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The Saturday Evening Post
August 6, 1938, p. 7-

Spoil the Child

By Howard Fast

THE first morning pa was gone, I tried to ride one of the mules. I didn't think that would hurt, because the mules were unharnessed anyway. But Maude told ma, and ma licked me. Ma was in the wagon, and she wouldn't have seen. I told Maude I'd remember.
Pa left about six in the morning while ma still slept. "Goin' after meat?" I asked him. He had his rifle.
He nodded.
"Kin I go?"
"Stay with ma, sonny," he said. "She ain't well."
"You said I could hunt—"
"You stay with ma, sonny."
Maude got up a few minutes after that. I could see pa like a black dot out on the prairie. I pointed to him.
I said: "That's pa out there huntin'."
Maude was combing her hair, not paying a lot of attention to me. Then I tried to ride the mule. Pa would never let me ride his horse. It was only half-broken, cost four hundred dollars. Ma was always saying we could have lived a year on what that horse cost.
Maude woke ma. My mother was a tall, thin woman, tired looking. She wasn't well. I could see that she wasn't well.
"Dave, get off that mule," she said. "Where's pa?"
"Went out to hunt."
"Come here. Can't ever get it into your head to behave." I went over, and she slapped my face. "Don't bother them mules. When'll he be back? We can't stay here."
"He didn't say."
"Get some chips for a fire," ma told me. "My land, I never seen such a lazy, shiftless boy." But she didn't say it the way she always did, as if she would want to bite my head off. She seemed too tired to really care.
I guess ma licked me every day. She said I was bad — a lot worse than you'd expect from a boy of twelve. You didn't expect them to be bad that young.
"You learn to leave the mules alone," Maude called.
"You shut up," I told her. Maude was fifteen, and pretty. She had light hair, and a thin, delicate face. Ma said that some day Maude would be a lady. She didn't expect much from me. She said I would be like pa.
I walked away from the wagon, looking for chips. By now, pa was out of sight, and where he had gone the prairie was just a roll of yellow and brown, a thread of cloud above it. It frightened me to be alone on the prairie. Pa laughed at it, and called it a big meadow. But it frightened me.
We had been on the prairie for a week now. Pa said in another few weeks we'd reach Fort Lee, due west. He said that if he had cattle stock, he'd settle down right on the prairie. This way, he'd cross the mountains, grow fruit, maybe, in California. Ma never believed much he said.
I went back to the wagon and started a fire. Ma had gone inside, and Maude sat on the driver's seat.
"You might gimme a hand," I told Maude.
"I don't see you overworking," Maude said.
"You better learn to shut up."
From inside the wagon, Ma yelled: "You hold your tongue, David, or I'll wallop you!"
"You're a little beast," Maude said.
"You wait," I told her.
I went to the keg, drew some water, and set it up to boil. I could tell by the sound that there wasn't a lot of water left in the keg. Pa had said we'd reach water soon.
When I came back to the fire, I glanced up at the sky. It was an immense bowl of hot blue, bare except for a single buzzard that turned slowly, like a fish swimming. I guess I forgot. I kept looking up at the buzzard.
Ma climbed down from the wagon slowly. "You're the same as your pa," she said. "Lazy an' bad." Her face was tight-drawn. For the past few weeks she had hardly smiled, and now it seemed that she wouldn't smile again.
"And fresh," Maude said.
I put the water on the fire, not saying anything.
"Spare the rod and spoil the child," Ma said.
Then her face twisted in pain, and she leaned against the wagon. "Well, don't stand there," she told me. "Water the mules."
I went to the keg. I knew there wasn't enough water for the mules. I hoped Pa would come back soon; I had a funny, awful fear of what would happen if he didn't come back soon. I kept glancing out at the prairie.
Pa had an itch in his feet. Ma said I would grow up the same way — having an itch in my feet. She was always sorry that she had married a man with an itch in his feet. Sometimes she said that the war had done it, that after the war between the North and the South, men were either broken or had to keep moving, like pa. Always west.
We lived in Columbus. Then we moved to St. Louis; then to Topeka. Pa couldn't stop, and ma got more and more worn out. She said that a wild land was no place to raise children. It was hard on ma, all right. Pa didn't do much, except when we were moving west, and then he would be like a different person. Ma never complained to him. She licked me instead.
I gave the mules enough water to cover the bottoms of their pails.
Ma came over, said: "That's not enough water."
"There ain't a damn sight more."
"Don't swear!" Ma exclaimed. She clapped a hand across my head.
"He's always swearing," Maude said. "Thinks he's grown up."
Ma stared at me a moment, dully; then she went over and prepared breakfast. It was gruel and hardtack.
"Fresh meat would be good," Ma said. She looked over the prairie, maybe looking for pa. I knew how much she cared for pa. She would talk a lot about itching feet, but that didn't matter.
After breakfast, I gave the mules some oats, and Maude cleaned up the dishes. I kept glancing at Maude, and she knew what I meant. She didn't care, until ma went back into the wagon. It hurt me to look at ma.
"He'll be back soon, I guess," ma said. Then she climbed into the wagon. It was a big sixteen-foot wagon, the kind they called freighters, with a trooped top, covered with dirty brown canvas.
Maude said: "You leave me alone."
"I'll leave you alone now," I told Maude. "I gotta leave you alone now. Maybe you know what's the matter with ma?"
"That's none of your business," Maude said.
"It's my business, all right."
"You're just a kid."
I went to the back of the wagon and pulled out pa's carbine. It was the one he had used during the war, a short cavalry gun.
Ma saw me; she lay inside, and I could hear her breathing hard. She said: "What're you up to now — pa back?"
"Not yet."
"Well, you tell me soon as he gets back. And don't get into any mischief."
"All right."
In front of the wagon, I sat down on a feed box, and cleaned the gun with an old rag. Maude watched me. Finally, she said: "I'm gonna tell ma you're fooling with pa's gun."
"You keep your mouth shut."
Ma groaned softly then, and we both turned around and looked at the wagon. I felt little shivers crawl up and down my spine. Where was pa? He should have been back already. I put down the gun and walked around the wagon. In a circle, the prairie rose and fell, like a sea of whispering yellow grass. There was nothing there, no living thing.
Maude was crying. "Why don't pa come back?" she said.
I didn't answer her. I guess it occurred to me for the first time that pa might not come back. I felt like crying. I felt like getting into a corner and crying. I hadn't felt so small for a long time. It would be a comfort to have ma lick me now. You get licked, and you know you're a kid, and you don't have to worry about anything else.
I said to Maude: "Go inside the wagon and stay with Ma."
"Don't you order me around."
"All right," I said. I turned my back on her. I didn't hold much with girls when they're that age.
Then Maude went inside the wagon. I heard her crying, and I heard ma say: "You stop that crying right now."
I loaded the carbine. I untethered one of the mules, climbed onto it, and set out across the prairie in the direction pa had taken. I didn't know just what I'd do, but I knew it was time pa came back.
It wasn't easy, riding the mule just with harness straps. Mules have a funny gait. And we didn't go very fast. I was glad ma and Maude were in the wagon, otherwise ma would probably lick the pants off me.
In about a half hour, the wagon was just a tiny black dot. It might have been anything. I kept glancing at the sun to remember the direction I had taken. Then a swell hid the wagon. I kept on going. I knew that if I stopped, even for a little while, I'd cry my head off.
I saw a coyote. He stood like a dog and watched me. An antelope hopped close, and I might have shot at him. But I couldn't bring myself to fire a rifle there. It would have done something to me.
I found pa; I guess I had been riding for about an hour when I saw him, over to one side. A buzzard flapped up, and I felt my throat tighten until I thought it would choke me. I didn't want to go over to him. I got down from the mule, and I walked over slowly. But I didn't want to; something made me.
He was dead, all right. Maybe it was Indians and maybe it wasn't; I didn't know. He was shot four times, and his gun was gone.
The buzzard wouldn't go away; I shot the buzzard. I didn't cry. The carbine kicked back and made my shoulder ache. I was thinking about how pa always called me an undersized, freckled little runt. He said I wouldn't grow up. Maybe that's why I didn't cry.
I went away a little distance and sat down. I didn't look at pa. I tried to remember where we were, what pa had told me about going west. When I thought of ma, I had a sense of awful fear. Suppose it happened now.
The mule walked over and nuzzled my shoulder. I was glad the mule was there then. If he wasn't, I don't know what I would have done.
Pa had to be buried. I knew that men had to be buried, but I couldn't do it. The prairie was hard, baked mud. I went back to pa and stood over him; I guess that was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. I straightened his clothes. I pulled off his boots. Men in the West were always talking about dying with their boots on. I didn't know how it meant anything, one way or another, but I thought pa would be pleased if he didn't have his boots on.
Then I climbed up on the mule and started back for the wagon. I tried not to think that I was twelve years old. If you get to thinking about that, then you're no good at all. When I got back, ma would lick me plenty.
The mule must have found its way back, because I didn't pay much attention to that. I let the reins loose, holding onto the harness straps, and I kept swallowing. Then I saw the wagon.
I thought: "I can't tell ma now — maybe later." Nobody had ever told me about a thing like that, but I knew it wouldn't do to tell ma now. I guess I only felt it instinctively, but I knew that the importance wasn't in pa any more. All that was important was life, and life was just a fleck of dust in the prairie. It was like a nightmare to think of the distance of the prairie, and how we were alone.
I rode up to the wagon, and Maude and ma were both standing next to it. I could tell from ma's face how worried she had been about me.
"There he is!" Maude screamed.
Ma said: "I guess there ain't nothing a body can do with you, Dave. Get off that mule."
I slipped off, tethered the mule. My whole body was twisted up with the strain of keeping what I had seen off my face. I came over to ma.
"Where you been?" she demanded.
"I reckon there's nothing else for a little loafer like you. Spare the rod and spoil the child. Come here."
I went over and bent down, and she walloped me a bit, not too hard. She wasn't very strong then, I guess. I cried, but I wasn't crying because of the licking. I had had worse lickings than that and never opened my mouth. But it seemed to break the tension inside of me, and I had to cry. I went over and sat down with my back against one of the wagon wheels.
Maude walked past me and said: "I guess that learned you."
I just looked at her, without answering. I took out my jackknife and began to pare at one of the wagon boards. Then my eyes traveled to the water keg.
I got up and went around to ma. She was still standing there, staring off across the prairie in the direction pa had gone.
Without turning, she said to me: "Seen anything of your pa?"
The sun was westward now, a splotch of red that blazed the whole prairie into a fire. I could get a little of how ma felt; I could see the loneliness.
"Get a fire going," she said. "He ought to have enough sense to come back early. Stop that whimpering. God help a woman when a man has itching feet."
I gathered chips and started the fire. When I took water from the keg for mush, the keg was just about empty. I didn't mention that to ma. She went about preparing supper slowly, awkwardly, and Maude watched her, frightened.
Ma kept glancing at the west.
"Be dark soon," I said.
"Guess pa'll be here any minute," ma said dully. I could tell that she didn't believe that.
"I guess so," I nodded.
We ate without speaking much. Ma didn't eat a great deal. As soon as we had finished, she went into the wagon.
Maude was saying: "I don't see how I can clean dishes without water. You fetch some water, Dave."
"There ain't no water," I said.
Maude stared at me, her eyes wide and frightened.
She had heard stories, just the same as I had, about pilgrims who ran out of water. She opened her mouth to say something.
"What about ma?" I asked her quietly, nodding at the wagon.
"Why don't pa come back?"
"Ain't no sense thinking about pa if he ain't here. What about ma? I guess it won't be long."
She shook her head.
"You don't need to be scared," I muttered. "It won't do no good to be scared. I reckon the worst part of this trip is over."
"Where's pa?" she whispered. "What happened?"
"How do I know what happened? You girls make me sick. I never seen anything to beat you girls."
I got up and went over to the water keg. I shook it, hoping, without having any reason to hope. I knew it was just about empty. We had plenty of food — dried meat and meal and dried beans — enough to last a month, I guess. But ma would need water.
Maude was crying.
"Why don't you go to bed?" I said. "Go in and sleep with ma. I'll stay out here."
"You're not big enough to stay out here alone," Maude said, but I knew she was afraid to stay inside the wagon with ma. I knew how she felt, and I didn't blame her for the way she felt, she was such a kid, with ma petting her all the time. We couldn't talk it over between ourselves, and that would have made it a lot better. But we couldn't.
"I'm plenty big enough," I said.
Inside the wagon ma groaned, and out on the prairie a coyote was barking. There's nothing like a coyote barking to make your insides crawl. I was all shivers, and I could see that Maude wanted to stay close to me. But that wouldn't have made it any better.
"Get in the wagon, damn you!" I cried. I was glad ma couldn't hear me swear. Ma would lick me good and plenty when I swore like that.
Surprised, Maude stared at me. Then, without a word, she went into the wagon.
I stood there, outside, for a while. It had grown quite dark. In the sky there was a faint reflected light of the sun, but it was quite dark. I walked over to the wagon and picked up one of the mule blankets. It was a warm night, summertime; I decided to put the blanket under the wagon and lie down on it.
I heard Maude saying her prayers in the wagon, but no sound from ma. I couldn't say my prayers. Usually, ma saw to it that I did, but tonight I couldn't say a word aloud. I tried, opening my mouth, but no words came out. I thought them, as much as I could. I tried not to think about pa. Spreading the blanket, I lay down on it, holding the carbine close to me. It seemed a part of pa and all that was left; I hugged it.
I couldn't sleep. I tried for a long time, but I couldn't sleep. It was quite dark now, with no moon in the sky. The mules were moving restlessly; probably because they wanted water.
I think I dozed a little. When I opened my eyes again, the moon was just coming up, yellow and bloated. I felt chilled thoroughly. Bit by bit, what had happened during the day came back, and now it was all more real than it had been in the daytime. While I lay there, thinking about it, I heard horses' hoofs; at first not noticing them, and only becoming aware of them when the horses bulked out of the night, two men riding slowly.
They were in the moonlight, and I was hidden in the shadow of the wagon. They didn't see me. They stopped just about a dozen yards from the wagon, sitting on their horses and eyeing the mules. The mules moved restlessly.
When I realized they were Indians I couldn't move, just lay there and watched them. They were naked to the waist, with their hair in two stiff braids to their shoulders. They both carried rifles.
I thought of pa. I thought of screaming to wake Maude and ma. I thought: "If they shot pa—"
They were cutting loose the mules.
I felt for the carbine, twisted around, so I lay on my belly. One of the men had dismounted and was coming toward the wagon. He held his gun in one hand and had drawn a knife with the other. I sighted the center of his breast and fired.
I remember how the sound blasted out the silence of the prairie. In the wagon, someone screamed. The Indian stopped, seemed to stare at me, swayed a bit, and crumpled to the ground. I remember the sharp pain in my shoulder from the blow of the recoil.
The mounted man's horse had wheeled about. He pulled it back, and fired at me. The shot threw sand in my face. I had a few cartridges and caps in my pocket, and I tried frantically to reload. The cartridges slipped through my fingers.
Then the Indian was gone. He had taken the other horse with him, and I heard their hoofs thundering across the prairie. I dropped the carbine. My shoulder ached terribly. Inside the wagon, Maude was whimpering, my mother groaning.
I climbed from under the wagon. The Indian lay on his back, his face hard and twisted. I stood there, looking at him.
Maude climbed down out of the wagon. 'What is it?" she cried. Then she saw the Indian and screamed.
"All right — I shot him."
She stood there, holding her hand to her mouth.
"You get back in the wagon. I guess he killed pa, all right. Don't tell that to ma."
She shook her head. Ma was groaning. "I can't go back," Maude said.
And then I knew. I should have known from the way ma was groaning. I went up to Maude and slapped her face. She didn't seem to feel it. I slapped her again.
"Get in there with ma."
"I can't — it's dark."
"Get in there!" I yelled.
We had lanterns on the outside of the wagon. I took one and lit it. I wasn't trembling so much now. I gave the lantern to Maude, who was still standing the way she had been before.
"Go inside," I said.
Maude climbed into the wagon, taking the lantern with her. Then I cried. I crouched under the wagon, clutching the carbine and crying.
Finally, I went over to the Indian. I forced myself to do that. He lay half across the rifle he had carried. I pulled it out, and it was my father's rifle, all right.
I don't know how long I stood there holding the rifle. Then I put it under the seat, along with the carbine. I didn't want to look at the wagon.
I walked over to the mules. It was hard to harness them. When it was done, I ached all over, and my shoulder was swollen where the carbine had rested.
I climbed to the driver's seat. The curtains were down, and I couldn't see into the wagon, but the light still burned. Taking down pa's whip, I let it go onto the mules' backs. I had seen pa do that and sometimes he let me try. The whip was fourteen feet long and I couldn't do much with it, but I got the mules moving. They had to keep moving. We had to find water.
At night, under the moon, the prairie was black and silver at the same time. Somehow, it didn't frighten me, the way it had during the day. I sat there thinking, I guess, of nothing at all, only awfully aware of the change inside me.
We drove on like that. I kept the mules at a slow pace, so the freighter wouldn't roll much. I was very tired, and after a while I didn't use the whip at all.
Then Maude came out of the wagon, sat down next to me. She looked at me and I looked at her, but she didn't say anything. She pressed close to me.
I whistled at the mules.
Inside the wagon something was whimpering. It made me tremble to hear that.
"Reckon we'll find water soon," I told Maude.
She nodded mechanically. Her head kept nodding and I dozed, myself. I guess I kept dozing through the night, fell asleep toward morning.
Maude woke me. The wagon had stopped, and the sun was an hour up. The mules had stopped on the bank of a slow, brown stream, lined with cottonwoods as far as I could see.
Maude was pointing at the water.
"Don't you start crying now," I said, rubbing my eyes.
"I won't," Maude nodded.
Ma called me, not very loud: "Dave, come here."
I climbed inside the wagon. Ma was lying on the bed, her arm curled around something. I peered at it.
"Do you know?" she said.
"I reckon I do. I reckon it's a boy. Girls ain't much use."
Ma was crying — not much; her eyes were just wetting themselves slowly.
"Where are we?" Ma asked me.
"We been traveling through the night. There's a river out there. I guess we don't need to worry about water."
"All night — pa back?"
I said slowly: "I killed an Indian last night, ma. He had pa's gun."
Then she just stared at me, and I stood there, shifting from one foot to another, wanting to run away. But I stood there. It must have been about five minutes, and she didn't say anything at all. The baby was whimpering.
Then she said: "You harnessed the mules?"
"Uh-huh. Maude didn't help me—"
Ma said: "You don't tease Maude. You don't tease Maude, or I'll take a stick to you. I never seen a boy like you for teasing."
"Uh-huh," I nodded.
"Just like your pa," Ma whispered. "It don't pay to have a man whose heels are always itching — it don't pay."
"No use cryin'," I said.
Ma said: "What are we going to do?"
"Go on west. Ain't hard now to go a few hundred miles more. Reckon it won't be hard. Pa said—"
Ma was staring at me, her mouth trembling. I hadn't ever seen her look just like that before. I wanted to put my head down on her breast, hide it there.
I couldn't do that. I said: "Pa told me. We'll go west."
Then I went outside. I sat down on the wagon seat, looking at the river. I heard the baby making noises.
I said to Maude: "A man feels funny — with a kid."