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A Pound of Flesh
Usually the knot of backside workers did not cluster at the fence or place bets on the first race of the Oaklawn racing season. Mostly they were too savvy. Today was different.
Hands grimy from work, Darcy and Grace leaned into the fence, eyes focused on the red colt, Louisiana Tabasco. Elbow, with his usual penchant for being in the middle of any action, stood near the walkway and viewing circle.
From separate vantage points they watched the jockey carefully balance his weight above the withers, grab a handful of mane, and will himself one with the chestnut colt for the thousand-pound jolt out of the gate.
At the bell, the horse shot forward. He stretched low, legs digging piston-like into the track. Ears pinned, his red head thrust forward, the horse ran as if possessed, a freight train screaming around the oval. Foam flecks wet the bright silks. The colt charged down track and muscled through the field of horses into the far turn. Running wide, he settled into a long, wild stride, nose pointed toward the stretch. One length, then two, with the field a mass of flesh behind him. The colt streaked under the wire. Alone.
Grit and sand plastered the jockey. Fear and exuberance flashed across his face. He rose in the stirrups, fingers locked on the reins, and began a rhythmic pull-release, pull-release motion, praying for the track pony outrider to help slow the colt's mad rush.
Jim Hawkins waited until Tabasco, half way down the backside, eased up. He legged his lumbering draft pony-horse, Lady Spot, onto the track. They cantered alongside the horse a few strides before Jim attached the lead line, circled wide, and slowed to a trot.
Fractious, the chestnut flattened his ears and nipped at the stout mare, his teeth sliding over Lady's leather shoulder apron. Slinging his head back and forth, he kicked sideways and continued to mouth the bit. An oily sweat glistened along his neck.
"Damn horse crazy, too strong." The jockey spoke through clenched teeth.
"That's why they send me and Lady." Jim nodded knowingly. "She's the only horse steady enough to handle this rascal."
The trainer stood rigid at the track gate, his face contorted into anger. He fell into step beside the jockey and Tabasco. The horse continued to jig and snort in gunshots.
"Damn it all to hell." His face red, the trainer snarled at the jockey. "You've got to pace him. He's running like a bullet train. Throttle him down. Ration his speed, make him wait for you. You're the goddamn jockey."
"I tried. He's got his own mind." The jock jumped off, untacked, and moved toward to the weigh-in clerk. "We won. That's what you wanted isn't it?"
"Not like that. He's got to listen. We move out of these mid-distance races, take on a long one, a route race, and he'll burn up before the wire."
Ears flat, the chestnut worried at the bit, saliva dripping, teeth clacking. He pawed the ground, tossing grit and dancing in tight circles as they moved toward the winner's circle.
The trainer stepped in close to the horse long enough for the track photographer to snap two obligatory pictures.
"Well, it doesn't matter to me. I don't intend to ride this horse again."
"You sorry sonofabitch. You think you can pick and choose what you do around here?" The trainer thumped the slender man on the chest with his forefinger. "You need every ride you can get. Don't think I'm begging you."
"I don't see no jocks lined up. You have trouble getting an exercise bug for this fool."
Ears back, Tabasco shook his head back and forth, rattling the bit. The crowd lingered, watched the unruly display until the small knot left the track, then chattering, moved on to the betting windows and bar.
Jim walked Lady down track, away from the throngs, for the next race. He felt her hocks falter several strides before they stopped at the rail. He frowned.
For the next two races, Jim and Lady drew green horses. The young animals did not run in the money and slowed immediately after the wire. He felt grateful for the lighter duty.
After the final race, with the track emptying, Lady shuffled toward shed row. Jim nudged her out of the exit flow, dismounted, and loosened her girth. She snorted and lowered her head, following him. Dried, crusty sweat coated her chest and shoulders. Twice she caught a toe and stumbled.
Jim unsaddled the mare and slipped on a halter and woolen cooler. They began a slow amble around the row. He murmured to Lady. Her ears flickered back and forth, listening.
"My grand dame of the track. You've been a solid pony." Jim paused a moment to scratch around her ears and along her bridle path. "Your old joints can't take this treatment much longer."
With the crowds gone, three tractors rumbled onto the track, smoothing the surface for the next morning exercise rides. Dusk settled. Backside lights flickered on. Grooms moved businesslike between stalls. Workers sat in the aisles, talked trash, and cleaned tack. Horses snuffled around in fresh straw bedding. The easy groove of an R&B station wafted down row.
Jim slid the latch open, stepped into the stall, and poured Lady's evening ration into her trough.
His bay quarter horse, stalled next to the mare, thumped against the half door and nickered. A greedy animal, he plunged his nose into the sweet feed, stirring up the rich molasses odor. Jim laughed. The bay reminded him of an adolescent boy eating watermelon.
He did not hear Darcy sidle up until she draped her long arms across the half door, calloused hands dangling. "Use that bay. Give Lady time off."
Startled, Jim turned to her, then smiled. "Gelding's iffy. Race days with unruly horses and Lady is safer."
"Sunday's a short card. Don't think any of those rank hayburners entered."
"You're probably right. I have to replace Lady sooner or later."
"You and that horse been together longer than most marriages. Retire her. After all, you owe her something."
"Can't support two horses. Pastures don't come with apartments these days." Jim stood silent.
"Don't grab the dollar. Do the right thing by this mare. You know what the old timers say, squeeze the lemon, you get nothing but sour." Darcy turned away and melted into the evening.
* * *
Next morning, after workout, Elbow watched as the trainer and two grooms unsaddled the fractious colt. He leaned on his rake as they managed the colt's bath and started a cooling walk. Unable to tolerate the display any longer, he stepped around the muck bin and strode toward the knot.
"How 'bout I help you? Horse looks like he too much for y'all," said Elbow. He grinned. "Folks call me Elbow because I butt into conversations, you know, elbow my way in."
The grooms glanced at each other, then nodded.
"Darcy, girl, come here." Elbow hollered and motioned at a ruddy-complexioned woman who stood at the edge of the drama. She sauntered toward the men and leggy chestnut.
"Don't yell at me. You know this not my job. I finished my mucking. And my walking. I just stopped to watch you fools handle this big baby."
"Hoss be handling them." Elbow let loose with a guffaw. "Give him a song."
"You want me to help wrestle this hoss or sing him a church hymn? What's in it for me?"
"You know how hyped up he gets." Elbow turned to stare at her.
"More he gets muscled around, the worse he acts. Besides, he likes the singing. Think of it like this here: we trade work for work. You sing and hand walk. I muck the stall and clean water buckets." He chuckled. "Nice distribution of talents."
"I only do this 'cause I like this horse. Not on account of you." She stroked the red-gold neck. "He's nothing but a macho baby. Sensitive. Person got to get on his good side first."
"Sensitive? That what you call all this acting up?" Elbow shook his head.
Darcy rubbed the colt's blaze. The animal lowered his head, ears scissoring, and nudged her chest, rocking her back on her heels.
"I been thinking on it. This here boy act good when you singing and handling him. He's okay when a woman rides him. Ever notice that?" Elbow cocked his head to the side.
"That and a wooden nickel proves what?" She hummed softly, slipped the bridle off, and adjusted the halter.
The horse settled. Stretching his neck, he planted his legs and delivered a full-body shake.
"You see, he relaxes when treated nice. This horse's got talent. We team up and tap into his good side." He handed her a lead line.
Singing in a rich soprano, Darcy led the colt down row, then stopped and turned. "That bug jock Grace can ride this big baby. We get a solid pony horse and between us three, we can get this horse straight." She struck up singing again and walked the chestnut toward the end of shedrow.
"Lookie here." Darcy grinned and sashayed past on the second loop. "He's a Sunday gentleman already joining the choir."
Elbow nodded. Humming, he raked the barn aisle, tines scratching rhythm to Darcy's melody.
The trainer stalked past, mumbling.
"Hey boss man, I got someone can handle that horse." Elbow paused and leaned on his rake.
"What the hell business is this of yours?" The man turned, face flushed.
"Got no business. Only trying to help."
"Just who do you think you are?" The trainer glared at Elbow, his eyes narrowed. "Who do you know that can handle my horse?" "Darcy do it."
"That's the one." Elbow lifted his cap and scratched his balding dome. "Darcy and her friend Grace got special feelings for this baby."
"You mean that chapstick? The scrawny one?" Boss man grunted.
"Yeah. That one. Grace. She's working up her jock license. Horses don't care who ride." Elbow pulled a snuff tin from his hip pocket and stuck a pinch of Copenhagen in his bottom lip. "I know for a fact, them ladies love that chestnut hoss. Think he's special."
The trainer glared, silent.
"Maybe the best man for the job be a woman." Elbow cocked his head to one side and cackled.
The two men stood and watched while Darcy made another backside loop. The trainer shook his head and slouched down the row. Elbow watched Darcy and Tabasco a few minutes, then turned back to his work.
By the time he finished the fourth stall, he noticed the Livestock Sales and Disposal buyer talking to Jim Hawkins and glancing toward Lady Spot. Curious, Elbow eased in closer.
"That mare's stove up." The stock buyer nodded at the horse. "I'll take her off your hands now, before she goes downhill."
Jim stared at him and stroked Lady's neck. "You wear polished boots every day, never get them scuffed. You don't even touch the animals you send to slaughter."
The man hawked, leaned slightly at the waist, and spat. "You know well as I do, used-up ponies, spent racers and culls got to go someplace. Can't turn them out on the streets to starve. Besides, I can't get personally involved with every horse."
"Not happening today." Jim's lips, set in a thin, hard line, turned pale. "Maybe later."
"Whenever you're ready." Sliding a business card from his shirt pocket, he handed it to Jim. "Nothing wrong with a quick end. Humane. Kind. Think about it." He shoved his hands in his pockets and walked on down the aisle.
Elbow knew that meant one thing: the buyer offered Jim a deal. The mare, usable but old, couldn't work full days much longer. Jim, able to afford only two ponies in his outrider string, could not keep her. Devil take lifelong loyalty. No one said it. He just knew. That's when he hatched up his plan.
"What the hell you doing? Sleeping?" Darcy stood a few feet behind Elbow. He jumped and flared in irritation. "You know better than to sneak up on me. But, since you and Grace like that hot nuts so much, I can let you in on my plan."
"Plan? Who put you in charge?"
"Hear me out." He snatched the cap off his head. "You sing to that hoss. We get Grace to exercise that red fool and take the race ride. You use that spotted pony-mare to keep everyone steady." He grinned. "That colt learns to listen, relax, and act like a working race horse."
"Not going to happen."
"Why the hell not?"
"Jim's talking killer sell for Lady Spot."
"That deal not gone through, has it?" Elbow reared back and glared at her. He resented anyone that latched onto backside gossip before him.
"I expect by end of the season, she's gone." Darcy shook her head and sauntered toward the track kitchen.
* * *
Over the next two weeks, Jim used the gelding for morning exercise. By ten, session completed, Jim untacked and led the bay to the washstand. The horse always snorted at the hose and playfully nibbled at the water stream. Crystal droplets splashed into the air, caught the light, and vanished.
Elbow stopped, buckets in hand, and watched.
"What's happening, my man," Jim turned the faucet off and led the gelding to the mechanical hot walker.
"How that bay doing? Shaping up to be a solid replacement?" "Don't know, but I'm using him full time exercise days." Jim snapped the lead line onto the swing arm. "Lady's still handling race days."
Elbow scratched his chin. "I been consulting with my crew. They of a mind to offer you a deal."
"Crew? Didn't know you had a crew or offered deals."
"You understand we are a little short on funds." He stepped next to Jim with a conspiratorial wink. "But we offer you a way to keep Lady and save your conscience."
"Damn you. My horse and matters of my conscience are none — I repeat, none — of your business." Jim dried his hands on his pants leg. "Besides, the buyer's picking Lady up end of the season."
"Hold on, now. Don't be gettin' your britches in an uproar. Let's us not figure in no killers yet."
Jim squatted next to the gelding and began wrapping the slender black legs. Elbow bent down next to him.
"Me, Darcy, and Grace learning that red baby to mind his rider. He pay attention, that trainer take him up to a mile and an eighth. You know, take on the route races. Them ladies happy 'cause they love that fool."
Jim nodded. "He's got power but he's out of control."
"We got us a secret fix."
"Secret fix? What the hell?" He squinted sideways at the gnarled man.
"Music." Elbow leaned forward. "Between the music and no strong arm stuff, he settles right down. Listens."
Elbow handed Jim another wrap.
"And how's that work?" Jim paused and eyed Elbow.
"All in the training." He tapped his head. "Darcy pony that horse and sing. Grace rides. They trot the first exercise circuit together her singing. Darcy peels off at the sixteenth pole while Grace breezes the red boy on around. They come back, Darcy pick them up again singing. Every training day."
The men scooted around to the gelding's opposite side and continued wrapping.
"Where does my horse come in?"
"We got to have a solid pony. You know, a quiet one. Lady's it." Elbow's voice dropped to whisper. "Darcy be singing to that red nag any time your mare around — don't matter if they exercise, walking, washing, don't matter."
Jim stood and flipped the walker switch. The metal arms began a slow spiral and soft motorized hum. The bay stepped off with the motion. Across the yard, a hay truck grunted along the gravel lane, gears grinding. A barn cat sat and cleaned its face, fur glowing blue-black in the sunlight.
"Several problems with your plan. First, I've already called the buyer. Can't keep her and buy a replacement. I'm using her as my backup on race days. Second, this is none of your business. A horse is an investment, a tool. Nothing more."
"You wrong about that. She living, feeling animal. She worked steady for you over the years. Kept you safe."
"Non-working horse is a luxury, plain and simple. One I can't afford." Jim began washing the water bucket.
"That's where me and my crew come in." Elbow tapped him on the arm. "Listen, tell the killer deal's off. You let Darcy use Lady once a day with the red fool during exercise. My crew and me pay feed and vet bills on her. You keep ownership." Hands held wide, Elbow beamed. "We sort of lease her."
"I need folding green for another pony."
"That's the beauty of my plan. You use your gelding more, his training comes along faster. We pick up Lady's bills, you save, and put money aside. You have money when a suitable pony crop up."
"Nope. Can't see my way clear."
"Lady can handle morning exercise for one horse. Here's the sweet part — you run into trouble on race day with that gelding and need her, she's yours. She only needed for race days when the red fool running. You know that mare love to work." Elbow, arms spread wide, grinned and nodded.
Jim turned away. "Like the feller said, nothing wrong with a quick end. I've already made the call."
"Naw, man. You got to do right by Lady. You owe her."
"None of your concern." Jim strode off, his back rigid. He stopped at the tack stall, hand on the latch. "I'll be sure I use Lady as pony anytime that red colt's running. Consider it a favor to you." He barely glanced at Elbow.
* * *
Tabasco and the team fell into a rhythm. Darcy sang while she rubbed. She hummed to him over his grain. When he worked, she stood trackside, belting out every song she knew. Morning exercise, Grace jogged Tabasco light and playful, focused on control.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "If the creek don't rise"
Copyright © 2016 Nancy Hartney.
Excerpted by permission of Pen-L Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Postcard: Oaklawn Race Track, Hot Springs, Arkansas,
A Pound of Flesh,
A Ticket Out,
King David and the Bookstore,
The Girl Who Carved Wood,
The Bull and the Kitten,
The Soldier and the Lady,
Postcard: Nashville, Tennessee,
Saturday Night Street Festival,
Ads for Mule Feed,
One Dollar and a Red Button,
The Roses Are Beautiful This Year,
A Letter from Canada,
Postcard: The T-Bone Baggins Mystery,
Three Friends, Class of 1970,
The Reading, Saint Martin Parish,
The Cornbread War,
Postcard: Fort Worth Stockyards, Texas,
Postcard: New Orleans, Louisiana,
Postcard: Everglades National Park, Florida,
Opie's Fish House: A Love Story,
About the Author,