Old Puss

In 1918, when I was twelve years old, my uncle gave me a yearling mare. When he invited me down to the corral to make a selection from a herd that had just been brought in from the range, I rejected the pintos, the bays, and the grays, selecting instead a little, mousey-brown mare whose head was abnormally large for her body. My boyhood friends ridiculed me. “You don’t mean to tell us you’re going to take that one with the big puss!” Their criticism didn’t sway me, but it did give my little mare a name—Old Puss.

Despite the fact that Old Puss was only a little over a year old when I got her, I thought I should start riding her right away. I took her into the newly plowed potato patch, because I knew the ground would soften my fall when she bucked me off—and that’s just what she did each time I mounted her. From my prone position I would observe my little brown friend standing nearby, a mingled look of sympathy, amusement, and triumph on her great big puss. She seemed to accept these experiences as “fun time.” Even years later, long after she had been broken completely, she would buck like an untamed bronco until I was thrown if I tried to mount her in the potato patch.

My first attempt to ride her outside the potato patch occurred when a member of our family had a serious accident, and we needed a doctor without delay. Telephones were scarce in those days, few people had automobiles, and the only horse available at the time was Old Puss. In my excitement I led her out to the street and mounted, half expecting to be thrown on the hard gravel. But Old Puss seemed to sense the emergency, and with all the finesse of a well-trained mare she raced to the doctor’s office.

From that time on, she behaved like a mature, well-trained animal, as long as I stayed out of the potato patch. My family had been amused at my complete devotion to this ugly little mare, but after her heroic part in summoning the doctor, she won the respect of all.

As for me, my love for Old Puss was unbounded. I cannot recall another period in my life when I enjoyed a contentment so complete as when riding this little animal on a hazardous mountain trail, or resting alongside a sparkling stream where the grass grew tall. The two of us enjoyed a world of our own.

When Old Puss was two years old, I had an early summons to join the sheep camp on the west desert near Milford, Utah. Accordingly, after a two-day trip we arrived in Wa-Wa Valley, where we remained until it was time to trail the sheep home to their summer range. The other horses at the camp were hobbled—their front legs secured just above the hooves so that they could take only very small steps. Then, as they foraged during the night, they would stay within a short distance of the camp. But because of her devotion to me, we never hobbled Old Puss. Bright and early she would appear, seemingly anxious to participate in the day’s activities.

One day we ran into a band of wild horses, beautiful animals that could run like the wind over the volcanic hills and valleys. It was futile for anyone on horseback to try to race with them, but it was fun for a boy and a spirited animal to challenge their speed. At our appearance the band quickly grouped, and under the leadership of a beautiful, black stallion, who seemed to drive his harem before him, they had soon outdistanced us and were lost to our view. The remainder of that day Old Puss wanted to head in the direction of the wild horses, and that evening, as soon as she was unsaddled, she trotted off toward the hills. I tried to entice her back with the evening supply of oats, but she quickened her pace and was soon out of sight.

When daylight came, Old Puss had not returned. It appeared that she had heeded the call of the wild and deserted me, and I was heartsick. I was forced to proceed on foot for two long days. The spring winds had been blowing furiously; the sheep were restless and unruly; and I had just about walked myself to exhaustion trying to control them. As I paused for a moment’s rest, a movement in the piñon pines attracted me. There, emerging into the clearing, was my little deserter.

Our delight in seeing each other was mutual. She constantly nuzzled me, seemingly to compensate for her absence and trying to determine if I still loved her.

During the summer months the results of her spring interlude came to light. She was with foal.

I do not think that any young bride in the throes of her first pregnancy received any more attention than I lavished on Old Puss. I found another horse to saddle for the day’s work. Many a time I gave her a heavy allotment of oats to supplement the lush green grasses in the mountains. If she galloped to a point of possibly straining herself, I suffered extreme anxiety.

Nature has a way of running its course, however, and when the winter storms were having their last fling, to quote my family, “Vee [an extraction of Vetta] and Old Puss had a son born to them.”

It is natural for horses to be protective of their very young, and this instinct was dominant in this young mother. If any member of our family approached too close to her colt, she would strike out with a front foot as a warning to stay away. Her reaction to me, however, was quite the opposite. When I approached her newborn, she made a special effort with her nose to push him in my direction. When I encircled his neck with my arm and patted his still-damp body, it must have given her an assurance that I approved of the black, gangling offspring, for she extended her neck with eyes half-closed, denoting contentment. It carried the message that I indeed thought her son was beautiful.

During the summer months the mother and her foal roamed the range unrestricted. The colt, black as coal with the exception of a white patch on his thigh, grew fat and tall. The first name of my uncle who gave me Old Puss was Byron, and so, in his honor, and to acknowledge the poise and grace that seemed natural in the little animal, we named him Lord Byron. He eventually grew into a fine saddle horse, a great beauty.

Time passed. In the spring of 1922, when I was sixteen years old, came an event that will forever endear my little mare to my memory. I was instructed to meet a homecoming herd of sheep in an area known as Black Canyon, twenty-five miles from home. Bright and early on the appointed day we set out, with a sack lunch for me and a bag of oats for Old Puss. My mother also insisted that I take along a heavy coat and a yellow slicker in case I should encounter inclement weather. This journey would take me to altitudes over ten thousand feet, and the chance of a storm was not altogether remote, especially at this time of year.

The first ten miles led north down a well-traveled road. At Bear Creek we turned west on an unimproved road, and then began gradually to climb to a higher elevation. The skies grew cloudy, and five miles farther on, when we reached Bear Valley, a cold rain was falling. Before us was Buckskin Mountain, over which ran the precipitous trail that we were to follow to Black Canyon.

Before attacking this part of the journey, I decided to stop for lunch and to give Old Puss a rest. The area was devoid of trees to protect us, and a driving rain soaked me to the skin from the waist down, though I tried to nestle under the tall sagebrush for protection. After we resumed our journey, the rain changed into a plastering sleet, and my wet clothes began to freeze to my body. The little mare struggled sideways along the trail, trying to avoid the direct peppering of the storm.

When we reached the summit and began our descent, we found a measure of protection from the fierce wind, but the snow was falling heavily. With the storm came a mountain fog that reduced visibility almost to zero. By the time we reached the mouth of the canyon, where the terrain opened broadly into Buckskin Bench, the trail was obliterated. Being lost in a fog in winter can be terrifying. I speculated as to where the trail should be and guided Old Puss along that course, yet before long we were hopelessly lost.

My watch told me that the afternoon was waning. Soon darkness would fall and the night would be black as pitch. All my clothing was frozen stiff as boards. My match supply had been exposed to the moisture and was useless. Thinking we might be close to Black Canyon, I yelled with all my might. But no answer came. Instead, the wind seemed to howl triumphantly at the puny force of my voice.

In desperation. I made the decision to give Old Puss free rein, for our only chance of survival now depended upon her natural instincts. Soon she had adjusted her direction, and from time to time I recognized familiar objects we had passed that day. My little mare had made up her mind we were going back home. Almost frozen stiff, I dismounted, hoping to walk some circulation into my numb body. I held onto the tail of my horse as we retraced our steps. This served two purposes: she broke a trail for me through the deep snow, and she shielded me from the fierceness of the storm.

The night was far advanced when we reached the summit of Buckskin Mountain. As we felt our way down the treacherous trail, I was completely exhausted. In the unbearable cold I longed to sit down and rest. I became terribly sleepy. Even though I knew sleeping meant freezing to death, I couldn’t resist squatting down from time to time in snow-covered sagebrush. Every time I did this. Old Puss would sense the danger and turn around, toppling me from my comfortable seat with her nose. After I regained my feet, we plodded along through the night together.

At the foot of the mountain, the hills surrounding the trail gave us some protection from the storm. Then I alternately walked and rode until we came to the mouth of Bear Creek, where my uncle and aunt had a farm. They were astounded to find me knocking on their door at 2:00 A.M. on such a violent night.

Later, as I soaked in a hot bath and enjoyed its restoring caresses, I thanked my Heavenly Father for directing me four years earlier to reject the pintos, the bays, and the blacks, and to choose instead a mousey little mare with a great big puss, who was now in a warm stable munching hay.

I am convinced my life was saved by that courageous little mare who steadfastly refused to allow me to freeze to death. Many years have passed since that fateful night, but even now my heart overflows with love for her.

[illustrations] Illustration by Glen Edwards

Vetta Linford, a retired postal inspector, serves as editor of the Tustin Third Ward weekly paper. Orange California Stake.