It was August, and it was hot. Mom moved my older brother Hank and me from a Lowell triple-decker apartment to our father’s farm hidden deep in the New England woods. With my fourth-grade city friends left behind, I just had Hank and my pony Tex—but mostly Tex.
“Come on, Willie,” Hank barked, “let’s ride over to Zink’s.” I didn’t need coaxing. After living in a cramped city for years, traveling to our only neighbor’s farm felt like going far and being free. But Dad had a warning.
“Charlie Zink is letting Ahab roam this summer so be careful. The bull will probably make his way down near us. Keep your eyes peeled. He almost killed Charlie once. When I was your age, I saw a man at the stockyards get gored. I’ll never forget it. Blood was gushing out of his leg like a fire hose.” I worried a little, but it was a good day for a ride.
We couldn’t leave without Dad’s dogs tagging along, eager for an adventure, swirling out in wide circles around us, trotting and sniffing in the low bushes on the edges of the pastures. They galloped out ahead, watching us, following from in front before finally tiring and peeling off for the trot home. We started through a long-neglected apple orchard that ran along one edge of our property. Despite riding during visits, Zink’s farm was still a mystery, without an end—separate places strung together like knots on a winding, endless rope.
We didn’t usually see the cows right away. If the wind was blowing just right, I’d smell them—their mustiness—unlike the sweet smell of horse—stronger—unmistakable—uncomfortable cow. Other times I’d hear a tiny clink from a cowbell Charlie had hung on a heifer’s neck to help him find the herd. In the mornings, they were usually grazing, heads down, spread out evenly in a section of pasture, but when the afternoon sun baked the air, they’d find a favorite shade tree. They huddled, some lying, under a sprawling apple or maple tree, the ground underneath pounded grassless to dark brown dirt churned and softened by sharp hooves.
We soon spotted the young black and white Holsteins sprinkled on the slope up near the edge of the woods.
“I wonder if Ahab’s with them,” said Hank. He sat up straighter in his saddle looking, leaning slightly over the neck of Mickey, his red and white painted pony. I looked hard too and answered with slow, careful words.
“I don’t know; maybe he’s not out.” Since Ahab was wide and low, he mixed with the cows and was difficult to spot. Hank rode ahead twisting in the saddle to talk backward to me as we moved along.
“On the way home, let’s follow the brook back. It’s really high, and I wanna… look! There he is, Willie!” See ‘im? Over near that tree!”
Ahab glowered, watching us with his head lowered. He aimed his wide horns as he advanced with a plodding, confident strut. The silver ring that pinched through his nose glinted like a pirate’s earing, sparkling in the sunlight.
“Watch this!” whispered Hank. “I’m gonna rile him up!” Then he booted Mickey toward the scowling bull.
“Cut it out, Hank, will ya! Let’s get out a here!” But Hank wasn’t listening and already had Ahab’s attention by galloping his pony closer.
“Hey, Ahab!” Hank hollered. “Come get us!” His excited pony sprinted down the hill with Ahab lumbering behind, snort and white saliva slobbering from his face. “He’s mad now, Willie! Run for it!”
Tex didn’t need much urging. With a gallop, we left Ahab and caught Hank on the crest of a hill where we rested the ponies—and laughed hard. Ranks of apple trees lined the slope with branches hanging low with August apples. We rode for what seemed hours following cart paths and trails into the woods, through gates between high-grass pastures and old orchards divided by Charlie’s birch rail gates that sagged and stretched across the openings, like dirty white smiles.
We stopped to drink at a brook that slipped from the woods, splaying out clear and shallow across a gravel bed. Black clouds had inched from the horizon, but despite a darkening sky, the afternoon air was still thick, raising soapy sweat under the reins where they rubbed Tex’s neck.
“Let’s go see if Charlie’s home.” Hank was moving again; he never stopped for long. Since he was a little older, he had to be the boss. Bold and sure, he was the family favorite—all the things I hoped to be someday. It was still good because at the farm he taught me things like how to fish and build a campfire and shoot his new .22 rifle.
“No, come on, Hank. Look at those clouds. It’s gonna pour. Let’s head back.” On the ride home, Tex liked it when I snapped a leafy branch to brush the cloud of horse flies that pestered his ears. And I squashed a few on his neck too.
We passed a thin, worn path that sliced into a thick stand of poplars. Animals used the trail as a shortcut to the barn, and the cows liked the crowded hideaway late in the day. Tight leafy branches provided cool cover and some relief from the flies. We reached the next pasture gate where Hank waited for me to drop the bars, then he kicked Mickey to run through the opening.
“Yee-haw, Geronimo!” he yelled, flapping his arms like a cowboy heading for a saloon.
I turned Tex a few steps, positioning to try swinging into the saddle like Hank could do. Before I could move, I caught the whiff and then heard a muffled “clink” in the shrubs up ahead. Cows. Out of the bushes charged Ahab, with head down and front legs lifting off the ground. The devil must have been watching, waiting to burst from the thickness as Hank passed the opening. The bull’s back legs powered lunges toward Hank. Mickey sidestepped, avoiding the slashing horns, but with the pony’s sudden shift, Hank slipped partially off. Only years of horseback play had taught him to stay on somehow as his pony panicked and thundered under low apple tree limbs.
Branches snapped across Hank’s head, showering apples. He raised his arms to cover his face, but one branch was lower and caught the side of his head. The blow swept him backward, and he fell over Mickey’s rump in a twisted tumble, landing with a thud in a crumpled heap.
“Augh,” he groaned. I had never heard Hank cry or even show pain. Now he was still.
“You all right, Hank?” I yelled. No answer.
“Hank! I screamed louder. “You alright?”
“Yeah!” he groaned. “I donno. What happened?”
Ahab looked satisfied as Mickey Pony ran for home with stirrups on the empty saddle flapping like birds’ wings. Seven young heifers appeared, oozing from the bushes with mild interest, like schoolgirls on the playground, content to stand near the edge of the fracas, close enough to watch the show.
“OOOhh,” Hank moaned as he rolled from his back to his side, his head swaying.
“Crawl, Hank,” I hollered. “Get to the tree!” Ahab stepped toward Hank who looked unaware of the bull’s approach.
“Move, Hank!” While I watched Ahab, I edged closer. I looked for an apple to throw while wrapping myself in my father’s best swear words for power.
“You bastard!” I screamed as I threw an apple. “Get outa here!” Ahab lowered his head and stared at me—his saliva caught hanging from his silver nose ring in an ugly drip. He tossed his head and pawed the ground. We locked eyes while I felt the ground for something else to throw. When my fingers touched a broken branch, I squeezed it and swung it wildly in front of my face. “Yaaaaaahhh!” I yelled. When Ahab took a step forward, I froze with a pointed arm, holding my crooked weapon. A leaf hung from the end of the twisted stick like a green drop of blood from a broken sword.
When I heard hoofbeats close behind me, Tex brushed past with ears back and teeth barred, like an angry dog racing to a stranger in the yard. He reached to bite the bull’s flank startling Ahab who spun, lowering his head to accept the pony’s attack. As Ahab wheeled, he jerked his head, catching Tex behind the saddle near his abdomen. Then Ahab shook his head, like a stunned boxer. When he moved a few steps. I tugged at Hank to help him crawl a few feet to huddle behind the tree.
A sudden wind fingered the tops of the trees, as lowering clouds darkened more sky, smothering the light. The wind muscled through the branches spitting random drops of rain. A lone shaft of sunlight spiked through a high thunderhead above the woods near the end of the pasture. The first steady drops of soft rain broke the moment. Ahab turned his head, looking toward the young heifers who had assembled and moved together up the slope, then followed, lumbering away in a labored trot.
“Where’d he go?” Hank moaned, struggling to his knees.
“He’s gone. You all right? Where’s it hurt?”
“Huh? Where’s Ahab?” Hank groaned. “Ooh, my head. What happened, Willie?” I stood, ignoring the light rain that fell with a gentle pat against my face and neck.
“Come on, Hank, let’s go.”
“Nooo, I’m stayin’ here. My ankle hurts bad. Look at it. It’s point’n funny.” I pulled Hank’s pant leg up enough to uncover a swollen lump near the top of his sock.
“I think it’s busted, Hank.”
“Go get Dad!” he hollered over the increasing sound of rain. “I’ll stay by the tree ‘case Ahab comes back. Go on, hurry up, will yah?”
“No!” I hollered. “You’re comin’ too. Come on, Hank. Get up!”
“Where’s the ponies?” He was a little more focused now, taking charge, but still confused. The rain splashed his face while he studied me as if thinking what to say next. Then he faltered as he looked around.
“What happened?” The question hung, and he asked again, “Really, Willie, what did you do?” I wiped my wet eyes with each shirtsleeve and felt my voice rise a little.
“Come on, Hank. You’re hurt bad. I think you hit your head.” When leaves that had shielded us from some of the rain began to drop water on our heads, I reached under Hank’s arm, lifting as hard as I could.
“Get up, Hank. You’re not stayin’ here.” While the rain soaked us in a heavier downpour, Hank’s hands gripped my bony shoulders as we struggled to stand. Lightening cracked on the right followed by an angry bark of thunder. Rain came in black sheets as we rocked together in small steps down the pasture. My shoulders burned as Hank gripped and leaned heavily. He hopped, squeezing pained grunts near my ear. I bent like an old man under his weight, studying the uneven ground, timing my steps with my brother’s hops. As rainwater made puddles of old cow tracks in the mud, I slipped and then rested before moving a few more steps, fighting tightening in my lungs. But I knew I shouldn’t stop for long.
Like children, the ponies were waiting at the gate at the end of the pasture, eager for the chance to run for the barn. They stamped nervous feet, crowding in the corner where the gate would open. Black rivulets of water streaked their hindquarters, and I smelled the stink of wet horsehair. I pushed Mickey’s rump and when he moved aside, I noticed a patch of smudged red on Tex’s rear flank. Before I dropped the gate poles, I leaned on the bars to catch my breath and rest. Hank was quiet and heavy, his wet face white like ashes. It wasn’t far to the house now. I reached to find the strength to lift my brother a few more times. Through clenched teeth, I spent more precious breath.
“Come on, Hank,” I wheezed. “Almost home.” If I could just get to the big rock, I could stop one last time to fill my empty lungs. And then, with all the air I could muster, I’d yell over the splash of the rain that hammered the gravel yard. Dad had to be close.
“Come on, Hank!” I pleaded. “You can do it.
Dad came from the barn, took one look at my brother’s leg and it was off to the hospital. Hank had a concussion and a cast, but I was more worried about Tex when my pony started acting sick the next day. Dad called the Vet who said Tex must have internal injuries and there was nothing he could do. The next afternoon, while Hank rested in his room, I scuffed my boots across the gravel yard, hoping another day had made everything all right. The barn door was open the quarter way it always was. It never closed all the way. I pushed, letting what was left of late sunshine spill in over my shoulders, awakening the barn’s insides.
The sudden sunlight stirred the flies to scatter through the sunbeams, crisscrossing, looking for stillness. My eyes struggled with the light, but I heard the whinny and caught the form in the shadow. Tex tried to rise but slumped back to the floor, his head pounding the dirt with a dull thud. He had been waiting.
I rushed to scoop his head. Loose hay, swept by thrashing legs, lay in a pattern around him like snow angels on the barn floor. His legs had tried running, and the hair was scraped blood red, his bottom eye caked closed from rubbing the dirt floor.
“Come on Tex,” I begged. “You gotta get up!” I pulled his halter, but his body was tired. I lowered his heavy head, accepting it into my lap. “Tex, you’ll be all right,” I lied. “You just gotta rest here for a while to get your strength back. You got to get better. We got a lot of rides to do!” But Tex wasn’t listening. Film clouded his eye in the dream he had left, a contest he was losing.
I never really noticed the size of a pony’s head. In my lap it was heavy, like a small child, the whole pony in my hands. I mustered tenderness, crafting my touches along Tex’s cheek while the dogs moved in and out, sniffing close to my face and then Tex’s, saying goodbyes.
Late afternoon slipped to evening and then to night. Tex’s legs thrashed, and he jerked, running or sneaking under the fence at his favorite spot. I hoped I was a comfort, talking low, telling him out loud how I loved him—and remembering. How he usually let me catch him when I came with the bridle. Thanking him. For never getting grumpy from too many rides when the city kids came and letting the children pat him all they wanted. I told him about the rides we would do. How we’d find the Indian mounds and get a quick jump to beat Mickey Pony the next time we raced to the pine trees. It was no use to cry.
The cool night air finally broke the spell like a fever, I felt the ache in my legs. I should probably go in or maybe just move around some. I stretched and stood straight to look down at the shape. A fly jittered across the black muzzle, while white teeth grinned a snarling smile. The black tail lay stretched behind like a flattened, frayed rope.
I moved with legs stinging with return of blood and almost turned to look back but let the door swing wide behind me as I stepped into the yard. A cloud of mosquitoes slapped my face, but I didn’t rush to brush them away.
I walked a little, stopped, and moved again, up the slope toward the house, before turning to gaze at the stone-still barn. But the mosquitoes were worse now, and all that was left was to go inside.
The next morning I tried to forget, but my mind gave me only dreams of revenge. I rested the barrel of the rifle on the middle bar of the split-rail gate to steady my aim. The wooden handle of the .22 was warm against my neck, and the afternoon sun cooked my back through my thin t-shirt as I knelt, leaning against the wooden crossbars. The cows hadn’t noticed my bushy black hair bouncing near the top edge of the stone wall as I crawled up to the pasture gate. I knew I had to keep still. I’d only get one shot, and I wanted it to be true.
“Move…you….bastard,” I muttered, just like Dad would say if he were angry. “Move!”
A black head rose from among the cows—pointed black horns first, then the ears and an ugly head that shook under a swarm of flies. Ahab’s head dropped again between the heifers to eat, and I waited.
When I’d turned nine, Hank had shown me how to line up the spot of iron on the tip of the rifle between the V that spread halfway down the gun barrel. The bullets of Hank’s .22 were small, so I would have to aim for Ahab’s eye.
My knees stung from kneeling, but I held my breath, waiting for the next time the target raised his head; then I would squeeze.
Pow! The gun slapped against my cheek, and I smelled a sweet whiff of gunpowder. I lifted my face from the gun and watched the animal stagger and fall in the high meadow grass. The fat bull’s legs flailed as he tried to get up but fell back again, his enormous weight collapsing his body.
I struggled to squeeze through the rails of the gate, screaming in delight as I began to run toward the herd. I yanked up on the belt on my loose jeans as they slipped low on my hips and raised my other arm with the rifle high in celebration. The cows scattered as I got closer but stopped to look back as I stood over Ahab to watch the ugly bull suffer and die.
I’d lean the gun back in the hall corner so Hank wouldn’t know, then get away before anyone found Ahab’s rotting body. Maybe I could stay with one of my friends in Lowell. One thing was certain, I had to get back to the city.
“Hey, Willie, you’re spilling it!” Dad shouted close to my ear, draping his arm over my shoulder as we stood close in the barn doorway. “That water trough will never get any fuller!” he laughed. “What’s the matter, you countin’ your money?” Dad’s words brought my thoughts back to the pigs—squealing—anxious for their feed. I felt the sogginess where water had run down the hose and dripped onto my jeans. I pulled the hose away from the water that spilled over the edge of the tub and shouted over the squealing pigs.
“You just gonna just let ‘im get away with it, Dad?” I didn’t wait for the answer but yelled louder. “We gotta do somethin’! That bastard killed Tex!”
“I told you it wasn’t his fault, Willie,” Dad said with a patient tone. He’s just a bull… an animal. They don’t know any better.”
“Yes, he did,” I screeched, my voice rising to the high pitch I hated. “I saw ‘im, Dad. He did it on purpose.” I thought my words were having an effect, so I tried my best to move my father. “He’s mean. You even said so when you told us how Ahab almost killed Charlie. We should kill ‘im, before he does somethin’ else. You kill pigs, don’t you?”
“That’s different,” Dad spoke carefully, stretching out each word and shaking his head a tiny bit in what was surely an attempt to soothe me. “We’re raising the pigs to eat.” He looked at me, while his words came more slowly. “Look, Willie,” my father continued as he started shoveling feed onto the heads of the waiting pigs. “That’s Charlie’s bull, and Charlie’s your friend, isn’t he? He needs Ahab for his cows.”
My father hollered louder over the screeching of the pigs.
“I know it’s hard to understand when you’re young, Willie, but you just have to forget it.”
I pulled my t-shirt up from the bottom near the buckle, pretending to wipe the sweat from my face but hiding tears while I fought not to cry.
“Yeah, well he’s not gettin’ away with it!” I shouted, but my words were swallowed by the noise of the pigs. “I’ll show you!” I spun away from the door. While I walked toward the house, I felt my father’s eyes on my back. I didn’t care if he had heard or not. Charlie’s bull wasn’t getting away with it. The bastard was gonna pay.
I knew Hank would understand so I headed upstairs to his room. Hank’s room remained organized with crutches snuggled behind the headboard, and like a hospital room, the table near the bed now held medicines, half-full glasses, tissues and this morning’s empty cereal bowl. Piles of comic books had grown higher, separated in neat piles within reach from the bed: WWII Combat, The Lone Ranger, and his favorite, Uncle ScroogeMcDuck. I sat in what had become the visitor’s chair Dad had brought from downstairs, but Hank didn’t look up from the one he was reading. Batman. His face was delighted as his eyes darted from frame to frame in the book. Hank wasn’t reading Batman, he was Batman, and I knew I had to wait.
“What?” Hank asked finally, without looking up from the book.
“How’s your leg?” I asked.
“Good,” Hank answered, as he leaned with a tiny grimace to reach for the next book. I waited again.
“I brought you some more juice.”
“Thanks,” Hank said. But this was important, and Hank would have to stop reading. My eyes burned on Hank’s face. Finally, he dropped the magazine against his chest and spun his head to look at me. He didn’t speak, just looked, absorbing me the way he always did, reading me like one of his books.
“Can I borrow your .22?” I asked. Hank still didn’t speak but lay back and waited for the rest. I had the lies ready—how I was bored and wanted to target practice, and after all, Dad said I could have a gun of my own because I was careful and old enough now. But Hank knew.
And I knew he knew.
“I’m gonna kill that bastard,” I pushed out through clenched teeth in slow, separate words. “He killed Tex!” Hank lay back against his pillows and flipped to the first page of another comic.
“He’s just a bull, for cryin’ out loud.” He gritted with his eyes moving on his book. “Ahab didn’t mean it.”
“What do ya mean he didn’t mean it? He charged Tex and gored him, didn’t he?” I pleaded as my voice tightened. But I quieted myself and then continued. “I don’t care, Hank, I’m gonna do it.”
Hank put his book down, leaned up on his elbow, and tried to hide a sudden pain that must have shot from his leg.
“Look, Willie, you can’t do nothin.” I thought some wisdom must have told Hank what he said was important because he stretched his neck and head toward me to emphasize his words. He spoke not as a parent, or friend even, but from a better place, as a big brother, making what he said the truth.
“Didn’t I tell you we have to be careful with animals? They’re afraid of everything. If you don’t watch it, you get hurt. That’s what animals do. Ahab was scared; he was just protecting his territory. Tex should have stayed away from him.” Hank allowed his words to trail away as he dropped back to the pillows and lifted his book. I waited through more silence until he continued this time without looking at me. “Dad will get you another horse. He already said so. Besides, you need a bigger one anyway. Mickey’s too small for me too. We gotta get some hosses.”
Hank’s words marched over me, and I waited for the rest. Finally, still without looking up from the page, Hank finished, like he had closed the cover of one of his books.
“Tex is gone now, Willie. You gotta move on.” Hank was right again—about the horses, at least, but not about everything. His words were too cruel, but he said it because he could.
I wondered if my brother noticed when I left the room, dropping one stair at a time, leaving parts of Tex’s memory on each step, slowly, as if I knew when I got to the bottom and walked out through the kitchen to the barnyard, it was finished, and all of Tex would be gone.
E. Raymond Tatten is a life-long Yankee living in the beautiful apple country of Central Massachusetts. His essays and articles have appeared in local publications, including The Worcester Telegram, The Harvard Post, The Bolton Independent, The Landmark and Sterling Meetinghouse News, along with MUSED Bella Online Literary Review and Adelaide Literary Magazine. Some of his selected works can be heard on his YouTube channel, Edward Tatten. In this his first collection, AND ANOTHER THING, Just Saying…, E. Raymond Tatten offers thirty-five essays, short bursts in response to bubbled up memories and current events. Tatten’s work in progress includes an historical fiction account of a sixteen-year-old’s capture by Indians in 1705 along with his own narrative as a nine-year-old living on a remote farm. Tatten shares a home on Rowley Hill, Sterling, Massachusetts with his wife Linda, daughter KT and a three-pound female Yorkie named Dani.