Schooling Napoleon (Short Story, Young Adult Fiction)

Candace Craig owns copyrights: Tumbleweed Press©

The children were walking home from school. They took a shortcut through the high grasses and up over the hillocks where the clouds came down to meet them. When they came home, Ruby, their mother, told them to check the barn for their father, and that they might see something interesting there. Standing in one of the stalls, looking at them, was a Shetland pony colt. His head and neck were a shiny, solid red. At the base of his neck, it looked as if he had been dipped in cream and then drizzled on his back with honey. He had delicate long legs and a braided little mane. His eyes were alert and rebellious; his ears turned this way and that listening to the children plead with their father.

“Can we ride him dad? What’s his name? Can we take’m out?”

“Oh, uh, not this pony. Too young. Have to break him first.”

The children went out to the garden and fingered through the soil for large, tough carrots. They brought them into the stall. Hazel held out the long finger of the carrot. The pony stretched his long head to smell it with long, heavy puffs. He remembered and bit. While he munched the children reached for his face and ears. The pony’s eyes rolled and he started backward. Hazel admonished them.

“Don’t all come at him at once. He’s not used to it.” She let Harriet hold the carrot this time, and was able to coax the pony back. The children just watched this time. “Now. Just one o’ you pet him, like this.” Hazel gently reached out her hand. The pony came closer and she felt the soft velvet of his nose. She smiled. “I want to call him Prancer.”

“I want to call him Fred.”

“Fred’s not a pony name. He needs something more pony-like.”

“What about Dancer? He dances around a lot.”

“He’s not a reindeer!”

“Maybe we’ll just have to wait and see what he grows up to be.”

“How ‘bout Napoleon?”

The next day, dressed in his customary overalls and a white shirt, Austin cut across the open field to the barn. He unlatched the wide doors and entered. He would make a first attempt at breaking the pony while the children were at school. When the pony saw Austin, he whinnied and stomped his feet in an excited dance. Austin didn’t speak to the pony or pet him. He just walked toward him and tried to slip on the halter. The pony reared back and kicked the stall. Austin attempted to calm him. “Now, don’t kick up a fuss. Here’s a carrot. Chew on that for a while.”The pony calmed and showed interest. But each time the pony would begin to relax, Austin would try to slip the halter over him, and yet again the pony’s eyes would fire, his ears would flatten, and he would flare up in a wild dance. Finally, Austin got a farmhand to hold him down while he forced the halter on. This humiliation, the pony never forgot, for he was a proud pony with a will of his own.

Thus, Napoleon was no friend to Austin. Each time Austin was able to get the halter on him, the pony buried his feet against the ground and pulled back against the strain of the rope. Now Austin was not a patient man, and his educational methods were not usually very flexible. Every form of resistance was a devilish showing of some sin that had to be put down forcibly. And though the farm animals were not born into original sin as were children, he curiously treated the two alike in matters of training.

Napoleon decided to be clever. As usual, he was tense when Austin tried to pull him out of the barn and into the paddock. Every step of the way, Austin had practically to drag him. Austin grunted.

“I’ll show you who’s boss!” He did not explain to the pony what he was trying to do; the pony was only made to do it and the pony knew it.

In mid struggle, little Napoleon got an idea: he would pull back as hard as he could against the tension of the rope and then let go, like a spring, when Austin least expected it. And so he did. His master lost his balance and fell to the ground as the pony thrust past him, raced out of the barn and into the pasture where he stood looking back with quivering ears and dancing hooves, his head nodding wildly as if mocking and jeering.

Austin emerged with airborne fists. At first, Napoleon put on a show of mock obedience until he thought that Austin was calm and confident. He played him, let him get close, and then backed away in a performance of timidity, repeating himself until, once more, he let him get even closer. And then, with a playful snort, he dashed off in a gallop, flying around poor Austin in several dizzying circles until he leaped forward and landed stiffly on his legs. Austin reached out. “Now! Are you gonna do what you’re told? Or am I gonna have ta horsewhip ya?” Just as his hand came forward to retrieve the rope, the pony would snort and dash away again, his tail high in the air.

In time, Austin was able to get the halter on the pony and to lead him around the paddock with a long rope. He had to whip the pony once or twice to get him to do it. After that, the pony always agreed to be led, but he resented his education. Once, Napoleon bit Austin as he was getting his halter ready, and, at another time, he sidled up to him in a gesture of friendship, and then stepped squarely on his foot. Austin cringed in pain, raised his fist and hit Napoleon with a hard blow. “Damn you, ya little devil!”Napoleon laughed in ecstasy, for, indeed, Napoleon was becoming a bad pony.

Napoleon was growing fast. He had already lost the lankiness in his legs, his mane was thick and flowing, and he was filling out like a regular pony. Whenever Austin saddled him, Napoleon reared and kicked and threw the saddle off. And when that game grew tiring, Napoleon figured a new way to frustrate him. He would expand his belly as the saddle was being tightened, and then let out the air when the straps were buckled. This way, Austin constantly had to reposition and retighten the saddle, and it was much easier to throw the rider. During what seemed successful lessons, Napoleon deliberately grazed a tree or a fence post so that his master would hurt his leg. Napoleon’s moves were audacious and risky, for Austin had never been a patient man, not even with his own children, and so it was only a matter of time before a man like Austin would fire like a civil war musket.

There was a problem with the bridle from the first. It usually took about four men to hold him down before someone could force the bit into his mouth. In the last of these epic struggles, Napoleon flung his head around savagely while the men tried to place the bridle, and clamped down relentlessly on the fingers working the bit. Out came a terrible wince of pain.

“You! I’ll kick the devil out o’ you!” The impact of the heavy boot was swift upon Napoleon’s flank. I’ll make you mind!” Napoleon reared up in a piercing wail of surprise and fear, his eyes glowing with rage and alarm. A smell of male gathered. Then there arose a cacophony of shouts, a struggle, and a wave that crashed them all to the floor with the man pinned underneath. They held him down. The boots were still striking the air wildly.

“Stop now! That’s enough!”The dust began to settle.

“Are you going to stop now? Or do we have to keep you here?” The boots finally grew still as the men examined the crushed fingers, and the room was quiet again. But from an ominously dark corner of the stall, Napoleon stared at the man intently with gleaming, sinister and unforgiving eyes, and, with a mouth full of sacrificial blood, vowed a final act of resistance.

For many days, Napoleon was permitted to graze in the pasture all day. Austin didn’t want much to do with him for a while, and he had hoped that by giving Napoleon a bit of freedom, he would forget the trauma of his last session. The children felt sorry for his bruises, and mollified him with kisses and with an on-going supply of carrots, beets, and homemade maple sugar candies. Napoleon enjoyed being spoiled and began to believe that Austin had given up his education so that he could simply be the children’s pet, or a companion to the horses. But Austin was not that kind of master. He would not support any animal, woman or child that wasn’t useful for the farm or that didn’t demonstrate a strong work ethic. So, just as Napoleon was beginning to grow hopeful, Austin once again produced the familiar harness and led him out into the paddock.

For many days, Austin walked far behind Napoleon with two long ropes attached to each side of the harness. Napoleon could not understand why he attempted to steer him from such a distance, but as long as Austin stayed clear, Napoleon had no conceivable opportunity to fuss. Eventually, Austin felt confident enough to take him out of the paddock and around the farm and even onto the road. Then, one day, Austin did something new and surprising; he attached the harness to a long bar or a shaft. He let one of the children carry the other side next to Napoleon so he could get used to the feel of it. Napoleon didn’t put up a resistance, but he was curious and growing a bit nervous. In time, Austin added a second shaft. Still, Napoleon was hopeful, thinking he wouldn’t mind doing this kind of work, whatever it was and however uninteresting. Austin too was becoming an optimistic trainer and thought once or twice that maybe he had exorcised the devil out of him.

And then one day, he led Napoleon out to the paddock, and sitting in the dust was a cart and two farmhands. Napoleon was startled, and suddenly remembered the smells, the shouts, the pain and the confusion that comes with too many men. Austin fastened the shaft to Napoleon’s harness and the men stood on either side of him. As always, Austin walked behind. Napoleon felt disturbed over this new development, however slight, for he still felt a mild ache from the bruises that called to mind his youth’s most painful episode. After an hour, when he was fairly sure the men would not attack him, he began to relax. They took him briefly to walk out into the field and then returned him to the barn, where two of the children curried him, exposing the beautiful shine of his red and white spotted coat, and gently scraped the mud from the creases in his hooves. He seemed to the girls almost as new and innocent as the first day, when all of the children discovered him. And then, Hazel reached into her pocket and pulled out a big beautiful green apple. She showed it to Napoleon. “All yours. For being a good boy today.” She held it up to his nose and with the other hand, she stroked his head softly. His ears came forward, and his eyes were alert and smiling. He sniffed its sweetness and the fresh leaves that were still upon it, and then cautiously stretched his lips gently around its circumference.

The leaves were beginning to change when Austin came into the barn one day and told Napoleon that he would give him a new task. But when he came out into the field, only the old cart was sitting there. Austin swelled with pride at having brought Napoleon this far in his education. And now this was the big test. Napoleon was confused. He didn’t want to be alone with his master. He still did not trust him entirely, for his early experiences had been too enduring. Napoleon had been hitched to the cart before, but never without one of the children to walk beside him. He had been two-years-old for less than six months when Austin hitched him to the cart, and then sat behind.

“Now just do what you always do. Git up!” But Napoleon would not budge. An old feeling of fear was eating at him. He didn’t know why. For a moment, one of the children came out to walk along side him, and he began to feel better. Then, he was compelled to go a little faster, and he could feel a pleasant breeze cascade over his long flowing mane. There was a spice in his breathing, a sort of crispiness in the air now; he didn’t even notice that he was alone until he heard his master’s voice. “That’s it, now keep it up!”He flagged for a moment. “Hum up, boy!” And he felt a quick sting on his back. He jerked a little and the old feeling of fear flashed momentarily; he remembered, and then suddenly he didn’t know where he was, and then, an odor, a scent of violence, and again his master’s voice all mixed up. And he ran, ran from the acts, the deeds, the voices, all which kept pace with him, stride upon stride, thud upon thud, breath upon breath. Austin shouted and pulled back on the reigns, but Napoleon was too far gone. Everything seemed to melt together into a mythical beast, bumping, jumping, and trailing madly behind him. All Napoleon wanted now was to flee into the jungle. He turned into the brush. The cart bounced uncontrollably over sticks and rocks; twigs and branches tore across Austin’s face, his eyes and ears. The cart hit a large stump and rose up for a moment on its side like a ship upon a swelling wave. Austin lost his balance and fell to the ground; the cart lurched sideways on top of him. He laid there panting, blurry-eyed, bleeding and grabbing for his leg, now pinned under the cart, swearing, spitting, and pronouncing curses upon Napoleon, who was now standing quietly in a confused daze, definitively disowned and just hours from exile.

 

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