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.”
Photograph by Paul Fusco
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.
“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.
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.”
“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.