“The Wrong Horse,” Friend, Sept. 1992, 36
Susan awoke to the smell of sausage frying. Saturday! That’s the only day Mom cooked sausage. She sat on the edge of her bed and stretched. A familiar rattle outside drew her to the window. Uncle Gordon’s brown pickup truck drove into the driveway in a cloud of dust.
Susan quickly straightened the bed covers and tucked them in. She slipped into her blue jeans and lavender gingham cowboy shirt. Then she grabbed her cowboy boots and pulled them on as she ran down the hall.
“Good morning, Kate,” she heard Uncle Gordon greet her mother. “Is Susan up yet this morning?”
“Here I am, Uncle Gordon,” she called. “Did you get the new horses?”
“Well, now, I like that,” he teased. “I haven’t seen you since school started, and all you can think of is horses.”
“I’m glad to see you too.” Susan grinned. “How are you? Did you get the horses?”
“That’s better,” he laughed. “Yes, I did. I picked up two yesterday.”
“What do they look like?” she asked.
“They’re both mares and as black as the root cellar at midnight,” he told her. “I’m having a hard time figuring out what to call them. In fact, that’s why I’m here. I was hoping your mother would let you spend the day at the ranch with me. Then you could have the job of naming them.”
“May I please? I’ll do my chores before I go,” she promised.
“It’s fine with me if your father doesn’t need you today,” Mom agreed.
The kitchen door opened wide, and Dad entered with pail of fresh milk. “Good morning, Gordon,” he said. “I’d shake your hand, but Kate doesn’t allow us to have milk shakes before breakfast.”
Susan grinned. She liked her father’s sense of humor. “May I go home with Uncle Gordon?” she asked. “He has two new horses, and he needs me to name them. May I, please?”
“Hold on just a minute, young lady,” her father said. “You can’t go anywhere without breakfast. How about joining us, Gordon?”
“I was hoping you’d ask,” he admitted. “No one makes biscuits like my sister-in-law.”
“Susan, will you get the pitcher of orange juice while I finish setting the table?” her mother asked. “Then we can eat.”
“The men will go wash up,” Father said.
“Don’t forget the raspberry jam,” Gordon whispered to Susan as he headed to the bathroom.
After breakfast, as Susan and Uncle Gordon drove from Pleasant Heights to Middleton, Susan studied her uncle. He looked a lot like her father, only much younger. He’d only been home from his mission a few years. He was medium in build and had strong arms like her father’s from throwing bales of hay. Both had brown arms and faces from a summer in the sun. The strong jaw and high cheekbones were the same too. But Dad’s hair was dark brown touched with gray. Uncle Gordon’s was blond.
“Why don’t you get married, Uncle Gordon?” Susan asked.
“Because I haven’t met someone just like you yet,” he laughed.
Susan blushed at his joke. Deep down she didn’t want Uncle Gordon to get married right away. He would have less time for her if he did. But she knew that someday she would have to share him.
Grandpa had been ill when Uncle Gordon returned from his mission to Brazil. Uncle Gordon had taken over the ranch and cared for Grandpa until he died last summer. At first, it was hard for Susan to go to the ranch after Grandpa died. She loved the horses, but everywhere she went, she expected to see him. Uncle Gordon understood how she felt. He knew when to make her laugh and when to let her think about the emptiness she felt without Grandpa.
When they arrived at the ranch, Uncle Gordon pointed to the pasture by the barn. “There they are,” he told her. “You go over and get acquainted.”
“Are they broke?” she asked.
“One of them is, and one isn’t,” he said, “so be careful. I have a truckful of grain to unload. I’ll be back in a little while to see how you’re getting along.”
Susan leaned against the top rail of the fence and watched the two horses grazing side by side. They look just alike from here, she thought. Still, being around horses all her life taught her that no two horses were ever exactly alike. I’ll find the difference, she told herself.
She climbed the fence and walked slowly around the edge of the pasture until she could see their faces. The closest horse whinnied and tossed her head. Susan saw a brief flash of white. There must be a small blaze under her forelock, she thought. The mare tossed her head again. There was the blaze! It’s like the moon hiding on a cloudy night.
The second mare cocked her head to one side and studied Susan. Then she sauntered over to her and nuzzled at her jean pocket.
“What are you looking for?” Susan asked. “Do you have a sweet tooth?”
She reached into her pocket and pulled out a sugar cube. The horse carefully put its lips around the cube on the palm of Susan’s hand, then nudged again at her pocket.
“You’ve had enough.” Susan pushed her nose away. “The other one is for your friend.”
The second mare continued to nuzzle at her, letting Susan scratch her behind the ears. “You’re pretty friendly, aren’t you, girl,” she said, stroking the horse’s slender nose. She’d keep her distance more if she was wild, Susan reasoned. Well, there’s one way to find out if she’s broke or not.
Uncle Gordon’s rule was if she could catch, saddle, and bridle it, she could ride it, so Susan headed for the tack room of the barn. She shut her eyes tightly for a moment when she entered the barn, to help her eyes adjust to the dim light. The saddles rested on sawhorses against the wall of the tack room; the bridles hung on the wall above them. She chose her favorite saddle from the farthest sawhorses, and the bridle closest to the door.
Talking softly, she approached the mare. The horse stood steady as Susan slipped the bit into her mouth and the leather strap over her ears. After putting on the saddle blanket, Susan paused for a moment. The mare acted indifferent to the blanket, so Susan slung the saddle onto her back too. She pulled the cinch tight, lifted her left foot into the stirrup, swung her right leg over the mare’s back, then took the reins and clucked her tongue. “Come on, girl,” she coaxed. “Let’s take a little walk.”
At first they swayed gently back and forth together. Then the mare went crazy. She ran full speed toward the fence. Just when Susan was sure that they would hit it, the mare turned with a jerk that nearly snapped her rider out of the saddle. Susan grabbed the saddle horn tightly with one hand and pulled back on the reins with the other. “Whoa, girl!”
But the mare just continued her wild dance. She stiffened her legs and bounced across the pasture. Each jolt forced the air out of Susan’s lungs. The horse spun around several times, then ran full speed toward the open barn door! Susan knew that the top of the door was only about a foot taller than the mare’s back, but she didn’t dare roll to the ground—the horse might suddenly turn back and trample her. Heavenly Father, help! she prayed silently.
“Lie down!” the thought pushed through her fear.
She lay back until her head rested on the horse’s rump just as the mare lunged over the threshold of the barn. The top of the door frame missed Susan’s nose by inches.
Once inside the barn, the horse stopped as though she had come in from a leisurely trail outing. She pulled a mouthful of hay from the manger and was chewing innocently when Uncle Gordon came running into the barn. “Are you all right, Susan?”
Susan was still lying on the horse’s rump, catching her breath. Her heart pounded against her ribs. “Yeah, I’m OK,” she replied sheepishly between breaths. “I guess I got the wrong horse.”
“You got the right one if you’re training for the rodeo,” he laughed. “I couldn’t have paid for a better show than the two of you put on.”
Susan sat up, swung her right leg over the mare’s back, and slid to the ground. Uncle Gordon put his arm around her and walked her to the house. They sat on the porch steps and listened to a meadowlark calling. Susan sat on the top step, and Uncle Gordon sat two below her. It made them eye level.
“Did you come up with some names for me?” Uncle Gordon asked at length.
She nodded. “I’d call the one in the pasture Moonlight for the small blaze hidden under her forelock. And you can call the one in the barn Nightmare!”
“What great names,” he laughed. “Do you think you’ll take up breaking horses?”
“It was exciting,” she assured him. “But I think I’ll leave that to you. I did learn one thing, though—next time I’m going to ask Heavenly Father if I made the right choice before I get on a horse.”