Chapter Two: Country Mice and City Horses
He gently tapped the small hammer against the brass bolt. Little tinks resonated outward, carrying from the table like dandelions on the wind. The sun shone down on that piece of furniture, and the cottage not far from it. The scent of summer was strong upon the air.
Every few moments, the young man would look up from his task, peering into the distance. Fierce yells flew out from the man in the field, followed by snorts of protest and the occasional whinny. The slap of a riding crop also echoed out past the fence, so loudly that the young man believed even the people from Greenwood would likely hear it.
A sigh passed by his lips, and he shrugged. There was nothing that he could do to settle his father’s temper. Looking down, he withdrew back into his work.
The long wooden table was covered with what looked like various pieces of junk. Some mangled old tools lay scattered about, beside piles of brass tubes and copper wires. Small gears were stacked into tiny towers, the only equipment that seemed to be organized in any manner.
Beside the man’s work bench, four poles were covered by a mildew-stained old sheet. The odor was powerful, even among the breeze that carried forth from the west.
That smell didn’t bother him. Whenever he had a tool in his hand, he was oblivious to the simpler things in life. The scent of a recently passed storm, the savory taste of buttermilk biscuits, the passing of a nearby dragonfly – all those things were lost to him.
The slap of that riding crop pulled him from his focus.
He looked up, hearing the harsh words that his father shouted. The black steed rose high in the air, kicking its front hooves out, forcing the man back. As the horse landed, the man stepped to the side, grasping the steed’s mane fiercely. When he steadied that animal, he stopped and looked back toward the cottage.
Eye contact was only made for a second before the son hastily turned back toward the table. He thought he could hear his father contentious grumbling, but from that distance, there was no way to be sure.
Once again he focused on the tools before him. He picked up his small hammer and gently tapped at the piece of brass until it finally pressed through the leather strap. The young man swept his hands over the table, moving parchments to and fro. He stopped then, noticing the equipment he was looking for. A small, yet dense vise sat on the opposite corner of the table.
Grinning, he reached into his pocket and produced a shining object, not much bigger than the palm of his hand. He set it down, sweeping away his tools. When he moved back, a windup mouse was before him.
He leaned forward again, pressing one hand on the brass rodent. He spun the dial that protruded out with his other hand, until the device protested. A subtle click announced his intentions, and he let the gadget free.
The mouse zipped forward, remaining perfectly in the lane that the tinkerer had created for it. The scraps and tools on either side were just far enough away for the clockwork critter to finish the duty it had been tasked with.
With a miniscule pop, the mouse reached its destination. Its nose struck the vise firmly, and briefly, it stopped. Only a moment later, it began spinning around, turning to face back the way it came, without any margin of error.
Chugging forward, the gadget barely slowed despite the added weight. Though the vise was larger than it, there was no significant delay in its return. As it reached the inventor, he smiled. He grasped it in one hand, letting the gears within finish their momentum. Once the subtle buzz subsided, he pulled the vise away from the mouse’s nose.
Setting down his crafted assistant, the young man flinched when he heard the sudden, loud crack. He began carefully inspecting the rodent when he realized what had happened. Another crack resounded as his father’s riding crop landed upon the black steed’s hindquarters.
Sighing heavily, he forced himself to keep his attention on the table.
He took the vise and placed it around the brass bolt he had so delicately tapped through the leather strap earlier. Tightening it, he set it down upon the table. Finally, he gathered up a larger mallet. He steadied the vise beneath it as he lifted the hammer high. After a score of hefty strikes, he stopped, looking intently upon his work. The end of the bolt had become flattened and wide. It wouldn’t pull from the leather, of that much he was sure.
When angry shouts carried over from the fields, he gnashed his teeth together, and hurriedly set to work on the opposite side of the strap. The same way as before, eh carefully nudged the bolt through the strap before flattening the end.
Once both bolts were firmly in place, he held the leather out before him. He pulled it out wide, eyeing it over with great effort. Content, he placed it upon the bench, and hammered the other sides of the bolts as well. Unless a wider slit was cut into the leather, none of the brass could ever be tugged free.
With his work completed, he braced his hands on the wood. Without the hammering to distract him, he couldn’t remove the horse’s painful protests from his ears. His body grew rigid, then, as he heard another loud shout.
“Maximus!” the man yelled.
The young man wondered, then, if his father had tried to summon him earlier, but couldn’t because of the continuous pound of the mallet. He swallowed hard, and turned to the field, where his father leaned over the fence.
“Get out here, boy!” he cried.
Bowing his head, Maximus subtly nodded. He gathered his latest creation before reaching under the table and retrieving two other leather objects. One housed a brass bar, but the other was more akin to a sack.
Wary of making his father angry, the young tinkerer began heading toward the field. Perspiration marred the older man’s brow, and his skin was flushed red. Maximus was well aware that the heat had not caused that fiery tincture. His lower jaw protruded past his upper lip then, a sure sign that he was not pleased.
“How many damned times have I gotta tell you to stop playing around with those toys and help me break these new horses?” he called out.
“They’re not toys,” Maximus grumbled. He immediately regretted his tone more than the words, and bowed his head even further.
His father slapped the riding crop against the fence. He gnashed his teeth together so hard that the horse beside him shook its head in agitation. “If those gadgets you make don’t help out around the farm, they ain’t nothin but toys. It’s just you and me here, and I can’t have you lazin around all day. Not with those new neighbors we got.”
Far beyond their field, almost farther than either could see, a pristine cottage had been erected. The humble beginnings of a life were noticeable there. The newcomers that arrived were putting up a fence as well.
“These fields used to be all ours,” his father grumbled. “Now that those city folk decided to put down roots out here, they’ll be encroaching on our land.”
A brief silence persisted before Maximus reached his father, who stared off to the east where the unfamiliar people had settled.
“Do you really think they’re from the city?” the son asked.
His father spit on the ground. “Sure as the sky is grey,” he said. “You’re either born country or you’re not. I don’t know why they left the city, but I’m not much for caring. They’ll come here with their so-called better, industrial ways. In due time, they’ll taint the land and move on, like a pack of damned vultures.” He ripped the gloves from his hands and tossed them on the ground just outside of the fence.
Maximus could only shrug. He looked away as his father climbed the fence and hopped to the other side.
“Well get in there, boy,” he snarled. “Now that we’ve got competition, this ain’t gonna be a free ride anymore. You want your keep, you’re gonna earn it.”
Again, the young man lightly nodded. When his father stared at him with wide eyes, he climbed over the fence, and landed beside the strong black steed. The horse kicked at the dirt and snorted.
“Now you be careful in there,” the father said. For a moment, Maximus felt caught off balance by the kind words. “If you go and get yourself hurt, you’ll have to set it yourself. I’ve not got time to send you to a proper cleric.”
Bowing his head again, the young man grumbled to himself. He could feel his skin flushing red, and had to fight against the moisture rising to the rim of his eyes. He squared his jaw and looked up, and he was surprised to see his father walking away.
“What’s his name?” Maximus called out.
“What’s it matter?” He never turned around, but he did shout again. “Calling him Charcoal, cause he’s naught but a big lump of stone that won’t be good for anything other than burning.”
His father reached their small cottage then, and swiftly entered it, slamming the door behind him. Maximus could see his papers rustling on his workbench, and witnessed as one blew away in the gentle breeze. His foot was upon the bottom rung of the fence in an instant, but he hesitated, fully aware of the punishment for shirking his duty.
The tinkerer dropped to his knees and gathered the leather sack. He reached inside, and pulled out a small brush, wiry bristles tightly gathered within an old wooden block. When he turned toward the horse, he seemed bigger than he remembered.
The tall steed’s ears were pointed backward, and his head was held high. Every breath was loud, almost unpleasant. Maximus wondered if it was a good idea to climb into the pen with the powerful beast.
Still, he knew the one that he lived with could potentially make his life far worse. He took a deep breath and a step forward, the brush held firmly in his hand. With every foot he advanced, the horse backed away, his ears flicking in protest.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” the young man said. “I just want to brush you and make sure you don’t kick me in the face.”
The steed snorted at that statement, and the tinkerer halted for a brief moment. He blew out a large sigh, and kept pressing forward, reaching around the side of the large animal.
Charcoal jerked his head to the side, pushing the lad away. He stamped the ground fiercely, and slapped his tail to either side.
“Look, I don’t like the situation you’re in either,” Maximus said. “But it’s only going to get worse if you don’t cooperate. My father isn’t a pleasant man.”
That admission seemed to calm the horse. The young man swallowed hard again, and reached out with his empty hand, placing it upon the horse’s muzzle.
He didn’t expect the sudden rise. Charcoal reared, lifting high into the air, his hooves just missing Maximus as he skittered away. He breathed heavily, throwing his hands up to placate the animal.
Maximus shook his head, then, and turned around, peering out at the setting sun. He walked away from the horse, kneeled beside the fence, and grabbed the leather sack.
Without the brush sitting within it, the scent of cut grains wafted outward. The young man didn’t really care for it, and barely noticed it. He began to stand, but hesitated. Instead, he fell to his rump, crossing his legs. A pronounced sigh left his parted lips.
“You and I aren’t so different, I’d wager,” he said. “Both of us would probably rather be in the city. Ever since Mother died, this hasn’t felt like home anymore. I can’t stand it out here, with all this emptiness and not a friend in the world.
“One of these days, I’m just going to get up and go,” he continued. “I’ll leave this place, and never –”
He was silence then, when Charcoal dipped his head over his shoulder. Maximus grew tense, until the horse buried its face in the leather sack, chomping away at the grains within. The young man reached up with one hand, gently patting the feeding animal.
When Charcoal didn’t shy away from that touch, a weak smile crept to the lad’s face. He sat there and shrugged, a little chortle rising into the air. He simply stared ahead, allowing the horse to continue eating.
After some time, the black steed rose up, away from the feedbag. Maximus stood as well, and turned around, a grin still wide across his face.
“Maybe you and I will end up getting along after all,” he said. “Two city lovers all the way out here in the wilderness, we’ve got nothing to lean on but each other.”
As the young man spoke, the horse turned its head to the side, its large eye pointed at Maximus.
“Maybe if we both do well enough, Father won’t have any reason to complain. In time, perhaps even he’ll have a soft side.”
He reached out, his fingers inching toward Charcoal’s face. Again, the horse began to take steps away from the tinker. He noticed, though, that the steps had become much smaller.
“Well,” Maximus said, shrugging, “that’s still some progress.”