Burning the Paradise Valley

Burning the Paradise Valleyby Thomas McCafferty

Elliott Reins sturdied himself against a string of barbedwire that sagged between crisscrossed fence posts. The wire was hot from the sun, and holding it was calming. It eased the pain in his legs, which felt fragile to him. He didn’t trust them. He trusted his back, his chest, his arms. And his hands were a marvel, as wide and hard as paddleheads. They would get the business done. He wiped his brow. It was three o’clock and would get hotter for another hour but would cool by nightfall. Up the Yellowstone River, a patchwork of wildfires was burning through enough pine to lay a thick haze over the Paradise Valley. But August was ending, and soon the snows would come and snuff out the flames. And if they didn’t? Then the fires would keep burning. Elliott pushed back from the fence and glanced at his roan and at Rebecca who stood next him. She smelled like tobacco and lavender oil in a way that reminded him of waiting outside of church as a boy with the parishioners, the women all in perfume and the men in cologne, and everyone smoking.

“I was never a big fan of perfume,” he said. “It’s overpriced. I’ve never seen people pay so much for ninety-nine percent water.”

“I’m sorry I wore any,” Rebecca said.

“Now yeast is a smell. You knead a dough of bread and get that alive smell down under your nails. It stays with you all day.”

“I’m not much for baking, Mr. Reins.”

“No? You look like you could put your back into a good Christmas bread.”

“Really, I’m more a wine and caviar kind of girl. You know, fois gras and all.”

“Only the best for a lady.” Elliott chuckled and looked squarely at his horse standing across the fence. Some people resembled dogs, but he thought he shared a lot more with the horse. The crud in the eyes, the thinning, brittle hair, the cracked skin along the edges of the nostrils and lips. “You know, this horse used to be beautiful,” he said. “A bit broken down now. I wrecked his spine riding him, and he threw me in a ditch. But we tolerate each other.”

“I used to ride,” Rebecca said.


“No, I raced quarter horses. I was a young woman and small. Then I filled out.”

“Goodness, yes. And I’m thankful for it.” He straightened himself with a grunt. The pain in his knees never stopped and never lessened either. It was not like a smell he could grow to ignore. “I wanted to ride bulls when I was a boy. Now that’s a frightening animal. I stood outside a pen from one, about me to you, and never got closer. You have to be sort of crazy.”

“Or bored,” Rebecca said. She put a finger on the brim of Elliott’s cowboy hat. “You know what else is crazy? There’s a man in Ennis who sells these things for two or three times what you pay for new. The more the hat’s beat up, the more he gets.”

“Sells them to tourists?”

“A lot of Californians.”

Elliott absently turned his wedding band, which was one of a flat gold pair that he’d paid five hundred dollars for in 1980. The jeweler who sold it had told him not to twist it much or he’d lose it, but he’d fidgeted his whole life and was not about to stop, not after he’d just quit smoking at Johanna’s insistence. She wouldn’t allow for yellow walls or open windows on account of his habit. Rolling cigarettes, holding cigarettes, and smoking cigarettes had kept his fingers busy for half his life, starting in elementary school. He kept a pack Marlboroughs and strike anywhere matches in his pockets then, and once when he was waiting in line for the bathroom in the fourth grade, he rubbed against a brick wall and caught his pants on fire.

The ring was one of three pieces of metal on his body, excepting fillings. Another, beneath his shirt, was a boning knife that hung from his neck in a leather sheath on a string. It rubbed and wore against his breastbone like a watch against a wrist, and had stained his skin a faint russet color. He used to tell his wife that it was the birthmark he always wished he’d had, because a birthmark is lucky and what better place than over the heart? “Oh, I don’t know,” she’d told him. “The knees, nipples, cock, ass, and perineum all seem pretty good.” He liked that list.

And the last piece of metal was a silver and turquoise money clip he’d bought from a Sioux kid in Eastern Montana, who said the silver was for wealth and the turquoise for happiness. The plains were barren there, and the dry, loose topsoil would create another dust bowl if the drought continued a few years longer. It was a place that did not bode well for charms of wealth and happiness, but he’d given the kid a twenty for it because he liked the weight it lent to dollar bills. A little weight reminded him that the money meant something. He took the clip out of his shirt pocket.

“Do you know how to polish silver?” he asked.

“Pretty tarnished, isn’t it?”

He squinted at Rebecca. Her body was nothing like his wife’s. Her calves were tanned and strong, and the tops of her thighs wrinkled with cellulite. She wore cut denim shorts and a tanktop that spelled LUCKY in sequins across her breasts. Her stomach was rounded from drinking beer, pushing just over her waistline, but he liked a girl who didn’t look like she’d snap if he touched her. He put her at about thirty-four years old, though she’d told him twenty-seven.

“I like the way you dress,” he said, counting off four twenties. “Take this now.”

From across the fence, the roan nipped at Rebecca’s fingers. He liked apples, carrots, grains, and hay, and did not like wheat, and Rebecca offered nothing. When he nipped again, she pushed her hands up on his nose, between his eyes. He shook his head, but she did not move. When he calmed, she drew her fingers down the white roman bridge of his nose, the tan of her own face reflecting on the light hairs.

“What’s his name?” she asked.

“I call him Horse. I tried calling him Joseph, but he wasn’t responsive.”

“Maybe Joseph isn’t guttural enough, the way Horse is.”

“I think he’s just ornery.”

His hands sweated as he held up the bills for her and she reached for them. Her palm was tiny in his own. He snorted. When she dropped her head to count, and her sandy hair fell in front of her face and she looked handsomer.

“I need more,” she said. “It was farther to get here than I thought.”

“We had a price.”

“Life and gas got expensive, Mr. Reins.”

Elliot wondered if he’d made a mistake calling her, and the idea embarrassed him. After fifty-six years, he thought a man should get things right. But maybe he wasn’t thinking clearly that day. The smoke in the air burned his lungs and made him a bit light-headed. He touched the knife through his shirt. He said, “Maybe you want to go back.”

“I’m not going back. I’m here for a job, for you. You can afford it—you’re doing fine. Your wheat’s gone to seed but you’re living. Now I’ve come out and I need the money. I’m more than worth it.”

“I’ll judge it if you are.”

“I’d worry more about keeping things up on your side.”

“Another sixty if you’re good.”

“I appreciate it.”

“I’m sure,” Elliott said. “Walk with me.”

He started along the fence to the north, and after a moment Rebecca followed, and the horse followed too, swaying his head and his pendulum belly as she swung her hips. When they entered the fields, Rebecca slowed. Grasses had polluted the wheat crops, and the dry sharp blades irritated her legs.

“Why don’t you harvest?” she asked.

Elliott’s shirt was soaked and the backs of his knees stuck to his jeans. He glanced at her, smiling when he noticed the scratches that covered her thighs.

“Money is a beautiful incentive, isn’t it?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, you put up with a lot, but you price it.”

“Yes,” Rebecca said. “It makes the world work in a logical manner. You start having emotional relationships and they go straight to hell.”

“That’s not always true.”

“Well you’re the one with a wedding ring, and here I am.”

“And looking lovely,” Elliott said. He turned on his heels and continued on toward a gate at the corner of the pasture. The horse trotted past Rebecca to meet him there.

The gate, built with heat-treated timbers, had been singed in a control burn ten years earlier but was still strong. Elliott anchored his heel against the base of one post and pulled the other toward it, then slipped off the wire bales at the top and bottom of each post and let the gate drop. The horse stepped through, and together they started into the expanse of the fields. Elliott had never neglected them before. They were light in color. The wheat snapped when he stepped on it.

He was a good thirty feet in front of Rebecca, but heard her when she asked if he had any water. It was a funny question, he thought, because he wasn’t carrying a bottle and he doubted she’d seen the stable beyond the slope of the hill. But he said, “Yes, we’re close now.”

“I don’t mean to ask a silly question, but why couldn’t we stay at your house?”

“It isn’t any cooler there.”

“The hell it isn’t. Air conditioning is a wonderful thing.”

“I don’t believe in air conditioning.”

“It’s not like religion.”

“It’s unnatural.”

“So is heat, but I bet you don’t freeze to death in the winter.”

In fact, Elliott used a wood burning oven in the winter instead of a furnace, and cooked with natural gas, but he didn’t want to argue the merits or motives of his lifestyle, and fire was the last thing he wanted to think about right then.

The grasshoppers were out, sawing their legs together and looking like locusts as they flew—and the fishermen down on the Yellowstone would all be casting hopper imitations against the banks, trying to entice big trout. Elliott preferred to fish the salmonfly hatch in June, and sometimes he still used worms because he liked to give the browns and rainbows a meal in return for being caught. But today fishing didn’t interest him.

The stable was at the far edge of the field, at the foothills of the Absarokas, which were covered in sage and thistles. Elliott was a hundred yards from it now, and the corrugated aluminum roof, ten feet high at the open front and slanting to the ground at the back, caught the light like a razor gleaming against the land. A tin bucket hung from a lag bolt on the far support beam and collected runoff from the gutter. When he reached it, he saw a residue of water pooled in the bottom inch. He tasted it with his finger, feeling the metallic sting in his teeth. Then he lifted it off the bolt, tipped it, and drank.

The horse brushed against him, and he offered the bucket. But after pushing its nose down, the horse only snorted and walked back toward Rebecca, who was taking a long tack through the field to avoid the thistles.

“You’d think you were a goddamn camel,” Elliott said, talking to the horse.

He moved inside the stable, into the shade. Pine slats boarded the triangular sides. Loose straw and horse blankets covered the ground. He liked the manure smell. Against the eastern wall stood bags of feed, rakes, shovels, pitchforks and scythes. Wire cutters, pliers, hammers, nails and staples rusted on shelves above them. He took the knife from his neck, dropped it on the ground, and eased himself onto a stained quilt, resting his back on the saddle behind it to wait for Rebecca. He hadn’t ridden his horse in two years. The horse had thrown him, and his knees had buckled to the side. Soon after, he wore through the articular cartilage between his femur and patella. He didn’t want to think about the bones rubbing. It wasn’t the time to pity himself. He looked out, watching Rebecca pick her way toward him through the field, the horse at her side.

Two months earlier Elliott walked into The Pines, a dive bar and strip joint on highway 89 where truckers and Hollywood cowboys mingled and got loaded at night, obliterating class distinction with alcohol. It was endearing, he thought. He’d only recently returned to Montana from the Florida Keys by himself. He wouldn’t know the dancers anymore, but he wanted to get out of his ranch house, where he felt alone.

It was eleven a.m. The Pines consisted of a single large room with a stage at the back, looking like a church with a nave before the chancel. It was empty. Velour curtains hung from the walls and from the stage platform. White Christmas lights lit the aisles.

A woman in a black robe walked on stage barefoot from a door in the back, bent down, spat on the wood, and wiped it with her shirtsleeve. Elliott seated himself at a round table with an ashtray and a drink list. If they had Plymouth, he wanted sloe gin. The woman studied him, then returned to her cleaning. Her breasts and belly rocked as she scrubbed. She had all the glamour of a pissing dog, he thought, but there was something erotic to that.

He’d taken his wife to The Pines once, for her thirty-fifth birthday. The trip had been his idea, which he acknowledged was selfish, but it excited Johanna who’d never seen strippers working, had never deposited bills in cleavage that smelled of beer and sweat. He bought her three lap dances that night, and after a redhead stuffed Johanna’s face in her breasts she forgot to be embarrassed anymore. She signaled the next girl with her finger, and spread her legs like a man. Elliott had never spent money so well, he thought.

Coughing, the woman left the stage and went to the bar. Dirt showed on the backs of her heels and her feet splayed as she walked. Maybe she’d studied ballet, he thought, and saw stripping as just another form of dance. But not many people were that naïve.

Glasses clinked, and he turned toward the bar. The woman had untied her robe, her white stomach and lace underwear showing between the black. She came to his table, set down two shots of clear liquid, and pulled up a chair.

“Take a vodka,” she said. Her voice was quiet but deliberate. “I bet you could use one.”

“It’s early.”

“To the morning, then.”

“All right.”

“Call me Rebecca,” she said, after finishing her shot. “Or Becka. I don’t give too much of a damn which, but I don’t like Becky.” Her face had seen too much sun. It had looked childish on the stage, but he realized she was much older.

“My name is Elliott Reins,” he said. “I’m looking for company.”

“Try making friends.”

“It’s important to me. Maybe you know a girl.”

“I’m the only one here, Mr. Reins.”

“I mean for another day, at my property.”

“You a farmer?”

“I used to grow mustard and wheat. Mostly to stay busy.”

“Retired?” She pushed back her chair, took a pack of Camels out of her robe, rapped it hard against the table, then put one in her mouth. “So you got all day to drink with me.” She laughed, lay the pack on the center of the table and then took out a book of matches that had the club’s name and address printed on the front in green.

“I used to come here when it was still The Black Stallion,” Elliott said. “I guess that name was a little offensive.”

“Who’s it offending? All the white people in this state? I grew up in Miami Dade, and I’ve never seen a place so white in my life.” She got up from the table, and when she returned she had a bottle of Denaka. She refilled the glasses and said, “You’re paying for these, by the way.”

Elliott nodded. “I just came back from the Keys last year. The clubs packed a few more people there, in the day I mean.”

“I never got farther south than Miami, and I don’t remember much of Miami. All you can drink for a fifteen dollar cover? I was lucky to leave South Beach alive. Please, I was so fucked up from Florida I had to start working here to keep off withdrawal.”

“What brought you here?”

“A lot of shit I don’t want to talk about. But you know what I tell people? I tell people I came because of the snow. Everyone said Montana’s full of snow. So much snow you get sick of it. And then I say, ‘I didn’t know they were being literal.’ People like to hear ditz stories.” She drank her vodka, then placed the glass topside down on the table. “Excuse me now,” she said, flipping the match book to Elliott. “It’s going to be a long day and I need a pick-me-up.”

He watched her bustle through the empty seats. She either meant cocaine or coffee, but he decided it didn’t matter which. Inside the booklet was a phone number written in ink. He laid fifteen dollars on the table, and as he left he picked the day’s Chronicle off the bar to check the headlines. Another drought year. It was June 15th, and fires had already burned seven thousand acres in the valley.

He tried to picture Johanna now. She’d slept with him there in the stable once—it was raining, and for a long time they lay next to each other and listened to the drops ping against the roof, and when the rain didn’t stop at nightfall they ran back through the cropped wheat. He was forty; she was a year older. He couldn’t envision her face clearly anymore without looking at photographs, but he remembered pushing her shirt up with his nose, kissing her stomach, lifting it to his mouth with his hands.

Rebecca tipped the pail. A line of water and rust trickled from it to the ground and splashed on her bare feet.

“Took the good stuff for yourself, Mr. Reins.”

“It’s hard to think in this heat.”

They were both still naked, and the evening light caught the sides of Rebecca’s body and the unnatural curve of her breasts. On the western horizon the sun was enormous and blood red through the smoke above the Gallatin Range, and the color cast the strip of blond hair on her crotch in a brilliant orange. She walked back in the stable carrying the pail, and the crescent of her belly hung as she knelt to take her cigarettes out of her shorts.

“You be sure to smoke over that bucket,” Elliott said. “We don’t need the whole place on fire.”

“What are you, a ranger? Don’t you see I got it?”

She sat cross-legged and leaned over to smoke. She’d been a good lay, he thought, though he didn’t have many women to compare.

“I want to ask you a question,” he said. “It embarrasses me. It’s a question of vanity.”

“You were pretty frisky for an old dude, if that’s what you mean.”

“You know, I never used a condom before.”

“How’d you like it?”

“Not so bad, I guess. Not so great either. I don’t like things that aren’t, what’s the word these days, organic.”
“Well honey, get yourself some lamb skins for next time, or find a girl cracked up enough not to care. Those days are past for me.” She tapped her cigarette ash into the pail. “If you’re still married, you could go back to your wife.”

“I do wish I could,” Elliott said. “But Johanna, she got caught in an accident a long time back. She’d be fifty-seven in October.”

“I’m sorry to hear it.”

“I get by.”

“It doesn’t look that way,” Rebecca said. “You ought to get yourself another girl.”

“Girl like you?”

“No, I think someone closer to your age.”

“I was just teasing.” He looked out hoping to see his horse. Maybe it had gone back into the pasture again. “The truth is, I’m not too interested in finding another girl. Doesn’t seem right to me.”

As Rebecca dressed to leave, she found the boning knife under her clothes. She picked it up by its string and removed the sheath. A single piece of steel ran from the butt to the blade, which curved at the tip.

“Why do you have this?” she asked.

Elliott propped himself on his elbows and pointed at the indentation on his chest. “I always carry it here—seems I use it every day.”

She tossed it to him. “Are going to put your clothes on and walk me out, or do I have to escort myself?”

“No, I’m staying here if you don’t mind. My legs need the rest.” He paid her the other sixty then, and folded his shirt behind his head as a pillow. “Don’t worry about closing that gate. It can stay open.”

She folded the money into her shorts, replaced the bucket on the lag bolt, and left through the field, making a straight line to the fence. She didn’t try to walk around the thistles this time, and he knew that her legs would be itching that night before she slept, wherever that was. It’s a hard thing to fall asleep when you itch. He remembered getting hives from the wet heat in Florida, and from eating too many strawberries, and staying up for hours before finally taking antihistamines. He hated the taste of medicine.

As her silhouette disappeared at the edge of the fence, he wondered if he was the last man she’d see that night—probably he wasn’t.  Then he reclined on the horse blanket to sleep.

Elliott awoke at dawn having to pee, which was funny because he was thirsty. How could you be dehydrated and still give up fluids? He had some idea why from a biological standpoint, but from the perspective of common sense it was harder to grasp. He fought his legs and stood—he wouldn’t make himself walk—and he pissed on the straw and stared at the obscure figure in front him. It was the horse.

“You’re a son of a bitch,” he said. “Keeping me waiting, like you don’t even care.”

When he finished, he lay back on the ground and rubbed his thumb over the butt of the knife. He thought Johanna would understand.

They’d met when he was twenty-one and working for her father in the Keys, commercial fishing for spiny lobster and stone crab out of Islamorada. In 1974 they married, then moved to Montana. With their savings and a bank loan, they bought six hundred acres that stretched from the Yellowstone River to the base of the Absarokas. They cropped mustard and alfalfa, and a little bit of wheat near the house because Johanna liked the color. A spring creek ran through three miles of the property, and Elliott taught himself to flyfish. At Johanna’s suggestion, he opened it for public use, at a price. The land didn’t farm well but it was full of trout and by 1985 they were clearing close to five hundred dollars a day from summer sport fishermen. By the 1990s, it was over a thousand, but Elliott kept farming to stay fit.

Then in August of 1996, they were lighting a backfire at the western edge of their property when the wind changed. The flames kicked up and spread through the fields, catching Johanna at the fence and engulfing her body. Elliott watched, less than two hundred feet from her, upwind. That was ten years back.

After her death, he hired a man to look after his property, then took her remains to the Keys. The water turned pale green where he scattered her ashes in the ocean.

For a while he stayed in Florida. Johanna’s father was still alive and glad for the company. Elliott learned to sightfish in the saltwater flats. He couldn’t cast worth shit, but somehow managed to put the fly over the occasional bonefish, and once he caught a permit. It fought like hell. When the old man passed, Elliott returned to Montana. The man he’d hired offered to stay on, but Elliot let him go. He felt about it, and hadn’t been able to explain himself well. He’d insisted he could handle the work alone, though it was obvious that he couldn’t.

Now he ran the knife over the back of his forearm, shaving the hairs. No one could say he’d been careless about the blade. In front of the stable, the horse swished his tail through the grasses, and mosquitoes rose like seedheads in the wind. Elliott flexed his hand, then with a clean motion slit his throat.

The end.


Photo and contents © 2013 Thomas McCafferty

All rights reserved.

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