February 9, 1883
An unusual warmth washed over the prairie this morning and the distinct sound of slushy ice resounded over the land as the cattle moved out to grazing land from the fence line where they had just polished off the morning’s helping of hay forked over from a passing wagon. Daniel Helm squatted by the open doors of the barn scrubbing an old bucket after dumping out some soiled grain that had been ruined by a leak in the ceiling. One of his boys had climbed up and was hammering down new shingles as he washed the muck off the inside of the pail. A wet splat exploded over his head, showering him in snow as a snowball smacked into the barn door and he looked up to see a mischievous grin flashing at him in the late morning light,
“Not right now, Danny.” he called out to the boy but not a moment later another snowball connected with his shoulder and Bobby Munroe stood there pointing at the boy who suddenly looked as innocent as a lamb. The three engaged in an all-out battle that lasted until Helm got too tired to play and returned to his bucket, flipping it over he took a seat and Bobby stepped into the barn to start scrubbing a few harnesses with a healthy dose of saddle soap to keep the leathers from cracking and breaking in the cold weather.
“You should visit with ‘im.” he said, leaning against the side of the barn next to his winded, adopted uncle. Helm just shook his head, trying to take his wet gloves off, “Why not?” the boy asked pleadingly and looked down at the man he had grown closer to over the past week. Helm hadn’t stepped into the room to see his old friend since he had arrived, the closest he got was when Danny came into the house and caught him standing there in the doorway, as though he was just watching the man breathe. The truth was the death of Henry Scarborough was something he never thought he would have to witness and if he did he figured he would be full of so much debilitating sorrow he would never be the same again. Over the years however the man’s poor choices, his change in ethics and ruthless nature fed the flames of Helm’s ever growing hatred for the man. When Henry died he didn’t think he would shed a single tear for the son of a bitch, he wanted to keep it that way and so he kept his distance.
“I can’t, Danny.”
“Why not though?”
“I can’t . . . forgive him.”
“It’s not his fault . . . someone made him that way. He may not have been the perfect father but he always took time out of his day to teach me how to read, how to appreciate things like Shakespeare, the fine handiwork of a well-made saddle, a sunrise, my life. When they were robbing a bank I was always miles away in another town, I was out of danger and he always came back for me, only after they had lost whoever it was chasing them.”
“Danny, you can justify it however you like but . . . that’s no way t’live, son. That’s no way t’grow up, he could’ve gotten you killed. He could’ve gotten himself killed then what . . . you would’ve just been left in that town by yourself.” he tried to explain, never understanding why the kid had chosen that life over being left here when his father stopped by and Danny tried to run him off and leave the boy, “Why do I need t’go sit with ‘im? . . . I ain’t seen you in there in a few days.” he finally added when the boy had nothing to respond with,
“He woke up a few days ago, looked at me . . . said “who are you? . . . doesn’t even remember me. I want somebody to sit with him . . . somebody he remembers.” he answered, sounding a little upset about the whole thing. He hadn’t cried for his father in a long time but after that he had locked himself in the washroom, not unlike the man who had just failed to recognize him,
“Doc said he would have memory problems, Danny. It’s nothin’ personal . . . he’s gonna forget a lotta things.”
“I know, but it’s just a reminder that I’m getting closer to losing him is all.” he replied simply and shrugged his shoulders.
“I’m sorry.” Helm replied and stood up from the over turned bucket, slogging toward the cabin.
It was almost uncomfortably warm in the house when he entered, slipping free of his muddy boots as he did so and listening very carefully for any signs of someone else being in the house. Caoimhe was probably at work, he knew Rusty was in the fields and the only pitter patter of feet he heard was accompanied by nails clicking the floor as his foreman’s twelve year old terrier rounded the corner of the bedroom door, peering down the hallway at him before returning to the bed she knew she wasn’t supposed to be on, in that patch of warm sunlight streaming in through the window. There was no sense in telling her off, she was as deaf as a post. He stood there, silently looking down the hall at that open door and very nearly decided to leave a few times. A big copper pot simmered quietly on the stove, the curved handle of a ladle hooked over the side with a glint of sunlight winking at him and Helm filled a bowl, crumbling bits of stale bread into the stew as he did so and made his way down the hall.
Whether it was the creak of the chair as he sat down or the smell of the soup he wasn’t sure but Henry’s eyes fluttered open and he turned his head on the pillow to face him, the sunken places in his face making him appear skeletal, his eyes dull and nearly lifeless as blonde hair lay scattered about the pillow case, falling out by the handful now. But he smiled,
“Finally . . .” he wheezed quietly, “thought you hated me.” the hesitation following his statement confirmed his suspicions even when Danny denied them,
“No . . . no I don’t hate ya, Henry.” something between a scoff and a cough followed his reply and Henry’s smile widened,
“Liar.” they both laughed and Helm gestured to the steaming bowl in his hand,
“Brought ya some lunch, if you want it.” the eyes slowly moved to the bowl, the smile withered away and Helm knew what the dying man was going to say, he had said it all day yesterday when Rusty, Caoimhe then the Helm maid, Ming had tried to get him to eat,
“I appreciate it Danny . . . but I don’t want any food.” like an animal going off his feed it was a sign of the end and he remembered that bucket he had just cleaned, the pail of uneaten grain had come from Wabash’s stall.
“Danny says ya didn’t recognize ‘im a few days ago.” Helm said a little questioningly, setting the bowl on the nightstand,
“Sorry . . . he’s older . . . you’re older, goddamn you’re older.” he laughed and Danny contributed to the moment with his own nervous chuckle,
“Yeah well . . . you’re older than me so.”
“Yeah, yeah . . . at least I’m not fat, Rusty got fat.”
“Rusty did get fat.” Helm agreed, “When a man lives to forty I think he’s perfectly welcome to gain a few extra pounds.”
“Yeah well, he gained about twenty.” Henry added and laughed again, stopping to draw a ragged breath and stare at the ceiling for a moment, “One time . . . one time when I was a kid, I was . . . I was having a rough time of it, as usual. But I was at home, woke up every night so scared, so . . . disturbed I would scream . . . wake everybody up, nightmares ya know? After a few days I slept all night, it was nice . . . you take it for granted ya know, a full night’s sleep. Some people can’t sleep all night, I know I can’t. Well one morning . . . one morning I woke up kinda early, saw my dad sitting there, in the chair I had for my desk . . . ” he stopped to catch his breath and Danny nearly told him to stop talking, not knowing why he was telling him this now but he reached up to push his hands away and continued, “My father, the man I told you . . . told you he beat me all the time, was sitting there asleep in that chair. He’d been sitting there every night, comforting me when he heard me crying in my sleep, so I wouldn’t have those nightmares.” he finished and smiled somewhat fondly at the man that was now also seated by his bedside, a man who nodded in understanding of the story,
“That’s great, Henry.”
“Yeah . . . yeah it was.” he agreed in a breathy exhale and seemed as though that was all the conversation he could manage before asking, “Are you mad at me, Danny?” he asked in a husky voice and waited, watching the conflicted expression come over his old friend,
“No . . . no I ain’t mad.” he finally answered and looked up at Scarborough and saw he was satisfied with the answer and closed his eyes. The soup cooled on the bedside table, a thick film growing over the surface for the next hour before Helm finally got up to leave.
February 11, 1883
A meadowlark, having flown home a little too early, finds himself alone perched on the wooden cross of a fresh grave, its solemn, elongated shadow stretching over the mound of fresh earth. The white faced stallion’s name is etched in the surface of the wood, very clearly done with great care and then placed with utmost respect. Having called for his fellows all morning the songbird fluffs his plumage against the bitter late winter chill as pallbearers carry a casket from the Helm home to a waiting wagon. Henry Scarborough went peacefully, a little too easily according to those who only knew him as a ruthless murderer. Faraday had gotten word the Helms were harboring him and had stopped by the day before but upon seeing the comatose man gasping like a fish out of water had quickly decided it would be pointless to take him into custody. That afternoon he had fallen to sleep after finally speaking with his old friend had been the last time anyone saw him conscious. He had breathed his last the night before when Helm left his vigilant post to visit the washroom. Only gone a minute, but a minute was all it had taken and he returned to a deathly still body rather than a living human being, an eerie almost phantom movement of the chest, his mind playing tricks on him made him think otherwise for a few moments and he sat there, waiting for Henry show some sign of life. But he never did. He hadn’t shed a tear, didn’t even seem saddened by the man’s passing but smiled a little bitterly, happy in a way that his friend was beyond his suffering, at long last. He had awoken the boy sleeping on the couch in the den, told him with a heaviness in his heart that his father had passed. After shuffling down the hall as though to confirm it himself, he had stood there looking down at his departed father, nodded in understanding and had then gone back to bed. This morning he had found Ming squatting by the bed, burning incense and claiming to be cleansing the man’s spirit, readying him for the other side and Helm hadn’t interfered, though he didn’t really understand the point of it anyways. She said herself the spirit was a very tarnished one.
“Ya know my middle name is Robert?” Danny shared with the ranch hand seated next to him in front of the church. The funeral was private, very private to avoid a possible media frenzy, the last thing anyone wanted was someone doing something to the body of the outlaw as he lay in his coffin. Faraday had given them the heads up, said reporters would want to take photographs of the body to prove he was dead. Hopefully the long hiatus from the last robbery would have lessened the interest in him, he hadn’t exactly been cut down in the peak of his lawless days like Billy the Kid or Jesse James who had both met their end in this decade which seemed to in turn mark the end of the western outlaws.
“Is it now?” Munroe asked and turned to look at the now fatherless boy,
“Yep, funny thing is I knew I was named after somebody and for the longest time I thought he got Robert from you.” he added with a laugh and managed to get a chuckle from Munroe as well,
“I can assure you your father never gave me much of a thought, didn’t even know me ‘til after you was born.”
“Oh I know, I know I just . . . never found out where he got Robert. Too late t’ask now.” a silence passed between them, the whistle of the train looming in the distance as the steamer approached the town and the few remaining people filed past the casket in the church.
“I bet your momma knows.” Munroe finally said nudging the kid with his elbow and then listening to the chug of the train chuffing through the pass just south of here, knowing the boy’s mother was on board and they would see each other for the first time in almost a decade. Danny had a lot of questions for her; he would add that one to the list, “I’m sorry about your father, Danny. But you’re lucky to have had one, I never knew my real father.” Bobby said in an attempt to cheer up the gloomy looking lad and knew he had probably heard this speech already,
“He’s in a better place . . . never knew a man that had so many demons, he’s not worried about anything anymore, I’m just glad he went peacefully.”
“That’s all any of us can hope for.” Bobby replied and adjusted the cuff of his shirt and one of the black horses that had carried them here shifted its feet as the train pulled into the station. Danny stole a glance at the suitcase in the wagon and hoped he could stay a little while longer, at least until his father was in the ground, “You won’t become a stranger will ya?” Munroe suddenly asked, following Danny’s gaze to the chuffing locomotive as it squealed to a stop,
“Oh I’ll visit every chance I get, how could I not? I love this place.” he assured with a grin as Helm left the church and laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder,
“You behave for your momma now, kid.” they had waited to contact her, knowing she would want her son home right away and Danny wanted to stay with his father until his very last moments, even if he didn’t remember who he was. His mother had been through enough however and Danny wasn’t going to be a bother for her. He would go to New York, he would behave himself, go to school, act like he didn’t feel out of place and secretly pine for his next trip to Colorado. This all went through his head as he watched his mother step off the platform and met her eyes, all at once he suddenly felt the end of an era.