Title: The Night of the Shackles
Fandom: Wild Wild West
Pairing: J/A
Feedback: justblackchaps at yahoo dot com
Rating: NC-17
Summary: Artemus has trouble dealing with Jim.
Disclaimer: All this belongs to CBS.

********

Artemus didn't want to believe it. Didn't want to think it. He didn't even want to allow the whisper of the thought to reach down into his aching heart. But it was time, and his heart would have to break in half. There wasn't anything he could do to prevent it. The situation was intolerable, and he'd tolerated all he was going to in this lifetime. He sighed and rubbed his face. Today, he felt old.

"What's the matter, Artie?"

"I'm leaving." Artemus blurted it out before his heart could stop him.

"Good idea. Let's go out for dinner." Jim picked up his vest and slipped into it.

"No, you don't understand." Artemus almost giggled hysterically. Jim didn't get it and never would. "I'll be in my room."

Artemus took his brandy and went to pack a bag. Over the years, he had collected a considerable amount of possessions, but he was taking only a few things. It was all shit anyway and would only serve to remind him of mistakes he'd made. He'd take only what his horse could carry and get the hell out of here.

"Artemus?"

Artemus didn't look at his ex-partner in the doorway. "Tell them whatever you want."

"You can't do this."

"Bullshit, I can do it, and I am. Tell them I'm dead. That way I won't have to worry about Colonel Richmond showing up on my doorstep." Artemus began going through a drawer of miscellaneous items, stuffing a few in his saddlebags.

"No." Jim stepped close and grabbed Artemus by the arm. "I won't allow this."

"Unhand me, you bastard. You don't own me, not anymore." Artemus wrenched his arm away. "Make your sorry ass useful, go saddle my horse."

Jim jerked as if he'd been shot. "Artie, I won't beg like you do."

"I don't want you to beg. I want you to GO SADDLE MY HORSE."

Artemus buckled on his six-shooter, grabbed up his rifle, and didn't spare a glance at his stunned ex-lover.

"Is this about that woman last night? You know I'm gonna fuck who I want to fuck." Jim was blocking the doorway. "Don't be pissy, Artie."

Artemus slung the bulging saddlebags on his shoulder and pointed his rifle at Jim. "Get out of my way."

Jim didn't move. He crossed his arms, and Artemus fired.

********

The gelding snorted in confusion when Artemus took him out without his stablemate. Artemus made sure the saddlebags were secure, sheathed his rifle, and mounted. He guided his horse carefully through the tracks and ditches that made up the rail yard. Each hoof step was a chain link falling away. The shackles that Jim had put on Artemus were broken. Too bad his heart was among the casualties.

Artemus rode all that day and into the night. His gelding was tired, but Artemus didn't want to stop. Every mile that passed took him closer to freedom. It wasn't until the horse actually stumbled that Artemus pulled him to a stop. They were somewhere, that's all he knew. Swinging off, he rubbed his ass and pulled the horse to a large tree. He loosened the cinch on the saddle, gave the horse a drink, and tied him to a branch. The horse blew out hard and rested. Artemus found a dry spot under the tree and sat down. His ass ached, but that was nothing new. At least, it would have the chance to heal for a change.

Would President Grant be angry? Artemus took off his hat and ran a hand through his sweaty hair. It didn't matter. He had to survive and leaving Jim was the only way to get that job done. Colonel Richmond was the one Artemus would have to worry about chasing after him. The colonel might want an explanation, and Artemus didn't intend to give him one. There was a chance that Jim would tell everyone that Artemus Gordon was dead. He prayed this would happen, because it was the truth. Well, more truth than any other cockamamie story he could come up with to avoid telling the actual truth. He shifted his position and stretched. The moon was up. He sipped some whiskey from a flask and listened to the night.

*********

Jim lay on the floor, trying desperately to breathe. Blood trickled down very slowly. He curled around himself a little tighter and watched Artemus' long legs and black boots go down the hallway. They didn't pause or even hesitate. Artemus was leaving, and if he knew what was good for him, he'd go far and fast.

Sweat beaded on Jim's forehead. He heard his horse neigh, and Jim tried to get up. Impossible. He slumped back down and groaned. Artemus was going to pay for this, it may take a while, but Jim would see it done.

*********

Artemus jerked awake. He had to go make Jim his breakfast or there'd be hell to pay. With a groan, Artemus pushed up, and the fog in his mind cleared. Jim would go out for breakfast this morning. Artemus laughed and combed the twigs out of his hair. He glanced over at his sleeping horse and felt guilty. He'd pushed him too hard last night. The thin light of dawn dappled over them. Artemus stood up with a shake, brushing off a spider.

The floor of the thin forest was damp, and Artemus glanced down the trail. The hoof prints of the gelding were easy to spot. A shiver ran down Artemus' spine. Jim had marked the horseshoes. Artemus kneeled and stared. Amidst the curve was an A, leaving a clear imprint in the dirt. Damn it.

Artemus lifted each hoof on the gelding and cursed again. All the shoes were marked. Jim, no doubt, was making sure he could find Artemus if they were separated on the trail. How nice and considerate of him. Right. Either the shoes or the horse would have to go. Artemus tightened the cinch and swung aboard. It was time to get moving, and fast.

********

The Wanderer pulled into the train station, and Jim ran through his options one more time. He adjusted the bandage on his arm. This assignment was simple and then he'd go hunting. A knock at the door interrupted his planning, and he answered the door. It was Colonel Richmond. Jim pasted a false smile on his face and ushered him inside.

"Morning, West."

"Good morning, Colonel. I'm about ready." Jim buttoned his vest.

"Where's Artemus this morning?"

"Oh, you know him, likes to sleep late." Jim buckled on his six-shooter. "He'll catch up with me later."

Colonel Richmond looked about, and Jim tried to act casual. "He's gone or you've killed him. Which is it?"

"Colonel, I have no idea what you're talking about, I'd never hurt Artie," Jim said, not until he found him that is.

"Your arm is bandaged. Why?"

"I'm ready. After this assignment, I'll need a couple of weeks off." Jim put on his hat and opened the door. "And don't worry about Artie. He's like a cat, got nine lives."

"West, I don't like this one bit. Report to the governor, and we're not finished," Colonel Richmond said, "not by a long shot."

"We're done. You do what you have to."

Jim shut and locked the door behind the colonel. This was between Jim and Artemus, and if the colonel knew what was good for him, he'd stay out of it.

*********

Artemus found a little town and pulled a switch. He sold his horse to a rancher in town to buy supplies at the general store. The rancher lived a distance away, and Artemus decided it wouldn't hurt to be careful. Never know with Jim.

A stagecoach would stop briefly in town tomorrow morning, and Artemus bought a ticket. He made an effort not to stand out in any way. There were very few people better than Jim was at following trail. Artemus shivered in the bright sun. He was just being careful. There was no real reason to worry. Jim had his duties, and they were more important than hunting Artemus. He rubbed the hair on his arms until it went back down. No worries.

The town boasted a small hotel, and Artemus didn't go near it. Hotel managers were too observant, and Jim would recognize Artemus' handwriting no matter what he did, even a big X would be a giveaway. Artemus waited at the stagecoach station and spent another uncomfortable night. He didn't complain. He was free. It was small comfort to his broken heart and bruised soul, but it would do.

The stage arrived on time, and Artemus squeezed in next to a traveling salesman. Poor sod. Artemus shifted about until his ass stopped complaining.

"Sit still, ya dumb ass," the salesman growled.

Artemus wasn't going to argue with that assessment of his abilities. So many mistakes and none worse than the one that had given him a sore ass.

*********

The assignment took two days, and Jim didn't think of Artemus during it. There was no reason to worry. Jim worked and slept. When the governor pronounced that he was satisfied, Jim returned to the Wanderer. Colonel Richmond was on the back step with a troop of cavalry posted around the train.

"Colonel," Jim said. He ignored the cavalry.

"West, get your horse and whatever you can carry. You're officially on leave."

"I need the Wanderer."

"Not an option. President Grant has informed me that I'm to stay out of this little problem you have with Artemus, but I do have certain powers that I intend to utilize." Colonel Richmond smiled.

Jim glared at his superior officer. "Stay out of this, Colonel."

"No, you have two weeks. If I haven't seen Artemus Gordon at the end of it, you no longer work for the Treasury Department. Your transfer back to regular Army is signed and on my desk," Colonel Richmond said. "So get your horse."

"The train would speed this process up." Jim twisted his little finger.

"Yes, but I suspect Artemus is dead, and this way I can see you posted to the Dakota Territories." Colonel Richmond turned his back on Jim. "You have fifteen minutes, and then Lieutenant Jones here has his orders."

Jim cursed and went to throw a few things in a saddlebag. Colonel Richmond wouldn't be satisfied until Jim delivered Artemus tied over a saddle. Damn Artemus. Jim saddled his black gelding, made sure he had what he wanted, and mounted. He trotted the horse over to Colonel Richmond. "Artemus is alive. At least he was when he shot me. I'll find him, but I can't promise that he'll come back." Jim hated to say even that much.

"Fix this, West, or buy a good set of long underwear."

Jim whirled the black horse and booted him into a gallop. Colonel Richmond didn't have a clue, and now Jim's back was to the wall. Jim would drop Artemus on the colonel's doorstep, and things would go back to normal.

********

Artemus got off the stagecoach with a drawn out groan. He was in Baldwin City, and he intended to stay here. There was always work in these towns, and Artemus would stay long enough to forget a little.

********

Jim rode for three days before picking up Artemus' old trail in the train yard. Thank God it hadn't rained. He squinted down and clearly picked out the A among the hoof prints. Wouldn't be long, and he'd have Artemus in his sights. One thing Jim could count on was that Artemus would never check his horse's hooves unless the beast was limping. Jim smiled grimly and flexed his sore arm. It would heal. Artemus wouldn't go far, of that Jim was certain.

********

Artemus found a job keeping accounts in the Baldwin City General Store. It was a job that he was good at, even if it was a bit dusty. The owner was happy to rent the small room in back, and Artemus took up residence there. The room was small, but clean after he finished with it. It was private, and that was what mattered. Artemus had no patience for idiots lately, probably because he felt like such a fool. He'd been surprised that the owner, Sam Allen, needed a bookkeeper until Artemus discovered the man couldn't read or write. The store was finally big enough to require paperwork. It took four days for Artemus to create an inventory system, one that the owner could manage when Artemus left, and he would be leaving.

The nights were long and filled with guilty thoughts. He should send a telegram to Colonel Richmond, but each day when Artemus went to do it, he couldn't find any words to send. His ass healed, and that was a relief. The days passed quickly, and Artemus rarely left the sanctuary he'd found.

*********

Jim cursed and cursed. His horse laid back his ears in irritation. Jim slapped his hat on his thigh. Artemus had found the mark, and Jim was in the middle of nowhere, talking to a bewildered rancher. Jim had found Artemus' horse, but that was all. Time to backtrack and it was day eight. Six more days and Jim would be heading for the Dakotas. Not a pleasant thought.

The gelding snorted and bucked a bit. He was tired and ready to quit for the day. Jim didn't have time for a tired horse. They left at a trot, back the way they'd come to the little town where Artemus had ditched the horse. Jim didn't waste time trying to figure out how Artemus knew he was being followed. Jim just had to find him and Ôfix this'.

********

Artemus ventured out for lunch. The food at the local cafŽ wasn't half-bad, and he had grown tired of his own company. Life in these little towns all across America was a far cry from the life he was accustomed, but he wasn't complaining. Peace and quiet had its own rewards. After lunch, he stepped out in the street and took a deep breath of fresh air. The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky, and the normal noise of small town life washed over him. It was time to go.

The stage would arrive tomorrow, and Artemus made the decision to be on it. His neck prickled a little, and he rubbed it before walking back to work. Time to move on. He had a feeling that he'd better.

********

Jim picked up the trail of the stagecoach and followed it from town to town. No one had seen Artemus, no one. This wasn't any real surprise. The man could blend in anywhere. No hotel register had his name on it, but once again, if Artemus knew Jim was hunting him, he wouldn't stay in hotels. Jim had eaten enough dust for a lifetime, and his horse was thoroughly put out with him. Two more days and all of this wouldn't matter. Jim would follow orders, and Artemus would stay lost. Jim dropped the reins around the neck of his horse and rubbed a hand through his dirty hair.

The reality of his situation was beginning to hit home. He'd done something to Artemus to cause this fuss, but in all honesty, Jim wasn't sure what it was that had earned him a bullet to the arm and a boot to the balls. During these last days one thing had become clear. He missed Artemus. There wasn't much anger left in him, only a quiet sense of desperation. Jim put his hat back on and took a drink from his canteen. He had time for one more town, and then he'd give up. Damn you, Artie. I need you.

*********

Artemus packed his meager belongings and walked down to the stagecoach station. It would be in soon and after changing horses would be off again. He sat down to wait. No ticket master. He'd have to buy one from the driver. This move was a big one. Up to now, Artemus wouldn't have been all that surprised to see Jim ride up, but another stage ride and it would be impossible. Artemus pinched the bridge of his nose. He did miss Jim, even though it hurt to admit it. So many years of friendship and love fucked up so easily. Artemus shut his eyes. Jim would never forgive him for ball busting him. The bullet, yes, the boot, no. Artemus heard the stage arrive in a clatter and kept his eyes shut one moment more.

A hand grabbed his lapel, and Artemus reacted instantly. His punch was blocked hard, and a big fist knocked him down. Jim grabbed and pulled him up. Artemus reached in his pocket for a smoker. Nothing.

"Hey, someone's beating up Mr. Gordon!" A small boy that Artemus had given a penny to from time to time yelled at the top of his lungs. A crowd gathered in a minute, and Artemus tried to duck the next punch. It landed, and he winced when he tasted blood. Jim still had a hold on him. Artemus tried to knee him in the balls. Jim twisted to the side and stopped, completely. Artemus raised a fist, but didn't throw it when it became clear that Jim was through fighting. The reason being the pistol pushing into the back of his head.

The sheriff held it. "What's going on here, Mr. Gordon?"

"Lower your pistol, Sheriff White, please," Artemus said, and Jim released him. "Please."

Jim said nothing, and Artemus took in the sight of his exhausted, filthy ex-partner. It was anything but pretty.

"Looked to me like this coyote was giving you a good trouncing." Sheriff White lowered his gun, but didn't holster it. "A stay in jail will cool him off."

Jim sighed softly. Artemus grinned. This was his chance to get away, but Jim would just keep coming.

"Artie, give me a chance to explain." Jim kept his hands away from his gun.

"Sheriff, I think we're finished fighting. We'll be fine." Artemus brushed off his clothes and wiped the blood from his mouth.

"If he gives you any trouble just holler," said Sheriff White. "Clear the street everybody, show's over."

The crowd milled away with several people stopping to pat Artemus on the back. Jim received nothing but glares. One man actually spat. Artemus was a little surprised. He didn't know these people cared. Glancing about, he spotted the black gelding.

"Jim, let's get your horse to the stable. He looks tired."

Jim nodded and went to get him. Artemus trailed along as they traveled down to the livery stable. Why was Jim here? Revenge? The stable boys took the gelding and began working on him. Jim pulled off his saddlebags and met Artemus out front. They stared into each other's eyes for a moment, and both of them looked away.

"Is there some place private we can talk? Away from the adoring crowd."

"Um, okay." Artemus took Jim to his little room in the back of the general store. The owner, Sam, nodded that it was fine. Artemus tossed his bag back on the bed and leaned against the wall. "What do you need, Jim?"

"An explanation would be nice." Jim dropped his things. "And a drink of whiskey, if you have some."

Artemus rummaged in his saddlebag and handed Jim a flask. He took a long drink. "I don't owe you anything."

"I think otherwise. We've been together too long for you to throw it away over nothing."

"Nothing? Is that why I shot you? Jim, you are a sad, misguided man." Artemus crossed his arms and waited for the yelling to start. "Why are you really here?"

"Colonel Richmond wants you. I'm to fetch you home." Jim reached in his bag and pulled out shackles. "I even have a warrant for your arrest. All nice and legal."

"All nice and forged, you mean. Why didn't you tell him I was dead? It would have saved a lot of time."

"Oh, he thinks you're dead all right, and I'm being transferred back into the Army with a posting in the Dakota Territory. He thinks I killed you." Jim took another drink.

Artemus laughed. This was amusing. "You're in deep shit, my friend. I have no intention of returning with you."

"I figured you'd say that." Jim pointed at the shackles. "But you're going anyway."

This was no longer funny. Artemus was not going back to the Wanderer. "You've been following me for a while, given any thought as to why I left?"

"No, not really. You've always been a bit emotional."

Artemus dropped his hand to his six-shooter, and by the time his palm hit it, Jim's gun was out.

"Give me the gun, Artie."

"Take it, you fool." Artemus waited, and Jim did exactly that, keeping his pistol up. His green eyes glittered, and he tossed the gun on the bed.

"Face the wall, arms out," Jim growled.

Artemus slowly turned to the wall while Jim patted him down, finding, of course, his extra gun and knife. "Jim, this isn't the way."

"Too bad, you've shot me once, and I'm not taking any more chances." Jim allowed Artemus to turn back around. "Do I need to use those shackles?"

Artemus spread his hands in confusion. "Do you really think you can shackle me and drag me back?"

"If I have to, I will." Jim looked incredibly stubborn.

"You won't get any sleep, and you're already tired. Think, Jim, I'll send him a telegram, and you can ride off." Artemus smiled. "Let's go do it."

"He won't believe anything but your sweet face, but we will send him a telegram just to let him know we're on the way."

"Sit down, Jim. You're gonna fall on your ugly face." Artemus slid down the wall and sat cross-legged. "I promise I'll be here when you wake up."

"Artie, I don't believe you." Jim stood over Artemus. "Shackle yourself to the bed."

"I can pick any lock. Push that stuff off and lay down. I'll be here. You have my word as an officer and a gentleman."

Jim gave Artemus a long look, nodded, and removed the items from the bed to the floor. "Just give me an hour or two."

Artemus nodded and watched Jim fall asleep. He was so trusting. The right words produced complete faith. Artemus waited until Jim was asleep before going to the telegraph office. It was time to send that telegram. Jim didn't belong in the Dakotas. His considerable talents would be wasted there.

The telegram was short and to the point. He included his private code that Jim didn't know so Colonel Richmond would be reassured. Jim is here stop I am fine stop Be back soon stop Artemus paid for premium service and a boy to deliver the reply over to his room. He picked up a bag of food at the cafŽ and returned to his room. Jim was still asleep and would be for some time. Artemus set the food down and went to work. He might as well keep busy until Jim shackled him. Stubborn man.

*********

Jim woke with a jerk. His gaze immediately scanned for Artemus, but he was gone. Jim smelled food and found the bag. He ate and smiled. Artemus taking care of him again. It felt right.

"You okay?"

"Hungry," Jim mumbled. He took the coffee Artemus offered him. "Thanks and why did you shoot me?"

"Why do you think?" Artemus leaned against the wall. "You're a smart man, figure it out."

"We became lovers. I fucked a woman, and you shot me. End of story." The coffee was wonderful. Artemus must have made it. "We need to be leaving."

"Love? What did love have to do with what we did? I didn't give a damn about that woman."

Jim didn't answer. He wanted to think this over. He scooted back on the bed, leaned against the wall, and drank his coffee. A young boy came to the open door, and Artemus smiled at him. "Here's your telegram, Mr. Gordon."

"Thank you, Tommy. Here's a dime for your trouble."

"Thanks, Mr. Gordon." Tommy gave Jim a nasty look and ran off.

"Have you paid everyone in town to like you?" Jim was seriously considering a bath.

"Pretty much, since I have no likable qualities of my own." Artemus shrugged. Jim shut his eyes and finished his coffee. Now he knew what this was all about. "Colonel Richmond sends his regards and has given you a week extension."

"The Dakotas?"

"I don't know. You may still have a one way ticket," Artemus said. "There's a lavatory with a bath down the hall. Be my guest."

"You hate me." Jim didn't ask it. He knew it was true, and it hurt more than he liked.

"Bath, and then more rest." Artemus got out a towel and tossed it to Jim. "I'm going back to work."

Jim looked away, and when he glanced back, Artemus was gone. The lavatory was clean, and Jim washed away a shovel full of dirt. He had a week to fix this with Artemus. Could he? When he planned to hunt Artemus down, Jim had only wanted to beat him senseless, but things had changed.

Jim dried off and pulled on some less dirty clothes. Leather shirt and brown pants. He took the time to clean off his boots. Buckling on his gun, he went to find Artemus. He was working? Here? Jim rambled around the store and considered buying a new knife when his neck told him Artemus was behind him.

"Can I help you, Jim?"

"How much for the knife?"

"Ten dollars, but I already bought you one."

"Artie, I don't understand you at all. You shoot me, leave me, and buy me a gift?"

Artemus shrugged. "I was gonna send it by post."

"Should I get a room at the hotel?" Jim spoke the words very quietly. He wanted to stay with Artemus, but he didn't need to know that.

"You are not touching me," Artemus said in the same quiet voice. "But, you're welcome to stay."

Jim's guts clenched, and he left Artemus standing there. Jim needed some fresh air, so he'd go check his horse. The gelding was asleep, and Jim squatted on his heels in the straw. Artemus wouldn't return without broad assurances that Jim wasn't sure he was willing to give out. He stood and picked up a brush, going over the horse again. He had to find out what Artemus wanted, and Jim would decide if he had it in him to give it. Maybe he did and quite possibly, he didn't.

Artemus was waiting for him back at the store. "You should sleep some more."

"I'll wait until the sun goes down," Jim said. "I need a drink. Want to come?"

"Let me tell Sam, and yeah." Artemus ducked back in the store before returning with his hat and gun.

"Please don't shoot me."

"Since you asked nicely, I won't." Artemus and Jim went side by side around the town square to the saloon. Jim was surprised at how right it felt. Artemus belonged with him. He pushed open the swinging doors, and they got a table.

Jim was a little tired of all the shitty looks he was getting, but he had sucker punched Artemus. "Sorry I hit you when you weren't looking." Jim pitched his voice so everyone could hear.

"Apology accepted. You usually don't do that sort of thing."

"I've been a bit angry." Jim lowered his voice. "Ale or whiskey?"

"Whiskey."

"I'll get a bottle." Jim went up to the bar and pointed at a bottle. The bartender slid it down, and Jim waited for two glasses. He paid the man and returned to Artemus. "This is a nice town."

"Yep." Artemus pulled the bottle open and filled up both glasses. "Salud."

"Cheers." Jim enjoyed the drink more than usual. The trail here had been long and dry. "I've missed you, Artie."

Artemus choked and nearly spit out the whiskey. He began to cough, and Jim pounded him on the back. Artemus took several gasping breaths, and Jim refilled his glass. Good whiskey.

"I don't believe that for a minute, and don't try to cozen up to me." Artemus clenched his jaw tight. "I'm only going back in shackles."

"You know I don't lie to you, Artie." Jim drank his whiskey and watched Artemus turn several interesting shades of red. He was angry, for sure. He refilled his glass and drank it all in one swig. Jim grinned and matched him. "Let's get drunk. We haven't done that in ages."

"No, and with good reason. You always start a bar fight, and I sing too many maudlin songs." Artemus finally looked at Jim. "Better safe than sorry."

"You're sure Colonel Richmond knows you're alive?"

"I sent my personal code. He was pissed?"

"You have no idea. He threw me off the train and backed it up with a troop of cavalry." Jim shook his head in disgust. "I might beat on you a little, but I wouldn't kill you."

Artemus looked away, and Jim could've kicked himself. He stepped right into that one. Refilling both glasses gave him something to do.

"I wondered why you were so tired," Artemus said.

"It was a long dusty ride. When did you notice the horseshoes?"

"Next morning. That was a dirty trick."

"I was trying to keep you safe."

"If that were true, you'd have told me." Artemus sipped his drink and stared at the table. "You didn't."

"So I'm possessive, demanding, abusive, and a shit. Have I left anything out?"

"No, that pretty well covers it. Good use of the English language, now, in the morning, you ride out of here and don't look back, okay?"

Jim slammed back another whiskey. The saloon was beginning to fill up, and he wasn't a popular fellow. Hell, he'd be lucky if he got out of town without a shirt full of bullet holes. "So tell me, Mr. Perfect, why'd you let me?"

"Let you what?" Artemus didn't meet Jim's eyes.

"Treat you that way. I never heard a word until you shot me. You know I'll take every inch I can, why'd you give me so much room to run. Why?" Jim slammed his fist down on the table.

"This fellow giving you a hard time, Mr. Gordon?"

Jim glanced over at Artemus' latest defender. A townie and he probably couldn't fight worth a damn.

"No, Alex, go drink your beer," Artemus said. "I'm done here, Jim."

"Yeah, run away, ya piece of chicken shit." Jim knew the damn answer. Love. Bullshit. Love was working with someone, not letting them take whatever they wanted. "Run back to your daddy in his nice big store."

"James, that is really too much." Artemus punched Jim in the face.

Jim flew out of his chair and slammed into the floor. He got up fast to face not only Artemus, but also a bar full of angry men, and they all wanted a piece of Jim's ass. Jim kept his hand off his gun. "Okay, you win. I'll leave in the morning. The Dakotas is starting to sound warm after this chilly reception." Jim pushed his way out the saloon doors and headed for the general store. He'd get his things and sleep with his horse.

Artemus caught up with him outside the little room and wrenched him around by the shoulder. "You asshole, you're blaming me for this?"

"No, there's enough blame for both of us. But I'm not solely responsible for your behavior and mine."

Artemus flinched. "You treated me like a whore. I woke up every morning expecting to find money on the dresser."

"I've never had a wife, Artie. You didn't complain, seemed to like it, and begged for more. I'm supposed to read your mind?"

"You knew. Don't pretty this up to make yourself look good." Artemus put his hand on his head and sagged against the wall.

Jim stepped close and kissed him gently on the lips. Artemus responded instantly, and the kiss deepened. Suddenly, he shoved Jim away.

"It's what I know. I never meant to hurt you until you shot me and racked me so hard my balls came out my mouth."

"Well, geez, Jim, you didn't leave me any other choices." Artemus sat on the bed and stared down at his boots.

"You never even considered talking to me. Not once? You don't love me, Artemus. You love the idea of being in love with me." Jim put his hands on his hips. He was about done here. "I'm an asshole, which you knew. Did you think a little cock sucking was gonna fix that?"

"James, I -" Artemus didn't finish.

Jim picked up his things and went to the stable. He'd leave in the morning. The Dakota Territory would be fine. Maybe he'd fight for the Sioux. They were in the right anyway. Jim tossed his stuff down and sat in the corner. So many emotions and he didn't want to deal with any of them.

********

Artemus sat on his bed and wanted to pull out his hair. Jim was right. No, God damn it, he was wrong! Artemus took a deep breath. He had to think this through clearly. Jim had treated him like shit, but he'd allowed it, thinking it was love. What a mistake. Artemus should have defended himself. He deserved respect and love, didn't he? An image of his mother, suffering the abuse in silence, flashed through his mind. His Great-Aunt Maude had tried to protect him, but he'd known the truth. His mother had run off before Artemus turned twelve.

Groaning from the bottom of his soul, Artemus understood, and it ripped through him like a bullet. Jim was a man cast from the mold of Artemus' father. Hard, demanding, and yes, an asshole at times. It had drawn Artemus like a moth to the flame, and now he was truly on fire.

********

Jim drank some water from his canteen and tried to think of something he could say or do. Nothing came to mind. Well, he could tell Artemus that he was loved, but it would sound so stupid. Didn't Artemus know? Maybe, just maybe, he didn't. What a dumb ass. Jim got to his feet and made his way back.

The sight of Artemus curled up on the bed made Jim's heart go out to him. He always made everything so damn hard. Jim sat down and pulled him into his lap, stroking him gently. "You are loved, stupid. I love you, enough to do whatever you tell me, but you gotta say something other than, ÔYes, Jim.'"

Artemus said nothing, and Jim held him. Most likely, it was too late, but Jim had tried and could live with his decisions, now. Artemus didn't pull away, but Jim sensed confusion in him.

"I'll leave you here in this one-horse town, I promise, and for what's its worth, I'm sorry." Jim paused. "I did take advantage when I knew you were weak."

Artemus pulled away. Jim let him go. Jim stood up and walked to the wall to stare at it. Too damn bad, but there was no going back and doing it over. He'd make the same mistakes. It was who he was, and he wasn't going to change all that much.

Artemus was suddenly behind Jim, pushing him flat up against the wall. Jim let him and looked over his shoulder. "What do you want, Artie?"

"You. Now." Artemus ground his hips into Jim's ass.

Jim sighed. Sex wasn't going to fix this. "You owe me a hard ass-fucking, but it won't fix the problem."

"It's a start. I'll work from there. You can say no."

"I can? You obviously never thought you could. I'll have to learn to suffer in silence."

"No! I mean, my god, James, one idiot between the two of us is plenty. Yell, scream, do all those things you usually do." Artemus peeled Jim's shirt off him. "I'll shut the door."

"Good idea," Jim drawled. "Can we do this on the bed? My ass is worn out from the saddle."

"You'll never learn to suffer in silence if you keep bitching about every little thing."

Jim laughed. He couldn't help himself. This situation was serious, but that was funny. After a long moment, Artemus laughed a little too, and it made Jim feel better. He stayed on the wall until Artemus gave him permission to move. Artemus needed to be in control, and Jim understood that all too well.

"Come lie down. Don't stand there and make me feel guilty."

"Yes, Master." Jim went to the bed and got on his stomach.

"That's laying it on a bit thick, don't ya think?"

"I can only give you control over me, not yourself." Jim wiggled to get comfortable.

"For an asshole, you're pretty smart." Artemus straddled Jim's hips and leaned down to bite him on the neck.

Jim groaned and got hard. "I'm an asshole, not an idiot."

Artemus rubbed Jim's back and stripped him naked. Jim made no move that Artemus didn't ask of him. He was more than willing to let Artemus be in command from time to time. All he ever had to do was demand it, and Jim would give it.

"Give me a minute. I need to lock up the store."

Jim rolled his eyes and said nothing at all. Artemus shut the door behind him, and Jim flipped over to his back. His cock was rock hard, but he ignored it. The shackles were lying on the floor near the bed, and he gave them a hard look. Artemus was chickening out. Jim could tell. Why? Didn't Artemus want this? Jim slid off the bed, picked up the shackles, and wondered. Lost in thought, Jim watched the door open.

It was Artemus. He shut the door behind him and leaned against it. "Are those for me?"

"Yes." Jim took two steps, and Artemus got a wild look on his face. Jim held them out. "Here."

Artemus swallowed hard and took them from Jim. "You want me to take them?"

"Sure, do what you want with them." Jim started to unbutton Artemus' shirt. "Shackle me in the corner so you can get a good night's rest. Whatever you want."

Artemus almost dropped them. Jim opened the last button and helped Artemus out of the shirt. He juggled the shackles, but didn't drop them. Jim's hand went down to the trouser buttons, and Artemus took a deep breath. "Get on your knees."

Jim smiled at the husky tone in Artemus' voice and went to his knees. It wasn't in his nature, but he didn't mind. It was Artemus. Jim finished with the buttons and pulled out the cock nestled inside the trousers.

"Jim?"

Jim looked up, and Artemus said, "Are you sure about this?"

"Artie, I'm about ten minutes from collapsing. Less talk." Artemus looked guilty, and Jim sighed. "Okay, fine, we won't do this. I'll go to the corner, and tomorrow you sell me a good pair of long underwear."

Jim rolled to his feet and turned to go. Artemus put a hand between Jim's shoulder blades and shoved him back to the bed. Jim went down on it, and Artemus was on top of him. He struggled a little, just to find out how serious Artemus was about this, and he promptly shackled him to the bedpost. Jim had to admit he felt vulnerable, and he wasn't sure he liked it. Artemus left him there and went to hang up his trousers. He took his time, and Jim gave the shackles a tug. The post held. He already knew he couldn't pick the lock. Oh well, at least he was on the bed.

********

Artemus hung up his shirt and watched Jim fuss with the shackles. This situation was a bit strange. Artemus was in charge, and Jim would have to take it. This wouldn't solve the underlying problem in their relationship, but Artemus needed to feel like his wishes were important. This was a good place to start. He took the salve he'd picked off the shelf on the way in and tossed it on the bed. Jim looked a little worried. Good, let him stew.

A towel was hanging on a hook. Artemus tossed it on the bed. He might be too tired to walk when this was over. Moving quickly, he bit and licked his way up Jim's squirming body. Artemus grinned and put some salve on his hands. He rubbed and massaged Jim, listening to the groans. This was nothing new. Jim wanted a massage every night of the week. What was different was the clinking of the shackles, and for some strange reason it was making Artemus smile.

Jim let out a loud gasp when Artemus eased a finger inside him. It was tight and hot. Artemus' cock bucked and he resisted the impulse to slam all his inches inside, making Jim scream.

"There's a part of me that wants to hurt you." Artemus didn't move his finger.

"I know. It's in me too." Jim's voice sounded weary. "I wonder why."

"Well, you're just mean, but I don't have that excuse." Artemus pulled his finger out and eased it back inside to the knuckle. "Maybe it's because I could, so I might."

"Did I hurt you?"

"Yes." Artemus added another finger, and Jim quivered. "But it was your lack of concern that hurt the most."

"Yeah, well, you're not easy to live with either."

Artemus glared down at the beautiful body beneath him. With studied deliberation, he yanked out his fingers and brought a slick hand down hard on that tight ass.

"Artie!"

"Oh, I'm sorry, did that hurt?" Artemus pulled Jim back to the extreme reach of the chains and kneed his legs apart. For once in his life, Artemus was through talking. He wanted to fuck all night long, but Jim would only make it about three minutes before passing out from exhaustion.

Artemus slicked his cock with his fist and with a thrust made Jim cry out. It seemed loud in the little room. "I should've gagged you. The boss'll hear us."

Jim yelled a little louder, and Artemus thrust harder. For once, he spared not a thought for what Jim wanted. Artemus concentrated on his cock and the pleasure he was feeling. Jim deserved a hard ass fucking, and Artemus wanted to give it to him, forever.

"Artie," Jim gasped.

Artemus ignored it. He slowed down and said, "Get on your knees."

Jim brought his legs up a bit, and Artemus reached under to stroke him. Jim was breathing hard and shaking. Artemus smiled and fucked him some more. Jim pulled hard on the shackles and jerked come into Artemus' hand. Artemus stroked him through it, enjoying his cries. "Don't quit now, Jim. I'm only getting started."

Jim groaned and squirmed. Artemus went back to work. He lasted longer than he would've believed possible. Pushing deep one last time, Artemus orgasmed. His head spun. His breath came short. It was so good. He bit Jim gently on the shoulder and shuddered. Artemus needed to get off his arms, so he went to his side, taking Jim with him. Artemus' cock slipped out, and he reached down to shove it back in.

"Hey!"

"I'm not quite through here." Artemus pumped his cock back and forth, barely pulling in and out. "Don't worry. Sooner or later, I'll get tired."

"I'm going to sleep," Jim said. "Wake me when you're through."

Artemus laughed and licked the back of Jim's ear, making him groan. "We'll see." He pulled Jim's nipples to make him wiggle and never stopped moving. Jim was slick all over. Artemus closed his eyes and tortured Jim's willing body back to hardness. The gasping and groaning made it easy for Artemus to come again. His heart pounded and sweat beaded his body.

Artemus let his cock slip out this time, and he reached down for the towel. He cleaned them off before pushing Jim to his back. His cock was hard, but his eyes shut. Artemus licked Jim's cock, tonguing the slit. When he looked up, green eyes were staring. Artemus smiled and sucked Jim deep.

"Oh, Artie, please, no more, God," Jim groaned.

"Who's begging now?" Artemus dropped his head back down and took control of Jim's body. No hands to pull, tug, or guide. He did what he wanted and made Jim like it. Which he did, Artemus could tell from the amount of come flooding into his mouth. He swallowed and milked out every drop. Jim was trying to curl up, and Artemus let him. The bed was small, but with Jim against the wall, there was enough room for Artemus to spoon him. The lamp burned out, and Artemus held Jim close. The shackles stayed on. There was always the morning.

********

Jim didn't really wake up. He just wasn't sleeping quite as deeply. He was so tired. His back was cold, and he couldn't find his arms. What the hell?

"Jim, it's okay. Go back to sleep."

"C-c-c-c-cold." Jim stuttered and gazed about confused. His arms were over his head, and he heard the frigid shackles clink. Artemus pulled a blanket over him, and he curled into the warmth. "Thanks."

"I'm going to work. I'll be back to check on you later."

Jim couldn't seem to form an answer, and he was out. The next time he woke up, he felt much better. He stretched and looked about the little room. No Artemus. He was working? Jim seemed to remember him saying that. Was he ever going to remove these shackles? Jim had to piss.

"Feeling better?"

"Yes, but I really have to piss. Do you think you could help me out with that?" Jim laced his question with sarcasm.

"My, you woke up on the wrong side of my bed." Artemus unlocked one of Jim's arms and pulled the shackle from around the bedpost. Jim didn't hesitate. As soon as he was free, he grabbed up his pants, tugged them on, and bolted for the lavatory with the shackle dangling. He could hear Artemus laughing. It was annoying. Jim pissed so much that he groaned. It was then he noticed his ass hurt. With a small wince, he buttoned up his pants and went back to Artemus.

"How's work today, honey?" Jim held his shackled hand out to Artemus. He looked down at it, but only picked up the other end. "Artie, unlock this."

"Bossy britches. Work is fine. I may own my own store someday." Artemus pulled Jim back in the room and shut the door. "Sam thinks you're my brother."

"I'll straighten him out. I'm your abused, sore ass lover that you keep shackled to the bed for your own cruel pleasure."

Artemus raised his eyebrows and clicked the empty cuff to the bed rail. "What an excellent idea." He kissed Jim a bit roughly. Jim yanked the shackle hard, trying to break the rail. No luck. Artemus' tongue was leaving Jim's mouth and trailing down his neck to his nipples.

"Don't make me shoot you." Jim groaned. He didn't feel up to this. Artemus licked around to Jim's spine and down. The pants went down and so did Jim, over the bed rail. Artemus cupped Jim's balls and shoved his tongue inside him. Jim tried to push up.

Artemus kept him down by tugging his balls and saying in a rough voice, "Stay."

Jim cursed softly and felt his tired cock hardened. Artemus was killing him with sex. He tugged his hair with his free hand and realized that he'd done this same thing to Artemus, thinking nothing of it. Jim demanded non-stop sex, and he never even considered whether his partner was tired, hungry, or had to piss. At least Artemus had let him piss. Jim let out a long gasp when Artemus pushed inside him again. His sore ass protested, and Jim vowed to remember this lesson in manners.

Artemus wasn't too rough, but he took what he wanted. Jim orgasmed into his own hand because his partner was too busy to bother. After Artemus came, he pulled out with a quick jerk. Jim flinched. That was familiar, as well, but usually it was Jim doing the pulling. Artemus yanked Jim up, spun him around, and put him on his shaking knees. Jim knew what was next. Artemus waited a bare moment while he cleaned himself off, and then he pressed his cock inside Jim's mouth.

Jim reached up with his free hand, and Artemus pushed it away, grabbing him by the head and face-fucking him. He could have fought back, but this was Artemus, and Jim loved him. Jim groaned in his soul. The depth of his mistake rolled over him. He was such a shit. Refusing to look at his partner, Jim allowed himself to be used. When it was over, he wiped come from the corner of his mouth and watched Artemus' boots.

"Leave the money on the dresser," Jim said softly. He leaned his head against the bed and pulled his knees up to his chest. His pants were still down around his ankles, and he felt dirty.

"Why? You can't reach it." Artemus straightened his clothes. "Get on the bed. I'll go get you some food."

Jim shook his head. "Don't bother, I'm not hungry. I'll sleep a while."

Artemus gave him a look and left without another word. Jim was tough, mean, hardheaded, and at times an asshole, but he felt awful. How could he have done this to Artemus? He was worth so much more. Jim stood up shakily and pulled his pants off. He tossed them away and sank back down to the floor. He wanted to crawl in a hole and never see the light of day again. Pulling the blanket off the bed and over him, he pillowed his head in the crook of his arm and rested. The floor was hard, the shackle pulled, and he figured it was no more than he deserved. Jim slept until Artemus returned. The sound of the door shutting startled Jim awake.

"Jim, what are you doing?"

"Sleeping." Jim yawned and sat up, pushing his back to the wall.

"The bed is for sleeping, not the floor." Artemus leaned over, tossed the blanket on the bed, and pulled Jim up. His muscles were stiff. "Lie down, on the bed, and don't argue."

Jim shrugged and sat on the bed. He was still tired, and it was beginning to concern him. Was he sick? "I should check my horse today, if you don't, um, mind," Jim said it and wished the words back. He sounded like a woman.

"I checked him. He's tired, and so are you. Didn't you sleep at all on the way here?" Artemus paced and looked at his watch. "Jim, answer the question."

Jim blinked and realized he was dropping back to sleep, sitting upright. "Well, I rested when my horse had to, and we'd push on. I only had two weeks and it took me three days to get back to where we started this argument."

Artemus came over and pushed Jim to lying down, covered him with the blanket, and said, "You're exhausted. Sleep some more."

"All right," said Jim, and he slept. Artemus woke him up and took him to the lavatory once, but Jim fell back asleep right after. He didn't open his eyes again until Artemus slid into bed naked and curled around him.

"Jim, are you awake?"

"Yes, is that your cock?"

"Of course, I didn't bring a gun to bed," Artemus said. Jim smiled and tried to prepare himself for another assault from his partner. "Is it okay?"

Jim had said those same words dozens of times, and each time Artemus had said, ÔYes, Jim'. His ass must have hurt, and he had probably been tired, but he'd said nothing more than yes. Jim rolled over, and Artemus tucked him into his chest.

"Yes, Artie."

Artemus laughed softly and kissed Jim. "Good."

Jim reached with his free hand and stroked Artemus. "Someday, I do want to go home."

"Someday, when I'm through enjoying your naked body." Artemus kissed, cajoled, and had his way again. Jim didn't fight. He cried out, begged a little, and orgasmed. When Artemus taught Jim a lesson, he was thorough.

********

Artemus made sure Jim ate a good meal the next morning, had a bath, and went back to the bed. Kissing him lightly on the mouth and clicking the shackle shut, Artemus went to work. He needed to get everything wrapped up today. Tomorrow, Jim and he would be leaving for the train. Every time Jim's ass hit the saddle, it was going to hurt, but Jim would be a better man for having learned respect the hard way. Jim was asleep when Artemus brought lunch back and after waking him, they ate together.

"I'm getting a shackle gall, Artie."

"No, you're not. I checked this morning." Artemus picked up everything and put it back in the basket to take to the cafŽ. "Come here."

"Yes, Artie." Jim sighed.

Artemus was gentle, but didn't give in to guilt. Tomorrow they'd start this relationship on equal footing, but today Jim was going to give until it hurt. Artemus didn't let him orgasm, he used him and buttoned up to go back to work. "Sleep some more, tomorrow we're going home."

Jim nodded and rolled away. He was shaking a little, and Artemus knew so well how Jim felt. Artemus went back to work and spent hours going over everything with Sam. When he was satisfied, Artemus called it quits and went to buy a horse. The stable master only had one gelding, and Artemus bought him. He wasn't too bad and should be able to make the trip. Artemus went back to the store and dug his tack out of storage. He cleaned it up and went to Jim. Another trip to the lavatory and back to bed. Artemus packed for both of them, got them another meal, and a bottle of whiskey. They ate and drank. Jim looked better, less exhausted.

"You smell good," Jim said.

"I cleaned my saddle. We're ready to go."

"Are you sure?" Jim drank his whiskey and looked away.

Artemus grinned at him and got undressed. Jim moaned so softly that Artemus almost missed it. The man was hurting. "Yes, but you can stay if you want. I'll find someone to look after you."

"That's possibly the cruelest thing I've ever heard you say." Jim was eyeballing Artemus' cock like it was an instrument of torture.

Artemus lay down facing Jim and stroked himself with the salve. Slick, it felt good. Jim bit his lip and looked nervous. Artemus reached out and touched him, so gently, right on those sweet lips. "You tired?"

"No, not really."

Artemus grinned at hearing his own words parroted back at him. Jim had definitely learned his lesson. Artemus stretched up to Jim's wrist and unlocked the shackle. It dropped, and Jim narrowed his eyes before pulling his arm down to rub his wrist. Artemus kissed it and wiggled his way on top of Jim. "Okay?"

"Yeah," Jim said. Artemus kissed and rubbed his slick cock against Jim's. They both groaned and Artemus licked Jim's ear. Jim wrapped his arms around Artemus and squeezed a little. "You forgive me?"

"Yes. You forgive me?"

"Promise never to kick me in the balls again?"

"No." Artemus' breath came a little short, and he lifted Jim's legs just enough to get his cock inside him. "Nice."

Jim slid his hands up to Artemus' shoulders and rested them there. "Do it hard."

Artemus didn't question it. Jim knew what he wanted. With a slow push, Artemus was fully inside. Jim writhed and bit Artemus hard on the shoulder. It hurt and felt good. He pumped his hips, and Jim dug in his nails. Artemus thrust his tongue in Jim's mouth deep. His cock swelled and pulsed. Jim jerked and came between them. One long gasp shared in two mouths.

"Artie, I need a vacation."

"I think it's over." Artemus' cock dropped out, and he let Jim's legs down. "You forgive me?"

"Promise never to shoot me again?"

"Oh, okay." Artemus cleaned them off and relaxed on the bed.

"Then, yes." Jim got off the bed and left the room.

Artemus assumed Jim was going to piss and got comfortable. Jim was back quickly and crawled halfway on top of Artemus. They kissed, and Jim cuddled close. Artemus smiled and pulled him closer.

********

Jim didn't fall asleep for a long time. He relaxed and listened to Artemus sleep. The room grew very dark. Jim knew that if he wanted to, he could get on his horse and report for duty in the Dakotas. He'd paid his debt to Artemus in full. He mumbled in his sleep, and Jim inched away. Disentangled, he pulled on his pants and a shirt. Artemus had had all of Jim's clothes cleaned. Considerate of him, really.

He carried his boots out and put them on in the hallway. With a single glance back, Jim took his sore ass to the stable. His horse seemed happy to see him. He picked up a brush and went over him from head to hoof. Sharing the stall with his black gelding was a dun horse. Jim looked him over. Not bad, he'd make it home, and then Jim could buy Artemus a better one. Jim checked his hooves from cracks or breaks, but he was sound, and his shoes were new.

"Need help, Mister?" The stableman was a big man with a quiet, competent air about him.

"No, just making sure the horses are ready to go."

"You Mr. Gordon's brother?"

"Um, yeah." Jim ran a hand through his hair.

"The town's gonna miss him. That store was a wreck before he straightened things out."

"He's a very knowledgeable man. I'm lucky to have him."

"You sure are. My brother was an outlaw, got hisself hung." The stableman smiled. "You almost got a bullet in the back during your short stay here. Lots of folks would like to see Mr. Gordon stay on."

"I'll tell you a little secret. My brother works for President Grant and is needed there," Jim said.

"You pulling my leg? Our Mr. Gordon?"

"He's an important man, and his little vacation is over." Jim smiled. "Maybe he'll retire here someday."

"Well, I'll be damned. What line of work you in?"

"Nothing much, I follow my big brother around." Jim gave his horse one last swipe. "See ya in the morning."

"Sure, I'll be here."

Jim waved and headed back. Very briefly, he considered the saloon, but thinking of that bullet, he continued on to the little room. It had gotten a lot smaller over the course of the last few days. Artemus was still stretched out on the bed. Jim tossed his clothes and crawled under the blanket.

"How are the horses?"

"Fine. You know, Sam ought to get some heat back here."

"Probably a good thing you're not going to the Dakotas."

"I might be, you never know. Want to come along?" Jim closed his eyes and tried to disappear inside the warmth of Artemus.

"Not really. I'll fix this."

Jim smiled at the choice of words.

********

Artemus woke up to an empty bed the next morning. He knew that Jim was eager to get out of town so he dressed quickly. The shackles were lying by the bed, and Artemus picked them up. He smiled and shook his head. Today was a new day. Stuffing the shackles in a saddlebag, he grabbed up as much as he could carry and went to the stable.

Jim was through saddling the dun and was working on the black gelding. He looked up. "Morning, honey, ready to go?"

"Jim, that is very annoying, which you know. There are a few more things to get, and breakfast would be nice."

"I might get shot," Jim growled.

Artemus smiled and nodded. "You might." He tossed down the bags and went back for the canteens, rifles, and the knife he'd bought Jim. He laughed a little along the way. Today, he felt young.

With his arms full, Artemus returned to the stable. He said his goodbyes to Sam and was ready to leave, after breakfast. He sheathed the rifles, tossed Jim a canteen, and stowed the knife in Jim's saddlebag.

"What's that?"

"Your knife," Artemus said.

"Thanks, brother."

Artemus heard and saw the stableman moments after Jim. How did he do that? The stableman smiled and shook Artemus' hand. "We'll miss you, Mr. Gordon. Take care of your scruffy brother."

Jim rolled his eyes, and Artemus grinned. "I will. He gets in a lot of trouble, but he's a good one."

"Whatever you say, come back to see us." The stableman grinned and went around the corner of the stall.

Jim made sure everything on both horses was secure. "Can we eat breakfast in the next town?"

"Did I hear a please?"

"Yes, you did." Jim picked up his reins and led his horse out the front doors. He looked down at Artemus. "Please."

Artemus still hadn't mounted the dun. "Your ass hurt?"

"You don't want to know." Jim got down suddenly.

"Yes, I think I do," Artemus said with a big grin.

"Do me a favor, buddy. Check my horse's shoes while I hold him."

Artemus shrugged. "Okay." He pulled up a front hoof and stared. The silver shoe was clearly marked with a J. "I'll be damned."

"Probably. Come on, my ass isn't getting any better."

Artemus dropped the hoof and mounted. He'd been pleased before, but now a trace of guilt made its way inside his heart. Jim winced when he got back in the saddle.

"Jim, I -"

Jim put his heels to that black hide and trotted out of town. Artemus watched his partner's ass hit the saddle and galloped after him. Life with Jim was going to be very interesting from now on. Artemus caught up with him at the edge of town.

********

Jim rode until he couldn't take it anymore. He pulled the gelding to a stop and dismounted. Artemus had the courage to laugh until he saw Jim fondling his gun.

"You should've shot me in the heart, Artie."

"I know, but I'm a kind soul." Artemus swung down next to Jim. "We're never going to get home at this rate."

"Oh shut up."

********

Artemus took pity on Jim. After they ate, in the town they had stopped at, he sent a telegram to Colonel Richmond, asking him to move the train closer. Once again, he sent along his private code, but he didn't wait for a reply. Jim was already going down the trail. Artemus shadowed him, not too far behind, but didn't catch up until he stopped to stretch. "We're making camp tonight, right?"

"Definitely."

They didn't speak again until the sun began to set, and Artemus was through for the day. He started looking for a place to camp and was satisfied with a small clearing that they passed. He reined in and dismounted. Jim would circle back, and Artemus started making a camp. He had a fire going when Jim walked into the clearing, leading his horse. He began taking care of the horses, and they worked together like a team. Artemus fixed a quick meal, and Jim stood to eat it.

"Want me to give you a back rub?"

"Touch me, and I'll shoot you."

Artemus shrugged and finished his meal. While he cleaned up the dishes, Jim stretched out on his bedroll. Artemus joined him, leaning against his saddle and looking for the Big Dipper. "You want an apology?"

"No."

"Good, because I didn't want to lie." Artemus found his flask, took a drink, and handed it to Jim. "It'll heal, mine did."

Jim got up a bit gingerly and disappeared into the trees. Artemus picked up the flask from the bedroll and took another drink. Jim returned after a good stretch of time with an armload of firewood. He built the fire up before lying down again.

"I'd have done that," said Artemus.

"I know."

The silence between the two men stretched, and Artemus wanted to fidget. Was Jim angry? Did Artemus need to apologize? He pinched the bridge of his nose and listened to the crickets.

"Go to sleep, Artie. Stop worrying."

"Can I have a kiss?"

"No. You have first watch."

Artemus sighed and tended the fire. After Jim fell asleep, Artemus put his blanket on him.

********

Jim woke up with the dawn, and Artemus was still sitting by the fire. Obviously, he hadn't gotten Jim up for his shift.

"Artie, don't coddle me!"

"Why not?" Artemus smiled.

"I don't deserve it, and I don't need it." Jim tore the blanket off, cursed, and stood up. Artemus didn't answer. He began packing up. "Artemus?"

"You're angry. Let's not fight," Artemus said. "You think Colonel Richmond is going to be on the Wanderer?"

"Yes, probably with a troop of cavalry. He can ship me off nice and tight." Jim stretched and kicked out the fire. He was angry with himself. "You can wave goodbye from the comfort of the train."

"You may be right." Artemus dug out an apple and tossed it to Jim. "Let's teach him not to meddle in our personal affairs."

"What? Why? Never mind, how?" Jim took a bite and went to saddle the horses. His gelding helped him finish the apple. "He knows you shot me."

"He does? Good." Artemus shook out the bedrolls. "Let's give him what he wants."

"Me? In shackles, begging for mercy?"

"Yep, it'll be fun."

"God no, Artie." Jim bridled the dun and checked the fit. It was a bit loose, and he took the time to tighten it. "He'd love it."

"No, he'd be appalled. I could put my foot on your back and offer to shoot you." Artemus began laughing. "He really shouldn't have taken the train."

"That's true, but I don't see how this benefits me."

"Think Jim. He'll have to apologize since obviously I was the aggressor, not you."

Jim cracked his knuckles and thought it over. He'd be the injured party, not Artemus as the Colonel had assumed. Jim whirled on Artemus and pulled him close. "I did hurt you and drive you away."

"We're not rehashing this. We both made mistakes, and we paid for them." Artemus put his hands on Jim's ass. "You're going to be more polite, and I'm going to stand up for myself."

"My ass promises." Jim groaned and laid his head on Artemus' shoulder. "Okay, we'll do it your way, but I want an apology from him. You shot me, broke my balls, fucked me senseless, and I didn't sleep for almost two weeks."

"Let's not mention the fucking part."

"Good idea." Jim batted his eyelashes and purred, "You can kiss me now."

"You're a fickle lover." Artemus kissed him and kissed him some more. "We should get to the Wanderer today."

"I hope so. I want to sit on pillows for a week," said Jim. "Tonight, if you want, you can rub my back."

Artemus laughed and patted Jim on his sore ass. "I don't want to get shot."

Jim smiled and finished the horses.

********

They rode most of the day to get to the town where the Wanderer was parked. They scouted the train first, and Artemus saw that Jim was right. At least ten blue boys were posted about the train. Colonel Richmond was angry. It was nice to be appreciated, but he'd abused Jim, and Artemus wasn't going to let him get away with it. They dismounted in some trees, out of earshot. Artemus found the shackles, and Jim sighed, but put his arms behind his back.

"Behind?"

"You think you could take me otherwise?"

"Good point. Give me your shirt first." Jim did, and Artemus ripped it up. He then dirtied up Jim's pants. "Too bad we don't have any fake blood."

"Just hit me. It'll be worth an apology from the colonel."

"I couldn't."

"Let's see. You shot me, racked me, shackled me, and nearly killed me with your cock. Just hit me in the mouth, no big deal." Jim gave Artemus a shove. "Do it!"

"Geez, Jim, I don't want to." Artemus didn't, but he was beginning to think Jim wasn't going to give him a choice. "Please."

"Stop begging and whining, you momma's boy!"

Artemus hit him. Twice. There was plenty of blood, and Artemus smeared some on Jim's shirt. "Why do you make me do these things?" Jim was in the dirt and didn't answer. Artemus pulled him up, shackled him, and tossed him belly down on his horse. "Don't forget to beg."

Jim said something foul and spat blood. Artemus patted him on the butt, remounted, and headed for the train, pulling Jim's horse behind him. A lookout spotted them, and Colonel Richmond met Artemus at the back of the train.

"Artemus, thank God, but what -"

Artemus dismounted, pulled Jim off his horse, and tossed him at Colonel Richmond's feet. He landed with a thud and a curse. "You wanted to see me?" Artemus ignored Jim.

"Yes, but I thought -" The colonel looked frantically from Jim to Artemus. "Colonel, please send me to the Dakotas," Jim interrupted. Blood trickled from his mouth. "Anything, but don't -"

"Oh shut up, Jim." Artemus shoved Jim flat with his boot and drew his gun. "You sending him to the Dakotas or do you want me to finish the job I started earlier, Colonel?"

"You shot West, and he didn't touch you?" Colonel Richmond threw up his hands.

"Of course not! I was sick and tired of him, that's all." Artemus pushed with his boot, and Jim groaned. "He can be such a pain in the ass."

"Artemus! Get him up! President Grant was right. I never should have meddled in this. Jim, I apologize. Take off those shackles, now, Artemus." Colonel Richmond pointed a finger at Artemus. "And put your damn gun away."

"Sure." Artemus took his boot off Jim and unshackled him. "He's not hurt all that much. I swear we just needed some time away from each other, and then he shows up with some stupid story."

"Next time, I'm following the president's orders. Jim, are you okay? I am sorry about this." Colonel Richmond leaned down to help Jim.

Jim lurched up and wiped the blood from his mouth. "People always think it's me. I'm not that bad a guy. I don't understand it."

"Jim, I should've listened. I'll burn that transfer to the Dakotas, and you two take a couple of weeks off to work things out. Take the Wanderer to San Francisco, and I'll catch up with you both there."

"Do I have to go?" Artemus crossed his arms and tried to look stubborn.

Colonel Richmond turned like a snake on Artemus. "Gordon, you're lucky I'm not throwing you in irons. There are better ways to solve problems than with a gun. Next time, talk with him, don't shoot him."

********

Jim picked up the reins of the horses and took them down to the stable car. Artemus was on the receiving end of a good dressing down. Jim took the horses up and sat down on a bale of hay to laugh. That had been too much fun, and now Artemus was getting it. Jim took off his shirt, wiped his face with it, and laughed until his sides ached.

"Well, you're having a good time."

"Thank you, Artie. I haven't had that much fun in years. Just talk to me, don't shoot me." He dissolved into gales of laughter.

Artemus sank down next him and laughed with him. "You're welcome, Jim."

"I can be such a pain in the ass," gasped Jim. "Oh God, Artie, you belong on the stage."

"Your lip hurt?"

"Yep, but it was worth it." Jim leaned against Artemus. "You did a nice thing for me back there. Is there anything I can do for you?"

Artemus kissed Jim and pushed him to the stable floor. "Stop fucking women."

Jim stopped laughing. What? "Artie, I thought you didn't care."

"I lied."

"You do that a little too often, when you bother to talk to me at all." Jim didn't even try to get up off his sore ass.

Artemus straddled Jim and bit him on the neck. "Well, now you know, so what are you going to do about it?"

Jim rolled them over, so he was on top. "Stop, I guess."

"Good, I may put my gun away permanently."

"You promised not to shoot me, but the boot thing still worries me," Jim said. "My balls hurt for two days."

"Okay, ya whiner, I promise no more boots, but no more women." Artemus grabbed Jim's butt. "Deal?"

"Sure, Artie, but please, let go of that."

"Will you beg?"

"If you make me, I don't seem to have any pride when it comes to you." Jim slowly got to his feet and pulled Artemus up with him. "We got two weeks off."

"Let's not waste a minute of it. I'll get this train moving, you go take a bath."

Jim laughed and went to the horses. "Bossy britches."

********

Artemus hollered up at Silas to get this train moving and fast. He waved back an okay, and Artemus went back to the stable car, pulling up the ramp. Jim was working on the horses. His mouth was still bloody, and Artemus could tell Jim hurt, but he wouldn't quit until the work was done. Artemus started taking bags back to the parlor car and unloading them. He looked around his quarters and smiled. It was good to be home. Maybe, from now on, he and Jim could share a room and get a bigger bed. Artemus did have his wages from the general store to spend. Things were going to be okay. It wouldn't always be easy, and sometimes they'd fight, but it would all work out. Artemus grinned, and Jim was behind him.

"I love you, Jim."

"I know, and you know it's mutual."

"Wouldn't kill you to say it."

"I did once this week. I don't want you to think I'm going to change all that much."

Artemus turned, and Jim kissed him. He jingled the shackles in his hand, and Jim jerked back. Artemus took a small step, and Jim was gone down the hallway. He ducked into the lavatory and locked it behind him. Smart man.

********

The End


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