Monday, August 3, 2009

dies irae at the elmore ranch

Dies Irae at the Elmore Ranch

There's something wrong at the Elmore ranch. Back in town, everyone talks about it in hushed tones, afraid that uttering the rumors will make them real. The superstition of words is big in these parts. Besides, the town depends on that ranch -- it's the biggest one around here. So we speak quietly, cross our fingers, knock on wood. The Mexicans rub their Our Lady of Guadalupe medals. We wondered what it was we felt when the hot wind blasted up on us from the Mojave desert. Now we think we know. That wind carried disintegration. It carried fear.

That was how it all started. When we looked out the window and saw the dry leaves start to flutter on the trees, we hoped for a cooling breeze that would give us some relief from the blistering summer heat wave we had been suffering. But instead, it was a cruel desert wind, hotter than the sun and always present. At times, it lay low, stirring just enough to caress your skin with its burning fingers. Then it would rear up and bend saplings, carry away paper and hats, and blast everywhere the red dust that covered our land in the dry season. It was a mean wind and people stayed indoors.

But this apparently was only a thin reflection of what was happening at the Elmore Ranch. According to the rumors, the wind hit the ranch in full force, approaching fast in the form of billows of dust that the preacher compared to the wrath of God. It hit the fine Elmore ranch house and the outbuildings--the best maintained in the county, people would say--and stripped the paint off the walls, giving the wooden boards fifty years of weathering in twenty minutes. In the blink of an eye, the majestic and lordly Elmore homestead had been reduced to a gray, looming ruin.

When you could see it. Visibility was low, the wind never ceased whipping dust into the air. The general effect was that of an abrasive red fog through which only occasional shadowplay gave evidence of objects or life behind it.

Perhaps, for example, you might be standing in the yard of the Elmore ranch hose and only see it for an instant: first the hint of a shadow, then the looming gray house, then once again red nothing. You would see shadows of moving figures that made no effort to identify themselves, windburned-faced cowboys who were made almost motionless and completely useless by the heat and the dust. Scattered figures that would flee before the viewer.

And the cattle. If the rumors are true, then the Elmore ranch is done for. It's said that it happened when the wind first hit them. One of the largest herds of the fattest, healthiest cattle in the state was hit by the red dust cloud, and when it cleared enough for the ranch hands to see them again, all that remained were a few weak, spindly-legged animals whose skin hung like a slack bag around their ribcage.

The rumors also talk about the Elmore family itself. They say their skin, muscles, and organs were torn from their bones at the first wind blast and that their bones were sanded into tiny flakes that then joined the marauding cloud of dust.

I do not know this to be true, I'm only reporting the rumors. And they are only rumors, because no one we can name either went out to the Elmore ranch or came back from it since the storm hit. The ground for rumor is not very fertile here, since the wind impedes anyone from leaving their house unless it is absolutely necessary. Yet we know the rumors, we know them down to the last horrible details. Some say the wind itself carried the rumors, that they are true, and that this is only a beginning. The preacher is ringing the church bells, calling all the town to force their way to the church and pray for rain.

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