Wild Horses

by Paul Rawlins

I learned how to fight from a book. That’s what I’m thinking after the truck bounces me awake, after I see it’s another hour to Shelby, and Lee’s locked on autopilot behind the wheel.

I learned from lots of books. I was in second grade maybe when the teacher read to us about a kid who had to fight a bully, and the only thing the kid knew was not to close his fists around his thumbs so he wouldn’t break them. So he kept his thumbs on top like he was holding the controls of an imaginary rocket ship. I tried it that day at recess. I kept my thumbs on top and punched a kid till I bloodied his nose and didn’t break my thumbs.

It’s been good advice. I keep them more to the sides now, but I’ve never broken a thumb.

I read about the solar plexus, deadly, and I researched it in an old encyclopedia. It’s a good first punch. You don’t even need a hard shot, just a quick one. I read about sucker punching somewhere else, and I put the two together when I can, holding a fist tight under my other hand then letting it fly. The throat’s that way, too; you don’t even need a punch. You can flip someone hard enough with a finger to scare them when their windpipe closes off, and you only need that extra few seconds if that’s all you get out of it. And the groin, everybody knows about that, but you get it every now and then, and the rest’s easy, just pick and choose.

And that’s another thing I’ve learned, always getting in the first punch no matter who starts a thing. I’d say things will go your way nine times out of ten if you get in a good first lick. Sometimes that ends it right there. And if there’s two of them, the second guy gets the first punch because he’s not looking for it. He’s hopping around there just waiting for you to give him something for free. If you’re working a crowd, you’ve got to land that first one. I’m always looking to get it anyway. For me it’s like insurance. Like luck, too.

I’d tell my wife about all this, but it isn’t the time.

My wife is a tall woman. She looks husky from the back, firm. She looks good in men’s trousers, khakis with a belt, and a white pullover with her hair in a tight braid. And she ambles when she walks, swings her right foot out and back in. I saw her for the first time when she was playing ball, knocking flies out to left field, stepping into her swing with a long line cut­ting into her thigh along a ridge of muscle. We still play city league in the summers, and the outfielders, the ones who know her, they back up toward the fences.

She’s tight and she’s hard, but she’s one of those women who look good like that. She looks healthy and young. She looks strong, and she is. At thirty-four, she’s all of those. She’s going back to school now, learning physical therapy. The jocks she works with come on to her, along with one of her teachers who’s a married man with three kids, and I might visit him when we get back.

She’s with me now, driving the last leg to Shelby while I’ve been asleep. It’s going to be a tight fit on the way back, but it’s good my wife’s come, and it was good of her when she didn’t have to. But she said, “Maybe it’s got to be done,” and she climbed in and slept on and off the first eight hours.

We’re going into Shelby to get my sister. We’re taking her and her kids away in the truck because her husband’s no good.

I told my brothers about it.

“I’m going to go up and get her,” I said.

“Did she call?” It’s Ben, my older brother, asking. “Is she ready to go?”

“Ready doesn’t matter,” I said. “It’s time.”

“Del,” Ben’s going to tell me what’s wrong with this.

“I’ll go, Del.” This is my little brother, Scott. “Marci ought to just come home. And if he’s hitting her now, like Mom thinks, it’s maybe time he got hit back a little.”

Scott talks this way. He’s using braces now after most of two years in a wheelchair. He cracked up on his motorcycle while he was still in high school, and the doctors say he’s doing good to have come this far. He was wild, but he’s never been a tough guy. Now he’s tough, but it’s endurance, tough for the long haul like a marathoner, and he won’t be coming with me.

“What are you going to do, Del?” Ben’s asking again. He’s acting like he doesn’t trust me, thinking he’s got to keep me out of trouble.

“Go up and get her and the kids and bring them home.”

“What do you do about Richard?”

Richard is Marci’s husband. He’s taken to leaving her days at a time, and they’ve taken to fighting about it, and other things. Marci says he’s drinking. Mom thinks he might be hitting Marci, too. Richard hasn’t earned the benefit of too many doubts.

“Richard’s not going to do anything,” I said.

“Can’t that be kidnapping?” Ben said.

“No,” I said, “she’s my sister.”

Ben never gave his approval in so many words, but he came by last night with a hundred bucks to make the trip on. “Lee’s coming,” I said.

“You’re going in the truck?” he said. “You two, and you’re going to bring Marci and three kids back?”

“Yup,” I said.

He nodded, then he drove home.

Ben’s OK. He’s a computer programmer in a government office, and he does some consulting on the side. He’s got three kids, and he’s married now fifteen years. He plays bass with a jazz band two or three weekends a month, but it’s always been jazz. Ben’s not a rocker.

But Marci’s his kid sister, and with Dad gone, he gave her away when she got married. I was there when Marci said she and Richard were moving to Montana, and Ben said it was too far away. She called Ben the first time Richard didn’t leave her with rent money, and he talked her down and bailed her out, and he’s done it a few times since. He’s talked to Richard about things, too. I just pick up where he leaves off.

Mom liked Richard because he helped wash dishes when he came over and he had big shoulders. He looked like a provider. Marci and Richard got married in the summer, in June, just like brides are supposed to, and like I said, Ben gave Marci away because Dad died when she was five. Lee was a bridesmaid. And Richard took Marci to Disneyland on a honeymoon because she’d never been as a kid. That was Richard at first.

But Richard’s from up here in Montana somewhere, and after they moved back, Marci started calling down and saying he keeps leaving her to hunt. He hunts something all year round to hear Marci talk. Big game and waterfowl, varmints, and he draws special predator permits. He fishes all summer, and maybe he poaches in between seasons. He scuffles, too. He comes home for nursing. I tried to explain it to Marci when she married him, about marrying a person whole.

But I’m not excusing him, not his leaving Marci alone and without notice. You can allow for a guy liking to hunt, but not coming and going like he does, especially after the kids. Not for any of his apologies or the flowers he brought at first.

Lee’s said she wouldn’t take that from me.

“You could do it once,” she said.

“And then?” I said. It’s a game you play.

“Maybe you could do it twice.”

“What if I brought flowers?”

“The flowers would get you the second time,” she said.

“So what are you going to do,” I said. “Leave me?”

“That’s a hard thing,” she said. “Leaving’s a hard thing. But if you love me, you aren’t going to make me live with you without your respect.”

“I’ve heard women say they’d leave the first time their hus­band hit them,” I said. “I’ve heard them say anything else, they’ll stick by him, but they won’t live with that, not for love.”

“I think a lot of them probably don’t know,” Lee said, “but that’s nothing to do with love. That’s respect. Even more than love, that’s respect.”

“So I respect you?” I said.

“You respect me.”

It’s been maybe a year back when we heard from Marci about Richard’s drinking, and that’s when Ben talked to Richard on the phone. He told me Richard said afterward that they understood each other, and Ben told me that was bull. And right then he started saying it might be best if Marci came back home, just kind of in passing. We all believe in marriage, it’s not a light thing, but things go bad in the world.

It makes me think I’ve got a good thing with Lee.

“You all right?” I say. I sit up, and my wife glances over, then back at the road.

“I’m fine. Did you sleep?”

“Some.”

“Do you want something to eat? Do you want to stop?”

I don’t. I want to be there.

“No,” I say. Montana is outside, big and open. The West is mostly full of spaces people call empty. “Have you ever been afraid of me?” I say.

“No,” she says. “I’ve been afraid, but I’m never afraid of you.”

“Only because you can take me,” I say. And some days I really think she could.

She nods and makes a fist.

“You think Marci’s been afraid?”

“I don’t know,” Lee says. “I think so.”

I put my feet up on the dashboard.

“I don’t know if she’s been afraid of him,” Lee says. “She’s been afraid because she loves him, though.”

“Do you think she still does?”

“I don’t know,” Lee says. “Does it make this different?”

“I don’t want him to be there,” I say. “It’s not like Ben thinks.”

Lee rolls her arm to check the speedometer. She doesn’t wear a wedding ring. She wears sunglasses instead of squinting like I do and sights down the yellow line like it’s target practice.

“What does Ben think? You’ve come seven hundred miles to beat up a man and haul off his wife?” Lee says after awhile.

“Ben would’ve come. Scott would come if he could, if it came to that. It’s good you’re here, though,” I say.

“For you?” she says.

“For me, now. It’s always good when you’re here.”

Lee smiles.

“Did you want to come?” I say.

“It’s better to be here and to know,” she says.

We’re later than I thought we’d be. It’s going on three o’ clock in the afternoon, and we’re just pulling into town. Lee’s got the directions out, and I’m driving again.

“It’s straight,” she says. “Straight for a few blocks then you turn left.” Lee’s said she likes Montana.

I came up here to hunt pheasant with Richard once when he had a new dog. But he came down with flu the morning I was dressed before sunup and sitting in the living room sighting in wedding pictures and highball glasses while I waited. That was before things really started between him and Marci, when Lee and I were having troubles of our own, finding out we couldn’t have kids. She wouldn’t come with me, but then she flew over to Seattle, and I met her there. We drove down the coast all the way to Baja, and we decided we’d adopt.

“Richard’s a coward,” I say.

“Maybe,” Lee says.

I told Marci last night we were coming, and she’s at the window when we pull in the drive. They have a big picture win­dow in the front of their house, and she was standing in it the last time I came, too, like she is now, with a baby at her shoulder. Her boys are busting out the door. I get one in each arm and throw them over my shoulders and spank them hello while they kick and giggle. The oldest one’s sweet on his Aunt Lee and walks her to the house. Ricky sits on my arm and digs in my shirt pocket. He’s had a birthday. He’s holding up three fingers and telling me he’s this many.

Marci’s been crying, and her eyes are red and puffy. Her face looks washed out and clean without makeup. She looks small.

“Richard’s not here.” It’s the first thing she says when we come in the house.

“That’s OK,” I say. “That’s fine.”

The baby’s reaching at Marci’s face.

“How’s this one?” I say. I point to the baby.

“She looks like her daddy,” Marci says. The baby does, as well as I can remember Richard. She is going to have his brown hair with the red in it, and she has his brown eyes and flat nose.

“What are you going to do, Del?” Marci says. She’s going to cry again.

“What’s there got to be done?” I say.

“Let me take her, Marce,” Lee says. She takes the baby and bounces her a little in her arms. “Marci?” she says.

Marci nods, and Lee walks the baby around the room.

“Go play out back,” Marci tells her boys. Lee takes them. They’re like animals before the earthquake now. They’re eyes and ears and nervous energy. They’re ready to take shelter.

“Are you packed, Marci?” I say.

“Richard’s not here,” she says. She’s whining.

“It doesn’t matter,” I say.

“It does,” she says.

“If he gave half a damn. Half,” I say.

“He’s my husband,” she says.

“Can you call him?” She can call before we leave. But then I think he could follow us on the road. I don’t want that. I’ll take him here, but I don’t want that.

Marci shakes her head no.

“Leave him a note. Or call him when we get home,” I say.

“You didn’t ask what I wanted,” she says.

“What do you want, Marce?” I say.

“I want him,” she says. “I still do.”

“Maybe this isn’t permanent,” I say. “Maybe it’s a visit, maybe it’s just a rest.”

“You can’t just leave, just like that,” she says. “Not with his boys.”

“Call him tonight, Marci,” I say. “We’ll get a motel. Me and the boys can swim, and you can call.”

I’m looking at Marci for bruises. She looks tired. She looks like Mom did when I was fifteen and we had fights in the kitchen, the kind of fights where things get broken and said. Once I left for three days. When I came back, Mom looked like Marci does now.

“You can go stay with Mom, or you can move in at Ben’s for a while,” I say.

She doesn’t say anything.

“Are you packed?” I say.

“I’m always packed,” she says.

“What’s there to talk about?” I say, and Marci doesn’t answer.

I call in Lee and the boys.

“Go get your things,” I tell the boys. They’re dirty-faced and looking up at me like they don’t understand.

“We’re going on a trip,” I say. Lee goes to help them. She marches them like soldiers.

“Why lie to them,” Marci says. She’s gotten hard all of a sudden, sassy.

“We’re going,” I say. “We’re going just like I said.”

“They should say good-bye to their daddy,” she says.

I shrug. I don’t know if they should or shouldn’t, if it’s going to make some difference in ten years that’s going to leave them screwed up. But I don’t think they’re going to.

“He wouldn’t do the same for them,” I say.

“And you know all about it,” she says.

“What’s different, now?” I say. “What’s changed since five o’clock yesterday?” It’s going to be easier with Richard not here. I’ve known that all along. It won’t make a difference if he comes, but it will be easier if he doesn’t.

“If he’s here before we leave,” I say.

“This is my home,” Marci says.

“Where is he, Marce?” I say.

We’re still standing off when Lee gets the boys trooping out the front door. They’re each carrying a little suitcase and a pillow.

“Get a couple of blankets from the beds,” Lee tells me. “Do you have her things, Marci?” Lee nods toward the baby. She’s being nice to Marci, but her voice says no nonsense.

I pick up a blue diaper bag with ducks on it off the end of the couch. I look at Marci, then I hand it to Lee. Marci’s sat down.

“Ben paid for the trip,” I say. “Scott wanted to come.”

“But you’re here, so that’s OK.”

“I’m enough,” I say. “You packed.”

She doesn’t answer.

“If I have to, I’ll haul you all the way back tomorrow.” I won’t, and I guess she knows that. But I’m guessing she won’t want to come.

Now she’s going to cry again.

I turn off the gas and lock the back door. I wonder where Richard is. If he’s at work, he could be here any time. I could be heading out to the truck when he pulls up the drive. I’d holler at Lee to go gas up, and she’d cut across the lawn and down over the curb. Richard wouldn’t get in her way.

“What’s this, Del?” he’d say, but he knows. He’s a good head taller and he’s got thirty pounds on me, too. We’d step inside.

We’d talk about business being bad, and he’d get himself a beer from the fridge. He’d ask about Lee, if we’re still together.

I say yes, then he asks me what I think I’m doing, and I tell him I’ve come to get my sister. He tells me do what you got to do. He says make sure I have the kids back for school in a couple of weeks. Then he laughs.

Then I drop him. I hook my right hand up into his belly and sit him down in his chair, and his beer spits like a torch and foams onto his shirt.

Marci’s things are stacked at the end of the couch, and Lee and the boys have come back for the blankets.

“He’ll be home by five-thirty,” Marci says. “We can wait till then.”

“That’s a late start, Marci,” Lee says.

“It’s fine,” I say.

Lee asks the boys to take her for a walk. Marci’s sitting on the couch, and I’m in a chair where I can see the doorway and the drive. Marci won’t look at me. She’s rocking the baby and tapping her foot.

I think about Lee and how we’ve been together going on ten years now, how we’ve rode out lots of rough weather. She probably saved my life once, in a tangle with three drunk rednecks in the parking lot at the Spur. One of them pulled a knife on me, and Lee hauled a shotgun out of the truck. She blew the back window out of their car to get their attention.

She brought towels full of ice for my hands that night, and she sat on the edge of the tub and looked at me on the bathroom floor. She told me I had some thinking to do, some decisions to make.

Richard doesn’t come by six. Lee’s back with the boys, and they’re hungry.

“Can I fix something, Marci?” Lee says.

“The gas is off,” I say.

They eat crackers and peanut butter, finish the milk in the fridge. The baby’s asleep on Marci’s lap.

Richard doesn’t come by six-thirty, and he doesn’t come at seven.

“Damn him,” Marci says, quiet so the boys won’t hear. She’s crying, and she takes the baby out to the truck. Lee takes the boys, and I lock the front door.

In thirty minutes we’re out of town and on the freeway, starting back seven hundred miles, heading south and west. Lee’s got an arm around Marci. We’ve told the boys to sit down in back, and they’re quiet now with burgers and shakes. It’s a good thing to have Lee here, like I’ve been telling myself. In a minute, when Marci’s asleep on her shoulder, Lee’s going to talk to me. She’s going to say we need to stop in Helena, if we make it that far, and get a room. She’ll want to call home because our boys are staying with her mother and we won’t make it home tonight. Then she’s going to ask me what’s on my mind.

I’ll tell her that if anybody comes for her, I’ll fight like Hell itself. It’ll take more than wild horses and one man’s army.

Paul Rawlins, a former editor of Inscape attends BYU, where he is completing a master’s degree program in English.