Copyright © 2011 Jerry Dunne
Recommended reading age 9 years +
In the exciting sport of chatter and squeal racing, monkey jockeys, known as chatterers, ride tall, muscular, fleet-footed racing pigs known as squealers.
After the sudden death of Blue’s (a boy) and the Rooster’s (a young chatterer) dads, Blue’s Uncle Patrick accepts responsibility for raising the boy.
The Rooster, often rude and argumentative, gets worse now his dad is dead. Blue struggles to control the young chatterer, wishing his uncle would help him out here. Blue also worries about the bank loan on their ranch. Without winning races, they’ll struggle to pay it back.
But despite the Rooster’s bad behavior, he and his squealer, Crazy Pig, are showing great promise at the racing.
Then the Rooster goes missing. Blue and Uncle Patrick search everywhere but find no sign of him. With no clues to go on, they are terrified that he is either dead or kidnapped.
Chapter 5 describes the scene on a typical racing day at a chatter and squeal track in the southwest of the United States.
We had a big motorhome to go racing in. Behind the driver’s cabin was a kitchen and dining area. We had two small bedrooms and a tiny restroom. You pulled the beds out from the walls when you needed them. My dad had turned one bedroom into a comfortable pen for Crazy Pig with a straw bed and fresh water in a wall bracket and cool air coming in from the air conditioning. We drove in it down to Patagonia, close to the Mexican border; we were going for a warm-up race before the Mountain Run.
Woodland surrounded the track here on three sides and on the other side fields of crops grew in abundance. We parked our motorhome in the big parking lot behind the grandstand building which had the betting Tote, a cafeteria and other shops on the ground floor. On the higher level was a restaurant and observation room with a huge tinted window looking out over the track. The building had air conditioning like in a shopping mall. Outside, facing the track, the grandstand seating rose in tiers like in any football stadium.
The parking lot was bustling with trainers and others pulling grunting squealers out of trailers and setting up make-shift pens for them. Animal sweat, leather, sweet hay and corn, and the real freshness of spring you get after a shower of rain hung in the air. Chatterers were fussing over buggies or saddles or clothing and already I saw one drop his crash helmet on the ground and walk away in a huff, while his trainer with hands on hips screamed after him, “Stop right there, Otis, or face the consequences!” The chatterer carried on walking, heading toward the grandstand building.
Rooster and I went for a ramble as my curiosity was always jumping high at these events. We went round to the front of the grandstand. Up in the tiered seating people sat laughing, bragging, shouting and arm flapping. There was no roof to hold off sun or rain here. The men wore peaked caps and straw hats to shade their lively faces. They were stripped to the waist, or in sleeveless T-shirts, or in sleeveless open-necked shirts and swilling beer from large plastic mugs. The women wore broad-brimmed hats of every color, and sundresses, or shirts and skirts, and sipped on smaller mugs of beer or iced tea.
A man dressed as a pig was grunting at children to make them laugh and buy balloons he was selling off a cart. We passed hot dog and candy apple carts. Rooster paused at each cart with a quick lick of the lips. At another stall a man was shouting out, “Chatter and Squeal! Chatter and Squeal!” He was selling the latest issue of Chatter and Squeal Magazine.
Over the loudspeaker came, “Folks, we have a small child lost, name of Virgil. Mum or dad can collect him over by the lost point, that’s near the Main Tote inside the main building. Thanks y’all.”
TV cameras were on the loose. You saw the reporter shouting at the cameraman and the cameraman turning red and mouthing off back at the reporter under his breath. Track officials dressed in blue jackets with badges on the breast pockets and white pants were fussing about everywhere, their noses high, their jaws set to self-important mode. We passed many folks jawing loudly, one bragging, “I won six of my last seven bets!”
Chatterers mingled freely in the crowd, some dressed in their silks and signing autographs to clumps of excited children and older folk. One old gentleman looking about ninety lined up for an autograph from Kissin Henry, an old king of the buggy track. Old, bent and shaky now, age wise Henry resembled this old man who now stepped forward to shake his hand. The old gentleman began conversing in Chatlish with Kissin Henry.
Here is what he said, “You won’t believe, but I never missed seeing any of your races back in the day. Why, over the years you and I have grown old together.”
Old Kissin Henry took this in his stride, smiling and hugging the bigger animal, who insisted on a long hug, and then Kissin signed the old gentleman’s autograph book.
As I turned away with a smile, I spied a gang of monkeys in the lower seating of the grandstand hurling ice cream and nuts at one another. Many caught my eye and waved to me. I knew them, so waved back. They’d come out from stables over Flagstaff way. We passed a cotton candy stall and the smell had whipped up so strong I could taste its sweetness in my mouth. The Rooster, he pulled me to a halt to take in a long deep sniff of it, closing his eyes and raising his nose and shaking his head slowly at such a glorious smell.
Old folks were queuing for the Tote, where you made your bets. The old ones were the shrewdest of all for betting and some made a living from it. Most kept their gray heads buried in the programs with their wrinkled faces set in hard focus like they might be scientists. One old woman was reckoning up a race from her program while chewing on a pencil. A tiny gray-haired old monkey, perched on her shoulder, was whispering his opinion in her right ear. She stopped chewing suddenly, and looking at him with a satisfied nod, slipped him a dollar bill.
Families were sitting wherever grass grew. They had picnic hampers laid out all tasty and coaxing: sandwiches, cold chicken, meat and fruit pies and ice boxes filled with pop and beer. The smallest children were screeching and throwing ice cream around. The mothers were fussing and finger wagging at their young ‘uns, the fathers scowling along with the mothers, and then sneaking down beer or whiskey behind their wives’ backs. The older children were always trying to slip away by themselves to catch a sight of a chatterer or squealer. When they got to speak to a chatterer in his own tongue, even a few words, they’d flush all wide eyed, their hearts thrilled to bits when he answered them.
A large crowd the far end of the grandstand caught our attention. Some kind of auction was taking place over there.
Two times Kentucky Buggy Champion, Red Face, America’s best buggy jockey, was scheduled to run in our race today. Later in the year, Red Face was going for the hat-trick in the Kentucky Derby. If he won it for the third time, it would make him a legend.
I knew he liked to do painting, and here they were selling off his self-portrait, the money from it going to a retired chatterers’ charity. His face looked generally red, but seemed even redder in the portrait. Maybe he was mad about something when he done it. He looked the same otherwise. He had a nose so flat it spread like soft butter from cheek to cheek, high cheekbones and a wrinkled brow. And he caught his own eyes exactly right, fiery with pride.
I didn’t mind him so much; he was always a good competitor. His manager T J Starling, I didn’t like. My dad never liked him and once said about him, “A shadowy type. Something not right about him.”
T J Starling stood big, proud and loud. He always attired himself in a white suit and white hat. Big, loud, arm-waving types like him are always breathing hard and popping sweat and swiping at their brows with handkerchiefs.
He hollered, “Do I hear five hundred dollars? Six hundred dollars? I have six hundred dollars. Do I hear seven hundred dollars?”
Woooow! Seven hundred and rising just for a painting.
Sandy Sands, a reporter from Chatter and Squeal Magazine held a microphone out to Red Face while a ChatterAndSquealTV cameraman pointed his lens at him. T J Starling soon had the bid up to one thousand dollars. His sweaty brow shone with conceit. But Red Face had the corners of his mouth turned down. A fellow nearby said to his friend, “Why’s he always look so glum?”
His friend spat out a streak of yellow spit, and said, “He’s an artist. Artists ain’t happy people.”
Rooster said, “My, how that boy Red Face fancies himself a real high-and-mighty dandy.”
My uncle took Crazy Pig walking round the motorhome, getting his legs stretched while Ebenezer was bringing the buggy and equipment out. The buggy weighed hardly anything, though the frame and wheels were made of a strong metal. I said to Rooster, “Time to get ready. Race starts in forty minutes.”
Inside the motorhome, I helped him on with his jockey silks, reminding him, “Let Red Face take the lead if he wants. His squealer likes front running. You have Rawhide Jimmy who likes to jump ahead and then slow right down and block everybody behind. So don’t get in behind him. Happy Jack likes to pop up everywhere so don’t bother following him. He’s just playing the fool. You need to make a good impression here. Beat Red Face today and you have what they call a psychological edge you can use later in the Mountain Run.”
His eyeballs turned up to the ceiling, “Think I don’t already know.”
“There’s a world of difference between knowing and remembering it when you’re out there losing your temper.”
He put on his crash helmet. In front of a full-length mirror, he took a long admiring look at himself. From the silk on his jockey helmet to his jockey pants he was sporting the Walker colors of checkered gold and white.
“Make both our dads proud,” I said.
He pulled the strong elastic ribbon on his goggles over the back of his crash helmet. He sat down and I pulled on his boots. Black and old, these boots were his dad’s, and were still in great shape. I’d been polishing them so they might reflect mirror-like. He strolled back and forward across the floor, getting used to them.
Finally, I tied up the strap on his crash helmet. He squeaked, “Too tight!” So I loosened it, and he relaxed some.
We went outside.
Rooster jumped into the buggy seat and took control of our squealer. He flicked the reins and our team headed toward the parade ring. Many heads turned as they trotted along. People cried out with delight, “Rooster! Crazy Pig!”
At the parade ring, where a noisy crowd always gathered, trainers were leading their squealers by the bridle around the inside of the circular railing. I slipped into the ring pulling Crazy Pig’s bridle after me. Rooster was sitting on the buggy seat, his chest out, brimming with confidence. The crowd studied each squealer carefully, observing the build and movements of the animal and after adding that to the reputation of the chatterer, would then work out whether a good bet might be had.
One gentleman, standing tight up against the railing, pushed his straw hat up high on his head and chewed hard on his lip. “There he is. Crazy Pig. Coming on a whole heap lately. Sure to make a big impression in the Mountain Run.”
Another gentleman with him said, “Sure to make an impression here today, too. Look how those muscles on his chest and stomach ripple. He has an honest head and a good flap to his ears. That other one there, I don’t like his long swan neck, nor his ears flattened too much. And look at the scowl on that squealer! If I saw that scowl on a man on a barstool across from me, I’d be in fear for my life.”
The other sighed and said, “Crazy Pig has a striding style I really like. I ain’t ever seen a more confident squealer in my life. I’m having a bet on.”
These opinions made me blush with pride.
I led Crazy out the ring and over to the starting line, which lay back down the track a piece in front of the grandstand observation room. In most races here, the starting line was also the finishing line. This track was oval shaped and a half-mile round. The race was left-handed (running counterclockwise), and two laps of the track.
Fifteen buggies fidgeted restlessly behind the starting line. Each chatterer wore different colors and different pattern silks: black, white, purple, greens, blues, reds, gold and silver, from square and diamonds to stripe and polka dot patterns over their jerseys and pants.
I’d grabbed the back of our buggy to stop Crazy from dragging it forward over the starting line before the whistle blew. He was making no movement right then, but I held on tight just in case. A squealer might spook at anything and be off running before you’d be able to stop him. Other buggies had trainers pulling back hard, shouting at their chatterers to calm the excitable squealers.
“Why ain’t you quietening him?” a chatterer complained to his trainer.
I glanced along the line and saw Red Face with his Striking Diamond. One of T J Starling’s boys was holding the back of his buggy, while T J himself was gazing down from the observation tower.
A squealer let off gas two draws down. Why, that one surprised me, for it sounded just like loud sneezing! Chatterers started suddenly laughing all round. His chatterer screamed angrily at his trainer, “Told you to stop giving him those new cube supplements!” And he grabbed his nose in disgust.
“Keep your hands on the reins!” his trainer cried, unimpressed by his distress.
I held my own nose and turned my head to one side. I sure felt glad loud sneezing didn’t smell like that.
A voice rang out over the megaphone, “Handlers get ready!”
“You do what we talked about, you hear me, boy?” I said to Rooster.
The shrill sound of the whistle punctured the air and I let go the buggy as the teams roared down the track.
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