Bessie’s last ride’The legend of the little long-legged girl

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth and final column in a series of five stories written by John Hallum, a former Bradyite who currently is a resident of Sitka, Alaska. He wrote the material during a recent visit to his old home town recounting times gone by centered around the downtown square. Contact him at jshallum@netscape.net. By John Hallum ‘ 2003 A friend of mine, who has a place down at Voca, told me this tale not long ago. Having put in a long day ranching, which according to him amounted to getting up before sunup, patching fence until lunch, getting cleaned up and then spending the afternoon with bankers trying to borrow some money. After all that you eat a hamburger and by then daylight’s gone. He took a turn around the Square before heading back to ranch. He was alone with his thoughts. ‘Now you aren’t gonna believe this but as I was turning into that darker stretch, I heard the a heck of a racket. Even with the window rolled up I could hear hoof beats clanging against the pavement. Here come a little girl riding a little horse. Her hair and the horse’s mane were just whipping in the wind. In the headlights, I caught their eyes, coal red like both of ’em were madder ‘n hell. I don’t know whether it was building fence or talking to bankers that tired me out, but all I wanted to do was get home to Voca.’ ‘How old was the girl’ High school’ ‘Oh no, Grade school but what was funny, she had the longest legs I ever saw on a little girl.’ ‘Were there fenders on the stirrups’ He thought for a minute. ‘You know, there were! How’d you know’ Looking around the Square and back and forth over a half-century, it’s interesting how fashions change. What’s in at one time is out another. Getting kids to and from school is a matter of school busses or a parent dropping a kid off then picking up at the end of the day. Once children rode bicycles and even rode horses. My Uncle Rob Hall would ride Roanie bareback up to the South Ward Cottage. When Mrs. Ellis dismissed my second grade class, I’d find Rob waiting for me at the edge of the school yard. He rode Roanie with just a halter. He’d slide off then toss me astride and I’d hang on to a hank of mane just forward of the withers he left uncut. Then he’d lead Roanie and me home to my grandparents’ house. I didn’t think much of it at the time but there might have been some of the other kids who wished their uncles had a horse. But soon bicycles became as numerous as kids. Johnny Rudder often gave me a ride on his bike telling me, ‘Don’t steer, John. Don’t steer,’ but I couldn’t help it. We wobbled but never crashed. That happened in the forties and none of this has much to do with the little girl on the little horse. In the twenties if your family didn’t own a bicycle and they did own a horse and a saddle, it might follow that you’d be put on horse and be told, ‘Off the school.’ The Hall family acquired a Shetland pony named Bessie. Elementary school then was North Ward. South Ward served as a high school. Our family lived at Eighth and High and kept Bessie at Uncle’s and Auntie’s, Mr. and Mrs. F.M. Richards. They owned the block where the Ricks family has their business and where the library stands. The south half of that block was fenced in and was both chicken and Shetland proof. The plan was that Mother, Sydnie Richards Hall, would walk over to Uncle and Auntie’s, catch and saddle Bessie, and ride to school. Today there are about a million little girls in Texas, who would dearly love this arrangement, but it was bicycles, not horses, that were in fashion. Furthermore there was a personality problem. Mother thought she should run things; Bessie was sure that she should call the shots. This state of things fueled Mother’s hatred of Bessie to near un-Christian intensity. The horse had an advantage. Bessie had never been baptized. But nevertheless Mother had to get to school and while the family may have had a car, my granddad liked to walk to work. The car spent the day standing in the driveway. Time went by and while Bessie stayed about the same size and disposition, Mother began to grow. Not much, she’s still around five feet and five or six inches, but the boys noted that her legs were growing longer. People forget that horseback riding is dangerous and it was my grandmother, who made sure that Mother’s stirrups were covered by fenders. While I don’t think fenders were foolproof, they lessened the likelihood were she to fall of her foot slipping through the stirrup, putting her at risk of being dragged. The fenders were a favorite of the movie cowboys a decade later. Fenders swept down like bats’ wings and flapped when at a full gallop, which was the only speed cowboys moved across the silver screen. But in this case, the fenders gave an optical illusion that Mother was outgrowing the horse. Several of the boys suggested that it might be more appropriate for her to get off and let the horse ride. That was not what the young lady wanted to hear.. Part of the story I left out was something Mother recently told me. Once she arrived at school, she tied Bessie out by the privy. Now looking at matter from Bessie’s point of view, who would be in a good mood were they were parked the whole day long by the outhouse’ Five days a week over and back until one day after turning Bessie loose in the chicken yard, Mother showed up at home piping-hot mad. She was in a talking, not a listening mood, and furthermore things had to change NOW! It seems like the ride home started like any other. She rode down Crothers Avenue, then turned on North Bridge and crossed the creek. I heard that there was a wooden bridge there at the time and trotted onto the street around the Square. History doesn’t record what set Bessie off. Mother would probably vote for just plain meanness. It could have been a car backfiring. At that time you had to manually advance the spark and there were absentminded people like me who needed reminding by a report louder than a rifle shot. Anyhow Bessie began to run. Mother pulled back on the reins standing full height in the stirrups. Bessie probably got the bit between her teeth and it was her day to be boss. Mama pulled harder. People looked up from all round the Square at that Hall girl riding like the wind and surely an ill wind. By the time Mother got the horse under control, had ridden up South Bridge, unsaddled and turned Bessie loose, and walked home, the official report was that ‘Bessie ran around the Square three times!’ I can imagine the reaction. The Halls believed that when life got tense, you laugh to keep from crying. Sometime I suspect, you laughed just to laugh because this ten or eleven year old girl was mad as a red ant bed and it was just hard to keep a straight face. Not that the horse ran away – that was serious. But that she ran around the Square three times! One good thing came of it all. Mother never again had to ride Bessie to North Ward and Bessie was left to mingle with Auntie’s chickens from that day forward. So I explained to my friend from Voca that if it happens again, just pull over. Count the times the horse runs around the Square. They’ll take off up South Bridge directly and then you can drive on. What calls up such a sight is that somebody somewhere is retelling the story of Bessie’s last ride. Actually Brady is lucky to have a legend like that. Say if you come to town and forget what you came for or find you’re running late for an appointment, Just explain you saw Bessie and the little long-legged girl running wild, hair and mane flying in the wind. That’s enough to distract anybody. The stories don’t end here. They go on and on as long as there is the Square and people to live on and around it. But the time has come when I have to think about something other than storytelling, to go other places, to do other things. Nevertheless, as I said before, there’s a lot to remember, a bunch to forget. Some of it happened, some of it never did, but the Square is a place where history and myth rub shoulders. The long and the short of the rubbing are some fine tales.

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