"Pete and Ole"
Dad finished pouring a cup of coffee and gathered a handful of oatmeal cookies from the rows spread out on the cutting board to cool. After Mom baked bread or cake, or when Loretta baked cookies or pies or bars, they pulled the cutting board out from its slot beneath the kitchen counter and used it as a place to set the pans they had taken out of the oven. And then the cutting board stayed pulled out until the baking had cooled. My mother also used the cutting board to slice bread, of course, which anybody could see by the dozens of thin lines scored into its surface from the sharp knife edges.
I helped myself to two cookies and sat by the table next to Dad.
“It’s no wonder I have to bake cookies every time I turn around,”Loretta grumbled. She frowned and tried to look fierce and grumpy, but it didn’t work. It never did. With her dark curly hair and smiling blue eyes, she was too pretty to look fierce and grumpy.
Dad shrugged and picked up another cookie. “Can’t help myself. These cookies are awwww-ful good.”
Loretta often baked cookies on Sunday afternoons, and she was in the middle of making a triple batch of oatmeal. She would take some of the cookies with her when she left for her apartment later today.
“What’s that book about?”Dad asked, pointing at the book I had laid on the table before getting my cookies.
I finished chewing a bite of cookie. “There’s this girl who goes out West to visit her cousins for the summer,”I explained. “They give her a horse to ride, and it has a brand. She thinks the brand is weird because she’s never seen one before.”
“Pete had a brand you know,”Dad said, dipping a cookie into his cup of coffee.
“Pete had brand?”I said.
“Sure did,”Dad replied.
Pete and Ole, the last team of workhorses my father owned, had been gone from our farm for quite a few years by the time I was born. I didn’t think Pete was such an unusual name for a horse, but Ole was a Norwegian name, and I could not figure out why the horse would have a Norwegian name. Mom was Norwegian. Dad was not. But my father had been the one who worked with the horses and fed them and took care of them, and it seemed unlikely to me that my mother would name the team. One time I had asked Mom how ‘Ole’ was spelled. Since it rhymed with ‘holy’ I thought it was probably ‘O-l-y.’ But Mom said no, that Ole was spelled ‘O-l-e.’
“What did Pete’s brand look like?”I asked.
I loved to watch Westerns on television. I knew that brands were markings burned into the hide of a horse or a cow with a hot iron so the ranch owners would know which animal belonged where if they got mixed up on the open range, and that when it came time to do the branding, every ranch hand had to pitch in and help — sort of like haying time on our farm where sometimes even my big sister became a tractor driver.
I was hoping the brand would be something interesting like a Circle Bar D, or a Double B, or a Triple R. The brands in the Westerns on television were like the name of the ranch. If the ranch was Circle Bar D Ranch, then the brand was a circle with a ‘D’ in the middle and a line over the ‘D.’
“Pete’s brand was nothing special,”Dad replied. “Only a little squiggly mark on his hip.”
“But Pete and Ole weren’t really workhorses, were they?”I asked as I nibbled the edge off another oatmeal cookie. I knew all about the workhorse breeds from reading the H volume of our World Book Encyclopedia set. There were Clydesdales and Belgians and Percherons and Shires.
“Nope,”Dad said. “Pete and Ole were just ordinary horses.”
“What color were they?”I asked, although I already knew the answer to that question.
“They were brown,”Loretta said.
“Yes, they were brown horses,”said Mom, who had come out to the kitchen a minute ago.
“But what kind of brown?”I asked.
I knew horses could be many different colors of brown: sorrel (a reddish brown), chestnut (a darker brown), bay (reddish brown with a black mane and tail), roan (also a reddish brown but with white hairs mixed in), dun (yellowish brown with a dark brown stripe along the spine), and buckskin (a light brownish beige).
“I guess you could say they were sorrels,”Dad replied.
“They still looked like plain old brown horses to me,”Mom said.
“Would you like a cookie, Mother? And some coffee?”Loretta asked.
“Yes, please,”Mom replied.
My sister put a cookie on a small plate and poured a cup of coffee for Mom.
I glanced at Dad. He was grinning.
“What’s so funny, Daddy?”I asked.
“I was just thinking about Pete and Ole. Pete was thin and kind of nervous. Ole was fat and slow. When I hooked them together, I had to be careful about saying ‘gid-up’ and slapping the reins, because Pete would take off like he’d been shot out of cannon.”
“What would Ole do?”I asked.
“Not much,”Dad replied. “Not any more than he had to. Ole didn’t want to move that fast. It didn’t matter how many times I slapped the reins, he’d hang back, and if we were plowing or something like that, it meant Pete was doing most of the work. I think Ole figured he was just out for a walk. Or to keep Pete company.”
My mother took a sip of coffee and set the cup on the table. “I was always surprised you ever got any work done with those two,”she said.
I turned toward Dad again and nibbled some more off the edge of my cookie. If it had been left up to me, I would have eaten half the batch by myself this afternoon. But I knew Mom wouldn’t like that, and plus, if I ate so many cookies now, I wouldn’t have enough during the week while Loretta was at her apartment. Eating the cookies reminded me that Loretta would come home again on the weekend. I missed my big sister when she was gone.
“How did Pete and Ole get their names, anyway?”I asked.
“See, there were a lot of Norwegians around here back then,”Dad said. “Not like now, where people say they’re Norwegian because of their folks, but real Norwegians, people who came from the old country.”
Dad reached for his coffee cup. “They had this newspaper that was written in Norwegian. I couldn’t understand a word of it, but Nels could.”
Nels was my mother’s father, and I knew he had died many years before I was born.
“And in this newspaper,”Dad continued, “they had a comic strip. The characters’ names were Pete and Ole. Nels would read it and laugh, and so would Sigurd if he happened to be over here. And then I’d ask what was so funny, and they’d tell me what Pete and Ole were doing that week.”
Sigurd was Mom’s uncle.
“Did you like Grandpa Nels, Daddy? And Uncle Sigurd? Were they nice?”
I could remember Uncle Sigurd. He had died when I was five years old. He had lived in town, and I would go with Loretta to bring him out to the farm to eat Sunday dinner with us.
“Yeah,”Dad said, “Nels and I got along fine. Same with Sigurd. They were both nice guys. I used to cut pulp with Sigurd. When Ma got polio, Nels helped me take care of your brother and sister.”
“But what about the comic strip, Dad?”
“The characters were always getting themselves into one situation or another, and so, when we got this team of horses, I thought it sounded like good names for them. Turned out to be accurate, too, because Pete and Ole were always doing funny things.”
Dad went to the stove to fill his cup and came back to the table with another handful of cookies. If it was one thing Dad liked, it was sweets, but he said he couldn’t understand it because the Norwegians were the ones who were supposed to like sweets, and his father came from Scotland and his mother came from Germany. He figured that liking sweets must mean lots of Norwegian had rubbed off on him, seeing as he had lived around them for so long.
“What else do you remember about Pete and Ole?”I asked.
Dad dipped another cookie into his coffee. “When I worked at the canning factory,”he said, “I didn’t have time during the week to fool with the horses.”
For as long as I had known my father, he had been a farmer, and I had a hard time picturing him at work in a factory.
“Why were you working at the canning factory?”
“We needed the money,”Mom said.
“But what about Pete and Ole?”I asked.
“All week long while I was at the factory, they’d stand around, eating. Getting fat. Doing nothing. When I was home, I’d walk out to the pasture to see ’em. And there they’d be. All over me. Nuzzling my arm. Nudging my cap. Following me around like big puppy dogs.”
He reached for another cookie.
“Although,”Dad continued, “it was a different story entirely if I wanted to get some work done.”
“Then what happened?”
“They’d take one look at me — and they’d run!”Dad recalled. “Tails in the air. Kicking up clods of dirt. They’d gallop around and around the pasture. You’d think they were race horses instead of workhorses.”
My sister pulled another cookie sheet out of the oven. “I remember that,”she said. “Especially the part about them kicking up big hunks of dirt when they ran away.”
“How’d you ever catch them?”I asked.
“Oh — once they got it out of their system, they’d settle down,”Dad said. “Then they’d let me catch them just as nice as you please.”
My father rubbed his ear. “You know, sometimes I thought it seemed like Pete and Ole missed me when I was gone all week.”
“Then why did they run away?”
“That’s a horse for you,”Mom said. “You can’t get a hold of them when you want them.”
“Horses are smart that way,” Dad said. “They know the difference between when you want to catch ’em for work and when you’re only coming out there to see them.”
“Pete and Ole must not have liked working,”I said.
“Actually,”Dad said. “I don’t think Pete and Ole minded working. Everybody likes to feel useful, you know. It’s just that it was a trick they enjoyed playing.”
“Sort of like a game?”
“Exactly like a game,” Dad replied.
He picked up his coffee cup, saw that it was empty, and stood up.
“And then, too, there was that time Loretta and Ingman took Pete and Ole for a ride,”he said, as he headed for the coffee pot.
“You want some more coffee, Ma?”he asked. My mother held up her hand, as if to say ‘no,’ but then thought better of it. “Maybe a half a cup,”she said.
I turned toward Loretta. “How come you were riding the horses? Were you going out to get the cows?”
My sister ran water into the cookie batter bowl. “I don’t remember why we decided to take Pete and Ole out for a ride,”she said. “Ingman rode Pete because he liked to go fast. I liked Ole because he was slow.”
“What happened?”I asked.
“When we came to a tree, Ole was much too lazy to go around, so he walked right under it,”Loretta said.
“Then what?”I asked.
“A tree branch knocked me off,”Loretta said as she started to put the cooled cookies into a canister.
“How come you didn’t duck?”
“Duck?”Loretta asked, turning to stare at me. “I was too scared to think about ducking.”
“Why were you scared?”
“Ole was a big animal.”
“Did he run away after you fell off?”
“Oh, no. He just stopped and stood there.”
“How come you didn’t turn him away from the tree?”
“Me? Try to turn that great big thing?”Loretta asked, looking horrified at the very thought.
Turning was easy. You pulled on the rein in the direction you wanted to go. That’s what I did with Dusty.
“Wasn’t it fun to ride the horses?”I asked.
If Pete and Ole were still here, I knew I would want to ride them every day. When it came to the workhorses, I was jealous of Loretta and Ingman because they had known Pete and Ole personally.
Loretta turned toward me and shook her finger. “I’ve never ridden a horse since then,”she declared, “and I haven’t wanted to, either!”
Dad sat back in his chair and crossed one leg over the other. “And then there was the time Pete and Ole came home all by themselves,”he said. “Some people we know wanted to use them during the week while I was gone at work. Pete and Ole came home, in the middle of the night, all by themselves.”
“By themselves?“I said.
“But nobody knew it,”Mom said, “not until Loretta and Ingman came home from school the next day.”
“Why not?”I said.
“Because they stayed behind the barn, where I couldn’t see them,”Mom said.
“When Ingman and I were on our way back from school and got over the hill, we could see them behind the barn,”Loretta explained. “We hurried the rest of the way home because we wanted to know why Pete and Ole were back so soon.”
My mother shook her head. “When they came in the house and said Pete and Ole were behind the barn, I thought they were seeing things.”
“I guess Pete and Ole didn’t want to be someplace else,”Dad said. “They wanted to come home. They traveled quite a few miles to get here, too.”
He sighed, and a far-away look came into his blue eyes. “Yup — Pete and Ole were quite the pair. . .”
“What happened to them?”I asked.
“I sold them,”Mom said.
“Sold them. While your father was away at work.”
“Oh, it wasn’t as bad as it sounds,”Dad said. “By that time we had a tractor, and we really didn’t need the horses anymore.”
“But your father couldn’t stand to see them leave. So, I told the guy he had to take them before my husband came home from work,”Mom said.
A lump rose in my throat. I knew how I would feel if I came home from school one day and found out Dusty was gone.
“What happened to Pete and Ole after that?”I asked.
“Don’t know,” Dad said. “Didn’t see nor hear anything of ’em. It was so long ago now, I’m sure they’re both dead.”
Later that evening while we were doing the chores, in between carrying milk to the milkhouse for Dad, I got Dusty out of her stall and tied her in the barn aisle so I could brush her.
“Well, Dusty, are you enjoying getting brushed?”Dad asked.
He had finished putting a milker on a cow and had come over to see my pony. At the sound of his voice, Dusty turned her head toward him.
“You’re a good girl, aren’t you,”Dad said as he rubbed her forehead.
Dusty’s forelock had not grown back much yet after her haircut last fall when it was full of cockleburs. Instead of a thick, white foretop hanging down between her eyes, it was a clump of bushy white hair sticking up between her ears.
Dad stopped scratching Dusty’s forehead, and she pushed her nose under his arm and nudged him hard enough to make his arm bounce up and down.
Dad laughed and patted her neck. “You’re as bad as Pete and Ole. Do you know that?”
“Do you wish Mom hadn’t sold Pete and Ole?”
Dad didn’t say anything for so long that I thought he wasn’t going to answer my question. Instead he stroked Dusty’s velvety brown nose with one calloused hand. When he turned to look at me, my father’s blue eyes had lost their usual twinkle.
“I would have liked to keep Pete and Ole forever,”he said. “They were my friends.”
Before I could think of another question to ask, he turned and walked back to the cow so he could check on the milker.
I put my arms around Dusty’s neck and buried my face in her thick hair. Dusty’s reddish brown winter coat felt as soft as the fur trimming on the winter boots my sister wore when she was dressed up for work or for church. Dusty’s dapples, I had noticed, were not nearly as easy to see during the winter when her hair was longer. I took a deep breath and held it. If I lived to be four hundred years old, I would never grow tired of the smell of horses.
“Smells good, don’t she,”Dad said.
I looked up and saw that he was taking the cover off a full bucket of milk.
“Daddy, I’m sorry you didn’t get to keep Pete and Ole.
Dad put the cover on an empty milker bucket. “It’s all right, kiddo,”he said. “That was years ago. Water under the bridge, as they say.”
My father’s words said it was all right, but I could tell by the way he said it that it was not — not really.
And even though I knew Pete and Ole had both probably died years ago, I couldn’t help wishing they were still alive so I could find them and bring them home again.