Scofield gnawed a piece of jerky, grinding grit from the plains as he chewed.
“Hell fire,” he said. “It’s even in the meat.”
Harper took off his hat and banged it on his boot and a rain of black dust fell from the brim. “That’s nothing,” he said. “I can’t even milk my only cow. Teats are bleeding from the dust. Rest of ‘em starved or smothered in the storms. Some say we will too.”
Scofield chewed the jerky for a long time and then struggled to swallow it. “Well,” he said, “them cowboys tried to tell us.”
Harper scoffed and spat on the floor. “Ah, to hell with them,” he said. He held a hard frown on his face until his jaw trembled.
Scofield looked out the window, which was pitted and scratched by the dust. “They sure knew what the land would do,” he said. “Now there’s nothing for either of us.”
“We had wet years before,” Harper said. “We’ll have ‘em again.”
Scofield looked down at the back of his hand. It was raw from the blowing sand. He shrugged but Harper was not looking at him. “Eight years,” he said. “Whoever heard of such a thing?”
“Not me,” Harper said. “You coming to the rabbit drive?”
“That field out by the dugout is overrun. You can hear ‘em scatting around out there. Nothing left in that dead field that don’t have bites out of it.”
Scofield shook his head. He looked at the window and thought about things. But then his head got heavy and he shook off the thoughts and took another bite of jerky. He touched the flask in his pocket while he chewed.
“Ever thought about going west?” Harper said. He dragged his fingers through the dust on the table in front of him.
Scofield shrugged. “Don’t believe them handbills, I reckon.”
Harper nodded. “I guess I don’t either. If it was that grand, folks would keep it to themselves.”
“Maybe. I don’t know. If they got fruit, somebody’s got to pick it.”
“Be work, I guess.”
“Beats piling up wheat to rot.”
Harper nodded. He let out a sigh and ran his hand over his face. Then he stood and stretched his spine and tugged at one of the buttons on his workshirt. “I’m gonna shuffle on back. Might have some of that stew waiting on me if I’m lucky.”
Scofield followed Harper to the door and watched him step down off the porch and walk across the hardpan. As he passed where the gate used to be, wind pushed a wall of dust across the yard and Harper turned his back to it and lowered his head. The grit fluttered his clothes for a moment, rising to a whine, and then died. Harper took off his hat and tapped the dust out of it and then walked into the distance, kicking up gray clouds as he went.
When Harper was out of sight, Scofield watched the horizon for a long time before he started for home. Then he walked down the main road toward his cabin, stopping now and then to bang grit from his shoes. He saw stunted trees against the fence that followed the main road. Piles of tumbleweed had tangled in some of the wire. At the top of the last hill he looked down the road against the horizon, thinking of the past. He fished a handkerchief from his pocket and took off his hat to mop the sweat. A teaspoon of grit spilled from the brim when he tilted the hat. He wiped his forehead, put on the hat and walked down the hill, his feet sinking in the sand.
Karen was working the water pump when he came up. She stopped working the handle when he got close and stood away from it with her hands on her hips, her dress moving a little in the wind.
“I don’t know why you bother,” he said.
She shrugged and gathered a loose portion of her dress to wipe her hands. Her hair was tied up but some of it had fallen. “It’s something to do, I guess.”
“Saw Harper down at the Wilson’s old place,” Scofield said. “He asked us to the drive too.”
Karen was still eyeing the water pump, breathing hard. She nodded. “Might just as well,” she said.
“Told him to move that wood to the other corner of the cabin. Damn centipedes are burrowing into the wall. Bet he ain’t doing it though.” She turned to look toward the cabin, shading her eyes with one hand. One of the knuckles was bleeding.
Scofield left Karen and walked around the corner of the cabin. Part of the wood had been moved and part was still there. He moved a few more pieces and then stopped to look across the field where there were a few tufts of dry grass. Somewhere in the grass he heard tapping, like a rock hitting the side of the cabin, and walked toward it. He found Will behind a tuft of grass sitting in the dirt. One leg was outstretched and he was hitting his boot with a fence rail over and over. When Scofield’s shadow fell over him, he looked up.
“Seen you whacking at your boot there,” Scofield said. “How come you’re doing that?”
The boy looked down at his boot. He tapped his boot again. “I guess to hear it,” he said. A wind came through the grass and they both lowered their heads against it.
“Ain’t but half of that wood moved,” he said. “Your mama was looking for you.”
“Centipedes come out,” Will said. “They was everywhere.”
“Well, that’s why you’re moving it.”
“I know,” the boy said. He whacked his boot again, just once.
“Knock ‘em against the cabin. They’ll fall off.”
“Some of ‘em hung on,” the boy said. “They was coming at my hands. How come they’re so mean?”
“I don’t reckon it’s meanness. You was taking their house, knocking ‘em silly. I guess we’d all come out.”
“They get in our house and eat the wood. They sting us sometimes. How come they do that?”
Scofield thought for a moment. He turned one pocket inside out and got a little dust in his hand. He feathered his fingers and gave it back to the ground. “It’s what they know how to do, I guess. They can’t eat the dust.”
The boy stared straight ahead and tapped his boot again. “I’m afraid of ‘em,” he said. “Seems like they come at night when they know I’m scared. Seems like they know I move the wood.”
“Night’s just when they do things. Like them coyotes we used to have. Some animals just like the night.”
“Them centipedes like the day too. They ain’t afraid of nothing.”
“Well, they don’t know to be, I guess. Not much room for a brain with all them legs.”
“How come they know where the wood is? How come they know we’re asleep?”
“Wood’s where they live. It’s where their food is.”
“How come they get in the beds?”
“They’re looking for more food, I reckon. Maybe they can’t sleep and they take a walk. It’s hard to figure a thing like that.”
The boy whacked his boot and said, “It sure is.”
Scofield shoved his hands into his pockets and stared down at Will, who was now digging in the dirt with the fence rail. He listened to grass stalks breaking in the wind and watched the stick. The sharp end went in like a knife and came up balancing a pile of dirt that the boy then dumped back to the ground.
He nudged the boy with his shoe. “You can’t sit out here all day and shovel dirt,” he said. “Your mama wants that wood moved.”
“I know,” Will said. “But I’m afraid of them bugs.”
Scofield scratched his chin. He looked back at the house and then down at the boy again. “Go on down to the Harper’s and see if they can spare some water. I’ll move the wood.”
Will stood and threw the stick into the dead grass and then ran through the sand and across the yard before turning on the road toward the Harper’s. Scofield watched him until he disappeared then walked backed to the house and moved the rest of the wood. Near the bottom of the stack a centipede scuttled from a crevice in the wood and got halfway up his hand before he brushed it off into the dirt. Gnashing his teeth, he stomped it over and over until it nearly broke in half. Waves kept going through the animal’s legs and it kept moving, pulling itself over piles of sand. Scofield stomped some more, now digging his heel in and grinding the animal into the loose dirt until it was underneath. Then he stood panting and looking at the dirt and before long the bug was out again and dragging the dead half of its body toward the house. He stooped and piled dirt on the animal until it was gone again and then dug both hands under the dirt and threw the whole pile toward the dry grass, yelling, “Son of a bitch,” as he threw it. He saw the bug’s broken body fall out of the cloud of dirt and watched it lie still on the ground for a while before it started to trundle toward the grass. Then he looked at his hands to check for bites and stalked back toward the front of the cabin, mumbling things to himself and breathing hard.
Back inside the cabin, Karen was at the table drinking a cup of water. Some of her hair had fallen and when she leaned her head toward the cup a shock of it fell against the cup. Scofield saw a silver strand in her hair he hadn’t notice before.
“I actually got a little from the pump today,” she said. “We can sift it and cook with it, I think.”
He nodded and stood staring into the corner. He was thinking of the centipede and where it might get to and what might happen to it with its body half shattered. He thought of himself stomping the dirt with rage swelling in his throat, and of the boy so terrified of his chore there was nothing to do but sit in the dirt and hit his shoe with a stick.
“I sent Will down to Harper’s for more water, if they have any,” he said. “He’s afraid of the centipedes.”
Karen nodded and pushed her fallen hair back and held the cup up to offer him a drink. He shook his head and sat at the table with her. Neither of them spoke for a long time. A wind kicked up outside and cascades of dust fell through the cracks in the roof. They both watched them fall to the ground and then sat staring at the piles as the wind died again.
“Place’d fill up before long if people weren’t here to sweep it out,” Karen said.
“Maybe that would be best.”
Scofield cleared his throat and said, “Maybe.”
Karen was looking out one of the windows. She swallowed and touched her own throat. “I’m not sure what to do next.”
Scofield ran his palm over his mouth, rasping his whiskers. “I wish I had a clue, myself. None of us had figured for this.”
“You think we should have gone west?”
He looked west as if to find the answer. “Half of them came back. Some of them starved. I guess if I starve, I’ll do it here, where at least it was a home once.”
Karen stared at the table and took another sip of water. Somewhere in the roof of the shack a beam creaked and then popped like a rifle. Another cascade of dust fell. “The preacher made rounds earlier. I couldn’t think what to say to him.”
“He’s got a tough job these days.”
Karen rubbed her hands together and then touched her own chin. “My mama would kill me if she knew what I thought.”
Scofield shrugged. “She’d think it too, most likely.”
Karen shook her head. She looked into the cup and decided against drinking. “Her mind never seemed to turn. The harder it was, the closer God was.”
Scofield thought about that. Then he shrugged. He stood and walked to the window, where he watched the glow of light from outside.
Karen wiped the table with her palms and dust fell to the floor. She dusted her hands and looked up at him. “Well,” he said. “We had green grass for a while, a least.”
Scofield turned to look at the window again and nodded. “That grass would fantail out like water that first year. Never seen anything quite like it.”
“Preacher said we should be thankful for that.”
“I guess I was at the time. But you are where you are. And now we’re here.”
He watched Karen think for a long time. She tilted the cup and looked into it and then pushed it aside. When she looked up at him he looked at the window again.
“Rabbit drive today,” she said. “That field’s overrun.”
He nodded. “It’s a terrible thing,” he said. “But I guess there’s nothing else to do.”
He couldn’t stay in the house and spent the afternoon behind the shack. He kicked the wood and wandered into the grass to look for the centipede. He looked at the horizon for dusters, holding his hat just above his eyes. The boy came back and they stood at the fence for a while talking. The boy kicked at the sand that had drifted over the bottom rail and sent avalanches down the slope and they stood staring at the result.
“Harpers didn’t have no water?”
The boy looked back toward the Harpers’ and then back at the fence rail, which he kicked again. “They said they was saving it for the drive,” he said. “Couldn’t spare none. That seems mean.”
“Nah, people have to decide things. They don’t know what will happen.”
“But we’re coming to help them. Seems like they could help us out.”
“We ain’t just helping them. Helps everyone when we cull the rabbits. Even us.”
The boy shrugged. He was hugging the top rail and kicking the sand. He watched the dirt almost without blinking. “I don’t understand how things work,” he said.
Later, they gathered the crowbar and few pots with wooden spoons and walked down the road to the Harpers’. They all watched the horizon and no one spoke and as they walked the toes of their shoes threw clouds of dust. Near the Harpers’ the wind came and they stood in a huddle by the barbed-wire fence, heads down, while it tore at their clothes and stung their hands and faces. No one spoke except for Will, who shouted, “It stings, Paw,” and then clapped his hands over his eyes. Scofield spread his hand on the crown of the boy’s head but didn’t speak or move to cover him. When the wind died, they stood blinking with dirt powdering their eyelids and cheeks and then turned to walk the rest of the way. They took turns spitting and wiping their noses with a stained hanky from Scofield’s pocket.
At the Harpers’, the men were gathered near a fenced-off field and all of them clutched crowbars, heavy sticks and shovels. The women and children stood in a loose group near the Harpers’ dugout holding pots and spoons or sticks to hit the pots for noise making. Harper had built a low wooden fence around the field and the men stood admiring it and talking about how serviceable it was. Scofield strode into the group with his crowbar held up before him. He nodded at Harper and at the other men but none of them spoke yet and no one shook hands because of the static.
Scofield stood looking at the scene and had a strange feeling it had all happened before. Not just that they had done this before, which they had, but that he had lived this very day and was now careening through it again with no way to stop it. He looked at the women and children and then at the men and then took a long look at the field where the rabbits would die, and at the horizon, where he could only tell land from sky by the darker shade of gray and by the silhouettes of broken plants and fenceposts. A swirl of dizziness went through his head and he clamped his hands on the crowbar even though he knew it wouldn’t steady him. He thought again of the centipede and the waves running through its legs as it drug the dead half of its body back into the dust. Then he tried to think of the past, when the high grass had fanned out from his plow like a wave on the ocean. But the past wasn’t there anymore and he only saw the gray fields of his neighbors and behind them on the flat sky he saw black dusters taller than mountains, swallowing the fields as they came. He closed his eyes and held them shut and took a long breath and coughed it out.
The men lined up on the side of the field with no fence and behind them the women and children lined up with their pots. No one said anything and there was no signal. They stood for a few moments watching the field and then the women and children began to bang the pots. Some of the men stomped. After a while the men inched forward, shoulder to shoulder, and the women and children followed. At first, no rabbits came and the men stopped to let the pots ring. Then they started forward again and the panicked rabbits came out. Little ones first, and then the big ones. Seeing the line of men, they skittered left and right and then headed away from the noise, stopping to sniff the air. The men kept moving forward and the pots rang and more rabbits came. Now they were colliding and leaping over one another. Scofield could hear their claws in the loose dirt and he could smell them. The rabbits were now piling up near the back fence and some were clawing at one another. A big male tried to leap the fence and snagged himself on the line of barbed wire at the top. As the men got closer, he threw kicks with his hind legs, scraping the wooden part of the fence and sending a twang through the wire. The other rabbits boiled in a pile near the fence.
Scofield took the first when it ran in a panic toward the men’s feet. He swung straight down with the crowbar and caught the animal’s spine and it lay twitching, mouth open, at his feet. He hit it again, this time across the head, crushing the skull and driving the mouth and face into the dirt. Now his heart pounded and he was taking gulps of air as he moved toward the pile of animals. The other men were swinging at the ground and some of the rabbits were shrieking, a sound like broken air hoses. A small rabbit broke from the group and froze in an opening, its nose twitching at the air, and Scofield took a wild swing at it, snapping the back leg cleanly enough to leave it hanging as the animal tried to run. A man named Nesbitt saw it and stomped it, then swung at it with his cane, hitting only dirt. The animal screamed and clawed at the dirt with its hind leg swinging and then Nesbitt swung again, this time with a two-handed grip, and cracked the animal’s head, unhinging its jaw and spilling blood into the dirt. All the men were swinging and stomping and rabbits were shrieking. Thrown dirt kept falling onto Scofield’s hat and then rolling off the brim in front of his face. Some of it went down his collar and into his shirt, which for some reason sent him into a rage. He swung the crowbar into the pile of rabbits over and over and was breathing so heavily now that he blew strings of spittle through his teeth. The men tired as the rabbits died and toward the end the rabbits were hard to kill. Scofield and several others were ankle deep in carcasses and swung their weapons into the pile, then stood panting and waiting for movement. They heard muffled screams and dug into the bodies with sticks, impaling the small ones and bringing in the men with crowbars to finish the big males, which died screaming and writhing, and only after several hard blows. At some point, they must have finished them all because Scofield found himself standing in the pile with the bloody crowbar in one hand and his chest heaving. He looked around and saw the other men standing still but fighting for breath. The pots were silent and the women and children stood looking at the littered field.
Scofield looked at Harper, who had both hands on his knees. Harper took off his hat and mopped his brow and then spat into the dirt, then straightened to look at Scofield and nodded. No one had to say anything. They moved like ghosts among the rabbits and piled the carcasses near the fence. Some of the children helped, moving the dead rabbits like puppets, and rabbits hung like wet rags from the men’s’ hands as they walked toward the pile, which when they finished was higher than the fence. Then they all stood looking at the rabbits while the dust blew across their shoes and into their faces.
Harper cleared his throat and looked around at the men, then finally said, “Well, that’s a few of ‘em gone, anyway,” and several men nodded.
Nesbitt bit his nail and spat out the shred. “Some big ones in there,” he said.
Scofield walked a bit away from the group and stood by the fence. He had tightness in his chest and his teeth kept grinding the dirt that had somehow blown into his mouth. He took off his hat and knocked it a few times and then put it on again. Then he looked out across the plains and a revelation hit him like a burst of static in his gut. He swayed on his feet and stepped backward to lean against the fence, knocking a cascade of dust from the cross rail. He stayed there for a long time looking at the pile of rabbits. The smell of blood and sweaty pelts invaded his nose and the back of his throat. He couldn’t name the revelation and could never have shared it. But it rang through him like the tremor of thunder and he knew it was his forever.
A hot wind came from the prairie and tore the group apart and Scofield watched as they trudged away, heads down, still holding their weapons and pots. One of the kids in the group wrested a stick from his father’s grip and then walked alongside him, inspecting the bloody end as he went. Scofield watched them, thinking, and then stood by himself watching the horizon as the group dissolved. He saw Karen and Will heading for the road and then stood straighter as the boy broke away and came back to him, folding his arms to rest them on the fence.
“Why do we have to kill ‘em, Pop?” the boy said. His chin was resting on his arms.
Scofield looked out at the field and at the carcasses piled by the fence. Slashes of red on the fur. A pink knot of intestine bursting through. “They’re eating the grain,” he said. “And the vegetables, what little we can grow. Even the tumbleweed. We make soup out of that. If we let ‘em at everything, we’ll starve.”
“But we can’t sell the grain anyway. It rots.”
“Well, I know.”
The boy shook his head and frowned but did not say anything and Scofield was glad.
After a while, the boy said, “I don’t like watching ‘em die.”
“I don’t either.”
“They’re just trying to live.”
“Yeah, I guess they are.”
The boy looked at the rabbits and sighed. “Seems like there ought to be a better way.”
Scofield nodded and swiped at the dirt on the fence rail. “I wish I knew one,” he said.
“Do they do this everywhere?”
“I think so. Out in these parts anyway. There just ain’t enough food and there’s too many rabbits left.”
The boy seemed to think very hard for a moment. He stopped breathing for a second and then sighed, blowing dust from the fence rail. “They were screaming,” he said. “Why couldn’t we shoot ‘em?”
“Well, we’re all close,” Scofield said, holding the boy’s shoulder. “We can’t shoot guns that close. It ain’t safe.”
The boy grit his teeth and shook his head as if to ward off a thought. “Yeah,” he said. “But you were smiling. Why were you smiling?”
“Well,” Scofield said, thinking hard. “I didn’t know I was. I guess I was thinking how at least this was something we could do to help things out.”
The boy looked at him for a long time without blinking.
“Is that true?” he said. “Is that really what you were thinking?”
Scofield said, “Yes,” but his voice was weak and the word had a break in the middle like a cough or a spasm in the throat.
They stood watching the prairie together and ducking their heads against the wind when it came. When the wind swirled toward them they could smell the rabbits and the boy hid his nose in the crook of his arm. The sun was lower now and they could almost make out the shape of it in the haze near the horizon. Scofield stared in that direction for a long time and thought about things. But after a while he let it go. Now he just watched the dirt and listened to the wind moan across the dunes and dead plants.
While he was listening, the boy looked up at him.
“Did you kill men in the war?” he said.
Scofield looked at the boy and thought for a moment. “I was on a boat,” he said. “I helped with the big gun and we shot it at other boats and blew ‘em up sometimes. So, yeah, I guess I killed men.”
The boy looked up. “Did they drown? Did they burn?”
Scofield shrugged. “We was far off. But sometimes I saw hurt men in the water. There was fires, so some might have burned, I don’t know. They were shooting at us, too. There ain’t much time to think.”
The boy chewed on his lip, thinking. Then he said, “Did you smile while you were doing it, like with the rabbits?”
Scofield looked at the boy. “That ain’t no kind of question for a boy,” he said. “Whoever heard of such a thing?”
The boy shrugged. He moved his boot in the sand. “I don’t like all the dying,” he said. “Seems like it should be different.”
“I can understand things have to, to make room. But sometimes it’s hard and bloody. It makes me sad.”
Scofield looked at the boy. He tried to think of him as a baby and couldn’t remember. He tapped him to test the static and then rubbed his head and said, “It makes me sad, too, boy.”
They stood at the fence for a long time watching the dust blow. Then without speaking Scofield cracked his knuckles and turned to walk home. Halfway to the road, he looked back at the boy, who was still propped on the fence staring at the prairie. He whistled for him and the boy let go of the fence rail and ran to him. They trudged through the loose dirt in the yard and turned toward home and for a moment the sun cut through the haze and burned on the barbed wire running along the top of the fence. Scofield watched it until it hurt his eyes and then lowered his gaze to the road where their shadows stretched tall before them. Their shapes bent and slid across the ruts and dunes.
When the boy’s voice came it was like a crack of glass.
“I ain’t never gonna kill nothing I don’t have to,” he said.
Scofield kept walking and didn’t say anything. He shoved his hands into his pockets and kept watching the shadows on the road, one tall with a hat and the other shorter and bareheaded. As he watched, the short shadow’s hands disappeared into its pockets. They went on like that through the dust without talking and Scofield could only hear the scrubbing of their feet and, somewhere out on the prairie, a wail of wind tearing through what was left of the dying land.