Water sloshed out of the buckets as Albert Towler plopped them down. “Drat,” he cursed. “Haste makes waste, ya lug.” Still, he managed to hold tight to the yoke handle. He had just a few more paces yet to go. Up the steps and into the house. “Paps maight have built the house a lil’ closer to the creek,” he complained aloud.
The brown, weedy ground greedily drank the spilt water. Thankfully no more than a few cupfuls had been lost, but after only a moment, the earth didn’t so much as show the dark stain of water. It had already returned to the worrying, milky-brown that had of late parched the surrounding countryside, and the farm along with it. If the winter had been this droughty, God only knew how the imminent dry spring would treat the land.
He rubbed at his lower back, then damped the bitter trickles of sweat from his brow and upper lip with a once red, checkered sleeve. Looking up at the house, Edna’s blue, flower pattern feedsack dress was visible through the lacy, curtained windows. A golden twirl of hair, a recent escapee of her bonnet, flashed white where the sun sliced past the handbreadth space between the frilly drapes. A smile broke across the man’s face, his satisfied eyes admiring his wife. She busied herself in the kitchen with all those over ripe apricots the warm weather had forced upon them. Bless her heart.
After hiking up an errant overall strap, Albert lifted the yoke, and its dangling buckets of creek water, over his shoulder. Odd. It was hot today, but not so hot as all that. He blinked, and blinked again, for it looked like steam was rising from the surface of the water in the buckets.
Just then, a hawk circling high above screeched, followed curtly by the noise of the gate near what they called ‘the road,’ as it crashed closed. At the very same moment, the chicken coop exploded with angry cackling.
Startled, Albert staggered and turned to see who or what had caused the racket. Of course, water splashed from the buckets, some of it wetting down Albert’s brown sailcloth pant leg. Dang it but if it didn’t smart. Hot. Very hot.
At the gate, a stocky, dark man stood. Without acknowledging Albert, he slowly hobbled up the the stone-lined lane, head hung low, lips moving unintelligibly. He wore sooty and dirt stained coveralls, miner’s boots and a tattered and filthy tweed flat cap. His eyes had a distant, sorrowful cast to them, yet burned with what seemed a fit of pique.
As he approached, it became apparent that he was cursing at, or arguing with, some phantom adversary, a foe he refused to look at directly. It was just the way young nephew Peter, shame-ridden and angry, would argue with his father Gabriel, his shoulders hunched and tensely defiant. The kid would stare intently at the ground, avoiding the stern look of his Da – all the while keeping up argument.
This stranger’s hands, however, were his most frightening and disturbing feature. Gloved in tattered and scorched leather, bare, blackened fingers poked through. Flaps of burnt leather wagged and dangled, and his hands looked for all the world like stubby claws. Those fevered fingers twitched and quavered, now fisted, then released again. His arms never left his his side, and combined with the curl of his shoulders, the posture gave him the bearing of a mad, predatory hunter.
Albert quickly set the buckets up on the porch. Were they steaming? No. Impossible. The creek flowed cool. But his leg smarted where the water had spilt. The hen house was still a riot of panic. Had something got in there with them? He’d check that once he’d dealt with this stranger.
When he turned back to the stranger, Albert balked. The stranger stood no more than ten paces away. But his demeanor had completely transformed. It was the same man, to be sure. The very same who, wild-eyed, had walked haltingly and coarsely through the gate.
But now, the fellow had an aspect of sadness upon him, and no longer seemed to be burning with ague. He rung his cap between his fingers. His eyebrows bunched as he forced his glum mug into a smile.
“How do, stranger?” Albert asked. “You are a long ways from nowhere. Are ya lost?” It was stated loud enough that Edna should have heard him.
The stranger’s smile faltered, and he shook his head – a pitiful gesture.
“Is there something I can help you with?”
The man’s eyes shifted around, like he was unsure of himself, lacking in purpose. At last his eyes fixed on the truck, wheelless and bottom-rusted, propped up on logs ‘round the side of the house. An arm slowly raised, and pointed that direction.
Albert chuckled. “That old Ford hadn’t run now for years. Ol’ Pap run it into the ground trying to pull that there stump yonder.”
Albert’s words obviously displeased the stranger, who grunted and bore yellowed teeth. It was not a mouth one used for a smile.
Again with the chickens.
Nervously, Albert offered, “Say, it’s mighty hot today. Help yourself to some of this here water,” indicating the buckets, “if you wish…” then added, “before you go on your way!”
Dang but there must be a varmint in the hen-coop, for all the racket that was coming out of there. “Give me a moment, mister. I gotta go attend the coop. Damn raccoons.”
“No!” shouted the stranger. He looked like he immediately regretted the yelling, for his shoulders slumped, and his face paled with shame.
Albert looked back at the house. No sign of Edna. Maybe she’d heard there was a stranger, and backed away from the door and windows. Albert forced a smile, nodded to the man, and grabbed up the broom off the porch.
“I’ll just be a moment, fella. Help yourself to the water here.”
Not three steps toward the coop, Albert halted. The straw on the broom was smoking, like it’d been thrust into a candle flame. As he watched, the smoke turned black, then white as the straw caught fire. Albert swatted it on the ground to put it out, but the movement only made the flames worse. He ran back to the porch and doused the broom into one of the buckets.
The fire soggily went out – the smoke reeking of… rotten eggs – the straw ruined. For for the life of him, it looked to Albert like the water in the bucket were boiling. He tossed down the smoking handle and turned to the stranger. The man hadn’t moved. He merely stood there, his deeply circled eyes downcast, and now red-rimmed.
“‘M’sorry,” he mumbled.
“I think you best be on your way, so I can attend my coop, sir.” His voice came out hard. Good.
The stranger shrank and falteringly stepped back.
Albert let out a breath. It looked like the fellow was going to turn and walk on, but he didn’t. Instead his face turned skyward, like he was taking in the sun. The hawk that had been circling above suddenly broke its pattern, and dove, having spotted prey, no doubt. But instead of plummeting to the dread of field mouse or garter snake, the raptor instead descended right for the stranger.
The man let out a squawk and dove to the ground as the falcon swooped past, bellowing a hoarse, screaming kee-eeeee-arr. They both watched, silent, as the falcon flew off, winging over the house, and vanishing behind the stand of trees beyond. Even the coop was now quiet, as if the chickens had gotten a scare as well.
The stranger stood, eyes wide. Dust still clouded around him from when he’d hit the ground, but he didn’t bother to pat himself.
Both men saw it at once.
Flitting, hovering in the air, twirling like a whirligig, a lone feather floated down, directly between the two men. It had come from the falcon.
They both watched it fall and light gently on the ground.
Then, as they both looked up, for the first time the stranger’s gaze met with Albert’s own. The farmer stiffened. With yet another change of countenance, the strange man took three steps forward, knelt and plucked up the feather, his eyes never wavering. That gaze bore into Albert, deep through him, penetrating a private place. With the stare, all sensibility dropped away. He opened his mouth to speak, but managed only a feeble gape. For the life of him, he was paralyzed. Frozen still with terror.
The stranger, now directly before him, finally released Albert from his transfixing gaze. The man’s focus had shifted upon the feather pinned between his blackened, filth-stained, and charred fingertips. The twisted skin declared the man’d been burnt, along with his gloves. The wound looked raw, but the feather twirled easily as the stranger rubbed it between those terrible fingers.
Then the spinning stopped.
The feather was beautiful. It was brown with golden streaks. It was the most perfect plume imaginable.
Flames, of their own accord, licked up the feather, just as if it had been touched to a lamp wick. It burnt quickly, and left an empty feeling inside Albert.
The stranger smiled; the face what was never meant for smiles. His eyes blazed again, all sign of remorse or sadness seeming burnt away. There was that smell again. Sulfur.
Albert blinked. A yell spouted from him. No words, just a terrible panic sound. He’d found his voice. He must warn his dear Edna.
At that same moment, the door behind him opened with a familiar creek. Should’ve oiled it.
“Albie dear, I forgot to put sugar on Sissy’s grocery list.”
“What do you think the odds are that they would think to have checked the sugar tin? If they forget sugar, this whole crop of apricots’ll be ruined. Oh, who is your friend there, Albie?”
The stranger’s attention snapped to the doorway, to Edna. The man’s tongue protruded from between his thick lips, and a line of drool oozed out and trailed the corner of his grinning mouth.
“Go back into the house, Edna. Do it, wife.” Albert took a half-dozen steps back and nearly stumbled over the stair to the porch. Three steps up, and on the porch, he did stumble over the yoke kicking over one of the buckets, and landed hard on his bottom.
The stranger dropped what was left of the charred feather, a terrible, lustful grin igniting his febrile face.
Edna, bless her heart, did as she was told. She’d let out a startled squeak, but the sound of the door creaking then setting in came as a relief.
Albert’d upset one of the buckets, and his bottom was now thoroughly soaked in.
The man was staring, just staring past Albert, as if he could see right through the door. Albert scrambled back, feet sliding on the steaming wet planks of the porch. His back found the door, and with an effort, he clambered to his feet.
“Get ye gone from here, you devil, or whatever you are!” The words sounded feeble.
Despite the admonition, the stranger took a slow step forward. Albert’s stomach started to churn. He fumbled for the door knob, not taking his eyes off the stranger, as if putting the door between them would be protection of what was to come. To Albert’s shock, the door opened.
It was Edna, and she held out the shotgun. Bless her heart.
“Git back inside,” he ordered as he grabbed the firearm, “and push the chair under the door.”
He thumbed the lever and broke the barrel.
She’d loaded it.
Bless her heart.
Albert seated the barrel back into lock. He shouldered it, aiming it at the stranger.
“I’ll give you but this one warning,” he said, with the confidence a firearm grants a man.
The stranger took another, deliberate step. He was muttering again, this time it was not to a phantom, but to Edna.
“Mmm, Edna,” he said, followed by nonsensical gibberish. Albert made out the words, “…sweet, ripe, woman…” and “…been so lonely… so long…” between the mumbling moans.
With a fantastic boom, and a plume of smoke, Albert fired the shotgun.
The stranger took another step closer.
“I have one more shell in here, fellow. And I’ll not waste it on the air this time. You’ve been warned! I am serious, I will kill you. If you take just one more step…”
The stranger took one more step.
There was another great clap of exploding gunpowder.
The stranger’s mouth cocked to one side. A wry smile.
Albert Towler screamed, his right hand having been blown to bits when the powder in the chamber ignited. He couldn’t see out of his right eye, either. There was a distinct odor of gunpowder and… sulfur. Brimstone.
His feet went out from under him. Sliding, he landed on his bottom once more, and a different sort of paralysis overcame him. The type that one experiences when they have suffered such a trauma.
Surprisingly, there was little pain now, his cheek was warm and wet and stung a mite. Oh yes, and he felt some warmth on his leg. He glanced down, and saw his life’s blood, pumping out the wrist under his ruined hand. A spurting crimson. He’d have quite a mess to clean up.
The stranger opened the door and stepped over him. The man was murmuring his wife’s name. Edna shrieked.
She hadn’t put up the chair.
Bless her heart.
* * *
The moon was getting fatter.
The stranger steps over the corpse of Albert Trowler. He kneels, eyes downcast and full of tears.
“M’sorry,” he mutters. “I was lonely is all. You shouldn’t have got in my way.” His words sound nearly lucid.
He treads down the steps, off the porch. But he stops. There was a bucket, an offer of of a quenched thirst. The man lifts it to his mouth and pours. Water cascades all over his face, and his front, and was even goes down his gullet. He lets the bucket drop with a clatter and turns his attention to the derelict Ford truck. He sighs.
“Have to walk, I reckon.”
As he trudges down the path, toward the gate, he fumbles in his pocket, and draws forth a scrap of blue, flower-patterned sackcloth, the kind you buy flour in. The kind many humble homesteader wives turn into nice dresses.
He wipes the water from his face and chin with it, then holds the shred of fabric out before him. The moonlight plays on its patterns. The blood glistens darkly.
The man’s chest heaves, then heaves again. Tears make his face wet. This time, he doesn’t bother to wipe them away.
He looks at the cloth, holds it up to his cheek. A tender gesture. The tears subside. A smile plays across his face.
A light flickers inside the night-dark home. The curtains are alight. It takes mere moments for the home to flare into an inferno. He is unmoved by the woman’s, Edna’s, pleas for help. She will be silent soon. She, who was his second.
The pretty-patterned cloth sparks into flame in his hand. The flames do not hurt him, even if they sear his flesh. Nonetheless, he drops the flaming cloth onto the path, walking away.
The cloth fragment is singed, but does not burn away, unlike the conflagration that was once Albert and Edna’s homestead. The one they shared with his father, her sister and his husband, and their seven children combined, who arrive back from town just minutes after the stranger has fled down what they call “the road.”