Averyell A. Kessler
Guess what?” My grandfather WG says. “We’re going to Robert Stockett’s stable so you can ride my horse.”
I panic. I am afraid of horses. “Nooooo,” I whine. “I don’t want to.”
“Mr. Crawford’ coming to take your picture for the horse show program. I’ll stand right by you. Nothings gonna happen.”
“Sure?” I ask.
“Absolutely,” he replies. “His name is Major King and he’ll like you.”
I am seven and riding in the front seat of WG’s Chevy convertible, top down. When we turn left onto High Street, I am in a foreign land. Leafy green Belhaven vanishes. There are no trees. Dust whirls behind the car like twin tornados. I hear the crunch of gravel and the joyous shouts of children jumping rope. A tall boy bursts from the crowd, tosses a basketball high in the air, and makes a basket without breaking a sweat. The smell of rising dust mixes with a musty aroma of bubbling greens. I see a woman hanging a dripping shirt on a clothesline next to a pair of flapping overalls. We pass pens of chickens and geese and carefully tended rows of tomatoes, field peas and huge blooming cabbages. Stockett’s stable is just ahead, at the far end of High Street and within shouting distance of the Pearl River. I try to swallow my fear.
“But you didn’t tell Mama.” I say.
“It’s a surprise.”
“He’s real fine horse,” he answers. He pulls an El Trellis triangle out of his shirt pocket, lights it, and pops it into his mouth. “He’s five gaited.”
“He’s got five different ways of running. He can walk, trot, cantor, gallop, and I forgot the other one. I’ll show ya when we get to the stable.”
“He won’t even move, little ole girl. All you gotta do is sit in the saddle and smile.”
We reach the end of the street and enter Robert Stockett’s domain. Chickens scatter as we whip by a chain link gate and pass under a vaulted iron arch. We clank over a four-bar cattle gap and into a clearing. A long, shed row horse barn is to the right; Robert’s office, club house, dining room – all in the same small building – is on the left. The aroma of frying bacon and hot biscuits blends with the perfume of hay and manure. We get out of the car and I see Mr. Stockett holding Major King’s reins in a tight grip. The horse is enormous; 2000 pounds easy. His eyes flash and his nostrils flare, as if he smells my terror. His eel-like tongue slides in and out of his mouth like a pink snake. His teeth look as if they could bite off my head with no difficulty. We are water and oil, two beings that will never accommodate each other. “Hold still, boy,” Robert says. He tightens the reins and WG lifts me onto the horse. I am ashen with fear.
“Put your feet in the stirrups,” WG says. I am wearing tennis shoes, and I don’t know what stirrups are. He picks up my feet and discovers that my legs will not reach the stirrups. I grip the saddle horn and hold tight.
“It’s alright, child,” Robert says calmly. He is a tall lanky man, with hair as black as Major King’s, and a voice as soft as Mississippi moss. He strokes the horse’s neck, calming him and soothing my terror. “Good boy,” he says quietly. “You settle down now.” Major King shakes himself and stamps his massive feet. “She not gonna do a thing in the world to you, Major.” He continues to stroke the horse. I decide to trust Robert.
“Now, honey,” he says, “I’m gonna let you hold these reins. Horse ain’t going nowhere. Just sit still while Mr. Crawford takes a picture. OK?”
I smile weakly. “If he starts to move, you just pull back on the reins. He’ll stop as soon as you do that.” I am doubtful.
Gradually Robert eases away from the horse. The air is electric. “Almost over,” I think, I hope. Mr. Crawford raises his camera. “Smile, now,” he says. My lips bend into a weak upturn. The horse heaves out huge, huffing breaths. There is a loud click, and a flash bulb pops! Major King rears.
“*%#@#” WG hollers, shouting words I’ve never heard before. The horse rears again, then turns and breaks into a gallop.
Within seconds, Major King becomes a hurricane, a steam locomotive on a downhill run. He lowers his head; his ears fold back; the length of the barn passes in a blur. He is ferocious, unstoppable. I am helpless.
The horse turns south, away from the stable and threads his way through a stand of scraggly pine trees. He smells the river and does not intend to stop. I hear his steady breath, hoopf, hoopf, hoopf, and the rhythm of his hooves pounding across dusty ground. He jumps a ditch at the edge of Robert’s property. Somehow, I hang on and we are away. WG continues to yell, but his voice fades.
Major King plunges into thick woods, then tears through a puddle, kicking up a shower of muddy chunks. Muck splatters onto my face; a tangle of branches whips against my legs. By instinct, I lower my head and press my knees into the saddle. I can do nothing except hold on and breathe.
Hoopf, hoopf. My ponytail collapses. Hair streams into my ears and mouth. Major King is intense, driven, taking me deeper into the woods. A low hanging limb slaps my face. My eyes sting. I can barely see. I am a balloon drifting into the sun. Hoopf, hoopf.
The next moment, the trees thin and the bushes fall away. Major King rips into a clearing. He slows. I expect him to rear again and toss me off, but he does not. Then I see it; the levee, a broad ribbon of land mounded against the Pearl. Major King sees the levee too. He pauses, then drops into a canter. His massive body rumbles, his hooves dig deep as he scrambles to the top of the levee. Suddenly, I hear a shout.
“Pull the reins, honey!” I turn to see Mr. Stockett and his stallion, Grey Boy at full gallop, bolting on top of the levee behind us.
“Pull on the reins.” he shouts again. I look down; my palms are bleeding. He is closer now and closing in. I hear Grey Boy’s hard clatter. Major hears him too. He smells the stallion and not accustomed to challenge. He is winded but prepared for a race. Hoofp, hoofp. The next moment, Jeb is beside me. “Pull the reins!” he orders. Somehow, I find strength.
“Pull up, Major,” he shouts, jerking the reins from my hands. “Ho boy, pull up.” At last, Major King falls into a walk and we return to the stable. When WG sees me, his face melts in relief. I’ve returned undamaged and my wild ride has ended without consequences.
“I owe you one, Stockett,” WG says, as he lifts me out of the saddle.
“No, you don’t,” Robert answers. “You’d a done the same for me.”
(Robert Stockett was my grandfather’s first friend in Jackson. They remained close for over 60 years until WG’s death in 1993. This was my first, last and only horseback adventure.)