by Rachel Cassidy
Before, when there were still seasons, it mattered to some what kind of hat you wore. Straw in the summer, felt in the winter.
Wyatt’s worn a lot of hats. Rancher. Father. Husband. Breeder of fat cattle and sound horses. Occasional poet and Saturday night philosopher. Yesterday he wore the hat of an executioner and put bullets into the last of the cows over on the lease. It’d been days since they’d had water, dull-eyed and tongues swollen in the burning sun.
He did for most of the horses this morning.
When his hands stopped shaking, he siphoned dry every vehicle on the place and poured the fuel into the one-ton with the stock racks on. Hitched the red mare to it, saddle on. She’s a pretty thing, tough as nails, hard feet and good bones. Allie’s favorite.
Allie went east to the city a week ago, she said to get the pills they’re handing out. They announced it on the radio, one for everyone. That’s all there’s been for a while now, the radio. Went silent yesterday.
It’s a two-hour drive. She took the dog and she hasn’t come back.
She’s been quiet and strange since Cole left them. Their son.
He misses her.
There’s maybe two days left before it gets here, he figures. The mare loads easy, jumps up into the truck. Wyatt ties her and looks around at the place. Nothing moves. He swallows hard over the lump in his throat and tosses his bedroll on the passenger seat.
A long thin trail of dust rises in the air as he rattles down the driveway and heads west for the mountains.
The truck rolls west on deserted roads, past fields burnt brown, left fallow. He can’t remember the last time it rained. Frozen pumpjacks rear their heads black against the horizon. The oil companies didn’t bother reclaiming them in the end.
He drives by ranches and farms and ghost towns, houses shuttered, welcome signs creaking in the wind. He wonders about the people who lived in them, how many of them he knew, how many of them went to the city, how many are lying in their own beds behind the darkened windows, whether they used the pills or came up with their own way of ending.
He’s seen the city. Those that aren’t drunk or high are wild-eyed and mute from screaming themselves hoarse. Or catatonic.
Ranches give way to forest and he climbs into the foothills, engine straining against the grade. The road gets narrow and twisty and he arrives at the trailhead.
Threepoint Creek has running water in it and the mare drinks her fill. Wyatt scoops it up with his hat and splashes himself, lets the water run cool down his neck under his collar.
There’s still some green on the mountain, tough firs and spruce full of cones. A thick bed of dry needles on the forest floor mutes the mare’s hoofbeats as they climb. By early evening they’re above the tree line and Wyatt steps down, leads her across a slippery shale ridge.
They rest and he scans the valley below, thinks about the last time he rode up here. Allie didn’t want to come. He had pushed her, but she pulled the covers over her head and turned her back to him.
The final stretch is steep and the mare steps carefully, breathing hard, to the rocky plateau at the top of the mountain. Wyatt strips the gear off her, piles it on the ground next to the cairn.
He leads her over a ways, out of sight, and strokes her head. She nudges his chest with her nose. He levers the last shell into the rifle and puts her down, tears carving through the grime on his face.
The urn is intact, protected by the stones of the cairn, and Wyatt sets it beside the small fire he’s built. As the sun goes down, he pokes at the embers with a branch and talks to his son.
He talks about horses and dogs and a three-legged barn cat they had once, about Little Britches rodeos and the first time Cole bucked off a steer, about haying and calving season, about Christmases and birthdays, about fishing and girls.
He talks about their rides on this mountain, the boy full of questions. About the scars on the slopes across the valley, the old burns, skeletal grey trunks skirted with the bright green of new growth.
Later he falls quiet and lays his head on the saddle.
He looks up at the night sky lit harsh orange all around, remembering when these mountains were snowcapped, even in summer, remembering northern lights dancing cold and high, crackling blue and green and violet fire. There are no stars, and finally he sleeps a bit.
In the morning the air is acrid, the fire cold. He reaches past the coffee in his pack for the whiskey.
He drinks deep, and tells Cole about the other things.
About the hospitals, and the doctors with blank faces, and the cancer boiling out of Cole’s blood into his bones, his frail arms and frightened eyes, his dry papery hand that Wyatt was holding at the end. About how afterwards Allie never came back from it, never was herself again, how she couldn’t come up here, how Wyatt knew that this was the correct place, the right place.
He tucks the urn inside his shirt, next to his heart, and sets to waiting.
As the sun sets, the last of the birds fall charred from the sky and the flames burn the mountain clean.