|Jim was unwillingly disappointed when he woke alone.
Grafton had been snoring away in Jim's bed when he entered the sleeping compartment. Pulling off his boots and belt, he had climbed into Artie's bunk with only the most minimal of hesitations, and buried his face in a pillow that smelled pleasantly of his partner. If Artie came to bed in an hour or two, which surely he would -- he'd been awake as long as Jim, and O'Connell or one of the others would surely spell him before long -- there would be no place to sleep but his own bunk. With Jim. No one would think twice about it. Jim had clasped the thought close to his heart and fallen quickly asleep.
But when he woke, he was alone in the bed and the compartment. Jim rolled onto his back and tried not to imagine how it would have felt to wake up with Artie, his body touching warmly here and there along Jim's in the confined space. It hurt too much to want so badly.
God, this was going to kill him.
Ruefully, Jim admitted to himself that he wasn't used to having to wait for what he wanted. If he found a lady lovely, he set his cap for her, and either found himself quickly shot down (not often), or his advances prettily accepted. Either way, what he wanted, if it wanted him, he got. This waiting, knowing he was desired as intensely as he desired, was pure hell. Poets had it that the most exquisite pain came from knowing that one's heart's desire was eternally out of reach. Jim knew better now. It was knowing that the object desired was not only obtainable, but already obtained, and the prize held aside to be awarded later.
With a groan, Jim pushed himself upright. He tugged his fingers roughly through his hair as he yawned, and bent to pull on his boots. The angle of the sun through the window prompted him to dig out his pocketwatch. They'd let him sleep longer than they should have, and it was no wonder his stomach growled irritably.
It was noon of the third day.
"Why didn't anyone wake me?" Jim asked, shrugging his jacket on as he pushed through the door into the parlor. Blaylock looked up from the book he was reading at the desk.
"There's been plenty of help to load coal at the last couple of stops," O'Connell said from the table, where he was trying to shuffle the deck of cards one-handed. "The stationmasters turned out their whole crews."
"You fired the engine longer than any of us." Bishop lay on the center couch with his arm thrown over his eyes. "Even the great James West deserves sleep sometimes."
"Oh, and don't you sleep?" Jim asked him, his irritation showing through despite his efforts.
Bishop shifted his arm to look up at Jim, his black eyes mocking. He said nothing, and merely turned his face toward the back of the couch. Jim scowled. He was half tempted to press the point, but President Grant was sitting on the side couch, body angled to stare out at the passing countryside, his fingers drumming absently on the back of the couch. Blaylock grinned knowingly at him before going back to his book. Jim shook his head and went into the galley to get something to eat.
When he came out, a plate of food in one hand, cup of coffee in the other, it was to find precisely the same tableau as before. Jim sat at the table across from O'Connell and dug into his food.
"Where's Artie?" he asked with studied casualness between bites.
"Went forward with some cold cutlets and so forth for Devon." O'Connell balanced the cards against the plaster-streaked fingers of his left hand and began to idly deal a couple of hands of poker.
That meant Grafton and Bill must be firing the engine. It didn't answer the question of where Artie had slept. Or why he hadn't joined Jim in the sleeping compartment. Jim washed down his last bite with a gulp of lukewarm coffee and picked up the cards in front of him.
He'd lost three hands to O'Connell by the time Artie came into the parlor. He was brushing cold cinders from the smokestack off his shoulders. Artie glanced up, saw Jim watching him, and stopped briefly just inside the door. After a moment, he nodded.
Jim stood. "Would you like some coffee, Artie?"
"That would be nice, thanks," Artie said with only the briefest of hesitations. Jim took his empty plate into the galley, set it in the sink, and took down a cup. He was torn between amusement and annoyance when he realized that his hands were shaking. He poured the coffee and stirred in sugar the way Artie liked it, and his hands were steady when he returned to the parlor and handed the cup to his partner.
Jim didn't miss the way Artie glanced around for a place to sit. All the available seating was occupied; the table was the only place left. For a moment, Jim thought Artie was going to go back to his lab, but he set his coffee cup on the table and pulled out a chair. Jim waited until Artie was seated before sitting down himself.
"How's your arm, Reg?"
O'Connell grinned at Artie. "Not bad, Dr. Gordon," he teased. "Not bad at all. There's just one thing..."
O'Connell knocked gently on the plaster encasing his arm. "How'm I supposed to get this stuff off, once my arm's healed?"
Artie feigned surprise. "I only got you into it, Reg. You're on your own to get out of it."
"Disclaiming responsibility, eh?"
"Wouldn't you?" Artie grinned. Jim reached across the table to retrieve the deck of cards from in front of O'Connell and began to shuffle them. Artie hadn't looked at him once since he sat down. "Confidentially, though," Artie murmured, leaning close, "I wouldn't get it wet."
"Oh, is that it?"
"Could be." Artie sat back and lifted his cup to his lips.
"Did you want to play another hand, O'Connell?" Jim interjected.
O'Connell shook his head. "I think I'll take the opportunity to catch a little sleep," he said quietly, "since you're here to help watch him." He inclined his head toward the oblivious president. "Okay if I take your bunk, Artie?"
"Sure. Be my guest."
Jim turned to watch him go, and waited until the door had swung shut behind him, before turning back to Artie. "What was that?" he hissed.
"What was what, Jim?" Artie asked calmly, his muted tone designed not to carry.
"You flirting with O'Connell now?" A low growl found its way into Jim's voice.
"I was being friendly." Artie stood abruptly and disappeared into the galley. Jim followed hard on his heels. As he came through the door, Artie whirled to face him. "Don't start this, Jim. I won't stand for it."
"Start what?" Jim whispered through his teeth.
"This possessive act."
"What do you mean by that?"
Artie scowled. "Don't think I haven't seen you with enough of your ladies to recognize it. In case you haven't noticed, I'm not one of those lightskirts you like to lord it over." Artie overrode Jim's protestation without even raising his voice. "I'm not some simpering conquest to play cock of the walk over. I'm a man, and your partner, and I deserve better than that. It's ridiculous and demeaning and..."
Artie turned away to pour more coffee into his cup from the pot sitting on the warm stove. "And out of place. It's not like we're... lovers."
Jim blinked. "I thought that was only a matter of time." His voice was no louder than a whisper, though it felt like it came from the deepest part of his chest.
"I... don't know anymore," Artie admitted heavily, the anger draining out of his rigid stance. He sighed and turned back to Jim. For a moment, they merely looked at each other, separated by only a few feet in the tiny space, yet miles apart. Artie set his cup on the counter behind him and leaned against the worn edge.
Jim took a careful breath. "What brought this on," he asked softly, as gently as he knew how. "Was it... did I do something?"
Artie shook his head. His gaze dropped to his boots and held there a long time, as if he found something inexpressibly fascinating in the oiled leather. "It's not you," he said finally, "it's... Grant."
Jim frowned. "The president?" His eyes strayed from Artie to the closed door to the parlor and back again. "I don't..."
"Last night, in the stable car--"
"If you're afraid we were observed--"
"--I've known Grant a long time," he continued without hearing Artie's interruption, "and he's not the sort of man to blindly condemn-- "
"Jim." Artie laid his hand on Jim's arm, silencing him. "It's not that." He released him and looked away, raking his fingers through his hair. He sighed and looked back at Jim, his eyes glittering with an emotion Jim didn't recognize. "His worry, his... fear, are so palpable, Jim. It's... ripping him apart inside."
"He loves his wife very much."
"Yes, Jim," Artie said slowly, as if to a backward child. "He does. Do you think I love you any less?"
"Oh, Artie." Jim shook his head, the tight band around his chest loosening. He reached out, but Artie stepped back, and only the tips of Jim's fingers brushed Artie's cheek. Jim dropped his hand. "Do you doubt me, then?" he whispered.
"No, Jim," Artie said sadly. He put his hand on the door to the corridor. "I doubt my ability to bear up as well as Grant, under similar circumstances."
Jim let him go.
Words had never been his strong suit. Jim spoke better with actions. He knew it, and Artie knew it. Which was why Artie'd been so careful not to let Jim close with him.
He understood Artie's fear, but Jim wasn't the sort of man to let fear stop him. He wasn't the sort to let Artie stop him either, not knowing -- as he surely knew now -- how dearly he was loved.
Jim picked up Artie's coffee and drank from the cup. He'd just have to bide his time, until the opportunity presented itself. He had no doubt that he could convince Artie.
Once he got his hands on him.
Jim sat back down at the table in the parlor, picked up the deck of cards, and began to play solitaire. It wasn't a game he particularly enjoyed. In fact, he found it distinctly boring. But it was a good way to think.
After about half an hour, he heard a sound in the galley, but when he glanced up at the door he'd left open, it was only Bill. Artie had relieved him, then, and effectively put himself safely out of Jim's reach for a while. While Jim could take himself off in turn and relieve Grafton on the tender, neither conversation nor contact could be achieved in the locomotive. It was too loud and Devon too perceptive.
Jim frowned. Devon had been awake for the better part of two days now. Someone would need to step in and run the train so the man could get a little sleep. He drummed his fingers on the table atop the king of hearts. Maybe Artie. Artie was good with mechanical things; and there was little chance he'd have spent any time working next to Devon without learning how the engineer performed his tasks.
Bill emerged from the galley. Jim listened without turning his head as the man walked over to where Grant sat.
"Bring you a cup a'coffee, suh? Mebbe some bread, slice a'beef?"
"No, Bill. Thank you."
"You gots ta eat, suh. Won't do yoursef or Miss Julia any good, you don't eat."
Jim stood and turned. "Bill's right, sir."
Grant closed his eyes, his chest rising and falling on a deep sigh. "Thank you both for your concern, but I don't--"
He broke off as a horrendous grinding noise filled the compartment. From a sound sleep, Bishop threw himself off the couch to crouch wild-eyed in the middle of the parlor. As Jim tried to step toward the president, the car lurched wildly, and he fell to his knees. He lunged forward, pinning Grant to the couch, as the car began to sway more wildly. The rending noise continued: a sound like a giant dog crunching into a bone. The train shook like a living thing, quaking in agony, as it was heaved up and torn apart. It seemed an eternity, but was over within minutes, the wheels squealing and sparking along the tracks and finally grinding to a halt.
Jim leapt to his feet the moment the final jolt rattled through his bones. A quick glance at Grant received a nod in return and, assured the president was well, Jim raced past a shaken Bill and down the hall.
"'M alright," he called. Jim looked in at the door and saw O'Connell sitting on the floor in the sleeping compartment, his left arm cradled against his chest. "Been better," he admitted, his complexion a pasty white. He swallowed hard. "Go on," he gritted impatiently as he struggled to his feet, "I'll be fine."
Blaylock was coming up the hall, and Jim pointed him toward O'Connell before heading for the forward door of the car. Jim pried the door open and, emerging onto the front platform, stared in shock. Where, ahead of him, he should have seen only the rear of the forward car, there was instead a space of open track. A large gap had opened between the two cars, and the forward car listed horribly to the right.
He caught a glimpse, over the skewed roof of the car, of Artie leaping down from the engine. Jim swung down off the platform and started forward down the side of the damaged car. Artie met him halfway and grabbed him, dragging him into a strong, shaking embrace without thought for who might be watching. Jim held on tight, feeling Artie's heart race against his chest.
"Jesus, Jim," Artie breathed against his neck. "Thank God you're okay."
"I'm fine, Artie," he reassured, squeezing Artie tightly for a brief moment more before drawing back.
"Sure," Artie said, nodding. He stepped reluctantly away, took a deep breath and looked around, then caught at Jim's arm. "Humor me by stepping back, will you? I don't like the way that car is listing."
And well he might be worried. The forward car looked ready to tip at any moment. Her front end had plowed messily off the tracks, leaving a deep score for yards in the hard earth where she ground to a halt. From inside, the high-pitched whinnies of terrified horses was audible, now that Jim's ears weren't stopped by the frantic beating of his own heart, and Artie's. He started for the rear door of the car, but was beat to it.
Having shadowed him out the door, Bishop was in the best position to restrain the president. However, Grant leapt nimbly down from the rear car and hoisted himself onto the forward platform with the agility of a man half his age. He forced the door and passed into the dangerously fragile frame before Bishop or anyone else could stop him.
"Help me with the door, Artie." Jim ran for the side of the car, Artie right on his heels.
The footholds were unsafe; putting weight on the side of the car might bring it tumbling over. Artie made a cradle of his hands and Jim put his foot in it. His hand tightened on Artie's shoulder as he pushed off. Artie held Jim securely as he worked the catch on the left side of the ramp. When he had it free, Artie's hands guided him back to solid ground. Jim smiled briefly at him before moving to the other side of the door. The tortured wood groaned like a living thing. The sound of frightened horses had faded as Grant worked his magic on them. Up again on the other side of the door, Jim fumbled with the catch. One of Artie's bracing hands pressed warmly on the inside of his thigh, and Jim couldn't think of any time less appropriate for the reaction it provoked. He got the pin loose finally and leapt down, hauling Artie out of the way with him as the ramp plummeted down with a crash.
Jim clambered into the car and took Bob's reins from Grant. Artie's horse walked calmly down the warped ramp. Jim handed the reins off to Artie and turned back to get Ajax, not to mention President Grant, out of the damaged car. However, Grant was already descending, Ajax dancing by his side, eyes rolling uncertainly. In a moment, all were on solid ground, and none apparently hurt.
"That was a very dangerous thing to do, sir."
"I know, West." He stroked Ajax's neck and spoke softly to him. The horse swiveled an ear around to listen. Jim shook his head and turned away. Far be it for him to scold the president of the United States.
"Ye ken nothing about trains, sir, kindly keep yer criticisms to yerself." Devon came around the front of the car, Grafton hot on his heels.
"Anyone with half a mind can see that you're unfit to drive this train--"
"Now see here, ye puffed up poppinjay--"
Jim exchanged a glance with Artie, and the two of them moved quickly to defuse the threat of violence.
"Gentlemen, I believe that's enough." Artie's voice was pitched perfectly to break into the escalating argument and bring both men's attention to him.
"What's going on?" Jim asked.
Grafton straightened a collar which needed no tending. "I was merely suggesting," he said in eminently reasonable tones, "that perhaps our engineer could do with a few hours' sleep."
"Not an unreasonable suggestion," Artie said, putting a hand on Devon's shoulder to forestall his angry response. "But I fail to see how it has anything to do with our current situation. What happened to the forward car was not Devon's fault."
"Grafton," Jim said, before the argument could be rejoined, "we're going to need help hauling the damaged car off the tracks. Can you ride bareback?"
"Good. Take the bay to the house across there," he pointed to a farmhouse faintly visible to the south of the tracks, "and get the farmer to bring his team."
Grafton bristled at the tone of command, and hesitated just long enough to make it clear that he was not at Jim's beck and call. Then he went to take Bob's reins from Bill -- who'd emerged from the rear car along with Blaylock and O'Connell, and immediately made himself useful. In a moment, Grafton had mounted and set his heels to the horse's sides. Jim shook his head.
"Take it easy, Devon." Jim turned back to the man with as reassuring a smile as he could manage. "I know you're not to blame for what happened."
"What did happen?" Blaylock asked. He had an arm under O'Connell's right elbow, and the other man's color looked significantly better than it had a few minutes ago. Jim guided Devon over to join them and the president at a safer remove from the damaged car. Artie veered off to investigate the front bumper of the parlor car.
"Hot box," Devon said with succinct disgust.
"What the devil is that?"
"The axle bearing overheated," Jim explained to Bishop. "It's fairly common. Usually the brakeman can catch it before it seizes up and derails the car."
"Or the whole train." Devon took off his hat and wiped his forehead with the bandanna he wore around his throat. "Tis a wonder th'parlor car wasn't derailed too."
"Yes, it is." Artie joined them, a bent and twisted piece of metal in his hands. "The coupling pin sheered off." He handed it to Grant. "Kept the rear car from following the forward one off the tracks. When the front car derailed, the airhose was severed and the brakes closed, stopping the rear car before it could plow into the forward one. We're all very lucky."
"Lucky indeed, Mr. Gordon." Grant turned the useless piece of iron over in his hands. "Another attempt by this saboteur, you think?"
Bill was the only one who didn't get into the act, for which Jim was profoundly grateful, since Bill was now holding Ajax's reigns, and the horse was already skittish enough without having an irate human shout in his ear. Jim held both hands up.
"Gentlemen, please." He glanced at Artie while Grant's bodyguard quieted down. Artie shrugged and Jim took his meaning perfectly. Since Grant had let the cat out of the bag...
"Yes, Bishop, sabotage. The fireman's death was no accident. Neither, I suspect, was our near collision yesterday outside Omaha."
"And you only now thought to mention it to us?" Bishop asked acidly.
"It didn't seem necessary."
"Necessary?! It's our job to guard the president, and yet you didn't think it necessary to let us know someone's trying to kill him?"
"Did you do your job any less enthusiastically for not knowing?" Jim had the satisfaction of seeing Bishop bristle.
"Enough," Grant said quietly.
Grant silenced Blaylock's objection with a gesture. "I knew about this already, gentlemen. And, right or wrong, I agreed with Mr. West's decision. Now is not the time for recriminations. Mr. Gordon," he said, handing the bit of broken metal back to Artie, "do you believe this to be sabotage?"
Artie turned the piece over to Devon without looking at it. "No, sir," he said decisively. "It's faulty, but a lot of them are. It was just chance that it broke now."
"You agree?" Grant asked Devon. The engineer nodded, made mute by the exalted attention. "Then it's not sabotage."
"No sir," Artie said again. "I didn't say that. Of course the pin wasn't sabotaged; it would serve no purpose. Yesterday or the day before, when we were in the mountains, a broken coupling could have killed us all. But not on the plains. The sabotage, sir," he said, pointing at the derailed car, "is in the axles."
"Is it possible to cause a -- what did you call it -- hot box?"
"It bloody well is," Devon said, a red tide of anger rising across his face. He'd not had enough time to realize for himself that someone had tried once again to damage his beloved train, until Artie pointed him in the right direction. He seemed to realize suddenly who he was talking to, and whipped the cap off his head to hold it awkwardly in his hands. "Sir."
Artie took pity on him. "All that's necessary is to put sand in the box, sir. Or any other similar substance. Adulterate the oil lubricating the axle, and it's very likely to overheat."
"But it wouldn't normally be dangerous, isn't that right?" O'Connell shrugged awkwardly. "I thought these things generally only caused a delay."
"If someone catches it in time. Usually, someone does."
"Yes," said Blaylock. "The brakeman. That's his job, isn't it?"
"It is," Jim said, "but we no longer have a trained brakeman."
"Convenient," Artie said, "for someone."
Turning to see if he could spot Grafton on his way back yet, Jim let Artie speak for him. And Artie merely shrugged eloquently. An unsatisfactory answer to all concerned. Especially the focus of the attempts, though his reaction was quite mild, given the circumstances. To an uneducated observer, it might have looked as if Grant wasn't paying attention. Jim knew he'd heard every word, but that he wouldn't interject himself into the conversation unless he thought it necessary. Grant had a habit of letting his men do the jobs he'd given them, without interruption or interference.
"Shouldn't we check the axles?" O'Connell asked. "See if they really were sabotaged."
"You shouldn't be doing anything," Artie scolded him. He gestured at the arm O'Connell cradled against his belly. "Not with that. As for the rest of us..." he shrugged again. "For one thing, I don't see how it matters if it was or wasn't -- the end result is the same."
"And the other?"
Artie looked at Bishop a moment. "I don't fancy the idea of crawling around under that car, do you?"
Bishop glanced at the crazily slanted walls of the car and shook his head.
Artie turned to Devon. "We'll need another coupling pin, once we get the forward car off the tracks."
"Could take t'one from the rear o' the tender," Devon offered.
"I'd rather not. The stress that was placed on it when the forward car derailed might have damaged it. Do we have any spares?"
"Sure. In the possum belly." Devon gestured at the equipment box built into the bottom of the rear car.
Jim left off scanning the endless fields surrounding them. "Blaylock, if you wouldn't mind helping Devon get another pin?"
Blaylock glanced at Bishop. "Sure, West."
"When you've finished that, Devon, check the axles on the parlor car. We don't want this happening again. Artie?" Jim drew him aside. "We're going to need a harness for the horses. And I don't like the idea of leaving our saddles here anyway."
"You're not going into that car," Artie said, but he was already following Jim over to the damaged car. "It's not safe."
"Look at the way the ramp dug into the ground. It's keeping the car from tumbling onto its side."
"That doesn't make it safer."
"As long as I don't put any weight on the ramp, it should be fine. You got any better ideas, Artie?" Jim could see the fear in Artie's eyes. He took advantage of the fact that Artie stood between him and the others and reached out. Artie's expression flickered when Jim flattened his hand to Artie's chest. His heart beat warmly under Jim's palm.
Artie sighed. "I should know better than to try to stop you when you're like this."
"Yes, you should." Jim grinned. He shrugged off his jacket and went to drape it over the platform railing on the parlor car. When he returned, Artie silently boosted him into the damaged car.
The floor creaked ominously under Jim, its slow cracking percussion in the symphony of living moans from the walls. He moved quickly about his business, grabbing their saddles and lugging them over to the door, then moving with a light step to the equipment room and cautiously opening the door. Everything had shifted, but he was still able, with some effort, to fish an unbroken wagon harness out of the rubble.
Artie had already removed the saddles from the car when Jim returned. He took the harness from Jim and turned to lay it aside. Jim sat on the edge of the ramp, but Artie was back before he could jump down. Warm hands closed on Jim's waist and, with a smile, he let himself be lifted down from his perch. Artie's reluctance was palpable when he slowly removed his hands and stepped back. Jim felt the disappointment just as keenly.
"Now, can we get out of the shadow of this thing?" Artie blustered, picking up his saddle. Jim grinned at him and retrieved his own saddle and the harness.
"Where the hell is Grafton?" he said as he hoisted the saddle onto his shoulder.
Artie shrugged. "Maybe having trouble finding the farmer."
Bishop was not in sight when they propped their saddles against the embankment. Artie cornered O'Connell and sent Blaylock to retrieve some short scraps of wood from the ongoing destruction of the forward car. Jim peered over Artie's shoulder for a moment, then shrugged and moved off to sort out the harness. He left Artie tying the wood to O'Connell's arm with his handkerchief and his patient's, shoring up the plaster, which had cracked clear through in the wreck.
It wanted only a few minutes before Grafton rode up, the farmer's wagon and team kicking up a cloud of dust not far behind him. At about the same moment, Bishop descended once again from the parlor car. He wore a gunbelt with two matched ebony-handled pistols and carried a Winchester rifle. A second gunbelt was slung over his shoulder.
"You know something we don't?" Artie asked pleasantly.
"No, I think we're about even. Now." Bishop handed the extra belt to Blaylock, who quickly donned it. "If someone's trying to kill the president, I think I'd prefer to go armed, if you don't mind."
"Not at all." Artie inclined his head to the man, then strode over to join Jim. He took one end of the leads and helped Jim untangle the thin leather straps. "Suspicious bastard," he muttered.
Jim glanced up at Artie, then Bishop. It's true the man could be difficult, but it was surprising that Artie, who tended to get on in amiable terms with just about anyone, should be having trouble with him. Jim shook his head. They were all getting jumpy. Jumpy and tired.
"Get Bill to bring Ajax and Bob over here, will you, Artie?"
Artie smiled at him. "Sure thing, Jim." He strolled over and spoke to Bill. In a moment, Bill stepped forward to take Bob's reigns from President Grant, and was walking both horses over to Jim. Artie went on to speak with the round, red-faced farmer who'd not only brought a heavy-set plow team, but his two young sons. The boys, neither of them much over ten, stared in awe at the train with its swaybacked center car. Jim smiled to himself; there was nothing like a train wreck to appeal to a young boy.
The ramp proved difficult to budge. The weight of the car had imbedded it deeply in the earth, and it was necessary to harness both Bob and Ajax up to pull it free sideways, tearing it from its moorings in the side of the car in the process. Without the ramp propping it up, the car moaned dolefully and slowly began to keel over. Everyone was already at as much of a remove as possible, and they stood in respectful silence as the car crashed ponderously onto its side, raising a spectacular cloud of dust and wood splinters.
It took both teams of horses, their harnesses tied securely to the front and rear railings of the car, to shift it. The roof edging of the car was buried adamantly in the soft soil of the ravine which abutted the small incline of the tracks. Though the wheels were now clear of the tracks, there wasn't enough clearance for the parlor car to pass. Grant stood at the horses' heads, whispering his encouragement to Ajax and Bob as they strained. The farmer did the same with his own team. And it was a wonder to see the horses' ears swivel around to listen to the words, and their muscles bunch and quiver as they put forth new effort in response. Slowly the car moved, hauled by main force out of the ravine, one foot, then two, from the tracks. When the clearance was great enough, Devon gave a shout, and everyone, from the farmboys to the president, let loose a cheer.
There was a chaos of congratulations. The farmer hitched his horses back up to his wagon and summoned his boys with a piercing whistle. While Artie went to thank the man for his assistance, Jim stripped the harness from Ajax and Bob. Grant stood by, rubbing their proud necks, praising them both in low tones.
The first shot hit the side of the tender and whined off at an angle.
To someone else -- to the farmer and his boys -- it might have sounded like a rock kicked up by a dancing hoof, or a large late-summer bug. Artie shouted and slapped the haunches of the nearest horse, sending the wagon pelting off down the verge, the farmer and his boys hanging on for dear life. Jim grabbed Bob's head and forced it around and up, and the bay went down onto his side as he'd been trained. Grant managed to down Ajax even faster.
The second shot kicked up a puff of dirt only a few feet in front of Jim, the third less than a foot from Grant. They were all coming from the south.
"Sir!" The urgent shout came from the other side of the fallen car, which made an excellent barricade. It wasn't possible, at that moment, to recognize the voice.
Jim tightened his fist on Bob's reigns, his hands itching for a gun. "Sir, we have to pull back."
"It's been said that I never retreat," Grant ground between his teeth, "but I'm no fool. The horses..."
"Are smart enough to fend for themselves."
"Jim!" Artie's stage voice, his voice for reaching the back seats with the most emotion-choked whisper. "Whenever you're ready."
Jim dug his hands into the dirt under him and prayed that Artie had the rifle. Artie was an excellent shot with a rifle. "Ready sir?" Grant nodded. "Now!"
They burst up from the ground, and as they rose, the horses rolled to their feet. Bob and Ajax cantered off, drawing no fire, but distracting the shooters while Jim and Grant ran for the cover of the derailed car. Fire was coming from both directions. Jim saw Artie pop up twice to fire before he made it to cover, just moments behind President Grant. They slid the last few inches in a shower of gravel, Jim half on top of his commander and every second expecting to feel a bullet tear into his unprotected back.
O'Connell gave the president a hand to sit up and scoot in closer to the car where they all crouched in and around her steel frame, her iron cross of axles and wheels. Jim pushed himself up to peek quickly over the top of their barricade, inviting a fusillade of shots, but was unable to determine their exact origin.
"Give me your gun." He held out a hand to Bishop, who looked at it, and him, for a moment, before drawing his second revolver and slapping it into Jim's hand. Jim scooted the length of the car and fetched up against Artie. He leaned into the warm solid length a moment before squeezing past him to peer around the end of the car.
"Where the hell are they?"
"One of them is in the copse of trees to the far right," Artie said. He worked the lever action on the rifle, ejecting a spent shell and chambering a new one. "I took some bark off the tree he's hiding behind."
"Doesn't matter if it's sabotage," Bishop said bitterly from the other end of the car. "The end result is the same. Nice call, Gordon."
"Quiet, Bishop," Jim responded before Artie could do more than open his mouth.
"He's got a point," O'Connell said. "If we'd known for sure it was sabotage--"
"We wouldn't have been taken by surprise by this ambush?" Jim snorted. "And just how did they know exactly where the hot box would derail the car?"
"It could have happened anytime in the last hundred miles," Artie added, "or the next." He peered over the top of the car, then rose quickly to fire. A cry accompanied his return to cover, and he grinned savagely. "Got one."
"But it didn't," Bishop said, "it happened here." A shot from his pistol punctuated his statement.
"And what? They planned it? Bullshi--"
Jim felt himself color. "Sorry, sir."
"How many are there?" Grant asked the company at large.
"One less than there was," Jim murmured for Artie's ears only. Artie's warm hand found and squeezed his briefly.
Grant listened to the flurry of responses, the general under fire, fully in command of his troops. "Less than a dozen, then. We might outnumber them, but we're outgunned."
"Not if we can get to the train."
What Blaylock said was true, but Jim cast a quick glance at the parlor car and shook his head. "No cover."
"So... what? We wait until they decide to rush us? More than half of us are unarmed, West; we'd be sitting ducks." Bishop peered around the end of the barricade and fired. "Think I got one."
"Anyone going up those steps will be a perfect target."
"Perhaps it isn't necessary to go up those steps." Blaylock turned to survey the parlor car again. "The tracks themselves might provide a little cover, and once on the other side of the car, a man'd be perfectly safe. I don't think they're covering the rear door." He handed his gun to Grafton.
The man turned entreating eyes on Grant. "It's got to be better than waiting around here for something to happen. Let me try, sir. Please."
Grant looked at him for a moment, his reluctance palpable. Finally, he nodded once. "Best of luck."
"Thank you, sir." Blaylock looked to his partner. Bishop nodded slowly. Blaylock crawled on his belly as far as he could without exposing himself, then gathered his limbs into a crouch. He glanced back, and Bishop nodded again. Bishop and Grafton fired from their end of the car, Jim and Artie from theirs, and Blaylock ran for the tracks. There wasn't enough ammunition to fire wildly, targets were singled out and over the ear-splitting roar of the guns, a cry was heard. Then another one, louder because it came from behind them.
Bishop whirled and saw Blaylock lying on the tracks. "John!" He dropped his gun, almost hitting Devon. Ignoring the continuing hail of bullets, he ran to his partner before anyone could stop him. In a moment, Bishop reached Blaylock, who was trying to drag himself off the tracks. He hit him broadside. They both tumbled out of sight into the ravine on the other side of the tracks.
At that moment, the ambushers decided to rush them. Artie shouted out a warning, and they turned to meet the attack. The men emerged from the trees, dodging through the undergrowth, firing as they approached. Jim picked off one before he'd gone ten feet. The crack of Artie's rifle sounded as fast as he could chamber a new round. Grafton stood and fired over the barricade, arrogantly unconcerned about the bullets whining around him. When Jim heard a fourth gun add its voice to the chorus, he glanced over to see President Grant fanning the hammer back on Bishop's gun.
For a moment, Jim felt as if he'd lost ten years. He was back in the army, and the enemy wore butternut or gray. Grafton stood near Grant and Jim wasn't far from them, and they all stood fast to defend their ground. The pall of burnt gunpowder filled the air, wrapping them in a cloud straight out of the past.
They were outgunned, but every man was an experienced soldier and an expert shot. One by one, the ambushers dropped, with cries and grunts, in silence, and in clouds of blood. The last man pitched forward with a cry a bare three feet from the car, a bullet from Grant's gun stopping his heart.
The sudden silence was like being wrapped in cotton batting. Jim laid his hand on Artie's shoulder, comforted by the warm solidity, and brought the hammer down one last time. On an empty chamber.
"Bishop and Blaylock," Artie said quietly. He rose and strode toward the tracks. Jim wanted to follow -- he didn't want to let any distance come between them -- but there were other things that needed doing.
Jim silently traded his empty gun for Grant's, which still held two bullets. He emerged from behind the car and headed out across the battlefield. His path snaked him past each body, and at each one, he stopped and bent to look at a face, turning over those who had fallen forward. None were familiar. All were blank and empty of life. He pressed on, and passed into the copse of trees. A man lay propped against the bole of a tree, red life leaking from his chest. When he saw Jim, he reached for a rifle which lay not far away, and found it too far for his failing reserves. Jim stepped to it and kicked it away.
"Who hired you?" His voice was soft, and as deadly as the quiet snick of the hammer on his gun. He knelt before the man and grabbed his jacket. "Who hired you?"
His lips stained with blood, the man smiled. His teeth were crooked, a dirty brown like his suit. His lips parted, and Jim leaned closer to hear the weak voice. In the near-silence, the gunshot was very loud. Jim dropped the body and spun around, his finger closing on the trigger.
"Grafton!" Jim stood, letting his aim relax as Grafton's gun hand came down. "What the hell are you doing?" He swung a hand at the mangled corpse.
"Bishop's dead." Grafton turned and walked away.
Jim glanced down at the body, and wished he'd had an opportunity to hear whatever the man had to say. If Grafton had given him just a minute more before retaliating for Bishop's death... Jim shook his head and headed back for the train.
Blaylock leaned against the incline, his injured leg stretched out before him. Bishop lay in the cradle of his partner's arms, his head on Blaylock's shoulder. A growing circle of blood saturated the rich soil under them.
Artie was kneeling, using a handful of starched linen to staunch the blood flowing from Blaylock's thigh. Jim added his handkerchief to the makeshift bandage, and stepped silently back. Blaylock's head leaned against Bishop's. His hands were red with blood not his own. No one tried to take Bishop's body from him.
"I shouldn't have given him permission to go." Grant was standing at a slight remove, turned at an angle away from the scene. Jim walked over to join him.
"He'd have gone whether you gave him permission or not."
"That doesn't make me any less culpable."
With an effort, Grant turned and forced himself to stare at the bloody scene. Jim quietly took his arm and walked him toward the parlor car. His old commander, the man some in the South referred to as "the Butcher," was never very good with the sight of blood. He never could abide to see another suffer. And Jim wouldn't let him punish himself with it.
"We'll need water and bandages. And coffee wouldn't come amiss."
"Trying to get rid of me, Mr. West?"
Jim stopped at the foot of the rear stairs. "No, sir. I wouldn't be that bold. However," he dredged up a smile from somewhere, "you would be safer in the car."
Grant nodded and started wearily up the steps. "Send Bill, if you can spare him. I'm liable to burn down the galley without help."
"Yes, sir." Jim realized suddenly that he still held Bishop's gun in his hand. "Sir?" he said quietly. Grant turned back and looked for a moment at the gun Jim held out to him, then down at the one in his own hand. A matched set, with black handles. Silently, he took the gun from Jim and went into the parlor.
Jim went to the other end of the car and quickly ascended the steps. In Artie's lab, he grabbed a spare gunbelt from an overhead cupboard and strapped it on. Then he went into the sleeping compartment and dug a blanket out of the cabinet under his bed.
Back outside, Jim took O'Connell aside, and asked him to go in and help the president. Bill might be good in the kitchen, but at the moment, better a man who was good with a gun. Reg nodded, his sunset curls bobbing limply, and went inside.
"Devon." The railroad man jumped slightly at his name and turned to Jim. "The fire's had plenty of time to cool. Can you take Bill and get steam up again?"
"Sure thing, Mr. West. Terrible," he said to himself as he walked away, Bill a larger shadow behind him, "terrible thing."
Jim carried the blanket over to the tableau which hadn't changed much and knelt at one side. Artie looked at him over the dead man and the live one, and Jim had to look away. He swallowed, and turned back. Together, they spread the blanket out over Bishop, and Artie began gently loosening Blaylock's hands.
"Let us take him, John," Artie murmured, "we'll take good care of him." In response to the constant stream of soft reassurance, Blaylock reluctantly released his partner's body. Grafton helped Jim shift Bishop aside, and wrap him securely in the blanket. With all due reverence, they carried Bishop into the car and laid him on the cot in Artie's lab. Behind them, Artemus lifted Blaylock into his arms like a baby and brought him along.
After depositing the injured man on his bunk in the sleeping compartment, Artie came out and looked sternly at Grafton. "Stay with him."
Jim followed him out of the car and down to the locomotive. The firebox door was open, its red glow spilling reassuringly into the cab. Artie exchanged a few words with Devon and took the red lantern which hung from one side of the tender.
"In a minute, Jim." Artie started back, plunging one hand into his pocket and retrieving a coupling pin.
"Artie--" It was a warning, this time, as Jim realized what Artie was about. But Artie ignored him. He set the coupling pin in the drawhead of the stationary parlor car, walked forward to the rear of the tender, and signaled Devon with the lantern. As the locomotive slowly reversed, Artie walked alongside the tender. Jim stayed carefully back and prayed silently. Every year, thousands of brakemen were maimed or killed while coupling cars. Even on a train as sophisticated as the Wanderer, there was nothing to protect a fragile human body from being crushed between the cars.
So Jim kept perfectly still, and did nothing which might distract Artie, and a fine sweat broke out on every inch of his body. And it wasn't until the cars came together with a light clang, and the pin dropped neatly into the link Artie lifted to receive it, that Jim realized he wasn't breathing.
His sigh of relief was as large as his lungs could hold.
Artie swung the lantern side to side, and the engine stopped moving. She'd backed into the parlor car hard enough to shake the brakes loose, which made their task much easier, as it might otherwise have taken the strength of several men to work them free. Jim stepped quickly forward to help Artie reconnect the airhose on the brakes. He ignored the shaking of his hands until Artie's warm fingers touched his. Jim grabbed Artie's hands between his own and held on so tightly he saw the wince in Artie's eyes. But he didn't let go until the door opened behind him.
"You're needed inside," Grafton told Artie. He looked around assessingly. "A shame about the horses, Jim. You had a fine animal."
When Artie's eyes met Jim's, they were sparkling. Jim smiled slightly and gave a piercing whistle. In a moment, the beat of hooves was heard, and Ajax and Bob cantered up in such perfect step, they might have been a fine matched pair of carriage horses.
Jim stepped out to take Ajax's reins before he could become skittish at the smell of blood. Bob stood by placidly, his reins dangling loose. "I'll ride him into the next town, and we can arrange boarding for them there." He picked up Artie's saddle from the ground near the car and lifted it onto the front platform.
"A lot of arrangements to make there." Artie walked up the steps and disappeared inside the car a moment. He came out with a saddle blanket and handed it to Jim, who took only a few well-practiced moments to saddle Ajax.
"Devon will need help on the engine."
"I'll go," Grafton said. He swung down from the car, picked up the red lantern, and walked forward. Ajax snorted and shuffled sideways at his brisk passage. Used to his mount's restlessness, Jim merely followed, tightening straps and doing up buckles.
Artie lifted Jim's jacket from the railing, where it had remained untouched through the entire incident, and handed it down to him. "Best put it on before we get to town." His fingers tugged gently on the shoulder of Jim's shirt. "We're going to look disreputable enough without this."
"Hm?" Jim peered down and discovered that his shirt was torn open along the shoulder seam. He didn't even know when it'd happened. "Good point." He turned his head quickly to kiss Artie's fingers before they were withdrawn.
Jim pulled on his jacket. He gathered up Bob's reins before mounting Ajax. The horse danced sideways as Jim offered Artie a quick smile. "Later." It wasn't, quite, a question.
Artie smiled back, and answered as if had been. "Later, Jim."
The Wanderer limped on her way, leaving a third of her length behind, lying alongside the tracks like one more corpse.
Jim tied both horses' reins to the front railing of the parlor car -- now the Wanderer's only car -- and mounted the steps. The door opened soundlessly.
Bishop's body was no longer completely shrouded in the blanket. The soft folds had been neatly turned back to reveal his face. Blaylock was sitting on the floor beside the cot, one hand on the shoulder of the dead man. And Artie, far from scolding his wandering patient, was sitting right next to him, his arm around Blaylock.
"...saved my life." Blaylock bent his tear-stained face, and Artie pulled him closer.
Jim's eyes met Artie's over Blaylock's bent head. Artie's expression was the equivalent of a shrug, intermixed with deepest empathy. Jim nodded and retreated, closing the door silently behind him.
He had no trouble finding the stationmaster in his neat little office and persuading him to send for the law. By the time Jim had arranged for the stabling of the horses, and filled the stationmaster in on the necessity of sending some men out to dismantle and remove the damaged train car from beside the tracks, the sheriff arrived, and it was necessary to show his Secret Service card to convince the man that he need only retrieve and bury the bodies they'd left scattered near the tracks, not mount a full investigation.
A crew of men ordered off every other task in the yard were loading coal into the tender when Jim emerged into the late afternoon sun. He found Devon inspecting his engine, looking older but somehow spryer than when they'd left San Francisco.
"We should have taken on more trainmen," Jim said by way of greeting. "It was unfair and dangerous to expect you to run the Wanderer without experienced help."
"Oh no, Mr. West." Devon took off his cap and swiped at his forehead and gray-streaked hair with a checkered handkerchief. "We canna take on unknown men, sir. Not with an important man like Himself on board. It wouldn't be safe."
"You need sleep," Jim told him.
Devon shook his head. "I'll sleep when we're in Washington. Til then, I can do well enough on me own, with two of you fellas to keep 'er belly full of coal." His fingers closed on Jim's forearm, squeezing hard. "I can still get us there in twenty-four, thirty hours at th'most."
Jim smiled and clapped him on the shoulder. "All right, Devon." He took a couple of steps away before turning back. "No need to rush this stop, Devon. Go get a meal, or take a nap or something. It will take some time to make the necessary arrangements."
Devon nodded, but Jim had a feeling the engineer would use the extra time for work. Perhaps go over the engine again. He knew he could order Devon to rest -- even set a man or two on him to make sure he did -- but he guessed that the Irishman would emerge more rested from working on his engine than any other pursuit.
Artie called to him from the car, and Jim went to help move Bishop's body. Grant came with them, over the objections of his remaining bodyguard, including Blaylock. They carried Bishop and Blaylock through the hushed stationhouse to the back room. The blanket-shrouded form was laid gently on one of the bunks available to passing trainmen, Blaylock in the bunk opposite, his face bleached white with pain and grief.
The stationmaster was somewhat less than pleased to have a dead body on the premises. However, he wasn't slow about recognizing the important man who accompanied the body in, so refrained from voicing his displeasure, but the way he hovered in the doorway made it plain enough.
"I can make the arrangements," Blaylock said. He overrode all objections without raising a voice thin and tenuous. "I'm stuck here until my leg heals anyway. I'll take care of Bishop."
"Do you have a good doctor in town?" Artie asked the stationmaster.
"Never mind that," Grant said. "You run trains to Galena, correct?"
"Yes, sir." He clasped his hands in front of his black vest, his fingers nervously fiddling with his watch fob. "Next one tomorrow morning."
"You'll run a special tonight," Grant told him, and the man only blinked, forgetting even to bristle, at the command. "Mr. Gordon, I'll need your services to telegraph a doctor I know in Galena. An excellent physician," he assured Blaylock.
"Thank you, sir."
Grant shook his head. He clasped the injured man's hand between both of his own, his silent commiseration nearly driving Blaylock to tears. "You come back to Washington when you're healed."
"Mr. Gordon, the telegraph?" Grant headed for the door, the stationmaster nearly tripping over his own feet getting out of the way.
"You stay put," Artie told Blaylock. "I'll be back to check on you before we leave."
"We have a telegraph operator here," the stationmaster was telling Grant when Jim and Artie joined him.
"I'm aware of that." Grant surveyed the tiny telegraph office. The operator looked up from his small desk, a thin young man with a shock of brown hair and steel-rimmed glasses. He jumped immediately to his feet when Grant's eyes lingered on him, and offered his chair to the president when he seemed inclined to sit. "If you gentlemen wouldn't mind, I need a few private minutes with my men."
The stationmaster and telegraph operator retreated from the room with equal degrees of reluctance, the former put out at being evicted from a room in his own stationhouse, the latter bubbling over with curiosity. Grafton squeezed past just as Jim reached the door. He glanced at Grant and, catching his quick nod, didn't prevent Grafton from entering. Jim closed the door and turned the key, leaving it in the lock.
"They're almost certainly listening at the door," he said as he walked over to join the others. Grafton put his back against a wall and buried his hands on his coat pockets, merely listening for the nonce.
"I'm aware of that," Grant said in a low voice.
"The telegram you wish me to send...?" Artie perched on the edge of the desk and turned the machine toward himself.
"To Galena." Grant closed his eyes, and dictated the message with slow deliberation, ignoring the clacking of the telegraph key as Artie sent it out. "'Doctor Abbey, request your attendance on an injured friend. Special train will carry you to Dixon tonight. Many thanks, your old friend, Sam.'"
Artie tapped out the final stop and waited a moment to hear the acknowledgment. Then, with a satisfied nod, he put the instrument back and stood.
"I'd best go check on Blaylock."
"Just a minute, Mr. Gordon. There's another matter I wish to discuss with you all." His quick gray eyes touched briefly on first Artie, then Grafton.
Jim, the last to feel those eyes on him, responded, "Sir?"
"I've been thinking, Mr. West."
"Perhaps these 'accidents' weren't designed to kill me at all, but merely to delay my arrival." He held up a hand to forestall Jim's response. "Hear me out."
Grant stroked his beard with his left hand. "It's rather amazing, don't you think, that all these apparent attempts on my life have been unsuccessful?"
"Lucky, sir," Artie said, "rather than amazing."
"But is it only luck, Mr. Gordon? You said yourself that the consequences would have been disastrous if the rear car had come uncoupled in the mountains. And yet our passage through both mountain ranges was uneventful. Whoever this is has had plenty of opportunities to kill me. Only this afternoon, a sharpshooter could have put a bullet in me at any time while we worked to get the car off the tracks."
"Perhaps they didn't have a sharpshooter," Jim suggested.
"Perhaps they aren't trying to kill me." Grant's right hand, fingers curled, rested on his thigh. He transferred it to the table. "Perhaps they're merely trying to delay my arrival in Washington."
"To what purpose, sir?" Grafton asked from his perch against the wall.
Grant shook his head. "I don't know. I only hope... there's been no news of Julia?"
"No, sir," Artie replied quietly. "I've checked at every opportunity."
Grant bowed his head. When he raised it, his expression was adamant. "I must get to Washington with all speed. We will proceed on the assumption that there have been and will be no attempts on my life."
"And to aid our quick passage," Grant continued without pause, ignoring Artie, "I will help fire the train myself."
"Mr. West. Would you deny me the right to do this? To use the strength remaining in these sinews in any way I can to reach my Julia in time?"
Jim glanced at Artie, then down at the floor. Though he might fault Grant's logic, he couldn't fault his heart. But that was neither here nor there. There was no arguing with Grant once he'd made up his mind. He was, after all, the president. "No sir." He raised his eyes to his commander's. "But you will not deny us the right to protect you."
"No, Mr. West."
"Good." Jim nodded. "Then Mr. Grafton, Mr. Gordon, or I will always be in the cab if you are. And I think," he said to Artie, "we'd best give Devon a rifle to keep in the cab." Artie nodded.
"I'll take my place in the cab when we leave here," Grant said.
Grafton pushed off the wall without removing his hands from his pockets. "Then I'd better get back to the engine, hadn't I?"
"You've been there since the car derailed," Jim pointed out.
Grafton shrugged. "I'm fresh still. Might as well keep shoveling coal." He turned the key in the lock and brushed past the stationmaster and telegraph operator.
"Oh," Grant said, "I nearly forgot." He reached into his pockets, and removed Bishop's pistols, one from each. Jim blinked, and looked away from Artie's poorly suppressed smile, for how the president could have forgotten he had five pounds of iron in his coat pockets...
Artie took the guns. "I put Bishop's gunbelt in his bag. I'll return these to it." He headed for the door.
"Thank you, Mr. Gordon."
"If you'll stay here or in the parlor until we're ready to leave, sir?"
"I believe I'll stay here, Mr. West."
"Very well." He turned and spied O'Connell just outside the door, his bulky arm wrapped in a sling. Jim gestured him in, noting that the man was wearing his gunbelt, and clapped him on the shoulder before leaving him with the president. Grant was staring out the window, his left hand absently stroking his beard, and Jim wondered if he even saw the sun-washed trainyard before him.
Kneeling in the middle of the small back room, Artie had retrieved Bishop's gunbelt from his bag, and was returning the guns to the holsters when Jim caught up with him. Blaylock lay with his head turned to the side, his eyes fixed first on Artie, then past him on Bishop's body, then back.
"Here." Artie rose and laid the gunbelt in Blaylock's lap. "I assume you'd like to have these."
Blaylock's fingers rested lightly on the beautifully tooled leather. "He didn't have any family," he said softly. He ran a finger along a smooth-polished ebony handle.
Artie laid a comforting hand on Blaylock's shoulder before turning to check on his leg. There was blood spotting the newest bandage, but the stains were small; the bleeding had slowed. Blaylock would live, if Grant's friend was as good a doctor as he believed.
Knowing himself, and his inadequacy with people's emotions, Jim reluctantly stepped back to leave.
He turned back. "Yes?"
Blaylock looked mildly embarrassed. "I think I handed my gun to Grafton when..." he shrugged. "I'd hate to lose it."
"I'll get it." Jim headed out quickly, relieved that there was something he could do to help. He blinked away the declining sun and cast about the trainyard for Grafton. The crew had finished fueling.
Grafton turned from the engine where he was having a, hopefully peaceable, discussion with Devon. He came over at Jim's gesture.
"You still have Blaylock's gun?"
Grafton's hand moved automatically to his coat pocket, then paused. Slowly, he reached in and fished out the gun. "Completely forgot about it," he said.
"Thanks." Jim took the weapon from him, wondering at the strange reluctance. Before he could ask, Grafton turned on his heel and walked back to the engine.
Jim glanced down at the gun in his hand. It was an
unexceptional Colt Peacemaker, well-maintained, with gold lettering on
the butt. "J.B. from V.B." Jim ran his thumb across the letters and
wondered, suddenly, what Bishop's first name had been. It seemed
criminal that he didn't know.
Jim braced himself as the brake was released. He could hear the drive wheels slip once, twice, on the iron rails before they caught and the Wanderer slowly rolled out of Dixon.
Then he turned back to his self-imposed task. Artie found him there, pulling the bloodied sheets off the bunk.
"I can make my own bed, you know."
"I know." Jim balled the sheets up and tossed them into a hamper built into the corner of the room. He knelt to pull clean sheets from the cabinet under the bed. Artie helped him spread out the crisp linen and tuck it into place. They worked silently, without looking at each other, very careful not to touch each other in the seductive folds of the bedclothes.
When it was done, Jim walked to his bureau, shrugging out of his jacket as he went. Artie took it from him and folded it neatly.
"Cut sleeve," Artie said softly.
Artie stepped close, the heat of his body balm to Jim's senses, and lightly touched the split seam of Jim's shirt. "The Chinese have a phrase, more of an image really," he said, his voice soft and low. "Two thousand years ago, give or take, a Chinese emperor was resting next to his lover. The young man fell asleep on the emperor's wide sleeve, and when it came time to rise, the emperor cut off his sleeve rather than disturb his lover."
"Cut sleeve," Jim said, "a euphemism for..." he hesitated, seeking as nonjudgmental a phrase in English, "male love?"
Artie nodded. "Nice, isn't it?"
Jim smiled. He gently wrapped Artie in his arms. "And where did you learn that?"
"From a Chinaman, of course." Artie grinned at him, entirely unrepentant. But when Jim leaned to kiss him, Artie turned his face away.
"You're not still..."
"No," Artie said quickly. He bent his head to rest against Jim's, and his arms were warm and secure around him. "When the car derailed, and I didn't know if you were safe..."
"I know," Jim said, thinking of those horrible moments in the cab when they fought desperately not to collide with the Southern Bell, and he could think of nothing but Artie, separated from him by the bulk of two train cars.
"I was a fool, not to realize that stopping this before it goes any further would do nothing to save me from fear and worry. If I never saw you again from this day forth, I would still feel what Grant's feeling now." He laughed softly. "There's no escape."
"Do you want one?" Jim whispered.
"Then why won't you let me kiss you?"
Artie pressed his forehead against Jim's, then drew back with a sigh. "Because I want it too badly."
Jim groaned softly as the words spilled heat through him. Artie's laugh was a little shaky.
"We're neither of us strong enough to control this. Not right now."
Jim reluctantly released Artie, the pain of withdrawal soothed by Artie's equal reluctance. He stepped cautiously back and turned away to change his shirt. He could feel Artie's eyes on him, burning on his exposed skin, and was careful not to turn around until every button was fastened.
"Where did you sleep last night?"
Artie grinned ruefully. "In a chair in the parlor."
Jim stepped close and quickly kissed Artie on the cheek. "Then it's high time you took to your bunk."
Artie's skin was flushed becomingly. He hesitated. "I'd... rather sleep in yours, if you don't mind."
Jim closed his eyes, only opening them again when he thought he could control himself. "Please," he said huskily.
He stood by the door and watched with hungry eyes as Artie
pulled off his boots and jacket, and laid himself in the soft blankets.
Jim turned down the lamp and stepped quietly out of the room. He stood
with his back against the closed door, his hands clenched tightly, for
many minutes before dragging himself away to sit in the parlor and
The burning maw of the firebox was ravenous.
Jim tipped shovelful after shovelful into the scorching depths where the hunger was never quenched, never satisfied. In the darkness, the glow from the open door was as bright as the rising sun. A great swath of firelight licked out over the pile of black diamonds behind him.
Jim turned and dug his shovel into the coal with a crunch he couldn't hear, but felt through his hands. Lift, turn, toss, turn, lift. Like a child's mechanical toy, he repeated the same motions over and over again. Mindlessly, endlessly.
The engine roared in his ears. It belched forth ash which pattered down upon him as gently as rain. Each town they passed in the night was greeted with the warning of the whistle, the deep wail ringing in Jim's bones. There weren't any words for the men in the cab. Just the moonlight on the tracks, the fire sparking crimson on the polished barrel of the rifle behind Devon's seat.
Jim turned back from the inferno, and cast his eyes up. The red eye of the furnace spotted a white gleam, a linen collar. Jim watched for a stolen moment. Watched Artie turn, and lift, and toss, and turn. And black diamonds slid down to fill his own shovel. Artie's smooth rhythm hesitated, and his teeth shone for a second in the glittering light.
Jim smiled back.
He dug his shovel into the coal, lifted a load, turned, and tossed it into the firebox.
Jim stopped in Artie's lab, and watched with weary eyes as Artemus went on into the sleeping compartment ahead of him. Grant advanced from the door in the hall.
"The tender is nearly full, sir," Jim told him. "Bill and Grafton will fire the train."
"Yes, I know." Grant put a hand out to steady himself on the table when the train jerked into motion. Jim nearly didn't catch himself, his legs rubbery with fatigue. "I want to thank you. You and Mr. Gordon both. We'll be in Washington in another four or five hours."
"I'm sorry we couldn't make it in four days, sir."
"Nonsense, man! It'll be dawn when we get there. The morning of the fifth day. It'll do." Grant nodded to himself. "It will do."
"I hope so, sir."
"I know you're ready for your bed. I'll only keep you a minute. I had word sent ahead by telegraph while you saw to the refueling -- there'll be an armed escort waiting for me when we reach Washington. So you needn't worry about my safety once we're there."
"As you say, sir," was all Jim could think to say. His mind refused to grasp the point. Grant obviously saw as much and took pity on him.
"You and Mr. Gordon can get some sleep. I'll have no further need of your services once we reach Washington, and I sincerely hope you both sleep straight through our arrival. Understood?"
"Perhaps it would be better if we--"
"Mr. West, is that understood?"
Jim smiled involuntarily. "Yes, sir. It's understood."
"Good." Grant put his hands on Jim's shoulders and squeezed firmly. "Thank you, James."
"You're welcome, sir."
Jim accepted the gentle shove toward the sleeping compartment. He dragged himself through the door and closed it firmly behind him. In the low flame of the lamp, he could see Artie already laid out on the bed. Jim's bed.
"O'Connell's in my bed," Artie said around a yawn.
Jim looked over and realized it was true. "Grant's not going to need us once we get there." Jim sat on the edge of the bunk to pull off his boots. "We can stay on the train."
"Good." Artie rolled onto his side, his back to Jim. "I could sleep for days."
Jim stood and awkwardly pulled off his jacket. He looked down at Artie lying on top of the blankets, fully clothed but for boots and jacket, his cheek smudged with coal dust, and knew he was very tired, and had it very bad, because he couldn't think of anything more seductive. His cock didn't even stir at the thought, and Jim laughed softly to himself. Apparently, he'd finally reached the point where he was too tired to be aroused by Artie. It suited him just fine, right then.
Jim blew out the lamp and made his way to the bed in the dark. He dropped wearily onto his bunk and curled himself gratefully around Artie. It was warm and comfortable, and every bit as perfect as he'd imagined.
Despite his exhaustion, however, he didn't fall immediately to sleep. His mind wrestled fitfully with the order Grant had just given him. To stay put when his president left. There hadn't been an attempt on the train since the ambush. The Wanderer had run smooth and sure for more than twenty-four hours. Perhaps the saboteur had been killed or incapacitated. Or scared off. Still, it went against his nature not to see an assignment through to completion.
Artie stirred in his arms, and Jim tightened his embrace. He smiled sleepily in the darkness. Artie fit so perfectly into the curve of his body: to chest, thigh, knee, hips. He pressed himself closer against Artie's warm back, his groin nudging the soft resilience of Artie's buttocks. Jim's yawn came near to dislocating his jaw.
Grant had arranged for an armed escort. Half a dozen, a dozen men strong, if he knew the president. What good could two more do? Two men who'd been explicitly ordered not to come.
Jim nuzzled into the soft hair at the nape of Artie's neck. He
reverently breathed in the warm sleeping heat of Artie's body, the
spicy, sweaty, utterly masculine smell of his partner. And fell deeply
asleep between one breath and the next.
He was disoriented, at first, when he woke. It wasn't the warm rise and fall of Artie's chest under his cheek, but the lack of a more encompassing motion which had disturbed him. As Jim pushed himself up on his elbows, Artie's eyes opened.
A half-smile danced on Jim's face as he watched the sleepy brown eyes clear rapidly. The smile, however, fell almost instantly prey to the desire which captured him when Artie looked up at him in the dim room, awake, aware, hard body quivering under him. Their legs had tangled in sleep, and Jim's knee was drawn up between Artie's thighs, pressing lightly upon the heat and sweet weight of Artie's groin. Desire rushed through Jim's veins, and he'd bent down until their lips almost touched before he remembered.
He was out of the bed in a moment. The other bunk, praise be, was empty. The gray light of early morning flooded into the compartment when he twitched the curtains aside to see the Washington trainyard. Jim pulled them carefully back into place, veiling the room in obscurity again. He opened the door into Artie's lab and stuck his head out. Listening intently, he thought he heard the rapid beat of many hooves receding quickly away. President Grant dashing off for the White House with Bill and his remaining bodyguard, and no further need for two weary Secret Service agents. Jim only hoped he would find Mrs. Grant in improving health.
He drew his head back through the door and closed it firmly. The clunk as he shot the bolt seemed loud in the dim room. Jim took a match from the box under the lamp and lit it. The glow of the lamp spread out into the room, fingers of light stroking Artie's face. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, watching Jim, the faint curve of his lips compelling in the half-light.
Jim went to him.
It was upon them now. After days where everything seemed to conspire to keep them apart. Days of stress and strain which could have fractured iron. Days of work which still ached in every limb. He couldn't really feel that ache now; it paled in comparison to the other, which shivered through Jim's muscles with inexpressible power. He thought he saw Artie shake in sympathy.
"Are you frightened?" Jim's voice was barely above a whisper.
"Terrified." His smile grew slightly.
Artie's eyes widened, as if he didn't believe that James West would ever admit to being scared. He wasn't, generally. Not much in the world scared him. Losing Artie, yes. Loving him? Never. Being loved by him? Definitely not. But this thing they were going to do between them... this, he justifiably feared, for it was the most powerful thing he could imagine. A fire which would scar him forever.
His fingers shook when he reached down to take Artie's hand. He tried not to notice, and then he felt the fine tremor in Artie's fingers, and found that it didn't matter. Jim lifted Artie's hand to his lips and placed a kiss on his fingers, another in the center of his palm, then the tender skin at his inner wrist. He tasted of salt and coal dust. Jim's expression no doubt said as much.
Artie laughed softly. He rose off the bed in a lithe rush to stand, momentarily, too close for equanimity. Briefly, his fingers brushed the back of Jim's neck, his forehead touched Jim's. Then he slid away, to the porcelain basin in its sturdy wooden washstand. Artie bent to release the pitcher of water from his restraints, uncapped it, and poured the basin half-full of cool water. By the time he finished wringing out a rag, Jim had stripped the filthy blankets off the bed and come to him again.
Without a word, Artie applied the cloth to Jim's face, stroking gently over his forehead, down his cheek, rough across the stubble of several days' beard. Wiping away the black coal dust, the sweat and grime, making him ready. When he was finished with Jim's face, Artie rinsed the cloth and Jim took it from him. Artie closed his eyes and stood quietly as Jim ran the cloth carefully over the familiar features. He finished with a playful dab to Artie's nose, which provoked a broad grin.
The cloth went back into the water and the grin faded. Jim's fingers went to his shirt buttons, Artie's mirroring the movement. Slowly, each button gave and each shirt loosened. When his shirt was open down the front, Jim took Artie's right wrist between his hands and worked loose the button on the cuff. Then the other one. Artie did the same for him, his fingers warm and steady on Jim's wrists.
As he shrugged off his shirt, watching intently while Artie did the same, Jim wondered if it ought to feel cool in the room. The heat in his veins gave him no indication.
The wet cloth swept with long deliberate strokes over Jim's chest. Artie's other hand grasped his shoulder firmly, two drops of water letting loose of his fingers to run teasingly down Jim's back. Artie washed his chest, and back, and down both arms to the tips of every finger, leaving nothing out. When he was done, Jim took the cloth from him and rinsed it in the water which was rapidly growing dingy.
Artie shivered a little when the cloth touched his chest for the first time. Though he was aware that Artie's gaze rested unwaveringly on his face -- how could he not be? -- Jim kept his eyes on the movement of his hand over Artie's chest. He didn't know how he could retain his control if he met that passionate gaze.
Artie's skin was pure silk under his hands. Jim let his fingertips lap over the edge of the cloth to taste what would only be forbidden for a short while longer. Artie made a soft sound in his throat, and Jim quickly pressed his fingers to Artie's lips, groaning himself at their soft heat. He quickly removed his hand, half-expecting to find his fingers burned, and returned the cloth to the water.
They looked at each other now, heated gazes meeting, mating. Jim saw Artie's chest rise in a great breath and unconsciously followed suit, taking in a lungful of cool air which didn't help at all. He saw Artie's eyes drop to his chest, then lower, and felt himself flush with heat. Jim's hands, operating without conscious command, went to the waistband of his trousers. Before he could undo the fastening, warm fingers covered his.
Jim's hands dropped away, dangling loosely at his sides while Artie unfastened his pants. His breath shuddered out of him when Artie's hands slid under the waistband of his trousers, fingers spread wide across his hips. Artie stepped closer, their chests almost touching, the sound of his breathing loud in the still room. Jim pressed his head blindly sideways against Artie's.
His pants dropped with a soft whisper to the floor. The place Artie's hands had been seemed to burn in the absence of that touch. The only contact between them the press of brow to brow, cheek to cheek, Jim reached out to unfasten Artie's pants. And then they were both naked, standing so close they might touch if either swayed even a little. For a moment they stood frozen, locked into this tableau of desire, half-afraid to turn the key. Finally Jim drew his head back, moving as slowly as he could, as fast as he dared, and felt Artie's head turning toward him.
Somewhere in the middle their lips met.
They met in the kiss they hadn't dared since that day in the stable car, and the tableau was broken. All control was broken. With a deep yearning sound, Artie wrapped his arms around Jim, and Jim was no slackard, his hands clutching, grasping Artie wherever he could reach, dragging him closer. Jim moaned, shuddering as they touched finally, skin against skin along all their length. Artie's groan rumbled through both their chests, merely adding fuel to the fire which consumed them.
Artie's mouth was warm, sweet, a wildfire of desire at which Jim drank without fear or restraint. Their teeth met, clashed, but neither was prepared to do anything but get closer. Jim swept his hands up and down Artie's back, molding the heavy muscles with the flat of his palm, pulling him in tighter. Their cocks met, rubbed shockingly against each other. Artie shuddered against Jim, his hands grabbing at Jim's hips, then dropping unerringly to enclose his buttocks and drag him into an abortive thrust that broke the kiss with their gasps.
The bed was a short step away. Jim stepped, turned, and with a simple twist brought them both down upon the mattress. Artie made a soft noise of surprise at finding himself flat on his back with Jim on top. Far from complaining, however, he merely spread his legs and hauled Jim more securely against him. With a growl, Jim dove into another kiss, grinding his cock against Artie's belly. Artie gave as good as he got, his arms winding around Jim with the tenacity of an octopus, pushing his hips down against Artie's, pulling his head into the kiss. As if he might escape. As if he wanted to.
There came a point, finally, when Jim had gone so far into passion he reached a point of relative sanity. His hips rolled incessantly against Artie's, driving their cocks against each other, building arousal past any thought of stopping. His breath catching hot and tight in his lungs, Jim wanted. But what he wanted wasn't so easy. With a woman, there wasn't any question. With a woman, at this point, lying between her legs with her thighs clutching his hips, both of them crazy with desire, he knew what to do. She would be wet and open and he'd thrust himself into her to pleasure them both. It wasn't so simple here.
Jim broke the kiss, propping himself on his elbows, panting as he stared down at Artie's flushed face. Artie bucked under him, driving them together with a pleasure that almost drove the thought from Jim's mind. But he'd always been a stubborn man.
He resisted the pressure of Artie's hand at the back of his head, resisted the sight of that wet, kiss-swollen mouth.
"Artie..." he panted, surprised to hear only a thread of sound. Jim swallowed thickly and tried again. "Artie, I want to be inside you."
The brown eyes, already dark with arousal, went almost black. Artie heaved under Jim, his thighs squeezing Jim's hips almost painfully. He started nodding before he got enough breath to speak.
"Yes. Jesus, Jim, yes."
Jim stopped resisting and collapsed atop Artie, exchanging wet sucking kisses until Artie pushed him away. He forced himself back on his heels, keeping one palm running ceaselessly over Artie's belly, unable to completely break the contact. And for the first time, looked at Artie's naked body in the throes of passion.
The erect cock drew his hand. Jim stroked his palm down the thick, rose-tinged length and heard Artie's strangled moan, muffled through the pulse beating frantically in his ears. He slipped his hand under the heavy velvet balls and found the opening to Artie's body. The tiny pucker was hot, dry. Jim pulled his hand away, fingers closing into the palm in regret.
It took considerable effort to rise from the bed, to separate himself from his lover. Jim grabbed the top drawer of the closest bureau, his own, and hauled it open. He dug through the contents, then the next drawer, and the next, not finding anything suitable. Surely there was something. He started in on the other bureau.
Jim followed the soft suggestion and his fingers struck a glass jar almost instantly. He shoved the drawer shut with his hip as he pulled the cork stopper out of the unlabeled jar and sniffed at the contents. It smelled benign enough. He dipped his fingers in it and rubbed the lotion between them, trying not to think of that cool slickness on his aching cock. When he touched his fingers to his tongue, he found the taste unpleasant, but that wasn't the point. There was no sting, no burning. If it didn't hurt the inside of his mouth, then it wouldn't hurt the inside of Artie's... Jim closed his eyes on that image and fought back the wave of desire it inspired.
The search had cooled him down just enough to think about what they were doing. What he was planning on doing to Artie. Oh god, there was that image again. Jim bit his tongue hard for control. It wasn't fair to the other man, pushing him into this, taking advantage of his desire. He couldn't...
Jim turned, almost ashamed now of his rampant erection, to tell Artie they'd try something else this first time. The words died on his tongue. Artie's head was turned to watch Jim, passion and appreciation in his dark eyes, his legs bent and splayed, hand idly milking his hard cock as he waited for his lover. For Jim.
It took Jim mere moments to lay himself once again in the cradle of that body. The jar thumping to the mattress next to Artie's head didn't even make him blink. Jim burrowed his fingers into Artie's hair, his cock burrowing into Artie's belly, oblivious to the hand he trapped between them. His kiss was gentle and sweet on Artie's lips. He lingered there only a minute, for fear of waking that mindless passion which had nearly swept them away before. Jim turned Artie's head to the side and devoted himself to the tender hollow under his ear, the long sensitive curve of neck. Artie moaned and shivered. The backs of his fingers brushed Jim's belly as his hand ran lingeringly up his cock.
Jim smiled against Artie's neck. He dipped his tongue into the hollow above his collarbone, then set his teeth lightly against the curve of bone. Then it was his turn to gasp, for the return journey of Artie's hand encompassed both their cocks.
Feeling Artie's chest shake with his chuckle, Jim abandoned his tender exploration in favor of a quick kiss before pushing himself upright again. There would be another time. There would have to be, for he didn't have the control now for a slow seduction. From the devilish glint in Artie's eye, he wouldn't have stood for it anyway.
Jim covered Artie's hand with his own, guiding him in several strokes, not sure which was better, the rough slide of Artie's hand on one side or the smooth hardness of his cock on the other. He drew regretfully out of the circle of Artie's fingers before it could become too seductive.
Artie handed Jim the jar, their fingers meeting, eyes catching as the cool glass changed hands. Jim dipped into the lotion, coating his fingers with it before setting the jar safely on the floor. Artie's eyes were closed, and Jim knew he anticipated the next touch: fingers and lotion. Keeping his slick hand from the sheet, Jim bent and touched his lips to Artie's soft belly. Artie's gasp was audible. Turning his head to the side, lightly scraping Artie with his stubble, Jim looked at the head of Artie's cock, quivering with need. Daringly, he touched his tongue to the flushed, weeping head. Artie whimpered.
Jim hauled himself away with an effort. He didn't dare watch as he applied the lotion to Artie's body. Looking at Artie's face wasn't any less inflaming, he discovered as the first finger breached the barrier. Eyes closed, Artie tossed his head, an indescribable expression flitting across his open countenance. Jim froze for a moment, realizing he was seeing Artie completely free of disguise and subterfuge for perhaps the first time. The realization was both oddly tender and frighteningly arousing. Artie's chest heaved when Jim pushed the second finger inside.
Blinking sweat out of his eyes, Jim watched Artie stroke himself, mesmerized by the sight of Artie's hand sliding over his cock almost as surely as he was captivated by the tight grip on his fingers. He rubbed some lotion off his palm with the other hand and ran two fingers, slick with the stuff, up the underside of Artie's cock from base to head.
"Ah!" Artie's eyes flew open, his glare somewhat weakened by the blaze of desire in his eyes. "Now, Jim. Please. Now."
It was too hot. Too hot to breathe, surely. Panting, Jim withdrew his fingers and rubbed the remaining slickness on his cock as he reached with the other hand for more lotion. Artie hooked one hand behind his thigh and pulled his legs up a bit more as Jim crowded between his thighs. Holding his breath, Jim looked down and realized there was a problem.
"The pillow?" he asked Artie, who craned his neck to find it above his head. He grabbed it and handed it to Jim, then showed an admirable grasp of the situation by lifting his hips so Jim could shove it under him. Much better. "Ready?"
Artie laughed breathlessly. "Just do it, Ji--" he broke off with a gasp. Jim grinned wickedly and continued his slow thrust, forcing himself not to go too fast, and not to close his eyes as the hot depths enveloped him. "Ah-- I-- oh god," Artie moaned. His head was thrown back, and Jim couldn't see his face.
He bent far enough to slide his hand under Artie's head and turn the flushed face toward him. The position did nothing to stop the slow penetration. Luckily, Artie's face was a mask of pleasure only lightly touched with the bittersweet of pain. Jim bent his head under the weight of his relief.
The last inch was accomplished with an involuntary thrust. His head bent, Jim saw Artie's cock pulse at that final jerk, spitting fluid onto his belly. He wrapped his fingers around Artie's cock and rubbed the head back and forth through its own juices. Artie shuddered, the muscles of his chest and belly tightening. A strong hand grabbed the back of Jim's neck as Artie hauled himself up to press his head against Jim's. Jim turned his head and found Artie's mouth waiting for him.
The kiss was short and awkward, and indescribably sweet.
In the midst of it, Jim began reluctantly to withdraw. He wrapped his arm around the back of Artie's neck and didn't let him fall back to the mattress when they broke.
"Watch," Jim commanded breathlessly, "watch me going into you." Artie's fingers tightened on Jim's shoulder, his muscles jumping with the strain of curling himself up to see.
Artie growled deep in his throat and dropped back to the mattress with a groan. "I can't," he panted, "wrong angle."
"Pity." Jim's gaze remained fixed on the place where they joined, the breath shuddering in his lungs as he saw his cock vanishing a little at a time into Artie's body. When he was finally deeply seated again, Jim said regretfully: "I wish you could."
"God, Jim." Artie arched his back, his cock rising rampant with pleasure. Jim thrust deeper, taking up the slack Artie had created. "I don't have to see it--" Artie broke off with a ragged whimper. "I feel it."
A red curtain of desire dropped before Jim's eyes. With a growl, he pulled almost completely out and thrust full length. Artie's cry fed the flames and Jim pulled out again. He bore his weight on his hands and knees, and thrust with strength and mindless pleasure into the warm and welcoming depths. The desperate sounds issuing from Artie's throat urged him on to thrust deeper, harder, faster.
It ended first for Artie. His moaning and shaking reached a fever pitch, guided by his tight fist, rising and falling on his cock. His knuckles brushed Jim's belly on every stroke, keeping time for them both. The hot splash of Artie's seed sprayed against Jim's skin without warning, his body convulsing under and around Jim. With a groan, Jim bent to his task, licking hungrily at Artie's sweat-limned shoulders and chest, wishing briefly that he could bend far enough to taste the shining splatter on his belly. His own climax slammed into him a moment later, thrusting his cock in hard jerks into Artie's body, capturing the man's groans and his own with his mouth and tongue.
Jerking and shuddering, Jim collapsed on the spent body beneath him. For a time, they lay almost quietly, still interlocked, still shaken with the fading spasms of pleasure.
Finally, Jim drew together enough energy, enough willpower, to
push himself onto his knees. He withdrew his half-hard cock carefully,
touched by the defenseless whimper and involuntary shiver Artie gave at
the desertion. He forced himself off the bed, stumbled to the
washstand, and grabbed a fresh cloth, shoving it straight into the
pitcher to wet it. Jim washed the sticky mess off Artie, then himself.
He tossed the cloth at the basin and collapsed back on the bed, where
Artie's strong arms caught him and cradled him close.
The first tinkle of the bell went almost entirely unheard. So Jim told himself as he nuzzled closer to the sweet warmth of his lover. The second and third put paid to that idea.
"Telegraph?" he muttered.
"Pigeon," the chest under him rumbled.
Jim raised up just enough to find Artie's mouth with his own. They exchanged slow sweet kisses without otherwise moving until the fourth and fifth chimes sounded.
"Arabella's impatient today," Artie broke off to groan. Jim stole a final quick kiss, which turned into three or four, then hauled himself up from the bed. Dispensing with modesty, Jim merely pulled his dressing gown on over bare skin.
"Be back in a minute." He couldn't resist bending down for another kiss. Artie's fingers slid tenderly through his hair and kept him there for an endless moment. "Pigeon," Jim muttered against his lips, finally tearing free.
It might have taken him a shorter time than usual to make it out into the parlor and remove the message from the pigeon's leg. And Arabella perhaps had cause for her indignant squawk at the brusque way in which she was handled. He returned even faster.
"What's the matter?" Artie asked the minute he came through the door. He was still lying nude upon the bed, and the urgency of the situation didn't keep Jim from admiring the display. It did keep him from taking suitable advantage of it, however.
"Here." He handed the message to Artie.
"Damn," Artie breathed after quickly scanning the lines. He tossed the small bit of paper back to Jim. His quick rise from the bed stopped short, however, and Jim couldn't miss the grimace Artie gave before straightening the rest of the way up.
"What's the matter?" A thought chilled his blood. "Did I hurt you?"
Artie grinned ruefully at him and stole a reassuring kiss. "No, Jim. Though I can," he smiled wickedly, "feel that you were there." Jim fought back a hot flush. Artie's smile widened briefly, then he winced and rubbed the small of his back. "I just have to remember that I'm not that flexible next time."
Jim was startled into a relieved laugh. "I'm sure we can try something different next time," he said teasingly before the images began to hit him, each more arousing than the last.
"God, Jim, don't. Not now." But he kissed Jim thoroughly, leaving him panting, before tearing himself away to dress.
Jim pushed the last bullet into the chamber and spun the cylinder. He shoved the Colt into its holster and slung Artie's gunbelt over his shoulder. His own gun was heavy on his hip. He grabbed the rifle from the corner as he headed out the door.
"Well?" he asked, striding quickly across to meet Artie near the stationhouse.
Artie shook his head. "No escort. The telegraph operator says no wire came in requesting one."
Jim swore. "Grafton."
"It would have been easy," Artie agreed. "Grant hands him the message to send off and he goes into the stationhouse, idles around for a while, then comes out and reports that it's done. No one has any reason to doubt him." He ran a hand through his disordered curls. "But that's just it, Jim. No one has any reason to doubt him because he's perfectly loyal to Grant. He's been with him since the war, for pity's sake!"
"You saw the message, Artie. He sent the wire which resulted in our running headlong into that train." He handed Artie his gunbelt.
"And signed it?" Artie shook his head. He quickly buckled on the gun. "Why would he be damn fool enough to do that?"
"He was damn fool enough to attempt to kill us all, himself included. Why would he care if someone found out afterward that he sent the telegram?"
"It's just... hard to believe of Grafton."
"You think I don't feel that way?" Jim noticed a couple of nearby trainmen staring at him and lowered his voice. "I was in the war with him, for Christ's sake."
"I got the impression you didn't like him very much."
"Liking him has nothing to do with it, Artie. I know the man. He idolizes Grant. How could he be behind these assassination attempts?"
"I don't know, Jim."
"I know you don't." Jim forced a smile. "I think we'd better get to the president fast."
The horses they borrowed from the stationmaster were unexceptional in every way. Jim missed Ajax. He held the unfamiliar horse for his partner. Artie swung into the saddle with a grimace, then a quick smile at Jim's concern.
"Not far to the White House, Jim."
"Yeah." Jim mounted and brought the horse's head about with a gentle tug on the reins. "But are we already too late?"
It was very quiet.
Jim and Artie knelt in the bushes near the edge of the property and spied cautiously on the White House. Its white columns shone like bleached bones in the early morning sun. Everything was still. And there were no soldiers on guard outside the door.
"Did Grafton call them off, or are they in this with him, waiting inside to ambush intruders?"
Artie shrugged. "No way to tell. And we can't stay here for much longer before some concerned citizen reports us to the police."
Jim glanced back at Pennsylvania Avenue. Though it was fairly quiet now, the city was just waking up. Before long, the road would be bustling with traffic. It was only a matter of time before someone noticed them skulking in the bushes outside the White House. He handed Artie the rifle.
"You stay here and keep watch. I'm going in."
A sharp tug on his coat pulled him back down next to Artie. "You're not going without me, Jim."
"If this is what I think it is," Artie told him fiercely, "I may very well have to thrash you."
Though he was tempted to ask Artie how he thought he'd accomplish that on his own, Jim knew that for the bravado it was. Artie tended to avoid physical violence because he considered it a failure of reason, not to mention cunning. That didn't mean he couldn't whip Jim, if he was determined and desperate enough. And he'd have every right to try. Knowing he couldn't keep secret his thoughts if Artie got a chance to read his eyes, Jim kept his gaze firmly trained on the White House. It did him little good, for Artie merely turned Jim's face to his with a strong hand, and the dark eyes looked straight into his soul.
Artie swore softly under his breath. His fingers tightened almost painfully on Jim's jaw. "I'm your partner, Jim. I'm not some bit of fluff to bed and discard--"
Jim wrested his head from Artie's grip. "For Christ's sake, Artie--"
"Neither," Artie continued inexorably, "am I a helpless debutante you must keep out of the line of fire."
"Don't you think I know that?"
"Do you? You're not acting like it. I can take care of myself."
"I know!" Jim took a deep breath. "I just..." He broke off, swallowing the rest of the words unspoken.
Artie brushed his fingers lightly over Jim's cheek. "I know."
Jim bowed his head against Artie's. "Just..." he said around a tight throat, "just be careful."
"And me." He pressed his head against Artie's and felt an answering pressure.
Artie chuckled roughly. "We'd better get moving, or the concerned citizens are going to report us to the police for more than just hiding in the bushes."
"Let them," Jim said defiantly. But he reluctantly withdrew, and sat back on his haunches.
Artie cocked the rifle and raised an eyebrow. "Shall we?"
"I think we'd better." Jim drew his revolver and cocked it.
They exchanged a look, and a nod, and started toward the White House. The bushes provided excellent cover for their approach, and Jim thought absently that he should mention that to Grant once this was over.
Jim led the way, taking Artie around the side of the building, away from the front door. He steadfastly refused to believe that Grafton had many men who would do his bidding in this affair; they couldn't be covering all the doors. The door through which they entered was locked. One of Artie's gadgets quickly gave them access, and ensured it would be necessary to replace the door. The reception room into which they quietly crept was deserted and, when Jim cautiously cracked the door into the hall, he found that deserted as well.
"But where," Artie whispered almost soundlessly in Jim's ear, "is the president?"
Jim shrugged. He inclined his head toward the right end of the hall, and Artie gestured with the rifle to the left. They split up, slipping noiselessly in their respective directions, peeking into each room as they went.
"Jim!" One of Artie's penetrating stage whispers, it brought Jim back from nearly the other end of the hallway.
Artie was kneeling in the doorway to an antechamber. When Jim joined him, he found himself looking at the body of a man he didn't recognize. He looked a question at Artie, who shrugged. Jim stepped carefully over the battered form and pushed the door the rest of the way open, his gun at the ready.
Artie stood up at Jim's hoarse exclamation, and pushed past him into the room. O'Connell lay sprawled on the expensive carpet, his half-open eyes glittering between the lids. A bloody knife lay near him. Artie knelt by his side and pulled off his jacket, using the material to check the sluggish flow of blood from O'Connell's left side.
"Sorry, Jim," O'Connell whispered. Jim knelt and laid a hand on the man's shoulder. "Took him out--" He tossed his head toward the man in the doorway. "--but couldn't..."
"I know," Jim told him. "How many men does Grafton have?"
"Just him." Again he jerked his head toward the door.
"Don't move around so much," Artie told him. "Where is everyone?" he asked conversationally as he pressed the makeshift pad hard against the wound, ignoring O'Connell's pained groan. "The White House is never empty."
"Servants locked in their dormitory... His man did it before... we got here."
"Where's the president?"
O'Connell tried for a full breath and coughed painfully. "Went upstairs after Mrs. Grant."
"Bedroom. Grafton went with him. Left me with that bastard." He frowned. "That fellow told Grafton... you were checking up on him?"
"Just checking on that near-miss."
O'Connell nodded to himself. He smiled feebly. "Shook him up some."
"Good." Jim looked to Artie.
"Hold this." Artie placed O'Connell's right hand on the rough bandage and forced him to push down on it. "Hard."
O'Connell swallowed and nodded. Jim squeezed his shoulder warmly before rising and moving with Artie toward the door. "Jim?"
He turned back from the doorway.
O'Connell's smile was feral. "Kill that bastard."
"I intend to."
"How'd he find out about the message Arabella delivered?"
"I don't know, Jim." Artie glanced up and down the hall. He ran his fingers roughly through his hair. "Someone in our Washington office has been talking."
"And to the wrong people."
"Yeah. Jim, we'd better get there quick, before Grafton does something foolish."
But the loud report of someone pounding frantically on the next door down but one provided yet another interruption.
Jim stood back and aimed his gun at the door. He nodded to Artie. In a single smooth motion, Artie flung the door open, stepped back and brought the rifle to bear.
"Bill." Jim lowered his gun.
"Sorry, suh." Though his face was a rather unhealthy shade of gray, he managed to keep his voice from shaking. "Kin I help?"
"Yes," Artie said. "Run get a doctor for O'Connell -- he's in there -- then see if you can't do something about letting the servants out." He smiled slightly. "But not," he amended, "right away. We don't need any more people running around this place just now."
"Yes, suh. And suh," he said as they started away.
"Please keep de gin'ral safe."
"We'll do our best, Bill."
Sure of meeting no one else, they moved quickly through the White House. Both had been there often enough to be certain of their destination. Even if they hadn't, it would have been simple enough once they got close. The door was open, and Grafton's voice seemed loud in the silent mansion.
"...must apologize for using Mrs. Grant so poorly..."
Jim flattened himself against the wall just outside the door. Artie pressed hard against his side as they both listened.
"...but I know how excellent a tactician you are, sir. And I know the only thing preventing you from trying something is my gun against this pretty head."
Jim exchanged a look with Artie. At least there was no longer any doubt that both Grant and his wife were alive. But Grafton's threat tied their hands just as effectively as the president's.
"Are you all right, Julia?"
Her voice was soft and clear, though it wavered slightly with fright. "Yes, Ulyss. I've been very ill, but the doctors didn't know why. I'm sure I'll be on the mend soon, now that you're here."
"Poison," Grant said between his teeth. "Isn't that correct, Grafton?"
"Most perceptive, sir. It's too bad you cannot bring yourself to be so perceptive about the people you trust."
"Yes," Grant said, almost mildly, "I can see that I've failed there."
"And failed repeatedly," Grafton said pleasantly, as if he didn't recognize himself in Grant's words. "Your flirtation with scandal only grows deeper as your Presidency continues. You tarnish your hero's laurels, General Grant."
"And what has that to do with this?"
"Everything. Do you forget that I stood beside you? That I was there at Vicksburg, and Petersburg, and Appomattox? These scandals wipe those victories from people's minds, make them faint and indistinct. But I," Grafton said with an air of triumph, "I will make them remember again."
"How, sir? By killing me?"
"Oh no. No, you were right at Dixon: I never meant to harm you. Just... delay you a little. You weren't supposed to receive that telegram, you know. Not, at least, until it was... too late."
It was hard to believe that the low growl which resonated out into the hall came from a human throat. Let alone that it came from Grant.
"You wouldn't want me to put a bullet in her," Grafton said quickly. "Such a messy way to die." His voice became strident. "I suggest you step back, sir!"
Jim felt Artie tense beside him. He tightened his grip on the gun.
"Thank you," Grafton said after a moment. "I always knew you were a man of reason, Mr. President."
Jim relaxed slightly. He ruefully uncurled his left hand, which he'd instinctively clenched into a fist. Jim glanced at Artie and saw the same frustration and helplessness on his partner's face. He felt sweat trickle down his temple.
"You will pay the highest price for this treason," Grant said with icy precision. A man once said that one could not quarrel with Grant without providing all the provocation one's self, but he'd obviously never seen Grant when his wife was threatened. Harming Julia was an enormous mistake, more so than any attempted harm of Grant's own person.
"Treason? Oh no, sir. This is the purest of patriotism." And Grafton's fervor was inarguable. "I love my country, and my commander, so much that I will make the most priceless of sacrifices for it."
"An unarmed woman. Does that make you noble, sir? To be so courageous in threatening a woman?"
"Ulyss, no! Don't provoke him!"
"My dear," Grant said to his wife, "I would welcome my death, if only it spared you." There was a soft sound then, a woman's distraught tears. Grant's voice became hard and clipped. "Well, Grafton?"
"Your death, General, was never in my mind," Grafton said softly. "Do you think I could kill my President?"
"Oh, but you can kill his wife."
"Yes." Though Grafton was keeping himself on a tight rein, his agitation was beginning to show. "Yes, if I have to. The great General, a widower, a man beset by tragedy. Who would speak ill of him then? Who wouldn't remember the great good he's done the country? The courage of those who stood with him on the battlefield?"
"Courage? If you ever had any, Grafton, use it now. You want a hero again? Kill me. I die a martyr, and you get your glory back."
"Do you want so keenly to die, sir?" His voice shook.
"No, but I'm tired of waiting. Aren't you man enough to do it?"
"No, he isn't." There was no warning. Jim grabbed at Artie, but his fingers slipped off Artie's shirt, and his partner walked straight into the lion's den.
"Gordon." The sneer was well-attempted, but failed to completely hide Grafton's surprise. "Where's your shadow? Oh, I'm sorry, I almost forgot. You're the shadow. West's shadow."
"You sound," Artie said with a smile in his voice, "as if you're jealous. Are you, Grafton?"
Jim squeezed his eyes shut. First Grant tried to get himself killed, then Artie stepped in and started playing the same game. And he should have guessed that Artie would do it. He should have tied him up and left him outside. Or better yet on the train. The butt of his gun was slippery with sweat. He transferred it to the other hand, and wiped his palm on his pants.
A growl rattled in Grafton's throat. "Never mind. I'm sure West will put in an appearance when it suits him best. Not that it'll do him, or you, any good. Put the rifle down, Gordon. You wouldn't want anything to happen to Mrs. Grant."
"No, I wouldn't." There was a thump as the rifle landed on the soft carpet. "Though I fail to see why you're bothering with the gun." Jim could easily picture Artie's elaborate shrug.
"A simple but effective method of protection."
"But ultimately flawed," Artie said. "What happens to your plan if you put a bullet in her?"
"Pardon me, sir, but it might be best if you remain silent."
Jim bent his head against the wall and tried not to laugh. How like Artie. The desire to laugh was short-lived, however. Jim was bitterly aware that it was extremely likely either his President or his lover would end up dead in the next few minutes. It was his sworn duty to protect Grant, but his heart's vows were made to Artie. Somehow, he had to keep them both safe, and he didn't know quite how he was going to do that.
"Thank you, sir. So, Grafton, precisely how does it serve your purpose to shoot Mrs. Grant?"
"A widower is a widower."
"But it would be better, I'm sure you agree, if she died of something... innocent. An unrecognizable illness, for example. Now that would be a great tragedy. But if she were killed by one of Grant's own bodyguard, the scandal would rock the nation. "Still," he continued, "that's neither here nor there. For it doesn't take into account the difficult position you've got yourself into, does it?"
"Perhaps. It just strikes me that... if you kill her, you'll have forfeited the excellent protection she now offers you," Artie pointed out reasonably. "And if you do not kill her, you'll have failed. And killed Sam and Bishop for nothing."
"Not nothing. It wouldn't have been for nothing if you and West hadn't stuck your noses where they don't belong."
"If we hadn't found you out, you mean. You must have known someone would, eventually. Why put your name on that message?"
"Why not? Who would have noticed, once the nation was plunged into morning for dear Julia Grant? Who would have thought it anything but a terrible mistake? Besides," he added ruefully, "what trainmaster would have let that train through on the weight of an unsigned telegraph?"
"None, I should hope."
"And you kept the train moving." Grafton's voice dropped to a near whisper without losing any of its intensity. "Damn you and West. Every obstacle I put in the way you vaulted as if it were nothing. A day more. That's all I needed, just one day, and she would be too far gone for any man's medicine. Step back, sir!"
"President Grant," Artie said quietly, his voice impossibly steady.
"Damn you, sir," Grant said, "may God damn you to hell." And Jim's muscles tightened viscerally at more than the deadly tone. In four years of war, he'd not once heard even the most mild of curses from the lips of this man. "I trusted you, Grafton. I heard your oath of allegiance and thought never to question your loyalty."
"Loyalty," Grafton sneered. "You expect it from everyone. You surround yourself with charlatans and crooks, men who want only the money, the power, they can squeeze out of you. And why? Because they pretend to be loyal to you, and you give them the utmost of your loyalty in return. And then they turn around and betray you."
"No!" he shouted. Then a quiet moment, punctuated by Grafton's heavy breaths. "No," he said, a little more calmly. "My loyalty knows no bounds. Everyone else is crooked, twisted with greed and their own selfish goals. They cause scandal after scandal, and the disgrace hovers around you until the whole nation laughs. And no one remembers the Grant who took Vicksburg, who plunged into the Wilderness after the enemy, who ran Lee to ground and forced him to surrender. No one remembers anymore."
"And you're going to make them remember?" Artie asked quietly. Jim crouched to take himself out of the direct line of sight and darted a quick glance around the doorframe. Grafton and Mrs. Grant were in a direct line with the door, near the back of the room. No clean shot there, though; he had his arm snug around Mrs. Grant's waist, and held her squarely between him and the door. Grant was off to the left, and Artie stood only a few feet from the door. His rifle lay across the toe of his right boot, something Grafton had apparently not noticed.
"Dead heroes are always heroes," Grafton said simply.
"I thought you weren't interested in killing the President."
"What choice do I have now? There's no way out of this." Grafton sounded unnaturally calm. "No way but one. There won't be a scandal. Not when the President is killed trying to protect his wife."
"You can't think you'll get away with it," Artie said, a touch of wonder in his voice.
"Why not, if we're all dead?" There was triumph in Grafton's voice now. "And then the only thing that will matter is Grant. General Grant, the hero of Vicksburg, the man who carried the North to victory."
"You know, it's funny," Artie said, cheerful doubt in his voice, "for a while there, I thought you'd got it all worked out. What I don't understand is why you think we won't stop you. Jim!"
He came around the door ready to shoot. At the same instant, Artie kicked the rifle up to his hand and cocked it. Taken by surprise, Grafton reacted instinctively, with the reflexes of a good soldier. The muzzle of the gun turned away from Julia Grant's head, toward the new threat. The gunshot sounded loud in the enclosed space, inordinately so for the simple reason that it came from an unexpected source. Grafton staggered, turning slowly to stare at his killer with equal measures accusation and disbelief before he crumpled to the floor.
Jim rose out of his crouch. He looked at his own unfired gun, then at Artie, who'd not had a chance to shoot either. And they both looked at President Grant, who held his wife tenderly in his arms, neither of them paying any mind to the derringer still clenched in his fist.
"I didn't know you were armed, sir," Jim said inanely.
"I'm not fool enough to go about unarmed when one of my bodyguards might be an assassin." Grant reluctantly loosened his embrace, the ruddy tinge of his cheeks amply showing his embarrassment at their affectionate display.
Jim knelt and rolled Grafton's body over. A neat hole on the left breast of his coat bled very slowly. He did not want to feel sorry for the man, but he did. Despite the deaths, despite everything he'd done or tried to do. He pitied Grafton, that the world was not as simple as he would have it be.
"'...for the desire of glory clings even to the best men longer than any other passion,'" Artie quoted softly. His eyes, when Jim met them, were sad.
"I don't understand what he hoped to do, at the last," Mrs. Grant said, a quaver in her voice. Her husband clasped her to his chest to support her weakness, and her shivering was visible.
Jim shook his head. "Nothing," he said. "He was lost, and he knew it."
"And he'd not planned for that." Artie gave Jim a hand up. "When all his plans fell apart, he no longer knew what to do. In the end, I expect, he was hoping for some kind of divine intervention."
"So was I," Mrs. Grant admitted softly.
"Nothing so spiritual needed." Grant's arm tightened around his wife's waist. "Just a little help from the Secret Service. Thank you, gentlemen."
"Yes," Mrs. Grant said, stretching her small neat hand out to them. "I shall never be able to thank you enough."
Jim stepped forward to take Julia Grant's hand briefly, and smiled to see Artie bend to gallantly kiss her knuckles. Grant watched avuncularly, the glint of possessiveness and perhaps a touch of jealousy in his eyes belying his calm mien. When they stepped back, Mrs. Grant laid her head upon her husband's breast, and his head bent to hers, his arm clasped snugly around her waist.
"If you'll excuse us, sir, there are some things we need to see to."
Grant waved them off, and Jim ushered Artie from the room, convinced that the president hadn't even heard him. It was enough that they left him alone with his cherished wife. Jim glanced back and caught a glimpse of the president and his lady before the door closed. Their embrace was warm, loving and passionate.
"We'd better release the staff," Artie said as they started down the hall. "And have Bill send that doctor up here when he's done with O'Connell."
Jim took Artie by the elbow and steered him toward the nearest open doorway. He closed the door firmly behind them and set his back against it.
"Jim, what are you doing?" He didn't fight when Jim wrapped his arms around Artie's waist and reeled him in, but he wasn't helping either. "Jim, you told the president we had things to see to."
"Yes," Jim said. He pressed a kiss to the sensitive hollow under Artie's ear. Then the curve of his jaw. "Very important things."
"This can't be what you had in mind."
"It's precisely what I had in mind."
Jim's lips found Artie's and ended any further attempt at conversation. For a minute.