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. 


Charlotte Hilliard said...

What a wonderful visit with the River's family. I never get tired of reading about something they did. Thanks Jim.

Doc Turner said...

Jim, I had a beautiful grulla mare that i had bought as a wild untrained two year old and raised and trained into a really beautiful cow horse and brood mare. We had a series of flashy paint colts which sold like hotcakes for good money, but I didn't much care for paints. I switched studs and got a beautiful red lineback dun filly. But the next year, as sometimes happens, we missed. I blame the west nile virus or the vaccine or both. But the next year brought an amazing grulla filly, my dream horse. I named her Tequila Mockingbird. The night the foal was three days old, a huge line of thunderstorms came up from the southwest with lightning, hail and high winds. the horses had a good strong shed to stay out of the weather. The next morning, I grabbed my son and headed out to see if we still had a ranch left. My four-wheel drive cut deep ruts in the half mile of caliche to the barn, bunkhouse, shed and corrals. The two year old red dun was at the corral by herself and was pacing back and forth frantically. I couldn't see the mare and foal. We slowly eased the truck around the ranch road, hoping against hope to see two heads pop up out of the tall native grass.
Instead, I saw four feet pointed to the sun. The mare lay dead, struck by lightning. The smell of burnt flesh was horrible. Thirty feet away lay the dead foal. She had apparently been nursing when the bolt struck. My son and I stood in the wet pasture and added our tears to the mud. Nothing is left there to remind anyone of what happened. Nature had removed all traces of that tragic night. The lightning seared the memory into my heart.

Steve Turner