Sunday, February 03, 2008


The Night of Thanksgiving

You had to have been living in a cave to not know that Siberian, frigid air was coming down upon us. The television and radio stations had been warning us that the coldest weather of the season was about to land on us with a thud. Be prepared, they said, and be careful.

To confirm that their predictions were true, everything was closed Tuesday morning – entire school districts, colleges, health clinics, even businesses were closing to get their people home before the truly frigid air and the heavy winds made it dangerous to even cross the street.

Throughout the day, I had ventured out to the barns to check on how we were coping and if I needed to take extra precautions other than those I had already planned for the night. PONY! and Gracie and Spirit had been put in their stalls on Monday evening with the threat of rain. It had rained, in fact, and now the entire world was one very slick, shiny sheet of ice. Ice that had no grit in it at all. Ice that told you it wasn’t a matter of if you were going to fall, but simply a matter of when and how many times.

At the 2pm check, I noticed the winds were kicking in. Strong northerly winds that brought a sharp, cold breeze right around the corner of the Helen Keller side and made the inside of the barn drafty and very cold. We needed to tolerate it for another couple of hours, though. I couldn’t close the doors yet – not until 4 or 5 pm, I thought. No snow yet, just the winds. And the dropping temperature. By 4pm, it was already 10 below on the thermometer outside the back door.

I caught the very lead-in of the 5pm news and saw the wind chill levels. That did it. I was closing up the barn tonight. Good thing The Herd could stand tied for long periods of time because tonight, they would spend the night tied to their feeders and I would walk them to the stock tank for water. They would have hay put in front of them but I would leave them tied so that I could close the doors and try my best to keep the 40+ below wind chills outside.

I started with the Helen Keller side. PONY! and Gracie had blankets on but were both shivering, so I brushed them, put their blankets back on them and another layer of blankets on both of them. With a bit of feed to munch on, within 30 minutes or so they both had stopped shivering. Lanna had come in the barn as one large quivering mass. I brushed the snow off of her and blanketed her. She instantly calmed down and slept at her bucket. April and Addie-Girl were brushed so the snow and ice didn’t melt on them. And Ole’ Man Cole was brushed and double blanketed as well. No one seemed to mind the weight of the extra blanket. In fact, PONY! licked me while I put his second blanket on him.

With the Helen Keller big door closed, the breeze in the barn was drastically reduced. The thermometer in the barn read 10 below. Tolerable. Very tolerable. Professor called to make sure I was okay and I told her I was halfway done – only had the Gelding’s Side to do and then I could go in and warm up for a while. All of her kids were tucked in for the night and she was inside so all was good at the Annex.

I hooked the Gelding’s side and marveled at how tough they were. The layer of ice and snow on the back of Handsome had to be two inches thick! They had frosted whiskers, frosted eyelashes, frosted ear hairs, and frosted tails. But they were snorty and happy to come in and be tied to eat. When I tied everyone that had come in I stood in the center of the barn with a remaining collar in my hands. Miss Bette had not come in the barn.

I walked outside expecting to find her around the corner – she sometimes stood there waiting for me to signal her that Unit was tied and so it was calm enough now to come in to the barn. No, Miss Bette was not around the corner. She must be standing in the round bales out of the wind. So I wandered through the maze of round bales just East of the door and called for her. No Miss Bette to be found.

My heart started pounding in my chest. Even though I was freezing on the outside, I was sweating under my clothes. Where was Miss Bette? My mind told me calmly, “She’s out by the poplar tree. She went there to die.”

I went in to the barn and looked just once more. Had she slipped in without me seeing her? Nope. No Miss Bette to be found. I grabbed halters of every style, 3 lead ropes, 2 collars, and headed up to the house to get a flashlight. Back out in the pasture, I walked the fence lines and the area back by the poplar tree. I cried to Ruby and Joseph and Hannah and RedMan to help me find her! Don’t let her be out here by herself! Not tonight in this terrible, terrible blizzard!

I zigzagged the pasture, walked the dry run, and retraced the fence lines – no sign of Miss B. She must be up in the hay bales! I walked the hay bales once more and could not see her. Going back in to the barn, I dropped all of the tack and kept only the flashlight. Then I grabbed a manure fork and turned the handle to the ground. Like I was poking a cake just out of the oven, I began to poke the snowdrifts around the round bales. She had to be in here! She wasn’t in the pasture – the gate wasn’t open and I hadn’t seen a break in the fence! Miss Bette had to be in the snow in the hay bales!

I poked and poked and called to her. “Miss B! Miss B! You need to show me where you are! Miss B! Miss B!” I realized she probably couldn’t hear me but I had to do something! I felt so damn helpless! I couldn’t find her and she would freeze to death in this storm!

I worked my way back to the last row of round bales. Putting the flashlight under my chin I was able to use both of my arms to poke in the drifts. Then I saw something. I dropped the fork and aimed the flashlight. One huge brown eye had blinked. Miss Bette was right in front of me – completely buried in a drift of snow. Dear Lord!

I knelt at her head and told her that I had found her! She should hang on! I needed to get some equipment to get her out of the hay. You see, she had fallen on the hay that was on top of the sheet of ice. And when she went down, she had landed on her bad side. She needed to be rolled over so she could get herself up! My mind knew she had been there for quite a while, but I refused to hear it. The snow, I told myself, was a great insulation to keep her out of the wind. I would not hear what my mind was muttering in the background!

I ran back in to the barn and got all the lead ropes I could find. I tied them together and made a huge “V” out of them. Then I tied the ends to each of her lower legs – one in the front and one in the back. I apologized to her if I had hurt her bad leg but I told her that we could get that to heal – we had to get her over!

I placed the “V” over my chest and grabbed a wooden fence post. I pulled with strength I didn’t even know I had. I was desperate and Miss Bette was dying. I could see that and I started to hear it. I pulled and pulled and looked back – the snow wasn’t even disturbed. Miss Bette wasn’t trying to help and there was no way I could turn her by myself.

My mind raced! My truck wouldn’t work – it couldn’t get through the drifts and would only spin on this ice covered with hay. I knelt by Miss B’s head one more time and told her I was going to get the tractor. Hang on!

The Allis didn’t even click. Dear Lord! I ran in to the house and grabbed the phone book. Someone had to be home and willing to come out on this frozen night to help save the life of a horse! Alan’s tractor wouldn’t even start, he said. No answer at Matt’s. No answer at Howard’s. Rick’s number was busy. Brian had a tractor that would start but it would need to be plugged in for 2 hours. We don’t have that much time, Brian. Can you think of anyone else? Laurie said that Joe was on the road back from South Dakota. Rick’s number was busy. Eric wasn’t going out in the storm. No answer yet at Matt’s. No answer again at Howard’s. I left a frantic message on a cell phone that was turned off and knew that message wouldn’t be the answer. I sat in my chair and prayed for the answer. What to do???

Going back out to the pasture, my arms were filled with quilts. I unburied Miss Bette and covered her with quilts. Miss Bette would not die out here alone. If I had to, I would crawl in next to her and I would sing as we waited. Oh, Miss Bette, I am so sorry! Dear God, what do I do???

I pounded on her sides, her hips, and I tried to bend her hind legs. They were as stiff as boards. I then did something purposely to irritate her. I needed to see if she wanted to come back or if she wanted to continue on her path that she seemed to have started. She was not moving or responding to my calls or my poundings and I could hear some gurgling... So I rubbed her face and eyes and pulled on her ears – she hated that! If she responded to that then I knew she was still in there and I shouldn’t give up!

I rubbed and pulled and she tossed her head at me and told me to stop it! I laughed at her! “Miss Bette! You’re still in there! You’re angry! Okay, I’m going to call again!!! Hang on, Miss B!

I covered her totally with quilts and threw snow on top of the quilts. I tried 3 more people and then I tried Rick one more time. It rang! He answered! Rick! I need help! Bring the skid steer!

We both hung up and I ran back out to Miss B! “Help is on the way! In just a few minutes, Bette, we would have you rolled over and this would be over!!!

I put myself right on top of Miss B and pretended I was swimming in warm ocean water. My kicking legs beat on her hips. My flailing arms beat on her chest. My bobbing head irritated her and beat on her neck. Miss Bette struggled a bit under me and I was so happy to feel that! I “swam” on her until I heard the skid steer.

Rick arrived in seconds – without any talking, we rolled her over and she tried to get up. Her hind legs weren’t working at all and she fell down. Hard. Not a good sign. If the hindquarters were gone, Miss Bette would not be able to stand and then it was time to call Dr. Brian.

Rick moved some hay to give her some better footing – maybe she had slipped on the ice? We rolled her over again and this time she did the same thing. That hip and leg that had been under her was so stiff she couldn’t even straighten it to stand on it. She fell again. Hard.

One more attempt and I could see Miss Bette was using up all of her energy. She didn’t get up as far and she fell more quickly. We had to get her out of the wind so she could warm up and so I could rub on her to get the blood flowing. We had to get her out of the wind!

I put a halter on her and told her just to lay still. Not to worry. This would be scary but it would get her in to the barn. Rick then gently backed up the skid steer and drug Miss B. in to the barn. Oh, that underside took a beating – the frozen manure, the frozen ice ridges! But she lay still – either from fear or apathy – but after a long haul she was in the barn.

I closed the door to block the wind and moved Josephina out of the way. The other horses were wide-eyed at a skid steer in the barn and Miss Bette lying on her side. But miraculously, no one broke a lead rope and everyone stood at their places. Amazing!

Starting to work on her hind legs, I saw the leg that had been under her all this time. My first reaction was that it looked like a turkey drumstick just out of the freezer. The hair was wet and frosted. The leg was rock hard – not muscle hard but frozen hard – and the meat was gray in color. This was the problem and so I began to rub it and trying to get it to bend. I put the hoof in the center of my chest and pulled on her hips. Once again, I pulled for all I was worth and the leg didn’t bend. More rubbing and more attempts to bend. Finally – the leg started to bend just a bit! Good! I continued rubbing and bending until Miss Bette told me to stop.

It was a while yet but soon she tried to get herself up. Same thing. Those hind legs were too stiff and she would fall back down. Hard. My fear now was that she would break ribs or a hip in one of these falls. Outside when she fell, she fell on snow and hay over ice. In the barn when she fell, she fell on frozen ground – no sawdust or hay or anything! Just rock hard ground!

Miss B. was nervous and so she was sweating and shaking – this is a very good sign! She cares enough to be nervous! Wonderful! The Miss B. I had seen outside didn’t care. This one was nervous. She ate hay and feed offered her – nervous eating, but she ate. More good signs.

One more attempt to get up and she started to fall in to the stock tank. Dear Lord! Rick dove toward her and pushed her up against the wall. She steadied herself there and then got her legs – all 4 of them! – under her! She was standing – very, very weak and shaky – but standing!

For the first time in hours, I took a breath or relief. Now, if she can just stay standing. Forty-five minutes passed before she tried to move. And then she was so stiff legged that she only shuffled two or three inches forward. But she moved all four legs – only inches, but they moved!

I began the job of brushing off the ice and snow to help her dry off. She was soaking wet and in this cold, I knew pneumonia was the most logical next thing. Whenever she leaned or looked weak, I backed up. Miss Bette was very unsteady on her legs and when she leaned she was either trying to move or about to go down. But she didn’t go down again. Miss Bette was back, I prayed.

Rick backed the skid steer out of the barn and I followed him up to his truck. A quick hug and he was heading back to his warm house. I grabbed more quilts and headed out to the barn. The next four hours were spent putting two quilts on her – one on her shoulders and one on her hips – and then a heavy horse blanket over the quilts. I would let that sit for 20 to 30 minutes and then replace the quilts with dry ones. The amount of sweat and melting ice coming off of her kept soaking the quilts until 3am or so. By then, she was still wet on her skin, but her coat was dry enough that I put 2 heavy horse blankets on her and headed in to the house to thaw out myself.

As I sat in front of the pellet stove waiting for my jacket to thaw so I could unzip it, I realized that Miss Bette had come very, very close tonight. I hadn’t counted heads at 4pm and so she spent another two hours in the snow waiting. How desolate! The prayers began. I said prayers of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving for that big, brown eye that blinked in the snow. Thanksgiving for the piles of quilts given to us by those who know we need them. Thanksgiving for the sturdiness of this little workhorse. Thanksgiving for her willingness to come back to us once again. And most of all, thanksgiving for Rick. Without a mention of the cold, without a moan about the weather, and without a mention of the risk to himself or his equipment, Rick came up on this hill during the Storm from Hell. And he saved a life. Miss Bette was surely to die in that snow bank had it not been for Rick. I hung my head and said a deep prayer of thanksgiving for Rick.

So, it is Sunday. Five days later. And I sit here now with tears streaming. I can finally let it all go. The panic and the fear and the desperation and the grief. Oh, Miss Bette! I wanted so to help you and was so unable to! Oh, dear Lord! The feeling of helplessness! And the complete and utter relief at the sight of Rick’s headlights.

Miss Bette and I are both recovering. She still has a blanket on her for warmth and she is very, very stiff. I’m sure her one side is bruised and sore from being drug over the frozen ground. Her bad leg is swollen and cool but it is warmer than on Wednesday and she is starting to move a bit more easily. Her gums are a good pink again. She is eating and thinking about drinking some water. And I hug her several times a day. I whisper in her ear that I’m glad she came back to us and I tell her of all the work we have yet to do together. She lets me whisper to her and then she pulls her head away, turns that same big brown eye to me, and flicks her ear.

Miss Bette and I are now pals. Not the showy kind, but the kindred kind. We have something in common. We have The Storm from Hell that turned in to the Night of Thanksgiving!

Enjoy the journey of each and every day,
Sandy and Miss Bette

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