Since she knew the route better than anyone, she had no need of a driver and usually traveled alone. However this time, the farmer hitched her yearling beside her, so he too could learn the route as well as she.
The mare was pleased to teach her son the trade.
“Remember,” she told him, “just before the creek, turn left at the crossroads. It lengthens the journey but avoids the mean dogs who live up the road.”
Her colt nodded in earnest agreement.
“And don’t drink from the cow pond,” she admonished, “the cattle do more than wade in it.”
The colt snickered.
A short time later, they came upon an old woman hobbling up a hill. The mare stopped the cart and invited the old woman to ride. “Always help others,” she told her son, “whenever you can.”
Next they encountered a mother carrying her child. The yearling slowed down and said, “I think we should offer her a ride.” The mare beamed with pride. Her son was learning.
Further down the road, they met a strapping stable boy. “Should we offer him a ride?” the mare asked.
“No,” her son insisted, “we must only help those who need our help.”
“Wrong,” the mare said, “he cleans our stable. It is wise to take care of the people who take care of you.”
As they continued on, they encountered another old woman, another mother, a gaggle of children and a gang of stable boys. As each new passenger clambered aboard, the wagon became heavier and heavier. Still, with a level route, a smooth road and a bright spring morning, the task was more than manageable.
But then clouds veiled the sun and a wind brought rain.
“We can weather this,” the mare said, “just keep your head down and pull.”
A short time later, the rain stopped and the sun came out again – but the road remained muddy and the burden of a full cart tired the horses. Finally, the mare stopped and turned in the traces. “Someone has to get off,” she said, “There are hills ahead, and we cannot continue to carry all of you.”
“Not me,” the old woman said, “You got me into this and now I am too far from home.”
“Nor I,” the mother said, “think of my child.”
“We are not getting off either,” the stable boys said, “we had a deal.”
So the mare and the yearling put their heads down and pulled.
They pulled through mud. They pulled through sand. They pulled through ruts. They pulled over bridges and across fords. They pulled up hills and through valleys. They thought they could manage but with the rain, the mud and the load, it was all becoming too much.
Halfway up a long, steep hill, the mare felt her age. Her legs wobbled. Her joints ached. Her muscles cramped. She knew the hill but had not counted on the consequences of her generosity or the intransigence of the people she was generous with.
She simply could go no further and to everyone’s amazement, she stepped out of the traces and stumbled aboard the wagon.
Her yearling protested, “I can’t carry YOU!”
“Why not?” the mare asked, “I carried you for eleven months. I feed you my milk. I taught you how to live and be generous. Now it is your turn to take care of me.”
The yearling had no choice, so he did the only thing he knew how to do – he pulled. He pulled until he thought he couldn’t pull another step – but still he found the strength to do it. He did this, one painful step at a time – all the way up the hill until just when he could see over the rise, he realized another steeper hill rose up beyond it.
It was too much and it broke his spirit. As his will drained away, his lost his hold on the cart. It lurched backwards, and the momentum began to drag him with it.
In a panic, he slipped the traces.
Gravity took over. It snatched up the cart and hurtled it down the hill. At a sharp bend in the road, it flung the mare, the old women, the mothers, their babies and the stable boys over an embankment and down into a raging river.
The yearling plodded on alone – straining to carry a burden that no beast should forced to bear.