In the northern tundra of the lower Arctic, a bone-chilling wind develops and heads southward to cross the border. Although tempered by the trip, the north wind remains cold and dry, like a bubble growing wider, larger, swallowing whole states with the advance. In the south, humid air from the Gulf rambles northward, staying low and bringing fair but sweltering weather. Both, whether by creation or chance, meet in the middle of the great expanse of the Plains.
Distant thunderheads moved on the horizon, traveling along the fine edge where the sky melded to the land. Swaying with the developing wind, the wheat heads were large and at harvest—like many Kansas fields in late June. A dingy-red, guinea-shaped combine provided the only interruption to a golden floor. Its sloped back and abrupt front glided through the stalks with a certain grace and ease. A cloud of murky, brown dust rolled behind the combine, infusing the circulating air with the smell of dried grass and earthy dirt, a smell like the first few days in autumn when the leaves fall and begin their decay. The engine thundered with power and the gears creaked as the machine effortlessly consumed and shredded everything that did not feel like a wheat kernel to its discerning teeth, leaving a barren, well-groomed floor of stubble in the wake.
A sudden shot rung out as the whole of the combine seemed to moan from its sudden pain. Like hitting a tender, decayed tooth, the combine hesitated and stopped its seemingly incessant chewing. The farmer pushed in the clutch and shut off the engine on instinct at the noise and vibration of the ill-working machine. Wiping his face—coated with dirt, perspiration, and small pieces of wheat stalk—he jumped down to look at the combine, which sat like a worn-out heap.
“Damned thing,” the farmer said while looking around, as if someone would appear to fix his problem. “What the hell’s wrong now?”
He stood back and examined the whole combine from a distance, not really wanting to explore the deeper parts where the problem was sure to be. He bent over, the sweat ran from his...