A knock at the door shook both from their thoughts.
“Who the heck is that? The dogs didn’t even bark. Did you hear a car or truck come in the gate?”
Nate’s wife didn’t answer, she was busy opening the kitchen door.
A small man, handsome but tired and hungry appeared in their kitchen. He removed his ball cap and twisted it in his right hand nervously. His left arm was held against his stomach, in obvious pain.
“I was wondering if you had any work. I’m a good hand with horses and I’m not above mucking stalls.”
“You’ve come to the wrong place son, we don’t have the money to pay anyone. Mother and I here take care of the chores ourselves. Plus, you look like you couldn’t do much with that arm all buggered up.”
“There’s at least 40 head here – you’ve got to need help.”
“There’s 52 head and fixing to be some more in a bit.” Nate said with a dash of pride.
“I’ll work for hot food and a place to sleep until you see what good I am. I can help you get some of these horses going and don’t worry about my arm. I can still work, it’s just sore is all.” He rubbed his shoulder and tried to straighten his arm without wincing.
“Sorry son, what I need right now is a good mechanic. That damn truck out there won’t start again.”
“Can I take a look for you?”
“You fix trucks?”
“No harm with letting him take a look?” Nate’s wife was pushing a cup of coffee into the young man’s hands.
“Thank you m’am. You are very kind.”
“Cream or sugar?” she asked.
“No thanks m’am, black is just fine with me.”
“Well, bring that cup with you and let’s go take a look at old Grumpy and see if we can get her started.”
“That’s what he calls the truck, and sometimes, it’s what I call him.” Nate’s wife smiled at both men.
Nate stomped out the door towards the old truck. “What’s your name son?”
“Paul. Paul Payne.” The words stuck in his throat and came out with difficulty.
Nate gave a quick jerk, then eyed Paul suspiciously “Didn’t figure it was a hard question Paul.” Nate opened the truck door and popped the hood latch. “I don’t care what you call yourself son, Paul’s as good a name as any I guess.”
Paul nodded in agreement, stepped over a battered barn cat lounging in the sun and peeked under the hood.
“My dad had just the same truck in Idaho. He had a hell of a time keeping the timing belt from slipping, sometimes it just needs a nudge, but it’s hard as hell to get to. Do you have a long broom handle?”
“This old truck is held together with baling twine and duct tape, now I’m supposed to get it running with a broom handle? Ah hell, just don’t break it, okay?”
“The truck or the broom handle?” Paul’s wry smile brought a laugh to the old man’s tired face.
In ten minutes time, with some grunting and maneuvering on Paul’s part, the truck was running.
“Back her up to the trailer over there and hook her up – will ya?” I’ll be back in a few, I’ve got to pull some leg wraps off some horses and throw some feed to the old horses out back.” Paul watched the old man amble off through the old barn stopping at every curious nose to give a scratch or a pat. A three legged dog of unnamable breeding hopped along snapping his teeth at the flies.
This was all that young and cute little gallop girl’s fault Paul mused. She’d mentioned the Hamer’s place when she was talking about all of the racehorses who needed homes. She told Paul a few stories about an old couple that re-homed ex racehorses and gave sanctuary to some too crippled or cranky or crazy to adopt out. She talked about how the couple had weathered the storms of the years while other fancy horse rescues had come and gone. Originally, Paul had been bored by the discussion, he’d seen enough of the do-gooders in his days who vilified his profession and he hadn’t the time or the patience for them. But he learned that the best way into a girl’s bed was to listen and he had.
But the story of the Hamer’s and their farm got into his head and wouldn’t let go. He found himself thinking of them that night, and he couldn’t sleep. He thought about all of the horses on whose back he had made a living for as long as he knew. Most he couldn’t remember and a few he’d never forget.
He’d been feeling the itch to run anyway as his apprenticeship had neared it’s end. He’d also been entertaining the idea to stay put for awhile. It surprised him. But that woman with the loud squeaky voice who had pointed him out on his way back to the jocks room had sealed the deal. He’d never been that close to getting caught. He felt like shit for leaving Ann. He hadn’t planned to fall for her as hard as he had. He couldn’t remember a time when he had so admired and so desired one woman.
Not to mention the guilt.
He replayed her wreck over and over in his mind; him sitting on the track after being dumped and watching helplessly as his horse bolted into Ann’s. The sounds, the scream, the crunch he felt through his whole body.
He’d sat in the emergency room after she’d passed out. He watched her. He wiped the track dirt off the side of her face. He watched the face of Jude Keenan as he rushed into the hospital.
And now he was gone. Out of her life with no way to re-connect. Leaving had always been so easy, so freeing. Why not this time? Because he was getting older? Because he really liked these people or because he might be in love for the first time in his life?