The first light of dawn stretched across the horizon, cracking the night’s world into two spheres. One, an indigo canopy of fading stars, and the other, a yawning valley flooded with a verdant sea of prairie grass. Warm winds hushed the squeaking buzz of crickets, sharp tailed grouse pecked ripe seed heads for a morning meal and somewhere high in the hills, hidden within the shadows of a receding night, mother coyotes called their babies home. Bloodied and looking dead, or at least close to, a battered man — a drunk — rested comfortably against the rough bark of a massive red oak. The Rancher’s Oak. A twisted and timeless inhabitant of this valley and one of the four known markers of the rancher’s grazing lands.
No one would think to look for this man here. The rancher was a known brute when it came to his cattle and the land that fed them. Rather than invite an intruder to stroll safely off his property, he would shoot him where he stood on the assumption he was either a rustler or something the rancher considered far worse; a fool. But the man leaning against the oak, his face warming slightly in the morning sun, was not burdened with worry. This man was given free passage. For reasons unknown, the rancher reserved his Godly side for him and silently — secretly — made accommodations.
Years before, the drunk wandered to this same place, searching for something vital — although now, what, is wrapped in obscurity — and not finding it, curled himself like a child, into the feet of the grand oak. When he woke, he found himself dazed and uncertain, boxed within the sight of a cocked and ready double barrel. The rancher sat proud and dangerous on an equally proud and dangerous dappled bay — his eyes grim, teeth set. The drunk, dizzy in the horse’s shadow, thought perhaps this was his end. Blinking against sun realized he did not feel the least bit sad about it. After a breath, or two, the rancher lowered his gun, looked out across the prairie and sighed. He pulled a worn woolen blanket — soft from age and use — from his saddle and tossed it at the drunk’s feet.
“Leave it in the crook a’ that tree when you go,” he’d said. “It’ll always be there for ya when you have need of it.”
And it was. Sometimes accompanied by a jug of fresh water or sack of small coin. Why the rancher allowed a miserable drunk sanctuary when he’d sent many a man to an early grave was a mystery. A mystery he gave no explanation or apology for. For the rancher was a man whose mind was his own.
No, no one would think to look for the drunk here. He, and the small girl he’d carried with him, had time. Something the drunk knew they were in desperate need of. The child lay in a crumpled heap under his oiled canvas coat, her head nestled like a hen’s egg in the comfort of the rancher’s blanket. Delicate violet columbine and heavy headed grasses bobbed in the morning breeze, bouncing lightly against her smooth and dirty brow, brushing the soles of her naked feet. She seemed very young, years away from her womanhood. And yet, there was something about her. A patina of age and use, as if every day of her life scraped a year’s worth of living on her soul. Probably just some whore’s get, disposable as wash water and it was a sure bet no one living would bother to search for her. But the drunk was right to be cautious. The events of last night taught him that. Burrowed and ripening within her smooth child’s brow and soft cheek, lay the seed of trouble.
Glowing golden and eternal in the morning light, she looked nothing like trouble. To his mind she was an angel revealed at dawn — her cheek painted by Michelangelo, lip by Vermeer. The girl’s face called to faded memories of a life the drunk lived long ago. Long before his father pulled the family from the city and led them to the Eden of the Great Plains to capitalize on the cattle trade. Long before his father pit his two sons against each other, hoping their rivalry would turn them into strong men, yet only weakening them, making them brittle like Spring grass under the heat of Summer’s sun. But that was long ago. A time, when a man like the drunk, a man with a proper upbringing, had a mountain of promise and prospects at his fingertips. A time before his world went sour, before he’d been pushed too far by his father, misfortune and God. Before he settled into this predictable and wretched life.