It had been a quiet summer, for the two of them, anyway. There had been relatively few crises that had called for their particular talents. Their last assignment had been in Arizona and had been little more than a courtesy call on the local garrison.
The last week had found them parked on a siding outside of Washington, resting and waiting for the next assignment. Jim had found himself chaffing at the inactivity, wishing that they had something constructive to do. Not that he was idle. He worked out daily with Artie, went for long rides and groomed their horses till their coats shone.
Artemus Gordon was having no such problem with their lack of an assignment. In fact, he was positively reveling in it. He spent his days reading the mounds of journals and books he had accumulated in the past several months and conducting the odd chemistry experiment. Jim was just happy that none of the experiments had proven particularly noxious.
Artie’s response to their unexpected vacation was the one thing that Jim was enjoying about the whole situation. Given some time off, Artemus Gordon had become as enthusiastic as a small boy on summer holidays. The only difference was that instead of playing baseball and catching frogs, this small boy was reading about new surgical procedures and concocting lethal combinations of explosives.
Artie-watching had become one of Jim’s favorite pastimes this last week. Even more than usual, he was finding that it gave him a warm glow to observe his partner as he performed some arcane experiment or simply stretched out on the settee in the sitting room and read.
It was just such a round of observing his partner that Jim was engaged in at the moment. Not that he was being obvious. He hid his true purpose behind reading the latest paper from New York. The broad sheet gave him the perfect cover to hide the occasional glances in the direction of his partner.
Artie wouldn’t likely have noticed anyway. He was absorbed himself in writing in his journal. Jim wondered idly what was going into the slim volume. He was tempted to ask but restrained himself. They were both entitled to their secrets.
That was how they were occupied when the telegraph came in. Jim let Artie write the message down for reasons both practical and selfish. Artie already had writing implements by his side and he was closer to the equipment. Also, it allowed Jim a few minutes more of uninterrupted observation of his partner.
But what had started as an idle pleasure soon became a source of worry. As he wrote more of the message down, Artie’s body language gradually began to tighten up. His neck stiffened and the easy flow of his writing became forced and choppy. By the time he finished the last line of the message, a frown creased his brow.
The message ended. Artie sent back an acknowledgment, but still he said nothing. He merely stared at the piece of paper in front of him as if he were fully expecting it to leap up and bite him.
Jim folded his newspaper and placed it in front of him. He tried to quell the sinking feeling that suddenly bloomed in his gut, telling himself that it couldn’t be as bad as all that.
He waited for his partner to tell him the contents of the message, but Artie seemed lost in his own thoughts. He simply stared at the writing in front of him as if he could change what it said by force of will. Finally, Jim could wait no longer.
“Yes, Jim?” Artie sounded suddenly tired, all the bounce, the enthusiasm taken out of him
“What was the message?”
“Just a little job our employers have for us. Nothing major. They just want us to retrieve a scientist who seems to have gone missing.”
“Oh,” Jim said, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“In New Orleans.”
The feeling in Jim’s gut went from minor annoyance to full-blown fear. The fear brought to the surface the things he had been trying not to think about. Like why it was such a quiet summer and why they had spent most of their time lately in the west and north, avoiding the Mississippi valley.
It was a plague year.
Yellow Jack was making the rounds, claiming new victims in one of the worst epidemics in recent memory. All through the Mississippi valley people were dying from yellow fever by the hundreds, whole families wiped out, children orphaned. Anyone who could afford to had left New Orleans when the summer had started. No one who could help it was venturing near the city.
And they were being ordered to the center of the plague area.
All who knew James West knew that he was brave. He had faced odds that would have daunted another man and come out on top. But disease was something quite different. You couldn’t strike at a sickness, couldn’t shoot it down with a bullet. Especially not the dreaded yellow fever. Hell, no one even knew what caused it. The doctors could only talk about ‘miasms of the air’ and ‘animalcules,’ which sounded like so much nonsense to him. So, the fear took a grip in James West’s soul.
But he was still a brave man and he faced his fear down, refusing to let it cow him.
“Is that so?”
“Yes.” Artie finally looked up at Jim, the worry clearly evident on his face and in his eyes.
“Anything else?” Jim decided he would simply be professional, treat this like any other assignment.
“We’re to wait here for now. A courier’s been dispatched with the man’s picture and file. He should arrive by this evening. We’re to proceed to New Orleans as soon as we have the packet.”
“They’ve thought of everything.”
“So it seems.”
They sat looking at each other in silence for countless minutes. Jim felt himself clenching his jaw. He noticed Artie was chewing on his lip occasionally. Both of them seemed unable to speak, though it was Artie who finally broke the silence.
“Maybe we can..” He stopped himself from finishing the sentence.
“We can what, Artie?” Jim asked, knowing full well what the rest of the statement would be. He’d had the same traitorous thoughts himself.
But Artie knew as well as he how impossible it was.
“No I guess we can’t, can we.” It wasn’t a question, but a statement of fact. They both knew that they owed their obedience, their lives to their country. They couldn’t turn down an assignment, couldn’t refuse it because it was dangerous. In fact, the two of them were being sent precisely because it was dangerous.
“No, we can’t,” Jim replied, wishing for the first time that he and Artie had no responsibilities, but could simply take the horses and ride to points unknown, no forwarding address, no private train car, no blasted telegrams following them wherever they went.
It was a pleasant fantasy, but that’s all it was: fantasy. They were both bound by the oath they had sworn on joining the Secret Service. More than that, they were bound by their honor. They would do what they had to.
But there was one other thing that bound them, Jim realized as he looked across at his partner: their ties to each other. They would carry out their duty, but they would also protect each other, to the limits of their ability.
Jim smiled at Artie, projecting all his concern and caring. Artie returned it in kind.
They would get through this. If determination counted for anything, there wasn’t a disease in the land that could touch them.
They settled in to wait for the courier.
It was late in the evening when the courier finally arrived. It wasn’t the junior officer they had been expecting, but Colonel Richmond himself. Jim took his dusty coat, while Artie ushered him into the sitting area and got him a cup of coffee. Jim caught Artie’s eye and could see his own concern echoed in his partner’s face. He shrugged and they both took a seat on the settee, across from the Colonel.
Their superior didn’t waste any time on social niceties. He pulled a slim envelope from his bag and opened it.
“I wanted to be certain you gentlemen appreciated how important this mission is, and how necessary it is that you travel to New Orleans.” Richmond pulled a photograph from the envelope and handed it to Artie. “This is the man you are to look for: Dr. John Bennell.”
Jim looked at the picture over Artie’s shoulder. Dr. John Bennell was a pleasant looking man in his late thirties. He faced the camera with an easy smile and the slightly stiff posture that anyone who was subject to a photographic portrait seemed to adopt. He didn’t look at all like someone who would run off to a city in the grips of an epidemic for no good reason.
“He doesn’t look suicidal,” Artie said, earning a frown from Colonel Richmond.
“Not suicidal, merely a concerned husband and father.” He produced another photograph from the envelope, this one of a young woman and a girl of about eight. “His wife Elizabeth and daughter Rose. They were last seen in New Orleans.”
“What were they doing in New Orleans?” asked Jim, surprised that any man would let his family anywhere near the city in time of pestilence.
“Dr. Bennell is originally from England. He is a chemist, educated at Cambridge. The Department of Defense hired him to work on some of their more delicate projects last year. He moved to the States, but left his family in England until he could find an appropriate home here.
“This summer, Bennell purchased a home and sent for his wife and daughter. They decided to travel first to New Orleans, where they were to meet with friends of the family living there and spend the season at the family’s summer retreat, outside of New Orleans.
“Unfortunately, the yellow fever had not reached epidemic proportions when their ship left Portsmouth. The family friends, the Williamsons, could not make it into town until a few days after the ship had landed, and only then at great personal risk. It is known that Mrs. Bennell and Rose disembarked, but there is no trace of them after that.
“We have tried to find word of them, but you’ll appreciate how difficult that is now. Bennell waited for three weeks, becoming increasingly frantic. He finally disappeared four days ago, and the only place he could be headed is New Orleans.
“If that was all, I would not be here. It would be a tragedy, especially if it turns out his family has perished, but we would not be willing to risk men to find them or him. But Bennell has been working on projects that are extremely sensitive and has secrets in his head that enemies of our government would pay dearly for. We have already received word that there are several foreign agents searching for him. If he is kidnapped, we may never know. It is entirely possible that a man could die in the midst of such an epidemic and be buried unidentified. We have to find him, and his family if possible, and make sure that his secrets are safe.
“And that, gentlemen, is your assignment.”
The three of them sat in silence for a moment. Jim felt a multitude of emotions: sympathy for Bennell and his family, anger at Richmond for giving them the assignment, concern for Artie.
“Why give this one to us, sir? If you don’t mind my asking.” Jim managed to hide the anger in his question.
“I don’t give this assignment lightly.” Richmond at least had the courtesy to look him in the eye. “I know soldiers are used to facing bullets, not disease. But everyone concerned feels that the two of you have the best chance of succeeding. You are our best team. On top of which, you have both spent quite a bit of time in New Orleans. Time spent in the area seems to offer some protection against the fever. And you are both single. You have no families.”
No, Jim thought, we just have each other.
Richmond paused and looked both of them firmly in the eye.
“I’m counting on both of you returning from New Orleans. I think you are the best men for the job. I am not sending you off to die.”
Jim could sense the sincerity of Richmond’s words and knew he was no happier about this than he and Artie were. He looked over at Artemus, and his partner nodded in silent communication. Jim returned the gesture before responding to Richmond.
“We won’t let you down, sir.”
They left the trainyards almost immediately. The only thing they did first was inform their engineer and fireman, Sam and Michael, what their assignment was. Jim felt it was only fair to give them the choice of whether to go or not, and Artie agreed. Fortunately the two men not only agreed to go, but insisted upon it. They were both older men with grown families, and Jim sometimes felt that they took a somewhat paternal concern in their two passengers.
He and Artie stayed up, examining the file that Richmond had given them, looking for a hint of where Mrs. Bennell might have taken her daughter when their hosts had not appeared. They looked over the scanty reports that Richmond had received from the city, searching for a hint of where they should start their quest.
As the hour approached midnight, the two of them finally retired. There was really nothing more they could do until they arrived in New Orleans.
Jim didn’t fall asleep right away. He doubted Artie would either, this night. The two of them were used to facing danger, did it as a matter of course. They had both seen the ugly face of death on the fields of battle during the Civil War. But death from yellow fever was something else. You could escape death in a fight by being fast, by being resourceful. But disease didn’t care how clever you were; it would strike you down with complete disregard for all your efforts to avoid it.
And Jim found a surprising truth about himself, one that really should have been no surprise at all. He was most concerned not for himself, but for Artemus Gordon, brother in arms, companion and the best friend he’d ever had. He would face death himself, but he did not want to consider the possibility of Artie dying from yellow fever.
It was with visions of himself visiting Artie’s grave that he finally fell into an uneasy sleep.
He was awakened some time in the middle of the night by a dimly heard commotion outside the stationary train. It took him mere moments to shake the cobwebs out of his head and quickly throw on boots, pants and shirt. He was about to knock on Artie’s door when Artie opened it himself, his own clothes tossed on. Without a word, they both grabbed their guns from their holsters and left the train.
The shouting was coming from the front of the train, so they approached cautiously. Jim held his gun loosely in his hand, but didn’t yet aim it. No use stirring up more trouble than there was. He noticed Artie did the same.
When they reached the front of the train they were confronted with a sight that Jim knew he should have expected, but somehow was not prepared for. A group of men stood on the tracks, blocking their passage. Behind them a makeshift barricade provided an even more immovable barrier. Some of the men held torches but more held weapons: revolvers, hunting rifles and even the occasional pitchfork.
The scene itself was extraordinary enough, but the sight of the faces of the men, flickering in the unearthly glow of the torches, was the most terrible thing about the whole tableau. They showed anger, but mostly fear. Fear of an unreasonable enemy that came upon them without warning. An enemy that could take their family and friends from them without leaving a hint of a reason for it. Fear of yellow fever distorted their faces, turning them into parodies of human form.
Sam and Michael stood in front of Wanderer, facing down the crowd. Jim was thankful that none of the guns were pointed at their crew and no shot had been fired, yet.
Jim took the lead, Artie following just slightly behind him, backing him up. It was comforting to know his partner was covering him.
“What’s going on here?” He tried to project authority with his voice, but without seeming to threaten. He know only too well that an armed and frightened crowd was far more dangerous an enemy that Miguelito Loveless with a garrison’s arsenal.
There was an escalation of confused shouting, with nothing clear except the men’s anger. Finally one voice managed to shout down all the others. The owner of the voice stepped forward, an older, noble-looking gentleman who nonetheless held a six-shooter firmly in his grip.
“I am Charles Molyneux, the mayor of this town. I have kindly requested that the crew of this vehicle turn around and leave our town. We have imposed a quarantine to prevent the fever from striking our families.”
Molyneux was clearly well educated, but Jim didn’t miss the steel that his polite words held. They would have to handle the situation very carefully.
“I’m James West, with the United States Secret Service. This is my partner, Artemus Gordon.” He waved back towards Artie but didn’t take his eyes from Molyneux and his mob. “We are on an assignment given by the President himself. I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to remove the barricade.” Jim made certain that he was as polite and respectful as Molyneux was, but that he also did not hide the strength of his resolve.
Molyneux puffed out his cheeks, but didn’t back down. Jim had to give him credit: he was resolute in protecting his town.
“I will ask you again, Mr. West, to please turn your train around and leave.”
“I can’t do that, sir.” The situation was quickly becoming a dangerous stalemate.
“Then we shall have to force you.” At Molyneux’s words, Jim found a half dozen gun barrels pointed directly at his face. He stilled his movements, not wanting to give any of the nervous shopkeepers and businessmen facing him a reason to pull their trigger.
Artie was suddenly at his side, directing all attention away from him.
“I don’t think you fine people appreciate the gravity of the situation.” Artie made sure his voice was pitched for friendliness and reason and Jim was grateful once again for his friend’s theatrical training. “Do you think our President would send us into the heart of an epidemic if this were not a matter of vital importance?” Artie reached out and squeezed Jim’s arm, a gesture of reassurance, before he continued his monologue. “We have been sent on a mission that will protect your families from a far greater menace than yellow fever.” He addressed Molyneux directly. “Our mission, which I’m sure you will appreciate is of the utmost secrecy, is meant to prevent a war potentially more devastating than the conflict between the States, a war which must have ravaged your town as much as any in our fair country.”
Jim could see Molyneux’s resolve begin to waver. Artie could clearly sense it too, since he crossed the remaining gap between himself and the mayor and put a friendly arm across the mayor’s shoulders.
“I’m sure you see the necessity of letting us continuing on our way, sir.”
Artie let the ball rest there, firmly in Molyneux’s court. The silence built up and Jim had to resist the urge to hold his breath.
Finally, Molyneux gave his response, however reluctantly.
“Let them pass!” he shouted at his own men. There was the expected uproar, but the mayor seemed to command enough authority in his own town that the protests were quickly put to rest. The barricades were moved off the tracks. Jim and Artie both made sure that they thanked the mayor, before moving back to the train. They knew that they had to move quickly before the mood of the mob swung and the barricades were put back in place, or worse.
Jim and Artie headed back to the train, stopping at the engine to let Sam know that one of them would be keeping watch from now on, and should be told if they encountered any more barricades. Then they headed back to their car.
They were both keyed up from the encounter, unlikely to sleep, so they both kept watch for the first hour. After that time, Jim saw Artie’s head begin to bob with fatigue, so he sent his partner to bed while he kept vigil into the morning. He bestowed a quick embrace on Artie before he went to his room, trusting that his partner’s fatigue and the extraordinary circumstances in which they found themselves would be enough to excuse the uncharacteristic act.
Sitting by himself in the sitting room, watching the windows that revealed nothing more of the landscape than a black murkiness, Jim found himself wondering at the feelings that were welling inside him, as if a long hidden source of emotion had at last been tapped. He was beginning to realize how very important Artie was to him. When his partner had faced down that crowd, talked them into reason, Jim had been all too aware of how little it would take to silence that voice. A panicked husband putting a slight pressure on a trigger would have been the only thing needed to remove Artemus Gordon from the earth.
It was not something Jim wanted to dwell on. So he concentrated on the windows and tried not to think.
They were not stopped again, though they did pass through several more towns where crowds of men gathered around bonfires to guard their families against strangers and yellow fever. Sam made certain he never stopped at such places, but only at remote water towers where there were no mobs.
It was a journey that would haunt Jim West for years afterwards.
Through grace, luck and stubbornness, they at last arrived in New Orleans in late afternoon.
If the trip itself had been strange, it still did not prepare them for the extreme oddness of the Crescent City in the grips of an epidemic.
The railyards were deserted, no sign of the bustle and industry that were the norm in this city. Jim made certain that Sam and Michael agreed to stay on the train. He didn’t want to expose them to the fever any more than necessary and experience seemed to suggest that staying indoors would often prevent it from taking hold.
That detail settled upon, he and Artie set out to do an initial exploration of the city.
“Do you want to split up?” Artie asked. “We could cover the city faster that way.”
“No,” Jim said, rather more sharply than he intended. He forced himself to relax before continuing. “It’s best if we stay together. If…” He paused, not wanting to say what both of them were thinking. “If one of us becomes ill, the other might not find out what happened. It’s safer if we stick together.”
Artie looked at him a bit strangely, but he nodded and said nothing further about it.
That first walk through the city was completely unsettling to Jim, as no doubt it was to Artie.
At this time of day, the streets should have been full of people, getting off work, traveling to parties, indulging in the considerable nightlife on offer. Instead, the streets were nearly empty. A few hardy souls could be seen moving about, but most were bundled up and avoided all contact with others.
The smells were unforgettable. In some neighborhoods there was the tang of carbolic acid, the streets having been washed down with the stuff in the hopes that it would prevent infection. Other areas depended on smudges of pine tar burning on street corners for protection, creating an acrid smoke that made Jim’s eyes water and his throat sting. In still other places, sulfur was being burnt to purify houses that had been hit with fever. Over the smells was the pervasive buzzing of the mosquitoes that swarmed their faces, adding one more annoyance on top of the misery the city was already experiencing.
The most haunting thing they encountered was in one of the working class neighborhoods, where few had been able to escape the city when the fever struck. There they found bodies lying on the street like cordwood, waiting to be picked up by the dead carts. Jim forced himself not to flinch at the sight, and Artie stiffened noticeably as they passed through the neighborhood. It was worse than the battlefields Jim had seen during the war. At least on the battlefield one wouldn’t find the bodies of women and children ravaged by fever and left by what was left of their families to fill a pauper’s grave.
Jim placed a hand on Artie’s elbow, as much to reassure himself of his partner’s presence as to comfort his friend. Artie, no doubt knowing what was passing through Jim’s mind, placed an answering hand on his partner’s.
Jim quickly realized that they would find nothing that day. They were both exhausted from the journey and traveling the city at night seemed a foolhardy proposition. They would achieve more in the morning.
They walked quickly back to the train, avoiding the worst areas. Supper was a subdued affair, shared with Sam and Michael. The two crew members didn’t ask what they had seen out on the streets, and Jim felt no need to tell them. He was sure they could imagine it easily enough.
After the meal, he and Artie made a list of places to check the next day, including the hospitals and the private homes that had been opened to the sick. Since neither of them had much energy, they both called it a night quite early.
For the second night in a row, Jim found sleep a goal difficult to attain.
The next morning, Artie and Jim started their inquiries. Since there were no real leads, they decided to be methodical. They started at the one place they knew that Mrs. Bennell and her daughter must have been: the harbor.
Not that there were many people around who could be questioned. The once bustling area was nearly deserted. No ships were calling at the port and so there was no need for the usual assortment of sailors and day laborers that usually populated the area.
The few people they did find couldn’t recall having seen the Bennells at all. And no wonder. It had been several weeks since they had landed and the people of New Orleans had more on their minds than the whereabouts of two English citizens who had been foolish enough to arrive during yellow fever season.
From the harbor, they proceeded to the various hospitals, starting with the Charity Hospital. There they asked the hospital workers, from doctors down to the black women who did the cleaning, if they remembered seeing any of the Bennell family. It took them hours to question the staff of the Charity Hospital, and hours more to visit the many other places housing the sick throughout the city. And all of it was for nothing. No one remembered the Bennells, and seeing the overcrowding in the hospitals, Jim could understand why.
It was going to take them days to investigate all the possible places that the Bennells might have ended up, and Jim was beginning to think that at the end of it they would have learned no more than Dr. Bennell had waiting in Washington.
They returned to the train tired and demoralized with little energy to talk. They both collapsed into chairs in the sitting room, dust-covered and foot-sore. Jim craved nothing more than a hot bath and a hot meal, but he was too exhausted to contemplate even pulling off his boots.
He looked across the car at his partner. Artie appeared similarly beaten down at first, but as their eyes met, a transformation took place. A bright smile lit Artie’s face and the fatigue seemed to fall from him.
“We’ll do better tomorrow, Jim. You’ll see.”
Artie’s damnable optimism seemed to be catching. Jim felt his own spirits begin to lift. He nodded.
“And in the meantime we need sustenance.” Artie stood and headed for the kitchen, taking the time to stop by Jim’s chair and give a quick squeeze to his shoulders.
Jim took a minute before he followed him, spending that stolen time enjoying the phantom feel of Artie’s hands.
Then, rousing himself, he joined Artie in the task of making dinner.
The days proceeded much the same. They investigated hospitals and doctors and hotels and guesthouses, any place that a traveler, well or sick, might have visited in New Orleans. And every place they visited gave them the same answers. No one had seen the Bennells, no one remembered them. No one had any idea where they had been.
And all the while they had to face the specter of a city diseased. Passing the dead on the streets, seeing the dying in the hospitals, it was all wearing. Jim was beginning to truly lose hope.
The one person that was keeping him going was his partner. Though he must be as exhausted as Jim, Artie never seemed to let his energy flag. He was there to support Jim when he needed it, and was adept at getting information out of New Orleans natives suspicious of strangers.
And it was because of Artie that their luck began to change.
On their fourth day in the city, they were walking through the Vieux Carré when they saw a lone street seller, hawking his poor wares on Canal Street. The man must have been desperate to risk infection to make a few meager cents from the pencils and shoelaces he had for sale. It was Artie who approached the man to ask if he had seen the Bennells. Jim hung back, not wanting to face one more disappointment, one more person who knew nothing.
He started getting more interested, though, when the man pointed at one of the pictures Artie was holding out to him, then gestured towards the Garden District. Artie gave the man a few coins and was profusely thanked, before returning to Jim’s side.
“Don’t tell me he actually knew something,” Jim said, a faint hope starting to grow inside him.
“Jim, my dear boy, he says he’s seen John Bennell several times going in and out of a house on Third Street. It’s one of the swanker homes. The old boy thinks it might have been turned into a hospital.”
“That’s great.” For the first time in days, Jim felt like they might get out of the hellhole New Orleans had become untouched by the fever.
“Not so fast.” Artie’s tone suggested that there was a darker side to his good news.
“Our friendly source of information also told me that I’m the second person to ask about Bennell this week. Two men asked about him a few days ago.”
“Did he tell them anything?”
“He couldn’t. It was before he saw Bennell. And he won’t tell them anything now. I gave him enough of a tip for his information that he won’t be spreading it around.”
“Well that’s good. Did he get a description of the men?”
“Not much we can use. Average height, average build. But he did say they had foreign accents. He wasn’t sure what kind, but not French and not Spanish.”
“Then we definitely have competitors.”
“So it would seem.” Artie rubbed his hands together in anticipation. “We should try and find our missing lamb. The sooner we do…”
“The sooner we can leave,” Jim completed the thought.
They walked quickly towards the Garden District, with Jim hoping that each step was bringing them closer to a resolution to this sorry assignment. It was a longish walk, over half an hour. Under other circumstances Jim supposed he would have enjoyed it, cutting as it did through some of the most beautiful streets in New Orleans. On this occasion, though, he just wanted to reach his destination as quickly as possible.
They finally reached the house that the street seller had told them about. It was one of the larger mansions on a street filled with enormous homes. A lovely curved portico dominated the front of the building. There was no indication, however, that the house was being used as a hospital, or anything else, for that matter.
They approached the front door cautiously and knocked. When there was no answer, Artie opened it carefully and entered.
The street seller had been right. There were beds and cots in every visible space occupied by young and old, white and black. Several women in plain wool dresses were attending to the patients.
The door slammed shut behind them, and Artie jumped at the sound. Jim glanced at his friend with concern. They had been to too many of these makeshift hospitals, and seen similar sights in every one. It wasn’t like Artie to be so skittish.
He put his hand on Artie’s back.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, fine.” Artie shook off his concern and his hand. “Just tired. Of all of this.” Artie waved at the beds in front of him.
Jim knew what his friend meant. He felt the same himself. Still, they were here to do a job, and that’s what he was going to do.
He approached the woman who was bathing a young man in the grips of a delirious fever.
“Excuse me, ma’am. I was wondering if you could help me.”
“Are you the volunteers the Robinsons recruited?” She looked skeptically at the two of them. “You two don’t look like you’d be much good helping with the nursing.”
“No, we’re not the volunteers. We’re looking for someone. John Bennell.”
“Mr. Bennell. What’s he done?” If possible, the woman frowned more deeply at the two of them.
“Nothing, ma’am. We work for the same employer and were sent to make sure he wasn’t ill.”
“Well, he’s fine, for now. Though Lord knows he won’t be if he keeps up this pace.” She pointed up the stairs. “You’ll find him in one of the rooms on the second floor.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Jim tipped his hat at her.
“Mind you don’t annoy him. He’s got enough on his mind,” was shouted after them.
They found Bennell in a room close to the front of the house with four fever patients. He was sponging down one of them, a young man barely out of his teens who was clearly in the last stages of the disease. His skin had gone an almost unbelievable shade of yellow.
Jim wouldn’t have recognized Bennell if he hadn’t been told that he was up here. Gone was the cheerful, confident man of his picture. In his place was a man who had aged ten years. His hair had gone shockingly grey and his face was tired and lined. An air of sadness seemed to hang about him.
“Dr. Bennell?” Jim said tentatively, still not sure that he had the right man.
“Yes?” The man looked up and squinted through his glasses. “Do I know you?”
“No sir. My name is James West and this is Artemus Gordon. We were sent by the U.S. government to find you and your family.”
Bennell looked at them in incredulity for a moment before he started to laugh, but there was no humor in the sound.
“They send you now? Now when it’s too late? That is just too perfect.”
“Too late? I don’t understand.” Jim was afraid, however, that he did understand.
“Too late. Surely you understand English, Mr. West.” Bennell gave another humorless laugh. “My wife is dead. Is that plain enough for you.”
Jim looked at Artie, hoping that he would find an answer in his partner’s face, but all he found there was the same distress that he felt himself.
“And your daughter…” Jim stopped, thinking of the children waiting for burial on the streets of the First District.
“My daughter, by grace of God, has survived. She is in one of the recovery rooms on this floor. But it will be many months before she regains her strength.”
“Sorry. How dare you.” Bennell kept his voice low so as not to disturb his patients, but he was clearly enraged. “How dare you give me your sympathy when if something had been done sooner my wife might be alive now. But the government wouldn’t send someone to look for my family. They would only send someone when I was gone, to save their petty secrets, no doubt.”
Jim kept his silence, since what Bennell had said was perfectly true.
Artie stepped into the breach to try and patch things over.
“Sir, we’re here to take you and your daughter home.”
“I have no home.” Bennell’s tone had gone from enraged to strangely dead. “Certainly not in Washington. But I am needed here.” He gestured at the men in the cots. “There are too many sick and not enough hands to look after them. I’m not a medical doctor, but I can do what’s needed. Make them comfortable.” The young man in his care began to fuss, and Bennell returned to sponging his face, easing the fever.
“Your orders don’t mean a damn to me,” Bennell said, cutting off Jim before he could get started. “Now you can do one of two things. You can help with these men, or you can get the hell out of here.” Bennell pointed towards the door. Jim knew when he was outmatched and withdrew, with Artie following behind him.
When they reached the bottom of the stairs, Artie faltered for a moment, then pinched the bridge of his nose. Jim supported him as he swayed unsteadily for a moment.
“Artie, are you…”
“I’m fine, Jim,” Artie didn’t even let him complete the thought. “I’m just tired and I’ve got a slight headache. I just need to rest.”
“Okay.” Jim didn’t say any more. He knew as well as Artie did that headache was one of the early symptoms of the fever. He just hoped that Artie was right and it was a simple, non-lethal headache. People did still get headaches that had nothing to do with yellow fever.
He rubbed his own eyes, overcome with fatigue and frustration himself. “Let’s get out of here.” They would decide what to do about Bennell later.
The walk back to the train seemed to take longer than usual. He had thought he had gotten used to them, but the smells and sights of a city under threat of disease weighed Jim down more than they had since the day they arrived. Everything down to the annoyance of the mosquitoes was nearly unbearable.
Artie must have felt the same. He too was lost in his own thoughts, and once or twice he startled visibly when there was a sudden sound on the streets.
When they reached the train, they ate a simple meal. Artie retired soon after, claiming he needed to sleep.
Jim stayed up, trying unsuccessfully to compose a message to Colonel Richmond. But he found everything he had to say came out wrong. He decided to wait until the morning. Artie was the better communicator of the two of them. Maybe he could make some sense out of this sorry mess.
Jim woke the next morning feeling no more optimistic. He felt overwhelmed by the situation as he had seldom before in his life.
He didn’t blame Bennell for feeling bitter. Maybe if he and Artie had been sent here sooner, they would have been able to save Mrs. Bennell. Maybe…
Or maybe not. No one would ever know. They would just have to live with what had happened. Playing a ‘what if’ game was no way to live. Jim tried to concentrate on what he could do now, in the present. One thing he did know was that he had to get Bennell and his daughter out of this town and back to Washington, willingly or not.
He put on his robe and went out to the sitting room, surprised to find that Artie had not yet risen. He must have been extremely tired not to be up yet. Jim decided to let him sleep a bit longer. After all, he wasn’t sure himself what their next step should be.
He busied himself with preparing a simple breakfast of coffee and toast. He was just taking a final bite of the toast when he heard it.
A sound. Coming from Artie’s cabin.
It wasn’t quite a human sound, not true speech. It was more like a sound an inarticulate animal would make.
A cold dagger of fear went through Jim’s guts and he ran for Artie’s room.
He didn’t knock, but threw open the door.
Artie was thrashing on the bed, tangled in the sheets. He was covered in sweat. As Jim watched another moan escaped his friend’s lips.
Jim was at his side in a second.
“Artemus, wake up.”
It took a few minutes to coax his partner up to consciousness. When he finally did open his eyes, Jim almost wished he hadn’t. The whites were already bloodshot and beginning to hemorrhage.
“I’m here, Artie.”
“I think I’ve got the fever.” Artie’s serious statement of the obvious might have been funny if it hadn’t also been accurate.
“I think you’re right, Artie. Try to relax.” Jim tried to straighten out the bed coverings, make Artie more comfortable. He ran a hand over Artie’s brow and was shocked at how hot it was.
“You’re burning up, Artie.”
“Hot.” Artie seemed to be about to lapse into delirium.
“Artie,” Jim shook his friend. “You’ve got to stay with me. Don’t give in.”
Artie focused on him once again.
“Hi, Jim.” He gave him a wan smile before a grimace replaced the expression. “It hurts.”
“I know, Artie.”
Jim tried to think of what he should do, what seemed to work best with fever patients. Unfortunately, Artie was the one who knew the most about medicine.
“Artie, what should I do?”
But Artie had already faded back into the delirium.
Jim sat back and tried to decide what to do. He knew the hospitals were horribly overcrowded. He’d been to them all in the last few days. But he needed help. He didn’t know enough himself to keep Artie alive.
Then he thought of John Bennell.
Bennell had been working with fever victims for at least a week. He might have some idea of what could be done.
Course of action decided upon, Jim worked fast. He asked Sam to keep an eye on Artie, assuring him that the fever wasn’t passed on from person to person. That was one of the few things that was know about the disease. He then saddled up his horse and rode as fast as he could to the house in the Garden District where they had found Bennell.
This time he found Bennell in one of the rooms on the main floor, feeding a woman who barely had the strength to sit upright, but seemed past the worst of the danger.
“Dr. Bennell, I need to talk to you.”
“Get out of here West. I don’t want to see you right now.”
Bennell finished feeding the woman, then adjusted her covers before standing. He walked away without a backward look. Jim followed him to the kitchen in the back of the house. There Bennell began washing his hands while studiously ignoring the man at his back.
“I need your help.”
Still no response.
“My partner has come down with the fever. I don’t know what to do.” That last admission was the hardest. Jim West was not accustomed to admitting he didn’t know what to do, even if it was true. He always pretended to competence, even if he didn’t feel it. But this time such fakery would not help his friend.
Bennell wasn’t ignoring him any more, but he was laughing. A harsh bitter laugh.
“You want me to help your partner. Why should I?” Bennell gave one final, mirthless laugh. “Where were you when my wife was dying? Where were your employers when I begged them to send someone to get her, to let me go myself?” He once again turned his back on Jim and began drying his hands. “I have nothing more to say to you.”
This was too much for Jim. He let his frustration and his anger and his fear take over. Grabbing Bennell by the shoulders, he spun him around and slammed him into the wall.
“I’m sorry about your wife. I wish we could have gotten here sooner. But I can’t change that. My partner is sick right now and you can help me save him.”
Bennell didn’t back down. Jim could see now that he was a man with nothing left to lose.
“Why should I help you?” There was a cold, dead light in Bennell’s eyes as he asked the question.
Jim reached down and tried to pull up an answer that would satisfy this implacable man. He found a truth that he hadn’t even realized was there.
“Because, the way you felt about your wife, that’s how I feel about my partner. If he dies, I’ll survive, but I don’t know how I’ll go on living.”
Bennell stared at him for several long minutes. His gaze gradually softened until the basilisk stare was replaced by the grief stricken expression of a husband who’d lost his wife and a father whose daughter was still quite ill. He shook off Jim’s grip and took several steps away.
Jim thought he had lost. His shoulders slumped as he tried to come up with his next course of action.
Bennell stopped and looked back.
“Well, come on then. We’ll need to bring your friend back here.”
Jim felt enormous relief, tempered by the fact that he knew this was only the first step. Artie still had a long way to go.
“Thank you,” he whispered. Bennell only nodded in response.
They hooked up the house’s two-horse carriage and went back to the railroad yard. Artie was much as he had been when Jim left him. He was delirious and cried out in pain when they carried him to the carriage. Jim made Sam and Michael promise to stay inside the train and not venture out. He didn’t want two more people’s illnesses on his conscience.
They placed Artie on a cot in a second floor room in the house. There were four other men in the room, all as ill as Artie. Jim nearly asked if they could find a room with more privacy, but stopped himself. There were too many sick in the city for that kind of luxury to be allowed.
As they made Artie as comfortable as possible, Bennell gave Jim a crash course in yellow fever.
“Have you ever seen a yellow fever patient before?”
Jim shook his head, thankful that he had been spared this until now.
“Mr. Gordon has already passed to the second stage. You’ve noticed his eyes have begun to hemorrhage?” Jim nodded. “That will get worse. He’ll have nosebleeds; his gums will bleed. If he has half-healed cuts or bruises, they will start to bleed. He’ll be nauseous. You have to watch for black vomit. That will show he’s getting worse. The thing you really have to watch out for is jaundice. Make certain that his skin doesn’t go yellow. If he gets to that stage, it may be too late.”
“But what can we do for him?”
“In spite of what the quacks say, no medicines seem to work. You just need to keep sponging him down with water, or water and vinegar to try and control the fever. And keep feeding him liquids, water, tea, broth, anything he’ll take. Other than that, just try to keep him comfortable.
“There are supplies in that corner cupboard, a well out back for water and food in the kitchen. And there’s one other thing. We’ll need you to look after the other men in this room.”
“But I’m not…”
Bennell cut him off immediately.
“I’m not a medical doctor or a nurse either. But there aren’t enough people. Can you understand that?”
Jim stifled his protest and nodded. He knew Bennell was right, even if he didn’t have to like it much.
“Fine. I have to get back to the others. We have a doctor, a real doctor, checking on us several times a day. I’ll send him up when he arrives.”
“Thank you,” Jim said, and he had never meant those two words more sincerely.
“Thank me if your friend survives,” Bennell responded, and walked out.
The next two days were the busiest, most frightening James West had ever experienced. Looking after Artie alone would have kept him running, but the four other men tested the limits of his endurance.
He couldn’t help resenting every minute that he wasn’t with Artemus. Every time he had to see to one of the other men, or go down for water, or get food for himself, he could only think of how Artie needed him.
He was terrified that Artie would slip away from him when he wasn’t looking. That he would get the jaundice that was a sign of the last stages of the illness when Jim was downstairs eating a quick sandwich. Or that he would vomit blood when Jim wasn’t around to clean it up.
He now knew the face of death by yellow fever and it haunted his dreams in the short time that he allowed himself to sleep.
One of the other men had started to slip downhill shortly after Jim began caring for him. He constantly threw up black vomit. Eventually, his skin turned a bright, unearthly yellow. Even his eyes were the color of sunflowers. Within twenty-four hours he was dead. Jim didn’t even know his name.
He didn’t want Artie to meet the same fate. Not when he suddenly realized how much Artie meant to him.
He kept returning to what he had told Bennell, ‘The way you feel for your wife, that’s how I feel for my partner.’ The words had come unbidden from his heart, but more and more he was realizing how true they were. Artemus Gordon was the most important person in his life. Period. Full stop. He was more important that any person, male or female, that Jim West had ever met, or was going to meet. And if Artie died, Jim would wish he had died too. He wouldn’t recover from that loss, no matter how long he took.
He treasured the brief moments of lucidity Artie had and dreaded the delirium that completely disoriented him. Several patients had become so delirious that they had wandered outside when their caregivers took a much needed break. Two of those had died before anyone had found them. That was just one more nightmare ghosting Jim’s thoughts.
So Jim worked to the limit of his own strength and beyond. He worked with no care for his own health, since if Artie died he honestly didn’t care what happened to him.
But if he worked hard, John Bennell seemed to work longer, sleep less. His wife’s death seemed to have fired within him a resolve that no one else would die if he could help it. He helped all the other volunteers in the house on top of caring for the patients he was assigned. He had helped Jim restrain one man who had tried to leave the room in a fit of delirium. The other volunteers had nothing but praise for Bennell, even if they didn’t spend much time in his presence. He was not a comfortable man to be around.
For two days, Artie’s condition stayed more or less the same. His gums and nose began to bleed, but otherwise he didn’t worsen. Jim began to look for signs of improvement when, on the second afternoon he began to take a sharp downward turn.
Jim had been trying to feed him broth, to replace the fluids he was losing by bleeding. He had thought Artie was going to be able to keep this meager sustenance down when his partner had thrown up. Black. The sign that he was bleeding more inside. Jim felt the fear pounding through his veins as he cleaned up Artie.
And Artie picked that time to have a moment of lucidity. He opened his eyes and Jim could see the personality had returned to them, dimmed but visible.
“Sorry, Jim. I’m so sorry,” Artie whispered. Jim might not have heard had he not had his head close to Artie’s.
“Don’t worry Artie.” He wiped his partner’s brow with a cool cloth, soothing him. Artie seemed to quiet under his hand.
“Thank you, Jim. Thank you for everything.” Artie looked back up at him. Jim could see he was still lucid, but now he saw something else in his eyes. Something which did not bode well for his chances.
Artie’s eyes were beginning to turn a bright yellow. He was starting to succumb to the jaundice that killed so many fever patients.
Jim quelled the panic within himself, for Artie’s sake. He continued to stroke his friend’s brow.
“Don’t worry about anything. Sleep, Artie. You’ve got to keep your strength up.”
Miraculously, Artie did drift into a sleep that was quieter than he had managed previously. Jim didn’t know whether to be relieved or more worried.
He stayed at Artie’s side for a few more minutes to make sure that he was sleeping well, checked his other charges to make sure they didn’t need anything, then went in search of Bennell. Maybe Bennell would know of something he could do to slow the jaundice down. Jim was even willing to consider using some of the quack remedies sworn to stop the disease. Anything to keep Artie alive.
He couldn’t find Bennell in any of the upstairs rooms. He wasn’t on the main floor. He wasn’t even with his daughter. Jim started asking around, seeing if anyone had seen the man, but no one had. That wasn’t surprising. Everyone was as overworked as he was himself. If it didn’t concern Artie or the other men directly in his care, Jim was certain he wouldn’t notice it either.
He finally ran into a volunteer just arriving at the front door who said she thought she’d seen Dr. Bennell.
“Where was he, Agnes?”
“That’s the strange thing. He was leaving the house. He’s hardly ever ventured outside since he found his wife and daughter here.”
Jim found his internal alarm bell was going off.
“Was he by himself?”
“No, and that was the other odd thing. I’ve heard him say that he didn’t know anyone in New Orleans, but he was with two men he said were friends of his.” She sniffed in disdain. “They weren’t people I would associate with. Rude. And foreign, too.”
“Yes, although I’m not sure where from. But they definitely spoke with an accent.”
Somehow, with everything else going on, Jim had managed to forget why he was here. He was to find Bennell and prevent foreign agents from kidnapping him. He had done the first part, but forgotten the second in the wake of Artie’s illness. And now Bennell was going to pay for his mistake.
“Did you see where they were going, Agnes?”
“I believe they were heading towards the First District. Though why anyone of Dr. Bennell’s breeding would want to go there…” Agnes was definitely a woman of her class, Jim thought wryly to himself. Though he had to give her credit, she had stayed to help when the rest of her family had fled far away from the illness.
“I have to go find Dr. Bennell, Agnes, but could I ask you a favor?”
“Of course, Mr. West.”
“Mr. Gordon seems to have taken a turn for the worse. Could you watch him till I return?”
“Of course.” She patted him on the arm. “I’ll take good care of him. Now go on.”
Cursing himself with every step, Jim retrieved his gun belt from the linen closet in which he’d hidden it, then bolted out the door in the direction of the First District. It was a working class neighborhood, and one hit worst by the epidemic. He was surprised the spies had chosen to lodge there, but perhaps they had felt that the neighborhood’s danger would keep the curious away.
It would also be an excellent area to hide in, a maze of tenements and dingy rooms. Jim’s only hope of finding them would be to catch sight of them before they went to ground.
He ran down the street, driven by the urgent need to find Bennell and his own personal need to get back to Artie. He was nearly out of breath when he at last caught sight of three men ahead of him. The two on the outside had a firm grip on the man between them. With so few people on the street, Jim figured they could only be Bennell and his captors.
He tried to stay with his prey, keeping to the shadows and doorways as much as possible. The deserted streets forced Jim to be creative to stay unnoticed. He calculated quickly as he stayed with the three men. He didn’t have many options. There was no one he could count on for help and if he allowed the men to get to whatever rathole it was they’d been hiding in, he likely wouldn’t be able to dislodge them himself. Not without risk to Bennell.
His only alternative wasn’t without risk, but seemed the only way. He would have to rely on his own skill.
He moved forward as quickly as he could without seeming to be obvious. When he was within the needed distance, he ducked into a doorway, drew and fired at the agent on the left.
He went down quickly. Bennell took the opportunity to pull away from his remaining captor. Before the man could calculate where the gunfire had come from, Jim shot him as well. He stayed under cover for a moment, making certain that his targets were neutralized, before leaving the doorway.
“Dr. Bennell!” The chemist had bolted across the street. “It’s Jim West.”
Bennell turned to where he was and moved forward to meet him.
“Mr. West.” Bennell shook his hand with feeling. “For once I am truly glad to see you.”
“Are you okay?”
“Fine. They didn’t hurt me.” His face hardened. “They threatened to harm my daughter if I didn’t come with them.”
“We should move the two of you from the house, then. There may be others who know where you are. Except…” He had momentarily forgotten the reason he had been looking for Bennell in the first place.
“Except?” Bennell prompted him.
“Except that Artie seems to have taken a turn for the worse. He’s started to develop jaundice.”
“That isn’t good. We need to get back immediately.”
“But you can’t stay there.”
“I will stay at the house as long as your friend is in danger.” Bennell clapped him on the shoulder. “I owe you that much. Besides, I think I trust you and that weapon to keep me safe.”
Jim knew he should argue, but he couldn’t. Not when Artie’s life hung in the balance.
“Thank you, sir.”
They got back to the house in record time. Jim rushed upstairs to Artie’s room, with Bennell following close behind.
Agnes was with Artie, bathing his face and upper body in cooling water. She looked up as they came in.
“I’m glad you’re back, Mr. West.” She looked down at Artemus. “He’s not doing well.”
Agnes was right. In the hour that Jim had been gone, Artie’s skin had started to take on a definite yellow cast. He seemed to be struggling more to breathe and was clearly in more pain. Tears of blood leaked from his eyes.
Jim sat down and took over from Agnes. He looked up at Bennell.
“Is there anything else we can do?”
Bennell shook his head.
“No. Just continue as you have been.” He paused. “And pray.”
Jim took his friend’s hand in his and held on.
“Get better, you stubborn son of a she mule. Get better, or I’ll tell your Great Aunt Maude on you.” He took a deep breath and leaned forward to whisper into his friend’s ear. “I can’t live without you.”
Artie picked that moment to open his eyes. They had gone an even darker yellow, giving him an otherworldly look. Jim could see that he was lucid, for the moment.
“Don’t die on me Artie,” he whispered.
Artie said only one word in response.
Then he closed his eyes and drifted back into the world of uneasy rest that Jim had awakened him from.
It was a miracle everyone said. Not many had been that sick and lived. Artemus Gordon should have been a dead man.
Jim West was very glad that for once conventional wisdom had been proven wrong.
Not that it hadn’t been a very near thing.
Artie’s skin had gone the nearly bronze color that usually presaged death in yellow fever victims. He had nearly stopped breathing several times. But in spite of the ravages of the disease, he hadn’t stopped fighting. And three days after the attempted kidnapping of John Bennell, his fever broke. He had been improving steadily ever since.
Jim hadn’t left his side for more than a few hours in the three weeks since.
At the present moment, he was watching as Artie lay in the sun, soaking in the heat that his body didn’t yet seem to be able to hold onto.
Jim said a silent thank you once again to John Bennell for helping to save his friend's life. Bennell had been unsettled enough by the kidnapping attempt that he and his daughter had left New Orleans with them as soon as Artie was strong enough to travel. Colonel Richmond informed him that Rose was recovering quickly at the house her father had purchased in Washington. Jim wished the Bennells well.
He and Artie were staying at a borrowed guesthouse in Arizona while Artie recovered. Jim had blackmailed Colonel Richmond into giving Artie open ended sick leave and Jim paid duty looking after him. Not that it had been difficult. The Colonel had looked so guilty at having indirectly caused one of his agents to develop yellow fever that he probably could have been convinced into giving them much more. But Jim didn’t like to be greedy.
He was satisfied the Artie was alive and that he was to be allowed to be with him while he recovered.
And that recovery would take some time yet. The doctor was predicting at least a month, and to look at Artie, Jim didn’t doubt it.
The illness had devoured all the extra flesh from Artie’s bones, leaving him looking emaciated and frail. In the first week after the fever had broken he had reminded Jim of the Union prisoners of war he’d seen in the Andersonville prison at the end of the war. It had taken a long time for him to gain his appetite back, and he was only now beginning to regain his missing and much missed sleekness.
His strength was also slowly returning, but it still taxed him to walk the short distance from the guesthouse to the lounger Jim had set up on the lawn.
But in spite of the physical setbacks he had suffered, Artie’s personality had not changed, and for that Jim was thankful. He was still lively and witty and had a wicked spark of humor that he used mercilessly on his partner. It was that more than anything that convinced Jim that his partner would be back at work, and probably sooner than the doctors thought possible.
The one problem he saw was that while Artie’s personality hadn’t changed, Jim’s had. Or rather, his own perception of his personality had changed. He now knew, completely and without compunction, that he loved Artemus Gordon. No one was more important to him. He also knew that he lacked the fundamental courage to tell his partner.
He was content to enjoy his company, to work with him daily, to be his best friend. He couldn’t risk losing all of that on the faint hope that his partner felt the same way about him. Better to submerge his desires and have Artie with him than to confess them and lose everything.
His partner stirred on the lounger as he stood observing him.
“Are you going to stand there all day, or are you going to join me?” The familiar voice boomed out from the diminished but still familiar frame.
“I didn’t want to disturb you, Artie.” He moved forward and took his seat in a chair placed for that purpose beside the lounger.
“You could never do that, Jim.”
He reached over and took Jim’s hand in his own. Jim smiled, thinking back to the day when Artie had finally awakened free of fever, and Jim had been holding his hand.
Artie smiled, lost in thoughts of his own, before reluctantly releasing the hand.
They sat in comfortable silence for the rest of the afternoon, enjoying the shifting play of light on the landscape as the sun began to sink towards the horizon. Jim only called an end to their relaxation when he saw a shiver pass through Artie.
“Time to go in, Artie. You’re going to get chilled.”
“I’m going to be very glad when I’m over this spell and you stop mothering me.”
“The spell, as you call it, nearly killed you, Artie. So stop complaining.”
Jim reached a hand down and helped Artie to his feet. Once his partner was standing, he put an arm around him, steadying him as they walked toward the house.
“And you don’t have to help me to walk anymore. I’m not a child.”
Jim gave him a wide smile.
“Indulge me on this one, would you Artie? I kind of enjoy it.” And that was nothing less than the truth. He liked the closeness of supporting Artie’s weight. It was a counterfeit for the intimacy he really desired, but he would be content with it.
“Fine,” Artie said in the voice of a man putting up with his idiot partner.
They walked toward the house at an easy pace, content in the moment. As they reached the door, Artie seemed to stumble. Jim struggled to catch him. Somehow in the tumble of limbs that saw them both almost but not quite falling to the floor, Jim found himself just inside the house, his back to the wall with Artie pinning him there.
“Gotcha,” Artie said, a definite twinkle in his eye. And then Artie did what was to Jim the most extraordinary thing. He leaned in and kissed him.
As kisses go it was rather chaste, but it still managed to completely shatter his reality. He struggled to think about what Artie could mean even as he also wanted to obliterate thought totally and simply enjoy the sensation of the moment.
When Artie’s lips, warm and soft and slightly sweet, left his, he buried his face in his friend’s shoulder, not certain he could look Artie full in the eye.
Artie held him close, rubbing Jim’s back in slow, luxurious caresses that seemed to engulf him. Jim had never felt the recipient of such complete and overwhelming love before in his life.
Buoyed by how right this felt, he finally gained the courage to meet Artie’s gaze. His partner looked back at him with a beatific smile.
Jim raised his had tentatively and lightly brushed his fingertips against Artie’s lips.
“Why?” he breathed.
Artie smiled even wider.
“Because it would have taken you forever.”
And he took Jim’s mouth again in a kiss that was anything but chaste. Jim threw his doubts aside and responded completely.
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