Reed '04: Death Benefits


Ezra Standish fingered the stiff parchment envelope, the return address-the legal offices of the attorney for Messrs Larabee and Wilmington-filling him with dread.

The messenger stood before him, not two steps inside his study door with hat in hand and shoulders as stiff as military man's. Ezra took measured steps to his desk and dropped the envelope on the blotter. "Thank you for the delivery. May I show you out?"

"Sir, I've been instructed to wait for your reply. I can return with the letter at a time that's more convenient for you...?"

Ezra flashed a charming smile that he didn't feel. "No, no. Sit down, please," he murmured, and picked up the letter opener. Several pages slid out, two carefully typed that appeared to be contracts, complete with his name typed under signature lines, on pristine white rag paper with the legal firm's letterhead. The other two pages were cheap drug store stationary, a missive written in Buck's loopy hand. With recognition came a deep sense of relief. He poured a finger of brandy for himself, eased into his desk chair, and switched on the lamp.

March 14, 1915.


I hate for this to fall on you, my dear friend, except the only other man I'd entrust with this request is JD-and that boy will always be wet behind the ears no matter how old he gets. Also, juggling children and family might make something like this especially hard for him. I guess this is what you get for sticking it out, Ezra: the work no one wants to do, the things no one wants to talk about. Well, I had best stop beating around the bush and get to it.

I'm sure you have found the papers I included from the lawyer to make this all legal and proper, but the long and the short of it is, Chris has flat-out promised me he ain't gonna survive me, and given how many other things he's cheated maybe he can cheat life and death as well. I won't risk testing it. It's not likely, but I guess it could happen, him and me going together.

I'm leaving it to you if you can spare the time, or your assign if you can't, to come down here to the ranch and settle our debts when the time comes. I know you've done real good for yourself, but this a hard job I am asking for and I want you to keep a fair fee for your work. Sell the land and equipment, look over the horses and take those you might want. Please offer one or more to JD, if he's able or interested in keeping any. The rest, sell to good owners, decent horse folk who know their salt and will take care of these beauties. We've worked too hard on the breed lines for them to end up in a glue factory or a mining operation. Better to shoot them than let them be abused.

Once you settle our, well the lawyer calls it an estate but you know it ain't so much, I'm asking that the leftovers be assigned in trust to JD's kids with some extra set aside to help with Eloise's care. Casey can manage it; that woman always was better with money than he was.

And here's where I don't know what, exactly, to say. This letter's going to be filled with "don't wants" because Chris and me, we've never talked about wanting. We don't want to be buried in southern California. We don't want anonymous cemeteries. We don't want those fancy coffins folks seem to like nowadays and we don't want to be buried on our land here. It would be somebody else's then, and that just don't feel right to me.

I know Chris wants to be cremated, and I suppose I do too... I can see you trying not to roll your eyes, Ezra, like you're standing right in front of me, so quit it right now, but with cremation maybe you could mix the ashes up together, and dump them out on some old trail heading into the desert. Or plant us somewhere together in one of them little jars.

I reckon Chris would be right proud to be laid to rest amongst as many of us as could be gathered together, and I can say the same: a San Francisco cemetery would be fine, near you maybe if you could see your way clear to sending somebody out to splash a beer over us now and again. St. Louis would be all right too, near JD and his family.

I can't say as I think the "where" matters, really, except that if I go first and am not around to do it I need to know Chris will be treated with respect. Me, I reckon I never earned much in the way of respect, and it's all meat anyway. But Chris, now. He's earned monuments and headstones and a big old funeral with mourners in veils and black hats-and he'd kill me right now for saying that. No grand processionals, Ezra, not for either of us. Like as not we ain't got enough mourners to fill one out anyway. Just you, and JD and his kin if they can come. Nathan's daughter if she'll acknowledge us on her daddy's behalf.

I used to think I'd be the first to go, standing alongside Chris like I have. Stray bullets, you know, and me a not-so-innocent bystander. Guess none of us were so innocent, even JD by the end. I can't tell you how sorry I am to ask you a favor of this nature. But there is nobody I trust like you, Ezra, at least nobody guaranteed to be someplace the coroner could find! and to honor our wishes even if you don't agree with them.

Old Chris, he's gotten sentimental these days. He wants to walk arm in arm like brothers and friends, right through death's door. He of all people knows it don't work like that. But just in case it does, well, I want the peace of mind to know he was laid to rest proper, and I believe he'd want to know someone looked after my old carcass too.

One last thing; I'm personally asking that you not speak of this to Chris, who in his ornery way has simply decided not to die. Best not upset him with contrariness. Just do your best by us when the time comes, that's all I ask.

If you're willing to take this on, then just sign the papers enclosed and keep one copy for yourself. Our lawyer has the number of that fancy telephone you've got. I hope it'll be many more years yet before you receive such a call. If for any reason you don't want to discharge these duties, please then return the enclosed papers and the lawyer will forward them on to JD. I know he'll take care of us, if he has to.

Now, me, I want to leave you with a joke of some kind, something funny enough, or raunchy enough to push out the low feelings I'm sure a letter like this must put across. Would you believe I can't think of a single one?! So I'll leave you instead with the promise that Chris and me will be up for a visit this summer, if you'll have us, and that it will be good to see your face and flirt with your household staff. (You know, that still gets Chris's goat? Ha ha.)

My best to you, to Li Pong, and to all your reprobate friends, and my thanks for that box you sent us last month. I keep telling you we've got fine access to spirits through a local bootlegger, but the gift was much appreciated all the same.

Your dear friend,

Buck Wilmington

In spite of himself Ezra smiled broadly. Oh, the letter had indeed transferred all the "low feelings" Buck had worried it would, but Ezra had the joke on Buck. He signed the legal documents, gave a copy to the messenger with a tip, and sent him on his way. Then he unlocked his file cabinet, paging through folders until he found the one marked "personal obligations". It was, Ezra thought with pleasure, quite thin. He thumbed through the papers inside until he found the similar letter and not-so-similar contract Chris had sent him four years before, deciding that since the couple's wishes were quite disparate in their way, he could do whatever the hell he wanted with them: grand funerals, names plastered in the paper with full-page ads commemorating their lives, a marching band if he chose.

Of course, he would not... but he could, and that knowledge was enough to make him smile.

He skimmed the letter Chris had written-barely half a page in neat print letters-seeking the common threads. They would receive their cremations. He'd satisfy Chris's wish to be scattered into the water, and Buck's wish to be strewn upon a trail, perhaps in the national park not too far away where travelers would visit to pay homage to the natural wonders preserved for posterity, and to unwittingly pay tribute to two fine men. They'd get their headstone in San Francisco-perhaps right between his mother and himself, because distance had always made the affection between himself and his mother fonder-and their ceramic pot, and that unbearably sentimental commingling.

He would read these letters aloud as the eulogies, because he could think of little more fitting to represent the character of each man, and their special affection each for the other.

But that eulogy, he hoped, locking up the cabinet, would be a long time coming.

"Harry!" he called for the butler, rinsing his brandy glass at the wet bar and setting it in the sink. Decades ago the trip would have taken a week or more by stage or on horseback. More recently, the train cut travel time down to two days, but he could drive it in under 10 hours now, and he saw no reason not to treat himself to a surprise visit. Buck would be nervous for all of 10 minutes, afraid Ezra would spill the beans, but he would relax soon enough and they would while away a day, tending horses that were indeed beautiful, well-bred creatures, riding around the arid land, and catching up on local news.

"Sir?" Harry stepped just inside the door, a bare minute since Ezra had called for him.

Ezra narrowed his eyes, certain even after all these years that the prim old man hovered behind the door listening in on his life. God knew, Ezra never used the bell anymore. "Harry. Pack a suitcase for me and gas up the Speedster, won't you? I think I'm going to take a quick drive down south."