The Quicken Tree
by Agtant

Chapter 8

Eric rode Max back to the barn, unsaddled him, and rinsed him off with a hose at the end of the aisle before putting him away. Then he walked back over to the arena to watch some of the clinic.

Eric saw Morgan on and off all morning whenever he came over to the arena to watch a little of whatever lesson was taking place before wandering off again. He got the impression that Morgan wasn't really interested in dressage, and that if it hadn't been a phase of his sport, he might have ignored it altogether. A lot of eventers were like that.

They got into their sport because of a love for cross-country. Having to slow down and collect a hard fit animal in a sixty by twenty-meter arena was not something they enjoyed doing. It made him curious about why Morgan had stood outside the arena to watch his lesson earlier that morning.

It was the first time he had ever really been around Morgan in more than a one-on-one situation. It was the first time he had ever watched him work a crowd, except work wasn't exactly the word for it. People seemed to be drawn to Morgan as if he gave off some direct gravitational pull. And except for that time that he had spent by the arena watching his lesson and the few minutes he had spent talking to him afterwards, he never saw Morgan alone. He was an interesting study.

Throughout the morning, Eric watched riders just walking over from the barn go out of their way to run into Morgan. He saw him signing autographs for a couple of female auditors back behind the rows of folding chairs. Once he had seen him standing with a couple of pony clubbers who must have just gotten finished with their own lessons in another ring, and had come up to watch some of the clinic. They were a couple of hero-worshipping, ten year old boys and Morgan stood between them patiently answering their questions as if there wasn't another place in the world right then that he would rather be.

But, Morgan was seldom still for very long, his blond head distinctly visible as he moved amid the crowds of people scattered over the stable yard. He appeared to be genuinely courteous to everyone, regardless of who approached him, always gracious and obviously more than generous with his time. And Eric couldn't help remembering how he had even made his son get up and shake his hand when he first introduced them. Just one well brought up Irish Catholic boy raising another.

Lunch was catered that afternoon, something that was also different from the other clinics he'd attended. Fox Den had a big spread laid out on tables at their clubhouse. At lunch break, Eric walked up with the rest of the horde, hungry and thirsty and ready to relax a little while in the shade. Picking up a sandwich from one of the trays, he saw Morgan sitting at a table on the veranda with a couple of other riders, relaxed, one elbow hooked around the back of his chair. The seat next to him was empty and if Morgan had been alone right then he might have gone over and sat with him and asked him what he had meant earlier when he said he had misunderstood him. But he wasn't alone. So Eric took a coke out of an ice chest and walked back down to the barn to eat by himself.

He sat on a bale of straw outside of Max's stall and ate his lunch in the shade of the eave. And afterwards, he smoked a cigarette, resting his head back against the cool cinder block wall of the barn, eyes closed, relaxed. This was the hard part about coming to these clinics. Each time it became even harder to go home again. Being able to ride, to enjoy what he was doing, was like a sweet escape that he had to come back from way too soon. And this would have to last him for awhile. Conor was packing up his barn and moving all of them to Florida in two weeks. He was going to miss it.

He sat there sunburnt and still a little high off of his lesson, and horny as hell. He hadn't been out for awhile. That night he promised himself that he would go out and find some guy that would help him get this load off and he would stay out all night with him. Conor and his barn and everything else be damned.

It was a nice thought, but finally, he had to pull himself back. He put his cigarette out in his coke can and got up to take care of his horse. He led Max out of his stall and hooked him onto the crossties underneath the eave. He went back over to where he'd put his tack next to the stall gate and picked up his brush box and brought it back over to his horse and began to groom him. It was quiet around the barn. Everyone was still up at the clubhouse eating lunch.

He started out using a hard brush to break up the stiff way Max's coat had dried from being just hosed down and put away unbrushed. Then he switched to a soft body brush and began to strip away any last residue of dirt left on him. He was well into his job.

"You know, it's okay to take a break once in awhile."

Eric looked up from brushing his horse's tail and saw Morgan, alone, walking toward him under the eave. He had a half-eaten apple in his hand. He took one last bite out of it and stopped in front of Max, feeding him the rest of it. The gelding munched on it appreciatively.

Eric straightened, letting go of Max's tail and looked at Morgan, resting his arm on the gelding's hip. "If you make a pet out of this one, I'll get no work out of him tomorrow."

Morgan smiled letting the gelding inspect his hand for more treats. "If you get anywhere near what you got out of him today, I think you should be pretty pleased." Morgan scratched the gelding's neck and then walked by both of them as he continued on his way down the barn aisle. He stopped three stalls down from them, taking a halter off a hook by the gate and went inside. He came back out again leading a chestnut gelding with a bald face. He hooked him on the crossties.

Eric watched him as he knelt down beside the horse to take off his standing bandages. It was still quiet around the barn. Hoehn was taking an hour and a half lunch break between the morning and afternoon lessons. Morgan's lesson was the first one right after the break. He had to saddle his horse and warm him up before everyone else was back from lunch.

"How's Carl doing?" he asked him. Morgan glanced over at him.

"He's fine, thanks for asking."

"You didn't bring him with you?"

"Not this time. He's with his aunt and uncle in Virginia, visiting his grandmother." Morgan got up and went around to the other side of the horse and knelt down again to take the wraps off on that side.

Eric put his brushes back in his box and picked it up, carrying it around Max and setting it down by the rest of his tack. "So when are you going to start showing your horse?" Morgan asked, standing again. He laid the pile of bandages on the bale of straw outside his stall and went to a tack trunk on the other side of the gate, opening it.

"I don't know," Eric said honestly. "I really hadn't thought about it yet." He walked over to where Morgan had put his wraps and picked them up. He sat down on the straw and started rolling them. It was a habit. It was something he did so often he didn't even think about it.

"Why not? You're more than ready." Morgan took a portable radio out of the tack trunk and set it on the ground beside it. He dug a little deeper and came up with a couple of brushes along with a couple of toy trucks. He shook his head a little putting the trucks back and then went back over to his horse. He looked over the gelding's back at him, taking in what he was doing. "You do plan on showing him don't you?"

Eric set the rolled bandages back down on the straw. "I suppose that would be the next step," he admitted. "It's just that getting into these clinics was a big deal a couple of months ago. I really hadn't gotten much farther than that." He watched as Morgan started brushing his horse using quick long strokes just to get the dust off. "Besides, we'll be leaving in a couple of weeks anyway, so there wouldn't be much point in making plans here."

Morgan had stooped down to run a brush over the gelding's front legs. He stopped, looking over at him. "What do you mean, leaving?"

He shrugged. "Conor got a wild hair to go to Florida this fall, so like the tinkers we are, we're heading down south in two weeks."

Morgan straightened, looking thoughtful for a moment, and then he shook his head and came around to the side of the horse where he was sitting. He started brushing him again, his back to him. "So this was just a spur of the moment decision or had he planned it?"

Eric watched him as he brushed his horse, taking in the hard, clean lines of him. "I guess you could say it was spur of the moment," he said distractedly. "We usually stay around New York, but Conor said he was tired of the cold weather, it was killing his arthritis. So he thought we'd go south this year for the winter."

Morgan shook his head again. "How do you feel about it?"

"What do you mean?"

Morgan shrugged, not looking at him. "I don't know. I guess I was just wondering why now after you're doing so well here, suddenly you have to leave. Your father doesn't strike me as the type of man to do anything unless he's given it a lot of thought beforehand."

"What does that mean?"

Morgan shook his head. "Nothing really. I was just thinking out loud."

Eric narrowed his eyes at him. It was one thing for him to say something about his father or their lifestyle.

It was another thing entirely for someone else to do it. He looked down at Morgan's two hundred-dollar boots, suddenly angry. "We move around. It's what we do. A couple of months here or there. Belmont, Aqueduct, Saratoga, and Finger Lakes. We go wherever the racing is. That's what life is, if you work at the track."

Morgan stopped brushing his horse and turned to look at him, obviously surprised by the anger in his voice.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that." His light eyes looked down at him, studying him a moment. "I know that moving around comes with the territory. I was just wondering how it was going to effect your riding, that's all."

Eric looked at him a long time trying to read him, not seeing anything in his expression but that same open friendliness he had always seen there. Slowly, his defenses relaxed. "I don't know," he said quietly. "I'll look around when I get there and try to find some clinics like these. And if I can't, I'll just have to put it on hold for awhile."

Morgan glanced back at Max. "And go back to using him as a pony horse?"

"I have to put him down as something useful. Dressage horse doesn't impress the barn managers when you're asking for stall space."

Morgan smiled at him, but Eric thought he saw something else in his eyes.

"What?" he asked him.

"You have no idea do you?" Morgan asked, still smiling.

He bristled again. "About what?"

Morgan put the brushes he'd been using back in the tack trunk. He closed the lid and sat down facing him. " I told you earlier that people had been coming up all morning asking how I knew you. What did you think I meant by that?"

"I don't know," Eric said truthfully. " You said that I misunderstood you."

"Because you did," Morgan told him, meeting his eyes steadily. "You've stirred up quite a bit of talk around here. People want to know where you came from, who you rode with."

Up close, without a horse between them, having all of Morgan's attention on him was a little disconcerting. Straight or not, Eric was attracted to him. Enough so, that his self-imposed strict conditioning didn't seem to work around him. "I told you, I've never had a dressage instructor before."

"I know that," Morgan said. "But it's hard to see you ride and believe you've never had a lesson until recently. I watched you and I had a hard time believing it."

"Well, it's the truth," he said flatly. "What do they want to do, revoke my privileges to ride here? That's fine, I'm gone anyway."

Morgan smiled at him again. "Do you always wear that chip on your shoulder? I'm telling you good things here. I'm not trying to piss you off." Morgan looked at him awhile, trying to read him, finally shaking his head at the mask Eric knew he was wearing. "You are one talented kid," Morgan said softly. " Anyone watching you out there today knows that. You sure as hell impressed me. I can't believe that no one else has told you that yet."

Eric looked at him dubiously. "I just come here to ride. I don't pay attention to what anyone else might have in their head."

Morgan nodded. "That's good. Riding is all you should be thinking about. But I just thought I ought to warn you, that no matter how much attention you're drawing, your horse is drawing that much more. That is one incredible horse," he said, nodding at Max. "Do yourself a favor, Eric, don't sell him. You're going to get offers, but don't do it. You'd find it pretty hard to replace that one."

Eric looked at his horse standing quietly on the crossties. "I guess you're trying to tell me I shouldn't be using him as a pony horse any more."

Morgan grinned at him. "Jesus no," he said. " But I know of a least three people here today that would have a coronary if they knew that was what you'd been doing with him."

"I'll have to break it to Conor then," he said. "That'll go over well."

Morgan was looking at him thoughtfully.

"Does your father watch you ride?"

He wondered at his interest in his father. "He can't help but watch me ride. I'm right there with him."

Morgan smiled a little, nodding. "I don't think your father's blind, Eric. He might be thinking a move to Florida right now would be a good thing."

Eric finally got what Morgan had been implying earlier. He couldn't believe he hadn't seen it himself. He could usually read Conor better than that, but he'd been blind-sided by the clinics and his riding. Morgan was probably right, the old bastard figured if he got him down to Florida he could get him to forget about all this 'crap' as he called it.

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