During 2018, Not a Pipe Publishing has accepted Kamila Shamsie's challenge to only publish women for one year. Beyond the nine (nine!) novels we'll be publishing, we'd also like to promote even more women's voices, so we'll be publishing short fiction here. If you would like to submit, check out the information HERE.
This is an incredibly touching story. Told in a strong voice with a Southern twang, Beechwood effortlessly weaves magic and myth into the tale. The Painted Ponies of Wiley Creek is all at once grounded, breathtaking, and full of heart. -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor
The Painted Ponies of Wiley Creek
Every now and again, the men of Carbondale, when they got themselves all riled up and drunk, would declare that they was goin’ out and getting’ themselves a Painted Pony. They’d clamber up on their horses and shoot up the moon, and thunder off into the desert, nearly falling out of their saddles. In the morning they’d come crawling back with headaches and stories ‘bout seeing the sparks of silver hooves in the dark, and swearin’ they’d heard laughter and piano music echoing through the canyons. Once, Three-Toed Joe woke up in the middle of town with a hoof print on his forehead and no memories of the past three days as proof of such things.
On those mornings, Madame Pearl Wiley would stand on the balcony of her fine establishment on Main Street, on the opposite end of town from the First Church of Christ the Cowboy, and watch the men crawl off to their beds. She’d shake her head, then shake out the sheets, clean out the secrets and lies, and give her gals the afternoon off. She’d harness her fine bay filly to her fine black carriage and drive on out to her place—a five hundred acre spread that many a man had offered to marry her for. Pearl Wiley had no use for men, in general, discovering long ago that taking her own needs in hand was far cheaper than taking another husband. Her first and only husband, God rest his soul, had had the good sense to die quickly in a duel over something stupid. She, being the sole inheritor, had liquefied his assets and headed off toward the setting sun.
* * *
“Can you smell it, Bunny?” The words tore out of Clara’s throat like a cactus paddle. “Can you smell the water?”
Clara dug her elbow into the sandstone dust and wrenched around to find Bunny. But her little grey mare wasn’t there. She hadn’t been for three days now. Clara kept forgetting that.
They were supposed to be going to California together. To be a gentleman rancher and his retired cowpony. There wasn’t much point in crawling any further without Bunny. But the desire to survive wasn’t letting go of Clara so easily. She hauled herself up the bluff with fingernails bleeding and skin scraping dirt and rock. Her clothes had shredded some time during the past two days but, luckily, the thick cotton bandages that bound her breasts were fairly intact. Clara figured it was only fitting that the fabric that hid her unfortunate sex would also provide some protection.
The sun was dropping toward late afternoon. Soon night would bring some relief from the heat. But then the cold would come descending like a mountain lion. Clara groaned deep in her heart and pulled herself up to the edge of the bluff.
What she saw surely could not exist.
Perhaps she was delirious with thirst.
Before her lay a long valley, appearing out of nowhere in the south and disappearing into buttes in the north. It was narrow, only an hour’s ride across on a good pony. But it wasn’t the valley itself that seemed unreal. Clara’d ridden through plenty of them in her ten years moving cattle. This valley had a stripe of green grass running down its middle, like the line down a burro’s back. There were even a few cottonwoods standing in a crooked line.
“There’s a creek down there,” she told Bunny. She said ‘creek’ like her mama had taught her, back when she was little Clarabelle Cariveau, living in Boston. Not ‘crick’ like she’d come to say as Clark Smith. Mama’d be proud. Maybe. Her mother was a dream, a wish. Bunny, poor Bunny with buzzards tearing out her insides because Clara had thought they could outrun a damn sandstorm, was more real to her than her mother. She ran her arm across her forehead, swiping at sweat, flies, and memories.
There was a nicker. Then a whinny. Then the mighty thunder of hooves shook the ground. Clara turned quick as her poor body could manage as the ponies came on her. No blacks or browns or greys among them—in skins of cobalt, orange, chartreuse, emerald, yellow, they pirouetted between rattlesnakes and gopher holes on gold and silver hooves. Their manes and tails flew like standards declaring freedom. They were as beautiful and tough as desert flowers and led by a stocky scarlet mare with bells jingling in her mane. And they were all running straight at Clara.
Startled that her death would come so quickly after so much suffering, Clara rolled to her stomach, covered her head with her arms, and counted down how much longer she had … three … two … one …
But instead of trampling her, the lead mare dodged right at the last minute and the river of ponies flowed around her, leaping over the edge of the butte. After the last pony passed her by, she looked down into the valley where the ponies danced in the green grass.
Their story was told around every campfire from Alberta to Abilene. The details changed some, depending on the teller, but one fact remained unchanged—the Painted Ponies danced along Wiley Creek.
The lead mare broke away from the herd and stared up at Clara. Clara’s fingers twitched with the urge to grab a rope and lasso the mare, to climb onto her back and ride all the way to California. Or at least let the mare drag her to the creek hidden somewhere in the grass. The mare scratched at the ground with a silver hoof. She lowered her head and snorted. Clara heard the challenge as if the mare had spoken to her—Catch me if you can!
“You’re a sly one,” Clara croaked. “Even if I did have my rope, you know I don’t have the strength to catch you.”
The lead mare tossed her head. Yes, she surely knew.
Clara screamed, low and loud, as she hauled herself up and over, slid down, and tumbled to the valley floor. She crawled until her fingers sank into damp ground and her belly was stained green, until her short brown hair was slick with water. She sucked Wiley Creek down her throat.
The cold settled in and Clara’s teeth began to chatter.
Maybe the night would accomplish what the blazing day could not.
“Oh, fuck me,” Clara said as that last bit of struggling to survive whispered away. They were coarse last words, to be sure, but they seemed appropriate.
There was a rustle in the grasses. Too small to be a pony. A coyote or wolf then. Life was full of surprises.
Then a woman’s voice drawled, “What do you have, Poppy?”
A face appeared above Clara: silver hair, crystal blue eyes, skin impossibly white in this desert—maybe it had been darker once and the sun had bleached it like Bunny’s bones. She couldn’t figure the woman’s age. Old enough to be her sister? Mother? Grandmother?
The mare snorted. The woman looked Clara in the eye, looked clear down into her soul. “I guess I better get you back to the house.”
* * *
Clara stood in the yellowing grass of Wiley Creek. It had become her custom to watch for the painted ponies each evening, between supper and driving Pearl into town. She never witnessed their dancing and cavorting again, however.
Pearl called out from the barn, “It’s getting late.”
Clara turned away from the promise of ponies. She was disappointed and told Pearl so.
“They show up when they’re needed,” was Pearl’s answer. Clara didn’t know what that meant as the ponies seemed to serve no true purpose, but asking Pearl questions was useless. Pearl was an odd one and didn’t have a lot to say about anything.
Clara led Lulu, Pearl’s brown filly, out of the barn already hitched up to Pearl’s smart black rig. Pearl stepped aboard. Clara took up the reins. Lulu, with a jaunty little high step, brought them into Carbondale, to Pearl’s business enterprise, the Carbondale Grand Lodge and Saloon. Pearl took in desperate women and made money off of them. Clara didn’t understand how Pearl could render assistance in the form of shelter, food, and wages and yet profit from their whoring. But asking questions on this matter proved useless as well.
At midnight, Clara handed over the stable duties to Dimwit Jericho Stutts, the only male in Pearl’s employ. She went round to the back entrance, through the kitchen where Cookie always had a little something set aside for her, and headed into the saloon to buy herself a whiskey.
Gloria was at the piano, playing something rousing to promote drinking, gambling, and whoring. The saloon was full of cigar smoke, the smell of liquor, and men. Minnie appeared at the top of the stairs, adjusting her skirt. The wood creaked and complained as she eased her two-hundred-plus pounds down to the main room. A bold purple eye-patch covered her right eye and, as she descended, Minnie lifted the patch slightly and winked at Clara with her good right eye. “You gonna buy me a drink, Clark Smith?”
Clara saluted with her whiskey.
One of the miners playing poker leapt out his seat, shoutin’ that the fuckin’ Eye-talian across the table was a damn cheat. The piano notes spun off-kilter as Gloria ducked under her instrument. The suspected cheater pulled a gun and took a wild shot. There was a moment of thundering silence, then the crash of Minnie tumbling down the stairs, a trail of red in her wake.
All hell broke loose then, with the men fighting and blaming. Clara crawled toward Minnie while shots whizzed overhead. Then silence again as Pearl waded into the middle of the mayhem, shut down the place, and assured Sheriff Buckholzer that everything was fine, just fine, and she’d take care of everything. Sheriff Buckholzer hauled off the miners, probably to sleep it off in the jail and be released to go back to work in the morning.
Gloria returned to her piano, her fingers shaking. She closed the key cover.
“Get Lulu hitched up,” Pearl told Clara. “I’m taking Minnie to the ranch.”
“What the hell for? She’s dead,” Clara spit. Minnie’s head was cradled in her lap. Minnie had a little boy somewhere back East, a fine son who lived in a cottage by the sea. That’s what Minnie had claimed, anyway. Who was going to tell him his mama’d been shot over a damn card game? “You’re not going to do anything about this? You know those miners won’t spend one day in prison for killing her. Nobody gives a damn about a whore, ain’t that right? Not even you?”
“Get the rig,” was all Pearl said over her shoulder as she climbed the stairs.
Clara stomped and cussed her way back to the stables. Sure, her wages came from the whores, too. She was a damn hypocrite talking about the money they brought in and then taking it herself. But it just wasn’t right how Pearl was handling Minnie’s death. With a heavy heart and conflicted mind, Clara harnessed Lulu up and drove the rig around to the back door of the saloon. Cookie opened the door and Pearl hauled out a rolled-up carpet. It was surely too heavy for Pearl but there she was, hefting the bloated carpet into the back of the rig like Clara flung bales of hay over her shoulder.
Pearl stepped up next to Clara and looked clear down into her soul.
And Clara realized, like being kicked by a longhorn in the gut, that she wanted Pearl to see clear on down to Clarabelle.
They rode home in silence.
At the ranch, Pearl hefted the bundle and started walking. Clara followed across the dirt yard, past the barn and garden, past the farmyard, down through yellowing grass and wet of Wiley Creek. They walked past one, two, three cottonwoods stripped of leaves. Pearl nodded for Clara to stay put. She walked a bit further, then laid Minnie down and unrolled her carpet shroud. Tears gathered in Clara’s eyes. Minnie used to tease her, ‘How about a free ride, Clark?’. Clara would always laugh and toss back a whiskey because neither men nor women had ever much appealed to her and Minnie hadn’t cared about that one bit.
The sound of bells came gently from the East, just a sense of jingling at first, just a suggestion, then more and louder until there was no mistaking them. Clara turned and there they were –the Painted Ponies running, jumping, dancing across the desert, through the sage and bitterbrush. They came as if bidden by Pearl. But that thinking was wrong. It’s wasn’t Pearl that drew them.
The lead mare approached with don’t-mess-with-me steps, always wary, always suspicious, always protecting. She sniffed the fabric smudged with blood and the stained lace that lifted like worn daisy petals in the breeze. The scent of roses and carbolic acid rose up. The mare’s teeth chomped. Her ears flicked. She stomped her foot and the bells jangled.
The fabric jerked.
A low nicker—a foal’s call—then a hoof, golden and sharp, kicked out from under the dirty petticoat. The herd paced. There was a scrambling, then another foal-call to the lead mare, who offered up a mare-call. The fabric fell away as a plum-colored filly with a white spot around her right eye shook off fabric and lace, left boots behind, and struggled on her new thin legs. The filly staggered, tripped, kicked up her heels, twirled and rolled in the muck of the creek. The other ponies nuzzled and nosed her, committed her scent to memory. Then the lead mare guided the painted ponies back up the arroyo, never looking back at Pearl or Clara or the blood and stench of the brothels.
* * *
“Clark?” The male voice was coarse from trail dust and saloon smoke. “I’ll be damned, it is you.”
Clara pulled her persona tight as a corset and turned to face the old man in the livery doorway. She tried to remember how men talked to each other. The words. The tone. She had to dig deep to remember. “How the hell are ya, Franklin?”
Franklin’s mule, Matilda, stood behind him staring blankly out to some unknown horizon. She did that sometimes. Clark always wondered what she was looking at but never did figure it out. Bunny had loved Matilda and the feeling had seemed mutual. Whenever Franklin joined them on the trail—Matilda hauling the supply wagon—Bunny’d prefer to be with the mule at the end of the day than with the other horses. They’d murmur to each other in the dark and sleep side by side.
For a moment, Clark felt the presence of the little grey mare. But she was gone, he reminded himself. The thought of seeing the blank space where Bunny shoulda been kept him from looking back. It still hurt. If only he hadn’t …
Franklin stroked his yellowing beard. “Heard you was goin’ west to California to breed horses or some such nonsense.”
“That’s the plan.”
“Not surprised. Sure, you always did have a way with the ponies. Looks like you didn’t get far.”
“Winter came on me.”
Franklin nodded and spit on the ground between them. It left a nasty blotch in the dirt. “Plenty warm enough now. Me and Matilda are going to Frisco. Got a cousin lives out there. He needs strong men to work the docks. We should travel together. Where’s your pony? Rabbit was it?”
“Yeah, that’s right. What grown man calls his pony Bunny?” He spit again.
“Ah, well, I’m sorry ‘bout that.” He removed his hat for a moment. There was a second of silence. The loss of a good trail horse, one that had served well, was always respected by the men even after they drove their horses to that death. It was strange. Franklin replaced his hat and handed over Matilda’s reins. “If you’re comin’ be ready in the morning. Be good to have an extra set of eyes looking out for danger. But for now,” Franklin made a show of winking. “A hot bath and a whore’ll fix me up right before that last push to the Pacific.”
“I’ll think on it.”
Franklin walked off to the saloon, leaving Clark with Matilda and a decision to make.
Franklin was right, traveling together would be safer. But the thought of going west … it just didn’t set as well as it had under last summer’s sun. As he lead Matilda to an empty stall, the old mule laid her jaw over his shoulder and blew out a breath. Bunny’d always done the same. Then Matilda stumbled, caught herself, and plodded forward, never losing that blank stare. The poor mule would never see Frisco. She deserved to die in a thick bed of hay, not on the trail where she’d end up no better than Bunny. Clark’s mind turned the thoughts over. Franklin was shrewd when it came to taking advantage of a situation. He’d hold out until Clark offered enough to buy a sturdy trail horse to replace the old mule. Clark had a little money stashed away. Whore money. To buy the freedom of an old mule. He wondered what Minnie would think of it. And if he left in the morning with Franklin, he’d need a horse of his own. He added up the money he’d saved. It might work. Then he’d leave Matilda with Pearl. Surely she had enough room for one more. And head West to that dream he’d had since he was Clarabelle, following her daddy around the stables.
At midnight, Clark handed over the stable duties to Jericho and headed into the saloon for a word with Pearl. But when Clark got to Pearl’s office on the second floor, she was face down at her desk, columns of numbers crawling like ants beneath her cheek. At first, Clark thought she was asleep. One touch to her cheek proved Clark wrong.
At the ranch, Clara hefted the rolled up carpet that contained Pearl Wiley up onto her shoulder and walked across the dirt yard, past the barn and garden, through the new green grass and wet of Wiley Creek. She walked past one, two, three cottonwoods with hopeful budding leaves. She walked a bit further and laid Pearl down.
The sound of bells came gently from the East, just a sense of jingling at first, just a suggestion, then more and louder until there was no mistaking them. There was the unfurling of the carpet, the nickering and whinnying, the rustle of fabric. A silver filly, pale as the moon danced as lithe and strong as a prima ballerina. Then all the Painted Ponies looked clear on down into her soul.
And Clara realized that they could see clear on down to Clarabelle Cariveau.
“I guess I’ll be staying here.”
The lead mare snorted and tossed her head, then spun and lead them all back up the arroyo, never looking back, the new silver filly glowing like moonlight.
As Clara turned to leave, a flash of white caught her attention. She leaned over the slow water of Wiley Creek. Pearl’s face gazed back at her, silver hair and clear eyes and skin as white as bones bleached by the sun. Bunny laid her jaw across Clara’s shoulder and blew out a breath.
“Ain’t life full of surprises?” Clara asked her little grey pony. “It’s kind of like raising up horses. Don’t you think?”
* * *
Every now and again, the teenaged boys of Carbondale, when they got themselves all riled up and drunk, would declare that they was goin’ out and getting’ themselves a Painted Pony. They’d clamber into jacked-up pickups and crank up the radio, and thunder off into the desert, nearly falling out of the truck beds. In the morning they’d come crawling back with headaches and stories ‘bout seeing the sparks of silver hooves in the dark, and swearin’ they’d heard laughter and piano music echoing through the canyons. Once, Chad Bradley woke up in the middle of the football field with a hoof print on his forehead and no memories of the past three days as proof of such things.
On those mornings, Ms. Pearl Wiley would emerge from the office of her fine establishment on Main Street, on the opposite end of town from the First Church of Christ Our Savior, and grab a latte at the Starbucks on the corner. She’d shake her head, then shake the hand of her financial advisor, review the income and expenses, and hire more staff at a livable wage. She’d fire up her candy apple red 1969 Corvette and drive on out to her place—a five hundred acre spread that many a man had offered to buy for oil drilling or data storage. Pearl Wiley had no use for the money they threw at her, discovering long ago that women would always come to the Carbondale Lodge & Spa looking for a new life. She, being the sole proprietor, kept her properties intact and, when the time was right, watched for the Painted Ponies of Wiley Creek.
Elizabeth Beechwood is your typical Subaru-driving, scarf-knitting, bird-feeding tree hugger who lives on the fringes of Portland, Oregon. When she writes, she begins by focusing on regular people with regular lives … but then something strange happens. She earned an MFA in Popular Fiction at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program and fiction has been featured in Crossed Genres and Every Day Fiction. She is a member of Willamette Writers, PNWA, and is the founder and facilitator of Washington County Writers Forum.