The Quicken Tree

Chapter 6

Eric drove back to the track and handed the check over to his father. He didn't expect a thank you or even a congratulations on a job well done. And he got no surprises.

Conor just stared down at the check made out for fifteen hundred dollars more than he had been expecting. Finally, he said. "Well, it looks like you've learned something about horsetrading from your old man after all these years."

Eric looked at him, still feeling guilty about the extra grand he had taken off Cleary. "Yeah," he said dully. "I guess the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree."

The next morning still bolstered by the good afternoon he had spent there, Eric called Fox Den to get information on the dressage clinics. After going through a chain of people he finally got the woman who booked the clinics on the phone.

There was a lot of polite dancing. What was his name, who did he ride with, what level was he riding, what kind of show experience did he have. He had a name, the one he was born with. He rode with no one. He believed he was riding at second level, and no, there was no show experience.

The woman was quiet a long time on the other end of the line and he could imagine her thinking, who the hell gave this bloody idiot the idea he could ride in one of our clinics.

Finally, she said. "How did you find out about them?"

That was easy. "I was there yesterday with Morgan Cleary, and he mentioned them. He said I should try to get in." As true as it was, it still tasted dirty coming out of his mouth. He had already taken a thousand dollars off the man, did he have to use his name a well.

But all of a sudden whistles blew and bells rang. "Well, you know they fill up fast," the woman told him, her whole tone completely changed. "I can't get you into the one next weekend unless there's a cancellation, but I will put you on the list for the one coming in July."

The easy part behind him, Eric waited until that night after dinner to break the news to Conor. They were sitting in the kitchen of their small two bedroom flat, a beer in front of each of them. Conor was going over his client's accounts. His brothers were in the next room, lying on the floor in front of the television.

Eric watched his father as he figured the bills. The big, raw-boned man would be sixty that year, but looked older. Life and his love for the bottle hadn't been kind to him.

"I need some time off," Eric told him.

Conor looked up, his blue eyes studying him. "What are you talking about?"

"The place I was at yesterday has dressage clinics one weekend a month. I want to start taking Max."

"Why would you want to throw away good money on that?"

Eric shook his head at himself, wondering why he still made the effort to talk to his father. He was a cold, bitter man who blamed everyone and everything for what had happened to him in his life. He wondered what Conor might have been like if he had never been injured and hadn't been forced to take a job he was no good at, for people he couldn't stand. But the man who had carried him on his shoulders to watch a dressage exhibition when he was a child, and taught him to ride his first pony was dead. He'd been dead a very long time.

"It's my money to waste," Eric told him coolly. "And it's something I want to do."

Conor narrowed his eyes at him. "And who's going to be looking after your brothers while you're off all over the county doing this?"

"I'll take care of that, too."

"You'll take care of it," Conor said sarcastically.

"Like I always have," Eric said, meeting his father's cold flat eyes. "It's just one weekend a month, a couple of hours each day at that. That's all I'm asking for."

"And why?" Conor demanded. "What can you learn there that you don't already know?"

He didn't' even try to answer that question. "Conor, I work all the time. I look after Tim and Jackson every damn day of the week. I just need an outlet for myself."

"You need an outlet. A bloody fuckin' outlet." Conor stared at him incredulously. "You're out every other goddamn night of the week now, you greedy tom cat. I would think that that would be enough outlet for anyone."

That, Eric couldn't answer. They had never discussed what he did with his nights, though there couldn't be much doubt what it was when he came crawling in late, reeking of sex. And inevitably, when his father found out who he was really spending his nights with, that blind hatred that Conor was so good at, would turn on him as well. Eric had no doubts about that.

Conor took his silence for being angry. He wasn't often angry at his father, he had found out a long time ago that raging at him was not going to change anything. If anything, being angry at him revealed his own weaknesses, and Conor would go for the soft underbelly like a predator every time. Eric had always figured that when his resentment of his father became strong enough, he would just leave. And that was the fine line they had both walked carefully along for quite awhile.

"All right," his father said, backing down first this time. "Do whatever the hell you want. You'll do it anyway. You're just like that bitch mother of yours."

Eric walked out into the living room where his brothers watched television and a little while later he heard his father go out the kitchen door and down the back stairs.

He sat down on the floor between the two boys. Tim, the smart, funny one and Jackson, quiet and good hearted. Tim was the older at eight and the good-looking one. When he'd been a toddler and Eric had taken him outside to play, women had come over all the time exclaiming what a beautiful boy he was. He was light and lean and agile as a cat. Jackson, at six, was steady and thoughtful. He would grow up to be a big strapping man like his father. All three of them were black haired and brown eyed like their mother. And if it hadn't been for those two boys, Eric would have probably left a long time ago.

Eric had never resented his mother for leaving him. He had never belonged to her anyway. From the moment he could sit his first pony, he had belonged solely to his father. A chip off the old block, by age six he could ride anything he could crawl up on. And what he couldn't get up on his own, Conor put him on.

No, Eric didn't resent his mother. He couldn't imagine what kind of emotional wasteland she had lived in with Conor. She was probably lucky to get out intact. And he couldn't really even say that he missed her, he hadn't known her that well. But what he did resent was that she left those two babies alone with him when he was nothing more than a child himself. Tim and Jackson had deserved better than that. A feral cat took better care of her young.

"What's the matter with Dad?" Tim asked him.

"Nothing a pint of whisky won't cure." His brothers didn't even know their father. They had no contact with him. Eric had acted like a buffer between them for so long he had to wonder if they would even know each other if they met on the street. And that had been a mistake. They would have to deal with him sometime, because eventually he was going to have to leave. Eventually, Conor was going to find out what he'd been doing with his nights.

"Why don't you two get your shoes on and we'll go to a movie."

"Really?" Jackson asked, excited. They didn't go out much.

"Really," Eric said. "Popcorn, candy, and sodas, my treat."

They both got up and ran for the bedroom that he shared with them. His heart ached. If there was anything that he actually loved in his life, it was his brothers.

The next morning, his father handed him two hundred and fifty dollars. It was his commission for selling Rebel. When the track closed for prepping, Eric took his brothers with him to a tack shop and bought himself a pair of breeches and a decent pair of used riding boots. If he was going to crash the clinic, the least he could do was be dressed for it.

That evening, the woman from Fox Den called him back. There had been a cancellation at that weekends clinic. She wanted to know if he wanted to take the riding times on Saturday and Sunday. Eric jumped at it.

Riding Max for the first time in an actual dressage arena was a high he had never known before. He was as giddy as a young girl on her first date. The instructor that time was a short blond man with a thick accent who had ridden on the Hungarian three-day team many years ago.

That first clinic went well. Eric got a lot of encouragement. Max got a lot of praise. The instructor worked on his riding position on the first day and on Sunday Eric came back with a better feeling of his horse and what he needed to do with him.

He went home on fire. He rode his horse for the next month and read everything he could get his hands on. At his second clinic, the instructor was an FEI judge from Germany. He helped him with collection and lengthening. Max felt like he could canter a circle on the head o a pin, and Eric was starting to get that nice rubber band feel in his hands from the reins when a horse was becoming very supple and light. He couldn't wait for his workday to be over with so he could ride his horse.

By the third clinic, Eric would have ridden over anyone or anything that had tried to get in his way. He had found what he wanted to do with his life and it had nothing to do with the racetrack. He was in his element and he was in love. Completely. Head over heels.


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