Feb 15 2010

A way with horses

In memory of, or perhaps with apologies to, Dick Francis.

I pulled the Jaguar round behind the barns and killed the engine.

Mr. O’Rourke had been wrong about many things in his life, but he’d got one thing exactly right.  He had told me that the lads at the yard would be considerably less than pleased when I turned up asking questions, and that had, in fact, been an understatement.  They’d given me quite a beating, nearly to death.  “A warning,” the big one had said, though in truth it felt more like fists, kicks, and rake-handles than a warning.

The doctors, whose nearly round-the-clock care had pulled me back from the brink, were dismayed when I checked myself out of the hospital.  Mary begged me to find something else in which to involve myself.  As usual, the pleas fell on deaf ears.

I slipped through an alley between stables, pinning my back to the wall while dimly aware of a throbbing pain in my hand.  I wouldn’t be much good for riding again, that was for sure.  I turned the corner and found myself nose to nose with Dreamin’ Signore: the best racehorse in the land, worth at least a half million pounds if he’s worth a shilling.  I’d been aboard him once, just a gallop, and he felt like the finest Triumph motorcycle: nothing but power, whenever you wanted.

I didn’t know, quite, what the plan was.  But I knew that keeping Dreamin’ Signore out of the Grand National was part of it.  “Hey, mate,” I whispered to him, reaching out to rub his great nose.  He shook his head, as if impatient with me, and pawed the ground.

It was then that I saw the wires, spider-webbing from his body and meeting at the detonator.

Dreamin’ Signore was wired to blow, taking yard, horse, and, perhaps, me, with him.

“Easy there, boy,” I told him, nickering softly.  I slid into his stall.  The wires restricted his movement; once he became agitated enough, however, he’d pull them, and poof.  No horse, no barn — no evidence.

I set to work.  I decided that I first needed to free the horse, then worry about disarming the device.  Once the horse was free, I’d have all the time in the world.  With my bad hand, though, it was slow going, and I began to grow concerned.  Evening feed would come soon enough, and I’d be found, hands on the most valuable horse in the country.  I didn’t relish another go with the lads, and after beating me senseless, they’d no doubt make it seem as if I were the culprit.  My hands moved faster, more jerkily, and I needed to slow down to make sure that my haste didn’t send me acropper.  I continued to chatter softly at him, smoothing his flank as I worked.

I’d nearly finished when I heard a gravelly voice.  “Francis,” it said.

I looked out.  The big one.  His name came to me in a flash.  “Ryder.”

“Tryin’ to kill our horse, are you?”  He leered at me.

I needed time.  I was getting close to done.

“That what you think, Ryder?  Because from my position, it seems like quite the opposite.”

He leered again and withdrew a pistol, which he trained in my general direction.  “Doesn’t matter what you think.  I’ve got the gun.”

“That’s true.”  One more wire clicked free.  Nearly there.  “So what is the plan, Ryder?  Kill the horse for the insurance?  That seems a tad… under-developed.”

He laughed, nastily.  “Always the cheeky one.”  He waved the gun.  “That’s part of the plan, but not all of it.”

“Enlighten me.  You know and I know this isn’t going to end well for me.  At least don’t let me die curious.”  My bad hand ached angrily, but I tried to ignore it.

He smiled.  “First right thing you’ve said to me.”  He nodded, almost in approval.  “See, the Duke, as a gesture, named the lads in the yard to benefit if there’s an insurance payout.  Which there will be.”  He grinned again.  “Plus, over there” – he nodded behind him, where more barns spread out over the rolling hills — “we’ve got another horse who’s just as good as this one.  Except no one’s heard of him.  When he runs in the Grand National, replacing Dreamin’ Signore, the punters won’t touch him with a ten foot pole.”

He laughed again.  “But the lads will, because we all know how good he is.  We’ll make a fortune on the betting, plus a fortune on the insurance.  All at the expenses of one horse, one barn.”  He leered.  “And, unfortunately, one bloke who doesn’t listen to good advice.”

The last wire came free.

I chucked at Dreamin’ Signore and slapped his rear.  Startled, the horse bolted straight out from his stall, directly at Ryder.  The big man’s eyes widened, and he fumbled with the gun.  He half-ducked as the frightened horse dashed past him, clipping him on the side and sending Ryder to the ground.

I was on him in a flash.  The gun had skittered away from Ryder’s grasp, and I grabbed it.  Before he could get his bearings, I brought the butt of it down, hard, on the side of his head.  When he came to, he was sure to have a days-long headache.  I hit him again, for good measure, and he dropped off into unconsciousness.

I stood up.  I could hear far-off sirens.

Dreamin’ Signore looked at me from across the yard.  His eyes were wild, and he was panting.  If he got past me, all of this little adventure would be for naught.  I nickered at him, took a step towards him.  “Easy, big boy,” I said, in my most soothing voice.

My hand slid into my pocket.  The horse took a step back, away from me, and looked ready to bolt.  I felt a square outline in my pocket and withdrew the item: a sugar cube.  I held it out towards the great animal, spoke in gentle tones.  He approached me, sniffed at me, reached down to gobble the sugar, which I extended to him.  As he did, I grabbed his bridle and held him close.

When the inspector arrived, he found me holding Dreamin’ Signore, running my hand along his muzzle and chatting with him amiably.

He laughed.  “Francis,” he said.  “You always did have a way with horses.”

Dick Francis, the former jockey who wrote 42 novels, mostly taking place in and around the horse racing world, died yesterday at the age of 89.  Please visit the Quinella Queen to read her tribute to Mr. Francis.

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