Tales of Open Road

The Secret

... and with an audible expulsion of his breath, he was gone.

by Bill Jodrey

There is one day that I have kept to my secret self for lo these many years.

The day unfolded, like so many had before it, that is to say, I awakened cold, and not too clean, close by the rear entrance to a cow barn.

My efforts to make myself comfy-cozy for sleeping uninvited on private property, had made my rest somewhat fitful, but it had been late evening when I had spotted the darkened farmhouse and adjacent barn.

There was enough light from the moon to see my way across the yard to the open rear door and, although I walked gently, the low soft growl of a dog stopped me in my tracks.

He was downwind of my position and, apparently he wasn't upset by my scent because, although his approach was a bit slow, I spoke softly and we were friends in a second.

The barn smelled like all barns smelled, but it was summer and all barn doors are left open and the dog acted as guard against whatever it considered to be unwelcome.

Having become instant buddies, we cozied down on a bed of hay, and I at least was soon asleep.

My sleep was not so deep that it was not interrupted several times by what was either a dream, or the actual sounds of an animal in distress.

Each time I thought that I heard it, I was too dazed to investigate, and I went back to sleep.

With the approach of dawn, the dog stirred and awakened me to the sound of footsteps on gravel, and there stood the owner of the farm where I had trespassed.

"Well, what have we here?" he asked.

The dog went to him with a whiny happy sound, and I said, "Good morning, sir. I mean no harm. I needed shelter, and with a welcome from your dog, I stayed all night."

"If my dog says you are all right, you can stay as long as you choose. As a matter of fact, I can use another hand for a few days. Perhaps you can stay?"

I didn't have a ready answer and, when I hesitated, he said, "Think it over, we can talk after breakfast."

After turning the cows out to browse and wander, he said, "Let's go to the house for breakfast, the wife will be glad to see you."

At that moment, I heard the terrible scream of an animal in great distress and when I stopped and looked at Charley for an answer, he said, "Don't mention that sound at the table. Mother gets all upset."

He introduced me to his wife, whom he called Mother.

We had a wonderful breakfast, and they were, of course, anxious about my family.

After the table was cleared, and Charley and I were getting ready to leave, his wife asked him, "Is he the one?"  Charley answered, "I don't know. We have to talk."

I left the house with Charley, and we walked back to the barn with the dog who was very quiet, as if he sensed that a serious session was in the making.

How right he was. Charley fetched two chairs from the barn, and we sat in the early morning sun of a day that promised to be a real winner.

After a rather long moment of silence, as I waited for Charley to open up, I smoothed the dog's head and ears as he sat quietly at my side, as if to bolster Charley's message.

Charley took a deep breath, and said, "I have a very sad story to tell you, and perhaps you can help me work it out."

I had no inkling of what he was going to say, so I just nodded and he continued. "Our only son, Howard, was a wonderful young man, and he was loved by everyone who knew him.

"Some mornings when the chores were done, and if he felt like it, he would saddle his own horse, which he had bought at an auction, and after riding for a couple of hours, he'd return and take care of other chores that gave me a helping hand.

"Three weeks ago, as he was riding through a grassy meadow up on that ridge," and he pointed off to the left of where we sat, "the horse was bitten by a very large rattle snake. We know this because Jerry, the horse, trampled it to death, and in the process he unseated Howard, who fell to the ledge on which the meadow grew and he was killed.

"His body was found by two hunters who were attracted by the commotion that the horse was creating, and they knew Howard, so they brought him home by placing him across the horse's saddle.

"We had a service for our boy and he is buried in the church cemetery in town.

"The horse is crazy from the poison of the snake, and the veterinarian says there is nothing we can do for him except to put him down.

"So we have a situation where everyone in this small town knew and loved both the boy and the horse, and nobody wants to take a hand in finishing the job."

"In one of his quiet periods I tethered him to an oak tree and I water and feed him every day, but I try to be careful, and so far I haven't been hurt, but the job has to be done."

"Maybe you can do it?"

Boy! That was a bolt out of the blue.

I had never killed any thing except bugs and fish.

Curiosity kept me quiet and I agreed to accompany him to see the poor, sick victim.

It was quite a climb to reach the place where the horse was tethered and I marveled in my mind that Charley was able to do it every day.

When we arrived at the oak tree where the horse was tied, he was quiet but obviously happy to see us, and I kind of kept my distance, and wondered if it was possible for me to kill such a beautiful beast.

Suddenly, with a screaming cry, he reared up and thrashed with his front hooves, just barely missing Charley, who had tumbled backwards at the first sign of an attack coming on.

To watch such a beautiful creature thrashing and screaming in monstrous physical and mental torture was more than I could handle, so helping Charley to his feet, we retreated down the hillside and back to the barn.

We settled down and were quiet for some time, and after a long search of my mind and heart, I asked, "Do you have a rifle?"

"Have you fired a rifle before?" he asked.

"Yes," I said, "a number of times."

The number was one, but no one was counting.

"I'll get it," he said and he went to a 'hide hole' at the rear of the barn and returned with a real nice looking rifle and handed it to me. I saw a tear in both eyes.

I was really not a great hand with guns but I had fired once at a target so I knew enough to take a chance.

We didn't speak, and after a short moment, I got up and walked to the path which wound up the hillside.

The climb up to the top of the ridge where the horse was tied was tougher this second trip, but I made it. and my quarry was waiting for me.

The horse was actually lying on his belly and looking as if he knew that I was coming. I approached slowly and I spoke softly. I stopped just far enough away as to be safe, in case he exploded into action.

He stayed very quiet and made soft sounds in his throat. I suddenly was sure that he knew the reason for my presence, and that it was good.

I settled on the ground just two feet from his head, and looking into his eyes, I sensed that the time was now. I slipped a cartridge into the barrel of the rifle and, only inches from his brain, I pulled the trigger and with an audible expulsion of his breath, he was gone. I waited for a few minutes and then returned to the farm barn where Charley was waiting.

We didn't speak as he took the gun, and returned it to its locker. When he returned, I said, "Why don't you get the Mrs. and drive me to the next town? Then nobody will ever know who took care of the job and at the same time you can get hold of some one to take care of the animal."

He agreed, and that is the way it happened, and I never went that way again.

February 2, 2001

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