The next morning, Maite watched as Kepa left with his foreman for the sheep camp that would be his home for the next several months. She chuckled to herself as she watched Kepa on the horse, trying to stay upright. He almost fell off when he turned to wave goodbye and blow her a kiss. She could see the swollen gash almost throbbing on his cheek. She waved to him before returning to the kitchen to prepare lunch for those who still remained in the boarding house.
“You’ve really taken a shine to that one,” she heard from behind her as she peeled potatoes.
“Huh?” asked Maite as she turned. Behind her stood Elena, one of the other young women who had immigrated from the Basque Country at the behest of her uncle.
“That new herder, what’s his name?”
“Bai, Kepa. You really like him, don’t you?” Elena gave Maite a playful jab in the ribs with her elbow.
Maite blushed. “He’s… nice,” she said with a smile. Then her face darkened. “I just hope he doesn’t get into any more trouble up there.”
“He’ll be alright,” said Elena. “The herders look after each other. And most of these cowboys, they’re more talk than anything.”
“That Donny doesn’t seem to be just talk,” replied Maite.
“No, but he’s only tough when he has his friends around and he’s had a few drinks. He’s scared to death of his aita. If he brought trouble to the family…” Elena shook her head. “It’s only when he’s been drinking that he acts so foolishly.”
“I hope you are right,” said Maite. “I hate to think of Kepa up there alone with those cowboys.”
“Maybe you’ll have to go check on him then, to see how he’s doing.”
“I can do that?” asked Maite excitedly.
Elena nodded. “They do supply runs to the camps every week or so. Sometimes, we accompany them, help them pack up the supplies and deliver them to the herders. I’ve gone up there a few times.” She shook her head. “It sucks up there. All alone for months at a time, with only the dog and the other herder, and thousands of sheep. Sometimes, I think running into the cowboys might be a good thing, to keep the mind sharp.”
“I’ve heard that some of them go crazy?” asked Maite.
Elena nodded again. “They call it getting sheeped or sagebrushed. The brain needs human interaction. If all you hear is the bleating of the damn sheep for months on end… some of them can’t take it.”
“Have you seen…?” began Maite.
“Bai,” nodded Elena. “There was one, he just can’t talk to people any more. He has a small room in one of the other boarding houses. He keeps to himself, talking nonsense all day. I try to stay away from him when I see him wandering the streets. He gets agitated easily around people and it’s hard to calm him down. I’m afraid he’ll hurt himself or someone else one of these days.”
“I don’t understand,” replied Maite. “Are things so bad in our country that we need to come here and do this?”
“I don’t know how it was for you,” answered Elena, “but there just wasn’t enough for all of us back home. The baserri couldn’t support all of us. We were nine anai-arrebak — brothers and sisters. Two uncles lived with us, and amuma too. Ama and my older brothers worked hard to keep the baserri running, while aita worked in town for extra money, but it wasn’t enough for all of us. One brother left to study to be a priest. Another sister works as a housekeeper in Bilbao. But, even so, there wasn’t enough for the rest of us.” She shrugged as she grabbed a stack of plates. “Why not come out here, try to make some money and go back for a better life? A few years of hard work here is nothing.”
Elena pushed through the door to the dining hall as Maite returned to peeling her potatoes.
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