I scooped up my glass of milk and hustled into the living room. Barbie had already claimed her spot on the carpet. We both liked to sit on the floor close to the TV screen.
Television offered a wealth of entertainment and indoctrination. After a quick sandwich during our lunch break from school, we switched on “Big Brother with Bob Emery”. A slightly balding, grey haired man, Big Brother exuded grand fatherly wisdom and values.
“And now we will toast the president of the United States of America,” he said, looking into the camera. “Does everyone have their milk ready? All right, please stand”. While the presidential theme played, we stood and drank our milk. Dwight Eisenhower’s face filled the screen.
Television also served as a babysitter. Barbie and I woke early and hurried downstairs to take in all the Saturday morning shows. Our parents slept late with the understanding that cereal and television would answer our needs. And it did. We crunched on frosted flakes while Tony the Tiger affirmed the greatness of our breakfast.
My heart gravitated to westerns. I was obsessed with the magnificent horses that carted our heroes in and out of danger. The Lone Ranger rode Silver, a white horse with pink around his nose. His black bridle sported silver studs. Roy Roger’s Palomino,Trigger, could count. And then there was Fury, a black stallion who could jump out of his corral and thunder to the rescue.
Clouds hung low. Cold air pinched our noses. We stood in the driveway undecided, trying to think of something to do for the afternoon. Snow had not yet fallen.
“We could go to the fort and see if the roof is still okay,” I said, “before it snows.”
“Let’s check on the acorns too,” Barbie said. “The squirrels might have taken them.”
We walked to the end of our block and entered the woods. The spectacular show of maple and oak leaves had fallen, collecting in a damp blanket of brown. Our steps muffled on the leafy floor.
We had spent many hours building and defending our fort. Other kids had claimed wooded territory for themselves, built forts and declared war. Like frenzied squirrels, we had collected acorns, storing these projectiles in our fort and in secret caches. This insured a continuous supply of ammunition, and was particularly handy if the fight became a running battle.
“Still here,” Barbie said, sweeping leaves away from the base of an oak tree. “Only one pile gone so far.” She covered the acorns and straightened. “I wonder if there are still acorns in the fort?”
The structure of woven branches snugged against a rock. A roof of intertwined grass, leaves, moss and sticks kept most of the fort dry, but required constant maintenance. Today was no exception. A good portion of the roof had caved in. The wall closest to the rock gaped wide, and cold air funneled through.
We checked the acorns and a few trinkets hidden under dried leaves, finding them in good condition. “Let’s wait until spring to fix the roof.” I said.
“Good, because I want to go home. It’s cold.” Barbie hugged herself and stamped her feet, to bring warmth back to her toes.
Jack’s face pushed through the entrance, blocking our way. His lip curled revealing vicious canines. More dogs crowded behind him, hackles raised and eager. Jack and the pack rarely ran free. When they did, it was best to avoid the woods.
A man living nearby had a kennel where he raised and sold guard dogs. A core group of dogs he kept for himself. I’m not sure of the breed, just that they were big and mean. And sometimes, they broke out.
“Follow me.” I widened the hole against the rock with a kick, and we bolted. The dogs pursued. They could have caught us if they had wanted. Instead, loving the chase, they trailed at our heels barking and snapping. We ran flat out, terrified.
Our way home was cut off. The dogs herded us deeper into the woods and closer to the Big Rock, a towering granite boulder rising from the forest floor. The south face was sheer, but the other side offered an easy climb. Without slowing we roared up the rock.
Perched like treed raccoons, we watched while the dogs circled. Several dogs scrabbled part way up the rock sliding back down on their bellies. After a long wait, they tired of the game and left. Our teeth knocked a staccato in the cold. Tiny flakes appeared against the gray.
Instead of doubling back and possibly running into the monster dogs, we decided to take the long way around, skirting the woods all together. Our trek led us farther than we had ever been before.
“Hey look, there’s a farm.” I pointed. “See the barn? l’ll bet there’s animals in there.” No dog raced out to chase us away. No car sat in the driveway. “We can warm up in the barn.” I climbed the fence and walked across the yard. Barbie hesitated for a moment and then followed.We found an unlocked door at the rear of the building and entered. The barn was only marginally warmer, but all thoughts of cold vanished with the first whiff. My heart hammered with excitement. “Horses.”
Two boxed stalls housed a bay and a pinto. We gave the pinto’s hind feet a wide berth, just like we’d seen ranch hands do on TV. With gentle voices we eased our way forward. The horse turned his head regarding us as we approached.
“Easy boy,” I murmured, stretching out a tentative hand. He sniffed at the empty offering and turned away. “I wish we had some sugar cubes or an apple.” Scootching under the horse’s neck, I reached up and gave him a hug, my face against his soft coat. This was heaven. This was love. With a deep intake of breath, I reveled in the horsey smell. “We should brush these horses.”
“I don’t know. What if the people come home?”
“We can hide. Besides, they’ll be happy at how nice their horses look.” I reached for some brushes on a nearby shelf and handed one to Barbie. “Like this,” I said, drawing a brush across the pinto’s flank. “Let’s pretend that we’re ranch hands.” We brushed for a while and then stepped back to view our work.
“They look pretty,” Barbie said.
“They would look even better if we gave them a bath,” I said, eyeing a coiled hose.
Elevated on the stall fence, Barbie and I were level with the horse’s backs. We sprayed the paint with water, and then sprayed the bay. “I wonder where they keep the towels?”
We left the wet horses in the cold barn. Our clothes, damp from the water, stiffened on the long walk home. Dark settled in. Snow swirled.
“Uh oh, I think we’re going to get into trouble,” Barbie said.
“I didn’t know it was this late, but don’t worry, I’ll think of something.”
I decided to tell our parents that we were having so much fun in the snow that we had lost track of time. Dinner smelled great when we pushed through the back door.
“You’ve been at the horse farm!” Dad accused right off.
My jaw dropped. How does he know? It took me a moment to organize my response.
“No we weren’t.”
“Get upstairs now. – And you can forget about dinner.”
Too late to scrap my excuse, I stubbornly stuck to the outline, gauging its success by the set of Dad’s mouth. “You see, there were these mean dogs, and then we had to take the long way around. There were some horses in a field and we only petted them for a minute when we passed by.”
Dad extracted the real story with kid-tricking questions. It turned out that these were expensive show horses. If anything happened to them, he would be responsible. I argued that the people didn’t see us. It made no difference. There’s no need to describe the ass thrashing. Laying on my bed, with the last of my tears drying up, I ran a hand under my snotty nose. The sweet smell of horse brought the gift of insight.
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