The wolf moon and the winter constellations shone hard and cold behind the branches of the birch trees as John Summer led the gelding by its halter along the track. Hoof falls cracked the icy earth. The gelding snorted a cloud of ghost breath that dissipated slowly in the moonlight. Then there was silence among the snowdrifts and trees until the old man, slouched on the back of the gelding, silver streaks in his black beard and his eyes hidden under the rim of his hat, began to sing a soft lullaby. He was drunk and his wrists were tied together with knotted rope.
“Hush now,” Summer said. “You’ll only call the wolves on us.”
“I don’t fear ’em. The wolves ran with me up in the mountains.”
The old man continued to sing the same lullaby Summer had sung to his youngest as the boy slipped away into the cold and hunger of winter. Summer dropped his hand on the Smith and Wesson in its holster and thought he could finish that song now. But there was a way with these things, they had to be done properly as his father had shown him and as his grandfather had shown his father all the way back through the generations. He led the gelding onwards, even as it stumbled over the rutted track, towards the hill rising naked from the woods.
When the old man saw the blackened and lighten struck tree on the hill summit, he stopped singing and sobered. “You’re gonna do this, ain’t you?” He twisted his hands and shifted his weight in the saddle but John Summer knew how to tie ropes too well.
“There’s more whiskey, if you want.”
The old man said nothing and Summer shrugged. The gelding stood obediently under the thickest branch as Summer clambered up the trunk, hands scratched by the rough back but too cold to feel. He looped a rope over the branch and tied it hard as he could, then dropped the nose around the old man’s neck. The old man raised his hands as if in prayer but there was nobody a man like that could pray to.
The moon turned yellow as it sunk towards the horizon, glittering the ice crystals on the tree. Summer slapped the gelding’s rump and it bolted back down the track. It would find its own way back to the farm, even through the darkness.
Summer stood and looked at the figure that was once a man but no longer a man swaying at the end of the rope, its feet pointing down and its head lolling to one side, still wearing the hat that hid its eyes. This was a simple thing done in the night, deep in the woods. That was the way his father had taught him. He drank whiskey to keep himself warm as he watched the winter stars fade and the pale blue dawn break across the eastern sky.
Afterwards, he walked back down the track to the farm and full moon followed full moon rising copper coloured into the night. He planted corn in the fields under the sun that burnished his skin and turned the air thick and dusty. Mary swelled with child and he told her they would cope, they always did, although there was nothing that could replace what they had lost last winter. The corn turned golden and Summer sharpened his scythe on the whetstone, over and over until the blade shone as if it cleaved the sunlight itself. From time to time he glanced towards the white mountains rising in the distance and gripped the scythe handle more tightly.
On the eve of the harvest moon, he sat on his porch and watched a figure riding down the track from the mountains. Summer walked to the gate to greet the man. He was old, silver streaks in his black beard and his eyes hidden under the rim of his hat, and under his breath he sung the soft lullaby that Summer had not heard in seven months.
“You knew I was coming back,” the old man said.
“You don’t learn your lesson easy.”
“Neither do you, John Summer.” The old man dismounted. He stood for a moment with his thumbs in the pockets of his jacket, looking at the farm as if he meant to buy the place. Then he took a rope from his saddle.
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