The first thing Dad needed when we moved onto that little forty-acre farm was a team of mules or horses. As it turned out, he wound up with a more mismatched team than the mules Red and Old Blue that we had on the Doc Hunt place. He scouted around and finally bought a team of horses from over near Greenfield, about twenty miles from Bona. They made a dandy team. One horse was a chunky sorrel gelding with a white blaze face. He was well-muscled and was about the size of a quarter horse—great for riding—which we did bareback because we did not own a saddle. The other horse was a dainty black mare not more than fourteen hands high.
They were both willing and made a good team but a problem developed the first time Dad started to plow with them. It turned out that the mare had a bad shoulder. After a few hours of plowing she was limping and her shoulder was swollen. I do not know if the man who sold them knew about the shoulder, but when Dad called him he agreed to take back the mare.
To save the money for a truck, which he did not have, my father decided that I would ride the mare back to Greenfield while he went elsewhere to dicker for another horse. He borrowed a Model T from one of our uncles because we did not have a car at the time. He also borrowed a saddle for me to use for the twenty-mile trip to Greenfield.
I was tickled to death to get to ride the mare all that way by myself, and in a saddle instead of bareback. I did not know that I was going to get so saddle-sore that I would have to eat my supper standing up. I had hardly ever gotten to ride in a saddle. Most always we just rode a mule to the fields with the harness on or else went bareback. I figured it would be a great adventure to ride all that way.
Right after breakfast my mother packed me a lunch in my half gallon syrup pail school lunch bucket while Dad saddled the mare. Her swollen shoulder had pretty well gone down overnight, but she still limped a little and Dad cautioned me to just ride her at a walk or slow trot. He gave me directions how to get to the horse trader’s place and said that he would meet me there in the middle of the afternoon.
I sat grandly off down the road through Dadeville—a “cowboy” in faded blue bib overalls, clodhopper shoes (I figured you shouldn’t ride with bare feet in the stirrups of a saddle), blue hickory shirt, and a very battered and tattered straw sombrero on my tousled coppery hair over my round freckled face. The work saddle was well worn, but the leather creaked satisfactorily. In my active imagination the lame little black mare was a big stallion and I was the black-clad marshal of Tombstone galloping across the western range in a silver-ornamented saddle with a rifle scabbard and with six-guns strapped to my thighs.
Proceeding at the mare’s limping walk, we passed through Dadeville four miles south of Bona in about an hour. I very rarely got more than two miles from home so it was indeed a big adventure to be in “strange country” and see some folks along the way that I did not know.
Another hour or so later I came to the ford across the Little Sac River. As I mentioned before, a river ford is a shallow place where a river can be crossed when there is no bridge. These days there is a high bridge over the Little Sac at that point and the road is straight and paved with black top. In those days there was only a rocky dirt road that meandered down the bluff and across the river at a shallow place where rocks and gravel had been dumped to form an underwater roadbed. The shallow riffle it formed was less than knee deep so that a horse or someone on foot did not have to swim. Cars could be driven across, too, since automobiles were built much higher off the ground back then. A modern car could not have made it.
I got off the mare at the ford and watered both her and me in the cool clear water of the small river. I wasted some time piddling around with some crawdads and watching a couple of dragon flies hovering over the water, then rode on toward Tarrytown where the dirt country road would hit the paved highway between Greenfield and Springfield. At the Tarrytown junction I decided that it must be time to stop and have lunch. I did not own a watch, but the sun was high overhead by then and it was getting pretty warm. I tied the mare in the shade of an oak tree, taking off her bridle so she could graze a little, and ate my lunch of biscuits and bacon.
After more than three hours in the saddle it was a relief to rest my behind. I loafed a while and got to watching a tumble bug pushing his load across the road.
Tumble bugs are big black beetles almost the size of a man’s thumb. They live on cow manure that they store in their burrows for the winter.
The way a tumble bug gets the manure (and also the name) is that they find a fairly fresh cowpile and make a ball of it about an inch in diameter. The beetle then rolls the ball by standing on its front legs and tumbling the ball with its back legs in the direction it wants to go. I do not know hw he knows what direction he is going since his head is down and he is going backwards. I always intended to follow one sometime and see where he took the ball of cow manure, but a tumble bug moves pretty slow, what with getting the ball around rocks and stuff, so I always ran out of patience and quit watching.
The old tumble bug was pushing his ball along, leaving a little trail in the dust. I watched him hit a piece of flat sandrock and moved that out of his way. I might have stayed there longer except I heard a car in the distance and thought it might be my father. I quick bridled the mare, got back into the saddle, and headed for Greenfield which was still nearly ten miles away.
My father came by in the Model T about the time I was in sight of the Greenfield water water—sticking up out of the green trees around this courthouse square. Dad stopped the car and repeated his instructions as to how to find the farm that I was to take the mare to, then he headed on into town.
When I finally got there, I had been in that saddle for over five hours and I sure was glad to get off that horse. My behind was sore, my legs were stiff and felt bowed even though I had ridden part of the time with a leg hooked over the saddle horn.
We put the saddle in the back of the Model T touring car. As we left town, Dad said that he had found another horse over west of Bona toward Cane Hill and that we would go get it. I sure groaned inwardly because I had had enough of the saddle for a while, but I did not say anything because it was something that had to be done. Dad did say that it was only about three and a half miles from our house.
It was getting close to sunset when we got to the farm to get the new horse. That horse proved to be something else when they led him out of the barn. He was the biggest buckskin horse I ever saw—probably near eighteen hands tall. He was big-muscled, had almost a roman nose, shaggy mane, and feet about the size of dinner plates at the end of his long legs. Inevitably, his name was “Buck.”
Fortunately, Buck was a gentle old critter and we were to find that he was a joy to ride once you got up onto him. In spite of those huge feet, he was a smooth-gaited pacer. He never trotted, he paced—throwing those big feet out and plopping along the dusty road. The ride was as smooth and easy as sitting in a rocking chair. With all that size, when Buck galloped he really thundered down the road!
This time I was neither marshal of Tombstone, Hoot Gibson, or Tom Mix. I was by then a very tired and hungry little country boy with a very sore backside. It was nearly dark when I turned onto the road to Bona and, although I was perfectly accustomed to roaming familiar countryside in the dark, I was in strange territory for the first couple of miles. The dark hallows that road dipped through seemed ominous as the last of the sun faded.
I was still about half a mile short of where the road crosses Maze Creek—the boundry of home territory—when I really spooked myself. There was a very dark hollow ahead that got me to thinking about “The Legend of Sleepy Hallow” which I had recently read. The more I thought about it, the more I imagined that the headless horseman might be riding up behind me. I was looking back more than I was looking ahead and the hairs on the nape of my neck were prickling.
Just when I was at the bottom of that dark hollow, a screech owl cut loose in the brush nearby. Now, if you have never heard a screech owl in a dark night, you have missed a very chilling sound. A screech owl is very small, about the size of a man’s fist, but he can wake the dead. He does not hoot like a respectable owl, but lets out a scream that could almost be a mountain lion or a banshee. At least I think so, although I have never heard a banshee wail.
The scream of that little old screech owl did it. I panicked, kicked that old buckskin in the ribs, slapped his withers with the end of the reins, and we went thundering up the road at a wild gallop. There were a couple of people up ahead walking toward Bona in the darkness. When that big old buckskin charged past, they took to the ditch! Short as I was and hunched over the saddle horn, they probably thought I was the headless horseman!
We thundered across the wooden bridge over Maze Creek and I did not pull that horse up until we got up the hill to Bona and I turned him for home. With a few familiar lights around me, I soon settled down and my heart quit pounding, but nothing in this world ever looked better to me than the soft yellow lamplight in the kitchen window at home. The beans and macaroni that Mother had saved for me tasted wonderful—but I ate standing up at the kitchen counter.