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.
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."
"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.