Wednesday, January 30, 2013


Ray Anne stood at the edge of the porch on loose floorboards, shielding her eyes from the burn of a white hot sky. A column of dust rose on the horizon, dust or smoke or something like it. She squinted against the merciless glare. "Harmon," she called. "There's someone approachin'."

"Cain't be," he hollered. "Ain't been no one on this property for years." Swaggering into the light of midday, he sidled up to Ray Anne on the splintered planks. He drained the dregs of tequila from an empty bottle, then pitched it alongside the house. Damn, if she wasn't right. A truck approached, kicking up dust along the narrow rut that doubled for road. "God forsaken trespassers," he cursed. "Comin' onto my land?"

Close to the border, she and Harmon scraped out a living raising cattle on the parched earth. The closest supply town, Ragweed, lay twenty miles west. But the townspeople turned a cold shoulder, so Ray Anne rarely showed face.

She tugged her faded work shirt over narrow hips, smoothing back thin wisps of graying hair. "Maybe there's trouble?" she wondered. Most folks didn't wander onto their land. Most folks knew better not to.

"Hell with that," he slurred in his stupor. "Let 'em all die." He wheeled the hulk of his frame back into darkness, that spare house with the curtains all drawn, light spilling through random cracks in the walls. She followed him in like a shadow and watched him curl into a heap on the mattress. Sure enough his whiskered jaw grew slack and in no time ragged breath grated the silence.

Relieved, she tiptoed back to the porch and caught sight of the truck in the undulating heat. The load in the back came into focus: a truck full of people, not livestock as she'd first believed. She surveyed the scene, figured they'd taken a wrong turn. No one would wander onto this ranch unless they expected the worst.

Ray Anne considered saddling Dyno, the roan horse, so she could ride out to investigate. She stepped off the porch, anxiously glancing back every few steps. God help her if she disturbed Harmon. Ever since his return from the trenches, something inside him had snapped. Tolerated in Ragweed, he'd drive cattle in, conduct his business, drink his fair share then return, demanding a meal before passing out for the night. No sign of him, he'd most likely snore his way long until supper.

Why the heck not? She hurried to the barn in defiance, saddled the horse and bolted in a cloud of dust.

At a comfortable distance, she halted, squinting at the dark outline of a man. He stood in the shadow of the truck waving his hat. "Hello?" he shouted in a questioning voice. She sized him up. Climbed down off the horse.

"What you all doin'?" she asked. "You know this is Harmon's ranch? Signs posted everywhere. Harmon means business. He'll shoot."

The man replaced his hat. "We're lookin' for Ribald. R-I-B . . .," he began to spell out the name of the ranch ten miles east.

"No need to spell it. I know who they are. Ten miles that way," she pointed. "Best hightail it now, before you find yourselves toast."

She surveyed the truck. Silently looking her over, the men studied her rail thin frame. "Get on out of here," she repeated. "If John Ribald's expectin' you, you best move on."

The first shot rang out like a clap of thunder. The unmistakable sound of a bullet whizzed past. In confusion, the men scurried out of the truck. Leather soles sounded on hardscrabble earth, shuffling in naked silence. Ray Anne stood her ground. "Crazy bastard," she shouted, rattling a fist at the sky.

Someone called out, "God damn it, take cover!" But there was no place to hide. Desert cactus offers no refuge. A second gunshot tore through the air. Ricocheting off the front bumper, the bullet rang like a bell. Panicked, the men huddled behind the truck, a few desperately diving beneath it.

The third bullet caught her below the rib cage. She stumbled in shock, legs buckling beneath her. Serrated rocks scraped her shoulder blades, tore at the flesh on her legs. Fiery sun penetrated her gaze as she lay in a pool of blood. She lay there alone as the bullets whizzed past, flies buzzing like an odd lullaby.

An eerie calm permeated the space around them. High in the thermals, buzzards wheeled and tipped their wings. "Let's get the hell out of here!" one of the men shouted. In a panic, they piled into the truck. One or two glanced at Ray Anne, but most looked away. Dust rose in a whirlwind as the truck bumped along in retreat.

Harmon ducked into the sun-pierced darkness beneath the tumbledown roof. "Damn those vagrants, that'll show them. Who do they think they are, trespassing onto my land?" Unrequited silence met the blast of his words. "Ray Anne, where are you woman? I don't smell no dinner!" He tossed his sweat-soaked hat on the wooden chair by the door. Damn if his back didn't ache. Inch by inch he unraveled muscle and bone atop the mattress, succumbing to an interminable stupor. As the stars popped out, he snored. Snored as her eyes glazed over and her spirit soared skyward.

The trespasser parked his truck in a depression at the side of the road. By the light of half moon he set off, gravel crunching under his boots. The cactus cast menacing shadows. He prayed that the vultures hadn't beaten him to her. Hard as he tried, he couldn't shake the vision. That woman picked apart by the vultures.

"God forgive me," he murmured, sickened with guilt. "I've made one or two wrong turns in my life. But for this one, there's no doubt I'll pay." Lightning flashed beyond the ridges, portent of an approaching storm.

His canteen sloshed, an odd jangle marking his stride. He drew a sip of water from the spout. Metallic, its taste turned his stomach. He focused on a rock outcropping to the north. Judged his progress by its proximity.

Up canyon, a coyote howled. He hadn't considered the coyotes. Quickening his pace, he cursed himself for boots he'd meant to re-sole, drawing up on the spot he'd committed to memory. There, where she'd met him on horseback. There, where the first shot rang out. But he saw not a trace of her.

In desperation, he dropped to one knee. "A quarter mile," he wheezed, catching his breath. "Then I call it quits." He scoured the landscape in vain. Sweet Jesus, if he could only remember.

Overhead a night bird swooped. Its enormous wingspread gave him a start. He followed its flight and behold, in the distance, the unnatural reflection of a faded work shirt. He picked his way urgently over the rocks, stumbling and scraping his palms. Smacked his knee on a shard which tore at the kneecap. His blood trickled down, but he didn't delay, grimacing as he hobbled along.

There she lay in a pool of darkened blood, eyes opened wide to the heavens. He closed her eyelids. Pressing his fingers along her neck, he confirmed what he already knew. Out of his rucksack, he withdrew a blanket. Threadbare and ragged, it served its purpose. A proper burial was what she deserved. For that reason, he'd carried a shovel.

Our Father, who art in Heaven. The tip of the blade sank into the earth, striking rock in less than six inches. Hallowed be thy name. Beads of sweat rolled off his brow. He wiped it clean with his shirtsleeve. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done. He took several steps, pivoting on his heels, then strained as he pushed with all of his might, until rock and soil yielded as one. On earth as it is in Heaven. He repeated the prayer in an endless loop, sinking the shovel and pitching the soil at the pace of a man possessed.

The distant storm made headway. Thunder bellowed off the surrounding peaks and lightning jolted the sky. He scooped her up into his arms, her body as light as a rag doll's, then laid her to rest in the rocky indentation that served as her final resting spot. Forgive us our trespasses. Silver dollar drops of rain splattered the earth. In haste, he shoveled the soil over her body. As we forgive those who trespass against us. He placed a final stone upon the grave site, his hand lingering there for a moment before he gathered himself in retreat.

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