Josh’s father, David Miller, owned one of the largest horse farms in Lexington. Dedicated to breeding, raising, and training powerful horses, this farm was part of a fast-shrinking cooperative of horse farms in the suburbs. The second largest farm belonged to Alfred Jones, who also owned a small cottage and five hunting guns. He was David’s best friend. Josh’s mother, Molly, wrote stories for children, and so stayed indoors most of the time. Her high cheek bones gave her face an oval shape that made her look so attractive. As Josh was her only child, she really cared for him, always helping him with his homework—especially English homework— and encouraging him to read English classics. But it was David who had a special place in Josh’s heart. Josh was devoted to his father for two reasons: Firstly, David bore a striking resemblance to Alec Baldwin, the dark-haired New York-born actor; and secondly, it was he who had taught him classical riding.
Before he put Josh on a horse for the first time, he gave him some advice.
“If there is no understanding between you and your horse, you can never be a good horseman. It’s not just knowing how to ride… Horsemanship is what matters. To be a good horseman, you need to know your horse well and your horse should know you equally well.”
If there was one man in the whole world whom Josh looked up to, it was his father. He just couldn’t think of a world without him. And a world without big Ben was unimaginable.
Ben was Josh’s favorite horse—a majestic, powerful stallion with a thick, dark brown coat that shimmered in the sunlight. How Josh loved to nuzzle up against Ben’s smooth, dark mane while riding and pat him on his rippling haunches before going to school. Jack, the gangly stable boy, found the strong bond of friendship between Josh and the animal quite amazing. There was something more than friendship that existed between them: Josh saw the shadow of his father in Ben—those doleful eyes of the animal had something of the warmth and kindness of his father.
The fact that Josh and Ben had the same birthday strengthened the bond even further. Ever since Josh’s birth, the Millers had been giving combined birthday parties at Rose Cottage, a grand little house at the edge of the farm. David’s father bought it much before David was born. After Josh’s seventh birthday, that is to say after he had read The Fellowship of the Ring, the Millers started letting off a few fireworks as part of his birthday celebration.
“Bilbo Baggins is celebrating his eleventy-first birthday,” Josh would say with a twinkle in his eyes. And all the kids attending the party would scream excitedly and clap loudly.
Ben would get molasses and fresh apples—the delicacies he really relished eating. Josh would sit on his back and pose for photographs while David and Fred would sit in easy chairs in the verandah drinking their beer from big mugs and munching their bacon and steak. The party would end with the sound of gunshots out in the field. Obviously, Fred was responsible for firing his gun into the air.
Josh didn’t like Fred at all. He hated him especially for the way he burped after having beer and steak. His breath was so revolting, it smelt of rotten eggs. Letting Fred kiss him on his cheeks on his birthday and at Christmas was such an ordeal for Josh. And his red hair and his coarse mutton chop whiskers were so disgusting. He hated answering the stupid questions he asked about his school friends and teachers. And he could never like a person who was not keen on riding. How can anybody stay away from horses, Josh used to wonder. Only the wicked dislike animals.
Fred lost his wife soon after his marriage. Nobody knew how she died. Molly believed she died during childbirth. But Josh didn’t really trust Molly's judgment about Fred's character, for he thought she had a soft heart. Fred often dropped by and talked to the Millers. With Molly, he discussed her latest short story or the book she was writing. He wanted her to write a book based on his hunting experiences in Tasmania. He had spent a couple of his teenage years at his uncle’s ranch close to the sea.
His conversation with David centered mainly on food and drink. Fred was a gourmet, and so was David. But whenever it came to talking about horse riding, Fred would subtly change the subject. “How can a man with such a huge farm know so little about horses?” Josh wondered. Fred’s housekeeper and his efficient stable boy took care of the animals on his farm. But Fred was not an idle rancher. He did the accounts and was known far and wide for his uncanny knack for clinching deals.
Josh loved spending his time at Ben’s oak stable. Ben’s stable stood adjacent to the main garden. The other stables were almost a mile away from Rose Cottage. Jack’s log cabin was also close by. Josh would sit on the long wooden bench by the stable and strum his guitar or read a book.
He also loved spending some of his time with Nancy, his housekeeper. She was a plump, middle-aged woman with ruddy cheeks and sparkling eyes. Everybody in the house liked her, including Jack, who didn’t have many friends. When Josh was a little boy she would put him on her lap and tell him interesting Bible stories or read a few verses to him every day. She was a religious woman and went to church regularly. Only a few people from the whole parish were as God-fearing as she was. Although she was a good-natured gossipmonger, she knew little about Fred and his background. All she knew about him was that his father was a good man, a true Christian.
“He never failed to stand up for the wretched and the weak. And he donated a large sum of money to an orphanage in Kentucky,” said Nancy.
“Fred is not even half as good as he was, isn’t it?” asked Josh curiously.
“Never judge the children of God. It’s a bad thing to do,” responded Nancy in mock anger.
“Do you know he killed his wife because he wanted to take all her money? He is a wicked man.”
“Sh! Sh! Sh! Sh! The Bible says: Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Do you read the Bible regularly?”
“Tell me, how many times have you read the Bible—the whole of it?” asked Josh, ignoring the question.
“I don’t remember, son, but I know I have read it many times—from cover to cover. The Bible is my best friend.”
Time passed. One cold, winter morning, Josh learned that his father was no more. David had died in his sleep the night before. The doctor said he died after suffering a major heart attack. When Josh entered his father’s room, he saw his mother and Nancy weeping into their handkerchiefs. Jack stood silently, looking intently at the dead man’s face. The bad news had traveled fast: A small crowd had gathered around David’s bed. They all looked at the dead body in disbelief. Nobody knew his end was so near.
“Why, David? Why now?” Fred muttered under his breath.
Josh didn’t cry—even when he kissed the cold forehead of his father for the last time, a few moments before they lifted up his coffin.
Later, he went to the stable. Jack had just replenished Ben’s food and water supplies. He didn’t smile at him like he always did whenever he saw him. He was feeling sad and it showed on his face.
“What a fine gentleman he was! Always gave me a few extra dollars for my tobacco. All good men die soon,” he sighed.
It was then that Josh felt a lump in his throat. He felt like jumping up on Ben and riding off somewhere far away
Fred continued to be a frequent visitor to Rose Cottage. His calls gradually become more frequent. Soon he was seeing Molly every day. Josh tried hard not to notice his presence. But unwittingly Fred kept intruding upon him. As always he would walk into Josh’s room and try to initiate a conversation with him. To avoid seeing him, Josh started making himself scarce. He spent more and more of his time at the stable. And then the worst news came: Molly and Fred were getting married just before Christmas, which was only a month away. Josh was speechless for a moment. He just couldn’t understand why his mother chose Fred—that wild, greedy brute! He can never take his father’s place. “How I wish father were here,” he mumbled to himself.
The marriage took place in the little neighborhood church. It was yet another sad day for Josh. He trudged back to the stable—his virtual home now.
Josh’s early morning ride had become something of a ritual. It comforted him to go riding across the farm, breathe in the invigorating air, and watch the trees and the birds in them. He would normally gallop Ben back to the stable, where Jack would be waiting for them.
It was a holiday weekend, and Molly thought a day out would surely bring Josh a little bit closer to Fred.
So when Josh joined them for breakfast she turned to him and said, “Josh, what about a visit to the zoo? It’s been a long time we’ve been there. Fred is also keen on visiting the zoo.”
Josh kept quiet.
“Josh, you have not answered the question,” said Molly, suppressing her anger.
“I’m afraid I am not interested in zoos. And I am trying to catch up on my reading,” said Josh curtly.
“Josh, how can you be so inconsiderate?” screamed Molly.
“Aw, come on Molly,” interrupted Fred.
“The boy doesn’t want to go. Stop badgering him, will ya. We’ll go there some other day.”
“You are impossible, Josh,” she said, her face flushed with anger.
Josh got up and stormed off.
A misty morning welcomed Josh to the stable. Jack’s cabin was bolted and the stable door stood ajar. Someone had visited the stable before his arrival. There was no sign of Jack anywhere.
“Jack! Jack! Where are you?” cried Josh. But there was no answer.
“Jack, are you there,” cried Josh as he entered the stable. He was wearing the riding shoes Molly had given him for Christmas. There was no one inside and Ben had not been saddled. The horse had a strange look in his sleepy eyes, as if he were suffering from a dizzy spell or something. He patted him on his haunch, but all Ben did was shake his head violently.
“Hey big boy! What the matter with you? Time to go for a ride,” said Josh as he saddled the horse.
Ben kept shaking his head as if he had been attacked by a swarm of deadly bees. Once or twice he neighed, loudly. His neighs were loud and shrill.
“Calm down, big boy!” Josh said soothingly.
Saddling him was a hard nut to crack as he kept moving around. Josh somehow climbed the horse and waited for him to move but he stood still. Josh had never felt the need to give verbal commands to Ben, so deep had been the understanding between them.
“Gee up!” shouted Josh resignedly. But even that was no good, Ben stood still.
“Gee up!” he shouted again. And then all of a sudden, in a frenzy of fear and loathing, the horse dashed out of the stable, leapt the five-foot fence, and bolted across the fields. He frothed at the mouth like a wild, raging bloodhound.
Josh pulled back the reins frantically, but Ben kept running like a monster. There was nothing to stop those thunderous hooves from moving on. A look of panic crossed Josh’s face. Try as he may, he just couldn’t control the animal.
They were going down a slope. Josh gave the reins yet another yank.
“Oh, stop, for heaven's sake!” he cried in dismay.
And then the worst happened. Ben’s forelegs started to buckle, and Josh knew they were falling. Josh slid down the grassy slope till his head hit a small hump with a dull thud. A thick, black cloud descended over him, and for quite some time he lay unconscious on that green, velvety bed.
When he came round he found himself lying in his bed at home. He felt a dull, throbbing pain on the left side of his forehead. His head was all bandaged up. Molly, who had been reclining on the settee, had dropped off. Josh looked at her as he ran his fingers over the bump on his forehead. He groaned softly. Molly opened her eyes with a start and looked at him.
“It’s alright, Josh. You are out of danger,” she said as placed herself on Josh’s bed, close to him. She kissed him on his cheek and caressed his shoulder lovingly.
“The doctor will see you again in the evening. It’s just a small bump, honey. It’ll go away in a day or two.”
Josh stared at her.
“How’s Ben?” he asked.
“Oh Fred took him to the animal hospital. He is under the care of Dr. Parks, the best vet in town. Looks like the poor creature hurt himself badly. He broke both his forelegs. But don’t you worry. He too would be okay soon. They may keep him in the hospital for a week or so… I am not sure, but they’ll send him back only after full recovery. That’s what Fred told me over the phone a little while ago. He looked so miserable when they were taking Ben to the hospital. ”
“Mom, he will kill us all. Send him away,” Josh hissed.
“Why, Josh? What will he get? Now look here, Josh. I know this is not the right time to discuss this matter… You don't know him so stop judging him so harshly. He’s a nice man and he loves you dearly, Josh. Ever since he moved to our house, he’s been trying so hard to make some room for himself in your heart. But you would not let him. So many times I told him not to try so hard, but he would just not listen. And he didn’t marry me because he wanted to take all my possessions. He is already a wealthy man. He has a farm in Tasmania bigger than the one he has here… Do you know I had made up my mind to sell off of our property and move to his place with you? Fred advised me not to do a silly thing like that, for he believed another change would only make matters worse. I wanted to send you to a boarding school in the city. Once again, it was he who stopped me from doing it. He said he didn’t want to miss you…. He would say to me, ‘Don’t be so cruel Molly. He is just 10. He needs some time to adjust to the new circumstances. He was really attached to his father. Why don’t you understand?’ I don’t know why you hate him so much. Josh, he is not a wicked man."
“But he did something to Ben,” whispered Josh.
“Yes, you are right. He did do something to him. He gave him a shot of rum early this morning.”
“I knew it. He wants Ben to get out of his way,” protested Josh.
“No, you are absolutely wrong. He could have poisoned him to death. But that would have broken your heart. He didn’t want the animal to die. Yes, what he did was stupid. But it was you who made him do it. Josh, if you have goodness inside you, you will always draw goodness out of your environment. A stupid person always attracts stupidity. A good person attracts goodness. Fred thought that if somehow Ben started behaving badly toward you, you would lose interest in him and stop spending your time at the stable. He considered this scheme of his as the best way of turning you into his friend—his best friend. So he decided to give him a shot every day for a week or so. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. He didn’t anticipate that the shot would provoke such a violent reaction from the animal. Fred has been feeling so guilty about messing up everything.”
“Well,” muttered Josh.
“Appearances are deceptive. You are not a good judge of character, Josh. But that’s okay. I don’t expect you to behave like an adult. Did I tell you that Fred has willed everything he possesses to you? And did I tell you that Fred can never have children of his own? You are too young to understand these matters…Fred had a serious car accident soon after his first wife’s death. The doctors told him he could never become a father... You have been mistaken all along. In fact, he should be afraid of getting killed…”
Molly paused for a moment and then said smilingly, “So why did he marry me? Well he thinks I’m the most intelligent woman he has ever met. He has read all the stories I’ve written and he feels one needs a lot of intelligence to write a book.”
Josh remained silent.
“I think the phone is ringing.” she said, rising to her feet.
“Mom,” said Josh as Molly was stepping out of the room.
She stopped and turned around.
“When Fred is back, tell him I’m waiting to talk to him. I have so many questions to ask,” said Josh, looking at her thoughtfully.
“Sure,” said Molly with a hint of laughter in her eyes.
Previously published on Boloji.com on December 14, 2008
Rajesh Williams is a professional editor and a writer with a background in instructional design, technical writing, technical editing, teaching, white paper writing, and development of marketing brochures, flyers, and data sheets.
Image under license with Gettyimages.com