Back from the dead
Being without a horse in the early days was analogous to being without a car or a tractor today. For farmers, being a horse short of a team was devastating.
Not only did he depend upon those behemoths for his livelihood, but for half of nearly every day but Sunday, he worked and cared for them. It had a bonding effect.
A farmer once joked that if his horse’s rear end was a camera, he’d be world famous.
When one of Jim Kroeger’s best horses dropped suddenly in the field near Elkton 104 years ago, he was saddened at the loss of a faithful friend. Losing a horse in mid-stride in those days wasn’t all that unusual. But the aftermath was, and word of Kroeger’s experience reached the Brookings Register on 25 June 1908.
After the old plodder staggered in harness, stumbled and whinnied quietly, it went down on a hot June 18 day in 1908, rolled to its side and was gone.
Kroeger called to neighbor Pat Culhane, who was working nearby, to help him remove the harness and drag the dead equine off the field. He’d come back later for a proper burial, or if work backed up on him, he’d probably just leave it there for the prairie wolves and coyotes to gnaw on. Better an old dead warhorse than the young calves cavorting innocently in the nearby pasture.
Using Krogers’s remaining horse paired with the one Culhane brought over, the men looped a chain around the horse’s four legs and the new team dragged it unceremoniously across the damp furrows of newly turned earth to the weeds along at the edge of the field.
That evening to help Kroeger get over the loss of his favorite horse, but also just to visit, Culhane walked the mile or so from his farm to his neighbor’s.
They settled in the coolness of Kroeger’s sagging front porch. Kroeger insisted Culhane take the old rocker and then he sat down and leaned a chair onto its back legs up against the unpainted, fading house siding. Pipes were lit and they smoked and watched as dusk gave way to dark.
They shared neighborhood gossip, marveled at the laying of the corner stone for the new $600,000 state capitol building in Pierre earlier that day, and enjoyed tobacco as the sun turned itself in for the night.
They also talked about the dead horse. Kroeger said he’d raised it from colthood. He motioned into the dimming light and told how the horse had drunk every day of its life from the wooden trough over yonder.
If the leaky trough was dry, the horse had developed the habit of using its snout to jiggle the windmill brake handle. It couldn’t release the brake, but learned how to let others know the trough was dry.
At about that time in their reverie, the two men were startled to hear the windmill handle rattling in the farm’s darkened corner. Only the unmoving windmill blades were visible from the porch, silhouetted against the blackening sky. Kroeger, in mid-sentence, shifted his weight. His chair banged back to the four-legged variety.
They leaned toward the sound. Sure enough, something was moving the handle. Maybe it was the breeze, or a bird, or… no… the horse was dead. They’d pulled its sorry carcass off the field.
The handle continued to beckon, and the two curious farmers arose from their chairs and walked out for a closer look. As they approached they were able to make out the outline of a horse. Closer still, and there it was, either the real thing, or the ghost from that hot afternoon. From low in its throat came a weak nicker of recognition.
The old horse looked haggard, that’s for sure. It carried its head low for balance. Its side was streaked with dirt. Hair was disheveled and worn to the hide in spots from that ungraceful feet-first journey across field furrows to fence line.
It seemed a miracle. Kroeger released the windmill handle from its baling wire loop. A gentle Dakota wind pushed the mill blades and the shrill, rusty screech began its familiar, mournful barnyard aria. The horse moved closer on weak legs to drink.
Kroeger reached into the cool trough by the old horse’s head and splashed a bit of water onto its muddy jowl, washing away some of the residue of that sad afternoon journey to purgatory at the side of the field.
That night, his devoted, faithful old horse he’d known for nearly fifteen years that had returned from the dead, drank all the water it wanted, and enjoyed an extra coffee can of oats.
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