The Quicken Tree


Chapter 10

Eric drove home with his elbow resting out of the open window of the truck, the cooling afternoon air blowing in on his face. He had a raging sunburn despite his tan and a nice, warm tiredness in his bones. It had been a good day for him. He hoped this feeling of euphoria would last.

He picked up his brothers from the neighbors and then walked across the hall with them to their own apartment. He changed from breeches and a t-shirt, to Levi's and an old sweatshirt, and then loaded his brothers into the truck for the drive to the track. He had to help his father put his barn to bed for the night.

He pulled in through the barn gate and drove around to the front where the stable office and small cafe stood. During the slow time, around mid-morning, the cafe would be packed with trainers and exercise boys, but right then it was quiet. The afternoon racing was still going on. It was probably about time for the fifth race in an eight race card.

He let Tim and Jackson out of the truck in front of the cafe. He took a five out of his wallet and handed it to Tim. "Get you and your brother something to eat with this," he told him. "Don't let me come back here and find you've spent it on pinball."

Tim looked at the bill appraisingly and then back at him. "Couldn't we have a little more?"

"More?" Eric asked him. "What did you do with the money I gave you yesterday?"

"We spent it," Jackson said, standing outside beside his brother, his dark head barely visible above the seat of the truck. Tim nudged him with his elbow to silence him.

Eric held back an amused smile. "All right, I'm getting the both of you jobs in the afternoon walking hots and mucking stalls." He took another dollar out of his wallet, hanging on to it when Tim reached for it. "Food in both of you," he told him. "I'm not cooking dinner tonight."

Tim rolled his eyes at him. "Okay."

Eric let him have the money. "Be right outside at seven and don't go anywhere else," he warned them.

Tim smiled at him, folding the money up and stuffing it importantly into the pocket of his jeans. "We won't."

Eric leaned over and roughed the top of Jackson's curly head. "Mind your brother."

Tim shut the truck door and Eric watched the two of them until they went into the cafe and he could see them climb up onto the stools at the counter through the large pane glass window out front. And then slowly he drove the truck away down the narrow dirt aisle to his father's barn.

Eric parked at the end of the shed row and got out, walking down to his father's stable.

Conor had sixteen horses in training right then. It was the most he had ever had. He had been doing well since the beginning of summer. The move to Gulfstream had been a little surprise to Eric because of that, but then he fully believed most of the horses would be going with them.

Eric started going through the routine of his afternoon chores. Beginning at the end stall, he went inside each one, checking the horse over, making sure it was cool and comfortable. Thoroughbreds, like any athlete pushed to the edge all the time, were fragile creatures. They could run up a temperature in a matter of hours, or a leg could fill up from the stress of an injury or just a hard work out.

He checked leg wraps, slipping his fingers between them and the horse's leg, looking for problems. Then he took a pitchfork and picked up any fresh manure from the stall that the horse had done since the stalls were cleaned that morning. He tossed it out in the aisle to be picked up when he was finished with all the horses.

Conor had nothing running that day. All sixteen horses were in their stalls.

He was on his second stall when Conor walked up, looking in over the gate at him.

"So, you decided to grace us with your presence."

Eric looked cautiously at him over the back of the horse he'd been checking. He didn't like the sound of his voice. Conor didn't usually drink at the barn, but he might have had a beer too many during the mid-morning break. The buzz might have started wearing off a little, making his mood turn ugly. "I told you I'd be gone most of the day," he said, going back to running his hand over the horse's croup.

"Pardon me," Conor said sarcastically. "That you did." He hung around the stall gate watching him.

Eric felt the tiny pin pricks of unease on the back of his neck. He went through the motions of examining the horse, running his hand over its hock and then checking the leg wrap, making sure it wasn't too tight and there was no heat underneath it. Conor hadn't moved away from the gate.

Eric straightened slowly, looking at him again over the horse. He made his expression flat, unreadable. "What do you want?"

Conor's sharp blue eyes were on his face, looking for a way under the mask. "Since when do I have to have a reason to chat with my son? I was just going to ask you how the lesson went today."

"I'm touched, Dad," Eric said, with sarcasm of his own, meeting his father's eyes. "I really am. Now why don't you get off my back and let me do my work." He changed sides on the horse and started going through his routine again, this time with his back to his father.

Conor stood there a while longer, watching him. He could feel his eyes burrowing into his back. Finally he said. "The roan we got in last week came back this morning with a bit of filling in his left foreleg. You might want to put a sweat on it."

"All right, I'll take care of it," Eric said, never looking up from his examination of the horse.

Eric checked all of the horses, saving the roan gelding for last. He did his usual routine exam on him and picked the stall. Finished with that, he pulled the wrap off of the horse's left foreleg. There was some swelling, but it didn't look like a bow. He went over the surface area of the leg, looking for a cut of any kind. A thoroughbred's leg could blow up over just a pinprick of a cut. He didn't find anything like that. He picked up the discarded wrap and went out of the stall.

Conor was close by, filling out a training chart on a clipboard outside of one of the stalls. "How is it?" he asked, not looking up.

"Not bad," Eric told him. "I'm going to put a sweat on it just to be safe."

Conor nodded. "Good. I need him in top shape if we're taking him to Gulfstream."

Eric walked down to the end of the shed row to his father's office. It was in a group of four separate twelve by fourteen rooms, two up, two down. There was a set of them at the end of each barn aisle. Sometimes the grooms would live out of these rooms during a meet, using the communal bathrooms and showers. Most of the trainers used them for offices or tackrooms.

Eric went inside and opened up the trunk where his father kept all of his medications. He took out a bottle of a furason-DMSO concoction he used for making a sweat, along with a pair of latex gloves and a toothbrush. Then he picked up a tube of syran wrap and a roll of sheet cotton and headed back outside.

Eric put everything in a bucket along with a clean leg wrap and went back to the stall. Conor was still working on his training charts. Eric took the horse's halter off a hook by the side of the stall gate. "Are you hiring a van to ship the horses?"

Conor looked over at him. "No, we're going to go piggy back with a few other trainers heading down there. I've already checked around for empty trailer space. It'll save us some money."

"You got rides for all sixteen?" Eric looked at him in surprise. "What's going on? Is there some kind of exodus to Florida this year?"

"No," Conor said casually. "I got space for just nine. That's all we'll be taking."

He was dumbfounded. "Nine? What about the other seven?"

Conor shrugged. "The owners decided they wanted to keep their horses up here where they could keep an eye on them. Good bloody riddance to them."

"Why go at all then?" Eric asked him. "Couldn't you just stay up here and keep all of your horses? Wouldn't that make more sense?"

"I told you why," Conor told him sharply. "I'm not going through another cold winter and besides that," he said, glancing over at him. "I was thinking that maybe we'd just stay down south for awhile. Do the southern tracks for a change."

He stared at him in disbelief. What Conor was suggesting bordered on the insane. The southern state tracks were widely spread out, and just that, from state to state. Some of them were not much better than the bush tracks found at the local fairgrounds. When they had first come from Ireland, and Tim and Jackson were babies, they had followed the southern meet, even traveling as far as Tijuana, Mexico. It had been a hard couple of years until Conor had gotten enough experience in American flat racing, before they had headed up north to New York, where they had been more or less settled for the past four years.

Going back on that grueling southern circuit would make it nearly impossible for him to find any clinics, but the effect of it would be devastating on his two brothers. And it made no sense. "You can't be serious," Eric said.

Conor gave him a cool look. "Did I ask your opinion?"

"Those southern tracks are spread out all over hell and back," he argued with him. "You can't just yank Tim and Jackson out of school like that, every couple of weeks. It's one thing to take them down to Gulfstream for a few months over the winter and come back here where they're used to it. At least up here, when the meet closes, they move on with the other trainers' kids, to schools they already know. It's still a tinker's life, but it's got some security."

"You did it and you survived all right," Conor pointed out. "It made you tough."

"Yeah, I'm tough all right. I grew up in a fucking barn with no friends at all, Conor," Eric told him angrily. "And I barely got through high school. That's how I survived. Try to do a little better by your other two sons."

"You spoil the hell out of them. It's time they learned they live in a working family. And by the way, while I'm thinking of it," Conor said coolly. "I didn't get rides for the pony horses, so I sold mine. I'll buy another when I get down there. And I have a good offer for yours as well."

Eric stared at him, unable to take it in at first. He'd been so focused on Tim and Jackson, that he felt like someone had come up behind him and knocked the wind out of him. Now it all made perfect sense. "You did what?"

"I sold my pony horse," his father said again. "And I have a fifteen hundred dollar offer for yours. You'd better take it before they change their mind."

Eric believed Conor was capable of a lot of things, but he hadn't really wanted to believe that this move to Florida was a scheme to keep him away from the clinics. He had wanted to believe that Conor was better than that. But this...this was way beyond that. It was so far over the line, that he couldn't even respond to it yet. Finally, he found his voice. "If you think I'm selling my horse, you're out of your goddamn mind."

Conor's eyes narrowed at him. "Don't be a fool. That's good money for him. And you can always buy another when you get where we're going."

"I'm not selling him," he said flatly, unable to process the rage he was feeling. Resentment had been too soft a word for what he was feeling right then. Christ, how could he have been so stupid. Morgan had only met his father twice and he had him pegged for the bastard he was in two minutes.

This was not about his horse and they both knew it. Conor couldn't make him sell his horse. And it wasn't about the move either. It was about the clinics and it was about his brothers. And it was about how low his father would sink to get his way. Conor knew he wouldn't be able to stand seeing Tim and Jackson being drug from place to place, from school to school, the way he had been. Conor knew the weakest spot he had and he went for it. And he'd been so stupid. He hadn't even seen it coming.

Eric jerked the stall gate open and went inside with the gelding. He put a halter on him and tied him to the ring embedded in the concrete wall.

He could hear Conor outside hanging up the clipboard. And then he was in the stall with him.

"I want to know what the hell's been going on at these clinics you've been going to," Conor demanded. That was it. The cat was out now. "Every time you come home from one, you have your head so far up your ass nobody can talk to you. That's going to stop right here and now."

"You've got what you want. Just leave it alone," Eric warned him, his voice low. He set the bucket down at the front of the horse and knelt down to start working on its leg. He slipped the latex gloves on, and took the bottle of the DMSO mixture out of the bucket.

"Look," his father said, the sharpness gone from his voice, obviously believing the truth of what he'd said. "You have to watch these people, Eric. I know them like the back of my hand. They'll fill your head about how good you are, and how you'll be that much better if you'll just spend a little bit more of your hard earned money. And then they'll snatch it away just like that."

Eric looked up at his father angrily. "And what do you think I am, Conor? Do you think I'm any good?"

Conor stood by the stall gate, his gnarled hands on his hips. "You know what I think," he said. "If you listened to me at all, you'd have your license already and you'd be riding steeplechasers and making good money."

They hadn't talked about that in a long time. Eric had thought that idea was dead and buried, somewhere along the lines of his father's drunken musings about going back to Ireland. Eric stared down at the bottle he was holding in his hand. That hadn't been the answer he was looking for. "That's you, not me," he said softly. "That's what you've always wanted. I've never wanted that."

"Then what do you want to do? You want to ride show horses?" Conor demanded. "Go ring around the rosie with a bunch of pampered sons of bitches that don't even know which end of the horse bites." He looked down at him, his blue eyes hard. "That's a rich man's sport, Eric. You don't belong there. "

"I don't know what the hell it is I want," he said exasperatedly. "But I just have this one thing I do for myself. And I wish you could leave it the fuck alone. And goddamn you for using those kids against me."

Conor stood staring at him for a few minutes. "All right," he said finally. "You don't want to let this go. Then you find a ride for your horse to Gulfstream. And when you get him there, you find a place to keep him, because I'm not having him in my goddamn barn."

"Fine," Eric said flatly, not looking up. "I'll do that."

"You're goddamn right," Conor muttered. "And you miss a minute of work playing with him and I'll cut your wages. I thought I raised you to have more goddamn sense than this. I don't know what the hell is the matter with you."

"What the fuck is the matter with me?" Eric exploded, glaring up at his father. "You bastard. This thing I'm doing with Max. I'm good at it. That's what the fucking matter is, and you know it." He met his father's angry eyes. "And because of that you have to piss on it like an old dog. Because you're afraid I might just get out from under you long enough to see that there's something else out there. Something better than a pint to look forward to at the end of the day."

"You think I'm afraid of that, do you?" Conor asked him, raising his voice for the first time. "Well, let me show you the goddamn door."

"Don't bother," Eric said, his voice low again, lethal. "I know where it is."

They glared at each other, Eric kneeling on the ground beside the horse, his father by the stall gate. They'd had battles before, major ones. As much as Eric tried to keep to himself, there was a limit to how much he could take from Conor before he blew up. But nothing had ever been as bad as this. And even though all Eric wanted to do right then was walk out of there, he couldn't do it. And Conor knew that, because he had him tightly by the balls.

"Look, you want to play hard ball, all right, I'll play back. We both know you have me anyway." He looked up at his father, trying to read him. "I'll make you a deal. You stay here. You don't pull those kids away from their friends and school, and after tomorrow, I'll give it up for awhile. I'll keep my horse, but I'll stop going to the clinics."

"You really think this is something we're bargaining over?" Conor asked.

"Yeah, I do," he said coldly. "You want me to stop going to the clinics, then I'll stop. I'll do whatever it is you want me to do. But you have to leave those two kids alone. That's the deal."

Conor smiled, but that could be more dangerous than his bite. And Eric could already feel his sharp teeth at his belly. "Well now, let me think that over for a little while."

At seven o'clock, he drove the truck over to the cafe to pick up his brothers. He was alone. Conor had caught a ride earlier with one of his cronies. They would probably head over to a neighborhood bar and knock back a couple before going home. Conor was normally home by nine and in bed by nine thirty to get six hours sleep before the alarm went off at three thirty.

The cafe was busier now. Racing was over for the day. A lot of barns had just finished up the same way he had just gotten through with his father's. It was still light out; they were still getting the long days. But it was that time before twilight when it was really starting to cool off and the shadows were growing longer in increments visible to the naked eye.

The lights were already on in the cafe and he could hear country western from the jukebox spilling out into the small dirt parking area. His brothers were nowhere in sight. Not surprised, he parked the truck and got out to go inside and get them.

The inside of the cafe was filled with cigarette smoke and the music was loud. Jackson grabbed him as soon as he walked through the door, obviously acting as a lookout.

"Tim's won three bucks," Jackson told him proudly.

Eric already located his other brother. Tim was in the corner of the cafe in front of one of the two pinball machines. He was standing up on a milk crate, his dark eyes following the ball he was playing with catlike ferocity. There was a group of men behind him, watching, and another man, standing alone by the side of the pinball machine, that Tim was obviously playing against, and beating soundly.

Eric smiled sadly at the total bewilderment on the man's face and the prideful shine in Jackson's eyes as he watched his older brother. Everything about his brothers was poignant right then. Eric was frightened for them. He wasn't going to be able to keep them in that protective cocoon very much longer.

Right then, Eric threaded his way through the tables of the half-full dining area and picked up his protesting brother and draped him over his shoulder.

"Eric," Tim yelled. "I was winning."


Eric looked at the four dollars and change on top of the pinball machine and then up at the man Tim had been playing. He didn't recognize him, but he looked like an exercise rider. "Is this his?"

The man nodded, smiling at Tim struggling against his brother.

Eric picked it up and put it in his pocket. He looked back at the man. "Don't play him any more. You'll lose your shirt."


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