Betty Moffett: Dan (fiction)
Southern Legitimacy Statement: I grew up in North Carolina–in the western red clay hills, the flat tobacco county in the middle of the state, and the sandy beaches of Nags Head.
Uncle Charles ran a small dairy farm on the 250 acres his father had left to his brood of 6 children. The other 5 were scattered around the state, but often came back to the home place on weekends, and then the old house smelled of frying chicken and simmering collard greens and Pyrex pans of peach cobbler baking in the oven. After dinner, people sat on the screen porch and told stories and laughed. Uncle Charles mostly listened, and smiled, sometimes. He liked these weekends, and made sure the old place looked good—lawn mowed, fences tight. When my parents had been too busy to get “back home” for a while, Uncle Charles would call and say, “When you all coming?” He never sounded sad or needy, but my daddy could hear the lonely in his brother’s voice, and the next Friday we’d pack our bags and head for the red clay foothills and the Ferguson farm.
I loved those visits, loved the food and the quilts on the iron beds, loved Aunt Nina, who read Black Beauty to me—again and again and again—and my boy cousins, who teased and spoiled me. But I loved Uncle Charles best.
He wasn’t the easiest person to love. He didn’t wait for me to catch up or carry me across the creek on his back. But when he stood up from the dinner table, pointed at me, and said, “Want to come help with chores?” I hurried to join him. Of course I was no help at all, but he let me think I was.
We’d walk out to the big three-story barn my granddaddy had built, me half running to match his long-legged strides, and climb to the second floor hayloft. The rungs on the wooden ladder had felt so many feet, they dipped in the middle and were as smooth as the oiled leather in the tack room. I couldn’t have gotten a splinter in my hands if I’d tried. Not that Uncle Charles ever cautioned me against that danger. He paid me the great compliment of assuming I could take care of myself.
He made one exception. As we threw hay down to the cows waiting expectantly below, he pointed out that if I was foolish enough to fall, Toby the bull would be pleased to do me harm.
My uncle had a way with animals, and it was not a gentle way. He never scratched the ears of Rex, the half-shepherd dog who helped him round up the cows, or rubbed the kind faces of his Jersey milkers. He fed them, treated their ailments, made sure they could get to the creek for water, and in return, he expected—demanded—obedience, not affection.
And he got it. Rex came running, body low to the ground, when Uncle Charles whistled, sat at his hand signal, and brought in the herd at the order “Get ‘em.” The cows walked obligingly into their assigned stalls and waited for the milking machines.
Toby, though, was less compliant, and the ongoing contest between the bull and Uncle Charles frightened and fascinated me.
When we moved the hay bales to the loft door (well, Uncle Charles moved them, I got to cut the string), the cows raised their hopeful brown eyes and mooed. Toby, a wide-chested, wide-browed Hereford who still had his horns, pawed the ground and snorted, sliming the ring in his nose. Once, when Toby had broken through a fence, I saw my uncle grab the ring in the bull’s nose and twist it till the animal fell to its knees; then he led a chastened Toby back into the pasture. But I saw promise, not submission, in the bull’s eyes. My uncle kept Toby because he produced good calves, but also because he had gumption. My uncle had no time for spiritless animals. But there was a limit: he would not put up with insubordination, and no animal that threatened to hurt his pride stayed long on the Ferguson farm.
Which is why, according to my aunts, their brother didn’t stay married. I have only a vague memory of dark-haired Linda, who was Charles’s wife for 7 months. I remember how fine they looked together one Saturday night when they were dressed up to go out, and soon after, she was gone for good. Aunt Nina said that Linda thought she could put some polish on Charles—clean up his grammar and his work boots and take him to swanky restaurants. And he tried, for a while. But then Linda began to suggest that the Fergusons weren’t as good as her people, that they lacked “breeding.” When she referred to her in-laws as “hill billys,” Charles didn’t yell or slam around the house. He just stopped speaking to her. And pretty soon, she packed up and left, and nobody talked about her anymore.
Uncle Charles’ pride wasn’t the bragging kind. If not for Daddy’s stories, I would never have known that my uncle had been considered the strongest man in the county: he could lift more bales of hay, carry more sacks of feed and dig more post holes than any man for 30 miles around. And—and it hurt my father, a good rider himself, to say this—his brother was still the county’s best horseman. In his prime, my father told me, Charles Ferguson and his cronies, male and female, could ride horses all night—through the woods, up the red clay hills, across the rocky creek beds. When dawn came and the others went home to their beds, Charles unsaddled his horse, rubbed him down, gave him hay and oats, and then headed for the fields to plow, haul rocks, and cut timber. This impossible regimen seemed to suit him, largely because my uncle’s great and constant love was horses.
The fact that, from my earliest memory, I shared that passion was, I think, the main reason my uncle tolerated my company. He always had horses in the barn. Some he bought to sell or trade, but three were always there—two tall sorrel saddle-breds (Lady Flash for my father, Lady Margaret for my uncle) and one impossibly big Percheron named Dan.
I was completely happy when I could watch my father and my uncle—both black-haired, both handsome—ride their horses at a full rack down the driveway, their iron shoes making sparks in the gravel. Then, my father would dismount, fling me up on his saddle, swing up behind me, and head off across the county with my uncle at our side.
The two Ladys were highbred and skittish, and ready to spook at anything—a paper bag, a coil of fence wire, pigs—especially pigs. When a big muddy sow suddenly appeared in a neighbor’s pasture, grunting and snuffling, her piglets running between her feet. I could feel Lady Flash crouch and make a right angle of her body. But just before she jumped three feet sideways, Daddy tightened his arm around my waist, laughed, and scolded his horse gently. Like his brother, he preferred his animals spirited.
And that’s why Uncle Charles decided to sell tall, red and handsome Kingdom, a Tennessee Walker he’d bought recently at an auction. King had the looks of a horse that would fit in on the farm, but riding him for a week had revealed that he had no pep, no courage. So my uncle had invited two prospective buyers to come to Sunday dinner and take a look at King. In fact, J. R. and Nancy Ferguson were second cousins. Nancy, who ran a riding school, thought King might make a good, steady mount for her beginners. I could tell right away that Nancy (who was married-in, not blood kin) made the decisions, and I was glad she seemed to like King’s looks and manners.
After fried chicken, milk gravy, turnip greens, and coconut cake, Uncle Charles led the horse up from the barn. He’d offered to ride King around the yard to show off his gaits. He told the horse to ‘park out,’ and King responded quickly by moving his front feet forward, bringing his body closer to the ground so my uncle could mount easily. But when he stepped into the stirrup, the saddle slipped a little and he knew that King, as many horses do, had puffed up his belly to keep the cinch from being pulled too tight. Uncle Charles’s face flushed. The horse had embarrassed him—and maybe queered the sale. He balled up him fist and hit King sharply in the stomach. The horse released his breath and my uncle was about to tighten the cinch, when Nancy, who may or may not have been 5 feet tall, marched up to my uncle, swung her arm back, and hit him just above his belt. “How does it feel?” she demanded.
I closed my eyes. I knew my uncle was going to hit this tiny woman and probably kill her. But when I looked, he was making a little bow. “I admire your spunk, mam,’ he told her.
Nancy bought the horse. Uncle Charles was pleased with the sale, but he never invited the couple to another Sunday dinner. The big horse and the little woman had hurt his pride.
If Lady Margaret was Uncle Charles’s convertible sports car, Dan, the black Percheron stallion, was his muscle, his bulldozer, and his wrecking ball. Oh, my uncle used his red International Harvester rig for the long, boring jobs like planting and harvesting corn, but for the dramatic stuff like pulling down trees or raising the thick iron dinner bell to its new scaffold, he always harnessed Dan. I loved to see that horse come out of his stall, wearing only his leather halter, picking up his hubcap-sized feet, nodding his huge head up and down as if to say, “Let’s do it.” He was always bigger than I remembered.
Only rarely did Uncle Charles put me up on Dan’s back. First, that back was so broad that my legs stuck out in an awkward split; and second, Dan was not a pet, not a decorative Sunday riding horse. Not that he wasn’t beautiful. His black hide shone like oil, his mane was long and heavy enough to hide in. I wondered how it was that my uncle, a thin, pale dwarf beside this giant horse, had convinced Dan that he, the man, was the master. I had seen Dan shiver when my uncle spoke sharply to him, and I had seen him give all his great strength when Uncle Charles ‘gee’d’ him into a pull. I decided I didn’t want to know the history of their arrangement.
One Sunday after church, Uncle Charles and I found ourselves alone in the big house. My parents had gone to visit the Kelloggs, who were restoring the old mill, and my aunts had packed up their chicken pie, pound cake, and families and headed back to their homes. My uncle and I were comfortable together. He thumbed through Progressive Farmer; I read the Sunday funnies. We didn’t talk and we both kept on eye on the old Regulator clock. When it struck one, we’d get up and start the chores.
Just when the clock was clearing its throat to strike, we heard someone knocking on the front door. We knew it had to be a stranger, because everyone we knew came around to the screen porch. Curious, we opened the door. A man wearing a tan overcoat and pale leather shoes touched the brim of his felt hat and said, “Sorry to bother you good folk, but I have foolishly gotten my car stuck in the ditch across from your house. And I was wondering, Sir, if you had a tractor that could pull me out.”
Everything about the man—manners, clothes, speech—said “rich.” And I could feel my uncle’s resistance, almost read his thoughts: City man. He’ll have a fancy car. Looking to hire a poor hillbilly farmer to get him out of the mud so he won’t have to get those pretty shoes dirty.
What he said was, “I’ll help any man who needs it. My tractor’s broke down [I knew it wasn’t] but I’ve got an old horse who might could do the job.”
“A horse? Well, I don’t know…,” the man began. Then he looked at his thick gold watch and said, “I’d be grateful for any help you can offer.”
As the man walked back to his car, Uncle Charles and I went to the barn for Dan. I had a dozen questions: Why did you say that about the tractor? Why did you call Dan ‘old’? Why…. But I knew I should keep quiet and keep up.
Dan was delighted to see us. When Uncle Charles snapped a lead rope on his halter and led him out of his stall, he snorted lightly and nodded his huge head. As always, I wondered how any living thing could be that big, that beautiful. My uncle took his time. He brushed Dan’s already glistening back, straightened his mane, cleaned his hooves. Then he fastened the complicated pulling harness on his stallion. I understood then that Uncle Charles was going to do something I’d never seen him do before: He was going to show off for this rich city man. I crossed my fingers hard, hoping that Dan wouldn’t embarrass my uncle.
The sleek yellow Buick was tilted up at an almost comical angle. Its back wheels were all but invisible, sunk into the red clay of the ditch. The man, who’d been sitting behind the steering wheel, took another quick look at his watch, then, smiling, stepped out of his car, his shoes, like his car wheels, sinking into the slick clay. “By the way,” he said, “I’m Ned Daniels, and from the name on your mailbox, I assume you’re Mr. Ferguson. That’s a splendid animal you have there, Sir.”
“My daddy was Mr. Ferguson,” Uncle Charles said, hooking the heavy chain to the front axle of the car. The Buick and the man’s courtesy had made my uncle abrupt, nearly rude. “Better stand back,” he said. “Don’t want to get mud on your coat.”
At the “Gee-up” command, Dan began to pull. The car didn’t move. “Gee, Dan,” Uncle Charles said again, and slapped the long reins on the horse’s back. Dan squatted on his haunches, straining forward. I could see the muscles swell in his neck. Still nothing.
“Sir,” Mr. Daniels said, “I don’t want that horse to hurt himself. Looks like this is a job for a machine.”
“Gee up,” said my uncle, but Dan no longer needed urging. He had found his own pride now, and he’s burst his big heart before he’d quit this job. I heard Dan gulp air, saw ragged ribbons of sweat run down his sides, saw his huge hooves slip in the mud. And, with a slurping sound, the car popped out of the ditch.
Dan stood, head lowered, shaking a little. Uncle Charles put his hand on the horse’s back, and left it there.
“My God—sorry, Miss—I never saw anything like that,” Mr. Daniels almost shouted. “I never thought he’d do it. It was grand. Grand!”
Then he took out his wallet, removed a twenty-dollar bill, and held it out to my uncle.
No, I thought. That’s wrong. He’ll hate that.
And, “I’m not your hired hand, Mister. I don’t take money for doing a favor for a man in need.” I heard the pride and anger in my uncle’s voice.
“Mr. Ferguson,” the man answered, “I’m not offering to pay a gentleman for rescuing me. This money is for the pleasure of watching that big horse pull.” After what seemed like a long time, my uncle and the rich man shook hands.
When we came to visit Uncle Charles again, he and I climbed the ladder to the dusty, sweet-smelling hayloft and fed the cows, as usual. We gave the Ladys their oats and listened to them chew. Then, we went to Dan’s stall. Dan greeted us with an expectant “huh-huh-huh” and nods of his great black head. He was wearing his familiar leather halter, but now, just below each ear, I saw a shiny concho the size of a Mason jar lid. “They’re real silver, “ my Uncle Charles told me. And that’s the closest I ever came to hearing my uncle brag.