ST. IGNATIUS, Mont. – Dustin Burckhard was slinging food to the locals at the Old Timer Café on Monday night when he saw something wrong with the black horse parked outside the back window.
Tied up to a chain-link fence, the mare was restless – not an uncommon reaction for immobilized steeds. But the 7-year-old horse, named Midnight, had cargo: She was hitched to a two-seat buggy, whinnying and fighting against her confinement.
“She had been working quite a long time to get off of there,” said the 29-year-old Burckhard, whose parents own the cafe where he serves as assistant manager.
Burckhard was concerned for the horse’s safety. So around 5 p.m., just as the sky cast a dusky, gunmetal glow on the Mission Mountains, he left his post and wandered outside to go fix Midnight’s bridle, making sure she stayed put while her owners – two Amish girls doing a little shopping in town – finished their visit to town.
Burckhard approached Midnight. That’s when the horse, already spooked, flinched and snapped her bridle free of the fence and bolted into the decaying light, the black buggy bouncing behind her.
Burckhard had no idea how long she was tethered to the fence when his 15-year-old dishwasher, Tim Ranel, noticed the distressed horse tugging and fighting aggressively.
“Tim said, ‘I think it’s going to get loose, and we should go tie her up,’ ” Burckhard remembered.
Ranel had just arrived for dishwashing duties at the Old Timer Café, located on the northwest side of St. Ignatius just a block off U.S. Highway 93.
Ranel bounced into work that day with good news: Just a couple hours before, the teen had proudly presented his mother with an envelope from the Montana Department of Justice.
“I didn’t believe him, but it was his driver’s license,” said Hope Ranel.
It would come in handy this night.
As soon as Midnight bolted, Burckhard told Ranel to run to his Chevy Trailblazer, parked just outside the restaurant.
Burckhard jumped in the driver’s seat and the two sped off, hell-bent on stopping the runaway horse and buggy with the SUV because “I knew that either the horse was going to get hurt or somebody else would,” Burckhard said. “But the main thing is I didn’t want her to get on the highway.”
So with Ranel in the passenger seat, Burckhard twice tried to stop Midnight’s run by blocking her path with his Chevy.
It became clear after the second attempt that Midnight was not going to be deterred. She raced north of town before turning onto Airport Road, a narrow stretch that heads directly into the foothills of the Missions.
That’s when Burckhard stopped the SUV and told Ranel to get behind the wheel.
Burckhard stepped onto the SUV’s driver’s-side running board and held on to the roof rack while Ranel gunned the Chevy to catch up to Midnight, who was weaving all over the road while other motorists either pulled over or attempted to cut her off.
“We had the horse slowed down to a trot,” said the teenager. “Then we realized there was a semi in front of us.”
Ranel had to back off.
Finally, two miles down Airport Road, after the buggy had sideswiped three vehicles trying to stop it, Ranel maneuvered into position next to the buggy.
“The last thing I said was, ‘See ya!,’ ” said Burckhard. “And then I went over.”
Burckhard jumped, a leap of faith that was either going to send him tumbling onto the pavement at 30 mph or get him successfully onto the open-seat buggy.
“I had a pretty good idea that one way or another, I was going to get her stopped,” said Burckhard.
Once on the buggy, Burckhard pulled on Midnight’s reins. The problem was that the reins were no longer attached to Midnight’s bridle, because the bridle was attached to a fence two miles back.
So Burckhard had to leap onto Midnight’s back and crawl up to her head, where he began tugging on the horse’s ears to get her to slow or stop.
Two miles down the road, with Burckhard yanking on her ears, Midnight turned into the gravel driveway of a private farm.
About 100 feet later, Midnight jerked left, sending her passenger flying off onto the driveway. He landed hard on a wooden box, bruising his ribs and tearing ligaments in his knee.
Meanwhile, Midnight and her buggy came to rest in a field next to the driveway. Her rider leapt to his feet, not knowing the severity of his injuries.
“I thought, ‘I’m still young,’ ” said Burckhard. “ ‘I can bounce back.’ But you know, it hurt a lot less to get thrown from a horse when I was 16 than it does now.”
Ranel, meanwhile, had stopped, still taking in what had just happened.
Once the two reunited, both drove back to the Old Timer Café to see if they could find Midnight’s owners and let them know their horse was OK.
Standing next to the battered chain-link fence were the two girls, who had been wondering where their horse was.
“They were super grateful,” said Burckhard.
Burckhard knows what many of the townsfolk think about his efforts. They joke and laugh and ask him, “What, no lasso?”