The Wheat Field
A long wet spring and a hot dry summer, the perfect combination for wildfires. Geoff wiped his forehead with an oft-used handkerchief and peered at the distant mountainside. Smoke. Not a new fire, judging from the size of the plume above the ridge.
He cast a worried glance at his field of ripe wheat and wondered if he’d be able to harvest it this year. Someone set it on fire the past three years. He had his suspicions, but no proof. Oh, everyone knew it was arson. He even knew why.
Four years now since Gloria Boston died in Doc Blessing’s office. He found her, beaten and bloody at the edge of the road to his property. She was nearly dead then. He held her in front of him on the saddle and nearly killed his horse getting her into town, but it was too late. Her brother thought it was him that hurt her.
Geoff couldn’t say he blamed Billy. Geoff had cast as many admiring glances as any other man at her.
Slender, strawberry blond hair that waved all the way to her waist, freckles on a turned-up nose—pretty as a robin and as sweet as a new-born calf. Big round green eyes that trusted everyone. Went to church every Sunday in the world. Just the week before at the church sociable, he’d bought her picnic basket, and a pleasure it had been to sit and talk to her. He’d had a mind to ask her to a barn dance, but never got the chance. In fact, he’d a mind to ask her to marry him. Probably Calvin had, too. Maybe he did. Maybe Calvin…
No, he had no right to think that about Cal. Cal was nice enough, really. Offered to help Mary, Gloria and Billy’s mom, if she’d like help around the place since Mr. Boston'd got killed. She said she could get by without his help, but then Cal said he’d help with Geoff’s wheat, too.
Funny thing, Geoff thought. Gloria had looked straight at him, and she said, “I’m sorry.” As though it had been her fault. As if he would have held it against her. He’d cried all the way home when Doc said she was gone, but he’d deny it if anyone said he had. Men aren’t supposed to cry.
It hurt that Billy thought it had been him who killed her. He’d been twelve then. Used to look up to him, but now Billy wouldn’t even look at him.
Last Sunday, Reverend Milkey had said it was important that we forgive and forget. Somewhere in the Good Book it said that. He had stared straight at Billy when he preached. Billy just scowled at him. Sheriff Marbury probably wouldn’t agree, but he wasn’t watching Billy. He stared somewhere else. At me. Does he think I did it, too? He’d had eyes for Gloria, too. Marbury was old enough to be her father, but Geoff had seen him watching her.
Geoff’s gaze focused again on his wheat. If he didn’t bring in a crop this year, it would be the end of farming for him. No sleep for him tonight. Tomorrow was the day they’d harvest. His grip tightened on the rifle. He wasn’t sure he wanted to kill anyone over a bunch of grain, especially Billy.
Almighty God, what should I do?
The sun went down over the hazy western hills. The temperature dropped fast. He pulled the wool lined coat off the back of his saddle and slung it over his shoulders. It would be a full moon tonight, and when the huge harvest moon rose it would be almost as bright as day. He put the horse behind a copse of cottonwoods and leaned up against one of the trunks. In the shadow of the trees, no one would see him.
He pulled up the stem of a wild oat and sucked on the sweetness.
“Need some company?”
Geoff nearly shed his skin. He hadn’t heard a sound. “Cal! I could've dropped over dead. You could give a man warning. You’re sneakier than a cat.” His whisper carried only as far as the squat, dark-haired man.
Cal chuckled and dropped down beside him, leaning his rifle against another tree. “Thought you might be out here.”
“Appreciate the help. And the company. I sure didn’t want to fall asleep. This way we can take turns watching.” Geoff shifted off an uncomfortable bulge in the ground beneath him.
“That’s what I thought. That boy starts a fire this year and he’ll get what he has coming to him.” Cal gripped his rifle and laughed.
Geoff flinched. “I’d rather take him in. He’s just a boy.”
“They’ll slap his hand and let him go. If he gets away with it, everyone else will think they can. The whole family needs shooting.”
“They all think they’re better’n us. First ol’ man Boston, then Gloria, then Mrs. Boston, then even young Billy.” Cal picked up his rifle and pointed it at a raccoon on the creek bank.
A finger of ice chilled the back of Geoff’s neck. Now what, Lord? “So, uh, this would be the way to get even, huh?”
“Yeah.” He swung the rifle around toward a buck that raised his head in the field. “Wow, that would be a nice rack to put over my fireplace, if I had a fireplace. If we didn’t need to keep quiet, I’d kill him anyway, fireplace or no.”
The deer’s stiff posture and gaze to the north alerted them. The deer bounded off when a figure on horseback slid from his mount’s back and walked toward the field, something long and slender in his hands.
Cal’s rifle rose.
“Wait.” Geoff put his hand on the barrel, but Cal had already fired, the sound splintering the silence into a thousand shocks.
The figure at the edge of the field screamed.
“I got him! I got him!” Cal sprang up and ran toward the fallen boy.
Geoff followed. “Stop, Cal!”
Cal stood over the trembling boy. His rifle pointed at Billy’s wide eyes.
“No!” Geoff kicked the rifle out of Cal’s grip.
Cal turned. “What did you do that for?”
His fist connected with Geoff’s chin, and he fell to the ground. He rolled toward the rifle. Cal stomped on his hand and reached for the gun.
Geoff grabbed Cal’s leg and pulled, toppling him. Cal rose to his knees, but Geoff rammed his head into the man’s stomach and grabbed again for the rifle. This time Geoff reached it and flung it as hard as he could. The gun landed in a tangle of thistles.
Cal thrust his hand into the thistles and pulled it back, yelping with pain.
Geoff grabbed Cal’s wrists and lifted his arms high on his back. “Billy! Go get the rope off my saddle—over there, behind the trees.” Geoff pointed with his chin.
Billy stood, gripping one bloody shoulder. Grunting with pain, he walked to Geoff’s partially hidden horse and pulled the rope off the saddle horn.
Between them, they tied Cal’s arms behind him, lifted him to his horse, and took him into town. The sheriff might be interested in this night’s activities.