Setting out from his cabin after breakfast, Tony saw Miss Maggie McKelvey at a distance, standing on the porch of her brick house waiting for him. Everybody called her Miss Maggie even though she was a widow. The two-story house had two chimneys on each end and was on piers which made it look all the more imposing. Miss Maggie was about the same age as his mother but shorter and heavy-set. Her skin was more wrinkled, too, with liver spots that showed through her dark tanned skin, like all her Irish kin. She had hands the size of a man’s. The story around the place was that in the early days she used to switch places with her husband as he, then she, pulled a plow, just like a horse would. That was before they got enough money to buy horses and blacks.
Tony liked Miss Maggie because she pretty much always saw both sides of everything, even some things from the black side. She always seemed to be doing something important and not just bossing around other people and overseers. She had to be ahead of any trouble on the place ever since her husband James died and left hundreds of acres and dozens of enslaved blacks in her hands. It was Tony’s job to help her with everything but his enslaved friends.
As he approached, Miss Maggie wiped her hands with three or four quick slaps and brushed off her apron with a few more. For a second, flour dust almost blocked his view.
“You ain’t late, Tony. I just need you to get an early start this morning, every morning for a while, I guess. We need to have things all tidy and prompt more than usual ‘cause there’s so much stirring around these days.”
“Lot’s going on, Miss Maggie. I can’t figure it all out.”
She looked off into the distance, pursed her lips and puffed away dust still hanging in the air. “Well, let’s get that tackle all cleaned up.”
“Done it already.”
“Harnesses and saddle oiled good, but not too slippery.”
“Done that two days ago.”
Miss Maggie smiled broadly at her favorite black man on the place. “Well, I reckon you can tell what I’m thinking before I’m thinking. We’re kind of all in this together, Tony. I mean in what’s coming up from Charleston, and down from the midlands, too. News is spreading like there’s a run on tomorrow. A bunch of British landed in Charleston. We got to take care, you hear?”
“Yes, ma’am, I heard about all that.”
He went straight to the barn where Maggie McKelvey kept a horse that Tony loved. The barn had only six stalls, a loft, and a work place in the front, doors at either end. It was bigger than most barns, about fifteen hundred square feet, and nearer to the brick house than the cabins. Like the cabins, it was made of cypress, unpainted because it didn’t need to be, and built to last a hundred years. Two wagons sat under an extended roof on one side, kind of like a garret. Tony opened the barn door facing the house and promptly tripped on the baseboard running along the ground. A few steps farther on, still just thinking, he bumped his head on a stalactite flat iron used to build rice dikes that was hanging from the ceiling, along with farming implements in need of repair. Eagle put his head over the door of his stall.
“Well, Eagle, you were just waiting on that, weren’t you, ole boy? Starts your day better than the rising sun, don’t it?” Tony acted like he was giving Eagle time to answer.
When he needed to make minor repairs on harnesses or wagons and the like, Tony had enough tools hanging from the beams and on the walls or scattered in dusty corners ready for occasional use. He never used the saddles, only the reins hanging on the wall. From above the stalls, he could easily pitch hay down into the troughs for the horses.
“Throw it down where the goats can get it, ‘cept we ain’t got no goats. Just making everything plain and simple for you, Eagle. Wow! I love to see those little specks of hay dancing in the morning light.” Eagle moved around, bumping his big rear end against his stall.
“Hold on there now, big boy. I want to have a look at that hoof. Easy, easy.” He reached up to slide the halter over the solid brown horse’s head and ears and gently pushed on one of his flanks.
“You wouldn’t be so easy to move around if I hadn’t been right here when you were born, Eagle. You know from all that poking my fingers in your mouth and nose and ears when you were born that it don’t hurt none. I was the first smell you had, too, other than your momma. That’s an old trick for you big horses, Eagle, poking you and letting you smell us right away. Lets you know you’re in good hands that’ll take care of you the rest of your life. And if I couldn’t have been there when you dropped, I’d have asked ‘em to let you drop in a bundle of my old clothes so you could get my scent right away.” Tony went through the same verbal litany each morning with Eagle to let them both know that another day was dawning. Sometimes he tripped on the baseboard of the barn door on purpose.
“Now let’s have a look at that hoof.” He squinted closely at a mark that presented no lasting concern and let the hoof drop with a loud “womp.”
“You’re going to be fine, Eagle boy. Just fine. Maybe in a few days I’ll jump on and we’ll fly away again, just like Belle-With-A-Rope-On did one time in Greece, way back when. I know all about it. The Sinklers told me.” He gave Eagle a good healthy slap on the rump. “ I’ll be back after a few more chores and have another look at you, then if we have time, we’ll ride out toward Belvidere.”
Tony had two more looks at Eagle’s hoof before riding out. In the early afternoon as they passed swamps and marshes, he occasionally pulled up on the reins. “Now, Eagle, ain’t that the prettiest sight you ever saw? Look at that big cypress trunk. Whoa! Watch out for those knobs sticking up. You know that better than I do. Just look at all that, the way it was when Indians were here. Nice and peaceful and full of snakes.” He laughed out loud and jiggled the reins and made a clucking noise to get Eagle started again.
“Let’s don’t go all the way to the Sinkler place, Eagle. Ain’t good for your hoof. I just want to spend as much time outdoors today as possible. Don’t know what it is. Just feel funny. Don’t you? Sure wish Ruth was here.”
Tony gave his horse a friendly slap on the neck with his cupped hand to make a loud sound. “You got big ears like a marsh tacky, Eagle.
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