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.
A 9th birthday present from Dad – whose childhood pets were porcelain cats and poodles – and mostly Mom, a Missouri farm girl with her grandfather’s gruff, Scottish sensibilities, and steely confidence the challenges will make me a good rider.
I’m confident they’ll kill me.
From the other side of the pasture fence, Mom 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 from which he loathes to be distracted.
In between greedy mouthfuls, Chief raises his wild, blue eyes, beneath poorly cut bangs – which I like to cut.
No wonder he’s ornery.
He’s quietly watching my crippled approach and just as I’m within a few feet, with a flick of his tail, he’s off, across the long, wide pasture. Adding even more insult to my physical and emotional injuries with each unruly buck and bolt.
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 again as soon as I get too close.
His long nose buried in the succulent grass, Chief stands his ground, this time, and lets me mount. A voice inside my possibly fractured skull warns me, but Mom’s is louder.
Barely settled in the saddle, I see something I hoped I wouldn’t. Chief lifts his head and pins his fuzzy, white ears flat against his thick skull. I know what’s coming and grab the reins and the saddle horn just before we take off in an uncontrolled and uncontrollable canter.
Somehow I remain in my mount, which annoys my little, four-hoofed devil, who swerves off his trajectory of terror, straight for a cluster of pines.
Two in particular.
Which stand a pony’s width apart.
I close my eyes, hold on tight and hope for the best,,, as Chief. – like yarn through an embroidery needle – threads us between the two pines at top speed.
Scraped from their stirrups, my legs are now bouncing off of Chief’s round rear-end as we pass through the pines into the open pasture toward Mom, who’s still lobbing impractical words over the fence.
I feel my grasp on the saddle-horn weaken.
And a resolve that I’ll soon be tasting earth, grow.
And I let go.
Mom thinks a pal might keep Chief calmer. So early one spring, when the corral is beginning to reveal a winter’s worth of muck, comes Billy Gold: a blue ribbon, well-trained Palomino, which we trailered back behind the station wagon from St. Joseph, Missouri.
Chief dislikes the new arrival immediately.
I think he’s dreamy, with his white/blonde mane and ginger coat, still thick and warm.
I find great joy in feeling his hot breath and fuzzy lips tickling the palm of my cold, red hand as I feed him a carrot.
Mark and Mia are sitting on top of the pine log fence, watching – still unsure of whether we just brought home Chief’s evil ally – when I hear them both scream.
In my thickly lined hood, tied tight against the cold, lake winds, I don’t recognize any words – only warnings – and far too late.
Chief’s powerful teeth clamp down hard.
The pain in my right butt cheek is searing.
Billy Gold bolts to the other end of the half-frozen corral, but Chief just stands there – a nose length’s away… staring… as I hop up and down, rubbing the wound he’d just inflicted.
Mark and Mia’s shocked silence explodes into laughter, followed by a closely contested race to the house to see who’ll be the first to tell the uproarious tale. Meanwhile, a purple-red welt the size of a small apple, banded by red marks defining each of Chief’s big, front teeth, grows and throbs with each step toward the kitchen door.
Where Mom, greets me with an ice pack and empathy.
When Chief isn’t trying to shed or eat one of us,
he’s astounding us with his ability to escape.
The phone rings. Mom cringes, apologizes, 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 spright –
bad bangs bouncing in the soupy light.
Followed 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 pony in tow.
But much of the time, Chief’s antics are close
and off I dash with grain and a rope;
tracking the wild-eyed Appaloosa’s sod-ripping route
through the blue-blood, buttoned-up neighborhood,
across disapproving neighbors’ pristine lawns
– while from behind windows, I see shaking heads frown.
One rainy, spring day, while watching my pony buck and bolt,
(as if in his very own, god damn, Wild West Show),
leaving hoof-sized divots pocking each meticulous yard,
Chief stops and pin his ears, which puts me on my guard.
Forward the pony charges and I’m sure we’re about to collide
When a voice – loud and fed up – calls from deep inside:
Make him know who’s boss!
I drop the bucket of grain.
I drop my pony’s halter.
I gather all my courage.
The universe is about to alter.
I set my feet and stand my ground and watch him close the gap
and just as he’s within arm’s length, I reach out and I SLAP!
I swat him at the tip of his long, white snout.
Suddenly, all Chief’s piss and vinegar’s done – run – OUT!
With a half-hearted snort, he lowers his poorly banged head,
turning his devilish focus on the grain bucket, instead.
And with noses aligned, we linger toward home,
understanding more about each other than we’d ever known.