Memoir: The Horse Thief

The horse thief
image by guilaine @ pixabay

The bus ride home from school was a long and boring affair through the outskirts of the sleepy lakeside country town. Most of my schoolmates were sleepy from the long day. Only the occasional spitball launched in high arc overhead broke the monotony.

I dreaded the coming summer. Third grade was coming to an end and the isolation I faced for the three months between grades seemed endless. I hoped that my plans to visit my friend would come together. It was a long walk down a gravel road under the power lines to reach my friend. I did have a pony that I could ride to shorten the trip, but my parents would not allow me to ride her off our land. My visits would not be frequent this summer.

I leaned against the cool glass of the bus window. The country road held houses at infrequent intervals. They mingled with endless clumps of blackberry and huckleberry bushes filling in the space between the conifers. Later in life, I would realize that I lived in natural beauty, but as a child it was normal and rather boring.

A bump in the road jostled me awake. Looking out the window, I spied our family’s ponies tied to an oak tree in front of a stranger’s slat-board house. Misty was the elder of the pair, a silver gray with a white mane and tail. When my father had purchased our ponies from the Woodland Park Zoo two years before, she was the pony I was to ride. Along with Misty came Sugar. She was a small filly of light brown with dark gentle eyes. While my father had dickered over the price of a pony to take home, I had sat down next to Sugar and stroked her head and mane. My feet dragged when my father called me and I looked back at the little brown filly more than once as my father showed me Misty. It was not until my father arrived with his pickup that I realized that the little filly who had stolen my heart was Misty’s baby. The pair would come together.

What were our ponies doing in front of that house? I fidgeted on the bench while I waited for the next stop. It was a good half mile up the road. When the door opened, I leaped from the school bus and trotted back to where our ponies cropped on grass under the oak tree.

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 was seven years old, short for my age and wearing jeans and a tomboy style corduroy jacket. Yet I did not hesitate to assert to the giant adult before me, “I need to take them home now.”

The woman placed her hands on her hips and looked down with a sour expression. “How do I know they belong to you?”

“But—they are mine—” I was not prone to speaking with strangers, and I was at a loss. No one ever doubted my word before.

“Not good enough. I need 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. I told my story to my friend and her mother. My friend’s Mom told me that I needed to get my own mother to that house to recover our property. She snorted and called the woman who kept my ponies a thief.

I borrowed their phone to call my mother. This was back in the days before cell phones, so you had to discover places to contact people in emergencies. Within a short time, my mother drove up 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 oak tree.

My mother left my little brother at the foot of the porch steps, and told me to stay with him. She ascended to the porch and knocked on the front door. The woman answered the door, she was much taller than my mother, and the two women began to talk. Being seven and not always able to follow what adults spoke about up in the lofty regions of the air, I quickly lost interest, and drifted across the lawn toward the ponies. Sugar lifted her head and nickered. I looked over her curly coat and shiny hooves. Beside her, Misty grazed upon the woman’s front lawn and flickered her ears at my approach. Both animals seemed unharmed.

I heard a sharp voice. “You stay away from those animals!” I looked back at the porch with alarm. My mother and the woman were doing more than talking; they were yelling as they poked their fingers at each other. At the end of the shouting match, my mother declared she was going to call the sheriff. She strode down the steps of the porch, grabbed my little brother by the arm and returned to our car. She shouted for me to follow, and after giving my pony a quick pat, I joined them in the sedan.

Returning to my friend’s house, my mother borrowed their phone to call the police. Soon after, we returned to the stranger’s house and parked on the street. We sat in our car, waiting for the sheriff to arrive. Soon, the imposing black-and-white pulled up beside our car.

“What seems to be the problem, Ma’am?” The sheriff was a middle aged man, with graying brown hair and a crisp uniform. The badge on his chest gleamed in the late afternoon light. He seemed imposing to me. I hardly was taller than his waistline. I was glad no one expected me to say anything.

My mother wasted no time in telling the sheriff our predicament, pointing at our ponies. The sheriff and my mother walked to the house, leaving my brother and I in the car. The sheriff knocked on the door and all three adults began talking. I rolled down the window and could hear the conversation. It began quietly, but soon turned into an argument. The woman was stubborn, refusing to give up the animals.

“Why should I believe that these ponies belong to you?” demanded the tall woman, “Do you have a bill of sale for them?” The heated debate continued with the sheriff doing his best to impose order.

I slipped out of the backseat and shut the car door behind me. Kicking a pebble, I wandered over to the oak tree. This time, no adult stopped me from approaching my ponies. It was getting late, and I worried how we were going to get the two animals 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 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 view eye to eye. I considered the little brown filly to be my best friend in the world.

As I hugged Sugar, I grew aware that the noise from the porch had stopped. I looked back, and all three adults were watching me. The sheriff gave the woman a displeased look, and the stranger glanced away in defeat. There were a few more words among the adults, and my mother and the sheriff left the porch to join me. The other woman entered her house, slamming the door behind her.

The sheriff untied our animals, and handed the rope to my mother. “Do you have a way to get the ponies home?”

I piped in. “Our house is just over the other side of the woods. I can ride Misty back to the barn. Sugar will follow her. She always does.”

My mother was not happy with my solution, but told the man, “My husband won’t be home from work for another hour, and he has our truck. I have the toddler with me, and I don’t want to leave the animals here.” The sheriff eyed me a few moments. This was the country, and children were out riding horses every day. It was not unusual for the area. He tipped his hat to my mother and me, and departed in his black-and-white.

I left my backpack and schoolbooks in the car, using the ropes to create makeshift reins and a lead rope. My mother lifted me onto Misty’s back and Sugar had the rope lassoed around her neck. It was enough to help prevent the filly from spooking on the trail home. I was happy to have the chance to ride home. I was not allowed to ride off our family land, so this would be like an adventure for me.

I rode bareback alongside the paved road for a short distance, with my mother following behind in the car. Then I cut off the main road to a trail that led through the woods. It connected with the gravel road under the powerlines that I would walk to visit my friend’s house. The gravel road took me to our pastures. As I rode along the fence line, I came to a place where the barbed wire lay flat on the ground.

I gave Misty a pat on her neck. “So this is where you escape artists got out!” I would remember the location and show it to my father when I could. He would have to repair the fence before we could leave the ponies out to pasture again. I arrived at the barn and slipped off of Misty’s back, leading the two ponies into the paddock. I made sure to secure the gate before I left. The sun was starting to touch the horizon.

As I returned home, I thought about the giantess and how she did not accept me at my word. It never occurred to me that someone would think I was lying. It was a new idea to me and it made me understand not everyone in the world was honest. I also gained a new respect for the law. The sheriff saw the bond between the animals and myself, and accepted it as proof of ownership. He used his common sense to guide his way to the truth with good results for my family. I liked that about the man. Yet, 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.

This memoir short story was meant to publish in a literary magazine called “Chicken Scratch Tales” a few years ago, but the publication went under before the issue came out. The story was finally released and now has a home here! This is a true story from my childhood.

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