I spent my morning at the Dairy Queen with the loafers and the cattlemen who get their feeding done before first light. It was a sparse crowd—we didn’t know yet what the wind was going to do. People left their tables and crowded around the television set hung in the corner. Smoldering houses and charred land all over the Red River spoke to the notion that man can’t do much to change the course of nature.
Hank Marshall had an expert in fire behavior on his show discussing “The Great Fires of ’06.” The man stood on the tips of his shoes drawing a triangle and explaining concepts a fool would be born with: A fire needs fuel, heat, and oxygen—things we had in spades. “Our goal,” the man said, “is to manage one of the three elements, but fire exclusion has led to an excess of fuel, and drought conditions have exacerbated the problem.” They went to commercial, and the old boys and blue hairs set to talking smart, trying their best to act regular.
“If the air ain’t so humid you swim in it, it’s so crackling dry it burns you up,” Elsie, the big-boned waitress, said as she passed a cup across the counter. I winked at her, and she rolled her eyes.
“At least the wind let up last night,” Liza Blue said.
I eased into the bench next to her, setting my hat crown-down on the table. She leaned over and said she forgot how to sleep without the wind banging that iron gate against her fence post. Liza Blue was always bringing talk around to her bedroom.
“Maybe they’ll get it put out,” she allowed, and the way people nodded at the floor, you’d think they was in church. People with something to burn get real nervous when they start thinking about the off chance that hellfire and brimstone will come to pass in their day.
Crazy old TomTom Tompkins sat in the corner with a Big Chief Tablet taking notes on everything with a pencil nub. TomTom fancied himself a big author because he printed up two of his books and had them in the trophy case for fifteen dollars apiece. When somebody walked in or out, he smashed his fat palms onto his tablet and hunkered over his coffee to keep the wind from blowing it all away. After the door sucked shut from the latest exit, TomTom looked up from underneath his green visor and said, “That dry bluestem is sitting on the Caddo Field just waiting for a spark like a lover listens for the sound of a truck door in the night.”
I bent over laughing and slapped my boot against the tile just as hard as I could. Liza Blue jumped clean out of her curls. She spilled her coffee in her lap and cut her eyes until I put my arm around her and whispered.
We grew up together at the country school outside of town. When my wife, Nina, died, Liza Blue showed up asking me if I wanted to get married “like we should have by God done in the first place.” She had the trouble with her voice that Audrey Hepburn had, so every conversation took too long, and that one was no exception.
“We’ll make your home place over,” she’d said. “Patch the barn, put a roof on the house, new pipes and wiring, fix the whole foundation. Dig a new well if need be. Even better,” she said, “load your mare and come saddle up with me.” She had a hundred acres and plenty of oil money coming in from her dead husband. Just like that, problems solved. I told her I was mourning and needed some time to think on it—that’s what that Indian daughter-in-law of mine kept whispering in my ear, “Don’t make any decisions for at least a year, Ferrell.” For once her yammering was useful.
The clock was ticking on my year, but truth be told, I didn’t need time. This is going to sound bad to some of you, but Liza Blue was too old for me. It wasn’t the years on her driver’s license that got me, per se. It was how she showed them on her face and in her shoulders—damn, how they wore her down. And besides all that, I already had somebody in mind.
“Elsie, you better send me that rag, honey,” I said. “We got Hurricane Katrina here in Liza Blue’s lap.” Her case of the shakes was contagious. Before you knew it, somebody else had spilled their coffee and another one knocked an ashtray into the floor. “Terrible Tuesday, aisle eleven,” I yelled and went behind the counter to help myself to a new rag. I kept the rag because it didn’t look like we’d seen the last catastrophe. Before I rung my rag out and hung it over the sink, I got through the Big Chinese Flood and worked my way to Exxon Valdez. Finally, I yelled out “Hindenburg!” just for meanness. Despite what the Indian might think, I can always tell when I’m wearing thin on people, so I put on my hat. I had a couple of things to take care of.
I’ll be the first to tell you: It wasn’t lack of concern that kept me fooling around the DQ that morning, and it wasn’t that I expected some miracle to part the Red River and put out the flames. I had a strong feeling TomTom was right about the wind pushing the fire north, back toward Oklahoma where it came from, and going through the Caddo Field, with its pump jacks and tank batteries, to get there.
On the northwest corner of the Caddo sat the last five acres of my old home place. You could throw a rock and hit the Red River. I figured it would all go to the fire. All I had to do was load up that little mare of mine—Elsie, I called her, after that waitress, and sometimes just Fat Mare. The money I’d made from the sale of her momma was about gone, and with the fires on the horizon, I could see that today just might be the first of the rest of my days.
At my boy, Pitch’s, house, I clamped my hat down on my head and intended on walking straight to the door but ended up going around his truck because that’s where the wind blew me. I banged on the front door once and pushed it open. “Fat Mare needs shoeing, Pitch,” I yelled, going on in. I knew him and that wife of his would be sleeping because they work the night shift at the factory down the road. I called for him again, and he came out of the bedroom, pulling a long-handle shirt over his head and stomping his foot down into his boot.
“You’ll break the back of your boot like that,” I said, but you can’t tell that boy nothing. I tossed him a sausage biscuit I brought, and he grabbed a Dr Pepper from the fridge, opened it up, and took three long swallows without coming up for air. With his head tilted back like that, I could see where my boy was losing the hair on his head, and I felt proud to have a full head of my own, proud I didn’t work indoors under fake lighting on another man’s schedule. But it got me antsy.
He swallowed a belch, blinking at the light coming in through the blinds, and said, “Fires still moving?”
“I reckon if it’s fire, it’s got to move,” I told him. “Fat Mare threw a shoe last week. It don’t matter if there’s a fire coming or a tornado. She needs shod.”
Pitch rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and sighed. Then he grabbed up the biscuit and headed for the door. I had no more than pulled the front door to than that Indian started yelling out the window about a leaky sink. Pitch just looked at me and shook his head and slid into his truck.
I sat up close to my steering wheel—not because I couldn’t see the road before me like the Indian might say—but because the wind was pushing me from side to side, whistling through the windows despite their being rolled up tight. I had a good strong grip on the business end, but I leaned down to adjust the cassette player and swerved off the road. Gravel peckered up my tailgate and fenders. In my rearview, Pitch was waving his arm out the window pointing to a turnoff, flashing his lights at me.
I slowed it down enough to pull into the country school’s parking lot, and Pitch fought the wind to slam his door and make his way to my window. He is small like his momma was. He won the World Wide Futurity riding my brother’s Appaloosa when he was just a kid. Sat atop that stallion like a man while his classmates were building forts and swinging at baseballs. Squinting against the wind and sun standing there, his face full of lines, he looked tired and old. When he was born, you could cradle him in one hand.
“You all right, Daddy?”
“Looked down is all,” I told him. Sand caught him in the mouth, and he spit the other way, cussing.
“Scanner says looks like it’s moving in on Ringgold. Wind don’t change, could come this way. What do you want to do?”
“Just need the mare shod.”
“It won’t wait,” I said. He shook his head in the way he has of being confounded at the world and everybody in it. His momma did that a lot in the years after he came along and she started seeing the world in terms of fat and lean.
“Well, pick it up a little,” he said and pushed back through the wind to his truck.
I punched the cassette buttons some more, eased into gear, and turned it up when “San Antonio Rose” rolled around. I’m not ashamed to say my eyes got a little misty. I had my mind out west. I wasn’t wanting to think about wind and heat and years of disrepair turned to kindling, but Bob Wills’s fiddle was always Nina’s favorite. The song mixed me up inside, made the drive home feel like a picture show I wasn’t a part of.
I met the Wyoming girl at the San Antone rodeo back when Nina was hardly there even when she was awake. Sometime in the eighties Nina slipped a disk, and the doctors kept giving her pills until she ended up in the treatment facility in Fort Worth. Pitch was a newlywed, and the Indian had come with a little girl already in tow. When Pitch put up a trailer house on the other side of the pasture, there was new life around the place for a while.
Pitch set about pulling boards off the barn, and he’d build bonfires out of the throwaways. Big dancing flames. We’d cook hot dogs on hangers and pull the brandy out of the cupboard. Nina would grab that little girl up by the hands and two-step around the fire like a fool-headed kid, cigarette stuck between her grin. The little girl had tubes in her ears, so we always had a red bandana tied over her head like a little old lady. The two of them made a sight, one getting younger, one older.
When the Indian was at work, my wife took that girl all over the place. She was her bona fide sidekick. Nina even had her help fancy up the place, cutting contact paper and slapping it all over the kitchen, sending her up the ladder to reach where she couldn’t. They about contact papered the whole house that year. Nothing was left out. Even the fridge was wood-grained before it was over, which I had to admit was an improvement. Me and Pitch set about breeding a couple of mares, thinking about running some babies again. Things was looking better for all of us. Then Pitch up and moved to town for a job the Indian found him and left the barn almost as bad as before he started. The doctors were happy to oblige when my wife went down in her back again.
We brought in a hospital bed. She complained about not being able to sleep through the creaking of the pump jacks that littered the pastureland around the house. She claimed she could hear the oil being sucked out of the ground and it sounded like crying. It didn’t seem to matter that those same noises put her to sleep when she was a baby.
To hear the Indian tell it, it was the piddly oil money my sister in Dallas got each month that did it. To hear her tell it, everything fell back on me because I’d sold my mineral rights to Sis on hard times. The Indian cornered me one Christmas after she’d had too much drink. She wanted to paint the picture for me real good. She said Nina was holed up in the back room in the dark because I refused to get a job like a normal person and her heart was broke from years of trying to hold everything together with contact paper and worry. Normal people work, she said again, as if I didn’t understand the concept. You’d sell your ass if it wasn’t attached to keep from an honest day’s work, she said. I’ll tell you one thing, I told her. I’ll never ever be beholden to a woman I don’t love. Or wear a chain around my neck like a dog. About that time Pitch walked up.
The Indian just stood there staring at me, her forehead cracking in two, trying to be sure she understood my meaning. They’d had troubles of their own since the day they met. It wasn’t a secret, either. Pitch stepped between us and took her by the arm and led her down the porch, looking back at me shaking his head. It was a month or more before I saw them again, and when I did, nobody spoke of what was said. The Indian barely said two words in my presence for a while, but good luck don’t ever last. Nina added nerve pills and something else I can’t call the name of to her close grip of back medicine and put cardboard over the window to her room because the sun gave her migraines.
By the time the Fat Mare came along, I was tired of moping around the DQ. I knew I had me the kind of horse my daddy had once, the kind that allowed him to buy the home place back from the bank when other boys was sitting in bread lines. I wasn’t going to sell Fat Mare like I did her momma, just to make a payment. I swear that horse changed something in me. I ain’t scared to get sentimental about it. I cut back to two fiber cookies and black coffee in the morning and sometimes wouldn’t eat nothing but saltines and tuna for supper. Before I knew it, I was wearing the pant size I wore as a twenty-five-year-old man and could jump near as high. Soon as I had the Fat Mare trained up good enough to sit under a saddle, I loaded her for the biggest rodeo I could find, and that led me south to San Antone.
My song ended, and I hit the rewind button and turned up the radio news. The newsman’s voice came cocksure through the speakers. The wind advisory remained. He went on to say the fire was the fault of somebody throwing a cigarette out on the highway. One man, one instant he can’t take back, and now families are packing up, leaving for the fire what they can’t carry. What’s done, done.
At the turnoff, feedbags were flapping against the barbwire. A pumper leaned into the gale on top of a tank battery, likely trying to get a measurement before they shut it down in case the fire did what they thought it might do in the next forty-eight hours. I honked at him, but the sound got carried off, I could tell, because he didn’t look up. I could smell smoke coming through the vents, but that didn’t mean nothing. There’d been so many fires in the region you could smell smoke when the wind shifted for a week or more. The rewind button popped out, and my song started up again.
Down in San Antone, that mare took in the grand-entry parade like I expected, keeping a good eye on each flag we passed, never snorting or hopping to buck. After the man upstairs was prayed to and the country and the veterans got their due, I tied her up at the trailer, gave her some alfalfa, and figured on waiting around the bucking chutes for the dance to start.
Now, in the right conditions, a fire can exist long before you see a flame. I heard of Louisiana marsh fires that smoldered for years, waiting until everybody pretty much forgot about them before bursting into flames, jumping highways, and ripping through swamp shacks. Even water and wetlands sometimes ain’t enough to stop heat and oxygen and fuel. Some things can’t be explained away by a man in loafers with a stack of letters after his name.
I’m here to tell you when I smelled smoke passing through the rodeo crowd, I thought it was my stomach I was listening to, so I followed my nose to an old-time chuck-wagon outfit with a prairie schooner and a couple of draft horses. There, bent over the fire stirring a big kettle of beans, was the prettiest little gal I ever saw.
Of a sudden, I swear I must have grown two inches, and the years behind me didn’t pile so high. This ain’t going to sound right—but it don’t make it not the God’s honest—but when that girl looked up at me, smoke between us, my wife wasn’t sick at home anymore, and I didn’t imagine her happy or young again. In the face of that girl, she just wasn’t. In that minute right there, the tin roof on the house wasn’t rusted through and there wasn’t more gaps than boards to the barn I built with my own daddy. Bills wasn’t stacked ankle to ass. And there was one greater truth I knew for certain: that little cow horse I had tied at the trailer wasn’t only the best-looking animal at the whole event, that horse was magic.
The girl wore her pants tucked into tall cowboy boots with blue tops in the way of cowboys out West. When I said, “Cookie, I been on the trail nigh half my days trying to get to your beans,” she didn’t roll her eyes and turn to the next customer like the worn-out waitresses back home. No sir, she pushed that long, straight, golden hair behind her ear and sparkled.
I eyed her full-on, taking my bandana out of my back pocket and wiping my mouth. “Damn my cats,” I said. There’d never been a hungrier man of a sudden.
The wind shifted and blew smoke in her face, and I’ll be damned if she didn’t move around the fire next to me. “Smoke follows beauty,” I told her, and she rolled her eyes and said, “If I had a quarter.”
“You’d be mighty poor counting them from a man means it as much as me.” I was feeling real horsey. I ain’t ashamed to admit, real horsey for a man my age. She blushed and got back at her beans, and I took note of the ring on her finger and knew a girl that caliber couldn’t be so far from home without good reason. I pushed it. “Want to see the only other girl here near as pretty as you?” She looked at me sideways, getting wary, I could tell.
“All right,” she said, “but I got work to do here.” I was shedding years by the minute, and she could see it.
Like I figured, when I walked up with Elsie, that girl took to her like a hobo on a ham sandwich. She knew good stock. She didn’t need a leg up. I tied on the cook’s apron, and that girl’s little ass was, other than mine, the first and only one ever to sit atop Elsie. I stirred the pot, making a good hand while the girl rode circles around the wagon testing the mare’s reverse. “You can drop the reins,” I told her. “Hardly have to squeeze her at all.” The mare was still green, and I knew she wasn’t ready for a stranger to sit her, but the girl kept it between the lines, and the mare acted like she’d been broke for years.
In the late night, while we tended the coals and listened to the horses shift and stomp flies, I told her about my wife. I told her about selling Elsie’s momma and how when I watched that trailer pull off I swore I’d never do it again. She told me how her husband ran a big ranch on the Wind River. She said busting ice for the stock and scrubbing floors was leaving her empty feeling and said how the husband—her high-school sweetheart—didn’t understand how empty was a bad thing when you could look up at sky surrounded by mountains and had plenty in the pantry. She was giving the business a year to make her money back, and if it did, she might give it another year. “A real good listener” she called me.
The circuit was taking them north, so I phoned home, stayed on, and made a good hand with the chuck-wagon outfit. In Fort Worth, I let the Wyoming girl ride Elsie in the grand entry and had to turn down two offers from high rollers looking to go home with my horse. After the pots was washed and the utensils was packed, I invited the girl back to see the home place before they headed to West Texas. I hadn’t told no stories, and I didn’t have ill intentions. I never did.
When we showed up to the house, it was dark except for the orange streetlight Pitch had tacked on the side of the barn. We unloaded our horses and hayed them. When we turned them loose together, of a sudden my insides shifted, and for the first time I found myself wondering what the world a girl like her was doing on my place, how her arm came to brush against mine and stay there.
“Let’s go in,” I said. “I want you to meet somebody.”
I led her by the hand into the back room where my wife was laid up surrounded by her orange bottles and dusty cups. Stale smoke hung in the air. A cigarette burned to ash sat there, and the big console television bounced light off the walls, as it had for years. My wife looked up at us and pulled at her hair where the curls was pressed flat against the side of her face.
I wish I could tell you what she was thinking. I can’t now and I couldn’t then. I sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed her foot and winked up at the girl who squatted down and told my wife she had a lovely home. “You should have seen that fat little mare work,” I said. My wife always got a kick out of the babies that came off this place, and I wanted her to be proud again, like I was. “A man from Dallas offered me ten thousand on the spot,” I said. My wife studied my eyes for a minute before she said, “Good night, Ferrell. Y’all have a good night.” She turned the television off and turned over. She was twirling a curl around her finger when I closed the door.
There was nothing filthy in none of it, and if you call it so that’s your own business. I don’t figure a man such as me has time left to question good fortune or to wonder about love.
I put the girl’s bags in my own room and asked if she was tired. She sat on the edge of the bed and smoothed the quilt. “Here’s the bathroom,” I told her, holding the door open, “if you want to wash the road off.” She nodded at me, so I stepped in and turned on the water in the old claw-footed tub Momma had been so shiny on when Daddy brought it home.
She came in behind me as I was swirling the water with my hand trying to spread some cool in. I looked up at her and heard my voice quiver when I said it would take a minute to cool. She looked down at me and didn’t make a move to step back out.
I reached out with unsteady hands and took ahold of her boot. She held the top of my head for balance, and I tugged it off. When they were both off, I rolled her socks down and stuffed them in the boots. She left her hand on my head and stood there digging her toes into the rug. The water dripped steady from the faucet behind us. I took her belt buckle in my hands and popped it loose. I looked up to make sure she was okay, and I could see her breath catch. I unsnapped the button with two hands, careful, and tugged at the zipper.
The girl shifted her weight from one foot to another when I pulled her pants down. I looked up again, and this time it was my breath that caught. I leaned in and pressed my face on the smooth skin beneath her navel. Then I took a deep breath and held her hips between my hands before I got up and left the room.
I stepped outside on the front porch where I smoked one of my wife’s cigarettes, a pleasure I hadn’t had in years. I leaned against the house, not thinking so much as I was out there trying not to think. It wasn’t working, so I mashed the cigarette out and stepped back inside. Through the bathroom door I could hear splashing. I tapped twice and pushed in.
She smiled up at me, and I knew that the spell wasn’t broken for her neither. I took the rag from her hands and rubbed soapy circles on her back. When she laid back to rinse, quiet as Sunday morning, I gathered up a thick towel and held it out for her. The girl stepped in it, and I wrapped her up and led her to my room. She stood there at the foot of my bed, blazing red nose to toes, from the bathwater. I didn’t know if she was waiting on me to stay or go.
I moved to the chair by the doorway and pushed a pair of dirty britches into the floor. She flinched when the buckle clattered on the plank flooring. I said, “That buckle’s the product of an arm jerker I drew in 1959.” She didn’t smile or sparkle or ask to see my buckle. Nina coughed in the other room, and the quiet after was big enough to carry us away, house and all. The girl pushed a hunk of wet hair behind her ear and unzipped her bag, real cautious to contort herself and stay covered. She kept a tight grip on her towel with one hand and started ripping a brush through her tangles with the other. I wanted to take that brush from her hand and work it through her hair gentle until it was smooth. Something wasn’t letting me leave my seat, and she didn’t come no closer to me when she was finished. I took a spare quilt from the closet and bedded down on the living-room couch.
That’s the long and short of it. Question it all you want. I’m here to tell you the truth of things. She left the next morning after brushing Elsie. Hugged my neck quick and promised to let me know when she was nearby. I got a postcard from Ruidoso. Later, a rodeo program from Calvary. She didn’t ask nothing of me or give me a forwarding address. I was at the DQ when my wife called 911 for her own heart attack, giving the Indian one more thing to place on my head. Can’t nobody say my mourning wasn’t real.
When I pulled into the drive, a shutter had come loose and was banging against the house. Elsie ran up to the fence swinging her head. She didn’t like the wind or what was behind it. Pitch flew in behind me, and the first thing he did was grab a piece of baling wire from his truck and go over and tie the shutter up. Sometimes I forget he was born here, too. Born tiny as could be, squalling in the back room his momma passed in, but I didn’t have time for recollections. I tied my bandana over my face for the wind and stepped out to catch the mare. I had a magic horse in need of shoes. I had mountains on my mind.
The expert said fire exclusion leads to a buildup of fuel. He said sometimes you can set a fire to head another fire off. A fool could tell you that when the fire is roaring in a howling wind and the prairie is thick with underbrush, it’s too late. It has to run its course.
I don’t tell the tale to rectify the situation or to say I’m sorry, I done wrong. I tell it to say that sometimes the years and tears walls could talk about don’t mean nothing but a slow death upon you. Sometimes life’s variables don’t add up to evening-time sipping on lemonade in a porch swing, not that I’d have it that way if I could. As a bucktooth boy, I built my daddy’s barn by hand. As a man I watched it fall down around me until one day a fat little filly hit the ground and blew a breath in my face that went straight to my insides and lit them up.