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Fuse pushed the barn door open and was surprised to see a girl sleeping in the hay. She lay on her side, framed in a square of morning sunlight. He blinked, not believing his eyes.
After a moment, he walked over and nudged her foot with the toe of his boot. "Hey, wake up."
The girl curled into a ball, shivering from the cold.
Patched, baggy overalls and a thin jacket covered her small frame. Her shoes were the shiny patent leather kind, but worn out, with no laces, like throwaways from the trash dump, and she had no socks.
"Ransom," Fuse said to the miniature horse. "Why are you sleeping with her?"
The little horse rolled away from the girl and scrambled to his feet. He went to Fuse and nickered as he bumped his head against the boy's hip, sniffing his hand.
"No." Fuse shifted the metal bucket to his right hand and scratched the horse between the ears. "I don't have a candy cane for you this morning." He turned back to the girl and noticed a small battered suitcase with a leather belt cinched around the middle to keep it closed.
"Where did she come from, Ransom?" He tilted his bucket so the horse could get at the oats inside.
Ransom was four years old and fully-grown, but his height came only to Fuse's waist, which is normal for the miniature breed.
"You have to leave," Fuse said, raising his voice to wake the girl. I wonder if she's a Gypsy. With that dark tan complexion and tangled black hair, she could be. "This is a barn, not a hotel."
The girl jerked awake, sitting up in the hay. She glanced around, apparently trying to remember where she was. Her eyes fell on the suitcase. She grabbed it, clutching it to her chest.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
She shook her head, glaring up at him. Her eyes were a dark brown, and seemed to smolder with defiance.
Her breath made quick little clouds of mist as she exhaled in the freezing December air, the way Ransom did after galloping away from a pack of dogs.
Fuse waited, but she didn't answer his question. "Well, you have to go. We don't need beggars sleeping in our barn." His words made bigger clouds than hers. He pointed toward the door.
She glanced at the door and then stood, holding her suitcase by the strap.
Fuse watched the girl comb bits of hay from her hair with her fingers. She raised her chin, holding his gaze.
Her hair was long and straight, reaching below her waist. He admired her determination and wished she would talk to him. She was shorter than he and maybe a year younger--thirteen or so, but she wasn't backing down, not a bit.
"All right, don't talk," Fuse said. "But I don't have time for a staring contest. Come on, Handsome Ransom." He turned away from the girl. "Let's see how Stormy's doing."
Ransom ran ahead of Fuse, toward the back of the huge barn. Pigeons cooed in the rafters and fluttered around, then settled on their lofty perches, cocking their heads to watch the little horse below.
Fuse paused beside the Model T Ford and checked to see if any of the tires were flat. The car was only four years old and in excellent condition, but it hadn't been on the road since his father's accident. Fuse drove it around the farm twice a week to keep the engine from seizing up, but never on the highway.
He noticed one flat tire, but it would have to wait until the afternoon, when he returned from school.
The little horse galloped back to Fuse, prancing around him, kicking up the dirt.
"Go on, I'm right behind you." One of the cows mooed when he walked by. The strong smell of the animals' manure reminded him he had to muck out their pen before he left for school.
Ransom ran to a closed half-door leading into one of the stalls and jiggered the latch with his nose. The bolt slid out of the catch and the door swung open.
"Hey, when did you learn to do that?"
Another miniature horse, a palomino female, stood beside a pile of hay, breathing hard.
"How you doing, Stormy?" Fuse knelt and stroked her huge belly. "I bet you'll have your baby today, you know that?" He glanced over his shoulder, toward the stall door behind him. "If that girl had any brains," he whispered, "she would have slept in here, where it's warm." He stood, went to the small kerosene stove mounted on the wall and unscrewed the cap on the fuel tank. "Half full. Enough to keep you warm all day." The mare nuzzled his hand and he brushed the thick blonde forelock from her eyes.
"I see you ate all your oats." He emptied his bucket into the wooden trough and stepped away so she could get at it. "I'll clean this place out, and then I have to go help Papa before I leave for school. Ransom, I don't know how you learned to open that latch, but you had better leave Stormy alone today. I think you're going to be a daddy pretty soon, but she won't need you in here bothering her."
Ransom busied himself eating from the trough beside Stormy.
Fuse took the water bucket to dump it behind the barn. He filled it with fresh water and then raked out her stall. After he spread a fresh layer of straw on the dirt floor, everything smelled much better.
"Come on, Ransom." Fuse stroked Stormy's back and patted her hindquarters. He latched the door and Ransom galloped ahead, toward the wide front door of the barn.
The horse stopped at the pile of hay and sniffed around.
Fuse glanced at the body-shaped depression in the hay. "Well, she couldn't stay here, right? We have twenty-five hungry creatures to feed as it is."
He took a stack of burlap bags from a shelf as he listened to the sounds of the barn: the hens clucking to each other while pecking in the dirt, the pigs oinking and tussling over the corn, and the bull chewing and snorting. He heard a rustle in the hay and then a muffled squeak when one of the barn cats killed a mouse.
Ransom lifted his big brown eyes to Fuse, tilting his head.
"Besides that," Fuse said, "she probably eats like a horse."
Ransom snorted and turned for the door, perking his ears toward the outside.
Fuse laid the burlap bags on the pile of hay, and then followed the horse outside. "But she was kind of skinny, wasn't she?"
The first rays of bright morning sunshine sparkled off the frosted grass. The girl's tracks in the frost led from the barn and toward the house. But halfway to the back porch, the tracks made a left turn.
"Now why'd she do that?" Fuse followed the tracks to the point where she turned left. He knelt down to study the imprints in the frost. They led to the board fence of Ransom's paddock, where she apparently climbed the fence, and then walked across the field toward a line of trees, a half-mile to the west. "I figured she'd go down to the road and try to hitch a ride. Why did she go to the woods instead of heading for town?" He reached down to touch one of the tracks. "She's got a hole in the sole of her left shoe too." He shook his head and stood to follow Ransom to the gate leading into the paddock.
The horse nuzzled the latch, but couldn't open it.
Fuse worked the frozen latch free, opened the gate for Ransom, and then followed him in. "You stay in here and don't cause any trouble. I'm going to fix Papa's breakfast, and then I'm leaving for school."
Ransom galloped to the water trough and sniffed at the ice.
"I'll be home by 4:30." Fuse walked over to the trough. "Maybe by then we'll have a new little foal. I wonder if he'll be a palomino like Stormy, or buckskin like you."
The layer of ice cracked and broke apart under the edge of Fuse's fist. He tossed the ice chunks out of Ransom's way and then glanced toward the woods on the far side of the field.
The tops of the trees bent in unison like a line of weary soldiers with the north wind at their backs.
Fuse watched the dark forest for a moment, and then turned for the house. "See you later, Handsome Ransom."