[Fiction inspired by current events—SHF]
The man is up early as usual. He’s making the rounds on the backstretch of a flea-bitten racetrack nestled in a dust bowl. It’s four o’clock in the morning. Still dark outside but light is hinted at on the horizon. The man goes stall to stall in a barn; horse to horse; an injection here; another there. He notices they are agitated today. Then he sees it, in the last stall of the shedrow. If anybody’d been nearby, they’d have heard the sound of his medicine bag hitting the dirt floor, thud. Inside, laid out on wood shavings, is the black veiny head of a racehorse. It’s sawed clean off at the neck and leaking blood. Body nowhere in sight. He recognizes this horse with its blinking eyes and flaring nostrils. All of this makes the man–who’s trained in medicine and surgery; who’s quite used to the sight of blood, guts, and death–scream. Nothing comes out at first though his face is frozen with his mouth open wide. Then, like an echo, an odd sound reverberates from him through the pre-dawn.
The man turns and looks around at the other stalls he’d passed down the shedrow. Horses are staring at him over their webbings watching where the screams came from, wanting to flee. Slowly, gathering himself, he turns back around to the stall and peers inside again. At first he’s relieved because he doesn’t see the horse head; it must have been all in his own head, he thinks for a moment. He continues to look for his own peace of mind. That’s when he sees blood pooled in the bedding where the head had lain. And then he gags. Because in a dark corner of the stall in the shadows is the head, and it is flopping around now with its muscular neck stretching and coiling, its thick mane flapping hopelessly like the broken wings of a downed bird. It reminds him of the roosters he used to watch his father butcher. Necks chopped off, crested, colorful heads still moving in the dirt beneath his old man’s laughter. He imagines that somewhere the horse’s body is thrashing around without its head, too, like the faceless cocks that ran aimlessly from his father’s blade into his childhood nightmares.
“Doc, no mas,” the horse head says, in a clear and proud Mexican accent. “No more doping. No mas. It is why.” At the sound of the words, the man drops with a thud to his knees next to his fallen medicine bag. His Stetson tumbles into the stall and inside his naked scalp he feels blood vessels bursting. He’s wet like the damp from the horse’s neck. His breathing is short. His body is convulsing. He knows the signs of a seizure coming as he watches the horse ears twitch back and forth. He instinctively reaches into his black bag and pulls out a syringe intended for this horse. It’s a powerful drug, forty times the strength of morphine. The man finds a vein under his shirt sleeve, jabs the huge needle in it, and mainlines. He’d injected it into this same horse’s neck four times last month. It’s why the horse had won three races with a bowed tendon, chips in his left knee, and a creaky stifle.
The horse head, now lying quietly on its side, tells the man softly the killers came through last night. Gringos, he whispers. No bueno. Hombres malos for the local syndicate. Their boss didn’t like it, he tells him, that the man wasn’t toeing the line. Don’t cheat with drugs and mess up the Pick 5 when their money is on a 50-1 shot, is what they’d warned.
“I’m sorry,” the man finally whispers through foamy spit. “I didn’t expect this.”