It was an uncertain time. The long-anticipated war between the States had come at last. Secession began early in 1860 and soon involved many of the southern states. Too much was at stake to ignore. Rumblings of discontent had been building over the years, and growing anti-slavery sentiment made some people nervous, while others wanted resolution.
Jeffrey Belding was still intoxicated after celebrating the victory of the South at Manassas more than a week earlier, but his good mood soon soured. Nothing had gone as he had intended that day. His new horse, a young mare, had been much more of a handful than he had anticipated. Unexpectedly, and to his surprise, she had thrown him repeatedly while others had watched from the shelter of the cabins, or out of sight behind the windows of the house, taking care not to be seen, and feeling satisfaction in what they saw. He was being beaten by a horse, and it was well deserved, though no one would ever dare allude to it or express any pleasure at seeing him bested. There would be a price to pay for what was happening, and the horse would be the one to pay it. But so would anyone else who was unwise enough to get in his way after that.
His daughter, Elizabeth, had gone with him to see the horse and to judge it for herself, but he had not asked her opinion. He did not care what she thought. She was there only to ride the horse so that he would see it with a strange rider on its back. She had known better than to voice what she thought and to bring down his wrath upon her. He would never have taken her advice anyway. She had appeared to have agreed with everything he had said while saying nothing. It was safer that way.
He was as violent with his own family as he was with his slaves if they were seen not to support him in everything he did, and usually with as little reason. He was justly feared, but doubly so because of his ignorance as well as his unpredictable temper. Like most ignorant men, he resented that he was disliked, without understanding why, tending to blame it, as he did most of the unpleasant things in his life, upon others. He had no use for the opinion of any woman. He still saw Elizabeth as an awkward, contrary girl with a lot to learn, rather than as the woman she had become. He preferred to keep her by him, where he could keep her away from the slaves and to stop her creating more trouble, as he saw it, for him to deal with.
The horse had worked well under saddle before he bought her, but with a kinder rider, and a gentler bit. But not after he had got her home. He had forgotten the cautions that the seller—Stephenson—had stressed, concerning the manner of dealing with this particular horse and her high-spirited nature, and he could not understand it. He had not liked being told anything about gaining the confidence of the horse gradually and letting her settle in. He had no patience for negotiation or to learn anything.
He knew all he needed to know about horses, and gaining their trust and confidence was not something one negotiated. It was the same with slaves. Gaining mastery and control was what it was all about. He believed that one dominated whatever one wished to control. Any other way was to risk losing that control. That is what had been drummed into him by his father and grandfather, and he had seen how they had succeeded with whatever they touched. Both of them had intended to break a horse’s spirit rather than to understand and work with it. He had seen the mare’s quality even as she had been shown, but had not made the effort to understand the horse and to gain its trust and affection, as most careful and considerate riders would have done.
Stephenson had been reluctant to sell her to him, knowing something of his ways, but he had to reduce his stock now or see most of it confiscated by the army. He had few slaves, so he was also facing conscription. He had stressed that if the mare did not work out, to bring her back immediately, and Belding would be given his money back. He had been looking at Belding’s daughter as he had spoken those words, knowing that they would likely just bounce off her father. He had learned more to her credit in the last hour than he had ever known of her father in the forty years that he had known him. He liked what he saw of her, but what influence she could have on her father was not something he could place much reliance upon.
She had ridden the horse as her father had watched. Stephenson had liked the way she handled her. She was gentle and patient with it. He was not to know that it would be the only time she would be allowed to ride the mare. Her father had wanted to see her ridden by someone he knew and trusted. His daughter had brought out the best in the mare, unfortunately for the horse.
When they got her home, he had gone into the house and changed, intending to ride the horse in the privacy of his own paddock with few to observe him at that time of day.
Predictably, he ignored all that Stephenson had told him. He replaced the bit that Stephenson had given him with the horse, with one of his own choosing. It would take the horse no more than ten minutes to discover the hand of a master and to learn to obey his immediate dictates and to re-learn those gentle responses that Stephenson had carefully nurtured in the horse over weeks and months.
Far from being a gentle voyage of discovery as they learned of each other and catered to a few changes, it had turned into a battle of wills. It had been a battle that had been watched with apprehension and pity for the horse as his anger grew over the next few minutes. The horse was clearly confused about what he wanted.
He used his heels with ever more force on the horse’s side, slamming them into her if she seemed slow to respond. Though he had been warned about not using a crop on the mare, he ignored Stephenson’s advice and brought his crop to bear on the balky animal, not realizing or, perhaps more accurately, not caring that horses respond even more poorly to harsh punishment than people do, especially with a cruel bit in its mouth, and when confused about what the rider wanted.
Others had watched the unfolding battle from a safe distance without being observed themselves. They felt sorry for the horse but knew better than to think they could change anything. They had felt a growing sympathy with the horse each time the man had been thrown—as he was, repeatedly—hoping to see the horse kick him and possibly even kill him. If it didn’t, it would pay an even greater price later on. Of course one should not hope or wish for the death of another, but Belding was a particularly vicious and cruel master with everything and everyone he touched, including his own family, and it would be what he richly deserved.
He had rarely been thrown from any horse, but he knew enough to pick himself up and begin again, except the horse had other ideas about this bruising rider who had caused her intense pain for the first time in her life. She skittered away from him and laid her ears back along her head, lunging at him with her teeth and striking out with her front hooves before she turned her hindquarters to him. He backed away as the horse followed, until he wisely retreated faster and farther.
He had never had a horse take such exception to him, and he did not like it. He knew he would eventually win in what he wanted, even if he had to completely break the spirit of the horse and effectively destroy her, but the horse had become a devil and would not let him near her. He was conscious that others watched and had delighted to see him beaten.
Rather than suffer any further loss of face in front of those that he knew were watching, albeit from a distance and unseen, he had walked quickly away from the horse, climbed the fence, and returned to the house with a grim look on his face and murder in his heart.
Another observer had seen what he had done and knew what he would do. As he disappeared into the house, his daughter came out from the barn where she had watched everything with a sinking heart. She spoke gently to the horse standing there trembling, bewildered by this new circumstance, and wet with the effort of trying to understand what the man had wanted, as she had steadily fought him to get rid of the pain in her mouth and to her body.
The animal recognized that voice from earlier and knew she was someone to trust, though she was wary, remembering the pain that she had just gone through, with the aches to her body from his boots and the feel of the crop, repeatedly applied with force, on her rump. The gentle voice overcame her fear and encouraged her to approach. This was not an enemy.
Others appeared from where they had watched, intent on protecting and helping the young woman, just turned eighteen but mature in so many ways far beyond her age, if she needed their help, but knew better than to approach without her asking them.
Elizabeth knew what she was doing, and intended to do it quickly before her father appeared once more. When he came back, it might be with a whip rather than a crop, and maybe even with a gun if the mood took him. At those times he could be like a petulant child, prepared to destroy a valued item that had been denied him, once a tantrum took hold of him.
She spoke continuously, to calm the animal, and gently reached out to touch the horse’s neck, and then moved closer to breathe into her nostrils. She unfastened the bridle, taking care to ease the bit out of her mouth rather than have it drop, and chip a tooth. She replaced it with a rope, loosely placed about its neck and then, as the horse stood still, trusting her where it could not trust a man like her father, she undid the saddle and pulled it slowly to the ground. She left it where it fell for others to deal with as she led the horse off through the barn. It followed her easily, showing none of the resistance that it had with her father.
She paused, once inside, and replaced the rope with a halter, picked up a jar of salve and a brush, and walked on through the barn to the open field beyond. She did not stop there but walked quickly over to a gate into an even more distant enclosure. Once there and out of sight of the barn, she tied the horse to the fence post and began to gently apply the salve to the raised welts on the horse’s rump and then moved her hands over the horse, searching for other tender areas as she continuously spoke kindly to the horse. She kept her eyes open for her father.
After she had finished, giving the horse some obvious relief, though for how long, she did not know, she moved back to the horse’s head and breathed gently into her nostrils once more as though to let her know that the hell had now gone. If she had her way, the horse would never feel her father’s mood again. She would need to let her dry out before she brushed her, but would do that this evening, once her father had gone.
“He shall not harm you again, I can promise you that, though I am not sure how I can be sure of anything just yet. I may have to take you back to Mr. Stephenson at first light tomorrow without saying anything to my father. Stephenson will understand, and if not, I shall tell him.” She took the halter from the horse, leaving nothing about her head that anyone could use to hold her. She knew she would have no difficulty catching the horse herself with one of the early apples but would not make it easy for others, and especially not for her father.
She put the rails up and returned through the barn, finding that others had picked up both the saddle and the bridle already and were busy doing other things to be out of the way of her father and his questions. They would say nothing. She had returned just as her father entered the barn to find out where the horse was.
“Where is she?” Her father was flushed. He saw the saddle and the bridle hanging up. She knew that he had probably drunk off a large whiskey as soon as he entered the house, and then had picked up his whip from where it was hung, coiled, on the wall. He intended to teach that horse a lesson she would never forget. At least he had left his gun behind for once.
She could see the way his mind was working, and decided that she should stable the horse in one of the outer buildings until her father’s mood had changed, or until she could persuade him to give or sell the horse to her. He would probably choose to shoot it rather than do either of those.
It could stay hidden away, and she would brave his wrath over that. She responded calmly and without the extreme anger, disgust, and hatred that she felt, even for her own father.
“She is where you will not harm her.” She was setting herself up against him again. His eyes flashed in anger to hear that, and he bit back the words he would have said. He knew enough not to respond as he wanted to and take the coiled whip to her. Others were too close and would be intent on protecting her, and he knew it. Elizabeth saw him walk over to look in the stall the horse had occupied, and then walk to look into the first field. He saw nothing. He knew better than to ask any of those who worked in the barn. They would shrug their shoulders while saying nothing, as they usually did when he was in one of his moods, even if he were to strike at them or kick them as he cursed at their stupidity. She had probably sent it farther out, knowing what his response to the horse would be. No matter. What he intended could wait until tomorrow. He knew that his mood at this moment was dangerous for everyone close to him, and for himself.
He decided that he would strive to control his anger and deal with the horse when no one would see him. That horse needed to be taught who was master here. In the barn with her tied up, it would be a different kind of fight. He walked back to the house in a foul mood that would only get worse.