Kepa was partnered with a grouchy Basque that was only maybe five years his senior, but looked like he had lived in the mountains for decades. His face was leathery from the constant sun and he had a permanent tan that had been burned into his skin. Kepa laughed to himself at the contrast when his partner took off his shirt to wash it, as his upper arms and belly were as white as the snow.
Kepa’s job was to tend the camp while his partner, Santi, followed the sheep as they roamed the countryside. At first, Kepa struggled with his role as everything was so new to him. He was supposed to get up early to make coffee, but the coffee was too weak and Santi nearly spit it out as he cursed Kepa’s name. Santi vaguely described how Kepa was supposed to make bread in the Dutch oven, but the first time, he burnt the bread and the second time it was raw in the middle. At least Kepa was able to make a good stew, having watched his Ama in the baserri so many times.
“Hau ona da,” said Santi in between mouthfuls of the lamb stew.
It was the first kind words the older man had said since Kepa had joined him.
Over time, Kepa got better at making bread and coffee, and soon Santi began relaxing around his younger partner. Most of the time, however, Kepa was alone tending the camp as Santi herded the flock. He kept his eye out for any sign of the zatia, but he had to admit to himself that there was no chance it was nestled amongst the sagebrush.
One evening, after a particularly good dinner, Kepa and Santi were sitting around the campfire, sipping on a cup of coffee, when Santi asked “Where are you from?”
Kepa was momentarily startled by the question, as Santi had never asked him about his home before.
“I grew up in a baserri near Aulesti,” said Kepa. “Eta zu? And you?”
“Mundaka. A baserri up in the trees, away from the ocean.”
“I’ve been to Mundaka. It’s beautiful there. The surfing is awesome.”
Santi looked at his young ward skeptically. “Surfing?”
“Sorry,” Kepa blurted out all flustered. “I mean, the beaches are beautiful.”
“They are. Almost as beautiful as the girls,” said Santi wistfully.
“I assume there’s one waiting back at home for you?”
Santi shook his head. “No. There was, but she died. Tuberculosis.”
“Sentitzen dut. I’m so sorry.”
Santi shrugged. “There isn’t anything to do about it. I sometimes wish I could have been there with her. But, I was here, with these damn sheep.”
“Why don’t you go back now? There are other girls.”
“Not for me. For me, it’s just these sheep. I might as well stay here and forget everything about home. About her. Anyways, your cooking is getting really good. They’re going to want you in the restaurant soon.”
Santi got up to find his bedroll. “Gabon.”
“Gabon,” replied Kepa.
Kepa, unable to sleep, watched the fire as it died down, the hot coals twinkling in the dark.
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