El Cheapo - Part I
The horse sagged where he stood, head drooping low with the weight of the sorrow that sucked like the mud at his legs, at his spirit. His eyes held the only brightness in him, and even that was only a spark, only a glimmer between the dull shadows of despair, barely stirring when I reached out to him. My fingers brushed a long mane stiff with tangles and mud.
"You don't look so good, do you?" I whispered. "I might just end up with you after all."
It was mostly by chance that I'd stumbled across the horse hidden behind a jumble of shaggy cattle and hulking machinery, right at the back of the filthy pens surrounding the ring where the auction was being held. I'd brought along my faded blue envelope, the words "Horse Fund" in first-grader scrawl across it, mostly out of habit.
You never knew what you would find at dispersal sales where farmers sold off all their stock and often their land as well; farms seemed to hold an endless variety of animals, machinery and odd little bits and pieces that no one noticed until it was time to stick a price tag on them and march them out the door. This horse had probably run with the cattle for most of his life, surviving on grass and stubble, a son's forgotten hobby.
"Andre!" My dad's voice rang past the dusty combine harvester that hid the horse from other buyers' view. It was a loud voice, but not harsh; an outdoors voice.
"Coming, Papa," I said. "Wish me luck, horse." I slipped a hand into the pocket of my jeans, feeling the crumpled paper. That horse looked poorly enough to be sold for the meager R1000 that made up my Horse Fund.
Sorry, guys, my instructor's just arrived for a lesson so that's it for now :-) Comment if you want more!
El Cheapo - Part 2
The horse raised his sad head to watch me as I glanced back a last time before jogging around the dusty harvester to join my father. He stood chatting with a group of men that could have been his doubles; khaki shirts and shorts, long woollen socks pulled up to the knees, weather-beaten faces that hid a grim kindness behind cracked and purpled skin.
"Ja no, the boy's getting big, hey?" said Oom Japie, one of the oldest of the group.
"He shot up 'bout a foot over the summer," said Papa. "Suzette's threatening to put a big rock on his head, slow him down a bit."
I'd heard that one a million times and replied as I always did, with a vague smile. The crowd dispersed and headed for the auction ring, a makeshift arrangement of rusted gates with the auctioneer sitting on an old plastic chair and painstakingly reading out of a well-thumbed notebook.
"Morning everyone," he mumbled vaguely as we took our places standing around the gates and peering down the chute that led to the pens where the lots were being held. Loud Zulu voices could be heard urging cattle into the chute.
The farmer who was selling out, a portly man with a cracked pipe named Oom Willem van der Wyk, gave us all a quiet smile, tinged with regret. It's always hard to let go of something like this; I could never imagine my own father selling out our herd of beef cattle.
Lot One enterested the ring; a group of cows with young calves, the little red creatures huddling close to their shaggy mothers. Papa grunted and shook his head. He wanted to buy pregnant heifers, not old cows. I prayed silently that the horse would come in before the heifers did.
A batch of fat weaners trotted nervously around the ring and were sold for R5000 apiece. Then a few old cows, bellies hanging low with the weight of their unborn babies.
Next was a powerful bull, shaking his ears menacingly at the overall-clad man that nervously shepherded him into the ring, his big black eyes glimmering with malice. It looked like they were selling all the cattle first. I felt in my pocket for the Horse Fund. The heifers couldn't be far off.
"Lot twelve," said the auctioneer in his reedy voice. "Fifteen Beefmaster and Beefmaster crossbred heifers, eighteen months old, two months pregnant to a Bonsmara bull. Bidding starts at two thousand rand each."
Papa put his hand up. My heart stood still. I peered into the pens. That would be the last of the cattle - I had little chance of getting the horse now.
"Sold," croaked the auctioneer, "for seventy-five hundred each to the gentleman with the green cap."
"Mmm," said Papa. "Not too bad. They're in good condition. Ready to go, Andre?"
"Just a minute," I said, "I just - "
A grizzled man had come up to Oom Willem and asked him something. I just caught the word "horse" and held my breath. Oom Willem tapped the auctioneer on the shoulder and spoke in his ear, and the old man nodded, glancing at his notebook.
"Lot seventeen," he called, "one male horse." And that was all.
The horse entered the ring at a plodding walk, dragging his toes in the dirt. A short man led him with a length of rope twisted around his neck. He stopped in the middle of the ring and stood there, head hanging, refusing to move any further.
"Bidding starts at R500," said the auctioneer.
There was a perfect silence. I looked at the horse, his ribs standing out through his shaggy coat, and thought of the section on conformation in my old horse manual.
He had a ewe neck and a goose rump and cannon bones much too long, and a Roman nose and rat tail with hardly any hair at all, looking ridiculous next to his long dirty mane. There was silence all around me. The horse raised his head and gave me a long, slow look.
I raised my hand.
There was more silence.
"Going once," said the auctioneer after a minute that lasted for a century. "Going twice."
I almost wished someone would bid just to break the silence.
"Going three times and sold to the boy in grey," said the auctioneer.
I couldn't believe it. The horse was mine.
Read part I here: https://www.horsecrazygirls.com/el-cheapo-part-i.html
El Cheapo - Part 3
It was very quiet in the cattle truck on the way back to the farm. The horse – my horse – had been loaded into the back with fifteen head of heifers and though none of the heifers had horns, I couldn’t help but flinch at every crash, picturing the heifers’ fat bodies slamming his thin frame against the metal bars.
Papa drove with one hand on the wheel, the other elbow resting on the open window. His battered cap lay between us, stained with sweat, its John Deere logo fading. It was impossible to guess what he was thinking; the dark brown eyes stared sightlessly at the road.
I leaned against the window and tried to spot my horse in the rearview mirror, but behind the truck’s bars all I could see was fat, red flanks.
“Andre,” Papa began. Unconsciously, his left hand rubbed across the stubble on his chin. He stared out of the window, changed gears, began to speak again, shook his head, said nothing. I tried to shrug away the tense, tickling feeling between my shoulder blades.
“Andre…” Papa hesitated and shook his head again. Finally, as I came to the conclusion that I was going to hit the horn, HARD, just to break the silence, he said, “Well, I guess we made a deal.”
I nodded. We had plenty of space on our farm, but three years ago, when I begged my parents for a horse – as I had done since I could remember – they had made a compromise.
I could have a horse and they would pay to feed it, but I was going to have to buy the horse and its equipment myself, I was going to do all the work myself and if I lost interest, the horse would go. Twelve years old and dying for a horse, I agreed.
“Are you angry?” I asked quietly as Papa went back to staring at the road.
He rubbed his chin again. “More surprised than angry, to tell you the truth. That came right out of the blue.”
I glanced at him just as he glanced at me. Spontaneously, we both grinned, Papa showing a mouth full of very white, very skew teeth. He laughed, making his belly wobble.
“What’s so funny, Pa?” I asked.
“Ach, man, Andre,” he said, still laughing,
“What’re you gonna tell your mama?” And with that he turned the corner into town to buy a bag of feed for my horse.
It was almost lunchtime when we got home and backed the truck up to the kraal – corral – to unload the heifers and horse. I slid open the gates to the loading ramp and hurried down into the kraal itself. A metal ring held a big bale of hay, freshly cut and still green inside; the concrete troughs brimmed with clear water. The horse would be all right here for now.
My mama came out of the house, her wispy blond hair struggling out of its hasty bun, and kissed Papa hello. As I climbed out through the thick wire fences, the house door banged and my three little sisters ran out.
“Did you get us new cows, Andre?” yelled eleven-year-old Janet before she could even reach us.
“Heifers,” I corrected her.
“Well, did you or what?”
“Yeah, we did, we did. Papa, can we unload them now?” I asked.
“They’re so pretty!” eight-year-old Maria lisped through the gap left by her front teeth.
“Yeah, you open the gates, I’ll chase them out,” said Papa.
I clambered onto the ramp again and fumbled with the gates while Papa stood on the rails, patting the heifers’ backs and whistling. The first heifer lowered her shaggy head, sniffing suspiciously at the concrete, before stepping out and bounding down the ramp.
Once the first one had gone the others followed without any complaints until all fifteen had trotted down into the kraal.
“Go on, horse,” said Papa.
My horse plodded out, head hanging low. He barely glanced at the ramp before clamping his tail to his haunches and slithering down onto the dirt floor of the kraal. Once there, he stood still, watching the heifers shove their heads into the hay bale.
“Hey, horse,” I said, pushing my hand through the wire. He turned one ear and one eye towards me and gave me the long, slow look that squeezed my heart. There was silence from my family.
Small chubby arms wrapped around my leg and I looked down at my five-year-old sister, Hermien.
“He’s beautiful,” she whispered.
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El Cheapo - Part 4
My breath rose in ghostly steam, its silver-whiteness matching the frost that crunched under my feet. It was before five in the morning, but I could hear my horse moving in the small pen we’d made for him, and when I shone my torch on the metal piping that made up the fences of his pen, two green points of light looked back.
Quickly, I switched off the torch, not wanting to shine it in my horse’s eyes. There was a sliver of moon like a smile in the sky, stars scattered like flowers. By their light, I picked my way across the lawn to the little pen right near the garden, where the horse stood sleeping.
“Hello, horse,” I said, gently. He raised his head and gave me his most heart-stopping sad look. I climbed through the bars and reached out to his shoulder to touch him; he shifted his weight, swaying away from me, and raised his head a little, but didn’t move his feet. His coat was hard and scruffy.
Dandruff and dirt fell out as I rubbed him, caking under my fingernails. The big muscle jumped under my touch, but he still didn’t move. Tick bites and matted hair snagged at my nails and I stopped, wondering of my scratching was hurting the tick bites. He swung his head around, the quickest movement I’d seen him make, and I saw his eyes glint in the starlight.
Hay-scented breath blew in my face and whiskers tickled my skin, soft as a baby’s fingers. I froze. His touch lasted for less than a second, but when he turned his head away again, I felt something like warm honey on my heart.
Mama’s voice came suddenly, shocking me. “Looks like he likes you,” she said.
The horse had heard her coming; he didn’t move, even when I jumped. “Mama,” I said. “You’re up early.”
“Not earlier than you.” Her blonde hair was loose; she looked younger now in her white dressing gown.
“I just wanted to see if he was okay,” I said, shrugging.
“Ah, Andre.” Mama shook her head. “You are a different child.”
I shrugged again, awkward. I had heard those words from her many times before, and always wished they weren’t true. With the horse’s warm coat against my palm, it was hard to keep wishing.
“You named him yet?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “I guess I’ll call him Bobby or Mike or something... something plain.”
“But the horses in your magazines all have two or three names, like people.”
“Yeah, but he’s not like them. He’s kind of an el cheapo horse.”
Mama smiled, teeth white in the starlight. “So there’s your name.” She came over to us, the horse watching her warily out of one eye, relaxing when he felt her soft, loving touch.
“Your little cheap horse... El Cheapo.”
* * *
Read Part 1 here:
El Cheapo - Part 5
I got in trouble for drawing a horse in the corner of my algebra book. As soon as Juffrou Lena had finished yelling at me, I dashed outside of my classroom, tore the corner out of my book and stuffed it into my pocket, just in time: my friends had showed up.
Coen, Hendrik, Herman and Jannie were all big, solid boys, the “jocks” of our high school; all rugby players, they towered over the rest of the students and most of the teachers, all ready to grow up to six-footers – Herman was already six foot two. A gaggle of girls watched from an awed distance.
“Hey, Andre.” Coen brushed a coffee-brown fringe out of his eyes and hoisted his school bag higher up on a shoulder built out of bricks. “We’re playing rugby at Hendrik’s house this afternoon. Feel like coming?”
“Ach, I’m sorry,” I said, fighting the blush that threatened my face. “I can’t make it.”
“Why not?” demanded Herman.
“I, uh... I just can’t,” I said vaguely, glancing at my watch; ten to four. “Gotta run. See you later, guys.”
I made a dash for it before they could ask. The truth was that I wasn't handsome, fast, strong or big enough to really be a part of the popular group; I had never even been on a date (didn’t have the guts).
The only reason that they allowed me in was that I lived on a farm, unlike the rest of them, and a farm is an Afrikaner boy’s paradise. I was always much too close to being kicked out of their group, and if they ever found out that I was a ballet dancer, I’d be dead.
It’s easy to underestimate a dancer; we’re supposed to drift across the floor, light as butterflies. But have you ever tried to spin around three times on one leg without falling over or looking like an idiot? Plus, I’m a guy, which means I need to pick the girl up, and girls are heavier than they look. Thankfully, I hadn’t reached that part of my dance training yet.
I was thinking about my horse in Mamma’s car on the way to ballet class and completely forgot my ballet shoes, which you simply can’t do without, and ended up being late; music oozed from the studio as I scampered into a flood of girls in black.
I was the only boy in ballet class, but I was used to it, and Juffrou Melissa mollycoddled me a little bit because of it. I only got a frigid glare from the ballet mistress as two girls shuffled up obligingly and I took my place at the barre.
“You’re late,” hissed a short girl directly behind me. Renske was a friend of mine; she had her own horse, Spark, and had taught me how to ride
“I’ve got a horse,” I whispered back mid-rise.
She faltered, staggered back onto flat feet and hoisted herself onto her toes again. “What?”
“I’ve got a horse,” I told her. “Tell you later.” Juffrou Melissa had spotted us.
‘Later’ ended up being after class while we stood outside the studio waiting for our parents to pick us up. It was a nippy, wintry afternoon and we practiced our petite allegro – little jumps – to keep us warm.
“I can’t believe you’ve got a horse,” panted Renske. “What’s it like?”
“It’s a gelding,” I said. “Well, it’s male, anyway. His name’s El Cheapo. He’s kinda ugly, but I like him.”
“Cool! Hey, that was supposed to be a changement, not a petite jete.”
“Sorry.” I had been thinking about horses, not my feet. “He’s bay, but not as bright as Spark, and really skinny and dirty, but I guess with some food and TLC he’ll be okay.”
“What’s this?” demanded a cold voice beside my ear. I jumped and landed on Renske’s toe. Klara, our resident snob, had that sort of effect on people; her icy green eyes could drill through a wall. She ticked all the boxes: rich, beautiful, evil...
“I didn’t know you had a horse,” Klara prompted as I tried to remember how my tongue worked.
“I’ve just bought one,” I said.
“Oh, really? What breed?”
“Uh... I don’t know, really, he’s just a little brown horse.” Oh boy. Now I was in for it.
“Huh.” Klara sniffed. “Just try not to bring equine flu or West Nile virus or anything to class, I can’t have Dimension catch anything.” She flounced off, wavy black hair bouncing.
Renske stuck out her tongue at Klara’s back.
“She's a pain."
“Yeah,” I said. Klara had taken huge pleasure in boasting about Dimension, her gorgeous black KWPN stallion, at school. “She’s got a point, though. I mean, El Cheapo hasn’t had any shots...”
“Don’t let her get under your skin,” said Renske. “Come on, I’m freezing, let’s start again. You’ve got the wrong foot in front, Andre. Andre?”
But once again, my mind was on the scruffy bay gelding standing in the pen at home, patient, silent, all alone, giving the world his long, slow look of acceptance.
Juffrou is an Afrikaans word meaning “teacher”, commonly used in South Africa.
Read Part 1 here:
El Cheapo - Part 6
Mamma and I stopped in at the local farming co-op to buy some horse stuff, which was definitely not as fun as it should have been.
I had only five hundred rand* with which to buy all my horse equipment; half of that I splurged on a leather bridle and bit (there were cheaper ones, but they looked unbearably shoddy and uncomfortable) and I dithered for ages over the other half.
It wasn’t nearly enough for buying a saddle, in fact the purchase of a grooming kit and some saddle soap promptly dropped my budget to R150, but I agonized over what I really needed. Bathing El Cheapo would be a good idea, but I figured I could use dishwashing liquid for that – we always washed our show cows with dishwashing liquid.
A halter? No, I’d just lead him around in his bridle. A small, printed sign on the counter caught my eye: “Dennis Engelbrecht, Farrier” and I thought of El Cheapo’s long, cracked hooves. Hastily, I scribbled the number on my hand with one of my school pens.
“Is that all?” said Mamma, sounding a little shocked, as I found her at the gardening section, bearing my prizes.
“No, Mamma, I want to get a farrier out,” I said.
“What’s a farrier?”
“A guy who trims horses’ feet.”
She shook her head. “I’d have thought you’d, I don’t know, dip him for ticks or something, like we do with the cows…”
I hadn’t thought of that. “Couldn’t I use the normal pesticide we use for the cows?”
“I don’t see any harm in it. Come on.”
It was dark again by the time we finally got home. The headlights flashed briefly across El Cheapo’s bare little pen as we turned down the drive. My thin ballet socks were making me itch, but I ignored them; I wanted to see my horse again before supper.
“Mamma, can I have some carrots?” I asked, dumping my bag on the kitchen table.
“Ach, Andre, man, don’t spoil that horse,” said Pappa, coming in and removing his hat. Where the old leather had sat, the hair was slicked down with sweat, the skin bright pink in sharp contrast against the rest of his tanned and dusty face.
“Let him alone,” said Mamma lovingly. “Here you are.”
I took two fat carrots and a headlight and crossed the cold lawn on my ballet slippers, pausing to hang them on the fence in case I ruined them before climbing into El Cheapo’s pen on bare feet. He had all but finished the huge heap of hay I’d given him at breakfast. I gave him another before approaching him.
“Hello, El,” I said. The raggedy ears twitched in my direction and he gave me that long look again. I wiggled a carrot under his nose. “Are you hungry?”
At first I thought he would just go straight back to sleep again, but when he caught the carrot’s scent, his ears pricked. His black-rimmed nostrils flared to suck in the smell. His lips were half bald from tick bites, but they moved with a satin softness that made me ache to touch them. Instead I stood very still and he went on sniffing the tip of the carrot, little silky wrinkles appearing in his lips, until suddenly a smooth, pink tongue shot out and licked it.
It was so pink it startled me a little bit; somehow I had expected it to be bluish, more like a cow’s than a dog’s. He tentatively bit the end off the carrot and tasted it, then spat it out, nodding his head up and down in deep disgust. I couldn’t help but laugh, softly.
He froze and I tried to stop, afraid I’d startled him, but I am a teenager after all and I could only hold my breath for so long before I started to giggle again. The ears flicked forward, catching the sound, and for the first time those sad liquid eyes studied me with interest; a spark flared in their depths.
He liked the sound of my laughter.
Muscles rippled under El’s shaggy coat in the headlight’s beam. He moved a chipped hoof one step nearer and stretched out his neck, the balding muzzle almost bumping my face, whiskers tickling my skin.
Loudly, he snuffled in my ear. His breath smelt like sweet hay in summer and the way the sky would smell if it had a scent. Captivated, I breathed it in until I had no option but to exhale slowly.
As I breathed out, El’s nostrils flared open, and he sucked in my breath almost as reverently as I’d smelt his.
I closed my eyes. This. This was what I had waited my whole life for; trading breaths with a half-ton beast as if we were the same species. The sound of our breathing was the only thing in the world, something magical, electric, like looking into a friend’s eyes, like touching a star.
*One US dollar is worth about seven and a half South African rand; R500 translates to around $65 (very roughly).
Previous parts (1-5)
El Cheapo - Part 7
I set my alarm clock for six AM on Saturday morning, a ridiculous hour, for me at least; I could snore away until nine some Saturdays, later on Sundays. But I’d been waiting all week to spend a whole day just with El Cheapo.
Every evening, I’d spent little snatches of time with him, sometimes five minutes, sometimes half an hour, if I was terribly lucky. Usually I just sat on the trough and watched him watching me watching him. If I had enough time, I’d give him a quick grooming. Between ballet, farm chores, and homework, I hadn’t realised how short my afternoons really were; there was barely enough time to rub some dubbin into my new bridle, ready for riding.
Around seven o’ clock I crept outside, careful not to wake my sleeping sisters – my parents’ day had started two hours before. Hissing at the mastiffs to shut up, I scampered across the lawn with my bridle over my shoulder, a bucket with the grooming kit and some shampoo (filched from Janet’s room) in my hand. As soon as it was warm enough, I’d give El a bath – he could sure do with one.
El was eating hay in slow, methodical mouthfuls. When he heard me whistle, he raised his head on its skinny neck and pricked his ears; he was looking a little perkier, but he still didn’t come over. Instead, he went straight back to eating.
“I can’t wait to ride you,” I whispered to him on a cloud of steam, hanging the bridle on the fence. He ignored me completely except for turning one tattered, scabby ear in my direction. I left him eating and headed into the garage to measure out half a kilogram of horse food; I’d have liked to give him more, but I didn’t want him to colic.
Tipping the feed into our biggest dog bowl, which had been hijacked for equine use and now had the words “El Cheapo” scrawled on it in permanent marker, I shoved his feed under the fence and backed off. El meandered over and unhurriedly began to eat. He wouldn’t eat if I came near him or looked at him too intently, so I sat down on the grass and listened to his chewing.
There was a crash from the house and I groaned.
Luckily, El had finished eating, or he’d have stopped for sure as my three sisters came pelting out of the house, accompanied by three mastiffs and a Jack Russell.
“Go away,” I moaned.
“Are you gonna ride him today, Andre?” demanded Maria, flopping onto her knees beside me and staining her little floral dress.
“Yeah,” I said. “Now go away.”
“Can’t I ride him first?” asked Janet.
“I wanna,” wailed Hermien.
“I’m the eldest,” said Janet.
“None of you are riding him first, I am,” I snapped. “Now. Go. Away.”
They didn’t, of course, hanging around instead as I approached El with the bridle. He gave it a here-we-go-again sort of look. I rubbed his shoulder for a long time before sliding the reins over his head, then slowly lifting the bridle up his face.
I had to prise his mouth open with a thumb before getting the bit over his teeth and he tried to duck away when I reached for his ears, but he didn’t move his feet, and after five minutes’ struggle I had the bridle on and El was chewing his bit looking reflective.
“Hooray,” yelled Hermien, clapping.
“Don’t make loud noises,” I said. “Good boy, El.”
“Ride him, cowboy!” hooted Maria.
“Don’t fall off,” said Janet, most encouragingly.
I led him over to the water trough and put the reins over his head. My heart was pounding uncomfortably against my ribs; I hadn’t ridden for three weeks, and though Renske was a good teacher and I could ride pretty well, I wasn’t sure when last El had been ridden, either.
I tried not to wonder if he had ever been ridden at all and stepped onto the water trough. He raised his head, flattening his ears, but kept his feet still.
“Good boy, El,” I whispered, looking down at his bony back. “Easy, easy, I won’t hurt you.” I moved very slowly, draping myself over his back. His spine dug into my belly. His weight shifted restlessly; he took two steps sideways and I slipped a little bit. “Shhh,” I soothed. “Steady.”
Once he was standing still, I eased my leg over his rump and sat up straight. Muscles stood out tense in his back and shoulders and sweat dripped off the end of my nose; for a long moment, nerves twanging like guitar strings, we didn’t move. Then El lowered his head. The bit made a little chinking noise as he chewed it, and with a long sigh, we both relaxed.
I couldn’t stop the smile flooding onto my face as I rubbed his fluffy neck, the mane soft and well combed now on my hand. El turned his head to sniff at my sneaker, rolling one of those enormous liquid eyes to look at me. I beamed back.
El Cheapo - The Real Part 8
I had to pinch myself to make sure that this was not a dream. I was really riding my horse, my very own, very lovely horse, El Cheapo.
Both raggedy black ears tipped back to listen as I tangled my fingers in his mane. He quivered with tension underneath me, the stringy muscles pulled tight on either side of the sharp backbone. Against my legs, his bare ribs moved gently with the rhythm of his breath.
I had to check myself to keep from jumping when El turned his head just a little, enough for one eye to study me, wide and white-rimmed. I rubbed my knuckles in his coarse hair, but words wouldn't come.
"So are you gonna make him walk or what?" yelled Janet from the fence. El stiffened; a hoof thudded in the dirt as he began to spook, but hesitated.
"Shut up. You're scaring him," I snapped back, but she was right. Ignoring the wobble of - what? Fear? Excitement? - in my stomach, I squeezed my heels against his flanks and made a little chirruping noise between my lips. El moved faster than I'd have thought possible. His neck snapped out straight, ripping the reins through my hands.
My heart jumped up into my throat as the horse surged forward, throwing me back, my iron grip on the mane only just keeping me on; I was slipping, the backbone digging into my leg, and the pipe fence was much too close, perfect for flesh and bone to slam against and crack. I groped for the reins and pulled back with all my might. El hopped into the air, stuck out all four his legs and stopped dead.
I went straight up his neck, the tense muscle banging a bruise in my chest, and wrapped my arms and legs around him, face pressed against his mane. He stirred, but I reeled the reins in.
My horse was a lunatic.
It took me a minute to realise that he was also shivering. Tremors rocked his body and mine, the big muscle jumping in his shoulder. When he looked at me this time, there was no fire in his eye, no fierce wildness. Instead, between the dark lashes and white edge, terror shone out of him with such clarity it hurt.
Slowly, I slithered back down his withers and onto his back, still keeping a tight grip on the reins. El was afraid. But what of? I hadn't raised my voice or kicked him or waved my hands. Janet's shout - no. He spooked too late after that.
"What's the matter, El?" I whispered.
He had stopped shivering, but the white eye still stared at me with its aching fear. I ran a soothing hand up his rough neck, with its wiry hair and tick bites and scratches from barbed wire. Wait. Scratches? Leaning slowly forward, I rubbed at the marks again. Thin, black lines running down his neck and withers. My stomach swooped and suddenly, I understood.
Those weren't scratches. They were scars.
My apologies for the delay and the attempt at the previous Part 8 - the computer got the better of me!