The Last Barrel


I thought I knew this old woman who kept giving me advice. Then she was suddenly gone, and I was left with a mystery.

The Last Barrel

The last barrel was rushing toward me.

“Your horse isn’t on the right lead, Susan,” shouted Grandma from the fence.

I know, Grandma. You don’t need to tell me, I thought.

Leaning low over Ginger’s withers, I shifted a little to the left and tapped my horse emphatically with my right boot. Underneath me, I could feel Ginger’s long stride switch left—but not in time. Ginger went so wide around the barrel she nearly knocked me against the corral fence.

As I urged her toward the imaginary finish line, I could see Grandma shaking her head.

“That’s no way to win a rodeo prize. Those other barrel racers will whip you good.”

“Grandma, you know Ginger isn’t usually this bad!”

“That’s just the point! You’ve been working her too hard. She’ll go sour on you before she ever makes it to her first contest.”

I stuck out my lower jaw. “I can train my own horse, Grandma.”

She didn’t seem to hear me and went right on. “The way I see it …”

The trouble with Grandma living across the road is that she usually isn’t across the road. She’s at our house giving advice to everyone. Last week it was my hair for the school dance. The week before it was my “mediocre” A minus in journalism class.

“There isn’t any excuse for it,” she said. “You can write 10 times better than those other youngsters.” But Grandma’s favorite hangout was on the corral fence watching me train Ginger.

Grandma reached to scratch behind Ginger’s ears. “That sassy little blonde down in Glenville who won rodeo queen last year, she can hardly rein left or right. You better not let her beat you at the barrels.”

I leaned down and yanked the wire latch off the corral gate.

“Just push open the gate for me, Grandma,” I asked.

“You better let that horse cool down before putting her away.”

“I know, Grandma,” I sighed impatiently.

She opened the gate for me. “If you’re going to win,” she said, “you better shorten your stirrups a notch and hang more with your horse.”

I exploded. “Grandma, I’m riding, not you.”

Grandma looked up at me in surprise. Ginger danced underneath me.

I was heating up. “What do you know about horses, anyway! Have you even been on one in the last 50 years?”

I was staring right at her. I could see the hurt come into her gray eyes. But I didn’t stop. “Just leave me alone. Don’t come watch me anymore.”

I jerked Ginger toward the hay field and galloped away. My face was hot with anger. I knew Grandma was standing stiff and hurt behind me. I fumed, gritting my teeth. But as the breeze cooled my face, I knew I would apologize. I’d never seen Grandma look so hurt. I fingered Ginger’s black mane. Tomorrow would be a good day. I’d apologize tomorrow.

“Dead? Dead!” My voice started to squeak, and I felt the tears coming. I didn’t want Mother to see. “But Grandma is too young to die.”

“I’m sorry,” said Mother, putting her hands on my shoulders. “The doctor said her heart just gave out in the night.”

“But, but—not today! Grandma can’t die today! I was going to make things right.”

At the funeral I sat hunched on the bench beside my two brothers. I kept looking down, but the only thing I could see was Grandma’s hurt gray eyes. In my head pounded the words, “What do you know about horses? Don’t come watch me anymore.”

“I’m sorry, Grandma,” I murmured. But I knew it was too late.

Someone was laughing. How could anyone laugh at a time like this? I looked up. Uncle Al, Grandma’s younger brother, was telling stories about her.

“Me and Annie got dancing so fast,” he was saying, “that she fell right off Aunt Lizzie’s porch and broke her arm. Aunt Lizzie was mortified, not because Annie broke her arm, but because she was doing that awful dance, the Charleston.”

Charleston? I thought. Grandma didn’t look like the Charleston type. Around our house, we always heard her “whatever happened to the waltz” sermon.

The next speaker took his time getting to the podium. He was close to a hundred years old. He had been Grandma’s bishop when she was first married and was still her bishop when she sent her first son on a mission. Even now, everyone still called him Bishop Jensen.

“I loved Annie when she was a teenager,” he said hoarsely, his brown hands trembling. Then he chuckled. “Oh, she wasn’t my girlfriend, mind you. She had pluck. When it was haying time, she’d offer to help us and everyone else in the valley. And I remember the day she came racing over to our house on that chestnut horse. She wanted us to be the first to see the saddle she won at the rodeo.”

Grandma had won a saddle? I shook my head incredulously. Maybe old Bishop Jensen wasn’t remembering quite right.

I left the funeral feeling as if I had forgotten something. One sentence by the last speaker had caught me, as if Grandma were speaking to me. But now his words were gone from my mind. It’s no use anyway, I thought. There’s nothing I can do for Grandma now. I can never wipe away last Saturday at the corral.

“I never knew Grandma had a chestnut horse,” I said to Dad as we drove to the cemetery.

“I think I only heard her talk about that horse once,” he said.

“And the saddle?” I asked.

“That was news to me. With me being the youngest of seven boys, I guess she was tired of telling the same stories by the time I came along.”

Several horses were dozing against the pasture fence as we turned into the cemetery. A stylish palomino raised its head. It looked like the horse owned by that blonde down in Glenville.

“You better not let her beat you at the barrels,” Grandma had said.

There is something I can do for Grandma, I thought. I can beat the rodeo queen in the barrel racing competition.

I was next. Ginger knew it too. She kept prancing sideways and tugging on the reins.

“Easy, girl. Don’t get all worked up before we get out there.”

The afternoon was warm. Sweat was already seeping from under Ginger’s saddle blanket. The reins felt sticky in my fingers.

The crowd roared as last year’s rodeo queen zoomed out for her turn at the barrels. I could see her blonde braids streaming behind her. She zipped sleekly around the first barrel and bolted for the next.

This blonde and I were the last two barrel racers. The other competitors’ times had been mediocre, so I felt Ginger and I still had a chance.

The rodeo queen circled the second barrel without a hitch. Uneasily, I eyed the last barrel. Maybe she would tip it over and get disqualified.

I could see the girl and her horse lean together around the third barrel. It was too close. The barrel rocked wildly. But it didn’t go over. At least it might have knocked a couple of seconds off her time. The crowd thundered as she spurted toward the finish.

I’ll show them, I thought, as I positioned Ginger for a run into the arena. But I was scared.

I charged out. The flag dropped at the starting line as Ginger and I flashed past. I hadn’t thought of Grandma until that very second. Suddenly I had a feeling that beating this rodeo queen was not what Grandma had in mind.

Ginger’s black mane flew in my face as I reined her low around the right barrel. She veered around it smooth and tight—just like a pro. I didn’t feel as much like a pro. I was slightly off balance and bumpy as we raced down the arena to the far barrel. Ginger went a little wide on this barrel, but we were still on target.

Now for the last barrel. I was in her rhythm again, so my confidence rose. “Dig, Ginger, dig,” I whispered, leaning over her neck.

She flicked her ear back briefly. I felt the tremble before blastoff.

Then we were hurtling toward the last barrel. Too fast. I tried to check her, but we were already swerving steeply around the barrel. I was off balance, askew in my stirrups. Ginger was sliding. Too far. We were falling. In slow motion, we were crashing into the barrel. Grandma’s sad gray eyes flashed before me. “You can do it,” she was saying.

“I’m sorry, Grandma. I thought I could beat her.”

I was falling.

“I was never too good with words,” said Grandma. “But you are.”

“No, my words hurt you.”

Falling. Falling.

“It’s okay,” whispered Grandma. “I know you can write it.”

“Write what?” I muttered.

Then I hit the barrel.

When I came to, I was deep in rodeo arena dirt, and Ginger’s hot breath was in my face. But I knew what I needed to do.

A cowboy was leaning over me. “Write what?” he said.

“Did I say something?” I asked.

“You keep saying you need to write something.”

I rolled to my feet. “That’s right. I do need to write it.”

“You all right?” he asked.

“I’m just fine.”

I started by interviewing Grandma’s seven sons. They each gave me a different view of Grandma’s life.

“Mom was the only widow I knew who could get seven kids ready for church and still be five minutes early,” said Uncle Orvil.

“Mom would feed every hobo who’d come along the tracks,” said Uncle Russ. “I was scared of them and would hide behind her skirts. But she wasn’t scared. She’d just put them to work chopping wood.”

“I remember Mom telling me that she wanted to be Annie Oakley when she was little,” said Uncle Rolfe, “so she took her stick horse and ran away. She was gone for most of the day. Half the county was looking for her. They finally found her fast asleep in a pasture full of unbroken mustangs.”

“Long before anyone had heard of family home evening, Mom had what she called family time once a week,” said Uncle Matt. “There was no getting around it. We had to be there.”

None of my uncles knew much about the chestnut horse or the rodeo saddle.

“Mom kept pretty silent on some things,” said Sid, my oldest uncle. “All I know is that she didn’t have that horse very long.”

He motioned to several boxes of scrapbooks and letters. “But you might find something there. You’re welcome to take them home with you.”

Digging through the scrapbooks, I finally found a small picture of Grandma on her chestnut horse. “Me and Flash, 1930” was scrawled on the back. I was surprised how much Grandma looked like me sitting on that horse. Straight brown hair and freckles.

When my great-uncle Al came to town, I asked him, “Do you know any other stories about Grandma besides the ones you told at the funeral?”

“Oh, I’m chock-full of tales about my sister,” he said. “I remember her first date with your Grandpa.”

Date? It had never occurred to me that someone would actually remember Grandma going on a date.

“To be honest, I remember her second date better. It was almost the last. Her first date was kind of normal. She came home with this goofy smile on her face and walked past me like I didn’t exist. But on her second date, she came home scratching like a hen in the barnyard. I thought she must have fleas. She kept yelling, ‘I can’t stand it,’ all the while yanking at her clothes and peeling down her socks. Come to find out, Harry’s old Plymouth also served as a truck. He’d forgotten to take the chicken feed sacks out in time for his date. Harry and Annie got covered with chicken mites. They were scratching like a couple of dogs all night and didn’t dare say a word to each other. Luckily, chicken mites would rather be on chickens than people, so Annie got over it quick. But it took a few weeks for her and Harry to get back together.”

Uncle Al and my dad were laughing so hard tears were running down their cheeks. Suddenly I remembered the words from the funeral. “Whoever does Annie’s life story is in for a few laughs.”

Uncle Al knew a little more about her chestnut horse. “Oh, yes, how she loved that little mare. Annie’s dream was to become a trick rider and ride in rodeos and wild west shows.”

“A trick rider?”

“Yep, she got pretty good at it too, considering she didn’t have that horse very long. I did watch her fall a few times in the pasture.”

“Did she barrel race too?”

“Oh, no, that was before the days of barrel racing,” he said. “But she did enter some sort of horsemanship event at the rodeo. Maybe you’ve heard about the saddle she won?”

I nodded.

Uncle Al shook his head. “It’s too bad about that saddle. I don’t think she ever got to use it.”

“She didn’t?” I said.

“Nope. She sold Flash right after that.”

“Why?”

“Oh, I have my suspicions. But the person who might know is my brother Bill.”

I hugged my notebook as I entered the rest home. Uncle Bill, Grandma’s next oldest brother, always made me a little nervous. He tended to get confused when he talked. But today he seemed sharp.

“Why did Annie sell her horse?” he repeated, leaning forward in his wheelchair. “Well, the Depression was coming on. I told her it didn’t matter; I could earn the money myself. But she had already made up her mind. Maybe you know how bullheaded she could be. She wanted to do her part for my mission. She said she couldn’t stand watching Flash eat hay in the barn while I might be hungry in England.”

“And she sold her new rodeo saddle too?” I said.

“Well, I don’t recollect that she did,” replied Uncle Bill, scratching the top of his head. “I think she kept that saddle a long time, hoping to buy another horse so she could be a trick rider. Then later on she hoped to have a daughter to give it to. To be honest, I don’t know what happened to that saddle.”

I had almost completed Grandma’s history by the time I found out what happened to her prize saddle. I ran across a letter from Bishop Jensen in the box of papers Uncle Sid had given me.

“Dear Annie: I know how you like your gifts to be anonymous. But I just wanted to tell you how thrilled the Hansens are with your saddle. They were afraid of paralysis after the accident, but now their little Marie seems determined to put that saddle on a horse. I knew you wanted your saddle to go to a girl who loves horses, and there’s no doubt Marie loves horses.”

I finished Grandma’s history and made copies for my family. Everyone was thrilled, including Bishop Jensen, who turned 100 years old the day I gave him his copy.

By the way, I never did beat that sassy blonde from Glenville in the barrels. She got married that summer and moved away. But the next year, I shortened my stirrups a notch like Grandma said and won second place. First place went to Rebecca Williams, who happened to be “little” Marie Hansen’s daughter.

Grandma’s saddle deserved to win first.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Paul Mann