The Saddle Warmer – After the Party
A sequel to my earlier story "Requiem for a Fine Man", describing what happened at the end of "The Saddle Warmer"(the first episode of season 7), after Elizabeth's eighteenth birthday party.
The guests had ridden back to town and the hands had returned to the bunkhouse, leaving the Graingers alone in the house. It was strange how the silence suddenly descended – as if it was created by Aunt Holly turning down the oil lamps in the sitting room.
"We'll tidy everything up tomorrow. I know I'll regret it in the morning but it's late and we've all had a busy day. Good night, Elizabeth. Pleasant dreams," and she kissed her niece tenderly on the cheek.
"Thank you for a lovely party. And you too, Uncle Clay, it was wonderful."
"Nothing less than you deserved," he said smiling.
She smiled back, but seemed reluctant to join them up the stairs.
"You are coming up now, aren't you, Elizabeth?" There was a pleading note in her aunt's voice.
"In a few minutes," she replied. "I'm just going out for some fresh air."
Clay gently led his wife up the stairs, preventing her from saying anything further, at least until they were inside their own room.
"Oh Clay, not tonight! I so wanted her to be happy today!"
"She was, Holly. She was."
"Then why can't she come straight up to bed? For this one night, that's all I ask!"
"Because this one night is so important to her. You know that, Holly. It's her eighteenth birthday. She's become a woman tonight. It's such a big occasion in her life – and she needs to share it with him. Even if she didn't go to see him every evening, this is the one night when she would definitely go. You must understand that."
"Oh, Clay, I do. But it hurts so much to see her still suffering."
"He died only six months ago. Her grief is still young. We must be patient, and give her the time she needs."
As soon as her aunt and uncle had climbed the stairs, Elizabeth picked up her shawl and quietly opened the front door. The moon lit her passage across the lawn. David Sutton had just sat down on the bunkhouse porch and caught sight of her shadow gliding across the grass.
"Hey, Trampas," he called. "There's a prowler outside the house!"
He stood up and started to rush towards the steps.
"David, no, wait!" It was the Virginian who grabbed him. "It's not a prowler. It's Elizabeth."
"Elizabeth! But what's she doing outside at this time of night?"
"She's gone to visit Stacey, that's all."
"Stacey! Who's Stacey?" asked David, looking confused.
"David, come and sit back down on the porch. I'll explain." Trampas had come out of the bunkhouse when he heard David's shout.
The Virginian nodded in agreement: "I'll go up to her." And he slowly walked up the steps.
David looked at Trampas questioningly.
"Stacey was Liz's brother. He's buried up there just behind the trees, not far from the house."
Trampas sighed and paused. Elizabeth had lost a brother, but Trampas had lost a good friend.
"You know, David, if Stace had been here, you wouldn't have had the trouble that you had from me or from the other hands when you arrived. Stace would have seen you right. He was a real peacemaker in the bunkhouse, and used to stop the hands from ganging up on anyone or being too mean in their tricks. He didn't stop any harmless teasing but if it looked as if anything was getting out of hand, then Stace would step in and stop it. Thinking of him now makes me ashamed of how I behaved towards you when you first arrived. Stace would never have let that happen."
"It sounds as if he were a good man."
"Was he a lot older than Elizabeth?"
"Just a couple of years. He would have been 21 next month. They should have celebrated their birthdays together. Liz must be hurting pretty bad tonight."
"I had no idea. She seemed so happy at the party."
"She hides it well."
"How did he die?"
At first Trampas couldn't answer. It was still painful to remember. He suddenly realized that was the reason that David hadn't heard about Stacey before. His grief, and that of the other hands, was still so raw that none of them was able to speak about the friend they had lost, even though his presence was felt everywhere, whether they were in the bunkhouse or out on the open range.
"Was it an accident?"
Trampas shook his head: "No. He was hanged."
"Hanged! What did he do?"
"Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!" Trampas almost shouted the words out into the darkness.
"He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. That's all. He was in a small town, a few days' ride away, and happened to come across the body of the local doctor just after he'd been killed. That town was so bent on revenge for their good doctor that they tried and convicted him within the week. The Virginian got there the day before the hanging, and tried to stop it but a couple of local thugs beat him up. They did such a good job that by the time he regained consciousness, they'd hanged Stacey."
David didn't know what to say. He could see that the pain was still gnawing into Trampas.
"The Virginian brought him back, and we buried him up there beside his grandfather."
"Clay Grainger's older brother. It was Old Mr Grainger who took care of Stacey and Liz after their parents were killed. He brought them here from Texas and ran Shiloh until he died just over a year ago."
"I didn't know."
"Why should you? You haven't been here long. And we've all learnt over the past six months to bury our sorrow and just carry on as before. That's all anyone can do after a death, especially a pointless tragic death like Stacey's."
"I'm sorry, Trampas, really sorry."
Trampas shook his head sadly and stood up. As he opened the bunkhouse door, he turned to his new friend and said: "You'd have liked him, Dave. I wish you could have known him."
Elizabeth had heard the Virginian's footsteps as he came up the steps so wasn't startled by hearing him call her name softly. Even though she smiled when she turned to look at him, he could see her tears glistening in the moonlight.
"I know Aunt Holly didn't want me to come, but I had to. Tonight of all nights, I had to come."
"I know, Liz. I know. It's all right. Mrs Grainger understands. But I think it hurts her to see you still grieving."
"I don't want to hurt her. But I had to come."
"I know, Liz. I know."
He held her in his arms as her tears silently flowed, just as they had done six months earlier, when he had first told her about Stacey's death. It seemed as if no time had passed at all since that moment, as if she had been crying ceaselessly since then.
"Liz, honey. Let it all out. Let it all out. And then, for Stacey's sake, try to be happy. It's your birthday. He loved you so much that he would hate to see you crying like this after six months. You've got to move on. We've all got to move on."
"I'll move on, but I can't leave him behind."
"Liz, everyone loses someone dear to them at least one time in their life. I know it's been hard for you. Your parents were killed when you were very young, and then your grandfather and Stacey died so close to each other. But a few years before you came to Shiloh I lost someone too. A young woman, just like you, who was very dear to me. We were going to get married but she died. I remember her saying once, 'Don't look back. Move forward, don't stand still. And never, never, be sad for what's over. Be glad that it was yours to enjoy and know that tomorrow will bring something better.' "
"Will it? Did it bring something better for you?"
"I haven't met anyone who could replace her, but I have found new friends since I lost her – you, Stacey, and many others. I still think about her but I know that she and Stacey – and all those we've loved who have died – would never want their deaths to cast a shadow over our lives. Stacey's life was short but it was certainly full, whether he was riding drag on the trail, dancing on a Saturday night with a pretty girl or just playing cards in the bunkhouse while listening to Jean sing. He never wasted a moment. You've got to do the same: live your own life to the fullest, just as he would have done if he had lived. By doing so, you'll be honoring his life and making your own a living memorial to him."
Elizabeth didn't reply immediately as she thought about what he'd said. Then she turned to the Virginian and nodded. "You're right, of course. I will try. I promise."
"That's all I ask." He put his arm round her. "Come on, it's getting cold. Let's get you back inside. You'll want to go riding on your new horse bright and early tomorrow morning, won't you?"
That reminder of her wonderful birthday gift brought an instant smile to her face: "I certainly will."