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The Night of Christmas Present

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Dusk was falling on Sante Fe as James West rode through the town. He was tired, sore and hungry, eminently relieved that his latest assignment had been successfully completed at last. He gritted his teeth against the ache of a jagged knife wound to his thigh, the result of a reflex a millisecond too slow. To add insult to injury, a chill wind had begun to pick up and cut through his poncho. One more turn and Jim would be able to see the Wanderer waiting at the train depot. And he could finally rest.

Business establishments Jim could have expected to be open for at least another hour had closed up for the night -- the barber shop, the general store, the newspaper office. Even the saloon was quiet. The few men who were out on the streets walked with a firmness of purpose toward home and hearth, many with wrapped packages tucked under their arms. The windows of homes and even upper floor dwellings glowed overbright. Of course. It was Christmas Eve. Gathered inside were families preparing to celebrate the holiday together, while James West passed by alone.

Riding by one house in particular out of whose doorway bubbled the laughter of children, Jim felt a sudden pang of envy. It was an emotion he rarely felt. Always before it was James West -- a man impossibly gifted in both physical appearance and ability, who mingled with ambassadors and dined with princesses, who traveled from coast to coast in velvet luxury -- who was the recipient of envy. Even West’s most treacherous of opponents were driven by their envy of him. It fueled their compulsion to bring him low.

Something else, too, simmered just beneath the surface. A feeling this time much harder for Jim to identify because he had nothing to equate it to. Homesickness. This, from a man who had never known the security or comfort of a home. They say you don’t miss what you’ve never had. James West had been a wanderer since he was twelve years old, the night his mother died of typhus and his father had beat him bloody in a drunken rage.

The closest he’d come to having a sense of family was in the army when he’d eaten, slept and fought beside men he would have been proud to count as brothers. In the army, rules were meant to be followed without question. Right was right and wrong was wrong and one must achieve if they expected reward. It made choices simple, if not safe.

But who wanted to live forever? Not James West.

Jim pushed the dark thoughts away and straightened in his saddle when another man might have sagged. He was a weapon, nothing more, he reminded himself. A weapon to be used in the fight for the soul of his country. In comparison, the condition of his own soul was meaningless.

James West rounded the corner to see the Sante Fe train depot at last and the Wanderer pulled off the main track line. Like those of many of the homes he had passed, the windows of the pullman car were brightly lit. That must mean that his partner, Artemus Gordon, was inside rather than at some holiday gala to which he most assuredly had been invited.

Despite his fatigue, Jim’s heart leapt.

Jim and Artie had worked this particular assignment separately. While Jim had been off doing the dirty work - seducing loose women and pounding thick skulls - Artie had been weaving his magic in the pursuit of essential information. The result was that they’d been out of communication for nearly a week. Jim disregarded how the warmth that flared at the thought of seeing Artie might be misinterpreted. Having seen so much ugliness in the world, the unique love Jim felt for Artie was one of the most beautiful things he knew. If outsiders didn’t understand that, it was their loss, he figured.

When Jim entered the pullman car after having taken care of his horse, he was greeted by the rich aroma of beef stew simmering and the sweet strains of “Oh Holy Night’ being played on the violin. Artie turned and set down his instrument at the click of the closing door. He reached Jim in four swift strides and grasped him by both shoulders. “James, my boy. Glad you were able to make it in time.”

The first smile Jim had smiled in days spread across his face like the frozen surface of a lake melting in the early spring sunshine. “Make it in time for what?” Jim asked as he pulled off his poncho and gloves. He noticed that along with the gas wall sconces, the room was filled with the light of a dozen candles and the window sills were festooned with greenery. There was even a bright red poinsettia taking up top of the writing table. Touches that made the elegant train feel surreal yet homey at the same time.

“Christmas Eve dinner, of course. I’ve been keeping it warm hoping you’d be here before dark.” Artie went back to the pullman’s custom-fitted kitchen and returned in seconds carrying a steaming pot. He set it on the table where two place settings were already laid out. “Come on now,’ Artie urged, “You must be famished.”

“I am,” Jim admitted. At the sight of Artie’s thick, steaming stew, Jim took a step toward the table but then stopped to rub his thigh. Walking with his wounded leg, he discovered, was even more painful than sitting on a horse.

“What’s wrong?” Artie looked up and asked, concern in his voice.

“Nothing,” Jim said. “Just a nick to my leg. It’s not serious.”

“Knowing you, you could fall from a cliff, break every bone in your body and claim it’s not serious.” Artie smiled wryly. “Let me take a look.” He made a movement toward Jim but Jim brushed him away.

“And you think you’re a poet, scientist and physician all rolled into one,” Jim jested, stepping past him to take a seat at the table. “I’d like to have something to eat first, if you don’t mind, before you turn me into one of your guinea pigs.”

ooOOoo

Jim didn’t know which was more satisfying, Artie’s delicious cooking after a long day in the saddle, or Artie’s hands massaging ointment in the tensed muscles of his thigh. Artie had satisfied himself that the wound was uglier than it was deep, just as Jim had said, but insisted on applying a healing concoction, one that he’d come up with himself, naturally. Jim had reluctantly agreed as if it were he doing Artie the favor rather than the other way around.

Letting down his defenses to reveal any amount of weakness made Jim feel as exposed as showing up to a duel without his gun belt. Except when he was with Artie. Artie had a way of making him feel vulnerable yet invincible at the same time.

Jim sighed and took another sip of brandy as Artie continued his ministrations. The stress of the mission and the pain of the injury were ebbing away with each touch, but the heartache that the lonely ride through town had stirred stubbornly lingered.

“I can think of a lot better ways to celebrate.” Words tinged with bitterness and regret escaped Jim’s lips before he could stop them.

Artie’s hands stilled and he trained his gaze on Jim as if studying a particularly difficult musical passage. “What do you mean by that?”

“I mean, it’s Christmas Eve. I’m sure the last thing you want to do is tend a leg wound. Surely you’ve been invited to one party or another. ” But here you are, tending to someone more machine than man.

“I have, to tell you the truth,” Artie said as he deftly applied a clean dressing to the barely healed wound, just as he’d done countless times before. “Several, in fact. But I didn’t want you coming back to an empty train car. It is Christmas Eve, after all.” Artie stood up and went to wash basin. “The one night of the year that should be spent with family,” he said as he dipped his hands in the water, then vigorously rubbed them together.

“Family,” Jim repeated tonelessly as he stared up at the ceiling. He recalled the chilly ride through the nearly deserted streets of Sante Fe. The men he’d seen hurrying home with arms full of gifts. The sound of children laughing from doorways that had closed quickly against the dark stranger. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been part of a family. It didn’t work out so well.”

Artie dried his hands and returned the settee where Jim was resting. He laid a hand on Jim’s forehead as though feeling for a fever, but kept it there longer than was necessary. “I know that, James, but it's all in the past. You need to focus on the here and now.”

Jim well knew that Artie’s early home life had been no model of stability either. But it had been …. different. Artie had regaled Jim with colorful stories of his childhood during many long rides over wind-swept plains and dark nights spent huddled around a campfire. As a child of ne’er-do-well performers, Artie had been swaddled in a steamer trunk, then passed from relative to dubious relative over the years. But for all the inconsistency, his caretakers were apparently loving ones, creating a home out of whatever hotel, dressing room or train car they happened to be in.

So many of Artie’s friends had been oddballs and outcasts. Now, he could morph from one character to the next with ease by relying on childhood memories, no doubt.

Jim turned his gaze from the ceiling to Artie’s face, so full of kindness and wisdom. Unlike anyone else, Artie accepted Jim’s aloofness at times and acerbity at others. “It’s just that sometimes I wish ….” Jim began but then trailed off, surprised that he could still wish for anything at all. Wishes were for innocents and dreamers. James West was neither.

“What is it you wish for, James my boy?” Artie questioned softly.

“A home. A family,” Jim admitted, feeling the affects of the potent brandy and ointment in his blood like warm honey.

Artie smiled at him. “My great aunt Maude used to read me a story about a woman named Ruth and her daughter-in-law, Naomi. They weren’t joined by blood but when they were forced to move from place to place, they chose to stay together. ‘Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following after you; For wherever you go, I will go. And wherever you lodge, I will lodge,” he quoted in his rich, theatrical baritone.

“It’s a nice story, Artie, but it’s still just a story.” Jim’s limbs were beginning to feel heavy.

“It’s whatever you want it to be. But the point is, love was what bound them together more powerfully than blood. I figure that’s what makes a family. Not convention, love.” Artie moved his hand to Jim’s cheek and smiled down at him warmly.

Maybe it was just such unconventional upbringing that gifted Artie with his unflappable nature, his belief that given the right conditions, birds could swim and fish could fly. And that a man as damaged as James West could be his dearest friend. Maybe, Jim considered, breaking a few rules wasn’t always such a bad thing.

Jim rested against the velvet cushions, savoring the rich taste on his tongue, the warmth spreading through his insides, the fresh scent of greenery, and the soft candlelight that glowed from every corner of their living quarters. Artie took the opportunity to go over to his music stand. He picked up his bow and lifted his violin to his shoulder. When he began to play the simple melody of “Silent Light, Holy Night,” Jim found himself drifting off to sleep.

On Christmas morning Jim awoke early, his body refreshed and his soul renewed. He sat up and stretched, barely feeling the tug of his injury. From the nearby bunk came the sound of Artie’s soft snoring. Jim smiled as he looked on the peacefully sleeping form -- broad chest rising and falling, thick dark hair wild across his forehead.

For wherever you go, I will go. And wherever you lodge, I will lodge.

Even though heartbreak and loneliness was in James West’s past, this was his present.

FIN