James West knelt alone in the dust. Though his eyes were fixed on the rectangle of disturbed earth before him, they saw nothing. His vision was turned inward, caught up in memories that would not soon leave him.
This parting had come too soon.
Jim's eyes were distant as he relived a hundred fond moments, tinted bittersweet by his loss: Scenes of riding across the open country, of indulging in the luxuries aboard their private train, of fist fights and romantic interludes and boardwalks and jail cells and victories and narrow escapes raced through his mind. No matter how dire the circumstances, the sun had never been too hot, the rain never too cold, accompanied as he was by one he trusted--no, relied on--to protect him.
All that was over now, he knew. His sun-scorched neck ached as he bent over the place where his own hand had patted down the earth. A handprint remained there in the loose soil, a final tribute to that which he most cherished, that which his hand would never again touch.
It was late in the day, and the townspeople, drawn by morbid curiosity to the solitary burial, had long since lost interest and left him to his grief. Only a dull-eyed vagrant remained nearby, huddled in the shelter of a few broken crates fallen from some freight train long ago. This trackside spot, though harsh and devoid of beauty, was strangely appropriate, given the miles they had traveled along the rails. The silent steel tracks stretched toward the sunset in one direction. In the other, Jim knew without looking, his own train waited near the depot to take him back to...
The trackside gravel bit into his knee, but he almost relished the physical pain; it provided a sharp counterpoint to the discord in his soul and the whiskey-induced burn in his throat. For the hundredth time, his fingers traced the smooth stone that marked the burial site. He'd chosen it himself--a simple, unremarkable object to mark the final resting place of an irreplaceable companion. A more elaborate monument would have made a mockery of the occupant. What pretense, that a grave's significance could be expressed in mere carving! The Taj Mahal would have been too much and too little to honor what he'd left there.
"It isn't fair," he ground out, rage warring with the pain in his gut. He took another slug of the whiskey, but its power to dull his pain had long ago ceased. If anything, each searing mouthful made his grief worse. "He was aiming for me. You just got in the way."
Jim had known all along that one day, this parting would come, but it should have been years from now--a peaceful separation wrought by time and age, not the sudden, violent rending of an assassin's bullet. It did not matter that Jim had caught the man responsible. It changed nothing that Jim had punished the shooter with his fists and locked him in the cell aboard the Wanderer, to await transport and trial and Federal prison. No judge's sentence could take back the bullet he had fired, nor restored what that fateful shot had stolen from Jim.
The people of the little border town may have indulged his outrage and his grief, but they did not--could not--understand what Jim felt at this separation. Even now, he imagined, someone in Washington would be making provision to provide him with a replacement. A replacement. The very thought made the agent want to laugh--as though there could be any replacement for what he'd lost. A man only found his ideal match once in a lifetime, and Jim's was lying crushed beneath feet of clay and a granite monolith.
"You were a perfect fit for me," Jim whispered, his trembling fingers brushing the dirt again. "I never thought I'd find what I needed. I'd given up hope. But then I found you... I could have been happy with you for my entire life." His throat tightened, and he couldn't manage the final words: Only you. There will never be another like you.
Before he could succumb completely to his grief, Jim felt a hand close on his shoulder, trying to impart strength in his time of mourning. "It's time to go, Jim," intoned a familiar voice.
Ordinarily, Jim would have welcomed the presence of his old friend, but his inner turmoil wouldn't let him accept even that comfort. "I need some time alone," he choked out. "I need to say goodbye."
Jim sensed the hesitation in the fingers, but with a last squeeze the hand released his shoulder, and the scuff of boots indicated that his companion had stepped back to give him some privacy. Jim couldn't bring himself to speak the words aloud, but he whispered them in his heart: Farewell. I'll miss you.
Too soon, the voice was at his back again. "Jim," his companion said softly, "they're holding trains for us. Let's go."
Jim's fists clenched at his sides, but he didn't move.
"Jim." The voice had lost a bit of its gentle quality. His friend must have noticed the whiskey bottle then, because he heard it sloshing, as though to measure its contents. There was a deep sigh. "Oh, boy. All right, James, this has gone far enough. Come on, now, let it go."
"I can't," Jim snapped. "You saw what that killer did. A bullet, right through the crown--"
"And he'll pay. Dearly." A firm hand seized the back of Jim's collar and hauled him upward, and Jim scrambled to keep his feet beneath him. "But he'll do it back in Washington, which is where we should be heading right now. We have our orders. And you need time to sober up." This last addition was scarcely audible.
Jim struggled against the attempt to drag him away from the humble marker. "Are you sure we shouldn't... do you think..."
"No, we don't need to take it with us. I know who manufactured it." Artemus spun his partner around and propelled him back toward the depot with a firm shove. "I'll buy you a new hat myself when we get there, Jim. Just get on the train."
"Dammit, Artie!" Jim twisted back for a final look at the miniature grave. His eyes misted over. "That was my favorite hat! Do you know how hard it is to find a hat that fits that well?"
"I know." Artemus rolled his eyes and guided Jim toward the steps at the back of their train. "Believe me, I know."
Jim hung back. "It didn't pinch my ears or--"
"James Templeton West, if you don't get on that train this minute, I'm going to be the one pinching your ears!" Artemus paused to collect himself, then shoved the whiskey bottle into the hands of the startled vagrant and hoisted his partner bodily up the steps. "I know, I know. It's my fault for not telling you which bottle was spiked with Dr. Tristese's 'sadness serum.' I just never imagined you as a maudlin drunk."
"My hat," Jim sang mournfully.
"Your hat. That's right. Come on, pal, let's go inside, and we'll toast the memory of a wonderful piece of headgear." Artemus finally managed to get Jim to the door. "And then I'll make you some coffee, all right?"
As the special train steamed away into the twilight, a vagrant stood over a tiny mound of disturbed earth. He gave a solemn salute and poured out a measure of liquor over the stone marker. Then he adjusted his new hat--rather dusty, and slightly perforated in the crown, but still quite modish--and went cheerfully on his way.