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Livestock Crossing

How did my love affair with horses begin? It really started with a cat.

Back when I was seven, and visitng my grandfather, for several days I had been getting glimpses of a cat in his back yard. All I'd see was a flash of motion and a hint of gray as it slipped away. I wanted to pet it. What the heck. I sat in the weeds where I had last seen it and began singing. As I began the second verse of Silent Night, the kitty climbed, purring, into my lap.

A few months later - this was 1953 - our family moved to the McDonald Observatory at Mount Locke, Texas. The night skies were perfect there on the north edge of the Big Bend.

As an astronomer's kid, I didn't fit in at school. I was a tenderfoot and the ranch kids let me know it. My first chance to fit in came when a boy invited our class to a birthday party. His home nestled under cottonwoods in a valley near Ft. Davis, TX. It was the first ranch I'd seen outside of a TV show. I entertained them with the Davy Crockett song -- all verses. The kids loved it. It sorta made me an honorary Texan.

After we polished off the cake, the birthday boy told us about his dad's bronc that no one could tame.

"I know how to tame horses," I said. I had zero experience with horses, but what the heck.

"Prove it."

We went out to the corral. A sorrel gelding flinched at the sight of our approach. I mounted the top rail and sang Silent Night. It took more than two verses, but eventually I was scratching the sorrel behind his ear.

A few weeks later the Krebs boys invited me to play at their ranch. They were showing off their Shetland ponies when 10-year-old Manuel galloped up on a red mustang. He skidded to a stop in a cloud of dust and reared him up like Roy Rogers on TV.

"How do you like Pepper?" Manuel asked.

Like? I was about to faint with admiration. Then - a miracle of kindness - Manuel invited me to ride him.

I scrambled up onto Pepper's saddle. "I don't know how."

"Just lay the reins across his neck in the direction you want him to go. To get him to start walking, kick a little." Pepper stepped out at a walk. "To speed up, squeeze your legs." Pepper broke into a trot.

I grabbed the saddle horn. My stomach knotted.

"Squeeze and you'll go faster." Pepper broke into a lope. I caught the rocking horse rhythm. That was the secret. The faster we went, the easier it was. I leaned the reins across his neck and we headed for the Herefords in the meadow southwest of the corrals.

The Krebs boys chorused "Don't run the stock. They'll lose weight." They caught up and we veered west, past a live oak grove and across a lava flow.

Manuel, the Krebs boys and I used to ride to school in the back of a pickup truck. It was twenty miles our classrooms in Ft. Davis. The driver always dropped off Manuel at a different school. Only brown-skinned kids ran around on that playground. Why didn't Manuel go to our school? The grownups said kids who speak Spanish have too hard a time in the white kids' school. I didn't understand. Manuel spoke English just fine. The Anglo school was almost empty. My classroom combined first and second grade, and there were only 15 of us.

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© 2004 Carolyn M. Bertin. All rights reserved.