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Stories by Mike Humfreville

The Tempests of Summer - Bahía de Los Angeles 1985, Part 24: Billy's Defining Moment    ( Posted August 9, 2004 )

Several days after our friends left we were feeling the let down but enjoying the return to normalcy. In the late afternoon we decided to drive into the village for dinner. By the time we got back it was almost dark. Billy and Burlap were not in camp.

Over the summer we had learned that burros and goats do not have the same homing instincts that chickens have. We never had to put the chickens up, they took care of that all on their own. As soon as the sun started to set, they headed for the coop. But Billy and Burlap would wander far out into the desert and never seem to care that they were so far from home. Perhaps they had no concept or need for "home" as we know it. The chickens sure did.

We were figuring how to track down our missing animals in the dark when we heard a bleating from one of the Three Brothers hills nearby. In the semidarkness we climbed up the hill. As we neared the top the crying was louder. These hills ran from west to east, with the easternmost nothing but a sheer drop of a hundred feet to the sea where the tides and storms had eroded the lava over the centuries. The earth fell in a sheer cliff into the ocean.

It sounded like Billy was down on this cliff somewhere, but it was so steep that we thought it was an echo. Then I saw the rope that we kept tied around his neck just protruding above the lip of the cliff. Mary Ann kept the boys back from the edge while I moved forward to see if it was Billy's rope and if I could see him. Before I reached the edge I was down, crawling, then slithering along on my belly. I was afraid the earth of the upper cliff wouldn't support my weight.

I reached the end of the rope and clutched it without wrapping it around my hand. I didn't want to follow Billy down to the rocks below if it wasn't necessary. Peering over the edge, with almost no light, I could clearly hear Billy's cries for help. He had gone down the nearly vertical cliff in search of something, but couldn't climb back up. He was stranded on a ledge a few inches wide above the ocean a hundred feet below.

I called back to Mary and the boys that he was stuck down the cliff and that I had the rope. But I had no idea how to get Billy back up the cliff. He was panicked. He must have been on his small ledge for some time. He was clearly glad to see me. He threw out a tremendous blurt of bleats the moment he heard us and saw me peering down at him. The rope was 20 meters long, so he was quite a way down.

I tried to maneuver him with the short length of rope I had but nothing I did had any influence on him. I was worried constantly about being pulled over if he made a mistake and fell. Finally, I knew that the only way we were going to get Billy up the cliff was to haul him with the rope. But the rope was tied around his neck. Would we choke him? But I expected that, under pressure and panic, he would help himself as much as possible crawling with his legs along the sheer cliff that he had climbed down. In addition to my hauling up on the rope, I expected that his hooves would be kicking at the stony face of the cliff whenever he could.

I shouted this hasty plan to Mary Ann and then started to pull. There was only a meter or so of the rope over the top of the cliff and I was worried that, in my effort I would go over with him if he lost his balance, which surely he would. Laying on the edge, I pulled using only my arms. I gained a small length of rope but I could hear Billy choking below. I pulled again and got another small length. This gave me a small step back from the face. Once onto surer ground I could pull with all my weight and might, hoping that Billy was, instinctively, even though in a full panic, keeping his hooves on the rocks as often as possible and trying to help climb upward.

I threw my whole body into the pull. I couldn't see Billy, but I could hear him choking. The sounds were so rasped I could imagine him fighting to force air down a crimped esophagus. If I didn't have him up in the next few seconds he'd be dead.

I now had about ten meters of rope above the cliff. Holding the rope tight, I moved back to Mary Ann and the boys. I shouted for them to all grab a piece of rope and pull! I threw the loose end of rope to Mary Ann. All four of us dug our heels into the dirt and pulled with all we had. Soon we could feel the tension at the other end changing and knew that Billy had found a way to keep his feet on the ground. The uppermost cliff was less precipitous that the lower part. We pulled, moving away from the face and the resistance increased and we could hear Billy screaming like a mauled baby, very near the top of the drop. Mary Ann and the boys held the line secure, and I ran back to the cliff, extending my arms over the edge to lessen the friction between Billy's body and the cliff. As I did this and he caught sight of me his hooves found which direction was down, and he worked with the rope to climb the remaining few feet to the top.

He was wobbling and coughing with a raspy hack for the first few moments. We moved him away from the edge and all collapsed in a heap on top of the lesser of the Three Brothers. Maybe I was the only one crying, but I doubt it. Adrenaline does strange things to a body.

We rubbed and patted Billy and massaged his throat. He was horse in every sound he made. But there didn't seem to be any permanent damage. After I had listened to my music late that night, with the rest of our family sleeping in the hut, I thought again about teamwork. If we learned nothing else this long-ago summer, we learned to work together when times got rough.

Copyright 2003-2006 Mike Humfreville

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