“Just down below the orchard’ll be fine, I reckon,” Daddy says. He looks up the hill to the peach, plum, and fig trees, then back at the heap of brush and the carcass of Lou, the mule, hooked to the tractor with chains around her feet. “Don’t want no mule smoke on my peaches.” He chuckles. “But we got the makins of the fire right here. Long as we don’t burn down Tommy’s house.”
Robert knows what Tommy’s thinking: It ain’t my house, no more. But he isn’t going to say it. The little red house has always been here, from the tenants on this land before Daddy bought it, who were Tommy’s grandparents. And their grandparents were slaves. “We inherited them,” Daddy always says. “Got to treat ‘em right.” Maybe this is part of why he looks at Tommy, now, and hands Tommy the big .45. “Once Robert and Jimmy drag that mule down on top a that pile,” he says, “you stand over there and shoot what comes out.”
“Gonna be somethin’ up in there,” Tommy agrees, and picks his way down the hill, following Daddy. Robert clambers onto the tractor before Jimmy can, feels Jimmy glaring at him. Now Jimmy has to trudge along unhooking Lou from whatever she catches on. There’ll be rocks in spite of all the piles they’ve made already on this farm, all the summers they’ve spent picking them up and chunking them in heaps, Daddy yelling, goddamn, boys, get a move on. Both Robert and Jimmy want to be where Tommy is, walking tall and straight with the pistol down to the bottom of the hill, talking to Daddy, who stumps beside him, swinging his stick.
Tommy is older than Robert, old enough to be in college, except he’s not going to go to college, or medical school either, which Robert knows is the plan for him. Jimmy’s meant for law school. Tommy’s going to work at the Pepperell Mills in town and here on Daddy’s cattle farm with them till he’s an old man. Till they are all old men.
“Bastard,” Jimmy mutters, trudging. Robert fires up the Allis-Chalmers. It shies like a horse as it hits the end of the chain, with Lou’s weight behind it. Poor old Lou. They came out here and found her all swollen up, no telling from what. Could be snakebite, except they couldn’t find fang marks. Colic, maybe, or some kind of poison weed. Maybe she was just old. She’d been out on this farm since Robert himself was a baby. Maybe she’d belonged to Tommy’s parents: Bobo with his downward-looking smile, Rebecca with her wide pink-palmed hands.
Robert drags the mule down the hill, craning to look behind him. Lou’s head is thrown back, her sorrel skin gashed, her long pale nose bumping, ears trailing, loose white lips quivering. With both legs tied together she looks defenseless, even more dead. Sorry, Robert thinks in spite of himself. Daddy would say he’s being soft. But he’s remembering The Iliad in his literature class, Hector’s body dragged up and down outside the city walls, bumping over the rocks behind bragging Achilles until Hector’s daddy goes down there to plead for his son’s body back.
Would Daddy do that for him? For Jimmy? For Tommy?
By now he’s at the pile. He swings the tractor around to sling Lou up next to the heap of brush. Chains clink as Jimmy unhooks them and Robert pulls away, dragging them, before shutting off the tractor and trotting back to help. Tommy and Daddy and Jimmy close in and they lift Lou’s legs and heave. The joints are stiff, then suddenly loose, the leg hair slick and soft against the bone. Daddy has the gas can. And matches.
“So dry,” Tommy worries, “we might be too close to them trees.” He hefts the pistol and goes around to the other side of the fire. Daddy touches a match to the pile and they watch as it catches and burns, goes straight across to the other side through the middle, and then shoots up in great points of orange-white fire.
There’s a shot from the other side of the pile, and when they hurry around Tommy is staring at a fat young rattlesnake twisting in the grass, flopping over and over to show its gray-white belly. “Blew his head clean off,” marvels Daddy. “Good work, boy.” He unclicks his pocketknife, slices the rattles off the still-writhing tail, and drops them in Tommy’s shirt pocket. Robert and Jimmy watch the pocket twitch, sag, and finally settle, still.
By then, the fire’s started on Lou: a wet smoke like steam, then a dry smoke. Robert tries not to let himself look away any more than he can help. Daddy watches him. “How you gonna hold up in surgery, boy,” he says, “if you that squeamish?”
Jimmy’s never taken his eyes off Lou. “Faulkner says,” he muses, pushing his smudgy glasses up his nose, “that a mule will work for you for twenty years for the chance to kick you once.”
“Lou never kicked nobody,” says Tommy, solemn as a preacher. “She was one good mule.”
“Way your daddy handled her,” Daddy agrees. “Knew how to make a mule work hard ‘thout gettin mean.”
And just like that, they’re off talking about Bobo and Big Willie and Rebecca and all them all over again. Tommy tucks his hands down his Liberty overall front and sighs like a grown man. Daddy shoves the pistol back into his own belt. Robert wanders away, ostensibly to move the gas can but really just to be somewhere else. The sky is pink and orange now, like the fire. He turns and looks. Jimmy’s by himself, staring at the burning mule, but Daddy and Tommy aren’t watching him. Standing there talking like grown men. Like father and son.