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Riding freedom, p.1
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       Riding Freedom, p.1

           Pam Muñoz Ryan
 
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Riding Freedom


  TO WOMEN OF SUBSTANCE

  Sally Dean, Virginia Dowling, Mary Freeman, Shelley Gill, C. Pamela Green, and Kathleen Johnson.

  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Dedication

  Acknowledgments

  In the Beginning

  1

  2

  3

  4

  5

  In the Middle

  6

  7

  8

  9

  10

  In the End

  From the Author

  Copyright

  BOUQUETS TO

  Kendra Marcus, who from the moment I mentioned Charlotte, said, “Write it.”

  LAURELS TO

  Tracy Mack at Scholastic, who knew there was a bigger story to tell, and helped me find it.

  GARLANDS TO

  The Santa Cruz Historical Society for their documented research and direction.

  IN THE MID-EIGHTEEN HUNDREDS, when the East was young and the West was yet to be settled, a baby was born, named Charlotte. When she was nothing more than a bundle, she surprised her parents and puzzled the doctor by surviving several fevers. Folks said that any other baby would have died, but Charlotte was already strong. She walked before most babies crawled. She talked before most babies babbled, and she never cried. Unless someone took something away from her.

  A few months after Charlotte’s second birthday, on a blustery evening, she rode with her parents toward their small farm in the New Hampshire countryside. Their horse-drawn wagon was rickety and swayed back and forth with each gust of wind. Thunder made the horses skittish, and they reared and struggled in their harnesses. Charlotte sat up straight in her mother’s lap, watching the trees waving in the wind and listening to the horses’ loud whinnies. Her father tried to settle the team, and her mother held Charlotte snugly and sang a song to comfort her. But Charlotte wasn’t afraid.

  A crack of lightning lit up the countryside and the horses lurched forward, reeling down the road out of control.

  “Hold on!” yelled her father.

  “Stop!” screamed her mother. “Keep them straight! Keep them straight!”

  Charlotte’s mother clutched her closer and tried to hold on as the frantic horses dragged the wagon over the bumpy road.

  Her father hollered, “Whoa! Whoa!” but the horses had already lunged down a steep hill crowded with trees and boulders. Tree limbs smacked the horses, frightening them even more. The wagon followed, plunging over the side and smashing into tree trunks before it overturned on a rocky ledge. Charlotte was thrown free of the splintered wagon and landed in a bed of tall grass. Her father and mother were killed instantly.

  Unharmed, Charlotte waved to the snuffling horses who were now free of the wagon. Like nursemaids, they hovered around her. At times, they whinnied as if calling for help. Rain drenched the countryside and Charlotte shivered through the night, but the horses stood close by, protecting her from the rain and nuzzling her with their warm breath.

  The horses were still keeping watch over Charlotte when neighbors found her the next morning. She was holding so tight to one of the horses’ reins that they didn’t dare pry it out of her hand.

  The old doctor, who had known Charlotte since she was born, wasn’t at all surprised that she survived the crash. Instead of taking the horse’s rein out of Charlotte’s hand, he cut the leather well above her grip.

  “She might as well have something to hold on to,” he said. “She hasn’t got much else. There’s no other family to speak of.”

  The doctor looked up at the people who had found her.

  “We got enough mouths to feed,” said the man. And he and his wife turned away.

  “I hate to think you’ll grow up in an orphanage,” the doctor said as he carried Charlotte. “But if anybody can make it alone in this world, it’s you. Since the day you were born, you’ve been determined as a mule and tough as a rawhide bone.”

  AFTER TEN YEARS AT THE ORPHANAGE, Charlotte wasn’t like most girls her age. And who knew if it was growing up like a follow-along puppy in a pack of ruffian boys, or if it was just her own spit and fire. But she never had a doll or a tea party. She couldn’t sew a stitch and she didn’t know a petticoat from a pea pod. Wild hairs sprang out of her brown braids, and her ribbons dangled to her waist, untied. Her frock was too big and hung like a sack on her small frame. Smudges of dirt always covered her, and instead of girl-like lace, for as long as anyone could remember, she wore a strip of leather rein tied around her wrist.

  Charlotte’s greatest misfortune was that Mrs. Boyle, the cook, had been put in charge of her. With the shape and personality of a very large toad, and without a mothering bone in her body, Mrs. Boyle certainly wasn’t going to teach Charlotte how to be lady-like. She couldn’t be bothered with Charlotte, except to order her around the kitchen. And although Charlotte knew how to boil oats and make mush for an army, and could peel mountains of potatoes and scrub pots and pans, Mrs. Boyle still yelled at her for the littlest things. For being too noisy or too quiet, or for gazing out the window at some horse in the pasture that needed to be ridden. Being in the kitchen was a thorn in Charlotte’s side, and she hated it worse than falling in a real briar patch.

  Every day Charlotte did her chores in the kitchen as fast as she could. Then she hung up her apron and headed for the only place that made her happy: the stables. Today, Charlotte hurried there with one thing on her mind: winning the pasture race.

  As soon as Charlotte approached, the horses started moving toward their gates and hanging their heads over to be petted. The smell of the sweet, dank hay and the horses comforted her like an old quilt on a cold day. The elderly stable master was raking the stalls.

  “Hi, Vern. Is Freedom ready for the race?”

  “Miss Charlotte, that horse is always ready to run, and as much as she takes a shine to you, I ’spect you could talk her to the moon and back.”

  Vern was tall and thin, with leathery skin the color of coffee with no milk. He tended the stables with a quiet, gentle nature. He didn’t talk much to anyone else, but he loved to tell Charlotte stories, most of them true, that left her in a spell with her mouth wide open.

  Vern had named all the horses himself. He always said that naming something was important. That a name ought to stand for something. And that a horse should have a fine name fit for a fine animal. So the horses all had names like Justice and Hope and Charity, and Vern had a story that went with every one of those names. Hope for wanting a better life when he was a young slave on a plantation in Virginia. Charity because of the kindness of the people who had helped him through his struggles. But the story that Charlotte begged for most was the one about Freedom.

  Freedom was Charlotte’s favorite horse. She had watched her birthing a few years earlier and had babied her ever since. It was on Freedom that Vern taught Charlotte how to ride. She often pestered Vern for the story about Freedom’s name. The story of how Vern ran away and hid in a root cellar with nothing but an old shirt to keep him warm. Ran all the way north so he could be free. And named a horse Freedom for something he won.

  “You gonna beat William in the race today?” asked Vern.

  “I aim to. He deserves to be taken down a peg.”

  William was thirteen, and he bullied the younger boys. He threw rocks at the cats and kittens, he whipped the horses, and he couldn’t stand that Charlotte was better than he was at climbing trees and riding horses.

  “I ’spect you will,” said Vern. “Freedom trusts you. William’s ridin’ Justice, and Justice just as soon throw him off. That boy is full of no respect for horses. You know what I always say?”

  Charlotte knew it in her heart. “A horse rides the way it’s rid
den,” said Charlotte.

  Vern nodded his head, and Charlotte led Freedom from the stall.

  * * *

  The pasture fence was already lined with boys sitting on the top rail, waiting for the races to start. Mr. Millshark, the overseer, walked up and down in front of the starting line waiting for the riders. He was the shortest, fattest, most mean-spirited man that Charlotte had ever known. His beard and hair were almost the same color as his dimpled white skin, and he reminded Charlotte of a plump new potato.

  Mr. Millshark was in his glory during pasture races. Instead of his usual scowling self, he paraded around with a smile stuck on his face, clapping people on the back, and shaking hands all around. This was his opportunity to show off and to let people think that the orphanage was a decent place with happy children. But Charlotte and the others knew the truth. The orphanage was nothing more than a work farm, and no matter how young, every child worked hard. Mr. Millshark saw to that.

  Charlotte walked toward the pasture, leading Freedom on a halter. The horse nudged her as if to hurry her along.

  The boys from town laughed when they saw Charlotte. She ignored them and headed toward the starting line until William and a group of boys blocked her way.

  “No girls allowed,” said William.

  Charlotte tightened her fists and planted her feet. She pursed her lips and glared at William with her piercing blue eyes.

  “Get out of my way, William,” she said.

  Some of the boys stepped back. They had seen that look before.

  With disgust he said, “Suit yourself, but you’ll be sorry.”

  The riders mounted and readied the horses. Mr. Millshark raised the flag.

  “Go!” he yelled.

  The riders hollered at their horses and pressed them to start running.

  Charlotte let Freedom start out slow, saving her for a spurt near the finish. William was close behind. Soon the two rode neck-in-neck. But in the second lap, Charlotte let William take the lead. Charlotte knew her horses. Justice was a dobbin, gentle at heart, and didn’t take kindly to being ridden hard. William was pressing him, and the poor horse would tire out soon. As they approached the final turn, Charlotte gave Freedom full rein. In a blinding gallop, with her long braids waving behind her like two thick ropes, she passed William and crossed the finish line two lengths ahead.

  The townspeople clapped, and Charlotte heard the boys from the orphanage give a wild cheer. She knew why. Most of them had bet money on her to win.

  Charlotte slowed Freedom and walked her around the pasture. The horse was breathing heavy and wheezing. She lathered more than usual and felt warm. Too warm.

  Vern should take a look at her, thought Charlotte.

  As she got near the fence, a man and woman waved at her.

  “Hey there!” called the man.

  “Hello,” said Charlotte.

  “You’re a good rider,” said the woman.

  “Thank you, ma’am,” said Charlotte.

  “So you like horses?”

  “Yes, sir, a might more than people.”

  The man and woman laughed.

  Worried about Freedom, Charlotte said, “I have to go now,” and she headed toward the barn.

  Charlotte patted Freedom’s neck. “You okay, girl?”

  William caught up to Charlotte.

  “You come to congratulate me, William?”

  “I hope you like winning ’cause that’s the last race you’ll ever run.”

  “And how you gonna stop me, William?”

  “I got my ways, and like I said before, you’ll be sorry.”

  “I ain’t got time for you, William, I got a sick horse needs tendin’,” and Charlotte rode ahead.

  But what William said needled her, and when she glanced back, she didn’t like what she saw. William was talking to Mr. Millshark. And Mr. Millshark was patting him on the back and listening with a concerned look on his face.

  * * *

  Vern was worried about Freedom.

  “The last few days she’s been actin’ kinda funny and hasn’t been eatin’ like usual, but it didn’t seem to be nothin’ serious. She don’t look good now though. Let’s put her to bed,” he said.

  As they rubbed her down, Freedom tried to nip at her own stomach.

  “Maybe it’s just a touch of colic,” Vern reassured Charlotte.

  But by the time they got her into the stall, Freedom fell to her knees and then lay down.

  “I’m going for some water for the fever,” said Vern.

  He wouldn’t say so, but Charlotte knew it was serious. She knelt next to the horse, stroking her head. Freedom lay motionless, except for her labored breathing. Charlotte swallowed hard to keep back the tears.

  “Charlotte! Where are you, Charlotte?”

  “Over here, Hay.”

  Hayward was two years younger, and from the day he’d arrived at the orphanage, he’d latched on to Charlotte. He was persistent and friendly and talked so much that Charlotte often thought he might choke on his words. With hair the color of turnips and ears as big as saucers, he was about the homeliest thing she had ever seen. Although Charlotte sometimes pretended to be annoyed when he pestered her, she didn’t really mind. Besides, he needed her.

  One afternoon three years ago, soon after Hayward arrived at the orphanage, Charlotte had walked behind the barn to find him taking on William and two other older boys.

  “Where did you get those ears! Was your mother an elephant?” yelled William.

  “Can you hear outta those things, or are they just for decoration?”

  “What does your girlfriend, Charlotte, think about them ears?”

  Hayward was bloody and bruised but still fighting with a never-give-up-look in his eyes when Charlotte dove in. The three boys were left in worse shape than Hayward. And Hayward and Charlotte had been left with each other.

  They had been best friends ever since.

  * * *

  Hayward climbed over the gate into the stall.

  “Freedom’s real sick,” Charlotte said.

  Hayward nodded his head. “I’m sorry, Charlotte.” And then for once he was quiet.

  They lay back in the hay with their arms tucked behind their heads and stared at the light that slivered through the rafters.

  “Someday, Hay, we’re going to leave this place. You and me and Freedom. I’m going to have a fine ranch and a home. I’ll have foals every spring and you can come work for me and train ’em to be fine riding horses.”

  “Yeah,” said Hayward. “And we’ll hire a cook. A real good one. And we’ll put a sign out front that says PRIVATE PROPERTY so no one as mean as William can ever set foot. Tell again how we’re going to get the ranch, Charlotte.”

  “Well, we’ll be here until we’re sixteen. First, I’ll leave and get a job and save some money. Then, I’ll come back for you and we’ll go looking for the ranch.”

  “Let’s get a ranch far away from here.”

  “Don’t worry, Hay, it won’t be anywhere around here.”

  Charlotte was silent. She stared at the rafters and listened to the pawing and snorting of the horses in the other stalls. She rolled to her side and stroked Freedom’s neck.

  “Charlotte, do you remember your parents?”

  Hayward liked to tell about his parents. They had died when he was seven so he still remembered them.

  Sometimes Charlotte closed her eyes and tried to bring back a memory. Any memory. She could almost see a face. But since she’d never seen any portraits of her parents, she only imagined what they looked like. All she really remembered was being held tightly in someone’s lap, and images of horses.

  “No, Hay, I don’t remember. Tell me about yours again.”

  But before he could answer, they heard the old porch bell ring one clang. There was a pause. Then it rang two clangs. Another pause. Then three clangs.

  Charlotte and Hayward sat up and stared at each other.

  That was the signal for all the boys t
o line up by the front steps. It meant that one of the families that visited the orphanage today wanted a closer look at one of the boys.

  It meant someone would be adopted.

  CHARLOTTE WATCHED FROM THE stable as Mr. Millshark walked up and down in front of the line of boys, beaming. The prospective parents followed him. Now and then they stopped to say a few words to one of the boys, but usually just to the younger ones.

  Charlotte had stopped lining up a long time ago. She was never considered for adoption anyway. People wanted boys to help with their farms, or a son to carry on the family name, or they wanted someone young and cute.

  Once, when Charlotte had been as-cute-as-they-come, a couple came through the kitchen with Mr. Millshark. The wife saw Charlotte standing on a stool, washing dishes.

  “Oh! I had been hoping for a girl, but they said there were only boys here,” said the woman. She smiled at Charlotte with warm, come-home-with-me eyes.

  With as much politeness as Charlotte could muster, she said, “Yes, ma’am, it’s boys, ’cept me,” and she smiled back at the woman.

  The woman walked over to her and took her soapy little hand. For an instant, Charlotte hoped beyond hope.

  But Mrs. Boyle marched over and scooped Charlotte into her arms.

  “This here’s my niece just helpin’ out in the kitchen. She ain’t for adoptin’. C’mon, Charlotte.”

  Before Charlotte could say a word, Mrs. Boyle carried her out the back door and took her to the garden to pick beans.

  After that, Mrs. Boyle hid her in the potato bin each time people came through, for fear of losing her kitchen maid. Charlotte remembered the dark, crowded bin and lying on the lumpy potatoes. She would hear Mr. Millshark saying, “And this is the kitchen where Mrs. Boyle prepares our meals.”

  She remembered peering through the cracks in the wooden slats at the people who came through. Sometimes Charlotte wanted to push open the lid and jump out and yell, “I’m here! I would like a home! Me! Take me!” But more often than not, Mrs. Boyle sat on top of the bin so Charlotte couldn’t budge, and Charlotte knew better than to make a peep until the people had gone.

 
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