The telegram found him in the Yukon Territory. Artie started out immediately, of course, but it took the better part of ten days to reach the closest train station, and another four days to travel from the US border to the southernmost part of California. The funeral had taken place more than a week before he arrived. Later he would stop at the small cemetery and pay his respects, but first he headed straight for the edge of town. Even being town sheriff Jim couldn’t stand being hemmed in. He needed his space.
“I’m so sorry.” James was the one to answer the door, a towel tucked into the waistband of his pants. Dinner preparations, it seemed, were underway.
“You didn’t have to come, but I’m glad you did.” His friend looked tired, dark circles under his eyes. Once again Artie cursed the fact that it had taken so long to travel. Why had be been so far away when Jim needed him? The hug between them was brief; there was a barrier between them greater than the one Artie imposed on himself.
“Of course I came.” He sniffed the air. “And just in time too; I think something is burning.”
It was the most natural of things, to step into the kitchen and take over. The chicken was salvageable, though whatever was in the pot was lost. Potatoes, fortunately, were only peeled and would still work for cooking and mashing. Within minutes he had an apron on and a whisk in his hand. There were enough eggs to make a custard for dinner. “Pull up a chair and sit, James my boy, unless there’s something else you should be doing.”
“Ella’s taking a nap and Sam’s at the neighbor’s.” Jim sunk into the chair gratefully. “I’d forgotten how much I hated cooking.”
“You have many talents, but this still isn’t one of them.” The kitchen was decidedly more feminine than the one they’d shared on the Wanderer. There was lace on the windows and a painting of flowers on the wall. Teresa had loved flowers; the garden outside the back door was a testament to the time she was willing to spend to make them grow. She had been a patient woman, which was good because anyone who wanted to make a relationship work with Jim had needed a healthy amount of patience. And humor. “Do you want to tell me what happened?”
“I lost her, Artie. Does the how of it really matter?” He sounded resigned. Artie wondered if he’d missed the anger or if that was yet to come.
“Papa?” The small voice was heard a moment before the little girl appeared in the doorway, dark curls in more disarray than a nap probably caused. Artie couldn’t imagine that doing his daughter’s hair was among Jim’s talents either.
“There’s my favorite princess.” He scooped up the girl before she took more than one more step into the room. “But you’ve forgotten your crown today, princess Ella.”
“I don’t have a crown unka Artie.” Small arms wrapped around his neck. “Missed you.”
“I missed you too.” He tried to visit at least twice a year, but sometimes when he was farther away it was a convenient excuse for stretching out the time between visits. Teresa had been a good kind woman who treated him like family, and Artie loved Jim’s children more than almost anyone on Earth. He missed them all when he wasn’t around. He missed Jim just as much when he was around. It was hard to say what was more painful, not being partners or knowing that the one person he loved the most would never even know how he felt.
“I’m going to stay for a good long visit. As long as you need me,” he said pointedly while looking at Jim. “Now my darling girl why don’t you keep your papa company while I finish up our supper?”
Supper would have been a quiet affair if not for Artie telling stories in hopes of distracting and amusing the other occupants of the table. Sam laughed once, and Jim at least smiled. He’d accomplished something. After supper he worked with Jim to get both kids into bed, Ella sleeping in the trundle pulled out from under her brother’s bed, leaving her room for Artie to sleep in when he was ready for sleep. Once they were tucked in some mutual unspoken agreement had them heading for the front porch. Artie stopped long enough to pour a whisky for each of them.
“They seem to be holding up.” The last time he’d visited he’d seen hints of Jim’s gallantry in Sam; the boy had held up his small fists and challenged an insolent cowboy to a fight for pushing his mother on the sidewalk. He was as fiercely protective of his family as Jim was. Ella was still young enough to spend most of her time in public with a hand on mama’s skirt when not riding her papa’s shoulders. Teresa’s lost had to be a blow to them both.
“Ella doesn’t really understand what’s going on. I’m afraid she’s waiting for Teresa to return, no different than last year when she went to visit her abuela. And Sam won’t talk about it.” Jim looked out to the edge of the property, almost completely engulfed in darkness now that the sun was set.
“A stubbornly silent West who doesn’t like to talk about what’s bothering him? I can’t imagine.” Artie cast a look sideways. Sadly Jim didn’t even seem to hear him. He worried about both West men, his best friend and his godson. “It’s lucky I have some experience with getting people to talk. Maybe I’ll have him take me for a horseback ride tomorrow.”
They sat in silence for the better part of an hour. It was hard to bite his tongue for that long but he knew that Jim was more likely to talk if he was given some space first.
“I am glad you’re here,” was the only thing Jim said before heading up to bed. Artie watched him go, but stayed put for another quarter of an hour playing with his empty whiskey glass. He was too restless to think of sleep, despite the days of travel behind him. When he went inside he locked the door after himself and lit a lantern to take up with him. On the table in the hall where he’d found both lantern and matches there was a picture he’d seen before, taken not long after Ella had been born. Teresa held the babe in a blanket, a pint sized Samuel standing next to her chair. Behind them Jame West looked down at his family.