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 stared at her, wondering why she thought she could say that.

After I filled the bucket with familiar water, Badger drank. I felt better while I walked back to the trailer and even noticed four swallows hunting insects as the sun warmed the tin roof and block walls of another barn. The sunrise was over and the grandstand guardrail and barns were just white and blue, sunlit and shadowed, without any hoodoo about them.

As the day expanded toward noon, I hustled Oscar around and tried to leave Badger alone. Oscar weighed in at 147 all tacked up with the saddle over his arm. We had to give up those pounds because I wasn’t having him run anymore. He offered to get his garbage bag, but I shook my head. His dark throat was burning red with embarrassment. I was mad enough, but kept quiet. I told him not to worry about it, that Badger was ready, and made sure not to think about cop cars, Dad, or being broke. I said to go drink some water and sit in the shade. Edith smiled at me as she walked away with Oscar, making me uneasy. She was feeling comfortable, which I was not, and she had to be gone by tomorrow.

I found Art Samuels, the other horse’s owner, standing near the paddock area, talking to his rider. He wore a western shirt with Levi’s and wore his hair slick and tight against his scalp. We shook hands and he showed me his horse, a racy blood bay with a long back. He looked like a torpedo and probably couldn’t stop or turn to save himself, but man, he looked fast. I asked how the horse was bred, and Samuels said he was an Easy Jet, an own son, like it was nothing. I knew enough to keep my mouth shut, but I was too nervous. Badger had hardly eaten or drank in a couple of days and he’d been on the road.

Samuels said he’d like to see Badger before we saddled him, and I told him where the pen was. He said a sharp-dressed man from Oklahoma was asking about a side bet, wanting to meet me. He said the man’s name was Roger. They’d made a wager between them, but Samuels didn’t say what it was, so I didn’t ask. My head was already spinning, but I knew Roger Friese had found us. I wasn’t sure what he was going to do, but I heard he traveled with security, a couple of oil-field workers in ostrich boots. I pictured a 24-inch pipe wrench clenched in some meaty fist and got a little sicker.

My friend from Denver stopped by the paddock while I saddled Badger. He slapped my back and said he didn’t bring enough money to get home if we lost. But he knew all that we were up to, he knew who Badger was, so he hurried off to get a beer and find a place to sit. Edith sat on a blanket in the sunny part of the grandstand and stared at Oscar.

Oscar told me she’d refused to screw the night before, and he acted like it was my fault. She’d washed his dirty T-shirt in a bucket and he looked a lot better than our horse, who was already foaming from chomping the snaffle. I legged Oscar into his racing saddle, walked them around the paddock, and handed them off to an old man on a dun saddle horse. They walked out into the deep dirt, and I turned to find a place to watch. I sat in the shade, near the starting gate, and took my hat off. Badger looked flat, even from the grandstand. I slowed my thoughts and tried to think of what I had to do after the race, who I had to look out for and what was the best way to get out of there. Of course, I would have to cool Badger out. No matter how bad it got, taking that horse off the track and into a trailer would ruin him. We’d never finish this thing with a sick or dead horse.

As the horses circled back and headed for the starting gate, I noticed Roger Friese standing under a piñon tree at the finish line. He had his Silver Belly hat and banker suit, but he was alone, just holding a folded newspaper under his arm. He slid up to the rail as the horses went into the gate, and I turned to watch the race. The blood bay was cool, with his ears flicking back and forth. Badger was calm like I’d never seen him. There was no trouble loading them into the gate.

When the gate opened, both horses broke well, but Badger got out ahead after 50 yards. Oscar was on top of him, riding as hard as I’ve seen. The other rider was blown out of position, and by the time he got on top of the bay, the race was over. Badger had him by a length at the finish, and I hurried to get on the track before Friese found me.

Oscar was smiling when I took the reins, and I told him it was a good race.

“Oscar,” I said after he dismounted in the paddock, “Roger Friese is here looking for us. You and Edith get everything packed, and I’ll try to get this horse cool. If Friese comes up with some boys, you two get out of there.”

“I got that ax handle.” Oscar stared at me.

“You ain’t that tough,” I said and looked away, hoping he wouldn’t argue.

I sponged Badger off and headed out away from the track, toward some juniper trees where people were camped. Badger was worked up but didn’t seem ill. His legs looked tight and I rubbed his forehead, pausing beside a stunted evergreen. We hadn’t walked for 10 minutes when Friese found me.

He stood in front of me with his newspaper, looking tight and fresh under his $500 hat. He was alone.

“Walter,” he crossed his arms, “are you boys trying to ruin that good horse? Two races in three days. That is no kind of horse training.”

“I know my horses,” I said.

“I know that is not your horse, for starters.” He kept looking at me, waiting.

“We need him. You don’t know everything that goes on in the world.”

“Well, you made me my money back today. I followed you-all up from Oklahoma to bet on that gray. Son of a bitch is the Second Coming.” He coughed a polite, sharp cough, covering his mouth. “Twenty-five thousand dollars, I’ll give you for him.”

“We need him, and Dad wouldn’t sell.”

“I got cash. I know where you-all are headed, see. That race in Nebraska is not happening. I’ll make sure of that.” He pointed the newspaper at me and walked up to Badger. “Your dad doesn’t know everything, either.”

I was quiet. He had us, bad, and I stood like a lawn jockey, holding Badger, who was still breathing heavy. I didn’t try to make a decision. I just listened as the breeze kicked up, fluttering the flimsy branches of a juniper tree. Off down the hill, a dust devil whirled.

Friese reached up and broke a branch off the tree, smelling it.

“As many people there are who know about this, you two better get out of the country. You can’t go anywhere with that horse. Bailing your dad out of jail is gonna get you thrown in with him. Better take the money.”

“I can’t.”

“Well, you think about things for a while. I’ll find you and your brother, and that girl, later if you want to make a deal.” Friese was polite and stiff as he stood watching the horse heave and sweat.

I finished cooling Badger about an hour later and got him watered. Oscar and Edith had everything ready, and I couldn’t tell him about Friese yet. He was too happy, chasing Edith with a wet sponge. Also, I needed to know what was best before I started arguing with him. Oscar hated this mess, like me, but I knew he was ready to quit. I was not sure about myself, and so I couldn’t talk.

“Let’s get over the border to Colorado and have some whiskey,” Oscar said as he walked back from dousing Edith. She walked around the front fender, a little self-conscious, twisting her wet blond hair into a ponytail. I thought about Colorado and about jail, and then decided we might as well find some place to hang out. I had no doubt Friese would find us.

At Roland’s bar outside Fort Collins, I ordered a second double Wild Turkey for Oscar and more beers for Edith and me.

“Beer ain’t no kind of drink for a Kentucky hardboot like you,” Oscar laughed when the bartender set us up.

“I’m from Oklahoma,” I said.

“You’re still quiet,” Edith said. “I thought you were going to smile or something.”

“Walter’s taking care of us,” Oscar said and kissed Edith’s cheek. She grabbed her beer and gulped it.

“I’m glad somebody is,” she said, putting the beer down.

Oscar put his palm over his chest, faking heartache.

“You talk to Dad again?” he asked.

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

I lied about calling the jail. I had decided not to call Dad until we’d settled on what to do. My head was telling me some things, like what handcuffs felt like, and I felt mean about it.

“Oh, I’m a thief and you’re a horse trainer,” Oscar wiped his lips and looked up at me. “He didn’t say that.”

“We’re all thieves,” I said and looked at Edith. “You too.”

“Maybe if I got some money I would be.” She answered sharply. “You-all are a couple of daddy’s boys, anyway. Thieves don’t call their daddy every day.”

“Took you about two days to start whining.” Oscar had his shoulders square to Edith on his stool. “Let’s play some pool so Miss Dodge City can have fun.”

Edith smiled and got up. We followed her to a table in the middle of the bar. She racked the table for Nine-Ball, pushing hair behind her ears. At that point, I was sure she knew everything.

“Dad didn’t say that, did he?” Oscar leaned on the table as I chalked a cue.

“Well, he didn’t say I was any kind of horse trainer. He said we were all thieves, so I guess you’re one too. He’s sure glad you got a girlfriend, though.” I set the cue ball up for the break. My left hand shook for a second, but I made a fist and it went away. When I was steady, I took my shot—nothing. Edith lined up her shot and sunk her first ball.

“Walter, you’re as stiff as this cue stick.” Edith grinned her little cherry-faced smile.

“What did Dad really say?” Oscar asked, pointing his cue at me like a shotgun.

“He hasn’t talked to Daddy yet,” Edith said after a big drink of Budweiser. “He’s counting his money.”

“Oscar, we’ve got to talk. Outside and alone.”

“I ought to come too, since I’m a thief and all.” Edith slid up next to me and whispered into my shoulder, “I know who that horse is.”

I slammed my stick on the table and walked outside. We walked to the pickup and Oscar grabbed my arm, hard, digging his thick fingers into my muscle.

“What did Dad say?”

“Listen,” I said and then explained the situation with Friese. “He says he’ll pay us 25 grand, cash, tonight.”

Edith shook her hair out of the ponytail and stood with her chest right up against Oscar’s arm. Her squinty eyes opened up full, and I saw they were dead and moist. Her mouth opened a little.

“So what? Did you tell him to get lost? Why would we leave the country with Dad’s money?”

“It’s not Daddy’s money,” Edith hissed to the air between Oscar and me.

“I can’t control everything, Oscar,” I said.

“Fooled me. Have you talked to Dad at all, or have you been running me around with a bullshit story?” He dug his fingers deeper into my arm and I grimaced. I did not want to fight Oscar. “You think I’m your jockey?”

“Shut up, Oscar.” Edith tried to tear his hand from my arm. “Walter’s right. We gotta take that money.”

I recoiled from her and tried to keep them both from touching me. Oscar slowly took his eyes from me and looked at her. Then he reached out and pushed me with his other hand, still looking at her.

“I ought to bury you both,” he said, and lunged at me. Before he could connect with his fist, Edith kicked Oscar hard in the balls. He dropped like a bowling pin, stiff and quiet at my knees. Edith turned and grabbed my shirt as I backpedaled.

“Let’s get out of here,” she wheezed. Her eyes were watering and she wet her lips with her tongue, gray and fat in her mouth. Oscar writhed in pain and silence in the gravel parking lot. I shoved Edith and she fell backward, over Oscar onto the ground. She held her head and looked at me, crying. Oscar stared at me from the ground, still silent and holding his groin. He said nothing as I got in the cab.

I pulled into the empty fairgrounds where we’d left Badger. I parked the truck next to the trailer, then watered and fed the racehorse again. He dug his head into the extra helping of grain and chewed with hydraulic force. He pulled his head out of the bucket long enough to look at me, and I touched his delicate nose, wiping some feed and saliva from the nostril. The night air was crystalline and sharp, like broken glass in my lungs, and it pierced my sinuses as I hiked up the hill overlooking the grounds. The rocks were chalk-white in the light of the shrinking moon, and they looked like ghost skulls sticking out from under the soil. Throwing my blanket under a small pine tree, I waited for Friese to show, hoping the rich bastard could find us easily, like he said, so I could free Oscar and take my payment. At that moment, and for a particular eternity to come, I was still my father’s oldest son, still a horse trainer, and still in command of the whirl that had chased me since I was a boy.

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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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