And that’s how the morning went, shoveling it and listening to it. Then Arnett and me got the horses tacked up and tied along the rail, ready for the first group of riders. Arnett was a hard worker when it was something he liked to do, and he liked getting the horses ready. So did I, but not for the same reasons. He liked the grunt work of it, swinging up the saddle and fixing his shoulder against a flank to cinch it up, checking a shoe. I like the horses, and I like the way everything feels, the coarse blanket, leather smooth and rough, straps and steel. And the smell. We both liked the smell. Who knew that leather and sweat, hay dust and manure called so deep? Jo Marie hustled up to the office and back trying to look busy but without accomplishing much. Eddie wandered out to the road to bother the phone company.
The first group was Japanese tourists. We get a fair number of them because they like to start over south of Louisville to see all the bourbon distilleries, maybe catch a baseball game up in Cincinnati, then tour the horse country around Lexington, and some of them still have enough money left to get this far east. Arnett and me drove over there one day last fall and took the tour at Maker’s Mark. I’d work there just because it’s in the prettiest little valley you’ve every seen, with a lake and a stone-walled mill race, and I don’t even like the taste of bourbon whisky all that much. That evening we sat on a little wall in Bardstown, sipping at a pocket bottle of Maker’s Mark in a brown paper bag, and watching all the people dressed up for the dinner train. The Japanese aren’t much trouble as riders go because they don’t speak hardly any English and they pretty much go where you point them, and once you can get them to stop taking pictures long enough to get on a horse, they’re too scared to do much else since most of them have never ridden before. The husbands of the honeymooners always tip because they want their new wives to see, but the husbands with kids never do. I took them out by myself because Eddie’s dad was in the Pacific during World War II. Jo Marie takes their money, but out of respect for Big Ed, Eddie won’t let her take them out. Arnett didn’t care either way but he was waiting to see if the guy from the stockyard showed up with the new horse. I did what I always did with them, just smiled a lot and pointed out some different trees and rock formations, and hoped nobody fell off trying to take a picture.
He was there when we got back. Eddie was leading him around behind the stable while Arnett and Jo Marie helped the tourists down.
I said, “That’s a good looking horse.” Big, bold islands of coffee brown on a light cream coat.
Eddie said, “They call him Sprite. Tobiano Paint crossed with shit, I believe.”
Jo Marie said, “And he ain’t too happy.”
Eddie said, “What the hell’s Sprite mean anyway?”
I said, “I think it’s like an elf. In the woods.”
Sprite was shying and skittish and his eyes rolled back every time he threw his head. And on closer inspection, he had a squat, runty look about him, a little too broad through the chest, like a short man with something to prove.
Arnett said, “I believe I’ll take him out with the next group and see what we got.”
I said, “What you ought to do is let him calm down some.”
Jo Marie said, “She might be right.”
I knew it killed her to have to agree with me about anything.
And Arnett said, “Well, he’ll just have to get over it, won’t he? If he ain’t ready, he better get ready.”
I sat on a stool and sipped on a cold Ale-8-One and watched Eddie bully him and Arnett try to saddle him while Jo Marie paced behind me.
Jo Marie blew menthol smoke out her nose and said, “I don’t know, maybe he’s right.”
I said, “That’d be a first.”
She said, “Yeah, I’m real brave too when Eddie can’t hear me.”
She didn’t say it to be mean, more a matter of fact. Dumb as a wedge or not, I knew living with Eddie had to be some kind of hell.
She ground out the cigarette with the toe of her boot and said, “I God, I swear that’s the last time I send those two anywhere to do a damn thing. Couldn’t find their own ass with a flashlight and both of them looking. I wouldn’t’ve took that horse if they give him to me. Sprite my ass.”