Pete couldn’t believe it. One minute Dad’s pickup had been backing up to load a pile of firewood. The next minute it was tilted on its side in a brush-filled ditch.
Hearing a low moan, Pete immediately went to the passenger side of the truck. He climbed up the front tire to the open window. “Dad, are you all right? Dad!”
Pete’s family had recently moved to the area, and 15 minutes earlier they had decided to warm up their chilly Christmas Eve with a fire. Pete and his dad had driven five miles east to a nearby farm advertising firewood.
Pete had been about to knock on the front door of the farmhouse when he noticed a note tacked to the mailbox. He leaned close in the somber light of dusk to read it.
“Had to leave unexpectedly for airport,” it read. “Help yourself to wood. Leave $ in mailbox ($3.00 per medium load). Merry Christmas! PS: Wood is stacked about 50 yards from driveway on right.”
Pete had hollered the information to his dad. Neither one of them had any way of knowing that the pile of decaying wood, lightly covered with leaves and sawdust, was concealing a ditch. So as Dad shifted into reverse and rolled back toward the woodpile, the two left wheels suddenly sank into the debris, tilting the pickup onto its side as if it had been a boat slapped by a powerful wave.
“Dad! Dad!” he called again.
“Pete . . .” A faint whisper. “Wind knocked out . . . can’t move . . . left arm pinned . . . steering wheel and door. Go get help.”
Pete nearly panicked. “Dad, I can’t leave you here like this. I don’t even know where we are!”
Dad mustered strength to speak in a stronger voice. “Don’t worry, son. I’ll be OK. Find a phone. You can do it. But fast.”
Pete dropped back to the ground. He heard his father gasp in a spasm of pain.
“It’s just You and me, God,” Pete prayed silently, his eyes searching the darkness for some kind of light. All he could see was a faint glimmer somewhere off to the right–through the trees. He started toward it. The cool night wind cut through his cotton shirt.
Working his way through some sparse trees, Pete saw a small house with a slightly lopsided roof. Was that a kerosene lantern on a table by the window? Pete stumbled toward the door and frantically pounded on it. “Anyone home? We need help! Hello?”
A rather surprised middle-aged man jerked open the door.
“My dad–overturned truck–pinned!”
“Hold on a minute, son,” interrupted the man. “Slow down so’s I kin understand you!”
Pete took a deep breath, swallowed thickly, and related the situation before he asked, “Please, sir, have you got a phone? I need to call a tow truck or something right away.”
“Nope,” replied the man, “no phone. Got somethin’ better–Raja.”
“Raja? What’s a raja?”
The man pulled on a jacket and grabbed the lantern. “Come with me,” he said.
Feeling panic about Dad’s condition, Pete obediently followed the long, quick strides of the man. At a large barnlike structure 50 feet behind the small house, the man unlatched large double doors. The odor of damp straw and manure filled the air.
“C’mon, Raja, we’re goin’ for a little walk.”
Out of the murky barn and into the lantern glow lumbered a large, hairy baby elephant! The man held the edge of the elephant’s ear, handed Pete the lantern, and ordered, “Lead the way, son.”
Pete’s jaw dropped in wonder and disbelief, which prompted the man to say, “Start walkin’, an’ I’ll talk.”
As Pete led the way in the growing moonlight, the man explained that he and Raja were circus performers. They had just gotten home that afternoon from their last tour of the season. He hadn’t even had enough time to have his electricity turned on.
Knowing that an elephant was lumbering through the woods behind him was strange. And every time Pete turned around and saw the “baby’s” bulky moonlit frame obediently trotting behind them, he felt as if he were in a dream.
“Dad, are you OK?” Pete asked anxiously when they arrived back at the overturned truck.
“Not too bad,” came Dad’s weak response, “but I’m packed in here pretty tight. Is help on the way?”
“It’s here now,” said Pete, looking toward the baby pachyderm, which seemed exhilarated by the after-dark hike. “Dad,” said Pete almost in a whisper, “we got an elephant here!”
“Did you say elephant?”
“All right, young man,” said the creature’s owner, getting right down to business. “When Raja here pulls the truck upright, you roll a few of them short logs from that stack o’ wood over there into the ditch.”
“Then you skedaddle, and I’ll git Raja to lower the truck ‘n’ make it more level.”
Pete panted as he staggered under an armload of logs. While he placed them in readiness, the elephant’s owner asked Pete’s father to put the gearshift into neutral with his free hand. Then with the animal trainer giving orders, Raja dutifully slid his trunk through the open window on the right side of the truck and began pulling back.
“Easy, Raja. Pull, baby. That’s it.”
The truck creaked uncertainly. As the left side of the pickup rose jerkily, Pete quickly rolled the logs into place. When the truck’s wheels were resting on the logs, Raja–repositioned behind the pickup–put down his head.
Pete stepped back and watched. He had asked God to help him find a telephone. Out here that had seemed like an almost impossible request. Instead, God had provided them with a playful little elephant–right here in Nowheresville, Florida!
“Easy, Raja . . . easy!”
The truck rolled forward like a marble on a flat surface. Dad managed to step on the brake, bringing the truck to a halt.
Pete ran to the driver’s side, where the door was dented badly. “Dad!”
“It’s all right, Pete, but my arm’s still trapped between the steering wheel and door.”
“Step aside, son, ‘n’ let’s free up yer pa,” Raja’s owner gently ordered.
Holding high the kerosene lantern in one hand and giving hand signals to Raja with the other, the owner soon directed the little elephant’s trunk into the half-open window.
“Pull, baby,” directed the man, and as Pete continued to stare in amazement, the door fell away, releasing Dad’s arm.
“Arm don’t look broken,” said the man, examining Dad’s arm. “Got a lot of mishaps ’round the circus. I’d know a broken arm if I saw it.”
Dad gave Pete a grateful hug with his good arm. Turning to the elephant’s owner, he said, “I don’t know how to begin to thank you and your pet here. What can I pay you?”
“How ’bout some peanuts when this boy comes to visit Raja?” said the man. “Yer boy here told me you was fixin’ to load up some firewood when ya had yer accident.”
Raja reached his trunk into the man’s pocket and pulled out a peanut.
The man rubbed the elephant’s forehead and said, “Let’s finish the job, Raja. That man needs to rest his arm.” Almost before Pete and his father understood what he meant, Raja was loading logs into the back of the pickup truck.
Two hours after Pete and his father had left home, the pickup truck, minus its left door, rolled out of the driveway.
“Merry Christmas!” Pete called back out the window.
“Yep!” answered the man. “Just bring peanuts when ya come.”
“Merry Christmas, Dad!” exclaimed Pete. “And thank You, God!” In the rearview mirror he watched a baby elephant disappear into the woods behind a man with a kerosene lantern.
Reprinted from the December 20, 1997, issue of Guide.
Illustrated by Ralph Butler