Father loved the horses.
Weekends when I was little, he would take me to the stable to watch him before he drove the coach. He always ran the afternoon change at three.
I’d watch him curry the horses before putting on the harness and bridle. Then the stagecoach would come, the horses would change, Father would take up the reigns and drive on into the night. Oftentimes he returned late even into Sunday morning.
I was content though. Going to the stable was my reward for good behavior during the week. After father left in the afternoon, I stayed and watched the morning coachman, Rhines, groom and stable his horses after their drive.
He became accustomed to my silent studious eyes and after a while we became friends. He told me about his wife and daughters. The oldest had died while very young yet the way he spoke of her sounded like she lived in the town next over.
“She had the most beautiful smile,” he said. “You would have loved her.” I nodded somberly as the glow of her face in the locket etched itself in my memory. Perhaps that was why he took me under his wing. I fed his horses carrots.
Autumn came and with it change. I was old enough to enter primary school that year. Chalk and vocabulary words became mine. I told Rhines the new things I was learning and he encouraged me.
“E-X-C-E-L-L-E-N-T. Excellent.” I said.
“That’s right, Amelia. Nothing like reading and writing to expand the mind. Learn to organize your thoughts now and it will set you well ahead, little lady.”
I smiled and beamed my nine year old face towards my gingham pinafore.
But there was another change that autumn. Holt & Co. bought Old Mr. Garfetti’s farm south of the station. They brought the railroad.
At first, it was good. In the spring, men from town worked to build and the locals were glad of the extra income. Even Mr. McCreedy from church helped the chief engineer with the local topography. My father shook his head.
“More folks that ride the train, the less they need coachmen.” While too young to understand economics, the excitement of industrial revolution sparked the air. The train would bring good things to Huntsville, I was sure.
Summer came and the rails were complete. Wealthier citizens hired father and others to take them to the grand opening of the Holt & Co. Huntsville Railway Station, the 17th stop on the Northwest Atlantic line.
Rhines told me later that he heard great cheers when they cut the ribbon. The sun must have burned hot as the town band played, sweat rolling down their backs as everyone tried to ignore the awkward sound of Mr. Harper’s trombone.
Summer turned again to autumn. I struggled to grasp the finer points of long division as black smokestacks streamed past the schoolhouse window. Saturdays came and I offered to help father prepare the horses for the Saturday drive. He never let me.
“A man must do his own work, Amelia.”
I was too enthralled by the horses though to let that stop me.
“See if he’ll let you work the stables,” Rhines shrugged. “You’ll be safe enough raking the empty stalls, a wee little thing like you.”
Father agreed with Rhines and I was an overjoyed child sifting the road apples from the straw for the wheelbarrow. But it would not last long for this was a different autumn.
It all started one afternoon when Rhines traded the coach with Father. His normally cheerful face was smothered with a gloom darker than the coal-dusted pines.
He almost didn’t speak to me that day except to empty my wheelbarrow.
“I’m coming with you,” I said. He sighed and continued walking. He shoveled manure when I finally asked him what was wrong.
“Jacinta ran away,” he said. His youngest. I bit my lip. I stood and watched him empty the wheelbarrow until there was no more he could heave. “I’m not perfect, far from it. But I promise you … ” his eyes welled up as he studied the thriving weeds, his voice dropped to a whisper.
“I did everything I could to love her.”
We walked back to the stable. As hard as I thought, I couldn’t find more than two words to say.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. Rhines nodded.
The trees tinged orange. Even with the heaviness, my friend made an effort to show me the finer points of grooming. He finished what I couldn’t reach.
Then came the Saturday I would not forget. Father traded at three o’clock, as usual, this time taking the new route north of town then transversing back down to Scottsdale. The railway’s domination of the east-west route created more demand for coaches traveling north-south. It was a good economic decision.
That afternoon I curried and waved at father as he drove past, stagecoach full of customers. He did not see me. I would remember that moment long after.
The black smokestack of the train chortled south of us. The whistle started early - before reaching the station. Not knowing what to think of these small events, I turned back to the chestnut mare before me. Her sides were warm and sweaty. Her coat pulsated with the steady breath of a dedicated worker. I rubbed her thoroughly until she gleamed burnt satin, stretching my arm as high as I could reach.
I’d just begun raking the stables when I heard a commotion outside.
“Accident at the rails!”
Men were running from the station carrying bulky poles and things. Rhines found me as I stepped out, his face twisted near to anger.
“I’m about to find out,” he said darkly.
“Did I do something?” I asked.
His countenance jolted to the present. “What? No, not at all.” I stood motionless as Rhines’ large hands gathered and hastened.
“Whatever happens, stay here Amelia. I will come and find you when I know for sure.” He put his hands on my shoulders and our eyes met. “I’ll try to be back soon.”
Then he turned to run with the others.
I stood gripping the rake as the men's feet pounded the hard earth. My hands returned to my chore. Thoughts entered my mind as I removed manure from hay. Then I realized it.
Adrenaline pulsed within my small frame. Oxygen was not enough. I heaved air until my fingers tingled and my eyes went dizzy.
My hands clenched the rake and flipped dung faster than anyone else who had ever cleaned those stables. A splinter would be mine for the trouble. One by one, I finished the stalls.
I had just started the last one as Rhines came in quietly behind me. Jolted from my work, I turned to see red smeared on his clothes and hands, his face full of sorrow. The boiling engine driving my heart went cold.
Getting down on one knee, he reached his hand out to me.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
Holding him tightly, I breathed in horse hair, soot, and manure. Tears mixed with the red dried on his canvas. Finally, I could stand it no more.
Pushing away, I picked up the rake one more of many times to come and my little bony hands flung sod. Tears still ran hot down my cheeks.