Dee stopped the truck in Oceanside at a coffee shop. She peeked in the trailer at Metta and found her contently munching hay. Dee offered the mare a drink of water from a bucket. The mare sniffed it and sipped twice. She’d travelled well and for that, Dee was grateful.
Dee stretched her stiff legs and purchased a cup of coffee and a homemade cookie from the kids at the coffee shop wearing wool beanies and tank tops. She dialed Nate’s number and reached his voicemail.
“Hey Nate. It’s Dee from up in San Gregorio. I’m about 40 minutes out and will see you soon. I’m so grateful that you are willing to take this mare. She’s special.”
Dee ordered another half a dozen of the fresh cookies to bring along as a peace offering. Nate’s penchant for sweets was legendary. She picked an array of gooey ginger cookies, crunchy peanut butter and buttery chocolate chip.
With one more peek at Metta before she fired up the old diesel truck, she set out on the last leg of her southward journey.
The truck swung off of the Pacific Coast highway and east on Hwy 76. The hills were covered with the deep green of avocado groves and the lovely polka dots of citrus orchards. She passed the fancy farms of the famous Vessel’s Ranch and mansion after mansion built in Mediterranean style with orange tile roofs and stuccoed arches. Turning right down Little Gopher Canyon Road, things got sparse and drier. The fences no longer manicured and painted wood but bent and twisted wire. She passed a school yard that was trampled by thousands of tiny thumping and mostly brown feet. Two more turns and she pulled into Nate’s dusty yard, scattering chickens and approached by stiff legged dogs.
“I TOLD you the wife HATES hopheads!”
She’d never heard Nate’s voice raised.
“You were pretty good help son but you gotta be out of here today. I made the rules clear and you just couldn’t listen! I gave you a chance.”
“Sir, it’s only marijuana. It’s practically legal.”
Dee turned to watch Nate’s wife, the strength and backbone of the ranch place a stuffed backpack on the front porch and firmly shut the door.
“Well son, that may be true but that woman over there is not one to be crossed. She’s had her fill of druggies taking advantage of us and she won’t stand for it. I’m too wise a man to argue with a reasonable woman. You have got to go and that’s final. Sorry to see it, but that’s how it is.”
Dee busied herself with opening the trailer and getting mare out.
“Is that you Dee?”
“Yessir. I come bearing gifts.” Reaching in the truck for the cookies Dee was surprised that the small man, presumably the guy that Nate had just fired, reached for Metta’s lead rope.
She absentmindedly handed it over while delivering the bag of cookies and a hug to Nate Hamer.
He smelled like Old Spice cologne – something that took her back 30 years and made her feed oddly comforted. Nate’s shirt was pressed, even if his jeans were worn and frayed.
“Easy sister.” The small man led Metta in circles as she growled and snorted at the swirling dogs and chickens.
“Looks like your girl isn’t a fan of chickens yet.” Nate nodded.
“She’s got plenty of reasons to not like people either.” Dee replied.
“I’ll never be as forgiving as some of these horses are – that’s for sure.” Nate added.
Something that sounded like a snort came from the man with the lead rope. Nate avoided looking at him and Dee recalled the angry conversation she’d overheard.
“Let’s get her in a stall or a pen where she can roll and get some water. Tell me where to go Nate?” Dee reached for the lead rope but the man turned away and started to lead the mare into the barn himself.
“He’s a good guy and I hate to see him go. But I won’t argue with the Missus. You heard me fire him?” Nate mumbled.
“What’s his story?” Dee asked.
“What’s anyone’s story? He’s a good hand. He’s hiding from life but the horses like him and so do I. But those are the breaks. So, let’s load you up with a young horse if I’m gonna take this mare from you. What color do you like?”
Dee laughed and slipped her arm around Nate’s waist as they headed towards the main barn.
Nate’s phone rang in his pocket and he excused himself. It was either an owner desperate to offload a horse or a pre-teen girl eager to acquire one.
“I’ll be with you in a minute Dee. Go look and find one you like?”
Dee wandered to find Metta. She was settling into a stall and the man was feeding her.
Paul finished tossing a flake of hay to the mare and brushed the leaves off his shirt. He offered his hand to Dee.
“I’m Dee. This mare is Metta. She’s wringy and suspicious but she’s got plenty of reasons to be.
“Hey listen. I’m not one to poke my nose in too much but it looks like you’re pretty handy and maybe could use a job?”
“I guess you heard all that. I can’t blame them you know.”
“And I probably couldn’t get through a week without pot.”
Both Dee and Paul shared a laugh.
“Seriously though. I’ve got a little place up on the coast in Northern California and I’m kind of tired of doing it all myself and I could use some help. Nate says the horses like you and that’s all I need to know. There’s no money to speak of but you don’t look like you eat much.”
Paul looked at his boots and brushed dirt back and forth with his toe. He shoved his hands deep in his pockets. “I don’t really know. I kind of thought I’d just wander around a bit and see what comes my way. But thanks.”
“Can’t say I didn’t ask.”
“Nate said you were looking for a project horse. There’s one here that’s probably a cripple for life but there’s something special about him I can’t put my finger on. Want to see him?”
“Yeah, I never hang a horse on the Hamer’s without taking one home with me. What do you have?”
Dee and Paul walked across the dusty farm followed by limping cats and scurrying chickens.
“How long have you known Nate?” asked Paul.
“Seems like forever. He’s just always been here for the horses. I worry about him. He keeps quiet but people just know that he won’t say no and that both of them will go without food and electricity before they let a horse go hungry. And somehow, they are the happiest people I know. Still in love with each other, grateful for everything. Grateful! Like they keep picking up everyone else’s garbage and they’re grateful. It’s cool – you know?”
“This is him.” Nate reached into the stall and the brown horse retreated.
“Not too friendly is he?”
Dee unlatched the wooden door and stepped in. The horse turned away but his feet didn’t move. “What’s his name?”
“We haven’t even looked up his tattoo yet. He just got here a couple of days ago. He came from Animal Control. Did you hear about that wreck with the semi full of horses headed for a Mexican slaughterhouse?”
“I think I saw something about it. He looks like he was a heck of a racehorse not too long ago.” Dee stroked his shoulder and the horse tensed, still sore. “Easy son, I’m just going to find out what your name is and maybe some of your story. Paul, I’ll flip up his lip. I assume you can read a tattoo?”
Dee eased her right hand around the handsome nose and slowly hooked the thumb of her left hand under his lip. The horse fussed and Dee patted him gently. Then he sighed and allowed Dee to reveal the tattoo on the inside of his upper lip that every racehorse wears. A letter to indicate the year he was born and then a five digit number.
Paul read the tattoo out loud “F2536 and it’s either a 1 or a 7 at the end.”
Dee released the horse’s lip and scratched him behind the ear. The horse sighed again and slowly turned away.
“Not that into people is he?” Dee asked.
“You have to see him when Nate is around. He perks up and looks like a puppy.”
“Yeah, Nate brings out the best in a lot of us.”
Paul looked down. Suddenly finding himself emotional.
Dee fished for something to say to break the awkward silence.
“I have this thing on my phone from the Jockey Club where we can look this horse up from his tattoo. Should we solve the mystery?
Dee fiddled with her phone and put in F25361. Well, that’s not it, that horse is a mare named Witchgrass.” She fiddled again entering a 7 as the the last digit. She paused. She pushed the screen. She pressed some more and looked at the horse and back again at her phone screen. She entered the stall and lifted his mane from his neck, studied the space between his eyes and back to her screen. She leaned against the wall, and exhaled hard.
“Where did this horse come from again?” Dee asked.
“Nate picked him up from Animal Control. No actually, he was at the hospital. Animal Control sent them there. There was this truck wreck out in the desert. The truck was full of horses headed to slaughter and it wrecked and it was a real mess. He was one of the lucky ones that survived.”
“Holy shit.” Dee sighed. “Paul, meet Vaya Con Dios, a son of Zo’Aster. He raced over 50 times and won almost three quarters of a million dollars. He bred by Team Bleau and owned by some guy named Wells.”
“Who sends a horse like this to the killer after winning almost a million dollars for them. Who trained him?”
“No way!” cried Paul.
“What do YOU know about Jude Keenan?” Dee pressed.
“Let’s just say that if the offer for a job still stands, I’ll go anywhere this horse goes. If you will take him, I’ll go with you.”
“Sounds like we have a lot to talk about and 9 hours of driving to do it.”
“I’ll go get my stuff.” Paul patted the horse’s shoulder and trotted out to retrieve his backpack from the Hamer’s porch.