HORSE LAUGH

DORTMUNDER LOOKED AT THE HORSE. THE HORSE LOOKED AT Dortmunder. “Ugly goddamn thing,” Dortmunder commented, while the horse just rolled his eyes in disbelief.

“Not that one,” the old coot said. “We’re looking for a black stallion.”

“In the dark,” Dortmunder pointed out. “Anyway, all horses look the same to me.”

“It’s not how they look,” the old coot said, “it’s how they run. And Dire Straits could run the ass off a plug like this one. Which is why he won’t be out here in the night air with these glue factories. We’ll find Dire Straits in one of them barns down there.”

That was another thing rubbing Dortmunder the wrong way-the names that horses get saddled with. Abby’s Elbow, Nuff Said, Dreadful Summit, Dire Straits. If you were going out to the track, where the horses were almost irrelevant to the occasion, where the point was to drink beer and bet money and socialize a little and make small jokes like, “I hope I break even today; I could use the cash,” it didn’t matter much that you were betting 30 across the board on something called Giant Can and that you had to wait for a bunch of horses outdoors somewhere to run around in a big oval before you found out if you had won. But here, in the darkest wilds of New Jersey, on a ranch barely 60 miles from New York City, surrounded by all these huge, nervous creatures, pawing and snorting and rolling their eyes, out here breathing this moist, smelly air, walking in mud or worse, it just capped Dortmunder’s discontent that these dangerous furry barrels on sticks were named Picasso’s Revenge and How’m I Doin?

From some distance away, Andy Kelp’s cautious voice rose into the rich air, saying, “There’s more down that way. I heard some go, ‘Snushfurryblurryblurryblurry.'”

“That’s a whicker,” the old coot said, as though anybody gave a damn.

“I don’t care if it’s mohair,” Kelp told him. “Let’s do this and get out of here. I’m a city boy myself.”

The edge of nervousness and impatience in Kelp’s voice was music to Dortmunder’s ears. It was Kelp who’d brought him into this caper in the first place, so if Dortmunder was going to suffer, it was nice to know that his best friend was also unhappy and discontented.

It was the eternally optimistic Kelp who had first met the old coot, named Hiram Rangle, and brought him around to the OJ. Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue one night to meet Dortmunder and discuss a matter of possible mutual benefit. “I work for this fella,” Hiram Rangle had said in his raspy old-coot voice, his faded-blue eyes staring suspiciously out of his leathery brown face. “But I’m not gonna tell you his name.”

“You don’t have to tell me anything,” Dortmunder said. He was a little annoyed in a general way, having had a series of things go wrong lately-not important, doesn’t matter-and it hadn’t been his idea to take this meeting. Over at the bar, the regulars were discussing the latest advances in psychotherapy- “It’s called A version, and it’s a way to make you have a different version of how you see women”; “I like the version I got”-and Dortmunder was sitting here with this old coot, a skinny little guy in deerskin jacket and flannel shirt and corduroy pants and yellow boots big enough to garage a Honda,

and the coot was telling him what he would tell him and what he wouldn’t tell him. “You and my pal Andy here,” Dortmunder said, lifting his glass of bar bourbon, “can go talk to the crowd at the bar for all I care.”

“Aw, come on, John,” Kelp said. He totally wanted this thing to happen, and he leaned his sharp-featured face over the scarred corner table, as though to draw Dortmunder and the old coot together by sheer force of personality. He said, “This is a good deal for everybody. Let Hiram tell you about it.”

“He says he doesn’t want to.”

“I got to be careful, that’s all,” the old coot said, sipping defensively at his Tsing-Tao.

“Then don’t come to joints like this,” Dortmunder advised him.

“Tell the man, Hiram,” Kelp said. “That’s what you’re here for.”

Hiram took a breath and put down his glass. “What it comes down to is,” he said, “we want to steal a horse.”

They wanted to steal a horse. What it came down to was, the old coot worked for some guy who was full of schemes and scams, and one of them was a long-range plot involving this race horse, Dire Straits, on whom Dortmunder could remember having dropped some rent money some years back on a couple of those rare occasions when Dire Straits had finished out of the running. It seemed that Dire Straits, having in his racing career won many millions for many people (and having lost a few kopecks for Dortmunder), had now been put out to stud, which, as described by the old coot, sounded like a retirement plan better than most. These days, Dire Straits hung around with some other male horses on a nice green-grass farm over near Short Hills, New Jersey-“If they’re short, why do they call them hills?” Dortmunder had wanted to know, which was something else the old coot didn’t have an answer for-and from time to time, the owners of female horses paid the owners of Dire Straits great big sackfuls of money for him to go off and party. It seems there was a theory that the sons and daughters of fast horses would also be fast, and a lot of money changed hands on that theory.

Well, the schemer, Hiram Rangle’s anonymous boss, owned some fairly fast horses himself, but nothing in the Dire Straits class, so his idea was to kidnap Dire Straits and put him to work partying with his own female horses; and then, when the female horses had sons and daughters, the schemer would put down on the birth certificate some slow-moving plater as the father. Then, when the sons and daughters grew up enough to start to run, which would take only a couple of years, the odds against them would be very long, because of their alleged parentage; but because Dire Straits was their real daddy, they would run like crazy, and the schemer would bet on them and make a bundle. In a few months, of course, the odds would adjust to the horses’ actual track records; but by then, the schemer would be home free. With three or four of Dire Straits’ disguised kiddies hitting the turf every year and maybe another five or six years of active partying left in his life, it was a scheme that, as a fellow might say, had legs.

Kelp put it slightly differently: “It’s like The Prince and the Pauper, where you don’t know it, but your real daddy’s the king.”

“I think we’re talking about horses here,” Dortmunder told him.

Kelp shook his head. “You never see the romantic side,” he said.

“I’ll leave that to Dire Straits,” Dortmunder said.

Anyway, it turned out that the one fly in the ointment in the schemer’s scheme was the fact that, even with all his hustling and finagling, he’d never in his career done any actual, straightforward, out-and-out theft. He had his scheme, he had his own ranch with his own female horses on it, he had a nice cash cushion to use in making his bets three years down the line, but the one thing he didn’t have, and didn’t know how to get, was Dire Straits. So one way or another, his hireling, Rangle, had got in touch with Andy Kelp, who had said his friend John Dortmunder was exactly the man to plan and execute a robbery of this delicate and unusual a nature, and that was why this meeting was taking place in the O.J., where over at the bar the regulars were now arguing about whether penis envy was confined to men or if women could have it, too: “How can they? What’s the basis of the comparison?”

“I can tell you this much,” Hiram Rangle said. “My boss’ll pay twenty thousand dollars for Dire Straits. Not to me; I’ve already got my salary. To the people who help me.”

“Ten thousand apiece, John,” Kelp pointed out.

“I know how to divide by two, Andy.” Dortmunder also knew how to divide by zero, which was how he’d profited from his other operations recently-just a little run of hard luck, nothing worth talking about-which was why he’d finally nodded and said, “I’ll look at this horse of yours,” and why he was now here in the sultry New Jersey night, ankle-deep in some sort of warm, dark pulpiness, listening to Andy Kelp imitate horse whickers and deciding it was time they found the right animal and got the hell out of there.

Because the problem was that Dire Straits was, in a manner of speaking, in prison. A prison farm, actually, with fields and open sky, but a prison nevertheless, with tall fences and locked gates and a fairly complicated route in and out. And breaking into a prison for horses was not much easier than breaking into a prison for people, particularly when the horses involved were also valuable.

V-A-L-U-A-B-L-E. When Kelp first showed Dortmunder the item from the Daily News sports pages about how Dire Straits was insured for more than $1,000,000, Dortmunder had said, “A million dollars? Then what do we need with ten grand? Why don’t we deal with the insurance company?”

“John, I thought of that,” Kelp had said, “but the question is, Where would we keep it while we negotiated? I’ve only got the studio apartment, you know.”

“Well, May wouldn’t let me keep it at our place, I know that much.” Dortmunder sighed and nodded. “OK. We’ll settle for the ten.”

That was last week. This week, on Tuesday, Kelp and Dortmunder and the old coot had driven out through the Holland Tunnel and across New Jersey into the Short Hills area in a Ford Fairlane the old coot had rented, and when they got to the place, this is what they saw. On a wandering country road through rolling countryside covered with the lush greenery of August was a modest Colonial-style sign reading YERBA BUENA RANCH, mounted on a post next to a blacktop road climbing up a low hill toward a white farmhouse visible some distance in through the trees. Kelp, at the wheel, turned in there just to see what would happen, and what happened was that, about halfway to the house-white-rail fences to both sides of the blacktop, more white-rail fences visible in the fields beyond the house-a nice young fellow in blue jeans and a T-shirt with a picture of a horse on it came walking out and smiled pleasantly as Kelp braked to a stop, and then said, “Help you, folks? This is a private road.”

“We’re looking for Hopatcong,” Kelp said, just because the name HOPATCONG on a highway sign had struck him funny. So then, of course, he had to listen to about 18 minutes of instructions on how to get to Hopatcong before they could back up and leave there and drive on up the public road and take the right turn up a very steep hill to a place from which they could look down and see Yerba Buena Ranch spread out below, like a pool table with fences. The ranch was pretty extensive, with irregularly shaped fields all enclosed by those white wooden rails and connected by narrow roads of dirt or blacktop. Here and there were small clusters of trees, like buttons in upholstery, plus about ten brown or white barns and sheds scattered around out behind the main farmhouse. They saw about 30 horses hanging out and watched a little cream-colored pickup truck drive back and forth, and then Dortmunder said, “Doesn’t look easy.”

Kelp paused in taking many photos of the place to stare in astonishment. “Doesn’t look easy? I never saw anything so easy in my life. No alarm system, no armed guards, not even anybody really suspicious.”

“You can’t put a horse in your pocket,” Dortmunder said. “And how do we get a vehicle down in there without somebody noticing?”

“I’ll walk him out,” the old coot said. “That’s no trouble; I know horses.”

“Do you know this horse?” Dortmunder gestured at the pretty landscape. “They got a whole lot of horses down there.”

“I’ll know Dire Straits when I see him, don’t you worry,” the old coot said.

So now was the time to find out if that was an idle boast or not. Using the photos they’d taken from all around the ranch, plus New Jersey road maps and a topographical map that gave Dortmunder a slight headache, he’d figured out the best route to and from the ranch and also the simplest and cleanest way in, which was to start from a small and seldom-traveled county road and hike through somebody else’s orchard to the rear of the ranch, then remove two rails from the perimeter fence there. They would go nowhere near the front entrance or the main building. The old coot would go with them to identify Dire Straits and lead him away. Going out, they’d restore the rails to confuse and delay pursuit. The old coot had rented a station wagon and a horse van with room for two horses- Dortmunder and Kelp couldn’t get over the idea that they were working with somebody who rented vehicles rather than steal them-and so here they were, around two A.M. on a cloudy, warm night.

But where was Dire Straits?

Could he be off partying somewhere, for heavy money? The old coot insisted no; his anonymous boss had ways of knowing things like that, and Dire Straits was definitely at home these days, resting up between dates.

“He’ll be in one of them buildings over there,” the old coot said, gesturing vaguely in the general direction of planet Earth.

“I can still hear some back that way,” Kelp said. “Now they’re going, “Floor-flor.”‘

“That’s a snort,” the old coot said. “Those old plugs stay outside in good weather, but Dire Straits they keep in his stall, so he stays healthy. Down this way.”

So they went down that way, Dortmunder not liking any bit of it. He preferred to think of himself as a professional and for a professional there is always the one right way to do things, as opposed to any number of amateur or wrong ways, and this job just wasn’t laying out in a manner that he could take pride in. Having to case the joint from a nearby hilltop, for instance, was far less satisfactory than walking into a bank, or a jewelry wholesaler, or whatever it might be, and pretending to be a messenger with a package for Mr. Hutcheson. “There’s no Mr. Hutcheson here.” “You sure? Let me call my dispatcher.” And so on. Looking things over every second of the time.

You can’t show up at a ranch with a package for a horse.

Nor can you tap a horse’s phone or do electronic surveillance on a horse or make up a plaster imitation horse to leave in its place. You can’t drill in to the horse from next door or tunnel in from across the street. You can’t do a diversionary explosion outside a ranch or use the fire escape or break through the roof. You can’t time a horse’s movements.

Well, you can, actually, but not the way Dortmunder meant.

The way Dortmunder meant, this horse heist was looking less and less like what the newspapers call a “well-planned professional robbery” and more and more like hobos sneaking into back yards to steal lawn mowers. Professionally, it was an embarrassment.

“Careful where you walk,” the old coot said.

“Too late,” Dortmunder told him.

Dortmunder’s ideas of farms came from margarine commercials on television and his ideas of ranches from cigarette ads in magazines. This place didn’t match either; no three-story-high red barns, no masses of horses running pell-mell past boulders. What you had was these long, low brown buildings scattered among the railed-in fields, and what it mostly reminded Dortmunder of was World War Two prisoner-of-war-camp movies- not a comforting image.

“He’ll be in one of these three barns,” the old coot said. “I’m pretty sure.”

So they entered a long structure with a wide central cement-floored aisle spotted with dirt and straw. A few low-wattage bare bulbs hung from the rough beams above the aisle, and chest-high wooden partitions lined both sides. These were the stalls, about two thirds occupied.

Walking through this first barn, Dortmunder learned several facts about horses: (1) They smell. (2) They breathe, more than anything he’d ever met in his life before. (3) They don’t sleep, not even at night. (4) They don’t even sit down. (5) They are very curious about people who happen to go by. And (6) they have extremely long necks. When horses in stalls on both sides of Dortmunder stretched out their heads toward him at the same time, wrinkling their black lips to show their big, square tombstone teeth, snuffling and whuffling with those shotgun-barrel noses, sighting at him down those long faces, he realized that the aisle wasn’t that wide after all.

“Jeepers,” Kelp said, a thing he didn’t say often.

And Dire Straits wasn’t even in there. They emerged on the other side, warm, curious horse breath still moist on Dortmunder’s cheek, and looked around, accustoming themselves to the darkness again. Behind them, the horses whickered and bumped around, still disturbed by this late-night visit. Far away, the main farmhouse showed just a couple of lights. Faint illumination came from window openings of nearer structures. “He has to be in that one or that one,” the old coot said, pointing.

“Which one you want to try first?” Dortmunder asked.

The old coot considered and pointed. “That one.”

“Then it’s in the other one,” Dortmunder said. “So that’s where we’ll try.”

The old coot gave him a look. “Are you trying to be funny, or what?”

“Or what,” Dortmunder said.

And, as it turned out, he was right. Third stall in on the left, there was Dire Straits himself, a big, kind of arrogant-looking thing, with a narrower-than-usual face and a very sleek black coat. He reared back and stared at these human beings with distaste, like John Barrymore being awakened the morning after. “That’s him,” the old coot said. More important, a small sign on the stall door said the same thing: DIRE STRAITS.

“At last,” Kelp said.

“Hasn’t been that long,” the old coot said. “Let me get a bridle for him.” He turned away, then suddenly tensed, looking back toward the door. In a quick, harsh whisper, he said, “Somebody coming!”

“Uh-oh,” Dortmunder said.

Turning fast, the old coot yanked open a stall door-not the one to Dire Straits-grabbed Dortmunder’s elbow in his strong, bony hand and shoved him inside, at the same time hissing at Kelp, “Slip in here! Slip in!”

“There’s somebody in here,” Dortmunder objected, meaning a horse, a brown one, who stared at this unexpected guest in absolute astonishment.

“No time!” The old coot was pushing Kelp in, crowding in himself, pulling the stall door shut just as the light in the barn got much brighter. Must be on a dimmer switch.

“Hey, fellas,” a male voice said conversationally, “what’s going on?”

Caught us, Dortmunder thought, and cast about in his mind for some even faintly sensible reason for being in this brown horse’s stall in the middle of the night. Then he heard what else the voice was saying:

“Thought you were all settled down for the night.”

He’s talking to the horses, Dortmunder thought.

“Something get to you guys? Bird fly in?”

In a way, Dortmunder thought.

“Did a rat get in here?”

The voice was closer, calm and reassuring, its owner moving slowly along the aisle, his familiar sound and sight leaving a lot of soothed horses in his wake.

All except for the brown horse in here with Dortmunder and Kelp and the old coot. He wasn’t exactly crying out, “Here, boss, here they are, they’re right here!” but it was close. Snort, whuffle, paw, headshake, prance; the damn beast acted like he was auditioning for A Chorus Line. While Dortmunder and company crouched down low on the far side of this huge, hairy show-off, doing their best not to get crushed between the immovable object of the stall wall and the irrepressible force of the horse’s haunch, the owner of the voice came over to see what was up, saying, “Hey, there, Daffy, what’s the problem?”

Daffy, thought Dortmunder. I might have known.

The person was right there, leaning his forearms on the stall door, permitting Daffy to slobber and blubber all over his face. “It’s OK now, Daffy,” the person said. “Everything’s fine.”

I’ve been invaded! Daffy whuffled while his tail dry-mopped Dortmunder’s face.

“Just settle down, big fella.”

Just look me over! Have I ever had ten legs before?

“Take it easy, boy. Everybody else is calm now.”

That’s because they don’t have these, these, these. . . .

“Good Daffy. See you in the morning.”

Oh, dear, oh, dear, oh, dear, Daffy mumbled, while trying to step on everybody’s toes at once.

The owner of the voice receded at last, and the old coot did something up around Daffy’s head that all at once made the horse calm right down. As the lights lowered to their former dimness and the sound of thumping boots faded, Daffy grinned at everybody as though to say, I’ve always wanted roommates. Nice!

Kelp said, “What did you do?”

“Sugar cubes,” the old coot said. “I brought some for Dire Straits, didn’t have time to give one to this critter before that hand got here.”

Sugar cubes. Dortmunder looked at the old coot with new respect. Here was a man who traveled with an emergency supply of sugar cubes.

“OK,” the old coot said, shoving Daffy out of his way as though the animal were a big sofa on casters, “Let’s get Dire Straits and get out of here.”

“Exactly,” Dortmunder said, but then found himself kind of pinned against the wall. “Listen, uh, Hiram,” he said. “Could you move Daffy a little?”

“Oh, sure.”

Hiram did, and Dortmunder gratefully left that stall, hurried along by Daffy’s nose in the small of his back. Kelp shut the stall door and Hiram went over to select a bridle from among those hanging on pegs. Coming back to Dire Straits’ stall, he said softly, “Come here, guy, I got something nice for you.”

Dire Straits wasn’t so sure about that. Being a star, he was harder to get than Daffy. From well back in the stall, he gave Hiram down his long nose a do-I-know-you? look.

“Come here, honey,” Hiram urged, soft and confidential, displaying not one but two sugar cubes on his outstretched palm. “Got something for you.”

Next door, Daffy stuck his head out to watch all this with some concern, having thought he had an exclusive on sugar-cube distribution. Whicker? he asked.

That did it. Hearing his neighbor, Dire Straits finally realized there was such a thing as playing too hard to get. With a toss of the head, moving with a picky-toed dignity that Dortmunder might have thought sexually suspicious if he hadn’t known Dire Straits’ rep, the big black beast came forward, lowered his head, wuggled and muggled over Hiram’s palm and the cubes were gone. Meanwhile, with his other hand, Hiram was patting the horse’s nose, murmuring, rubbing behind his ear and gradually getting into just the right position.

It was slickly done, Dortmunder had to admit that. The first thing Dire Straits knew, the bit was in his mouth, the bridle straps were around his head and Hiram was wrapping a length of rein around his own hand. “Good boy,” Hiram said, gave the animal one more pat and backed away, opening the stall.

After all that prima-donna stuff, Dire Straits was suddenly no trouble at all. Maybe he thought he was on his way to the hop. As Daffy and a couple of other horses neighed goodbye, Hiram led Dire Straits out of the barn. Dortmunder and Kelp stuck close, Hiram now seeming less like an old coot and more like somebody who knew what he was doing, and they headed at an easy pace across the fields.

The fences along the way were composed of two rails, one at waist height and the other down by your knee, with their ends stuck into holes in vertical posts and nailed. On the way in, Dortmunder and Kelp had removed rails from three fences, because Hiram had assured them that Dire Straits would neither climb them nor leap over. “I thought horses jumped,” Dortmunder said.

“Only jumpers,” Hiram answered. Dortmunder, unsatisfied, decided to let it go.

On the way out, Hiram and Dire Straits paused while Dortmunder and Kelp restored the rails to the first fence, having to whisper harshly the length of the rail at each other before they got the damn things seated in the holes in the vertical posts, and then they moved on, Kelp muttering, “You almost took my thumb off there, you know.”

“Wait till we’re in the light again,” Dortmunder told him. “I’ll show you the big gash on the back of my hand.”

“No, no, honey,” Hiram said to Dire Straits. It seemed there were other horses in this field, and Dire Straits wanted to go hang out, but Hiram held tight to the rein, tugged and provided the occasional sugar cube to keep him moving in the right direction. The other horses began to come around, interested, wondering what was up. Dortmunder and Kelp did their best to keep out of the way without losing Hiram and Dire Straits, but it was getting tough. There were five or six horses milling around, bumping into one another, sticking their faces into Dortmunder’s and Kelp’s necks, distracting them and slowing them down. “Hey!” Dortmunder called, but softly. “Wait up!”

“We got to get out of here,” Hiram said, not waiting up.

Kelp said, “Hiram, we’re gonna get lost.”

“Hold his tail,” Hiram suggested. He still wasn’t waiting up.

Dortmunder couldn’t believe that. “You mean the horse?”

“Who else? He won’t mind.”

The sound of Hiram’s voice was farther ahead. It was getting harder to tell Dire Straits from all these other beasts. “Jeez, maybe we better,” Kelp said and trotted forward, arms up to protect himself from ricocheting animals.

Dortmunder followed, reluctant but seeing no other choice. He and Kelp both grabbed Dire Straits’ tail, way down near the end; and from there on, the trip got somewhat easier, though it

was essentially humiliating to have to walk along holding on to some horse’s tail.

At the second fence, there was another batch of horses, so many that it was impossible to put the rails back. “Oh, the hell with it,” Dortmunder said. “Let’s just go,” He grabbed Dire Straits’ tail. “Come on, come on,” he said, and the horse he was holding on to, which wasn’t Dire Straits, suddenly took off at about 90 miles an hour, taking Dortmunder with him for the first eight inches, or until his brain could order his fingers, “Retract!” Reeling, not quite falling into the ooze below, Dortmunder stared around in the darkness, saying, “Where the hell is everybody?”

A lot of horses neighed and whickered and snorted and laughed at him; in among them all, Kelp’s voice called, “Over here,” and so the little band regrouped again, Dortmunder clutching firmly the right tail.

What a lot of horses-more than ever. Hiram, complaining that he didn’t have that much sugar anymore, nevertheless occasionally had to buy off more intrusive and aggressive animals, while Dortmunder and Kelp had to keep saying, as horses stuck their noses into pants pockets and armpits, “We don’t have the damn sugar! Talk to the guy in front!”

Finally, they reached the last fence, where Hiram suddenly stopped and said, “Oh, hell.”

“I don’t want to hear ‘Oh, hell,'” Dortmunder answered. Feeling his way along Dire Straits’ flank, he came up to the horse’s head and saw Hiram looking at the final fence. Because this was the border of the property, on coming in Dortmunder and Kelp had left the rails roughly in their original positions, though no longer nailed in place, and now the press of horses had dislodged them, leaving a 12-foot gap full of about the biggest herd of horses this side of a Gene Autry movie. More horses joined the crowd every second, passing through the gap, disappearing into the darkness. “Now what?” Dortmunder said.

“Apples,” Hiram said. He sounded unhappy.

Dortmunder said, “What apples? I don’t have any apples.”

“They do,” Hiram said. “If there’s one thing horses like more than sugar, it’s apples. And that”-he pointed his chin in disgust-“is an orchard.”

“And that” Kelp said, “is a siren.”

It was true. Far in the distance, the wail of a siren rose and fell, and then rose again, more clearly. “Sounds exactly like the city,” Dortmunder said, with a whiff of nostalgia.

Kelp said, “Aren’t those lights over there? Over by the road?”

Past the bulk of many horses stretching their necks up into apple trees to eat green apples, Dortmunder saw the bobbing beams of flashlights. “Over by the van, you mean,” he said. The siren rose, wonderfully distinct, then fell; and during its valley, voices could be heard, shouting, over by the flashlights. “Terrific,” Dortmunder said.

“What happened,” Hiram said, “is the owner. The orchard owner.”

“He probably lives,” Kelp suggested, “in that house we saw across the street from where we parked.”

“Across the road,” Hiram corrected.

“Anyway,” Kelp said, “I guess he called the cops.”

Beyond the bobbing flashlights, which seemed to Dortmunder to be moving closer, red and blue lights appeared, blinking and revolving. “State troopers,” Dortmunder said.

“Well, we’ll never get to the van,” Hiram said. Turning around, looking past Dire Straits’ shoulder, he said, “We can’t go back that way anymore, either.”

Dortmunder turned to look and saw many more lights on now in the main ranch building and the outbuildings. The ruckus over here had attracted attention, maybe; or, more likely, the owner of the orchard had phoned the owner of the ranch to say a word or two about horses eating apples.

In any event, it was a pincer movement, with the orchard people and the state troopers in front and the ranch people in back, all moving inexorably toward the point occupied by Dortmunder and Kelp and Hiram and Dire Straits.

“There’s only one thing to do,” Hiram said.

Dortmunder looked at him. “That many?”

“It’s time to ride out of here.”

Kelp said, “Hiram, we’ll never get to the van.”

“Not drive. Ride.” Saying which, Hiram suddenly swung up onto Dire Straits’ bare back. The horse looked startled, and maybe insulted. “Grab mounts,” Hiram said, gripping the rein.

“Hiram,” Dortmunder said, “I don’t ride horses.”

“Time to learn, Bo,” Hiram said unsympathetically. Bending low over Dire Straits’ neck, whamming his heels into Dire Straits’ rib cage, Hiram yelled into Dire Straits’ ear, “Go, boy!”

“I don’t ride,” Dortmunder said, “any horses.”

With Hiram on his back, Dire Straits walked over to the nearest apple tree and started to eat. “Go, boy!” Hiram yelled, kicking and whacking the oblivious thoroughbred. “Giddy, damn it!” he yelled, as flashlight beams began to pick him out among the branches and leaves and green apples.

“I never did have much luck with horses,” Dortmunder said. Out in front of him was a scene of mass, and growing, confusion. As the siren’s wail continued to weave, horses shouldered their way up and down the tight rows of gnarly apple trees, munching and socializing. Human beings uselessly yelled and waved things among them, trying to make them go home. Because green apples go right through horses, the human beings also slipped and slued a lot. Hiram, trying to hide in the tree Dire Straits was snacking off but blinded by all the flashlights now converged on him, fell out of the tree and into the arms of what looked very much like a state trooper, who then fell down. Other people fell down. Horses ate. Lights stabbed this way and that. Back by the breached fence, Dortmunder and Kelp watched without pleasure. “That reminds me of the subway,” Dortmunder said.

“Here comes that truck,” Kelp said.

Dortmunder turned, and here came a pair of headlights through the night from the ranch, jouncing up and down. “I do understand pickup trucks,” Dortmunder said and strode toward the lights.

Kelp, saying, “John? You got something?” came trailing along.

Dortmunder and the pickup approached each other. As the vehicle neared, Dortmunder waved his arms over his head, demanding that the thing stop, which it did, and a sleepy young guy looked out at him, saying, “Who the hell are you?”

“Your goddamn horses,” Dortmunder said, his manner outraged but disciplined, “are eating our goddamn apples.”

The fellow stared at him. “You aren’t Russwinder.”

“I work for him, don’t I?” Dortmunder demanded. “And I never seen anybody so mad. We need light back there, he sent us down, get your portable generator. You got a portable generator, don’t you?”

“Well, sure,” the fellow said. “But I was gonna-“

“Light,” Dortmunder insisted. Around them, half-awake and half-dressed ranch employees made their way toward the center of chaos, ignoring Dortmunder and Kelp, whose bona fides were established by their being in conversation with the ranch’s pickup truck. “We can’t see what we’re doing back there,” Dortmunder said, “and Mr. Russwinder’s mad.”

The young fellow clearly saw that this was a time to be accommodating to one’s neighbor and to one’s neighbor’s employee. “OK,” he said. “Climb in.”

“We’ll ride in back,” Dortmunder told him and clambered up into the bed of the pickup, which was pleasantly aromatic of hay. Kelp followed, eyes bright with hope, and the pickup lurched forward, jounced around in a great circle and headed back toward the ranch.

The pickup seemed to think it was a horse; over the fields it bucked and bounced, like a frying pan trying to throw Dortmunder and Kelp back into the fire. Clutching the pickup’s metal parts with every finger and every toe, Dortmunder gazed back at the receding scene in the orchard, which looked now like a battle in a movie about the Middle Ages. “Never again,” he said.

Ka-bump! The pickup slued from field to dirt road, a much more user-friendly surface, and hustled off toward the barns. “Well, this time,” Kelp said, “you can’t blame me.”

Dortmunder looked at him. “Why not?”

The cowboy behind the wheel slammed both feet and a brick onto the brake pedal, causing the pickup to skid halfway around, hurl itself broadside at the brown-plank wall of the nearest barn and shudder to a stop with millimeters to spare. Dortmunder peeled himself off the pickup’s bed, staring wildly around, and the maniac driver hopped out, crying, “The generator’s in here!” Off he went at a lope.

Dortmunder and Kelp shakily assisted each other to the ground, as their benefactor dashed into the barn. “I’d like to wait and run him over,” Dortmunder said, getting into the pickup’s cab and sliding over to the passenger side.

Kelp followed, settling behind the wheel. The engine was on, so he just shifted into gear and they drove away from there, brisk but not reckless. No need to be reckless.

At the highway, Dortmunder said, “Left leads past that orchard. Better go right, up the hill.”

So they went up the hill. As they drove past the high clearing where they’d taken pictures down at the ranch, Kelp slowed and said, “Look at that!”

It was positively coruscating down there, dazzling, like night-time on the Fourth of July. Police and fire engine flashing lights in red and blue mingled with the white of headlights, flashlights, spotlights. Men and horses ran hither and yon. Every building in the area was all lit up.

“Just for a second,” Kelp said, pulling off the road and coming to a stop.

Dortmunder didn’t argue. It was really a very interesting sight, and they could, after all, claim some part in its creation. They got out and walked to the edge of the drop-off to watch. Faint cries and horse snorts drifted up through the sultry air.

“We better go,” Dortmunder said at last.

“Ya. You’re right.”

They turned back to the pickup, and Kelp said, with surprise, “Well, look at this!” He reached out his hand and took the end of a bridle and turned to smile at Dortmunder, saying, “I guess he likes us!”

Dortmunder looked at the creature munching calmly at the other end of the bridle. “It is him, isn’t it?”

“He followed me home,” Kelp said, grinning broadly. “Can I keep him?”

“No,” Dortmunder said.

Surprised, Kelp ducked his head and hissed, so Dire Straits wouldn’t hear him, “Dortmunder, the insurance company! A million dollars!”

“I am not taking a stolen race horse through the Lincoln Tunnel,” Dortmunder said. “That’s just for openers. And we got no place to keep him.”

“In the park.”

“He’d get mugged. He’d get stolen. He’d get found.”

“We gotta know somebody with a back yard!”

“And neighbors. Andy, it doesn’t play. Now, come on, say goodbye to your friend; we’re going home.”

Dortmunder continued on to the pickup, but Kelp stayed where he was, an agonized expression on his face. When Dortmunder looked back, Kelp said, “I can’t, John, I just can’t.” The hand clutching the bridle shook. “I’m holding a million dollars! I can’t let go.”

Dortmunder got into the pickup, behind the wheel. He looked out through the open passenger door at Kelp in the dark, on the hilltop, holding a strip of leather with $ 1,000,000 on the other end. “I’m going to New York now,” Dortmunder told him, not unkindly. “Are you coming, or are you staying?”

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