Longweed – Chapter One

When the East wind came, dry and hot, it brought with it the dust, and with the dust, the memories of unforgiveness and loss, and with memories, thoughts of revenge.

I was occasionally aware of the grinding of my top teeth against the bottom ones, separated only by the tasteless stem of the dried long-weed that I had been chewing on with more-or-less regularity, but never with conviction. I looked out over the field, full of thousands of similar, yellowed long-weeds that spread across the dozen acres that were supposed to be abundant with the thick green crops of the Spring planting. The low sun burned across the horizon in its last, stubborn effort to avoid surrender to the coolness of the evening. The dust that filled the wide country sky tinted the sunset to the color of a fresh-bled hog.
The sunset wasn’t stubborn. Sunsets are apathetic.

I reached down and took a handful of the dirt. It was dry and sandy. Two years ago it was the most fertile land in twenty counties. I guessed that it was probably still the most fertile land in twenty counties—none of them had gotten any rain in the last two years either.

I dropped the handful of dirt back onto the ground near my feet and rose slowly. It would be dark soon enough, and there wasn’t anything I could do in the dark. My boots crunched in the dirt as I walked the thirty or so yards back to front porch. I couldn’t help but think of the Mexican and his black friend. I might be tied to this land, but at least they were free—or would be soon.

I heard the chicken screech. Supper would be ready in a few hours.

I sat on the stool that the Mexican’s friend had left on the porch and I leaned back and let the front leg swing out and I rested my back against the brown paneled siding that used to be white.

I did my best to lick the thin paper to stick the ends of the cigarette into a roll, but my chapped lips and the dry air made it a near impossible task, so I finally just stuck the roll under my tongue and let it hang lazily out the side of my mouth as I lit it.

Bill Riley, Dick and Boone would be here soon. I wondered if they would make it before supper was ready, or if I’d live to eat one last meal. The answer came sooner than I thought, with the thunder of hooves rolling up the long dirt road that led straight from my front porch to the county road.

I understandably didn’t stand when the three men reigned in and dismounted.

“Bring ‘em out an’ don’t bother wastin’ our time with excuses,” Bill, the oldest, approached the porch first with Dick right behind. Boone stayed back holding the horses—the visitors clearly didn’t intend to stay long enough to tie the animals down.

“They’re not here,” I said. The cigarette never really burned, so I started to gnaw on it like the long-weed.

Bill and Dick stood a few feet in front of me. Bill was holding his double-barrel twelve-gauge cradled loosely in his hands, pointed casually toward the ground. It was casual, but obviously threatening. I looked at the men for a second, and then decided I didn’t really care. I redirected my stare out past the porch, straight into the horizon and across the tops of the fields of long-weeds. With any luck, the Mexican and his friend would have found Tom and they’d all be safe in the grain mill on the bank of the Greenwater River near the last bend before the tributary.

“You better be lyin’.”

“I got no reason to lie, and I wouldn’t waste a good lie on you even if I had,” I responded without looking up. I was calm. I guess I had already accepted my fate.

I heard one or both of the men shifting their weight.

“You look at me when I talk,” Bill said. I could make out a movement from the corner of my eye. The dry wooden floor panels of the porch groaned again. I figured it was the groan of a man shifting his grip on a double barrel twelve-gauge.

The sky had turned dark surprisingly quickly. A lone bullfrog tried to croak, but its throat was dry and the sound came out as more of a dull groan. The aroma of the chicken over the spit on the fireplace started to drift out the front screen on the door.

A year ago, when the rain stopped coming, I decided to take the extra time that I would have spent in the fields, to do small chores around the house. I sanded the wood around the screen door, and I painted it with three thick coats of the same white paint that I had used on the rest of the siding for the house. I figured we could survive one bad year—the year before had been a better than expected harvest, and we were optimistic about the future.

So, I took advantage of the time to mend creaky doors, tighten loose fixtures around the house, and fix the various lengths of fencing that had been falling into neglect. The next year would be a good year, and the rain would come and we would be ready.

But the rain didn’t come.

Instead, Bill Riley came. He came with his men. They moved into the old Harvey farm after old man Harvey died and his widow decided to move back east to be with her sister.

Sarah brought a basket of sunflowers and lilacs to the widow on the last day before the widow left. The flowers were effective, and Sarah returned with all of the gossip that the old widow Harvey had been saving up over the years.

The rest of us men went over next day, just after the widow’s carriage left for the train depot. The sheriff was already there, and we expected him to start the auction. I was hoping to leave with a harrow that Harvey had bought only the last season—basically unused. And I know that O’Hare had been wanting to see inside old man Harvey’s tool barn for years.

“That O’Hare’s a snake,” Harvey once told me as we worked together running wire along the fence on his east field. “Alway’s tryin’ to get a look in my barn.”

“What’s so interesting about yer barn?” I asked.

“Well, between you and me,” Harvey said, “it’s nothin’ more’n all the ol’ junk I been tinkering over in the winter when the Mrs. Harvey gets all chattery and goes on about harlots and scandals in the town. She gets lonely in the house, and all that loneliness gets her thinking I want to hear about that stuff. So I let her talk and I go out to the barn and work on this thing and that.”

“So why don’t you just tell O’Hare there ain’t nothing interesting in your barn and end all his pestering?”

Harvey just looked at me with the crookedest, happiest grin I’ve ever seen on a grown man. His yellow teeth were as crooked as his grin, except for a hole where he was missing a tooth from a close run-in with a mule’s naked hoof. His eyes lit up like he was a boy just about to pull a frog from behind his back to scare his mom or teacher, or the girl next door. “It eats at him and keeps him up at nights,” he said, “and I like to see that man squirm. He’s a snake, that O’Hare, an’ I like to see him squirm like one.”

Then Harvey spit in the dirt and cut the wire to wrap it around the post. And that was the last I ever heard the old man speak of his barn.

So, when the old man died, we all gathered around the sheriff and waited for the auction to begin. And all the time while we waited for the sheriff to speak, O’Hare kept looking over at the barn with a greedy eye, rubbing the greying stubble on his chin and chewing tobacco.

But O’Hare never got his look in that barn. Instead of starting the auction, the sheriff told all of us that Mrs. Harvey had decided to sell the farm—including all of Harvey’s stuff—to a man from out of town. He’d be coming in that afternoon to settle things around the place.

After a few minutes of general grumbling and cursing, the sheriff brought order to the lot of us and sent us all home. It had all been arranged legal and everything, so all the grumbling and cursing wouldn’t do anyone any good, he said.

Of course, instead of going home, we all ended up at Gary’s Saloon. The general mood was as might be expected, but it was harmless enough. By the third or fourth round, Gary’s boy came in and told us that he’d heard from the boy at the the town paper that the newcomer who’d moved into Harvey’s old place was a man named Bill Riley, and he’d brought his own men and, from the newsman Scully’s opinion, Riley wasn’t up to any good.

It didn’t take long for the rest of us to come to the same conclusion as Scully. It was less than a month and Riley had moved all of his men into the old Harvey ranch, and soon after, they started making trouble with the rest of us. They started by breaking down fences and cutting holes in the wires that kept the livestock in. They’d hoop and holler and before you knew it, dozens of scared pigs or cows or horses would be out and running free and wild. By the time you got them back in, half might have been lost to broken legs, falling off of high rocks to their deaths, caught by wild coyotes, or just plain escaped into the wild.

Everyone knew who did it too, Riley didn’t even try to keep his actions secret from the sheriff. But the law only had so many guns, and Riley had more. Straight after settling into Harvey’s ranch, Riley started putting up tall fences and digging long ditches, and before two week’s time, the ranch looked more like a US marshall outpost or military fort.

O’Hare was the first to take action. He riled up Wilson and Porky and Quincy and Jim, and they rode out to Riley’s ranch. By the end of it all, Wilson came back with a hole in his left leg, Quincy and Jim lost their horses, and O’Hare took one to the right shoulder—ending up with a partial amputation of the arm and a blind right eye. Porky was a little too heavy on his horse, and as he was turning to ride away, a scattered shot tore into his large gut. He never made it home from the ranch.

Riley was especially mad after that. There were more night raids than ever, and the last of them ended with a fire set to O’Hare’s stables. Nearly twenty acres of buildings and land were lost to the fires before we were able to get them under control.

With the losses to the livestock, and another season as dry as the last, Lampard County was now mostly barren, overrun with long-weeds and empty, dusty fields. The town had mostly become a ghost town, with everyone either heading out to distant counties with less trouble, or moving to live with their families on ranches in other states. And the few of us that remained just holed up in our rotting houses and lived off of the weeds and chickens and stone soup.

There had only been one person who ever beat Riley, and that was the Mexican. He was the smartest man I’d ever met. He showed up about a year after Riley—just the Mexican and his black friend. When I got wind of their plan, I figured I didn’t have anything to lose. Now, I figured I was about to lose all I had left.

The sound of the quick footsteps came only a half instant before I felt the butt of the weapon impact with my chest. My bones cracked and, as I fell back off the stool, I felt one of the wooden legs of the stool snap under my weight.

As long as the Mexican and his friend made it to the grain mill, they would be safe. They wouldn’t have any problem getting to the border. It would be ok.

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