Worth Her Weight in Gold

Winslow Remington Houndstooth, notorious outlaw, handsomest heartbreaker in the American South, has just finished a lucrative job, but he’s faced with a hippo-sized problem that would test even the most seasoned of hoppers. A slyly funny, raucous adventure in the alternate America of Sarah Gailey’s River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow.

 

 

Winslow’s Problem

Winslow Remington Houndstooth had a problem.

The problem was Ruby.

She wouldn’t get up. She was lying there with her head in the mud and making the most piteous noises Houndstooth had ever heard, and she simply wouldn’t stand.

This was an especially bad problem for three reasons.

Reason One.

Ruby was a hippopotamus, and when a hippopotamus doesn’t want to get up, there is not a soul alive or dead in the great green state of Georgia who can make her get up. Winslow Remington Houndstooth, by his own account (and perhaps one or two others), was the greatest hopper in the South or anywhere else. But not even he could make a hippopotamus get up and go without her express permission.

Reason Two.

Houndstooth was not a hippopotamus, and therefore he was not equipped to run faster and farther than the men who would soon be chasing him. He was a very fit man—any number of conquests scattered in his wake could have attested to that—but he was not fit enough to run fast and far while carrying a Bellerman High-Quality No-Lock Ultrafine Safe’s worth of gold ingots in a large sack over his shoulder.

Reason Three.

Ruby didn’t care about reasons.

The hippo looked at Houndstooth with one doleful eye. She was hip-deep in the wallow outside Barley McMorrow’s mansion. Her head rested on the edge of the wallow, and she wouldn’t budge. She usually responded to his presence by heaving herself upright, and if that didn’t work, the phrase “let’s go” was always more than enough to get her going—but not this time. She’d been put and she intended to stay that way.

“C’mon, Roo,” Houndstooth murmured, stroking her nose with one blood-spattered hand. “Get up for me. We have to go.”

Ruby didn’t shift.

“Ruby,” Houndstooth repeated, giving the hippo a sharp tap between the nostrils. “We’ve got to go.”

Ruby didn’t blink.

“Bloody stubborn—move!” Houndstooth shouted into Ruby’s face as loudly as he dared.

Ruby did not care for shouting.

In response, she opened her mouth and let out what was, for her, a soft groan. The bellow roused the attention of the sleeping guard on the front porch of McMorrow’s mansion.

“Hello down there,” the guard shouted, taking a few steps toward the wallow. “Help you?”

Houndstooth glared at Ruby. “We’re just fine,” he called up casually, trying to spread some Georgia over his Blackpool accent. “My girl here took a fancy to y’all’s waller, and I can’t make ’er git.”

The guard hesitated, staring at the two of them. Houndstooth cursed himself—his accents were never accurate, and he was certain that he’d put too much Tennessee into his voice.

“Is that a Cambridge Black?”

“Fuck me twice in a row,” Houndstooth spat under his breath. Then, a little louder: “Oh, no, of course not—she’s just got into that there dark clay, is all. Real slob, this’n.” There, he thought, that’s a better accent.

But the guard came closer, stepping down onto the broad green lawn that stretched between Ruby’s wallow and the mansion. “I’m nearly sure—I saw a Cambridge Black when I was just a pup, and she looks just like one! I thought they all died when that fire—”

Houndstooth didn’t listen any further than that. He didn’t need to.

He’d been made.

“Ruby,” he whispered, “you need to get up now, love, or we’ll both be lake bacon.” With one hand, he loosed the leather straps that sheathed his two best knives; with the other, he tightened his grip on the sack of gold. Ruby gave him another grumble, her mouth gaping. Houndstooth dropped his sack into her saddlebag, the sound of ten thousand dollars in gold making a satisfying thud against the leather. He used his free hand to press on Ruby’s nose, trying to make her close her mouth. “You’r’nt gonna want to come too much closer, now,” he drawled loudly at the approaching guard. “She done went and got herself a bad case of hop-mites.”

There was a noise from inside—shouts. Damn, Houndstooth thought, they’ve found the bodies. He thought he’d hidden them better than that, but he couldn’t have accounted for all the blood trails.

The guard hesitated. “Where are you from, friend?” he asked, and Houndstooth laughed.

“Oh, here and there,” he said. He laughed again, trying to cover the growing shouts of alarm coming from inside of the mansion—but the guard went very still. As Houndstooth watched, the man’s gaze turned from him to Ruby, and back again.

Then, the guard turned tail and ran back up to the house, kicking up divots of grass behind him.

 

Ah, Shit

“You gull-blighted beast,” Houndstooth hissed at Ruby. “Get up, we have to go, now!” There was no question, none at all, that the guard had figured out who he was looking at. Winslow Remington Houndstooth, creator of the best and rarest breed of hippo in the United States of America, notorious outlaw, handsomest heartbreaker in the American South—

Ruby bellowed, opening her jaws to their full 180-degree breadth.

She left her mouth open wide.

Houndstooth reached up to try to grab her nose and yank it down, but she pulled her entire head up at the last second and his hand landed on one of her long, curving lower tusks. She bellowed again, and this time, Houndstooth looked.

“Oh, no,” he said softly. “Oh, Ruby, no.”

 

Ruby’s Dentition

Ruby had a lot of teeth.

Being a Cambridge Black meant that she was different from other hippos in many ways. She was sleek—not thin by any stretch of the imagination, but more bullet-shaped than her peers. She was black as night, black as ink, black as a shadow. She was quiet when she wanted to be. She was faster than a secret spreading through a church picnic.

But her teeth were hippo teeth, plain and simple. She had the requisite number of molars to back up her bite, which was more than strong enough to turn a man’s femur to pulp. She had eight incisors, two long and two short on the top and bottom of her mouth. The long ones jutted forward like extended swords: her fighting incisors.

All of these were in excellent condition. Houndstooth, like any hopper worth his resin, brushed and polished all of Ruby’s ivory once a week whether she needed it or not. Her teeth gleamed white in the Atlanta sun, immaculate. Perfect.

Except for two.

Her tusks—the long, curving sabers that arced up out of her lower jaw to boldly dare anyone, man or bull, to come near her with anything less than an attitude of worship—were cracked.

“Ruby, no,” Houndstooth repeated, gingerly running his hands along her lower tusks. A meandering gray line ran up the length of each one. “How did this happen?”

Ruby slowly, finally closed her mouth. She looked at Houndstooth and flipped an ear back and forth.

“Okay,” Houndstooth said. “Okay, I see. I know it hurts, Roo.” He stroked her nose as gently as he could. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the doors of McMorrow’s mansion fly open. Men flew down the steps of the veranda and onto the lawn, drawing pistols to aim at Ruby and Houndstooth. “Roo, love, if you can just manage for one more day,” he cooed into her ear. “Just one more day, and I’ll take you to see Dr. Bantou. We’ll get you fixed up, sweet.”

Ruby sighed heavily. Then, the enormous midnight bulk of her shifted, and she began to rise.

Houndstooth reached up as she was standing, wrapping his hand around the pommel of the kneeling saddle that was strapped to her back by a harness of mesh and webbing. He held his gray Stetson onto his head with his free hand and flung himself up into the saddle. The moment his knees met leather, he whipped his hat off and used it to slap Ruby’s behind with just enough force for her to flick her tail at him. She took off like a cannonball, and before McMorrow’s men could get a shot fired, Ruby and Houndstooth had disappeared into the waters of the Peachtree Lagoon.

 

Ruby’s Romance

Ruby loved Dr. Bantou with a passion, and Dr. Bantou loved her right back.

Houndstooth and the doctor had a slightly different relationship.

“Mite-bitten huckster,” Houndstooth muttered under his breath.

“What has this cruel, neglectful man been doing to you?” Dr. Bantou crooned into Ruby’s open mouth. He tucked a large, glistening bunch of grapes into Ruby’s cheek as he gripped each of her molars in turn, looking for a loose tooth to yell at Houndstooth about.

Houndstooth drew himself up with a lofty indignance that would have made his mother deeply proud. “I have been doing precisely what you told me to do the last time you extorted me for a fortune,” he sniffed. “Anything that’s wrong with her is your fault, I shouldn’t doubt.”

Dr. Bantou showed absolutely no sign of having heard a word Houndstooth said. He squeezed a melon slice over Ruby’s gullet, then ran his juice-soaked hands over her gums and tongue. “And I’ll wager he hasn’t been feeding you enough, either,” Dr. Bantou said conspiratorially. Ruby made a pleased noise in the back of her vast throat, and Dr. Bantou chuckled, dropping a pomelo onto her tongue. He withdrew himself from within biting distance and patted Ruby’s nose. She immediately dropped her teeth shut with a snap, sending various fruit juices spattering across Dr. Bantou’s long leather apron.

“Well,” Dr. Bantou said, turning around and wiping his hands across his front. “She’s in acceptable condition, other than the cracked tusks.”

“I know that,” Houndstooth snapped. “I take damned excellent care of her.”

Dr. Bantou raised an eyebrow. “So excellent that you didn’t notice those tusks for . . . what, a week?”

Houndstooth didn’t mean to lose eye contact with the dentist, but he did. Just for a second. It was enough.

“Mmm, that’s what I thought,” Bantou drawled.

“I was on a job,” Houndstooth snapped. “I was helping a friend to whom I owed a favor and my honor—something I’m sure you’d know nothing about.”

“Well, whatever you were doing, you left her someplace too small and too boring,” Bantou said. “She’s been biting at boulders. Did you put her in a quarry somewhere? By herself, I gather?” Houndstooth clenched his jaw. Dr. Bantou’s face remained placid. When he spoke, his voice carried the authority of a man who has had the upper hand all along. “They’re bad, Houndstooth. I’ll need to pull them out.”

Houndstooth felt all of the blood drain from his face. “No,” he breathed. “No, you can’t. There must be some other way. Ruby’s tusks, they’re—they’re her pride and joy, Bantou.” He knew he sounded like a lunatic, but it was true. When Ruby basked with her mouth wide, the sun glinting off her beautiful white tusks, every other hippo that saw her would dip its nose below the surface of the water. Her tusks were beautiful, strong, fearsome. “What are our other options?”

Bantou clicked his tongue. “You won’t like it,” he said. “Better to just pull them out.”

“What’s the other option?” Houndstooth asked. His heart was racing. He kept looking at Ruby, who was merrily crunching on a watermelon. He tried to imagine her without her tusks, and tears welled up in his eyes.

“You won’t like it,” Dr. Bantou repeated. A broad grin spread across his face. “You won’t like it at all.”

“Let me guess,” Houndstooth said. “It’ll cost me?”

“Oh, yes.” Bantou was still smiling. “And then some.”

“How much?” Houndstooth asked.

Bantou’s smile slid into a frown that was thoughtful, but no less smug. “Do you know, it’s the strangest thing,” he said. He studied his cuticles. “I heard a rumor this morning.”

“How much will it cost me, you hop-shitted hunk of swamp grease?” Houndstooth spat. Bantou didn’t flinch.

“It was the most curious rumor about a theft,” he said. “Barley McMorrow’s estate, I think it was. Have you ever heard of it?”

In the water, Ruby grumbled in pain. Houndstooth pinched the bridge of his nose. “I see.”

“Yes,” said Dr. Bantou, his smile returning. “I’d imagine you do.”

 

Dr. Bantou Was a Scoundrel a Charlatan a No-Good Son of a Right

Four days later, Houndstooth returned to pick up Ruby from Dr. Bantou’s infirmary. The infirmary was a broad loop of marsh, divided into individual paddocks to prevent recovering hippos from taking out their discomfort on one another.

Bantou wasted no time with insincere pleasantries. “She’s doing very well,” he assured Houndstooth the moment he approached the marsh. “The procedure went entirely according to plan. As routine as can be.”

“Where is she?” Houndstooth demanded.

“I’ll have my payment first, thank you,” Dr. Bantou replied, stretching out a languid arm and opening his palm expectantly.

Grumbling, Houndstooth fished around in the sack he was carrying. It was a large sack—too large by far for its contents. Houndstooth had to reach his entire arm into the sack before his hand wrapped around his quarry.

He withdrew a single gold ingot from the sack and clutched it tight. “Haven’t you taken enough already?” he asked. Bantou didn’t respond—he simply kept his hand out and steady. After a long, tense minute, Houndstooth dropped the ingot into Bantou’s palm.

“Thank you,” Bantou said with a cold smile. Then he let out a sharp whistle, and Ruby rose smoothly out of the water directly in front of them both. “Ruby, my lovely girl,” he cooed, withdrawing an apple from his pocket, “show Mr. Houndstooth what we’ve done.”

She opened her mouth for the apple, revealing her restored tusks. Houndstooth gasped involuntarily.

“They’re beautiful,” he murmured in spite of himself.

“I know,” Bantou said, running a hand over his work. It was true—they were beautiful. Bantou had filled the cracks in her tusks using a fine cement, his own recipe. Then, to protect them, he’d affixed to each tusk a thin, supple sheath of pure, polished gold.

It had taken a lot of gold to do the job, though.

Almost the entirety of one Bellerman High-Quality No-Lock Ultrafine Safe’s worth, to be precise.

“It’s my finest work, for my favorite patient,” Bantou said, smiling at Ruby. When he smiled at her, he was almost handsome, Houndstooth thought. The thought evaporated when Bantou turned to glare at him. “While I was working on her, I noticed something else,” Bantou said. “You’ve been neglecting her flossing.”

Houndstooth let his fingers play across the hilt of one of his knives as the dentist lectured him about tartar buildup. But then he looked back at Ruby, who was happier than he’d seen her in months, and he sighed. He settled in to listen to the dentist prattle on about Ruby’s gums. For Ruby’s tusks, I’ll let you live, he thought. For now.

In the water, Ruby let her mouth hang open, the sun glinting off her new tusks. A tiny marsh bird landed between her fighting incisors, inspecting her mouth for morsels it might enjoy. It pecked once at her tongue, and Houndstooth caught a familiar glint in his old friend’s eye.

Before the bird could notice its own reflection in the polished gold of her tusks, Ruby’s teeth snapped shut. Bantou startled—his foot slipped on the muddy edge of the paddock, and he only just caught himself in time to keep from falling into the cloudy water. As he yanked his leg up out of the muck, cursing his ruined boot, a single white feather floated down to land on the brim of his hat.

Houndstooth smiled. She’d been worth every ingot.

Copyright © 2018 by Sarah Gailey
Art copyright © 2018 by Goñi Montes

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