Note: I did not at all intend for it to be this long, but I started having fun with the characters as well as the style, which is a little different from how I usually write.
THIS AMERICAN IS GAME FOR A BET
I’d like to say it started out innocent enough, but that’s never the case. I know my vices. And I was sniffing them out that night like a bloodhound baying after a fugitive.
I like a good bet more than almost anything else in the world. More than a good meal, more than sex. Not that you’ll find me in Vegas hitting the slots or roulette. Those impersonal fixed odds are the white bread and margarine of gambling. No spark. I’ve got to play people. The stranger the challenge (and the stranger the challenger) the better.
I used to get in trouble at school for accepting any dare at nearly any time. I jumped out a window in the middle of Algebra once. I set off bottle rockets inside the gym. I consumed Pop Rocks and Coke until I puked all over Sandra Aronoff’s shoes (though I didn’t die, as my classmates may have hoped).
Later on, the making and losing of money became intertwined with my need for dramatic stunts. I never looked back.
Scotland was treating me well. Catering to my stupidity far better than the Indianapolis suburbs I still barely tolerated—those safe, air-conditioned suburbs that induced me to be a good husband, to pay the condo fees on time, to drive to work with a travel mug of coffee like a goddamn adult.
The trip had been Jen’s idea, but I think she had come to regret it. I’d been drinking harder than I would have at home and spending more time away from her than was strictly fair on a vacation. I hid from her exactly how much I’d lost at poker. I hid from her a few choice bruises as well.
When we left Glasgow for Loch Lomond she probably harbored hopes I’d come to heel a little better in the countryside. Make wagers on the golf course, at least, rather than in the alleyways.
Our first night settling into our bed-and-breakfast in Balloch, a hamlet right on the edge of the loch’s national park, I slipped out to the pub across the street.
I managed to get drawn into a game of chess with a round for the house riding on its outcome. I’m no Bobby Fischer, but I could read the other man easier than the densely Gaelic beer list. Twenty minutes later we were all toasting to his surly generosity.
“You like a bet more than the average fuck on the street, don’t you?” asked a man with a large port-wine birthmark on the side of his face.
“Yeah, absolutely. Live and breathe for it.”
“Then I’ve got someone you should meet. Local legend, you might say. But only if you’re serious.”
My stomach tightened and the stout seemed to go to my head faster than it ought. “Serious as a heart attack,” I grinned.
The man grinned back. “Hear, hear, you bastards!” he shouted at the top of his lungs. “Got one for Abernathy!”
A general roar of approval rolled through the pub. I found myself herded out the door and down the dark lane in a wave of people. It appeared I was to be the evening’s primetime entertainment.
“Now listen, Yank. This is how Abernathy operates: he makes the proposition and names the stakes. Could be damn near anything. You accept or back down. No negotiating. He won’t ask you any personal questions and you won’t ask him any personal questions. He’ll size you up like fucking Sherlock and you’ll just have to try to do the same,” I was informed as we tumbled into the main room of a different pub—dirtier and a century or two older.
Behind the bar, a gray-haired man leaned against the sink, eating pork scratchings. He might have been anywhere from fifty to seventy, depending on how hard he’d lived. A cigarette smoldered on the lip of the stuffed ashtray next to him in defiance of Scotland’s indoor smoking ban.
“Well, well, a sudden influx of pigfuckers from the Boar & Trumpet,” he observed affectionately. “I know you’re not here on business, so it must be pleasure. What pleasure have you brought me?”
“This American is game for a bet.”
“Oh?” Abernathy brushed the crumbs from his hands and came forward. “Come here, American Game For A Bet. Everybody else shut your fucking mouths.”
The crowd hushed to a bleary, drunken murmur as I stepped up to the bar. Abernathy looked at me for all of ten seconds before sniffing and reaching for his cigarette.
“Tomorrow, twelve o’ clock noon. A race. From Stable Wood on the edge of town, around the loch, to Rowardennan Forest. That’s about twelve miles overland. Sixteen if you don’t care to cross the Endrick brook. You, my friend, will be on horseback. And I will be on foot.”
Several barks of laughter broke out at this point. I tried not to betray any surprise at what seemed like Abernathy placing himself—his wheezing, beer-bellied, senior self—at a distinct disadvantage. And how did he know I didn’t happen to be a champion cross-country rider? (I wasn’t.)
“It’s exactly what I say, no tricks. He’ll have a horse from Leith’s yard, won’t he, Leith?”
“Oh, aye,” a thin rangy man nodded to me. “I take tourists out on ‘em all the time. Good solid animals.”
“Look, I’m here with my wife,” I hedged. “I wasn’t expecting this to be something that would eat up half the day.”
“Take it or leave it,” Abernathy said. “But you haven’t heard the best part yet.”
“The stakes, I guess you mean. What might they be?”
“If you win, I will give you five thousand pounds,” Abernathy continued. I heard Leith whistle under his breath. Five thousand pounds. That came to eight thousand dollars. It would cover the money I’d lost at cards and pay off my car to boot.
“And if I prevail: I get to turn you into a horse.”
“What?” I spluttered, wondering if I’d misunderstood his accent. But my confusion was echoed by the others. “I’m sorry? Is that some kind of idiom or euphemism I’m not familiar with?” Scenes of sexual humiliation flashed before my eyes.
“No, it’s perfectly literal. In fact, I’ll give you the body and mind of the very horse you ride in on. Probably not forever. I’m a reasonable man.”
“Well, that’s not much of a risk considering it’s impossible.”
Abernathy huffed sickly blue smoke from his nostrils and shrugged. “Of course. As you say. Well?”
We shook on it.
“Are his bets usually completely nonsensical?” I asked the following day as Leith tacked up a hefty black and white gelding in the cobbled courtyard of his stables. When I’d arrived, I’d asked which of his string of nine disinterested, farting mounts went faster than a plod while remaining cooperative. He’d suggested a tall gray, so I’d promptly chosen the one next to it, reasoning that Leith was something of a friend to Abernathy and might deliberately fob off his worst horse on me.
“Oh, they’re sometimes quite baffling,” Leith chuckled. “But I’ve not heard him ever say anything like that before. Seems he’s getting a bit touched in the head, if you ask me. Speaking of which, you want to borrow a helmet?”
“No,” I scoffed.
Leith looked me up and down and made a sour face at my tennis shoes. “You do have an inkling how to ride, don’t you? If you mistreat George here I’ll be very unhappy.”
“Sure, well enough.” I’d ridden at summer camp as a kid. I remembered liking it. How hard could it be?
“All right then.” He handed me the reins.
I froze for a second, but fed them over the cob’s head and contorted my left foot into the stirrup. It took me three bounding hops to haul myself up into the flush little English saddle. I tried to sit confidently as we walked out of the yard and down a slope to the edge of the wood.
Abernathy and a few of the pub patrons from the night before waited there. I caught a distinct gleam in Abernathy’s eye. Probably pleased to confirm that I was no great horseman. But the greasy geezer hardly scared me with his thermos of tea and gnarled old walking stick.
“Here’s the finish line,” he said without preamble, passing me a hand-drawn line map indicating the western tip of Rowardennan Forest. I compared it to the more detailed brochure map I’d gotten from the park service and nodded.
“Well. I don’t stand on ceremony,” Abernathy grunted. “Ready, set, go.” He began strolling away from the group, sipping his steaming tea.
Everyone snickered when I did a bit of a double take before recovering and popping my heels into the horse’s sides.
George huffed and sprang into a trot, which I instantly hated. The English saddle had no horn to grab. Unable to figure out how to plant my legs properly in the dangly, delicate stirrups, I felt myself jouncing up onto his withers, less and less in control. I slowed back to a walk the moment I got out of sight around a bend.
Abernathy had taken off along the bike trail. I chose a more direct route through the fields.
I didn’t even have to go fast, I reminded myself. Just faster than the cardiovascular catastrophe racing against me. Still, I thought it best to build up a little bit of a lead in case I ran into problems later on. I squeezed George again and worked on acquainting myself with the trot’s spine-ramming bounce.
Half an hour in, I felt a little steadier. So I steeled myself to trot on as we approached a huge, sweeping hill. However, several strides in, George made the executive decision to canter it instead. He rolled forward like a wave, surging up the hill. I lost my right stirrup and felt the iron flailing against my leg and the horse’s side. I grabbed a fistful of mane, cursing a blue streak. When we reached the top, George skipped to a sudden halt and I went over his left shoulder like a bag of wet plaster.
“Ah, Christ!” I hissed through my teeth, all the wind knocked out of me. I dug my fingers into the sod, rocking back and forth until I could breathe again. I got to my feet, stretching and testing all my limbs. I had a scrape on the side of my left hand. Just lucky I hadn’t broken my wrist throwing it out in front of me.
George, several paces away, was valiantly eating grass around his bit.
“Hey. Asshole. What was that about?”
He dug his face into a deep clump of clover, not even deigning to come up for air.
I mounted again, my knee throbbing where the metal stirrup had whacked it.
“All right, I can still do this.” I clicked to the horse and made kissy noises. I cautiously tapped him on the sides.
“George. Come on, man.” I kicked a little harder.
Good clover, apparently.
It took me nearly an hour to get him moving. I slapped him on the butt. I whipped at his shoulders with the reins. I dismounted and pulled. But he respected me about as much as a buzzing insect. He even flicked me in the face with his tail once.
When he did meander on, it was because he’d finally eaten his fill. I ran after him, desperately mounting on the fly.
We came up against fences and low stone walls far more than I’d expected. I had to take wiggling, wasteful detours around them until I found gates, which always required dismounting to open.
But I smiled when I spotted the gleam of the Endrick Water up ahead. The small river, relatively shallow in summer, snaked westward to Loch Lomond (and meant I was halfway finished).
We walked upstream for awhile until I found a sandy brown curve that looked fordable.
After George had taken a long drink, I urged him out into the flow of the brook. But he seemed confused, balking and sidestepping. I kicked him forward, trying to keep my voice even and encouraging. He splashed in, holding his head high and his back ramrod stiff.
Halfway across, a sweet breeze rippled the surface and the scudding clouds released a scenic beam of sunshine. I sighed. This was how a ride through the Scottish lowlands was meant to be. Like a postcard. For one second, my aching legs and pounding frustration faded into the background.
George saw things differently. The light shattering off the moving water must have caught in his peripheral vision like the bristling spears of a charging army. Eyes rolling, he leapt out of his skin with such force you would have thought he was one of those fancy Spanish stallions doing ballet.
At least I had the water to break my fall this time.
Soaked to my boxer shorts, I chased George down (on the wrong side of the river, I might add). Unable to get him back into the stream, we had to walk all the way to a bridge.
Shortly after that, I found myself riding through the fairways of a posh golf course and had to swiftly backtrack before someone caught me.
I fell off once more when George, against my express wishes, awkwardly jumped a ditch. I constantly had to yank his face away from tempting patches of grass or risk another indefinite rest stop. I skirted two small villages, paranoid that any unusual noise or sight might spook him again.
At the end of the day, it was decided: horses suck.
It was past five o’ clock by the time I approached the treeline of Rowardennan Forest, nearly crying with relief. I could only pray that Abernathy had fallen into a hole and snapped his fat ankle because surely even he could walk twelve miles in five hours.
I spotted a flag flapping on a makeshift pole near a monstrous blackthorn. And under it: Abernathy’s bemused old face. No one else waited with him, which seemed a little odd. I would have thought the men from earlier would be more interested in the conclusion of the bet than the beginning.
“You look like deep-fried shit,” Abernathy called.
“Poor bugger,” he said to George as I pulled up, patting the horse on his sweaty neck.
I swung down, wincing. “Looks like you get to keep your money,” I said. “God. I don’t even care anymore. At least it’s over.”
“Over?” Abernathy said, quirking a wiry white eyebrow. He hefted the antique walking stick into his fist, rolling the smooth wood in his palm until it seemed to blur and shimmer like something not quite real. I noticed now that it precisely matched the shade and grain of the spiny blackthorn in whose shade we stood.
“I think you’ve forgotten about something, lad.”