By Robert G. Back © 1986
Issue: January, 1986
It was June 10, 1948, and my two brothers and I had been waiting since noon for Papa to come home from the livestock sale he'd gone to just outside Mt. Sterling, Kentucky. The night before he'd said that if he could get a decent deal on a good horse, he'd buy it, and Ernie, Tommy and I couldn't wait, to see whether or not he'd gotten that deal.
At exactly 4:30 he came riding down the dusty road that ran past our house sitting astride a roan horse. He rode into the yard and reined to a halt.
"How do ya like 'im, boys?" he asked, grinning from ear to ear.
"Purtiest thing I ever seed, Papa!" I said.
"Me too!" ten year old Ernie agreed.
"Me too!" eight year old Tommy echoed.
Just as he was sliding off the horse's sweaty back, Mama came through the front screen door. She stepped onto the porch, looking sourly at Papa's newest acquisition. So as not to get caught in the cross-fire, my brothers and I got up from porch steps and walked around the horse to get a closer look.
"How much money didja waste this time, old man?" Mama asked.
"I got 'irn fer sixty bucks, and he's worth twice that," Papa said, hooking his thumbs under the gallowses of his overalls. "He's the kinda horse ya can work all week and ride to church on Sunday."
Mama grunted and stepped off the porch to inspect Papa's deal from closer range. She walked up to the horse and peered closely at its right eye. "I shoulda knowed," she snorted. "He's blind in the right eye. Ya bought ya' self a blind horse, old man."
"Yeah, but he shore sees mighty good outta the other one, Sis," Papa said. (He always called Mama "Sis".) "Besides, that ain't gonna interfere none with his workin'."
"Ya got skinned again, old man," Mama said, and then yelled at us kids, "Y'all git away from behind that horse. It's liable to kick ya into the middle of next week!"
"Naw," Papa said as he moved closer to the horse. "Charlie ain't gonna kick nobody, Sis. He's as gentle as a porch hound."
Then, to everyone's surprise, Charlie stretched his neck forward like a hissing gander, peeled his black lips back over his big, brown teeth, and clamped down on Papa's right ear.
Papa let out a mighty yell and tried to twist away from Charlie's vise-like grip. Nothing doing. Papa swung his elbows backward in an effort to dislodge Charlie, but did little more than stir the air.
"Git this crazy horse off'en me," Papa yelled.
The sight of Papa bent forward at the waist with Charlie's head draped over his right shoulder drove us kids into fits of howling laughter. Even Mama, who wasn't given to emotional outbursts, was laughing harder than we'd ever heard her laugh. Everyone was having a hilariously good time...except Papa, that is.
"Ow' stop that confounded laughing and git this horse loose from my ear!" he roared.
Still laughing so hard she shook all over, Mama picked up a stick from the ground and swatted Charlie across the nose. He turned loose of Papa's ear and whinnied like he'd pulled off the world's funniest prank. Before the whinny died, however, Papa spun around and slapped him alongside the jaw. Charlie jerked his head upward and took a couple steps backward, baring his teeth all the while.
Papa turned to face us, vigorously rubbing his beet-red ear, "That dadburned thang tried to bite off my ear," he moaned.
"Aw, he's just playin', old man," Mama laughed. "If he'd wanted to, he coulda lopped off ya ear and spit it at 'cha."
"Is it bleedin'?"
"Naw, it's a little red, that's all," Mama assured him. Papa walked up to Charlie until he was looking directly into his good eye. The horse pulled back and bared his teeth again.
"No ya don't, pardner," Papa said. "There ain't gonna be no more games called 'Bite The Ear Off The Old Man'. You latch onto my ear again, and ya'll wind up holdin' books together. Ya got that, boy?"
Charlie merely snorted and swung his head from side to side.
"You boys take this plug to the barn. Come tomorra, we'll see if he's as anxious to work as he is to separate folks from their ears," Papa said.
Shortly after daybreak the next morning. Papa took Charlie out of the barn and put him into harness. As he cinched the straps, he kept his head turned sideways toward Charlie, to make sure the horse didn't get any new ideas about his ears.
He led Charlie up the hill behind the barn and to a four acre patch of ground just north of the house. After hitching him to the spike-toothed harrow, he slapped Charlie's rump with the check lines.
Charlie turned his head around to look at Papa, bared his big teeth again, then bolted down the middle of that red clay field like a thoroughbred heading for the finishing line! Papa held onto the reins and ran faster than even he ever thought his legs would carry him. "Whoa, Charlie? Dadburn ya, I said whoa!" Papa screamed.
Whoa was the farthest thing from Charlie's mind. Amidst a huge cloud of red dust and Papa's frantic hollering, he made a beautiful U-turn at the far end of the field and came thundering back towards the house. Papa's head was thrown back, his legs were churning pinwheels, and that rusty harrow was bouncing three feet off the ground at times.
The sight of that rampaging horse and the bellowing man running at break-neck speed toward us scared the daylights out of me and my brothers. Ernie let out a yell and scampered up a sycamore tree at the corner of the house. Tommy and I made belly-skidding dives under the edge of the front porch.
About fifty feet from the edge of the field, Papa got his feet tangled and fell flat on his face in the churning clay. The check lines were jerked out of his hands, and he went tumbling end over end. Through the red dust, all we could see were legs and arms flying in all directions.
Charlie came to a skidding halt at the end of the field, then just as pretty as you please, he sat down on the harrow and looked back over his shoulder at Papa. My red-faced, furious father was advancing toward him with a huge clod of dirt in each hand.
When Papa got within twenty feet of the resting horse, he cut loose with one of the dirt clods. Charlie ducked, however, and the dirt splattered against the side of the house with a board-rattling KERCHUNKT The second clod barely flicked Charlie's ear and exploded against the trunk of the sycamore tree just inches below where Ernie was hanging on for dear life.
"Git on ya feet, ya no-account rascal!" Papa thundered. "Git up so I can knock ya down again!"
Charlie wasn't about to test the sincerity of Papa's threat. He just stared at Papa and flashed his teeth at him a couple of times. Papa tugged at his bridle, smacked him with his open hand and called him names I'd never heard before.
Charlie still wouldn't budge. He was determined to sit there until he was good and ready to get up. Exasperated and weary, Papa finally gave it up as a lost cause.
"Go ahead, ya stupid thang! Sit there 'til Gabriel blows his horn, fer all I care," he said, turning to walk away.
Suddenly Charlie was good and ready to get up. He scrambled to his feet, and his head jumped forward like a snapping turtle's. Before Papa could turn around, those big teeth popped down on his right ear again.
"Yeeeoow!" Papa hollered. "When I git loose from ya, I swear, I'm gonna kill ya too dead to kick! Turn me loose, confound ya!"
Tommy and I crawled from underneath the porch...and ran to see if we could help separate the two, Ernie dropped out of the tree and joined us.
"Turn him loose, Charlie!" I ordered.
"Yeah, Charlie, let go," Tommy repeated.
"Don't try to talk to the dumb thang!" Papa said through clinched teeth. "Git a club and bust 'im one!"
Charlie must have understood and decided he'd rather not be swatted again. He released his grip. Papa swung around and took an open handed swipe at his head.
Charlie was too smart for him, though. He jerked his head high in the air, Papa's hand sailed under it, and I got all the meanness of a lifetime slapped out of me with one mighty swat. I landed on the seat of my pants and watched a multitude of bright red and white dots explode before my eyes.
"Are ya alright, son?" Papa asked, lifting me to my feet. "I din't realize ya was standin' that close to the horse."
"I'm okay, Papa," I mumbled, wiping tears from my eyes.
"Good. Unhitch that sorry thang and take him to the barn. After ya unharness 'im, turn him into the pasture. I ain't gonna try to work him no more. He's a 'runner,' and his kind ain't worth the trouble to break."
"Come the first of the month, I'll take 'im back to the stock sale and try to git my money back outta him. To tell the truth, right now I'd trade him fer a good pocket knife and a couple of ax handles."
A week before the sale day, Papa looked out the kitchen window into the pasture and noticed that Charlie was running into barbed wire and tripping over old tree stumps. "Somethin's wrong with Charlie," he said. He picked up his hat off the kitchen table and went out the back door. We three boys followed.
Papa spotted Charlie's problem immediately...he was now blind in both eyes! "His good eye's been hurt," Papa said. "We'll have to tie him to a stall in the barn. Can't have 'im stumblin' around blind. He's shore to break a leg."
After tying Charlie to a stall inside the barn, we began walking back toward the house and Papa had a screwed-up, worried look on his weather-beaten face.
"Are we gonna keep Charlie tied up for the rest of his life," I asked, trotting to keep up with him.
"I reckon not, son. That wouldn't be a natural thang to do. A horse has gotta work and sweat and whinney in the early mornin' air. It's gotta run races with the wind and kick up it's heals from time to time. Take them simple thangs away from him and he ain't got much to live fer."
"Then whata we gonna do with him?" Ernie asked.
"I 'spect I'll hafta shoot 'im," Papa sighed.
"No, Papa! Ya can't kill 'im!" I yelped, fighting back a rush of tears.
"How old are you, boy?" Papa asked, without slowing his steps.
"Twelve," I answered.
"Then ya're old 'nough to understan' that it's the only merciful thang to do," he said.
Ernie, Tommy and I cried all the way back to the house. A couple of times Papa looked down at us with a pained look in his eyes and muttered, "Dadburn it!"
At 10:00 the next morning the "dead wagon" pulled up in front of our house. Papa was sitting on the front porch step, waiting. He'd been sitting there since sunup.
"Where 'bouts ya wanta do it Frank?" the rotund driver asked.
"Down over the hill by the barn," Papa answered. "I don't want my youngins' to see."
"Then I reckon we'd better git it over with," the driver said.
The "dead wagon" driver drove past the house and down over the hill to the barn. Papa followed behind the truck with his rifle cradled in the croak of his left arm. His shoulders were slumped and his steps were very slow.
My brothers and I stood on the back porch and watched the "dead wagon" and Papa disappear down the hill. All three of us were crying our eyes out. Then the sharp crack of the rifle echoed off the hills and through the lonesome valleys beyond the barn. Charlie, the playful ear-biter, was dead.
Papa walked back to the house dragging the stock of his rifle through the red clay. His head was down and he looked like a tired, old man. He went into the kitchen and sat down at the table where Mama was pretending to drink a cup of cold coffee. He slowly slipped his floppy hat off and laid it on the table.
"Well, it's over," Mama said.
Papa took a huge breath and allowed it to escape in a long, drawn out sigh. "Yeah, it's over, Sis," he half-whispered.
"You done the only decent thang you could do, old man," she said softly.
"I reckon so, but it was still a mighty hard thang to do. That ole crazy horse did have some kinda character, didn't he, Sis?"
"If you say so, old man," she said, looking at him with a puzzled look on her face.
"I say so," he said with a firm nod, "Dadburn it, I definitely say so."