Somewhere in the distance, the earth burns. The sky is close and cupping like the inside of an egg. Five hundred heifers and their calves have been swept together across hundreds of acres. The men drive the cattle into a yawning Colorado horizon. Horses, whips, and border collies descend on the stock and push the herd toward new pasture and old branding stalls. They have taken this fragmented herd and stitched it together. Fifty head here, eighty there, until it became a living, breathing organism pulsing through the dry earth, electrifying the dust and sand they trot over. An aerial view would paint a creeping black stain against the patchwork of a tawny fabric.

The riders push through the dense, dusty air. Heat and grime pick at the dry corners of their eyes and mouths like gnats. The men breathe through thick mustaches and frayed bandanas, attempting to filter out the soot. It travels down their throats, coating the inside of their mouths and lungs, gathering and rolling into a mass of phlegm before being hocked onto the back of a heifer. Dark clouds billow up over the mountain peaks like great angry ships crashing against a jagged shore. But the clouds won’t break, and the drought will continue, and the men and the cattle will intimately mouth unquenched thirst in the months to come.

Erica Langston's work has been guided by Janisse Ray, Padgett Powell, Jill Ciment, and Phil Condon, as well as publications that focus on Southern culture and environmental issues. She is a graduate of the University of Florida, a Fulbright Scholar, and an MSc candidate in Environmental Studies at the University of Montana.