim took the extended bottle, looked at it a long moment as if it were something he had never seen before. Then he lifted it to his lips and took a long swallow. It hit his mouth, esophagus, and stomach like a bolt of lightning. Coughing, he handed the bottle back. “I haven’t eaten since yesterday sometime.” The fiery liquid helped clear his mind.

Frank sat down on the bed, resting his elbows on his knees as he leaned slightly forward. “Jim, what’s going on?” he asked again.

“That’s just the problem. I don't know. Both Artie and Jer have disappeared. They vanished right in front of my eyes.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Malone protested. “How could that happen?”

“I don't know, Ned. I don't know.” Quietly, quelling the agitation he was experiencing despite the warmth of the liquor in his empty stomach, he related the incidents to the two men, seeing the incredulity grow on their faces. “Pike looked around too. He didn’t find any sign of Artie or of anyone else in or around the house. And then he too disappeared.”

Frank’s frown grew. “They both stood in front of the fireplace?”

“Yes. We looked up the chimney, if that’s what you’re thinking. I don't know if the fireplace had something to do with it. I don’t see how or what. I can’t see how this could happen or what could cause it.”

“Sounds like… magic… to me,” Malone said softly. “But magic isn’t real.”

“No. Not like someone waves a magic wand. I’ve considered Loveless or Manzeppi, but I cannot see how either one could pull off something like this, especially without being present.”

“I think we should go to that house,” Frank stated.

“No!” Jim shot to his feet, then reached back to grab the arm of the chair as a wave of dizziness hit him.

“I think first Jim should get some rest and food,” Ned suggested.

Jim sat down again. “I can’t eat.”

“You will eat,” Harper instructed. “And we will go take a look at that house. Nothing will happen to us, Jim. We’ll stay away from the fireplace.”

W*W*W*W*W

It is the dim haze of mystery that adds enchantment to pursuit.
—Antoine de Rivarol, Comte de Rivarol (1753-1801), French journalist, critic, writer, and epigrammatist


Jim managed to get some food down and felt better for it. Nonetheless, during the entire time they were in the restaurant, and as well when they made the long ride back to the abandoned house, he attempted to convince Harper and Malone they must not enter that house. He could not convince them of why they should not, so they persisted because they wanted to help, and probably did not believe his story.

“An explanation exists, Jim,” Frank said as they drew ever near the damned house, “we just have to find it.”

“What makes you think you can?” Jim demanded. “I could not find anything. Jeremy couldn’t—and he vanished.”

“Why haven’t you vanished?” Ned inquired.

Jim stared at the young agent riding along side him. “How the hell should I know?”

Malone nodded soberly. “A reason exists, just like the explanation.”

Jim fell silent for a long moment. In his anxiety about his missing friends, he had not really taken a moment to think about the fact that they vanished, but he was still here. Why Artie and Jer and not Jim West?

“Ned has a good point,” Frank said then. “And it’s a good reason for me and Ned to be extra careful. It’s almost as though this—whatever it is—is targeting you, Jim. Taking your friends, leaving you behind to worry.”

“It’s a good reason for the two of you to stay out of the house,” Jim tried again.

“We wouldn’t be much use hanging around outside. We’ll be all right.” Frank smiled tightly. He did not feel particularly confident, but he also knew that they would need to go inside to investigate. He had never seen Jim West so rattled. Was that the purpose of the incident? Who would want to cause that in West, or why? Was something bigger being planned? Beyond those questions was the one of how. How in the name of heaven could anyone snatch a human like that, causing him to vanish into thin air?

The sensations Jim West was experiencing were foreign to him. He was unaccustomed to being unnerved, yet he was. He knew he was. After what he had seen, his feelings were justified. His fears for Harper and Malone were warranted as well. I can’t stop Frank and Ned from wanting to help me, yet I know without a doubt that they are going to vanish as well.

Frank was correct. James West was being targeted, but by who and why? Once before, Miguelito Loveless had attempted to force him into madness using a hallucinatory drug. Loveless had failed at least partially due to Artemus Gordon’s interference—his arrival at the hospital had shown Jim he was still alive, that he had not been murdered by his partner.

This time Artie was completely out of the picture. Jim did not even really want to consider what had happened to his two friends. They could both be dead now. If Loveless was behind this, how was he doing it? How could such a feat be accomplished?

“Jim? Is this it?”

At Harper’s voice, Jim shook himself out of his reverie to realize they had come up to the old house. “Yes. This is the place. Look, don’t go inside. I beg you.”

The two other agents exchanged a glance. Both knew that “begging” was something James West did not do. Nonetheless, Frank shook his head. “We’re not going to learn anything out here, Jim. Stop worrying. Since we know what happened to Jeremy and Artemus, we’ll be on our guard.”

Reluctantly, Jim dismounted and led the pair into the house. He quietly pointed out where Artemus and Jeremy had been standing, and repeated exactly what had happened. “It’s simple,” he concluded. “They stood there. Then they were gone. That’s it.”

The two other agents remained well back from the fireplace. Ned motioned toward the other door. “That leads to the kitchen?”

“Yes, and from there, two bedrooms. No basement as far as I can tell, or attic. Just these four rooms. Maybe I should have asked in town who owns this place. I… didn’t think of that.”

Frank flashed a grin. “You had other things on your mind, James. Neddie, let’s take a look around.”

Jim opened his mouth, and closed it, knowing that to further protest would be useless. He did not follow the pair as they went through the kitchen door. He listened hearing their voices grow dimmer when they passed through into the first bedroom, and then the second. He could hear their voices. They were there; and they returned to the front room.

“I sure don’t notice anything out of the ordinary,” Harper stated. “No trap doors. No secret sliding walls.”

Jim shook his head a little. “Trap doors and secret walls didn’t play into it.”

Ned looked toward the fireplace. “But Artemus and Jeremy were standing over there.”

“Don’t go near it,” Jim warned. “You…”

They were gone. Harper and Malone both whisked away from where they had been standing near the kitchen door. Jim himself was frozen into place for long seconds, gaping.

Then he shook his head. “No. No. No!” The final word was shouted as he flew toward the still open kitchen door. The room was empty. He raced through the two bedrooms. Empty. Outside was the same. Only the horses. Only the trees and the sounds of the wildlife in the area.

This can’t be happening. It can’t!

He stood in the front of the house, looking around. It had not been his imagination that Frank Harper and young Edward “Ned” Malone had ridden from town to the house with him. Their horses were right there, waiting alongside his own where they were tethered to a sturdy bush, the same bush that had been used yesterday for his own and Pike’s and Gordon’s horses.

Jim knew an explanation existed. He was positive. Nevertheless, he was profoundly shaken by the events, even more so than with Jeremy and Artemus. He had convinced himself that the fireplace was involved, but Harper and Malone had been across the room from the fireplace.

He did not return inside the house, mounting and taking the reins of the two horses to make the ride back to town, a ride that was becoming longer each time.

He needed help, but he had no idea where to get. The county sheriff would consider him insane. Hell, I might be by now! Jim shook his head, glanced back at the two horses trailing. They were real. The horse under him was real. Was anything else? Am I under some kind of drugged spell as happened before? He forced himself to think hard about yesterday.

He and Artie had had a meal at midday prepared from food they had carried in their saddlebags from the town where they had finished their last assignment. Enough had been purchased to sustain them until they got to Rosedale, whereupon they figured they could replenish the supplies for the final leg with the other agents on the way to the Wanderer. Nothing strange had happened in the previous two days after consuming those supplies.

Last night he had not eaten or drunk anything prior to Artie’s disappearance. The only thing he consumed this morning was the coffee, again from the bag they had been using for days. In fact, he had not eaten anything until the “forced” meal in the restaurant with Malone and Harper. Those two had eaten in the same place earlier, and indeed had coffee while he ate. The brandy Harper had given him was certainly safe!

Loveless. It has to be Loveless. But how? How does he do it? How can he manage to get close enough to carry them off without me seeing anything—if that’s what he’s doing. If it’s the same method as he used with the paintings, he has improved on it.

Jim realized he had not thought about looking for a telegraph office in town. This time he would, although he had his doubts one existed. The town was very small, tucked into the hills at the edge of the county. The telegraph line would be more likely to run through the county seat, where the sheriff had his office. He might need to ride over there to use it, but first he would try other options.

“What other options?”

He spoke the words aloud, seeing Blackjack’s ears twitch at the sound of his master’s voice. The only alternatives he could think of would be to find Loveless. In an area like this, with all its hilly and even mountainous landscape, hideouts would be easy to set up and extremely difficult to find. Other than Voltaire and Antoinette, Loveless did not usually travel with the same minions, quite possibly because he did not want them to be recognizable in situations like this. He easily managed to find men willing to do his bidding, either for money or promises… or perhaps threats. In this case, if indeed Miguelito Loveless were making men disappear, the fear of that happening would likely induce loyalty from many.

Thinking rationally helped calm his nerves—until the memory of those baffling and horrifying instants returned to him. He then forced himself to think sensibly and logically—as if that were possible—about what happened in those moments in each instance. Nothing came to mind to hint toward what could have happened to those four men.

Worse, Frank and Ned vanished simultaneously. Two at the same time. How? How? How? Jim wanted to shout the query to the nearby the trees, but held his peace. He would only disturb the horses. Nothing else would come of it.

One thing I do know: eventually Loveless will make an appearance. If indeed, Loveless was behind this. Manzeppi might have more tricks up his sleeve than causing lamps to ignite from a distance. Or… the possibility certainly existed that someone else out there was behind it. Someone they had not yet encountered.

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

California gal
SS senior field agent

USA
8379 Posts

Posted - 01/14/2016 :  09:12:55  Show Profile
W*W*W*W*W

It is the fight alone that pleases us, not the victory.
—Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), French philosopher, physicist, geometer, and writer


The sun was low in the sky when he rode into Rosedale. Jim left the two spare horses at the livery stable along with Blackjack as he had done with both Artie’s and Jeremy’s mounts. The hostler gave him an odd look, no doubt wondering where this fellow was coming up with so many extra horses. Nevertheless, he accepted the payment in advance without complaint. Jim then walked swiftly to the boarding house. Although the front door was unlocked, the landlady did not appear to be present. Thus, he climbed the stairs to Pike’s now vacant room, which was unlocked, closed and locked the door, and fell onto the bed, not even removing his boots or gun belt. He had not slept in over thirty-six hours and was feeling it.

His watch revealed the hour was nearly midnight when he awakened. Sitting up, he rubbed his whiskered chin and wished he had the means to shave. Pike’s gear was on the dresser, but no water was available. Shaving was the least of his worries at this moment, however. Leaving the room, he made his way downstairs and outside.

The restaurant down the street was clearly closed, but the saloon in the opposite direction was glowing with light and sound. That is where he went, finding, as he expected, a layout of cold cuts, cheese, and boiled eggs on the bar, along with some crusty rough bread from which he made a sandwich, slathering on mustard from a small crock. Buying a glass of beer, Jim took them to a corner table.

He noticed he was under observation, but other than a quick sweep of his gaze over the twenty or so occupants, he paid them little mind. None looked at all familiar, or threatening. They were townspeople and local cowmen in town for a relaxing evening. I think it’s Saturday, Jim mused.

He was just finishing the very satisfying sandwich when a woman came up to his table. She was typical for a place like this, not overly young and a little hard looking. She could have been anywhere from thirty to forty in age. Her blonde hair was swept up and held in place by ribbons that matched the dark trim on the pale green dress she wore. The front buttons of the dress were open too far for respectability, but this was not a woman bothered with such matters.

“Hi,” she said, seating herself without invitation. “New in town?”

“I am.” She might be a good source of invitation. “I need to ask you something.”

“Go ahead?” She smiled, anticipating.

“There is a house about three hours north of here, in the hills along the road… tarpaper roof, broken windows… plainly abandoned. Do you know anything about it?”

The query surprised and obviously disappointed. “Well, sounds like the old Barnes place.”

“Is it haunted?”

The woman laughed. “Not that I heard. You see a spirit?”

“Not exactly. Have there been other strangers in town lately?”

“I did see a couple this morning. Come to think of it, you rode out of town with them.”

Jim just nodded calmly. “Yeah, I know about them. Anyone else?”

“Don't think so. Why? You lookin’ for someone?”

“More or less. You haven’t spotted a dwarf, have you?”

Now she laughed aloud. “A dwarf? Are you joshin’ me? Don’t know of any circus in the area either.”

“Just asking,” Jim replied with a smile. He did not dare ask her if she had heard of anyone vanishing suddenly.

“You plan to stay around long?”

“I don't know yet. I’m… waiting for a couple of friends.”

She cocked her head. “More than what you was with earlier?”

“Yeah. They… moved on. My name is James West, by the way. You haven’t heard it mentioned around here lately have you?”

The woman leaned forward a little, increasing the gap her unbuttoned blouse created. “No. But I like that name. Want to get better acquainted?”

“Thank you but…”

“Minnie! Get away from that bastard!”

The big man had just entered the saloon, spotted the woman at Jim’s table and charged toward them. Two other equally large men followed him. The resemblance was so great that they had to be brothers.

“Oh, go away, Wilf. I’m just talkin’ to him.” Minnie waved a dismissive hand.

Wilf seized that hand in his big paw and jerked her to her feet. He was well over six feet tall and probably weighed close to three hundred pounds, Jim guessed. A good portion of that weight seemed to be centered in the large belly that poured over his belt; suspenders were required to keep his trousers in place. The other two men were of similar physiques. Jim thought Wilf was the eldest, and the only one with facial hair, a spiky dark beard that covered most of his chest.

Minnie went to the floor with a cry of alarm and pain. Jim came to his feet immediately to help her up. “You broke my wrist!” Minnie wailed, clutching that portion of her left arm with her right hand as she gained her feet.

“Shut up!” Wilf growled, raising a hand with the intent of bringing it across her face.

The hand did not get anywhere near her as Jim released his grip on the woman to step forward. He grasped Wilf’s arm and shoved backwards, where the other two caught him. With a howl of fury, Wilf charged forward, swinging a big ham-sized fist toward Jim’s head. Jim ducked, and then evaded the other fist that followed.

Slightly off balance, Wilf was open for a counterattack, and it happened. Jim moved in, fists pumping into the bigger man’s soft stomach, drawing “oofs” and “ughs” of discomfort as Wilf moved backwards again. When the big man leaned forward slightly to try to protect his middle area, Jim altered his tactics, swinging toward the now open chin.

He had learned over time that even the biggest, most powerfully built men had vulnerable spots, and often those spots were unexpected. Obviously, Wilf’s vulnerable spot was his chin. His head snapped back with each of the blows, his eyes glazed over, knees wobbled, and then he sat down hard before falling backwards.

“Wilf!” One of the other two men shouted then turned toward Jim. “Mister, you just bought yourself a good thrashing!”

He waded forward, using similar tactics as his now unconscious brother. However, he had seen what had occurred and did not swing as wildly or as widely, aiming for Jim’s head. One fist grazed Jim’s temple, but did no damage. The second however connected with the chin and Jim staggered back, grabbing a chair for support. His opponent made a huge error just then, pausing to gloat over his “victory,” looking back at the third brother and guffawing loudly.

His head clearing quickly, Jim moved forward and as he had with Wilf, landed solid blows on body and chin. This brother was a bit younger and although he had the same “beer belly,” he seemed to be in a little better condition. Nonetheless, Jim’s blows were telling, and although his opponent managed to get in another couple of effective hits, they were not enough to quell Jim’s onslaught. Within a few minutes, brother number two was alongside Wilf on the floor.

Jim was aware that the entire population of the saloon was on their feet and watching, but he paid them little heed. Turning to see what the third brother would do, he found that that man had moved from his previous position and for a moment was not in view. Jim quickly spotted his reflection in the mirror. Brother number three was now behind him, and had lifted a chair, ready to bring it down on the smaller man’s head.

Jim whirled, grabbing the back of the nearest chair and using it as support that allowed him to lift both feet in the air. When the chair-wielding man moved forward, Jim’s boots met him in the soft middle area. Like Wilf, this brother “oofed,” leaning forward, the chair clattering from his hands. However, he recovered almost instantly and started for Jim again. Once more Jim lifted his boots, and this time one hard toe caught the attacker’s chin. Brother number three staggered back and went down. He stayed down.

For a long moment, the saloon was silent, with only Jim’s heavy breaths making a sound. Suddenly the patrons erupted in cheers and applause. Several men came forward to grab Jim’s hand and shake it. He quickly gathered that Wilf and his brothers were the local bullies, ones that no one until now had defeated in fisticuffs or any other manner. Jim was pulled toward the bar, and he had to refuse numerous drinks, taking only one beer to replace one that had been knocked over on the table where he had eaten.

When things quieted down, he was able to talk to the other men. They did not know much about the old house, other than a family named Barnes had built it and then abandoned it a couple of years ago. No one had seen a dwarf in town, or any other strangers beyond three that were obviously Pike, Harper, and Malone. Minnie was not the only one who had seen the latter two riding out of town earlier with the new hero.

He also learned that the town had no telegraph, as he had surmised. More than one man offered to take any message to the county seat to have it transmitted—and pay for it. Jim declined. He could not compose a message with the truth plainly written, and one coded would only cause gossip by its strangeness.

He wished he could ask if anyone else in the area had suddenly disappeared. Beyond doubt that answer would be negative. Whatever was going on, as Harper had stated, was directed against him, against Jim West. Ordinary citizens were not being targeted.

W*W*W*W*W

Why wilt thou add to all the griefs I suffer
Imaginary ills, and fancy'd tortures?
Cato (act IV, sc. 1), Joseph Addison (1672-1719), English essayist, poet, and statesman


In the morning, after getting a few more hours of sleep in Harper’s room, Jim had breakfast then saddled his horse, heading toward the old house again. The answers lay in that house, he was positive. Whoever was perpetrating this mysterious business was doing it in that old house, perhaps only because he and Artemus had stopped there for the night…

Jim leaned forward in the saddle slightly, patting the black horse’s satin neck. He was somewhat amazed at how much better he felt this morning. He knew it was partially due to the food and rest, but he had the sense that the barroom brawl had played a part. He had not tried to shave again, primarily due to the dark bruise on his chin under the whiskers, but also because he did not want to encounter the landlady, even to ask for hot water. The chin ached somewhat when he had breakfast and still did, even with a simple act like taking a drink from his canteen. Nothing was broken, he was certain; just a deep bruise.

Nonetheless, the bruise and the ache were real. The fight had been real, and almost normal. He had been able to concentrate on the matters at hand as efficiently as he usually did, taking down three strong, if clumsy, men. He could not say he actually enjoyed brawling, but it had become a part of his life and he was proud of his abilities, as well as confident.

Somehow, the fight had cleared his mind, at least for now. He was not experiencing trepidation as he had yesterday upon approaching the old house. He knew that the answers were out there somewhere; he knew he would eventually find them, or they would find him. The motive, methods, and mastermind behind these strange events were unknown, but they would not stay so forever.

Dismounting in the usual spot, Jim tied the black to the bush then walked slowly toward the front door. Suddenly he was not as calm as he had been during the ride from town. He had no explanation for the abrupt change in his mood. A tightness in the pit of his stomach was the primary symptom. Putting his hand on the butt of his gun did not help his nerves much, but he kept it there as he approached the door.

He reached out with his left hand to the door latch, but did not open it immediately, wondering about the change in his emotions. He did not consider himself clairvoyant, yet he often had hunches that proved to be correct. Why now? What was beyond this closed door?

Only one way existed to find out. With an indrawn breath, he clicked the latch and pushed the door in, stepping inside with the almost the same motion. There he stopped short, staring, not breathing.

Four men lay on the floor, on their backs, arms at their sides, eyes staring upward. Unseeing eyes. Or so it seemed. The four were still, no movement of their chests or anything other part of their bodies. The four were his friends, the agents he had seen vanish over the last two days.

Dead?

Jim West swallowed hard, moving further into the room. He knelt beside Artemus Gordon, who was at one side of the quartet. He put the back of his hand against Artie’s face. It was cool, almost cold. Then, hesitatingly, he sought for a pulse in the neck. None. Jim West closed his eyes and bowed his head. He did not need to check the other three.

Slowly he got to his feet again and stood gazing down at the four. He could see no wounds. Had they been poisoned? Except for the staring eyes, their faces were almost expressionless, displaying no pre-death discomfort. What had caused it? Who had caused it? Again, Jim closed his eyes against the pain of the grief he was experiencing.

Taking a breath, he forced his eyes open, knowing he had to do something. Just what he was unsure. But…

His gasp was audible. He could not quell it. The four corpses were gone! He was completely alone in the front room of the old house. As he had done a hundred times before—or so it seemed—Jim West raced through the house, searching, seeking. Finding nothing and no one, he went outside, gun in hand now, looking at the ground, in the trees, behind bushes.

A long while later he returned to the front door, and as he had before, paused before opening it. This time he was not experiencing a premonition of any sort. He was wondering what, if anything, he was going to find inside. Finally entering, he found the room empty. The house was empty.

Eventually he sat down on the one good chair in the living room, his pistol still in his hand as he leaned his arms on his knees and stared at the bare floor. What was going on? Am I really losing my mind this time? Did anything happen or is it all in my head? Conjuring up the memory of what he had just seen—or thought he had seen—was easy.

Harper, Pike, Malone, and Gordon, in that order, on their backs, arms at their sides… no, wait, Artie’s arms were not exactly by his side. At least not his left arm, which was on the outer side. Frowning, Jim remembered that the arm was crooked slightly, and while the hands of the other three men, and Artie’s right hand, on his other side, were clenched, the left hand was not. Not completely. The little finger and the two fingers abutting it were closed to his palm, but the thumb and index finger were extended.

Jim looked at his own hand and mimicked his memory of the position of his partner’s left hand. The thumb was extended out to the side. The index finger was straight. He leaped to his feet. An L! Artie’s fingers formed an L! Once more, much of the tension and confusion he was experiencing washed away. Somehow, Artie was telling him that Miguelito Loveless was behind this, just as he had begun to suspect.

He began to pace around the room, remembering everything that had happened since he and Artemus entered this house. Nothing made any sense yet, only the fact that they knew that Loveless’s genius could come up with unthinkable, unimaginable inventions. He had most certainly conceived something that would cause men to vanish instantly. What it was, Jim could not even begin to speculate.

He also, he realized, did not know if his four friends were truly dead, or alive. He had not found a pulse. In spite of that, the signal Artie delivered seemed to indicate he had been alive since the disappearance. If they were indeed dead, why not just leave them here? Why take them away again?

I’ve got to cling to that hope. I have to find Miguelito Loveless.

W*W*W*W*W

Nor stony tower, nor walls of beaten brass,
Nor airless dungeon, nor strong links of iron,
Can be retentive to the strength of spirit;
But life, being weary of these worldly bars,
Never lacks power to dismiss itself.
Julius Caesar (Cassius at I, iii), William Shakespeare (1564-1616), English dramatist and poet


Artemus shifted his position slightly in a vain attempt to gain a little more comfort on the hard stone floor. The chains that confined him to the wall behind him rattled slightly. Ned Malone looked up from his plate of stew.

“I’m uncomfortable already, and you’ve been here a lot longer, Artemus.”

“Just be thankful we’re still alive,” Artie returned. “With Dr. Loveless, one never knows what he’ll do next.”

“Why are we alive?” Harper asked. “I really didn’t expect to wake up the last time.”

“Yeah,” Pike added. “We were supposed to look dead. Why didn’t he just kill us?”

“Because he’s not finished torturing Jim,” Artie snapped bitterly. “That’s the whole point of this whole thing.”

The four prisoners fell silent. Artemus had told the other three that he, just as they subsequently did, suddenly found himself in a room, this room, completely different from the one where he had been chatting with Jim as they prepared to stay the night in the old house. “I had no idea what happened—until the good doctor made an appearance and explained his latest devious invention.”

A gas, Loveless said: An odorless and colorless gas that instantly caused complete paralysis in whoever inhaled it. He had piped it into the front room of the old house, and when both men were in its thrall, he and his men had removed Artemus. When Jim recovered from the gas’s effects, he would not realize that nearly twenty minutes had elapsed, any more than Artie had when he awoke here.

He had done the same thing when Jeremy entered the cabin, and again to Harper and Malone. The gassed person’s thoughts, speech, and feelings resumed exactly where they had been when cut off by the effects of the vapor with no sensation of the passage of time; unless one happened to look at a clock or watch before and after, of course. Loveless counted on the shock to take care of that.

A short while ago, aware that James West was heading toward the house from town, he and his men had taken the four prisoners back to the house, forced them to stretch out on the floor, then used the gas on them. Artie wondered whether his partner had caught the signal he had managed to give. Apparently, Loveless had not noticed.

“What I’d really like to know,” Malone said, putting his empty tin plate aside, along with the fork, “is how he knew our plans.”

Artie sighed, putting his own utensils on the floor. They all had learned to not attempt to keep the fork for possible use as a picklock. The forks were counted and if any were missing, a harsh search ensued. “Jim and I have talked about that from time and time. Loveless has to have a spy in headquarters. Either that or he constantly listens in on the telegraph wires. He has some source. He has known our locations and activities too many times. It can’t be guesswork or luck.”

Pike jerked on the chains that confined him to the sturdy wall. “We have to get out of here. God knows what final plans he has for Jim.”

“Worst of all, Jim is alone out there,” Harper muttered. “He also does not know what is going on. He must think he’s going mad. I know he was extremely agitated when he showed up in my hotel room yesterday.”

Artie did not respond. He knew he would never forget that moment when he realized he was no longer in the abandoned house with his friend and partner, and had no idea of what had happened. Until he realized Loveless was present, of course. He could barely imagine Jim’s feelings to have seen not one but four of his friends mysteriously vanish. Today might have been the worse, for he would have seen those four men apparently dead.

Jim West was not a man to display his emotions often; however, Artie had seen emotions more than one time, most particularly on that day in the sanitarium when Artie was shoved into Jim’s room. At that moment, when Jim realized he had not actually killed his partner and best friend in cold blood, he had displayed the feelings of relief and joy he was experiencing. I just hope he got my signal today and that he is realizing what is probably occurring, even if he doesn’t know how it’s being accomplished.

The door to their small prison opened and Miguelito Loveless strutted in, followed by two of his henchmen, both with their guns in hand. The room had no windows, but Artie knew now it was below ground, the cellar of another abandoned home several miles from the one he and Jim had stopped at. Only today, when they were taken out and loaded into a wagon for the trip to that other house had the four men gotten any glimpse of where they were.

All four had reawakened in this cellar room later. Because of the stiffness of their bodies caused by the gas, it had been necessary to wait for them to regain consciousness before chaining them up, but Loveless had had several armed men on guard to make certain no escape attempt was made. Artemus had watched with interest as Pike, and then Harper and Malone, had come to full consciousness and displayed the same astonishment he had experienced.

“Gentlemen,” the little man paused several feet in front of the wall where they were fastened. “I hope the meal was to your satisfaction.”

“For prison food,” Harper replied, “not bad.”

Loveless chuckled. “I pride myself on my humanity, Mr. Harper. I could not bear to think that you were dining on substandard vittles. I wish I could provide more variety.” They had had the same stew for every meal, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The only variance was coffee with breakfast and water with the other two repasts.

“What happens next?” Artie asked.

“Oh, that would be telling. Suffice it to say that Mr. West was very upset today. I believe this one of my greatest presentations. I wonder if I could take this magic act on the stage.”

“Not for long,” Pike muttered.

Loveless only laughed. “I believe you are right. The time needed for recovery from the vapor’s effects would soon give it all away. Audiences do have a tendency to check their timepieces. Albert, collect the dinner china.”

A stocky man holstered his pistol to step forward and collect the four plates, four forks, and four tin cups, his caution evident. No doubt, Loveless had informed his men how tricky these Secret Service men could be, especially Gordon, with whom he had the most experience.

“You’re going to fail again,” Artie stated matter-of-factly. You know that, don’t you?”

The doctor bristled. “Failure is not part of the scheme, Mr. Gordon. I have you four in here. Mr. West is out there alone, and slowly losing his mind. I will be successful this time. My plan is foolproof.”

Artie made a mild snorting sound but did not comment. Loveless glared at him, spun on his toe and marched out of the room. He said something to one of his men that was too low for any of the prisoners to catch, but the intent was quickly evident. That man stayed in the room long enough to extinguish the flames in the two wall sconces that had provided illumination in the prison. When he closed the door, they were in utter darkness.

“Well,” Artie said. “I guess I annoyed him.”

“Maybe we can get some sleep,” Malone commented, amusement in his tone.

“It really seems sometimes that Loveless would rather harass Jim than kill him.”

“You are right, Frank,” Artie responded. “That has happened several times. The elaborate ruse he set up to dose Jim with the hallucinogen was a perfect example. Even now, I am not completely clear on how he did it. Somehow, he found out that we were meeting in that town, that we would have rooms in the hotel. He got a room for Kitten Twitty next to Jim’s and secretly installed a two-way mirror so he could watch Jim’s behavior. Even the hotel manager did not know how that was done.”

“At least Jim is not living with the belief that he murdered you,” Frank commented softly.

“Small favors,” Artie said. “Gentlemen, we have to get loose and get out of here before this goes much further. Any ideas?”

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

USA
8379 Posts

Posted - 01/14/2016 :  09:14:04  Show Profile
W*W*W*W*W

Stung by the splendour of a sudden thought.
—Robert Browning (1812-1889), English poet


Having come to the conclusion that he was being watched, Jim had remained at the old house, going out just once to move his horse to a bit of grass, and making a show of talking animatedly to the animal as he did so. The deduction had been easy to reach once he thought about the way his four friends had appeared in the house today. Loveless—or whoever it was—had known he was on his way back and had set it up. Whether he was being watched right now, Jim did not know, but he thought it best to put on an act of agitation and discouragement.

How it was being done did not seem as important right now. Of primary importance was finding the four and with any luck, seizing whoever was behind it. He found himself naming Loveless in his mind when he thought about the culprit, but tried to keep an open mind about it. He could have completely misinterpreted the supposed “hand signal” Artie sent him. Possibly, it was not a signal at all, but a spasm of his hands caused by whatever created the deathlike state.

Jim tried to not consider that the same spasm could have been caused by actual death; that his friends were not living. His prime objective now was to find them and the person behind it all. The means and motives would then become known.

In the house, he made coffee from the beans that were constantly in his saddlebags. Pouring a tin cup full, he drank the brew as he thought deeply about the entire situation, step by step, bit by bit, every moment that had occurred from the time he and Artemus spotted this house and decided to stay for the night.

Someone arranged that, he decided. Quite probably, the bridge had been deliberately damaged by whoever was behind this in order to steer the agents toward this house. Likely, the person had timed it as well, knowing just when they would reach the house. Jim shook his head as he considered that other minor, almost unnoticeable delays on their ride toward Rosedale may have been deliberate, causing them to come up to this house at nightfall, just as it then occurred.

Loveless could do that. Jim knew that the little man’s meticulous plans had played into numerous other encounters with him. Loveless liked to manipulate people. He liked to manipulate the world! He prided himself in his knowledge of human behavior, knowing how a person would react in various situations. He no doubt thought he knew Jim West and Artemus Gordon better than they knew themselves.

And he might be right… to an extent. What Loveless did not seem to consider was that at the same time West and Gordon had come to know the little doctor very well. His behavior and actions could be predictable as well. So if I stay with the premise that Loveless is behind this, what do I know? First, he’s nearby. Even if I had not come to the conclusion that he is watching me, I would know he was in the vicinity because he would have to be in order to control the scenario he is managing.

So. Where? Jim pondered that. He had searched a wide perimeter around this house, but probably had not gone more than half a mile in any direction. Even the dry ground that disguised tracks was working in Loveless’s favor, and perhaps was a reason for choosing this particular site. That meant that another house was relatively nearby. Loveless like his creature comforts, and would not “rough it” unless completely necessary.

Standing up from the old chair, Jim went to the nearest window and peered out. He was not concerned about being seen. To be restless would be normal in this situation, he thought. Loveless would relish the idea that Jim West was unable to relax now. He sipped his coffee and stared out, seemingly at the trees beyond the house, but actually at the sky above them. He sought a wisp of smoke that could indicate a chimney, or even a campfire.

After a few minutes, he wandered to the other window in the room. This one was partially boarded up so he was able to peek out between the boards and not be seen from the outside. He had the same negative results in the kitchen as at the front room windows. No smoke was in view. Finally, in the first bedroom, he saw it.

Whoever built the fire was very good at it, and the thin wisp of smoke might not be noticeable to anyone not looking for it. However, Jim spotted it and after studying it for long seconds, decided that the smoke was somewhere between one and two miles away. Just in case anyone was watching his movements in the house, he entered the second bedroom and stood for a long while at the window there.

Eventually he returned to the front room, put some more wood on the fire, and settled back on the chair with his coffee. The day was going to be long, but he felt that waiting until nightfall would be his best option, giving him a better chance to slip away. Too bad I didn’t bring food along, he thought ruefully. He had not planned to encounter his friends “dead” on the floor of the house. His original idea had been to return again to town, perhaps even to continue on to the county seat to speak to the lawman there. He would have taken the chance of being believed or not. At least the telegraph was there as well.

He repeated the trek out to check on his horse twice during the afternoon, and then wandered around inside the house again peering out the windows. He hoped that anyone watching might take them as the behavior of a nervous, restless man. At least being autumn, the sun was going down early. By six o’clock or so, he should be able to leave the house without being seen.

W*W*W*W*W


After about three hours, a man returned to the basement prison to relight the lamps in the wall. For the prisoners, the illumination was initially eye-burningly bright, but after a few seconds, they adjusted.

“Wonder why he did that?” Malone mused.

“Out of the kindness of his heart, I’m sure,” Artie cracked.

“You think Loveless has a heart?” Pike grinned.

“Too bad the fellow didn’t bring the key for these manacles,” Frank sighed. “I’m getting dang tired of this position. The floor isn’t getting any softer.”

“No key,” Artie said, “but in the darkness I managed to break the prong off my belt buckle.” He held up a sliver of metal in his right hand.

“Good work,” Ned said. “Now can you reach the lock?”

“Ay, there’s the rub. I tried in the darkness. I couldn’t see what I was doing, however. Keep your ears open in case anyone comes to the door. It’s not time for another meal yet, but with Loveless, expect the unexpected.”

The four men fell quiet as Artie twisted his body, extending his right hand as far as possible toward his left and the manacle that enclosed that wrist. With some straining, he was able to insert the piece of metal into the keyhole. However, he suddenly pulled back, face thoughtful.

“What’s wrong?” Jeremy inquired.

“I just realized that this is not a good time. We don’t have weapons and Loveless’s men do. If we go bursting out through that door now, no telling how many are out there.” They had counted at least five earlier. “If we wait until nighttime, I think our odds will be better.”

“How do we know when it’s nighttime?” Ned wanted to know.

“That’s easy,” his partner replied with a grin. “We just comment on the meal being served. Remember this morning Artie thanked them for dinner and the fellow corrected him, saying it was breakfast.”

Malone could not help but chuckle. “Clever.”

Artie maneuvered the belt buckle tongue into the slot behind his lapel where his picklock usually resided. “That should be safe there. After all, they’ve already searched us thoroughly.”

“Be careful your pants don’t fall down if you stand up,” Pike quipped.

“I will,” Artie responded, “but I think that would be the least of our worries!”

W*W*W*W*W

'Tis the witching hour of night,
Orbed is the moon and bright,
And the stars they glisten, glisten,
Seeming with bright eyes to listen—
For what listen they?
A Prophecy (l. 1), John Keats (1795-1821), English poet


Jim waited restlessly until full dark, allowing the fire in the fireplace to die out almost completely so that the interior of the front room would also be very dark. He wanted whoever might be watching to believe he had fallen asleep. Going on the premise that a watcher would be in a position to see the front and rear doors, he went to the bedroom and climbed out the window.

He crouched under the window for several minutes, watching and listening. His pistol was of course in the holster at his hip. Hearing and seeing no signs that anyone was nearby, he rose and headed for the nearest trees, staying bent over to keep a low profile.

In the trees, he started in the direction where he had spotted the smoke earlier. The night was cold but not freezing. A waning moon, half covered by clouds, gave him a modicum of light while not brightening up the entire landscape to make him more visible. Of course, anyone around him would be hard to spot as well; that was a chance he was willing to take.

After traveling several hundred yards, he paused to look and listen. Because of his presence, the resident animals of the woods were also quiet. He did not hear anything to indicate he was being followed. Loveless was known to become overconfident at times. He may not have left a watcher at the house. Jim continued onward.

He was quite aware that the smoke he saw could have emanated from a legitimate source, someone’s residence. It was, nonetheless, the only lead he had. Loveless had to be relatively near the abandoned house. He could not have timed his… his magic tricks so well if he had not been extremely aware of the movements of his quarries.

Jim was still completely baffled as to how Loveless could have pulled off what he did. The only thing he could come up with was that the doctor had improved his ploy with the paintings, perhaps no longer needing a painting or the musical tone. He also knew that he might be wrong in his assumption that the person behind these mysterious deeds was Miguelito Loveless. Nevertheless, he had a strong feeling that the little doctor was indeed the perpetrator. Even without Artie’s apparent hint, he had started crediting Loveless. This type of machination fell right into Loveless’s usual activities.

The moonlight allowed him to check his watch when he finally came upon the house. Not quite midnight. The house sat in a clearing atop a small hill, and looked to be somewhat larger than the one he and Artemus had found as well as in better condition. Jim stayed behind a tree for a long while watching it and the general area.

His first thought was that the house was probably a residence and that he had made a mistake. However, he then noticed the rope strung between two trees some yards down the slope, where a half dozen horses were tethered. Beyond the horses, he could see a small carriage. That would be the doctor’s conveyance, he decided.

Lights were still lit inside the house, but Jim did not notice any movement. After a while, he crept up to a window on a side away from the front door and cautiously peered inside. His first sighting was of a table at the far side of the room where five men were seated playing poker. Shifting his position slightly, Jim then spotted the prize: Miguelito Loveless seated on a soft, comfortable chair near the fireplace, book in one hand, glass of wine in the other.

Satisfied, Jim made his way slowly around the house, peering into darkened windows and seeing nothing and no one. One room had a bed and was probably the doctor’s. All right, Loveless is here, with some men. Where are my friends? Were they imprisoned in another room in the house? Had Loveless dumped their bodies somewhere? He did not like to consider the latter thought but knew he had to. He had viewed what appeared to be to all intents and purposes their corpses.

He returned to secrete himself behind the tree trunk and waited. The men at the table were drinking whiskey, so the inevitable was going to happen. About twenty minutes later, one emerged through the front door and walked off towards a stand of trees. As he concentrated on doing his business, Jim crept up behind him, jamming the barrel of his pistol into his back.

“Don’t make a sound,” Jim said softly, pulling the pistol from the man’s holster. “Move over into the trees.” He jammed the extra weapon behind his trouser belt.

“Wait’ll I finish buttoning my pants, huh?”

“Make it fast.”

Of course, with a gun in his back, the task consumed more time than it might have otherwise. It was accomplished and he followed orders, going in among the trees. Once there, the fellow turned and peered at his captor. “You’re West!”

“Bright boy. What’s going on inside there? Where are my fellow agents?” The man clamped his mouth shut. Jim judged he was in his early to mid twenties, with blond curly hair and a short golden beard. “You might not be hanged for murder, but you’ll sure spend your life in prison,” Jim went on. “Looks to me that ‘life’ is going to be a mighty long time for you at your age.”

“I ain’t done nothin’. No murderin’.”

“Where are the agents?”

“In the cellar. Chained up.”

Jim was hard pressed to not evince utter relief. “What does Loveless plan to do next?”

The young man shrugged. “He don’t tell me everything.”

“What did he tell you?”

“Well, seems like he figures on drivin’ you crazy.”

Jim lifted his pistol slightly. “Could be that’s been accomplished.” He saw his prisoner flinch slightly. “How is he doing it? This… this vanishing act?”

“I don't know for sure. Some kind of gas. Crazy stuff. Makes people freeze like statues and then they wake up not knowin’ it happened. He used it on me. I woke up with my shirt pulled off and I never knowed anythin’ had gone on.”

That makes sense. I never considered a gas. I should have known that Loveless could come up with something like that. “Is there an antidote?”

“A what?”

“Something to prevent it from affecting people who breathe it in.”

His captive frowned deeply. “Hell, I don't know. The doctor, he don’t never freeze up. But he always tells us to stay away.”

So he has something to protect himself. Figures. “I saw five men in there, including you. Is that all?” Once more, the lips tightened. Again, Jim lifted the pistol, and spoke harshly, narrowing his eyes. “Is that all?”

“Yeah, yeah. Just five of us. And the crazy little man.”

Jim had to chuckle. “Don’t ever allow him to hear you say that. Now turn around.”

Fear widened his eyes. “What for?”

“Just turn around.”

Slowly, with great apprehension apparent, he turned, apparently not considering that his captor would not want to fire his gun lest he alert the people in the house. Jim stepped forward, holstering his pistol. He reached up to wrap his left arm around the young man’s neck while clamping his hand on the nape. The man started, but then instantly collapsed. Jim dragged him further into the trees, wishing he had thought to bring some rope along. The only rope available seemed to be that securing the horses, and he did not at this point want to disturb those animals.

He returned to his first post and waited.

W*W*W*W*W


“Okay, now what?” Ned Malone rubbed his chafed wrists now that the manacles were removed.

“Let’s see if the door is indeed unlocked,” Frank said softly, crossing the dim room. He put his ear against the wood while the others waited in silence. After a moment, he carefully put his hand on the latch and pulled it. The door opened. Frank leaned to peek through the slight aperture he had created. He then stepped back, closing it gently. “The room is empty.”

They had seen the room previously today when Loveless took them to the other house to set up the demoralizing situation for Jim to experience. From that room, one entered the main room, from which one could exit the house. They had not noticed a door from this connecting one, although the fact that it could have been the kitchen—indicated by a hole in the wall that might have once been connected to a stovepipe—made it odd that no door led outside from this room.

As Artie had suggested, they waited until what they believed was the evening meal was served, ascertaining the correctness of this by Malone asking, “This is breakfast, right?”

The two men who brought the food guffawed and called him stupid, pointing out that no, it was supper. “You get coffee with breakfast!” They ate the stew, then waited further for the plates to be picked up, and to get each one’s twice a day turn at the bucket situated in the far corner. Now they were determining their final plans for the escape attempt.

“Having no weapons is something of a handicap,” Artie remarked dryly.

“I have to agree with that,” Jer chuckled. “However, it’s not an excuse to stay in chains.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Ned added.

“So what do we do?” Frank asked. “Just boldly walk out there and say goodbye, it was fun?”

“We would have the advantage of surprise,” Artie mused.

The four men cogitated over this a moment before Frank spoke again. “There is a window in the kitchen, even if no door exists.”

“Could we open it quiet enough?”

“Only one way to find out,” Ned asserted.

“What’s the worse that could happen?” Jeremy inquired.

Artemus smiled. “I’m pretty certain Loveless doesn’t want us dead yet. He’s not finished tormenting Jim. So likely we’d be gassed.”

“Let’s go,” Harper stated.

W*W*W*W*W

Tametsi prosperitas simul utilitasque consultorum non obique concordent, quoniam captorum eventus superae sibi vindicant potestates.
[Yet the success of plans and the advantage to be derived from them do not at all times agree, seeing the gods claim to themselves the right to decide as to the final result.]
Annales ([XXV, 3), Marcellinus Ammianus (Marellinus Ammian or Ammianus Marcellinus;? -395), Antioch Roman historian


About ten minutes after he rendered the first man unconscious with a pressure point application, a second man emerged from the house. This man paused in the open door and peered around first, then called out “Curly! Curly! How long does it take for you to take a leak?”

When no response was forthcoming, he turned his head and said something to those remaining inside before pulling his gun and stepping out. He continued to be wary, looking this way and that. Jim remained behind the tree, “watching” by ear, hearing the heavy footsteps on the dry grass and leaves. The searcher was heading toward the horses.

Only when he was certain of that did Jim move, slipping from tree to tree, ducking behind bushes, and trying to watch the ground so that he would not encounter any clumps of the dried leaves or grass that the other man was not bothering to avoid. Nearer the horses, the man seeking his companion paused again, still holding his weapon.

“Come on, Curly. The doctor don’t like us to play games. He said to shoot you if you fooled around too much.”

When this man looked around, his whole attention on finding the missing man, Jim moved swiftly. As he had the first man, he was able to grasp this one around the neck with his left arm and apply the pressure with the right hand. Although his victim struggled for a moment, the pressure point worked as usual and he sagged to the ground. Jim dragged him to join his friend.

He turned back toward the house and immediately ducked behind a nearby bush, spotting movement alongside the house. What the devil?He was unsure for long seconds what he was seeing. Realizing that his eyes were not playing tricks, he dashed forward, bending low lest anyone be glancing out a window of the still illuminated front room.

“Artie!” he hissed.

His partner spun, waved a hand, then turned back to assist his companions through the window. Jim came further forward to stand alongside the window, pulling out his own gun and those he had taken from his two victims. He handed one gun to Artie, and a second to Pike who was the next man through.

When Harper and Malone were on the outside, all five raced quietly to the nearby woods, where Jim briefly told them about the two men he had incapacitated. “I think that leaves three inside, along with Loveless.”

“Who is the most dangerous,” Artie spoke gravely. “He has the gas in little glass pellets.”

“Curly told me Loveless is impervious to the gas. He has some kind of antidote.”

“Then we’d better be extra careful. I think a sudden frontal assault is our best tactic.”

“We could just get the hell out of here,” Malone murmured, then saw the surprise on the faces of his friends. “I’m just kidding. And maybe hoping a little.” He grinned.

“That probably is the wisest strategy,” Jim concurred. “However, we cannot pass up a chance to capture Miguelito Loveless. We might not get another for a long time, if ever.”

“One of us should go back in through that window and enter through the inner door,” Pike said. “I’ll do it.” He motioned with the pistol he held. “I’m armed.”

After a little more discussion, the agents began their move. Jeremy went to the still open window on the side, while the other four headed for the front door. Artie counted off the seconds as they moved. When they paused at the front door, Jim put his left hand on the latch, his right holding his gun. He looked at his partner. Artie held up a finger signaling to wait and his lips moved while he continued to count silently.

He brought his hand down and nodded. Jim immediately pushed on the latch and shoved the door open, bursting inside, Artie right behind him. The three men still at the table jumped to their feet, the chair of one crashing backwards. Loveless was startled enough to knock over the glass of wine he had placed on the arm of his large chair.

However, the little doctor regained his aplomb quickly. “Gentlemen! Welcome! I presume you went out to get a bit of fresh air. And Mr. West! I am so surprised and appalled at your appearance. Not your usual natty self, not at all. Are you well?”

“I’m fine, Doctor,” Jim smiled grimly. “Now don’t move. You boys over there put your guns on the floor.” He paused as this order was carried out. “Doctor, if you try to reach for anything we will shoot.”

“Reach? I? What would I reach for? You know I am seldom armed.”

“Should I search him?” Malone asked.

“Might be a good idea,” Artemus murmured.

“Really, gentleman,” the little man displayed scorn. “I am a man of my word. I will swear to you than I have no pistols or knives on my person. I would rather not be subjected to the humiliation of a search.”

“We’re not looking for knives and guns,” Artemus said, taking a step forward.

At that moment, Loveless flicked his right arm slightly and a silvery glass ball about an inch in diameter suddenly appeared on the palm of his hand. “Do you know what this is, my friends? Even if you shoot me, the ball will fall and the glass will break. I’m sure you are quite aware of the effects of my marvelous vapor now.”

“We don’t need to shoot you,” Jim said sternly. “I’ll just come over and take it from you.”

Loveless smirked. “Will you? You have—what?—seven steps to reach me? By then I can easily drop the orb and activate the gas. You will never get close.”

“What do you want, Loveless?” Harper asked. He, like the others, was aware that the other door, the one from the supposed kitchen, was opening slowly behind Loveless. All attention, including that of the three henchmen, was on Loveless. Artemus's countdown had allowed Jeremy time to get in position in the other room after climbing back through the window.

“Simply allow me to go out to my carriage—along with a man to hitch up the horse and drive it for me—and I will depart, leaving you in peace. You can have the remaining employees to satisfy your lust for an arrest.” The three men shared glances, frowning and muttering their anger.

“No dice,” Jim said. Pike was in this room now, still unnoticed even by the men at the table. “You have too many criminal charges piled up. You’re going to jail.”

“I don't think so,” Loveless purred and his hand moved. Behind him, Pike moved swiftly, diving forward to grab at the silver ball that started to roll off Loveless’s open hand. He was too slow, however.

“Look out!” Jim yelled, reaching forward in a futile gesture to seize the sphere before it hit the wooden floor.

W*W*W*W*W


Artie stared. He saw his partner, his three fellow agents, and the three henchmen at the table all frozen into strange positions. Loveless was not in sight. Why didn’t it affect me? He wondered as he saw the very thin shards of broken glass on the floor in front of the chair Loveless had been seated in.

“He’s got…” Jim said suddenly, continuing his rush forward a couple of steps before stopping and looking around. He met his partner’s gaze. “He escaped again.”

Artie nodded, understanding then. I was affected. I just happened to recover a few seconds earlier than the others. The men by the table were stirring, gaping around. Pike flew forward and hit the back of the chair Loveless had occupied, catching himself at the last moment before hurtling over it as he had planned in an attempt to grab the orb before it fell.

“He couldn’t have managed to hitch up his buggy by himself, could he?” Malone put in as he hurried over to gather up the guns the three men had previously dropped on the floor. He handed one to Harper as he returned.

“No,” Jim said tensely. “But I left a couple of fellows out there that probably woke up just in time to help him.”

“I’ll go look,” Ned offered, and rushed out the door.

Pike was looking at the three demoralized thugs. They had learned what many another minion of Miguelito Loveless had learned: his safety was far more important than theirs. He demanded loyalty but seldom returned the favor. “What the devil are we going to charge these boys with?” he asked aloud.

Artie looked at Jim. “Kidnapping?”

Jim shook his head reluctantly. “Is anyone going to believe that someone invented a gas that does what Loveless’s did? I never told anyone in Rosedale about it, and I didn’t contact the county sheriff.”

Malone came back in with the news they expected. Three of the horses and the two men who had been out there were gone, along with Loveless’s buggy. “We could take the remaining horses and trail them,” he suggested.

Artemus sighed. “Useless. We know from experience. We don't know how long we were unconscious, but I suspect it was enough time for the doctor to get a long distance from us. He may have even activated a second dose to keep us under deeper and longer.”

“All right, you three,” Jim said then. “Skedaddle. Try to learn a lesson from this. Just because a fellow offers you riches, he is not necessarily trustworthy. If you ever encounter Miguelito Loveless again, run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.”

With no argument, nor even asking for their weapons back, the three raced out the door. Within a few minutes, they had their horses saddled and the sound of their retreating hoof beats was heard. The agents searched the house, but found no further trace of the gas, causing them to wonder if that orb had been the last one.

Artie was unconvinced. “He probably had a supply tucked inside his coat. He told us before he used a tube to pipe the gas into the rooms at the other house to knock us out. He would not have walked that distance, so likely took the buggy through the woods, difficult as it might have been.”

Jim nodded. “So a further supply could be in the buggy. That’s not good news.”

“Not to mention he could make more at anytime,” Artie inserted.

“The good doctor probably has a plethora of plans about how to use it in the future,” Harper nodded.

“Nothing we can do about it now,” Jim sighed. “We have a long walk back to the other house. And an even longer walk back to town. Or at least you four do. My horse is there.” He grinned broadly, white teeth gleaming behind his unshaven face.

Epilog


The walk back to the other house was necessary, but once there, Jim saddled up Blackjack and rode into town. He reached the livery stable just as the stable was opening for the day. He asked the hostler to saddle up the four horses belonging to his friends, and to give the black horse a good rubdown as well as food and water. While that was being done, he walked down to the restaurant for coffee and breakfast, reasoning that his horse needed a good rest.

By midmorning, he was back at the house, the four horses on a lead rope behind him. Knowing his friends would be hungry, although coffee was available at the house, he brought some bread and cheese picked up from the general store. Within the hour, the group was heading back to town.

They spent some time at the boarding house cleaning up and donning whatever fresh apparel they had in their packs. After a meal at the restaurant and a quick purchase of supplies, they headed in the direction they knew would lead them to the railroad tracks where the Wanderer and its crew were patiently waiting. A quick detour to the county seat allowed Artie to send a telegram to Washington alerting them that Loveless was on the loose in this area.

“For all the good it’ll do,” Artie grumbled as he mounted up again. He also had sent a long delayed message to his fiancée letting her know that he would be in Washington for Thanksgiving if she could possibly manage to meet him there.

The following day they reached the train and within a short time it was chuffing east. With their gear stowed, the five men settled into the varnish car, glasses of whiskey in their hands.

“Loveless is always good for an interesting time,” Harper said, a twinkle in his eyes.

“One could say that,” Jim nodded. “We’re never bored when he’s around.”

“Jim,” Malone spoke up. “Were you… did you ever start to think something was happening to your mind when we all vanished as we did?”

Jim stared down into his glass for a few seconds, then looked up. “I did. I could not imagine that even Loveless could come up with something that would cause what happened. At least not right away. I started having suspicions that the little doctor was involved, and then Artie’s signal confirmed it for me.”

“What signal?” Pike asked. He saw the same confusion on the faces of Malone and Harper.

Artie grinned proudly and related how he managed to position his hand just before the doctor administered the gas while they were stretched out on the floor. “I actually was not sure I would keep the hand the way I held it. Obviously, that is what happened. And my partner was clever enough to figure it out.”

“One thing for sure,” Pike said, “is when we get to Washington we have to inform the colonel about our suspicions that Loveless is keeping up with our movements, particularly those of West and Gordon. We need to find out if a spy is in the department, or if indeed Loveless is listening in on our telegraph communications.”

“If that’s the case, we may need an entirely new set of codes,” Malone groused. “And I just recently learned all the old ones!”

“For me,” Artie said then, “I’m just glad to have this time off to spend in Washington. Even if Lily is unable to join me, I know I will be there with friends. Who knows, maybe the lull in crime will continue into the Christmas season!”

“I’ll drink to that!” Harper cried lifting his glass.

Jim hoisted his own, but then gazed around at his friends with a broad grin. “But don’t count on it, boys. Don’t count on it!”

The End


I am a huge fan of “B” movies from the 1930s, 1940s, and into the 1950s. I got the plot bunny for this story from one such B movie from 1947, Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, starring Ralph Byrd, and co-starring Boris Karloff (whom we know best as Mr. Singh). In this movie, a scientist invented a gas that caused people to “freeze” for several minutes. Gruesome takes the gas in a scheme to rob banks. Of course, Dick Tracy stops him. However, I thought of another use for the gas.

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