There was no way to escape the shouting and the noises of animal terror bursting from Teufel’s stall. The crack of the whip against the stallion’s side, the horse’s maddened whinnying of rage and fear, the curses from John Strong’s mouth.
Cy put an arm around Travis, who pushed closer to him. Travis had his hands over his ears, like that would do any good. I tried to tell you we shouldn’t of sneaked down here, Cy thought, feeling the younger boy trembling. But you had to have your way, and see the mess we in?
Cy was afraid too—his pounding heart told him so—but his fear was mixed with hatred for John Strong and pity for the man’s son. As much as he wished to, Cy couldn’t stop Strong from tormenting the horse. Trying to leave the barn was too risky now, so he and Travis would have to stay and listen until Strong’s craziness had eased or his arm was too tired to strike another blow.
Both boys were huddled in the corner of the stall that had been Rex’s before the roan had been sold to help pay John Strong’s bills. The familiar barn smells—dung, urine, and hay—came up faintly from the red clay floor. Dust particles hung in the yellow shaft of warm April light filtering through an open window.
“Why won’t Daddy stop?” Travis asked. “Teufel didn’t mean to lose the race.”
“Keep yo’ voice down,” Cy warned. “If Mist’ John find us here, we be in big trouble.”
“He’d whip us too.”
“I hope not, but they’s no tellin’ what yo’ daddy do when he been drinkin’ so hard. Don’t worry. I ain’t gon’ let nothin’ bad happen to you.”
“I’m scared, Cy. Ain’t you?”
He couldn’t let on that he was. Travis counted on him to be the brave one, and most of the time, that was fine.
“He ain’t gon’ do nothin’ to you, Travis. I promise.”
From the far end of the barn, the shouts of the man and shrieks of his horse continued.
“I’m gonna run away from here,” Travis whispered fiercely. “Tonight! You come with me.”
“Ain’t no way you can do that. You only eleven.”
nbsp; “Twelve, next month! And you’re thirteen. We can do it! Wait until late tonight, and take Teufel with us.”
“That’s crazy talk, and you knows it. Yo’ daddy come after us, and then we both get it.” ’Specially me, Cy thought. “We’ll get across the river! Daddy couldn’t follow us then.”
“Shhh!” Cy put his hand over Travis’s mouth. “Sound like he done.”
The door to Teufel’s stall creaked on its hinges, then slammed shut. John Strong’s curses had turned to the broken ramblings of a drunken man. The sounds grew fainter as he left the barn.
“You all right?” Cy asked.
Travis didn’t move, didn’t answer, but sat with his knees drawn up to his chest. He wiped his runny nose on his shirtsleeve.
“It over now,” Cy assured him. “Until next time Daddy gets drunk.”
Cy listened. The barn was quiet. When he was sure Strong had gone, he led Travis to Teufel’s stall. Cy lifted the latch and eased the door open. Right away, the stallion kicked at the wooden walls and snorted a warning.
“There now, boy,” Cy told the horse. “You know me. I ain’t gon’ hurt you. Quiet, now.”
Teufel lowered his head and stood, quivering.
“Come on in,” Cy told Travis. “He calm down.”
Travis entered the stall, but pressed close to the door.
“Sweet Jesus,” Cy said. “Look at the way Mist’ John done cut you up.” What he saw made him want to cry. The horse’s right flank and quarters were crisscrossed with bleeding wounds.
He had to take charge. “Travis, get the salve from the tack room. We got to tend to these cuts.” Cy dug into the pocket of his overalls and brought out two shriveled apples. He offered one to the injured animal, who took it and began chewing it slowly. Even now, his side torn up by John Strong’s cat-o’-nine-tails, Teufel was the handsomest horse Cy had ever seen. And when he ran, it seemed like his hooves never touched the red clay under him. Mist’ John ain’t got no right to hurt you so bad, Cy thought. I sho’ would like to steal that damn cat and—
Use it on that son of a bitch, he wanted to say, but even thinking such thoughts was dangerous. Steal that damn whip and bury it somewhere, Cy corrected himself. Before Strong ever got another chance with it.
Travis came back with the jar of salve. He held Teufel’s head while Cy applied the medicine to the cuts. Every time he touched a hurt place, the horse flinched, but he let Cy go on. The whole time, Cy whispered gentle words, and slowly the trembling stopped. Helping Teufel made him feel better. Uncle Daniel said he had a real knack with horses and that was something you couldn’t buy or learn. Either it was yours, or it wasn’t.
Cy handed Travis the second apple. “You give him this one. Let him know you his friend too.” Travis held the apple on the flat of his palm, fingers pointing downward, out of the way of Teufel’s enormous ivory teeth.
“You think we should put him in the pasture?” Travis asked. “Let him get some grass?”
“Better not. Yo’ daddy probably be mad enough when he find out we played horse doctor. We could get him some water, though, and maybe a few oats, if they is any.”
They filled Teufel’s water bucket, but the feed bin was empty.
“I best get home,” Cy told Travis when they were done.
“I’ll come with you. We could get the poles and go fishing.”
“Too late for that. I got to think about gettin’ supper goin’. Daddy been plowin’ all day and sure to be starvin’.”
“I could help you,” Travis offered. He had the pitiful look in his eyes that Cy knew well.
Cy was ready not to have Travis hanging around, but he wouldn’t hurt the boy’s feelings. “They ain’t anything much to do,” he replied. “Besides, soon as I get a couple yams in to bake, I’s gonna try and rest some. You go on home. Ain’t nothin’ gon’ happen. Your daddy for sure gone up to bed. You ain’t gon’ see him till tomorrow.”
“Please come to the house, Cy.”
“Oh, all right. But you wait and see. Things gonna look better in the mornin’.”
“No, they won’t,” Travis mumbled.
“You ain’t still thinkin’ ’bout runnin’ away, is you?”...