Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/1979825-Why-beat-a-dead-horse
Rated: E · Short Story · Western · #1979825
There comes a time to learn from our actions
Under the merciless afternoon sun two barefoot children, clad only in worn-out rags, walk down a rocky, hot country road. A skinny little girl of eight leads the way by five paces. She does the "hot foot hop" moaning "Ow! Ow!" every time the calloused soles of her blistering feet make contact with the black stony hard-pan. Walking off the road is unthinkable as both sides are choked with tough waist high bramble with thorns long enough to go clear through the foot of a child. A boy of eleven and just as skinny as his sister follows along behind her. He stoically bears the flashes of pain without a sound. They both know they must keep on, heat stroke is not that far away, and would surely be fatal.

Plastered to her scalp with sweat are tarnished copper curls now browner than red. She has rivers of muddy sweat running from her hair down over the cluster of freckles on her face. They both know that it can't be much farther to the stone bridge and the cooling stream flowing beneath it.

"Sylvia, can you make it?" Tommy's voice betrayed the near edge of panic. “It can't be that much farther. I don't remember exactly; it has been seven years since I've been here. You were a baby, and we were riding in Pa's wagon."

"I will make it Tommy; I have to."

Both children tried not to think of the two shallow graves marked with a broken shovel. Or the heap of smoldering ashes that was once their home six miles back up the road. Luckily they were in the apple orchard looking for stray chickens’ nests and eggs when four horsemen swooped down onto their peaceful home. Gunfire ripped through the still air. Both children dropped to their knees in the tall grass. The devils on horseback left after setting everything on fire; house, barn, chicken house and even the outhouse. Chickens had scattered noisily before the riders.

Hoarse laughter and this expletive echoed behind the fire riders. "Goddamn Sodbusters eat dirt."

Both Pa and Ma were left face down in the dirt.

Tommy salvaged a broken handled shovel from part of the barn which had not yet collapsed. He dug the graves, dry-eyed from shock, while Silvia whimpered holding her burnt dolly. She put it in the grave with her Ma to keep her company.

Sylvia blinked back tears rescued from her thoughts, by her brother. "There it is Sylvia; I can see the trees along the creek bed."

"Tommy," Sylvia's voice betrayed how close she was to sobbing her heart out.

Both Children scrambled for blessed relief just yards away. Downstream on the bank was a partially submerged huge moss-covered granite rock. Mercifully it was in the shade of a giant oak tree. Within seconds both children had their legs immersed into the cooling water to the knees. Tommy cupped his hands and got clear cool water for Sylvia to drink. She always spilled more than she was able to drink, so Tommy developed a habit of helping her when she needed it most. Both children dip the strips of rag they wear around their neck into the water and gently wipe their sun-parched skin. It was cool and soothing.

"Wow, I needed that Tommy."

"Sylvia, Can you walk another five miles to get to Grandma's house?"

Neither had had anything to eat since breakfast at sunrise. Both children had blisters on their feet.

A look of firm resolve crossed little Sylvia's face. She rose and began foraging along the creek bank for anything edible. Tommy walked downstream to a wild fig tree. It was early in the season, but green figs would be better than nothing. He picked a shirt full of the ripest figs he could find and walk back to where Sylvia had gathered a few edible roots and some green leafy vegetables.

They sat on the rock and ate. "Silvia, this tastes good. Thanks, little sis."

“You got the figs; we both did what we could."

It was almost dark when a mule train of 20 mules pulling six heavily laden freight wagons came from the west, crossing their path at right angles. Both children wished for a ride. But the mules were headed in the wrong direction, even if their driver was disposed to helping two ragged homeless children.

Neither child verbalized the thought in their mind. How will we make it through the night? Tommy could not refrain from imagining all the snakes that would crawl out onto the black baked earth to stay warm as the night brought a chill to the high desert air.

The children both looked toward the sound of a lone wagon rattling slowly up the road. There was a constant cracking of the whip in the driver's hand, accompanied by the most colorful cursing they have ever heard. The poor horse lathered with sweat breathed in labored gasps. When the small black horse smelled the water, he strained to be free to get a drink from the stream. He reared up with his last bit of strength then fell to the road on his knees his chest heaved, drawing his last few painful breaths. The whip is a blur as the fury of the cruel man vents itself on the dying animal. Mucus drained from both of the horse's its nostrils and flies clouded around the open vents and ears.

Tommy screamed at the top of his lungs. “Please stop, I say! It does no good to beat a horse too far gone even to respond! He can no longer do anything for you. He is dead to you, why waste your strength? Use your energy to go to town and get a fresh horse to pull this load on into town. We will take care of disposing of this horse and guard your wagon if you give us a ride to town when you return with a fresh horse.”

Tommy cringed as the whip popped next to his face. The driver had mean eyes like little black buttons sewn deeply into his puffy red face. "I'm done with this damn horse anyway. Git your skinny ass over here and unhitch this harness and help me push this wagon out of the road. I’ll return in the morning and give you your reward." He laughed a wheezy poisonous laugh." Do you want a ride out of here? Take nothing from my wagon, or I will strip the hide off your backs when I find you.” He turned around with a sneer on his face; he popped the whip again this time uncomfortably close to Sylvia, who stood in shock for the second time that day. ”And find you I will.” His threat was punctuated with another crack of his cruel whip and does not fall on deaf ears.

Tommy and the stranger loosened the harness from the poor horse. "Take care of my wagon, hear?" The cruel driver stalked off toward town with his whip coiled in his hands.

Tommy took a hat from under the wagon seat. "Silvia, please bring a hat full of water from the creek." The horse just weakly neighed his approval as if he knew that he was the subject of their conversation, but he was too weak to move his head.

Tommy washed away the mucus and moistened the poor creature's tongue with drops of water dripped from his hand. His head dropped to the ground. Tommy thought he was gone. A lump reared his my throat, and he was about to say goodbye when “NNNHUH!” the little black horse raised up, resting on his front knees, with his head in a place where he could drink from the hat. Tommy gave him the rest of the water. The black horse struggled and groaned but finally stood up on rocky legs swaying in the darkness.

In the now bright moonlight, Silvia helped Tommy wipe the lather and the mud from the dust of the road from the coat of the horse. They gave him water a little at a time for the next hour, and then Sylvia began coaxing him to follow. They walked, and he followed them up a narrow path along the creek. The horse leaned against the big tree. Tommy tried to interest him in some long green grass from the green belt along the stream. He sniffed at it and didn’t seem interested at first, but he finally was able to graze a little. Then they huddled together, Silvia, the horse, and Tommy drawing strength and warmth from each other.

At sunup, they ate more figs, drank copious amounts of water, and encouraged the horse they now call Blackie to eat some roots from Silvia's hand. The welts from the day before are angry red and obvious to anyone who looked even superficially.

Tommy heard them coming first, voices and the soft thump-thump sound of horses walking. Tommy stood tall on the wagon, waving his arms so the two men could see him. One of the men wore a shiny star on his vest. The cruel wagon driver rode to where the children now stood by his wagon. Obviously surprised to see the black horse standing in plain sight and walking around; he shifted his eyes from the horse to the children and then to the Sheriff. He yelled at the top of his voice. “It’s them wee bastards that stole my horse when I took him to water. Left me stranded they did. Arrest them now.”

His whip caught Tommy across the face knocking him off balance. He could feel blood seeping from the gash in his cheek.

Silvia screamed, “He lies, he gave up the horse for dead, yet he kept on beating him!”

The red-faced man raised his whip to silence Silvia when the Sheriff cried, “Stop! His hands held a double-barreled shotgun pointed right at the angry man's chest.

"Drop your whip and six-shooter before I cut you in half." The whip wielder seemed to shrink in size when his tools of power fell to the ground. "You come here till we sort this out." The sheriff cuffed him to the wagon.

"Let me see your face son," he said to Tommy. "Then Take your brother to the creek and wash him up," to Silvia.

The Sheriff walked over to the horse we had rescued with a little kindness. He looked him over and could see the scars and welts the type of kindness the other man had administered. “You say this horse was almost dead when he, pointing at the cuffed man, left?"

Silvia said, “He agreed to give us a ride to town if we would take care of this horse. The horse was lying on his stomach in the road breathing his last when he left. We washed his nose and gave him water. He slowly got a little better overnight.”

“Is that what you say, too?” asked the Sheriff.

Tommy stammered “yes sir.”

It took only seconds for the Sheriff to ask, “What are you two doing way out here? Does your Ma know where you are?”

“She and Pa are dead; I buried them this morning. Four riders shot them and set fire to everything. We hid in the orchard till they left.”

The sheriff looked at their bare feet with dismay.

“Where are you going?”

“My grandma lives five miles down the road just outside of Cedar City.”

The air filled with threats and colorful curses from the man cuffed to the wagon.

The sheriff looked long and hard at the man as if deciding what to do with him. He freed his hands then he said, “Sit and take off those boots while you are at it. Maybe by the time we get to town, you will be able, to tell the truth.”

The air filled with incoherent swearing. “You ain’t gonna make me walk to town barefoot, are you?”

The Sheriff answered by tying his lasso around the prisoner and the cuffs on his hands. He tied the other end to the wagon.

Tommy helped the Sheriff hitch up the horse they brought from town, and Silvia crawled into the wagon seat. They left a little later, the Sheriff riding ahead, Tommy drove the wagon, and Silvia sat sideways watching the horse they had saved, walking beside the wagon.

The prisoner brought up the rear with a series of hops.

He has tender feet. The sun is hot, and the black baked path burns the thin-skinned feet of the man.

He finally quit cussing when he realized that he was just drying his mouth with all his yelling. It may be awhile before he gets a drink. Now he knows how the children felt yesterday, and perhaps he knows the futility of beating a dead horse. Perhaps even cruel men learn from a well-taught lesson. It is just over five miles under the now blazing sun to our grandma’s house. Will he learn his lesson?


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