On a sunny day at the end of October, he sees his home again. A tall, opulent farmhouse sits in the center of fields more vast than he has ever seen in his travels, acres upon acres of fertile soil well-hewn for forty years. Come spring, the farm will get going again. Now it has been given a time of rest and patience. His father saw to it that the farm could forever afford such a luxury.
When he arrives it is to the sight of his little nephew playing in the sun. He smiles at the back of the boy's head, not wishing to interrupt. Then he sees his sister, washing clothes on the wide front porch, and his anonymity is broken: his homecoming has begun.
Jenna, surprised indeed, steps off the porch to greet him. She eyes him carefully, looking him up and down like one appraising a complete stranger.
–Are you done playing adventure, Rospo? she asks him coolly. –Didn't bring back any prizes, I see.
Rospo looks up at the sun, down at his feet.
–Come on in, she says tiredly.
The boy, Critter, finally sees Rospo and rushes across the front lawn, grabbing Rospo's leg for dear life, grinning fiercely, calling out his name with joy. Rospo gives him a tight hug.
–How long's it been since you saw your uncle, Critter? asks Jenna. –Nice and hot back then, wasn't it.
Rospo releases the boy and Critter dashes off into the house happily. Rospo and Jenna follow. At the front door, Jenna turns back to her brother and asks:
–Are you here for good now?
As always, there is no anger in it, no challenge. It is a question that has been asked often, and evaded a like number of times.
Nothing has changed here but Rospo's answer¯which, after a long pause for thought, manifests itself in a solemn, reluctant nodding of the head.
–All right, then, Jenna says, and the family enters the house, beginning their new life.
Their first evening meal consists of all of Rospo's favorites. It is prepared by Jenna and eaten in the spacious kitchen. She had hired a cook for a short time, Rospo remembers now, and he can guess how long that lasted. Jenna could never tolerate inexactitude when it came to supper.
Critter wrinkles his nose through most of the meal, and laughs when Rospo pretends to dislike the food. One frown from Jenna settles their horsing around. They eat mostly in silence.
–The rest of Daddy's inheritance came in last month, Jenna tells Rospo as they are clearing the dishes. –The land is completely paid for.
Rospo nods in approval. All things settled now. It is a strange feeling to him. When he takes a seat in his father's rocking chair that night, it is with a sense of disorientation and guilt. As midnight falls he thinks he should be out there somewhere, struggling, on the run. It is so comfortable inside the house, however. So easy to look forward to the simple cycle of rest and toil, the most natural thing in the world, and at night the resolute safety of sleep without dreams.
Their routine is constant, unchanging. During the next three days, which see the sky above them turn muddy and angry in promise of something both great and terrible, Jenna continues Critter's lessons in the ornate parlor while Rospo works around the house, rebuilding an entrance, cleaning the basement, fixing the damaged eaves.
Critter's lessons go on for hours. Rospo might wonder if that much work is good for the boy, but he would never second-guess Jenna directly.
Critter doesn't seem to mind. At the age of six he is less resistant to books and learning than either Rospo or Jenna ever were; this much is certain. Critter's lips move silently over more pages than Rospo ever knew existed. The boy is tireless, working especially hard when Jenna is there to guide him. When she asks if he wants to stop, Critter more often than not says no. As a child, Rospo himself loved the way the paragraphs made such perfect, promising blocks when seen on the page from a distance. He thinks Critter shares that same secret, and this thought makes him so happy he cannot say.
One night Rospo goes into his old room, in which Jenna has not allowed him to sleep, owing to the mess left in there by a corrupt painter before Rospo's arrival.
The room is where all the family pictures are kept. From the walls, from two tables, Rospo's relatives look on from the past, almost always from the grave. For over an hour he looks at his mother, his father, a fondly remembered cousin killed in war, little Critter.
By chance he finds, resting on a bureau, a photograph of Tobin. Jenna took it one year ago, never got around to framing it.
In the photograph Tobin and Rospo stand smiling in noon sunlight, a scarecrow tied to a pole between them. Just a five minute walk away to the east.
Rospo frames the picture by himself and sets it next to a drawing of their old dog, Clyde, who died last Christmas. Then he leaves the room and does not return, in accordance with his sister's wishes.
Jenna tries to teach him piano sometimes. It is a pointless business, but still, Jenna insists, he's got to at least try.
On November the sixth, Jenna interrupts Rospo's strained efforts with a piece by a notorious Austrian and tells him to go out to the woodpile and bring in as much good kindling as he can find there. She does not like the look of the sky or the feel of the air. Rospo would agree.
Bringing in all that wood by himself tires him so deeply that he misses supper. Jenna climbs the stairs to the third floor to find him snoring peacefully, childlike, on Critter's tiny bed.
She lets him rest, even brings him a blanket and covers his legs, removes his boots. When the first snowflakes fall outside, Rospo misses them and must be told later about the snow's beginning by Critter, who sees it all.
The great storm of 1881, long forecast by all to certainly be the worst in twenty years (the eyewitness reports of it by men in the north and the strange behavior of cats and dogs guaranteed it), turns out to be a sad disappointment. At first, the tiny flakes descend in heavy sheets and seem to fulfill the promise of a blizzard, but the wind is almost non-existent and soon the flakes become larger, meaning a shorter fall. Four inches come in eleven hours, and then the sky closes unceremoniously. Throughout the night, Rospo and Jenna keep watch for more of the same, but it just never comes. The earth is blanketed once again and then simply forgotten.
Critter is the only one impressed by the storm. He finds it all quite wonderful and begs to be let off from his lessons for just one day. He spends that day hurling snowballs at Rospo, who is careful to always miss with his own throws, and rushing down hillsides in a sled Rospo gave him the previous winter.
The storm of '81 becomes a part of history, to be remembered later as both blessing (another couple of inches would have brought on problems) and letdown. The snow itself will disappear in a matter of weeks. Its story, Rospo thinks, won't last much longer.
Lying in bed long past midnight, he tries a trick he used to know in order to escape this seemingly endless season of drear and windblown phantoms. He imagines a wide canyon of snow laid out before him, beyond which lies a stunning mountain range painted in greens and browns under a sky reddened by a summer sundown. Two seasons within view, and the one he wants to possess so badly just a half hour away if he is patient and durable. He starts down into the canyon without delay, picturing every single wet footstep and feeling every snap of cold gray air on his neck, daring to look up into the summer distance only every three or four hundred steps. He is asleep long before he gets there, which is the idea all along. He's never quite gotten all the way, not in his mind, not with this game, and one of his most foolish remaining superstitions, he knows, is his fear that actually reaching those mountains would mean inadvertently crossing the seductive divide into death.
On the tenth day of November, Jenna and Critter embark on a fourteen-mile ride to Ondean for food and some new winter clothing, and also to visit their grandmother. Rospo stays behind to watch the house, kisses them both goodbye, agrees to Jenna's suggestion that they stay at grandmother's house for a few days; he'll be fine by himself.
Alone in the rambling mansion, he cleans and straightens everything he can find, then heads out to the woodpile across the crunchy, ice-hardened snow. He estimates that there is enough good wood left to build a fence around Jenna's struggling garden on the east side of the house. He figures he can make enough progress with it so that she will be happily impressed by the time she and Critter return. It will take about a month to complete the fence the way Rospo envisions it, and he looks forward to beginning his project like some men might look forward to discovering gold. He returns to the house, sits on the porch, making plans.
Sometime before dawn of the next day, he is awakened by the tapping of some small rocks against his window. He rises in the dark, disoriented, and looks out onto the property.
Tobin is down there, standing in the moonlight, waving frantically.
When Rospo opens the front door, Tobin beams. His face is spotty with fresh bruises; one cheek is swollen gruesomely; his nose is either broken or sprained; there are thin cuts across the front of his neck.
–Rospo! he says excitedly. –My plan didn't work. The one in Proudmill? But I've got something better. Something you've got to help me with!
And with these words, he produces Rospo's .32 pistol and presses it tight into his open palm.
Tobin will not even let Rospo offer him food or shelter.
Come on, come on, Tobin repeats constantly. He has mounted Brutus and begun to ride away before Rospo has rubbed the sleep from his weary eyes. It is all he can do to change into some heavier clothing and seal the house against intruders.
They ride in an eastward direction, a frantic chase no different in pitch and pace than if they were being hunted down by men who had stormed Rospo's house. Dawn comes quickly; the sky turns from sea blue to eggshell white in no time at all. Tobin and Rospo narrow their eyes to slits as they gallop through the snow mist, unseen.
After a path of about twelve miles, Tobin and Rospo descend into a shallow gorge that evens out into a lower flatland filled with scrub. The white blanket that is the snow is as smooth and as virginal here as it was back in Toneka. Train tracks bisect the gorge, heading east-west into the mist.
The tracks have been blocked in one spot by a high, dangerous pile of branches, limbs, roots, and rocks almost as tall as a man himself.
–I've been following that train, Tobin explains to Rospo after they have tied their horses in the taller scrub. –That art train that began in New York.
–This is perfect. You have no idea how perfect, Rospo.
–It started in New York and someone told me the route. It ended in Pueblo just two days ago. Just two days ago!
–It's got to turn around because there's no loop back east. I hear that trains stop for refueling at the end of their run and lie for a night, it's tradition.
–That means it's got to come back along this very line sometime. Sometime today or tomorrow, it's got to!
–Do you get it? All those rich art collectors, headed back to New York, and there's no more stops because the expo is over. They'll be riding alone. I don't know about the paintings, but I do know they'll have money. A lot of money, cash. It'll be easy.
–I've set it up perfect, I think. We'll just wait. You’ll wait with me.
–Come on, he says to Rospo, and gestures to the south.
Because there has been no wind to blow it off, the snow has clung steadfast upon every leaf in the gorge, making each tree a perfect hiding place concealed by layered powder. To wait for the train, Tobin chooses a magnolia and sits on the ground within its cocoon of limbs. He directs Rospo to a similar place about thirty feet away. When Rospo has fortified himself there, there is nothing to do but sit silently and think. This he tries not to do above all else.
The horses are safely out of sight as well. They have no food, no real shelter, but occasionally Tobin leaves his cave to assure Rospo that it won't be long now, and to make sure his gun is loaded.
Morning becomes afternoon. They doze under their trees.
The afternoon is just like the morning before it. A grim overcast pall covers the world. Tobin checks with Rospo twice more, pats him on the shoulder. His bruises show no sign of healing. His nose bleeds and he wipes the blood away.
An hour or so before dusk, the train comes.
It divides the gorge neatly at full speed, and only the keen skills of the engineer save the train from accident. When he sees a dark blotch on the rails rising through the mist, he immediately sounds the warning bell inside his booth and grabs the brake, shoving it forward with all the might he has.
The train wails and fights to come to a stop. The wheels lock and slide freely over the rails; the ice that has collected on them make braking a wildly unpredictable business.
The momentum generated by the front car and the four behind it push it ever closer to the mound of debris, but by the time the train strikes it, it is moving too slowly to do any real hurt. The pile explodes impressively in all directions. The engineer hears rocks grinding under the wheels and swears loudly.
When the train is motionless, he leaves his booth and jumps down into the snow to inspect the damage. Another man, the very frightened conductor, joins him.
They judge that it is all right to continue, and also that if the train had been going just a little faster God alone knows what might have happened.
They get back on board the train. It takes a few minutes for the engineer to get it back up to speed again, but then the art exposition (presented by Mr. Russell Lancaster, Esq., a banner still proclaims) ratchets and booms into the mist just as usual, the elderly train hollering through the gorge like an iron witch.
For a good half hour, the conductor stays up front in the chilly booth with the engineer. They talk tremulously about near wrecks they have known. Not until they've left the gorge well behind do they feel entirely safe and ready to speak of other things.
Finally the conductor leaves the booth, steps through a steel door into the warmth and security of the lead passenger car, its comforting brown walls massaged with honest wood heat.
His terror at raising his head and seeing two men standing in the middle of the car is more profound than any he will ever encounter on the railways again.
One of the men is white, the other a Negro. The white man, his face pummeled and raw, holds a pistol outward. The conductor notices that the hand has been scorched with what appears to be a cigar burn.
The Negro stands slightly behind, armed but pointing his weapon at the floor. He looks to the white man for some sort of cue. They stand between the rows of utterly empty seats, appearing stunned, as afraid as the conductor himself. A long moment goes by. Then the white man, thin and haggard, asks the conductor in a small, rocky voice:
–Where are all the people?
The conductor swallows hard, trembling uncontrollably.
–Gone, he says. –Dropped off in Pueblo. To take the next train back.
The landscape rushes by outside. The quivering of the train on the rails sways the men gently back and forth.
Suddenly the conductor knows he is going to die. He sees the frustration, the insane rage, on the white man's face, and sees also that the Negro cannot intervene. The conductor closes his eyes, waits for it to happen, his mind swimming darkly.
And for no logical reason at all, the white man now raises his arm and points his gun at the conductor's forehead. Another moment passes.
The Negro appears shocked, but does nothing.
His cruel partner disengages the safety of his weapon. He stares at the conductor hatefully, his eyes wet and stinging.
He rests his index finger against the trigger. The conductor thinks how horribly irrational he is; there is no reason to kill him; he has done nothing to impede them or interfere. But the look on the white man's face promises only murder, vengeance, bloodlust, and it does not soften.
They leap from the train together, side by side, their shoulders brushing until the moment they touch the air. Then they are separated by bare inches, even to a point halfway down, when their bodies, assaulted by wind and inertia, are robbed of their hold on reality. The world swings upwards, the white of the snow traded for the white of the sky above. The two halves of the universe collide and meld, then are gone entirely, replaced only by pain. It is a steep hill they strike. The seemingly endless drop becomes an even longer, insensate tumble. The exhilaration at such a cascade that they might have known as children does not resurface in their adult minds; they feel only a nightmarish fear, and as the fall continues, a wish that the hill would end at a cliff and an ocean, bringing merciful death. Hours pass in the space of seconds. Just how long was their plunge, they will never care to consider: that is not a story of courage. That is only another story of cowardice.
They trudge for miles in the snow, both of them knowing exactly where they are going, but neither acknowledging it. The cold freezes their bones, the mist soaks through their clothing onto their skin.
There is one stop to rest. Tobin takes some beef jerky from his pocket and divides it equally with Rospo. They eat gazing at the west as the sky grows darker. When Tobin finishes eating, he walks off into the woods without saying where he is going. A half hour later, he returns to find Rospo in the exact same place as when he left.
A silent decision is made to walk on through the evening instead of waiting out the dark. They pass a frozen pond hidden under a sheet of snow, a trap set by nature for wayward travelers. They enter woods as thick and barren and unforgiving as the bottom of the sea.
The stars are up when they see the cabin. It's more of a rotting hut, a two room enclosure whose roof began to collapse inward at one point last winter under the weight of snow but somehow held, so that the roof now only buckles inward threateningly. One window, no porch, no outhouse.
Tobin Millane and Rospo Avery arrive at the cabin after the invisible sun has set. Before they enter, they stand at the doorstep for a long, irresolute moment, like abashed wise men who have brought no gifts to the manger.
Tobin, unarmed, his pistol secured to his belt, pushes the door inward. He and Rospo see an oil lamp and weakly burning light. And then the figure of a man under a blanket, a man who stands quickly and puts his hands out in a gesture of defense. The blanket falls to the planks beneath him, planks curved, bent, and broken by time.
–Who are you? Tobin asks, his throat dry as dust.
–My name is Cranston, the man says, relieved that he is not about to be shot.
–You don't live here.
–No. I'm keeping watch on the house near the mountain. I don't want any trouble.
Tobin looks into the other room through a crooked threshold. When it becomes clear to him that they are alone, he asks:
–Watching for James?
Cranston nods. –That's right.
Rospo shuts the door behind them. They do not offer their names.
The wood stove in the corner of the main room works admirably, and they are kept warm through the night. Cranston gives them both coffee, slices of apple, slices of ham. They sit around the stove on large stones, listening to the wind.
–The last time I was up there was three days ago, Cranston tells them. –It's a tiring ride. My horse doesn't like it. I was thinking of heading home in the morning. There just doesn't seem much point in staying. The others are never going to come. It just gets too damn cold in this shack. You're welcome to use my horse, if you want. I can get another.
–James is still there? Tobin asks quietly, from an inner valley.
–He was three days ago, Cranston says, looking at the damage done to Tobin's face, being careful not to make his concern too obvious.
–Saw him once, actually, he tells them. –Standing out on the porch of that house, looking off into the sun like he was expecting somebody. I stayed well out of sight.
He looks to Rospo, uncomfortable at the prospect of meeting the other man's stare for too long.
–It just isn't worth it, Cranston says. –Is it?
They set in for the night very late. Cranston insists that Tobin take the bed in the other room; he and his Negro friend can sleep just fine in the front.
Tobin wishes them both goodnight and goes into the other room. Cranston nods shyly, and if he thinks of asking Rospo if that man is all right, he discards such thoughts before they find voice.
–This shack used to be a good way station, he tells Rospo after fixing the fire just after midnight, the two of them lying on opposite sides of the stove. –Look at it now.
Rospo humors him before turning away, eyeing the unstable ceiling, the filthy yellow window, the wretched floor.
–If I don't see you in the a.m., Cranston says, –I've left early. Don't take offense. I just can't wait to go home.
Rospo nods, understanding. He never sees Cranston again.
He is awakened well after dawn by a pounding on the door, and then the sound of it being flung open, and the cabin invaded by strangers. He tosses his blanket aside and puts a hand on his gun, but by then Dick O'Daniel and a shorter, blond-bearded man have drawn on Rospo, ready for him to make the slightest mistake in judgement.
–Where is he? O'Daniel demands. –Where is he?!
Rospo puts his hands slowly into the air, looks into the other room in alarm.
But there's no one there; Tobin Millane has gone into the woods.
Walking blind, lost in the middle of nowhere, the outlaw is a picture of despair, surrounded by the earth but no longer welcome as a part of it. Around him, the trees reach up and catch the snow before it can descend and rest on his shoulders; it began sometime this morning, hours ago. Knowing he can never turn back, he walks doggedly through it, eyes sometimes completely closed, wishing never to see what lies ahead. Resorting to a mind trick once taught to him by his grandfather (or was it an aunt, or was it a rare friend from more recent times?), he eludes this godless environment in fits and starts: he pictures a valley sleeping before him, beyond which looms an untrammeled land with neither sun nor clouds nor season of any kind, only a dark void he finds more alluring than spring. He draws it closer with every step, but it's ever more difficult to keep the image clear in his mind. Even that void seems to keep withdrawing, mocking his slow pursuit.
A while ago, he thought he heard singing, a choir of voices behind him, but he did not turn. This forest has played many tricks on him during his journey, tricks that would have meant nothing to someone not so alone. The snow was the first, beginning just after he set out toward the west. Now there are moments when he thinks the trees are somehow bending above him, enclosing him, blocking his path. He will stumble and fall or just lose his way for a time, then realize that while he was trying to get his bearings, twenty minutes passed, he standing perfectly still, face to the silvery sky, on the verge of fainting or giving up.
His horse is gone. He dismounted once for rest and went off toward the sound of a running stream for a drink. He found nothing. The sound itself had been a phantom. And when he returned, the horse was nowhere to be seen.
He climbed the top of a hill and scouted the land, dizzy. The wind buffeted him, almost knocked him down. He could see nothing, and in fact could not tell the difference between the land he had already left and the places he still had to go.
Since then he has been on foot, trusting the forest to lead him, too certain that the snow will soon end. But it falls and falls, until every step he takes requires him to lift his boots and balance again.
The forest, deep and secretive, going on and on, no end to it. The wind, rising hatefully, scathing his neck, his hands, his injured face, the crescent scar. There is a song he cannot get out of his head, some sort of lullaby from when he was much younger; finally he lets it repeat itself forever in the hope that it will make the phantoms go away. He hears his traitorous horse whinny way up ahead, crushes that sound with the song. He wonders whatever happened to Brutus, if perhaps he sold him to buy food so as not to starve, or if he too ran away, in fear of his owner.
He will stop walking, he decides, if he collapses one more time in the welcoming snow. That will be as far as he goes. To freeze to death here, away from everything, would be a dream. But then he thinks that the forest doesn't want him here, doesn't want anyone. He knows he has violated it and he is sorry, and accepts his death now humbly. He collapses in a drift against a tree. He will walk no further.
The snow gathers greedily on his body. But now he can hear a stream off to his right. Although he can see nothing but trees, that sound surely means what it promises. What kind of cruel joke would that be, to call out the sound of a stream and make it only a mirage? He rises, groggy, and lurches off in that direction, hunched over like a cripple, forgetting about the stream that lied before¯intent on a drink of water.
In this way, he gets closer and closer to his destination.
He is next aware of being at a house, a schoolhouse, standing before the front door, the snow still coming down, five inches now, maybe it will never stop.
He pushes the door open gently, and only after the interior of the house is exposed to him does he remember to draw his gun. He holds the pistol outward and taut, his body mimicking the appearance of confidence and control.
The house is two stories high and almost nothing in it has been left unrifled. Class was held in the front room. Six chairs are strewn about, knocked over. A piano in one corner has been hacked apart. A few of the floorboards have been pried up but the violator went no further, perhaps conceding defeat. The logs that once sat in the fireplace now lay randomly on a tattered rug.
He stands in the room for a long time, hesitant to move, to make any sound. There is a kitchen in the back; he senses that it too is empty. The sound of the wind is now muffled, frustrated, impotent, banished by the unbroken windows of the school.
There is really only one way to go: upward. In front of him, a cleanswept staircase. He starts up, pistol at the ready. Every step he takes sends a loud crack through the wood, and he must walk on the edge of the stairs to diminish them. It will do no real good, he realizes. He has brought in the snow; he has made too much noise; he has come with only one bullet in the chamber of his gun. And he has come afraid.
At the top of the staircase, open rooms. Four of them, each the same size, each ransacked to varying degrees. They run the length of an echoing hallway.
He looks to the end of the hall. One door is only slight ajar. He moves forward.
A noise from within that room, a soft scuttling. Movement, preparation.
He kicks the door inward and, seeing a human shape flinch before him, lets fly a bullet from his Smith and Wesson into the other's flesh.
The bullet slaps and shatters a standing mirror in which only he himself has appeared. The walls tremble; shards of glass leap in all directions yet the mirror remains standing, punctured by a single clean hole. The mirror looks a lot like one his grandfather made, and which for all anyone knows remains today in that godforsaken farmhouse in Kansas.
His hand hums around his empty gun. He catches a sniff of the smoke from the tip, the first time he has ever tasted that odor.
The room is done in pink and blue. Two beds on either side, laden with frilled sheets, heavy quilts. Shy drawings of sunny days and faraway oceans on the walls, hanging from tacks. A bear made from cloth stuffed with wool.
Here he looks at himself in a piece of mirror which has held firm on its base. He touches his forehead delicately. He has a four-day growth of rough beard, and his bruises have somehow not even begun to heal. The scar on his cheek seems the same as it did on the day he got it. His eyes glitter wetly, and there are bags under them. In his mind, there is no trace of recognition.
He looks beyond the mirror. A charcoal sketch hangs on the wall by the window.
He steps onto a shaggy red rug, crushes a splinter of glass and a tiny puppy doll beneath his tattered boot. He lifts the sketch from its place on a nail, realizes it was put there very recently, and certainly not by a little girl, who could not possibly reach such a height, even if she stood on her bed.
He looks at the sketch, done on a piece of ordinary paper and mounted by small hands onto a block of wood. He turns away and goes back to the center of the room, lost in thought. To him it is both exhilarating and sad, what lies there in charcoal. He wants to look at it for hours, though his mix of emotions confuses him, makes him tired.
Eventually his eyes skate to the bottom of the sketch and read the clumsy signature there. After much work he makes a name from the spiky, unconvincing letters:
His finger brushes over the charcoal lightly, coming away dusty, charred with black.
Without another glance, he gnashes his teeth, releases a terrible, thundering cry of fury into the solemn house, turns, and hurls the forgery toward the little girls' only window.
The forgery shatters it. Wind and snow crowd in through the sudden opening and glass falls to the powder below, becoming invisible.
The sketch turns over and over, and lands face down there.
Inside the house, he falls to his knees, buries his head in his hands. His empty pistol drops to the floor.
A minute passes. The wind from the window ruffles his hair. So much light strikes him that he must rise and draw the curtain. The light is too painful against his face. Through his tears he makes his way to the window. He leans over a dresser on which lies an unfinished letter from a girl to her mother back east.
He looks through the hole in the window. In the distance he sees two horses entering the clearing that rises to the house, horses walking troubled, exerting themselves dangerously. Two men dressed in Grey ride them through the falling snow.
Unarmed, he turns to leave the room. His eye catches something resting on one of the beds: the last illusion, something too unreal to deceive even his exhausted brain.
A shining Colt .45 lies beside a soft, inviting blue pillow. He picks it up, turns it over and over in his hands.
Initials have been scratched with a file into the stock: J.J.
The chamber is full of bullets.
He closes his eyes again, fighting back more tears.
He takes that accursed gun out into the snowstorm. It is a heavy thing, warm to the touch. Even as he walks into the clearing in front of the house, even as he identifies the men who have come for him, he has time to wonder why that gun should have been left there, and he knows that to lift it meant the end of his seemingly endless road.
He keeps it anyway, sheathing it in his holster, because it is, after all, what God or the forest wants from him. The men in grey climb off their horses, walk forward. He and they stand with thirty paces between them under the grisly sky. One of his enemies, he sees, holds a shotgun at his waist, holds it as though it were something no more threatening than the branch of a tree. The curtain of snow, neverending, thickens. Everything, he sees, has fallen into place.
–Tobin Millane, Dick O'Daniel greets him over the hissing wind. –We've been looking all over for you. This is an associate in my business, Mr. Speece.
He acknowledges Speece with a tilt of his head, then breathes in deeply, confidently.
–It's all done now, O'Daniel tells him. –Time to settle up.
–Go away, Tobin says.
–No, O'Daniel says, shaking his head. –The moment comes in every man's life, Tobin, when his greatest debt must be paid. You owe that debt to me.
He takes a threatening step forward, one hand clasping the stock of his gun brutally.
–Where's my money? he asks Tobin.
–I have nothing, Tobin tells him, the honest truth. –Nothing.
–Did you think you could hide out here, in the middle of nowhere? O'Daniel barks, brandishing the shotgun. –Did you think I wouldn't find you? Give me my money, thief!
–Who told you I was here? Tobin asks him. And then, in quiet dismay:
–Was it Rospo?
–Rospo? O'Daniel mimics innocently. He turns to Speece. –Is he the one we gutshot back in that shack, Timothy? he asks him. Without waiting for an answer, he turns back on Tobin.
–Yeah, it was him, he affirms. –He ratted on you just as sweet as could be. It didn't take much. Was that your closest friend in this world, Tobin? It must be lonely for you, then.
–He told you?
–Yes! O'Daniel shouts. –He knew he was going to die and he ratted you out anyway. Shameful.
They stand there. Tobin's eyes are hooded by his hat's torn brim. O'Daniel cannot see them.
At the end, O'Daniel becomes paternal once again¯almost gentle.
–Now, Tobin, he says. –You have no more chances in this life. You tell me where my money is....or you'll die as well. Do you think you can take two men? In your condition?
No answer from Tobin. In the moments they have spent here, it has become dusk.
–This is not your time, Tobin, O'Daniel says sadly. –This is not your time.
Through his fog of mourning and rage, Tobin senses this to be true. Seconds go by. This time, unlike Issling, he is not the last to draw his pistol and fire.
The first shot from his stolen Colt tears into O'Daniel's ribs and he convulses backwards, his fashionable cape flapping in the wind, his Winchester flying: he was almost fast enough, but not quite, jerking his shot wide and left, into the distant foundation of the schoolhouse. His horse shrieks and breaks for the forest and safety.
For a second it seems as though Speece, in his shock, will not draw at all; it could be over.
He gapes at Tobin, afraid, retreating a step, backing clumsily into his horse, which stands loyally behind him. Wanting only to save his life, Speece reaches down in the brief lull after seeing his partner die to pull his gun free and toss it harmlessly into the snow.
But seeing the misinterpretation in Tobin's ghastly face, Speece tries to correct himself, pulling the trigger instead of casting it away, far, far, too late.
Tobin fires; his last bullet penetrates Speece's chest, rips through it, continues directly into his horse's throat.
Speece falls silently, his horse goes down with a terrible cry. In the same second, Tobin feels himself pushed hard by an invisible hand. He trips and collapses in the snow, his face to the clouds, the scar on his cheek stinging more than the bullet wound in his shoulder.
He is content to gaze at the clouds for now; no need to get up anymore. He can never be sure of the outcome of his final gunfight, but it seems terribly unimportant to him now. The left side of his body is filled with an amazing warmth, warmth which little by little spreads to his chest, his stomach, his legs. He has become immune to the snowfall. The white powder builds a foundation around him with infinitely tiny grains. He finds it new somehow, the way the flakes are invisible one moment, and the way they have crystallized on his chin and tongue the next.
He moves his head a bit, not too much, to look around him.
One glassy eye looks back at him, the eye of a majestic brown horse lying prone, dying, blood bubbling like foul water onto the snow. The eye does not blink or focus.
Tobin meets the horse's eye, and they join.
Dusk into night. Time passes for Tobin in long, blurred paragraphs. For what he thinks are only minutes he looks at the clouds transcending their shapes, and is then surprised to see that another inch of snow has collected on his boots. The boots eventually disappear. He looks at the horse sometimes¯yes, and at O'Daniel and Speece, but more often at the horse.
–Donna, he says once to nobody, an image and memory of one who has no place in this story. One time is enough.
Nightfall hears the end of the great wind, the settling of the forest under seven inches of snow, and still, the beating of two different hearts. Their refusal to stop is not some kind of unfortunate rivalry. It seems actually as if they are beating sympathetically, the one keeping the other alive, and vice versa. How long this goes on, no one will ever be able to say, or whether there came a final meeting of the eyes and a silent agreement to vow together: now is the end. No one will ever realize how similar these two hearts finally became, though one was animal and the other human: how in their brief and entirely mute friendship, that delineation became as meaningless as all the buried duellists that have passed away before them.
Throughout my life they called me the quiet one, Rospo who said little, and so often nothing at all. As a grown man, I thought that silence would help me to observe, and adapt, and gain trust. Now, though, I must speak, to end the story as I began it, for there is no one left to tell the rest.
It has been some years since I trudged through to the schoolhouse through the snow, to find Tobin the way he was. I suspected then that O'Daniel had found him first, since no matter how hard I had tried, I could not convince him that Tobin had simply fled south. O'Daniel was smarter than I, I suppose. Yet despite his fearsome reputation, his name, like so many others, never survived those distant years. The names of Auguste Renoir and Jesse James did. And so did Tobin's, in a way.
I began walking at the end of the storm, and I reached the house sooner than I had expected. I even went inside, up the stairs, and into every one of the rooms which had once sheltered the deaf. Nothing I saw there told me much. Everything I and history needed to know was out in the clearing, where Tobin lay dead in the snow.
There had been no famous French artist on that train. Some boy, it was, a kid of nineteen, a baggage loader for the railway who had gone to the schoolhouse to play a bit of fun, to see what it would feel like to pass himself off as a greater man than himself. No one heard from him again.
Tobin once asked me why I rode with him. I know now that it was just a fading vision of glory sealed inside the heart of a lonely forty year old man, a man who lived with his sister and nephew on a farm in a wide, untroubled land. A man who had been fooled by hearing much of adventure and the eternal struggle of heroes, who thought that greatness might lie in store for him, if he followed the right man. I never got what I wanted.
All I know of work and responsibility, I learned from my father. All I know of courage, I learned from Tobin. And I have learned enough. If there are unseen bonds that hold men to this earth, keep us from soaring as high as we might dream, then so be it. I recognize them and let them hold me. I am, at least, safe, and perhaps loved.
At the schoolhouse, I stood and looked down at Tobin for almost an hour before the wind urged me home again. Sometime later, the law arrived; I was well gone by then. I never saw that place again, though I think about it often.
Tobin Millane was remembered as a murderer so cold-hearted and vicious, he would shoot his enemy's horse during a gunfight. Those words were sealed forever on his headstone by Shank DuRoi himself, until I found them one summer evening on a hillside, and took them away.
I kept the two crossed sticks on which that was written, though. I use them as memory. Every day it becomes more and more difficult to remember Tobin the way I want to. The Tobin whose face throughout his youth was lean and unscarred, who turned to me just before he tried to steal a tobacconist's deposit one freezing night in Kansas and said: "A man's actions sometimes can't follow his hopes, Rospo. You must never think of us as thieves. We are men separated from our way."
It's not for myself that I grieve. I grieve for my friend. I wish that he had died knowing I was his ally. And I wish that he had gained just a little from his moments at the schoolhouse, that he had at least come to recognize his own worth, his own magnificent bravery, instead of spurning it in shame and self-hate. But I can never know what he felt. Time has made that certain.
At least these wishes are small. That is how my wishes must be.
But beyond even Rospo's words there are my own, the teller of this tale, whose omniscience can see what time has buried forever. That all-seeing power, that gift, can see the end of a gunslinger's life from afar, and witness the truth. It sees a day when a grieving, still-silent mourner leaves his companion's body behind for good, never to turn back again, but also a fleeting moment soon after when the gunslinger's lifeless arm falls slowly away from his side to rest in the snow. The movement of the arm gradually exposes what he held within it: a piece of paper mounted on wood, something he crawled wounded through the snow to recover, something he wanted with him to give him comfort. It is a sketch of a bird in flight, and holding it at the end was enough, for in his simple mind he had come to imagine it was the most beautiful thing he had ever known.