In the open field now, the sound of a gaining tackler grew louder. Breaking left toward the middle of the snow covered end zone, it was time to put on more speed. Strides lengthened, and there was no way anyone could catch... "Oof!" The force of the tackler's blow from behind in mid-stride caused a short flight forward before landing face first in the snow, digging up the pristine white powder down to the deep brown earth beneath...
"Dammit Igor!" She rolled over on her back. Standing over her, his nostrils breathing clouds of steam, the huge Belgian Draft horse bent his neck and began to nudge his small friend.
The football still tucked under her arm, or most of it anyway, she straightened her over-sized helmet. Her small head seemed to rattle around inside, and when she ran it made her look like a bobble head doll. The shoulder pads she had on were made by her uncle "Rabbit". He'd cut layers of plastic sheeting, then heated them before forming her shoulder size as best he could. Cutting holes in the shoulder, chest and back plates, he'd woven rubber bungee cords through and tied them off. Topped off with one of her older brother's torn t-shirts as a jersey, she looked a little ramshackle to others, but but her. When her mother had finished sewing on the big "#1" on the front and back, in her mind's eye she thought it looked as good as anything the NFL players wore.
"Igor! You're on my team! You're supposed to block for me..." She held the ball in front of the horse's face.
He studied the ball for a moment, then knocked aside with his enormous snout. He held his head still so his best friend could give it a reassuring pat. The two had grown up together, though at vastly different rates. His young friend was ten years old to his three, and the top of her head came up to the lower part of his chest.
The other players on her team came running up. One, a rather heavy set boy nicknamed "Ton" by his friends, began to study the deep furrow his teammate had left in the snow. Clearing away a small space, he studied it and the fence post markers on either side of the field for a second before beginning to nod. "Yup! That's a touchdown!" He held his two arms in the air as the opposing team's players began to yell and cry foul. They ran up, and began to argue, then formed small groups who alternately expressed their opinion as to whether she'd crossed the goal line
"We win! It was the first to score five touchdowns, and that there is number five!" Tally pointed alternately from the furrow his sister had made in the ground with her face, to the make shift fence post/ goal line. His real name is Talbot, but it was shortened to "Tally" after a prolonged, skirmish filled decision making process kids with odd names go through from time to time.
"The hell you win!" Billy Tresston pushed through the crowd, and stood inches away from Tally. "There's no way a girl scores against my team. Plus, that fat horse interfered, so we get the ball back there," he gestured at Igor, then pointed back down the field. Billy was universally disliked by every kid in Tilioute, a small town along the Allegheny river in western Pennsylvania. He and his friend were from up the road near Titusville, in the old oil area of the state. Most don't know the first oil well ever - EVER - drilled was in Titusville, PA. It's fitting in a way, because Billy had a way of drilling into everyone until fists started to fly.
Tally, six inches shorter than Billy, almost took a step back, but held his ground. "We won. Live with it!"
Billy studied Tally for a moment, then gave his shoulder a little shove as he pushed by, "I'm tired of playing in this crappy field anyway. Come on guys, " he began to walk away.
Tally's sister grabbed him by the arm, " Don't do it. You know what happened last time..."
He shrugged, then looked away. Billy and two of his friends had pummeled him a couple years ago after a game. His Uncle Rabbit had pulled the boys off his nephew. He'd thrown Billy about ten feet with one hand. When Billy had said he'd tell his father, Rabbit had just smiled and said. "You do that.." Rabbit didn't talk much to anyone but family. A former college football player, he and Tally's dad had played for "Ol Miss (The University of Mississippi). Both were All-Americans, and they had left school to join the military shortly after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Rabbit came back from wherever they were sent, but Tally's dad hadn't been so lucky. Rabbit had been a guard and his brother a tight end when they played college ball. Both had been touted as NFL sure things, but life seemed to have twisted what could've been away. At 6'5" and 240 lbs, the younger of the two Rabbit brothers stayed in the military for two years after burying his brother. When he came home, it was because he just stopped speaking one day out in some desert in the Middle East. Doctors called it post traumatic stress, and he refused to talk about what had happened. He'd won a bunch of medals, and when he'd received one presented by the President of the United States himself, Rabbit hadn't said a word. He just shook the President's hand, and walked off the dais.
Rabbit had moved in with his brother's family when he was released from the military. He'd built a small house next to the barn; just a bedroom, kitchen, front room and bathroom. He'd done it all himself, and when he'd finished, he bought enough furniture to make himself comfortable, then closed the front door to the world. He only spoke to Tally, his sister and their mom - Allie. At the job Allie had found him, he just shook his new boss' hand and smiled. Allie had explained Rabbit's condition, and Herb, his new boss, had scratched his head wondering if he'd made a mistake. That all changed when he watched Rabbit hop up on a backhoe. He'd nodded at Allie, who snatched a small note pad out of Herb's pocket and thrown it on the ground in front of the rumbling machine. Herb watched, completely stunned, as Rabbit used the huge metal bucket of the extended backhoe arm to turn the small pages of the notepad without even wrinkling a page.
Tally looked at his sister, then gave her a playful shove backward. She fell into the snow. As she struggled to rise with all her football gear on, a snowball - more ice than snow - hit her in the face. Tally turned to see Billy laughing, then looked back at his sister as she rubbed her face. He began to smile at the look boiling up on her face, and knew what was about to happen.
Blowing out fast, big breaths, she turned to Igor, "Get 'em!" She pointed at Billy. Igor's ears perked up as he turned, then began to flatten down as he studied Billy. His friends had already begun to run, since the level this horse went to protect Tally's sister bordered on legendary. Eighteen hands high at the withers, and close to 2000 pounds in weight, Igor shot forward like a lurching locomotive. The look on Billy's face turned from a smirk to fear. He jumped over the near by fence, rolling on the ground as he landed. The fence really wasn't all that sturdy, made of wood decades old. Igor plowed through the fence like it wasn't even there. Billy screamed as the juggernaut of a horse reared up over him. Igor froze in mid-air when he heard his little friend yell: "Don't stomp on him! Do the other thing!" He stood on all four legs, and turned his whole massive body toward Tally and his sister, then stepped half over Billy and began to urinate on him. Billy tried to roll away from the fire hose volume of pee hitting him, but Igor pivoted with the crawling boy.
They were rolling in the snow laughing when their mother and Rabbit walked up. Ton looked like a giant red beach ball as he laughed, and their friend "Digger", a chronically serious Amish boy, was choking from laughter. Tally was tickling his sister, who had a tendency to pee when she laughed hard enough, and the Billy episode got her started. She yelled for Tally to stop as she laughed. Igor saved the day once more, walking up and shoving Tally gently off of his life long friend. She rolled over and buried her face in the snow, still laughing at the thought of the pee drenched Billy.
"What happened?" Allie tried to look serious, but she and Rabbit had seen the whole thing from the east ranch line house used for seasonal workers.
"Billy had an accident, and..." Ton could finish, and his belly began to jiggle from laughter once again.
Allie passed a hand through her strawberry blond hair. Billy's father would be calling her later this evening. It served the miserable little bastard right, she thought. She'd had to hold Rabbit back during the game, as Billy had slugged and tripped players. "How did you teach Igor to do that?" Allie petted the huge horse's mane, and then pulled what she made him from a fanny pack. "Bend down, Igor." She place a big Santa hat on his head, fitting his ears through holes on each side, then clipping it to his mane. "There!" She stood back to admire her work as her daughter walked up.
Igor looked at her, waiting for either approval or disdain, in which case he'd remove the troubling thing sitting on his head. "You look soooo handsome!" His little friend gave him a huge around one of his legs, since she couldn't really reach his neck. She put her helmet back on, and asked Rabbit to lift her onto Igor's back. With smile, Rabbit plopped her on the horse's four foot wide back, her legs almost sticking directly out to either side as she rode the horse back to the barn.
The house smelled of cinnamon and baked goods as they all came in. Allie took her daughter upstairs to strip off that grubby uniform and equipment she loved so much. She wondered whether her little girl would grow out of her tomboy leanings. Allie had been a cheerleader at 'Ol Miss, where she'd met and married her husband, Rabbit's brother - Stanton Talbot Rabbit. She thought her daughter had her father's zest for life that bordered on crazy. As proud as she'd been of her husband's choice to join the military - they'd been married since the start of their sophomore year after a whirl wind romance - it made her angry too. He'd left her pregnant with Tally, and she'd only seen him a few more times before their daughter was on the way. Then one morning, she'd opened the door to find an Army chaplain and base commander on her porch, and her world seemed to dissolve.
A southern girl, she was left with two kids and the sprawling farm her husband's family had left him. It had been a God send when Rabbit had arrived. She didn't realize he had a problem speaking to anyone until she'd taken him for a doctor appointment at the V.A. Rabbit had asked her to check him in with the desk nurse, and when his name was called he walked off. When they were about to leave, a doctor came running after them, saying Rabbit needed to take his prescription. Rabbit just stared at him, then looked at her. The doctor looked dumbstruck when Rabbit turned from her and said, "OK".
Over time, she learned about Rabbit's condition. Most nights, the two of them would sit out on the porch in summers, or next to the fireplace in the winters. Allie would talk to Rabbit, telling him about her day working for the small town government of Tilioute. PA. Rabbit lived a quiet life, but if she needed something - like going with her when she had to talk to the bank about crop loans, or buying a new piece of equipment for the farm - the huge, silent man would tag along. . If he didn't like what the banker was saying, he'd begin to fidget in his chair, or touch her on the arm. They'd step away, and Rabbit would explain his thoughts, then Allie would tell the banker.
When she came downstairs, there was a knock on the front door. Allie was met by the smiling face of Sheriff Wally Munson. Short, and overweight, Wally was always smiling. Today, he wore a Santa hat, instead of his uniform head wear. "Afternoon, Allie," his usual grin tempered as he pointed back over his shoulder to the man with him. "You know Will Tresston here?" Wally felt beads of sweat forming on his brow, even though it was a chilly December afternoon.
Allie stepped out onto the porch, nodding to Will as she crossed her arms in front of her to ward off the cold. Looking at Wally, then Will, she knew what was coming. "Merry Christmas, gentlemen. What can I do for you?"
"Well, you can get rid of that damn horse of yours for starters!" Will blurted out.
Wally held up his hand to silence Will. "Easy now, Will. We're hear to find out what happened, Allie. According to Will's son Billy, Igor attacked him? Is that true?"
Allie looked Wally in the eyes, but spoke to Will. "Igor didn't attack anyone, but Billy did have the misfortune to be curled up on the ground screaming like a little girl where Igor decided to relieve himself. No real harm done..."
Will stepped toward her, but stepped back when Rabbit appeared behind her. "I'll be damned if I'll let my son get pissed on by anyone, least of all by that overgrown nag of yours! I want that horse put down. He's a public menace, and a danger to the community!"
"Well, this isn't your community to worry about, now is it Will? You live up by Titusville, right?" Allie tapped a finger on her chin as she spoke. "Your boy came down here to play football in Igor's pasture with my kids. Billy being the nasty little boy he is, threw a chunk of ice in my daughter's face, by the way. So I think he got off easy when all is said and done."
Wally didn't like where this was headed. Will had stormed into his office and demanded he take action. But "action" of any kind really wasn't something Wally liked to do. He also disliked Will, who owned a coal mine and thought everyone should bow down to him whenever he wanted something. Wally knew Will had been trying to buy a piece of land the Rabbit family owned up near Titusville, but they refused his every offer. The Rabbit clan was universally liked by everyone in Tilioute, let alone the rest of western Pennsylvania. "I think I get the jist of what happened," Wally winked at Allie. "The kids were playing to close to the horse, Allie. Let's try to make sure that doesn't happen again, all right?"
Will began to sputter something about suing someone, but Wally cut him off. "Will, it's three days before Christmas, and you're standing on someone's front porch threatening them? Shame on you, Will!" He turned to Allie, "Sorry to have bothered you, and wish everyone a Merry Christmas for me, OK?
Allie smiled at Wally, "You comin' over Christmas morning for breakfast again this year?" The Rabbit family had a tradition of cooking breakfast for anyone who wanted to drop by on Christmas morning. Mostly, it was people who didn't have family in the area, or single folks in town who didn't like being alone on Christmas. Four or five elderly ladies, who's husbands had passed away, volunteered to help Allie every year. It had gotten to be such a big event, they'd spent thousands of dollars insulating and repairing the big red barn to accommodate the crowd. Rabbit and the road crew from town came out the day before and plowed the snow well off their little road, clearing a pasture for parking too. "You're welcome to come too, Will."
Will looked at her, then Rabbit, mumbled something under his breath, then stormed back to his car.
"I'll see you Christmas mornin', Allie. Sorry for all this bother," he motioned over his shoulder at Will, who had started to speed away, but slammed on his brakes.
His car door flew open and he yelled, "Your barn is on fire!" Then ran toward the enormous smoking building. Rabbit came flying off the porch, followed by Allie. Wally got on his radio and summoned the town fire department. Tally and his sister ran toward the barn, the sound of horses neighing and snorting in a high, fear tinged pitch. When Rabbit and Will arrived at the barn's big double doors, they were chained and locked shut. Rabbit pulled on the chain with every ounce of strength he had, and Will reached in to help. But the chain wouldn't give. They ran to each of the two remaining doors, but they found them chained too. They ran back to the front of the barn. Rabbit looked at Allie and shook his head, then dropped to his knees. Tally hugged his mom, but his sister walked calmly toward the barn doors, smoke seeping through the upper edges.
They watched in stunned silence, as the little girl touched the door, and yelled: "EEEEEEEEE-GORRRRRRR! COME!" She smiled at her family as she stepped back. The doors exploded outward, Igor's mane smoking a bit as he led the other animals out of the flame filled barn. The huge horse walked back to his little friend, and Rabbit and Allie patted his singed mane...
Hours later, the two fire trucks began rolling up their hoses. The barn was a smoking pile of timber and metal. While the Rabbit family and Will had attended to the animals, Wally had trusted his instincts when he'd seen the chained doors. He'd jumped in his big four wheel drive Chevy, and grabbed a pair of binoculars, scanning the near by tree line. "There they are!" He floored the gas pedal, and plowed through the fence, making a beeline toward the two unaware people who sat watching the fire they'd started. Wally had swung wide to their left as be bounced through the field, then steered right at what he could see was two boys. One of them was Will Tresston's son Billy, who had a big grin on his face until he saw Wally bearing down on him. Wally cut them off at the farm's perimeter road. He pulled out his gun, and pointed it at them. "Easy now, boys! You aren't going to out run a bullet, and I swear to God I'll shoot the first one of you little bastards who so much as makes a move toward those trees!" They didn't know Wally would never shoot a kid, but froze where they stood anyway. Cuffed and placed in his Sheriff vehicle, he drove back to the burning barn, and the awkward moment to come when Will found out what his son had done.
Wally stood the two boys, Billy and a friend named Jimmy, in front of Allie and her family. "I caught them watching the fire. This one," he pointed at Jimmy, "confessed to helping Billy start the fire and chaining the doors shut."
The Rabbit family studied the two boys for a few moments, then the little girl walked up to Billy and kicked him in the balls. "You tried to kill Igor, you..." Allie grabbed her before she could kick the doubled over boy again. Will just stared at his son, then walked up to Allie.
"I had no idea he was going to do this. I told him I'd take care of... I am so very sorry, Allie. My son will pay for what he's done, and rest assured your barn will be rebuilt." He bent down to the eye level of the little girl, "I hope you and your horse can forgive me for what my son did..."
The little girl rared back her little fist, and punched Will in the nose. The man barely felt the actual punch by the child, but he remembered it for the rest of his life. "I deserved that, " he said to Allie as she was about to scold her daughter.
The punch by her daughter made Allie want to laugh, even in the midst of the burned out barn, and the two boys who may very well have ruined their lives by this senseless act of violence. "Wally, I have a favor to ask, and it's a big one. But first, " she looked at Will, " I have a barn to rebuild, and less than three days to get it done before Christmas morning. Can I count on you to help?"
Will looked at Allie, nodded and pulled out his phone...
Cars, trucks and equipment began arriving an hour later. The entire town of Tilioute seemed to be coming down the road. Rabbit left for a while, then returned at the head of a line of trucks and heavy equipment. Allie noticed some was from nearby towns, the news of the fire spreading faster than she thought possible. Hundreds of men and boys began pulling still smoking timbers out of the huge pile. Two bulldozers began pushing wreckage out into a nearby field, and other began hauling it away. That night, lumber trucks began to arrive, and enormous light filled tripods came on as their generators roared to life. A makeshift kitchen made out of National Guard tents rose up in Igor's pasture, and uniformed soldiers from a nearby Army base began to arrive. A Colonel walked up to Rabbit, saluted and shook his hand. "How can we help?" Rabbit smiled, and felt something break lose inside him. "I, I, I'm glad you're here Colonel..." A tear formed and he wiped it away, then he saluted his former commanding officer.
Watching the whole thing, Allie almost started crying. She looked on as Rabbit slowly began to talk to the Colonel, and a few soldiers he'd served with who were there. She felt a tug on her filthy shirt, and looked down at her daughter.
"Why did that Colonel salute Rabbit?"
Allie smiled, and recalled the medal the President had given him. "It's a courtesy soldiers give to anyone who wins the Medal of Honor. Your uncle is a hero..." She looked up at the sky, and began to cry...
Standing in in front of the huge barn, the woman looked out at the field where she'd played football as a little girl. She remembered the Christmas day breakfast following the barn fire, and the crowd had swollen to close to a thousand people that day. She looked down at the spot where she now stood. It was the same spot where she and Igor had watched the crowd of people sing Christmas carols, and the local minister bless the new barn. One of the most amazing parts of that day, was when she'd listened to her mother ask Wally not to prosecute Billy and Jimmy for the fire they'd set. She'd walked up to Will Tresston, and hugged him. Then asked him to make sure the two boys got the help they needed. Both wound up at a military school, and were still in the Army as far as she knew.
Walking through the field to a little headstone at the foot of the forest beyond, she felt tears begin to fall. Derinda Platt, her last name by virtue of her mother re-marrying, knelt down and touched the gray stone. Under a carved image of the enormous horse, the inscription read: "Here lies the best friend I ever had." She missed Igor, but her life had moved on. She loved her job, and the people she worked with were almost as big as Igor. The thought made her smile, and she kicked off her shoes. Looked down the pasture at the old end zone, she began to run. Closing her eyes, she could almost hear Igor running beside her...
I hope each and every one of you have a merry Christmas, and the very best of New Years! - DouglasM