Previous: Episode 8
Two cows stood together in a makeshift corral. Both were underweight and unmolested by flies, as if the flies knew it wasn’t worth their effort.
“That’s them,” the farmer said through a mouthful of tobacco. “One on the left is sick. Can’t let it near the rest of my herd.”
The cows, both black without any distinguishing marks, stared back, blankly. “They look the same to me,” Gaspard replied, his voice bright but raspy. He felt sick himself. He hadn’t slept well and woke with a headache, so he stopped in to see Dr. Fagan first thing in the morning. The doctor, like Gaspard, was overly busy—likely he had been staying up late to administer what he could to the injured acrobat girl, Celia. While there, some of the larger roustabouts arrived to the doctor’s cart with planks and hammers. The girl was unconscious, thankfully, and Gaspard didn’t want to stay around for any of what was about to happen. He took what the doctor mixed up for him and left on his errand.
The medicine, fresh air, and the walk had done him some good. Or so he thought, because now, looking at the cows, they warped and wavered in the early morning sun, and the ground seemed to tilt ever so slowly to the left. Gaspard shook his head, trying to sort the marbles. His throat hadn’t hurt this morning, but since drinking that medicine, it felt as if someone were steadily applying sandpaper to his larynx.
The farmer raised a foot up on the gate’s cross beams and draped his arms over the top. “What’re you fellas planning on doing with it?”
“We are going to detonate it.”
The farmer slowly, apathetically shrugged his shoulders. He spat, a streak of brown darker than the soil.
“And the one on the right?” Gaspard asked.
“Ornery as hell.”
“But that one is okay to eat, oui?”
The farmer turned to face Gaspard. “We,” the farmer grimaced. “We, it’s okay to eat.”
Gaspard inhaled deeply, held it. It was too damn early and he was too uneven to sort people out right now. Instead, he reached into his vest pocked, pulled out a Spauldeen. He squeezed the rubber ball so tightly the inside edges touched. To distract himself, he began transferring it between his hands, then made it disappear.
Nearby, Le Petit had paid little attention to the conversation. He was distracted by two dozen goats grazing and frolicking in an adjacent corral.
“Fifty dollars, you said?”
“That seems suspiciously cheap.”
The farmer shrugged again. “You’re almost doing me a favor taking the sick one off my hands. And the other one belongs to my neighbor. Damn thing keeps getting out and knocking my fences over.”
“We will take them.” The ball reappeared. Gaspard pocketed it in his vest and removed a small stack of folded bills. He counted them out into the farmer’s hand, one at a time. The farmer handed over two looped lengths of rope.
“You will not tie them for us?”
The farmer snickered, “Your cows now.” He opened the gate for Gaspard.
Gaspard secured the leads around each cow’s neck and pulled. Neither cow moved. He leaned forward, turned and leaned back, heels digging into the loose soil.
“Le Petit!” Gaspard strained. “Good sir, I need your help.”
The big man turned from the goats. Without a word he approached and entered the corral.
“Here.” Gaspard offered the leads.
Le Petit looked back, in the direction of the carnival.
“I know it’s a long walk. I’m tired, too.”
No movement from Le Petit.
“Yes,” Gaspard replied. “But the bossman gave his orders. And how would we get them back on the truck anyway?”
Le Petit took the ropes and the cows responded. Le Petit’s arms passed over Gaspard’s head, and the cows marched past Gaspard on both sides.
Gaspard brought Le Petit because most animals took to him. On the other hand, were the cows to struggle or resist, Le Petit was strong enough to ‘encourage’ the animals to where they were needed. Gaspard was not a short man, but didn’t even come up to Le Petit’s shoulders. The man was huge, and strong. When putting up the tents, Le Petit was a one-man pole-crew—it was a job that normally required three or four men.
Gaspard followed Le Petit and the cows out of the corral. The farmer closed the gate behind him.
“The big man is mute?” the farmer asked, his voice lowered. Though unafraid of taunting a Frenchman he could see eye-to-eye, he apparently wasn’t interested in starting trouble with a giant.
“Oui. He is mute.”
“And you understand his sign language?”
“Oh. Le Petit doesn’t know much sign language.”
“Then how…” The farmer paused, confused. “Then how did you understand what he was saying?”
“Mostly I just imagine him saying what I think I need to hear.” Gaspard smiled, and made his way toward the edge of the farmer’s property. Gaspard removed three rubber balls from his pocket, squeezing them out of habit before he began juggling them. He started with a simple cascade juggle: three balls, then four and five. This transitioned into an over the shoulder juggle, the balls reaching higher and higher into the air.
It took him a moment to rise, the world wobbling back into place. Whatever that medicine was still doing a number on his orientation.
“What in Heaven? Le Petit, what is going on?”
The big man was crouched at the roadside, the leads for the cows lying free on the ground.
Gaspard came around the front of the cows. “Le Petit, not again!”
Le Petit rose, face ashamed, a single, perfect daisy in his hand.
“Le Petit, you cannot let these animals go. They will get mixed up or run away.” Gaspard picked up the leads, then turned, transferring them between his hands so they didn’t cross. “And we have to keep an eye on the mean one. We don’t want anyone to get trampled.”
Gaspard lifted the left lead, muttering in an impression of the farmer’s Texan accent, “The one on the right is ornery as hell.” He looked at the lead he had lifted, the left one, then the right, momentarily confused. He looked at the cows, both facing the same way he was along the road. He lifted the right lead, decided it was the correct one.
“Yes,” he said, eyes focusing and refocusing on the rope in his hand. “Let us go, Le Petit.”
Leads in hand he walked, was jerked back by the stationary cows.
“Huh?” Gaspard turned.
Le Petit was behind him, arm pointing the opposite direction along the road, daisy pinched gently between two fingers.
“Of course, Le Petit.” Gaspard shook his head and clenched his eyes. Gaspard turned, took the leads in a single hand so he could turn around, then transferred each back to their own hand. The cows came about in the slow, apathetic way cows do. He held up the right lead, looked at the cow on his right. “The one on the right is ornery as hell.”
Le Petit led the way, flower guarded against his heart.
Off to the left a crow cawed from the distant corn field. The world tilted, a bit more abruptly than before. He caught his balance against one of the cows, watched his feet. A bit of dirt there, and a single, black feather.
Gaspard shook his head again, felt the marbles inside roll back into place. “Of course this is the way back, Le Petit. I was just testing you.”
Next: Episode 10