a Old Dependable
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Old Dependable

The old man and his bicycle were similar in appearance. Both were large of frame, rawboned, weather beaten, and had a look that said they would do. The old man had spent a lifetime wresting a living from his north country hill farm and the experience of it was written clearly on his face. His bicycle also showed evidence of having been used long and hard. The old man had purchased the bicycle at an auction which was held periodically by the Postal Servlce and Local Constabulary for the purpose of retiring older machines. He had no use for motor cars, deeming them to be noisy, smelly, and a bottomless pit of expense. There was no place he wanted to go that could not be reached by bicycle.

The bicycle had no aspect of beauty about it. Its black paint had lost its lustre long ago, and was liberally laced with scratches and a few dents. The bright work while still largely intact, showed evidence of rust and corrosion removed. The saddle was made of thick leather with an underframe of springs and brackets which softened the ride. Large brass rivets used to attach the saddle to its frame formed an arc across the back surface of the saddle. The saddle had been black when new but was now a nondescript, mottled, grey/black color with worn patches of undyed leather showing through. From the rear of the saddle hung a shapeless bag made of treated canvas which was secured by straps and buckles ragged and worn. A pair of panniers similar in appearance was draped over the rear fender. The most notable aspect of the bicycle was the complex assemblage of levers, linkages, rods, and brackets mounted on the handlebars, forks, and frame, that comprised the braking system. The bicycle was unusually large which is what attracted the old man to its purchase. He was a big man and the large bicycle had proved in its previous service that it was well suited to negotiate rough hill roads and unpaved country lanes in all weathers.

The bicycle received scrupulous care. The old man would periodically wash the mud and grime from it and then polish it vigorously with a rag soaked in petroleum grease until it shone once again. The seat was liberally treated with harness oil and though its appearance suffered, the leather remained supple and strong. He frequently examined the tyres and would remove small rocks and thorns before they could puncture the inner tubes. Even though the tubes were the thorn proof type he left nothing to chance. The old bicycle never sat out in the damp, but was kept in the garden shed which was attached to the rear of the farmhouse.

The old man had lived alone on the farm for some years after his wife died but recently his son George, his son's wife Harriet, and their young son Jamie, his grandfather's namesake, had moved to the farm. George had tried farming on his own, but due to the fluctuation in market prices between the wars and a heavy debt load, had been forced to give it up. The old man put it to him that he was getting too old to manage the farm alone, and since the farm would be George's someday, he might as well move in and take over. The arrangement was working out splendidly, especially regarding the old man and Jamie who had become as close as a man and his grandson could be. The old man was a storehouse of knowledge concerning the flora and fauna of the hill country which he instilled in Jamie's curious young mind. Jamie liked to sit on the old bicycle and occasionally his grandfather would ride him on the cross bar. It was Jamie who gave the bicycle the name of "Old Dependable" after hearing his grandfather say that it was the most dependable machine he had ever owned. Jamie vowed that he would have a bicycle just like his grandfather's someday. It made the old man proud.

The old man pedalled to the nearest village, which lay in a valley west of the farm, once each week to buy small odds and ends for Harriet, tobacco for himself, and sometimes a treat for Jamie. The panniers were always full on the trip home. The pub was certain to be visited on these trips. He would catch up on the local news and gossip and would treat himself to one or two pints of good Newcastle ale. He would often discuss the government's farm policies as well as agricultural market prices with a group of farmers, retired like himself. He typically departed for home in time to arrive before the evening meal where he would relate to the family all that he had learned in the village. It was late summer and the weather had turned cooler which prompted the old man to depart for home earlier than usual on this day.

The ride home from the village was almost entirely up hill and though the grade was gradual, it was beginning to seem steeper than usual to the old man. He had always prided himself in making the trip home in 2nd gear but lately was forced to change to 1st gear periodically in order to catch his breath and still his heart. As he passed each farm on his way home, his progress was marked by the barking of the farm dogs which alerted the inhabitants of his passing. He would always wave even though he might not catch sight of anyone as he passed by. As the old man approached the apex of the hill he caught a flash of something in motion out of the corner of his left eye. He turned and surveyed the field but saw nothing. Continuing on a short distance he saw it again. This time he stopped and concentrated on the field to his left and was rewarded by the sight of a red fox running rapidly through the high grass toward the road which it would cross a scant hundred feet ahead. As the fox approached the road the old man saw it carried a chicken in its mouth. He knew then that it was a vixen carrying food home to its whelps.

During the past fortnight the old man had been awakened several times during the night by the excited barking of the collie who's shelter was near the hen house. He had gotten up once and padded out to the dog's shelter in his robe and slippers to find the dog in a state of high agitation. A survey of the area with the aid of an electric torch revealed nothing however. As the old man watched the vixen effortlessly cross over the stone walls on either side of the road, he knew he had discovered the source of the recent late night disturbances. Pedalling quickly ahead he stopped where the vixen had crossed the road, and leaning his bicycle against the stone wall, he scanned the lower field until he caught sight of the vixen as it made its way Through the thick heather to the safety of the trees lining the creek banks in the glen below.

The old man carefully studied the point at which the vixen had entered the trees knowing that if he was lucky, the vixen's den would be close by. The stone wall was chest high and difficult for the old man to cross but with great care he managed to pull himself over and into the field beyond. As he started down the hill, he stopped and turned back thinking that he must do something with his bicycle. He had no fear of anyone stealing his un-attended bicycle, but knew that if someone happened by, and seeing his bicycle which was well known in the countryside, might cause some unnecessary concern to his family. With that thought in mind, he reached across the stone wall and with difficulty hoisted the old machine over into the field. He layed the bicycle carefully on the ground at the base of the wall where it wouldn't be seen from the road and then continued his journey down the hill to where he hoped he would discover the vixen's den.

It was difficult walking through the heather which covered the ground. In addition rocks and stones littered the field. The field, once pastureland, had lain fallow for several years and each spring thaw brought a new crop of stones to the surface. In time, heather, which grew thick and nearly knee high, fairly covered the top part of the field. Near the creek however, the fields were clear pasture land. As the old man reached the trees that lined the creek banks he was near exhaustion but knew he must continue on lest he lose the vixen's trail. He searched the near bank carefully and soon discovered where the vixen had entered the creek. Fortunately she chose to cross the creek directly as evidenced by a profusion of water and wet tracks on the far bank. The tracks then turned down stream and were clearly visible for a short distance due to the creek water that had dripped from her thick fur. Eventually though the vixen shed the water in its coat and the trail could no longer be seen.

The old man had hunted foxes many times in his life and was very familiar with their habits. He knew that a fox would prefer to locate its den high on a bank or hillside that also provided brushy cover. The creek bank wouldn't do since flooding was likely and it afforded little cover. As he pondered these facts he saw that downstream a short way were several ravines in the hillside which led to the creek. The bank of a ravine was exactly the place a fox would choose for it's den. He examined each ravine in turn until the banks became too low for a den. He found the vixen's den in the third ravine. The vixen had chosen the location of its den well. The den was near the top of the bank and was virtually hidden by the drooping branches of the bushes growing above. Casting about, the old man saw a long branch lying nearby. Stripping it of small branches, he pushed it into the opening of the den and was rewarded by the sound of mewling whelps. He knew that he had neither tools nor sufficient day light left to do anything about the vixen and her whelps at the time, so he turned and descended to the creek bank.

He had just started back to where he had crossed the creek when a wave of dizziness come upon him with such intensity that he could scarcely stand. The dizziness was followed by a great weight which descended upon his chest, and a stabbing pain so severe that he cried out as he dropped to his knees and finally all the way to the ground where he lay moaning and gasping for breath. Finally, he knew not how long after it had commenced, the pain began to subside, breathing became easier, and rational thought returned. He knew he could do nothing for himself but rest and hope the spell would subside sufficiently for him to attempt to return home.

After a time, the old man gathered all his strength, and crawling crabwise, he reached a nearby tree. This effort so exhausted him that he lay still for a very long time. Then he maneuvered his body into a sitting position with his back to the tree and rested once more. As he sat there on the ground, half in and half out of conciousness he began dreaming short, rapidly changing dreams. In one dream he was a young, newly married man working his farm. In another he and his son George were chasing an errant cow that had jumped the stone wall of the cowpen, then suddenly George became Jamie. He dreamed on and gradually the dreams became less distinct and farther apart until finally, they stopped altogether. The old man sat in perfect repose, no sign of distress marred his worn face. His labored breath became even, though shallow. The day was almost done. The sun, a giant gold-orange orb in the western sky suffused the grove in a soft golden light. As the last arc of the sun dipped below the horizon, the old man breathed out a long soft sigh, and was still. His head dropped to his chest and he was at peace.

When the old man didn't arrive home by dark, his family knew something was wrong, and after a brief seach of the surroundings, George began telephoning the farms that lay along the road to the village. Yes, he had been seen pedalling toward home past the first several farms nearest the village, but at the halfway point, the reports of his sighting were negative. Helen insisted that George call the constable and inform him of fathers failure to return home. The constable immediately set out for the farm, and since word of the old man's failure to arrive home had spread rapidly as a result of the phone calls, the farmers along the way joined the constable in the journey to the farm.

It was the collie that found the old man. Dogs posess instincts that humans lost eons ago, and dogs can sense things that humans cannot, most notably death. The collie acting on its instincts, began a vigil in the field behind the farmstead and looking toward the west where the old man lay, whined and occasionally howled, the dog would advance in the direction of the glen, then retreat to resume its vigil. In the farmhouse it was decided reluctantly that a night seach would be futile. The constable proposed that a search of the roadside continue at first light with the help of all those assembled. Having agreed to this, the group departed to return the next morning. At some point in the long night the collie gave up its vigil in the field and began to run rapidly toward the glen below. The collie had no difficulty locating the old man and as it approached the still form began whining piteously. Then the collie began licking its master's face as though to awaken him from slumber. At last the collie lay down and placed its muzzle across the old mans lap.

At dawn the collie arose and once again began licking the old man's face, all the while whining as though begging him to respond. Failing to elicit a response from the still form, the collie finally turned and ran rapidly toward the farm. The family had suffered, as might be expected, a nearly sleepless night. George arose long before dawn, went outside and paced back and forth trying to think of any rational reason for his fathers disappearance. He desperatly wanted to do something but could think of nothing but to wait. As dawn approached he remembered that he must attend the cattle. Perhaps that would take his mind off of the mystery for a little while at least. He was just finishing with the cattle when the collie returned to the farm in a higly agitated state. The dog found George in the cow byre and immediately began barking and running back and forth a short distance toward the Glen. George knew instinctively that the dog wanted him to follow. Before doing so however, he went to the house and told Harriet, that when the search party arrived, to inform the constable of the dog's behavior, and that he was following the dog wherever it led him. Jamie followed his father to the field and stood watching until he could no longer see his father and the collie. It was not long before the constable arrived with some of the farmers who had accompanied him the evening before. Jamie led them to the field and pointed in the direction his father had taken. As the group neared the creek far down in the glen they met George returning. It was obvious to all by his grief stricken face that he had found his father.

No one ever discovered why the old man had gone to the glen far from his own farm. Neither did they find his bicycle. For a year or so the mystery was spoken of often in the community but as time passed the event was mentioned less and less. The constable concluded that the bicycle had been stolen. The old man's death was hardest on Jamie and he grieved often for his grandfather, but life does not stand waiting and time passes inexorably. Jamie was growing up.

When Jamie entered the 8th form it became obvious that he was a gifted student, so gifted, that he was granted a scholarship awarded to deserving working class students by a wealthy landowner in the county. Jamie was to attend a public school nearby until he was of the age to enter the university, then he would be enrolled in a university in Canada where his full expenses would be paid. It was a lonely life at times for an English farm boy but Jamie persevered and completed his schooling with honors. His efforts were rewarded by a position in a large accounting firm in Edinburgh. He was very happy to be near his parents again. Two years had passed since finishing his studies and Jamie was rising in his firm. More importantly, he had met a young women named Mary who also worked at the firm. As their friendship deepened he knew he wanted to make her his wife.

In time he proposed that she accompany him to his home for the purpose of meeting his parents. Jamie was elated that his invitation was met with enthusiasm. The visit was a great success and Mary soon felt as though Jamie's family was hers also. On Their second day at the farm the young couple walked out along the road toward the village which could be seen far down in the valley from a point near the top of the hill. The young couple strolled along taking in all the sights of the country side and enjoying being alone together. Suddenly Mary saw a plover dive to the ground in the rough field next to the road. She implored Jamie to cross the stone wall with her and see if there were new chicks in the plover's nest. Jamie was not enthused but finally agreed.

At one time the stone wall that seperated the field from the road had been higher but inattention and time had taken its toll, and many of the stones had rolled away leaving low gaps in the wall. The young couple easily crossed the wall and flushed the plover as they approached her nest. There were no chicks in the nest but by the appearance of the eggs, there soon would be. Having satisfied her curiosity, Mary turned and started walking back toward the fence when she saw a reflection in the sunlight near the base of the wall. It had come from an area by the fence that was covered by a thick growth of heather. As she moved closer to the fence she called to Jamie to come and look. Jamie approached the clump of heather and immediately saw what had attracted her attention. Something lay on the ground fully entangled in the growth, a growth so thick that it all but obscured the object. Jamie knelt down and as he looked over the long clump of shrub an image started to form in his mind and he exclaimed; "my god, its grandfather's bicycle". Suddenly tears welled up in his eyes and rolled down his face. Mary wisely said nothing but stood with her hand on his arm until he had gained control of his emotions. Then Jamie told her that he had a story to tell her, but first there was work to be done to extract the bicycle from the thick growth of heather. Tools were needed so they hurried to the farm where Jame told his father and mother of the discovery. They all wept at the telling.

Freeing the bicycle from the heather would be a difficult task. The only solution was to undercut the shrub at the ground level and free the bicycle, heather and all. Once this was accomplished Jamie and his father lifted the mass free and after loading it on a cart returned to the farm. Once they had the relic home Jamie immediately began cutting away the tenacious branches of shrub from the bicycle. It had grown through every part of the mechanism intertwining itself in every conceivable way. It took Jamie the rest of the afternoon into evening to complete the task. When the last vestige of growth had been removed Jamie stood the old relic against the wall and stepped back to look at it with tears streaming from his eyes at the memory of it all. The old bicycle had lain in the field undiscovered for 13 long years.

The old thing was in a bad way. It was covered with rust except for parts of the frame where the paint was thickest. The leather seat had been eaten away by animals so that only small bits of the leather remained under the rivets that secured it to the frame. A few rotting remnants of the bag and panniers still hung from the seat and rear fender. The tyres, what there was left of them, were hard as the rocks the old bicycle had rested on. It looked a hopeless mess. Jamie's father suggested burying the old bicycle by the shed where it had been stored so many years ago. Jamie would not hear of it though and vowed that he would return the bicycle to working condition, and he did over a period of the next year. It was never as it was before, it had lain out in the weather too long, but it was free of the rust that had covered it, everything worked, and it was rideable.

Jamie put the bicycle in the garden shed exactly as his grandfather had done. As long as he knew it was there he could accept all that had happened. A sense of continuity returned to his life which had been missing until the old relic was found in the field. On his visits to the farm he would occasionally dust it off, pump up the tires, and ride out along the road to the place where he and Mary had found it, fondly remembering his grandfather and all the love they had shared.

Fred Hajny
July, 2000