The Quicken Tree
By
Agtant

Chapter 13

Eric sat on his horse watching Morgan as he walked back across the lawn to the barn. No big deal, he'd said, as casually as if he had just seen him walking out of a convenience store instead of out cruising in a bar. No big deal.

Eric sat on his horse, still staring after him, unable to move right then, unable to do much of anything but keep going over those words in his head, feeling as if part of a heavy weight had been lifted off his chest.

And he wondered if that was the truth, if it really wasn't a big deal for Morgan, and if he really was that casual. Or realistically, as casual as a man could be, dancing in a gay bar with another man when he had a wife and son at home somewhere. He wondered just how guarded Morgan was and what he was all about. He wondered if sex with men was just something he dabbled in while for all appearances he was leading a straight life at home, or if maybe he had just realized where his true sexuality lay and now he and his wife had come to an understanding.

He'd like to think it was the latter of the two because that would at least mean Morgan was honest with himself and that fit more of the image that he had had of him up until last night. Because Morgan had struck him from the first as a man who was extremely comfortable in his own skin and he would like to continue to think of him that way, even if it was only his wife that knew the truth, and not as someone who hung his other life in the closet like an alternate suit of clothes. Because he liked the image of that loose, slightly raunchy dancer last night, and it came closer to that impression he had of him, than the image of that other man in the suit. And somewhere between the two fell this obviously well heeled, world class rider who prowled around in his element like he had it all in the palm of his hand. Eric didn't see how Morgan could be so confident everywhere else if he was living a lie at home. Eric knew all about secrets and what damage they could do.

But, it was actually the image of Morgan at the barn yesterday with the young pony clubber that Eric liked the best. And that was probably because it had nothing to do with anything except what Morgan had to have intrinsically inside of him. And that was kindness and a genuine common decency. Morgan was just a nice guy. And it was probably just that inherent niceness of his that had made Morgan say what he had to him in the first place, and not an expression of how open he was about his sexuality or not. Because he'd obviously realized how shook he'd been this morning. So shook he hadn't even been able to face him. And this being nice and polite or doing the decent thing seemed to come as natural to Morgan as breathing. And it had been those simple gestures of kindness that he seen from him, that had made Eric like him in the first place.

It was his horse that made him realize how long he'd been staring this time. Max began to fidget underneath him restlessly, swinging a hind leg up under his belly to swat at a fly, and playing with the slack in his reins. Eric took one last look at Morgan over by his stall and then reluctantly moved Max off in the direction of the trail that ran through the cross-country course.

Eric took his time cooling his horse out, his mind calmer and clearer than it had been all day. He rode him slowly over the meticulously landscaped grounds, taking them in as if for the first time, thinking it could very well be the last. But just the fact of being here at all would never cease to be a luxury to him no matter what happened.

Three months ago he had come here and had stared longingly at the sand footed arenas, thinking he would never be able to ride in one. Now at least he had done that much. And up until yesterday afternoon, it had been better than he had ever hoped for, and he was thankful for that. But it didn't make it any easier when he thought of the very real possibility of having to give it up.

It was just unfortunate for him, that even though he might not entirely belong in this world, he definitely didn't belong in his own any more. That poisoning or brainwashing or just plain seduction, that had begun the first time he had ever sat on his horse here, was now finally complete. And the idea of going back to actually live that image of what he'd always thought his life would be, before these clinics, was way too depressing to even think about right then.

What he needed to do was sit down and calmly go over his options and see if there really was a way out of this mess before he did anything he regretted. He needed to figure out if there was any way to reconcile what he wanted with what his father wanted, without all the anger and resentment he felt toward Conor getting in the way. Because what he had been doing wasn't exactly working so far. And he'd been running blind since he was eleven years old, when his mother had walked out, and he had started trying to take care of his brothers before he even knew how to take care of himself.

He knew now that that had been a big mistake. And it had been his first mistake on the long road that had lead him to where he was. He should have never let Conor off the hook for his own sons. And as much as he loved his brothers, he had allowed his father to make him a virtual prisoner because of them. And now he was to the point that he was so damn tired that he'd almost rather give in and give up this small taste of something he loved almost as much as he loved those kids, rather than to go on fighting with him. He'd do anything he had to do, even if that meant selling his horse, if it would buy him just a little peace and quiet for awhile. And so really it was his own fault he was in this maze. He'd done it to himself. And he was ultimately the only one who could get himself out.

A half hour later, Eric rode Max back to the barn and started unsaddling him, a little disappointed to see that Morgan was gone. Now that he had faced him once, he felt like he could talk to him. In fact, he would have liked nothing more than to sit here and talk to him the rest of the day. He didn't know why. Maybe it was just what he had said. Maybe it was because he had stroked his ego again by watching his whole lesson this morning even when it had started out so badly that he wouldn't have blamed him if he had left when his friend had. And maybe he was just so tired of listening to the sound of his own voice going around inside his head that he would have welcomed anything right then as long as it was a change.

But Morgan had closed up his tack trunk and turned off his radio when he left this time so there wasn't even the incessant sound of 'doo wop' in the barn aisle any more. Eric found he even missed that, though he hadn't been aware that he'd been listening to it before. The barn seemed very quiet now without it.

Eric pulled the saddle off of his horse's back along with the saddle pads. The sweat from the lesson had dried to a grey crustiness on the horse's dark coat except for that place on his back directly beneath where the saddle had been. Eric set his saddle down on the bale of straw outside of his stall, and draped the wet pads over the gate so they could dry. Then he walked Max down to the hose at the end of the aisle and rinsed him off.

After Max's bath was done, Eric drank from the hose, then cupped his hand under the tepid running water and washed the dried sweat from his own face and neck. He turned off the hose and wiped his face on his sleeve, leaving the water on his neck to drip down beneath his sweatshirt to his chest, cooling himself off. He combed his fingers back through his damp hair.

That stoned fuzziness from the night before had finally worn off leaving him just plain tired. Tired and hungry, he suddenly realized. He hadn't eaten since the sandwich he had had at the lunch break yesterday. And he felt like some angry caged animal was gnawing a hole through his stomach right then looking for a way out. Maybe he would just hang around until lunchtime at least and get something to eat. Anything he got here was bound to be better than whatever he could pick up at the track later. And didn't that about say it all? Everything he had tasted here so far had been better than the diet he was used to getting. And he'd been so completely taken with it all, that the seduction had gone off without a hitch.

Eric walked Max out onto the grass and let him graze while he dried off.

In the arena, Hoehn was working on pirouettes with a whip-thin woman on a massive, dapple gray horse. While Eric was watching the lesson, Morgan wandered over from wherever he had been before and stopped behind the auditors' seats to watch also.

Eric's attention drifted slowly from the arena to Morgan. No big deal, he'd said. He didn't know why that had knocked him out so much, but it had. Maybe it was the implication of the words, more than the words themselves. It was no big deal. So just relax. Maybe that had been the reason he had just sat on his horse and stared after Morgan as he walked away, like he was some kind of magical guru who had just given him the answer to all of his problems. Because those few simple words had felt like balm against all those haywire thoughts he'd been having since he had left the bar last night, and he hadn't wanted to let go of that feeling just yet. Whatever the reason, he felt a whole lot better now than when he had arrived there that morning.

Eric walked Max back to the barn and put him on the crossties. He cleaned his feet out to make sure he hadn't picked up any gravel on the trail and then took a hard brush and started going over his body with it. He was half way finished with one side when he saw Morgan walking across the lawn toward him. There was no doubt about this time, sunglasses or not, he was coming over to see him. And this time Eric waited for him, instead of running for the courtesy booth the way he had earlier that morning.

Morgan stopped just outside the eave, still in the sun, as if he didn't want to encroach too far into his private space and possibly crowd him into running again. "I'm going to the clubhouse. Why don't you come up as soon as you're finished here?"

He looked at him over his horse's back. "Okay."

"Good." Morgan smiled at him, but he couldn't see his eyes behind the sunglasses. "I'll see you in a few minutes."

A half-hour later Eric put his horse away and walked up to the clubhouse.

The tables were being set up on the veranda for the catered lunch. A couple of young women in white uniforms were putting linen table clothes on plain long, brown folding tables. A large decorative bowl of fresh fruit was in the center of each one.

Eric walked up the steps to the veranda, looking for Morgan and saw him sitting at a table at the opposite end of where they were setting up for lunch. But unfortunately, he wasn't alone. The man that had been at the bar with him last night was sitting next to him. He didn't know what he'd been expecting, he didn't know what Morgan wanted to talk to him about, but he hadn't figured on it including this other man.

They were talking. Morgan had his back to him sitting in one of the Shaker-style wooden chairs. The other man was in profile to his right, the back of his chair against the outer railing of the veranda. Outside in the daylight, Eric could see him a lot better than he had in the bar. He was older than he had thought at first, at the least forty, probably closer to forty-five, but he was in a lot better shape than he had been able to tell by the suit he'd been wearing last night.

He was dressed in a red polo shirt and Levi's then, and looked trim and toned, something more along the line of an aging tennis pro. And he could have been one for all Eric knew. He had that tanned leathery skin of someone who had spent most of their life outside, and even though his dark brown hair was trimmed short, it still showed the signs of being lightened by the sun.

A little disappointed that he wouldn't get this last chance to talk to Morgan alone, Eric slowly started to cross the veranda, having to wind his way through the other dining tables in order to get to them. "I don't know, Morgan, I just don't like the idea," the man was saying. "I think you could really be sticking your neck out on this one."

"Why do you say that?"

"Because one, you really don't know anything about him," the man said. He had a light New York accent. He picked a pack of cigarettes up off the table and shook one out. He picked up a lighter. "And two, he's a nice enough looking kid, but he gives off the impression of a damn street tough. He could be a hustler for all you know." He put the cigarette to his lips and lit it.

Eric hesitated half way over to them, hearing the comments and taking in the description, and felt a quick flash of visceral anger at the word hustler. Were they talking about him?

"Jesus, Martin." Morgan pushed an ashtray over to the other man's side of the table. "And so what if he was. It wouldn't be any of my business, would it?" he asked him. "And when did you get to be so judgmental anyway? It's not like you."

The man exhaled a long stream of smoke his face turned away from Morgan, and then he looked back at him. "Probably the second time I got rolled in a hotel room."

"I think that speaks more for your taste than it does for anything else."

The man laughed at that, and at that same moment he turned his head a little and saw Eric for the first time, where he had stopped a little ways from their table. He had dark eyes and from that distance they looked black. They went over him slowly, appraisingly, as he took another drag off his cigarette no doubt picking up on the anger in his expression. He tapped Morgan on the arm with the backs of his first two fingers, gesturing toward Eric with a nod of his head.

Morgan turned in his seat and saw him, and smiled warmly. "Hey," he said, getting up. "I'd just about given up on you."

"Sorry," Eric said stiffly, glancing past him at the other man, who had picked up a briefcase from the floor and was going through it looking for something, dismissing him then in as much the same way as he had that morning, when he had walked away from his lesson. "I didn't mean to keep you waiting."

"I was just kidding," Morgan said, a little taken aback by the sharpness in his voice, if not for the expression Eric knew was on his face. "I'm glad you're here."

Morgan had taken his sunglasses off. They were lying on the table in front of where he'd been sitting. And looking at him, Eric could see nothing in those clear, gray eyes but the same open friendliness he had always read in them. If there was anything else behind them than that, then Morgan was one hell of an actor. Eric felt his anger slacken a little. Maybe they hadn't been talking about him after all. Besides, this other guy didn't even know him, why should he have anything to say about him one way or the other. He had to stop being so touchy. It was going to get him in real trouble one of these days.

Morgan clapped a hand down on the other man's shoulder, causing him to look up from his briefcase. "Eric, this is Martin Lehman. A very old friend of mine," he said in introduction. His friend gave him dirty look at his use of the word old, and Morgan took his hand away, smiling a little. "Martin, Eric Whelan."

Lehman put down his briefcase and turned in his seat, holding out a wide muscular hand. "Glad to meet you, Eric," he said in that flat New York accent. Up close his eyes were dark blue, not black, and they met his with no attempt to hide the frank distrust in them.

Eric took the offered hand reluctantly, only because of Morgan standing there, feeling some of the earlier anger returning. He wasn't sure anymore if they'd been talking about him or not, but this guy definitely didn't like him for some reason, and the feeling was fairly mutual right then. "Same here."

"Can I get you something to drink, Eric?" Morgan asked him.

He looked from Lehman back to Morgan, thinking at that moment he would rather just forget about the whole thing and leave. "I don't have much time. I really need to get going."

"Okay." Morgan nodded, his eyes going over his face, trying to read him, obviously picking up on some of his uncomfortableness "I'll make it quick. But let me get you something. Water, juice.... a coke?" He said the last as if he really had to think about it, almost as if it had been an after thought.

Eric looked at him for a moment, still trying to decide whether to just leave or not, and made the choice to stay solely from the warm, friendly expression he saw in Morgan's eyes. "Coke's fine," he said brusquely. "Thanks."

Morgan laid his hand on Lehman's shoulder again. It was a familiar gesture, affectionate really. And it was obvious from Lehman's responses to Morgan's verbal jabs, that they knew each other well. And it made Eric wonder again if they might not be lovers, despite the fact that Morgan had introduced him as a friend. If that were the case, Morgan's attitude around Lehman here made him seem completely casual about his sexuality, almost lax in fact. But then again, what did Eric really know about lovers, even friends for that matter.

"You want anything while I'm at it?" Morgan asked him.

"Scotch, with a coffee chaser." Lehman didn't look up. He was writing on a notepad that he had taken out of his briefcase. "And you better make the coffee a double, I don't know how much more dressage I can take."

Morgan smiled down at him with the same type of indulgence he might have shown his son, and then left them alone, going through the screen door into the clubhouse.

Lehman never looked up and Eric moved back closer to the steps and looked back toward the arena. It was the last lesson before lunch break and even the auditors were getting restless, a lot of them having already left their seats and making their way toward the clubhouse to beat the lines. Pretty soon this place would be crawling with people and he wouldn't just have Morgan's friend to contend with, but half a dozen of his fan club as well.

Eric glanced back at Lehman. He had taken what looked to be a stack of photographs out of his briefcase and set them on the table in front of him. He would look at a picture, turn it over and look at the back and then pick up his pen and write something on the notepad, his cigarette burning down between the fingers of his left hand.

The cigarette was a filterless. This guy didn't want anything getting between him and his nicotine fix. Eric looked at it longingly, wishing he had remembered to bring his own pack up with him from the barn. He would be wanting them even more in ten minutes or so, he was sure, but he would quit before he asked Lehman for one of his.

Morgan came back out, carrying a Styrofoam cup of coffee in one hand and a can of coke and a bottle of what looked to be apple juice in his other. He set the cup down in front of Lehman. "I hope that's strong enough, it's been brewing since this morning."

Lehman stubbed his cigarette out in the ashtray and picked up the cup. "It's not strong enough unless it can dissolve the bottom off of this cup." He took a sip and grimaced. "Now that is a good cup of coffee."

Morgan moved away from the table and walked over to Eric, holding out the can of coke.

Eric took it from him. It must have been sitting in a tub of ice for awhile. The can was wet and cold, and tiny splinters of ice melted into his palm when he wrapped his hand around it.

Morgan smiled at him, his gray eyes on his face. "You want to take a walk?"

As opposed to sitting down to talk at the table with his friend, and soon, having to beat off the auditors as well, Eric almost smiled at the absurdity of the question.

"Sure."

Morgan glanced back toward the table. "I'll be back in a few minutes." Lehman just raised a hand in acknowledgement, as he continued leafing through the stack of photos in front of him. Morgan gestured to the steps with a nod of his head. "Let's go."

They walked on a path around to the back of the clubhouse and then out toward the cross-country course. Eric let Morgan lead the way, re-tracing some of the ground he had ridden Max over earlier to cool him out.

They walked in silence past the wide array of natural fences. It wasn't a very big course. It was something a competent novice rider could have gotten around without much problem, a lot of low banks and straightforward brush jumps. They walked down a slope to a water obstacle built into the shade of two old oak trees. It consisted of one solid, three-foot timber fence and a drop into the water on one side and then a jump out over a simple rail on the other.

Morgan stopped at the bottom of the slope and climbed up onto the timber fence, sitting on the rough-hewn log that served as the top rail. Eric did the same, sitting at the other end of the fence. It was dark and cool in that hollow. Fifteen feet past the jump out on the other side of the muddy water, everything was in bright sunlight again. There was a small pond not too far away where resident ducks and geese hung out. There was an occasional honking from them and the soft droning of bees around the water, but otherwise it was quiet. It was hard to believe that there was a clinic going on just a short distance away.

Morgan sat at the other end of the fence looking out toward the duck pond, sipping his apple juice. He looked relaxed; in fact, it was the most relaxed that Eric had ever seen him. For the past two days he had seen him around the clinic being pursued by his lionizing public. And although Morgan never seemed to be bothered by it, he had walked him out here to a place that they would very likely not be interrupted. Whether that was intentional and done for him, because Morgan had sensed the reason for his uncomfortableness back at the clubhouse, or not, Eric appreciated it.

Eric let his eyes roam down over him, while Morgan was looking away. He didn't see any harm in it, after all, in all probability after today, he would never see him again, except perhaps on television, if he made another Olympic team. And he enjoyed looking at him. Morgan was the most attractive man he had ever met. Maybe not handsome in the standard sense because his face was a little thin, and his fine bones probably showed too much for most tastes. But he had that kindness in his eyes and a wide, sensuous mouth, and there was a way his lips drew back over his teeth when he smiled, that made him want to look at him all day. He was easily the closest thing that Eric had ever seen to his idea of an erotic fantasy.

Morgan looked thinner than when he had first met him, but that was only due to his higher fitness level now. And he couldn't have worn anything that would have shown off the lean hardness of his body any more than the thin polo shirt and breeches he had on, unless he had opted for total nudity. These in effect were Morgan's work clothes, but Eric couldn't help thinking that if he had walked into the same bar that he was in last night, dressed just like he was here, down to the red, farm-boy suspenders, he would have had men all over him.

Eric wondered how many hours a day Morgan rode to stay in that kind of shape, eight, maybe ten, maybe even more. Eric rode six himself, and worked hard, and even though he was fit, he was nowhere near in that kind of shape. Of course he was young yet, and Morgan had just entered the age of a man's physical prime. He'd be there for another eight to twelve years, and just beginning to slow down when Eric would be entering his.

And Eric had to think that at Morgan's fitness level, the inactivity of that weekend of just riding one horse, must have been killing him. No wonder he had gone out last night. It was more of a wonder that he hadn't burned a hole right through the dance floor.

Morgan put the cap back on his apple juice and turned on the fence a little so that he was more or less facing him. "What kind of plans do you have, Eric?"

The question surprised him, probably because of all the thoughts that had been running around in his head all day, or more than likely because he had been so caught up in looking at him. It would have been such an ordinary question two to three months ago. Maybe Morgan was psychic as well as being a guru. Maybe he knew exactly how screwed up he was right then. "Plans as in what? Life in general or the next ten minutes?"

Morgan smiled at him. "As in your riding," he said, as if there could have been no doubt that it was about anything else. And, more than likely, in his world, there would have been no doubt. His life had probably been mapped out for him since he was born with that silver spoon in his mouth. All except for the fact that he was gay. Eric didn't think that part was planned.

"How serious are you?" Morgan asked him.

"It's the only thing I've ever wanted to do," he said honestly, but that hardly seemed enough to express how he really felt about his riding. "But after yesterday afternoon, I guess it really doesn't matter any more."

Morgan looked at him quizzically. "What happened yesterday afternoon?"

Eric took a sip of his coke, looking out straight ahead at the duck pond, wishing he had a cigarette. He wasn't about to air his family's problems to Morgan no matter how right he had been about his father. He didn't even know why he said what he did, except that there was something about his like for this man that made him loosen his tongue. "Just problems at home," he said vaguely. "In fact this morning, I was wondering if it wouldn't be a good idea for me to sell my horse."

"You're kidding me." Morgan sounded stunned.

Eric glanced back at him, surprised at the obvious look of concern on his face, and then thought about what Morgan had told him yesterday about not selling his horse. It was just another example of him saying aloud what was going on in his head without thinking of how it might sound, and he didn't want Morgan to think that he didn't appreciate his advice. And it wasn't as though he really thought he could sell Max. That would be too final. "I was just thinking it might make things a little easier at home, that's all," he explained.

Morgan looked at him, eyes narrowed, as if he was having problems taking in what he was saying to him. "Eric, is it for financial reasons...are you having money problems at home?" he spoke slowly, as if thinking it through as he spoke. "Because if that's the case, I'd be happy to give you a loan so that you wouldn't have to sell your horse."

"Why would you do that?" he asked him suspiciously. "You don't even know me."

"You're right," Morgan agreed, sensing his blunder. "And I guess I am getting a little ahead of myself. What I really wanted to do was offer you a job," he said frankly, his grey eyes meeting his. "I need someone to help me with my horses. To keep them going when I'm not home, " he went on easily. "I can pay you what your father does, probably more, we can work that out. And I have a three bedroom house on the property where two men that work for me already live, so you could move in with them if you like. And I'll give free board for your horse."

Eric stared at him as if he had never seen him before. "Why are you doing this?"

"What do you mean?" Morgan asked him.

He turned and got down off the fence on the land side, not looking at him, wishing he had just loaded Max up after his lesson the way he had planned at first. No big deal, all right. It didn't have to be a big deal if you had the money to take care it, and obviously, Morgan thought he did. He was being very classy about it, but he was no different than anyone else. In fact it even made him more dirty. No fucking big deal. "You don't have anything to worry about from me," he said softly.

"What are you talking about?"

"You don't have to offer me a job, or pay me anything," he said flatly. "I'm not going to say anything to anyone about last night." He wasn't angry; he was more disappointed than anything else. Disappointed that he had been taken in so easily. That he believed so much that was obviously untrue about this man, just because he liked him, or thought he did. And now it was as if Morgan really had read his mind and was offering him the one thing he wanted more than anything else in the world, holding it out like a piece of candy. Some where for him to run. Some way out of the maze. But for what price?

His father had been right, these people would chew him up and spit him out. He was way out of his league here.

Morgan sat on the fence, his grey eyes looking at him steadily. "I know I started off wrong. But do you really think what I'm offering is some kind of pay off for your silence?" His voice was quiet.

"What else would it be?"

Morgan shook his head, the expression in his eyes almost sad. "I would never make deal like that, Eric. I'm sorry if you feel that way."

"Oh, come on," he said exasperatedly. Now that he knew the truth about him, he didn't want Morgan to lie anymore. At least he could do the decent thing now. "You have way too much to lose. And we both know what would happen if anyone around here found out that you were cruising gay bars. It would ruin you. Your life wouldn't be the same."

"For one thing, I wasn't cruising," Morgan said quietly. "I just wanted to clear that up, but that's beside the point."

"Are you saying you're not gay?" Eric asked him. "You just like dancing with other men."

"I'm not saying that at all," Morgan said. "I'm saying if you feel the need to tell someone you caught me in a bar, go right ahead. I'm not going to try and stop you."

He looked at him disbelievingly.

"Eric, you'll find if you stay in this business long enough, that memories are very short lived," Morgan said, fixing him in that clear gaze. "I might find it a little sticky at first, especially if there were any impending selection trials. But five minutes after they were over, nobody would remember who or what I wanted to sleep with. And I'm certainly still going to ride. Nobody is going to stop me from doing that." His eyes went over his face, no sign of anger in them. "And I've been through enough to know that life is way too short for me to be looking over my shoulder all the time worrying about what people think of me."

"But what about your wife?" It came out as an accusation. He had not meant to say it at all.

"My wife?" Morgan looked at him oddly. "Eric, my wife has been dead for over five years. I seriously doubt that anything I do is going to hurt her any more. The only one, who could get hurt by any of this, is my son. And that, I would regret very much."

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