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
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
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.
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
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
“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
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
Katie stooped and rescued the bowl. “You're right about
that. I wish he liked eating 'em half as well as he likes playing
“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.”
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.”
“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
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.
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.
now,” she said, dropping him a bean that had escaped the pot.
“I'll let you out later.”
“Did you say something, Miz Katy?”
“Nope. You set on up to the table now. Supper's
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
“Mighty fine vittles,” he finally ventured.
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
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.
that thinking you been doing whilst you been sitting there.”
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
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?”
He shook his head. “Just a horse aways off somewhere. Sounded
funny, is all.”
“Thank you for washing Jess.”
“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
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
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.”
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,”
“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
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.
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.
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
“Look out!” Jimmy whooped. “You'll go a flyin' just like
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.
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
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
“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!”
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
“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.