About ten years back Quick had gotten kicked in the head by a spooked horse.
It wasn’t a direct hit or nothing. Quick had figured out what was happening just a second too late. The horse kicked anyway. Quick was bending back. The hoof caught him just above the eye but didn’t go into the skull on account of the angle. Instead the hoof skinned him, from eyebrow to hairline and about four inches across. Half his forehead. There ain’t no real medicine on the road and not enough money in the kitty for the sort of doctor Quick would need, so for almost a year Quick dealt with it with nothing more than a soft cap and a lot of bandages. The skin came back, sure enough. Ugly, though. Quick wouldn’t be winning any beauty contests. Not that he was going to before, neither.
It was on account of the way of his head, plus his tall and wide frame and hulking demeanor, that Quick had a second job to his usual one. It wasn’t one he much liked, but it never lasted long and anyway Quick wasn’t the type to complain.
It worked like this: kids got mad at their parents for stupid reasons. Then the carnival came into town, and they’d get the same idea every kid gets, only they’d think they was the first person to ever have it. So they’d pack up their little school bags and take a bus or just walk and show up in Mr. Carson’s office. Mr. Carson would hand the kids off to Slim. And Slim would walk them over to Quick.
They’d barely pulled into town and were still setting up when Slim brought one over. Quick saw them coming and made himself look extra scary by hunching over and taking his cap off. Sometimes they took one look at Quick and ran home to their mommas.
Not this one. This boy, looking no more than eight or nine, stared at Quick with wide eyes under a mop of black hair and didn’t make no moves to hide behind Slim or run off or nothing. He stood next to the scrawny man, sinking in the mud, not even twitching.
“Got one for you, Quick,” Slim said, then bent back and hawked a loogie that went further than Quick’s eyes could follow. “Says his name is Sam, and he wants to join up.”
“What’s he want to do?”
Slim shrugged dramatically. “Said he doesn’t really care, so long as he can stay. I told him you were looking for help, so here we are.”
It was a practiced conversation, and Slim didn’t stay for much longer. With a lingering glance at Quick’s scar he wandered off, to do whatever else it was Slim did. Quick couldn’t say. He was left with the boy.
Small, dark hair, bright eyes, wearing faded jeans, dusty boots, and a shirt a size too small. Must have been wash day when he ran out the house. Quick stared at him without speaking, trying to make his face as scary as he could. If he ran off now Quick could go back to doing his work alone with his thoughts, which was how he liked it.
But the boy didn’t budge. Oh, sure, he wiped at his nose and looked around some, but his feet stayed planted.
He thinks he can handle it. Anything has to be better than home, where they yell at him to wash before dinner and do his homework. Well, kid, I’ll show you a thing or two.
“I work with the animals,” Quick said. “Feed ‘em. Water ‘em. Brush some of ‘em. But mostly what I do is muck. You know that word? Muck?”
To his surprise, the boy nodded.
“Getting out the cow pies,” he said in an impossibly small voice. “Or whatever you call it when it ain’t cows.”
Despite himself, Quick nodded. “That’s right. Got to keep their spaces clean so no one gets sick or nothing. Come on, let’s get you a shovel.”
Quick’s job was the other reason the kids got sent to him. Them kids from those rows of houses surrounded by grass and sidewalks and nothing else of concern usually hadn’t ever seen animal shit bigger than what the family dog put out. Sometimes they’d take one whiff and would leave then, dropping the shovel and running home. Quick hated that. Meant he had to wash off the handle.
But the boy walked into the pens and didn’t even blush or hold his nose or nothing. He took the shovel, and when Quick showed him where to take and where to put, he got to it with no complaint.
“You ain’t going to be sick on me, now, are you?” Quick asked after a few minutes.
But Sam only shrugged. “I was on a farm. I had to muck out the barn every morning. Don’t bother me none.”
All day, Quick kept checking him, sure he was going to call his bluff. Quick’s job wasn’t just mucking out cow pies. There were four donkeys for hauling and some show horses for trick riding and all the petting zoo animals like goats and llama and that mean old ostrich and then the exotics, of course, the monkeys and the lemurs and the pair of tigers and it all added up to a whole host of smells and textures and angry animals the kid had almost certainly never seen before.
The kid didn’t say a word all day, complaint or otherwise. Just kept his head down and his shovel going, working where Quick told him to. Sometimes he’d be so quiet Quick would forget he was there and then he’d turned around and just about have a danged heart attack finding the boy a few feet away.
“Dinner time, kid. We feed the animals first. Then ourselves.”
No other runaway had ever made it this far. The others did double takes as they nodded to Quick and then found a small boy trailing after him. They got their dinner – stew and milk and a biscuit with no butter – and Quick showed Sam where he usually ate. A small table by himself. The others said his smell put him off their dinner.
Not Sam. The kid was shoveling the stew into his face so fast Quick was sure he was going to choke. And Quick knew damn well the stew wasn’t good. Slop, really. He had been prepared with a simple remark: Not like your mama makes, huh? He had been sure the food and that question would have been enough to send Sam packing.
Instead the kid cleaned his plate and stared at Quick’s. He pushed it over.
“You like that?” was all he could think of to say.
“No,” he said between bites.
The nice part about everyone thinking he smelled like shit all the time was he got a room to himself, off by the animals. He got a cot from Mr. Larson’s assistant and an extra blanket from Dorrie, the trick rider who spent her free time knitting.
“We up early,” Quick said. “Gotta feed and water before dawn.”
“Okay,” was all Sam said.
By God, the next morning the kid was still there. Sleepy, yawning, but going about doing what Quick told him to do without complaint.
“How hard they work you at that family farm?” Quick finally asked when they stopped for lunch.
Sam shrugged. “Harder than this.”
Quick smiled. “Don’t let the bosses hear you say that. They’ll give you extra jobs. You just make like you’re drowning in shit at all times, hear?”
Sam gave him a weak smile back. “How come they call you Quick?”
“Cuz they think I ain’t.”
Quick pointed at his forehead, only realizing then that Sam hadn’t stared at it once since the first time.
“I got kicked by a horse. I almost dodged it but I was too slow. Only lost skin. Didn’t break my skull. But no one wants to believe that. They all think I got damaged somehow.”
“Why don’t you try to prove them wrong?”
“What’s the point?” Quick said with a shrug. “I spend my days shoveling shit either way. If they think I’m too dumb to think they don’t ask me to do anything else.”
“Don’t you wish you did something different?”
“Nah. It’s an important job and no one else wants to do it. People always say the job ain’t dignified, but that’s the point. If I didn’t clean up after the animals, nothing around here would be dignified. Animals deserve to not have to live in their own shit.”
Sam thought about it for a few seconds. “You’re a nice man, Mr. Quick.”
“Ain’t no Mr. here, son, ‘cept for Mr. Larson. And Mr. Tiny the monkey, I guess.”
Sam stayed the whole time they were in town. Three days. Unheard of. By the end of it even Slim and Mr. Larson was giving the boy appreciative glances. That didn’t matter none. They’d never left town with a kid. And today wasn’t the day to start.
“It’s been nice, kid, having a helping hand. But you can’t stay here.”
“Haven’t I been doing a good job?” Sam asked, his face pained.
“Well, sure you have. Sure you have. But this ain’t no place for a kid. And leaving with you will bring the law down. We can’t have that. You have to go home.”
“I ain’t got one,” Sam said. “Not one I want to go back to. You send me away, Quick, and I’ll just keep wandering until I find someone else who will let me work.”
Quick shook his head. “Kid, whatever you think is so bad at home, it ain’t. Two weeks down the line, three weeks or four, you’ll get homesick.”
“Or tired of the work, or you’ll want normal back. You can’t come kid, so go home while we’re still here. I said go.”
Quick pushed him. A little. Nothing more than a nudge, really, right in the middle. The boy clutched his chest like he’d been punched, his face all screwed up and a sharp whistle of air cutting through his teeth.
The two of them stared at each other for a few seconds, nothing but blinking.
“Let me see,” Quick said.
With only a little hesitation, Sam unbuttoned his shirt.
His chest and arms were constellations of pain. A huge bruise right in the middle of his chest, deep red. More bruises. Cuts. Cigarette burns. Scars.
Quick stared for a while, and then sighed.
The rules were very clear. There was no taking kids from town.
The carnival got stopped outside of town anyway. A line of cruisers, all with their lights blaring as though the caravan might miss that the road was blocked. And a smug, fat sheriff standing at the front.
“Quick!” Mr. Larson called from the front, and Quick went up about as fast as he cared to.
“You seen this boy?” the sheriff asked, shoving a picture in his face. It was Sam, of course, looking a little younger.
“Sure,” Quick said. “He’s been working with me these past few days. Wanted to run away.”
“But we don’t allow that around here,” Mr. Larson cut in. “We let them stay around for a few days, see how tough the work is, and they usually run off before we leave.”
“And that’s what this boy did?” the sheriff asked, his eyebrows raised. “Because his mama and daddy say they haven’t seen him in a week.”
“He wanted to stay, but I wouldn’t let him,” Quick said.
“We all know the rules, officer,” Mr. Lawson said. “We don’t take kids with us. Quick sent him off back home. If he didn’t go, that’s not on us. We don’t run him or nothing.”
But the sheriff had been given a golden opportunity to rough up a bunch of carnies and he wasn’t going to let it go that easily. The next couple of hours were spent standing idly around while the sheriff and his deputies tore the place apart, bit by bit. Wasn’t nothing they weren’t used to.
Those deputies steered cleared of the animal trailers, of course. The smell. It’s always the smell.
“Stay out of the trouble,” the sheriff said before climbing back into his car. As if they hadn’t done just that.
They was twenty miles out of town when Quick finally said, “Okay, you can come on out.”
The pile of blankets was between two of the horses in the trailer. Smelled like shit. Ain’t no way a proper officer of the law would have gone anywhere near those horses, or those shit-smelling blankets. You get near those blankets, you smell like shit for a week never mind how many baths you take.
Sam let the blankets fall of him and grinned at Quick. Sometimes, smelling like a shit for a week, a month, a lifetime was better than the alternative.