The Eulogy of Mr. Malcolm
They shot Mr. Malcolm dead, right out in front of Clyde's Place.
Mr. Malcolm, they called him. He was fourteen years old. Not much of a mister yet, and no chance to be one now.
He had one too many drinks, maybe two or three, a common sight. Then came that arrogant mouth, spilling out words like the sloshing whiskey in his hand. Clyde never did like giving him the glasses filled with mistakes, but Joseph Malcolm, Joe Mal before he started trying to act older than he was, had the fortune, and curse, of being a Malcolm. If a Malcolm asks if you can, the answer is: you can. Clyde knew the saying and knew his place, and Mr. Malcolm knew too, kid or not.
Now Mr. Malcolm's place was in a box, held together with warped wood from the old stable, and nails anxious to start rusting.
There was no mystery around what happened. As soon as those revolvers started cracking back and forth, bouncing off the splintering shop fronts, echoing out into the dust at the end of the road, every man, woman, and even child knew who was firing. No one remembers why the Donaghues hated the Malcolms, and no one remembers why the Malcolms hated the Donaghues. Why does the hawk hunt the rabbit? It's just the nature of things that have always been.
So, Sheriff Campbell didn't bother much with asking questions. He knew. The people he questioned knew. The Malcolms knew.
"This time, things was different," they said, "this time was the last time." Such words history was all too familiar with.
Owen Stewart drove the only funeral carriage in town. His daddy did it before him, and his daddy's daddy did it before that. He packed up Mr. Malcolm into that box and would nail it shut when they got to the grave, motions he had carried out for longer than he could remember. He was no stranger to the Malcolms. They seemed to insist on keeping him in business, although he wasn't the kind of man that thought of it that way.
That morning, Owen put on his usual funeral attire, black striped suit with black tie, hiding the yellow stains he could never get out on his white undershirt. He never did invest in a proper hat, so he just patted the dust off his wide-brimmed, deep brown, high crown.
The Malcolm family did most of the lifting when it came time to load Mr. Malcolm into the back of the carriage. Brothers and cousins tripped over each other trying to place hands on the casket. The women were weeping, wailing louder with every movement of the box. Joseph Sr. had the honor of placing the Confederate flag on top, even though Mr. Malcolm wasn't even born yet by the end of the war.
Owen simply watched. The family was saying prayers, holding each other, most had just stepped out from Clyde's. It seemed like the Malcolms kept Clyde in business too, although he was another man that would have never thought of it that way.
Sheriff Campbell shook hands with Joseph Sr. and had a few words to say, lost in the wailing. Owen stood, holding his hands in front of him, letting the Malcolms move at their own pace, which was the only pace they knew.
Finally, Sheriff Campbell walked over to the lone funeral coach driver, the crowd now moving away from the back of the carriage.
"Whelp," the Sheriff snorted, looking up the road, "think I finally talked 'em inta movin'."
“Fine either way,” Owen said. “This is all I have today. Everyone knows not to plan a funeral the same day the Malcolms do.”
“Just so there ain't more funerals cuz a this one.”
“That why you comin' this time Sheriff?” Owen asked.
"I know, not many of 'em..." he went to a whisper ...live to be all that old. But this one's different. Haven't ya seen 'em? They're out fer blood."
“Ain't they always out for blood?”
The Sheriff looked back up the road again, squinting at the light coming in under his straight brim hat.
“Let's just hope the Donaghues ain't at the ranch when we get there.” Sheriff Campbell said.
Owen stiffened a little. The Sheriff could almost see his heart jump up into his throat. Owen was a simple undertaker, though he hated the term, not a fighter. If the two families wanted to have it out, they could, as far from him as possible. He didn't even own a gun.
The Sheriff gave him a pat on the arm and walked over to his horse.
All the Malcolm riders were already on their horses, ready to escort the carriage up the road, half-way across the prairie to their ranch, where their family graves sat. The rest would follow on foot, a slow procession, they wanted whichever Donaghues who were brave enough to hang around town to see them. See their grief. See what was coming for them.
Owen walked to the front of his carriage. It had been painted all black once, a couple of years back. It was past time for another coat, but it would have to wait. It was a short coach, solid wood for what it was worth, just enough space behind the driver seat to hold a coffin, kept in by the little door that latched at the back. Two horses pulled it, one black, Fen, and one brown with white spots, Dessa. They had been pulling the carriage almost as long as Owen had been driving it.
Owen lifted himself into the driver's seat. On the passenger side, a man sat, handing Owen the reins. The man was wearing a wide brim hat, even more worn than Owen's, but it was black, bent down a little in the front from bringing the brim low over his face too many times. He wore a long black duster, still licked with dried mud crusted at the bottom. His boots were covered in much of the same stuff. He never tried to scrape it off in their long lifespans.
At first, Owen didn't know what to say. He didn't need to get on the bad side of any Malcolm on a day like today, though he didn't recognize him. Yet, there was a gut feeling of something familiar; maybe he had hung around the Malcolms before, another face in the crowd?
"Excuse me, friend" Owen finally worked up the courage to say. "Usually, that spot is just for the mother of the deceased, or wife. One is long gone, and the other never came into being. Meanin' no offense."
The man smiled for a moment before turning his gaze away from the path ahead of them. His blue eyes reminded Owen of that part of a fire right at the bottom, where it's hottest. There was something deeper in them, something old. Faded like his carriage.
The black of his beard was fighting the gray that was slowly taking control. He had deep crevasses in his forehead, where he wore worry as much as his hat.
"No, no..." the man in black said. There was something deep in his voice, like where a river churns past the rocks. Where it could pull you under and never let you breath again. "You won't offend me. In fact, I like you, Owen."
“That so?” Owen responded, louder than he intended. He was as surprised about being liked by a Malcolm as much as he was at this man knowing his name.
“Yes, you have a...oh I guess you call it, poetic way of describing the things you encounter.”
"Do I know you, sir?" Owen asked.
“Oh, I'm close with the family,” he said. “I was closest to Joe Mal.”
"Well, I'm sorry for yer loss," Owen said.
"It's not my loss...it's Joseph's."
Owen tried to hide his eyebrows raising. He hadn't heard that one in all the years he had been doing this.
"Better get going," the man said, nodding at some of the horses already trotting away with walking Malcolms close behind.
Without thinking much about it, Owen started Fen and Dessa off. The dust was already growing thick around the crowd, kicked up by horseshoes and boots. Beyond the last buildings in town, the air opened up, but the wind was biting hard with bits of dirt scraping subtly with every gust.
Sheriff Campbell was near the front of the group, his Deputy at the back of the line. Owen watched for a minute as the Sheriff swiveled his head back and forth, watching the horizon, watching for movement near any of the lone trees out here in the open. He seemed even more worried than he led on. Owen wasn't one to linger on thoughts of being shot, so he turned to his passenger, who was sitting, watching him. Owen tried to ignore how strange it all was. The man was staring right through him, and knew his name.
Well, it was a small town, Owen thought. He probably had been a part of a Malcolm funeral or two. This certainly wasn't Owen's first either, just as certain as it wouldn't be his last.
"I noticed you called him Joe Mal," Owen said. "Been a year or two since I heard him called that."
“I never did like calling him Mr. Malcolm.” the man said. “It never fit him. He wished that it would, but it wasn't time yet. Of course, he was always one to try and get things before his time. And he got just that.”
Owen couldn't help but shake his head. Burying folk that had finally passed after a long life, raising families, making a living, experiencing the world around them, was one thing. But this was a kid. A Malcolm, sure, but a kid. No matter how many bodies he had to take to the grave, the ones he never got used to were the kids.
Then, two of the riders kicked at their horses, galloping forward together as if they were in a dance. The Malcolms were an excitable bunch. They wouldn't see a relative off to the next life without some fanfare. Owen felt this would be even worse than usual, being the youngest of their clan to be buried.
“Why the show?” Owen asked, not realizing he said it loud enough for his passenger to hear. He still wasn't used to having someone else in the coach with him, or at least one that could hear him.
“They believe there's something to be said about a man who sends his brother from this world with honor,” the man said.
“Well, there's somethin' to be said 'bout a man who only shows up to help his brother as he leaves this world.”
Owen regretted it as soon as he said it. He sat up straight in his seat as if he was expecting the man to take out a gun right then and there. He realized, with no one to talk to in the carriage, the unexpected passenger heard thoughts usually left in his head.
The man stared at him for a second, watching Owen fidget in his seat, wishing there was a way to pull his words back from the air. A smile cracked across his face like the dry mud in the riverbed now in the height of summer. Then he laughed, a rolling laugh that would have stopped a crowd back at Clyde's Place, let alone in the middle of a funeral procession. Owen looked around, hoping no one would be upset. But it seemed the clopping of the horses, the wind, and the tears helped the man's laugh go unnoticed.
“There's that poetry!” the man said. “Yes, I'm very glad I decided to ride with you this time.”
“This time?” Owen asked. “So ya have been at the other Malcolm funerals.”
“Of course I have! I told you I was close to the family.”
"Then you should know better than most, this ain't a time to be laughin'," Owen said. He found his sudden stretch of boldness wasn't stopping. He felt like he could confide in this man, for some reason. It was that feeling in his gut, some memory. He couldn't quite pin it down. But he wasn't about to upset a Malcolm either. "I mean, I've seen humor cover grief, so it's not like it's odd, I just..."
“Stop, stop, stop.” the man waved his hands in front of him. “I told you, you won't offend me. I want to hear more of what you think.”
“Not much to say.”
There were a few more hollers from some of the riders. They were galloping their horses past the carriage, coming in closer every time they ran back from the front of the line to start over. The Malcolms walking moved into a straight line behind, and directly in front of, the carriage. This was nothing out of the ordinary for them.
Dust was getting thrown around more with every pass, and the wind started bringing it into Owen's eyes. He tightened his hat on his head, bringing the brim down on his left side to keep the wind out as best he could.
“I want to know what you really think of all this,” the man said.
“Friend, I don't want no trouble,” Owen said.
"Then that makes two of us. Come on, now. I figure no one talks to the undertaker. You're just there, watching in silence as the family says goodbye. You do the hard labor. You see death day in and day out. Surely, you have some thoughts on it. Maybe you're even an expert on it. But no one would know, because no one thought to ask you."
“Death ain't exactly something someone wants to sit down and play cards talkin' 'bout.”
“True, true. But I want to talk about it, if you don't mind me asking.”
“Why not? Death comes for us all, doesn't it? Maybe it's something we should talk about more. Even you didn't know how important it was for these riders here to honor their fallen brother. And you're the expert!”
“Oh, I think I always knew the reason. They just try to outdo each other. Never made sense to me.”
“And why is that?” the man asked.
“Because...” Owen started, at first unsure if he could really speak the things he thought each time he worked for the Malcolms, but the man seemed sincere. “Because they seem to want to show how much they are willing to be there for this...this kid, in death, but where were they in his life?”
The man almost seemed to smile, like he wanted Owen to say something specific, but in telling him, would ruin the purity of the comment, should it come.
"Where were they when a kid got drunk damn near every night?" Owen kept going; it was like releasing the water from saturated crops. "Where were they when the Donaghues took the last Malcolm, and the one before that? Where were they when, instead of mouthin' off to 'em, Joseph coulda just walked away. And here I am haulin' a fourteen-year-old out to a grave, and they are ridin' around, trying to be the most proud. Nothin' to be proud about puttin' dirt over a kid."
Owen glanced away from the brothers and cousins, now riding in a circle around the carriage. Fen and Dessa had about enough of all this. They were trying to pull harder than they should against the reins, yanking from side to side to get away from the commotion. They were old souls, not used to much noise, and even the other Malcolm funerals didn't get this bad.
The man in black wasn't smiling anymore, yet seemed satisfied. It was the thing he wanted to hear, but hearing it made him remember the bitterness of it all.
“If they were there for him in his life,” the man said, “if they gave him the wisdom you just shared, they would have to admit that they were wrong too. They were wrong, their fathers were wrong and their fathers before them.”
“What's better?” Owen asked. “Being wrong or being dead?”
“Looks like you have the answer lying in your carriage.”
Something like thunder broke across the plains to the right of the coach. One of the brothers thought Mr. Malcolm needed a send off with a few rounds of his pistol. Fen and Dessa broke to the left, not caring about any direction the reins were giving them. They had had enough and protested together.
Luckily, all the Malcolms were walking single file, the carriage dodged past the left of them and dashed forward away from the column. The latch held in the back, but Owen could hear the coffin bouncing around behind him, wood grinding the inside of his coach.
The other riders kept on firing their guns, flying past the carriage at full gallop. Their shouts reached up to the heavens as if they were calling out to the rest of their clan, long since departed. The Sheriff started getting the riders back in line, and at least got them to stop firing their guns, then he made a break for the carriage on his horse. The Deputy stayed behind to keep them from bolting at the carriage again.
The Sheriff had stopped a few runaway horses in his time, but it was never easy getting a coach back under control. The Sheriff weaved his horse in front of Fen and Dessa, making them turn, then he would get back in front and do it again. The guns had really frightened them, though. For all they knew, they were fleeing for their lives.
Owen yanked and turned the reins, but they wouldn't listen. He turned to his passenger, who just sat and watched, not even holding on to the sides of the seat. Then Owen looked back at the rest of the carriage behind him. It wouldn't be long before that casket came bouncing out, or the wheels gave out completely.
What the Sheriff was doing would eventually work, but it may take too long before the casket at the kid inside would suffer one last tragedy.
Owen did the one thing he could think of. He knew he had to get on Dessa. She was the wilder of the two, but she was in charge. Fen would follow if she calmed down.
Owen stood, holding the back of the seat for balance, his boots feeling heavier than usual. The man remained seated, looking up, watching to see how this would all play out. So far he hadn't made a sound. No hollering like the family he was tied to, and no crying out as one would expect in a situation like this. He simply looked on.
Then Owen pushed off the seat and jumped, falling with his whole front side down on Dessa. He didn't think much before doing it, there wasn't much to think about, it just had to be done.
Dessa would have bucked, but he talked to her. “It's me, it's me.” She kept galloping forward through his words. He pulled himself up, straddled her as best he could without a proper saddle, and held the yoke around her shoulders.
He could see the prairie slope down where a few trees lined to the left. That's where the riverbed was, and this time of year, the water was long gone. He leaned forward "It's me girl, it's me!" He shouted so she could hear above her own hooves but it seemed only to make it worse. All she kept thinking was about getting herself somewhere safe. She didn't see the ravine; she didn't care about the passengers, she just cared about what she thought was dangerous.
The Sheriff was trying to get her to turn, but she wasn't going to pay him any attention. Owen wasn't about to let her just tumble in with Fen, the man in black, the coffin, the carriage and himself needlessly.
He leaned forward, held her neck, patted between her ears, "It's me" he whispered, "It's me."
There was something in the way he said it, like she felt his urgency. The shouts only made her panic more, but his softer voice now soothed. He reminded her that he was there. Reminded her that he saw the path better than she did.
Dessa slowed down, neighed in a few last argumentative shakes of her head, then came to a stop. Fen didn't ever question it, but slowed down with her.
Owen slid off of her, heart still trying to thrash out through his chest. The horses were both breathing so loud he barely heard the Sheriff ride up.
“That...Ha!” Sheriff Campbell snorted “That was some damn fine horse handlin'. I couldn't believe you...ya just jumped right off the coach!”
"Well, Dessa here just needed to be told everythin' was gonna be alright," Owen said.
"No thanks to them boys back there," the Sheriff said. "I'm hopin' they're gonna calm down now."
“Well, I won't mind that, that's for sure” Owen patted the side of Dessa, then pet Fen between the ears. He was happy at least one of his horses was a good listener.
“I'll send my Dep with the Mals up to the ranch, they just gonna have t'wait for y'all to get back with 'em. Not gonna take no more chances.”
“Good, good” Owen said, still patting Dessa. “Just give us a minute, let my horses get a breather.”
“You know the way, dontcha?” the Sheriff asked.
Owen climbed back up into the seat to get a few breaths back himself. “All too well,” he said.
"Then I'll meet you up there." the Sheriff said. "Gonna make sure them Donaghues don't have somethin' planned up there."
Then Sheriff Campbell turned his horse and trotted towards the Malcolm's ranch just a little ways up away from the riverbed.
Owen, his two horses, and the man in black sat in silence, resting. The wind whipped around the bark of the few trees that dotted the edge of the dried out river, whistling in the gusts. Finally, the horses seemed to have enough rest and Owen turned them around and went up following the path the Sheriff left on.
“You weren't afraid of dying.” the man said.
“Wasn't thinking much of it then,” Owen said. “Thinking about it more now, but there's time to think now.”
“Fear is an interesting thing, isn't it?” the man asked.
Owen just looked at him. He wasn't sure how to answer, or even if there was an answer.
“I mean, look at the way you handle fear,” he continued. “You let it push you to do what must be done. The Malcolms let it fuel their hatred. The Donaghues are no different.”
“Aren't you a Malcolm?” Owen asked.
“Never said that I was. I'm close with them...that doesn't make me one of them.”
"Hmm, too bad."
“I was hoping you could tell me why the two families hated each other in first place.”
"That wouldn't make a difference no matter what family I belonged to because neither of them remembers why. Now they would say it's because Joe Mal was killed. It's the same with every killing. They say it's because the Donaghues took someone they love. But the Malcolms do the same. No one knows how it all started. They are just afraid. That's the only reason they need. They gallop forward in their hatred, blind to anything else in the way, or anything else pulling them back."
“If you aren't a Malcolm, how do you know them? Why are you here?” Owen asked.
“Because they keep inviting me.”
Owen cocked his head trying to decide who he had been wheeling around all day. The man in black knew it, he just stared back, and there was a chill in those blue eyes, even in the dry, wind chapped sun.
"I was there." the man said. "I was there when Joseph Malcolm was gunned down in the street. I can tell you; there was real fear. He realized all too late that the show wasn't worth it. That the Mr. Malcolm title was hollow. He was just a kid, he knew it, wanted to be it again, but it was gone. And so, he experienced something that should have come a long time from now. All the love, all the lesser mistakes, all the victories, all the trials, the rewards, the meaning of living, never to be.
“But you weren't afraid, Owen. One slip in that jump and your horses, or your coach, or both, would have trampled you right into the earth. But you just did what had to be done. You see life differently, don't you, simple undertaker? One who sees so much death might just cherish the living that much more. You go home and thank God and all that is good for your wife and grown kids, don't you?”
Owen had tears welling up in his eyes as they approached the crowd standing by the ranch house. The priest was already there, ready to start the service. He didn't even need to get out of his seat, the brothers, and cousins, and father were taking the casket out themselves.
Some looked up at him, admiring his tears for a family they thought he respected. He wasn't moved to tears by the dead, but by the living.
The wind still kept its charge over the flatlands. The dirt was moving in the air almost like clouds brought low to the ground. They swirled and danced off in the distance. Black shapes sat on horses behind the gusts. The Donaghues did show, but kept their distance, mocking with their shadows.
The Malcolms pretended they weren't there. The time for vengeance would soon come.
Owen and the man in black climbed off the coach, and stood looking out across the field to the shapes beyond. The family started the final services behind them.
Owen wiped the tears back, thick on his cheek with dirt and dust.
“If only we could all live like undertakers, Mr. Stewart” the man said.
Owen never went by that name. He looked at the man in black with new curiosity.
“What did you say your name was again?” Owen asked.
“Oh...you know my name.” the man said. “Just as much as the Malcolms know it, just as much as the Donaghues. Maybe someday they will finally forget it, either by choice, or because there are none of them left to remember.”
Then he took a few steps towards the plains, out to where the silhouettes stood behind the wind.
“You're a Donaghue, aren't you?” Owen asked.
"No...no...but I'm close with them too," he said. "And I'm sure they'll invite me very soon."
The man nodded his head back at the crowd for Owen to take a look. Joseph Sr. had walked away from the group around the coffin, and stared out into the swirling winds. Owen had never seen a look in a man's eyes like that. They were like iron being heated in the forge, molded by the fire. It wasn't the kind of fire that warmed homes, but the kind that tore through forests. Owen wondered just how much forest that fire could burn, how much fuel would it need? Would there ever be enough?
Owen turned back to the man, but he was gone. He looked out over the dirt and clumps of dry grass out in the prairie. He couldn't be sure, but he thought he saw an extra shadow out in the howling gusts. He wondered why the man in black wandered out to the shadows.
That was the nature of things that have always been.