The First Reader and I were talking about ponies. I don’t recall how it came up, but we were sitting on the porch sipping coffee and blathering about nothing and everything, as you do. Now, I grew up with horses. Mom loved the big brutes, and I think I was six when she got the mustang mare, Salsa, who was to be a part of our life until Dad left the Air Force and we made the Big Move. I don’t remember them all, but we had a series of mustangs, a cow pony named Moke who adored my sisters and I, and our friend’s horses were part of the mix too. I’ve had formal riding lessons, when I was a wee bean. Mostly, though, I’ve ridden informally. Bareback, blanketed, Western saddles. Dad’s saddle with the silver horn, tooled in Mexico in the 1880’s, was a work of art and it breaks my heart it was sold. I understand, looking back over the years, that sometimes you sacrifice to follow your dreams. I also wish I could find that thing and buy it back, along with his octagonal-barreled rifle. But I digress. Or, as they called it when I was young, followed the rabbit off the trail.
I had a mustang pony I named Snakedancer. Mom tried to get me to rename him – he was a pretty little blood bay with a white star on his forehead – to Stardancer. She thought the name of a horse said something about his character. Since he was the horse that gave me the worst kick I ever had, I think I was right on that one – but I was only seven or so. My age is a little fuzzy from this distance, although I vividly remember him, and how he didn’t like his ears messed with. We had horses, goats, chickens, rabbits, dogs, cats, a big garden… that place was heaven, in some ways. Certainly for a kid. I can remember my sister and I crawling in the big wire cage with the rabbits to pat them. I vividly remember the neighbor’s rodeo animals – he had a big Brahma bull and a Australian Blue Heeler that rode the bull. He’d practice and train them in a corral and I’d be hanging on the fence watching that bull trot ’round and ’round with the dog racing around it, under it, up on top of it. ‘Twas amazing to a small person. And it wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned Brahmas have a certain reputation and it’s not a big pussycat like I thought that one was. He let me pet his nose.
We never kept a cow. I was tempted, once. Dad and I were keeping house, after my divorce, and his. I managed the farm and worked. He had a day job and a long commute. There were four kids underfoot. He came home from work one day and told me he’d found out there was a pregnant Jersey heifer that could be had for free – the people were moving and couldn’t take it. I looked at him, visions of milk and cheese and cream dancing in my head. ‘Dad, we don’t have a barn. Or hay. Or a good fence…’
We didn’t get the cow. Now, I’m glad. It would have been too much for me, and I was the milker in the house. Pretty sure Dad can milk, but I don’t remember him ever doing it. I’ve been milking goats since I could handle a teat. I don’t miss that, either… Ponies are a lot of work, but not as much as goats.
The reason I’m rambling on and on about my horsey memories, and could keep going but I need to stop and head to work, isn’t just nostalgia. I was sitting at the computer trying to get myself back into one of my WIPs after finishing the last project (a short for an anthology). Nothing was coming. So I opened a file and started to freewrite. What came out surprised me. I didn’t think I had a children’s story in me, I really didn’t. I was wrong. Now? I need to study horse anatomy. Because I can’t illustrate this without learning how to draw a horse.
Nettles and Molly
Nettles was a pony. He wasn’t a Shetland or any kind of fancy breed with a name. No, he was just short. Fortunately, the little girl who owned him now was also short. Nettles had not always been her pony. He had come into her life in a most magical and unexpected way.
She hadn’t been with her parents when they did the final walk through and signing on the house they were buying. That was a grown-up ritual, and besides, it was more fun to be at Grandma’s house making cookies. She had been the one to find Nettles, though.
“Mama! Daddy!” She had bounced away from the small shed tucked behind the big barn, headed for the main house. “There’s a pony!”
Shortly afterward, Nettles had met the whole family. The tall, lean man with the clean face. The plump motherly woman who was of course the mother. The older man with a fluffy gray beard, and the little girl carrying her even littler brother.
“See?” The girl squealed, bouncing a little even with her burden. “I told you!”
“You know,” The tall man leaned on the stall door. “Honey, you were worried about the condition of the house? Did anyone think to check the barns?”
“Don’t look a gift horse…” The older man came up with a handful of fresh green grass and Nettles expressed his appreciation at that gift. He tolerated in return the fingers in his mouth.
“Oh, no. I am calling the realtor right now,” said the woman.
“He’s an old’un.” The old man was scritching him now, and knew the right spots. Nettles half-closed his eyes in sheer pleasure. That felt wonderful.
“Molly,” The tall man addressed the little girl. “Give Timmy to your mother, and fill that pony’s water bucket.”
Nettles drank it all up.
“Wait to give him more,” The old man cautioned. “You’ll give him a bellyache.”
The mother had gone away by then.
“There’s some hay up in the big barn.” The tall man walked back into sight with a few flakes. He put this into the feeder and Nettles gave a soft whinny of thanks before starting in on it. “He should be let out for fresh feed, but that fence…”
“I wonder how long the poor feller’s been in there.”
They both ignored the little girl, who was hanging over the stall door petting as much of Nettles as she could reach.
“Look at those hooves…” The tall man’s voice got very soft. “Dad, can I talk to you…” He jerked his head, and the older man looked between the girl and his son. His eyes got bright.
“Ayup.” They moved away together, with glances back to make sure the girl was staying with Nettles.
She did. Nettles put his nose up to her cheek and whuffed at her, making her giggle. He liked having a girl.
The men came back moving with determination. Nettles was worried they would make the girl go away again, but instead they were using words like farrier, and veterinarian , and he decided since they weren’t feeding him, or scratching the itchy spots, he could ignore them. The girl brought him more water, and this time he didn’t need to drink it all.
“Molly!” The mother’s voice floated through the air. “Molly, dinnertime!”
“Better go, kid.” Her father suggested. “And change before you eat, you’re all horsehair.”
“Will I be able to see him again?”
The men exchanged a look over her head. “Of course, Moll-girl.” The grandfather tousled her blond hair. “Before bed, even. I promise.”
“Ok!” And with that she had scampered off through the weeds that had hidden Nettles’ shed.
The men looked around the overgrown pasture for a minute. “I’ll make some calls.” The tall man put his hands on his hips. “I’d planned on getting this place into shape, this changes some priorities, is all.”
The grandfather gave Nettles one last scratch. “I can help some. You don’t think the sellers…?”
“Looking at the condition of that poor old boy, I don’t think anyone cared. But Molly is in love.”
Grandpa laughed. “Girl has had you wrapped around that little finger since she came into this world.”
“Is there another way?” The father laughed, and both of them went off to their dinner.
Nettles with his full belly and less itches, closed his eyes to nap and dream of gentle hands giving carrots.
(featured image was taken in Oregon in 2010, a mule I met on the side of the road)