Monday, August 9, 2010

PUNCH

This is the little cow pony Punch. His name is writen in my grandma's handwriting on the photo. I found it today in my grandma's old scrapbook of memories from the 1930's. A treasure trove.

[This is a photo of my grandmother, Florence "Floss" Fitzsimmons and her Kentucky saddle horse Monte. Earlier, she had a pony called Punch. She told me she was the first girl in her area who rode for pleasure. This was farm country, and horses were customary for travel and for working the land. My grandma took pride in being the first in her area to ride for pleasure. She said the other girls were jealous of her for this, and she recounted how she caught the eye of my grandfather, who was the bank manager, and a handsome bachelor all the girls swooned over. She came galloping into town, along the main street, pulled back on the reins with a flourish, and her horse reared up on his hind legs. "Who is THAT?" my grandfather asked. Soon he came courting. "All the town girls were mad that he picked a farm girl," my grandma said with satisfaction. This is my fictionalized account of what happened to Punch, as was told to me by my grandma.]

"I'm going to take Punch and go get the mail," Dolly called out, entering the barn in a swoosh of cold, snowy air.

"Be careful on the tracks," Floss said warningly.

"The train's not due to come through till later. I'll be back by then," the older sister replied airily, entering Punch's stall and grabbing his halter.

The sturdy little cow pony was acting skittish. He pulled back and dug his hooves in, eyes rolling, giving a shake of the head and a "whuff" of displeasure, as Dolly jerked the bridle, cropping him smartly.

"Cut it out, you dumb horse! Git!" and Dolly yanked him out of his stall.

"He doesnt want to go," said Floss. "Why dont you take Pepper instead?"

"He can just darn well behave. He's going!"

"He's my horse," Floss muttered resentfully.

"Oh, is Daddy's Baby going to tell?" smirked the older girl.

Floss kept on mucking out the stalls, head down, but her face was sullen. Dolly acted like she ruled the world, just because she was older.

***** ***** ***** *****
It hadnt been snowing when girl and horse set off, but soft flakes soon started swirling, slowly at first, then faster, falling out of a sky dark gray and puffed with portent. Later on, Ma came into the barn, looking troubled.

"Did Dolly go into town?"

"Mm-hmm. She took Punch. He was acting like he didnt want to go, but Dolly made him. She's mean to him!"

"I hope she hurries," the mother worried, more to herself than her daughter. "Snow's closing in."

Suddenly, the farm dogs all started howling, their voices eerie in the frozen silence. Mother's and daughter's eyes locked together, as the howls mingled with the long mournful cry of a distant train whistle.

"Something's wrong," the mother cried out. "Saddle Pepper, quick!"

She turned and ran back to the farmhouse, emerging again immediately, shrugging into her padded winter coat, wrapping a shawl around her head and neck as she ran across the yard.

Floss was readying Pepper, working furiously to cinch his saddle with fingers that fumbled awkwardly from nerves and terror.

She stood in the farmyard watching her mother's figure, bent over Pepper, urging him to hurry, until horse and rider disappeared into the now thickly falling snow.

**** **** **** ****
Dolly was singing softly to herself, as she turned Punch towards the railway tracks, heading home. In those days, when the winter snow was deep, the railway tracks were the only way to get back and forth to town. In small farming communities like this, transport was by horse and buggy. A car was still a rarity then, even in the city, and roads were merely rutted tracks, in deep winter hidden under several feet of snow.

When Dolly picked up the mail, they had warned her to be careful. The railway snowplow was expected through some time that afternoon. At first, the snow fell lightly and she wasnt worried. But she grew uneasy as it intensified. As snow swirled and thickened around her, cutting off her vision, she felt like a solitary pilgrim trekking through an empty landscape. The vacuum created by the falling snow filled her ears with hollow silence, under hooded layers of scarf and earmuff, and she could not put form to her uneasiness, but kicked Punch to hasten him homewards, giving the horse his head the better to find his footing on the slippery ground.

For a while the pony plodded dependably along, and the girl was lulled into reverie, thinking of hot tea and toast awaiting her at home. She hoped she would be able to see the farmhouse lights through the snow. Maybe Floss or her mother would come to meet her with a lantern. They would be worried about her.

Suddenly Punch bolted, plunging in a panic, lunging in big leaps, trying to get off the track. Dolly snapped to, instinctively fighting him, hauling on the bit sharply, yanking the reins, yelling, "Punch! No! Back! Back!" Seesawing the reins, cropping him savagely, she kept him to the tracks.

Plunging, shaking, blowing, the horse was still fighting the bit as the two were engulfed in a cacophony of noise: shrieking brakes, puffing steam and a long, wailing cry of a whistle before everything went black.

*** *** *** *** ***

By the time Dolly's mother came along the tracks, there was no sign of snowplow, horse or rider, as she strained to urge Pepper faster through the falling dark. It felt like forever till she finally saw the winking lights of town.

Reining in, desperately she called out to the first people she saw, "Have you seen my daughter? Is Dolly in town?"

"Havent seen her," came the answer. But ahead she could see people gathering at the post office. Leaping off Pepper, she ran to them.

"Dolly!" she gasped, out of breath and frantic. "Have you seen her?"

She saw a few uneasy glances darting among the crowd, then someone said, "Dolly was here. We told her to watch out for the snowplow. But....someone said there's been an accident on the tracks. A horse and rider. A girl. Horse is dead. They took the girl by train to Esterhazy, to the hospital. Not sure how bad she is. Bad, likely."

The woman, desperate to get to her daughter, started to cry.

"Train's due through pretty soon. It'll take you to her the fastest." So she waited, not knowing whether Dolly would be alive or dead by the time she got to her.

****** ****** ******* ******
Seventy years later, sitting in her red velveteen rocking chair by the window, in her room at the nursing home, Floss said regretfully, "Punch didnt want to go that day but we made him. I never should have let her take him. Horses have a sixth sense like that, they know when something is going to happen. They said they could see in the snow, where Punch had made huge leaps, trying to get clear of the danger. He could hear the snowplow coming, but Doll didnt understand what was happening and was fighting him. He tried to save them, but Dolly didnt heed him.

"Ma rode that night thinking Dolly was dead. She only had a broken leg and some bruises, she got thrown clear. But Punch was killed. He was a faithful little horse. I always blamed myself for his death. I sent him to his doom."

My white-haired grandma looked off into space with her sad blue eyes, transported back in time to a dimly lit stable where, at the moment she heard the mournful cry of a train whistle, she knew with cold clear certainty that her cow pony was dead.

3 comments:

  1. Oh, Sherry, this is such a well-written, but oh-so-sad story. I am so sorry about the little horse.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I know, it's so sad. Poor creatures in this world!

    ReplyDelete

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