Day One Hundred Thirty Eight
“Don’t do that!”
“We’ve got plenty of coffee. Come drink ours, and save yours for later.”
As expensive as coffee was, I would’ve been a fool to refuse her offer. I put my things away, covered the fire and followed her to the common tent.
“We talked about you last night,” Tanya said. “And we’ve got work for you today, if you’re interested.”
I hadn’t planned on spending an extra day here, but this sounded promising.
“We can’t offer money, just food and the use of our facilities, but my boss, Yvonne, says if you do good work, she’ll write you a letter of reference.”
I tried to conceal my disappointment. “There's no chance I could work on your farm?”
“Not right now. We’re pretty small and we’ve got all the help we need.”
Well, a reference was better than nothing. Over breakfast, I let Tanya explain what I would be doing. It was pretty basic stuff— run errands, walk horses, help keep gear organized, and things of that nature.
“It’s our last day here,” Tanya explained. “Yvonne and her son are going to be pretty busy showing horses to government agents and getting ready for the big race. That leaves us short-staffed, and anything you can do will be a big help.”
I promised I would help in any way I could, and resolved to work twice as hard as I had ever done in my life. With any luck, they would decide they couldn’t live without me, no matter how overstaffed they might be back home. And if nothing else, I would at least have a reference.
What a whirlwind of a day! Tanya took me to their tent-stable, introduced me around, and then dashed off to parts unknown. I was put to work grooming the horses that were to be shown to the government people. Only one of these was a thoroughbred, and the rest were of a different breed. I asked the man I was working with about the difference.
“Tennessee Walkers,” he said. “They’re the main breed we work with. We only got into thoroughbreds a couple years ago when Miss Yvonne’s boy thought he might make some easy money on the side.”
The man shrugged without looking up from painting glossy stuff on a hoof. “All I know is the government likes the Walkers and they’ve done good by us. As long as the boy doesn’t start dragging us on the race circuit, his hobby won’t do us no harm.”
“This place isn’t on a circuit?” I wasn’t sure what a circuit was, but it seemed the right thing to ask.
“Town is too small to support just races, but it’s close enough to the rail and the river, if you make it a horse fair first and foremost. Show and trade, you know, with races extra. It all works out okay, and everyone’s happy.”
“Have you done well?”
They had. The fair had been going on all week, and they had sold a couple two-year olds and bought a promising filly at the auction a few days before. They had also contracted the stud services of their champion stallion. Today some government men were stopping by for a second look at the Tennessee Walkers, and everyone expected a sale to go through.
“Government men don’t usually bid at the auctions,” the man explained. “They come around separate and make their own deals because there’s always some suspicious bastard at the auction who’d rather bankrupt himself outbidding them than let them get a good price.”
This made me smile. “I’d probably do the same thing.”
He chuckled. “Me, too.”
After the horses were groomed and led away, I was left to muck the stalls and tidy things up. Then I was given messages to deliver, items to retrieve, and equipment to sort and pack in boxes for the trip home the next day. The Walkers were returned and I got them settled, and then I was tasked with helping get the racehorse ready.
“This is Troy’s baby,” I was told, and indeed, Locomotive was a gorgeous animal. He was a bay with a star on his forehead, and his glossy coat bulged with muscles. Everything from his flaring nostrils to his deep chest and muscular hindquarters said he had been bred for speed, so I was startled to find that he was to be ridden by a mere boy.
By now Tanya was back, and she explained that all the riders, who she called “jockeys” were boys.
“Isn’t that dangerous?”
Her shrug said it all.
I hadn’t expected to be invited to see the big race, which was the culminating event of the week-long horse fair. I was busying myself setting out Locomotive’s blanket and making sure his stall was clean, when Tanya rushed in. “What are you still doing here?”
She grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the open tent flap. “Can’t you hear the music? The race is about to start!”
I had heard some drums and trumpets, but had ignored them, not wanting to look lazy and miss my chance at a good reference. It seemed everyone was down at the track, and Tanya dragged me through the crowds. “They’re holding spots for us, but we’ll be lucky if—“
I heard a gunshot, followed by a thunder of hooves. The crowd roared and Tanya nearly tore my arm off in her effort to pull me close to the rail. I had raced horses sometimes back home with my friends in Unitas, just for fun, but this was something different. The horses were already at the first turn before I could get my bearings and make sense of the blur of black, bay and chestnut animals, each with a tiny boy rider in a different color outfit, all of them pounding around track in a cloud of dust. As they drew nearer, I could see Locomotive near the front of the pack, pulling toward the inside rail where he would cover less ground. Tanya gripped my arm and jumped up and down, shrieking. Caught up in the excitement, I started screaming too, as he pulled ahead.
They were into the straightaway now, and Locomotive was still running with his head high. The boy loosened the reins and slapped his flank with the whip. The stallion’s head lowered, his body lengthened. He was flying now!
And then, pounding up on the outside came another horse. The two kept pace for a moment, then the interloper pulled his horse closer. Too close. The jockey locked his knee in front of our jockey’s knee, and now if Locomotive pulled ahead, he’d lose his rider.
“He can’t do that, can he?” I asked Tanya.
She ignored me.
With the finish line just ahead, the two jockeys struggled, jostling each other, punching and even swiping at one another with their whips.
Locked together, they swept under the wire.
Locomotive lost by a nose.
I was outraged. “They can’t do that. Our horse won that race! The judges will see that, won’t they? They won’t—“
Tanya shook her head in disgust. “That’s how the game is played. Next time, we need a meaner rider.”
For a few minutes I stood there, trying to understand what had just happened and how it could be that such dirty tricks were allowed. But then I remembered that I had a job to do. In a foul mood now, I shoved my way through the crowd, back to the tent stable to wait for Locomotive. When they finally brought him, wet and still breathing hard, I had his blanket waiting and was allowed to help walk him. When I thought no one was paying attention, I reassured him. “You really won that race,” I said. “It’s not your fault humans are so mean.”
That was the big excitement for the day. I filled the hours until supper doing pretty much what I had been doing all day—cleaning and storing gear and tending the horses. If it hadn’t been for the disappointment of the race, I would’ve thought myself in heaven to have no other duties than to work with animals.
It’s evening now, I can hear the fiddle music in the distance, and I’m wondering what I’m going to do tomorrow. I had thought spending an extra day here would give me a chance to come up with a plan, but I’ve been too busy to do much thinking. Everyone is leaving tomorrow. Tanya and her people have hired cars for the horses and bought train tickets for themselves, so they’re set. I haven’t got money for a ticket east. I guess I’ll get up early, get my letter of reference, and start riding again. At least once I get to where I’m going, I’ll know some people, and maybe by the time I arrive, they’ll have lost a hand and I can get a job right away.
Things will work out. They have to.
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