Daily, Gene Autry and I mounted our horses. Gene’s Champion was dark brown with three stocking feet and a blaze down his face. Dusty was a broomstick topped with the wooden silhouette of a horse’s head. Attached to his painted mane was a leather halter. I raced the wind on Dusty.
Gene and I galloped the lone prairie. We rounded up the doggies and ate grub from the chuck wagon. We drew our trusty six-shooters and plugged holes in the livers of dangerous desperadoes.
When we ambled into town, Gene’s other sidekick, Smiley, banged his fist into the swinging doors and we sauntered into the saloon. We downed our jiggered whiskey while the piano player plunked the keys for the spangle-clad women cavorting on stage.
I alighted from the bar stool and danced with them, sashaying my fringe, kicking my boots high, clicking my heels. That summer the backyard of our apartment building became my own Wild West.
One rainy day Mom kept me inside while she used the sweeper. Her attention elsewhere, I sidled to the desk and pilfered a sheet of paper and then tiptoed to the kitchen cabinet and palmed some stick matches.
Gene, Champion, Dusty, and I snuck out into the second-story hall and crouched in a corner. I shredded the paper and patted all the pieces into a nice pile. Then I struck a match against the wall. When it flamed, I lit our campfire. Smoke wafted lazily toward the ceiling as the paper strips crinkled into ash.
Still crouching, our palms held over the warmth of the flames, Gene and I belted out, “I’m back in the saddle again. Out where a friend is a friend. Where the longhorn cattle feed on the lowly gypsum weed back in the saddle again.” Arriving at the chorus, we waved our cowboy hats in the air and bellowed, “Whoop-ty-aye-oh rockin’ to and fro back in the saddle again whoopi-ty-aye-yay I go my way back in the saddle again.”
Suddenly the apartment door banged open. Mom hurtled into the hall. “Dodo!” she shrieked, “What are you doing?”
“Cookin’ grub with Gene.”
By now she was stamping out the few remaining shards of my campfire. When she scooped up the ashes, I could see a burnt patch on the carpet.
“Anna Dolores, what am I going to do with you,” Mom moaned.
“Me and Gene needed a fire,” I explained.
“What you need,” she muttered, “is a good whipping.” She took me by the arm and swatted my bottom as she marched me into the apartment.
“Dusty!” I hollered. “Don’t forget Dusty!”
She turned us right around, still gripping my upper arm, and snatched up my horse. Inside our apartment, she gave my bottom several more good swats, made me promise not to do that ever again, and put matches off-limits.
I spent the next fifteen minutes in the corner, Dusty on the floor next to me. Gene said, “Well, Pardner, looks like we had us a right good ‘venture.” I agreed. Right good.
That night, I overheard Mom talking to Daddy. “She can be so naughty,” Mom said, “but you gotta wonder at that imagination of hers. She’s going far, John.”
And Daddy agreed. “Shoot for the stars, Dodo," he told me the next day.
It’s what I’ve tried to do. I no longer have a six-shooter or a Stetson, but I do have an imagination populated by a world of movie and book and television characters. When I turned five and life suddenly became dark, that imaginary world comforted me. It offered the security of certainty. But that’s another story for another time and another campfire.