Four Kiwi Horses Return From The Great War [Short Story]
By Tiny Spurs
17th Mar 2013 •
Jilly chuckled as she faced the huge, muscular bull. Despite her being the average size for a twelve-year-old girl, Mean Monster Mac towered over her with eyes like glistening dark pools. The bull snorted threateningly, his front hoof pawing at the dusty grass. Jilly stood her ground, hands planted on her narrow hips. They were just a metre apart. "You don't scare me," Jilly declared as the bull snorted a second time. Her heart beat just a little faster.
Mean Monster Mac let out a bellow and charged. A grin suddenly cracking across her face, the young girl leaped to the side; once the bull was safely past and beginning to wheel round to chase her, she made a mad dash for the fence. She could hear his thundering hooves pounding the dry earth in hot pursuit. His ground-swallowing strides quickly shortened the distance between them. Her legs and lungs burning, her eyes wild with excitement, Jilly reached the fence and hurdled over it, cuffing her ankle on the top rail as she jumped. Somehow she made it over and landed with a thud on the other side. She looked up with a crazed glint in her eyes and laughed at the bull's angry yell. He had skidded to a stop in time to avoid a collision.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?"
Jilly's laugh ended abruptly. Her body suddenly went numb with a surge of fear. Twisting slowly on the ground, she looked up into a furious face of Uncle Aata. She swallowed guiltily and got to her feet. As she fidgeted under her guardian's dominating stare, her senses began to return. Dust ringed her lips and tipped her fringe, and a trickle of blood cascaded from the graze on her ankle. Unable to look him in the eye, Jilly cast her eyes to the ground.
After an excruciatingly long time, it seemed to Jilly, Uncle Aata finally spoke. "Did he hurt you, Jilly?"
"No, Matua Keke," Jilly said truthfully.
"Why are you bleeding?"
"I hit the fence."
"As you jumped over, to escape the bull you had just irritated."
"Yes, Matua Keke."
She heard Uncle Aata sigh. Quickly glancing up, she saw him rubbing his face with a calloused hand. She swallowed again. "I'm sorry," she said quietly.
Her guardian looked at her, his keen hunters' eye examining her body language. Finally he smiled softly, almost too small to tell. But Jilly knew, and she relaxed. "I bet your sons couldn't outrun ol' Mac like I did," Jilly teased.
Uncle Aata laughed. "Bet they couldn't," he agreed, wrapping an arm around Jilly's shoulders. "Come on, child; supper will be getting cold."
Some hours later, Jilly watched the shadows on her ceiling dancing above her head. Although she knew they were just from the trees and the moonlight outside, she imagined that the patupaiarehe - the Maori fairies - were making shadow puppets to play with her. Jilly pulled her light bed sheet up to her armpits, still gazing at the shadows in adoration. Directly above her, a shadow shaped like a swan seemed to be having a sword fight with a lizard. Nearer to the middle of the ceiling, a - was that? Oh goodness, it was a shadow the shape of Mean Monster Mac, and she suspected the little dot beneath him represented her crumpled body. Silly patupaiarehe.
But it was the shadow that danced in the far corner of the room that had Jilly's special attention. As she admired it, her eyes began to sting with tears. She stopped them from rolling down, but the lump in her throat remained. The shadow that danced in the far corner of the room looked exactly like a horse. A tall, strapping, lively horse. And on its back was her Pa. "I miss you," she whispered, her hand creeping to the locket around her neck. Her Pa continued to ride his gallant mount, and Jilly's thumb brushed the engraving on the back of the necklace. 'My darling Jilly. 1914.'
Before she could utter a word, there was a loud crash outside that shook the weakened land beneath the shack. Jilly flew from her bed and threw half her body out the window, trying to see what was out there. As she looked around hastily, a cry tore through the still night air, and it took Jilly more than a moment to recognize the panicked whinny of a runaway horse. She gaped as the wild creature kicked and bucked and fought against invisible ropes as it galloped blindly towards the house. Gasping, the young girl climbed out of her window and began to wave her arms to warn the horse of the danger.
"Whoa, horse. Whoa!" she called, trying to keep her voice low and calm, just as her Pa had taught her.
She was relieved when the horse began to slow. Just before reaching the house, it gave a final buck and halted swiftly, puffing warm breath on Jilly's face. Adrenalin pulsing through her, she stretched out a hand to the strange horse, still coaxing it. It trembled and dripped sweat and rolled its eyes in fear, but when Jilly stroked its wet neck, it began to calm. "Hey there, girl," she said slowly. "What are you doing running loose at night, huh?"
"Be careful, Jilly," Uncle Aata said, approaching hesitantly so as not to scare the horse.
"I am," Jilly assured him. "Do you know whose horse it is?"
"Aye. That there is Dolly. She's from down the road."
"Why's she so scared?"
Uncle Aata seemed to falter. Then, as he joined Jilly and also stroked the horse gingerly, he said, "She's been like that ever since she came back from the Great War. Isn't the same old bone-rattler she was before. All spooky and scared. And a vandal."
Jilly swallowed the new lump in her throat. The Great War... "What did she vandalise?"
The man sighed as he ran his hand over the horse's withers, checking her soundness. Jilly continued to stroke Dolly's neck and mane, crooning to her whenever she tensed. "Just about every fence on her owner's property. As I said, the war has changed her."
Sniffing, Jilly murmured, "It changed a lot of people."
Uncle Aata didn't reply, but Jilly felt his eyes on her. She ignored him, instead focusing on the strange horse, now calm enough to rest her head on Jilly's shoulder. Dolly let out a sigh that tingled the young girl's spine. Finally, her courage returning, she asked the dreaded question. "Matua Keke, why did Dolly go to war?"
Her guardian took some time to reply. When he did, they were both rubbing Dolly's body with their fingers, moving in tiny circles. "They needed horses, the soldiers did. Dolly and hundreds of other Kiwi horses were shipped over to Gallipoli, from 1914 right through to the last year of the war. Some were pack animals, others part of the Mounted Rifle Brigades. They had a dreadful time there. There was barely enough food for them, and it was hard to find water. The bombs terrified them too. Many died. But some survived. You may have heard of Brave Bess - the only horse to return home after the war. But that isn't true. She was the only one to return from the first shipment of horses, but three others returned to New Zealand from different groups. Beauty, Nigger, and Dolly.
"As far as I know, the others are still alive," Uncle Aata continued, now running his fingers through Dolly's tangled tail, "but the horses who were left in Gallipoli..."
Jilly looked to her guardian, and saw his eyes were glistening, wet with tears. "What happened to them?" she asked, her timid voice barely more than a whisper.
Uncle Aata cleared his throat. "Some were lucky enough to be sold to British soldiers and taken home to become farm horses and pets for their children. But most were just..." He tried a different approach. "Many tales tell of men walking their horse over the hill with a rifle on their shoulder, and coming back sometime later without the horse, their eyes red and swollen, and the rifle empty."
Jilly buried her face into Dolly's mane and sobbed. She felt Uncle Aata's hand on her back, and it stayed there until her eyes were dry. "Sorry," she murmured to Dolly. The mare nickered comfortingly. Jilly smiled a little.
"Uncle?" she said then.
"Do you think we could keep Dolly? Maybe she wouldn't run away from here. Maybe she would want to stay."
Uncle Aata smiled down at her. "We'll see. She can stay for the night, at least. We'll talk to her owner in the morning. Put her in the pen next to Mean Monster Mac, so she has company."
Jilly waited until Uncle Aata was inside before turning to face Dolly again. As she led the mare to the pen, she whispered things into her flicking ear. Then, when she had to say goodnight, she wrapped her arms right round the horse's neck and said, "You're the bravest horse I know, Dolly. You, Nigger, Beauty and Bess, and all the others - you horses are what make us such a great nation. What better example of New Zealand's courage than small-town farm horses becoming heroes in the Great War."
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