He needed a weapon.

The captain made it back inside. In the dankness, in the darkness, there was a moment’s respite from the storm of the battle. The noise went way down, the glare ceased, the stench of sulfur was supplanted by other stenches.

Someone clapped him on the shoulder, someone hugged him, someone cried with joy.

“I stopped their flame team. Now we’ve got them. They won’t be getting up here this morning. Samurai!”

He handed the Type 100 to his sergeant and went back to his little corner. He picked up his sword, a prosaic blade probably ground out by a machine in the Naval Sword Company, polished on a machine, assembled by a worker. Yet it was strangely sharp and twice men had tried to buy it from him. There was something about it that he couldn’t quite define.

Now he fastened it to his belt by its clip, drew the blade out, and set it before him.

He felt he had done his duty. No one would perish in flames. They would achieve death with dignity.

He picked up a calligraphy brush and dipped it in ink. He thought of Lord Asano in 1702, seconds from his own death by his own hand, bowing to pressures so great as to be incomprehensible.

Asano had written

I wish I had seen the end of spring but I do not miss the falling of the cherry blossoms.

Asano knew what was important: the end of spring, his duty; the falling of the cherry blossoms, the emptiness of ceremony. Then Asano had plunged his blade into his stomach and drawn it cleanly across the midline of his body, cutting entrails and organs, spraying blood everywhere until the mercy of the sword had sundered his neck, ending all.

Now it was clear before Yano. He had to record what happened here, what this place was, how hard these men had fought, how hard they had died. Inspiration suddenly arrived, along with enlightenment, and in a few deft strokes, he sent kanji characters spilling vertically across the rice paper. They seemed to tumble from his brush, feathery, almost delicate, a testament to the artist’s genius amid the slaughter. It was so human.

It was his death poem.

He removed his sword and laid it before him on the small writing table. With the nub of his brush, he pushed out the bamboo peg that secured the grip to the tang. Smoothly the grip slid upward, but instead of taking it off, he wrapped his death poem around the tang and remounted the grip. Then he thrust the peg back through the hole. But he thought, Too loose. With the still-wet calligraphy brush, he quickly applied a dollop of ink to the peg. It would slide into the hole, thicken like lacquer, then eventually harden into a cement bond that would keep the sword tightly assembled forever.

For some reason this small task-in the face of death-gave him immense satisfaction. It meant that his last conscious act had been the act of poetry.

Then the world exploded.




There was no why to it, not really.

You couldn’t put it into words. His daughter had said, You have too much time on your hands. His wife had said, You cannot tell that man a thing. Who knew what the people in town said or what the Mexicans or the Peruvians who herded the sheep and mended the fences said, but of the last category, the words muy loco were certainly uttered.

Bob Lee Swagger, nearing sixty, stood alone on a slope in the American West. The property was his own. He had bought it upon discovering, in this new stage of life, an unexpected prosperity. Two layout barns he owned in Arizona, in Pima County, were doing well, managed astutely by a high school friend of his daughter’s, a young woman who loved horses and had a practical streak. So a check arrived from Arizona every month. There were two more layout barns here in Idaho, east and west of Boise, which Bob more or less managed, except that they managed themselves and Julie did all the bookkeeping. So there was money from that too. Then the United States Marine Corps sent him a check every month as well, for all the bleeding he’d done in far-off places nobody remembered. There was a VA disability check for the bad business about the hip, that steel joint that was always ten degrees colder inside his body than the weather outside it.

So he’d bought this nice piece of land on the Piebald River, still a ways out from Crazy Horse, itself still a longer way out from Boise. You could see the Sawtooths, a blue scar across the sea of green that was a valley. The land was serene: no human structure could be discerned. If you looked at the land, under the big Idaho sky piled with cumulus, hawks rotating in the thermals, and you saw the smeary white of the antelope herds, you might feel a little peace. A man who’d done some hard things and had finally come to a land where he could live untroubled with a wife and a daughter would love such a place, even if the daughter was off in graduate school in New York City and he and the wife didn’t speak as much to each other as they once had. But the idea was splendid: he would build a fine house, looking across to the Sawtooths, with a porch on it. All summer long it would be green, in the fall red and gold, and in the winter white.

You earned it the hard way, Bob, Julie had said.

Well, maybe I did. Anyhow, I’m just going to enjoy sitting under a blanket in the mornings and watching.

I wouldn’t bet on that, but if that’s what you say.

But there was one thing. Before a house could be built, the land had to be cleared and irrigated and Bob just didn’t want another man to do that job with a machine and a crew. He wanted to do it himself.

It was called a scythe, an ancient, curved blade, rusted and nicked but still sharp as hell, affixed to the end of a grip with enough bend in it and enough knobs on it so a fellow could get behind it with his weight and strength and swing. What he swung at, he cut. You found the rhythm, the blade did the work, your muscles stretched, your stamina built. There was something nineteenth century about it that he liked, or maybe even eighteenth or seventeenth or sixteenth century.

It takes some time to work a good-size piece of land, and the more he got into it, the more it got into him. It was an hour from his home in Boise, mostly on dirt roads; to save a little time, he’d bought and taught himself to run a Kawasaki 450 off-road bike, and tore across the desert in a more direct route than via the crazy-quilt switchbacks his truck would have required. Then, in jeans and boots and an old undershirt, he’d begin. He’d been at it a month, 197 paces one way, then 197 paces the other, six, seven, sometimes eight or even ten hours a day. He no longer ached, his back no longer throbbed. His body had finally gotten used to, even come to need, the labor. Back and forth, his calluses protecting him, the blade biting the scrawny vegetation, and with each swing, a spray of stalks and leaves flew away, cutting a swath maybe two feet wide. He was halfway done now. Half the field was cut to nubbiness and had died; it could be plowed under and planted. The steeper half still beckoned, a stretch of prairie grass and tumbleweed and cacti and other tough, scrawny, high-desert growers. Yet somehow it pleased him. It meant nothing to nobody, but it meant a little this day to him.

This particular day was no different than any other. Why should it be: sun, sky, brambles to cut, scythe to swing, progress to be made. Up one track, back another, the steady swish of the blade, that swath two feet wide, the feel of the sweat building, the sense of giving himself up against and-

Then he saw the car.

Who the hell could this be?

He didn’t think anyone knew he was here alone in the wild, or knew the strange linkage of dirt roads that got you here. Only Julie did: he figured then that she’d told whoever this was, and so it was all right.

It was a Mercedes-Benz S-Class in black, a very nice car, pulling up a rooster tail of dust.

He watched as it slewed ever so gently to a stop. One by one two men got out.

He recognized one right away: it was Thomas M. Jenks, a retired marine colonel and sometime friend of Bob’s,

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