Dark Horse in a Small Country

 

This short story was published in anthology 9 in 2012.

 

Dark Horse in a Small Country
Joan Fry

 

At the last minute Connie Cucul decided to watch the races in Orange Walk before he drove back to Los Angeles. Normally he stayed away from the track because he didn’t like what some of the trainers did to the horses to make them run. But the trailer behind him—a stock trailer he could convert into a leak-proof truck—was almost empty. Unless he picked up some horses to resell, he’d have to deadhead back. All he’d gotten out of this trip to Belize were a few boxes of Maya ceremonial masks and hand-woven skirts, and woven baskets the Garifuna made that he would sell to designers. What they didn’t buy he’d sell to the store owners on Olvera Street.

Connie turned down the rutted dirt road that led to the track. The dust was so thick and the humid air so dense and solid he could barely see his trailer in the rearview mirror. Swerving to avoid a dog and a rooster squabbling over manure rights, he caught sight of the race-day crowd and heard the rowdy, drunken hubbub. Horses, he thought wryly. When had he first realized that life was pointless unless there were horses in it?

He parked in front of a row of stalls belonging to Javier—he recognized the trainer’s scarlet and white banner—and as he slammed the door closed he heard a prolonged, hair-raising shriek. A jockey getting stomped on by his horse? A baby with exceptional lung power? A pig being castrated?

Connie had spent his childhood south of here in Punta Gorda, a small fishing village on the Caribbean, with his kid brother and two younger sisters. Their father worked as a guide, taking tourists on horseback rides through the rainforest. When Connie was ten, the entire family moved to Los Angeles—his mother had family there. Their neighbors were all Belizeans of some hue or ethnicity, but they all had the same complaint: it was too expensive to send presents to their families back home. By “presents” they meant old refrigerators that still worked, second-hand gas stoves, washing machines, even out-dated TVs. So Connie’s father started a trucking business, LA to Belize City and back. He made money his very first trip, and before leaving Belize, he used some of it to buy five broke-down race horses. After locating a cheap boarding stable near Griffith Park, he rode the horses every day. Then he let Connie ride them. When the horses stopped bucking Connie off, his father sold them as child-proof.

Constantine Cucul senior had been dead for three years now, but whenever Connie had a light load, he did what his father would have done: he bought some cheap, attractive horses. But this trip Connie hadn’t seen anything he could make money on, and he’d sold his last horse months ago. He missed them, with their quirky personalities and innate kindness. He was almost ready to admit that the longer he was married to Annette—a pouty, light-skinned Miss Belize runner-up—the more he preferred to spend his time on the back of a horse.

“Javier!” Connie called to a stocky mestizo standing behind the fence, halfway between the starting line and the finish line, talking to somebody. “Amigo! Qué pasa?”

The trainer turned around, waved listlessly, then turned back to a long-legged Creole man who stood listening to him intently. With Javier’s short stature, he looked as though he should be the jockey when in fact it was the other way around. The Creole, who was Connie’s height—maybe 5’10”—was the jockey.

Race tracks in Belize were nothing like California tracks. No security guards, the backside wide open, no permanent stabling, the track itself nothing more than flattened grass on the outside of a wooden fence that had once been painted white. But the biggest difference was that these horses didn’t have to be registered Thoroughbreds. They didn’t have to be registered anything. All they had to do was run.

Connie sauntered over to Javier and the Creole, eying horses as he went. Suddenly his heart missed a beat, then lurched into triple-time. A big liver chestnut, a stud to judge from his behavior, was putting on a show Connie had seen only in the rodeo finals at the Cow Palace in San Francisco—bucking, twisting, swapping ends. The jockey looked like one of those hapless little monkeys strapped to the back of a sheep dog doing a herding demonstration between rodeo events. But he stuck it out gamely until the stud, with no more warning than a grunt, flung himself over backwards. The jockey flew off his back like a bird taking flight from a tree branch.

The stud scrambled to his feet and took off. All Connie could do was marvel. The horse could undoubtedly gallop, otherwise he wouldn’t be here, but Connie had never seen a horse move so fast—more like one of those cheetahs he had seen on TV than a horse. What was a horse like him doing on a cheap race track in a third-world country? And why was he wearing Javier’s colors?

The stud headed straight for Javier as though intending to settle a grudge—or maybe he was heading for the finish line, and Javier was in his way—and Javier, the tall Creole, and Connie closed in on him, crouching, arms wide. When the horse stopped rearing and kicking and trying to escape, Connie’s hands were on the reins.

“No, amigo, you can’t buy him,” wheezed Javier. “I already sold him.”

“Who said I want to buy him?”

“You can’t take your eyes off him.”

“You own him?”

“I used to.”

“You should lose some weight, mon. Look at you. Panting like a dog.”

Javier gave him a thin smile. “My wife, she loves me, so she feeds me good. Maybe Annette don’t love you enough. Maybe that’s why you’re so maga.”

“I tell you for true, mon—the ladies like skinny men. You got his papers?”

The stud had a flaxen mane and tail and a small, off-center star on his face. Up close, his liver-chestnut coat was a shiny, bittersweet-chocolate brown. He was the most charismatic animal Connie had ever seen. As he looked into the stud’s amber eyes, the horse danced away from him, teeth bared, pawing up his own little dust storm. There was clearly something at the finish line he wanted—a mare in season, probably. Connie’s skin prickled with excitement. If he could channel all that aggression into running a race, the horse would never lose.

Within minutes the Creole jockey was astride another of Javier’s horses—there was no starting gate, just a line in the dirt—and the race started. While the stud pawed incessantly, gazing at the finish line, Connie and Javier watched the race in silence until Connie asked, “Who did you sell him to?”

“Some guy. I don’t know.”

“Where is he?”

“He said he had to go home and get the money.”

“So he’s not here?”

“What did I just tell you?”

“How old is he?”

“Your age.”

“I mean the horse.”

“Two.”

“I don’t understand why you guys race them so young. Messes up their legs, mon.”

Javier shrugged, intent on the race. His horse was fifth out of a field of eight but didn’t seem to be going anyplace, whereas the horses behind him were gaining. As the two leaders battled it out, the crowd went wild, the men punching the air with their fists, the women shrieking and hugging them.

“How much did the guy pay for him?” Connie yelled over the noise as Javier’s other jockey—the one who’d bailed off the stud’s back—limped up to join them.

“Why do you care? You said you weren’t interested.”

“I am if he has papers.”

“Connie. I promised this guy he could—”

“But he’s not here. I am. I have money. He doesn’t. What if he don’t come back?”

Without waiting for the winners to be announced, Javier—leading the stud—walked glumly back into the stall that was his office, a plank laid across cinder blocks with a plastic deck chair behind it. In the dirt next to the chair was a locked box. The little jockey took the reins out of Javier’s hands in order to unsaddle the stud. As Connie followed Javier inside his office, the Creole jockey jogged into view, slid off his horse, grabbed a rag, and mopped his sweaty face, muttering.

“The papers, amigo,” Connie prodded. “I don’t got all day.” He looked over his shoulder at the stud colt again. The number of people trying to unsaddle him had tripled. “Put him in my trailer,” Connie called to them. As they tried to turn the colt around, he stood straight up on his hind legs and neighed. In the distance Connie heard a goat bawl in reply. He could not have said how he knew this, but he did—it was the same goat he had heard earlier. The one that sounded like a pig getting his nuts cut off. Connie wondered if the goat hollered like that all the time.

“You want his papers, you pay extra,” Javier said, his round face shiny with sweat as he rummaged through the contents of the box.

“First let me see them.”

Javier handed him a piece of parchment that had turned limp as table linen in Belize’s relentless humidity. Connie scrutinized it. The colt was a registered Thoroughbred, all right. Named Wreckless. Oh boy, he thought after re-reading the name. Not a good sign. After taking note of the breeder’s name, he handed the papers back to Javier. “What the hell good does that do me?”

“What do you mean? It shows he’s registered!”

“Yeah, but where’s your name?”

“I just bought him!”

“Who from? And where’s his name?”

“All right, so it’s not here either. But his name is Vicente Canela, and he lives in Punta Gorda. One of your home boys.”

“I don’t talk that jive shit, mon. And I’m not going to give you nothing extra for the papers. It’ll cost me a lot of money to track down the previous owners and pay for all the title transfers.”

“What does that have to do with me? You want his papers, you pay for them.” Javier stuffed the document back into the box.

The next thing Connie heard was the goat squealing again, much closer. He turned around in time to see a brown and white blur sprint past the doorway and leap into his trailer. The colt—somehow the men had convinced him to load—stopped neighing. The goat stopped bawling.

Connie’s father had always told him, think like a horse. Connie was good at it—better than he was at thinking like a human. That explained Annette. But he was getting pretty good at humans, too. “I think you’re gonna give me those papers for free, Javier, since I now have a goat I don’t want and never offered to buy.”

“What goat?”

“I’m surprised nobody’s made cabrito out of him—he must run close to two hundred pounds. Probably eats as much as the horse, doesn’t he. Give me the papers, Javier.”

When Javier made no move to comply, Connie picked up the neat stack of bills he had just counted out and shoved them into his pocket.

“Hey, you can’t do that!”

“Why not? I changed my mind. You didn’t mention the fact that this horse is unmanageable without his friend the goat by his side. Or that you had the goat tied to a tree next to the finish line so the horse would run. But the horse got so worked up at being separated from his amigo that he refused to let the jockey stay on his back.”

“Connie, Connie. I never lied to you—you never asked about the goat.”

“Give me the papers and I’ll give you the money.”

“I’m telling you mon, I already sold him!”

“That’s bullshit. There is no ‘other buyer.’ How come you bought this colt in the first place? He’s crazy. Nobody in his right mind would buy this horse. What you were thinking, mon? But here I am, offering to take him off your hands. I’m doing you a favor.”

Javier heaved himself to his feet. “You got to let a mon make a profit, Connie!”

“You heard what I said. I’m not going to say it again.”

Javier held out the papers. “Take them. Take them and the goddamn horse and get the fuck out of here. Now give me my money.”

“Not so fast. First you are going to write up a bill of sale, dated—with today’s date—and signed.”

Twenty minutes later Connie pulled out on the road headed for Chetumal, just across the border in Mexico. The colt kicked and pawed the entire time, but at least the goat had shut up. As soon as Connie reached a place where he could safely pull off the road, he eased to a stop under the huge, leafy branches of a breadfruit tree so the trailer was in the shade. Now that he was carrying livestock, he would sleep during the day and drive by night, when it was cooler.

Grabbing a halter, some rags, and a rope he could tie the goat up with, Connie headed for the trailer.

He had recognized the breeder’s name. Some of the most respectable old-time Belizean families weren’t British. They were American, descended from Confederates who had moved here after the Civil War, although they preferred not to acknowledge that fact. Some lived not far from Punta Gorda, where Connie and his father had first seen and fallen in love with their magnificent horses. Even today these men used them to oversee their crops—cashews, cacao, coffee plantations—in the hilly, treacherous terrain. Sometimes they got together and held horse races, and Connie had never seen anything so exciting in his life. Nearly all the Thoroughbreds in Belize were descended from those original Confederate horses. But few owners had taken the trouble to register them with the Jockey Club in the States. Wreckless’s original owner—the man who had bred him—had taken the trouble.

Why?

Connie sighed deeply. What had he gotten himself into? He was probably the crazy one, not Javier. If Wreckless was useable—either as a race horse or a breeding horse—his owner would never have sold him. Was Wreckless just a stubborn, headstrong colt—fixated, at the moment, on dismantling Connie’s trailer—who could be trained out of his destructive behavior? Or was he an outlaw, a man-killer?

Cautiously Connie lingered at the escape door of the trailer, hoping that the colt—who was loose, more or less—wouldn’t stomp him while he caught and tied the goat. Then he had to catch Wreckless, tie him up, and wrap his legs so he wouldn’t injure himself on the long journey back to LA.

The thought made Connie smile. Staggering into a Mexican emergency clinic because he’d been mauled by a horse was one thing. But being mauled by a goat would make even a hardened, cynical member of the Mexican police fall down laughing.

Crossing himself and commending his soul to God, Connie flung the door open and lunged into the trailer.

 

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