By Jonathan Livingston
“What do we do when we get a lame horse?”
Father asked me the question several times before I was able to answer.
“We put it down.” I said.
“That’s right. A nigger ain’t nothin’ but a horse. Nothin’ more than cattle. Cattle at best, right?”
He smirked and I grinned back at him, tightening my grip on the walnut stock of the musket he had put in my hands.
“Alright,” he continued. “So here’s a lame horse. Here’s a bull not in his right head. You put it down like such.”
He released my shoulders and gestured at the slave named Thomas on the other side of the fence. Thomas was a broad-shouldered thing and those shoulders were caked on with scar tissue from Father’s bullwhip. He was muscular, athletic. In the summer time I’d catch the women cattle, the slave women stopping their gleaning to watch him plow the fields. Even mother looked at him with a strange ache. Maybe that’s why he was defective. Or maybe he had run off and Father had gone to catch him. He always said you couldn’t trust a bull. They’d want to run out on you if they got the opportunity, he had said.
Thomas’s wrists were red and bruised beneath the hemp cord Father used to bind him to the fence. I stayed where I was while he walked over to Thomas and retrieving the great blade he had fashioned himself the winter before, he rather gently cut the bull free and motioned for him to go on. Then, Father began to walk back toward me.
“Alright boy, load her up!” He yelped as he marched back toward me.
Thomas was running full speed into the woods behind the house.
“Ain’t it easier if he’s tied up?” I said.
“Ain’t nothin’ easy, son. This way you get you some reloading practice too.”
I finished loading the ball and ramming the wadding and the load into the barrel. Father placed his hand on my shoulder and guided me to the edge of the property and with one motion hoisted me onto the other side of the fence. I could still see the back of Thomas, now glistening with sweat. He was running at a full gallop even still. I maneuvered the musket to my shoulder and leveled it with the galloping bull. I breathed in like Father told me. I breathed out like he told me. I cocked the hammer back full like he told me. The bull was getting deeper into the woods. The woods grew ever denser. I breathed in like he told me. I stayed calm like he told me. The sights fell on Thomas and I squeezed the trigger. I breathed out like he told me. Smoke and flame shot out of the end of the barrel and a cloud formed in front of my eyes so I couldn’t see Thomas anymore. After a moment, however I did hear him. I turned to Father. Without a word his gaze told me to walk into those woods and come back when the bull was down for good. I nodded. I made a marching stick out of the musket and began hiking into the thicket.
Thomas was crying. He had been hit. I had hit him. I could smell the blood and the sweat from the tree line. It smelled like the slave house. It smelled like the whipping post. It is a good smell, I thought. Thomas will be dead soon, I thought. Father will be proud.
When I got to where Thomas was I picked the musket back up and held it hip level pointed at the bull. Thomas was praying now. Father said the cattle had their own religion. The slave women were the parishioners more or less and the bulls were their confessors. I didn’t fully understand it then, but he tried to explain. “Niggers are the great failure of creation,” he would say. “They look like us but they’re animal-like. You’ve tried talkin’ with them. You know they can’t talk about nothin’ intelligent. They look on us like gods, like the other animals see us. They’re a step above a house pet. Cattle at best.”
Thomas continued to pray. Although to call it prayer might be misleading. He lay there, dripping blood from a nickel-sized hole in the small of his back, mumbling various religious-sounding words. God, he’d say, or Amen, Bless the virgin, and so on. The blood was turning the soil to red mud, which was sticking to Thomas’s sweaty forearms. It reminded me of the horses when they got colic in the summer and wallowed around in their pens on the hay. He was squirming a little bit like that. But this was, of course, a far more gruesome sight. Thomas glanced at me for a moment, his eyes looking directly into mine and then he looked away. This happened several times while he prayed. Father said he was an animal. He sure is acting like an animal, I thought. When Father put down our dog, Bessie the summer before, it had looked at my eyes the same way. It would look into my eyes and then away and then repeat the process as if to ask for a stay of execution until finally he plugged it in its little head with his twenty-two. Only thing was it flopped around a bit, which I did not like at all. I didn’t wish to repeat that with Thomas.
The musket had grown heavy in my hands. I set the butt of the musket on the ground and began the procedure of reloading. I placed the shot in. I stuffed ball and the wadding in. I once again raised it level with Thomas, this time taking careful aim, pointing the barrel between his wet, reddened eyes. I breathed in like Father told me. Thomas’s lip was quivering and fluid was running from his nostrils. I cocked the hammer like Father told me. He was blubbering now. He could feel that this was the end of his life in these woods. I shouldered the musket proper like Father told me. Thomas closed his swollen eyes. He muttered some final word. I breathed out.
About Jonathan Livingston:
Jonathan Livingston is 25 years old and is currently studying creative writing at Louisiana State University.