Day One Hundred Forty Three
After breakfast, I tried to settle my account with him for the messages, but he wouldn’t take my money. He said that “hams look after their own,” and since Miguel runs a network and is sort of like an uncle to me, I’m part of the “hammer family.” I think it was just an excuse to not take my money and I was extra glad I had cleaned up yesterday and made breakfast this morning. Since it’s my plan to make a life for myself in the area, there will be plenty of time for me to return the enormous favor Sam has done for me by getting in touch with my loved ones. When I can afford it, I’ll get a nice gift for him, and I’ll be sure to send business his way when I can.
With these thoughts in mind, I saddled Flecha, loaded my gear, and headed out in search of the Old Frankfort Pike and Northwind Farm.
It was a beautiful May day, and once I was out in open country, I thought I had surely found heaven.
It was everything I had ever dreamed of back in my desert homeland. No, I take that back. It was better.
My spirits rose with the morning sun and by noon I was nearly giddy. No matter what else happened today, this was one of the best days of my life. I was so sure of it that I stopped to pick some wildflowers, sticking some in my hatband and others in Flecha’s bridle. While I was busy with this uncharacteristically girly task I saw a rider approaching on a fast-trotting horse. He slowed down at the sight of me and Flecha stopped on the side of the road.
“You okay?” he called.
“Just enjoying the day,” I called back.
He reined in and came a little closer. He was thin, and one shoulder was higher than the other, as if he had been thrown from a horse one too many times. His nose was twisted, too, as if it had been broken, but his large gray eyes were honest, and his voice was friendly. “Where you headed to?”
This seemed to surprise him, but he didn’t immediately say why. “Any particular reason?”
“I’m looking for work. I have two letters of reference.”
He frowned, and it made his crooked features twist like a knotted string. “Well, that’s where I work,” he said, “And as far as I know, the boss ain’t doing no hiring.”
I refused to let this news dampen my spirits. Not on a day like today. “I’m asking anyway,” I said. “The owner owes a friend of mine a favor. And besides, I don’t need much. I’ll work hard at anything they’ve got.”
The man shrugged, a comical gesture, given the lopsided curve of his body. He extended a hand. “I’m forgetting my manners. Lee Jameson, at your service. Want some company?”
I shook his hand and thought this was a good sign. Maybe Northwind wouldn’t have work for me, but with references, and now a chance to make friends with of one of their hands, I was sure to be treated well. Something good would come of this, no doubt about it.
I rode to the farm with Lee. We talked horses at first, and I couldn’t escape the feeling that he was testing me, but that was okay. I knew my stuff, and pretty soon Lee relaxed, confident that I was no imposter. Then we talked of other things. Lee had been born in the area and like me, had been around horses his entire life. He said he worked as a jockey when he was a boy, riding thoroughbreds in local races until he got too tall.
I looked at him skeptically when he said this. It was hard to tell on a horse, but he didn’t look very big to me. “What size are jockeys supposed to be?”
“As small and light as possible. That’s why they prefer kids. There’s laws against it, but no one enforces them. The one governor who tried to prosecute for child labor met with an unfortunate accident. Everyone since then has focused on the things we really care about, like crime, riots, inflation, and not letting us get dragged into any more wars.”
While what he said seemed sensible, I couldn’t help thinking of the child jockeys that had ridden the horses in Locomotive’s race last week. Lee’s twisted body was testimony to the fact that letting children race horses was a dangerous business. But this wasn’t a day to debate politics. There would be time enough for that once I had established myself. No one likes an outsider to come in and start saying how things ought to be. I didn’t answer Lee’s assertions and instead told him about my travels.
We finally came upon some white wooden fences, and beyond them, more white fences bordering green hills where horses grazed in the spring sunshine. I took in the scene, so happy I could hardly breathe.
“This is it,” Lee said. “Let’s go find the boss.”
The boss was a blunt, middle-aged man named Eli Garrity, and he read both my letters, then left me sitting on the broad patio of the house, sipping a cool drink, while he went to talk privately with his wife. It seemed like he was gone a long time. At one point, I thought I saw Lee go into the house through a side door, and I hoped he would put in a good word for me. Finally I heard footsteps. I sat up straight and pushed my empty glass away.
A pretty, dark-haired woman came out and introduced herself as Sabine. Eli was right behind her. They both sat down with pleasant smiles, but I could tell something wasn’t right.
“We’d like to make you an offer,” Eli said. “But we’ve got a bit of a cash flow problem.”
“We’re what you might call land-rich, but cash-poor,” Sabine added. “We’ve got property, but not much money.”
Eli cut in to say that he could find work for me, but could only pay in room and board. “Your friend Robert has been a good customer. I’ve never lost an animal in trade with him, and his money’s always good. I want to extend a hand to any friend of his, but I’m afraid I can't make you any better offer right now.”
I could tell he was embarrassed and I tried to hide my disappointment.
“It wouldn’t be forever,” Sabine said. “Hands come and go. Do good work, and there will be paying work at some point. We just can’t promise when.”
“Could be tomorrow, could be two years from now,” Eli added. “All I can promise today is three squares, a place to sleep, and a reference if we like your work.”
“What about my horse?” I asked. “Would she get room and board, too?”
Sabine nodded. “Everything our own horses get. If you need some time to think about it, that’s okay."
I shook my head. My needs were few, and anything that would establish me in the community and keep me fed while I was doing it would be a good thing. Besides, it wasn’t like I had any better options.
“I’ll work for room and board,” I said. “When can I start?”
The rest of the day was spent showing me around and getting me and Flecha settled. Northwind Farm used to deal only in thoroughbreds, but has recently begun branching out into another type of horse called a Morgan, that Sabine and Eli say is popular with government officials and police. There are several barns on the property, houses for higher-ranking hands who don’t have homes of their own nearby, and acres of fenced pastures, paddocks, tracks and trails. There is even a duck pond.
I’ve met a lot of people today, but I’m having trouble remembering all their names and what each person does. They all seem okay, though. I only got one suspicious look, from an older man who didn’t seem to like anyone. I also met a very pretty black girl who is about my age and is a horse trainer. She smiled at me and sat next to me at supper, so I think she’ll end up being a friend.
I’m settled into my room, now. It’s not much of a room at all, but a converted tack room in one of the barns. This suits me fine, because it’s the barn where I’m keeping Flecha. It’s nice that we can start our new life together like this, just a few feet away from each other. My room is small and has a rickety cot, some shelves and pegs on the walls, and a wooden chest that I can use for storage or for a table. I’ve unpacked my things and I’m going to like not having to live out of bags any more.
It’s funny the things one acquires over the course of a journey. I have books, which I’ve put on my shelf, along with the little rabbit Charles carved for me. There’s a candle stub, a flashlight, and a smooth stone that I picked up somewhere. I won’t be needing my cooking equipment, but I’ve kept out my cup and canteen in case I get thirsty in the middle of the night. At the bottom of one of my bags I found a red scarf I didn’t remember having gotten, but it looks pretty draped over the small wooden chest by the bed. Along with all the drawings and the occasional photograph tucked among the pages of my diary, are a few extra pictures that served little purpose before, but look nice tacked onto my walls. Later, I’ll make some better ones. Maybe I can even get colored chalk or paint and make really nice pictures. It’ll look like a regular home before I’m through.
But it’s a home, already. It’s hardly more than a closet, but it’s all mine. I even have an address now. I asked what it was after supper and wrote it down. Now when I write to Auntie, she can write back. I’ll write to Robert, too. Maybe he’ll even answer.
I’m going to try to get some sleep now. Tomorrow is my first day of work and I don’t want to be tired or look lazy.
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