Artemus Gordon sat with his eyes closed in the common area of the train, and tried to allow the sound of their passage over railway ties to lull him to sleep.
It wasn’t working at all.
His thoughts kept returning to places he’d rather they not visit, areas he’d forbidden himself to think about, let alone dwell on.
He kept thinking about his partner, and not in any way that partner would welcome. The Lord in Heaven preserve him, he had fallen in love with the man.
It was completely hopeless, of course. James West was the straightest arrow he’d ever met. He doubted that Jim had ever thought about two men being in love in the abstract, let alone toyed with the possibility for himself. He was very definitely an alpha male, and enjoyed the company of the fairer sex too much.
Artie, however, had no such luck. He’d known, for a very long time, that he was as capable of falling in love with a man as he was with a woman. Possibly more so. Certainly the passion he’d developed for Jim had erased his appreciation of the ladies, and other men for that matter.
And he was never, ever, going to act on it.
Jim meant too much to him. He could think of no possible outcome to such a confession but repulsion and disgust and the dissolution of a partnership that he had come to depend on more than anything. That was no option at all. Instead, he would remain silent about his feelings, be the best partner he could.
He would also divert any suspicions about himself by enjoying, platonically, the company of any willing young lady he encountered. He felt no guilt about such dalliances. The ladies in question would receive a night out on the town, their virtue intact, while he would be temporarily diverted from his problem.
And it would all be so hollow.
He frowned and pinched the bridge of his nose in an attempt to banish the pain that had suddenly sprung up behind his eyes.
Artie nearly jumped. He’d almost forgotten that the object of his thoughts, his affections, was sitting in the same room.
Almost, but not quite.
“No, just a little tired,” he lied, hoping to cut the conversation short.
“Then get some sleep, Artie. It’ll be hours before we arrive in Opportunity.”
Artie opened his eyes, and found his gaze met by eyes of blue and green, and a look that held nothing but concern and caring.
If only Jim wasn’t such a good friend, so considerate. Then Artie wouldn’t have developed this absurd passion in the first place. But it had developed, and he had to deal with it.
He decided retreat was his only option.
“You’re right, Jim. I’m going to my room. Get some shut eye.”
He rose and began to leave.
“You’re sure you’re all right?”
No, Jim, I’m far from all right. I’ve fallen in love with you and I’m trying to hide it from you, and it’s getting harder. But he said none of that.
“I’m fine. I’ll be better after a nap.”
“Sleep well, Artie.” A smile accompanied the words, a smile that stabbed straight to his heart, giving him a taste of all that he knew he couldn’t have.
Only with difficulty did he keep from bolting from the room. He entered his own room and closed the door firmly behind him. Lying down on the bed, he found that sleep was still the last thing that his body wanted.
With concern, Jim watched Artie leave the sitting room. Artemus had been looking melancholy far too often lately. Something was bothering him, but he consistently denied that there was anything wrong.
It certainly couldn’t be their next assignment. Opportunity, Wyoming was the headquarters of Roderick Cody, celebrated railway entrepreneur and man of the hour in his home territory. Cody was about to receive a grant from Washington to extend his railway further. Problem was, rumors had begun to circulate about someone stealing the money. The President himself had ordered Jim and Artie to guard the money and Cody. The shipment was due to arrive the next day.
It wasn’t an assignment to be taken lightly, but nothing they couldn’t handle. And certainly nothing to cause Artie’s moods. No, there had to be something else.
He wished that Artie would trust him enough to tell him what it was. He also wondered when it was that they’d stopped telling each other everything. There seemed to have grown between them, just recently, a barrier. It wasn’t much of a barrier, yet. A small fence that could be stepped over with little effort. What Jim most feared was that the barrier would grow, become a fortified battlement that couldn’t be breached no matter the effort. And the worst part of having such a barrier between them was the fact that he had no idea why it had been erected in the first place.
He sighed, and leaned his head back, not knowing what to do. He was much better at problems that required action, at having an enemy he could fight or shoot at. But this problem wasn’t one he could fell with a blow or a bullet.
He blew a breath out, and stood. Considering the problem was getting him nowhere. Putting in some exercise wouldn’t solve it, but it might take his mind off it for a while. He took off his shirt, throwing it carelessly onto a chair, and began shadow boxing as a warm-up. In his mind, his opponent was the faceless specter who stood between himself and his partner.
If only it were that easy.
When he stepped off the train in Opportunity, James West was slightly more centered, but just as alone.”
As they often would, they had decided to approach this assignment from different angles. Jim was to play bodyguard to Cody, openly making sure that nothing happened to him. Artie had left the train several small towns ago and would arrive by stage coach incognito.
Of course, Artie's version of incognito was very different from that of others in the Secret Service. For this assignment, Artie had chosen the role of a touring actor. He claimed that, for the moment at least, he was through with masquerading as low-life characters. He wanted to sleep in a respectable hotel and be treated with courtesy this assignment.
Jim also suspected that Artie just wanted the chance to exercise his acting skills on a real stage. Jim had heard him muttering about ‘the bard’ and costumes for days now. Whatever Artie was planning Jim just hoped he had time to take in a performance or three.
Taking a deep breath he looked up and down the platform, taking in a sense of the place. The train station, at least, seemed to present a face of affluence. It was a well-constructed timber building, painted cheerful colors and well maintained.
The people, too, had the well-fed look of prosperity that was all too often a rarity in the West. Jim touched his hat as several respectable matrons and their much younger female charges walked by. He earned a polite hello from the women and blushing giggles from their teenage daughters.
He was just turning to find Cody, when the man found him.
“Yes. And you are?”
“Roderick Cody. I’m afraid I’m the reason you had to come all the way out to the back of beyond.”
Cody offered him his hand, and Jim took it. The railway magnate had a firm grip, which matched his unwavering gaze. He was a largish man, with perhaps five inches on Jim. His substantial frame did not seem to have much muscle, but instead the less firm flesh of a man who did not earn his bread by physical labor. His face was unremarkable, save for the handlebar mustache that graced his upper lip. His clothes were impeccable, no doubt imported from New York.
“You do your town a disservice, Mr. Cody.”
“Well, we’re proud of it. It’s a good little place, a good place to raise a family.” Cody swelled visibly with pride. “Let me show you around. Then we can go back to my office and talk business.”
Cody showed him around the town, which seemed to be as flourishing as Jim’s first impression had suggested. Even the smallest of buildings were well cared for, the population seemed content, and there was a notable absence of the unsavory types that tended to flock around a frontier town. And everywhere they went Roderick Cody was greeted warmly, exactly as one would expect to see a founding father treated.
The whole experience should have inspired Jim’s confidence in the man he had been sent to assist, but it had quite the opposite effect. James West was used to doing two things: he never trusted the appearance of things and he always trusted his gut. On appearance, Cody and his town seemed too good to be true, which meant they probably were. And Jim’s gut had warned him to beware of Cody from the moment he had shaken his hand.
Cody might be a personal friend of the President, but at the moment, Jim wouldn’t have trusted him as far as he could sling a saloon piano.
But he could not act on suspicion alone, and there was no evidence that Cody was anything other than what he seemed to be: a successful business man with a proper concern for his town. Jim would keep his eyes open, but would not move against Cody in any way. Yet.
He hoped Artie’s stage arrived soon. He always felt better with his partner protecting his back, even if that partner was not always visible.
Not only did he want his partner’s protection, but he wanted to do some protecting of his own. The way Artie had been lately, Jim wanted him where he could keep an eye on him. He didn’t want to think of a world without Artemus Gordon in it.
Sighing inaudibly with impatience as Cody pointed out still another virtue of his town, Jim pushed his worries for Artie to a background corner of his mind, and concentrated on the job at hand.
As Jim was being shown around Opportunity, playing his part, Artie was doing some acting of his own. He was fully into the role of Michael R. Jacobi, classical actor extraordinaire.
His alter ego had, so he had told his rapt and captive audience of fellow travelers, acted before crowned heads of Europe, taken London’s West End by storm and been the toast of New York. Now, as a public service to his fellow countrymen who were unfortunate enough to have missed his performances in the world’s capitals, he was bringing a one-man show of Shakespeare’s greatest soliloquies to the American West.
Artie was hoping he would get to do an actual performance at some point. He missed the stage. His current occupation allowed ample opportunities to act, but few which allowed the tremendous rush one got from performing in front of an appreciative audience. And Artie was confident enough in his own ability that he knew any audience he performed before couldn’t fail to be appreciative.
He knew exactly what speech he’d start with if he got to do his performance: the opening Chorus from Henry V. “O, for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention…
His own personal muse of fire might not ascend to such heights, but Jim West burned quite brightly enough. Too brightly, perhaps.
He damned himself for a fool as his thoughts once again plunged into forbidden pools. He had nearly been enjoying himself, until his thoughts had betrayed him. He sighed, and forced himself to think only of his role as he told his fellow companions yet another fabricated story about a meeting with Queen Victoria.
When at last, they pulled into Opportunity, Artemus Gordon, or rather Jacobi, bid his traveling companions au revoir. He delicately kissed the hands of the two ladies, who were both quite smitten by now, and firmly shook the hands of the two gentlemen. And he invited them all to take in his performance that night.
Hoisting his small satchel, and making arrangements to have his trunk delivered to the town’s one hotel, he began to stroll through the streets. He played his part as he did so, greeting everyone as if they were long lost friends, inviting one and all to his show.
As he walked, he also kept his eyes and ears open. He looked for anyone who seemed out of place in this cheerful seeming town, and he listened for any hint of discord that might be missed by the less observant.
He saw nothing suspicious. In fact, he was rapidly beginning to suspect that this town might be inhabited by the most well adjusted populace on the planet. It might just begin to get on one’s nerves after a while.
Then again, the sheer cheerfulness of the place might actually make their job easier. Anyone intending harm should stand out from this crowd like a cactus in a rose garden.
He arrived at the hotel, and proceeded to the next phase of his plan. The town was too small to have a proper theatre, but the hotel had a well-appointed saloon, complete with a small stage. No doubt the stage was more often used for dancing girls, but it would suit his purposes. He arranged with the owner to perform his one-man show for a strictly limited three-night stand. The cut of the house he negotiated covered his own expenses, with enough left to take Jim out for a really fine night on the town in New Orleans, the next time they were there.
He shook his head. Jim again. He had to stop doing this to himself. Jim was his best friend, but he would never be anything more. To hope for more was unrealistic. Better he should concentrate on a more attainable target, say one of the young ladies he had shared the stage coach with. Both of them had seemed quite taken with him.
The problem was, as charming as those two girls had been, he didn’t care anything for them. A dalliance with them would be just that, a dalliance. It would be no more to him than it no doubt would to them: a passing diversion. His affections — damn it, why not just admit it — his heart had been captured by Jim West, his partner, best friend and ladies’ man. A man no more likely to return his affections than Artie was likely to fly to the moon under his own power. It was impossible.
He put such thoughts from his mind, and finished his negotiations with his host. He then received the key for his room, made arrangements for his trunk to be delivered to him as soon as it arrived and ascended the stairs. His host would also take care of all publicity, having handbills printed by the local newspaper to cover the town.
He entered his room — the best in the house, he had been assured, and looking around he didn’t doubt it — and threw his satchel down. Sitting on an over-stuffed armchair, he pulled off his boots and began to make plans. He would concentrate on his job, his duty. Maybe if he did that, this ridiculous passion he had developed would disappear.
Or maybe not.
Jim’s day was spent following Roderick Cody about as he carried out his business. He was continually aware of how hard Cody seemed to be trying to impress him, while at the same time appearing nonchalant about everything. That immediately put Jim’s guard up.
But apart from a presentiment that Cody was trying too hard, and the fact that his instinct had told him not to trust the man from the start, there was absolutely no indication that he was doing anything wrong.
Not at first, anyway.
Late in the day, Cody and West had returned to Cody’s house. The structure was easily the most elaborate in the town. Built of wood, like all the other homes, it nonetheless managed the appearance of an East Coast mansion. With large bay windows that must have cost a fortune out here and turrets on either side, it looked exactly like what it was: the home of the richest man in town.
The inside was equally luxurious. Oriental carpets lay on the floors of most of the rooms, and the furniture had obviously been ordered from the East Coast, or further. Expensive works of art hung on every wall, and precious objets d’art could be found on every surface.
Jim had been passing through the main hall at Cody’s elbow, when a parlor maid had opened the door leading to the kitchen. In the few seconds the door was open, Jim saw two men who most decidedly weren’t domestics leaning against the pantry doorframe.
Part of the reason Jim had decided immediately that the men weren’t servants was their clothes. They were dressed more like gunfighters than anything; one of them even had a gunbelt slung over his shoulder. The other reason Jim knew that these two should be watched was their eyes. As he took in all he could about them, he saw they were both doing exactly the same thing to him. They appraised each other like predators in the wild, examining each other forweakness, assessing who would win in the event of a fight.
He allowed no emotion to show on his face, and neither did the men in the kitchen. Then the door was shut, and they
were hidden again.
He decided to test his suspicions about his host.
“Who were those men?” he asked, trying to sound as off-hand as possible.
“Who?” Cody also appeared to be working hard at sounding casual.
“The two men in the kitchen.”
“The kitchen?” Cody looked puzzled for a moment, then he smiled. “Oh, they must be delivery men. I believe my housekeeper ordered some fabric from back East. It was to be delivered today.”
“That must be it.” Jim smiled in turn, hoping none of his suspicions showed on his face.
Cody continued on his way, leading West into the study that had been their original destination. Once there, he had brought out plans and maps and studies, all laying out his plans for the region’s railways. He was constantly enthusiastic, clearly eager to be showing off his elaborate plans for expansion.
Jim watched him the entire time for some kind of misstep, but there wasn’t a single one. He had to hand it to the man: he was very cool. The only difference in his behavior was a single look he directed in Jim’s direction when he thought West was examining a map too closely to notice. The look didn’t hold malice, but it did suggest that he trusted West as much as he was trusted in return, and would be as ruthless in stamping out any opposition to his plans.
But a look was not evidence. He still had absolutely no indication that Cody was guilty of anything other than eagerness for his vocation and devotion to the town he had helped found. And possibly questionable judgment when employing delivery boys.
He wished Artie were here. His partner would no doubt think of some incredibly clever way of trapping Cody. He loosened his shoulders and tried to relax. He would just have to come up with a clever plan of his own.
Some time later, Jim heard the bell at the front of the house. Shortly after there was a knock on the study door, and the parlor maid was presenting him with a
The message was brief. “hotel stables stop seven p.m. stop A.G.”
He quickly put the message in his vest pocket before his host had a chance to look at it.
“Anything wrong?” Cody asked, the picture of the concerned host.
“No, just a message from Washington. I’ll have to check in with them later this evening.”
Even before they had arrived, he and Artie had agreed that they would not immediately reveal there was a second agent in town. It was a normal precaution, and Jim was now extremely glad that they had taken it.
Cody nodded and didn’t ask any further questions. Instead, he went back to his explanation of the new blasting techniques he planned on using in the next phase of his railway.
Jim made all the right responses, nodded at the right times, but he found his attention kept drifting towards thoughts of Artemus. It had been not quite eight hours since he had seen his partner, but he missed him intensely.
It was ridiculous. He had spent time away from Artie before. The two of them had worked apart for days, even weeks at a time. Yet he found himself wanting to stay close to Artie and make sure that both of them stayed safe.
He shook his head and forced himself to pay more attention to Cody.
Artie leaned against a supporting beam in the hotel stables, and waited for Jim to arrive. They would have the structure to themselves for at least twenty minutes. Artie had sent the boy who looked after the place out to buy him cigars, and had given him a large enough tip, and sufficient encouragement, to visit the local soda shop on the way back.
He hoped Jim got here soon, and deluded himself that it was just so they could exchange information and get on with the job.
Fortunately, he didn’t have long to wait. Jim entered the stable, efficiently checking that there was no one following him before quietly closing the door behind him. He turned to face his partner.
Artie felt his heart leap into his throat
as Jim bestowed one of his most brilliant smiles on him.
“Artie, how are you!” Jim said, his voice full of his usual good humor. What was not usual was what he did next. He came up to his partner and threw his arms around him in a friendly embrace. Artie nearly froze in his arms. Not that either of them was afraid of touching the other. They often exchanged friendly pats on the arm, even the occasional bearhug after a sparring bout. But this hug was different. It was warm and firm and gentle, everything Artie would have hoped for from Jim. It nearly broke him into a thousand pieces. He used every ounce of control he had to keep Jim from seeing the trembling that threatened his entire body.
But control it he did, hoping that Jim saw nothing different, only his friend and partner.
It was Jim who broke off the hug first, and it was Jim who brought up their assignment. Artie was secretly grateful that his partner took the lead. He took the extra few seconds to pull himself together and become, outwardly at least, the Artemus Gordon that Jim West expected.
“So, have you seen anything suspicious?”
“Absolutely nothing. Everyone seems charming, prosperous and utterly law-abiding. And extremely well cultured, if the sales to my first performance are anything to go by.” Artemus let the grin he knew Jim would expect show on his face.
“Well, there’s no accounting for taste,” Jim said, a smile dancing in his eyes.
“How about you, James?”
“Nothing too obvious. But I wouldn’t trust Cody with my last plug nickel, and there were two hard types hanging around his mansion this afternoon. Cody tried to pass them off as delivery boys, but if they deliver anything besides bad news, I’m your Aunt Maude.”
“You look nothing like my Aunt Maude, Jim.”
Artie thought for a moment.
“It sounds like concentrating on our illustrious Mr. Cody might be most fruitful. How ‘bout I look for anything suspicious he might have done in town, and you keep an eye on the man himself.”
“Sounds good to me, Artie.”
“Well, you’d better get out of here, then. I have to get ready for my show, and we don’t want Mr. Cody to be too curious about what you’re getting up to for so long.” He paused, suddenly curious. “What does he think you’re doing, by the way?”
“Sending a telegram to Washington to report on my progress.”
“You should probably do that, then.”
“Already done, Artemus.”
“Good. Why don’t you leave first? We shouldn’t be seen together. I’ll send you another message when I have more to report.”
“I hope it’s soon, Artie. Spending time with Cody is definitely going to get on my nerves.”
Jim moved forward. At first Artie thought he was going to escape with only a handshake this time, but as soon as Jim had his hand, he pulled him in for another firm bearhug.
“Take care, my friend,” he nearly whispered in Artemus’ ear. Then he was gone, as quietly and gracefully as he had appeared.
Artie was left, leaning against the rough wood of a stable beam, and feeling as alone as he had in his entire life.
He had deluded himself that he would be able to hide his feelings from Jim. He couldn’t even hide them from himself. Not the way Jim treated him.
He had maintained his cover, for now, but it was going to crack, and soon.
He wished that the situation could have a different outcome than was inevitable, that Jim could accept, even return the love that Artie felt for him. But reason told him that was impossible.
So he would do the only thing that was possible. He would complete their mission here in Opportunity, then he would leave the Secret Service, leave Jim West, leave his impossible desires behind.
Jim would likely not understand. He would be hurt, but Artie felt he could live with the hurt far better than he could live with Jim West’s contempt. And hopefully, he would be remembered by James, eventually, as a faithful partner and friend. He would ask for no better epitaph.
He wasn’t sure what he would do. Perhaps he would return to the stage. Go to Chicago or New York, or even London, and join a repertory company. Make a reputation doing the character roles in Shakespeare. He’d bet a year’s salary that he could do a fabulous Shylock.
He allowed himself to indulge in this
fantasy for several minutes more before it began to come apart in his hands like wet tissue. It would never work. He would be only half himself without Jim. And even should he choose to live that way, he knew that Jim would never leave him alone. He would hunt him down and drag him back to the Service, kicking and screaming if necessary.
No, better to put a bullet in his head than to suffer that indignity.
He gasped as that thought came into his head, then stopped to examine it more closely.
Suicide. Some men might consider it his only option, under the circumstances. It would definitely end the hurting, the doubt. But he quickly dismissed it. That way out was not for him.
He sighed, realizing the trap he was in. If he ran, Jim would follow. If he stayed, Jim would eventually find out how he really felt, and he would lose even their friendship. He lost no matter what.
Sick at having to make such a decision, he decided to make none. He would stay with the status quo, stay where he was and hope for the best. And if he managed the miraculous feat of keeping his feelings hidden forever, so much the better.
After all, he was an actor. He could perform any role that was thrust upon him. And besides, an actor knows that the show must go on, even if your heart is tearing itself in two.
Jim walked through the streets of Opportunity feeling an unease that had absolutely nothing to do with their assignment.
The wall between Artie and himself was growing higher, and he didn’t know how to stop it. Every move he made to close the gap between them seemed to result in Artemus moving farther away.
He had hugged Artie in the stable because he felt genuinely glad to see him, because even though it had only been a matter of hours since he had last seen his partner, it had seemed like much longer.
But as soon as he’d touched Artie, he had felt the other man pull back, recoil from him. If Artie had struck him in the face, he couldn’t have felt worse.
Jim felt he could solve the problem, if only he knew why this was happening. But he honestly had no idea what Artie was thinking. And Artie wasn’t talking.
It was almost as if his partner didn’t believe in him anymore. He had no way to regain that trust, because he didn’t know how he had lost it in the first place.
He had to do something.
He might even be forced to talk to Artie about this.
His face twisted in an uncharacteristic grimace at the thought of having this kind of talk with Artie. James West was not a man who depended on words. That was why he and Artie had always got on so well until now: Artie seemed to always know instinctively what Jim was thinking and feeling, as he did with Artie. They had no need to waste a lot of words with each other. It would have been redundant.
Now, however, with that instinctive understanding between them all but destroyed, it seemed talking was their only option.
He set his jaw, and made up his mind. As soon as this mess in Opportunity was over, he was going to have a heart to heart talk with Artemus Gordon, if he had to tie the man up to do it.
And in the meantime, the devil and Roderick Cody himself had better take care.
The saloon was smoky, and loud, but Artie didn’t mind. His performance had gone well, so well that the audience had given him a standing ovation for a good five minutes. He had finally delivered the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V as an encore to satisfy the crowd.
It felt good to be appreciated for his acting talents. So good, that he almost forgot the pain that was tearing him inside.
Almost, but not quite.
Still, he was determined not to be miserable. A group of prominent citizens had taken it upon themselves to entertain him for the evening, and he was happy to oblige. They had even broken out the quality whisky, Artie was pleased to note. He couldn’t really drink the way he wanted to, not while he was officially at work, but he reasoned that the occasional taste wouldn’t hurt his abilities. And he was long practiced at pretending to drink more than he actually had. People always loosened up when they thought their companion was drunk.
He used that ruse now, pretending he was far more inebriated than he was, and seeing what useful facts were dropped in front of him. When nothing interesting came out at first, he took matters into his own hands and steered the conversation in
the proper direction.
“I hear Roderick Cody is the most successful businessman in town,” Artie said, projecting as nonchalant an air as he could manage.
“Why yes. He practically built this town from scratch.” That came from the mayor, a friendly enough sort, but rather dim.
“I’m surprised he wasn’t at the performance.”
“Well, Mr. Cody doesn’t actually spend much time socializing,” said Moore, the owner of the general store.
“I’d think he’d take every chance to spend time with you good folks.” Artie hoped he wasn’t spreading it on too thick.
“No,” Roberts, the funeral director said, “he spends most of his time in his office, or his house. We only see him out occasionally.”
“You don’t say,” Artie said thoughtfully. He looked around at his hosts. All of them, with the exception of the mayor, had closed their faces down slightly when the topic of Cody had come up. It wasn’t that they looked hostile exactly, just that they weren’t telling everything they knew. Artie filed the information for later, and changed topics yet again.
He spend the rest of the night, and a good part of the morning, with his new friends, but couldn’t manage to get any more information about Roderick Cody out of them. That in itself had to say something. As a rule, most people liked to talk, and their favorite topics of conversation were usually other people. If they would not talk about Cody, there might just be a reason.
The next day, Jim was too busy to worry about Artie. At least, that’s what he kept telling himself.
The shipment of money was arriving from Washington, and he had to prepare for that. He checked over Cody’s security, making sure that his safe was the best, and that the office was secure. He quizzed Cody’s hired guards, making sure they were as competent as they were supposed to be. And he kept an eye out for anyone who looked like they might be in town to steal a large quantity of money.
Most of all, however, he kept an eye on Cody himself. He looked for any signs of nervousness or duplicity. Anything that would either confirm or deny Jim’s own suspicions. But there was still nothing he could put his finger on. He neither looked like a man fearful for his property, nor one who was about to commit a crime. It was incredibly frustrating.
The train with the money arrived in the late afternoon, and it took the better part of an hour to transfer the money to the safe. Jim supervised the whole process, acting as liaison between the other Federal agents who had traveled with the money and Cody’s own men. Cody was there the whole time, offering a piece of advice or a friendly word when needed.
Jim was beginning to feel that perhaps he had been hasty in his mistrust of the railroad baron. Maybe he was nothing more than an honest businessman.
But even as his head was suggesting that he trust Cody, his gut continued to whisper to him, telling him the man was treacherous and dishonorable. He didn’t know what to think anymore. In fact, he didn’t want to think at all. He wanted to complete this ill-begotten excuse for an assignment and get out of this town. He wanted Artie acting like he always used to, and he wanted to be able to forget any doubts he might have had about their friendship.
He didn’t suppose the universe was about to oblige with most of what he wanted, except perhaps the end of the assignment. They had been told to stay only three days after the delivery, unless something came up. So, it looked like in another three days they would be out of Opportunity. And good riddance.
Of course, that would mean he would have to talk to Artie, but he wasn’t going to think about that now. Perhaps everything would be back to normal when they left this town.
And perhaps pigs would fly.
He straightened his shoulders, and gave the office and safe one last inspection before leaving the security in the, he hoped, capable hands of Cody’s men. The Federal agents had already begun the return trip to Washington with the train that had made the delivery.
Satisfied that the money wasn’t about to go anywhere, and there were no potential security gaps, he made his way back to Cody’s home.
Cody was waiting for him, and ushered
him into the study, a friendly smile at the ready.
“I trust everything went well?” Cody asked as he handed Jim a glass of sherry. Jim took the glass gratefully, and wished it were something even stronger.
“Smooth as glass, sir. The transfer went without a hitch, and your security precautions seem impeccable.” It was no strain to be civil to the man. He offered that courtesy to even his declared adversaries, and Cody was not that, yet.
“Good, good.” Cody sounded completely unconcerned, as if he wasn’t anticipating any trouble. “Since everything has gone so well, I was wondering if you would do me the favor of dining with me tonight, and then attending the theatre.”
“I wasn’t aware there was a theatre in town.” Jim decided it would be best to feign ignorance about Artemus’ performance.
“Not a proper theatre, no. But the local hotel has a stage, and we have been fortunate enough this week to be paid a visit by a thespian from the East. Jacobi, I believe the man’s name is. He’s performing excerpts from Shakespeare, and by all accounts is quite good.”
Jim just bet that Artie was good. He’d seen his partner give enough performances in his day to know that his acting skill rated with the best, even if his audiences didn’t often appreciate it at the time.
“I would be honored. I enjoy good theatre myself. I try to attend whenever it’s possible.”
“Wonderful.” Cody seemed honestly pleased. “I’ll give you some time to clean up and rest. Shall we say dinner in an hour?”
“Fine,” Jim said with a smile. He finished off the last of his sherry and placed the glass on the sideboard. “I’ll see you in an hour.”
Leaving the study, he returned to the room he had been given for his stay here. He still felt uneasy, both about the assignment and whatever was wrong between himself and Artemus, but he put all that behind him with the anticipation of seeing his partner in action. Come what may afterward, he was determined to enjoy this evening.
The crowd for that night’s performance was even bigger than the previous night’s, Artie noted, as he snuck a look at the house from behind the stage curtain. Word of his superb acting ability must have spread. He even thought he saw a few audience members who had been here yesterday. So much the better.
He didn’t, however, see the one person he was hoping would attend: Jim West.
It was ridiculous to be disappointed. After all, they were on assignment. James had probably found a lead to follow up, or had decided to run another check of the security. Or something. But, somehow, Artie had hoped that he would care enough to attend.
No matter. He shook himself, and set about applying his stage makeup, changing into his costume, and damning whatever idiot it was who decided that doublet and hose were the only proper costume in which to perform Shakespeare.
Curtain time came, and he waited backstage as the owner of the hotel introduced him, the curtain was opened, and he strode forward to meet his public.
The crowd started cheering as soon as he stepped onto the stage.
He opened with the Henry V Chorus, and then one sure to please the crowd: “All the world’s a stage…” The sentiment was certainly true for him, and he had fun playing through the progression of the seven ages of man. By the time he finished the speech, the crowd were well and truly his. He knew he could go anywhere and they would follow. It was a heady feeling, and he took care to enjoy it while he could.
He ran through the usual speeches. “To be or not to be” from Hamlet, “Tomorrow and tomorrow” from Macbeth, Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech. He even did Juliet’s balcony speech, just to be a bit daring. The audience loved it all, and clamored for more.
One speech he did for himself, not the audience. It was not a well known soliloquy, nor was the writing exceptional even for Shakespeare. It was a small speech, a mere five lines, from Twelfth Night. It seemed to suit his mood of late. Antonio, the sea captain, swears to follow Sebastian, in spite of the fact that to do so will likely mean his own death. Artie had always thought that it was the most selfless declaration of love in all of Shakespeare.
He had just started the speech, when he let his eyes sweep the crowd, seeking to draw them all into this small moment. Instead, he found the one person he had thought was not in the audience: Jim West.
He couldn’t help himself. He performed the whole speech just for Jim. He kept his partner’s eye through the whole piece. More to the point, Jim returned his gaze with equal intensity. Artie’s heart began to hammer in his chest. He began to think that Jim knew why he was speaking these words. That perhaps, just perhaps, Artie’s feelings were returned. He started to hope that his love for his partner was not going to end disastrously, but with the fairy tale ending he had yearned for.
His mood began to soar as he took a set of bows for the speech. It was all going to be all right.
Then he searched for Jim in the crowd again, and found only an empty seat where mere seconds ago his partner had looked at him with such apparent understanding.
His spirits crashed, even as some spiteful portion of his brain took over. Of course Jim didn’t understand. James West loved women. He would think a man loving a man was an aberration. He would be disgusted to learn that his partner was such a man. Just as Artie had always suspected.
There would be no happy ending to this fairy tale.
His heart seemed to shatter into splinters in those few moments, but no one watching him on stage would have had the slightest idea. He was, after all, a professional.
He completed the show in a haze, only slightly aware of the audience and their applause. He took his curtain calls out of habit, and did “Once more into the breech dear friends” as his encore this night. Henry’s berserker call for an all out assault by his men suited his mood better tonight than the king’s appeal to his men’s better nature in the St. Crispin’s speech. Except the destruction Artemus sought was not that of his enemies, but of himself.
How could he have been so stupid?
He let himself be carried along by the flow, congratulated by a flood of well-wishers and admirers. He changed out of the damned doublet, back in his street clothes, and ended up back at the saloon. His new friends plied him with drinks. His first impulse was to drown his feelings in the flood of liquor that was sure to come his way, but he was still too much a victim of duty to take that route. Instead he drank only enough to be polite, and made sure the surrounding plants had the lion’s share of what was poured into his glass.
He somehow managed to laugh at the right times, make the proper toasts, and provide amusing anecdotes when called upon, but all he kept thinking was how great a fool he had been. How he had destroyed the one thing in the world he cared about, his friendship with Jim West, over a foolish pipe dream that was never to be.
Then something caught his ear, almost in spite of himself.
“I’ve never seen so much dynamite in all my days.”
“Excuse me, friend, what were you saying?” Artie hoped he projected friendly curiosity, and nothing else.
The man he had queried, a bluff looking man in his middle years, who had turned out to be a surprisingly adept student of Shakespeare, puffed up a bit at being addressed by the great thespian, and repeated his statement.
“I said, I’ve never seen so much dynamite in all my days.”
“And where was this dynamite?”
“In Mr. Cody’s storeroom, under his office. I’m the office manager.”
“Isn’t it a bit unusual to store dynamite in his office?”
“Well, a bit,” the man admitted reluctantly. “We often have a small amount stored there, waiting to go out to the construction sites, but nothing like this amount.” He regarded Artie confidentially, and dropped his voice a little. “I mean, I used to work railway construction, when I was a younger man, and I’ve seen how much dynamite gets used on a site. But this shipment, it’s enough to take out an entire mountain.”
“You don’t say?”
“Uh-huh,” the man confirmed.
The conversation moved on to other areas of interest, but Artie found himself frozen by the thought of all that dynamite under Cody’s office. It seemed as if Jim’s instincts had been right, and Cody was up to no good.
Another thought nearly brought Artie’s heart to a stop. Jim had left the performance, and Artie was sure that Cody had left shortly after.
He suddenly feared more for his partner’s life than he did what that partner might be thinking of him now. Jim might be in danger, and he needed support.
Artie stood, and excused himself, claiming that actors needed to get their sleep. Forcing himself not to run, he left the saloon, and headed towards the end of town where Cody’s office was located.
Jim’s meal with Cody had gone late. Cody had lingered over the meal, and Jim had been forced to do the same. Not that it was a hardship. The meal itself was quite sumptuous, everything he would have expected the man’s table to provide: freshly killed partridge, exquisite deserts and wine imported from France.
But Jim had been impatient all the same. He was anxious to see Artie on stage. Funnily enough, he had never seen Artemus give a real performance. Not in a theatre, not when everyone knew he was supposed to be acting. He had only his partner’s stories of his great acting triumphs to depend on.
Not that he doubted Artie’s word; he just wanted to see the skill put to the use for which it had originally been developed.
But Cody insisted that they have cigars and sherry after dinner. And he also insisted that Jim listen to yet another story of how he’d made his money, and the uses to which he’d put it. So it was that they were nearly an hour late for the performance.
The crowd was standing room only, but they were given seats when people saw it was the great Roderick Cody who had arrived late. Jim couldn’t be sure it wasn’t his own suspicions playing up, but he would have sworn that the seats were given up more out of fear than respect.
They got settled, and Jim turned his attention towards the stage. He smiled at Artie’s choice of costume, but out of affection, not ridicule. Strangely, the doublet seemed to suit his partner better than he would have thought.
They seemed to have arrived between scenes. Artemus was introducing the next speech, from Twelfth Night. It wasn’t a play that he knew well. Jim tended to favor the histories over either the comedies or the tragedies. Things got done in the histories.
Artie was explaining that the speech was about friendship, about making sacrifices in spite of overwhelming odds. Well, maybe the comedies did have something to offer, Jim thought.
Finishing his introduction, Artie paused for a moment, getting into character, no doubt. He took a deep breath, and let his eyes sweep the audience, drawing the crowd into the performance.
And found Jim’s eye.
Jim felt the electric shock of recognition pass between them. He nearly smiled, but that would have been too trivial an acknowledgment of his partner. Instead, he nodded and gave Artemus his full attention.
In turn, Artie gave Jim the same thing back. He was playing this speech only for his partner. And as he listened to the words, Jim began to have an idea why.
The speaker, Antonio, was a sea captain who had rescued the boy, Sebastian. Sebastian has decided to go to Illyria. Antonio decides to follow Sebastian, even though he is a wanted man in that city. Antonio’s final two lines summed up his feelings: “But come what may, I do adore thee so,/That danger shall seem sport, and I will go.”
Jim had a sudden flash of understanding. Artie was not just acting, pretending to be Antonio. He really would follow Jim anywhere, even if it meant his own life. And he would do so purely out of love.
It all started to make sense: Artie’s moods the last few weeks, his avoiding Jim, recoiling from his touch. Jim felt a rush of vertigo as all of his assumptions about the world seemed to begin crumbling around him.
His partner loved him.
It was the most unexpected development, and yet somehow he wasn’t surprised. And that was the most surprising thing.
He seemed to have known this all along, but he hadn’t let himself admit to that knowledge. To admit that he knew such a thing would mean that he’d have to think about what it meant. Think about how he felt. He hadn’t been ready to do that.
He still wasn’t ready, but the knowledge had been thrust upon him all the same. He couldn’t act, but could only return Artie’s attention like a hapless hero caught in Medusa’s glare.
An eternity later, or perhaps it was only a second, the speech was over and Artie was taking his bows. Jim knew that he had to escape now, while Artie’s attention was elsewhere.
He quickly made an excuse to Cody that
sounded clumsy even to his own ears, and stumbled out of the saloon into the night.
He walked down the boardwalk that lined the streets until his legs betrayed him and he found himself settling with an ungraceful thud on the steps of the local tobacconist.
His partner loved him.
He tried it again.
Artemus Gordon, his best friend and closest confidante, loved him.
Everything he had been taught was telling him he should be repelled by this revelation, that he should find it distasteful in the extreme. But his instinct was telling him something quite different. His instinct was telling him something he didn’t think he was ready to accept.
It was telling him that he loved Artie as well. And not just in a brotherly way.
It was like waking up one morning and finding that you are not who you were when you went to bed the night before. It was devastating.
It was like coming home.
He wasn’t sure how long he sat on the boardwalk, but eventually he realized he should move. It did not do the reputation of the Secret Service any good to have one of its agent seen sitting stupidly in the streets of the town he was meant to be guarding.
He stood up and started wandering aimlessly, but with his mind finally beginning to work.
He would absolutely have to talk to Artie, and he would do it now, tonight, their assignment be damned. His pace picked up as he became more sure of what he would do.
He would make Artie believe that he cared for him. He would convince him that things could work out between them. He would calm the fear that had been in Artie’s eyes for too long now.
He was about to return to the saloon when he realized that his feet had brought him to Cody’s office, and the gas lights were on in the building. That was unusual enough to make him walk forward, rather than back. As he approached, he saw that the guard was not one he recognized, and he had made a point of meeting them all.
He made sure his derringer was ready, and addressed the guard.
“Is everything all right here?” He hoped his question sounded casual.
The man, who had watched his approach with a stone face that showed not the slightest reaction, merely nodded and said “Yes sir.”
“Then you won’t mind if I take a look inside. Just to make sure.”
“No sir. Go right ahead.” Still, the man showed not the slightest reaction.
Jim climbed the steps to the office, his boot heels clattering on the boards. He pushed the door open, and his mind began to sound warning bells. The door should have been locked. As the door swung open he could see the activity inside the office. A group of men, including the two ‘delivery boys’ he had seen earlier at Cody’s, were milling around the entrance to the safe, piling money on a pallet in the middle of the floor. The money he had been sent to protect.
He started to ask a question, but before he could say anything else, there was a sharp pain in his head and everything began to go black. His last thought as the darkness claimed him was that he must be losing his edge to let anyone approach him from behind like that.
He awoke lying face first on a wooden floor. His arms were tied cruelly behind his back, and his feet, minus his boots, were shackled together. So much for relying on the knife in the toe of his boot.
“So you are back among us, Mr. West. Welcome.”
Jim knew that voice. He struggled to place it, while he dealt with the excruciating pain in his head.
Ah yes. Cody.
“Mr. Cody,” he acknowledged his captor as he struggled to a sitting position.
“I’m sorry my man had to inflict such an injury upon you, but you must understand, we’ve gone to a lot of trouble to arrange this.”
“I’m sure you have.” Jim looked around the room. The pallet of money was gone, no doubt loaded into a wagon. The men were gone, all save the two ‘delivery boys.’
“And now, thanks to you, we’re going to have to go to even more trouble.” He motioned towards his two men, and they headed towards the back room. “I was honestly hoping that I wouldn’t have to take your life, Mr. West. I’ve become rather fond of you. But I’m afraid I can’t have any witnesses wandering about.”
“But everyone will know that the money is gone.”
“That’s the beauty of this plan. They won’t.” Cody smiled, an extremely unpleasant expression. “I have made sure that my tracks are covered very well. You see the storeroom of this building contains a sizable portion of dynamite. Enough dynamite, in fact, to obliterate the building and all its contents.”
“You’re going to make it look like some sort of accident.”
“I knew you were an intelligent man. Yes, it will look like an accident. I went to check on the office, there was a gas leak, and the dynamite blew up. Thus will vanish Roderick Cody, and all of the money the government has been so kind as to provide me with.”
“And one Secret Service agent.”
“And one Secret Service agent,” Cody agreed. “Except that while my death will be faked, yours will definitely be real.” Cody turned to see his men emerge from the back. “And I’m afraid the time has come for me to make my escape. Willis and Jerry have set a thirty minute fuse. Long enough for us to get away.” He smiled again. It was definitely an unpleasant sight. “Long enough for you to think about how you’re going to die.”
He made a final motion with his hand, and Willis and Jerry grabbed Jim, gagged him, and threw him into a closet. His head hit the back, and he nearly passed out again, holding onto consciousness only with difficulty.
“Farewell, Mr. West,” he heard Cody say through the door.
Go to hell, Cody, Jim thought to himself.
He heard Cody and his henchmen leave, slamming the door behind them. He gave them a minute before he began to see if he could find a way out of this.
He twisted, trying to find a loose knot that he could work on, but he had been tied up by experts. There was absolutely no give in the ropes. That avenue closed to him, he began to kick at the door. He might be able to knock it open. Or perhaps attract some attention from outside.
He refused to admit that this might be the one trap he had gotten himself into that he couldn’t get out of. Not now. Not with things unsettled between himself and Artie.
He began to think how his leaving the saloon might look to Artemus. Began to realize that Artie might think he’d been abandoned by his partner. Might believe that Jim had felt all those things that had first flashed through his mind when he realized that Artie loved him.
He couldn’t allow that to happen.
He began to kick harder, and to start a mental countdown. He was going to find out the hard way just how short thirty minutes could be.
By the time Artie reached Cody’s office, all his resolve to be the cool, professional agent had left him and he was running as fast as he could. He felt in his gut that something awful had already happened to Jim, and he would be unable to stop it.
The sight of the office building, when he saw it, stopped him cold. It managed to look both perfectly normal and exceedingly strange. It was not in flames or blown into matchsticks, as Artie had feared. But every light in the place was ablaze, and this well after midnight. And it was completely deserted, with no sign of the guards who should have been protecting the place and its contents.
The shock of the building’s appearance wore off in seconds, and he began to approach it, though cautiously. He would do neither Jim nor himself any good if he walked into a trap.
As he approached the building, he began to hear a sound, a muffled banging coming from somewhere inside.
He mounted the steps slowly, careful to make no sound. Padding across the building’s porch, he peered in at the windows. The inside was as deserted as the outside. He moved to the front door, ready to pick the lock if necessary, but the door opened easily as he turned the knob. He winced as its hinges creaked, but no one appeared to challenge him.
He ventured into the office. The banging sound was loud here. He looked to where the sound was coming from, and saw the door of a closet. He drew his revolver as he walked towards the door, uncertain as to what, or who, he would find within, but unwilling to be caught off-guard.
He carefully opened the door. And found a bound and gagged Jim West looking at him with panic. Relief flooded through him. He was unsure for a moment if his legs were going to keep him upright, but somehow they managed. Recovering himself swiftly, he pulled the gag from his partner’s mouth.
“Get out of here, Artie.” Under the circumstances, those were not the first words Artemus expected to hear from his partner. He thought back to his performance in the saloon. Then again, maybe it was exactly what he should have expected to hear.
“A simple thank you would suffice,” Artie said, pulling a jackknife out of his pocket to cut the ropes at Jim’s wrist.
“Cody rigged this place to explode.”
“I thought he might have.”
“He gave it a thirty minute fuse. That was about twenty-nine minutes ago. Now get out of here!”
Artie stopped what he was doing and thought for a split second. Twenty seconds to saw through the ropes at Jim’s wrists, perhaps a minute or two to pick the locks on the shackles that bound his feet and another ten seconds for them to get out of the building. Or…
Without further thought, discussion or argument, Artie made his decision and acted. He picked up his still restrained partner, slung him over his shoulder and began running. At least Jim had the good sense not to argue.
They were out of the door, down the steps and into the street when the dynamite exploded. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. Artie felt the force of the blast knock into him almost before he heard it. The shockwave knocked him from his feet, and he and Jim landed on the ground in a jumbled mass.
It was only then that the sound really registered with him at all. The initial sound of the blast was overwhelming, a great roar unlike anything he had ever heard. That roar nearly deafened him; subsequent noises were muffled, as if his head were swathed in cotton wool. There was the crackle of fire, as what was left of the building began to burn, and there was also the pattering of the debris that had been thrown into the air hitting the ground around him, a bizarre parody of the sound
It was this last sound that motivated him into action. He hunched over Jim, his back to the ruins of the office, protecting his partner from the potentially deadly rain of splinters of wood and other building materials.
Jim had landed on his side, facing away
from Artie, his hands bound behind him with a thick rope. When the fall of debris had ceased, Artie automatically opened his jackknife, which he had miraculously not lost, and began sawing through the rope. That job complete, he eased his partner up to a sitting position, and began picking the lock on the shackles on his feet.
“Artie…” Jim’s voice sounded a long way away.
“Hmmm,” he responded, refusing to look up.
“Are you okay?”
“No bones broken. You?” Artie tried to keep his tone light.
“Fine, just a bit bruised.”
At the moment, the lock of the shackles finally gave. Artie pulled them free of Jim’s ankles, and gave his partner’s legs a quick, he hoped impersonal, rub to restore their circulation.
With no other excuse to avoid it, he finally looked Jim in the face, dreading what he would find there.
He expected to see rejection or disgust. At best, he hoped for tolerant understanding. The expression on Jim West’s face, however, was none of those things. Artie was, in fact, shocked to realize that he didn’t know what the expression did signify. For the first time since they had met, Jim’s face, and mind, were closed to him.
It was almost worse than outright rejection. It was as if Jim had decided Artie was not to be trusted with his feelings.
Artie looked down at the shackles that had bound Jim, feigning a sudden interest in them. He was uncertain about his own ability to hide his crushing disappointment. He had sufficient pride left that he didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for him, least of all Jim West.
“Artie?” Jim’s voice was gentle.
“Yes.” He continued to look down.
“We have to talk about it.”
Artie refused to answer. He didn’t want to rationally discuss his emotions with Jim, make it all seem civilized, have Jim tactfully parry Artie’s interest in him. He would prefer that Jim put a bullet in his heart and be done with it.
“But we have to find Cody first. We have to get the money back.”
Artie nodded. This he could at least understand. They still had their job to do. Finding a sudden surge of energy that likely had more to do with adrenaline than anything, Artie jumped to his feet. He put out a hand, and helped Jim up, but still wouldn’t look him in the face.
It was then he realized that Jim’s feet were bare, and they would soon be on horseback. He immediately seized on the opportunity to escape from his partner’s company, if only for a few minutes.
“You need your spare boots. I’ll go back to the train and get them and the horses.”
Artie was on his way, at a run, before Jim could say another word.
They would have their talk, eventually, but Artie wasn’t looking forward to it. And he wasn’t going to make it any easier on Jim.
In the meantime, he would do his job. He would back up Jim, protect his partner’s back and help apprehend Cody.
Cody’s capture was something of an anticlimax.
Lulled by his certainty that the explosion would have caused confusion, and killed the one person who knew of his crime, Cody hadn’t tried very hard to hide his route. He had left a trail a tenderfoot could have followed.
Jim and Artie caught up to Cody just before dawn. He and his men had made camp, and were bedding down. Fortunately, the men Cody had hired were not the most competent of outlaws. Jim managed to knock out two of them by stealth, and Artie took out another two on the opposite side of the camp.
Which left Cody and his two delivery boy/gunfighters, Willis and Jerry.
After an exchange of gunfire that left Willis dead, and Jerry wounded, Cody saw the futility of his position and surrendered. Jim and Artie tied up their prisoners, including Cody, and bundled them into the wagon that was carrying the money. They tied their own horses to the wagon, and drove into town, presenting the surprised sheriff with both the prisoners and the money. Cody had been placed under arrest in the jail house that he had helped to build.
It had been too easy.
But it hadn’t really been easy at all.
The entire time they had been out, Artie had refused to look Jim in the eye. He would barely even talk to him, only opening his mouth to provide information when needed.
To Jim, it felt as if a piece of himself were missing, as if a limb had been suddenly hacked off.
Worse than the way he felt himself was how he knew Artie must be feeling. The hurt fairly radiated from his partner. Jim desperately wanted to ease that hurt, but he also knew he was its cause. And he could not say anything in front of Cody and his men. He would have to wait until they returned to the train. And then he would have to act fast.
Artie was acting like an animal caught in a leg trap that had just decided it would be best to chew off the leg and escape, damaged but alive. His partner was looking for a way out, and he would kill their friendship to find it.
Of course, Jim thought, Artie probably thought their friendship was dead already, that there was nothing left to kill. He couldn’t have been farther from the truth.
So, after they had handed their prisoners over to the sheriff and began to head back to the train, Jim began to make his plans.
Artemus Gordon was also making plans as they rode back to the train.
As Jim suspected, he was planning his escape.
He was going to telegraph Washington with his resignation as soon as they reached the train. With any luck, they would accept it immediately. At worst, he would have to work with Jim West another two weeks.
If the Secret Service held him for that two weeks, he would make sure he had as little to do with Jim as possible. Perhaps he could find a chemistry experiment to work on, hide himself away for the entire time.
As to what he would do when he was free of his job and his partner, his plans didn’t extend that far.
The stage was out of the question.
Acting was far too public a profession, and his soon-to-be ex-partner would have too easy a time tracking him down. He knew, somehow, that Jim wouldn’t let go easily, that he would try to stop his partner from taking this course of action. He wasn’t sure why Jim would still care, but he knew somehow that he would.
No, he would choose some anonymous job where he could disappear, and no one would ever find him. He had heard that the Canadian West was opening up. Perhaps he would see if there was a need for schoolteachers in some out of the way town on the prairies.
But for now, he just wanted to survive the next twenty-four hours, or even the next two hours, with his sanity and his dignity intact.
They arrived at the train, and got the horses settled in the stable car. That task done, they moved into the main car. Artie lagged behind Jim, hoping his partner would take the hint and not push the issue. He was not to be so lucky.
Jim folded his arms, planted his feet firmly and looked squarely at Artie.
“We have to talk.”
Artie recognized the tone in Jim’s voice as one that would brook no opposition. That was too bad, because opposition was exactly what he was facing.
“I’m tired, Jim. I’ll see you later.” Artie kept his eyes down as he spoke, and tried ducking around James.
“No, Artie. We have to straighten it out between us.”
“There is nothing left between us, Jim.”
“You’re wrong, Artemus.”
“I’m going to sleep.”
A hand reached out and grabbed him.
“You’re not going anywhere, Artie, until we’ve talked.”
Artie could feel steel in the hand on his arm, and realized there was no way of avoiding what was coming. It was as inevitable as a train wreck and was going to be twice as messy.
Sighing, and nodding his head, Artie sat, as still as stone, on the chesterfield and waited for his world to end.
Jim sat across from Artie and spent a few long moments looking at his partner, trying to find the words for what he was feeling. He kept being distracted by the way Artie looked. He had never seen his partner so beaten, so completely bereft of fight.
The Artemus Gordon he knew, and loved so it seemed, had a limitless reserve of strength, and would never allow himself to admit defeat, not even if the odds were stacked infinitely against him. The man who sat before him seemed almost a stranger, defeated and broken. And Jim was horrified to realize that he had, unknowingly, helped to create that stranger.
He had to mend the rifts in their relationship, restore their friendship and with luck, build a different, better type of bond between them.
“Artie,” he began, surprised that his voice was reduced to a dry croak. He cleared his throat and started again. “Artie, I know you’ve been unhappy the last couple of weeks.”
Artie gave a snort of what might have been laughter, but there was no humor in the sound. Jim pressed on, ignoring the interruption.
“I’ve been hoping you would tell me what was wrong. Hoping that I could help.”
“You can’t help me, Jim. I’d prefer that you not even try.” Artie sounded both bitter and lost simultaneously.
“You can, and you should, Jim. Just leave me alone.” Artie still had not looked at him properly. He still did not raise his eyes. He did, however, stand up.
“This is a mistake. We have nothing to talk about,” Artie said to the floor. Turning, he headed towards the bedrooms.
Jim stood himself, uncomfortably aware that it was all going horribly wrong. He just couldn’t seem to find the right way to tell Artie what he thought he knew, what he himself was feeling.
When words failed, he had only one thing to fall back on: action.
He quickly crossed the room to where Artie was. He firmly seized his partner’s wrist. Artemus tried to pull away from him, but they both knew who was stronger.
Jim pulled Artie into a firm embrace, and before he could think about it too long, he did something he could never have even conceived of a mere twenty-four hours before. He kissed his partner.
Jim wasn’t entirely sure which one of them was more surprised, Artie or himself. Jim was fascinated by the way that in some ways it was very like kissing a woman, and yet in other ways, it was so different. Artie’s lips were as soft as a woman’s, but Jim could also feel the scrape of beard against his own cheek and smell the distinctly male scent that was Artie’s own.
The kiss started out chastely enough.
But Jim soon gained confidence and opened his mouth against Artie’s. He let his tongue play lightly around Artie’s lips, until they opened up to him. Their tongues touched briefly, pulled back, then touched again as they both became more bold. It moved from being the kiss of new lovers, just getting to know each other, to one of intense longing.
Finally, Jim decided he’d made his point, and reluctantly withdrew. He did, however, keep Artie held in his arms.
“Now do you know what I was trying to tell you?” Jim said gently. “I love you.”
Artie’s eyes finally rose to meet his own. For the first time in weeks, those eyes were steady and trusting, if just a bit shocked.
“When did you…”
“After your performance, last night,” Jim said, without letting Artie finish. “When I heard you deliver that speech, I somehow knew what it was that had been bothering you.”
“And you weren’t angry?” Artie sounded more curious than anything.
“No, not angry. I was confused, until I realized that I felt the same way. That you had somehow become more important to me than any debutante I’d ever been introduced to.”
“Oh, Jim,” Artie started, then broke off. He abruptly buried his head against Jim’s shoulder, and his body began to shake. Jim was afraid that his friend was crying. But he soon recognized the sound that began coming from his partner: laughter.
He held his partner at arm’s length, wondering if he had made a mistake after all.
“Artie, what’s so funny?”
At first Artie could only shake his head and tremble with laughter, but he finally managed to speak.
“I was just thinking, my fairy godmother finally seems to have delivered my happy ending.”
Jim could think of no reply for that, and he wasn’t given a chance to deliver one. Artie immediately claimed possession of his mouth and began another intense kiss, filled with caring and desire.
As Jim wrapped his arms more firmly around his partner, his lover, and gave himself over completely to the feelings washing through him, he reflected that life was going to be more complicated from now on.
But a heck of a lot more interesting.
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