We brought 25 head to the sale that day. Pa was leaning on the fence in the shade, visiting with folks who stopped to look, while I rode round in the lot showing off one horse after another. I’d been at it all day and was hot, dusty and needing a drink of water. But I knew better than to complain.
When he pointed across the corral and hollered “Bring that bay mare over here where we can see how pretty she is.” I threw a rope around the mare’s neck, and led her over to stand in front of Pa and J.D. Branch. Pa was still talking up the bay’s fine qualities when the Stevens family went by in their wagon.
They waved and I waved back until the dust swallowed up the wagon and I couldn’t see the blue of Molly’s bonnet anymore. My disappointment was keen, because I had dreamed all week how I was going to show off my riding skills to Molly Stevens, then buy her a glass of lemonade, walk her around and visit a little. Maybe even get a chance to kiss her like I did last sale day. Now here she was going home and I never even got to say hello.
“Billy! Quit moonin’ and pay attention! Mr. Branch wants to see the rest of the herd.”
I tried to put Molly out of my mind and went back to work. I pushed all the good mounts back in the barn and opened the gate to the back lot where the green horses were penned. They came charging out, kicking up dust, and gathered up in a constantly shifting mass of horseflesh as far away from the men as they could get.
Pa knew better than to ask me to rope one of that wild-eyed bunch while a customer was watching. I dismounted and walked in among them slow and easy, talkin’ quiet, reaching out to pat a neck or a rump here and there. Horses tended to stand still for me and Pa knew that made even the wildest bunch look gentler. J.D. Branch didn’t just fall off the turnip wagon, though, and he wasn’t so easy satisfied. He climbed over the rails and tried to walk up on a big old yeller stud horse. J.D. knew not to make any sudden moves, but before he got close that stallion was throwing his head back, showing the whites of his eyes. When J.D. reached out a hand, the horse wheeled and took off running.
Of course, all the rest of the bunch went with him. J.D. just stood there in the dust they kicked up, watching the horses mill around and crowd up at the other end of the corral, trying to climb over each other to find a way out. I was wondering which one was going to give out first, the fence or Pa’s temper.
J.D. took off his hat, ran his hand back through his dark brown hair and turned to look Pa square in the face. “I need horses I can handle. These are too green. Like I told you before, I have to get ‘em ready to ride by fall.”
Pa wasn’t flustered. Working a balky buyer was as natural to him as horse taming was to me. “These horses ain’t all that green. Why, Billy can handle any of ‘em. If we was to keep ‘em, he could have ‘em all lady broke in a month or two.”
Well, I knew my part in Pa’s horse trading. I slipped over to the horses, hushing, soothing, touching, calming as I went. When I got to that big palomino, I made sure he saw me and knew who I was. He was the biggest, flashiest horse in the bunch, and although the customers weren’t to know it, I had spent the last two weeks getting him ready to show off. I didn’t try to touch his head, just lay my right hand on his back, grabbed a handful of mane with my left, and flung myself up on top of him. He danced around some, but I hung on, and pretty soon I had him trotting around the lot like it was his own idea. Pa was beaming when I slid off and walked back to the men. He thought the sale was made.
But J.D. still wasn’t convinced. His blue eyes were smiling, but his voice was firm. “I have no doubt your boy could have them all lady broke in no time. But I won’t have him to do it for me when I get back to Missouri.”
Pa was always quick to pick up on what it would take to make the deal. “Well,” he said, “You could, though, sure you could.”
I didn’t pay much attention when he first said it. I figured it was just Pa’s way of keeping the fish on the line while he worked out the best way to reel it in. J.D. turned away from the horses to really look at me. “What is he? Thirteen? Fourteen? Awful young to be taking that far away from his Mama.”
Pa’s mouth tightened to a straight line, the way it did when he was reminded of Ma and the fever that took her last year. But he changed it into a grin before anybody but me would’ve noticed. “Fourteen. Coming on fifteen. Age don’t matter anyhow. He’s been working horses since he could walk under their bellies without duckin’ his head. If he don’t have the whole bunch broke before your army buyer comes this fall, I’ll buy ‘em back from you myself. Guaranteed.”
Quick as that, the deal was made. If Pa had more than horse-trading on his mind he kept it to himself.
Within an hour we headed out, pushing the wild bunch sixty miles up the road to J.D.’s place. He lived at the end of a narrow rocky trail that wound through the woods and opened up to a little green valley. The log house had flowers blooming all around and a clear running creek not far from the back door. J.D.’s wife, Belle, had two little ones hiding behind her skirts and another one swelling her up in front, but she made me welcome, and cooked up fine meals three times every day. They offered to let me bunk in with the kids, but I fixed up a spot in the hayloft and slept there on fresh-cut hay covered by an old horse blanket. It was kind of cozy and nice listening to the soft breathing and shuffling of the horses down below.
J.D. was a fair man but he was depending on the money from those horses to get his family through the winter. He expected a full day’s work out of me and I gave all the strength and skill I had to the job of making Pa’s wild bunch the best riding horses the U.S. Army ever bought. It was hard, but J.D. worked right along beside me. After supper at night, when he was settling in for the evening with his family, I went back to the hayloft and dreamed about Molly Stevens. I pictured her rubbing my aching shoulders, the way Belle rubbed J.D.’s and I relived our one sweet kiss a thousand times.
Hard work and Belle’s good meals put pounds of muscle on me and I was busting out of my clothes by fall. When J.D. got top dollar for the horses he paid me a little, even though that wasn’t part of the deal. I bought a new set of clothes and when I looked at myself in the store mirror a man looked back at me. The scrawny kid was gone. I went back to the counter and picked out a little gold locket.
I left the store in my new duds and rode straight to the Stevens farm, working out my speech for Molly’s Pa in my head all the way. But when I got to their place, a stranger opened the door.
“They don’t live here no more. They got gold fever. The whole family packed up and went to Californy – all except that girl Molly, she got married…” He kept talking, but I didn’t hear. I walked away and got back on my horse.
It was dark by the time I got to Pa’s house. Lamplight shining though the window showed me a scene that turned my favorite dream into a nightmare. It haunts me still. Pa was leaned back in his chair, a contented smile on his face.
Molly, my Molly, stood close behind him, rubbing his shoulders.