runaway horse

by Helen H. Trutton
Art by Paul Ollswang

It was deep winter in central Idaho, and my 16th birthday. Snow hid fences, and trees painted like ghosts stood mutely outside it was also the night of a dance at the one-room schoolhouse-a big event in those days, in our part of the world. And best of all, Brace was on the telephone, asking me for a date to the dance! I had circulated the news of my birthday about the countryside. Wow!" I thought. "It's great being grownup! "

"I've a date." I sang, leaving the receiver dangling as I hurried to my big sister, with whom I lived, as she sat darning socks. "You said I could date when I reached 16. Can I?"

"With whom?" she asked, not bothering to look up or miss a stitch.

"Bruce! Can I go and ride old Roan?"

"The dance? You'd be home late. You'd have to unsaddle your horse and put him in the barn."

That bit of realism startled me for a moment. I wasn't that handy with horses, but I soon recovered and said confidently, "Bruce will take care of everything. "

She studied me for a while then nodded her head. "He's a nice boy. I guess so."

I floated back to the phone and said, as casually as I could, "Thanks, Bruce; I'd love to go with you to the dance."

The afternoon was delightful and busy. I fried a chicken for our midnight supper, baked a cake and deviled a few eggs. All the while I plotted every moment of the evening. I had attended dances before. with my sister and her husband -- but alone with a date? Tonight would be different! As usual, one neighbor would play the piano. another the fiddle. and a third would pick the banjo. That afternoon I spent taking a leisurely bath in the old washtub in the center of the kitchen, beside a crackling cookstove fire. I combed and re-combed my long curls, and dabbed a generous splash of makeup on my face-which my sister immediately removed.

At 8:30 my date came. In a few minutes we were off, riding into the frozen night, silent except for the clomp clomp of our horses' hooves, and the far-off jingle of bells worn by horses pulling sleighs toward the schoolhouse. The night was exquisitely gorgeous; the sky resembled a jeweled ceiling. I tried to match the elegance of the evening with worldly conversation, but my remarks came out something like this: "I think I heard a coyote howl. It's cold." Bruce talked about lambing time, fences needing mending, and other country subjects. Sometimes we rode in silence.

Finally we arrived at the dance. While Bruce placed blankets over our steeds, I scrambled to the side of the schoolhouse and removed my outer Eskimo garb. Over my red velveteen dance dress I had worn bib overalls, leggings, overshoes, a cap and a heavy mackinaw. I could have frightened any beau away-except Bruce, who didn't look much better!

We stepped inside the building to a warm, inviting room and a crowd of early neighbors. The musicians were playing "Moonlight and Roses," excitement was high, the evening of fun had begun. We danced quadrilles, waltzes, two-steps and one-steps, and occasionally we just stood around the large pot-belly stove and watched.

At midnight Bruce and I sat in a secluded corner, munching fried chicken, homemade bread with real butter and chocolate cake. The evening was perfect. Bruce seldom missed a dance with me. But all too soon, we heard the familiar strains of "Home Sweet Home;" and then once again we were astride our horses, bound for home.

bucking horse

But just as we left the schoolyard Roan made one quick lunge, and was off like a feather in a hurricane! Friends on horseback or in their sleighs pulled hastily to one side to let me pass. Others called out as I flew by. "Pull on the reins!"

I wondered what they thought I was doing! I was all over the saddle, holding desperately to the horn, and begging Roan to please slow down. He must have thought I meant "full speed ahead ! " we sped up hills to find ourselves coming down the other side seemingly at the same time. I was bounced, jostled, swung from side to side, lifted out of the saddle then slammed back in again. My cap was gone, my curls whirled wildly about my head like swinging ropes. Still I clung to that horn, prayed, and cried to the accompaniment of Roan's heavy puffing and blowing. Vapor poured from his nostrils like dragon smoke I remembered in story books. I was terrified !

At last, after forever it seemed, we arrived at our big wooden gate. Roan stopped abruptly; I didn't. I glided over his huge head and landed on the opposite side of the-gate, in a billowy snowbank. After I realized I was still alive, I stared up at the big brute and shouted, "That was only a half-date! If I turn out to be an old maid. it will be your fault!"

Begrudingly I led him to the barn- more accurately, I was whisked along clinging to the reins, and scolding him every step of the way. "You know, Roan Bruce will never call again," I cried.

And he didn't.

Only recently I met Bruce again, and we laughed about that night. "I followed you for a while," he said. "I inquired as I passed neighbors on the road if they had seen you, and most of them said, 'I saw a horse speed by, I think Helen was on his back someplace.' "

Then he asked, "I've wondered all these years, why did Roan take off like that? Did you, perhaps, kick Roan in the flanks?"

I paused, remembering my wounded pride when he never called again. Finally I smiled and said, "Don't you wish you knew?"

We both laughed. It didn't matter much, after 50 years.

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