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A love-starved girl bonds with an abused horse, and their affection sustains them through good times and bad.
Sam (a pastoral) is a story about the existence of love, the possibility of forgiveness and healing, no matter how dreadfully we humans often treat each other and the animals in our care. Sam explores the old loveless method of using animals and people (bully and hurt them until they give up and do what you want) versus the newer more humane methods (get them on your side, and they'll do anything for you).
The book tells the story of a troubled family, a kid's yearning for a horse to love. The father is a bully and a loudmouth, the mother is timid and helpless, the younger sister is hypersensitive and damaged. And Sam is always Sam, the impossible ugly blue-eyed bombshell of a horse who serves as a mentor, a parent, a place of refuge and the personification of majesty and love.
The child, Ruthie-defiant, sassy-mouthed, hot-tempered and generally not in control of herself- learns Sam's lessons in wisdom the hard way. With his big heart and steadfastness, Sam helps her to do a near-impossible task: to see her abusive father as a suffering struggling human being like herself, worthy of forgiveness and love.
By the way, the book is also pretty funny. Its characters are drawn from the good farming people I have known- the memories of their salty talk kindly hearts and helping hands in bad times stay always with me. And the horses I have known are with me as well, generous, smart, stubborn, gentle, and above all, patient and forgiving.
The Umbrella Affair
“A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.” (Proverbs 12;10)
In June we had a spell of weather; big black thunderstorms rolled over the mountain every day and sometimes twice. On really wet days we took car trips to tag sales or visiting or just “ridge-running,” as Byron called it. Byron took us on excursions in his truck, to eat at his favorite diners, to look at sheep or pulling pony prospects, or to buy harness advertised for sale in the Penny Saver.
On one Byron trip we bought our own used Pelham bit and the double reins to go with it, and Dad returned Mrs. Ackerl’s bit after one of his weekends on the farm; I wrote her a thank you note too and said my horse liked a Pelham and I was riding in a saddle every day.
Next weekend Dad and Mom and we girls went to a yard sale, and I bought an old book called “Diseases of the Horse, An Owner’s Guide, Lavishly Illustrated.” Evvie and I started reading the book together in the back seat going home.
“Don’t read in the car,” Mom said, “You’ll get sick.” Actually we were plenty sick already.
According to this book there were hundreds of horrible awful calamities that could happen to a horse. Equines were delicate creatures; their guts hardly ever worked right, their legs could snap like twigs, their tendons bow or spavin. Their feet were likely to crack, pick up gravel, or shrivel up altogether with laminitis.
By the time we got home, the book had taken over our minds. We worked out way through it as the thunder rumbled and lightning flickered outside our bedroom window. We became horrified in alphabetical order. We’d slosh out to the pasture to see if Sam or Mrs. Lynde had abscesses, bowed tendons, or colic. We dreaded encephalitis, founder and heaves. Not to mention strangles, stringhalt, and strongyles.
We worried most about Sam. Why had we never had the vet up to give our horse a check-up? We needed the vet. We begged Mom and Dad every day to call the vet before it was too late.
Our parents’ tempers, already short because of the wet weather, took a nasty turn. Dad threatened to take out his deer rifle and put Sam out of his misery on the spot.
Unable to keep our fears to ourselves, we walked down the road to Byron’s place in the pouring rain- we couldn’t possibly ride Sam in his present state. Byron had doctored his horses back in The Old Days, and he would know just what to do.
Byron heard our tale and obliged us by driving us back to our place in his truck. He sloshed out into the pasture with us and looked Sam over, nose to tail. When he was through, Byron rubbed his neck, chuckled deep in his throat, and scratched Sam’s neck.
“ Boy Jeez,” he said, “we might want to hold off a bit and see if he gets any worse.”
We took his advice with a grain of salt. Byron loved horses, but he had only ever called in the vet for his cows, and not often even for them. If a milk cow got sick or lame, Byron said, a farmer usually called the Dead and Down Man to take her away for mink food. Or, if the cow was worth more than the vet bill, he might pay out the money, which, by the way, he didn’t have, to fix her up.
Sometimes, Byron said, the poor sick cow lay suffering while the farmer hemmed and hawed, and as likely as not by the time the vet got the call it was too late to cure her.
“Damn vets, pardon my French,” Byron would say. “cow dying right under their nose and they’re demanding cash on the barrel. It’s enough to make a man strike his father.”
But call the vet for horses? No animal that didn’t bring in cash was worth doctoring. One time, Byron said, his best pulling pony stepped on a nail that was sticking through a piece of board in the barnyard. The pony hobbled around for a day stuck to the board with the nail sticking out the top of her foot, until Byron happened to notice it.
“I didn’t call the vet,” he said. “Vets charge you double for a horse what they charge for a cow, Boy Jeez. I poured turpentine into the puncture in her hoof. Foot got infected, and I had to sell her up to Canada for dog food.”
The rains continued. To break the awful spell of “Diseases of the Horse,” our parents suggested we go over to Colby Valley to call on the Pilchers, who were also going stir-crazy from not being able to cut their hay. We’d buy some fresh milk off them, and maybe the grownups would play whist. We would not however, mention the book or Sam’s delicate health and that was an order.
Fine with me. Fred had also farmed with horses in his youth, but as far as Fred was concerned, horses were cows with mental problems. He didn’t understand horses, and used the wrong farrier and told stories about the durn-fool things horses did whenever they got the chance. Evvie and I disagreed with his opinions, but we laughed at his stories anyway.
Duke was the Pilcher’s only horse. He was 10 and had been retired for five years because Fred wouldn’t let Wayne or anybody ride him. Fred had bought Duke cheap, in a moment of weakness, at an auction sale, and gave him to Wayne as a birthday present. Wayne took after his Dad, he didn’t have any knack with horses, and Duke quickly discovered how easy and fun it was to dump Wayne in the dirt, and amused himself by doing it almost every time Wayne got on him.
Duke’s final escapade took place on the tarmac of the Colby Valley Road. Wayne broke his arm falling on the pavement, and that was the end of riding on the Pilcher place. Duke, like so many farmers’ horses, snoozed his life away under the old apple tree.
Wayne wasn’t afraid to get back on Duke. Wayne wasn’t afraid of anything as far as I could see. But Fred needed Wayne to work; he was going to turn whole operation over to him in a few years. So horse escapades and broken arms had no place in the Pilcher’s plans to make a go of it in the dairy business.
Nevertheless, Fred thought it was real cute that we two girls still insisted on riding Sam and that we had not yet been bucked off, bitten, stomped, or kicked to death. So as we sat in the Pilcher’s cozy kitchen eating Grace’s famous prize winning pie and drinking creamy raw milk from that morning’s milking, Fred grinned and asked me:
“Well, sis, how’s old Sam?”
I forgot my orders.
“I dunno,” I said, “We thought he had bog spavin, then we thought he had ear mites, then maybe he could have got heaves. I was worried he had caught laminitis and strangles.”
“He caught a cold,” Evvie said. “Standing out in all this rain.”
Grace, hovering over the kitchen counter constructing another pie, shouted at us (It had dawned on me that she shouted because Fred was hard of hearing), “Why don’tcha go hold an umbrella over him then?”
The Pilchers and our parents roared with laughter. They laughed on and on. Tears rolled down their cheeks. They whooped and wheezed and beat their fists upon their knees.
“Hold- an- uh- huh-humBRELLA over him!!” they kept saying it and setting themselves off laughing again. They didn’t understand. All farmers thought about was their durned cows. Mom and Dad couldn’t see what it meant to love a horse. We took care of Sam, Sam took care of us. No dumping, no biting, no kicking. No yarning. No neglect. And we never. NEVER. Laughed at him. I kept explaining, trying to make these ignorant people see what I meant, and they just kept saying umbrella, umbrella, umbrella and laughing.