June 2019 - A Damn Fine Hand
Written by by Joell Dunlap - all rights reserved by the author 2018
Tuesday, 28 May 2019 02:40


Installment #12, Pneumonia.

by Joell Dunlap - all rights reserved by the author 2018

The veterinarian euthanized Pax Kristi by feed time. Her body was taken to the racetrack hospital for a necropsy and the barn was on lock down waiting for the tests to come back. Needless to say, the word was already out, grooms were thinking about looking for other jobs and trainers were lurking around thinking about picking up the barn’s clients as soon as Jude Keenan’s business was officially kaput.

Ann did her best to look and act normal while overseeing the feeding, afternoon walking, sanitizing and medications of the barn. Jude paced circles in his office with the door closed avoiding client’s phone calls and waiting for the call from the vet.

The entire staff held a collective breath when Doc Conner’s spotless white truck pulled up to the barn. Without meeting Ann’s eye, he ducked into the office and closed the door behind him. This couldn’t be good. Despite her best and most loyal efforts, Ann calculated her job prospects.

I could take Ian Froley up on his offer to work for him in Canada. Ann thought. Or maybe I could go back to free-lance gallop work. Hell, maybe I’ll get my trainer’s license and start my own barn.

Ann snapped herself away from her selfish thoughts when she caught sight of Enrique. Her heart broke at the sight of his broad shoulders slumped, his calloused hands wringing, his ball cap in his hands. The top of his head showed a bald spot in his course salt and pepper hair that she’d not noticed before. He looked up at her and swallowed hard. She watched him gaze up and down the barn of the beautiful horses and his thoughts were transparent “Will anyone else get sick and die?

Who is next?”

Ann immediately lamented her selfish musings and joined him in looking down the shed-row at the stable of horses, each of whom they both knew intimately – their likes and dislikes, their aches and pains. They each had a personality, a signature trait. In a rush, her mind went to her favorites and she couldn’t bear the thoughts of them staggering around, lungs filling with fluid as they had poor Pax Kristi just this morning.

Suddenly, the office door burst open and Jude and Doc Conner emerged, arms around each other’s shoulders laughing over one of Doc’s bawdy jokes. They patted each other roughly and Doc looked up at the gathering of grooms, hot-walkers, Enrique and Ann and announced:

“PNEUMONIA! Poor little bitch died of pneumonia! Now, we’re gonna have to pull some blood for some tests and keep these horses from going to the track for three days, but, barring that, I think we are gonna be okay. Enrique, you tell these boys to be sure and wash their hands about 18 times per day or more and to wash all the brushes and the tack with this soap I’m gonna give you, and call me the second any one of these nags even thinks about sneezing. Make DAMN sure that when these boys fill a water bucket, they don’t leave the nozzle in the bucket. A hose nozzle is almost as contagious as sharing water buckets.”

He picked up the water bucket that hung in the walking ring and tossed it hard into the dumpster. “If I tell one more trainer NEVER to share water buckets I’m gonna puke.” He shook his head. “Everyone gets their temperature taken twice a day and charted. Nobody goes in or out of the barn without washing the bottom of their boots in the foot bath I’m gonna give you. Other than that old Boss Man, I guess you had better give the best damn gallop girl here a few well deserved days off.” He smiled sideways at Ann.

Jude snorted and looked Ann’s way “You had just better get those bills out to the clients – don’t answer your phone from any of the people at the track unless it’s me or Doc and get your skinny ass out of here for 72 hours.”

Ann immediately looked at Enrique who, instead of three days off, would have his hands full managing the health of the barn while sterilizing all the tools, bits, brushes and anything else that might touch the horses. Expecting to see a resentful or tired barn manager, Ann looked up to see Enrique almost skipping down the barn aisle smiling at his favorite horses happily while handing out orders in Spanish to his grooms and hot walkers. Ann mentally punched herself for her ungenerous thoughts about Enrique. She should have known better.

“Well, what are you still doing here?” Jude asked. “Get your ass out of here before I change my mind!”

“Um” Ann stammered, “I thought I’d just, well, before I leave.”

“Don’t you listen? Get OUTTA here!” Doc Conner chuckled and pointed his finger toward the parking lot.

“But what about Viya Con Dios?” Ann pleaded.

“The barn is quarantined for the time being, he won’t be going anywhere until you get back.” Jude winked. “So I’ll have to feed his hay-burning hide whether I like it or Russ Wells likes it.” Now get gone! And don’t you dare talk to any reporters on your way out.”

North or South?

“Roger that Captain.” Ann saluted, turned on her heel and ducked into the office for her keys and bag. She felt equal parts of elation, relief and lost as she fumbled around for her keys trying to figure out what to do with herself for the next three days. She could keep her appointment with the orthopedic surgeon to look at her knee (NOT), she could drive up north and hang out with old friends (tempting). She could crash at Mark and Johnny’s place and be spoiled with great food, ocean views and culture (Jeezus, what’s going on with Johnny?) or a drive over the border into Mexico for peace and quiet to sleep and read for three days (heaven) or East to Las Vegas for who-knows-what kind of an adventure.

In an instant, her mind flashed to a sleeping Peter. She KNEW enough about diabetes to suddenly realize that his sudden sleepiness was less a matter of napping and more a matter of an insulin related coma. Leaving the office at a dead run, she braked just long enough to peek in the stall of Viya Con Dios and to blow his still sulking shape a hasty kiss. “See you soon big guy, I promise.”

Once in her car, she dialed Peter’s number. He answered, groggy and grumpy; “What?”

Ann sighed relief. “Hey Pete, I was just checking on you. How ya doin?”

“Sleeping like a baby until you called. Weren’t you just here?” He mumbled.

“Well I was, I was just worried about you, that’s all. Glad you’re awake.”

“That makes one of us. Do you make a habit of waking up old men from quiet naps? Cuz if you do, the next time you had better be wearing nothing but a smile.”

Pete coughed and laughed. “Well, it’s probably best, looks like this old hound needs to go out for a potty break anyhow. Mangy mutt.” Ann heard Luke’s ear flapping head shake over Peter’s wheezing. Relieved that a simple phone ring was enough to wake Peter – her worries about him being in a diabetic coma melted away.

“Peter? I’ve got a few days off from the track and I’m not sure what my plan is. If I left town for a couple of days, could you take care of Luke for me?”

“He likes me better than he likes you anyhow girlie. I guess you could dump him on old Pete for a bit.” Ann could feel Peter’s smile through the phone.

“Okay then, I’ll call you later today when I know what my plans are.”

“You want my advice? Go get laid, you need it.”

“Thanks Peter, you always know what to tell a girl. Gotta go. Big Love.”

She hung up while Peter was still laughing at his own humor. Now, what next?

With two days to kill and the dog and all the horses cared for, Ann threw a random bag of clothes together, locked the house and hopped into her car with only one major choice in her mind;  South toward the Mexican Baja Peninsula for sun and surf, tequila and nightlife or North to the foggy cold coast and the Ranch.

Ann had always loved driving. Driving alone was meditation and driving with friends, as long as she had the wheel, harbored many of her favorite memories. She remembered her Dad teaching her to drive when she was 14. She remembered acting clumsy to hide the fact that she’d been driving her boyfriend’s car for almost six months. Her dad had been so proud that she was a such a quick learner.

All choices held delicious possibilities. Some hedonistic and wild, the others restful and grounding. She decided, like any resident of the Los Angeles basin, to let traffic decide. She’d drive out to where the 210 Hwy met Hwy 5. If traffic was moving to the south, it was Mexico, if traffic was moving smoothy to the north she would head to the Ranch, west to Johnny and Mark’s and if traffic was moving to the east, it was Vegas.

She was hardly two miles down Colorado Blvd. when her phone rang;

“Hey Snookims – we missed you last night at dinner. Wanna join me for a little drinky drinky?”

“Howdy Julie, I’m on my way out of town.”

“Got a hot date?” Julie crooned.

“Not hardly, I’m going to visit my friend up in the Bay Area.”

“Need to let some of the heat blow off?” Julie, she figured, was fishing for information.

“Jude has the whole story, you should call him.”

“I mean about your friend Johnny.”

“Johnny? How do YOU know Johnny?” Ann was stunned.

“Sweetie, we all work out at the same gym.  You didn’t think you were the only fag-hag at the Club – did you? Plus, Mark and I have lots of mutual friends in the art scene.” Julie was giggling and it was clear she’d already had a couple of drinks.

“Is he okay?” Ann stammered.

“He’s drying out for a bit and he’ll be back up to his old tricks in no time. You run along and play in San Francisco, I know the perfect day spa if you want to get a dreamy facial. You won’t hate me if I say you could use it? Anyway, I’ll see you when you get back. Bye now. M-wah.” Julie pressed a sloppy kiss on her phone before hanging up.

Great, Johnny and Mark and Julie are all hanging out now. Surely they’d rather hang out with Julie and her Pepperdine education and her fashion sense rather than a grubby gallop girl. She was jealous and hurt and didn’t have any idea what to do about it. The only good news is that Johnny had survived his breakdown and he must be okay. She placated herself with the notion that all was well with her friends as she approached the turn off to Hwy 5 and automatically turned north without even looking at the traffic. She’d be at the ranch around midnight if she didn’t stop.

Author Joell Dunlap lives in Half Moon Bay with her husband, some smelly old hound dogs and 19 rescued and donated horses - most of them OTTBs. She is the founder and executive director of The Square Peg Foundation (www.squarepegfoundation.org). You can subscribe to read weekly installments of A Damn Fine Hand here: https://adamnfinehand.com, or follow along in upcoming issues of CRM as we serialize her compelling novel.