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Chapter 16 – Taming The Colt

Louisa May AlcottNov 05, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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"What in the world is that boy doing?" said Mrs. Jo to herself, as
she watched Dan running round the half-mile triangle as if for a
wager. He was all alone, and seemed possessed by some strange
desire to run himself into a fever, or break his neck; for, after
several rounds, he tried leaping walls, and turning somersaults up
the avenue, and finally dropped down on the grass before the door
as if exhausted.

"Are you training for a race, Dan?" asked Mrs. Jo, from the
window where she sat.

He looked up quickly, and stopped panting to answer, with a
laugh,

"No; I’m only working off my steam."

"Can’t you find a cooler way of doing it? You will be ill if you tear
about so in such warm weather," said Mrs. Jo, laughing also, as she
threw him out a great palm-leaf fan.

"Can’t help it. I must run somewhere," answered Dan, with such an
odd expression in his restless eyes, that Mrs. Jo was troubled, and
asked, quickly,

"Is Plumfield getting too narrow for you?"

"I wouldn’t mind if it was a little bigger. I like it though; only the
fact is the devil gets into me sometimes, and then I do want to
bolt."

The words seemed to come against his will, for he looked sorry the
minute they were spoken, and seemed to think he deserved a
reproof for his ingratitude. But Mrs. Jo understood the feeling, and
though sorry to see it, she could not blame the boy for confessing
it. She looked at him anxiously, seeing how tall and strong he had
grown, how full of energy his face was, with its eager eyes and
resolute mouth; and remembering the utter freedom he had known
for years before, she felt how even the gentle restraint of this home
would weigh upon him at times when the old lawless spirit stirred
in him. "Yes," she said to herself, "my wild hawk needs a larger
cage; and yet, if I let him go, I am afraid he will be lost. I must try
and find some lure strong enough to keep him safe."

"I know all about it," she added, aloud. "It is not ‘the devil,’ as you
call it, but the very natural desire of all young people for liberty. I
used to feel just so, and once, I really did think for a minute that I
would bolt."

"Why didn’t you?" said Dan, coming to lean on the low
window-ledge, with an evident desire to continue the subject.

"I knew it was foolish, and love for my mother kept me at home."

"I haven’t got any mother," began Dan.

"I thought you had now," said Mrs. Jo, gently stroking the rough
hair off his hot forehead.

"You are no end good to me, and I can’t ever thank you enough,
but it just isn’t the same, is it?" and Dan looked up at her with a
wistful, hungry look that went to her heart.

"No, dear, it is not the same, and never can be. I think an own
mother would have been a great deal to you. But as that cannot be,
you must try to let me fill her place. I fear I have not done all I
ought, or you would not want to leave me," she added, sorrowfully.

"Yes, you have!" cried Dan, eagerly. "I don’t want to go, and I
won’t go, if I can help it; but every now and then I feel as if I must
burst out somehow. I want to run straight ahead somewhere, to
smash something, or pitch into somebody. Don’t know why, but I
do, and that’s all about it."

Dan laughed as he spoke, but he meant what he said, for he knit
his black brows, and brought down his fist on the ledge with such
force, that Mrs. Jo’s thimble flew off into the grass. He brought it
back, and as she took it she held the big, brown hand a minute,
saying, with a look that showed the words cost her something

"Well, Dan, run if you must, but don’t run very far; and come back
to me soon, for I want you very much."

He was rather taken aback by this unexpected permission to play
truant, and somehow it seemed to lessen his desire to go. He did
not understand why, but Mrs. Jo did, and, knowing the natural
perversity of the human mind, counted on it to help her now. She
felt instinctively that the more the boy was restrained the more he
would fret against it; but leave him free, and the mere sense of
liberty would content him, joined to the knowledge that his
presence was dear to those whom he loved best. It was a little
experiment, but it succeeded, for Dan stood silent a moment,
unconsciously picking the fan to pieces and turning the matter over
in his mind. He felt that she appealed to his heart and his honor,
and owned that he understood it by saying presently, with a
mixture of regret and resolution in his face,

"I won’t go yet awhile, and I’ll give you fair warning before I bolt.
That’s fair, isn’t it?"

"Yes, we will let it stand so. Now, I want to see if I can’t find some
way for you to work off your steam better than running about the
place like a mad dog, spoiling my fans, or fighting with the boys.
What can we invent?" and while Dan tried to repair the mischief
he had done, Mrs. Jo racked her brain for some new device to keep
her truant safe until he had learned to love his lessons better.

"How would you like to be my express-man?" she said, as a sudden
thought popped into her head.

"Go into town, and do the errands?" asked Dan, looking interested
at once.

"Yes; Franz is tired of it, Silas cannot be spared just now, and Mr.
Bhaer has no time. Old Andy is a safe horse, you are a good driver,
and know your way about the city as well as a postman. Suppose
you try it, and see if it won’t do most as well to drive away two or
three times a week as to run away once a month."

"I’d like it ever so much, only I must go alone and do it all myself.
I don’t want any of the other fellows bothering round," said Dan,
taking to the new idea so kindly that he began to put on business
airs already.

"If Mr. Bhaer does not object you shall have it all your own way. I
suppose Emil will growl, but he cannot be trusted with horses, and
you can. By the way, to-morrow is market-day, and I must make
out my list. You had better see that the wagon is in order, and tell
Silas to have the fruit and vegetables ready for mother. You will
have to be up early and get back in time for school, can you do
that?"

"I’m always an early bird, so I don’t mind," and Dan slung on his
jacket with despatch.

"The early bird got the worm this time, I’m sure," said Mrs. Jo,
merrily.

"And a jolly good worm it is," answered Dan, as he went laughing
away to put a new lash to the whip, wash the wagon, and order
Silas about with all the importance of a young express-man.

"Before he is tired of this I will find something else and have it
ready when the next restless fit comes on," said Mrs. Jo to herself,
as she wrote her list with a deep sense of gratitude that all her boys
were not Dans.

Mr. Bhaer did not entirely approve of the new plan, but agreed to
give it a trial, which put Dan on his mettle, and caused him to give
up certain wild plans of his own, in which the new lash and the
long hill were to have borne a part. He was up and away very early
the next morning, heroically resisting the temptation to race with
the milkmen going into town. Once there, he did his errands
carefully, to Mr. Bhaer’s surprise and Mrs. Jo’s great satisfaction.
The Commodore did growl at Dan’s promotion, but was pacified
by a superior padlock to his new boat-house, and the thought that
seamen were meant for higher honors than driving market-wagons
and doing family errands. So Dan filled his new office well and
contentedly for weeks, and said no more about bolting. But one
day Mr. Bhaer found him pummelling Jack, who was roaring for
mercy under his knee.

"Why, Dan, I thought you had given up fighting," he said, as he
went to the rescue.

"We ain’t fighting, we are only wrestling," answered Dan, leaving
off reluctantly.

"It looks very much like it, and feels like it, hey, Jack?" said Mr.
Bhaer, as the defeated gentleman got upon his legs with difficulty.

"Catch me wrestling with him again. He’s most knocked my head
off," snarled Jack, holding on to that portion of his frame as if it
really was loose upon his shoulders.

"The fact is, we began in fun, but when I got him down I couldn’t
help pounding him. Sorry I hurt you, old fellow," explained Dan,
looking rather ashamed of himself.

"I understand. The longing to pitch into somebody was so strong
you couldn’t resist. You are a sort of Berserker, Dan, and
something to tussle with is as necessary to you as music is to Nat,"
said Mr. Bhaer, who knew all about the conversation between the
boy and Mrs. Jo.

"Can’t help it. So if you don’t want to be pounded you’d better keep
out of the way," answered Dan, with a warning look in his black
eyes that made Jack sheer off in haste.

"If you want something to wrestle with, I will give you a tougher
specimen than Jack," said Mr. Bhaer; and, leading the way to the
wood-yard, he pointed out certain roots of trees that had been
grubbed up in the spring, and had been lying there waiting to be
split.

"There, when you feel inclined to maltreat the boys, just come and
work off your energies here, and I’ll thank you for it."

"So I will;" and, seizing the axe that lay near Dan hauled out a
tough root, and went at it so vigorously, that the chips flew far and
wide, and Mr. Bhaer fled for his life.

To his great amusement, Dan took him at his word, and was often
seen wrestling with the ungainly knots, hat and jacket off, red face,
and wrathful eyes; for he got into royal rages over some of his
adversaries, and swore at them under his breath till he had
conquered them, when he exulted, and marched off to the shed
with an armful of gnarled oak-wood in triumph. He blistered his
hands, tired his back, and dulled the axe, but it did him good, and
he got more comfort out of the ugly roots than any one dreamed,
for with each blow he worked off some of the pent-up power that
would otherwise have been expended in some less harmless way.

"When this is gone I really don’t know what I shall do," said Mrs.
Jo to herself, for no inspiration came, and she was at the end of her
resources.

But Dan found a new occupation for himself, and enjoyed it some
time before any one discovered the cause of his contentment. A
fine young horse of Mr. Laurie’s was kept at Plumfield that
summer, running loose in a large pasture across the brook. The
boys were all interested in the handsome, spirited creature, and for
a time were fond of watching him gallop and frisk with his plumey
tail flying, and his handsome head in the air. But they soon got
tired of it, and left Prince Charlie to himself. All but Dan, he never
tired of looking at the horse, and seldom failed to visit him each
day with a lump of sugar, a bit of bread, or an apple to make him
welcome. Charlie was grateful, accepted his friendship, and the
two loved one another as if they felt some tie between them,
inexplicable but strong. In whatever part of the wide field he might
be, Charlie always came at full speed when Dan whistled at the
bars, and the boy was never happier than when the beautiful, fleet
creature put its head on his shoulder, looking up at him with fine
eyes full of intelligent affection.

"We understand one another without any palaver, don’t we, old
fellow?" Dan would say, proud of the horse’s confidence, and, so
jealous of his regard, that he told no one how well the friendship
prospered, and never asked anybody but Teddy to accompany him
on these daily visits.

Mr. Laurie came now and then to see how Charlie got on, and
spoke of having him broken to harness in the autumn.

"He won’t need much taming, he is such a gentle, fine-tempered
brute. I shall come out and try him with a saddle myself some
day," he said, on one of these visits.

"He lets me put a halter on him, but I don’t believe he will bear a
saddle even if you put it on," answered Dan, who never failed to be
present when Charlie and his master met.

"I shall coax him to bear it, and not mind a few tumbles at first. He
has never been harshly treated, so, though he will be surprised at
the new performance, I think he won’t be frightened, and his antics
will do no harm."

"I wonder what he would do," said Dan to himself, as Mr. Laurie
went away with the Professor, and Charlie returned to the bars,
from which he had retired when the gentlemen came up.

A daring fancy to try the experiment took possession of the boy as
he sat on the topmost rail with the glossy back temptingly near
him. Never thinking of danger, he obeyed the impulse, and while
Charlie unsuspectingly nibbled at the apple he held, Dan quickly
and quietly took his seat. He did not keep it long, however, for
with an astonished snort, Charlie reared straight up, and deposited
Dan on the ground. The fall did not hurt him, for the turf was soft,
and he jumped up, saying, with a laugh,

"I did it anyway! Come here, you rascal, and I’ll try it again."

But Charlie declined to approach, and Dan left him resolving to
succeed in the end; for a struggle like this suited him exactly. Next
time he took a halter, and having got it on, he played with the
horse for a while, leading him to and fro, and putting him through
various antics till he was a little tired; then Dan sat on the wall and
gave him bread, but watched his chance, and getting a good grip of
the halter, slipped on to his back. Charlie tried the old trick, but
Dan held on, having had practice with Toby, who occasionally had
an obstinate fit, and tried to shake off his rider. Charlie was both
amazed and indignant; and after prancing for a minute, set off at a
gallop, and away went Dan heels over head. If he had not belonged
to the class of boys who go through all sorts of dangers unscathed,
he would have broken his neck; as it was, he got a heavy fall, and
lay still collecting his wits, while Charlie tore round the field
tossing his head with every sign of satisfaction at the discomfiture
of his rider. Presently it seemed to occur to him that something
was wrong with Dan, and, being of a magnanimous nature, he
went to see what the matter was. Dan let him sniff about and
perplex himself for a few minutes; then he looked up at him,
saying, as decidedly as if the horse could understand,

"You think you have beaten, but you are mistaken, old boy; and I’ll
ride you yet see if I don’t."

He tried no more that day, but soon after attempted a new method
of introducing Charlie to a burden. He strapped a folded blanket on
his back, and then let him race, and rear, and roll, and fume as
much as he liked. After a few fits of rebellion Charlie submitted,
and in a few days permitted Dan to mount him, often stopped short
to look round, as if he said, half patiently, half reproachfully, "I
don’t understand it, but I suppose you mean no harm, so I permit
the liberty."

Dan patted and praised him, and took a short turn every day,
getting frequent falls, but persisting in spite of them, and longing
to try a saddle and bridle, but not daring to confess what he had
done. He had his wish, however, for there had been a witness of
his pranks who said a good word for him.

"Do you know what that chap has ben doin’ lately?" asked Silas of
his master, one evening, as he received his orders for the next day.

"Which boy?" said Mr. Bhaer, with an air of resignation, expecting
some sad revelation.

"Dan, he’s ben a breaking the colt, sir, and I wish I may die if he
ain’t done it," answered Silas, chuckling.

"How do you know?"

"Wal, I kinder keep an eye on the little fellers, and most gen’lly
know what they’re up to; so when Dan kep going off to the paster,
and coming home black and blue, I mistrusted that suthing was
goin’ on. I didn’t say nothin’, but I crep up into the barn chamber,
and from there I see him goin’ through all manner of games with
Charlie. Blest if he warn’t throwed time and agin, and knocked
round like a bag o’ meal. But the pluck of that boy did beat all, and
he ‘peared to like it, and kep on as ef bound to beat."

"But, Silas, you should have stopped it the boy might have been
killed," said Mr. Bhaer, wondering what freak his irrepressibles
would take into their heads next.

"S’pose I oughter; but there warn’t no real danger, for Charlie ain’t
no tricks, and is as pretty a tempered horse as ever I see. Fact was,
I couldn’t bear to spile sport, for ef there’s any thing I do admire it’s
grit, and Dan is chock full on ‘t. But now I know he’s hankerin’
after a saddle, and yet won’t take even the old one on the sly; so I
just thought I’d up and tell, and may be you’d let him try what he
can do. Mr. Laurie won’t mind, and Charlie’s all the better for ‘t."

"We shall see;" and off went Mr. Bhaer to inquire into the matter.

Dan owned up at once, and proudly proved that Silas was right by
showing off his power over Charlie; for by dint of much coaxing,
many carrots, and infinite perseverance, he really had succeeded in
riding the colt with a halter and blanket. Mr. Laurie was much
amused, and well pleased with Dan’s courage and skill, and let him
have a hand in all future performances; for he set about Charlie’s
education at once, saying that he was not going to be outdone by a
slip of a boy. Thanks to Dan, Charlie took kindly to the saddle and
bridle when he had once reconciled himself to the indignity of the
bit; and after Mr. Laurie had trained him a little, Dan was
permitted to ride him, to the great envy and admiration of the other
boys.

"Isn’t he handsome? and don’t he mind me like a lamb?" said Dan
one day as he dismounted and stood with his arm round Charlie’s
neck.

"Yes, and isn’t he a much more useful and agreeable animal than
the wild colt who spent his days racing about the field, jumping
fences, and running away now and then?" asked Mrs. Bhaer from
the steps where she always appeared when Dan performed with
Charlie.

"Of course he is. See he won’t run away now, even if I don’t hold
him, and he comes to me the minute I whistle; I have tamed him
well, haven’t I?" and Dan looked both proud and pleased, as well
he might, for, in spite of their struggles together, Charlie loved him
better than his master.

"I am taming a colt too, and I think I shall succeed as well as you if
I am as patient and persevering," said Mrs. Jo, smiling so
significantly at him, that Dan understood and answered, laughing,
yet in earnest,

"We won’t jump over the fence and run away, but stay and let them
make a handsome, useful span of us, hey, Charlie?"

 

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