If I had known what lay in store for me that day as I limped into La Grange, Tennessee, I may just have turned north and kept on walking until I hit the Canadian border. Come to think of it, I did do that, eventually, but that comes later in the story.
Or perhaps I wouldn’t have walked away. Perhaps I would have stayed: deliberately put myself through all the pain, physical and otherwise, that befell me.
It’s a moot point, anyway, since I didn’t know what was going to happen and I couldn’t have known to avoid it.
But I should go back to the beginning, walking into La Grange, footsore and aching and more tired than I’d ever been in all my thirty-one years. Not that I’d intended to walk all the way from Atlanta, but when a troop of Confederate soldiers stops you at gunpoint and asks if they could please have your mount, you tend not to argue with them. You especially don’t argue with them if you’re on your way to defect to the Union and you want to avoid having them ask about why you’re traveling on a course that will take you towards the enemy.
No, that’s not right. I wasn’t exactly defecting, since I’d never considered the Confederate cause my own. I’d merely been born in the South and lived there most of my life, but I was far from a secessionist. I’d also always had a repugnance for the practice of owning other human beings. My family had neither the wealth nor the inclination to indulge in the practice and for that I had always been heartily glad.
When the war came, I stayed out of the army — not difficult when you’re nearly thirty years old and an actor — and joined the Peace Society, a group of like-minded Northern sympathizers. The Society didn’t allow for too much active struggle against the Confederacy. Meetings tended to consist of various members drinking whisky and making grand plans to defeat Jefferson Davis and his forces, but it was better than nothing. No, that’s not entirely fair. Some members of the Peace Society did more than talk. We helped runaway slaves get to the North and aided escaped Union prisoners of war in returning to their units. But such opportunities arose rarely.
After two years of war, I’d had enough of hearing about long, bloody battles second hand. I was sick of biting my tongue whenever a Southern gentleman proclaimed it was his God-given right to own Negroes and how dare the damn Yankees try to take that right away. I was sick of not standing up openly for my convictions.
Which was why at the end of March, 1863, I found myself leaving everything I knew in Atlanta, Georgia and taking to the road in search of a Union regiment that could use an able and willing man. And how in early April of that same year I arrived in La Grange, ready to offer my services to Colonel Benjamin Grierson, commander of the 6th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry.
Not that I was able to do anything of the sort that first day I arrived. I was tired and sore and filthy with the dust of the road. The pickets I encountered were kind enough not to shoot me, heard my story out, then turned me over to their commanding officer, an understanding lieutenant who was gracious and kind to a defecting Southerner. The lieutenant made sure I had a hot meal, a cup of coffee and a place to lay my head that night. I could only mumble my thanks, eat my food and fall into immediate oblivion, secure in the knowledge that fate had somehow steered me in the right direction.
I woke the next morning refreshed and optimistic. I brushed off my clothes as best I could, washed my face in a basin of cold water and readied myself to make my case. I have no doubt that I still looked like something the cat had dragged in and abandoned as a bad bet, but I felt like a respectable human being again. I hoped I looked like someone who could be trusted by the head of a Union cavalry unit.
After a breakfast of hard tack and coffee — simple fare but it tasted grand — I was shown to Colonel Grierson’s tent. Grierson was a surprisingly gentle looking man with a remarkable beard. He politely listened to my story and read the letter of introduction I had from a high ranking member of the Peace Society. I’m sure he had more pressing matters waiting for him than the fate of a single Southern defector, but he patiently heard me out, then asked about my skills. Fortunately I’m a damn fine shot with rifle and pistol and I can ride decently, though I’m not as fond of horses as some I know. But the thing that really caught Grierson’s attention was the fact that I had been all over the South as a member of a traveling theater company. He leaned forward when I mentioned that.
“Do you know Mississippi, sir?” he asked, a spark lighting up his eyes.
“Almost as well as Georgia,” I responded,” and I know Georgia like the back of my own hand.”
The answer seemed to satisfy him. He sat back in his chair and smiled, then looked over at the officer to his left side.
“Well, William, do you think you can use him?”
“I might just, Ben. I might just. If he’s as good as he says he is.”
Up until that point I had ignored the other men in the tent. I had thought that my fate lay in Grierson’s hands and had concentrated on impressing him. But now I more closely examined the other men.
I found out later that the man Grierson had addressed was Lieutenant Colonel William Blackburn. He was an intense man and, as I found out later, bold in battle. He looked at me as if I was a questionable nag he was considering purchasing.
“What do you think, Sergeant?” Blackburn turned to the man beside him. Sergeant Richard Surby was a tall, rangy man of about my age with a relaxed posture and an easy smile.
“I think he might prove of some assistance, sir,” he replied, then turned behind him. “How about you, West. You up to training a new recruit?”
Up until then I hadn’t even noticed the fourth man. He was shorter than the others and was half sitting on a table at the back of the tent. He was dressed in an enlisted man’s uniform and wore a corporal’s stripes. I couldn’t properly see his face, but he looked young. Barely twenty, at a guess.
“Yes sir. That I am.” The man’s voice was deep and smooth with just a trace of roughness. I tried to get a better look at his face just as he moved forward, stepping around the Sergeant. I nearly gasped as I caught my first good look at the man. He was as young as I’d thought, but he was also beautiful. He had a strong face with fine features and though he was smaller than average, his body was well formed and possessed a definite strength. But his most striking features were his eyes.
They were clear and forthright and seemed to see down to my very depths. And they were the most extraordinary color I have ever seen. At first they seemed to be green, then blue, then both with a touch of sunshine yellow thrown into the mix. His eyes fascinated me in a way I couldn’t explain and I had to deliberately restrain myself from staring at him.
“Well, that settles it,” Colonel Grierson said, cutting short my reverie. He stepped forward and shook my hand heartily. “Welcome to the 6th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry, Mr. Gordon.” He turned to the young soldier. “Corporal West, if you would take charge of our latest recruit and get him settled.”
“Yes, sir,” Corporal West said saluting. He then left the tent.
I hastily thanked the Colonel and scrambled after West, struggling to keep up with him as we trod through the camp, avoiding tents, tent pegs, equipment and men.
West was fairly quiet on the trip through the camp, only speaking to point out important places like the mess tent and the makeshift infirmary. He made sure I was issued a uniform and kit and that I was assigned a space to sleep — in the same tent he shared with two other men, I was pleased to note. I didn’t take West’s silence personally; he seemed to approach everyone in the camp with the same mixture of courtesy and aloofness. But one doesn’t become an actor without having some insight into people and I began to see some signs of what lay beneath the handsome exterior. Flashes of humor sparked in his eyes when one of the other men told a joke, though he managed not to smile. There was also the fact that everyone we encountered, whether a private or an officer, treated West with a respect that spoke of a man well regarded by all. I began to like Corporal West very much indeed.
But I also caught brief glimpses of something bleaker lurking underneath all the courtesy and friendliness, remnants of sights that shouldn’t have been seen by a twenty-year-old boy. Of course, that boy had been fighting for the Union for two years now, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that there was darkness under the light. Soldiers fought in wars, saw people killed, and Corporal West was a soldier. Still, I mourned for the innocence of the boy who had no doubt joined up in a flush of patriotism and idealism.
In the tent, West made sure I had everything I needed, then disappeared for several minutes. I occupied myself by changing into my uniform and unpacking the few belongings I had managed to keep with me since leaving Atlanta. I hadn’t much and it didn’t take long to get it all stowed away. Just as I was beginning to wonder where West had gone, he returned, thrusting a tan covered overcoat into my hands.
“You’ll need this if you’re going to be a Butternut Guerrilla,” he said.
“A what?” I unfolded the coat, and it took me only a few seconds before I realized it was part of the uniform of a Confederate Mississippi State soldier.
“Butternut Guerrilla,” Jim repeated as I felt my heart rise to my throat. “A scout. We usually wear the Mississippi uniforms when we’re out on patrol. That or civilian clothes. The uniforms are better, though. You’re not as likely to get as many questions and people will tell you things. With your accent you’ll do even better.”
I gaped at him, not entirely sure what shocked me more: that I was being encouraged to wear a uniform that would have me hung as a spy if I were caught or that West had just given me the longest speech of our brief acquaintance.
I finally found my voice, though what I asked had nothing to do with what I really wanted to know.
“Why Butternut Guerrillas?”
“Because of the color of the coat,” he responded, taking the garment from my hands and throwing it over my bedroll. Before I could say anything more, he moved out of the tent. “Come on, I’ll take you over to the corral. You can pick out your mount and tack.”
I followed silently, unsure of what I had gotten myself into. I had expected to be asked to fight for the North, not to become a spy. The only thing that calmed my anxiety was how matter-of-fact West was about the whole thing. Wearing enemy uniforms in enemy territory wasn’t extraordinary for Corporal West; it shouldn’t be extraordinary to me either. I comforted myself with that thought as we moved towards the area where the horses were kept.
Most of the horses already had a rider assigned to them, so the choice wasn’t wide, but I found a good bay mare named Bess that I was happy with. She seemed a strong animal, but gentle, which I appreciated. I hadn’t lied to the Colonel when I’d said I was a good rider, but I never deliberately sought out a challenge in my mounts.
West had watched the selection process with a discerning eye, offering advice when asked, but otherwise remaining silent. He must have exhausted his supply of speech with the outpouring in the tent.
Animal chosen, tack was next and much harder to come by. Only the dregs were left and it took the better part of half an hour to find a saddle, reins and blanket that would do. I was set to haul my tack back to the tent and get a start on the small repairs that it needed when West surprised me again.
“Would you like to see my horse?” he asked, and I again saw the boy he must have been two years ago: shy and proud and eager to make friends.
“I’d love to,” I said, and was rewarded with the first real smile I had seen on West’s face since Grierson’s tent.
“This way,” he directed me.
As soon as we got near, I could tell which one was West’s mount. He was an aristocratic looking quarter horse who had clearly been bred as much for speed as for endurance. His black coat was sleek and well cared for and he had a white star on his forehead. He whickered when he saw West approaching. West pulled an all-too-rare sugar cube from a pocket and watched in pleasure as his gift was consumed.
West stroked the horse’s neck with obvious pride.
“This is Apollo,” he said with another smile.
“He’s a fine looking animal, Corporal West.”
“Call me Jim,” he said, nuzzling the horse’s face with his own.
“Jim,” I repeated and smiled myself. “You can call me Artie.”
“Okay, Artie,” he said, and then, with a final pat to Apollo’s neck, led me back to the tent.
When we arrived at the tent, the other two men we were to share it with were there, back from drilling exercises. Sandy Bannon was a tailor with a farming background; Jack Thomson was a farmer. Both were members of the Butternut Guerrillas and clearly had the requisite combination of courage, cool-headedness and intelligence needed by men who were on their own for days at a time. I began to wonder at Grierson trusting a raw Southern recruit to work with these seasoned soldiers and hoped I would justify his decision.
After our evening meal, the night was spent around the campfire with the other dozen members of the Guerrillas, sharing coffee and tobacco and stories. Sergeant Surby joined us and regaled me with tales of his early years in Canada and his immigration to Illinois to avoid the “British bastards” as he called them.
I was pleased to be accepted immediately into this little band within the greater company and did my best to entertain with stories of my work in the theatre and my exploits with the Peace Society. It turned out that I had helped a friend of one of the group return to his unit, the 23rd Illinois Infantry, which eased my acceptance into the group even more.
The one person who barely talked at all that evening was Jim West. He remained as quiet as he had all afternoon, listening to the stories and jokes, but offering none himself. The other men clearly had a respect and affection for their corporal, and I even fancied I could see the occasional glance of concern directed at the young man, but no one seemed able to breach the barriers he had set up around himself.
Jim West began to intrigue me very much.
When the campfire began to die down, we called it a night and bedded down.
And that was the end of my first day as a Union soldier.
I’m not sure what I had expected, but at the time it all seemed entirely too easy. I had been accepted quickly and placed in an important position. The men with whom I was to work and fight were all decent, brave men. I could not have asked for better.
As I drifted off to sleep, I thanked God that I had found such a refuge. I would have reason enough to curse Him later.
I spent the next days drilling with the company, learning the discipline and tactics that my new companions had developed over the last two years of fighting. I would never be as skilled as the best of them, but I did well enough. I had, fortunately, not exaggerated my skill with a gun and managed to outshoot them all on the range. Well, all except Corporal Jim West, who turned out to be an exceptional shot.
I spent a great deal of time with Surby. He was of an age with me, and we had as much in common as two men who were raised on opposite sides of a border and over seven hundred miles apart could. I enjoyed hearing about his travels into the city of Toronto and his one visit to the city’s biggest theatre. I also enjoyed the company of my other tent mates, Sandy and Jack. They were both friendly and lively, smart in spite of a lack of schooling.
But the man I tried to spend the most time with was Corporal James West. I was drawn to him like a moth to a flame, and as likely to be burned by the acquaintance. And the worst thing was I knew it; I knew that things between James West and myself could not help but end badly.
I should explain. I have already mentioned that I was an actor. A very good actor, I might add. You may have heard rumors about the acting profession, that it harbors men who have, for lack of a better phrase, unnatural desires. Men who lust after other men. Well, I had a natural inclination towards such unnatural desires and I knew myself well enough to know that my attraction to Corporal West was not an innocent one. Not at all. Nor did I delude myself into thinking that any such attraction would be reciprocated. It was a dead end, and I knew it.
Still, I continued to play with fire, to pretend that I could continue to be just friends with the young man.
Then, one night just before we were due to pull out of La Grange, I realized that the truly dangerous thing about playing with fire is that it never knows that it’s burning you.
Even now, years later, I still sometimes have the same dream. But back then, I had it nearly every night.
The dream always begins in the same way.
We’re charging an enemy position. I don’t know which one and it never matters; just another faceless group of men huddled in another copse of trees. Lieutenant Colonel Blackburn is leading the charge as always, pistol held high in one hand, roaring for the rest of us to follow.
I’m back in the pack, so close to the others that I can feel the heat from their horses. The pounding of their horses’ hooves courses through my blood. Apollo stretches his neck out in front of me, eager to run. It’s an exhilarating feeling.
Then Hell opens up in front of us.
The enemy begins to barrage us with all they have: bullets, minié and cannon balls. It’s as though a sheet of flame had appeared in the trees before us and we’re heading right for it. I want to scream, to pull on Apollo’s reins and stop this madness, but I look over at the colonel and he’s keen as ever. I hold my tongue and keep riding.
The man next to me goes down, his throat torn open by a bullet.
Apollo shies at the smell of blood and I struggle to hold him steady.
More men go down, and horses. I stare at the blood and can’t believe how much there is. I’m concentrating so much on the blood that I nearly don’t see the shot that takes Apollo. But I do see it, and then Apollo makes a sound no horse should, and he’s going down, collapsing in a field of mud and taking me with him. And I’m trapped underneath his writhing bulk and feel my leg break. I hear screams and I don’t know if it’s the horses or the men or myself.
Back then, I’d wake up from that dream every night, with the sound of my own choked off scream dying in my ears. I’d sit up, panting, trying to wipe away the images and the sweat while my tent mates would blessedly feign sleep, saving me from complete mortification.
But that night was different. That night a hand shook me awake before Apollo collapsed, screaming in terror. A voice whispered my name, tearing me away from the nightmare landscape.
I clutched tightly at the hand, not yet awake, but grateful that I’d been spared the worst, at least for tonight. Another hand stroked my hair while the voice continued to murmur comforting words. I blinked rapidly, struggling to slow my breath, my heartbeat.
I stopped gasping and took a deep breath, finally coming back to full wakefulness.
“Are you all right?” the voice said, and now I could finally recognize its owner: Artemus Gordon.
Unconsciously, I started to tense up, embarrassed that my weakness had been exposed, and to a new recruit. Before I could pull away, I felt Gordon’s hand pat my head lightly, and his rich voice whispered in my ear.
“Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me.”
And funnily enough, I knew that it was. I instinctively knew that I could trust this man with any confidence, any secret, and he would never betray me. All on a few days’ acquaintance.
I relaxed my hold on his hand immediately and was rewarded with another pat on my head.
“Can you get to sleep now?” he asked.
I nodded my reply, then realized he probably couldn’t see much in the dark.
“Yes,” I said. “Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it,” he said, and though I couldn’t see his face, I could tell he was smiling. “You’re not the only one with nightmares.”
I could hear the rustling as he moved back to his cot and settled down again. I rolled myself tightly into my blankets and settled in for the best night’s sleep I’d had since the war had begun.
The next morning it was as if nothing had happened. Jim didn’t mention the nightmare and neither did I. Life went on as usual. We spent our time performing drills, practicing marksmanship, grooming our mounts and telling stories around the campfire at night.
But some things had changed.
Jim stuck just a little bit closer to me during the day, not that I was complaining. We ate together and worked together. He helped me with the military routine and my horsemanship — Jim West astride Apollo was a sight to behold — and I entertained him, and our entire unit, with stories of my travels and performances. I also moved my cot just a bit closer to his, to make it easier to stop his nightmares before they really started. That’s what I told myself anyway.
I said before that I didn’t delude myself. I was wrong.
I deluded myself that I would be happy to be only friends with Jim. That I told him stories in return for his help with my riding, not because when he smiled at something I’d said it gave me a warm, fluttery feeling somewhere in the vicinity of my heart. That I slept closer to him to save him from the nightmares, not because sleeping close enough to hear the easy rhythm of his breathing almost gave me the illusion that I was truly sharing his bed.
But it was impossible, so I pushed it down below the surface of my mind and told myself that none of it was true, that I was acting only with the noblest of intentions, that nothing could mar this perfect friendship I had been lucky enough to stumble upon in the midst of war.
Waking Jim West from a nightmare had given me permission to touch the man, but made me all too acutely aware of what I would never have.
Everything seemed so much better after that night. It was as if I had my very own knight protector with the unlikely name of Artemus Gordon. Artie to his friends. Artie to me.
I found myself drawn to him, to his sense of life. I would make sure we were together for drills, for target practice, for meals. I would listen to his stories with rapt attention, fascinated by the experiences he’d had, experiences that had been beyond the imaginings of my Illinois boyhood.
Most importantly, he would wake me each night before the nightmare truly took hold. I would begin to descend into Hell, and would wake to find his hand on my shoulder or arm or hand, his words softly calling me away from the horrors of sleep. It was the most protected I have ever felt in my life.
In a strange way, I even began to look forward to the nightmares. They were an excuse to have him touch me, to make that physical contact that I craved. A contact that was more intimate and desired than the casual touches we exchanged during the day, the casual pats to an arm or slaps on the back.
I know now that I was beginning to fall in love with him.
Not that I knew that then. Not right then. I was naïve enough that I didn’t even know it was possible to fall in love with another man. I thought that romantic love could only be experienced with one of those pink, beribboned girls that I had gone to school with.
I only knew that I felt utterly cared for when I was around Artie, and after two years of war that was the most important thing of all.
Since I’d joined the regiment there had been rumors that we were to be sent on an important assignment. Nothing concrete, just the scuttlebutt and whispering that are the lifeblood of any military unit.
On the afternoon of April 16 we found out the truth behind those rumors.
Grierson had called for the entire regiment to be mustered on the drilling field. As we stood at attention he informed us that the following morning we would be leaving on a raiding mission. We had been ordered to travel through Mississippi, destroying enemy railroads, telegraph lines and supplies. The goal of the raid was to distract the Confederate forces and give General Ulysses S. Grant the opportunity to at last capture Vicksburg.
The briefing was short and to the point. As soon as we were dismissed, every last man dispersed, rushing to do what was needed to get the regiment on the road in less than a day.
The next morning, the regiment pulled out. It was an impressive sight; seventeen hundred men with even more horses stretched out in a line that extended as far as the eye could see. I’m told there was even a photographer there to record the moment, though I didn’t see him. I would have loved to examine his camera, though.
I was placed with Jim and the other Butternut Guerrillas at the front of the column. We all wore our blue coats as we rode out of La Grange, but changed into our purloined Mississippi uniforms before the sun was half way across the sky. Blackburn set up an initial schedule for the scouting parties. Two groups of two men would scout ahead for a day before heading back to the main party. The others would remain with the main group until their turn came. It was a sound strategy, and would conserve our strength until it was really needed. We all knew that before this mission was over there was likely to be no rest for anyone involved.
The first two days passed unremarkably, and everyone’s spirits were high. The weather was beautiful, perfect for spring and the roads were nicely dried out after the winter and spring rains. We encountered no enemy soldiers, though there was plenty of boasting of the pasting that we were going to give Johnny Reb when we found him.
Jim stayed by my side as closely as he had done in the camp. I was sorry we’d changed into our Mississippi coats; Jim had looked magnificent in Yankee blue, brass buttons shining, his cap at a rakish angle on his head. I was hard pressed not to stare at him, but still had found myself doing so more than once. And once, Jim had caught me looking at him with less than wholesome intent. I’d started, convinced that he had at last stumbled onto my secret desire, that he was about to renounce me as a friend, but all he’d done was give me a sly smile and a wink. Which had startled me even more. And got me to thinking. What if my desire for the boy was not impossible? Unlikely, but what if…
Our third day out saw our luck with the weather break. It rained all day. Not enough to make the roads impassable but just enough to keep everyone miserable and wet. It was too wet to make fires in the morning and we had to make due with cold rations and no coffee. That put everyone in a foul mood. Which was reversed when we ran into a group of rebel guerrillas outside Pontotoc, and routed them soundly, with no casualties at all on our side. Only a few dozen of our force had been involved in the fight, but by the end of the day the whole camp was claiming a part in the victory. I knew better, but didn’t begrudge anyone his braggadocio. It had taken everyone’s mind off the cold and damp and I had no doubt that by the end of the adventure, everyone would have made good on their claims several times over. Neither Jim nor any of Blackburn’s other men made any such boasts, and it made me more impressed with the whole unit.
When we at last bedded down for the night, the rain had slowed to a tolerable drizzle. The entire troop sought the shelter of the trees and their oilskins and tried to get some sleep. I took my usual spot by Jim and tried to find comfort in Morpheus’ arms, ignoring the trickle of water that would trail intermittently down my neck. I had nearly fallen asleep, when I heard Jim roll over towards me. His hand reached out and caught my arm. I suppose I should have been embarrassed, but I wasn’t. I was touched. I caught hold of his hand tightly in my own and drifted off to sleep.
To say that I was discomfited to wake up the next morning and find that some time in the night I had taken hold of Artie’s hand would be an understatement. I was horrified. In fact, the only thing that kept me from complete humiliation was the fact that Artie wasn’t yet awake and couldn’t have known anything about my weakness.
I quietly retrieved my hand and set about making myself ready for the day. Artie awoke perhaps ten minutes later and greeted me with a heartiness that confirmed that he couldn’t possibly have know that some time during the night I had clutched him like a child seeking its favorite toy.
We quickly ate breakfast — hot porridge and coffee, thank God — and saddled our mounts. The entire column was ready to go not long after daybreak.
This was the first day the Artie and I were scheduled to go on a long patrol together. Blackburn had assigned the more experienced teams for the first few days, wanting to see how Artie would perform outside of camp. I could have told him he didn’t need to worry; Artie was perfectly in control, had been even in the chaos of the previous day’s skirmish.
We had to wait until Sandy and Jack returned from their patrol before we set out. We were both eager to begin. I was looking forward to having the opportunity to let Apollo have his head and travel at something besides the prescribed trot the company had adopted. I was also looking forward to being alone with Artie, although I don’t think even then I was quite sure why. And now that the time was nearly upon us, I felt like a kid waiting for Christmas. As for Artie, although I knew he enjoyed my company, I didn’t flatter myself that he was looking forward to spending time alone with a callow youth. I figured it was more that he was anticipating the chance to prove himself to Blackburn, Grierson and the entire unit.
The better part of the morning had gone before Sandy and Jack returned, and when they did it was not with good news. They’d found an expanse of swamp blocking our way ahead, extending for miles in either direction.
Grierson called all the scouts together to discuss what should be done about the barrier.
“Can you see how far the thing goes?” Grierson asked.
“No, sir. You can only see a couple of hundred yards in and then the trees get too dense.” Sandy spat, as if to punctuate the problem. “Could be it’s shallow and wide, could be it goes on for miles.”
“Gordon, do you know anything about this area?” Blackburn asked.
“Unfortunately not, sir. I’ve never toured this area of Mississippi.” Artie was clearly disappointed that he couldn’t be any help.
Grierson growled under his breath and chewed at his beard.
“Any idea if we can get around it?”
“I wouldn’t like to try, sir. We scouted two miles in either direction and never found the end.” Jack was clearly as frustrated as the rest of us by this unexpected problem.
“We can’t have that. We need to take the pressure of Grant as soon as possible.” Grierson had obviously made his decision. “We’ll push forward and move through the swamp.” He turned his attention in our direction. “West and Gordon, I want you to stay with the main column until we’re through that swamp. Then you’re on long range patrol.”
“Yes, sir,” we both said with alacrity.
“Mount up, everyone,” Grierson bellowed, and the order was passed down the line.
I grinned over at Artie, glad our moment was nearly here, and urged Apollo forward. Artie looked pleased himself and followed my lead.
We both faltered a bit when we reached the edge of the swamp. It was an immense, foreboding presence, stretching as far as the eye could see in all directions. The horses wouldn’t like it any more than the men and we were going to end up with damp provisions and clothes. It was a good thing it was a sunny, warm day.
We held up at the edge of the morass, only proceeding when the rest of the column reached us. The Butternut Guerrillas were at the front, headed by Blackburn and Surby. Artie and I were halfway back, right behind Sandy and Jack.
At first it honestly wasn’t too bad. The swamp wasn’t even deep enough to get our boots wet, and the horses seemed to find their footing easily enough.
That didn’t last long.
After we had gone perhaps two hundred yards, the water started getting rapidly deeper till the horses were swimming. We were quickly surrounded by a labyrinth of trees and rotting vegetation, causing problems for men and animals alike.
And still the swamp went on.
The horses began to tire. Apollo’s breath began to come in short, anxious bursts. And the trees began to seriously impede our progress.
I heard a commotion behind us, shouting men and the sharp whinny of a horse in distress, but didn’t look back. I was having enough trouble myself, staying in the saddle and making sure Apollo kept the course.
I looked over at Artie, to see how he was faring. His mouth was compressed into a thin, bloodless line and his forehead was creased in a frown of concentration. His mount looked even more tired than Apollo, and Artie had a death grip on the reins.
I was just about to offer him a word of encouragement, when Apollo gave a sharp snort and began to thrash in the water. I was tossed about, but managed to keep in the saddle by winding my hand into his mane. I tried calming him, but he was past that point. His eyes were rolling back in his head and his nostrils were flared in panic.
At the time, I had no idea what had happened, but he must have become tangled in a drowned tree branch. He kicked more and more, making it difficult for me to hang on. After what seemed like an eternity finally, he threw me off. My hands were still holding the reins, and one foot was caught fast in the stirrup. I tried to free myself, but was buffeted by Apollo’s bulk as he tried to fight against an enemy he couldn’t understand. Apollo started to go under, and pulled me with him. I tried to stay above water, tried to calm down Apollo enough to free him, but it was an impossible task. My head was pulled beneath the water.
I began to panic myself. I’d barely had time to take a breath before I’d been dragged under, so my lungs quickly began to burn, aching for fresh air. I tried to pull myself free, but my boot was firmly caught on the stirrup, Apollo was thrashing even more, and I think he must have struck me on the head, because all at once the world went grey. I had just enough consciousness to feel my body jerk in protest as water began to fill my lungs, and then I knew no more.
It was one of the worst times of my life.
One moment I’d been struggling to stay with Bess while she swam through a tangle of branches and weed, the next I heard the unearthly scream of a horse and the churning of water behind me. I turned to see an impossible sight: Apollo panicking, foam flecking his mouth and an uncomprehending look in his eye, and Jim being tossed out of the saddle. Before I could even think of what to do, Apollo began to founder in earnest and Jim was pulled beneath the surface.
I acted immediately.
I left Bess to her own devices and dove beneath the surface. At first, I couldn’t see a thing; Apollo’s struggles had churned up mud, branches and debris, obscuring everything else. Then I caught a flash of a tan colored coat and swam immediately towards it. I reached Jim, and grabbed him beneath the arms. He was limp in my grasp and I realized he must have been knocked out in the struggle. I tried to pull him to the surface, but he wouldn’t budge. I swam deeper, and pulled his boot from where it had caught in the stirrup, avoiding Apollo’s struggles as I did. The horse was weakening, losing his own battle with the swamp. In the back of my mind, I knew the loss of his horse would be a blow to Jim, but I couldn’t think of that at the time. It was going to take all my strength to save Jim, and I knew it.
His foot freed, I swam up and we broke the surface with a satisfying splash. Taking the fresh air into my lungs was a blessed relief, but Jim didn’t seem to be breathing. I dragged him as fast as I could over to Bess and placed him in her saddle. Sandy and Jack, having seen what was happening, appeared beside us.
“What can we do?” Sandy asked.
“He must have water in his lungs.” I gasped out the words. “Can you squeeze him around the belly?”
I trod water beside Bess as Sandy tried to squeeze the water from Jim’s lungs. At first it seemed like it wasn’t going to work; Jim’s skin was a horrible grey color and he showed no signs of life. But then he convulsed once and vomited a stream of water. He was wracked by a fit of coughing, but he was alive.
I asked Sandy to support Jim from one side while I swam along the other. I didn’t want to try Bess’ strength by asking her to carry two riders when she was obviously nearing the end of her strength. We had already lost one horse.
Jim was not quite conscious for the rest of the ride through the swamp. His eyes would occasionally open, but they showed no recognition for where he was or who he was with and he sat passively on Bess, allowing Sandy and me to support most of his weight. I was actually thankful for that. If he had been fully conscious, it might have been more difficult to get him to dry land.
It took another ten minutes to find that dry land, an absolutely harrowing time. We lost more horses than Apollo, if the sounds behind us were any indication. I sincerely hoped that we wouldn’t lose any men. When we reached a solid clearing, Sandy and Jack helped me carry Jim off Bess’ back and we tried to make him comfortable. I would have liked to get him into dry clothes, but none of us had those. Instead, I loosened his clothes and tried to get him to settle down.
At first he showed no signs of knowing who any of us were. Gradually, though, understanding came back to his eyes.
“Artie,” he said, hesitantly.
“Yes, Jim, I’m here.”
He swallowed once and then asked the one question that must have been uppermost on his mind.
Jim blinked twice, but didn’t say anything. I knew how hard it must be for him. In the brief time I’d known him, I’d realized how important that horse was to him. Not knowing what to say myself, I just reached out and held his hand tight.
It was something I’d never dared to do in the daylight before, let alone with other people around, but the extraordinary circumstances seemed to warrant it. My instincts seemed to be proven right when Jim returned the pressure on his hand with pressure of his own. He shut his eyes tightly and gulped a few times, obviously fighting the feelings that were overwhelming him. I wished fervently that I could help, but he would have to work this out on his own.
After a few long minutes, he finally opened his eyes, and, with one final squeeze, released my hand. I knew then that even though this incident would exact its price, Jim would ultimately be fine.
Just then, Blackburn and Grierson made their way over to where we were.
“Private Gordon.” Grierson addressed me with a nod. “What’s going on here?”
“Corporal West’s horse panicked in the swamp, sir. We pulled West out, but couldn’t save Apollo.”
Blackburn and Grierson had grim expressions on their faces and looked at each other in mutual understanding.
“We’ve had reports that we’ve lost at least thirty other horses,” Blackburn said. “It hasn’t been a good day.” He looked closely at Jim. “How are you, Corporal?”
“I’m fine, sir. Ready for duty.” Jim looked nowhere near fine, but he was obviously trying so hard. He sat up straight and tried to pull his wet uniform into some sort of order.
“I’m not so sure about that, son,” Blackburn said. “I think you should ride with the column for today. Maybe stay with the medical wagon. We can send someone else out on patrol today. You and Gordon can take the duty tomorrow if you’re feeling well.”
“With due respect, sir, I’d prefer to take the patrol today, as planned.”
I looked at Jim and hoped that Grierson and Blackburn saw what I saw: a young man who desperately needed to be doing something to take his mind off the fact that he had just lost the animal that had been a constant companion for at least the past two years. If he wasn’t allowed to take this duty, I suspected that he would just brood over what had happened.
His commanding officers appeared to reach the same conclusions. Blackburn nodded his agreement and Grierson gave the order.
“You have the patrol, Corporal West. Draw a new mount from the hostler and gear from the quartermaster. As soon as you’re ready, you and Private Gordon are to scout forward. Report back to the main column by tomorrow afternoon.”
“Yes, sir.” Jim said, and we both saluted the two of them. I was grateful that they’d realized that what Jim needed most right now was to be useful.
“Private Gordon, a word,” Blackburn said, and led me a yards away from the others.
“Yes, sir?” I wasn’t sure quite what to expect.
“I’m trusting you to keep an eye on that young man. If he takes ill, or looks like he isn’t handling things well, you bring him straight back to the main column, your orders be damned. And don’t let him pull rank on you. If you think it’s in his best interest, you have my permission to hog-tie him.”
“I don’t think it will come to that, sir,” I said with a weak smile. “I think I can get the corporal to see reason.”
“If anyone can, it’s you. That boy seems to trust you more that anyone in the unit.” He frowned at me. “Don’t betray that trust, Gordon.”
“No, sir,” I said. “That’s the last thing in the world I want to do.”
“I believe it, Private. That will be all.”
“Yes, sir.” I saluted Blackburn as he left and headed back to where Jim sat. As I walked I prepared myself to fulfill my promise, to Blackburn and myself, to look after one distraught young man in the Union forces.
I honestly don’t know how I made it through the next few hours. I don’t really remember any of it. All I know is that two hours after Apollo drowned in the swamp I found myself on a new horse — an undistinguished gelding with a hard mouth and a skittish nature — with a new saddle, new guns, new gear and heading off on patrol with Artemus Gordon.
Artie was my lifeline. He kept me moving, got me what I needed and kept me from thinking too much about what had happened. He listened when I needed to talk and talked when I needed to listen. I couldn’t have asked for a better companion.
Fortunately our duties were easily performed. We ran into no Confederate forces. When we saw inhabitants, we played our roles of Mississippi State soldiers and learned what we could. We also spread rumors of a Union force twice as big as Grierson’s actual party and fifty miles in the opposite direction. We were hoping to keep the Rebels uneasy and far from our true location.
Just after sundown, we settled for the night in an abandoned barn. We unsaddled and groomed the horses. I tried to concentrate on the mechanics of the chore and tried not to think that it wasn’t Apollo that I was taking care of. When that task was done, we put the horses in the two intact stalls the barn had to offer and looked after our own needs.
We made a simple meal for ourselves over a small fire. Left to my own devices I probably wouldn’t have eaten anything, but Artie insisted that I have something.
By the time night had truly fallen, I was ready to sleep. My energy was flagging and I could barely keep my eyes open. We laid out our bedrolls and I was thankful that Artie put his right beside mine. I knew the old nightmare was going to haunt me that night and I wouldn’t have wanted to face it without Artie close by.
I fell asleep so fast, I don’t even remember putting my head down.
James West had been a shadow of himself all that afternoon and evening.
It was as if all the spark had gone out of him. Not that he had shut down completely; nothing so radical. We talked of inconsequential things and he did respond, but he didn’t seem to be paying full attention to the conversation.
He didn’t seem much interested in looking after himself either. I had to force him to eat that night. But I didn’t have to force him to look after the nag that was Apollo’s inadequate replacement. He spent an inordinate amount of time grooming him, to the point that I was afraid he might actually think the poor creature was Apollo.
I didn’t actively fear for Jim’s mind, but I was concerned. Concerned enough that when we bedded down for the night I made sure I was right beside him, virtually no space left between our bedrolls. I was positive that tonight, of all nights, Jim was going to have one of his nightmares. And this time it was going to be a doozy.
Jim fell asleep right away, his body relaxing and his breath drifting into the slow cadence of sleep. I stayed awake myself, keeping watch over him.
I actually began to hope that Jim wasn’t going to be disturbed by his dreams after he had gotten about an hour of undisturbed sleep. My guard began to relax and I drifted off to sleep myself.
I awoke some time later when Jim’s thrashing arm caught me across the chest. I sat bolt upright and it took me a moment to realize where I was and what was happening. Jim was shifting uneasily, and I futilely hoped for a moment that it wasn’t a nightmare but just a brief disturbance in his sleep. But then he started making a sound unlike any I had ever heard before. I wasn’t like the near screams he had made before when the dream had him in its grips. I was more like the sound Apollo had made in his death throes, an unearthly shriek that I hope I never hear again.
I acted quickly and took Jim in a firm embrace that kept him from striking out again while offering him some comfort. I tucked his head under my chin and rubbed his back.
“It’s okay Jim. It’s just a dream. You can wake up now,” I whispered into his ear.
He suddenly froze in my arms and I knew that he was awake.
There was a long pause before he answered.
“How are you?” It was a ridiculous question, but I wasn’t sure what else to say.
“I think I’m okay now.” His voice didn’t sound okay, but the fact that he could answer me at all gave me some confidence that he was feeling better.
“That’s good,” I said, and I meant it.
I suppose I should have let go of him, let him get back to sleep, but that never occurred to me. Perhaps it was because I’d just been woken up myself, or because my defenses had dropped for some reason or just because I had lost my sanity. Whatever the reason, I kept my arms around Jim West, rubbing his back, squeezing his arm and even stroking his hair. And then I did the one thing I never should have done: I kissed James West.
It wasn’t a passionate kiss, just a peck on the top of his head. It was the kind of kiss a mother would give to a wayward child, but it unleashed a passion in Jim that I hadn’t had the confidence to ever hope for. His arms tightened around me and began to stroke my back. He lifted his face and delivered a kiss just under my jaw that left no doubt as to what his intentions were.
His grip on me tightened, and I could feel his groin grind against mine. He kissed me again, this time on the mouth and with a longing that melted my insides and left me weak and unmoving in his arms.
Desire began to bloom deep in my gut even as I fought the sensation and struggled to think. It was a terrible moment. I desired James West, had wanted this from him almost from the first second I saw him, but more than that I respected him. He was a friend, and a friend in pain. I didn’t want to take advantage of him.
So, I ruthlessly stamped out my own desires and pulled out of his embrace, even as he tried to hold me closer.
“Don’t, Jim,” I said, as gently as I could manage, trying to ignore the husky desire I could hear in my own voice.
He froze for a second time in my arms, then pulled away abruptly.
“I’m sorry,” he said, shame clearly coloring his words.
This wasn’t what I’d intended either, so I pulled him back into my arms.
“That wasn’t what I meant, Jim.” I could feel the tension in his body, so I lightly massaged his back. “I just don’t want you doing anything that you don’t want to, that you’ll regret.”
I couldn’t see his face in the dim light of the stars, but I could see his head shake.
“I won’t regret this, Artie.” He kissed me briefly on the chin. “And I very much want it.” This time his kiss seared my lips. I didn’t fight the sensation, but opened my mouth to his. His tongue invaded my mouth and I sucked at it greedily.
My back arched as I felt my cock lengthen and harden. Jim pressed against me with increasing urgency, and I could feel his heat against my groin. Lust stripped away my last remaining reluctance and discretion. I moved against Jim with a frenzy that would have frightened me, had I been able to think. He matched me, action for action. We pulled at each other’s clothing. I felt my skin exposed to the cold night air, a pleasant contrast to the heat that burned inside me.
It was over almost before it began. Jim wrapped his hand around me, and almost immediately I felt the surge of desire build to overflowing within me. I gasped once, and felt my cock surge, then pour forth its seed. Before I could even get my breath back properly, I returned the favor. I held Jim’s manhood with one hand, his face with the other as I pumped his cock until he too came with a gasp.
Neither of us moved or said a word for the longest time. We lay in each other’s arms, our breathing gradually returning to normal, our skin cooling in the night air.
As the silence stretched out between us I began to feel uncomfortable. I was convinced I had made a horrible mistake. I thought that Jim must be disgusted by what we had done, that he would renounce our friendship, shun me. I was just about to apologize, beg forgiveness, do anything I could to retain that friendship when Jim did the last thing I would have expected from the serious young man that he was then.
He leaned into me, kissed me again and said “I love you.”
“What?” I said in surprise.
“I love you. And I’m not saying it again, so I hope you heard it that time.” Even in the dark I could tell he was smiling.
“You’re not upset?”
“Not ashamed? Not sorry?”
“No,” he repeated, exasperation growing in his voice. “Are you?”
“No,” I said, hastily. “Absolutely not.”
“That’s good.” He settled back into my arms and drifted back into a sleep that was relaxed, wholesome and not at all touched by the nightmares that had haunted him.
I sacrificed the one good handkerchief I had left to clean us up and nestled Jim back against my side. Then I joined him in slumber.
I was happy.
It’s ridiculous, I know. My country was at war with itself. I’d been fighting for two years and had seen friends and enemies die in the most horrible of ways. I was in the middle of a raid that was going to test our endurance and ingenuity to the limit.
Yet, in spite of it all, I was happy. All because of one slightly older Southern gentleman.
I woke up the next morning still held in Artie’s arms, wondering if the previous night had been merely my wild imaginings. Then Artie woke up and gave me a glowing smile and I knew I hadn’t dreamt or imagined any of it. And I knew that the only place for me was right beside Artemus Gordon.
Not that we had any great amount of leisure to explore what had happened between us. We immediately had to get up, eat a quick breakfast and get back on the road. We were back at the main column before noon, delivering our report to Grierson and Blackburn.
Our commanding officers both looked relieved that I’d managed to survive the patrol, and pleased that I seemed to be in such fine spirits. Once during our report, when I caught Sergeant Surby giving me a particularly probing look, I nearly told them what exactly had happened to put me in such a good mood, but I restrained myself. Of course, the glower Artie turned in my direction at just that time helped me to hold my tongue.
For the first time in over a year I felt my own age, instead of like a tired old man who had seen too much. All because I was in love.
Yes, in love, and loved and with another man too. It was all so difficult to believe, and completely natural at the same time.
We didn’t change our behavior in camp. That would have been foolish, and I wasn’t so besotted that I didn’t know what the other men would call us. But we were out on patrol by ourselves as often as we could manage it, and then we were a bit freer to indulge how we felt, as long as we accomplished our mission. The best times were when we were forced to camp overnight away from the other troops, as we had that first night. Those times, not that there were many of them, we could explore the physical side of our love. None were as explosive as the first time, but Artie began to teach me some of the subtleties of love between men.
And the nightmares disappeared. Completely.
In a little over a week, Artemus Gordon became the most important person in my life, the one I depended on to keep me safe from real and imagined terrors, the man I loved and who loved me.
I didn’t think anyone or anything could destroy my happiness.
I was wrong.
My only excuse for what happened was that I’d become complacent. I’d forgotten what had brought Jim and me together, forgotten that we were in the middle of a war. Forgotten that there were people out there who would kill us if they found us.
All I was thinking of that day was how much I enjoyed our time on patrol together. During the day, surrounded by open skies and empty fields, we could talk about anything we wanted without having to worry about what others thought. And during the night, we could sleep together, arms and legs entwined together, exhausted from having made love, or just from the day’s ride.
It was more happiness than I’d ever expected to find. And it ended on that day.
The weather was lovely. The rain that had plagued the early days of the raid had given way to sunny skies and balmy temperatures. We had both half unbuttoned the Mississippi coats that were our chief disguise and were riding across a fallow field. I don’t remember what we were talking about — I was probably filling his head with some nonsense I’d heard in a theater — when there was a loud crashing just ahead of us and a full troop of Confederate cavalry emerged from the woodlot surrounding the field.
I should have seen them. Instead, we’d blundered right into their midst, vastly outnumbered and surrounded.
I quickly considered our options. We could have tried to bluff it out, pretended we were the Mississippi soldiers we seemed to be, but I didn’t have enough military knowledge to convincingly play the role and Jim would be pegged as a Yankee as soon as the first Mid-Western inflected word fell from his mouth. We could have run for it, but their horses looked fresh and ours, while far from spent, were in no shape for such a race.
Then I hit upon a solution.
I had no doubts that it was the only way out. The only way that both Jim and I were going to survive this encounter. I also had no doubt that my solution would kill our relationship, even our friendship. But it didn’t matter. What did matter was that Jim would be alive at the end of the day. I would rather have him alive and hating me, than see him dead and hate myself.
So, I drew on my acting experience and prepared to deliver the role of a lifetime.
I first looked over to Jim. From the frown that creased his forehead, he was obviously perplexed about what to do. His horse, picking up on the nervousness of his rider, was pulling at his bit and lifting his feet fretfully. I needed Jim to trust me if my plan were going to work, so I shot him a look of more confidence than I felt and gave him a wink. Jim’s eyes widened, then he gave a slight smile, clearly expecting that I had something up my sleeve. I did, though not anything he would have expected.
Jim’s fear assuaged, I urged Bess forward and went to meet our enemy.
They hung back slightly. Clearly they had heard rumors of a Union force in the area and were being cautious. The leader of the troop, a young lieutenant who by the look of him had seen as much fighting as Jim West had, moved ahead to meet me.
“Lieutenant Robert Starke, 1st Mississippi Cavalry.”
“Artemus Gordon.” I paused, took a deep breath and tried to enjoy my last moment of peace. Trying not to think of what I was doing, I reached for my sidearm and quickly drew and aimed directly at Jim West. “I have been a prisoner of the Yankees and been forced to act as a scout for them. This man is a corporal in the Illinois cavalry assigned to guard me.” I tried not to look in Jim’s eyes, but I couldn’t help it. I saw him flinch in shock at my words, then tense as he clearly decided whether he should run. I prayed that he wouldn’t; in addition to my own gun, there were now at least ten others trained on him from the Confederate group. If he was shot now, all of this would have been in vain.
Fortunately, Jim seemed to realize the futility of any escape attempt. I could see his shoulders sag and his hands fall from his reins. Then the lieutenant barked orders and two of his men moved forward to disarm Jim and tie his arms behind his back.
The lieutenant and the rest of his men closed the distance between us, and then they were congratulating me for assisting in the capture of a damned abolitionist, slapping me on the back and shaking my hand. I did my best to feign a heartiness I did not feel and hoped that I would survive this day.
The word rattled around my head on a never-ending track, refusing to allow for any other thought.
At first, when Artie had pointed the gun at me, I hadn’t understood what was happening. I couldn’t register the fact that someone I’d trusted, someone I’d loved was threatening my life. When I finally realized that it was actually happening, that it wasn’t some waking nightmare, it was too late to do anything. I was surrounded and had nearly a dozen pistols and rifles trained on me. I nearly ran anyway; death seemed preferable to living with the awful knowledge that I had been the victim of such treachery, that everything Artie had said or done had been a lie.
Only one thing stopped me: revenge. I wanted revenge on the man who had brought me to such a place. So I submitted to my captors, let them take my weapons and roughly bind my hands while they congratulated my betrayer.
I kept my eyes down, letting my horse be led and not paying any attention to my surroundings. I knew that I should be watching where they were taking me so that I could try to escape, but I had no energy for the task. All I could do was focus on the pain that seemed to be tearing away my heart.
I only realized we had arrived at the Confederate camp when my horse stopped and I was hauled out of the saddle by the back of my coat. I landed hard and stumbled, falling to the ground. There was laughter all around me, but I couldn’t look up. I couldn’t face the thought of Artie laughing at me, knowing how ridiculous I had been to trust him.
I was led through the camp. A gun at my back prompted me to move forward any time my pace flagged. When we reached what appeared to be the area where they were keeping their horses, I was pushed down to the ground and tied against a tree.
When I was securely bound, my humiliation was still not complete. Several of the men, no doubt wishing to prove their bravery in the face of the enemy, took the time to beat me. I barely felt their blows, I was still so stunned by Artie’s defection. They didn’t keep up the beating for long. Having a victim whom barely noticed their attentions no doubt took away from their fun. After a time, the punches and kicks stopped, and I was left alone with my thoughts.
The remainder of that day was hell.
I had to act like a friend to the Confederates, pretending that I held their values as my own, when all the time I wanted nothing more than to shoot them all down, rescue Jim and return to Grierson’s raiding party.
But parroting their opinions back to them was nowhere near as difficult as watching what they did to Jim and doing nothing. I felt physically ill when several of the rougher men took him off to a corner of the camp. Knowing what was likely to happen I followed, hoping I could mollify the men enough to prevent them from beating Jim too badly. Instead, my new brothers in arms tried to get me to join in on the fun. I left as soon as I could, giving the excuse that I wanted nothing more to do with that damned Yankee. I hoped they would not harm him too badly.
I spent the evening waiting to put my plan into action. As I had anticipated, my new compatriots insisted on celebrating my freedom with the whisky that they had somehow managed to acquire. I merely had to pretend to drink as much as the others, share the occasional story of valor against the enemy and wait for the inevitable to happen. I was fortunate that a disciplinarian like Grierson, who would have never allowed alcohol in his camp, did not lead this group.
Sometime after midnight, the last of the Confederates succumbed to inebriation and drifted into a drunken sleep. I waited another fifteen minutes to make sure that they were indeed all unconscious, then I acted. I first retrieved my gear and Jim’s and saddled both of our horses. Then I made my way to where I had last seen Jim.
The sight that greeted me at the edge of the camp nearly broke my heart.
He was where I had left him, hands bound behind him and tied in a sitting position to a large tree. His coat was torn in several places and smeared with what, in the dim firelight, might have been dirt, and might have been blood. His head was bowed down, and what I could see of his face was covered in a patchwork of bruises and cuts. He appeared to be asleep.
I approached him cautiously. I didn’t want him to accidentally give an alarm that would wake our enemies and prevent our escape. When I was perhaps a foot from him, I dropped down on my haunches.
“Jim,” I said in a harsh whisper. There was no response. “Jim, you have to wake up.”
His head shot up, and he glared at me with more hatred than I had ever seen directed at me.
“Why? So your friends can beat me again? Or are you here to do that yourself?”
I was frozen for a moment. I had been resigned to this end when I had chosen my path, but it still had not prepared me to hear how much the man I loved had come to hate me. I steeled myself, and tried to keep my voice steady.
“I’m going to get you out of here.”
“Why should I believe you?”
The problem was, there was no answer to that. I had betrayed Jim West, a man whom I knew did not trust easily. I had joked with his captors while he was beaten, drunk with them while he was deprived of food and water. There was no reason in the world that he should believe me. So, I told him the truth.
“Because I still love you.”
Jim let out a choked sound that may have been a laugh.
“You love me. You’ll forgive me for doubting your word, just now.”
I shook my head sadly.
“I had no choice, Jim. It was the only way I could see to get us both out of this.”
“You could have warned me. You could have at least done that.”
“There was no time. And they had to believe you thought you’d been betrayed.”
“They believed that all right.” He looked down at the ground and said no more.
I took the silence for acquiescence and began to cut through the ropes that bound him with my jack knife. I freed him from the tree, then cut loose his hands. I tried to help him stand, but he shook off my help. I should have checked him for more serious injuries, but it was clear he wouldn’t allow my touch. Instead, I handed him his saddlebags and gunbelt and moved off to where I had tied the horses.
I was nearly at the horses when I heard the unmistakable click of the hammer being pulled back on a Union issue revolver. I turned and found myself facing the muzzle of Jim’s gun, with a bleak looking Jim West at the other end of it.
I wanted to pull the trigger. I really did.
I hated Artemus Gordon more at that moment than I had hated anyone else in my life. I couldn’t forgive him, I couldn’t trust him and I wanted him dead.
But I couldn’t pull the trigger.
And Artie stood there and did nothing. He didn’t tell me to stop, he didn’t beg for his life. All he did was to look at me with an expression that was both resigned and despairing.
To my embarrassment, the hand holding the revolver began to shake. I steadied the gun with my other hand and gritted my teeth with the effort to remain motionless.
“Say something, damn it,” I said, choking out the words.
“There’s nothing I can say, Jim.” His voice was calm and reasonable. “I could tell you how sorry I am, and I am sorry, but I don’t think you’d believe me. You clearly don’t believe that I still love you. You’ll either have to trust me or shoot me.” He swallowed once. “But remember, if you shoot me, you might wake up the others, and then we’re both dead.”
He was right, of course. He was thinking, weighing all the alternatives, while I was behaving like a child.
I thumbed the gun’s hammer back into place and returned it to my holster.
“I’ll trust you. For now.”
“Thank you,” he said, his voice still sounding reasonable. “I don’t suppose you’ll let me look at your injuries yet.”
I shook my head. I couldn’t bear the thought of him touching me.
“No, I didn’t think so.” He shook his head sadly. “Come on, then, this way.” Walking his horse, he led me out of the camp and back towards our own troops.
I followed, concentrating only on putting one foot in front of the other, not on the awful changes this day had brought.
It took us all the night and most of the morning to return back to the main column. It seemed to take forever.
After he pulled the gun, Jim refused to talk to me at all. The silence rose between us like an unbreachable fortress. I tried once or twice to break down the wall that separated us, but every time Jim honored me with a look of such complete hatred that I soon halted my efforts.
It was close to noon when we came upon Grierson’s main column, swinging towards the Pearl River. The column had halted for a quick midday meal, with Blackburn and his men at the front. The lieutenant colonel hailed us and we reported to him.
I was the one who gave the report on our movements, though one that omitted certain key events like Jim threatening to kill me. I thought I was the best person to speak. Jim hadn’t seen much of what went on and still didn’t seem to be in a mood to communicate, even with someone other than me.
I was hoping that Blackburn would not notice the tension between us, but he was too shrewd a commander to miss the signs of discord between us.
“Is there anything you’re not telling me, Private Gordon?” he asked.
“No, sir.” Jim managed, though with difficulty, to hold eye contact with the colonel. Still, he didn’t look comfortable. I could see the doubt grow in Blackburn’s eyes.
“Fine. West, you’re dismissed.”
Jim needed no other encouragement to leave. With a quick salute, he was gone. Leaving me standing in front of our commanding officer, apprehension growing in my gut by the second.
Blackburn waited until Jim was well beyond earshot before he said anything. When he did finally speak, he was blunt.
“What happened out there, Gordon?”
“I’ve already told you, sir.”
“You’ve told me the bare bones. But something else happened. When you left here, you and that boy were the best of friends. Now you can barely look at each other.”
I held back for a moment, debating how much I should tell him. In the end, I decided he deserved to know at least part of the truth.
“Corporal West had some doubts about my loyalty to the Union cause. He thought I had actually gone over to the Confederate side and I couldn’t immediately correct his misconceptions.” The words were nothing less than the truth, but they still obscured the emotion that seethed around that truth.
“But he knows now that you were only doing what you had to do, surely.”
“Yes, sir. Intellectually.”
As I’ve said, Blackburn was a shrewd man. He could guess at the rest.
“That’s too bad, Gordon. You two worked well together.”
“Not anymore. I believe you should assign us both to other partners for long patrol.”
“Well, fortunately that’s one thing I won’t have to do. There are to be no more small patrols. The Butternut Guerrillas are to go out as one unit or not at all. On Colonel Grierson’s orders. “
“We’re too deep in enemy territory. Grierson feels that individual patrols are too vulnerable. Your experience should have taught you that.”
“I see your point,” I conceded.
Blackburn looked thoughtfully off into the distance for a moment.
“Would you like me to talk to West? Explain you were only doing what had to be done?”
I know he was trying to be helpful, but I didn’t think his intervention would accomplish anything.
“No thank you, sir. I think he needs to work it out on his own.”
“He probably does at that. Very well. Dismissed.”
“Sir.” I saluted, and then went to see to my horse and my own needs.
I tried to be optimistic, tried to believe that Jim would work through things on his own, see that I had done what was needed to save us both.
When he first arrived in our camp, I was drawn to Artemus Gordon as a friend. When Apollo died, he became my savior and more. But after our encounter with the Confederates, I could scarcely stand his presence.
It wasn’t a rational feeling; I was as aware of that then as I am now. Artie had made a difficult decision and done the only thing he could think of. He had saved the both of us. I should have been grateful.
Instead, I hated him.
And I couldn’t escape him. The Guerrillas were always together, and there were so few of us, just a dozen, that it was impossible to avoid any one man completely. But I tried. I did my best to stay away from him. I talked to others, to Sandy or Jack. Or I stuck to myself and talked to no one at all.
It was impossible, of course. Artie always seemed to be there, in the background, looking at me with concern and hurt.
I wonder now what the others thought. They must have seen that there was something wrong, but I was too wrapped up in my own pain to think of that then. I am thankful that no one blamed Artie, or at least not that I saw. He had been accepted almost from the start and I think they all realized that what had happened between us was no one’s fault, one of the fortunes of war.
I took refuge in our job. Concentrated on the riding and the skirmishes, on scouting forays and the destruction of the enemy’s supplies. I told myself that the pain was inconsequential, not anything I needed to consider.
After two days, the concerns of the cavalry really did begin to take over. We were beginning to be pressed on all sides by the Rebels. To avoid capture and confrontation, Grierson kept the column constantly on the move. We were lucky if we got two hours’ sleep a night, and sometimes we scouts didn’t get even that. Falling asleep in the saddle became a very real danger and our mounts were as exhausted as we were. I nearly did begin to think of Artie as just another member of the unit, someone I had to work with, but not anyone I need concern myself with.
Then Lieutenant Colonel Blackburn and his Butternut Guerrillas were ordered to take and hold Wall’s Bridge across the Tickfaw River and I found out what, and who, was truly important to me.
I honestly had thought that things could get no worse after we returned to the main force. I still had hope that Jim would see reason and forgive me. Or, if not, that his hatred and contempt would cease to have the power to hurt me. Of course, neither happened. Jim continued to avoid me as though I carried the Black Plague and his scorn wounded me afresh every time I encountered it.
I should have ignored him, pretended he meant as little to me as I clearly did to him. It would have been less painful. But I couldn’t. I kept a wary eye on him, watching out for his welfare, searching for an impossible opportunity to do him service and earn his thanks.
As our duties became more taxing, I increased my watch over him, encouraging Surby to let him have a few minutes more sleep than any of the rest of us had, taking special care that he did not sleep on the march during several night long forays and get left behind, as several of our company nearly did.
I talked to Surby a lot, those few days. He thought Jim and I were both crazy, and told me so continually. He thought Jim was crazy to take personally what had clearly been a tactical necessity and that I was crazy for not knocking the idiocy and stubbornness out of his head. He even offered several times to speak to Jim West for me, or thrash him. I always refused.
“Far be it from me to keep you from being a martyr, Gordon,” was all he would say on the matter after a while, and change the topic to other things.
By the time we were ordered ahead to secure Wall’s Bridge we were all exhausted and filthy. Jim had taken ignoring my presence to a fine art, and I was still foolishly keeping watch over him.
Somehow, Surby and Blackburn had more energy than the rest of us combined; I suspect it was sheer cussedness on their parts. Surby rode ahead with two other men and managed somehow to capture a group of Confederate soldiers even though they were outnumbered. I suspect Surby’s dust-encrusted, wild-eyed appearance terrified the men into surrender. Then again, the prisoners looked more like scarecrows than soldiers; perhaps they were just tired of the fighting.
Blackburn called a halt when we reached Surby and his captives. Blackburn and Surby examined the bridge and put their heads together in discussion while the rest of us looked around apprehensively.
The bridge wasn’t terribly impressive, an old wooden structure that would hold maybe four horses abreast, but it was the only one across the Tickfaw for twenty miles in either direction. The path to the bridge looked clear enough, but there was a woodlot just on the other side that looked to be within rifle range of even this side of the bridge. If I were a Confederate commander, I would have placed an ambush in those woods. Though I couldn’t hear what they were saying, I could see Blackburn and Surby gesturing at those woods and I knew they must have been discussing the same thing.
I glanced around, looking for Jim. I found him hovering nearer the bridge than the rest of us, no doubt eager to join the charge. Foolish boy.
Blackburn and Surby’s voices raised in argument then fell into silence. While Surby shook his head in obvious dismay, the commander waved the rest of us forward. Blackburn took the lead, with Jim not far behind him. I spurred my horse forward to meet the sergeant.
“We’re taking the bridge?” I asked.
“Yes, goddamn it,” Surby spat out. “I told him that woodlot’s likely to be an ambush, but he won’t listen. Grierson told us to take the bridge, so that’s what were going to do.”
“But if we wait for the main party, they’ll have cannon.”
“I know that and you know that. Hell, even Blackburn knows that, but he’s not listening right now. All he can see is a chance for a glorious victory.”
“Wonderful,” I said under my breath.
“Isn’t it just.” He looked forward to where Blackburn and Jim were approaching the bridge. “You keep watch over West; I’ll make sure our gallant leader doesn’t get himself killed.”
He didn’t need to urge me again. He took his horse to a gallop and I followed right behind. We were nearly even with Blackburn and West when a thunderous sound erupted from the woodlot. The predicted ambush was upon us. You could barely see the trees for smoke and flame. Volley after volley flew in our direction.
I had hoped that the attack would cause Blackburn to use more caution, but instead it seemed to goad him on. He whipped his horse on with his reins, Jim in his wake.
All I could think was that this was not how I wanted to lose Jim: in a futile attack with bad blood still between us. In fact, I didn’t want to lose him at all. I whipped my own horse on, trying to cut Jim off.
Still Blackburn drove forward, with Surby coming up just behind him. The bullets seemed to pass around our commander, as if he were protected by some divine right. I almost began to think that his mad gamble would pay off, that we would indeed be able to take the bridge.
God had another outcome in mind.
Blackburn’s horse stumbled, as if he’d tripped on a gopher hole. I thought it was simple clumsiness until I saw the blood flowing from his forelock. The beast made on last attempt to gain its feet before it went down with a sickening finality.
Blackburn staggered from underneath his mount, his gun held high in defiance of his enemy. I hoped that perhaps Surby, coming in from the side, would be able to get the colonel back to safety, but before that could happen a bullet took Blackburn in the chest. He staggered to his knees. Another ball caught him in the head and this time he collapsed, blood streaming freely from his wounds.
Surby pressed onwards like a man possessed, screaming and firing into the woods. It would have been comical if it hadn’t been so deadly. I followed behind, trying to put myself between Jim West and harm.
Surby was hit next. I vaguely noticed him wounded in the leg. He dismounted, and tried to get over to where Blackburn was, dragging his injured leg behind him.
Through all of this, Jim had remained untouched. He sat on his horse, a dazed expression on his face as the bullets flew around him. I knew his luck wouldn’t serve him for long if he didn’t retreat. I pulled even with him and grabbed his reins.
“We’ve got to move back,” I shouted over the roar of gunfire. “We can’t do any good here.”
At first, I didn’t think he’d even noticed me. He looked straight through me in silence.
I slapped him.
He grabbed my hand when I went to slap him again. This time when he looked at me I could tell he was again aware of his surroundings.
“We have to get out of here.”
He nodded and we both wheeled around.
I remember thinking that we were going to make it. That we would survive the ambush and live to tell the tale. I turned to Jim, though I’m not sure what I meant to say, when my horse lurched underneath me. I clutched at the saddle’s pommel as I began to fall. There was a burning pain in my arm as I hit the ground.
It was exactly like my nightmare.
My nightmare hadn’t had a bridge in it, and Apollo was gone, but otherwise it was the same: the ambush from the woods, men being shot down around me, the smell of gunpowder and fear in the air. Everything.
Except Artemus Gordon had never been in my nightmare. There had been no one in that bleak vision who had cared enough to pull me back from the danger, who had placed himself deliberately in harm’s way to save me. And that was exactly what Artie was doing: saving me.
I roused myself from the horror and began to move, following Artie’s lead. As I did so, I began to realize how unfair I’d been, blaming my friend for something that he’d had little control over, refusing his apologies and denying him the forgiveness that should have been automatic.
I had some apologies of my own to make.
Then Artie was shot and the nightmare crashed down around me once again.
Some people have said that they see disasters in slow motion. For me, it happened in a flash. One second, Artie was bent over his horse’s neck, riding as fast as he could, the next he and his horse were both on the ground. A flower of blood appeared on his sleeve, smearing with the dust of the road that covered him.
Artie looked up at me, his eyes clouded with hurt and confusion.
“Get out of here,” he croaked. He motioned me away with his good arm, wincing at the pain the movement caused.
I shook my head. It was my time to act and act fast.
I reached down and roughly grabbed Artie’s good arm to swing him onto my horse behind me. I deliberately ignored the convulsions of pain that wracked his body. Once he was firmly on my horse I wrapped that arm around my waist.
“Hang on,” I yelled at him.
He nodded in response, his jaw clenched, his face going white with shock.
I turned and spurred on my mount. The poor nag would never be a match for Apollo, but even he seemed to recognize the urgency of the situation and he moved faster than he had ever done before.
We made it back to the main column in ten minutes.
I suppose I should have reported to Colonel Grierson immediately, but all my thoughts were focused on the man behind me. I could feel Artie’s grip getting weaker as the seconds passed. So, for the first time in my life I ignored proper procedure and sought out our surgeon immediately.
I found the surgeon, Dr. Philip McKellar, near the back of the column with his two orderlies.
I pulled my horse up short and jumped from the saddle, then lifted Artie down as gently as I could. He was not a small man, taller than I was and stockier, but I didn’t even notice the weight as I lowered him to the ground.
Artie didn’t say a word. His skin had gone a horrid grey and it was clear he was holding onto consciousness only with difficulty.
McKellar didn’t even wait for me to say anything. He and one of his orderlies were immediately beside me, opening his medical bag, cutting Artie’s sleeve off around the wound. He examined the injury with a ruthless efficiency.
“Well, it doesn’t look too bad.” McKellar went to his medical bag and got what he needed to begin stitching up the wound. “The bullet missed the bone and just passed through meat. If we can keep it from getting infected, it should heal up fine in a few weeks.”
Artie winced at the first stitch, but stilled himself at once. I put my hand on his good arm to offer my support.
“Were there any other wounded, Corporal?” McKellar asked, still concentrating on Artie’s arm.
“Lieutenant Colonel Blackburn and Sergeant Surby were both shot. The fighting was too hot to pull either of them out.”
“Were they badly hurt?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, not sure where this was going.
“That’s not good.” McKellar finished bandaging Artie’s wound. “I’ve been told we’re to travel at double-time from here on. We won’t be able to take anyone with serious injuries.” He patted Artie on the shoulder. “Luckily, your friend here will be able to ride, but anyone who can’t will have to be left behind.”
“It’s for the best. Anyone that badly injured wouldn’t survive the ride. Prisoners will get medical treatment sooner than anyone who travels with us.”
I was very thankful that Artie hadn’t been more badly injured. I also felt even guiltier that he had been injured at all trying to save my worthless hide.
McKellar patted Artie on the shoulder.
“You should be fine now, Private.” He handed me a small bottle of carbolic acid and a roll of bandages. “Just watch him for shock; he’s lost a fair amount of blood. And clean his wound as often as possible and rebandage it. Now get out of here and back to your unit.”
The gruff doctor’s orders left no room for defiance. I helped Artie to his feet. He swayed unsteadily, so I escorted him over to where my horse was waiting patiently and boosted him into the saddle. I could walk until we got him a new mount.
As we moved toward the head of the column, the sounds of fighting became louder. The shouts of men mingled with the explosion of cannonfire.
“What’s going on?” I asked a hard-bitten looking sergeant when we got closer to the front of the column.
“The colonel’s taken a bunch of men and is blowing the hell out of the Rebels,” the man replied with satisfaction. “We should have the bridge within the hour.”
“Have you seen any of the scouts?”
He looked at me closely.
“You’re one of them, aren’t ‘cha?”
I nodded in response.
“Thought so. Well, the ones that were left went back with Grierson. I hear your commanding officer got hurt pretty bad. I’m sorry about that.”
“You’re welcome. Take care of your friend. He doesn’t look too good himself.”
I glanced up at Artie to discover the sergeant was right. Artie had just about lost the battle to remain conscious. I held his leg to keep him on the saddle and resumed my trek up the line.
When we were nearly at the front, Artie finally slumped forward in the saddle, dead to the world.
Fortunately, just then I saw Sandy Bannon.
“Sandy,” I shouted. He galloped up to where I stood.
“West, what the hell…?”
I didn’t let him finish the thought.
“Help me get Gordon down from there, would you.”
We both struggled to get Artie’s dead weight out of the saddle and down on the ground. I put my bedroll under his head in an attempt to make him comfortable.
“What happened to you two?” he asked.
I shook my head, trying to decide what to answer.
“Artie tried to get me to retreat when the ambush hit. Got himself shot for his trouble.”
Sandy looked down at Artie, then back at me speculatively.
“Does this mean things are fixed between the two of you?”
“I think it means they’re even worse. I’ve done nothing but treat Artie badly and he just keeps saving my life.”
“He’s your friend, West. The rest of us have realized that even if you haven’t.”
“But I haven’t been a very good friend back.”
I made a decision and put the carbolic and bandages in Bannon’s hands.
“Could you look after him, Sandy? The surgeon says he’ll need to have the wound cleaned and bandaged as often as we can manage on the road.”
“Why don’t you do it, West?”
“I can’t.” I started to pull my gear off my horse, leaving the saddle. “I’ll get another horse; Artie can use mine.”
“West, you idiot. Get back here,” Sandy shouted after me.
I shook my head and kept walking.
“Take care of him, Sandy,” I said, not even looking back.
Hate had kept me away from Artie before. Shame would do it just as effectively now.
I hefted my saddlebags onto my shoulder and cursed myself for squandering the love and friendship of such a man as Artemus Gordon.
I regained consciousness to find myself flat on my back with Sandy Bannon standing over me and Jim West nowhere to be found.
I pushed myself up to a sitting position with my good hand.
“Glad to see you’re back in the land of the living, Artie,” Sandy said with a smile.
“You and me both.” I tested the movement of the wounded arm and grimaced at the pain. “Where’s Jim?” I tried to be casual with the question.
“Lord only knows,” Sandy said with a sign. He pointed behind me. “He left you his horse. Said he’ll get another one.”
“Someone should really get that boy to listen to reason.”
“I suspect he’ll only do that at the point of a gun, Sandy.”
“You may be right. Can you stand by yourself?”
I tried to rise, but my head swam alarmingly.
“I didn’t think so.”
Sandy grabbed my hand and pulled me up.
“I don’t suppose this is the best thing for you, but we’ve just had word that we’re pulling out in five minutes. Anyone who can’t ride is to be left to be taken prisoner.” Sandy pushed me up into my saddle, then mounted his own horse.
“Then I guess I’ll have to ride,” I said grimly. “How about Surby and Blackburn?”
Sandy clucked his tongue.
“Neither of them can travel. Surby’s got a nasty slug in his thigh. He can’t ride. Blackburn’s even worse. He was shot in the head and chest. It’s a miracle he’s breathing at all, and I’ve heard the surgeon doesn’t expect him to last more than a day or two, even with medical care.”
“Too bad. They’re both good men.”
“Yes, they are.”
We were both silent for a few minutes.
Sandy looked at me speculatively, then drew a deep breath.
“I don’t suppose, this is any of my business, but what happened between you and West?”
“You’re right. It’s none of your business.” I hoped, futilely, that Sandy would drop the topic.
“I’m not the only one who’s curious, Artie. All of us are wondering.”
I shifted uncomfortably in my saddle, realizing I would have to explain at least some of what happened. Better if it was to a sympathetic ear, like Sandy Bannon. Of course, there were things I would never tell anyone, not even a sympathetic ear.
“Jim doesn’t trust me anymore. He thought I’d really betrayed him in that Confederate camp.”
“He’s a fool,” Sandy said with finality. “You had no other choice. And you managed to get both of you out alive.”
“He’s not a fool, Sandy, just young.”
“He’s in need of a good thrashing.”
I laughed, then sucked in a quick breath when the movement jostled my arm.
“What’s so funny?”
“Surby threatened to do just that to Jim.”
“Great men think alike,” Sandy said with a grin.
“In this case, it’s more a case of ‘fools seldom differ.’ Besides, I think Jim would prove immune to that treatment. He’s too stubborn.”
“You’re probably right. I just hate to see any friendship end like this.”
I didn’t tell Sandy that it was more than just a friendship that had shattered in that Rebel camp. I just nodded in sad agreement.
“What are you going to do?” Sandy asked.
“Nothing,” I replied. Which wasn’t the whole truth. I was going to do something even more painful than ‘nothing.’ I was going to let James West go, with my blessing, to make a life free from me. I hoped he would find some measure of peace. I doubted I would.
The call came for the column to move forward, and we urged our horses to a trot.
That final ride out of enemy territory was the most difficult part of the whole operation. From Wall’s Bridge onward, we rode without stopping. We lost horses steadily to exhaustion and had to commandeer new ones from farms that we passed, which I’m sure made us even less popular with the local citizens.
We weren’t even sure where we were going. Rumors flew up and down the column. We were going to Vicksburg; we were en route to New Orleans. Finally, it was confirmed we were headed for Baton Rouge.
I was lucky to have Sandy Bannon as a friend during that ride. He made sure my wound was kept clean and free of infection. He also made sure I didn’t fall out of my saddle and onto my head, something I was in great danger of doing more than once.
I didn’t see James West once in those last two days.
It probably wasn’t hard for him to avoid me. With over fifteen hundred men in the company, you couldn’t see either end from where Sandy and I were in the column. I was actually thankful that he was staying away. It made it easier for me to keep my resolution to let him go.
We arrived in Baton Rouge on May 2, dirty, exhausted and ready to drop. I’m told we’d ridden over six hundred miles, the last eighty in a little over a day. I believed it.
The citizens of Baton Rouge lined the streets as we entered the city. They were loyal to the Confederate cause, but they seemed in awe of what we’d done. I heard later that a man on the street told Grierson he’d done “the boldest thing ever done.” It was nothing short of the truth.
After parading through the town, we bivouacked in a magnolia grove on the outskirts of the town. Grierson, who still seemed to have energy to spare, visited the entire camp. He arrived at the place where Sandy and I were setting up our camp in the early evening of that day.
“Bannon, Gordon. I’m glad you made it.” Grierson sounded honestly pleased.
“Thank you, sir,” Sandy said.
“I was sorry we had to leave Blackburn and Surby. They were good soldiers.” He looked closely at my arm. “How’s the wound, Gordon? I heard you pulled young West out of the fire at that ambush.”
“The arm’s fine, Colonel. I’m told it should be healed in a few weeks.”
“Then you’ll be fit for our next mission,” he said with a grin.
And then Colonel Benjamin Grierson gave me the best opportunity to free Jim West from my presence.
“Bannon, I don’t suppose you could suggest a man to take a message to Vicksburg. We badly need to inform Grant that our mission has been a success, but the enemy controls the telegraph lines between us and him.”
I put a hand on Sandy’s arm, stopping his answer and supplying my own.
“Jim West is your man, sir. He’s smart and resourceful. If anyone can get through to Grant, he can.”
Sandy shot me a look of disbelief, but I silenced him with a look of my own. Grierson, however, was pleased with the plan.
“Grand idea, Gordon. I’ll send word to that young man now.”
With a salute he was gone.
“Why?” Sandy asked me.
“He needs to be away from me. I can give him that, at least. And Grant might find him useful.”
“I was wrong before,” Sandy said in reply. “West isn’t the only stubborn fool in this outfit.”
I didn’t reply, just gave a vicious tug on the guy rope of our tent.
I had a lot of time to consider my situation on the final ride to Baton Rouge. Conflicting thoughts and emotions roiled through my mind, doing battle, with no clear winner at the end.
The object of all my musings was, of course, Artemus Gordon. My emotions concerning the man were so complex that I wasn’t sure what I thought any more.
I had loved him, and not so very long ago. But I also hated him and his betrayal in the Confederate camp. Even the revelation that his treason had been nothing but a ruse had not killed my resentment. Then he had rescued me again, and the resentment began to burn away in the face of gratitude. Which brought me back again to love.
Did I still love Artie? I wasn’t sure, but I thought there might still be some of that emotion remaining. I honestly wanted a chance to find out if we could resurrect the feelings that had grown between us in those early days of the raid.
I needed to talk to Artie, but to do that I was going to have to overcome the twin barriers of my own pride and embarrassment. I wrestled with those demons until we were a mere two hours outside of Baton Rouge, before I finally realized that a possibility at happiness was worth more than all the pride in the world. With that revelation it felt as though a great weight had been removed from my shoulders. I could see the road forward, and it was one on which I thought I could see Artie and me riding together.
I started devising what I would say to Artie, when I saw him. I determined to seek him out as soon as we arrived at our bivouac.
Once in Baton Rouge, I first saw to my horse. The poor beast I’d been given after the ambush was as exhausted as any of the men. I walked him till he was cool, rubbed him down with straw and gave him oats and water. Only then did I see to my own needs, eating a quick meal of trail rations and washing the worst of the dust from my face.
I was just about to set out to find where Artie had camped, going over my speeches in my head, when I saw Colonel Grierson riding towards me.
The colonel had been everywhere in the past day. Where the rest of us had been drained by the final leg of our journey, he seemed to have been energized.
“Yes, sir.” I stood at attention and greeted him with a salute.
“At ease, son.” He swung off his horse and clapped me on the shoulder. “You’re just the man I’m looking for. How are you, West?”
“Fine, sir,” I said, wondering what business he could possibly have with me, a mere corporal.
“That’s good. I have an assignment for you.”
“I need a courier to deliver word of our success to General Grant at Vicksburg. You’re to take a fresh horse and provisions and leave immediately.”
I felt as though I’d been struck in the stomach. All my plans for a reconciliation with Artie evaporated like early morning mist on a pond.
“Sir, may I say goodbye to Private Gordon first?” We wouldn’t have time for any of my carefully considered arguments and apologies, but I needed to at least see Artie before I left.
“No time, son. Anyway, Gordon knows you’ll be leaving.”
“‘Course he does. He’s the one who recommended you for the job.”
It felt like a second betrayal. Here I had been gathering my courage to seek out Artemus Gordon and ask his forgiveness, and he had managed to have me sent away.
I couldn’t speak, so frozen was I with dismay. Grierson must have taken my silence for assent.
“See the hostler for a fresh horse. You can pick up the dispatches for Grant from my tent when you’re ready to leave.”
He was back on his own horse before I could summon an objection. He gave me a parting salute and I returned it like an automaton.
I stood there, rooted to the spot for several long minutes after Grierson rode off. I knew I should be following my orders but they seemed irrelevant when the last hope I’d had of a reunion with Artie had fallen dead at my feet.
Artie had recommended I be sent to Vicksburg. What I had mistaken for affection, for care at Wall’s Bridge had been only duty. Now, his duty discharged, he wanted no more reminder of the mistake he had made. That we both had made.
Perhaps Artie was right. Perhaps there was no going back. Perhaps we couldn’t return to that brief time we had before everything had gone wrong. We had to move on.
I finally forced my leaden feet to move, taking the first small step on the road to Vicksburg and away from Artemus Gordon.
Six years later the war was over. I had served with the 6th Illinois Cavalry for the remainder of that terrible conflict, been decorated for bravery and discharged honorably. I return to the stage, acting in companies in Louisville, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Chicago. I finally drifted across the Canadian border and settled in Toronto, where my old sergeant had seen a play he had remembered so fondly. It was a staid city, full of old, British money and morality, but I found a niche there. I acted regularly in the classics or melodrama or whatever was popular at the moment. I even toured occasionally to London, Kingston and even Montreal.
The winter of eighteen hundred and sixty-nine found me playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice to positive reviews and appreciative audiences. I was happy, content and successful in my chosen profession. And I had forgotten all about James West.
That was what I told myself, anyway.
In truth, I never stopped thinking about Jim. I would catch myself wondering what he was doing, how he had survived the war. I had kept track of his progress for a time, seeking out news from soldiers we encountered who had served with Grant. Seems that General Ulysses S. Grant had been duly impressed with young Corporal West and had made him his aide de camp almost as soon as he had arrived with news of Grierson’s raid. During the war West’s career was a string of triumphs and promotions. I heard his rank at the end of the war was Captain.
After a time, hearing about Jim caused me more pain than pleasure and I stopped all attempts to seek out news of him. Rumors of his exploits would sometimes drift back to me via mutual acquaintances or those who knew we had served together in the War Between the States, but I would squelch my interest and change the topic.
Jim West was the one true regret of my life. I mourned for the love we’d shared, the love that had been killed in its infancy. I hoped he had found his own peace and happiness and that he had found a way to forgive me. I told myself I had achieved a measure of contentment, if not happiness, and sometimes I even believed it.
Such was my state of mind on that March evening as I prepared my Shylock makeup and costume for yet another triumphant performance.
I was prepared for the knock on the door when it came. It was about the time that the stage manager usually gave the half-hour to curtain warning.
“Yes, I know,” I barked out automatically. “I’ll be ready on time.”
The first surprise came when there was no sarcastic comment in response. The stage manager and I had a running, friendly argument going. He complained about my tardiness and I complained about his peevishness. Instead, after a pause there was another knock at the door, more tenuous this time.
“Come in,” I said, realizing that it wasn’t Charlie with his usual warning.
The door opened hesitantly, but still no one entered. I turned so I could see the hallway more clearly.
“I said, you could come in.”
The shadowy figure lurking outside finally stepped within, and I found myself confronted by James West.
To say I was surprised would be understating the case. I was completely discomfited and could feel the blood draining from my face. Jim didn’t look much more composed himself. His eyes only held mine for a moment before they darted around, taking in their surroundings.
I, however, could not take my eyes from Jim West. The years had been good to him. He had matured in the six years since I’d seen him, gone from a callow youth who had seen too much fighting to a fully grown man with a gravity that spoke well of his character. His form had filled out as well. His shoulders and chest had a broadness I didn’t remember and he carried himself with an easy grace. And the well-tailored clothes he wore suited him better than the blue uniform I had first seen him in.
Jim recovered first.
“Hello, Artie,” he said in a voice that was slightly deeper than I remembered it and tinged with shyness.
“Jim.” I struggled to find the right words. “This is… unexpected.”
“I’m in Toronto on business. For President Grant.”
“Yes, I’d heard you were working with him.” I recovered.
“He’s asked me to serve on his staff.”
“Oh,” I said, running out of things to say. Or maybe it was that I had so many things to say that I couldn’t start with any of them.
The silence grew between us, and again it was Jim who broke it.
“I was wondering if you would have dinner with me after your performance. I’ve heard it’s a theatrical tradition.”
I was torn. Seeing Jim again made me realize how desperately I had missed his presence all these years. Yet I was afraid it would only open up old wounds. Then again, those wounds had never really healed in the first place.
I made my decision.
“I would be happy to dine with you tonight.”
“I’m glad,” he said, though his face remained completely impassive. “I’ll meet you at the stage door. I’ve already made the reservations.”
I didn’t even think till afterwards what it said for his confidence that he had made the reservations before he even saw me.
“Fine. I’ll see you then.”
He walked towards the door, but there was one last thing I wanted to know.
“I was wondering if you’re staying for the play?”
“Oh yes.” He favored me with the first smile I’d seen from him since his unexpected reappearance. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“Good,” I replied, then he left, shutting the door behind him.
On further consideration, though, I wasn’t sure if knowing that Jim West would be watching my performance that night pleased me or terrified me. I decided not to think of it at all and returned to applying my makeup.
I have faced enemy armies, sadistic assassins and duplicitous diplomats, but seeing Artemus Gordon again after six years was one of the hardest things I have ever done.
Even when I knocked on the door of his dressing room, I wasn’t sure I could go through with it, but when I heard his voice I knew I had to. Hearing him again, even if it was only to voice his annoyance at his stage manager, brought back all the feelings I had for the man and renewed my resolve.
Still, it was a shock to walk into that dressing room and see Artie, a few years older, but otherwise not much changed.
I’m afraid I wasn’t as suave as I had wanted to be, but I did get out my invitation and have it accepted, which is all I was hoping for.
I enjoyed the play. Artie brought a complexity to the role of Shylock that made me realize just how little I knew about the man that I had traveled all this distance to see. Seeing him onstage also took away some of my nervousness, so by the time the performance was over, most of my equanimity had been restored.
I made my way to the stage door. A crowd of well wishers and admirers thronged the entrance, so I held back. I didn’t see Artie exit the door, but I did see the commotion begin amongst the crowd. At last the mob parted and he emerged from their midst. When he caught sight of me a look passed across his face that was absolutely impossible to read. For a moment I thought that perhaps I had miscalculated and this was all a terrible mistake. Then a smile replaced the inscrutable look and it was as if the sun had broken through a thundercloud.
I put all my doubts aside and moved forward to greet him with an answering smile. Then we headed off to the restaurant.
I had done my homework. I’d made reservations for a private room at the most exclusive establishment in the city. It was within easy walking distance of the theatre, so we eschewed the hansom cabs that were waiting on the street and let our feet take us there.
It was a beautiful night. The first hints of spring were in the air and the stars were out, flashing in the sky like diamonds.
At first there was only an awkward silence between us. Soon enough, though, Artie’s garrulous nature took over and he was telling me stories of theatrical gossip and performances gone horribly awry. The years seemed to fall away and I was once again a twenty-one year old corporal listening to the tales of the exotic newcomer in our midst. After a particularly ridiculous account of flubbed lines and errant props I was laughing in spite of myself.
We were shown to our room at the restaurant, all red velvet and overstuffed furniture, fine linen and finer china. The maitre d’ and waiters took especial care with our service; to this day I’m not sure if it was because of my position as an emissary for the American president, which I had taken care to publicize for just this reason, or Artie’s status as a celebrated thespian.
Once our order was taken and wine served, we settled in for a pleasant evening with, I hoped, a positive outcome.
“What’s your business in Toronto, Jim?” Artie asked before taking an appreciative sip of the wine.
“President Grant wants to set up an intelligence organization. The Secret Service. He’s asked me to help with the recruiting.”
“And you’re planning on offering the position to someone in Toronto?” Artie sounded surprised.
I didn’t answer him right away. Instead I took a sip of the wine myself. I had learned a bit about strategy in the years since I had last seen Artie. This situation wouldn’t benefit from the direct approach. I could tell that Artie realized I was avoiding the issue, but he appeared willing to let the matter pass.
After a suitable pause, I finally spoke.
“I saw Sandy Bannon last month.”
“Really? And how is Sandy?”
“He’s fine. He has a family now. Settled in Chicago and started his own shop. I even got him to make me this suit.”
Artie looked at the garment with a discriminating eye.
“Sandy does good work.” He took another swallow of wine. “I don’t suppose you were trying to recruit a tailor into this Secret Service of yours.”
“No. I was in Chicago on another errand and decided to look him up.” I tried to look nonchalant. “We talked about you.”
Artie sat up a bit straighter in his chair, but said nothing.
“He asked if I’d seen you since the war. I told him I hadn’t.” I took another drink, this time of water. My mouth had inexplicably gone as dry as the Gobi desert. “He said we were both senseless fools.”
“Did he now?” Artie said with a studied coolness that couldn’t be anything but feigned.
“Yes he did. And do you know why?”
“I can guess.”
“He said that we’d both let our friendship be destroyed because we were both willful, stubborn and wouldn’t listen to anyone.”
The atmosphere of bonhomie that we had both been cultivating vanished as if it had never existed. Artie looked at me with a basilisk stare. I held his gaze without backing down.
Artie blinked once before speaking.
“Why are you here, Jim?”
“I came here to find you, Artie.”
And that was the real question, wasn’t it, the question I had come here to answer. Words had never been my strong suit, but words were all I had to make this situation right. So I didn’t rush. I drew in a deep breath, collected my thoughts and only then did I speak.
“Because I haven’t gone a day in the last six years without thinking about you. Because no one, before or since the war, has cared for me as much as you did; no one has placed my safety above their own, been as selfless as you were.
“Because Sandy was right. I was a senseless fool for not recognizing what I had until it was gone. Because I only realized the truth when it was too late.
“Because I love you.”
Artie’s face had remained impassive throughout my speech. When I was finished, he folded the napkin on his lap with a cool deliberation, then stood up. My heart began to beat staccato in my chest and I struggled to maintain my composure. I was sure I had miscalculated, that Artemus Gordon was about to leave my life for the final time.
Instead, he moved around the table and towards me. He pulled my chair out from the table then offered me a hand to help me stand. And when I was on my feet he pulled me into the fiercest embrace I have ever experienced.
I relinquished myself into his arms and his care.
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