Despite the broiling heat of high summer, Eli Macklin shivered. He stood alone in the woodshed, waiting for Pa.
Ma oughta keep her mouth shut. Just makes it that much worse for me...
"No, Josh, please no! Ya like to killed him last time! Please, Eli's sorry, ain'tcha son?"
"He'll larn not to sass his ma, Mattie! By the Lord above, the boy will larn respect today! I'm agunna whump his tail till he can't stand. Only way a young'un larns to mind his manners, seems like. My pa never spared the rod and nor will I! Eli, woodshed, now! I'll meetcha there."
Pa's voice, harsh and grating, broke the boy's thoughts, bringing Eli back to the present. "Ok, son, let's git 'er done. Ya know what ya gotta do."
Though rebellion flashed from Eli's hazel eyes, delay would make it worse. So he obeyed. Slowly he reached to unbutton his overalls. Even more slowly, the faded denim slid down his trembling legs and pooled around his ankles.
"Git them drawers down, too."
Just before he turned to grip the sawhorse, Eli saw his father unbuckling the heavy leather belt. The boy braced himself for the agony to come.
Once..twice..three times, and then Pa spoke again. "How many licks ya think ya still got comin', boy?"
I won't give him the satisfaction. I won't cry out, I will not flinch. He'll not have the joy of knowing how it hurts!
"How many, son?"
Still Eli held position, saying not a word. He grabbed the sawhorse tighter, bit his lip to keep from crying out.
Time after time, the sturdy strap raked fire across the boy's reddening buttocks. Each blow blazed white-hot, scorched his tender flesh, stung worse than the one before. Again, again, again. Eli lost count. He fought back the tears that sprang unbidden to his eyes, renewed his resolve to stony silence.
I won't! I will not break! He'll not know!
Again Pa spoke. "By the Lord in Heaven above, son, you'll scream afore I'm done!"
Relentlessly the belt sliced through the air. Each stroke shot a fresh flame through Eli's very soul. How much longer, Lord? How long? He will not make me beg for mercy, he will not make me cry!
He felt, more than heard, the belt at last fall from Pa's hand.
"That'll do. Let it be a good lesson, boy."
Rough denim scraped flayed skin as Eli slowly pulled up his overalls. As the boy swung round, his eyes fell on the belt at his pa's work-booted feet. He reached...pulled back his hand. He did not speak nor weep, but charily eased his way outside, slamming the door so hard the woodshed shook.
Through the long night, he lay face down on his bed. He'd flung back the quilts to ease his stinging, savaged flesh. Sometime between midnight and morning he wakened. In fitful sleep, he'd rolled to his side and his bottom screamed its protest.
From the next room, he heard Pa weeping. "God, Mattie! Why wouldn't he cry? Why didn't he beg for mercy? God forgive me, for I can't forgive myself! What have I become? My own Pa, I guess. Hard-headed like Eli, I was, and stubborn as Pa's plowing mule But I learned to screech blue murder when that leather first come down. It's all that stayed his hand. But Eli...Eli wouldn't flinch, he wouldn't scream, he wouldn't weep and wail. Oh Lord, I wish he had!
"I would have stopped it, Mattie. I swear...one whimper would have stopped me cold."
Alone in the dark, at last Eli's tears flowed unchecked.
Morning dawned bright and clear. Eli dressed quickly and headed for the kitchen. He made quick work of Ma's hearty breakfast. He didn't sit to eat.
"Britches still smokin', son?" Pa said. "Well that don't make no never mind to me. Git to yer chores. Soonest started, soonest done!"
Dolly milked and chickens fed, Eli paused for breath. He rubbed his butt to ease the smouldering sting of it.
"Eli, this wood ain't stackin' its own self. I need ya in the shed."
Three halting paces inside the woodshed door, the boy stopped short.
"Eli...son...as God's my witness...I never meant ta...well, this is all I can think to do, ta make it up to ya."
Pa handed Eli the belt. Shame flushed his weathered face as red as Eli's butt had been the day before. "Here, son, take it."
Then Pa bent his own bared buttocks over the sawhorse. "Your turn, son," was all he said.
For a single moment, Eli froze.
"Git 'er done, son. Do ta me the same's I did ta ya yesterday."
This was the day the boy had dreamed of, longed for, plotted with every whippin' Pa had dealt him. Stone-faced, he raised the leather high. Once, twice, three times he slashed it down. Twice more and harder yet. The butt cheeks flamed bright scarlet. He heard Pa cry out, saw the proud man flinch as the strap fell yet again.
Eli dropped the belt. "No, Pa! No, I can't go on! I can't, I can't.!"
Man and boy wept bitterly together, as something very like compassion for each other swept their souls.