The Quicken Tree
By Agtant

Chapter 9


When Morgan rode his horse down to the arena to warm up, Eric wrapped Max's legs and put him away for the day. He should have left right after that, but he wanted to watch Morgan ride again. So instead, he walked down to the arena with the returning auditors.

Dressage at the advanced level of three-day eventing was equivalent to a third level test. Rule of thumb was, if a horse and rider were showing at one level, they were schooling at the next highest level at home. Morgan was competent at fourth level, would have probably had no problems showing at it, and at that level had had more of an education in dressage than Eric.

Hoehn greeted Morgan warmly. "Well, Mr. Cleary, it's good to see you again. After the way I filleted you at my last clinic, I was wondering if I would."

"My ego took a beating and I was on Maalox for a couple of days," Morgan admitted, smiling down at him. "But I got over it."

Hoehn smiled. "I'm glad to hear it. Let's see how much of my lesson you took to heart."

Eric stood outside the arena watching, admiring Morgan's toughness with what could have been a difficult horse. The gelding was a puller, and too much on the muscle like most thoroughbreds. He could see the effort it took for Morgan to keep him under control from the corded muscles in his forearms and the slight backwards tilt of his body. Holding a twelve hundred-pound horse back that really wanted to explode, with no visible signs of control, involved that small area of the back just below the shoulder blades. That's where twelve hundred pounds of impact took place. That night under the showerhead, every battle of that forty-five minute lesson was going to come back in painful detail. He could only hope for Morgan's sake, that his wife gave a good back rub.

But, Morgan's lesson for the most part, went well. It was the tightly controlled dressage of an event horse, not the supple, fluidness of classical dressage, but it wasn't bad. And Morgan's style of riding was very military, not unlike many of the best dressage riders of the world. He was good. He just didn't have a love for it. It was as confining to him as it was for the bearcat he was riding.

The only real rough spot came during an extended canter down the long side of the arena. Morgan's horse, glad to be let out after all the collected work, got up a head full of steam and took out the rail at the corner of the ring, sending it flying, before Morgan could get him back under control again. No real harm done. The fence around a dressage arena was usually no more than eighteen inches high and portable. It just took a couple of quick moving grounds keepers to move it back in place again. There was some comraderly laughter from the sidelines. Even Eric had to smile.

Hoehn looked on stoically. "You know, Mr. Cleary, we don't generally think of the rail of a dressage arena as having the same purpose as the catch line on an aircraft carrier. It's not there to keep you from dropping off into the ocean in case you've over shot your landing."

Morgan's response was the same big grin that he'd had on his face when Rebel had taken off with him.

His lesson over, Morgan walked his horse out of the arena and headed for the trail that ran around the cross-country course to cool him out. Eric returned to the barn to pack up his tack, getting ready to leave for the day even though he would have much rather stayed and watched the rest of the clinic. He didn't want to go home. It was as if when he came to these clinics, some part of this world entered his bloodstream, and he couldn't seem to get it out again. It was something like being poisoned. But the poison being injected was meant for his other life, his real life, because the only thing being affected was that. His growing dissatisfaction with his life at home was slowly eating away at him.

Eric knew that he purposely avoided his father for days after every clinic. He knew that he didn't want to deal with his negativity. He didn't want to deal with the way he ran down something that had become so important to him. That was Conor's way and he should have been used to it. He just wished he had never had to let him know about the clinics in the first place, because telling him about them just brought it to Conor's attention how important they really were to him, and that was a foolish thing to do. And now, if the move to Florida really was an effort by Conor to get him to give up his riding for awhile, he didn't think he would be able to hide his resentment, the way he had hidden so many other things over the past few years. If it were true, Conor was walking pretty close to that invisible line.

Eric made one trip to the horse trailer with his tack and went back to the barn to get the rest of it.

Morgan had come back while he was gone. He had his horse on the crossties and was unsaddling him. He had turned his radio on low and rock and roll was playing softly from a top 40 station.

The pungent aromas of wet horse hide and saddle leather hung heavy under the eave of the barn. The same smells Eric associated with the first time he had begun to notice the naked bodies of the other riders in the showers at the track and realized what feelings they aroused in him. Back before he had learned to separate anything having to do with his sexuality, essentially anything that had to do with his real feelings at all, from that environment that was his father's world.

Eric allowed his eyes to trail down over Morgan's back to his ass and then down to his tautly muscled thighs, scarcely hidden beneath the rust colored breeches, as Morgan took his saddle over to the tack box and set it down beside it. "I'm going to take off," he said quietly, to Morgan's back, but didn't make any move towards the rest of his gear. He was stalling, he knew, but what the hell. He really liked this man and after tomorrow, in all probability, he would never see him again. What would it hurt to talk to him for a few more minutes, if only just to feed his own ego. Morgan had been extremely nice to him earlier. He'd actually been nice every time he'd seen him. It was no wonder why he liked being around him.

Morgan straightened, turning around to look at him. "Oh," he said softly. He must not have heard him walk up. "Okay." Under the eave and out of the afternoon sunlight, his eyes looked grey, and Eric thought that this was probably the closest to their real color. They went over his face thoughtfully. "You can't stay for the rest of the clinic?"

"Not today," Eric said. "Our neighbor has had my brothers all day. If I don't get home soon there'll probably be a homicide."

"I hear that," Morgan said. He knelt down and started taking off his horse's splint boots. "What time do you ride tomorrow?"

He looked down at his blond head as Morgan unbuckled the heavily padded boots. His short, thick hair was wind combed and curling from his lesson. "Same time, 9:30. What about you?"

"At 3:00," Morgan said, getting up and coming around to his side. He knelt again, his back to him. The red suspenders outlined his shoulder blades, accenting his leanness.

Another rider came up then, on his way to the courtesy booth. He was in his early thirties, dressed in breeches, boots and a t-shirt. He was wearing a Yankees baseball cap. Eric recognized him. He was one of the owners of the farm.

"Morgan, how you doing?" the man greeted him warmly. "Saw your lesson. You left most of the arena up this time."

"I came out of it with most of my ass in tact, " Morgan agreed amiably, looking up at him from where he knelt. "Guenter must be in a good mood."

The man grinned, clapping him on the shoulder. "I'll catch you later," he said and walked on.

Morgan straightened, slapping the two boots together, knocking off some of the sand that they had picked up from the arena.

"You did have a good lesson," Eric told him. watching him clean off the boots.

"Thanks," Morgan said looking up at him, smiling a little.

Eric shook his head at himself. Here he was some dumb kid, who had gotten his head swelled a little bit, telling a world class rider he'd had a good lesson, like he knew what the hell he was talking about. Like he really did belong here with these people. Who was he kidding? Maybe his father was right. It was better that he left now before he really made an idiot out of himself. "I've got to go," he said brusquely.

"If you have to," Morgan said, shrugging. "But if you like, they're having a party up at the club house for Guenter after the clinic is over this afternoon. It's no big deal. You could even come back and bring your brothers with you if you wanted." He rolled the boots up together and buckled the outer one to keep them closed.

Eric thought about his brothers running wild across that pristine landscape and smiled. "Thanks, but I don't think I can."

"Okay," Morgan said simply, smiling at him. "But, I'd like to talk to you tomorrow...." He hesitated, looking past him.

Eric turned and saw one of the pony clubbers from earlier that morning standing behind him, holding what looked like a magazine.

"What do you have for me?" Morgan asked the boy, encouragingly.

The shy, skinny ten-year-old moved closer, holding out what Eric could now see was a program of a three-day event. Morgan was on the cover, riding his horse, Cat, over a large, imposing bank. "I brought you that program to sign that I was telling you about."

"That's great," Morgan said, tucking the boots under his arm and taking the program from him. "Do you have a pen?" The boy handed him one. Morgan began to write on the cover. "You know, this was one of the easiest fences in Tokyo."

"Really?" The boy looked up at him, rapt, with hero worship plain in his round, blue eyes.

Morgan handed him back the program. "It looked tough when I walked it, but riding it was easy. It was almost like going over a cross rail." He looked at the program again. "The picture came out nice though."

"Yeah," the boy said, staring at what Morgan had wrote. "Thanks." He wandered off holding his treasure.

Eric shook his head, laughing softly at himself. He wondered if he stood there long enough, how many more of the people there that day would eventually make it over to Morgan. Most of them? All of them? Like bees to honey, he thought. And who was he to say anything? He was standing there, wasn't he? He laughed again.

"What?" Morgan asked him.

"Nothing," he said, smiling at him. "I was just wondering how you ever got any work done with the revolving door you have around you."

Morgan didn't understand. He wouldn't, he thought. He didn't have it in him. Morgan wouldn't have been able to turn anyone away that came up to him, anymore than he would have been able to be deliberately rude to someone. He was just a nice guy. And that made him an easy touch.

"He's a good kid," Morgan said. "He just joined a pony club group that I give clinics to every couple of months."

Eric just smiled at him.

Morgan looked at him amusedly. "You want to tell me what's so funny?"

Eric shook his head. "Nothing really," he said. "You were starting to tell me something when the kid walked up."

Morgan hesitated a moment, trying to figure him out. "Yeah," he began slowly. "I was just saying I wanted to talk to you tomorrow."

"What about?"

"I was thinking about something when I was cooling my horse out earlier," Morgan said, still considering him. "I just wanted to run it by you and see what you thought."

Eric looked at him curiously. "What is it?"

Morgan smiled at him. "Why don't we wait until tomorrow," he said. "I want to think about it a little more first."


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