by Philip Charter

The boy leans down and peers into the car all wild hair and ragged trousers. ‘Allí al fondo,’ he gestures, waving his arm in no particular direction. His eyes are focussed on mine to make sure I’m listening. When he’s sure that he has my undivided attention he slowly places a finger to his lips, a secret.

I nod once, eyes closed, although I’m not sure what I’m agreeing to. I press the accelerator and the old car lurches back into action.

I feel around under my seat for the bottle. I take my hands off the wheel to unscrew the cap and take a swig, throwing my head back. My lips draw into a snarl. Last night was another late one, a cacophony of blaring trumpets and breaking glass, fending off the questions – yes, I’m foreign, yes, I live here. I’ll smooth things over later with Miguel and pay my tab. I strain my eyes through the dust and Lou snatches the bottle from my hand before I can take another mouthful.

‘Let’s try to get there in one piece shall we?’

I smile but getting caught in the act always hurts. I try to gauge her mood, but she just looks straight ahead, feeling for the radio volume knob. The voice on the radio drones on and we drive past another agave field that looks like it hasn’t changed in the last seventy years.

The green Beetle struggles along and I give her some revs. I seem to spend half my life in the mechanic’s workshop, paying for some new part to keep her moving. When we reach the brow of the hill we see the track – a quarter mile of raw earth gouged out by some borrowed tractor, a fresh operation scar. We carry on down the dirt track to the tattered red tent Eder mentioned. Some people are already milling about.

We sit in the car listening to the distorted voice of the announcer over the P.A. system, summoning up the courage to face the heat. Ladies and Gentlemen – roll up, roll up! I open the door and start to weave my way through the line of battered pickup trucks. An elderly man in a dirty shirt touches Lou’s shoulder.

‘Hello my friends . . . ay . . . lady, lady. Where you go?’

Lou scrunches up her freckled nose and tries to ignore him. Poor Lou. Pale skin, and red curly hair, she sure stands out. She takes a step closer to me.

Last weekend in Miguel’s bar, something changed, like she’d been struggling against the current for so long and finally decided to give up and travel the easy route downstream. She needs an experienced hand, someone who knows how to survive here. She’d ended things with Eder a few weeks ago, and he didn’t take it well. Mexican men always turned every little detail into a drama. Anyway, if she wants more than ponytail and a beaten up Volkswagen she’s made the wrong choice.

In the tent, the beers are swimming around in a plastic tub along with a huge block of ice. I reach in and pull out a cold one, putting it against my pounding forehead. I take small sips not wanting to drink too fast.

Across the track, a group of sweaty teenagers sway about to the piercing banda music. None of them are old enough to grow a beard, but I’m sure they are carrying.

I study two men strutting up and down the track, making their inspection. They step over the finish tape, tapping the ground expertly. The older one is about fifty and wears a back brace, holding his belly in position. His friend is tall and wiry, and his hat is so big it gives both of them shade.

The horses are led down the track and it takes an age to get them into the makeshift stalls. We all squint to see the start. It’s El Negro on the left against Gigante on the right, a two horse race. The voice blares away on the microphone as they churn up the track, and then it’s over.

‘Who won? I missed it.’

‘I’m not sure’ she says, ‘The black one I think.’

She goes in search of toilets and I go in search of a stronger drink. Back at the car I take a mouthful of mezcal from the bottle and spit it out on the ground. I left it on the passenger seat and it’s hot and fetid. The agave plant printed on the front of the bottle smiles up at me, like it just played a masterful practical joke.

Back under the cover of the tent I ask the announcer how the betting works.

Uno contra uno.’ He shrugs, motioning a handshake between gamblers. I offer up a bet of 200 pesos on the next race but nobody takes the bait, maybe they know something I don’t.

The horses are called things like El Diablo, El Tiburón Veloz, La Venganza, they sound like the names L.A. gangsters give their cars. My pick wins by more than four lengths. Just then my mobile vibrates in my pocket.

‘Eder, is that you?’ I say.

‘Jes, I juz arrive. Where you guys at?’          

‘We’re in the tent. I’ll see you in a minute.’

The silver Land Rover is parked next to the track and I watch him jump out and check on his animal in the trailer. A teenager emerges in jeans, boots and a sleeveless padded jacket – the jockey. His parents are wearing their Sunday best today. They put me up when I first arrived in this dusty mountain town and I was grateful. No number, no address, I just asked for Casa de Nila, and the taxi driver knew where I meant.

I feel Lou’s hand slip into mine as she returns. She holds it tight while I speak with a stranger, as if the physical connection will help her understand the language better. I look down at the race card in my hand, there’s nothing apart from the name, owner and distance.

El Fuerte,’ I say pointing at the paper.

His eyes light up and his hand shoots out ready, ‘$1,000?’

I manage to talk him down to $200.

When the race starts, El Fuerte stumbles out of the gate losing ground, the rider holds on as his charge veers from left to right. The crowd are up, shouting and swearing. A few seconds more and he’s into his stride galloping smoothly. He reels in his adversary yard by yard. Will it be too late? He makes it, just, thundering through the line barely stopping in time before the end of the track.

Two minutes later, the ‘inspectors’ reluctantly hand over the cash to a couple of punters. The fat one with the back brace spits onto the dirt, ‘La puta madre’. The coyotes always gamble big, but the house doesn’t always win here. The man I bet against sidles over waving my 200 pesos. It takes me five minutes to get rid of him as he tries to recoup his losses on the next race. I feel rude leaving his outstretched hand unshaken.

I feel a tap on my shoulder. ‘Jou won? Congratulation!’

Eder doesn’t look like the average rancher – smart polo shirt, a side parting and a close beard shaved down to a millimetre. He walks straight backed with a slight limp, the legacy of a previous fall. He glides around with the confidence of a rich Arab Sheik; he hasn’t come just to make up the numbers.

‘Thanks buddy, I’m 200 pesos better off, but probably not for long. Do you want a beer?’

‘Maybe h’after.’

‘How are you feeling? Confident?’

He shifts from one foot to another, ‘Jeah, he got a great chance. Jou know he win the last four?’

‘Well, if you say he’s worth a bet.’

Lou leans in to greet Eder with a kiss on the cheek and his air of serenity is broken. He seems embarrassed and scans the racecourse. I wonder if it would it be kinder to tell him that we are together now, that she’s bet on someone past his racing prime? Hopefully he’ll get another win and we can all laugh about this later. I let him focus on the task at hand and we wander back toward the old tent.

The old woman behind the plastic tub passes me two more cans and holds out her leathery hand for the money.

Dos Coronas güero,’ she offers with a toothless smile.

I slide toward the announcer, hand around my wallet. He grins as I hand over $500, I convince Lou to put in $200 to back Eder’s horse as well.

‘$700 contra El Cuervo, alguien?’ he shouts into the microphone.

The bet is covered by a older man keeping his greasy under his hat. A thin moustache hovers on his lip looking like it could fall off the cliff at any moment. He squeezes his son’s shoulder and chews his gum open mouthed.

‘Where are you guys from?’ his kid asks. The boy’s enormous black t-shirt reaches his knees.

‘We’re from England,’ Lou replies smiling kindly, ‘But we live here now. Your English is excellent.’

‘I go to school in Texas,’ the kid says. ‘I’m just back for the vacation.’

‘Oh right . . . OK.’ She seems embarrassed and looks out over the track.

Eder’s brother is leading El Cuervo toward the start, his black coat glistening. The horse looks steady, graceful. His blinkers shade the sun and block out the distraction; an ungainly mottled brown, much bigger, pulling at the reigns. The jockeys mount and coax the horses up to the start line. Eder’s family stand in a circle holding hands, praying, they put up the $15,000 prize for the feature race themselves.

The gates spring open and the horses shoot forward onto the reddish dirt. They both get out well and there’s nothing between them. Riding high, the jockeys look like they could fall over the top at any moment. They grit their teeth and wait to apply the whip.

Suddenly El Cuervo veers left, lurching toward the side of the lane and the jockey fights to keep him on course. At 100 yards he’s a length behind. I steal a glance at Eder who watches through narrowed eyes.

The jockey beats down hard on the left haunch and El Cuervo responds, straightening up and closing the gap. It’s close now, but he’s not running smoothly. The brown horse in the right lane cannons down the track and remains ahead at 200 yards.

The roar of the crowd fades as I try to focus through the blur of cold beer and hot mezcal. Lou grips my arm, squeezing as the jockeys whip away and the horses quicken, almost hovering above the ground. We look at each other in hope, but as they cross the line he’s still a neck behind.

Across the track Eder closes his eyes and hangs his head. His brother throws his race card to the floor. The longest minute passes.

Soon, the noise will die down, the money will change hands and the music will start up again, but in this moment we stand in silence. I open the beer intended for celebration but it’s warm.

After a few minutes I head over to the family, offering a numbed smile, ‘Lo siento mucho.’

Eder sighs, his eyes a watery brown. ‘I think the horse got a problem with his tendón because he’s not walking so good.’

‘Sorry man,’ I say. ‘He’ll be back I’m sure.’

But I’m not so sure.

Lou embraces our friend and for a moment we are all together, like a couple consoling a broken widower at the funeral.

‘You owe me 200 pesos,’ she whispers into his ear, adding to what he has already lost. She’s always had the knack of making people think they owe her something.

The last race is cancelled. It doesn’t matter, the crowd seem satisfied enough for the day. We follow the line of pickup trucks back into town and as we pass the point where the boy gave us directions, she turns her head toward mine and raises a finger up to her lips. I smile and we drive on.

Philip Charter is a British writer who currently lives in Pamplona, Spain. Between writing fiction, songs and poems, he runs a blog about teaching and travel. His work has been featured in Flash Fiction, Storgy and Carillon magazines.