I was 16 years old, a girl, and one of six kids, so I lived to impress my father. My Dad was a man of few words but he had a face that expressed volumes. If he was pleased, he lit up and smiled not just with his mouth, but with his whole face. Despite this obvious sign of pleasure, he seldom complimented you with words. How I longed to see that expression. If he was displeased or I was out of line, he could absolutely wither me with a look.
Dad had lots of horses in his lifetime, but his favorite of all was an iron gray gelding he trained himself. Smoky became the epitome of good horseflesh on our ranch, the one you measured all other horses by. You can only imagine my joy when Dad finally trusted me to ride him. Smoky knew more about cows than I could ever learn and when one broke away from the herd, Smoky’s rider became a mere passenger, hanging on for dear life as Smoky chased down and turned that wayward critter.
Our pasture for the milk cows and extra horses extended across a slough and the railroad tracks. In late summer we pastured them across the tracks where there was still some good grass. This required riding up a short but steep railroad bed, across the tracks, and down the bed and opening a gate. Dad let me take Smoky to get the cows one day and I was so proud of his trust in me. I had crossed the slough and the tracks without incident, daydreaming of the day I would have my own horse ranch. Smoky stopped at the barbed wire gate and I dismounted to open it. I held his reins loosely, even though he was trained to ground-tie. I had the top wire off the gate post and was ready to lift the post from the bottom wire. To my horror I heard a train coming. I tightened my grip on the reins and spoke soothingly to Smoky. Everything would have been alright if the engineer had not decided he needed to blow the train whistle.
Poor Smoky reared back, jerking me off my feet, As I felt the reins slip through my fingers Dad’s favorite horse was up on the tracks and running ahead of the train, prompting the stupid engineer to keep blowing the whistle. I could see pieces of railroad ties flying up from his hooves as the panicked animal raced down the tracks. I was about a mile from the house and I still don’t know for sure how I got back home and across that slough, but when I ran into the yard, Dad and Mom were getting the car out. They were on their way to see what in the world the whistle was about. I was bawling my eyes out but they seemed relieved to see me. I guess they worried that I might be hurt.
We drove down the river road until we could see the train, its whistle finally silent, chugging its way into town. Dad got out and started walking back up the tracks until he found an exhausted, soaking wet Smoky off the side of the tracks. I was so glad to see him alive that I burst into tears again. Dad examined Smokey’s legs and talked to him gently. The saddle was scuffed and Smoky had some scrapes, leading Dad to believe had stumbled and possibly fallen going down the embankment.
I don’t really remember what Dad had to say, but his expressive face reflected a combination of relief, sympathy and anger. I was sure he would never trust me with a horse again, but he assured me that there was nothing I could have done. It just took me a long time to believe that myself.