|James West tossed the boy a coin and watched the yawning lad
lead his horse into the murky shadows of the stable. With a weary sigh,
he slung the saddlebags over his shoulder and headed across the street
to the little town's only hotel.
It wasn't a very appealing sight from the outside, and he had scant hope the interior would prove any better. Like many of its ilk, the hotel was ramshackle, dirty, and probably bug infested. However, as the only non-private residence in the area, it still drew all the business for miles around. Normally, Jim would have given the place a wide berth, but he was bone-tired after several days in the saddle, and the night sky threatened rain. He was half-tempted to keep on riding, eager to complete his first mission for Grant since the man assumed the presidency, but common sense told him he'd be hard-pressed to finish it at all if he didn't get some sleep.
He hesitated a moment in the dingy lobby, wondering if he wouldn't perhaps be better off sleeping in the stable with his horse, then shook off the thought and strode up to the desk. The manager was sleeping, arms crossed over his chest, chair tilted back on two legs against the wall. Jim rapped loudly on the desk, suppressing a grin as the man came awake suddenly, his chair dropping back to the floor with a loud thump.
"How much for a bed to myself?" he asked the owlishly blinking man. Sleeping with strangers was a necessary evil in frontier hotels, one that Jim preferred to avoid whenever possible.
"Dollar and a half." The man watched as Jim reached into his vest pocket, but didn't speak until he'd counted the money out on the desk. "But we don't have any available."
"What do you have available, then?" Jim kept his annoyance off his face with an effort.
"Shared bed for fifty cents." He swung the book around for Jim to sign.
He didn't reach for the pen. "Half of a dollar and a half is seventy-five cents."
"Beds sleep three."
"I'll pay you a dollar for a bed with only one other lodger," Jim bargained, removing a few coins from the counter and pushing the rest toward the man.
The extra twenty-five cents apparently gave the man pause. He blinked at the coins, then at Jim, then nodded sharply. "Sign the book."
Jim wrote "John Wayland" in the register with a flourish, then followed the man upstairs. He could barely make out the steps in front of him by the light of the manager's guttering candle. The man pointed him to a closed door near the head of the stairs, then turned to descend. Jim grabbed his arm.
"Why's this fellow so special?" he asked with belated suspicion. "To be sleeping all by himself," he added at the manager's evident confusion.
The man's eyes shifted away, then back. "He's an actor." He invested the word with marked distaste, then retreated quickly, taking the light with him.
"Well, I'm sure it's not contagious." Jim smiled at nothing in particular, and pushed open the door.
As quietly as he could, Jim closed the door behind him and put his saddlebags on the chair by the door which, aside from the bed, appeared to be the room's only furniture. There was no lock on the door, of course, nor drapes on the window. Though a candle sat on the floor next to the chair, Jim made no move to light it. The thin walls, made of lath and cloth rather than wood and plaster, would throw his shadow in relief to all the other tenants of the house if backlit by candlelight. The moonlight streaming through the unshuttered glass gave him all the light he needed anyway. It was probably just as well he couldn't make out all the particulars of the room. The strong smell of mildew told him more than he really wanted to know.
Of the "actor," only the blur of dark hair was visible over the top of the sheet. The man slept with his back to the door, well over on the far side of the mattress. Clearly, he wasn't unfamiliar with the way such hotels operated. Jim wondered with weary cynicism how much he had paid for his bed.
Jim sat on the edge of the bed to tug off his boots, then rose and quickly stripped off his jacket and vest. Remaining mostly clothed served two purposes: it made it easier to leave quickly if that became necessary, and kept his skin from close contact with the none-too-clean sheets. He drew back the blanket and climbed into the bed, carefully keeping close to his own side. Jim pushed away the thin pillow in favor of resting his head on his bent arm, his hand wrapped around the small derringer he concealed under the pillow, and settled in to sleep.
A soft noise woke Jim out of a sound sleep some hours later. That wasn't uncommon in a hotel like this -- cloth walls provided little privacy, and you could usually hear every tenant in the house, two legged and four. He lay perfectly still, hand tightening around the hidden gun, listening intently. A moment later, the noise was repeated. Inside the room. The faintest caress of a cool breeze swept over Jim's closed eyelids, accompanied by the soft patter of rain. The window was open. And the noise, repeated a third time, was that of someone stealthily climbing over the sill.
Three interlopers were two too many to be dealt with using the tiny one-shot derringer, but Jim gave it his best shot. In a manner of speaking.
Without lifting his head, he cracked open his eyes and aimed the gun with almost imperceptible movements of his hand. The moonlit window made of one man a superlative target. Jim closed his eyes and jerked his head up a second before pulling the trigger, but the blast of the gun nearly deafened and blinded him regardless. The man in the window tumbled backwards with a startled squawk.
Jim had flung himself out of bed without pausing to see if his shot connected. The other two intruders were caught by surprise, and Jim was able to give a good accounting of himself even against superior odds until one of them slammed his head against the window frame which was, unfortunately, of a nice solid wood. Dazed, he grappled with one of his assailants, pinning the man's arms to his sides by pure luck.
His heroic effort was doomed to failure, however, as he was almost immediately struck from behind by the man's companion. His grip slackened for a moment, and the intruder slid out of his arms. Before he could turn to defend himself from the other, a distinct thud penetrated his still ringing ears. Jim spun as fast as his aching head would allow, to see the third intruder in a limp heap on the floor, a rumpled-looking man in drawers and shirt standing over him with a gun.
"If this is your idea of a wake-up call, I'd be much obliged if you'd pick someone else's room next time." Amusement vied with exasperation in the man's voice.
Jim shook himself sharply to clear the ringing in his ears. He stuck his head out the open window, where the brisk night air cleared it a little more, and noticed in passing that both the man he'd shot and the one who'd escaped his weakened grasp had already disappeared from the rain-swept street. Jim turned back to the third fellow, who hadn't yet moved and showed no signs of doing so in the near future. In the moonlight, the red streak of blood across the side of his head where the actor had buffaloed him with the barrel of his gun looked almost black. Taking no chances, Jim quickly strapped the man's arms behind him with his own belt.
He was just finishing when a pounding began on the room's flimsy door. As it almost exactly matched the pounding in his head, Jim groaned, pressing his hands fiercely to his temples. With a sympathetic look, the other man went to open the door.
"What in the devil is going on?" the manager demanded with a fine display of civic displeasure. A curious crowd of awakened guests hovered just outside the door.
"You failed to mention this place was overrun by thieves," the actor answered haughtily, immediately putting the manager off his stride and on the defensive. "We've caught one for you. If you hurry, you might catch the other two on the street." He turned his back to the man and winked at Jim, who was hard-pressed not to smile, headache or no headache.
Jim hauled the bound "thief" up and dragged him to the door, dropping him at the manager's feet. "See to it that this man is delivered to the sheriff. I'll go by in the morning to register my complaint against him." Not waiting for an answer, he strode back to close the window.
"That will be all, my good man."
The manager gaped stupidly at the actor for a moment before gathering his wits about him and impatiently ordering several of the larger men hovering in the corridor to pick up the unconscious thief. The actor softly closed the door on the ruckus and settled gracefully on the bed with one leg tucked up under him. He put his gun down on the blankets and crossed his arms over his chest, studying Jim in the bright moonlight.
"So, are you going to tell me what this was really about?" He certainly had an actor's voice: resonant and compelling.
"Really about?" Jim raised one eyebrow.
The man's smile transformed his face from merely ordinary to quite attractive. It was possible, now, to believe he might have a commanding presence on the stage. "No thief worth his salt would bother breaking into a place like this. What is there to steal?"
"It would have been easier to break into the ground floor."
"You do have a point." Jim sat on the opposite edge of the bed from the man and gingerly investigated the knot on the side of his head with gentle fingers.
"So I ask myself, why would an organized band of men break into the second floor of a two-bit hotel?"
"A difficult question," Jim agreed with feigned solemnity, "if you don't think they were thieves."
The actor rubbed his chin with one hand and tilted his head to the side. "Oh, I think they were looking to rob you, all right. But not of the usual stuff. What do you have that's so valuable?"
"Damned if I know," Jim lied easily with a careless shrug. The actor looked disappointed.
"How's your head?" he asked, after a minute.
"Of that I have no doubt." He rose and returned his gun to his carpetbag. Then he flipped the sheet back and climbed into bed, lying on his back with his hands clasped behind his head. "You think you're going to need that?" he asked as he watched Jim reload the derringer.
"No." Jim put it under the pillow anyway.
"Yes, well, I always feel safer with a gun in my bed."
Jim ignored the sarcastic remark and climbed into bed, lying on his side with his back to the other man, thankful that the painful knot was on the other side of his head.
"I just saved your life, you know," the man pointed out after a moment, curiosity obviously eating him alive, "not to mention whatever it was you're protecting. Doesn't that earn me something?"
"Sure," Jim said without rolling over. "Thanks."
The actor released an unwillingly amused snort. "Oh well," he said, a smile in his voice, "that's what I get for indulging my curiosity. My name's Artemus, by the way, Artemus Gordon."
"John Wayland," Jim said, half turning on his back to offer his hand. It was taken firmly in Gordon's warm clasp.
"Of course," he said, and Jim knew he didn't believe a word.
By the time he stopped for the night, the rain had dwindled to a light drizzle before slowly ceasing altogether. Just in time too -- there wasn't another town for at least two days' ride, and therefore no hotel either. It would be a relief, actually, to sleep in the clean air.
His throbbing head had proven an effective deterrent against sleep, rousting Jim out before sunrise. He had risen and dressed quietly, feeling that it would be inconsiderate to disturb Gordon's sleep twice in one night. His last view of the man -- a glimpse of tousled dark hair above the sheet -- had been the same as his first. Seemed fitting, somehow.
He hadn't bothered with a trip to the sheriff's office. In the clear light of day, he knew there was no way those three could have known which room to break into unless they'd bribed the hotel manager. Who would have ample reason to make sure the law didn't get involved.
Jim had put his army experience to good use, keeping a sharp lookout as he rode. He'd seen no sign of pursuit, but knew that meant little. They knew where he was headed, and there wasn't an alternate route, so it was certain they'd catch up sooner or later. Hopefully not before he'd gotten a few hours' sleep, though.
Jim set up camp in a wooded dell. The canopy of surrounding trees offered up a limited quantity of fallen dry wood, as well as their protection from the elements. He built a small fire to cook his uninspiring meal and warm him through the evening.
Jim was sitting over the meager flames with a tin cup of coffee warming his hands when he first heard them. It would have been foolish to think he'd lost them -- he'd been waiting, half-listening all the time. It wasn't surprising that they'd decided to attack by night again; only that they hadn't waited until he was asleep.
He took his revolver and rifle, leaving his bedroll and saddlebags by the fire, and slipped back a few feet into the brush, moving silently as a shadow. They weren't so skilled -- their blundering through the brush could no doubt be heard for miles. Nature obligingly made an effective sentry for a man alone.
Hobbled where it could graze the thick undergrowth, his horse knickered, scenting the approach of men. Jim checked and cocked both guns and waited.
He didn't have to wait long.
The first man came barreling out of the wood, yelling like a banshee. He stopped so short on finding the fire untended that he nearly fell over his own feet. Jim took aim with the rifle, but didn't shoot. Until he knew where the other thief was, he would only give away his own position if he fired.
The man in the clearing, a white bandage around his head making it clear he was the one Gordon had buffaloed the night before, fumbled around Jim's possessions, rooting through his saddlebags. He seemed unaware he made a perfect target in the firelight as he searched.
Jim's finger tightened on the trigger, but he forced it to relax again. These men wouldn't think twice about shooting him in cold blood -- he knew he could say the same if it came down to it. But he had to wait until the moment was right.
"Come on, come on," he murmured under his breath, "show yourself." His eyes scanned the surrounding area for the other man, the muzzle of his rifle never leaving its target.
An eternity passed. His muscles cramped, twitched with the enforced immobility. Still Jim kept the rifle trained on the man in the clearing, who continued pawing through his belongings. Not contented with emptying the contents of the saddlebags, he was industriously turning them inside out. When that failed to turn up what he sought, he tossed the leather bags down with a curse and kicked them hard.
The saddlebags landed near the edge of the clearing, not two feet in front of where Jim crouched. He held his breath as the man's eyes followed their flight, then rose to scan the woods. He instantly recognized the moment something, some gleam of light or movement, gave him away.
The thief was a fast draw, whatever else might be said about him. His right hand dipped to his holster and flew up with the gun before Jim's finger had finished tightening on the trigger. Two shots thundered over each other, almost simultaneously.
But, despite his fast draw, the gunman hadn't had a chance to fire before Jim's bullet took him in the chest. The other shot came from across the clearing, and Jim whirled at the sound of a crash in the undergrowth just to his right. He approached cautiously, and found the other thief from last night twitching on his side, breathing his last even as Jim approached.
He watched for a few seconds, until he was certain the man was dead, then turned and walked toward his fire.
Gordon ducked sideways to avoid a low branch as he guided his horse into the clearing. His rifle was balanced across his thighs, and he rested both hands on it after bringing the horse to a halt.
"That's twice," he said.
"Yes, I noticed," Jim responded, shifting course to check on the man he'd shot. Dead. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." His mobile lips lifted in a half-smile and he dismounted, hobbling his horse so it wouldn't stray far from Jim's.
They dragged the body of the man Jim killed to join the other, out of range of the fire. If he were less tired, Jim would have suggested burying the men; as it was, they simply laid the bodies under a tree and went back to the fire. Gordon helped Jim gather his scattered belongings and return them to the saddlebags.
"How'd you find me?" Jim filled a tin cup from the pot on the fire and handed it to Gordon.
"Thanks." Gordon appreciatively drew in the aroma before sipping the coffee. "I saw those two riding out of town this morning with faces like tombstones." He shrugged. "Figured they were up to no good and followed."
He shrugged again, drinking from his cup before responding. "You were gone when I woke up. I hate not saying goodbye."
Jim smiled involuntarily. He settled wearily on his bedroll and held his hands out to the fire. "The third man?" he asked after a minute.
"Well, most people take a day or so to recover from being shot, not to mention falling out a second story window." Gordon's lips twitched; he hid his smile behind the rim of his cup. A swallow, a sigh of appreciation, and his expression turning serious again. "Don't suppose you'll tell me what this is all about now? Why were they after you?"
Jim considered the question carefully. Normally, he would have brushed off both the question and the questioner, but he was starting, rather to his surprise, to like the fellow. Besides, he owed him his life and not least a few answers.
"You might say I'm a courier. And they'd rather the information I'm carrying not reach its destination."
"The President." His close scrutiny revealed only a slight widening of Gordon's eyes. Jim was impressed at his control.
"Important, is it?"
"Good." Gordon nodded decisively. "I'd hate to find out I killed a man over something trivial."
"Definitely not that." Jim reclined on his blankets, pulling his saddlebag into a more comfortable position under his head. He lay watching the fire through half-closed eyes as Gordon unsaddled his horse and laid out his own bedroll for the night.
"Tell me." To all appearances, Gordon had settled in for the night, but Jim had had a feeling they weren't finished yet.
"How do you know I'm not working with them?"
"Aside from the fact that you killed one?"
Gordon made an annoyed sound. "All right, so maybe I wasn't working with them. But what if I were a rival... collector, shall we say? What's to stop me from stealing that valuable information while you slept?"
"Whatever kept you from stealing it last night; you had plenty of opportunity."
"You do have a point."
"Besides," Jim added with a slight smile. "It'd be hard to steal; it's all up here." He tapped his temple with one finger.
Gordon laughed. He lay back, soft mutters and rustling signifying he was settling down for the night. However, before silence fell for good, Gordon shot one last question over the tiny fire. "You going to tell me your real name?"
"West," Jim said sleepily, "James West."
"Nice to meet you, James." The words trailed off in a yawn and night took over.
"How did I let you talk me into this?" Gordon exclaimed as he shoved open the door. Jim caught the heavy door before it banged shut again and closed it quietly behind him. The Willard was one of the best hotels in Washington -- the wages of another mission successfully completed -- and a distinct improvement over the last room they'd shared; no point in getting kicked out for rowdy behavior before they'd even got in.
"Me? I didn't talk you into anything." Jim dropped his saddlebags on the floor, grabbed the desk chair and hauled it around to sit astraddle, his arms crossed atop the ornately-carved back. Gordon tossed his carpetbag on the bed. "You and that Colonel..." He wiggled his fingers at Jim as an aid to memory.
"Richmond," Jim supplied.
"Richmond, Washington, Vicksburg, whatever. You'd make a good vaudeville team, you know that? Song and dance, I think." He stalked over to the window, peered out at Pennsylvania Avenue, then turned away in disgust. "You telling him how helpful I was, what a good agent I'd make. Who said I wanted to be a Secret Service agent?"
"That was later!" Gordon scowled. "I was happy just as I was before you marched me into that office," he declaimed, apparently forgetting the monologue on the vagaries of the stage he'd entertained Jim with through most of Kansas. "A good actor, a damned good actor."
"You still are." Jim smiled pleasantly at the frown he got in return. Gordon's hands were shaking perceptibly, a post-mission reaction with which Jim was intimately familiar. Not fear; excitement.
"Are you suggesting I'm playing a part?" Gordon asked in a low and, Jim considered, decidedly dangerous tone.
"Why not? 'Honest Citizen Embroiled in Nefarious Plot'--" He framed the words in the air with his hands. "You play it well."
For a moment, Gordon simply looked at him. Then his lips started to twitch, and finally a grin burst out despite his efforts. "Why thank you, Mr. West; you're most kind," he murmured, his accent suddenly pure Georgia. He batted his eyelashes and fluttered an invisible fan.
Jim propped his chin on his fist, smiling in spite of himself. "You're just upset because you got shot at."
"Most people don't make a habit of that, you know."
"Secret Service agents do."
"I was afraid of that." Gordon looked, suddenly, very close to disconsolate. Probably just another role, but still...
"What was the thing you used to open the door to the Vice Consul's room?" Jim asked, to change the subject. "It's not like any lockpick I've ever seen."
Gordon's face lit up -- there was no other word for it. He strode to the bed and threw open his bag, rummaging in it until he found the item in question. "But it is a lockpick -- a sort of mechanized lockpick, you might say." He handed the little box and long metal 'key' to Jim, whose interest wasn't entirely feigned as he studied the device. "It's just a matter of getting the tumblers to fall into place, you know."
"Any talented picklock can accomplish that in a matter of minutes." Jim turned it over in his hands.
"True." Gordon grinned, his enthusiasm remarkably contagious -- like a child with a new toy. "Only this is faster, and anyone can use it. It should work on just about any lock, as well."
Jim wound up the device and watched it turn the 'key.' "Ingenious."
"Thank you, James." His own voice this time, in genuine pleasure. He scratched his ear. "Of course, there's an even quicker method of opening doors."
Jim handed the lockpick back to Artie and drew his gun with a flourish. "I know."
Artie smiled. "Yes, but that's rather noisy, don't you think? I've been thinking," he turned away to stow the little gadget back in his bag, "that a magnesium-based compound might do the trick."
"Sounds almost as noisy as my way," Jim commented as he stood and pushed the chair back where it belonged. He slid his gun back into the holster, removed his rig and draped it over the back of the chair.
"Almost, but not quite. If you put the entire explosive inside the lock..." he trailed off with a shrug. "Only problem is it'd ruin the lock."
"No way to keep your snooping secret." Jim lay down on the bed and clasped his hands under his head.
"Exactly. Makes this thing better; if you've got the time to use it."
Jim listened to the tiny rustling sounds of Artie randomly fidgeting with his belongings. It was strange, this feeling of connection and ease with this man. It usually took people longer -- a lot longer -- to get under his guard. "Artemus?"
"Can you make me one of those things?"
"Sure, Jim," Artie said, pleasure evident in his voice.
He smiled to himself, and didn't bother to wonder why he enjoyed making this near-stranger happy.
"What did his voice sound like?"
Jim looked up from the gun parts he had spread over the bed. Artemus was seated at the table, the warm afternoon sun fanning over his hands as he arranged paints and powders and other accouterments of the actor's trade. Jim shrugged.
"He had a northern accent."
"Is that all?" Artie turned and smiled briefly at Jim. "Come now, surely you noticed more than that." He turned back to his preparations. "Was his voice light or deep?"
"Ah... somewhere in the middle."
"Somewhere around here?" Artie's voice was several tones higher.
"A little lower than that." Jim frowned at the revolver he was cleaning. At least the gun was simple, familiar. They'd never done this before; he was finding it harder than it had seemed when Artemus first proposed it.
"Okay," and now his voice was, as directed, lower, "and the accent -- what state?"
Jim oiled his gun as he considered. "New York, I think."
"Manhattan or upstate?" Artie's hands never stopped moving as he questioned Jim, mixing the paints and powders and applying them to his face, drawing forth the visage he wanted with quick, sure lines.
"Upstate." Jim reassembled his gun, loaded it and returned it to the holster. Task done, he stretched his legs out on the bed, back propped against the headboard, and studied his partner.
"What about the tone?" Artie asked as he brushed a loose powder over his cheeks and forehead. "Smooth? Gruff? Did he speak fast or slow?"
Jim answered as best he could from his brief meeting with their quarry's accomplice -- now, unfortunately, deceased -- and watched, fascinated, as Artemus turned himself into someone else. Each new bit of information about the man's voice was added into the mix, making the voice closer and closer to the dead man's, until Jim had difficulty remembering he was still talking to his partner. When he finished applying the final touches to a large handlebar mustache with a small brush and turned around, Artemus had almost completely disappeared inside his disguise.
He stood and pulled on a brown checked jacket, straightening the collar with care, set a natty bowler hat on his head with a jaunty tap, then presented himself for Jim's approval. Astounded, Jim rose and walked around his transformed partner, finding that the disguise stood up even to close scrutiny.
"Amazing," he said finally. Artemus smiled at the praise, becoming for the instant of that emotion fully himself again, then slipped immediately back into character. Jim clapped him on the shoulder. "You know, I think this just might work."
Five hours later, their mission successfully accomplished, they were back in the little hotel room. Jim lounged on the bed again, watching as Artemus reemerged from behind not just the makeup, but the man he had assumed.
"I don't know how you do that." Jim stretched, his fingers brushing the headboard, then turned on his side to watch Artie with his head propped on his hand.
"It's just a matter of putting on the right voice, the right face." Artie's voice sounded odd, his upper lip curled around his teeth as he peeled off the mustache.
"I still can't believe it worked. Jefferson had worked with Elliott for years, and yet he didn't see anything suspicious about you."
"He didn't really want to." Artemus lifted the full pitcher of water on the dresser and poured some into the basin. "It wouldn't be possible to replace anyone for long, but for short periods..." He splashed water on his face, working at the lingering makeup with his hands, then rinsing his face again. "Most people see what they expect to see," he said from the depths of a towel.
"All you have to do is conform with their expectations," Jim finished.
"Exactly." Artemus grinned.
"What was his name again?"
"Gordon," Jim enunciated carefully. "Artemus Gordon. What room is he in?"
"We're not in the habit of giving out that information," the desk clerk informed him primly.
Jim swayed a little, prompting him to grab the counter for balance. In retrospect, perhaps he shouldn't have had that last shot of whiskey. As soon as the room steadied, he grabbed the disapproving desk clerk by his primly starched collar and hauled him halfway across the counter.
"I asked you what room Gordon was in," he reminded the fellow in a soft voice.
"Ah. Yes. Yes, sir. If you'll just let me go, sir..." The suddenly high pitched voice ringing in his ears, Jim released the man, who dropped back with a muted squeak. "Room 21. Sir."
"Thanks." Jim dropped a coin on the counter, made a semi-military about-face marred only by a slight stumble, and headed up the carpeted stairs.
He knew he ought to be ashamed of himself, if not for being drunk, at least for threatening the desk clerk. But if he couldn't relax and celebrate the success of a hard mission, not to mention getting out of it alive, what would be an acceptable reason to celebrate? And if he was drunk, which he most definitely was, it wasn't entirely his own fault. If Artie had deigned to join him, he wouldn't have had to consume the entire bottle of champagne by himself. Plus the whiskey. Jim held his liquor well, but there were limits.
He closed the door behind him as quietly as he could and slowly pulled off his clothes, dropping them about him as he wove gently across the floor. Nice hotel, this -- clean rooms, clean beds, clean sheets. Which was more than could be said for his clothes after three days on the road. Down to his drawers, he drew back the covers and tumbled into bed.
"Jim?" his partner murmured sleepily.
"Sorry, Artie." He lay on his back with his hands clasped on his chest, and watched the room make lazy revolutions around him in the dark.
Artie stretched and yawned. "I trust you had a good time."
Artie's chuckle could only be described as filthy. "I told you Lucille had beautiful women working her house."
"Uh-huh." Jim closed his eyes and let the world go on spinning quietly to itself without his participation.
A rustle and a tugging at the sheets, and then Artie settled himself once more. "Good night, Jim." His smile was very evident in his voice.
After a while the room settled down and stopped moving. Jim opened his eyes again and stared at the moonlit ceiling for a while, not feeling in the least sleepy. His limbs were weighted with the delicious languor of satisfaction, his chest suffused with a delightful feeling of well-being. Everyone should feel this good. A question buzzed around fitfully in his brain.
"Hm?" came the something less than awake reply.
Jim poked his partner hard in the side.
"Ouch!" He rolled onto his back with a huff. "Dammit, Jim, I was almost asleep. What's the matter?"
"Why didn't you go?"
"What?" If Jim had been less drunk, he'd have noticed the shading of something other than confusion in the response.
"To Lucille's. If the women are as beautiful as you say."
"Didn't you think they were beautiful?"
"Then they are as beautiful as I said," Artie concluded with the air of a man who'd made his point and rolled back onto his side away from Jim.
It took Jim a couple of minutes to realize his question had been neatly sidestepped. He readdressed himself to the point doggedly.
Jim rolled onto his side and propped himself on one arm to look down at the half of Artie's face he could make out in the dim light. "Why didn't you go?"
"Jesus, Jim, you smell like a distillery."
"So? You didn't answer the question," he managed before his supporting arm gave out and he dropped back to the mattress with a heavy thump.
Artie sat up with a sigh. Jim could feel his eyes on him in the dark, and it occurred to him to regret keeping his friend up, but that emotion didn't come near to equaling the strength of his curiosity.
Artie sighed again and ran a hand through his tousled hair. "Let's just say I didn't feel like it tonight, okay?"
"Because I didn't, Jim," Artie responded with some vehemence.
"Don't get angry, I was only askin'."
"I'm not angry, Jim." Artie's voice was soft, reassuring... soothing. "Why don't you sleep off that whiskey now, okay Jim?"
Jim thought about that a minute. He yawned. "Okay," he decided, sleep and alcohol finally overwhelming even his curiosity.
All was silent for another minute.
The hallway was frigid, and their room wasn't any warmer. Jim and Artie hauled their saddles into the room and propped them on the floor against an only slightly flimsy wall. In a place like this, you couldn't take chances with your belongings.
"Damn, I'm freezing!" Artie wrapped his arms around himself and shivered for good measure.
"What do you expect in January?" Jim unrolled his bedroll on top of the bed, then grabbed Artie's and did the same. The thin blankets provided by the hotel were utterly unsuited for their task.
"Central heating would be nice."
"Here?" Jim gave Artie a disbelieving look. "You must be joking."
"I never joke about imminent death." Artie rubbed his arms briskly, then drew aside the flimsy curtain to look out the window. His attempt was thwarted by the thick layer of frost on the inside of the glass. "You know, maybe those ranchers had the right idea."
"Artie, you may want to sit up all night around a potbellied stove with a bunch of drunken cowboys, but I'd like to get some sleep." Shivering more quietly than his partner, he prepared for bed, fighting to keep his teeth from chattering.
"At least I'd be warm," Artie responded, whip quick. "Man can die in his sleep."
Jim climbed into the bed, pulling the blankets and bedroll over him. Other than his boots and gunbelt, he was fully clothed. "If you don't stop complaining, I'll make certain you die in your sleep."
"Very funny." Artie quickly pulled off his boots and shivered his way under the covers.
They lay in silence broken only by the chattering of Artie's teeth. Jim clenched his teeth to stay quiet.
"Tell me again why the United States government, in its infinite wisdom, decided to send us to Wyoming Territory in the dead of winter."
"You know as well as I do," Jim replied without moving. He kept hoping he'd warm up if he just stayed still long enough. "There were rumors of an Indian uprising."
"They're too damn cold to rise up," Artie decreed. "And so am I."
"No one's asking you to." He tried tucking the blankets tighter around his neck to block the icy draft. Artie yelped and tugged them back.
"Would you mind not stealing all the covers?"
"Sorry." Jim rolled carefully on his side and pulled his legs up a bit. His back, which was to Artie, slowly got a bit warmer, but the rest of him was still freezing. His only consolation was the fact that Artie's shivering shook the bed enough to mask his own. Though silence had fallen again, Jim just knew Artie wasn't asleep yet.
"Dead of winter," Artie said after a bit, proving Jim right. "Now there's a real cheerful phrase."
"Artie." Jim rolled over again.
"Get over here."
Surprise radiated from the other side of the bed and Jim grinned in sudden amusement at his partner's ability to convey the emotion without a single word spoken.
"We'll both be warmer," Jim coaxed.
"James, my boy," Artie murmured as he wiggled closer, "why didn't you think of this before?"
Jim held out an arm, which was quickly full of his still shivering partner. He pressed himself tightly against Artie's back and tucked the blankets close around their spooned bodies. Artie helped him arrange the covers, and then they settled down into the growing warmth between the blankets. It felt strange to curl himself around a larger, male body, but Jim, sighing into the blissfully growing warmth, couldn't find it in him to care.
By morning they'd thrown off most of the blankets.
The second night of their stay, they climbed shivering into their separate sides of the bed just like the first. A moment passed before Jim held out his arms, and Artie came into them with alacrity. Though he did insist on curling up around Jim this time, which position, Jim thought, was even stranger than the other -- he wasn't used to being held in his sleep. It was rather pleasant, actually. It was also warmer.
The third night, there was no hesitation at all, and they slept the night through, blissfully warm in each other's arms.
"Hey, Jim, look at this."
Jim turned around just in time to see a cloud of noxious green smoke envelope Artie with a soft poof. With a long-suffering sigh, he plunged into the cloud, grabbed his partner and hauled him out into the relatively clear air in the hall.
"Well, what do you think?" Artie asked once he'd finished coughing.
"You mean it's supposed to do that?"
"Artie, how many times have I told you not to go messing around with your experiments in hotels?" Jim kept his voice low as he watched a fastidiously-dressed man with huge sideburns approach down the lushly carpeted hall, the gold chain of his pocket watch swaying gently with each self-important stride. "Yes?" he raised his voice to ask when the hotel manager reached them.
"Is there some problem, gentlemen?" One perfect eyebrow was raised in genteel inquiry as he watched green smoke waft out of their room.
"No," Jim smiled. "My friend here just hasn't got the hang of the damper in the stove yet. Thanks." He ushered Artie back into the room and politely closed the door in the manager's face before the man could question the use of the potbellied stove on a clear spring day or, for that matter, the distinctive color of the smoke in question. "Artie," he scolded as he strode across the room to open the window and clear out the miasma, "this stuff is bad enough on the train, but you're going to get us kicked out of another hotel if you don't watch it."
"What do you mean 'another hotel'?" Artie asked absently. He was already bent over the makeshift chemistry lab he'd assembled on the ornately carved cherrywood desk.
Jim shook his head. Once Artemus was fully embroiled in one of his experiments it was nigh impossible to get his full attention on anything else. He leaned back against the window sill and crossed his arms over his chest. "Well, there was the one in Chicago, and that 'crying gas' experiment."
Artie waved a dismissing hand. "That traveler's hell?"
"The manager of The Cosmopolitan in San Francisco had a fit about the strange colored stains in his carpet."
"Purple is a lovely color for a carpet," Artie murmured distractedly.
"And then there's the Planter's in Saint Louis. So few hotels, even the expensive ones, have baths attached to the rooms, it's a shame to have gotten ourselves permanently evicted from one."
"I take exception to that." Artie glanced up with a frown. "I was only testing my new underwater breathing equipment."
"The maid thought you were dead. She screamed and almost scared a wealthy female guest into a heart attack."
"Well... some people need a little excitement in their lives." Artie's eyes twinkled at Jim, his attention finally completely on his partner. A smile worked free and called forth Jim's own. "People will never know what kind of sacrifices are made in the name of science," Artie intoned solemnly.
"Just try not to blow up the room before I get back, okay?" Jim grabbed his hat and coat as he headed for the door.
"Anything you say, Jim." Artie waved vaguely at him, already bending over his chemicals again.
All things considered, Jim was vaguely surprised to find the hotel still standing when he returned an hour after dark. His cheerful whistling quieted as he strode into the lobby and took the stairs two at a time. His outing had been a complete success -- they'd know right where to start looking for the missing ammunition tomorrow morning, and hopefully be able to wrap up the assignment with enough time to spare for an excellent dinner in the city's best restaurant. He let himself into the darkened room as quietly as possible and stripped by the faint light of the gas streetlamps.
Artie's experiment no longer fought for space on the desk with his disguise kit. Jim smiled, and wondered when he'd next see that pungent green cloud. Probably when they most needed a distraction.
Artemus was sound asleep, sprawled over more than half the bed. For a moment, Jim merely stood by the bed and looked at his partner in the dim light, remembering the strange "actor" who'd huddled so close to his own edge of the bed in a filthy frontier hotel. He shook his head, shoved Artie's sprawled limbs aside and climbed into the bed. Artemus only grumbled in his sleep and rolled over. Jim knew it wouldn't be long before an arm or leg found its way back over to him.
All in all, there was something vaguely comforting about it.
"Well, did you find us a room?" Jim asked as Artie walked into the telegraph office of the booming mining town.
Artie shook his head.
"Why not? Orders are we stay here two more days before moving on." He handed Artie the telegraph as he steered him out of the office. No point in giving the telegraph operator anything else to gossip about with his fellows up and down the line.
"Moving on to where?" Artie was scanning the paper as he walked.
"No word yet." Jim steered his oblivious partner around a scruffy miner escorting a seductively-dressed young lady. He wasn't unaware of the 'soiled dove' shooting a few glances back at them as she was led away, and could only hope the miner either didn't notice or failed to take exception to his lady's straying attention. The general store, three buildings farther on, had a bench out front. Jim pushed Artie down on it and sat next to him. "Now, why didn't you get us a room for the night?"
"Because I wouldn't expect a dog to stay in any of the hotels in town. If you can call them that." Artie folded up their orders and tucked the paper into an inside pocket.
He shook his head. "Jim, it's like the inside of an immigrant ship -- one large room with bunks stacked three or four high, right up to the ceiling. Half-full already and most of the occupants are drunk. We'd be better off finding a good place to camp somewhere out of town."
"All right." Jim pushed himself to his feet and started toward the stable.
"Just like that?" Artie grinned at him. "We're going to need some supplies." He gestured at the storefront behind them.
"Okay, but I hope you have a lot of money. Things are damned expensive in this town." Jim strode into the store with Artie hard on his heels.
"You're telling me! They wanted five dollars for those hard communal berths, can you believe it?"
"Good thing Uncle Sam is picking up the tab."
"Yeah, well, I don't know why it couldn't be the tab at a nice, comfortable hotel in a nice, civilized town." Artie grumbled convincingly as they set about buying a few provisions.
It didn't take long to find a place to camp. The town sprawled mightily with the labor pains of new growth, but overall it still wasn't very large. Thirty minutes' ride to the south and they had the countryside to themselves. Or as close as made no difference.
Artie built a campfire while Jim filled the pan and coffee pot at a nearby stream. Before long they were reclining comfortably on their bedrolls savoring their coffee while digesting a supremely passable meal. Grumble as he might about "roughing it," Artemus made a superb trail grub cook, and Jim wasn't shy about telling him so. His compliments earned him a smile and another cup of excellent coffee.
Leaning lazily against a sun-warmed boulder, Jim relaxed gratefully into the uncomplicated pleasures of good food and good companionship, not to mention the ease of being removed from "civilization" and all its attendant dangers. Not just the threats to life and limb, either. Power-hungry civil servants and man-eating debutantes: the social whirl served up its own threats. While he could play the game well enough to suit, Jim never felt comfortable in the ballroom and parlor. More and more, lately, he found the only place he did feel comfortable was in the company of his partner. In town and on the job, Artie's presence signified a staunch ally in a cold world, making even the worst situation bearable. Out here, with only Artie as company, he could relax completely, no longer having to worry about maintaining a social front, or all the wary habits of a man who lived constantly with danger.
"Jim." Artie's voice was very soft.
"Don't move, okay?"
Jim's senses went instantly on alert at his partner's worried expression. He froze in place as he watched Artemus reach smoothly for his revolver and pull it from the holster laid close at hand. Jim felt a frisson of fear as something moved slowly across the top of his shoulder and down across his chest. He fought the cold revulsion which prompted an instinctive withdrawal and watched as the snake came into his limited range of vision. The diamond head and markings were instantly recognizable.
"Just stay quiet, Jim," Artie instructed in calm, even tones. His face, however, gleamed with sweat and the eyes which met Jim's spoke evocatively to Jim's own fear. The fact that the rattler was only taking a shortcut from one place to another didn't make it any less dangerous. Not particularly wanting to watch the snake make its way over him, wondering every moment if it would take it into its head to strike, Jim kept his eyes locked on Artie's face and tried to breathe shallowly.
The moment seemed endless, while blue and brown met and held. Waiting.
Finally, the tip of the tail slipped off Jim's thigh with a muted rattle. He rolled away in the same instant Artie's gun thundered. The rattlesnake's body was tossed out of the circle of their fire by the impact of the bullet.
Jim was still shaking the echoes of gunfire out of his ears when Artie hauled him upright. He meekly let Artie run gentle hands over him, searching for injury, reassuring himself that there was none. Jim hoped his fear and relief didn't show on his face, but even if it did it hardly mattered. Artie would understand. And if a man wasn't frightened by looking down the business end of a poisonous snake, he was a fool. Finally regaining his equilibrium, he clapped Artemus on the shoulder and pushed him slightly away.
"I'm fine, Artie." He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Thanks."
If Artie's smile was a little tremulous, neither of them cared to comment on it. He reluctantly retreated to his own side of the fire and sank down on his bedroll.
"Only repaying the favor, Jim," Artie managed with credible cheer. Jim glanced up from shifting his bedroll away from the rock he'd been leaning against. Neither of them remarked on the fact that the move brought him closer to Artemus. "Justice, Nevada," Artie reminded him.
"Oh yeah. The tarantula."
Artie's smile this time wasn't as forced. "Though I never did thank you for making me explain the bullet hole in the mattress to the manager."
Jim grinned, glad to follow Artie's lead away from his narrow escape. "Hey, what are friends for?" He found his tin cup and carefully poured himself another cup of coffee. His hands had almost stopped shaking. "What did you tell the manager?"
Artie shrugged. "Oh, that my friend didn't know his 'companion' that night had a husband."
Jim glanced up sharply. "You didn't!"
Artie's grin was pure deviltry.
"Hay fever again?" Jim commiserated. He turned from the window to see Artie pulling out a handkerchief, into which he sneezed a second time.
"I hate Kansas," he muttered as he returned the cloth to his pocket, his voice thickened by congestion. He rubbed a hand across his forehead, a gesture Jim knew meant he had a sick headache.
"We'll only be here another day." Jim finished unbuttoning his vest and draped it over his and Artie's jackets on the back of a chair. The hotel room was clean and neat, but not very large -- the chair and bed constituted the only furniture. After a moment's consideration, he slid his jacket out from underneath and pulled it on again. "Have you tried drinking a hot toddy before bed?"
"If I had one, I'd give it a shot." Artie sniffed mightily to forestall another sneeze as he unbuttoned his vest.
"Okay. You stay here and I'll get you one."
He was already halfway out the door. "The saloon's just next door. I'll be back in a minute."
"You don't have to--" The closing door cut him off. Not that Jim would have been swayed in any case. Artie would be miserable if he didn't get some sleep, and if Artie was miserable, make no mistake, Jim would be too.
He ran lightly down the stairs and headed down the wooden sidewalk to the saloon. Lights blazed through the glass panes in the fancy woodworked doors, and a burst of noise and music hit him as he pushed inside. He only had to wait a minute at the bar, however, before a white-jacketed bartender was politely asking him what his pleasure was. Jim smiled as he ordered hot spiced rum to take away and whiskey for himself. Another time he might have ordered one of the bartender's fancy drinks -- it was always interesting to find out what combination of liquors and liqueurs was in demand across the country -- but he didn't want to have to wait for his own drink as well as Artie's. He drank off his whiskey as he enjoyed the bartender's showmanship in the mixing of Artie's drink. Placing some coins on the bar, he collected the toasty glass flask of rum and headed back to the hotel.
Artie was already tucked up in the bed when Jim returned, sitting up against the pillows and blowing his nose again.
"Here," Jim handed him the flask and turned to remove his jacket, waving a dismissing hand at the congested 'danks' offered in return. "Sorry there's no glass." He smiled to himself. "I'm sure you can manage without." The scent of cloves and butter and sweet rum permeated the room by the time he had his shirt off, proving him right.
Down to his drawers, clothes draped with Artie's over the chair, Jim took the empty bottle from an unusually meek Artie and shooed him down under the covers before turning out the gas lamp and climbing into bed. They lay side by side with their backs to each other, and the soft rhythm of sleeping breaths soon filled the room.
Less than two hours later, Jim was awake again. How Artie managed to sleep through his own snoring was beyond Jim -- he wished he had that talent. Jim sighed and ran a hand over his face. It wasn't so bad, really; a small snore compared to some of the sawmills he'd had the misery of sharing quarters with in the army. And it only happened when Artie was congested. Jim thought ruefully that, to a man who had managed to sleep through a full artillery battle during the war, this tiny little sound ought to be as inconsequential as the buzzing of an insect. He lay in the dark, trying unsuccessfully to get back to sleep for some time before giving it up as a lost cause.
Jim turned toward his snoring partner and propped himself on one arm. "Artie," he pitched his voice low -- no reason they should both be losing sleep, "roll over."
Artie's breathing seemed to change for a second, and Jim was afraid he'd woken him. But he merely rolled onto his side with a sigh. The snoring instantly ceased.
Jim lay back with his hands behind his head and watched the ceiling thoughtfully. He wasn't positive he liked the alacrity with which Artemus obeyed his commands, even while asleep.
Then again, Artie never obeyed without question while awake, so why worry? Besides, maybe now he could get a good night's rest.
"What the devil was in that creek?" Jim asked as he and Artie slogged down the hotel corridor.
"I dunno, but it's making us very unpopular," Artemus observed with remarkable cheer, given that he looked and smelled just as bad as Jim, and patrons of the hotel were giving them both a wide berth. It was a wonder the desk clerk had let them in at all. It was questionable whether Artie's "very important person" impression or Jim's five-dollar tip was responsible for the clerk's leniency in the matter.
So long as they were headed straight for the bath, they just might be forgiven their trespass.
Jim stopped by their room -- luckily only a few doors down from the bath -- and picked up a fresh change of clothing for them both. By the time he reached the communal bath, Artemus had hot water pouring into the large round marble tub.
"Thank heavens for indoor plumbing."
Jim put the clean clothes down on a chair and started stripping off his water-fouled garments. "Well, we're paying enough for it."
"James my boy," Artie began, struggling with the knot in his tie, "all the best things in life are worth paying for."
"You're only saying that because Colonel Richmond's footing the bill." Jim pulled off his jacket and dropped it on the floor before starting in on his shirt. "He'll probably disallow our expenses again."
"Dean Richmond has an obligation to keep us in the manner to which we've become accustomed," Artie intoned grandiosely as he finally conquered the knot in his tie. He yanked it off, his jacket following quickly, and continued with a grin. "If he doesn't like it, he has only himself to blame for putting us on the train."
Jim sat down on the edge of the rapidly filling tub to pull off his boots. "I don't think he was the one who made that decision." He began peeling off his sodden pants, which were even tighter waterlogged than they were dry.
Artie waved a dismissing hand and, leaving his ruined clothes in a heap on the floor, climbed gingerly into the tub. He sank down into the hot water with a sigh and a decidedly hedonistic grin. "Don't forget the soap, Jim," he said without opening his eyes.
Jim stopped with one foot poised over the bathwater and shot Artie an annoyed glance. He withdrew and turned to pick up a glass dish of fancy soaps, putting it on the wide marble rim of the bath before climbing into the tub. The water steamed gently, warming him through to his bones. Jim hadn't realized how chilled he'd gotten until the heat chased it away. He settled back with an appreciative sigh.
"There any bath salts?" Artie asked after a minute.
Jim opened his eyes and glanced around. "Behind you." He had his eyes closed again before the question registered. Opening them, he watched Artie stretch back to snag the canister without leaving the bath, causing only the most minor of ripples. A cocked eyebrow was evocative enough to make Artie grin.
"Hell, Jim, we couldn't smell any worse." He plucked open the tin and shook the perfumed contents into the bath, where it quickly dissolved, sending up a spicy fragrance. Jim decided it was an odor he could live with and closed his eyes again.
They soaked decadently in the tub for some time without a word passing between them. Every so often, Artie's leg or foot brushed against Jim's in the warm water. If he was bumped too solidly, Jim shoved back, restraining a childish grin. When he spread his arms out over the circular marble rim of the tub, his fingers brushed the back of Artie's hand. He opened his eyes a crack and watched Artie's lips curl slowly in an affectionate smile. He didn't bother to move his hand.
Finally, the water began to cool, and Jim figured he'd wrinkle permanently if he remained much longer. He sat up with a sigh and grabbed the soap. Artie opened one eye and frowned his displeasure at Jim's splashing. After a minute, he sighed in defeat, grabbed another ball of soap and began washing himself.
Jim dunked his head to wet his hair and lathered that too, half-amused, half-annoyed at the bits of twigs and leaves which he washed into their bathwater. When he ducked under again to rinse, he slipped on the slick bottom, creating a great splash. A strong hand closed on his thigh and shoved him upright again, the touch seeming strangely hotter than the bathwater.
"Careful, Jim." Artie went back to his washing without another glance.
Jim shook his head at his clumsiness and decided he'd better get out while he was still breathing. He sloshed out of the tub, getting rather more water on the floor than the hotel manager would appreciate, and padded over to pick up a thick, warm towel. After a cursory pass to sop up the worst of the water, he wrapped it around his waist and grabbed another to towel his hair.
"You're going to turn into a fish if you stay in there any longer," he teased Artie, who, mind obviously somewhere else, was slowly soaping his chest. A chest, Jim noticed, considerably more muscular than it had been at the beginning of their partnership.
Artemus blinked, his bright gaze focusing on Jim. "I'm coming." He rinsed quickly and rose from the tub, taking the towel Jim handed him with a smile of thanks. "Think we could get Dean to install one of these on the train?"
"Of all the stupid, hare-brained things to do--" Artie dropped his gunbelt on the bureau and brushed past Jim to fasten the door behind him.
"I hate to interrupt you when you're just getting started," Jim broke in as he limped painfully to the bed, "but could you at least wait until I've had a chance to sit down?"
As he'd hoped, the softly voiced sarcasm redirected Artie's attention... better actually than he'd expected. Artemus immediately left off scolding and came to Jim's aid, helping him to sit on the soft mattress and kneeling to gently tug off his boots. Jim leaned back and braced himself on his arms, taking mental stock of his condition. Mostly bruises, though he had a feeling his knee was sprained again.
Artemus finished with the boots, setting them aside, and helped Jim swing his legs up on the bed. He lay back with a sigh, but his relaxation only lasted until Artie's hands started on the fastening to Jim's pants. Then he opened one eye to glare at his partner. Not that it did any good; Artie's concentration was wholly invested in his efforts.
Jim grabbed Artie's hands before he could make any headway on the tight pants. "Artie."
"Oh, sorry Jim." To Jim's surprise, Artie flushed a deep crimson. "Um... you... you just finish up here. I'll go get some ice. From downstairs. The saloon." He backed into the door before getting ahold of the handle and letting himself out.
Jim shook his head. "What's gotten into him?" he asked the empty room. Taking advantage of the momentary privacy, he set about removing his clothes. Jacket, vest and shirt came off with ease, despite some painful moments when his bruised ribs protested the movement. Jim grimaced as he worked his pants down his thighs; the right knee was already badly swollen. Swearing quietly and fluently, he finally got his pants and drawers off and tossed them on the floor with a fine show of annoyance.
Looked like he'd need that ice after all. Jim shifted painfully, dragging the blankets out from under himself, moving his leg as little as possible. He pulled the sheet over himself for modesty's sake, then lay back to await Artie's return. It didn't take long.
Artemus knocked discreetly before pushing through the door, a bucket of ice in one hand, bottle of whiskey in the other. It looked like he'd regained his composure during the commission of his errand.
The first thing he did was to hand Jim the bottle of whiskey. Jim pulled the stopper and drank straight from the bottle, the whiskey burning down to his belly. Pulling a chair over to the bedside to hold his supplies, Artie sat on the bed next to Jim and busied himself with the ice. He wrapped a handful of the larger bits in a handkerchief, then pulled back the sheet to get at Jim's leg.
"Jesus, Jim," he said, on getting a look at the swollen and purpling knee, not to mention the rest of the bruises, "did you have to follow him?"
"What did you want me to do, let him get away?" Jim tugged a corner of the sheet back over to cover his modesty and swallowed another mouthful of whiskey.
Artie sighed. "No, of course not." He carefully propped Jim's leg up on a pillow and arranged the ice-filled handkerchief around the outraged joint. Jim closed his eyes wearily, not protesting when Artemus examined him from head to foot for further injuries. His hands were warm and gentle, and Jim was starting to feel fuzzy. "Here, give that over before you spill it."
Jim roused a bit, eyes flying open, as the whiskey bottle was removed from his hand. "You drug the liquor, Artie?" His eyelids were almost too heavy to hold up.
"Would I do that?" He certainly looked innocent. "You're just tired, Jim. You haven't slept for two days." Artie tucked the blankets about him with tender solicitude.
Jim fell asleep between one moment and the next, before he
could tell Artie that he already had a mother, and didn't need another.
When he woke in the morning, Artie was sleeping in the chair by the
bed, his head lolling at an awkward angle. The ice-compact had clearly
been changed several times -- for the bucket was empty, even of water
-- and the level of whiskey in the bottle had dropped appreciably.
Jim began pulling off his jacket before he'd even gotten completely through the door. Artemus wasn't far behind, although he waited until he had the door closed and locked before removing his jacket and vest.
"Damn, but it's hot."
Jim pulled off his shirt. "I'm with you there." He opened the window and grimaced when that only let in a warm breeze. Still, any breeze at all was arguably better than suffocating in the baking room.
When he turned back, Artie was stripping off his shirt. He threw it over the bureau and sat down on the bed to pull off his boots. A bit surprised at Artie's uncharacteristicly rapid stripping, Jim almost got caught staring when Artie tossed the boots on the floor with a satisfied exclamation and looked up suddenly. Jim turned away and started on his own boots. It'd be a relief to get out of his sweat-damp, dusty clothes.
Though the sun had gone down an hour ago, it didn't seem to be getting any cooler. Jim swore softly under his breath, wondering how they were supposed to get any sleep in the sweltering room. The hot air seemed thick; it lay heavy on the skin and made the lungs labor for breath. The only good thing to be said about it was even the rats and fleas were too hot to pester hotel guests tonight.
Artemus stood and pulled the blankets off the bed. He unfastened and removed his pants, tossing them atop his pile of clothes, only then noticing that Jim was looking at him again.
Jim shrugged, casting desperately about for something to say. "Never seen short drawers before," he remarked inanely. It wasn't entirely true, but it was certainly a damn sight better than admitting he'd been admiring the turn of Artie's leg. Damn, but he needed to find a willing woman soon, if he was looking at Artie like that.
Artie wiped a trickle of sweat off his neck with a sketchy shrug. "I cut the legs off. Soldiers in the southern forts do it all the time -- 'course they have to, since the army sends them woolen underdrawers." He shook his head. "How the army expects them to manage, I don't know; even linen is too hot in this climate. With wool, it's cut 'em off or go without. But I'd think that would chafe."
"Depends on what fabric their pants are made of," Jim responded absently, most of his attention on wrestling his boots off. Or, at least, he hoped he presented that appearance. When he glanced up, Artie was smiling that delighted, wicked grin at him.
"Really, James?" He lay back on the bed and clasped his hands under his head, the waistband of his drawers creating an obscurely inviting line of demarkation across his flat belly. "Speaking from personal experience?"
"Why do you think I'm still dressed?" Jim asked ruefully, sternly brushing aside the nagging embarrassment. "I thought we'd be back on the train by tonight, and headed for someplace cooler."
"Is that any reason to be miserable?"
Jim blinked at Artie a moment before taking his meaning. He glanced involuntarily toward the door.
"It's locked. I'm not planning on inviting anyone in." Artie was looking at him a bit strangely, and Jim belatedly realized just how oddly he was acting.
It wasn't like there was a lot of privacy on the train. Not that there'd ever been much privacy between them, or much need for it. He'd certainly never been concerned about it before. War had a way of setting aside all the conventional Victorian pruderies, which had never applied to all-male company in any case. He certainly didn't have anything Artie hadn't seen before. Hell, Artie had seen precisely what he had as recently as the last time he'd bashed up his knee. Although Jim wasn't in the habit of stripping to the altogether unless he was either bathing or intimately closeted with a woman, that was neither here nor there. In truth, he wouldn't have thought twice about it if he hadn't caught himself admiring Artie's half-naked state.
Jim shrugged and stripped off his pants, sighing with relief on being released from their tight hot confines. If it felt odd to stand naked before Artie, it was even stranger to join him on the bed. There wasn't anywhere else to go, however, and Artie's casual demeanor helped a great deal. He simply smiled, said goodnight, and rolled onto his side away from Jim. And if Jim thought he'd seen Artie's eyes flicker down over him before he turned away, well... it was just one more strange thought to add to the rest.
The warmth in his belly chose that completely inappropriate moment to drop into his cock. Jim turned onto his stomach. He lay with his head propped on crossed arms, face turned toward Artie, and watched his partner for a while. Artie's back was smoothly muscled, the curve of his spine somehow strong and delicate at the same time. Attractive, as most things about Artemus were attractive -- perhaps not in the same way Jim attracted so much female attention, but that was just a matter of quality, not degree.
Jim closed his eyes tight. Did he just think that Artie was attractive? Yes, he had. And not in an empirical sense, not entirely. In a personal sense as well. Well, what of it? It's not like you're a blushing virgin, James my boy. True enough; he'd passed that stage long ago. But he resented the thought coming to him in one of Artie's most avuncular tones. Most of the time, he liked it when Artie called him "James my boy" -- there was an intimacy there, a sense of belonging, even one of pride. Sometimes, though, it made him feel about two feet tall -- a child at his father's knee. And the last thing he wanted from Artemus was fatherly affection.
He rolled over, putting his back to Artie. If he kept on going around in circles like this, he'd never get any sleep. A relatively cool breeze finally found its way into the stifling room. It fanned over Jim's nude body, teasingly caressing his half-engorged cock, which pulsed impudently.
"Oh shut up and go to sleep," he told it.
"Jim? Wake up." Artie's voice was soft.
"Hm?" Jim blinked dazedly up at the vague shape of his partner, barely visible in the dark. Artemus was leaning over him, propped on one elbow, his other hand resting warmly on Jim's chest.
"You were having a nightmare." Artie's fingers gently rubbed Jim's chest through his shirt. "Do you remember?"
Jim frowned thoughtfully. "Not really. Something about the war, I think. The Wilderness? Maybe Cold Harbor." A small shiver overtook him.
"I thought as much." Artie's hand moved away, leaving the warm patch where it had rested to cool. He tugged the blankets higher to guard against the chilly fall night, tucking them around Jim's shoulders.
Artemus smiled slightly. "Doesn't everyone who was in the war dream about it?"
"I suppose." Jim rubbed a hand over his face, still feeling disoriented. "Where were you?"
"What? During the war?" He smiled again, clearly amused at the scope of the question.
Jim shrugged. "I never asked what regiment you were in."
"That depended." Artie rolled to his back, tucking the blankets about himself.
"Depended? On what?"
"Um... Gettysburg," Jim tossed out, confused.
"You weren't there, were you?"
"No," Jim acknowledged. "I was with Grant at Vicksburg. How did you change regiments?"
Artemus didn't answer for a minute. "The first day of Gettysburg, I was with Longstreet's Corps."
Jim rolled onto his side to face Artie, though he could make him out only indistinctly in the poor light. "General James Longstreet? He was Confederate!"
Jim frowned. "I never took you for a secesh."
Artie smiled beatifically. "Who said I was?" He glanced at Jim out of the corner of his eye and apparently decided to take pity on him. "I was one of Sharpe's scouts."
Jim flopped onto his back. "A Union spy." He shook his head. "No wonder Colonel Richmond was so willing to take you on. Here I thought it was my glowing recommendation." He couldn't help but grin at his own na•vetŽ.
"It probably was," Artie argued. "I don't think anyone still knew of my activities during the war."
"Why were you so annoyed at getting shot at during our first mission, then? Must have been old hat to you by then."
Artemus laughed. "Jim, the aim of a spy is not to get shot at. Or even noticed." He shrugged, or at least Jim imagined it was that sort of movement which stirred the bedclothes. "Besides, it had been a while since I voluntarily exposed myself to that kind of danger."
Jim shook his head. "Why didn't you tell me? I wouldn't have misjudged you so badly at first. Any man who can walk into the enemy's camp, knowing he'll be hanged if he's caught..."
"Not necessarily. You can't be hanged for a spy if you're in your own uniform when captured." The faint light glinted off Artie's sudden broad smile. "Didn't you ever notice both sides wore the same long oilskin capes in wet weather? Not to mention the Confederate habit of wearing Union overcoats, if they could find them."
Jim had to laugh. "Hides everything from your chin to your boots."
"That's..." Jim shook his head. "To walk into a Confederate camp wearing Union blue... That's about as brazen as you can get."
"Oh, I've been much more brazen since." Artie's smile gentled. His fingers brushed Jim's arm. "We had to learn to trust each other," he said softly. "And we didn't do such a bad job of it."
"No," Jim agreed. "We didn't."
Jim lay on his belly in the rustling hay, peering down onto the main street from the hayloft over a livery stable. His position in the quiet darkness allowed him to maintain surveillance without being seen. He'd been there since just after sunset, and he didn't have much longer to wait: he could see Artie now.
Artemus strode jauntily along the wooden sidewalk, his cane keeping time with his quick steps. Though he was in disguise, and rather stockier than usual, Jim had no trouble spotting him. He almost never did; he couldn't even say for sure what gave Artie away, but he'd recognize him just about anywhere. Artie tipped his hat to the gaggle of young misses who, herded along by a primly proper matron, passed him with muffled giggles in the street. He was whistling as he entered the hotel.
Jim watched the front of the hotel carefully. None of the lights in the upper rooms came on, and neither of the two which had been on before went out. After about ten minutes, he slid cautiously back into dense shadow before rising. He climbed nimbly down the ladder from the hayloft, brushed the clinging hay from homespun clothes of nearly the same color, and left the back door of the stables. He walked quickly past the rear lots of four shopfronts, and crossed the street at a brisk walk. Once in the shadows on the other side, he ducked behind a rainbarrel and turned his gaze back on the street. No one appeared to have noticed his movements. Jim nodded to himself, and moved back up the street until he was behind the hotel.
Of the six windows which looked out onto the rear lot from the hotel's second floor, half were lit. Jim sighed; seemed he'd have to do things the hard way. Well, he thought as he hoisted himself up onto the eaves, at least I've narrowed my options.
The first window was one of the dark ones. Jim moved past as quickly as possible, the quiet crunch of shingle under his boots sounding horribly loud in the still night air. He kept one hand on the wall for balance as he made his way to the next window. The sill was at about chest level. Jim knelt to peer in the lower left corner of the window. A rotund man of something less than average height and exceedingly more than average weight was struggling with his boots, the bed creaking distressingly under him.
Jim crawled under the window sill, rising to his feet again on the other side and continuing farther along the narrow eaves. The next two windows were dark, and he was slightly less careful about bypassing them, assuming that the occupants were either out or asleep. The noises coming from the second window suggested a third alternative. Jim merely passed on by, relieved that he didn't have to worry quite as much about concealing the sound of his footsteps.
That left two more windows -- both lit. The closest one was open, curtains ruffled by a playful breeze, one partially outside. Jim was very careful how he approached, wincing at the unavoidable scuffing noises he was making. A shadow of movement inside startled him and he stumbled just as he neared the window, scrabbling at the frame as one foot slid off the eaves. Before he could plummet ignominiously to the ground, his arm was caught in a grip like a vise.
"Eavesdropping, James?" Artie asked smoothly, not releasing Jim even once he got his feet under him again. Jim shot him his deadliest glare.
"Nothing interesting to listen to around here." Jim swung one leg over the sill, and shook off Artie's hand as he dropped down into the room.
Artemus shook his head. "You know, James, someday you're going to sneak into the wrong room." He gently released the hammer of his revolver and returned the gun to his carpetbag.
"Yes, but not today." Jim grinned.
Leaning against the footboard of the bed, Artie crossed his arms over his chest and looked at Jim, a quizzical tilt to his head. "Find anything yet?"
"Not yet. You?"
Artie shrugged. "Nothing to speak of." He returned to the small desk and finished removing his makeup. He'd already shed the extra padding which filled out the disguise.
Jim sat on the bed and stretched achingly. "We just have to look harder."
"Jim, it's been two weeks." He wiped his face and hands on a towel and turned to face Jim.
"What are you complaining about? You've been sleeping in this nice soft bed the last two weeks." He flopped back on the mattress, which was indeed soft.
"How are the accommodations in the stables, by the way?" Artemus grinned unrepentantly. Jim threw the pillow at him. "Seriously, Jim," Artemus tossed the pillow back and began unbuttoning his shirt, "if we can't find any sign of trouble, maybe that's because it's not here."
"It's here all right." Jim shoved himself upright and moved to the window, glancing out cautiously before closing it and drawing the drapes. "U. S. Grant says so. And if he's sure there's something to find..."
"We're certain to find it," Artie finished with a resigned nod. "I remember the war; man's uncanny." He finished stripping and climbed into bed, lying there with eyes closed wearily.
Jim only took a few minutes in his disrobing. He blew out the lamp and climbed in next to Artie, who made a soft sound of surprise. "If you think I'm slipping back out of here to sleep in the stables again..."
"I wouldn't dream of suggesting it," Artemus answered with a smile in his voice.
When Jim woke the next morning, it was to find himself almost entirely wrapped up in Artemus. A strong arm loosely enclosed his waist and Artie's warmth pressed close along every inch of his back. The light which penetrated the drawn curtains was weak and diffuse -- no need to get up just yet. Jim lay quietly, simply basking in the warmth and comfort.
It wasn't the first time he'd woken in Artie's arms. He seemed to gravitate toward Jim in the middle of the night. But usually there was such urgency to be up and moving that Jim didn't have time to think about it, let alone lie still and experience it. Artemus was warm and solid at his back, the scent of him, concentrated in the blankets, familiar, masculine. His soft breath stirred Jim's hair, tickling a little behind his ear.
Far from feeling trapped, Jim found the sleeping embrace oddly comforting. A man who made sure he needed as little from other people as possible, Jim wasn't used to relying on anyone. Except, he admitted to himself, it had been some time since he'd faced the world all by himself. For years now, Artemus had been by his side. And if Artemus was good at anything, aside from inventions and disguises and smart remarks, it was dispensing those little creature comforts most of the world took for granted. And Jim was by no means adverse to taking whatever Artemus offered.
Jim let out a soft breath. The admission hadn't been as hard as he'd imagined. He nuzzled deeper into the pillow and let the warmth of Artie's embrace ebb over him. It was really quite pleasant.
He could get used to this.
"You coming, Artie?" Jim pulled on his jacket and straightened the collar.
Artemus turned his head on the pillow to regard him wearily without otherwise moving on the bed. "No thanks, James."
Artie shook his head and closed his eyes. "I think I'll just turn in early."
Jim shrugged. "Suit yourself."
But when he was down the street in a nicely outfitted saloon, enjoying the second of what he intended to be several fine drinks, he thought about Artie all alone in their room and felt a qualm of conscience. It had been a long mission and, truth be told, they were both tired. If Artie wanted to relax by remaining in the room, while Jim went out and unwound his own way, why should Jim be bothered? But he was. Perhaps it was the faint air of isolation about Artie -- that completely inexplicable impression that he was more than just tired. That perhaps, just perhaps, he wouldn't have minded some company tonight.
Well, Jim said to himself, putting down his glass with a thump, if Artemus wouldn't go to the company, the company would have to go to him.
It didn't take him long to pick out the prettiest girl in the dance hall. It wasn't even difficult to get her attention -- a direct look, slight smile, and the faintest nod of his head brought her gliding over to his table.
"You wanted something, handsome?" she smiled at him, flashing discreet dimples and remarkably straight teeth as she bent over the chair in which he lounged.
He smiled lazily back and flipped some coins onto the table.
She made them disappear with the subtle ease of a practiced magician. "I have a room upstairs." She fluttered dark eyelashes over pale green eyes.
Jim shook his head. "Not for me. My friend is in room ten at the Mainstrike Hotel. You know it?"
"Of course, it's just down the street." She frowned at him suspiciously. "Something the matter with your friend? He can't find his own?"
Jim smiled winningly. "Oh, he can indeed. Let's just say this is in the nature of a gift." His grin widened as he imagined Artie's reaction to finding this particular present on the doorstep.
To sweeten the deal, and just because she was pretty, he drew forth a few more coins. This time, though, she didn't pick them up immediately. Her eyes flashed and she bent close to his ear, her sable hair brushing his neck. "I don't normally do two at once, handsome, but add another dollar and I'd consider it."
He leaned back and stared at her, startled. "A generous offer," he managed finally, shaking his head, "but no. Just my friend. Tell him Jim sent you."
"Suit yourself." The coins disappeared and so did the fancy lady, but the idea lingered.
Jim ordered another drink and entertained himself by studying the other denizens of the saloon. However, his mind continued to idly speculate on the play he'd just set in motion.
He imagined Artie rising at a knock on the door... his surprise on opening it to find the painted lady Jim had sent... his large hands closing on her waist as she twined her arms around his neck and drew him into a kiss, guiding them both into the room, nudging the door shut behind her... Artie's nimble fingers removing her clothes and his own, baring his broad smooth chest, his strong legs... pale skin meeting in embrace as mouths did, Artie devouring her with his eyes closed... both of them on the bed, Artie lying between her white thighs, the smooth curve of his back rippling with his thrusts... glancing up when Jim pushed open the door, his smile welcoming...
Jim shook his head roughly. Damn it -- he wasn't usually that susceptible to suggestion, and he resented the intrusion. He forced himself to discard the idea, downed the rest of his whiskey and went to find his own entertainment. A girl to dance with, for starters... and maybe more later. But not here. Jim tossed the bartender some coins for the drinks and strode out.
It was only a few minutes later, in another saloon closer to the edge of town, that he saw the girl again. No mistaking those dark locks and green eyes. He approached unnoticed and grabbed her by the arm.
"Did you forget where you were going?" he asked, voice as soft as his grip was hard.
"If you don't let go, I'll scream," she threatened without missing a beat.
"If you do, you'll have to explain why. How many customers will you have if it gets around that you take the money and run?"
She sighed. "Can we sit down and discuss this?"
"I'd be delighted." He guided her into a booth against the wall and hauled a nearby chair around, firmly planting himself between her and any chance of escape. "You want to explain why you're here and not in room ten of the Mainstrike?"
She looked down at her hands. "I went there, just like you said."
"And now you're here, less than," he made a show of checking his pocketwatch, "ten minutes later. You must be very good."
"I am," she flared angrily. "It's not my fault your friend didn't want me."
Jim released a breath and leaned back in his chair. "What's your name?" he asked, more gently, suddenly seeing her youth more than her beauty.
"All right, Cassie, I think you'd better explain."
She blinked at him, then looked away. "I did just as you said, told him Jim sent me and I was already paid for. He looked at me without saying anything for a minute, then laughed. Then he told me to leave. He said I could keep the money if I made sure to keep out of your way awhile. I guess I failed at that," she added miserably.
Jim sighed. He couldn't make sense of this, except to see it clearly wasn't Cassie's fault. "No," he told her, "you did just fine. The money's yours." He shifted aside, letting her out of the booth.
She paused once she was out, laying her hand daintily on his shoulder, suddenly all business again. "You should've let me do you both together, like I offered. Or," she added with a shrug, "if you still want to give your friend a present, try Antony." She nodded toward the bar. It wasn't hard to figure out who Antony was, under the circumstances: a pretty-featured, golden-haired boy flirting remarkably obviously with a mountain of a cowboy.
She had moved away before he could think of an appropriate response, leaving Jim off-balance. He slid into the booth and signaled the bartender to bring him a whisky. He definitely had some thinking to do.
Unfortunately, he couldn't entirely discount Cassie's insinuation. However young in years, she was old in the ways of men. Nor could he make a different explanation satisfactorily fit. It was possible Artemus really was as tired as he'd claimed, and not in the mood even for a girl already paid for. Unlikely, in Jim's experience, but Artie was older than Jim, and perhaps didn't find his needs quite so... immediate. It couldn't be that he was too prudish to accept a soiled dove into his bed -- Jim knew Artie better than that. And neither possibility explained Artie's attempt to make sure Jim didn't find out his gift hadn't been... properly appreciated.
So, that left Cassie's intimation that Artemus was perverted. Jim frowned. No, even if it was true, he didn't like that word. He decided "invert" was better -- at least it didn't sound so vitriolic. But he'd never seen any sign that Artie preferred men to women. He certainly enjoyed female company at dinner, the theatre, on the train. Only... Jim remembered that night, still fairly early in their partnership, when Artemus had recommended a brothel house, sent Jim off to enjoy the ladies, welcomed him back with a smile, but never gave a clear answer as to why he hadn't gone himself. And the women they took to dinner, the theatre, even the train, were not necessarily expected to also join them in bed.
Jim shook his head. Damn. Well, if Artie was an invert, what was he going to do about it?
After only a moment's contemplation of the subject, Jim couldn't help laughing at himself. What was he going to do about it? Of all the arrogance! Artemus was Artemus -- whatever he was, he'd always been that way, and Jim was too fond of him to want him changed. He raised his glass in a sketchy toast to his absent partner and drained it.
Jim was careful to while away at least another hour before returning to the hotel. He didn't look for a girl to dance with, or to do anything else with. The savor of that had inexplicably faded. After losing fifty bucks in a poker game on a succession of increasingly bad hands, he decided he'd waited long enough and called it a night.
Artemus was asleep when Jim quietly entered the room. He undressed quickly and crawled into bed. It occurred to him in passing that he should be leery of sharing a bed with an invert, but he only smiled at the notion. They'd been sharing beds for years now. Jim rolled on his side and sleepily regarded Artie's turned back. After a minute, he slid his hand over the sheet until his fingers lightly brushed the small of Artie's back.
Then he slept.
Just inside the door, Artemus stopped so suddenly Jim ran into him. The impact budged his partner not one whit. Before Jim could demand an explanation, a vaguely familiar voice spoke unexpectedly from inside their hotel room.
"Get your hands up."
"Certainly." Artemus raised his hands agreeably, stopping when they were about head-height. His cloak spilled straight down from his bent arms, hiding Jim from the man or men in the room.
"I wouldn't do any shouting if I were you." It was a hoarse voice, one Jim was sure he'd heard before, but couldn't quite place.
"Oh, I never shout in hotels," Artie assured in his softest, most reasonable voice. Jim closed his eyes for a brief moment, knowing that voice only made an appearance when his partner was at his most dangerous. And that only happened when the situation more than called for it.
Jim cautiously drew his gun, careful to make no sound. He cocked it silently, pointing it at the floor, as he was forced to put tension on the trigger to pull the hammer back without a click and he couldn't absolutely trust that the gun wouldn't go off in the process.
"Where is it?" the man with the hoarse voice demanded impatiently.
"I'd be happy to tell you," Artie responded amiably. "Just tell me what you're looking for, Dupree." Jim drew in a silent breath -- Artie had the advantage of him, being able to see their opponent, and had cleverly passed on the identification. Dupree, loyal henchman to the madman impostor Kensington, whose plot to replace Grant's vice president and kill Grant they'd flummoxed two weeks ago. He had good reason to remember Dupree's unexpectedly heavy hand; the bruises were still faintly in evidence. Artemus had clucked over each one, not quite managing to hide his fury.
Jim touched Artie lightly on the back to indicate his readiness, not reassured by the hard, tense muscles. Artie's right shoulder twitched, drawing Jim's attention to that hand. He watched Artie's upraised fingers curl slightly, all except two.
Two men, two guns, against Jim's one. Impossible to get both before one of them got off a shot. If he could just get Artie out of the way... He pressed his hand flat on Artie's left shoulder.
"Don't play games with me. I have no doubt--"
What Dupree had no doubt of would remain forever unknown. At Jim's nudge, Artemus dropped his hands and whirled quickly to the left. Jim fired immediately, taking out the man on the right, quickly cocked his gun and drew a bead on Dupree before he could level his gun.
"I wouldn't be quick to move around much, if I were you," Artie suggested in that same soft voice. He'd only moved far enough to give Jim a clear field of fire. Jim was well aware that Artemus still stood mostly in front of him, placing himself foursquare between Jim and danger. There was no budging him though, a fact Jim knew quite well.
Jim pushed the door shut with his foot to avoid any interruption as he studied the intruder, a whip-thin man whose clothes had seen better days. "That shot will attract a lot of attention," he remarked conversationally. "The sheriff was in the lobby when we came up; he'll be here soon. So... care to tell us what exactly you were looking for?"
The man glanced down at his fallen comrade and smiled sourly. "I think not." He made his move before he'd even finished speaking.
Jim fired as soon as he saw Dupree's gun come up, but the shot went wild, their opponent already diving to the side. His gun jamming when he tried to cock it again, Jim dropped the useless weapon and lunged for the man. However, his move was anticipated by his partner. Artie's grab for Dupree was punctuated by another shot, sending Artemus reeling back with a cry. A snarl rumbling unnoticed in his throat, Jim charged. Dupree scrambled away, grabbed the room's only chair in his desperate flight and threw it at Jim. The solid wood's impact drove Jim to his knees. Before he could regain his feet, their uninvited guest made it out the window. Jim reached the window in time to see Dupree leap off the end of the balcony.
The door burst open as Jim was cursing the man's escape. He turned to see the sheriff, as anticipated, the hotel manager behind him.
"Tall man, sandy hair," Jim panted curtly, "get him."
Sheriff Miller, a good man they'd worked with before, satisfied himself with a brusque nod and was gone, leaving the shocked manager hovering in the doorway.
Jim ignored the man and bent to help Artie to his feet. Pale-faced, Artemus clutched his left shoulder, red staining his fingers. Jim didn't bother asking him how he was. Wrapping his arm around Artie's waist, he guided him to the bed and helped him sit down. Gently prying Artie's hand away, he gave the wound a cursory look.
"You have a doctor in this town?" Jim spared the hotel manager a quick glance.
"Send for him." Suddenly aware of his surroundings, and the dead man's blood and brains sprayed across the floor, Jim added, "And get us a new room."
"Now, Grady." Miller was back. His large hand closed on the manager's shoulder and steered him to the hall, a tiny shove for emphasis sending him on his way. "Quickly."
"Thanks, John." Jim didn't look up from pressing his handkerchief to Artie's shoulder.
"How is he?"
"That depends. How good is your doctor?"
"Williams? He was a surgeon in the war. He's as good as you'll find out here."
Jim nodded, his eyes fixed on Artie's pale face. "What about Dupree?"
"The man I was chasing?" Miller removed his hat and used his sleeve to wipe sweat from his high brow. He shook his head. "On a fast horse out of town."
"He'll be back," Artie predicted through clenched teeth.
"Artie's right." Jim shared a concerned look with the sheriff. "See if Grady can find us a room without easily accessible windows."
"I'll do that. And go see what's keeping the doc." He put his hat back on and strode quickly away.
"Next time," Jim scolded softly, "don't put yourself in the line of fire."
"Next time, do me a favor: kill both of them before they have a chance to fire," Artie responded tartly.
"I'll do my best." Feeling blood begin to seep through his handkerchief, Jim pressed a little harder. Artie's eyes squeezed shut.
"I hate doctors." His breathing was coming shorter. "You keep a close eye on him."
"I will." Jim forced a smile. "Hey, he doctored in the war, how bad could he be?"
"Hard to tell. Some of 'em... were more interested... in bettering their amputation times... than helping their patients."
"Don't worry, I won't let him take anything off." Jim deliberately kept his tone light. "I'm too fond of all your parts where they are."
"Not as much... as I am." Artie's eyes opened a sliver, and his lips curled up just slightly.
At a loss for what else to say, Jim patted his uninjured shoulder.
Grady returned soon thereafter with the doctor and the key to another room. Jim helped Artemus walk slowly to their new room and lie down on the bed. As promised, he kept a close eye on the doctor, lending a hand whenever necessary. The bullet had gone through the meat of the shoulder and passed almost entirely through to the other side. The doctor extracted it easily, and demonstrated a skill at stitching which would have done any seamstress proud. He left Artemus stitched, bandaged, and groggy with laudanum. Jim paid him gladly and showed him out the door.
Sheriff Miller showed up for a few moments to inform Jim that either himself or one of his deputies would be on watch in the hotel lobby for the duration. Already having ascertained that there were no eaves or balconies to offer easy access to their window, Jim concluded that the room was as secure as possible. He hoped, however, that Dupree simply kept riding. The man's escape was unfortunate, but right now Jim's primary concern was the safety of his partner.
He thanked the sheriff and locked the door after him. Rubbing a sore shoulder -- the impact of the chair had left its share of bruises -- he shrugged out of his coat and set to work. Lifting the porcelain ewer, he poured clear water into the basin, and took both it and a towel over to the bedside.
Artemus scarcely moved when Jim began cleaning him up; other than a twitch in response to the cool water, he remained still, asleep or unconscious. Blood was smeared across his bare chest from the bandages to his waist. Jim gently washed away all he could before tugging off Artie's boots and pants and pulling the covers up over him.
Jim set aside the basin of reddish water and picked up his gun. He pulled the uncomfortable ladderback chair up next to the bed and sat, holding his gun loosely in his lap, to wait.
Artemus didn't move at all that night.
The next morning, Sheriff Miller came by early to tell them Dupree was dead. Two of his deputies had stumbled across the man hiding in a local barn just after dawn. Rather than come quietly, he'd chosen to fight his way out and ran afoul of the deputies' excellent aim.
Jim left the sheriff keeping watch over Artie for a few minutes while he went down to the undertaker's to view the body. He returned as soon as possible, satisfied that Dupree was no longer a threat. Whatever he'd been seeking would remain a mystery. Jim put the gun away, but not out of reach.
Artie spent most of that day and the next sleeping. He contracted the inevitable infection, but luckily it remained a mild one. Jim kept him covered and got some broth down him a few times a day, but otherwise spent the time watching Artie sleep. And thinking.
He wasn't a stranger to the unexpected discoveries that often accompanied reminders of mortality. The war served up such ephemeral revelations daily. The life he and Artie led, too, lent itself to such experiences.
It wasn't that he hadn't known he loved Artie. Or that he'd been unaware Artie loved him. But Jim wasn't pleased that he'd somehow managed to underestimate the strength of that love.
He had also apparently misjudged the nature of that love. At least, he was beginning to suspect, the love on his part.
He thought back to his unwanted "gift" of a few months before. The girl -- he couldn't even remember her name now -- thought Artie was an invert. Jim had been halfway to agreeing with her at the time, though the idea had faded somewhat since. It had had no impact on their everyday life, so why bother thinking about it?
Now he saw just how nearsighted that had been. It was a part of daily life -- Artie's. And, Jim was beginning to think, his own as well.
He also remembered the girl offering to take them both on at the same time, and how that had caught at his imagination. Jim grinned wryly, wondering how that fantasy might have gone, had he the courage to let it continue. Or, for that matter, to realize that his fantasy had in truth lingered longer over Artie's involvement than the girl's.
A strict watch being unnecessary, Jim slept the second night. Knowing he was too restless to sleep quietly, he bedded down on the floor to spare Artie any pain he could. Sometime after midnight, he woke with his arms outstretched and empty.
Jim rolled to his back. He knew he wouldn't be able to get back to sleep, though the floorboards under his bedroll were no harder than a trail-side camp. No reason he should be awake. No reason at all, except that he'd found only empty air where he expected warm flesh. He listened to Artie's steady breathing from the bed above him.
It wasn't the first time he'd woken reaching for Artie. Lately, it seemed every time he slept alone he woke that way. For a while, it only happened when he was away from the train, in those instances when they were separated by the job and Jim took a hotel room to himself. Now he found he sometimes even did it in his bunk on the train. Jim smiled to himself. And he'd always assumed it was Artie's nocturnal restlessness which resulted in their familiar waking embrace.
"Jim?" Artie's voice was little more than a whisper, but it brought Jim instantly to the bedside.
Artemus smiled. A little weakly, it was true, but Jim could tell he was already much improved. "Come to bed, will you?"
Jim hesitated. "I wouldn't want to hurt your shoulder, Artie."
"You won't." Who could argue with such calm assurance?
Jim slid cautiously into the bed. He wasn't surprised when Artie turned gingerly onto his uninjured side to face Jim. Though he felt he should smile, all Jim could manage in that moment was to slide close and take Artemus in his arms. The dark head came to rest on his shoulder with a sigh.
Jim closed his eyes and cradled his partner close. Soon, he
thought. Once he knew for certain what he wanted and how. In the
meantime, he would enjoy what he had. Jim slept.
It had been raining solidly for hours by the time Jim and Artie made it to town. Already wet to the skin, they didn't bother to hurry as they crossed from the stable to the hotel. They couldn't possibly get any wetter.
The desk clerk gave them a sour look as he took Artie's money and gave them a room key, no doubt because they were dripping on his expensively carpeted floor. Jim ignored the man. Artie tipped his hat, sending a small rivulet of rainwater cascading out of the curled brim to add to the mess on the floor. They grinned at each other as they climbed the stairs.
It wasn't strange to be in such accord, but it definitely was to be in good spirits under the circumstances. Riding through what was beginning to look like the next great flood wasn't calculated to generate a good mood. Capturing a dangerous fugitive and returning him to jail before he could get into any more trouble, however, definitely was.
They stripped silently, draping their sodden garments anywhere they could. Even the waterproofing on their saddlebags was unable to withstand the deluge, however, so there weren't any dry garments to change into. With a shrug, Jim stripped to the skin and crawled into the blissfully warm bed. Even the sheets were clean. After a moment, Artie followed suit.
Though it was only late afternoon, there was no more light than if dusk had already fallen. They left the candle burning on the bedside table, its soft glow warming the room.
Jim was, as was his wont, silent. He lay on his back with his hands behind his head, quietly reveling in being, for the first time that day, warm and dry. After a while, he felt Artie's eyes on him and turned to meet the steady regard. Immediately, the warm brown eyes shied away. A moment later, Artemus turned onto his side, his back to Jim.
Jim frowned. It wasn't the first time, lately, that Artemus had done that. He wondered what Artie was afraid might be given away in his eyes. Then if maybe it was something in his own eyes that put Artemus into full retreat. His desire, once acknowledged, was growing harder and harder to hide.
Jim rolled onto his side and studied Artie's back. He knew Artie was an invert. He'd been watching him for months now, growing more and more certain every day. His advances, if he made any, would not meet any true disgust. But would they meet with success?
Never having been a man to hedge his bets, Jim knew he'd only know the answer to that if he tested the waters. The transition from plan to action was, as usual for Jim, nearly instantaneous. He watched a hand -- his own, though he had the oddest feeling he wasn't in control of it anymore -- trace the curve of bare shoulder with just the lightest brush of fingertips. Then down the length of Artie's arm, barely touching.
Artie tensed visibly; Jim could see the subtle contraction of muscles. His hand lifted, and there was a slight relaxing, then he brushed his fingers across the breadth of Artie's shoulders.
"Leave off, Jim." His voice was muffled, indistinct. Jim made no reply, merely traced his fingers down the slight indentation of Artie's spine. "Jim!" Artie rolled over suddenly, and Jim's hand landed on his partner's equally smooth chest. He watched, fascinated, as Artie closed his eyes briefly, then opened them to stare seriously at Jim. "I don't think you know what you're getting into."
"You, hopefully," Jim replied before he had a chance to consider his words. Both appalled and excited by his temerity, Jim swept his spread fingers over Artie's smooth chest.
"Which merely proves that you don't know what you're doing," Artie responded evenly, as if his breath hadn't speeded up at Jim's words.
"Does it matter as long as you know what to do?" Jim asked, not glancing up from where his finger was tracing casually across Artie's pale skin.
"What makes you think I know?" Artie stonewalled.
"Artie, I know." Jim's wandering finger touched lightly on the angry red scar on Artie's shoulder -- the wound was healed, but the scar would take time to fade. He looked up to catch Artie's blank expression, and knew instantly just how much fear was concealed behind it. "You worry too much, Artie."
"Jim, I don't know what you makes you think--" But the protest rang false. Even with all his acting talent, Artie couldn't convincingly carry off this protestation of innocence. Especially not when Jim's exploring fingers elicited a shuddering breath on passing over a small brown nipple. Further weakening his argument, the nub immediately drew up in a pert demand for more.
Artemus drew a harsh breath, no doubt to fuel further discussion. Jim shut him up by the simple expedient of placing his mouth over Artie's.
He wasn't sure what he'd expected from the kiss. Given Artie's arguments, a blustery withdrawal, perhaps. Perhaps even some disappointment, the reality not living up to Jim's imaginings. Whatever he'd expected, it wasn't this. Not such instant surrender, nor such fire. Artie's mouth was hot and wet under Jim's, and the more demanding Jim's mouth became, the more Artie's yielded. With a murmur of pleasure, Jim delved deeper, exploring the slick, smooth teeth and the sweeping arch of palate, the sensations filling him with giddy excitement, and a wash of fiery arousal at the delicate touch of Artie's tongue responding to the invader.
Rarely needing any time or effort to fire his desire, Jim was nonetheless astounded at the speed of his arousal. Already aching with need, Jim wiggled closer to press his body hard against Artie's, running his hand down the sweep of Artie's back. The elegant recurve at the small of Artie's back drew his hand; he pressed his palm there and pulled him closer.
Jim hissed as their erections touched shockingly, fenced with each other, delighted to find Artie almost as aroused as he himself was. As the kiss continued, Artemus changed from a tentative recipient to an enthusiastic participant. When Artie's hands swept over him, delicate touch knowingly dwelling on his sides, his ass, Jim's moan was muffled by Artie's mouth.
The flashfire of desire seemed destined to incinerate Jim in this illicit embrace. Hazily, he wondered if his raging arousal was because Artie was a man, or simply because he was Artie, and found it didn't really matter. He shoved against Artie, moaning when there was no give; he might as well have pushed a wall. Except this wall pushed back, and Jim found himself flat on his back, Artie's weight pinning him to the bed. Pressed against the muscular torso of his partner, Jim finally found a strength to match his own. A strength he hadn't known he was looking for until that moment. He shoved his swollen erection against Artie's belly, groaning into Artie's mouth at the feel of his hard cock sliding against an equal hardness.
Slowly Artie drew out of the kiss, his hands cradling Jim's head, keeping him from lifting up to follow. He stared into Jim's eyes for a long moment before dipping his head to nuzzle along Jim's jaw. He ran his lips down Jim's neck, stopping to ply his tongue in the hollow of his throat, effortlessly moving them both into a moment of calm tenderness. That was another thing Jim hadn't been expecting, though in retrospect he should have. It also, somehow, answered his question -- no other man could rouse him to these heights. It was Artie and Artie alone he wanted. Jim forced himself to lie quietly until Artie's mouth brushed teasingly over a nipple. He grabbed Artie's head, weaving his fingers through the thick dark hair, and pressed him close.
Artie raised his head, gently shaking off Jim's hands. The length of his body covered Jim's, his hard cock pressing against Jim's thigh, Jim's thrusting urgently against Artie's belly. Artie's hands brushed over Jim's chest and shoulders soothingly.
"Be sure, Jim," he whispered, his heart in his eyes. "Please."
Jim swallowed thickly. Unable to find any words, he merely nodded. Artie's faint smile answered.
Warm lips traversed Jim's chest, teasing him with licks and tiny bites. He shuddered under Artie's knowing caresses, body already primed and aching. When Artemus slid suddenly down to settle between Jim's legs, he could only moan. He looked down and the sight of Artie's mouth poised over his straining erection was almost enough to send him over the edge. Then Artie's warm, full lips touched him, and Jim arched back with a cry.
Wet, hot, Artie's mouth stroked him skillfully, stoking his pleasure almost beyond bearing. Artemus slipped his arms under Jim's bent knees, his shoulders spreading Jim's thighs wider as he held Jim's hips with uncompromising strength. Jim's hands tangled in Artie's hair, following the motion as his head rose and fell over Jim's cock, sucking him, lapping at him with his tongue.
Jim lifted his head to watch, breath coming faster at the sight. Artie's dark head bobbed, Jim's cock slipping easily down his throat, then back out to be licked and suckled. The liquid pleasure washed through Jim. He let his head fall back again, arching into the perfect heat with a groan. His body shuddered under the assault, his belly tightening in quick tremors, instinctively trying to curl him around the man giving him such pleasure.
Too soon he was on the cusp of completion. Jim put a hand to Artie's cheek, moaning at the feel of it hollowing as he sucked, and gently pushed him away. Artie released him reluctantly and glanced up at him. Not knowing what to make of the look in his lover's dark eyes, Jim silently took Artie by the shoulders and drew him up to lie in his arms and between his legs.
They kissed, Jim savoring the taste of himself on his partner's lips. The smooth hard weight of Artemus pinned him to the bed. Jim raised his knees higher, capturing Artie in the cradle of his hips. Their cocks slid against each other, sparking pleasure behind Jim's closed eyes. Artie's back was as smooth and perfect under his hands as he'd imagined.
Artemus broke off the kiss, panting, when Jim's hands cupped his ass, guiding him in his thrusts, pressing him close, closer. He groaned loudly, the sound vibrating through the broad chest pressed so tightly to Jim's. Jim rolled them sideways and pushed his knee between Artie's in an effort to entwine them closer; the press of Artie's balls against his thigh was shockingly intimate. He barely heard Artie's soft whimper; he only knew his next thrust pushed his cock through warm viscous liquid, sliding with slippery abandon over Artie's belly. He bucked instinctively through the slickness a few more times before hazily realizing Artie had come. And that he wanted more than even this slick pleasure could give him.
Artemus rolled bonelessly to his stomach once the prop of Jim's body was removed. Jim wasted no time in crowding between Artie's legs, pushing them apart to make room for himself. His fist stroked slowly over his hard cock, pleasuring himself with his tight grip as he spread Artie's slick seed over his length. His hands gripped Artie's hips, thumbs spreading the firm rounded buttocks. He aligned himself.
Artemus stirred. "Jim, I-- ah!"
Jim paused, half his length sunk into Artie's sweet, hot depths in a single thrust. Other than that single exclamation -- half shock, half pleasure -- Artie made no sound. Panting, Jim bent over Artie's back to press his head against Artie's shoulder. He remained still through the slow count of ten, fighting the overwhelming urge to just shove. Then he pushed slowly the rest of the way in.
Releasing his lower lip from a hard bite, Jim laid himself over Artie's back, matching their bodies from shoulder to thigh. He pushed aside the instinct to thrust and lay still, savoring the tight hot clasp of Artie's body, the smooth perfection of the muscled back under his cheek.
"God, Jim," Artie managed thickly. He turned his head on the pillow. Jim helped shove it out from under him so he could breathe.
"What I said about not knowing what you were getting into? Never mind."
Jim rocked them both with his laugh. "Any advice from the expert?"
"Just..." His eyes squeezed shut as he panted, his hips twitching with the instinct to thrust, impossible with Jim's weight pinning him to the bed. He swallowed thickly. "Just move."
"My pleasure." Jim grinned savagely. He withdrew slowly out to the tip, thrust slowly in to the root. "Very definitely my pleasure," he panted in Artie's ear, half-wild already with the white-hot madness of desire.
He thrust slowly, at first, not willing to relinquish the smooth stretch of Artie's back under him. Jim smiled to himself: he was quickly developing a fixation on that back. Artie squeezed around him and he groaned as he thrust into the tight heat. Of course, if he continued to see it from this angle, he'd have good reason to be fixated.
"Jim..." Artie's hands were fisted in the sheet as he panted, straining back to meet Jim's thrusts. "God. Harder."
"How?" Not that he didn't have some ideas of his own, but passivity wasn't what he wanted from Artie, now or ever.
In answer, Artemus pushed back, heaving them both to their knees in a show of strength that was all Jim could have asked for. Breathlessly, he tightened his grip on Artie's hips to avoid being thrown off. Artemus spread his knees wider and braced himself on his hands.
Jim had his orders, and the one thing all his army commanders agreed upon was Jim West's facility for following orders. He withdrew and thrust home fast, then again, and again. Withdrawing to the limit of his extension, then slamming home to the accompaniment of Artie's moans, the pleasure building inside him with every thrust. He couldn't last long.
His hips never faltering in their powerful, driving rhythm, Jim spread his fingers wide and ran his hands up Artie's belly and chest. He rubbed his fingertips over Artie's nipples until he was moaning brokenly, ran his palms up and down Artie's belly, then a single fingertip up Artie's cock from the root to the tip.
With a curse, Artie grabbed Jim's hand, squeezing it around his shaft, both of them together stroking his reawakened cock. He twisted his upper body, bringing his face just far enough around for Jim to kiss, straining to meet his lips as he took the powerful thrusts.
Jim plunged his tongue into Artie's mouth, thrusting in mimicry of the plundering of his body. Artie's moan was strangled, whether by the awkward position or pleasure was hard to tell. Jim plunged deep, and flashed suddenly on the image of Artie bending over him, his superior height allowing him to kiss Jim easily as he mounted him.
With a muffled shout, Jim bucked and spilled himself deep into Artie's welcoming depths. His hand tightened on Artie's cock, bringing on his lover's second orgasm. Artie's body clenched around Jim's as his seed spilled over Jim's fist, dragging the last of his pleasure from him with a cry.
Weak-limbed, Jim let his weight settle on Artie's back, bearing them both to the bed in a panting heap. Artie's breathing slowed to normal, then further as sleep stole quietly over him. Jim rubbed his cheek dreamily against Artie's smooth shoulder.
He fell asleep still buried deep in his lover and woke Artie a
few hours later with his gentle persistent thrusts, taking great
delight in driving him wild all over again.
The town appeared out of the fog with a suddenness that was almost startling. The white mists were so thick, Jim could barely see beyond his horse's nose, and he was glad to finally have arrived. He was hours late, damp, uncomfortable, and exhausted.
The stableboy muffled a yawn behind the back of his hand as he took the reins and disappeared with Jim's horse. Jim walked around to the hotel's front entrance, knowing his horse would be looked after. Now it was time to see about the same for himself.
Though the hour was late, a number of stragglers congregated in the lobby, mostly travelers stranded by the fog. The stagecoach wouldn't run until the driver could see where he was going -- a smart precaution in the coastal mountains of Oregon, where one wrong turn could be your last. There was nothing for these fog-bound voyagers to do but wait it out, staying ready to leave at a moment's notice, as soon as the fog lifted.
Jim strode to the desk, restraining his annoyance at having to pick his way around several of the castaways, who were taking their rest on the lobby's overstuffed couches and anywhere else they could. The clerk, looking simultaneously harried and half-asleep, hurried up, abandoning some unproductive conversation with an irate traveler.
"I'd like a room for the night." Jim dredged up a weary smile and a shiny coin for the man. "I don't mind sharing."
The man's cloudy expression cleared. The coin vanished and he turned to his register. "Of course, sir. Let's see."
"Allow me." Jim turned the book around without waiting for a response.
"This is very irregular, sir--"
Jim ignored the clerk. He scanned quickly down the signatures until he found an unfamiliar name in a familiar hand. "Him." He laid a finger on the entry.
"Yes." Jim fished his payment for the night's lodging out of his vest pockets. "Something wrong?" he demanded of the flustered man.
"He's... well, he's an actor."
Jim's smile was unforced this time. "I'm sure it won't rub off. Key please?"
"Oh... um... yes sir." The man fumbled the key off its hook while Jim signed the register with a name he made up on the spot, and handed it over in exchange for the money.
"Thanks. I can find my own way." Jim touched the brim of his hat with two fingers and headed on up the stairs, breathing a sigh of relief when he finally got to the top. His legs ached, adding to the general fatigue and reminding him that he was getting too old to ride two days without a break. The hallways were dimly lit by gaslights, and he easily found the right room.
The dark-haired figure on the bed didn't shift a muscle when Jim entered, remaining huddled down on the far side of the bed. Jim locked the door behind him, and stripped quickly in the dark, draping his damp clothes over the chair near the door. When he pulled back the covers, the man rolled over.
"Jim." Artemus blinked sleepily, opening his arms to take Jim into his warm embrace. Jim went silently, burrowing into the smooth, silken skin. He raised his face for a kiss, and was asleep almost before Artie had finished obliging him.
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