Because It Needs Doin’

“There’s a shoeing apron hanging behind the door and there’s a bucket right next to it with tools.  On the other side of the feed room is a pile of old shoes, it’s all I’ve got right now.  Pick out a pair of size 01’s.  Let’s go practice on that other horse we brought back.”

Shoeing exhibited 1844 Sir Edwin Henry Landseer 1802-1873 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00606

Paul found himself almost skipping toward the feed room.  He’d never imagined himself shoeing horses. He was a jockey. He’d ridden races all over the planet and suddenly here he was on a dusty ranch with a bunch of washed up horses, no women around, no money to be made and he could hardly contain himself from whistling.  The apron was way too big, he had to tie the buckle strap in a knot to keep it from slipping off his hips.  He rummaged through the stack of used shoes and picked out several pair that looked useful.  Grabbing the heavy bucket of tools from behind the door with his good arm, he made his way up the barn aisle toward Nate who was already holding the other horse they had picked up at the shelter.  Nate was running a hand down his left foreleg and the horse stood solidly still looking drowsy.

“Did you grab a box of nails to bring with you?” Nate put the horse’s foot down and patted the sleepy animal on the shoulder.  The horse was already nuzzling his jacket pocket hoping for a treat, which Nate produced.

“Oh, I guess I just assumed they were with the tools.” Paul put the bucket down and and headed back toward the feed room. 

“Don’t worry son, this little guy isn’t going to get shoes today or any day for awhile.  Looks to me like this ankle is broken.  We’ll not ask him to stand on it while we do his other foot.  It would hurt like crazy for him and he’s just going to jump around on you.”

“Poor guy.” Paul stroked the shoulder of the sleepy horse.  

“You’re not a bad kid for an Idaho boy.”

Paul’s hand dropped like a stone.

“Idaho? Who said anything about Idaho?”

“You did son. Guess you let that slip. I’m a Pocatello man myself, my wife is from Twin Falls.  Idaho leaves a mark on you, not an accent of sorts, we’re all just shiftless Westerners, but that Idaho just won’t wash off.  You know?”

“Sorry sir, I guess I don’t know.” Paul gulped and prayed silently for a distraction.  His heart pounded.

“Well, let’s just cut the bullshit Paul.  Your uncle was a good friend of mine and I knew your folks a little bit. You’ve got Wanda’s eyes – she was the prettiest girl in school.”

Paul’s head spun.  He sat down on an overturned bucket.  He would have bolted out the barn if his legs could have carried him.  

“I’m not gonna torture you with how your family took to your running off.  I reckon you probably know it broke your mamma’s heart.  But they grow ‘em tough in Idaho.”

“I don’t know what to say.” Paul couldn’t look up, he wrung his hands.

“Nuthin to say.  I just hate keeping secrets  They end up causing trouble every time. As long as you do an honest job for me I got nothing to say about how a man wants to lead his life.  I’m doing my best to respect that you musta had your reasons to hurt your mamma so.”

“I did.  But they were selfish reasons.”

“Lord knows you aren’t the first young man to be selfish. I just hope it’s been worth it.  Looks to me like you’re still running.”

“I guess I am.” Paul looked Nate in the eye for the first time.  He was surprised to find kind amusement in Nate’s face.  He exhaled and both smiled. 

“Can’t blame a man for wanting to ride fast horses.”

“I guess I never really thought about anything other than racing.  Like where they go after the races.  I got so hung up in the race.  In the moment you know?”

“That’s not so bad Paul.  Living in the moment.  That’s where these horses live.  Whether it’s in the wild or on the track, they’re hard wired to run and run as hard as they can.  Sometimes it’s for survival, but you know as well as I do that some run for the joy of it – even if they hurt. It’s just us humans and a few dogs that think about the before and after. 

Paul rolled the thought over in his head.  His head nodded unconsciously. He’d spent his time running.  Running for his life, running away, running to, running out, running for glory, for money.  Now, like the horses he was surrounded by, he wasn’t running, couldn’t run, he didn’t run.

“So now that you know what I’m doing here, what are you doing?  How did you come to be here at this ranch?”

“Oh” Nate looked around at the horses in the barn sizing up each one with a horseman’s eye. Making sure each was eating, standing comfortably, feeling each one. He scratched his chin and took off his dirty ball cap with the logo for some long closed racetrack across it’s brim.  He looked at the logo not reading it. “Mother and I used to breed racehorses in the days you could make an honest living with a couple of decent stallions.  We did layups for the injured horses and we did a good job. Then racing fell on hard times, purses weren’t enough to cover the training bills and folks would send us horses to heal up and would run out on the bill.  They’d just leave the horses here. No phone call. No nothin’.  Or worse, they’d send the killer to come by and pick up a horse to go to auction that you’d spent the last eight months putting back together.  It got so the good owners were paying the bills of the bad ones and so many of these horses were owned by multiple folks, we didn’t know who to dog for the bill. Every part owner of a horse loves a winner, but when it’s a layup, they figure it’s somebody else’s horse. Hard to want to care for a horse you don’t know. So we started finding homes for ‘em and word got around.  The county would call with starved horses they’d picked up and broke folks would tie horses to the mailbox in the middle of the noonday sun if we weren’t here.  Mother and I just figured that’s what we are here to do, to give these critters a safe place to land.”

“So how do you do it?”

“Do what?”

“Keep paying the feed bill?  Keep the fences up? Not just hate everyone that sends you a broken horse?”

“Well, some days are better than others that’s for sure and there are some good folks out there. We were smart and thrifty and worked hard to pay off the ranch some years ago. We had some money stashed away and we just figured we’d use it rather than leave it on the table after we’re gone.”

“But why do you do it?”

“Because it needs doin’ son.”

Paul laughed and looked at his hands again. Nate put his ball cap back on his head and shoed away a wandering chicken.  A horse startled and snorted behind them.

“You aren’t the only one that has making up to do Paul.  We all have things in our past that need atoning for. Some folks has got churches where they can go  to clean out their soul. All I’ve ever had was a barn and that’s all I guess I ever needed. You see, we have a debt to pay to these animals.  They’ve carried our sick and wounded, they carried us into war, they took us places we never could have seen on foot.  Dogs and cats came to the campfire for warmth and company.  Horses, we tracked ‘em down, took ‘em from their families.  We made ‘em go places alone, live in cages and let us kick ‘em around in circles and when we got done with them, we ate ‘em.  I never can figure whether they are the dumbest creatures or the most forgiving of animals.  Maybe I don’t want to know which. ‘Cuz maybe I couldn’t live with the truth.

“Now c’mon son, the day is a wastin’ and we have some horses to shoe. Go and grab that bay mare over there.”

Vaya Con Dios at Nate’s Ranch

It’s loud here.  I can hear dogs barking from all directions and that scares me.  The gates are shiny metal and the ground is hard. The smell of disinfectant is powerful.  It’s very clean, but not soft. Sounds, smells, and light are all sharp.

There is something safe here.  Anything is safe compared to the twisted metal box laying on the side of the highway. 

I’m tired. At least I’m alone.  There are other horses in similar cages around me. I can see them, but I can’t touch them, nor can they touch me.  That is good, I won’t be kicked but a little company would go a long way right now. I can’t lay down on this hard dirt.  My hip is sore and I worry that I won’t be able to get back up.  I can smell blood, I have some gashes but none are too bad.  I’m thirsty, but the water tastes like the disinfectant I can smell all around me. I dip my lips but my body tells me not to drink. 

Edgar Degas – HORSE charcoal drawing

A woman in a brown shirt smelling of both blood and chemicals approaches.  Her hands are jerky around my face and I want to back away, but my hip, and now my neck are too sore. I look away from her quick eyes and I exhale showing her that I will submit, but not happily.  She comes into my pen and pats me hard on my sore neck.  I flinch but she doesn’t notice.

“Easy big guy” she tells me.  I steel my muscles against her firm pats.  My tail  swishes angrily.  I exhale again, loudly – to tell her to back away.  She does not listen.  She touches the wounds on my legs and I stomp.  I wish desperately to be alone.  

“Knock it off dude.” Her touch, if not gentle is expert. I’m wary.

“C’mon with me fella, I think I’ve got a good spot for you.” She slips a halter over my nose and buckles it just behind my left ear. 

“Relax, this is a good thing.” 

I’m leery as she leads me out of the pen and closer to the barking dogs.

 A gray haired man is standing by a horse trailer, it’s old and I’m instantly on edge.  My guts turn and I lift my tail and expel hot runny manure.  My eyes roll until they fix on this man and his big hands that hang loosely from his broad shoulders. He is safe. He is soft. His eyes don’t challenge, they listen and they re-assure. He approaches me and I smell something curious, something familiar, something kind on him. He reaches into his pocket and I’m filled with hope as I hear the crinkle of cellophane and smell my favorite peppermints. His hand cups my lips and he touches my neck gently. I crunch the sweet mint in my mouth.  I lean into him and half close my eyes.  I can feel soft bandages on my legs and smell oats cooking.  I inhale the scent of the peppermints in his pockets while his hand searches and finds the itchy spot on my shoulder.

“He sure likes you.” The woman with the hard fast hands says.

“He sure looks like a racehorse.” The man continues to scratch my shoulders and my head bobs in bliss.

“Let’s look at his tattoo.” She grabs nervously for my muzzle and flips my upper lip up. I pop out of my reverie to squeal and jerk my head away from her grip. “He’s kind of an asshole.” She barks as she yanks the rope on my halter.

“It’s okay Sue, just put him on the trailer, he’ll go home with me and mother.”

“Are you sure you want this one?  He’s a handful.” 

“I’m sure.”

We walk up to his old trailer in the parking lot.  It’s rusty, but it’s spotlessly clean inside. I hesitate for a moment and put my head inside to look around.  I think briefly about the horror of the twisted trailer full of dying and thrashing horses, but this trailer feels like hope and I step in. I only hesitate to brace my good knee before I step up onto the sore one. I expect to be thumped or pulled when I hesitate, but the man just waits for me and when I go in, he produces another peppermint from his pocket.  He strokes my hip and whispers something soft. The feeder is full of rich and delicious hay.  Another horse is loaded beside me but I’m too busy eating the alfalfa to care to investigate.  

Before I can finish the hearty meal we pull into a yard with yapping dogs and scurrying chickens.  They make me nervous but the man with the big quiet hands is there and I see that the dogs are happy, not hungry.  The place doesn’t smell like the track, there’s not liniment smells or smells of laundry soap but the sounds coming from the other horses tell me that there is peace and food here and I’m curious to have a look around.  A chicken goes scurrying behind me where I can’t see her and I wheel half way around to see what is happening. The big handed man doesn’t jerk or pull, he lets me look and he strokes the long and sore muscles in my throat.

“They’re just silly chickens fella.  They can’t hurt a champion like you.  I’m going to have to put you in the barn until we can get you some shoes and clear up that cough and figure out what’s going on with that big knee.  But you’re going to love the pasture once we get you right.  There’s a bunch of pretty old girls out there that need a handsome boyfriend like yourself.  Whaddya say big guy?  Should we take a walk around and show you your new life?  It’s not Kentucky Bluegrass but it’s home.”

Like magic, he produces another peppermint.  I’m chewing it heartily when another man, this one much smaller and faster than my friend approaches.  I’m worried, there’s something familiar about his gait and seeing his walk makes my knee ache.  I stomp and swirl my head to see him more clearly from each eye.  My association with him is loose and fuzzy.  I know something about him and I’m deciding whether it’s a dangerous thing, or a comforting thing and my thoughts are jumbled.

“Hey boss, I put that young horse in the round pen like you wanted me to and I gave him some water, he was really thirsty. Your wife said that some polo players were coming to look at him later today, I’ll hose him off after he’s had a little time to settle in. Who’s this?”

“I’m a sucker for an old campaigner Paul.  This guy looks like he’s had a hard time.  He’s one of the ones from that trailer wreck on the highway yesterday.  He’s in bad shape and he looked like he needed a friend.”

“He looks like he raced pretty recently, he’s still got one shoe on and it looks like an aluminum race plate.”

“I don’t suppose you have an experience as a farrier of sorts?  This guy would be a lot more comfortable with some steel on those soft feet.”

“Sorry boss, I can pull a shoe off if I have to, but I’ve never learned anything about nailing on shoes.”

“A fat lot of good you’re doing this guy then.” Nate was half laughing but it was clear that he was disappointed. “I’ll find my tools then, I don’t want this horse to go another night without some protection for his feet.  He’s been through enough already.  Let’s get him in a stall for an hour or two and I’ll shoe him later when it cools off.  I just can’t take the heat when I’m shoeing – too old I guess.”

“If you will hold him and coach me, I’ll do my best to learn.” Paul’s voice was eager. He surprised himself wanting to impress the old man and to help the horse.

“I’ll teach you on a horse that doesn’t hurt like this one does if you stick around.”

“He seems like a good guy.  Even if he doesn’t like your chickens much.”

It’s true, the feathery lumps run in bizarre circles and their jerky movements make me nervous.  Just when I have my eye on one of them, another darts from a dark place into the light and back into the dark again.  The strange creatures worry me even as the people and the surrounding horses show clearly that they are not to be feared.

The old man with the big soft hands leads me to an old barn and places me in a stall, it’s bedded in slightly musty but deep straw.  My legs fold and a giant groan escapes as I lie down to roll and rest.  I lie there after a few back and forth scratches and exhale loudly. 

 There is peace here. 

Dee? It’s Gayle

Eugène DelacroixWomen of Algiers in their Apartment, 1834

“Hello? Gayle?  It’s Dee.”

“Dee? You sound terrible. Are you okay?”

“I guess.  It’s been a crazy day and night.  But I’ve got nothing on what Ann’s going through, so I’m not going to gripe. How’s she doing?”

“Well, there must be crazy in the air.  She was doing well.  She was resting and keeping busy  doing bookkeeping and reading and sleeping and eating.  She’s got lots of good friends that come to check on her. And she even let me clean the house without too much fussing.”

“But?”

“But” Gayle sighed “Her barn is in total chaos, I guess they lost a big owner and horses got hurt and there’s all this talk about her boss getting investigated for a horse that looks like she was on some kind of crazy drug they’re calling ‘Frog Juice.”

“Jeez, I’ve heard that’s nasty stuff, it’s supposed to be like 40 times more powerful than morphine!”

“Why do they call it ‘Frog Juice?” 

“I read  that it comes from some South American tree frog or something.  Really bad stuff.  It’s in all the racing news lately.”

“Do you think this guy she works for would do something like that?”

“How should I know?  Everyone wants to win but I don’t know if Ann would work for someone if they stooped that low.  But then again, I can’t say what anyone would or wouldn’t do to win.”

“Well Ann is beside herself of course, feeling helpless and angry she’s got herself whipped into a froth if you know what I mean.”

“How about that cute little jockey you mentioned.  Is he visiting?”

“Well, that just adds to the drama around here.  He disappeared.”

“Disappeared?  Like how?”

“Seriously, he fell off in a race and was taken to the hospital and then next thing you know – poof!  He’s gone.”

“Probably got wind of a paternity suit.  Rotten jocks.”

“He was a really nice guy and Ann is taking it harder than I thought. Oh, and there’s more.  One of the horses that she really loved, turns out he’s missing from the track.”

“Okay, so a jockey vanishes and so does a horse.  What the hell is going on?”

“It’s just chaos and Ann’s worst nightmare – she can’t be there to fix everything and it all falls apart. She’s really worried about this horse.  I think it was one she talked to you about.”

“Oh Lord, which one?”

“Some Spanish name – I’m trying to remember.  Something religious.  I can’t keep up with all of the drama.”

“It wasn’t Vaya Con Dios?” Dee held her breath.

“That’s it!  Vaya Con Dios.  He was supposed to go to another trainer or something and now he’s just gone.”

“He was supposed to come to me.  He’s a great old horse.

“Gayle, is it ever going to be easy?” Dee sounded exhausted.

“Nope.  It’s just not.  But just remember you are one of the lucky ones.  You do what your heart tells you to do all day, every day.  Never forget that.”

“Oh Gayle, what would Ann and I do without you?”

“Starve probably and get into more trouble than you already do.” Gayle Garrison laughed heartily. 

“So where’s Ann now?”

“There’s even more Dee. I just dropped her off at the hospital to visit a friend of hers who looks like he tried to kill himself.  She insisted I take her and she really needs to be home resting.”

“Good Lord Gayle.  Who is it? Some racetrack friend?”

“It’s her friend Johnny.  Do you know him?

“I don’t but I’ve heard Ann mention him. Is she resting at all?

“She was doing okay until all of this craziness started and it just keeps going. It’s insane really.  I just don’t know what’s going to go wrong next. The good news is that Ann is warming to the idea of coming out to your place for a rest.  Of course, that was before her barn fell apart.  There’s no telling what it will take to drag her away from all of this now.”

“She knows the door is always open.  Anyhow, I’m headed down your way tomorrow.  I’m bringing a horse to the Hamer’s place outside San Diego.  I was hoping to come by on my way back, but I might have a horse in the trailer with me, so I’ll need to figure out a spot to keep it overnight.”

“I thought you said you were taking a horse down  to San Diego not bringing one back ?”

“Well, I’m kind of trading a horse.  I’m bringing a pretty bad head case to the Hamer’s because they are the only ones who can give her the home she needs and I can’t do that in good conscience unless I bring one back with me to take off of their feed bill.  You understand Gayle. By the way, how’s that beautiful  little horse Matana?”

“The love of my life?  He’s fat and happy and doesn’t miss me nearly as much as I need him.  I’ll ask Ann’s friend Roxy about a spot to put your horse and you just drive safe and we’ll see you day after tomorrow?”

“Is there anything I can bring you or Ann?”

“How about a giant hug?”

“I think I can afford that Gayle.  Thanks for the pep talk?”

“I didn’t do a thing. I just told you about all the craziness here.”

“. You’re a rock Gayle and I hope you know what that means to me and to Ann.  I love you.”

“Don’t get all mushy with me Dee.  I’ve had enough tears lately.”

“Okay then, I’ll see you soon.  Bye.”

“Good bye Dee,  I’ll tell Ann you called.”

Paul

His first night on the run found him in a cheap hotel outside San Bernadino.  He’d decided to hike around the National Forest and to camp on the banks of Big Bear lake. It seemed like a good plan – nothing but trees and mountains and the water. The thought alone was generally enough to quiet him.  He’d done the same when he left tracks all over the world. There was always some beautiful place to explore if you were okay with the inconvenience of living outdoors by yourself for a time. This time however was different. Something was wrong.  Something was drawing him back to the track even though he knew that if he was caught, there would be no telling the extent of the damage. If he was outed as the jockey that had travelled all over the world assuming different names so that each time he could start fresh with a five pound apprentice weight advantage his entire past could come crashing down on him.  Owners, trainers, other jockeys, agents, girls he’d left, racing officials, criminal investigation, all of it all at once and he’d have to face it all. Out of the question. 

But still, there was this feeling of wanting someone to know the real him and the person he wanted to know was laying on her couch injured because of him. He wasn’t used to fretting. He was a traveller, a light spirit, a man of action. He paced knowing that the only answer was to set out in the morning into the San Bernadino mountains.  From there he would figure out who to be and where to go.  But for now there was no resting.  His arm ached. His shoulder had been dislocated several times in his career and this last race was not the first time he’d jumped off a horse in a race and dislocated it on purpose. But it sure as hell was sore.  

Rest would not come.  He settled by writing and re-writing his letter to Ann all night. The next morning he hitchhiked his way out Highway 38 through Fawnskin towards the lake. He’d bought a few things in town and headed into the wilderness to think. He knew he couldn’t go back but the stories the silly gallop girl, whatever-her-name-was about the couple in the hills outside San Diego and all of the crippled ex-race horses they took in filled his head as he lay under the stars on the mountain the next night.  Heading south made sense anyway, if trouble followed him, it would be an easy trip into Mexico where there were always races to ride, good food and fun and nobody cared about your past. 

The following day as he hiked through the forest, it became clear to him that he would go and see this ranch and meet these people and understand what made them tick. Automatically, his body turned south.  The further  he got, the more sure of where he needed to be. Life, and a carload of vacationing college girls had brought him here. 


Paul hitched the old truck to the even older trailer and was cleaning out the trailer when Nate re-appeared.

“You look jockey size. You a rider?”

“Sort of.” Paul replied.

“You’re pretty skinny, are you a hop-head?  We don’t need any druggies around here. My wife will run you out on a rail if she even thinks there are drugs around. Not a lot gets that old gal’s goat like pipes and needles and stuff.  She won’t tolerate any of it.  You hear?”

“I promise” said Paul.

Paul Meets Nate

A knock at the door shook both from their thoughts.

“Who the heck is that?  The dogs didn’t even bark.  Did you hear a car or truck come in the gate?”

Nate’s wife didn’t answer, she was busy opening the kitchen door.

A small man, handsome but tired and hungry appeared in their kitchen.  He removed his ball cap and twisted it in his right hand nervously. His left arm was held against his stomach, in obvious pain.

“I was wondering if you had any work.  I’m a good hand with horses and I’m not above mucking stalls.”

“You’ve come to the wrong place son, we don’t have the money to pay anyone. Mother and I here take care of  the chores ourselves. Plus, you look like you couldn’t do much with that arm all buggered up.”

“There’s at least 40 head here – you’ve got to need help.”

“There’s 52 head and fixing to be some more in a bit.” Nate said with a dash of pride.

“I’ll work for hot food and a place to sleep until you see what good I am. I can help you get some of these horses going and don’t worry about my arm. I can still work, it’s just sore is all.” He rubbed his shoulder and tried to straighten his arm without wincing.

“Sorry son, what I need right now is a good mechanic.  That damn truck out there won’t start again.”

“Can I take a look for you?”

“You fix trucks?”

“Maybe.”

“No harm with letting him take a look?” Nate’s wife was pushing a cup of coffee into the young man’s hands.

“Thank you m’am.  You are very kind.”

“Cream or sugar?” she asked.

“No thanks m’am, black is just fine with me.”

“Well, bring that cup with you and let’s go take a look at old Grumpy and see if we can get her started.”

“Grumpy?” 

“That’s what he calls the truck, and sometimes, it’s what I call him.” Nate’s wife smiled at both men.

Nate stomped out the door towards the old truck. “What’s your name son?”

“Paul. Paul Payne.” The words stuck in his throat and came out with difficulty.

Nate gave a quick jerk, then eyed Paul suspiciously “Didn’t figure it was a hard question Paul.”  Nate opened the truck door and popped the hood latch. “I don’t care what you call yourself son, Paul’s as good a name as any I guess.”

Paul nodded in agreement, stepped over a battered barn cat lounging in the sun and peeked under the hood.

“My dad had just the same truck in Idaho.  He had a hell of a time keeping the timing belt from slipping, sometimes it just needs a nudge, but it’s hard as hell to get to.  Do you have a long broom handle?”

“This old truck is held together with baling twine and duct tape, now I’m supposed to get it running with a broom handle? Ah hell, just don’t break it, okay?”

“The truck or the broom handle?” Paul’s wry smile brought a laugh to the old man’s tired face.

In ten minutes time, with some grunting and maneuvering on Paul’s part, the truck was running.  

“Back her up to the trailer over there and hook her up – will ya?” I’ll be back in a few, I’ve got to pull some leg wraps off some horses and throw some feed to the old horses out back.” Paul watched the old man amble off through the old barn stopping at every curious nose to give a scratch or a pat.  A three legged dog of unnamable breeding hopped along snapping his teeth at the flies.

This was all that young and cute little gallop girl’s fault Paul mused. She’d  mentioned the Hamer’s place when she was talking about all of the racehorses who needed homes. She told Paul a few stories about an old couple that re-homed  ex racehorses and gave sanctuary to some too crippled or cranky or crazy to adopt out. She talked about how the couple had weathered the storms of the years while other fancy horse rescues had come and gone. Originally, Paul had been bored by the discussion, he’d seen enough of the do-gooders in his days who vilified his profession and he hadn’t the time or the patience for them.  But he learned that the best way into a girl’s bed was to listen and he had.

But the story of the Hamer’s and their farm got into his head and wouldn’t let go. He found himself thinking of them that night, and he couldn’t sleep. He thought about all of the horses on whose back he had made a living for as long as he knew. Most he couldn’t remember and a few he’d never forget.  

He’d been feeling the itch to run anyway as his apprenticeship had neared it’s end.  He’d also been entertaining the idea to stay put for awhile. It surprised him. But that woman with the loud squeaky voice who had pointed him out on his way back to the jocks room had sealed the deal. He’d never been that close to getting caught. He felt like shit for leaving Ann. He hadn’t planned to fall for her as hard as he had. He couldn’t remember a time when he had so admired and so desired one woman. 

Not to mention the guilt.

He replayed her wreck over and over in his mind; him sitting on the track after being dumped and watching helplessly as his horse bolted into Ann’s. The sounds, the scream, the crunch he felt through his whole body.

He’d sat in the emergency room after she’d passed out. He watched her. He wiped the track dirt off the side of her face. He watched the face of Jude Keenan as he rushed into the hospital. 

And now he was gone. Out of her life with no way to re-connect. Leaving had always been so easy, so freeing. Why not this time? Because he was getting older?  Because he really liked these people or because he might be in love for the first time in his life?

News Story

Nate Hamer was finishing up his last bit of frozen waffles and savoring his one allotted cup of strong coffee when his wife presented him with the morning paper.

Farmer Reading Newspaper 1881 – Albert Anker

San Diego County Journal

TECATE, CA  Hwy 188 was closed yesterday for three hours while authorities cleaned up after a tractor trailer wreck.  The trailer contained 23 horses presumably headed for slaughter in nearby Mexico.  Three horses were dead on the scene, one escaped from the trailer wreckage, its whereabouts are currently unknown. Six additional horses were euthanized for injuries and the remaining 13 horses have been taken into custody by the San Diego Humane Society.  The driver of the truck fled the scene and has not been found.  

It is presumed that a mechanical malfunction of the older tractor trailer is the cause for the accident.

The San Diego Humane Society is seeking assistance in finding homes and health care for the horses who range in age and breeds. Many of them are presumed to be Thoroughbreds from a recently foreclosed breeding facility in Temecula.  Please contact the San Diego SPCA if you can help with the horses and contact the San Diego County Sheriff if you have any information about the driver of this vehicle.


Nate’s wife of 38 years took his plate and, against doctors orders, refreshed his cup of coffee.  She sat down, folded her hands and watched Nate read and re-read the article.

He sighed “We don’t have any more room.” 

“I know.” And she did.

“Where are we going to put them?”

“I have no idea.” And she didn’t.

“I guess the Bleau’s might have been serious when they said they’d send the broodmares to the auction if we didn’t take them.”

She didn’t answer, there was nothing to say.

“Those poor horses.  What did they do to deserve this?”

Again, there was no answer, so she didn’t offer one.

“Well, let me see if I can talk Javier into hauling some for me. Maybe Tammi and her mom will be able to foster one or two. Do you want to go with to the shelter?”

“No, I’ll stay here. We can’t take them all Nate.  You know that.”

And he did.

Bug Boy

Bug Boy An apprentice jockey who gets a weight allowance to compensate for his inexperience.” from the beginner’s guide to racing…..

Edgar Degas – jockey

 Charlie Clahain was a trainer’s dream.  Young, but not childish, well spoken, mannerly and talented. 

The owner’s loved him and he sure could ride. As an apprentice, he carried 5 lbs less than the rest of the field but he rode even better than a pro – like a hungry pro. 

With Charlie, you didn’t have to wade through the layers of complicated ego that so often surround the best riders and you didn’t have to fight for him with an agent.  He was there to ride for you with a smile and an attentive ear. Charlie was a rising star.

The ladies loved him too.  His boyish charm, strong straight teeth, tiny gymnast’s frame, and Irish accent had the women squirming for more of his attention.  He had a soft voice and a giant laugh.  He was small enough that weight wasn’t as much an issue as it was with riders older and taller than he was. 

In the jock’s room, he was friendly and funny. The best jockeys liked the fact that he rode well and carefully – not like a lot of hungry, inexperienced bug boys who rode loose or took unnecessary chances with the owner’s horses or with other jockey’s lives. Not once had the older riders had to pinch him off or drive him to the rail to show him how the game was played. He avoided scuffles with other jocks and was respectful when appropriate. Everybody liked Charlie.  Everybody hoped that he would stay around instead of drifting off to Canada or to the lesser tracks up north. He was smart enough to ride out his apprenticeship here in Southern California where the  purses were high.  Once he lost that 5 pound advantage, he may have to make other plans.  He made friends easily and yet nobody knew where he stayed at night, which was usually at one girl’s house or another. Other than a good Irishman’s zest for Guinness, he didn’t seem to have any messy habits to clean up after or conceal. 

Charlie ticked off wins at a respectable rate.  He always gave credit to the horse or trainer and never dismounted without giving the male horses a good hearty pat or gentle kiss on the neck for the fillies.  He was garnering a good reputation with important barns and showing no tendency towards billowing into an egomaniac.  He took his successes as well as his losses in stride and racing welcomed him.  

The Stewards, racing’s state employed umpires, had a responsibility to the betting public to ensure that racing was clean and fair.  Every apprentice rider was scrutinized not just for  his riding ability (or lack of same) but for personal habits that might make for racing scandal.  They were pleased with Charlie.  The one time he was called to appear before them for a horse that lugged out in the stretch and interfered with a horse making a move for the finish line Charlie bowed his head and accepted a three day suspension without protest.  Even if it was obvious from the replay tapes that Charlie’s horse was tired and that Charlie did all that his 108 pound body could do to maintain a straight course, the impeding cost the betting public an honest win and the Stewards couldn’t let such things go. 

During his suspension, Charlie disappeared without a trace. Most sidelined riders hang around the barns or the races, garnering business and complaining about being wronged by the Stewards.  Not Charlie. No phone call to his agent, no whining, no walking around the barns kicking dirt – no Charlie at all.  

Racing has a tremendous ability to forget those who are not in attendance and not many people worried much about it.  Charlie took a full two weeks to re-appear, and with him returned his smile, his laugh and his riding talent.  He neither apologized nor explained anything to anyone including his exasperated agent. He resumed riding and winning at a fair clip.  Soon, Charlie was very close to  losing his apprentice status and several owners, trainers and girls were anxious to know if he planned to stay in Southern California for the summer meet at Del Mar.  Charlie managed to duck all of the questions and charmed his way out of long term entanglements with the owners, the trainers and women. When he was only five wins away from “losing the bug” Charlie was involved in a nasty spill and broke three ribs and his collar-bone. The ambulance delivered him to the hospital on a Friday afternoon and by Saturday morning, Charlie had vanished. 

Roxy’s Creation

Only a couple of grooms knew Roxy was sleeping in one of the rooms above barn 104 since she’d left Tony.  She’d scrubbed the urine and beer smells from the floors and borrowed a cot. She’d salvaged two sawhorses and a slab of plywood to place on top for a worktable. Light was a problem. The small barred window let in little daylight and the overhead bulb with it’s stark fluorescent glare threw dark shadows.  She’d purchased an outdoor flood light from the local hardware store and other than the uncomfortable amount of heat it generated, it worked.  

Erte, Female Warrior on Horseback 1910

Roxy unwrapped the block of new clay.  She arranged an oilcloth on the table and switched on the lamp.  She laid out her precious knives, pointed sticks, sponges and wires and set to work.  

The wires would create the frame for her to work around. Finding wire with the perfect balance of flexibility and tension was tricky.  Over the years. she’d tried all different gauges of wire and always came back to the wire that bound hay bales. Twenty years ago, hay was wrapped in three strands of wire. These days, hay and straw were almost always bound in nylon twine.  She’d hoarded these now special wires in an old duffle bag for as long as she could remember.  She took a bundle and started snipping off segments.  She arranged them in a pile with some bits up to two feet long and others as small as 4”.  Expertly, she began to twist them together and within  minutes a stick figure of a horse appeared – neck, back, ribcage, tail, legs, head and even ears were depicted. Roxy held the figure at arms length, assessing – the back was too long. She took it apart and snipped a minuscule amount from one wire, reassembled it and was satisfied. She crimped the wire to indicate joints and parts where legs joined  hips, where forelegs became shoulders.  She used pliers to create the joining and the joints.  She worked from memory and feel.  There were no photos of horses on the walls, no models of horse skeletons to use for reference.  Horse bodies were part of Roxy’s make-up.  She knew their bones better than her own.

She took the clay, slightly warm now from the heat of the lamp, broke off a corner and rubbed it between her palms.  It became pliable, softer and alive in her hands. She squeezed and molded. She wrapped the clay around the center wire.  Too thin. She removed it, added more clay and repeated the process, forming the back, the legs, the chest, neck, head and tail.

Roxy played with clay since she was a little girl.  She made forms with dough, with mud, with the colored plastic-like clay that smelled like crayons.  She loved to squeeze and roll and manipulate. She’d tried art classes in school, but drawing bored her and painting was frustrating.  She bought some books on sculpture 25 years ago and had been molding and playing ever since.  She’d tried to sculpt faces and vases, even a bird, but all that ever came out was horses.  She loved making  muscles flow over broad backs and creating motion that trickled down the fragile legs but mostly, she loved carving and changing their expression. By swiveling the head or raising it a notch and making nostrils just that much bigger, she could change a relaxed horse to one on alert. By reforming the neck, the horse could become tense or angry.  She could show agitation and then make subtle changes to show the animal in repose.  

In this space, with nothing but the light and the clay wrapped around wire, she was quiet.  She could shut the world out and nothing existed except what she was creating. If she didn’t like the creation she could change it and if she didn’t like that, she could destroy it. This treasured time was hers and hers alone.

Her last few pieces ended badly.  She’d had a vision of what she wanted in them but what appeared didn’t measure up.  There was no plan this time. Just a burning desire to build something new. 

Now that the basic structure of a standing horse was made, she began to move it. It stretched forward – running.  She lowered the neck and stretched the nose out.  Nothing new – a racing horse. Disappointing.  She thought  there was something fresh in this project. She wanted to happen – something dangerous or fearful.  She couldn’t tell what. It  was a delicious and exciting burning in her belly that scared and excited her.  She’d promised herself to let go and see what appeared. She craved an outlet for the angry and sad energy of her day. Something to take her mind off thinking of the enraged face of Jude Keenan accusing her wrongly after all of her herculean efforts to help – all of her help thrown savagely in her face. She hurt.

What was happening looked like a score of others she’d done.  A horse, running hard, stretching. This was a handsome horse for sure. A male horse, a young stallion; thick in the throat and broad in the shoulders. He was big too. Long, athletic and mighty. Her hands reshaped the loins and she started the intricate details such as the protruding veins of a strong, fit and healthy racehorse. She formed the clay for the head, held it in her hands and began shaping it with her knife.  He had a chiseled muzzle, she pressed and made the space between his eyes even thicker, his jaws fierce – definitely a young stallion. His expression emerged;  his nostrils brought in more air than seemed possible. Her breath caught. She stared. She hadn’t expected it to be Invictus.  But there he was in her hand, breathing fire and running. She committed to letting the muse take over. She made the ears slightly smaller and added bulk to the body.  She shaped the legs – her mind not seeing, but feeling their shape, the definition of the forearm, the width of the carpus the curve of the sesamoid and the flatness of the hoof. She realized that tears were streaming down her face as she formed the stride she knew Invictus would never take again in real form. She reshaped the size of his chest filled with air that was fueling his muscles.  

Where was Invictus now? At the vet hospital filled with tranquilizers as they filmed another angle of his injured foot?  Standing under a horseshoer who was attaching an orthopedic pad to his shoe to support his injury? Pacing a stall oblivious to the pain as he tried desperately to figure out where he was and what his new surroundings meant? Packed in a horse trailer en route to a retirement home or euthanized and laying on a concrete floor awaiting the autopsy to determine the full amount of that crazy woman’s insurance settlement?

Where was Jude?  In the arms of his Barbie doll girlfriend? At the bottom of an excellent bottle of scotch? At Ann’s bedside telling her all the news of how Roxy Ayers ruined everything? Life trickled back into Roxy’s secret hiding space with a vengeance.  Tony, no doubt was fucking his new vet and counting all the money his new owner would bring him.

Roxy pushed back from her worktable. She wanted a cigarette.  She wanted a joint.  She looked at her creation and it was good. Really good.  It was Invictus, in all his rage and power. Roxy thought about the wind whipping through her helmet as the track opened up in front of them. They were flying. Rather, Invictus was flying and she was less than a passenger, she was along for the ride like an uninvited guest. Roxy thought about the moment she picked up the reins. He stomach clenched. She swallowed hard and took the right front leg of her clay form in her hands. Roxy reached over and lifted the chin of the clay model just a hair. She sniffled once and with care and deliberate movement she placed her thumb on the right front knee and felt the wire give. It was bent ever so slightly back. A greasy sweat broke out over her shoulder blades.  She had frozen the moment in clay. 

This piece was finished.

Mercy Street at the Test Barn

Mercy Street snorted and growled all the way to the backside where she was expected at the test barn.  Every vein in her body was visible beneath her sweat lathered coat.  The groom, a strong and surly man managed her efficiently but was happy to hand her off to the state employed staff of the test barn.  He took his seat on a bench alongside the wall and attended to the welt  Mercy Street had raised on his arm when she bit him in the winner’s circle. It was already turning purple and the bruise would show through his olive skin for some time. He thought to ask for some ice from the staff but didn’t see anyone who was likely to speak Spanish and so he gave up the idea.

Mercy Street would be awhile in the test barn.  They would walk her and give her sips of water as her body cooled, then she would be bathed in warm water and walked some more until her coat was dry and her pulse close to normal. Then she would be taken to a test stall for blood and urine samples.  

Alexander Taming Bucephalus by F. Schomer, Germany, late 19th century

While the other horses walked, Mercy Street fussed and snorted, pawed the ground and sweated.  The State appointed vet on duty, Margaret Nehrlich was called when it was clear to the testing staff that the mare was out of sorts and possibly heading for distress.  The staff did their best to get a heart rate reading on the animal who refused to stand still.  Dr. Nerlich struggled to keep her stethoscope in contact with the mare’s ribcage, just behind her left elbow but Mercy Street cow-kicked violently at the veterinarian  just missing her kneecaps.  Maggie  jumped away and signaled to her employee to keep the mare walking and offer her water.  She pulled her racing program from her pocket and looked up the mare’s racing connections.  She expected one of four trainers she knew to have low regard for the rules of racing and was taken aback to find Jude Keenan’s name listed as Mercy Street’s trainer.  He had a good reputation, good owners and an excellent track record of little to no problems with the racing officials. This wasn’t making sense. Here was a horse obviously in metabolic distress and it sure looked like a chemical performance enhancement.  If she gave the animal a tranquilizer to calm her and save her from obvious distress, her system would be contaminated with the tranq.  She’d have to dive in and get the blood samples and hope that she wouldn’t get eaten alive by the agitated 900 pounds of raging muscles currently dragging around each of the test barn’s experienced staff.  She’d have to hope that the animal didn’t get worse and that she could eventually get a urine sample.   She let the staff know that she’d be back in a few minutes, she wanted to make a phone call or two before ordering them to take the blood sample.

Closing the door to her tiny office, she flipped through her stack of business cards in the old metal desk, found what she was looking for and placed a call on her personal cel phone.

Her old college buddy answered the phone from his van in Florida.

“Seth, this is Maggie calling you from California.”

“Mags! How’s that cushy desk job working for you?  I’m still out floating teeth and sewing up cuts.”

“It’s fine Seth.  Really fine. Sometimes I miss being out in the field but I’ll never miss 2am colic calls. I’m calling you because I know that you had a run in with some guys from Columbia  that were suspected of using that crazy Frog Juice. Did anything ever come of that?”

“Dermorphin? Crazy stuff. Well, they weren’t able to catch the dirty bastards we suspected of it here, but I heard that the lab in Denver at the University has been able to test for it.  Hard though.  And those horses here ran like raped apes – could hardly get the horses back to the winner’s circle they were so hyped and it was like these jerks were laughing at us, they knew they had tipped the game. But once you see a horse on it, you don’t forget.”

“Really, tell me what they look like?”

“Sweat like crazy, eyeballs rolling around in their heads, won’t cool out.  You go back and forth between feeling sorry for the poor beast and wanting anything to get away from them.  They bite and kick and strike.  Terrible stuff. I heard a bunch of match racing horses died while they figured out how to manage the dose. I can’t imagine what those poor horses went through.”

“Interesting.  Do you know anyone at the lab in Denver?”

“Not off the top of my head Maggie, but I’ll find out and email you tonight.  Sounds like some of those South American bastards found their way to your fair state?”

“I’m probably not at liberty to discuss.  Not until I get a sample tested. Promise me you will send me an email?”

“Pinky swear Maggie.  Happy to help.”

“Thanks Seth, gotta go.  Bye”

She hung up quickly in response to the opening of her door.  One of the Horse Racing Board’s investigators, a lazy bureaucrat she despised pushed his way in. Ted Knaak squared his flabby shoulders and puffed his chest to exude authority. “Anything I should know?”

“Nothing Ted.  There’s a horse that’s acting like she has a painful tummy ache and I’m watching her for colic that’s all.” 

“The boys out in the barn are making noise like we’ve got a dirty one out there.”

 “We don’t have anything until we get samples tested and back from the lab Ted. You do remember the premise of the American justice system right – innocent until proven guilty?” Maggie had quit trying to be civil with this man months ago.  Her bitterness seemed to have no effect on the man and she had the satisfaction at least of being honest in her dealings with him. 

“Who’s the trainer?”

“I didn’t notice Ted, I told you, I’m busy dealing with a horse who looks sick. Will you please get out of my office so I can do my job?”

Ted picked the program up off her desk “Jude Keenan?  Hmmm.  He’s the one that had that horse drop dead on the track last week. And he just had a big fight in the barn with an owner.  Security was there and everything.  I heard he totally lost his head. Looks like he’s getting desperate.”

Maggie grabbed the program out of Knaak’s meaty hand. “Did I stutter when I asked you to leave my office? And by the way, get your facts straight, Keenan’s horse was in a head on collision, that’s why it died.  It didn’t ‘drop dead’ as you say.  As an investigator, you would think you would be more interested in facts than in rumors. Please leave now, there’s got to be something you should be doing.”

“Touchy touchy little lady.  I’ve got my eye on you – don’t forget.” Inspector Knaak winked and backed out of the door.

Mercy Street’s Race

 Even in the best of times Mercy Street was a nervous mare. Perhaps she picked up on Jude’s agitation or perhaps the stress of race day was enough to send her into distress was anyone’s guess.   Jude cursed again that Ann wasn’t around.  At least one of them could be at the barn and one could be saddling this crazed filly. Jude did his best to quiet his body as he placed the tiny vinyl saddle on Mercy Street’s back. She pranced and kicked at him, just missing his kneecaps. He caught himself wanting to punch the mare in the neck. He glared instead at the groom who looked at him with a level gaze that told Jude he knew that Jude’s business was falling apart and that it was doubtful he would have a job by the end of the week. The man’s insolence further enraged Jude and he savagely cinched Mercy Street’s over-girth as tight as it would go causing the mare to launch skyward in surprise.  He handed the blinkers to the groom who was struggling to keep the filly from crashing into the other horses already saddled. The man could earn his keep by putting the blinkers on himself. He headed towards the garden where he would meet the jockey, thanking his lucky stars that Abe and his group had politely declined to attend the race.  Mercy Street was overmatched in a tough field – a long shot at 15-1. In her agitated state, Jude knew she would be lucky to come in anything but dead last. He refused to care but he focused on the task at hand to keep his mind off the picture in his mind of Invictus sweating in pain, his foot waving in the air. 

Jockeys and Racehorses – Edgar Degas

Charlie Clahain sauntered into the paddock oblivious to the drama.  Jocks are sequestered in the jockey’s room between races and word of the incidents with Team Bleau and Jude’s barn had yet to make its way to the jockey’s room.  With his characteristic grin Charlie shook Jude’s distracted hand.

“How’s it going to go Boss?” Charlie asked. We’re a long shot, but shot all the same.

“The stupid bitch is in a mood. Keep her quiet as you can. She’s half way to washed out already.  Don’t warm up too much, just get her loose and quiet and then get in front and stay in front. She’s only got cheap speed.  Let’s hope the finish line comes before she quits.”

“I’d like to thank ye for ridin’ me. I know you have your choice of riders.”

“Yeah, yeah.  Thanks for helping out and for visiting Ann. The least I can do is put you on this washy bitch. See what you can do. In fact,” Jude looked at Charlie for the first time “Ann and the barn really need a win. Just get it done, okay?  For Ann.”

Charlie straightened the goggles on his helmet. “Bet the house on the little lass, I got this, and we’re gonna get some odds.” 

Jude patted the rider on the shoulder then legged Charlie onto the prancing mare. Her blinkers were twisted, impeding her vision. Enrique grabbed the bridle rudely from the groom, straightened the blinkers, patted Charlie on the knee and winked.

What the hell, Jude thought and he made his way to the betting window.  One last peek at the tote board showed Mercy Street at 18 to 1.  He emptied his wallet placing $500 to win. He  had nothing to lose. Enrique who had never left his side, shrugged. 

Charlie did as he was told.  They watched the TV monitors as he warmed her up away from the other horses cantering lightly and patting her sweaty shoulders.  He found a spot in the shade not far from the starting gate and stood her all the while patting and quieting her quivering body.  They saw her dilated nostrils flex and snort and foamy sweat run down her hind legs.  

“She’s a wreck.  She’s always been goofy, but I’ve never seen her like this on race day.” Jude mused.

No se.” Was all Enrique could say.

“I’m looking forward to a great season. My NEW TRAINER is fantastic!” Lavinia’s voice carried like an arrow through the grandstands.  Jude looked over to see her talking to an interviewer for the  Racing Times with Clive Ullswater at her elbow looking dapper as always.  Jude bristled at the sound of her shrill voice and walked away and toward the closest bar to watch the race.

Like the consummate pro that he was Charlie made excuses to ensure Mercy Street was the last of the seven horses to load in the starting gate.  He pretended to need to adjust equipment, knowing that the filly would explode in the  gate if left too long. Mercy Street loaded last and the gates popped open with a bang and a ringing of the starting bell. 

Mercy Street ran as if someone set her tail on fire.  Within four jumps from the start she was in front but running wild. Charlie placed his hands low and breathed deep trying to settle the filly into her stride. Instead of settling the mare dug in harder. Charlie looked between his legs and saw the field fading behind him. He parked his left heel forward and flexed both ankles deeply as he rocked his weight back hard trying to slow the crazed filly to no avail.  There were more than halfway through the race now with only three furlongs to go and all he could do now was to avoid fighting the filly and let her go her pace and hope that field wouldn’t catch up with her before exhaustion did. Legs pumping hard and gasping for breath the little mare stabbed the ground with her hooves and won the race by eight horse lengths. Even after the finish line, when the mare should have been spent she fought mightily as he pulled her up. She clawed the air with her front hooves and shook her head violently. Making their way back to the saddling paddock the mare fussed and danced. He managed a look at the tote board that showed Mercy Street raced at 24 to 1.

He finessed her back toward the Winner’s Circle, with her slinging her head every time he used the reins to direct her. Her groom appeared and grabbed the bridle, the mare bit him hard. Grunting he maneuvered her to the winner’s circle where Jude and Enrique were waiting with smiles on their face. 

“Charlie my man – what did you do?  She’s never run like that before!”

“I told you I had this – we did it for Ann.”  Charlie leaned over the dancing mare’s neck and kissed her just as the photographer snapped the photo.  He jumped off the horse and patted her again off as the paddock judge affixed the tag on Mercy Street’s bridle indicating a trip to the test barn where samples would be taken to ensure that she didn’t run on any prohibited substances. His valet pulled the saddle from the sweaty mare and handed it to Charlie who proceeded to the large scale for a final weigh in to check again that he carried the requisite weight.  As he headed back to the jocks room he found Jude Keenan waiting for him again.

“Looks like I cashed a little gamble as well thanks to you.” Jude beamed.

“Boss, that little mare would have run through a brick wall today.  I don’t know what you did, but it worked.” Charlie bounced back towards the showers. A flash of blue caught his eye and he looked over his left shoulder to see a plump woman – an owner he assumed, standing with two security guards and pointing directly at Charlie.

“That’s him I tell you – his name isn’t Charlie Whatever – I saw him at that beautiful track in Mauritius a couple of years ago.  He always kisses the fillies and he’s got that adorable dimple! He called himself Isaac Kane or something like that.  I KNOW it’s the same guy!”

 Charlie blanched white.  Turning quickly, he did his best to walk casually back to the jocks room.  He steadied his breath and nodded to himself. Time to invoke plan D.