The fire came over the prairie as if the anger of a God gone mad and every living thing in the whole world ran before it; Coyotes, deer, antelope, all rushing mad through the night, like Hell’s own children. Rye Lee dashed back from the well too hastily and tripped. The bucket he held crashed to the ground and the spilled water began to steam in the heat blowing off the flames. He sat in the dirt and gazed ahead, helplessly. The farm buildings stood between two creeks, and the inferno lit the trees on either side as it passed, surrounding them with a barricade of fire. Rye felt the scorching wind steal away his breath and smolder against his eyes, but pushed his way across to his father John Wilson regardless. His heart cracked against his throat as he stumbled through the clamor of farmhands rushing back and forth to the well and weeping neighbors driven off their own land, seeking the protection of the Lee farm.
The wind howled in dark smoke and the claws of flame reaching over the land. ‘Rye!’ c’mon boy’. His father and every other man in their part of the county were beating the dirt with wet tow sacks, fighting, protecting their faces with damp bandanas and outstretched hands half-cooked by the ravenous heat. The earth trembled like a dying thing beneath the hooves of stampeding cattle, a confusion of burning shapes bellowing in pain and terror. John Wilson Lee handed his son a hazel broom to wrestle the backfire alongside the rest.
The men had started burning strips of prairie around the fields before the sun had set in the hope of turning aside the fire. They beat out the inner edge of the flame and the outer edge was set to blaze away towards its wild brother, eat up anything that would burn. Fire was fighting fire. Only the flames had jumped the fireguard, and they were struggling now for their lives.
Cinders from the scorched country fell upon them like dark snow and the yard dogs howled and ran among the feet of men whose skin was black with soot, ash and sweat. Cager McGill wept as he beat at the flames. Rye stood beside him and watched the big man with something like shock, his face grimed with tears and dirt. The man who had followed the family from Vicksburg, who had faced down a squad of Guerillas on the bridge of that old plantation, wept as he stared into the flames on the far side of the creek. Rye followed his gaze but saw nothing beside the hurricane of fire, howling in the north wind. ‘Don’t you look, boy,’ he heard Cager cry, then, above that, he heard a scream, something pure and tainted with horror, something he knew in his soul he’d remember always.
The heat was vicious, but finally the fire turned aside, and as the sun’s light started to seep through darkened air, they found the bodies of Augie Clark, his wife and their two-year-old son burnt up to bone and blackened skin, fallen in the dust on the far side of the creek. The woman held the child’s burned body in her arms. John Wilson Lee stood with Cager and they looked down at the human ruin. ‘I heard ’em screamin’, Cager said, ‘saw the fire catch ’em over.’
‘Weren’t nothin a soul could do,’ John Wilson said. His burned arms were sore and flame’s touch had scorched his hair. He was a young man made old by war and hardship and his expression didn’t change, even as he looked into the holes that were Tabitha Clark’s eyes, once blue as cornflower and summer and filled with laughter. ‘Roy said something about that preacher man.’
‘That son of a bitch,’ Cager spat.
‘Said as how he threatened to burn up the whole county after we rustled him out of town.’
‘So what is it on your mind?’
John Wilson turned, looked at him with steady gray eyes and said, ‘That we got graves to dig.’
Rye brought his father’s service Colt out to the yard; the pistol was heavy and he carried it with awkward reverence, on the palms of both hands, like an offering. John Wilson Lee sat with his back to an Elm that grew between the house and Creek and was looking out at dust rising from a land now black as coal as far as the Mountains to the North. The sun was cold against the grime and stubble of his cheek and he drank muddied well water from a dented tin cup. He glanced up into the boy’s brown eyes, saw the ghost of his wife look back at him over the oil stained cloth holding the pistol. Rye handed him the Army revolver, his young face grave. John Wilson removed the cloth, turned the pistol in his hand; light twisted on the dull metal as if the sun mirrored in a dirty pool. Cager stood close by, rubbing his naked scalp. Droplets of whisky shone in his thick, grey moustache like river water on a duck’s feathers. ‘You ’bout ready, Cap’n?’ He asked, squinting at the sun. Ten men stood by their horses in the road, their faces shrouded by hats pulled low, so they hardly seemed like men, but spirits pulled from the night-dark earth set loose to ride hard on vengeance.
‘Y’all the only one ever calls me that still, Cager,’ John Wilson said, ‘can’t be captain to an army don’t exist no more.’ He looked at the gun. ‘I swore on the book to the boy’s mother I wouldn’t ever carry this metal again.’
‘Seems it was the metal always carried you, sir.’
‘Maybe some days, at the Pittsburg landing and many times beside, maybe it did.’
Cager spat. ‘God save us from our memories.’
‘Amen.’ John Wilson stood and nodded forward to the black land. ‘The boys want this put right, Cager; I can’t sit back and do nothin’. Such reckless death, they figure needs answer, you and me, we know different. We know they ain’t any answer.’
The preacher Ezekiel Clifford dropped dried pork fat into a skillet above his campfire, waited for it to sputter, then crumbled hard tack into the pan. West Texas was his goal, and there he intended to preach the true word to those that needed it told. He was bone thin, dressed in a dusty black suit and stovepipe hat. A dark beard that was more like dog fur than a man’s hair, hung across his chest. He sang tunelessly as the breakfast sizzled and spat. His wagon was set to one side of the tree to which he had fastened the horses, on a little rise facing the prairie and the far off mountains that were shining through the dawn’s haze. Smoke from his fire rose straight up into the clear sky, and he reflected happily on his good fortune.
Ezekiel heard the horses before he saw them. He had lain down to rest after his breakfast, and was smoking from a clay pipe when he felt the earth shudder beneath his backbone. He stood and watched the riders approach. Fear squirmed in his gut like a nest of toads. He was a tall man, and he faced the riders straight as they pulled to a halt in clouds of ochre dust caught in the low winter sun. ‘God keep you, friends,’ he began.
Roy Turner, a farmhand of eighteen years, interrupted him. ‘God keep you, you goddamn mudsill; we know what you done.’
John Wilson Lee pulled the bandana down from his mouth and tipped back his hat. He spoke calmly, over the sound of hooves turning on hard stones. ‘You were over in Hunt county, day afore yesterday; swore you’d burn up the place, seeing as I run you out of town for what you done to one of our daughters.’ He shook his head. ‘Now look what you brought me to.’
‘Now, listen, sir…’
Cager jumped down from his horse, marched over and knocked the preacher to the ground with a single meaty punch. ‘Do not “sir” us, blowhard, you was seen! Dragging a bunch of dried grass y’all had set afire through the prairie, fastened by a wire to your buggy there. North wind took care of the rest and now you all got blood on your hands.’
‘Wait, wait…’ the Preacher started, but the other boys were down by then and pinned him to the earth. ‘You can’t do this, it ain’t in the law!’
Gareth Spark writes dark fiction from and about the moors and rustbelts of the North East where grudges are savoured, shotguns are cheap and people get by in the economic meltdown any way they can. His work has appeared at Near 2 The Knuckle, Out Of The Gutter, The Dying Goose and Shotgun Honey.
‘The law,’ John Wilson Lee asked, ‘whose law? Those blue bellies in Washington?’ He stroked his moustache looked around and said, ‘That low branch yonder looks right suitable to hang a crow off of.’
The preacher started to cry. Cager kicked out three of his teeth and the man was in a daze as the boys draped a noose round his neck, and hauled him high into the tree. His tongue thrust out between bleeding gums and he kicked for what seemed a long time before he died. His face was blue as a fly’s back and his eyes streamed blood that gathered like hard tears in the lines of his face. ‘That’s for the Clark family, may God have mercy on their souls.’ Cager said, with suitable solemnity. The former sergeant in the Mississippi Army turned to John William and asked, ‘We going to bury him?’
‘I reckon we boys have done our work.’
They mounted and headed towards Hunt County, a day’s ride distant. Cager rode beside John William Lee. He nodded to the pistol holstered at the other man’s waist. ‘You done kept your promise,’ he said, quietly, so the others would not hear.
John William stared at Cager with eyes as cold as a winter’s dawn, and his look was so fierce the other man looked away.
They rode in silence and the north wind raised dust on the prairie ahead. It would be a hard ride home.