The Purple Horseshoe

I once had a purple horseshoe in the center of my chest — right over my sternum, slightly askew, so that the toe pointed to my left shoulder, leaving all the good luck to spill out down and to the right. I was younger then, and the horseshoe stood out from my hairless chest like a grape tattoo. It was no tattoo, however, and when the rest of the freshman football team asked, I told them the truth

* * * * *

We lived in a lake subdivision when I was a kid. My first memory is of sitting on the pickup seat next to the television, riding to our house at the lake, and settling in to sleep on the living room floor, surrounded by knotty pine paneling and the creak of strange oaks outside the window. My folks grew up on farms, but not me.

About the time I started high school, Dad got back into horses. He bought two mares to start with — a well-worn bay named Molly, whose bottom lip always hung limply, like she had a chaw tucked in her gums, and a high-strung Thoroughbred cross named Caitlin, who had one white spot on her chestnut rump to betray her Appaloosa heritage.

We boarded the horses at a place up the road a half-mile or so. I spent a fair amount of time around them, but things didn’t get interesting until Willy came along.

Willy was a short black mule with a wild, spiky mane. We bought him from an old farmer named Wilbur Hunt, but I suggested the name for Willie Olson from “Little House.” Mussed-up dark hair, impish twinkle and a nose for trouble — I’d only just met him, but “Willy” seemed about right.

It only took a few short minutes for Willy to earn his name. We turned him loose in the pasture, and the girls eyed him warily, gossiping softly to each other. Molly gave the nod, and Caitlin took the first run at the little mule. Ears flat, lips back, she thundered toward Willy — who took two quick hops forward and shot two tiny black hooves back to connect audibly with the big mare’s teeth.

Cowed, Caitlin returned to Molly, shaking her head. Molly took a step or two, glared scornfully at Willy, laid back her own ears and charged. Again, two ebony hooves caught her clean in the mouth, and though he never led the herd, Willy earned his place as a full, if somewhat independent, member.

Willy and I fought, as young boys will. We were nearly like brothers — we tolerated each other publicly, loved each other in secret, and showed it by tormenting one another. Willy always found ways to get my goat — bucking me off for commenting on his ears, stepping on my toes, or slipping under the barbed wire to graze in the tall grasses outside the pasture. One afternoon I spotted him there — just beyond the fence, shoulder-deep in green, stemmy grass, munching away and eyeing me as I approached from the barn. He was dragging a long blue-and-white lead rope from his halter — a precaution for just such occasions — and I came armed with a black rubber bucket of sweet feed.

I stuck the bucket through the fence and inched my way under the rusty barbs. Willy’s ears were up and trained on me — he munched cautiously as I approached.

I rustled the oats in the bucket, allowing the breeze to carry the smell of molasses to him. He paused in his chewing, a dozen stems protruding sideways from his mouth — but he did not move forward.

And why should he? I needed to catch him — and I crept closer, rustling the feed, making the bucket the focus of attention and definitely not his halter and rope.

I was two steps away now — the grass was waist-deep, and I couldn’t see the end of the lead rope lying like a snake among the weeds. Willy stretched his neck to sniff at the rim of the bucket. The breeze sent a ripple the length of his mohawk.

I took a step, and Willy lowered his nose into the bucket and began to eat. Slowly, slowly, I eased my free hand toward his halter.

Willy tossed his head and jumped backward, send sweet feed into the air and jerking the hidden rope and my feet from beneath me. I fell flat on my back, and through the grass, saw the little mule turn back toward me. As I gasped for air, Willy came forward, raised one small black hoof and planted it in the center of my chest. Then he turned and walked away.

I lay a long moment, looking up at the blue from my impromptu nest, then stood and unbuttoned my shirt. A small semicircle of blood was forming on my t-shirt, and my chest ached. Willy stood not ten yards away, feeding. I picked up the bucket, now empty, and approached the little mule. He raised his head, I took his halter, and he followed me back to the pasture without protest.

I didn’t look back, but I think maybe he was smiling.

* * * * *

Blogger’s Note: The photo features Dad, Willy and me, circa 1989. I was looking for a better black-and-white shot of just Willy, but I haven’t found it yet. I wrote a while later — in college, I think. Just ran across it again while going through some boxes. I miss that little mule.

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