It was a bull. We were on the carretera and in front of us on a flatbed truck standing proud was a Mexican bull. My wife was driving and called it out. I was distracted with my phone in my lap, but looked up to see the odd sight, when it happened, I was thrown back to when I was ten years old. Funny how that happens sometimes, in a blink, you are transported to another place and time.
I grew up on a farm in the Midwestern United States. That’s not altogether true. I mean, it was definitely about as Midwest as you can get, but it wasn’t really a farm. We lived a farm-like life in some respects I guess. We had plenty of farm animals and we had land. We grew a garden but not crops. We had fresh eggs but not fresh milk, although our neighbors had plenty of goat milk to share. My father didn’t plow the fields, he worked in a steel mill.
This story is about Cricket, our horse Cricket. She came to us on Christmas morning, but a full three days before Christmas and in a shroud of secrecy, my father and my older brother with the same name, set out deep into Indiana farm country to bring her home in nothing more than an 18-foot flatbed truck with no side walls. With only three 2 x 8 wooden planks and a whole lot of effort, my father and brother managed to convince old Cricket that the view on that ragged red flatbed truck was much better than her cozy retirement pasture. What was about to happen next cannot be explained very easily. You see, the trip from point A to point B that day was almost all interstate highway driving. Later I learned that my brother rode on the back of the truck with his arm over old Cricket’s neck staring into a 55-mile-per-hour breeze going up I-65. I’m sure there were plenty of gapers that day.
I suddenly snapped back to the present moment and looked at the bull in front of us. There were wooden planks on the back of this flatbed too. I drifted back to my ten-year-old Christmas memory . . .
Arriving later that day back at our home, my father threw those old planks up on the flatbed and summoned Cricket. She vehemently refused. So the stage was set, a battle of wits and will. As soon as the suggesting and convincing and the threatening were over, the physical struggle began. Man versus beast! With bridle ropes in hand, my father pulled and tugged at old Cricket, trying to get her down off that truck. After what must have felt like an eternity she made an unexpected dash down the planks, but they did not hold their place. Within an instant, the planks and the horse lay on my father who was stretched out on the driveway gravel. Then Cricket was up and off. She ran and ran around the house until she could run no more. Wearing a face of failed submission, she let herself be led into the old chicken coop (converted into a horse stable) in the corner of our property.
On Christmas Eve, a full 24 hours before the big event, my father snuck out back to tend to the horse with water and hay. To his surprise, the wooden shed that was attached to the side of the stable was filled with wild dogs. Now, the police had been on the lookout for these dogs because Old Man Miller down the street had been bit trying to free one of the dogs from a trap that had snared its front paw. Everyone talked about rabies and big shots that go right into your stomach, and not finding the dog meant possible death. So, without hesitation, my father slammed the door shut accomplishing two things: one, all dogs were trapped, and two, Cricket was now awake. He went straight away to the house and contacted the police. They arrived in two squad cars, packing rifles. The usual procedure for this kind of rabies situation is to take the lives of the dogs. And these police officers were fixing to do just that.
On a fine Christmas Eve morning, the officers opened the shed door and stood back to wait for the inevitable. For some time, nothing happened, then suddenly without warning, a dog made a run for the door. He did not get more than two or three steps out before he was hit by two bullets and fell to the snowy ground. This wild excitement and sudden noise set the dog pack moving. From the bedroom window of our house, I witnessed the slaying of nine dogs that day. The last one to leave the shed was the biggest and fastest. Like a tiger, he lunged at the nearest man and almost got him, when the other officer shot the dog in mid-flight. Apparently the first officer’s gun had jammed. How many shots rang out that morning, who can say? But each one struck terror into the heart of Cricket, the “Silent Christmas Surprise,” just a few feet away from this horrible event. I remember later that day following a trail of blood all the way out to the street. I cried and the dogs were gone.
Christmas morning had arrived. Several sibling covert operations out to the decorated tree in the living room were bringing back reports that there were in fact a lot of presents to be opened. The course of the next hour was very predictable. My father insisted on a full breakfast before even one single present could be opened. But soon, paper and ribbons were flying. Screams of jubilation and approval were heard within the walls and halls of the Hemphill home. Finally, when all the wrapping had settled and the children were completely satisfied with their bounty, we were called back to the tree. Apparently there was some unfinished business. We were drawn to a single simple envelope nestled quietly inside the tree. My brother extracted and opened it. It simply said, “Go to the basement and look in the washing machine”. Without delay, we raced downstairs. Apparently, we were in the midst of a treasure hunt. The next note stated, “Go to the kitchen and look under the sink.” There were notes and notes while we ran from one room to another and then finally out to the garage. There in our little hands lay the final note. All it said was, “Go to the Chicken Coop.”
To this day, I can still remember that crisp, cold, bright Christmas morning with a fresh layer of snow, walking out back. The old door to that coop, squeaked, crackled and complained as my father slowly opened it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a nobler site than when Cricket stepped out into the morning sun, took two steps, stopped and exhaled through her nose like a dragon sending cloud puffs into the air. She scanned her little audience and “whinnnnnnnied” to us as if to say, “What took you so long?” I remember she had her saddle on and there was Christmas garland wrapped around it. We fed her apples and hay that morning. It was to be a friendship that would last for a while and memories that would live for a lifetime.
I was back in Ajijic and the bull was turning left and down towards the lake. I looked at it leaving and smiled to myself. I could hear my parents saying, “Merry Christmas to one and all.”
Aren’t our Christmas memories just grand!
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com