My short story, Luther’s Trench was recently chosen among the best contributions to Tidepools literary magazine over the past fifty years. Luther’s Trench was the first place fiction in 1994. I haven’t seen it in years. I’m still pleased.
by Bob Rogers
The sawdust and horse manure was cool against Luther’s face. He wondered why he didn’t hurt more. The left runner of the oak sled, laden with half a ton of concrete blocks, angled steeply across his hips and ribcage. He struggled, coughed, and spat out a bloody wad of Mail Pouch.
The Percherons hitched to the sled moved about nervously. The mare raised her tail and streamed steaming urine into the loam beside his hand.
A mob of crows squabbled from the oaks on the ridge. The scent of woodsmoke and rotting vegetation found him. He clawed at the dirt, a rock sticking out of the trench wall. No use in that. The effort made him gasp and brought the pain.
The young horse stepped on the electric cattle-prod lying near him, shied, and the team lunged forward. Luther screamed as the sled dragged him several yards. The weight settled full on him and consciousness left.
The mare shook her harness. The hardware jingled softly. He opened his eyes; shadows had lengthened, the light warmed. He could hear cars on the county road, and thought he should yell, but knew it was no use. Only the team’s heads were visible above the five foot deep trench. People were accustomed to the two horses there where he trained them to pull the weighted sleds. The narrow trench confined them when he shocked them with the cattle prod. He left them there overnight, when they didn’t pull to his liking.
No one would miss him. His wife was gone. Went to live with their girl. The grown son never came around.
“Well,” he spoke to the team. “Looks like you won this one too. You won ever pull you was in, and now you beat me.”
He vomited. Blood and bile ran back into his face. He wondered how long it would take to die. He lay quietly, smelled the sawdust and horse piss, his own dying. He wondered what a dying man ought to think about:
The farm never had amounted to much. It was a struggle just to keep from loosing the place to the bank. Everything he tried turned bad. Plowed at the wrong time. Planted at the wrong time. Crops nobody wanted to buy.
Married that woman. He never was good enough for her and she let him know it. Screamed at him. Made him sleep in the barn if anything wasn’t just right, which was most of the time. Soon as the kids came along it got worse and he took to sleeping in the barn with the horses. Put in a little wood stove and stayed out there on an old mattress. People thought he was odd and felt sorry for the family.
He knew how to pick horses. Always got good stud fees, and his foals bid high at the livestock auction. Not enough money in it for the woman though.
There were the pulling contests. Not much of a thing to think about now, laying under the horses like this.
His teams always won the county fair and then the next county over, and finally all around. Even that had turned bad. People didn’t like the way he did it. He never could figure why you were supposed to win, but when you did, they hated you for it. They could go to hell. The barn was full of trophys. Every sill and lintel had one. But, nobody came to see the trophys, to stand and chew and talk horses. Nobody.
“Luther,” said the judge, as Luther hooked his horses up to the sled. “You know you can’t use one of them damn things in a pulling contest, put the cattle-prod back in your truck. You can use it to train your horses, if you think you have to, but you can’t use it here.”
Luther spit a stream of tobacco juice into the dirt near the man’s foot. “I ain’t got no batteries in it so it’s just like any other goddamn stick. It’s legal. Now let me get about my business.”
Luther’s pulls always put the crowd down. His horses lunged against the harness when he cursed and prodded them. The other teams were eased into the load, and they pulled for as long as they could, got a pat on the neck, a lump of sugar, and warm applause.
When the judge gave the go-ahead, Luther yelled and poked the horses around the anus. He didn’t even let up when the young one stumbled and fell to his knees. The pull was long, would prove to be the winning one, but it wasn’t good enough for Luther. He beat them in the face. His curses echoed from the silent grandstand.
It was quiet on the county road, the harvest moon was high. He was cold, and the pain was worse. The dying wasn’t going to be any easier for him than anything else he ever did.
The horses shook their harness’ and stamped their feet. They stood over him and steamed in the blue light.
“Still with me are you?”
“Guess you don’t have no choice. Makes that sled hard to drag don’t it, having me stuck under it.”
Luther coughed and spit, black this time.
“I suppose I could unhitch you.” He reached out to touch the cold cotter pin. “You could sashay out this ditch without a ounce of weight to pull nor a look back; wander down the road, find some grass, maybe somebody who’d feed you some corn, ease your harness.”
“Can’t do that just yet. Might wonder why I cut you loose, and come looking for me.”
“Stay with me now.”
Luther concentrated on the breathing of the horses. The pain eased and he faded.
The mare stepped on Luther’s hand in the soft dirt. The moon was in the west and dawn not long off. There was frost on the sled. It hurt him to take the cold air in, and he was tired. It was time. He twisted the pin out and let the singletrees clatter to the dirt beside him.
“Git up. Git up now.”
The mare turned her head to look at him, turned back, didn’t move.
“Go on now. Git.”
Her breath in the cold blue air, and the sound of it, in and out, in and out.
“Suppose I’ll have to go first.”
He rested his palm on the mare’s leg and felt her coarse hair. Luther listened to her breathing for as long as he could. The last thing, was the pulse of her warm blood surging against his palm.
“I found them down by the creek this afternoon,” Luther’s neighbor told the Deputy. “All harnessed-up, dragging the singletrees.”
“What’d you do then John?”
“Like I said, Billy, I brung the team over here and hollered for Luther. I didn’t hear anything, so I led them to the barn, give them some grain. I had an idea what might a happened and I was scared to come over here to look. Luther never did nothing with his horses but shock them in this damn trench. Finally I come over here and found him like this.”
They stood for a long time beside the trench, their backs to Luther, watching the Hickories on the hill drop their last leaves.
“The Coroner is on the way, but I figure it’s not hard to tell what he died of. Horses got away from him and drug that thing up over him.” said the Deputy. “Hard way to go. I hope the family don’t want that team put-down. That’s a choice pair.”
“I know Luther’s boy pretty good,” said John. “He lives over in Kenova and works at the steel mill. He used to call me to ask about Luther. I think he’d sell them to me. Might put them on that back pasture to knock down the thistles. They don’t need to do no more pulling.”
He wiped a brown hand over his face, resettled his cap and looked to the far oaks. “Give them one last job. Take the dragline they dug it with, and fill in Luther’s trench.”