The Last Stop
by Caroline Masters, April 2011
I'd like to thank Paul Green, whose book helped to resurrect happy memories of The Virginian after forty years and explained so much.
It was something he'd done so many times before, run down the steps outside the house. But that day he "slipped on the third step", fell and hit his head on the ground. Well, that was the explanation he gave to his granddaughter when the Virginian helped him into the house shortly afterwards. It had rained the night before and the steps were slippery. The truth, however, witnessed by his foreman who happened to be coming up the steps at the same time, was that a slight dizziness had overtaken him and he had temporarily lost consciousness. It had happened a couple of times before – once when he had hurriedly dismounted from his horse and, again, the other evening, after he'd climbed the stairs to retire for the night. But this last time made him realize that he couldn't ignore the signs any longer. The years had finally caught up with him.
That evening he sat on the front porch and watched the last rays of the sun fade behind the hill opposite while listening to Gene playing his guitar. The bunkhouse door was open and he could hear the song clearly. It told the story of an old cowboy who had come to the end of the trail and had hung up his saddle for the last time. John Grainger smiled at the appropriateness of the words.
As Gene continued to sing, the white-haired man shut his eyes. The music had awoken memories of the past, taking him back to the time when he left home as a young man to go on his first cattle drive. For one moment, it was as if he were actually back there, experiencing the freedom of riding across the open range for the very first time. He could feel the blazing sun burning the back of his neck and taste at the back of his throat the gritty dust kicked up by the cattle. He remembered the soreness of every bone in his body after that first day's ride and how the coldness of the night had made him shiver under his thin blanket. Strange that after sixty years he could still remember that first drive as if it were yesterday. But, then again, it had been the first step of that all-important journey that had brought him here – to Shiloh.
It had been a long road and had taken many years. Years of working from dawn to dusk, through the hottest summers and the coldest winters. Years of frustration and disappointment when his herd had been afflicted with drought and disease, when one disaster had seemed to follow another. Painful years that saw the massacre of his son and daughter-in-law, the loss of his wife. But, through it all, he had persevered and stubbornly refused to surrender until, finally, the years became years of happiness and contentment as he watched his grandchildren reach adulthood.
He knew it would soon be coming to an end and he accepted that. But before he could finally lay down the reins, he needed to make sure that Shiloh, and, more importantly, Stacey and Elizabeth were protected. Although Stacey was growing into a fine man, he was still too young to be left completely in charge of the large ranch, even with the help of the Virginian and Trampas. He had hoped he would be able to stay a little longer so that he could pass on more of his advice and wisdom to his grandson. But the fall today had made him realize that there wasn't much time left.
As the sun finally set, Gene laid down his guitar and all John Grainger could then hear was the wind in the trees. A few moments later he heard the bunkhouse door close with a bang and Stacey's footsteps racing up to the house.
"I'm surprised to find you still up. I thought Liz would have you tucked up in bed by now after your fall today."
"It was a beautiful day. I wanted to enjoy the last moments."
Stacey stared at his grandfather thoughtfully. "Is something wrong?"
John Grainger shook his head. "No. Sometimes it's just good to sit and reflect on the day that's passed."
"And think of the day that's to come?"
"Well, now. That too. Tomorrow we need to make preparations for a trip to Denver. I want you to come with me next week to meet the men in charge of that new consortium from back East."
"Oh Grandad, do you really need me with you?"
"Yes, I do. In the future, you'll be the one dealing with them, not me. You need to get to know them, understand how they think and behave, find out whether you can trust them or not."
"All right, Grandad. If that's what you want, I'll come."
"It will help you make Shiloh a better ranch. You do like Shiloh, don't you? You don't regret the move from Texas?"
"I like Shiloh fine. I have no regrets about moving from Texas. You couldn't find a better spread in the whole of the country. I'm very happy here, and I know that Liz is too. We wouldn't want to be anywhere else."
His grandfather smiled. "I know I've asked you before. But I had to make sure. It's important for me that you two are happy and settled."
"Well, you can set your mind at rest on that score."
"Stacey, I know I've been tough on you at times. I know I've said things and made you do things that sometimes haven't seemed fair. I felt bad making you go back to Fort Killman to face the charge of murder of that Sergeant after you'd suffered so much there. But you do understand why I did so, don't you? Life is tough, but you know that, however hard it gets, you have to stand firm and abide by the law, even if it doesn't seem right at the time – because without the law to rule and guide us we have nothing and live in a wilderness."
"I know, Grandad. I can't say it's always been easy trying to live up to your principles but I think I understand. I'll do my best to follow your example."
"That's all any man can ask of his grandson," said John Grainger, smiling. Then he stood up, put his arm around Stacey's shoulders and they walked into the house together.
The next day Elizabeth made sure he obeyed Dr Spaulding's instructions to rest by confining him to the house. He occupied himself in his study by getting his paperwork up-to-date. However, before supper, while Liz was preparing the meal, he managed to slip away, without her noticing, to speak to the Virginian on the bunkhouse porch.
"You know that we're going to Denver?"
"Yes, Stace told me."
"Well, there's something else I need to tell you."
"Oh, what's that?"
"I've written to my brother Clay and his wife to ask them to come and stay at Shiloh while we're away."
"He's just sold his own ranch and is deciding what to do next. So I thought it would be a good time for him to visit. You'll find him an easy man to work with."
"Like you?" The Virginian smiled.
"Yes, like me," John Grainger smiled back. "He's stubborn, doesn't tolerate fools and speaks his mind."
"Well, I think we'll get along just fine then."
"I know you will," and he patted his foreman on the back.
As Mr Grainger gingerly walked up the steps, taking extra care not to repeat yesterday's incident and cause any more anguish to his granddaughter, Trampas came out of the bunkhouse.
"What was all that about?"
"You know, Trampas. You really must stop listening to other people's private conversations."
"Well, it sounds to me that Old Man Grainger doesn't trust you any longer to look after the ranch while he's away."
The Virginian shook his head. "It's not that, Trampas."
"Well, what is it, then?"
"He's looking to the future, that's all."
"The future?" Trampas exclaimed.
"Yes, a future that he knew would always come, but has arrived a little earlier than he'd hoped."
The day before the planned trip to Denver, John Grainger went down to the barn as Trampas was saddling his horse.
"Where's the Virginian sending you today?"
"Oh, up to the north range. He wants me to check on that line shack up there and make sure it's ready for the winter."
"Mind if I come along?"
"Of course not." Trampas was a little surprised but figured if his boss wanted to explain his reasons he would do so in his own good time.
They rode at a steady speed until they reached the high ground, overlooking the plains where part of the herd was feeding. There they dismounted to give the horses a rest and stood for a while looking across the valley to the forested mountains opposite.
"Trampas, do you remember bringing me here when you were showing me around the ranch, the first time I came to Shiloh?"
"Sure, I do. The Virginian said I should show you the best of the ranch, and I figured this was the best view."
"You were certainly right there."
They were quiet for a moment while they both stood and appreciated the scene in front of them.
"Trampas, do you know the real reason why I bought Shiloh?"
"Because it's the best ranch in the territory."
"Partly. It's certainly got the best land and plenty of water. But there's more to a ranch than land and cattle. What breathes life into a ranch is the people who run it. And when I came to Shiloh for the first time and met you and the Virginian I knew this was the place I'd been looking for."
"Well, that's mighty nice of you to say, Mr Grainger."
"I'm not saying it just to be nice, Trampas. I'm saying it, because it's true. I want you to know how grateful I am to you for all that you've done for us since we've been here – to thank you for your hard work, your loyalty, and, above all, for making us laugh."
"Making you laugh!" Trampas exclaimed.
"It hasn't always been easy since we've been here, you know that. We've faced our share of problems. But you've always helped to lighten the darkness with your smile and good humor. It's a gift you have that not many people share. I just want you to remember that, and to continue to use it, even after I've gone."
"But you and Stace won't be away for long," Trampas started but his voice trailed away as he caught the expression on Mr Grainger's face and suddenly understood what he meant.
"Trampas, don't let Elizabeth cry for long. Make her laugh again – soon. Promise me that, will you?"
Trampas nodded. "Sure, Mr Grainger. Sure."
It was when they said goodbye outside the house the next day that Elizabeth noticed, for the first time, that his skin had become almost transparent and there was a tiredness in his eyes she had never seen before.
Her grandfather had already hugged her goodbye. Yet just when he was about to climb into the buggy beside Stacey, he turned back once more to kiss her again and say, "Libby, I know it will seem strange at first having Clay and Holly here, especially as you've become accustomed to being the woman of the house, but I'll rest easier knowing that they're here taking care of you when I am far away. Remember how much I love you and how proud I am of the lovely young woman you're becoming."
She had felt the tears welling inside her but managed to hold them back. It wasn't until three weeks later that they flowed uncontrollably, when Stacey's telegram arrived. Then she felt an unbearable ache in her heart, as she realized that her life had changed irrevocably: her grandfather, who had loved and protected her since the day she was born, was gone.
Although her aunt and uncle tried to comfort her, it was only on Stacey's return that Elizabeth was able to share her grief with someone who understood the depth of her loss. And it was Stacey who persuaded Uncle Clay that his brother should be laid to rest in a grave on the hillside beside the house, not in the churchyard at Medicine Bow. For the young man had never forgotten the words his grandfather had said to him that very first day when they arrived at Shiloh:
"This is the last stop, Stacey. This is the place I've been dreaming about all my life."