The donkey had chased us for a mile along the dirt road, nipping at our backpacks. We thought he might be afflicted with something, rabies perhaps. You tried swinging your coat at him, which just seemed to get him more animated.
“Why won’t he leave us alone?” I asked.
“Maybe he greets everyone this way,” you said.
Our hike had been peaceful that morning. After arriving in the small rural town we set out on the road past fields and rolling hills, looking for the trail that would take us up to the mountains, where we hoped to find a cave spoken of in legend. We had come prepared for five days of backpacking.
An hour out of town we passed a narrow lane that led up to a farmhouse, but didn’t pay it much attention until the donkey came charging out onto the road, braying excitedly. We picked up our pace. He followed, and even tried to get ahead of us, so we started jogging, which was not easy with full packs. The donkey kept after us, intent on chasing us away we thought.
We finally reached the trailhead — an opening in the brush at the edge of a meadow. “This is it,” you said, checking the map.
We looked behind. The donkey stood about ten paces back, staring at us, then he stamped a hoof.
“He gave up,” I said. You weren’t so sure. We backed up slowly and he took a few steps toward us, then stopped again and brayed.
You looked around. “Maybe this is the end of his territory.”
As we stepped off the road and onto the trail, the donkey hee-hawed over and over, with more hoof stamping. We were doing something he didn’t like, so we paused. He turned and trotted a few paces in the direction of the farmhouse, then came back and looked at us expectantly.
“You know,” I said, “things would be much easier if more animals would learn English. Or even Elvish.” I knew a few phrases.
“Maybe he wasn’t chasing us. He wanted us to stop and follow him.”
Okay, I thought, that interpretation could fit. But I didn’t want to lose any time. We needed to reach the foothills and find a place to camp before dark. We had been planning this trip for a year and I didn’t want some crazy donkey interfering with our schedule. On the other hand, as you suggested, maybe he needed our help.
I couldn’t decide what to do, so I said, “My choice is one vote to continue on, and one vote to follow the donkey. You?”
“I vote to see what he wants.”
“That makes it two to one.”
“Three to one if you count the donkey.”
“He’s not old enough to vote, but okay.”
We let the donkey lead us back up the road. He trotted ahead and waited for us at the mailbox, then galloped up the dirt lane. We hurried after him. The house had been built about a century ago and showed its age. Off to the left was a barn, also in need of some paint, but still functional.
The donkey slowed to let us catch up. We stopped to take off our packs, then leaned them against the porch steps. The lane had become a gravel driveway that curved around behind the house and ended at the barn, but our guide led us straight back into some trees, to a ravine with a nearly vertical drop-off.
“Down there,” he seemed to say, so we looked over the edge. A figure was sprawled in the bushes about twenty yards below, a woman dressed in work clothes — jeans, boots, light blue shirt. She had long gray hair and her sunhat lay next to her head. She wasn’t moving.
“Go get the rope,” you said.
I ran back to our packs. The donkey brayed at me in a scolding tone when I left, not understanding, then pranced with enthusiasm when I returned with the rope and our first aid kit. “Good boy,” I said, not knowing what else to say. We had misjudged his intentions earlier. I felt bad about that. Maybe he was sorry about trying to bite us.
You tied the rope to a tree while I looped the other end around my waist. I was able to climb down well enough without depending on the rope, but felt more secure with you keeping it taught in case I slipped.
The woman was alive, but barely conscious. I checked for injuries and got her to wiggle her toes and fingers. Nothing seemed broken, but she’d had a blow to the head and wasn’t too steady on her feet once I got her to stand up. I looked for a path out of the ravine, but it was thick with brambles and woody shrubs. The quickest way out was straight up the side, the way I had come down.
I put the rope around her and half carried her up the steep slope while you pulled on the rope to help. She wasn’t very heavy. The donkey brayed and stamped when we brought her up, then moved in between us to nuzzle her. Loyal creature.
We carried her into the house and laid her on the couch in what I guessed was the living room. It had a high ceiling, a fireplace supplied with a pile of logs, an assortment of ceramic figurines on the mantel, furniture adorned with floral patterns, and a grandfather clock that kept accurate time. The donkey stayed outside.
The woman regained consciousness and said, “Oh, my ankle.” It was bruised and scraped, so we cleaned and bandaged it. I brought her a glass of water.
She touched your arm. “Someone hit me. He’s after the… the…” then she drifted off again.
“Who?” you asked, gently shaking her shoulder.
Her eyes fluttered open. “He tried to kill me.” That didn’t sound good. What had that donkey gotten us into?
We heard a noise in the house, then heavy footsteps in the hall. A man appeared in the arched doorway wearing a dark leather jacket and holding a machete.
His eyes flicked back and forth, taking in the scene. He had a grim look and obviously didn’t like what he saw — the woman on the couch being attended to by two strangers. I was on my feet and he focused his attention on me.
“Who are you?” he demanded. He had a thick accent that sounded eastern European. “What are you doing here?”
“I could ask the same thing,” I said, stalling, alarmed at his presence. You moved around behind me, edging toward the fireplace. I glanced back at the woman. Her eyes were wide open, staring at him. “Oh, no,” she said. That told us all we needed — this guy was trouble. And he was done asking questions.
He came at me with the machete, raising it high over his head. I couldn’t defend myself against a weapon like that, but he acted like one of those big guys who depend more on momentum than dexterity, so I knew where my advantage lay.
As he brought down the blade I quickly stepped forward inside the arc of his swing — the last thing he expected. His wrist glanced off my shoulder and I jammed the heel of my right hand into his nose, then gave him a sharp jab in the stomach with my left. He staggered but still clutched the machete.
You had armed yourself with a small log from the firewood pile and held it like a club, so I gripped his jacket and wheeled him around toward you, then leaned my weight into him, forcing him to take a step backward. You saw your chance and whacked him across the back of the head. His grasp loosened and the blade clattered to the hardwood floor. He was about to tumble over but we each grabbed an arm and lowered him into a chair.
You picked up the machete and held it under his chin, while I got the rope and tied him up before he could regain his senses. Now we had two people with head injuries to take care of. This was turning into quite the party.
The woman had managed to sit up, and watched us as I finished tying the guy’s feet. He was starting to come around.
You said to her, “This is the guy who pushed you into the ravine?”
She nodded. “To make it look like an accident.” She raised a finger to point at him. “That man…”
He got belligerent and made some nasty remarks while struggling to get loose. You poked him in the chest with the tip of the blade and he shot you a look of contempt, like a dare, and continued with his verbal abuse. Without a word you handed me the machete and picked up the piece of firewood again, then stood behind him and tapped it lightly on his head. I don’t think he’d realized who had knocked him out earlier, but he got the idea and quieted down. I could have warned him to have more respect for you.
I asked the woman if we should call the police. There was a phone on the table next to the couch so she picked up the handset and did the honors, talking to someone at the other end like they were old friends.
While we waited for the law to arrive, she told us her name was Sophia and she had owned the farm for nearly fifty years. She wouldn’t say anything about her family, but said she lived there alone now, with some animals. She also had an accent, very slight, which may have been eastern European. I wondered if she and the man had some shared past in the old country, wherever that was, though he was much younger.
You asked her, “Do you know this man?” She shook her head and looked away.
The sheriff and a deputy arrived and we had to tell our version of the events and answer a lot of questions. They called for another car to take the man into custody.
Sophia was well enough to walk, limping a little, and she showed them the ravine and corroborated our story, including how the donkey had led us to her. They believed that part, because everyone in the county knew about her watchdog, as they called him. She called him Serghei, which is not a typical name for a farm animal. Some private joke I assumed.
We had to go over the attack in the living room several times, then they took the log you had used as a club and wrapped it in a plastic bag as evidence. You made sure they got the right one.
“Sophie,” the sheriff said, “you want to see the doctor?” I noticed he didn’t insist on it.
“No, no. Don’t need that. I’m tough.”
“Yes you are. No one tougher. Well, if you need anything, just call.”
“I have my friends here.” She looked at us.
“Yes, of course,” you said. “We’ll help out any way we can.”
We abandoned our original plans and stayed a few days, until we were sure she had fully recovered. For us, it was like vacationing at a rustic bed-and-breakfast where we got to participate in the cooking and the chores. I learned how to care for goats and got to use the milking machine on the cows. Serghei supervised my work.
In fact, part of his job was to help protect the goats and cows from canine predators — coyotes, wolves, sometimes feral dogs. Donkeys are good at that. The rest of the time he kept Sophia company, and was allowed up on the front porch when she sat there to enjoy the view.
The sheriff stopped by to check on her, and was satisfied she was doing better. About her attacker — our attacker — all he said was, “The guy has priors — a hired thug, maybe organized crime connections. Ukraine, maybe. Or Serbian. Who knows? He’ll probably be deported. We can forget about the incident here — just lose the paperwork — and then you won’t be involved with him.” He looked at us. “You either.”
He and Sophia both thought that was a good idea, so we agreed, though it seemed odd. There was something they weren’t telling us, something we didn’t think we should ask about. Still, we were happy not having our names associated with a case like that.
On the fourth day, as we got ready to leave, Sophia sat us down and said, “You’re good kids. You work hard, you don’t complain, you help me… you saved me.” She paused. “I trust you.”
She pulled out a small bundle, wrapped in a brown cloth. “I need you to take this far away. It’s not safe here anymore. They know about it. You take it, so they won’t find it.”
She held it out and I took it, knowing not to refuse a request like that. We hadn’t asked what Sophia’s attacker had been willing to kill for, but knew it must be valuable to someone.
“You’ve thought about this,” I said. She nodded. “Then we’ll do what you want.”
“May I… ?” you asked. She nodded again.
I handed you the bundle and you unwrapped the cloth, revealing a cardboard jeweler’s box the size of your hand. You lifted off the top and drew a quick breath. “Oh.” My heart nearly stopped.
Lying on a dark felt backing and filling the box was a gold brooch studded with gems. The piece had a swirled motif topped with the shape of a crown, and held more than a dozen white diamonds as big as pumpkin seeds, interspersed between purple gemstones equally as big. In the center was a large red ruby, the kind reserved for royalty. The brooch was magnificent, probably made in the 1800s, now priceless.
“This?” you said. “You want us to take this?”
I regained my composure. “Why not give it to your children, or grandchildren?” We knew she had offspring.
She made a derisive noise. “What? So they can buy expensive clothes, flashy cars, drugs? A jet plane?” She apparently didn’t care for their lifestyle choices. “No. They get the farm, that’s enough for them.” Then she muttered something about ungrateful children who never visit.
Given its size, the brooch must have been designed for special occasions — fancy balls, weddings, coronations. Not something you’d wear around the palace unless company was expected.
Sophia gave us bits of the story — political changes after the first world war, royal families destroyed or forced to flee, heirlooms smuggled out and passed down in secret from one generation to the next. Her family had come to America when she was a teenager — late 1950s we guessed. They never claimed any regal lineage, nor revealed how they happened to have the ruby brooch — trying to forget the past maybe, or hide their trail.
But someone must have known, or suspected, someone who had a deadly interest in this kind of thing, and who had probably spent decades tracking down treasures like this.
“What if they come back?” I asked.
She shrugged. “There’s nothing here to find now. It doesn’t matter anymore. Serghei’s my guard. He’ll take care of me.” We believed that.
We said goodbye to the farm, with a special hug for her loyal donkey. All was forgiven between us. Sophia gave us a ride into town and we rented a car for the long drive home. We decided to avoid buses and planes on our return trip, considering what we carried.
Somewhere in the middle of Nebraska I turned to you and said, “She called us kids.”
“Sophia must be in her eighties. She’s entitled. Besides,” you patted the bundle that sat between us, “she can call us anything she wants.”
“Why did she mention buying a jet with it? Just how much is this thing worth?”
You stared out across the plain, letting a few miles go past. “Let’s not find out.”
That was a good plan.