Lumpy took the chain between his teeth and jiggled it. It clinked and jingled as chains do, but did not loosen. The horse pricked his ears forward and studied the contraption locking his stall door securely in place. He shifted his hooves and moved his body around to come at it for another approach. A furious jangling reverberated through the barn, drowning out the Christmas carols playing softly through the hidden speakers. The grooms, perched on hay bales outside the stall, leaned forward.
“He’s getting it,” whispered Manny.
“No, he ain’t,” said Whitty. “I locked that up tighter than Alcatraz.”
“He’ll do it,” said Carlos.
Sure enough, with a cacophony of clanging and banging, the chain fell to the ground, the stall door flew open and Lumpy trotted down the aisle, black tail swishing. He held his dark head high, but bobbed and dipped with each step as he hobbled on a heavily bandaged right foreleg.
Whitty slapped a five dollar bill into Carlos’ hand.
“That’s a -,” he began to say, but was interrupted by a rough voice.
“What in the HELL is going on here?”
A stocky, bald man with a ruddy face grabbed Lumpy’s halter and patted him on the neck.
“Ah, son. You’re ready to get back out there aren’t you? Not yet, my boy.” Then he turned on the other grooms. “What kind of idiots are you? He’s on stall rest, you jackasses. You should be keeping him in his stall, not taking bets on him breaking out. Gimme that,” he said grabbing the five from Carlos.
“How’s he doin’, Walt?” asked Manny.
Walt ran a gnarled hand down the horse’s leg and over the wrap.
“Well he ain’t gonna get better with you egging him on. I’m not liking this. Still warm, still swollen. He’ll be ok if he can just settle down and stop moving so much,” he said. He rubbed Lumpy’s muzzle. “Just a little while longer, fella. Then you’ll be good as new.”
Walt led him carefully back to his stall and used his foot to even out the sawdust bedding.
“How you gonna keep him in there, Walt?” ask Whitty hanging over the stall door.
“Don’t know. Try another lock, I guess.”
“You still sleepin’ in the office?”
“Yeah. He got out twice last night. I’ll keep sleepin’ here til he’s better.” He took off his cap and scratched his head. “Been doin’ this for 33 years and never seen a horse that’s such an escape artist.”
The three gazed at Lumpy, who was pacing circles around his stall.
“He’s not gonna get better if he doesn’t settle,” said Manny.
“Then grab him next time you see him getting’ out, dumbass,” said Walt.
“He wants to run,” said Whitty.
“Yeah, so does Luca,” said Walt, referring to Lumpy’s jockey. “And so do the fans. Check out the office. Get well cards, gifts - carrots, apples, cookies, toys. Someone even sent a puzzle. For a horse?”
Lumpy grabbed the chain with his teeth again.
“They sure do love ya, don’t they Lump? Never would’ve guessed it. A horse that runs like he has a flat tire,” Manny said.
Indeed, Manny’s description was correct. As a foal, Lumpy had been given the ethereal race name of Forest Dancer, conjuring up all sorts of images of grace and flight. But when riders started galloping him, funny looks came over their faces. One jockey described him as running “with a flat tire” and soon, no one wanted to ride him.
But then Luca Perez climbed aboard and had a different take.
“He’s a little lumpy,” he told the trainer. “But he tries hard.”
With that, Lumpy galumphed his way into win after win and into the hearts of the fans. He tried so hard, in fact, that two weeks earlier, he netted himself a bone bruise and at least one month of stall rest – if he could stay quiet.
But quiet wasn’t looking so promising as Lumpy pawed the ground and tossed his head.
At that moment, a car door slammed, followed by a primitive screech and a woman’s shouting. The grooms looked at each other.
“We’re outta here. Sorry, man,” said Manny. He, Whitty and Carlos ducked their heads and hurried down the aisle.
They passed a tall woman, sweeping into the barn wearing high-heeled boots and a long coat without a spot of dust or a shred of hay on it. She carried a large birdcage covered with a black cloth.
“Afternoon, Mrs. Blackweather,” they mumbled.
“Walter!” she shouted.
“Yes, Mrs. Blackweather.”
This was Mrs. Andrea Blackweather, Lumpy’s owner.
“Take this,” she said, dangling the birdcage between her thumb and forefinger.
Walt accepted the cage, almost dropping it when another piercing scream came from beneath the cloth.
“Oh!” Mrs. Blackweather put her gloved hands to her ears, face contorted. “Mr. Blackweather gave me that – that – thing for Christmas. It’s horrible! Get rid of it.” She turned to Lumpy, who reached his head over the stall door, investigating the commotion. She smoothed his forelock and swept it to the left.
“Much better. How is my beautiful Dancer?” she crooned. Without waiting for an answer, she turned, threw a “Merry Christmas, Walter” over her shoulder and left the barn.
Walter set the cage on a hay bale next to Lumpy’s stall and lifted the cloth. Two tiny black eyes glinted at him from beneath a fluffy grey crest.
“Well looky here, Lump. You’ve got yourself a cockatiel. Hello, little fella.”
Lumpy extended his neck as far as it would reach, nibbling at the cage with his muzzle. The bird flattened his crest, puffed out his feathers and let out a ferocious hiss. Lumpy flattened his ears and snorted, drawing back into his stall. The bird screeched.
“You sure got a loud voice for a small bird. You remind of a rooster I had as a boy. ‘Specially with that little puff on your head. We’ll call you Rooster, how ‘bout that? You like that, Lump?”
But Lumpy didn’t like that. In fact, Lumpy didn’t really like Rooster. Each time he stretched his head toward the cage, the bird screamed and hissed and Lumpy put his ears back, making an ugly face.
Walt didn’t seem perturbed though. He went about his duties as the horse and bird screamed and whinnied at each other throughout the afternoon, pleased, at least that Lumpy stayed in his stall. In the evening, Walt filled his feed bucket, rewrapped his leg and spread some seeds on a tray for Rooster.
“Ok, boy,” he said, giving the horse’s gleaming neck a pat. “Take care of your new friend. Stay quiet. I’ll be in the office.” Lumpy nickered and pricked his ears, looking quizzical, as Walt shut the office door and lay down on the couch, one ear listening for the jangling chain.
As the hours ticked from ten o’clock to eleven to twelve, the barn settled with the gentle noises of horses snuffling, some snoring, some laying down, some getting up.
Except for Lumpy.
He paced his stall, first walking in one direction and then the other. He pawed a hole in one part of his floor and then the other. He tossed his head, knocked his feed bucket around and nosed the new system of chains and locks that Walt had devised.
Finally, he stretched his head over the stall and nosed the bird cage. A sleeping Rooster woke with an outraged screech that sent Lumpy scrambling to the back of his stall. Still restless, though, he nudged the cage again and it fell off the hay bale with clatter. The tiny door popped open and Rooster flew out, straight to the rafters, screeching and screaming. The frightened bird lurched from one side of the barn to the other, slamming into the walls and beams. The horses moved uneasily.
Lumpy whinnied and grabbed the chain locking his door in his teeth. He pulled it this way and that, shaking his head and shifting position until it gave way and he could shove the bolt aside with his nose. He stumbled out of his stall and limped down the aisle to the end of the barn where Rooster had scrunched into a corner of the roof, frozen.
Meanwhile, in the office, Walt snored through the racket. Ten previous nights of interrupted sleep along with a heavy blanket, a shot of brandy and the murmur of Christmas songs in his ear had lulled him into a deep sleep.
Down at the end of the barn, Lumpy stood under Rooster’s beam looking up and nickering. He stayed there for over an hour, making gentle snorting sounds and blowing through his nose until the little bird eventually cocked his head and looked down. A few minutes later, Rooster flew down and perched on a saddle rack next to Lumpy’s nose.
Lumpy extended his muzzle toward Rooster, who didn’t screech this time and didn’t pull away. The cockatiel chirped a few times and let Lumpy’s warm breath envelope him. Lumpy turned and hobbled slowly back down the aisle with Rooster fluttering behind him.
The next morning, Walt stretched and yawned as he emerged early from the office. His gaze fell on the empty cage lying on the bricks and Lumpy’s open stall door.
“What the – ”
He hurried to the stall and smiled. Lumpy lay in his bedding, forelegs curled under him with Rooster puffed up and sleeping on his back. The horse looked up at Walt and nickered, but instead of surging to his feet, he gazed upon the groom with a gentle eye and Walt could swear he almost smiled.
After that, Lumpy and Rooster were inseparable. Walt built Rooster a snug birdhouse in Lumpy’s stall, though the little bird could more often be found scratching around the horse’s bedding or sitting on Lumpy’s head happily chirping. And Lumpy’s restlessness eased. The grooms didn’t see anymore stall breaks, pacing or pawing. His leg began to heal and Walt knew he’d be back on the track soon, pounding down the homestretch with his clunky gallop. And, as he watched Lumpy stand back so that the cockatiel could peck at the apple slices in his feed tub, Walt knew that Rooster would be right there in the winner’s circle with him.