It was never something they planned. Never anticipated, never foreseen. But once started, it was always inevitable.
This time the catalyst had been a single touch.
Jim had been standing outside the Wanderer, jacket off, shirt open, sleeves rolled up, watching a sunset that was a brilliant wash of a multitude of colours. The warm breeze of Indian Summer kissed his face, making him feel alive and invigorated. He drew in a breath to call Artie from the train, to encourage his partner to share the beauty of the evening, when he heard the steps behind him.
It had been nothing, really. A finger lightly drawn across the point where his collar ended. The sensation was gone before he could react. Jim deliberately turned his head to find Artie climbing into the train. A wink, and Artie vanished inside.
In spite of the warmth of the evening air, Jim felt a delicious shiver run down his spine. Smiling, he turned to follow his friend inside.
Artie was waiting in his bedroom, as Jim had known he would be. Artie, too, had abandoned his jacket, had partially unbuttoned his shirt to reveal pale, smooth skin. The respectable ladies who seemed to so love Artemus' manners would have been scandalized. Jim found himself aroused.
Jim reached out his hand and placed a single fingertip on Artie's exposed skin. A quick motion, and the next button was undone, then another. Jim slid his palm flat against Artie's chest, then further inside the shirt, resting it finally against Artie's ribs.
His partner viewed him through half-lidded eyes, a smile curling at the corners of his mouth. They held that position for a long minute, neither moving, both allowing the expectation of what was to come to grow, intensify. Jim felt the arousal stir in his loins, felt his member harden and lengthen.
An animal moan grew in Jim's throat. Just as the sound was about to burst free, Artie reached out and pulled Jim towards him. All sense of control was lost as the desire ignited between them. Mouth warred with mouth in tenderness and brutality.
Subtlety abandoned, Jim tore open Artie's shirt and pushed him onto the bed. He pulled off Artie's boots, kicked off his own, then occupied himself with removing Artie's clothes. When his partner was naked on the bed--face flushed, cock hard and weeping--Jim paused to admire his handiwork. He lay on his side, smiling in satisfaction as Artie panted hard beside him, eyes closed. After a few long moments with no further action from his partner, Artie opened his eyes, appetite flaring in his expression. With a low growl, he rolled over, trapping Jim beneath him. Jim's clothes joined Artie's on the floor in a matter of moments, leaving them skin to skin.
Jim felt his lust build even higher as they grappled together, using hands and tongues and teeth. Cock stroked against cock as they both strained towards completion, towards release.
Before either of them could attain that goal, Jim was rolled onto his stomach. This was never planned either, never discussed. Whoever had a greater need would take, would slake his thirst. The positions would be reversed soon enough.
Artie reached for the cream that he kept by his bedside. Jim felt himself being prepared, then gasped in pain and pleasure as Artie entered him.
Jim's own cock softened slightly with the dual sensations, until Artie grasped it in a firm hold. Artie thrust into him slowly at first, then gradually faster and faster until he had them both near the flash point. Jim arched his head back, felt his balls tighten and his climax build. Just as he thought he could feel no more, Artie bit down on his shoulder, a teasing nip that would no doubt leave a bruise. Jim gasped, his pleasure flaring even as his cock released its seed, splattering both his belly and the sheets. Artie's climax came soon after, drawn by the spasms of Jim's own orgasm.
Spent, Jim let his muscles relax, enjoying the feel of Artie's now softening cock deep inside of him. Artie's good, solid bulk held him tightly, protecting him from the world. He drifted to sleep, awakening only slightly when Artie pulled free from him at last and cleaned them both.
"Hedonist," Artie said as Jim let out an appreciative moan.
"Guilty as charged," Jim said, rolling onto his back.
Artie planted a kiss at the base of Jim's throat, then drew him into a firm embrace. And they both slept.
Jim awoke alone, and that too was inevitable. And disappointing.
Just once, Jim would have liked to wake up wrapped in Artie's arms, his partner's head tucked beside his shoulder. How Artie felt about this, he had no idea.
It wasn't quite that they avoided talking about these things, but somehow it amounted to the same thing. They would hint, they would tease, they would cajole, but that was as close as either of them came to admitting what happened between them at night.
Jim turned on his side and drew a hand across the abandoned pillow that no longer held even a trace of his partner's heat. He tried to shake off the regret, before swinging out of bed and preparing himself for the day.
Jim was buttoning his vest as he entered the sitting room and found Artie at the telegraph key, taking a message. Artie threw him a single smile before he returned to his task. As always, there was nothing in Artie's face or manner that gave any hint of what they'd done last night. As always, Jim strangled the disappointment that snaked through his guts. Instead of dwelling on what couldn't be, he sat down to wait for Artie to finish the message.
When Artie had scribbled down the last few words and sent a brief confirmation, Jim spoke. "What is it?" he asked, pleased that his voice was steady when he felt so at sea. The few words he had caught seemed pure nonsense.
"I'm not sure," Artie said distractedly. "It's coded." He pulled a book off the shelf and set to work on the message.
Jim leaned in closer as Artie worked at deciphering the message. After several minutes Artie finished and put his pencil down with a sigh.
"Well?" Jim asked.
Artie answered with one word.
"I thought they'd already been stopped. Several times."
"Yes, well it seems they're going to try to invade Canada. Again. Or so Colonel Richmond's information suggests."
"Are they still crazy enough to think that Britain will trade Ireland for Canada?"
"Apparently," Artie said. "And since Grant promised to prosecute any further incursions into neighbouring countries..."
"We've been asked to stop them," Jim completed the sentence.
"With the help of the local army outpost, yes."
"And where is this supposed invasion supposed to take place?"
"No one's entirely sure, but the rumour is they'll try along the Manitoba border. They're hoping to capitalize on the Metis unrest."
"Manitoba's a big place, Artie. Was the colonel any more specific?"
"Unfortunately not." Artie consulted the message again before consigning it to the fire of the stove. "It looks like the Fenians are heading for St. Paul, so we're to wait there and assess the situation."
Jim looked out the window at the harvested fields that surrounded them and considered the situation.
"St. Paul is over two days from here. If we don't know where, do we at least know when?"
"I suppose we should leave right away."
"Then I'll tell Sam to get the boiler fired up."
Jim walked slowly to the front of the train, attempting to sort out his own feelings along the way, all the while cursing his foolishness.
This morning was like a hundred others. Artie was behaving the same as always. They had a mission that was likely to be neither more nor less difficult than any other.
The only difference was in himself.
He no longer knew what to make of his night time encounters with Artie. What had started in friendship and affection had become something more complicated, at least for Jim. And Artie's silence on the matter was also part of the problem.
Jim bit his lip and considered what he should do.
He could let things continue as they were. He might almost have considered that if the status quo were not making him so miserable.
He could talk about it with Artie. Also impossible. He didn't have the words, and he wasn't sure what Artie would think about his partner suddenly becoming as lovesick as some of the pink and beribboned girls they encountered.
Or he could stop sharing his partner's bed.
Jim thought that last course of action over carefully. It would be difficult, not to feel Artie's skin, his touch, his caress. But perhaps it would be easier than feeling this doubt and unease. Perhaps it would be for the best.
Steeling his resolve, he continued on his way to speak with Sam and set them on their way to St. Paul.
Jim managed to keep his resolution for the first day of their journey. He avoided any touch of Artie's that was likely to inflame his desire and, pleading fatigue, slept alone.
The second day began with the two of them in opposite corners of the sitting room as the countryside sped past them. As much as he tried to avoid it, Jim could feel Artie's eyes on him, questioning.
That night, Artie's attentions were more overt, insistent. And Jim found that he couldn't resist a second night, couldn't take seeing the almost hurt that had haunted Artie's eyes all day. They sprawled that night in Jim's bed, limbs entwining in passion. For a few hours Jim thought that perhaps he could live with just this much and no more. But the next morning, he again awoke alone, and knew that he had been right. It must end.
It would be easy once they arrive in St. Paul. They never indulged their desires while on an assignment. And after the mission... he would deal with the after when it came.
The third evening found them entering St. Paul, the Minnesota city looking bright and bustling after the never-ending fields, pastures and whistle stops that they had passed through on the way. It was still recognizably a frontier town, but one moving fast into middle class respectability. Churches and banks were everywhere under construction, and the capital building dominated the city.
When the train was safely on a siding and their engineer and fireman were taking a well-earned rest, Jim and Artie set off to investigate the city, each exercising his own talents.
Jim dressed in his finest suit and started out to explore the respectable areas of town. He strolled on the main street, in the neighbourhood of the Grand Opera House, and indulged in a drink in the lounge of the finest hotel.
Artie was to use his actor's skill, playing the part of an itinerant worker, haunting the levee where the trains came in and the less reputable drinking establishments where the working class took their ease.
Jim was the first to return to the train that evening, with no news of the Fenians. He was tired and footsore, with only rumour and innuendo to show for his efforts.
He adjourned to his room, stripping down to his shirtsleeves and sluicing off the grime of the day, then settled in the sitting room to await Artie's return.
It was a long wait. Artie was not in the company of good society; the men to be found in the establishments he was visiting would feel no need to return to their homes at a reasonable hour. It was well into the early hours of the morning when Artie finally made his way into the train, stumbling, just a little, with fatigue and the drink his cover had required he consume.
Jim was still sitting up when he arrived. He had told himself that he was simply eager to hear what Artie had found, but, as the hours passed and there was no sign of him, he had finally admitted that he was more than a little anxious about Artie's safety.
"Jim, my lad, how kind of you to wait up for me." Artie said. He untied the slightly unsavoury kerchief around his neck and collapsed onto the settee.
"I was hoping you had better luck than I did."
"You didn't find anything?"
"Not unless you count vague rumours of Irish rebels who may, or may not, be on their way."
"Well, I'm afraid the working class denizens of this town have no more information about the Fenians than do their betters."
"The language in here," Artie said, fanning his hand and affecting the simpering accent of a Southern belle. "What with my sensitive ears and all, I simply must retire."
"Good night, Artie," Jim said with a smile. "I'll see you in the morning."
Artie started to move out of the sitting room, but stopped before reaching the door.
"I don't suppose..." Artie began, before cutting himself off abruptly. He looked at Jim with an expression that managed to be both utterly naked and completely opaque. Startled, Jim could only blink and cast his eyes down at the floor.
"No, I didn't think so," Artie said wearily. He dusted some of the grime off his sleeve, headed to the back of the train. "Good night, Jim."
"Good night, Artie," Jim said automatically, while trying to fathom exactly what had passed between them. He felt like he had been tried and found most definitely wanting.
In spite of his own fatigue, sleep was suddenly an unattractive option. He sat up for an hour more, poring over papers that might as well have been written in Sanskrit for all the sense they made to him.
When it was long past three, he could avoid it no longer and made for his own bed.
If their first day in St. Paul had ended in failure, their second day started with rousing, if accidental, success. No sooner had they dressed and eaten and gone out to launch what Jim could only assume would be more fruitless investigations, than they heard a clamouring commotion from downtown. With only a glance between them, they set off at a trot. They arrived on Wabasha Street to find an impromptu parade of thirty of the grimiest, most undisciplined would-be soldiers that Jim had ever seen. The only thing that kept them from being completely farcical was the proud man who led them.
Artie tapped Jim's shoulder.
"I don't think this bunch is up to invading a country, do you?" he asked with a grin.
"No," Jim replied. He looked back at the Fenians and cast an evaluating eye on their ranks. "But some of them look like they could cause trouble enough."
"Then we'll just have to keep an eye on them, won't we."
Jim nodded, and they both set off to follow the stragglers, a mob of St. Paul's citizens in their wake.
They arrived at the State Capital just as the officer in charge of the Fenians was striding up the building's steps. Jim had to admit that the man looked charismatic, even if his men were little better than scarecrows.
The officer held up a hand to silence the crowd.
"Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce myself. I am General O'Neill of the Fenian Brotherhood. These brave young men and I have come to your fair city on a mission of freedom."
There was some cheering and much curious murmuring from the crowd. Jim pushed his way closer to the Fenian leader, dragging Artie in his wake.
"We are here to give the brave people of Ireland their freedom from the jackboot of the English." That earned him as many catcalls as cheers. "And here to drive those same English from the lands to your north." There were more jeers and more cheering. "To that end, we will be holding a rally this very evening in your glorious Grand Opera House at eight o'clock. We invite all the good people of St. Paul to join us there and voice their support for the cause. Thank you." With a final wave, he leapt from the steps and was gone.
The crowd around them erupted into a chorus of raised voices and excited chatter. Listening in on the conversations around them, Jim was relieved to note that almost all were treating the Fenians as entertainment, a diversion from their daily routine. There were very few voices that could be heard in their support.
Jim and Artie fought their way free of the crowd and caught their breath in a small laneway.
"Looks like we have an engagement for this evening," Artie said.
"It does look that way." Jim paused and looked back at the people still milling about of Wabasha behind them, then down at his own clothes. "I wonder what one wears to a Fenian rally?"
"I'm sure you'll figure something out," Artie said. Taking Jim by the arm, he began to lead them back toward the train yards. "In the meantime, I think my disreputable alter ego needs to make another appearance and find out where yon brave Fenians are being billeted."
Jim was struck with a reluctance to let Artie out of his sight.
"Do you want me to come with you?" he asked.
"In that finery?" Artie said with a laugh. "No offence, Jim, but I'm the better man when it comes to blending in."
"I suppose you're right," Jim agreed, reluctantly.
"Of course, I'm right. I'm always right. Now, come on."
Artie dropped his arm and urged him forward as they broke free of the worst of the crowds.
Jim acquiesced, grateful for the normalcy that Artie seemed able to restore to his life at will. They returned to the train, with Jim sending a message to Colonel Richmond while Artie prepared for his role as a labourer.
When Jim had finished encoding and sending their message, Artie emerged from his room, his labourer clothing in place, and goodly amount of soot smeared on his face.
"How do I look?" Artie asked. "Ready for society?"
"Ready for bad society," Jim replied with a wrinkled nose. "What is that smell?"
"Eau de crankcase. I borrowed some oil from Sam to complete the effect."
"That's quite the effect, all right."
"If you disapprove so strongly, I must have done it right," Artie said with a laugh. He moved to the door. "I'll be back in a few hours."
"Make sure you're back well before O'Neill's little event at the opera house. I think we should go together."
"I'm looking forward to removing this garb more than you are, Jim."
"For you? Always." Artie winked, and then was out the door before Jim could react at all.
As promised, Artie returned well before the Fenian meeting. He was scrubbed and back in his own clothes in enough time that the two of them were able to share a meal in one of St. Paul's better restaurants before they needed to head to the opera house.
They made sure they arrived at the opera in enough time to get a seat, but not so soon as to call attention to themselves. They sat at the rear of the orchestra on opposite sides so they could cover all views of the stage.
O'Neill's performance was interesting, if only from a theatrical view. He railed against the British and appealed not just to Irish but to American patriotism. He ended his hour long harangue with an appeal to his audience to supply money, firearms and manpower to the coming confrontation.
Jim watched the crowd as O'Neill spoke. Most seemed merely curious, but there were those few who seemed genuinely moved by O'Neill's words.
"So?" he asked Artie as they met up back in the street.
"Well, he's not the brightest leader I've ever encountered, but he certainly has a passion for his cause."
Jim nodded in agreement as they headed down the street.
"That he does. But do you think he can translate that passion into a viable uprising?"
"Stranger things have happened, but in this case, no."
"Well, that's something, anyway."
"But I think we should keep a closer eye on General O'Neill."
"What do you suggest?" Jim asked, already half-knowing what his partner was going to say.
"I think O'Neill needs to recruit a disaffected Irish rail worker."
"Is this rail worker's name Artemus Gordon, by any chance?"
"How about Brendan Flannery?" Artie said with a grin.
"I just hope that 'Brendan Flannery' has a better Irish accent than I do."
"Have no fear, James me lad, he was raised in the heart of Cork."
"Not bad," Jim said, smiling in appreciation of Artie's skill at mimicry.
"Thank you." Artie sketched a deep bow. "Now, should we adjourn to the train to make our plans?"
"After you, Artie."
"No, after you, Jim."
They made their way back to the Wanderer and set about deciding what to do. Artie would make himself known to the Fenian O'Neill the next morning. When it was certain that he would be accepted, Jim would proceed on horseback to Pembina. There, he would work with Captain Wheaton, the commander of the army post in the region. It seemed probable that the Fenian raiders would pass near Pembina, so Artie was to make his way there to report on O'Neill's plans. It seemed likely that Wheaton and his men would be able to deal easily with any possible threat offered by the Fenians.
Plans made, Jim retired to his room, alone again, while Artie stayed in the sitting room reading some obscure tome that he obviously thought would prove useful on the assignment. Jim had been tempted to keep Artie company in the sitting room, but was fearful that Artie would give him another of those unreadable looks that had been on his partner's face too often these last few days, and fearful that he would give in to his own temptation and fall into bed with his partner. He could stand neither alternative, so he slept in cold sheets and awoke by himself.
The next morning, the newly created Brendan Flannery left for the Fenian camp. Jim watched him go with an unfamiliar sense of dread churning in his stomach. It was unlike him, he knew. He never worried about their missions; he knew that things would always work out and his partner would always be there at the right time. But now, with his own feelings in such a precarious state, he was unsure what he felt.
He puttered around the train for the next twenty-four hours, going over reports that told him nothing useful, and getting in the way of Sam and Michael so much that engineer and fireman both banished him from the engine and told him not to come back until was in a better mood.
Finally, the next day at noon, Artie, or Brendan Flannery, returned to the train, looking no worse for wear and with an almost cheerful expression on his face. Jim could have throttled him.
"Jim, my lad, you are looking at a proud member of the Fenian Brotherhood."
"Am I now?" Jim replied, trying to match Artie's joking tone.
"Yes, you are. And I have been assured by no less that General O'Neill himself that my efforts in fighting the English swine will not go unrewarded. I'm fully expecting a castle in Ireland for my trouble." He stopped and stroked his chin in a theatrical attitude of contemplation. "Maybe I really should help O'Neill. I'll bet with my brains, he might actually be able to make a go of his mad scheme."
"I don't think Colonel Richmond would approve," Jim said.
"Bother Colonel Richmond. I want my Irish castle."
"When do you leave?" Jim said, bringing up the one topic he didn't want to think about.
"We march tomorrow morning, with whatever supplies we've managed to beg, borrow or pay for. Most of the men are more scarecrow than soldier." Artie paused and looked more seriously at his partner. "You should probably leave today. Make sure that you're well ahead of O'Neill and that you don't cross his path on the way to Pembina."
"You're right," Jim said, more reluctant than ever to be parted from his friend. "Will you stay here tonight?"
"No. I told the General that I'd be back in a few hours. After I'd told my English boss I was quitting and collected my meagre belongings."
"Oh," Jim said.
A silence grew between them, as Jim struggled to find something more to say and Artie looked at him with eyes that grew more impenetrable with each passing moment.
Artie turned away for a second, as if to leave, but then faced Jim once again.
"Jim?" he asked.
Jim opened his mouth to answer, but got no further than parting his lips. Artie seized his arms in a firm, unbreakable grip and pressed their lips together in a kiss that was bruising in its intensity. The kiss went on forever and Jim found himself responding in spite of himself,
Artie broke off the kiss as abruptly as he had begun it. He held Jim at arm's length and fixed him with his gaze.
"I will be back," Artie said. "And we will talk. About everything."
Jim couldn't speak, could only nod in response.
Artie let go then, and with no further words was gone.
Jim wanted nothing more than to collapse on the settee and consider what had happened, but he didn't have the luxury of time. Artie had been right to insist that he leave today, ahead of O'Neill's party. It was only right that Jim give the Army as early a warning as possible. So he packed his saddlebags, prepared a bedroll and saddled up Royal. And he tried not to think.
He was no philosopher but he usually considered himself a thoughtful man. Now, thought appeared to be his enemy. He could not think away this situation, this problem. Nothing he had done to avoid the turmoil within him had worked, and now Artie knew that there was something wrong between them. And Jim had no idea how to make it right.
So, he wouldn't think. He would do. Travel to Pembina and stop the Fenians and meet Artie once again.
And Artie would make it all right. Somehow.
Riding easily, Jim made it to the U.S. Army fort at Pembina in seven days. He was lucky that the weather was good and that the trail had been easy. Given that the Fenians were mostly on foot, he was sure that he was ahead of them by at least two days. He hoped that Artie's trip was as trouble-free as his own.
The Pembina fort was a rambling affair, and the men seemed less than enthusiastic in the performance of their duties. Not that Jim entirely blamed them. The fort was in the back of beyond, and no one sent there had much chance of advancement or change.
Jim introduced himself to Captain Lloyd Wheaton, the officer in charge of the fort. Wheaton was a pleasant enough man, a veteran of the War and a competent if not spectacular commander.
"What can I do for the Secret Service, Mr. West?" Wheaton asked, clearly puzzled that anyone would be interested in his meagre command.
"There's a troop of nearly fifty Fenians headed this way, intending to invade Manitoba. I've been sent to make sure that they're stopped."
Wheaton nodded his head in understanding. "We'd heard rumours, but I'd been hoping that they wouldn't pan out."
"Unfortunately, I've seen them myself. There aren't too many of them, but they're likely to be trouble enough."
"I have no doubt," Wheaton said, looking concerned enough to worry Jim.
"You'll excuse me for asking, sir, but do you think the Fenians will find support in Canada?"
Wheaton gave an uncertain shrug. "Hard to say, really. The Canadians won't like anyone invading their country, and I can't really blame them. But it's hard to say what side the Metis will come down on. They've wanted their own territory for years now, and they might see this as their chance."
"Would you like to take a guess as to which way they'll jump?"
Wheaton looked thoughtful for a moment before answering.
"I don't think the Metis like the Irish any more than they like the Canadian government, so I don't think they'll join the fight. But it's tough to call. And there are a lot of them."
Jim nodded, and sat down to make preparations with Wheaton for the confrontation with the Fenians, unhappy that there were more complications entering their plans than they had considered.
Once he'd settled upon a strategy with Wheaton, Jim's life at the fort settled into a routine. He joined reveille with the rest of the men, exercised Royal outside the barricade in the morning and then drilled the men in the afternoon. They weren't the best soldiers he'd seen, and Jim wanted to make sure they were more than a match for O'Neill's ragged Fenians.
On the evening of his third day at Pembina, Jim was sitting in the officer's mess, sharing a bit of the serviceable whisky that Wheaton had managed to bring to his command, when one of the sergeants came in, dragging a most disreputable but familiar looking fellow.
"I found this one lurking around outside the gate, sir. Should I throw him in the stockade?"
"Now, why would you be doing that, my good man, when I only wanted to come in for a word?"
Jim smiled to himself as he recognized the voice.
"Captain Wheaton," he said, "may I introduce Artemus Gordon. Also of the Secret Service."
Artie shook off the shocked sergeant's arm and meticulously straightened his tattered clothing.
"Your servant, sir," Artie said, throwing off the Irish brogue and answering in his most cultured tones. "You'll excuse my appearance, but I'm travelling in cognito."
Jim restrained himself from throwing his arms around his partner, but he couldn't keep from smiling. Whatever happened, whatever the results of their eventual talk, Jim was truly glad to see Artie safe and in Pembina.
"O'Neill has arrived?" he asked.
"They're camped just outside the notice of the fort's sentries," Artie answered. "I waited until most of them were asleep, then snuck out. They're not very good at posting lookouts."
"What are their plans, Mr. Gordon?" Wheaton asked.
"They'll be attacking the Hudson's Bay Company fort on the Canadian side of the border in the morning. They're small, and poorly trained, so they shouldn't make too much trouble." In spite of this description, Jim could see that Artie was holding something back.
"What is it, Artie?"
"Nothing, really. There are several members of our happy band of brothers that make me a little uneasy. They don't quite fit in with the rest."
Jim was never one to ignore a suspicion of Artie's.
"Well, keep your eye on them. And watch your own back."
"I will Jim." Artie shivered once, then pulled his ragged coat closer around him. When he spoke again, the Irish accent had returned. "But I should get back to my brothers in arms. Make certain they don't get up to any mischief that we don't know about."
"It should all be over tomorrow, Artie. We'll make for the Canadian side as soon as there seems to be trouble." He fixed Artie with steady look so there could be no misunderstanding between them. "And then we'll talk."
Artie looked at him for several long seconds before answering.
"Aye, Jim me lad, that we will."
Turning, he was gone. With him went the best of Jim West.
It was early the next morning when they received word that the Fenians had struck. Jim was sitting in Captain Wheaton's office, speculating on whether the Fenian's General O'Neill would have the nerve to actually stage a raid on Canadian soil when Wheaton's second in command, Bentley, appeared at the door.
"Sir, there's a man here that I believe you'll want to see. A Mr. Bertram. He's just come from the Canadian side."
"Well, send him in, man," Wheaton said, impatiently.
Bentley showed in a breathless, slightly dishevelled, middle-aged gentleman, outrage burning in his eyes.
"Captain Wheaton, I demand that you do something about those dogs."
"And they would be..."
"Fenians, Captain, Fenians." He virtually spit out the word. "They've taken over Pembina and taken everyone in the fort hostage."
"How did you get out?" Jim asked.
"I'm an American citizen," the man said indignantly. "I ordered them to release me."
Wheaton shared a smile with Jim.
"Fortunately, you were right about our adversaries being none-too-bright, Mr. West."
"They're a pack of bedraggled dogs," their guest told them, "fit only for whipping."
"How many of these bedraggled dogs would you say there are?" Jim asked.
"More than forty; less than a hundred. And none of them worth a damn in a fight, if I'm any judge."
"Thank you, Mr. Bertram."
Wheaton gestured Lieutenant Bentley over. "Lieutenant, could you make sure our guest is well looked after?"
As Bentley closed the door behind him, Wheaton gave Jim a wink.
"Shall we go subdue some Fenians and rescue your colleague, Mr. West?"
"I'm sure Mr. Gordon would appreciate that, sir."
Even though they'd received prior warning that an attack was imminent, it still took nearly half an hour to ready the garrison to cross to the Canadian side. The horses had to be hitched to the wagons; the men had to be assembled and provisioned. Jim grew increasingly impatient, eager for the fight, now that it was imminent. Eager to see Artie.
He would have gone ahead alone, but he knew that he'd be no help at all by himself and was likely to become another hostage of the Fenians. So he remained as patient as he could, checked Royal's saddle so many times that the horse was as fidgety as he was and sighed in relief when Wheaton finally signalled that the troops were ready to leave.
He rode ahead of the Army wagons, with Wheaton's scouts. As they pulled in sight of the Hudson's Bay Company post, Jim could hear cries of dismay go up from the Fenian invaders, even as their hostages gave enthusiastic cheers. Before they had got within fifty yards of the post, the Fenians had thrown open the gates and were scattering into the woods.
Wheaton yelled an order and his men scrambled out of the wagons, running after the Fenian deserters.
Jim didn't bother with the fleeing men. The one person in the world he most wanted to see would have no reason to run from American soldiers.
He galloped through the gates and pulled Royal up short, leaping down from the saddle and into the chaos of the fort.
"Artie!" he called out, fully expecting his partner to be waiting for him. He received no answer, though and instead found himself mobbed by the fort's inhabitants, grateful to be rescued from their brief captivity.
He pushed through the crowd, straining for a glimpse of Artie and seeing none. He started to question the former hostages, asking them if they'd seen his partner. No one seem to know anything useful, and one proper looking English gentlemen opined that those "demned Fenians had all looked the same." But finally, he did find one person, an older woman, who seemed to recognize his description of Artie's Fenian alter ego.
"I do believe that I did see your friend. He seemed a bit nicer than the others. Not as uncouth." Jim smiled briefly at Artie's ability to remain charming, even when acting the part of a ruffian. "He left long before those other cowards did. Maybe an hour ago." She frowned as if thinking. "I believe he left the fort following those others."
"Others?" Jim asked, not entirely liking the sound of this.
"Yes, the others. Those wicked looking men."
"Them," another younger woman said, spitting out the word. "Them were the worst of a bad lot. I hope your friend weren't one of 'em."
"Who were these other men?"
"Four of them, there were. And nastier pieces of work you wouldn't want to see."
Jim was now quite sure who it was that Artie had seemed uneasy about.
"Could you tell, ma'am, which way my friend went?"
"Yes, sir. I watched them all go, making sure that those others were really leaving." She looked out the gate and pointed to the north, away from the river. "They went down that path, right there."
"Thank you, ma'am." He nodded politely at both women before taking off at a run for his horse.
Captain Wheaton rode into the fort just as Jim was leaving the gates.
"West, where do you think you're going?"
"Mr. Gordon is pursuing a group of Fenians. I'm going to help him out."
Wheaton waved him on.
"On with you, then. And tell Mr. Gordon that you're both expected for dinner tonight. I'm sure he'll appreciate it after so many nights of living rough."
"I'm sure he will, sir," Jim answered before spurring Royal to a gallop. He easily found the trail that the woman had pointed to, and signs that several people had recently travelled along it. He urged Royal in, but the light dimmed in the forest so fast, that he had to dismount in order to make sure he didn't miss any trail signs. Looking back the way he had come, he found he had already lost sight of the fort and the midday sun had been reduced to a greenish tinged gloom.
Royal whickered nervously and tried to move backwards. Jim patted the horse's neck to calm him.
"I know, boy. I don't like it in here any more than you do. We just have to find Artie and then we can get out of here."
The sound of his voice seemed to quiet the horse, and Jim led him forward. They travelled in virtual silence; all wildlife seemed to have fled, no doubt chased off by the men who had gone before them. Jim saw constant signs of their passage: broken twigs, crushed foliage and the occasional footprint trampled into the loam of the forest floor. But he didn't see another living soul, and the dense crush of the forest kept him from moving with speed enough to catch his quarry.
For most of the day, he travelled further into the forest, the light more and more shut out by the forest canopy and finally fading completely as the sun began to set and twilight bathed the land.
Jim was just about to stop for the evening when his luck changed and he heard movement and voices from a clearing ahead of him.
Carefully, he moved back and wrapped Royal's reins around a tree branch. Placing his hat on the saddle horn, he made his way forward as quietly as possible.
Gradually, the low murmur resolved into understandable words. And those words made him freeze where he stood.
"What are we gonna do with him, Mr. Varley?"
"We are going to find out what he knows, Zack. And then you are going to get rid of him."
All hope that the men ahead were not talking about Artie was lost when the next man spoke.
"What's all this talk of about getting rid of me? I'm one of the Fenian Brotherhood, same as the rest of you." The brogue may have belonged to Brendan Flannery, but Jim would have recognized the voice of Artemus Gordon no matter how it was disguised.
"You're no more a Fenian than we are, Mr. Flannery."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Artie asked, with confusion that was no doubt feigned.
"It means that I care little about whether O'Neill and his men gain freedom for Ireland, or whether the Canadians send them packing."
"Guns, Mr. Flannery. I sell guns. And I'm not too particular about who I sell them to. Fenians or Canadians or Metis. As long as there's fighting, I can make my living."
"You're nothing but a profiteer of the worst sort."
"Shut him up," ordered Mr. Varley.
There was the sound of someone being struck and a faint whuff of pain. Jim clenched his fists, but remained where he was for the moment. He had no idea exactly how many men he was up against yet. But at least he now knew what it was Artie had been concerned about.
"You heard Mr. Varley. You shut up." That was a new voice, darker and more menacing than either of the other two.
"You tell 'em, Pete." One more voice.
"Go soak your head, Dan," Pete said. "I don't need no help from the likes of you."
There was a minor squabble between the men, broken up after several long minutes by Mr. Varley. Varley was clearly the leader, though Jim wouldn't have wanted to place bets on a fight between Varley and Pete. Varley had polish, but Pete sounded like pure menace.
Jim listened as even the dim light of twilight faded and the men began to make camp, but he only heard the four voices, plus Artie's. Four against one. Four against two, if he could free Artie. Not bad odds, but he preferred better, especially with Artie's life at stake. Choosing a spot, Jim hunkered down to wait for the right opportunity.
He got it an hour after the sun set, leaving only the dim light of a full moon. Varley's men had lit a campfire and Jim could see their shadowy forms as they prepared an evening meal and laid out their bed rolls. He only caught a brief glimpse of Artie, bound hand and foot and lying awkwardly at the base of a tree. In the flickering light of the fire it was difficult to tell, but it looked as if Artie's face was bruised and scraped.
The four men had finished their evening meal, supplying none to their captive, Jim noted, and were banking their fire, when one of them, Zack, left the clearing, obviously answering nature's call. Jim made his way up behind the younger man and knocked him unconscious with one blow behind the ear. Catching him as he fell, Jim dragged him as quietly as he could behind a nearby tree. Then he sat back to view the consequences.
Within five minutes, the others began to get restless.
"Zack, get your hide back here right now," Dan said. An owl's hoot was the only answer he got.
"Where'd he get to?" Dan muttered under his breath. Jim tensed and prepared to act. Still grumbling, Dan left the comforting light of the fire. Jim waited till he was a bit further away, then he attacked the second man. Jim put him in a headlock, cutting off his air and preventing him from crying out. Dan was larger than his first opponent, however, and put up a struggle before he succumbed to unconsciousness. Jim dragged him behind another tree and pulled out his gun. He knew that this time his actions would have been heard by the two remaining men.
He didn't have long to wait to find he'd been right about that. He hadn't even made it back to the clearing when the group's leader called out to him.
"I don't know who you are," Varley said, "but since you haven't attacked, I'll make the assumption that there is only one of you. And that you're at least a little concerned about our guest."
Jim didn't rise to the bait, but edged closer to the clearing as silently as he could. He watched as Varley strode over to the tree where Artie lay. He cut the bonds around Artie's ankles, then pulled him roughly to his feet and dragged him over to the fire.
"If you want your friend to live more than a few moments, you'll come out with your hands up."
"He's bluffing," Artie said.
"Oh, no I'm not," Varley responded. He thrust Artie at his one remaining man. Pete pulled back Artie's head by his hair and drew a vicious looking hunting knife against his throat.
"Either you approach the fire and surrender your weapon in the next ten seconds, or Pete will slit Mr. Flannery's throat."
Jim drew equally on his rage and his courage as he stood fully and stepped into the clearing, his gun aimed firmly at Varley.
"You're under arrest, Varley, for threatening a U.S. Secret Service agent. Now let him go."
"Flannery? A Secret Service agent? How amusing." Varley gave a thin smile that didn't come close to reaching his eyes. "And how irrelevant. Throw down your gun or he won't take another breath."
Jim sized up Varley. The man was well dressed, with the arrogance of one who expected to always get his own way. He was holding a six-shooter aimed steadily at Jim, and Jim would bet anything that he was willing to use it. He spared a glance over at Artie. His partner appeared battered but whole. And worried. His guard looked as brutish as he had sounded, and spoiling to cut Artie's throat.
"You have only seconds left to make up your mind," Varley said.
"Don't do it, Jim."
"Shut up, Artie."
"Artie," Varley said. "So, our reluctant guest didn't even give us his real name. How unfortunate he won't live long enough to share any of his other secrets. Pete, kill him." He spoke without even sparing a look at the man whose execution he'd just ordered.
"No!" Jim said, taking one step forward. "You win." Snapping open its cylinder, he emptied his gun of bullets and handed it, butt first, to Varley.
"Smart man." Varley took the gun and threw it behind him. "Now move over there." He gestured over to the tree where Artie had first been tied up.
"Let him go, first," Jim demanded.
"Oh, no, I don't think so." Varley glanced over at his henchman. "Kill him."
The next few seconds proceeded in a blur for Jim. He saw Pete begin to pull the knife across Artie's throat, a rictus grin on his face. Artie flinched and pulled away from the knife as much as he could.
Acting on reflex, Jim activated the Derringer he kept hidden his sleeve and shot Pete in the face before he could do more than make a shallow cut in Artie's throat. Not even waiting to see his target drop, Jim turned to Varley.
Roaring in dismay, Varley aimed his weapon at Jim. Jim pulled his own trigger, but the hammer fell on an empty chamber. Cursing himself for not having reloaded after the last time he used the weapon, Jim lowered his head and charged before his opponent could get off a shot. They went down in a tangle of arms and legs, both wrestling for control of the gun. He thought he was gaining the upper hand in the struggle, when there was a loud sound and a blossom of pain in his side.
His ears rang from the sound of the shot even as he curled around the pain gnawing at his middle.
From somewhere far off there was a wordless bellow, and then a fury struck at Varley. Artie buried the hunting knife in his captor's chest, give the weapon a violent twist as he did. Varley went down in a heap, dead before he struck the ground.
As abruptly as he had appeared, the avenging fury was gone, replaced by a tattered and beaten Artemus Gordon.
"Artie," Jim whispered, his voice having deserted him.
Artie shushed him and gently eased him onto his back.
"I was supposed to be rescuing you," he said.
"And a fine job you've made of it," Artie answered. "Now be quiet and let me take a look at you."
Jim tried not to gasp as Artie pulled up his shirt to examine the wound.
"That's nasty looking, but I don't think the bullet hit anything major." He tenderly felt under Jim's back. "And the bullet's gone straight through, so I won't have to go digging for it."
"Thank goodness," Jim said.
"It's a good thing that 'Brendan Flannery' is a drinking man," Artie said, pulling a flask from his vest pocket. He sat Jim up and poured some of the contents over both wounds. Jim gasped at the sting.
"I hope that's not good whisky," he said through gritted teeth.
"The worst rot gut in Minnesota. Even a good Irishman wouldn't cry over this being spilled."
"I wouldn't want to waste fine drink." Jim blinked, trying hard not to make a sound, not to throw up, not to pass out. But he couldn't help wincing as Artie applied pressure to the wound and bound it with a strip of Jim's own shirt.
"Sorry," Artie said, a worried look on his face.
"Can't be helped."
"Hmmm." Artie tested the bandage and satisfied, sat up straight. "Did you bring a horse?"
Jim nodded. "Royal's tied off, just down the trail."
"Do you think you can ride?"
"I'll have to, won't I?" There was no alternative. Even if he could wait for Artie to get back to the fort for help, no wagon could have travelled the narrow path.
Jim sat up straighter and took a good look at his friend.
"Looks like you should be seeing a doctor yourself." Artie's face was a mass of cuts and bruises and blood welled from the shallow gash on his throat.
But it hadn't been nothing. Jim knew that, even if Artie didn't.
"They could have killed you, Artie. Would have, if I hadn't found you."
"You did find me. Just like I knew you would."
"I might not have, Artie."
Artie laid a hand lightly on his cheek.
"You'll always be there when I need you," Artie said, a surprisingly tender expression on his face. "I know that much about you, James West."
The nakedness of emotion that Artie was displaying called for some response, though, wracked by pain as he was, Jim wasn't exactly sure what.
A finger was placed on his lips.
"No more words, Jim. Not right now." The finger was removed and his partner stood up. "I'll get Royal and then we can get back to the fort and get you to a doctor."
Artie was as good as his word. He was back in the clearing with Royal in minutes. He lifted Jim into the saddle before swinging on behind him.
"I think your old nag can take us both for a few hours."
"Royal won't like you calling him an old nag," Jim mumbled.
"I take it back. He's a fine mount and I'll give him extra oats once he gets us back to what passes for civilization out here."
Artie's arms wrapped around Jim's middle, above the bandage. In spite of the burning in his side, Artie's warmth at his back was a comfort.
Artie clucked, and urged Royal forward with his heels and they set off at a relaxed pace. Jim was glad of the little light of the full moon that managed to filter its way through the trees. They wouldn't have been able to travel at night, otherwise.
He felt consciousness begin to slip away, but couldn't quite let duty slide.
"The other men?" he asked.
"I found them in the woods, and tied them up. We'll send the Army out to pick them up in the morning."
"Good," said Jim. And with that final word, he at last let the darkness claim him.
Jim awoke in a rough bed, a homespun blanket pulled over him and a solid warmth against one side.
He turned his head toward the warmth and found Artie sleeping, fully dressed and on top of the covers, one hand resting protectively on Jim's shoulder. He didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The one thing he'd wanted was to wake up with Artie beside him, and it had taken being shot to get it.
As he watched, Artie's eyes flickered open. When he realized that Jim was watching him, a sleepy smile touched his lips.
"And you're still here," Jim said, overcome by a light-headedness that could have been from the laudanum that he'd no doubt been given, or simply from the confusion of emotion that swept through him.
"Of course, I'm still here." Artie caressed Jim's beard-roughened face with an affectionate touch. "You needed me."
Jim swallowed, his mouth dry as cotton.
"You've never been there in the morning. You're always gone when I wake up."
Understanding dawned in Artie's eyes.
"Is that what's been bothering you?"
Jim turned away, not willing to trust his voice with an answer.
Artie's hand reached out and turned his chin so he was looking straight into two deep brown eyes.
"It was never because I didn't care, James. Never that."
Jim felt his throat go tight and had to swallow deeply before responding.
"I couldn't ask," he finally replied.
"You never have to," Artie said.
All Jim's doubts and anxiety evaporated as Artie enfolded him in a careful embrace that spoke more than their words ever could.
Got any comments? Send 'em to firstname.lastname@example.org