Authors: Nikki Tate
Tags: #JUV000000, #book
When Jasper finally suggested Three Musketeers, Ryan and I looked at each other and said, “Yeah, fine.” It's not like we were crazy about the name, but we weren't going to live long enough to agree on another one.
“So, who's jogging what horse?” I ask Jasper. It's great that I don't have to worry about the schedule. As long as I am more or less awake when I show up, I do what I'm told. Jasper is so well organized he always has a plan.
“I'll do Dusty Rose, you do Finnegan,” Jasper says to me and scribbles our names down in the book. “Ryan's on stalls.”
I glance at my watch. It's getting lateâ nearly 6:30 am. If we don't hurry up I'm going to be late for school. Mondays suck, pure and simple. Only three months to go and grade eleven will be done. Ryan is pretty happy he graduates this year. I'd feel sorry for Jasper, who is only in grade ten, but he actually seems to like going to school. Freak.
I stand up and stretch. Mondays suck, but if we want Three Musketeers to survive, we need to win races. To win races, we need fit horses.
“Easy there, Travisâyour spuds don't have legs.” My dad nods at the heap of food on my plate. Roast potatoes. Roast carrots. Roast pork. And roast Brussels sprouts. Mom knows our favorites and regularly bribes us with food. She wants us to find some time to work on the new deck. I try to slow down, but it's hard not to shovel in the food when it's so good.
“What about this weekend?” Mom asks.
Dad and I keep our heads low over our plates. “This is delicious, Bev,” Dad says. I grunt in agreement.
“Flattery will get you two nowhere. I need your helpâI can't build the deck by myself. I thought you said you could take next Monday off, Geoff.”
Next Monday is one of those teacher development days, so I don't have school. It's also the day after the first of the Delgatto Stakes races. Dad has a filly running. I bet that's what he's thinking about.
What I'm thinking about is how much Jasper, Ryan and I can make between now and the fifteenth. That's when we have a payment due on Dig in to Win. We couldn't afford to pay his full price when we bought him last month. Tino Owen gave us a deal and said we could make a couple of payments. Tino might seem generous, but he has the biggest biceps I've ever seen. Last year he threw a hammer through his tack-room window when his groom didn't show up for work. I wouldn't put it past him to use that hammer to smash kneecaps if we don't pay on time.
“Boys?”Mom reaches over and touches my dad's arm. “Geoff, you promised.”
Dad lets out his breath slowly. “Yeah, I know.” He turns to me. “Travis, you in?”
“Fine. What about Angela?”
“Me?” My little sister is the queen of pink. She likes to pretend she can't swing a hammer, shovel out a stall or handle a paintbrush.
“Yeah, you. You'll be the first in line when we have a barbecue on the new deck.”
“I'd love to help, but we have that three-day meet over in Hickston.”
Angela is a gymnast. She is stronger than some of the guys in my class. Her eight-pack is scary. She's thirteen and does insane things on the balance beam.
“We can manage without Angela if you two are going to be here,” Mom says, looking from me to Dad. “Leave me your truck some afternoon between now and then. I'll pick up another load of lumber.”
Dad nods, his mouth full of roast something. Mom is one of those skinny little women smart people don't mess with.
“Good. Thanks, boys. Do they know anything more about the tail thief?” Mom asks, switching gears. Dad is already on to the next mouthful. He's one to talk about eating too fast.
I shake my head. “I was at the office, and Jack Krueger said he was going to file a police report.”
“How many did they steal?” Angela asks.
“Three.” I hold up fingers as I count. “Romeo. Jill's little fillyâthe one that was off in the fall with the hock problem. And Rocket's good horseâBig Man in Town.”
“That is so creepy,” Angela says. “What kind of weirdo would chop off horse tails? Maybe they're, like, in a cult or something. Maybe they eat babies.”
“Angela, please!” Mom turns back to me. “Do they have any ideas?”
Dad shrugs. “They all had good tails.”
“Good tails?” Angela laughs. “As opposed to what?”
“As opposed to scrawny tails. They were all long and thick.”
Angela looks unconvinced.
“And all whiteâ¦,” I offer.
Most Standardbreds are bays, various shades of brown with black manes and tails. It
strange that someone would carefully select the three gray horses at Blackdown Park, the only ones with light tails.
Mom helps herself to more salad. She picks out the mushrooms and transfers them to Dad's plate. “What are the guys in the office going to do about it?”
Dad shrugs again and slices off a healthy piece of pork. “What can they do about it? I guess report it to the cops.”
“What about extra security?”
“Honey, extra security costs money. You know the track keeps crying poverty. Krueger says they're thinking about cutting back to two race days a week.”
I eat faster. Just the thought of less racing makes me worry more. And when I worry, I eat.
“Was that apple pie I saw on the counter?” I ask.
Mom nods, pushing her empty plate away. “Life's short. Enjoy dessert.”
“With ice cream,” we chorus.
“I swear he's faster without a tail,” Jasper says, guiding Romeo back into the barn the next day. Jasper has just given the horse a fast workout.
For the thousandth time, I wish that Jasper were old enough to get his license to drive in races. He's got this feel for the horses that's kind of unreal. Somehow he knows exactly how hard to push, exactly when to push, and exactly when to just sit tight and wait. And he never loses his cool. It's like there's the soul of an ancient driver trapped in Jasper's sixteen-year-old body.
“First quarter in twenty-six.” When Jasper does that, it blows my mind. Most people need to check a clock to figure out how fast the horse is covering each quarter mile. Not Jasper. It's like he has a stopwatch in his brain. If he says Romeo covered the first quarter mile in twenty-six seconds, you know he's right.
I unsnap the quick hitch as Jasper moves around Romeo's other side, gathering the long driving lines and moving toward the horse's head.
“We just need him to race like that on Sunday.” Jasper gives Romeo's head a rub and moves him a step forward as I lift the shafts high and push the training cart out of the way.
“Great job, Jaspie!” Ryan says, slapping Jasper on the back. “Dusty's ready to go.”
The filly stands in her crossties, her harness on. I maneuver the cart behind her and snap her in as Jasper reaches her head and slips off the halter we've put on over her driving bridle.
Meanwhile, Ryan has stripped the harness off a steaming Romeo. He leads the gelding forward down the barn aisle, starting the process of cooling out the sweating horse. Romeo's sides puff in and out,
and he snakes his head down and forward as they set off.
Driving from the ground beside the cart, Jasper makes smoochy noises to Dusty. She steps forward, and Jasper walks along behind the cart, holding the long driving lines. When they clear the big double doors halfway down the barn and get outside, Jasper hops onto the seat without missing a beat. Casually he braces one foot against the front of the jog cart. The other leg dangles down, his boot sole not quite touching the ground.
He looks completely relaxed, but I know he is already reading the filly's body language, testing to see how responsive she is to the signals he telegraphs down the lines. Dusty is our least consistent horse. Some days she's amazingâruns her heart out. Other days, it's like she doesn't even know she's a racehorse. Just like human athletes, what a horse is thinking and feeling affects how it performs. Jasper is already a master at figuring that out.
While Jasper takes Dusty Rose out for her training session and Ryan strolls around the barns with Romeo to cool the horse down, I grab a manure rake. Dusty will be gone for about twenty minutesâexactly enough time for me to muck out her stall, dump the wheelbarrow full of manure and make a trip to the shavings pile for a barrow full of fresh bedding. While I'm doing the bedding, I let water trickle into her bucket. The last job is to fill her hay net. If I time it right, I'll have just hooked her net back up when Jasper gets back.
We take turns doing the different jobs. We all have our trainer's licenses so we can drive the horses during workouts. Sometimes it feels like we were born attached to manure rakes and wheelbarrows. That's what happens when you're practically raised at the track.
Pippa Rochester sticks her head into the stall just as I'm about to pick up the first pile of manure.
“Hey, Travis. Got any work for me?”
Pippa is not quite twelve, but she's been working around the barn for as long as I can remember. Her dad is Rocket Rochester, a guy who has been driving Standardbreds forever. “I wish!”
“When are you guys gonna win some more races?” she asks. “I need more work! The sale is next month!”
“Sorry, Pippa. Not today. Check again on the weekend. Maybe you could paddock for us?”
The minute the words are out of my mouth I want to suck them back. Lots of the younger teenagers help in the paddock, the long barn where the horses are taken before they race. That's where they are hitched to the race bikesâsulkies that are lighter and faster than the jog carts we use for training. You have to be in the paddock early, before you're allowed to head out to the track. Dusty and Dig in to Win both race on Saturday, which makes it tough to be in more than one place at once.
The problem is, kids under twelve aren't allowed in the paddock. The rules don't care that someone like Pippa knows more about harness racing than most people ever will.
I dig around in my jeans pocket and pull out a handful of coins. “This is all I haveâ¦”
“All you have? Or all you want to give me?”
“Both. Take it or leave it.”
Pippa leans over and pokes at the coins in my palm. Apparently, there are enough there to make her happy.
“Fine. But don't expect me to muck stalls for this every day.”
I hand her the manure rake and step out into the aisle.
“Nice one, Russell.”
Sassafras Calloway leans against the last stall, idly stroking Finnegan. The gelding has his big head practically in her lap.
“That's probably breaking every child labor law in the books, you know.” She nods toward Dusty's stall. Pippa is so short that when she bends over to scoop a forkful of manure she disappears completely. “And that's Sassafras to you.”
There's no point in arguing. Every other week Sassy changes her mind. Not just about her name. Every week she does something crazy with her hair. This week it's jet black. She's put something in it to make all these pointy tips in her bangs. The points line up across her forehead. Even with her strange hair and her baggy sweaters, Sassy always looks cool. All the guys, including me, think Sassy is hot.
“Is that a picket fence on your head?”
“Ha ha.” She snaps her gum, and Finnegan's ear twitches. “I need a favor.”
“What kind of favor?”
“My cat's sick.”
“Good one. Whatâdid he eat your homework?”
Sassy tips her head to the side and narrows her eyes. “Jerk. No, she's sick. She got into my purse and ate a bunch of chocolate.”
“Really expensive chocolate.”
“Just shows what you know. It's not harmless to cats. Especially small cats. Especially dark chocolate. Argentina's at the vet. I have to go and pick her up. Can you help me out or not?”
“Your cat is seriously at the vet because it ate some chocolate?”
Sassy draws in a deep breath and opens her mouth as if she's going to let me have it with one of her famous blasts of creatively foul language. Instead, her lower lip begins to wobble and her eyes fill with tears.
“Never mind. I'll ask someone else.”
She spins around and stalks off.
“Sassy! I thought you were kidding! I've never heard of that before. I eat chocolate all the time!”
“You are not a cat!” Sassy says, still walking.
I jog after her. “Heyâ” I reach out and touch her arm, and she waves me away. Her other hand reaches up and wipes her cheek.
“SassyâI'm sorry. What do you need me to do?”
“I don't know who else to ask. I need a ride to the vet.” She bites her bottom lip and keeps walking. “My mom's car broke down again.”
I grab her arm and this time she doesn't jerk away. “Wait here. I'll get Pippa to tell the guys where I went.”
She doesn't say anything, but she waits for me. I'm back a couple of minutes later. “Let's go.”
“It was so disgusting,” she says when we're in my truck. “Argentina was acting all weirdâshaking and tremblingâand then my mom saw the chewed wrapper and my purse was on the floor and we figured out what happened.” The words come out in a rush and then she starts to cry again. “I thought she was going to die.”
I keep my eyes on the road and reach past Sassy's knee to fish out some McDonald's napkins stashed in the glove box. “Here.”
“Mom called the vet and they told us to give her hydrogen peroxide and milk to you know, make her pukeâ¦but she couldn't really puke. I don't think we got it all down her throat. And my mom is, like, freaking out and I'm trying to carry the cat out to the car and my mom doesn't want Argentina puking in the car and I'm screaming at her to never mind the towels and just get her keys and let's goâ¦” Sassy closes her eyes and leans her head back against the truck seat. She doesn't look nearly as tough with mascara running down her cheeks and snot streaming out of her nose.