Artemus Gordon settled into his seat and pulled out the latest edition of the Post. He considered himself a worldly man, but he still couldn't help but feel dismayed at the headlines. Scandal in the President's office, scandal in Congress, it seemed things never got better and were only getting worse.
He'd already been through enough evil times, seeing Grant's Presidency decay into corruption and deceit. Not that Grant himself had ever dealt less than honestly with him or James, but he'd seemed chronically incapable of seeing the rot in his chosen advisors. It had gotten so bad that Artie dreaded being summoned back to Washington, fearing that this would be the time they'd be unable to avoid the decay and either be carried along with it or buried under it.
Artie had harboured a brief hope that a new President would clean out the corruption, but Hayes and the Republicans had only brought more of the same, starting with an election it was widely known they'd stolen. Not that the Democrats wouldn't have stolen it back if they could have.
No, Artie had seen too much.
He'd been up all night crafting his resignation letter, turning out drafts that were by turns insolent and gracious, clumsy and elegant, discarding them all and settling finally on one that was the epitome of brevity. He'd dropped it on the desk of Colonel Ware-Colonel Richmond's vastly inferior replacement-and informed the colonel that the resignation was effective immediately. Ware had at least had the sense not to argue the point, leaving Artie to sweep out of the room and out of the Secret Service.
He'd sent the few belongings from which he couldn't bear to part ahead of him, and they were here now, in the baggage car of the train waiting to take him to Harrisburg, Chicago and beyond.
He crossed his legs and shifted his shoulders, trying to attain a level of comfort that seemed out of reach. First class might be fine for most travellers, but he'd become accustomed to the Wanderer, with its ample space and comfortable furniture and Jim West always at his side.
He'd have none of that from now on.
He'd miss the Wanderer, but he knew he'd adjust to its loss. After all, he'd suffered worse deprivations than the agony of a first class train compartment. He'd camped out in the desert, ridden through rain and snow, lived on hard tack biscuit and old boot leather.
He'd miss the Wanderer, but he doubted he'd miss the Secret Service. It was becoming too hidebound, too caught up in rules and regulations for a natural nonconformist such as himself. It was a miracle he'd lasted this long without being fired or thrown in Leavenworth.
But James West…Jim he would miss more than he could bear.
He would bear it, though. Had to bear it, for both their sakes. He couldn't abide staying in the Service, just as he knew Jim couldn't abide leaving it. So, much as he dreaded it, there had to be a break between them.
Jim wouldn't understand, would be hurt, would be angry, but Artie knew there was no other way. Rip the dressing off the wound quickly and it would heal that much sooner. Draw it out in an attempt to be merciful and if would fester and putrefy. A clean break was best. Jim would hate him, forget about him and move on with his life. Maybe he'd be promoted, and end up running the Secret Service, turning it back into the sort of organization the country could be proud of. Maybe he'd go back to the Army. Perhaps he'd settle down with one of the women who always seemed to be casting themselves in his path, and have a horde of children, the boys strong and clear-eyed like their father, the girls pretty and smart like their mother.
Artie bit his lip as he felt a stabbing wound in the general vicinity of his heart, and cast out the vision of Jim's imagined family. Best not to think of Jim's life without him. Best not to think of Jim at all.
Impatiently, he folded the newspaper and tossed it on the seat across from him, grateful that it seemed he was to be spared a companion in the compartment. He was no fit company for anyone at the moment, not even himself. Sleep was all he was good for. Sleep would offer him escape from his thoughts.
Crossing his arms, he shifted in his seat, closed his eyes and allowed a fitful slumber to overtake him. And with sleep came dreams, phantoms of things past...
Artemus Gordon, former actor, former soldier, former Union spy, and currently holding no position in particular, stood in the centre of Colonel James Richmond's Washington office and wondered exactly what in the name of his sainted Aunt Maud he was doing here.
He'd had some dealings with Richmond during the war. He'd been an older recruit when the war broke out, but he'd been fortunate, after a fashion, to have a commanding officer who recognized the usefulness of his acting skills in deceiving the enemy. He'd been packed off to Washington, and from there had been sent throughout the South, gathering intelligence on Confederate troops and positions and reporting in to whichever Union commander could put the information to best use.
It was at the Vicksburg siege that he'd met Richmond, as well as General Grant himself. He'd rendered both men useful service, though none that he'd considered particularly memorable. So he had no idea why, four years after the end of the war, a courier had been sent to find him in New Orleans, where he'd been keeping life and soul together with a mixture of gambling and acting. All he did know was that he'd received a summons to Washington and, drawn by curiosity and a restless aimlessness, he had responded to it.
All of which had led to him standing in front of Richmond's desk while that worthy finished scratching out an order in the near-illegible script that Artie still remembered after all these years.
Another minute passed, and Artie was just about to succumb to his tendency to mischief and test what Richmond's reaction would be if he slouched into the chair in the corner, when the colonel finally deigned to recognize his presence.
"Gordon, so glad you could make it." He looked up from his paper with an obvious pleasure that made Artie glad he hadn't given in to his puckish instincts.
"Why thank you, sir." Artie took Richmond's offered hand, and received a firm handshake in return. "It was good of you to remember me."
"I like to think I'm a good judge of quality, Gordon. And you were one of the best agents the general and I had seen."
"You're too kind."
"I'm not kind at all, Gordon. Or your memory's faulty. I'm an honest man, and I deal honestly with those around me. But I don't indulge in flattery."
"Then I'm not flattered," Artie said. "But I am somewhat at sea."
"Oh, I doubt that, Gordon. You always struck me as the sort of man who was never at sea, no matter where he was."
"I thought you didn't indulge in flattery."
"I don't. And I don't remember you indulging in false modesty."
Artie gave a slight smile. "Then, if we're being honest…" He paused, to give Richmond enough time to nod his head. "Why did you bring me here?"
"I want to offer you a job."
"A job?" Artie wasn't sure what he had expected, but somehow this wasn't it. "What sort of job could you offer to the likes of me?" Artie knew his worth, just as he knew the depth and breadth of his own intelligence, but he knew he wasn't the sort of person a respectable colonel in the United States Army, especially one with a position of importance in Washington circles, was likely to want to hire.
"A good job. An important job. A job protecting our country." Richmond leaned forward on his desk and his face took on the cast of a deep South preacher, proselytizing to an unbeliever. "President Grant is revamping the Secret Service. Making it the sort of organization that can keep the country safe from the sorts of threats the coming decades will bring. He needs structure, the sort old warhorses like me can bring. But he also needs new blood, men who know how to operate outside of a military hierarchy, men who can improvise solutions on their own. Men like you."
"It sounds like you have an exaggerated sense of my abilities."
"What did I say about false modesty, Gordon?" Artie definitely detected a twinkle in Richmond's eye, and that set him at ease, even if he'd been thrown by the offer.
"I'll grant you, I'm able. In any number of areas. I just don't know that I'm the sort of man you're looking for."
"You're exactly the sort of man I'm looking for." Richmond's voice was full of the confidence that Artie remembered. "In fact I'm so sure that you're perfect for the job that I've already chosen a partner for you."
Richmond rose from his desk, and made his way to a side door that Artie hadn't noticed before. He disappeared through the door, and Artie heard low voices that, try as he might, he couldn't decipher.
When Richmond returned, it was with a beaming smile and a definite twinkle.
"Artemus Gordon, may I present your new partner, Major James West."
The man who followed on Richmond's heels was not the dour, humourless career military man Artie had expected.
West's rank and uniform proclaimed him military, but otherwise he was as far from Artie's imaginings as possible. He was trim and muscular, carrying himself with a confidence that was magnetic. He was possibly the most handsome man Artie had ever seen, with eyes that seemed to dance between green and blue and a mouth that was quirked in a tentative smile of welcome.
Artie knew next to nothing about James West, except that Colonel Richmond respected him, but he knew one thing immediately and absolutely: he would follow him to the ends of the earth.
Artie startled awake as the train jerked to a halt. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, both wanting and dreading to obliterate the dream from his thoughts. It was foolish to torture himself reflecting on a man he'd never see again. But he knew that he was bound to torture himself in just this way many times in the months and years to come. You didn't forget a man like Jim West. Not when he'd meant as much to you as Jim had meant to Artie.
Seeking to distract himself, Artie peered out the window. They were on a siding, and as he watched, a southbound train passed by on its way back to Washington. He allowed himself a moment's regret that he wasn't on it, that he couldn't retract his resignation, and resume his partnership with Jim. But the reasons he'd resigned remained, and if he went back, he knew it would only be to quit again in six months or a year. It was an impossible wish.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, recalling the teachings of an Oriental guru he'd met years before. He struggled to live only in the moment, to expunge all memory of James West. But the harder he tried, the more images of Jim flooded his mind's eye. Jim in motion and still. Jim suffused with warmth and frozen with steely resolve. Jim raging in anger and glowing with affection.
Finally, Artie gave himself over to the flood and let the current of memory carry him away.
In the year he'd been partnered with James West, Artie had been in some difficult spots, but this was one of the worst.
It shouldn't have been.
When Colonel Richmond had given them this assignment, investigating an upstart private army operating in New Mexico, Artie hadn't taken it entirely seriously. The self-styled General Montgomery Hollis had seemed more buffoon than serious threat.
Then the buffoon had removed his mask and shown his teeth, and now Artie was chained up in Hollis' makeshift prison, awaiting dawn and the pleasure of the faux General's firing squad. But facing his own death wasn't what had Artie worried. He had faced his own death many times, had become sanguine about it. If he died, he died. He'd lived a good life and could be satisfied with what he'd accomplished, what he'd experienced.
No, what had Artie most worried was not knowing what had happened to Jim.
He hadn't seen his partner for two days, not since they'd split up, with Jim taking the Wanderer and Artie proceeding on foot. Hollis had seen through Artie's guise of a disaffected Civil War veteran far too quickly. Artie only hoped that Jim's cover had held.
He spent the night watching the sliver of sky he could see through his cell's tiny, barred window, watching for signs of the coming dawn, and listening for any indication that Jim was imprisoned in the same building.
The sky had begun to lighten when Artie heard the first sign that all was not well in Hollis' fiefdom. First came the sounds of horses and men. As the commotion grew louder and spilled throughout the fort, Artie knew he had his answer about Jim's fate. There was no one who could stir up a hornet's nest like Jim West, and this nest of stinging insects had most certainly been stirred.
Just as he felt that everything was going to work out, there was a clattering at the door of his cell. It was on the tip of his tongue to demand of Jim where the devil he'd been when the door flew open, revealing not his partner, but one of Hollis' soldiers. The man was young -his chin was still covered in peach fuzz and he had the gawky bearing of a teenager who hadn't yet reached manhood - not to mention wild-eyed and panicky. He'd pulled his uniform on so quickly that he'd misbuttoned his jacket. Most alarmingly, he had a rifle trained firmly on Artie.
"Now, son," he said placatingly. "You don't want to do anything you'll regret."
"Shut up, and get over there," the boy said, pointing his gun at the wall he was clearly determined to stand Artie against. As a rule, Artie didn't like standing against walls. All sorts of things happened when you stood against walls, not least of which was people trying to shoot you full of holes.
"All right. Whatever you say." But instead of moving to the wall, Artie moved to the side and slightly forward, preparing to move quickly and hoping he could knock the boy out before he fired his weapon.
It was probably lucky that he never got to find out if his plan would have worked.
Before he could move, or the boy could fire, James West burst through the door, gun in his hand and a glare on his face. The boy turned and gawped at the intruder, as if he couldn't decide what to do. Jim suffered no such doubt. He moved in quickly, laid out the boy with a single punch and had unloaded his rifle and thrown it into the corridor before Artie could so much as blink.
"Close your mouth, Artie," Jim said with a wide grin. "The shocked innocent look doesn't become you."
Artie shut his jaw sharply, and then returned the grin. "Jim, surely you've known me long enough now to know that I have never been innocent."
"I knew that the minute I met you, Artie," Jim said. Suddenly he wasn't smiling, and just as suddenly Artie felt his face flush and his limbs overtaken by a heaviness that always presaged acute embarrassment. But looking closely at Jim, he wasn't embarrassed in the least. He was intrigued, wondering what Jim had seen in him, that first meeting, what he'd given away to his partner?
What his partner would think if he knew that Artie's feelings for him ran from affection to a deep and hopeless lust?
Scrutinizing Jim, the openness of his expression, the slight flush on his cheeks, Artie began to wonder if his lust wasn't quite so hopeless after all.
Not that he was about to do anything about it right this minute. Not with Montgomery Hollis still running about somewhere, looking to cause more mayhem. So he shook himself, grabbed Jim's arm, and they joined the members of the 8th Cavalry Regiment that Jim had somehow conjured to help with Artie's rescue to capture Hollis and his men.
But in the quiet moments between the fighting, he couldn't help but think about it, what he would say to Jim when this was all over. What Jim might say to him. What they might do together, alone, in the dark, with no prying eyes to see and judge and condemn.
Artie squeezed his eyes tightly shut and tried once again to banish all thought of Jim West from his mind. Tried not to remember what had happened after New Mexico. What had continued to happen, frequently, until only two nights ago. But it was no more possible for him to forget Jim than for Sisyphus to complete his task. His skin burned with the memory of Jim's flesh, his throat tingled in remembrance of the touch of his lips, his tongue longed for the taste of his mouth.
Damning his own weakness and Jim's very existence, Artie surrendered himself to the full memory of everything he was losing.
It had been another close call, closer than New Mexico, closer than many times since. That was the excuse they always used. An excuse that was becoming increasingly shopworn as the days and weeks and months wore on, and it became ever more clear that their need went beyond mere relief at survival, ran through them like a rich vein of silver through a prize claim, wanting only to be mined deeper and deeper still.
They managed to wait until they were safely on the Wanderer, until the train was in motion, clattering toward their next destination, until the sun had set and the late summer sky had turned a satin dark punched through by the brightness of the stars like a tin lantern. Only then, when there was no possibility of interruption, no chance that they would be observed by unkind eyes, did they let desire take them.
That night, Artie led the way, letting his fingertips slide across Jim's shoulder, his neck, his scalp. A smile and a wink, and he moved from the sitting room to his own bedroom, knowing that Jim would follow.
And follow he did, entering the darkened bedroom mere moments after Artie had stripped and spread himself out on the bed, hands behind his head, his swelling genitals awaiting Jim's touch.
Neither of them spoke. They never spoke at these times, but not out of shame, not out of embarrassment. Actions were their words, touch and caress a physical language they'd created to convey their need, their desire.
Starlight his only illumination, Artie watched as Jim removed his own clothes, his movements more graceful than ever in the silvered light. When he'd removed his last stitch of clothing, placing his garments carefully on the night table, he moved toward Artie, covering his partner with his own flesh.
Artie gasped as their cocks came in contact, hard velvet against hard velvet, sparring and jousting as they writhed together. For Artie it would have been enough, finding completion in this way, but Jim wanted more, and Artie was more than happy to let him take it. After all, it was Jim who'd nearly lost his partner this day, Jim whose need was strongest.
Straddling his thighs, Jim reached up and took his wrists in a grip that always delighted Artie with its strength. He thrust his hips up, seeking to restore the contact between them, and Jim obliged, leaning forward to take Artie's mouth in a bruising kiss. Only when Artie thought he could take no more sensation did Jim pull away, inclining his head to ask a silent question. Artie gasped and nodded in response, knowing that they both desperately wanted the same thing.
Jim released his wrists and reached for the jar of salve they kept for just this purpose. Artie clutched the sheet above his head in frustration as Jim applied the salve to his cock, impatient for his own turn at Jim's ministrations. That came soon enough, leaving Artie moaning and struggling not to thrash as Jim's salve-slicked fingers invaded him, a sweet-tinged pain that made him crave even more. But Jim made him wait.
They were both prepared, both ready, both wanting, but Jim chose that moment to pull back. He sat on his knees between Artie's spread thighs, his hands on either side of Artie's chest, close enough that Artie could feel the heat of him, but not touching. Never had Artie been so tempted to talk, to beg, to scream, to insist that Jim enter him. Now.
And then Jim raised Artie's legs and pierced him to his core, and Artie did scream, though it was a sound without words, a sound that came from deep inside him, from the place that had always known Jim West. They moved together as one creature with one longing, one need, Artie astounded at the heights Jim could still bring him to as his cock was caught between their bellies. He felt the moment just before Jim came, when his cocked pulsed and his rhythm increased. Artie thrust harder himself then, wanting to drive Jim over the edge more quickly so he could plunge with him.
Then Jim plummeted into the chasm, his whole body shuddering and a keening emerging from his throat. One last pulse, and he was done, but Artie hadn't yet reached the same heights. He held Jim close, grinding against him as Jim took his mouth. The assault on his senses drove Artie higher and higher until he too could do nothing but plummet back to earth as his back arched in bliss and his cock pulsed in blessed release.
They lay there, sticky, sweaty and entwined, Artie's arms holding Jim tight, Jim sprawled on Artie's chest in post-coital pleasure, until other needs asserted themselves. Until Artie's arms cramped and Jim shifted and reached for the cloth they always made sure was nearby at these times.
But even so, they still slept curled around one another until first light dawned and they parted with a kiss.
Artie clenched his eyes tightly shut, wishing things were different. Wishing that he'd never met Jim West, or that he hadn't liked him quite so much. Wishing his disgust with his job hadn't gotten quite so intolerable, or that the corruption in Washington hadn't become quite so hard to ignore.
Wishing that he hadn't managed to fall in love with a man he'd never see again.
As the train pulled into the Harrisburg station, he told himself that the stinging in his eyes was only from the smoke of the engine, drifting in through an open window.
Artie had planned his escape carefully. He'd examined the train schedules and routes, confirmed arrival times and checked the length of journeys, all to ensure that he'd leave any pursuit well behind him. But he'd reckoned without the vagaries of fate, and so here he sat, in the waiting room of the Harrisburg train station, hoping that the minor derailment they'd been told had blocked the line between Harrisburg and Pittsburg would be cleared soon and he could resume his trip, resume his escape, and begin to build his life anew.
Artie was used to waiting. During the war, he'd stood in line with his regiment, awaiting a Confederate attack. For the Secret Service, he'd crouched in the dark outside an enemy's stronghold, awaiting the best opportunity to infiltrate or to sabotage or to rescue. But this was the most nerve-wracking wait he'd ever experienced. Each minute in this waiting room was another minute Jim had to find him. Each train that arrived from Washington was another that might bear a Jim West determined to drag Artie back to the fold of the Secret Service. And each moment he spent fearing Jim's arrival diminished his resolve to quite the Service and Jim.
He'd nearly made up his mind to leave the station, leave his belongings and disappear as best he could into the city streets when there was a touch on his shoulder and he knew it was far, far too late.
He turned, and his greatest fear was realized. Jim West stood at his side, looking down with an expression that was completely shuttered against him. That closing off struck him like a blow. Even in the early days of their partnership, Jim had never guarded himself from Artie. Not until this moment.
"Artie," Jim said, and if his expression was guarded his voice was not. Two syllables, and Artie was astounded at the hurt he could hear in them. But to acknowledge that hurt would be to expose his own pain, and that was one thing he couldn't do.
"Jim!" He made the name as bright and cheery as possible, using every ounce of acting skill he possessed and painting over the deep cracks of his own pain as a thespian covers flaws with greasepaint. "Fancy meeting you here."
"Artie, I - "
Artie interrupted, determined not to listen to the anguish in every word. "I assume I have you to thank for the delay of my train? Of course I do. And I'm sure Colonel Ware was happy to help with that if it meant the return of my services."
"Artie, would you -"
"But I told him I wasn't interested in staying, and now I'm telling you. So if you inform the PRR officials to get the Chicago train on its way, then I won't trouble you again."
"Artie," Jim said, grabbing his arm with a grip that Artie knew would bruise. "Would you be quiet and let me talk." Jim's voice started low, but rose and rose till on the final word he let out a roar that startled not only Artie, but the young family of four sitting across from him. "This way," Jim said, taking advantage of Artie's shock and pulling him to his feet to lead him, unresisting, out of the station. Once outside, he guided him to a corner that the crowds seemed to have shunned.
As soon as they'd reached their sheltered alcove, Jim released Artie's arm as if it were made of molten lead. Then he looked at Artie, and this time Artie could see beyond the shuttered gaze, could see the deep sorrow that lurked within, a sorrow that he'd inflicted.
"Why, Artie?" Jim said, and in his voice Artie could hear a raw wound.
"Why did I leave?" He swallowed once, took a breath, and decided to give Jim the truth. Because Jim deserved that, at least. "I couldn't stomach it anymore: the corruption, the compromises. It was eating me alive and I wasn't sure how much of me would be left if I stayed." And all that was true, but Artie couldn't help but feel how hollow it sounded in the face of Jim's pain.
"No," Jim said. "Not that. I guessed at that. Why didn't you tell me?"
Artie stared at Jim, at the open grief on his face, and he couldn't think of an answer that wouldn't make him look like a coward. Because, he realized in a shameful epiphany, he had been a coward. He avoided telling Jim as a way of avoiding pain for them both, but had succeeded only in inflicting more pain.
"I was afraid," he admitted, his voice barely above a whisper. "Afraid you'd talk me out of it and I'd end up hating you. Afraid you wouldn't talk me out of it, and you'd end up hating me. Afraid that you wouldn't understand. Afraid that you would understand." Artie stopped to catch his breath and then added the worst offence he could think of. "I was afraid to say goodbye."
Jim's reaction was shockingly swift. Before Artie could draw another breath, he put a hand on Artie's chest, pushed him up against the station's outer wall and held him there. The heat from his hand burned Artie's skin, even as the expression in his eyes burned into his mind.
"You listen to me, Artemus Gordon. No one is more important to me than you. If you wanted to quit, you should have told me."
"Why?" Artie nearly shouted the word. "So you could talk me out of it?"
"No. So we could quit together"
"But - "
"Together," Jim said firmly, and in that one word were all the things they'd felt about each other but hadn't said out loud.
Jim kept his hand on his chest, kept his eyes firmly locked on Artie's face. Artie had the slightly hysterical thought that Jim was going to kiss him, here, in a place that might be sheltered but was definitely public for all that. But even provoked, Jim had more sense than that. Instead, he simply put his free hand on Artie's shoulder and held it tightly.
"If you can't stomach the Service anymore, then neither can I."
"But Colonel Ware…" In spite of the fact that he'd just been handed a future he hadn't dared hope was even possible, Artie couldn't quite surrender the need to argue against his good luck.
"I'll telegraph my resignation to Colonel Ware from here."
"I don't have much, and it's all on the Wanderer. Which just happens to be in the Harrisburg railyard."
"But what will you do?"
"What were you going to do, Artie?" Jim squeezed his arm and gave him one of his dazzling smiles, the sort of smile Artie had seen on that first day. The sort of smile he now had an inkling was reserved only for him.
"I wasn't entirely sure," Artie said, his plans feeling suddenly wholly inadequate. "I was going to see what came up."
"Then we'll see what comes up together."
Artie's only response as they walked toward the Harrisburg railyard to liberate Jim's worldly possessions from the Wanderer was a smile. A smile he rather suspected had its own sort of dazzle.
Washington could have its corrupt politicians. The Army could have its Colonel Wares. Artemus Gordon would be happy to go where the road took him, as long as he had James West at his side.
Got any comments? Send 'em to email@example.com