By nine o’clock the next morning, the coolness of the evening before was a long forgotten memory as the heat and humidity skyrocketed. I was walking my fourth horse of the day, and my clothes and hair were soaked with sweat.
I was halfway down the shedrow with horse number four, when Gordi stuck his head out of a stall. “Hold up, Steve.”
I stopped and called out the required ho back as Gordi cut in front of us. He casually ran his hand across the filly’s chest. She gnashed her teeth.
Gordi had good reflexes. He jerked his arm out of range and grinned. “She loves it when I touch her there. Just like a woman, huh, Steve?” He turned and saw that Abby had caught his comment.
She put her hands on her hips and glared at him. “Boys.”
I cleared my throat to keep from laughing and received a glare equal to, if not greater than, Gordi’s. As Abby turned away, he raised his eyebrows and mouthed “boys?” and I almost choked.
Abby brushed against me as she stepped over a pile of dirty leg wraps and said over her shoulder, “Gordi, you wouldn’t know what to do with a real woman.”
Gordi hooted and slapped his leg, and the chestnut filly flattened her ears. He cleared his throat. “Put her up, Steve. You don’t need to hold her, though, ’cause I gotta scrounge up some clean leg wraps.”
I led the filly into her freshly bedded stall, hooked up the stall guard, slipped the chain shank off her halter, and gave her a departing pat on the neck. She didn’t like that, either.
As I ducked beneath the stall guard, Marcus, one of Kessler’s hotwalkers, stepped in front of the doorway, and I nearly lost my balance trying to straighten up. He spread his legs and folded his meaty arms above his fat beer belly. His undershirt was dingy and gray, and the fabric was stretched so tightly, it was almost transparent.
“Christ, Marcus, move outta the way.” He had a habit of being in the way. It went along with his habit of being slow, unhelpful, and generally scornful of everyone around him.
“What’ja do to keep your job, Blondie, suck up to the boss?”
My shoulders tensed. “Screw you, Marcus.”
I tried to sidestep him, but he moved with me. I stopped and waited. Waited for him to move, to get tired of it. I wasn’t going to put my hands on him, not if I could help it, especially since that was what he wanted most.
He didn’t move, and I couldn’t. I waited. Behind him, Sting led a bay down the aisle, oblivious to the stand-off.
A bead of sweat trickle down Marcus’s bloated face, laying an irregular track through the stubble on his cheeks. His eyes appeared recessed, dwarfed by his massive face, and their yellow color confirmed the rumors that he drank himself into a stupor most nights.
“Missin’ your second day a work like that, your ass’d be fried if you was a nigger.”
I gritted my teeth, looked at his face and the anger within, and held my tongue.
“Ain’t that right, Blondie?”
I knocked against his shoulder as I squeezed around him and felt his gaze on my back. Outside, I leaned against the wall. The coolness within the concrete block seeped through my shirt as I worked to slow my breathing.
I didn’t know much about Kessler, but I was sure Marcus was at least half right. The barn couldn’t function with employees showing up when they felt like it. Under different circumstances, I would have fully expected to have been fired, no matter my skin color.