They came up from the horse barn in the slanted light of early morning. The McPheron brothers, Harold and Raymond. Old men approaching an old house at the end of summer. They came on across the gravel drive past the pickup and the car parked at the hogwire fencing and came one after the other through the wire gate. At the porch they scraped their boots on the saw blade sunken in the dirt, the ground packed and shiny around it from long use and mixed with barnlot manure, and walked up the plank steps onto the screened porch and entered the kitchen where the nineteen-year-old girl Victoria Roubideaux sat at the pinewood table feeding oatmeal to her little daughter.
In the kitchen they removed their hats and hung them on pegs set into a board next to the door and began at once to wash up at the sink. Their faces were red and weather-blasted below their white foreheads, the coarse hair on their round heads grown iron-gray and as stiff as the roached mane of a horse. When they finished at the sink they each in turn used the kitchen towel to dry off, but when they began to dish up their plates at the stove the girl made them sit down.
There's no use in you waiting on us, Raymond said.
I want to, she said. I'll be gone tomorrow.
She rose with the child on her hip and brought two coffee cups and two bowls of oatmeal and a plate of buttered toast to the table and then sat down again.
Harold sat eyeing the oatmeal. You think she might of at least give us steak and eggs this once, he said. On account of the occasion. But no sir, it's still only warm mush. Which tastes about like the back page of a wet newspaper. Delivered yesterday.
You can eat what you want after I'm gone. I know you will anyway.
Yes ma'am, probably so. Then he looked at her. But I'm not in any rush for you to leave here. I'm just trying to joke you a little.
I know you are. She smiled at him. Her teeth were very white in her brown face, and her black hair was thick and shiny and cut off neat below her shoulders. I'm almost ready, she said. First I want to feed Katie and get her dressed, then we can start.
Let me have her, Raymond said. Is she done eating?
No, she isn't, the girl said. She might eat something for you though. She just turns her head away for me.
Raymond stood and walked around the table and took up the little girl and returned to his seat and sat her on his lap and sprinkled sugar on the oatmeal in his bowl and poured out milk from the jar on the table and began to eat, the black-haired round-cheeked girl watching him as if she were fascinated by what he was doing. He held her easily, comfortably, his arm about her, and spooned up a small portion and blew over it and offered it to her. She took it. He ate more himself. Then he blew over another spoonful and gave that to her. Harold poured milk into a glass and she leaned forward over the table and drank a long time, using both hands, until she had to stop for breath.
What am I going to do in Fort Collins when she won't eat? Victoria said.
You can call on us, Harold said. We'll come see about this little girl in about two minutes. Won't we, Katie.
The child looked across the table at him, unblinking. Her eyes were as black as her mother's, like buttons or currants. She said nothing but took up Raymond's calloused hand and moved it toward the cereal bowl. When he held out the spoon she pushed his hand toward his mouth. Oh, he said. All right. He blew over it elaborately, puffing his cheeks, moving his red face back and forth, and now she would eat again.
When they were finished Victoria carried her daughter into the bathroom off the dining room to wash her face and then took her back to their bedroom and changed her clothes. The McPheron brothers went upstairs to their rooms and got into town clothes, dark trousers and pale shirts with pearl snaps and their good white hand-shaped Bailey hats. Back downstairs they carried Victoria's suitcases out to the car and set them in the trunk. The backseat was already loaded with boxes of the little girl's clothes and blankets and bedsheets and toys, and a child's padded car seat. Behind the car was the pickup and in its bed, together with the spare tire and the jack and a half dozen empty oil cans and dry wisps of brome hay and a piece of rusted barbed wire, were the little girl's high chair and her daybed, its mattress wrapped in a new tarp, all of it lashed down with orange binder twine.
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