Morning comes early here, often before the first blush of sunlight. Jeremiah was fast asleep on the porch, and I didn’t want to wake him. A slice of moon was still in the sky, and the cicadas weren’t talking so loud. I put on the coffee pot and waited for it to be done.
I brushed my hand on the kitchen table, expecting a thick coat of dust, but it came away clean. As clean as it can, in these parts. Dust is always going to be a part of country life, like houseflies around the porch, and lemonade in the icebox. It’s an old house, third-generation from Jeremiah’s granddaddy, but it has stood well for all these years. And dust can be cleaned with soap and water and a good rag.
The sun was starting its arch when I noticed Jeremiah standing in the doorway. He was watching me prepare his coffee. He liked it sweet, three teaspoons of sugar, and cream when we had it. We didn’t.
“I fell asleep,” he said.
“Queer dreams. I misremember them now, but I think the smell of unwelcome smoke got into my head.” He pushed the door open, and it sounded like the rusty yowl of a tomcat. He kept saying he would fix it, but time got away from him. From us. “Coffee ready?”
“It is,” I said, and poured him a cup. I let him spoon his own sugar, because some mornings he required more than I allowed. He looked tired and rumpled. I thought about another day of the planting being neglected, but I would not carp. The fields were always planted in time. He was older and needed more time to prepare himself; he was never intentionally neglectful. “I don’t smell smoke this morning.”
“I smelled it a bit stronger on the porch, before I fell asleep. Too dark to see anything, even with a bit of moon. Or maybe I’m turning soft, smelling smoke around every corner.” He sat beside me and placed one of his big hands on mine. It was very red. “The smoke is like your dust. Sometimes I think we’re prone to imagining our worst thoughts. If I had an imagination.” He smiled, but it was distant. “That it woke us both seems to make it real. And Gunth’s place would be just the place for flames to take hold. He was always careless. Maybe he left an old can of kerosene in one of his sheds.”
“You have an imagination, Jer. You imagined a wife and a place to keep her safe, so don’t put too many things upon yourself.”
He nodded, and I could see he was still distracted. Sleep-heavy, maybe. “No, not very much imagination. But a fine nose. I know what I smelt, and it was smoke. Maybe it was heat lightning, and not vagabonds. Or maybe it was just time for the place to burn.”
I took a drink from my cup. As much as I didn’t want to waste the morning by driving to Gunth’s old place to investigate, it was an adventure. We rarely got away from the homestead, other than our monthly trips into Handsome, and that was almost forty miles away. Gunth’s homestead was only five or six miles away, and we would be back in no time. There were chickens and hogs to feed, and our cattle to tend. Five cows and a bull isn’t much to call cattle, but one was heavy with calf, and Jeremiah had fence work that needed tending. The drive was a distraction, but I didn’t mind a small change.
There was a loud crack of thunder, nearby. It was very loud. I looked to the sky, and it was transparent blue; if you could see beyond it, you could see all the stars. I turned to Jeremiah, and he was falling to the ground, his belly red and wet. It wasn’t thunder at all, but a gun shot.
He reached for his tobacco pouch. “I wish you wouldn’t do that when you’re driving,” I said. “You get it all over yourself and make a mess of your shirts.”
“I’ll be more careful,” he said, and he grinned.
I will never get all that blood out of his shirt, I thought. It was an odd thought, removed from everything, a wandering flea in my head.
“Gunth kept an old bentwood rocker on his porch,” he said. “Maybe it’s still there.”
The road was flat, shimmering heat rising already. It would be a hot day, and I was glad for the big pecan trees in our yard.