Doc and Jim had worked together as a team long before we bought them at auction in 1993. Already in their 20s, the Belgians were a few years older and slightly larger than our black Percheron, Ben, who -up until then - had enjoyed being the only horse on our small-scale commercial dairy.
Literally a head taller than the tallest of the cows, Ben was the biggest, boldest thing around. He had to earn his living, to be sure, but he didn't seem to mind. He worked with a will in harness, hauling loads of wood or hay, then moving as nimbly as a cutting pony when we rode him bareback to round up the herd for milkings. True, he was sometimes unpredictable and often headstrong, but his wild ways and rakish traits perfectly accentuated his wicked black beauty.
To put it simply, Ben ruled his 80-acre world - until Doc and Jim exited their trailer with a soft thunder of hooves to occupy the front pasture and usher in a new era on the farm. Charlie had been wanting a team for the heavier work that Ben could not handle alone, and he was looking for a pair a bit more settled than Ben would likely ever be.
There was something about the big Belgians up for auction that day that spoke to us. Charlie liked the feel of them through the lines as he took a turn walking them about. There was an immense serenity, an ancient and practiced wisdom in the way they moved together through the hushed crowd of bidders. You had only to look at their eyes, and watch their gentle, expressive mouths to know they would bring something more than their ample set of muscles to any place.
As the bidding closed, we knew it was to be our place. If our purse was thinner for it, our spirits expanded to compensate.
Ben was wholly unprepared for the Belgians' arrival. Eyes popping, he pranced to and fro on his side of the pasture fence, tossing his mane and stamping his great, feathered feet. "What's this, what's this, what is this?" he seemed to demand with each massive footfall.
Doc and Jim knew it was no welcome dance, and their eyes flashed back with a sharp, synchronous warning: "Two of us! Two of us! Two of us!" they answered. Over the ensuing months, the horses spent much of their free time quietly sizing up each other.
Eventually, they all settled down to a kind of understanding, but they maintained a mutual wariness for several years. We did not try to push a friendship or working partnership. Instead, Ben was retired from the harness as Charlie relied more and more on the beautifully behaved team for chores.
But rather than enjoy his leisure, our big black horse fairly exploded in a fury of jealousy. Watching Doc and Jim engaged in some task, responding with their measured calm to Charlie's every command, and turning to mere flicks of the lines, drove Ben to distraction. It didn't help that the Belgians never lost their cool, misstepped, or broke a harness strap with a sudden burst of spirited effort. It was all too clear why Charlie loved working with them.
We still relied on Ben to collect the cows, and we mustered his strength in emergencies. It was Ben who was nearby and ready for action when a big newborn calf slipped down an icy ravine one winter's night. There was no time to harness him. Charlie simply looped a thick rope around Ben's chest, and the horse pulled the calf to safety in this makeshift way.
He has remained, over the years, the most admired and beloved of the three horses among our friends and neighbors. The Belgians might be standing statuesquely nearby, but folks have gazed right past them in search of the big black. Ben has a presence, a spark all his own that kindred spirits recognize.
A few years ago, Ben and the Belgians began to forget their differences and graze together. By now, if any is separated from the other two, plaintive whinnies float over our farm until they are a threesome again.
This week, Charlie harnessed them all together for the first time. A triple-tree hitch linked horsepower to a log-weighted drag on a field we'd just plowed to plant in alfalfa and oats. We wondered how Ben would react in harness after all these years. Would he behave?
Bookended like a page-turning thriller between Doc and Jim, his eyes sparked, whether in panic or pleasure, we could not quite fathom. Even the Belgians looked less than settled.
I stood holding the three steady as Charlie hitched them to the triple tree, then moved aside as the lines flicked. Ben, if he'd had the strength, would have taken master, implement, and mates straight to the moon in his first three lunges. The drag danced over the clods as Charlie leapt to the side, lines still in hand.
The Belgians, quick to recognize an advantage when they had one, exchanged big, loose-lipped grins as they relaxed their own efforts. "Ben wants to do it all - let him!" they seemed to agree.
After the first mad round, Ben began to appreciate the size of the field, the enormity of the task at hand, and the wisdom of a steadier approach. As he at last fell panting into step with his mates, and the three became one, Charlie whooped.
The sun was setting, and the road at the field's edge became busy with commuters. Few could have appreciated the small drama being played out on the farm they whiz by daily. The area is changing, growing fast, and we, likewise, barely know the occupants of the new houses that have popped up nearby. Suddenly, a child's voice sang out over the road, from one of them. "What are their names?"
Charlie reined in the horses and called back, enunciating each word in turn with a deliberate, loving emphasis. "Doc! Jim! And Ben!"
Then he flicked the lines, and the team moved on down the field. As Ben might have put it, they had work to do.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society