It’s summer, Bible School is over and I’m too young for Little League. Mom works 60 hours a week as a caretaker, so that leaves me and dad to fend for ourselves most of the time.
Mom and dad are starting the day doing what seems to come most natural to them, talking about me.
Mom: Now let me get this straight. Those boys down to the sales barn want to give Garry a job tending ponies?
Dad: Not a job exactly. They just want him to ride the ponies whenever he’s got time.
Mom: Don’t those ponies belong to their daughters. Why don’t they just get the girls to ride them?
Dad: Well that’s just it. About the only times the girls like to ride is for the Boots and Saddle Club affairs, mainly the County Fair. It’s just not good for animals to be stuck in their stalls all the time.
Mom: Well why don’t they just let ‘em run free out in the pasture. Like we used to do.
Garry: They ain’t got any pasture. All they got is the woods behind the sales barn and they can’t just let ‘em run off in the woods.
Dad: That’s only about half true. Perkins has some land out on Star Route. But far as I know, Steele lives in town. Both of them have their own horses so it just makes sense to keep all of them in the same stable.
Garry: You should see their horses, mom. Especially the one Mr. Perkins rides. He’s a big old Golden Palomino. Just like Trigger.
Mom: Now Ben, I know those boys are busy. They don’t have time to be saddling up those ponies every time Garry has a mind to ride.
Garry: They’re teaching me how to saddle ’em and how to cool ’em down from a ride. I already know how to curry.
Ben: He’s tellin the truth there Zoe. Surprised me some, how he took to it.
Mom: (softening) Course you would be right there with him. (pause) You sure he’d be alright out on the trail by himself.
Dad: I reckon he would. He’s already had some short rides.
Mom: Well, I guess it’s alright with me. Now Garry, you listen to your dad. When it comes to horses, he knows what he’s talking about.
Looking back, I don’t know who was happier, me or dad.
Mom: So tell me something about these ponies.
Garry: Ones named Pepper and the other is Silver. Pepper’s a boy and always does what I tell ‘im to do. Silver is a girl and she’s ornery. I like riding Pepper way more than Silver.
Every time I mount Pepper I become two different people. One is me, the world’s luckiest boy, riding a real flesh and blood pony through a woods big and thick enough for my imagination. The other is me grown up to be a movie cowboy hero, symbiotically joined to my horse in a partnership uniquely forged for grand adventure.
I am both the boy, ever mindful that he is responsible for his pony, and the hero, ever trusting in the sentient loyalty of his horse. As Pepper and I saunter along the trail this cloudy morning, I see no need to choose between the two.
By now I know the woods like the back of my hand. I know the rising and falling of the creek, the disappearing trails, the treacherously steep embankments disguised as sunflower and cattail groves, as well as every low hanging tree limb along the main trail.
As every B Western fan knows, low hanging tree limbs are especially useful to cowboy heroes whenever they have to escape a band of desperados or a totally misinformed posse. The way it works is the hero and his horse are galloping furiously along, dodging lead as they go. All of a sudden a huge tree appears with a horizontal tree limb extended at least two feet over the heads of horse and rider. The hero, armed with mother whit and unheard of athleticism, heads directly for the limb, stands in his saddle, then with impeccable timing leaps for the limb and pulls himself up into the protective foliage of the tree.
This scene never set well with Dad.
Dad: You mean to tell me they didn’t see him go up that tree and then they don’t see his horse just standing around?
Garry: Well maybe he was so far ahead of them they couldn’t see and maybe his horse just hid someplace. That’s why he hadda whistle for him.
My low hanging tree limb juts out from a huge White Oak. The tree sprawls back away from the trail but my limb stretches across it defiantly.
Heading into our third week together I feel like Pepper and I are as close as boy and pony could possibly be and capable of anything I can imagine. Including pulling off the (overhanging limb) tree limb escape. The big Oak looms just beyond a sharp bend in the trail. As we come around the bend I feel a jolt of excitement. Today is the day!
I give Pepper rein and deliver a sharp kick to both flanks. He responds with a jerk before altering his gait. I pop the loose reins on his neck and he breaks into a gallop. As I rise in the saddle I am totally locked into the fast approaching limb. Closer…Closer…Closer…NOW!
In the blink of an eye I’m horseless but instead of looking down in triumph I’m still dangling from the limb. It never occurred to me that I might not have the arm strength to pull myself up into safety. But I’m only momentarily deterred. I hear myself saying, “Just get a leg up. It’s not like you never climbed a tree before.”
Once astraddle the limb, I realize that anybody looking for me could see me plain as day. So maybe Dad was right. It was a stupid plan. But what magnificent execution! Pepper and I could join the circus with tricks like that.
Swinging to ground, I can’t wait to congratulate Pepper on his performance, getting up to speed at just the right moment. But the trail is empty, no Pepper in sight. And unlike the movie cowboy, I can’t whistle worth a damn. I’ll have to catch up with Pepper before he gets too far away, or stumbles down an embankment or worse yet, wanders back to the Sales barn without me.
I want to call him but I don’t know how. He’s not a dog or a cat. “Here Pepper, here Pepper, good horsey” just wouldn’t cut it.
Most likely he’ll keep running for a spell. Until he gets tired or maybe wonders what happened to his rider. So I take off after him on the trot. I stay to the main trail and only glance at clearings or side paths.
Then I hear Dad’s voice in the back of my mind.
Dad: Now don’t let that pony run off on you. You ain’t no Indian.
Garry: What’s Indians got to do with it?
Dad: Indians know how to track horses. They’d take a real close look at the fresh hoof prints, feel em and smell ’em, then up and tell you how fast the horses were moving and how long ago they left. That’s tracking.
I’m not tracking Pepper. I’m just hoping to catch up to him without having to cover the mile to the dirt road that shores up the back end of the woods. The trail stops dead at a fence with a wooden gate that opens to the road. I know Pepper isn’t likely to jump the fence, but what if somebody left the gate open? No telling how far he could get on the road. Or what might happen to him either. I run faster.
By the time I reach the gate I’m sweating, breathing hard and beginning to fear the worst. I start thinking about dad’s warnings.
Dad: Stay out of that creek, whatever you do. Your pony can swim. He can even swim with you astride. But what he can’t do is pull himself out of deep mud. And you won’t be able to help him much.
Garry: I wasn’t thinking about going swimming with no pony.
Dad: Another thing. Don’t wander off the trail. You get to traipsing around in high grass or uneven ground, like as not he’ll step in a hole and break his leg.
So what is Pepper most likely to do? Go crashing through the cattails and land in the mud, or wander off on a side trail looking for a hole to step in so he can break his leg.
In the end I decide to check the creek since there is only one of them and who knows how many side trails there are. The creek comes down from the north, then heads west and runs along side the trail for a ways.
About a quarter of a mile before the end of the trail, the creek turns sharp and runs south. Its departure is marked by a wide grove of sunflowers. On the run again, I head for the sunflowers.
The ground leading to the grove is rough from hoof prints and slick. Probably rained some during the night. As I elbow through a thick spate of sunflowers I’m thinking how dumb it would be for Pepper to plunge through on the run and wind up in the creek.
Then I plunge through myself and realize that only a few feet of dead grass and mud separate me from the edge of the embankment. I try to dig my heels in but it’s too late. As my feet fly out from under me, my mind flashes on the fire escape shoots at school. Curvy and fast as the dickens, especially if you strategically place a waxy bread wrapper under your seat, which most of the kids do. I don’t need any wax paper today. The rain slicked embankment is plenty fast enough to shoot me right off into the creek.
I land in the pike position. Only my head and shoulders are sticking upright above the water line. The shock of the cold water numbs my brain. For a long moment the only sensation that gets through comes from my fingers groping in the sandy bottom. A sliver of hope rises in my chest. “At least it ain’t mud.”
That hope vanishes like quicksilver as soon as I stand up. I’m crushed with the conviction that no matter how things turn out, Perkins and Steele will never trust me with a pony again. Dad will be mad because I didn’t listen to him, and Mom will wonder how on earth I managed to fall into the creek in the first place.
I try desperately to fight off these thoughts. I need a clear head to come up with a new search plan. Since I’m already wet I might as well stay with the creek. I can follow it back to the trailhead near the sales barn. At that point I will know for sure that Pepper isn’t mudded down somewhere. And since I’ll be so close to the sales barn, I can sneak back and try to get a bead on Dad. If he’s still sitting on the benches, then more than likely Pepper hasn’t wandered back on his own.
My heart sinks when I see the empty benches where I had left dad. I can barely stand still long enough to survey the yard and squint at the office building. Then my mind turns on me altogether. It flashes images of Perkins and Steele lashing saddle and bridle to their horses, grim as sheriffs setting off on a man hunt disguised as a search party, already expecting the worst.
I turn in a panic and start back out on the trail. How in the world can I search all the side trails before they come after me for real?
Again, dad’s voice in my head.
Dad: Another thing. You want to stay clear of apple trees. Sure as hell that pony will want to eat some off the ground.
Garry: What’s wrong with that?
Dad: Could give him a bellyache if you let him eat all he wants. Besides, you don’t want to waste your riding time. These horses get fed plenty.
Apple trees! Where had I seen apple trees? Had I seen any? They would have to be close to the trail to do me any good and Pepper would have to still be there working on a bellyache. This time there isn’t much pep in my trot. Nor hope either.
I’m almost back to the big Oak with the cursed overhanging limb when I come up on a clearing with a ring of small trees. My heart jumps into my throat. Apple trees! But it doesn’t take my heart long to sink again. No Pepper. As I traipse back to the trail, I notice there are no hoof prints either. “Ok, gotta look for hoof prints before I waste more time looking in the wrong place.”
Dad’s voice in my head brings the truth crashing down on me.
Dad: You ain’t no Indian.
No I ain’t no Indian. And I ain’t no cowboy hero either. I’m just a kid who’s lost a pony and let everybody down. So I do what a kid feeling sorry for himself would do. I sit down in the middle of the trail and cry. Though as cries go it didn’t amount to much. Just long enough for me to resign myself to returning to the sales barn for help.
I’m just about to stir in that direction when I hear dad’s voice. But this time it’s too loud to be in my head.
Dad: Boy, what in hell are you sitting in the middle of the road for?
Garry: Dad! Whatta you doin here?
Dad: Well, what’s it look like I’m doin?
Garry: Pepper! You found him. Dang you horse! Where in hell you been hiding?
Dad:Good question but I wouldn’t let you mom hear you talk like that.
Garry: But I looked everywhere dad. I looked in the creek. I looked around apple trees. I ran all the way to the end of the trail and back. I thought you were all were out looking for us.
Dad: Ain’t no all to it. The boys went over to Albia to pick up some livestock. Said they’d be gone a couple of hours. Told me you could curry Pepper down and put him back in his stall. Asked if you was coming back tomorrow.
Garry: Well what made you come looking for me?
Dad: Figured your mom would be sore as hell if I came home without you.
Garry: So how did you find Pepper?
Dad: I’ll tell you that as soon as you tell me how you lost ‘im.
Garry: (Tentatively) Dad, you know how in the movies the bad guys are chasing the good guy, shooting at him and all…so the good guy sees a tree…
Dad: And Grabs the limb and….(chuckling) hauls himself up…(starting to laugh) and you tried it didn’t you…
Dad is danged fool when something strikes him funny. I’ve seen him fall out of a chair laughing. This time he just leans on Pepper and laughs himself out. I was so mad I picked up a big clod of dirt and threw it at him.
Dad: I can just see it. You dangling from the limb and the horse…Oh Lord, Garry. I tried to tell you about those stunts…
Garry: I knew you were gonna say that. I knew you were gonna give me a big ‘I told you so’. Think you’re so smart.
Dad: I ain’t so smart. You think I never lost a horse before. And I doubt I hand any better reason than you did. It’s just…(stifling himself) Ok, Ok. I know how bad you felt. Like it’s the worst thing you ever did in your life.
And then dad up and hugs me.
Dad: You know you’re gonna have to tell me how you got so wet.
Garry: You know you’re gonna have to tell me how you found Pepper.
Garry: Acorns? How the heck could acorns…
Dad: I told you about the creek and the holes and the apples. I forgot to tell you about the acorns. Horses love acorns.
Garry: So where did you find him?
Dad: You know that big ole Oak that has the…that’s it aint it. That’s your limb hanging over the trail. I shoulda known.
Garry: Well you didn’t so where did you find ‘im?
Dad: Not too far from there. He was standing just off the trail, munching acorns big as you please.
Garry: (to myself) I musta run right by the ornery devil. (To Dad) Dang, what am I gonna tell Perkins and Steele?
Dad: I wouldn’t worry too much about them. Nothing bad happened to their horse and you didn’t get hurt. You problem is gonna be…
We’re home now and mom has just heard the story. Mom can be straight as a poker, but I can see a smile trying to break through before I can get to the end.
Mom: Well, here’s my two cents. I don’t think either one of you needs to see any movies for a month. And Ben, we need to get this boy some swimming lessons. Case he finds a deeper creek to fall into.