Monday, November 9, 2009

Larson Finds a Home -- Part Two

Upon returning to the farm, I found Larson. My fantasies of being free of burro responsibilities went up in a puff of smoke. There he was, not a hair out of place, grazing next to the gate with Joe watching over him. Joe spotted me coming out of the woods and shot me a look. My young horse was impatient for me to open the gate and let Larson back in. Larson no longer looked at me as a threat, now I was just Wolfy with a bucket of sweet feed. As I opened the gate, Larson sauntered past me and then turned, expecting a handful of the molasses covered grain. I obliged him. I was beaten and he knew it. He blinked his almond shaped eyes as big as figs, and just as sweet, at me, and then he said, “Larson 52, Wolfy Zero!”

When Joe turned five I decided it was time to move him to new boarding stable. I was tired of seeing my lovely horse standing outside in all sorts of bad weather, I wanted him to have a stall. And I wanted to be part of a barn with a number of riders -- people to go on trail rides with, to fox hunt with and to socialize with. I would miss the big farm where we were staying, but it was time to move on. It was a place for breeding young race horses and pasturing old brood mares, not a place to continue my horse’s education. But this move came with a dilemma. The new stable had no room for Larson. Well, they had no pasture with a shed I should say, so I could pay to board him in a stall, but my wallet looked askance at me when I made this suggestion. So, with mixed feelings, Larson was always producing mixed feelings in my heart, I placed a classified ad in the Ag News: BLM Burro, 14 yrs, 14 hands, unbroken, but sound, ready to be a pasture mate. $200. I priced him to sell quickly and didn’t care to count the money that I had sunk into him over the past couple of years, what with his bad feet that were now healed and vet bills. I consoled myself by concentrating on the job he had done and done well, which was to be my horse’s confidante and pasture guard. Joe wold miss him terribly. Me? I would miss his bellowing voice and his lovely face, but not the feeling I woke up with everyday, the feeling that made me whisper to myself, ”what is Larson going to do to me today?“

The first prospective buyer who came to see him was a mule lady. She owned three pack mules that she took on long weekend trail rides. She wanted a burro to keep whichever one of the mules was left behind when she hit the trail with the other two. She also had visions of breaking the burro to carry packs and maybe even pull a cart. When she told me this, the most horrendous of pictures came into my mind. I saw Larson careening down a mountain ridge with a pack that had slipped sideways and pots and pans and camping equipment being strewn everywhere. I imagined this woman chasing after Larson into the great gorge and falling to her death. Then I saw another scene. Larson in the traces of a smart little cart galloping full tilt down a rural highway with no driver.

I explained to her that Larson had never been broken to anything, but she was welcome to come see him. She came on a rainy afternoon. Wearing a long Aussie rain slicker and a cowboy hat. She was a big woman. She walked into the barn and Larson backed away from her. She asked if she could take him outside? I handed her the shank and said, ”sure, here you go.“

”He’s a pretty little fella, isn’t he?“

”Yup, Larson is a real looker.“ I suddenly felt like a Horse Dealer. I had always wondered what it felt like to be a Horse Dealer, the kind of person who just lets the buyer step off the cliff while handing you their money. I didn’t mind the feeling, and besides, she was a big woman, Larson couldn’t hurt her, not much.

She put the shank on Larson’s halter and he let out a big snort. I knew that was a bad sign. His lovely eyes widened and his ears, those indicators of what his brain waves were up to, were straight up and down. ”There, there fella,“ she rubbed that soft spot right between his eyes, but this only served to increase Larson’s anxiety. She led him out into the yard and started to ask him to go in a small circle around her on the end of the rope, but all he did was spin and turn his tail toward her, then he kicked out at her. She took a stronger hold of him and started to talk with a low sort of rough voice, ”Now listen here, boy!“ and she jerked on the shank and spun his face back toward her. I was starting to root for Larson now, as this woman seemed to think she was some kind of burro wrangler. She made Larson walk backwards and she spun him around some more and she had him scared as I had ever seen. She walloped him with the end of the rope and made him go this way and that. He was not making any of the decisions. And then the rain started to come down. We retreated into the barn and she handed me the end of the rope. Larson seemed to scoot to my side. For the first time in our two year friendship, Larson was coming to me for help! As the rain streamed off the brim of her cowboy hat she had the nerve to say, ”He’s got terrible ground manners. He needs a lot of work. More work than I want to put into him. If you’re going to sell ‘im, you’re going to need to get him more broke.“ I just nodded and patted Larson on the neck. I wanted to tell her that I wouldn’t be selling him if I thought I could train him, but somehow I knew my words would be wasted on her. So the big girl stomped off into the rain and Larson thanked me for the first time in his life. I said, ”you owe me man!“

The next call came from another woman. But this woman was very demure. She had an old quarter horse that needed a companion in the pasture. That was all she wanted. She had never owned a burro and thought it might be nice to look out the kitchen window and see him out there with her old horse. This was a perfect match, I thought. She came to see Larson. I put him in a stall and groomed him. He looked like a Christmas present in May. The demure lady arrived carrying a bag of carrots and her checkbook. She patted him on the face as he devoured the whole bag of carrots. ”Isn’t he darling?“ she said. She couldn’t take her eyes off of him. She wrote me a check for $200 and I told her I would bring him to her farm the following day. I told her she could have him on a 30 day trial -- that if he didn’t work out for some reason, I could take him back AND I would be happy to answer any questions she had about him during those 30 days. What a fool I was!

But he was sold just in the nick of time. The following day my new friend Sara came to pick up Joe to go to her barn and she agreed to ship Larson to the demure lady’s farm. We put Joe on the trailer with ease, but Larson was a different story. Even though his pal Joe was up in the trailer, Larson was not interested in going in. We pushed, we prodded, we pulled, we cajoled with sweet feed. We got out the lunge whip and cracked it behind him, never hitting him, just making enough noise to push him forward. But nothing was going to get Larson on to that trailer. Joe was a saint. He stood there as the trailer waited for Larson to get on. Finally we took a lunge line and made a pulley-like harness that wrapped around Larson’s little rear-end and then we looped the end of the line through the forward window of the trailer...basically it was a winch, and Sara pulled and pulled and I pushed and pushed and finally Larson’s little and dangerous feet went up and into the trailer. I slammed the door. We had him. It had only taken an hour. We composed ourselves and set off to deliver Larson to his new home.

We pulled into the demure lady’s drive She had a lovely little two stall barn that was neat as a pin and had a nice meadow. Not a big meadow, but it would do, I told myself, it would do. We backed Larson off the trailer just as pretty as you please and I handed the rope to Mrs. Demure. She was beaming with delight. And Larson stood stock still at the end of her rope looking much like he did the day I bought him. He was sizing her up without her knowing it. I told Mrs. Demure to call me if she had any questions and got in the truck where Sara was waiting for me. I told her, ”Quick, let’s go! Before he does something and she changes her mind!“ I felt a twinge of sadness as we left though. Joe was whinnying in the trailer, and I knew that he was already missing his friend Larson. This was not as easy as I thought it was going to be, suddenly I missed Larson as much as Joe did.

But the next day, the phone rang. It was Mrs. Demure. She had many questions. Why couldn’t she groom his hind legs without him kicking at her. Did he always bellow like that in the early morning? Her old quarter horse seemed to be afraid of Larson. Would Larson kick her horse? Should she feed Larson grain? Larson didn’t like to be put in a stall at night -- he bellowed most of the night and kept her husband awake. The questions kept coming. And coming. The next week I decided it was time to make a trip to Mrs. Demure’s little farm to help her out. I arrived and she was all in a flutter. She said she didn’t realize that donkey’s could be so difficult. I poo-pooed her and said, ”Oh Larson is just a big baby. You two are just getting to know eachother!“ but I knew in my heart that things were not going well. Her husband already hated Larson -- ”Mr. Demure likes horses“, Mrs. Demure assured me, ”but he doesn’t like Larson. Larson turns his tail to Mr. Demure every time he goes near him.“ Hmmm, I thought, this could be a deal breaker. But I was patient and kind. I answered her daily emails. I talked to her on the phone. I thought to myself, just get her to the 30 day mark and he’s all hers. But day 31 came with a 6:30 am call. ”Larson kicked with both hind feet at Mr. Demure this morning. I’m afraid we can’t keep him.“

”But Mrs. Demure, its been 31 days. And I have no where to keep him now.“

”I’m sorry, but you will have to take him back.“

”Okay, but I have to find him another home. And I can’t give you your money back, as its been 31 days and I have spent all sorts of time trying to make this work for you. If you will put an ad in the Ag paper, I will see what I can do from my end.“ I remembered a man who had called two days after I had sold Larson to Mrs. Demure. He had a flock of sheep up in northern North Carolina that he wanted a burro to guard from coyote and wild dogs. I didn’t get his telephone number, like a complete idiot. I didn’t know what to do. Mrs. Demure wanted Larson gone by the time Mr. Demure got home from work, but I told her that wasn’t possible, she was going to have to bear with me. She was in tears.

That day I went on a long trail ride with my new friends Sara and Elizabeth. Joe had all but forgotten Larson as he now lived with big foxhunting horses, dark bay fellows who kept him up late at night drinking bourbon by the fire and recounting their years of running with hounds. Sara said she wasn’t surprised that things hadn’t worked out with Mrs. Demure. And then Elizabeth, dear Elizabeth piped up. ”You know, I can’t promise anything but my sister Catherine and her husband Nelson have a 300-acre farm up in Snow Hill, Virginia. Catherine has a little riding school up there you know an Nelson has beef cattle, a big herd he manages for beef. Nelson’s been having trouble with the neighbor’s dogs running the calves and coyote have been a problem too. Do you think Larson would like to live with the cows? Has he ever lived with cattle?“ I didn’t know the answer, but I didn’t see why he couldn’t try and besides, I was desperate to get him out of Mrs. Demure’s hands. Elizabeth said she’d give her sister a call that night, but she emphasized she couldn’t promise that they would take Larson on.

The next morning my phone rang. It was Catherine and she said her husband Nelson was very excited at the prospect of having a ”guard donkey“. I was unfamiliar with this concept until the man with the flock of sheep had called me a few weeks earlier. Sure, I knew that burros were very territorial, but I didn’t realize that cattleman and sheep herders around the country were now utilizing burros to guard their herds instead of border collies and cattle dogs. Burros were a more practical choice in that they could live with the herd 24-7 and their size meant that they could take on groups of coyote and wild dogs, whereas herding dogs were vulnerable to packs, and the herding dogs wanted to sleep in the house at night with the herdsman. So the deal was struck. I told Catherine I would give Larson to them along with the $200 that Mrs. Demure had paid me for him 32 days ago. I wanted them to put the money toward his first vet and farrier bills. I called Sara right away and said, ”Let’s go get Larson!“

The next day, my husband Py and I met Sara at her farm. Py needed a little trip and he was excited to see Larson introduced to the cows. I wasn’t sure how it was all going to go, but I knew that we had a good chance of it working. We pulled into Mrs. Demure’s driveway and she was waiting for us. She was hysterical and crying. She kept apologizing to me and to Larson. She wanted to know where he was going, which annoyed me...I thought, ”Listen woman, I gave this burro two years of my life, it was never perfect, but I hung on for two years and you gave him 31 days!“ but I kept my mouth shut, and asked where he was. Poor Larson was standing in the back of his little stall. I got the feeling he had been there ever since he had tried to kick Mr. Demure with both barrels. The stall was filthy with manure and I figured they were too afraid of him to lead him out to the pasture since his fall from grace, so they were just throwing him hay and waiting for me to come pick him up. ”Hey boy, hey Lars! Its me boy. Let’s make a break, okay?“ Larson came to the front of the stall and put his head in the halter for me. I led him out to the trailer where Sara was waiting with various equipment to winch Larson on, but Larson took a running jump into the trailer. He wanted to get out of there. As I tied his lead rope in the trailer, those huge almond shaped eyes looked at me and he whispered, ”Larson and Wolfy - dead heat!“ I was glad to see those big ears again.

We left Mrs. Demure in a sobbing shambles as we drove away. I told her to look into buying an old pony to keep her horse company.

The drive to Snow Hill Farm was practically triumphant. It was a beautiful and near-hot June day. We had Luke the Wonder Dog, Sara’s fabulous spotted dog riding shotgun with us. As we transported our precious burro cargo over the state line we told stories and the mood was high and filled with anticipation. What would Larson do when he saw that hundred or so head of Angus?

We drove into the gates of Snow Hill -- Catherine and Nelson met us in the yard with all their hound dogs and peacocks. There were peacocks everywhere -- on the roof of their 300 year old stone house that has stood through the sometime since the Revolution and survived the Civil War. The chaos of old farm equipment and horses and pioneer spirit on their farm seems to gain its strength from that old house -- Snow Hill Farm is a magical place and I hoped that this was finally the place for Larson. Nelson jumped in the truck with us, ”Cows are across the road. We need to go back out the gate and park out on the road.“ I didn’t know that their farm was split by the country road they lived on. Suddenly I was apprehensive. I was going to have to unload Larson on the road and then introduce him to the cattle from the gate. This made me think of all the times he had yanked the rope out of my hand and had run off. I almost asked Nelson if he would be willing to unload Larson, but I stopped myself. I decided that it should be me, I should be the one to lead Larson to his new home.

Sara parked the truck on the side of the road. We got out and Nelson called his cattle. And they came. All hundred head of them. They came like a black sea and their bellows were deafening. I was terrified. I thought, ”how am I going to unload Larson in the face of that herd?“ Nelson has a double gate, one opens into a small loading area, and then once you are in there, you can open another gate and be with the cattle. The cattle crowded and wrestled and banged up against the gate. They wanted to know what we had brought them. I had never seen such a scene. Over the din, I asked Nelson if I would be safe? If Larson would be safe? He said in a matter of fact way, that he hoped so. So we opened trailer and I got up in there with Larson. I untied the rope and I looked him in the eye, ”This is your big chance Lars, don’t screw it up!“ He backed out and spun with me to face the crowd. Larson didn’t flinch. We went through the first gate and I turned to look at Py and Sara and Nelson. We were all near tears, really. Nelson came in and opened the second gate and I released Larson’s shank. I had never been near so many cows in all my life -- the flies buzzed, the sun beat down and their voices echoed and echoed - the push of their black bodies against themselves was overwhelming to me. But Larson pricked those beautiful big ears and he advanced!

As he advanced, the steers and the cows and the bulls, of which there were two, parted like the red sea!

Larson walked right through them like a jet flies through storm clouds. And as he picked up a trot, the herd, this massive hairy black herd turned to follow him! Like they had found their Dali Lama! Like the Festival of Colors without the colors, the throng paraded and crushed in and celebrated the arrival of their new leader. There was a sparkling pond in the distance and Larson was on a bee-line for the cool water. He never looked back as he pushed into the water and lowered his head for a drink. The cattle spread out and watched him bathe and drink. The adoration of Larson was upon us. The mama cows presented their little ones to Larson and the little ones gathered around him when he came out of the water. We cheered. We cried. It was done. Larson had found his paradise.

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