Teaming Up With Charlie's Horses
The auction was beyond our normal travel range, near the Illinois border, but one line of the ad - "team of Belgians" - pulled us west after Saturday-morning milking. Nowadays, it is a rare farm outside of the Amish community that still relies on horsepower; accordingly, draft animals are no longer widely available for sale.Skip to next paragraph
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After several hours of driving, and final directions from a man hauling beans, we pulled off a little-traveled road before a small, plain, tree-shaded farmhouse.
The bidding was well under way, centered on a hay wagon loaded with well-used items: crockery and churns, skillets and buckets, ropes and chains, motor and linseed oil, gloves, wire, tires, bits of tack, and all manner of tools. A few pieces of worn but worthy furniture, including some genuine antiques, decorated the lawn, creating an odd and airy parlor among the trees.
The owner, a widower past normal retirement age for any profession, was scaling down. The word was, his children had persuaded him to include the horses in the sale; it wasn't his idea. Despite his skill and lifelong experience as a handler of teams, they worried he'd injure himself if he worked the big Belgians much longer.
CHARLIE yearned to farm with a team again, a part of the old life he'd had to give up when he made the transition from a 30-acre vegetable farm to his present 80-acre commercial diary. Because of his increased labor needs - and the financially intensive start-up - he'd had to sell his team and turn to the speed and power of a tractor.
But he hadn't lost touch with horses altogether. In 1991, he was working a single black Percheron, Ben, a big animal with a mercurial edge to his muscle. In harness he hauled shedloads of firewood, plowed the garden, uprooted stumps, heaved storm falls out of the woods, and generally threw his weight around as Charlie bade - and sometimes according to his own fierce desires. I would watch the ensuing battle of wills in awe of the horse, the man, and the fiery bond between them. It was that bond, underlying Charlie's authority, that always triumphed in the end.
Ben was and is irreplaceable on the farm, but as the work seasons rolled by, Charlie talked more and more of what he could do with a matched pair as well.
We had arrived at the auction barely ahead of the Belgians. Exactly at noon they came from their barn, walking majestically across a gently rising field in full harness. Their brass frames swayed in rhythm, tossing off the sun. The lines from the man barely twitched as the three moved as a unit steadily toward us. These horses were even bigger than Ben, I realized as they stood still on command, their big hooves planted like dinner plates on the lawn. For a moment the crowd of farmers and rural bargain hunters fell completely quiet.
They were no youngsters, we all realized. Jim, the elder of the pair, had whitening down his face, and regarded us with Socratic patience and wisdom. Doc, younger by a few years, turned to his mate as if in question. "Relax, pal," Jim seemed to answer with his eyes, "we're OK."
As a prospective bidder, Charlie accepted the opportunity to take the lines and walk the team around the farm lot. He stepped in behind them as if through the door of an old homeplace.
I knew then that he hadn't been thinking so much of what he could accomplish with a team, as of what such a pair could restore to him. When he again stood beside me, we exchanged a glance that foretold a serious and unbegrudged dent in the budget.