The Horse Killers

It was a dark night. A stormy night. There was rain. There was wind. The beaded trees were helpless but to accept their drenching. The pitch-black air was unnaturally heavy with summer heat. Not a light shone.

     There was a road, a morbidly narrow road, empty and slippery, that went its way–somewhere–through the stormy night. There was a horse trailer, there was a pickup truck that pulled the trailer along the empty road. Inside the trailer were two horses separated by a shoulder-high partition covered in worn and tattered padding. Side by side in the cab of the pickup truck were a man, a boy and a girl. A father and son. A girl. The father and son were large and fat. Massy. They were dressed identically in sweatshirts and tight jeans and western style boots that proclaimed in every way that the boots were intended to be worn by large men or boys who spent most of their time on horseback. The son was indistinguishable from the father except for his hair, which was shoulder length and black and stringy, oily. And for the frightened look in his eye. The girl drove. She was a mere sliver of a girl, short and skinny, who always spoke in a high-pitched twangy whine. She was known as Sissy. The boy, who sat between the girl and man, was Bo. The father, Stanley, sat to the outside with the window down and the crook of his arm protruding into the storm. He spoke. He laughed. The father.

     Two horses. London Bobby and Sweet William. Poor Bob, as I called him. Willy, as I was to Bob.

     The trailer was small and decrepit, it lurched from side to side or swayed and slid precariously on the slippery road, though we were moving at a slow pace. An uneasy pace. Feeling our way. It was darker inside the trailer than without, and the noise of the wind and rain was louder. The rain beat down upon the metal roof above our flattened ears like nail heads on tin. Directly in front of us was a narrow open window through which it was impossible to see or to glean anything of our whereabouts or of our condition except that we were making our way through the storm in darkness, without headlights. Between the narrow window and Bob’s head and mine hung two hay nets stuffed with hay. But it was dusty hay, inedible. And how could we think of eating hay, poor Bob and I, when we did not know what was happening to us or why?

     “Faster,” came Stanley’s voice above the sound of the engine and the rain.

     A burst of Sissy’s indignant twang in answer.

     The sound of springs, the sound of metal. The roar of the storm through which we passed as through a tunnel. I lost my footing, fell to the side against the partition, felt Bob fall the other way and come up short against the trailer. The hay was old, there was no water, beneath our wobbling hooves the straw in which we stood, or tried to stand, was thick with half-buried horse dung dropped by other horses, long vanished, and left to lie as if expressly for Bob and me, tonight. A seedy carpet of uncleanliness, indifference. I heard Bob tugging on his lead rein fastened short to a ring bolt. I swayed, fell back, my head jerked at the end of my own short leather rein.

     There was a jolt, the trailer swayed out from under us, a wheel slipped off the shoulder, lurched back up and on again as Sissy struggled with the steering wheel and Stanley laughed and told her to go faster.

     A shivering. A pounding. A swaying. On it went. Then stopped. Abruptly.

     A long pause.

     “All right,” said Stanley all at once and in a voice that was loud, close to us, audible in every way but baffling, “take them out. The little one first. He’s easiest.”

     End of the road? End of the night? The storm? End of time? So it seemed for indeed we had stopped, though Bob and I yet rocked and swayed on our unsteady hooves. Truck and trailer were standing still. Sissy had turned off the engine. And the wind had stopped, the last sheets of rain were coming down, abating, trickling.

     Tense? Unnerved? Expecting we knew not what? Exactly. How else? We had braced ourselves against the erratic sensations of the drive, to each other had admitted our bewilderment. In days past, months past, we had been moved from stable to stable, barn to barn. We had grown thin, we had raced, I winning in my former way, Bob losing. But now for time I could not count we had not worked out but had been kept idle, without purpose, untended, unwanted as it seemed. It had been a long decline, a strange decline, though our feed had been increased, steadily, and we had regained most of our weight. Now this.

     There was a clattering of boots, a slamming of doors, behind us the ramp went down. Banging and clanging. Chains rattling.

     “Hurry up!” said Stanley from behind us, at the foot of the ramp. ”Bring me that little horse.”

     Sissy scurried into action at the sound of his voice. Sniveling and whining to herself and moving as quickly as she could at the sound of a grown man’s bullying voice, suddenly she appeared in the darkness inside the trailer with Bob and me, wiping her little face on her sleeve and fumbling with Bob’s lead rein, unfastening him.

     “Come on,” said Stanley, as a late squall hurried by overhead and rain fell in a burst and once again died to a trickle, “it’s wet out here!”

     “You hear him,” Sissy said under her breath, “back up!” She held Bob’s lead rein short, gave his chest a push. Bob took one obedient tentative step to the rear. Another. He was ready, as always, to accept the worst while I, on the other hand, was not. Yet now in this uncertainty in a sagging two-horse trailer at the edge of a country road–nowhere, somewhere–for once I was indecisive.

     But not for long.

     I waited, I listened, the space where Bob had stood was empty, from outside and below me came the sound of footsteps, fumbling, soft voices, and then, behind me, the ramp down which poor Bob had disappeared, backwards, rose up again, clanged shut. I was alone, London Bobby was as good as gone though common sense assured me he was only feet away, a small gray horse standing in the wet darkness with a man and boy and girl on a country road in the aftermath of a midnight storm. But why? What sense was this? Why was Bob outside and I within? What were they doing?

     I listened. Nothing. I tried to swing around my head, could not, of course. Restrained, of course. Then suddenly in the metallic darkness of the otherwise empty two-horse trailer it came to me that what I was hearing was just that–nothing. Which was to say, silence. Prolonged silence. Significant silence. The kind of silence that cries out the very secrecy it is meant to cloak. A silence more claustrophobic than confinement. A silence loud with the unnatural sounds that it conceals. Why did they not speak? Why did they not whisper to each other or argue amongst themselves? What, I asked myself again–what were they doing?

     But I had no time, I told myself, not a moment longer could I support this silence.
     There is nothing more violent than an agitated horse who has broken loose in a horse trailer. And I was an agitated horse–for Bob’s sake, not mine–and I was loose–the lead rein snapped with my first heave backwards–so now I kicked and flung myself about head and flanks and hooves, as if to topple the very horse trailer that contained me and wake the night.

     “Sissy!” shouted Stanley. “He’s loose!”

     “Hear him,” came Sissy’s whine.

     “Get up there, then,” shouted Stanley. “Stop him!”

     A few indistinguishable chords struck on the banjo that was Sissy’s voice.

     Still I kicked and struggled, knowing that at least I was interrupting Stanley’s plan, whatever it was, and sending far and wide my horse-alarm through the night. But to see was my purpose and see I must. To turn around. To thrust my head into the darkness and see for myself that Bob was safe–or not, as obviously I feared. So in the midst of my racket I drew my haunches to the left until they rested against the side of the trailer, then swung them to the right and in that single blow broke the fastenings that held the partition in place behind me. A crack of metal. Another shout from Stanley. And then, and just as Sissy crept up into the front of the trailer, I shoved aside the partition and twisted around, stood still, looked down upon the scene spread dimly beneath my eyes.

     The blurred figure of London Bobby, patient as ever. The equally blurred figure of Bo, who was holding Bob. And Stanley–like Bo he was visible thanks mainly to his white sweatshirt–who was stretching wide the mouth of an immense transparent sack. I took one look. I saw the plastic shape with which Stanley wrestled–it was formless, wrinkled, glistening, collapsing about his hands and arms down there in the darkness–and instinctively, and without a moment’s hesitation, I reared, I trumpeted a warning to poor docile Bob and once again I kicked and reared as best I could in that small space and gathered myself, readied myself to clamber over the top of the more than chest-high ramp and jump to London Bobby’s rescue.

     “Pop!” cried Bo, who rarely talked, “that one’s escaping!”

     “Sissy!” shouted Stanley, “catch hold of him!”

     “Cain’t!” yelled Sissy shrilly.

     “Why not?” shouted Stanley.

     “Afreerd!” yelled Sissy.

     “For Christ’s sake,” shouted Stanley, “of what?”

     “Smushing!” came Sissy’s plaintive voice.

     With that I ceased my struggle. Desisted. Stopped. In a trice thought better of this attempt to liberate myself and so join Bob. Yes, even in the midst of my exertions I had heard her words, was thunderstruck by that pathetic thought. Harm the ragged little Arkansas horse-girl as Stanley called her? Certainly not, Crush her against the ringing wall of the trailer? Not for the world. After all, this was a hapless spidery girl, a girl forever and frantically at Stanley’s beck and call. For all my tribulations, I trusted her. Intuitively. Furthermore, I told myself, I had already delayed the night’s dark proceedings and would delay them more by compliance. Stanley had no choice but to remove me from the trailer lest I destroy it–if, that is, he thought me safe enough to handle. And Sissy could not guide me down from the trailer without the help of the now thwarted Stanley and his frightened son. Thus I reasoned, thus I changed.

     Violent horse no longer violent. Gentle. Perfectly safe. Turned himself around of his own accord. Head to the front, tail to the rear. Well and good. Surprising, but well and good.

     More silence. A moment too much.

     “Stanley,” called Sissy, “you there?”

     “Of course I’m here.”

     “His halter ain’t broke, Stanley. I got a rope on him. And Stanley? He’s a right nice horse.”

     Vulgar expression from Stanley. Chains, dry hinges. A banging sound, ramp lowered. A small leathery palm on my nose.

     “All right,” she whispered, “you just back down now. You’re a good boy!”

     One awkward angular step. Another. My front hooves higher than my rear, my entire body canted steeply. A slow progress. A difficult progress.

     “Take him down the road a ways,” said Stanley, so close now that I smelled some sort of hot sauce on his breath, felt his heavy voice brushing my ear.

     “But Stanley,” said the little Arkansas horse-girl in surprise, “what’s that …”

     Then I too saw London Bobby. Poor Bob. Lying flat on his side. In the darkness. On a wet patch of country road. His gray color turned to silver, his coat wet, his tail stretched out behind him as it would have flown had he been galloping. For some reason Bo was still standing at his head and holding the leather lead that sagged gently upwards into his fat fist. But Bob’s head? His blurred and milky head? Even as I stared down at him it began to rain, softly at first, then harder. And was it possible? Drops of rain visible on London Bobby’s head and upper neck and yet not on the rest of him? Droplet’s dancing and pattering on what I took to be a membrane stretched tight around his neck and head? Afterbirth flashed through my mind. Then sack. And could any horse alive still breathe inside such a deadly tissue shrunken about his head, his jaws, his nostrils? No came the answer roaring through the blood in my ears. Suffocation was what I thought. Oh, they were trying to smother poor Bob to death, that swollen man with his own son for accomplice!

     Sissy screamed.

     “Pop!” shouted Bo. “He’s after me!”

     Whereupon Bo turned as if to run, as I thought he would, but to my surprise stayed where he was and merely flopped to all fours beside London Bobby’s silvery outstretched form. Flopped down and curled himself as tightly as he could into a fat and trembling ball, his head to his knees, his arms drawn protectively about his head, his broad defenseless backside raised.

     “Pop!” he cried once more in muffled desperation as, for the second time, Sissy screamed and Stanley gave vent to vulgarity.

     I meant to attack. I meant to spare not a breath of his me. I meant to kick Bo’s head, arms or no arms, so hard, so swiftly that his round cowering body would give way to a lifeless sprawl. But I could not. For all my readiness, and even as I swung my haunches, turned, prepared to give Bo the one resounding mortal kick I had in mind, still I could not. After all, Bo’s cowardly submission was a plea for mercy. And Bo’s fear, as suddenly I knew, was as much of the father whose help he had called upon as it was of the retribution he expected and deserved from me.

     So I spared him and, just in time, turned on Stanley.

     I wheeled. I clattered a few steps this way and that on the wet black deserted road. Then stopped stock still. Stared at him. Suffered a moment of disbelief. Suffered a sudden weakening of spirit. Thought of flight. Then thought of Bo, fleetingly, and recovered myself, reared up, dropped down.

     Stanley loomed before me in the road. Stanley was wet. Stanley was armed. Stanley wanted nothing short of my life, as I had wanted Bo’s. But with a difference, as I saw at once, since the murderous instrument that Stanley held athwart his chest had been fashioned in advance–how else?–and for no purpose but to inflict what would look like accidental death on the second of the two horses he had meant to kill that night. One with a plastic sack, one with a pike.

     Yes, it was some sort of pike that Stanley now aimed at me, a thick wooden staff pointed at its deadly end. Heavy, sharp, unbreakable. Now lowered in Stanley’s grip and aimed at me. His face was animated, his eyes were on mine, his body was braced for the thrust that would drive home the point of the staff.

     Bo cowered, Stanley prepared to lunge.

     Where was Sissy?

     Surely the entire night was listening, tiny hidden birds quaking and listening, old barn owls awake and alert, listening, all domestic animals safe and warm, far and wide, all awaiting the outcome of this unheard-of contest between man and horse. Earlier the living creatures had heard my equine bellowing. Now they heard the silence of my combative self filling the night.

     Where was Sissy?

     An expectant light in Stanley’s face, an eagerness more appropriate to amusement than fatality. He crouched, he studied me, he was not intimidated by the awesome spectacle I must have presented to him there at the edge of the imminent ruination of his crude plan. But if I had reared again at that moment, exposing to Stanley my chest and underside, well might he have moved, as swiftly as any fat man could move, and been successful in lodging some considerable length of his murderous stick inside me. But I did not rear. Instead I did the opposite, and merely lowered my head and, eyes and jaws at a level not much above the surface of the road, began to swing my head from side to side, dragon-like, and thus throwing him off guard, attacked him. And no sooner had he started back and lowered his pike than I rose for a second time and towered above him like the invincible wraith that I was, though in flesh and blood, and kicked him with one front hoof as I had meant only moments before to kick Bo with one of my hind hooves–in the head. Down went Stanley, dropping his pike, with not a thought to plan, son, horse-girl, and sprawled on his belly as I had meant to see Bo sprawl. But how was I certain that I had destroyed Stanley’s life?

     Simply enough. A movement, a planting, of my right front hoof. On Stanley’s head. Then my full weight on my right front hoof. A smushing, as Sissy might have said.

     That done, I swung around, all fear and agony, to face what I had assumed was a certainty–London Bobby already dead. The heat of his life already cold. Poor Bob, not even a wraith. Oh, but praise be to the horse gods, such was not the case! Wrong for once, and happily! For there, when I turned, were Sissy and Bo as well, both kneeling at London Bobby’s head and together rending the last of the plastic, stripping it in long filmy strands from his eyes, cheeks, nostrils. Bob was not at all a suffocated carcass, as I had thought to see him, but a living horse, a breathing horse, a small horse still surviving the snares of destruction that had been spread for us.

     And Bo and Sissy. Two crouching figures ministering to a prostrate horse. What better? And even as I held my peace, stayed still, stood watching, Bo, his plump face whiter and wetter than ever, made a small high-pitched nasal sound high in his head. Sissy answered. Another wordless sound from Bo, another answering sound from Sissy. Like horses. And then in his softest and most uncertain tone, Bo spoke.

     “Pop was laughing,” he said. “Back there in the truck. He was laughing. Why?”

     “Skully Equine Mutual. Said so himself.”

     “Don’t understand,” said Bo.

     “Insurance,” said Sissy.

     “Still don’t understand,” said Bo.

     “Kill horses,” said Sissy. “Collect insurance.”

     A pause. A silence. A long pause. Not to be broken. Heads bowed, hands and fingers shredding plastic. London Bobby shifting, moving his head, looking up at them.

     Soon he was standing. Soon we were once more side by side in the two-horse trailer and creeping onwards through the passing night. Soon, near dawn as we could see, truck and trailer were once more slowing down, stopping.

     Slamming of doors. Footsteps. What now? What next?

     Again there came a metallic clanking, rattling, banging. But not behind us, as we might reasonably have thought, but at our heads, outside, below us. Then the slamming doors, the loud sound of the engine, the fading sound of the engine. Silence again.

     So Sissy with the help of Bo had carried us off, far from the figure lying inexplicably on a country road, and then stopped. Uncoupled us. Abandoned us. Disappeared forever, as I am free to think, into the safety their humanness had earned.

     And so early that morning London Bobby and I were found-two horses locked inside a trailer left standing at the side of a road that was not the same road that we had been traveling all night. A different road. A new road. A happier road by far.

     Still, for all concerned, a mystery.

John Hawkes (1925–1998) was the author of The Lime Twig, The Blood Oranges, Travesty (all New Directions), The Passion Artist (Harper & Row), and Sweet William: A Memoir of Old Horse (Simon & Schuster), among other works. He was a recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Academy Award and the Lannan Literary Award.