A Grand Ride

F. ROGER SANDALL is a twenty-five-year-old New Zealander who was horn in Christchurch and spent most of his school years in Auckland, where he received his A.B. in anthropology at the university. He is now in the United States on a fellowship and working toward his master’s degree at Columbia. Like many other New Zealanders, he has traveled to both England and America, but Australia continues to elude him.

THE fat kid was aged nine and carried a .22 and the thin kid was aged eleven and carried another .22 and I was aged twenty-three and had a .303 in a rifle holster on my right. The fat one rode a black pony and the thin one a gray and mine was a bay mare quite sober except when drunk but I didn’t know this when I set out.

The boys were going to show me the part of the ranch way back beyond the ridge and I wanted a ride (I’m from the city and ride horses just a bit more often than I ride sea serpents) so the boys thought if this soft city slicker wants to ride then we’ll all take guns and whang at the goats on the way. Now the fat kid had a rare humor and kept cocking his weapon and snapping the trigger on an empty barrel because each time the metal clacked the thin kid’s horse tore at its reins in fright and tried to bolt so we made lively progress out to the five-mile hut.,

Now we’ll go shooting said the boys and we left the horses and struck off up a gulley away from the hut looking for goats and tripping over rocks and crashing around in the scrub and finally loosing off a goodly measure of C.A.C. at a harmless cabbage tree and the bark flew before the wayward lead. It was the boys’ plan to show how Lite country eye like the country heart is straight while the townie is crooked all through so their eyes grew round with shock when it was the .303 which blew the bark from the cabbage tree and not their peashooting .22s.

This made them keener still to see me downed and they said if you can ride man now’s your chance to qualify — we’ll race back from the hut to the fork in the track and God help you if the mare can’t stay on the path or if you can’t stay on her.

Now I’d better be plain and say here and now that short of the walls of the Grand Canyon the lace of the Matterhorn or the eastern approach to the summit of the Empire State there are no hills like the hills on my uncle’s ranch for gravitybeating verticality and no rocks like my uncle’s rocks — they’re sharp as devils’ bones — and though my uncle swears it’s the wild goats that are ruining him God knows what they eat for the land is bare as a skeleton.

No, the track those boys wanted to race on was not quite as wide as the Yonkers straight and the only way to pass a slow horse on it was over the top which is a cruel crushing sport so they say but I’ve never tried it myself. 1 mean the passing stunt.

We climbed aboard at the fence by the hut and I was carrying the fat kid’s .22 for reasons unknown to me even today and the thin one let a bullet fly right by the ears of his horse and as though forty whips had cut into the bay’s flanks she snorted away down the gulley and up the spur to the distant fork in the tracks leaving the fat kid on the ground where his horse had tossed him and the thin kid trying to straighten his horse out of the mad spiral she’d gone into when the gun bang blew in her ear.

Well I didn’t fire the shot though God knows the kids couldn’t have given me a better break. My uncle said just leave it to the mare to steer you on that path she knows it like the back of her ass and better, so I gave her the rein and sat back with a prayer to the patron saint of horseback riders to take pity on the two of us and all went well until the first hill was past and she could see the ranch house in the distance. Then she took a great breath and leapea away down that track like a filly from the fields of Elysium run by seven red stallions fresh from the stalls of Hell.

Now at this point of the track it was one thousand feet up and one thousand feet down. If you looked hard down and that meant straight down you might just see the creek at the bottom and those maggots along the creek were some of the biggest merinos between the two poles and if you looked straight up to where the rim of the peaks scraped the sky you might see some insects up there and those insects were giant billy goats but either way it was one thousand feet.

So I looked up and I looked down and I hung on like hell and let the mare go on a slack rein. We went all of a mile in a wild saw-toothed career into the gulleys and out again down into the shadow and up into the light, me hanging on to the pommel with the kid’s rifle whacking across my back like a balk of four-by-two, when suddenly rounding a sharp bend with nothing but space beyond it and nothing but rock below it and nothing above it at all the mare’s hind legs lost their grip and she hung on the edge of the track pawing with her front hoofs and I saw then that the mare knew just as little as I did about the track. When we were back on the path I hauled in on the rein to brake her before both of us went into the gulf but she froze the bit: in her jaws and lit out all the merrier for the fork in the tracks near the yards — and that was all of two miles away.

I looked back for the kids and though far to the rear I caught sight of the fat one on the black horse make a mountaineer’s pass at one of the peaks; his horse mistook the track and set her nose for the crags of snowy goatland on the crest of the ridge. I wished the boy well. What with his damned trigger snapping and smart-aleck wisecracking this dark horse-rocket to the moon was well deserved and I only hoped that the other gunhappy infant on the skittery gray would try the same lunar gambit. But he was still in control and though bloody-kneed where a crag had snatched at him and though his horse had splintered her hoofs on the rocks the boy still hung on though the way the gray staggered I reckoned it would be all of two days before he overtook me on the mare.

Well, I made the fork in the tracks and the split in the path so slewed the mare’s brain she was like that ass between the two bales of hay and in the middle of this cerebral torment I wrenched the bit free and almost pulled the brute’s head in half slowing her down to a pace at which I could step off and survive.

How I got that leather gear off I’ll never know what with a broken bridle strap and a wrenched girth there was plenty of damage done and then the rifle on my back got caught under her jaw when I was fighting the bridle free and as I fell down the so-called safety catch vouchsafed itself and with a pretty ping the gun cracked away at the sky and the sun — and my uncle. He said he never did see such a sight in his stockyard and that may well be but I said it was a grand ride uncle dear and it’s a brave horse you gave me and thirteen black curses upon your devils of sons if and when they ever return.