Once I was up and about, I went to check on Flecha. At every step, my head felt strange and loose on my neck, and there was a dull pounding on the side where I had hit the ground. But other than the sense that I was seeing the world from behind a glass window, I was okay. It was good to see Flecha, and I think she was glad to see me, too. I patted her and told her it wasn’t her fault I fell, and I gave her an apple I had gotten from the chuck wagon.
By the time I went back to the tent, Aaron and Vi were up. I had to spend several minutes reassuring Vi all over again that I was okay, there were no hard feelings, and it wasn’t her fault, even though it was. Then nothing would do but that she must take me into her purple-curtained room and check me for bruises, rubbing her arnica ointment into each one she found. I wasn’t sure why she wanted to do this, since she had said the ointment didn’t work. I guess she just wanted to feel like she was doing something for me.
“You know,” she said as she massaged a particularly painful spot on my shoulder. “Me and Natasha talked last night. We haven’t ever had an act with a bareback rider. We’d be happy to get you a costume, and I could play a song on my trumpet for you, and—“
“No.” I tried to shake my head, but the sudden motion made me dizzy. “I don’t see myself in tights and a tiara. And I’m not a performer. Really.”
“But you’ve got talent!”
“Just because I can stand on my horse? That’s skill, not talent.”
“Well, now, see there? You’ve got the right attitude already. Performing is hard work. It’s about training. People who claim to be artistes never amount to much.”
“No,” I said again. “It’s not my thing. I’m a farmer, a rancher, a fighter, and can be a lot of other things, but—“
“Oh, that’s right. My boy said you claim to be good with a gun. Now, there’s an idea. Can you do trick shooting? You know, Annie Oakley stuff?”
I didn’t know who Annie Oakley was, and I said so.
“She could shoot anything. Near, far, moving targets, big things, little things. . . she could even shoot things over her shoulder, looking behind her in a mirror.”
“That’s impressive,” I had to admit. “But no, I’ve never done anything like that. Ammo is too valuable to waste on tricks.”
“Hm, maybe you’re right.” She lapsed into silence, working some ointment into my elbow.
When she was through, I tracked down Aaron at his booth. Beside it, he was setting up a second booth for the new dart game. A pretty young woman was watching him work. She was all soft curves and cleavage, with that kind of sun-bleached blonde hair that you just know had a little help from something out of a bottle. She looked me up and down like I was a pathetic sight, and I guess to someone with a clean dress, plucked eyebrows and perfect nails, I was. “Good morning,” she said. “Are you the foundling?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer this, but Aaron came to my rescue and introduced us. The woman’s name was Veronica, and she said she was a “dancer” for the men’s shows. I had a feeling she did more than dance, but she and Aaron seemed to like each other, so I figured it was none of my business. Aaron put me to work hanging brightly-painted targets and arranging prizes along a shelf. But when he started doing some hammering, it felt like he was hammering on my skull and I had to leave.
After that, I wandered around aimlessly for a bit, not sure what to do. At last I saw an interesting sign outside a little tent. It was a picture of a big red hand, and it said, “Madame Helene, Fortunes Told.”
Since I’ve never been sure where I’m going in life, it didn’t seem like such a crazy idea to find out if someone else did, so I went inside. To my surprise, Madame Helene was the woman who had been helping with my head injury. She nodded at me and said she’d been waiting.
“So can you really tell my fortune by looking at my hand?”
“I already did,” she said. “While you were unconscious yesterday. That’s how I knew you would get better.”
“No offense,” I said, “But that didn’t take any special powers. It was just a concussion. People get them all the time.”
“That’s true,” she said. “And you’re a tough girl. You’ve been through some terrible tragedies.”
“Haven’t we all?”
She sighed in annoyance, pushed a deck of cards toward me and asked me to cut it. “Think about your question as you handle the cards.”
It seemed silly, but I played along.
Then Madame Helene took the deck back and laid out some cards in front of me. She began turning them over one by one, and they were like no cards I had ever seen, decorated with strange pictures and symbols. They were oddly beautiful, but spooky, too.
She flipped the first card. “You’ve come a long way, through many hardships and adventures.”
I suppressed a sigh. That was an easy guess.
She flipped another card. “You’re in a safe place now, but if you linger, things will go badly for you.”
Another easy one.
She turned the third card. “You still have a long journey ahead of you.”
I still was not impressed.
“Don’t delay too long with the man with the boat. He’s not the right one for you.”
I would have to cross the Mississippi river, so of course I would encounter a boat, and most likely there would be a man on it, somewhere. Was this woman for real, or was this just another trick, like Aaron’s games?
“You will come to a place with green hills and white fences. You will be happy there.”
Kentucky? Now we were getting somewhere.
“And in a year’s time, a dark-haired man will come to you.”
She probably tells that fortune to every girl.
She turned another card and frowned. “Be careful of your belly. It will betray you.”
Madame Helene shrugged. “I only know what I see. Stomach, womb, some other organ. . . I can’t say for sure. Just be careful.”
“Are you sure you’re not reading the wrong card? That’s in my past.”
“I know about the baby that died and was buried in the garden. But this is different.”
She said something else, but I was no longer listening. How did she know about the baby? Then surely she knew I couldn’t have more children. So what danger from my belly could she possibly be talking about? Food poisoning, maybe? I would be extra careful to cook my food thoroughly. And no mushrooms, unless I was absolutely certain they were the right kind!
Suddenly I had what seemed a million questions for her. If she could really see things, then I wanted to know everything. How was Robert? Was Will still a maverick, or had he gone back to Unitas? Would Charlene get away from her parents again? And what about—
I think she guessed my eagerness for news of my loved ones, but all she said was, “Write to your aunt. It’s been a long time and she’s worried.”
My heart sank. I hadn’t written in so long! But could I get a letter to her from Texas? How did that work, sending mail to a foreign country? I had never tried it before, but surely there was a way. “You’re right,” I said. “It’s been way too long.”
I left Madame Helene’s tent, mulling over what she had told me. She was right that I shouldn’t stay here much longer. I would leave tomorrow and try to send a letter to Auntie from town. And then I would continue on toward Kentucky. That had to have been the place she saw in her cards.
I didn’t do much else with my day. I walked around the grounds some more and helped out where I could. Toward evening, a man arrived with a mule cart full of dogs wearing funny hats, and he had them demonstrate tricks to cues from a whistle. They were pretty good, and he was offered a job on the spot. This made me happy, because in all the excitement over the new act, Vi, Natasha, and their friends forgot to pester me to work up an act of my own.
By evening I was feeling much better. My head felt a little more steady on my body and I no longer felt like I was on the outside of something looking in. I still had a painful lump on my head that my hat probably won’t do anything to help when I put it on tomorrow, but I’m leaving, regardless.
So tonight I’m enjoying the luxury of all these soft cushions inside this big tent. People have been very good to me here, and if all carnies are like this, then they’re the best people on earth. But this isn’t my place. I’m excited to think that Kentucky really is within my grasp.
Green hills and white fences! I can hardly wait!
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