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Fever Dream

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They were in Broke Plow, Nebraska, as God was his witness. Nothing good ever happened in places with names like Broke Plow, Nebraska. James West thought of sending just such a message to Washington (KINDLY REFRAIN FROM SENDING US TO TOWNS WITH NAMES LIKE BROKE PLOW NEB STOP JW) – that, and the resulting castigation from his superiors, would make a welcome distraction just now. In fact, a villain of any human sort would be a welcome distraction from the faceless villain that had struck.

Three days after their little dust-up in Cairo, Ohio, and Artie's brilliant disguise as the Creole boatman, his snooping at the Mississippi riverbank at evening had taken its toll. Gordon had obtained valuable information about the guns and whiskey being shipped to Indian rebels on the frontier, which had led to the apprehension of all the smugglers – and he'd gotten something else, too. A headache at dinner, a chill he'd put down to the prairie night, had turned into a thrashing fever by midnight.

It bred in the twilight and lurked near open water, striking its most deadly blows in summertime. It went by many names – summer fever, swamp fever, Roman fever – and the locals called it fever 'n' ague. It found a welcome home in foul moist air; it had scourged Confederate troops, and yearly filled Southern graves. Now it had struck Jim West in the heart.

Artie lay knotted in sweat-soaked sheets in the main stateroom; he alternated between shaking with chills and tossing and sweating, between moaning quietly and uttering sharp cries in the throes of a nightmare. When the telegraph signaled, West left the burning man and flew to answer it. The answer he'd requested slowly emerged under his pencil. "Sisters of Mercy Consumption Ward. Some doctors have treated fever. None else." West crumpled the note, his jaw set.

"Jim?" Casey the engineer stood in the doorway.

West shook his head. "The nearest city is North Platte, and the only hospital there is a sanatorium for consumptives."

Casey pursed his lips involuntarily. "A ward full of lungers? We'd be kinder to shoot Mr. Gordon than take him there."

West nodded, a tiny shake of his head discarding that option. "What about in town?"

"I looked, Jim. We've a choice between a barber and a dentist today. Doc's away on someone's farm delivering a baby."

West took a breath. "Then we doctor him on board the train today and fetch the doctor here tomorrow."

Casey nodded, and produced a bottle. "I was able to at least get quinine from the druggist."

West took the febrifuge and smiled for the first time since last night. "Thanks. I want you to go back to town and get ice before we leave. At least twenty or thirty pounds."

"Ice? In this jerkwater? In July?"

"They're farmers, they have icehouses, don't they?" West snapped. "He's burning alive in there. I want to cool him down. If I have to, I'll pack him like a corpse. If it's to be had for money, buy it." West rummaged through a safe and handed a pouch of gold coins to the engineer; a $20 gold piece spoke louder than the same currency minted in silver. "A lot of ice."

Casey nodded; he didn't say what West had implied – that the ice could also be used if the fever triumphed over its victim. "I'll be back quick as I can. I'll let the locals rob me blind if I have to."

"Good." West looked toward the sickroom. "Swamp fever isn't catching. I'm going to lie in bed with him. It'll be warmer when he chills, and maybe having some company will calm him down or stop the dreams."

Casey grunted. "Might work, Jim. Chap shares a bed with another chap, he don't want to thrash around so much or he'll get a punch in the nose."

Jim smiled; he'd been in precisely that situation in more than one overcrowded hotel. Single beds were a luxury in the West, more often than not.

"Mr. West. Just so you understand."

Jim halted and looked back at WANDERER's engineer.

Casey kept his eyes on his employer. "Mr. West, I know what the Good Book says is sinful and what's not. But I know what I see, too. And I know I ain't such a clean holy chap m'self – don't know an engineer what is. I seen with my own eyes that two sinners can do more good than a whole pack of good pious folks can, sometimes. So anyone ever asks questions about you and Mr. Gordon what ain't their business, I don't know anything except how the both of you escort young women to the opera and such. Mr. West." Touching his cap, the engineer left.

He knew. He knew, and he was with them. Warmed, Jim headed for the stateroom.

Artie had kicked the blankets off and now shuddered with chills. Mixing a dose of quinine into a glass with water, Jim tilted Artie upright and coaxed his friend into swallowing down the bitter concoction before laying him down again. When that was done, Jim began to disrobe. He grimaced as he undid his trousers – if Artie hadn't confessed to his delight at observing his partner in the snug-fitting clothes he'd have them tailored to a more comfortable fit. Naked, he joined his closest friend under the counterpane.

Closest friend... West smiled a little, remembering an evening not long after their relationship had altered for the better.

"I don't know what to call us now!" he'd told Artie irritably. "We can't be married – and when I hear the word 'lover,' all that conjures up is a jealous husband with a shotgun."

"We're partners, James," Artie had replied simply, "in all things now." Once again his friend had come up with the needed information in time.

Now they were partners in the same bed, fighting for the same life.

West held on to his sick friend as he thrashed; Artie felt as if he was on fire, and he shook constantly, the "ague" of fever 'n' ague. Many victims simply died of exhaustion, unable to sleep or rest in its thrall. Quinine cooled the fever but didn't stop the shakes.

"Loveless–" Artie whimpered.

Jim shuddered and tightened his hold. He still had nightmares about that twisted, brilliant man, even though Miguelito was no longer a danger to anyone; Gordon had seen to that, and the proof was on the mantle in a jar. "He's dead, Artie," Jim said. "He's gone. You did it, to save me. We're safe from him now."

"Spiders." Artie thrashed and swung his arms. "Big spider–"

Jim reached for the pitcher of water and dampened the cloth again, re-applying it to Artie's forehead.

"Head...a man's head...eyes...blood bath..."

That sounded like a war memory. War-sickness. Jim still had dreams like that, ten years later. There was no medicine yet for that kind of war-wound, no bandage that would heal it, no amputation that would cut the gangrene away.

"touch my breast...now touch yours...I'm hard...shut-ass..."

West closed his eyes, embarrassed for his friend and grateful that he was the only one present to hear those words. Perhaps the feel of their bodies together in the bed had triggered this. This was language Artie only used when the two of them were locked together, so consumed by passion that every civilized restraint upon the tongue fell away; Gordon went from reciting romantic Shakespeare sonnets to snarling words that would redden the cheeks of a New Orleans pimp. In Artie's arms, Jim West too reverted to his most primal and brutal self, something he'd never felt was right with even the wildest of paid women. The bone-deep sense of safety and well-being after such abandonments was a stunning joy; it was a nakedness more revealing than physical nudity, and it had made them even closer than they were already.

"Jim – Jim – falling – "

West stroked the damp cloth over the blazing brow and followed it with his lips. Oh God, he was even hotter. If Casey didn't get back soon he'd drag Artie under the Broke Plow water-tank and douse him to cool him down. That meant risking pneumonia, but if Artie's fever went any higher, the temperature would cook his brain and Casey would come back with his ice, only to find West lying beside a corpse.

Not here, not here Artie, please not here – don't make me bury you in this lonely town, in a field of weeds and wooden grave markers –

No. Not here. If his partner died here, Jim would pack him in the ice and they'd head east with the Devil on their tail. There was a new soldier's graveyard in Virginia, on General Lee's former estate in Arlington. It was a beautiful, peaceful place, a verdant canopy under venerable oaks, and close enough to Washington for an itinerant government agent to visit between assignments.

Jim was a survivor. He'd do nothing foolish if Artie died. But if the worst happened here, he would buy two plots in Arlington, side by side. When his own time came, he would lie beside Artie once again. The thought comforted him a little.

More water, externally and internally. More quinine. Holding Artie tight against the ague. Talking soothingly through the nightmares. It was all Jim could do for him.

"Spiders...Loveless...train going mad...spider!"

Arachnaphobia? Artie didn't like spiders much, but he'd never manifested a fear of them, or an obsession against them. Had Loveless set a tarantula on Gordon, once? It seemed like hours that Jim whispered endearments as his partner trembled in the grip of his fire.

Casey finally showed up near dusk, with two enormous blocks of ice packed in straw and strapped to Nutmeg's back. Relieved, West vacated the bed and joined Casey in chipping up the blocks and wrapping the crushed ice in cloths to lay along Artie's forehead and arms and body. "His neck, too," said West, and packed an ice bag firmly against Gordon's carotid artery, to cool down the fevered blood rushing to the man's brain.

Artie shifted under the cold packs, but he was less restive; it did seem to comfort him. "Hey Jim iss' snowing out," he slurred. "Feels good. Come on out 's nice..."

"I'll be right out, Artie," West said, tenderly stroking his partner's forehead. "I have something important to do in here, then I'll join you. Here, try some more water." But instead of the medicine glass, West held two or three ice shards in his fingers over Gordon's mouth, letting the cold liquid drip in. Artie's lips moved to capture the rare gift, grazing Jim's wet fingers.

"Oh 's so good," Artie whispered. "Needs salt. Used to eat ice from ice cream bucket, ice 'n' rock salt, crank it all afternoon, hot out, oh it was so good... Y' ever do that?"

"Yeah, Artie," West whispered back. "I used to eat the ice too. They'd tan my jacket for it, but I didn't care."

Casey looked away with a little smile and headed out to take care of the horses.

"Spiders 're gone. Too cold for them."

"That's good. How about some more quinine?"

"Ach. Must be good for you, it's so bitter. All right, James."

And after taking his medicine, Artie finally sank into a light sleep.

###

The doctor examined the patient and said, "You're doing exactly what I would have done. Make sure he gets some strong broth as well as the quinine, and salt it well. Keep him well wrapped, even when he's feverish; this will help sweat the toxins out of him. His fever should break in a few days. And give him this if he can't sleep."

West paid the man and saw him out, but he gave the laudanum bottle a look of apprehension. Both he and Artie had been force-fed enough sleeping draughts by unfriendly forces to make them leery of even the safest medical opiates.

Casey took up the bottle. "I'm sure I can trade this for more ice, and a few more useful things." West nodded gratefully and the engineer departed on yet another errand into town.

It was another day of chills and fever, but Artie was clearly more comfortable than he'd been the day before. West was so relieved he allowed himself to doze beside Gordon when Artie slept, the pair of them curled tightly as two snails in one shell. It was as great a comfort to Jim as it seemed to be to Artie.

When Casey returned he had more ice blocks, and baskets of supplies. West helped him load the galley, but appropriated the fat chicken and brace of rabbits with a grin at the engineer. Smiling, Casey also produced some potatoes, two good-sized carrots and – best of all – a net of onions. "That hunting stew of yours just might bring Mr Gordon 'round."

West took up a knife and laid a rabbit on the cutting board even as Casey vanished with the rest of the supplies. This stew was the one thing Jim West could do in the kitchen; it was a comfort for drear days, failed missions and illnesses of every description. The work of preparing it also gave Jim's mind a pleasant focus away from present difficulties.

When it was finally put together hours later, the first whiff of the delicious concoction caused Artie to open his eyes and actually try to sit up. He was able to finish a small bowlful before returning to sleep.

The third morning Artie awoke, slick with cool sweat and murmuring a sleepy "Mornin, Jim" to his bedmate. He was weak, but the fever had broken. The crisis was past.

###

"Malaria's a devil," Gordon said around a mouthful of stew. "It's like a bad penny, never really goes away. I'll most likely get chills and fever for the rest of my life, though not that bad again." He shuddered. "I don't ever want to get more of those dreams."

"You kept talking about spiders, Artie. And Loveless." West continued to tuck in to his own bowl of stew where he sat beside Artie on the bed, still dressed (it was mid-afternoon); he'd neglected his own food during his partner's illness.

"Spiders. Oh, dear God, yes." Gordon shuddered. "One spider. One big, gigantic, clockwork spider. The size of a mountain, and propelled by a steam engine. The townspeople didn't notice it coming, even from across a prairie. Loveless was steering it. But it wasn't Loveless."

"Loveless wasn't Loveless?"

Artie shrugged and stuffed another mouthful of stew in. "What rational process guides dreams? This horrible man in the dream kept saying he was Loveless, but he said his first name was Arliss, not Miguelito. And he didn't look a damn thing like Miguelito. He looked more like...like a combination of Count Manzeppi and Col. Vautrain. Legless in an engine-driven chair on wheels."

"Sounds horrible."

"That isn't even the worst of it. I did experiments on a man's head, shining lights through his eyes like a ghoul. The train was like a big metal trap, with doors in the floor dropping us through to the tracks. There was this Mexican girl we were helping, very pretty and kind, but we talked about her as if she was a whore." Artie shook his head at his own dreaming boorishness and gratefully accepted the brandy Jim poured for the invalid. "Oh, and you were a Negro."

Jim almost dropped his own bowl, and snorted with laughter. "A Negro?"

"And you were a ghastly creature, Jim. Any man, black or white, who said the things you said and did to women in my dreams would have been strung up by any decent mob of God-fearing men. You and this faux Loveless insulted each other all night."

West joined his friend in rueful laughter. "That must have been when your fever nearly cooked your brains. We packed you in ice."

"That explains the snow in the middle of a summer day on the prairie," Gordon said thoughtfully. "Just before the giant spider attacked a town. We flew around the spider to attack Loveless–"

"We flew?"

Artie smiled. "Some parts of the dream weren't bad, Jim. I rode a steam-driven velocipede that I turned into one of Da Vinci's flying machines. We flew it at the spider. And I knitted wire into a metal sweater-vest that stopped bullets, like chain mail. It saved your life when someone shot at you. You pulled out the bullet and looked at it and said 'Thanks, Artie.'" He looked thoughtful as he swept his bowl clean with a hunk of bread.

Jim studied his own clean bowl, remembering the three worst days of his life, and the sudden return of his spirit and sanity with the sight of Gordon returned from the dead like Lazarus, just in time to save his life. It had been a poor repayment to the man, those two bland words; but Artie had always been able to read the signs in his face and eyes, repaying in kind even as he voiced his own bland two-word response. He frowned as his stomach rumbled for more. "More stew?"

"I've something better," Casey said at the door. And the engineer trotted in, beaming, and bearing a wooden bucket. "I put the rest of that ice to good use."

Artie's delighted grin lit up his whole face. "Patrick, you didn't!"

West realized his own face was in a similar grin. "Ice. And 'a few more useful things.' You bought rock salt."

"And eggs, cream, sugar – not to mention the device itself." With a flourish, Casey removed the dasher from the ice cream freezer, heavily coated, and presented it to Artie. "This is what I was doing this afternoon."

"Now I'm sure to recover fully!" Gordon exclaimed, seizing the dasher and licking a large dollop of fresh ice cream into his mouth; bliss spread across his face. "Patrick, me fine boy, it's heaven I'm tastin'."

Jim had to agree, as he accepted a spoon from Casey and took his first mouthful directly from the cannister. If this couldn't beat back fever 'n' ague – and evil dreams about clockwork spiders and foul-mouthed agents – nothing would.

###

Two days later they left Broke Plow, Nebraska, en route to their next assignment in Kansas City. Artemus Gordon seemed nearly recovered from his illness, apart from a residual weakness. But he was preoccupied, muttering and sketching at his lab.

And when Casey headed into KC to restock before their meeting with their contact, he had two extra items on his list, which caused West to stare at a grinning Gordon.

An entire spool of 10-gauge wire. And a pair of knitting needles.