I stood on the back deck, holding a fragrant mix of canned and dry dog food. I scanned the back yard for Hazel. She jogged out from behind the barn, her tail wagging the whole way to the house.
"Thanks, I'm good," Hazel said as she hopped up the back deck's wooden stairs.
"What?" I asked.
"I'm good, I already ate."
"Hmmph," I responded. "Deer legs left by the hunters?"
"Don't mind if I do," Hazel said, hopping back down the stairs. She crossed the yard to a large sweetgum tree, retrieved a gargantuan deer leg from behind its trunk and disappeared into the woods.
I added "hiding animal parts" to my mental list of trespasses committed by our sweetgum trees. They seem innocent enough at first glance, but sweetgum trees are as troublesome as they are beautiful.
Sweetgums often lose large branches during wind or rainstorms. The likelihood of dropped branches is increased tenfold if a truck or horse trailer is parked nearby. We have the dents to prove it.
Sweetgums are also infamous for releasing bushel after bushel of spiked seed pods into yards, riding rings, driveways, pastures and barn aisles--or anyplace else you really don't want them.
And these "gumballs" decay so slowly that they're unrivalled at ruining lawns, getting stuck in hooves, twisting ankles and obliterating any dreams of walking barefoot through your lawn.
Yet the sweetgums remain in our yard--partly because they provide great shade during the relentless heat of the North Carolina summers; partly because of their beautiful autumn palettes of gold, burnt orange and crimson; and partly because Kimberly and I don't have the heart to cut them down. Technically, they were here first.
I picked up a dried gumball from beneath a patio chair and hurled it at a nearby sweetgum. It struck the tree with a satisfyingly hollow knock. A bright red cardinal fluttered from the sweetgum's lowest branch.
"Drats!" cursed a nearly invisible Sascha cat, giving me a dirty look as she crouched in the grass near the tree.
"Sorry," I hollered as I went back inside with my bowl of dog food. Pickles the cat was waiting for me just inside the back door.
"I couldn't help noticing that bowl of food you have," he said, his eyebrows raised in anticipation.
"One piece only," I said, picking out a round bit of dog kibble and tossing it to the floor. It rolled past Pickles, who pounced and batted it under the closet door.
"One more please," Pickles requested.
"Aww," he responded.
"Let's check the closet," I said, kneeling down and setting the bowl beside me.
I moved aside the vacuum cleaner, an ironing board, two boxes of Christmas ornaments and an old bicycle pump, revealing what was probably two year's worth of long lost cat toys.
I dusted off and piled up an assortment of fabric mice, plastic and rubber balls, rubber bands, hair ties and curled plastic bands from the tops of milk jugs.
"Look at all this stuff!" I exclaimed. "It's kitty Christmas all over again!"
Pickles said nothing.
I looked over at Hazel's bowl. Jack sat beside it with his face covered in canned dog food; he purred as he licked his tiny lips. Pickles darted across the floor behind Jack. Pickles had picked out all the round pieces of kibble and was busy batting them throughout the living room and kitchen. I sighed.
"May I take your bowl, sir?" I asked Jack, who seemed to be slipping into a food-induced slumber.
"Yes, thank you."
"Did you enjoy your meal?"
"I'd come back to this restaurant," he mumbled, slowly falling over on his side and snoring.
I took the bowl to the kitchen. The kibble crunched under my feet as I walked to the sink and then to the pantry to fetch the broom and dustpan.
I tossed a few of the rediscovered toys in Pickles' direction. As I swept the floor, he swatted fabric mice and rubber balls across the living room. Many bounced over--or off of--Jack, but he was too deeply asleep to notice.
I finished sweeping just as a truck towing a horse trailer pulled into the driveway. I went outside. Hazel barked. A catbird flew out of the lower branches of our holly tree and disappeared over the house.
"Drats!" cursed Sascha, glaring at Hazel from beneath the tree.
"Sorry," said Hazel.
The family that climbed out of the truck was here to meet Ellie. Kimberly and I had talked about downsizing and decided that Ellie and Vander would be "put up for adoption" to the right homes.
We had received a lot of calls in response to the ads we placed for Ellie and Vander, but so far we'd found only one match: this family and Ellie.
The family already had a few horses and had been a horse family for several generations. Ellie would be a trail horse for the family's 18-year-old daughter--assuming the two got along all right.
It didn't hurt the family's case that the mother was a veterinarian. Also, as we spoke with them, it was obvious that the entire family had a long history of loving and spoiling animals--from guinea pigs and cats to dogs and horses. They were our kind of people.
Kimberly helped get Ellie tacked up and led her to the riding ring. When the girl hopped into the saddle and started riding, any doubts I had about this match disappeared.
After the ride the girl led Ellie back to the barn, firmly correcting Ellie when she tried to be pushy or stopped walking to eat grass. After a brief conference Kimberly and the girl hugged, giggled and began collecting Ellie's halters, blankets and other things.
"What's going on with Ellie?" Vander asked me, leaning over his stall door.
"She's getting a new, good home," I said, feeling a little sentimental.
"But she's my girlfriend!" Vander whinnied. "You can't do this! I protest! I'll stage a hunger strike!" He snorted and turned a few agitated circles in his stall. "A hunger strike, I tell you! You'll be sorry!"
Vander's tantrum stirred up a cloud of dust, scared a few squirrels from the barn roof and flushed a mockingbird from the bush beside the barn.
"Drats!" cursed Sascha, glaring at Vander from behind a bucket beside the bush.
"Sorry," said Vander.
As Ellie's belongings were stacked on the bench near the tack room, I thought back over the time she'd spent with us. My relationship with Ellie got off to a rocky start (she tried to kill me), but since then we'd enjoyed a mutual respect and a lot of great trail rides.
"I'm going to miss you, Ellie," I said, entering her stall.
"OK," she said, "see ya. Where are you going?"
"Not me--you. You're 'moving,' so to speak."
"Oh," Ellie responded. "This place I'm going--will there be buckets, so to speak?"
"Buckets?" I asked.
"Food," she responded.
"Oh," I said, "yes, yes! You'll get buckets of food, grass, a run-in shed, plenty of trail rides."
"Good," Ellie responded, taking a mouthful of hay.
"Do you want to talk about how you're feeling?" I asked.
"Not if they have buckets of food."
"Oh," I said, "OK then. Good talk." I patted her withers. She took another mouthful of hay.
A few moments later Ellie was led to the trailer. We exchanged handshakes and hugs with the family and they climbed into the truck. Ellie peered out the trailer window as it pulled out of the driveway. She smiled at me and winked. I smiled back.
"Where's Ellie going?" Justin asked, peering over his fence.
"Home with a new family," I said, wiping my eyes.
"Why?" he asked.
"Because they need her."
"Ellie's nice like that," Justin said.
"Yes, she is."
"I'll miss her," Kimberly said, walking toward the adjacent pasture with Vander and turning him out. "But I think Ellie will be even happier with them than she was with us."
"Yeah," I said, "their farm seems perfect for her."
"And now we'll see how Vander adjusts to his new 'girlfriend,'" Kimberly said, walking back to the barn.
She passed by again, this time with Madison. Kimberly walked Madison into Vander's pasture and removed her halter. Madison ran to Vander's side. They rubbed muzzles a few times and started grazing as if they'd been turned out together their entire lives.
"All right then," Kimberly said, walking toward the house. "I'm going to go email them Ellie's care instructions and info."
I walked over to Vander and Madison's gate.
"You OK?" I asked Vander.
"Yeah," he answered. "Why?"
"You know," I said, "now that Ellie's gone."
"Ellie who?" Vander asked.
"I'm glad you're not dwelling on it."
"Dwelling on what?" Vander asked.
I walked to the barn and sat down on the bench near the tack room. I looked at Ellie's empty stall. I was happy we'd found a great home for her. We didn't need six horses, but we wouldn't let a single horse go unless headed for a happy new home.
"Now I have you," whispered a sinister, yet familiar voice from above me in the hay loft.
Startled, I hopped up from the bench, knocking over Kimberly's helmet and spurs. They clunked and clanged to the ground. A sparrow glided down from the loft, flapped its wings and disappeared from the barn.
"Sorry," I said, exiting the barn. I waited to laugh until I was almost back at the house.
Jeremy Law and his wife, Kimberly, live on a small farm in North Carolina. Read Jeremy's other columns in EquiSearch.com's Humor section.