The bus dropped me off at the farm gate, and I ran to the shelter where I always left my bike. Then I thought, school had finished early this last day of term. If I went straight home Dad would find me a job, washing the car or something. I decided to make the most of my unexpected free time and head off towards Goat Ridge instead. I'd found some pretty good fossils there in the past in the swampy ground at the foot of the cliff.
I left my bike on the road and scrambled up the ridge. I hadn’t been there for months, not since before the winter, and now it was mid-summer. That’s why I was puzzled when I first got up there. Something was different, but I couldn’t make out exactly what.
Then I realised - there had been a slip. A great slice of hillside had come down, cutting off the open end of the gully. The far end was closed in by scrub-covered hills. It must have happened recently, probably during the heavy rain that had fallen a couple of weeks earlier, because it was still raw-looking and crumbly.
I decided to go down. It might have uncovered some interesting rocks. I moved carefully to the edge. I didn’t want it to collapse on top of me when I was halfway down!
I was almost at the bottom when I saw the horse.
I froze because I knew it must be one of the wild ones that roam around here sometimes and some of those wild stallions can be dangerous.
Then I saw it was a filly - and she was a beauty! She was red-gold like an autumn leaf. Her eyes were wide open and as bright as fireflies. She seemed more curious than afraid as she watched me slither down the last of the slope.
The herd must have been there when the slip occurred - perhaps they set it off - and somehow she had become trapped on the wrong side. While the others galloped clear she had been cut off. I wondered how long she had been there and what would have happened if I hadn’t found her.
There was water at the bottom of the gully and plenty of grass, but I knew it wouldn’t last much longer. The creek would dry up once the weather grew hot. I'd have to get her out.
I scrambled back up the cliff and set off for home, meaning to ask Dad to bring the tractor and clear the slip to let her out. By the time I reached the house I'd had second thoughts. I knew what would happen. Dad would throw a rope on her first, then as soon as a way out was cleared he would take her back to the yard for Fred to break in.
I'd seen Fred breaking in horses and I hated it. He said it was the only way, but I was sure it could be done without terrifying the horse and breaking its spirit. I didn’t want that to happen to this lovely animal. Once broken, she would be sold. I'd never see her again.
I had been pleading for a horse of my own for ages, but it was a waste of time.
"We don’t need another horse. Any animal on my land has to earn its keep," Dad always said.
So now I sneaked in and changed out of my muddy school uniform, then I let Mum know I was home. "Can I go for a bike ride?" I asked.
"Okay," she agreed. "Dinner’s six o'clock. Don’t be late."
I grabbed an apple, a piece of bread and a slice of cake from the larder and the folding spade that Dad always carried in the boot of the car, and headed back to the gully. I would get the filly out myself, set her free to run with the herd, even if it took me a month.
Down in the gully again, I spent ages trying to coax the filly to come to me, but every time I got close she shied off, dancing away from me. She was interested in me, but never let me come near her. In the end I gave up. I put the bread and the apple where she could get them, ate the cake myself, and tackled the slip. And that’s the way I spent the next six weeks!
My birthday came and went. I asked, again, for a horse and was given a microscope - which was great, although I'd rather have had a horse of my own.
"You can ride the farm horses," Dad said, but that wasn’t the same.
Mum and Dad were pleased to see me setting off each day with my backpack and shovel. They thought being a 'rock hound' was an odd sort of hobby, but if that was what I liked it was all right by them.
I had my chores to do every morning, but after that I was free to please myself. I took a few lumps of rock home every day to keep up appearances, but most of the time I was digging away at that mountain of soil and stone. I discovered muscles I never knew I had!
I named the filly Firefly and every time I stopped for a breather I talked to her. I always had something in my pocket for her - carrots, apples, bread. She soon grew used to having me around.
As the summer wore on the vegetation in the gully grew scarce. I began to take a little bag of oats or a small bundle of hay each day - not much in case Dad missed it. The creek was low and muddy so I added a plastic container of water to my daily load.
After six weeks, my patience was beginning to pay off. Firefly would come to me now and eat from my hand, letting me stroke her nose and pat her neck. She still acted nervous, but mostly it was a kind of game she was playing and I knew she looked forward to me coming every day. I began to feel we were friends. I hoped so.
One day I slid my arms along her neck and leaned my weight on her back. I thought she might try to throw me off, but she just looked around at me as if to say, 'Hallo there," and nuzzled my pocket for another apple.
The next day I coaxed her alongside a rock. I stood on the rock, patting her and talking to her. Then, slowly, I swung my leg over her back - and there I was, sitting on her. She gave one startled snort and looked back at me, but that was all. I just sat there and she didn’t seem to mind at all. It was true, we were real friends. I let her carry me wherever she pleased, but of course there wasn’t really anywhere to go except up and down the gully.
After that I rode her every day and she soon learned to let me guide her, turning her left or right with my knees. She seemed to enjoy it.
Then there was just one week of the holiday left. Each day had been fine and dry, helping my work along, but also drying up the creek and scorching the grass. Now there was a narrow way out of the gully, rough but passable except for a fallen tree, just a small one, barring the exit. The time had come to bring Firefly out.
I could hardly sleep that night for thinking of what might happen. One thought kept running through my mind. What if, instead of turning her loose, I rode up to the farmhouse on Firefly, already tamed and gentle? Surely then Dad would let me keep her. But what if he didn't? What if he sold her on? Dare I take the risk?
The next day I took a bridle and bit and a rope to pull the fallen tree clear. The day was a scorcher. Firefly was edgy and nervous and my heart sank. If, after all, she refused to let me ride her out I'd have to let her go, free to find the herd. Once I was back at school there'd be no one to feed and water her. It would be cruel to keep her there alone.
There was no more time to work on her. At home Mum was talking about haircuts and spending a day in town buying new school clothes and books.
I showed Firefly the bridle. She backed off, blowing down her nose at it. Perhaps if I rode her for a little while first, she might let me put it on her afterwards. I tossed it down on to the grass and tried to mount up, but she danced around in circles and wouldn’t let me up. I sighed. The morning was slipping away.
I gave up and tackled the fallen tree. I tied the rope around it and pulled as hard as I could. One end was free, but the roots were firmly embedded in the earth. I heaved and struggled. The sweat was streaming off me, running into my eyes, when I stopped to eat the sandwich I had brought with me. I drank some water and thought about the problem.
The tree was now the only thing blocking Firefly’s way out. If I couldn’t move it myself, I'd have to get help. That meant telling Dad and losing all chance of keeping Firefly. He would see her as just another wild horse. I'd banked on showing him that she was already gentle and that I could ride her. Unless… if I could get Firefly to haul the tree aside I might still be able to free her, even if I never rode her again.
I still had an apple left in my bag. She was less skittish now and came willingly to eat it from my hand. She let me lean my arms on her back. I took my time and then, with a wriggle and a jump, I was astride her.
The rope was still tied around the tree. Now I looped it over her neck and tried to turn her so that she would pull on it. Firefly had other ideas. As she felt the rope tighten she reared up in a panic. I hung on desperately, but it was no use. I felt myself slipping. The next moment I hit the ground with the thump.
I picked myself up with a groan. I was going to have some spectacular bruises in the morning! Firefly had taken off down the gully and was watching me warily.
I wiped my face on my T-shirt. It was the hottest day we'd had all summer. I looked up at the sun blazing down above Goat Ridge - and gasped. There, drifting innocently skywards, curled a dark plume of smoke!
The scrub was on fire - and beyond the scrub lay Dad’s pine plantation!
Thoughts raced through my mind. Should I try to put it out? If it was too big for me I'd be wasting time. I should go for help, but it was a long way to the farm and I knew how fast fire could sweep through tinder-dry scrub.
Firefly! She was the only answer. But would she let me ride her?
She was still at the far end of the gully. I whistled and called, praying that she would come. If I went towards her she would back off. She must come to me. She started, then stopped, wary in case I had any more ideas about putting a rope on her.
"Firefly! Please!" I begged. She came a little nearer, ears alert.
I didn’t even have a piece of bread, an apple, to tempt her with. If she came it would be because she wanted to please me. Time was ticking away. The smoke was thicker, spiralling higher into the sky.
"Please, Firefly," I pleaded. "We're still friends, aren’t we?" At last she came!
No rope, no bit, no bridle, but I was going to have to ride this horse out of the gully and get help. And not just ride her - she was going to have to jump! I had springs in my heels as I leaped on to Firefly’s back. She shivered, but let me urge her forward with my knees, gripping her mane with my hands, guiding her as she picked her way among the rocks.
She broke into a trot, but it wasn’t enough. We needed some real speed. I whipped off my hat. "Yee-ha!" I screamed. With me screaming and flourishing my hat, we hurtled towards the fallen tree. She took it like a bird, clearing it effortlessly.
She was out - and perhaps she was trying to please me, because she let me head her towards the farm paddocks. In no time at all we were nearing the house with me yelling to Dad, "Fire! Fire above the Ridge!"
We must have been quite a sight, but Dad had no time to ask questions. He raced to the phone. It took the best part of the day to get the fire under control, but we saved the plantation.
After that Dad could hardly say Firefly hadn’t earned her place on the farm, could he? She was mine to keep.
© Margaret Beames
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