January 2016: Wishes and Horses, first published in Tales of Moreauvia, Vol 1, No 4.
Wishes and Horses
copyright S. A. Bolich 2010

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Katy had never really understood that saying until right now; she'd been making her own ponies since she was three, so she never could figure out growing up why so many people walked everywhere when they could ride. She must have been twelve before it dawned on her that maybe not everybody could make a live pony out of a fistful of dough and a rocking-horse cookie cutter.

She hadn't made a pony in a long time. She was tempted to right now, because Jess was being awful, and riding off and leaving him screaming to the wind seemed like a fine idea. She had never known what a trial having kids was 'til she had one. She regarded him grimly, wishing real hard for a way to get “no” through his head, but Ma was right when she said little 'uns had skulls that would bounce a bullet. So Katy gave up on wishing and grabbed his little wrist, firmly removed his hand from the bean bowl still again and managed not to yell even though she felt like it. Jess shrieked and tried to stuff a handful of the snapped beans into his mouth; she grabbed them away and picked him up, still shrieking and now wriggling like a worm on a hook. Firmly she planted him fifty feet away under the cottonwood where it would take him a while to crawl back, and sat herself down on the stoop again to finish snapping the beans.

West Texas heat pressed down on her, wrapping her in a smothering breeze that smelled of dust and mesquite. If it wasn't for the cottonwood there wouldn't be a single patch of shade between her and the Concho River crawling along between two rows of thirsty trees, looking like a dusty green ribbon under the low hills outside town. Even they couldn't throw a shadow worth the name, being just a couple of pale bumps against the bleached-out sky. Katy wiped away the sweat wanting to drip off her nose and wondered if it got so almighty hot everywhere in July.

Visions of ponies cantered wistfully through her mind, frolicking away toward shady places where it was always cool. Her hands slowed as she remembered the white one she had made when she was fifteen, the first one she hadn't needed to use the cookie cutter to make. It used up a whole batch of bread dough and Ma had swatted her for it, but Pa was so tickled Katy figured the hiding was worth it. Such a pretty pony, but the Comanches stole him and she had to make another one, and that one wasn't as nice for some reason. Pa traded him off for a mule that got carried away in a flash flood along with Pa, so she hadn't made but one more pony, for Ma to ride back to her folks in Georgia after seeing her daughter married off proper. After that she just got so busy making magic for other folks that she hadn't much left for fun.

“Miz Katy?”

Jimmy Benning's voice startled Katy half out of her skin. She stood up as he came around the corner from the street side of the house and stooped down to swoop Jess up out of the dirt like a hawk snatching a mouse. Jess, halfway across the yard on his way back to raid the beans again, started to laugh, and Katy's mad melted away under the sweet sound of it. God surely had made that sound to make up for all the aggravation babies put everybody through.

Jimmy came up to her, smiling. He tucked Jess onto one hip, never minding that he was all over dirt and spit and looked a fright, and swept his hat off to her just like she was some fancy lady in San Antone. “And how are you this fine afternoon, Miz Katy?”

“Just fine, thank you for asking. What brings you a'callin' out of the blue?”

Lordy, but Ma would have slapped her for being so rude, but Jimmy never noticed. Bullets could bounce off his head sure enough. He hadn't any more sense than Jess about most things, but he had a good heart. He waggled his eyebrows at her, a sure sign he was in a good mood and wanted to share. For about the hundredth time she had to twist her fingers into her apron to resist temptation. His eyebrows looked so darn much like wings she had to stop herself turning them into little white birds and setting them loose to buzz around his head. Maybe it would waft some sense in through his ears, but she doubted it. Jimmy had been chasing her ever since Charlie got bit by the rattler, and he didn't understand no any more than Jess did.

“I come to ask you to supper, Miz Katy. I reckon you could maybe use a night when you didn't have to stand over a stove cooking yourself to death along with the steak. I mean--” He turned red suddenly as his ears caught up to his tongue. “I-I didn't mean you cooked the steak to death. You're a mighty fine cook, and I--”

“I know what you meant,” Katy said, trying hard not to laugh. If she laughed she'd give in, and she didn't want to give in. She still missed Charlie.

He hung his head, which seemed to remind him that he was still holding Jess. He startled to dandle him up and down and suddenly wrinkled his nose and looked down. “Uh-oh,” he said, turning red again. “Looks like Jess done sprung a leak.”

“Set him down then. The yard could use a little watering.”

Jimmy threw his head back and laughed. “You're the first woman I ever met who didn't get all tizzied when the young'uns got a little dirtied up.” He set Jess down and nudged him away from the bean bowl with his foot. “Here now, partner, I think your ma might have some ideas about them beans her own self.”

Katie stooped and rescued the bowl. “You're right about that. I wish he liked eating 'em half as well as he likes playing in 'em.”

“He's a mighty fine boy.” Jimmy's voice turned deep and serious all of a sudden. “A man'd be proud to raise him up.”

She squinted up at him. “You asking for the job?”

He blushed red as a rooster's comb. “I sure wouldn't say no.”

“I ain't offering,” Katy said firmly. “But you're welcome to stay to supper.”

“Yes, ma'am!”

“Go wash Jess off while I get it started, then.” He might as well make himself useful if he was going to hang around.

“Uh, sure.” Jimmy looked a little dubious of a sudden. “I mean, uh, you got anything a little drier to stuff him back into?”

Silently Katy went and fetched a clean cloth to slap on Jess's bottom and let Jimmy go off to figure it out. She hadn't quite figured Jimmy out. He was about the only one in town who hadn't asked her to make magic for him. Seemed like the only thing he wanted of her was her, and she couldn't quite figure that. Even Charlie, Lord love him, had been so tickled by all the little magics she used to work for him that she sometimes wondered if he remembered why he married her, before he knew she could do all that. Jimmy didn't seem to care.

She was halfway through making biscuits when she remembered ponies. Katy stopped, staring at the dough oozing through her fingers. For a moment she was tempted, but then she shook her head and went on kneading, hearing Charlie's voice in her head.

“Don't you be wasting your breath making things for us, darlin'. Save it for what folks'll pay for.”
Sure enough, now the magics were the only thing keeping food on the table, and ponies were an extravagance she couldn't afford.

She frowned, slapping the dough onto the board maybe a little harder than necessary. Seemed like a long time since she up and made magic just for fun. She hadn't even made Jess a play pretty for ever so long. He broke them so fast it seemed a waste of time, but he sure did like them, especially the little bright ones like butterflies that fluttered around above the cradle and kept him happy for hours when he was very small. Her face heated up, because she hadn't made those for so long he probably thought she didn't love him anymore.

Her hands stopped kneading again. She looked around for Jimmy and Jess but they were having a high old time out by the pump, one wetter'n the other. She smiled and then looked down at the dough. Slowly she pinched off a piece. Just a little piece, and she wasn't sure it would work anyway, it had been so long. She closed her hand around the dough and thought real hard about ponies, then set the dough down on the floury board. She felt it change as a hot shiver shot through her, shaking her to her bones even as her skin heated up all over for a second or two. She shook herself a little to lay the hair back down on her arms and lifted her hand.

And there it was, stamping and snorting in surprise on her bread board. She caught her breath in delight, surprised herself, for she'd never made one so small, or so pretty. He was a perfect little chestnut with a flaxen mane and tail, scarce four inches high, with a proud arch to his neck and a tail so long it dragged in the flour. He looked up at her and whinnied, clear as clear. She laughed and clapped her hands to her mouth to hush herself, tickled right through.

“Lordy, girl, what are you going to do with him?” she asked herself out loud. Ponies were one thing; even little horses had some value, and the one the Injuns stole had been near as tall as the mule that came later. But this little feller! Jess'd squash it to death trying to love on it, and where was she going to keep it?

She stared at it, biting her lip. Now that the thing was done, it didn't seem like such a good idea to waste magic on such things. Magic was for practical things, like helping old Miz Taylor do up her mending that her old hands couldn't manage no more, or making Ben Chapman's shovel dig out his new well, or hotting up the forge fire for Ed Kiley so's he could turn out a fancy gewgaw for his better customers. It wasn't for making useless little critters she'd have to feed that had no earthly use.

She stroked the little neck with the tip of her forefinger. The stallion sniffed her hand and rubbed his nose against her nail. She caught her breath, enchanted in spite of herself.

“Miz Katy, you better look out, 'cause here we come, all clean and washed behind the ears and rarin' for supper!” Jimmy's voice at the front door almost drowned out in Jess's happy shriek as they came stomping in.

Katy gasped and scooped up the pony. For lack of any better idea she bundled him, kicking tiny hooves against her palm and snorting in surprise, into the sugar tin. It was almost empty anyway, with not enough in there to do him harm, and maybe enough to keep him quiet. She left the lid off so's he could breathe and spun around as Jimmy came into the kitchen, carrying Jess on his shoulders. Jess was a little big-eyed but liking it, pulling at Jimmy's hair with both fists and laughing like a loon.

“You just set down out there in the front room,” she told Jimmy. “I got biscuits to finish.”

“Yes'm.” He grinned and swung Jess down in one easy move that reminded her somehow of Charlie, who was always graceful as a panther.

Biting her lip in sudden pain, she turned away and smashed out the biscuits, tossed them anyhow onto the baking sheet and thrust them into the oven. Fresh beans and mashed potatoes and a little ham should be enough to keep Jimmy from going away hungry; she set about seeing to them, fretting about the pony all the while. It was a waste of magic; she saw that now. Life just didn't have room in it for such things, and what would Jimmy think?

She stopped flat in the middle of mashing the potatoes, wondering what had set such a thought in her head. Jimmy didn't matter a spit in the wind; what did it matter what he thought? But as she went back to mashing spuds she discovered that the notion wouldn't go away. The spuds got ground to bits and beyond, which at least wouldn't disgrace her table, for all that she only just managed to rescue the biscuits from disaster. As she hauled them out of the oven, only a little on the brown side, she heard a faint bang! as a little hoof hit the side of the sugar tin. She peered in at the stallion pacing restlessly around and around. The inside was licked clean as a whistle of every speck of sugar; either he was mad about being in there or sugar had the same effect on him that it did on Jess.

“Shh, now,” she said, dropping him a bean that had escaped the pot. “I'll let you out later.”

“Did you say something, Miz Katy?” Jimmy called.

“Nope. You set on up to the table now. Supper's ready.”

She put out the plates as he settled gingerly into the first chair he came to--hers, not Charlie's, for which she was vaguely grateful. Things went fine until all the dishes were on the table and everybody served and Jess was crawling happily around under their feet. Then it got quiet and Jimmy seemed almighty interested in his plate, his tongue switched off for a change.

“Mighty fine vittles,” he finally ventured.

“Thankee.”

That finished conversation for another little while. Jimmy ate up seconds, then thirds, until finally Katy began to suspect that either he hadn't eaten for a month or he was trying dreadful hard to show her how much he liked her cooking.

“You're gonna bust,” she remarked when he reached for the potatoes again.

His hand froze midair. “Uh--”

It struck her as funny then. “Go ahead. I reckon you got to build up your strength.”

“For what?” He looked down the table at her, startled.

“For all that thinking you been doing whilst you been sitting there.”

He turned red again. Lordy, but he did that a lot. “I just didn't want to say nothing to cause you hurt, Miz Katy,” he said with dignity. “Seems like every time I open my mouth around you it comes out wrong.”

“Don't see a need for all the precautions,” she said, to keep him in his place.

“Just sayin',” he said.

She got up to clear the table. He leaped up, too, reaching to help. “You're a guest in this house,” she said sharply. “I've got this.”

He sank down, abashed. “You work too hard, Miz Katy. It ain't right I sit here like a lump and let you do everything.”

Katy blinked. He sounded like he meant it. Charlie would have growed roots before he got up and helped with women's work. “Never you mind. I'll be right back.”

She hauled the plates into the kitchen and left them for later. “They'll keep,” she told Jimmy, setting aside her apron. She picked up Jess as he headed for the open back door and brought him, protesting, into the front room. As she came through the door she heard a faint, angry whinny from the sugar tin.

Jimmy's head turned. “What was that?”

“What?”

He shook his head. “Just a horse aways off somewhere. Sounded funny, is all.”

“Thank you for washing Jess.”

He grinned. “Lively little feller, ain't he?”

She settled in the old rocker by the window. “Quicker'n a greased pig. I need seven hands to keep up with him.”

Jimmy looked away. “Why don't you magic him?”

He sounded so queer that Katy hesitated. “Magic him how?”

He shrugged one shoulder. “I dunno. Seems like it'd be easier than chasing him, is all.”

“Little 'uns got to crawl, and then they got to run, or they'll never get nowhere in life. What good would it do keeping him hog-tied all the time?”

Jimmy looked at her straight then. “I seen that well over to Ben Chapman's place. Seems like you could put a fair fence around Jess without lifting a finger.”

Katy gave him a hard stare back. “Maybe I could and maybe I couldn't.” Privately she kicked herself that she had never thought of it. “Don't seem a proper use for magic, is all.”

He blinked. “Why not? You're always doing such things for other folks. Why don't you never use some of it for you?”

She sat up straighter, stung. “Pa always said that if you didn't help folks out you didn't deserve the good things that come to you in life, and even Reverend Bates says my magic's a gift from God, which is more'n folks anywhere else ever thought.” She stopped, biting her lip, because Jimmy didn't need to know what a misery life had been before she met up with Charlie, rattling around from town to town with Ma, trying to fit in after Pa died. Things would go along fine for a while, and then she'd slip up, and all the staring and finger-pointing and name-calling would start up again. Ma was right to leave it all behind, but then, she never was magical her own self. Charlie had made it better for a little while, but now he was gone, too. She wanted a place, and this two-horse town was the first one she'd come to that felt the least bit like home.

“You don't gotta work yourself to death helpin' other folks out,” Jimmy muttered.

“If I use up all my magic on me there wouldn't be none left to put money in my pocket. Magic can't spin spider webs into clothes to put on Jess's back.” She knew; she'd tried it.

He frowned but let it be. Abruptly he stood up. “I reckon you know best. It was a mighty fine supper, Miz Katy. Thank you kindly for inviting me.”

Taken aback, Katy managed a faint, “Welcome.” Before she could ask what his hurry was he made his manners and was out the door. Slowly she bent down and picked up Jess as he tried to crawl after Jimmy.

“What was that about, little man?” she wondered. Her stomach felt hollow and a sense of loss she could not explain wound its way through her gut. She never had thought Jimmy was like those folks who asked her for magic but thought her unnatural for being able to do it, but maybe he was. Since he'd never asked, she had no idea how he felt about magic at all.

“Don't matter what he thinks,” she muttered, washing up the dishes.

But it did.

 

For the next couple of weeks she found herself watching for Jimmy around town. Before, she'd gone out of her way to avoid him. Now that it looked like he was avoiding her, it vexed her not to be able to lay eyes on him. Meantime the chestnut pony got tired of the sugar tin and made such a mess in it besides she had to let him run around in a little fence she made out of mesquite branches in the back yard. She made a little money putting up a real fence for Judge Crawford, a nice picket one with a gate, a real pretty addition to his fine house. But it was also long, and making the posts plant themselves and the pickets jump up onto the stringers left her feeling all hollowed-out inside. She had to give up a half-notion to take Jimmy's advice and make the weeds pick themselves out of the garden when she got home. She ended up doing it by hand, wishing tiredly that Charlie hadn't got himself killed. Not that he would stoop to lend a hand anyway, a rebellious little voice said in her head. Shocked by such disloyalty, she ended up watering the carrots with her tears. If wishes were horses. . .

Doggedly she resisted temptation and saved her magic for worthwhile things. Carl Porter's firewood broke itself to flinders under her eye, Mary Dawkins' peaches leaped off the tree into the boxes when she told them to, and Ella Hardy's washing got done while Ella was resting up from birthing her latest baby. Katy didn't think much of the two eldest girls, who simpered and giggled behind their hands and didn't offer to help while Katy got the washing hopping from tub to tub and wringing itself dry. Seemed like Ella was mighty lax, or maybe they'd just got the notion that while Katy was around they didn't have to work.

She bit down hard on giving them a piece of her mind. Ella's husband was crotchety and likely to take against her, and if he refused to pay up maybe some other folks would figure they didn't need the witch girl around either, and then where would she be? Jess needed shoes, since he was going to be walking soon. Flour didn't come free either, nor the sugar the little stallion demanded every time he saw her. That was his name, too, since he liked the stuff so much. At least he didn't seem to want much else from her, and it was blessedly peaceful in the evenings to sit on the stoop and watch the storms tumbling and flashing across the river and pick the tangles out of his pretty tail.

“You don't ask for much, anyway,” she told him, and laughed when he tossed his little head like he was agreeing with her. She couldn't help thinking that maybe Charlie had got it wrong, that a little magic for your own self wasn't such a bad thing, but the emptied-out feeling in her bones told her she didn't have it to spare. Charlie was right and Jimmy was wrong, and there was the end of it. Paying the rent and feeding Jess came first.

Two weeks after the dinner with Jimmy she spotted him lurking in the shade of the livery watching her help Ben Chapman load up a wagon. Leastwise, Ben was there telling her where stuff should go, since he was the expert, and she wafted everything up from the boardwalk in front of the feed store into place. Saved a lot of sweat that way, but she felt achy all over when it was done like she'd tossed every one of them grain sacks up there with her own arms. She put her hands on her hips and stretched out her back, and when she looked toward the livery again Jimmy was gone.

“Well,” she muttered, though she had not a reason in the world to be miffed. He was nothing to her and she was nothing to him, and if he didn't have a thing better to do in the middle of the day than stand around in the shade watching other folks work, what good was he? Katy collected her dollar from Ben and walked stiffly home, glad enough that tomorrow was Sunday and she could maybe get to feeling better before starting on the garden.

Next morning she sat through two stifling hours in church, her back aching and her clothes sticking to her skin in most unladylike fashion. Old Reverend Bates was in rare form, thundering away about folks shouldering their own burdens, which for some reason started some heads ducking and folks squirming in their pews. His eye was on her, though, and Katy's heart started a funny little dance of dread in her chest. Did that mean she wasn't supposed to help out no more? Then how was she supposed to make a living? The reverend was the first to squash all the mutters about witches when she and Charlie first came to town; he said if God had given her such a gift then who was anyone to question so long as she never used it for evil? She'd always liked him for that, and sure enough, folks made up to her pretty fast when they found out what she could do. But if he meant she shouldn't be magicking for folks, then what was she supposed to do come winter?

Worried sick, she ducked out quick afterward through a crowd of folks, none of whom would meet her eye. A tall shape appeared at her elbow, startling her, but when she looked it was only Jimmy.

“Can I walk you home?” he said, just like he hadn't been avoiding her for weeks.

“Reckon there ain't no law.”

She didn't look at him, busy with shifting Jess from hip to hip. He must be growing, because he felt heavier than usual. Then suddenly his weight was gone altogether. She gasped and grabbed at him, thinking she had somehow stupidly let him drop, but Jess was shrieking happily, swooping skyward in Jimmy's hands.

“Look out!” Jimmy whooped. “You'll go a flyin' just like the eagles!”

Jess giggled like mad. Katy melted inside, listening to him. It didn't even matter that it was Jimmy drawing the laugh; just hearing it gave her new life.

They came to her shabby front door. Katy frowned at it, suddenly embarrassed. Charlie had always promised to paint it but never got to it, too busy rounding up folks who'd pay for her to magic them out of their difficulties. Now she wished he had, because it made the whole place look dingy and mean.

“You'e welcome to cold chicken and biscuits,” she told Jimmy, and was a little surprised when he accepted.

“Haven't seen you much lately,” she commented, taking off her bonnet inside.

“I've been around,” he said, his voice thinning.

“Guess I've been too busy to look.” Suddenly she didn't care for him to know how hard she had looked, around every corner and down every alley she came to.

“I know.” And that came out positively icy.

She stopped halfway through the kitchen door. “What's that mean?”

He set Jess down and turned around, his face suddenly wild and angry. “I've seen you working like a field hand on a cotton plantation for folks who're just too happy to let you do what they're too lazy to do for themselves. Loading up Ben Chapman's wagon? Doing Ella Hardy's laundry, and her with two perfectly able-bodied girls? Katy!”

He was so upset he left out the “Miz.” Katy stared at him. “I got to earn a living, Mr. Benning! How I do it is none of your business.”

He snatched off his hat, a little late, and stood there twisting it savagely between his hands. Alarmed, Katy took a step back, wondering what ailed him. He seemed to realize what he was doing and flung the hat on the floor, heedless of Jess scrambling to play with it.

“Look here, Miz Katy. I know I shouldn't but I'm a'goin' to say it anyway. I see them folks working you like a slave and I want to go over and punch 'em all in the nose. They got no right to take advantage of you that way. Look at you! You can hardly carry Jess around, you're so tired. This magic's killing you, and they'll let it happen, 'cause they're the ones getting all the benefit. You got to stop before it wears you down so far you can't come back.”

She stared at him, dumbfounded. “I--Jimmy Benning, what business is it of yours? You don't cotton to magic anyhow!”

“I don't cotton to them takin' advantage of your magic!” he shot back. “Charlie never worked a day in his life after he figured out what you could do. It ain't right, a man letting a woman support him that way. If that rattler hadn't of bit him I'd have shoved his nose in the horse trough 'til he woke up and started pullin' his own weight.”

“You leave Charlie out of it.” Katy, struck all sideways, blinked back tears. Charlie maybe hadn't been the hardest-working man that ever lived but he had been good to her. She and Pa and Ma had been run out of a dozen places, with folks calling them gypsies and witches and devils and everything else hateful, but he never even blinked when he found out his wife was magical, just loved her more.

“You--” She stopped, hearing a quaver in her voice and hating it for making her sound weak when she had to be strong. “You just hush up, Jimmy Benning. Magic is all I've got, and I don't need you ruining it for me.”

“Ruining it? They're ruining it!” Jimmy howled.

A wild, shrill neigh sounded from the kitchen. Katy froze, Jimmy's head snapped around, his eyes widening. Too late, Katy remembered that she had left Sugar loose to roam the kitchen while she was at church. He came charging out from under the flour bin, mane and tail streaming, shrilling his stallion challenge. Jimmy stared and stared, his eyes near to falling out of his head.

“Katy,” he finally said, so faint she barely heard him. “What's that?”

“What's it look like?” she said crossly, bending down to catch up Sugar as he reared up and struck at Jimmy's ankle.

“Heaven save us,” he whispered.

Katy stiffened. “There ain't no need to call in the saints. There ain't no harm in him.”

Jimmy looked up. “Harm?” he said, with such a look on his face that Katy stared. “Harm? Oh, my Lord, Katy, this--this is wonderful!”

That time it was her jaw that sagged. “I thought you didn't like magic!”

“What?”

They stared at each other in mutual incomprehension. Jimmy started to laugh. “Miz Katy, you better marry me quick, 'cause you need a keeper. Didn't it never occur to you that folks might pay a lot more to see a cute little pony than for doin' their laundry? I'm surprised Charlie never picked up on that. He was always wishin' for lightning to strike him with gold.”

“Charlie never knew,” she said faintly.

Jimmy shook his head in disgust. He reached down and stroked Sugar's tiny mane. “I bet this little fella was a whole lot easier than gettin' peaches to pick themselves, wasn't he?”

“Ye-es.” He wasn't mad. Charlie would have been mad.

Jimmy smiled, and the whole world lit up. “Oh, honey,” he said, and his voice dropped to a low, teasing note that did awful interesting things to Katy's heart. “There's a fella named Barnum back east, and he's just a'gonna love you.”

Sugar turned his head and bit him. Jimmy just laughed. Katy looked up, and saw in his face the other side of magic.

 

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