The bus ride home from school was a long and boring affair through the outskirts of the sleepy lake side town that I spent my early years. I was always the first kid to be picked up and the last one to be dropped off due to the location of my family’s small ranch. Our driveway was off a main highway, the only house for miles on this stretch of road and it was dangerous for the school bus to slow down enough to make the stop for me. I would stand in our driveway all alone each weekday, waiting for the bus in the cool crisp air. Eventually, without so much as a notification, the city dumped a huge load of gravel at the side of the road and planted a tall sign with a yellow school bus stop sign just for me. I remember how this angered me at the time since it blocked one of the small creeks that I loved to play in. I never stood near the sign because it was too close to the road and I was frightened by the speed of the cars. When I had told my mother about the incident, all she had said was, “I think what they did is cute!” Decades later, when I had driven by my old home on a whim, I was amused to see that old yellow sign remained, still stuck in its bed of gravel.
On this particular day, I was leaning against the cool glass of the bus window, mindlessly gazing out at pine trees when I received a shock. Tied to an oak tree in front of a slat-board side house were a silver grey mare with a white mane and tail and a smaller filly the color of brown sugar with a white star on her forehead. They were the two ponies from our mini-ranch. The next stop was only a half mile up the road. I exited the bus and marched back to where my ponies were.
It did not occur to me to simply take my animals and go. That was not how I was raised. I knocked on the door of the house and an unfamiliar woman answered. “Did our ponies get out of their pasture? Thank you for finding them.” I had added, “I need to take them home.” I was only seven years old, wearing my backpack filled with schoolbooks and a tom-boy corduroy jacket. I was short for my age and always felt that I lived in the land of the giants. Perhaps I still do.
The woman placed her hands on her hips and looked down on me with a sour expression. “How do I know that they are yours? Do you have proof?”
“But, they are mine…” I was not prone to speaking, especially to strangers, and I was at a loss. No one had ever doubted my word before.
“Not good enough. I need to see proof that they belong to you.” The giantess shut the door.
I left the woman’s property and trudged to my friend’s house a mile or two up the road. There I used the phone to call my mother. This was back in the days before cel phones, so you had to discover places to contact people. I explained to my mother that the ponies escaped our pasture and that a woman had them tied up in her front yard. Within a short time, my mother arrived with my younger brother in tow and the three of us returned to the slat-board house. The ponies were still there, grazing under the leafy tree.
My mother told me to stay with my brother before she ascended the steps and knocked on the door. The woman and my mother began to talk about the ponies. Being seven and not always able to follow what adults spoke about up in the lofty regions of the sky, I drifted across the lawn toward the animals. The little brown filly, Sugar, lifted her head and nickered to me. I heard a sharp voice. “You stay away from those animals!” I paused mid-step and looked back at the porch in alarm. Suddenly my mother and the woman were doing more than talking, they were shouting and poking their fingers at each other. At the end, my mother declared that she was going to call the sheriff, left the porch and grabbed my little brother.
Returning to my friend’s house, my mother used the phone again before we returned to the stranger’s house and parked in her driveway. We sat in our car, waiting for the sheriff to arrive. It did not seem long before the huge black and white pulled up beside our car.
“What seems to be the problem, Ma’am?” The sheriff was a middle aged man in uniform. The badge on his chest gleamed in the late afternoon light.
My mother wasted no time in telling him our predicament, pointing at our ponies that were still tied to the leafy tree. The sheriff and my mother walked to the house and soon all three adults were talking about the problem. The woman was stubborn, refusing to give up the animals and the sheriff and my mother interjecting their questions or demands throughout.
Since my little brother had been left in the car, I felt no need to watch him. Kicking a pebble, I wandered over to the oak tree where our ponies were still tied. This time no one stopped me. It was getting late and I worried how we were going to get the two of them home. Sugar butted her head against my chest and blew her hot breath into my hair as was her habit. I reached over to hug her neck and stroke her soft brown coat. Sugar was still too young to ride and far from her full growth. She stood about at my height and we were a perfect fit. When you are seven years old and as small as I was, you value a friend you can see eye to eye with.
I grew aware that the noise from the porch had stopped. I looked back and all three adults were watching me. The sheriff then gave the woman a displeased look and the stranger looked away defeated. There were a few more words among the adults and then my mother and the sheriff left the porch and joined me and the ponies.
The sheriff untied our animals and handed the rope to my mother. “Do you have a truck to pick them up with?”
I piped in, “Our house is just over the other side of the woods. I can ride Misty back to the barn.”
My mother was not happy with my solution, but told the sheriff, “My husband won’t be home for another hour. It is probably the best way.” Business concluded, the sheriff left us.
I left my backpack and schoolbooks in the car and used the ropes to create makeshift reins to guide our silver grey mare. Sugar was on a lead rope and would follow her mother. I rode Misty bareback all the way home, getting to the barn before dark. Along the way, I noticed that part of the fence in one of the pastures had fallen over. This was how the two of them had left our land. I put the two escape artists in for the night and made sure the gate to the paddock was closed securely.
As I walked down the familiar path from the barn to our house by the side of the highway, I thought about the woman and how I should not accept that people will believe me at my word even when I am telling the truth. I also gained a new respect for the law. I had never had dealings with the sheriff before and this incident created a favorable view of the police force to me. However, I believe that the most immediate lesson I received that day, as I had trouble walking home due to my sore thighs and backside, is that I would never again ride a horse without a saddle.