Friday, June 14, 2013


In the spring of my fourteenth year, my parents decided to give me a horse for my birthday, and after some searching my father eventually brought home a gentle fourteen-year-old mare that I named Silver after the Lone Ranger’s big white stallion even though she looked nothing like her famous namesake. She was a Pinto, a painted pony with big splotches of brown and white, and we kept her in a dilapidated structure that might have been red once, a multipurpose building that was part garage, part barn, part pigpen, and part henhouse. She shared it with a small, similarly splotched flock of chickens that included White Leghorns, Buff Orphingtons, Rhode Island Reds, and Black Dominicks; and she also shared it with Lady Henrietta, the pig I was raising to meet the personal project requirement in Mr. Ben Barber’s ninth grade vocational agriculture class and who later provided us with a delicious supply of ham, sausage, bacon, and pork chops, Lady Henrietta I mean, not Mr. Ben Barber.

All summer long I rode Silver around our pasture bareback, using only a bridle because my parents couldn’t afford to buy a saddle and stirrups, and I loved that horse more than any dog or cat that ever lived. She had about two acres in which to roam and graze; a third acre held a vegetable garden and all sorts of trees that old Mrs. Mason, the former owner, had planted: apple trees, pear trees, peach trees, cherry trees, plum trees, persimmon trees, mulberry trees, and there were also fig bushes, blackberry bushes, a grape arbor, two big oaks, two big elms, and another dilapidated and unpainted structure that housed Mama, Daddy, and me in its four small rooms. Between the house and the barn-garage-pigpen-henhouse sat an old Dodge pickup that had seen better days, rusting, with grass and weeds growing up all around it and, thanks to holes in the floorboard, into it as well. We didn’t have indoor plumbing; whenever Nature called, we had to walk down a well-worn path about fifty yards to an outhouse. Every drop of water for drinking, cooking, and bathing was obtained by lowering a bucket on a rope over a pulley into a well next to the back door and drawing it out by hand, every drop except what we gathered in pots and pans and jars and basins whenever an occasional rainstorm pounded on our corrugated tin roof and demanded to be let through. On the kitchen counter sat a bucket we drank out of using a long-handled ladle. There was no sink. On the counter next to the bucket sat two basins, a round metal one, white with a red rim, where Mama put soapy water for washing dishes, and a square one made of red plastic where she put clear water for rinsing. When the dishwashing was finished, we simply opened the screen door and threw the water into the back yard. We bathed in a number three tin tub that my father would set in the middle of the kitchen, spreading newspapers around on the floor to absorb any water that might slosh over the edge of the tub onto the ancient, cracked, nondescript linoleum. The water for the tub and also for the dishwashing had to be heated on an equally ancient wood-burning stove. We had a wooden icebox instead of an electric refrigerator like everybody else, and supplying it with blocks of ice every week and emptying the drain pan every day were a regular part of our routine. Even allowing for it being Texas in the nineteen fifties, it was a pretty primitive existence; I was the only kid I knew who lived this way.

Eventually we acquired a real refrigerator and an electric stove from the local Western Auto store, but Daddy never did put in plumbing. The shallow well went not dry but bad when a film of oil developed on the water, so it became my job two or three times each week to go through Silver’s pasture carrying a five-gallon bucket in each hand or sometimes pulling my old Red Flyer wagon with a large metal garbage can balanced on top, to a neighbor’s house about a quarter of a mile away, where my parents had been given permission by Florabelle Oxley, Jimmy Wayne’s mother, to get our water supply from a hose hooked to an outdoor spigot on the side of their house. Sometimes I would call to Silver, “Hey, girl,” whereupon she would stop grazing, look up, and neigh softly as if to say she understood completely the humiliation I felt, having to depend on others and living in substandard housing herself. Today, all these years later, when I turn on the sprinklers to water my azaleas I still think about pulling that red wagon across Silver’s pasture to the Oxleys’ house to get water; it’s hard to forget that Florabelle Oxley’s Poland China hogs lived better than we did.

In late autumn, when the “blue norther” cold fronts for which Texas is famous came roaring down the plains from the Panhandle and the weather turned wintry, Silver stayed in the barn most of the time eating hay. By the time spring arrived, when Mrs. Mason’s jonquils and violets and irises and God’s bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes splattered our yard with their colors, my father thought Silver might be a bit skittish since she hadn’t been ridden all winter. “I’m going to ride the damn horse first,” he said. Mama didn’t think it was a good idea, but Daddy was adamant, and since he wore the pants in the family, the decision was made. Whether it was Silver’s skittishness or the fact that my father was twice my weight I’ll never know, but as he swung himself up onto her back she bolted out of the barn door and began galloping across the pasture with my father holding on for dear life. At the far fence line she made a turn and headed back straight toward the plum tree where Mama and I were standing and staring in disbelief. Daddy was yelling “Whoa! Whoa!” and doing his best to get the horse to stop, but Silver, who apparently wore the pants in her family, kept running toward us. When she reached her destination, she deftly scraped my father off her back under a low-hanging branch of the plum tree, then stopped and began grazing calmly as though nothing had happened. Daddy lay on the ground, conscious but stunned, trying to comprehend what had just occurred. By this time Mama was laughing hysterically. “What the hell are you laughing at?” Daddy demanded, but Mama just kept on laughing. Picking himself up off the ground, Daddy dusted himself off, said, “You damn fool,” and slowly made his way back to the house. The doctor said Daddy had three cracked ribs and taped his chest up for a month, Daddy’s chest I mean, not the doctor’s. Before the tape came off, Silver had been sold, and even though I cried buckets the day they took her away, my father never bought another horse.

[Editor’s note. This post first appeared online as a reader-contributed short story at Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” website in 2006. In 2009 it became Chapter 3
of my online book and other blog, “Billy Ray Barnwell Here.”
The voice and writing style are Billy Ray Barnwell’s. --RWP]


  1. A marvellous piece of writing that speaks volumes about an America that usually remains hidden away. How cruel of your father to get rid of Silver out of spite when you loved that horse so much and how wonderful you remember your mother's laughter so vividly.....see Bob - I'm not all bad.

  2. Yorkshire Pudding, you are a gentleman and a scholar and I have never thought otherwise. Thank you for the fine compliment on the piece. But do you always assume that my writing is autobiographical? This piece is, of course, except for names that have been changed, but still I wonder, do you always assume it?

  3. I have an odd habit of expecting the best of everyone, therefore I believe what I am told. It came as a shock to me one day recently when my grown children informed me that people enjoy playing video games wherein they kill people & it appears that blood splatters everywhere and then they also told me that not everyone joins the military (in real life) because of patriotic duty mentality, but because they like the thought of killing people. Of course, my kids do not know everything, so perhaps they are wrong and really people everywhere only tell the truth and are terrible nice.
    I assumed you were talking about your own childhood. You will tell us if you're making something up...won't you?

  4. It was the way it was put - no sense of fiction and the details convinced me that what I was reading was essentially autobiographical - perhaps with a bit of salad dressing on top. I don't always assume it. Are you saying you invented everything? Jethro, Ellie, your life in Canton? Is it all fictional? You really got me fooled sir.

  5. Hilltopetc., your children are right. People everywhere, some of them at least, do not always tell the truth, nor are all of them terrible nice. Terrible, yes. Nice, no. I assume you do know this in your heart of hearts and that I am not the one who has disillusioned you. I hope you did not write that famous old book, Gullible's Travels.

    Not to worry. I assure you that my story Silver was indeed about my own childhood, with a couple of names changed. Mama was real. Daddy was real. I was real. Mr. Ben Barber was real. Mrs. Mason was real. Even Florabelle Oxley and her son, Jimmy Wayne, were real but I changed their names. It's like when Thomas Wolfe wrote Look Homeward, Angel and called himself Eugene Gant. If you should get hold of that book sometime, read Wolfe's "Note to the Reader" at the beginning. It will explain everything.

    Yorkshire Pudding, see my reply to Hilltophomesteader above.

  6. How did you get oil in your well. Were there oil wells around? Were people dumping used motor oil everywhere. You didn't mention a windlass being used to lower that well bucket, but surely Texas wasn't so far behind Mississippi in advanced technology that you didn't have one.

    I can but wish that you had said more about your grief. I got the feeling that all that came before (in your account) was but a preclude to what happened in your life after the end. Was that not the same year your mother died?

  7. Snow, old buddy, old pal, we did not have a windlass. We had a pulley and a rope and a bucket, and yours truly lowered it by hand and pulled it back up by hand, wrapping the rope around a wooden stake nailed nearby for that express purpose. It was no fun, I'll tell you. Our neighbor with the spigot had a deep well -- about 140 feet as I recall -- and a motorized pump. We had a shallow well -- 26 feet -- and rope and muscle.

    I have always figured that oil and gas in some shape or form were underground practically everywhere in that part of Texas, some deep and some shallow, but I don't really know for sure. When my parents bought the land, they got the use of the surface, but acquired nothing in the way of mineral rights below the surface. Those Texans were crafty, yes, they were.

    The summer I was 14 we got Silver. The next spring, when she scraped my dad off under the branch of the plum tree, I turned 15 in March. One year later I turned 16, and the following October my mother died.

  8. Oh, you were 16 when your mother died. I do need to pay more attention to keeping the timeframe about all this straight. Now, was the father who sold the horse, your father or your stepfather?

    "we did not have a windlass"

    Given how easy they are to make (and how useful they are to use) I would suspect that your father was either a bit of klutz or negligent.

  9. Snowbrush, is this some kind of test? You really need to pay closer attention. My biological Dad was never in the picture. Never. Well, he was at the beginning, without which I would not be here. The man who raised me, the man I call Dad, came into my life when I was about four. I cannot remember the time before he was there. I never think of him as my stepfather, only as my Dad, but that's what he was in truth. I found out otherwise at...well, you'll have to read my story "Birthright" to learn that.

  10. "Snowbrush, is this some kind of test?"

    That's a silly question if I ever heard one. Even if I imagined--which I never do--that you were making stuff up, I wouldn't consider it worth my while to catch you in a contradiction. I just wouldn't read your blog.

    "you really need to pay closer attention."

    As I said: "I do need to pay more attention." Missed that remark, did you?