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The Old Family Farm


by


Rodford Edmiston



      Wandering around the back part of the property had always been one of his favorite activities. The land was steep and rocky and covered with thick woods, not much good for farming or grazing or even timber cutting, but great for exercising the imagination of a young boy. Clive could pretend he was a pioneer, fresh into the new land to the west of the Appalachians. Or a mountain man, in the Rockies. Or even an explorer on an alien world, examining strange, new life forms. Today, though, a much older Clive Sollier was simply examining his new property.

      He walked the fence line which ran along the top of the ridge, noting where the barrier had collapsed but with no intention of making repairs. His father had left this land alone as he grew older, putting another fence at the foot of the hill, this side of the creek, so he didn't have to go chasing cattle on steep ground. After Clive's dad had been killed by the tractor flipping over the whole farm had lain unused, while the family argued over it.

      Clive was the oldest son, and most of those involved saw him as the rightful heir. But others protested that since he wouldn't work the land - he'd said so himself, more than once - it would just go to waste, something that to them was unthinkable. To most of them the actual ownership was irrelevant, as long as it was farmed. A few of Clive's relatives wanted the land for themselves, to use or to sell. Among those latter was Ralph, Clive's younger brother.

      Settling the estate in the courts had been trivial compared to handling his relatives. Especially Ralph, who was a real estate broker, and knew lawyers. Only the fact that Clive was himself a successful architect and able to afford his own layers had kept Ralph from turning the property into a subdivision or part of a corporate farm. Finally, after nearly four years, the last appeals were settled... in Clive's favor.

      In a way the long struggle had been in Clive's interest. A succession of judges had ordered that nothing be done to the land while the matter of ownership was decided. It had now been fallow for long enough that those relatives who would have opposed Clive not working it were grudgingly resigned to it going "wasted" even before he took charge.

      "You don't own the land," whispered Clive to the trees, "you borrow it from your children."

      Clive didn't have any children yet, but someday... He was only thirty-two, after all.

      His musings were interrupted by a track in a patch of bare ground. A hoofprint. An unshod hoofprint. There were horses in the area, but they were all either pampered pets or working farm animals, and all were well shod. Old skills of tracking came back as Clive searched for more prints. He found them. All were unshod, so this wasn't just a stray which had lost a shoe.

      The tracks seemed fresh, but might be several days old. The rain showers of late yesterday would not have reached the ground, here under the heavy canopy of leaves. Clive decided not to worry about the lost horse now. The season was early Summer, there was plenty to eat and little that could cause trouble for a full-grown pony, which this seemed to be. He shrugged and continued heading down the hill.

      He crossed the creek on the old stepping stones and walked along the overgrown track which had been a farm road. The mix of creek rock - put down by his grandfather, over an even earlier layer placed by his great-grandfather - and gravel - brought in by his father - was nearly invisible. Grass, wildflowers, many plants his farming relatives would have called weeds, had all taken root between the stones and rocks during four years of non-use. The same plants and others were higher in the fields, and so thick he could barely make out the fence to his left.

      Soon, Clive came to where the land rose. The road rose, too, but more gradually, cutting a gully through the land for a short distance, until it rose to meet the higher level ground beyond. The fence took a sharp turn to the left, here, and the road branched, one leg following the fence and going to the two main barns. Clive had intended to go back through the cut to where he had left his car, at the old farm house, but as he glanced to his left he noticed something.

      There was a well-trodden path, there, running along the fence. Clive had gone up into the hills on the other side of the property, and therefore not seen this before. He approached, and noticed that the path also paralleled the section of fence running back the way he had come, something invisible from the road due to the high weeds. The path was wide, indicating the plants had been worn back by a large animal, probably the pony whose tracks he had seen earlier.

      A tuft of dark brown caught his eye; hair, caught in the fence, where it and the path turned. Clive waded through the weeds to the fence and pulled the chestnut swatch free, rolling it between his fingers. Definitely horse. So, the pony was using the barn for shelter, maybe even eating the old hay stored there. The structure was weathered and worn with age but still sturdy, so Clive wasn't worried about the horse damaging something or getting hurt. Still, he needed to check on this.

      As he stepped out of the sun into the shade of the barn Clive could see the pony standing there. While his eyes adjusted he saw it start... and raise its arms.

      A strange sense of unreality flooded through Clive as his vision cleared. He thought at first that this must be some trick of light and shadow, but as details became clearer any idea that this was an illusion vanished. There before him stood a young centaur. The human portion appeared to be a boy in his late teens, with the equine portion looking proportionally developed. He stood about the same height as the human gaping at him.

      Clive took a hesitant step forward, wanting a better look, still not sure he believed what he was seeing. The centaur, looking frightened now, backed away, glancing at the opening at the far end of the barn. Clive stopped, and held up his hands.

      "It's all right," he said, quietly, "I'm not going to hurt you."

      The strange creature hesitated, still wary but not obviously frightened. He was quite skittish, though; a dog barked on a neighbor's farm and he jumped. Clive decided not to press matters just now. His curiosity could wait.

      "This is my land," he said, quietly, not sure the creature could even understand him, "but you are welcome to use it."

      Clive backed slowly out the way he'd come. Standing in the bright sunshine he couldn't see inside very well, but after a few seconds he heard the familiar sound of hooves quickly moving away. The young centaur came around the far end of the barn and hesitated, looking at Clive. He made a dash for the fence, turned left and hurried along it at a trot, glancing back at Clive repeatedly. He turned the corner, following the trail towards the hill, and a few seconds later was hidden by the trees along the fence row.

      Clive went into the barn and found where his unusual visitor had been standing. He'd been munching on some old sweetfeed. The bag was plastic-lined, and the feed would stay good as long as the bag remained sealed. Presumably the centaur had opened it; the bag looked torn rather than cut. Clive followed the hoofprints of his unexpected guest out of the barn, along the fence and up the hill, to near where he had seen the hoofprints before. There, due to a combination of failing light and hard ground, he lost them.

      I've got to get a camera, maybe a camcorder, Clive thought excitedly, as he hurried back to his car. I've got to... got to...

      And then he realized. He didn't have to do anything to prove he'd seen a centaur, unless he intended to tell someone else. And why should he do that?

      A smile spread over his face, and he slowed his pace. Why ruin this wonderful thing by bringing others in on it? Oh, he knew some people he could trust with something like this, but there was no hurry. None of them lived locally. He'd invite them out here for a picnic or a cookout, and see if they could find the magic he'd discovered for themselves. Meanwhile, he'd try and gain the centaur's trust, find out if he spoke English, where he came from... and if there were any more like him at home.



END



      This work is İ 2002 by Rodford Edmiston Smith, who can be reached at: stickmaker@usa.net by those wanting permission to repost or reprint the document.