Thayer paused while they thought that one over. What he said was true enough, and Joe Bob had forgotten it. Curly Johnson had all the entries put up five hundred dollars entry fee; with thirty-five entries, that made eighteen thousand, five hundred riding on the two-day derby. But five thousand dollars of this money was held out and prizes of twenty-five hundred were given to the best single-day showing. Carson’s roosters had fought poorly the day before, and this day money was all he and Thayer could win, now. Horse himself had won the day money yesterday.
"Now do you understand?" his dad asked at length. "Horse is just two fights from taking it all. Both day monies. And the other thirteen thousand, five hundred. Follow?" He stopped, caught his breath. "But suppose he gets down to that last fight with us and we beat him. Knocks him out of all that money. Hell, he can afford to pay us more than we could make by winning the day money. Add it up for yourselves."
Jimmy June puffed his Camel, stared at the smoke. "Sure I see–"
"Look, don’t you interrupt me. I was gonna say I see what you mean. It’s the sure thing for both of us. But I still don’t like it. I raised these roosters and I don’t want to throw any of ’em away."
"Well, you’re going to throw good money away–five hundred dollars of my money for sure–if you don’t."
For a moment, Joe Bob quit listening, hearing, instead, the memory of another conversation. One he’d had with his father before he’d gone to his first fight with George Hatcher.
"Son," Jack Thayer had said, "remember why you’re fighting."
"Why?" Joe Bob had been confused.
"You fight just to see if your roosters are better than the next fellow’s. At least, that’s the way it was with me."
A confusing memory, that. But after it, crowding it away, tumbled another, closer, offering unexpected hope. Joe Bob was afraid to speak, but he forced himself:
"Uh, Dad, remember one thing."
Thayer half wheeled. "What?" A bark.
"Horse has one fight left before he meets us. He might get beat."
"I sure as hell wouldn’t count on it." Thayer had robbed Jimmy June of his sneer.
Carson ground his second cigarette into the ashes of the first. "No," he said without slur, "no, the boy’s got a point. Let’s see that next fight before we make Horse any hasty offers."
"Damn it, you know he’ll win." Thayer searched for something to bang his fist against, settled on the door. He almost knocked it off its rusty hinges.
"Listen, Jack." There was still no sneer in Jimmy’s voice, only a great stubbornness. "We watch that next fight before we do anything or we don’t do anything. Period. Not with my roosters."
"All right then, let’s go. But I don’t see why you’re so stubborn."
"I got my reasons… Do you wanta go, Joe Bob?"
"Sir?…" Why didn’t I hear him?
"Do you want to go watch the fight with us?" Jimmy repeated.
"I’ll find a place to watch it by myself. I might want to bet."
"Well, be damned sure you bet on Horse," Thayer told him.
Joe Bob nodded.
It was too crowded for Joe Bob to push his way into the stands, and besides, he didn’t want a cussing from the old man. He decided to walk around behind, where there were fewer people, and crawl up from beneath.
The lights behind the stands were dimmer than anywhere else, and when something flopped and jerked beside him he jumped. It was a rooster, thrown to one side to die. Others like it were lying all around, here and right outside. They were no good for anything after they had lost. Joe Bob had been told that years ago poor folks, many of them black, would come to the fights to pick up dead ‘cocks for the table. Times were too good, nowadays, for them to bother.
Joe Bob wondered if the roosters ever feared, or even considered, the shame of being discarded, of lying in a corner beneath the notice of a somebody who lived off welfare. No, probably not. That was a particular torture reserved for the men who fought them. If the roosters could feel it, they’d fight even harder. They’d be driven like…
By the time Joe Bob had circled the pit the shouts and the bets were beginning. Have to hurry. He jumped and, catching the rough grimy edge of the upper seat, pulled himself up to where he could twist beneath the seat and footwalk to a place in the stands.
Horse was already standing in the cockpit, the paper number 14 pinned to his back, holding a big gray rooster.
Why do they call him Horse? He’s not big, and his face isn’t long. Kind of square, in fact, and his hair’s way too short for a mane. Joe Bob just couldn’t figure nicknames.
Horse stood to one side while the ref drew the chalk lines. People were calling bets, and all of them wanted Horse, the man who hadn’t lost a fight in the two days of the derby.
Bet they yelled for Dad like that years ago. Joe Bob looked to the pit’s gate to see Horse’s competition.
He almost laughed aloud. There was an old man, white hair peeking from beneath a red cap, hugging a solid while rooster to a pair of baggy, faded overalls. The old fellow stepped timidly onto the dirt, on tiptoe, it seemed.
No wonder. Look at that rooster.
The old man’s yellow-white bird was puny compared with Horse’s gray, as puny as the old man himself in comparison with Horse. It was sport shirt versus overalls, glossy feathers versus dull. Joe Bob felt sorry for the old man in the red cap. It had probably taken all he had just to enter the derby. Why had he done it, knowing he’d have to face the likes of Horse Hemphil?
Why has Dad gone back after twenty years? What does he see when he looks at the old man?
It would be so much simpler if the old man would win, if the possibility of a sale were out. If the only way for Jack Thayer to come out ahead were to win it heads up and honest.
I hope the old man wins.
Joe Bob fished in his wallet. Five dollars. "I lay a five-to-four," he shouted as the handlers lined their birds on the chalk lines. No takers. "Five to three."
"Yer on." The man three rows down was drunk. "Who’ve you got?"
Joe Bob hesitated. "The man in the red hat."
The referee: "Pit!"
The dingy white rooster wasn’t beaten in one pitting. Or in two. It squirmed and clawed and pecked for three pittings before Horse’s gray could get the best of it, while Joe Bob yelled with delight and admiration. For three pittings the little bird held its own; for three pittings the stoop-shouldered old man stood a bit straighter. But the end was as it had to be. The white rooster was game, all right, but it wasn’t strong. It got tired. And finally, it got killed. Just a limp pile of dingy feathers rapidly turning scarlet while Horse’s gray flapped its wings and crowed.
Horse grinned. And why not? He’s just one fight away now. The old man hung his head until the bill of his red cap almost brushed the buttons of his overalls. He picked up the dead rooster gingerly–reverently?–and somehow Joe Bob doubted he would toss the bird to one side without thinking about it.
That’s how George Hatcher treats his roosters. And maybe… maybe how Jimmy June thinks of his.
Joe Bob paid up, not really mindful of the money or the drunk. Then he slid back under the bleachers and made for the exit. Fast. What were they going to do now?
He ran most of the way to the ‘cockhouse.
"Don’t want to!" He could hear his father’s voice before he got to the ‘cockhouse. "What in hell do you mean? Don’t want to!"
"Just what I said," Jimmy June was saying when Joe Bob arrived breathless in the doorway. "I think we can beat Horse, the way that last rooster of his fought."
"Then you’re a fool." Thayer was standing with his back to the door. Jimmy June was across the shack facing him. The roosters were raising an awful row because of Thayer’s shouting, something he didn’t allow others to do. "A Goddamned illiterate, stupid fool," he repeated, louder than necessary.
Jimmy was standing with his legs parted, arms twitching. The cackles grew louder. "You watch who you call a fool."
"I’ll not watch anything unless I can be sure I get my damned five hundred dollars back. Hell, bein’ as dumb as you are is the same as rookin’ me."
Thayer took two steps, one toward Jimmy June and one toward his gun on the table.
"I’m not tryin’ to cheat nobody." Jimmy June did a little mad dance, his voice blending with the cackles.
"Yes you are. Yes you are. You’re in with Horse. I saw you talking to him this morning. I can’t stand you anyhow. You’re just like–" Thayer stopped talking, and, reaching beneath a blanket on the ‘cock table, pulled out his big service automatic pistol, letting the leather case fall to the floor.
He held the weapon uncocked, uncertain, as though waiting a signal.
Joe Bob grasped his father’s arm. "Dad."
Thayer slung him off. "Stay out of this, boy." His eyes shone. "This son of a bitch is tryin’ to cheat us." He took another step forward amid the raucous cackles.
Jimmy danced again for a second, no longer. "I’m not… I won’t…" He jumped forward, snatching a gaff from the case as he came.
Straight for Joe Bob’s dad.
Joe Bob tried to jump between them but he only barely made it and the steel gaff caught him in the muscle of the upper arm with a plop and a squish and he knew, even before it hurt, that it was deep.
He fell back with Jimmy June on top of him still clutching the gaff as though it were tied on. His dad stood to one side and hit Jimmy June with the barrel of his pistol as he fell past. Hit him hard. On the temple.
Joe Bob felt Jimmy’s hand relax and slid from under him. He didn’t get up but rose sitting with his back against the door jamb while his dad removed the gaff… slowly, so as not to aggravate the wound. Thayer made sure of that. Then they looked at Jimmy June to see his left temple blue and scraped and bleeding. The muzzle of his father’s gun dripped blood and a piece of skin.
"Are you going to throw him away before they throw you away?" The words came automatically, as though he’d considered them for a long time.
"What in the hell are you talking about?… No, I think I just knocked him out."
The chickens’ cackling was worse now than ever, worse, it seemed, than the crowd inside the pit. They and the shouts and the thuds of falling bodies must have made a frightening noise. There was Curly Johnson in the doorway and behind him a man whose badge proclaimed him High Sheriff.
His babbled words grew clear for the first time. They will throw Dad away. He’s lost.
"What the hell’s going on?" Curly asked, the smile still strangely twitching his lips.
"I thought I could scare him," mumbled Thayer, his eyes glued to the dripping muzzle of the gun. "Lemme explain." He looked helplessly to his son.
Joe Bob stood. "Yeah," he said, "let him tell you before you throw him away. Let him tell you the whole thing. Like he says, he’s thought about it." And brushing tears away from his eyes, he pushed past all of them to run stumbling through the trees to the parking lot.
I know he deserves it, but I don’t want to see them throw Dad away.
Check out the next piece in this release, Event Zero by Karim Miteff!