Ridden Harder

By: Kendra Queen


California, 1854.

Everyone in our town knew the McCoys were made for trouble. Years back Mr. McCoy had acquired his land from Papa, all of it being scraggly and stony and not much good for ranching or farming or anything but sitting on. McCoy had no wife but once a year returned from the whorehouse in San Julio with a new son. He boasted ten boys in all.

“The devil’s got all the luck,” said Papa, who only had me, a useless daughter.

The McCoy boys were terrors. They were not afraid of adults. Beatings had no effect, though beatings they got in plenty from anyone who could catch them. Sheriff Bailey (who got the job only because he’d rounded up Comanchero gangs out in Texas) took the first initiative to start throwing the McCoy brothers in jail. But that, said Papa, set a bad precedent. Meadows wasn’t the type of town to jail children.

Mr. McCoy eventually got throat sickness and died. He had left no will, though rumors that he’d had a wealthy family back East persisted. But no relations, rich or poor, presented themselves. He himself posessed no land or farm worth staying on. He had no assets to bequeath. How he’d fed his sons at all remained a mystery. It was even found that he had sold most of his land a year prior to the Henleys; likely to fund the tastes of his harlot mistresses.

Suffice it to say, when Mr. McCoy died the whole town was relieved. The evil was gone. The McCoy sons were efficiently split up. The oldest brothers got hired by a work team and went East to build the railroad. The youngest got put in Sister Agnes’s Home, about a ten miles from town; as well on the moon.

Divide and conquer, the townspeople thought. After all, a McCoy was a McCoy. It was the generally held belief that children could inherit their parents’ rottenness.

And so we thought the problem solved. Papa did not agree with splitting up the McCoy boys, but there was little he could do. Or so we thought. One day Mama and I were beating dough in the kitchen. It was a hot day, right after a good Spring rain, and the world looked half mud. Mama went to the window for a sip of water. Suddenly her head jerked up. She set the glass down.

Other black folks say Mama has an echo of the Sight. Maybe in that moment, watching Papa ride down the hill, she saw a vision of what Papa was bringing home: some dark portent that would bring doom on our heads.

“Minnie,” she said, “Come see for a minute.”

Her eyes were not what they had been. I stood tiptoe in the window.

“It’s Pa. That’s his horse, Big Girl.”

“I can see it’s your Papa. But who’s that with him?”

“Looks like a little boy,” I said. “Or a turnip sack.”

“A boy?”

We both squinted.

“A McCoy, Mama. That’s who it looks like.”

“Which one?”

“The little one.”

“Hell and shit,” said Mama.

Mama’s foul mouth drove Papa into fits. Glad he wasn’t here to hear it. She and I bustled outside together. And sure enough Papa came riding up with a little McCoy brat on the front of his horse. He dismounted in front of the house, helping his charge down carefully. The boy was a positive runt.

“Well, now, Ada,” said Papa. “Don’t give me that look just yet.”

“Well, Cal,” said Mama, her voice crackling. “I guess you’ll come inside and explain yourself.”

It turned out, while going to San Julio for business, Papa had ridden by Sister Agnes’s home.

He dragged the boy in front of Mama.

“Saw that old crow beating the hide off him. She had him down in the dirt, whipping him like a dog. Look at him, Ada. Look at that.”

He raised the boy’s tattered shirt. Bruises flowered up and down the kid’s chest. His ribs could be counted. The puckered scars on his back made lattice. Some were old and hardened into his skin. Mama recoiled. She, like Papa, believed in a beating now and then. But there were limits.

Papa put in quickly, “I can find work for him here.”

“Thought you wouldn’t be hirin’ for the rest of the year.”

“McCoy did me a good turn last year with the Mule Incident. You remember?”