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Donkey talk

My friends had given their burro, Rosa, to an old prospector who was in need of one. After all, Rosa had just stood idle in her stall, eating, being petted, and braying when she felt she needed more attention. Now she would have exclusive attention and something useful to do.

When my friends invited the prospector for Thanksgiving dinner, we eagerly awaited his arrival. He would, he said, stop in for the day on his way upriver to his winter camp. But dinner came and went with no sign of him.

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Later, we went outside to watch the sunset. In the beginning dusk, on the river road, we spied a slight figure staggering bent-kneed under a tremendous burden. It was our expected dinner guest sans Rosa.

''That blamed burro,'' was all he said while the menfolk removed the load from his back. The reason for his lateness was revealed as he sat before a steaming plate. It seems that Rosa had been reluctant to carry even the lightest load. She had had to be dragged most of the way and several times she had rolled in the river. Each time, the prospector had lightened her load, transferring it to his own back. Finally, a mile from their destination, Rosa had suddenly run, jerking him off his feet and over a pile of rocks onto his head.

''I thought I'd never get up again,'' he said ruefully. When, finally, he did , he transferred the rest of the load from Rosa to himself and left her behind in disgust. ''I don't know why she did me that way,'' he lamented. ''I made her flapjacks every morning.''

The prospector's eyes then filled with nostalgia as he told of another donkey he'd once had. Her name was Marilyn. Like Rosa, she had been a pet, having been raised by a little girl who had taught her how to open doors and to sleep in a bed. And, like Rosa, she had loved flapjacks. But it was her love of flapjacks and her ability to open doors that once got her into deep trouble.

The prospector had taken a job in a mining camp where Marilyn was merely tolerated, for she was a nuisance, invading the cookshack, especially when the cook was making flapjacks. The boss had had to make a rule that the cookshack door be locked when no one was about. But one day the men returned to camp to find the door ajar. ''Where's Marilyn?'' the boss asked.

The door opened with difficulty, for on the floor were spilled sacks of flour , boxes of eggs, jugs of milk, sticky molasses, slabs of bacon and dried beans; in fact, several months' supplies had been swept off the shelves onto the floor and then mixed into a thick, sticky batter.

The cause of this disaster was found blissfully asleep on the cook's bed at the back of the shack, her long legs hanging over the side. She was covered from head to hoof with the batter she had mixed by sliding and rolling gluttonously in the spilled ingredients.

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The prospector had prevented his angry boss from shooting Marilyn on the spot only by his pleading promise to clean up the mess and to work long enough to pay for the ruined supplies.

''Whatever happened to Marilyn?'' we asked, not wanting the tale to end.

''Well,'' he said, ''after my debt was paid, me and Marilyn decided to go prospecting alone where that little donkey couldn't get into any more trouble. But in the mountains, I was shot. I came to much later with Marilyn poking my face with her nose.''

Seeking help, he leaned on the burro and wound down a trail to the nearest town. On the outskirts he had left Marilyn in the care of a family while he went on for aid.

In the family was a little girl unlike others; she just sat, rarely speaking, unresponsive to the life around her. But Marilyn loved all little girls alike, for she had never forgotten the child who had once loved her. With nuzzles and pokes of her soft nose, little screeches and full-blown heehaws, she succeeded in doing what nobody else had been able to do; she had broken through the spell on the silent, inbound child.

Weeks later, when the prospector returned for Marilyn, he found a laughing child with the small burro one step behind; it was a happy partnership that clearly could not be severed. So, after a bittersweet goodbye, the prospector returned to the mountains alone.

After a night spent with my friends, the old prospector again left alone, apparently feeling better, more content with the memory of Marilyn than with the present reality of Rosa.

Rosa herself was back in her stall, eating, being petted, and braying for more attention.

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