The sun was fat and red, casting gentler light than what it had roasted the Texas plain with earlier in the day. Pockets of heat still rose up in rippling waves, and out in the distance a dust devil wound about slowly, as if the day’s temperature had it weary as well.
Standing in the shade of a splintered, faded barn, Amelia Louise Thorne paced back and forth. Snapping her red, sweat-damp bangs out of her blue eyes, she swatted at a fly that seemed intent on landing upon her bare shoulder.
“Go on, get!” She took a swing with her spindly arm, but hit only air. Amelia was wearing one of her father’s old work shirts, which had developed so many holes it had been retired. As most of the damage done was on the sleeves, Amelia had solved the problem by cutting them off.
She was wearing a pair of her father’s pants as well, belted tightly about her waist with a bit of twine. They were shapeless and baggy, practically swallowing her thin legs.
“Well, it’s about damn time!” Amelia walked to the edge of the barn’s shadow, holding her hand over her eyes to fight the late afternoon glare. A lone rider was coming over a slight rise, his horse moving at a careful walk. Squinting her eyes, she could just make out the furry burden in the rider’s arms.
Amelia glanced inside the barn, her gaze darting about bales of hay and empty stalls, until they settled on a girl slightly younger than herself. She had the same scarlet mane, but her eyes were larger and deep green. The other girl didn’t react, her eyes focused on a beam of sunlight that cut a red swath into the dusty interior.
“There she goes again,” Amelia said with a sigh. “Damn it, Rosie, why can’t you act right? Pa can’t take care a you forever, and I sure as hell won’t! You can’t just ‘go out’ like you do and...”
Rosalinda jabbed a bit of straw into the air, slicing through the sunbeam in a methodical way. Amelia put her hands on her hips and tsked before heading out the door at a trot.
She dashed up to the rider, a middle aged man with shaggy graying hair and a bristly beard. In his arms he held a calf less than a day old, shivering with fright despite the heat.
“Pa!” Amelia came up to his side and put her hand on his stirrup. “What’s with the calf?”
“Wolves got his mother,” he said in a deep, somewhat garbled voice. A Cheyenne arrow had taken him in the mouth, and he’d lost part of his lips and tongue. His beard hid the scars fairly well, but did nothing to make him more intelligible. “Reckon we’re gonna have to take care of ’em.”
“You ain’t gonna butcher em, are you Pa?” Amelia scrunched up her face at her father.
He scowled at her from his high perch. “Wearing pants again, I see. Emmy Lou, you’re sixteen. It’s high time you started acting like a proper lady so you can find yourself a husband.”
“I don’t want a husband,” Amelia put her hands on her hips. “And even if I did, I couldn’t get married.”
“And why is that?” He pushed the brim of his leather hat up and sighed as sweat dripped into his eyes.
“On account of if I left, who would take care of you and Rosie?”
A smile spread beneath his beard. “Reckon we can take care of ourselves, Emmy Lou.”
“Bullshit,” Ameila snapped. Immediately, she clapped her hands over her mouth.
“Do have to wash out your mouth with soap again?” He glared at the calf in his hands. “Lucky for you, I’m busy. Get your sister and take her to the house.”
“You ARE gonna butcher it,” Amelia said. “Come on, Pa, let me-”
“Let you what, keep it?” He sneered. “Raise it, give it a name? Then what happens when it’s time to send it off for slaughter? Got enough mouths to feed around here.”
“Let me go riding with you and the boys,” Amelia said eagerly. “I could earn my keep, help you take care of the herd!”
“Hogwash!” Her father pulled up his gelding and carefully dismounted, nearly stumbling when his boots hit the ground. Glaring over the shivering calf, he practically spit out his words. “You wanna help me, help the ranch? Help your sister? Stop wearing pants and reading books and shooting rifles and acting like a man!”
Amelia blinked back tears. “That’s not-”
“Shut up, or you’ll taste the back of my hand!”
She gasped, but held her tongue.
“Now listen here...your sister, God bless her, she ain’t never gonna land a husband. That means when I’m gone she’ll have to go to this special school in New York, where they know how to take care of imbeciles like her.”
“She ain’t no imbecile daddy.”
“Hush! You know I love her, but she is what she is! And you are what you are, a woman! You’ll have a family, children and a husband to take care of. That means that when I’m gone you’ll have to sell the ranch to pay for that fancy school. Hear?”
“Yeah, I hear ya Pa.” Amelia’s eyes blurred with tears. “I sure wish I’d been born with a dangler between my legs, cause then maybe you’d think I was worth more’n the piss it takes to fill a horse print!”
“Emmy Lou!” he shouted, but he was speaking to her back. Amelia ran toward the hills, hating her father and hating her sister and most of all hating herself...