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Updated: May 20

We were vagabonds and scoundrels, the Apple Tree Bandits. Hiding in the orchard trees at the far end of the pasture we waited for the next victim of our thievery. A few feet below us our saddled ponies, Dolly and Dixie, snorted impatiently. The stagecoach started on its usual route, stopping at the lone tree to the north, aka “Dodge City.”

We knew the driver would head toward the box canyon, where anything could happen. They were well-armed. Two guards stood in the box behind the bench seat with deadly “finger- pistols.” The driver had her sidekick, riding shotgun. We patted our white leather holsters which held our pistols, fully loaded with paper coils of caps we bought at Berg’s five-and-ten. As the coach approached, we pulled our red bandanas up over our noses and slid the yellow bead on our cowboy-hat strings up to our chins. “Now!”

We leapt from the lowest limb right into the saddles, and Dixie and Dolly took off! The coach driver snapped the reins and skillfully restrained Billy to just shy of a gallop. (Though I’m not sure his harness would have allowed more than his usual trot.) Miraculously no one died in the shootout.

Sometimes the Apple Tree Bandits managed to surround the stagecoach which meant the driver had to hand over the bag of loot. Other times the stagecoach made it safely home to the wooden gate, where we would load up Billy’s cart again and argue over who got to be the Apple Tree bandits this time and who got to drive the coach.

Mom was strongly opposed to us having “violent” toys but finally relented when our cousins from Texas gave us their old cowboy outfits. . . We were not allowed to point the pistols at anyone. (Of course not.)

Our farm, which was mostly hard work throughout the year, had a tabula rasa front pasture that could transform into any kind of backdrop we imagined. We had several mares that had a high tolerance for groups of kids, whether local friends or cousins from distant places. Maybe our ponies loved breaking out of the daily routine, too. Grandpa Kurtz always took an interest in our "shindigs" with the ponies. He even helped to break a few young mares now and then.

Billy, our cart pony was the most patient animal on our farm. The story was that my younger brother, in diapers, had crawled beneath Billy who was tied outside the gate, waiting for his harness. When Mom looked up Billy was standing calmly, with one leg folded up at the knee, the baby sitting under him where his hoof would have been.

Dolly and Dixie had their tricks.

Dixie allowed us to start running from behind her, plant our hands on her rump and leapfrog onto her back, just like the movies!

But the minute we dragged out the saddles for a Sunday school picnic or our annual Fourth of July Horst family reunion, they knew they would be providing rides all day in the hot sun. They would deliberately bloat their bellies when we tightened the cinch so that later the saddle would slip sideways when anyone stepped into the stirrup. We learned to give them a little knee poke in the belly while pulling the cinch tight. It was a game they always played, but maybe their only protest about the picnics at our farm.

One day my sister, Jan, and I decided to ride Dolly bareback to the grocery store. I was tucked in front with Jan holding the reins around me. After we shopped, I remember my sister boosted me up onto Dolly’s back and handed me the paper bag of groceries to hold in my lap before she swung herself up, too. I scooted forward to make room for her, holding on to the mane. Suddenly Dolly dropped her head to the ground and pulled me off sending the groceries flying. (heh-heh, she nickered.)

I loved our ponies, but there was a day when I wanted to disavow them. First you need to know that our pastures were visible from the windows of all the classrooms along the south side of our high school. The school and the city park behind it were on land that had once been part of my grandparents’ farm.

I was sitting in my assigned seat in the large study hall when an announcement blared over the school-wide PA system: “Karen Kurtz, Your Ponies Are Out.” I think the building nearly tipped over that day with everyone crowding at the south windows to watch me (and a classmate who helped out on our farm) chase a herd of mares back toward the gate they’d worked loose. (heh-heh, they nickered in unison.)

It was a joy to have these gentle-souled ponies in my childhood. I have many fond memories of afternoons in the front pasture play-acting adventures with cousins, friends, and the ponies. Such things fueled my imagination for writing. Best of all, perhaps, was finding a creative outlet for my apple-tree-bandit nature. We all have some version of the shadowy bandit within. Maybe play is the best way to let it out.

~K L Kurtz, 🍎 Apple Tree Bandit (Retired)

Photos primarily show the Kurtz kids: (oldest to youngest) Roberta, Janet, Karen and Jim.

Also shown: Hazel and Willis, my parents, in the pony cart; cousins Barbara, Phyllis & Lauren Ernst visiting; cousin Erin Wertenberger (TX) driving the cart; and Grandpa E.J. Kurtz, pony tamer.


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