THE NIGHT OF PARADISE LOST
Do not stand in a place of danger trusting in miracles.
— Arabian Proverb
"I think this could be one of those times, Mr. West, when discretion may well be the better part of valor."
Artemus Gordon spoke in a low, tense voice, holding his coffee cup near his mouth as he pretended to gaze idly toward the nearby window with its view of the dusty street and the buildings on the other side of it.
On the opposite side of the table, Jim West carefully cut his steak, head down. "I fully concur, Mr. Gordon. I suggest we finish our meal, check out of the hotel… and regroup somewhere nice and quiet." They were very aware of the two men half a dozen feet away at the bar, not to mention the several armed men they had seen out on the street while walking from their hotel.
"May I freshen your coffee?"
Both men looked up at the waitress holding the large enamel coffeepot with folded cloths protecting her hands. She was a pretty woman in her mid twenties, with long brown hair that flowed over her shoulders, contrary to the prevailing style whereby women bound their hair in knots, braids, or other elaborate coifs. Although her lips were smiling, her brown eyes were anxious.
"Thank you," Artie said, lowering his cup to the saucer, glancing at Jim and then focusing on the woman. They had talked to her previously during their three days in Desert Springs, New Mexico Territory. Her name was Mira, and she had served them several times in this restaurant.
As she leaned forward, she whispered. "Don't wait to check out. Leave immediately. He is coming for you."
Jim's first impulse was to ask her, "Who's coming?" but he quelled it. Who she meant was obvious. Perhaps the question really was why she was offering this warning. She had been friendly—very friendly, even a little flirtatious—during previous encounters. Her gaze now was not the least coquettish, and quite serious. Townspeople had been avoiding the agents as much as possible; why had not Mira behaved the same way?
"Good idea," Jim said then, getting to his feet and reaching into his coat for his billfold.
She reached out with a free hand after resting the pot on the table, a gesture to stop his actions. "Just go. Quickly. You…"
Her words halted as the front door of the restaurant opened. Four men entered, three of them carrying rifles that were immediately pointed toward the table where the two agents were dining. The two from the bar stepped forward simultaneously with the entry of the other gun-bearing men, pulling their pistols. Artie rose slowly now. He knew better than to try for the weapon at his hip with five guns pointed their way. Instead he touched Mira's arm and jerked his head. She immediately moved away, taking the coffee pot with her. The several other patrons in the restaurant were also drifting toward the back wall, apprehension on their faces as the armed men formed a circle around Jim and Artie's table.
"Mr. West, Mr. Gordon. Good morning."
The speaker was the nattily clad man in the lead. They had met him on their first day in Desert Springs. His name was Marius Hammer, and both agents had agreed that their first impression of him was that he was one of the most dangerous and evil men they had ever encountered. Artemus freely stated that Hammer's cold silver eyes caused a chill to traverse his spine.
Hammer was the man they had been sent to New Mexico to investigate, after the department received a letter from a former Secret Service agent who had left the service to marry and become sheriff here in Desert Springs. Russell Kelsey had been a respected agent, so the information he imparted had been taken seriously. In the missive he promised more details and proof of his allegations as soon as the department sent someone to look into the matter.
When West and Gordon arrived in Desert Springs, however, they were told that Sheriff Kelsey had gone missing. His frightened and grieving wife had no information for them, other than to relate that her husband was the seventh man to vanish mysteriously in the last two years—and that she was certain Marius Hammer was behind it. She had been aware that Russ wrote to Washington, but he had been careful to not involve her, not giving her any information whatsoever.
They had searched Kelsey's office without finding anything that would tell them how to proceed to gain the proof that the sheriff had promised. The office evinced signs of having already been thoroughly searched. The information the sheriff had provided to get them here was that Marius Hammer was not only committing extortion, but had a scheme in the works that could affect the entire nation, possibly the world. Whatever those plans were, Russ Kelsey had taken them seriously enough to warn Washington, but had not felt it would be safe to put them in his communication.
During their two days here the agents had talked—or tried to talk—to numerous residents in town and on the ranches and farms in the area, but gained precious little in response, other than the obvious fact that the people were terrified. They themselves had noticed the armed men who were a constant presence both on the streets of Desert Springs and in the outlying areas. While visiting at least two ranches, a man with a rifle lingered nearby, watching. No one would speak of the men who had vanished, not even the families of those men. The only thing that could be gleaned was that all those missing men, like the sheriff, had opposed Hammer in some manner.
"Good morning, Mr. Hammer," Jim replied pleasantly. "I'd ask you to join us, but I'm afraid we've finished our meal and are about to depart."
"Nonsense," Hammer replied in an equally agreeable tone, "we have business to take care of. In fact, rather than breakfast, why don't you join me outside?"
"Oh, thank you for the invitation," Artemus said with exaggerated politeness, "but I'm afraid we really must be going. We are expected." He put a slightly harder emphasis on the last words.
"Nonsense," Hammer said again, unfazed. His tone was soft, but his eyes were silvery granite stones. He was a man in his fifties, of medium height and slim build with an angular, almost triangular face, his chin pointed and somewhat jutting. His hair was snow white, impeccably cut and combed, along with always-perfect attire. A ruby stickpin gleamed in his cravat. "Whoever is expecting you won't mind waiting… awhile. Do come along. I have something very interesting to show you."
With the rifle-toting men moving closer, hefting their weapons to their shoulders, barrels aimed at their heads, the two agents had no choice. Once they were out onto the porch of the restaurant, their own weapons were removed and they were herded toward a waiting wagon, ordered into the bed of it, along with two of the guards. Hammer did not deign to ride in such humble transportation, but went to a gold-trimmed black carriage drawn by two gleaming black horses with a driver on the front bench.
In such close quarters, Jim realized, they were going to have difficulty accessing any of the other weapons they possessed. He could not get to the explosive in his boot heels and Artie would not be able to use the gas pellets and explosives disguised as his jacket buttons. The derringer inside his sleeve would not be of much use against such odds, nor would the knife in his jacket.
Artemus watched the scenery as the wagon rumbled out of town. Hammer's carriage was in the lead, thereby avoiding the dust created by the wagon, but causing some for the wagon's passengers and the guards. The terrain in this part of New Mexico, like a good portion of the state, was rough and mostly arid. "Desert Springs" gained its name from the several very fine water sources in the region, including a creek that flowed for most of the year, occasionally boosted by ferocious thunderstorms. The local population survived by dint of those springs and the creek, and was prosperous. Or had been.
A rather high mountain, probably at least a couple thousand feet in elevation, dominated the area, and it appeared that was where they were heading. Why, Artie wondered. He knew Hammer's main abode, a large home, was in the other direction from town. Is this where the other missing men ended up? In some ravine, perhaps covered with rocks? He glanced at his partner, aware that Jim was experiencing the same tension he was. They were in a bad situation here, outnumbered and virtually unarmed. We should have gotten the hell out of Desert Springs after the first day. Retreat, however, was not usually in their vocabulary.
They had encountered Marius Hammer that day of their arrival. Indeed, he had come to the small hotel, directly to their rooms just a couple of hours after they registered. As Jim had commented later, that was certainly a sign of Hammer's self-confidence. He did not appear to harbor any fear of the federal government interfering in his plans, whatever they were. On that occasion, just one man had accompanied Hammer, a stocky black-bearded fellow with small and dangerous eyes. That man was not among this group.
Does Hammer really believe he could kill us then not face retribution from the federal government? My comment that "we are expected" was not far off the mark. Colonel Richmond will be awaiting word from us, and when it doesn't come, more men, perhaps troops, will be dispatched to this area.
He's so confident, Jim mused, he's not even tying us up. He looked up toward the mountain looming ever closer and unknowingly had the same thoughts as his partner. The bodies of those missing men could be hidden rather easily in this terrain, full of gullies and boulders, leading right up to the base of the mountain. The early Spanish inhabitants called this mountain La Guarida del Diablo, he had been told: "the devil's lair." Legend said that the mountain itself swallowed anyone who ventured onto it.
Jim glanced around. The two men riding in the wagon with them and the three on horseback were alert, still with their rifles pointed toward the prisoners. If either one of us makes a move, they start shooting. That's obvious, even without a warning from Hammer. But we have to do something. Maybe when we reach our destination… wherever that is!
The two vehicles rumbled on, eventually cutting off the main road to head directly toward the mountain on a narrow, very rutted path. One pothole was bad enough that the jolted wagon hurled Artemus toward the nearest guard. That man rammed the butt of his rifle into Artie's shoulder, obviously believing Gordon was attempting to make a break of some kind. Jim reacted angrily, and would have thrown himself rashly toward the guard, but Artemus grabbed his arm.
"I'm all right, Jim." That was not quite true, as his shoulder throbbed. He knew he would have a dandy bruise—if he lived long enough for one to develop. He had no doubt, however, that if Jim grappled with the guard, the others would quickly join in… and they might not live to reach wherever they were going.
Jim sat back, taking a deep breath. Stupid bastard! He was jolted by the same hole in the road. Why didn't he realize that was what happened to Artie? Jim knew the answer to that. Some men enjoyed inflicting pain, and the scarred faced man who had acted looked to be one of those, always watching for an opportunity to abuse the helpless.
Finally, near the base of the mountain where the boulders were massive and the vehicles had to wend the way slowly and carefully among them, they stopped in a clearing just below a straight, shear rock wall. The two agents were ordered to the ground, and as they did so, four more men appeared from beyond the boulders, also bearing rifles. Artie glanced at his partner and saw the same grim thoughts in Jim's eyes. Their chances of escape were greatly diminished with the odds increasing against them.
Marius Hammer dismounted from his carriage and strolled toward them. "I trust the journey was not too arduous," he said, eyes glittering.
"Not if you're planning to provide a picnic lunch now," Artie replied blithely.
"Not a picnic lunch," Hammer assured him, "but a memorable experience. Gentlemen?"
Hammer led the way, and appeared to be walking toward a blank wall. Was that it—a firing squad against the rock face of the mountain? Artemus knew that he and his partner would attempt something. They would not complacently stand still to be shot down. Whether or not they could be successful was beyond the point. James West and Artemus Gordon would go down fighting. That was how they lived, that was how they would die.
Both men were astonished when Hammer veered to one side, approaching what appeared to be a mere shadow caused by a fold in the wall, where he vanished. They quickly realized Hammer had entered a narrow, almost hidden, opening. When the agents halted their steps in their amazement, rifles prodded them in the back, so they followed Hammer in through the slim aperture.
Lit torches were in sconces on either side of a rough tunnel. Several of the men grabbed other torches that were on the floor and ignited them from the burning ones. The pungent scent of tar and smoke filled the air as they moved forward. The ground was rough and they soon found they had to pay attention lest they trip over a jutting rock.
Only when they entered into a large cavern did the two men exchange glances. Both saw the yawning opening in the middle of the floor. Jim's stomach tightened. This was, obviously, where the missing men ended up. If no one else knew about the cave—or did not dare enter if they did know—the site was a perfect place to dispose of bodies.
Rather than a firing squad against the mountain wall, we're going to be stood next to the abyss, Artie decided. Our bodies will fall in—and be disposed of forever. Again he looked at his friend. They needed to coordinate their efforts when they made a break. Futile as it might turn out to be, the attempt was necessary.
Artie was more than a little startled when Jim was grabbed by the arms and pushed around to the far side of the hole. That did not make a lot of sense. It would be easier to have them together… Oh God! He's going to throw us in, alive, one at a time! A freezing chill coursed through Artie's veins. Being some dozen feet apart, with the gaping abyss between, the odds increased considerably. Still… they would fight. Across the way Jim lifted his gaze and Artemus met it.
"Now, gentlemen, I think you are gaining an idea into my plans," Hammer purred. He was standing several feet back from the blackness of the hole, at a spot in between the two captives.
"Not hard to figure out," Jim replied icily. "You're a fool, Hammer. Kill us and the government will be here in short order."
Hammer shrugged. "And they will be told that Mr. West and Mr. Gordon left Desert Springs, saying they were returning to their headquarters. Dozens of reputable citizens will tell them the same thing. You will vanish, Mr. West. Simply vanish from the earth." He nodded.
It happened suddenly. The two men nearest each agent grabbed their arms. Both struggled mightily, and in Jim's case, a third man joined in. While grappling with his captors, Artemus saw this, realizing that in his case, the third was not involved. He also became aware that as he was being pulled back from the abyss, Jim was being pushed toward it. What…?
He had no time to speculate. Propelled back to the wall and pinned there by two strong men, his arms twisted behind him, Artemus Gordon watched in horror as Jim was forced toward the lip of the hole. The men holding him obviously had experience in similar situations. Jim's arms were also twisted behind his back, increasing his difficulty to fight back as he dealt with the pain. He could not maneuver his feet to attempt to trip any of his captors as he was forced forward.
At the last instant, Jim looked up and his gaze met that of his horrified partner. Then… Artemus Gordon's horrified "Noooo!" echoed in the cavern as Jim West vanished into the darkness. The silence prevailed for long seconds. Artie was aware that without the support of the two men still grasping his arms, he would have slipped to the ground, his legs momentarily losing strength.
"Well, that's done," Marius Hammer said in his usual genial tone. "Mr. Gordon…"
The voice and the words brought Artemus back from the void his mind had slipped into. "You… you…" he could not think of the words that would express his rage and hatred adequately. Finally he spoke quietly. "I'm next, I suppose."
"Oh, no, not at all. You're not going to die, Mr. Gordon. Not yet. I need you."
Artie's brow creased. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"It's quite simple. Miguelito told me that you have a very fine brain, and he is of the opinion that away from Mr. West's influence, you might even use it in a fruitful manner."
"Miguel… you know Loveless?" For a moment, astonishment wiped everything else from his mind.
"Certainly. We have been acquaintances—I daresay friends—for many years. We think alike in numerous ways. Miguelito has his sights set on regaining his inheritance in California. My vision is focused slightly higher."
"And you… you expect me to… help you? After you just murdered my best friend?" The fury returned, redoubled.
Hammer waved dismissively. "Before long, you will be wondering why you ever associated with a man like James West. Come now. We can be at my home by midday. I have an excellent cook. I'm told you are a connoisseur of good food and drink. I serve the best."
I will indulge my sorrows, and give way
To all the pangs and fury of despair.
— Cato (act IV, sc. 3), Joseph Addison (1672-1719), English essayist, poet, and statesman
He opened his eyes and stared. For a long moment, he could not think, could not imagine where he was, what he was seeing. He finally realized he was looking at the rough slats on the bottom of a mattress above him. A slight sound, an indrawn breath, caused him to turn his head slightly… and he stared again at the face he saw.
The man seated alongside where he was laying was recognizable despite a beard and mustache on his formerly clean-shaven face. He smiled slightly. "Hi, Jim. Didn't expect to meet you this way, at this place."
Jim West lifted himself up on his elbows, and looked around. "This place" appeared to be a bunkhouse of some kind, a long room lined with double-deckers of beds. He himself was on a lower bunk.
"I don't understand. How… how did you…?" Sudden realization hit. "Am I dead?" His surroundings did not look anything like his vision of heaven… or hell.
Russ Kelsey laughed, the smile he had been famous for in the service lighting up his countenance. He was close to forty now, but being blond and fair skinned, appeared much younger. In the military, he had twice successfully portrayed a youthful man to gain information from the enemy. The blue eyes sobered then.
"No, we're not dead, Jim, neither of us. But for all intents and purposes, we might as well be."
Jim managed to gain a sitting position, aware of the weakness in his muscles and the overall sense of fatigue. He realized he was now wearing different clothes, denim trousers and a faded cotton shirt, his feet bare for the moment. "How did I get here? Last I remember was hitting the water…" …the icy cold water that had swallowed him into the deeper darkness. The shock of it on his body had almost done him in, but he had recovered to stroke back to the surface. The only light had come from above the opening a hundred feet above him, and as he paddled around, trying to regain breath enough to yell, even that vanished. All he could do was swim, and before long—within about twenty feet, he thought—his hands touched something solid. He didn't remember much after that.
"Mother Angel has spies in town," Russ said then. "When they become aware that someone has been taken toward El Diablo, they send word—somehow. I'm not sure how that works, but the information reaches the inhabitants of the valley, who rush to the pool to try to rescue whoever has been thrown in. Of the seven—now eight—two have died. One of those was Charles Barber, our judge, who was in his seventies. Chances are the shock of the water killed him. The very first one, Fred Frantz, the gunsmith, happened before Mother had her system set up."
"Wait, wait! Mother Angel? The valley? What…?"
Russ sighed. "Jim, it's pretty unbelievable. There is…"
His words halted as Jim suddenly grasped his wrist, a horrified expression on his face. "Russ… Artie!"
"Where's Artie?" Jim looked around the room frantically. Every other bed was empty.
"Jim, you were the only one they brought in."
Jim stared at him, shaking his head slowly. "No! No! Artie was there. We were both brought to the… the cave. They must have thrown him in… after me." Dear God! Why didn't I try to help him? He had a vague recollection of hearing a voice, or voices, as he swam. Artie, calling for his help? No… that hadn't been Artie's voice. But…
"I'm sorry, Jim. Artemus is not here."
With a groan, Jim dropped back on the bed, throwing his arm over his eyes. For a long, long moment, he lay still. Russ was silent. Then, with a shuddering, deep breath, Jim sat up again. "How do I get back to Desert Springs from… wherever we are?" His tone was icy.
"That's what I've been trying to tell you, Jim. You can't. We can't. We are now members of Mother Angel's flock. I have no idea how to get out of the valley."
Now Jim swung his bare feet over the side of the bed. He saw a pair of worn boots on the floor, picked one up and began to tug it on. "Talk sense, Russ." The boot fit reasonably well, so he grabbed the other one.
"I don't know if I can. Here's the story. You'll see some of it once we go outside. We're in a valley that is apparently deep within La Diablo. I remember hearing Indian legends about it, but I thought that was all it was, a legend. Seems Mother Angel and a few of her followers discovered it some years back and decided to make it their personal Eden. Over the years, some of them have left the valley periodically to bring back recruits to her colony. I think there were originally around twenty of them, maybe a dozen men, the rest women, before she started rescuing men from the pool. When Hammer found the cave and began to throw his enemies into the pit, they started adding the rescued men to their flock. Close to forty all told now, with other recent recruits that she brought in."
"And… you are staying willingly?"
"Not willingly, Jim. There's just no way to get out. I mean, there is a way, but only a few know where it is. Even some of the newer willing recruits told me they were brought in blindfolded. They have no idea how to get out, even if they wanted to. But they are here voluntarily."
"The spy in town… Mira… at the restaurant?"
"She's one of the highly trusted members. They have some pretty good cover stories as to why they come and go. Mira told me a while back she had elderly parents living some fifty miles from here and she periodically had to go check on them. That was how she explained why she's gone from town for a few weeks. I'm not entirely certain about the others. I know I saw a few of them in town from time to time. I guess I thought they were just farmers, coming in for supplies or for a touch of civilization from time to time." He paused. "Jim, did you talk to Louisa?"
Jim nodded. "She's mourning, but she's fine. She's a strong woman, Russ." He and Artemus had attended the wedding some years ago and admired Louisa Kelsey for her willingness to leave her Washington, D.C. home to travel west with her new husband.
Jim then asked Russ about Marius Hammer, the man they had come to investigate. "We could see how terrorized the population is. No one wanted to talk to us… except Mira."
Russ related how Hammer had arrived in Desert Springs a few years ago, bought the old Hernandez house and grounds, and at first seemed to be a good citizen. "Then these gun-toting toughs started to arrive, one or two at a time. I asked Hammer, because he appeared to be hiring them. He told me that he was organizing an expedition into some unexplored areas of Brazil and these men were to accompany him for protection."
The sheriff shook his head, bemused. "It sounded odd, but I had no reason to disbelieve him. When he had brought in about twenty men, things changed. Hammer started offering 'insurance' to folks in the area. His prices were pretty high, and at first few bought in. Then things started to happen. A spring poisoned out on the range; a fire in a storeroom in town. Soon became clear that those things weren't happening to anyone who bought the insurance. I had no proof, however, that Hammer was involved."
"Those types of crimes are often hard to prove," Jim said softly.
Russ sighed. "That's for certain! In any case, I tried to do what I could, but at that time I was alone, no deputy. And I think my pride got in the way. I should have asked for help a lot sooner than I did. But it wasn't a federal case either. More gunmen arrived and things just became worse. Then I started hearing stories about what Hammer was doing in his house, his laboratory. Talk about conquering the world, killing lots of people in the process. Rumors said he was making some kind of a poison to sell to men who wanted to overturn their governments.
"About this time, our mail started being watched. Everything outgoing has to go through Hammer. Of course, that's against federal law. But I couldn't write for help! Finally I got that letter out by slipping it to the driver of the stage that comes through about twice a month. I couldn't give a lot of details, just in case Hammer got hold of it anyway."
Jim stood up, grabbing the vertical support of the beds for a moment to steady his surprisingly shaky legs. He had not been in that frigid water long, but obviously it had taken a toll. "I'm getting out of here," he stated firmly. "One way or another. I have a man to kill."
Revenge is an act of passion; vengeance of justice.
Injuries are revenged; crimes are avenged.
—Joseph Jourbert (1754-1824), French moralist and essayist
Artemus Gordon looked around his room. As luxurious accommodations as he had ever had, easily matching the extraordinarily fine hotel where he and Jim had once stayed in Paris. The outside of the house was rather ordinary, if large, but the interior was fabulous, the floors coated with thick imported rugs, pictures and hangings on the walls.
Seems Hammer and Loveless have more than just megalomania in common: a taste for opulence.
He walked to the window and looked down on a well-tended, lush flower garden. A high stone fence surrounded the house and grounds. Guards patrolled that fence, were stationed at the front gate and, Artie was sure, at any other existing gates. No one was allowed to enter, or leave, without permission.
Briefly he closed his eyes against a sudden surge of pain the memory of Jim West disappearing into that abyss flew through his mind. How could it be? How could it have happened? They were rarely off guard, but Hammer's abrupt entrance into the restaurant and even more sudden actions taking them to the cave had definitely surprised them. Neither of us expected it. Not so quickly. Not so openly.
They had briefly discussed the idea that they might have trouble leaving Desert Springs after their presence and official status became known. But that kind of trouble they would have been prepared for. Being abruptly taken prisoner by armed men had not been anticipated. Not in the middle of town, in a busy restaurant. They had underestimated Hammer's level of control of the townspeople. Hammer did not operate like other men. That went without saying. He seemed to have no fear of government retribution.
He mentioned at lunch that he expected me to intervene if the government does investigate further. He may be more insane than Loveless. At least Miguelito Loveless would know better. But Hammer has this whole area under his thumb. Is that how he'll try to coerce me to fend off any further government probes, holding the safety of the citizens over my head?
Artie frowned as he walked back to the huge, soft bed and sat down on the edge. Hammer said that his—and Jim's—possessions would be brought from the hotel, including their horses, to make it appear as if they had indeed left the area. If that didn't work and other agents appeared, Hammer appeared confident that Artemus Gordon would make adequate explanations—whatever those might be. Perhaps he would simply be held prisoner here while the frightened townspeople parroted whatever story Hammer gave them to offer to future investigators.
Artie ran the fingers of both hands through his hair, looking back toward the room's door. It was locked. He had tried that earlier. Not only that, Hammer had taken his jacket and had his men thoroughly search the prisoner's clothes and person. They had found nothing because his only hidden weapons had been the buttons at this time. I don't even have a picklock!
Again he went to the window, this time leaning his forehead against the cool glass, not really seeing anything outside. Jim was dead, dying a horrible, terrifying death. They had faced death so many times. Had escaped just as many times. Now… again the pain washed through his soul. At that instant in the cave, he had wished for death himself. Not now, however. Not before he gained vengeance.
No matter what I have to do. If it's necessary to appear to go completely over to his side to gain his confidence and trust, that's what it'll be. Anything to give me the chance. Someday, somehow, I'll kill Marius Hammer… even if I hang for it.
A limbo large and broad, since call'd The Paradise of Fools to few unknown.
— Paradise Lost (bk. III, l. 495), John Milton (1608-1674), English poet & Author
Jim put his fork down on the plate, the chunk of beef he had speared still impaled. Everyone else at the long table was eating with great gusto, and indeed, the stew had a pleasing aroma. When he tried to chew a bite, however, it seemed to turn to dust in his mouth. Picking up the cup of coffee, he let his gaze lift to the woman at the far end of the table.
Mother Angel. She did not resemble his vision of an angel. Perhaps once, in her youth, she had been lovely. The bone structure was there. But now, in a little beyond middle age, with many pounds padding those bones, she was a heavy set woman with gray streaked dark hair, falling to her shoulders and beyond, as did the locks of every woman present. Those women ranged in age from early twenties to close to Mother Angel's years.
He had been introduced to all the women, as well as the men, who like the females covered a broad age range, with the youngest probably twenty or so and the oldest a white-bearded man with longish hair that reached almost to his shoulders. His name was Sam, as Jim recalled. Jim did not remember many names other than the four that Russ had pointed out earlier as the "missing men" from Desert Springs. All of the men present were not only unshaven but also appeared to not have had a haircut in a long while.
Those four from Desert Springs were a doctor, the blacksmith, a merchant, and a young man whom Russ said had just been appointed as his deputy at the time he disappeared several months ago. The merchant had been taken from town a little less than two years ago, the second victim in Marius Hammer's plan to silence any strong voices of dissent, and thus quell future problems with fear and intimidation. He had also been the first rescued by the people of the valley.
That means that Mother Angel has kept him here for all that time. That did not bode too well for a successful escape. Jim knew, nevertheless, that he would try. The exit was somewhere. With his experience, might be he would be the only one who could locate it. He just needed a chance.
"James!" the woman known as Mother Angel called, "you are not eating. Are you well?"
"I guess I'm tired," he replied. "If I may be excused…" He started to push back his chair.
"Of course. Rufus, you appear to have finished your meal. Please walk James to the quarters and make sure he is comfortable."
"I can find my own way…" Jim began.
She smiled. "Nonsense. You went through a terrible ordeal today. I want to make certain you are well. Rufus."
Russ Kelsey got to his feet alongside the thin balding man who rose reluctantly. "I'll go with Jim."
Mother Angel's smile continued to match her name. "That's kind of you, Russell, but I'm sure Rufus can take care of him."
"I'll go with them both."
The three men departed the large structure that Russ had told Jim was the main building of the compound, containing not only the dining area and kitchen but also Mother Angel's living quarters—and the women's bedroom. "I suspect she is not entirely sure of the morals of all her children," Russ had grinned.
Jim had discovered earlier that the valley was relatively small, probably about a half mile across and not much more than a mile long. It appeared that the underground pool in the cave was fed by the swiftly flowing stream that emerged in a broad waterfall from the shear cliff at one end, apparently having some springs as its source. This stream bisected the valley and disappeared into the rock wall near where entrance to the pool's cave was located, providing water for the inhabitants as well as to irrigate the gardens tended for their own consumption and for sale. Russ related that some of the produce was sold in Desert Springs, with the residents of that town being told that they came from a farm some miles away. "I know I never questioned it," the sheriff said ruefully.
Russ speculated that at least one exit that led out of the valley was so cleverly disguised as to be almost invisible from the interior of the valley, and undoubtedly from outside as well. He knew that a small wagon passed in and out of the valley, so a larger tunnel must exist, but thus far he had no idea where that one was either: the walls appeared to be sheer and solid all around. When Jim asked, Russ said he did not know how Mother Angel had found the valley in the first place. "I tried to ask her once, but she changed the subject."
The men's bunkhouse was about fifty yards from the main house, alongside the big barn and corral where a number of horses and a couple of milking cows were kept. When they entered, Jim went directly to his bunk, pulled off his boots and lay down, as though exhausted. Russ sat down on the bunk across, while Rufus went further down the aisle. After a moment, he came back.
"Look, Russell, you think you'll be all right here with him? I mean, there's apple pie for dessert…"
Kelsey smiled and waved. "Go ahead, Rufus. Tell Mother we're both laying down, and that Jim fell asleep right away."
As soon as Rufus departed, Jim sat up. "Russ, I've got to get out of here."
"So do we all. I want to get back to Louisa… and my job. I swear, Jim, every day since I've been here I've tried to find that exit. I've asked questions, and when the opportunity arose to be near the walls, I searched for it."
"But people do leave the valley. Do you see which way they come and go?"
Russ shook his head, grimacing. "That always occurs sometime during the night. The wagon goes out in the early dawn hours as well. I usually notice one morning that a new person is at breakfast, and one is missing. I think there are two out of the valley at a time, and I suspect that ties into how they get signals about the condemned men. Like I said, though, I don't know how that works. I've asked the others—Wes, Arthur, Simon, and Jake," he named the other kidnapped men, "and they have seen nothing, heard nothing. Mother Angel has kept this place secret for years, bringing people in without anyone knowing about it."
"She then began rescuing the men from the abyss."
"Yeah. Seems she knew about the hidden cave and the pool a long while ago too. I think the persons in town get an idea about who Hammer's next target might be, so they watch for signs that the trip to the abyss is imminent, and maybe one comes hurrying back to set up the rescue. I don't know. I do know where the tunnel from the abyss to the valley is—though it doesn't do any good. There's no way to escape through there. Somehow Hammer discovered the cave and began to use it to dispose of his enemies. Obviously, he does not know about the rescues."
"I wonder why she decided to rescue the doomed men. Out of the goodness of her heart? Or because she still needed recruits?"
Russ chuckled. "Perhaps a little of both. Speaking of recruits, did you notice the white-haired man sitting at Mother's right hand?"
"Yeah, I did. Sam, wasn't it? I have a vague notion I've seen him before. What's his last name?"
Kelsey shook his head. "I don't know. It was never given, and he's never offered it. As I understand, he came here about three months ago, and not entirely of his own free will. He wasn't thrown in the pit—came from somewhere else. Mother Angel spotted him, decided she wanted him as her consort, and had him brought here."
"Then technically, she's guilty of kidnapping."
"Yep. Sam wants out too. He told me once he has something to do on the outside, though he didn't elaborate. Clammed up, as a matter of fact, when I asked him what it was."
Jim rose from the bunk and padded barefoot to one of the windows on either side of the front door. The shadows were lengthening rapidly as the sun lowered below the crest of the walls. He saw a couple of women carrying pails leaving the house and strolling toward the barn, probably to do the evening milking. He turned back.
"I need to go back to the house and talk to Mother Angel, tell her who I am and why I need to get out of here."
Russ got to his feet. "Won't do any good, Jim. Chances are you'll be summoned to her presence tomorrow after breakfast anyway. That's the routine for newcomers. I told her I was a law officer, and why I needed to get back, not only for my job, but my wife. She just smiles and shakes her head, says that my former life is all behind me, that this valley is my future now. I've attempted to talk to her several times, and always get the same answers."
Jim shook his head. "No. I can't accept that. I'll make her understand. Perhaps if we all went to her en masse…"
The sheriff shrugged. "Maybe. However, I can't promise that Wes Barrie would join us."
"Your deputy? Why not?"
"Did you notice the comely young lady he was sitting next to at supper? Her name is Roseanne, and Wes is quite smitten. That's another thing. You know that the women and men are kept separate, especially at night. Mother demands strict morality—celibacy if you will. She tells us that when her quest is complete, there will be a man for every woman, and of course, vice-versa. I've gotten the impression that when that happens, she'll be doing the pairing."
"I see. Right now it's a little lopsided toward the males, presumably with the assistance of Marius Hammer."
"Right. So far he hasn't taken to tossing any women into the abyss. For whatever reason, Mother Angel seems to be more persuasive when she converts men than women. I understand she plans to go out on a recruiting trip later this summer."
Jim sighed. "Well, that doesn't concern me at the moment. I'm going to get out of here, Russ, if I have to scale those walls with my bare hands!"
Qui se laudari gaudent verbis subdolis, Sera dant peonas turpes poenitentia.
[They who delight to be flattered, pay for their folly by a late repentance.]
Fables (I, 13, 1), Phaedrus (Thrace of Macedonia; 15 BC-50 AD) Roman poet & writer
"What do you think? How does this compare to Miguelito's laboratory?"
Artemus gazed around thoughtfully at the various benches and tables covered with scientific apparatus, bottles and vials of chemicals. "To be honest, I have never visited his primary laboratory, if one exists. My encounters have been at various locations where he was operating temporarily." Though each time Loveless thought he was settled in permanently in his quest to conquer the world, or at least some part of it! "This is very impressive, Mr. Hammer." Artie turned to look at his "host." "It is mister, not doctor?"
"I am self-taught, Mr. Gordon," Hammer preened. "No degrees. Someday I'll tell you my entire story. But for now, suffice it to say that while I may not have as much general knowledge as Miguelito, I do believe I am a finer scientist than he is, or ever will be. Perhaps because I have concentrated on the science entirely without the sidetracks of world domination."
"I suppose it's too soon for me to ask what your ultimate goal is." Artemus had experienced a restless night on the extremely comfortable bed in his room, disturbed by nightmares when he dozed, and by anger, grief, and thoughts of vengeance while awake. When morning broke, he had been brought downstairs by one of the armed guards to join Hammer at the breakfast table, where he had been treated as an honored guest rather than a prisoner, despite that the guard lingered just outside the door. Afterwards, Hammer brought him into this basement laboratory, where now two guards also stood by. One of the pair was the scar-faced man who had struck Artie in the wagon, resulting in a painful bruise near his shoulder, but that was of little consequence at this juncture.
Hammer smiled. As usual, the smile did not reach his eyes. "I intend to be the richest, and thus the most powerful, man in the world."
Artemus cocked his head. "I see. And you plan to do this through science?"
The smile remained in place, the eyes silver ice. "Exactly, Mr. Gordon. Which brings me to our visit here this morning. I have some papers—notes that I have made over the years related to my work. I would like you to read them and give me your opinion."
Now Artie shook his head slightly. "Mr. Hammer, I am not a scientist. I…"
Hammer waved him off. "You have a scientific mind, Mr. Gordon. I'm quite aware, and very impressed, by what I have been told concerning your accomplishments; the chemical leech for instance, as well as your proficiency with gases and explosives. I believe that your skill in those areas is probably well beyond that of many so-called experts."
Artemus was a little surprised that Hammer had this knowledge, but he controlled his expression and voice. "And these notes you want me to peruse… they involve…?"
"You'll see." Hammer stepped over to a desk and lifted a thick folder. "Here is the first of them, approximately half of what I will eventually give you. And a ledger in which you can make your notes as you read. Go back to your room. A man will be outside your door at all times. Let him know if you wish refreshments, or want to discuss something with me. I will summon you when lunch is ready."
Artemus accepted the items, nodding thoughtfully, giving the impression, he hoped, that he was truly intrigued. I am an actor, after all, he had told himself over and over. I should be able to persuade an egomaniac like Hammer that I can learn to admire, even worship him; that I am eager to participate in his plans to gain this wealth and power. In the end, I'll take him down. I may be the only one who can at this point. He'll pay for murdering my brother.
Back in the bedroom, Artemus stretched out on the chaise lounge near the window with the bundle of papers. The door was closed, and he had not heard the lock click this time. Nevertheless, that made little difference. The scraping of a chair against the wall outside indicated that the armed guard, his "attendant," he was quite certain, remained in the corridor. No chance to leave—even if he wanted to. And at the moment, escape was farthest from his mind.
Jim rapped on the door then opened it when he heard the summons from inside. At breakfast, Mother Angel had told him to come to her "office" when he finished his assigned chores, which turned out to be rather light, carrying buckets of water to the chicken coop behind the barn. Russ had told him that newcomers were usually started out slowly. Russ himself was now assigned to the garden area, digging up the ground where plants had finished growing.
Stepping inside, Jim found himself surprised. He was unsure what he had expected of Mother Angel's inner sanctum, but he was pretty certain it had not been this rather sterile room with stark wooden cabinets, a large desk, and several severe wooden chairs. Mother herself was behind the desk and she smiled warmly. Today, as previously, she was wearing a plain cotton dress, its only adornment a white collar trimmed in very narrow tatting.
"Sit down, James. I hope you are comfortable so far, and recovering from your ordeal."
"I'm fine," Jim replied honestly, taking one of the hard chairs. He had slept well, something else that surprised him. Exhaustion was the only explanation. He had expected to lay awake remembering the fall into the abyss, as well as thinking about his lost partner. His grief was exacerbated by the guilt he was experiencing. I should have been able to help him!
"Mother Angel," he went on quickly before she could speak further, "I have to leave here. I have to return to Desert Springs immediately."
"That's not possible."
"You don't understand. I'm a government agent…"
"I'm aware of that. Your credentials were in your jacket, soggy, but readable. But you have left that life behind, James. Fate brought you to Eden, and you will remain here. The time will come when you'll realize this is the place you were meant to be."
He held his temper. "I am very grateful to you and your people for saving my life. I need to ask you. Was there another man?"
Her expression turned regretful. "We were informed that two men were being taken to the pit. But you were the only one we found. You had pulled yourself up on the ledge, or even that might not have been possible. Usually we receive the warning in good time, but as it was, we were unable to get to the cave any swifter. We found no sign of a second man."
The knife of anguish in his soul was excruciating. "How do you learn of these… these executions?"
"That must remain our secret for now."
Jim persisted. "It is imperative that I leave this valley. You cannot hold me here against my will."
"You may believe at this moment that it is against your will. But you'll come to understand that destiny took a hand. You were meant to be here with us, James. Fate cannot be changed. I ask you to be patient, to allow yourself to look and listen. You'll begin to comprehend the happiness that exists here. We do not need to deal with the greed and stress of the outer world. We are our own world. And we shall prosper." Regardless of her gentle voice and optimistic words, steeliness appeared in her blue-gray eyes.
Nothing he could say, or threaten, swayed her. Jim also attempted to ask questions about her background, but she brushed them aside. The past did not matter now, not hers, not his. All that was relevant was the present and the future, both of which were rosy in her eyes. "Eventually we will have a beautiful community here, with homes and families. New members will swell our numbers. Among them will be the mate for you, if indeed she is not already present. In truth, I have someone in mind that I believe would match up perfectly with you and produce healthy, beautiful children to build and continue our life."
He was dismissed with the instructions to use the rest of the day to get acquainted with his fellow citizens, learn about their work. "If you see a task that you feel you would be well suited for, please tell me. It may not be possible to assign you to it at once, but perhaps in the future when a member of that team wants a change. Tomorrow you'll receive your regular assignments."
Jim was not entirely surprised to find two of the younger, stronger-looking men standing outside the door when he exited the office. Undoubtedly Mother Angel was aware that new "recruits" could be angry, even unruly. Like himself, Russ had protested strongly. These guards undoubtedly helped convince those men they belonged here, as Mother insisted.
As he passed through the kitchen where the young Roseanne and another older woman were still cleaning up after breakfast and perhaps beginning to work on the midday meal, Jim entertained a brief thought about returning to Mother Angel to demand his freedom more forcefully. He could handle those two young men. He pushed the idea aside. He would be better served, he was certain, to appear to go along with the flow, if only to gain the confidence of Mother Angel and others. The sooner that occurred, the sooner he might be able to explore the valley and find the exit.
Four men were in the barn, shoveling out the stalls. Jim paused there. One was the man Russ had identified to him as Simon Dahlen, the former owner of the largest mercantile in Desert Springs, and among the first to openly attempt to stop Marius Hammer's plans, and the second to vanish. He was a man in his late forties, balding, but with a reddish beard. Two other men were long-time disciples, according to Russ, while the fourth was the white-haired man Sam.
Because of the presence of the faithful followers, Jim could not openly talk to Dahlen or Sam. He asked general questions about the compound and the chores, laughingly said that if given his choice, this particular one would be at the bottom of his list. The others also laughed. Or three of them did. Jim noticed right away that the man named Sam appeared to be concentrating on keeping his back to the newcomer.
He pondered this as he strolled away. As he had told Russ, he had the sense that he had seen Sam before. Had he been on a wanted flyer? Jim tried to remember one where an older man was wanted for a crime, and came up blank. Russ had said that several men had been present when Jim was divested of his soggy clothes while unconscious, and his credentials had been discovered. So others, if not all, knew of his official capacity. Did Sam fear arrest, even within this sanctuary?
Jim spent the remainder of the day as Mother Angel had suggested, wandering around the valley, getting acquainted with its inhabitants—and also its layout. With every opportunity that presented itself, he moved as close as possible to the sheer walls of the valley, and tried to inspect them. He soon realized that Russ was right: wherever the exit tunnel was, it was well disguised, either naturally or by other means.
He did spot a dark aperture in the lighter rocks, a dozen feet or so above the valley floor. When he asked Wes Barrie, who was nearby clearing an irrigation ditch, the former deputy confirmed that the hole in the canyon wall was indeed that tunnel, the location of which was no secret here in the valley. A ladder was used to reach it. Knowing about that particular tunnel opening did not help anyone who wanted to leave.
Wes Barrie was a stocky young man with a round face, clear blue eyes, and curling blond hair. Russ said that Barrie proved his courage and steadfastness on more than one occasion, helping out the sheriff and other men in the area, which was the main reason Russ Kelsey decided to take him on as deputy. Russ had experienced some guilt over this, because he had felt that Hammer had executed the younger man as a warning to the sheriff to not hire deputies. "I sure felt a lot better when I found Wes in here alive!" Russ stated.
When he went to the main house for the midday meal, Jim deliberately seated himself between two younger women, a brunette in her thirties named Helen, and Janet, a blonde slightly younger. During the meal he talked with each of them, bestowing smiles and compliments. He had no idea whether either of these two could help him, but he would never know unless he tried. They responded as most women did to his overtures, smiling and flirting back, though perhaps a little less so than if they had been out in the open world. Unfortunately he also noticed the icy gazes of a couple of the males who undoubtedly had this pair of women in their own sights.
During the afternoon, he lingered where the various women were scrubbing clothes in tubs and hanging them on a line and was rewarded when Helen mentioned that she was due to leave the valley in a day or two. That meant she was one who knew where the exit was. He tried to find out exactly when she was going to leave, but either she did not know or she was too cagey to reveal the information. Mother Angel had undoubtedly already warned the disciples who were here willingly to keep the secret from the newcomers. A chosen few knew the location. Those disciples apparently had already proved their loyalty in some manner.
He did not give up, however, and even ingratiated himself with Rufus, the dessert-loving man who had given him and Russ a chance to talk the previous evening. But Rufus blithely told him that he had never left the valley after his arrival more than three years ago, and had no desire to do so. He was happy here.
The following day did not allow much time for conversation as Jim was assigned to the irrigation ditch crew along with young Wes and two other men. Their job was to make sure that the passage remained clear to allow the water from the stream to reach the gardens, a seemingly never ending task. Apparently because the stream itself was swift flowing, the water in the ditches was also rapid, and tended to bring down soil and rocks, blocking the channels. In this warm New Mexico climate, the plants dried up rapidly without water.
Jim did have an opportunity to talk to Mother Angel again when she came out to survey the work, but the results were the same. Even telling her that he was on a mission to stop a madman whose plans might cause the deaths of hundreds, even thousands, had no effect. She continued to insist that in time he would lose all desire to leave her paradise, pointing out that the presence of such people as Hammer and the threats in the outside world were another excellent reason to remain in Eden.
She mentioned once more her plans to form families by joining couples—as soon as she was able to even the numbers of male and female residents. This time she included a mildly veiled threat about people who even considered rebellion. When he mentioned this to Russ later, the sheriff said he had not heard of anyone being punished, yet he concurred with Jim that more than benevolence was keeping all these people happily ensconced in this hidden canyon.
When Mother Angel went on to inspect another site, a lanky man named Bert turned to Jim. "Why do you want to leave paradise?"
Jim shook his head. "I have business in the outside world. Important business."
Bert smiled. "I thought I did too until Mother convinced me I could leave it all behind. Sure has been a blessing." He sighed happily, and Jim could only wonder what he had left behind: a nagging wife or an unfulfilling, poor paying job, perhaps, a law officer on his trail? How many of these people had abandoned families or other pressing responsibilities in the outside world? Although they were required to toil here, their efforts and new duties were much easier than they might have been facing out there.
Sam continued to avoid Jim, always choosing the farthest spot from him at the table, and staying away from him otherwise. Jim could only guess that Sam was wanted for something, some crime in the world beyond. The memory of where he had seen the older man before was persistently and annoyingly elusive.
On the third morning, the waitress from the restaurant, Mira, was at the breakfast table, and Helen was missing. Jim tried to disguise his frustration and anger. Russ had said that these switches of outside spies occurred rather infrequently, as well as irregularly. The only thing he could do was hope that the flirtation that had occurred in Desert Spring would mean that Mira continued to be susceptible to his charms.
To that end, he caught up with her as the residents dispersed for their chores. She was walking toward the barn, where he would also acquire his tools for the day. "Mira, I want to thank you for sending the signal that saved my life."
She paused her steps, smiling. "I'm glad I was successful. Sometimes it's very touch and go. They reached you in time."
Stopping alongside her, Jim dropped his head. "But they were unable to rescue my partner." He could not keep the bitterness from his tone.
"Oh! Didn't you know?"
He looked at her. "Know what?"
Jim gaped. "What?"
"I have only seen him once, but he was in the carriage with Hammer when it returned to town. I don't understand it… but at that time, he was alive and well."
The news staggered Jim West, and was difficult to absorb. For three days he had been in mourning, planning his vengeance against Marius Hammer. "You're sure it was him."
"Oh, yes. I honestly don't know why he wasn't thrown into the abyss. It's never happened before. Of course, two men were never taken to the cave at the same time before."
"You… don't think he was taken back… later?"
"I can't say with absolute certainty, but I don't think so. They would have had to come back through Desert Springs, and I can usually see everything on the street from the restaurant. Nor has anyone mentioned such an occurrence. My thought is he is being held prisoner at Hammer's house."
Jim took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Artie's alive! Alive! "Hammer must have plans to hold him hostage, or perhaps try to force him to transmit false reports to prevent more government intrusion."
Mira put a hand on his arm. "Mother told me how you were determined to return to town to avenge your partner. Now that's not necessary. You can relax and enjoy Eden."
Jim smiled. "Yes, I guess that's true."
Any fool can tell the truth, but it requires a man of some sense to know how to lie well.
Samuel Butler (1835-1902), Victorian novelist
"What did you think of it?"
Artemus leaned back in the plush easy chair, studied the color of the brandy in the snifter he held up towards the lamplight. He knew Hammer was anxious. For that reason he had deliberately delayed expressing his opinions of the laboratory notes Hammer had given him. He also had wanted time to consider what he was going to say, so that his words would have the best effect.
"Impressive," Artie said, before taking a sip of the liquor. Superb French cognac, and of the highest quality.
Hammer gazed at him, waiting, finally had to speak again. "And? Artemus, I truly want your considered opinion. I value it." He leaned forward slightly in the opposite chair. Hammer had begun using his prisoner's first name, but thus far had not given permission to reciprocate.
Artie lowered the glass to the arm of the chair, steadying it between his fingers. "As I said, impressive. You performed some astonishing experiments. Only…" He hesitated, gazed at his host, allowing doubt to creep into his eyes.
"Artemus, I want the truth. Miguelito has a high estimation of your intellect and abilities, as I told you. I respect Miguelito, and thus I have the same opinion. You may speak freely."
"Very well. I thought your use of controls was a bit lax, especially in the early experiments with the rats and the truth drug. Now I realize that one cannot expect a rat to demonstrate honesty," Artie grinned briefly, "and that you were testing the toxicity effects. But your notes made no mention of the sex of the controls, nor their weights and ages, as compared to the test subjects."
Artie saw that his comments were having the effect he desired. He had put Marius Hammer into a difficult position, one that was testing his claims that he desired frankness. Artie had been certain that what the man truly wanted was praise, perhaps to be told that his procedures and mentality were finer than his purported friend, Dr. Miguelito Loveless. He had suspected from the outset that more competitiveness than friendship existed between the pair, particularly given what he knew about Loveless's makeup. Hammer was confident of his own mental abilities; nonetheless, like many a man—and woman—still required validation in the form of praise.
Hammer cleared his throat then. "Well, if you must know, those experiments were among the first I dealt with. I will freely admit I was inexperienced in the scientific procedure. I believe I told you I was self-taught."
"Indeed, and that makes the whole even more impressive. I empathize, Mr. Hammer, for I have no formal education in the sciences either."
"Really? Where did you acquire your knowledge?"
"In bits and pieces along the way, and primarily by practical application. My father was a pharmacist, and I learned a great deal from him. The plan was that I would attend a university, but a couple of things interfered."
"Partially. But even before that, it seems I inherited more from my maternal grandmother than her dark hair and brown eyes. She was an actress in Russia, and a rather well received one until she gave it up to marry and emigrate. She died when I was a lad, but I remember her well, particularly her tales of her experiences on the stage. Sometimes she would put on little shows for me, and often I participated. In any case, I had to give acting a try, and when I did, I realized how much I liked it. The war put a stop to that, not only because of my military experiences, but that's where I met James West."
"I see. So Loveless may have been right that West's influence veered your career away from science, as well as the stage?"
"I suppose one could say that." However, working with Jim, life was often as if I was performing behind the footlights. Artie fought to prevent the painful grief he experienced from appearing on his face. The grief and the hatred for this suave man seated across from him.
"Tell me, did you notice the improvement in my procedures as you read?" Hammer wanted to bring the subject back to himself.
"I did. At times you were a bit lax in recording measurements and time periods, but on the whole, you did quite well, in my opinion, especially for one without formal training. Tell me, have you done much broad scientific reading?"
"I do not always have time for general reading," Hammer bristled, "but I have read up on any particular subject on which I was focusing."
"You believe that was a mistake?"
"Not necessarily a mistake," Artemus smiled. "Perhaps… a lapse. I'm afraid I read anything I can get my hands on."
The conversation continued for another thirty minutes or so. Artie tried to balance praise with his criticism, and to not allow Hammer to realize that some of the critique was not necessarily valid. He had been astounded at the depths of the research he had read in the notes, and even appalled. Hammer, like his friend Miguelito, sought instruments of death and destruction, or at least control. Hammer had labored for a long time on what he considered to be a "truth drug," and apparently had some success, though not total. I wouldn't want him to try it on me at this point! Hammer had abandoned it for the time being to concentrate on the poison that would disable, if not kill, large groups of the population at a time, in both powder and gas form.
Artie was trying to give the impression that his fascination for science and Hammer's work was overwhelming anything in his previous life, including the death of his friend and partner, not to mention the scruples developed over a lifetime. Care was needed to not overdo it, to keep it believable.
He most particularly wanted to gain Hammer's trust. Last night, his third night, the guard had been removed from his bedroom door. But when he ventured out, with the excuse of getting some water from the kitchen, he found a man in the lower part of the house, seated below the stairs, near the foyer. He was unsure whether that guard was for his benefit, or regular procedure. Perhaps both. Quite possibly the fence and the guards on the exterior were not sufficient for Hammer's peace of mind.
This morning he had been allowed a great deal of freedom of movement within the house, although always aware of not only the guards inside and outside, but also the several servants present. The cook was a woman, but so far as Artie could ascertain, all the others were male, including the two men who did the dusting and other cleaning: healthy, strong-appearing men who were also armed. Their household uniforms did not entirely disguise the guns inside their coats. The cook, a middle-aged woman, had nothing to say to him and did not appear to be entirely happy with her situation.
Artemus thought it odd that the man who had accompanied Hammer to their hotel rooms that first day in Desert Springs did not make an appearance at the house. He apparently did not reside in the house or on its grounds; Artie had spotted a building in the rear that might have been a bunkhouse and assumed the sentries in and around the house resided there. Had that beady-eyed man been sent somewhere, or perhaps resided in the town itself?
Artemus Gordon's plan was a simple one. He planned to kill Marius Hammer. The circumstances of that killing did not matter at this point. The ideal situation would be to arrest him, have him hanged legally for the murders he himself had committed or had committed at his instigation. But if that did not come to fruition, Artie knew he would have no problem killing Hammer himself… even if I'm the one who ends up on the gallows. He's got to pay for Jim's death… one way or another.
To that end, he was on the alert to acquire a weapon. A gun would be nice, but if he was given full access to Hammer's laboratory, or could somehow sneak into it, he was certain he could devise some concoction that would do the job… a bomb… a gas… perhaps poison. The method did not matter. The end result did. A man like Hammer, intent on harming innocent people in the name of acquiring wealth, did not deserve mercy.
The hardest part of his plan was divorcing himself from the emotion he experienced every time he remembered those moments in the cave when he saw Jim disappear into the abyss. Worst was that instant before Jim toppled over the edge, when he saw his partner's eyes filled with helplessness… and farewell. That moment was embedded in Artemus Gordon's consciousness, never to be forgotten, probably not even after he gained vengeance.
Time may be required before I can reach anything resembling forgetfulness. That doesn't matter. I hope I can prevent any further murders. Perhaps I can even get to the point of having the freedom to leave this house, go into town. If that's possible, I might be able to organize the citizens…
That was in the future. For now, he had to cultivate Marius Hammer, and do it in a manner that did not arouse suspicion. To that end, he stared at his brandy snifter and allowed his expression to grow darker and darker as Hammer spoke at length on how he developed his scientific procedures. Finally, Hammer noticed.
"Artemus, are you listening?"
Artie looked up in some surprise, permitting the anger to briefly appear in his eyes. Then he shook his head, rubbed his eyes with the thumb and fingers of one hand. "I'm… I guess I'm still remembering…"
"Of course you are. Miguelito told me how close you and West were. You don't lose a friend like that easily. But I'm certain that as time goes on you'll understand it was for the best… for both of you. I was going to have to kill West eventually. I simply decided to get it over with and move on."
This time no acting was required to show astonishment. "You talk as though you just… squashed a bug! He was a human being and a fine man! The finest man I ever knew!"
"I'm sorry, Artemus. I don't mean to sound quite that heartless. I'm not, you know. But I have learned over time to put such emotions aside. Emotions tend to get in the way. I truly sympathize with you and the loss you are feeling. West was in my way, so I had to dispose of him. I had no use for him otherwise. I understand your anger toward me. I'm merely saying that, as the old adage goes, time heals all wounds. All you require is time, and I'm planning to give it to you."
"Thank you," Artie sighed, putting his glass on a nearby table as he got to his feet. "If you don't mind, I think I'd like to go to my room early tonight." This too was not much of an act. Facing Hammer, listening to him, was difficult to bear without giving in to his true feelings, and Artemus did not want to do that just now. Not yet.
"Of course. Go ahead. Get a good night's sleep. We'll talk more tomorrow and I'll give you the second folio of my notes. We may be able to spend some time in the laboratory as well."
Saying good night, Artie climbed the stairs to his room. When inside he paused and listened for several long minutes. Once more, he did not hear the telltale sounds of the door being locked or a guard setting up outside. Turning up the wick on the lamp that sat on the bedside table, he changed into his nightshirt and donned the satin-trimmed robe that Hammer had provided. Then he extinguished the lamp and sat on the bed, leaning against pillows propped against the headboard, to wait.
His patience was rewarded when about an hour later he heard footsteps passing by the outside of the door. That would be Marius Hammer, heading for his room at the far end of the hallway. Artie remained stationary, and waited an additional half hour. Then he slipped off the bed, went to the door and opened it.
Ornate brass sconces on the walls dimly illuminated the hallway as well as the stairs. Boldly, Artie descended the stairs, and as had occurred the previous night, a guard with rifle at the ready stepped out of the shadows as he reached the lower floor. Artie laughed nervously and explained he was once again seeking water. "I'm going to have to remind the servant to bring a carafe to my room. I'm always thirsty in the middle of the night!"
He went straight to the kitchen, filled a large tumbler with water from the pump at the sink, and hurried back upstairs, bidding a polite goodnight to the guard. Again he sat on the bed in the silent darkness, listening and biding his time. After another hour had elapsed, he again left the room.
This time he descended the stairs with more caution, at the same time trying to not appear as he was sneaking. Halfway down he paused… and heard the sound of deep breathing and soft snoring. As he had anticipated, the guard became less alert after the prisoner had proved himself to be less a threat than anticipated.
He hurried quietly by, passing down the nearly dark hallway until he reached the door at the end, which—as he had hoped—was unlocked. Using a match from his robe pocket, he lit a lantern that was located on a small projection just inside the door, and carried it down the steps into the laboratory. Working swiftly, he procured the items he wanted from the cupboards, climbed the stairs, doused the light, and hurried past the still sleeping guard back to his room, where he secreted his finds then climbed into bed.
Vitae poscaenia celant.
[Men conceal the past scenes of their lives.]
— De Rerum Natura (IV, 1,182), Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus; c. 96-55 BC), Roman philosophical poet
Jim knew he was being watched. He had noticed several times that the man named Sam looked his way when he thought Jim was not aware. He had asked several others about Sam, but all they knew was that Mother Angel had brought him to the valley a few months ago, and that he had favored status, so much so that he had a private room in the main house rather than joining the other men in the bunkhouse. Mira, who also lived in the main house, assured Jim that "nothing" was going on between Mother Angel and Sam. Mother adhered to her own rules, it seemed.
Mira also refused to reveal the exit from the valley. She, like Mother Angel and others he talked to, were unable to understand why he wanted to leave, especially now that he knew his friend was alive so that he need not consider gaining vengeance. When he tried to explain about his job, his duty, he was met with blank stares. What occurred in the outside world meant little to them now, other than as a place to recruit new members, acquire supplies, and sell some of their own produce. Mira, for instance, related how delighted she always was to return to the solitude and security of Eden. She saw the fears and worries of the people in Desert Springs, their helplessness against Marius Hammer. They did not have to deal with that here.
Even telling them of Hammer's plans to sell his destructive formulas to men who would not hesitate to use them to conquer the world did not appear to bother them. Jim wondered if none of them had families on the outside. Or else they did not care what happened to those families.
Of the five men who had been rescued from the abyss, all but one were anxious to leave and offered to help in any possible way. Russ Kelsey was one of them, of course. The others were Dr. George McKay, Simon Dahlen, the merchant, and Pal Larsen, the husky Norse immigrant blacksmith. They wanted to return to their families and homes. Only the deputy, Wes Barrie expressed reluctance, as Russ had warned. Wes admitted to Jim that he was in love with Roseanne. "If she would go, I'd go. I will say that I won't do anything to hamper you, and if I get any information, I'll pass it on. I'll help any way I can."
All of them understood that they could not openly reappear in the outside world. Marius Hammer had targeted them for death. If they returned to Desert Springs alive, Hammer would go after them again. Knowing that one of them, agent Jim West, would be out there trying to get rid of Hammer first would be sufficient for them for a while, at least. West would return for them when it was safe.
"What about Sam?" Jim quietly asked Russ as they relaxed outside the bunkhouse on the evening of the fourth day. "I should think he would want to leave. He doesn't appear very happy to me."
"I know. But he's also a real loner, as you've noticed. He doesn't talk to many people, and not at length. He sure doesn't want to talk about himself."
"I still can't figure out why I think I know him," Jim mused. He had lain awake at night, putting Sam in different situations in his mind but unable to come up with anything.
"Simon has talked to him some. I'll ask Simon to try to find out how Sam feels about the matter." Russ paused, staring out over the fields beyond for a moment. "Jim, you know we can't harm these people. They saved our lives, and Mother's intentions are good, if somewhat askew. She didn't exactly kidnap us. Only Sam, apparently."
"I know that, and I have no intentions of causing any trouble for them. But I also cannot allow them to keep me here. I've asked for another audience with Mother Angel but so far she's avoiding me. Perhaps if I persist, she'll talk to me. I've got to make her understand."
"Good luck. She's an iron-willed woman."
"I've gotten that impression."
Jim looked toward the main house. The man Sam was standing on the back-stoop, smoking a pipe staring off toward the darkening walls of the canyon. Jim knew Sam had been gazing their direction; the little curve the rising smoke from the pipe bowl formed in the still evening air revealed a sudden alteration in its source as Sam had jerked his head. Who the devil is he, and why is he so interested in me? Because I'm a law officer? That seemed to be the most obvious explanation.
Yet Russ had said Sam had been cordial, if distant, to him from the outset; everyone knew Russ was also a lawman.Sam continued to make it a point to sit as far from Jim as possible at the table, and usually positioning himself so that no spaces remained either next to him or across from him when he took a chair, even coming late a couple of times when the table was all but filled. One of these times he's going to enter the dining room and the only chair left will be the one next to mine!
"Russ, I'm going to try to slip out and do some exploring tonight. The moon will be full."
"I don't know if that's a good idea."
"Good idea or not, I cannot just wait for something to happen, for someone to relent and provide us with information. What do you think they'd do to me if I'm caught?"
Russ gazed at him a moment, then smiled, shaking his head. "I have no idea. Mother preaches peace and tranquility. So far as I'm aware, no one has received any punishment, either since I've been here, or before, that I've been told about. Although she has occasionally had big Fred and young Monte lurking nearby, we haven't been threatened out loud." He hesitated a moment. "I'll come with you."
"Thanks, but no. Not this time. I think I'll do better alone. I just want to get to the canyon walls and do some exploring. I won't stay out long. I'll leave my pillows and blankets stuffed together so it looks like I'm still in bed. I've gotten the idea that these fellows sleep soundly after a hard day of work. I know I have."
"That's very true. Good luck, Jim."
Although he dozed off soon after crawling into bed, years of self-discipline caused Jim West to awaken into the darkness, illuminated by the moonlight streaming through the few windows. He lay still, hearing only the deep breathing and occasional snoring from the other bunks. Moving slowly, he sat up, eyes and ears pitched to discern any movement or change in sounds. Nothing happened as he put on his clothes. Then picking up his boots, he crept out the front door.
On the small porch, Jim sat down and pulled on the boots. He had asked Mother Angel about his own clothing. She had smiled and said they were too fine to be worn during the labor required to maintain the valley. "You'll be able to don them for a special occasion." No need to ask what that special occasion was. Both she and Mira had thrown hints. Seemed that Mira had already been told that she was to be paired with James when the time came, and she was happy about the prospect. Mira was anxious for the next recruitment trip to be held, for more women to be brought in to even up the genders so that the official "pairings" could be instated.
The valley had birds, but no wild animals. Apparently none had ever made their way through the passages. Jim heard some of the nocturnal birds as he crossed the field of corn toward the nearest canyon wall. He looked back toward the house several times, but saw no lights, and nothing stirring. After an hour of fruitless inspection of the wall, he headed back toward the bunkhouse, seething with frustration. He had really thought that the exit should be fairly close to the main house. It's going to take hours to inspect the entire wall enclosing the valley. Maybe I need to enlist Russ after all.
Stepping out of the chest-high stalks of corn, Jim stopped short. A figure was standing on the back porch of the house again, easily recognizable by his white hair and beard. For a long moment the two men stared toward each other, until Sam nodded then turned to go back inside. Jim released his breath and strode toward the bunkhouse, fully expecting to hear Mother Angel's strong voice calling his name at any moment.
That did not occur. He crawled back into bed without disturbing anyone, but did not fall asleep immediately; his thoughts were consumed with his curiosity about Sam, forgetting for the moment his lack of success in locating the exit. What was going on with that old man? Was he indeed a wanted criminal? If that was the case, why had he not shown the same aversion toward Sheriff Russ Kelsey? Surely, he was aware of Russ's profession.
As the following day wore on, it became obvious that Sam had not reported seeing one of the residents out and about in the middle of the night. Jim had been told early on that he was expected to remain in the bunkhouse all night. No guards were posted, Mother informed him; he was on his honor. Jim had not exactly promised to abide by that rule, knowing the occasion would arise when he would have to break such a vow, if made. Mother Angel was pretty confident that none of her chosen residents could leave, and even certain that none would really desire to do so.
If Sam wanted to leave the valley, why did he not attempt to confer with the other unwilling residents of Eden? Or at least with the man who was obviously going to precipitate an escape: James West. Was that why he was apparently remaining silent now? Russ said that the he and others had discussed escape but had not done anything further. They had not known how to go about it, or what they would do even if they did escape the valley. They would be facing Hammer again out there. The sheriff was not necessarily fearful, but practical: he would still be one man against Hammer's small army of gun-toting men. All of them worried about the safety for their families and friends.
The following day was Sunday. Jim had been informed that all the residents were expected to not only attend the morning services, but to participate in a day of socializing. Mother Angel wanted her people to be one big happy family, and to that end she arranged picnics and games, as well as amateur performances on the Sabbath. He also had been told that to be selected to sit in the first row of chairs arranged in the big living room of the main house would be a great privilege. At breakfast, Mother announced her selections for the honor, and newcomer James was among them, as well as Mira and Sam and two others.
The services themselves were rather simple, with readings by Mother and two other members of the group, prayers, and singing, individually as well as by the congregation. Mira proved to have a fine voice as she delivered a hymn. One of the prayers offered thanks for the rescue of James, their newest resident, including statements indicating that Mother believed that all her congregation were sent to her by a divine power, thus fated to be part of the community, despite their previous lives and current wishes.
What made the morning all the more memorable for Jim was that he found himself sitting next to Sam, who was plainly uneasy with the situation. When Jim attempted idle conversation before the service began, the responses were short, with no attempt to carry it further. Part of the time Sam seemed to be deep in thought, his attention far away from the ceremonies.
A picnic was held in the afternoon alongside the rushing stream. Food was served at tables set up by placing planks on sawhorses. Games were played, and some singing took place, as well as recitations of poems. Jim had an opportunity to talk to not only the willing residents of the compound but also the men from Desert Springs, and to do it more openly, although they had to be careful not to discuss his escape plans too boldly. When the affair wound down, he helped dismantle the rough tables, and suddenly found himself alone with Sam.
The fact startled him to some extent, particularly considering how the older man had studiously avoided him previously. Nothing was said as they picked up the last of the sawhorses and started trudging back toward the buildings. Then Sam spoke quietly.
"I know where the exit is, James."
Jim did not break stride. "Where?"
"I'll take you to it tonight. I'm going with you."
Now Jim did pause, and the older man did as well. "Where do I know you from?"
Sam smiled. "Dr. Loveless."
Jim drew in a sharp breath, memories returning. "Of course. Your hair and beard were not as long… you didn't even have a beard." He had also not really gotten to know the man who helped him and Artemus escape Loveless's clutches. Sam Neville had left town while Jim was recovering from injuries, thus he had not even spoken to the older man beyond a few words while they were dealing with Loveless and his men. [See The Night of the Familiar Stranger.]
Sam grimaced slightly. "That's mostly due to Mabel. She likes to see long hair, says it's more as God intended."
Jim's brow knit. "Mabel?"
Now the older man smiled again. "Mother Angel. That's her given name, Mabel Deegan. That's how she introduced herself to me in Oregon when I first met her… before she shanghaied me."
"Quite a coincidence that we are thrown together again like this," Jim said then.
"Yeah. Maybe some of that fate Mabel talks about. We'd better move on before someone is sent back to look for us."
Jim hefted the sawhorse he had lowered to the ground, and they started walking toward the compound again. "Why have you been avoiding me?"
"I… well… I'm just not a very sociable sort, I guess."
"You left Mill Creek before I had an opportunity to properly thank you."
"No thanks are needed," Sam replied gruffly.
Jim glanced at the man beside him. It almost sounds as though my gratitude is insulting. "I've already told the others that when I found the exit, it would be necessary for me to leave alone. There's a man out there that wants us all dead."
"But that doesn't apply to me, James. I've never been in Desert Springs. I might be of great help to you and Artemus. If you want to leave the valley now, you'll agree to my terms."
Guess I have no choice. "All right. Where and when?"
"Around midnight, near the back door of the house. You were close to the exit last night, but I don't think you would find it without my assistance. Two exits actually exist, but this one is the best to use at this time." They paused again just outside the barn. "Don't tell the others. Just meet me."
Jim almost protested this peremptory command, but simply nodded. He took the sawhorse inside the barn, then left and strolled to the bunkhouse. He was glad to find it empty. The others were still enjoying their afternoon of leisure outside. He dropped onto his bunk, hands behind his head, staring at the bottom of the bunk above him.
Sam Neville. Of course! Very likely Artie would have recognized Sam immediately, as he spent more time with him before Neville left Mill Creek, Arizona. I always felt there was something Artie wasn't telling me… but I don't know what it could have been. But why is Neville helping me again? Why didn't he himself simply leave long ago once he knew the exit?
Jim felt badly about keeping Russ, in particular, in the dark. The sheriff had been of great help during the few days here in the valley. However, he had given his word to Sam, and knew the old man may well be right. Jim suspected that if the others learned of the exit's general location, they might not be able to stay put despite all previous discussions and agreements. They wanted to see their families, their homes again. His plans could be imperiled if they all showed up in Desert Springs, not to mention that they would be in danger.
But I will come back for them. I'll make sure that someone else knows what happened to these men, and how to find them, just in case something happens to me.
—All cruelty springs from hard-heartedness and weakness.
Seneca (c. 4 BC-65 AD), Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, dramatist, humorist
Artie's second nighttime foray into the laboratory was somewhat trickier than the first. He could not use the excuse of wanting a glass of water again. Apparently the guard had passed the word to someone, so that a carafe of fresh water rested on the stand by his bed when he retired for the night. So instead he merely waited until the house was entirely silent before leaving his room, slipping by the snoring sentry.
He had spent another day trying to give the impression that he was slowly becoming engrossed in Hammer's plans, and by doing so, had gained more information. In particular, Hammer was taking a cue from his friend Miguelito about mass poisoning. Hammer himself did not plan to use the poison—except possibly in a test case—but schemed to sell it to the highest bidders. He imagined rich and powerful men throughout the world would pay him large sums and would bid against each other to gain the supremacy the drugs would create for them.
Hammer had no compunctions regarding whether people might die as a result of the drugs and its complementary gas. "Those will be the weak ones," he said offhandedly. "They should be discarded anyway, in any society."
Hammer was covering all his bases, as well, devising an antidote and protection against the drug at the same time. He would sell the drug or gas to one bidder, the antidote to another. Both would continue to come to Marius Hammer for new and improved versions of both. He imagined having clients in North and South America, Europe and Asia, and even Africa.
With that in mind, Artemus had two purposes for revisiting the laboratory. One was to obtain more of the chemicals and equipment he needed for his plans; the other was to sabotage Hammer's current experiment. He went to the beaker that was heating over a small candle and dropped in a pinch of salt he had secreted from the dinner table. Nothing happened immediately, but he knew that the addition of the sodium would cause subtle changes in the concoction. Changes that would be enough to require Hammer to rethink his experiment and probably restart it; every delay was important at this time. He mixed another pinch of salt into a corked bottle of white crystalline powder that he knew was part of the ingredients in the poison concoction.
After creeping back upstairs, passing the dozing guard again, Artemus took stock of the items he had hidden deep in a drawer. One more trip for some glassware and I'll have enough. Marius Hammer is going to pay dearly for killing Jim and the other men. He was pretty sure he could create a gas himself, one that would knock anyone breathing it unconscious within seconds. The vials he was bringing back to his room would work just fine as easily breakable containers.
The one thing Artie still hoped to do was to have an opportunity talk to people in town, to employ their participation, if possible. He knew the residents of this area were intimidated, and rightly so: the terror Hammer wielded was as heavy as his name. He had thrown a few hints that he ought to be trusted enough to have more freedom, but Hammer had not offered it. I guess I'll have to be more direct. I've got to set this up properly. I can do it alone, but having some help would be nice.
To that end, at breakfast the following morning, he asked Hammer if he could leave the house. "Just to get some fresh air… walk around the grounds."
Marius Hammer smiled indulgently. "Of course, Artemus. I think you'll be safe out there. I do have some lovely gardens to enjoy."
A very slight emphasis was placed on the word "safe," and as soon as he stepped out the front door, Artemus decided that by "safe," Hammer meant unable to escape. Hammer did not trust his houseguest entirely yet. A man followed him when he left the porch to wander through the gardens. This guard remained at a discreet distance, but the rifle he cradled left no doubt as to his purpose.
Irked, but not entirely surprised, Artie ambled over the grounds pausing occasionally to inspect a particular rose or watch some birds pursue insects. Although his patience was waning, he knew he had to move carefully. Gaining Hammer's trust was still the first objective, so he could not make any false moves, and especially not show any particular interest in leaving the grounds.
After about an hour, Artemus returned to the front porch, nodded cordially to the guard lingering twenty or thirty feet away, and entered through the door. He found Marius Hammer in his study. "I want to thank you for that opportunity, Mr. Hammer. I feel totally refreshed. I think I had not realized just how cooped up I was!"
Hammer's smile was like that of a father to a somewhat thickheaded child. "Of course. Feel free to take the air any time, Artemus."
"I shall. In fact, I may take your notes out there to read. I saw a chair near an oak tree that seemed to be a particularly attractive spot to relax." It was also close to what appeared to be an unused—and unguarded—small gate in the wall. A cursory glance as he had strolled by suggested the gate was rusted shut. Rust can be overcome. He knew which chemicals to purloin from the laboratory on his next foray.
Solamen miseris socios habuisse doloris.
[It is a comfort to the unfortunate to have companions in woe.]
—Marriage of Wit and Wisdom, Simon Forman (1552-1611), Elizabethan astrologist, occultist and herbalist
Jim West leaned back against the boulder and heaved a great sigh. He hated waiting. No matter how many times he reminded himself that Sam had been right, his patience was being worn thin. I've got to somehow find Artie, help him if necessary. That gnawing worry about his partner was the worst aspect. Although Mira had assured him Artie had been seen alive, that did not mean that Hammer had not had some other vile plan for the other agent.
He had met Sam Neville at the back of the house as planned and without incident, and they had set off for the wall of the canyon. Jim noticed the older man carried a nearly full cotton flour sack, and when questioned, Sam said he had raided the kitchen. Neither of them had money, or weapons. At least they could have some food.
"In some ways I hate to betray Mabel's trust," Sam had sighed as they trudged through the moonlit cornfield. "But I didn't ask to come to her Eden, and I didn't agree to stay. She's a passionate but misguided woman."
Jim had been astonished as they reached the sheer wall when Sam led him to a spot a dozen or so yards from where he had given up his own search. A clump of brush grew thickly against the wall. Sam pushed through it to reveal a very narrow opening, one that was just wide enough to slip through sideways, even slimmer than the one Hammer had used to enter the passage toward the abyss. The tunnel was also narrower. No torches were available here; the passage was pitch dark, but Sam moved on confidently.
He explained he had explored the tunnel once, though had not exited the other side. "I overheard a couple of people talking, saying they cleared out all the rocks and ruts because they never wanted to use lights in here, lest they be seen by some late-night passerby at the other side. Just use your hands to make sure you don't hit one of the walls, James."
On the opposite end, similar bushes covered the exit to the outer world. The moonlight seemed bright as day after the jet darkness they had just passed through. By mutual, tacit agreement, they did not go all the way to the nearby road, but stayed closer to the mountain. The hour was late, past midnight, but that did not mean someone would not be out there.
Sam told Jim that the other exit was located near, or perhaps behind, the waterfall. "I've never seen it, but I've seen the wagon head that way. It has to be a larger tunnel." Individuals generally preferred this narrower tunnel because it was a more direct route to town.
With a couple of rest breaks included—which Jim thought the older man needed even if he protested he did not—just as the sky was starting to lighten in the east, they reached what Jim figured was within a mile or a mile and a half from town, where Jim selected an area strewn, and protected, by large rocks. There they settled in to devour some of the food and to make plans. That was when Sam insisted that he would go into town alone.
Jim had protested, while knowing the older man was correct. Sam had been adamant. "You are known, James. I'm not. I can wander in, just another footloose drifter. I might be able to get an odd job or two and not only get information but also earn a little money. We need weapons, you know."
Jim had pointed out that he had left not only cash but spare weapons in his hotel room, then quickly admitted, before Sam could bring it up, that chances were very good Hammer had not only cleared the rooms, but taken their horses. "He's sure not going to admit he killed me, and imprisoned Artie, if that's truly the case. When other agents arrive, he'll tell them we left town. Or very likely have someone else tell them."
"Interesting, isn't it, James?" Sam carefully rewrapped the loaf of bread from which they made themselves sandwiches. "You and I were in one form of a prison, while Artemus may be in another. Different, but alike."
"How did Mother Angel get you?" Jim asked, curious.
"It was in Oregon, a small lumber town. I was there… on business… and she and a couple of her disciples showed up, Fred and Seth. They were making their pitch around town and I guess had a few folks interested. I must admit I enjoyed spending time with Mabel. She can be a lot of laughs when she relaxes. But I was not interested in joining her… her group. I let her know that. In fact, I was planning on leaving to follow a lead I had when she invited me to a 'farewell supper.' She had rented a small cabin just outside of town while she was in town. I knew she had been disappointed that I declined her invitation to join her community, so I accepted the supper invite to be nice… and woke up in Eden."
"They kept you drugged during the trip?"
"Yep. I have vague recollections of being in the wagon, of being given water and other food. Not much else."
Jim grimaced. "Something like that happened to Artie and me once. Only we believed we had been transported to Russia, rather than northern California near Fort Ross." He had to grin then as he recalled their astonishment when they encountered the toothless old sourdough just after their escape from the Count's estate. "It was very well done."
"I'd like to hear your stories some day. Have you encountered Loveless again?"
"Oh, yes. That little man seems to be indestructible, and he pops up in the most unexpected places." Jim gazed at the older man. "You were in the valley for nearly three months. How long ago did you learn where the exit was?"
"About a month back."
"Mother told you?"
"No. I tried to get her confidence, but she's a canny woman. I guess you heard she planned that I would be her co-leader one day. I tried to make her think I was growing into the idea, but I'm pretty sure I hadn't completely sold her. I did, however, overhear Mira discussing her plans to leave the valley a few weeks back. I followed her the night of her departure."
Jim nodded. "Being in the house you were privy to a bit more than those of us in the bunkhouse."
Sam had sighed. "I would have rather been in the bunkhouse with the other fellows. However, it worked out for the best."
Jim frowned. "If you knew about the tunnel a month ago, why didn't you leave?"
The older man looked away then, up toward the ever-brightening sky. "That I cannot explain. I felt… it was as though I needed to wait for something… someone. As it turns out, perhaps that someone was you, Jamie."
Jim frowned. "Why did you call me that?"
Sam blinked, swinging his gaze back. "What? What did I call you?"
"Jamie. My mother used that name for me."
"Oh. I didn't notice." Sam looked away again. "Long time ago I knew a young fellow named James who was called Jamie. I suppose that's it." Now he brought his gaze back. "What about your father, James? What did he call you?"
Jim shook his head. "He… he left… when I was very young. I don't remember him."
"And your mother?"
"She died when I was ten."
"That must have made it difficult for you, growing up."
"I managed. I lived with an aunt. My older brother helped… when he could."
"Good." Sam had climbed to his feet then, and with a further admonishment for Jim to stay put, set off toward town.
Jim smiled and shook his head as he remembered now. He spoke to me as though I was a kid. And I obeyed like a kid! Must be my army training, deferring to older, more experienced men. Even so, he was beginning to consider a rebellion. The sun was nearing the noon hour. They had not placed any time limits on when Sam would return, but the time was crawling by for Jim.
He had done some minor exploring, walking as far as the entrance to the cave with the abyss. He had not gone inside, not wishing to revive memories of one of the most terrifying moments of his life. He had experienced many perils, especially during his career in the Secret Service, but few matched that instant when his body descended into the jet-black nothingness. Steeling himself for impact on the hard ground below was not possible, and striking the cold water had been the last thing he expected.
About midmorning, a lone, dusty cowboy had ridden by on the road fifty or so yards away. He looked, Jim surmised, more like a hand than a gunman. Indeed, no weapons had been evident. Was that part of Hammer's edict? No guns in town? Jim could not recall seeing any among the townspeople. Could be that Hammer confiscated all the weapons. That might make it a bit difficult for Sam to acquire one, whether he earned money or not.
Hearing rather tuneless whistling, Jim rose to his knees to peer around a rock. The cowboy was returning the opposite direction, this time with a couple of laden sacks tied to his saddle. Apparently his errand to town had been to pick up some supplies. Disappointed, Jim settled back against the rock with a sigh, opening one of the two canteens Sam had provided. Water was something else he was going to have to think about. New Mexico heat required a lot of moisture in one's throat.
Just then he heard another whistle. This time, it was several short bursts. He had just climbed to his feet when Sam appeared among the boulders. He grinned and waved. "Hello, James."
"I was about to go into town myself," Jim growled. He had not entirely realized until that moment how much he had been fretting about the old man's safety.
"Sorry. I had to take it slow and easy." He reached inside his shirt and brought out a packet wrapped in brown paper. "I managed to bring you half my sandwich. Roast beef. A change from the ham."
Jim accepted the packet, then settled to his haunches as Sam wearily sat down against a rock. "How'd it go?"
Sam appeared to comprehend the real question Jim was asking. "Artemus is alive, I'm pretty certain."
"You didn't see him?"
"No. I got a job stocking shelves in the mercantile for Mrs. Dahlen, Simon's 'widow.' I couldn't tell her, of course that her husband is alive. Seems the store is something of a meeting place, where people gossip about their situation, so I overheard quite a bit of talk, mostly about their helplessness. They all seemed to know that you and Artemus were taken out of town, and only Artemus returned.
"Then a lady came in that I subsequently learned is Hammer's cook. When Mrs. Dahlen commented about the fact that Hermione was buying larger amounts of certain items than usual, the cook complained that she was now cooking the fancy meals for two, that her boss had a 'guest.' Mrs. Dahlen described Artemus, and Hermione confirmed that's who it was. I got the impression that Hermione is a long-time resident who is not exactly willingly working for Hammer. In any case, Artemus is residing in Hammer's home, and seems to be well."
"I wonder why," Jim murmured. "A hostage?"
Sam could only shake his head. "Their conversation didn't go into that. However, some of the other talk I overheard was enlightening. People have been ordered that if further government representatives arrive, they are to say that you and Artemus left Desert Springs earlier—just as you surmised."
Jim settled back now, sitting on the hard ground and putting the remainder of his sandwich, wrapped in the brown paper again, on top of the nearby flour sack. He drew his knees up and wrapped his arms around them, staring thoughtfully at the ground. After a long moment, he looked up, a little surprised that Sam had remained silent.
"I need to get into that house."
Sam shook his head. "It's heavily guarded, James. I expressed some curiosity to Mrs. Dahlen, asking what it was people were talking about. She told me some of it—and warned me to skedaddle and keep going. She told me Hammer has something like fifty to seventy men working for him, and many of them act as guards at his house."
Jim nodded. "We saw some of them one day when Artie and I rode out there to look the place over. Guards don't necessarily stop me."
Now Sam chuckled. "I can believe that. But let me do a bit more exploring, all right?"
"Sam, I can't sit here all day…!"
"James, you have to. We need to find out what's truly going on. Remember when I helped you and Artemus previously? Artemus planned it all pretty closely…"
"That's Artie. We don't always work the same way." Jim was getting exasperated, quite aware that once again Sam was correct, and not liking it.
"I know that, son. But if you get captured—or killed—that's not going to help matters. I'm just an addle-headed old drifter. The guards I saw in town barely looked at me. Oh, shoot, nearly forgot." He reached inside his shirt again, this time coming out with a small revolver that lay in his palm. "I couldn't get extra shells, but it's loaded."
Jim reached over and took the weapon. "Where…?"
"Found it in a cupboard in a back room at the store. I suspect Mrs. Dahlen didn't even know it was there. It was pretty dusty. Likely belonged to Simon at some point. But at least it's a gun. Now here's what I think, James. There's no more work at the store for me, at least not today, but Mrs. Dahlen suggested I go to the hotel. Sometimes they need help cleaning the rooms. You're probably aware that some of Hammer's guards bunk there."
Jim nodded. "If you're thinking about prowling in their rooms…"
Sam held up a hand. "To clean only, James, to clean only. Seems that Hammer's town boss, a fellow named Hulbert lives there. You ever see him? Beady-eyed chap with a black beard."
Again Jim nodded. "Yeah, I know who you mean. Sam, this is too dangerous for you."
"No, it's not. While my life hasn't been as exciting as yours, I've had my share of scrapes, just surviving the last thirty years or so. I have more work to do—some matters to clean up—so I'm not about to get myself killed here. Like I said, no one is going to pay attention to me. I suggest you get caught up on your sleep. You can do the nocturnal investigation."
Sam laughed softly at the dry tone of the younger man's voice. "I imagine Artemus has to put up with a lot from you, James. I wonder how he does it."
Jim eyed the older man. "I have to put up with a lot from him, too!"
"I'm sure you do. That's why you're such good friends, because you do put up with it. Don't worry, son. I'm sure Artemus is fine, and will be."
W*W*W*W*WThe sun was warm, so Artemus moved a wooden chair to shade provided by the oak tree—Quercus muhlenbergii, he decided after a brief inspection of a leaf. He deliberately wanted to stay in the front of the house, so as to be able to see who was coming and going, if anyone. The cook, Hermione, had provided him with a pitcher of iced water and a tumbler, and he put it on a small table that he also shifted to place alongside the chair. He began to read the notes, finding that he could do that while also keeping an eye on anything that occurred; however, little seemed to be happening.
After a little more than an hour, he was beginning to consider going back inside. Even with the shade and the cold water, the summer temperatures in this part of the country were extreme. He had just started to put the papers back into the folder when he heard the creaking sound of the main gate. Knowing that idle curiosity would appear natural, he turned his head to see who was coming, fully expecting to see one or more of Hammer's guards or perhaps Garth Hulbert, who appeared to be Hammer's second in command. Hulbert had been at the house briefly this morning, and Artemus had been formally introduced to him, unlike that first day at the hotel when Hulbert had simply been hovering in the background.
Instead he saw a rather seedy looking man with long, almost shoulder-length white hair and a very long, untrimmed beard. The man clutched an envelope in one hand and was hurrying toward the front porch, barely looking around, although he did cast one sharp glance toward the garden where Artemus was sitting. Suddenly, just before he gained the steps, the envelope seemed to fly out of his hand, as though caught by a breeze… notwithstanding that the air was perfectly still.
"Oh my, oh my!" the old man exclaimed hurrying toward it. Again he looked toward Artie. Something in that glance caused Artie to rise and step forward to pick up the envelope, which had landed just a couple of yards from his location.
"Here you are, old timer."
"Why thank you, sir. Thank you." He looked up with sharp gray-green eyes, the gaze penetrating.
Artemus did not gasp out loud, but he did draw in a breath. "Sam!" he whispered, then corrected himself. "Mr. West!"
Sam Neville took the envelope from the outstretched hand. "James is alive, Artemus. We'll be in touch." The words were barely audible before he spoke more loudly. "Thank you, sir, thank you! I been entrusted with a special mission. Gotta deliver this." He turned and scurried toward the porch.
Only with strongest willpower did Artemus Gordon turn casually away and return to his chair. He shifted it slightly before sitting down again, as though trying to procure more shade, when in reality he wanted to be sure he was not facing the house or the path. He did not want anyone to see his face, perhaps read his thoughts.
I'm not sure my thoughts are comprehensible. I don't believe this. Jim's father is here… and Jim is alive? How? How can that be? I saw him go into the abyss. One of Hammer's men said an icy pool was at the bottom… an inescapable pool of unfathomable depth. How could he have survived that?
Sam looked different, Artie decided. The last time—and the only time—he had met Nevin West, alias Sam Neville, he had sported a mustache, which had been neatly barbered, as had been his snowy hair, but no beard. West was on the trail of the only person who could provide proof that he was innocent of murder, a trail he had been following for thirty years.
It's possible that the strain of that quest has finally affected his mind. That flitted through Artie's mind and just as swiftly left. No. The gaze had been clear, purposeful. And how could Sam know about what happened? Why was he here? Another coincidence? Had to be. Somehow destiny again threw him together with his son….
Dare I believe him? Do I get my hopes up only to have them crushed again? The hope that Jim survived that fall seemed futile. Seven other men had met the same fate. Jim West had overcome many perils in his life, but this one…
After just a few minutes, the old man appeared again. This time he hurried straight toward the front gate, with barely a glance toward Artemus. His behavior was as bewildering as his presence. The man they knew as Sam Neville had not been in Desert Springs prior to the day Hammer took them to the cave, Artie was certain. Where did he come from? How did he know that Artemus Gordon thought his partner dead?
Artemus sighed deeply. He knew he had to continue on with his own plans. He could not depend on Nevin West or his claim that Jim West had survived.
Jim thought that the afternoon was the longest he had ever experienced… or at least one of the longest. He had taken Sam's advice and dozed some, but it was a light, fitful sleep, always alert for danger. Besides which, the ground was damn hard, and the sun was hot. The shade provided by the boulders was inadequate.
Finally he heard Sam's whistled signal, and moments later the man himself appeared, grinning widely. "What a day, James! What a day!" Again he handed over a wrapped packet. "I managed to finagle another roast beef sandwich from the restaurant. This is your share. And I brought more water."
"Good. What happened?"
Sam settled back against another rock. "Well, to begin with, I got work at the hotel, as I hoped. Just sweeping rooms and dusting and the like. I had keys to all of them!"
Neville waved a hand. "I was a good boy, Jamie. I didn't go barging into any of the guards' rooms when they weren't there. However…" His grin widened. "However, when I went into one room, four of them, including Hulbert, were in there, playing poker. They told me to get on with the sweeping, and they needed their ashtrays emptied, not to mention some empty bottles taken out. So I just meekly swept away. You know how some folks tend to treat hired help as though they are invisible? That's how they were. They talked while they played their game."
"All kinds of things. Seems Hulbert isn't all that happy with Hammer. He thinks Hammer's ideas are too farfetched, too ambitious, that he won't be able to carry them out successfully, at least those that involve selling his chemicals to people in other countries. He thinks Hammer should just stick with a sure thing, bleeding the folks in and around Desert Springs. He also didn't like that Hammer kept one of the agents alive and is filling him in on his plans and secrets."
Jim's breath caught. "Artie?"
"Yes. From what they said—and you're not going to believe this, Jamie—Hammer learned a lot about you and Artemus from Dr. Loveless!"
"I know. It's incredible. Hulbert said something like, 'Hammer is nuts to be listening to that crazy little doctor. I don't know which one is crazier.' Seems Hammer spent time with Loveless, discussing you two among other items. I got the idea from what Hulbert says that Hammer is in some kind of competition with Loveless."
Jim scowled. "Probably to see which one can destroy the world first!"
"Seems Hammer thinks Artemus will help him develop his formulas and plans."
Jim shook his head. "Artie would never do that. Not actually. He might pretend to, however. Now if we only knew for certain he was okay…"
"He's fine, Jamie. I saw him."
Jim's eyes widened and he leaned forward. "You saw him? How? Where?"
"I even spoke to him."
Jim sighed. "Sam…"
"Just as I was finishing up the sweeping, Hulbert said he had to deliver a message to Hammer. The others started complaining about him breaking up the game when he was winning. So I volunteered to take the message. Hulbert was all for it. He wrote me a note to get me past the gate guard. When I got there, Artemus was sitting nearby in the garden, reading. I contrived to get close to him."
"What did he say?"
"Almost nothing. There wasn't time. I just told him you were alive and that we'd be in touch."
For a long moment, Jim just gazed at the other man. Then he leaned back against the rock. "Sam, where the devil did you learn all these tricks?"
Sam shrugged. "For thirty years I've been on a mission, Jamie. While on that mission, I've had to survive. I've learned… tricks."
"What kind of mission? What are you after?"
Now the white-haired man smiled; a sad smile. "Perhaps I can tell you someday, son. For now, I'll just say it's very important to me… and my family."
"You have a family? Where are they?"
"Here and there. Now… how are we going to get to Artemus?"
Jim picked up the canteen of fresh water Sam had brought, took a long swallow. It was better than the tepid stuff he had had to consume during the day. He knew that attempting to get information from Sam about his past was useless right now. "We are not going to get to Artemus. I am."
"James, you can't do it alone."
"Yes, I can. I've learned little tricks myself, Sam. I don't mean to hurt your feelings, but there are some things than I can do that I'm afraid you wouldn't be able to."
"Like climbing over a wall?"
"Something like that. I'll need to move fast and silently. I also need for you to tell me what you noticed about that house, inside and out."
"What makes you think I went inside?"
"You delivered the note to Marius Hammer, didn't you?"
For friendship, of itself a holy tie,
Is made more sacred by adversity.
—The Hind and the Panther (pt. III, l. 47), John Dryden (1631-1700), English dramatist
The hand over his mouth awakened Artemus abruptly. Enough of the moon was shining through the window to see the face of the man leaning over his bed. He reached up and pushed the hand away. "I guess I didn't believe Sam until now. How the devil did you survive, Jim?" His partner not only looked tired, but he was unshaven, with several days' growth on his usually clean jaw. Instead of his normally immaculately tailored garb he was attired in faded and worn trousers and shirt.
Jim sat down on the side of the bed as Artie pushed himself up against the headboard. "The story is pretty long, but I can assure you it's amazing. Artie, there's a valley inside the mountain. A hidden canyon occupied by a cult. They know about the pool at the bottom of the abyss, and they also have spies planted in town who tell them when someone is going to be thrown into that abyss."
"And they pulled you out? But that was nearly a week ago, Jim."
"That's the long story part. We don't have time for it now. I thought you must have been thrown in after me and drowned. You're all right?"
"I'm fine. Hammer thinks I'm going to help him become the wealthiest man in the world."
Jim smiled briefly. "Always said you were the best actor I ever knew. Is it true he knows Loveless?"
Artie wondered how his partner knew this fact, but also aware that they did not have time for details. "Yep. I want to know how you got inside this house, but you can explain that later."
Jim just nodded. Sam's information about the layout of the grounds had helped tremendously, as had Jim's experience from the past. Although aware of the number of guards that Hammer kept, he also knew those guards were mercenaries. They might be assigned to night patrol, but that did not mean they were extra alert, or even attending to their duties of patrolling the grounds, especially when no one was watching them.
He had walked the distance from their camp to the other side of Desert Springs where Hammer's house was located, reaching it, in his estimation, sometime after midnight. Finding a place to secrete himself among some brush and rocks that gave him a pretty good view of the grounds, he had watched for over an hour before satisfied that his opinion of the situation was close to correct. He saw a couple of men walking along the outside of the wall; he also saw them enter the small shack by the gate and not emerge. Through the shack's small window, illuminated by a lamp inside, three men were visible, apparently engaged in a poker game. No one else patrolled the grounds while they amused themselves.
At that time Jim found a spot in the wall where the sturdy branch of a bush gave him a leg up and he scrambled over, once again locating a site where he could hide and watch awhile. The interior grounds were completely quiet. The dim light he saw emanating from windows apparently came from "night lights," probably sconces on hallway walls. Nothing indicated anyone was up and about.
He was not entirely surprised to find the front door unlocked. Hammer would be depending on his guards to discover and repel intruders. Sam had not gone any further than the foyer, but he had given a very good description of what he had seen, including the curving staircase and the straight-backed chair sitting just below it. Therefore Jim expected to find a sentry on that chair, so he had entered with cautious silence. Using the pressure point in the slumbering man's neck, he was sent into an even deeper sleep and—Jim hoped—would not remember being assaulted.
Finding Artie's room was trickier, but he suspected that few rooms in the house were occupied. He was right, opening one door after another and finding the rooms empty, until he finally pushed one quietly open to find his partner asleep on the big, comfortable-looking bed. Very different from the hard ground he had napped on that day!
"Artie, what are your plans? I mean, when you thought I was dead, what were you expecting to do?"
"Gas them all."
"I've been collecting what I need from the Hammer's laboratory. I'm just about set. I think I can knock quite a few of them out. I'm creating a number of bombs. Mainly I wanted to be able to kill Marius Hammer."
"I had that thought myself." Jim knew that his partner had experienced the same grieving rage that he had, the same need for vengeance.
Artie gazed at the frown on his partner's face. "But?"
"Artie, I understand he has about seventy-five men scattered around the area. Even if you disable a few, more are out there."
"I know. My plan was to simply buy time, to give me an opportunity to get hold of a weapon, possibly a horse, to escape and bring back help. It's the only thing I could come up with in the circumstances."
Jim nodded, face sober, eyes twinkling in the darkness. "Not that it's not a good plan, Artie."
"Thank you, James."
Both were silent a moment before Jim spoke. "Amazing coincidence that Sam turned up. He was a prisoner in the hidden valley too, although he was never in Desert Springs. I didn't tell you, five of the seven men who were executed were saved, including Russ Kelsey."
"That's good to hear. How…?"
Once more Jim shook his head. "Later. Sam has been infiltrating inside the town, and has been able to get quite a bit of information so far without being detected. He and I are camped outside of town."
A dozens questions whirled through Artie's mind, including wondering whether Jim had learned that the man known as Sam Neville was his father. Apparently not. I'm sure that would be something he would mention. I just hope that when he does learn, he won't be angry with me because I knew and did not reveal it to him. That concern had been in the depths of Artemus Gordon's consciousness since he himself discovered that secret and gave his oath to Nevin West that he would not tell Jim.
"Sam can go into town," Jim went on, "but I can't. Not in the daytime, at least. Unfortunately, we're going to have to take this slow for the time being. At the moment, we don't have any weapons either, other than a small pistol Sam was able to pick up." He patted his shirt, where the gun was secreted.
"Hammer now allows me freedom of the grounds," Artie said. "I'm hoping that shortly he'll permit me to go into town. I've been working hard on stroking his vanity and gaining his trust. It hasn't been easy."
Jim gazed at his friend. "You haven't been helping him develop his gas and drugs."
"No. As a matter of fact, I sabotaged one of his experiments, as well as some chemicals. He was fit to be tied today. It means he has to start it over again, which of course will give us more time. The next experiment won't be successful either."
"Speaking of time, I'd better get out of here. The sentries were having fun in the cabin by the gate, but their consciences might get the better of them so that they start their patrols again. I need to get back over the wall." Jim stood up.
"Jim, there's a small gate about a hundred feet east of the main entrance. It looks to be rusted shut, but I got the materials to create a solvent that I hope to be able to apply next time I'm outside, maybe today. Try that gate next time."
"Be sure to oil the hinges, Artie."
"That I will." Artemus swung his legs out from under the blanket and stood up in his nightshirt. He extended his hand. "Good to see you, pal."
Jim took that hand firmly. "Same here."
Getting out was not quite as easy as getting in. Jim exited the house safely, with the guard by the stairs still unconscious, and he also made it to the rock wall without incident. But just as he scaled the wall, he heard footsteps outside the wall. Flattening himself against the top, he remained very still while the guard strolled by, stretching and yawning as he did so. Undoubtedly he would make one pass around the perimeter and either return to the shack to rejoin the game or go take a nap.
As soon as the sentry was at a safe distance, Jim dropped to the ground and raced across the fields toward the main road. Because of the lateness of the hour, he felt safe going through town, whereas before he had circumvented it, fearful that the saloons might still be busy. All was quiet and dark as he strode along the dusty street, avoiding the board sidewalks to avoid the noise his boots would make. Only a prowling cat noticed him, hurrying forward when Jim knelt briefly to give him a head scratch then heading back into the alley he had emerged from.
Once beyond the structures of town, Jim set off at a sprint, noticing that the sky was beginning to lighten in the east. People would be up and about soon, in particular those that brought produce into town to vend. During the three days he and Artemus had been in Desert Springs, they had noticed a couple of wagons where fruit or other farm produce were being sold, or delivered to the store or restaurant. Could be one of those wagons would be from Eden, and he most assuredly did not want to be seen by any of his former co-inhabitants.
Sam silently handed him one of the canteens when he reached their meager camp. Again Jim was vaguely surprised with the relief he himself experienced at finding the older man safe and sound. He had not even been aware of feeling any concern about the older man's wellbeing while he was gone.
"How'd it go?" Sam asked as Jim settled wearily against a rock.
"Artie's fine. He's been planning an escape, something that might help us also. I'll go back tonight to talk more."
"Do you think that's wise, Jamie?"
"I have to." Hearing himself addressed by the nickname Jamie was no longer jarring; in fact, it seemed almost natural despite he had not heard the name since he was a boy. "Artie has been ingratiating himself with Hammer, all the while sabotaging Hammer's experiments and planning his own. He was able to steal some of Hammer's chemicals to manufacture some gas bombs, which he hopes to use to disable many of Hammer's men."
"Many of them. Not all of them?"
Jim shook his head. "No. I doubt if Hammer gets them all in one place at one time. He wouldn't risk allowing people to escape the area, and leaves sentries out all the time."
"He has too many for the three of us to handle."
"Not the three of us, Sam. The two of us. I want you out of this."
"Too late, son. Don't forget, if it weren't for me, you'd still be in Eden looking for the exit. Artemus would still believe you were dead."
"But it's our job to…"
"You might say it's mine too, Jamie. No, you're not getting rid of me. Not yet."
Jim decided to give up for the moment. "Did you sleep?"
"Oh yes. On my feather bed, covered with a downy quilt."
Jim had to laugh. "I know exactly what you mean." Then he sobered. "That's a good reason for you to get a room in town and stay there."
"Because I'm an old man?"
"Something like that."
Sam sighed noisily. "Jamie, for the past thirty years, I've slept in beds, I've slept on rocks, and I've slept in the snow. Even in a jail cell a couple of times. Oh, don't worry. I didn't rob any banks or kill anyone. I'm afraid I no longer appear as urbane as I once did. Town officers tend to consider me a vagrant at times."
"You're obviously an educated man," Jim said slowly. "What happened? Why are you drifting around like this? You…"
Sam's hand, held up palm forward, stopped him. "Not now, Jamie. That's my story and I want to keep it mine for the time being. I could ask you why you didn't continue your education, why you are also roaming this country, putting yourself in constant danger."
Jim's eyes narrowed. "What makes you think I had an education to continue?"
Sam Neville looked a bit startled. "Oh. I guess Artemus mentioned it last time. You had a year or two of college…"
"It's simple. The war happened. I joined a cavalry regiment, got involved in scouting and espionage… and never looked back."
Sam climbed to his feet then. "I'd better get on into Desert Springs. Early bird, you know. Mrs. Dahlen said she might have more work for me. I'll try to bring back more food, but there's still some bread and a couple of apples in the bag. And water."
Jim looked up at him. "Don't come back tonight, Sam. I'll manage. I don't want you putting yourself in danger."
"I already told you, son. Too late. Much too late. Get some sleep, Jamie."
The day was difficult to get through. First of all, Marius Hammer was testy. He still had not figured out why his experiment had suddenly failed, and spent a lot of time talking about it, wanting Artemus Gordon to solve it for him. Artie soberly went through the procedure step by step, discussing the methods and the tests Hammer had made along the way. More than once he quelled the impulse to laugh out loud at Hammer's frustration.
Artemus made suggestions, but was careful that although the ideas sounded logical, they would be rejected, partially because he himself finally came to that conclusion, stating aloud they could not work. He portrayed a great deal of disappointment on his part, purportedly because he could not solve the problem, all the while delaying Hammer from restarting the experiment. He tried to put doubt in Hammer's mind whether the experiment would ever be successful, laying the grounds for the tainted chemicals.
Beyond that, he also had to stifle the urge to smile more now that he knew for certain his partner was alive. Although Sam had said so, Artie had had to wait until he saw Jim in the flesh, talked to him, actually touched him. That handshake told him more than the fact that Jim was flesh and blood, not a ghostly presence. Jim had casually mentioned that he thought Artie had drowned. They had each believed the other had perished. The handshake had been a way for both of them to express their feelings.
But he had lain awake a long while after Jim departed, first simply listening. If he had heard any sort of commotion either in the house or outside, he would have dashed out in an attempt to aid his partner. After an hour or so, hearing nothing, he had to assume, with relief, that Jim had made it away safely. Then it was necessary to settle down, to stop thinking about the mere encounter with the man he considered his brother in all but blood. He had been so certain this time, having seen it for himself, that Jim West was dead. He wanted desperately to hear more about the rescue and how Nevin West, known as Sam Neville, had become involved.
But that was going to have to wait. For now, his task was to convince Marius Hammer that Artemus Gordon was slowly coming over to his side. So far that seemed to be working, but Artie knew he could not let his guard down. Hammer mentioned Jim West twice during that day, once saying, as he had before, that West had been a bad influence on Gordon. Artie had evinced doubt in both directions. He halfheartedly defended his life as an agent, displayed anger regarding his friend's murder, but also more or less agreed that had he not hooked up with Jim, his life could have gone a different direction. Perhaps he would have turned back to science. At least he attempted to convince Hammer that his thoughts were running in that direction.
He also had to make certain Hammer's experiments continued to fail, and to do so without arousing suspicion; he could not contaminate all the chemicals but bad advice might help. Artemus hoped that he and his partner could work together now to subdue Hammer's insane plans, but was also aware that with Hammer believing Jim dead, and the necessity to keep him believing that, put a crimp in their ability to make plans. For Jim to creep into this house every night was extremely dangerous, but at the moment, no other route existed for them to get together and confer.
Artemus knew that time might be running short, for more reason than one. Thus far Marius Hammer appeared to be buying the act that Artemus Gordon was slowly being won over, but it was a tricky procedure, requiring constant vigilance. He had to measure almost everything he said, every reaction he made. It was like being on stage for twenty-four hours at a time, with no script!
Another worry was the danger of Jim being apprehended if he attempted to get into Hammer's house too many times. Artie knew his partner would continue to make the attempt. They had to talk and plan. However, each time he was successful in entering and departing lessened the odds that he would be successful the next time.
We always do work together… separately. Artemus remembered making that comment to Thaddeus Baines at the jewelry exhibition. The statement still held. Sometimes working together was more difficult than others, and this was one of those instances. Usually we have had a chance to discuss the situation. That's not the case this time… at least not yet. Perhaps if Jim is able to get inside again…
Artemus knew he had decidedly mixed feelings about that. They needed to talk; yet if Jim was captured again, matters could be decidedly perilous. Hammer would not only make sure that Jim West died, but undoubtedly Artemus Gordon as well.
"I simply can't imagine what went wrong," Hammer complained at dinner that evening. "I've gone over and over my notes. I am certain I followed every step as previously."
Artie sipped his wine, shaking his head in sympathy. "These things do happen, Mr. Hammer. I'm sure every scientist has a similar tale to tell. Perhaps more than once. Is this… going to set you back?"
"Of course. I can't proceed until I'm certain everything is going to work correctly. I do not believe in doing things half way. They have to be done right, to ensure complete success. If I demonstrated a faulty formula to the buyers—well, you understand."
"I do understand," Artemus spoke soberly. "If your exhibitions failed, it could be a disaster."
"Exactly. I am not normally an extraordinarily patient man, but in this case I need to be. I will…" Hammer's words paused as one of the "butlers" entered, came directly to him to lean down and whisper something. Hammer frowned, muttered, "Excuse me," and then rose, throwing his napkin aside, to follow the butler from the room.
Artie resisted an urge to follow, if only to peek out through the door. Chances were good he could have likely been caught trying to eavesdrop, unable to get back to his chair before Hammer returned. The murmur of voices indicated they were talking just on the other side of the closed door. As it was, he was glad he remained seated: Hammer returned within two or three minutes, his expression grim, eyes icy.
Hammer picked up the wine bottle on the table and filled his nearly empty glass, then took a long swallow before speaking. "Nothing I cannot take care of." His voice was cold.
For the remainder of the meal, Hammer was silent, his thoughts obviously not very pleasant. Artemus became very concerned. Had Jim been seen or captured? Surely Hammer would say something if that was the case. Or would he?
When the meal ended, Hammer excused himself and went into his study. Artie was a trifle surprised because on previous evenings he had invited his "guest" to join him for discussions of science. Unwilling to go to his own room right away, Artemus went outside, with a dual purpose. For one thing, he was now restless and worried and hoped that a walk about the grounds might settle his mind. For another, he wanted to check the gate that he had poured solvent on earlier in the day.
The first purpose was not served very well. By the time he did go upstairs, he was still uneasy, wishing he had a way to contact his partner. That was impossible at this point. However, he had had an opportunity to check the small gate in the wall and observed that it was in better condition after he had surreptitiously applied metal solvent during the day. It was padlocked, so he could not open it, but most of the rust appeared to have dissolved. Jim would not have a problem with the lock, Artemus knew. However, he had not been able to find out if the oil he had applied to the hinges was going to prevent any noise.
The slight noise jerked Artemus awake and his hand automatically reached toward the side of his pillow, for the gun that was not there. The moon through the window was not as bright tonight but it provided enough illumination to allow him to see Jim West slipping through the door. Artie sat up.
"Jim! I wasn't sure you'd make it." He spoke in a hoarse whisper.
"The gate made it a bit easier." Jim moved a chair nearer the bed.
"I meant I was afraid Hammer had grabbed you again, or at least that you were spotted."
Jim shook his head, puzzled. "Neither. I've been outside of town all day. Sam did say something happened in the saloon that had Hulbert angry. He couldn't find out exactly what it was."
"The message that irked Hammer this evening must have had something to do with that. I couldn't get anything out of him about it."
Jim glanced back toward the closed door. "Artie, the guard was not downstairs. Do you know if Hammer canceled that sentry?"
Artie frowned. "I don't know. I somehow doubt it. That chair was sitting there the first day I came here. I think the guards inside and out have been present every night all along."
"I hid in the foyer for about five minutes, but he never came back."
"So you didn't have an opportunity to put him into a deeper slumber."
"That might make it a bit more difficult getting out of here if he does return. But let's make the most of the time we have. Any word on when Hammer plans to starts offering his formula?"
"No. He didn't mention it today and I couldn't find an opportunity to bring it up. I don't think he's sure enough of his results to set up a demonstration for it yet, however. Jim, we're in big trouble. You can't keep sneaking in here. If I left with you, we'd lose our 'inside man,' so to speak. I need to be here to find out what Hammer is up to, and to try to keep sabotaging his experiments. But he's liable to catch onto that before long. You can't go into town."
"Yeah," Jim sighed. "Sam is nosing around town and brings back information, but even he can't do much without revealing himself."
"How the devil did he get involved?"
Jim gave a terse summary of how he himself ended up in the valley, and Sam's history with "Mother Angel" including his offer to help escape from the valley. "I didn't have much choice. I have no idea how long it would have taken me to find the exit."
"And now he's doing reconnaissance in town?"
"Yep. So far he's just an old hobo doing odd jobs for a meal or two. He seems to be enjoying it!"
Artie bit back a smile. Jim seemed baffled, even annoyed. Not hard to understand, though. Nevin West is finally spending time with the son he had been forced to abandon as a baby. (See The Night of the Murderer's Sons.)
"Speaking of meals," Jim went on, "you don't happen to have any food in here."
"No, sorry. Not eating regularly?"
"Not very. We carried some supplies out of the valley, and Sam brings what he can from town. But neither of us are likely to get fat on our diet." Jim sighed. "In any case, Artie, we have to stop Hammer somehow, and soon."
"I know that. If nothing else, perhaps by gassing him and enough of his men we can do a little kidnapping of our own and get him out of here. Without his leadership the entire scheme will fall apart."
"Yeah. Too many ifs there. I doubt we could disable enough of the guards to make a safe escape. We could have a tough time even getting him out of the house—if I can get back inside in the first place!"
They talked a little while longer before Jim decided he had better make his exit. He would try to come back, he said, while Artemus swore to continue to convince Hammer that he should be allowed more freedom, to be able to go into town and perhaps contact Sam.
Artemus left the room first, casually stepping over to the railing to peer down below. A moment later he reentered the bedroom, face grim. "He's down there, now. Appears to be sleeping."
Jim let out a breath. "Then I'll just have to try to slip by. If possible, I'll use a pressure point to put him out further." He had already investigated the room's window, but decided it would be even more dangerous, with no handholds to speak of available to use for a descent to the ground.
He was halfway down the stairs when the guard suddenly roused and looked straight up at him. Jim froze as the man started to bring his rifle up, mouth open to call out. Before that happened, Jim used the banister as leverage to vault over, aiming his body directly for the startled man below, and striking him in the shoulders and chest with his boots. The guard went down, rifle falling with a thud on the carpeted floor. Jim quickly gained his balance, seized the stunned man by the shirtfront to lift him slightly and plant a finishing blow to the jaw. With one quick glance upwards where Artie was watching, Jim grabbed the fallen rifle then dashed toward the front door.
Above, Artemus waited, counting silently to himself, and listening. The guard's fall, along with his weapon, had been noisy, but this was a big house and Hammer's room was far in the rear. No sound came from that direction. Nonetheless, Artie knew that suspicion might be raised later if he himself claimed not to have heard anything, being much closer to the area below the stairs.
After about thirty seconds, he stepped out again to the railing and began to shout. "Mr. Hammer! Mr. Hammer! Intruder! There's an intruder in the house!"
He then raced down the stairs, to the still wide-open front door. On the porch he shouted again. "Hey! Intruder! There's an intruder in the house! Come on! Come on!"
Within moments the front gate flew open and several men ran toward the house. Artie continued to yell for a few seconds, waving to them, then reentered the house. Hammer was coming down the stairs, usually immaculate hair uncombed, wearing a velvet-collared robe, and looking baffled.
"What's going on?"
"I'm not sure," Artemus panted as the guards pounded in behind him, while the cook and the other servants appeared from the direction of the kitchen. "I heard a noise down here. I thought perhaps the guard had dropped something or knocked something over. Then I heard some footsteps—I think they ran toward the back of the house." He looked toward the cook.
To his surprise and relief, she nodded eagerly. "I heard someone in the kitchen. I guess he went out the back door."
The groggy guard could not remember much other than he had seen someone on the stairs, and had been attacked before he could raise an alarm. He was certain that two men were involved, maybe more. How else could he have been overpowered so quickly and easily?
"Search the house!" Hammer commanded. "Search the grounds! Someone wake the men in the bunkhouse! How did they get in past the sentries?"
Saying he was going to get dressed, Artemus hurried back to his room, where he paused, grinning widely. The ruse was more successful than he could have anticipated. He had decided to raise the alarm as he did not only to cover himself but also to give Jim a clear field through which to escape.
The big problem, he mused, sobering as he began to pull on his clothes, is that now the guards will be extra alert. It's not likely Jim will be able to get inside again. Or at least he should not try it. Artie shook his head. That did not mean Jim would not make the attempt.
To him that watches, everything is revealed.
He had been sleeping restlessly and perhaps that's why he heard the slight sound out on the street. Rising from the narrow bed, he went to the window of his hotel room and stared down into the dimly moonlit street, seeing the lithe man sprinting through the shadows, clutching a rifle in one hand. A slow smile began. Well, that's a start! Quickly he turned back to the bed, sat down and pulled on his boots, glad that he had decided to not undress completely.
Jim became aware that he was being followed when he had covered about half the distance back to the rough camp where Sam would be waiting. His own footsteps on the soft dirt of the road were inaudible, and thus he had been able to hear the sound of a horse not too far behind him. Not likely anyone out this time of night is on an honest errand or heading home, not this late, long after the saloons have closed. Someone must have spotted me. Odd that he isn't hurrying any faster to catch me…
A cluster of boulders and brush were on one side of the road just after he went around a slight curve, so Jim quickly stepped over behind them. He crouched holding his newly acquired, and much welcome, rifle, and waited. Just a couple of minutes elapsed before he spotted the silhouette of the horseman, a tall thin man on a bay horse, riding easily. Jim waited until the horse moved by him, then stepped out, lifting the rifle.
"Stop right there, mister."
The rider reined in the horse, and swung it slightly sideways. "Evening, Jim."
"Good Lord! Frank! What the devil are you doing here?" Jim lowered his gun, staring as fellow agent Frank Harper easily dismounted.
"Looking for you… and Artemus."
"You were sent?"
"When you boys didn't report back in, the colonel contacted me. I was in Phoenix, so it was a relatively quick trip. Got here this morning… and got into some trouble this afternoon."
"I heard a rumor of that. What happened?"
"Well, I was in my usual guise as a gambler and got a quiet game started with a couple of older men, trying to encourage some gossip. Then this younger man, fellow with a scarred face, came in, and sat down. He might have been the worst poker player I've ever encountered—but he thought he was a riverboat gambler. After losing everything but his trousers, he accused me of cheating and pulled his gun. I shot him with my derringer. Didn't kill him. Just hit his arm.
"That's when I learned the town doesn't have a sheriff. Couple more men came in and wanted to rough me up, but the men who had been in the game originally stood up for me. The fellow who seemed to be in charge—I think his name was Hulbert—seemed more put out with the chap I shot than with me. I got the idea he broke some rules by being in the saloon at that time of day."
Jim was nodding. "Hammer rules with an iron rod—or thinks he does."
"What the devil is going on, Jim? Where's Artemus? I heard some strange gossip about missing men and that you were one of them."
"Artie's fine at the moment. Come on. I have a camp about a quarter of a mile from here. You can meet my new partner and we'll tell you the story."
They rode double back to the camp, where Frank Harper stared hard at the white bearded man Jim introduced to him as Sam Neville. He had the distinct impression that he had met or seen this man somewhere before, but because of the darkness, decided he could be wrong. He listened with fascination as Jim and the older man described their experiences.
Harper shook his head as Jim finished a narration of what had occurred this night. "Sounds to me that Artemus is in danger."
"He's a good actor," Jim said, "and so far he's convinced Hammer that he's open to the crackpot ideas about selling his formula to would-be world conquerors. He's also trying to delay those ideas by sabotaging the experiments. However, how long he can continue this masquerade is impossible to guess. I know that this evening Artie pulled the guards in by raising an alarm about an intruder inside the house to give me a chance to get away unseen. I heard his yells from where I was hiding in the grounds. I hope Hammer bought that story."
"Jamie," Sam said then, "you can't go back there."
"I have to," Jim responded. He did not notice the way Frank's brow knit as he heard not only the pet name but also the seemingly genuine concern in the old man's voice.
"I think Mr. Neville is right, Jim," Frank said then. "I've got to figure out a way to make a connection with Hammer."
"Good luck," Jim replied dryly. "From what I've heard, Hammer isn't a poker player."
Frank Harper chuckled. "I have other talents besides playing cards, Jim."
Jim nodded thoughtfully now. Although no one was as good at Artie in the art of disguise and masquerade, both Frank Harper and Jeremy Pike were talented in that area. Frank had the added advantage of not being well known in this part of the country. "Any specific ideas?"
"Maybe. Do you know where Loveless is these days?" Jim had mentioned the apparent connection between Hammer and Loveless.
Jim's eyes widened. "Frank, you'll never pass as the little doctor."
Both Sam and Frank laughed as Frank replied. "Yeah, you're right. What was the last intelligence regarding his location?"
"Montana about a month ago. Federal marshals who were nearby went after him, but as usual, he disappeared—and hasn't been seen since."
Frank grimaced. "A month ago. Well, it might be worth a try. I thought about becoming an emissary from Loveless."
"If you're successful," Sam asked, "then what?"
"With any luck I'll get accepted inside the house and help Artemus escape, as well as stop Hammer."
"Sounds simple," Jim said, "but it's a tall order."
"Isn't that what we get paid for?"
"I'm afraid so. Damn it, Frank, I need to be involved!"
Harper just shook his head. "From what you told me, Jim, if you show up in town, you'll be a target. You also may put Artemus in danger."
"That's what I keep telling him," Sam put in.
Jim rubbed the dark beard that covered his jaw. "Pretty soon I'll be unrecognizable."
"Perhaps. But let me try my way first, Jim. I can talk to Artemus, and maybe relay messages back and forth."
Jim knew his fellow agent was talking sense, but that didn't make it any more palatable for him. He had hated leaving Artie inside the lion's den, so to speak, but both knew that if Artemus left without permission, or even attempted to do so, he would not be allowed back in—alive. At least living there, with Hammer's blessing, he had access to the laboratory, although he did have to filch at night the chemicals he needed to create his gas bombs.
"We need to work out the logistics of how to use the gas to disable as many men as possible."
Frank nodded. "I'll see if I can help there."
Artie spent an anxious day. Marius Hammer appeared to harbor no suspicions about the "intruder" or Artemus's deception. He had insisted that every room on every floor of the house be checked; nothing turned up, nor did the men searching outside find anyone or anything. Artie heard grumbling from the men at the time, but they obeyed.
"Is it possible," Artie had asked at breakfast, "that one of your men was skulking around with the intent to steal something?"
Hammer stared at him with those icy eyes for a long moment. "That had better not be the answer."
"It certainly appears that someone was familiar with the house," Artie added to heap coals to the fire.
"Yes. Yes, that's true. But there's no sign of anything being disturbed."
"Perhaps the downstairs guard awakened in time."
That deepened Hammer's scowl. "Sleeping on the job is not acceptable."
"I agree," Artie murmured as Hermione brought a fresh pot of coffee. He glanced up at the woman's expressionless face. Why had she backed him up last night? If only I could find a free moment to speak to her!
During the day, Artemus was at loose ends again as Hammer almost seemed to be avoiding him. He told himself that it could well be that Hammer was embarrassed by what appeared to be a lapse in his security arrangements. Nothing indicated so far that Hammer suspected James West as the intruder or that his "guest" was complicit. Artie visited the kitchen twice, once on the excuse of wanting a cup of coffee, but both times he found Hermione was not alone. One or more of the guards was at her table. He had not realized she fed those guards at various times of the day, perhaps when they went off shift.
He did manage to spend time in the laboratory by himself, and deliberately wrote some lengthy notes in a journal Hammer had provided, describing a nonexistent experiment. He concluded the notes with a "failure" and inscribed that he cleaned up all his equipment—leaving no evidence. In reality, he contaminated some chemicals and again sabotaged a serum Hammer had simmering. He knew he was literally playing with fire and might well arouse Hammer's ire and suspicions. The possible end result seemed worth the risk. He would be delaying Hammer's ultimate schemes, in particular the meetings Hammer was anxious to set up with his potential customers.
Artemus knew that if Jim was unable to make contact again—and that seemed highly likely now—he would have to do as much as possible by himself. If he could disable guards, with the gas, take Hammer prisoner, meet up with Jim…. But that was all speculation. In his days here at Hammer's headquarters, the one thing he had learned was that Hammer did not live by a hard and fast timetable. His hours in the laboratory varied; he spoke to his men when a meeting seemed necessary but did not have regularly scheduled times to bring his employees together.
Late in the afternoon, Artie was sitting in the first parlor reading a favorite Shakespeare play when he heard a rap on the front door. After a moment, one of the male servants went to open it, holding a long conversation with someone before he closed the door to retreat down the hall to Hammer's study. Perhaps five minutes later, that servant returned, went out the front door, and closed it behind him.
Curious, Artie looked out the front window and saw the man who had come to the door striding toward the gate, where he again had a conversation, this time through the closed gate with someone Artemus was unable to see. After a few moments, the gate was opened and a man came through. A rather tall, thin man with a stooped manner of walking, leaning on a cane, a drooping dark mustache covering most of the lower part of his face, attired in a natty suit and wearing a bowler hat, gold-rimmed pince-nez glasses perched on a thin nose. Artie watched them, studying the newcomer thoughtfully.
He did not meet the new arrival until dinner. Hammer introduced his guest as Fenton Finch. "Mr. Finch is the bearer of greetings from our mutual acquaintance, Dr. Miguelito Loveless. Miguelito wants to know if he can be of any service." Unlike his sour mood of earlier, Hammer was positively beaming now.
"That's very kind of the good doctor," Artie replied noncommittally. He had never heard of Fenton Finch as an associate of Loveless or anywhere else. Beyond that, sending such a messenger did not sound like something Loveless would do. The mad doctor was very jealous of his own work, which was why Artemus had been suspicious originally of Hammer's claims of closeness with Loveless.
"Mr. Gordon," Finch said, lifting his wine glass and studying the color, "Dr. Loveless has spoken of you and your compatriot, Mr. West. Is he not here with you?"
"Mr. West is dead," Artie replied dully.
"Indeed!" Finch's brows lifted above the pince-nez. "Dr. Loveless will be most unhappy to hear that. I believe he wanted to be the instrument in Mr. West's demise."
Artemus could not control the angry glare he threw toward Finch, and then pulled his gaze away quickly. He knew those eyes! He had seen the twinkle deep within the depths. How did Frank get involved in this? However that happened, Artie experienced relief. They had some help, and Frank had devised a cleverly legitimate reason to be inside the Hammer mansion. Obviously he had somehow met up with and talked to Jim.
Best of all, Marius Hammer seemed to be buying the story fully. Once more, his vanity was involved. Hammer would be pleased that Loveless sent his regards in any form, and would not think to question the sudden appearance of "Fenton Finch." That appeared to be proven when Hammer spent the rest of the meal and well into the evening bragging to Finch about his accomplishments here in New Mexico, and revealing his schemes.
Artie blessed the rich carpets that covered the floors of almost every room and passageway as he crept from his room well after midnight to make his way to the room that Frank had been given. He had opened his door quietly to peer down toward the first floor, noticing, as he had expected, that the guard was present and alert. After last night's debacle, that was probably the case with all the men on duty. How long such devotion to duty would last was another question.
But he made it to Frank's room, three doors from his own, without being discovered. Frank was awake and waiting for him. He extended his hand. "When I first hit town and started hearing rumors about something dire happening to the two of you, I didn't know what to think!"
"You've seen Jim, I take it?"
"Yeah. Jim and his new partner. Who is this Sam, Artemus? I have a distinct feeling I've seen him somewhere."
Artie smiled. "Just a fellow we ran into awhile back. He was a big help dealing with Loveless." Pretty obviously Frank is noticing the resemblance to Jim. Good thing Jim himself hasn't seen that! "Did you and Jim come up with any plan besides you coming here in disguise?"
"That's about it. I hope to be able to relay information to Sam, who's been hanging out in town. He's not known there I guess, other than as an old drifter. What have you got in mind?"
Artie sighed. "Nothing hard and fast. Jim may have told you I have the ingredients—stolen from Hammer's laboratory—to concoct a knockout gas. I'm hoping to disable a large number of Hammer's men and better the odds."
"Yeah, he did mention that. I wonder if we can get any help from people in town."
Artemus shook his head. "I think they are pretty intimidated. The men who were willing to fight Hammer are now in that secret valley." He paused, eyes narrowing thoughtfully. "I wonder if we could get any of them out in time to help. Russ Kelsey would be a great man to have on our side."
"I'll say. All right. I'll think of some excuse to go into town in the morning and talk to Sam. Jim told me they weren't sure what their reception would be if and when they returned to that valley. But Jim has a rifle now—which ought to carry a bit of weight."
"We'd need to find weapons for the others, too. I'm sure some are available in or near this house, but I have not come across them yet, or even a clue as to where they might be stored. I have a notion the cook is amenable to our cause, and might know something, but a private conversation with her has not yet been possible."
Frank sighed. "We're going to have to do a lot of on the spot planning!"
"That's the fun part, Frank. That's the fun part. But I do have a thought…"
"Mira's back in town," Sam said as he handed Jim the usual half a sandwich. Jim accepted the parcel, unwrapping it as he kept his eyes on the older man and waited. "She couldn't say too much, of course, because she doesn't want anyone to know where she's been the last week or so. Nonetheless, I was able to have a few words with her. Seems Mabel is extremely unhappy with the two of us."
"No surprise there." Jim took a bite of the sandwich, pleased to find it was chicken instead of the usual roast beef or ham.
Sam sighed as he settled back against a rock. "And she is taking it out on the men from town."
"How?" Jim asked sharply.
"Isolated them from the others. They're being held in the tack room. Which might or might not make things easier."
Jim frowned. "What do you mean?"
Sam extended a folded piece of paper he pulled from inside his shirt. "Frank slipped this to me. I read it. Sounds like a good plan."
Jim scanned the note, nodding approvingly. "You're right. Having them all in one place might be a big help—if I can get into the valley without being seen."
"We, Jamie. We."
"Sam," Jim sighed, "this isn't your job. I appreciate all your help, but…"
Sam was shaking his head, his expression stern. "James, I'm in this with you. If nothing else, without Artemus at your side, you'll need someone to watch your back. I can do that."
Jim dropped the subject. I'll just go during the day when he's in town. He knew instantly that that was not a good idea. The chances of being seen while traversing the distance to the entrance to the small valley were much greater in the daylight. "Any other news in town?"
"Hermione, Hammer's cook, was in the mercantile again. Seems they now have a second guest to feed. She also told Mrs. Dahlen about an intruder who, she said, ran right by her out the kitchen door in the middle of the night."
"Yeah? That's interesting. Especially because I went out the front door!"
"That's what I thought you had told me. Not sure what's going on there." Sam grinned suddenly. "You know, son, if it wasn't for the danger involved, especially to you and Artemus at the moment, I'd say this was great fun!"
Jim laughed aloud. "I know what you mean, Sam. Seems you and I are a lot alike in many ways."
"Well, we…" Sam halted his words as Jim held up a hand, lifting his head.
Cautiously Jim got to his feet, unsure whether he had actually heard sounds beyond the rocks that formed their shelter. He held the rifle in one hand, motioning with the other for Sam to stay put. Placing his back against the largest rock, he peered around quickly then drew back. He had seen the shadow of a figure moving around the rock.
He glanced back to further warn Sam, and was not surprised to see the older man was now crouched, the small pistol, which had been laying on the empty cotton flour bag, in his hand. Sam simply nodded, and did not move as Jim carefully slid around the rock so as to be behind the moving figure.
"Stop right there."
The man swung around. He was also carrying a rifle, and the barrel of it caught the one Jim was holding. Both weapons were jerked out of the holders' hands. Instantly the other man stepped toward Jim, throwing his fist. Jim ducked and slammed his own fist into the other's midriff. When that man folded, gasping for breath, another fist caught him under the chin. He staggered back and sat down suddenly, eyes glazed.
Jim quickly grabbed his own rifle as Sam came around the rocks, pistol at the ready. "You all right, son?"
"I'm fine," Jim replied. "We need something to tie this guy up with."
"I'll tear up the bag." Sam hurried back around the boulder and returned a moment later with the flour sack, which he began to rip into strips. "One of Hammer's men?"
"Yeah. I recognize him as one who was with Hammer the day they took Artie and me to the cavern. Funny that he's alone." Jim waited a moment while Sam bound the man's hands behind him. "I'm going to look around."
About five minutes later, Jim returned, leading a pinto horse. "Looks he was alone, indeed. Maybe he followed you."
Sam frowned. "I've been so careful…"
"It's all right. We got another rifle as well as a horse out of it. Only problem is where to stash the fellow for the time being."
"How about the tunnel into the cavern? I don't think anyone goes in there unless there's to be an execution, and it appears that Hammer is completely in control now. He is not likely to be going in."
Jim nodded thoughtfully. "For the time being anyway. Occurs to me this fellow might make a good peace offering for us to take to Mother Angel." He did not notice he had used the plural pronoun "us."
Sam grinned. "She loves a project, and no doubt this guy will need some working on! By the way, James, Mira is not very happy with you either."
"I'm not the marrying kind, Sam. And in particular, I'm not going to be coerced into not only marrying but living in a place like 'Eden.'" Jim hefted the now bound and gagged man over his shoulder. "Be sure to keep the horse quiet if you notice anyone out on the road. I'll be back in a short while."
"Are you planning to stay long, Mr. Finch?" Artemus asked as he lifted his coffee cup.
Fenton Finch beamed. "Mr. Hammer has extended his hospitality for as long as I wish. And I must admit, I'm terribly interested in learning about Mr. Hammer's brilliant plans. I must say they exceed anything I ever heard our mutual friend discuss."
Marius Hammer's smile was broad. "That's because I believe in grand strategies, Mr. Finch. By controlling the drugs, I will control the men who plan to use them—in particular I will be holding the all-important antidote! I'm sure Mr. Gordon can tell you how much he is also impressed."
"Indeed," Artie replied. "I have to say—for reasons I won't go into right now—that at first I was very much appalled. Mr. Hammer, however, is well on his way to convincing me regarding the efficacy of his plans. He will not need to control large armies or large territories. Indeed, the only things he will need to protect will be the formulas themselves!" He smiled, lifting his coffee cup in a salute toward Hammer.
I think Hammer's ego may be larger than Loveless's, if that's possible. He certainly responds to flattery and fawning. Artie had mentioned that fact to Frank last night, and the other agent was following through.
"All I can say," Frank purred now, "is that I want to know more. I am extremely impressed. And if I can be of any service, I am at your disposal, Mr. Hammer."
Hammer gazed at him. "What is your position with Loveless?"
"Oh… just general factotum. I sometimes carry messages. Sometimes act as a spy. I tend to blend into government circles." Frank grinned. "I guess I look like one of those pencil-pushing clerks."
Hammer chuckled. "Yes, I can see that. I may well have use for such a man as we move through the process if you are interested in a change of location."
"How soon do you think that will be, Mr. Hammer?"
Now the silver-eyed man grimaced. "Not as soon as I had hoped. I've been having problems with my final experiments. Mr. Gordon can tell you. I'm beginning to suspect the last supplies I received were tainted. I may have to purchase new ones."
"That's very wise," Artie spoke with solemn sincerity. "I recall a time when I was having difficulty preparing a batch of explosive clay. I finally obtained fresh supplies and all worked as it should."
"I would be interested in the formula for that explosive," Hammer said, folding his napkin and placing it on the table. "Today, however, I expect to be very busy. I must not only monitor my experiments but also make contact with some of my men who are due to report in. They are spread out over the area; unfortunate, but necessary."
"Is there anything I can do to help?" Artie offered blandly. "I could certainly take messages."
Hammer gazed at him thoughtfully as he got to his feet. "Yes, you could. Mr. Finch mentioned to me earlier that he would like to visit the local emporium because he does not have accouterments with him for a long stay." He smiled benignly. "I expect I can trust you in Mr. Finch's company."
Artie shook his head as though baffled. "I have nowhere else to go, Mr. Hammer."
"That is true. True. I will write some notes for you to deliver to the men in town. They will carry the information out into the county."
And also keep an eye on us. Artie flicked a glance toward Frank, knew that his fellow agent was having the same thought. But being allowed to go into town was something of a victory. Remembering how Mira tried to warn them that morning, quite possibly she could be of some help, if she was back in town; a waitress Frank had described fit her. As well, "Sam Neville" might be around to act as liaison with Jim. They just had to be very cautious not to get either Mira or Sam into trouble.
The woman known as Mother Angel was initially delighted when she saw the two men striding toward the main house, where she was standing on the back porch after being advised of their approach shortly after breakfast. She believed, certainly, that the two had seen the error of their ways and were returning to the flock. Jim West's sharp request to speak to her privately soon gave lie to that, so she led them into her office.
"You've got to understand, Mother Angel, the difficulties you could be in." Jim West spoke sternly, his newly acquired rifle cradled in his arms. "For starters, you kidnapped Mr. Neville and held him here against his will. While you did not exactly kidnap me and the other men from Desert Springs, you refused to allow us to leave. In doing so, you have interfered not only with the laws of this county, but federal law, impeding two separate officers from doing their duty."
Mabel Deegan, also known as Mother Angel, stared openmouthed at the two men, silent for a long moment, before finally finding her voice. "I—I thought I was doing what was best!"
"Of course you did," Sam Neville spoke in a more gentle tone. "But Mabel, you lost sight of the fact that not everyone might be able to adhere to your beliefs and intentions. I think you have a lovely idea here for people who agree to it. But my… Jim and I… have other things to do with our lives."
"I assure you," Jim's allowed his own tone to soften, "that I am extremely grateful to you for saving my life. So are the other men you were able to pull from that pool. And in some sense you may have performed another service by keeping us here for a while. If any of us had returned to Desert Springs, our lives would have been endangered. But you still interfered. It cannot go further."
She swallowed visibly, and Jim wondered if he saw a trace of moisture welling in her eyes. "I meant well. You are… going to take my people away?"
"I'm going to give them the option of leaving," Jim said flatly. "But not immediately. We have some plans to make. The danger still exists in Desert Springs, for all of us. Marius Hammer has to be defeated, and we have come up with an idea that might help accomplish that defeat." Again his voice gentled. "Although it's entirely possible you are 'squatting' on government land here, I have no plans to report you, nor to reveal your location to outside sources. I'm going to ask the others to do the same. It will be up to you whether to make your secret passages known. Who knows? If people learned of your little settlement here, you might get volunteers to join you."
Mother's blue-gray eyes brightened. "Yes, that's possible, isn't it?" She sighed then. "I guess I really have no choice now. What do you want me to do?"
"Nothing at the moment. I want to talk to the men from Desert Springs and explain our ideas. Then I have to get in contact with my partner to set things up."
Mother rose from her chair. "I am very glad your partner is alive."
Jim nodded. "So am I. By the way, we brought you a gift, so to speak. One of Hammer's men we captured. He donated the rifle to me, and we are donating him to you. He's near the tunnel right now, tied up."
She frowned. "To me?"
Sam grinned. "We thought you might want to convert him. We brought him in blindfolded so he won't know how to get out."
Now Mabel smiled broadly. "Now, that sounds like a perfect idea."
Russ Kelsey was initially a bit put out with Jim, stating bluntly that he had expected to at least be informed when the escape was made. When Sam took the blame for insisting that Jim not reveal the departure to others, Russ relented. He and the other victims of Marius Hammer listened to Jim's explanation of what had been occurring outside the valley, and the ideas they had developed.
"We're going to need guns," Russ said flatly.
Jim nodded. "That's why it's not going to happen immediately. Sam and I have two rifles and a pistol, and I'm hoping that Artemus and Frank Harper might be able to help us get more. But I need to talk to Artemus again, and that's going to be difficult to accomplish. We have to not only get more weapons, but coordinate our moves with Artemus and Frank."
"Any idea when this will happen?" merchant Simon Dahlen asked. He had appreciated hearing that his wife was doing well.
Jim could only shake his head. "Soon, we hope. Having the second agent in with my partner is a big help, but they both have to be careful. If Hammer figures out that Artemus is lying, and that Frank is not who he's portraying, both will be in serious difficulty. Hammer has too many men, as you all well know. This all has to be staged carefully. We also need to make sure we have enough flour or cornstarch."
Jim and Sam decided to take Mabel's offer to stay the night in the valley. Jim was thinking of the older man primarily, but when he awakened in the morning, he realized how much sleeping in a real bed refreshed him as well; that along with a couple of good meals. A good wash and a shave helped too. He was able to procure his own clothes from Mabel, feeling more comfortable clad in his accustomed garb, and arranged for the other men from Desert Springs to obtain theirs. That was an important part of the plan. While he did not have his six-gun, the knife was still in the little pocket at the back of the coat, and the explosives secreted in his boot heels appeared to have remained dry. Best of all the custom-made boots simply felt good on his feet.
Artemus found it very difficult to disguise his disappointment, and was not entirely successful. When Marius Hammer inquired whether he was feeling well, Artie frankly responded that while the chance to go into town had been reinvigorating, it had also aroused memories of his last moments with his best friend. Hammer nodded soberly, but confidently once more assured Artemus that such feelings would be dulled by time.
Frank had been disappointed as well as a bit puzzled. He had been certain they would encounter Sam Neville in Desert Springs. "It was my impression that was on Jim's mind when I talked to him," he said in a low voice as they walked back toward the Hammer house, ever conscious of the man on horseback following them.
"Something must have come up," Artie murmured. "Let's hope it was something… good." He half expected to be greeted at the house with news that Jim West had been discovered alive—and killed again. That did not happen, so he kept his hopes up that whatever had occurred to change Jim's plans had been important.
They did manage to have a few words with Mira at the restaurant, but she had little to tell them other than she had spoken with Sam the previous day. She would not be returning to the hidden valley for another few days. She also refused to tell them how to access the valley other than jumping into the icy pool.
Hammer was still experiencing setbacks with his experiments and both Artie and Frank expressed their concern and sympathy, plying Hammer with useless questions about whether this was going to delay the implementation of his plans. Of course it was! When Artemus saw Hammer's annoyed glance after such a question, he changed his tactics to become overly helpful, but doing it in a manner so that Hammer either did not realize it or was trying to disguise his own ignorance regarding some of the questions and ideas Artie was posing.
Having had trouble falling asleep due to his busy thoughts, Artemus felt as though he had just dozed off when he heard his name spoken softly. His eyes popped open and he stared up at the figure leaning over his bed, illuminated by the moonlight filtering in through the window. "Jim!" He wondered afterwards how he prevented himself from shouting the word. It came out as a hoarse whisper. "What are you doing here?"
"Came to talk," Jim replied nonchalantly, seating himself on the side of the bed.
Artie pushed himself to a sitting position, still gaping. "You have your clothes…"
"We went into the valley," Jim replied. "Talked Mother Angel into cooperating. She's going to allow the rescued men to come out and help us."
"Wait, one thing at a time. How did you get in? Why did you come?"
"That's two things, Artie." Jim grinned briefly before continuing. "The boys outside are back to their usual carelessness in performing their sentry duties. An active poker game is going on in the sentry's shack. And the one downstairs is sleeping very deeply right now. As to why I came—that seems obvious."
Artie sighed. His partner would never change—thank heavens! "Okay. What do you have in mind?"
They talked for about ten minutes and Artemus agreed with almost everything Jim and Sam had set up. He voiced one objection, which Jim sloughed off. "If we work it right," Jim said, "They won't have time to start shooting."
But if they do start shooting, you'll be the target, James. Artemus knew it would be useless to protest further. The plan was basically a good one, and the surprise factor could ensure its success. "I, um, presume you'll keep Sam out of it."
Jim sighed, shaking his head. "I'll try. He's damn stubborn, Artie. I don't think I've ever met anyone as mule-headed and determined to be in the thick of things!"
Look in the mirror, Jim. He could not say anything right now, turning his gaze away lest Jim spot the guilt he always experienced where Sam Neville-Nevin West was concerned. Some day Jim was going to learn the truth. What would happen then was anyone's guess. I should never have made that promise to Sam… but it's too late now.
Artie assured Jim he would pass on the information about the plans to Frank, and they would be ready to move. "The men in the valley are itching for action," Jim told his partner. "It'll be hard to hold them back—or send them back—once they are out."
"It may work. The surprise factor may be all that's needed." Artemus frowned as he spoke. "Nonetheless, the ability to incapacitate as many men as possible would certainly help."
"Biggest problem is the lack of guns. Hammer has confiscated most of them all over the area. Mother Angel has a couple of rifles and a shotgun—but little ammunition for them. I hope to get some help from the folks out in the valley, but I have none to pass onto you."
Artie frowned. "I'm sure there must be a cache of weapons and ammunition somewhere, perhaps in this house. I suspect the cook might know. She provided false information the other night after you left, telling Hammer she had heard someone go through her kitchen."
"Sam mentioned the cook. He met her in the mercantile a couple of times. Seemed to be passing on information about what was occurring here. She might be someone to talk to, Artie."
"I have been trying. She comes out only to serve food, usually—and the couple of times I've found an excuse to go into the kitchen she hasn't been alone."
"All right. For now, we'll work on the premise of not having a surplus of weapons. Surprise will be our best offense. It's up to you and Frank to set it up."
"I can start tomorrow morning. You don't happen to have that five-dollar gold piece with you, do you?"
Multa trepidus solet Detegere vultus.
[The fearful face usually betrays great guilt.]
— Thyestes (CCCXXX), Seneca (c. 4 BC-65 AD), Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, dramatist, and humorist
"Mr. Gordon," Mr. Finch spoke solicitously, "you don't seem to be yourself this morning."
"I noticed that," Hammer said, lowering his coffee cup to its saucer. "Are you feeling well, Artemus?"
Artie smiled wanly. "Just… tired. I did not sleep well. I…" He shook his head, keeping his gaze down.
When Marius Hammer appeared to accept this, Frank took it up again. "Bad dreams?"
Now Artie looked up. "Not exactly a dream. Do you believe in ghosts?"
Frank, as Finch, appeared startled. "Well, I've never seen one. I know people who claim to have. My father, for instance…"
"Ghosts are a superstition!" Hammer's voice was sharp, perhaps too sharp.
Artie sighed noisily. "I just don't know. It was… so real. I cannot forget his words!"
"What words?" Frank asked. "Whom are you talking about?"
"Another intruder?" Hammer demanded. "Why didn't you sound the alarm?"
Artie affected a sickly smile. "Not an intruder. Not like the other night, Mr. Hammer. This was… Jim West. My partner."
Hammer's frown was deep. "What do you mean? He's dead!"
"I know, I know. Lord help me, I know! But he—his spirit—came to me last night. I awakened and he was standing beside my bed!"
"That was what I thought. I thought I dreamed it. It just seemed so… real. I heard him speak my name, and I opened my eyes. There he was, beside the bed, pale and… his eyes, Mr. Hammer. I cannot forget how he looked at me! So accusing, so angry."
"What did he say?" Frank asked eagerly, leaning forward, spectacles agleam in the bright morning sunlight that streamed, seemingly incongruously, through the windows. "You said you couldn't forget his words!"
For a moment, Artemus pressed his fingers to his eyes then dropped his hand, looking at his two breakfast companions. "He said… he accused me of being a traitor for… for cooperating with Mr. Hammer. I tried to tell him… but he was so angry. So angry!"
"Artemus, this was just a dream. A nightmare. You must forget it."
"I can't. I must tell you what he said, Mr. Hammer. It seems important. A warning!"
"He said that the men you had thrown into the abyss were very angry. They can't rest until they gain their vengeance. And they are going to come back for you."
"Ridiculous! Artemus, I insist…"
Artemus held up a hand. "I know, Mr. Hammer. I know how you feel. I closed my eyes, opened them again, and he was gone. I thought it must be… as you say, a nightmare. But I couldn't get back to sleep. I got up, planning to stroll around the room a bit, try to relax. Something hard and cool was under my bare foot when I stepped out of bed." Now Artie dug into an interior pocket of his jacket. "I found this." He held out his hand, palm up. The gold coin gleamed.
"That's a five-dollar gold piece," Finch stated redundantly. "Yours?"
"No," Artie spoke in a hollow tone now. "Notice the date, 1842. Two years ago I gave a five dollar gold piece to Jim for his birthday—a coin minted in the year of his birth."
"That could be any gold piece," Hammer said sharply.
"Yes… except…" Now Artemus allowed fear to appear in his eyes. "Except Jim scratched his initials, and mine, on this coin, on each of the eagle's wings. He said that symbolized our friendship, and he nearly always carried the coin with him, called it his good luck piece."
Hammer leaned forward, and now his eyes widened. The etched initials were easily visible. Now, with evident effort, he settled back. "Someone is playing a trick on you, Artemus."
"But who? Who could have known of such a thing?"
Frank spoke up eagerly. "My father was visited by the spirit of his father, my grandfather. He told Father where to find some jewelry he had buried before he died. No one knew where that treasure was hidden, but after the ghost told him, Father found it and dug it up!"
Artie could see that Hammer was rattled, though he was striving to disguise it, now waving a dismissive hand. "All coincidence. Artemus, I know you have been grieving for your friend. I'm sure you probably experience some guilt for your interest in my work. But it will pass. As I told you before, only time is needed. All of it is fresh in your mind."
"But the coin, Mr. Hammer!" Frank cried earnestly. "Where could it have come from?"
Marius Hammer leapt to his feet with such ferocity that his chair nearly fell over. He threw his napkin on the table. "How should I know? I have things to do!" He stalked from the room.
Neither man remaining at the table spoke, but the glance they exchanged spoke volumes. After a long moment, Artemus rose and went through the door to the kitchen. Hermione, the cook, was at the sink, preparing to clean up the meal's dishes, finally alone. She turned, started to say something in surprise then held her tongue as Artie held a finger to his lips. He went up to her and spoke in a low voice.
"Hermione, I'm taking a huge chance here that we can trust you. I want to know if Hammer keeps weapons and ammunition stored in the house, and where."
She answered without hesitation. "There's a padlocked door inside the pantry. I don't have a key."
He nodded with satisfaction. "That's no problem. Thank you. Please be cautious, Hermione. Some strange things may be happening over the next couple of nights. Find a safe place and remain there."
Her eyes gleamed. "Thank you, Mr. Gordon. Thank you."
Qualis pater talis filius.
[Like father, like son.]
"I had a few words with Mr. Harper," Sam said as he handed Jim the fresh canteen of water. "Seems your friend Mr. Hammer was decidedly shaken by Artemus's story about your ghost."
Jim took a long, needed drink. "Good. That helps set the stage. I'll go back to the house tonight…"
"Jamie, no. It's much too dangerous."
"It's part of the plan, Sam. Someone else besides Artie has to see my ghost."
"But some men react to apparitions by shooting at it."
"I've been shot at before. It's part of my job." Jim gazed at the older man, a trifle puzzled. "You knew it was part of the plan for me to…"
Sam waved a hand, sighing noisily. "I know, James. I know. I've read the newspaper stories about your exploits—your dangerous job. I saw what happened when you encountered Loveless. But somehow, being here, being part of it…"
Jim's smile was gentle, yet bemused. "Sam, I've tried to tell you all along this isn't something you need to be a part of. You can walk away…"
"No, I can't!"
Jim was startled by the ferocity of the statement. "Why not?"
Sam himself appeared disconcerted. He had stiffened, but now he settled back against the rock. "I guess because I don't like to quit once I'm in the game. I'm stubborn that way."
Jim laughed. "I know that feeling. It's all right, Sam. You can worry about me if you like. I don't mind. Usually it's just Artie mother-henning me. And of course, I do the same for him—though I try not to let him know." He sobered. "But I've got to get in a position for someone to see my 'ghost.' Someone else has to tell Hammer he saw me."
"I know, I know. And then all the men…"
"Right. If things go as planned, this will be over soon. Hammer will be stopped, one way or another and not only will his plans to provide this poisonous drug to evil men throughout the world not happen, but the people of Desert Springs will have their town back."
"Then you and I will go our separate ways."
Jim was surprised again, this time with the sadness he saw in Sam Neville's countenance. "I have my job to do." He was also a bit consternated to realize he was going to miss the old man as well. Sam had been good company, and a lot of help, even if he was a complete mystery.
"And so do I," Sam stated, firmly. "The sooner the better. It's been going on too long. I have to finish it, or give it up."
"And you won't tell me what it is you're seeking."
"Not yet, Jamie. Not yet."
Avaunt! and quit my sight! Let the earth hide thee!
Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood, is cold;
Thou hast no speculation in those eyes,
Which thou dost glare with!
—MacBeth (Act 3, Sc. 4), William Shakespeare (1564-1616), English dramatist and poet
Although he had been expecting it, the commotion that erupted in the darkened house awakened Artemus with a start. He leapt from bed, grabbing his robe and dashing out the door, nearly colliding with Frank. The two men exchanged a knowing glance in the dim light as they headed down the stairs, loudly demanding to know what was going on.
Marius Hammer followed them down. With his room being further back, he had not been roused quite as swiftly. The guard downstairs had apparently been the one to admit the three men who pounded on the door. Lamps were being lit in the foyer as Hammer attempted to gain control of the situation. His shouts finally penetrated the din.
"What the devil is this?" Hammer demanded. "What's the matter?"
"We saw his ghost!" a man cried. He was the scarred man who had struck Artie that day in the wagon, and whom Frank had shot in the arm.
"What are you talking about?" Hammer retorted, though Artie wondered if his complexion had not whitened a degree or two.
"West!" the man continued. "We saw him! He was all pale and…"
"You've been drinking!"
"No, sir! No, sir!" This was another man, a boney man who could have passed as a skeletal ghost himself. "We seen him, boss. I ain't never seen West alive, but I know about what he looks like. And Pete here, he knows for sure. It was West all right." His companions nodded in eager assent.
"Where was this?" Mr. Finch asked nervously, clutching his robe to his throat.
"Outside the guard shack," Pete exclaimed. "We was—we was there…uh… changing shifts. Saw this face in the window! All pale and… and… ghost-like!"
Likely playing poker again, Artie decided. "Is that all you saw? Just his face?"
"No!" Now the third man, with tightly curled dark hair, found his voice. "He come to the door! The door, it just slammed open! Never seen nothing like that, nor heard anything so loud. Like thunder it was! Right boys?"
"I'll say," Pete confirmed, his eyes still wide. "There's his ghost, face white as a sheet, eyes like fire… and he… he said… he said…" Pete could not get the words out.
The thin man spoke again. "He said we was all gonna die on account of we helped you kill him 'n' the others! Said the devil was comin' to get us and bringin' all the other dead men with 'im!"
"That's all nonsense!" Hammer spluttered. "Utter nonsense! Get back to your posts!"
"Not me!" Skinny proclaimed. "I'm gettin' my gear and clearin' out. Ain't even waitin' for the pay that's due me. I ain't gonna stick around here and wait for the devil to come get me!" He spun and stalked out the still open front door.
Artemus did not dare meet Frank's gaze now, aware that he could burst into laughter. Hammer was trying to retain his aplomb, but his eyes revealed his feelings. It had been one thing for Gordon to "dream" about his dead partner, but for other men to had seen the same apparition…
"I told you," Frank's voice quivered, "about my father seeing his father's spirit. People think there are no ghosts! But there are! They come back for a reason!"
"I just know what I saw," Pete averred. "I seen him, I heard him! Things ain't good, Mr. Hammer. You done a lot of things here and we helped you. Don't usually bother me much, this killin'. But I ain't never seen one of them come back like this! An' we know West is dead. He couldn't of survived that fall. No one could!"
"There are no such things as ghosts!" Hammer insisted, his voice taking on a shrill quality. "You heard about Gordon's dream…"
"What dream?" Curly inquired.
Artemus spoke before Hammer could silence him. "Last night I dreamed that Jim West came to my room. And he left this for me." He pulled the gold coin from his robe pocket and held it out, glittering in the lamplight. "I know it belonged to Jim. I gave it to him as a gift, and it has markings on it that he put there."
The two guards were bug-eyed as they gaped at the coin. Pete swallowed hard. "This is crazy!"
"Both of you," Hammer commanded, "go back to your posts! If Schmidt indeed leaves, roust another man to help you."
The downstairs guard had been standing by, listening avidly. Now he spoke up, though probably not in as strong a voice as he would have liked. "Mr. Hammer, I gotta go too. I ain't stickin' around with ghosts. My grandma was scared to death by a spirit. Don't want that happenin' to me!"
"Then you forfeit your pay!" Hammer screeched.
"That's okay, that's okay by me. Few dollars ain't worth bein' chased down by the devil." He thrust his rifle into Pete's hand and fled out the front door.
"Go back to your posts!" Hammer again commanded the two remaining men. "I don't want to hear any more about ghosts! Not from anyone!" His glare took in Artemus and Frank as he spun and strode for the stairway.
Pete started for the door then paused, looking at Artemus. "He really came to your room?"
"He did," Artie confirmed, displaying the coin again. "And he was angry with me. I'm having second thoughts concerning my participation in Mr. Hammer's plans."
The two guards looked at each other, then turned and trudged out the door, the slump of their shoulders revealing their reluctance to return to their duties. They would not sleep again tonight, and by tomorrow, the remaining henchmen in the bunkhouse would hear the story, which would also soon spread through the ranks in town and elsewhere.
At least apparently they were so startled no one thought to shoot at the "ghost," Artie mused with relief as he pushed the door closed and followed Frank up the stairs. Hammer, he realized, had not given any further consideration to the desertion of the interior sentry. A sign of how shaken the incident had left him.
Frank echoed his thoughts as he paused inside Artie's room before going to his own, adding, "We're off to a good start. Boys are going to be jumpy from now on, so there's no guarantee they won't start pulling their guns next time."
"I agree. Need to get word to Jim that tomorrow night has to be it while they're still very shaken up. He'll have to get the men from this hidden valley ready."
As it happened, Artemus was the one who had the opportunity to speak to Sam that following day. Hammer was so distracted after the night's incident that when Mr. Finch asked if he had any objections to them going into Desert Springs again, Hammer simply waved them away and headed for his laboratory where—he had complained shortly after breakfast—his experiments were still going awry. Artie could almost read his fears now: was the ghost interfering in his lab too?
The two agents left the house quickly, before Hammer could change his mind, or assign a guard to follow them; or, for that matter, to summon Artemus to the laboratory to help solve the problem of the experimental failures. Upon reaching town, Frank went to the restaurant in the hopes of speaking to Mira while Artemus made his way to the mercantile. He knew if Sam were going to be doing chores at the store, it would likely be in the morning. The white-haired man was stacking bags of flour on a shelf in the rear of the store.
Artie pretended to inspect some shirts nearby, whispering his report to Sam. "Jim said he thought it went well," Sam returned in a low tone. "At least no one shot at him."
"Yeah. That was my worry too. Mr. West? Are you going to tell him…"
"I can't, Artemus. Not yet. You know that if I did, he would insist on helping me find Francine Woodrow. I don't want him to give up his career. I'm all but positive she's in British Columbia. Or she was before Mother Angel kidnapped me! That's where I'm heading as soon as this is over. Maybe… maybe it'll be over."
"I hope so. Tell Jim that both Frank and I think that tonight has to the tonight, while things are still shaken up and before anyone has a chance to really consider what might be happening."
Sam glanced around, his eyes shadowed with concern. "Jim insisted on taking that horse we acquired and riding out today to try to recruit help."
Artie expelled a breath. "Sounds like Jim. Don't worry too much. Jim can take care of himself." He hoped he sounded more confident than he felt. "With any luck, the story of the ghost has spread out there and Hammer's men will be too concerned with it than watching for him or anyone else."
Sam chuckled then. "He wasn't very happy having to smear flour all over his face last night."
Artie had to smile. "No, he wouldn't. Jim doesn't mind putting on white tie and tails for a festive occasion, but that's as far as he goes for 'dress-up' occasions. The only time I can remember when he dressed up for a costume ball was under orders!"
"Sounds like me. His mother had to nag me for days to dress up in order to attend a costume ball." Sam sobered then. "Matthew has told me how Jim… suffered as a boy because of my alleged misdeeds."
Artie nodded. "I know about that. But he's a good man, Mr. West. A very good man."
"Yes. I'm proud of both my sons. Matthew overcame his early wildness and he's now a family man and learning to be a prosperous farmer. And James… I wish he was in a less dangerous profession, but I'm very proud of him."
Artemus glanced toward the front of the store where Mrs. Dahlen was selling tobacco to Hulbert, Hammer's town boss. He selected a shirt and spoke in a normal tone. "Thank you for your assistance, sir." Before turning away he whispered, "Tell Jim we'll be ready for anything tonight."
Once again Jim attempted to talk Sam into remaining in their makeshift camp, and once again the older man refused. "I'm in this all the way, Jamie," he declared. Even when Jim threatened to take the horse and leave him behind, Sam only shrugged. "I'll follow on foot."
Rather than leave him behind Jim relented, with the half-hearted thought that perhaps when they got inside the valley, he could try again. He did not altogether understand Sam Neville's insistence to be part of the plan. While it was true that Sam had been a prisoner in the valley, what occurred outside it involving Hammer had nothing to do with him.
He's attached himself to me, Jim mused as they made their way on foot in the deep twilight of the evening, leading the horse. Wanting to take no chance of being spotted, he had decided the high profile of a man—or men—on horseback was not a good idea at this point. They could not wait until full dark because of the time needed not only to enter the valley but to get the five men organized to exit with them and get close enough to Hammer's home to carry out the plan.
He had had some success today in contacting men around the valley to ask for help. Four ranchers had agreed to try to meet and assist. A couple said they would bring as many of their hired hands as possible, and three of the men admitted they had arms and ammunition that Hammer's bullyboys had not seized. All four promised to try to contact other ranches that Jim was unable to get to. The fact that several of their friends from town—men who they thought had died fighting for them—were still alive helped convinced them to become involved. Jim West being a government agent was another factor. He had told them to gather at a point—well away from the tunnel to Eden—at one in the morning.
Russ Kelsey and the other men were eagerly waiting the return of the agent, and ready to go. They had checked the few weapons Mother Angel had on hand, making sure they were usable. They had also shaved and trimmed their hair so as to appear more closely to what they had looked like at the time of their "execution." Jim was surprised to learn that three longtime residents of Eden had decided to join the foray. One was Bert, the thin man who had told Jim how happy he was to leave the outside world behind. When asked why he was coming, he just shrugged.
"I thought it over. I got folks and friends out there in the world. Hearing what this Hammer fellow wants to do—who's to say his poison won't fall into the hands of someone who wants to conquer this country? More I thought about it, more I knew I had to do something. Long as I can come back here afterwards." Jim assured him of that.
The other two men felt similarly. They did not want to desert Eden and Mother Angel, but they also wanted to help protect former acquaintances out in the "world." One had participated in the recent war and did not like the idea of someone with bad intentions having an opportunity to undo what he had fought for. Jim warned them of the possible dangers. "If all goes as planned, everything should occur smoothly. But I know from experience, that does not always happen."
Mabel was still reluctant to allow the men to leave, both those who were her willing disciples and those she had rescued and compelled to remain. But she appeared to realize the situation was out of her hands now. She wished them luck and told all they were welcome to return, while also begging them not to reveal the passageways into Eden. All gave their words.
When the men emerged from the valley and trudged the half a mile or so to the meeting point with the ranchers, they found fifteen mounted and armed men waiting for them. More than one man had secreted weapons when they learned that Hammer's men were confiscating them. They shared extras with the men from Eden. A warm reunion took place among friends who had believed those who had been taken away by Hammer were long dead.
Jim instructed the group on what had been planned, again warning them against the unexpected. "My partner and another agent are inside the house. I don't know whether they are armed. They hoped to find Hammer's storehouse of weapons, but we don't know if that happened. In any case, Mr. Gordon has some knockout gas bombs he constructed which he will utilize as far as he can. We are hoping that pure shock will work in our favor."
Artemus had been able to put together seven bombs, using the glass vials, some candle wax, and corks. Though he had not had an opportunity to test the formula, he had used chemicals in proportions that had been successful in previous bombs. One portion of the mixture was placed in the vials, sealed off with wax, then another chemical formula placed in the vial. A cork kept the mixtures secure. When the glass was broken, the two formulas would mix and explode into a noxious, anesthetic gas. He hoped.
Frank shook his head as he accepted three of the vials in the darkness of Artie's room. "They'd better work. We're going to be in a fix if not."
"Don't I know it," Artie murmured, stuffing two into each of his outside jacket pockets. "At least we have the weapons that Hermione pointed us to. But we're behind the lines, Frank. In a sense, we're the backup troops."
"Yep. And the whole thing is liable to back up onto us!" Frank grinned. "I almost wish I could be out there to see the faces on the guards when all the ghosts start marching in."
"Yeah," Artie chuckled. "That could be fun. But we should be in a position to see Hammer's reaction. By the way, I warned Hermione to get out of here, and told her that we plan to eventually destroy everything in the basement lab."
"Which might end up destroying the whole house."
"So be it," Artie said flatly. "I have a feeling the local folks would just as soon not have it around to remind them."
Downstairs, the grandfather clock struck the hour of one. "Things should be starting to move," Harper said, checking the loads in one of the pistols he had stuck in his belt.
Artie extinguished the one lamp they had lit. "As soon as we hear the commotion from outside, I'll make sure Hammer hears it and gets out there. He seems to be a fairly sound sleeper."
"Not a good thing for a man in his line of work," Frank murmured.
Who gather round, and wonder at the tale
Of horrid apparition, tall and ghastly,
That walks at dead of night, or takes his stand
O'er some new—open'd grave; and, (strange to tell!)
Evanishes at crowing of the cock.
—The Grave (l. 67), Robert Blair (1699-1746), Scottish clergyman and poet
As it happened, the white-faced ghosts appeared just as the guards around the house were changing shifts, so that six men were at the little shack when the five apparitions walked over a nearby rise. One of the sentries noticed them and let out a yell. Pandemonium occurred, as two of the men simply turned and ran, one froze in place, and the other three continued to holler until one pulled a gun as started shooting.
Jim had figured, and hoped, that in their fear and excitement, they would shoot wildly, and that's what happened. The shots flew well above the five former victims of Hammer's brutality. He was glad to see that none flinched, but simply stood still. The shots would bring others running from the bunkhouse as well as, presumably, Marius Hammer.
In the house, the two agents heard the ado. Artemus immediately stepped out into the hallway and was prepared to go pound on Hammer's door; however, the mastermind was already emerging, tying the belt to his robe and demanding to know what was going on.
"I don't know, Mr. Hammer," Artie said nervously.
At that moment, Mr. Finch burst from his room, attired in his nightshirt, eyes wide with terror. "He's out there! They're all out there! I saw them!"
"What are you talking about?" Hammer demanded.
"The ghost! The ghost that Mr. Gordon saw! You can see him from the window! Come on!" Frank grabbed Hammer's arm unceremoniously and dragged him in through the door, ignoring Hammer's angry protests. "Look! Look! That must be him! Mr. Gordon? Is that him?"
Artie bent to the window, gasped loudly. "Yes! That's Jim! And I see Russ Kelsey with those men. Look, Mr. Hammer! Are those the other men you murdered?"
Hammer was like a statue, staring through the opened window. The shouts and gunfire from his hired men had diminished, but Artie could see that they were still by the gate, and more men had joined them. Good. One of us needs to get out there with the gas bombs.
"That can't be," Hammer was muttering. "Can't be! They're dead! All of them!"
"Ghosts!" Frank screeched. "Coming back for vengeance!"
Artie caught his fellow agent's eye. "I have to talk to Jim! I have to make him understand it's not my fault!" He spun and started toward the hallway, glancing back to see that Frank had grabbed hold of Hammer again and was keeping him in place, still yammering about ghosts and vengeance. Hammer seemed to be torn between wanting to remain and watch and the desire to be elsewhere, whether back in his room under the bed or out with his men, Artie could not say.
The interior guard had gone outside when he heard the shouting, of course, so Artie just hurried out the open front door, pulling two glass vials from each pocket as he sprinted down the path. He counted about a dozen men within view at the gates, which would be a little more than half of the number who stayed at the bunkhouse at any given time. Chances were others were off to the side—or had already fled. One side of the gate was standing half open. No shots were being fired now. Very likely the guards realized—or thought they did—that their bullets were not going to harm these haunts.
No one noticed him as he approached the gate, their eyes fixed on the spectral figures on the rising ground beyond. Artie had to smile inwardly as he looked at the "ghosts." Their flour-whitened faces almost seemed to glow in the pale moonlight. And they simply stood there, staring toward the house, as if impervious to bullets. Likely the shots fired at them had been wild.
These had better work as advertised. With that grim thought, Artemus stepped through the open gate and tossed the tubes from each hand, one at a time, trying to space them so as to take in the entire group. He heard the glass smash, saw the vapors immediately start to ascend among the men who were still gathered in the spot. Coughing began, and Artie experienced the sting in his eyes as he turned and started back toward the gates.
Just then, one of the men caught by the gas stumbled toward him, reaching blindly. Artie sidestepped easily, and almost instantly realized his mistake. He should have shoved the man aside, for his stumbling steps took him to the opened gate, where he fell against it, and pushing it shut. With alarm, Artie heard the latch snap shut amid all the coughing and moans from the now staggering men around him.
He took a deep breath and immediately coughed as the gas reached his lungs. He felt the other effects of the fast-acting anesthetic as he grabbed for the bars of the gate and tried to find a latch. Too late, Artemus… you made the gas too good… and he sank into blackness.
On the hill, Jim saw his partner emerge through the gates and hurl the gas bombs. He also saw how Artemus was suddenly trapped, and how he collapsed with the other men who were falling to the ground. That had better be working just as it was supposed to, Artie. Jim was all too aware that's without his usual laboratory equipment and the ability to test his creations, Artemus had simply mixed up what he thought would work. If it was too strong…
Nothing he could do about it right now. Instead he turned and yelled behind him. The ranchers and their men rode forward, guns at the ready. The "ghosts" leaped on behind the riders and they headed for the house. Upon gaining the front gate, Jim jumped down and ran to his partner, a quick check revealing Artie was simply in a deep sleep. He turned to find Sam beside him.
"Stay with him, Sam? Will you?"
Sam Neville nodded. "Go on, Jim. Don't let Hammer get away."
"Hopefully Frank has him," Jim muttered as he pushed the gates open and waved his companions through. Hammer's men stationed in town would have heard the gunfire and could be showing up at any moment now. They needed to have Marius Hammer in hand before he could order those men to help him. With Hammer as a prisoner, likely those men would either surrender or flee.
Those hopes were dashed a moment later as they neared the porch and the front door opened. Frank emerged first, and right behind him, twisting the agent's arm painfully behind him, Marius Hammer was pointing a small gun at Harper's head.
"Stop! All of you! Stop!" Hammer yelled. "Stop or I'll kill him!"
Jim held up his hand and the men behind him came to a halt. "Give it up, Hammer. You can't win now."
"You're not a ghost," Hammer sneered, "but I'll soon make your friend one. I want to know how you survived, but you can tell me later. Drop your guns, all of you."
"No deal," Jim replied quietly. "If you kill Mr. Harper, twenty guns will cut you down. These men have reason to hate you, Hammer. They have no reason to worry about Mr. Harper." Jim wondered intensely how Hammer got the best of Frank, but that could come later.
"My men are coming from town," Hammer responded. "And more from the valley. I don't know what you did to those at the gate…"
"You underestimated Mr. Gordon," Jim replied calmly. He saw that Frank's free hand was slowly sneaking into his jacket pocket. "He's a fine agent, and excellent scientist—and an even better actor."
"I won't bother with the pit this time," Hammer barked. "All of you—all of you—will face the firing squad, immediately!"
Jim heard the uneasy shifting of feet behind him, but did not turn around. Russ, he knew, was at his shoulder. The others were not lawmen, not fighters, even if they had served in the recent war. He also heard the distant approach of horses, coming fast, from the direction of town. They did not have much time. Come on, Frank. Make your move!
Even as the thought coursed through Jim's mind, Frank's hand jerked from the pocket and he threw the glass tubes toward the hard wood of the porch. They smashed at his feet, immediately enveloping both captor and captive in a miasma of gas. Jim turned, waving his men back, while yelling for them to take up positions on the wall. He saw Sam dragging Artemus through the gate, and turned back to look toward the two men on the porch.
Frank was on his hands and knees, barely conscious, while Hammer had staggered back toward the house's door. As Jim watched, he stumbled through it. Jim immediately dashed after him, holding his breath as he passed through the film of mist still remaining. Hammer had gained the stairway and was hanging onto the banister. He still held his weapon. Somehow he had resisted the effects of the gas, at least to this point.
"Drop your gun, Hammer!" Jim commanded. "It's all over!"
Hammer turned, bringing the gun up. Even as he did so, however, his knees started to buckle, the anesthetic finally numbing his senses. The gun went off, but harmlessly into the wall. Jim hurried forward to grab it then checked Hammer. He was completely unconscious.
Good. You need to stand trial, Hammer. And then you can hang!
He ripped off the cords from the drapery in the front parlor and used them to bind Marius Hammer securely, hearing the gunshots outside as he did so. The men from town had arrived. Back on the porch, he found Frank Harper completely unconscious now as well. He dragged Frank over behind sturdy bench, which he tipped to create a strong barrier then raced out to the wall.
"How many are out there?" he asked Russ Kelsey.
"I'd say at least twenty," Russ replied. "Man for man, it's pretty even. However, I'm pretty sure they have better weapons and more ammunition than we do. I've told the boys to go sparingly, make their shots count. Chances are that men out in the valley—on both sides—will hear the gunfire."
"Yeah," Jim breathed. "I have to make them understand it's over, that Hammer is finished. Got a white handkerchief on you?"
"Jim, they'll shoot you down, white flag or not!"
"I've got to chance it," Jim replied grimly. "If we can convince them to surrender—or at least quit the game and go elsewhere—before others arrive, we'll be all right."
Russ did not have a white cloth, nor did anyone else nearby, so Jim sprinted into the house, up the stairs and into the first bedroom. He jerked the slip off a pillow, and used his knife to cut off a large square. As he returned downstairs, he found Sam Neville waiting for him.
"Is Artie all right?" Jim asked.
"Yes, he's just sleeping. Russ told me what you plan to do, Jamie. You can't."
"Yes, I can. I have to, Sam. It's part of my job. If we wait and allow the men from town and the valley to combine, a lot more people are going to be hurt. Don't worry, I'll be waving the white flag."
"I heard what Russ said to you, James. They are just as likely to shoot you down!"
"And as I told Russ, I have to chance it."
He started for the door, and the older man grabbed his arm. "Jamie…"
Jim put a hand over the one gripping his arm. "It's all right, Sam. I'll be back. I want to learn more about you. We have to have a long, quiet talk. Look after Frank and Artie, will you?"
He pulled away and strode out the door, never looking back. At the gate, he paused to yell to Russ and the men inside to stop firing, and then waved the white cloth out through the gate's vertical bars. "I want to talk!" he called.
"Come on out!" a voice yelled back. "Leave your gun behind!"
"Jim, don't!" Russ warned.
Jim ignored him, tossing his pistol on the ground and pushing through the gate, still holding the white cloth high. The gassed men were still out cold on the ground. He crossed the open ground toward the higher area where the "ghosts" had originally appeared, which the men from town has co-opted for their own use.
Hulbert rose to a low crouch, keeping his rifle pointed as Jim trudged up the slope. "What the devil do you want? Why aren't you dead?"
"I'm a ghost," Jim replied drily. "I want to tell you that Hammer is a prisoner and the whole business has ended. You can surrender, or you can just leave. I don't have the manpower to hold you long."
"Then why do we have control of the house?" Jim kept his gaze steady. He noticed that other men were staring at him. He still had the flour whitening his face.
"Maybe we hold you hostage and force the boys down there to surrender."
"You can try," Jim replied easily. "But I left strict instructions that they are to ignore any such maneuvers. Two other government agents are down there in control of things. They know what they are supposed to do. My life isn't very important in the broad scheme of things. Marius Hammer had to be stopped. And he has been. His dreams of wealth and power are over. That means you don't get any share of his money either." Hulbert did not need to know that both Gordon and Harper were currently unconscious!
That statement about the money appeared to affect the men, including Hulbert, more than any other. Jim saw the men look at each other, some exchanging muttered comments. They were in it for the profit, not the power. Hammer had to have been paying them exorbitant salaries to keep them here and loyal to him. One of the men edged closer to Hulbert.
"I think he must be telling the truth, Joss."
"Don't matter," Hulbert snarled. "We were hired to do a job, and we're going to do it."
Another man shook his head. "Seems to me that job is over. I'm not looking to a prison term. Had enough of that. I'm clearing."
As that man got to his feet, Hulbert turned, also straightening, pointing his rifle. "You stay put! All of you, we're going to see this through! That's what we're paid to do!"
"Maybe you were," said still another. "But I ain't seen near half of what's been promised, and it sure looks like we ain't going to be seeing no more."
Jim acted then, while Hulbert's attention was on the men who were starting to move back the far side of the hill toward their horses. He reached over and grabbed Hulbert's rifle by the barrel, dropping his white cloth and swinging the weapon to point at Hulbert. "You boys just keep going," he said. "I can't hold you all. But I'll keep Mr. Hulbert here to stand in for the lot of you. And if you see any of your pals, tell them the same thing. More than likely, I'll run into you elsewhere in the future, but for now, you're free to go."
They went, hurrying toward their mounts and immediately galloping toward town where they likely had their gear at the hotel. Jim motioned with his rifle and the scowling Hulbert started trudging toward the house. Russ and another man opened the gate wide for them. "We took Artemus inside, Jim."
"All right. Let's gather him and Frank up, along with Hammer and these other boys, and get into town. I'm pretty sure the other men will be clearing out pronto. I don't think we'll have much of a problem with the remaining men who were out on the range either, once the word gets out. I'm going to find that laboratory downstairs and get some destruction started."
Artemus awakened in his original hotel room with the sun shining brightly through the window. For a long moment he was confused, trying to remember how he got there. Hearing a sound, he turned his head and found Nevin West seated beside his bed. The older man saw he was awakening and helped him drink some water.
"Where's Jim?" were the first words from Artie's mouth.
Mr. West smiled. "Still taking care of business. He's fine." The white haired man sighed. "Though I'm not sure why he is. He walks into the lion's den, Artemus. All the time!"
"Don't I know it? Have you…?"
"Told him. No. I can't. Not yet. But I have realized how unfair it was of me to demand your word that you would not reveal your knowledge to him. I'll leave it up to you now. Do not, by any means, let it cause a rift between you. I know how much you mean to James, and he to you."
"He's my brother," Artie said simply, swinging his legs over and sitting up. "Everything taken care of?"
"Pretty much. Jim let most of Hammer's men leave. He has Hulbert and the scarred fellow who he said was one who helped throw him in the abyss, along with those who passed out at the gate. And Hammer, of course. Poor Frank."
Artie's eyes widened in alarm. "Frank? What happened?"
Nevin chuckled. "He's very embarrassed. He said that Hammer pretended to be faint after you left the room, Frank went to help him, and Hammer got his gun—and the drop on him. When you were unconscious, Hammer brought Frank out as a hostage. Fortunately, Frank used one of the gas bombs, and put both himself and Hammer to sleep on purpose, unlike your accident. Better than being shot in the head, I guess."
"I guess," Artie chuckled, then sobered. "Mr. West, I think you need to tell Jim…"
"No." The older man's voice was adamant. "Not yet. When Mabel kidnapped me in Oregon, I was following a very strong lead. I heard that Francine was in British Columbia, and that's where I'm heading. I'm going to find her, Artemus, and she's going to confess to the murders. I'll then be free to enjoy both my sons and my grandchildren. No more lies and skulking around… that is, if Jamie will forgive me." West hesitated. "Will he?"
Artie sighed. "I really don't know. I know Jim better than anyone, but I still don't know him. He can be extremely unpredictable at times. And you know how hardheaded he can be." Now Artemus got to his feet. "For now, I guess I'd better go let Jim know I'm among the living again. Coming?"
Nevin West rose as well. "No. I have a couple of things to do. I'll see you… later."
Artemus knew better than to argue with him. He was a West, after all. After learning that Jim was probably at the sheriff's office, Artemus left the hotel and headed to that building. Jim leapt to his feet as his partner entered. "Artie! All right?"
"A little nauseous, but it'll pass. How's Frank?"
"He's still sleeping it off. Sam told you…?"
"Yes, quite a bit." Artie looked toward the heavy wooden door to the cellblock. "We got them?"
"We got them," Jim smiled grimly. "You'll be happy to know that Hammer and the other men are also not feeling too well. I was just talking to Russ about asking some federal marshals to come to help guard them."
"I lost my deputy to a young lady in the valley," Russ chuckled. "Other men will help, but I don't like to involve civilians."
"I imagine there were some happy reunions," Artie commented.
Now Russ grinned. "I could hardly get away from the house once I went to see Louisa. She's fixing me a special dinner. Similar all around town. I'm kind of glad that the family of Fred Frantz, the gunsmith, moved away. Would have broken their hearts to learn Fred didn't survive while others did. The judge didn't have any family, here or elsewhere, as far as I ever knew."
"Gone," Jim replied. "The entire house with it. I cleared everyone out and set a small stick of dynamite I found with a long fuse. I couldn't see any reason to save anything. It all needed to be destroyed."
"Exactly. That means that all of Hammer's notes went up with it. Wouldn't want anyone to even begin to suspect how he was preparing those formulas."
Jim cocked his head. "You read his notes…"
"And they are locked up here," Artie replied, tapping his head. "I'll never attempt to duplicate them. Never."
Jim just nodded. "Where's Sam? He said he was going to sit with you until you woke up."
"Uh, yeah. He was there. I told him to… go get a cup of coffee." I sure can't tell Jim that Sam is taking off again without saying goodbye! "Are you going back to the hidden valley? I'd like to get a look at it."
Russ got to his feet. "We were just talking about that, Artemus. The three men from there went back early this morning, but I think we should go talk to Mother Angel."
"I agree," Jim said, rising. "You feel up to riding out there, Artie?"
"As long as we don't have to go through the abyss to get there!"
As Mira stood nearby, sadness on her pretty face with the realization that Jim would be leaving, Mother Angel attempted once more to persuade Jim to remain as part of her colony, and upon viewing his partner, tried to engage him as well. "You'll have the wife of your choice, Mr. Gordon."
Artie laughed. "I've already got one of those waiting for me, a very lovely lady I expect to marry."
They promised to keep the entrances to her sanctuary secret, so long as they did not receive any reports that she kidnapped prospective members. "I wish Sam had come back with you," Mabel sighed. "I know I could have persuaded him to stay. Will you tell him to come say goodbye?"
"We will," Jim assured her, while Artemus remained silent. He was certain that "Sam Neville" was miles away by now, heading north.
Arcanum neque tu scrutaveris ullius unquam, commissumve teges et vino tortus et ira.
[Never inquire into another man's secret; but conceal that which is entrusted to you, though pressed both by wine and anger to reveal it.]
— Epistles (I, 18, 37), Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus; 65-8 BC), Roman lyric poet
"Will you tell me, James," Artemus Gordon said as he pulled off his cloak and hat, shaking the accumulated snow off them out the still open door of the varnish car, "why we came to Denver in December?"
Jim glanced up from the book he was reading while sprawled on the sofa. A glass of wine was at his side and a nice fire crackled in the nearby fireplace. "To pick up our mail?"
Artie sighed as he closed the door against the falling snow and hung up his cloak and hat, then picked up the laden burlap sack he had dropped on the floor. "Next time let us not wait three months! And remind me not to draw cards against you to see who gets to go pick it up."
Jim smothered a grin. Artie liked to complain sometimes. "Well, you got to ride in a nice enclosed hack all the way, didn't you?" He sat up.
"Not exactly. It was a hack and it was supposed to be enclosed but Colorado winter winds laugh at supposedly closed-in spaces. At least it's cozy in here." He put the bag on the floor again and turned to warm his hands against the fire. "I did get a look at a newspaper in the post office when I was waiting. Marius Hammer was hanged two days ago."
"Good." The clipped word matched Jim's grim face. They had testified against the madman, heard the defense lawyer plead that his client was not in his right mind and deserved leniency. Thankfully, the jury and judge had not seen it that way. Jim West had been a long while shaking the memory of that plunge into the abyss.
Picking up the bag, Artie came over to sit on the sofa beside his partner and pulled out a handful of the amassed mail, handing it to Jim before taking another for himself. For the next few minutes they sorted the items, looking particularly for personal correspondence. The packages of wanted flyers and back issues of the Police Gazette and other publications could wait.
"Letter from Lily," Artie cried happily. "And another! At least she's been writing as regularly as I've been writing to her. I'll be glad when she returns from that European tour."
"Here's another," Jim smiled, "looks like it's from Paris. And one for me from Matthew. And another…" His voice trailed off.
Artemus looked over. Jim was holding a plain white envelope. Artie could see it was addressed to James West, General Delivery, Denver. "What is that?"
"Don't know. No return address. Postmarked Seattle…. almost two months ago."
"Oh? Why don't you open it." Artemus experienced a little nervous prickle. He could think of only one man who might have been in Seattle relatively recently.
Slowly Jim put aside the remainder of the mail he had been shuffling through, and used his finger to slit open the envelope, pulling out a folded paper. As he opened the sheet, Artie saw bold writing on it. Jim's frown deepened as he read it silently.
Jim looked up. "I'm… not sure. I think it's from Sam. Sam Neville." He had been very disappointed when for the second time that man had hastily departed without saying goodbye. Disappointed, and worried enough to put out some inquiries to learn if a Sam Neville was wanted. All answers were negative; not even a man of his age and description was listed anywhere. "But it doesn't… make sense."
"What does he say?"
Jim handed the page to his partner. Artemus read aloud. "Dear Jamie. I found I needed to write this time. I could not just walk away again. I miss you very much, and those days and nights we spent together, getting to know you, are a treasure in my memory. I am very proud of you. I know your mother would be too. You and Matthew are all any parent could want in sons. The time is coming when I will be able to come to you openly and talk about all that went before. The man you know as Sam, with love." Artie looked up but did not say anything further.
Perhaps hearing it read aloud changed or clarified the meaning. Jim's eyes suddenly widened, and his complexion grew nearly as pale as when he had worn the flour dusting to imitate a ghostly specter. "Oh my God!" his voice was a hoarse whisper. "Artie… that was… he was..." Jim sprang to his feet. "My God! Sam is my father! Sam Neville is Nevin West!"
Artie found he had nothing to say. He lowered his gaze to the page he still held, and knew that Jim was staring at him, waiting. Seconds ticked by. He heard Jim's harsh breathing as he attempted to gather his wits after this astonishing revelation.
I have to do it. I have to tell him. Regardless of the consequences…
Artemus lifted his eyes. "I know."
The two words did not immediately register in Jim's still stunned brain. He continued to gape at his friend. Then suddenly it became clear. "You knew! How!" The words were all but snarled.
Artie got to his feet. If Jim was going to slug him, this was the best position to be in. "In Mill Creek… while you were still unconscious from your wound… I suddenly realized who Sam was. I could see the resemblance, so I spoke to him. He confirmed it and begged me—swore me to secrecy—not to tell you."
Jim shook his head slowly. "Why? Why!" Anger started to boil. He never would have expected his partner, the man closer to him than even his own blood brother, to keep this important information from him.
Artie sighed heavily. "He wasn't ready. You know what Matthew told you, how your father worries about the charges against him damaging your career… your life. He asked me, and I could not say no. I'm sorry."
Jim glared at him for several long seconds, then suddenly spun and strode toward the door. For an instant, Artemus thought that his partner was going to throw himself out into the blowing snow and freezing temperatures, coatless and hatless. But Jim stopped with his hand on the latch. Again the only sounds were the crackling of the fire and the howl of the wind outside the Wanderer.
Finally he turned slowly, and lifted his gaze. "I'm sorry, Artie. I didn't mean that." Deep sorrow was in his green eyes.
The weight of the world seemed to lift from Artemus Gordon's shoulders. "It's all right, Jim. I understand. I've wrestled with this for all this time. In Desert Springs, Sam asked me again not to tell you, but left it up to me to reveal that I had had the information all this time… or not. I first thought I could never tell you. But in the end, I had to."
Jim walked back toward the sofa, picked up the discarded envelope. "Seattle. We're not that far…"
"Jim, it was mailed two months ago! Sam told me that at the time Mother Angel shanghaied him he had had a strong lead on Francine Woodrow, the woman he believes committed the robbery and murders in New York. He went back there after Desert Springs, hoping to pick up the trail again. From the sound of this note, he did." Artie smiled slightly. "He could be on his way here, or he could be stuck in the snow—just like we are."
Jim looked toward the window, where the snow was still swirling and all was gray and white. "Yeah." I'm not thinking clearly. But my father… after all these years…
"At least you did spend that time with him, Jim," Artie said softly. "I think you learned a lot about each other. He's quite a fine man." And has quite a fine son.
Jim's smile began slowly, and widened. "Yeah, I guess so. Never flinched once when we had to face problems and danger. My god, if he had been killed…"
Artie knew what Jim was thinking. If "Sam Neville" had died in Desert Springs, he might never have known that the white haired man was his father. I'm not sure if I could have told him.
Jim cleared his throat, took the letter from Artie and put it back into the envelope. "Well, spring may bring some interesting developments. But we have a lot of mail to sort through, Artemus. Let's get to it."