Teaser ~~~

"This is a bad idea!" groused Artemus Gordon.

"You said that already," his partner James West pointed out. "Daily, ever since we started on this trip."

"Yeah, and I'll continue to say it: it's a bad idea! Bad, bad, bad!"

"Don't hold back, Artie. Tell me how you really feel."

Artie shot Jim a look, then held up a hand. "Item:" he said, touching the little finger first. "The State Department received a letter reporting that the American inhabitants of the Coral Island, who are generally missionaries with their wives and children, have all been kidnapped and will be killed. Now the letter," and here he touched his ring finger, "was written more than two months before it was received, having been in transit all that time, crossing the Pacific to California, and from there to Washington. This letter," and he moved on to the third finger, "specifies that you and I, and you and I only! are to serve as negotiators to, we hope, bring about the freedom of the captive Americans. And so here we are," and this brought him to the index finger, "en route to the Coral Island, crossing the Pacific, having added with our journey yet another two months to the time since the Americans were originally taken hostage! Four months, Jim! Anything could have happened to those poor people in that time. And there's no way for us to know what's going on. There's no way to get fresh news aboard this bucket out here in the middle of the ocean. We are going to walk off this ship and into a situation about which we will not have a clue. I don't like that, Jim. You know I don't like it!"

"I know, Artie, I know. Anything could have happened, from the release of them all unharmed, to the slaughter of them all without pity. And we won't know until we get there. So we'll have to be ready for anything."

"Well, well, yeah!" said Artie, somewhat mollified by Jim's calm demeanor. He leaned on the railing for a bit, staring out at the endless view of ocean surrounding them, before adding, "And you know what really gets me, Jim?"

Oh, Jim knew all right. This too Artie had been haranguing about ever since they had embarked on this assignment. Jim said nothing, but his lips moved silently as Artie said the words, the same first five words as always.

"It's that little weasel, Jim. His Highness Prince Creepy. I'm sure he's behind all this. You know how he played us for saps before, trying to infuriate his papa the king - and make us look like dolts in the bargain - when the king sent Princy-boy to Washington to sign that treaty. Well, the treaty was signed all right, but I bet you dollars to donuts, little Mr Prince is back of this too, pulling all the strings, trying to manipulate his papa all over again. And he said - straight out said! - that some day he'd get you onto that island of his and take you on a hunt. And you know what the little savage meant by that too!"

Jim nodded. Yes, he knew. The previous hunt the Crown Prince of the Coral Island had taken Jim on had involved Jim himself being the prey, a "two-legged buffalo" as the Prince had termed him. He wasn't looking forward to the twists this case might take any more than Artie was. He just wasn't as vocal in his apprehensions as his partner.

One of the ship's officers walked up just then and cleared his throat. "Gentlemen," he said, gesturing them toward the bow of the ship, "I believe you will be pleased to know that we have sighted land." He led the way forward, and shortly the three were gazing out on what looked like little more than a cloud on the horizon. "The Coral Island, gentlemen. We should make port before evening."

Another man, dressed in the uniform of a Marine, was already at the railing. "Afternoon, gentlemen," he said. Nodding at the misty distance, he added, "So we're nearly there?"

"It looks like it, Major Riordan," said Jim.

"And high time, too," put in Artie, adding hastily, "Ah - no offense meant, Lieutenant Keighley. I know the ship has been taking us there as quickly as possible."

"None taken," said the lieutenant. "We all want to know what's been happening and the fate of the Americans there." And with a farewell of "Gentlemen," the young ship's officer strode away.

"Not much longer now," Jim said to Artie, "We'll soon know what's really going on there."

Artie nodded glumly. "Yeah. For better or worse."

"Yes, and if it is worse," said the major, "my men and I will be ready to assist. After all, that's why the President provided you with a company of Marines."

"Thank you, Major. I just hope it won't have to come to that."

"Yeah," Artie agreed. "The last thing we want to do is start a war with an ally…"