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Back You are here: Home Stories Words for the People Short Stories Kentucky Runners (Part I)
Sunday, 25 September 2011 17:54

Kentucky Runners (Part I)

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“How could I pass up an offer of trouble?” Stagger didn’t shift from staring through his mirror shades as Boone sat gingerly beside him.

The boy was no longer a boy; Stagger had filled out since Boone last saw him, now muscled with pure meanness. Under a flowered shirt rendered in black silk, Stagger Lee’s bulk swelled like one of the third-year thoroughbreds on the field: Every muscle pulled long and perfect for lunging. Neck hard against an unseen yoke.

This was a man you could bet on to win big or break the bank losing.

This was just the kind of man Boone needed.

“Didn’t know you cared much about your daddy’s and my old farm.”

“I care about getting ripped off.” Stagger plucked the butt from his lips. He angled it at the distant rainbow slush of the infield. The crowd milled in frenzy of sequins and sick: Feathered hats. Jean shorts. Sequined gowns. Puke-stained crocs. Seersucker suits. Suntan lotion, spilled Budweiser, piss puddles and sour-mash laughter. Stagger shot the butt with a flick of his fingers. It didn’t even clear the stands.

“You should.” Boone set his third julep on the rail and crushed the brim of his boater hat in both hands. “Especially when it’s to the tune of four million.”

“Freddie J’s people have been with us at the Dew Red since before Jim Crow.”

“Well, Freddie’s feeling his emancipated oats, then. He sold us out to some Japs by studding Salamanco on the sly.”

“You got proof?”

“Payment records to his account and everything. And he’s on the run.”

Stagger settled back and Boone took a look at his belt line: A gut like a quarry, empty hip holster slung over it. “Won’t be running for long.”

The crowd noise climbed like smoke from a house fire. The horses were shut in their stalls. Stagger plucked a betting stub from his pocket and rubbed it.

“Who you got today?” Boone waved his own stub. “I got the favorite. Fusaichi Pegasus.”

“I don’t bet favorites. I’m backing Geronimo, from our Dew Red line.”

“Salamanco’s colt? Shit, we didn’t even train him. Just studded him.”

The bell sounded. The gates snapped open. Noise from 100,000 spectators whipped the sky. Horses flew.

“You said there was something else suspicious about what Freddie J’s been into.” Stagger snaked the stub through his scarred fingers and stared at the track.

“Oh? Oh yeah. He’d been digging a lot.”

“Digging what?”

“Digging up the Dew Red.”

“Where on the land?”

“Around the stables. And the graveyard. And your old man’s cabin, back of the meadow where we’d set the studs on the mares.”

Stagger rolled his neck, a noise like he had gunfire in his spine. He dropped his chin. The horses were rounding the bend and the crowd was frothing with excitement.

“Where’d he dig last?”

“One moment,” Boone stood up, setting his boater over his pink-chapped pate. His eyes grew with what they saw. “Pegasus took the lead and holding strong.”

The favorite lunged from the hash of brown motion and bright racing colors. Geronimo struggled in the trailing crush—shoved up, slammed back, always a nose behind.

“Where’d Freddie J dig before he left?”

“By the cabin, by the cabin,” Boone said, waving him off with the stub. “I think. And I think he’s keeping that lead—Pegasus is keeping that fucking lead!”

“You reckon Freddie J heard the legends?”

“About that crazy old bastard hiding gold up there?” Boone’s eyes had too little lid and too many diamonds. His lips twitched through every kind of grin.

“Yeah. Andy Thornton’s cocaine gold.”

“That’s all a bunch of Bluegrass Conspiracy horseshit. Ain’t it?” Boone thrust his attention back to the track’s final stretch. The horses were pouring sweat and speed and slaver. The jockeys put the crops to their flanks fit to strip the skin.

“Andy was nutty enough to die riding a busted parachute out a fleeing plane wearing night-vision goggles, Gucci loafers and Special Forces camo.” Stagger pocketed his stub. “Could’ve been crazy enough to bury millions in gold.”

“He didn’t know your daddy though,” Boone went grave. Fusaichi Pegasus was losing ground, almost level to Geronimo. A blur of the crop, a toss of Pegasus’ mane, and the favorite battled way back into the lead. Boone’s grin spurred back up. “Did he?”

“Who does Freddie J know around here?”

“Just whatever jigs he knows north of Broadway. He got no friends. He ain’t got a chance with you on him. But look, look!” Boone was waving Stagger down again, bouncing, clutching his boater. Fusaichi Pegasus surged in and out of the lead. The crowd’s hollers hit crest after crest, breaking each, tearing throats.

“Hot damn, Pegasus!” Boone broke into a whirling cry and swatted Stagger’s shoulder. “He did it, boy—did you see?”

Stagger nodded, watching Fusaichi surge over the line, flash bulbs spraying around, hats flying, dirt and drink and cries in the air.

“Looks like you picked yourself a winner, Boone.” Stagger stood up, hands in his pockets, bumping past the old man. “I’ll see to finishing Freddie J.”

* * *

Freddie J turned down the burner on his pan. In the pan, the blend of Gruyere and white cheddar cheese over the turkey sandwich, powdered with bacon crumbles, began to sweat. Freddie had been sweating for days. Even shadow hardly cooled him.

He walked into the bedroom and glanced at the valise there marked in tarnished bronze with the Dew Red Farm’s torus symbol. He checked the window first, peeking through the curtains.

Even with only three street lamps, the narrow avenue was still brighter than Freddie’s apartment. The window was bolted but Freddie could still smell north Lexington: A hum of trees and grass and rich earth with the odor of trash squirming beneath. He fingered the shotgun he kept always at his side and watched the sly wink of downtown’s lights.

Cars cruised by. Folks strolled the breezy mellow of the May evening. Under the eruptions of tree branches, closed in by yards thick as the fur of animals, the city seemed swaddled in neatly groomed nature.

Freddie frowned, missing the city even while being in it, missing the pastureland even more, and slumped at the foot of the bed.

He snatched up the shoebox, took out photos and flipped through them: Horses brushed to gleaming by his father’s hand. Jockeys and farm hands and trainers linking arms with his family. The Dew Red’s grazing fields, dapples of gold and green like God had painted sunset on the face of the land with an Impressionist brush. Images of a better world.

Freddie noticed his thumbprints gleaming on the photos. He put the pictures away and pushed the box under the bed. He gripped the shotgun and reminded himself that getting to a better world was why he was here—here and on the run.

Thinking that, gripping, made him shake. That made him hold the gun all the harder.

Freddie shut his eyes and drew a deep breath in his nose. He wanted the aromas of money and horse and soil to open their vaults in his head.

He only smelled thin air. Thin air and smoke.

It took Freddie a moment to rise to his feet—a moment to get past refusing to care if the hot brown sandwich he was cooking would burn the apartment down. He went into the kitchen sniffing, letting the threat of the smoke tug his stiff body.

Freddie had already entered the kitchen when he realized it wasn’t the food he smelled burning. It was tobacco.

Freddie glanced around in time to see a cloud of smoke plume from the chewed-up leather chair in the den.

Stagger Lee waved, one hand playing with the planet of smoke. His other hand held a pistol in his lap. He held up a smile, but not for long.

“Howdy, Freddie.” There was more tar to Stagger’s voice than to his cigarette. “How you keeping up?”

Freddie gripped the shotgun. It only felt like useless weight. “I knew you’d come.”

“Then why that there shotgun?”

“Just in case.”

“Well, I’m here now. Guess you better put it down.” Stagger waved with his smoke at the floor. The pistol kept level.

“Guess so.” Freddie didn’t move.

“How were you so sure I’d come?”

“You’re a runner. Same as I am now.”

Stagger cracked a laugh. “Thought it was ‘cause you were cooking a hot brown. I miss them bitches down in New Orleans. Their absence ruins an otherwise perfect culinary experience.”

Freddie didn’t smile. He could only chuck his chin at the pistol. He didn’t know where he found the breath to speak. “What’s that for, then?”

“Oh, I think you know, Freddie,” Stagger rose.

“I suppose I do.”

“Yeah. Yeah, you do.” Stagger lost his grin and thumbed the safety on his pistol. “Your running days are over, Freddie.”

 

 

KENTUCKY RUNNERS will conclude on Wednesday, September 28th 2011.




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Matthew C. Funk

Matthew C. Funk is a social media consultant, professional marketing copywriter and writing mentor. He is the editor of the Genre section of the critically acclaimed zine, FictionDaily, and a writer for FangirlTastic and Spinetingler Magazine. M. C. Funk's work features at numerous sites online and in print with Needle Magazine, Howl, 6S and Crimefactory. He is represented by Stacia J. N. Decker of the Donald Maass Literary Agency.

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