“Its been a very long time since we had any visitors.”
A palpable silence drifted in the open door, riding on the winter wind, and lingered between the two men. Behind the young one were the unsalted deck and a vast, expansive whiteness. The hills of the badlands lost definition when the snows came. Behind the old one was a well furnished, rustic farmhouse interior. True inspection of the decor dated it, and a fine layer of dust covered every unused inch of the space.
“It has been a long time since I had any reason to visit you old man.”
The old man chewed on his upper lip. Parts of his peppered mustache got caught up in his teeth. He grumbled lowly, a guttural whimper, and shuffled awkwardly. A tabby barn cat, a single member of a vast enclave of the creatures that haunted the farm, darted inside the house. The young man made a hand motion after the mangy animal and the old man stepped aside to let him in.
“This place looks fucking awful. when was the last time you took out this trash?”
“Ain’t trying to impress nobody.”
“…Want me to take it out?”
“I said I ain’t trying to impress nobody.”
“For fuck’s sake. Is there gas in that jerry can out there?”
The young man gathered up two of the larger black bags. One bag was torn, and a mixture of stale beer and chewing tobacco spittle formed a snail trail behind him as he made his way from the mudroom, down the unsalted steps, across the driveway, through the two feet of snow, and up to the burn barrel. The young man knew he should have some sort of bad feeling right about now. A bad feeling about burning the beer cans and bean cans and butcher paper in the black plastic bags. A bad feeling for the old man, abandoned by his family out here on this failing cattle ranch. A bad feeling about himself as he stared across the endless horizon, blinded slightly by the reflection of the sun off the snow. He should feel bad, he knew that.
The young man dumped all of the gasoline into the burn barrel. He went back inside, grabbed the remaining bag of trash and a box of matches, and went back out. The chill bit at his nose as he pushed the garbage down into the barrel. He could feel the snot in his nose freezing, the crystallization of his breath. There is a sort of revival, a renewal of spirit, that comes from that sort of cold. The cold that hurts your face. It should have made him feel bad. He lit a dozen matches and stepped back as the barrel was claimed by the fire. The flames were green, at first, and the air became putrid. The young man couldn’t help but hold up his hands to warm them as the trash exploded with a chaotic life. It hissed and crackled, it practically screamed as the plastic shrunk and exploded across the tin inside. The young man watched as the remnants of the old man’s existence became ash, and he didn’t feel bad.
There was an empty corral next to the circular driveway. The young man could remember other winter days when the whole pen would have been full of the mulling animals, the cheerful heavy breathing the cow’s put on each morning when he went out to break the ice that formed quickly on their water trough. He remembered the old snowmachine, a little yellow John Deere that had been old even then, and how he had to fire it up early each day and chase the bull back out to pasture each day. He had had black hide, and black eyes, and black horns, and the beast broke through the fence each day to come and just get a glimpse of the heifers gathered there in the corral by the house. The bull could break fence, but he couldn’t cross the cattle guard beams placed across the road. Yet, still, the bull found his way each day to the top of that horizon, free to go anywhere but to the one thing he wanted. He always looked so strong, a silhouette against the badland horizons in the morning sun, full of confusion and lust. The young man remembered waking up each morning and chipping ice, and the snow machine, and chasing that damn bull back to the fields, and fixing fence, and doing it again the next day. The young man did feel bad now, after remembering. For burning the trash, and the old man, and himself, but mostly for the bull. He turned back to the farmhouse, the one he knew and wasn’t meant to be at. The tabby barn cat was cleaning itself in the open doorway.
The old man was standing on the unsalted deck. He had the family rifle in his hands. The one with the notches and the sad backstory. The one that brought the family across with all their belongings and manifest destiny. The one that had once taken human life.
“Thanks, I suppose.”
“She left it to me, you know that. I got a girl now, did you hear? I know my mom gave you a call. I got a girl, and I want to marry her, and that ring was left to me.”
“I don’t answer the phone.”
“That doesn’t matter. Not to me, that’s between you and my-”
“Your mom’s a bitch.”
“Oh fuck off, we’ve been down this road before you old bastard.”
“Some city boy bastard, come out here, to my home, the home your mom and all the rest of em just left, just heaved on my shoulders, and you aim to take my family’s heirloom, well, that just ain’t fair!”
“I am your family.”
“No you ain’t! You ain’t from here, never farmed. never fought! Probably never even lived. Go buy your city girl some diamond thing, she’ll like it more anyways. Forget you even come from white trash boy, and leave me my fucking peace!”
“I… Jesus Christ, we’ve done all this before. I’m not here to fight you, and you’re no cowboy. Put the fucking gun away, it doesn’t even work you moron. Now, I came for MY family heirloom, and some relic of midwestern self-loathing isn’t going to stop me. Listen to yourself! All you ever want is pity, someone to feel bad for you, and no one ever does. You know why? Cause you don’t want to change, all you want is that fucking pity high. You are contemptible, which is a fancy word for a fucking snake. Fuck this! I’m getting the sheriff, and when I get back you better not have done anything with that ring.”
The gunshot scared the tabby barn cat deep into the bowels of the farmhouse. The young man fell back next to the burn barrel, and a perfect man-shaped hole was created in the two feet of snow. The blood spray froze quickly. Flecks of his flesh landed on the burn barrel and sizzled. The flames were green, at first, but to the old man, it would smell sweet, just for a little while. The old man had slipped on the unsalted deck. He grumbled, a guttural whimper, and writhed. He would do so for hours, unable to make any progress with his broken back, until the cold claimed him.
The scene was still for the rest of the day and through the night. A palpable silence lingered over the two bodies out there in the vast whiteness of the badlands after the snows had come. Only the horizon changed, as a black silhouette stopped at the road with the cattle guard, and the morning sun rose.