"Having kids costs money," Mason said. Pop was quiet, studying his hands where they rested on the kitchen table. They were brown and calloused and sprinkled with liver-colored freckles, sturdy and square-fingered, completely different from Mason's. I'd heard one of Pop's friends joking with him once, asking him how an old quarterhorse like him had sired a couple of lanky racers, and Pop said, "Their momma was a thoroughbred."
"Mace," he said now, "you're mad at me, and I don't blame you, but I'd like to hear it all now and get it over with, so we can go on. You got a bad tendency to bottle things up and dwell on them and brood about them, and I'd rather have a big explosion and then the clear air."
"Okay. All right. I've been known to explode. Like a couple of months ago when I hadn't heard from you since spring and the money was gone and the gas got shut off and I had to sell the horses since it was all I could do to feed us."
Pop looked blank. "You sold your horse?"
"Yeah, I did, and Negrito, too. And when Tex got mad about it I beat him up. Look at that scar. He's going to have it the rest of his life."
I hadn't realized Mason felt so guilty about that The scar didn't bother me none. But whenever I let myself think about Negrito, it was all I could do to keep from getting into that fight all over again.
"I'm sorry, Mace, I never thought about the money--when I left I thought I'd left a good-sized hunk in the bank, and both you kids had jobs and, anyway, I didn't plan on bein' gone this long."
Mason was trying to keep a grip on himself, but I wouldn't have been surprised to see him break out in a foam like a frenzied horse. Neither one of them paid any attention to me. I always felt left out when they fought.
"I know you never thought about the money. The good-sized hunk shrunk real quick when Tex fractured his arm last May and we didn't have any insurance. We both had jobs, yeah. Summer jobs. It hasn't been summer for a while now. And whether you planned it or not, you've been gone this long. And I'd like to know how the hell long you're going to stay."
"You're sure not giving him any reason to stay," I said.
"You--you just shut up," Mason said. He didn't feel so bad about that scar that he wasn't ready to give me another one.
"Well," Pop said quietly, "it won't do any good now to say I'm sorry. I sure didn't think about things being that bad for you. All I can do is try to prove myself this time, and all you can do is give me the chance." That's okay, I thought. We can do that.
Mason looked away, drumming his fingers on the table. There was a long silence. "I guess it is all I can do," he said finally.
Pop watched him wistfully. Mason's good opinion meant a lot to him. His face brightened. "I tell you what, let's start off by getting those horses back."
"Whaa hoo!" I shouted, jumping up and turning over the chair. Mason shook his head. "I don't want mine back, I'm not going to be around here a lot longer and I don't have time to take care of him, anyway. But you could get Negrito back for Tex."
"Sure," Pop said. "I got a little money saved up. I tell you what, Texas, I need a couple of weeks to get a job, and you got a birthday coming up then, so can you wait till the end of the month?"
I stopped dancing around, stared at Pop for a second, then choked on a laugh. I couldn't stop laughing.
"What's so funny?" Pop asked. I shook my head, trying to get my breath.
"October," Mason said. His voice was like a knife of ice.
"What?" Pop said. Mason was absolutely white. It almost looked like he was suddenly scared. It sobered me up to see him.
"His birthday was the twenty-second of October. Last month."
"Oh. I was thinking it was November."
Mason didn't say a word. He just got up and left. Pretty soon we heard the pickup squealing out of the driveway.
Pop shook his head. "That young-un can get his back up over the silliest things. I'm sorry about that, Tex."
"Shoot," I said, "it doesn't bother me. It proves you didn't forget about it completely, which was what Mason tried to tell me. Anyway, I thought it was funny."
"I don't think Mace thought it was funny," Pop sighed. I had to agree with him there.
The light blinded me. I hung onto something next to me to keep from falling into the white space. I heard the voice again and this time I could make out the words:
"What's goin' on?"
It was Pop. And I heard Mason's voice saying roughly, "Nothing is going on. He's having a nightmare, that's all."
My eyes adjusted to the light. It was just the bedroom, not some big expanse of empty white space. I was sitting on the edge of the bed, like I was ready to get up and go somewhere. I was in a cold, sick sweat. I slowly realized I was clutching Mason's arm in a grip that'd leave bruises, and I tried to let go.
"I'm okay," I whispered.
"Gosh, Tex, do you still have nightmares? I thought you'd outgrown that."
I shook my head, still unable to talk too much.
"We were kidnapped at gunpoint not too long ago," Mason said. "I reckon that could give anybody nightmares. I've dreamed about it myself."
"Sorry I woke y'all up," I said, trying to convince myself I really was awake, that the terror was over. "I'm okay now."
I dug my fingers out of Mason's arm and tried my best to look okay. I couldn't quit shivering. Pop looked dubious. "You sure?"
"Yeah. I didn't mean to be hollerin'."
"Well, maybe we can all get back to sleep now. You guys have to be at school pretty early." Pop switched off the light and went back to his sleeping bag on the couch.
I swung myself back under the quilts. Mason crawled back around to his side.
"Mace?" I said. "You really have nightmares about that hitchhiker?"
"Yeah," he said. "I figure they'll go away pretty soon."
I was quiet. "I don't think that's what I was dreamin' about," I said finally.
"I didn't figure it was," he said.
I never did dream about the hitchhiker, and what's more, I didn't think about him much. All that seemed unimportant now that Pop was back, and Negrito was coming home. I did kind of get a kick out of the fuss people made over me at school, though. Nobody else in the whole school had ever been kidnapped, and only one other kid had been on the news, and that had been in grade school, in a spelling bee.
Miss Carlson was absent that day and we had a substitute teacher. We did all the usual things we do to substitutes, coughing at exactly one minute till, forming lines at the pencil sharpener, till she slapped a pop quiz on us. I got the feeling she'd been a substitute teacher before.
Before class was over she sent me to the office for talking. It wasn't my fault, really. Everybody wanted to know about the hitchhiker. Fortunately Mrs. Johnson saw my side of it, just told me not to let fame go to my head. While I was in the office I heard somebody say Miss Carlson had gone to a funeral, and then somebody else said it was the hitchhiker's funeral.
That bothered me. It took the fun out of being famous. I never thought about him having a funeral, or somebody going to it if he did. I hadn't thought about anybody missing him.
When Miss Carlson showed up the next day, I decided to find out for sure.
"Uh, Miss Carlson," I said, standing at her desk after everybody else had gone on to their next class, "somebody told me you went to that guy's funeral, the one the highway patrol shot."
"Yes," she said. "I did."
She didn't look like she was mad at me about it. She had real long eyelashes. I bet she was good-looking when she was young.
"Was he a relative or something?" That was what I was afraid of.
"No. Not even a friend, really." She paused, like she was hunting for the right words. Finally she said, "I read a book once that ended with the words 'the incommunicable past.' You can only share the past with someone who's shared it with you. So I can't explain to you what Mark was to me, exactly. I knew him a long time ago."
I stood there, feeling like I do when I bump into things, not knowing what to do. "I'm so
Miss Carlson shook her head. "Tex, please don't let it worry you. I'm sad about what happened, but not surprised." She glanced down into her grade book. "Now what ever happened to that other book report?"
I couldn't wait till the end of the month. Negrito would be coming home! Pop didn't get his old job back, at the cement plant, but he got another one, at the feed mill, pretty quick. Pop never had much trouble getting jobs. People tend to like him.
The day he was due home with his first two-week paycheck, I went bouncing through school like a ricocheting bullet. Somehow I didn't get sent to the office, though. Johnny broke the speed limit getting me home--riding double on his machine was breaking the law anyway, so it didn't take much to get him to break two.
Then it was an hour to wait till Pop got home. I thought I was going to go nuts. I went up to the horse pen and straightened up a couple of sagging fence posts and tacked up a strand of loose barbed wire. I'd spent the week before putting the rails back up on the pickup, so we'd have something to cart him home in. Negrito loaded surprisingly easy for a high-strung horse. All you had to do was show him a bucket of grain in the truck.
Pop wasn't home an hour later. Another hour later he still wasn't home. I got to thinking he had a car wreck. Mason came in, hot and sweaty from jogging.
"No, I don't think he had a wreck," Mason said, dropping into a kitchen chair and gulping buttermilk straight from the carton. "It just slipped his mind."
"Naw, something happened."
"Nothing happened except somebody probably asked him to stop off and have a beer."
About that time the phone rang. I let Mason get it. He got most of the phone calls at our house. A lot of them from girls.
"Oh, yeah? Well, what about going to get Tex's horse back? Forget about that?"
I went sick inside. Pop had forgot. Damn Mason, I got so tired of him being right all the time.
"Yeah, I know where he is. Sure, I'll do it. Will the check bounce? How much? Pop, I'll have to offer more than they paid me for him. Okay. Yeah, sure. Good luck."
Mason came back in the kitchen. "Me and you'll have to go after him. Pop's in a pool tournament over in Broken Arrow. No telling how long he'll be there. Says he's sorry, he just clean forgot."
"Well, at least he's giving me the money to get him back," I said defensively.
"I thought I was supposed to be the stubborn one in this family," Mason said.
My disappointment was beginning to fade. I was getting excited again. "Well come on, let's go!"
"No way. I got to take a bath first."
"It'll just take ten minutes."
I started swearing at him, but he went on to the bathroom anyway. I had to resist an urge to go hold his head under water.
We got on the road finally. We had to drive clear to Muskogee.
"Boy, you really made sure I couldn't find him again, didn't you?" I said.
"That would have been all I needed, you getting arrested for horse stealing."
"You're the one that should have been arrested," I said.
Mason didn't say anything. We drove through Muskogee and turned down a blacktop road. It was getting dark, but you could see we were driving through a little housing development. The houses were each set on a couple of acres of land.
"You know your way around here pretty well," I remarked.
"I came out to look the place over first. I told you I made sure those horses got good homes, didn't I?"
Him and his truth hang-up, I thought sourly. Then I brightened up as we turned into a driveway. I heard hoof beats as soon as we got out. "I'll be around back!" I shouted. Mason went to the front door. He could take care of the business end of it. I wanted to see Negrito.
There were floodlights turned on over a small wood corral in back. Negrito was tearing around some barrels, set up for barrel racing. Even though he could turn on a dime and hand you back a nickel change, I had never done barrel racing with him and was amazed to see how good he'd caught onto it in so short a time. After bending around the last barrel so sharp his rider's foot nearly touched the ground, Negrito flattened out in a dead gallop finish. When she pulled him up, he was blowing through his nose and snorting, the way he did when he was happy. I decided I could take up barrel racing if he liked it so much.
His rider saw me. She nudged Negrito into a canter and had him do a sliding stop at the fence where I stood.
"Who are you?" she asked. I didn't even look at her. Negrito was so surprised to see me that his ears were practically touching and he kept nickering from way down in his chest. I had all I could do to keep from grabbing him around the neck and crying.
"He used to be my horse," I said. I reached out and stroked his neck. Man, he was clean. He must have been brushed morning noon and night to be that clean. It's a mess trying to get dust out of a winter coat.
"You're not the boy we bought him from," the girl said. Her voice sounded stiff. For the first time I looked at her, seeing her. She was about twelve or thirteen, blonde, freckled, braced, her eyes a light sky color from behind her glasses.
"That was my brother. I didn't know he was selling him. It was sort of an accident."
The girl slid off and stood by Negrito's head, holding the reins tight, like she thought I might grab them away from her.
"We paid for him," she said. "It was fair and square."
"Sure," I said. Negrito was nibbling on my sleeve, the way he would just before biting a hunk out of you. I was getting so sick I couldn't see good. They weren't going to sell him. I wasn't going to get him back. Like she knew what I was thinking, the girl said, "He's my horse now."
I looked around at the nice little paddock, with an open-faced barn. They didn't need the money. They could feed him through the winter. She wouldn't come home from school and find that paddock empty.
"I had a pony, but he died," she was saying. "I didn't think I'd ever want another horse. Nicky was a birthday present."
Didn't even get his name right, I thought bitterly. I asked Negrito how he liked it here.
"Oh, great, man, great." His head bobbed up and down. "Good food, good fun, lots of attention."
I didn't remind him I'd given him lots of attention, too. Horses are like real little kids. Now is what's important.
"He bites," I said to the girl, not looking at her, still patting Negrito's neck.
He'd put on weight, but he'd been worked enough to turn it into hard muscle. His thick winter coat was like velvet.
"He spooks at things, too," I said.
"He ain't really scared though, he's mostly just playing. I never hit him for it, you shouldn't hit a horse unless you really have to."
I turned to her. Her face was stiff and she kept wrapping the reins around her wrists. "I know."
I heard Mason honking for me. I knew he hadn't been able to make a deal. I leaned my head against Negrito's neck for a second. Horses really smell good.
"He missed you," the girl said suddenly. I looked at her and she seemed to be sorry she let me have that much, "at first."
I gave Negrito a final pat and turned away.
"I know," I said.
"He just wouldn't sell. I offered him more than they gave for him, but he didn't even listen. Said his kid was happy with the horse and he wasn't going to upset her. Seems like her pony died last year and he thought she never would get over it. I did what I could."
"Yeah," I said, hardly able to talk for the ache in my throat "You did what you could all right."
Mason got a defensive look on his face. "Well, it's a good home."
"He had a good home."
Mason didn't say anything, stepping on the speed a little when we passed a hitchhiker.
"Mace," I said evenly, trying to keep my voice from shaking, "I am going to hate you the rest of my life for this. I mean it."
Mason looked straight down the highway. "Who cares?" he said. But I'd seen a
muscle in his jaw jump, and I knew I'd hurt him. It felt good.
It was the first time I realized hurting somebody could feel really good.
Somehow, losing Negrito that second time was harder than the first time. It was just knowing he really was gone for good, somebody else was feeding him and brushing him and he was watching for somebody else in the mornings and after school that made me feel like I had a constant toothache or something. Even when I was thinking about something else, I could feel it in the back of my mind. The only thing that could really take my mind off Negrito was Jamie.
We were kind of going together. I couldn't figure out exactly how it had happened, except that we started meeting between classes and had lunch together and I quit riding home on Johnny's cycle so me and Jamie could go to the drugstore and get a Coke before we rode the bus home. Everybody in the school knew we were going together. I used to wonder how guys ever got the nerve to ask a girl for a date, but since Jamie had been my friend before she was my girl friend, it was really easy to say at lunch one day, "You think Cole'd let you go out with me?"
She shook her head. Her hair curved around her face like dark feathers.
For a second there I hated Cole Collins. Then I didn't hate him, because he was Jamie's father and I'd have to learn to get along with him.
"It's not just you," she said. "Cole thinks I'm too young to date anybody. No car dates until I'm sixteen. And Mona agrees with him. All she ever does is agree with him. If I ever get married, I'm never going to agree with my husband."
I raised my eyebrows. "Not ever?"
She looked at me with the eyes of a wicked colt. "Oh, maybe sometimes ... Anyway, I bet Cole wouldn't mind me going to watch Bob play basketball. If you were watching Mason, we could sit together."
"Cole doesn't go to the games?" I asked. Pop never missed one.
"Cole went through all that stuff with Charlie, only it was football. And when Blackie refused to go out for anything, sports got to be a family hassle. Cole and Blackie really had some go-rounds ... you know what? Cole would like to have Mason for a kid, I bet. And Mason would like a father like Cole."
"Huh," I said, because I figured it was politer than saying, "Mace hates Cole's guts."