Papa had been sick for a week. His cough shook our little house, perched as it was in a clearing a hundred yards from a rocky shelf high in the Tirolian Alps.
Mama was so worried, her face hollow with lack of sleep. She sponged his face with cool water melted from the snow outside.
“Pieter, we must have medicine for your Papa, “ she murmured as she rubbed his legs with liniment to warm them.
“Mama, I can go to the village to the apothecary and bring back what you need.” I said confidently. “They’ll know what will help him.”
“It is such a hard trip this time of year, Pieter. You are only fourteen and there are storms…”
“I know, Mama, I’ll have Dalia to lead me. She will know the way.”
Dalia is our Haflinger mare. She is a sturdy mountain horse, bred in the Alps for just this kind of task-- able to pull loads with harness for us, plow the rocky ground, pack with heavy weight on her back, provide warm milk when our cow is dry. Her golden coat glistens in the summer sun, and her heavy wavy white mane and tail are protection against the wintry winds. She is my Papa’s work partner, carrying his wood carvings to the village to sell, and bringing our supplies back on her back. Dalia takes me for rides across the mountain meadows of edelweiss in the spring, and skijoring in the autumn snows.
I harnessed her to the sled and Mama packed a lunch of cheese and bread for me, with a jug of milk. The November day was cloudy, but no new snow had fallen for several days, so we found the trail easily down the mountain path. Dalia picked her way carefully along the ledge, her surefooted amble brisk. I whistled to her and her copper ears flicked back and forth as she listened to my tune.
We reached the village in an hour where our package was quickly assembled and tied onto the sled, and I picked up supplies at the market.
It was time to head back, shortly after noon. I gazed up at the Alpine peaks high above the village, knowing our trip home would take at least twice as long with the steep climb up the trail.
Dalia was eager. She knew the trail home meant returning to her little stall in the snug barn next to the house, and to her 6 month old filly. Dalia leaned into the collar of the harness, pulling the sled up the trail as I sat, reins in hand, not needing to tell her where to go.
The clouds grew heavier and more threatening as we climbed. I urged little Dalia onward, hoping to get home before the snow started. It wasn’t long before the flakes started to fall, first heavy and lazy, and soon blowing wildly around our heads.
“Dalia, walk on!” She tugged harder, willing to try to go faster up the trail.
It soon was white everywhere around us and the snow was deepening by the minute, forcing Dalia to wade through up to her knees. I got off the sled and walked beside her. There was no longer a visible trail, and I began to worry we would lose our way in the blinding snow. I had to trust my brave little Haflinger.
She was soon up to her chest in the snow, pushing her way through, lunging at times to cross drifts. I hung onto her side, clinging to the harness leather, praying she would have the strength to go on despite the bite of the wind.
It seemed as if we were making no progress at all. The sun had gone down, the cold so bitter I could no longer feel my hands or feet. Dalia suddenly stopped, her sides heaving hard. She had brought us to the door of our little house, the oil lamp burning bright through the window.
Mama rushed to the door. “Pieter! You made it back! Praise God!”
“Yes, Mama. I’m back. Praise God and praise our Dalia. She found her way home as I would have been lost in the snow.”
I gave Mama the medicine for Papa, and I took Dalia to the barn for warm bran mash and hay from the summer meadows where she and I would someday ride again. And before long Papa will plow, and carve, and harvest again, thanks to our special Haflinger.
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