Enrique closed the lid on the medicated mud, wiped his hands on the towel hanging from his back pocket and used the wall to steady himself as he stood up in the stall. Mercy Street’s legs were slathered in cooling mud and wrapped in clean cotton pillows. He’d have to come back in and paint the bandages with a sauce of habanero pepper to keep her from chewing them off overnight.
Snorting and blowing, the mare regarded him warily as he stood. She wasn’t the friendly type. But Enrique knew her well. He reached slowly toward her withers, never looking her in the eye. Within seconds, the mare’s eyes glazed over, her neck stretched and her upper lip began to quiver in equine bliss. Her itchy spot was always on her left shoulder. He scratched for a full minute and then patted her softly. Both satisfied, he ducked outside the stall door and made his way down the barn aisle to fetch the pepper paste. His eye was drawn to the empty stall where the dead filly Dolce et Decorum should have been. The stall was clean and bedded, the straw fluffed and the hay net full. Enrique pictured her powerful frame and curious face as it was this morning before her workout. She’d had promise and was easy to be around. She had a habit of peeking around her hay net, curious to see what was happening in the stall next to her. He’d liked her for that curiosity and he missed her now.
In an industry where sentimentality is a luxury, Enrique was a wealthy man who spent lavishly. He knew the quirks of each horse and he indulged them whenever possible. Each animal was a treasure of personality. Some made him laugh, some made him wonder. He was a man satisfied with his work. He knew horses would come and go, some naturally, some tragically and he cherished the time he had with each one. However, when it came to humans, Enrique was thrifty with his emotions. He was an island of a man who preferred the company of horses over humans any day.
Fishing a peppermint out of his pocket, he fed one to the barn goat and one to his favorite bay gelding who quietly lifted the candy from Enrique’s thick palm and crunched it between giant molars. “Che old man.” He rubbed the silky nose and headed back to work.
Things would change at the barn and things would stay the same. He had a good crew – with a couple of exceptions. Most of the guys showed up on time and did their jobs well. A couple of the hot walkers were on notice for laziness.
Only one groom worried him.
His head groom had travelled home to Mexico for a holiday and sent his cousin to cover his job in his absence. Enrique took an instant dislike the the cousin. Something about his way with the horses unsettled Enrique. The man had skills and wasn’t afraid to work, but he had a shiftiness in him that made both Enrique and the horses wary. The guys called him Tito but Enrique knew that he carried around multiple licenses from the State Horse Racing Board with different names.
He’d keep an eye on Tito.
He’d seen the Boss talking to Roxy Ayers about galloping. Enrique remembered a time when all of them were younger and romance was on the menu for Jude and Roxy. Now Jude was a big-shot trainer while Roxy aged in a hard edged sort of way. Now, the notion of them being together was laughable. Both were acting professionally at the moment and Enrique hoped things would work smoothly. The barn was poised for a nice year with some good running stock and some up and coming hopefuls and if, just if ,they could keep The Big Horse, Invictus from destroying himself or some unfortunate human, great things could happen.
Enrique had his doubts that Invictus would do well without Ann. He had worked around female riders for most of his career and he knew that some of them were good, most of them were out to prove something and none of them had the talent that Ann possessed.
Normally, women interrupted the flow of a barn. Most women created chaos or drama. They needed too much attention, or demanded respect they weren’t willing to earn. Some women you wanted to protect. Enrique had to admit that he did have protective feelings about Ann but he never let on. He knew it would just confuse Ann and they had their jobs to do. Enrique thought about visiting Ann in the hospital, but he had no idea what he would say and he didn’t like the idea of seeing her laying in any bed. He liked thinking of her as strong and capable and laughing in her special way. Yes, he did feel protective of her. If only he would have waited until later to get the filly to the track – she wouldn’t have been at the wrong place at the wrong time. If only he would have put that little cholo rider on her back, then Ann wouldn’t be laying broken in a hospital right now. None of it mattered of course and nothing would change the way things were.
Enrique passed by Invictus’s stall and noticed that he’d emptied his water bucket completely. Whether he’d drunk it all or whether he’d kicked it out of the bucket was anyone’s guess. But no racehorse, especially one as talented as Invictus ever went without fresh water and so he slipped inside the stall, fended off the vicious teeth of the red monster and ducked out quickly with the empty water bucket in hand. He washed the bucket clean and filled it being careful not to let the hose end droop into the water. Doctor Connor had been adamant that not only did the horses never share a water bucket again, but that immersing the hose into a water bucket was a sure source of disease spread. He’d primed all of the grooms on the practice and he’d had to keep a close eye on one of the lazier grooms lest the barn be beset with another raging respiratory infection. He fished another peppermint from his pocket and let Invictus see it. His sharp ears heard the cellophane noise and perked forward. Enrique was not fooled, he tossed the peppermint expertly into the horse’s grain bucket to distract the animal while he re-affixed the filled water bucket to the wall. Invictus dove for the peppermint and savagely rooted around in his grain bucket to find it. Enrique chuckled appreciatively. Aggression in a racing colt the size and breeding of Invictus was not the horse’s fault. It was the product of hundreds of years of racing bloodlines and a wholly unnatural environment. In the wild, Invictus’s rogue behavior would be so over the top that the herd would banish him to perpetual bachelorhood. Instead, if he continued to race as well as he had, he would retire to the breeding shed where his every whim was attended to. But if they couldn’t get his feet to harden up, Invictus would be just another failed and unrideable ex racehorse with a lovely pedigree and nowhere to go. Enrique looked at the pale saucer shaped feet and sighed. Supplements, special glue on shoes, careful training and racing only on choice grass courses or wet and cold tracks, acupuncture – they tried everything and now Enrique would have to manage this beast without Ann.