THE WILD WILD WEST  @ wildwildwest.org
THE WILD WILD WEST @ wildwildwest.org
Home | Profile | Active Topics | Members | Search | FAQ
Username:
Password:
Save Password
Forgot your Password?

 All Forums
 Wild Wild West - Show-Related Fiction
 Wild Wild West Stories (G, PG) Board
 The Night of the Queen Bee
 New Topic  Topic Locked
 Printer Friendly
Author Previous Topic Topic Next Topic  

California gal
SS senior field agent

USA
8373 Posts

Posted - 07/20/2014 :  08:41:57  Show Profile
THE NIGHT OF THE QUEEN BEE

A woman is sometimes fugitive, irrational, indeterminable, illogical, and contradictory. A great deal of forbearance ought to be shown her, and a good deal of prudence exercised with regard to her, for she may bring about innumerable evils without knowing it. Capable of all kinds of devotion, and of all kinds of treason, "monster incomprehensible," raised to the second power, she is at once the delight and the terror of man.
—Henri-Frederic Amiel (1821-1881), Swiss philosopher, critic, and writer

****

Chapter One

I am monarch of all I survey,
My right there is none to dispute,
From the centre all round to the sea,
I am lord of the fowl and the brute.
Verses supposed to be written by Alexander Selkirk, William Cowper (1731-1800), English poet


“You were right, boy.”

Jim West leaned down to pat the dusty neck of his black steed then touched his heels to the equally dusty flanks to urge the horse down the slope towards the broad pool of water. On the other side of a massive stand of rocks, the horse had begun to display a tendency to want to head east, and Jim had decided to check it out. They had been without water since early this morning, and he was willing to follow any lead. The horse had obviously scented the water in the strong breeze.

The path down to the water was tricky, making it necessary to ease one’s way through more boulders and dry brush. Despite the presence of water, little green was apparent; the ground was all sand in this area. Jim scanned the region around the pond, which was about a dozen feet across, and did not see any signs that animals—or humans—had sipped of the liquid with ill effects.

Even so, he forced his black stallion to remain back while he knelt by the water, dipping his fingers into the coolness to first smell, then gingerly taste it. Getting to his feet, he smiled. “All right, boy, go to it.” He himself moved a few feet away to drop to his belly and lower his heated face into the coolness.

Taking the “shortcut” had been foolish. He knew that now. This area of New Mexico was completely new to him. They had never had an assignment in this region, at least not one that took them into these expanses. He had hoped to lop off a full day from his journey, especially because he was already two days late to meet the Wanderer in Santa Fe.

At least now that I can fill my canteens, maybe I can make better progress. Artie is going to chew me out as it is…

He had risen from the pool, thirst slaked, and face shiny with moisture, and had just started to pull the two canteens off his saddle when he heard the sound, a much too familiar sound of a rifle being cocked. Startled, Jim spun, his hand dropping to the weapon strapped at his hip. He did not pull the gun, staring up at the three horsemen who were on a slight rise at the far side of the pool.

“This is private land, Señor,” one said. He was a burly man with a thick mustache, a colorful but faded serape thrown over one shoulder. He was the one holding the cocked rifle.

Jim let his hands fall at his sides but did not completely relax. “I believe you are mistaken. This is government land. Open range.”

“It is you who is mistaken, Señor,” the man said, jerking his head toward his companions, who both dismounted. “This land belongs to The Crown.”

What crown? This is American land! Jim did not speak the words aloud, watching the pair start to make their way around either side of the pond toward him. “I didn’t see any signs or fences,” he said easily. “I’m just passing through…”

The mustached man shook his head. “You have broken the laws, Señor. You must face justice.” He lowered his rifle somewhat as his companions neared Jim. Both those men now had their pistols drawn.

“Whose laws?” Jim took a couple of steps back, away from the black horse which was watching the approach of the armed men with interest.

“The laws of The Crown. Do not be mistaken, Señor. We can shoot you here easily with no regret. But La Reina, she insists that trespassers be brought to her for judgment.”

The two men approached from either side, their stances wary. Jim remained unmoving, watching, gauging. One appeared to be around eighteen or nineteen, the other in his thirties. He had thought all three men were Mexican initially, but as they neared, he saw that while the older man had dark hair and tanned complexion, that was all it was, weathered from the sun. His eyes were blue.

As he suspected might happen, the younger was the less cautious of the men as he came up and reached for the pistol in Jim’s holster. Grabbing his arm and hurling him into the other man was a simple matter, as was drawing his own gun, spinning and firing toward the mounted man. The rifle that man was now holding loosely flew out of his hand.

Jim jumped back further then, his weapon ready. “Let’s just relax, gentlemen, and talk this over. I’m not looking for trouble and I’m late for an appointment as it is.”

¡Madre de Dios! ¡Él es como un rayo!” The younger man gaped up at Jim from where he was still seated in the dust.

Jim smiled grimly at being compared with the speed of lightning. “I’m just not willing to hang around here. You, come on down here, nice and easy!” He motioned toward the rider, who started his horse moving.

He later realized that he had assumed Blackjack was reacting to the approach of the mustached man’s horse when the steed threw its head in the air and snorted. He started to speak to his horse to calm it when he heard the whisper of the rope just before it settled over his shoulders. Before he could react, the lasso tightened around his arms and he was jerked backwards, falling to the ground.

Immediately the two men he had bested were on him, grabbing his gun, twisting his arms behind him. In a moment, he was on his knees, his wrists lashed together. He looked up into the wide grin of the man who was now coiling his rope. The mustached man was now making his way down the slope, also grinning.

“You see, Señor, we always keep the ace in the hole, no? Paco there, he tell me, ‘that one looks dangerous, Joaquin,’ so I say, ‘Paco, you keep watch. You will be the ace.’”

“You’re a wise man, Paco.” Jim gritted his teeth as he was pulled to his feet. “I still say I am merely passing through. I did not intend to trespass, no matter to whom this land belongs. I am expected…”

Joaquin waved a hand. “It is not for me to say, Señor. La Reina, she will decide. It is the law of The Crown.”

The blue-eyed man spoke for the first time. “I got a notion I seen this one before, Joaquin. What’s your name, mister?”

“James West.”

“Yeah, I seen you before. In Denver, maybe two years ago. You busted up a counterfeiting ring.”

“Might have been me.”

Joaquin was frowning. “Counter-fitting? What is that, Burt?”

“Never mind, I’ll tell you later. We better get him on in to see La Reina. She’s gonna need to figure out what to do with him now.” Burt picked up the fallen pistol, admired it a moment then jammed it into his belt.

Jim was boosted into his saddle then the four men mounted to form a ring around him and they headed out, moving south. Jim was more baffled than concerned at this moment. He had not heard of any outlaw gang operating out of this region, in particular none headed by a woman. As he had told Joaquin, the map showed this area was land that currently belonged to the United States government as part of the Territory of New Mexico. He knew that some of it could be opened for homesteading soon. No information the government had ever provided had indicated anyone lived permanently in this area.

Nothing he could say would convince these men that he had not intended to trespass nor did warning them he was expected in Santa Fe have any impact. Apparently, their orders were that strangers were to be brought to “La Reina” and that is what they were doing. Jim had to admit he was intensely curious to find out about this woman. These men appeared to feel they had to obey her mandates without question and without variance.

The younger man, whom Jim heard addressed as Vicente, made one comment that aroused Jim’s curiosity even further. “Tal vez este será el que la princesa acepta.” Referring to a “princess” appeared to indicate “La Reina” had a daughter, or at least a younger woman was present. But why did Vicente wonder whether the “princess” would accept this newcomer? Accept him how?

The four men spoke in Spanish, obviously assuming their prisoner would not comprehend. While Jim was not as fluent as his partner, he understood very well. Beyond mentioning the “princess,” they were speculating on what La Reina would do with the trespasser. Vicente suggested twenty lashes while Burt and Joaquin were all for hanging.

Jim was further astonished as they proceeded, spying not only good sized herds of cattle, but also pretty fair grazing land. He counted at least twenty men tending those cattle, men who waved at the passing party. Only one approached to ask what was happening, whereby Joaquin, who appeared to have the most authority among the four, sent him back to his work at once. Jim noticed a couple of men lounging under trees with rifles across their legs. Guards of some sort?

Pretty obviously the government has neglected this area, Jim mused. Chances were it was considered “badlands,” useful only for the most desperate of homesteaders who might not find property to claim in other, better areas. A memory niggled at him, of hearing about a party of surveyors who vanished some years earlier, possibly before the war. He knew it had happened in the southwest but had always assumed it had occurred in some known desert. How long has La Reina ruled here? Who the devil is this woman who commands such respect, even awe, from these men?

An escape attempt occasionally brushed through Jim’s mind as they continued. His guards were overconfident and lax, occasionally straying far enough to the side that he could have easily kneed Blackjack into action. He was positive the black stallion could outrun their cowponies. His interest in what lay ahead, however, was far outstripping thoughts of his own safety. He needed to find out what was going on here, and above all whether this La Reina posed a risk to the country. That was his job after all.

They forded a broad, shallow stream twice; the third time they encountered the water, Jim began to speculate that it was the same stream, meandering all through the area so that they were crossing the same watercourse several times. Such water would account for the grazing land he saw and would certainly support cattle.

He saw the line of tall trees in the distance as they entered a broad stretch of very flat land. At first, he assumed they were growing alongside the stream although the symmetry of the line was a bit puzzling. They all seemed to be the same height. As they rode nearer and nearer, he realized he was seeing not a single line of trees but more a circle of them: tall, graceful sycamores, swaying in the breeze. They paralleled, he came to grasp, a high rock wall that enclosed a house.

An astonishing house. If he had come upon it at the outskirts of Saint Louis, or perhaps Atlanta, he would not have been surprised. But to see this mansion sitting in the middle of this near-wasteland…

“What is this place?” he asked as they headed down a narrow lane toward a closed wrought iron gate where two armed men stood on guard.

“This, Señor, is The Crown,” Joaquin grinned.

The sentries gazed at the group with curiosity on their faces, but opened the iron gates without comment. Jim saw that numerous buildings were enclosed within the stone fence, which appeared to circle a large area, perhaps a couple of acres in all. The house itself dominated the area, with its broad porch and tall white pillars, but beyond he could see what were apparently barns and stables as well as some that appeared to be smaller homes. He spotted well-tended flower and vegetable gardens as well. Some children playing in the dust by one of the closer homes paused to stare in their direction.

A stocky Hispanic woman opened the front door as Jim was pulled off his horse. She spoke to Joaquin in Spanish, asking who this was and what did he want? Joaquin briskly told her that the stranger was a trespasser and that she should inform La Reina to find out whether the captive should be brought to her at once or locked up. The woman hurried away as Jim was led into the foyer.

He was less surprised by the interior than he had been by the exterior. By now, he was expecting the unexpected. The floors were polished wood, with strips of carpet leading down the center. Doors opened off either side, and halfway down the hall a curving stairway led toward the second story. Fine paintings and tapestries arrayed the walls, while lovely vases containing fresh flowers rested on small side tables along with ornate crystal and porcelain figurines.

The four men held a hasty conference and it was decided that it would be impolite to usher the prisoner into La Reina’s presence still bound. His wrists were untied, with a stern warning that he would be severely punished if he misbehaved. La Reina would sanction such punishment, Burt assured him.

The housekeeper emerged from a door near that stairway and waved to the men. Jim was just a little surprised that all four of his guards accompanied him. He had rather thought that perhaps only Joaquin, as the leader, would be summoned to the imperial presence.

Imperial was an apt word he realized moments later as he was guided through the door. The room was a study, with book-lined walls, a French door that opened onto a walled garden, and several rather heavy pieces of furniture, one of which was a broad desk. She sat behind that desk with her slender hands resting on its polished top, gazing with slightly narrowed eyes as the five men entered.

She was not Mexican; her skin was fair, her eyes sky blue. Jim was unsure about the original color of her hair, but he would have bet it was once blonde. Now it was silvery white and stylishly coifed atop her head. She wore a mauve gown trimmed in white lace, with a high collar and a jewel-studded brooch at her throat. A slim woman and even now, with the ravages of age, she was lovely. He could discern by the bone structure that she had once been very beautiful.

“Who is this?” she asked in English.

Jim did not give the men an opportunity to speak. He stepped forward. “My name is James West, and I’m being detained unnecessarily and possibly illegally. I was passing through this part of the territory on my way to Santa Fe when your men stopped me.”

The blue eyes moved slowly from the top of his head down to the now dusty chaps and boots, and back up again, meeting his green-eyed gazed steadily. “James West. Regardless of your reasons and excuses, you are on my land and I do not abide trespassers.”

“I would have to dispute that. About it being your land, that is. It’s my understanding that this portion of the territory belongs to the United States government.”

Her regal chin lifted. “It is my land, by right of possession. My husband settled here over sixty years ago.”

“And just who are you?”

The rifle butt slamming into his shoulder was unexpected. Jim hurtled forward, catching himself on the front of the desk. He immediately spun, grabbed the barrel of the rifle from Paco’s hands and flung it aside, then slammed a strong punch into Paco’s chin. As that man staggered back, Vicente attempted to bring his own pistol to bear, only to have it kicked from his hand. By then both Burt and Joaquin were into the fray. Jim kicked Burt in the stomach and leveled a hard right into Joaquin’s jaw.

Not until two other men appeared to assist was Jim subdued, held with both arms twisted painfully behind him as he gasped for breath, feeling the warm blood trickling from both his mouth and under his eye. La Reina had not moved from her place behind the desk, nor had her expression changed much. Only her eyes were narrowed slightly.

“Shall we hang him, Señora?” Joaquin asked eagerly.

“No… not hanging.”

“The lash then!” Vicente chimed in. “Twenty lashes on his back for each of us!”

She waved a hand. “Release him.”

The men hesitated, but apparently knew better than to question her. Jim rubbed his sore arms, watching and waiting. Long moments passed as she again studied him from head to foot. “You asked a civil question, Mr. West. I apologize for the behavior of my friends. My name is Regina Renfrow. I own this house and all the land as far as the eye can see—and farther.”

Jim did not respond, and he saw by the glint in her eyes that she had expected him to reiterate his statement about this being government land. Finally, her gaze shifted to Joaquin. “Tell Nieves to bring coffee and a sandwich for Mr. West. Also a damp cloth in order that Mr. West may clean his wounds. You may all then go back to your chores.”

Señora!” Joaquin began his protest. However, she waved that imperious hand to cut his words short. Jim was a bit amused to see the six men now depart like recalcitrant schoolboys. A couple of them cast dark glances in his direction, nonetheless.

“Please sit down, Mr. West. Again, I apologize. I would have preferred you had arrived at The Crown as the honored guest you are.”

Jim cocked his head. “Am I?”

“Of course. It is obvious you are a gentleman. Who are your people?”

“Just… people. Mrs. Renfrow…”

“Regina. I am Regina to my friends. No, you are from good stock, that’s obvious, and reared well.”

“I am on my way to Santa Fe to keep an urgent appointment. I am expected and am already late. I must…”

“Out of the question. My guests do not eat and run, so to speak. I expect you to remain here for the duration.”

Jim sat down then in a leather chair with soft padding. “And just what is a ‘duration’?”

“As long as it takes.”

“For what?”

The housekeeper’s entrance forestalled the reply she was going to make, if any. Jim accepted the coffee and sandwich gratefully, along with the damp cloth. His meals had been rather sparse the last couple of days after he had realized that he had no idea exactly where he was and when he would reach civilization again, requiring rationing of his supplies. The map had been no help at all on that score.

Informar a la Señorita Helene que se requiere su presencia inmediata, y preparar una habitación para nuestro invitado.”

Jim did not react when Regina gave those instructions to the departing housekeeper as he used the cloth to wipe the blood away from his lip and cheek; both cuts were tiny. Helene must be the princess, he decided. He washed some of the ham sandwich down with a swallow of coffee. “Mrs. Renfrow—Regina—I am willing to overlook the behavior of your men. However, I cannot stay. I am expected…”

“Mr. West—or may I call you James? James, sometimes fate works in mysterious ways. You are here for a reason. Your destiny lies here on The Crown, I am certain. Perhaps in a few minutes, you will agree with me.”

“There’s something you should know…” Jim began.

He did not finish as a woman appeared in the still open doorway. She was, he realized, probably exactly what Regina Renfrow looked like sixty or so years ago: slender, with honey blonde hair and sky blue eyes, absolutely perfectly beautiful. Jim came to his feet, unable to take his eyes away for a long moment—until he realized how Regina was smiling.

“Helene, may I present our guest, Mr. James West. James, my granddaughter, Helene Renfrow.”

“Miss Renfrow.” Jim dipped his head slightly.

She looked at him from head to toe as her grandmother had done, but the blue eyes were scathing. In addition, unlike her grandmother, she was not elegantly garbed, but wore a faded pair of denims, probably boy’s trousers on her slim form, and a checkered shirt. “I must say, Grandmother, your taste in men is improving.”

The older woman’s smile broadened. “I rather believed you might think so.”

Jim had had an inkling of what was on Regina Renfrow’s mind, and now he was certain. He smiled. “I’m just passing through, Miss Renfrow. In fact, I should be on my way.” He put the coffee cup he was still holding on a nearby table and turned. “Mrs. Renfrow, thank you for your hospitality…”

She stood up then for the first time, and quite swiftly and spryly for her apparent age. “I never thought you would be rude, James.”

He met her gaze levelly. “I have been trying to tell you, I am expected elsewhere.”

“They will wait. A room has been prepared for you, James. I think you should rest there until dinnertime. Helene, please escort James to his room.”

For one moment, it appeared the younger woman was going to object. Then she simply shook her head slightly. “This way, Mr. West.”

Jim was about to voice his own protests, but saw the shadows in the hallway behind Helene. The men had not yet left the house, whether on their own volition or because of some kind of prearranged orders. He followed Helene into the hallway and up the stairs, noticing that she barely glanced at the three men waiting in the lower hall.

At the top of the stairs, she opened a door and stepped inside a well-appointed bedroom. Jim did so as well, noticing his saddlebags on the bed. He was a trifle surprised that she closed the door. However, her expression was hard and angry. “Why are you here?” she demanded.

“Not of my own free will, I assure you, Miss Renfrow. Apparently I inadvertently trespassed on this land that your grandmother considers her own…”

“Her kingdom!” Helene spat.

“I got that impression.”

“You must leave!”

“I’d like to. Can you suggest a means whereby I would not get shot in the attempt?”

Her shoulders sagged now, and she walked across the carpeted floor to a window, staring out for long seconds before turning back. “Do you know what she has in mind?”

“I have a glimmering. I take it you do not agree with your grandmother’s plans.”

“I have been fighting off her matchmaking attempts since I was sixteen!” Her gazed softened slightly as she came toward him. “I will have to say you are something of an improvement over the last ‘gentleman’ she lined up. He was forty if he was a day!”

“Was he a trespasser, like me?”

“No,” Helene sighed. “Occasionally Grandmother takes journeys, or she did before her health became frail. She has returned with four different men in the last eight years, and two others, like yourself, wandered onto The Crown.”

Jim cocked his head. “What became of those men after you refused them?”

She shrugged. “They left. Or at least I never saw them again once Grandmother realized I was not going to agree to marry any of them.”

“Is there any chance they didn’t leave?” he asked softly.

“Yes. There is every chance in the world, Mr. West. Grandmother rules this ranch with an iron hand. Those who are loyal and hardworking are treated well. Those who stray… just last week one of the men was whipped.”

“What did he do to earn the whipping?”

She scowled. “Supposedly, he fell asleep in the sun while watching the cattle. Something that I’m sure you know is very easy to do.”

“Yes, I agree.” Jim peered at her. “Who was this man?”

“Ray Channing.”

“A good friend of yours.” He saw the softening in her blue eyes, along with some anguish.

Helene turned slightly away. “Yes.” Then she looked back at him. “Please leave, Mr. West. Do anything you can to get away from here.”

“I plan to. I would like to know a little more first. How long has this land been in your grandmother’s hands?”

“Forever. She came as a bride at the age of nineteen. She is now seventy-nine. My grandfather settled here, but as far as I know, never filed any legal claims.”

Jim nodded. “She may still have certain rights to it, the rights of possession. But it should have been proven legally.”

Helene laughed shortly. “She believes—and so did my grandfather, apparently; I never met him—she believes that she is above the law! She is the law here. Do you understand? All the people who work and live here are her subjects. For the most part, she is a benevolent ruler, but don’t dare cross her. That’s what we have all learned.”

“Your parents…?”

“My mother died shortly after I was born, my father when I was twelve. She raised me. I am her heir. She is looking for the ‘right’ mate for me, a man who she feels would carry on the Renfrow line.”

“That man is not me, Miss Renfrow. I assure you. Nothing against you. I think you are one of the loveliest women I have ever encountered. Even if I had plans to ever marry, however, I would not be coerced into it.”

“Good. Now leave as soon as you can.” With that, she exited, closing the door firmly behind her.

A moment later Jim heard the click of a key in the lock. Someone must have been waiting outside to secure the door. He shook his head slightly as he stared at the door, then shrugged and turned away. He could open it easily. I need to think this out. Could be it’s as simple as it appears, an eccentric old lady who needs to control all around her. Nevertheless, I have a gut feeling that this might well be a case where all is not what it seems to be.

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
8373 Posts

Posted - 07/20/2014 :  08:43:29  Show Profile
Chapter Two

Le chagrin monte en croupe et galope avec lui.
[Trouble rides behind and gallops with him.]
Epitre (V, 44), Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux (1636-1711), French poet, critic, and satirist


Artie stood up from the desk, a scowl on his face. Now what? The question had several connotations. Now what had happened to Jim? Now what to do? Now what could he say to the colonel when he wanted to know why they were late? Well, that last one was easy: they were late for their appointment because Jim West had vanished.

Five days ago, on the day prior the date Jim had expected to finish his testimony in Durango, he had sent a wire informing Artie that the presiding judge had taken ill, delaying the completion of the trial. That was, of course, out of the agent’s hands and Colonel Richmond, when notified, understood. Jim had sent another telegraph message two days later stating he was heading for the train and hoped to not be overly late so that they could still make their meeting with the colonel. He should have arrived two days ago.

The problem was, their commanding officer was not the only one waiting for them. General Sherman was also in Saint Louis, on a tight schedule and due to return to Washington, D.C. to offer testimony to a Congressional Committee on Indian Affairs. He needed some information the two agents could impart. In his last message to Richmond, Artemus had offered to summarize that information via the telegraph. At this point, that might be the best they could do.

I hope Sherman doesn’t order me to come alone. I can’t do that. Not until I know where Jim is… and if he is all right. He had sent queries to towns along the route Jim should have taken. Every response was negative. Jim West had not been seen.

He had stared and stared at a map of the area and could come up with only one conclusion: Jim had cut across a vast uninhabited area of New Mexico Territory badlands rather than stick to the established routes, undoubtedly trying to lop off some time. Who knew what kind of problems he might have encountered? Animals? Outlaws or renegade Indians using the area as a hideout? Lack of water was a possibility. Jim West did not need to seek trouble; trouble found him easily. I could say that about myself, Artie decided ruefully.

Artie returned to that map, spread out on the table and anchored by his now-cold coffee cup and a couple of other items he had grabbed to hold the corners down. With his hands on either side, he leaned over it and, as before, shook his head. He had no clue where to start. The area was huge. Even if he guessed that Jim could have entered at a certain point, he himself was on the far side, and no railroad tracks would bring him near that spot.

All I can do is saddle up and head out—and hope.

W*W*W*W*W

Wherever any one is against his will that is to him a prison.
—Epictetus (55-135), Greek (Phrygian) philosopher


Jim followed the housekeeper down the stairs after she unlocked the door and summoned him. He thought it a little odd that she was alone and obviously unarmed. Then again, Regina Renfrow appeared to have utmost confidence that he was going to be persuaded to her side, despite that she had him locked into his room. She was a woman who took no chances.

The only visitor he had had during the several hours he spent in the room was a young Mexican man who brought his saddlebags and a pitcher of steaming water. Burt, who was armed, even if he did not hold his pistol in his hand, had accompanied that young fellow, standing in the doorway the entire time. Jim had used the water to wash up and shave, and then had changed to his only clean shirt from the saddlebags, after brushing off his jacket and trousers as best he could.

She had better not expect me to “dress” for dinner.

During the hours in the room, he had spent a great deal of time looking out the window, which overlooked the side and rear of the great house, where he could view the activities not only around the barn and stable, but also several small houses. He saw numerous women and children, realizing they were the families of the men who worked on The Crown. They were miles from anything resembling civilization here. Having their families on the grounds would encourage the men to remain. Or perhaps force them to remain…

Nieves led him to a door directly across the hallway from the one he had been taken to earlier. He entered a large and beautifully furnished dining room. The table was long, overlain with snowy linen, sparkling crystal and china, as well as a magnificent bouquet of roses in a decorative vase in the middle. A gleaming chandelier was suspended above it all.

Mrs. Renfrow and Helene were already seated, and the old woman motioned to the chair at her side, directly opposite the one Helene occupied. Jim sat down.

“I’m sorry if I’m late. I did not hear the dinner bell ring.”

Regina chuckled drily and waved to the housekeeper who then exited through a side door. Moments later, Nieves returned followed by younger women whom Jim had not seen previously, carrying bowls and platters. Jim’s glass was filled with a rosy-hued wine. When he sipped it, he recognized one of France’s finest merlots.

“Do you approve?” Mrs. Renfrow inquired as she selected a slice of roast beef from the platter the servant held for her.

“Definitely. From Bordeaux, I’d guess.”

She nodded approvingly. “And you would be right. I had it shipped in, along with others.”

Across from Jim, Helene attended to her food, keeping her eyes down. To Jim, she looked angry rather than humble or penitent. He suspected the two women had had words before his arrival at the table. Helene had changed into a dress, but it was a rather plain number compared to the maroon silk her grandmother now wore. Since money did not seem to be a problem, Jim suspected her attire was a form of rebellion.

“James,” Mrs. Renfrow said as the last servant departed after all their plates were filled, “you did not tell me you are an employee of the United States government.”

“I was about to, when we were interrupted. That is one reason why I must not be detained here. Colleagues will be looking for me when I don’t meet them as scheduled.” Among whom were the Commanding General of the Army, William T. Sherman, and the head of the Secret Service, James Richmond.

Her expression was serene. “I will have your letter of resignation delivered. That should assuage their worries—and your conscience.”

Jim shook his head. “I do not intend to resign from the service. I also have no intention to remain here. I appreciate your… hospitality… but I have to move on.”

“I’m sure I can change your mind. Helene will help, won’t you, dear?”

The granddaughter lifted her eyes only briefly. “I’m sure Mr. West has duties as well as friends waiting for him elsewhere.”

Regina Renfrow was unfazed. “While you were resting, James, I spoke to the men who brought you to the house. I must say they were full of admiration, if grudgingly. Vicente in particular was amazed by your proficiency with your pistol.”

“It comes in handy from time to time.”

“Burt was the one who informed me of your status as a government agent. It seems you have an excellent reputation, as a fighter as well as a gentleman. I saw how you comported yourself in my study. Only sheer numbers foiled your efforts. What would you have done if those extra men had not arrived?”

Jim looked at her steadily. “I would have gone on my way.”

“Then I imagine we are fortunate that Earl and Miguel arrived when they did.”

“I suppose you could say that. From your point of view anyway.”

Regina picked up her wine glass, taking a swallow, as her blue eyes never left his face. “I am a good judge of men, James. I always have been. My husband was almost twenty-five years older than me, but even at my young age, I knew he was the perfect match for me. I was ambitious and so was he. Herbert Renfrow had commanded a British Naval vessel for many years, in the days when the crews of such vessels were allowed to share the profits from the booty they accumulated off enemy ships.

“He amassed a fine fortune, then left the Navy and came to America, Canada to begin with, but he was not happy there. After years at sea, he wanted someplace warm and dry. He also wanted solitude. He explored, and found this place. It was in Spanish hands at the time but they were not interested in such a remote wilderness with no promise of wealth. Herbert built a small house, gathered some cattle and horses, hired some men, then traveled east to find a wife. He found me.

“I will admit that I was not initially thrilled to be living in such a barren area, far from civilization, but I began to see the advantages. Expansion was unlimited. We both saw the wisdom of remaining as unknown as possible. Perhaps it was foolish that neither of us attempted to file a legal claim, but even after the United States claimed this territory, they have been mostly uninterested in the area.”

“That’s changing,” Jim interjected. “Within a couple of years, it is going to be opened to homesteaders.”

She shook her head. “No, that won’t happen. Over the years, a few people have tried. None have been successful.”

Jim gazed at her. “I presume your men drove them off.”

“They were persuaded that this is private property, that’s all.” Regina turned to the younger woman. “Helene, where are your manners? You should be helping to entertain our guest.”

“I don’t need entertaining,” Jim said as Helene’s blue eyes flashed briefly in his direction. “What I need is my horse and my weapons and a polite farewell.”

“You are a stubborn man, James. My Herbert was like that. He could have never founded and sustained The Crown if he had not had a strong will. Unfortunately, he died in the tenth year of our marriage, leaving me to continue his dream. We had started this house. I completed it. I raised my son, and when he died, my lovely granddaughter. I look forward to great-grandchildren before I leave this mortal plain.”

Helene spoke for the first time, her voice sharp. “You could have had those great-grandchildren a long time ago, Regina!”

Now the old woman’s blue eyes became like ice. “I will not have the Renfrow blood tainted by a… a mixed-blood cur!”

Helene looked at Jim. “My fiancé’s ancestors were Seneca, Mr. West. His great-great-grandmother was a member of that tribe who married a Channing who was an early settler in upstate New York.”

Jim nodded. “I am blood brother to the Seneca.”

“That is not the same as having tainted blood running in your veins,” the old woman snapped. She glared at Helene. “Channing is not your fiancé!”

Jim turned his gaze to her. “I have many friends who are full-blooded Indians, and some who happen to have both Indians and whites as ancestors.”

“I say again, that is not the same, James. I have Mexican and Mexican-Indians employed here on The Crown, and I count them as loyal servants. But I certainly would not marry one—nor allow my granddaughter to do so!”

“And you broke my father’s heart when you sent Catalina away rather than allow him to marry her.”

Regina was fuming. “I will not talk about this! You will marry whom I choose, Helene, and my choice is this young man sitting across from you. You cannot deny that he is the most presentable man of all I’ve offered to you.”

Jim saw the quick glint of humor in Helene’s eyes as her grandmother spoke about him as though he were some sort of pet, or trophy. “I will admit that Mr. West is fine-looking. He also appears to be a gentleman of intelligence and skill. I am in love with Ray Channing, grandmother. I will be with Ray, one way or another.”

For a long, silent moment, the two women locked eyes. Jim was more than a little surprised it was the elder who broke away. She picked up a small bell and rang it. When the housekeeper instantly appeared, Mrs. Renfrow stated they were ready for dessert. Then she turned to Jim, her face composed, as though she had not just had the contretemps with Helene.

“I think you should continue to rest in your room for the evening, James. Tomorrow I will arrange for you to be given a tour of The Crown. I’m sure you’ll be impressed.”

Jim knew that she meant she would arrange for sufficient guards. “I’ll stay the night. However, I must leave tomorrow. My friend is waiting for me.” Artie will be tearing his hair out by now. He may even be instituting a search. I am over three days late.

“You’ll change your mind,” she smiled, “once you view the prospects here.”

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
Go to Top of Page

California gal
SS senior field agent

USA
8373 Posts

Posted - 07/20/2014 :  08:45:03  Show Profile
Chapter Three

Nam et ipsa scienta potestas est.
[Knowledge itself is power.]
De Heresibus, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) English philosopher, statesman, and writer


As expected, although ostensibly Helene was his guide, four men lingered nearby as she led him toward the buildings behind the house. Conversationally, Helene told him how many of the men who worked here had been born on The Crown. “A few have left over the years. Grandmother tries to stop them, but she simply cannot catch them all. The best she can do is to try to make sure they have no reason—or desire—to leave.”

Jim glanced to where two women were talking while some children played nearby. “Such as if their families are here. I heard something about a hanging.”

Helene glanced at him. “It has happened, but not recently. I never knew my grandfather, but I believe he treated his employees very much the same as he treated his crew on the ship. If you know anything about the Navy, you know that a captain or admiral is a complete dictator aboard a ship.”

“Yes, I know. However, at sea, the men are confined. Few will jump into the ocean.”

“Exactly.” Helene flashed a rare and charming smile. “I suspect Grandfather learned that to some extent. However, my grandmother learned to exert discipline from him, and she has resorted to the whip when she felt severe punishment was required. The one man who was hanged—he assaulted and murdered the wife of another man.”

“So justice was meted out, rather than turn him over to authorities.”

Helene paused, turned to face him. She was attired in the boys’ clothing again today, and wore a jaunty wide-brimmed sombrero to shade her face against the warming sun. “Don’t you understand, Mr. West? She is the authority. She is the law. The judge, jury, executioner… The Crown is a world in itself.”

“Have you never left?”

“Oh yes. But…” Now Helene sighed and shook her head ruefully. “It’s in my blood. Whether I want to admit it or not, The Crown is part of me. I can’t leave. Hell, I may even end up marrying you if it comes down to a choice of staying or leaving!”

Jim laughed. “That’s very flattering. Why is Ray Channing allowed to stay?”

She frowned. “You know, I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps Grandmother fears that if she ran him off—or had him killed—that would be the last straw. Maybe it would. I am not entirely sure. All I know is that I still may give this all up for him.”

“A huge decision.”

Helene began walking again. “It shouldn’t be, should it? I love him. I want to be with him. Have you ever been in love, Mr. West? It’s a scary feeling sometimes.”

“It can be,” Jim murmured. They were approaching the largest of outer buildings, a massive barn. “Do you know if my horse is around here?”

She made a face. “I heard Grandmother telling Joaquin to take your horse away. I don't know where.”

Jim lifted his fingers to his mouth and whistled sharply. Several men in the area turned to look, but he heard no response from the black horse. He’s probably somewhere out of earshot. That may complicate matters. Of course, he could “borrow” another horse, but he really did not want to leave Blackjack behind. If it came to that, he would—and return for the black horse later.

“Helene!”

She turned and went to the man that had just emerged from the barn, kissing him quickly and then taking his hand to lead him back toward Jim. He was a slender man in his early thirties, with hair only slightly darker than hers, but with brown eyes; a good-looking man, with his face slightly marred by a scar on his right cheek. A saber wound, Jim thought. He could see the Indian heritage in the contours of his face and the slightly swarthy complexion.

Before Helene could make any introductions, her companion was holding out his hand. “I’m glad to finally shake your hand, James West. I didn’t have an opportunity to do it previously.”

Jim accepted the hand, bemused. “Have we met?”

Ray Channing grinned. “Not exactly. I was one of the thirty-two men you and Captain Gordon rescued from Bedford Forrest back in sixty-three.”

Now Jim’s mouth dropped open. “That was a while ago!”

“It was. Close to ten years now.” Channing lifted his hand and touched the scar on his cheek. “Even if we had had a chance to actually meet before we got back to the Union lines, you might not have recognized me now. I had a bandana tied around my face because of the wound I had here. It was pretty much a scratch, but untreated it became infected. Fortunately, thanks to you two, I was able to have it looked at and cleaned up before it got any worse.”

Helene was smiling. “I tell him it gives his face character!”

Channing laughed, then sobered. “I’m told you’re competition, Captain West.”

Jim held up a hand, palm forward. “No. You have got that wrong. I’m leaving as soon as I find my horse.”

Channing smiled briefly. “I wish I could help you. I saw a couple of the boys taking him away, but I wasn’t allowed to go along.”

“I’m pretty good at getting away from places I don’t want to be.”

Now Helene’s face clouded over. “I should warn you, Mr. West. I have already told you how Grandmother rules this place. She has got her head set on the idea of you as part of the family. She does not like to be defied—or crossed. If you try to escape, and are unsuccessful, I’m afraid she would mete out punishment without batting an eye… and then still expect you to willingly submit to her wishes.”

“That’s only if I’m unsuccessful,” Jim smiled.

“If I can help at all, I will,” Channing said. “But it wouldn’t be easy for either of us. Most of the hands are not welcome in the house. Only a few who Mrs. Renfrow feels she can trust implicitly.”

Jim nodded. “Like Joaquin and Burt. Young Vicente?”

“He’s not normally among the guards,” Helene put in, “but his participation in bringing you in yesterday elevated him in Grandmother’s esteem. Vicente is one who was born here. His father was a well-respected employee, and his mother and sister still live on The Crown. He also is courting another young woman here.”

“I saw what appeared to be guards out by the herds. Is that to keep predators and rustlers away… or to make sure the vaqueros don’t take off?”

Ray laughed. “Both, I think.”

“Do the women and children have jobs to do?”

“Primarily the garden and helping in the house, especially with the laundry. This is a self-sufficient community for the most part. Periodically supplies are brought in from the outside. The supplies are meted out to the people, with extra stored in the cellar of the house for when needed. But only the very trusted are allowed to take the wagon out to procure those goods.”

Jim rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Pretty obviously, those trusted men have never revealed the secret of The Crown. Are cattle taken out and sold?”

“At one time they were,” Channing said. “Only about a thousand head are grazed now, and they are used to feed the folks here. I understand that old man Renfrow had a much larger herd, but Regina allowed it to dwindle. In truth, there are too many men employed here for the number of cattle being tended.”

“I remember when several thousand head grazed the lands,” Helene said. “The wealth is in the house and land now.”

“Helene,” Channing spoke thoughtfully, “have you told him about…?”

She put a quick hand on his arm. “Not yet, Ray.” Channing obviously did not like to be shushed, but he just nodded.

Although curious about what the ranch hand had been about to say, Jim did not press it. He would need to try to encounter Ray Channing elsewhere, without Helene’s presence. Channing looked around now.

“I’d better get to work. Nice meeting you again, Captain West. Good luck.” He kissed Helene quickly and returned to the nearby barn.

Helene watched him then turned to Jim. “I didn’t know about your previous association with Ray.”

“It’s a small world,” Jim smiled as they started walking again—and the four guards followed not very surreptitiously.

“Who is the Captain Gordon he mentioned?”

“We were comrades during the war, and he’s now my partner—and best friend. He’s the one waiting for me, and he is not going to continue to sit and wait.”

“He’ll come looking for you?”

“Definitely. And perhaps not alone.”

Helene started walking again, and Jim fell in alongside her. She sighed before she spoke. “I know that the one thing Grandmother has feared is that The Crown will be discovered and the government will send in troops. I have tried to tell her that if she would go file a legal claim on the land she could prevent that happening. Father attempted to convince her, too. She is so stubborn! She does not want to admit she might be wrong, and she doesn’t want outside authorities anywhere near!”

“That doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Jim responded, shaking his head and frowning. “As I said before, she definitely would have a right of possession claim on some of the land. I’m sure a deal could be worked out with the government.”

“There are… other factors involved. Things I cannot tell you about yet.” Helene avoided his gaze.

“What you stopped Ray from saying?”

She did not reply, leading him around behind the house where they found a large vegetable garden with several women and youngsters working in it. They looked at Jim with interest, and he had the sense they knew exactly who he was and how he came to be here. Helene spoke to the workers in Spanish, and again Jim pretended he did not comprehend. She merely greeted them, asked about family members, whether some help was needed. Just idle, friendly chitchat. Jim saw the smiles that were directed toward the young woman. She was liked. Did they smile at La Reina in that manner?

On the other side of the house was the flower garden, and Helene sat down on a white-painted iron bench there. Jim joined her as the four guards settled within sight but out of hearing distance. “The people seem reasonably content with their situation.”

She shrugged. “Most have never known another life.”

“How does the compensation work? I mean, do the men receive salaries? Or simply their room and board for themselves and their families.”

Helene plucked a white rose off a nearby bush, held it to her nose for a long moment. “No one is paid in cash. As I said, the trusted ones are allowed to leave The Crown to pick up supplies. The children are rarely taken off the ranch unless they need serious medical treatment. Usually injuries and illnesses are treated here.”

Jim smiled. “Children might talk.” He saw a flash of sadness wash over her face. “Has that caused problems? Not having a doctor, I mean?”

She sighed. “I’ve always wondered if my father would have lived longer if he had seen a doctor. Grandmother insisted he was being… stubborn, mooning around like a child.”

“This was after the Catalina you mentioned left the ranch?”

“Yes. My mother was selected to marry my father, just as Grandmother has selected you for me. I understand father liked her well enough but it was not a passionate marriage. She was not a strong woman, either emotionally or physically. She never fully recovered from my birth… and perhaps that was another case where a real physician could have helped. In any case, she died. A few years later, Father fell in love with Catalina Nunez, the daughter of one of the original workers here. They had known each other since they were children. Grandmother was furious. You heard her opinion of non-whites.”

“Yes. What happened?”

“I was still a child so I am not entirely certain how it played out. It has been hinted that Grandmother paid Catalina and her parents to leave The Crown, perhaps insinuating something bad might happen if they did not. My father was never the same after that. He developed some type of long-running fever and just wasted away. I’ve always felt that he just did not want to live.”

Jim was thoughtful for a moment. “So when people leave, threats keep them from revealing the location of this place. Threats against them personally, or someone left behind.”

“Exactly. It is important to Grandmother that The Crown remains a secret. She does try to treat the people here well, otherwise, so that they do not want to leave. As I said before, most have never known another life. Some have never even been off the ranch.”

Jim did not respond to that, suspecting Helene would tell him little more at this point. He puzzled over her comments, though. He was unsure how many men were employed here. Include their families, and the cost of supporting them was not minimal. If Regina was not selling cattle, where was the money to support The Crown coming from? She might have a fortune cached, but even a fortune would begin to dwindle after a while.

“Helene, can you find out where my horse is?”

“Probably. What good would that do? It’s obviously outside the walls. You cannot get to it.”

“Maybe. But you know I’m going to try.”

She sighed. “Yes. I think even Grandmother knows that. I’ll see what I can learn. If I can get you a weapon, I will. Only… many of the men here are my friends, as well as Ray’s. They are loyal to Grandmother and The Crown.”

“I’ll do my best to not harm anyone. However…”

“I know. You have to try to leave. I understand. Please be careful.”

Jim nodded, but did not say anything further regarding his intention to attempt an escape. I got some information today, but I need more. Most importantly, I need to find out where Blackjack is being held. If I can get to him, no horse on this rancho would be able to catch him.

W*W*W*W*W


Artemus Gordon flattened himself against the top of the rock wall, aware that the branches from the tree growing next to the wall would shelter him somewhat from view, but also conscious that he did not have any idea of what he was looking for or getting into. The sight of the house in the moonlight was astounding. Even though he had learned that a ranch was located in the midst of this rough country, he had not expected anything like this.

Now the questions remained. Was he in the right place? Even more importantly, if Jim was here, was he all right? Artie had experience enough, and caution enough, to know better than to blindly ride into the hornet’s nest.

Three days ago, he had run into a bit of luck. After riding through the badlands, battling the heat and aridity, worrying about not only his missing friend but the possibility of running out of water and becoming lost himself, he had encountered a half-cracked old prospector. The fellow, whose name was Micah, had told him many wild stories, but interspersed were some that made a lot of sense, including the location of a ranch to the west of where they currently were sharing a camp.

Micah did not seem to know a lot about the ranch, other than it was a good place to avoid. He ranted about the vaqueros who drove him away from what he was sure was the location of a fabulous find of valuable ore. “That ol’ queen bee,” Micah had grumbled, “she wants it all to herself.”

Artie had not been able to get much more out of Micah regarding the “ol’ queen bee” other than the fact that any time Micah had ridden near the bee’s main hive, he had been chased off. So the following morning Artemus had made his way west, remaining alert, so that when he did spot some men apparently guarding cattle, he was careful to avoid them and not be seen.

As the sun lowered in the west, he had more or less trailed some of those men until he spotted the line of trees that ringed the stone wall and saw some buildings inside the walls. He had not been able to get a clear view of the house until he scaled the wall after full darkness. Now what? That question returned. He needed to learn a lot more about this place before he made his presence known.

Almost as the question washed through his mind, the front door of the house opened, and the silhouettes of a man and a woman were visible for a moment before the pair stepped out onto the porch and closed the door behind him. What the devil? For a moment, Artemus Gordon was stunned. He recognized his partner’s silhouette easily. Jim was here—and apparently socializing with a lady. He could see their shadows now as they moved to some furniture on the porch and sat down.

This doesn’t make sense at all. While Jim has been known to dally with a lovely lady, he never allows it to interfere with duty! I am going to give him hell…

Even as the irritated thoughts arose, Artie spotted another shadow, at the far end of the porch: a shadow obviously holding a rifle. Another rifle-bearing man was visible at the opposite end. Well. That is interesting. It is not likely they are guarding Jim and the lady from the dangers of the night!

The front door opened again, and the silhouette this time was different, that of a woman, slender but slightly bent. Artie could see silver hair glowing in the light from inside. She called out and Artie could just make out the words. “James. Helene. Come inside. I want to talk to you both.”

The “queen bee”? As Artie watched, the couple on the porch hesitated a long moment, then finally rose to go back through the door. The elderly woman followed them and the door was closed. He exhaled a long breath. He had no doubt that Jim was being held here. But why? What was going on?

And worse… how am I going to find out? Maybe I can take advantage of something old Micah let slip—and patently wished he had not!

W*W*W*W*W


“James, you have been my guest for several days now. I’m sure that you have come to grasp and welcome the opportunity that lies before you.”

Jim shook his head. “The only opportunity I want is to have my horse and weapons returned to me so I can continue on my way.”

Regina Renfrow sighed. “I think you are being stubborn, James. Or is it a negotiating ploy?”

“Grandmother,” Helene spoke from the other chair in the fine parlor in which they were seated, “you are the one being stubborn. You simply cannot force an unwilling man to marry me. Nor me to marry him!”

Regina’s smile was complacent, even condescending. “Helene, you have known me long enough to realize I always get my way. What do you want, James? Immediate control of The Crown? It is yours. I am nearing my eightieth birthday. I would be quite willing to hand it over to a competent man.”

“Mrs. Renfrow…”

“Regina.”

“Mrs. Renfrow, you don’t seem to realize the enormity of the situation. I am being held here against my will. That constitutes kidnapping, a serious offense.”

The old woman laughed softly. “You will not prefer charges against your wife’s dear grandmother.”

Now it was Jim’s turn to sigh. He had not seen any signs of senility in Regina Renfrow, yet certainly something affected her mind. Then again, it might be simply a lifetime of having her will obeyed without question. In her kingdom, her word is more than law; it is a way of life!

Over the past days—and nights—he had watched carefully for an opportunity to attempt an escape. None had presented itself. Usually at least two men were nearby when he stepped outside, whether in Helene’s company or not. Sometimes four, such as this afternoon when he wandered out toward the stables and talked to Ray Channing.

Ray informed him that since the day a week or so ago when he had dozed off in the saddle after being up all night, and had received several lashes, he had been ordered to remain inside the compound. “I don't know if she thinks I might escape and bring the authorities, or what. She should know that I won’t leave Helene.” Ray had shaken his head in bafflement.

After a long moment of thoughtful silence, Regina spoke again, gazing at her granddaughter. “Helene, suppose I told you that unless you marry James, I will disinherit you?”

Helene met her grandparent’s eyes coolly. “Then Ray and I would leave and build our life somewhere else, as much as it pains me to leave you and my home. You must remember, Grandmother, that two are required to make a marriage. James does not wish to marry me anymore than I want to marry him.”

Now Regina pounded a hand on the arm of her chair. “The two of you! I will not be defied any longer! You will marry!”

Jim got to his feet then. “You might stand us up before a justice, Mrs. Renfrow, but neither of us will have to say the fateful words. Good night.”

He left the room, entering the hallway. As usual, two armed men were waiting there. Helene had told him that armed guards patrolled the grounds, day and night, even before Jim’s arrival, but never before had they been inside the house. Jim nodded to them and ascended the stairs, entering his room.

As he had done a dozen times before, he crossed the room and opened the window, leaning out. As before, he realized he had little chance of safely descending the outside wall. A drop of some twenty feet would be required to the ground. Not to mention an outside guard was positioned so that he had an excellent view of the window.

With a sigh, Jim closed the window and pulled the drapes closed, then threw himself on the bed. Not for a long while had he experienced such helplessness. Worse, he was not being locked up in a cell, or bound to a chair. He had the freedom of the house and most of the grounds. Freedom to wander anywhere he wanted, nonetheless always under the watchful eyes of the guards.

Regina had even spoken about obtaining more clothing for him, as he had only the few items in his saddlebag. She had no doubt he would be remaining; he would eventually yield to her pressure, in her mind.

I’ve got to get out of here. Because of the shortcut I took, Artie will have no clue regarding my whereabouts. Virtually unarmed and constantly under guard, escape seemed impossible at this time. He was unsure whether Regina had threatened the guards, promised them rewards, or they were simply loyal, but they were certainly diligent. The explosives and gas bombs in his boot heels were not going to be of much help because seldom did all the men loyal to Regina gather close together. He might get a couple of them, but others would be free to shoot him!

He continued to ponder the idea that Regina had to have an income from other than selling her cattle to operate this place, but had not yet come up with anything. His time with Ray had been too short to ask any questions; Ray had chores to do and the watching guards might report him to Regina. Jim had posed the question to Helene again. He was sure she knew but was unwilling to tell him at this time. He did not know what that meant. Was there a secret mine somewhere? He had seen no signs of men with tools that would indicate they had been working in a mine. The men who did the work appeared to be cowhands, not miners.

After about a half hour of laying in the dark and trying to sort out his thoughts, Jim rose and went downstairs again. As he had hoped, he found Regina alone in her study. She appeared to be poring over some ledger books, which she closed quickly as he entered without knocking.

“Have you come to apologize for your rudeness at dinner?”

He stood in front of the desk. “No. I’m leaving in the morning.”

Her smile was ironic. “Do you think I would allow that?”

“It doesn’t matter what you allow. You can order your men to kill me if I attempt it, but I am going to give it a try. Just thought I’d warn you.”

She sighed wearily. “Please sit down, James.” He stepped over and took the nearest chair, but did not relax. He knew that the guard in the hall had been startled to see him returning downstairs, and was likely standing right outside the closed door. Regina’s expression was mild, if a trifle irked, as she spoke again. “James, you will not leave here until you are Helene’s husband.”

He cocked his head. “What makes you think I would return in that instance?”

“Because you are a gentleman, and I suspect an honorable one. You would not desert the wife you are pledged to.” Now her expression was smug.

His smile was slight as he shook his head. “I do believe in keeping my promises. However, I will never honor a vow into which I have been coerced. Helene feels the same. We might repeat the marriage vows, but they would not mean anything to either of us. You can’t force love, Regina.”

As usual, she was unperturbed, waving a slender hand. “Nonsense. I did not love Herbert Renfrow, but I came to be very fond of him. I was genuinely grieved when I lost him. I am sure that if the two of you will come to realize how right I am, that same rapport can develop.”

“No. It is not going to happen. The sooner you get that through your head, the better off you’ll be.”

Her blue eyes widened, with a hint of amusement in them. “Are you threatening me, James?”

He got to his feet again. “I am an agent of the United States government. Eventually someone is going to come looking for me.”

“I told you that I would have your letter of resignation forwarded…”

Jim took a deep breath against the surge of temper he was experiencing. Losing control would do no good at this point. “You’d better keep your guards alert. I’m leaving at any opportunity that arises.”

She stood up as well. “James, I don’t want to punish you. I have no wish to break your spirit. However, I will not be defied. Have you not realized that yet? You have no choice, and you may as well resign yourself to a wonderful future as a wealthy powerful man with a beautiful bride. Is that so horrible to contemplate?”

He wanted to say more, but knew he would only be repeating himself as he had already, again and again, and to no avail. Spinning, he left the study, hesitated a moment, then climbed the stairs again. If he went outside, even at this late hour, the guards would be there. Possibly if he pretended to be yielding… With a sigh, Jim mentally shook his head. Regina Renfrow was too clever for that. He suspected that even if they went through with the marriage, the guards would remain for a long, long while.

In his room, Jim stripped and climbed into bed, but lay awake for a long while, staring at the ceiling. It all started with a simple desire to shorten his time and distance to the train. In retrospect, that was an egregious mistake, but nonetheless did not change things. He was here, a virtual prisoner, and no one outside The Crown and this vast wasteland knew where he was.

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
Go to Top of Page

California gal
SS senior field agent

USA
8373 Posts

Posted - 07/20/2014 :  08:46:17  Show Profile
Chapter Four

The gods, likening themselves to all kinds of strangers, go in various disguises from city to city, observing the wrongdoing and the righteousness of men.
The Odyssey, Homer (“Smyrna of Chio”; 800-700 BC) Greek epic poet


“And who is this?”

Regina Renfrow lifted her head from the account books she had been working on to gaze at the four men who had entered the study. Three were her hired men, including Joaquin and Burt. However, the fourth was a stranger, a somewhat swarthy fellow with wavy dark hair and several days growth of whiskers along with brown eyes that sparkled with mirth as he returned her stare. This stranger spoke before any of her men could. He bowed slightly, sweeping one arm widely to his waist. The other hand held a wide-brimmed hat, which he had removed immediately upon entering and spying the woman.

“¡Señora! My name is Arturo Guerra. I am a humble fellow wandering through the desert and looking for a haven—and a job!” Now he grinned at her.

Regina looked at him harder. “You don’t look all that Mexican.”

“My great-grandfather was born in Vera Cruz, Señora. Since then, I am forced to admit, the blood has been mixed with that of gringos. Pero vivimos con lo que no podemos cambiar. ¿No es verdad?”

“The philosophy is wise,” she agreed, “because you certainly cannot change the blood of your ancestors. Joaquin?”

“As he said, Señora, we found him wandering. Said he was lost. Carried this fine gun.” Joaquin pulled a pistol from his waistband and held it toward her, displaying the fancy initials on the handle: “A.G.”

“Beautiful weapon,” Regina murmured. “Do you know how to use it?”

Artie grinned widely. “It would be a shame to own such a gun if I did not, Señora.”

“What kind of work are you seeking?”

Artie shrugged. He was playing this entirely by ear. After another day of watching the compound and its inhabitants, as much as he could see from his hiding place, he had decided he needed to get inside, and that the best way to do that was to walk boldly in. He had allowed himself to be intercepted by several men, who disarmed him and brought him to the woman they referred to as La Reina. He suspected similar events had occurred for Jim West.

“I am a man of many talents, Madame. I sing, I cook, I can herd cattle. I even sew a little. And I can use that fine weapon in a fine way.”

“Are you trustworthy?”

Artie shrugged. “I give my trust to the person paying me, and they usually trust me in return.”

Regina’s slender fingers tapped lightly on the desktop as she continued to study the unshaven, rather handsome man. He had a look about him, a look of competency, even arrogance. Then she nodded. “All right, I will take you on. However, you must prove yourself, Arturo. One misstep…”

Artie’s grin returned. “I do not make missteps, Madame, I assure you. You tell me what to do, and I will carry it out.”

“Joaquin will give you your orders.”

Gracias, Señora, gracias. You will not regret hiring Arturo Guerra, I assure you.” He looked back at Joaquin. “My fine weapon?”

Rather reluctantly, Joaquin handed it over after a nod from his employer. Artie could see that Joaquin had his doubts but was not about to argue with his boss. From the moment he had been accosted out in the desert, the men had talked about La Reina. They would not make a move without her say-so. Artie had no doubt that if she had now told them to execute the newcomer that would have been carried out without hesitation.

After another gallant bow that seemed to bring a twinkle to the old woman’s blue eyes, Artie accompanied the other three men into the hallway. As they turned toward the front door, he saw a man and woman emerge from a room down the hall. He spared them only a mild glance as he followed Joaquin outside.

“Do you know him?”

Jim glanced quickly at the young woman at his side and shook his head. “No. I guess I was just surprised to see a stranger in the house.” He knew he had reacted. He could not help it. The surprise was too great. Of all things, he had not expected to step into the hallway and see Artemus Gordon! How the hell did you accomplish this, Artie?

“Strangers do appear, from time to time,” she murmured.

Jim looked at her again. He saw no suspicion on her countenance. She could not possibly recognize Artemus. However, that not was important at this moment. What mattered now was Artie was here. Somehow, they had to find a chance to talk. Together they had managed many impressive deeds and above all, escapes.

“Shall we continue?” he asked then. They had been sitting in one of the two parlors, Helene with some embroidery while he leafed through a book, when both grew restless, deciding to take a walk outside.

Helene nodded and took his arm. As they started for the front door, Regina Renfrow stepped out of the parlor. She beamed in their direction. “Now, what a splendid couple you two make!”

“Don’t misread it, Grandmother,” Helene spoke archly. “We are merely banding together in our misery.”

“That’s a start.”

“Who was that man?” Jim asked.

“Just a fellow looking for work. They wander in occasionally, having gotten lost, like you.”

“I wasn’t looking for work.”

“That is true. For you it was much more fortuitous. You wandered into the prospects of gaining a beautiful wife and a fortune.”

“Maybe that guy would like to take my place.”

Regina’s face hardened. “Another mongrel. Part Mexican!”

I don’t think Artie would like to hear himself referred to in those terms. “Who knows, maybe another suitable gentleman will stray onto the premises one day soon.”

“The most suitable gentleman is already here, James. Go enjoy the day. I have work to do.”

They paused on the porch to watch several riders exit through the front gates. “Helene, I think your grandmother is a bit off in the head.”

Her laugh was short and sharp. “You mean you’ve only just realized that? It started about ten years ago, as I began to mature. She began to fret about my choices for marriage, considering that primarily the only men I came in contact with were the hands here on the ranch. That was when she started taking me traveling—shopping for a suitable mate. I was much too young, of course, but I do believe she was using the same procedure as when she chose to marry Herbert. She seemed to have a checklist that the men had to meet, one hundred percent.”

“And didn’t find that perfect man?”

“Not until you rode in, James.”

He laughed now and they stepped off the porch. “Perfect in her eyes, perhaps, but unwilling.”

“Well, she can’t live forever. If we both hold our ground!”

“I can’t remain here waiting for her to die, Helene.” He had constantly watched for an opportunity to escape, but none had arisen.

“I know that. I just wish I could help you. But you know the situation.” Already two men carrying rifles were following them. “She would kill you, James, rather than allow you to escape and represent total failure on her part.”

“I’ve gotten that impression. She also hinted that she might allow me to taste the lash in order to show me who is boss around here.”

“Yes, that’s entirely possible. Please don’t antagonize her.”

“That might be asking too much of me.”

As they rounded the corner of the house, Jim spotted his partner unsaddling the chestnut in the corral. Ray Channing was nearby and Jim suspected Channing had been given the chore of showing the new man around. I wonder if Channing might recognize Artie under all that facial hair! Right now, apparently he had not, for he was leaning one shoulder against the fence watching and appeared bored and disinterested.

Jim was careful not to stare toward the corral as Helene naturally steered them in that direction, wishing to be with her sweetheart. Artie glanced his way but also displayed no overt interest as he hoisted his saddle over the fence and turned to say something to Ray, who had had his back toward the approaching pair. Now Channing looked around, so obviously Artie had called his attention to them.

Sliding through the fence rails, Ray Channing walked out to meet them and as he always did, kissed Helene. She had told Jim they never were allowed time alone anymore, so they had decided to be bold with their affectionate gestures. Her grandmother had complained, but so far had done nothing about it—other than Ray was whipped for a minor infraction.

Señores!” Artie exclaimed as he ducked through the fence. “Two fine men, one lovely señorita! Do we fight a duel?”

“The lady belongs to Mr. Channing,” Jim said mildly. “I am only her escort and protector in his absence.”

Artie swept off his hat and made the same bow he had given to La Reina. “Please allow me to introduce myself. I am Arturo Guerra, lately from El Paso, newly in the employ of Madame. I am fortunate, eh?”

“Very fortunate,” Jim replied. “Man could wander that desert for days… and die out there.”

“I agree, Señor. It is a bad territory out there. I did not know I was near civilization and was beginning to fear I would wander into eternity.”

“Something similar happened to me. Then I was ‘rescued’ by Joaquin and his boys.”

Artie did not smile. He now had a good idea what had happened. Although he himself had been looking to be caught, Jim probably was surprised. Why was he still here? Obviously, Jim did not want to speak of it here and now. The pretty woman and Channing were now holding hands. Beyond, two men loitered, armed with rifles. What in the world is going on here?

“That’s a fine looking horse you have there,” Jim said, idly moving toward the fence, leaving the courting couple behind.

Artie followed him and moved up alongside him at the fence. “A good horse. You know horses?”

“I have that reputation.” Jim dropped his voice as he climbed up onto the fence, keeping his back to the guards who had not moved. “How did you find me?”

“Pure luck, pal. Pure luck. Why are you still here?”

“Because La Reina has me selected for her grandson-in-law.”

Artie was startled and could not help but glance back at Helene and Ray who had their heads together, talking softly. “What?”

“Too much to tell here. Suffice it to say I have been under constant guard and unable to make a break. They’ve hidden Blackjack somewhere outside the wall.” He raised his voice. “Does she have some Morgan blood?”

“Morgan? She is a good horse. That’s all I know.” The chestnut had come to the fence and he reached out to stroke the neck. “Jim, we need to talk.”

“I know, but it’s going to be tough. Keep up the pose, and stay on guard. There are things going on around here that I don’t understand.”

“Such as?”

Jim glanced casually behind him, having caught movement in his peripheral vision. “No time now. Talk to Ray Channing in private if you get a chance.” He backed away from the fence and spoke loudly. “Fine horse. You’re a lucky man.” He then casually turned and returned to Helene and Ray. “Shall we continue our stroll, Helene?”

Artie leaned against the fence to watch the pair depart, noticing the regretful, longing glances between the lady and the cowhand. As Channing came back toward the corral, Artie spoke. “You are a very fortunate man, Señor Channing. Not many ranch owners would allow such a courtship.”

Channing’s smile was wry. “She doesn’t really allow it. However, Helene and I have found that we can buck her—to an extent. Come on, I’ll show you the bunkhouse.”

Artie grabbed his blanket roll and saddlebags off the saddle and fell in alongside as they strode toward the long building beyond the stables. He was puzzled by Jim’s last comment. Who was this Ray Channing and why would Jim trust him, beyond the fact that Channing had the young woman’s favor?

The hope that he might be able to speak to his escort inside the bunkhouse faded when he found two men there, one nursing a broken arm, the other apparently just keeping him company for the moment. Artie was introduced to them after he selected a now vacant bunk and stowed his gear, and then Ray led him outside again.

“I did not catch the name of the fellow with your lady, Señor Channing. You do not consider him competition for her favors?”

Channing chuckled. “No. He’s not here by choice.”

“Oh? And who is he?”

“Name’s Jim West. An old friend of sorts from way back.”

“Indeed?” Artie paused by a pump and began to work the handle. “You were friends as children, eh?”

“Not quite. He was a captain in the Union Army during the war. He and his partner rescued a bunch of other boys and me from Bedford Forrest. Kept us from going to a Reb prison camp.”

“Ah, I see.” So that’s why Jim trusts you, eh? “Why don’t you give me a tour of the place, Sergeant?” He took a drink from the tin cup he had filled, pleased to notice the young cowhand did not overreact.

They did not speak again until they were behind the barn, near the chicken coops and alone. “How did you know I was a sergeant?” Channing demanded.

Artie grinned and dropped his accent as he spoke. “I never met you, Channing, but one of your comrades told me that their Sergeant Channing had kept the group together, boosting morale, despite he was wounded himself. I just put two and two together after Jim indicated I should trust you. I’m Artemus Gordon.”

Ray Channing gasped and stared, his eyes widening. “Of course! I see it now. I recognized Captain West almost immediately. But…”

“I don’t usually have the chin whiskers. Quickly now, tell me what the devil is going on around here!”

W*W*W*W*W


Jim soon realized that knowing Artie was near made his situation even more frustrating. They needed to talk, to work out a plan to safely get away from this place. Having his partner nearby was a good feeling, but at the same time, Artie’s presence was useless if they could not manage to get together to work out a scheme. Sometimes they were able to cooperate without the opportunity to talk and plan, but this was a very different situation. Even if Artie was able to obtain some information from Channing, he was walking into the situation cold.

He spent the remainder of that day looking for a chance to go out to talk to his partner again, but just after midday, when he stepped out onto the porch ostensibly to enjoy a cigarillo, he saw Artie riding out through the gate with Burt and four other men. Arturo Guerra had hired on to work, and he was being taken at his word! Artie could hardly refuse an order.

So instead, Jim wandered toward the outbuildings, nodding to some women who were working in the vegetable garden. They acknowledged the greeting and one spoke to her nearest companion. “La señorita tiene la suerte de tener a un hombre apuesto para casarse. Tal vez veremos una boda muy pronto!

Jim did not pause, nor smile, not wishing to allow even these workers to know he understood that they had just commented how lucky Helene was to have such a fine looking bridegroom chosen for her. They were looking forward to the wedding celebration. Sorry ladies, but you are going to have to wait longer.

His guards paused in the shade of some trees and Jim strolled toward the stable. Though the wide open door he saw Ray Channing and another man grooming horses. He paused at the door. “Need some help?”

“We can always use help,” Ray grinned. “But I am not sure La Reina would be happy for the prince-elect to be laboring with the peons.”

“Too bad,” Jim said, stripping off his jacket and rolling up his sleeves. He caught Ray’s glance and looked significantly toward the Mexican youth who was grooming the other horse. Ray spoke in Spanish to Pablo, telling him he could go start repairing the fence at the chicken coop. Jim of course pretended to not understand.

Once the boy had gone, Jim picked up the brush and began working on the bay horse. He waited for Ray to speak, and that happened about two minutes after the boy departed. Apparently, Ray wanted to make sure Pablo had gone far enough away. Through the door, Jim saw that his sentries were still relaxing in the shade. They could see him plainly, and by the expressions on their faces, he was sure they were wondering why he was opting for physical labor on this warm day.

“I spoke to Captain Gordon,” Channing said softly. “I can’t believe he walked right into this lair!”

“We do that all the time,” Jim replied. “Sometimes it’s necessary. I’d like to know how he tracked me down!”

“I didn’t get all that. We didn’t have too much time to talk before feeling we might be missed. But I told him about how Mrs. Renfrow has her mind set on you marrying Helene, and let him know how hardheaded—and dangerous—she is.”

“Ray, how far do you think Regina will go to get her wishes obeyed?”

Channing’s sigh was audible. “I’m not entirely sure. I’m pretty surprised I’m still here—and alive. I think she knows how Helene would react if I was seriously harmed. Helene let her have it after I was whipped. I think that whipping was more to warn me—perhaps break me.”

“She mentioned she would not hesitate to apply the same treatment to me.”

The other man was silent a moment. “Have you ever felt the lash?”

“Yes.”

“Someone’s coming,” Ray whispered, and an instant later Vicente and another man entered, speaking in Spanish and laughing.

Jim did not react when he heard the younger man crow that he had won the lottery for the fine black horse. At least that meant, it seemed, that Blackjack was safe and perhaps well cared for. Both men threw some gibes in Spanish toward Jim as they saddled their own horses, unaware that he comprehended every word they were saying. Especially when they discussed their present assignment, which seemed to be that they were to go out and meet someone. Jim was about to ask Ray what they were talking about the moment they were out of earshot, but before he could, one of the house servants came to the stable door, informing Jim that he was wanted in the house.

Knowing that to refuse would call attention to the fact that he was performing peons’ work and perhaps have it reported to La Reina what he was doing and with whom, Jim picked up his jacket and strode toward the house. He did not bother to wonder what this summons meant. With Regina, who knew? He waved the guards along with him, out of the shade, as he strolled back toward the mansion.

Entering the front door, Jim noted that the study door was shut, but the door to the first parlor stood open, so he stepped to that one. Regina was seated on the sofa, Helene nearby on a chair, and a table covered with a teapot and plates of cookies and cakes was in between them.

“James!” Regina exclaimed as she looked up. “Come join us. I thought it was time for a celebration.”

Jim moved into the room. “A celebration of what?”

He had seen how Helene rolled her eyes at her grandmother’s word, and it was the younger woman who spoke. “An engagement party, Jim. Is that lovely?” Her tone was acidic.

“It would be,” he nodded, sitting on another chair, “if an engagement had occurred to celebrate.”

“You two,” Regina sighed as she poured the steaming amber liquid into a delicate cup. “When are you going to come to your senses? You are made for each other. Anyone can see that: the perfect pair for the perfect time. You both must realize another such opportunity will never come your way.” She extended one cup and saucer to Helene, who rose to take it and hand it to Jim. “James, you win a beautiful, intelligent wife and command over this estate, and Helene, yours is a handsome, virile man who will treat you like a queen, I’m sure. He will father splendid children to continue the Renfrow line.”

“The West line,” Jim said softly, and when Helene’s startled eyes turned to him, he added, “If I accepted. The lineage would be that of the West family.”

“Oh.” Regina handed another cup to Helene and filled her own. “I don’t suppose I mentioned that at all, did I? You will be required to take the Renfrow name as your own, James. I’m sure you understand that.”

Jim was not surprised; he had rather suspected from her earlier talk that that was what she had in mind. He shook his head. “No. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not accepting your deal. Nonetheless, if I ever marry, my wife will take my name. After all, you took your husband’s name.”

“That was different, James. My family name was… nothing. My father was a shopkeeper on the outskirts of Philadelphia, his family undistinguished. I helped build the Renfrow name into what it is today. It cannot die simply because I do not have a surviving son.”

“It will,” Helene spoke sharply, “because Ray does not intend to give up his family name, either. Nor do I wish him too.”

Before her grandmother could admonish her, Jim spoke again. “You say you have built the Renfrow name. But the name is unknown beyond The Crown.”

“That’s all that’s necessary at this time. It will be yours to expand if you wish, once I’m gone.”

Jim put his untouched tea aside on a small pie-plate table alongside his chair. “What do we have to do or say to convince you that it is not going to happen? Regina, return my horse to me and allow me to go free right now. I will respect your privacy and no one will know of this ranch until you—or your heirs—wish it to be known. Or until someone else stumbles upon it.”

Her smile was cool, but amused. “And you won’t charge me with kidnapping—or worse? No, James. You are here to stay, whether you yield to my wishes or not. I cannot allow you to leave and trust my secrets will remain safe. You might as well accept the inevitable. I am sure that you can convince my stubborn granddaughter if you apply yourself. I cannot imagine that a gentleman with your appearance and charm cannot influence the ladies.”

“I’m sorry to put a damper on your ‘celebration,’ Regina.” Jim got to his feet.

“Sit down, James. Sit down!”

He gazed at her a moment, then turned and left the parlor, not missing the quick smile Helene cast his way. Regina called his name, but he ignored her, going for the stairs. He knew that if he had stayed in that parlor his temper would have erupted. After more than a week in this house, his patience was about worn out. Knowing Artie was present was encouraging, but Artie was currently as helpless as he was. Fifty armed men roamed these grounds. Artie had his weapon, and possibly other gadgets, but that was about it.

He had been in his room just a few minutes when the door opened. One of the guards, a stocky man with a scarred face stood there. He did not point his rifle at Jim, but he was holding it at the ready. “La Reina wishes to see you, Señor.”

Jim shook his head. “I’m tired. I’m going to lay down awhile.” He stepped over and stretched out on the bed, hands under his head.

The guard stared at him, obviously befuddled. He did not have any instructions concerning what to do if the prisoner refused to obey, Jim was certain. After a moment, the guard reached out, pulled the door shut. Jim heard his hurried footsteps out in the hall, heading for the stairway.

Now what? He sat up, swinging his legs over the side. Was it wise to annoy Regina? He was certain she would not have him killed. Not yet, anyway. That would be admitting defeat on her part, and she was not a woman who accepted defeat easily. She could, however, go through with the threatened punishment. I don’t want a whipping, but it might be necessary to push things to a head!

He remained in the room for about an hour, pacing around, occasionally looking out the window in the hopes of seeing Artie return. He was unsure what he would do if he spotted his partner back inside the walls. We have to talk, to make plans. If we’re going to escape from here, our actions have to be coordinated. They had grasped the few minutes at the corral, but needed more.

Finally leaving the room and descending the stairs, Jim saw several men entering the study. He halted and watched. One man looked up at him, displayed the same surprise Jim was experiencing, then hurried into the room and the door was shut. Jim continued down the steps, and found Helene in the second parlor again, her embroidery in her hands.

“Grandmother was absolutely furious with you, James. She probably still is!”

Jim smiled and shook his head as he took the chair opposite. “I felt I had to push things a little. I hope she didn’t take it out on you.”

“No, no more than usual. Jim, I don't know what to do! She is so set on this.”

“I know.” He wished he could tell her about Artie’s presence, but in particular, he did not want to discuss it here in the house. He had not noticed any of the servants listening to conversations, but that was always a possibility. The servants, like most of the hands, appeared completely loyal to La Reina. Besides that, he knew a guard was probably standing outside the now closed parlor door.

Helene put her sewing aside. “There has got to be some way you can escape.”

“I haven’t figured it out yet if there is.”

“Perhaps… perhaps we should go through with it.”

Jim met her gaze. “Get married, you mean?”

“Grandmother might… relax.”

“I doubt it, Helene. Especially if we yielded suddenly, and while Ray is still on the premises. I’m afraid we’ve both been much too clear about our feelings.”

She laughed ruefully. “I am sure you’re right. Well, it’ll continue to be a battle of wills, then.”

Jim frowned now. “Is there any chance you and Ray could escape? Elope?”

“We’ve talked about it. Ray is not exactly under guard as you are, but he is watched, not allowed to leave the compound. Regina is between a rock and a hard place where he is concerned. She cannot have him seriously harmed. She knows she would lose me completely if that occurred. Yet she also knows that as long as he is here, my heart belongs to him.”

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
Go to Top of Page

California gal
SS senior field agent

USA
8373 Posts

Posted - 07/20/2014 :  08:47:39  Show Profile
Chapter Five

Friendship redoubleth joys, and cutteth griefs in half.
—Francis Bacon (1561-1626), English philosopher, statesman, and writer


He opened his eyes into the darkness, unsure of what had awakened him at first, and then heard the noise at the door. Tensing, Jim waited, watching as the door swung open. Then, astonished, he sat up. “What the devil are you doing here?”

Closely the door softly, Artie grinned as he crossed the room. “I came to see my favorite partner, of course. How you doing, James?”

“How did you get in?”

“Oh, you know there isn’t a locked door that can stop me.” Artie sat on the end of the bed.

“Maybe a better question is how you got out of the bunkhouse without being caught.”

Now that his eyes were fully adjusted to the darkness, Jim saw his partner’s smirk. “The boys are sleeping a little more soundly tonight than usual… thanks to a little gas pellet. Same with the boys in the hall downstairs. They were dozing already. I had a conversation with Ray Channing. Quite a coincidence, huh? Who would have thought we’d meet a fellow from that raid here?”

“I know. Did he recognize you?”

“Not immediately. He told me all about how Mrs. Renfrow wants you to marry Helene.”

“Did he tell you he and Helene are in love?”

“Yeah. What a mess. Is she insane? The old lady, I mean.”

“A little. I think she has had it all her way for so long she cannot comprehend it being any different. I’m surprised that Helene bucked her in the first place, as far as Channing is concerned. I guess she inherited some of the stubbornness. Artie, I’m under constant guard.”

“I know. I did get a good idea where Blackjack is being kept. Didn’t see him, but I noticed a couple of men taking buckets of water and some food down a small canyon about a mile from here. I spent the day chasing dogies.”

“Lucky you. Speaking of cattle, that’s something that puzzled me. Regina has not sold any cattle to speak of in years, and her herd has dwindled. Yet she supports all these people here.”

“I heard that myself and wondered. You used past tense: puzzled.”

Jim nodded. “This afternoon I saw some men coming into the house. One of them was Josh Petty.”

“Josh Petty! Jim, he’s wanted in a dozen states!”

“Exactly. I have a strong suspicion that Regina is offering men like him sanctuary here—for a price. I don't think they are staying here in the house. They weren’t at dinner.”

Artie shook his head. “Not at the meal in the cookhouse either. She must have other arrangements. You know, this presents a problem. Petty knows both of us.”

“Yeah, he saw me. I’m sure Regina explained my status to him. Keep your eyes open and stay out of his sight. Your beard might not be good enough of a disguise.”

“I’ll say. I had some other paraphernalia with me, but not knowing what I was getting into or how long I’d need to wear it, I opted for simple.”

“That reminds me. How the devil did you find this place?”

Artie briefly told him about old Micah. “It just seemed like the most logical place to look. I decided it might not be wise to barge in, however, after some comments the old fellow made. I reconnoitered for over a day before coming in. I had spotted you one evening, but really didn’t know what was going on, although I also saw the armed men nearby.”

“How much explosives do you have with you?”

“I stashed some inside my saddlebags. Probably enough for seven or eight pretty good blasts.”

Jim nodded. “I’ve got a little. We may need them as a diversion. But we’ll have to coordinate them.”

“Exactly. I think I need to see how things work here for at least another day, get a handle on the routine. Can you hang on that long?”

“I’ll try.”

Artie got to his feet. “I’d better get back to the bunkhouse before the boys start stirring. In addition, I don't know what time the kitchen staff gets started. Jim, are you sure you want to escape?”

“What?”

“Well look, Helene is a beautiful woman. You would be boss of all of this. You could always hire me as your second in command.”

“Go back to bed, Artie.”

Laughing softly, Artemus exited, closing the door quietly behind him. Jim lay awake for a long while, listening. After about fifteen minutes, when he heard no uproar, he assumed that Artie had made it back undetected. With a sigh, Jim closed his eyes. He felt quite a bit better now. They worked well together separately, but they worked best together… together.

W*W*W*W*W


“I understand you are acquainted with my latest guest.” Regina Renfrow spoke conversationally as she used the silver coffeepot to refresh her cup.

“If you mean Josh Petty,” Jim replied, buttering one of the warm and fluffy biscuits, “I am well acquainted with him. He is a cattle thief, gunrunner, and bank robber. Not to mention he’s also wanted for murder in connection with those crimes.”

“Mr. Petty has sought sanctuary, and I’ve awarded it to him.”

Although surprised that she brought the matter up at the breakfast table, Jim saw no reason to beat around the bush. “Which could get you into big trouble with the law, harboring a wanted criminal.”

She was unperturbed. “How will they ever learn, James?”

He knew she was now twitting his helpless situation here. “When did you start taking in criminals for fees?”

Regina glanced at her granddaughter. “When was it, Helene? I believe you were around ten at the time.”

“It was after my father died,” Helene responded sharply. “Father would never have allowed you to do it!”

“He very likely would have argued with me over it, but he could not have stopped me. After all, this is the way The Crown remains prosperous.”

“At the expense of others,” Jim snapped, putting his fork down. “How long do these men remain here? When they leave, they take up their vicious activities again.” He wondered how many times in the past years, when a wanted man and his gang disappeared for a period, they had been holing up here. “People are killed!”

“That’s none of my concern. My only concern is The Crown. It should be yours as well, James. You will learn to quash your conscience and do all that is necessary to provide for the survival of The Crown, for your children, and your children’s children.”

Jim glanced across the table at Helene and saw the resignation in her expression. She had heard this type of talk too many times over the years. Maybe I should be resigned to it by now too. Obviously, Regina is unbalanced, as least as far as perpetuating The Crown is involved. In her mind, nothing can or will stand in the way of her plans.

Perhaps the biggest problem, Jim mused as he finished his breakfast in silence, was whether Petty’s presence was going to hinder their escape strategies. At this moment, he did not know how many men Petty had with him; he had seen just a couple going into Regina’s study with Petty, but that did not mean more were not on the premises. Josh Petty had been known to amass a dozen men in his gangs.

Petty might not like the presence of a federal agent, but if he wanted refuge, he was going to have to accept it… for now. Would Josh Petty start looking around for Artemus? If he told Regina that Jim West always worked with a partner, the old woman might become suspicious as well.

What it means is that we have to get out of here as soon as possible!

W*W*W*W*W


Artemus had been set to the task of repairing some harnesses, and while it was not his favorite chore, he decided it was a good one because it kept him within the walls of the property—and thus provided him more opportunity to watch for Jim, as well as observe the activities of others.

He had seen Josh Petty and four other men emerge from one of the small houses well behind the garden outside the kitchen before entering through the rear door of the great house. He could not imagine that Regina Renfrow would have those grubby men at her breakfast table, so probably they were being fed in the kitchen.

He also noticed a number of the residents of The Crown gaze at the five, and he saw suspicion and even fear on their faces. Doubtless, they knew that their mistress was harboring wanted men—killers. Though none would be likely to protest to La Reina, they did not necessarily like having such men in their midst.

From his position by the corral fence, Artie had a good view of both the rear and front entrances of the house. He wanted to be ready to move elsewhere if Petty emerged and displayed any indication of approaching him. He also hoped to see Jim, and shortly after Petty and his comrades entered the back door, Artie’s hopes were realized when Jim emerged from the front.

He was alone, although a man carrying a rifle followed him out the door, and another who had been lolling nearby got to his feet. Both trailed Jim as he strolled toward the stables, pulling a cigarillo from his jacket and lighting it as he walked.

“Oh, Señor!” Artie called as Jim neared. “¡Señor por favor!, I do not like to beg, but it has been so long since I had a good smoke…”

Jim smiled and reached into his coat for another slender cigar. “Happy to oblige. Have you a match?”

Artie’s smile was embarrassed. “No smoke, no match…”

Now Jim lit a match and held it to the cigarillo Artie placed in his mouth. “Where’s Ray?” he asked, making sure to keep his back to his guards.

Artie took a couple of deep draws of the smoke, then turned slightly. “Thank you, señor! Dios bendiga por su generosidad.” In a lower voice, “In the stables.”

Da nada,” Jim said, strolling off.

Artie watched as Jim ambled off toward the far side of the compound, his two guards resignedly following. He could see by the expressions on the faces of the two men that they did not relish this duty. No one seems to want to buck against Mrs. Renfrow’s wishes, or orders. I wish Jim and I had more opportunity to talk. Ray told me some of it, but I’m sure Jim knows even more, being in the house as much as he is.

Jim led his escorts on a rambling route around the area, pausing by the garden to observe the women doing their chores there; he spoke to a youth who was feeding the chickens in the coop beyond the barn, and in general annoyed his guards, especially as the sun continued to rise and the morning heated. Finally, he wandered into the stable, and as he had hoped, the guards moved back to take advantage of the shade of a tree, well out of earshot.

“I’m alone,” Ray said quickly as Jim entered the dim interior of the structure. “I was hoping you would come around. I’ve talked to Captain Gordon.”

Jim nodded, picking up a currying brush and starting to work on the horse next to the stall where Channing was scraping the hoofs of another steed. “I know. Ray, we are going to need your help in getting out of here, and soon. There’s a man named Josh Petty…”

“I saw him,” Channing cut in. “I’ve been wanting an opportunity to tell you about the Queen Bee’s sideline. I think it started around a dozen years ago when a couple of men on the run stumbled onto this place. She charged them a hefty fee to hide out, and discovered what a lucrative business it can be. Driving cattle to market and still keeping this place secret was getting harder to do, I guess. Petty has been here before.”

“He knows us, and especially could recognize Artemus. I’m not sure what Regina would do if she discovered his deception.”

“That is hard to predict,” Ray nodded, putting down his tool and picking up a rag to wipe his hands. “Regina would not be happy, that’s certain. But I’m not sure how I can help you, Captain.”

“What do you know about the schedule of the sentries on the grounds at night?”

“It’s six hours per shift. Pretty much the same for those in the house.”

“Have there always been guards?”

“For as long as I’ve been here. Regina lives in fear of her little kingdom being discovered.”

“What do you know about the men that she brought in as potential husbands for Helene?”

Ray shook his head, face grim. “All I know is they were escorted away. I don't know what happened after that. I have a bad feeling about it, though. I can’t see that Regina would allow them to go to the outside world with the knowledge they had, although she may have paid them off, as I understand she has done others.”

“That’s what I was thinking.” Both men were silent for a few minutes then as Ray took up another brush to groom the horse he had been tending, Jim asked, “How long have you been here?”

“About three years now. I was drifting around after the war, trying to find my place, and pretty much as you did, stumbled onto this place. I managed to convince Regina I was a good hand and she hired me. I didn’t really know what kind of place it was. It was a job when I needed one. Then I met Helene and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.”

“You’ve never tried to leave?”

“Nope.”

Jim smiled slightly, “Can’t blame you.” Then he sighed. “There’s got to be a way to leave.”

“If—when you do, will you report what’s going on here?”

“We’ll have to. The Crown is going to be discovered eventually. The government is already considering opening more land for homesteading, and further surveys will take place. The fact that she’s harboring criminals can’t be ignored.”

Ray was about to respond when both heard the footsteps and murmur of voices beyond the open door, so they ceased their conversation and plied the brushes to the horses. Shadows filled the doorway, and a snide voice spoke.

“Seems to me the heir apparent oughtn’t to be slavin’ away like a stable boy.”

Jim glanced around at the burly, black-bearded man who had entered, followed by three others; all four wore guns. “A man likes to keep busy. How are you, Josh?”

Petty snorted. “Like you care. I heard what’s goin’ on here. Only Mrs. Renfrow’s warning keeps me from cutting you down right now.”

“I guess you don’t want to mess up a good thing.”

“Not right now, I don’t. Where’s that partner of yours?”

“Taking care of business elsewhere. Which means that he’s going to come looking for me soon, and very likely bring the Army down on this place.”

Jim saw two of the men standing behind Petty exchanged startled glances; the third had been eyeing Jim from the moment they entered, and now he stepped up alongside Petty. “You’re West, huh?”

“So I’ve been told.”

For a moment the man seemed nonplussed by Jim’s casual response. He started to take another step forward, but Petty grabbed his arm. “Slow down, Herb. This ain’t the time or the place.”

Herb relaxed a little, his eyes still on Jim. “Well, there will be a time and a place.”

The four men turned and left the stable. Jim glanced at Ray, who was just inside a stall alongside a horse. He stepped out then, a carbine in one hand. Jim grinned.

“Seems you are prepared.”

“I stuck this out here a long time back, when La Reina first initiated this scheme. She seems to think she can control them same as she controls her employees.”

“Not likely,” Jim shook his head. “Not long term.”

“That’s something me and the other workers here talk about from time to time. Regina is getting older and older. Sometimes I think pure will is keeping her alive. But eventually, she’s going to weaken…”

“And that’s when someone like Josh Petty will move in.”

“Who knows what’ll happen to the rest of us.” Ray’s gaze went out the open door toward the big house, and Jim knew he was thinking about the woman he loved.

“Suppose something did happen. Would the regular workers fight back? The ones who are not the guards?”

Ray sighed, shaking his head. “I don't know. Most can use a weapon, especially a rifle, because they have done some hunting. Only one other I know about was in the war. That’s Jabez Manuel.”

“If you get a chance, point Artemus to Manuel and introduce them.”

The other man nodded. “I will. If possible, I’ll speak to Jabez myself. He’s another ‘mongrel,’ like me, by the way. His mother was a white woman. His parents came here when he was a small boy.”

“Then he is likely to be loyal to Regina.”

“Yes, but he also has a wife and three children now. He would want to protect them, as would most of the family men here. They are the ones most anxious about her paying guests.”

“All right. We’ll just have to work on this, Ray. We want to be ready if Petty tries anything, and possibly to act even if he doesn’t. Artemus and I would be delighted to take him and his gang into custody.”

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
Go to Top of Page

California gal
SS senior field agent

USA
8373 Posts

Posted - 07/20/2014 :  08:49:01  Show Profile
Chapter Six

Our dangers and delights are near allies,
From the same stem the rose and prickle rise.
—Aleyn (1590-1640), English historic poet


Arturo Guerra lifted the little boy high above his head and laughed along with the child. “What a fine little man!” he exclaimed in Spanish as he handed the boy back to his father. “You are very proud, no?”

Guillermo Sarmento grinned. “Very proud, señor. Very proud. He will grow up to be a fine horseman. Already he rides with his papa!”

They sat down again on the steps of the small cottage, and the child toddled off to join other children playing in some dust nearby. Two other men lounged on the ground, relaxing after an arduous day out on the range. Artie had carefully cultivated a relationship with the workingmen here on The Crown. It had not been easy, for the men especially looked on a stranger wearing a gun as he did with great suspicion. After learning about the side trade La Reina practiced, Artie understood why.

“You were a boy here as well?” Artie asked, continuing in Spanish, sweeping his gaze over all three.

“I was born here,” Jorge Sanchez nodded. “My father was one of the first men hired by the old Señor Renfrow.”

“I came as a child,” Guillermo stated, “but I do not remember another home.”

Jose Elizondo was the last to speak. “I came as a youth. I was lost and La Reina took me in. It has always been a good place.” He looked off into the distance, but not before Artemus spotted the wave of sadness in his dark eyes.

“It is not so good anymore?” he asked casually, as though surprised.

Guillermo shrugged. “Things change.” Off in the distance Josh Petty and two of his men laughed loudly as they strolled from the house to the cottages in the far rear of the walled-in property. Artie had learned that two of those unused buildings had been refitted as bunkhouses to shelter the outlaws.

“Those are bad men,” Artie muttered. “Even worse than me, and I am bad!”

His comment caused the others to chuckle. They had seen him with the children, with their wives and sweethearts. Arturo Guerra was a gentleman, they were sure. He might claim to be a very bad hombre, but they knew differently now.

Jose spoke quietly then. “When La Reina is gone, these men, they will take the ranchero for their own. We do not know what will happen to us, our wives, our children. Our daughters.” Jose was the eldest of the trio; he had a sixteen-year-old daughter.

“Why do you not leave?”

La Reina does not permit it,” Jorge replied. “Also we do not wish to desert her. She has been good to us and our families.”

“She will not forbid me to leave!” Arturo boasted.

“You wait and see,” Guillermo pronounced, exchanging glances with his friends. “You wait and see.”

W*W*W*W*W

En général, les femmes ont une foi et une morale qui leur est propre, ils croient en la réalité de tout ce qui sert leurs intérêts et leurs passions.
[By and large, women have a faith and a morality peculiar to themselves; they believe in the reality of everything that serves their interest and their passions.]
—Honore de Balzac (1799-1850), French novelist


“Regina, this cannot continue.”

Regina Renfrow lifted her gaze from the ledger on her desk to the man standing before her, arms folded on his chest, green eyes hard with anger and resolve. “Of course I can. Of course, we can. James, why don’t you listen to reason?”

“I could ask you the same question,” Jim retorted. “You are keeping me—and others—here against our wills.”

She put the pen back into its brass holder and leaned back in her chair. Today she wore a dove gray gown that was only a few shades darker than her hair, trimmed in exquisite white lace, a ruby encrusted brooch at the throat. It occurred to Jim West to wonder where she obtained these fine clothes and jewels. Of course, Helena said her grandmother used to travel; perhaps she accumulated the articles at that time. A seamstress could also be among the women on the ranch.

“Others? I’m sure you refer to my granddaughter.”

“And many of your employees. I’ve seen the way they look at your ‘boarders.’ The people are frightened of men like Josh Petty, frightened of what will happen when you lose control of them.”

Her smile was smug, almost beatific. “So you see, James, this is why you must acquiesce. Marry Helena, become my heir, my partner. You can control those men easily.”

Jim turned his gaze to the window, his fists clenching as once again he held onto his temper only by the hardest. She always has an answer, because she deludes herself from the truth. Finally, he looked back. He saw by her expression that she was aware of his struggles to control himself. “I am a government employee, Regina. I work for a department that keeps close accounting on the whereabouts of their agents. I am certain that by now all of New Mexico is being scoured. They will eventually find this place. Your rule will come to an end. You’ll lose everything.”

Now her thin shoulders moved slightly. “I have not much to lose, James. How many more years? Months? Days? Even minutes. I know my time is limited. The only thing I care about is The Crown. When those searchers come, you will tell them you are here of your own free will, that you are to marry Helene and remain here as the owner of The Crown.”

Again. An answer for everything. He shook his head slowly. “No. No, I will not. I will tell whoever arrives the truth. It is likely to be an army patrol—a patrol that can summon more troops, if necessary. Do you want your people to battle the military? Would they?”

“Of course they would! They love The Crown as much as I do!”

Once more frustrated in a conversation with the woman, Jim gazed at her a moment, then spun, leaving the little office and ignoring her commanding call to return. Burt, his guard for the day, was sitting on the stairs down the passageway when Jim emerged. He rose slowly to his feet and followed Jim out onto the porch.

“I always heard you were a smart fellow, West. Seems to me you’re pretty stupid.”

Jim paused at the edge of the porch steps. “How so?”

“Hell, man! Regina is offering you the chance of a lifetime! All this land, and her granddaughter to boot! I sure wouldn’t turn down a woman like that if I was in your shoes.”

“You aren’t in my shoes.”

“I reckon not.”

Jim turned to face Burt. “How long have you been working here, Burt?”

“Coming onto seven years now.”

“How do you feel about Regina offering shelter to these rogue gangs?”

Burt shrugged. “They ain’t causing any trouble.”

“Do you think that’ll continue?”

Burt’s gaze flickered before he shrugged again. “They got a good thing going here. Why should they cause any problems?”

“Suppose they did? Supposed Petty decided to take over the place for his own? Where would your loyalty lie?”

“Why you asking all these questions? Trying to cause trouble?”

“No, just wondering. After all, if I change my mind and decide to accept Regina’s offer, I would want to know how the land lies. Would you be as loyal to me as you are to Regina Renfrow?”

“Well… I can’t say for sure right now. I always figured once she passes on, I might leave.”

“So your loyalty is to her instead of The Crown.”

One more shrug. This time Burt did not answer, his mouth clamping shut. Jim knew he had pushed as far as he could. With a slight smile, he went down the steps, not looking back again but aware that his personal guard was behind him. At least it was down to one guard now, rather than two or even three. Maybe Regina is becoming a little overconfident.

Still, the guards were always at the gate, and other men were around. They knew that James West was not to leave the compound. How far would any of the regular hands go to stop him, he wondered. They were vaqueros, not gun hands like Burt, Paco, Joaquin, and a few others. Those latter men rode out to the range, but Jim was unsure whether they did any cattle herding or were sent to make sure none of the hands tried to leave.

As he usually did, Jim strolled out to the stable. Ray Channing was not present, but Jim picked up a brush and began working on a horse. Burt found a shady spot and sprawled against a tree, leaning back against the trunk with his rifle over his lap. After a few moments, Jim was surprised and pleased that Arturo Guerra entered the stable, leading his chestnut.

¡Hola, señor!” Artie cried loudly. “You are a busy man! I think you might be living the life of Raleigh in the big house!”

“That’s ‘Riley,’” Jim responded in a normal tone. “I get bored up there.”

¡Si! It is good for a man to be busy, no? My horse here, I promise her if she is good, I will give her a bath. She likes a bath.”

He went out to the pump by the watering trough and filled a bucket, whereupon he found a brush and began to slosh water over the unsaddled mare. He positioned the horse so that it hid both himself and Jim from the guard outside.

“I’m glad I ran into you,” Artie said softly. “I’ve been talking to some of the regular hands. They are worried about men like Josh Petty being sheltered here. Their concern is the outlaws might either take over from Mrs. Renfrow or if she should suddenly die…”

“That’s been on my mind, too,” Jim replied. “In fact I mentioned it to my good friend Burt out there. He didn’t say much, but I think he has also been fretting. He might have to choose sides to stay alive. Artie?”

“Yeah?”

“Do you have any notion that the hands might be willing to stand up against Regina and demand she stop the practice of harboring these outlaws?”

Artie was silent as he turned his horse so he could wash down the other side and keep himself out of Burt’s sight. “I don't know, Jim. Many of them have lived here all their lives. They owe everything to La Reina. They don’t even own the horses and saddles they use!”

“I know.”

“But they might be our only…” Artie paused and Jim stepped out from the stall where he had been currying a pinto. Artemus was staring over top of his horse, and Jim moved over beside him. Burt was also on his feet looking toward the gate.

“That’s Rufus Redding!”

“It sure is,” Artie replied tensely. They watched as seven riders came through the gate, led by a big man with a mass of carrot-toned hair and matching beard. “Josh Petty’s best friend.”

“Could it be planned?”

“Good question. Jim, whether it is planned or not, the fact that they are here at the same time is not good. If they start talking…”

“They could be working up a scheme to take over The Crown, now, not waiting until Regina passes, and we’re right in the middle of it.”

“That’s sixteen men,” Artie mused. “Plenty to overpower a surprised and inexperienced bunch of vaqueros. I think I’d better start talking a little more strongly to my friends among the hands.”

“Have you had any trouble staying out of Petty’s sight?”

“Not much. It’s going to be worse with Redding here. I recognize at least three of his men who know us both quite well.”

“Yeah. Okay. I’m heading back to the house, Artie. If you possibly can, come to my room tonight. We need to talk. But don’t risk it if…”

“I know, I know.” Artie chuckled. “I’ll be careful, Ma.”

W*W*W*W*W

The possession of power unavoidably spoils the free use of reason.
—Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), German philosopher


Jim went to his room to wash up, then returned downstairs immediately, finding Burt in the lower hallway. “Is La Reina alone?”

“Yeah. Far as I know. Those new fellows didn’t come in the house yet.”

“Do you know who they are?”

“More renegades,” Burt said sourly.

“His name is Rufus Redding. He and his gang are vicious killers, worse than Petty and his gang even. Petty and Redding are good friends and have worked together before.”

“That right?”

“That’s right.”

Leaving the guard to chew on this, Jim went to the study door, tapped on it then entered without waiting for a response. Regina, as usual, was working on her books. “Adding in the money you’ll get from Redding?”

She smiled benignly. “Not yet. Don’t look so disapproving, James. It is a profitable venture. One I’m sure you will wish to continue.”

“No. If I yielded and married Helene as you wish, the first thing I would do is summon the military to take these gangs into custody. Have you any idea what they’ve done in the outside world?”

“I don’t particularly care. They pay generously, and that money helps The Crown to survive. You will not summon the military, James. You will come around to my way of thinking. I’m certain of that.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“Because I know you, James. You are a great deal like me. You see what you want and you obtain it, in one way or another.”

“No. Not at all like that. I may be stubborn like you, but that’s as far as it goes. I am not going to marry Helene, and the sooner you allow me to go my own way, the better off you’ll be. I wish I could convince you…”

She waved her hand. “Oh, let’s not go through that again. I am in no danger of losing my land. The government won’t dare even approach me.”

Jim was about to offer an angry refutation, but a knock sounded on the door behind him, and when Regina called out an invitation, Rufus Redding entered, pulling his hat off his wild curls. “Ma’am, it’s right good to see you again. Howdy, West. Heard you were hanging out here.”

Jim ignored him, facing Regina. “There’s something else you should know, Regina. Redding and Petty are old friends and have been known to conspire together.” He spun and stalked out the door, closing it behind him with a firm jerk.

Burt got up. “You going out?”

“Should I?”

Jim sensed that the guard wanted to say something, but Burt just glanced at the closed door. “Naw. Just thinking how hot it is out there. Best to stay inside where it’s cool.”

“I agree.” Jim walked down the hall to the parlor. He expected to find Helene there, and did. She was reading a book and looked up, but did not say anything. Jim settled into a nearby chair. “Helene, something has to be done.”

Now she lowered the book to her lap, her expression wary. “Such as?”

He had to smile and quickly reassured her. “No, I’m not giving into Regina, not in that respect. I’m talking about her sideline of sheltering outlaws. Another band of renegades just arrived, led by a man who is worse than Josh Petty. Do you recall having more than one gang here at the same time previously?”

Helene shook her head. “No. Never. What… what are you thinking?”

“I’ve learned that some of the people—mostly the ones who toil on this ranch—are very concerned about the outlaws taking over should your grandmother pass away—and possibly even before.”

She sighed and shook her head. “I warned Grandmother about such an event when she first began this scheme. As usual, she waved it off as ridiculous. No one crosses Regina Renfrow in her mind. Not even bloodthirsty outlaws!”

Jim sat quietly for a long moment, then rose and went to the parlor door, sliding it shut and flipped the latch that locked it. When he turned back, he saw the astonishment on Helene’s face. “I need to tell you something, Helene, and I want to make sure no one else hears.”

She was baffled. “What do you mean?”

He sat down again, leaning forward and speaking in a low tone. “The most recent hire, Arturo Guerra, is my partner, Artemus Gordon, in disguise.”

“What?”

“Artemus is a former actor and is very good at assuming different personalities. He has fooled many, many people—including me from time to time—with his disguises. He tracked me down and entered the compound in a persona that he figured Regina would welcome, which she did. Ray also knows him from the war, and is aware of his identity now.”

“So… you plan to do something together?”

“Yes. We hope that the men in the compound will help. We need to overcome the two outlaw gangs before they have an opportunity to start anything, and we hope to do it without bloodshed.”

“You haven’t told Grandmother, obviously.”

His smile was rueful. “No, I’m afraid not. She would be likely to be on the side of the money-paying outlaws, and disbelieving of anything I said.”

Helene gazed unseeingly at the book resting on her lap. She was attired in a plain calico dress today, her hair twisted into a chignon at the back of her head. No matter her attire, no matter her hairstyle, Jim mused, she is a beautiful woman…like her grandmother. Finally, Helene lifted her eyes again.

“It has to be done, Jim. I agree that it would be only a matter of time before the outlaws took over. I worry about the people here. This is the only home many have known. If they were turned out, or worse, injured or killed…. It has to be done.”

“I’m glad you agree. Artemus and I are going to try to formulate a plan. He is in good graces with a number of the men, and he’ll try to bring them in on it.”

The door suddenly rattled as if someone was trying to open it, and a sharp rap followed. Jim got up quickly to unlatch and open it, not the least surprised to find Regina Renfrow, irritation and suspicion on her face. “What’s going on? Why was that latched?”

“I guess it shut it a little too firmly,” Jim said rather abashedly. “I’m sorry.”

Stepping into the room and finding her granddaughter present, Regina’s expression softened. “Ah. I hope to two of you were making plans.”

“Plans for what?” Helene snapped back.

Regina went to the large chair she favored and sank into it. Jim thought she looked more weary than usual. He had not noticed that in her office a short while ago. She waved her hand. “I wish you two would stop playing games. I have composed a letter to a minister I know to advise him that both of you will be arriving one day soon, asking him to perform the ceremony as soon as possible.”

Jim had not retaken his chair and he stood with his arms folded. “You are the most mule-headed woman I’ve ever encountered, Regina. What is it going to take to convince you that the marriage is not going to happen?”

Her smile was sweet. “Nothing, my dear James. Because I know it will. I am always right, and I know that you two are perfect for each other. Your offspring will carry the Renfrow name far into the generations to come.” She shook her head a little sadly. “I wish I could accompany you to witness the marriage, but I’m afraid the trip would be a little too much for me these days.”

That was, Jim realized, the first time he had heard her make any comment relating to her failing health. She had spoken of her death matter-of-factly previously, but nothing about not being able to carry out any undertakings before that final moment. I believe she honestly thinks she’s going to go on forever.

“You’re not going to miss anything,” Helene replied tartly. “Because no wedding is going to take place, at least not between the two of us. I will be delighted to make the trip with Ray.”

“Which I have forbidden. James, I have been considering what you told me a short while ago. I plan to summon Mr. Petty and Mr. Redding into my office to discuss the matter.”

“That would be the worst possible thing you could do, Regina. Forewarning them of my suspicions would only hasten matters.”

Again, a wave of that dismissing hand. “I think I know my business, James. I also know men. Just as I know you will acquiesce soon and marry my granddaughter, I know that Mr. Petty and Mr. Redding will adhere to my rules and wishes. They will not be allowed safe haven here again if they cause any trouble.”

Jim looked at Helene and saw in her face his own thoughts. This is impossible. The same thing over and over and over. In no way can we bring Regina into the planning. We’ll have to convince the vaqueros to act without her sanction. If she is going to warn Petty and Redding, we are going to have to act sooner than later!

“I’m going to take a walk,” he said, and exited through the door into the hallway. Jerking his head toward Burt, who was lounging on the stairs yet, he went out the front door. His guard quickly caught up with him.

“How come you locked the door there? Changing your mind and doing a little snuggling with Miss Helene?”

Jim shook his head. “We just had some things to talk about.”

“Like maybe those renegades?”

“Maybe.”

Jim was surprised that Burt continued to walk alongside him, rather than fall back as usual. Again, he sensed that the guard had something to say to him, so he steered his path over to one of the trees that offered good shade against the sun. Off in the distance he heard loud laughter. The two gangs were having a jolly reunion.

“What’s on your mind, Burt?” Jim pulled out his packet of cigarillos, offered one to Burt who shook his head. Jim lit one, exhaled the smoke.

The guard lowered the butt of his rifle to the ground, holding onto the barrel. He looked toward the raucous noise. “You really think those fellows might be plotting trouble?”

“It’s a very good possibility. Miss Renfrow tells me that never before have two gangs sheltered here at the same time.”

“Yeah, I was thinking that too. Could be just an accident, but… look, I have friends here. Good friends. I… I have been keeping company with a widow, Esperanza Bejarano. We… well, we’ve gotten pretty close. I’ve been thinking on asking La Reina if I can marry Esperanza and take her and her kids out of here, find a place of our own.”

“Do you think she would allow that?”

“I dunno. You know, she’s been good to me. I got in some trouble with the law years ago and I was looking for a place to hide out. I never told her about the law problems, but I think she knew. But she took me on anyway.” He looked at Jim ruefully. “Maybe I shouldn’t be telling you about those problems.”

“They’re in the past as far as I’m concerned, Burt. The important thing is to protect the people here, including your Esperanza and her family, from the ruthlessness of men like Redding and Petty. I happen to know—and I’m not going to tell you how I know—that Arturo Guerra has been talking to the men, and plans to talk to them further, about the potential problems. They will need to help.”

“Yeah. As I see it, there are fifteen-sixteen men in those two gangs. All told, including the older boys, we have maybe thirty-five men here. All of them have guns. Some will be better than others in using them, but I reckon all will want to defend their families. I can talk to Guerra and work together getting to the men.”

“Good. Be sure to tell them not to do anything until we have it arranged to act all together.”

“Yeah.” Burt suddenly smiled, lightening his harsh features. “I didn’t like you much at first, West, but I can sure see why you’re one hell of a lawman. You got a head on you.”

Jim chuckled. “Thanks. I think that’s the nicest compliment I have had in quite a while.

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
Go to Top of Page

California gal
SS senior field agent

USA
8373 Posts

Posted - 07/20/2014 :  08:50:25  Show Profile
Chapter Seven

Et scitote, quoniam omnia mala volumus citius venire.
[Know this, that troubles come swifter than the things we desire.]
—Plautus (Titus Maccius Plautus; 254-184 BC), Roman dramatist


Artemus managed to talk to several more of the range hands during the afternoon. He had quietly asked Jorge and Guillermo whether they thought all of the men could be trusted. They assured him that was so. They had already discussed looming problems with their compañeros and found that all agreed. La Reina had made a big mistake in offering sanctuary to outlaws for a fee, and she was now compounding it by allowing two gangs inside at the same time. All were worried about the safety of their homes and families.

“I believe,” Jorge said, “they will fight for their homes. But they may hesitate to go against La Reina’s wishes.”

Artie found that was true as he casually brought up the subject with various men. Having five or six in a band of renegades coming into the compound had been bad enough. The men saw those men ogling their wives and daughters. The women had to be careful to stay out of the outlaws’ presence.

León Sarmento, Guillermo’s younger brother, told a tale of the day he had gone to La Reina to protest against a gringo’s advances on his wife. Mrs. Renfrow had simply told him to keep his wife in the house while the gangs were present. That had angered León, but he felt helpless to do anything else. He could not go against La Reina.

When Artemus slipped into Jim’s room well after midnight that night, he told Jim of the conversations. “They want to do something, but not if Regina Renfrow forbids it.”

“So we have to convince them they must, regardless of what she says. I am not sure how, or what it’s going to take. Although…”

“Although?” Artie peered at his partner in the dimness of the room. The only illumination was the moonlight through the window.

“I’m thinking of Helene. They all realize that she is the next La Reina. Would they listen to her?”

“Good question. Maybe I can feel them out on that. I had a close call today. I didn’t see Hank Wylie coming around the corner of a building and bumped into him. As soon as I realized who it was, I became el humilde peón, bowing and scraping my apologies, and above all, keeping my head down.”

“Yeah, I’m afraid it’s just a matter of time. One of Petty’s bunch wanted to pound on me yesterday. Josh held him off. But if this Herb comes on me without his boss around…”

“Well, I’m sure you can handle him, as long as the rest of the dozen and a half men don’t join in. Even then I’m not sure but what my money would be on you.”

“Thanks for your confidence,” Jim replied sardonically. “You’d better be getting back. Do you know yet what your duties will be tomorrow?”

“Out on the range again, which might be a good time to talk to the boys. What about the ones assigned as guards?”

Jim briefly told him of his conversation with Burt. “I wouldn’t be surprised but what Burt is talking to his buddies. You might try to sound them out if you get a chance. We can’t wait too long, Artie. The sooner we get something set up…”

“The better. Right. I don't know if I’ll be able to get back here tomorrow night, Jim. I used the last of my gas pellets today. You have any?”

“No. Just explosives. We’ll just have to hold our meetings out in the open.”

Artie nodded, grinning. “That is often the best hiding place.”

“By the way, I told Helene who you are.”

Artie’s dark brows lifted. “Was that wise?”

“We’re going to need her help. Not to mention, now that Ray knows, he might let something slip.”

“That’s true. Okay. I probably won’t see you until late tomorrow. Hold things together, will you, James?”

“I’ll try, Artemus. I’ll try.”

W*W*W*W*W


Artemus Gordon often told himself he would rather be anywhere than on the back of a horse. Yet there were times, such as when he and Jim were riding side by side, to or from an assignment, when they could talk and laugh with only the sturdy, faithful steeds under them to listen, that he forgot how much disliked riding horseback. Another such time was now, in the open field, the cattle moving slowly as they were being driven from one grazing area to another, comrades laughing and talking as they herded.

I am pretty sure I would not like to be on a long cattle drive, but on a day like this, with the sky azure blue, the breeze soft, moving at a leisurely pace… well, it’s not so bad.

It seemed the main chore of the vaqueros was such as this, driving the rather scanty herd, comprised of less than a thousand head, from pasture to pasture. This was Arturo Guerra’s second time out in the field. Because of the smallness of the herd, not every man was needed out here every day. Regina could not dismiss men from her service. Thus, they rotated turns.

Artie knew the only reason she took him on was due to his vaunted prowess with a gun. Nonetheless, she had put him with the herders rather than with the guard crew, undoubtedly because she did not know if she could trust him yet. Nonetheless, that’s turning out to be a blessing, because it is the vaqueros I need to talk to. He wanted to speak to the guards too, but had to be more cautious. Jim thought Burt was leaning toward driving the outlaws away, but they had no notion if the other guards shared his feelings. Burt was not among the crew with the herd today.

Artie had yet to figure out why the guards went out with the herders. He was unsure whether Regina thought someone among them might run away, or if she feared raiders… or what. The practice might be left over from the days when hostile Indians roamed this area. Without doubt, that had been a problem at one time.

That might be a great opening, he decided and urged his chestnut toward the nearest guard, a young Mexican man he knew was called Vicente. “¡Hola, amigo!” he called, easing his horse alongside Vicente’s. “A beautiful day, is it not?”

“Not bad. At least the cows are behaving.”

“Oh? Sometimes they do not?”

Si. One day a coyote run through and the stupid cows tried to run away. Even I had to help.”

“And you did not like that. You are not a vaquero, eh?”

“I am a guardia!

“I see.” And obviously very proud of being one. “It puzzles me, amigo. Why must there be guards? What is there to fear but coyotes?”

Vicente shrugged. “It is what La Reina wishes. It has always been so. Many guards.”

“Perhaps she now needs more guards at the hacienda. So many bad men there.”

The young guard looked a little surprised. “Why would they need to be guarded? They can take care of themselves.”

Arturo smiled broadly. “Oh, you mistake me, amigo. I meant that the hacienda needed to be guarded against them.”

Now the surprise turned to a frown. “They won’t do anything. La Reina will throw them out.”

“Ah, I see. Others have told me never before have two gangs of bad men come at the same time. It is worrisome to some.”

“Old women. They worry too much.” Vicente’s gaze turned away from Arturo, focusing in the direction that had it not been for trees and rising ground, he would be able to see the fenced-in compound of The Crown.

Artie could see that the young man had heard the talk and was not as easy with it as he was trying to portray. “It would be terrible if la gente got hurt. You and me, we are fighters. We take care of ourselves. But the other men, the women and children…”

Vicente’s head swiveled around, his dark eyes blazing. “They will not dare touch Ofelia!”

Artie had heard the name. She was the very comely oldest daughter of a family who had been here for at least two generations. “Ah, Ofelia. Your sweetheart, perhaps?”

“I will marry her as soon as I save enough money.”

“Why do you need money to marry? You will continue to live here, no?”

“No. I wish to go away, to have my own farm. I will marry Ofelia and take her there.”

“Ah. Very brave man. Will La Reina permit it?”

“Maybe. Maybe you better get back to work, Guerra.”

Artie laughed. “I enjoy myself so much talking with you, I forget my job. I forget the time. Adios, amigo.” With a wave, Artemus steered his horse back to the herd. One down. Now I have to finagle a way to talk to the other guards. Talking to the hands was easy, either here or at the compound. The guards usually remained separate, unless like Vicente, they were courting a member of a family.

He still had not learned exactly why the guards were necessary out here, but perhaps Vicente’s hope to leave The Crown for his own property might be a clue. Regina Renfrow did not want word of her little kingdom spreading elsewhere. Even though someone like Vicente might swear to keep it secret, she would still worry. The guards might be there to keep the regular hands from straying; but what happened when one of the guards wished to leave?

W*W*W*W*W


Jim went out with the hope of talking to Ray, but again the cowhand was nowhere to be seen. That puzzled Jim, for unless Regina had changed her mind, she had been keeping her granddaughter’s sweetheart confined within the walls of the compound. The guard trailing Jim today was Joaquin, never as friendly as Burt, especially after their little fracas in Regina’s office that first day, but Jim went up to him anyway.

“Have you seen Ray Channing?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Because he’s a friend of mine. Is he ill?”

“He works in the garden.”

Does Helene know this? That was Jim’s first thought as he turned to look toward the rear of the big house, the location of the gardens that supplied vegetables to the compounds’ residents, and normally worked by the women and children. He brought his gaze back to Joaquin.

“That sounds like punishment. What did he do to earn it?”

Joaquin shrugged. “La Reina, she says to put him there.”

Experiencing a surge of anger, Jim turned again and began to walk toward the house, knowing Joaquin was following but not looking back. Regina is so full of ideas that she thinks will cause Helene and me to change our minds! Humiliating Ray may be one of them. Jim knew it was not going to work. When Helene discovered it—and she would—her feeling would be one of rage, just as he felt.

He had just reached the path that led around the house, separated from the compound by a high hedge, when three men came around the corner. One was Petty’s man, Herb. He grinned widely upon seeing Jim approaching him. “Well, ain’t this nice. I was keeping my eye out for you, West. Josh ain’t around to save your bacon.” One of the men with him poked him in the arm and said something in a low voice, something that irritated Herb, who jerked his arm away and cursed his companion.

Jim had paused, glancing back at Joaquin, who also stopped a dozen feet back, cradling his rifle, but merely looking on. “It’s a nice day, Herb,” Jim spoke in an easy manner, “let’s not ruin it.”

Herb strutted forward a few paces. “I figured all that stuff I heard about you was bull. Too bad you ain’t got a gun on. I’d like to see if you can beat me. But I’ll settle for bashing your head in.”

He charged forward, bringing a big ham-fisted right hand up and back, ready to smash into Jim’s face. He swung it, but Jim’s face was not there. Jim adroitly stepped to one side to elude not only the blow but also the body of the onrushing Herb, who staggered several steps before he was able to stop and turn around.

“Yellow snake!” he bellowed. He approached with more deliberation, but this time when he again drove a right fist toward Jim’s head, a left forearm blocked it, while Jim’s own right fist buried itself in Herb’s midriff. Herb gasped for breath, but not for long. He was, Jim quickly realized, very solidly built. No softness in his body.

Herb came up swinging, and although Jim jumped back, knuckles connected with his jaw with a grazing blow that was substantial enough to rock him back a couple of steps. Herb saw and plowed forward, but Jim was again too agile for him, sidestepping the windmilling arms and connecting a hard right to Herb’s temple.

Jim realized that, as often occurred, his agility was his best weapon. If Herb was able to land a solid blow, he could be in trouble. I’d better end this as soon as possible! He narrowly avoided another blow aimed at his chest. Herb, however, had another strategy in mind. As Jim stepped aside, he stuck out his boot and caught Jim behind his left knee. Jim stumbled and went down; Herb was on him instantly, straddling him and starting to rain blows to his face and upper body. His arms were free, so Jim raised both up to try to fend some of them off and was partially successful, but he was aware it would not last long.

Taking a chance, he flung both arms out wide, allowing Herb’s blows to freely reach his face for a few seconds. Jim then brought his clenched fists back swiftly, slamming them on either side of his assailant’s head. The double blow was enough to stun Herb for a moment. Jim quickly twisted and threw him off, leaping to his feet. Before Herb could get up, Jim slugged him once with each fist. Herb staggered, leaned backwards, seeming about to recover. His eyes then rolled into his head as he slumped to the side, falling unconscious.

Hearing angry muttering behind him, Jim spun. Herb’s two companions were advancing, their faces dark with anger. “Señores,” Joaquin called. “It was a good fight. A fair fight. It is over.” He held his rifle rather loosely, but pointed toward the pair. ‘You just take your friend back to his bed. ¿Si?

The pair agreed silently, grabbing Herb by the shoulders and feet and hauling him back toward the outlaws’ quarters in the rear of the compound. Jim turned.

Gracias, Joaquin. Why did you wait so long? I wasn’t really looking forward to that tussle.” He pulled his handkerchief from inside his coat to mop the blood seeping from his cut lip.

Señor, I wanted to see if it had been an accident.”

Jim frowned. “What accident?”

“That you defeated four of us that day in La Reina’s presence. I see now it was not an accident.”

“Good.”

With his lip still freely bleeding and other bumps and bruises on his face and body, Jim decided to postpone calling on Ray. He turned and went back toward the front of the house and managed to get to his room without encountering Regina or Helene. After washing up, he changed his shirt to the only spare one he had, which Nieves, the housekeeper, washed and ironed every night.

He could do nothing about the blossoming bruises on his cheek and chin, but at least by holding a cold cloth to his mouth he stopped the bleeding and forestalled some of the swelling. He also brushed as much of the dirt from his trousers and jacket, before donning the jacket again. Going downstairs, he looked into the parlor. Joaquin, like his previous guard, settled on the stairs.

Helene was still in the chair with the book on her lap, but she had dozed off. He entered quietly and pulled the door closed again. The click of the lock roused her and she looked at him drowsily for a moment. Then her blue eyes widened.

“What happened?”

He crossed to the opposite chair again. “Had a little tussle with one of Petty’s men. Nothing serious. Helene, did you know that Ray has been assigned to work in the kitchen garden?”

“What?”

“I haven’t seen him, but that’s what Joaquin told me. I was heading out to talk to him when I was interrupted.”

Helene jumped to her feet, ignoring the book that fell to the floor. “I’ll speak to Grandmother right now!”

Jim stood up as well and caught her arm. “No, wait. It might work to our advantage.”

Now she looked at him, clearly puzzled. “How?”

“My partner and I can talk to the men about possibly resisting—and ousting—the two outlaw gangs. Your grandmother would probably notice if you went out and talked to the women. But Ray can now talk to them without drawing suspicion.”

“Oh. I see. Yes. I sometimes chat briefly with the women, but Grandmother has forbidden me to visit their homes. She thinks it is unbecoming for the heiress. I don’t resist her because I never wanted to bring trouble to their homes.”

“What you need to do is go out now and draw Ray aside to suggest that he start recruiting the women to our side. Their husbands and sons will likely tell them as well, but we may need their assistance in the long run. We certainly don’t want any of them to notice what may be occurring and speak out of turn. He should tell them to be careful around the children—just as Regina never allows children to go into town lest they talk too much.”

Helene cocked her head. “Methinks you have had experience plotting.”

Jim had to laugh. “Yeah, Artie and I have had to come up with some interesting schemes in our work.” He sobered. “I suppose it would be a good idea for you to protest Ray’s treatment to your grandmother—but not too strongly.”

“I’ll pretend I came upon him by accident. I wondered why I did not see him yesterday or this morning. I hoped that he was being allowed to go out to the herds again. I should have known better. I didn’t go back to the garden. It’s too close to the houses Grandmother is allowing those outlaws to use. I know they sit out there and watch the women work.”

“I can imagine,” Jim muttered, then said, “I’m going out again. With any luck, I won’t run into any more trouble. Artemus is talking to the men at the herd, including the guards. I need to try to converse with those who have other chores today. I know some of them speak pretty good English.”

“Yes. That was something Grandmother insisted upon. She can speak and understand Spanish, but she feels it is demeaning for her to use it.”

Jim sighed. “It’s a beautiful language. I’ll check back with you later to see what Ray says.”

He stepped out into the hallway just as Regina descended the stairs, so he paused to wait for her, waving a hand behind him to signal Helene to stay put for the moment. The old woman smiled as she reached the floor.

“Ah, another tête-à-tête with Helene? Good. You two will come to a mutual understanding soon, I’m sure. You’ll realize my plan is the best possible plan.”

“Not very likely,” Jim replied coolly. “Some day you will come to realize that you cannot force people to love against their will.”

She merely continued to smile. “Come into my office, James. I have a business matter to discuss with you.”

Wondering, he followed her into the neat office, taking the seat across from her desk. He waited while she fussed around a bit with the ledger on her desk, making some notations. Jim suspected she wanted him to ask questions, and for that reason, he remained silent, despite his intense curiosity. Regina had not previously even hinted she wanted his advice on anything.

Finally, after two or three minutes, she looked up, serene and composed, displaying no irritation with his recalcitrance. “What happened to your face?”

“I bumped into a door.”

She was not amused, waited a few seconds to display her disapproval before continuing. “James, something occurred to me, and I wonder why I didn’t think of it before.” He continued to remain mute. He did see a flicker in her blue eyes this time as she resumed. “The best way to increase the coffers of The Crown for you and Helene is to increase the business I have initiated here.”

“More cattle you mean?”

“You are being deliberately obstinate, James. I do not like that!”

“Then you had better explain what you are inferring.”

Regina gazed at him for a long moment while he retained a bland expression.

“All right. I’m sure that hard head of yours will be of some use to The Crown eventually. My thought is that you know how to contact various outlaws who might be seeking sanctuary.”

He was not astonished at all. Smiling, he shook his head. “No.”

“No what?”

“No, I do not know how to contact outlaws and no, I will not invite them to The Crown.”

“You are obstinate, but you are not stupid, James. Petty and Redding are paying me a thousand dollars each a week to harbor them and their men. Just consider…”

“No, Regina. No! I am an officer of the law. Even if I were not, I would be against your scheme. You allow those men to hide here. They then leave to rob and kill innocent people. In no way will I be a party to that.”

She slapped her hand against the desktop. “You will! James, my patience in all matters is growing thin. You will marry Helene, you will take over control of The Crown, and you will soon come to see that more than cattle is needed to support all the people who depend on this establishment.”

“Why don’t you allow some of the people to leave, to seek their livings elsewhere?”

“You know the reason for that. While they may swear to keep the secret of The Crown, they cannot be relied upon. These people like to talk.”

“You don’t seem to grasp the ramifications, Regina. In a sense, these people are here against their will, just as I am. Slavery was abolished in this country. Many men died to accomplish that noble deed. You are treating these people as your slaves, not allowing them to have free will, to choose where and how they want to live and raise their children. Let them all go, contact government authorities, and register your property legally. You…”

Regina stood up abruptly, her eyes blazing. “How dare you! These people are my friends! They rely on me and I rely on them! James, I have put up with a great deal from you. I wonder if you think we are playing a game. I assure you it is not. I saw in you greatness, the ideal man to continue the Renfrow heritage. I am wondering what it will take to convince you to my way of thinking. A touch of the lash, perhaps?”

Jim gazed up at her, his green eyes turning icy. “If you think that is the case, you are very wrong.” Now he rose. “I’m not going to give in to you, Regina. Not in marriage to Helene, not in helping you shelter murderers and thieves. You’ll have to kill me or let me go free.”

“Don’t underestimate me, James. I suspect you have been doing just that. I will not be denied. You will marry Helene and follow my wishes or… you will die.”

“I have also warned you, Regina. I am a government employee. My employers know where I have been recently. No doubt a search is underway for me. I stumbled onto this place, and so can they.”

“You had best hope they do not, James.”

Knowing that, as usual, the discussion could continue with the same words repeated over and over, Jim turned and exited, pulling the door shut behind him. Joaquin was alongside the door and the guilt in his expression indicated he had been eavesdropping. Jim went out the front door and his guard followed.

La Reina is angry,” Joaquin said behind him.

Jim did not stop until he reached the stables, where he grabbed a brush and began working on one of the nearest horses, feeling the need for some physical exertion to steady his anger. Instead of going to sit under a tree, Joaquin came inside, leaning against the post of a nearby stall.

“What will you do?”

“About what?” Jim snapped.

“She will do it, señor. She will whip you. She will kill you. La Reina will do anything to protect The Crown.”

Halting his work, Jim stepped out of the stall. “You realize she’s insane.”

Joaquin shrugged. “For many years. But she gives us a home, protects us.”

“You’ve never wanted to leave?”

“I do not say that. I have a boy; he is ten years old now. Very smart boy. I would like him to go to a regular school. Maybe la universidad.” Joaquin paused, glanced behind him before he spoke again. “My wife and I, we wait for La Reina to… to leave us.”

“Any others feel that way?”

“Some. Some do not care; they do whatever they are told. If you marry the Señorita Helena… it will be different?”

“I’m not going to marry her, Joaquin. I don’t want to marry her and she doesn’t want to marry me.”

“She loves the Señor Channing. I see them together.”

“Joaquin, listen to me, and listen good. Having two gangs of killers here is not good. Something has to be done.”

Si. They are very bad, very… peligroso. You know?”

Jim knew Joaquin was not able to think of the correct English word. “Dangerous, yes. We need to develop a plan to overcome them.”

“Oh, Señor West! That is…” He stopped, gazing at Jim’s solemn face. “You mean to go against La Reina’s wishes?”

“Exactly. She is doing the wrong thing in the first place, against the law. She is putting everyone at risk. Petty and Redding may wait for her to pass on, and they may not. They think they have only peóns to deal with.”

“Bah! I have experience in the Mexican army.”

“But many do not. That’s why we have to organize. Listen, we can’t talk too much longer here. Someone might notice. Discuss this with your friends. See if they have any thoughts about leaving, and if they will cooperate in an attempt to overcome these outlaws.”

Si, I will do that. That fellow, Guerra, he talk about this too.”

“Does he? Good. He’ll be a lot of help.” Jim kept a straight face, noticing how the guard was peering at him. Are they starting to suspect Arturo? Although Ray and Helene knew about Arturo, it was too soon to reveal the disguise to the other residents.

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
Go to Top of Page

California gal
SS senior field agent

USA
8373 Posts

Posted - 07/20/2014 :  08:51:47  Show Profile
Chapter Eight

Malum est consilium, quod passio non potest esse.
[It is a bad plan that admits of no modification.]
Maxims, Syrus (Publilius Syrus; c. first century, BC), Roman (Syrian born) mimographer


The following morning Arturo Guerra strolled from the bunkhouse toward the stables, pausing to speak pleasantly to the women who were up and out doing their chores, sweeping steps, carrying laundry to the lines in the back of the cottages, careful to not appear to be flirting. He did not want to do anything to alienate any of the men or their wives. When he reached the stables, no one was present, but he set about taking care of his own horse. After a few minutes, he glanced toward the door and saw Señor West walking toward the stable, one of his ubiquitous guards following. He was not entirely surprised when Burt followed Jim into the stables.

Buenos dios, amigos,” he greeted, remaining cautious. He then spotted the bruises on his partner’s face. “¡Madre de dios, señor! You fall down and hurt yourself?”

“Something like that,” Jim replied, with a slight grin. “Señor Guerra, you know Burt.”

Si. He is your guardia, no?”

“One of them. He’s also as concerned as we are about the presence of Petty and Redding and their men.”

“Ah.” That explained it. Artemus had talked to other guards, but not Burt. “We all worry, eh?”

La Reina is making a big mistake,” Burt growled. “People are going to get hurt if these gangs keep coming to The Crown.”

“Plus she wants me to contact and invite others,” Jim said soberly. “I refused, of course. But it shows where her mind-set is.”

“Someone’s gotta talk to her,” Burt growled.

Jim cocked a brow. “Do you want to be the one?”

Burt’s grin was rueful. “Not likely.”

“Perhaps a… a committee,” Guerra offered. “A guard, a vaquero, a woman from the kitchen…”

“Even better,” Jim mused, “all women. Women concerned about themselves and their families.”

“Good idea!” Burt approved. “My Esperanza is kind of a leader amongst the women. I’ll see what she thinks about that. I don't know if Mrs. Renfrow would listen to them, but she sure won’t have them whipped or worse. I’ll go talk to her right now.” Without waiting for assent, and seeming to forget his guard duty for the moment, Burt spun and left the stable.

Jim picked up a currying brush. “Something else I have been thinking about, Artie, and that’s to get the army here. You could…”

Artemus shook his head. “I’m not leaving. But I think I know someone who might be able to carry it off.”

“Who’s that?”

“Young Vicente. Being a guard, he has more freedom outside the compound. He wants to take his girlfriend and leave anyway. If we could get the cooperation of the other guards.”

“From what Burt tells me, that might not be difficult. They don’t want to get into a pitched battle with the gun hands. Vicente should be able to reach Fort Wingate without much trouble.”

“Speaking of which, what did happen to your face?”

“One of Petty’s boys, name of Herb, decided to try me.”

“Lucky you. No doubt he’ll be wanting a rematch.”

“Yeah, I’m afraid so.”

“What’s this about Regina wanting you to bring in other outlaw gangs?”

“That’s another one of her great plans. I marry Helene, we harbor more gangs to support The Crown.”

“I don't think I’ve ever seen a more hardheaded woman, Jim. Why doesn’t she just…?”

Jim was shaking his head. “Don’t ask me. I don't think she is truly insane. She is obsessed with The Crown. She built it into what it is today—both good and bad. The people who live and work her are her subjects.”

“Her slaves you mean.”

“Exactly. I told her so and got threatened with a lashing or worse. However, by allowing the herds to dwindle, she lost income, and now she feels, instead of letting the workers go their own way, she must keep them here in her kingdom.”

“Subjects to rule…,” Artie mused.

“Yeah. Some, like Vicente, want to have their own property, their own homes for their families. I have no doubt many of them would stay on. But they should have the freedom to choose their destinies rather than fear for themselves and their families—either from the outlaws or from Regina.”

Artie shook his head briefly, turning to put his brush on a shelf. “I’d better get out of here. I’ve let it be known how fond I am of my horse and how I like to keep her looking good, but there is a limit.” He grinned then sobered. “I’ll get to Vicente and talk to him about heading for the fort.”

“Be careful. We don’t want him to report to La Reina.”

“Don’t worry. Arturo Guerra has a silver tongue.” With a wave, he strolled out of the stables.

Jim took the time to complete the currying of the horse he had started then exited as well. Burt was lolling under the tree again. He rose quickly to walk just behind Jim, speaking in a quiet voice.

“I talked to Esparanza. She says the women have been talking among themselves regarding Petty and Redding and their boys. She’s already making her thirteen-year-old daughter stay in the house unless her brother or another known man accompanies her. Young Dolores was upset by some comments made by a couple of Petty’s boys when she walked by them. I don't know if anything will come of it. They also fear La Reina’s wrath. But if she talks to the women, they’ll talk to their men.”

“All right. Guerra is going to be trying to line up the men who are willing to fight. Seems a couple have experience in the Mexican army.”

“Yeah, that’s right. I forgot about that.”

“I’m going inside to clean up, but I’ll be out later—unless La Reina has other plans for me. Just keep talking to the people here, Burt. We don't know how much time we have, and we need to be ready.”

“Say, West,” Burt spoke as Jim reached the steps of the porch. Jim paused and the guard continued. “Why is this Guerra so interested in helping the folks here?”

Jim shrugged. “He doesn’t want to see people hurt, I suppose. Especially women and children.”

Burt gazed at him for a long moment, then smiled slightly. “Yeah, I guess.”

W*W*W*W*W


Artie managed to get Vicente aside long enough to explain the mission they had for him. The young vaquero was surprised but also pleased that he was to be trusted. Both Arturo Guerra and Vicente would be out on the range the next day. Artie promised to help Vicente find a time to slip away.

“Ride your fastest horse tomorrow,” Arturo advised.

Vicente made a rueful face. “My fastest horse I cannot mount. I cannot even put a saddle on him. That black Diablo of a horse that Señor West rode!”

“Ah,” Artie nodded soberly, “I heard about that horse. You might have to return him to Señor West, eh? Especially if he weds the señorita.

“Maybe,” the younger man acquiesced. “I will tell only my sweetheart where I go, so she will not worry about me.”

Bueno.”

That evening Arturo was invited to the home of Guillermo Sarmento for supper. He was not overly surprised to find several other families present for the meal—and conversation about the situation at The Crown. All the adults were concerned, both about the presence of outlaws but also what they should do about it. Artie found it difficult to retain the guise of Arturo Guerra, wishing he could give them more assurance and help as Artemus Gordon.

However, he knew now was not the time. Someone might let the information slip where one of the outlaws might hear, or even decide to tell Regina Renfrow. These people were upset, but they were also unsure. They had been on The Crown for all or nearly all their lives in many instances. They could not imagine that La Reina would put them in danger. Although more than one expressed a wish to have their own home and property somewhere off The Crown, they also were reluctant to go against Regina. Their greatest wish, of course, was that the Redding and Petty gangs would depart in peace—and never return.

We have to be fluid, Artie realized as he listened to the conversations. Nothing we’ve discussed may work. We might have to come up with something completely different. However, we do have to do something!

W*W*W*W*W

Stand there, damn'd meddling villain, and be silent;
For if thou utt'rest but a single word,
A cough or hem, to cross me in my speech,
I'll send thy cursed spirit from the earth,
To bellow with the damn'd!
Basil: A Tragedy, Joanna Baillie (1762-1851) Scottish poet and dramatist


The remainder of the day was frustrating for Jim. He sought an audience with Regina, but was put off until just before supper. Then when he tried again to impress on her the danger of having outlaw gangs, singly or in multiples, on her property, she waved him off. She simply would not listen to the possibilities. She knew she had the situation in hand. Those men would not dare to defy her any more than the peóns on her rancho would.

That was the first time Jim had heard her refer to her employees and their families as peóns. Hearing the somewhat demeaning word from Regina Renfrow’s lips told him the truth regarding how she felt about the people on her property and in her employ, despite her earlier angry protestations. A peón was the lowest of the low in Mexican culture, similar to a serf or esne in Medieval times. She might claim to be protective of, and even somewhat fond of these people. Nonetheless, she saw them as her property.

No wonder she doesn’t want anyone to leave. Not simply a worry about them revealing the location of her secret rancho, but if anyone departed, her “kingdom” would be lessened. He shook his head slightly as he strode down the hallway toward the kitchen and the back of the house, having made up his mind that he was going to confront Petty and Redding.

He would have liked to have Artie at his side, but that was not feasible just now. They did not yet know how important Artie’s disguise as Arturo Guerra was or would be. Not to mention that Regina would be furious when and if she learned of the deception played on her. For now, Artie needed to be able to gain the confidence and friendship of the workers here. They too might be angry when the truth became known, but that was a necessary risk.

As he reached the door that opened into the kitchen, Jim heard his name called behind him. He stopped and turned. “Helene?”

“Where are you going?” she asked, leaning over the stairway banister.

“Out to have a talk with the paying guests.”

Alarm sprang to her pretty features and she hurried on down the steps, then toward him. “Jim, that is not wise.”

“They won’t do anything. I’m pretty certain Regina has told them I’m the heir-apparent. At this moment, they would not want to rouse her anger.”

“Are you sure of that?”

His smile was rueful. “Let’s just say I’m hoping I’m sure. Helene, I have to find out what their plans are. I want to try to make them drop a hint or two, accidentally or on purpose. We have to be ready for them, if and when they act. We can’t be surprised.”

“I’ll go with you.”

“You will not!” Jim’s voice was sharp, reflecting his surprise and a little anger.

Her chin came up. “You cannot stop me. I’ll just follow you if you don’t allow me to walk alongside you.”

He gazed at her a moment. No wonder Ray Channing loved her. I could too, if I were to allow myself… “All right,” he sighed. “I don’t really expect trouble, but if anything happens, run. Promise?”

Helene nodded. “Promise. Let’s go. I think Messieurs Petty and Redding are in for a bit of a surprise. We need to be back before dinner is served.”

Jim laughed softly as he pushed through the kitchen door and held it for her. Nieves and two other women were in the process of preparing the evening meal. All three turned to stare at them, but apparently, even the housekeeper did not question Miss Helene’s actions. Jim led the way along the path beside the extensive and tidy kitchen garden. The sun was lowering in the west, but darkness was an hour or more away.

The buildings that housed the “paying guests” were not nearly as well kept as the homes where the workers resided. A broken window was boarded up in one; on the other, the small porch had a hole in the floor that no one had attempted to mend. Empty liquor bottles littered both the porches and the small front yards. Similar conditions were visible in the smaller stable and corral behind the buildings. Jim had been told that these houses were once occupied by ranch residents, but were no longer needed.

Rufus Redding and two of his men were lounging on the porch of one of the houses. Rufus got to his feet when he saw the pair approaching, pulling off his hat as he all but leered at Helene. She obviously noticed his gaze, but kept her chin up.

“Well howdy, ma’am,” Redding called. “We weren’t expecting company or we would have spruced the place up a bit. Won’t you sit down, miss?” He waved toward a rocker on the porch.

“This isn’t is a social visit,” Jim kept his voice and gaze hard. “We have come to learn when you plan to leave.”

“Leave? Why we just got here, West. We’re paid up for a couple of weeks.”

“I can arrange to have your money returned.” Jim knew that was a lie but he also knew that he needed to push Redding to get any useful information from him.

Redding ambled down the steps now to stand on the path ahead of them. “Got no notion to leave for a while. We like this place. Real good.” Even in the dulling light, his hair was carrot red. He enjoyed wearing it a bit long so that it resembled a clown’s wig. That hat that he held in his hand sat loosely atop all the curling tresses. Jim knew he tied the hat down when riding or in breezy weather. He did not seem to mind the ludicrous spectacle that caused.

“I heard you been talking to Miz Renfrow about us, West,” Redding went on. “Saying things that ain’t true, like we’re gonna cause trouble.”

All three glanced toward the neighboring building when the front door there opened. Josh Petty emerged, paused a long moment to stare at the visitors, then came off the porch to stride toward them. Three of his men came out onto the porch.

“Payin’ a friendly visit, West?” he asked. He was not wearing a hat, but nodded toward Helene. “Evenin’, ma’am.”

“It ain’t friendly, Rufe,” Petty put in, keeping his eyes on Jim. “West here is sayin’ we oughta leave.”

“No, that ain’t friendly ‘t all. What’s on your mind, West?”

“I don’t want to see Regina Renfrow and her people in any further trouble with the law. If you boys clear out, I’ll forget about her harboring wanted criminals when I leave here.”

Petty chuckled. “I heard you ain’t leavin’.” His eyes too roved over Helene Renfrow suggestively.

“I’ll be leaving,” Jim responded mildly. “I’m just hoping you boys decide to depart without any trouble.”

“I been telling West how we like it here,” Redding spoke up. “An’ we got our rent all paid up.”

“That’s right. Miz Renfrow invited us. Wouldn’t be polite to take off like that.”

“I’m sure Grandmother would forgive you,” Helene spoke for the first time, her voice dry.

Petty shrugged. “That ain’t the point. We like it here and we’re staying as long as we like. You planning to do something about that, West?”

Jim’s green eyes were cold as he measured both men from head to toe. “Maybe.”

Redding chuckled, tossing his head back toward the men standing on the porches. “You’re a little outnumbered. Ain’t even got Gordon around to help out.”

“I’ve managed before on my own.” Jim was glad to hear that they apparently had no suspicions that Artie was on the grounds.

Petty grinned widely. “I reckon you have. But there’s a first time for everything. It’s like this, West. We like it here, and we like it so much we invited friends to come too. They’ll be showin’ up in a couple of days. Miz Renfrow says that’s fine. The more the merrier.”

Jim retained a stoic expression despite the bad news, forbearing to glance at Helene and hoping she too did not react too visibly. “You might as well just pack up and leave. You can meet them on the way and tell your friends the vacation has been canceled.”

“You ain’t in charge here yet, West,” Redding growled.

Now Jim smiled very slightly. “You’d be surprised.” With that, he took Helene’s arm, turning her and guiding her back along the path toward the house. He did not look back and was pleased to note that Helene did not either.

They moved through the kitchen wordlessly and finally paused in the dim hallway where Helene spoke. “Jim!”

He nodded, aware of what was on her mind. “Yeah. We have to move before those extra men get here. Right now the men on the ranchero outnumber Petty and Redding’s men, although experience with weapons will nullify that some. But if another ten or twelve show up…”

She looked toward the front of the house. “I must tell Grandmother…”

“She knows, Helene. She knows and will not accept the idea that these men are dangerous to her.”

Helene sighed. “Yes. It all has to be done without her approval and knowledge.”

“Right.” Jim lowered his voice to a near whisper. “After dinner, I’m going to try to slip out to talk to my partner and perhaps others. Vicente is going to ride for military help tomorrow, if all goes well, but the army might not get here for a couple of days. We may not have that much time. Also, let’s not mention any of this to your grandmother.”

A little bell rang from the kitchen. That was the signal the dinner was imminent, so Jim and Helene headed upstairs to wash up. He would not be changing clothes and he knew she would not either. However, when both emerged from their rooms at almost the same time, they met Regina in the upper hallway, impeccably groomed wearing a gown she felt suitable for the evening meal. A young maid who had helped her followed. As usual, she smiled with great pleasure to see her chosen couple together.

W*W*W*W*W


Both Jim and Helene were quiet at the evening meal. Regina appeared to accept their silence as a sign that both were starting to lean toward her wishes, and talked of wedding plans. “I am sorry it cannot be a large event, Helene, but you understand. We do not want to call attention to our situation here.”

Helene barely glanced up from her plate but Jim saw the flash in her blue eyes. The obdurate behavior of her grandparent was something Helene was accustomed to by now, but Jim was aware that the younger woman’s patience was wearing thin. He could not begin to guess what Regina’s reaction would be once Petty and Redding and their men were either driven away or arrested. Anger, of course. But then what? Would she finally accept the situation?

He glanced at the old woman who was carefully cutting her roasted chicken into dainty bites, her face placid and satisfied. No, I do not think she will accept it all. Perhaps especially that her “people” participated in the insurrection. Will she ever understand that she cannot treat them as she has all these years? They wanted their own lives; although willing to continue to work for her, they desired to own their homes, to dictate their own daily activities, to know that their children had the opportunity to better education and futures.

Regina Renfrow was guilty of criminal behavior and that fact presented a major dilemma for James West. He knew for certain that she harbored known criminals. Chances were she had ordered people killed, including the missing surveyors, the suitors who had been sent away after being refused by Helene, perhaps others who strayed onto the rancho. Had they been slain at Regina’s behest? Which brought up another problem: which of the men in her employ had carried out the executions? Men he and Artie had now made friends with and were counting on to help them close down La Reina’s activities.

“You’re not eating, James.”

Jim looked up, aware that he had been staring at his plate for several minutes while deep in thought. “I’m not very hungry. I have a bit of a headache. I think I’ll go to my room and rest.”

“I’m so sorry. I’ll send one of the girls up with headache powders.”

“Don’t bother,” he responded, rising from the table. “Excuse me.”

“No bother. We don’t want you becoming ill.” Regina smiled sweetly.

Vicente’s sweetheart Ofelia was the one who tapped on his door then entered with a small tray bearing a tumbler of water and a small white packet. Jim rose from the bed to accept it with a smile and his thanks. She turned as if to leave, then paused.

Señor West, my Vicente tells me that he is to go to the fort tomorrow. He will be all right?”

“I believe so, Ofelia. Arturo Guerra will cause a commotion that will allow him to depart and gain distance before he is missed. Perhaps no one will follow him.” Depending on who is among the guards and how much they now know of the situation.

She sighed audibly. “We are so anxious to be able to have our own home. To marry in the church. You understand?”

“Of course I do.” Jim figured that marriages here among the long-time residents had not been sanctioned by the church, but the beliefs of the people had not been quelled simply because they had not been able to attend services regularly. No doubt, they had their own rites in their homes, perhaps by family, perhaps with others. “Don’t worry. I am sure everything is going to turn out fine.”

Her smile was weak and her eyes hopeful as she hurried from the room, closing the door behind her. Jim secreted the headache powder packet under a small rug, and dumped most of the water into a planter resting on a small stand near the window. He drank the remainder then walked to the window. He would wait until it was a little darker out there before going out to try to find Artie.

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
Go to Top of Page

California gal
SS senior field agent

USA
8373 Posts

Posted - 07/20/2014 :  08:53:45  Show Profile
Chapter Nine

I thought that my invincible power would hold the world captive, leaving me in a freedom undisturbed. Thus night and day I worked at the chain with huge fires and cruel hard strokes. When at last the work was done and the links were complete and unbreakable, I found that it held me in its grip.
Gitanjali (31), Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Bengali poet, novelist, and composer


Stepping out of the cookhouse, Artie paused to roll a cigarette and light it, using the “makings” he had acquired from one of the men. He had learned that when the supply wagons went out to procure needed foodstuffs, they also brought back tobacco and cigars, which were distributed to the workers when wanted. La Reina made sure her people had everything they desired!

However, his main reason for the pause on the stoop was to look around before he headed for the stable, a habit he had started, ostensibly to check on his beloved horse, but actually for a chance to meet with Jim or possibly Ray. He was more cautious than usual this time because after the midday meal he had strolled out and run into Rufus Redding. Literally. Almost knocking the carrot-haired man over.

He had apologized profusely in English and Spanish and tried to depart as soon as possible, but Redding had grabbed his arm. “Say, don’t I know you from someplace?”

Arturo had displayed his widest white-teethed grin. “Señor, you do not remember?”

“No, I don’t.” He stared hard.

“Ah, Señor,” Arturo now spread his arms wide, bowing slightly, “I assure you that if you had met Arturo Guerra at a previous time, you would never forget him! ¡Adios!” He had ambled off, never looking back, feeling Redding’s eyes boring into his shoulders.

Just now, he saw no one about in the early dusk. Most of the Mexican workers were either in their homes or in the cookhouse he had just left; likely Redding and Petty and their men were also having supper. Ray Channing had departed from the table a short while before Artie did, so chances were good he could be encountered in the stables.

Artie walked to that structure and upon hearing voices inside, paused, then smiled and strolled through the half open door. “¡Hola. señores!

Jim and Ray both turned toward him. “Where have you been?” Jim asked teasingly. “Couldn’t push away from the table, huh?”

Artie grinned. “Well, I must say, the food is very good here. What’s new?”

“I was just telling Ray that Helene and I visited the boys in the back cabins.” He went on to reveal what they had learned.

“That’s not good!” Artie shook his head, frowning deeply.

“It means we may need to act sooner than we anticipated,” Jim nodded. “How early can you get Vicente on his way tomorrow?”

“As early as possible. Maybe he can slip away while we’re on the way out to the herd.”

Jim reached inside his jacket and extracted a folded piece of paper. “Have him give this to the fort commandant.”

Artie took the note, glanced at it quickly, then stuffed it inside his own shirt. “That’s good. I had been thinking about writing one of my own, but being unsure whether Vicente reads English, I hesitated to sign my name!”

“I wish there was a way to get the women and children out of here,” Ray muttered.

“I’m afraid that can’t be done without warning Redding and Petty something is up,” Jim responded.

“The women and children are being told to stay in their houses if they hear gunfire,” Artie put in, “and to go to rear rooms, staying low. Hide behind beds or wardrobes or anything solid.”

“We have some brave people here,” Ray commented, glancing toward the door. “I’ve talked to the women in the garden, and they are all willing to endure the gun battle if it means getting rid of the outlaws. They are far more frightened of what could happen if men like Redding and Petty take over.”

Jim had to sigh. “If only we could bring Regina in on it. I am sure Helene and Nieves will keep her safe as possible. But knowing Regina, she is liable to charge outside to command that the battle cease.”

Ray chuckled. “I am afraid you are correct, Jim.” He sobered then. “Helene will do what she can, even if it means locking her grandmother up!”

Artie looked at each of them. “Will it be tomorrow then?”

“Almost has to be,” his partner replied. “We don't know when these reinforcements are arriving. Vicente can’t get back from the fort for a couple of days at least, maybe longer, but the extra men may arrive at any time.”

“I’m going to have to see how it goes with Vicente tomorrow,” Artie said. “If no one raises a big fuss about his disappearance, especially after I tell the guards where he has gone, I’ll bring them all back home as early as possible.”

“I’ll get word out for everyone to stock up on ammunition,” Ray assured them. “How do you think the battle will play out?”

Jim shook his head slightly. “I think Artemus and I should attempt to get them to surrender at first. That probably won’t be successful, but it has to be done. Ray, have the men take up positions so that fire will be directed away from the house.”

“Good thinking,” Artie nodded. “I’m hoping that if Vicente leaves early, we’ll be back here before midday.” He looked at Ray. “I haven’t heard any dissenting voices. Have you? Someone who might warn Redding or Petty?”

“A few are reluctant, but those men also know what it could be like if Redding and Petty took over. I think we’ll have one hundred percent participation. I have already spoken to those who have previous military experience. Only a couple, but they can help coordinate matters.”

“All right,” Jim said grimly. “I need to get back inside before I’m missed. I was able to slip out unaccompanied by a guard. Burt was on duty but he just let me go. You two spread the word tonight to those you absolutely can trust. The others will have to fall in tomorrow.”

W*W*W*W*W


The following morning dawned, as usual for this part of the country, sunny with promising warmth. Jim rose and shaved, hoping the fact that he had not slept well was not apparent on his face. He lay awake for a long time considering the upcoming events and trying to think of a way to avoid it and still get rid of the outlaw gangs, one way or another.

The best way would have been for Regina Renfrow to order the men out. He had tried one more time later last evening to convince her to do this, while at the same time she did her level best to persuade him to her way of thinking, continually assuming that he was going to marry Helene and become master of The Crown. In the end, it was a stalemate.

He had spotted Artie and six or seven other men, including Vicente, heading out through the gates early. He knew his partner would handle the situation there, either creating a diversion for Vicente to leave, or simply telling the others what was going on. No doubt on the ride out to the fields, he would be feeling them out to learn how committed—or not—the men were to fighting in order to save their homes and families. Indications were that every man was willing, but only the actual engagement would reveal the certainty of that.

Jim had been unable to pull Helene aside last night to reveal the plans, but this morning, as he entered the dining room, he found her there alone and quickly told her. She paled for a moment but nodded firmly. “I’ll pass the word to Nieves. She already knows what is happening through her husband and sons. If possible, we will send the maids home early. They will want to be with their families.”

“It is very important to keep your grandmother out of it.”

“I know,” Helene sighed. “I’ll do my best. But you know her…”

She halted her words as the door opened. They had been standing at the sideboard filling their plates, and now Jim said cheerily, “I think these breakfast pastries are among the best I’ve ever eaten.”

“Another reason for you to remain on The Crown, James,” Regina said, joining them.

He glanced at her before picking up his coffee cup to head for the table. “But not enough.”

So the conversation began again as the very sure of herself Regina Renfrow made plans with the assumption that James West would be her grandson-in-law and heir. She only smiled when either Helene or Jim protested, so they stopped and let her talk. In a short time, she would know differently.

Jim held onto a slight hope that the outlaws would surrender peacefully, knowing deep within that that was highly unlikely. He was very concerned about Regina’s reaction to the battle on her premises. Helene and Nieves had to keep her calm and inside the great house. Was that possible? She was going to be furious, that was a certainty. Her rage might make her heedless.

When the meal was completed, Jim went up to his room, and then slipped out while Regina was in her study. Joaquin was his guard this morning, and Jim jerked his head for him to follow, which the guard did, not asking any questions until they were outside, where Jim quickly informed Joaquin that today was the day.

Si, I know. Señor Guerra, he tell us last night. Everyone is with you, Señor West. We know that La Reina makes a mistake and it is necessary for us to take care of her now.”

Jim smiled as they paused near the stable. “As soon as the men who have gone to the herds return, we will act. Make sure everyone is ready.”

Joaquin nodded shortly and strode off toward the homes of his fellow workers. In turn, Jim headed in the direction of the garden behind the great house. He found Ray there along with several women. After a brief conversation with Jim, Channing went back to tell the women that as soon as they heard or saw the return of Arturo Guerra with the herders, they should go to their homes and make sure their families were secure. Jim was pleased to note that while the women appeared nervous, none panicked. The women working the garden this morning were older, more mature. Jim had to wonder if they had deliberately left the younger, more unpredictable, females back at their homes this particular day.

He and Ray then went to the stable, where Ray showed him a box filled with rifles and ammunition. “I started bringing these from the storeroom under the house as soon as we began discussing this possibility. I don't know if Petty and Redding know about the storeroom, but their position behind the house would make it easier for them to get to it rather than us. I told Gordon about it this morning.”

“Good thinking. No doubt they have a fair supply, but no need to add to it!”

“What do you think, Captain? Are we going to be able to do this?”

Jim could only shake his head. “All I know is that we need to try. I have little doubt that Petty and Redding planned to act as soon as the extra men they are expecting arrive. We need to move first.”

“The military can’t get here until at least late tomorrow, if then.”

“Yeah. I hope, if nothing else, we can pin them back in their little area until the army arrives—and hope their own reinforcements don’t show up first!”

Channing chuckled. “That could make it interesting.”

Jim returned to the house and decided to try one more time to convince Regina of the error of her ways. He was not hopeful, and his instincts were correct. She simply gazed back at him as if he were an idiot for even suggesting she send away her paying guests. “James, these men keep The Crown afloat!”

“They are going to sink it, Regina. Why can’t you understand that? They know a good thing when they see it, and plan to take over. They will be collecting the fees.”

“Nonsense. Mr. Redding and Mr. Petty have been visiting here for several years now. As have others. They are honorable men.”

HONORABLE! Jim wanted to spit the word back to her. Nonetheless, the futility of talking to her was evident. She would be enraged with today’s actions, but that could not be helped. She was not only endangering the people on this ranch, she was breaking the law, permitting these men to return to their lawless ways, harming others.

“I do hope you can reconcile yourself,” she went on when he did not speak. “When you marry Helene and take control of The Crown, you will fully comprehend the necessity of what I have been doing.”

Jim gazed at her a long moment, saw the amusement and triumph in her blue eyes. He shook his head slightly and left the room, closing the door firmly behind him. He found Helene in the kitchen with Nieves, and learned that the young female workers had already been sent back to their homes.

“We’ll be all right,” Helene assured him. “The walls are thick. We’ll probably go upstairs, and stay in a room well away from the fighting.”

“Just take care of your grandmother.”

She nodded. “We will.”

Going upstairs now, Jim went to a room that had a view of the front gate, and he remained there until he saw the riders approaching. Waiting only long enough to ensure they were Artemus and the men who had gone out to the cattle this morning—including the guards—he hurried back down and through the kitchen, warning Nieves to be ready.

When he stepped out onto the back porch, he instantly noted that the garden was unattended. This time of morning, the women and older children usually populated the rows by now, weeding, picking ripe vegetables, bringing water to pour into the rows. He then looked back toward the buildings occupied by the outlaws, where he could see men lounging on the porches of the two cottages.

Hope that means they are unsuspecting. He hurried out toward the stables. Artie, as Arturo, was telling the men to gather their arms and ammunition and meet him behind the stables as soon as possible.

“Vicente’s well on his way,” he told Jim. “No one objected, and everyone came back to help in the fight.”

“Looks like it’s on,” Ray said quietly.

Jim nodded. “I wish I could say that they will probably surrender peaceably. That’s not likely at all. Artie, I think you should…”

His partner broke in. “I’m planning to reveal myself to everyone right away. I think it will be less disruptive, in case I drop out of character in the heat of battle.”

Ray now looked toward the house. “We need to protect Helene and the other women.”

“I’ve been considering that,” Jim said, starting toward the site where the men were to assemble. “We need to put two or three men in the kitchen, just in case any of the outlaws decide to try to head in there, either to escape out the front or perhaps to take hostages.”

Channing grinned. “Should have known you’d have all the tactics planned, Captain.”

Jim could only shake his head ruefully. “We hope.”

As soon as all the men were gathered, Artemus stepped forward and revealed his true identity, stating the information first in Spanish and then in English. He explained why the ruse was necessary, and although many of the men displayed surprise and even a little annoyance, only one man spoke up.

He was a graying man that Artie knew as Jorge. “Oh,” he said grandly, “I knew right away that Arturo Guerra was a gringo!” That statement immediately lightened the mood as his companions jibed at him, one pointing out that Jorge had mentioned at one point that he thought Guerra was from Sonora Province because of the way he spoke. Artie had to wonder if Jorge had commented that way for the very result it produced. The men were soon grinning and chuckling.

Jim then took over and explained what they planned to do. First off, he wanted three men to go in through the front of the house, to station themselves in the back of the house, with one going upstairs to a window that overlooked the area where the outlaw gangs were situated. “You will be there to prevent those men from entering the house, and the one upstairs should be a good shot. I don’t want any of you to do any shooting unless the situation becomes dire, because we don’t want to draw fire towards the house, where Señora Renfrew, Señorita Helene, and Doña Nieves will be seeking shelter.”

Joaquin was pointed out as the best shot with a rifle, so he was chosen as the one to take the upper story site. Two other men were selected to man the kitchen, and those three headed out to take their positions. Jim told Joaquin to inform Señorita Helene that they should take cover. “Do not speak to La Reina. Allow Señorita Helene to do that.”

Artie asked if everyone had made sure their families were safe, and the answers were all si. Some had even left a pistol and ammunition with their wives. The next instructions were to spread out and find a secure place from which to fire as well as be sheltered from incoming fire. Jim explained that the two agents would step out and demand surrender from Redding and Petty.

“I don’t think that will happen, and the fight will start about that time. Be ready. Make good shots. We need to convince those men they don’t have a chance, and above all, we do not want the fight to extend any longer than necessary. The army will be coming, but also another band of outlaws. It would be good to have this settled before either arrive!”

W*W*W*W*W

Cowardice, the dread of what will happen.
—Epictetus (55-135), Greek (Phrygian) philosopher


Jim quietly asked Ray Channing to make sure the men were positioned well, and to take charge of them. If anyone was wounded, they should be taken to one of the houses to be attended to by the women there. He and Artemus waited until Ray returned to tell them all was in readiness. They then walked out between the buildings to a preselected site behind a pile of firewood that was somewhat between the locations of the ranch residents’ cottages and those occupied by the outlaws.

Men on the porches of those two cabins noticed their approach. One man stepped back to call something through a door whereupon Josh Petty appeared at that doorway. At that point, Jim called out.

“Petty! Redding! You are under arrest. You and your men all come out with your hands up!”

The result of those words was expected. Petty yelled as he and his men ducked inside. The men on the other porch also dashed inside the door. Windows were broken as the barrels of weapons protruded through. The first shot came from Redding’s cabin. Before that happened, both West and Gordon had dropped to the ground behind the stack of wood.

The initial fire reminded Artie very much of skirmishes in which he had participated during the late war. As often occurred in those skirmishes, the gunfire leveled off after a while, with triggers being pulled only when the gun holder thought he had a good target. He did not hear any cries of pain from behind and around him, so he hoped that meant no one inside the buildings was having any luck. On the contrary, he did hear a couple of yells and curses from within the houses occupied by the outlaws, at least once when he had gotten off a shot at a man who became too bold, peeking around the jamb of the open door in Petty’s cabin.

After about forty-five minutes of the battle, a brief lull occurred and Artemus took advantage of it to yell out. “Petty! Redding! You can’t win! You’re outnumbered! You can’t get to your horses! You’re going to run out of ammunition, as well as food and water! Give up now!”

He was not astonished when his answer was a barrage of shots. Glancing at Jim, Artie shrugged. “It was worth a try.”

“You know what? I think they expect their extra men to be riding in at any time.”

“Thought he told you in a couple of days.”

“He did. I don't know whether he lied, or is now just hopeful.”

Artie sighed. “Well, we’d better be hopeful that the army gets here first. Wonder how they are doing in the house?”

“I’m trying not to think about it. No doubt Regina is giving Helene hell, and then some.” Jim leaned out to get off a shot at an imprudent man who was peering out the window of the nearest house. That man suddenly disappeared.

For a few more minutes, the gunfire continued sporadically, both from the besieged outlaws and the residents of The Crown who were scattered around, taking whatever cover they could. Jim looked back and then turned to his partner.

“Artie, I’m going to go back and check with Ray to see how things are going.”

“Good idea. Hope no one has been injured badly.”

“Hold down the fort,” Jim bade him, placing his rifle alongside Artemus.

Artie saluted. “Aye, aye, General.” He grinned at the face Jim made.

Jim bent low and dodged among bushes and a couple of small sheds that held gardening tools or other items needed outdoors. He slipped by a couple of men, saw Ray sitting behind a broad-trunked tree, and hurried to him. “How’s it going? Any serious injuries?”

“Not yet. A couple got clipped in the shoulder. Burt got sprayed by some rock chips when a slug ricocheted off the boulder over there he chose to hide behind. He went into the nearest house, washed the dust out of his eyes, and is back at it. How long do you think this is going to last?”

Jim could only shake his head, glancing off toward the house. As he did so, his gaze flitted by the path between the house and the high hedge. He pulled his eyes back and stared hard. “Ray, someone is sneaking out over there. I’m going to go see who it is. Give me your pistol?”

Channing immediately jerked his handgun from its holster and handed it to him. “I thought we had that pretty well covered.”

“So did I,” Jim rapped, and continuing to bend low, he took off at a run towards the stable. He reached the bare area in front of the stable doors just as Rufus Redding emerged from the bushes on the other side. Redding took a quick look around and was about to head for the doors when he saw the agent.

“Stop right there,” Jim commanded, lifting the pistol. “The rat deserting the sinking ship?”

Redding’s face flushed red with anger but he paused, and then slowly moved toward the stable, keeping his hands out and away from the gun that he wore. “I’m just going home to see my grandma, West,” he said.

“I’m sure. On her deathbed, is she? Still? I would have thought she’d have been buried by now, since she passed away fifteen years ago.” Jim shifted his position to keep his gun and eyes on the red-haired outlaw.

Redding appeared genuinely surprised. “How the hell did you know that?”

“We try to learn all we can about our friends, Rufe. You should know that…”

Abruptly Jim realized that he had been lax. The slight sound behind him was a warning, but by the time he spun, he was too late. Josh Petty was behind him, having also emerged from the well-planted yard, and he held a rifle to his shoulder, pointed right at Jim’s head, finger on the trigger. “Drop your gun, West.” He carefully circled until he was near Redding’s side.

Knowing he could not bring his pistol to bear before Petty could pull that trigger, Jim allowed the weapon to slip from his hand to the ground. “Another rat deserting, eh? Don’t suppose your pals know you slipped out.”

“What they don't know won’t hurt ‘em,” Redding said, grinning while he moved to pick up Jim’s weapon. As Jim had been, Redding was negligent. When he reached down, Jim moved, swinging his booted foot up to slam the hard toe into Redding’s side. With a yell of pain, Rufus stumbled back, and right into Petty, who had moved up a couple of paces as well.

Jim gave neither man an opportunity to regain their balance. Petty was the first to try to get to his feet, halfway upright and bringing his rifle around again when Jim leapt forward, grabbed the barrel of the carbine and jerked it, sending it flying across the clearing. He then slammed two hard fists into Petty’s midsection, sending the outlaw back on his rump, bending over forward as he gasped and groaned for air.

Sluing around, Jim aimed for Redding’s chin, but that man, although not entirely erect, was able to jerk back, so that the fist barely clipped him. In turn, he threw himself toward Jim, who managed to partially turn his body so that he did not fall flat on his back. Though Redding outweighed him, Jim was able to quickly slide out from under the bulk of the carrot-top’s body, jump to his feet, and then seize the pistol that had fallen nearby.

“All right. That’s enough fun and games. On your feet, boys.”

The two rose slowly, glowering. Jim waved the gun. “Let’s go put a stop to this mess before it gets worse.”

Advising them to stay low, as he did, they made their way first to where Ray was. Jim told him to pass the word to the rancho people to hold their fire. He then urged Redding and Petty on to Artie’s spot. His partner turned and stared in astonishment.

“Why, James! You’ve brought guests! How nice!”

“That’s what I thought, pal. These gents were thinking of leaving the party early, but I persuaded them to stay. Get the attention of the fellows in the houses again. I think you know what to say.”

Artie did. He leaned slightly out to the side of the woodpile and yelled loudly so as to be heard over the diminishing yet present rattle of gunfire. “You boys in the houses! Listen to me! Petty and Redding are here with us! They tried to sneak out, leaving you to face the music! Are you willing to fight for them?”

Slowly the firing ceased and when it had stopped completely, a voice called back. “Show us!”

“Get out there where they can see you,” Jim instructed, prodding Petty in the back with his pistol.

Both outlaw leaders were greatly alarmed. “They’ll kill us!” Redding protested.

“That’s something you should have thought of before. Move!”

Artemus had no doubt that more than a couple of the men still in the houses felt like getting off shots toward their “loyal” leaders, but nothing happened. Several minutes elapsed before a white handkerchief was waved, and then everything moved rapidly. It was decided that Petty and Redding had best not be near their men. Ray quickly cleared out a small storage room in the stable where they could be locked up. The men who usually resided in the bunkhouse willingly moved out their own possessions, so that the other men could be held there, with guards stationed on all sides.

No one had been killed in the exchange of gunfire. Numerous men on both sides—although more of the outlaws—had been hit, with the most serious being a shoulder wound of one of Petty’s men. Women from the rancho took care of the injuries.

The first thing Jim did when things were in order was head for the house. He was not surprised that both Artie and Ray followed him. They went in through the kitchen, where Joaquin met them. The question as to how Petty and Redding had managed to get by the house to the stable unseen was quickly answered. Joaquin explained that the two men in the kitchen had responded to frantic calls from Helene and Nieves, finding them kneeling over a fallen Regina Renfrow in the hallway near the stairs. They had been helping taking the unconscious old woman upstairs at the time the two outlaw leaders made their escape. For Joaquin’s part, his position upstairs had not allowed him a view of the path immediately below the windows.

The three men raced up the stairs and quickly found the room that belonged to La Reina. When Helene opened the door, her face revealed the strain she had been under. She stepped out into the passageway, closing the door quietly behind her, and spoke in a low, taut voice as Ray put his arm around her shoulders.

“Grandmother collapsed, after flying into a rage when she realized what was happening.” She shook her head. “It’s not surprising. We rather expected it. Jim, you must not blame yourself. It had to be done.”

Jim realized he had reacted to the news. “I guess you are right. Is she—awake?”

“Yes. She said she wants to see you as soon as you come, Jim. Go on in. Nieves is with her.”

Artie saw the grief on his partner’s face and realized that although he had acrimonious relations with the old lady, he also had come to admire her, and perhaps even be fond of her. He put his hand on Jim’s arm. “Miss Renfrow is right, Jim. This had to be done. It could not continue any longer. The situation would have only become worse, and chances are, Mrs. Renfrow would have suffered a similar attack when she realized that Petty and Redding planned to take over the rancho.”

“I guess,” Jim sighed. “Oh, Helene, this is my partner, whom you’ve known as Arturo Guerra.”

He did not wait for the acknowledgment of the introductions, moving by Helene to open the door and step inside, closing the door again. Nieves looked around from the chair beside the bed then got to her feet. “Señora, it is Señor West.”

Propped up against pillows, Regina Renfrow appeared smaller and frailer than ever before lying on the massive bedstead with its carved head and footboards. Excellent artwork was hung on the walls, but Jim paid that little attention right now, moving up alongside the bed as the housekeeper stepped away.

“Regina?”

She opened her eyes. “There you are, you bastard.”

For a moment, Jim was startled by the epithet, then he almost laughed aloud upon noting the faint glint in her blue eyes. “Here I am. I would apologize for going against your wishes, but I cannot. I am sorry this happened to you. If only…”

She waved a thin hand. “Sit down, James.” When he took the vacated chair, she extended the hand toward him. He took it in his right, folded his left over it. “I hate it when I’m wrong,” she said then.

“Your intentions were good,” he said gently, and smiled. “Just not legal.”

“I am the law here, James. Haven’t you realized that?” She returned the smile faintly.

“I came to realize just that. I don’t want you to worry about any of it now. You need to get well. Your people here will need you. A lot must be done.”

“Yes. I suppose so. However, I think you and Helene will have to do it. I’m too tired.”

Vaguely alarmed as she turned her head to stare out a window, Jim squeezed her hand gently. “Nonsense. I’ve never seen a woman of any age with the energy you have.”

Regina looked back at him, gazing at his face for long moments. “Did you ever wish you could turn back time, James?”

“Yeah. Once or twice.”

“Of course, I’d need to do a special trick—turn back time for me, but not for you. I wish I had met you instead of Captain Renfrow sixty years ago. What a pair we would have made! Do you agree?”

“Oh yes. I do agree, Regina. Time has a way of messing things up, doesn’t it?”

“What will you do now, James?”

“The army should arrive tomorrow and we’ll turn Petty and Redding, along with their men, over to them. More may be coming, and the army will get those too.”

“What about me?”

Jim cocked his head. “What about you?”

“Am I going to be arrested?”

“I don't think it was your fault that these outlaws forced their way into your rancho.”

She was silent a long moment, her eyes unwavering on his face. “Yes. Time does have a way of messing things up.” A large sigh escaped as her chest rose and fell.

Jim glanced at Nieves, standing at the foot of the bed. The housekeeper nodded somberly. Jim squeezed the hand softly again. “I’ll let you rest, Regina. I have a lot to do yet.”

“You’ll come back?”

“I’ll come back. Just let me know when you feel rested enough. And obey Helene and Nieves, all right?”

“Yes, James.”

Artie, Ray, and Helene were still in the hallway. “She’s very weak,” Jim said softly after he closed the door. “In the note I sent with Vicente, I asked that if a surgeon was available at the fort, he should come along with the troopers. I was thinking of wounded men at the time.”

Helene had her arms crossed tightly over her bosom, her head down. Now she lifted her face. “I don't think a doctor will help, Jim. I think time is finally catching up with her.”

Time. Funny how that word keeps coming up now. “You may be right. A doctor might know better. I’m so sorry it came to this.”

Helene reached across to touch his arm. “It is not your fault, Jim. This was coming for a long time. If you hadn’t been here, those men would have tried to take over the ranch. Who knows what would have happened?” She glanced at Ray by her side. “I don't think the people here would have stood by quietly.”

Ray Channing nodded. “I agree. Ever since she started offering refuge to outlaws, the people have been worried and upset. If nothing else, they would have tried to leave, which no doubt would have caused trouble.”

“Maybe.”

Artie had not said anything. He knew his partner well enough to realize that Jim might take on some of the blame for Regina’s condition. He also knew that Jim would come to accept the situation, and in particular accept what Helene and Ray were saying. He decided to change the subject for the moment.

“I hope I get a chance to meet and talk to Regina as myself, not as Arturo Guerra. But I don't think now is the time. Not until she’s stronger. She is liable to be very, very angry with me.”

Helene laughed softly. “I think you can add one more ‘very’ to that, Mr. Gordon.”

“Artemus,” Artie corrected. He looked at Jim. “I guess we’d better get out there and help set things to order.” Even though the outlaws were locked up, the two cabins needed to be searched, and made fit for the men displaced from the bunkhouse.

“First thing I’m going to do,” Jim said firmly as they headed toward the stairs, “is find my horse!”

W*W*W*W*W


To say that Blackjack was happy and excited to be reunited with his master was a vast understatement. Artie had to laugh aloud as even Jim West had problems getting the black steed to calm down long enough to receive his saddle. Blackjack ran, bucked, sun-fished, and simply refused to stand still, occasionally running off then turning back toward Jim, charging then stopping just in time to butt his head against his owner’s chest before taking off around the small canyon that had been blocked off to create his personal corral.

Upon finally getting the saddle and bridle on the fractious steed, Jim swung up onto the horse. With a wave to Artie and Joaquin who had accompanied him to the small canyon where the horse had been kept, he and the energized horse galloped out through the opening into the fields, not to be seen again for over an hour.

Artemus and Ray joined Jim and Helene at the table for dinner that evening. They had a lot to discuss. Of chief concern was the condition of Regina Renfrow. When Artie asked, Helene mentioned that her grandmother’s right arm appeared to be weakened or even paralyzed. “She won’t exactly say so when I ask!” That told Artemus that the elderly woman had likely suffered apoplexy. A physician was needed to confirm the diagnosis as well as to give a prognosis.

“I hope the army surgeon comes with the troopers,” Artie declared, drawing nods from others. The nearest town did not have a doctor, he was told. The health of the people here on the rancho had been taken care of by the people themselves, using methods learned from parents and grandparents now gone. More than one had passed away without receiving surgery or other care that might have prolonged their lives.

“That will change now,” Helene confirmed. “Whether grandmother… survives… or not, I’m going to make sure that these people have more freedom to live their lives as they wish, and to receive the medical care they require. I should have done that a long time ago.”

Jim smiled weakly. “You and I both know how difficult it was to buck against La Reina, Helene.”

“As do I,” Ray chimed in.

“I’m feeling a little left out. I wish I could have known her better, and not merely as Arturo Guerra.”

Jim looked at his partner. “I’m afraid right now, if she would learn your deception, it would do more harm than good.”

Artemus had to agree. From what he knew about Regina Renfrow, she was not a woman who would appreciate being duped. He personally and silently felt, sadly, that he would never have the opportunity to get better acquainted with the old woman. She was in delicate condition now.

Jim then suggested that sentinels might be posted on higher elevations in the area to watch for the approach of both the army and the extra outlaws that had been mentioned—and which one man had confirmed under questioning. That same man had also nodded when asked if Redding and Petty had plans to take over The Crown.

Ray agreed to the watchers and said he would send men out before dark in order that they might be able to spot campfires in the distance. That might help them to be aware which group was going to arrive first. All naturally hoped the military would be the first ones.

The three men spent the evening ensuring that the prisoners were fed and secure, and helping others to clear out the two cabins where the outlaws had been living. At Helene’s invitation, Artie brought his gear into a room in the house. He had picked up a cache of his clothes and other supplies from under some rocks, hidden there when he transformed into Arturo Guerra to enter The Crown’s compound.

They were just going to their rooms when Helene stepped out into the hall from her grandmother’s room. “Jim… Grandmother would like to speak to you. She’s… she’s very weak.”

“Are you sure it’s a good idea then?”

Helene nodded, and tears were sparkling in the low lights from the wall sconces. “I think she knows… this may be her last opportunity. Please come.”

Jim glanced at Artie, who nodded his encouragement. Jim followed Helene into the bedroom. Regina was laying flat now, looking so much like a wizened doll on the massive bed. Helene moved to sit by the fireplace as Jim went to the bedside.

“Regina?”

She opened her eyes and smiled. “Hello, James. Please sit down.” As before, she moved her right hand slightly as in invitation for him to take it, and he did, once more with both of his hands.

“What do you mean by lollygagging in bed, Regina?”

“Sometimes I have to take advantage of my rank, James.”

“I guess you do.”

“James… you don’t hate me, do you?”

“No, no, of course not. You’re a hardheaded old soul, but not hardhearted.”

“So will you do as I asked?”

Jim hesitated then smiled. “I’ll take care of Helene.”

“And The Crown?”

“Yes.”

“Do you promise?”

“I promise.”

Her thin chest rose and fell under the blankets. “Oh, why did you wait so long to be born, James? If you had come into my life…”

He squeezed her hand. “You would have swept me off my feet. And I assure you, I’m not a marrying man.”

“Come back in the morning,” she said then. “Have breakfast with me.”

“I will.” Jim rose, leaning forward to kiss her forehead. “Good night, La Reina.”

Jim caught Helene’s rather startled glance as he left the room, so he waited for her in the hallway. She quickly grasped his arm. “Jim! Your promise…!”

He smiled. “I promised to look after you and The Crown, Helene. I didn’t say I’d marry you or stay here.”

She dropped her hand, laughed a little, shaking her head. “I’m sorry. I’m just…”

“You’re exhausted. It has been a long and terrible day. Ask Nieves to find women from the rancho to spell you tonight.”

“I can’t, Jim. I have to be with her. I can sleep in the chair.”

W*W*W*W*W

That flesh is but the glasse, which holds the dust
That measures all our time; which also shall
Be crumbled into dust.
The Temple--Church Monuments, George Herbert (1593-1633), Welsh poet


One of the men sent out to watch for approaching riders reported early in the morning that he saw many campfires off in the direction that the army should be approaching from. The troopers then arrived around midmorning. The military doctor came as requested, and although he was able to check the wounds of the men involved in the gunfight, he was too late to do anything for Regina Renfrow. She had slipped into a coma during the night.

When the people of The Crown learned of the condition of their long-time mistress, they gathered around the house, offering prayers and weeping. Artemus was greatly impressed by their grief and devotion. They might be aware that Regina Renfrow had all but kept them as slaves; they also seemed to know she felt she had their best interests at heart. This was the only home most had ever known, and although they might yearn for more, it was still home.

At almost exactly noon, when the sun was at its zenith, the doctor checked the patient’s pulse, checked again, then looked at her granddaughter, standing tensely nearby. “She is gone.” Helene hung her head but did not immediately weep. She had wept a great deal over the last day or so, she felt, and perhaps had no tears left.

The word spread swiftly, and the rancho’s women did weep. A few men had moist eyes. All faces were mournful. Everyone knew an era had passed. Many realized that a life they had dreamed of could now occur. Nonetheless, no one smiled. No one rejoiced. La Reina ha muerto. The whisper went from one to another.

Artemus found his partner in the stable, vigorously brushing the shining coat of his black horse. “Jim?”

“I know.” Jim did not look around. “Burt told me.”

“A lot of work to be done yet. As soon as the sentinel Captain Williams sent out returns with word…”

“I know,” Jim said again. They had already made the plans of what to do when and if the expected gang of outlaws appeared.

“Are you all right?”

Now Jim turned, smiling wanly. “I’m not sure, Artie. She was very wrong. She was actually a criminal. But…”

“But she was an amazing woman. I know that, even with the scant contact I had with her. Just from listening to the people talk about her. They revered La Reina, even while perhaps being aware that she virtually kept them prisoners and slaves.”

Jim sighed. “She was so certain that Helene and I would acquiesce to her wishes. Regina was so accustomed to running everyone’s lives—it extended to her granddaughter and then to me.”

Artie nodded. “Had she allowed Helene to marry Ray, she would have likely had those great-grandsons she wanted by now. She would have felt the future of The Crown was secure.”

“I’m afraid I allowed her to die believing I was going to marry Helene.”

“I know. She told Ray and Ray told me. You did not exactly lie, Jim. And you gave her peace.”

W*W*W*W*W


Just about an hour after Regina Renfrow passed on, the army’s lookout returned to report that he could see eight to ten riders heading toward the rancho. They would likely be at The Crown within the hour. The federal agents and the leaders of the men on the rancho had already talked to Captain Williams and made plans.

All of the troopers were brought inside the walls, and placed in spots not immediately visible to riders entering through the main gate. One of the rancho’s usual guards took his place at the entrance. When the riders approached, he opened the gate to wave them in as though expected and welcome. Once they were inside, he pushed it closed, and the military emerged from their places of hiding. The newcomers were too startled to react, and surrendered peacefully.

W*W*W*W*W

I have that honorable grief lodged here which burns worse than tears drown.
The Winter’s Tale (Act 2, Sc. 1), William Shakespeare (1564-1616), English dramatist and poet


Regina Renfrow was laid to rest next to her husband, son, and daughter-in-law, in a simple pine box crafted by the men of her rancho. With no religious man present, the people prayed and spoke quietly of their love and admiration for La Reina, while the military stood at attention. Artie experienced no astonishment that his partner stood silently off to one side, his face emotionless.

When the unpretentious services were completed, everyone was invited into the house to enjoy food prepared by the women of the ranch. For many, this was the first time they had been inside the great house that some of their ancestors had constructed for Herbert Renfrow and his wife so many years before. Until now, only the household workers had been privileged to enter unless La Reina summoned one.

Artie listened as he heard people making plans, talking about leaving the ranch—or staying. Most at least wanted to travel to towns they had never seen, perhaps look for relatives they had only heard about from their elders. Vicente and Ofelia were happily making plans for a wedding. They wanted to be married in a church, a real church, not just a ceremony officiated by an older person here at the ranch, as had been the case for most of the marriages in existence now. At least one woman was speaking about having her own church wedding, although she had had a “husband” for many years and several children.

Jim stood off to one side with a cup of coffee and a plate of galleass baked in the big kitchen by Nieves and other women last night and this morning. The dark depths of mourning he had experienced yesterday had lightened for the most part, watching these people plan for their futures. They would need help, and both he and Artemus had already talked to Captain Williams about getting assistance from the military and other government offices. Ray had also talked to the officer regarding helping Helene file on the property, after which it could be distributed to the rancho residents as desired.

Regina had “taken care” of her people as she thought best. Many now needed to realize they could take care of themselves! Quite a few had no knowledge of the use of money, or how to spend it. Helene had already promised assistance where that was concerned. She had never been able to attend a regular school herself, taught by her grandmother and father when he was alive. She wanted to establish a school in the region for the children who would be living in the rancho or the lands surrounding it.

The two agents left The Crown the following morning, amid many shouts of “¡Gracias! ¡Gracias, amigos!

“We’ve got quite a report to write,” Artie commented as the house faded from their view when they looked behind them. “I am not sure ‘Cump’ Sherman is going to be very happy with us.”

“You did send him a lengthy report via the telegraph.”

“Yes. However, that is not the same as being there in person—as ordered. I suspect we may have another meeting with the general. And soon.”

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
Go to Top of Page

California gal
SS senior field agent

USA
8373 Posts

Posted - 07/20/2014 :  08:54:52  Show Profile
Epilog

The sum of earthly bliss.
Paradise Lost (bk. VIII, l. 522), John Milton (1608-1674), English poet, scholar, writer, and patriot


About six months later, a letter was awaiting the agents when they returned to Washington, D.C. after an arduous case. As Artie said later, the news in the epistle was exactly what they needed to boost their spirits. Helene Renfrow—now Helene Channing—had written it on behalf of her husband and herself, as well as all the former residents of the ranch known as The Crown.

She and Ray had married as soon as possible, while in Santa Fe beginning the long process of claiming the land her grandparents had settled and improved. That process, she stated, was greatly helped by testimony sent by mail to the officials in Santa Fe, as well as to Washington, by agents West and Gordon. Once the amount of land involved was settled, the next step was to transfer that acreage to the “settlers” who were now residing on various portions, people from the ranch who starting building their own homes and farms.

A small town had been established near the great house and grounds, where stores, a school, and churches were being built. About a third of the residents of The Crown, primarily the older people, had chosen to stay on the compound, with the blessing of Mr. and Mrs. Channing who still needed assistance in maintaining the property and caring for the herd of cattle that Ray intended to grow again. The women who had worked in the house and the men who had herded the cattle—who now were beginning to plow fields in order to grow grain—were being paid wages.

It was all hard work, Helene wrote, but so worth it. People who had thought they were contented previously were now also very happy, learning to be free. Even the oldest among The Crown residents were reveling in trips to nearby towns and further. One family, Helene said, even traveled down into Mexico to find kin they had never met but knew about.

“Listen to this,” Artie interjected. “Helene writes, ‘You will be interested, and perhaps as happy as I was, to learn I encountered one of the men Grandmother had brought to the ranch as a suitor. He is alive and well. He admitted that Grandmother paid him a handsome sum to keep the secret of The Crown, which he did. He used the money to open a successful haberdashery, and he is now happily married.’”

“That is good news,” Jim nodded, “and interesting. Perhaps our suspicions about the survey party are unfounded. We may never know what became of them.” He experienced unexpectedly deep relief with the realization that the men he had befriended—and let go free—were probably not murderers.

Helene saved the best news until last. She and Ray were expecting a child. “If it is a girl,” she wrote, “we will name her Regina Helene. If a boy, Raymond James Artemus. I hope you approve.”

“Actually,” Artie said thoughtfully, handing the letter he had just read aloud over to his partner across the table at the hotel restaurant where they had been dining while reading, “I think Artemus Raymond James would be a better name.”

“Really? You’d foist that name on another poor unsuspecting kid?”

Artie chuckled. “Come to think of it, there is only one Artemus, and ever can be. Right?”

Jim lifted his wine glass. “Truer words were never spoken, pal. And never will be.”

>>The End<<


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
Go to Top of Page
  Previous Topic Topic Next Topic  
 New Topic  Topic Locked
 Printer Friendly
Jump To:
THE WILD WILD WEST @ wildwildwest.org © WildWildWest.org - Third Side of the Coin Go To Top Of Page
Snitz Forums 2000