Francine walked slowly through the deep green alfalfa field, the soft, cool plants brushing her bare legs pleasantly. The summer sun felt warm on her head and shoulders, and bees darted here and there among the blossoms. It had been only a month since Francine’s family loaded all their belongings onto the wagon behind her father’s workhorse and had moved up from town to this beautiful valley. She still liked to walk through the fields and just look at everything. But she would like it even better if she had a horse.
Looking out across the field, she saw a man riding a horse up the lane that separated her family’s fields from the neighbor’s fields. The man turned the horse into his alfalfa field and rode to the top of it where the irrigation ditch ran. Francine was startled to see him suddenly tumble off the horse into the alfalfa. Maybe he’s sick, she thought. She ran quickly to the fence, ducked under it, and raced across the field. She could see water splashing where the man had fallen and great drops flying into the air, catching the sunlight. He must have fallen into the ditch, Francine surmised. She ran as fast as she could over the rough ground.
“I’m coming!” she shouted, hoping he wouldn’t give up till she got there. At that moment the man raised his head and looked at her calmly. Francine stopped abruptly, her face hot from running and her breath coming in gasps. She could see that he was not in the ditch at all but beside it. He held the board for damming the ditch in his hands.
“What are you shouting about?” he asked gruffly. His streaked gray hair stood up wildly, and his blue eyes were piercing under his shaggy eyebrows.
“I thought you needed help,” she replied, “and that you had fallen into the ditch.” She suddenly felt awkward and embarrassed and looked at the ground. Only then did she see that the man had no legs. His pants were cut off at the middle of his thighs and pinned securely. Both his pants and flannel shirt were quite wet.
“I definitely don’t need help from a little girl,” he rasped. He turned away from her and began pushing the stopper board into the cement headgate, but it jammed in the slots. Then he pulled himself closer, oblivious of the water spilling around him.
“Could I help you get the board in?” Francine asked, moving closer.
He turned to her, his face red with exertion and anger. “Can’t a man do his irrigating without pesky little girls coming around?” he stormed. “Now go play!”
Francine turned away quickly and found herself face-to-face with the man’s horse. It was a rather short, strongly built horse with a gleaming reddish brown coat and a shiny black mane. Francine looked into the animal’s face and thought it had the kindest, most intelligent eyes she had ever seen. The horse lowered its head to her, sniffed briefly, and then stepped back as though to let her pass. How Francine would love a horse like that for her own.
“You have a beautiful horse,” she said, looking back again at the man. He was just pushing the board securely into its place when he glanced at Francine. She thought she saw the barest flicker of gentleness in his eyes before he said gruffly again, “Go and play, little girl.”
Francine walked past the horse and back across the field to the canal, where large shady cottonwoods grew along the bank. Sitting down in the cool, prickly grass, she watched the man from a distance. She wondered why she wasn’t more afraid of him. He’s been mean to me, she thought. Maybe its because of the odd way he had to get off the horse. She watched as he worked himself away from the ditch. The horse took a few steps toward him, then stood still and stiff, its head lowered while the man grasped the horse’s leg and pulled himself upright. Then he reached up and knotted his hand into its mane. In a quick motion he was on the horse’s back. He rode back through the field and down the lane as Francine watched, fascinated.
That night at dinner she told her family about the experience.
“I’ve heard about our neighbor, Mr. Lewis,” her father said. “He runs his whole farm without any help except from his wife.”
“He certainly didn’t want any help from me,” Francine said.
“They say he’s very proud,” her mother added as she passed the food around. “He won’t let anyone help him.”
“I’ve heard he’s very mean and grouchy,” her little brother, Stephen, put in, looking up from his potatoes.
“I don’t think he’s really mean, just grouchy,” Francine said, remembering how his eyes had softened a little when she mentioned the horse.
“Doesn’t he have a wheelchair or something?” Stephen asked.
“I don’t know, but I think he finds his horse the most help for getting around his farm,” his father said.
Francine’s eyes lit up. “His horse is wonderful, Daddy. You should have seen the way it stood so still while he climbed onto it. And it was beautiful, all shiny in the sun.”
Her father looked at her kindly. “You’d really like a horse, wouldn’t you?”
“Oh, Yes!” Francine said. “And I have five dollars saved for one. How much is it going to take?”
“I don’t know,” her father replied. “It depends on what you’re willing to settle for. You might find an old retired workhorse for ten dollars or so. It would give you something to ride around on.”
“No,” she said firmly. “I want a good horse … like Mr. Lewis’s.”
“Then you’ll have to wait quite a while, because we don’t have the money for it,” her father said.
“I know that, and I’ll wait.” Francine ate her potatoes resolutely, seeing in her mind Mr. Lewis’s shining red horse standing still and strong in the sunlight.
The next afternoon Francine wandered through the fields again. She came to the top of the small hill that looked down on the Lewis farm. Their house was white and neat, with roses in front and various sheds and coops sprawled out behind it. Francine hesitated and then walked down the hill, skirted around the house, and slipped quietly into the barnyard. She walked past the chicken coops where white hens cackled and pecked behind the wire, and then she saw the horse standing outside a cinder-block milking barn. He was not tied but stood quietly waiting, the reins over his mane. Francine approached very slowly and silently. The horse turned its head and regarded her calmly, so she put out her hand and stroked its neck. The warm coat twitched deliciously under her hand.
She could hear the clanging of milk pails in the barn. The double doors stood open, and she could see the backsides of the large holstein cows, their tails switching and flicking at the files. After petting the horse and talking to it for a few minutes, she stepped quietly through the door so as not to startle the cows.
Mr. Lewis sat on a small wooden platform mounted on what looked to Francine like roller skate wheels. He leaned his head against the cow’s flank as the milk squirted rhythmically into the bucket. When the bucket was full, he put it beside him on the cart and took two thick rubber rings from his pockets with which he pushed himself so that his hands did not touch the floor. As he approached the milk can, he saw Francine standing in the doorway.
“You again,” he said. He raised the bucket of milk above his head and poured it into the can.
“I came to see your horse,” she said.
He peered at her from under his shaggy eyebrows as he placed the empty bucket beside him. “Her name is Pilar,” he said.
“I’m saving my money to buy a horse,” she said. “I have five dollars.”
“That won’t buy much of a horse,” Mr. Lewis snorted.
“I know,” Francine said, a little hurt that he would think her so stupid about what a horse cost. “I’ll have to save a lot more before I can get one.”
“Well, Missy …”
“My name is Francine.”
“Well, Francine, as you can see, I have work to do, so you’d better run along.”
“I could help you,” Francine said. “I could curry Pilar for you.”
Mr. Lewis sighed. “All right,” he said. “The currycomb is there on the wall.” He turned back toward his cows.
Francine got the currycomb quickly. She curried the horse until her coat glistened in the late afternoon sunlight. At first Pilar looked suspiciously at the girl, but then she appeared to relax and enjoy the brushing. Through the open door Francine saw Mr. Lewis return several times to the milk can and lift the bucket to pour the warm milk in.
When she had finished with Pilar, she went back into the dim barn and watched him. “I could do that for you,” she said as he returned again to the milk can. “It would save you a lot of time.”
“Look,” he said impatiently, “I have managed quite well here for five years without your help.” He turned away from her and said gruffly over his shoulder. “You’re a busybody.”
Francine felt crushed. She knew she should go home, but she couldn’t bring herself to leave. She liked Mr. Lewis somehow, and she liked Pilar even more.
When he came back again, she said, “How about if you paid me so I could save for my horse—say five cents a night? I’d empty all the milk buckets, too, and help you clean up the barn.”
Mr. Lewis looked up at her, and the warmth she had seen before crept into his eyes.
“Francine,” he said, “we have very little cash. We just barely make it on this farm. I don’t think I could afford to pay you even that small amount.”
“I’d really be glad to do it without pay if I could see Pilar … maybe even ride her sometime.”
He shook his head. “No, I’m afraid not,” he said.
Francine turned and went outside. She stopped by Pilar and stroked the horse’s neck again and then started through the barnyard.
She turned and saw Mr. Lewis framed in the doorway of the barn.
“Come back here a second.” When she reached him he looked at her a minute. “I do get pretty tired emptying those buckets.” He smiled slightly. “Pilar is going to foal in a couple of months. If you turned out to be worth anything as a worker, I might consider her colt as payment.”
Francine’s heart leaped at the thought! “I’d come for morning milking too,” she said.
“You’ll have to ask your folks,” Mr. Lewis said. “And I’ll expect you to go on working after the colt is born.”
“Oh, I will!” Francine promised.
“Well, don’t just stand around, girl,” he directed. “Get the bucket emptied.” Then his face creased into a big smile as Francine rushed past him into the barn.