Something was burning in the Devil's kitchen.
In spite of the blistering heat that was local noon in the desert, he could feel it. So intense was the virtual ringing of the fire bell that as he rode, he expected to meet its source round each turn of the trail.
Reining in his mount, the rider carefully scanned the pitiless horizon. Except for the occasional rock, there was absolutely nothing between Lefthand and the California foothills, nothing except sand, scrub, and the unlucky gecko who hadn't found any shade, that is. Visually, he was completely alone.
But today he chose not to believe his eyes. The sinuous trail he was on would have allowed him to keep his scheduled appointment in six hour's time. Lefthand now abandoned it and started out across the vast expanse of nothing. His mount left no prints on the ancient, hardpan lake bed.
Between a brisk jog and a ground-eating lope, five miles rolled slowly by in the desert oven and nowhere did anything seem out of the ordinary. A mile or two more and the rider was beginning to want to believe what his eyes were telling him. So he'd be a bit late at the rendezvous point for taking the scenic route. He'd been late for worse reasons in the past.
Time to call the fire bell a false alarm and move on.
The rider gave the cue to reverse. With a flick of the tail his mount executed the maneuver and awaited the command to move off. It wasn't forthcoming. Lefthand was off the animal even before the U turn was complete. The stone was in his hand. Dried blood stained the backside of the quartz composite; it had been recently overturned by someone in a futile attempt to hide the evidence of their passage...
The move to draw his gun came automatically; some-one had definitely been here ahead of him. Nothing desert born or bred would leave such an obvious trail. To do so meant the difference between life and death for both the predator and the prey in this environment.
The wind shifted as he remounted, the revolver still occupied his free hand. There was a feeling bordering on relief that his unease actually had some physical manifestation. And all the signs said he'd find more if he pursued it.
It took but a moment to ascertain which direction the wounded was fleeing, then horse and rider were pursuing it. The trail headed due north -- toward the nearest hills where the possibility of relief from the oppressive heat existed.
The figure huddled in the meager line of shade surprised both man and beast. Lefthand pulled his shot and the horse reared, pirouetting as a wall of terror was thrown up at them by the being on the ground. The figure was afraid of the armed intruder, and every being present could feel it.
A moment to control his mount then Lefthand slowly holstered his .44 in plain defiance of reason. The figure had said nothing, but Lefthand felt its fear. Brandishing the weapon wasn't helping matters.
When the gun was finally out of his hand, he felt the terror begin to retreat... slowly. He'd have to work harder.
"// I come only to help. //"
It was the most common of the Native American dialects used in the region and the only one he could actually speak, but it got him no response. The terror remained.
Watching the young woman carefully, Lefthand carefully dismounted and dropped a rein- ground-tying the excited horse for the moment. The bloody path had led them straight here; she was definitely its source. From fifteen feet away he could see signs of a blow to her head... blood on her clothing. Her face was partially obscured by the bundle she clutched to her chest, but she couldn't have been more than twenty years of age. He could hear her breathing, laboured from both the brutal heat and her injuries. And although she moved not a muscle, her utter terror of him was almost oppressive. It held him at bay, just as with any wounded animal. But this was no animal.
The fact of the matter: he'd have to get a whole lot closer if he were to be able to help her in any way.
Lefthand repeated the promise of aid and took a step forward, raising his hands in a passive manner. This time she looked at him... her eyes caught his and her fear was instantly gone. The departure of her terror threw Lefthand a bit; it didn't make any sense as he understood people but then he didn't have time to worry about it. Something else had caught and completely gripped his attention: the eyes that were granting him permission to approach were a vibrant blue.
The attack had been doubly murderous in intent. The victims were meant to be the young Native American woman and her now newborn child. Stab wounds to the abdomen told the story all too clearly -- at least two others had tried to kill this child before its birth. Eventual success of the attack was still a strong possibility. Lefthand could do little for the mother. She would die; her blue eyes already knew this when they let him approach. It was the survival of the child that was in doubt. They were out in the middle of nowhere, the nearest town a day's ride, the closest Indian encampment at least a hundred miles away. Saving the child meant that Blue Eyes would have to make it to town... and he didn't think that very likely. But he would do his best to help.
Lefthand whistled over his horse; the animal's body would afford them some shade as he worked to pack and bind her wounds. Positioning the live shade tree, he then unbuckled his saddlebags and set them carefully next to Blue Eyes. Every move he made was deliberate so as not to disturb the injured party -- there was so little of her left that any effort on her part might finish the rest. He wouldn't be responsible for applying the coup de grace, unwitting or no.
As he worked, the type of wounds he encountered identified those who perpetrated this crime. Military... maybe cavalry. Returning at any instant to check their handiwork was a definite possibility.
Retrieving a piece of rawhide from one of the bags, Lefthand offered it to Blue Eyes. Wordlessly she took it in her teeth; she would make no sound while he tried to put her back together for the ride.
It was just dark when he finished. Hoping to scare up a meal, a pink-toed tarantula make its way harmlessly between his horse's feet. Lefthand leaned back against a rock and watched it hunt. Exhaustion was creeping over him. It hadn't been long enough since he'd seen wounds like the young woman's in the field. Back then, the excuse for these things had been war. Lefthand dared anyone to try to justify what had been done to mother and child here. He'd personally see to it that their obvious moral dilemma was corrected beyond any doubt.
Blue Eyes had become unconscious half-way through the slow, torturous procedure. He thought she was now sleeping, her condition made it nearly impossible to tell for certain. Sleep or shock, either way she still hung onto her silent child. Lefthand didn't know whether the newborn was a son or a daughter. But then, the sex of the child was simply a detail to him. At least it should have been, but for some reason he found himself with a case of more than just passing curiosity about it. It was of vital importance to someone.
He would let her rest until midnight, then they'd have to try to ride out of the Devil's kitchen -- all three of them. Lefthand carefully covered mother and child with his bedroll then melted into the cover of darkness, watching for unwelcome visitors with a bite more lethal than the large, slow arachnid.
The first cry from the child brought him instantly back to camp. Blue Eyes was conscious and trying to stand. Lefthand caught her as she lost strength. Her arm was hot to the touch; the young woman was now burning up with fever. It was just a matter of hours before she died of her wounds. Only two of them would be riding out this night.
"// Don't move -- you'll only make it worse. //"
He eased her back into what would become her deathbed and tried to make her and the child comfortable, but it really wasn't possible. Blue Eyes fought the fever, she began speaking to him with the desperation of the dying. Lefthand had worked with, and against many North American tribes members, but Blue Eyes was speaking in what was essentially an alien dialect. He didn't understand a single word she was saying, yet as he listened, he understood everything. She was thanking him with deference to a god he'd never heard of before... and asked the god to grant Lefthand the life of her son. Then she asked him directly, will he take her child?
His answer surprised even him. "// Yes... //"
Relieved, Blue Eyes lapsed into unconsciousness for the final time. She still held her child, she would do so until the last. Lefthand noted her breathing, those weak last gasps he'd heard called 'the death rattle'. It wouldn't be long now --
--something shifted in the night behind them. He drew down on the intruder like lightning. Perhaps some last minute twist of fate would have Blue Eyes see the execution of her murderer before she died, but it wasn't to be. Lefthand withdrew the weapon with split-second of regret as into camp rode Left's partner, already holstering his own revolver.
Taking in the sight before him, Righthand dismounted and stood behind Left without a word. Left turned back to Blue Eyes as she breathed her last, her grip on the child relinquished to him only now.
The two men sat in silence, Right examining a patch of earth while Left looked at the child entrusted to his care. The newborn was Native American as well and bore the mark of the attack upon his mother on his left cheek. That would be an ugly scar...
"Who did she die for?"
Left faced his partner, Righthand only now seeing the answer to his question huddled in the dark. Right took a careful look at the boy. The child wasn't far behind his mother. Left obviously knew this; one of them needed to leave with the orphan right away.
"You go -- I'll take care of the boy's mother and catch up."
Left was already mounted when Righthand realized he didn't know exactly how he should take care of her.
"Who were her people?" he asked.
Left didn't answer right off, he didn't know either. After a moment, it came to him.
"Her eyes were blue."
A hole in the earth, then, Right thought as Lefthand and the child departed, leaving him alone in the darkness.
Even without a shovel, the hole wasn't a problem. Carefully planted explosives provided the necessary excavation to the letter. Filling it again was another logistics problem -- a bit more lengthy this time -- but eventually accomplished. Righthand hit the return path in a hurry. Anyone and everyone within five miles had heard that concussion. He wouldn't be around to see who followed the telltale sound to its source.
He caught up with Left before dawn, the eastern sky just beginning to show the hint of a brighter hue. Left had been forced to stop, the child was not doing well with all the jostling even the smoothest of horses provided. They'd rest, but not for long. The only thing promised the weak by daytime in the desert was a quick, cruel end.
Lefthand had selected a spot in the rocks which afforded enough cover to have a fire. Right found him undertaking his usual examination of the status of his firearms. The child occupied a carefully chosen place near the coffee pot, floating on a raft of blankets. The youngster's silence worried him, and he checked the child before pouring himself a cup of coffee and automatically taking up position directly across the fire from Left -- an old habit that meant they had the entire perimeter covered between the two of them.
The coffee was way too hot, Right fussed with trying to cool it a bit then gave up and put the steaming tin cup aside.
"What do you suppose she's doing all the way out here?" he wondered aloud.
Left spun the cylinder, then sighted down the .44.
"Same thing we are."
The gun was reloaded and re holstered; the derringer was selected next.
"I hardly think a range war would interest her."
He shook his head. Righthand realized he actually didn't understand Left's answer at any level, which was rare.
"You've lost me," he admitted.
The smaller, yet higher-caliber gun was rapidly dismantled, each piece being examined in turn.
"// A rendezvous. //"
Right stared, his partner's choice of language was particularly strange in a day full of odd things.
"With whom or what?" he finally returned, in plain English.
Receiving no reply, Right opted for better use of his time. Tipping his hat over his face, he tried for a quick siesta before they were off again... well, that was what he wanted Lefthand to believe. Instead, Right pondered the non-linear turn of the most linear human in this corner of the universe.
Something was up for certain, and if he wasn't paying attention it might get by him before anyone could do a blasted thing about it... whatever -it- was.
Left finished the arsenal inventory and got himself a cup of the hot stuff from the coffee pot. A quick glance across the fire told him Righhand wasn't actually asleep.
"In the future, there is a theory that deals with probabilities..." he began.
Righthand sat up.
This was insane...
"Would you mind repeating that last part? I didn't quite catch the punch line."
"... Years on, there is a finite probability that the exact, identical constituents of anything which once existed -- including you or I -- will recombine in the identical pattern."
"Immortality for the extremely lucky, then."
"Possibly. Or is that 'probably'?" Left finished between sips of coffee.
Right eyed the being disguised as his partner with heavy-duty suspicion.
"A little too much sun today, or is this just the first time you've bothered to let me in on your clairvoyance? And all this time I kept insisting we wire Washington for information."
Lefthand was preparing an equally cryptic response for him when without warning he instead turned to the child.
"// Yes... of course. //" Left answered the silence.
Right switched his amazed stare from one to the other participant in this lopsided conversation as Left went to the pile of blankets that held the silent party.
"// Completely. //" Left answered again.
It was getting past him, and taunting him on the way by for good measure. Right ran down the possibilities: doped coffee, dream, or... No way -- reality was out of the question.
Righthand joined Left by the child. The only indication the boy was alive was the shallow rising and falling of the odd-patterned blanket covering him. Left was apparently still listening to something only he was privileged to hear. He tipped his head in acknowledgment.
"// Time to leave //," Left agreed.
The word 'leave' had an ominous ring.
"No -- " Righthand began. "Wait!"
Righthand suddenly found himself superfluous in the moment. Lefthand carefully reached for the orphan and there was a searing explosion of crystal blue between them in the sketchy dawn. Instinctively Right turned away from the blinding flash. The backlash from the explosion threw him down onto the rocky earth and into unconsciousness...
* * *
The sun was straight up. It burned his dust-filled eyes as he tried to get his bearings in the glare. The feeling he had company wasn't exactly a subtle one; Righthand rolled slowly over and focused on the hooves that were quietly, almost surgically carving up the sandy ground a few feet away from his face. He counted carefully. Twenty... Twenty-five horses then, all shod with toe-clips. Had to be cavalry. What were they doing way out here?
The hooves now moved away from him so he tried to stand. That failed, the rope binding both his hands and feet didn't allow much freedom of motion. He suspected that this was precisely the intent. His gaze returned to his company. The hooves were finally far enough away so perspective revealed their riders. The uniforms were no surprise, definitely cavalry. And showing him no good will as they reversed their retreat and bore down on his position at a dead run.
...how ingenious -- some of the enlisted men got bored and thought they'd trample a stranger for entertainment. And to make it more sporting, they tied their target's hands and feet. Probably spend their days off shooting fish in a barrel for a real challenge...
Horses will turn themselves inside out to avoid stepping on a person -- if they can see them, and if the person doesn't confuse their monoccular vision by moving too quickly. The light brigade was only a few yards out, Righthand ignored the flight reflex and remained perfectly still. Hopefully none of those enlisted equines needed glasses... Then the brigade was upon him. Dirt and sand flew into his face as the horses tried to defy their riders and dodge the body before them. One failed; a glancing blow knocked the wind out of him. As he worked to catch his breath, Righthand wondering just how that half-blind grulla mare passed the military physical.
The brigade thundered by, sweeping around for a second pass. Their target rolled back over -- his hands were in front of him now -- and struggled to retrieve something from his pocket. He had five seconds at most. The riders leaned into the motion, their mounts picked up speed as they raced back toward him, the grulla now at point. Then he had it. The device was primed with the grulla only ten feet away. At least, he thought the horse was that close. The price of rolling over was the blinding rays of the sun directly in his face again. ...best guess on range to target...
Right threw the explosive as hard as his bound hands would allow at the oncoming blur he hoped was the lead animal. He couldn't see the look of surprise from the rider, nor the cloud of red as the smoke bomb smashed into the mare's neck. It would have been very satisfying to watch the gas playing over all the riders as their momentum carried them -- entirely unwilling -- through the airborne compound. But suddenly it was raining steel-shod hooves and bodies as even the horses reeled after getting a nose full of the drug. For what seemed like an eternity, five times a thousand pounds staggered about drunkenly, stepping on unconscious riders and running into one another in the haze. Beneath the chaos, Righthand guessed he'd probably hit what he'd aimed at.
Then the dust from the fallout cleared. All around him were cavalry men. Two of the horses were down only feet away and the other three stood -- legs locked -- as they insisted upon remaining upright. And somehow in all this, the brigade's plaything had managed to escape their last deadly charge without being hit by beast or man. Fish in a barrel indeed.
Righthand took quick stock of his own condition. He was sweating bullets, his head still rung from some concussion. It made sense that he was probably thrown from his horse and imagined the entire bizarre sequence of the night before as he lay in the brutal desert sun. Unfortunately, he couldn't quite convince himself of this. The image of what happened between Lefthand and the child was far too fresh, too vivid.
He had to get out of here. Now. Before he couldn't. The closest thing to him was a prone horse. Righthand took advantage of the nearest toe-clip-shod hoof. Using the rough edge of the shoe, he had soon cut through his bonds. Now what? He could tie these clever gentlemen up and interrogate them when they came around. He could leave them out here without horses to walk back to their camp -- if it were nearby. The closest officer's uniform revealed his unit. 11th cavalry. Last he and Left had heard, the 11th was fighting Indians in Wyoming. Right noted the heat, sand, rock, and other telltale geologic and geographic features of the California desert. These boys were indeed a long way from home.
There was a third option, now, as one of the horses still actually standing began to come to its senses, sniffing the air and pawing the ground with nervous tension. Righthand relieved one of the officers of his cavalry-issue knife and went to the other four horses in turn. A quick cut rendered each of the standard issue McClellan saddles useless scrap. A canteen and a gun borrowed, then Right mounted the coherent horse and spent a moment determining in which direction "home" lay. When given his head, the bay immediately headed due north. Righthand turned the animal straight south, leaving a plain trail of prints through a sandy arroyo for the clever cavalry boys to follow if they so desired. He then doubled back over hard rock and gave the animal the reins.
With a snort and a shake of the head, the hungry beast lit out for home. The change of rider didn't concern the bay in the slightest. Of course, nothing does when a horse has food on its mind.
It took little encouragement to get a hand gallop from the enthusiastic horse and the big-boned bay's ground-eating gait had soon put miles between Righthand and the remains of the 'light brigade'. Where the horse was headed was a complete mystery. The nearest fort was at least one hundred miles east of their position; the nearest town far too distant. All this assuming he had their position correct, of coruse. He knew it last night, but absolutely none of the current scenery looked familiar now, up to and including the place where the boys were having their bit of fun at his expense.
Righthand half-halted the bay from necessity and the animal geared down to a jog. That hand-gallop hadn't phased the beast; the horse was hardly sweating, but his rider was completely winded. As they skirted a large rock formation, he concentrated on catching his breath. Five minutes passed and he was more winded than before. Right reined in the bay, wondering just what that grulla had hit when she ran him over. The lack of oxygen was making him rummy, but he was nearly positive she had only bruised a rib or two. But his lungs were on fire...
As the scenery melted before his eyes, Right dropped the reins and grasped at the bay's mane for support. Head released, the horse was off at the run once again, his rider now simply dead weight.
The smell of mustard herb, tar and camphor was overwhelming... sickening... and it was right in his face.
Half-conscious, Righthand threw off the source of the fumes, then carefully opened his eyes.
"Can you hear me?"
The speaker was hurriedly replacing the discarded foul-smelling blankets and rags on his chest, adding them to the weight of the anvil that already seemed to be there. Halfheartedly Right tried to stop the return of the odiferous things, then gave up when it proved too much effort. The colonel (colonel?) seemed determined that the smelly things remain where they were...
...speaking of 'where'--
"Where...?" Lack of air cut short his question.
The Colonel pulled a chair next to the bed and straddled it. He looked familiar...
"Fort Diablo. I'm Colonel Conners, 11th Cavalry. You and I met once before, some time ago."
"Lieutenant Conners, Fort Stedman? C- can't be."
Righthand forced himself to sit up, breath coming hard as he fought for it between fits of coughing.
"I've never heard of Fort Diablo."
Conners tugged at his collar as he decided just how to deliver his rather shocking news.
"No, you wouldn't have... I am Thomas Conners. What's harder to believe is that you are who you are."
Conners reached back to a small desk behind him, retrieving a billfold. He tossed it to Right.
"If you hadn't still had your ID, I don't think I would believe it... where have you been all this time?"
All this time? Enough of the pleasantries --
"Let's have it, Colonel. W-what's going on?"
"You and your partner disappear for nine years, and then you turn up on my doorstep out of the blue. You're asking me? I should be asking you. Washington wants to know."
"Nine years??" Righthand sank back onto the cot, disbelief all over him. Nine years... not possible...
Conners was waiting for an answer.
"I honestly don't know... "
Right finally admitted, then paused to get his breath again. The compassion for Right's condition was easily read on Conners' face. That alarmed the man on the bed far more than a simple missing decade.
Righthand looked the colonel directly in the eye. "What's wrong with me?"
The question was straight-up. Conners owed the man a straight-up answer.
"Desert-lung, in the terminal stage. It won't be too much longer -- I'm sorry. The fort doctor's done all he can for you."
The camphor and mustard plaster... frontier medicine at its best.
"He left out the nettle tea."
Right had commented absentmindedly, lost in the colonel's wild series of revelations. That half-blind nag must have collapsed a lung -- and his brain to boot, it seemed. A nine-year hiccup just wasn't possible, was it? If it were true, then time itself had become a series of non-sequiturs, perhaps the ultimate contradiction possible. This was wrong, fascinating, but nonetheless wrong.
Just keep shaking the tree -- come autumn, the truth with the leaves was sure to fall.
Colonel Conners just shook his head. With that, Right sat up and threw off the arcane attempt at medicine. A now-frequent pause to catch his breath, then he began dressing.
Conners was staring at him in disbelief, then the cavalry officer grinned. There was a reason these guys had been Grant's hand-picked agents... and he could really use this particular agent's help right now, nine years gone or otherwise.
* * *
"Respectfully, the answer is 'no', colonel." The restatement ended in the speaker wracked by a serious cough, which the other three men in the room tried to ignore.
One of Conners' lieutenants glared at the insubordinate agent.
"The Colonel wasn't making a request. That was an order."
Righthand turned from studying the stranger with the aged visage reflected back at him by the cabinet glass.
"I understand English, Lieutenant. Do you?"
The Lieutenant's fists clenched at the cut, and Major Howler felt obliged to restrain the brash young man even though he was certain -- in spite of the affliction -- that their visitor could take care of himself. The five unconscious men in the brig testified to that fact.
Conners contemplated how to convince the agent of the necessity of his request. He indicated the official document, barely visible in the flickering lamp light.
"You read President Tilden's order on this matter," he reasoned. "We need your expertise in chemistry to carry it out."
A wry grin took possession of Righthand's face.
"You can dress it in a bustle and teach it to tap-dance, Conners, it's still murder."
Conners' jaw tightened at the treasonous words.
"...besides, nine years missing in action qualifies me for retirement, don't you think? Tilden at least owes me a small fortune in back pay," Right added in his old, flip tone, "and unless Fort Diablo has become the federal repository during my absence, you haven't got it."
Righthand paid for his sarcasm with another painful fit of coughing. Abandoning his favourite method of verbal fencing, he caught his breath and steeled the colonel.
I will not help you poison an entire tribe of people under an offer of peace."
As the agent finished, Colonel Conners' grew distant, angry. He was reliving the past, a past Righthand knew nothing about. Conners would tell him...
"That 'tribe' you're talking about has killed more US citizens over the past nine years than the total we've lost in Indian skirmishes across the country," he enumerated. "Te Kat and his 'people' killed my wife, my son... he probably murdered your partner in cold blood. Everyone at this fort has lost someone to that savage... a savage his people believe is a god. They will follow him straight to Hell, without question."
"Isn't that what you're asking your men to do as well, Colonel?" Righthand pointed out carefully.
Avoiding the truth, Conners defaulted to the easy answer.
"We have orders to destroy that tribe and its leader. How we do it is immaterial."
Righthand didn't answer Conners, nothing he could say would sway this man's conviction. For his part, Conners now knew the converse was also true.
"Major, take this man to his quarters and confine him there."
As the major escorted him out, Right could hear Conners issuing orders to the hot-headed lieutenant for the evening's activities. The colonel didn't think Righthand much of a threat if he were simply confining him to quarters.
Connors' mistake. Acting upon misguided sympathy might be everyone's undoing this night.
Once in the dark hallway Right stopped, doubling up in another cough seizure. Major Howler paused, planning upon waiting it out, when a handy door just happened to fly open, knocking him senseless. The effort brought on a real seizure this time and Righthand was forced to waste precious minutes as he brought it under control. The frustration was torture. If he couldn't do his job, innocent people would die.
Now it was Righhand's turn to make a decision: the 'desert lung' would not stop him again.
Howler was stuffed into a supply closet. Finding himself at the stable, Right managed to convince the night sentinel that Conners had given him permission to 'get some fresh air' and rode straight out the fort gates with the guard's blessing. In his mind, the image of the map the Colonel had used to convey his tactical plan. Righthand knew where the Indian encampment would be... and how far Conners' men would be behind him. Somewhere ahead, the answer to what had happened to Lefthand awaited. It would be there. It had to be.
;Something was burning in the Devil's kitchen. He could absolutely feel it...
Rounding an outcropping, Right was jumped from behind. The two men slipped from the horse to the ground, the brave holding a knife at his throat. Righthand wasn't in the least bit surprised. The only surprising part was that he had gotten this far into his territory without being challenged.
"// I must speak with Te Kat. //"
No fear, no panic, only a statement of fact. The brave retracted the knife and shoved the stranger toward the campfire light. Instantly they were surrounded. When the firelight finally revealed his features to the people gathered there, recognition set in. Righthand was obviously known by the tribe, only he didn't have any idea as to why. He did not know them...
"\ Righthand, what news do you bring? \"
The dialect was completely unfamiliar, yet he understood every word. Right turned slowly to face the speaker. Te Kat was a young man, perhaps twenty, and clearly the head of this tribe both as warrior and spiritual leader. Tall, strong... and his eyes were a piercing blue. The connection became clear as the firelight fell upon a brutal scar across the warrior's left cheek.
Standing before Righthand was the child. It was also Lefthand as well.
"// Treachery. //" Right informed them. "// The soldiers come even now to slaughter what remains of your people under the white flag, Te Kat. You must flee. //"
Then he couldn't breathe. Righthand had done his job, and now the 'desert lung' came on with a vengence. Right fell to his knees as the blood roared in his head and consciousness started to depart...
Te Kat's people turned to their leader for guidance. He did not disappoint them.
"\ No... we do not flee... we -leave-. Prepare. \"
The people turned away from Right. All except Te Kat. The warrior knelt by his friend as Righthand fell against him, gasping.
"// You- -m-must- go... now. //"
"\ You have died for us, Righthand. We will not forget it. \"
Te Kat drew a knife. Even in his state of limbo, Righthand identified the ceremonial dagger. Lefthand was going to end his friend's suffering and give him a swift, dignified death.
Right relaxed and waited for the end to come....
As if probability had suddenly favoured him, everything that made up his being rebelled against this reality all at once. Righthand knocked the knife from his throat and struggled with the stronger man for the weapon. Te Kat finally succeeded in throwing the weaker man to the ground, then shook him hard.
... a ... a -- a rock. A rock, yes. That's what it was. A rock... The sun was high, and twenty feet away or so was the train. it's back door wide open as if it had been flung out violently. Opaque tendrils of azure smoke snaked their way out every opening and crack of the passenger car, searching. Searching. And he was lying in the dirt, coughing to beat the Devil.
As recognition of their surroundings came to light in his partner's eyes, Jim released him and tried to catch his own breath between his own violent coughing fits.
"Artie -- "
Artemus glanced over at the man who'd just saved his life, and his sanity.
" -- next time that consulting detective friend of yours sends you a package, send it back -- unopened."
All he could manage was to nod...
* * *
...but for those of you who do not actually know the reference, read on...
He hadn't thought much of it when the innocuous package arrived. Inside, a twisted, black root -- species unknown -- and a quick note from the British intellect himself: '"The Devil's Foot"- activated by combustion.' It seemed harmless enough. Idle curiosity got the best of him, he began to burn one small fragment.
The word 'activated' should have received more attention from him than it did at the time.
Artemus tossed Holmes' fifty page dissertation on the dangers of the substance to the table, glancing at the malevolent tuber currently occupying a jar of formaldehyde on the counter. The hallucinogenic properties of The Devil's Foot made most North American plants of 'mystic' use appear as candy to cocaine... A vile, lethal, inhumane weapon in the wrong hands. Through suspect circumstances, today those hands were almost his own.
Somehow the dissertation had become separated from The Devil's Foot in transit, having been delivered by post not long after they'd managed to get safely back inside their living quarters. The two items had originally been secured as one. The twine that held them together appeared corroded, or perhaps burnt. Of course, the US Mail knew nothing about how the twine got that way.
The effects of the root were clinically and methodically enumerated in the dissertation: a single breath tainted with The Devil's Foot and the victim hallucinates. Complete loss of reality can be expected. Much more and death -- typically violent and self-induced -- results. A large percentage of the hallucinogen's victims were known to die of sheer terror.
The two Secret Service agents should be dead, or insane, or both if that were possible. They were alive because Jim had somehow managed to latch onto reality for a split-second. Long enough to get them both out of grasp of The Devil's Foot.
How incredibly -- well, incredibly *something*!
Jim hadn't said a word about it. Not one. But he was thinking about it and of all the reactions to have, West was amused. The evening paper covered the slight grin, but covered or not, Artie knew it was there.
The reason for the amusement? For the first time in his life, words were actually failing one Artemus Gordon: elocutionist extraordinaire. He couldn't even think up a good expletive to throw out -- in any language. What could he say? He'd nearly killed them both. Physical threats were something they dealt with every day in their line of work. This mental attack had been truly unnerving... for Artemus alone apparently. Jim West was amused. Amused!
Damn his... his... his *something*!
Artie grabbed the nearest dictionary -- some severely formal Russian tome -- and began reading it page by page. He'd find the right word.
"<<Damn his tweed sandwich!>>"
Artemus said it aloud, and in Russian, and was quite pleased with the crack. West looked carefully over the paper.
"You said something, Artie?" Deadpan.
West's comment was ignored.
Did he actually just say "sandwich"?? Erm... uh... ... lessee ... Ah! Here was a brilliant idiom!
"<<Damn his Cossack grandmother.>>"
The Russians had some of the most amazing insults; they could teach the French a thing or tw--
"Enough of the language lesson." The newspaper was tossed aside.
"But it was just getting interesting..."
"At least that was English." Jim stood up and exchanged his smoking jacket for the usual blue coat.
"Well? Come on. Let's go."
"The nearest dark, smelly saloon we can find."
"You don't have to ask me twice." Artie grabbed his own coat and fished about his pockets.
"Now what did I do with that billfold?"
West started for the door. "Maybe you left it at Fort Diablo."
"No." Artie shook his head. "No, I'm certain I didn't have... it...." His voice trailed off as he realized what he was saying. The two men exchanged looks. They'd both been party to the same hallucination.
Artemus threw up his hands in resignation. "Nothing for it then, James -- self-induced hallucination it is. Oh, and you're buying."
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