Steeds 18

14 04 2017

Sheriff Leall stood before the class of twenty children who ranged in age from six to fourteen. He did not stand front and center; that position he gave to Miss De Havilland. Instead, he stood a few steps to her right and closer to the tall windows lining the west side of the schoolhouse. His hat was off. He held it in his left hand at belt level, but right of center so that it partly concealed his holstered Schofield revolver.

“You are all accustomed to being asked questions,” he said. “Allow me to begin by asking one.” He spoke loudly, more so than necessary. This allowed the sound of his voice to carry from the open windows and doors to Freyja, who remained out front. Lee preferred keeping her aware of his presence as much as possible, if not by sight, then by sound and even scent. “Among all the animals of the earth, which one has been the most significant in the history of the world?”

Without hesitation, a girl’s hand shot up.

“Ethel,” Miss De Havilland said.

“Dogs.”

“Try that again, Ethel.”

“Oh.” Ethel left her seat to stand at attention. “The most important animals in the world are dogs.”

Miss De Havilland turned to Lee and said, “Ethel received a puppy this spring.”

“Ah,” Lee said. “And what kind of dog did you receive?”

“He’s a mutt, but he’s a good-looking mutt. And he’s a good dog. We’re good friends.”

“I can agree that the dog is man’s best friend. Humans and dogs have been living and working and playing together for many thousands of years. Dogs provide us many services, so many that it would be difficult to carry on without them. Can you name any of these services?”

Ethel thought for a few seconds. “Dogs make us smile. Dogs make us feel warm and comfortable inside. Dogs don’t care if we are young or old, fat or thin, rich or poor, ugly or pretty. They don’t call us names; they don’t talk behind our backs. Dogs don’t leave you or forsake you.”

“Very good. Thank you.”

“You may be seated, Ethel,” Miss De Havilland said. “Does anyone else have something to add about the services dogs give us?”

Another hand went up.

“Jesse.”

Jesse stood. “Dogs herd other animals. Sheep. Cattle. Our dog herds our chickens and ducks. He even tries to herd our cats.”

“Dogs herd livestock,” Lee said. “They also guard livestock. They guard property, and people.”

Another hand.

“Mark.”

“They hunt. They help with hunting. They track. They catch. They retrieve. Exactly what they do and how they do it depends on the kind of dog.”

“True,” said Lee. “Hunting and herding, guarding and protecting, I would say those are the biggest jobs dogs perform for people. Attend to the words of my question, however. I did not ask, ‘What is the most important animal in the world?’ I asked, ‘Which one has been the most significant in the history of the world?’ Do you note the difference?”

No hands went up.

“Sheriff Leall asks a good question,” said Miss De Havilland. “Do think about it.”

One girl had her right hand half way up, but her left hand held it as if holding it down.

“Harriet, do you have something to say?”

Harriet did not move.

“Could it be … a cow?” Miss De Havilland asked. “Could it be … a sheep? Or a goat? Could it be a rat?”

Some children laughed. Others sneered.

“If you lived in Europe some five hundred years ago, when the Black Plague was rampant, your answer might settle on the rat,” the teacher said. “What about … a bee?”

All the faces expressed bewilderment.

“Don’t you know how important bees are to farming?” Miss De Havilland asked.

No hands went up. No heads moved to shake or nod.

“I see we have a topic to discuss in science.”

Lee said, “Let me help. I daresay you are all at least a little familiar with steam engines. You have all seen―and heard―steam-powered locomotives.”

Heads nodded.

“You may have seen a steam-powered fire engine. Our small city of Uttica has one, not yet two years old. Mascoutin has one.”

Heads nodded again.

“You may have seen steamboats on the Fox River. Certainly you have heard and read about them. You have heard and read about steamships sailing the Great Lakes as well as the high seas. And you have heard and read about steam engines providing power in so many of our nation’s manufactories. Now, when men speak of the power of these engines, what term do they often use?”

A hand went up.

“Willy.”

“Horsepower.”

“Again, please,” said the teacher.

“Men describe the strength of a steam engine by saying how much horsepower it has.”

“Yes,” said Lee. “I suppose one could just as well employ a term referring to ox-power. Oxen do a great deal of work for humans; they put in long hours and pull heavy loads. But the term is horsepower, and there are reasons for that.” Lee swung his hat from right to left. “Who among you can name a famous horse?”

Many hands went up.

“Lewis.”

“Traveller.”

“Again, please.”

“Traveller was the name of General Robert E. Lee’s horse.”

“Naomi.”

“Black Bess was the name of Dick Turpin’s horse.”

“Michael.”

“Marengo was the name of Napoleon’s horse.”

“Martha.”

“Widow Maker was the name of Pecos Bill’s horse.”

Miss De Havilland smiled. “I’ll accept that. Benjamin.”

“Fauvel was the name of King Richard the Lionheart’s horse. Tencendur was the name of Charlemagne’s horse.”

“Peter.”

“Yeah. And Babieca was El Cid’s. Durendal and Veillantif were Sir Roland’s. And Hengroen was King Arthur’s.”

Lee said, “May I deduce many, if not all, of you are more than pupils? You are students. You have done a good deal of reading, or your teacher has done a good deal of reading to you.”

“True on both counts, actually,” said Miss De Havilland.

“But you forgot the name of Alexander the Great’s horse.”

No hands went up.

“Bucephalus,” said Miss De Havilland.

“Again, please,” said Lee.

Children giggled. Miss De Havilland smiled. “Alexander’s horse was Bucephalus.”

“Now,” said Lee, “who can name a famous dog?”

Hesitation. After some seconds went by, one hand was raised.

“Carla.”

“How about Cerberus?”

“That is an answer to consider,” Lee said. “Cerebus, the hound of Hades, having three heads and a snake for a tail. Being a creature of myth, it’s hardly a dog. If it ever existed, it was in reality a demon. But you make my point. Humans remember horses, individual horses. And the answer to my question about what animal on earth has been the most significant in the history of the world is … the horse.

“Many other animals have become important to us, but it is the horse that has been present and active in so very many of the turning points in human history. You will note how many of the steeds you named were warhorses. You now have a topic to discuss in history. What would have happened if the horses had not participated?

“It is written, ‘From whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not; ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain; ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.’

“I have been to war. I have been in battle. I have seen men and horses alike die, and I have heard men and horses alike scream in agony because of their mortal wounds. I have ridden horses who heard those screams, and heard the gunfire, who smelled the gun smoke blinding them, and the flowing blood frightening them. Yet they charged forward. Even while men ran to the rear in madding fear, they ran forward.

“Why?

“What would have happened if all the horses of all history, in seeing the sword of the Angel of the Lord, had behaved like Balaam’s donkey?

“What is it that we owe them, creatures who are innocent of the lusts of sinful men?”

 

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