The Quicken Tree
by Agtant

 

Chapter 1

1965

Eric had been at the barn as usual, but it was the slow time, around eleven o' clock, when the track was closed while it was being prepped for the afternoon races. All their horses had been bathed, had their legs wrapped, and had been put away. They had nothing running that afternoon. A full net of sweet smelling timothy hung over each of the stall gates.

They were in the middle of a week long,

brain-frying heatwave. The back stretch was nearly empty. Everyone had either slipped away for a cold beer and some lunch at the cafe or they were lying low around their barn trying to keep cool.

There was some activitiy in the shed row one lane over from them. A groom was showing a horse to a few people who had been wandering around the barn aisles.

He had them pegged as pinhookers and obviously ones that were unaffected by the heat. They were a common sight around the track. They were looking for big horses, over sixteen hands, that weren't paying their way. The owners would usually be glad to sell them cheaply just to get them off their feed bills and then they would be re-trained as show hunters or jumpers and resold for a nice profit.

He was sitting on a tack trunk under the eaves of the barn oiling a pair of stirrup leathers on a well worn exercise saddle. He watched absently as the three men started walking slowly toward their barn.

His father came out of the stall right behind him and stopped, looking down the aisle at the three approaching men. "Will you look at that now," he muttered under his breath, not taking his eyes off of them. "Go get Rebel tacked up."

Eric looked up at his father as if he had lost his mind. "What for?"

"Just do as I say and be quick about it," Conor snapped. "I'm going to try and unload that son of a bitch on one of these fools."

Eric dropped the oily rag that he'd been using across the seat of the saddle and got up. In that blistering heat, that had been the last thing he had wanted to hear. "Why don't you do us a favor and give him away this time," he growled, but he was already moving toward the tack room.

He took down his old forward seat saddle, a martingale, and a bridle and trudged unwillingly to the end stall. Rebel was waiting for him as would be any morning, chest pressed against the gate and ears pinned flat back against his neck.

"Get back, you bastard," he said, setting the saddle down on top of the gate. He entered the stall cautiously, slipping the reins over the stallion's neck first before putting the bridle on.

The horse was a five year old steel grey, leanly muscled but big boned, and he didn't have a blemish on him. He was also the worst lugger he had ever sat on. His arms and shoulders would ache for days afterwards whenever he had to ride him. He was a joke around the track, a source of embarrassment for his father. Out of seven starts he had only completed one race and that was well behind the last placed horse. Everyone knew he had speed, but what nobody had yet figured out was what psychological trauma racing was to him. Whether it was the announcer, the crowds or the combination of both, his claim to fame was the fact that he had jumped the inside rail in the homestretch in six out of seven races hehad been in. He was never going to run again, the racing stewards had seen to that.

Eric saddled him quickly, leaving the girth loose, and led him from his stall. His father was standing by the tack room talking with one of the men. The other two had stopped down by the end of the barn aisle.

The man his father was talking to was blond, tall and leanly built. He was wearing sunglasses and a pair of sixty dollar factory patched levis and a white polo shirt. Up close he didn't look like a pinhooker. He looked like old money.

They both stopped talking as he approached them leading Rebel. The man's eyes behind the sunglasses were on the horse. He was smiling.

"Jesus, what a brute," he said admiringly. "Have you had a stick on

him?"

His father's smile was sardonic. He was no doubt thinking of all the time and money put into that horse. Money that would have done just as well to have been flushed down the toilet. "No, but I'd guess him to be around 16.3, though he looks a bit larger."

The man nodded in agreement. "Yes, he does."

They both moved out of the horse's way as Rebel crab stepped toward them, swishing his heavy tail. Despite his racing problems, he was not a nervous horse. He was just a well-fit animal that felt too good to keep still.

The man took his sunglasses off to get a better look at the horse. His pale blue- grey eyes were vivid against his tan skin.

"This is my son Eric, Mr." His father hesitated. "I'm sorry, I've forgotten your name."

"Morgan Cleary." The man smiled, looking at him for the first time. Those intense eyes met his with a friendly directness as he offered his hand. "Nice to meet you, Eric."

Eric hesitated a moment, recognizing the name, then extended his hand, taking his. "Same here."

His hand was strong, calloused and oddly dry considering how how hot it was. But this guy looked as if he was as comfortable in the heat as he would have been in an air-conditioned room.

Morgan looked back at the horse. Eric looked at him.

He was in his late twenties, as near as he could tell. His blond hair was streaked with silver, either sun-damaged or prematurely going grey and showed a tendency to curl even though it was trimmed short. He was lean and hard fit, no extra flesh on him. He had broad shoulders, a slim waist and narrow hips. The type of body they would call clean on a race horse. His hands and wrists were large, and he had the veined, muscled forearms and taut biceps of someone who had been riding horses all his life. He had been. Morgan Cleary was one of the top three day event riders in the world.

"The track's not open right now, but Eric can trot him around the aisle for you if you'd like." His father had a hard time hiding his dislike for the rich hunter/jumper enthusiasts. He usually had no time for them at all, they reminded him too much of the people he had left Ireland to avoid. But right then he wanted to off load Rebel so badly that he was actually being civil. Conor had no idea who Cleary was and Eric doubted he would have been impressed if he had. All his father saw was a man who had money, not unlike any he had worked for all of his life. He despised him.

Eric, on the other hand was impressed. He had seen Morgan ride before. He knew he had placed 4th in the Olympic games in Tokyo last year. His dressage test had been nothing special, but he was a machine in cross country. Eric had sat in front of the TV like millions of other equestrian fans and watched what little had been shown of the horse events in between swimming and gymnastics. Morgan had been the highest placed American in eventing. He had narrowly missed getting a bronze medal. If his father wasn't aware that they were way out classed here, he definitely was. They were cheap claimers. Morgan was a grade one stakes horse.

One of the other men had moved up the barn aisle closer to them. He was around the same age as Morgan and dark haired. He was trim but he didn't look like a horseman. His skin was too pale, like he spent most of his time indoors, probably behind a desk. "Morgan," he called to him. "We've got to go."

Morgan tore his eyes away from the horse a moment to glance toward him. "Okay, I'll be just a minute." He looked back at Conor. "I'm sorry you went through all the trouble of tacking him up for me. I just came down here to have a look at him because the groom at the other barn said so much about him."

"Well, looking's cheap, Mr. Cleary," his father said, his blue eyes flattening with anger. "You just look away all you want. I have work to do." Conor stalked off in the general direction of the cafe, no doubt going to grab a beer.

Morgan watched him walk away and then looked back at Rebel and then finally at him. "I made some real points there, didn't I?"

Eric shrugged, turning away to start unsaddling the horse. Some of the skepticism he had inherited from his father showing on his own face.

"What I was going to say, was that I would like to come back tomorrow and see him gallop in the morning."

Eric placed the saddle down on the tack trunk beside the one he had been oiling earlier. He straightened, looking at him. "I can have him on the track by seven thirty, unless that's a problem for you."

Morgan smiled at him. Eric had no way of knowing it at the time, but Morgan would have been up and on his second horse of the day by that time.

"No, " the man said amusedly. "That'll be no problem at all."

 

To Chapter 2

 

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