Fiction Fiction 2008

The Second Coming of Gray Badger

“Dad’s real proud of you,” I said. “Said it’s too bad you’re a thief, though. You could have done something good.”

“I think Edith should come with us, Walter.”

“Fuck that.” I was on the edge of rage. The coffee and talking to Dad had me coming apart. “Fuck that.”

“Just for the race. Just up to Wyoming, have some fun, then put her on the Trailways in Pueblo before we get Dad.”

“This is too important. We got to get Dad. We got to get to that big race in Nebraska, and we got to win. Anything else and we go to jail.” I didn’t add that we might go to jail anyway.

“She’s good, I’m telling you. She can cook, and she said she don’t mind sleeping outdoors. She wants to see a match race.”

“Oscar, what does she know? She don’t know Badger’s from Ruidoso, does she?”

“She thinks we’re matching our horse in Laramie, tomorrow.”

“Well, Lord knows you need someone to pay attention to you.” I shook my head.

“Hell with that,” Oscar said, as he crossed his arms.

Oscar had me, because I couldn’t think of a reason except “It’s not a good idea.” Another hour on that street and I would have agreed to take her mother, too. Oscar knew when to be stubborn. I wondered then if I would have been more stubborn if Dad hadn’t knocked it out of me when I was a kid. If I didn’t want to water some horses or build some fence, he made me do it anyway. But Oscar never wanted less work as a boy. He never balked at cleaning stalls, or watering, or walking hot horses around in circles. He just wanted more mashed potatoes, more cotton candy, and Dad usually caved. When Oscar was 16, he went out with an Apache girl and didn’t come home for three days. When he returned, Dad fixed him pancakes, because Oscar said he was hungry. I guess he had a hard time punishing a little boy he had adopted, who knew that his real parents were dead.

Riding in the truck with Edith was mostly miserable. Oscar had to straddle the gearshift, and I kept jamming him with my elbow. He held back his appetite, though, and that was enough for me. We agreed on an apple and some water for the trip, and another apple when we got there. Edith was happy, but silent. She said she liked whatever music I put on, and mostly held her hand out the window, floating it up and down in the wind.

When I asked, Edith said she was 22. She said her parents had a stock farm and that her mother taught geometry sometimes, if the class was big and the school had to split it up. She’d never been to Wyoming, but she had been to St. Louis once. She liked to hunt pheasant with her parents, both world-class shots, she said, and she liked to learn foreign languages. So far, she had a sloppy grasp of Spanish but wanted to add Portuguese and maybe Cherokee if possible.

“Hell, Cherokees don’t even speak Cherokee anymore,” I said.

She shrugged. “I don’t care. I just like the idea.”

“What about cooking?” Oscar turned to face her.

“I like to cook. I’d rather shoot pheasants than cook them, though.”

Outside Laramie, we unloaded Badger, and I took him for a walk around the short track. Most of the stalls were empty at the county fairgrounds, and I found a nice one with soft dirt and a turnout so he could roll, if he wanted. He didn’t prance at all, or shake his head and snort. A couple of times he raised his head and nickered, but that was it. His nerves and not eating were drawing him up, making him flat. I could hardly walk the wide bastard after we took him from Ruidoso. All the snorting and jumping made me lean my whole body into him, just to keep from being run over. When I took the halter off in Laramie, though, he turned and walked to the other side of the pen and stood there, looking out. I fed him the sweet feed we’d bought that afternoon and filled his water, hoping.

When I got back to the trailer, Oscar was eating his apple, while Edith played with the truck radio.

“How’s the horse?” he asked between bites, his mouth full of apple.

I picked up a stick and began cleaning my boot with it. “He’s ready to go.”

“I guess we’ll stay here tonight,” Oscar said. “Edith don’t want a motel room.”

I didn’t look up.

“You want one?” I asked.

“I don’t guess so.”

The weather was a lot cooler that far north, almost cold, and I started thinking about my last night on the floor of the trailer. The sky was clear, though, with no wind, and the dirt around the fairgrounds smelled wet like dew, even though it was nine o’clock at night. The grandstand and the railing around the track were painted white, and the waning moon left its skeleton cast over the ground, like noontime at Armageddon. I was sure we would lose the race.

Edith walked back to the trailer with her vest zipped up and sat on the ground next to Oscar, rubbing his shoulders.

“Boy, my back is sore,” he said, leaning into her. He let his head wag from side to side, like a baby. “Those cramps really did a number on me.”

“That’s why you can’t stuff your face with bacon,” I said.

Oscar smiled, letting his head fall all the way back.

“I can’t wait to get this over with,” he almost whispered. “I want a place to stay. And I’m not a damn jockey. This weight-watching crap has got to stop.” Then he let out a low moan as Edith dug her thumbs into his back. “Things aren’t going to be any better when Dad gets out,” he added.

I looked at Edith’s cherry face, strands of blond hair hanging around it, and wondered exactly what she knew.

“You want a sandwich, Walter?” she asked. “I’m pretty hungry.”

“Sure, I’m hungry,” I said. And then, “We’re almost done, Oscar. Dad knows what to do. Everything will be easier when he gets out, you know.”

Oscar was starting to come apart too, starting to complain a little. This wasn’t an adventure anymore for him. Everything would be simpler if I kept his mind clear. My face felt heavy and stiff as I looked out at the phantom grandstand, convincing myself that I could control everything I’d started.

In the morning, I woke up startled, my face numb from the cold. I pulled my boots on, grabbed my canvas jacket from the truck, and jogged to Badger’s pen with an armful of hay. He was waiting at the water bucket, his ears perked, watching. When he saw me jogging up, he sucked back, like he was ready to bolt to the other side of the pen, and then relaxed. His dappled gray coat was dull with dust from rolling. I noticed he hadn’t had any water over the night, and his flanks looked tight and drawn. He might be dehydrated, I thought. Some horses won’t drink enough on the road, because the water smells different from home. They get over it, but Badger was pretty nervous. I still had some water we’d taken from Ruidoso in an army-surplus container. I jogged back to the trailer, knowing it might be too late for him to really get watered out. He was bound to get more nervous as people started showing up and moving around him.

Oscar was laid out on the truck seat, snoozing, while Edith boiled coffee on my camp stove. I rifled through the tack compartment of the trailer, digging to find the water. I was heading back to Badger’s pen when Edith came up behind me.

“I made coffee,” she smiled. “Can I look at him with you?”

“Why not? He looks the same as last night, though.” I stopped walking and she handed me the coffee. I nodded thanks and turned.

When we walked up, Badger stuck his neck over the fence as far as he could to smell Edith’s hand. He stepped back and bellowed deeply, then stomped the ground and shook his dark head.

“Wow,” she whispered, easing her hand to his nose. “He’s the shortest racehorse I’ve seen. He looks like a bowling ball.”

“He’s just under 15 hands. Watch out, or he’ll bite.”

“So this is what Oscar does. This is what you-all do: taking care of this horse, running him around the country.” She was smiling a flat, unembarrassed smile. “That doesn’t sound like fun at all.”

“It’s what we do now. Dad used to train, and we worked for him.”

“Oscar wouldn’t say why your dad is in jail.”

“He wouldn’t?” I felt better knowing Oscar had his limits with Edith. “Dad just stole some things. He’s always been a thief.” I turned to look at Badger’s legs.

We’d known Edith for a day, but Oscar kept his own schedule when it came to people. I was satisfied she didn’t have to know how much money Dad stole from that bank.

“Oscar said he was a good father.”

“He was, or at least he was generous. Money doesn’t mean much to Dad.”

“Or to Oscar,” she said.

Presented by

Carter Simms Benton grew up on a horse farm in Arizona. In 2006, he won The Atlantic’s Student Writing Contest for fiction; his work has since appeared in the Sonora Review. He lives with his wife in Missoula, Montana, where he is finishing a novel.

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