Jim sat bolt upright in his bunk, shaking off a sound sleep instantly at the sound of the bell. He was nonetheless slower than Artie, who was already out of his own bunk and halfway across the sleeping compartment by the time Jim managed to kick his way free of the blankets. Artie always did have a second sense for incoming telegraphs.
Jim shrugged into his dressing gown, grabbed Artie's from the foot of the other bunk, and headed off after his partner. He found Artie bent over the desk in the parlor car, writing furiously. Draping the dressing gown over Artie's shoulders didn't even earn Jim a look, let alone the customary smile. For a moment, he allowed himself to appreciate the sight of his sleep-tousled partner, barechested, intent on the words he was taking down. But only for a moment.
Then the insistent words of the wire penetrated his guilty pleasure. Jim dashed back to the sleeping compartment after hearing no more than three words. It took him a handful of minutes to dress. Artie came in as Jim was pulling on his boots.
"Here." He handed Jim the message, hastily penciled with none of the elegant penmanship at which Artie excelled.
Jim stood and grabbed his jacket. As he shrugged it on, he glanced up to find Artie rummaging in his bureau, his unbelted dressing gown flapping around him.
"You'll need this." He came up with a handful of coins. With a quick smile, Jim distributed the money between his jacket pockets, and stuffed the telegraph message into the inner pocket, along with the loaded derringer Artie handed him. "I'll set things in motion here."
Jim nodded. He was aware of Artie following him out to the parlor, belting his dressing gown as he went, but his mind was on the logistics of delivering his message with all speed.
There wasn't time to saddle his horse. Jim leapt down the steps into the trainyard and started for the closest thoroughfare at a run. Even at this hour, the San Francisco streets wouldn't be completely deserted. Luck was with him, and he found a yawning cabbie within the first block.
"Wake up!" He climbed up on the seat next to the driver.
"Here, you're supposed to sit in back."
"The Continental hotel, now."
Jim's presence next to the driver kept the man in a state of nervous agitation until they reached their destination. Perhaps he thought Jim might snatch the whip and reins from his hands and take over. He might have done just that, had their pace slowed at any point. Jim handed the man a coin -- a substantial sum for the short ride -- and jumped from the hack before it had even rolled to a stop, stumbling slightly on the uneven roadway.
"Stay here," he said, and dashed into the hotel without looking back.
The concierge had seen him earlier in the day, and thus had less call than he might otherwise have had to believe him a madman. However, his haughty stare suggested that Jim's pedigree bore some looking into, regardless of the exalted company he'd escorted into the hotel several hours ago.
"You have a coach," Jim said without preamble. "Get it ready."
"Sir, at this time of night?"
He quailed sullenly under Jim's steely gaze. "You might as well start writing up the bill. Have the coach out front in no more than a quarter hour. Understood?"
The concierge was turning an unattractive shade of purple and, though he didn't see how much good it would do, Jim put a half eagle on the desk. The man's eyes lingered on the gold coin until Jim put another one alongside it. His color returned more or less to normal as he daintily pocketed ten dollars of Artie's money.
"Yes, sir." He was all cream and honey now. "Exactly as you say."
"It had better be."
Jim took the stairs two at a time and turned quickly down the hall, his boot heels striking muffled thuds from the thick carpeting. A man, sitting on a straight-backed chair beside an otherwise nondescript door, lifted his chin off the fist that was propping it up, then jumped to his feet at Jim's approach.
"Something the matter, West?"
"Telegraph," Jim wasn't short of breath, just words.
"Give it here."
Jim shook his head. "No, Grafton; I'd better deliver it to him myself."
Grafton frowned darkly. Then he shrugged. "Suit yourself." He rapped briskly on the door. "West," Grafton called through the door, which opened promptly.
"It's after midnight," the man inside complained, running a hand through his reddish curls.
"No help for it." Jim pushed past Reg O'Connell and into the anteroom of the luxurious suite. He didn't outrank these men -- they weren't even Secret Service -- but they respected his experience enough to know he wouldn't disturb their charge without reason. Though peripherally aware that his entrance had also roused Bill from his slumber by the hearth, Jim neither hurried nor slowed his pace. He walked straight to the inner door and knocked. Despite the late hour, the response was almost immediate.
"James West, sir. I have an important telegram."
"Just a minute."
Jim stepped back from the door. His experience of his commander during the war led him to believe it would be a short wait. In less than two minutes, President Ulysses S. Grant opened the door, decently, if somewhat sloppily clad. He held out a hand for the telegram, which Jim handed wordlessly to him.
It took just a few moments for Grant to read the message, and he lost much of his color in that time. "Julia." The word escaped his lips on a thread of sound.
"Perhaps you should sit down, sir," said O'Connell.
Grant ignored the suggestion, his eyes trained on Jim. "When did you receive this?"
"About ten minutes ago."
"Indeed." His eyes returned to the message as if inexorably drawn to the hastily written communication. Jim knew precisely which sentence the president's eyes lingered over: Mrs. Grant taken gravely ill. "Mr. Grafton." It wasn't necessary to raise his voice, for Grafton was already standing in the doorway. "We will be returning to Washington without delay."
"Sir?" His face was almost as pale as the president's. Jim found the man's reaction somewhat surprising. He'd got the impression during the war that Grafton wasn't overly fond of Julia Grant.
"You will first go next door and wake the rest of my bodyguard. Then see to it that the hotel charges are taken care of. Mr. O'Connell, if you would prepare your and Mr. Grafton's belongings for travel, I will see to my own luggage."
"I believe Bill would prefer to do that," Jim suggested. Bill, the president's black servant, nodded vigorously and slipped past them through the door into the bedchamber.
"Leaving me to do what, Mr. West? Twiddle my thumbs?" That small hint of asperity told volumes about how worried the usually unflappable man was.
"No, sir." Jim stepped to one side of the door, clearing the way for Bill and O'Connell to make quick work of the luggage. Grafton had already disappeared, and the sound of his rousing the men next door could be faintly heard. "You will be writing a letter to the Superintendent of the San Francisco Bureau of Railroads."
"Yes, sir. Artie is already setting things in motion as best he can, but we'll need your authority to get the tracks cleared from here to Washington." He smiled slightly, in what he hoped would look like reassurance. "The usual passenger trains make the trip in seven days. If we have a clear track, we can get there in four." Perhaps three, but Jim didn't say that, for fear of raising false hope.
"Four." Grant's skin was ashen. "Four days," he said slowly.
Jim quietly steered him to the nearest chair. It was the work of a moment to bring over a small table and fetch paper and pen from the desk in the inner room. Grant stared distractedly into the fire, one hand fisted on his knee, until the writing implements were placed in front of him. Then, with an effort, he set to work, quickly falling into the absolute focus he'd always displayed when writing orders during the war. Jim stepped to the inner door and quickly acquainted Reg O'Connell and Bill with the situation, certain that no words of his, or anyone else's, would disturb the president while he was writing.
Jim went back to Grant's side.
"I believe this will do." Grant quickly signed the short letter. Jim picked it up, fanned it briefly through the air to dry the ink, then folded it neatly and tucked the page into his coat pocket.
"I'll deliver this and meet you at the train, sir."
"There must be no delay, Mr. West."
"Of course not, sir."
Grant nodded once sharply, then pulled another sheet of paper to him and began writing. Going out, Jim met Blaylock and Bishop on their way in. The final members of the president's bodyguard stepped aside to let him past, Blaylock with his habitual pleasant grin, Bishop with a scowl.
"Gentlemen," the president's voice came from within, carrying for some distance down the hall, though he spoke in purely conversational tones. "Mr. O'Connell will acquaint you with the situation while I finish writing. Once completed, this letter must be delivered without delay to the gentlemen I came here to see."
Bill came down to the lobby with Jim, carrying the first of the president's bags and sticking close to the agent's heels. Though still busy with Grafton, the concierge's eyes followed them balefully across the lobby. Somewhat to Jim's surprise, the cabbie was still waiting in front of the building, though nodding sleepily on his perch.
The man jerked awake when the hotel's coach came barreling around the corner and pulled up just behind him. The horses, fresh from the stable behind the hotel, stamped restlessly in the traces. Bill dropped the bag he carried on the rack at the rear of the coach almost before it stopped moving.
The yawning coachman in hotel livery watched Jim's approach through heavy lids which opened much wider when Jim pressed a handful of coins into his palm. "You'll wait here for the gentlemen who'll be coming out of the hotel shortly with this man." He indicated Bill. "Deliver them to the trainyard, to the engine 'Wanderer,' and the gentleman there will give you twice the money I just handed to you. Understand?"
The man shook his head slowly. "No, sir, I can't say as I understand at all, but I'll do just what you told me to."
"Good enough." Jim turned to Bill. "You can take it from here?"
Bill nodded. "Yes, suh. De gin'ral in good hands wit me, suh."
Jim smiled. "I know he is." He walked back to the hack and vaulted onto the driver's bench once again. "You awake?" he demanded of the cabbie.
"Sure I am."
The cabbie's eyebrows swooped into his hairline when he was given their destination, though he shouldn't have been surprised by the ritzy address after first delivering Jim to the most elegant hotel in San Francisco.
Jim nodded to Bill, who headed back into the hotel. The cabbie clucked to his horses and they took off up the street. Throughout the ride, Jim kept one hand on the rail to make sure he wasn't thrown off, and the other fisted on his thigh to prevent himself from fidgeting. Every minute that passed was another minute lost in the race for Washington.
Jim only hoped that Superintendent Ellis Rusk hadn't moved. He'd become unwillingly familiar with the man's address when he and Artie had nearly been ejected from the San Francisco trainyard about a year ago. Rusk was something of a Puritan, and took a dim view of the ladies Jim had brought back to the car for an evening's supper and conversation. But it was Artie who truly roused the man's fury, by being more eloquent in his defense of their entertainments than Rusk's religious tracts were in condemnation of them. The truly amusing part was that they weren't engaging the ladies in the sort of amusement Rusk assumed. At least, not on the train. The lack of privacy inherent in the sleeping arrangements aboard the train guaranteed that they took the ladies elsewhere if more personal entertainments were in the offing. That fact, however, was not something they felt required to communicate to the superintendent.
In the end, Colonel Richmond had been forced to inform Superintendent Rusk that he could not deny a government train the use of the trainyard the government had helped pay for.
It was, given their history, something of a pleasure to pound on the thick, ornately carved door to Rusk's house in the middle of the night. A faint light visible in a basement window indicated that one of the servants, at least, was still up. Jim didn't hesitate to knock again, and louder.
It seemed to take forever, but finally a footstep was audible on the other side of the door, and the small trap inset in the door was yanked open, a weak beam of light playing out onto Jim's features.
"What the hell d'you think you're doing?" Though the man appeared to be clad in nothing but a long nightshirt, Jim would have given odds that he was the butler.
"I have an urgent message for Superintendent Rusk. Open up."
"Damned if I will." He shut the trap.
Jim took the derringer out of his inside pocket and used the butt to rap sharply on the door. In an instant, the trap was flung open again. Before the infuriated man could get a word out, Jim thrust his hand through the trap, the cocked derringer stopping mere inches from the man's nose.
"Open the door," Jim said slowly and distinctly.
Wide eyes unblinking, the man nodded stiffly and scrabbled at the door latch. Jim felt the solid door give slightly when the lock disengaged. He kept the gun in place as long as possible, then stepped quickly into the doorway. The half-open door, propelled by 150 pounds of angry butler, swung hard into him, catching him between the door and the jamb. Jim shouted, his fingers tightening involuntarily on the derringer. Luckily, the muzzle was pointed down, and the gun discharged harmlessly into the floor.
Jim gave the door a vicious shove, staggering the butler back, and quickly stepped inside. He dropped the empty derringer in his pocket and advanced on the man, itching to repay his bruises in kind.
"What the devil is going on here?"
"Merely a misunderstanding, sir," Jim responded tightly. He glanced up to find Rusk, an ornate dressing gown belted tightly around his expansive waist, glaring at him from the stairs. The butler took the opportunity to slip away. "I have an important message for you, Superintendent."
"You." The man's lip curled. "If my yardmaster has evicted you again, I'll give him a fifty dollar bonus."
"I'm sure he'd be happy to hear that, but it's not why I'm here." Jim retrieved the president's letter, slightly crumpled, from his pocket and strode to the foot of the stairs. "I suggest you read this immediately."
Rusk ponderously descended the remaining steps. "An important message?" he sneered. "Important enough to excuse forcing your way into a man's home? Your Colonel Richmond will certainly hear about it."
"Yes, sir, he will. If you'll read the message..." Jim pushed the paper into the man's hand.
Rusk tilted the page until the light from the candle the butler had left on the sideboard reached the writing. He scanned the words quickly, until he came to the bottom.
"I believe you'll recognize the signature," Jim prompted.
"I believe I do," Rusk admitted stiffly. "It will be done at once, of course."
Conceded with ill-grace, but conceded nonetheless. Jim breathed a little easier, and instantly regretted it on the aching of his ribs. "Immediately."
"Of course, immediately." He scowled, brushed past Jim and picked up the candle. Traversing the large entryway with Jim on his heels, he entered the library and sat at the desk. Rusk pulled a piece of thick paper from the drawer and dipped his pen in the inkwell. A few lines were scrawled quickly across the page, his name signed with a frugal hand. He rolled a blotter across the words and handed the sheet to Jim, who scanned it quickly. "If you'll give that to the yardmaster, I believe it will answer. I'll keep this, if you don't mind." He tapped the president's letter.
"Be my guest." Jim folded the Superintendent's instructions and slid them into his inner pocket. "Good night, sir."
The front door closed quite firmly behind him. Jim shook his head and started down the drive. The cabbie had refused to turn his hack up the quarter-mile drive, for fear of waking the whole neighborhood with the ring of his steel-bound wheels on the cobble stones. Rather than waste time arguing with him, Jim had left him at the foot of the drive and walked.
In the time he was inside, clouds had covered the moon, and the path was plunged into darkness. Ears which had become accustomed to the never-ending bustle of the trainyard found it oppressively silent. The noise of the city, dulled by distance and the hour, could be faintly heard. Closer at hand, there was only the soft rustle of the leaves.
It took Jim no more than a second to realize that there was no wind. A second during which he lost the initial tactical advantage to the half-dozen men who boiled out of the trees and surrounded him. Jim didn't allow himself the luxury of wishing he'd reloaded the derringer. Neither did he wait to see what they wanted. He lashed out with his strong right fist, then kicked left, knocking down the two in front of him. The ones behind jumped him, and managed to hold him until their compatriots got in a few good blows. Shaking off the ringing in his head, Jim slipped out of their hands, throwing one man into another, planting a solid foot in the midriff of the third.
He fought silently, only the occasional soft grunt admitting to the impact of a kick or punch. The others were not so quiet, howling and cursing when his blows connected. Jim was a whirlwind, an unthinking, unfeeling carousel of fists and feet. Anything that came within range, he hit; if it was beyond the reach of his arms, he kicked it. And yet, it was like fighting a whole army; it seemed that no matter how many times he knocked them down, they just got up and kept coming at him.
Suddenly, as quickly as they came on, they scattered. Jim knelt, panting, on the hard stones and watched, uncomprehending, as a white light bobbed erratically toward him.
"Here, mate, you okay?" The cabbie. Jim squinted in the light from his lantern and pushed himself slowly to his feet, ignoring the helping hand the man held out. He straightened up with a grimace and wiped blood off his mouth. Patting his jacket, he felt the crinkle of paper in the pocket and sighed gently.
"Fine. Thank you."
The cabbie nodded, a smile touching his mouth as he recognized the sincerity in Jim's voice. He didn't offer a hand as they returned to the hack, just held the lantern high.
"Where to now?" he asked once they were safely installed on the driver's box. He'd have liked, Jim knew, to suggest that his passenger ride in the back, but had kept his peace as Jim hauled himself onto the bench beside him.
"The trainyard," Jim told him, sparing a smile for the man.
"The trainyard it is, mate."
Jim leaned back carefully, one hand gripping the rail as the cabbie spoke to his horses. He didn't speak until they were rolling along at a good clip. "Where are you from?"
"That obvious, is it?" The cabbie turned briefly to grin at him. "Born on the east side o' London. Came to seek my fortune."
"Is this your fortune, then? This cab?"
He laughed. "Who knows. Maybe it is."
They pulled into the trainyard in record time, the cabbie getting as close to the Wanderer as possible. Jim didn't miss the consideration, or the fact that the man had been listening when he directed the hotel coachman. He slid cautiously to the ground, not releasing the rail until he was certain of his footing.
"What's your name?"
"Alec," the cabbie touched his fingers to his cap, "Alec Sterling."
"I'll remember that," Jim told him as he passed the remaining money in his pockets up to the man, "the next time I'm here."
"Much obliged, sir." He bobbed his head emphatically.
Jim turned and headed for the train, hearing the crunch of metal on gravel as the hack wheeled away. It was likely the man had never earned so much for an hour's work in his life. It was also possible that the man had saved his life, in which case the payment was not nearly large enough.
"That you, West?" In the light cast through the open door of the car, Grafton's silhouette was easily identifiable. The tip of his cigar glowed red as he puffed on it. "We'd about given you up."
"Best get inside and count heads, Grafton." Jim passed the end of the car. "I've got orders for the trainmaster. We'll have a clear track to Washington in a few minutes; it'd be a shame to leave anyone behind."
He heard the door close and latch behind Grafton as he passed up alongside the car. No matter; he wasn't planning on walking through the car with blood all over his face.
"Devon?" The engineer appeared quickly at his call, leaning out from the cab as he approached, the hot glow from the firebox painting his graying hair with red. Jim handed Rusk's letter up to him. "If you can spare Charlie or Sam to deliver this to the trainmaster, we'll be free to roll."
Devon wiped his soot-blackened hands on a rag and unfolded the letter. He nodded sharply and called out for the brakeman. "Charlie'll run it over to him immediate."
"It's a right lucky thing, Mr. West, that we hadn't shut 'er down to cool yet," Devon said in his soft brogue. He shook his head. "We'd've been hours gettin' this bastard engine ready to roll again."
"Very lucky," Jim agreed. "Thanks, Devon." He leaned his palm on the warm metal and felt the shiver and roar of the fire in the belly of the locomotive. With a half smile, he nodded at the engineer and turned away.
The sound of the horses moving about restlessly reached Jim as he walked past the forward car. Jim wondered briefly how they would take the trip, especially his high-strung beauty. Better than the human passengers, most likely; these horses were old hands at train travel. At the end of the car, Jim grabbed the rail and hoisted himself onto the step. When the train was stopped, it was safe enough to stand between the cars, but a man could be crushed between them at the slightest jolt. Jim didn't linger.
He pushed open the forward door of the parlor car and stepped into Artie's lab. As he turned to latch the door, a familiar voice spoke in the dim room.
"Grafton said you were back."
"Devon's got the orders now," Jim told Artie as he headed for the side door which led to their sleeping compartment. "We'll be off any time now."
"Good. The sooner we get moving, the better for the President's nerves." Artie followed him into the compartment and turned up the flame on the lamp. Only then did he get a good look at Jim. "Jesus Christ, Jim, how much trouble did you have getting those orders?"
"From Rusk, not much." Jim wriggled painfully out of his coat and set about removing his shirt.
"Then what?" Artie went to the washstand and released the pitcher from the brackets which kept it upright despite the jerks and sudden stops of railway travel. He poured water into the basin and wet a cloth in it.
"Half-dozen hoodlums on the way back from Rusk's house." Jim grimaced at the blood on his shirt and tossed it aside.
"I trust some of them look worse than you."
Jim smiled painfully. "A few." He winced as Artie touched the cloth to a cut on his temple.
"Sit down, will you?"
Meekly, Jim complied, sitting on the edge of his bunk and letting Artie tend to him. After fussing over the bruises on his torso, and finally diagnosing them as nothing more serious, Artie wrapped the damp cloth around the scrapes on Jim's right knuckles and wet another one.
"Now hold still."
The needle on the steam gauge was almost at redline. Devon tapped the glass face of the instrument with one blunt finger; the needle pointed unwaveringly to a full head of steam. He nodded his approval.
Charlie raced back across the yard and vaulted onto the kickplate without benefit of the handrails. "We've got the go-ahead from the yardmaster, sir." His green eyes snapped with excitement.
Devon cuffed him across the head, not hard. "How many times I need ta tell you, laddie? Devon'll do."
Charlie's enthusiasm was undimmed. He clambered nimbly over the enormous pile of coal to sit on the rear of the tender, his eager young gaze directed ahead into the darkness.
Devon shook his head and turned to the fireman. "All right, Sam, let's take 'er out."
The train jerked suddenly into motion. Artie caught the pitcher before it could be hurled to the floor and returned it to its haven.
"Sounds like we're on our way," he observed calmly. He tilted Jim's head to the side with his left hand and applied the cloth to the cut on Jim's right temple and the blood that welled from the corner of his mouth.
Artie's hand was warm. Jim didn't let himself turn his cheek into the warmth, for fear it might look like he was flinching from the touch of the cloth. He would have preferred to stare at Artie's white shirt front, but the broad hand kept his face tilted to the light, and his eyes fell naturally on Artie's face. The intent expression, lightly touched with concern, drew Artie's brows together and made a vertical line on a forehead creased with concentration.
After a moment, Artie's eyes met his, and the corners of his mouth curled in a smile. He shook his head gently.
"James, my boy, I despair of you. Will you never stop getting yourself into trouble?"
"I expect not. Good thing I have you around to take care of me."
"Yes," Artie said quietly, "I guess it is."
He folded the cloth and applied an unbloodied area to Jim's face, wiping away the dull red streaks which had dried on his skin. His eyes were solemn, intent, as if cleaning blood off Jim's face was the most important thing he could be doing at that moment. Without moving a muscle, Jim flinched away from that expression. Almost blank, it was, except for what the eyes said, spilling over with emotion, touched with everything Artie wanted to give him.
Everything Jim wanted to take, but didn't dare.
It wasn't a new expression. So many times over the years, Jim had seen Artie's concern, his tender care, reflected in his eyes. It was only in the past several months that he'd recognized the growing intensity of love, and more, that lurked in the expressive brown depths. It was then that the look became, instead of a warm comfort, a bitter torment. To glance up and catch Artie looking at him with an affectionate sort of wonder, as if he couldn't quite figure out how he'd come to this place with Jim -- it was no help whatsoever in the daily battle to restrain his own emotions.
Love between them was acceptable. So long as there was no physical aspect, it was the greatest connection any man could desire with another. But the love Jim felt for Artie was as deeply invested in the physical as in those more spiritual levels which were allowed. And that, according to society, was a wrong too monstrous to be contemplated. Jim wasn't bothered much by the fact that he dared contemplate such things -- there was little he did not dare, truth be told. But while he'd willingly accept the dangers to himself, he could not bring himself to put Artie at risk.
Jim had achieved an uneasy truce with his perversions, until he realized that Artie shared them. Until he caught Artie looking at him through eyes dark with desire and realized that neither of them was safe. All the things Jim wanted were there for the taking, if he was willing to toss aside Artie's safety and his own to get them. But the price was too high.
Jim struggled mightily against his desires, but found his defenses weakened on a daily basis by Artie's constant loyalty and affection. Though he built the fortress walls high and strong, the keep was imperiled, for Artie held the key to every door.
And sometimes he thought that, perhaps, it was a foolish thing, this staying action he fought so valiantly. For if Artie did not wish to be shielded from Jim's love, why not surrender the walls? Let him into the keep, where they could together bar the doors and let the world batter uselessly at the gates.
A drop of water spilled from the damp cloth and tracked swiftly down Jim's temple and across his cheek. Artie caught it with a gentle brush of the back of his fingers against Jim's skin.
Jim's battlements shivered, cracked. He caught Artie's hand and held it, absently rubbing the moisture away with his thumb. "Artie," he said softly, "what is this?"
Artemus froze. For a moment, Jim thought he would pretend to misunderstand, knew it might be better if he did. Artie glanced away, and his gentle smile reappeared. His eyes came back to Jim's. "Everything you want it to be, and nothing you don't," was his quiet response.
Jim's throat tightened. "And what," he probed, "if what I want is wrong?" For society surely believed it to be so.
Artie shook his head without taking his eyes from Jim's. "It can't be," he said with simple certainty.
Jim stood suddenly, and Artie took a half-step back. "Can't it?" Jim took Artie by the shoulders and pulled him up against his chest. He pressed his lips hard to Artie's, and pushed him away again. "Can't it?"
Artie was smiling. "For shame, Jim," he teased gently, "rumor has it you're a better kisser than that." His broad palm cupped Jim's cheek; he leaned in to lay his lips on Jim's. And this kiss was tender, and loving, and utterly irrefutable.
Jim drew back with a soft gasp. He bent his head and closed his eyes, so as not to be swayed by looking at the man who'd so lovingly kissed him. "What would Richmond do, if he knew? Or Grant? We could lose everything."
Artie's hands were warm as they cradled Jim's face and lifted it back to the light. "Everything, Jim?"
Jim's eyes opened of their own accord, and looked with wonder on an expression so open, so loving, it would be a wrong of inestimably greater proportion to deny it.
"You can't lose everything, James," Artie said, his breath fanning Jim's face. He bent and softly kissed Jim's forehead, his cheek. "You can't lose me."
"And you?" Jim asked from behind the last lingering remnants of his defenses. "What will you lose if we do this?"
"Nothing I value."
It wasn't, perhaps, the most reassuring of answers, but it was accompanied by the warmth of Artie's embrace, and the soft touch of his lips. Jim surrendered his passions with a moan. Artie's body was broad and strong in his arms, his mouth sweet and demanding. And, for a moment at least, there was nothing in the universe but the two of them and the kiss they shared. Society could go hang.
Then the car lurched as it passed over a switch, and their embrace was broken. Artie grabbed the nearest bureau to brace himself and grinned at Jim. Jim shook his head, but couldn't help smiling back.
"Not the time."
"Nor place," Artie agreed. He pulled a clean shirt out of one of the drawers and tossed it to Jim. When Jim had it on and was buttoning it up, Artie smoothed the shoulders, the touch warm through the thin fabric. "Later, then?"
"Once we get to Washington."
Artie nodded. "Uh, Jim?"
"Yes?" Jim paused in pulling on his jacket.
"You're not going to be this hard to convince next time, are you?"
Jim smiled. He shrugged his jacket the rest of the way on and stepped close to Artie. "Not a chance." He dared to press a last brief kiss to Artie's lips, then resolutely strode out the door.
He didn't have to look back to know Artie was right behind him.
The mood in the parlor was subdued.
John Blaylock and Reg O'Connell sat at the table, a silver urn between them and coffee steaming in their cups. Though there was a deck of cards on the table, it was untouched and, under the circumstances, seemed likely to remain that way. They conversed in low voices, with many concerned glances at their commander.
Bill likewise kept an eye on President Grant. The president's servant was visible through the open door to the galley, where he was sitting on a straight-backed chair with a bucket of soapy water at his feet and a washrag in his hands. Jim bit back a smile. On the trip out, Artie had tried to convince Bill that he needn't wash up the dishes, or clean the galley. He hadn't been any more successful in that than in re-taking his cooking duties from the man.
Grafton and Bishop were both sitting on the right side of the car. Elias Grafton reclined on the couch, his legs stretched out before him, ankles crossed, his hands laced on his stomach. He might have been asleep, but for the occasional glimpse of brilliant blue from under his half-lowered lids. Bishop sat in the rear corner of the car, his dark gaze directed out the window into the equally dark night.
And Grant? Grant slumped on the forward-facing couch, his grim abstraction the eye of this hurricane of gloom. His right hand, fingers curled into the palm, rested unmoving on his thigh, while the left stroked incessantly at his beard. If his dark gray eyes saw anything as they stared intently before him, it wasn't visible to the other men in the car. In deference to Grant, these five men sat silent and solemn as the train raced through the night.
Neither Jim nor Artie desired to disrupt the quiet, but Grant looked up instantly at their entrance.
"Well?" He gestured them impatiently over.
"We'll have a clear track all the way," Jim assured him. "The brakeman passed specific instructions from Superintendent Rusk to the trainmaster before we left the yard. They'll be relayed down the line."
"And," Artie finished, "nearly all railroad activity in the nation will cease until we reach Washington."
Grant looked at Artie for a moment, then shook his head. "It's truly remarkable, that everything in this great nation should stop, merely for the sake of one man." Artie glanced quickly at Jim, who frowned slightly; surely there could have been no doubt of Grant's wishes in this matter. "Thank you, gentlemen."
Jim saw Artie's shoulders drop slightly and knew he'd just let out the breath he'd been holding. Likewise relieved, Jim nodded slightly to acknowledge the thanks.
"We've the best engine, and the best crew, in the nation," Artie said, rescuing Jim from the awkwardness of having to make a reply. "The darkness limits our speed now, but come dawn she'll pick up her pace. With clear visibility, she can make about forty miles in an hour. Fifty on good track."
"Well, then," Grant assayed a slight smile, "I have reason to be grateful that my own train was unable to make the trip to San Francisco. It was apparently my good fortune to avail myself of the Wanderer's services."
"Apparently so, sir."
Grant glanced around the parlor and for the first time seemed aware of the somber atmosphere. He stood and headed for the door. "I believe I'll retire to my stateroom. No reason to cast such a pall over everything. At ease, gentlemen, it's a long trip; you might as well enjoy yourselves." Barely had the door swung shut behind him than Bill hurried out of the galley and down the hall after the president.
"Poor Bill," Blaylock said with a shake of his head. "He'd be happier if 'de gin'ral' let him wait on him right and proper."
O'Connell smiled. "Poor fellow indeed. The president won't even let him valet, beyond caring for his baggage and clothing."
"Grant has always been shy in his personal habits," Grafton put in from his place on the couch.
"Nothing wrong with that," Blaylock told him. "Just makes it harder on poor Bill, that's all. The president gives him little enough to do."
"Ah," said O'Connell with a wink, "but the savior of the North can hardly be expected to treat his servant like a slave."
"Why else do you think Bill loves him so dearly?" Blaylock drank from his cup. "Precisely because he's so damned difficult to serve."
Artie poured a cup of coffee, added precisely the right amount of milk, and handed it to Jim. "Don't we all love him for the same reason?" Their fingers brushed and Jim had to steady the cup with his other hand. Artie's smile was small, intimate, and Jim had to look away or risk embarrassing himself. He left Artie pouring his own coffee and seated himself on the couch recently vacated by President Grant.
"I'll drink to that," Grafton said from the other couch without opening his eyes.
"Too bad it's just coffee," O'Connell said with a grin.
"We're on duty, in case you forgot."
O'Connell turned, his good humor undaunted, to Bishop, who'd spoken without moving from his seat in the corner. "Grafton and I are. You and Blaylock, however, are free to partake, if West and Gordon are willing to share whatever spirits are kept on board."
"None for me," Blaylock said. "It'd only put me to sleep, this time of night."
"So sleep," O'Connell urged. "You'd still be snoring in your beds if it weren't for that telegram. Besides, we're on a train, how many of us do you think it'll take to keep watch?"
"I'm sure West and Gordon would be delighted to help," Grafton suggested sardonically, lacing his fingers behind his head.
"It's not their job to guard the president," Bishop said scathingly. "They're Secret Service; we're his bodyguards."
"We're all along for the ride," Artie put in diplomatically, "I don't see why we shouldn't keep our eyes open."
"Well, now that that's settled," O'Connell picked up the deck and shuffled it expertly. "Who's for a game of cards?"
"I'll bite," Grafton said, lifting his lanky frame from the couch and joining O'Connell and Blaylock at the table. Bishop merely turned back to his contemplation of the dark countryside passing outside the window.
Artie joined Jim on the couch. There was a momentary awkwardness as he hesitated over where to sit, finally settling himself nearer to the arm than to Jim. It was farther removed than he would have sat only the day before, and not as close as either of them would have liked.
"Tell me, Jim, how long has Bill been with President Grant?" he asked, after a moment.
Jim smiled, knowing it was just to fill the silence between them, but not minding. "Ah..." he tilted his head back as he thought, "if memory serves, sometime after Vicksburg. Grafton?"
"Just after the surrender of the city," Grafton said without looking up from his cards.
Jim nodded. "He'd appeared at headquarters a few years earlier with a couple of other slaves escaped from Missouri. When the colonel he'd attached himself to was killed at Vicksburg, Bill started making himself useful to Grant." He smiled. "Whether he liked it or not."
"He looks the tenacious type."
"Very. Soon, he was on Grant's payroll, and his place was pretty much secured. No one's better able to anticipate his wishes. Except his wife," he added softly.
A hush fell over the parlor and all its occupants. Even the cards seemed to fall quietly.
They made it over the mountains into Reno six hours ahead of the usual time made by the transcontinental.
It was just about noon when the Wanderer slid smoothly to a stop at the station, her air brakes hissing, Devon's signature whistle echoing back from the buildings in a wave of sound. Jim waited on the front platform of the parlor car until the train had come to a complete halt, the bumpers between the cars meeting in a gentle metallic kiss, before stepping over to the forward car. He saw Artie swing off the rear and head for the station office before he pushed open the door to the car which housed their equipment, bunks for the train crew, and, of course, the horses.
"Sir?" he called softly as he entered.
"Over here, West." Brush in one hand, curry comb in the other, Grant groomed Jim's horse in slow easy strokes. And, though Ajax had a tendency to make you work hard to care for him -- shying away and dancing -- he stood placidly under Grant's hands. "I always think better around horses," he said as Jim approached.
Jim smiled; he was well aware of Grant's affinity for horses, and theirs for him. He walked passed the first stall, where Artie's horse placidly cropped hay. Ajax was in the second, and the third, closest to the outer wall of the train, was empty but for a thick pile of fresh hay. Jim stopped at the end of Ajax's stall and absently patted the brown nose which snuffled at him from the other stall. "Ajax seems to like you; he certainly likes the attention."
"He's a fine horse, West." His voice was low and calm, and Ajax swiveled his ears around to listen. "A little high-strung, perhaps. I'm amazed he takes to rail travel so calmly."
"Bob here helps to keep him quiet." Jim patted Artie's horse again, rubbing the white blaze between his eyes firmly, just the way he liked it.
"Bob?" The regular movement of Grant's hands stopped.
"Artie bought him from a farmer in Tennessee and, well," Jim smiled, "it hardly seemed appropriate to go on calling him Robert E. Lee."
Grant shook his head, and Jim thought he was amused despite the heavy weight of worry. Ajax whickered softly and nudged Grant with his nose, and Grant automatically went back to brushing him.
"We're coming into Reno," Jim said.
"And you'd appreciate it if I would kindly keep myself out of sight."
"Yes, sir, if you wouldn't mind." It had been difficult to convince the president during their frequent stops to refuel that loading coal wouldn't go any faster if he helped. In fact, it merely tied more of his bodyguard up in their duties and prevented them from being able to shovel. "O'Connell will keep watch while we load coal."
"Nonsense," Grant said heartily.
"O'Connell can help load; I'll be perfectly safe right here." His attention seemed wholly on the horse. "It'll go faster with another pair of hands and a good strong back. And no one will even know I'm here, so you can stop worrying about my safety."
That last sounded too much like an order for Jim to ignore. "Yes sir," he said and went to tell Artie and the others that they'd all have to keep a weather eye out for trouble. Or, at least, anyone approaching the forward car.
It took Jim a minute to gather the scattered crew from various points. Artie, he knew, had gone into the station house to send for any news about Mrs. Grant. The others were more difficult to find, and Jim finally resorted to having Devon use the bell to summon them back to the train. They straggled in from all directions and converged on the three-sided shack piled high with coal. A boy came out from the station to help shovel, and they set to with a will. There was no grumbling, though Jim had the impression that one or two of Grant's bodyguard would have liked to suggest such menial work was beneath them. He'd have to ask Artie about that, as his partner was often better at reading people than he was. With eight men at the shovels, the tender filled quickly, and they finished about the same time the fireman finished filling her tank with water.
Jim handed his shovel to Artie and walked over to speak to the burly fireman. "How're you doing, Sam?"
"Not bad, Mr. West, not bad." He scrubbed the back of his hand across his sweaty forehead, leaving a black streak.
"Good." Jim offered him a smile, "you're doing a great job."
"Thank you, Mr. West." Sam looked pleased at the compliment, though he clearly didn't need to be told how he was doing. He climbed into the cab and checked the pressure gauge. "She's hungry again," he said with a wry smile, and picked up his shovel.
In a minute, he had the firebox open and was shoveling coal through the glowing door in a practiced rhythm. Recognizing that no further words would even be heard, Jim stepped away from the engine and cast about for Devon.
He found the engineer finishing a slow walk around the front of the train. Devon glanced up briefly at him, then turned his attention back to the engine. Jim fell into step next to him.
"How's your crew holding up, Devon?"
"Not bad, Mr. West."
Jim smiled. "That's exactly what Sam told me."
"Well, I expect he'd know," Devon said, with a sidelong glance and a quick grin. His turn of inspection completed, he stopped near the cab and turned to face Jim, his expression falling more serious. "We'll be good for another day yet, I think, but then we'll be needin' to stop someplace."
"No," Jim said. "This train doesn't stop except for fuel and water."
"A man needs his sleep, Mr. West."
"I know that, Devon." Jim brushed his fingers through his hair, feeling the cool breeze prickle the sweat on his scalp. "Is Sam trained as a hogger?"
"'Taint anyone can drive this train better'n I," Devon said with simple pride. He smiled. "But Sam comes close."
"Good. Then he can take over while you're sleeping, and Charlie can fire the train." He held up a hand to forestall Devon's protest. "And one of us will come forward to take over Charlie's tasks."
Devon's eyes narrowed as he considered. Finally, he nodded. "I s'pose there's no other way. Be a dirty shame, we didn't get Himself to Washington while there's still time," he added, inclining his head toward the passenger car. "Man should be with his wife, time like this."
Jim's brows drew together. Everyone within range of a telegraph surely knew that the president's train was racing for Washington as fast as it could haul, but none but Grant's own bodyguard knew why. For now anyway, though determined journalists in Washington would no doubt soon get out the word of Mrs. Grant's illness. "Now how..."
"Can't keep anything from your train crew, Mr. West." Devon climbed nimbly into the cab. "Nor you shouldn't," he added mischievously. He grabbed the whistle cord and blew three blasts that near deafened Jim. The signal was repeated three times, warning of his imminent departure. On the third blast, Charlie came dashing out of the station and leapt up onto the tender with breathless enthusiasm.
Jim shook his head and started back along the engine, Devon's voice following: "Send me a strong lad, Mr. West. One who'll not moan over a little work." Without turning, Jim waved a hand in acknowledgment. He hoisted himself onto the front bumper of the forward car just as the train huffed jerkily into motion.
The front door of the car led directly into the crew's sparse quarters. The room seemed very small compared to the decadence of the parlor, or even the usual berths train crew found in their caboose. But then, the crew of the Wanderer was much reduced from a usual train crew, having only one brakeman and no conductor. Despite the plain and cramped quarters, Devon and his men had turned their living area into a comfortable home, replete with patchwork quilts and pictures on the walls.
Jim walked quickly through without stopping to examine the comforts of home, trying to leave the men with what little privacy they enjoyed. He passed equally quickly through the next room; he didn't care to stand around in the equipment room while the train was in motion and picking up her characteristic sideways sway as she took on speed. He and Artie always stowed everything with sufficient care to make sure it wouldn't break loose while the train was underway, but one could never tell for sure. And there was everything from trunks of costumer's goods to the skeleton of a wagon -- quick to assemble and easy to disguise -- in that small area.
"Sir?" Jim called as he stepped into the stable area.
"He's gone back to the parlor car," Artie said from the other end of the room, the largest in the car. He advanced out of the dim gloom near the door into a broad beam of sunlight and Jim took in a harsh breath. Dancing with dust motes, light played over Artie's features, striking auburn sparks from his hair and driving his eyes into deep shadow.
"Good." Jim walked forward, resting his hand on the top bar of the nearest stall as he reached it. "Someone will need to spell Devon's men before the whole crew is too fagged out to continue."
Artie was nodding. His fingers lightly touched the stall rail for balance as he came to meet Jim. "O'Connell has already offered to help out on the engine, should it be necessary." He smiled, light glittering white on his teeth. "He apparently has a dislike for sitting around doing nothing."
Jim nodded. He was a little more than an arm's length from Artie now. "I remember how restless he was on the westbound trip." He took a step closer.
"Almost as bad as you," Artie said, his voice sounding oddly muted.
"May I kiss you?" Jim asked at a near whisper.
The sparks moved from Artie's hair to his eyes. "Yes," he said on the merest breath of sound, "oh yes."
The first kiss was gentle, almost chaste. The second was not. Jim's hands moved to touch Artie of their own accord, sliding across velvet skin into silken hair, holding Artie's head still as he kissed him again and again. Strong arms took him around the waist, and Jim closed his eyes to the light. Artie's mouth was sweet, and Jim drank deep, then deeper, plundering the depths. He drank Artie's moans, offered his own back, his body straining against one just as strong, just as desperate. Jim pushed Artie back against something solid, not knowing or caring what it was, so long as it held their weight. The burning need made him hard. He shoved his hips against Artie's, a vicious delight tearing through him at the feel of Artie's answering hardness.
It was, oddly, the urging of that same animalistic passion to lay Artie down on the clean hay and possess him utterly that brought Jim to his senses.
Artie groaned when Jim turned his head roughly aside. Jim leaned his head sideways against the dark locks, and wouldn't be shook off, even when Artie bent to rest his own head on Jim's shoulder. The room was filled with their harsh panting. Artie shook in Jim's arms, and he unconsciously tightened his embrace, bringing them closer together.
"Oh God," Artie moaned as Jim's hard erection nudged his again. Jim unwillingly put some distance between them, though his hands refused to entirely give up their prize. "Jesus, Jim," Artie breathed once he'd regained some little control. "I want--"
"So do I." Jim swallowed hard, tried to quell the shaking in his voice. "But someone could walk in."
Artie nodded wearily. He essayed a small smile. "When we get to Washington."
Jim squeezed the broad shoulders, then reluctantly dropped his hands. "Washington." He had to close his eyes then. No way he'd be able to calm himself with such a vision before him: flushed face, brilliant eyes, and those lips, reddened with Jim's kisses.
"Hell," Artie said after a minute. Jim's eyes flew open and locked instantly on his partner. Artie took a deep breath, tugged his vest down, and smoothed his hair with both hands. He smiled shakily. "I can't go back in there like this." An eloquent gesture drew Jim's gaze to Artie's groin, where his arousal was quite evident. "Jim!"
Warm hands dragged his face up to meet Artie's heated gaze. "Don't, or we'll never make it out of here." His eyes darted over Jim's face, dark with unmistakable arousal. Then he groaned helplessly, and kissed Jim again.
They broke the kiss with effort, and this time both men took a cautious step back. Jim tried not to look at Artie, but it really was an impossible task. He turned away finally, and walked, with some discomfort, to Bob's stall. In a few moments, he had the gelding out of his own stall and into the clean one. Jim grabbed a pitchfork and began mucking out the stall. After a minute, Artie joined him.
By the time both stalls were clean, both horses back in their own stalls with new straw, food and water, and the stable area was as neat and tidy as could be, Jim's muscles were warm with pleasant exertion, and the ache in his groin had faded to manageable levels. What was better, he and Artie were able to meet each other's eyes with something approaching equanimity.
"Well," Artie handed Jim the shovel he'd been using, "I better go tell O'Connell he's going to get his wish."
"Right," Jim said. "I'll finish up here, then follow you." He watched Artie step through the door with eyes he hoped were not nearly as hungry as he felt. "Washington," Jim reminded himself, as he went to put away the shovel and pitchfork.
Artie stuck his head out of the galley door. "Supper."
"Thanks, Artie." Jim put down the paper Grafton had picked up in Reno and went to help arrange the table. After a minute, Blaylock joined him in laying out plates and silverware. With his cheerful assistance, the table, enlarged with an inset leaf, was quickly set for seven.
"I'll get Bishop."
"Check on O'Connell while you're at it," Jim suggested. He went to take the first of the dishes from Artie.
"Careful, Jim, it's hot."
But not as hot, Jim thought, as Artie's eyes. He nodded mutely and took the silver platter carefully, without letting his fingers brush Artie's. Somehow they'd managed to avoid each other's intimate company for the better part of the afternoon. It was hell, wanting Artie as he did, and being constantly surrounded by others, unable to in any way show his feelings. But better than torturing themselves with small tastes of what was forbidden, or worse, being caught in a compromising embrace.
Balancing with the ease of long practice against the sway of the train, Jim took the serving dish to the table and returned for more. The last was a dish of fresh fruit, which he placed just before the setting at the head of the table. When all was arranged, Jim went down the hall to the stateroom and knocked.
"Thank you, Mr. West. I'll be along shortly."
Jim continued down the hall, finding O'Connell washing up at a basin in Artie's lab. He nodded to the younger man, whose ruddy cheeks and pleasantly tired smile indicated he'd been properly worked by the train crew.
"Mr. Devon preferred to take over, now that the sun has set."
"I expected as much."
The door opened and Blaylock emerged from the sleeping compartment now shared by all who needed a few hours of quiet repose, except Grant, who occupied the stateroom, and Bill, who refused to go far from Grant's side. Blaylock smiled and nodded at Jim, then clapped his hands together and rubbed briskly.
"So, shall we eat?"
"Do you ever think with anything but your stomach?"
"Oh, frequently," Blaylock said merrily, not at all put out by Bishop's acid tones. He shifted aside to let Bishop, and Grafton, who was just behind him, out of the sleeping compartment. Blaylock winked. "Find me a beautiful lady, and my stomach is the last thing I'll be thinking of."
O'Connell laughed. Bishop merely shook his head at his partner. Not one whit deterred, Blaylock might have pursued the subject if he'd had an audience. However, as Grafton had already slipped away, the rest of them could not linger in conversation for fear of showing up late at the table.
Jim was the last through the door. He quietly took his seat across from Artie and surveyed the table as he reached for his napkin. Two by two they sat at the table, Grafton opposite O'Connell, Blaylock opposite Bishop, and President Grant, like the patriarch of a large family, sitting at the head of the table. It reminded Jim of the staff-officers' mess when he'd been under Grant's command in the army. The meals he had taken then, with the general and any other officers who could make it to the table, were comfortable, informal, and among his best memories of the war.
Bill emerged from the galley with a warming dish, which he set before the president. At this silent signal, Grafton reached for the first of the dishes, and there was a general movement toward the food.
As Jim spooned Artie's excellent butter noodles onto his plate, he had to restrain a smile, thinking of how offended Artie had been that his cooking services would not be required on the trip west. Now, Artie was as happy as any man to leave the cooking to someone else, and he and Jim dined almost exclusively in restaurants, the more elegant the better. But he considered the train's galley his own private territory, and wasn't at all happy to be nudged out by Bill's persistent efforts. He'd given it up with good grace, however, when Jim pointed out that President Grant was a man with very simple taste in food, which tastes didn't include the fancy dishes Artie liked. In fact, the closer Bill came to burning up the beef, the better Grant liked it. After that, Artie and Bill had come to an agreement of sorts: Bill would cook for Grant, and Artie would cook whatever he liked for the rest of them. In truth, Jim thought they shared the duties pretty much equally.
He passed on the dish of noodles and picked up the next one. Artie poured himself a glass of wine, then reached over and filled Jim's glass as well. Jim smiled his thanks. To his surprise, Artie blushed and looked quickly away. Somewhat flustered himself now, though he couldn't for the life of him say why, Jim turned to Blaylock and quietly asked him to pass the platter of steaks.
Jim served himself one of the tender and, if he knew Artie, perfectly done cuts of meat, and while he still had the platter and fork in hand, automatically picked out the best cut and slid it onto Artie's plate. The look Artie gave him seemed harmless enough, but it caught somewhere in Jim's chest, and he suddenly had a much better understanding of Artie's blush. He quickly set the platter back on the table and picked up his knife and fork.
Conversation around the table was general; the only person who didn't join in was the president. Under the circumstances, it was no surprise that his customary lack of small talk should dry up completely. Jim was glad to see that his bodyguard knew him well enough not to try either to draw the man out, or cover his silence with louder and more vivid conversation. At those army messes, Grant had talked less and eaten less than any man there; it was just his nature. And now, with his beloved wife so ill, and so far away, his mind was naturally elsewhere.
Still, he ate, though not well. And Jim was certain he saw Grant's hand reach for that bowl of fruit, ostensibly awaiting dessert, to snitch a grape or berry. He knew Grant liked to nibble on fruit throughout a meal, and was gratified to see that the president was true to form.
Jim turned away before he could be caught in his observation. He addressed himself, for a time, to his steak, as tender and finely cooked a piece of meat as he'd ever been served. He'd have to remember to tell Artie that later, see if he blushed again at the praise. Artie was cute when he blushed, Jim decided. Especially when it was Jim who made him blush. How recently he'd discovered that he liked it when Artie's skin took on a deeper hue, his hair tousled, skin flushed, panting...
Jim shifted uncomfortably. He was perfectly aware of Artie's quizzical gaze, but didn't dare meet it just then. Jim cast hurriedly about for a distraction. Thankfully, just at that moment, one was provided.
"Excellent," Blaylock said as he addressed his supper with enthusiasm. O'Connell agreed wordlessly, shoveling food into his mouth at about the same rate he'd probably shoveled coal all afternoon. "My compliments, Mr. Gordon."
Artie turned to look at Blaylock, who sat to his immediate right. "Artie," he corrected, not quite managing to hide his pleasure at the compliment, "please." Chagrined at not being the first to offer his compliments and provoke that pleased glow, Jim thought sourly that Artie didn't need to be that friendly. He resisted the impulse to outdo Blaylock with fulsome compliments and poked another piece of steak into his mouth.
"Artie." Blaylock smiled. "You must be a miracle-worker, to produce meals like this in that hole in the wall you call a kitchen."
"Oh, it's not that hard," Artie said self-deprecatingly, "especially when you have the right help."
"I never thought of Bill as much of a cook," Grafton put in. He speared a tender slice of beef and stared contemplatively at it. "What with all his years of burning the President's meals. Begging your pardon, sir." He popped the meat in his mouth and chewed vigorously.
"Not at all," Grant said without so much as glancing up from his meal.
"You can't blame Bill for dinners in the mess," Jim reminded Grafton. "The cook wouldn't let him lay a finger on the officers' food." He frowned in concentration. "What was that man's name?"
"Evaston," Grafton offered incorrectly; intentionally so, Jim thought.
"Eliason," Grant corrected softly. He never could abide a misstatement; making small errors in fact was a method Jim and the others had quickly learned to use when it seemed desirable to draw their taciturn general out. "He was a blacksmith in Elgin before the war."
"And it showed in his cooking." Blaylock laughed uproariously at his own witticism, ignoring Bishop's dark look from across the table. O'Connell smiled cheerfully, and even Grant's lips twitched.
"Be that as it may," the president said, "he was a brave and loyal man." He rose, laying his napkin on the table. "I'm sure you'll excuse me, gentlemen."
"Well done," Bishop said once the door had closed behind their commander.
"Doesn't hurt to draw him out occasionally."
"His wife's ill, Grafton. Don't you have any compassion?"
Bishop merely shook his head and began looking about the table for something. Blaylock handed the salt across to him before he even opened his lips to ask for it. An almost embarrassed silence descended over the table for a moment. Then Artie asked Bishop how long they'd been the president's bodyguard; in a moment, Blaylock had chimed in, and all three were deep in conversation. On the opposite end of the table, O'Connell was holding forth to Grafton. He spoke enthusiastically between bites, his topic the beauties of his home state of Massachusetts. Grafton looked unconvinced, but he didn't say so, his expression more of amused forbearance than anything else. Not surprisingly, Bishop and Grafton acted as if they were unaware of each other's presence, though they sat almost elbow to elbow.
It was ridiculously easy to tell which man was partnered with which. Jim glanced up at Artie and wondered what the others saw when they looked at the two of them. Artie's dark eyes met his own, affection softening the velvet brown further, and Jim could only smile fondly.
Perhaps it was better not to know what the others thought.
The door creaked as it opened behind Jim, the sound audible even over the brisk clack of the rails. He finished splashing cool water on his face and reached for the towel, turning as he dried his face.
"Were you planning on coming in?"
"I..." Artie shook himself and stepped inside, letting the door close behind him.
Jim glanced down at the towel he was holding and absently began folding it. "I wasn't sure if you were going to--"
"I probably shouldn't, but--"
"Nonsense, we both need to sleep." Jim realized he'd refolded the towel three times and forced himself to stop. He glanced up and found Artie smiling shyly at him. He smiled back ruefully. "This is ridiculous."
"Utterly," Artie agreed, smiling.
"We've been alone together before."
"We're both grown men."
"Manifestly." Artie nodded vigorously.
"Hardly at the mercy of our... desires."
Jim threw the towel at Artie, who fielded it with ease. "And stop grinning at me like that."
"Certainly." But he kept grinning, and Jim could only smile back and shake his head. And wonder how he was going to get through the night ahead.
He slept in his clothes. So did Artie. It wasn't that he expected to get dragged out of his bed in the middle of the night. Rather more, to be honest, that he was afraid he'd drag Artie into his bed, and hoped that a few more barriers between them might mitigate the craving. Such flimsy barriers, though, when even a brick wall would have seemed too slight to protect them from their newly awakened desire that night.
Jim lay in the darkened cabin, which seemed much smaller than even its limited dimensions could account for, and listened to Artie breathing. And wondered if he was still awake. Wondered, too, if they'd be able to retrieve the ease of manner which had always served them so well. They'd fumbled badly throughout the evening, hardly able to look at each other with equanimity. And it wasn't just the weight of other eyes, for the awkward dance continued in the sleeping compartment. The torture of wanting, knowing that what he wanted was his, but not yet. And it didn't help in the least to know that Artie was writhing on the same rack. The thought of Artie writhing on anything didn't do much for his willpower.
But what about their friendship, the easy give and take of their day to day lives? Certainly, he thought, much of their relationship would go back to normal after... Well, after all, this love had been between them a long time, so things must return to normal, once they'd assuaged their passions in...
Jim rolled over roughly and tried very hard to think of something, anything, which did not immediately return him to images so primal, so carnal, that he could barely draw a breath. He squeezed his eyes shut against the darkness, told himself fiercely to sleep, and tried to ignore the heavy pulse of arousal between his thighs.
"Okay, Sam m'lad," Devon said, "oil 'er down."
Sam put his shovel aside and stretched his muscular limbs. He took down the tallow pot from the shelf of the boiler head and checked quickly to see that the heat had kept the tallow warm enough to pour. Then he grabbed the handhold outside his window and stepped out onto the board, his hair whipped about by the dark wind of their passage, to go oil the valves.
The quick deceleration rolled Jim's sleeping body into the forward bulkhead. A hiss and a curse from the other bunk brought him quickly upright, rubbing the tender spot where his head had hit the wall.
"You okay, Artie?"
"Sure, Jim, I always wake up on the floor. What the hell is going on?"
"Good question." Jim found his boots by feel in the dark and pulled them on quickly. Artie nonetheless beat him to the door. Jim had learned not to give that theater background short shrift; Artie was king of the quick change, and that included footwear.
Bishop and Blaylock were coming up quickly when Jim made it into the dim illumination of Artie's lab. "Check to make sure everyone's okay," Jim directed before following Artie into the forward car. With the train at a complete standstill, Jim could easily see Artie's limp. He took a couple of quick steps to catch up as they walked through the stable, ignoring the restless stamping of the horses. "Hurt yourself?" He dared to lightly touch Artie's hip.
Artie glanced quickly at him. "Bruises, nothing more," he said dismissively.
Jim nodded. He followed Artie through onto the front platform of the car, being very careful to keep his hands to himself.
"Devon," Artie called as soon as they were outside. They stepped onto the rear of the tender and Jim gave Artie a boost up to see over the high back wall. "Devon, what's going on?"
"Me fireman fell off!" An anguished roar which didn't bear questioning.
"Send Charlie back with a lantern and give us a minute to get to the rear platform," Artie ordered without pause.
"Right," Devon called, and they could immediately hear Charlie clambering up the piled coal in the tender.
Jim let Artie down and they headed back the way they'd come as fast as they could go. Not surprisingly, they ran into four annoyed bodyguards and one sleepy president somewhere in the middle of the parlor car. It took very few words to sort everyone out, and in moments there were four men on the rear platform -- as many as it could hold -- and the rest sticking their heads out the last few windows on each side.
Jim was the last out onto the platform, having stopped in the galley to grab three lanterns and a box of matches. He put them down at his feet and started lighting them as quickly as possible, holding each lantern upside down as he touched a match to its wick. Soon the platform was ablaze.
"You there, Charlie?"
"Yes, sir," the boy called from the roof of the car.
"Okay, then, signal Devon to reverse." Artie put both hands on the railing and leaned forward, peering into the darkness as Charlie swung his red lantern in a large circle. Devon reversed the train as slowly and smoothly as she could go, and they crept back into the darkness, looking for the castaway. Artie was the only one not holding a lantern. He reached back after a moment, and fumbled with the light over the rear door, adjusting the wick so the flame leapt up pure and bright. Only then did Jim notice that President Grant stood on the platform in a halo of light, a perfect target. There was no time to ask him to go back in, for at that moment, Bishop vaulted off the platform, shouting that he saw him.
Charlie leapt up at the cry and began swinging his lantern side to side to stop the train. Jim was off before the car had rolled to a stop, dashing around the rear of the slowly moving train to the right side of the tracks. Bishop was just kneeling at the man's side when Jim ran up, the circle of light from his lantern augmenting the pale glow of Bishop's.
"Well?" Grant called.
Jim looked up, his eyes meeting Artie's first. Artie's lips set in a grim line, and Jim knew his partner had read his face. Jim shook his head.
"Yes, sir," Jim told the president. "There's no doubt."
He could see Devon coming up the side of the train at a run, and he moved to intercept the man. "He's dead, Devon," Jim said as gently as he could manage. From the first day Jim had boarded the Wanderer, Devon had driven the train, and Sam fired it. He saw tears well up in the tough old Irishman's eyes.
"Yer sure now?" It was hope, not doubt, that filled the engineer's voice.
"I'm sorry, Devon," Artie said as he descended the steps. Jim shot him a grateful look. He left Devon in Artie's capable hands. Grafton and O'Connell stood now in the doorway behind Grant.
"There are some canvas groundsheets in the storage compartment," he said softly. "If you could get one?"
O'Connell nodded briskly and took Grafton with him when he went. Which left President Grant.
"And what would you have me do, Mr. West?"
"Go back inside, sir. If you please. You make an excellent target out here."
The president nodded, gritting his teeth around his unlit cigar. "Very well, Mr. West. Very well." Jim stepped up to the door behind him and glanced inside before shutting it firmly. Blaylock was there to keep an eye on the man, and Bill was just coming out of the galley with a fresh pot of coffee. Jim descended the steps and walked over to join Artie.
He was just asking Devon what happened.
Devon shook his head. "I don't rightly know, Mr. Gordon. I just don't. Sam was out makin' the rounds, like usual. You know how it is, Mr. West," he appealed to Jim, his brogue thicker than usual, "she's a fine engine, but she'll seize all up if she's not oiled. 'Tain't been done near enough, the last day, what with Sam having to keep up the steam like he has."
"So Sam was oiling the valves when... what?"
"He was most of t'way around, Mr. West, and I could see him coming down the boiler on my side, when he... he just vanished, like he weren't there atall. I put the brakes on hard as I dared."
"Do you think he just slipped off?" Artie asked slowly.
"No sir." Devon shook his head adamantly. "No, Sam's been riding the rails near all his blessed life, like me. Must be thousands a'times he's gone out to oil 'er up. 'Taint possible he could be so clumsy."
"Even after the way we've been pushing the engine, and your crew?" Jim shared a glance with Artie, knowing his partner felt the same responsibility he did for this tragedy.
"No sir." Devon was no less adamant.
"Okay," Artie said. "Okay." He nodded to himself. O'Connell was coming up the right side of the train with a folded groundcloth tucked under his arm. "Why don't you and Jim take a look at the engine -- finish oiling her and see if you can figure out what happened." Artie turned Devon back toward his engine with a friendly, but implacable hand.
Devon took a single step before he turned back. "He... he don't look... in pain, like?" His eyes lingered unwillingly on where Bishop still knelt next to Sam's body.
Artie looked a question at Jim. "No," Jim said, grateful that Sam hadn't fallen under the wheels and made a liar of him, "he looks very peaceful."
"Good," Devon said, nodding sharply. He took a deep breath and turned about. "Come on, Mr. West, let's see to me train."
Jim cast a glance back as he followed the engineer, and saw Artie and O'Connell joining Bishop by the body. They'd take care of things. Smart Artie, sending Jim off to deal with the mechanical things while he took care of the people things. Not to mention getting Devon out of the way.
"Where do we start?" he asked Devon when he caught up with the man near the head of the engine.
"Here," Devon said decisively, and there they began. It wasn't five minutes before Devon sputtered out an astonished curse.
"Look here," Devon growled, sweeping his fingers along the ballast and bringing them away covered with grease, "and here! This valve here's blocked up with--" he touched a finger to the substance, smelled it, tasted it, "dammed if I know. Someone's been messing with me engine, Mr. West, and that'll be after gettin' me Irish up!"
"Steady," Jim said, laying his hand on a shoulder fairly quivering with rage. "Think, Devon, when did someone have time to do this?"
"Not t'last couple of fuel stops," Devon pulled off his cap and scratched absently as he thought. "Elko, maybe? This is the first time..." he stopped, swallowed, and finished in muted tones, "Sam went out since."
"Okay," Jim said. He looked back at the valve. "Can you fix it?"
"Oh sure. Take a quarter, half-hour."
"Okay," Jim said again. "You get started on that. I'll send Charlie back to help." He started for the rear of the train, only to turn back after two steps. "Devon? What would have happened if we hadn't discovered that blocked valve?"
"Happened, Mr. West?" Devon smiled grimly. "She'd'a blown up."
Jim nodded. "Let's keep this to ourselves for now, all right?"
"Whatever you say, Mr. West."
Jim left Devon working diligently on the engine, less concerned over his engineer's emotional state than he would have been if there were nothing of importance to occupy the man's attention. Charlie was sitting on the rear platform of the train, his arms crossed on the lower bar of the railing, chin on his arms. Jim ruffled the wheat-colored hair and gave the young man's shoulder a pat before sending him off to help Devon. Artie stood alone in a pool of light cast by two lanterns in the desert where once there had been a dead man. Though Jim could barely hear his own footfalls, Artie's head came up at his approach.
"Jim," Artie said, acknowledging his presence.
"The engine's been sabotaged."
Artie glanced at him, his posture deliberately casual. He didn't look nearly as surprised as he ought to have. Jim kept his back to the train, his own body language as unconcerned as possible under the circumstances.
"Yes. Devon's working on it now, with Charlie's help. If Sam hadn't fallen, we'd all have been blown sky high."
"I'm not sure his fall was an accident, Jim."
"I know it's not. But how do you?"
"His hands. Hands and arms both badly burned. He must have fallen against the hot jacket of the boiler. A man who loses his balance on a moving train would naturally fall outward. Sam fell toward the engine first, then away. Now, how do you know it for a fact?"
"The ribbon of ballast he was using for a foothold was smeared with grease. Impossible to see in the dark. So," he kept his voice low, though he wasn't worried about someone approaching from behind, with Artie keeping an eye on the train, "the question is: is the murderer in Elko or some other podunk station along the way, or is he on the train?"
"If he's on the train, he's got the mother and father of all death wishes," Artie murmured. A flick of the eyes warned Jim that someone was approaching.
"So," Jim said, loudly enough to be heard, "what killed him?"
"Luck," Bishop said. Jim turned to look at the man, who scuffed his foot roughly across a bloodstained boulder, the only rock of any size in the vicinity. "Pure, dumb, pisspoor luck."
They steamed into Ogden shortly before two in the morning of the second day, with Charlie in the fireman's position -- head end, left side -- and Blaylock shoveling coal to him from the tender. Rousting the stationmaster out at that time of day was easier than negotiating with him the proper and respectful burial of Sam's mortal remains.
Devon stood for many minutes over Sam's body, his hat in his hands, eyes squeezed shut and lips moving silently in prayer. Finally, he clapped his hat back on his head and strode out of the station without a backward glance. Jim exchanged a worried glance with Artie before they followed.
In the moonlit yard, Jim joined O'Connell and Grafton in loading fuel while Artie went to speak with Devon and, incidentally, try to keep an eye on the engine. With Blaylock and Charlie resting, and Bishop watching the president, filling the tender might have taken a great deal longer if the stationmaster hadn't rousted a few strong lads out of their beds and set them to work.
In the dark trainyard, the engine glowed like the devil's forge. Jim and the others blindly shoveled black into black, lit only by the pinpricks of a few lanterns, until Charlie shouted from the rim of the tender that she was full.
Grafton climbed onto the tender and Charlie took his place before the firebox, refreshed as only the young could be after such a brief respite. The Wanderer's whistle echoed harshly across the yard, and Jim stood beside the train as it began slowly to move. He counted heads as they boarded, not perfectly at ease until he saw Artie enter the forward car, the last to board but him. Certain that all her passengers were accounted for, he grabbed the rail around the rear platform and swung aboard.
Devon's signature touch on the whistle howled long and mournful into the night as they left Ogden, and Sam, behind.
The next large station was Omaha, some fifteen hours away, if they could maintain their speed. There would be several stops for water and fuel before then, of course, and Jim and Artie had a hushed conference in their sleeping compartment as dawn slowly painted the sky.
"But why sabotage the fireman's foothold as well?" Artie leaned against his dresser. "Have you thought about that?"
"Yeah. And I can't make heads or tails of it." Jim boosted himself up to sit on the dresser next to Artie. Their backs to the outer wall of the train, they faced the room's only door and kept their voices barely louder than the singing of the rails. "Could be someone's trying to whittle down the size of Grant's entourage."
"Starting with the crew? To what purpose?"
Jim shrugged. "Better the odds in a fight?"
"Well, then," Artie said, "blowing the engine up would certainly take care of that, and quicker than one man at a time. Which takes us back to the original problem."
"True. Making the fireman fall off would only draw attention to the site. Thus preventing the sabotage of the engine from succeeding."
"Unless that was the idea?"
"What? Sabotage the sabotage?" Jim shook his head. "Doesn't make sense."
"Okay, then how about this? If Sam had got around to that point, he'd have discovered the blocked valve, right?"
"Even at night?"
Jim thought about it a moment, the warmth of Artie's body next to him distracting. "I think so. Sam knew that engine intimately; he'd have noticed the difference."
"So Sam would have discovered the sabotage. Therefore, he had to be disposed of before he could notice it." Artie shrugged, his shoulder brushing Jim's. "And maybe we'd think it was simply bad luck and go on without checking."
"We might have," Jim admitted, "if Devon hadn't been so sure that Sam couldn't have just slipped."
"It was a calculated risk, Jim. They had to take the chance. Which brings us to the real question."
Artie nodded. "It wouldn't have taken long to grease the step and pack the valve. Could have been done any of the times we stopped."
"So... what? A disgruntled trainman? An angry citizen with the president in his gunsights?" Jim deliberately pressed his shoulder against Artie's.
"Why not, Jim?" He pressed back, and they leaned against each other's strength against the rocking of the train. "By now, every newspaper in the country has to have picked up the story. President Grant racing desperately across the country to the side of his beloved wife. What better chance for someone with murder on his mind?"
"And he just waited at the station for the train to arrive? On the off-chance he'd get the opportunity to sabotage the engine?" Jim breathed in deeply. Artie's subtle scent was pleasant, spicy.
"Again, why not? It's only a matter of waiting. It's not like we could take any other route. And as a method of assassination, it's not foolproof, but it'd get you pretty good odds. If the rest of the train wasn't destroyed by the explosion of the engine, it'd be violently derailed."
"I think we'd better post a guard on the engine from now on." He breathed deeply again. He found Artie's scent very... comforting.
"Don't you think it's a little unlikely for someone else to try the same thing?"
And maybe a bit arousing. "I think..." Jim forced himself to stand and put some distance between them. "I have a feeling the same person may try again."
"Jim, we're going at least fifty and the track's been cleared of all other traffic. Nothing could get to our next stop before we do."
"Except a telegraph."
Artie blinked. After a minute, he nodded and rose. "We ought to warn the president."
"I think it might be better if we hold off on that."
Jim met Artie's eyes, surprised to realize that they'd been avoiding looking directly at each other. Or, he thought, smiling involuntarily, at the bed. Artie caught the smile, and Jim's sidelong look at the bed, for he grinned back wickedly, desire snapping darkly in his eyes. Jim caught himself swaying toward Artie, and quickly backed off a couple of steps.
Artie looked disappointed and relieved at the same time. He took a breath and brushed both hands through his hair. "Okay, so why don't you want to tell Grant?"
"Because he'd find it necessary to immediately inform his bodyguard. And there's one other way someone could get to the next stop at the same time the train does."
"And that's if he's on the train." Artie nodded his understanding. He was silent a moment, and Jim knew he was calculating their odds of survival if one of Grant's bodyguard was a murderer. They weren't good. Finally, Artie said softly: "If he is on the train, he's more than willing to blow himself up to get the president. He'd have to be one crazy bastard, Jim."
"So let's not underestimate him, right?"
Jim nodded once sharply and turned to the door.
"Jim?" He stepped close, his hand extended. Jim put his hand in Artie's without hesitation, and felt the warm strong fingers close tightly on his own. "Be careful, okay?"
"And you," Jim told him, squeezing Artie's fingers.
Artie released him before the moment could become too highly charged, or their constrained emotions run rampant. Jim stepped back reluctantly. Before he could get out, however, Artie grabbed him and kissed him quickly, a brief inferno of desire. Jim forced himself to pull out of Artie's embrace. He heard his own groan echoed in Artie's throat, and fumbled behind him for the doorknob.
Artie grinned weakly at him as he stepped awkwardly out of the room.
Jim went to replace Grafton on the tender.
He was back on the tender some ten hours later when they made their approach to Omaha. A couple of hours of shoveling, followed by a couple of hours of sleep had left him tired, but no less capable of arousal. Artie's hands brushing his when he brought Jim a cold meal in the sleeping compartment had sent a tendril of fire curling into his groin.
So he returned to the tender, partly to keep a curb on his libido, and partly to keep an eye on the train as she neared the next large stop. They were approaching Fremont now, with Omaha not far beyond, and more than half the journey completed, in only two days. They might just make it to Washington in less than the four days Jim had promised the president.
Jim could hear the curse even over the roar of the train. He slid quickly down the dwindling stock of coal in the tender. "What is it, Devon?"
"Look, Mr. West! Don't tell me you'll not be seein' her?" Devon pointed briefly down the track, then grabbed at the whistle cord.
Jim stuck his head out the side of the cab to get a better view as the long blasts of the whistle rattled deafeningly through the cab. The plume of smoke on the tracks ahead was unmistakable. Another train. About half a mile ahead.
"Could she be on a siding or another track?"
"No! No, laddie," Devon shouted. "Yon bastard engine's sitting square in front of us. Shut the firebox door, Charlie, and grab onto something, both o'ya!" He threw the engine into full reverse, grabbed the brake lever and shoved it down to emergency stop.
The Wanderer bucked like a wild horse. Her wheels sparked and slid on the iron rails.
Bill dove for the cover of the corridor as every pot and pan and utensil in the galley became airborne. Some of the pans were full of boiling water and other preparations for the evening meal.
In the parlor, Blaylock threw himself at President Grant. Together, they slid into the sideboard which fronted the room, Blaylock twisting his body about to cushion Grant from the impact.
Artie, hearing the whistle's lament a moment too late to pass on the warning, flattened himself against the rearward curve of the hearth and held on for dear life.
Grafton had been sleeping in Jim's bunk. The first jolt tossed him against the nearby bulkhead, and he grabbed hold of the bunk to brace himself against further shocks.
Bishop and O'Connell were in the corridor. As Bill came shooting out of the galley door behind him, Bishop grabbed for the jamb of the open door to the stateroom and braced himself. O'Connell wasn't so lucky. He slid the length of the car to slam into the forward bulkhead.
In the cab, Jim was thrown against the back of Devon's chair. He grabbed on tightly, his ribs aching as he tried to reclaim the breath that'd been half knocked out of him. Charlie managed to swing the firebox door shut just before the sudden jolt threw him forward against the hot lamp tops. His feet braced in front of him, Devon grabbed the boy by the back of his collar and yanked him off the scorching iron, hauling him back far enough that Jim could get hold of him.
Every wheel locked and skidding on the unforgiving rails, the Wanderer slid forward in a shower of sparks, her speed barely slowed, her whistle stop thrown completely open in an despairing howl.
The flagman of the Southern Bell had gone only a few dozen yards from than the switch. He should have been a great deal farther ahead of his stopped train to give warning. As it was, he didn't see the Wanderer or hear her warning whistle, until she was already locked in the desperate struggle to stop.
He dropped his flag and raced for the switch. Devon and Jim in the cab watched him go, the Wanderer gaining steadily on him, and prayed to whatever gods they believed in that he'd reach it in time. They still might not stop in time, for they couldn't see how long the siding was, but their chances were better than if they plowed headlong into the other locomotive.
The flagman threw himself on the switch as they roared up on him, and for a minute, Jim thought he was too late. Then they howled past, missing the engine of the Southern Bell by barely a foot, bowling the flagman off his feet with the wind of their passage.
Devon threw the engine into forward, then reverse again, as quickly as he could work the levers, and he fought the brake handle back out of emergency. Unlocked, the wheels began to turn against the forward motion of the train, squealing like all the souls of the damned as the Wanderer slowed.
He plied the whistle, sending again and again the signal to throw the switch ahead. The boxcars of the Southern Belle seemed to whip past. She was moving in the other direction, now, trying to pull clear of the switch before the Wanderer reached it. Hearing Devon's curse, Jim looked ahead again and saw the end of the siding. The last boxcar of the freight train was past, but the caboose still blocked the way. There was no chance the Wanderer would stop in time, though her speed was down to half of what it had been.
Men boiled out of the slowly moving caboose. The brakemen of the Southern Belle, warned by Devon's whistle, evacuated their rolling respite as fast as they were able. At first, Jim didn't think any of them would man the switch, but someone was there when it mattered.
The switch connected with a clunk, and the Wanderer barreled onto the main track once again, clipping the caboose of the Southern Belle. The little red car exploded in a flurry of splinters, and the Wanderer gave the greatest jolt yet, but she stayed on the tracks.
She stayed on the tracks, and finally slid to a stop a trainlength from the switch, all her cars still intact.
Jim leapt down from the cab, staggering as his shaky legs made contact with the ground. He ran down to the rear car with his palm bracing himself against the car every couple of feet to stay upright.
He burst into the rear of the car and immediately stumbled over Artie. His relief and fear colliding, Jim dropped to his knees and grabbed Artie by the shoulders.
Artie was nodding, but Jim ran his hands over the broad shoulders and across the chest, searching for injury. Artie closed his eyes and leaned his head against Jim's for only a moment, then gathered himself.
"I'm fine, Jim." His hands grabbed Jim's arms tightly just above the elbows and he held on for a moment before pulling free and hauling himself to his feet. "Mr. President, are you well?"
"Fine, Gordon." Grant stood and helped Blaylock up. "You, sir?"
Blaylock nodded jerkily. His mouth open, he panted heavily, trying to regain his breath.
"He'll be okay," Grant decreed. "Best check on the rest."
Bill had already picked himself up, and was regarding the destruction of the galley with awe. "Might have kilt me, suhs, might have." He shook his head as they went past.
They found Bishop at the end of the hall, kneeling next to O'Connell. He looked up as they approached. "I think he's got a busted arm," he said, ignoring the blood which trickled down his face and into his beard, "but I'm no sawbones to tell for sure."
"You help out here, Artie. I'll check on Grafton."
Artie nodded and knelt in the litter of glass from his lab to tend to the injured man. Jim found the door to the sleeping compartment jammed. He rattled the knob and called to Grafton, who thankfully answered the first shout. The door had jammed on its interior lock. Luckily, it took no more than some wiggling of the mechanism on Grafton's side to clear it, and Grafton stepped out, none the worse for wear.
"Come with me," Jim told him. "I'll need to send Charlie back to be seen to, and I don't know if he can walk."
They found Charlie sitting on the apron behind Devon's chair, his knees drawn up and his arms held close to his body. Jim tried to coax him up, but the young man was too shaken, or too badly injured, to respond. In the end, Grafton merely hoisted him into his arms and started back down the train.
Jim went looking for Devon.
He found the engineer inspecting the guidewheels at the front of the train. He might have known. In that moment, nothing was more important than his beloved train.
"How is she?" Jim asked as he walked up.
"It's a blessed miracle her wheels weren't flattened by the brakes." Devon stood and banged the dust off his knees. "Charlie okay?"
"Grafton is carrying him back to the parlor now. Artie will look after him."
"Carryin' him?!" Devon started down the side of his train without another look at the engine. "Blast the boy! He told me he was fine. Good enough to get his own self down for tendin'."
Chastened, Jim followed. He ought to have known better. Artie would have. Devon's short legs carried him fast, and Jim had to stretch his legs to catch up with him in time to prevent him from entering the car through the forward door.
"Let's go to the end."
Devon looked at him funny, not knowing that O'Connell might still be propped against the door. But he complied without arguing and followed Jim around to the end of the car.
"You!" A beefy man in a denim jacket with a red bandanna knotted around his neck accosted them as they rounded the end of the car. "What do you mean by this? Well, answer me sir! What do you mean by this?" He pulled off his striped cap and slapped it against his leg by means of emphasis.
"By what?" Jim asked, as politely as possible with Devon turning an unpleasant shade of red at his shoulder. The engineer of the Southern Belle -- for it could be no other -- ignored him completely.
"Well, sir?" He spoke only to Devon; one train man to another. "You've damn near ruined my train, sir. I'll have you up on charges, mark my words I will!"
"The devil you will, Gilroy. Oh I know ye," Devon said, stalking out from behind Jim to confront the man, "don't think I don't. And yer trainmaster will hear of it. Hear how you ignored the clear track order and came puffing down this here track an' damn near kilt us all."
"You're not the only who'd be knowing things, Devon." Gilroy pulled himself up straight to tower over the diminutive engineer. He slapped his cap back on his head decisively. "And no man knows better than I that we had orders, right and true, to take the Southern Bell on down the track."
"Now see here!"
"Enough." President Grant didn't shout. He stood on the rear platform of the car, and his voice, though soft, cracked like a rifle shot. His famous features effected an immediate alteration in the behavior of both trainmen. Devon came to something resembling attention, and Gilroy gaped stupidly for no more than a second before fumbling his hat off. "Are we capable of proceeding, Mr. West?"
Jim looked at Devon, who nodded vigorously. "Yes, sir. It appears that we are."
"Good. See to it, then." Grant turned and walked back inside, the door closing gently behind him.
"Devon, if you would get the engine ready, I'll come help you fire it." For a moment, Jim thought Devon would say some final word to Gilroy -- and from the looks of it, Devon thought he would too -- but he merely turned on his heel and left.
He paused, however, a few feet away, to say softly to Jim: "Check on Charlie, please, Mr. West, and tell me how he's doin'."
"I will." Jim heard the crunch of gravel under Devon's boots as he walked away. He turned back to Gilroy. "We'll have them send a crew from Omaha, Mr. Gilroy, to help you clean this up." He gestured at the smashed caboose, its twisted frame blocking the track. "Good day."
He left the man standing there with his hat in his hands, and boarded the train.
Artie's lab was doing double duty as a hospital. When Jim entered, he could see O'Connell sitting on the cot against the wall, waiting with an ashen face for Artie to see to his arm. Charlie was nowhere in sight.
"He's got some nasty burns on his hands and arms," Artie said as he tore a ragged remnant of sheet into strips. "I've put a solution of alum on them and dosed him with laudanum. With any luck, he's already asleep." He inclined his head toward the door to their compartment.
Jim nodded. "I've asked Grafton to take Charlie's place for now. We should get underway any minute, and I'll go forward to help fire. It shouldn't take long to get to Omaha."
Artie rummaged through the cabinets under his workbench. His voice was muffled. "Good. We should leave Charlie there, where he can get better medical care. O'Connell too."
"No sir," O'Connell said fiercely. "My place is here, and here I stay."
Artie stood, a metal canister with white powder clinging to the lid in his hand, and exchanged a look with Jim. Artie raised his eyebrows and Jim shrugged. "Very well. Far be it for me to get between a man and his duty."
A hesitant knock on the door preceded Bill's entrance by only a moment. He carried a full basin of water in his arms. "De gin'ral want to know how his men are."
"You can go tell him in a minute, Bill," Artie said, taking the water from him and setting it on the floor at O'Connell's feet beside the metal canister. "First, I need you to help me set O'Connell's arm. Go on, Jim," he said as the train began slowly inching into motion, "I won't need your help as much as Devon will."
Jim nodded sharply and headed for the forward door.
"Now Reg," he heard Artie say as he left, "I have this theory about setting a broken bone in plaster..."
They left Charlie in Omaha.
Waving aside all offers of assistance, Devon walked the gangly lad into the station and put him in the hands of the stationmaster, an old friend, with a few choice words about the proper care of injured trainmen. No one mentioned how much this was like leaving Sam, his hands similarly burned, in Ogden. But they were all thinking of it. At least Charlie was alive, and would heal.
All the able-bodied turned out to load the tender. Grant alone stayed inside, at the insistence of all, with O'Connell standing guard, his left arm awkwardly encased in white plaster, a cocked gun in his right hand. Jim kept a close eye on the train as he shoveled, and noticed that everyone else was doing the same.
Coal. Rich and dark. Hundreds of tons of it must have already gone into the firebox. Hundreds of tons more would be consumed before they were through. And every shovelful had to be thrown by hand into the tender, by hand from the tender down to the apron, by hand into the firebox.
At least, he thought, it was better than tossing logs around. The Wanderer ran smoother and faster on coal than wood. She didn't often get a steady diet of the former, however, restricted to whatever fuel was most plentiful in a given area. They'd found coal at every stop this trip, even in places they should not have. Artie's doing -- wiring ahead from San Francisco to demand coal reserves be shuttled out to every fuel dump along the way, so the Wanderer could run hot and fast and true. And deliver President Grant to Washington with all speed.
Devon rang the bell, an absurdly cheerful noise, to let them know the engine was ready: oiled (for no one had gone out while the engine was in motion to oil the valves since Sam's fall), her boiler topped up with water, her tender filled.
Jim straightened up with a grimace and scrubbed his sleeve across his sweaty forehead. His eyes fell automatically on Artie, and lingered there. He was in his shirtsleeves, as they all were, the thin linen clinging to his torso in the hot rays of the declining sun. Jim wanted to step across to Artie, to take him in his arms; his muscles twitched with the effort of holding back. There was no time for that. No time for reassurance, no time for thinking of how close they had all come, no time to touch his partner, to feel the life flowing through him.
He threw his shovel up on the apron and followed it up onto the engine. And stood, for just a moment, looking back over the tender to see Artie safely swing aboard the train before they headed out of the station with a hum of iron on iron and the bright insistent warning of the bell.
Then Jim began to shovel again.
He turned from the living wall of heat to fill his shovel again. Bishop stood at his shoulder, his hand extended.
"I'll take over now."
Jim shook his head and turned doggedly to toss more coal into the firebox. "Relieve Grafton."
"John's taken over for him."
And indeed, when Jim turned slowly around, he could see Blaylock in the rosy light of the fire, standing in the tender, shovel in hand.
"Okay," he allowed, handing his shovel to Bishop. "Thanks."
Bishop nodded and silently took his place. Jim watched him set his back to the work, shoveling slow and steady, enough to keep the fire burning hot, the steam up, without wasted effort or fuel.
After a minute, he realized he could leave now. Jim shook his head sharply, as if to fling off the fatigue. He clapped Devon on the shoulder, then turned and made his way back over the tender. The sun had gone down some time ago, and the darkness which closed around him as he moved away from the cab seemed as deep as the chill. He was glad to step into the dim confines of the forward car.
For a minute, Jim seriously contemplated simply laying himself out on one of the bunks in the crew's quarters. He stubbornly continued on, picking his way carefully through the moonlit car, determined to sleep in his own bed. Or Artie's. Jim shook his head at himself, a wry grin twisting his lips. Apparently, even exhaustion wasn't enough to damp his ardor.
When he stepped into the stable area, Jim was surprised to see Artie coming through the rear door. He hung the lantern he was carrying on a peg inside the door and turned, his alert eyes scanning the compartment. Jim couldn't guess, nor did he care, what Artie was looking for. For Jim, it was as if he was seeing Artie for the first time since the near wreck. In a way, perhaps, it was, for they were finally alone together.
He didn't stop to think. He didn't stop for anything. Driven by simple need, Jim crossed the room like a man with only one mission in life. He didn't even notice that Artie met him halfway. In a moment, they were locked in a strong embrace. Jim buried his face in Artie's shoulder and held on as tightly as he was able, and Artie's arms were no less strong around him. The body in his arms was powerful and solid and real. And unharmed.
Jim could barely breathe.
Artie's clever fingers combed gently through Jim's hair, pressed him close, then coaxed him back. Jim leaned his head sideways against Artie's, lingering in the embrace, Artie's palm warm on his cheek. Finally, with a sigh, he withdrew. Artie's eyes looked hurt, for a moment, when Jim took a deliberate step back. Then he nodded in understanding, his expression rueful.
"Sleeping, hopefully. Laudanum helped, but he was still in a lot of pain." Artie shook his head. "Not that he'd admit it. Man's worse than you."
"Thank you." Jim inclined his head with a smile, which faded rapidly. "I want you to send a message, Artie. Find out if the Southern Belle really was given the signal to go ahead. And if so, who gave it."
Artie nodded without surprise. He had a way of finding out everything going on around him, and several of the train's passengers had no doubt been able to hear the dispute. "I thought of that, but there was no opportunity to telegraph from Omaha."
"Don't use the telegraph."
Artie frowned. "You're worried the message might be intercepted?"
"First a sabotaged engine, then a near miss with another train. I'd rather not take anything for granted, Artie."
"All right. Would pigeon suit you, then?"
"Fine. Thank you."
"My pleasure." Artie's smile was doing unsettling things to Jim's breathing. He forced himself to glance aside, and his eyes fell on the horses. In the chaos following the near wreck, he hadn't even thought of poor Ajax and Bob; they must have been terrified. It was a little late, now, but Jim moved to check on the animals. There was no sign of injury and, as Jim approached, he realized that both horses looked calm. Unusually so, especially for Ajax, who was standing quite still and placid.
Jim laid his hand atop the stall door and looked in. And thus it was that Jim West found the president of the United States sitting in the hay at the feet of his horse with Ajax mouthing gently at his hair. Grant pressed both hands against his eyes and rubbed fiercely. Artie came up beside Jim.
"There you are, sir," Artie said with no trace of the surprise he must have felt. "I was looking for you."
"Yes, I'm sorry for disappearing like that." He slowly got to his feet and rested his hand on Ajax's neck. Jim's normally restive horse didn't even blink, let alone shy. "I needed some time alone to think. Thank you for not immediately raising the alarm."
"I probably should be shot for not doing so," Artie admitted candidly, "but Bill said he saw you going forward, and I thought it best to look first."
"I appreciate it." If the thanks were somewhat perfunctory, it was likely because Grant was eyeing them both closely. "Why didn't you two tell me you suspected sabotage?"
"For two reasons, sir. For one, we couldn't be sure," Jim lied. "There seemed little to be gained by worrying you, or your bodyguard."
"It wouldn't have made any difference," Artie answered. "If someone is trying to kill you, they're not going to stop just because we do. And I sincerely doubt that you'd be willing to turn back, even if the assassin stood foursquare before you."
Grant merely looked at Artie for a silent moment. Finally, he nodded, all the weary world in his eyes and on his lined face. "You're right, Mr. Gordon. As president, I know that my life belongs to the country. I should be more careful with it. But I don't care two figs for my safety right now. Julia's all I can think of."
"I know, sir," Artie said softly. He laid his hand lightly on the president's shoulder. "Let us worry about this."
Grant looked away. After a minute, his features better schooled, he turned his eyes to Jim. "Two days more, isn't that right, West?"
"Yes sir," Jim confirmed.
Grant nodded once sharply. Then again. "Good." He came out of the stall, running his hand along Ajax's flank as he walked. "No need to follow me, Mr. Gordon. I'll just go straight back to my compartment."
They watched him walk out of the car, negotiating the tricky step between cars with ease. His shoulders were more slumped than usual, the general optimism which had buoyed his frame through four years of war and a great deal of further strife since seemed to have all left him. Jim was glad when the closing door cut off his view of his commander.
He turned to Ajax for a respite. "Well now, you seem to have come through all the fuss okay, haven't you, boy?"
"Grant insisted on tending to the horses before we got to Omaha and while we were there." Artie still stared at the door through which the president had passed.
Largely unsurprised, greatly relieved, Jim patted Ajax's neck affectionately. He hesitated a moment, then asked, without looking at Artie, "Do you think he saw?"
"What? Us?" Artie shied a quick glance at him. "No, I don't think so. He has other things on his mind."
Jim nodded. "Did you notice, Artie? His cheeks were wet."
"Yes." That was all Artie said, or seemed likely to say, on the subject.
Jim patted Ajax's neck again. He shifted sideways until his shoulder was up against Artie's. To his surprise, Artie moved away.
"I should go. Someone needs to guard the president."
"You said Bill was still awake."
Artie half-turned from the door. "Grafton says that Bill shoots like most men vote, with his eyes shut."
Jim snorted. "That sounds like Elias all right."
"You sound as if you don't like him much."
"Grafton can be... smug. But," he shrugged, "I suppose what he said about Bill is true enough."
Artie nodded. After a minute, he said, "O'Connell's sleeping on the cot in my lab, Jim."
"I'll try not to wake him." Jim stepped up to Artie, curled his fingers around the strong curve of Artie's chin, and turned Artie's face to his. The kiss was sweet and all too brief. "Good night, Artie."
"Night, Jim." He turned and left quickly.
Jim went back to stroking Ajax's neck for a time. He was confused by Artie's eagerness to leave. Perhaps, though, he was merely unduly affected by the memories they'd already made in this room. The thought brought their embrace of the day before vividly to Jim's mind. If not for the intrusion of the briefest moment of sanity, Jim might have taken Artie on the clean straw in the spare stall. He shifted his weight, his pants growing uncomfortably tight, but refrained from adjusting himself. The discomfort was well deserved.
The thought of what he might have done shamed Jim. Artie deserved better than that from him.
And he would get it.