Friday, February 27, 2009

The Burro

Climbing a hill was no easy task for the burro, but he plodded on steadily. He would have liked to eat the green grass he walked on, but duty came before filling his stomach. He hoped at the end of the day his destination would include more of the same delectable looking vegetation for a sundown browse.

Time and climb later his wish was granted, and he grazed eagerly. The flies buzzed at his ears. He flicked them away and hoped in the cool of the night their wings would stiffen and refuse to carry them till sunup.

A small creek ran nearby. Vernon dipped his nose in the water and lipped playfully. Water spiders darted across the surface of a rocky pool.

Something didn't sound right. He sniffed the wind and listened.

No owner.

If he'd been a rowdy donkey, his owner would have used a bridle, and eating grass would have been more challenging.

If he'd had the tendency to wander away from camp, he would be tethered right now, eating only what the rawhide rope allowed.

He tenderly stepped over and around the owner's fallen tent. The scent of his rider was still heavy on the empty pair of boots and dust smeared blanket.

He listened to the wind. Silence ruled. Even the forest birds held back their songs and hid their rustic feathers.

Days went by. No owner returned, and no other human arrived. The grass and the creek were enough, and he may have stayed at that campsite longer if it had not been for one thing: a bear.

The bear nosed and overturned every one of the pots, pans, blankets, and spoons. He ate very portion of leftover bacon and chewed up one of the boots. Finding it inedible, he decided to see what a donkey smelled like, and whether it was good to eat. Vernon walked a few meters, then grazed with one eye on the bear. It again approached. He again moved away. Time and time again it tried to smell the gray burro, till at last its temper flared and, one snarling the other snorting, the ass easily outran the omnivorous beast.

When his head quit stargazing and his snorting ceased, the donkey found himself in a wide meadow. Butterflies busied themselves with wildflowers. Taller grasses grew in bunches. Seed heads waved and beckoned him to nibble.

He did nibble. While chewing his eighth sweet seed head he found he was not alone. The presence seemed quite familiar and he was eager to keep on chewing, so he let the girl slip her hand in his halter. Her soft voice tickled his ear, and he nosed her affectionately. Her arm smelled like flowers.

She patted his wide, furry forehead.

"Where did you come from?"

The donkey went on eating. She pulled a soft pink scarf from her pocket and strung it through the halter.

"It's not much of a lead rope," she admitted. "Somebody must be missing you."

Vernon was missing somebody himself, but seeing her made his heart ache a little less.

The overflowing animal shelters were glad to let her keep the burro while they kept an ear out for any missing animal reports. The local sheriff had just about the same idea.

Vernon himself was pleased. The barn lacked nothing, and the well bred ponies in the other stalls didn't mind him being there.

Soon the girl was taking him for long walks along a garden path. He enjoyed nibbling leaves and stretching his legs, and the stone pavement was a friendly file to his tough unshod hooves.

Then one day she slipped a bridle on his shaggy head and led him to the practice arena. The floor of it was made of delightfully soft and supportive dirt. The girl weighed no more than a feather when she slipped aboard his bare shoulders, and the felt he really could run with her forever.

She did something no other owner had ever done, and it make him feel like he had springs in his legs. Her legs and feet bumped against his sides, urging him forward, but with her hands she held his head until his nose turned downward and his neck formed an arch. His terse legs danced, and at a decided moment she released his head and dug in her heels with a sharp cry of "Hyah!" Dirt flew behind them and the ring sped past as the wind blew his coarse and shaggy mane in winding circles. Even when he had run away from the bear he'd not attained such speed, and he was delighted. So was the girl. Soon he could do the barrel race faster than most ponies because of his tendency to be surefooted and his excellent memory.

A man was watching them. As they slowed and then halted his eyes smiled.

"No one can bring out the best in them like you can, Jo," he said.

"What good is it to teach a burro to race?" said a saucy voice behind him. "He'll never win."

"It's really none of your business," said Jo.

"Uncle Bob," persisted Felix, "what good is it to teach a burro to race?"

"Until some owner claims him, that donkey belongs to Jo. It is neither my business nor yours what she wants to do."

"Thank you, Uncle Bob," she said.

"Aunt Hin says to come in for cinnamon rolls," said Felix sulkily.

The next time Jo and Vernon were at the barrels, Felix appeared aboard Grand Marshall III, a stunning, flashy, white-streaked, leggy three year old pony. Just at the point where Vernon reached his highest speed they flew past him in haughty delight. Jo didn't let it bother her, however. She kept right on with the exercises without showing the slightest hint of annoyance.

"Fifteen laps? No way!" Felix protested.

"Why not?" Jo smirked.

"The races are not that long. Why? I already beat you. Haven't had enough?"

"You wouldn't beat us if the race were fifteen laps. My burro's in condition now; he obeys me perfectly, and if you want to settle the matter then put your pony where your mouth is."

"No way."


"Am not."

"Younger brother is a chicken," she sang.

"Jo's pony is a jackass," he replied.

True to form, Felix caved in. Marshall pulled ahead and stayed ahead for three laps. By the fourth he was lagging, by the fifth no more bragging. Vernon's even, steady lope and untiring endurance showed the pony to be what he was: a speedy winner in a short sprint. Longer races went to the burro. Day after day Felix tried new horses and new techniques. He watched Jo gather the burro, and copied what she did. He found when he did this his ponies had springs in their heels, and they always passed the burro for the first few laps. The more they ran against him, the greater their endurance grew. Instead of faltering in the sixth, their lead remained until the eighth or ninth lap, depending on the pony.

That spring the junior barrel events arrived. Felix and his ponies took many firsts and seconds. In the past he'd never won anything above fourth place.

Jo eventually left the horse events behind to pursue her education in law. Her brother raised and trained many champions, and his ranch and training grounds became famous. People came from as far away as Europe to purchase ponies.

Jo visited the burro once a week. She provided for his care at the ranch.

Her brother thought she was sentimental. He never thanked her for pushing him into excellence and never gave it much thought. All he seemed to care about was pursuing fame and money.

On a mid-Atlantic flight his heart gave out. He'd grown fat and a bit lazy, leaving all the physical tasks to the hired trainers. The ranch was left in his will to Jo, who returned home to care for the ponies.

Her law office could now be handled by the young trainees, plus her help by phone, fax, and coming in for three hours a week. She decided to open the doors of the ranch to allow kids to visit and interact with the ponies for a low fee to help offset the costs of running it. She had a separate barn where kids were allowed, plus three that were off limits, so that horses who were in gestation, nursing foals, and skittish colts could remain undisturbed.

Many gentle colts were sold. Many kids' hearts grew warm from loving something other than themselves. Two foster kids stayed on at the farm, and loved Jo like a grandmother. Her wisdom and her calm, patient demeanor rubbed off on all who spent much time around her.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Coco the Faithful

Coco was a border collie in training. She showed promise as a stock dog, being both obedient and willing to grip, a term that means nipping the heels of livestock on command. Some dogs won't do it.

The ice storm was one that most folks don't forget. All the roads and sidewalks were solid, slippery ice for over two weeks.

During that two weeks I stayed at home and minded the stock, there being very little for me to do at work, since very few customers were showing up.

Now it just so happened that there was a very deep dip leading to the door of the barn. I carried a sharp stick for digging into the ice, and I wore knobby boots. Even so the going was difficult.

The dog had less trouble walking on the ice than I did. She seemed almost to enjoy taking her daily run on it.

It was a good thing that day her daily run coincided with my getting stuck by the barn. That tiny bit of a hill had gotten so slick that with my stick, my boots, and all my knowledge, I could not get up it. I even tried to crawl up it on my hands and knees. It was very short, and I could touch the level ground on top with my hand if I reached, but it was to no avail. I was stuck.

I called Coco. One of the commands she'd learned was "walk on." To those of you not familiar, it means approach the stock. It's sort of like "mush" to a sled dog. I held her collar and said, "Walk on!" She ran, and I held onto her while crawling alongside. With her help I reached the top, up and out. I ran to the house and got a hammer, and roughed up that ice so I would not get stuck again.

Coco, if there's a heaven for dogs and you can hear me, God bless you.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Beau the Blue Dog

He started as a wiry little puppy with a stubby tail. He was a beautiful blue merle with black spots and a brownish face. At a very early age he learned to understand what I said. He tried to follow me through a gate; I told him not to come in. He started obediently to walk back to the barn.

"Don't go away," I said, "Just wait for me."

So he did. He turned around and came back, and sat by the gate till I was finished.

He was tough. He would take on opossums and snakes, moles, voles, and shrews, raccoons, repairmen, and foxes. Yet he had a softer side.

By the ducks was a scrap pile. In the scrap pile were some melon rinds. Beau used to steal them and chew on them.

One day a beautiful female chihuahua came out of the house. She pranced in her fenced yard, looking about and sniffing the wind. Beau came right up to the fence, melon rind in his mouth.

I watched closely. A blue heeler is so much larger than a chihuahua, and he might hurt her even through the fence, I thought.

He dropped the rind and pushed it. He pushed and pushed till it started to slide under the fence. He didn't stop till it was on her side.

The little chihuahua picked up the melon rind and trotted off with it, head held high in the air, looking for all the world like it was a treasured prize. Beau had given her a gift.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Unruly Mare

The large mare leaped, head down, rear legs thrown halfway into a kick. She spun, muscles taut, flanks covered in foam. Her eyes were wild with rage, mouth open and gasping, flared nostrils spraying droplets of saliva mixed with sweat. I looked at her thick, golden coat.

“How much?” I asked.

The farmer regarded me as one whom he had just met emerging from an institution for the mentally challenged.

“Now, I won’t bicker with you,” he said.

“I’m sure of that,” I replied. “How much?”

He pulled his hat down lower as though to shield his eyes from some bright light I couldn’t see.

“She does have good papers,” he reminded me.

“I am aware of that, Mr. L. And seeing that she has obvious behavior problems hasn’t deterred my interest. But the price may.”

“Four thousand,” he said slowly, and looked away as though dreaming.

I started to leave.

“Three thousand eight hundred,” he offered.

I didn’t stop.

“Thirty-two hundred,” he said.

I stopped. “I thought you said you weren’t going to bicker about it.”

“What’s your price, then?” he growled.

I stared into his tiny brown eyes.

“What will yours be if she tears down another fence or injures another worker? What will it cost you to keep her any longer?”

He looked at the ground.

“Take her for nothing,” he said.

“No,” I replied. “I have good use for her, and I’m not going to have you asking for her to be returned once I’ve gotten her problems worked out. I’ll give you one thousand dollars.”

“Heh. If you think you can work with that mare, you’d better have good insurance.”

I ignored his comment and wrote the check.

“How are you going to get her home?” he said.

I threw a rope around her neck.

“You forgot how you’re going to get her into the trailer,” he pointed out.

I snapped the end of the rope to another rope that led to a winch inside the trailer. Slowly I shortened it, a couple inches at a time. She threw her head and pulled back on all four legs, yet little by little she could not help but get closer. Finally I drew her in and shut the door. The floor of the trailer rattled and echoed with her hoof beats, but she could not get out. I stroked her fur in my mind, and combed her mane with my eyes. It would happen. It was only a matter of time.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Birthday Party

"You forgot Aunt Agatha?"

The questioner seemed incredulous.

"I did not forget her. I just got busy and remembered a little late."

"But she will be here in an hour!"

How Katie always worries. I knew I could fix this problem. I knew just what to do. I went to the garage, dusted off an old sign, and put it up near the mailbox.

"I don't see how having a garage sale at this hour of the day is a good idea," stated Katie blankly. "And what about our aunt?"

"It'll all work out in the end," I said. "Now let's find her some gifts."

The desk drawer yielded a new pad of paper and some fine unused pens. My purse closet held several purses I had yet to use, from which I chose a simple black handbag. I hadn't yet opened two bottles of lotion, so I put one into the bag and wrapped it all up together.

"Okay," said Katie, "so you've gotten a gift. What about cake? Decorations? Guests? And she's coming in half an hour."

The doorbell interrupted.

"Is this the garage sale?" A lady of fifty or more, gracious and intelligent, peered from under a blue sun visor.

"Do come in," I said.

The lady looked around, wondering what was for sale. I let her wonder.

"Have a seat," I said, motioning toward the table. "This garage sale has refreshments."

The doorbell rang again. I motioned Katie to answer it and went into the kitchen to see what I could do. The doorbell rang twice more in the ten minutes it took me to peel and slice a tray of cheese and fruit. By the time I returned to the table Katie had them all seated, looking a bit bewildered. I placed it upon the table and strode hurriedly to the closet.

Some of the leftover Christmas and New Years decorations were generic enough for anytime festivity. I picked the plainest ones.

"I've almost got the sale ready," I explained to the ladies as I danced about with my decorating. "I apologize for not getting my ducks in a row sooner. Thanks for your patience."

I sneaked out the back door on tip toe to the mailbox and back, and stowed the garage sale sign in the nearest closet.

The doorbell rang.

"Aunt Agatha! Come in!" said Katie.

"Right in here!" I hollered over her shoulder. The aunt slowly made her way to the table. She sat down heavily and smiled.

"I'll be right back," I said. I ran into the other room, brought out all the purses, and told the ladies to choose one, on the house. Soon everyone was smiling and clutching a clean, new, fresh scented handbag. My aunt opened her gifts. She seemed pleased.

Soon everyone ate and was done, and I thanked the ladies and bade them farewell. My aunt was the last to go.

"Thank you," she said in her usual thick and winded voice. "I know I'm terrible with names, and you were so good not to embarrass me about it. You two are my best nieces."

We both smiled and watched her leave, relieved.

"Next year," said Katie, "I'm having her to my house."

"Let me know if you need any last minute ideas," I grinned.