(Note: I loved this segment. It got into Joe’s head and showed everything we needed to know about him, like how he relates to people, how he cares about Lynn, even what happens when he gets angry. I got to use some of my favorite Texasisms, too. But it had to go. It told us nothing new about the plot and it didn’t even tell us anything new about Joe. PS. People always want to know who Joe is based on. I think it’s pretty obvious, but then again, it’s funny what people see — or don’t see — in the people around them.)
Joe scraped paint from the windowframe of the main barn tack room, pausing every now and then to wipe sweat from his eyes. The early morning sun felt good on his shoulders. He whistled under his breath to the radio propped up in the open window, not really thinking about either scraping or the music. He was thinking about the best time to head out to Daw Road.
He had plenty to do, that was for sure. Not even the disappearance of her stable manager or worse, a young client, could make Mrs. Hunt cancel her annual gala and horse show weekend, and Joe was busier than usual. Still, he knew his reluctance had little to do with his workload. Daw Road was the only lead he had. If it turned out to be a bust, he was all tapped out, and he didn’t have high hopes.
“Joe! Oh, Joe!”
Joe winced. He turned around carefully, and put on his most neutral expression. Carolyn came over eagerly. She was a tall, thin blond woman, in her early thirties, pleasant looking but–he always felt that she looked a little like a possum, with her sharp nose and underbite. Even worse, she alternately flirted with him and bossed him around. He helped out the clients when they needed it, but with some of them, especially the more spoiled ones, he did so silently and with none of his good-natured temper.
“Joe, can you help me with Allegra? She just isn’t cooperating.” Carolyn made a little helpless gesture with her hands.
In her stall, Allegra pawed at the wood shavings, nervously digging up a mound of dirt and sawdust. She snorted when she saw them. As he unbolted her stall door, she arched her tail sideways and let urine stream forth. Carolyn giggled nervously.
“I guess she’s in heat. Just like a woman, huh?”
Tight-lipped, he made no comment. As he went in to catch her, the mare took herself sullenly into the corner of the box. While Carolyn chattered from the safety of the aisle, he waited for Allegra to come around.
She came at him in a flash with her teeth and forefeet. Joe caught her halter and she bucked in the confined space, slamming Joe into the side of the stall. Carolyn squealed. The mare tossed her head angrily, then stood still, her ears back and her eyes resentful. Joe was could feel his shirt stick to his back, damp with sweat. He was breathing hard and shaking a little.
He grabbed the lead rope Carolyn thrust at him and snapped it onto the halter ring under Allegra’s chin. He offered the lead rope to Carolyn. Carolyn fluttered.
“Oh, I’m not sure–I mean, do you think you could—” Again the weak wave of her hand. If I don’t, she’ll get killed, he thought. He took the lead rope back and led Allegra outside to the ring, the horse curveting skittishly. Carolyn walked briskly along beside him, chattering about her mare.
“I was thinking about having her bred, you know? Maybe she would settle down. But then Dungiven–well, it would have been perfect, her bloodlines and all. So it was too bad. Do you know if anyone has heard from Lynn?”
He shook his head. “I think you should keep her in the indoor ring for awhile,” Joe said, his voice clipped. “Maybe that will calm her down.” And it would keep Carolyn out of sight, and more importantly, he would be out of her sight. At his suggestion, anger flitted across her face.
“Perhaps I will,” she snapped, snatching the lead rope from him. She clucked to Allegra and Joe watched them go with relief, then headed back to the main tack room. His shirt had a tear in it from his battle with the mare, and he felt at the long scrape underneath it, wincing. With a rare fit of disgusted temper, Joe peeled off the sweaty shirt, balled it up, and threw it at the stepladder. He had just got started on scraping again when another feminine voice interrupted him.
“Excuse me, Joe,” said Mrs. Hunt. He turned and wiped his sweaty face again, looking down at her from the stepladder. Her lips tightened with irritation at his bare torso but she said nothing. He was supposed to keep his shirt on.
“Mornin’, ma’am,” he said cautiously. Her dark brown hair was loose for once and framed her face. Her jeans and tee shirt looked expensive, like a fancy ad. He wondered how old she was, and tried to think at what age his mother had ever looked so timeless. Then again, Isabel Rodriguez Felz had a careworn life and her face reflected it.
“I just got a call today from Bratton’s,” Mrs. Hunt said. “They are shipping three horses to us for the show. I need to have their loose boxes made up by noon.”
She didn’t exactly ask but she didn’t order, either. Normally, Joe didn’t do stalls. This would have been Lynn’s job. She would have been briefed early that morning on the day’s chores and the farm would run smoothly under her capable hands.
Mrs. Hunt was at a loss without Lynn.
“No problem. Which ones were you thinking of?”
An almost invisible sigh of relief smoothed her features.
“The first three on the right in the main barn. They’ve already been scraped, I believe.”
He nodded again, and lay the scraper on the top step of the ladder.
“Joe,” Mrs. Hunt said again, still watching him as began to back down the ladder. He stopped and looked at her a moment, waiting. “Please put a shirt on,” she said finally and walked away. He didn’t think it was what she had intended to say. He headed for the barn, snatching up his sweaty shirt as he went and pulled it over his head, wondering what she started to tell him. Something about Lynn? They were an unlikely pair, those two. They could never be friends, that was out of the question, and yet–
Joe had spread the shavings and was rinsing out buckets outside the barn when he heard his name again.
“Excuse me, Joe Felz?” With an impatient motion he threw down the last bucket and turned around.
“What!” he snapped. Then he felt his face go hot. “Oh. I sure am sorry for my manners, ma’am.”
Waiting for him near the barn entrance, almost swallowed by the deep shadows pouring from the cavernous building, Mrs. Mossland looked at him seriously. She was a tall woman dressed in crisp suit, like she had come straight from work, but her face was haggard and her hair in tousled disarray. She seemed to have aged ten years in the days since Kate disappeared.
“I’ve come to ask you a few questions about Kate, and what she said when she left,” Mrs. Mossland said quietly. “I didn’t really pay much attention when you told us on Sunday.”
He nodded and came toward her, wiping his hands on his jeans.
“She didn’t say much,” he said apologetically. “She said she was going to backtrack the route Lynn had to take to get from the show grounds to here.”
“What did you say to her?”
“I told her I didn’t think she ought to go. Kate said that if she saw anything, she would come straight back. She promised.”
Mrs. Mossland nodded, twisting her fingers around the strap of her purse.
“Do you remember anything else? Anything at all? I know you’ve spoken to the police about it, but maybe there’s something you didn’t tell them, something that if you told me, we might be able to figure out what happened.”
She was hoping for some miracle, some clue he could give her that would unravel the whole mystery. There was nothing he could tell her, even though the thought of Mark Ballard was still hanging heavy on his mind. That thread only tied in his imagination so far. He shook his head.
“I sure don’t. Just that she had a little saddlebag with her, like the hunt club folks bring their supper in, so I reckon she meant to make a day of it.” His voice trailed off. He was just making it worse. “Ma’am, I sure am sorry I let her go like that. I think about it all the time.”
She nodded, holding back tears.
“The police say the good news is we haven’t found her – her yet.” Mrs. Mossland turned to look with great interest at the indoor ring, swallowing over and over. “Thank you. I’m sorry to have bothered you.” She turned to go and Joe got up and followed her to her car, opening the door for her. She slid in gracefully. Before he shut the door, he bent low and said,
“They haven’t found Lynn either. If Kate’s with Lynn, she’s in good hands.”
Kate’s mother smiled wanly and started the engine of her expensive car. The engine purred and she didn’t even have to raise her voice over it.
“The Lynn we knew, perhaps. But the Lynn who stole that horse?”
She pulled the car door from his hands and slammed it shut. Joe stepped back as she shifted into reverse and backed out, kicking up dust and pebbles on the white grave drive. He watched the twin plumes of dust for a long time until they mingled into a general haze, then walked back to the barn, feeling empty.