James West woke up in pitch black darkness, his arms chained above his head and the rocky surface of a cave wall poking him in the back.
This was the fifth "wall-a'chaining" (as Artie had dubbed it) to happen in the past year. Dungeons, ship cabins, opium dens, you name it, he’d been fastened to it. It was getting so that Artie had started muttering under his breath about “unconscious fetishes” and stopped including them in his reports.
Jim though was grateful for the little things. Whoever they were had left him his shirt for once, even if they had taken his jacket. He took a big calming breath of cool cave air and started to take stock of his injuries.
Did he smell… beer?
Disguised as a prospector, Artimus Gordon sat in a rat-hole of a saloon and pretended to be just as mesmerized by the whiskey-seller as the other prospectors were.
"Sir, this is the finest distilled spirits ever to grace a man's gullet! Only the best grain is used, only the clearest spring water..."
The bartender, a weary soul name of Joe Parker, was only giving half an ear to the man’s pitch. Judging from Artie's wary taste of his own drink, Parker made his own rotgut in the cellar. Not the the best “whiskey” he ever had, but not the worst either --- certainly not like the poison that had been making its way lately from Colorado towards California. It wasn’t until several semi-important people died mysterious deaths in some otherwise upstanding brothels that Washington took an interest and sent its best agents. Counterfeit is counterfeit after all, whether it’s money or booze.
The trail had led 20 miles outside of Leadville, Colorado to this smallish prospecting shanty town going by the rather hopeful name of Hazelnut. He and Jim had split up--- Jim to scout follow the river and scout the area, Artie to see what the local flavor was. Hazelnut Saloon’s trade whiskey was passable, and the beer not bad.It was no better than this crowd was used to.
The hooch-shill was going for the big rapturous big finish and called the faithful to the sacrament. “A free sample for everyone here!”
Oh, this would not end well.
Jim breathed the hoppy aroma and smiled. Yes, defiantly beer. Somebody’s lagering cave, perhaps. Filing that away, he took a quick stock of himself; his jacket (and jacket tools) were gone; boots intact and his feet for once flat on the ground; his guns, gone, of course.
He saw the kegs now, in the growing light coming from his left. At least a hundred were stacked along the right forming a solid wall of oak.
As the light grew brighter two sets of footsteps could be heard coming toward him.
“Hello, Mr. West. Enjoying the accommodations?” called out a familiar high-pitched and hated voice.
“Hello, Dr. Loveless," Jim sighed. "What brings you to these parts?”
“Always so polite, Mr. West. It is always such a comfort, your consistency.”
Dr. Miguellito Loveless emerged further into the pool of light formed by the lanterns held by his oversized assistant Voltaire.
Back at the Hazelnut Saloon, festivities were in full swing. All the miners were shouting the praises of this new coffin varnish, some shamelessly angling for another shot. Others were saying some despairing words about the present quality of the house whiskey and the barkeep looked to be edging toward his rifle.
It appeared that a distraction, a diffusion of tension was in order. Artie scratched at his beard where the spirit gum was itching, straightened out his ragged suit and stood on his chair.
“I’ve had better!” he bellowed in his best back-of-house voice.
Silence and the full attention of his audience. Ah, Gordon, you still got it.
“Mind you”, he continued, “it ain’t panther piss, but it ain’t much better than what’s already on offer here.”
“Panther WHAT?” squawked the hooch-shiller.
Artie Gordon, late (very late) of the boards of Chicago, knew a cue when he heard one. He cleared his throat and started to sing:
“Panther piss, panther piss!
Spit it out and hear it hiss
It’s pure bliss, little miss
Taste my kiss of panther piss!”
An old coot with three teeth and a beard down to his belt picked up the chorus. After several choruses of “Panther Piss” someone dug out a moth eaten banjo, a hootinanny broke out. The shaken salesman was escorted back to his mule and kegs by a fuming barkeep. Artie followed at a discrete distance pretending to relieve himself.
“Dr. Loveless said ya weren’t to bring that shit here, Parker hissed into the shiller’s ear. “now, git!”
Huh. Loveless. That explained so much.
Artie patted his kit bag, which contained the samples of the whiskey he pretended to drink, along with his portable testing kit. Nothing seemed wrong with the crappy house liquor except, of course, it was crap. But this new stuff seemed to produce… euphoria, it seemed. And off-key singing.
He watched the shiller ride away, wandered over to the barkeep, relieved him of his rifle at the same time he flashed his secret service badge.
“Why don’t we have a little talk about Dr. Loveless,” he said in his “serious” voice. The one that Jim said sounded like a grizzly reciting Shakespeare.
“My mother always taught me to mind my manners,” Jim replied evenly. He rattled the chain on his left wrist pointedly. “What did you mother teach you?”
Loveless’ faced darken at so personal an insult. “Let’s leave family out of it, shall we? What do you think of my little brewhouse?”
“It’s like a little bit of Belgium. Tell me, why bother with beer when you have so much lethal whiskey to pass around?”
“Oh, did you like that?” Loveless clapped hiss hands with childlike glee. “Whiskey is such a fine transport substance. The substandard stuff your average cowpoke throws down his gullet is already half poison. I mean, gunpowder! Strychnine! It boggles the mind! So, with just a small bit of tweaking and a little imagination, it's the assassination weapon that people will PAY to throw down their gullets”. He pouted suddenly. “The drawback is that those throats belong to nobodies.”
“Hence the beer?”
“Yes!” cried Loveless. “It crosses every social stratum! Also, it was a greater challenge to make potable ale”.
Loveless huffed and paced in an agitated little circle. “Congratulations would have been in order if you hadn’t done your usual meddling, Mr. West. Now I’ll have to get rid of it all, before that annoying partner of yours shows up. But on the bright side, I’ll be rid of you as well. Farewell, Mr. West”.
Voltaire started placing and wiring explosive charges. Loveless smartly saluted with his cane and moved out of the cave as fast as his little legs could carry him.
The second Voltaire disappeared around the bend, carefully trailing the charge wire, Jim gripped the chains and looked at his boots. This had better work, Artie.
It took a gratifyingly short time for Parker to spill all. Seems that Loveless had made a deal with Parker that guaranteed him a bit of cash and a barrel of untainted real whiskey if he’d keep an eye on the river for the unusual and an ear to any rumors about tainted hooch in the area. Parker then cut his free whiskey with his “homebrew”--- a mix of river water, burnt sugar, tobacco, sulfuric acid and moonshine--- doubling his stock and reputation.
Artie had no remorse at all in cold cocking the bastard and leaving him behind the saloon, while his oblivious customers help themselves to his stock.
The following happened in exactly one minute:
With the toe of his right boot, Jim moved a slide in the heel of his left then, repeated the action for his other side. The Silver tips popped off, revealing three inches of a rope like putty nestled in each toe. Grabbing the chains above the cuffs, Jim gracefully pulled his legs up until that putty contacted the chain several inches above each hand. Just hold it there for fifteen seconds, James my boy. It’s meant to stick to pig iron. After a fizzle and a pop and the stench of hot metal, the chain came away with a good pull. Jim was running along the charge wire to safety.
He almost made it to the entrance when the cave exploded.
The black stallion was found not to far upriver. Artie tied up his roan next to it and was about to call out for West when he heard Loveless yelling up ahead.
“No, no, No, you dolt!” screamed the little genius. “This wire fastens HERE and this one HERE!”
Creeping forward past the brush, Artie spied Loveless and Voltaire hunched over a plunger-box by a cave. He knew like he knew his own mama that his partner was in that cave because, really, where else would he be?
Drawing his pistols, he called out “Freeze!” about the same time that a muffled WHUMP! came from the cave.
“It’s too late now Mr. Gordon!” crowed Loveless. “Too late… ACK!”
A huge head of foam blew from the cave mouth straight at them. Voltaire grabbed his master and hightailed it to higher ground. Artie leapt back several yards away from the amber colored flood streaming past him.
He spotted a bit of blue. “JIM!”
But Jim West had already grabbed a sapling and hauled himself upright. Soon there was nothing left of the torrent but beer stinking mud, scattered pieces of oak barrels and a panting soaking partner.
“Jim, are you alright?” asked Artimus.
“Fine, just winded. Had to hold my breath.”
“Huh. It’s not like you to turn down free booze, James my boy. Come on, Loveless is getting away!”
“Artie”, said Jim, grabbing his partner’s arm. “I was holding my breath because something was in that beer. And now most of it’s in the river. What’s down stream of here?”
“A cozy little hell hole called Hazelnut,” sighed Artie. “And a bunch of prospectors panning for gold by this river right about now.”
They got to Hazelnut after a hard twenty minute ride, passing several deserted panning sites. It was pretty much as it was earlier at noon; several men in the saloon, several men loitering on the dirty street.
“Well,” said Artie, finally peeling off the cursed false whiskers. “Maybe the river diluted whatever chemi…”
Shambling toward them from the direction of the river, three miners jerkily moved toward them. Their eyes were glazed and unseeing, their mouths slack and drooling…
Much like any trio of drunks, really.
“That’s new”, observed Artie.
“That’s not”, said Jim, pointing to the roof of Lucky’s Saloon.
On it were Loveless and Voltaire, the little doctor sitting on the giant’s shoulders and peering through brass binoculars while his huge assistant balanced himself on the peak.
“Ha, Mr. West! Can you defeat my army of drunkards?”
Two more men had come up the street, as bad off as the others.
“I’ve seen something like this in New Orleans once” Artie said. “Only more menacing and less pathetic. I think my Great Aunt Maude could defeat your army.”
“Wish they’d quit that”, said Jim. Seven more drunks emerged, bringing the total up to an even dozen.
“Oh, bother”, said Loveless from his perch. “I’d hoped they’d be faster.”
“Drunkards aren’t exactly known for their speed,” called up Jim.
“I actually think they’re slowing down.” said Artie.
Okay, guess when they finally get here, we’ll fight them,” Jim shrugged. “Although it hardly seems sporting.”
“NO!” screamed Loveless above them. “Where are the others? There are a hundred men in this camp! Where is my army of drunkards?”
The inebriated prospectors had shambled to a halt by this time. “Beeee-rrr” they moaned sadly, and as if pulled by one string, fell forward into the dirt.
“I think you overestimated the amount of water the men in this town willingly consume.” Artie said.
“Dr. Loveless,” said Jim, borrowing Artie’s gun, “are you going to come along quietly now?”
“You wouldn’t shoot unarmed men!” snarled Loveless. “Voltaire, get us away from here!”
But the big man, who had stood rock solid though all the commotion, didn’t move. He did try to speak, though.
“Voltaire, did you drink the water? I told you not to drink the water!”
“I don’t care if you were thirsty, I told you not to… Voltai…!!”
And over the other side of the roof they went.
When found on the other side of the building, Voltaire had managed to overcome his drugged lethargy and wrapped his arms protectively around his beloved master. Unfortunately for Loveless, those arms were now his prison.
“Voltaire!” Loveless’ muffled voice cried. “Let me up! Voltaire!” But the giant slumbered peacefully on.
The mop up took about a week. A long hard week of hiring a cart to take a livid Dr. Loveless and a deeply hung over Voltaire back to the Wanderer’s brig; following the river down to the (of course) Hazelnut Lake and checking the water; examining the prospectors, of whom there were exactly 56 and who all claimed to be somehow victims of the evil devil whisky water.
“When’s the last time they found gold around here?” Jim asked later on the train while Artie picked the locks on the cuffs he still had on.
“Oh, about a year ago. That’s probably when Loveless set up shop. If he wanted to keep an army here, he should have probably thrown a few nuggets in the river. There, all done. I see my iron putty worked.”
“Yes, and thanks. It’ll be handy the next time”
“Stop letting Voltaire get the drop on you and chaining you to a wall, and there won’t be a next time. And that’s not going into the report. You really should look into this fixation of yours.”
“You’ve been reading your science journals from Vienna, haven’t you?”
“Shut up James, and drink your wine”
Jim eyed the glass suspiciously. “Just wine, right?”
Artie sighed. “James, my boy, love of my life and light of my world, it’s a lovely Bordeaux from my secret stock.” He kissed the inside of Jim’s bruised wrist and added fondly, “You idiot.”