Poor Dusty! He always seemed to be in trouble. He had been in town only a few months, but already just about everyone in Redwood was mad at him.
Mrs. Gillis was angry because he had gotten into her garden and trampled all over her vegetables, looking for the carrots. At the feed and grain store, Dusty had chewed a hole in a large sack on the loading dock and had eaten half the oats in it before Mr. Brock chased him away. You could hear Mr. Brock’s yelling a couple blocks away. Dusty didn’t care, though. He trotted away, looking carefree and innocent.
Dusty was a long-eared, sand-colored donkey with big, gentle, brown eyes. To look at him you wouldn’t think such a little donkey could cause so many problems.
Dusty used to belong to Mr. Fisk, an old hermit who lived up in the mountains. When Mr. Fisk died, Dusty was left to fend for himself. He spent a lot of time alone, grazing in the meadows near town or roaming the hills. No one in town knew anything about him, though, until one day Dusty came strolling down Main Street as if he had lived in town all his life.
After that, several times a week, he came to town and usually ended up in trouble. Most people said he was a good-for-nothing pest and didn’t belong in Redwood. They had even threatened to send him to a glue factory.
But Dusty was always welcome in the schoolyard. We kids loved having him around. My brother, Bay, fed him the carrots Mom put in our lunches, so Dusty was our friend for life. Only Mrs. Hayes, our teacher, didn’t want Dusty hanging around school. She was afraid he’d hurt us, so she’d chase him away. But he would always return an hour or so later.
“I feel sorry for Dusty,” I told Bay one fall day. “He seems lonely. And what will he do this winter when it gets cold?”
“He’s smart enough to take care of himself,” Bay said. “Besides, he may not have to worry about winter. If the folks in town catch him, they’ll get rid of him.”
“But he’s a good donkey. All he wants is some love and attention. Why don’t people give him a chance?” I asked.
Bay didn’t have an answer. Then, two days before Thanksgiving, a surprise snowstorm hit. By three o’clock five inches of snow had already fallen, and Mrs. Hayes told us to hurry home.
My best friend, Robin Quinn; six-year-old Pete Newly; and Bay and I all lived outside of town. We walked back and forth to school together every day. We knew a few shortcuts, and that afternoon, because of the storm, Bay thought that we should take the shortcut through Otter Creek Meadow.
As we followed the trail through the woods behind the school, I could feel the wind come right through my coat. None of us had boots on, and Bay didn’t even have his gloves. At the edge of the woods was Otter Creek Meadow, but we couldn’t see it at all. In fact, we couldn’t see more than two feet in front of us.
“Maybe we should go back to school,” I said.
“No,” Bay replied. “It’s closer to go home now. Everyone hold hands, and no matter what, don’t let go.”
We waded across the field with no idea where the path was—or even if we were going in the right direction. When we finally reached the creek, we were at the edge of a steep, snowy bank. We usually crossed over a bridge, but in the blizzard we didn’t know if we were to the left or right of it.
Pete suddenly slipped and tumbled down the bank toward the creek. Bay scrambled after him and grabbed him before he fell into the water. Together they struggled back up the bank, where Pete just sat and cried. I knew how he felt; I was scared too. I kept praying that we would get home safely.
Bay shoved his red hands inside his coat pockets. “Come on,” he said kindly. “We have to keep moving, or we’ll freeze.”
We didn’t go far, though, before Bay stopped again, saying he’d heard something. He called out, and Dusty appeared! I knew Dusty was the answer to my prayers. He came right to us, and Bay buried his hands in the thick hair of Dusty’s mane.
Bay boosted Pete up onto the donkey’s back. Then he tied one end of Robin’s long scarf around Dusty’s neck and the other around his own right hand, and we started off again, with Dusty leading the way.
Dusty had spent a lot of time in this meadow, so he knew it well. He also knew the way to our barn, having eaten from our haystacks a time or two.
Trudging along, head bent into the wind, he found the bridge and led us across it. As the snow piled up, even Dusty had to struggle to get through the deeper drifts. We picked our way through a grove of trees and came out in the field near our barn.
Dusty continued to plow our way for us almost to the back door of our house.
Mom and Dad hurried us inside. We changed into dry clothes and sat by a roaring fire. It felt good to be safe and warm again, and we owed it all to Dusty.
Dad took our long-eared friend to the barn, gave him some fresh hay, and two big carrots as a special treat.
That Thanksgiving we were especially thankful that Dusty had been around to help us. Even the folks in town treated him better and spoke kindly of him.
Dusty stayed with us for a while, but he was happier when he could come and go as he pleased. He still spent his time wandering from place to place, but now he was welcome wherever he went. And he still got into trouble now and then, but now nobody seemed to mind too much. He was, after all, the hero of Redwood.