Molly mounted the steps to the big white farmhouse as quietly as possible, placing her bucket of freshly gathered eggs just inside the door. She took care to close the screen softly and was about to make her escape when Lois spotted her.
“Oh, no you don’t, Squirt! Mom told you to help us snap beans. C’mon!” Molly shrugged and changed course to where her four sisters had set up shop in the summer kitchen.
The year was 1945 in Indiana and the walls of the shed just beyond the back door were lined with shelves filled with empty glass jars for canning and big copper boilers. A kerosene stove stood against one wall and a generator-powered washing machine occupied one end. Two long benches took up the rest of the space.
Mary and Lois faced one another on one bench, Jackie and Gladys on another, with flat pans between them for the ‘nubbins’ or tips and tails, and a large kettle to hold the broken beans tossed in by the handful. Baskets of Blue Lake and Kentucky Wonder beans stood within easy reach. Cut-off jeans, cotton shirts and loafers kicked off to one side gave the sisters an appearance of arrested flight. Slim, summer-bronzed legs stretched on either side of the long benches.
Mary handed Molly a pan and moved toward Lois to give her a place on the bench. Molly scooped up a handful of beans from the nearest basket and went to work. The beans were so fresh and crisp Molly couldn’t resist popping a tender morsel into her mouth from time to time. This always brought the same response, “Molly! Quit eating those beans! You’ll get the scoots!”
Molly had learned to hold her tongue when with her sisters. She’d found a word spoken at the wrong time could get you sent on an errand just when the conversation got interesting. Like now as they talked about their cousin Charlene from Chicago who was, in equal measure, a source of envy and much joking among her country cousins. Charlene’s red hair and protruding teeth provided fodder for their good-natured feelings of country superiority. She was coming for a visit tomorrow and bringing a friend named Pete.
“I wonder what Charlene’s boyfriend looks like?” Mary brushed back a handful of curls before reaching for more beans.
“Poor ol’ buck-toothed Charlene can’t have found much in the way of good looks, that’s for sure.” Jackie laughed and tossed her pan full of nubbings out the door. Charlene was a couple of years older than Jackie.
“I think we should plan some good fun for Pete,” offered Lois. “Maybe we could let h him ride Black Magic.”
“No, that wouldn’t work,” said Mary. “Magic gives away too much of her cussedness when she’s being saddled. Why don’t we put him on King and tell him to ride to the Trees and back?”
“Or to the slough!” interrupted Jackie. “Can’t you see him when King comes to the fence?” There was laughter and discussion about just how instructive Pete’s visit should be. Suddenly, four heads turned toward Molly. Jackie spoke for them all. “Don’t you tell, Squirt, or we’ll throw you on a manure pile!”
Molly put on her best ‘who me?’ look and promised faithfully to keep the secret. A threat from Jackie was to be taken seriously and those stacks of straw and manure under the barn windows were not a good landing place! Tomorrow looked to be some kind of day! She could hardly wait.
The next morning dawned bright and sunny and Molly up, dressed in blue jeans and cotton shirt, was down to breakfast in record time. All five sisters were unusually co-operative and charming. Mrs. Smith watched and wondered what they were up to this time.
Charlene and Pete pulled into the drive in a shiny new brown Coupe at mid-morning. Introductions were made all around and Mrs. Smith invited them inside for lemonade. Charlene wanted to talk to her cousins, so she suggested to Pete that he let Molly show him around the farm. Molly jumped up eagerly. Mary’s eye caught Molly’s just as the little girl reached the door. Molly mimed ‘zip my lip!’ and led Pete outside.
“Want to see the horses?” Molly asked as she led Pete out of the house.
“Sure. Lead on, fair sprite!”
Molly looked up sharply to see if Pete was making fun of her. Satisfied, she ran ahead of him to the lot nearest the barn. Pete winced as he watched her bare brown feet pound over the drive made of sharp black cinders, residue taken from the big coal stove in the house.
Molly peered between the fence rails. “That’s Black Magic,” she said, pointing to a small black horse with a white star. “She belongs to Lois. Dad bought her as a yearling and Lois broke her to ride. See that brand on her rump? That means she’s a mustang from out west. She’s still awful wild. She’s a spooker.”
Pete stepped back a pace. “What’s a spooker?”
“Means she’ll shy at anything. Once, when Lois was ridin’ her, Magic shied at a rabbit and took Lois right through the hedge fence. I can show you the saddle horn halfway sawed through from the barbed wire. Lois came ridin’ in with blood runnin’ down her leg and drippin’ on the ground. They had to take her to the doctor and get twenty-five stitches in it!” Molly paused to see the effect of her story. Pete looked a little pale.
She pointed to a tall handsome sorrel. “That’s Diamond Lil. She’s an English hunter. She belongs to Lois, too. You know what a pancake is?” Pete said no, and Molly continued from her seemingly limitless fund of information. “It’s an English saddle. There’s nothin’ much to ‘em but a leather pad and stirrups, but the bridles got two sets of reins.”
She stopped for breath and Pete said, “My, you are a very smart little girl, Molly. I’m learning a lot about the farm.”
“Thanks.” Molly remained quiet for a few moments. The six-year-old stole a look at Pete. Well built with dark brown hair, he stood easy in beige slacks, brown shirt and tan and wing tips. This Pete wasn’t such a bad guy after all. Oh, he didn’t’ know much about the farm, but he wasn’t the wimp she’d been expecting. And maybe he knew things about Chicago she’d like to learn. Should she tell him what her sisters had planned for this afternoon?
No, the joke was too good to spoil. Besides, he just might turn the tables on them. She pointed again. “That roan over there, that’s King. He’s Mary’s horse. She trained him from a colt, too. He’s a real cowhorse. He can even rear up on his hind legs when she wants him to and he ground-ties real good.”
Pete looked at the handsome animal. Black mane and tail, four white stockings and a white blaze that started narrow between his eyes and widened to splash over his nose, contrasted with the dark mix of black, red and white that gave him his ‘strawberry roan’ coloring. “Is he gentle?” Pete asked Molly. He remembered being told the afternoon would be devoted to riding.
“Oh, he’s the best horse we’ve got for visitors. Mary always lets her boyfriends ride him. She says she can tell a lot about a guy by the way he handles King.” She stopped, deciding she’d said as much as she dared. It was true. Any boy who came back to court Mary after a ride on King deserved the honor.
Charlene came from the house just then to claim Pete, and Molly was sent to the garden to pull green onions for lunch. The meal was a casual one with bacon and lettuce sandwiches on homemade bread, green beans with new potatoes, the onions and sweet, red tomatoes. Mr. Smith and the two boys, nineteen-year-old Charles and Molly’s twin brother Dan, came in from the hayfield smelling of fresh-cut alfalfa and tractor fumes. Conversation, interrupted only by full mouths or bursts of laughter, filled the big kitchen.
When strawberry shortcake had been eaten and digested, the Smith men returned to their work and the others divided ranks. Charlene and Gladys stayed to help with the dishes and Mary, Lois and Jackie went to bring up the horses. Molly commandeered Pete to help haul saddles from the house.
The ‘wranglers’ arrived in a flurry of halter ropes, swishing tails and the clip clop of hooves on the drive. Lois led her two horses, Magic and Lil, Jackie led her hunter, Lady, and Mary brought up the rear with an already-saddled King.
While Jackie and Lois dawdled at getting gear on their horses, Mary put on King’s bridle and suggested casually to Pete, “Why don’t you take King for a canter and get used to him before we start out?” She pointed east. “You can ride to that group of trees at the top of the hill, or you can turn off onto the mud road at the corner of the pasture and ride to the slough and back.”
“Are you sure it’s Ok?” Pete smoothed his shirt, hitched up his pants and looked toward the house for Charlene.
“Sure. It’ll take us awhile to get all these horses saddled. Just loosen the reins when you want him to go faster and pull back when you want him to slow down or stop. OK?” Mary was the picture of polite helpfulness in her black jodhpurs, white shirt and gray Stetson. She gave Pete a step up by holding her interlocked hands like a ladder rung. When he was settled atop a bored-looking King, she handed him the reins. “Happy trails!” she called, and gave King a slap on the rump to get him started down the lane.
Molly had been sitting on the porch steps, but now she slipped inside, meeting Gladys and Charlene on their way out. She took her father’s powerful binoculars off the living room desk and hurried upstairs to the east bedroom window. By the time she had the glasses uncased and adjusted to her eyes, Pete and King were almost to the corner of the pasture. “Better not take the mud road, Pete.” Molly giggled under her breath. But, as if determined to seal his own fate, Pete turned King and took the road that lay between pasture and field, leading to a line of brush a quarter mile off that marked the narrow, water-filled ditch commonly refereed to as the slough.
Molly kept the binoculars trained on the two and saw Pete experiment by pulling back on the reins. King obliged and Pete loosened his hold, urging the horse to a trot. Molly smiled as Pete bounced higher and higher in response to the bone-jarring gait. He managed to tighten his hold again and King slowed once more to a walk. When they reached the stream, Pete turned the horse and headed back to the house.
This was what Molly and her sisters were waiting to see. King was a perfect gentleman when his head was pointed away from home. However, the return trip was a totally different proposition. Now King quickened his pace. Molly could see Pete tugging on the reins as King accelerated to a trot. But the bit was clamped firmly in King’s teeth and the reins were useless to the white-faced city man. King’s stride lengthened to a gallop and he veered off into the field. Pete sawed on the reins trying to pull King’s head around to the west again. Suddenly the horse gave in to the pull and thundered toward the fence.
Pete pulled back with all his might on the leather straps as he saw where they were headed. Molly could see the exact expression on his face as King arrived at the pasture fence. Instead of jumping, King put on the brakes, planted both front feet and sent Pete flying between his ears. Molly could almost hear the muffled thud as the man landed on the thick turf.
For a few seconds, Pete lay still. King, with reins trailing, stood obediently at ‘ground tie’ and looked questioningly at his rider. Pete sat up and looked around. Then he stood and looked toward the house. Molly could see Pete’s lips forming words as he dusted his pants and climbed the woven-wire fence. Holding awkwardly to the post, he put one foot on the top wire and jumped to the other side.
“Better walk him home, Pete,” advised Molly silently from her vantage point. But a look of stubborn determination was playing over Pete’s face. He gathered up the reins, grabbed the horn and struggled back into the saddle. King, true to his training, stood gentle as a plow horse while being mounted.
Pete didn’t see the rider on a small black horse galloping down the road. He didn’t see her waving him back. He didn’t’ hear her yelling, “Lead him home!” He almost didn’t see her when King careened around the corner of the pasture and on to the blacktop. Lois missed the grab she made for King’s bridle, and Pete and King passed Lois and Magic in a blue of brown, tan and strawberry roan.
Molly ran down the stairs, through the living room and out the door as fast as she could. She arrived on the porch just in time to see King jump the shallow ditch into the yard. He pounded over the lawn to the house, and, just as Mary had taught him, reared and pirouetted in front of the waiting group. Pete, face the color of cold ashes, slid off King’s backside and landed once again on the grass.
Mary looked up just long enough to see that Pete was alive, then doubled over again, holding her stomach and laughing helplessly. Jackie and Gladys, even Charlene, were likewise occupied. Lois had joined the group and was working to calm Magic who didn’t care to be involved in such loud hilarity. Pete picked himself up declining help from a still giggling Mary.
Charlene struggled for composure and a measure of sympathy for her city friend. Jackie put an arm around Charlene’s shoulders, “Cos, you can be proud of that one. That’s the first time I ever saw a boyfriend get back on King and stay on all the way home!”
Pete looked at the Smith girls. He saw Mrs. Smith come clucking and scolding from the house, her red cheeks and wet, twinkling eyes vivid evidence that she had been watching from the kitchen window. He looked at King nibbling peacefully from a low-hanging branch of elm leaves. Molly appeared especially guilty as she leaned against a porch pillar trying unsuccessfully to hide the field glasses.
“You all did this on purpose?” he asked in amazement. “You put me on a half-wild horse and didn’t tell he would try to break my neck?”
“He’s not wild,” said Mary. “He just likes to run. Are you OK?”
Pete poked his shirttail back into his grass-stained pants and surveyed his scratched shoes. “I guess I’ll live,” he muttered, “but next time, could we just go a couple of rounds bare-fisted?” He noted the still unsaddled horses. “Well, are we going to ride or not?”
Charlene, face now composed, said soothingly, “We don’t’ have to ride this afternoon, honey. We could play dominoes or bake cookies.” She looked at her cousins,
“Would that be all right?”
“No way!” interrupted Pete. “I want to know the trick of controlling this horse. And then, we’re all going to ride to the slough and back!”
“Good enough.” Mary responded. The others threw saddles on their horses while Mary instructed Pete. “The only thing you have to remember is that King has been trained to run flat out every time he’s turned towards home. If you don’t want him to do it, you have to keep a hard rein and his head up as soon as you turn him. Otherwise, he’ll get the bit in his teeth. If he does that, the only way to stop him is to pull his head around as far as it’ll go and make him run in circles. He gets tired of that pretty quick. You still want to ride him, or would you prefer one of the others?”
“I’ll ride King if that’s OK with you,” Pete said. He flexed his fingers. King looked sleepy. “Does he have any other little quirks you forgot to mention?”
“No, except he doesn’t like to jump fences. But then, you know that already.” Mary couldn’t quite suppress another giggle.
All the horses were ready now. Pete mounted King for the third time. Lois was on Magic and Charlene had been given Lady. Gladys rode behind Jackie on Lil, and Mary decided to stay behind and keep Molly company until the second round.
“I could ride behind Charlene,” Molly said hopefully. “Can’t I go this time?”
Mary ruffled Molly’s bangs and scolded her gently, “You had better get those glasses back in their case and on Dad’s desk before he finds out you were using them. He’ll warm your backside for sure! Besides, you can ride with me on King when we go out again.”
Molly knew better than to press the issue and contented herself with watching the party ride down the lane. Before she stepped back inside, she turned for another look. “You know, Sis, for a city slicker, Pete sure is tough. He might just last!”