The adage that you don't know what you have until it is gone is learned the hard way. It seemed so to us kids, as we watched our big friend disappear into the forest.
Our family home, in today's vernacular, was a subsistence farm. We, and our livestock, ate what we grew. What was left over was sold, to allow Mom and Dad the occasional trip to the grocery and shoe store, for the items we could not grow. Our crops were tilled with the help of Barney and Frank....their real names. They were Belgian/Percheron cross draft horses, and my brothers and I grew up with them. In that innocent, childhood time, they were family.
One Thanksgiving, it looked like, to us kids, that Barney wouldn't be home. This was new, and frightening, to kids and to Frank, who loved Barney as well. Horses are herd animals, like us, really.
A seldom-seen neighbor lived three hickory-covered Ozark ridges away. Henry and his family had a tinier farm. We kids were never there, at least, not while they still scratched out a living there. We did spy on them, from the ridge. Henry, his wife, daughter and son lived on maybe 20 acres. They had a huge garden, a root cellar, a shed, and a house. The son continued to drag old cars home. He was set on getting one to run by borrowing parts from the others. I think so that he could flee. He did, eventually. The rusting roofs of his donor cars are visible where they died, alongside the weedy path to the little house. Inside, peeling wallpaper now waves from pane-less windows.
Houses back then were uninsulated, heated by wood stoves. We cut the trees down with a crosscut saw, an adult on one end of this six foot handsaw, and a kid on the other. Another kid pushed on the tree with a pole, to fell it in a direction most convenient. Henry and his son did this, but had no way to get their firewood to the house, as their farm could support no team of horses. Or even one horse. All they had was one cow. Some chickens lived in a small coop barricaded against foxes and raccoons.
This fall day, Henry came calling.
Our dogs heard Henry crunching his slow way through the frosty grass long before we humans did. Henry appeared in an old sweated fedora, faded overalls and a much-washed grey shirt, covered by a threadbare denim “jumper”. LL Bean calls it a barn coat today. We had never seen Henry up close. He had solid black, heavy eyebrows, topped by silver hair. He wasn't an old man, but life made him appear formidable to us. We were afraid to get too close. We had often heard him and his son shout at one another, three ridges away. Upsetting words, even at a distance, which we intended to keep.
Henry and our grandpa talked, and by and by, Henry left with a small farm sled, propelled by Barney. We had watched grandpa harness Barney. Frank paced nervously, left out. In short, Henry borrowed Barney and our log chain to pull his firewood home, so he could cut it into stove lengths for the winter. It seemed, to us kids, like grandpa was selling Barney down the river. It sure seemed so to Frank, who stood in his paddock, huge brown chest heaving as he leaned against the boards, whinnying to Barney, his departing brother. Who cried back, the voice growing fainter as the trees blocked our view. The harness trace chains clinked softly, more softly, and then no more, in the distance. What assurance did anyone have that Barney would be back?
This was two days before Thanksgiving. We kids wondered: “Where will Barney sleep? Is there room in that little lean-to shed near Henry's chicken coop? What will Barney eat? Won't he be lonely? Will Henry holler at him, like he hollers at his son? Does Henry know that Barney never sleeps with his harness on?”
Such thoughts also seemed to run through Frank's mind. After all, he no doubt had heard the hollering. And recognized Henry's voice. Frank didn't eat much that night, even though all three of us petted him, and offered him an apple, and more ear corn, his favorites. He was no calmer in the morning. That day was endless. Even though we were kept busy preparing for thanksgiving.
There is a certain stoicism acquired early on when you live so close to your food sources. The fat hen destined for dinner on Thanksgiving doesn't get there via a grocery bag. She must be prepared, and we kids knew the drill. While we worried about Barney, a big barnyard animal, we had no such affection for the chickens. They were egg sources, or dinner sources. --To be treated humanely, but their end was assured, and known.
Our pre-Thanksgiving chores, including the demise and defeathering of the hen, kept us busy that Thanksgiving Eve. But still no Barney, as Frank's snorts and whinnies told us periodically as he watched us from the barn lot. It was a cloudy day, even darker as the sun sets early in November.
Carl, my younger brother, first said “SSHHH” in a loud hiss. Well, he needn't have done, as we were all pretty silent in our worry anyway. It was a soft, small bell sound....Barney's trace chains on his harness were clinking faintly, somewhere. It took about five more minutes before we could see Barney, his blackness gleaming through the leather harness he wore. He was headed back home! We knew he would have liked to break into a trot, but his years of training to the plow and wagon prevented that. Nevertheless, we kids supplied the footwork needed to quickly unite us with Barney and his sled. Although we kept our distance from Henry, still the villain to us, the man who hollered at his son.
Grandpa and Henry talked a while, in the German they both grew up with. Meanwhile, Barney hurriedly led us kids to the barn, and to Frank, who stamped impatiently in the nearest corner of his fenced-in lot. Carl and I dragged the harness off Barney under Frank's supervision, while our little brother brought six ears of corn from the feed room. For once, the corn came in second place, as two joyful giant friends first went outside and rolled on the cold, dry ground. Eight stone-polished horseshoes were dog paddling skyward as these gentle giants squealed and whinnied, upside down in the dust. It was equine ecstasy. By the ton.
We checked their trough for water, and headed to the warm house, as winter darkness descended on all. We never found out just where Barney slept on his night out, or if Henry hollered at him. It seemed not.
We all had the day off on Thanksgiving, except for the chores. Barney and Frank again both got welcome home rations from us kids, and I suspect again from Grandpa. Everyone, and everything was in its place.
It was a good Thanksgiving.