By Jane-Ann Heitmueller
Just as I heard the swoosh of the ball drop through the hoop I caught a glimpse of movement to my right. It was 1950 and my tenth summer. This afternoon, while Dad gave me a few hours off from doing farm chores in the hot August sun, I amused myself perfecting my jump shot under the old metal basketball goal he had nailed to the side of the garage for me a few years back.
Turning to look, I spied two forms slowly approaching on foot headed toward me up the dusty gravel road in front of our home. Squinting in the bright sunshine, I soon recognized our friend and neighbor, Mr. Shelly Bonds, who lived on a near by farm. Behind him, at the end of a long rope he was leading the most elegant, beautiful horse I had ever seen. Although I was surprised to see the pair, I was even more surprised when they continued to turn and walk right up the driveway into our yard.
“Afternoon boy, is your father home?”
“Yes, sir,” I politely answered. “I’ll run get him for you.”
As I scampered quickly to find Dad my mind was sparking with a million questions about the sudden, unexpected appearance of our two afternoon visitors.
“Dad, Mr. Bonds is outside. He wants to talk to you and he has a horse with him. What do you think he wants?”
“ I don’t have any idea. Let’s go see.”
Although I had been taught to let elders talk privately, my curiosity got the better of me. I quietly stood close behind Dad, listening to the conversation, but didn’t dare move a muscle for fear I would be thrust aside.
“Howdy Shelly,” said Dad. “What can I do for you this afternoon?”
“Well sir, I just wanted to do a little business with you if you’re interested.”
“What kind of business, Shelly?”
“ I’m gettin’ on in years and don’t really feel like spendin’ the time trainin’ a young horse like this one. He’s only a year old and has lots of things to learn. I know you have an old plow horse that’s well trained and gentle, so I got to thinkin’ maybe you’d like to swap horses with me. Of course, I’d have to have a little boot, since yours is so old and this one has many years ahead of him. What da you think? Are you interested in makin’ a trade?”
I couldn’t believe my ears. I loved our old horse, Dolly, but she was no longer young enough for the ramblings and energy of a young boy. Those days were well behind her and at this point of her life she was mainly used to plow the garden in the spring and graze in the pasture with the cows. She had certainly earned her keep and had been a good horse through the years. For a long time I had been begging Dad to buy a young horse that I could ride in the woods and streams of our farm, exploring our little world together. His only answer was that he would do so one day when the time was right. As I huddled safely behind Dad my ten year old excited mind was silently screaming that today was right! I felt I would simply die if Dad didn’t trade for this beautiful horse.
My jubilant mental conversation with myself had completely drowned out the words between the two men and I was suddenly stunned to realize that our visitors had turned and were headed back to the road.
“Dad, Dad,” I cried in disbelief. “Aren’t you going to trade with Mr. Bonds? I really, really want that horse and you promised we’d get one.”
“Be patient,” Dad answered calmly. “Don’t worry. He’ll be back.”
My heart was broken. I couldn’t believe my ears. This was the perfect horse for me and now I’d never see him again.
I knew better than to question my father’s judgment or show anger at his decision. Turning my face away from his I prayed he wouldn’t see my quivering shoulders or gushing tears. I dejectedly stumbled toward the hay barn where I collapsed, sobbing into a heap of freshly cut hay.
I have no idea how long I stayed in the barn feeling sorry for myself, but at some point I heard familiar voices. Dad was right! Mr. Bonds had come back…just as he had predicted. Curiously, peeking through the slats of the barn I watched Dad and Mr. Bonds shaking hands as Mr. Bonds handed Dad the reins of our new horse. Squealing with glee I burst through the barn doors and raced toward my dad, grabbing and hugging him with all my might. The deal was done and I was on cloud nine!
We never thought to ask Mr. Bonds the horse’s name, so we just called him Dan. The brown, Tennessee Walker was sleek and fast. His youthful eagerness matched my own and there was hardly a day that the two of us didn’t indulge in some adventure together.
About a mile from our farm was a swimmin’ hole fed by a frigid stream where the community kids hung out in summer. I’d get two old burlap feed sacks, put a watermelon in each, tie them together and hoist them over Dan’s back. Then we’d head to the swimmin’ hole and slide those watermelons off into the water so they’d be icy cold when we all got tired of swimmin’ and ready to eat them.
The Pitzing boys lived just up the road and had their own horses. One day we decided to built wooden sliders on runners and have races to see whose horse was the fastest. We attached big metal washtubs to the sliders for seats, then each grabbed the reins to his horse and off we’d fly to the finish line. Nine out of ten times Dan and I would win. He loved to race and I loved to win!
Another close neighbor, Ike Nunnelly, had an old grey work horse at his place. I suppose, like any of us, Dan would sometimes yearn for the companionship of one of his own kind and was smart enough to discover a method of escaping from our pasture. When we noticed he was missing we knew we could always find him up at Ike’s courtin’ Old Maude. “Son,” Dad would say, “Dan’s visiting his girlfriend again. You better run up to Ike’s and bring him home.”
Dad and I baled hay for the public. The first spring we had Dan we were busy in the fields and didn’t have ample time to properly train him how to plow a garden. Everyone in the community knew Grandpa Whatley worked well with horses, so Dad hired him to teach the young horse the correct techniques and language of plowing. Dan was feisty and not too happy about being tethered to a harness and given commands, but in time and with great patience, Mr. Whatley taught the young horse the fine art of obeying the directions of gee, haw, whoa and stop. However, Dan was smart enough to test me when I took the reins and often balked at my words. At that point Dad would have to step in and use a stern voice to remind the horse of his job.
Other examples of his stubbornness would arise from time to time, like the day I kept hearing him stomping and snorting at the far north end of the pasture. His persistence finally drew me to investigate and I had to laugh when I discovered the source of his frustration. Growing just outside the fence was a peach tree loaded with juicy, plump peaches. Many of the limbs hung over the fence on Dan’s side and ripe fruit had fallen into the pasture. Dan had stuffed himself on as many peaches as he could retrieve from the ground and off the overhanging limbs. He would eat the peach and spit out the seed. They littered the ground around his feet. Dan wanted more peaches and was determined to attract my attention so I could provide him with the succulent treat. Naturally, I obliged my good pal and gave in to his demands...just as he knew I would. I even ate a few myself.
Late one lazy summer afternoon, Mom, Dad and I sat outside shelling pink eyed peas. Dan and the cows grazed nearby. Each time we had a bucket of hulls I’d throw them over the fence for the stock to eat. What a feast this was to them. It seemed Dan just couldn’t get enough. When I went to deliver the final bucket load I foolishly opened the gate to step inside the pasture and throw them on the ground. Dan spied me coming and made a mad dash for that bucket. He didn’t want to share with the cows. Rather than just tossing the hulls to him, I started running out the gate with the full bucket. The determined horse was right at my heels, tearing after me... pea hulls flying everywhere. Mom and Dad doubled over with laughter watching our frantic race around the yard. I was screaming bloody murder as the two of us streaked under the clothes line filled with wet clothes, raced through the middle of Mom’s prized rose bed and mired up in the muddy vegetable garden. Dad finally stepped in to bring a halt to the ruckus by leading Dan back through the gate with my empty bucket in hand.
Dan provided me with great transportation. To earn a little spending money I sold a small community newspaper called “The Grit”. Various neighbors in the community signed up for the publication and I was responsible for delivering them each week. As I recall, the cost was about a quarter per paper and my share was three cents per delivery. Dan and I were a welcome sight every Friday afternoon for those folks eager to read the local news.
I spent most of the money I made going to the movies in town on Saturday morning. Dan and I would make the three mile trip after I helped Dad milk and feed the cows. The local blacksmith shop, owned by Mr. Frickee, was only a few blocks from the Ritz Theatre and he was kind enough to let me tie Dan at his place while I walked the short distance to enjoy another “shoot ‘em up” western. I paid ten cents for a ticket, five cents for popcorn and once in a while I splurged and bought an R.C. Cola for a nickel.
Perhaps one would say that around age eight Dan grew a bit “Big for his Britches”. He had a little too much spunk and spirit and was becoming difficult to manage. Dad spoke with the local vet, Dr. Williams, and they decided it would be best to castrate the young fellow, hoping the procedure would cause him to become somewhat mellow and easier to control. The deed was accomplished and Dad brought him home that afternoon, settling him in the lower pasture to recuperate from his surgery. It was terribly sad to see how dejected the poor horse appeared as he slowly ambled to the far corner with his head hanging low. For six days and nights he seemed glued to that spot up against the fence.
“Dad, is he gonna be alright?” I was so worried about my friend and couldn’t stop asking about his welfare.
“Yes, son,” Dad answered. “Just give him a little time.”
Twice a day I’d deliver sweet feed and fresh water to Dan and each day I’d worry more and more about his recovery. I’d stay with him for hours, curled up in a ball, crying and stroking him, fearing he’d never be the same horse I once knew and loved.
I had tossed and turned all night thinking about Dan. Exhausted from worry and lack of sleep I rose at the first hint of dawn to take him his breakfast once again. I eased quietly out the back door so as not to wake Mom and Dad. The weight of the world rested heavily on my young shoulders. Sadly, I headed to the feed bin to fill Dan’s bucket, then rounded the corner of the barn and drew a bucket of water from the well. A slight fog enveloped me as I made my way, buckets in hand, toward the gate. Lifting the latch to enter the pasture I was startled to see a slight form emerging in the hazy light. It was then that I heard the familiar whinny and felt the smell of his damp, steamy coat. There, waiting impatiently for his breakfast was my Dan!
In the late 1960’s this area of the country experienced a virus that could be fatal to horses. One afternoon, Dr. Williams dropped by on his way home. “Have you given your horse a shot so he won’t catch this virus going around?”
“Nope, do you think I should do that, Doc?”
“I would highly recommend it, just to be safe. It would be a shame for Dan to get sick, or even worse.”
A few days later Dr. Williams came by and gave him the shot, but Dan had a terrible reaction to the vaccine. He was down and couldn’t get up. Dad and I tried everything to make him stand up. We knew we had to make him eat, or at least drink water, but Dan would do neither, no matter how much we pleaded with him. The skin under his front and hind legs literally separated from his body and the poor horse was in misery. Doc checked on Dan each afternoon and as he continued to grow worse he suggested we try another medication to counteract the first. Dad gave him permission to try it, but it didn’t seem to help. After the third day Doc said, “If he’s not up by tomorrow I’d recommend putting him down. That would be the most humane thing to do.”
All morning of that fourth day we tried desperately to make Dan get to his feet, yet nothing seemed to work. Neither of us could stand to think that the afternoon was arriving in just a few hours. “Please God, you can’t let him die,” I kept praying over and over.
“Is he up yet?” inquired Doc as he entered the barn around four o’clock.
Sadly, both Dad and I shook our heads. I could feel the tears begin to stream from my eyes and a lump, the size of a baseball was lodged in my throat. Neither of us could utter a word. We were devastated at the thought of what we must ultimately face.
“Well, let’s give the old boy one more try,” said Doc, as he took the reins to make one more valiant effort to save our beloved horse.
“Get up, Dan!” he sternly commanded, harshly jerking the reins.
Suddenly, and much to our amazement and delight, our poor sick horse bolted to his feet and went on to live another ten years! God had answered my prayers that day!
Maybe it was because we came so close to losing him that I took particular joy in everything Dan and I did together for those next few years. We shared an abundance of memorable adventures together and I never took his friendship for granted. If anything, I grew to love him even more and I sensed the same affection from him.
Cooler weather was creeping into the south that crisp November afternoon in the late 1970’s and while tugging and pulling heavy bales of hay off the trailer to feed the livestock on my own farm I heard the familiar sound of Dad’s old grey truck pull into the yard. Patiently, surrounding the trailer, the hungry cows stood in silence, waiting for their food. Steam billowed from their warm moist nostrils as each breath they emitted merged with the frigid air. Their hooves mired deep into the muddy feed lot. Their tails switched rhythmically, almost in unison. I continued to work as Dad hesitantly sauntered toward the trailer, hands deep in his coat pockets and eyes looking downward.
“Hey, Dad. How’s it going?”
“Not too good. I just buried Dan. Found him down in the pasture when I went to check on him this morning.”
Neither of us spoke another word, yet our embrace, as sincere as the one we shared on that hot August afternoon so long ago, spoke volumes from the depth of our hearts.
This story is dedicated to my friend, Dan, with fond memories and love.