by Shelby Weeks
“It will take a few minutes to work.” I injected calcium into the cow’s jugular vein, slipped the needle out, capped it, and returned it to my breast pocket. Like all of Dean Paulus’ cows, she was a registered Holstein that would produce a remarkable amount of milk once she was over the milk fever that I’d been called out to treat.
It was a fine night for October, mild and clear. A breeze stirred wisps of hay in the mow. The barn was dark beyond the circle of light cast by a dim light bulb hung overhead on a knotted extension cord.
A flutter of barn sparrows in the rafters drew my eyes upward.
“It is haunted, you know,” Paulus offered from the hay bale where he sat leaning against a massive beam that supported a shadowed roof fifty feet above us.
Tripod trotted over to him and flopped on the hay. The dairy-man automatically scratched him behind his single ear. A small mixed-breed, the three-legged one-eared dog traveled with me visiting rural clients in the Northeastern Indiana county where I practiced veterinary medicine. Tripod, a stray hit by a car, had been my first patient after I took over Doc Sommers’ solo practice last spring.
Doc Sommers had stayed on awhile that first summer, introducing me to clients and his anarchical filing and billing system that consisted mostly of scraps of paper stuck in the visor of his pick-up truck. At the first hint of frost, he clapped me on the back, wished me well, and left for retirement in Florida.
Again the flutter. I glanced at my watch and the cow, then drew up my own hay bale.
Paulus shifted to a more comfortable position.
It was the summer of 1930 (he began). Things was rough. Depression and such. My daddy went to Gary to find work, and my ma stayed in Elkhart taking in wash for money to feed my baby sister. I was sent to this very farm where grandpa was working our one hundred forty acres by himself since the hired man had died that winter.
Grandpa blamed himself some for that hired man dying. Fellow’s name had been Charlie Feathers. They called folks like him simple-minded back then. Couldn’t read nor write, signed his name with a real careful X. They’s a photograph of him standing beside Grandpa holding the halter of one of the draft horse stud-colts. He was a moon-faced man with a smile that just split his face in half. Loved horses he did. He’d come in to eat with the folks, but every night, summer or winter, he’s sleep beside the horses’ stalls in a little room off the barn. I keep my tools in there now.
He’d worked for Grandpa a long time, even before Grandpa married Grandma and my daddy was born. He was a hard worker, doing things before Grandpa told him to. He was a good farm hand, but his real calling was those big draft horses. All the farming was done with horses then. I guess Grandpa had twenty or more Percherons on the place. Breeding and selling work horses was a considerable part of the farm income. And he used the horses himself. Plowing, cultivation, harvesting, haying, logging, hauling ice, him and Charlie Feathers kept four teams working pretty much full time. It gave Grandpa a chuckle how Charlie Feathers would always get the best of him each morning. No matter how early Grandpa got to the barn, Charlie Feathers was always ready and waiting with the teams harnessed and set to go. Grandpa’d act all surprised, and Charlie would smile like a kid at Christmas.
Grandpa’s horses was the best. Charlie fed right, and looked after them good. Our stallion stood taller, our mares settled better, and our workhorses pulled stronger and longer than anyone else’s. Charlie did our vetting, and in all the years he lived, Grandpa said, there was never a sick or lame horse on the place. Did the training too. A colt learned to turn quicker and stop faster and back straighter and pull harder when Charlie Feathers held the lines. Most amazing was that Charlie Feathers could drive two teams of four, one behind the other offset plowing. He drove the first with his lines and the second four with his voice. Grandpa said he liked nothing better than to see some neighbor stop by the fence to rest a team in the shade. Grandpa would wait until the team was close to them, then slip off the seat saying, “You take’em, Charlie.” Then he’d visit with the neighbor; all the while the two of them watching Charlie make flawless turns at the end of the field, the second team’s near horse keeping his head right even with Charlie’s right shoulder. Something special that must have been to see.
Buying the tractor killed him, Grandpa said. Just wasn’t the need for so many draft horses on the place. Charlie Feathers seemed to fade a little each time a horse was sold. Actually cried when the big stud horse went for mink food. Charlie brushed him nice, and nailed on a new set of iron shoes, knowing all along the big horse wouldn’t live out the day. Finally there was just the team of geldings left when one morning Grandpa found Charlie wrapped in his blanket, dead in the hay beside the team. Died right here in this here barn. Of course the roof is new, lost the original in the Palm Sunday tornado. Last thing Charlie Feathers done, Grandpa said, was harness the team so they’d be set to go.
Now, that summer I came to work for Grandpa, he was doing all the farming with a tractor, but he still had that last team of horses for logging in the fruit hills south of Bristol. I know it was late May becuase he was plowing. I was a ten-year-old, smart-mouth city kid, mad I’d been sent off. I missed my ma more than I’d say, and I was sure mad at my daddy for not taking me with him.
Grandpa put me to helping Grandma, her being more patient and all. That day I was supposed to be putting in the vegetable garden with her. Truly I was trying to be a help, but hating every minute grubbing in the dirt. About noon she took pity on me and set me out with a basket for me and Grandpa to eat dinner in the field. I had to walk up a rise, then down to where he was plowing around the west side of Dock Lake, which is more of pond surrounded by wetland. I kept listening for the tractor, but not hearing it. Finally, I fell into following the new-turned earth, figuring he’d see me on his next sweep back.
I found him first.
The tractor–it was a gray Fordson–had slipped one of its metal-spiked rear tires into a soft spot where Grandpa had come too close to the lake. It was easy enough to do, that black crust sometimes looks firm but covers a real mud hole. A team of horses would have felt the soft footing and turned in time to avoid it. I guess that trying to turn out too sharp had sent the tractor over, catching Grandpa underneath in the watery mud. Fordson tractors always was back heavy like that.I ran around to where Grandpa was pinned under the tractor. He’s been there awhile judging from the dried mud on his face. His big arms were wrapped around the tractor with the tips of his fingers wedged under the engine hood, his legs were somehow caught under it.
“She’s sinking, son,” he told me, “Go get the team.”
I ran from that field straight to the barn.
I rode back on the near horse clinging to the collar and near beat my heels bloody on the harness buckles making those two Pecherons trot to the field. A log chain hung from one hame, and a doubletree was hooked on the other.
I jumped off as the horses slowed at the edge of the sink hole. All I could see of Grandpa was his hands and a bit of his face still out of the mud. He was spitting dirt, then grabbing a breath, struggling to keep his head up. I hooked the log chain on the front axle by reaching through the metal spokes. I fastened the four harness tugs to the doubletree. Then I took the lines and danced those horses in place for a second to dig in good before I gave them the command to walk-on.
There was this giant sucking sound and, just like that, the tractor with Grandpa clinging to the seat, came upright and out of the mud. He untangled his leg from the clutch-lever, climbed down, and sat in the shade of the tractor looking at his mud-crusted overalls. I couldn’t think of nothing to do ‘cept get Grandma’s hamper where I’d dropped it and set out the meal like she’s told me. We set there a good long while not saying anything to each other, then we ate. They was bacon sandwiches on homemade bread with a jug of cold tea. I truly do not recall anything that ever came close to tasting as good.
We sat a bit more, then Grandpa said he figured that was enough for one day. We unpinned the plow and pulled the tractor home with me steering and Grandpa handling the team.
Inside the barn Grandpa started to unfasten the team. He stopped, then turned to me real slow and said soft-like, “Who harnessed the horses, son?”
I told him the truth, most of it.
They were standing harnessed and set to go when I’d reached the barn. What I left out was how gently the man in the barn had lifted me on to the back of the near Percheron, how he showed me where the tugs hooked on the doubletree, and said to dance the big horses in place before asking them to step out.
I didn’t tell him because the man himself was standing not a foot away from my grandpa holding the near horse’s bridle.
As Grandpa finished the unharnessing, the man holding the horse seemed to fade into the shadows which for some reason didn’t strike me as too unusual–kids kind of accept strange stuff like that. I could see though, even if my grandpa couldn’t that the moon-faced man was grinning like a kid at Christmas.
A sudden flurry over-head reminded me that Paulus’ cow should be up on her feet, and a quick look showed me that she was.
The old dairy-man walked me out to the truck, Tripod dancing before us in the light of a full moon.
At the end of the drive, I took a long look back at the dairy farm. Black and white Holsteins were shadowy images in the luminous pastures. As I pulled on to the road, I saw two silvery-grey Percherons standing sleepily along the fence, the moonlight giving their coats an eerie pallor.
In Doc Sommers’ file cabinet I found Paulus’s file under ‘D’ for Dairy Farmer. My next guess would have been ‘H’ for Holsteins, or maybe ‘C’ for cows. I wrote the cow’s ear-tag number and a brief note on my diagnosis and treatment. Curious as to why I had missed the two old horses when listing Doc Sommer’s equine clients for yearly vaccination notification, I turned back through the sheaf of papers that were filled with the crabbed writings of my predecessor.
I could find no reference to the two horses until 1958. It was the same form I still use today. It simply states that the owner of the animal, here Doc Sommers had written in “two aged Percheron geldings’” granted permission for euthanasia. In the space for the owner’s signature was a neatly drawn letter X and Doc’s notation that “hired man signed for owner.” If Paulus’s dates were right, the team must have been over thirty years old when Charlie Feathers somehow arranged their passing with the same care he’d given them all their lives.
I closed the folder and took it to the wooden desk and put it on the stack for billing.
The moon had set.
It was the hour before dawn when night is darkest. Tripod pushed his lopsided head under my hand and shivered.
Perhaps he knew, as I did, that this was the hour when, had we lingered at Paulus’s Dairy, we might have glimpsed the ethereal wraith of Charlie Feathers lead his ghostly team into the barn, drape them in gossamer harness, and greet the day with a smile like a kid at Christmas.