PART TWO (of 4)
... shouting... screaming... panic... confusion... shoved... dazed... gunmen... gunfire... shot... blood... Artie!
"Jim, wake up!" Artie, startled from sleep, carefully got out of bed, lit one of the kerosene lanterns, and shook his partner gently.
Jim, curled uncomfortably in a chair next to the bed, tossed and turned trying to fight off the hell he saw behind his eyes. Artie lightly slapped Jim's face in an attempt to free his partner from the dream. Slowly, Jim came around. "Artie?" he said, voice tense and hoarse. Jim swallowed hard; his mouth was so dry. The stress of the nightmare reverberated through his skull and left him with a pounding headache. Still, relief washed over him when he saw his friend. Artie's here. It's not three months ago. The thought was calming.
"Here," whispered Artie, as if reading Jim's thoughts. He sat on the edge of the bed and waited for his friend to recover.
Jim, head in hands, leaned over and rested his elbows on his knees. His head still throbbed and he found it difficult to speak. He rubbed a hand over his eyes and forehead in an effort to dispel the tension. After several minutes he found his voice. "What time is it anyway? Seems like we just got to sleep."
Through the dim lantern light, Artie peered at the clock on his nightstand. "It's around 6:30. Three hours is not much when it comes to sleep."
Jim nodded. "I wonder what's going on out there." He started to get up but Artie stopped him. "I need to see, Artie!"
"No, you don't! Not now anyway!" Artie placed a hand on both armrests, thus blocking Jim from moving from his chair. "You listen to me. You have done everything humanly possible, James, to the point of driving yourself to exhaustion. You handled everything yesterday, buddy, and three hours of sleep is not going to make for a decent night's rest." Artie wondered if he should mention the dream and decided to plunge right in. "Besides, what's with the dream, pal?" His voice softened. "How often have you relived that day?"
Jim sat back in the chair. Why did he have to learn about that damn nightmare? Jim looked into his friend's eyes and met strength, determination, and concern. I have to tell him. He also met friendship, trust, and love. I need to tell him. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples; his head still pounded, but the words he needed to share with his partner found an exit from his heart. "Couple times a week," he whispered.
"Couple times...?" Artie asked incredulously. "You never said a word! Why?"
Jim shrugged. "I don't know. Didn't want you to worry."
Artie shook his head. "Jim, in case you've forgotten, we're partners. And more than that, we're friends. Did it ever occur to you that I might be able to help?"
"Yes, but I just wanted you to get well without any extra concerns. Is that so terrible?" Jim rubbed his forehead again and met his friend's gaze. "You would've done the same for me. Am I right?"
Artie stared intently at Jim and smiled warmly. He pondered the question and gave the only possible answer. "Yes," he whispered.
"Okay then. Now can we get more sleep?" replied Jim, massaging his right temple.
"Not so fast." Artie reached for Jim's hand and held it as he stood up from his bedside seat. "Come here and let me help with that headache of yours."
Jim hesitated only briefly. He thought of one particular evening in the hospital, the night of the storm, when Artie was in pain. Artie trusted me then; and I should trust him now. Slowly, Jim got up from the chair, unfolding himself from the cramped position he'd slept in. He looked at his partner, making sure all that needed to be said was visible in his eyes. Artie squeezed his hand. Message received.
"Jim, sit here where I was sitting and try to relax." Jim followed the instructions. "You've been sleeping in that chair long enough to acquire a wonderfully stiff neck. Running around with a snow shovel in the midst of a blizzard didn't help either. Let's see what we can do about it." For several minutes, Artie gently massaged Jim's neck and shoulders. Gradually the tight muscles released under the touch.
"Doing okay, Jim?" Artie continued the massage.
"Yes, better. Thank you."
"Good. Let's try something on that head of yours." Artie propped up several pillows. "I want you to lie down against those pillows. You'll practically be sitting up, but that's okay. Just rest your head, neck, and shoulders against them." Again, Jim did as he was told. Artie sat alongside his friend.
"What are you gonna do, doc?" Jim teased.
"You'll see. Just close your eyes and relax now." Artie placed his hands on his partner's face, focusing the massage on Jim's forehead and temples. Several minutes passed before Jim found his trust and handed it over to his partner. Artie sensed it the moment it happened. "Let it go, buddy," he said softly. "Let me take over for a while."
"Shh. Not now. You relax."
Jim shook his head slightly. "No." Try as he might, Jim could not stop the nightmarish images from flashing in his mind's eye. He was quiet for a moment and then whispered. "There was blood everywhere."
Artie froze. He's got to talk about this nightmare. "Go ahead, I'm listening." He resumed the massage and gently swept his thumbs over Jim's eyebrows. Tension was forming with the nightmarish thoughts.
"There was confusion: screaming, gunmen, shots fired, a sensation of falling down into nothing -- blackness. The only color was red. Everything vanished into a void. Only you were with me; and I held you. You died in my arms and..."
His voice faltered; he could not go on.
God. Artie swept his thumbs beneath Jim's eyes, where moisture mixed with the soft touch.
"Seen so much, you know," continued Jim, after a moment. "Battles of war, suffering, social strife, blood, and crippling loneliness. Seen good men, some of them friends, blown away by enemy fire without a glimmer of thought. I held several friends out there," he said quietly, "as their life slipped away." He was silent for a moment. "But none of them were you. Out there I lost good friends; but with you, three months ago, I nearly lost a brother."
Artie, holding his partner's face in his hands, closed his eyes and swallowed hard, nearly overwhelmed by his own emotions. Oh, how well I do know how you feel, James-my-boy. Been on that same battlefield more times than I can count, he thought, fighting for composure. Still, it's not like you to be so deeply affected so late after the fact. We were both shot that day, my friend -- in body and in soul. Slowly, Artie mustered his strength. He opened his eyes and spoke with quiet intensity. "Jim, look at me."
Jim hesitated briefly, then opened his eyes. Artie's gaze captured him, and although he tried, Jim could not look away. The expression on his partner's face held him spellbound. Now I know how Artie felt before, he thought, thinking back several hours earlier when his partner needed strength and he'd been the one to provide it. Not used to being on the receiving end.
"Jim, I know this isn't easy for you..."
He really can read my thoughts.
"... but I want you to let it all go. I'm here and we're together. We'll be working together again soon." Jim sat up straight, directly opposite his partner. Artie rested his hands on Jim's wrists and squeezed gently. "That day is over, buddy, and the pain has reached the end of the line." Eyes of deep brown and vibrant green melted together. "It can't hurt anymore." Artie cupped his hands around Jim's face. "Trust me," he whispered. Jim nodded and Artie brought his arms around his friend and held him close. Jim leaned into the embrace and allowed his soul to cry as the strength of Artie's spirit reached into his heart. As tears flowed, the agonizing hell of the past three months washed away on a tide of friendship.
"Thank you," whispered Jim after several minutes.
"My pleasure," said Artie quietly, tightening their embrace.
After several more minutes of quiet contemplation, Artie spoke first. "Hey, Jim, why don't we try to get some sleep, okay?"
Jim broke their embrace and looked at his friend. "Yeah, good idea." He started to get up but Artie stopped him. "What are you doing? I'm gonna sleep in the chair."
"No, you're not, buddy. You'll get a stiff neck all over again and I'm not giving out more than one massage per customer." Artie got up from the bed and Jim followed. "Let me lie down, and you can lie down, too."
"Where? On the floor?" asked Jim incredulously.
Rolling his eyes heavenward in exasperation, Artie patted the bed. "Right here, Jim, lots of room."
"I can't do that."
"Snore? I don't snore, James."
"Yes, you do. I recall one time you were louder than a locomotive."
Artie was indignant. "My nose was all stuffy; and the ol' noggin here felt like it was full of tapioca! Colds do that. It wasn't my fault."
"Excuses, excuses." Jim smiled as he crawled into bed beside his friend. It was so good to laugh with Artie for a change.
"Boy, that's the thank you I get, huh? I'll tell you something, James, no more massages for you!" Artie pretended to be insulted. "At least, not without a price."
Jim leaned into the two pillows Artie had propped up for each of them. The friends reclined side-by-side, nearly sitting up in bed. "What price?"
Artie thought a moment. "Um... you can buy me dinner next time we are in New Orleans. The best steak and the finest wine..."
"Got a better idea," interrupted Jim.
"What?" Artie's face beamed at the thought of an exquisite and very expensive meal.
"I'm gonna take you to another circus and buy you a hot dog," replied Jim seriously, his green eyes sparkling with mischief.
Artie looked at the ceiling and sighed. "I can't win." He turned toward Jim. "Can I?"
The two friends looked at each other for a moment, then broke into laughter. Jim unconsciously rested his head on Artie's shoulder, then moved away abruptly when he realized he'd invaded his partner's space. The laughter died down.
"Jim, when are you gonna realize that it's okay to lean on me once in awhile? Put that exhausted head of yours here," said Artie, pointing to his uninjured shoulder. Jim did as he was told and tried his best to relax. Artie sensed the familiar tension immediately, and he knew just how to soothe it away. "Jim," he said softly. "I got through the night of the storm because of you."
"In the hospital... you mean that night?"
"Yes. Let me do the same for you." He paused. "Please?" Artie got his answer when he felt a dead weight on his shoulder. "Now, sleep. Ol' Artie's here."
"No hot dog, buddy. I promise," said Jim drowsily.
Artie smiled and rested his cheek on Jim's hair. "Oh, if only I can be certain of that," he muttered, then followed Jim into a deep restful sleep.
Snow fell intermittently over Donner Pass and the Wanderer throughout the morning and afternoon. The train's occupants caught up on much needed sleep after the grueling activities of the previous day. Jim and Artie slept on past noon, unheard of for both of them. Artie especially was reluctant to awaken, his body aching from his exploits of the night before. Jim was worried that his partner had taken on too much too soon.
The afternoon passed slowly. Jim fixed a late brunch and coaxed his friend into joining him. Fixing the meal was a challenge all by itself. Jim fired up the stove just long enough to prepare some hot food. Like the water supply and heating coal, the wood supply for cooking would have to be carefully rationed. Jim prayed the time to look for more firewood would not come. Surely someone from San Francisco would arrive before then.
One game of chess and several card games later, Artie noticed the time. "Hey, Jim, do you know that it's after four o'clock? Time sure flies when you're having fun."
"Time's flyin' 'cause you're winnin', Artie." Jim placed his hand of cards face up on the table. "For me, every second is an eternity here. What's the secret to your success anyway?"
Artie smiled and looked at his friend. "My charm, charisma, devilish good looks..."
"I meant with the games, buddy."
"Oh. I don't know, James-my-boy. Must be just great skill..." Crack! Artie never finished his sentence. "What was that?" he asked as Jim bolted to a window to investigate. A snowladen limb from a massive nearby pine tree had crashed to the snowpacked ground. "Don't tell me the forest is gonna slam into us now."
"Just a limb, Artie, you can see it...come here." Artie got up, moved over to the window, and sat down on a chair Jim had placed there for him. As he sat down, a wave of dizziness passed over him - an occurrence that did not go unnoticed by his partner. "Hey, you okay?"
Artie shook off the uncomfortable feeling. "Yes, I'm fine." Where did that come from? "Must've gotten up too fast, that's all."
"You sure?" Jim rested a hand on Artie's back; his voice was full of concern.
"Yes. Hey, don't worry, Jim." Changing the subject, Artie asked, "Where's the limb that fell?" He conveniently neglected to tell his partner about the icy chill running through his veins. No need to worry him yet.
"Over there." Jim pointed out the limb and took note of the other branches weighed down by heavy snow and ice. "More will fall tonight, I'm sure."
The agents' window to the outside world was edged with frost. Jim and Artie watched as the wind swirled the loose surface snow into a dust storm of white. Drifts several feet deep were piled against the tall pines. In the distance, snow-capped mountains blended with the sky as more clouds moved in from the West. There was no life to be seen anywhere, bird or mammal; and the pristine landscape seemed to never have been touched by man. Quiet was everywhere. A light snow was falling, and with it the white silence grew deeper.
"Reminds me of an old song," whispered Artie.
"What song, buddy?"
"Oh, something I remember from years ago. Went something like this: ' Wind of the winter night, whence comest thou, and whither art wandering now.'" Jim gazed outside as Artie continued. "'I have been where snow on the chill mountain peak, would have frozen the blood on the ruddiest cheek. And for many a dismal and desolate day, no beam of the sunshine has brightened my way.'" Artie paused and reflected on the words. "So depressing." He looked at his partner. "Sorry. I didn't realize it until I sang it."
"Don't worry about it," replied Jim, placing a hand on his friend's shoulders. Artie returned his gaze to the frozen world outside, and Jim whispered, "We will get out of this, you know."
"Yeah, I know." He met his partner's eyes. "Just hope it's soon."
Jim gave his friend's shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "C'mon, it's getting dark." He picked up two lanterns and lit them. "Won't be able to see anything soon, so why don't we fix up some dinner?"
"Or I could beat you at another hand of cards?" Artie carefully got up from the chair, mindful of the dizziness that overwhelmed him earlier. Thank goodness it stopped, he thought as he followed Jim to the galley with no difficulty.
"Ah, food is a better idea," replied Jim. "Let's see how much we can make on as little heat as possible." Jim rummaged around for various ingredients and he turned to Artie. "I'll need your extensive culinary skills here."
"So nice to be in demand," muttered Artie to the room. He and Jim prepared dinner as a snow-white day turned into the darkest of nights.
After dinner, Artie carefully walked to his suite, leaving Jim with the cleanup details. He'd offered his assistance but his partner waved him off, insisting that getting some rest would be a better plan. Artie, carrying a lantern, entered his room, picked up his journal, and took a seat at his desk. He opened the book, dipped a pen into an inkwell, and entered a new passage for the day: "8 p.m. December 25th, 1872, no sign yet of rescue," he wrote. "Jim and I just fixed a holiday dinner unlike any other. We managed a decent meal on as little heat as possible. Kindling holding out so far. He didn't say a word, but I know Jim is thinking about how far our supplies will take us. Trudging through the drifts to get firewood is not a pleasant thought; and quite possibly, an impossibility." Artie stopped writing for a moment and thought back to how he and Jim passed the time while eating. A smile came to the agent's face and he continued to write. "I never realized that that partner of mine knew so many songs! Earlier, Jim and I stood by the window and watched the snow swirl around outside. An old song came to mind, Wind of a Winter's Night, and I couldn't help singing it out loud. During dinner, Jim and I tried to remember as many songs as we could, so our meal was accompanied by as many melodies as we both could remember. There's nothing like a song to get your mind off your troubles."
Artie lifted his pen from the paper and read through his writing. Many years ago, he'd written a similar entry in a journal he had carried with him across desert, mountains, and the rugged terrain of the wild West. There was snow on that journey, too... snow, starvation, and death. My dear sweet Caroline, Artie thought. How I miss you so. Artie wondered what fate had in store for himself and Jim.
Artie rested his chin on his hands and let his mind drift. Shadows flickered around the room in the lantern light. There was a warmth surrounding him that came not from heat, but from a presence. It's that partner of mine. Suddenly, Artie remembered something. He looked through one desk drawer, and then another before he found the object in question. Carefully, he lifted the item from the drawer and removed its protective wrapping. He held a photograph in his hands. Haven't looked at this in ages. The photo was of himself and his partner: Artie stood behind a seated Jim with an arm on the other's shoulder. Can't believe this is the only picture I have... The thought never finished.
"Get out the way of old Dan Tucker..." It was Jim singing in the hallway. "He's too late to get his supper..." He droned on and Artie covered his ears. Jim entered the room. "Supper's over and the dishes washed..." Artie aimed a pained expression at Jim. "Nothing left but a piece of squash." Jim finished the song with a smile, quite pleased with his performance. "You forgot that one, buddy," he replied, recalling their dinnertime songfest.
"And with good reason, pal." Artie uncovered his ears now that the recital was over. "That was a most... heart-wrenching performance, James." Artie tried to keep the laughter from his voice and succeeded admirably. "Brought a tear to my eye."
"I was hoping it would. Nothing like a little off-key harmonizing."
"And no one is as good at it as you, Jim," said Artie in a most complementary tone. "So how are things out there?" he asked, conveniently changing the subject before Jim could launch into an encore performance.
"About the same. I spoke with Alex - crew's doin' okay. I looked outside before it got dark; there's a heavy cloud cover coming in from the West." Jim sat down on the bed and looked at his friend. "It'll probably snow more tonight."
Artie sighed. "Just wonderful." He looked at the photo in his hands.
"Then again, maybe it won't," replied Jim in an attempt to raise his partner's spirits. "Artie, is that a photo you're holding?"
"Yeah. Been so long since I've seen it," he said, giving the photo to Jim. "It's a photo of you taken with the charming and handsome half of the team," he joked. "Seriously though, I was writing in my journal and other people, different times, and faraway places came to mind." He was quiet for a moment; reflective. "You know, that's the only picture we have together."
I'm glad you kept it all these years," replied Jim as he studied the photograph. "Been through a hell of a lot..."
"Us or the photo?" Artie smiled.
"You and me, partner. You and me."
Crack! Jim and Artie startled at the noise Mother Nature chose to interrupt their conversation. The dark storm clouds Jim had seen earlier brought not only snow, but thunder as well. The agents looked out a window to see fingers of lightning streaking across the sky. The electricity in the air flashed across the landscape making the dark night as bright as day. Thunder answered with her own call, a vicious crack that rivaled the roar of the avalanche from the day before. The ground vibrated with the heavens, and Jim could see the concern on Artie's face. He knew what his friend was thinking.
"Let's not dwell on it, buddy," he whispered.
"One avalanche per customer, right?" replied Artie, trying to lighten his concern with humor.
"Right. Now let's get away from the window." Crack! Jim pulled down the shade. "Sit down, pal. Just 'cause we're temporarily stuck out here doesn't mean I've forgotten the doctor's orders. Bandage detail. Your favorite." Jim gathered water, fresh linens, and other supplies. He helped Artie into bed.
"I don't suppose I could protest?"
"No," replied Jim.
Crack! Thunder punctuated his answer.
Artie sighed, resigned to his fate. "One thing I've learned is never to argue with one James West or Mother Nature," he muttered, more to the room than to Jim. He relaxed against two pillows and unlike the previous night, worked with his friend to fulfill the doctor's orders.
"You're feeling better, aren't you?" Jim smiled a gentle smile. He could see a change in his partner.
"Yes, most of the time, anyway."
"What do you mean 'most of the time'?" Jim moved the coverlet up over Artie and made him comfortable.
"Well..." he hesitated.
"Well? What aren't you telling me, Artemus?"
"There's been some dizziness, but don't worry, it's nothing." Artie snuggled beneath the blankets. Darn it! Where's this chill coming from?
Jim looked at his partner, then got up to straighten up the room. "Does it happen a lot?" he asked, turning down all but one of their lanterns.
"No, just once." Artie looked directly at his friend. Jim's expression was one of concern and something else that he couldn't quite define. "I'll be okay. Why don't you sit down, Jim. You've done enough already." Artie indicated the chair next to the bed.
"You're right, pal." Jim collapsed into the chair as thunderclouds roared overhead. Crack! Lightning lit the small room through cracks around the window shades, swallowing the comforting, warm glow cast by the lantern. "I hope this storm doesn't last all night," he muttered, leaning back in the chair in an attempt to relax.
"That's one thing you never know about, James-my-boy, is how the weather's gonna affect you up in these mountains." Artie relaxed against the pillows and stared at the ceiling. His eyes bore a faraway look as memories of another time and another place, thirty years distant, came to mind. He closed his eyes for a minute and allowed his mind to drift. Memories three decades old swirled about him and he welcomed their visit. Some thoughts were painful to recall, and others, of a special Caroline, warmed his soul. God, I was so young then, he thought. And the storms were just as vicious. Returning to the present, he said, "It was like this, Jim... with the Donners." His voice was soft. "Can you remember?"
Jim's eyes widened at the question. He and Artie spoke of that experience only once before, when they'd learned that they had both traveled West with their families back in 1846. He shook his head. "I remember a lot, I think. Although there are some blank spots along the way."
Jim leaned forward in his seat. "What makes you ask?"
Artie gazed at the ceiling once again, seeing something totally different in his mind. "This storm... this whole experience... just reminds me, that's all."
"You remember Caroline."
"Tell me about her, Artie."
Artemus looked at Jim and smiled. "You want the whole story?"
"Sure. It's either that or I sing for you again," smiled Jim mischievously.
Artie held up his hands in protest. "The story, definitely." He sighed and sat up straighter. "Where do I start?"
"How about the beginning." Crack! Thunder shook the snowbound train. "Don't argue. Mother Nature and I have spoken.
"Fair enough." Artie closed his eyes again. "The beginning, Jim," he opened his eyes and looked at his friend, "was a lifetime ago."
"You met her back in Ohio, didn't you? Somewhere near Cincinnati?"
"Yes, near Cincinnati, in a small town along the Ohio River," replied Artie wistfully. "You know, as much as I enjoyed traveling with my folks when I was a lad, I was just as glad to settle down for a while at my grandparents' place. And I'd have never met Caroline if Grandma and Grandpa Gordon didn't offer me a place in their home." Artie smiled at the memory.
"What were they like, your grandparents?" Jim loved to get Artie talking about his roots; and he knew his partner loved to share stories. It was a perfect distraction to the situation they now found themselves in.
Artie's expression was thoughtful as he spoke. "They were well-to-do business people, owners of the Gordon Iron Works Company, one of the first industries in the area. They were highly educated at a time when that was seldom seen -- especially Grams. Now there was a woman who loved books," recalled Artie fondly. "You know, she could have easily run the company all by herself."
"She sounds like a determined and strong lady, Artie."
"That she was. I can remember how she used to send me books while I was touring with my parents in the Shakespearean Thespian Society."
Artie grinned. "It was supposed to. Truth is we lived from stage to stage and traveled everywhere living out of a trunk. My grandparents, especially Grams, didn't think that the stage life was appropriate. 'You need proper schooling, Artemus,' she would say. That's why, at eight years old, I went to live with them for a while."
"How did your parents feel about that?" Jim relaxed in the chair. "They must've had a hard time letting you go."
"I'm sure it wasn't easy, but they got along well with my grandparents, even though the stage life was not Grandma's and Grandpa's cup of tea. My mother and father respected them though; and we'd visit them often."
"Between stages, huh?"
"Uh-huh." Artie nodded. "You know, Jim, one of my favorite memories about those days was just the chance to go to school and be with children my own age. I loved the stage, but it was just nice to hang out with friends for a change -- it's kinda like we're doing now, you know, just being together; talking. Those were the things I missed being on tour with my parents. It's funny to think of it now, but before I started school, I used to think that all children had the same kinda life I had. I learned differently when my grandparents opened their home as a safe haven for slaves."
"A stop on the Underground Railroad?" asked Jim, fascinated by Artie's story. Doesn't surprise me, he thought. Everyone in the Gordon family places the well-being of others first. He knew much about his friend, but marveled at how much he didn't know. What other surprises do you hide, Artemus?
"Yes. The Underground Railroad. My grandparents knew the risks, but felt the need to help. My family was like that."
"Must be inherited, huh?" Jim smiled and patted Artie's forearm.
"I guess." Crack! Thunder sounded again across the mountains, a sound so loud it seemed to fracture the heavens. The agents, deeply engrossed in conversation, startled at the invasion. Artie especially found the storm most unnerving. "God, is this ever gonna stop?"
Jim got up from the chair and moved to sit on the bed beside his partner. "Eventually, buddy," he said, placing a hand on Artie's shoulder. He studied his friend's face for a minute and noticed the palor of Artie's skin. "Are you feeling okay? You're looking a little pale."
Artie rolled his eyes. "I'm fine, Grandma," he replied good-naturedly.
"Well, if you're comparing me to your Grams, I am flattered." Jim moved back to sit in the chair. "Feel up to telling me more?"
"Sure." He paused. "Where was I before we were so rudely interrupted?"
"You said your grandparents' home was a stop on the Underground Railroad and that you had always thought other kids lived a life like yours." Jim sat back in the chair eagerly awaiting the rest of the story.
"I did... until I met people who desperately sought the freedom I took for granted." Artie's voice grew soft. "I can remember my grandmother lighting a lantern in the window. This was a signal to the slaves on the run. They could see the candle in our window and know that they would be safe at our home. The conductors on the Railroad made up many different signals to communicate with those who sought their freedom. Secret messages were sewn into quilts and spiritual songs gave clues to when it would be safe to proceed to the next station. I'll never forget the little girl who marveled at the books I showed her. Her mother had found her way to our home, reassured by the light she could see from the distance. Mother and daughter stayed with us for several days, until it was safe to move on. We had a separate room in our basement, accessible only from a stairway hidden in the closet of a back bedroom. I can remember stories about slaves living beneath the floorboards of a house until it was safe to proceed. Fortunately, in my grandparents' home, our guests could live rather comfortably until it was safe to move on. Usually, the former slaves would stay only long enough to get a good night's rest and a good meal; but sometimes, if illness or injury were present, they would stay a week or more."
"Tell me about the little girl who loved books, Artie." Jim was enthralled.
"Oh, her eyes lit up when I read her a story! I taught her how to read and write a few words and her whole world changed with a few letters."
"You gave her an amazing gift."
"Yeah, I just wish I could have done more for the others. Some of the slaves that stayed with us came from cruel masters. One young man that stayed with us had been routinely beaten... he was about ten years old."
"And he had known no other life..." said Jim quietly, "until he found safety with your family."
"Yes," replied Artie. "I can remember him being so physically hurt that it awed me as to how he made it across the river."
"The Ohio is hell to cross."
"A mile wide and swift currents," said Artie shaking his head. "I don't know how he made it across other than to say his spirit carried the broken body to freedom."
"You really liked him, didn't you?" Jim smiled softly.
"I did. And I got to know him a little, too because it was unsafe for him to leave us immediately -- his former master was reportedly looking for him. Anyway, he stayed with us for a few days, and like I said, that was rare. I'm really glad that happened though -- gave me a chance to know people that I would have never had the opportunity to know."
"Did he have family?"
"His father was gone; but his mother was a slave somewhere in the Deep South. She was sold there to make it nearly impossible for her to find freedom and her son." Artie was quiet for a moment. "You know, Jim, that young man taught me a lot. He suffered terrible physical hardships, but his spirit was never broken." Artie shifted slightly in bed, trying to get more comfortable. "Can't help but wonder about how he's doing now."
"That must be difficult... never knowing how your friends fared."
"It was...is." Artie averted his face from Jim. "Never knew what exactly happened to my grandparents either..."
"You don't have to relive this if it's too difficult." Concern was evident in Jim's voice.
Artie waved it off. "It's okay. I do think about them sometimes -- my grandparents; their accident... whether or not their carriage going off the road was an accident." He looked at his partner. "It's nice to talk about things once in awhile, you know."
Jim nodded. "I know, buddy."
"They were such good people, Jim. I wish you could have known them. It's so hard for me to believe that anyone would've wanted to harm them... except for one thing..." Artie's voice trailed off.
"They helped slaves." Jim leaned forward and rested his forearms on the bed.
"Yes." Artie studied his friend's face and wondered if he should say more. There was more... much more that Jim did not know. Trust. The word came to Artie's mind directly from Jim's eyes, eyes that looked at him now in friendship. He should know. "Yes, they helped the slaves escape, but there is more... never did tell you this, Jim but..." his voice trailed off again.
"But what, Artie? You can tell me anything, pal, you know that." Jim rested a gentle hand on Artie's wrist.
"My Grandma Gordon was a Southern Belle."
Crack! Thunder exploded from the sky as the storm continued to wreak havoc over the mountains. Jim was stunned by his partner's revelation and he found himself speechless. Artie's grandmother was a Southern Belle?
Artie watched his friend carefully. "Well, your chin hit the floor with that thunderclap, buddy." He placed several fingers under Jim's chin. "Not often I see my partner open-mouthed and utterly speechless."
Jim recovered and quickly apologized. "I'm sorry, Artie. I just... well, I didn't know that." He paused. "You know, you never cease to amaze me, Artemus. You're a man of many talents and many secrets." Jim squeezed Artie's wrist gently in a gesture of friendship. "Next thing you're going to tell me is that we're really fourth cousins, five times removed," he said, shaking his head in amazement.
"No, not fourth -- fifth, maybe," said Artie jokingly, aware of Jim's hand encircling his wrist. Reassurance, he thought. I can tell him anything. The story continued. "Yes, Jim, Grandma was a Southern gal; Grandpa was from Ohio. Their wedding was attended by friends from North and South; and visits with friends on both sides were a challenge in those turbulent times."
"I can believe it," agreed Jim. "Go on."
"Grandma moved to Ohio with Grandpa shortly after they were married. My dad was born in Ohio. Grandma visited her family and friends in Kentucky as often as she could; and my dad used to accompany her on her visits all the time."
"Your grandmother's family were plantation owners?"
Artie nodded. "They were... and they were slave owners, too." In a quiet voice, he added, "My grandmother never liked the idea of that, and she told me she challenged her father on the issue."
"At a time when children were seen and not heard." Jim marveled at the strong spirit his friend's grandmother had possessed.
"That's right. She couldn't swallow the concept of owning another human being. It just wasn't right. Anyway, when she met my grandpa and moved away, many thought she had denounced her heritage; but all she was doing was standing up for her beliefs. She brought up my dad... and he brought me up, to believe in freedom for everyone." Artie looked at the ceiling for a moment. "Bless that dear lady." He closed his eyes for a second, then once again looked at his partner.
"What about their accident, buddy?"
"It was on one of their trips south. Grandma and Grandpa were on their way home when their carriage ran off the road. Rumor had it that they were run off the road intentionally, and that whoever did it acted out of anger at my grandmother for her well-known opposition to slavery." Artie grew thoughtful. "Never could prove it was actually murder though."
"No, no witnesses... but definitely one suspect."
"A former suitor of my grandmother's. He lived on a neighboring plantation and was insanely jealous when Grandma married a Northerner." Artie pondered a moment. "He never said a word, of course, but he was just so smug after he heard of the 'accident'. There was no shock at all in his reaction. I was always suspicious of him, but with no witnesses..."
"You couldn't prove anything."
"This must have been tough on your parents, Artie."
"It was, Jim... very hard. They not only lost family, but the stage life as well."
"They inherited Gordon Iron Works?"
"Yes, but they were not business folks, you know. Still, my dad felt obligated to keep the family home and business functioning, which he did for several years until his death in '40. I was thirteen." Artie shifted in bed and sat up straighter. "Jim, you mind getting me some water? All this reminiscing is giving me an awful thirst."
"Sure, no problem. Think I'll join you." Jim got up and poured a glass of water for himself and his friend. He handed the glass to Artie.
"Thank you," replied Artie after taking a sip. "This is much better now -- didn't think my life story would take so long to tell."
"Well, you've got all the time in the world to tell it, buddy." Jim sat down again in the chair near the bed. "We're not moving too fast here." He sipped the water. "So what happened after your dad passed on?"
"Yes. Well, I just immersed myself in school and tried to help my mom as much as I could. Running the business got to be a bit much for Mother though, so she hired someone to run the company for her. It was not easy -- at the time, I was getting involved in theater in Cincinnati; and all Mom thought about was the life she'd left behind."
"She must have really missed the stage," said Jim.
Artie sighed and took a sip of water. "Yes, she did... and she missed my dad, too."
"What did your mom think of Caroline?"
"Oh, she loved her like a daughter, Jim. I met Caroline when I was just fifteen while performing at the Cincinnati Opera House during the summer. She was so beautiful with her bright blue eyes and brown hair. We were both studying advanced courses and I met her backstage one evening during a dress rehearsal. She was also a musician and had studied music for many years... the violin." Artie sighed and said wistfully, "that was just one of the many things we had in common. Anyway, time went on and eventually we found ourselves moving back East to study at Yale. Caroline's Aunt Maude lived in Connecticut so we were able to stay with her while we were in school."
"Aunt Maude, huh?" Jim grinned at his partner. "Somehow I feel like I know her very well."
"I'll bet you do, James. It was Aunt Maude who organized our wedding. She planned the whole affair and she followed such a grand design. Caroline and I were married at the home of one of Aunt Maude's dearest friends, Francis Gillette. Mr. Gillette was a prominent citizen who later served as U.S. Senator. His Connecticut home was also a stop on the Underground Railroad. Many former slaves found a retreat at his home while making their way to Canada." Artie looked at the ceiling again, reliving a time so distant it seemed nothing more than a dream. "Caroline became my bride in the summer of '45 -- we were only eighteen." He looked at Jim. "Do you remember being eighteen?"
"Yes, I do, but my memories are very different from yours at that age." Jim looked away from his friend, suddenly fascinated by the carpet on the floor. "Thoughts of war were on my mind at eighteen -- but that's another story."
"And one you must tell me, even though I know some of it already." Artie smiled softly.
"In due time." Jim shifted the conversation back to his friend's story. "You never did tell me how it was that you and Caroline decided to move west."
Artie's expression turned somber. "About three months after our wedding, Mother passed on. She fell ill suddenly and Caroline and I went back to Ohio to see her, but we were too late." He was quiet for a moment, then went on. "We stayed for a while -- in the old mansion that had belonged to my grandparents'. We decided to postpone school for a while to watch over Gordon Iron Works -- a decision which greatly disappointed Aunt Maude. In many ways, Aunt Maude was a lot like my grandma, especially when it came to education. She was relieved though, when we told her we'd resumed our work in music and in theater."
"Must have been difficult telling her you were going to take those skills across the country, huh?"
"Oh yeah. She hated the idea of Caroline being so far away, but at the time, going west was the thing to do." Artie smiled at the thoughts that came to him. "Caroline and I were so young and we felt like we could bring culture to new communities. We wanted to help teach children about science and the arts. We believed that we could contribute more to our future by letting go of the past, so in the Spring of 1846 we set out for California. Caroline had a sense of adventure, Jim. She had a fearless personality seldom seen in young ladies at that time. She knew the journey would take many months and was quite willing to walk across the continent toward a better life." Artie's voice turned to a whisper, full of sadness and some regret. "She was always willing to climb at least one more mountain, Jim... even through the snow on what is now called Donner Pass..."
"She sounds like a very special lady, Artemus. Tell me more... that is, if you're up to it."
"Jim, there is something else that I need in order to tell you more." Artie gestured toward the bottom drawer of his desk. "Reach in and grab the book on the bottom. I think that's the one."
Jim moved over to the desk, opened the drawer, and found several leather-bound journals neatly stacked. He reached in and pulled out the volume requested. "Westward Journey 1846 to 1847," said Jim, reading the notation on the cover. "I should've known that you'd record everything for posterity; but are you sure you want to share that with me?"
Crack! The thunder raged across the sky; the storm seemed just as likely to continue as when it commenced. Both agents shrugged off the noise, having grown accustomed to their unpredictable situation. Jim continued, "as I was saying before we were so rudely interrupted, are you sure you want to read this to me?" He handed the journal to his friend. "I mean, it may not be easy..."
"Relax, Jim. There's no better way for you to meet Caroline than through these pages. There's also no better way to learn of the Donner experience either... and you were so young, James. There must be plenty you don't recall."
"True. Mostly, I remember only what I've been told, with a few exceptions here and there. Certain events did make an impression on my four-year-old mind, though. Still, it would be nice to hear a documented account... at least a part of it." Jim relaxed in the chair and got comfortable. "Read on, Artie, I'm all ears."
Artie opened the journal and perused the pages. "So many memories in this book, Jim. I only wish I had the original copy -- the journal that I'd started on the day we left Ohio."
"What happened to it?"
"Well, I believe that we lost it somewhere between the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Desert. I wasn't able to write again until the company had arrived at Truckee Lake, or as we know it now, Donner Lake. Actually, Caroline and I never reached the lake camp -- we fell so far behind the rest of the company and the snow caught us off guard. Our acting troupe managed to catch up to the Donner family, who were camped six miles east of the lake and Truckee Pass at the junction of two creeks -- Prosser and Alder creeks, if I remember correctly." Artie flipped through the pages of his journal and came to an entry dated November 12th, 1846. "This is an entry that I'd written once we had been stopped by the snow." Artie began to read: "Came to this place on the 31st of last month. Caroline and I, as well as the rest of the troupe, are doing our best to manage until there is a break in the weather. It has been raining and snowing almost continuously for the past week; that is the reason for this pause in our journey. The pass has been blocked by snow since the storm that impeded our travels began on the 3rd of November. We attempted to cross the pass with the wagons several days ago but were unsuccessful. We have returned to this place to seek shelter, as Mother Nature has been relentless and has not allowed us to proceed.
We have set up camp nearest the Donners, who like us, fell behind the rest of the party. On the 27th of October, our troupe caught up to the Donners, who had an axle break on one of their wagons. Cutting timber for a new one, George Donner severely gashed his hand with a chisel. He jokes about it, saying it's nothing more than a scratch. His wife, Tamsen, bound the wound in cloth strips. She is a strong woman and does not take her husband's injury lightly. Nor do I. I spoke with Mr. Donner and shared with him my medical knowledge. He promised to be extra careful so as to prevent infection.
Our shelter here is primitive at best. On the 4th of November, Caroline and I, along with our acting comrades and the Donner family, attempted to build cabins for protection from the elements. The snow was unrelenting however, and proper shelters could not be built. We are using branches and wagon covers to form makeshift tents. It's cold and damp, and no matter how large our fire rages, warmth can barely be felt.
To pass the time, Caroline and I have given our assistance to the Donner family. George and his brother Jacob have their wives Tamsen and Elizabeth and twelve children to care for. The childrens' ages range from thirteen to three. Caroline is just marvelous with the children, and we've both spent numerous hours reading to them and playing with them. We will do anything to help take their minds off our situation.
Our journey with the Donner Party has been a hardship unlike any other I have ever faced. On the 31st of July, our group followed a shortcut published in the Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California, a route that would shorten our journey by 350 to 400 miles. Lansford W. Hastings, a lawyer from Mt. Vernon, Ohio, authored the guide and promised to meet our party along the trail and lead us through to California. Hastings moved on ahead with another party, much to our dismay. He sent word back: dangerous trail conditions; road impassable; too risky with wagons. Hastings suggested a possible route, and this is the route we traveled. There was no road to follow. We chopped our way through tree-choked canyons and dense undergrowth, traveling only two miles per day through the Wasatch Mountains. We struggled for six days to chop a path eight miles up Big Mountain. Caroline and I double-teamed our wagon -- it was the only way to ascend the steep, rugged terrain of the mountainside. It nearly killed me to see her like that -- standing at one side of the wagon, hands on the wheel and pushing forward, while I did the same on the other side. Anything to help the team move forward -- our lives were in that wagon. All our labors proved fruitless, however, when nearly all of our possessions had to be abandoned. The load was too heavy; the animals had given out. Caroline and I sought shelter with other members of our acting troupe, but they'd moved on ahead. We spent the night huddled under the wagon cover, which we'd taken for use as a tent, and tried to brace ourselves for the cold and hunger that were sure to follow. I'll never forget Caroline's words that night: 'I'll not be cold, dear husband, as long as you live in my heart.'"
Artie stopped reading. Neither he nor Jim could speak. The words from Artie's journal swirled around the room as the snow continued to swirl around outside.
"You okay, buddy?" Jim whispered.
Artie nodded. "I'll continue... just give me a minute..."