Photograph by Paul Fusco
Listen to author Carter Simms Benton read this story
Oscar nearly collapsed from the heat. When the race was over, he circled the thick gray horse back from the clubhouse turn and walked him to the paddock. My brother teetered on the horse’s back but held the reins in a deadlock until I took them. His eyes were wide, big, and dry under his cap, and his blink was slow.
“Help me,” he said, and tried to dismount. I had to catch him.
“I’ll cool him out. You go sit in the shade,” I said.
Oscar dragged his feet through the heavy dirt and sat under a stunted oak tree on the outside rail, and I brought him some water. He’d lost too much weight for the race, and I started to feel bad. He was five pounds over that morning, and I’d had him run three miles in a garbage bag. Five pounds is a lot to lose for a 20-year-old kid—one that barely weighed 146 the night before.
I couldn’t keep from counting our money as I walked Badger around, trying to cool him out. I imagined the roll of hundreds, with a rubber band, sliding into my shirt pocket. We were going to eat steak—not chicken-fried or ground up with brown gravy. We would find a place that didn’t serve gravy. I kept my eyes open for the hard-set man in his blue banker’s suit. Roger Friese was a big man in the Oklahoma Panhandle, and I was sure he’d pay us.
The back side of the little track was busy with grooms hauling buckets of water and unloading hay into the shed rows. It was Monday—usually a non-race day, but a few owners were out looking at their horses. Most of them came to see our match.
Match racing was about over as a way to make money. The big tracks had pretty much taken the good horses away. The gamblers followed, and without gamblers, money was scarce. But people around Oklahoma like their racehorses, and in the late ’70s, new oil money was available. Gambling on match races wasn’t legal, but at that time the cops in dusty western Oklahoma didn’t see the difference. Of course, they didn’t know our winner, Badger, was stolen.
My foot hurt after walking the gray stallion around the packed caliche alleyways for an hour. My $15 boots weren’t holding up, and three of my toes were tingling. Oscar was sitting beside the trailer, still in the shade, when I walked up.
“That banker was over here,” he said, rubbing his back against the trailer. “He give me a check.”
“Can’t take no checks,” I said, shaking my head.
“What was I supposed to say? He’s a banker.”
Oscar’s face was pale, and I could see the big muscles in his forearms spark from cramps. He couldn’t do everything.
“Well, we better get our butts out of town,” I said. “Did Friese say anything about Badger?”
“Wants to buy him, of course.”
“As long as he don’t recognize him,” I said, and started to tie Badger to the trailer.
We were on the highway by five that afternoon, heading north on our way to bail Dad out of jail. In a day or so, someone was going to hear about this match, and we had to be long gone. Badger was a nervous horse that didn’t haul well. That meant we had to get him ice-cold before putting him in a trailer, or he’d shake and sweat himself sick. I had walked him around the outside of the track, just to be sure, then watered him. When he wouldn’t drink any more, we fed him some hay and let him stand at the trailer until I couldn’t wait any longer. We made the bank just before closing, and I got my wad of hundreds, in an envelope. I found a rubber band in the pickup and rolled them like I wanted.
Oscar was asleep before we crossed the Canadian River, hunched into a dark ball against the passenger door. I reached over and locked the door when he started snoring. I was hungry but not nearly as bad as Oscar. He hadn’t eaten in two days, and I had been talking about steak the whole time. He knew we had to win, though, and wasn’t about to give up a handicap in weight. Oscar never gave anything up, not since I had known him, and that’s why Dad liked him so much. He kept writing to his sisters in San Antonio for years after Dad adopted him. Tonight, I thought, he’s going to have steak.
In the week since we stole Badger from Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico, we had lived like pigs. I stole some pork and beans from a truck stop in Tucumcari. Saving all our money for a tank of gas, that’s all we had to eat. Pork and beans and a hamburger-patty splurge one night near Amarillo. We camped at the fairgrounds outside Shamrock, Texas, sleeping under blankets with the wind ruffling my hair through the open slats of the stock trailer. Oscar didn’t like sleeping there, but he didn’t complain to me. If Dad were around, he might laugh and say, “Can’t we just get a motel?” But with me he was a soldier, short and lean. I wondered if it was because he thought I was like that, or if he was sensitive about being younger and smaller.
I woke Oscar as we pulled into Dodge City. He had a headache and said he didn’t feel like eating.
“Land of beef,” I said. “Dodge City, Kansas.”
“I’m not hungry,” he said, from under his cap.
“I know we can find some good steak around these parts. Hell, every place up here ought to serve a porterhouse.” I tapped the roll in my shirt pocket.
“I’m tired, Walter. Go to McDonald’s.”
“Hell with McDonald’s. I said we’re getting steak, and now we will.”
Oscar pinched the bridge of his nose and rubbed his temple. “I don’t care about any steak. It’s you that cares about eating so much.”
I turned to face him. “Since when aren’t you hungry?”
“Since when you care about porterhouses?”
Late that night I pulled into a place called Mary Anne’s Café. It was empty, and a round-faced country girl brought us water.
“Two porterhouses,” I said, when she set the glasses down.
“We don’t have any porterhouses. Just chicken-fried and chopped steak.”
My face burned, as the meal I’d thought about for a week went in the trash. I told the girl that they ought to serve decent steaks in Dodge City, Kansas. She was turning pink and playing with the pencil behind her ear when Oscar sat back and ordered a chopped steak with brown gravy and a double Wild Turkey. I asked Oscar if he didn’t think that was a lot to drink, considering, and he ignored me. The waitress said she was sorry, but they didn’t have any liquor, just beer. Then he ordered two Budweisers and smiled, crinkling his eyes at the corners, which made people forget his twisted nose. The waitress nodded seriously and turned to me, wiping a strand of hair from her face, and turned cherry red. I ordered the same with no beer.
After she brought the beers, Oscar drank half of one in a gulp. “She likes me,” he said.
“Oh, of course,” I snorted. “Kansas girls don’t like skinny grass-fed beef.” Women were Oscar’s pride. They liked him, and he strutted, turning red as a rooster’s comb before them.
“There’s nothing grass-fed about my pecker.”
I rolled my eyes and chuckled. “It ain’t a porterhouse, either.”
Later, after I’d paid the check with a crisp hundred, Oscar went to have a talk with the girl. I’d told him we had to get on the road, and he said everything was OK, we’d be on our way. I waited outside, walking Badger around the trailer to keep him from being too stiff. He needed a turnout, but I was anxious to keep driving.
Oscar came back to the trailer, smiling. The girl, Edith, had invited us to have some drinks with her. She lived just down the road from the fairgrounds, he said.
“We’re wanted,” I whispered. Badger rubbed his head on my dirty shirt.
“That horse needs a turnout,” Oscar pointed out. “We can drop him off at the fairgrounds.”
“And your pants are getting tight. We got to get Dad out of jail.”
“I’m here, same as you. I won the race today, so why shouldn’t we?”
“I just wanted to get you a steak,” I said, without any purpose. I stooped to feel Badger’s tendons—nice and cold. I figured we only had one or two races left before we got caught. We didn’t have enough yet to bail Dad out. My friend from Denver had said he had a match for us in two days near Laramie, Wyoming.
Oscar walked up behind me. “I’m asking for a favor.” His simpleness made me want to hug him.
That night, I slept in the trailer next to Badger’s pen at the fairgrounds while Oscar bunked with Edith. In the morning, I woke up cold. The wind was blowing hard through the steel panels, and I wanted to stay in the bedroll until noon. But after five minutes, I was so cold my teeth started to chatter. Every gust of wind went right through the blankets, and I got up violently, jogging in the swirling dust to check Badger’s water. He was off in a dark corner of the pen, with his butt to the wind, waiting. I brought him the last of the sweet feed and laughed about what Dad used to say: “Take care of the horse, and he’ll take care of you.” I wasn’t sure what that meant anymore. I imagined Badger, iron gray and muscular, with his butt in the wind, watching with curiosity as the cops dipped my head into a cruiser.
At Edith’s house, I watched Oscar stuff himself with bacon and toast. I was nervous, as usual, on my fourth cup of coffee. Oscar didn’t drink coffee and was washing down his breakfast with a Ball jar of whole milk.
“We got a race tomorrow,” I said over my mug. Edith was bustling around the kitchen, making more bacon and coffee. She was sweet and formal, like a regular dust-bowl queen, and shy. She never looked at me after opening the door.
“The weight’s at 145, right? We got no problems.” Oscar said this while placing four slices of bacon on top of a double-buttered piece of toast.
“I just don’t want to give up any weight.”
I was behind that morning, still trying to warm up. I couldn’t argue about playing it safe. Over the last week I had said “playing it safe” so many times, I didn’t believe my own words anymore. I was trying to find a new way of explaining the situation.
After asking for permission, I called the jail from her living room. Dad came to the phone after a minute.
“How are things?” his voice rumbled, thick with phlegm.
“Good enough. Headed to Laramie today.”
“Oscar’s good? You haven’t had him running too much, I hope.” His voice jerked into a higher pitch. “I’d rather give up weight than have him pass out during a race.”
I clenched my jaw and said, “I’m taking care of Oscar.”
“How about that horse, he look good?”
“Beautiful. You were right, that sucker can fly. He daylighted that Okie horse at 25 yards. Damn near blew Oscar out of the irons.”
“I can’t believe you had the balls to match Roger Friese with a stolen horse. When he figures it out, he’ll be looking for you two.”
“Well, that means he’ll be looking for all three of us,” I said.
“Just get that money in Laramie and get me out of here. Been here a month, and my money man’s getting anxious. He says his horse is primed, ready to go. We need that last race, or this whole thing is bust.” Dad’s voice started to relax as he gave orders.
After I hung up, I sat down on the couch, thinking. In the next two days I was supposed to win a race in Wyoming, bail my father out of jail in Colorado, and then go to Nebraska for the big one—Dad never said how much money. Then run for my life. To Dad, the business was simple: just do it. To Oscar, the business was simple because Dad said it was simple. At least we have gas money, I thought, while staring at the carpet between my boots. I wiggled my toes, and the little one tingled, already asleep.
Outside, I checked Badger’s legs again on the asphalt of Edith’s narrow cul-de-sac. His legs were still tight and cold. Badger must have been some kind of freak to take that beating: living out of a trailer, running a race, then sitting in a trailer for another four hours. He didn’t eat much that morning, and I worried. Oscar made a show of kissing Edith on her porch, and she immediately went inside. Oscar got in the cab next to me and looked at me without closing the door.