Richard's grandmother in the grass. The wheat flattened where she crawled and in her clenched fists dirt and torn plants and in her eyes the senile fear of having shared a space with death. She looking up at Richard and squinting in the sun and in a voice that lost its composure she told him that the man's in the kitchen and that she didn't know who he was.
When they heard the gun shot they swam in the river that marks the southeast perimeter of Joe's property. The shots echo ringing across the country and bringing the boys out the woods. Richard's grandmother running out the door in their direction, her arms in the air, was a sight they couldn't quite believe. They road the same horse down to her still soaked in their shorts.
Elson on the stool with the shotgun across his knees. He rolled a cigarette on the flat of the stock. Next to him the table collapsed into a heap of dark wooden planks. He's in trouble, Joe.
The man with green eyes crawled to the door. His hair undone and enveloping his head. From his face to the floorboards a tangled mess of hair and blood and saliva and loose skin. From the meat of his throat came a groan that told of a life lived in the margin of people's credulity subverted, of a face that betrayed one moment and turned around and loved the next. A voice that did win the adoration of a people it called its own. It reverberated in the hollow wooden spaces of the house and escaped out the doors and windows of the house into the late afternoon of the country that surrounds this corner of the world that found itself the setting of this man's end that day.
The man's fingers around Joe's ankles. Joe standing in the doorway half naked, the light coming in crowding him in the doorway and rendering him a dark hazy silhouette to the man. A drop of water fell from Joe's shorts and landed in front of the the man's face. Joe's hand supported his head. Joe pondered on what darkness there was to be found in the man's heart, and if the man had made a mistake, if it were to underestimate the darkness that may be contained in the hearts of others.
A madness stirring in the thick of the woods. It crept along the ground, shifting the leaves and the twigs and over the fallen logs and gliding over the rivers. Its origins black and capricious and native, the thing itself only the residue of a force whose intentions and influence on man are beyond his ability to decipher, it boiled in the sun sliding into orange and rose from the fields like a mist. It descended on the boys and found an equal in their hearts as they sat astride their horses armed with a rifle each and conspired with the madness against the girls.
Richard's cigarette aglow in the hue of the late afternoon sky. What if they got their horses tied up there and they make a run north across the fields.
Thieves don't got horses.
Why would they go through all that trouble.
You ever stalked a cat before? They go through all kinds of trouble.
Richard spat. He said: Well. If they got chickens, there'll be feathers.
I can follow the feathers.
All right. I'll be at the bridge then.
What if they're not headed for the bridge.
They're headed for the bridge. Joe loaded the rifle. These are for their people waiting for them at the bridge. If you hear a shot, set up with a clear view of the field. You'll see me first and then they'll follow. It's easy pickings for you.
That's the worst that'll happen. Chances are it's just us against the girls.
How are you so sure they're headed for the bridge.
Well. How many chickens they take, a dozen? That's more than a family. The woods across the bridge is the only place to hide that many people. They're looking for wood for the fire now, most likely. Chances are good they don't know anything's happened. Chances are the three or four men they got that can fight are busy with something else. He told Richard to keep his ears open and his rifle on the saddle.
What if there's shooting to be done.
Only shoot when you're good and ready to shoot. When you're in a good position to shoot. Don't let yourself get startled into shooting. If you hear a shot, walk into the field and get yourself set like you're hunting deer. Just like you're hunting.
What the hell. Richard spat on the cigarette and flicked it into the weeds. What do I do if the girls turn right and go north across the fields.
But how do you know
They're clever. They're too clever to try making it across open country. They never go back the way they came. They cover their tracks. When they reach that line of trees they're gonna make a left to lose us and cross the bridge. Keep the rifle in the saddle and the bullets in your pocket. Keep your head.
The timber bridge a reminder to the forest of man's supposed mastery over it. It was made by the hands of Joe's father and will fall to decrepitude and disrepair at his passing. It lays across the banks of the river in the shade of the woods, its truss and darkened basswood cover giving it the look of a train car abandoned to return to the elements man summoned to comprise it.
Joe stood in its entrance with the rope in his hand. He felt them coming when they were about a hundred yards north east down the river. Their footsteps vibrating in the body of the bridge, the more dainty and sensitive instruments of the forest anticipating the arrival of something human and desperate and clumsy. The girls ran out the forest into the prairie to make a straight run for it when Richard arrived at their heels. Their rhythm quick and awkward and Richard's horse maintaining a relaxed trot a quarter of a minute behind. When they got near he heard richard's horse increase its pace and the number of girls running cut to one. He walked out into the prairie and finally heard their voices.
People-hunting in the heat and the haze of the insects and the pollen and the plants of the wheat fields. The older sister's high kneed galloping in the grass. Fowl under her arms, her hair in a black sinewy trail behind her. If she noticed Joe she gave no sign of it. Her sister a ways back among the pounding hooves of Richard's horse. She writhed in the dirt in awe of the animal with the veined marble muscles and the black coat that absorbed the sun and gave back a bluish reflection of the moon. It reared and buckled over her like she was a small demon to the horse. Richard struggled to control the animal with shotgun in hand. In his eyes the frustration of a hunter kept from his kill, of a sheriff, of a killer. The girl got to her feet and swatted at the horse's face and the beast froze in fear without all of its hooves on the ground and toppled over in the wheat. Richard's shotgun released a cartridge into the prairie, and when the older sister turned around at the sound of it, Joe lunged forward with the rope lassoed and it was wrapped around her waist before she turned back around. She tried to swing him but only swung herself to the ground. Joe put her on her stomach and placed his knee on her back. He passed the rope between her ankles and then around them and under the dress out the collar and back to her ankles and tied it off. Her little sister tried to clear them both in a courageous lunge but Joe's hand was there to grab her and she soon lay next to her sister with her hands tied behind her back with the remainder of the rope.
Richard tried to stand the horse but Joe yelled to make it lay. He said it broke its leg and if they make a splint for it now they can save the horse.
Shit. Richard bent over with his hands on his knees. There's something wrong with my shoulder. On that side blood dripped from his elbow. His face was red and wheat covered his back. He said he needed to sit for a while.
The two chickens that had been under the older sister's arms recovered from the ordeal, and having realized the seeds in the dirt, picked at the ground beside their sisters silent and half dead in the girls' hoop skirts.