Published by: Stokes Creative
Release Date: 03 March 2017
Genre: Humor, Literature & Fiction, Non-Fiction, Outdoors, Short Story Collections
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For ten years Bill Stokes has been a roving reporter and columnist for The Milwaukee Journal. He has written reams of material about his vivid impressions of people, animals, events, personal activities and “things in general.” His reminiscence of boyhood days on the farm are typical of my own growing up days in Northern Wisconsin.
Through his travels, Bill has met with the unusual and unique — the oddball — the occult — the sad — the glad — the good — the bad — the humorous — the tragic — the trivial — the serious. This collection of some of his stories and columns indicates the broad scope of his journalistic efforts, brilliant talents and professional ability.
Bill writes with good humor and feeling. His descriptions make his readers think about their own personal lives and put their feelings toward their fellow men in proper perspective.
I personally appreciate the fact that Bill did not include here a piece he did on one of my fishing trips when all I caught was a stick.
Readers will enjoy this potpourri of delightful columns as they move with Bill through the seasonal changes of life in Wisconsin. It will awaken their consciousness and make them more aware of their good fortune to be living in such a great and wondrous state.
People rarely succeed at anything unless they have fun doing it. Bill Stokes obviously enjoys his role as Wisconsin’s favorite journalist. In this delightful book he shares that fun with all.
The following piece seemed to find acceptance with a number of people, among them the late Harry Nohr, the artist bowl-maker and philosopher of Mineral Point As drivel goes, Harry said, it was not bad. I'll accept that. Drivel is what Harry once called the work of the late Gordon McQuarrie and it became part o f the title of McQuarrie’s popular book, uStories of The Old Duck Hunter and Other Drivel.”
Way up north in the endless pine woods of Douglas County, a wild horse roams the lonely hills. A dozen miles out of the small village of Gordon, off toward the Eau Claire lakes country, you can sometimes hear his thundering hoofbeats on the hard, sandy earth. You can’t see him, of course. Not anymore you can’t, because several years ago I found his bones on a barren hill and hung his skull on a jack pine limb.
But the wild horse of Douglas County lived so like a ghost that a little thing like death is not likely to change things very much. And so that is why I know that the old gray hay burner still gallops in and out of the shadows along the deer trails. In fact, I heard him not long ago. But that is getting ahead of the story.
It begins at least 15 years ago on a cold November morning when Wisconsin’s deer season was about to rumble across the state like the devil’s army.
It had been a cold, snowless autumn and frost had gone deep and hard into the northland.
I sat on a stump like a big red toad, shivering and waiting for a deer to come mincing along so I could try to kill it. Some of the black felt edges of night still upholstered the woods, and it was coffin quiet as the day came slipping in over the treetops.
The blood of predatory ancestors rose like cream in the veins of those of us who waited with our rifles, and we were as tense as bank robbers.
Then way off in the distance I heard something, a very faint thumping, like the sound of deer hooves on the frozen ground. Only those who have suffered the true fever of the hunt can know what this does to your metabolism. Suddenly you are breathing like a creeled trout and your heart is pounding until your ribs rattle.
I got ready, turning to face the sound and holding the lever action rifle at port arms with my thumb on the hammer.
The thumping noise came steadily on, and then it turned to pounding as it got closer.
Then suddenly it was like thunder, and there flew through my mind the vision of being trampled beneath the hooves of a deer as big as the Blue Ox. The hair rose up like quills on the back of my neck, and then, when the noise was so loud it seemed to shake the very earth, there exploded out of the jackpine directly in front of me, a huge horse, eyes wild, mane flying, nostrils flared, and running as if the fires of hell were at his fetlocks.
Now a horse out there in the middle of the deer woods was about as likely as a bull elephant, and when that awesome animal thundered past just a few feet away, I died a little. The wonder is that I didn’t shoot, or at least shoot at, the beast in a move of reflexive self-defense. Obviously I had been paralyzed with fright.
The hoofbeats thundered off out of hearing, and I sat there on the stump because I was too weak to get up.
A horse! A wild, galloping horse in the Douglas County wilderness!
Come on, now. The old brain was flipped over like soggy pancake and a unicorn will be along here any minute.
Needless to say, I was in no fit emotional condition to be in the deer woods, and I went back to camp and tried to glue myself back together with strong coffee and a touch or two of brandy.
My fellow hunters were callous in their casualness over my experience.
“Oh yeah,” one of them said, “ I saw that horse a year or so ago. Funny how it manages to survive.”
So I met the Gordon ghost horse, and after a meeting of such an impressive nature, obviously I would never forget him. Nobody seemed to know very much about the horse. Somebody said he had heard from somebody else that the horse was one of two that had been used one winter to snake out pulp logs, and that the animals had either escaped from the logger or been turned loose to fend for themselves. One of the horses, the word was, had apparently died a long time ago, but the gray one had been roaming the woods for years.
Thus began a strange relationship between me and that gray horse.
All the rest of the deer season I hunted horse more than deer. I wanted another look at him, only on my terms instead of his. I found grassy areas where the horse had grazed and where it had bedded down, and I saw its tracks where it had come down to a stream to drink, but I never saw the horse.
I went back to the city with something special, an inexplicable feeling for a ghostly old gray horse that had damn near stomped me into the frozen Douglas County landscape.
In the dead of the winter, when the air was tree cracking cold or when blizzards howled down across Lake Superior and knocked Wisconsin snowflakes flat, I thought about that horse. I wondered how he was getting along, and I imagined him standing in the thickest pine with his rump to the wind, riding out the storms and cold. I imagined him pawing down through the deep snow for the sparse tufts of brown grass, and I imagined him eating snow to produce water for his sinewy body.
And most of all I thought about that horse being way up in the northern wilderness all by itself. There was some therapy in those thoughts when the elbows of civilization got to gouging my ribs with more than the usual vigor. I thought about the incredible solitude that the horse had managed, and I would take fantasy trips up there and soak some of it up, watching the deer gaze curiously at this big gray thing that shared their wild area, and seeing the cunning coyotes look at the horse and lick their chops over the prospect of a warm meal of unbelievable dimensions.
The next deer season I hurried back to the same area and was thrilled to discover from fresh tracks and droppings that the gray ghost horse was still a part of the Douglas County wilderness.
I didn’t see the horse, though. In fact I never saw him again over the half dozen years of our “ association.” Once or twice I heard running hoofbeats that must have been his, but I could never be absolutely sure.
A pattern developed: I would spend the early part of each deer season satisfying myself that the horse was still around, and gradually it seemed less and less important to have another look at him.
I still used the gray horse a lot for those fantasy rides through the magnificent lonely northern winters, and I grew to respect him more each year.
Then one November when I went back along that jack pine bewhiskered side hill for the annual horse roll call, I began to get an uneasy feeling. For some reason things did not seem right. There was no horse sign along the trail, and when I came to a small ragged clearing where the horse used to graze, I knew why. There, scattered around the base of a pine stump, were the bones of the gray horse, the spine off to one side and the legbones and ribs carelessly arranged by the scavenger undertakers.
I stood there and wondered how death had come. Had it sneaked up on the gray horse out of a brutally cold night and poked an icicle through his tough old heart? Had it grown out of the emptiness of his stomach when the snow became impossibly deep over the grass? Or had it simply been the relentless harness of time that dragged the gray horse finally down?
One thing was sure, there must have been a helluva funeral there in the clearing, and it must have gone on for a long, long time. The ravens probably got there first, and then the coyotes, and later the chickadees and the jays. When it was over, all that was left were the bones and a few locks of coarse, gray hair. Even the hide was gone, and the texture of that must have taxed a few wild digestive systems.
The skull had been dragged off to the side a little ways. My horse trading grandfather could have looked at the teeth and told within a year the horse’s age, but all I could tell was that the teeth looked pretty well worn down.
I took the skull and propped it in the crotch of a jack pine, and then I picked up some of the long gray hair to make a little souvenir braid.
Then I went and sat in that place where the old gray horse had almost run over me years ago. And after a while, way off in the distance, I seemed to hear the sound of hoofbeats. It was a wonderful sound, and I knew that I would be able to hear it the rest of my life.
So there was no need to mourn the ghostly old nag, because he really wasn’t gone. He still isn’t gone. He is up there in Douglas County to this day.
That skull in the jackpine tree?
Why, that is simply some of the excess weight that the old gray horse cast off so that he could gallop through the pine woods faster.