Evan rode along the dirt trail until his horse reared, almost throwing him. High overhead, moonlight cast the trees in a silver tinge. He was returning home after selling another few dozen cattle at the market. Only a handful of starving cows remained on the farm.
"What's wrong, Silver?" Evan asked.
The night was emptied of life during this drought. The dark silence didn't rile him, but something had spooked Silver. Evan scanned the treeline.
They would have been home hours ago if the butchers offered a fair price for his cattle. The townsfolk were suffering, and they did not offer a fair price without a long negotiation. Soon there would be no more cows and no more harvests. Only Evan and his horse would be left on this dead piece of land.
Silver shook her head and edged backward a few steps.
Evan released the reins and patted her neck. "I trust you, girl. What's wrong?"
Silver dragged her hoof along the dirt and shook her head again.
An unnatural quiet coated a landscape that ought to be alive with animals hunting for a meal. Wildlife had fled months ago to places with flowing rivers instead of parched, crusty creek beds. Dry leaves crunched under Evan's boots.
The farm had spooked Evan long ago after Pa had spotted a wolf at the fence. Father and son took turns keeping watch through the night. The next day, Evan worked the farm with heavy eyelids. At dusk, they found the wolf's lair. Pa warned Evan that a wounded predator is a dangerous creature. They cornered the angry wolf, and Pa fired the fatal shot. That loud blast echoed in Evan's memory until he shot the next invading wolf.
Evan shivered now because he was so close to home. After Pa died, he lived alone on the farm. The place belonged to him, and he belonged in this place. His dog, Duke, should alert him to any danger, but for some strange reason, the last half mile of the journey home always teased Evan's nerves. Maybe those violent memories were fuelling his imagination the closer he got to home.
Duke always eased those nerves when he ran to greet Evan. Silver was right to be edgy. Evan wanted to call for Duke, but that would betray his presence to whoever else waited for him. The damnable silence endured.
Evan stayed out of the saddle. The earth was dry and hard, but he needed to feel it under his boots. He tied Silver's reins to a tree and slid a Winchester rifle from the saddle scabbard.
"Wait here, girl. Maybe it's only the wind playing tricks."
Silver nudged Evan's chest.
"You're right. It ain't the wind." Evan cocked the hammer and stepped toward the house.
A grey trail rose from the chimney of the timber homestead. Dirty smoke tarnished the hovering moon. Evan's fireplace was cold when he left. Someone was enjoying its warmth. Someone uninvited.
Evan's shoulders tensed as he crouched to scan his home for movement. The Winchester's polished brass was cold in his hands.
Two horses were tied to a wagon loaded with hessian sacks. Objects that had been inside the house now littered the ground. Books lay spilled open, beside shattered pieces of clay bowls his ma had sculpted. A cool breeze teased the pages of the books, occasionally turning them as though ghosts were enjoying new tales.
The door flung open, and a man dropped two more bags into the wagon. Warm orange light stretched from the fireplace along the ground, touching the chestnut horse and its jet-black partner.
Evan crouched in shadow to peer inside the open doorway. Two men stalked through the rooms, sweeping items from shelves. Some tumbled to the floor, and others slid into sacks. The clatter of so much damage was jarring. He stared at a tall, elegant vase, still untouched.
While the older man kicked aside the items he had broken, his companion bent to sniff tiny flowers poking from the vase. Evan had picked those flowers from the garden Ma had planted so many years ago. Somehow, her garden clung to life, shaded by the house to escape the worst of the day's heat. The younger man smiled, and an innocence washed over his face. At that moment, he appeared to be a respectful guest instead of a vile intruder.
Evan knew the scent, still vivid in his memory. His ma had a green thumb, but Evan could never grow new flowers. The touch of fragrant color must be special to survive all these years since her passing.
Duke lay dead beside the trail. He bore a gunshot to the head and a fresh brand on his rump. Evan bent down and touched Duke's shoulder. The body was still warm. He squeezed the rifle and stalked toward the men who had killed his dog.
The older man inside the house scowled and smacked the vase from the table. It smashed on the stone floor, loud enough to startle the younger man.
Evan winced from the shock at its loss. The older man had carelessly destroyed another object touched by Evan's ma.
"Why did you do that? Them flowers were pretty," the younger man said.
"Pretty don't pay, unless you're a woman. Are you a woman, Virgil?"
"Of course I ain't. But they smell like a woman, sweet like perfume."
"If you like 'em so much, marry 'em. Cause we can't sell them."
"Why do we got to sell anything, Mark? We could live here."
Mark flicked through a book, then tore out a clump of pages and dropped them on the fire. He shook another, perhaps expecting banknotes to drop from its pages. Maybe Mark was literate, but he did not bother to read the knowledge in his hands, instead tossing the books out the door. His clothes, from his hat down to his boots, were black. Slick black hair and a mustache completed his cold portrait. The man was an idiot. If only he would read those books instead of tossing them, he would not need to trash another man's home.
Another clump of pages fell into the fire, and Evan stepped closer. The fire pushed his shadow onto the porch and into the night. He stood still, waiting for the intruders to turn.
Virgil was the first to react. Perhaps he heard Evan's slow breath amid the commotion of Mark's violent search. With luck, he also felt a heavy unease in his gut.
The sharp end of the Winchester captured Virgil's attention. He crouched with his hands well clear of the gun on his hip and stepped backward until he bumped into Mark.
"Watch where you're walkin', idiot." Mark turned. The annoyance on his face shifted to amusement. He grabbed his gun.
"Don't do it." Evan pointed the Winchester at Mark's chest. The room was stifling from the fire's heat, and the hair on the back of Evan's neck tingled, as it always did in anticipation of a shot.
Mark chewed a wad of tobacco. The room was silent apart from his chomping and the fire's crackle. He spat brown juice onto the floor at Evan's feet.
"Why did you shoot my dog?"
"Go easy, mister. We ain't trespassing. We're ransacking. Besides, it's quieter without that hound's barking." Mark crossed his arms over his chest as though the black sleeves might shield him from a bullet. Perhaps he had survived many gunfights and gambled that Evan was not a killer.
"Why? You don't look short of money." Evan nodded toward Mark's expensive outfit. "Unless you robbed a tailor."
Virgil stepped behind Mark. They looked like brothers, though in stature, Virgil must be the youngest. His gaze locked on the Winchester. "We're mighty sorry we had to shoot your dog, but thieving and murder happen all the time back east. Lower the Yellow Boy, and we'll let you be."
The crooked thinking of this pair made no sense to Evan. It was late, and he did not want to argue with these gunmen any longer.
"The West has laws. The marshal will decide your fate."
"Forget the marshal. More men are coming for this entire valley. It's a new migration. First, it was the farmers and ranchers headed west for riches. Now it's my turn." Mark had edged closer to the table that stood him and Evan, with Virgil close behind. He ducked under the Winchester and kicked a chair, striking Evan in the shin.
The rifle discharged. It missed Mark but took a chunk from the timber wall. Mark knocked the barrel aside and jammed a revolver against Evan's temple.
"What was you saying about laws?" Mark asked.
The room shrank while the stench of Mark's grime clung under Evan's nose. With wide eyes and sweaty faces, Mark and Virgil had the wild demeanor of caged animals.
Evan felt a similar rush while hunting for feral animals. Time raced during those hunts, as he scanned for the flash of a wolf's eyes in the darkness.
The two men were close enough for a proper fistfight. If Evan could turn the gun away from his skull, he would disable Mark with a swift knee, but how would Virgil react? Evan truly did not want to kill this pair. He opened his palms in surrender.
"I'm surprised you found enough to fill one of those sacks. This place ain't so green anymore. Have you ever worked a farm?"
A farmer's life was full of firsts. The first green shoots of a new crop. The first harvest. The first meal from that harvest. The first sale at market. It was nature's miracle, day after day, but those were long ago.
Virgil coughed, then nodded. "I farmed a little when I was a kid. Hard work."
"Shut up, Virgil. Do we look like farmers? We take what we want instead of waiting for the seasons. Mother Nature is more fickle than the ladies in town."
"She's looked out for me in the past. Now, I've been choking on dust, but . . . ," Evan said.
Mark smacked Evan across the face. The thief's ring clipped the side of Evan's eye, broke the skin, and drew tears.
"She didn't see that coming. Neither did you, farmer. But the drought's over."
Evan dabbed at his eye and looked down at the moisture on his finger. It was red.
This room had hosted arguments between husband and wife, father and son. Evan's parents had debated what to plant, how to feed their cattle, and where to find more water. None of those arguments ended in blood. Those disputes were about real life, the farm, and their future. This confrontation was ugly, with two strangers picking through Evan's possessions. They were no better than vultures, but they were still men that must have some hint of human reason, something Evan could connect to.
Mark shoved Evan against the wall, then gestured to the upturned chair.
"Take a seat before you fall down."
Evan righted the chair, and the rigid wooden legs scraped on the floor. He sat with arms crossed while a bloody teardrop fell from his cheek.
"It'll be dawn in a few hours. The sunlight reveals plenty," Evan said.
"After I fed the fireplace with pages from your worthless books, the flames lit up the room. There ain't much worth stealing," Mark said.
"As I said, light reveals all."
The fire cast Mark and Virgil's shadows on the wall. Black shapes flickered like ghouls.
"Your shadows are as vague as your souls. I thought the earth was barren. Now that it's spat you from its depths, it will sprout green again."
Mark surged forward and punched Evan in the cheek. The blow knocked Evan's head backward, and he tasted blood.
The room fell quiet again, apart from Mark's raspy breathing. He spat more tobacco juice into the fire.
Evan felt a little of the fear that was in every man, but other feelings were stronger in him now. He inhaled deeply, then looked up at both men.
Virgil turned to the window as though unable to endure the glare of his victim.
"It's stuffy in here." Mark hurled a mug through the same window. The glass shattered, and the sound was as loud as the Winchester shot in this tight space.
"Why did you do that?" Virgil asked.
"'Cause whether you're admiring your reflection or trying to see what this farmer is talking about, you're wasting your time."
Evan bent to pick up a branding iron that had fallen at his feet, but Mark stood on it and shoved Evan back against the chair.
"Why are you burning books? Because you can't read, or are you scared of what you might learn?" Evan asked.
Mark grabbed another book and held it over the fire. It was a collection of ancient fables, fragile from frequent use. Evan's ma had taught him to read with that book.
"I never needed a reason. No one has stopped me from doing whatever makes me smile," Mark said.
The flames tickled the book's spine, and black smoke spread over the leather cover, staining it with chalky soot.
Virgil had a familiar vacant stare. He holstered his gun and snatched the book away from the flames.
"Explain what you mean," Virgil said.
"Idiot. There's nothing to explain," Mark said.
"Between those pages is something more valuable than anything you've stolen from this house." Evan pointed to his skull. "The stories become real in your mind."
Mark pointed the gun at the floor casually, matching his smirk. He pressed the branding iron's tip against the heart of the fire. The black metal smoldered, and burning dog hair smoked on its tip while he looked back at Evan. As the brand glowed red, Mark's rage seemed to cool at the same rate.
Evan sat with crossed arms, his eyes closed. The fire crackled. He felt a sudden heat near his face.
"Hey. Wake up. Tell us a story, or you get the brand. It ought to stop the bleeding."
Evan opened his eyes and leaned away from the molten orange metal. Mark also pointed his gun at Evan while Virgil leaned against the wall, as though settled in his new home.
There were so many tales in those burning books. Evan would gladly share stories with folks in town when they asked him. He remembered his ma's sweet voice as she read him tales when he was a kid. She always recited them with love regardless of how often she had turned the same pages.
"Somewhere in these parts, there was a farmer and a rancher. They were good neighbors until they had eyes for the same plot of land," Evan said.
"Why? Did they find gold? Silver?" Mark asked.
"Nothing so shiny, but it did hold rich soil and lay near the river. Starting out, the men shared this prime patch that ran beside their properties."
The fire crackled while the intruders stood silent. Evan leaned back and drew his hands together, interlocking the fingers.
"A few of the rancher's cattle died, then the farmer's crops were burned. No one believed it was a coincidence. The pair fought until one of them was dead. The survivor buried his neighbor and headed west to start over. There were no lawmen in those days to hunt him. The land was abandoned. After a time, it returned to wilderness."
Virgil stepped closer. "Which one of 'em died? Why didn't the victor stay?"
"It don't matter. I'd have settled it if they paid me well enough," Mark said.
"The folks that knew those men were ashamed to speak their names. The killer was too proud to stay so close to his former friend's grave. This could be the land they fought over and that you are trying to steal. The fight should never be between sodbusters and ranchers. The fight should be against you. Gutless, murdering thieves. Do you reckon your troubles will end if you kill me the way you killed Duke? If I die here, this cursed land will swallow you."
Mark pointed the gun at Evan's head, jerked it sideways, and fired. The bullet slammed into the wall. Its loud blast echoed through the modest cabin.
The air became stifling as burning books fell apart in the fireplace. No breeze entered through the broken window.
Evan's eardrums screamed while he wiped the side of his face. His palm was stained only with sweat. The cut near his eye must have stopped bleeding, though it still ached when he blinked.
"Is this where I throw down my gun and get a red neck from sodbusting, or the stink of manure from cowpunching?" Mark asked.
While Virgil and Evan sweated, Mark's face looked as cold as his black clothes. He stood with his back to the fire, surrounded by an orange and red aura from the flames.
The ringing in Evan's ears softened to a low buzz.
"There are good, honest jobs on this new frontier. Barkeep, barber, banker. Hell, you could be a lawman. Plenty of outlaws have changed sides and helped build towns all along the border instead of wrecking 'em."
Mark smirked at the back-handed compliment. It was easy to be smug when your victim was unarmed.
"I'm parched after all this excitement. Offer me some whiskey to prove the meaning of my tale didn't fly over your head," Evan said.
"This is the Wild West, with no real lawmen. An outlaw's paradise," Mark said.
"And yet, fine towns are growing here. A few outlaws can't stop that."
"Your fairy stories only work on the simple-minded. Whiskey costs money. What are you offering for a glass of this fine alcohol you once owned?" Mark drank from the bottle, then leaned back with one leg bent to press his boot against the timber wall.
Virgil had a thoughtful, faraway stare. He snatched the bottle and handed it to Evan before Mark could react.
While the liquid sloshed inside the half-empty bottle, Evan held it in his palm to look at the label. Besides Mark, Pa was the last man to drink the golden liquid, but in his final days, Pa stayed sober and endured all the pain and fear of dying without the numbing liquid. Regardless of what Evan had told Mark, he could never drink this or any other alcohol. It would be an insult to his pa's memory.
"What are you doing, dummy?" Mark pointed at Virgil.
Virgil retreated to the other side of the table. "I likes the idea of working our own place instead of lookin' over my shoulder all the time."
Mark pushed from the wall and reached for the bottle. "Give it here. You ain't paid for it yet."
Evan tightened his grip with both hands and looked up at Virgil.
"Thank you, Virgil. This bottle is a symbol. It's worth more than money. It can set you free."
Mark laughed, then sat on the table with his boots on a chair. He now had sweat on his upper lip.
"I'm already free on my new farm."
"You said this was our farm." Virgil stepped between him and Evan.
"I know what I said, but someone will be in charge."
Evan coughed. "Your freedom sounds complicated, Mark. Virgil can't be free if you're ordering him around all day."
Evan ran his finger over the label with its embossed drawing of a wide oak tree. He once dreamed of the tree growing in the middle of their field. It grew to block the sun. Evan climbed to its peak, hoping to glimpse the entire world from atop its thick, leafy branches. In the dream, he looked down from a great height, and his stomach felt heavy as stone. The branches shook, his fingers slipped, and he fell. He woke before his dream self hit the ground.
In few words, Pa's tiny handwriting on the label explained when to sow, how to kill pests before they ravaged the plants, how to tend the soil and find groundwater, and finally, when to harvest. The sweat on Evan's brow reminded him of his first harvest. Under the summer sun, nature's miracle gifted him food from the brown earth.
A successful harvest sometimes took years on a new farm, a patience these intruders might never understand. If he lived to see the morning, he would remember the steps to defeat human pests.
Evan had buried his parents on this farm, but there was no one to bury him. He pressed his fingers against the embossed image until it left an impression on his skin.
"I'm sorry," Evan said.
Mark nodded as though the apology was for him. His gun was out of the holster but pointed at the stone floor.
Virgil leaned forward with a strained expression. "Sorry for what?"
Evan burst from the chair and smashed the bottle over Mark's head. In the small room, the crash of glass against bone was as loud as a gunshot. The bottle splintered, and tiny shards sprayed in a cloud, colliding with the wall. Some dug into Virgil's jacket. The stink of whiskey replaced the subtle fragrance from the flowers and the dirty smell of burning paper.
A nasty gash opened along Mark's scalp. Blood dribbled through his black hair. The broken, heavy base of the bottle hit the floor. Mark followed it, crumpling in a dark heap. His legs had turned to rubber.
The jagged glass edges of the bottle's throat extended between Evan's fingers.
Virgil's face betrayed concern for his brother. He had a lazy grip on his gun. For some men, a gun was a prop to scare folks. It must work on folks back east, but too many men in these parts had fought in wars.
Evan rushed at Virgil, then held the sharp edge of the bottle against the rough skin of the intruder's throat.
Glass brushed against blond stubble. Virgil's eyes were wide, the fear poured into them. He leaned back, but the glass pressed against his throbbing artery. An ugly grey scar ran from ear to ear across his throat. The mark of a rope. This man had survived a hanging.
"Pity about your friend, but don't make me do more, Virgil. This place has been in my family for decades. It ain't yours to take."
Virgil leaned back to allow speech without the glass puncturing his throat. "I didn't come here to die. I've been too damn close to the other side. Mark promised this could be our place, somewhere to live in peace."
The fear in his eyes turned to sadness. Perhaps he had seen the same bright light that Evan's ma spoke of as she passed.
"Drop the gun, and you won't die tonight," Evan said.
Virgil stared at Evan with frantic eyes. Wild animals were the same as outlaws, both terrified to die alone.
There had been enough death in this house. Pa died while the farm was dying. Rain had stopped, fields had turned barren, and cattle had starved. Every longhorn Evan had killed to end its suffering added to his hate for the farm. After so much struggle, there was no reward and no end. Mark's invasion was a curse and a blessing. The threat of losing the farm caused Evan to hold on to it even tighter.
Evan snatched the gun from Virgil, turned it on him, then threw the broken glass into the fire.
"Get down on your belly."
"What are you going to do?" Virgil flinched at the shattering glass.
"Get down." Evan pressed the gun against Virgil's head, driving him to the floor. He grabbed a rope from a hook on the wall and tied Virgil's hands, then Mark's.
The heavy roof beam could easily support the weight of these men. Evan considered hanging them by their arms while he found help, but he dismissed the idea. Pa had warned never to turn your back on a wild animal. This pair would be as unpredictable. They would surely burn his home to ashes and escape if he left them alone. He already dreaded the dawn, when he would see the full toll of their damage.
Evan shook Mark's shoulder. "Wake up. Time to leave."
Mark stirred, then pulled at the ropes. "I can't get me balance to stand with my hands behind my back."
"Stand up, or I'll end you." Evan cocked the revolver.
Mark rolled onto his shoulder and pushed up to kneel.
"Damn you, farmer. Cut me loose."
Evan pulled on the slack. "Stand up."
"So you can hang me?"
Mark and Evan stared at each other, then Evan pulled hard on the rope.
"Answer me, filthy coward." Mark grimaced as he stood, dragged upright by the rope. His hands were busy clawing for the knot, but it was out of reach. He ran at Evan with arms still bound until a knee to the belly doubled him over.
Virgil could have exploited the moment while Evan turned his back, but he appeared too terrified to try anything. Evan pitied the younger brother, but not enough to untie the rope.
He pulled the ropes then gestured with the gun for the intruders to leave his home. The pair stumbled to the door.
Mark grabbed the door frame until Evan clipped his hand with the butt of the revolver.
"Get up on the wagon." Evan removed the sacks of his belongings from the wagon and grabbed the brothers by the elbows to help them aboard. While they shuffled to sit upright, Evan knotted the rope around Mark's ankles.
Mark kicked at Evan's hands, but missed. The ropes bound his hands to his feet.
"I'll burn this place with you in it. You'll never sleep easy again," Mark said.
Virgil shook his head. "That's enough. If I survive this day, we're through. I've cheated death too often 'cause of your schemes."
"Shut up, idiot. My plans kept us fed." Mark fiddled with the ropes, then gave up and kicked the wagon's side.
"I ain't been hungry for a long time, but my neck hurts. When the noose tightens, your neck will hurt too," Virgil said.
Evan hitched his horse beside the horses of his intruders. They pulled the wagon across the flat plain to town. The wheels rumbled over stones on the trail. Evan slowed every few minutes to check that the ropes were still tight.
"You'll rot in our jail until that mustache turns gray. If the judge is in a foul mood, the hangman will be the last face you see before the blindfold blacks out your world. Either way, folks will know your faces. We'll be watching."
At the edge of town, sunlight kissed the horizon. The black sky turned grey, then blue, then gold.
Outside the marshal's office, a Wanted poster for Mark looked fresh. The reward for his capture ought to feed Evan's remaining cattle for another year.
Evan buried Duke and promised never to leave this place.
With luck, the farm would endure until the rain. His toil ought to sway that luck for long enough to feel the rain from heaven once more.