Upon the death of his father in nineteen fifty, Des McCormack, our neighbor to the north, inherited the small family farm. Some years, if the drink wasn't calling him more than the potatoes, Des would plant a few crops here and there around his hundred or so acres. There was a small apple orchard located just down over the hill from the homestead and his father had taken great pains to nurture the trees so that by the time Des was old enough to farm, the trees were mature and were producing a variety of wonderful apples.
Des didn't particularly love apples or farming but there were several things that he loved and those were horse racing, womanizing and drinking and not necessarily in that order. Every spring his trainers used to hook the lovely, sleek animals to their sulky carts and race them up and down the Goding Road that ran in front of our house, for their daily exercise. We used to sit in the tall grass by the side of the dirt road and watch as the well-groomed horses responded to the touch of a whip or a softly spoken word.
Des came from a long line of drinkers, womanizers and avid horsemen and when his father died, he simply picked-up where his father had left off in regard to horse racing. He took some of his large inheritance and drove all the way to Nashville, Tennessee, the city that was famous for breeding Kentucky Derby winners. Des had the money and he didn't care how much it was going to cost. If he had to, he was going to buy himself a winner!
Des took his own sweet time and made the rounds of all the well-known horse breeding farms in and around Nashville, not only checking out all the horses and foals but also sampling a lot of Kentucky bourbon and quite a few of the local fillies as well. Finally, just as he was about to give up and come home, he found the foal that he was looking for. The young horse was from full-blooded Arabian stock and Des, the first time he saw him, felt something that he later described as a bolt of lightening, go through his old, quiverin heart.
The stallion had a sleek look to him and a stance that proved his great breeding lines. His legs were long and slim but powerful and though he was young and still untrained, he already had a commanding presence. He'd stand stock-still while all the would-be buyers from around the world touched and examined him. He didn't even whinny or snort or shy away when his owner pried open his mouth to show the on-lookers that his teeth were in first class condition jist like the rest of him. He had class and it was there for all the world to see.
The horse, aware that people were watching, gamboled up to the white painted fence and as though trained, bowed his lovely head in Des' direction. This was all it took and it wasn't too long before the seller has a check clutched tightly in his hand and Des had the stallion's reins clutched just as tightly in his.
It was a beautiful sunny, spring day in Aroostook County, Maine when Des finally returned with his prize. Upon hearing the news of his latest acquisition, we hurried up the dusty, dirt road to have a look at his latest treasure.
The young horse was quickly installed in the new pasture that Des had built nearest the house. From his kitchen windows, Des would sit with his ever-present drink in hand and gaze at the lovely creature as it cavorted and wheeled around the dandelion filled pasture.
Over the ensuing months, as the horse matured, he developed a long streak of white in the hair of his forelock but the rest of him was a glossy chestnut red. After much discussion and rejection, Des finally named the horse, "Winter King" and the name seemed to fit him perfectly.
Through our regular weekly visits Winter King quickly grew to recognize us whenever we made the short trip across the potato fields to his pasture. Jake, me Bub and Helen would all scurry up to the fence, climb up a couple of rails and wait for him to come to us. When we called his name, he'd raise his beautiful head, lift his velvety top lip over his perfect white teeth and whinny long and loud as though he was trying to tell us how happy he was to see us again. Every time we heard him make that long whinny of recognition, my older brother Jake would turn with a big smile plastered across his freckled-face and say to the rest of us, "Didja hear that? He jist said hellooooooooooo to us in horse talk." We all nodded our heads in agreement; we knew that Jake was right.
By the time spring strolled into the county the next year, Winter King was a yearling and nearly full-grown and Des called down to Scarborough Downs for his favorite jockey to come up to the county and train him. Winter King's training began in earnest and we'd hold our breath as he came gamboling down the road. His hooves made little puffs of dust rise up from the dirt road as his flying feet barely touched the ground. He didn't need too much training; his pace was so well-coordinated that he appeared to be dancing on air as he flashed by with the sulky flying along behind him.
Des had many loves in his life, after horses and liquor came wimmin. He'd been married a number of times throughout his long life and had "shacked-up" a lot more times than folks could rightly remember. The local gossips had it that after his first marriage ended, he'd taken to carving all the wimmin's names that had spent time in his bed, on the inside of the closet door of his bedroom. There were many discussions by suspicious husbands in the county, especially over a good bottle of brew late at night, about how they could get a look at all the names carved on the inside of that closet door in Des' bedroom.
Des ordered a horse van specially designed for Winter King from a custom van-making place down in Tennessee. Winter King wasn't to be bundled in with all the other horses; he wasn't common and he deserved a van all his own.
On the day that it finally arrived, we ran across the newly planted potato fields to see it. The van was a thing of beauty too. It was a glossy black with brass accents and Winter King's name was painted in bright gold letters across the front. Des bragged to everyone for miles around that it had cost him twenty-five thousand dollars and worth every penny too, he'd said.
Winter King had a "special" harness too. Des sent to Ireland for a custom hand-made one. When it finally arrived, we watched excitedly as it was unwrapped. It was made of soft, black leather and the metal rings and studs that held it together were coated with real gold. Des held the horse's head while his trainer slipped the gold-plated bit into his mouth. Winter King shook his head and pranced a little and then he stood stock still and looked at all of us with his large amber colored eyes. We could see our reflection in his eyes as he stood there. He knew he was beautiful too.
It was lonely and quiet for us kids after Winter King left in July. Des had a lengthy racing itinerary that included all the racing circuits from Canada and the Maritime Provinces down to New York and finally, Scarborough Downs in Maine at the close of the racing season in September. We waited with baited breath for any news about Winter King and how many races he'd won in his maiden season.
Winter King was everything he'd been rumored to be and everything Des had paid for and more. Year in and year out, he won race after race and it was rumored that by the time his racing career was through, he'd won well over a million dollars for his old, drunken owner.
When ever Winter King came home for any length of time, we used to run across the neglected potato fields to Des' house to gaze at this beautiful horse as he grazed peacefully in the pasture next to the house. Sometimes, if his racing season was past and the apples were on the ground, Des would let us feed apples to Winter King. He'd walk up to us, stick his head over the fence and pick the apples out of our grubby hands like an elegant person eating dinner in a five star restaurant.
One year, when Des returned to the county at the end of the racing circuit, not only did he bring home Winter King, he also brought another young filly with him. She was about twenty years old and the only name we ever heard him call her was "Sweeta." She was a beauty in herself. She had long flowing, naturally blond hair that reached nearly to her waist and her skin was the color and texture of fine porcelain. Her deep blue eyes were edged with long, dark lashes that swept across her cheeks when she closed her eyes. She didn't wear makeup that one could easily see and her lips were a natural red that made all the other women envy her. She only stood about five feet tall even in her cow girl boots but her figure was very well-proportioned. She was one fine lookin woman.
Des was mesmerized. There wasn't anything he wouldn't and didn't do for her. Des may or may not have been "in love" or even "in like" but he certainly was "in lust." Whenever Sweeta came into a room or into his sight, his rummy old blood shot eyes would light up and you could easily see how he felt about her.
Soon after Sweeta moved in, Des began remodeling his old farmhouse. Whatever Sweeta wanted, Sweeta got. She redecorated the entire house and then she left, just as suddenly as she'd arrived.
Folks said that the last time Sweeta was seen, she was at the Greyhound Station in Presque Isle, waiting for any bus leaving Aroostook County for points south. Finally, one of the more nosey folks sidled over to where she was sitting on the bus station bench and asked her why she was leaving.
She looked the inquisitive old gossip directly in the face. "Well." She finally replied. "Des was awful good to me and the money was wonderful and all that. But gitting up each morning and seeing his family jewels hanging down his leg like baseballs in an old sock, well, that was just too much for me to take. But the worst part was that after we'd finish making love, he'd kick his heels in the air and whinny just like a damn horse!" Des didn't mourn the loss of his latest woman too much and it wasn't long before he'd quickly installed another to take her place.
The years slipped quickly by and as the end of Winter King's racing days grew near, Des was approached by other horse breeders to farm him out to stud but Des was adamant. He wouldn't even consider it. When asked why, Des would look at the lovely horse and say, "He's earned his keep and then some en he don't owe me nothin!"
The day finally came and we heard that Winter King was sick and Des, sobbing like a baby, had the vet put him down. Des buried him right behind the house, in the same pasture that he'd grazed in for so many years and he had a special bronze marker laid at the head of his resting place. It read,
"Rest in Peace - Winter King."
We used to go up to the farm, climb over the dilapidated fence and sit on Winter King's grave. We'd polish his headstone with our grubby hands and talk to him as though he was still there.
Old Des wasn't the same after Winter King was gone. He continued racing for a while longer but he never did reach the heights with the other horses that he'd attained with Winter King. Folks could tell that when Winter King died, a lot of Des had died along with him. They joked that "Des was already dead and embalmed, he jist wasn't buried."
By the time Des was seventy-five, horses, booze, broads and cigars had taken the best of him and he finally retired from horse racing altogether. He sold off his remaining racing stable, piled all his racing junk up in his old barn and closed the doors. Folks said that he never again ventured inside that barn.
Sometimes, stupid people, hoping for a good deal, approached Des wanting to buy Winter King's van and other racing accoutrements but Des would get that old gleam in his rummy old eyes and wobble off into the house for his shotgun. Some days, when he'd drunk too much, his mind was set in yesteryear and his flabby old legs couldn't chase us off his property, we'd sneak inside his barn and sit in the sulky that Winter King had used when he'd won all his races. We spent long, happy hours polishing and dusting that aging contraption, sitting in the driver's seat, pretending that we were the jockeys and that Winter King had just won another race.
Old Des spent the remainder of his days in a self-induced drunken stupor, reliving in his memory, his days with Winter King and the reflected glory.
When Des finally passed away, people came for miles around to pay their last respects. The funeral was said to be the largest ever attended in our part of Aroostook County. Folks came for many different reasons. Some came simply to pay their last respects to an old friend and fellow horseman. Others came because they'd grown up with him and they'd know him all their lives. Still others came because they thought they'd finally have a chance to sneak upstairs and have a look at the names written behind the bedroom closet door.
Folks talked about the large funeral for many months thereafter and it was said that the rug leading up the stairs to Des' bedroom was worn thin by all the snoopers who wanted a first hand look at all the lover's names carved into the closet door. Folks said that when the door was opened, there were gasps of shock, surprise and relief when they finally read with their own eyes all that was written there. It said:
1-1-53 - 7-2-63
My Only Love
Autobiography of a Simple Soul
Memories, Another Place - Another Time
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