The pony carried a sack of seed or corn that sagged from side the side as the pony waddled along. It was old and fat but looked capable of dragging a prisoner….”
by brian doyle
To drag the prisoner properly behind a horse you had to have a horse, and there were no horses in the village square, so Peter was sent to find a horse. The rest of the men waited with the prisoner, who sat quietly.
Peter walked briskly down the hill toward the river, thinking that there might be a cart-horse on the road, or a horse pulling a barge.
It was a crisp October day, one of those days when the edges of things are cut cleanly against the clean sky. The leaves in the trees were golden although here and there, in patches and groves of maples and oaks, there were searing burns of red.
After about a mile he saw a big brown horse pulling a barge. The horse was enormous – sixteen hands high maybe.
He stood on the bank and shouted at the boat and to his surprise a boy came out of the cabin.
What do you want? said the boy.
I need to take your horse, said Peter. Pull the boat over and I will explain.
No, said the boy.
This is a military emergency, said Peter.
No, said the boy.
I’ll cut him loose and take him, then, said Peter.
I don’t think so, said a voice behind him, and there were two men of the village who had heard the exchange.
Peter ran on. He heard the men shouting behind him. He ran for another mile before he found another horse. This was more of a pony but it would have to do. Two old men were walking with it. The pony carried a sack of seed or corn that sagged from side the side as the pony waddled along. It was old and fat but looked capable of dragging a prisoner.
I need to commandeer your pony, said Peter, running up.
What? said one of the old men.
I need it right now to execute a prisoner.
It’s wrong to put a murder on an animal, said the other old man.
Peter wrenched the animal’s harness away from the first old man but the second man shouted I am a priest and held up a crucifix that he’d fumblingly yanked from under his shirt. His shout brought a handful of villagers to their doors and Peter cursed and ran on, not wanting to be held up by the villagers.
He ran up a hill to scout out where there might be horses. A long golden field ran down the whole swell of the hill to the south and at the far edge there was a mule. Peter ran down through the field as fast as he could go. The mule, startled at his approach, galloped away. It was a good twenty minutes before Peter could catch it and by then he was furious. He mounted the mule and kicked it all the way back to the village square.
The prisoner was still sitting quietly in the ring of soldiers. For a moment they thought they would have to send Peter for rope too but another solider found a length of rope in a wine shop near the square.
They tied the prisoner behind the mule. It took a while – no one had actually done it before and they didn’t know if you put the prisoner face-up or face-down, or lengthwise, or what. Finally they looped the rope around the middle of the mule and tied the prisoner’s hands and feet together at the other end of the rope, so he was curled in a ball.
The prisoner said that this position hurt his back a great deal but they ignored him.
The mule stood fairly patiently through all this but bucked twice when too many men came near him. Peter went to stand at his head and calmed him some.
He must be a one-man mule, someone said.
Finally matters were all settled and the knots checked but then they stood around talking again, for none of them knew if they were supposed to send the mule and the prisoner flying through the square to flay the prisoner, or just walk back to camp with the mule dragging the prisoner slowly. They were all young men and while they knew that it was traditional that the prisoner be dragged behind a horse they weren’t sure of the exact details of the thing.
Let’s go get an old man who will know, someone said.
So Peter was sent again.
He went back to the golden hill where he’d found the mule and there just over the lip of the hill, in a little dingle, was a little chapel and there were the two old men, the priest and the old man whose pony Peter was going to take but didn’t. When Peter ran up the priest pulled out his cross again and held it up and the old man held his pony’s head protectively.
Go away, thief, said the old man.
Peter explained about the prisoner.
Well, said the priest, the tradition is that a prisoner be dragged behind a horse only if he has been sleeping with the wrong person, female or male. It’s a religious tradition. What has this man done?
He’s the enemy, explained Peter. We caught him by the river.
But what’s he done? asked the priest.
He’s with the enemy, and they’ve done terrible things to you.
They’ve done nothing to me, said the old man. You were going to steal my pony, though.
I am protecting you, said Peter. They’ll kill you.
You’re protecting me by stealing my pony? said the old man.
We’ve done nothing to them, said the priest.
They want your land, said Peter. That’s why we are fighting them.
He wants our land? said the first old man.
His people want your land, said Peter. Listen – when we drag a man behind the mule, do we do that fast or slow?
Has he slept with a woman not his wife? said the priest.
I don’t know, said Peter. Yes, yes, he has. So – fast or slow?
Is there a witness to his crime? said the priest.
No, there’s no witness, but we know, said Peter.
Did his wife accuse him? said the priest.
Okay, fine, forget it, we’ll drag him fast, said Peter, and ran back to the square.
Fast! he shouted to his fellows. Three times around the square as fast as he can go!
They had a devil of a time getting the mule to move very quickly, but then finally one of the soldiers lost his temper and fashioned a whip from a willow branch and he whipped the mule as hard as he could, and the mule clattered off around the square, the soldier chasing after it whipping it until its hindquarters were bloody. The prisoner screamed steadily the first time around the square but by the second time around he’d fallen silent and the only sounds were the soldier and the mule panting, and the swish of the whip, and the clatter of the mule’s hooves on the stones.
When the mule had done three turns they stopped it and two soldiers had to take the soldier with the whip over in a corner to calm him down. The prisoner was a mess and they cut him loose. Two soldiers wanted to bury the prisoner but their sergeant said they didn’t have time. He told them to drag the prisoner to the river. The mule stood there panting.
Peter said that he should take the mule back to its field but his sergeant said they didn’t have time. They lined up and marched down to the river to meet the other two soldiers, who said that a boy on a barge had watched them dump the prisoner.
Should we kill the boy? they asked.
We don’t have time, said the sergeant.
I feel bad about the mule, said Peter.
He’ll find his way back, said the sergeant kindly. Animals are smart. Don’t you worry. As soon as we are gone it will head right home. Not to worry. Good job finding the mule, Peter. Well done.
(illustration: john richen)
Brian Doyle is the author of six books, most recently THE WET ENGINE, about hearts and all. It’s not bad. Among his awards and such are (a) a woman married him, (b) the Coherent Mercy granted them three children, and (c) he was named to the 1983 all-star team in the Newton Massachusetts Men’s League, which was a really tough league, you drove to the hole in that league you lost fingers, one time a guy drove the lane and got hit so hard his arm came off, but he was lefty anyway and hit both free throws. Supposedly he then left his arm in a toll booth basket on the Mass Pike but that might be apocryphal. More from Brian Doyle can be found in the Vault of Smoke. (bio/2004)
Brian Doyle was the author of many books, including the sea novel The Plover, which has, no kidding, music printed in it, not to mention Mink River, Martin Marten, The Wet Engine, and more than we can recall. He won the 2017 John Burroughs Medal for distinguished nature writing for Martin Marten, which was plenty cool and much deserved. Brian passed away peacefully at his Lake Oswego home on May 27, 2017.
More, much more, from Brian Doyle can be found in the Vault of Smoke.