Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Fever

By Thomas Fenske
Mainstream, 409 pages
Cover art by Pat Evans

In the late 1800s, Ben Sublett was already known for his secret gold mine in the far reaches of west Texas. When Ben died in 1892, it was thought his secret died with him. Eighty years later in a central Texas jail, a dying, homeless wino named "Slim" Longo whispered a long-held family secret to twenty year old Sam Milton. Sam had comforted Slim as the old man succumbed to injuries suffered during arrest. That secret contained one word that changed Sam's life: Gold.

In his last moments on earth, Slim had rewarded young Sam's kindness with certain clues that old Ben Sublett had given to Slim's grandfather. In eighty years, neither Slim, his father, nor his grandfather had ever found the mine. In considering the source, a filthy, broken, shell of a man, Sam instinctively knew that surely this information was more of a curse than a reward, but the clues burned a hole in his soul and he could not help but continue a search that had already stretched out for another ten years. Sam had "the fever" and he knew he would either find the elusive gold mine or die trying...

Sam got up and went to the door and attracted a patrolling guard’s attention through the same paperback book-sized opening used for the attempts at inter-block communication.

“There’s a guy in here that’s hurt,” he said, pointing over to Slim by the far wall.

“Oh, him?” The guard smiled like he was enjoying a private joke. “Don’t mind him. That’s just Slim, one of our regulars. I’m sure he’s fine,” the guard said. “Just leave him alone and let him sleep it off,” he added before turning to walk away.

After the guard left his line of sight, Sam returned to Slim, first stopping at the sink to get several paper towels from a dispenser next to the paper cups. He moistened a couple and kept the others dry, then returned to his patient, who looked worse, with fresh blood at the corner of his mouth. Sam dabbed at the blood with one dry towel to wipe it away and then patted Slim’s face with one of the moistened towels. This roused the old man.

“Wha… who? Oh, yeah,” Slim managed a slight smile of recognition. “I remember now, Sam. Thanks, son. What’cha here for?” he rasped.

“Illegal weapon,” Sam said. “I had a knife they said was too long.”

“Damn cops. Can’t they just leave you kids alone? They gotta ruin your life for a stupid knife?” Slim coughed again, and more blood dribbled down his chin.

Sam mopped a damp towel across the older man’s forehead and said, “Just take it easy, buddy.”
Slim looked up at him with wild eyes that seemed to be looking right through him.
“Take it easy? I… I’m dying, I know it.” Slim wheezed, and struggled to get a breath, then continued in a harsh whisper, “Listen, Sam, I gotta tell ya something.” The old man coughed again, so hard that Sam half expected to see a bloody lung on the floor.

Sam put his hand on Slim’s shoulder. “Okay, okay, Slim,” he said. “Don’t work yourself up.”

“I’m serious, you asshole,” Slim said, then he realized what he had said and frowned, shaking his head. “Naw, I’m sorry, you ain’t no asshole. You’re being nicer to me than anybody’s been to old Slim in a long time. I don’t deserve it. I ain’t lived a good life what with the drinking and leaving my family…but…maybe I can make up for some of it. I gots something for you, Sam.”

Slim coughed again and turned to his side, grabbing one of the dry towels out of Sam’s hand. When Slim turned back, there was deep red blood on the towel.

Sam looked around. The card games and talking and smoking continued as before. Nobody else cared what was going on over against the wall.

Slim continued with his rasping, wheezing whisper, “You gotta remember, you hear me? You gotta remember.” He grabbed Sam’s arm in a weak but desperate way, trying to pull their faces closer.

“Okay, okay, just take it easy.” He patted the old man’s shoulder again, trying to be reassuring, but deep inside he was scared to death.

Slim coughed again, then said, “Shit. Ain’t much time. I need to tell you something, but first, I need a favor. Out south of the river near Oltorf Street, you know where that is?”

Sam nodded, lying because he really had no idea.

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