Friday, December 23, 2011

His Dog Knows Me

I have written before about the Cowhill Council, a group of seasoned gentlemen who meet and enjoy gourmet coffee. We have returned from downtown to our winter home in a grain silo out in the country on Jerald’s five acres. We meet there most mornings, sitting in cozy comfort around a wood stove, coffee cups in hand, enjoying friendship and laughter. Almost every morning for more than a decade, my arrival greeting has always been a head nod and tongue-lolling smile from Nugget, Jerald’s yellow Lab. The dog knows me, knows my Jeep, recognizes it as soon as I turn off the highway. We have known each other since he was a pup. Everyone who has ever had a pet knows that comforting feeling that comes when a dog, cat, or horse recognizes you and looks at you with those friendly, welcoming eyes—eyes that say come over and put your hand on my head—eyes that say “I’m glad to see you.” It starts the day out right.
This morning, on the eve of Christmas Eve, Nugget was not waiting for me. I was late and had other things on my mind, including some repair work at my office, and regret that I did not think much about his absence. Nugget has spent his life on a small acreage next to a state highway and had to be kept up for his own safety. He was allowed to run free, but only under Jerald’s supervision. Jerald had to be there to call him back when Nugget as much as glanced toward the highway.
But early this morning, Jerald was not there when Nugget decided to run like he had when he was young, free as the wind. When Jerald arrived and found him gone, he tried to follow, but Nugget circled back and headed home, happy to have his master follow him in a playful game. But he was old and his reflexes had slowed. He probably never saw the eighteen-wheeler.
As I turned the key in my Jeep to leave this morning, my recently acquired Tom T. Hall CD played "Old Dogs and Children and Watermelon Wine". Tom said, "Old dogs care about you, even when you make mistakes." So true. Jerald’s heart is broken over the loss of his loyal companion and I will certainly miss my old friend. I like to think that Nugget would have wanted to leave us this way, running free. He had serious health problems that were not going away. Maybe he knew it was time to go and wanted it to be on his own terms. Still, it’s hard to say goodbye.  

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Christmas Star and Scar

            North wind whistled through the warped pine boards of the old farm house. Shredded strips of stubbornly clinging wallpaper shivered as if feeling the biting wind. Icicles bought from the five-and-dime trembled on the cedar Christmas tree that had been placed dangerously close to the wood stove. Outside by the dairy barn, twelve-year-old Gray Boy helped Rance and the driver load cans into the back of the milk truck. Jake, six, finished with his work in the dairy parlor, stood with his hands inside his coat pockets, too small to lift the milk cans, but too big to go inside before his brother and father did. He shuddered not only from the cold, but with the excitement of opening Christmas presents after supper. The driver thanked them, wished them a Merry Christmas, and drove away.
            Using bowls of water warmed on the woodstove, the men took sponge baths and put on clean clothes while Trish, fourteen, and her mother Mattie put strips of fresh tenderloin between biscuits and boiled coffee on the kerosene kitchen stove. In the living room, Rance and his sons scooted the worn couch and chairs closer to the fire. Everyone wrapped in quilts, ate their sandwiches and stared at the presents under the tree. Jake finished his cobbler first and waited for a signal from his father that is was time to open the presents.
            A knock came at the front door. Jake and his brother followed their father out into the open dogtrot and saw a blurred image of the milk truck driver through the glass in the door. Rance sent the boys back to the living room and stepped out on the porch. The brothers knew something was wrong, so they eavesdropped through a crack. The milkman’s voice quivered with cold and sadness, but the boys understood enough. A wreck on Jernigan Creek Bridge, a horse lying by the creek with a white star just under its forelock. The little black horse they called Star, who could take a bow, be ridden without a bridle, rear on command, and untie knots, must have learned to open the lot gate.
            Eyes filled with tears, Gray Boy threw on a coat and wool cap and headed out the back door, intent on running to the creek. Rance caught him in the yard, pulled him to his chest, let him have his cry. The horse was really Gray’s, but both boys claimed him, rode him and took care of him, so Rance relented when they begged to go with him. The sight of the little horse, eyes full of surprise and pain, milk cans floating in Jernigan Creek, was forever etched into their memories. Jake thought there could never be another merry Christmas. Gray Boy said he would never own another horse.
            Jake had never played with cars and trucks. He preferred his cowboy hat, six-shooter, boots and spurs, and the stick horse he called Chocolate. When Star came along, he stood Chocolate in the corner, never to be ridden again. When Star was killed, he felt guilty, but he soon began to dream of having his own horse. As another Christmas approached, times were really tough, so a horse was out of the question. Temps in the seventies and fears of another ominous knock on the door ruined that Christmas.
            The year Jake turned eight, he feared that there would be no money for Christmas presents at all.  Rance had been sick for months. They had lost half their dairy herd to a devastating drought. On Christmas Eve, a cold mist seemed to tease that more rain might be coming. Christmas Eve opening of presents came and went. Jake struggled to keep from crying when he only got warm socks. Rance and Gray went outside and Rance returned with a hissing lantern and Jake’s coat. Mattie and Trish rose and followed Rance without a word being spoken. Jake reluctantly left the warmth of the fire and followed them into the mist, across the muddy dairy barn lot, and into the dark hall of the hay barn.
A mousy little bay filly with ribs showing seemed to be leaning against the barn wall for support. Gray held her lead rope. Bite and kick marks scarred her dull, mangled coat. Her forelock, mane and tail were tangled and full of straw.
Mattie propped her elbow with her hand, dabbed at her eyes. Gray Boy handed Jake the rope and whispered into his ear, “If that horse dies tonight, and it looks like she will, don’t you cry, cause it’ll ruin another Christmas.”
Rance put a hand on Jake’s shoulder. “Haven’t had her more than an hour or two. No time to clean her up. Figured you’d want to do that, anyway.”
            Jake barely heard. He did not see a wormy little filly. He saw Koko, Champion and Trigger in the sparse light provided by that lantern. He named her Scar, not for the bites and kick marks, but for his favorite horse on a radio program called Dr. Sixgun.