Cody Klippenstein
"Dainty, Pretty Things"

Fool showed up with the tumbleweeds-and- eye-grits kind of weather that flays everything it touches—every building a flesh-peeled red. Just like the late summer wind that toppled the spit tins on the porch and hurled itself against the barn doors on their rusting tracks, I hadn’t a clue where Fool’d come from, and not an inkling of where she might’ve been headed.

The day before I was Fool-less, I’d been tipped off that my old partner Roth had resurrected from the dead and was back in town, looking for a proper horse that would take him all the way to Salt Lake City and away again fast. The last time I’d seen him I was loose and we’d ridden a job together. Word had it he’d been caught crossing the Canadian border and hung in Pembina, North Dakota, shortly after; others claimed he’d made a break for Mexico and spent the past six years draining the south dry. Wasn’t my business anymore, I told him. No, once I married, my business became Thoroughbreds—breeding and breaking. Bloodlines and confirmation were a little harder come by around these parts, but well worth my price if, like Roth, you lived your life between getaways or else faced the trouble of not living life at all. I’d provide if he’d pay, as was my custom.

That morning, my old friend came chugging onto my property atop some flat-footed animal with low withers. It had the dark, haphazard dappling of the wild ponies that bred pest-like in the higher areas of Nevada and came down to graze on ranchers’ land.

“This is it for you, Sampson?” He grinned at the stable. He grinned at the lodge. “It’s the rancher’s life for you, then, Sampson?” The s whistled high as it escaped his mouth and I noticed he’d three teeth less than he did six years ago. In moving to dismount, he revealed a girl seated primly behind him in a dust-addled dress the colour of soured cream. Her red-gold hair’d blown loose and she had the puckered expression of a young wife or an old daughter, the dry, pressedflower mouth of a woman trapped in the heart of a lawless man. I moved to help her from the saddle, but Roth stepped up and raised a cautionary hand.

I shrugged. “Don’t mean nothing by it,” I said. Time goes by, and even men like me and Roth, I guess, end up wanting for something they wouldn’t trade for wealth.

The horse I had waiting for him was a tall grey mare that was hard to break and harder to rein in once she got going. After yanking the young lady off the mongrel pony, Roth took a walk around the new animal with his hands on his hips, dusty thumbs jutting over his holsters.

“She’ll do.” He nodded and untangled the reins from the hitching post.

“Just a minute, now, friend,” I said. “I have a fee.”

Roth gurgled through the gaps in his teeth. “You have a fee.”

Truth: I once gave as was needed and took as I needed. Roth knew it, too. But the heists were over. With him, back then, and many others, I went by another man’s name, rode along other people’s fences, slept in other people’s beds when I slept in one at all, and believed in keeping nothing. But you start accumulating—this Rebecca, that stud, those acres of dust—and suddenly, everything you do is in defense of the things you own.

“Nothing I work for is free,” I said. “Not anymore.”

Roth spat a dry bit of foam down at his feet. Spat out a laugh drier than his spit. Then he put his gun between the horse’s ears and cocked it with the same swiftness a horseman’s hand tightens a saddle girth.

“And how do I know the horse won’t flinch under gunfire, eh?” he said.

“Roth,” I said. “The money.”

“I need a horse that won’t flinch, even as its fancy fucking head gets blown right off. Only one way to know for sure. Only one—”

I took off his shoulder first. Let him consider his gun before shooting him where he’d about shot my mare. The girl and the horse looked on. Neither of them flinched when he dropped, wet and red.

By the time I’d gone to the pump to douse my hands with water— the spray of Roth’s blood hadn’t touched me, but habits die hard—the girl had already picked up the muck shovel leaning against the barn and started digging where she stood. She’d gotten past the dust to where the earth was damp enough to hold itself together. After a moment of considering her, I ran for a spade and exchanged it for her shovel. We kept digging in silence until the sun sunk behind the roof of the barn. We kept digging until, sweat-drenched, I was able to look down into the hole we’d made and feel the coolness of its depths: that old and familiar relief of standing over death.

But those summer afternoons blazed. Inside the house, Rebecca’d curtained every window twice over except for the one whose light strikes the kitchen counter—first with a soft, heavy fabric like the dresses she wore when I first met her, the kind that holds dust close and releases it in gusts when beaten; once more with gunnysack the colour of aged skin, tacked up with pins.

Just three, four nights into Fool having claimed the cot in the empty nursery, Rebecca—who’d christened the girl in a fit of impatience— was dying by the minding of her tongue, I could tell it. She was already well past the age of being fanciful, Rebecca, past the age for it to be reasonable to believe that the crust she’d hardened into could be buffed away like so much tarnish on a silver place setting. Though she craved stories of dainty, pretty things, three summers past she’d turned around the ornate mirror she kept hung in the bathing room, pressing the glass to the wall. It was the only heirloom of her late mother’s that survived Nevada’s hard ground, the wear and tear of its weather, that long ride in the caravan of her girlhood, and she couldn’t stand to look at it. Not even to keep it clean.

“Will you not say something about anything?” She tried one morning as Fool stared at the flour dust lingering in the air after Rebecca’s coated hands mapped a trail of gestures in the sunlight. “Your father? The house you grew up in? Birthdays? Family weddings? That pretty tatted dress of yours?”

But Fool wouldn’t oblige. She was, I soon figured, entirely mute, and her stories—indeed if she had any stories—remained with her. She sat at our table and ate our meat and settled onto a low stool by the empty hearth in the evenings, moving only her bare feet, decorating the room like a hope chest that hinted at the richness of its spoils by its glossy lacquer, its little hand-painted lupines. A hope chest that could only be opened with some unknown key.

“I don’t for a second believe that Fool can’t speak,” Rebecca muttered to me over the stoop of the broom. “She thinks her life is some great treasure to be kept secret. And for what? How goddamn long will I be lorded over like this, Hugh?”

I swallowed my answer with my drink. That Fool would invade us looking and smelling as if the West had failed to beat the somewhere else out of her was reason enough for Rebecca to scorn her; that she’d never share that somewhere else could not be forgiven.

That answer I let slide down my throat in the whiskey was a question: how to toss something locked without knowing its worth?

At the end of each day, as the darkening sky began to show the bruises of the mountainside, Fool assigned herself the task of lifting my boots by their heels and bringing them nearer to the fire, where she rubbed at the hair and horse blood on my spurs with the dirty hem of her dress until the metal shined. The eyelet fabric she wore was smeared with dark rust, and still, despite Rebecca’s insistence, the girl refused to take it off to have it washed.

Other than that, she showed no inclination for housework. She shied from the paddles Rebecca used on the sheets and the hangings. The sad, feather-bare duster she held as if it would like to settle in her lap and sleep there. She couldn’t stand the sight of raw meat, and her wrists shook when she used a knife. Eventually, Rebecca deemed her too dirty for kitchen chores anyway, and she took to idly sweeping the front porch in the heat for hours at a time.

“Make her do something, Hugh,” Rebecca said. I turned on my side in bed, watching the flame in the lamp on the floor next to me twist like a tongue forming words. “She’s driving me crazy. I can hear her stirring at night in the nursery when I wake. If you won’t make her leave, you’ll have to find a way to put her to use.”

The holstered gun I’d used to kill Roth was hanging in its place on a nail in the bedroom wall beside us, casting a long shadow that slumped against the floorboards. I opened the lamp’s brass hatch and blew out the flame.

I resigned myself the next day to Rebecca’s request and went looking for Fool in the evening, after dinner, to see if I could coax her to help with feeding the horses. I found her balanced on the rail of the front porch in her bare feet, fingers and toes curled around the wood, a lit lamp sitting on the steps nearby her.

“Just have to drop the hay from the loft, bit by bit, as you can manage,” I explained, “and I’ll do the rest. How does that sound?” She looked up at my hat and down at my boots and lowered her feet onto the ground.

As we walked together toward the stable, the clouds were mottled and low and the air felt like wet cotton against the back of my neck. I’d taken the horses inside hours before. The barn door was rolled a foot ajar and I could hear them shuffling and snorting inside, bumping their rumps against the close walls as they shifted, restless. I never left my horses to chance hard weather.

Fool slipped through the door ahead of me and was on her way up the loft ladder soon as she saw it. Moments later, it started raining hay. For minutes I stood with one hand on my holster, a lamp in the other, watching little straw bits turn gold in the weak lamplight and fall to the dirt floor.

No way around it: I would have to go up there and do it with her. But help was help. Useless to tell Rebecca about the uselessness of Fool.

I set my hat and the lamp on the floor at the top of the ladder and set to work lifting unstuffed bales. Fool maintained a strange and gently dizzying pattern of footwork from one end of the loft to the other, grabbing handfuls of hay and dropping them. She’d found an old blanket of Rebecca’s that her uncle had given her as a wedding gift, crested with a Hudson’s Bay insignia and made of fine, dark-dyed wool. It was covered in hay and the musk of horse, having been left up in the loft years ago and forgotten about, but Fool was content to drape it off her shoulders. Wherever she went, she left the fringe of that blanket and the hem of that soured-cream dress one step behind her.

In the silence I said, “Rebecca used to wear these dresses: Taffeta. Crinoline. Chiffon.” I said, “Pretty words, aren’t they, to dress up plain old white and lace.”

White of her neck, lace of her bones. Rebecca’d been a marvel back then. How hot-skinned to the touch but paler than a corpse. Rebecca complained that Fool wouldn’t go near a tub of water. What was underneath what could be scrubbed away?

I said, “She would’ve gone back east if it weren’t for me.” I said, “I did that. Kept her here.”

Fool looked at me over her shoulder.

I said, “She hates that you sleep in the nursery—that room with all those things she’ll never have any use for.”

Fool drew one ankle over the other.

I said, “Why don’t you—”

“Waltz,” she said. I stopped. Opened my mouth. Closed it again. Her voice was lower than I would’ve guessed, and wispy, like smoke. She swept toward me and touched, open-handed, the place I shoot to kill in other men. There were little calluses on the tips of her fingers.

Waltz. The origin of Fool—this word, its single round, trim little syllable she’d wrapped her mouth about like she was sucking on an heirloom diamond. Would I taste it? I would taste it. I would. Even if it was so rich it killed me.

As we tumbled to the floor, my boot knocked over the lamp. The little bits of hay that Fool had dropped here and there like so much loose hair caught fire immediately—but I was discarding the blanket from Fool’s shoulders, peeling back the layers of Fool’s dress, taking her dirt-caked shins in my hands and leaving streaks of white, white skin wherever I dragged my fingers, excavating fine threads of blue-green veins that, in the growing heat and light, stood out dark gold.

Down below, the horses reeled in their stalls, making the first sounds of panic in the backs of their great windy throats, sounds like dry thunder sliding over the badlands.

Only when Fool and I were gasping and starting to slick over did I lunge for Rebecca’s crested blanket to smother the spreading licks of flame. Fool clung to me as I moved and pressed her nose against my chest, inhaling sweat and residue of horseflesh to ward off the singe of wool and hay.

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