a vignette by Paul D Kennedy
© Paul D Kennedy, July 2007
We seldom went into the big field across the road from our house at the top of the hill until the donkey appeared. We never found out who owned the donkey or who had put it out to grass in the wide-open field that covered a whole side of the hill and we had been warned firmly to leave it alone.
At first myself, Barry and Mick couldn’t get near it. As soon as we would approach the donkey would wander away on its curled-up hoofs, its lumpy legs moving stiffly. Eventually we corralled it by coming gently from three sides, making soft suk-suk-suk noises. The first few times we did this it trotted away when we got close, but in the end it stood still. We stared at it, not daring to move. Its bowed back was about the height of our noses and its grey hide was patchy and scarred with brace and shaft marks. After a while the donkey ignored our stares and went back to grazing. It had a very long head at the end of a long droopy neck and it had yellow teeth that drooled when it brought its head up, chomping grass.
When Barry, my best friend, tried to touch the donkey’s shoulder it jumped quickly backwards, swung round on its hind legs and clomped away. Barry grinned. He bent his legs at the knees and, leaning backwards, pulled strongly on the unseen reins of a rearing stallion and shouted a high-pitched ‘Hi Ho, Silver Away!’ The donkey paused in its trot, threw its head in the air and brayed wrathfully in a loud brassy duotone.
‘Guess we lost that critter for today,’ Mick said very slowly. He was Barry’s older brother and he could out-drawl John Wayne any day of the week.
Mick ran up onto one of the barrows. These were ridges that ran across the top of the hill. Like the rest of the field the barrows were covered by a thick sward and the milk-green grass was bouncy after being cropped by sheep in the spring. Mick turned slowly around and then stood, legs spaced wide, his right hand poised over his hip.
‘Slap leather,’ he drawled and drew.
Barry swiftly flicked his right hand across his thigh, dropped down on one bare knee, and started fanning his left hand across his bunched right fist, yelling ‘bang, bang’. I rolled down and away, flattened myself on the grass and brought my Winchester up to my shoulder and growled ‘boom, gotcha.’ Mick dropped his gun and clamped both hands across his stomach. He turned slowly from left to right and then allowed himself to topple. He rolled down the barrow to our feet and lay motionless on the damp spongy grass.
‘Guess I’m headed for the last round-up,’ he murmured through gritted teeth.
My kid brother appeared, stumbling towards us from our house across the road.
‘What are you doing?’ he chirped.
‘Death fall,’ I said brusquely.
‘Can I join in?’
I looked at Barry and Mick, my face set. There was a long pause.
‘Sure,’ Mick said, springing to his feet. ‘Ah guess we can always use an extra hand out on the range. What iron are ye totin’?’
My kid brother looked up at him blankly.
‘He wouldn’t know,’ I answered for him. ‘He’s never even been to the pictures at all. Sure, he’s only starting to get ready for his first communion.’
Barry strutted up and stood back from the kid.
‘Go for it,’ he yelled. He bent, slapped his right thigh and came up fanning his balled fist with his left hand. ‘You’re dead.’
The kid stood there, his eyes shimmering.
‘That’s not fair,’ he mumbled.
‘Ye gotta be fast on the draw, kid, if you’re gonna survive in God’s country,’ Mick drawled.
‘You’re dead. Lie down,’ I shouted, and ankled the kid over onto the grass. He started to cry and I knew I was in trouble. He would squeal at tea-time, always did. The only good thing was that we hadn’t been messing with the donkey when the kid arrived. From the far side of the field that worn-out creature brayed loudly.
It took a few days before we could make proper use of the donkey. Gradually it became used to our antics or perhaps it just grew too tired to move away when we were gunning for each other. It would stare dolefully as we whooped around or shot at each other under its belly. When we used the barrows as a palisade to be defended against marauding Indians it stood nearby and chewed watchfully.
But when Barry slung his arms over the creature’s shoulders and tried to haul himself up on its back, the donkey swung its long droopy neck around and nudged him with its drooling snout. As Barry jumped back, the donkey kicked up its hind legs and went bounding off.
Yet Mick was determined. ‘That hoss,’ he muttered. ‘We gotta break him in. Rodeo style.’
When the donkey wandered back after a while Mick climbed up onto a barrow. Waving our unseen Stetsons gently in front of his face, myself and Barry backed the donkey towards Mick. The donkey was standing beside the barrow looking at us quizzically when Mick jumped. It was a good leap and he landed square on the donkey’s back, his legs sticking out on both sides.
‘Ride ’im, cowboy,’ Barry yelled.
The donkey went up on his hind legs. Mick held on but couldn’t get a proper grip on the scraggy mane and he began to slide. The donkey bucked, hard. Mick flew, legs everywhere, and the donkey galloped off, head in the air, braying like a two-tone brass band. Mick bounced once and lay flat on his back. Myself and Barry looked down at him. His eyes were closed. Then he slowly opened them and grinned.
‘That’s one hell of a mean hoss,’ he drawled.
Mick rose and picked an unseen Stetson off the grass and dusted himself down. He looked at myself and Barry and shrugged his shoulders and looked over at the donkey which was now on the far side of the big field.
‘Guess we’re gonna hafta rope ’im down and break ’im in’, he drawled.
Barry crouched and turned slowly in a full circle, pulling hard on an unseen rope looped around the neck of a cantering stallion. Next day Mick brought a lasso to the field.
It was a decent piece of rope he’d found in a packing case behind his father’s shop. As the donkey watched he showed us how to make the noose. You tied a knot at one end. Then you looped the end twice along the main rope, down and back up, and coiled the knotted end around the loops. You left a loop at the end of the coil uncovered and passed the knotted end through it and pulled everything tight. The noose was ready.
When Mick slipped the other end of the rope through the noose he had a lasso. He twirled it and after a while he got it to spin, cowboy style. Neither myself nor Barry were able to do that. Mick looked at the donkey which was sitting nearby, chomping on the grass. He twirled the lasso and let it sail. It landed just in front of the donkey’s nose. The donkey rose up on its fore legs and held its head in the air. Mick twirled the lasso and let it sail again. The lasso flopped against the donkey’s nose. The donkey snorted and got up on all four legs. Mick tried again and fell short. The donkey snorted again, turned and began to wander away. Mick looked crestfallen.
‘Durn it and dawgone,’ he murmured softly. ‘Dawgone.’
Myself and Mick shooed the tired donkey back and Mick tried again and again. But he could never get the lasso to land around the donkey’s neck. In the end, myself and Barry took the loop of the lasso and, suk-suk-suking, softly managed to slip it up over the donkey’s head and let it fall around its neck. The donkey stiffened. Mick pulled on the rope and the loop tightened. Mick tugged lightly. The donkey bucked fore and aft and bounded away, braying loudly. Mick ended up face down on the grass, the rope jerked from his hand. We chased the donkey to the far end of the field.
The donkey stood panting loudly and brayed harshly at us. Mick picked up the end of the rope but it was jerked from his hand again. The donkey bounded with a strange bucking run back up the field, its heavy breath labouring. It turned and watched us. We never did catch it that day.
When we returned the next day the rope was gone from around the donkey’s neck. We didn’t know who had taken it off and we couldn’t find it anywhere in the field. The donkey was almost friendly and we horsed around him for a while.
‘We gotta ride that critter,’ Mick drawled now and then, while Barry galloped in circles with a brisk trotting motion.
I had an idea. I went back to the house and around to the disused stables where I remembered seeing an old bridle. It had a well-gnashed bit and broken halter. I brought it back to the field. My kid brother saw me and followed. We ignored him.
I twirled the old bridle in my hand. Mick and Barry looked at me speculatively. I approached the donkey.
‘Yer not supposed to touch the dunk-key,’ the kid chirped. I threw him a glare.
The donkey swung its long doleful head at me and sniffed gently against my shirt. I brought my right hand up and began to rub him behind his ears, just as I did to the cat inside when I wanted to make it purr. But the donkey stiffened instead. Undeterred I brought the bridle up and let it down gently over its ears. The bit bounced off the donkey’s nose. Its mouth opened, its neck stretched, and it came forward and clamped its teeth on my shoulder.
I yelled and tried to pull back. But the donkey’s hoof was on my foot and I was trapped. I yelled and yelled and Mick and Barry flapped at the donkey’s face. It suddenly let go, reared up on its rear legs, and I was free. The donkey bounced away, neighing and tossing its head to get rid of the bridle, and disappeared towards the far end of the field. I sat on the grass nursing my shoulder.
‘You all right, pard?’ Mick drawled, while Barry looked on anxiously. The kid brother trotted up and looked down at my eyes.
‘You were told not to go near the dunk-key,’ he said triumphantly. He stared down at my eyes. He was dying to see me cry.
The evening wind was beginning to ruffle the grass on the barrows. We heard the maid’s shrill voice calling our names. I got to my feet. Mick and Barry crowded around. I pulled my shirt back. One of my shoulders was red. I rubbed it.
‘You ok, pardner?’ Mick drawled quietly.
‘It’s only a flesh wound,’ I said. I swaggered off, keeping my face away from them, and settled my shirt, stuffing the ends into the top of my shorts and closing the top buttons to make sure the redness would be fully hidden at the tea-table.
The maid called again. Together myself, Barry and Mick shaded our eyes, pulling unseen Stetsons down over our foreheads. We looked to where the sun was settling on top of the far away hills and then the three of us swung our eyes thoughtfully down at the long shadows darkening the valley below the hill.
‘Time to saddle up, boys,’ we said, almost in unison.
Barry and John waved as they began running down the hill. The kid brother looked up at my face. He was still hoping to see me cry.
‘Time we lit out, kid. And keep yur lip buttoned when we rein in. Ok?’
© Paul D Kennedy, July 2007