By Mike Bonifas
Rachel tightens the cinch on her saddle. To her right, Brazos grunts as he swings the saddle on to his horse’s back.
“Need help?” Her brother has thin arms.
“Got it.” Brazos adjusts the blanket. “Need a new backstrap.”
He angles his left foot into the stirrup and swings himself into the saddle. “As in someday when this strap breaks and I bust my head, you’ll visit me in the hospital?”
“It won’t tear.”
Brazos adjusts the reins. “Wish Dad would get us four-wheelers.”
“Can’t rope from a four-wheeler.”
They ride west, the setting sun coppering the sky. Rachel touches her spurs to the flank, shifting the horse into a trot. Blue-stem grass blurs like flowing water beneath her boots.
Rachel pulls to a stop and looks behind her. Brazos waves his rifle and signals her to follow him. They lope toward a thatch of quivering grass. Brazos arrives first and is grinning when Rachel rides up.
“Not bad, eh?”
A coyote bitch stares up from the ground, hind leg twitching against tight udders. Rachel looks up, angry. Canted light glimmers the fuzz on her brother’s jaw.
“You’re ugly, Brazos.”
“The girls in my class call me Guapo.”
“Means ‘bad breath’ in Spanish.”
Brazos slips the rifle into the scabbard. “I’d say the slug hit her heart.”
Rachel glances down and counts the teats. “Wonder where she hid the yelps.”
“You find them.” He slaps the gun stock. “Let me know.”
“The hell I will.”
They ride on, her brother in the lead.
Brazos is two years younger than Rachel, but three grades behind her in school. She defends him on the bus and in the cafeteria. Crooked smile, pointed chin, and a club foot. Rachel loves him. The way orphans love stray dogs.
Turbines spin like pinwheels on the horizon. The two riders come to the base of a ridge and dismount at a battered windbreak. At daybreak, they will gather cattle into a corral beyond the next draw. They tether their horses and remove the saddles.
“You collect cow chips.” Rachel nods toward the pasture. “I’ll scout for rattlers.”
“I always get the shit jobs.”
“No fuel, no fire.”
Rachel inspects a rotted plank on the windbreak. Lifting a sheet of tin with the toe of her boot, she encounters a dove with a wounded wing.
Brazos returns with an armload of dung. “What you got?”
“You’re not killing her.”
He drops the chips in a pile. “I’ll make a spit.”
“Over my dead body.” She snuggles the bird in the crook of her arm. Pinks and blues shimmer the feathers of the neck. She bends to kiss them. “Hobble the horses.”
Brazos thumbs his nose, then limps to the windbreak. He untethers his horse. “Come on, Buster.” The horse balks. Brazos jerks the rope, and the horse rears, knocking the boy to the ground.
Brazos picks himself up and eases his way back to the horses. Gathering the lead rope from the ground and untethering Rachel’s, he leads both horses to pasture.
“Pays to be gentle,” Rachel calls, rocking the bird in her arms. The sound of Brazos’ bum leg scraping the dirt lingers in her ear. He returns with the bedrolls and lights the fire. “Still couchin’ that bird?” He blows on the embers.
Rachel wants to ask him why he’s so mean, but she knows the reason. She loosens the strings on her bedroll and unfurls it with a throw of her hand. She places the dove within a fold of flannel, then crawls inside.
“Time to pray.”
“Pray yourself.” Brazos kicks off his boots.
It is dusk, Rachel’s favorite time of day. She fishes a rosary from the pocket of her jeans. Brazos peels off his socks. His feet gleam as pink as the coyote’s udders, and she feels a sudden urge to rub them, maybe push some blood toward his godless heart.
He ignores her.
He unties his bedroll, then scratches his ear. “If you’re looking for the river by that name, it’s a hundred miles south of here.”
Nestled next to Rachel, the dove flutters against her breast. She strokes the wing. “Never seen the Brazos.” She imagines its rivulets clothing the land like lace on a dress. “Its full name means ‘the arms of God.’”
Brazos stares at the sky, hands folded behind his head. “Who cares?”
His bent foot points south, toward the river. In the flickering flame, it resembles a claw.
Rachel kisses the crucifix. The arms of God. Her hand clutches the beaded chain like a string of lace.
When she wakes in the morning, Rachel reaches for the dove, but the bird is gone. She pats down the sides of the sleeping bag, gropes the bottom with her feet.
Across the ash mound, her brother sits leaning against a propped-up saddle. Cupping the dove in his hands, he shows her to Rachel. “She likes me,” he says.