Zach had been walking for days across high country grazing land. Up there, it was an expanse of stubble without movement or trees. Once in awhile, he’d glimpse a cluster of horses standing by a watering hole, unmoving except for the switch of their tails to chase away the horseflies. Cattle were sometimes herded to a different section of grassland. Whether it was a breeze or a gale in a storm, there was always the wind that moaned.

Zach was a vagrant to people driving their RV’s to Deer Lodge and a wanderer to the people who left their car to hike in the Pioneers. To the people who came back from camping and had a dinner on the table, he was dangerous and had a disorder. They turned away their eyes.

In the square miles of desolation, he could sometimes see a collapsing farmhouse, its roof caved in, a rusting truck parked in the back. Sometimes there were the skeletons of barns where the livestock and grain were gone. Zach forced open a sagging door and slept inside on the floor, protected from the rain, away from the wind.

In Sweetgrass County, there were a few hundred people, farming outposts on the plain. In town, there was a supply store, a bar, a traffic light, and the post office. People came in now and then, had a beer, and talked about cattle prices. They knew their neighbors 30 miles up the road, but they generally liked to be left alone.

People who left the valleys and the communities of stores and schools lived close to the land. They had ranch dogs to guard their houses. They were careful with their savings. Water for irrigation was scarce. They didn’t trust the government and kept their property and opinions to themselves.

To Zach, a person’s house was like a bank or a prison. You fenced it and slept with a gun. A place you loved too much was like a day you couldn’t forget. Where was I yesterday on that stretch of Montana State Road 207?

In the place where Zach had thrown away the snapshots of his past, he’d had a house, a wife, a stove, kids’ coloring book pictures on the fridge. It was money he had to squander, walls to be broken through. One day, out of the garage and down the driveway, out to the interstate and off at the rest stop, he climbed out, left his car, and walked away from his belongings.

Zach wasn’t interested in hunting antelope, and he bought food he could take away from gas station convenience stores. Sometimes he’d shave in the Exxon bathroom or shower at a truck stop. Towns and townspeople were traps he wanted to stay away from.

Just then, thunderheads were piling up and the rain had started falling. Like people who roam, Zach had good shoes, a pack, and a warm coat that was waterproof. He put the hood over his head and peered through the downpour.

Up ahead, sure enough, someone’s dog had started barking. There was a shade tree with a spring somewhere underground to water it. Under the tree, a two-story house, and on the roof, a chimney was sending up a plume.

Cattle country was so wide that people tended little gardens, with stakes for peas and tomatoes, pots with pansies or carnations. Rex or Shep or Barney would come barreling off the porch, saliva dripping from his teeth, hackles raised. But Zach knew words that soothed. He knew that if the dog was walking calmly beside him toward the stairs, he’d be less likely to face Farmer John and his Smith & Wesson in the doorway.

Out came the husband whose face was wind-worn like the land, a single-shot revolver in the hand he held down by his side. “You’re welcome to a plate of my wife’s pot pie and roasted carrots, but if you don’t mind, I’d prefer that you eat it out here. You’re welcome to stay the night in the barn.”

The man came down and picked a tomato and handed it to Zach. No friendship. A truce, Zach thought. Trust but verify.

On the top step, Zach savored the ranch cooking, fresh vegetables from the garden, a chicken slaughtered yesterday. No invitation to sit and smoke a cigarette on the porch. Speech was saved up like money for a combine.

As ranch folks do, they had turned off the bedroom light at nightfall. The rain had stopped, and Zach was enjoying resting and being full.

An old house, a good dog, carrots and potatoes in the ground. There was plenty. Zach took a length of garden hose to siphon gas from the pick-up, splashed the base and walls, and although still wet, the house started burning. No screaming from inside. No lady running out in a flaming nightgown. As the fire climbed higher, Zach walked past the barn and out on the plain. Further down, he’d find a larch to sleep under and gather dry wood to heat his coffee in the morning.

Day after day, walking alone, Zach didn’t think about anything. He considered the contours of the land, watched a gopher come up from his hole. He saw the sky go from clear in the morning to stormy in the afternoon. He looked down at the trail for stones he might trip on. A vagrant with a bad ankle didn’t wander much after that. The wind aired out his memories. If it was a house, it now was empty. He knew the rhythm of his walking, the sound of his breathing, the length of his stride. The monotony of it was medicine.

Sometimes he’d come down and go parallel to the highway. He’d walk into a truckers’ rest area after nightfall. If the trucker was asleep in the back, Zach would break into the cab, steal money and cigarettes, and head back into the trees. Truckers were other homeowners who took a gun to bed. They moved around, but they weren’t homeless. They were slaves on a treadmill. A pick-up in Iowa City, a load dropped off in Omaha. They weren’t like Zach who carried no freight and dead-headed all the time.

It was risky to go to the Quick Stop. He’d have to clean up, talk, and make change. He couldn’t buy beer and burn the store. Some loners got trapped by hunger for a woman or another person to talk to. They’d forget that they’d forgotten the rules they had to play by in the world.

The proprietor of those small-town outposts knew everybody for a hundred miles. They knew whose daughter had gotten pregnant and whose cattle were diseased. When a stranger came in for food and cigarettes, they’d get itchy and suspicious, afraid he’d steal or smash the men’s room mirror. Politeness was the key. A foil-wrapped hot dog in one hand, a box of Old Golds behind the counter. Give the guy more than what it cost, don’t count the change, say “Thank you, sir.”

It was tempting to take a cold bottle and drink it on the curb. But they’d connect Zach to the ranch couple, their blackened bodies, their burned-down house in Milligan Canyon. Better to roll the beer in the pack and drink it when you’re gone.

It was October on the calendar stuck up on the Quick Stop wall. Time to walk to Lookout Pass and down to Southern Idaho. Snowstorms blew up all the time around Halloween. Zach could double back to a rest stop, kill a driver, and take his car. He could catch a ride with a trucker, but he’d have to listen to the guy talk and talk. Zach hated being in cars and traveling on a road. There were speed limits, state police, construction zones, and workers. There were laws. Roads were straight. You couldn’t decide things for yourself.

Zach had gotten into a Thriftway and microwaved a hamburger. He’d taken his can of Coors and left without attracting the man’s attention. It was one of those October mornings, and he’d filled his lungs with the cold air. Scrawny aspens lit up the hillside with their yellow leaves. The fresh air he breathed in made the Old Gold taste even better.

Outside Opportunity, the trail climbed through birches, pine, and boulders. People could quit their jobs and leave. They could park their car on a turn-off and climb up and fish for rainbow in a lake. They could get off the grid of work, kids’ school, and the store. They could forget about the people they killed and take off on the trail.

You couldn’t trust anyone. The kids blew you up as easily as anyone. They’d capture you and tie your feet and lock you in a room. It was easier to feel safe when no one was on the battlefield.

Up high, a little snow had fallen in the night, and the sun broke it into colors. Squirrels gathered pinecones, and the birds had finished migrating. Zach’s sleeping roll was thin and he’d have to find shelter for the night.

There were more carcasses of farmhouses and outbuildings across the brown terrain. Other wanderers before Zach had broken in and scavenged everything, things easy to carry off and easy to pawn in town. Over months in deserted houses, Zach had found stuff that people left behind: a family bible, a beaded moccasin, a hand-carved, painted cradle. Foreclosed and driven out with their dependents into freedom, where had they gone? Were they walking to Sandpoint and on to Boise? Had they gone down and taken a nine-dollar-an-hour job at the Dollar General? Zach had never given up and accepted living in a prison. He’d thrown away the commendation they gave him for trying to escape.

On the south face of the mountainside, a herd of Angus had been put out to graze. There was hay from a bailer and other equipment on the land. A hundred head or more so the rancher was living off the fat. Without wanting to, Zach remembered the chicken, the roasted vegetables, and the fire. He turned down hill and headed to the spot where a house would be standing beside a well. This time there was no snarling dog that needed to be quieted. In front, a flagpole stood with the Stars and Stripes hanging down on a windless day.

A big rancher with a big buckle on the belt holding up his pants strode down, shook Zach’s hand, and started telling Zach his story. Mike. My son, Roger, lost ten years ago in Anbar Province. He showed Zach a picture of a man in desert camo. He fed Zach a feast of roast beef and baked potato, gave him a hundred dollar bill, proud of all the men who served, and showed Zach to a bedroom where he was free to spend the night.

By eight o’clock, Mike was snoring and having patriotic dreams upstairs, but somehow the man’s kindness had sapped the strength from Zach’s legs. He went out in the night to smoke a cigarette on the stairs, not wanting anymore to go on to Idaho and south.

Mike’s barn was as big as his willingness to give. The cattle were out on the rangeland, and no other animals were inside, just a sudden racket, a flare of yellow eyes of a startled barn owl flying out the door. On the threshold, Zach stopped and looked at the stars in the Montana sky.

Barns were where you kept more than what you needed, an unused tractor, the surplus hay that was grain cash in the bank. Once his barn burned down, a guy like Mike would take in his belt and build a new one. Mike didn’t run or die. This land is my land, Mike would say.

The barn floor was clean dirt. Zach broke a rotten board from a stall, splintered it in pieces, and made a pile of sticks and straw. Tomorrow, he would have walked and not looked behind him for the sheriff. He’d have been strong again to travel. He had Mike’s money for supplies. Dreams of captivity in a house with meals served on a dinner table would melt away in the morning. He could go into the Metcalf Wilderness. Crows fly south and west, and Zach could follow the pariahs.

But Mike had opened up his house. He’d brought him in and it was finished. Zach made a torch of rolled-up newspaper and stood in the middle of the pyre. No more places to walk away from. Nothing left to give away.