Cory ran back to the office. She stepped in a long line behind a fellow wearing a shiny blue baseball jacket, boots, and a cowboy hat. She tapped the cowboy’s shoulder. “What’s up? Everyone come late for the hay auction?”
The cowboy turned around. He was young, probably only a few years older than she was. He had wispy blond stubble on his chin and was dipping dirty fingers into a paper carton of French fries. He licked the ketchup off a finger and looked at her.
“Not hay, horses.” He nodded toward the depths of the auction barn, in the other direction from the hay storage.
“The horses in the back you mean?” Cory asked.
“No,” he said. “Our farm don’t use horses like them. We don’t buy from the kill pen.” He turned his back on Cory as the line moved forward.
Cory stood still. She didn’t understand. The kill pen? “What’s the kill pen?” she asked under her breath, almost afraid to hear the answer.
The cowboy turned around and looked at her hard. After drawing a deep breath, he answered in a softer voice. “See those guys over there, coming in to the arena?”
Cory looked back into the bleachers area where Vee and Jack were bidding on hay.
“Yeah,” she answered tentatively.
“Well, those guys are the meat men.” His blues eyes narrowed, looking over to a group of men taking seats in a back section of the bleachers. “They come to this auction and buy the horses going for meat.”
“The horses in the kill pen usually don’t sell for any more than meat prices. These guys buy them, truck them over the border to slaughter. For people in France who eat Trigger burgers.”
Cory started sweating inside her down coat. “But some of them are young. They’re all going to be killed? They can’t be saved, any of them?”
The cowboy hitched one shoulder and took a step away.
Cory heard the hysterical edge to her words. She lowered her voice, trying to make it even and calm. “But anyone can bid on them, right? If someone else buys them, then they don’t go for meat, right?”
“Yeah, sure, I guess. They’re mostly broken-down racehorses and such. People dump them ’cuz they’re crazy or crippled or something. Otherwise, they usually don’t end up there.”
“But they could be okay. It could be that a horse is there by mistake . . .”
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