|"Given your track record with vacations, don't you think maybe we ought to go on this one together?"
"I don't know what you mean, Artie." Jim tossed a shirt into his saddlebag.
"What happened last time you went on vacation, Jim?" Artie fished the shirt out and folded it carefully. Jim watched him with fond amusement. He leaned his hip against the bureau and crossed his arms over his chest.
"Emmet Stark blasted his way out of jail and tried to kill us both."
Artie nodded. "Starting with you." He pulled another hastily packed shirt out of Jim's luggage and straightened the creases. "And the time before that?"
"Dr. Faustina used a double of me to blow up half the Cabinet." Jim strode over and rescued his shirt. "Artie... are you suggesting that I can't be allowed out on my own?"
"James! Would I do a thing like that?" His expression was so thoroughly innocent it instantly incited Jim's suspicions. "I was just thinking that it might be safer -- for both of us -- if we took our vacation together this time."
Jim gazed thoughtfully at Artie, who wisely kept his mouth shut while Jim made up his mind. After a minute, he nodded. "All right." Jim tucked the shirt back into his bag with no particular care.
"Yes, Artie. All right. We'll take our vacation together..."
"Great, Jim! I know this beautiful --"
"...on one condition," Jim continued. Artie closed his mouth with a snap and looked at him expectantly. "I get to decide where."
"Oh... okay," Artie conceded. "So, where did you have in mind?"
"Just where I was going anyway." Jim flashed a shark's grin at Artie, who blinked twice fast. "You'll find out, Artie. Later. For now, you'd better go pack. I want to leave first thing in the morning."
"How do I know what to pack if you won't tell me where we're going?"
"Traveling clothes," Jim offered unhelpfully, nudging him toward the door. "In saddlebags, Artie. No luggage," he called after him.
Jim went back to his packing, tossing a few more items into his saddlebags with no regard for neatness. He was whistling.
"If I'd known 'first thing in the morning' meant before dawn, I'd have left you to your own devices, and started off my vacation with a full night's sleep!"
"Are you still complaining about that?" Jim twitched his reins to suggest to his horse that it might be preferable to go around the sink hole in the dusty trail. "Artie, that was fourteen hours ago!"
"Yeah, well, I'm still tired," Artie mumbled around the biggest yawn Jim had ever seen.
He laughed. "Relax, Artie. We're on vacation, remember?"
"Vacation? This isn't a vacation, Jim, it's work. Fourteen hours without a stop. We even ate lunch in the saddle. What's the rush?"
"I wanted to get there before dark," Jim told him easily.
"There." He stood up in his stirrups and pointed. Nestled into the foothills, the dark shape of buildings was just barely visible.
Artie shaded his eyes against the setting sun to follow Jim's gaze. "All right," he conceded after a moment, "I'll take your word for it. So, now that I know where 'there' is, would you mind telling me what it is?"
"It's just a waystation, Artie. A place to stop and gather supplies. Prospectors stop here once or twice a year to stock up on provisions before returning to the Rockies."
"James, James, James," Artie shook his head with a woeful sigh, "haven't I taught you anything about enjoying the good things in life?"
"You're the one who wanted to come along," Jim reminded him. "You can always go back to Denver."
"It's a full day's ride, and the train's in for an overhaul anyway."
"So stop complaining and come on."
The sun was offering up its last rays when Jim and Artie rode into the small yard of the waystation. The buildings weren't any more promising up close than they had been from a distance, and Jim could easily read the doubt on Artie's face. Jim only offered his partner a bland smile and jumped off his horse.
"Mike? Hey, Mike!" Jim shouted strongly. He took the reins and led his mount in a slow walk toward the barn, looking about for a response to his call.
"Hold your horses, I'm a'comin'. Some people just got no patience... Jim! I'll be damned, what're you doin' here?" The man who had emerged from alongside the main house slapped his hat against his leg and grinned widely, coming forward with a brisk, broken stride to shake Jim's hand.
"On vacation," Jim replied laconically, taking Mike's hand with an answering smile. "Can we put up here for the night?"
"You know you're always welcome. Why don't ya see to your horses -- you know where everything is -- and come into the house. I'll tell Sarah you're here."
"Thanks, Mike." Jim glanced at Artie, who immediately slid out of the saddle and led his horse over to where Jim was standing. He looked a little disconcerted. Jim led the way into a corral on the west side of the barn and looped his reins over the fence post. He waited until Artie had walked his horse through the gate, then closed it and returned to unsaddle his horse.
They worked in silence for a minute or two until Jim, who was keeping half an eye on his partner, saw the corner of Artie's mouth begin twitching.
"So that's why you called me Mojave Mike when I threw together that disguise," Artie managed, half-laughing.
"Well, you did look rather like him," Jim said reasonably. He transferred his saddle from the horse to the railing and stood there a minute watching Artie, who wasn't making much headway. Jim's response had only started him laughing harder, and Jim finally pushed his weakly chuckling partner out of the way and dealt with his horse. "Now, Artie, get ahold of yourself."
"Sorry, Jim." He leaned against the rail, removing his hat and wiping his forehead with his sleeve. Artie took a couple of deep breaths and banished the laughter, but a grin was still playing impishly around the corners of his mouth.
"If you mention this to Mike, we're going to end up sleeping outside," Jim warned. He slipped the bridles off their horses and slapped them gently on the rump, encouragement enough to canter off into the surprisingly large corral. Jim watched them go, then ducked under the rail.
"I'm not looking forward to starting off tomorrow morning by chasing down my horse," Artie pointed out disapprovingly, joining Jim on the outside of the corral
"Don't worry, Artie," Jim reassured him as he lifted his saddle off the fence. "I promise you won't have to catch your horse tomorrow."
Artemus gave him a disbelieving look, but said no more. They gathered up their tack and carried it into the barn. Jim gestured for Artie to leave his saddlebags near the door of the tack room and helped him stow everything for the night. When they were finished, he clapped a hand to Artie's shoulder and used it to guide him out of the barn and over to the house.
A woman stood silhouetted in the doorway, her gray-streaked hair pulled back from a strong face in which the lines of age traced merry tracks of remembered joys.
"Sarah." Jim bounded up the steps and swept the woman into a warm hug, his exuberance throwing surprise into his partner's face. He stepped out of her strong embrace and turned, one arm still draped around her shoulders, to grab Artie's arm and tug him up the final step. "This is my friend, Artemus."
"Pleased to meet you." Artie removed his hat.
"Pish and tosh," she said in a voice like sweet vinegar. "Never mind those silly formalities. Any friend of little Jimmy is a friend of ours. Now come inside before the food gets cold."
"Little Jimmy?" Artie repeated the minute she disappeared back inside, laughter barely contained in his low voice.
Jim scowled. "One word, Artie..."
"I wouldn't dream of it... Jimmy."
Artie held up both hands, the smile wiped off his face, but
not out of his eyes. "I promise." The only thing the dancing deviltry
in his eyes promised was mischief, but Jim merely shook his head and
pushed through the door, Artie close on his heels.
The meal was warm and hearty, the conversation the same. Jim and Artie sat opposite each other at the small table, which Mike lorded over with the innate courtesy and generosity of a king among men. It was a comfortable meal, like returning to the hearthfires of home.
Jim relaxed, feeling the heavy weight of his responsibilities lifting in the comfortable atmosphere, as it always did when he returned to this place. He was free with his conversation, genial and amusing whether he was arguing about hunting with Mike, or relating one of their odder missions to Sarah. On several occasions, he looked up to catch Artemus watching him. The touch of bewilderment in his friend's eyes was disturbing. It made Jim realize just how much of himself he routinely hid, even from this closest of friends.
They were fed to bursting, plied with berry pie and fermented cider until the moon rose high into the sky and Jim reluctantly put an end to the pleasant evening. Their arms loaded with blankets and wishes of pleasant dreams ringing in their ears, they found themselves on the porch in the clear crisp night.
"This way," Jim directed, finding his way across the yard easily in the bright moonlight. As he made his way into the barn and climbed into the hayloft, he awaited Artie's reaction with anticipation. However, Artemus didn't say a word until Jim had spread his blanket out over the soft springy hay and begun pulling off his boots.
"James my boy, I really do have a lot to teach you about the better things in life."
"What could be better than this? It's late summer, the weather is balmy, the breeze warm, and there haven't been any horses in this barn since last winter."
Jim lay down on his back and laced his hands behind his head.
He could just make out the faint movement of Artie's silhouette, and
easily imagined his partner's affectionate resignation in the slow
shake of his head. He lay and grinned up into the rafters as Artie
pulled off his boots and bedded down next to him in the sweet smelling
hay. The soft rustle of Artie's sleepy movements slowly lulled Jim to
Artemus found Jim the next morning as he was finishing off his second helping of cornbread at Sarah's kitchen table. The older man wandered in, blinking sleepily, and found himself instantly steered into a seat before a heaping plate of mouth-watering food. Artie's wide-eyed look, as if he were measuring his breakfast for size in his stomach, made Jim laugh aloud.
He finished his coffee and rose, clapping Artemus on the back. "Send him over to the storehouse when you're through stuffing him, Sarah."
"Piffle." She kissed Jim on the cheek and turned immediately to his partner. "Never you mind him, Artie. Just dig in."
Shaking his head, Jim strode on out to the front porch, where he stood a moment, watching the pink-tinged clouds slowly unwind their wreathing arms from the mountains and wake to greet the day. He drew a deep breath of crisp air and went off to retrieve their saddlebags from the barn and hunt up Mike.
When Artemus joined them in the storehouse two servings of breakfast later, Jim and Mike were nearly finished packing two large canvas knapsacks with the contents of the agents' saddlebags and the supplies Jim had chosen from Mike's shelves. Artemus crossed his arms over his chest and leaned his shoulder against the door frame, watching as Jim tied down the flaps over their bedrolls and judiciously hefted both bags to see if the load was equally distributed.
"Now are you going to tell me where we're going?" he asked, once Jim had put the bags down again and spent a moment digging around in one before transferring a small cloth-wrapped bundle from it into the other sack in his eminently fair manner.
"We're going camping."
"Camping? As in riding out into the middle of nowhere to tempt wild animals into making a meal of us?"
"Walking," Jim corrected absently. He carried both knapsacks out of the storehouse and set them down against the outside wall. Mike followed, locking the door behind them. "Not riding. Otherwise, you've got it about right."
"Very funny," Artie offered a brief smile to show he wasn't just being sarcastic. He rubbed at his ear. "Y'know, James, I had enough of camping and forced marches when I was in the army."
"So did I, Artemus." Jim put his hand on Artie's shoulder and smiled at his partner. "This'll be fun, Artie. I promise."
"I don't know why I let you talk me into these things," Artie sighed. He swung one of the packs onto his back, letting Jim help him straighten out the straps so he could get his arms through them. "Hey, it's light."
"We're not taking all that much. And stop complaining. After all, you're the one who wanted to come along."
"Don't remind me."
Jim pulled some money out of his wallet and handed it to Mike, who was leaning against the wall, puffing desultorily on a pipe, and watching the whole show with amused eyes.
"Keep your money, Jim. We'll settle up when you get back." He pushed the money back at Jim, who shrugged and returned it to his wallet, which he tucked in the pack before hefting it onto his shoulders.
He checked the placement of his revolver, tucked sideways into a pocket near the bottom of his pack, out of sight but easily reachable at a moment's notice. Judging by the fall of Artie's coat, he was carrying a derringer in his left inside pocket. Necessary concessions to the discomfort of wearing gunbelts and the inadvisability of going unarmed. Secret Service agents might occasionally go on vacation, but they were never off the job, and there was a word for an unarmed man: target.
Sarah came out with full canteens for them both, and tucked a
thick cloth-wrapped wedge of cornbread into Artie's pack before giving
each man a hug and a peck on the cheek. Jim watched Artie wave as they
walked out of the yard, amused as always at his partner's knack for
finagling his way into people's hearts. Even hearts once thought to be
fortified against invasion.
They passed quickly through Mike's few cultivated fields and into the foothills proper. Artemus held forth on more than a dozen different subjects as the ground rose gently under their feet. If there was a single subject about which Artie knew nothing, Jim had yet to hear of it. Artie was an excellent conversationalist when the opportunity presented itself, and equally good at keeping a discussion going all by himself. He simply liked to talk. Though Jim wasn't particularly inclined to lengthy conversation, he didn't find the monologue annoying. On the contrary. He could listen to Artemus for hours.
"Say, Jim?" Artie interjected after about an hour. "How far were you planning to go?"
He was starting to sound a little out of breath; Jim automatically slowed his pace a little. "Oh... there's a place about two days west of here I was thinking of."
Artie was silent a moment. Just when Jim was starting to feel a bit self-conscious under his partner's piercing gaze, Artemus nodded briskly and changed the subject.
At first there had been a trail of sorts, little more than an animal track. As the slope became steeper, however, it petered out and Jim followed whichever route was easiest, keeping always a little south of west. He wasn't worried about getting lost; 'lost' was a relative term when you could camp wherever you chose. However, since he had a specific site in mind, he made an effort to direct their path.
Jim kept an easy pace, his fingers tucked under the straps of his pack, listening to Artie. What he said and, sometimes, what he didn't; the simple sound of his voice; his breathing. He deliberately kept the pace slow, so Artie had enough breath to talk. They were in no particular hurry, and he enjoyed listening to his partner too much to rush him. Sometimes Jim just listened to the sound of Artie's voice -- that actor's training lending even the simplest comment an air of poetry -- but most of the time Artie's subject was too interesting to miss a single word.
Another hour or so passed before Artie called a halt by the simple expedient of stopping. Jim took another couple of steps before he realized Artie wasn't with him. He turned to find Artie regarding him with a slightly rueful cast to his expression.
"Seriously, Jim. How far are you planning on taking this?
"How far do we have to go before you figure I've learned my lesson?"
"What are you talking about, Artemus?" Jim crossed his arms over his chest and stared at his partner.
"Look... you didn't have to resort to anything this elaborate, Jim. I'm sorry I bothered you about your vacation plans, and I'm sorry I invited myself along. I suppose we spend enough time together on the train; I just wanted to..." he shrugged awkwardly.
"Spend some time with you. When we weren't on the job."
Jim couldn't help it; his smile escaped him. Luckily, Artemus was too busy watching his boot stir aimless circles in the dust to notice. Jim quickly masked the expression and stepped closer to Artie, reaching out to lightly touch his arm, all he dared at that moment.
"That sounds good to me. It did when you first suggested it. If it hadn't, I wouldn't have said yes."
"You mean, this isn't some sort of..."
Jim snorted in amusement. "No, it's not some sort of. Honestly, Artemus, sometimes I think you just don't trust me."
"I know you too well to trust you." Artie didn't do a very good job of disguising his relief. He shook his head and started slowly up the ravine they'd been following for several minutes. "So this really is what you do on your vacations?"
"No need to make it sound so outlandish." Jim caught up to his partner in a few long steps and matched his pace. "Sure, sometimes I go someplace crowded and exciting..."
Jim laughed. "Yeah. During Mardi Gras, no less." He gazed around contentedly at their surroundings... took in a lungful of pine scented air... and sighed. "I always end up back here, sooner or later. When I need a real vacation: a break from civilization, and smoky air, and people, and noise."
"Uh huh..." Artemus looked a little doubtful. Jim was prepared to put it down to his sociable partner's disbelief in the benefits of solitude when Artie shot him a sharp look. "So, why are you bringing me along?"
"Because," Jim flashed a smile, "you asked."
Artie acknowledged the hit with a brief laugh and, fortunately, didn't press the issue. Admitting that he'd agreed because he wanted to spend time with Artie would only convince his partner that Jim was teasing him by mimicking his earlier confession. Interesting, that confession. Jim forbid himself to make more of it than it warranted.
They hiked in silence for a time. It was only the sudden lack of conversation which made Jim realized just how much effort Artie had been putting into it. More so than usual. He mulled that over for a while, eventually deciding it didn't mean any more than it seemed to.
Not being one to prompt conversation when others seemed to be enjoying their silence, Jim let a full hour go by before he said anything. During that time, they passed through the lower ranges of heavy forest and into a sparser area. The trees were more spread out, with sporadic undergrowth, and the sun shone through in large swaths, warming the travelers.
Eventually, Jim stopped and shrugged out of his pack. As he unbuttoned his shirt, he shot a curious look at Artie. "Why so quiet?"
Artemus shrugged. "You said you came up here when you'd had enough of noise."
Jim laughed joyously, aware of how the freedom he felt bled through, the shackles dropping away. "Whatever else your talking might be, it's not noise." He pulled off his shirt and tied it to the back of his knapsack by the sleeves. Then he slipped his arms back into the straps of the pack. "Talk all you like, Artie; I enjoy listening."
Artie shook his head, his expression a study in bewildered affection. His gaze flicked over Jim's half-naked body and back up to his face, a slow grin pulling at his mouth. "Wild child. My dear James, where are your manners?"
"Manners are like tuxedos: you only put them on for someone else." He started walking again. "When have you ever cared what I wear?"
Artie's soft laugh was so intimate in tone Jim felt it shiver in his bones. "Sometimes I think you were raised by wolves."
"This from a man whose coyote imitation always nets him marriage proposals from female coyotes."
Artie laughed again, catching up suddenly. "Well, we all have our little talents." His hand brushed Jim's shoulder, hotter on his bare skin than the sun. "Thanks for bringing me along, Jim."
James nodded silently, the dutiful phrase 'my pleasure' caught in his throat. It was entirely too true to be spoken.
Within an hour, Artemus had also shed his upper garments, the sun calling the civilized caterpillar out of his cocoon. Jim appraised him openly, and only got a wink in reply. He was already intimately familiar with how their regular exercise had trimmed Artie's softer edges. In a way, Jim was proud of how Artie looked, for he knew it was largely a result of his influence. He was slightly amused at how much broader and more powerful Artie looked out here, with the trappings of civilization removed.
"What?" Jim shook off his thoughts and turned to his partner.
"Straps are rubbing." Artie pushed irritably at the canvas and rubbed the reddened skin underneath.
"Take off the pack," Jim directed, moving to help. He shed his own pack and set Artie's against a handy tree. Digging into the offending pack, he shifted the contents around to balance it more evenly. "You hungry?"
"I thought you'd never ask." Artie briefly massaged his sore shoulders before leaning over Jim to retrieve his canteen.
"Here." Jim handed him a package of thin-cut jerky, and laughed when Artie grimaced theatrically.
"That wasn't quite what I had in mind." He nonetheless removed a few strips of dried beef and handed the bundle back to Jim, who helped himself before returning it to Artie's pack.
"You can make us something more to your taste for dinner."
Artie sputtered over his mouthful of water. "Who made me the cook?"
"Well, you're the gourmet." Smiling, Jim took the canteen from him and greedily swallowed his fill of lukewarm water.
"Now, listen, I--" He broke off when Jim put a hand on his shoulder, strong fingers pressing hard into the warm skin.
"Hold it, Artie. You hear something?"
Jim didn't wait for an answer; he dropped his lunch on top of his pack and moved stealthily in the direction of the noise. Artemus rolled his eyes and followed suit. Jim could feel the heat of his partner's body at his back as he threaded his way through a dense stand of trees. When he finally got a good view of the clearing, and the source of the noise, Jim threw out an arm to halt Artie's forward movement.
"Quiet!" Jim hissed. He jerked his head meaningfully in the direction of the clearing. Artie put a hand on Jim's shoulder for balance and leaned around him for a clearer view. He took one look and started swearing under his breath.
"Well," Jim whispered, "we seem to have discovered one of those wild animals you were talking about."
"Yeah, the ones that are going to eat us!"
"Nonsense, Artie. Bears are largely vegetarian."
"You never know when one might change his mind about that."
Jim silently shook his head, eyes still trained on the large animal not twenty feet distant. The golden brown bear, all several hundred pounds of him, reared up on his hind legs and investigated the crotch of a tree on the opposite side of the clearing. He was large and deceptively slow-looking, already fatted up for his winter snooze.
Excitement coursed through Jim's veins, heightening his senses, speeding his pulse and respiration. He grinned ferally, recognizing the primitive impulses which shook his body: to escape, to protect, to conquer and survive. Jim wondered giddily which was the stronger: to face the age-old enemy, or defend the man whose heart thudded fast and sharp against his arm.
"Hey, Jim?" Artie whispered, round eyes watching the standing bear in all its savage majesty. "Why don't we head back to Mike's? Wouldn't want to miss whatever Sarah's cooked up for supper."
"Are you suggesting we run away from the woods because we saw a bear?" Jim teased, voice holding nothing more than mild censure.
"Ah... yeah. Not to put too fine a point on it."
Jim laughed softly, and gently patted Artie's side. "He's not going to be interested in us unless he smells your cooking, Artie. And by the time we stop tonight, we'll be far enough away, he won't be tempted."
"That's assuming he doesn't take a dislike to us right now."
"I think he's going to have other things to worry about in a
minute or two. That's a beehive he's investigating." Jim started moving
slowly backwards, pushing Artie gently behind him as they inched away
from the edge of the clearing. A few feet back, he turned and clapped
Artie on the shoulder. "Why don't we get started again?" With a strong
hand, he guided Artie back the way they'd come. In a few minutes, they
had their packs gathered up and were on their way.
They chewed on the jerky as they walked, and Jim laughed at Artie for watching suspiciously behind them for most of the first half hour. Eventually, he decided the bear wasn't following, and poked Jim in the ribs in retaliation for the laughter, which only made him laugh all the harder.
The path Jim set crested the first major ridge a few hours later, and they started downhill for the first time that day, but only for a short while. They skirted the bowl of a small valley, dropping only a couple dozen feet down into it before heading back up and out the other side. The sun kept them warm until late afternoon, when they were doused by a brief, but spectacular, thunderstorm. Artie groused at Jim about getting "wet through," and laughed when Jim only threw back his head and gloried in the gentle rain, though even Jim was glad they were no higher in the mountains when the air shuddered with spent lightening. Despite Artie's mock complaints, there was only enough rain to take the edge off the day's heat.
Nonetheless, the day grew abruptly cooler when the sun's decline began to make itself felt, as often happened in the high country. They pulled their shirts back on, and kept their path to the open spaces between shady stands of trees. Artie was already talking of making camp, and grilling Jim on what sort of supplies he'd packed for dinner, when they reached the stream.
"What now?" Artie asked, hands on his hips as he surveyed the briskly flowing water, his dark hair stirred impishly by a cool breeze.
"Now we find out how waterproof your boots are."
Jim started across, stepping from stone to stone where he could, and wading in the shallower areas where necessary. He glanced behind once and made sure Artie was following, albeit a little more cautiously. That was his undoing, for on the next step, a loose stone turned under Jim's foot and dumped him into the cold water.
It only took Jim a moment to get his feet back under him, but by then the swift current had dragged him several yards downstream, and Artie was shouting worriedly. Jim grabbed a handy boulder and hauled himself into the shallower water near shore. As wet as he was ever likely to be, he simply knelt in the swirling water for a moment, catching his breath, lost more through surprise than exertion. Artie appeared upstream, splashing heedlessly through the water to him, eyes wide with concern, mutating slowly to amusement as he took in Jim's appearance.
Jim shook himself like a dog, and snarled at Artie, who swallowed both amusement and concern and settled for holding out a hand. Thoroughly embarrassed, Jim sullenly took the proffered hand and pulled himself to his feet, stumbling a little as he slogged out of the water. Artie's hands were instantly on him: pushing off his waterlogged pack, unbuttoning his shirt.
"Never mind that." Jim roughly pushed away Artie's hands, but they were back in a second.
"Come on, Jim. We gotta get you out of those wet clothes, before you catch your death of cold."
"They'll dry." He brushed off Artie's help again.
"In front of our fire tonight; not on you," Artie declared authoritatively. Jim didn't bother trying to evade him when he started tugging on the soaked shirt again. There was no point in arguing with Artie when he got like this. It was far easier just to put up with the motherhen attitude until Artemus was satisfied.
"Just for the sake of argument, what do you suggest I wear? All my clothes are wet, and it's hardly healthy running around out here in the altogether." Jim put his foot down when Artie started in on his pants. That much, he'd handle on his own, thank you.
Artemus shrugged out of his own pack and pulled it open. "What'd you pack, one change of clothes for each of us?"
"Didn't figure on needing more," Jim replied, wiggling out of his pants with some effort; wet, they clung like a second skin.
"It'll do. Here," he hauled the shirt and pants out of his pack. "put these on. You'll have to do without underclothing until yours dries."
Silently, Jim stripped to the skin and slid into Artie's clothing. He hated to admit it, but he was shivering almost visibly, and he didn't dare open his mouth for fear of Artie hearing his teeth chatter. He had to turn up the cuffs of the trousers to avoid stepping on them, and the shirt was a little loose, but they were dry, and smelled of Artemus. The improvement was almost instantaneous. Jim grimaced as he pulled back on his wet boots, but decided he didn't have anything to complain about.
While Jim was dressing, Artemus had gone through Jim's pack and pulled out everything which had escaped the dousing, transferring it to his own pack. After wringing out Jim's soaked clothing, he stuffed it into Jim's pack and tied down the wet canvas flap. He glanced up as Jim rose.
"Here," he handed the pack to Jim, "just carry it; don't wear it."
"Appearances to the contrary, I'm not stupid, Artie," Jim growled, taking the dripping pack from Artemus.
"Never said you were, Jim." Artie picked up the cooking pot he'd failed to return to Jim's pack and carried it back over to the stream, filling it full of clear cold water. "Dinner," he explained shortly when he returned. "Now, let's get out of this gale."
It wasn't that windy, but Artemus was right: there was a distinct draft of brisk air following the river. They'd been too busy to pay it much mind earlier. Jim led the way, taking them another twenty minutes' march away from the river, to a more sheltered location. He'd camped there before, and the rocks he'd laid for a fire pit were still there. Trees in three directions provided a windbreak, and shelter from unexpected weather. They dropped their belongings and immediately began to gather fallen wood for the fire, working silently together with long-accustomed precision.
The fire was crackling hungrily in short order, and Artie set the pot of water on a large flat rock Jim had seated firmly into one side of the stone ring precisely for that purpose. He dumped several handfuls of a mixture of dried vegetables and meat out of a tidy canvas bag which had been only slightly dampened by Jim's mishap. It would boil out into a hearty stew, given a little time. Leaving dinner to manage itself, he joined Jim in laying out the wet gear, propping it up with sticks and stones to get the most benefit from the fire. Jim left off messing with his clothes and returned to feed the fire until it was roaring, then sat down almost too close, propped his chin on his fist and stared into the flames.
"Stop brooding and eat."
"Huh?" Jim managed articulately, startled. He hadn't been aware of much time passing, but Artie was pushing a tin cup at him. Jim took it gingerly, and found it full to the brim with stew. He grinned apologetically at Artemus. "Sorry. I should have helped with dinner."
"You can help eat it." Artie sipped cautiously at his own cup, then smiled appreciatively. "Sarah must have had a hand in this."
"I mean it, Artie," Jim insisted after a few minutes of silence, during which both men demonstrated their appreciation for the absent chef by their rapid consumption of the meal. "I could have gotten the water or something."
Artemus snorted mirthfully. "Not on your life! I wasn't about to take a chance with you and that river again."
Artemus began laughing in earnest and Jim, dry and fed, finally had to join in his partner's amusement over the incident. Nothing had been hurt but his pride, after all.
By the time they finished eating, night had fallen, and Artemus was yawning unabashedly. Jim hid his affectionate smile; perhaps he had pushed Artie's limits a little during the strenuous day. Their boots had long since been removed and propped up to dry, and Jim crouched gingerly in the dirt to add a few small branches to the fire and bank it for the night. His balance wavered a little as he reached for another branch, and Artie's strong hands grabbed his shoulders from behind.
"What's the matter, Jim? Didn't have enough fun in the river; now you're going to try falling into the fire?"
"More tired than I thought," Jim excused himself. His arm had flailed instinctively back to wrap around Artie's solid leg, and he cautiously disengaged himself, only then realizing what he should have noticed hours ago. "Dammit, Artie! Your pants are wet."
"Almost dry," Artie disagreed, shifting away, though he kept one hand on Jim's shoulder for another moment or two.
"You should have said something."
"There really wasn't any point in changing..."
"Or anything to change into," Jim finished glumly.
"I know that look, Jim. Stop blaming yourself. You were wet through; I was only a little damp. No harm done." Artie was already rolling himself into his blankets; clearly he considered the subject closed.
"At least you should get dry now," Jim tried.
"'M already dry," Artie mumbled around a yawn. Jim looked on helplessly as his partner gave every indication of falling instantly into a sound slumber. Most likely the whole scene was a sham, but there was no way he could prove it. Might as well try to coax the moon down from the sky as talk Artie out of a stubborn mood.
With a sigh, Jim settled himself in his own bedroll, which had
miraculously survived the dunking with minimal water damage. In fact,
only one end of the bedroll had gotten wet, which translated to a
narrow strip of damp cloth down one side of his blankets. Jim put that
side nearest the fire and curled up facing the warm glow. He could
barely make out Artie's slumbering form on the other side of the fire,
and he lay there watching his partner through the flickering light
until sleep finally claimed him.
By and large, the next day was a repetition of the first. Only calmer. No bears, no impromptu swimming.
They were awakened by the sun, and breakfasted on oatmeal and coffee, Artie swearing up and down that it was damn lucky the coffee had been in his pack instead of Jim's. The night had been relatively warm, and most of Jim's things were dry. He considered it providential to once again have a full suit of his own clothes to wear, though he was somewhat reluctant to give up the sweet smell of Artie's shirt. Jim stuffed everything that was nearly dry into his knapsack, tied the dampest items to the back of his and Artie's packs, and they were off.
Artemus was full of energy, and Jim stepped up the pace from yesterday in response. They passed almost silently through the greenery, content for the moment to drink in the quiet. Jim missed Artie's volubility of the day before. However, about midday, as the warming sun coaxed Jim into once again slipping out of his shirt, Artie's introspective mood broke and he tried out one subject after another until he found one which provoked a response. Jim slowed the pace a bit, and they chatted quietly as they walked, in no particular hurry.
Artie unfastened the top couple of buttons on his shirt, and rolled the sleeves back, but didn't remove it. Jim scolded himself for being disappointed and returned his attention to their surroundings. Artie suddenly sneezed three times in succession.
"Thank you. Hay fever," he snuffled.
"Isn't it a little late in the season?" Jim asked distractedly, trying to remember if the place he had in mind was this ridge or the next one.
Artemus shrugged. "Probably just something that blooms later up here..." he peered hazily around, muttering something under his breath about certain plant species. Jim grinned affectionately at his partner's aggrieved tone, as if the plants were deliberately targeting him.
Yes, it was definitely this ridge. They'd arrived a few hours earlier than Jim had expected; he hadn't planned on arriving before dark, but then he'd misjudged Artie's speed and stamina. Jim altered their path slightly, taking them from a comfortably gentle slope up the side of a steeper and rockier rise. Artie followed without complaint, saving his breath for climbing. After a few minutes, and several switchbacks, they came out at a jumble of boulders. The view was astounding, soaring out from the ridge into a sky so blue it hurt the eyes, then plummeting into a valley which seemed filled with golden light. Jim glanced at Artie, gratified to see awed appreciation on his partner's face. He whooped for the sheer joy of it, catching the faintest echo of his voice, and Artie's laughter, from the ridge on the far side of the valley.
Jim dropped his pack and scrambled over the boulders, heading for the edge. Artie followed suit, less enthusiastically, and a great deal more nervously. Jim almost laughed aloud at Artie's shocked gasp when he dropped out of the other man's sight onto a rock ledge which thrust out from the side of the ridge. As soon as Artie caught up, however, he saw that Jim was in no immediate danger of falling and gingerly joined him. Jim settled on the spur of rock and coaxed Artie down beside him with a gesture. The two of them sat on the edge of the mountain in silence and watched the light slowly change in the valley below, only moving to leave when the fading light and rising wind threatened their lofty perch.
Jim clambered nimbly back onto more secure ground, Artie close on his heels. Jim turned to direct a comment to his partner just in time to see him waver, almost overbalancing back over the rocks. Jim's arms strained tight around Artie's chest as he pulled him to safety. Even once they both had solid ground firmly under their feet, Jim retained his hold. He pressed his forehead into Artie's shoulder until he'd finally stopped shaking. There was bitter pleasure in the strength of Artie's return embrace, diluted by the shivering that beset his partner.
"Sorry, Jim. Guess all this exercise is wearing me down," Artie offered finally, slowly pulling away.
Jim reluctantly let him go, and ran a hand through his hair. "Yeah... I shouldn't have brought you up here until tomorrow, when we were rested. Come on, we better set up camp." He turned his back before Artie read too much in his face, and led the way back down to where they'd left their packs.
The place Jim had in mind for camping was not too far distant,
though getting there required a certain amount of scrambling over
rocks. Jim kept a close eye on Artie the entire time, and was relieved
not to have to steady him again. Artie agreed the rough hike was worth
it when they arrived at the sheltered clearing. Once again, Jim's
previous firepit was largely intact, and they quickly made camp. Dinner
was a rushed and makeshift affair; Artie was visibly drooping, and Jim
found he wasn't very hungry despite the day's exertion. The last
glimmerings of the setting sun found them already rolled into their
blankets for the night.
When the light first sought Jim out the following morning, he merely burrowed further into his blankets. By the time he emerged to greet the day, the sun was already well on its journey, and all of nature seemed to be awake. Jim rolled out and stretched achingly, annoyed at having let himself become soft, too used to the luxurious accommodations on their train.
Artie was still asleep.
Jim pulled on his boots and gathered some wood for a cook fire. He filled a pot with water from the stream which wended its path briskly down the mountain not two hundred yards distant, sharp eyes picking out the silver gleam of fish in the quick waters. He got the small blaze going with ease and poured some of the water into a small pot, dropping in some ground coffee and setting it on a flat rock near the fire to heat.
Then Jim sat back to wait for the water to boil, and the smell of brewing coffee to wake his partner. Artie was rolled tightly in his blankets, only his head and one hand exposed. His face was turned toward Jim, cradled on his curled hand. Jim took illicit pleasure in watching Artie's peaceful face as he slept.
The water boiled. Jim poured a cup and knelt next to Artie, an impish grin on his face as he waved the aromatic cup under the sleeping man's nose. Artemus didn't even twitch. Jim wedged the cup upright against a rock and laid a hand on Artie's shoulder.
"Come on, slugabed; time to get up." Concerned at the lack of response, he shook Artie gently by the shoulder. "Wake up, Artie."
Artemus groaned, his head rolling back, and slowly blinked his eyes open. "What?" he asked thickly.
"Time to rejoin the world, Artie. Are you okay?" Jim brushed the back of his fingers against Artie's stubbled cheek. "You're a little warm."
Artie pushed himself upright and ran his hands through his disordered curls; when he looked back at Jim, he seemed more awake. "Fine, Jim. Probably just lying too close to the fire."
Jim glanced skeptically at the tiny fire he'd made for breakfast, but didn't say anything.
"Coffee?" Artie asked hopefully. Jim pressed the cup into Artie's hands, his smile widening at Artie's happy sigh as he buried his face in the aromatic steam.
Shaking his head, Jim turned to build up the fire a little and put the rest of the water on to heat. Artie poured himself some more coffee and sat back in his nest of blankets.
"Eggs and bacon and biscuits and--"
"Oatmeal," Jim interrupted the wistful list.
"You're an evil man, Jim."
Jim laughed aloud. "How would you like fish?"
"For breakfast?" Artie made a face.
"No." Jim poured oatmeal into the boiling water and stirred. "For dinner, perhaps. I thought I'd go fishing today." Actually, he'd planned on taking Artemus hiking up to the top of the mountain, but Artie's listlessness had convinced him to suggest something more sedentary.
"You mean sitting around doing nothing."
"That's right," Jim agreed amiably, "Fishing."
Artie laughed. He took the bowl of oatmeal Jim handed him. "And here I didn't think you knew what 'vacation' meant anymore."
Artemus offered to wash up after breakfast, so Jim loaded the dirty dishes into the larger pot and pointed him in the right direction. Then Jim dug through his pack for the small cloth packet of fish hooks and twine he'd picked up from Mike's storehouse. He kicked the fire apart and wandered on over to join Artie at the stream.
On the way, he cut a long flexible branch from a small tree. Artie was just finished rinsing the dishes in the stream when Jim arrived, still pruning the leafy twigs off his fishing pole.
"I've probably scared off all the fish from this part of the stream," Artie said as Jim walked up.
"They'll come back." Jim put down the branch and packet of hooks and took one of the cups from Artie. He found a half-rotted log a little ways upstream which splintered at one good kick, exposing its pale and wiggly residents. Jim dropped a dozen of the fattest grubs into the cup and made his way back downstream.
"I do hope you're planning on washing that after you're finished," Artie remarked, mildly disapproving.
"You going to fish?" Jim sat crosslegged on the bank and pulled out his coil of twine.
"Nah, think I'll read for a bit." He stopped and turned back. "You did pack my journals, didn't you?"
"Everything from your saddlebags but your fancy suit," Jim reassured him with a smile. Artie grinned back before walking away.
Jim found a nice smooth tree near the stream to lean against as he finished assembling his makeshift fishing pole, baited the hook and plopped it into a deep calm pool in the swirling water. The sun shone down warm on the bank, and Jim sat back to enjoy the day and the all too rarely appreciated calm of inactivity.
His enjoyment was assured when Artemus returned, journals in hand. Artie settled downstream from Jim; not to close, nor too far. Jim alternated his attention between his pole and his oblivious partner. Get Artie's nose in a book and you could fire off a cannon next to his ear without getting his attention. Jim grinned, remembering the journals he'd transferred from Artie's saddlebags to his knapsack: the latest issue of Scientific American and some ridiculous dime novel about a shootist who was rapidly making a name for himself in the 'wild west,' at least on paper. The variety of Artie's reading materials never surprised Jim: science to inform his inventing and popular literature as fodder for his disguises. Jim watched Artie read for a while. He decided Artemus looked cute when he was engrossed in something. But then, Jim thought Artie looked cute under most circumstances, much good it did him.
He caught three fish over the course of the next couple of hours, but all of them were too small to bother with, so he regretfully threw them back. The sun warmed him through, and he rolled up his sleeves, finding there was still too much of a nip to the air to permit the removal of the garment; the result, no doubt, of being higher in the mountains than the day before. However, he did remove his boots and stockings and dangle his feet in the cold water. After a while, Jim looked over to find Artemus asleep, his journal balanced precariously on his slowly moving chest. He smiled affectionately at the older man.
Neither his pole nor the stream required watching, and Jim found his attention returning often to his partner. He spent a pleasant morning watching the man sleep.
The change in the weather caught Jim unawares. Though the light had dimmed somewhat, he didn't think much of it until the air caressing his bare forearms cooled appreciably. Glancing up at the sky, Jim was startled to realize the small cloud he'd thought was crossing over the sun was instead a thick bank of angry looking clouds. Quickly reminded of just how fast the weather could change at this altitude, Jim rolled his shirtsleeves down and put back on his footwear.
Giving up on the idea of fish for dinner, Jim dismantled his makeshift fishing pole and rolled up the twine, returning it and the hooks to their pouch. He left the branch on the bank, and unceremoniously dumped the remaining grubs into the stream, watching with mild amusement as they were instantly snapped up by the same fish which had studiously avoided the wiggly treat when it was snagged on the end of his hook.
"Artie, time to get moving." Jim strode down to where Artie was napping. "It looks like rain."
Concerned when Artie didn't move, Jim knelt and shook him by the shoulder. Artemus moaned in protest at the rough treatment, his eyelids flicking open, then closed again. Jim pressed his hand to his partner's forehead. "Damn, you're burning up."
"Sun," Artie murmured.
"Not likely." Jim slid one arm under Artie's back, grabbed his wrist with the other hand, and hauled him upright. Artie swayed a bit, but stayed on his feet. Jim retrieved Artie's journals and tucked them under his arm along with his own gear. Then he wrapped his free arm around Artie's waist and coaxed him into a slow walk.
Artemus moved drunkenly where Jim directed, and didn't even notice when his partner steered him right past their camp. The wind was rising, and Jim decided it was safer to find a sheltered spot first. He'd leave Artie there and return for their belongings. There was a place he had in mind; a deep depression left by the uprooting of a tree, which he'd damn near fallen into in the dark last time he was up there. It was somewhat harder to find in the light, and Artie's weight became increasingly heavier as they walked, his footsteps slower and more inclined to drag.
Finally, however, the fallen tree came into sight. It was bigger than Jim had remembered, and the pit caused by its roots ripping out of the ground deeper. At least eight feet in diameter and half that deep, the hole was still half filled with the uprooted anchors of the tree. Artie's unsteadiness precluding any finesse, Jim simply sent them sliding in the loose dirt, to land with a small bump at the bottom. The wind did not follow them.
"Here, Artie. Lie down for a minute. I'll be right back." Jim stayed only long enough to see Artie's eyes close the minute he was curled on the ground.
It only took him one trip to gather up their belongings; he slung both packs on his back and filled his arms with their bedrolls. The light was growing steadily weaker as the clouds darkened, and Jim dropped everything in a heap next to Artie and went out again to fill his arms with fallen branches and dry deadwood. Artemus didn't even flinch when the armful of wood was dropped less than a foot from his nose.
The roots of the tree stuck out like dozens of boney old fingers, twisting and rubbing against each other in a latticework across the ground, still housed in the hole they'd created in their dying. Jim took the heavy canvas from their bedrolls and layered the two large pieces of tightly woven cloth over a roof of roots, then moved their packs and the dry wood into the sheltered space. He moved Artie last, as the first drops of rain began to pelt down, carrying him under cover so gently the sick man didn't even stir.
Jim tucked Artie snugly into the blankets, using both their bedrolls to insulate him from the cold. He built as large a fire as he dared in the confined space between the roots, and got it burning on the second try, then used the light to check his makeshift shelter for leaks. There were a few, but none over either Artie or the fire, which was all that mattered.
Then he settled down next to the fire to watch Artie and the rain.
Jim wasn't concerned about getting flooded out of their shelter. It wasn't likely to rain hard enough or long enough. Not in that place, at that time of year. This had all the earmarks of a spectacular late summer storm: sound and fury, but not much substance. Which probably meant they wouldn't get very wet, but didn't mean it would warm up significantly once the storm passed.
Jim berated himself for forgetting how unpredictable the weather in the mountains could be, and for bringing Artie up there so close to fall. He cursed himself for being clumsy, for not noticing Artemus was wet, and for ignoring the signs he was getting sick. And finally, for good measure, gave himself a stern talking to for being a lovesick fool. None of it helped.
"Jim?" Artie mumbled sometime later, when the storm had blown out much of its anger.
"Yes, Artie?" He finished feeding more wood to the fire and shifted over to put his hand to Artie's forehead again.
He wasn't. He was burning with fever, but Jim merely said, "Okay, Artie." He pulled off his boots and crawled into the blankets, pressing himself up against Artie's back, sandwiching him between the fire and his body. Artemus sighed into the warmth and slid back asleep after a few minutes.
Jim wrapped his arms around his partner and lay staring at the fire. At some point, he must have nodded off as well, because he woke with Artie elbowing him in the ribs. The chills had given way entirely to fever: Artemus was sweating, already half uncovered, and trying weakly to escape the heat of Jim's body. For the moment, Jim obliged him. He wiggled out of the blankets and went to add wood to the glowing coals of the fire. The rain had stopped, but he could hear the wind whistling through the trees. They must have slept for hours; though the cloud cover had lifted, the gray of twilight had already usurped the sun.
It occurred to Jim that food would be good for both of them. He poured the contents of his canteen into a pot and hung it from a root which passed conveniently over the fire. After plowing through both their packs twice without finding anything that seemed to suit, Jim settled on the jerky. He cut it into small pieces and dropped them into the water. Boiling would hopefully give rise to a broth which would be better for Artie than anything else they'd packed. He crouched next to the fire and chewed on a piece of jerky while he waited for the water to boil, watching Artie toss and mutter, pushing irritably at the blankets, a thin sheen of sweat shining on his face.
For the first time in his life, the indomitable James West felt completely helpless.
The broth, even after long boiling, was thin and almost tasteless. Luckily, the effort of getting some down Artemus roused him enough that Jim was able to get him to eat a little of the softened jerky which remained in the bottom of the pot.
Exhausted by even the minimal effort of eating, Artie lolled back against Jim's chest. Jim carefully settled him back in the bedroll and tucked the blankets up around his chin.
"Damn it, Artie. Why didn't you tell me you weren't feeling well?"
But Artie's eyes had already slid shut again, and Jim patted his partner's chest before moving around to the other side of the fire. He munched on jerky, and the cornbread he'd found in Artie's pack, and stared broodingly into the fire. He could hazard a guess as to why Artemus hadn't said anything. Artie harbored a poorly hidden respect for Jim's hardy constitution. As well he might, Jim conceded with wary modesty, as it had saved both their hides on occasion. It wasn't the first time Artemus had deliberately hidden something he thought Jim might consider a weakness from the younger man. Jim sighed. Apparently, he put up such a good front, even Artie bought into it. It was not, in retrospect, something he was proud of.
Jim was glad to have his musings interrupted, even by the
return of Artie's chills. He stoked up the fire and climbed back into
the blankets, curling up against Artie's back. Jim nuzzled into the
short hair at the nape of Artie's neck and prayed this would pass
quickly. Artie's comment about catching his death of cold hadn't even
been funny at the time, when it referred to Jim. And Jim wasn't cut out
to be anyone's wet nurse. He closed his eyes and tried very hard to
fall asleep. At some point, he succeeded.
He woke twice during the night. The first time, Artie's shivering was shaking them so hard Jim's teeth all but rattled in his head. He got up to add wood to the fire, and shifted all but a few of the branches he'd collected over to where he could reach them without getting up. When he returned to the blankets, he wrapped himself as tightly around Artie as he could manage and the shivering eventually calmed. Once again, they both slept.
Artemus was flailing about the second time. Jim woke when his partner caught him a solid blow on the shoulder, and found Artie sweating and pushing at the blankets. Delirious, Artie refused to lie still, and Jim finally compromised, loosening the blankets around his friend and unfastening his shirt at the throat and wrists. Artemus hadn't been wearing his jacket when Jim stuck him in his cocoon of blankets, so it was easy to roll back Artie's sleeves a little and then cover him back up. For some reason, it seemed to appease the sick man, who settled back into an uneasy sleep.
Relieved, but worried about having exposed Artie to the cold, Jim propped himself up on one elbow to reach over Artemus for the stack of wood he'd moved. He fed the last of the wood to the fire, until their little shelter was glowing with accumulated heat. Artie murmured and tried to roll away from the fire, pushing against Jim's chest. He looked down on his friend and was ambushed suddenly by unwanted tenderness.
Jim pushed the damp hair back from Artie's brow and stroked his fingers lightly down the sweaty face, over the skin that crinkled into laugh lines at the corners of his eyes, the roughness of stubble, to the soft lips. Soft. Drawn, he hesitated. Then, leaned down slowly to lay his lips against Artie's. Even asleep, Artie responded, turning his head to Jim, lips parting to accept him. Sweet. Sweeter than honey wine. With a soft cry, Jim pulled away. Panting, he forced himself down next to Artie, every muscle and sinew protesting. He pulled the blankets up, and cradled Artemus in exactly the same meaningless embrace he had for hours. Keeping him warm.
It was a very long time before he slept.
The sun was up when he woke, shining peacefully in a clear sky. The shelter was cool, the flames banked, in both the fire and Artie. Jim sat up and put his palm to Artie's forehead in a familiar gesture. Artie's eyes blinked open immediately at the touch.
"You okay, James?" were the first words out of his mouth. "You look like hell."
For a moment, Jim choked on the words. From somewhere, he found his usual teasing calm. "Thank you, Artemus. You need a shave too."
Artemus grinned up at him, a little weakly perhaps, but without a doubt the usual devilish, affectionate smile. Words quivered on Jim's lips, desperate to speak, reluctant to be spoken. Artie stretched, sliding his arms out of the blankets to relieve the cramped muscles. His right sleeve slid up to reveal brilliant etchings of blue and green in the soft skin near the elbow. Jim's eyes caught on the hint of color and the words died unsaid.
He remembered the occasion well, of course. Set about with lies and cleverly staged scenes, beginning even to doubt his own actions, and especially his sanity, finally released from active duty at Artie's suggestion, to smoke out those responsible. Artie had taken it upon himself to keep watch over Jim and, when his path had led to a tattoo parlor, so had Artie's. He'd gotten himself tattooed, rather than risk endangering Jim. A painful and permanent price for Jim's safety.
He stared at the leading edge of the tattoo. Jim had never asked what it meant to Artie, but knew without doubt what it meant to him. It was, to him, a visible manifestation of Artie's loyalty and love. An eternal reminder, and a promise. That Artemus would forever be there to back him up, to support him when it seemed no one else could, when everyone, even Jim himself, had given up on him.
In the face of that wordless vow, anything Jim might say seemed hackneyed and trite. There were no words to ask what, if anything, Artie remembered from the night just past, or to plumb what lurked in the depths of Jim's own heart.
Silently, he rose and stirred up the coals, laying the remaining branches in place to rekindle the fire.