Day One Hundred Forty One
I woke up to the screeching and grinding of brakes on metal wheels. I came out from my hiding place and looked around a stack of feed sacks toward the open door. Buildings flashed by, fast at first, then more and more slowly, until finally the landscape stopped moving.
Were we in Lexington, or was it just another random stop?
After a few minutes I heard people shouting to each other, then the sound of car doors slamming open. People passed carrying goods and pushing stacks of things in hand-wagons. Then I saw a few horses go by. We were unloading. I crept toward the door, still staying in the shadows in case I needed to hide from an official.
A blonde head peeked in. “Diana, you in here?”
I hurried forward. “Is this Lexington?”
A look of relief flashed across Tanya’s face and she motioned for me to hurry. “Come on. Quick, before someone sees you.”
I jumped to the ground and stumbled, but she gave me no time to recover and grabbed me by the arm, pulling me into the crowd. I had turned my ankle, and limped along beside her. “Is Flecha okay? I thought we’d never get here.”
“Everything’s fine. Bastards diverted us north into Indiana for some reason, but at least they stopped so we could water the horses. As much as coal diesel costs, you’d think they’d do a better job of getting the train from one place to another.”
“Uh, yeah.” I couldn’t care less about coal diesel right now. I just wanted my horse. And water. And food, a clean shirt that fit, and a job, and. . .
Tanya maneuvered me past a knot of family members exclaiming and hugging as they greeted each other, then she deposited me in an out-of-the way corner near a long building. “Wait here. I’ll bring you your horse and your stuff. Don’t go anywhere.”
Where would I go without Flecha? I leaned against the building and watched all the activity. I was beside a warehouse of some sort, probably for short-term storage of goods from the train. It looked like it had been constructed hastily, maybe around the time of the resource wars when people started shipping goods by train, instead of truck. I tried to distract myself by guessing what might be in the boxes being brought into the warehouse, but I couldn’t stay focused. My gaze kept returning to the livestock cars. Where was Flecha? Tanya really would bring her to me, right? Surely no one would want to steal my unpedigreed desert horse when they had fancy blooded animals with all the right papers.
It seemed like forever before I finally saw Tanya lead Flecha off one of the cars, already saddled and bridled for me, with my packs strapped on. No wonder it had taken so long. I regretted having nothing I could do for Tanya in return.
She led my horse through the crowd, but there was no time for me to tell her how much I appreciated her help, or to ask any questions about where I should go or what I should do next. She handed over the reins. “I’m sorry. I gotta get back quick, or they’ll be mad.” She flashed me a smile. “Good luck finding a job. If you can, get up to Louisville for Derby Day. That’s where we’ll be. We’re running Locomotive.”
Before I could ask what she meant by “Derby Day,” she flung her arms around me, wished me well, and slipped away into the crowd. I was left staring after her, feeling alone and abandoned.
But I had Flecha back! I rubbed her nose and looked her over in relief. Whatever happened next, we would at least have each other. No more boat rides, no more train rides, I would hand her off to no one else. Come what may, we were in this together.
The first order of business was to find water.
Luckily that didn’t prove difficult. I asked a nice young family leaving the train station, and they gave directions to a nearby park where I found a pond, a trough for horses, and a public fountain for people.
Since I had no idea when was the last time Flecha ate or drank, I made her go easy on the water. I couldn’t afford to pay a vet if she got colic. I washed my face and drank my fill at the fountain, then went under a tree to make a picnic.
That’s when I noticed my food was missing. All my other packs were there, including the one with my spare shirt, which was dirty. But where was my food? I glanced up the street in the direction of the rail station. Had my food been stolen on the train, or did Tanya simply overlook it? Should I go back? What would I say? I had been on the train illegally, so would they arrest me? What little experience I had with authorities was mostly bad. Going back seemed risky, so I drank more water, until I could feel it sloshing in my stomach. I hoped it would keep me from noticing my hunger.
What to do next? My plan had always been simple—I would come to Kentucky, there would be horse farms everywhere, I would get a job and all would be well. But now that I was here, it wasn’t simple at all. Lexington was a small city, and the horse farms were all around. How was I to know which ones were hiring? Would I have to range for miles in all directions? I could hardly go looking for work in the rags I had on. My pants were stained, I was still wearing the hobo’s shirt, my extra shirt was dirty, and my hat had been crushed so many times that it had become a shapeless thing. My only nice item of clothing was my pink dress, and I couldn’t seek rough work on a horse farm in a dress.
But I had no money to buy new things. Or did I?
I raised my hand to my throat, where I still wore the blue stone heart Vince had given me, strung on a gold chain. I had hoped to keep it for sentimental reasons. After looking around to make sure I wasn’t being observed, I unhooked the necklace and held it in my hand. Only the stone mattered. I rummaged in one of my packs until I found one of the leather cords that I used to use on my braid. I strung the heart onto that and tied it around my neck. I dropped the gold chain into my pocket, climbed onto Flecha and headed back onto the street, looking for a place that would exchange my gold for American dollars.
It was obvious that Lexington had once been a nice city, with tall buildings of glass, brick, and stone. Much of the glass was broken now, and boarded up. Squatters lurked in the buildings, but the streets were surprisingly clean, and I saw a lot of mounted policemen, which probably accounted for the lack of street children or people making ramshackle huts in public parks. In fact, some of the parks appeared to have been turned into vegetable gardens and orchards.
I wasn’t sure where would be the best place to exchange gold for dollars, and I was afraid to ask a policeman, so I asked a couple of street musicians, a roadside flower vendor, and a man selling grilled sausages that smelled so good I thought my hungry stomach might leap out through my throat and steal one.
The consensus was that a particular pawn shop on the east side of town always gave a fair price, so that was where I went. I have no idea if the amount the old man offered me was good or not, but he seemed nice enough and was doing so much business that he had two assistants. This gave me an idea. “Got any work I could do?” I asked. “You know, sweep the floors or something, for a bite to eat?”
The man smiled kindly, but gestured toward the spotless floor and shrugged. “My floors are just fine, Miss. You can buy food with what I’m giving you.”
“I know, but I need clothes, too.”
He recommended a dealer in used clothing three blocks away.
“Do you maybe know where I can find out which horse farms in the area are hiring?”
This made him chuckle. “Young lady, everyone wants to work on the horse farms. If you don’t have a relative or a friend already working somewhere, you’re going to have a tough time of it.”
I wanted to ask more, but the woman waiting in line behind me was impatient. To no one in particular, she said, “If the horse farms was hiring, wouldn’t no one be planting tomatoes on the town green or selling their jewelry for government dollars.”
She was right, of course. I felt my face grow hot and walked away.
Since I had no other plan, I went to the clothing reseller. Whether I looked for work in town or in the countryside, or whether I left Kentucky altogether and sought my fortune elsewhere, I would need better clothes.
An hour later, I was in clean canvas pants, a blue shirt with tiny white stripes, a hat that actually had a shape to it, and a neat blue kerchief. I dug my leather wrist guards out of my bag—the ones Vince gave me nearly four months ago. I now felt very fine and presentable.
But who should I present myself to? The woman at the clothing shop had told me the same thing the man at the pawn shop had said—horse farms rarely hired, and always had a long list of people wanting to work for them. A reference was nice, but unless it was a specific recommendation from someone with ties of friendship or kinship, the likelihood of being made an offer was so small as to not be worth the trouble of traipsing around the countryside making random inquiries.
How was this possible? Like a fool, I had undertaken this venture on the strength of just one passing incident back home. Two years ago Robert and our regional commander were shot in an act of treachery by the México Lindo faction. I was given a Kentucky thoroughbred named Huracán and sent with a message. The horse impressed me. When Robert recovered, he told me about some of the deals he made with “the Kentucks,” as he called them, on behalf of Unitas.
Robert would have a connection. He could get me a job, but I didn’t know where he was, and it was crazy to think he would help. I was supposed to run away with him at Christmas, and instead I ran away alone. Even if I could get a message to him, why would he do anything for me?
I would have to manage alone, just as I had always done.
But as I wandered the streets in the growing afternoon, I realized I would have to do something soon. Shadows lengthened, policemen went home to their suppers, and now prostitutes started walking the sidewalks and beggars crawled out of the shadows, holding out their hands to passersby.
That was my fate, if I didn’t find a way to earn an honest living, fast. I had no more time for pride.
As if in answer to my need, I saw a sign advertising a radio operator:
Well, it was worth asking. I went inside, hoping that this place wouldn’t be like the one I had tried to use back home when Ishkin was sick and I couldn’t find medicine.
The man behind the counter had a thick white beard that was so luxurious that it seemed to be trying to make up for the lack of hair on his shiny head. He had bushy white brows, and snapping black eyes that looked a little mean. I paused in the doorway.
“Want something, Miss? I’m about to close up.”
I approached the counter and asked what it would cost to send a message to Auntie and Miguel in Estrella.
The corners of the man’s mouth turned down. He sighed and pulled out some maps and a chart.
“Depends on what operators are available. Some have long range, some don’t. Rates depend on who I can reach.”
“Who do you think will be available?”
“That depends. You need this to go out tonight?”
I told him yes, thinking that he was beginning to sound like that scamming liar, Esquivel, who took my money and never sent a single message.
“You’re better off trying in the morning.”
“Just tell me what it costs.”
He quoted me a price. “That’s assuming minimal number of exchanges. If there’s more, the price goes up.”
I counted out my remaining bills. Sending the message would leave me with nothing for food. Well, maybe I could steal something from the public gardens. I laid my money on the counter. “I want to watch you send the message,” I said. No way was I going to get scammed like last time.
He shook his head. “This ain’t a show for your amusement, Miss. You go on. I’ll give you a claim slip, and in the morning—“
I don’t know if it was the hunger, the frustration, or my own suspicion and sense of utter helplessness, but I started to cry. And to my embarrassment, once I started, I couldn’t stop. I laid my head on the high counter and wept for everything I had been through, all my big dreams and ambitions. I had run headlong into a dead end after refusing so many attractive offers along my journey. I had thrown away everything, betting that here, it would all be easy. Instead, this was the hardest part of all, and I couldn’t call up the inner reserves of strength to carry me through.
I heard the man come from behind the counter and walk to the door. I heard the key turn, locking me in. Was he going to rape me now? Rob me? Torture me for his own sick amusement? I tried to care, but couldn’t even lift my head to wipe the tears from my eyes.
Instead, he did it for me. Then he pulled me against him and held me, not in a bad way, but in the way one would comfort a child. “It’ll be okay,” he said. “We’ll get your message out. It’ll be okay.”
I’m lying on a cot in the back room of the shop tonight, covered with a scratchy wool blanket. I’ve eaten a little, but my stomach feels like it’s tied up in knots, making it hard to eat. Sam is in the next room, and I can hear him talking to a ham operator somewhere in Tennessee. They’re trying to get my message to their contacts in Oklahoma and Texas, and then to Auntie and Miguel on their mountain in New Mexico. Hopefully they’ll know where Robert is and will be able to reach him. Or Miguel may have contacts of his own here in Kentucky, since he used to be a regional commander.
If nothing else, at least someone who cares about me will know I’m alone, out of money and in trouble. It feels good to hand over my problems to someone else for a night. I can’t solve everything myself. Auntie used to say that no man is an island. She got the phrase from a book. I used to not know what it meant, but I do now.
A skinny yellow cat just wandered into the room. She’s looking at me like I stole her bed. I guess I need to scoot over a little. I’m no island. There’s room enough for two.
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