The Quicken Tree
The next morning Eric first noticed Morgan around six thirty, when he was coming off the track with his third horse. This time he had come alone.
Morgan was standing on the rail beside a handful of clockers, watching the morning work outs. In the morning haze, his blond hair looked almost white. Even dressed in a pair of plain navy blue sweats, he looked eerily out of place next to the old railbirds, like coming across something unexpectedly fine at a rummage sale.
As Eric walked his next horse onto the track, it blew up right in front of him, rearing and lunging forward as another horse breezed by a little too close. After he got him under control again, back into that mincing jog trot that needled him right to dressage rider's soul, he saw Morgan grinning comradely at him. Eric might have had a small inkling of what it took to ride a cross country course, but Morgan knew exactly what it was like to gallop 1200 pounds of half broke flesh and bone around a race track. And he looked like he would have given anything to have traded places with him at that moment.
His father walked down from the barn with him when he rode Rebel to the track at seven thirty. Conor left him to join Morgan on the rail and Eric jogged the stallion out onto the track.
Rebel was his usual high octane self that day, bucking and plunging forward playfully as soon as his feet hit the deep footing. He took in double wraps on the reins and sat deep, hoping this was going to be one of his more tractable days.
"Keep that crazy mutherfucker away from me," one of the exercise boys yelled jokingly at him.
"I'll give two to one odds he doesn't even make it around," another one said.
The rider that had come on the track right behind him laughed. "I'll take a piece of that action. How much you got?"
"Hey, Eric, you shoulda put your jumping saddle on that son of a bitch."
He left him behind. Rebel made the first sixteenth pole in a series of leaps and bounds, but after that, he got his long legs untangled and started to gallop. And he could gallop. In the mornings, without the distractions of the loud speakers and the crowds, he could burn up the track.
Eric kept him in the center away from the rail, just breezing him. It would be an easy half hour workout and then back to the barn.
A little while later he pulled him up, having caught his father's signal from the rail. He jogged Rebel back to where he stood with Morgan.
"Why don't you take Mr. Cleary with you back to the barn." Conor told him. "I'm going to find the horse shoer."
He watched his father walk away without even a backward glance at Morgan. Conor was good at that kind of dismissal of people he didn't like. He had a masters degree in the art of being an asshole. Morgan didn't seem to notice though, or care if he did. Eric sat on the horse waiting for him to walk over to him.
Morgan stopped at Rebel's head, his hands in the pockets of his sweat jacket. "He's quite a puller isn't he?"
"He's that," Eric agreed, taking off his helmet. The sun was already burning off the fog. It was going to be another blistering day. He pushed his wet hair back out of his face. "Did you want to see something else?"
Morgan smiled, looking at the horse. "No, that was fine. Thanks."
They headed back to the barn. Having cut the edge off his energy level, Rebel walked with his head down and swinging on a fairly loose rein.
"You've got a good clock," Morgan said as they walked past the long lines of shed rows. Horses were standing out in the aisles being sponged off. Others, draped in long flowing coolers, were being walked under the eaves. Radios were playing softly as grooms, pushing wheelbarrows filled with soiled bedding, cut back and forth across the aisles to clean stalls.
"A clock." Morgan looked up at him, tapping a finger to his forehead. "I watched you earlier with your other horses. You were good."
"Oh." He meant an internal stop watch. Good exercise boys had them. If a trainer said to go out and ride a half mile in fifty and change, he got a half mile in fifty and change. "Thanks."
"How long have you been riding?"
"How long have I been alive?"
"That long?" Morgan said amusedly. "Your dad told me you were into dressage."
They had reached his father's barn. "Conor told you that?" He slipped down off the horse. "He must be half ploughed." He set his helmet down on the tack trunk. Since Rebel was his last horse of the morning, he had to sponge him off and walk him himself. He handed Morgan the reins and started unsaddling the horse. Rebel fidgeted, steam rising off of his sweaty back.
He set the saddle down on the tack trunk and went down the aisle to Rebel's stall to get his halter. Paulo, his father's groom, had already set out a bucket of warm water for him. He picked it up along with a clean sponge and walked back to where Morgan was waiting for him with the horse.
Morgan had taken his jacket off and was standing with his back to him in just a tee shirt and sweats. There was a dark line of perspiration on his tee shirt that started at the middle of his shoulder blades and ran down the middle of his back disappearing into the waistband of his pants. Following it down with his eyes, Eric noticed the hard tight curve of his ass despite the loose fit of his sweats.
Eric blinked, looking away. He had no more business looking at Morgan than if he had been on of his father's clients. He had conditioned himself a long time ago. Anyone or anything remotely relating to his father was strictly off limits. The conditioning had been so thorough he had to wonder if he could even get it up at the track.
He handed Morgan the halter and lead shank and set the bucket down. He watched him take the grey's bridle off and slip the halter on, pausing a moment to stroke the horse's head with one of his large hands. That small gesture of kindness made Eric like him.
"You spoil him, you've bought him," he told him jokingly.
Morgan looked back at him, his hand still rubbing the horse's face. "So, what's the story on him?"
He shrugged, picking the sponge out of the bucket. "You've probably gotten an ear full already." He started to sponge the horse of, starting right behind his ears. "He's okay in the mornings. Just a bit of a lugger like you saw. But he comes unglued in the afternoon as soon as he hits the homestretch."
Morgan's eyes were on the horse. "So he really did jump off the track."
He smiled, dunking the sponge in the bucket again. "Six times."
"How fast was he going at the time?"
He applied the sponge to the horse's withers and worked his way down. "A good clip. He didn't even touch it, didn't even shorten his stride. Just popped over it and galloped across the field."
"How high is that rail? About four feet?"
"Give or take."
Morgan whistled softly.
"Yeah," Eric agreed. "The stewards will never let him run again. He's considered a rouge. The only way Conor got stall space for him this time is that he told them he was using him for a pony horse."
"You think it's the grandstand?" Morgan asked. "All the noise?"
"It could be," he said. "It probably is. We tried him in blinkers and ear plugs. Nothing helped. Sometimes I wonder if it's not just the vibration coming from the stands." He dropped the sponge back in the water an picked the bucket up, taking it around to the other side of the horse.
"Do you have your horse here?"
He hesitated, looking at him, the sponge against Rebel's neck. "My horse?"
Morgan smiled at him. "Yeh, your dad did say you were into dressage."
"Oh, that," he said and squeezed the warm water out of the sponge, letting it run down over the horse's neck. "I have a full brother to this horse that I fool around with a little."
Eric glanced over at him. "What?"
"Nothing," he said, his pale eyes sparkling in his tan face. "It's just he said you were into it and I've never met anyone who was into dressage just a little. It seems to be an obsession."
He shrugged. "I have to work. I don't have time for obsessions."
"Do you have a trainer?"
Eric gave a short laugh, shaking his head.
"What?" Morgan asked.
"My father," he answered him.
Morgan didn't get it. "Your father is a dressage instructor?"
He shook his head at him. "No, but he wasn't always a trainer at the track either. He used to be a steeple chase rider back in Ireland before he fucked his back up. A pretty good one." He rested his hand on Rebel's withers, looking at him. "But the reason I laughed is that my father thinks he's the final authority when it comes to training a horse. He'd shit his pants if I even suggested going somewhere else to take a lesson."
Morgan smiled at him. "I like you dad."
He raised his eyebrows, looking at him dubiously.
Morgan laughed again. "Yeh, I know the feeling isn't mutual. That's okay. He reminds me a little of my own father. He was Irish too."
Eric nodded. "Cleary is a good Irish name."
"How long have you been here?"
He bent over, dunking the sponge back in the tepid water. "Around six years now."
"You miss Ireland at all?"
Eric thought about the small place he had come from and how everyone he met on the street had known he was Conor's son. And he tried to visualize into that small town, the last year and a half he'd spent here, cruising every theater, bar and alley way. He shook his head. "Not really. My dad talks about going back every now and then when he's had a few. But I think I'd stay here."
He finished sponging the horse and went over to the tack box to get a sweat scraper. Morgan was still looking at Rebel, oblivious to the fact that his sweats were splashed with mud clear to the knees from the horse's bath. He liked that about him. He even liked his upstate New York accent.
"I need another green horse like I need a hole in my head," Morgan said softly.
"I was surprised to see you this morning," he said. "I thought you would back out."
"No," Morgan said. "I did want to see him. He's certainly a good looking horse and a good mover. A little climby in front, but that's okay. Most jumpers are." He was looking thoughtfully at the horse. "Does he hack at all?"
He set the sweat scraper down on the tack box. "A little. Since Conor said he was going to make a pony horse out of him, I rode him around a bit so it would look like we were making the effort."
"Do you think he would hack over a fence or two?"
He smiled. "I didn't get that far with him. We never thought what he did naturally was enough of an asset to encourage it."
Morgan nodded. "I don't suppose you did. Has he been sound?"
"He doesn't have a pimple on him."
"Then he wouldn't have any trouble passing a vet check?"
Eric shook his head. "No, not at all. Are you interested?"
Morgan looked reluctant. "God help me," he murmured. "Yea, I'm interested. I'll geld him right away if I get him. I'm a little surprised your father didn't do that."
"He didn't think it would help."
"Maybe not." Morgan knelt, running his hand down Rebel's front legs, his thumb tracing the back of his tendons, looking for old scar tissue. He glanced up at him. "How does he haul?"
He shrugged. "I've seen worse."
Morgan stood up again. "Can you haul him to Bridgehampton tomorrow so I can have a vet take a look at him?"
"Good." He handed him the lead shank and went over to the tack trunk to retrieve his jacket. He picked it up and took his wallet out of the pocket. "I've got to go home tonight and pick up my son, but I'll be back tomorrow afternoon. " He opened his wallet, looking for something, finally taking out a card. He handed it to him.
"That's the vet's number. You can call him if anything comes up and you can't make it."
Eric turned the card over and looked at it. It was for an equine veterinary hospital out in the Hamptons. He was loaded all right.
"Do you know where it is?" Morgan asked him.
"I've hauled horses over there before."
"Great," Morgan said. "Why don't you meet me around two."
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