The summer of my tenth year I learned to jump. It wasn’t Molly who taught me to jump. Her pet ram did. That was during a week spent with my friend Molly on her family’s home near the hill country of Texas.
Charlie held court beneath the blue shade of a live oak, in the front yard of the Molesworth’s hardscrabble ranch. His curled horns met us at our rib cage if we didn’t keep an eye on him. Abandoned by his mother at birth the family had bottle-fed and raised him as a pet.
Charlie liked to lower his rack of horns, take one step back and charge one of us. Scattered to the winds, we scrambled up a horse-nibbled corral or the sizzling hood of Mr. Molesworth’s Ford pickup or the low fork of a spreading Mesquite tree. The jolt and shudder of Charlie’s horns ramming against the fence, the dented truck, or the trunk of the tree, always thundered in our chest. We’d glance down from our perches, hearts in our mouths, wondering what we’d done this time and grateful that we had escaped a knockout blow.
Only one remedy proved to appease Charlie’s belligerence: Unfiltered Camel cigarettes. We took turns stealing a cigarette from a crumpled pack Mr. Molesworth always left on the dashboard of his truck and in the palm of our sweaty hands, offered one to Charlie like a flag of truce. With gray-ringed indigo eyes, he’d saunter over with a glare before snatching it from our fingers and gobbling it up with his big yellow teeth.
One day Charlie developed tummy trouble. His bleating became too pitiable and relentless to bear. Our trip to the vet’s office in downtown Junction, Texas, meant Molly, Johnny, and I shared the back seat of Mrs. Molesworth’s four-door Chevrolet Impala with Charlie back there with us. Inside the city limits, Charlie hung his head out the back window and bawled his bellyache to unsuspecting townsfolk walking in the sunbaked heat.
“What have you been feeding him?” the vet asked.
Molly and Johnny side-glanced each other. “Our father’s unfiltered Camels,” Molly said.
The vet stared at us. Raised one eyebrow. “Cut out the cigarettes,” he said.
On our drive home, Charlie stood with his sturdy legs straddling our dirty blue jeans, his nose out the window. I leaned my face against the cool side of his thick pelt, feeling his billowing ribcage. The dusty lanolin of his coat smoothed my sunburned face. After a week of terror and trepidation, I discovered: even bullies have a softer side.