The Quicken Tree
by Agtant


Chapter 5


The barn was a quiet orchestra of sounds. Horses eating in their stalls, the occasional blowing to clear the dust out of their nostrils. The soft clanking of the water buckets as they drank. It smelled sweet, of fresh hay and clean pine shavings. These were the lullabies of Eric's childhood, the safe aromas of his nursery. And for the first time, in a very long time, he had no where to go, no where he had to be. He felt a strange contentment settle over him, as warm and unstable as winter sunshine. He could have sat there forever.

Morgan and he had started out talking horses while they waited for the x-rays, swapping war stories, showing battle scars. They were from two entirely different worlds, but they connected here.

Morgan told him about the big chestnut gelding that he had been holding when Eric arrived that afternoon. That had been Catamaran, or Cat as he called him. He was one of Morgan's first string horses. Actually, his best horse, the one he had ridden to fourth place in the Tokyo Olympics. He had been riding him a couple of days before, at home, when he had felt there was something not quite right about him.

"He wasn't lame, he wasn't even really acting sore." Morgan had sat down on the bale of shavings next to his son while they talked. "He just wasn't as forward as he normally is. I got right off and made an appointment to bring him down here."

"What did it turn out to be?"

"He has a bone chip in his right knee. I can't really say when he got it." Morgan wasn't looking at him. He had picked up a lone stem of hay from the immaculately swept barn aisle and was threading it through his long fingers. Some part of him was always in motion. He had that high energy level, like most athletes. Up close it was like a live current of electricity that crackled off of him.

"What's the vet's prognosis?"

Morgan shrugged, but he could tell he was concerned. Pretty good after surgery. His joint looks clean which means it had to be a recent injury." Morgan glanced down at Carl, who was leaning against him sleepily, still holding his comic. He put his arm around him, and eased him down gently until the boy lay curled up on his side, with his head in his lap. Morgan left his hand on his shoulder. "After they remove the chip, he'll be off for eight weeks at the very least, which shoots down my plans for this fall. I was going to take him to Europe and try him at Burghley this year."

"That's too bad."

"It's a disappointment," Morgan agreed. "But as long as he comes back okay, that's what really matters. He's only an eight year old. What he's done already is incredible for a horse his age. I'm lucky to have him."

Eric smiled, looking at him, noticing he didn't wear a wedding ring. Morgan didn't wear any jewelry at all, except for the St. Christopher medal that was now back inside his shirt. He had a plain black faced watch strapped to his left wrist. The boots were clearly expensive, but that was all. There was nothing really flashy about him. But he exuded wealth like a fine thoroughbred. And he could talk about flying a horse to Europe as casually as Eric might mention a trip to the corner market. Everything in Eric's upbringing told him to distrust and dislike him for that, but he found he couldn't do it. There was a natural openness about Morgan, a genuine friendliness that drew him to him.

"What about your horse, Eric?" Morgan asked him. "What are you doing with him?"

He shrugged. "Not much. I get to a show now and then to watch. I pick up some things and try to work on them with him. But most of the time we use him as a pony horse."

Morgan gave him a curious look, as if trying to figure out anyone who would use their dressage horse to pony thoroughbreds. "Is he a good mover?"

"I think so. He has three pure gaits." He had stressed the word pure without really meaning to do it and Morgan smiled broadly at him. Eric had to smile back inspite of himself. So much for trying to pretend that dressage was not an obsession for him. He gave himself away with one word. "If I had the time and the help, I think he could be pretty good."

Morgan nodded. "It would be very hard to be self taught in dressage."

"Yeah, I know," Eric said resignedly. "But lessons aren't really an option for me. I couldn't afford them."

"There are a lot of ways around that if you really want to do it," Morgan told him. "You could become a working student for someone in the afternoons. You could be a groom or even ride," he pointed out. "You're certainly more than qualified to do that. I'm sure you could work out a deal in exchange for lessons and board for your horse."

His comments no longer chafed him the way they had the day before. Knowing him a little better, Eric believed Morgan would have a hard time understanding how anyone could not do something that they really wanted. It wasn't in him. "I don't have the time," he explained. "I have two younger brothers that I take care of in the afternoons. They're six and eight. Too young to be leaving on their own."

"Oh," Morgan said enlightenedly, looking down at his son, who was sleeping soundly then, head still in his lap.

And Eric wondered if he really did understand. Morgan was close to his son there was no doubting that, but did he really know what it took to look after a child twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Right then the only reason he might have had the boy, was that his wife was at the hairdresser.

"What about your mother?" Morgan asked, looking back at him again. "Couldn't she help out? Or does she work?"

"She's gone," Eric said bluntly.

"I'm sorry."

He shook his head. "I didn't mean she was dead, although she might be for all I know. She went out to get my father a beer six years ago and that was the last we saw of her. My youngest brother was just an infant at the time."

"How old were you?"

"Eleven." Eric got up to stretch his legs, glancing down at the sleeping boy. He smiled. "He's really out, isn't he?"

Morgan looked down at his son again. "Yeah, he is," he said. "I had to get him up at five-thirty this morning. He's not a morning person."

"I guess it's a good thing he's going to be a newspaperman then, isn't it?" Eric moved away, up the barn aisle, stopping in front of a stall to watch a bay thoroughbred gelding eat. He must have been a colic surgery. He was swathed in support bandages from his withers to his flanks.

A short, stocky middle-aged man in a khaki shirt and pants came out to the hall way just a few stalls down from where Eric was standing. He had to be the vet. He was the same man he had seen examining the chestnut's knee when he walked up.

Eric followed him back down the barn aisle to where Morgan was still sitting with his son.

"Everything looks great," the vet said when he reached Morgan. "I don' think you're going to have any problem doing whatever you want with that horse."

That was a relief.

Morgan smiled up at him. "Thanks, John."

"Glad it worked out." The vet started to walk away, then stopped, looking back at him. "I had one of my guys take him out back to give him a bath. Do you want him cut while he's here?"

"No, I'm going to wait until I get him home. Thanks."

"No problem. I'll see you in the morning."

"I'll be here." Morgan looked back at him after the vet left. "He's doing the surgery on my horse first thing in the morning."

Eric nodded. That was going to cost him a piece a change

"I'd better get you a check." Morgan started untangling himself from the boy. "Hey, Chief," he said softly. "i'm going to lay you down here on the bag. I've got to go down to the truck and write Eric a check."

"Kay," the boy mumbled, still half asleep.

They walked down to the parking area together and Morgan unlocked his truck, getting a check book out of the glove compartment.

Eric reached inside his father's truck and took out Rebel's Jockey Club papers. He signed off on the back of them.

Morgan sat sideways in his truck, behind the steering wheel, check book in hand. "So, how much does your father want for him.?"

"Twenty-five hundred." He said it before Morgan barely had the question out of his mouth.

Morgan glanced up at him a second. He had to know that he was being clipped. He could have bought a green horse like Rebel anywhere for a thousand. His father had told him to ask for fifteen in hopes of getting that much. But Eric figured Morgan could afford the extra grand, and they could haggle for awhile. But Morgan just looked back down and started filling out the check.

It made Eric feel a little bit guilty. He watched Morgan sign the check, noticing he was left-handed.

Morgan tore the check off and handed it to him. "They hold dressage clinics here once a month," he told him. "Usually with top notch instructors. If you can't do weekly lessons, maybe you get in one of those."

Eric looked at him, thinking here he had just clipped the guy for an extra fifteen hundred and Morgan was still trying to figure out how he was going to get lessons.

"Maybe I could do that," Eric said, handing him the registration papers.

Morgan got down from the truck and leaned back inside, putting the papers with his check book back into the glove box. He shut and locked the door, then turned back to him. "Who's got your brothers now?"

"A neighbor," he said. "I pay her to take care of them until I get home."

Morgan nodded, his grey-blue eyes going over his face thoughtfully. "Well, I hope you get to do something with your dressage, Eric," he said flatly. He offered his hand to him and smiled. "It was very nice doing business with you."

Eric took his hand, shaking it. "Same here."

Morgan headed back across the parking area toward the barn and his sleeping son.


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