Sunday, January 2, 2011
Sure, my Chevy is an old car. Certainly I expected things to begin going wrong as it wore out, a little at a time. What I didn't expect was a major breakdown. Nor in such a place, at such a time.
On a beautiful Wednesday afternoon I was traveling between a large town and a small city without a care on my mind: no place special to be, and in no hurry to get there. I turned off the highway and decided to follow the country roads in the general direction I was headed, west. If I crossed a river, I'd be too far. It couldn't be simpler. And then the Chevy died.
Heading down a long grade toward a creek, it began to make sounds like a wrestler in a choke hold. I pumped the accelerator a few times but that didn't help. I slipped the transmission into neutral to let the car coast; it replied with a long groan, two coughs, and a long sigh. Then silence, at least from the motor. Me, I was cursing, profane and profound.
I let the damned thing roll as far as it could, down toward that creek. We both rested, the car and I, while I pondered the options and cursed the fact that I had deliberately left my mobile phone behind. If this thing didn't get moving again, I didn't have any options except to walk out. This road felt abandoned. I hadn't met any other traffic, nor had I seen many signs of civilization except some fences and utility poles.
Knowing there was nothing behind me, I took a chance and followed the grade up the slope before me. The other side of the hill looked no more promising. There wasn't much tree cover; the land was mostly open meadow. The problem was that it seemed just as deserted as the rest of the countryside I had passed through. But just down and to the left a trail seemed to separate from the dirt road, something that might have once been a road but hadn't seen a wheel in a long time.
I stopped a moment, then shrugged off the urge to go back and lock the car. Instead I followed the track away from open spaces, along a line of trees and shrubs. After two minutes I was about to give up and turn back. This was leading nowhere. And then I heard the snort of a horse.
Where there is a horse, there are often human beings around. I continued on. Then through a break in the tree line I saw a cabin. It seemed deserted. On what might have been a lawn between me and the cabin stood a horse who looked at me, then went back to cropping the grass. Now I'm a city boy, but I could see that the animal had no saddle or harness or other horsey stuff, so there was good reason to believe that he was not here with any person and I was still out of luck. I decided that I should inspect the building to see if there was any sign of inhabitants.
As I turned toward the cabin, the horse raised his head and stepped toward me. There was a rope hanging down from a loopy thing around his face and neck that reminded me of the old cowboy-and-Indian movies. I stopped and reached out my hand, as if he might sniff it like a dog. What he did was tickle my palm with his big soft lips; his big teeth never touched me. I scratched him on the forehead, between his eyes. He nodded his head as I did so.
“Well, big boy,” I told him, “I seem to be in a pickle and you can't help me out, can you.”
I thought perhaps the rope had broken and he was free and on his own but the end was clean and wrapped tight. Maybe he had just walked away. I held the rope and walked forward to the cabin. The horse came along like a big dog on a leash. I dropped it to check the window in the cabin. Make that “windows,” the plural. In the side away from me was a large expanse of glass; the inside of the cabin was filled with light.
The inside was clean and tidy; although there was no visible sign, I got the feeling that this must be an artist's retreat of some sort. I could imagine a painter working on a canvas in seclusion here, or a writer working on a manuscript. It might not be in current use but it was not deserted. There was no suggestion that a human being was anywhere near right now. I tried the only door to the structure, but it fit snugly and was locked tight.
Under a large tree off to the side stood a picnic table so I decided to sit down, collect my thoughts and make a decision on what to do next. The horse stayed where he was, sort of nuzzling at the grass but I could feel him keeping an eye on me. I decided to call him over to keep me company.
I didn't know his name, and when I called out, “Here horsey, horsey, horsey!” I only got a very disgruntled look in reply. He made no move to come to me. I figured it might be better if I went and got him. He followed me at the end of his rope and stood across the picnic table from me. Somehow I got the idea that if he could, he would sit down and we could figure a way out of this dilemma together. I liked that thought. Maybe if I voiced everything, lay all my cards on the table so to speak, I might be able to see something I'd been missing. So, with two sympathetic ears turned my way, I spelled out my predicament to a horse.
“So,” I ended, “that pretty well sums it up. Here I am seemingly in the middle of nowhere with a broken down car and no phone. The only signs of civilization are a deserted cabin and yourself, a loose horse. No utility wires to the cabin. Come to think of it, not even a well or an outhouse! I think we're in a fine mess! Do I leave you and go back to my car, hope and pray that someone comes along sometime today? Do I hold on to you and wait for you to lead me to your home? We could stay here until someone comes looking for you; I know you would be missed. What to do, what to do.” I planted my elbows on the table, looked down at the ground, and sighed.
“Well,” he said, “we might just be able to help you out.”
I froze. I'm not so naïve that I would believe that horses can talk if they want, but that was uncanny.
Slowly I looked up. Grinning at me from the other side of the horse's back was a young man with tousled blond hair and striking blue eyes, the fingers of one hand entwined in its mane. When he saw the look on my face, he laughed aloud.
“ I was down along the creek a ways. I came back and discovered a stranger setting out his problem before old Barney, as if maybe he could help. Sure, Barney is as smart as he looks, maybe even smarter, but I'm the one with a cell phone.” He stepped up to the table and lay down a small back pack. He unzipped it, extracted the afore mentioned cell phone. “My name's Eric. This is the back end of my place. And this one you've met is Barney.” The horse nodded its head.
That was about the time I found my voice again. “Uhmmmm … uhhhh …” I said eloquently. “My name is, uhh, David and I want ...”
He interrupted me. “Here's the plan. I call a friend of mine with a garage and tow truck to take your car in for repair. You and I and Barney go to my place. I'll get him to call as soon as he knows what's wrong, when he can fix it, the cost, and so on. And then we can decide what comes next, after you call anyone who may be waiting for you or worried. Sound like a plan?”
He didn't wait for a reply, punched a number into his phone and waited until it was answered.
“Tank, Eric. I'm with a guy who's broke down on the Twelfth Line.” He looked at me. “Where's the car, David, and what model?”
“It's an old Chevy, dark blue; its back there where the creek crosses under the road,” I told him.
Eric passed the information on. “We're heading on to my place. Phone me when you get it in and take a look at it will you?” He closed the phone and tucked it back into his pack.
“I rode Barney here; he won't mind taking the two of us if you want to ride. If you're too uncomfortable, we'll walk.” H e didn't give me much choice. He slung the backpack over his shoulder and turned the horse so it was standing sideways to the table.
“Climb onto the table and sort of slide yourself into a sitting position on Barney's back. I'll get on behind you and make sure you don't fall. Barney will listen to me and go slow. He knows the way home very well, but I can guide him with touches from my hands or heels so don't worry.” I did as I was told. This was a new situation and I was thankful for any guidance offered. With his one arm around my waist, the other hand holding Barney's rope, we started off. It felt so strange feeling the great muscles move underneath me as the horse's head before me nodded up and down.
When I began to believe that nothing drastic would happen I finally posed the question that had curled around my mind since Eric appeared.
“Just how long had you been watching me and listening to me?”
I could hear the grin that I couldn't see in his voice. “I was down by the creek a ways; I saw you and heard you when you first approached the cabin. First I was wondering if you were going to break in. Then I wondered if you were going to steal my horse. I was hoping you'd take off, but ...”
“So what made you come out when you did?” I asked him.
“You,” he replied. “I know I can trust a man who talks to a horse as if it were his best friend. You can always tell.”