Diehl's return to Wyoming from six years of service to his country---including combat in Iraq---is colored with a dark intent to even the score with his father. But before he can once again embrace that family, including Tony, a ranch hand with a military history of his own, Diehl's single-minded purpose of revenge against his father precipitates events that turn his life in a direction never envisioned. His comfort through it all, is Jack, a Border Collie who Diehl rescues from certain death; a dog who, perhaps, rescues Diehl from himself.
Home. For any soldier, that single word became a mantra, repeated thousands of times, enveloping the images, aromas, love, and peace of places and times left behind when duty had called. For Diehl, the word also held the inescapable specter of an inflicted misery, a profound hurt that even the savageness of war had not managed to best.
Now, as Diehl accelerated the old Ford past the northernmost expanse of Greeley, Colorado, the flat spread of the high northeastern plains provided witness that he was near, very near his homecoming. He pulled onto the apron, stopped, opened the door, and stepped to the front of the car. He sat on the hood, took off his ball cap. Feeling the ever-present wind from the Rockies was a comfort, carrying with it remembrances of home; both the good and the bad of it. He shook his head, smiled. It had been six years since he had left home at eighteen; years that had seemed an eternity as he became a soldier. They became an even harsher eternity as he had traipsed the full gamut of the particular horror of war in Iraq. Now, as he looked up at the grayed sky, scanned the openness of the land, felt the wind against his face, and smelled the cleanness of the place, it didn't seem that he'd been gone long at all. Home.
* * *
At the ass-end of Ault, a quick-minute burg straddling Colorado 85 North, a hop-skip from the Wyoming line, the old fool, Grover Grib, savored his predilection to devour his clientele with gab. Half drunk at ten in the morning, he bared a yellow-toothed grin and winked at Diehl. "I knew your daddy." He hacked hard and spat green as he followed Big Diehl out the fenced side yard of Grib's Farm Supply and Feed, drooping and peeling, worse every year, since Diehl could remember. "Hell, knew you, too. Come in with your daddy. Come in by yourself, once a while. Your mama, too, 'fore she passed." Grib grasped red suspenders, his hands resting on the balloon of his gut. His gray dungarees were shredded at the ankles. His T-shirt, once white, yellowed at the armpits and exposed his belly to just below the navel. "Your daddy come in about every three, four weeks. Bought oats, fertilizer, small implements. Liked my fence wire, if I recall. Sometimes cash. Sometimes credit. Yessiree, knew your daddy." Grib licked his lips - in the shade of his broad-brimmed straw hat quivering with the wind - anxious to taste the morsel Diehl would throw back.
Diehl, a small-framed, tight-muscled young man with hard gray eyes and a face lingering in ambiguous youth, keyed open the trunk of the weather-dulled green '82 Ford Fairlane, and tossed in the hundred-pound bag of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. "Daddy paid your light bill ever' month, Mister Grib." He tried on a grin for the old man.
A half head shorter than Grib's six feet, a ball cap pulled tight on his head, Diehl's olive drab T-shirt, neck limp with age, fluttered with the wind. Jeans aged to gray; wallet chained to his belt loop. His legs conspicuous outward arcs, muscles, ligaments, bones molded by the backs of horses since his fourth birthday when his daddy sat him atop his first. Diehl gave up his grin and, turning from Grib, his tan combat boots crunched against the pebbled parking lot.
Trailing Diehl like a happy puppy, Grib followed him back to the yard. "I believe it was you took off, left this part of the country a few years back. Or so the scuttlebutt was."
"That I did." Diehl grabbed the second bag, grunted it up to his shoulder.
"Where'd you find yourself?"
"The Army, Mister Grib."
"Been there. Been in Texas, just lately."
"How was Iraq? Goddamned towel-heads and all."
"Nothin' to write home about."
"Come back, then?"
Diehl tried another grin, failed, looked at Grib, saw the whites of his eyes yellow-brown as fall-finished corn. "Discharged yesterday. Been drivin' all night from west Texas."
"Well," Grib said, bowing his head, scratching his armpit, "'course your daddy's place is gone. Hear he moved up to Laramie."
Nodding, stepping around Grib, Diehl carried the second bag to his car, slammed the trunk, opened the driver side door.
"Two bags ain't gonna get very far. You got a spread somewhere?" asked Grib.
"Little one. Up north," Diehl lied.
"Still, just two bags..."
"All I need right now, Mister Grib."
"Well," Grib clawed his ear, "ain't nothin' you don't know, but that stuff don't like heat; blow your ass to hell and back, not given the proper respect."
Diehl looked up at the fluorescent glare of the mid-November sky, felt the forever wind against his face. "Somehow I don't think there's much to worry about right now, Mister Grib. Heat ain't somethin' that passes through these parts this time a year."
"Got a point." Still the happy-crappy smile creasing his face, knowing gab wouldn't fill his belly this time. Goddamned cow people treated words like diamonds - ain't givin' 'em away. Now farmers, Grib thought, watching Diehl climb behind the wheel and skid back onto 85, farmers gave up an all-you-can-eat buffet ever' goddamned time.
* * *
Couple of miles out of Ault, north toward Pierce, Diehl slowed, pulled the old Ford onto a no-name county road. Prickly wire on either side. Stopped about a mile east.
The clingy sidekick to the mid-November Northeastern Colorado dry sky, the razor cut of high prairie winds rushed west to east off the front range of the Rockies. Bumping up against an occasional bluff or an errant mesa rising out of nowhere, the cold blow found easy passage between the dirt top of the county road and the Ford's rusted undercarriage.
Squatting in front of the car, Diehl rested his back against the bumper, felt the heat still coming off the engine, ignored the rush of chill below. He lobbed the Remington .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol, palm to palm. Remembered his mama's words: "Somethin' workin' on your mind, Big, you get on outside. Have yourself a sit down with the Lord. Take the Good Book with you. Walk a mile or two. Get off by yourself. Just you and the Lord. Don't have to read no scripture. Just hold that book. You and the Lord will work it out."
Still thinking it through, still working it out, feeding the urge to do what needed to be done. He felt the gray steel as a comfort inching closer to the image of his mother's smile, or the Good Book in his hands, or the wrap of a heavy blanket on a cold night - black as a nightmare, when shooting stars evoked more grief than wonder. They're dyin', he remembered thinking, as he'd watched the flash-sparkle across the sky peter out, dying, dead. Barely ten, alone with Scooter, his Blue Heeler, herd quiet, more than a few coyotes pondering their next moves. Cow pies had fueled a stingy fire.
Back and forth, palm to palm. Same as he'd done as a kid with the Word. The home place unseen behind rolls of prairie, heifers on their bellies scrunched into a sewing circle where the shade of a sickly cottonwood barely mattered, Scooter sniffing some critter's trail. The Good Book, back and forth, palm to palm.
"Sharp knife ain't no goddamned good, 'less you got the wrist flick just right," his daddy had said. "Quick slice a couple inches down from the top of the sack, squeeze out the balls, then another flick high up on the sperm cord just to make sure it takes. Don't need no goddamned steer full a juice with no equipment to work it with."
Diehl sliced his first bull at eight. Homemade squeeze chute no damned good, Scooter silently snapping at the calf's nose, his daddy or Ernesto, their hired Mex, holding up the tail, a knee shoved up against the flank through the gap in the rickety chute, a splash of antiseptic on the bleed.
Ain't no life for a kid, he thought. Ain't no goddamn life for a kid. Back and forth, palm to palm.
Biting images. His mama gave up a stillbirth when he was ten. Found tumors. His daddy never touched her after that, watched her shrivel. Waited until Diehl was twelve, began touching him, took his pleasures with him after that. The old Ford, the last gift given in atonement maybe, maybe just thinking Diehl had been a good boy to please his daddy- not crying, not telling. A new saddle, his grandpa's old Remington, the gelding got with a third cutting of alfalfa, the goddamned Nintendo, the old Ford. The old Ford had put an end to it all. "Ain't doin' this no more," Diehl had told his daddy, shoving the scarlet eyed, wobbling, beer-belied, pitiful ruin of a man aside. Diehl had grabbed his car keys, drove half the night. Returned when he knew his daddy would be sleeping it off, sprawled on the couch or face down on his bed.
Back and forth, palm to palm.
"Skunk drunk, standing over the birthing bed, you came two weeks early," his mother had told him more than once. "Your daddy breathin' pure fumes, wobblin' on his feet, a fat ol' cigar rollin' side to side across his mouth, he looks down at you in my arms and says, 'Gonna name him Big.' 'Roy,' I says, 'what you got in mind for a big name?' Well, he stops chewin' on that cigar and stares at me real serious. 'Big,' he says. 'Gonna name him Big Diehl.' Well, wasn't no arguin' with your daddy, as you surely know."
Big Diehl surely knew.
Palmed in his right hand, squeezing the grip, Diehl pulled the slide back with his left hand, cartridge chambered, the hammer cocked. Bracing himself, he lowered his left knee to the ground. Clasping his left hand over his right, he raised and extended his arms, sighted, eased pressure on the trigger. Plugged a metal fencepost thirty yards up the road. A metallic ding fused with the explosive hard pop, the recoil of the slide and the tingle of the spent shell dancing on gravel off to his right side.
Knowing that a single shot, traveling the open prairie, would urge a momentary pause in the lives of folks unseen, up the no name county road. The distinctive pop of the shot would be dismissed as a mere affectation of the nature of open spaces and dimwits with guns. Diehl gave up the urge to fire a couple more slugs from the old Remington. If he fired again folks would want to know the source of the ruckus. Folks were that way. More than a few heifers lost to sons of bitches, liquored up, their defense ready: "Well, shore looked like antelope to me!"
Curious folks were something Diehl didn't need or want right now.
Diehl stood, the Remington held against his thigh, lifted his ball cap up a bit with his left hand, let the cold flow of the wind cool his thoughts, then snuggled the hat back down on his head. Figured he'd had his sit down with the Lord.