When I was ten, a man named Stinky Jones sold my father two horses, Rondo and Ranger. They were of no determinate breed; they were pack horses, sturdy and graceless, but they were the granting of a wish I’d had since my father read me Black Beauty. I loved everything about them,; their warm, grassy smell, the smooth lap of their tongues when I put sugar on my outstretched palm, their beautiful kind eyes. I loved the tack that came with them, bridles, horse collars, an old McClellan saddle that dated back to the days when some of our army was still truly cavalry.
A neighbor gave me an old saddle he had lying around, a child-sized saddle, and I polished it with saddle soap and learned how to cinch it tight—horses had the cool joke of inflating their bellies with air when they were being saddled, then releasing it later so the whole thing would slip sideways. I always tapped Ranger’s belly with my bony little knee as a matter of form; he never seemed to notice. He had another joke in store for me, which was to head for the nearest tree branch that hung low enough to scrape me off his back.
He probably had never been ridden as much as I demanded of him. He was a horse that was used during moose hunting season to carry gear into the back country. He’d been forced to walk a trail without deviation and now he had a lighter load on his back than he’d probably ever had before, with no trail to follow. When the tree-scraping trick no longer worked, he began to crow-hop when I got on his back. This delighted me no end—“Look, he’s bucking!” Finally we settled in together and I at least was in heaven.
The horses? Not so much. They had an uncanny way of knowing when they would be needed and on that morning they would disappear. It was my job to go out with a halter, a rope, and a can of oats, on a sort of Easter egg hunt, searching for the horses. They were good at hiding but one of them would make that odd little burbling sound with his lips or a flicker of Rondo’s blonde hide would shimmer from a patch of trees. One of them would always succumb to the sound of swishing oats and he would be the one who’d wear the halter. The other, with a distinct air of reluctant disgust, would follow behind. They were a matched set, those boys.
They hated being useful. Quickly they became part of the animal tribe, with the dogs and the Siamese cat couple and their batches of kittens. They received the same affection and attention and it didn’t take long for them to notice that they were the only animals who actually worked once in a while. They resented that as much as they did that they couldn’t come in the house and in the summer it was a common sight to see one of them with his head and shoulders inside the kitchen door, watching my mother work.
Rondo was there when she put a pumpkin pie on the counter to cool and he discovered that if he craned his neck far enough, he could reach it. And he did, with immense enjoyment. My mother turned to find my little brother paralytic with laughter and most of the pie gone. She swatted Rondo away with a broom and he looked at her benignly as he retreated. He knew she really wasn’t angry; none of us were ever angry with the horses.
They were the kindest animals who ever lived with us, even if their senses of humor occasionally left something to be desired. Their hiding was a game; they never went very far from home and they always let me find them. It wasn’t their fault that they concealed themselves near meadows where the grass grew higher than my head and soaked through my underwear on rainy days. As I shivered my way back to the house, horses in tow, I was often nudged by big, velvet noses. “You win this time,” their soft eyes seemed to say. The horses were very good sports.
When Ranger died, Rondo in many ways crossed over. He was less a horse and more one of the dogs, who accepted him without reservation. My little brother and sister rarely rode him, and I think he liked them best because of that. With them he was what he wanted to be, a large friendly animal who didn’t have to be useful. He’d move toward them, with the dogs and the cats, never stepping on the kittens, looking for food and attention and love.