When I was a boy, my favorite companion was a sorrel pony named Duke.
At school, I’d sit through my afternoon classes impatiently, alternately checking the clock above the blackboard and the weather outside the window, waiting for the afternoon bell.
At 3 p.m., I’d bolt from the schoolhouse and head at a fast walk down the shoulder of a busy two-lane highway, by myself, traveling against the traffic as I’d been taught so I could keep an eye on the oncoming cars.
After about a mile, where the road changed from a city street to a rural highway, I’d look both ways, then dart across the pavement to a small farm, where my parents paid a modest fee to board Duke.
I’d climb a wire fence, run to the top of a knoll near the barn, and whistle.
Duke was usually watching for me, or at least that’s how it seemed. When he heard my whistle, he’d toss his head as if he was as glad to see me as I was to see him, and come trotting up the hill. I’d hug his neck and rub his muzzle, and he’d good-naturedly nip at my arms.
Then he’d follow me to the tack shed, which stood separate from the barn. I’d retrieve a bridle, blanket and saddle.
After I’d saddled him, I’d ride out across the fields. For the next couple of hours, I could be one of the cowboy heroes I dreamed of being, instead of some kid in small-town Kentucky.
One day I might be Little Joe Cartwright of Bonanza, the next day Sheriff Pat Garrett chasing Billy the Kid across frontier New Mexico.
Duke was fast, and we’d fly across the pastures at a dead gallop until his shoulders and flanks were covered in foam.
Finally, when I knew from the sun that it was nearing suppertime, I’d ride him toward the barn, unsaddle him and return the gear to the tack shed. I’d brush Duke, feed and water him. Then I’d start walking toward home.
Today, it’s hard to imagine a boy of 11 or 12 enjoying as much freedom to roam as I was granted, but back then, such liberties weren’t uncommon. Kids went where they wanted and did as they pleased.
One day, though, there was a glitch.
After my ride, I carried the tack into the shed — and as I stepped inside, a gust of wind blew the door shut. The door latch was an old-fashioned wooden peg that rotated on a nail, common on farms.
This time, when the door shut, the peg turned by itself and fell into place. I was locked in. No one lived on the farm. No one else was within earshot.
At first I wasn’t scared. I rummaged until I found a screwdriver in a drawer. I slid the screwdriver’s shaft between the door’s slats and tried to jimmy the peg. I couldn’t budge it. It seemed to be stuck.
I would have crawled out the shed’s window, but the window was covered in chicken wire that was nailed to the outside wall.
The longer I thought about my situation, the bigger the butterflies in my belly grew.
Would I miss supper? Would my parents be mad? Would they know where to find me? Would I be stuck in the shed all night?
I tried the screwdriver again. No luck.
Through the window I saw Duke shuffling around outside, waiting for me to emerge. I went back to the door and beat on it with the flat of my hand to get his attention. I whistled.
“Duke!” I yelled. “Come here! I’m locked in!”
Through the tiny gap between the slats, I saw him toss his head. I called and whistled again. I smacked the slats.
“Open the door! Move the peg!”
I’m telling the truth, I swear on a crate of King James Bibles.
As I watched, that pony walked directly to the door, stood stock-still, his ears up as if he were considering a solution, then raised his muzzle and started pushing that peg. In seconds, he popped it open and sprang me free.
When I walked outside, he shoved me playfully with his head.
I knew I had the smartest pony — and the best friend — a kid could ever wish for.
Nearly 50 years later, I still tell that tale. My two older granddaughters, Harper, 7, and Hadley, 6, love it. They’ve asked me to tell it and retell it times without number.
Recently, their parents surprised them and their siblings with a puppy, a chocolate Lab.
Shortly after, I received a text message from Harper: “Did you know that our dog’s name is Duke?”
“That’s a wonderful name for a dog,” I replied.
Then I added, “And for a pony.”
I pray that a half-century from now, Harper is telling her grandchildren stories about her own buddy named Duke.
I know that to this day, I’ve never had a better pal than my own Duke, or one I’ve missed more.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.