The dried up field had marks of black ash laid out to the horizon. In the distance, the reaping fire devoured those wheat straw that polluted the field. It was early afternoon when they set the blaze and the two men stood on the white dirt and watched the smoke veil over the blue sky like night rising from an abyss.
The rider licked the rolling paper and curled it into a cigarette. He never could master this skill and often his tobacco was too much or too little and peppered from the edges. A match was struck on the ivory handle of his pistol. Beside him the farmer lifted his hat to wipe his sweating brow. He had short, white hair combed to the side and wrinkles down his forehead. A pair of spectacles rested on his nose which was wide at the nostrils and he had simple, brown eyes.
All they could hear was the crackle of the controlled fire. It’s hot, dark red spines wisp up and weaved through the currents like fish in a stream. The rider shook out the match as it shriveled up and pitched it to the dead earth.
Dirt and grass became black under the inferno which reminded the rider more of a stampede of cattle if that cattle were made of hell and all that passed beneath it became as ash and sizzled to a final desolation. Both farmer and rider knew the promise of the destruction. The reward for the sacrifice. That the violent burning would heal the wounds it had inflicted. The land would be rejuvenated.
That is a wonder. The rider said. Smoke plumed from his chapped lips.
It is just the way of things. The farmer knelt and took up some dead grass in his hand and rubbed it under his thumb. It broke apart into smaller pieces and eventually he dusted it from his palm. Has been a long time.
Somethin about it feels significant.
It is a big fire. I reckon it could be overwhelmin. The farmer said, unconcerned.
The smoke sprawled out over the sun and it vanished behind the darkness. Only a faint gleam of its white eye could be seen through the screen. The rider took a waterskin the farmer offered and had a drink as the sight had made him thirsty.
We live in a perilous world, stranger. I fear sometimes mankind is like them wheat straws. That it takes a good burnin every now and then to get us fresh and prosperous. The farmer with his face like dried clay stared out at the fire.
That is what is the word. Dis-con-certain. The rider dropped the rolled cigarette and made sure to squash it under his boot tip. What is a man to do with that kind of truth?
Let it happen. The farmer answered easily.
I do not think I can abide that. You ought to always do somethin.
Even if its a guarantee?
Even if it is. The rider said, indignant.
What is that yonder? The farmer made motion to a stooped shadow wandering from the West. It weaved in the heat.
The rider hooded his eyes and squinted.
It appears to be a fella. Another farm nearby?
In lieu of answering, the farmer started to approach the shadow. Eventually it did reveal itself to be a man. He was short and wore overalls over his barrel chest. He had a thick beard and in his right hand he held a shotgun. The rider felt his stomach sink. For beside the weapon on the man’s wrists were broken manacles.
Is there somethin you need, friend? The farmer said.
A horse. Water. If you would kindly. The man said.
Surely, where is it you come from?
Town back that way. I am in a hurry, so if you would oblige me.
Course, son. Why don’t you pitch that gun here. We’ll get you what you need back at the farm.
The man lifted the shotgun into both hands. He squinted at the farmer who put up his hands instinctively as the weapon was raised. The rider tensed, his hand down at his thigh where the pistol waited in the scabbard.
Easy now. I do not want trouble.
Well you got it. The man said.
Beyond them the field burned. Its hot fumes wafting down wind over them like a nervous breath. Stillness and silence fell over them and in the distance the crackle of the flames made their muscles twitch. There was no movement.
But in the distance clouds gathered. Clouds of dust. They heard the hue and cry of a posse gaining on their position. There was a crack of thunder as the shotgun went off and knocked the farmer back onto the dirt. The rider had already drawn. His aim deadly and the sound hidden under the shotgun’s blast.
The bullet had put a hole in the escaped convict’s eye and in the back of his head a large, black and charred exit wound. Blood pooled on the ground between the farmer and the convict, congealed into indistinguishable red. The rider merely sheathed his weapon.
He approached the body of the farmer and knelt down. He checked him for life and shut his eyes when he found none. Still the fire roared in the distance. From the smoke screen vultures emerged like beasts from another world. They circled overhead while insects broke through the dried, cracked earth. All anticipating the rider’s departure. He worried they would follow him, he worried they had good reason.
The posse neared and he took up the farmer’s body into his arms. On his skin the blood was already crawling. He turned to head back to the farm and trailed the length of the fire.
There was not much left to be done and he felt no immediate sorrow or saw in the events any portents. It was just the way of things. It had been, for a long time.