Whipping Boy

Now, I like horses and all, don’t get me wrong here. For the most part, they’re durned near dogs with longer legs and knobbier knees.

Little like me, I reckon.

Truth be told, in all my thirteen years, I ain’t never heard complaint one from livestock nor house pet.  I am in no way inclined whatsoever to pass disapprovin’ judgement upon the head of any one of God’s creatures, especially not one of the noblest of the bunch. Got a couple I’m myself purty partial to, matter o’fact.

But durned to Heaven’s pearly gates and back, I shore do despise me this big ol’ mean ol’ red and white roan belongin’ to big brother Lincoln.

And I do believe I got call to suspect he feels the same about me.

Blue and black bruises, a goose egg sized of a reg-lar chicken egg (which is ample enough, believe you me!) and a skinned up backside lend credence to my reckonin’, I reckon.

But here I am, within small shot spittin’ distance, forkin’ hay and oats to that son of a gun disgrace to the equine line like he was my own.  And here he is, matchin’ me eyeball to eyeball, sideways and sly-like, lookin’ for an openin’ to damage my person and my pride once again.

Dirty filthy rascal.

Oh, he thinks he’s purty enough. Like Lincoln hisself who’s the oldest of us kids at seventeen and still relatively unscathed and feelin’ his manhood, he spends a lot of time tossin’ back that red mane of his, lookin’ for approval.

Beyond his own, that is.

I now feel the need to spit.

So, I go on and do.

Wiping my mouth with the back of my sleeve, I get back to hoistin’ another pitchfork of last winter’s hay into this rusty trough, anchored for generations just along the right side of his stall. Heat and provocation hinder my aim some. Don’t know how else to explain it. And how the blunted backside of that fork popped him upside the head I’ll never know.

Nor admit.

That it did not faze that bugger one iota surprised me none. Takin’ his sweet time, he jest swiveled that handsome, hateful red head, aimin’ them big bulgin’ eyes to meetin’ mine straight on now, vowin’ vengeance. I give it my level best not to blink first.

But I did.  And he didn’t.  He won.

Hang it all,  if I didn’t see a flash of satisfaction spark ‘cross his wicked face.

Vile piece of horseflesh, if I ever saw one.

There was other horses makin’ their homes in the tumbledown barn, come in from a long day workin’ or just lollygaggin’ in the pasture just this side the holler.  My after supper chore’s to brush ’em and feed ’em and bed ’em down for the night.  Theys just six of ’em now since ol’ Boo up and passed on, and them others was all tucked in proper. And like a group of righteous church ladies, once me and this beast began to tangle, they give us a view of their disapprovin’ backsides, lookin’ clear the other di-rection, choosin’ not to be involved, I reckon. Don’t blame ’em. Deniability, that’s what that’s called. I practice it regular when I been plumb too ornery in my own right that particular day to hitchhike on anybody else’s troubles.

Then, on top o’ ever’thing else, Lincoln went and named this sorry piece of arrogant horsemeat, General Robert E. Lee!

Robert E. who?! Who on God’s green earth names a horse he expects to straddle and do his biddin’ after the enemy?  Particular an adversary so high and mighty?  A so-called Southern gentleman what lived high on the hog turned rebel general? The same feller, finely mustachioed and bearded, who convinced farmers and old men, some our kin, to fight to they death to preserve his own high fallutin’ ways?

What in Heaven’s holy name was Lincoln thinkin’?!

No surprise,  our family, like so many others in this part of the great state of Missouri, to this day continues to be divided over that miserable time in our history.  Everbody’s got a story and everbody takes a side.  Some cousins do not speak, nor even acknowledge the other’ns existence.  Even come Christmastime, when family’s s’posed to be just that, family.

Couldn’t o’ named him “Butch” or “Clyde” or “Hank” or “Red?” Not “Pistol” or “Buck” or “Huck”, hey Linc?

No.  Hard tellin’ what brother Lincoln would ever do exac-ly, but we always knowed it wuldn’t be straightforward. Never was.

Grandpap said of Lincoln the boy was often wrong but never unsure.

Purty sure there’s a lesson in there, which I shall ponder at a later date.

Still, how big brother, given his own honorable moniker, could hang that tag on his own beloved mount (however UN-beloved by younger brother Liam. That’d be me) challenged my brain. Given Mama and Daddy bestowed upon him the same name of the revered president what stitched this country back into one piece, never mind the seams still come undone ever’ now and then, challenged me, too. I kept it to myself, though.  Contradictin’ Linc out loud and in front of the world did not hold the pleasantest of memories.

Not that Linc advertised the fact he’d laid such a heavy load on this four-legged menace.  And ol’ LeeBoy, what he was called in front of neighbors and kin,  didn’t put up much fuss when big brother called him by his full name, quiet like, when it was just them.  That’s a ponderable its ownself, bein’ Lincoln’s the guilty party.  Folks ’round here, mostly the lazy overgrown boys down to the Feed and Seed where he hung out most days he wasn’t ridin, them with their danglin’ cigarettes and perspirin’ Coca Colas and too longa hair, woulda hauled his sorry self right out the county, had they known.

Bein’ this here’s a true blue Red White and Blue neck o’ the woods, and dry and all.

So, o’course, he keeps the General Robert E. part to hisself, Lincoln does. And so do I unless I find myself just itchin’ for a whoopin’.

Which normally, I ain’t.

Nobody but a few of us know his real name, anyhow, as Lincoln only let it slip while impressin’ his sweetheart since third grade, Ada Mae Billthrop.  I reckon I somehow overheard them a’whisperin’ whilst I was a’lookin’ for somethin’r other up in the hayloft.  Stealth like.  Hidden behind a pile o’ dilapidated baby buggies and saw horses.  Never knew I was there, they didn’t,  and I would take great pride in that, if pride wudn’t the desperate sin that it is.   That I had a subsequent gap in my thinkin’ processes and shared my newfound knowledge with my other big brother Lawrence may have been a mistake,  considerin’ he also threatened me with a thrashin’ if I was ever to tell.

Appears clobberin’ ol’ Liam is a popular sport its ownself.

So we just call that horse “LeeBoy” and leave it there.

But it ain’t no wonder, though,  his attitude is so cantankerous.   Pure embarrassment, that’s what that is, pure embarrassment.

He does save his own particular venom for yours truly, though.  S’pose he knows I know, too.

I’m findin’ this “knowin'” ain’t always good for my health.

So, no,  I ain’t told. Least not this far. This horse, now a sleek and shiny four-year-old, if you was inclined to like this sort of cob, was Lincoln’s first big winnin’s down to the county rodeo couple years back. Linc was a fresh fifteen years, itchin’ to show his stuff. He’d pulled the ripest, rarrin’est bronco in the herd, ridin’ that wild buckin’ creature till it like to give up ghost. Folks was awestruck, but the coveted belt buckle prizes was done give away. Pure Pete Daws, rodeo announcer and famous bronc buster ’round these parts hisself, declared Lincoln’s ride the tiptoe tops of the night, though, and given his pull, the boys in the barn lit out quick to find Lincoln his own prize.

What they come up with was a feisty 2-year-old red roan, back o’ the barn, known for his unpleasant attitude while bein’ rid upon or even looked upon, and one gentleman rancher Benton Wayhaussen was eager to move on down the line.

“Shore, take ‘im!” He blustered, cigar wavin’ in his pudgy fingers, “Young Lincoln is like to shape him up right!” That and the fact he owed Pure Pete last month’s take of the rodeo draw, Lincoln got hisself his own mount, fair and square, to his thinkin’. He was feelin’ right proud and full of hisself that night.  Still does, matter of fact.

Gets into my craw ever now and then, but seein’ as I ain’t never won nothin’ except a Spellin’ Bee and some foot races down to the school, and never no prizes,  I’ll not deny him his day.

I’ll even admit, while we’re at it, brother Linc has done this horse right, fed him and loved him and trained him and got him to trust him like a brother. But only him. This arrogant horsemeat won’t take a rein from nobody else to this day, and Linc, he likes it that a’way.

‘Course, the story of LeeBoy’s labelin’ was just the first strike against this plug ugly pretty boy nag. Him and me, we had nothin’ but anxieties since he joined our family band.  We’d been chalkin’ up plenty more as the days moved on.

Today’s was just one more in a long string of disagreements.

The morning dawned with promise, like always.  Till I remembered it was a school day and summertime freedom still lay weeks off.  Moanin’, but not loud enough for Mama to give me the look and check my forehead with the back of her hand, I plugged through my mornin’ chores, barely tasted breakfast, belted my schoolbooks, and hit the dusty dirt road to tackle the couple miles to the schoolhouse.

No hustle in my step, I was delayin’ the inevitable as much as I could, seein’ as I’d opted to sit up late and listen to the grownups talk politics ‘stead of writin’ my five paragraph essay assigned by Miss Meadows yesterday durin’ English session.  She always said she looked forward to my ramblin’s, my way with the English language beat all, she’d said on more’n one occasion.   Oh, I’d hear about it, f’sure, and knew her kind face lookin’ ever so dashed and her soft voice reprimandin’ me would send my stomach droppin’ practically to my knees.

I figured I could wait on that.

So for as long as my trek would take me, I chose to breathe deep, suckin’ in the dust cloud left by the younger ones, hurryin’ to make the bell,  kernels of grit leavin’ scratch marks on my lungs.  I pondered the racket of the hard hearted jays jeerin’ at the sweet robin babies in their nests, and played hopscotch with the elm and sycamore shadows on the rutted lane.  I’d get there soon enough.  I’ll not say was enjoyin’ myself at all, just delayin’ the pain.

Reckon my head was in firm in the clouds when outta the clear blue Lincoln and LeeBoy near run me down, poundin’ hooves on the hardpack comin’ to a hard halt just half a hair to my rear.  Scared the blessed wax from my ears, the snot from my nose, and the holler from my throat, I tell you what!  Lincoln tumbled down quick, slidin’ down without his usual grace and style, wavin’ his hat in my face, flashin’ panic on his own.

“Liam!  Slow down, boy!”  Spit was flying.  Linc purt’near always sprays when he’s agitated. Him and his horse circled ’round and blocked my way.  Fear had me planted, so I was unlikely to bolt, but best they didn’t smell it.

I stood stock still.

Since when did big brother Lincoln need the help of his 13 year old brother, whom he used for a servant boy and whippin’ post, anyhow?

I thought it behooved me not to ask.

“What’s wrong with you, boy?” He squinted and got real close.  Feeling his breath, I torqued myself sideways and purtended to pat his red hack.  Who promptly reared back sharp, avoidin’ my hand, and give me the stink eye.

Ol’ touch-me-not.  Things don’t never change.

“Hey, Liam, I been chasin’ you down half mile ‘er so.  You ignorin’ me?”  Heatin’ up, Linc was.  Squintin’ and sneerin’ was usually just the beginnin’ of the show.  Best I nip this now.

I tried a lame chuckle, “Nah, Linc, just didn’t hear you.  Listenin’ to the birdsong and countin’ my blessin’s.”  I tried to demonstrate with a whistle, but all I could gather was a gentle breeze.

Diffuse him at all?

No.  Worth a shot, but no.

Huffin’ hard now, his rock hard body began swayin and twistin’ this a’way and that.  I seen this dance before, the one what most days ended in a punch to my midsection.  Tightenin’ my belly, I readied for the gut pop.  Weren’t much time for nothin’ else.  “Somethin’s wrong with you, boy.  I oughta slap some sense into that overworked brain of yours!”  I closed my eyes and tensed.

I do consider it providential Grandpap’s ol’ Studebaker just then popped over the hill, then comically chugged on by, Grandpap just a’wavin’ to who laid a chunk, oblivious to my potential demise.

And I do consider the same providence allowed the moment of pause what brung steadiness of mind back to Linc.  Watchin’ Grandpap top then disappear over the next rise, he stroked his auburn locks back and fought to gain some control.  Feelin’ his resolve, he licked his lips and swung back my way, this time trying out his most fetchin’, convincin’ smile.

“Brother Liam, ” he laid his hand, just a little too hard, upon my shoulder. He mighta pushed me clear into the ground like a giant spindly-legged carrot, but lucky for me he couldn’t operate persuasion and bullyin’ at the same time.

“Brother Liam, ” he began again, steppin back and reengagin’.  “Look here, I need your help.”

Heck, no.

Still, what he had in mind might be a slight better’n facin’ Miss Meadow and her overwhelmin’ disappointment in me.  I leaned in, better to hear my options. “What’d you have in mind, Lincoln?”

Upon hearin’ his long draw, I knew the truth wouldn’t be forthcomin, whatever he chose to ply me with would be a sad story of woe and deception.  Might be worth a listen, at that.  Linc sure could spin a tale when so inclined.

Polite enough cough, then, “Look here, I need you to pick me up somethin’, down to the Post Office.  That’s all. You can handle that, right Little Brother? “

That all?  Had to be more to it than that.

“Look,”  Was that a bead of sweat on his naked forehead?  “Look, I cain’t pick it up myself, is all.  It’s something for Big Tom…”

Hold on here, Big Tom, otherwise referred to with low chills and simmered reverence as Judge Harrison Thomas Bucklew, was the biggest deal and hottest shot in Wilray County.  And not one to be reckoned with willingly.  Stories, true and otherwise, has us all shiverin’ in our boots.  Lord have mercy upon our sinnin’ souls, what had Lincoln done gone and done?

Sizin’ up my growin’ panic, Linc backtracked, “See, Mr. Mac down to the store, he sent me and my buddies packin’, we ain’t allowed to darken the inside o’his place no more.   Got all bent out o’shape some time back.  Said he’d call Sheriff Swayne on us if we come back.  Ain’t shared that with Mama’n Daddy just yet.”  He tried a thin laugh, but it held no sway with me.  I liked Mr. MacVay.  He liked me back, all the time givin’ me odd jobs and payin’ me with red licorice sticks.  And always rememberin’ I couldn’t bring myself to swaller the black kind.  Made me gag.  Linc and his privileged pack, they never offered a whit of respect, and was turnin’ into miscreants, hangin’ here and there, in the way purposeful,  blockin’ the screen door advertisin’ fresh bread,  catcallin’ and laughin’ at folks, even grandmas and the preacher.    Whole town was beginnin’ to cross to the other side o’ the road when they seen them comin’.

A little too pleased with hisself, he puffed his ruddy cheeks, addressin’ the clouds over my head, “Said we was a nuisance and kept customers from shoppin’ comfortable, how ’bout that, eh?”  Then I got a cuff to the head, “Crazy ol’ coot. right?”

Ow.

“That’s what I need you for, Liam,”  Here it comes.  Brother Lincoln got real earnest and made his voice serious and low, “Take ol’ LeeBoy down to the store quick as a lick, get ol’ Mr. Mac to open up the Post Office early for you,  you bein’ his pick of the litter and all, pick me up a package marked ‘Judge Bucklew.’    You tell him the Judge sent you for it and needs it right now.  He won’t give you a second glance.  Then hightail it back, fast as LeeBoy’ll carry you.  I’ll be waitin’ with the boys down to the ol’ tobacco barn down in the river bottoms.”

He paused to pat ol’ LeeBoy and whisper in his ear, tryin’ to convince him, I figure, I was suitable for his saddle.  LeeBoy looked less than eager.

“You got nothin’ pressin, right Brother?”

Much as my mouth wanted to holler, Why Yes, I got me Class to Attend To, my heart won out, and all I could do was shake my head, no, I got nothin’ pressin’.

Well, this suited Lincoln just fine, he turned all grins and even hugged me tight, just once, but hard, ending with a sharp slap ‘cross my back.

“Attaboy, Liam!  Let’s get after it!” and he linked his fingers tight, offering me a leg up into LeeBoy’s saddle.  My last act of defiance and independence was ignoring his suspiciously generous assistance, slingin’ my books ‘top the horn, painfully stretching my leg just a little too far into the stirrup, swinging high into the saddle.

Ow.

Lincoln walloped ol’ LeeBoy on the rump and next thing I know, we was tearin’ down the lane ninety to nothin’, me holdin’ on for dear life, dust billerin’ up fore and aft, catchin’ Linc’s whoops and hollers with the wind as they all whistled past my ears.

This here?  This here was just the beginnin’ of a sorely difficult day.