Finally Getting Paid!
I was beginning to give up hope. It’s already the end of July, and I was starting to think I would be an unpaid hand forever.
But a couple weeks ago, one of the stable hands quit. He had a sister in Louisville, and her husband was killed in a rail accident. The railway gave her a settlement, which she used to pay off her house, but that still left her to raise three children alone, so her brother went to live with her for awhile. He’ll get a job in the city and help support her family.
That left Eli and Sabine with a spot on their payroll for me (payroll is one of the new words I’ve learned), and since I had been doing a good job managing my barn and handling security matters, they were happy to start paying me.
It was none too soon. The clothes I got when I arrived in Lexington were starting to look shabby, and my old clothes were nearly rags. Erica and some of the other women offered to let me take what I wanted from the community exchange, but I didn’t want to do that if I could help it.
The exchange is located in an old gas station along the main road. The way it works is people donate things that they either make for charity or that they no longer want. They get exchange points based on the quality of the items. The points can be applied to anything in the shop, although you can also pay money, if you don’t have enough points.
The poorest in the community can get a new work or school outfit twice a year for free, and I qualified for that indulgence. But thankfully I didn’t get to the point where I needed to take advantage of it. The only time I’ve ever been a charity case was after the soldiers came through Valle Redondo, and Auntie, Will and I threw ourselves on the mercy of the local Apaches. And that wasn’t really asking for charity, since Auntie’s sister had doctored their animals for years, and Carina was a soft touch who often undercharged. She did a lot of free work on the reservation, which is why they let us live with them until the young Nativists of the tribe got fed up with harboring innaa and made us leave.
We joined Unitas after that, since it was either that or the refugee camps, and we were too proud to accept charity. I was thirteen, and I’ve worked ever since.
So I was glad to finally get some money for my labor here at Northwind, since it meant I could buy some new clothes. I got paid the day before my weekly mail run to Lexington, so I figured I would see what they had at the used goods stores there. I asked for a recommendation from my favorite lady at the post office, and by the time I finished shopping and dropped in on Sam, I was feeling pretty fancy in my new pants and green shirt. I got another shirt too, a brown one. And some extra bandanas, too.
Sam was busy when I arrived, which made me happy. I always like to see my friends doing well, and work means success. So while he wrote down the details of messages to be sent, handed over messages received, and made change for his customers, I went in the back and started cleaning up.
When he finally got a break, he made me put the broom away, and we sat down to talk over some cool tea. He was glad to hear I was now working for pay.
“It’s about time,” he said. “You’ve been a lot more patient than some people.”
“Well, I had room and board, so it wasn’t like I needed much.”
“That’s not the point, and you know it. Slavery was abolished two hundred years ago.”
This made me laugh. “I was hardly a slave. I’ve seen slaves, and I know the difference. I was free to leave whenever I wanted.”
Sam mumbled something and topped off my glass. “It’s fixed now, so I guess it doesn’t matter.”
“And now that I’ve got new clothes, I need to start thinking of how to pay for veterinary school. I was hoping you would have some ideas. About saving money, you know. In my math lessons with Patrick, we sometimes do problems that involve something called interest. I was wondering if banks around here do that, or if it’s something old-fashioned that they only talk about in math books.”
“You want to put your money in a bank?”
He said it like the idea was crazy.
“I thought I did. Is there a better way?”
He leaned toward me across the table, as if he was about to share a secret. “Listen. If you want to put your money in a safe place, your mattress is probably as good as any bank. But if you want to make your money grow, you need to invest it.”
He went on to explain about investments, and in such simple terms that even I could understand. “Okay," I said. "So what should I invest in? And how would I know it’s a good investment and I wouldn’t lose all my money?”
“That’s easy,” he said. “Go outside and look around. We’re rebuilding, and there’s always money to be made when a society is rebuilding itself. What do people want most?”
I thought for a moment. “Food and water. Shelter. Safety.”
“Right. What kinds of businesses and technologies make those things better?”
Guns came immediately to mind, but I had a feeling that wasn’t the right answer. “Brick-making? Water purification? Medicine? Electricity?”
“Yes. And also communication. At the turn of the century, everyone had telephones and could summon police anytime, anywhere, by pressing a few buttons. If we could get something like that working again, don’t you think people would pay for it?”
“I have no idea,” I said. “I’m sure they’d like to, but if they’re hungry and thirsty, I think calling the police would be the least of their worries.”
“If we could get the communication system working again, people wouldn’t have to be hungry or thirsty. We would know where there’s a food surplus and where there’s a shortage, and we could transport the food to where it’s needed. We would know where there’s a drought and deliver water and plan irrigation systems. We would know where people are sick and send them medicine before it’s too late. We could—“
The bell on the door jangled as a customer came in. Sam stood up and went to help, while I stayed at the table, sipping my tea and thinking. Yes, I could see where improving communication would be a good idea. But when Sam returned to the table, I said, “This is all nice to talk about, but how fast does an investment pay? I want to go to school in the fall.”
“It won’t pay off overnight, that’s for sure.” He sipped his tea and frowned. “But do you really think you’ll be ready for school by the end of next month? No offense to your intelligence, of course, but every other time you’ve come by, you say what a hard time you’re having with your studies. And are you even earning enough to pay for school?”
“My friends from back home said they’d send money if I asked. But no, I’m not sure I’ll pass the admissions test. If I do, it’ll be just barely.”
“Don’t do it then,” Sam said. “I don’t want to discourage you, but if you can only just barely get in, you’ll struggle with your classes. You won’t enjoy them, you’ll spend all your free time studying, and everything else in your life will suffer.” He pushed his cup away and stood up. “You’re young and have a long life ahead of you. There’s no need to do everything all at once and make yourself miserable. Spend this next year studying, investing and saving. Then when you go to school, you’ll do well and you’ll get a lot more out of it. Trust me on this, okay?”
Before I could answer, a man came in to pick up a message. While Sam attended to him, I cleared the table and washed out our glasses. By the time he was through, I was ready to leave. I would’ve liked to have stayed and talked longer, but it was already late in the day and I had a long ride ahead of me, and chores to do upon my return.
“Thanks for the advice,” I told Sam. “I’ll think about everything you said.”
And I did. I spent the whole ride home thinking about school, investments, banks, and the way he had said not to do everything at once. He’s right, of course. I guess I just feel like I had so much stolen from me, that now I have to make up for lost time. It was nice of Sam to say I have a long life ahead of me, but from what I’ve seen, there’s no reason to think being young means you’re any less likely to die tomorrow than anyone else, and it makes me anxious to do it all right away, in case each day is my last chance.
When will I stop being so cynical?
I was nearly to the farm when a small figure on a bay Thoroughbred came cantering toward me. The rider moved with his horse pretty well, but with a tell-tale bobble that made me smile. “Let her run, Patrick!”
The boy heard me, kicked his mare and let out the reins. For a second he looked like he would lose his balance. He was sitting too high, and I was about to shout to him again, when he remembered and leaned forward over the withers. I checked his form as he flew by, then waited for him to turn around and come trotting back to me.
“Good job,” I told him. “You keep at it, and you’ll be putting those Derby jockeys to shame by next May.”
He blushed. “It’s just physics.”
My first physics lesson had been a breakthrough for both of us. When I saw the pictures of levers and pulleys, I finally began understanding science. And when I showed him how weight and force applied to how one balanced on a horse, it was like lighting a candle in a dark room, and Patrick finally understood.
“It is just physics," I agreed.
“So was there any good mail?”
“Nothing from your grandma this week.”
“Anything for you?”
What a nice kid! “No. But it takes a long time to get mail from another country, you know. Maybe next week.”
“Are you disappointed? Do you miss your home?”
I looked all around at the fields and trees, still green even as August approached. Golden shafts of late afternoon sunlight filtered through the leaves, and a breeze cooled me, even though the day had been hot. What was to miss about my desert home in a land this rich and green? What was to miss about constant fighting, when I was in a land of relative peace?
“This is my home,” I said.
But of course tonight, with my chores all done, my new clothes hanging on pegs and the barn windows open to the summer breezes, I know I’m a liar. I miss the mountains and the strange wild beauty of the desert valleys. I miss my family and friends. I even miss Will, although I don’t miss being married to him. I miss Auntie and all the people I met on my strange journey to get to this place. And of course, I still miss Robert. This place would be heaven if only all my loved ones were here with me!