The sun was setting by the time Ardie came in out of the fields. Fall was riding him hard this year, bearing down on him with the promise of frost, and he was down two helpers. Luke was off at college on a scholarship, making them all damn proud. Agnes was knocked up again, making him not so proud.
Kid number four and she still didn't have a man willing to step up and be a man. Mabel had just sighed when Aggie'd told them and muttered something about how one more baby wasn't going to make that much of a difference anyway.
Ardie just wondered how long a man without a wife or a child of his own was going to be kept up nights by babies needing bottles and diapers changed and rocking back to sleep. Hell, he didn't mind really, he was just tired was all, and he still had the back forty to bring in or they'd be short on feed this winter.
Alice and Donny and little Robbie were sitting on the porch when he came up, all but Robbie working on their homework.
"Bu-Pa, Bu-Pa, lookit wha' I made." Robbie held out a scrap of construction paper with a brown blob on it.
"Well, look at that. Is it Trigger?" he asked, the old hound dog woofing at the sound of his name, tail thumping on the weatherworn wood.
"It is! It is! See, Alli? Told-u Bu-Pa'd know."
"Leave Bu-Pa alone now, kids," murmured Mabel from the door. "He's had a long day and wants his dinner."
He shared a tired smile with his sister. Her day had likely started before his and was damn near as physical now that she was running that shop, cooking up a storm all day.
"I've got a plate warming in the oven for you. You want it out here?"
He nodded and settled in the old rocker, getting kisses from the kids before they moved on inside. Damn, he felt like a grandfather some days, like he was 82 instead of 32.
A breeze blew up, surprisingly warm for October, and he raised his face to it, eyes catching sight of a damned pretty sunset, clouds all pink and dusky purple fading to dark, dark blue. That breeze promised a few more days grace to get his crops in. Maybe Mother Nature was going to give him a break for a change.
He was still enjoying her show in the sky when Mabel brought him a plate of roast beef with new potatoes and peas, salad and a buttered roll on the side. She had a bottle of beer for him, too. "You wanting a mug?"
He shook his head. "This'll do me, thanks."
She nodded and went back in to herd the kids, and he dug in, eating hearty.
By the time he was done, the sun was nearly set and he was rocking, beer half drunk, him half asleep and dreaming about being thirteen again and begging his Daddy to let him and West Silvers help in the fields instead of going to school.
He'd already been nearly a head taller than West, then, getting his growth in early. West had been his best friend and the first boy he'd ever loved. Hell, the only boy.
Not that he'd ever said. Only Mabel ever knew, her warm blue eyes seeing everything. They always had. And she'd only ever asked him about it once, just after West had left that first time. Asked why he hadn't said anything to make West stay.
Well, by then he was 17 and head of the family, three younger siblings to care for, a farm to run. No way he'd ask West to stay with him and bury his talent, his potential, in the dusty ground.
His reverie was broken by Mabel coming out with the portable. "It's for you, Ardie."
"Thanks." He gave her a smile and took the phone. "Hello?"
It took a bit for someone to answer, the voice rough and husky. "Ard? Ard, that you?"
"West?" He'd barely recognized the voice, it was so rough. He sat up, frowning. "What's wrong?"
"I ... I need you. Can you come?"
"Where?" he asked. He'd call Jim and ask him to bring in the back forty if he was gone more than a day or two.
"Presbyterian Hospital. Room 412. I'll be in here for another five days, give or take..."
"Up in Seattle?" Shit, the hospital. There was a call you never wanted. He kept his questions to himself, though, West would explain when he got there. And there was no question he'd go.
"Yeah. I'll buy the ticket. I ... I just need you, Ard. Please."
"Don't worry yourself. I'll drive down to the city today and take the first flight out they got. Hold on, West, I'm coming."
"Thank you. I'm sorry, Ard. I am."
"Hey now, that's what best friends are for, right?" He cleared his throat. "You gonna be all right?"
"I hope so."
"You sit tight, and I'll be there this time tomorrow. You can tell me all about it." He wanted to talk now, but figured the call was costing West a pretty penny. "K?"
"Okay. I'll see you tomorrow. Thank you, Ardie." He heard West sigh. "I appreciate it."
"Anytime, West." And he meant it, too.
He hung up the phone and headed in to pack some clothes, let Mabel and Aggie know where he was going, make a few calls to make sure the critters and crops would get taken care of.