A Horse for Christmas
September 1, 2010
I grew up on a farm in the Midwestern United States. That’s not all together true, I mean, it was definitely about as Midwest as you can get, but it wasn’t really a farm. We lived a farm-like life in some respects I guess. We had plenty of farm animals and we had land. We grew a garden but not crops. We had fresh eggs, but not fresh milk; although, our neighbors had plenty of goat milk to share. My father didn’t plow the fields, he worked in a steel mill.
This story is about Cricket, our horse Cricket. She came to us on a Christmas morning, as a surprise. And that was about as big as a Christmas surprise as you could make, I guess. My brothers, my sister and I were the fine recipients of real live 100% brown horse. Later, it came to my understanding that my father had purchased the horse even though she was well along in age and had already made her retirement arrangements. Looking back, I guess she might have been just as surprised to see us that Christmas morning as we were to see her.
But for Cricket, the story began before she even arrived at our “farm“. You see, the thing about my father, was that he had great ideas and wonderful dreams, but money was always tight. Some of the finest miracles I’ve ever seen in life were cast from the two hands of my father. Again, stories for another time. Back to the horse… Life changed the day Cricket came to us. A full three days before Christmas and in a shroud of secrecy, my father and my older brother with the same name, set out deep into farm country to bring back our Christmas gift in nothing more than an 18′ flat bed truck. With only three 2×8 wooden planks and a whole lot of effort, my father and brother managed to convince old Cricket that the view on that ragged red flat bed truck was much better than her cozy retirement pasture. What was about to happen next cannot be explained very easily. You see, the trip from point A to point B that day was all interstate highway driving. You will have to ask my brother how he managed on the back of that flat bed truck with his arm over old Cricket’s neck staring into that 50 mile/hour breeze going up I-65. I’m sure there was plenty of gapers that day, for sure…
Arriving later that day at our place, Cricket must have been pretty worn out. My father threw those old planks back up on the back of that flat bed and summoned his new Christmas present for his children. He was going to give them the best Christmas ever. Now Cricket had other plans. She was more than willing to just take that horrible ride again all the way back to her pasture. But, this was just not going to be. So the stage was set, a battle of wits and will. As soon as the suggesting, and convincing, and the threatening was over, the struggle began. Man versus beast! With bridle ropes in hand, my father pulled and tugged at old Cricket trying to get her down off of that red flat bed. After what must have felt like an eternity she made a dash down the planks in a sudden surprise to my father. The planks must have been surprise too, because they were not going to hold their place that day either. Within an instant, the planks and the horse lay on my father who was stretched out on the driveway gravel. In another instance, Cricket was up and off. She ran and ran until she could run no more. Wearing a face of failed submission she let herself be led into the old chicken coop out back. That old chicken coop had been renovated to provide shelter for one medium size brown horse.
Now the story ought to end here. Christmas morning, happy children, happy horse rides, etc. But it does not. On Christmas Eve, a full 24 hours before the big event, my father snuck out back to tend to the horse, water, hay, tender words to a new pet, that kind of thing… When to his surprise, the wooden shed (with separate door) that was attached to the side of the renovated chicken coop was filled with wild dogs. Now, the police had been on the look-out for these wild dogs because old man Miller down the street had been bit trying to free one of the dogs from a trap that had snared his front paw. Everyone talked about rabies and big shots that go right into your stomach, and not finding the dog meant certain death. So without hesitation, my father slammed the door shut accomplishing two things. (1) all dogs were trapped. (2) Cricket was now awake. He went straight away to house up front and right into the kitchen where he contacted the local police. They arrived in two squad cars, packing rifles. At the risk of discussing two much ‘nature’ to my readers, the usual procedure for this kind of situation is to take the lives of the dogs. And these police officers were fixing to do just that!
So with T-23 hours to Christmas, on a fine Christmas eve morning, the officers opened the shed door and stood back to wait for the inevitable. For some time, nothing happened, then suddenly without warning, a dog made a run for the door. He did not get more than two or three steps out before he was hit by two bullets and fell to the ground. This wild excitement and sudden noise set the dog-pack onto their feet. From the bedroom window of our house, I (only ten years old) witnessed the slaying of nine dogs that day. The last one to leave the shed was the biggest and fastest! Like a tiger, he lunged at the nearest man and almost got him, when the other officer shot the dog in mid flight. Later I was told the first officer’s gun had jammed. How many shots rang out that morning, who can say? But each one struck terror into the Cricket, the “Silent Christmas Surprise” just a few feet away from this horrible event. I remember later that day following the trail of blood all the way out to the street. The dogs were gone.
Christmas morning arrived in all of its usual grandeur. The magic and excitement was splashed across the faces of my siblings which was too darn contagious for me to resist. Several covert operations out to the decorated tree in the living room were bringing back reports that there were in fact A LOT of presents to be handled. The course of the next few hours were very predictable. My father insisted on a full breakfast before even one single present could be open. Next, the paper and ribbons were flying. Screams of jubilation and approval were heard within the walls and halls of the Hemphill home. Finally, when all the dust had settle and the children were completely satisfied with the event, like an uncle after a Thanksgiving dinner, we were called back to the tree. Apparently there was some unfinished Christmas morning business. I remember very clearly being drawn to a single simple envelope nestled quietly inside the tree. My brother extracted and open it. It simply said “Go to basement and look in the washing machine“. Without delay, we raced downstairs. Apparently, we were in the midst of a Scavenger Hunt. The next note stated, “Go to the kitchen and look under the sink“. There were notes and notes while we ran from one room to another and then finally out to the garage. There in our little hands lay the final note. All it said was, “Go to the Chicken Coop…“.
To this day, I can still remember that crisp, cold, bright Christmas morning, walking out the back of the property. The old double door to that coop, squeaked, crackled and complained as my father slowly opened it. I don’t think I ever seen more noble site than when Cricket stepped out into the morning sun, took two steps, stopped and exhaled through her nose like a dragon. She scanned her little audience and “whinnnnnnnied” to us as if to say, “What took you so long?”. I remember her looking at me trying to decide what to make of me. I remember she had her saddle on and there was Christmas garland wrapped around it. But I could be wrong, you’ll have to check with the others. We fed her apples and hay that morning. It was to be a friendship that would last for awhile and memories that would live for a lifetime. We would have other adventures to come, but they could wait for now. It was Christmas and we got Cricket!