The work was done before sunrise. It was going to be a warm late spring day.
By the time Sloan road in on the first orange rays, Ferg was leaning against the post next to Hilde.
“Mornin’, Ferg,” Sloan said as he swung his leg off his steed. Buster shuffled in the dirt and muzzled the old mare. It was their daily greeting.
Ferg pushed himself off the split rail and stood in front of the younger man.
Sloan smiled uneasily. “What’s going on, Ferg? You look like you got something on your mind.”
The old cowboy nodded, pushed the brim of his hat out of his eyes. “Yup, reckon I do.” He squinted and looked Sloan directly in the eyes.
The farmhand frowned, but didn’t break his gaze. “C’mon, old man,” he said after a few seconds. “You’re making me nervous.”
Ferg’s face softened, just a touch. “Son,” he said, “do you want this place?”
Sloan arched his eyebrows. “This place? You mean Finchwood?”
Ferg flinched one eye. He had named the ranch after Margaret’s favorite bird. It was either that, or have his son go through life with the name of Finch Ferguson. “Finchwood” had been a small price to pay to secure “Brody” for the boy.
“Yessir,” Ferg said. “Do you want it or not?’
“Well,” Sloan looked confused. “I mean, this is your place, Ferg. Built it with your own hands.”
Ferg nodded. “That’s true, but you take care of it real good, just like it’s your own. So … do you want it or not?”
“Sure, I want it, Ferg, but I don’t have much money –“
The old man held up a hand. “I don’t want your money. I just want to know if you’ll take the place. Today.”
“But … you’re still –.”
“Yup, still alive. I plan to stay that way, too. Just not here. I’m leaving here soon as we’re done negotiating, Sloan, and I ain’t coming back.”
The younger man looked Ferg up and down. The rancher wore a simple pair of trousers, work boots, a long-sleeved shirt rolled up to his elbows, and brown, wide-brimmed hat.
“So, will you take over? Calves have all been born, pastures already blooming. Spring’s about done. Should be easy work for a young buck like you until you can find some help.”
Sloan wiped his brow, covered with nervous sweat.
“What about Brody?”
The question hit Ferg in the heart, and his voice grew thick.
“The boy ain’t been home in over ten years, and I don’t reckon he ever will be. Too much for him in the east … the big city. And with Margaret gone, there’s nothing here for me.”
“Where will you go, Ferg?”
“Doesn’t matter, really. Just away.”
Sloan walked in circles a couple of times, then planted his feet and stared straight into the wrinkled face.
“I’ll do it, Ferg. But only if you promise to remember you can come back any time you want. This is your home.”
Ferg nodded. “I thank you, son, but I won’t be back.”
Sloan’s eyes drooped at the corners, and Ferg could see he was starting to feel sad. The rancher patted his farmhand on the shoulder.
“It’s the right choice, Sloan. And you’re the right man to take this place.”
Ferg turned and mounted Hilde.
“Wait, Ferg!” Sloan jolted forward a few steps. “Let me help you load up.”
Ferg grinned. “Already got everything I need, son.” He pointed to a couple of modest saddlebags.
Sloan’s eyes widened. “You can’t have more than a day’s vittles there, Ferg. And besides, all your stuff’s still inside!” He jutted a thumb over his shoulder toward the cabin.
“Don’t worry about me, Sloan. I got some money with me. And all them things inside that house are just full of hurtful memories for me now. Maybe you can make some good use of them.”
He turned Hilde around, pointed toward the open prairie to the west.
“But what if you want to remember some of those old times?” Sloan said.
Ferg looked back over his shoulder. “Then I’ll remember them.”
“But … what if you can’t remember them.”
Ferg smiled, tipped his cap. “Then I’ll remind myself. I got all I need.”
He nudged the mare with his boots, and they broke into a light trot. After a couple hundred yards, with his back still to the new ranch owner, Ferg pulled to a stop. He reached into the top of a boot and fished out a slip of tin.
He had to be sure.
He held the bent and faded picture up in the rising sun and marveled at how many years had passed since they sat for that photo, Margaret and him. And little Brody, there on his daddy’s knee.
Pain shot through Ferg’s chest, and he gasped. He shook his head, and a rueful smile bent his lips. He stuffed the photo back into his boot.
“Yep,” he said to the morning air. “That’ll be heartache enough to remind me of the whole kit and caboodle.”
He patted Hilde’s neck, and they started back up on their journey.