Charley and his father, Ray, are on their way to Portland, Oregon, as the story opens. Charley does not want to go, but his dad insists and gives no reason why he is in such a hurry to leave. They take only a few possessions with them and quickly settle in a small rental house in Portland. Ray starts his new job as a forklift driver while Charley is left to fend for himself throughout the day as well as through many nights; his dad is seldom home.
During the day, Charley runs. Running is one way the boy calms himself. On one of his excursions, he comes across a stable of horses. After passing the stables several days in a row, he stops to talk to Del Montgomery, a middle-aged man who owns some of the horses. Charley asks Del if he could have a job. Charley is bored but he is also often hungry. His dad forgets to buy food or to give him money. Del agrees to let Charley work for him, and Charley starts right away, though he knows nothing about horses.
One night Charley’s father comes home with a new girlfriend. Lynn is in the process of getting a divorce from a man she describes as a Samoan. Ray knows that Samoans are typically known as being big and having a lot of strength. Although Ray is not afraid of any repercussions from Lynn’s estranged husband, Charley is. As it turns out, Charley’s was right to worry. Lynn’s husband shows up one night, tears down the door, beats up Ray, and throws him out the living room window. Ray is taken to the hospital with a huge piece of glass stuck in his stomach. Charley visits his father in the hospital and tells him about the job he has. A couple of days later, Charley learns that his father has died.
Charley soon learns that Del is not reliable or honest. Del can also be very mean. Now that Ray is dead, Charley must rely on his wits to keep himself housed and fed. Charley is afraid of going back to the house because of the Samoan man, so he begins to sleep in the stables. Unfortunately, Del does not always pay Charley as much as he has promised, and Charley must resort to stealing from grocery stores to stay alive.
Del races his horses at different locations, sometimes merely in the fields of a farm. Although Charley does not understand everything Del does in the care of his horses, he becomes suspicious when he sees Del place pills under the tongue of one of Charley’s favorites, a horse named Lean on Pete. The horse acts nervous after taking the drugs, but once the race begins, Lean on Pete takes off at high speeds and wins many races. This makes Del happy. It also brings in a lot of money, which Del sometimes shares with Charley.
Del races Lean on Pete many weeks in a row. After a while, Charley notices that the horse does not walk as well as he used to. Charley has seen another horse break his leg at one of the races and hopes Lean on Pete will not have the same fate. At night, when everyone but Charley has left the stables, the boy talks to Lean on Pete and tells him some of the details of his past. Charley reveals that he never knew his mother, but an aunt named Margy Thompson used to take care of him. Charley has not seen his aunt for several years and wishes to know where she lives. The last he heard from her, Margy was living in Wyoming. One day Charley goes to the library and searches the Wyoming telephone directories. He finds several M. Thompsons and calls each of them, but he does not find his aunt.
One night at the stables, Charley realizes that someone else is sleeping there. When he investigates, he discovers Bonnie Sparks, a woman in her thirties who also works with the horses. Bonnie befriends Charley and shares some of her food with him. However, she turns out to be a drug addict and does not...
(The entire section is 1523 words.)