The Night of the Uncertain Tomorrow
By Rocker H.
The heavily laden buckboard rounded the bend in the road. It was moving slowly and with extreme caution. Ahead of the wagon, riding lookout, was a man in his early forties. His job was to scout the path for the smoothest possible track. The driver of the wagon was about twelve years younger, and a very natty dresser. He oozed confidence in himself and his partner as they inched down the well rutted road. The older man called out, “Over to this side, Jim; the ruts don’t seem as deep over here. You sure you don’t need a break? You’ve been driving for quite a spell.”
“No, Artie—this system, with your exquisite eye for detail, seems to be working fine so far, let’s not jinx it now.” James West and his partner Artemus Gordon were undercover agents with the Secret Service. Usually, their job was to be on the look out for counterfeiters and serve as body guards for government officials, but this particular adventure had them escorting a highly dangerous explosive from a railroad spur to its final destination, Fort Caldwell.
“I still don’t know why they picked us for this little picnic. I am honored, but I am sure there are a few boys at the fort that might be feeling a tad left out. What do we have that they don’t?” simpered Artie facetiously.
“Well, for one thing, we have you, my friend. You are only the best and most experienced munitions man in the territory, at the moment anyway.”
“Oh, James, you’ll turn my head,” grinned a blushing Artemus. “Look out! A few more bounces like that and we’ll find ourselves getting to the Fort in high flying fashion.”
“It’s good, Artie. All the straw you packed around these crates is a good insulation and a buffer for this nitroglycerine,” Jim called out to his nervous partner.
“If you knew what I know about this stuff, my friend, you’d be jumpy too. At least we’ll be there soon.”
“Exactly, then three long weeks of R and R are staring us in the face. You’re doing fine. Just keep doing what you’re doing.” Once through the dark cool thicket of trees, the fort loomed into view. An audible sigh of relief was let loose from both government agents. “Why don’t you ride on ahead, and have them open the gates and clear us a real wide path to the ammo depot. I can take it from here.”
“You bet. I’ll meet you at the fort, unless you get there before me,” Artie said with a wink.
“You are funny. I’ll be careful, don’t worry.”
Artemus presented himself to the sentry on duty. “My partner, James West, is right behind me with the wagon of nitroglycerin — please send Captain Branston our compliments and tell him we need a path to the depot cleared right away.”
The private repeated the message, and then asked if they would need any help in unloading the cargo.
“As much as I would love for you boys to take over this task, we better take care of it ourselves. Thanks, though; now off you go.”
The sentry snapped off a salute and went for the captain. Before long, the two men reappeared just as James made the gate with the dangerous cargo.
“Mr. West, Mr. Gordon, good to see you, and your cargo. Any problems?” asked Captain Branston?
Jim turned around to check his volatile load, and then nonchalantly shrugged. “No sir, not a one. Where would you like us to empty this thing? Mr. Gordon is getting another gray hair for every second we delay.”
The captain nodded appreciatively and pointed to the stone bunker at the back of the fort. “Right there, gentlemen, have at it. After you finish, join me in my barracks for a little refreshment won’t you? Mr. West, my daughter Emily has been awaiting your arrival all day.
Artie looked at Jim and grinned, “Well, it would be plain bad manners to make the sweet young thing wait another minute, James my boy. Go ahead, I’ll take care of this and be right along.
Jim looked at Mr. Gordon doubtfully. “I appreciate the gesture -- I really do -- but no thanks. She can wait. You know what they say about absence and hearts.” One look at his friend told Jim that he needed to stay behind and help move the nitro. Artemus Gordon was generally unflappable, but this mission had clearly unsettled him.
“Jim,” Artie replied, “I am fine, really. I’ll join you in two shakes.”
“No, this mission isn’t finished until the last vial of this vile stuff is on the bunker shelf. You can’t get rid of me that easy.”
“Suit yourself, my friend, but don’t blame me if Emily never speaks to you again.” Inwardly Artie was very relieved. It was clear to him that as good as he and Jim were separately, they were infinitely better as a team.
So they began the heart stopping task of moving eighteen crates of the most explosively unstable matter know to man. “Got any bright ideas on how best to move this stuff?” inquired James. “You being the ranking specialist and all…” he added with a smile.
“This stuff makes my best explosives look like stink bombs. My considered professional advice is to move slowly, deliberately and like your life itself depended on it,” Artie suggested.
“Exactly.” Artie took the first straw-filled crate off the wagon and proceeded to the bunker. Only when he emerged from the cave-like structure empty-handed did Jim suck in a breath. “There you go, Jim, see how easy it can be?” The beads of sweat on Mr. Gordon’s forehead belied his bravado. This scene repeated with each man holding his breath until the other reappeared. Before long, there was just one crate remaining on the wagon. “That’s it, James, this one is mine. You go run along and play with your little friend. She has waited long enough.”
“Well….if you are sure,” Jim replied.
“Absolutely, you’d do the same for me were I to ever capture the heart of a lovely lady,” Artie sighed wistfully. “You owe it to the mere mortals among us.”
As Gordon lifted the remaining crate from the cart, Jim turned and headed towards the barracks. Nodding a greeting towards a few men at the practice range, Jim parked himself on the Captain’s porch. The men went on firing at the empty bottles until there were no more. “Looks like you guys could use some more practice,” Jim teased. “Better see if the mess hall has any more empties.” Hearing a rustling behind him, Jim turned around to greet his admirer, Emily Branston. “Good afternoon, miss.” he drawled touching the brim of his hat.
“Why Mr. West, I was just about to have you brought up on desertion charges,” Emily cooed. “Whatever took you so long?”
“Business before pleasure, Miss Branston,” was the confident reply.
“I should be insulted, but it’s much too nice a day to worry about ‘should be’s.’ Why don’t you and I just disappear inside for some cool refreshment?”
As the couple stood to make their way inside, one of the men from the practice range bellowed, “West! Gordon is a dead man!” Before Jim could alert his friend to the danger, a shot rang out followed by a deafening explosion.
It was too late; Artemus Gordon had disappeared in a cloud of smoke, dust and flying debris. A stunned Jim West picked himself up off the ground. He spotted the assassin make his escape on horseback through the fort’s front gate.
For once in his life, Jim did not know which way to turn. Years in the business of defense told him there was nothing he could do for his friend. Duty dictated following the murderer and bringing him to justice. It is what was expected from him, the right thing to do. But this was different. The victim was his partner; his best friend; his brother. Wrestling with his conscience, Artie’s voice echoed in his head, “James my boy, you have a job to do—do it.” Fighting back tears he didn’t know he had, Jim vaulted on to the back of the nearest horse and disappeared in his own cloud of dust just behind the assassin.
Inside the fort, the dust was beginning to settle and a true measure of the disaster could be taken. Captain Branston, Emily, and a few soldiers began to clear away the remains of the wagon and other rubble that covered a deathly still and bleeding Artemus Gordon. “Oh Papa, is Mr. Gordon dead?” cried Emily.
“Emily, get on back in the house and clear bed space for Mr. Gordon. Get some bandages and water, get Doc Westfall. Move! This is no place for you.” To the soldiers, he barked, “Get a litter for this poor man. Take him to my barracks. This is cold blooded murder! Heaven itself could not protect his murderer from the wrath of James T. West. We may well be burying two men here today.”
This declaration was truer than Captain Branston knew. Being a helpless witness to his friend’s death unleashed an uncontrollable anger in Jim West that frightened him. Riding like the furies were chasing him, Jim managed to get ahead of his quarry and corner him. A cold hatred clouded West’s mind and dulled his senses. Before Jim realized what was happening, the murdering soldier was off his horse and had dragged him to the ground. Jim was helplessly outmatched until his survival instincts kicked in. Then the fight was on and the two men exchanged savage blows. Before long, Jim had his prisoner completely subdued.
“You don’t have the guts to kill me in cold blood! The invincible Mr. West is a man of principle,” the enraged soldier spat. “Can you deal with it? I have my revenge, but you never will.”
In fact, Jim was dealing with his shock and pain in the only way open to him. Always a passionate man, he held himself in constant reserve. He had lived in fear of what could happen should his temper ever break free. This was the moment he had run from since accepting his position in the Secret Service agency of the Treasury Department. He began to pummel the man again and could not stop. Ages of pent up anger, aggression and frustration were unleashed on Jim’s hapless prisoner until finally they both collapsed. After a while, cold rain began to fall and roused the men to consciousness. Jim pulled himself to his feet. He was numb to the plummeting temperatures, the rain, the shallow gasping breaths of his prisoner, his injuries, and his own feelings. Grabbing the assassin by the back of his shirt, he threw him across the saddle and trussed him securely. “Why?” Jim asked quietly.
From a face that looked as though it had been hit head on by a freight train came a cryptic reply, “Michael Daltrey.”
James West took the name in and choked. It brought back memories that sent shudders down his spine. He and Artie had been called in to infiltrate the federal prison in Hawksfield, Kansas. They were to ferret out which guards or wardens were aiding the prisoners in planning an overthrow. Michael Daltrey was one of those wardens. Jim’s cover had been blown and it was only Artie’s quick thinking and cool presence that had saved his life. That was the first of many brave rescues by the cunning and resourceful Artemus Gordon. Could that have been five years ago already?
“I knew you’d remember. My Pa was hung like a common criminal because of your testimony. I promised him I would make you pay someday. And as luck would have it, Mr. Gordon waltzed into my gun sight just as big as you please. The nitro glycerin was an unexpected bonus,” growled the younger Daltrey. Fury blazed in Jim’s soul and he backhanded the man again, rendering him unconscious.
West got on his horse, grabbed the reins of his prisoner’s mount and started back to the fort. Lost in sorrow, anger and pain, the seven miles back to Fort Caldwell could not have been more miserable.
The soldiers brought Artie’s body into Captain Branston’s barracks as ordered and placed him on the bed. Emily rushed over and gently dabbed the bloody face with a cool, wet cloth. “Oh Mr. Gordon, this is going to kill Jim,” she murmured. Then she noticed something. Or was it just a trick of the light? Emily called her father over, “Father, watch! I think I just saw his eyes twitch. Look!” She continued to wash his face and she felt him exhale and draw another breath. It was shallow and pained but it was there. “Did you see, Father? He’s not dead!”
Captain Westfall, the Army surgeon, pushed his way into the room. “Get out of the way! What happened to this man? Who the hell is he?”
Captain Branston spoke up, “He’s been shot in the back and was caught in the explosion when the nitro blew. He has to be near dead. His name is Artemus Gordon. He and Jim West are the government agents that brought in the wagon of nitro glycerin earlier this afternoon.”
“Where’s this West fellow now? Did anybody see what happened?” the doctor demanded.
“Yes sir, I did,” volunteered a bucktoothed young private. “I was over at the practice range with Privates Daltrey and Garrett when West and Gordon came in. They took the explosives to the depot, then Mr. West made his way over to visit with Miss Branston. Mr. Gordon stayed by the wagon and unloaded the last crate. About this time Daltrey seemed to recognize Mr. West and just about had a fit. I mean he turned purple! He was yelling something to West. Next thing I knew he fired a shot right into this fella’s back. The crate this Mr. Gordon was carrying blew up on impact, I guess. Nitro is like that. Anyway, Daltrey lit out of here and Mr. West was right behind him.”
Through the soul-crushing pain, Artemus could begin to recollect the events as the private described. He tried to open his eyes, anything to let them know that he lived. But every nerve spasm sent rivers of excruciating pain coursing through his body. Finally, in spite of the agony he forced open his eyes. Or he thought they were opened. But there was only darkness. He tried again, but the result was the same. “What the hell was happening here?” his brain screamed.
“Doctor Westfall! Gordon’s eyes, they opened. Look!” yelled the young private.
“That’s enough. Everyone out,” ordered the doctor. “I have a long night ahead of me, that’s for sure,” he added to no one in particular. Once the room was cleared, Westfall began his examination of Mr. Gordon. Amazingly his leg was the only thing that appeared to be broken. The bullet had caused a tremendous amount of shoulder damage, however. There was no way he could begin to probe for the slug until his sketchy vital signs had improved, so the doctor did what he could to stop the flow of blood, clean the myriad of cuts and bruises and burns that covered the agent’s body. He doubted that it would make any difference in the end. Gordon probably would not survive the night. “I hope Mr. West makes it back here soon,” the doctor muttered aloud.
Shortly after nightfall, Jim found himself back at the fort. His prisoner had regained consciousness but West did not notice or care. The normal spark in his eye had been extinguished and he merely went through the motions of presenting himself to the sentry. “Take him,” Jim mumbled, motioning to the tied up man draped across the saddle. Dismounting, but leaving his horse for the sentry to attend, James West headed straight to the scene of the disaster. It was really too dark to see anything, but that was not the point. Standing amid the rubble in a cold and driving rain, Jim collapsed to his knees. So intense was his exhaustion and grief, that Jim did not see the other figure at the site.
“Jim? Mr. West? It’s me, Emily. Mr. West, Doctor Westfall wants to see you right away. It’s about your friend.”
“I rather imagined it would be,” Jim said between sharp breaths. “Arrangements must be made to get his body back to Washington.”
“I suppose. Come with me; I’ll take you to him,” Emily whispered. The two made their way across the dark and quiet fort. The acrid smell of smoke hung heavy in the air around them. In his mind’s eye, Jim was reliving the afternoon’s nightmare again and again, hoping the ending would change. He stumbled over something in the dark and nearly caused Emily to lose her balance as well.
“What the ….? What was that?” Bending over, he picked up the obstacle and readied to chuck it across the compound. It was a piece of a leather satchel—it was Artie’s. Jim swallowed hard and caressed the smooth worn scrap of leather. How many times had he seen Artemus carry this case, and curse at the lock that always jammed?
“Here we are, James; the doctor is inside. I’ll be out here if you need me.”
Pushing the door open, Jim went inside to hear the words that his heart already knew. His friend and partner was dead.
“Who the devil are you?” growled the doctor. “Who gave you permission to come in here? Where was the guard?”
Jim was in no mood to deal with this now. All he wanted was to claim Artie’s body and get back to Washington. “I’m West; there was no guard and I am here for…my partner,” he stated in a way that left no room for argument.
“You’re West, the government agent? I didn’t know you had come back. Sit down before you fall down, please.”
Being as polite as he could muster under the circumstances, Jim intoned, “No thank you, I just want my partner’s body and effects and I’ll be gone. I just need you to get the necessary papers and the like if you don’t mind.”
“Sorry, can’t do that now, Mr. West. You see, Mr. Gordon isn’t dead,” the doctor said. “But before you get your hopes up, I must tell you I don’t expect him to recover. I am amazed he has lasted this long, to be honest. His injuries are extensive.”
Jim was taken aback. This whole time he had assumed that Artie died at the scene. “Where is he? I want to see him now!”
“Now hold on, let’s get a few things straight. Yes, he is alive, or he was a few minutes ago. His heart beat is erratic, his breathing is shallow, and his eyes don’t react to light. He has lost a lot of blood but I can’t get the bullet out until he stabilizes—if he stabilizes. His body is covered in lacerations that need sutures, he has a shattered right leg, and there isn’t an inch on him that is not black, blue or burned. That does not even start to cover the internal injuries that I can’t see but I feel must be present. At the very least he has a severe concussion. Your friend’s chances of survival are very slim indeed. But having said that, he has lasted this long and that is something. I will take you to him, but only for a minute. Then it is your turn for an examination. From the way you are holding your ribs, I bet there are a few busted ones.”
Jim numbly followed the doctor to the bedroom turned emergency room.
As if reading his mind, the Doctor turned around, “I didn’t think it wise to move him to the hospital. I am not sure he could have withstood it.”
With his heart in his throat, Jim went to his friend’s bedside. He appeared dead. “Artie, it’s me, James. Can you hear me?” Jim touched his partner’s hand, appalled at its cold and clammy feeling.
“I told you not to expect anything. The best thing for Mr. Gordon would be for him to slip into a coma. That way his body could begin the healing process or he could just drift away from us. Either way, he would be spared the excruciating pain he must be experiencing while is awake.”
Jim couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Who could it be better for if Artemus were to just drift away? Not him that’s for sure. Not for Artie either. Artemus Gordon was nothing if not a fighter. “Can’t I just sit here with him, come whatever?” Jim asked quietly. “I would hate him being in here alone and thinking I had just abandoned him. We’ve always been there for each other.”
“After I check you over, I’ll have an orderly bring in a cot. You can rest here, if you think it would help. By the way, did you catch up with Daltrey? One of the men here identified him.”
“Daltrey yeah. I turned him over to the sentry on duty when I came in,” Jim said distractedly. “Don’t really care what happens to him; I should have killed him when I had the chance.”
“Mr. West, you and I both know that would have been murder. I would think that is something the government frowns upon in these circumstances.”
“Yeah, what circumstances are you talking about?” asked Jim belligerently.
“Revenge, Mr. West. Now take off your shirt and let me take care those busted ribs of yours.”
Jim was too worn out to argue anymore. He obediently did what the doctor ordered. His head pounded and he was so tired he had trouble just standing up. Gratefully he retired to the army cot that was placed next to Artie’s bed. “I’m here friend. Good night.” In a heartbeat, James West was fast asleep. Both men passed several hours in recuperative sleep. The worn out and abused bodies never even twitched.
Then, just before dawn, Jim was awakened by a weak cry for help. He was on his feet in an instant and at Mr. Gordon’s side. “Artie, it’s Jim. I’m here. Don’t try to move. I’ll get the doctor.” If possible, his friend looked worse in the gray light of morning. The battered and bandaged face showed nothing of the man Jim had come to admire over their years together. Before him on the bed was a shattered man fighting for survival. Choking back tears, Jim stumbled out of the room for the doctor. “Doc, get in here; Mr. Gordon is coming around.”
Amid Artie’s quiet cries of pain, the doctor completed his morning examination of the patient. “Well, Mr. West, I don’t know how, but your friend seems to be a little better this morning. His heart is stronger and his breathing is as well. I think we can probe for the bullet and set that leg this afternoon before any more infection takes hold. Time will tell, but it is a miracle that he has lasted this long. I know one thing, though; it was his presence of mind to throw that crate away from him, before he fell, and that saved him from an instantaneous death. How he managed that is a mystery to me. He must be one cool and quick thinking son of a gun to keep his head like that after being back shot. Now you go get something to eat, I don’t need another patient today.”
Jim allowed himself a brief smile and a glimmer of hope for his friend then proceeded to find breakfast. On his way to the mess hall Captain Branston and Emily caught up with him. “Mr. West, good to see you back,” said the captain. “Is Mr. Gordon, um…..” he stammered.
“Artemus is with us this morning, sir. He made it through the night and Westfall is going to get the bullet out this afternoon,” Jim answered cutting Branston off. “Where’s Daltrey?”
“Jim, I am so glad that Mr. Gordon has survived. Well, you know what I mean. Losing your best friend in such a dreadful way ….” Emily rattled on.
“He’s hardly out of the woods yet, but thank you for your concern. It would be a great loss to a great many people if Artemus Gordon were to die,” Jim said sadly.
“Emily, Mr. West and I have some business to discuss, I will catch up with you later,” Captain Branston said, dismissing his daughter. “All right, West, what can you tell me about this Private Daltrey.”
“Nothing really. His father was involved in a plot to overthrow a federal penitentiary awhile back. It was one of the first cases Artie and I worked on together.”
“Was that the Hawksfield uprising?”
“Right. Evidently, Private Daltrey’s father was one of the wardens we testified against at the trial. He swore to avenge his father’s death….looks like he succeeded,” Jim sighed. “It was a case of us being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He recognized me and it was his chance to make good his promise. Not much more to it than that, I guess. Except that I may lose the best partner and friend I have ever known.”
“You and Mr. Gordon are in a dangerous business. Like active military service, really. The odds are never going to be in our favor -- we know it and accept it as part of the job -- but the death of a friend never goes down any easier,” sympathized the captain. He clapped Jim on the shoulder and the men continued their walk in silence.
That afternoon Doctor Westfall removed the bullet and set Artie’s leg. In the end, the added trauma was too much for Mr. Gordon and he quietly slipped into a coma. Jim was devastated. His own injuries from the fight with Daltrey had caught up with him and the added stress of Artie’s failing condition sent him crashing into a deep depression. He lay on the cot near his friend’s bed and stared into the darkness around him. The events surrounding the explosion haunted him day and night. Suppose he had stayed to unload the last crate. Suppose Artie had gone to meet Emily. Suppose Daltrey wasn’t at the practice range. Suppose they were not delayed earlier that day when the train was late? Suppose Artie had not been there to save his hide just days before when they busted up the ring of counterfeiters in Jasper. Suppose he had been able to warn Artie just a split second earlier. Suppose…. Suppose….suppose! Bolting up from the cot, Jim made a blind run to escape the noise in his head. He smashed into an unfortunate orderly and kept on going. Jim didn’t stop running until tackled and sedated by the doctor and several soldiers. They brought him back to the room and laid him gently on the cot once again and the nightmares returned.
Dr. Westfall had two very sick men on his hands. In a way, Artemus was the easier patient to tend. Though his injuries were extensive and potentially fatal, he showed an amazing spirit. Each day his vital signs grew more stable and even though unconscious, his body was showing signs of healing. West, however was a different story. His injuries were not life threatening, but he had completely lost the will to live. The doctor was forced to keep him sedated just to prevent further injury. One night he had come in to find Jim punching the wall with every ounce of strength he possessed. It was only a miracle that West hadn’t shattered both hands. Jim had all the appearances of a man about to descend into the depths of insanity. His recovery seemed tied to that of Mr. Gordon’s, so Dr. Westfall did what he could to bring Mr. Gordon back
Time ceased to have any meaning for Artemus Gordon. He wasn’t aware of the pain, the healing, or his friend’s torment. Artie’s mind was absorbed in the scrambled recollections of a life well lived; a montage of images viewed through a mental zoetrope: encounters with would-be dictators, mad scientists, assassins, beautiful women, death, danger and James T. West. Funny, even in dreams, danger and West were never far apart.
Hours turned into days turned into weeks and finally one afternoon Artemus Gordon awoke to the world. A very dispirited Jim was deep in his own nightmare and failed to notice the barely perceptible blinking of Artie’s eyes, or the fleeting look of abject fear that crossed his face. What Jim did feel was a gentle tug at the sleeve of his jacket. At first, Jim felt he was imagining it. Artie’s twitches and jerks had sent him running to the doctor with hope on more than one instance. He wasn’t going to be fooled again, so he receded back into his own thoughts. But, the first tug was followed by another, a bit more insistent, then another. Jim sat up and looked at his partner’s face. Artie’s eyes were open! West gasped, “Artemus?”
Arte blinked again as a look of confusion swept over his face. He tried to force his friend’s name from his lips, but only succeeded in a grunt that sounded like his mouth was filled with cotton. He tried again with limited success. “Jumgh.”
“Let me get you some water.” Jim rose stiffly and made his way to the dresser where a pitcher of water had been left for him. A glance in the mirror showed Jim what he had become over the last few weeks. He hadn’t realized what a toll Artie’s injury had taken on him. He was the only one that hadn’t.
“I told you not to get out of bed,” grumbled Doctor Westfall. “Don’t I have enough to do with your friend there?” he said motioning to Artemus. “What are you doing?”
“Just getting Artie some water,” Jim said, smiling his first smile in weeks. “He’s got cottonmouth.”
“What are you talking about,” the doctor said impatiently.
“He’s back, doc, he’s awake.”
“What? Haven’t we gone through this numerous times already, Mr. West?”
“Fine, just take a look for yourself. This time it’s different. He grabbed my sleeve—multiple times to get my attention.” Jim demonstrated the sequence for the doctor’s benefit. The two men went behind the screen put in place to give the comatose patient some privacy. Artie was there, eyes wide open.
“See!” Jim announced to the doctor. “Here Artie, let me help you with this water.” Mr. Gordon’s arm came up spasmodically and whacked Jim across the face, spilling the water. “Whoa there, what was that? Hang on; let me get you another cupful.”
As Jim went to refill the tin Army-issue cup, the doctor moved in for a closer examination of his patient. Placing his hand in Artie’s, he instructed, “Mr. Gordon, I am Dr. Westfall. I’ve been taking care of you since the incident. Can you squeeze my hand once if you hear me?” The patient responded by giving the doctor’s hand a slow but unmistakable squeeze. “Fine, welcome back to the world of the living, Artemus. A good many people have been keeping tabs on you around here. The most troublesome has been your roommate, I’m afraid.” A look of fear and confusion stole across Artie’s still bruised face. “No, I am sorry, just a small joke. Mr. West has been most diligent in his care of you. So much so that he has neglected his own well being, but I have a feeling that will start turning around now. I’ll give you two a few minutes to get reacquainted, but I don’t want you overdoing it. That goes for you too, Mr. West.” With that, the Doctor left Jim and Artie alone.
The two men had better success with the second cup of water. Jim was so relieved to have his friend respond, if only by touch, that he failed to notice Artie’s unfailing stare right away. “Gee, I know my boyish good looks have taken a hit lately, but do I look that bad? You just keep staring at me, like we’ve never met before. Do you know who I am?” A nod of his partner’s head set Jim’s mind to rest on that account. “Well then, what’s wrong?”
A frustrated Artemus Gordon searched out Jim’s face and ran his hands over it. Confused, Jim pulled away. “Artie?”
Artie forced out the words, “Can’t see.”
Artie slowly raised his hand to his own face and rubbed at his eyes as if trying to clear them. He stared at Jim and repeated the gesture. “I…….can’t…..see……you……Jim,” he stammered. “Can’t…..see anything.”
At that moment, Doctor Westfall came back into the room. “Reunion’s over, gentlemen. Mr. West, why don’t you get yourself presentable and venture outside this room for a bit? Mr. Gordon, you have had enough excitement for...what’s the matter?” He stopped short upon seeing the look of despair and disappointment on both of the agents faces.
“Doctor……I……am…….b-b-blind,” Artemus forced out.
“Damn, I was afraid this was a possibility. There was just no way to be sure until you came out of the coma. Your eyes sustained injury in the explosion. It could be flash burns or a result of your massive concussion. Unfortunately, I don’t have the expertise to determine the extent of this injury. We had your eyes bandaged for quite sometime, but as the rest of you seemed to be healing nicely, we took them off.”
Artie did not move, or blink, “For good?” he asked with calm that he did not feel.
“I don’t know, Mr. Gordon. Sometimes these things heal themselves in their own time. I have seen it happen. Could be days, weeks, months…”
“Never,” Artemus stated flatly.
“That too is a possibility that has to be looked at,” the doctor said, instantly regretting his choice of words. He had come to appreciate what a fine man Artemus Gordon was and it hurt him to be so blunt, but the agent would not want it sugarcoated. “It could turn out that way.”
All this time Jim sat on the edge of the bed in disbelief. “If you knew this could happen, why didn’t you say something to me?”
“To what end, Mr. West? You were in no shape to hear the truth, even if I could have known. Look at you! I have been more afraid for you than Mr. Gordon. He at least wanted to live.” Then the doctor stopped. “I am so sorry, gentlemen; I guess the strain of these last weeks has left all of us rather touchy.”
Artemus reached for Jim’s hand again, but this time Jim pulled away. “Jim, are you ok? What is he talking about?” Artemus managed to get out.
“I’m fine, Artie. It’s just been a rough few weeks, is all? Don’t worry about me; I can take care of myself.”
“Me too,” Artie replied with fierce determination. And he meant it.
A week later, although far too weak for any serious therapy Artie took his first active steps on the road to recovery. With the help of Emily Branson, he began limbering up his bullet-torn shoulder. It certainly was not fun and it hurt more than he cared to admit to his very attentive nurse. “Mr. Gordon, your dear old Aunt Maude could lift her arm higher than that,” she teased him. “That’s it, good, just one more time. Perfect. Well done, Mr. Gordon.”
“I think that might be enough for today, Emily. I don’t want to wear you out,” he panted.
“Well, ok, next time I am going to give you a weight to hold on to while you work your shoulder, and maybe in a day or so we can get you out of bed for a short time,” she promised.
“Oh joy,” Artie moaned. “Emily, have you seen Jim around anywhere? He’s been hard to pin down these last few days.”
“Since you told him of your blindne… I’m sorry, Mr. Gordon. Well, since that morning, he has been acting very strange, well, very drunk, if you must know. He is certainly not the same man that came here nearly six weeks back.”
“Come here, Emily. Sit down.” He motioned to a chair next to his bed. “No one, especially James, will tell me what is going on with him. I really need to know, I have to know. Please,” Artie pleaded, reaching for Emily’s hand.
“I don’t know if I should; Papa and the Doctor might not think it is best for you.” Emily hedged.
“I promise I will take full responsibility. Just tell me what happened.”
Looking nervously around, Emily began. “After the explosion, Jim must have thought you were dead. We all did really. The look on his face when it happened is something I will never forget. It scared me, because all I saw was hate, pure hate for the man that did this to you. He left before anyone could stop him and late that same night he came back with Private Daltrey lashed across his saddle. Mr. West didn’t look much better than the man he brought in, to be truthful. He was pretty well beat up. The sentry said he just left the prisoner tied to his horse and wandered back to where you were hurt. That was where I found him and brought him to the doctor. It reminded me of when my uncle died while serving under my father. My father had the same look in his eye, as if he had nothing left to live for…. like he thought it was his fault. I know James was thinking the same thing. It broke my heart to see him that way but there was nothing I could do.” She stopped for a minute to collect herself. “Anyway, we saw him the next morning and he looked a little better. I think the doctor had given him some good news, concerning your condition, but by the next night when you went into the coma, the haunted look returned. The doctor had to sedate him on several occasions to keep him from hurting himself. Mr. West stopped caring for himself, stopped caring about himself, and Papa and I were really afraid he would try to take his life. I am really surprised at how he is taking this. Before he always seemed so…. oh I don’t know how to put it, so in control of himself…. so untouchable, to this kind of emotion anyway. That didn’t come out right, I am sorry.”
Artemus Gordon sat perfectly motionless through this heartbreaking tale. Jim would never have admitted any of it to him, regardless of how close they were. Jim always played his emotions close to his vest and sometimes Artie swore he was made of stone. But, even stone has a shattering point and Jim was near his. “Thank you my dear, dear Emily. You just described the Jim West most people see to a T. No need for an apology.”
“But you are crying, Mr. Gordon; I shouldn’t have upset you.”
“No, you did exactly as I asked. It all is beginning to make sense now. Before, there were too many missing pieces of the puzzle; now I understand. You are right; my partner is a very hard man to read sometimes, whether one can see or not. Can you leave me now, Emily? My head has begun to hurt again; I think I could use a rest.”
“Certainly. I’ll check in on my favorite patient later.” Leaning over the bed, Emily kissed Artie on the cheek and left the room.
“Doesn’t that just figure,” he mused out loud. “Here I am a perfect invalid and Jim still gets all the sympathy.”
“Are you talking to yourself again Artie?”
“Jim? Is that you? Where in the world have you been?”
“Ummmm, I have been kind of busy. Have you missed me?” Jim teased.
Artie was more than confused now, especially since he could not read his partner’s face. It sounded like the old Jim, when he was up to something, but having just heard Emily’s tale it was hard to be sure. “As always. Jim, can you sit with me for awhile? My head really feels like it is about to explode and I don’t want to be alone.”
“Want me to get the doctor? I’ll be right back.”
“No, Jim, I don’t want the doctor. I want you to talk to me. I want you to treat me like you know who I am. Jim, what is going on?” His head was throbbing, and the dramatics didn’t help. He sank wearily back on his pillow.
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” Jim grumbled. “What do you expect me to do? I don’t know how to help you, Artie. I don’t know what to do!” Jim bellowed, as he made his way to the door. “Is that what you wanted to hear?” What Artie heard was the sound of the stone beginning to shatter.
Artemus Gordon spent the rest of the evening lost in thought. When Emily and her father came in to check on him around eight thirty, he was, for all appearances, asleep. But sleep was a long time coming for this special agent. Thoughts crashed around in his brain like waves on a stormy sea. The reality of facing a life without sight frightened him to his core. This dark scenario had never occurred to him. Death definitely, but this? What good was it to rebuild and strengthen his body, if there was nothing left for it to do? Who would want a blind and banged up underground agent in their employ? Not the Treasury Department he was pretty sure. These very real fears were piled up on his worry for Jim. “Where are you, James, my boy,” he wondered aloud. It was a long and exhausting night. But, in the early hours just before dawn, Artie gave in to his migraine and fell into a fitful sleep. Before long, he sensed someone enter his room. He had spent too long in the Secret Service, not to be alarmed and immediately sat up. “Who’s there?” he called. There was no answer, yet he knew someone was standing near by. “Who are you, what do you want?” he demanded.
“It’s me,” was the only reply he received.
“Are you all right?”
“I will be.”
“Want to tell me about it?” Artie coaxed.
“ ’night Jim.” Artie grinned for the first time in a long time and settled down for a few hours sleep.
In the morning, a freshly shaven, spotlessly attired, although somewhat black and blue, James West presented himself at the bedside of Artemus Gordon. “I think I owe you an explanation,” Jim started the conversation.
“Jim, we know each other well enough that we don’t have to go through this,” Artie tried to let his friend find his own way.
Jim took a deep breath then continued, “No, it is because we know each other so well, that I have to say this. I let you down in a way that a partner never should and a real friend never would. I am sorry. When you needed me to be there for you, I acted like a…..”
“An ass?” Artie chimed in.
“Well...yeah,” Jim said guiltily. “Always leave it to you to find the best word for any occasion.”
“It’s just one of the services I offer,” grinned Artie.
“One of many.” Jim softly continued. “Anyway, last night I crossed paths with a couple of soldier boys that kind of knocked that way of thinking out of my system for awhile. I hope you can see your way clear to forgive…Oh damn!” he cringed at his verbal faux pas.
“It’s ok, Jim; I can see my way clear to do a great many things, especially forgive you a moment’s slip into the realm of mortals,” Arte added with a dramatic flourish.
Jim shoved his hand into Artie’s for a handshake, “Partners?”
This time it was Artie’s turn to hesitate. “Well, I guess that is up to the Treasury Department.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Jim winced. “You don’t want to be partners any longer?”
“Hardly, James my boy, but, I think Washington might take a dim view of keeping someone with my current disabilities on their payroll. They like having their agents in a little better condition than I find myself right now. They would probably see me as a bit of a liability, don’t you think?” He was glad to voice his fear to his friend.
“My God, that never crossed my mind! How stupid of me, Artie, I am so sorry. What are we going to do?”
“Well, I guess you’ll get a new partner to break in, although having me around all these years no doubt spoiled you as to how much fun could be had at this game. But enough of this talk for now. I have a favor to ask.”
“Sure, ask away.” The course of this conversation had caught Jim off his guard and he was glad for the distraction.
“I would love to get out of this godforsaken room! I am sure it is very charming in its own right and all, but I would love to feel the sun again.”
“Is it ok with the doctor? I mean, are you feeling strong enough?”
“To do what? I just want to go outside, not take on the Seventh Cavalry….I leave that kind of shenanigans to you.”
“Alright then, my friend, I’ll see what I can do. First thing, you need some clothes. That nightshirt, though quite provocative, probably won’t do. Maybe Captain Branston has something more presentable, I’ll be right back.”
“Promise?” Artie asked with a little more concern than he meant to convey.
That one word hit Jim like shrapnel. In all their years of working together, neither agent had ever questioned the other’s intentions or loyalty. It’s what made their partnership such a remarkable one. He turned around and went back to the bed where his convalescing friend had nearly died.
“Artemus, I am sorry. I had that coming. Please listen to me and don’t try to make this easier. This time I don’t want you to bail me out. Watching you shot down like that was worse than watching my own death. It unleashed something inside me that I didn’t even know was there. I have never felt such pure flat-out hatred in my life. It felt as if Daltrey had taken a white-hot dagger and driven clear through to my heart. That is why I took out so fast after Daltrey. I really didn’t care about ever coming back. You and I are family Artie, probably the only family either of us will have as long as we are in this line of work. I couldn’t bear the thought of burying my brother and just going on as if nothing happened.” Jim took a labored breath. This kind of declaration did not come easy or often for him. He was a man of few words especially where his feelings were concerned. “I lost hold of everything that I believed in that day.”
“Not everything, Jim; you brought your prisoner back alive to stand trial. You could have just as easily killed him on the trail. No one would have thought anything of it,” Artie said softly, clearly moved by Jim’s heartfelt confession.
“I wish I could be sure that was the reason. Anyway, once I learned that you were alive, unbelievably, things got worse. It nearly drove me mad watching you suffer and not being able to do anything. I couldn’t bring myself to leave your side, but I hated being there. Helplessness is not something I do very well.”
“Really?” asked his friend in mock surprise but reaching for Jim’s hand in support.
“Hmmm,” Jim responded with a raised eyebrow. “Well, after awhile, it seemed to me that you would get better with or without me hanging around like a vulture, so I took to riding off into the mountains for days at a time. Mostly I drank and pretty much went to seed.”
“That’s the story I’ve heard too,” Arte cut in. “Emily, her father, Doctor Westfall, and everyone else at the fort were frightened for you. You probably have more fence mending to do with them than me. I know your measure, and it makes me proud to call you my friend,” He reached out and placed his arm around Jim’s trembling shoulders. “Let’s not have any more said about this. It’s done.”
“You are a good man, Artemus. I wish I could be more like you.” Then he added, “Except in the lady friend department, of course.”
“Always have to twist that particular knife, don’t you?”
“Well, yeah, I do. Now just wait a minute and I get you some clothes for our afternoon promenade.”
As Jim left, Emily walked in. “Did I interrupt something Jim?” she asked with a nervous glance at Artie.
“Not at all; I am just looking for some clothes that might fit Mr. Gordon here. Seems he wants a change of scenery.” Jim said, slyly wiping at his damp cheek.
“What? Should you be getting out of bed, Artemus? What will the doctor say?”
“Probably that I shouldn’t. But in this case, I think I’ll chance his wrath. I really need some fresh air. Care to be an accomplice to this crime?”
“Absolutely. What do you want me to do?”
Jim spoke up, “Tell you what, Emily. You go liberate some pants, a shirt and a crutch for Mr. Gordon here, and I will try to clean him up so he doesn’t scare anyone.”
“The perfect crime! I know just the place for Artie’s sartorial exchange.” Emily laughed as she produced all three items from a wardrobe in the front room of the barrack.
“I knew I liked this girl, Jim,” Artie said beaming. “Make sure you don’t slice me with that razor, Jim my boy. Rumor has it you have not had much practice in the world of personal hygiene as of late.”
The fresh air and sunshine benefited everyone greatly. “Great jumping balls of Saint Elmo’s fire! Jim, if I ever grumble about being out in the great outdoors again, I give you permission to backhand me across the face. This is glorious. There can’t be any clouds up there, are there?” Arte asked gesturing upwards.
“None to speak of, The sky is the nearly the same color blue as that suit of mine that you hate so much.”
“Not that awful light blue one---awww, Jim, you just ruined a perfectly good day for me. Thanks a lot.”
That night Jim and Arte began to make plans to move back to their train, The Wanderer. It couldn’t happen soon enough for either of them, so as soon as transportation could be arranged they readied to bid Fort Caldwell a fond farewell.
“We’ll be in touch about Private Daltrey, Mr. West,” announced the Captain as they prepared to pull out. “Take care of yourselves, gentlemen.”
“Thanks for everything, Doc. I know where I would be without your care and for that, a simple thank you is not near enough,” Artie spoke to Doctor Westfall.
“My pleasure, Mr. Gordon. Now make sure you keep the bandages on your eyes. Here’s a pair of dark glasses as well. I’ve wired an eye doctor in Denver. He’ll be expecting to hear from you soon. Please keep us informed as to your recovery,” he said shaking Artie’s hand. “You are a remarkable man, Mr. Gordon. Best of luck. Take care of yourself, Mr. West; try taking a few lessons in deportment from Mr. Gordon here, and you should do fine,” he added with a grin.
Emily had joined the farewell party, “Mr. Gordon, make sure you keep up with your exercises and you’ll be good as new in no time. I’m sure going to miss the two of you around here. You kept things….interesting.”
“Thank you, Miss Emily,” Artie said as gave her a fatherly kiss on the cheek. “If you should ever want a career in nursing, I could open a few doors for you. The names of West and Gordon are legendary in hospital circles!” he joked. “You helped this old codger more than you can ever know,” he confided quietly.
“Goodbye all!” Artie and Jim called as they pulled out of the gate and headed home.
For four hours Jim nervously watched over his friend in the back of the wagon. There was little in the way of conversation breaking the dusty monotony of this trip. Any attempt Jim would make at a dialogue was cut short by a monosyllabic reply from his convalescing partner, Artemus Gordon.
“I’d rather be hauling the nitro again,” Jim muttered mostly to himself. “Artie, I know how you hate it when I play the Mother Hen in this partnership, but I have no choice. Are you okay?” There was no answer from the makeshift bed in the back of the slow moving buckboard. “Talk to me!” Jim demanded.
This time Jim’s needle drew blood, “Dammit Jim! You ask me if I’m ok? What do you think? You have functioning eyes; do I look okay to you?” Artie spat.
James took this attack in stride. “No, you don’t; you look awful, to be honest, and I am not referring to your injuries. Back at the fort I could tell you were hurting but you were trying so hard to convince everyone that you were fine. I just had to wait you out, and then bait you. A dirty tactic, I’m sorry.”
“Jim, I was trying to convince myself!” Artie broke down. “If this turns out to be a permanent condition, what am I going to do? My livelihood is gone. Everything I have ever known or done vanished when Daltrey fired his gun. The world, as I knew it, exploded just as sure as the nitro I was carrying.” He stopped. He tried hard to compose himself, but it was of little use. “It’s…it’s….it’s just not an ending that I ever foresaw, you know? I always believed I’d be killed in the line of duty, I really did. I pretty much accepted that. But this? Where the hell did this come from?” Artie practically shouted in frustration. “I am scared to death, Jim. What’s a man to do when he loses everything and has to go on living?”
Jim stared hard at the rutted road and blinked back the tears that threatened his stoic outward appearance. He listened to his closest friend rail against the uncertainties facing him. These were the same questions Jim had asked himself when he believed Artie to be dead. It was hard for him to listen to the anguish in Artie’s voice and not try to calm him and make well-meaning promises that things would be all right. “I don’t know, Artie; I am not going to lie to you. Yeah, I think about the end a lot as well. Especially lately when I thought I had lost you. Those were the same questions I tried to drink -- and fight -- away. So, absolutely, it scares me too. But I’m here, for what that’s worth, and so are you. We’ll just have to take the rest as it comes, same as always.”
“Same as always,” repeated Artie, without much conviction. “I think I am going to try for a nap, Jim. This journey has taken a toll on me. Is it the same way we came in? I must have been some guide to steer you clear of all these ruts. They are killers.”
“Same road exactly, but I am making sure to hit every bump, just to maximize your experience,” Jim said jokingly. “You want to take over?”
“I am quite certain it could not be worse, but no thank you. My head is really pounding.”
A worried look swept across Jim’s face, “I’m sorry; you want me to stop for a while? Want some water or headache powder?”
“No, I’ll be okay. Between the bumps, the heat and this headache, I can’t wait to get back home. We’ve been away way too long,” Artie said quietly.
Jim turned around in his seat to check on his friend. “Artie, I know this can’t be easy for you, but I think the world is finally going to find out just who the real Artemus Gordon is. You have spent so much of your life being other people; most folks don’t know just how amazing you really are. I think they about to find out.”
Artemus responded to this high praise with a light snore, and Jim went back to driving the team.
The Wanderer, on long-term loan from the government to James West, was ready and waiting for the two road- weary agents. This specially outfitted train was a home and laboratory on wheels to the Secret Service’s two best. President Grant has presented it to Jim on his first case and the men had enjoyed its mobile comforts ever since. Never had it had the appeal it held today. “Artie, wake up, we’re here,” Jim reached behind him and gave his sleeping partner a light punch. “While you gather yourself, I’ll go inside for a minute. Don’t go away.”
“Very funny, James my boy.
“OK, I’ll be right back.” James hopped down from the wagon and sprinted up the stairs to the train car door. Unlocking the door, he was surprised to see a woman in the parlor car waiting for him. “Excuse me, Miss, can I help you,” he inquired with an anxious hand on the revolver at his hip.
“Why Jim, don’t you remember me?” the woman asked as she turned to face him. “I’m Lily Fortune*; we met quite a few years ago in New Orleans.”
Jim clearly was unsettled by this woman’s appearance, “What are you doing here…now Miss Fortune? I am not at all sure this is the best time to come back into Artie’s life. He’s recovering from a terrible injury that left him, left him…” Jim stammered.
“That left him blind? I know all of that, Jim. That is why I am here. I’ll explain later, but perhaps you should bring Artie in and get him settled. Don’t tell him I am here until I explain things to you. I’ll wait in the galley. Go on, it will be all right.”
A very confused James West returned to the wagon for his friend. “You ready to try this, Artie?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be. What took you so long in there? You get lost?”
“Uh, no, just giving things the once over; didn’t want any surprises waiting for us. Give me your good arm and put all your weight on me. That’s it, you ready?”
The two men maneuvered to the platform, then up the rungs of the ladder. It was slow going. “Whew,” exhaled Artie. “I don’t remember these steps being so steep.”
“OK, the hard part of this trip is over. Let’s get you settled in your compartment and I’ll have Tennyson bring you something to eat,” offered Jim. They carefully made their way through the parlor, the billiard room/office, past the galley/laboratory then down the narrow hallway to Artie’s bedroom. “These corridors were definitely not made for two people, sorry to keep banging you into the wall, but here we are. Straight ahead, your very own bed.”
Artemus collapsed gratefully upon his bed, “Oh my, I never knew this lumpy mattress could feel so good. Can you help me slip into something more comfortable? I’m calling it a night…until next week.”
Jim found Artie’s maroon dressing gown in the wardrobe and placed it on the bed. Then taking the tray from their manservant, Jim put it on the bedside table. “Here is some of Tennyson’s special tea, guaranteed to have you off to sleep in no time. I’ve poured it for you, so all you have to do is find your mouth.”
Artie grinned sleepily, “That has never been a problem. My feet have even found their way to my mouth on numerous occasions. You go on now; I can take it from here. I can tell by your voice that you are worn out as well.” He quietly added, “Thanks, Jim, for everything.”
“It’s good to have you home Artie. See you in the morning.” Jim quietly turned down the gas light, shut the door and left Artemus to enjoy a restful night’s slumber.
Making his way back towards the parlor car, he knocked on the galley door to signal his guest.
“Is he down for the night, Jim?” Lily inquired.
“As worn out as we both are, I think he is down for the week!” Jim exclaimed. “Now what is this all about? I’m sorry, Miss Fortune, my manners are a bit rusty these days. May I get you a glass of wine?”
“That would be lovely, Jim. Thank you. I know this is rather awkward, but let’s just plow on shall we?”
“Absolutely. Now just why are you here? And why now?“
The vivacious woman, who Jim remembered as Artie’s one love, sat on the gold velvet settee and began her explanation. “I certainly understand your concern, given Artemus’ condition. The last time we met, I left Artemus in a very unhappy state. I have to admit, his -- or should I say your -- proposal took me completely off my guard and I dismissed it much too lightly. I have always regretted that and hoped to make it up to him one day.”
“And this is the best time for that apology? I am sorry, but I have to disagree with your timing, Lily,” Jim stated flatly.
“An apology is not why I am here.”
“I am confused,” Jim added testily. “Just why are you here then?”
“Patience was never one of your stronger virtues, was it. Mr. West? Your superiors in Washington asked me to come. They thought I might be able to help Artie adapt to his new circumstance.”
“And why would Washington think that? What do you know about his “circumstance’ anyway? The man is blind! He thinks his life is over and it has him more scared than I have ever seen him.” Jim said heatedly.
“Shh, you’ll wake him. Just let me explain would you? I no longer tread the boards, as Artemus likes to put it. I am not as young as I once was and good parts were getting harder and harder to come by. As luck would have it, while performing in Boston, I met an amazing woman, Laura Bridgman. She introduced me to a world that I knew nothing about. Through an interpreter, as she was deaf and blind, I learned of the Perkins School for the Blind. Have you heard of it Mr. West?’
“I have heard the name, in Massachusetts correct?” a light was beginning to come on in his head. “First school for the blind in the US, right?”
“Very good. You do keep informed out here in the hinterlands, don’t you? You also might recall that the first director of this school was the husband of Julia Ward Howe, Samuel Gridley Howe.”
“Mine eyes have seen the glory…” Jim began to quote.
“The very same. Anyway, Laura persuaded me to visit the school. After meeting with the teachers and administrators, they seemed to think that I could be useful in educating their students in the arts. The rest, they say, is history. I have been there for nearly three years and absolutely could not imagine being anywhere else.”
“Now it makes sense. I am so sorry for being short with you. The last couple months have been rough ones.” Jim apologized again.
“I am afraid the rough times are just getting started for Artemus, Jim. He has a lot of learning to do and it won’t be easy for any of us,” Lily said.
“Aw, you know Artie, he picks things up quickly and easily; it won’t be too bad, it won’t be forever,” Jim said more to reassure himself than inform Lily of her student’s abilities.
“Don’t kid yourself, Jim. Artie is going to need your honesty and your strength to get past this. Just make sure you are there for him. We best be turning in now; tomorrow is a school day for you and Artemus.”
Always a light sleeper, Jim heard Artemus rustling around in his room in the early hours. Rolling over he tried to go back to sleep, but found it impossible. His mind was full of questions. How would explain Miss Fortune’s sudden morning appearance to his friend? How would he take having her as a teacher? How well would his friend adapt to his new “circumstance”? Never one to put off the inevitable James West decided to face these questions head on. He rose from bed, threw on his dressing gown and went next door to Artie’s compartment. Knocking gently on the door, he called quietly, “You awake in there, Artie?”
A moment later the door opened, “What’s wrong, Jim? Everything OK?”
“Nothing’s wrong really, just couldn’t sleep. From the rumblings I heard, you couldn’t either. Listen, can we talk? I have something important to talk over with you.”
A look of concern swept Artie’s face, “What’s going on, Jim?”
“I don’t know how best to tell you this because I don’t want you to take it the wrong way,” Jim began. “We’ve never pulled our punches with each other and I’m not going to start now, so here goes… Washington has sent out a teacher for you from the Perkins School for the Blind. She was here last night when we got in.”
“A teacher?” Artie murmured. “From a Blind School? Why? I mean I know why, but I could get my sight back, couldn’t I, Jim? Have they given up on me already?” Artie could feel his emotions starting to spiral out of control. I don’t need someone to teach me to be blind! I am beginning to get the hang of it and I am not a big fan!” he shouted at his friend.
“Artie, stop! No, I don’t believe anyone has given up on you. You could get your sight back, but you have to face the fact that you might not. It can’t hurt to learn ways to make your life easier. Maybe the teacher they sent can help you deal with some of the anger and frustration you feel. Don’t tell me it’s not eating away at you.”
“I don’t want to deal with it, Jim! I want my life back the way it was. I want my life back the way it was…” He broke down and sobbed. Months of pent up pain, fear and anger found their release when Gordon’s dam of pride gave way. Jim sat by his friend until the sobs gave way to an angry and defiant silence.
The outburst didn’t last long, but it shook Jim to his core. He was beginning to feel Lily’s prediction of rough times ahead was going to be true. “Artie? I really don’t want to press this with you, especially now, but there’s more. The teacher Perkin’s sent is Lily. Your Lily. She’s here on the train now.”
Artemus Gordon was completely unnerved. A day hadn’t passed that he did not think of her. She very easily could have been Mrs. Artemus Gordon all those years ago. “She’s on this train?” he shouted. “Now? What were you thinking, James? I thought you were my friend. Why didn’t you tell me last night? I don’t need Lily here feeling sorry for me, I don’t need anyone from any blind school, and I sure don’t need you, friend.” Artie flung Jim against the wall and awkwardly stormed down the narrow train corridor to the main compartment. Anything in his way was savagely kicked aside. “I don’t need anyone!”
This outburst brought Lily to the door of her compartment. Seeing Artie in such a state brought tears to her eyes, but only for a minute. If he was to make his way in the world, he would need much more than sympathy or pity. “Artemus Gordon, Mrs. Gordon’s son? Is that you behaving like a spoiled five year old? Clean up that mess you just made and sit yourself down on the settee. Don’t just stand there with your mouth hanging open. Get to it.”
This was not the reunion Artemus had expected. “Lily?” he stammered. “I don’t want you to see me like this. Get out, I don’t need you here. I don’t want you here.”
Jim tried to intercede but was shut down by Miss Fortune. “It’s all right, Jim. I can handle this. Why don’t you disappear for a while so Artemus and I can be reacquainted. I am sure you can find something to occupy a few hours.”
“If you are sure. There are a few things in town that I need to attend to, given our absence and everything.” Jim left to get dressed and breakfast. He tried not to show the concern he felt for his friend. “Bye Artie, I’ll be back later.”
“Go to hell, West,” snarled a furious Artemus Gordon.
Jim absorbed the sting and headed out the door.
“Artemus, come here please. We really do have to talk.”
“I don’t want you here, Lil. I don’t want you to see me like this, not after all this time.” Artie pleaded. He had backed himself into a corner of the varnish car, and a fallen chair blocked his retreat. Swinging his crutch in frustration, he succeeded in knocking a decanter and several wine glasses off the sideboard.
Lily tried calming Gordon down, “Stop, Artemus, before you hurt yourself. Just stop. Now gently feel in front of you for what is blocking your path. Feel it? It’s the chair that belongs next to the fireplace. Get a picture in your head of what this room looks like, then place the chair back where it belongs. “
Artie slowly bent to set the chair up right, and slid it into place. Some of the anger had burned itself out and he apologized. “Lil, I am so sorry. It is such a shock to have you here again. I really thought I would never see you again. Oh wait, I still don’t see you,” he laughed bitterly.
“That sense of humor can serve you well in this, Artemus. You have always had that in bushels.”
Artie put his hands out in front of him and slowly groped his way to the settee. Feeling out the cushions, he collapsed at the opposite end from Lily. “What do you know about being blind?” he demanded. “How dare Washington send you, of all people, out to help me?”
“Well, its kind of a long story,” Lil started.
“I don’t have any pressing engagements; let’s hear it,” Artemus said with dripping sarcasm.
“Let’s have some coffee first,” suggested Lily. “Maybe you’ll act more civilized then. I can show you how to pour, then if you decide to kick me off the train, I will at least have taught you something,” She placed the carafe on the table in front of the agent. “Reach out slowly with your right hand, until you feel the base of the carafe then run your hand up to the top. Good, feel the handle? Careful, you don’t want to burn yourself.” Artie reluctantly did as he was told. “OK, now feel on the table for the cups, there are two to the left of the carafe. Slowly tip the spout until it is resting on the lip of the cup. Careful now it is starting to pour. Now place your finger on the lip of the cup, when you feel heat, stop. Perfect, now pour yours. This time listen as you pour. What do you hear?”
Artie strained his ears, and smiled, “The sound changes as it gets to the top.”
“That’s right. So there you have a simple way to pour a drink without spilling. That was nicely done, Artie,” Lily congratulated.
“So, now will you tell me why you are here?” Artie said sipping the hot liquid.
“It isn’t some government plot, Artemus. I heard about your injury from Mr. Peters. Remember? He and mother eloped while we were together in New Orleans. I was in a position to help you so I volunteered. I hope you don’t think that was out of line.”
“I must be getting slow-witted in my old age, but why are you in a position to help?” Artie questioned.
“There will never be anything slow about you, Artemus. You are one of the brightest men I have ever had the privilege to know and one of the kindest. I have kept up with your exploits over the last few years and I am so proud to have been a small chapter in your life,” Miss Fortune reached out and gently touched Gordon’s face. “Let me help you start a new chapter. I do know a little about that. When I decided to leave the theater, I was scared to death. It was all I knew, all I had ever really wanted to do. But, in my line of work, time is the enemy. I found myself getting cast in supporting roles instead of leads, and I knew it was time to get out. Once I quit the theater, I felt things would never be the same for me. And you know what? It hasn’t. It has been better than I could have ever imagined. The Perkin’s School for the Blind hired me as a teacher of the Fine Arts. It is an amazing place and it humbles me everyday. Let me share some of what I have learned with you. Just one friend helping another”
“Lily, I don’t know. I am so overwhelmed by everything that has happened. There are days when I think that I will never be able to face the world again. It has all gotten so…so…”
“Scary?” offered Lil. “Facing a world you can no longer see is scary, Artemus, even for a man like you. “
“I guess that is the part that is hardest for me to take. I have faced death on a daily basis for years and barely broke a sweat, but the thought of being left alone on this train scares the life out of me. I couldn’t even get out of that corner without your help,” Artie confided.
“You’ve gotten out of tighter corners than that from what I’ve heard. The trick is to stay calm. Listen to me telling you the importance of staying calm in a crisis. I’m sorry. It’s the teacher in me sneaking out.
Just then the telegraph began to tap a message. Instinctively, Artie jumped up to send his acknowledgement. Dictating aloud, as was his custom, Artie deciphered the coded message. “Replacement Partner enroute. Rendezvous in Denver. Give Mr. Gordon our best wishes for a full recovery.”
“Ouch. Artemus, I am so sorry,” sympathized Lilly.
Artemus sank to a nearby chair as if he had been dealt a blow by an unseen fist. “I knew I couldn’t stay here forever. It’s only fair to Jim that he gets a new partner. But, I didn’t anticipate getting the news like this. Life has just been full of surprises lately.”
A few minutes later Jim returned to the varnish car. Not sure what to expect he entered cautiously. Seeing his partner sitting at his familiar place by the telegraph, he inquired,” What’s the news, Artie?” Too late he saw Lil mouthing a warning and shaking her head. “Damn, what’s wrong now?”
Artemus sighed, “Nothing’s wrong. We just got a wire from Washington wishing me a speedy recovery and alerting you to the arrival of your new partner. You are to meet him at the Denver train station.”
The look of rejection on Artie’s face was more than Jim could stand. “That’s ridiculous. I never asked Washington for a new partner. I have a partner! Get out of the way, Artie. I have to send a response. A new partner? They are crazier than I ever gave them credit for,” bellowed West.
“No Jim, you and I both knew this was coming. How could it be otherwise? You have your duty and right now that duty includes breaking in a new partner. Don’t worry, I’ll still be around to see that it is done properly.” The bravery in Artie’s voice didn’t fool anyone. “Anyway, according to my teacher here, I’ll have enough to keep me busy for weeks to come,” he added with a tight smile in Lily’s direction.
“Well, you may be ready to concede this matter, Artemus, but I’m not. Besides, we still have our three weeks of R and R coming to us. My new partner will just have to cool his heels in Denver until we get there. You and I have put too much time into this partnership to let it go without a fight. And I don’t know anyone that enjoys a good fight better than me.”
“Those do sound like fighting words to me, James my boy. Just what do you have in mind?” Gordon inquired.
“I’ll let you know when I come up with something. In the mean time, why don’t we get you dressed and decent. Lily, will you excuse us?”
Artemus clamped on to Jim’s arm and awkwardly proceeded to make their way back to Artie’s compartment.
“Surely gentlemen, but could I make a suggestion? Artemus, do you trust Jim?”
“Only with my life. Why would you ask that?”
“Because by the way you are holding on to him, it looks as though you are afraid he’s going to throw you under the train. The easiest way for someone to guide is for you to take their arm and follow slightly behind them. Jim, all you have to do is offer your arm like this.” She demonstrated by bending her arm and lightly placing Jim’s hand at her elbow. “If you trust Jim’s lead, there is no need to worry that he will let you get hurt.”
The men tried the new approach and found it to be a better way to navigate the narrow passageway of the car. Once in his room, Artie was pleased to discover that he could indeed manage to get himself dressed with a minimum assistance from his partner. Shaving was an issue to be attempted solo at another time. “You are getting to be quite good at this, Jim; ever think about going into the barbering business if this whole agent thing doesn’t work out for you?” Artie kidded.
“Are you sure you want to make bad jokes like that while I have this razor at your throat? Who could ever tell if it was me or a sudden movement of the train?”
“Remember Jim, I told Lily that I trusted you with my life. A slit throat at this point in time would be very suspicious. Besides you have another partner on the way; no need to do me in now.”
The two men continued their familiar friendly banter until Lily banged on the compartment door, urging them to hurry things up. She was glad to have Jim back on the train because it put Artemus at ease. “Artemus? Do you think you are up to a trip into town tomorrow? Jim and I will both be with you. It will be a chance for me to teach you both at the same time.”
Artie thought for a moment before answering. “I don’t know if I am ready for that yet. I don’t even know my way around the train. The town might be more than I can do right now.”
“Artie,” Jim said softly. “I won’t let anything happen to you. Let’s give it a try and if you change your mind we’ll come right back here, no questions asked. I think you can do it.”
“Your confidence means a lot to me, Jim,” Artie admitted. “Let’s start with a few baby steps today. Maybe I can just learn my way around the train. I always thought I could find my way around here blindfolded. Now’s my chance to prove that theory I guess.”
“That’s an excellent idea, Artemus,” declared Lily. “Jim, let him try it on his own. I am sure he knows his way around here as well as you.”
Artie began his tour of the train in the parlor. It was slow going at first, but the onlookers were surprised to see how fast their friend caught on. He deftly made his way around the sofas, desk, and chairs that filled the small area. “Artie, you are doing better now than when you could see! I‘ve seen you catch your foot on that coffee table leg more times than I could count,” Jim cheered his friend on.
“You are doing well, Artemus. Just stand up a little straighter and try not to shuffle. The Artemus Gordon I know would never shuffle. Raise your arm a little higher, keep it at a right angle to your body, just to protect yourself. Excellent. Keep going.” Lily knew all of Artie’s fears and was proud of his valiant effort. “Ok now, Artemus, move carefully down the corridor to the galley. I am not sure you are quite ready to start cooking yet, but it won’t hurt to learn your way around in there.”
Gordon’s entrance to the galley was followed by a crash. “That would be the pots and pans, I am guessing. I always meant to hang those in a better spot.”
Jim jumped to his partner’s aid. “Are you all right? Let me get those put away.”
“No Jim,” interjected Lily. “He’s fine; let him clean it up. He won’t always have you around to be his maid.”
“It’s fine, Jim, I got it. Lily’s right you know. I have to learn to do these things by myself.” These last words put a black cloud over the otherwise positive experience. “I think I’ve done enough for now; don’t want to overdo it, you know. I think I’ll go back to my room for a bit, if you don’t mind.”
Jim turned to Lily. “I know he needs to learn these things, but can’t we cut him a little slack. I mean the guy has been through hell and back these last couple months.”
“I know it seems I am demanding a lot from him, but with you taking on a new partner soon, he has to be ready to make it on his own. He can’t stay here with you looking out for him. He would hate it and so would you.”
“So what happens next?” Jim demanded. “Where does he go from here? He has no family that I know of. I can’t just say ‘So Long, Artie, good luck old pal.’ He is my brother, I love him.” Jim stopped, surprised to have that slip out.
“Don’t worry, Jim, your secret is safe with me, although I suspect he shares those feelings as well. Artemus is very important to me as well. He has been blessed with innumerable talents that will stand him in good stead in anything he cares to put his mind to. To that end, I would like to make him an offer to come back to Perkins with me. He does have a lot to learn yet, but he has an equal amount to offer the school. Do you think it would be something he’d be interested in doing?”
“You should probably ask him,” deferred Jim. The thought of losing his friend to such a long distance was upsetting. “I don’t know how he would feel about moving back East.”
“You are right, of course. But Jim, I understand your concerns, all of them. You are afraid that I am going hurt Artemus again. I give you my word that is not my intention at all. I don’t know if there is anything more than friendship in store for us; no one does. I do know that I can prepare him to live independently as a sightless person in a sighted world. What I can teach him and what he can teach others at the school can give him purpose. Isn’t that what we all hope for out of chosen professions? Oh my goodness, Jim I am so sorry, I didn’t mean to preach at you, of all people.” Lily found herself standing and in a lecturing posture. She turned bright red and seated herself once more on the couch next to West.
“No offense taken. Artemus would make an amazing teacher and he probably would love it. But, like I said, he is the one you have to convince. As far as my concerns go, I trust you not to do anything but help Artie.” Then he added with a smile, “Besides, I know where you live.”
The morning the trio was to head to town dawned with a torrential downpour. Lightning danced across the sky and thunder bounced off the nearby mountains. James was the first to awaken. “Tennyson, is that coffee made yet? Where are you, man?” He pulled on his dressing gown and made his way to the galley. “Do I have to do everything around here myself?” He proceeded to put the coffee on and get the makings for breakfast out of the pantry. A sudden stirring in Artie’s compartment caught his attention. He listened for sounds of distress, but hearing nothing, more carried on with preparing breakfast. Still, something unsettled him. “Must be the storm,” he mumbled. Leaving the coffee to boil, he left the varnished car and made his way to the car that stabled their horses. They were spooked by the storm as well. “Aren’t we a brave bunch here? Calm down, you’ve heard thunder before. Have your oats. That ought to settle your nerves. I’ll be back later and give you a good brushing. Settle down.” His black stallion pawed at the straw on the floor then settled into his feed. Artie’s mare was a little more jumpy and required some extra attention, “I know, girl. You miss being ridden. Maybe one of these days we’ll get that owner of yours back out here. I bet between you and me we could figure out a way to let him ride again.” The gentle bay nuzzled Jim, “You like that idea? Good, then it’s a promise. Now settle down and eat.” Filling their buckets with fresh water he turned to head back to the galley.
“How long have you been consulting with our horses, partner?”
“Geez, Artie. You scared a year’s growth out of me. What are you doing out here?”
A look of hope and excitement crossed Artie’s face. “Nothing, just looking for you.”
“You could have been hu….LOOKING FOR ME! You mean? You can see? You see me?”
“I can, Jim! You are about the prettiest thing I have seen in a long time, friend!” He grabbed his partner and smothered him in a bear hug. “Ouch! That shoulder is a little tender yet for that kind of shenanigans, but I can see, Jim!”
A stunned James West stood stock still, “How? When? Really?”
“You always have had a talent for expressing yourself, James my boy. You do me proud.” Leading Jim by the hand, Artemus dragged the speechless agent back to the galley. “Coffee?”
“Uh, yeah. You can really see?”
“I can, Jim, and it is wonderful. The rain is beautiful. The lightning amazing and … this galley is a mess. Don’t you ever clean up after yourself, boy?”
“Well, I have this partner who has been keeping me a little busy lately. You might recognize him. Tall guy, brown eyes, wavy hair, and usually has a silly grin smeared across his face.”
“The description sounds familiar. I’ll have a talk with him the next time I see him. In the mean time, let me whip us up some breakfast – Gordon style.” The agent, known for many things including his cooking, put together a breakfast fit for kings. It was the first real meal the friends had shared in months.
Artie looked gratefully across the table at his friend and spoke from his heart, “Jim, I really don’t know how to thank you for staying by me during all of this. You truly went above and beyond the call of duty or friendship. I couldn’t have made it without your support. It was the only thing I had to hold on to. You are really one in a million. Thanks, friend.”
Jim found himself speechless again but words were not necessary. The looks they exchanged spoke volumes. A rustling from down the hall jerked him back to reality. “It’s Lily! Does she know?”
“No, I had to tell you first. But, could you give us a minute. Jim?” Artie looked a little panicked. “I need to talk to her alone if you don’t mind.”
“Absolutely, I understand. Take as long as you need.” Then to Lily, “Excuse me, I’ll be right back. Have some breakfast; I think you’ll find it quite delicious.”
“What ever has Jim so chipper this dreadful morning, Artemus? The thunder about bounced me out of bed. Are storms always this bad out here? Artemus? Why are you grinning like that?” Lily questioned.
“This storm isn’t that bad; in fact, it’s more of a little sprinkle. You think this is bad? Why great jumping balls of Saint Elmo’s fire, Lily, this storm is absolutely glorious.”
“Artemus, you are acting as strange as your partner. What’s going on?”
“I can see, Lil, and you look ravishing!”
“Really? When? Really?” she stammered.
“You seem to have the same command of the language that Jim does. And you call yourself a teacher. Shame.” Gordon joked. “But to answer your questions. Yes, really. And early this morning. I was laying in bed listening to the thunder then slowly the room began to brighten. At first I thought it was just wishful thinking , but before long I could make out the shape of the window, then my wardrobe then my whole room It was a miracle. Lil, I’m not blind!”
“Oh Artemus, I am so happy for you. It is a miracle.”
“We can start over, Lil. We can pick up where we left off in New Orleans. I never stopped caring for you…”
“Artemus, wait. Slow down. The thought of making a life together with you has crossed my mind more than once, I’ll admit. I had even hoped that you would accompany me back to Perkins. I have never met a more talented, kind or gracious man, but the School is my life now. Just like the Secret Service is yours. Neither one of us would be happy if we had to chose one over the other.”
“I think this is where the scene ended the last time, wasn’t it?” Artie said sadly. “You are right, of course. Yesterday, I was worried sick because I thought my life was over. Today, I have too many choices, and either way I choose somebody is going to get hurt.”
“Artemus, you are a dear but there really is no choice here. The country needs you and Jim as a team. Perkins needs me. If it’s meant to be, it will be.”
“You are right again. But I don’t like the result any better. I wish we would have met again under more pleasant circumstances. You saw an awfully selfish side of me. I am sorry for that.”
Lily touched his face and smiled, “No, Artemus, I saw a very human side of you and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I was glad to be able to help you, even if it was only for a few days. I do love you Artemus Gordon.” They moved closer together and embraced. “Oh…” The words were lost in a kiss that lasted until rudely interrupted by West.
“Oops, is this a bad time?” Jim teased.
Artie shot Jim a glance that could never be lost in translation. “What are you doing here? Don’t you have someone to beat up or something?”
“I’ll be gone in five minutes, I promise. Just have to take care of one little thing.” Jim opened the telegraph box and readied to send a message.
“Do you have to do that now?” whined his partner. “What is so important that it can’t wait?”
“I have to cancel one new partner. Welcome home partner, welcome home.
*Lily Fortune is a character from the second season episode entitled “The Night of the Big Blast”. It first aired on October 7, 1966
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