Chief is an ornery Appaloosa,
short and fat,
with black spots on the rump of his dirty, white coat.
And the devil in his eyes.
Of little training and no past consequences,
he’s a 9th birthday present from Dad –
whose childhood pets were porcelain cats;
and mostly Mom,
a self-proclaimed Missouri farm girl,
with a steely, stubborn confidence over competence.
From the other side of the pasture fence,
she urges me to remount:
“Make him know who’s boss!”
I struggle to my feet
and limp toward the answer
now grazing on prairie grass and wildflowers.
In between greedy mouthfuls,
Chief raises his wild, blue eyes,
beneath poorly cut bangs –
which I do myself.
(No wonder he’s ornery.)
He’s quietly watching my pained approach
and just as I get within a few feet,
with a flick of his tail, he’s off –
bucking and snorting as he goes.
Mom’s words are unrecognizable
from the far end of the field.
But the tone is clear.
So I move toward my spotted nemesis,
expecting him to bolt at any moment.
But this time, he lets me mount.
It’s all too easy,
a voice inside warns.
But Mom’s is louder.
Barely settled in the saddle,
Chief lifts his head and pins his fuzzy ears
flat against his thick skull.
Grabbing the reins and the horn,
I know what’s coming.
Somehow still in the saddle at the canter,
annoys my little, four-hoofed devil,
who swerves from his path toward a cluster of pines.
Two, in particular.
Which stand a pony’s width apart.
I close my eyes and hold on tight.
Like yarn through an embroidery needle,
Chief threads us between the pines.
Scraped from their stirrups,
my little legs bounce off of the pony’s big rear-end
as we leave the trees for pasture
and gallop toward Mom;
who’s still lobbing impractical words over the fence.
I feel my grasp on the saddle-horn weaken,
as my resolve that I’ll soon be tasting earth,
And I let go.
Mom thinks a pal might keep Chief calmer.
So early one spring, in comes Billy Gold:
a blue ribbon, well-trained, Palomino,
which we trailered behind the wagon
from his Missouri home.
Chief dislikes the new arrival immediately.
I think he’s dreamy
with his white/blonde mane and ginger coat,
still winter thick and warm to the touch.
Feeding him a carrot,
his hot breath and fuzzy lips
tickle the palm of my cold, red hand.
Mark and Mia remain on the fence.
Still unsure of whether Billy Gold –
like Chief –
In my thickly lined hood,
tied tight against the cold, lake winds,
I don’t understand their warnings
until far too late.
Chief’s powerful teeth clamp down.
The pain in my butt is searing.
Billy Gold bolts.
But Chief just stands there.
A nose length’s away.
As I hop around the half-frozen earth,
And rubbing the area already swelling.
My siblings’ shocked silence explodes into laughter,
followed by a closely contested race to the house
to see who’ll be the first to blather.
Meanwhile, a purple-red welt,
banded by marks of Chief’s big, front teeth,
grows and throbs with each step toward the house
where Mom greets me with an ice pack
and an ungoverned smile.
When Chief isn’t trying to shed us,
or eat us,
he’s on the lam.
Expected and regular.
The phone rings.
Then sounds the alarm.
Steering the station wagon straight toward town.
We found him in a graveyard once,
a foggy morning, one fall.
Striking terror in the old caretaker
who thought he’d seen it all.
Until galloping across the graves,
he saw a ghostly, pony-sized sight.
Bad bangs bouncing in the soupy light.
Pursued closely by a tall, beautiful, blonde
in flowing, full length, lime-green chiffon.
His hands still trembling
when we waved from the road,
as we slowly crept toward home
with our pony in tow.
But much of the time, Chief’s antics are close
and off I dash with grain and a rope;
tracking my pony’s sod-ripping route
through the blue-blood, buttoned-up neighborhood,
across disapproving neighbors’ pristine lawns.
From behind their glass houses,
shaking heads frown.
One rainy, spring day, while chasing the brat,
he stopped his bucking and turned in his tracks
to face me.
He pinned his ears, which put me on my guard.
Then that damn pony started to charge!
I was quite sure we were going to collide
When a voice –
loud and fed up –
called from inside.
I dropped the bucket of grain.
I dropped the pony’s halter.
I gathered all my courage.
My universe was itching to alter.
Setting my feet and standing my ground,
I watched him close the gap.
And just as he was an arm’s length away…
I gave him a great, big
at the tip of his long, white snout.
Suddenly, all Chief’s piss and vinegar
With a half-hearted snort,
he lowered his poorly banged head,
turning his devilish focus
on the grain bucket instead.
And with noses aligned,
we lingered toward home,
understanding more of each other
than we had ever known.
~from “Within Close Range: short stories of an American childhood”