Waldo worries his uncle will find fault with him on the first day of work.
Lucian bounded over the hill with his pair of overly enthusiastic yoked calves. One day, he would sell them and set aside the money for his own savings. Waldo envied him a moment until Lucian smiled and waved. “Waldo’s come, Father!” he called.
Waldo helped Lucian calm the calves and stood petting them as Charles strolled down with his hands clasped behind his back.
“And what have ye t’ say for yerself, nephew?”
Waldo always liked how Charles took their familial relationship seriously.
“I’m come t’ work.”
Charles smiled beneath his thick mustache. He grabbed Waldo by the shoulder and patted his back roughly. “And ye’ve come right early. I admire that in a man.”
The day brought easy work for Waldo, and he wondered if his uncle had offered him charity by hiring him on. Cleaning up garlic and onions for winter storage as the sun warmed his hands was a pleasing thing to him, but not if it was charity.
He listened to his uncle’s grunts as he chopped wood for hours nearby. At noon his aunt rang the bell for dinner, but Waldo kept at work. There were bruised apples in the barn for cider making, and he considered taking one, but thought of the humiliation it might bring if he was accused of stealing again. In his morning haste and worry, Waldo had not wanted to bring a dinner pail, for it would seem presumptuous of him to assume that his uncle might want him for more than a few hours. He listened to his cousins squabble as they entered the house only yards away as the door slammed behind them. Their terrier yipped and was let in as well.
Charles appeared before him now. “Waldo, ye hear yer aunt’s bell? Will ye keep us waitin’?”
“No, I wasn’t certain how long…”
“Do you want dinner?”
He shrugged. “Whatever you think.”
“Come along,” Charles grumbled.
Waldo sat beside Amy. “Why is your face so red?” she asked with a giggle.
Uncle Charles flipped through the paper as they all ate in silence. Waldo ate the turnips and chard as bravely as he could bear, not accustomed to his aunt’s abundant use of buttermilk dressing, as quickly as he could manage so as not to appear uneager for more work. He forgot to use his napkin and used his sleeve when it occurred to him that the dressing might have escaped notice on his mouth.
“Have ye finished this mornin’s garlic, nephew?” Uncle Charles asked.
“Have ye time t’ sweep the barn floor and the walls of webs?”
“And then move the bushels of apples to the cider press.”
Waldo stood to leave. “Thank you for dinner, Aunt Lavinia.”
Everyone looked surprised by his abrupt departure, but having stood, he could not sit again without feeling foolish. He quickly completed peeling back the dirty skins of the storage onions and set the baskets by the door as he swept dried skins and the wisps of white garlic peels into a pile in the middle of the floor, not knowing how he was to dispose of them. The barn cat sprawled in the mess, scattering his neat pile.
His uncle kept such a tidy barn that it took him little less than ten minutes to brush the dust and spider webs from the windowsills and corners of the place. He moved the apples beside the press and went to bring the baskets of onions back inside as a few clouds looked to be bringing a possible sprinkle of weather.
His cousins were taking turns riding their father’s new horse in the empty cow field, and Waldo stopped to admire them. Lucian was already a confident rider, though very careless about style. Unlike the old mare Pa used in his rocky fields, this horse was for pleasure and status. It was a Morgan. Waldo cared nothing about status. The word would have excited no real meaning in his young mind. He appreciated the animal’s beauty, though he would never say such a thing to his cousins. His father said compliments were always suspect.
Lucian rode up. “Waldo, Father surely didn’t mean to work you for the whole day.”
“Did he say that?”
“He said nothing ‘cept that you work harder than me.” Lucian laughed.
“’Tis true,” Waldo said with a smile.
“Me and Albertus be going fishing later. Won’t you come?”
Waldo shrugged, glancing back at the barn.
Lucian knew Waldo could never be coaxed to do anything. He nudged the horse forward with his well-made boots. “Meet us at the pond after milking if you want to. We aim to go to the beechnut orchard and the Chening Barn to look for ghosts too.”
Waldo turned back to tidying, not knowing what to do next. He wondered how he might ask his uncle what he expected of him and for how long he was to work, worrying he might be late for milking his own cows, though at this time of year milking was a quick job and Albertus could do it if he wasn’t so spoiled. He didn’t like to upset the cows’ schedule and in fact had never done so except the one week two years ago when he had been sick with the ague.
The weather changed and grew suddenly colder.
Finally, his uncle rode up with a wagon full of cured wood from a pile at the edge of his property. Waldo’s heart sank. All that wood to be stacked would take hours. His head hurt from all the thinking he had done about impressing his uncle.
Charles jumped down to survey his nephew’s progress, playing with the pipe in his mouth. He glanced at Waldo once or twice before turning to him. “The pond folk say ye be a hard worker. They was only half right. Yer quick as well. How ye got this much done today—I be impressed. Now I can bring these good onions to Marathon. Ye’ve saved me a lot of trouble.”
“Will ye come again tomorrow?”
“If you’d like me to,” Waldo said.
Charles nodded. “It’s nearly supper, and yer mother will worry.”
“No, she won’t. I can stack wood till dark if you like.”
Charles shook his head with a laugh. “Before ye go, please bring the broom back to the big barn.”
Waldo could not conceal his pleasure. He loved being inside his uncle’s big barn with the well-shined tools and tack neatly hung and put in place. As he opened the big barn door, the smell of clean straw and leather oil charmed him like always. The lime-painted walls made the place bright. Closing the door behind him, he lingered in the beauty of contented oxen and sheep chewing their cud and the way the dim evening sun lent a honey hue to everything.
Lucian had led the fine horse into its stall behind the wall of tools a few minutes ago, but Waldo could not see it. Felling axes used to cut whole acres of forest were as sharp as the hunger of the men who aimed for freedom and adventure not so long ago—in Charles’ youth. Inherited hand-varnished coopering tools from Waldo’s grandfather, Daniel Foster, had their special spot but had gathered some dust. Waldo ran his fingers over an ax, imagining his father and uncle swinging through old-growth stands. He wondered why they were no longer friends.
The coffee-colored horse peeked around the corner now, its bright eyes full of curiosity and haughtiness. As Waldo drew closer, the horse nickered a quiet greeting. He rubbed under its chin and gazed into its eyes. They spoke to a deep yearning Waldo felt but could not quite define. He hoped an education would put words to his feelings, yet sometimes he wondered if just being with big, dumb animals told him all he would ever really need to know.
Almira had sometimes teased him about his ignorance of the finer things. She assumed that he would have the same opportunities for schooling as she had, but lately Waldo had noticed that she didn’t tease him any longer, as if understanding that things had been unfair. Dan had long been dismissive of his siblings and then too sick to worry about studies at all. Albertus knew that schooling meant something to Waldo but did not share his enthusiasm. Everyone assumed that Albertus, being the youngest, would be nothing more than a farm hand and entertainer—much like his Uncle Chauncey Potter.
The big fine horse nudged him to be petted. It occurred to Waldo that the horse had probably traveled more of the world than he ever would, but no matter. He was not jealous of this pampered animal, although it was less a beast of burden than he was. He laughed at the idea. The horse deserved elevated treatment with such beauty.
Waldo slipped open the latch to the stall, glancing only once at the barn door, and slowly came beside the horse. He ran his hand over its soft withers and scratched its neck. The horse’s body heat was a nice thing, as the barn was taking on the chill of evening now. He leaned his head against the horse’s side and was about to pour out his soul when the creature turned and nipped him good.
His uncle had just entered the barn unbeknownst to him.
Waldo scurried from the stall and closed the latch. He walked toward the door to leave, but Charles stood in his way with arms crossed, his eyes holding as many mysteries as the horse’s held. Charles said nothing for a long while as the color drained from Waldo’s face. A duck squeezed under the barn door and waddled past him, oblivious to his fear. He considered a few excuses but knew they were untrue and imagined his mother’s disappointment in him for being dismissed from work in disgrace on the very first day.
Charles abruptly walked past Waldo and entered the stall as if to make sure Waldo hadn’t hurt his prized pet. This stung Waldo more than anything else as he stood rubbing the welt the horse had given him. Charles grabbed a rope halter hanging on a high nail and made the horse bend its shiny neck toward him.
Waldo, despite his present embarrassment, admired how powerful both his uncle and horse were and how graceful too. Charles led the horse to him.
“Would ye like to ride ‘im?”
Waldo wanted to ride this horse more than anything, but several concerns and worries entered his mind at once. “Wall, I dastn’t care too much, Uncle Charles. I suppose it’s up to you.”
Charles tugged the horse’s halter and turned him back into the stall. “Wall, nephew, if ye dastn’t care, then why should I? It’s late. Go home now.”
Had he offended his uncle? He stood waiting, afraid to ask about tomorrow.
“Now git, “Charles said as he turned his attention to taking off the halter. When Waldo opened the door, Charles added, “I’ll see ye in the mornin.”
Waldo sighed in relief, but his uncle continued. “Bring a pail if ye dastn’t care fer Aunt Lavinia’s cookin’, and ye can eat in the barn if ye prefer it.”
Waldo nodded and left. His hands froze, even tucked into his coat pockets, and his neck ached as it often did on trying days. When he arrived home breathless, having run most of the way, he could not face his father.