A flock of brown-speckled meadow pipits burst from the sedge and veered through the evening air in pursuit of swarming insects. The birds darted in and out of concealment, resuming their forays at random intervals. But for their constant song, the bog lay quiet beneath the June sun setting over western Ireland.
Sunsets were best for shooting County Mayo’s peaceful landscapes. Standing beside a crumbling stone cottage, Gene Cuddy adjusted his zoom lens. The innovative digital camera, on loan from his editor, clicked and whirred as he captured the scenic vistas.
Cows and sheep grazed among the yellow wildflowers and white bog cotton that speckled the rolling landscape. Thick black blocks of pungent peat, called turf in Ireland, dried in tepee-shaped stooks, a common sight on the bogs since the age-old right of turbary first allowed the locals to harvest turf from designated plots.
A round inland lake shimmered beyond the bog. Hills framed its jagged shores. Tiny islands dotted the water, their lush vegetation safe from chomping livestock and locals who burned the scraw to extract the underlying turf.
By nine o’clock, the light had dimmed to a lambent glow. A gentle wind blew up from the south. Gene replaced the camera in his rucksack and drew his lighter and cigarettes from his pocket. He sat against the ruined cottage and puffed away contentedly. He’d done a good day’s work, but he wasn’t finished yet.
On his way back to the village, he would visit Barney O’Dowd’s turbary plot. That afternoon in the pub, he’d overheard the old man say he planned to burn a patch of scraw and start a new turf bank. The notion of flames crackling over the bog set Gene’s heart thumping as no girl ever had, and with his help, old Barney would have a spectacular blaze.
Gene never used matches to light his cigarettes, but a special compartment in his rucksack held a waterproof tin filled with matchbooks. He opened one now, spread the matches apart, and tucked a cigarette between them. When he had fixed the length of cigarette protruding from the matchbook just so, he wound a rubber band around the contrivance.
He repeated the process with a second matchbook and slipped both into his pocket. His watch read nine-thirty, and still the sun hadn’t set. He gathered his gear and hiked over the bog. At nine-forty-five, he stopped at the edge of O’Dowd’s turf and lit one of the match-encased cigarettes. Satisfied with its steady glow, he placed it in the sedge. Experience had taught him that the cigarette would smolder a good fifteen minutes before igniting the matches, plenty of time to be back at Stonechat Inn before the fire started. A few yards ahead, he planted the other—and then he froze.
Barney O’Dowd stepped from behind a turf bank, his brisk step at odds with his timeworn face. Tessa, his wife, came after him, carrying a picnic basket. Wisps of her white hair blew in the breeze. She smiled and waved when she saw Gene.
The old man touched the brim of his cap. “Good evening, young fella.”
“Bless the work,” Gene called in return. Then he sprinted to a nearby hedgerow, scrambled onto his mountain bike, and hurtled over the bog.
* * * * *
While Tessa poured tea from a thermos, Barney set fire to a patch of the flammable scraw, a calculated process meant to burn away the top layer without igniting the turf beneath it. He cursed when the ground behind him burst into flames. The wind rose and fanned both fires into snapping, blazing walls that trapped the O’Dowds between them.
Tessa screamed. She jumped to her feet, dropping the thermos of tea.
Barney ripped off his jacket and beat at the inferno. “Get help, Tess!”
She cleared the hungry flames with only minor burns to her legs, but the thick, black smoke smothered Barney.
The neighbors found his corpse in the burned-out heather.