From inside the livestock trailer, I heard a man’s voice say Good morning, so I said Good morning in return.
The man’s voice called the dog. The dog ran to the gate of the trailer, then away from it. The man continued calling the dog in a low, calm voice. At the time, I thought the dog was just being playful, was enjoying being off leash, didn’t want to give up its freedom. But now I remember the dog cowering just outside the trailer’s open gate, ears flattened against its head. Like the girl, the dog was silent.
When the man had the dog, I walked around to the open gate of the trailer. The man was tying the dog to a rope attached to the trailer.
I’d barely identified myself as the camp host when the man said to me, Well, you sure don’t waste any time.
I guess he meant I hadn’t wasted any time in coming over to collect the camping fee. I thought it was a strange thing for him to say. People who stay in a campground typically know there is a fee to camp, and most people are happy to pay up and get the task out of the way.
In that instant when the man spoke to me, my whole plan changed. Maybe the look on the girl’s face had finally registered as fear. Maybe I’m particularly sensitive to dangerous men. But what came out of my mouth was, I’ll make you a deal. If you clean up after the horses, I won’t charge you the camping fee. I know y’all got in late last night.
I didn’t fear for my own personal safety. The man didn’t do or say anything I could point to as a threat. But I had a suspicion that if the man got pissed off, I wouldn’t be the one he’d take it out on.
I think he thanked me. Then he asked, If we want to stay another night, should we talk to you?
The last thing I wanted in my campground was this bad vibe man, his cowering dog, his silent girl, and his six shitting horses.
Well, I said, I’ve got people checking in on this site tomorrow, and this really isn’t a horse camp.
No, he agreed. This really isn’t a horse camp. I guess there’s no water either?
No, I sadly shook my head, no water.
We’ll just have some breakfast, he said. Then we’ll get out of your hair.
I continued about my business cleaning fire rings. I kept a watch on the family out of the corner of my eye.
A woman and two younger children emerged from the pile of blankets and sleeping bags on the ground. I couldn’t determine the gender of the youngest child, but the middle kid was a blond girl, probably seven or eight years old.
Two things struck me as strange.
First, after breakfast was cooked (on a high standing stove), the people did not sit down to enjoy their meal. Although there were three picnic tables in the area they were occupying, they stood in a loose circle while they consumed their food. I couldn’t tell what they were eating or if they used plates, but standing during breakfast is not normal camper behavior.
Second, for most of the morning, the man’s voice was the only one I heard. He didn’t raise it high enough for me to understand his words, but I could hear it drifting through the campground. I didn’t hear the women’s voice once, and at least an hour passed before I could hear the kids. Whether the woman and children were whispering or silent, I don’t know.
The man did another weird thing while I was cleaning the fire ring on site #1. He let a horse wander off from the rest of its herd. He didn’t let it go far, but I wondered why he was allowing it to move around freely. Was he challenging me, hoping I’d say something so he could argue with me or have a reason to be be mad?
Typically I would have commented on the beauty of the horse (a muscular, brown creature), but my instinct was not to chit chat with these people.
When I finished cleaning fire rings, I went back to my campsite to get ready for the rest of my day. I started hearing the children’s voices echo through the campground. The kids were not screaming at the tops of their lungs, but I could hear their happy and excited voices.
I was beginning to think I was imaging things and there wasn’t anything weird about these people when I heard the man raise his voice. I was pretty sure he was reprimanding one or more of the children, and I clearly heard him say…yelling out loud! He was reprimanding the children for their happy, exuberant voices! (And really, if a kid can’t yell in a campground at 9:30 in the morning, where can a kid yell?)
Then I heard the twack twack twack sound of something (a switch picked up from the ground? a horse-related tool?) slice through the air and hit something. When I looked up, the man was walking away, but the middle child was standing frozen, with her arms held stiffly at her sides. I didn’t hear any children’s voices after that.
Once again, I was rendered mute by a grown man hitting a little kid, but this time I’d only heard the abuse. What could I do? I know how abusers work. Anything I said or did, the woman or the kids would pay for later. I didn’t even have an excuse to talk to the girl and offer her some small kindness.
Sometimes I feel so useless.
The day after the horse people left, I walked through the area they’d occupied and could still smell horse feces. I started poking around with the toe of my boot and found the man’s idea of cleaning up after his horses was to bury the feces. Asswipe! I ended up having to clean up the horse feces myself, and it was a more difficult task now that it was covered in duff. I will admit I had fantasies of breaking that man’s kneecaps.